Ever since the very first stage play was developed thousands of years ago in the faraway land of Timbuk 2, storytellers have depending on one thing: a story itself. To this day, that simple rule remains in effect — especially in the film industry. But, with all of those pompous Writers Guild of America members being far too lazy to come up with any ideas of their own — thus remaking every decades-old (or older) tale that has ever been printed to paper or relayed in one form or another — some of today’s filmmakers have opted to tell stories of a different kind: that of someone else’s.
In the last couple of months, several million biopics or documentaries about famous (and relatively unknown) folks — both living and dead — have surfaced on the shelves of the video store wasteland. And here, for your unadulterated reading misfortune, are some of the best ones to grace us thus far.
· William S. Burroughs: A Man Within (2010) (Oscilloscope)
The Short Version: Well, he may be dead, but he’s still a hot topic!
The Slightly-Elongated Version: Although he was no more than a wee lad when William S. Burroughs (The Naked Lunch) left our world in 1997 at the age of 83, Yony Lesyer grew up to develop quite the fondness and fascination of the celebrated (not to mention notorious) author. Here, for his first feature, Lesyer has put together a documentary featuring never-before-seen footage as well as exclusive interviews with several of Burroughs’ friends and associates (Sonic Youth, Iggy Pop, John Waters, Patti Smith, Jello Biafra, David Cronenberg, et al). Although the late author’s experiences and writings have since escalated him to “icon,” this feature focuses instead on Burroughs himself, rather than on the Beatnik generation he so inadvertently pioneered.
· I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale (2009) (Oscilloscope)
The Short Version: Al Pacino’s greatest co-star ever finally gets his own starring role — 32 years after his death.
The Slightly-Elongated Version: An extremely promising actor, John Cazale only co-starred in five feature films (all of which were nominated for Academy Awards) before succumbing to lung cancer in 1978. And, while many moving picture historians ask, “Who could ever forget the man who played Fredo Corleone in the first two Godfather films, Sal in Dog Day Afternoon and Stan in The Deer Hunter?” Sadly, the answer to their question is “A lot, actually.” And so, filmmaker Richard Shepard made I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale — an intimate look at the style of one of the industry’s most-forgotten and unquestionably underrated actors. The feature contains many heart-to-heart conversations with celebrities such as Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Steve Buscemi, Francis Ford Coppola, Gene Hackman, Sidney Lumet, Meryl Streep and more.
· Howl (2010) (Oscilloscope)
The Short Version: James Franco writes a controversial poem…promptly before cutting off one of his arms.
The Slightly-Elongated Version: Moving back to the founding fathers of the Beat Generation for a bit, Howl takes viewers into a multi-tiered story about the controversy surrounding Allen Ginsberg’s notorious 1955 poem of the same name. James Franco plays Ginsberg here, who recites his sex-and-drug-fueled poem “Howl” during the infamous 1957 Obscenity Trial. The film also utilizes archive footage of the real Ginsberg during several interviews, and there’s some animation to go along with the reading of the poem. Mary-Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels, David Strathairn, and Treat Williams (yes, he’s still around) also star in this multiple award winner and nominee from the dynamic duo of Rob Epstein (Juan’s brother) and Jeffrey Friedman. The movie is also available in a Blu-ray/DVD Combo pack.
· Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist And Rebel (2009) (Phase 4 Films)
The Short Version: A movie ‘bout that there Playboy Magazine feller.
The Slightly-Elongated Version: Long before he was turned into the world’s most convincingly lifelike ventriloquist dummy ever, Hugh Hefner struggled with various powers on a regular basis. Whether the government was breathing down his neck about his latest political piece in Playboy, or the religious nuts and feminazis were plotting his untimely demise for showing pictures of women nekkid and being an all-around swell philanderer-in-general kind of a guy, Hugh M. Hefner always managed to (ahem) hold his own. Brigitte Berman brings us an in-depth and captivating look into Hefner’s rise to being one of the publishing world’s most outspoken idols. Hefner appears as himself (who else could pull him off, right?) in both newer and vintage footage. A vast assortment of other celebrities (from the film industry to the political one) also appear.
· Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work (2010) (IFC)
The Short Version: It’s Joan Rivers, folks, so just accept her for who she is.
The Slightly-Elongated Version: From her straightforward approach to the world as we know it (or perhaps, as she knows it), to her excessively-rapid verbal skills, comedienne Joan Rivers always had a way of making friends and fans (or, at the very least, haters — see Johnny Carson) during her long 40-year-plus career. The aptly-titled Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work gives those of you who remember her during her heyday a chance to see how she came to be (as well as what she’s done since), while the “unexposed” generation(s) can discover this Diva of the Droll for the first time. Documentary makers Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg take the credit for putting this round of fun together. The title is also available on Blu-ray.
· Dancing Across Borders (2010) (Phase 4 Films)
The Short Version: Yeah, but will he mosh to “Holiday In Cambodia” by The Dead Kennedys?
The Slightly-Elongated Version: Once upon a time in the East, indie filmmaker and dance aficionado Anne Bass found herself — for one reason or another — in Cambodia. She also found a remarkably-gifted young lad by the name of Sokvannara “Sy” Sar, whose skill in the art of prancing about was already instilled within him. In fact, so impress was Bass by young Sar, that she sponsored the lad’s move to the States so that he could pursue his passion for boogyin’ about. Dancing Across Borders chronicles Sar’s progress into the world of ballet (despite being too old) at the behest of Ms. Bass, and includes many amazing performances by the talented young lad. The movie is also available on Blu-ray.
Happy viewing, kids!