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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Homicide (1991)

One of my earliest posts on this blog was a look back through the films of David Mamet.  One of the films I wasn’t able to review at the time was Homicide, because it was shockingly unavailable on DVD.  Late last year, though, the fine folks at the Criterion Collection thankfully stepped in to remedy that situation, releasing Homicide in a lovely new DVD set (which made my list of the Top 10 DVDs of 2009).

Joe Mantegna plays Jewish homicide detective Bobby Gold.  When the FBI screws up the manhunt for a suspect, Randolph (Ving Rhames), in whose case Bobby was originally involved, Bobby and his partner Tim Sullivan (William H. Macy) are tasked with finding the missing man.  But on the way to a key meeting in the investigation, Bobby stops to help two young beat cops who have found the body of a murdered woman in a convenience store.  It turns out that the elderly Jewish woman had owned the store in the tough neighborhood for decades, and the local kids think she was murdered because of rumors that she kept a fortune hidden in her basement.  When Bobby finds himself assigned to this new murder case, he is is frustrated by what he sees as a distraction from his priority: the pursuit of Randolph.  But quickly the case begins to get under his skin and leads Bobby to confront long-buried questions about his own Jewish identity.

Written and directed by David Mamet, Homicide stars many Mamet regulars (Mantegna and Macy, along with Ricky Jay, Rebecca Pidgeon, and many other familiar faces) and features his distinct, fast-paced, rough and tumble dialogue and a twisty-turny plot in which the story that you think is unfolding in the film’s opening minutes turns out to be merely a feint, as Mamet has other intentions with his tale.

For, despite its title, Homicide really isn’t a police procedural at all.  Yes, Bobby’s investigation into the murder of the elderly Mrs. Klein is the backbone of the story, but that’s not really what the film is about.  Rather, Homicide is a story about identity.  Over the course of the film, Bobby Gold is forced to address deep-rooted questions about how he defines himself.

According to The 50 Greatest Jewish Movies, by Kathryn Bernheimer (published by Birch Lane Press, 1998): “Mamet, who admits he has always felt like an outsider and acknowledges a great longing to belong, has said the story was inspired by his experience as an American Jew growing up not feeling sufficiently Jewish or American.  Like many of his previous films, Homicide deals with what Mamet calls ‘problems of reconciliation and self-worth’.”

When we first meet Bobby … [continued]

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Let the Best of 2009 lists continue!  I hope you all enjoyed my list of the Top 10 TV Episodes of 2009.

Now let’s dive into my list of the Top 10 DVDs (or Blu-Rays) released in 2009!

First, I’d like to give Honorable Mentions to the complete series sets of three amazing TV shows that I had just about given up all hope of ever seeing on DVD: It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, Andy Richter Controls the Universe, and Andy Barker, P.I. So why aren’t these shows on my list?  Because I can’t put anything on this list that I haven’t actually watched, and I’ve been way, way too busy to get through any of these sets.  Of the three, the only one I own is Andy Richter Controls the Universe.  (That one came out first, and I’m not going to purchase the other two sets until I actually have time to watch them.)  But I take great delight in knowing that these three DVD sets exist here on planet Earth, and I know that I’ll get to them all in good time.

10. Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut (Blu-ray) — I’ve seen Watchmen quite a few times since it was released early in 2009, and while the film certainly has some weaknesses, I remain overwhelmed by the enormity of its successes.  It’s hard to believe that Zach Snyder brought this seminal graphic novel by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons, which long had been considered unadaptable, to life.  It thrills me to see such a faithful take on the material and that the filmmakers had the confidence to craft a super-hero film that was aimed squarely at adults.  The Ultimate Cut of the film is Zach Snyder’s longest version, stitching together his Director’s Cut with the animated Tales of the Black Freighter sequences.  It’s pretty astounding.  This Blu-Ray set would be much higher on this list were it not for the paltry special features.  Not only are the special features lame (this is a movie that cries out for a full-fledged making-of documentary), but this set just reproduces the special features that were already released on the Director’s Cut set.  (I guess I’ve been spoiled by the amazing extended editions of the Lord of the Rings films, which came not just with phenomenal extended versions of the films but with extraordinarily elaborate making-of documentaries that didn’t duplicate the special features on the theatrical version DVDs.)  (Read my review of the theatrical version of Watchmen here, and of the Director’s Cut here.)

9. Contact (Blu-Ray) — A beautiful film that manages to combine a serious, cerebral sci-fi tale with an effecting story of the personal journey … [continued]

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Top 10 Movies of 2008! — Part One!

