Category Archives: Romantic Comedy

SIFF 2012: Your Sister’s Sister ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 19, 2012)

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This “love triangle” dramedy from Humpday writer-director Lynn Shelton was SIFF’s 2012 Opening Night pick. In my experience, the film selections for the annual kickoff soiree are not always (how should I put this delicately)…well-advised, so I usually approach with trepidation. This year, however, I think they made a really good call. It was not only filmed in and around Seattle, by a Seattle filmmaker, but (most importantly) it’s vastly entertaining (locally produced and/or filmed doesn’t necessarily equate “perfect choice”, as 2008’s anemic Festival opener, Battle in Seattle demonstrated).

The film (reminiscent of Chasing Amy) is a talky but thoroughly engaging look at the complexities of modern relationships, centering on a slacker man-child (Mark Duplass) his deceased brother’s girlfriend (Emily Blunt) and her sister (Rosemarie Dewitt), who  bumble into an unplanned “encounter weekend” together at a remote family cabin. Funny, insightful and well-directed, it’s one of the best movies I’ve seen so far this year.

VHS only: Tokyo Pop ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 14, 2012)

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This 1988 film is a likable entry in the 80’s New Wave genre (in the vein of Starstruck, Breaking Glass, Desperately Seeking Susan, Smithereens and The Fabulous Stains). The fluffy premise is buoyed by star Carrie Hamilton’s winning screen presence (Hamilton employs the same mixture of goofy charm and genuine warmth that her mother, Carol Burnett, parlayed into a long and successful career).

Hamilton (who does her own singing) plays a struggling wannabe rock star who buys a one way ticket to Tokyo at the invitation of a girlfriend. Unfortunately, her flaky friend has flown the coop, and our heroine finds herself stranded in a strange land. “Fish out of water” misadventures ensue, including cross-cultural romance with all the usual complications.

For music fans, it’s a fun time capsule of the late 80s Japanese music scene, and the colorful cinematography nicely captures the neon-lit energy of Tokyo nightlife. I can’t help but wonder if Sofia Coppola took inspiration from this for Lost in Translation (at any rate, it makes a perfect double bill). Director Fran Rubel Kuzui later helmed the 1992 film version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Sadly, Hamilton died of cancer at age 38 in 2002.

Japed crusader: Griff the Invisible **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 27, 2011)

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While the “outsider” is a well-established archetype in film, a new sub-genre has emerged in recent years. It’s perhaps best described as “Revenge of the Nerds: The Millennial Generation Re-boot”; a little bit mumble core, with a touch of character study and magical realism (steeped in hipster irony). The protagonist is usually a quirky, socially awkward daydreamer who pines for love and understanding, but despite best efforts to connect, comes off as, well, a dork.

Frequently, our hero or heroine is ridiculed and/or bullied by others, prompting deeper retreat into a private universe, or the creation of an alter ego who then (figuratively or literally) “defeats” their tormentors. Think: Office Killer, Welcome to the Dollhouse, Amelie, Secretary, Muriel’s Wedding, Ghost World, Lars and the Real Girl, Napoleon Dynamite, Eagle vs. Shark and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Now you can add Australian import Griff the Invisible to that list.

20-something Griff (Ryan Kwanten) is an introverted Sydney office drone one or two symptoms shy of an Asperger’s diagnosis. The more he tries to make himself “invisible”, the more he incites the office bully (Toby Schmitz) to cruelly prank him in front of his co-workers. Poor Griff hasn’t figured out that most basic tenet of social anthropology-the more you assimilate, the less attention you draw to yourself . His only solace comes in the form of an alter ego, “Griff the Protector”. A legend in his own mind, Griff the Protector is a nocturnal crime-fighter, who takes names and kicks ass.

The Sydney police have been receiving numerous complaints from Griff’s neighbors about some weirdo running around at night wearing a rubber superhero suit, peering into windows and creeping people out. “Oh no, you’re not doing it again, are you?” asks Griff’s concerned older brother Tim (Patrick Brammall), implying that Griff has had a history of difficulty delineating reality from fantasy.

