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AUTO FOCUS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Greg Kinnear, Willem Dafoe, Rita Wilson, Maria Bello, Ron Leibman
Director:  Paul Schrader
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  See Review
Length:  106 Minutes
Release Date:  March 18, 2003

“If I were to send you out again, I’d have to be able to tell people you’re a new man.”

“Well…tell them sex is normal…I’M normal…”

Film ***1/2

I was only two years old when Hogan’s Heroes went off the air, but I discovered it again about 7 or 8 years later when a local station re-ran the episodes on weeknights.  I loved it.  I was too young to consider whether or not a sitcom about a Nazi prison camp was in good taste.  I just knew that Hogan was the man.  Smooth, cool, funny, and likable…and he had a way with the ladies, too.

I can also remember the first time my mother told me that the man who played him, Bob Crane, was dead.  “Murdered,” she said…plain and simple.  I later realized she knew much more about the story, but that was about as much of it as a 10 year old kid needed to hear.

The murder and secret life of Bob Crane became the stuff of Hollywood legend.  It would have been scandalous for any star, but for Crane, the difference between the man fans thought they knew and the private man were more different than night and day.

Paul Schrader’s Auto Focus is an unflinching look at the contradictions that made up Bob Crane (Kinnear).  Like Hogan, he was friendly, charming and likable.  Unlike Hogan, he didn’t seem to have much between his ears.  His smile was warm, but his eyes were vacant.  His talent was even suspect…his success as Colonel Hogan was probably more attributed to his close personality match with the character.

When we first meet him in the film, he’s working as a morning DJ in California, but dreaming of bigger things.  When a risky proposition comes his way…playing the lead in a comedy about prisoners of war in Nazi Germany…he takes the chance, and strikes gold.  Hogan’s Heroes, despite the occasional muffled protest, became a hit and a staple of CBS for six years.

But despite Crane’s nice-guy persona, one he wore in real life as well as on screen, he was secretly nursing an addiction to sex and pornography.  He lived a seemingly dream life, with a postcard-perfect looking home, wife and children.  But his stash of magazines in the garage was the beginning of something much bigger.

He meets video tech John Carpenter (Dafoe, and this Carpenter is NOT to be confused with the director of Halloween), who shares similar tastes, but better yet, introduces Bob to the brand new world of home video.  Years before I Am Curious…Yellow would pave the way for actual ‘adult’ movies, Bob and John were photographing and taping their escapades for their own increasingly rabid enjoyment.

“A day without sex is a wasted day,” Bob would say.  But his life was not without its price.  His penchant for sex, lies and videotape would eventually cost him two marriages and any real chance at having a career beyond Hogan.  In one amusing sequence, the film doesn’t neglect to mention his big “comeback” film for Disney, Superdad…easily one of the worst movies ever made!

Order dissolves to chaos, success begets failure, passion leads to emptiness…eventually, Crane’s addictions would even lead to death and one of Hollywood’s most notorious unsolved murder mysteries. 

This is the kind of movie that, if it wasn’t based on a true story, would probably be passed over as stretching the bounds of reality too much.  Not that we couldn’t believe a man capable of sinking to such depths, but for THIS character…this Bob Crane…the duality is sometimes still hard to comprehend even when we see it in action.  Greg Kinnear’s pitch perfect performance as Crane makes him real, and yet keeps him something of an enigma. 

I don’t know if the world has ever quite figured out Bob Crane.  Perhaps the most sobering aspect of Schrader’s film is that we get very close to the man and the subject matter, and still walk away wondering.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Ed Begley, Jr. has a small role as a reporter who interviews Crane.  Many years earlier, he was one of the kids in Crane’s super-flop movie Superdad!

Video ***1/2

This is a film that uses cinematography expressively.  The worlds of the movie range from the perky artificial coloring of 60s suburbia to the dark, gritty, shaky look of a documentary…all to capture the two sides and the rise and fall of Bob Crane.  This anamorphic transfer captures all of the looks quite well, though the sometimes deliberately extreme natures might make this one a pass as a demo disc.  Images ranges from sharp to a bit soft, again depending on the style Schrader was going for…it all works well.

Audio ***

The 5.1 audio is quite good, considering the film is mainly dialogue oriented.  A few musical cues and a terrific fantasy sequence open up the mix a little bit for both the front and rear stages.  Subwoofer use is minimal, but justifiably so.  The spoken words are clean and clear, and dynamic range is fair.  A solid presentation.

Features ****

Get comfortable and enjoy…this Special Edition from Columbia Tri Star is loaded!  For starters, you get three terrific commentary tracks.  Paul Schrader’s is the most complete and informative; he shares not only thoughts on the making of the movie (including how to work with a small budget), but gets in his share of details about Bob Crane’s life as well.  A second track features stars Kinnear and Dafoe, which is a more relaxed and enjoyable listen; the two work well together.  And if you have time for one more, you’ll enjoy the producers and writer commentary track for even more insights!

The next best feature is the two part documentary Murder in Scottsdale, which is a recently done piece that takes you back to the scene of the infamous crime with new interviews and close looks at the evidence and details.  There are also five deleted scenes with optional Schrader commentary and a short production featurette.

Rounding out is a weblink, and one of the best trailer galleries ever assembled for a disc.  Not only do you get the all audience and restricted trailers for this film, you get ones for Talk to Her, Love Liza, Spider, The Man From Elysian Fields and more…this is a superb package!

Summary:

Paul Schrader has always been a filmmaker fascinated by the strange obsessions that make a man self destruct, whether it’s his screenplays for Taxi Driver or Raging Bull or other directorial efforts like American Gigolo or Affliction.  Auto Focus is a surprisingly good fit into his filmography, by happening to be a true story more bizarre, funny, sad and compelling than any he could have crafted with a pen.