New on DVD

It might have run for years on Comedy Central and the Sci-Fi Channel, spawned a feature film, and inspired thousands to trek to the frozen steppes of Minnesota for conventions and live shows, but Mystery Science Theater 3000 always just looked like something that a few underemployed comedians tossed together in their garage; thus its appeal. Sticking a host and a couple puppeteer-animated robots in silhouetted seats to mock some Z-grade film was never the most inspirational concept, as becomes clear when watching the show’s 20th anniversary DVD set. The whole thing could have used a third more jokes, not to mention skits substantially less jerry-rigged, and much less space filled by teeth-grindingly bad cinema. But that would have been a different show, something more than a barely gussied-up cable-access lark…

Mystery Science Theater 3000: 20th Anniversary Edition was released on DVD this week. I reviewed it in this week’s “The Screener” column at PopMatters.

In Theaters

There is danger in Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, namely that some arts grant recipient out there will come across this depiction of mad artistic ambition and decide, Yes. This is what I must do. Because there is a seductive appeal here in Kaufman’s jokey puzzle-box epic about an artist creating a work so all-encompassing that it overtakes not only his own life but almost the entire world. It’s performance art as civilization-annihilating Godzilla, the play that ate Manhattan, a theater of life that makes theater of the absurd seem like little more than art school fun and games.

We’ve been here before with Charlie Kaufman, it seems, and yet nothing is as we remember. There’s the schlubby and stumpy and self-hating authorial stand-in, several mind-benders that flout the space-time continuum with reckless abandon, an air of over-self-analyzed Woody Allen-esque neuroses, and a story that doubles back in on itself in a Rube Goldberg maze. All these familiar Kaufman tropes have made their mark in his previous scripts like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to the point where they’ve established a mini-genre unto themselves: Worriers who lose touch with reality in a Twilight Zone of angst. But there’s something different here, as Kaufman (in his directorial debut) does a jail-break from his own tropes and obsessions by indulging them to heretofore unseen depths….

Clint Eastwood’s been directing movies since about the time Kaufman turned 13, and even though their styles are about as far removed from each as is possible, the two evince a similar ease and warmth towards their performers. In the case of Eastwood’s historical potboiler Changeling, his staid approach to the material is counterbalanced at least in part by some remarkably assured performances, mostly from relative unknowns.

This is saying something, given that about every other frame of film shows an elegantly grieving Angelina Jolie, treated with the sort of carved-marble angelic gravitas that Kieslowski gave the women of his “Three Colors” trilogy. The role of worried mother and crusader for justice is not an easy one to pull off, and Jolie disports herself rather well in this regard; but it’s hard to call what she’s doing here acting. It’s more of a gift from Eastwood than anything else: here’s how to make the Academy forget Tomb Raider and Wanted….

Both Synecdoche, New York and Changeling open today in limited release, expanding wider on Halloween. Read the full consideration of them at PopMatters.

In Theaters

Animation anthologies generally have a tough time of it in theaters, usually ending up as grab-bag vehicles of grotesquerie and humor that play only the festival circuit and the occasional arthouse. It’s a strange situation that short subject animation should have become so fringe, given the central place that five-minute cartoons hold in the childhood of nearly every red-blooded American. Maybe in the end it’s because most anthologies of this kind never have much of an organizing principle beyond gathering the best work from the past year. If it hadn’t been subtitled, the horrific tales contained in Fear(s) of the Dark might have been what it took to take the genre mainstream.

Fear(s) of the Dark is in limited release now. You can read the full review at filmcritic.com.

In Theaters

Spike Lee is capable of making some of the most supple and moving cinema of our time, and also some of the least watchable drek. Witness Lee’s staggering fall from 2006’s astounding thriller Inside Man and passionate documentary When the Levees Broke, to this fall’s Miracle at St. Anna, a cringing disaster that makes one look back fondly on the likes of Windtalkers. It’s the sort of thing Lee’s done before, in a pattern that seems almost deliberate.

Miracle at St. Anna should be in theaters for a couple more weeks. You can read the full review at PopMatters.

In Theaters

Everybody deserves a friend like Poppy, but most of us never get one. That’s because while few enough such fantastically exuberant spirits show up in the cinema, they are even fewer and farther between in real life. But by watching Mike Leigh’s sublimely fresh Happy-Go-Lucky, you can at least spend a couple hours in the company of a creature so blissfully and honestly happy that you could be forgiven for wondering what the rest of humanity is so depressed about, anyway.

Happy-Go-Lucky opens in limited release today, see it now before the Best Actress buzz builds. You can read the full review at PopMatters.