Bard of Brooklyn

Hubert Selby Jr.: It/ll Be Better Tomorrow

It/ll Be Better Tomorrow, Michael W. Dean and Kenneth Shiffrin's loving tribute to cult author Hubert Selby Jr., suffers from a frustrating tendency common in cinematic biographies: It takes the unpredictable, turbulent life of an American maverick and molds it into a safe and familiar structure. According to the appreciative theories and reflections in this documentary, you'll be convinced Selby is the most important person to hold a pen since Shakespeare, revitalizing American literature with an idiosyncratic style that rejected the established norms of grammatical form (hence the slash in place of the apostrophe in the film's title, a recurrence in Selby's jazz-like prose). Certainly drug-addled bestsellers like Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting and James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, among others, wouldn't exist without the seedy novel that paved for the way for the rest of the world's junkie-lit, Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn.

A figure this important and influential deserves a cinematic rendering just as rule-breaking. Alas, as polished, informative and heartfelt as It/ll Be Better Tomorrow is, this obsequious hagiography is probably not the kind of film its subject would ultimately approve of. You know the kind of documentary this is — voice-over narration by a sorta-kindred spirit (Robert Downey Jr.), yellowed photos of Selby as a child, book jackets fading into each other, talking heads fawning over their experiences working with the subject, clips from the film adaptations of Selby's works and archival interviews of Selby himself, all cleanly collaged and packaged for fast and forgettable consumption. At its worst, a few moments of ill-advised special effects and a cameraman's inability to properly frame one of the interviewees bring an out-of-tune amateurism to an otherwise cookie-cutter formula.

Not that the movie isn't entertaining; many of the anecdotes shared by Ellen Burstyn, Lou Reed, Jerry Stahl, Nick Tosches and others show the author's demeanor and worldview. The film hops smoothly from subject to subject: his alcoholism and drug addiction, his surprisingly long life, his literary inspiration, his notoriety abroad compared to domestic neglect of him. The movie's most fascinating segment deals with Selby's grammatical innovations, and includes insightful observations from lit professors and publishing industry brethren. A newcomer to Selby before viewing this documentary, I now want to immerse myself in his work, wholly convinced that he was the Godard of literature. In this way, It/ll Be Better Tomorrow succeeds, but his legion of fans will likely want something a little more challenging. —John Thomason


The Rival
Lionsgate Home Entertainment

The Lifetime channel must have struck a dirty bargain with Lionsgate Home Vid that went something like this: "Look, we'll give you our desperate housewife soap operas filled with saggy starlets whose best-looking days are behind them and you can package them however you think they'll sell. Watch Psycho if you need any ideas." And once again, Lionsgate comes back with a DVD cover drenched with crimson bodily fluids pouring down a drain. Hell, you'd see more blood by pricking your pinky with a pin than in this anemic melodrama (and probably more drains too!).

Tracy Nelson plays Alice Miller, a homicidal maniac with a husband that has "kind," "understanding," "nurturing" and "weenie" all checked on his "reasons to be murdered" card. When the Millers hire a live-in surrogate mom to carry their baby, Alice's insecurities that hubby and surrogate will hook up are fueled by her nutty aunt in an assisted-living home who's one shove away from revealing (cue ominous orchestral stabs) Alice's dark secret. (Hint: It also has nothing to do with blood pouring down a drain.) In absence of shock-value blood, you get Nelson — who once played a primetime nun — relishing her chance to call every woman in this movie "Bitch!" Also, you get the collagen-saturated pout of Sophie Gendron, whose two seconds of screen time (she's gagged) justifies the bondage on the cover. By law, Lifetime can't make a movie without Gendron or Barbara Niven (who plays the concerned shrink here). All this and an understanding ending that puts everything in perspective but doesn't make you appreciate crazy people any more than you already don't? Color me there! —Serene Dominic


Tournament of Dreams
Vivendi Visual Entertainment

The star player on Woodlyn High's girl's basketball team has got game; too bad it's emcee "the Game." (Haw haw!) Any street cred the former Aftermath rapper accrued with his Dr. Dre-free second album he squanders here playing a street tough in a cast that includes Debbie Allen of Fame fame as a school principal, Tony Todd (looking like he misses that hook hand from his Candyman movies) and girls who couldn't act their way out of gym class. That's unless you think acting is keeping a straight face while delivering such after-school-special hokum as "We've gone from Martin Luther King to Rodney King and still don't get no respect" and "I saved myself with the help of my teammates and a coach that told me to never quit."

And it wouldn't be a movie about winning if someone didn't lose heart (or get killed) before "the big game," leaving the team to win one for the person who couldn't make the big game because of death, dismemberment or a record deal. When a visiting school board dignitary tells Coach Isaiah, "Whether or not the team wins the game tonight, you and basketball have made these girls winners," do you even need to see the game? Nah, but you do need to see the Game at his shark-jumping zenith — when he and his new boo play a game of "you show me yours and I'll show you mine" and then they both whip out their school yearbooks. Did somebody say P-GGGGG-unit? —Serene Dominic


Cinema of Death
Cult Epics

Cult Epics specializes in avant-garde films of yore. And Cinema of Death makes good on the title's suggestion. Subtlety is out in this quintet of films, and it's graphic too, but not in some grab-bag snuff sense like Faces of Death.

Based on the true story of Issei Sagawa, a Japanese exchange student whose obsession with a female French student leads to murder and cannibalism, Adoration is the most accomplished film of the bunch. Director Olivier Smolders' camerawork gives us a real you-are-there feel to the killer's crime. Filmed in crisp black-and-white, Adoration's cold, emotionless re-enactment will hang in your head for days.

Dislandia is a dull, pretentious piece about a masked girl and her surreal existence that's heavy on symbolism and light on coherence. The only dead things shown are animals. Pig is a sadomasochistic trip into the mind of a killer. Laden with medical, Third Reich and bondage images, it's a kinky, squirm-inducing ride. Hollywood Babylon is nothing more than a short grainy visit to Kenneth Anger's contribution to California's Museum of Death. If you've read Anger's same-titled books, you'll feel like you've been there. In Le Poem, Bogdan Borkowski shot a real autopsy with multiple cameras and added a voice-over of Arthur Rimbaud's teen-genius poem "The Drunken Boat." If you can stomach eyelids getting sliced off and brain removal, there's an interesting but sad life metaphor going on between the visuals and poem. The extras on the DVD include five extreme postcards — that you can send Mom next time you're on spring break — and introductions to each film by the directors. Note the Dislandia introduction for the vile material supposedly used to create the mask for the lead character. It's much more disgusting than anything shown in the entire DVD. —Paul Knoll

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