You can tell that Tim (the “responsible” sibling) cares about his brother, but is at the end of his rope as to how he’s going to drag Griff out of his  arrested development and into adult life (kicking and screaming) . Besides, he has his own life to live, with a career, a bright future and a new girlfriend named Melody (Maeve Dermody).

However, as we get to know Melody, we wonder if she’s hooked up with the “right” brother. For example, whenever Tim starts prattling on about plans for the future, Melody tends to drift off, fixing her gaze on an indeterminate point somewhere on the horizon. And when it’s time to say “good night”, her quick pull away when Tim tries to give her a peck doesn’t bode well for the couple’s future, either.

The only time Melody gets jazzed is when she’s alone, reading up on particle physics. She has become obsessed with the possibilities of passing a human body through solid matter. She has been practicing the trick on her bedroom wall; needless to say, she’s been sustaining head injuries-which could explain the “drifting off” thing.  So, are these two kooks (Griff and Melody) going to end up together?

This is the first feature film for writer-director Leon Ford, and while it’s a bit uneven, Kwanten and Dermody have great screen chemistry and lend charm to the film. However, the characters, as written, teeter precariously between “endearingly quirky” and “mentally ill” (you’re torn between cheering them on and wishing someone would whisk them both off for a psych evaluation).

That aside, Ford’s film is a diverting enough 90 minutes, as long as you don’t set expectations too high. And the film’s message, which is something along the lines of: Who cares what people believe about you, as long as you have someone in your life who truly believes in you…is certainly an encouraging one, nu?

Singing! Dancing! Oppression! Hipsters **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 3, 2011)

If the psychic energies of the average mass of people watching a football game or a musical comedy could be diverted into the rational channels of a freedom movement, they would be invincible. –Wilhelm Reich

Free your mind and your ass will follow. –George Clinton

Here are two things generally not mentioned in the same breath: “Colorful musical romp” and “Khrushchev-era Soviet Union”. But I have to say it…Hipsters is a colorful musical romp set against a backdrop of the Khrushchev-era Soviet Union. Lightly allegorical and doggedly retro, Valeriy Todorovski’s film is a mashup of Absolute Beginners and Pleasantville, with echoes of West Side Story, Grease and The Wall.

It’s 1955, and life is a bit on the gray side for 20-something Muscovites, especially within the ranks of the Young Communist League, whose idea of a good time is ruining everyone else’s. This is how we meet League member/star athlete Mels (Anton Shagin) and his (sort of) girlfriend Katya (Evgeniya Brik), who is the commissar of his particular auxiliary.

Lovely but priggish Katya is leading a patrol of saturnine League members, who are on the hunt for stilyagi (“hipsters”) who might be having a night out (god forbid) enjoying themselves. Their quarry will not be tough to spot; with their pompadours and peacock threads, they stand out from the drab, state-mandated conformity that surrounds them. Katya and her gang soon detect the telltale sound of forbidden American jazz, zeroing them in on their prey. Armed with scissors, they proceed to unceremoniously cut up their coiffed hair and flashy clothing.

It turns out that Mels may be conflicted; while giving chase to several hipsters, he is stopped in his tracks after he is smitten by one of them (Oksana Akinshina), a fetching blonde named Polza (you half expect Mels to break into “Maria”). Maybe this whole stilyagi scene ain’t so bad after all, he figures, and lets Polza go with a promise that he won’t narc her out. The free-spirited Polza reciprocates with an implication that if he gets hip, he might get lucky.

Well, you know how easy guys are. Cue the inevitable montage, wherein Mels enlists one of the hipster dudes to give him all the requisite grooming, fashion and dancing tips. His transformation complete, Mels sets off to win Polza’s heart. It’s a wafer-thin plot, but I can’t think of too many genre entries that allow obstacles like narrative to get in the way of the song and dance (at 125 minutes, there’s plenty of both).

