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On DVD/Blu-ray: JAYNE MANSFIELD'S CAR (2013); BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO (2013); and MAN OF TAI CHI (2013)

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JAYNE MANSFIELD'S CAR
(US/Russia - 2013)

Billy Bob Thornton hasn't had a lot of luck behind the camera after his 1996 breakthrough SLING BLADE.  Harvey Weinstein sent DADDY AND THEM straight to cable in 2003 after five years on the shelf.  In 2011, Thornton made THE KING OF LUCK, a documentary about Willie Nelson, and it's still waiting for distribution.  The tactlessly-titled JAYNE MANSFIELD'S CAR is Thornton's first narrative directorial effort since Weinstein forced him to cut over an hour from 2000's ALL THE PRETTY HORSES.  He needn't have bothered.  Reuniting with his writing partner Tom Epperson, with whom he scripted 1992's ONE FALSE MOVE, 1996's DON'T LOOK BACK, and 2000's THE GIFT, Thornton hits bottom and drags a great cast down with him.  This is a complete embarrassment for all involved.  It's poorly-written, atrociously-acted, and hardly a scene goes by without some mind-boggling disaster.  It's hard to tell what any of these people were thinking, but I hope they had a better time making it than anyone will have watching it.  Released on just 11 screens after gathering dust for two years, JAYNE MANSFIELD'S CAR may not be the worst film of 2013, but it's likely the most wasteful of a quality ensemble of actors.


In small-town Georgia in 1969, cranky patriarch Jim Caldwell (Robert Duvall) gets word that his ex-wife has died.  She left him and their four adult children 20 years earlier, married Brit Kingsley Bedford (John Hurt) and moved to England.  Her dying wish was to be buried back home, so Bedford and his children--Philip (Ray Stevenson) and Camilla (Frances O'Connor) are on their way to Georgia.  This doesn't sit well with Jim or his uptight eldest son Jimbo (Robert Patrick), though the other two sons, battle-scarred war vet Skip (Thornton) and aging hippie Carroll (Kevin Bacon) seem to welcome them.  Jim has spent 20 years hating Kingsley, but the two bond over their love of the same woman (Tippi Hedren played this character, but Thornton ultimately granted the legendary Hitchcock muse the dignity of having her scenes cut) and talk of Jayne Mansfield's decapitated head when Jim takes Kingsley to an exhibit where the actress' alleged death car is on display.  Meanwhile, Skip falls for Camilla, convincing her to strip naked and recite prose in her British accent while he masturbates, and the Caldwell boys' sister Donna (Katherine LaNasa) is drawn to Philip as she grows tired of her blowhard, ex-football pro husband Neal (Ron White).  JAYNE MANSFIELD'S CAR tries to be a culture-clash character piece, Vietnam-era period drama, and raunchy comedy, botching all three and only succeeding in being one of the most appallingly ill-conceived pieces of cinema in recent memory. Character behavior makes no sense from scene to scene and Thornton seems to almost intentionally sabotage any momentum he gets going.  Stevenson has a terrific scene where Philip defends himself against his father's drunken accusations of cowardice in battle, but then Thornton has Jimbo and his wife (Shawnee Smith) start making out on the couch for no reason while everyone watches.  Skip walks into his dad's bedroom at one point with his war medals pinned to the dead skin on his burned and scarred chest, and all Jim can say is "Why don't you go get yourself some ice cream?"  Who are these grotesque people?  What planet do they live on?  Duvall is a national treasure, but even his reliable "crusty old coot" act is played-out and tiresome here.  It's the kind of film where, after seeing the Jayne Mansfield death car, old Kingsley gets philosophical and mutters "We all have a crash of some sort awaiting us."  Indeed.  That's some advice Thornton would've been wise to heed before he shit the bed with this unbearable misfire.  (R, 122 mins)


BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO
(UK/Germany - 2012/2013 US release)

Not so much a straight-up homage to the Italian giallo as much as a mood piece inspired by the subgenre, BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO is an impenetrable puzzle that fascinates and frustrates in equal measures.  Writer/director Peter Strickland is clearly a fan who obviously did his homework in terms of period detail and the work that went into producing an Italian horror film in the 1970s, but it does have some tedious stretches.  Gilderoy (Toby Jones), is a meek, introverted British sound mixer hired to supervise the dubbing and foley work for an Italian horror film titled THE EQUESTRIAN VORTEX.  With his sound-mix work history primarily in nature documentaries, Gilderoy can't quite figure out why director Giancarlo Santini (Antonio Mancino) is so eager to hire him.  Gilderoy doesn't mesh well with producer Francesco Corragio (Cosimo Fusco) or the rest of the Berberian Sound Studio staff and can't seem to stop unintentionally offending them, whether he's adjusting some equipment or getting the run-around on being reimbursed for his plane ticket.  He can't even eat a grape without pissing someone off ("it's a custom to swallow the seeds here").  With the lecherous Santini distracted by young starlets and tensions mounting with the bottom-line-watching Corragio, the homesick Gilderoy finds comfort in letters from his mum and starts growing increasingly paranoid and seems to begin losing touch with reality.


