Harlan Ellison: Dreams with Sharp Teeth (NR, 2007, Docurama)
Author Harlan Ellison has been published, queried and celebrated more than most men have been kissed, but that doesn’t mean he’s a particularly pleasant man with whom to spend an afternoon, much less a lifetime. It does, however, make him ripe for one savage deconstruction, a job “Dreams With Sharp Teeth” gleefully undertakes while establishing a blueprint all documentaries about living individuals should follow. If you’re unfamiliar with Ellison’s work, it barely matters: “Teeth” touches on enough important points to construct an acceptable timeline. But the film leaves the dry facts to text overlays, electing to dedicate the vast majority of its existence to a coherent but dangerously careening drive-by of rants, readings and anecdotes about or courtesy of the man on the cover. Powered almost entirely by the energy of its subject matter and its subject, “Dreams” alternates effortlessly between hilarity, epiphany and disarming informality. But the multiple moods ride a single live wire that provides a strange, almost cryptic warmth the entire maddening way through. Spending a lifetime in Ellison’s wake — or inside his head as him — appears to be an exhausting endeavor only those with tireless, thick skins could probably engineer. But in this 96-minute burst, it’s pretty well perfect — and a must-see for anyone whose feet are dangling in any level of any creative process.
Extras: Six bonus readings, bonus footage, premiere footage.
The Ramen Girl (PG-13, 2008, Image Entertainment)
In America, the Ramen noodle is synonymous with poor college students and little else. In Japan, if “The Ramen Girl” is to be believed, it’s a much different level of reverence, and that’s one on a very long list of things lifelong journeywoman and hopeless romantic Abby (Brittany Murphy) will have to understand when she moves to Tokyo, promptly gets dumped by her boyfriend, and is too prideful to hop on the first plane back to the States. “Girl” regularly flirts with bring too cute for its own good, in no small part because of Abby’s truly inexplicable ability to charm a stodgy Ramen chef (Toshiyuki Nishida as Maezumi) who doesn’t like her and can barely communicate with her into bucking all kinds of tradition and taking her on as a protégé. It also, for similar reasons and despite the unique setting and themes, never feels significantly more authentic than oh so many other undemanding comedies. But Abby isn’t charming just because the script tells us she is, and “Girl” doesn’t have to strain itself to give her credibility as a likable mess. Maezumi, meanwhile, steals the show, pulling triple duty as a cranky foil, a kicking-and-screaming father figure, and an overt conduit for all those aforementioned concerns viewers might have about the movie. Our incredulity is his as well, and that allows “Girl” to skate safely on the edge of illogicality, lay its many flaws bare, and charm us slightly silly anyway. In English and Japanese with English subtitles where necessary.
Extras: Deleted scenes, alternate ending.
A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (NR, 2007, Magnolia)
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to connect with family, and if “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers” is any indication, it doesn’t necessarily even help to be one. “Prayers” finds retired rocket scientist Mr. Shi (Henry O) traveling to America from China to visit his recently-divorced daughter Yilan (Feihong Yu), who made a similar but more permanent migration in hopes of starting a new life. She speaks fluent English, he doesn’t, and once that obstacle is established during the first scene, it becomes clear it’s the first of many divisions between father and daughter. Intelligently and thoughtfully devised all the way through, “Prayers” nonetheless is an impossible film to universally recommend. Mr. Shi’s divides his American experience between moments spent with his daughter and those spent in attempted communication with an Iranian woman (Vida Ghahremani) he meets one day on a park bench. “Prayers” only has 83 minutes to spread around those and other moments, and while wounds are opened and feelings are laid on the table, the film is more concerned with painting a portrait of three people than forcing them into the kind of emotional climax a film of this sort typically entails. Rarely a word or mannerism in the script goes to waste, but if you demand a clearly-marked endgame payoff, you won’t find it here. In English and Cantonese with English subtitles where necessary.
Extras: Interviews, photo gallery. Sold separately or as half of the “Two Films by Wayne Wang” bundle, which also includes 2008’s “The Princess of Nebraska.”
Yonkers Joe (R, 2008, Magnolia)
Sometimes, a movie tries to be two movies at once, and sometimes, it’s a little too clear where a scriptwriter’s specialties lie. At least in the case of “Yonkers Joe,” the strong suit also happens to power the main plotline, which finds a brilliant but fading hustler (Chazz Palminteri as the title character) trying to shake down a heavily fortified Las Vegas for one final, massive hit. When Joe is demonstrating his prowess, plotting his scheme or attempting to make his play, “Joe” is supremely engaging and a fascinating battle between technology, manpower, ingenuity and unreasonable bravery. But while its strengths keep it in line, “Joe’s” peripheral material — particularly, Joe’s difficulty in handling his relationships with his alleged wife (Christine Lahti) and his mentally-challenged and temperamental son (Tom Guiry as Joe Jr.) — still holds command over most of its runtime. Palminteri holds his own, Lahti shines and Guiry arguably steals the show. But the production as a whole continually wobbles because of the script, which telegraphs some moments and shoddily composes others when trying to maneuver through these scenes and get back to its strong suit. When “Joe” jumps from a tight scene about the task at hand to a sloppy deconstruction of Joe’s personal life, the seams absolutely show. Fortunately, they’re not so unforgivable as to completely undermine what the film does best.
Extras: Premiere footage, four behind-the-scenes features.
New in Town (PG, 2009, Lions Gate)
A fast-living executive (Renée Zellweger as Lucy Hill) relocates from sunny Miami to snowy, sleepy Podunk, Minn., to oversee the restructuring of one of her company’s manufacturing plants. And for roughly 35 or so minutes, “New in Town” illustrates the culture shock in as many irritating, predictable and unpleasant ways as perhaps the full sum of every fish-out-of-water film that preceded it. Lucy is culturally refined but somehow kept alive by a heart made out of black, soulless rock. Her new neighbors and underlings (Harry Connick Jr., Siobhan Fallon, J.K. Simmons), meanwhile, are slow-speaking dopes who immediately grow weary of their big-city invader despite simultaneously preaching the warmth of a human spirit those fancy Miamians couldn’t possibly understand. But then something happens, and instantly, “Town” kind of drops the cultural dichotomy act in favor of something that, while every bit as formulaic, is exponentially more pleasant to be around. It never really takes a third turn to rise beyond that, but the mood shift is so unbelievably stark that “Town” comes off as a much better movie simply for its ability to correct itself midstream and regroup as something that’s pretty gosh darn likable by the time its predictable slide toward the finish comes around. That doesn’t propel it to full-blown recommendation status, but it at least avails itself of a much better fate than those wretched early scenes originally imply. If you’re powerless to resist the charms of the cast, that’s something to keep in the back of your mind.
Extras: Cast/crew commentary, deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes features.