|by Peter Sobczynski
In which your faithful critic scans the meager list of this week's releases and discovers that there is virtually nothing worth talking about. On the bright side, he was able to bash this week's column out fairly quickly and was able to get back to ogling the cover of the current "Vanity Fair" in no time at all.
When the Showtime cable network announced plans for a series of one-hour horror films from some of the genre’s most well-known directors, fans were practically salivating with glee at the thought of it. After all, it promised an outlet for these filmmakers, many of who had found it increasingly difficult to get their weirdo visions through the corporate machinery of contemporary Hollywood, to do the material that they wanted without having to worry about battles with the studios over the content or with the MPAA over the amounts of gore and nudity on display. Unfortunately, the series didn’t quite measure up to its promise and many of the filmmakers involved wound up dropping the ball by offering up blah episodes that failed to live up to high expectations. Even the better contributions–such as the ones from John Carpenter and Dario Argento–were ones that retreated into familiar themes instead of taking advantage of the proffered creative freedom to do something risky that they simply couldn’t get away with in a feature film.
On the Fourth of July, I found myself within the walls of my local superstore picking up a couple of essentials–mostly pens, Tylenol PM and the new Johnny Cash CD–when I noticed that someone had put out copies of the DVD of Joe Dante’s contribution, “Homecoming,” a full week before its scheduled release date. Although this is nothing new for them, I suspect that it was put on the shelf because someone took a brief glance at the cover–featuring soldiers and an American flag–and just assumed it was another uber-patriotic war movie released to tie in with the holiday. For there sake, I hope no one picked it up off the shelf and bought it for that very reason because the film is anything but–in fact, it is a dark and corrosive satire of contemporary America that is as blackly funny and genuinely angry as anything that has been made by a major filmmaker in a long time and it even manages to wrap it all up within the trappings of a zombie movie to boot.
The film starts off a few weeks before Election Day and the incumbent Republican president is suffering in the polls because of an unpopular war he has been waging overseas that was sold to the public on a lie and has cost them too many of their sons and daughters. Offering the sound-bite equivalent of crocodile tears in response to the rage of a Cindy Sheehan-type that he is sharing a panel with on a talk show, one of the president’s advisers (Jon Tenny) says that he wishes that those dead troops–including her son–could come back from the grave so that they could personally tell everyone how proud they were to give their lives for their country. Astonishingly, dead soldiers begin to mysteriously rise from the grave all across the country. Unlike most zombies, though, they haven’t returned with a desire to chomp the flesh of the living–they have come back to vote in the election in order to toss out those responsible for their senseless deaths. In fact, they win but with the help of a rabid right-wing talking head not a million miles removed from a certain insane blonde woman with an Adam’s apple (Thea Gill), the votes are stolen and the incumbent President is re-elected. Needless to say, this doesn’t sit well with the undead and they call on reinforcements to unleash their revenge on the country that betrayed them in life and in death.
Needless to say, this is not a particularly subtle work by any stretch of the imagination. Dante is a filmmaker whose work has always deftly mixed genre conventions, oddball humor and social commentary–going back to the days of “Piranha” and “The Howling”–and “Homecoming” is perhaps his bleakest vision to date. He is mad as hell at what has happened to America–mad that so many are being sent off to die for no good reason and mad that anyone who voices opposition is immediately labeled as a traitor or coward by those trying to exploit the situation for personal or political gain–and in Dale Bailey’s short story “Death & Suffrage” (which, I understand, was written before the war and dealt with victims of gun violence), he has found a perfect vehicle for venting these feelings within a traditional genre framework. At the same time, the film is also absolutely hilarious to boot–it effectively lampoons everything from Ann Coulter and Dick Cheney to George Romero’s zombie flicks–and film buffs will have a blast picking out the various references and in-jokes on display. (Pay careful attention to the names on the various gravestones that are shown.) If you missed “Homecoming” when it was originally broadcast last winter–either because you don’t have Showtime or you were disappointed by the lackluster quality of too many of the other installments–you owe it to yourself to check it out now for it is a brave and bold work that packs more risky ideas, invention and rage into its brief 59-minute running time than virtually any of the recent spate of politically-oriented movies to come around the bend and hey, it even has zombies to boot.
Written by Sam Hamm. Directed by Joe Dante. Starring Jon Tenny, Thea Gill and Robert Picardo. 2005. 59 minutes. Unrated. An Anchor Bay Home Entertainment release. $16.98.
NEW AND NOTABLE
CHARLIE’S ANGELS–THE COMPLETE THIRD SEASON (Sony Home Entertainment. $49.95): As you no doubt know by now, Aaron Spelling, the legendary television producer and contributor of half the DNA that went into making Tori, shuffled off this mortal coil a couple of weeks ago. In lieu of flowers, I suspect that the family would prefer that you instead go out and pick up a copy of this third-season set of the jigglefest that remains his most famous creation. In this collection, Kate Jackson, Cheryl Ladd, Jaclyn Smith and, occasionally, Farrah Fawcett, confront the likes of disco dancers, creepy spa owners, alligators, sports bras, evil twins and Dean Martin.