While not a giallo, BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO uses giallo tropes to ambiguously detail Gilderoy's slow descent into madness, eventually seeing himself in the film in events that just happened moments before, and already dubbed into Italian.  Strickland does a masterful job at capturing the details of sound editing, particularly in the way the Italian film industry had to dub everything in the days of no direct sound on-set.  We never actually see any footage from THE EQUESTRIAN VORTEX, a film ostensibly about the supernatural vengeance of a condemned witch (though Strickland does cleverly show its opening credits instead of BERBERIAN's opening credits; in retrospect, the first hint that fantasy and reality will fuse), but we see its profound effect on an increasingly disturbed Gilderoy as he hacks watermelons to get the right sound effect of a hatchet slicing through flesh, or recording the sound of sizzling grease to replicate the sound of a hot poker going into an accused witch's vagina.  The horrors of THE EQUESTRIAN VORTEX are never shown, but heard with precision and clarity, and if nothing else, BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO is a triumph of cinematic sound.  Jones, Fusco, and Mancino are excellent, Strickland undoubtedly knows his giallo history, and the score by Broadcast is very effective, but the film's languid pacing and general obfuscation sometimes do it a disservice.  Highly recommended for cult film enthusiasts and those interested in the more technical aspects of filmmaking and genre history, but those looking for a mainstream horror film might find it a bit of an endurance test.  (Unrated, 92 mins, also streaming on Netflix)


MAN OF TAI CHI
(US/Hong Kong/China - 2013)

A surprisingly straight-faced and credible directorial debut for Keanu Reeves, MAN OF TAI CHI is a martial-arts film that doesn't go the predictable route of snarky, reference-drenched, tongue-in-cheek homage but rather, plays it largely legit and serious throughout.  He even went with Chinese and Hong Kong co-producers and a good chunk of the film is in Cantonese with English subtitles.  Universal put up some of the $25 million budget, but perhaps following the tepid response to RZA's '70s kung-fu homage THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS, opted not to distribute the film in the US, where the Weinsteins' B-movie wing Radius-TWC acquired it and dumped it on 110 screens for a paltry $100,000 gross.  Drawing from such influences as the "to the death" tournament video games and film genre and John Woo-inspired Hong Kong cop thrillers and fashioning it into a good vs. evil morality play, MAN OF TAI CHI has the titular student, Tiger Chen (Chen-Hu, who worked on the MATRIX stunt team), forgetting the peaceful Tai Chi ideals of his fatherly mentor (Yu Hai) as he's sucked into the underground fight club world overseen by the nefarious Donaka Mark (Reeves), an almost Satanic figure of such power that he can pause what's running on TV simply by pointing at it.  Initially participating to get some quick cash so he can pay to restore his master's Ling Kong Tai Chi temple, which has been hit with code violations (!), Tiger gives into his violent impulses and becomes an increasingly vicious fighter in Donaka Mark's high-tech realm, where the fights are broadcast online to his obscenely wealthy clients.  Will Tiger hit bottom and see that he's being led down the wrong path?  Will he cleanse his soul and find redemption in a fight to the death with Donaka Mark?  Have you ever seen a martial-arts flick before?


Working with legendary fight coordinator Yuen Wo-Ping, Reeves has put together an unexpectedly solid film, perhaps a bit overlong and draggy in spots, but the veteran actor must have been picking up tips from his directors all these years, because he makes MAN OF TAI CHI look like a film that cost much more than $25 million.  Reeves probably could've trimmed 15 minutes from it and tightened it up a bit, and there's one laughable CGI car wreck, but he deserves some credit for being handed a large amount of money and not dicking off and turning it into an insufferable vanity project, opting instead to keep the focus on Tiger and only occasionally indulging himself with some overacting or an odd facial expression here and there.  Also with Karen Mok as an obsessed Hong Kong cop trying to bust Donaka Mark, Simon Yam as the police superintendent, and THE RAID: REDEMPTION's Iko Uwais as one of Tiger's opponents, MAN OF TAI CHI is no classic, but it's better than anyone would've guessed upon hearing that Keanu Reeves was directing an Asian martial-arts epic.  (R, 105 mins)

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