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Bob Crane (Kinnear) became well known as the star of the hit comedy series “Hogan’s Heroes.” With an abundance of fame, wealth and success, Crane dove headfirst into the darker, destructive side of the celebrity lifestyle. He eventually teamed up with a video technician (Dafoe) who helped him to systematically document his copious sexploits with beautiful young women. But when the fast living and hard loving got out of control, the end result was a brutal murder that remains one of the most scandalous unsolved mysteries in Hollywood history.

Paul Schrader
Greg Kinnear, Willem Dafoe, Maria Bello, Rita Wilson, Ron Leibman, Michael E. Rodgers
Writing Credits:
Michael Gerbosi, based on the book by Robert Graysmith

A day without sex is a day wasted.
Box Office:
Budget $7 million.
Opening weekend $123,761 million on 11 screens.
Domestic gross $2.062 million.
Rated R for strong sexuality, nudity, language, some drug use and violence.

Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
French Dolby Surround
English, French

Runtime: 106 min.
Price: $26.95
Release Date: 3/18/2003

• Audio Commentary With Director Paul Schrader
• Audio Commentary With Producers Scott Alexander and Larry Karazewski and Writer Michael Gerbosi
• Audio Commentary With Actors Greg Kinnear and Willem Dafoe
• “Murder in Scottsdale” Documentary
• Making-Of Featurette
• Five Deleted Scenes With Optional Director’s Commentary
• Bonus Trailers

Music soundtrack

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Auto Focus (2002)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 12, 2003)

How do you create a character study of a man with very little character? For one answer, we find 2002’s Auto Focus, a look at the rise and fall of actor Bob Crane.

Auto Focus starts in Los Angeles during 1964. When we meet Crane (Greg Kinnear), a successful radio disc jockey with a yen to do more acting. He sees himself as a Jack Lemmon sort of performer, and he resists when his agent Lenny (Ron Liebman) pitches him the lead in a TV show. However, he responds to the script, so Crane accepts the role in Hogan’s Heroes.

We meet Crane’s wife Anne (Rita Wilson) and his kids, and the film establishes him as a conservative family man. As we watch the evolution of the TV series, we also see how Bob responds to his success. On the set, he meets technology expert John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe). A party guy, Carpenter invites Crane to accompany him and Richard Dawson (Michael E. Rodgers) to a strip joint called Salome’s. Reluctantly, Crane agrees, and he finds his niche when the amateur drummer gets the chance to pound the skins alongside the dancers.

Eventually Crane starts to pound other kinds of skin when Carpenter has him come to private parties. Initially Crane resists the appeal of the strippers who attend, but before long, he cheats on Anne. This starts his slow degeneration into an addiction to sex. He spends more and more time with Carpenter and also starts an affair with co-star Patricia Olsen (Maria Bello). The movie follows his relationships, both among long-term women (Anne and Patty) and one-night stands as well as with “Carpy”.

One interesting element of Auto Focus stems from the lack of character inherent in Crane that I mentioned at the start. Crane doesn’t come across as stupid, but he displays a tremendous absence of introspection or self-awareness. His philosophy seems to come from the “shit happens” school, and he doesn’t appear to dwell on things beyond that level.

A superficial man, the film occasionally delves into his character in a slightly deeper level, but usually it takes him at face value. This isn’t a criticism of the movie, as the tone seems appropriate for Crane’s personality. If anything, it might give him more of a character arc than he merits, especially during the film’s third act. Crane mildly struggles with inner demons, though not to a substantial degree. These sequences come across as somewhat inappropriate given the insubstantial amount of depth the character shows before that point.

Actually, the movie turns consciously dark as it progresses, and I don’t think that was a great choice. From the outside, indeed Crane seems to collapse and display significant problems. However, in his head, he continues to see things in a sunnier way due to his superficiality. Admittedly, he turns more morose toward the end, but that seems more due to his sputtering career than any inner angst.

