Sunday, December 23, 2007
In Chameleon Street, the enigmatic Doug Street goes through a series of cons, sometimes to make money, sometimes to prove he can do more than what the world expects of him. In short time he goes from a simple extortion plot to complex impersonations, including as a reporter from Time, a Yale student, a lawyer and even a surgeon. Yes, a surgeon – who performed 36 successful hysterectomies.
The point of the film is not just to tell a story of a con man, but asks what a black man is expected to do to make a living in this modern world. Based mostly on the true story of super-con-man William Douglas Street, Jr. the film is written and directed by Wendell B. Harris, Jr. who also turns in an uncanny performance as the lead character.
The film existed in the burgeoning indie cinema of the early 90s. Unlike most of the films around him though, Harris provided a complicated character and not a simple genre drama or comedy. The extremely intelligent Street has great ideas to fight the system, but is constantly stumped by tiny details he cannot control. It’s a drama and you root for Street to win but feel sorry for the people getting conned as well. And it’s bittersweet funny, as the sardonic humor in the film rings all too true. Above all, you feel the frustration that leads to fighting back against the grain.
The film won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1990. But that didn’t lead to distribution. Rather, the prize led to many meetings in Hollywood and the insult of a possible remake rather than a distribution deal. Studios wanted to make new versions with various actors. Harris remembers, “Each time it was given to a different person, it was given a different ambience. For Wesley Snipes, it was changed into a kind of car chase movie. For Sinbad, it was changed into a kind of goof-ball character. For Arsenio, it was a hybrid of the two.” Will Smith also wanted to remake it, and has twice redone a scene from Chameleon Street where Harris solves a rubik’s cube to impress an employer. Luckily, no one ever reworked the smart, artistic Street to a happy-go-lucky version. Unfortunately, no one wanted to release the original film.
Harris shopped around many ideas in the 90s, including Negropolis, a version of ancient Rome where the emperor and ruling elite are all black and all the slaves are white. Roles were written for Oprah Winfrey as Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile and Cosmetology, Howard Stern as Alexander the Great and Harris as Canigula – Caligula with a ‘N.’ The film has not been made....yet.
After three years in Burbank, a friend of Harris let him know the brutal joke that was going around town: “All you have to do to get a production deal in Hollywood today is be black, male and NOT Wendell Harris.”
Harris decided it was time to move back to Michigan and continue to work on his own projects as his award-winning film was being suppressed in Hollywood. Chameleon Street eventually got a forgettable theatrical release and Harris was able to write some scripts. Only now at the end of 2007 does the film finally get a DVD release. The extras on the DVD include a 33-minute pseudo-trailer for his longtime project Arbiter Roswell, which will end up as a three-hour feature film. Also on the DVD is an audio commentary by longtime supporters and writers Armond White and Michael Reiter, behind-the-scenes video and two great short films as unique as the feature: So You Know Leadbelly? and Colette Vignette, both resulting from working with the actors in Street.
I recently interviewed Harris for my zine Cinemad, available right here. Clips from the film are available on the Wholphin blog right here.
DVD available now from Home Vision and Image Entertainment for $26.99.
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Thursday, December 13, 2007
In 1984, German filmmaker Philip Gröning wrote to the Carthusian order for permission to make a documentary about them. See, they live in a monastery in the French Alps, as mythic as you could think of. Sixteen year later the monks said ok. Living with them and a camera, Gröning created an amazing document of their world, what they see and do. To call it a documentary might suggest it is a viewpoint of an outsider explaining a subject to other outsiders. But Gröning went deep, filming for six months, providing us an immersive experience without added explanation, 162 minutes of atmosphere with almost no talking. Who lives this way, this day, this year? Its a one-of-a-kind film.
A DVD of a film you feel you have to watch more than once is something great. A second DVD in that package of solid extras just sweetens the deal. Beautiful deleted scenes, a 53-minute video excerpt of the monks' nightly rituals that begin at 12:15am (a fascinating film by itself), and a video statement by a Cardinal - how many DVDs get that?
Also an audio gallery, including "Bringing Meals to the Cells", "Thunderstorm" and "Snow Melting off the Roofs," and a stunning photo gallery. The Making-Of section answers many questions of how the film came to be and is as ritualistic and serious as the monks are. A section of handwritten notes from monks are only in French and Latin, unless I'm not using my remote right. But all-in-all a great film and DVD package.
released by Zeitgeist Video for $29.99.
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Monday, December 3, 2007
Drama/Mex is the bittersweet night-in-the-life tale of three intense, interlaced human relationships. Once a luxurious port but now in slow decline, Acapulco serves as the backdrop for the stories of a suicidal man, a 15-year-old runaway, and a young couple facing hardship after a tragic breakup. As we catch glimpses of a night that will change their lives, we are also given different perspectives of the events, playing with our perceptions of what takes place.
In his second feature (Malachance is a cool film that deserves a DVD release), writer/director Gerardo Naranjo again shows his skill for capturing life artfully, balancing the best of both melancholy and sobering moments. These characters are fun and interesting, even noble at times—you want to hang out with them but you know that you’d be raising bail before the night is over.
It sounds like yet another film with overlapping plots trying to make poetic sense (the dvd cover certainly doesn’t help - this isn't a softcore soap opera, the hot young actors Diana Garcia and Emilio Valdes are actually good actors). Its modest nature and solid acting make it worth your while. By using characters at all stages of life—clever teens, sordid 20-somethings in heat, and supposedly-wise middle age—Naranjo rises above a single generation’s experience. With its luscious imagery and a compelling tone, Drama/Mex shows Naranjo as a great new talent in Mexican cinema.
The film premiered at Cannes 2006 and was exec produced by Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal. Released by Genius Products, available 12/4 on DVD for $24.95.
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Some DVD titles have been issued and re-issued to the point where it's a bit difficult to get excited when a new edition is announced. Such is the case with F.W. Murnau's expressionist horror masterpiece, NOSFERATU. We've seen crappy un-authorized versions, one with a goth-metal score by Type-O Negative, and even a nice authorized version by Kino, put out not too long ago.
Which is another reason I was a bit skeptical when Nosferatu: The Ultimate Edition crossed my desk. New subtitles, whatever. Two new documentaries, who cares. Then I actually popped the thing into my DVD player. Blow me down if the film isn't looking more gorgeous than I could have even imagined!
The film itself needs little if any introduction: a silent German production from 1922, Nosferatu is a thinly veiled adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula novel, with only the character names changed. The plot remained intact, however, allowing Stoker's widow an easy victory in the courts. All prints were ordered destroyed, but a few copies managed to escape the fire, most in shoddy condition from being screened so often.
Restored painstakingly by Luciano Berriatua from a new hi-defintion transfer, it's almost like seeing Nosferatu for the first time, it's timeless imagery finally done justice. Almost as exciting is a new recording of the original complete score, as it was performed live years ago. Kino certainly has outdone itself, rendering any previous version of this fanged beauty obsolete. If you are in any way a fan of this film, don't question it, just pick this up. Shadowy dreams await.
$29.95 srp, out now from Kino International.
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