DOCTOR WHO–THE COMPLETE FIRST SERIES (BBC Warner. $99.98): You know, I have tried on several occasions in the past to watch the various versions of this BBC sci-fi perennial but I have never quite been able to get into it. That said, it should be noted that this 13-episode franchise resurrection (which marked the character’s return to the airwaves after a 15-year absence), featuring Christopher Eccleston in the title role and pop tart Billie Piper as his sexy sidekick, was generally well-received by fans and critics alike.
THE LIBERTINE (The Weinstein Company. $28.95): An absolute disaster from start to finish, “The Libertine” is a joyless, ugly and murky (dramatically and visually) slog through the grimly debauched days of John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, a contemporary of King Charles II who died in agony from syphilis only to be posthumously hailed for his work as a poet. This isn’t a bad idea for a film, especially with the fearless like of Johnny Depp as Wilmot, but there doesn’t seem to be any idea at all going on in Stephen Jeffreys’s screenplay (adapted from his play, originally produced at Steppenwolf by John Malkovich, who produces and co-stars here). Instead, we are treated to Wilmot relentlessly explain to us just how depraved and debauched he truly is, without ever really giving any evidence to support such an assertion, only to land in him a nonsense storyline in which he tries to make a bad actress (the usually reliable Samantha Morton, here stuck in a nothing role) a star in what plays like what “Shakespeare in Love” might have been like if cast with perverts. Even Depp, perhaps the only actor working today who could have pulled off such a role, is struck so dumb by the haphazard screenplay that he can do nothing but sit around glumly under the weight of his increasingly unconvincing makeup job. Unless you have a desire to see Johnny Depp’s good looks marred by the ravages of syphilis, there is absolutely no reason to sit through this unendurable stinker.
MARILYN HOTCHKISS’S BALLROOM DANCING & CHARM SCHOOL (Sony Home Entertainment. $28.95): As precious and cutesy as its title makes it sound, this is yet another film that suggests that all of life’s problems can be instantly solved with a fox-trot or two. It is sweet-natured enough and I liked a couple of the performances (especially Mary Steenburgen as the daughter of the school’s late owner who is carrying on the family traditions), but it is so relentlessly cute and cloying that it soon wears out its welcome.
THE MATADOR (The Weinstein Company. $28.95): A hitman and an ordinary schnook walk into a bar in Mexico and the result is a very funny dark comedy. Pierce Brosnan is the former, a burned-out mob killer whose increasingly neurotic behavior has affected his job and begun to make him a liability among his employers. Greg Kinnear plays the later, a struggling Denver businessman whose career and marriage (to Hope Davis) are essentially riding on his closing a business deal in Mexico City. While drowning their sorrows in a hotel bar, Kinnear innocently asks Brosnan what he does for a living and incredulous, shocked and not a little intrigued by the answer he gets. Although it sounds like a bit of high-concept goofiness, “The Matador” is a surprisingly strong debut for writer-director Richard Shepard because instead of relying on violence action and wild plot twists to supply the laughs, he has chosen to spend the majority of the time focusing on the oddball relationship between his two main characters and placing them in a story that develops in highly unanticipated ways. Luckily, his three central actors are equal to the task., especially Brosnan, who lets it all hang out in a performance that is alternately crudely hilarious and strangely touching.
MY TUTOR (Brentwood Home Video. $9.98): A standard bit of horny-teenager fluff–a dumb kid struggling to get into Yale gets a real education from a sexy older woman who winds up tutoring him in more than just French–that is a little better than average, thanks to a certain sweetness of tone and the sheer strangeness of seeing Crispin Glover pop up in an early supporting role. For full nostalgic effect, sneak out into the living room at 3 AM and watch it with the sound turned down so as not to wake anyone else up.
STONED (Universal Home Entertainment. $19.98): Imagine an exceptionally long and exceptionally boring episode of “E: True Hollywood Story” and you pretty much have this fairly useless speculative look at the last days of Rolling Stone Brian Jones (played by Leo Gregory), who was found dead in his swimming pool less than three weeks after being booted out of the band for his excesses. Plenty of sex and drugs but nary a point to be had and, not surprisingly, there is not a single Rolling Stones song to be heard on the soundtrack–instead, there are contributions from the likes of The Bees and the White Stripes. This is being released in two versions–the “R”-rated theatrical cut as well as an unrated one running 5 minutes longer–but neither is worth the time or effort and you would be better off spending your money on a couple of old Stones albums.
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originally posted: 07/07/06 15:06:18
last updated: 07/14/06 19:33:44