In case you haven’t figured this out already, I LOVE movies.

And in 2009, as usual, I saw a LOT of movies.  Today and tomorrow I’d like to celebrate what I feel were the best of the best of the new films released between January 1st and December 31st, 2008.

Before we dive in, though, I want to acknowledge that, even though I saw an enormous number of new films during 2008, there were also quite a few that, despite my interest, I never got around to see.  These include: Synechdoche, New York; Waltz With Bashir; Doubt; The Wrestler; Che; Rachel Getting Married; Choke; American Teen; Hamlet 2; Changeling; Rocknrolla; and Son of Rambow.  So if you loved one or more of those films and want to know why on earth they didn’t make my list, now you know.

As with my TV lists, let’s start with some Honorable Mentions:

Honorable Mention #1 — The Foot Fist Way.  If you, like most of America, discovered Danny McBride this past summer in Tropic Thunder (as pyromaniac Cody) and Pineapple Express (as the indestructible Red), then you owe it to yourself to check out this film.  The Foot Fist Way was filmed back in 2006, but only saw a release (and a very small one, at that) in 2008.  It is written and directed by McBride, who also has the starring role as a small town Tae Kwon Do instructor who is, shall we say, a little big for his britches.  This is a dark, dark comedy — not for everyone, but if you’re a fan of McBride’s it is a spectacular showcase for his abilities, and well worth your time.

Honorable Mention #2 — Cloverfield.  For months now I’ve been meaning to watch this film a second time, to find out if it holds up on a repeat viewing.  I don’t know if it does, but I will say that the experience of seeing Cloverfield theatrically was one of  the best times I had in a movie theatre all year.  You either buy the conceit (that one of the kids is able to film their whole adventure) or you don’t.  I did, and had no problem getting swallowed up in this intense thrill ride.  Incredible visuals, great storytelling — this was a ton of fun, and a clever twist on the giant-monster-attacks-New-York sub-genre of movies.

OK, and now here’s the top 10:

10.  Burn After Reading — A disc containing the memoirs of ex-CIA agent Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) are stolen, and they wind up in the hands of a pair of not-that-bright gym employees (Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand) who, mistaking them for government secrets, try to ransom … [continued]

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Third Prize is You’re Fired: The Films of David Mamet

As I’ve mentioned once or twice in recent posts, over the past few weeks I’ve been making my way through a whole slew of films by one of the best writers working in the film industry today: David Mamet.  Mamet’s works are always known for their intricate plots — many of his films revolve around some sort of con.  He is also known for the distinct style of his dialogue — a fast-paced back-and-forth, rat-a-tat rhythm that, in the hands of a talented actor, is pure gold.

After purchasing Redbelt on DVD, I decided to go back and revisit several earlier Mamet works.  This is in no way a complete trip through Mamet’s work.  In fact, let me first start by telling you a bit about two films which I didn’t re-watch this past month.  Not because I didn’t care for them — quite the opposite.  These are two of my favorite films, and they’ve been in my DVD collection for years.

Glengarry Glenn Ross (1992) — Unlike all the other movies that I’m about to list, this film was written by Mamet but directed by someone else: James Foley.  But like all the Mamet-directed films, the appeal is not due to the directing.  Its the acting, and the beautiful, beautiful words.  (Can you believe I’ve just described as beautiful the incredibly curse-laden dialogue in this film??)  Take a gander at this cast:  Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, and let’s not forget Alec Baldwin.  Baldwin is in only one scene, but he gives possibly the greatest movie monologue of all time.  There are more memorable lines in his one scene than there are in most entire films.  (One of my favorites: “Only one thing counts in this world: get them to sign on the line that is dotted.”  And, of course, there’s the title of this piece.)  The film follows one night and one morning in the lives of a group of real-estate con men.  Many have described it as a modern Death of a Salesman, and I’m not one to disagree.  Jack Lemmon’s sad-sack Shelley “the machine” Levine is such an iconic character he’s even been written into The Simpsons (as the hapless loser Gil).  Al Pacino is the man that Shelley was twenty years ago — a young, slick salesman at the top of his game.  (“You ever take a dump made you feel like you’d just slept for twelve hours?”)  Ed Harris is the angry and profane Dave Moss.  (“What is this, courtesy class?”)  Alan Arkin is the quietly despairing George Aaronow.  (Are we just talking about this or are we talking about this?”)  And Kevin Spacey is the man in … [continued]

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The DVDs are Out There

I love movies, and I love watching movies on DVD in the comfort of my own home.  Here are some of the great DVDs I’ve watched recently:

Heist and State and Main — I’m in the midst of a sort of David Mamet retrospective, tearing through a number of his earlier works, many of which I haven’t seen in years!  I’ll be writing a more detailed piece about my journey into Mamet-world in a few weeks, so keep your eyes open for that.  Next up, I’ll be watching Spartan (which I’ve only seen once and am eager to revisit) and The Spanish Prisoner (possibly my favorite Mamet film after the incomparable Glengarry Glenn Ross.  “Will you go to lunch?!!”)