If you  love the song and dance, you’re sure to get a kick out of the energetic performances, over-the-top set pieces and eye-popping costumes. I found the song lyrics to be nonsensical at times; perhaps something literally got lost in the translation. Although the overall tone is fluffy, Todorovski saves room for political commentary (lines like “a saxophone is considered a concealed weapon” may elicit chuckles, but hold ominous undercurrents). I sense the film has deeper subtext in this regard (more attuned to, let’s say, Russian audiences?). Still, its prevalent theme, exalting self-expression and righteous defiance in the face of oppression whenever possible, is hard to miss. And, in light of the OWS movement (and our own ongoing culture wars) it’s a timely one as well.

One of his latest, funnier films: Midnight in Paris ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 11, 2011)

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Dr. Drew-please help me. I’m a wreck. This is only the first line for my review of Midnight in Paris, and already I’m feeling defensive. Why is that? When will I be able to review a Woody Allen movie without feeling obliged…no, strike that…duty-bound to append superlatives with a qualifier like “…in years”. You know-as in, “This is Woody Allen’s best film…in years!” Why can’t I just say “This is a great film”? Is it the vacillating quality of his work over the last two decades? Or is it me? Am I stuck in the past? Have I become one of those sniveling fans Woody parodied in Stardust Memories-wringing my hands over the fact that his recent work is nothing like the “earlier, funny films” he made in the days of my golden youth? Wait…what’s that ringing in my ears? I feel nauseous. Oh, Jesus, I hope it isn’t a brain tumor. Uh, hello? Dr. Drew? Dr. Drew?

We’ve lost our connection, so back to the review. Allen continues the 6-year European travelogue that began in England (Match Point, Scoop, Cassandra’s Dream), trekked to Spain (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) then after a respite in N.Y.C. (Whatever Works) headed back to the U.K. (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger) before settling in the City of Light for this romantic fantasy. Allen opens the film Manhattan style-with a montage of iconic Paris landmarks (strikingly captured by City of Lost Children DP Darius Khonji and co-cinematographer Johanne Debas). We are introduced to a successful but artistically unfulfilled Hollywood screenwriter named Gil (Owen Wilson).

Gil is engaged to Inez (Rachel McAdams). The two of them have tagged along with Inez’s parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy) who are in Paris on a business trip. Gil and Inez view Paris from differing perspectives. Inez is excited about the shopping and the tourist attractions, plus the fact that her bubbly friend Carol (Nina Arianda) is also in town with her boyfriend Paul (Michael Sheen), a pompous art professor who has been invited to speak at the Sorbonne. Gil, on the other hand, is one of those nostalgia junkies who tend to wax melancholic about “being born at the wrong time”.

To be sure, part of him does appreciate being alive in the 21st century, but if he had his druthers, he would gladly swap his luxury Malibu digs for Paris (the perfect place to polish the draft of his first novel). If he pushed the fantasy to its limits, Paris in the 1920s would be ideal; consorting in Left Bank cafes with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Eliot and Stein. Meanwhile, Inez and her parents hope Gil’s romanticized musings are just a silly phase that he’s going through.

To Gil’s chagrin, Inez appears enraptured by Paul’s windy professorial pontificating about the landmarks they visit (at one point, he self-importantly “corrects” a French tour guide on trivia regarding a Rodin sculpture). While Inez admires his “brilliance”, Gil sees Paul for what he really is-an insufferably arrogant pedant. Pseudo-intellectuals have been one of Allen’s pet targets over the years; in a later scene where Gil finds himself in a unique position to stymie the ever-chattering Paul , I was reminded of that classic “I happen to have Marshall McLuhan right here” moment in Annie Hall.

One evening, after Gil has done a little more wining than dining, he takes a head-clearing, late-night stroll back to the hotel, leaving a less-than-pleased Inez on her own to go out partying with Carol and Paul. Gil finds himself lost in the labyrinth of Paris’s narrow backstreets.