Unfortunately, the movie tries hard to pour on the darkness and does so in fairly obvious and awkward ways. The production design goes from the bright Day-Glo hues of the go-go Sixties to more of a sickly green look as Crane lowers himself into the depths of depravity. More distractingly, the film uses lots and lots of handheld camerawork as the movie progresses. This jittery imagery seems like a cheap way to communicate the movie’s ideas, and it gets pretty annoying quickly. A good filmmaker incorporates various techniques in a way that makes them blend seamlessly; I shouldn’t have felt so acutely aware of the stylistic choices.

Still, there’s something oddly compelling about Auto Focus, if just because of the contrast between Crane’s actions and his simplistic attitude. It helps that all the actors provide good work. Kinnear lends Crane an interestingly light demeanor and he doesn’t overplay the character’s seedier elements. He keeps the personality appropriately shallow but not unrealistically so, and he allows the part to become interesting and compelling. Dafoe also brings a quiet desperation to the insecure and shady Carpenter.

Overall, Auto Focus feels somewhat disjointed and shaky at times, but the strength of the story helps make it work. The film benefits from solid acting as well as a nice sense of verisimilitude. Some excessive stylization and distracting visual choices make it less subtle than I’d like, but it generally comes across like an interesting flick.

The DVD Grades: Picture B / Audio B / Bonus A

Auto Focus appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Shot on a low budget, Auto Focus occasionally displayed characteristics typical for cheaper films, but it looked pretty solid overall.

Sharpness seemed positive. The movie remained crisp and detailed from start to finish. I noticed no problems related to softness during this tight and concise presentation. Jagged edges and moiré effects created no concerns, but a little edge enhancement cropped up at times. I also detected some light artifacting, but print flaws caused no problems.

Since Auto Focus changed its color scheme as the movie progressed, the hues varied. During the bright, overblown early sequences, the tones came across as somewhat too heavy and runny. At that time, skin tones appeared a little pinkish, and reds were a bit too strong. As the movie went on, the palette darkened, though, and the colors became more concise and distinct. Overall, the tones looked solid despite a few concerns. Black levels appeared deep and rich, while shadow detail was appropriately clear and lacked problems with excessive opacity. In the end, Auto Focus provided a good visual experience.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Auto Focus presented a fairly subdued piece of work. Not surprisingly, the track accentuated the forward spectrum. Music demonstrated good stereo imaging, while effects spread modestly to the sides. The elements blended together acceptably well and created a convincing though low-key soundfield. Surround usage remained modest, though some decent reinforcement came from the rears. For example, we even got split surround material from some planes at an airport. Music generally dominated the mix, however.

Audio quality appeared fine across the board. Speech sounded natural and distinct, and I noticed no issues related to intelligibility or edginess. Effects came across as clear and accurate; they didn’t display much life, but they also didn’t have much to do in this subdued mix. Music sounded quite good, especially due to the prominence of drums in so much of the movie. Those elements showed nice punch and low-end response, and the music generally appeared warm and vibrant. Ultimately, the audio of Auto Focus seemed adequate for the film in question, but it didn’t do much beyond that.

Given the movie’s box office take, Auto Focus packs a surprisingly substantial set of extras, and we start with a whopping three audio commentaries. The first comes from director Paul Schrader, who provides a running, screen-specific piece. A nicely informative and compelling affair, Schrader touches on a myriad of topics involved with the movie. He goes over casting, production design, character issues, script and story variations, the facts behind the flick, and tons of other things. The occasional empty spot appears, but Schrader usually fills the space, and he does so well in this highly informative and illuminating commentary.

For the next track, we hear from producers Scott Alexander and Larry Karazewski and writer Michael Gerbosi , all of whom sat together for this running, screen-specific piece. After Schrader’s excellent commentary, I feared the next one would seem less interesting, but that wasn’t the case. The trio provide an entertaining piece that follows the film’s gestation from the literal start after Gerbosi found the book on which it was based. They then trace its route to the screen and tell us other issues such as reactions by various Crane family members.

Though quite interesting as a whole, this commentary suffers from two problems. For one, the participants tend to speak on top of each other too frequently. Gerbosi becomes the worst offender, as he often interjects random thoughts right on top of the others. In addition, the track only lasts for about half of the movie. Midway through, Gerbosi states that they need to stop due to “space reasons”. Buh? I don’t know what that means, and the producers seem a little befuddled by the conclusion as well. In any case, half of a very good commentary beats a full-length one that stinks, so despite its early finale, this track works quite well.

