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Capsule Reviews: Four Indie Titles From Phase 4 Films

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So, what is Phase 4? Well, while a lot of us are inclined to instantly recollect Saul Bass’s great ‘70s sci-fi flick about ants, Phase 4 Films is an indie movie distributor (one of many out there) that releases some of the more “artsy” titles on DVD. Their acquisitions range from imported animation to thought-provoking dramas, and to B-movie horrorfests, too. In recent months, Phase 4 has released several titles that you have undoubtedly passed by in the video store. In an effort to clue you in on what you’re missing, I present to you a few mini-reviews for The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh, Valentino: The Last Emperor, Good Dick, and The Poker House.

The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh

Very loosely based on the award-winning book by Michael Chabon, The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh is sort of a phlegmatic coming-of-age drama set in 1983. Unfortunately, the fashions and hairstyles look like they hail from any time period but 1983, but that’s the least of this film’s worries. College graduate Art Bechstein (Jon Foster) is a rather passive, book smart sort of fellow who has lived in the shadow of his mobster father (Nick Nolte) all of his life. A chance encounter with his old college roommate enables Art to meet Jane (Sienna Miller) and her wild boyfriend, Cleveland (Peter Sarsgaard). Among them, an instant friendship is formed — you know, the kind that makes an award-winning novel and a smashing film adaptation.

Sadly, the film adaptation of Michael Chabon’s award-winning The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh doesn’t leave much of a mark on its audience. If you already know the source material, you’ll probably hate this version — but at least you’ll know what sort of point the movie is trying to make, since producer/screenwriter/director Rawson Marshall Thurber seems to have had trouble focusing on that himself. The movie wanders from one moment to the next à la stream of consciousness, without a whole lot of concern as to whether or not it’s keeping the audience entertained. Of course, I’d expect nothing less from the writer/director of Ben Stiller’s Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story.

On DVD, Phase 4 gives The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh a decent anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1 transfer, with rather solid colors and contrast. The accompanying 5.1 Dolby Digital audio suffices for the most part, but it is far from being a standout mix. English and Spanish subtitles are included, as are a handful of special features, including two featurettes and a couple of trailers. This title is also available on Blu-ray.

Valentino: The Last Emperor

Personally, I was hoping for a biopic on silent film icon Rudolph Valentino. But this one’s pretty good, too. In case you’re like me — a guy whose fashion sense is permanently stuck in “whack” mode — then you may be familiar with Valentino Garavani, one of the world’s top fashion designers. And if you are familiar with Valentino and his celebrated work, you should probably take a look at this unique documentary.

Aside from the man’s aforementioned fashion expertise, Valentino: The Last Emperor takes an insightful look into the man himself as well as his 50-year business partner/companion Giancarlo Giammetti. Among the several thousand guest appearances are actresses Joan Collins, Gwyneth Paltrow, Claire Danes, Claudia Schiffer, and Elizabeth Hurley, fellow fashion guru Giorgio Armani, musician Sir Elton John, and many others (which makes the movie easy to market to non-fashion-savvy folk).

The documentary — which displays a bit of fashion sense as well — gets another moderate presentation from Phase 4 on DVD. The movie’s anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen transfer is most adequate, although HDTV owners will probably be left hanging. Sound-wise, we’re treated to a fine 5.1 Dolby Digital track. Portions of the documentary are in French or Italian, and so there’s a default English subtitle track to accommodate. An additional English SDH track is included, as well as subtitles in Italian, French, and Spanish. Special features consist of several exclusive featurettes and trailers. Valentino is also available on Blu-ray.

Good Dick

No, it’s not an account of Richard M. Nixon from his mother’s perspective, but rather a dark romantic comedy about two rather unpleasant individuals. The main (nameless) character is played by Scottish actress Marianna Palka, who also wrote, produced, and directed this one (which is her theatrical debut doing all three, incidentally). Our heroine (if I may be so bold to call her that) sits around in her apartment all day, watching porn films that she rents from a nearby shop. Now, while that all sounds like the ideal life we all strive to reach for, the nameless one’s existence is far from being laudable.

Meanwhile, the owner of the nearby shop from whence the porn comes (Jason Ritter) starts to develop a fascination with the girl. And, let’s face it: any woman who rents that much porn has got to be worth visiting in person, right? Well, that’s just what the unidentified male character in this play-on-film does here. He just shows up at her pad, unannounced, and forces himself into her life. Somehow, a relationship forms — one that is so strained that it makes your parents look normal. Tom Arnold and Charles Durning add some star credibility (note I said “some”) by showing up for two cameo appearances in this very off-beat film, full or words and music and signifying nothing.

A low-budget title, Good Dick looks okay on DVD. The film (presented in an anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1 ratio) is rather soft-looking on video, and the shot-on-HD feature loses a lot of its oomph here. Two sound options — an English 5.1 and 2.0 — are present. Honestly, there isn’t a whole lot of difference between the two mixes, with most of the sound protruding from the front speakers. The only subtitle option here is a Spanish language one. An hour-long documentary revolving around the film’s appearance at Sundance is included in the illustrious special features section, as is a gag reel and a handful of trailers.

The Poker House

The Poker House is by and far the biggest downer of the group. But it is the one film out of the bunch that will hit you with its all-too-realistic scenario and emotions — whether you like it or not. The story centers around three young sisters growing up in a small house in the Midwest. Their mum is a  cracked-out, alcoholic prostitute (Selma Blair), whose abusive “boyfriend” (Bokeem Woodbine) is also her pimp. The eldest sister, Agnes (Jennifer Lawrence) does her best to focus on schoolwork and take care of her younger siblings amid all of the “clients” that frequent The Poker House.

Actress Lori Petty makes her feature-length directorial debut with this one, which she co-scripted with David Allan Grier (who co-stars), and based on her own adolescence. The movie will definitely appeal to anyone who grew up in a crack town and managed to escape, but may not succeed in doing more than depressing others.

On DVD, Phase 4 releases the Los Angeles Film Festival award winner with an anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1 transfer. The image is about what you’d expect considering the film’s low-budget origins, with ample amounts of grain and what-not. The sound department offers up a choosing of a 5.1 or 2.0 DD English track — although the 5.1 mix is relatively similar to the 2.0. Spanish subtitles are included, as is an audio commentary with Petty, a gallery, and a few trailers.

Well, there you have it: a look at some of the newer releases from Phase 4. Most “traditional” moviegoers will probably want to look elsewhere if they’re on the hunt for a good ol’ popcorn film, but for fans of independent cinema, one or more of these titles should do the trick.

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About Luigi Bastardo

Luigi Bastardo is the disgruntled alter-ego of a thirtysomething lad from Northern California who has watched so many weird movies since the tender age of 3 that a conventional life is out of the question. He currently lives in Chico, CA with four cats named Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Margaret. Seriously.
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