As he stops to rest and get his bearings, the bells begin to toll midnight. At that moment, a well-preserved vintage Peugeot Landaulet pulls up, seemingly out of nowhere. A lively group of well-oiled young party people invite him to hop on in and join their revelry. With a “what the hell” shrug, Gil accepts the invitation. Now, so I don’t risk spoiling your fun, I won’t tell you much more about what ensues. Suffice it to say that this will be the first of several “transportive” midnight outings that will change Gil’s life.

Allen re-examines many of his signature themes-particularly regarding the mysteries of attraction and the flightiness of the Muse. He also offers keen insights about those who romanticize the past. Do we really believe in our  hearts that everything was better “then”? Isn’t getting lost in nostalgia just another way to shirk responsibility for dealing with the present?

Earlier I made a tongue-in-cheek analogy between Allen’s “earlier, funny films” and the “days of my golden youth”. Were Woody’s movies really “funnier” then-or are they merely  portals back to a carefree time when I still had my whole life ahead of me? Lest you begin to think that this is one of his Bergman-esque excursions-let me assure you that it’s not. It’s romantic, intelligent, perceptive, magical, and yes…very funny. There’s a fantastic supporting cast, including Marion Cotillard, Kathy Bates and Adrien Brody. In fact, I will say this without qualification: This is a great film. Never mind, Dr. Drew…I’m cured!

SIFF 2011: Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 4, 2011)

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Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same is about as benign as a midnight movie gets. Sort of a mash-up of (a less funny) Clerks with Coneheads, it’s a wildly uneven and self-consciously campy affair that’s just endearing enough to make it tough to dislike. Writer-director Madeleine Olnek’s setup is clever; scientists on a distant planet theorize that the holes in their ozone are exacerbated by the disruptive vibes of lonely singles with too many “big feelings” (i.e. unrequited love). Their solution? Send the culprits to Earth, each with a directive to hook up with a human, who will of course break their heart and put them off of this silly love thing.

The story follows the travails of three of these exiles, one of whom ends up with a socially awkward NYC store clerk (Lisa Haas). There are some genuine laughs, particularly whenever Olnek hits on some universal truths about relationships, but I wish there had been more of that and much less of a subplot involving two “men in black” who engage in scene after scene of painfully unfunny banter (quite amateurishly acted, as well) that drags the film down. The good news is that Olnek does display enough of an assured hand to hint that better things could be on the way in future.

Don’t ask, don’t tell: The Freebie ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 9, 2010)


Men and Women stoop to conquer
Men and Women stoop so low
Men and Women filled with doubt
They scream about what they don’t know

-from “Myn and Wymnyn”, by Uncle Bonsai

The tagline for the romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally triggered a flurry of panel discussions around the water cooler back in 1989 with its rhetorical question: “Can two friends sleep together and still love each other in the morning?”

In her 2010 directorial debut, The Freebie, actress Katie Aselton (The Puffy Chair) ups the ante by asking “Can a married couple award each other a mutual pass to sleep with someone else for one night…and still love each other in the morning?” Perhaps the bigger question is: “Are human beings even wired in any way, shape or form to remain truly monogamous?”

Aselton casts herself as Annie, one half of an attractive, happily married thirty-something L.A. couple (no kids). Well, at least on the surface, it would appear that Annie and her Jackson Browne lookalike hubby Darren (Dax Shepard) are a fun-loving, happy-go-lucky pair. In fact, they are so goddamned good looking, textbook compatible and in tune with each other’s feelings that you want to throttle them. Well, not literally-but you catch my drift; especially if you’re as bitter and disillusioned as me (and isn’t everyone?).

However, you know what they say about that dreaded “7-year itch” (guess how many years Annie and Darren have been betrothed). The first harbinger of trouble in paradise arrives one night, following an awkward mission abort on a lovemaking session.

Before any uncomfortable conversation can ensue, Darren quickly suggests a “race” to see which one of them can first complete a minute crossword, and Annie eagerly agrees to this whimsical distraction from the elephant in the bedroom (I was reminded of the classic scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen is ranting in the middle of the night to his significant other about the JFK assassination, and she suddenly blurts out with “You’re using this conspiracy theory as an excuse to avoid sex with me.”).