The final commentary offers a discussion from actors Greg Kinnear and Willem Dafoe. Both men sit together for their running, screen-specific chat. If you’ve read many of my reviews, you’ll know that I usually find actor commentaries to flop; the occasional exception exists, but most of them seem dull and uneventful.

Overall, Kinnear and Dafoe provide a decent discussion of the film, but they don’t make it into anything special. For the most part, they give us some basic notes from the set and about the production. They chat about different elements of their roles and other factoids that relate to the film. Inevitably, they occasionally repeat some of what we hear elsewhere, but that doesn’t occur too frequently.

Dafoe tells us the most interesting tidbit as he mentions his genuine irritation when Schrader used a body double to cover for Dafoe in a couple of segments. This element actually contributes some real insight into his work. Unfortunately, not many more moments like that pop up, and the track seems somewhat sluggish as a whole. Quite a few empty spaces occur, and Dafoe even leaves the room on at least one occasion. The actor commentary includes enough interesting material to merit a listen – it’s far from the worst of its ilk – but it remains the least compelling of the three on this DVD.

Next we find a two-part documentary called Murder in Scottsdale. The first section lasts 26 minutes and 59 seconds, while the second part runs 22 minutes and 26 seconds; all told, the piece fills 49 minutes and 25 seconds. It mixes archival material, a few movie shots, and interviews. In the latter category, we hear from The Murder of Bob Crane author Robert Graysmith, Detective Jim Raines, defense attorney for John Carpenter Stephen Avilla, Scottsdale Police Department Captain Barry Vassall, Scottsdale PD Sgt. Dennis Borkenhagen, son Robert Crane Jr., daughters Karen Crane and Debbie Crane, former Maricopa County attorney Charles Hyder, Maricopa County attorney Richard Romley, John Carpenter’s widow Diana, Richard Dawson’s son Mark, defense attorney Candace H. Kent, jury foreman Michael Lake, and Maricopa County prosecutor Bob Shutts.

The first part of the program deals with the immediate investigation of Crane’s murder and the aftermath. The second segment jumps to about a decade later and looks at the re-opening of the case and the trial of John Carpenter. The documentary offers a pretty good look at the facts and where things went with the investigation. The program comes to no absolute conclusions, but it does provide a decent examination of the history behind parts of Auto Focus.

After this we find a short Making-Of featurette. This piece lasts six minutes and 50 seconds as it presents the standard mix of movie clips and interviews. We hear from director Paul Schrader, actors Greg Kinnear, Willem Dafoe, Rita Wilson, Maria Bello, and Kurt Fuller, and son Bob Crane Jr. They provide virtually nothing of substance during this puffy program that simply touts how great everything and everyone is.

Next we locate five deleted scenes. These run between 32 seconds and 102 seconds for a total of six minutes and six seconds of footage. The alternate opening seems like the most interesting, but none of them add much to the film. Rita Wilson’s character Anne gets the most additional exposure, and those scenes would have allowed the role a little more screentime, but they didn’t help the film.

The scenes can be viewed with or without commentary from director Schrader. He gives some background for the clips and explains why he cut them. The commentary offers nothing crucial, but it provides a decent examination of the subject.

Finally, we get a substantial collection of trailers. The DVD includes two for Auto Focus, as it presents the standard ad allowed for all audiences as well as the “red band” promo attached only to “R”-rated flicks. We also find trailers for Blind Spot: Hitler’s Private Secretary, Love Liza, The Man From Elysian Fields, Pollock, Spider and Talk to Her.

Though flawed for a variety of reasons, Auto Focus scores points due to daring subject matter and generally entertaining execution. I dislike some of the stylistic choices and think the movie becomes slightly incoherent at times, but the strength of the story and the acting help make it compelling. The DVD offers fairly positive picture and sound along with an outstanding roster of supplements. Fans of the film should feel very pleased with this solid DVD. Others might want to give it a rental first, as this subject clearly won’t work for everyone.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3.5263 Stars Number of Votes: 19
8 3:
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