Kill or be killed

Mar 28, 2007 at 12:00 am

Harsh Times
Weinstein Company

No list of 2006's most overlooked movies would be complete without Harsh Times, the cathartic and compulsively watchable directorial debut from Training Day screenwriter David Ayer. This gritty crime film vanished from cinemas in a blip, and with it Christian Bale's best performance, maybe ever (even topping The Machinist). He is transformed into — nay, possessed by — his troubled character, a Gulf War veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He's trying to score a job with the LAPD so he can marry his Mexican girlfriend. When he's rejected by the force, he slips into his old habits of crime, drugs and alcoholism, with military flashbacks recurring ever more frequently, full of wild-eyed visions of blood lust. He drags his easily pressured best friend, Mike (Freddy Rodríguez), along on his inevitable crash and burn. A more searing and realistic vision of California's melting pot than the soapbox-scripted Crash, Harsh Times is also an implicit indictment of a military system that breeds its soldiers into killing machines and spits them back home without proper care. Harsh times indeed. The DVD includes a commentary track from Ayer and a few perfunctory deleted scenes. —John Thomason


Night of the Comet

A comet's passing by Earth for the first time in 65 million years and everyone outside watching the light show is leveled to piles of red powder. Two bratty Valley girls — Regina Belmont (Catherine Mary Stewart) and her younger sister Samantha (Kelli Maroney) — escape exposure. They wake to find the streets empty, except for the occasional sad sap survivor who's been transformed into a zombie. Things get worse when a group of scientists shows up wanting the girl's blood to create a serum to reverse their own impending doom. But things aren't all bad; there's one smokin' hot survivor named Hector (Robert Beltran) for them to fight over. As for the mall, let's just say they're not as crowded as they once were, which makes for awesome shopping.Tempting as it is to suggest that 1984's Night of the Comet makes a deeper statement, it doesn't. It's an entertaining and nostalgic blend of low-tech sci-fi and comedy that even jaded film enthusiasts will appreciate. The only thing that hasn't stood the test of time is the wretched '80 soundtrack performed by a bunch of unknowns. (The one recognizable song, "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" isn't even performed by Cyndi Lauper.) Solid acting, strong endearing heroines and an intelligent script elevate what could have been a sleepy retrospective of '80s culture into the perfect slice of cult cinema cheese. But, like, what was so special about Valley girls anyway? And, like, what's up with no extras on the DVD? Ohmigod, Night of the Comet deserves at least one of those thingies where some guy talks over the movie while it's playing. It's not even like MGM bothered to do a bitchin' transfer. Grody — to the max. —Paul Knoll


The Ed Wood Collection: A Salute to Incompetence

Really? Criterion didn't want to touch this one? It's a shame, because there's a perverse satisfaction in knowing that more than 400 minutes of Ed Wood's unmistakable oeuvre is concentrated in one place. Along with anti-classics such as Glen or Glenda (1953) and Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), the two-DVD set contains some lesser works. Bride of the Monster (1955) contains a scene of a game Bela Lugosi wrestling with a flaccid latex octopus (a moment in film history re-enacted by Martin Landau in Tim Burton's biopic Ed Wood) and Night of the Ghouls (1959), which wasn't released in Ed Wood's lifetime. It's a formidable lineup, but completists will have to wait for someone with a stronger stomach to issue a companion volume of such lowlights as Necromania (1971), from his later porno-schlock period. Until then, this is a more than decent introduction to the work of a filmmaker of notorious ineptitude.

To be fair, it's not that Ed Wood is the worst director of all time. (Have you ever seen the work of Dwain Esper? Now that's incompetence.) Wood suffered from the same affliction as many outsider artists: His zeal far exceeded his skill. Consider the infamous dream sequence in Glen or Glenda, in which Wood, dressed in angora and heels, evades jeering crowds and crepe hair demons, unsuccessfully tries to rescue his fiancee (Dolores Fuller), who's trapped under a log in their living room, and endures Lugosi's taunts of "Beware! Beware of the big green dragon that sits on your doorstep. He eats little boys, puppy dog tails and big fat snails! Beware!" The sequence may be clumsy and bizarre, but it shows a free-associative imagination and a fearlessness of vision that's utterly unique. As Susan Sontag put it in her essay Notes on Camp, there's "success in certain passionate failures."

In keeping with Wood's slipshod reputation, the picture quality is compressed so mercilessly it makes clips posted on YouTube look luxuriously crisp in comparison.

The supplemental materials are a handful of bottom-of-the-barrel (and barely relevant) unused interviews from the Ed Wood PR tour. One standout, however, is a chat with the bright and self-aware Maila Nurmi, aka Vampira, who divulges that the voluptuous ghoul of protogoth fame was the invention of a shy, ugly, anorexic teenager who longed to be blessed with Hollywood glamour. Wood and his cronies never received the critical legitimacy they craved, but any posthumous salute — even if it's to incompetence — is better than none. —Violet Glaze

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