The Talk inevitably occurs a few nights later, wherein they realize that, despite their undying commitment to the marriage, their sex life could use sprucing up.

This is the point in the film where you may feel compelled to start yelling at the screen. Darren and Annie agree to give each other a “free pass” for one evening; in short, mutual “permission” to have a one night stand outside of the marriage, with a few “don’t ask, don’t tell” caveats. The theory is that this will strengthen their love and trust in each other. This is an interesting idea, in theory-but if you know anything about human nature, as I said, you may begin yelling at the screen at this juncture…begging them not to do it.

They do it. God help them. Why do people always tinker? It’s never perfect enough, is it? Is anyone ever truly happy and content, no matter how good they’ve got it? Silly creatures. There are unanticipated consequences, natch. Still, you will be compelled to stick with these two idiots, to just see how it all plays out (in for a penny, in for a pound).

I would have been doing even more yelling at the screen, had this been a typical Hollywood rom-com, but it’s not. Aselton has delivered a well-acted, refreshingly realistic look at the complexities of love and modern relationships; warm, touching, funny and engaging without leaning on hackneyed plot contrivances.

I liked the fact that there is no pat denouement, wrapped up with a bow; because real relationships (and our lives in general) rarely play out that way. I understand that many of the scenes were improvised; this gives the film its naturalistic vibe.

It’s rare these days to discover a perceptive film for grownups, that actually has something substantive to offer, without wearing out its welcome. Kind of like a perfect relationship…if you’re lucky enough to be in one, it would behoove you to heed the film’s message: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Guys have body issues, too: A Matter of Size ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 16, 2010)

You know-us dogs aren’t really so much of the dogs that we think we are.

-from the 1955 film Marty

When you think “star athlete”, it invariably conjures up an image of a man or a woman with zero body fat and abs of steel. It certainly bears no resemblance to the doughy disappointment peering back at us from our full-length mirror (well…speaking for myself). Granted, there is the odd exception-Babe Ruth, CC Sabathia, David Wells, George Foreman, John Daly and Charles Barkley come to mind (and give some of us hope). Not that I ever considered pro sports as a career-but at some point in our lives, those of us who are “persons of size” must make peace with the cards we have been dealt.

Herzl (Itzak Cohen), the unlikely sports hero of a delightful audience-pleaser from Israel called A Matter of Size has been dealing with his “cards” for some thirty-odd years, and has yet to come up with a winning hand. Sweet-natured, puppy-eyed and tipping the scales at 340 pounds, he lives with his overbearing mother, Mona (Levana Finkelstein) and works at a restaurant, commandeering a salad bar.

Mona loves her son, but has odd ways of expressing it (chiefly due to her lack of a social filter). “You’re getting too fat!” she scolds, belaboring the obvious; in the next breath she’s encouraging him to finish up some leftovers in the fridge (eating and complaining…two things my People excel at).

Just when you think the situation couldn’t get more demoralizing for the hapless Herzl, he gets fired from his job, essentially for being visually unaesthetic to the workplace (read: Management objects to having a morbidly obese employee tending the salad bar).

But then, two things happen to Herzl that could potentially turn his present state of gloom around: he experiences a mutual spark of attraction with a lovely woman in his weight watchers group (Irit Kaplan) and finds a new job at a Japanese restaurant, managed by an ex-pro sumo coach (Togo Igawa). Guess what happens? (Hint: As you probably know, sumo is a sport that celebrates and reveres big fellers, elevating them to rock star status).

It would have been easy for directors Sharon Maymon and Erez Tadmor to wring cheap laughs from such a predominately corpulent cast, but much to their credit (and Danny Cohen-Solal, who co-scripted with Maymon) the characters (and actors who play them) ultimately emerge from their trials and tribulations with dignity and humanity fully intact.

Even the sight of four supersized Israeli gentlemen bounding through a grassy field, garbed in naught but their lipstick-red mawashis makes you want to stand up and cheer (as opposed to pointing and snickering). Ditto for an endearing, sensitively directed seduction scene between Herzl and his girlfriend, and a subplot concerning one of Herzl’s buddies who, empowered via the sumo training, begins his journey of coming out as a gay man. Needless to say, the film is ultimately about self-acceptance, in all of its guises.