Wonder Boys — What a masterpiece.  Having just completed the summer of Robert Downey Jr. (in Iron Man and Tropic Thunder), it was a lot of fun to re-watch his magnificent turn in this film.  Tobey Maquire is also great, as a talented but rather messed-up youngster.  (Its sort of bizarre to watch Maguire and Downey Jr. in this film, having seen them together in one of the fake trailers that preceded Tropic Thunder.  If you’ve seen it, you know exactly which one I mean!)  The always terrific Frances McDormand is quietly touching as the university chancellor torn between two men.  But this film belongs to Michael Douglas.  He plays college professor Grady Tripp, a man who once wrote an extraordinarily successful first novel and has seen his life slowly crumble as he has struggled, over many many years, to write a follow-up.  Wonder Boys is a coming-of-age story — for Maguire’s character, and also for Douglas’ Grady.  Its a rare movie that can balance deep laughs and powerful poignancy, and Wonder Boys just nails it.  I give director Curtis Hanson a lot of credit for that, as well as Steve Kloves for the sharp screenplay.  This movie sits next to Igby Goes Down on my DVD shelf.  The two films have a lot of similarities, both in terms of tone as well as the themes explored.  If you’ve seen and enjoyed Wonder Boys but have never seen Igby, I encourage you to check it out.

City Slickers — Boy, I haven’t seen this movie in YEARS!  I remember going to see the sequel, The Legend of Curly’s Gold, in theatres when it came out and being so disappointed that I don’t think I ever watched the original again.  The film is a bit dated — its not quite as timeless as When Harry Met Sally — but it was a lot of fun to return to Billy Crystal’s little ode to suburban men looking … [continued]

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How I survived the TV strike (Part II)

Here are five more DVDs (continuing my list from yesterday) that I loved loved loved this winter, when the pleasant caress of new TV shows had been denied me:

VI.   Eastern Promises — I have seen this movie 3 times now since it came out last year, and I enjoy it more every time.  (And I liked it quite a lot the FIRST time I saw it!)  Viggo Mortensen gives an amazing you-just-can’t-look-away performance as the deadly Russian Nikolai, whose path crosses with a midwife named Anna (Naomi Watts).  And let’s not forget the amazing Armin Mueller-Stahl, who is as amazing as he always is.  (I must admit, though, that I’m such a geek that whenever he’s on screen, in this or any other movie, I always hear him in the back of my head saying: “not even zey…can stop ze future.”  X-Philes know what I’m talking about…)

VII.  House of Games: The Criterion Collection – A terrific new DVD of the first film that David Mamet directed (from his own script).  I’m a big Mamet fan.  There are some flaws in the story, sure…and I’ve never been, as a viewer, quite fooled by the central con of this flick.  But the simple joys of watching the great performers (Joe Mantegna, Rickey Jay, the late great J.T. Walsh, among others) mouth Mamet’s rat-tat-tat tough-guy dialogue is more than enough for me.

VIII.  Volver – Pretty surprising for a sci-fi nut like myself, but I found myself completely swept up by Pedro Almodovar’s story about the intersecting lives of various women in Madrid.  Penelope Cruz is spectacular.

IX.  The Best of the Dick Cavett Show: Stand-Up Comedians – This DVD set contains several notable episodes from the great Dick Cavett’s 1970’s talk-show, in which he engages guests in fascinating hour or hour-and-a-half long (really!!) conversations about their lives and work.  This set focuses on his interviews with stand-up comedians such as Woody Allen, Groucho Marx, Bill Cosby, Bob Hope, Carol Burnett, and many others.  I love the Daily Show and all of today’s late-night talk shows, but after watching these incredibly in-depth interviews its hard to take any of today’s five-minutes-then-you’re out “interviews” seriously.  This is the way it should be done.  If you have any interest whatsoever in stand up comedy, you need to track down these DVDs.

X.  The Wire – My sister got me the 1st season set for my birthday earlier in the year – and my wife and I promptly devoured the entire 5 seasons of the show.  Truly one of the greatest TV shows ever made.  I’ll discuss this in greater depth at a later date, but for now, let me just say that I … [continued]