This week, “CASINO JACK,” “Letters to Juliet,” “Princess Kaiulani,” and Herzog’s other film from the past year come home. Also included in this week’s column is a list of last week’s releases, which got lost in the mix. Chief among them were Bradley Rust Gray’s Oscilloscope release “The Exploding Girl,” the indictment of Italian media, “Videocracy,” POV’s “Off and Running,” and HBO’s broadcast of “My Trip to Al-Qaeda.”
“CASINO JACK and the United States of Money” (criticWIRE rating: B) is one of many films Alex Gibney has made recently (his “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer” is now at Toronto). “JACK,” a profile of the title character, the super-lobbyist Mr. Abramoff and the conspiracy ring he led on Capitol Hill. In the New York Times, Stephen Holden observes the impossibility of pinning down the specific crimes of Abramoff — they’re all over — and for Holden, that makes Gibney’s film seem scattered. Further, he says, “A liability of ‘Casino Jack’ is the relative absence of its subject. Mr. Gibney conducted extensive prison interviews with Mr. Abramoff but was not allowed to film them. That’s why ‘Casino Jack,’ despite its mountains of scrupulously accumulated details, feels frustratingly hollow at the center. You want to see the man relentlessly grilled, answering questions in his own voice, not in that of Stanley Tucci, who vocally impersonates him.”
Last week, Bradley Rust Gray’s “The Exploding Girl” (criticWIRE rating: B) came home on DVD. In the film, Ivy and Al (Zoe Kazan and Mark Rendall), old friends, develop a closer friendship, pushing the boundaries of friendship and love, on a break from college. For Reverse Shot’s Michael Koresky, the film provokes the question, “What will future generations of film folk make of the countless American indies made in the latter half of the twenty-first century’s inaugural decade that follow inarticulate youths as they graze absent-mindedly through overgrown fields of urban anomie?” Karina Longworth, on the other hand, offers a compliment, “‘Girl’ is narratively slight but aesthetically and psychologically complex. At times, it feels more like an illustrated audio collage than a movie — dialogue is mixed at the same volume as traffic, and multitracked city sounds seem to substitute for Ivy’s internal monologue.” While Herzog’s “Bad Lieutenant” got a considerable amount of attention last year, he had another film out last year. “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done” (criticWIRE rating: C+) boasts a well-respected set of actors (Michael Shannon, Willem Dafoe, Chloe Sevigny, and more) in the story of a San Diego hostage situation and a psychological profile of the suspected murderer. Mike D’Angelo, writing on Not Coming to a Theater Near You, is willing to offer, “I make no great claims for this film, which never even approaches the grandiose heights of old-school Herzog masterpieces like ‘Aguirre,’ ‘the Wrath of God’ and ‘Fitzcarraldo.’ But it does work beautifully as a lyrical flipside to The Bad Lieutenant, finding grace in madness.”
As for film on TV, HBO premieres “The Fence” this Thursday, which profiles the Mexico-U.S. border and the political fight over immigration rights. POV’s broadcasts Deann Borshay Liem’s “In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee,” the story of a Korean adoptee who is retracing the roots hidden from her, forty years after coming to the US. Last week, POV broadcasted Nicole Opper’s “Off and Running” (currently on DVD and available to watch instantly on POV’s website), and HBO debuted Alex Gibney’s “My Trip to Al-Qaeda,” which is currently in HBO’s programming rotation. Gibney’s film uses journalist Lawrence Right’s stage show recounting his experience in the Middle East looking for al-Qaeda with other footage to create a film version of Right’s memoirs. Writing in The LA Times, Mary McNamara notes, “‘My Trip to Al-Qaeda’ is almost unforgivably thought provoking — one comes away from it feeling if not pity for the members of Al Qaeda than at least a better understanding of how human beings could dedicate themselves to such hate-filled bloodshed. Wright takes a very hard, non-p.c. line on Islam as a sociopolitical tool in the Middle East.”‘
Also on DVD and other channels this week (and last): Erik Gandini’s profile of Silvio Berlusconi and Italian media, “Videocracy” (criticWIRE rating: B); the ahead-of-its time 1950s adaptation of schoolgirl-teacher lesbian lust story “Madchen in Uniform” (included in my Outfest dispatch from this summer); the Tennessee Williams adaptation “Loss of a Teardrop Diamond” (criticWIRE rating: C-); the true story of a German businessman who saved civilians in the Nanking Massacre “John Rabe” (criticWIRE rating: B-); the Hal Halbrook-starrer “That Evening Sun” (criticWIRE rating: B); the Amanda Seyfried-Vanessa Redgrave romcom “Letters to Juliet;” the story of the end of Hawai’ian independence, “Princess Kaiulani;” and Antonio Campos’s “Afterschool” (iW interview here). Amongst the hearty offerings of TV on DVD these past two weeks, it’s worth mentioning that the BBC’s “Skins” Volume 3 is now out and that there was apparently enough of a demand for Norm McDonald’s sitcom “The Norm Show” to warrant a Shout! Factory release.