by Louis Fowler
Most weeks, I review more DVDs than the Indy can fit into print. You can look for extra write-ups here, on the IndyBlog.
I fully expected to loathe this documentary about comedian Joan Rivers, based completely around the irritating persona she's put forth thus far, not to mention that, well ... she's really not all that funny. But, with each passing minute of A Piece of Work, that initial fear starts to fade away as director Ricki Stern peels away every single layer of the star's make-up and finds a faded star desperately trying not only to stay relevant in a world that seems to have moved on, but just something as simple as trying to find stand-up gigs. Rivers has a desperate drive to stay in the limelight, one that is showcased with total voyeuristic abandon to the point that it almost seems sad and, well, I'm not trying to be mean, but pathetic. She works so damn hard to get jobs in A Piece of Work that, after viewing, you feel obligated to buy a ticket to her show next time she comes to town, just because you know that she depends on it both financially and psychically. One of the most in-depth, realistic celeb docs I've seen in a long time.
There is a trend among many low-budget straight-to-DVD companies as of late to produce and release movies based on the exploits of legendary serial killers, casting stars who look nothing like them and spicing up their stories to increase the horror factor. It's pure exploitation that would be fun if they weren't so damn unwatchable. The cover of Dear Mr. Gacy mimics this trend perfectly, almost to the point of begging you to ignore it completely. The movie inside, however, betrays its wannabe exploitative rental roots, delivering a powerfully terrifying (and true!) psychological thriller about an ambitious criminology student who, in an effort to write a term paper, befriends and becomes completely intertwined in the life and final days of the notorious John Wayne Gacy. As essayed by the incomparable William Forsythe, he looks nothing like Gacy (who was a short, plump guy) but damn, does he deliver a powerfully chilling performance, alternating between terrifying and lecherous to downright pathetic at a moment's notice. He deserves some sort of award for his job, and this movie deserves an audience.
Looking for a fine paranoid psychological thriller in the mold of early Polanski? Then check out the Irish film Alarm. After the attack of her father at the hands of drunk thugs, Molly (Ruth Bradley) moves from Dublin to the picturesque suburbs where the quiet, secluded life starts to mentally tear her down after her house is burglarized. As she tries to put the pieces together, everyone around her becomes a suspect to the point where her only friend is the recently-installed alarm system. With the exception of a goofy, un-thought-out ending that threatens to mar the whole experience, Alarm works on every level, creating an agoraphobic atmosphere, where every shadow is long and every noise threatening. Molly's point-of-view is respectfully presented, never treating her as crazy, but instead believing her the whole time. I never once questioned her sanity because I'm pretty sure that anyone of us in the same situation would act the same way. Right up until the dumb ending, that is...