And that’s a good thing.

Von liebe und schnitzel: Soul Kitchen **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 18, 2010)

You know, it’s great when you can find a nice palette-cleanser to tide you over during these dog days at the multiplexes, as the last crumbs of empty-calorie summer fare are cleared from the table to make room for the heartier fall menu. Soul Kitchen is one such cinematic soufflé; it bakes up light and fluffy, stopping just this side of demanding any deeper contemplation, yet it is still substantial enough to leave you feeling pleasantly full.

Equal parts romantic comedy, foodie film, and (mildly) raunchy screwball farce, German writer-director Fatih Akin’s breezy story concerns a grubby but amiable young restaurateur named Zinos (co-scripter Adam Bousdoukos) who has converted an abandoned warehouse in Hamburg’s Wilhelmsburg quarter into a funky eatery called “The Soul Kitchen”.

Operating on the cheap, Zinos is not only the manager, but the cook as well, serving up your basic beer ‘n’ pizza, schnitzel and French fries menu to a not-so-picky neighborhood clientele. If Zinos seems a bit harried and distracted, it’s due to the impending departure of his journalist girlfriend Nadine (Pheline Roggan) to China.

Zinos’ separation anxiety comes to a head when he joins Nadine and her family for dinner at another restaurant, where the two have an embarrassing public spat. Just a few moments later, that restaurant’s head chef, Shayn (Birol Unel) quits in a huff after losing his shit when a customer demands that his gazpacho (a Spanish soup, traditionally served cold) be heated up for him. The two sulking men are soon commiserating outside, where the pragmatic Shayn asks, “So, do you have a job for me?”

Although Shayn  admires what he refers to as the “Romanesque” ambiance of the Soul Kitchen, it doesn’t take long for him to ascertain that Zinos’ pedestrian menu could use sprucing up. At first, the regulars are bewildered by the “fresh sheets” and the upscale presentations on their plates. “Where’s our fries, burgers and pizza?” they demand-to which Shayn rebuffs “Get your pizza at the supermarket! Culinary racists!” before storming back to the kitchen.

Things settle down, the word gets out, and business picks up as the eatery gains hipster cachet. Zinos is not out of the woods yet, however. His brother Illias (Moritz Bleibtrau), a convicted thief, shows up unannounced on his doorstep, fresh out of prison on work release. Things get (as Arte Johnson’s catchphrase used to go on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In) “Velly interestink…but schtoo-pid!”.

Bousdoukos (whose passing resemblance to Jim Morrison is amusing, considering the title) and Bliebtrau have good chemistry as the brothers. Keep an eye out for the great Udo Kier in a minor role. Although many elements of the narrative feel familiar, the combination of energetic performances, well-chosen music (featuring everything from Louis Armstrong and Ruth Brown to Curtis Mayfield and Burning Spear) and Akin’s fresh directing approach make up for it. Sometimes, it’s all about presentation, ja ?

Blu-ray reissue: Delicatessen ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 11, 2010)

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Delicatessen – Lionsgate Blu-ray

This film is so…French. A seriocomic vision of a food-scarce, dystopian future society along the lines of Soylent Green, directed with great verve and trademark surrealist touches by co-directors Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro (The City of Lost Children). The pair’s favorite leading man, Dominique Pinon (sort of a sawed-off Robin Williams) plays a circus performer who moves into an apartment building with a butcher shop downstairs. The shop’s proprietor seems to be appraising the new tenant with, shall we say, a “professional” eye? In Jeunet and Caro’s bizarro world, it’s all par for the course (just wait ‘til you get a load of the vegan “troglodytes” who live underneath the city streets). One sequence, involving a hilarious, imaginatively staged sex scene, stands on its own as a veritable master class in the arts of film and sound editing. The arresting visuals really come alive in Lionsgate’s Blu-ray edition.