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Sean Axmaker

“Hobson’s Choice” – DVD for the Week 2/17/09

Hobson's Choice
Criterion's "Hobson's Choice"

My affection for the cinema of David Lean is decidedly equivocal. He practically defines the British “Tradition of Quality” strain of filmmaking that favors taste and literary pedigree over personal sensibility and stylistic adventure. You’ll never find the fierce authorial intelligence or cinematic thrill of Alfred Hitchcock, or the fearlessly romantic imagery or wild heartiness of Michael Powell, in a David Lean film. I’m respectful of the crisp professionalism of Brief Encounter but not moved by the encounter. On the other hand, neither Hitch nor Powell could have created an epic work with the mythic dimension and human grounding and sheer visual sweep and grandeur of Lawrence of Arabia. And the wide-eyed charge and understated warmth (not to mention a genuinely Dickensian cast for a big screen incarnation of the colorful supporting characters) he brings to Great Expectations pumps the blood through the smartly adapted script.

With Hobson’s Choice (1954), Lean brings broad humor and light satire to the “Tradition of Quality.” As in his Dickens adaptations, there is a sharp sense of class distinction and the safe distance of period filmmaking with which to make it. But he also plays off those great expectations of period seriousness in the opening scenes, as the prowling camera establishes the deserted cobblestone streets and the signs on the shop windows on a rainy night before slipping inside the quaint 19th century boot shop to take inventory of the fashionable boots and smart shoes on display. The stillness is cracked by a pounding thump and a whip pan to the skylight, where a branch is thrashing in the wind. Then a human shadow falls ominously upon the shop door. It’s a moment right out of Great Expectations, until that shape belches and stumbles through the door to reveal Charles Laughton in comic mode, playing the drunk and loudly slurring his protestations as his daughter tries to whisk him off to bed.

Laughton is comically tyrannical as the blustery Henry Hobson, a widower who huffs away with arrogance and indignation at the three daughters who work his shop as unpaid employees. Maggie (Brenda De Banzie), the eldest, is more babysitter and nurse than daughter at home, and more accountant and manager than employee at work. She decides there’s more to life and plots her escape from Hobson’s tyranny. Willie, the meek bootmaker and unappreciated sculptor with leather, is key to her plan. John Mills, so marvelous as the adult Pip in Lean’s Great Expectations, plays the nervous Willie as a man who has aged into a such sense of inferiority that Maggie has to literally drive it out of him.

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“The Midnight Meat Train” – The Pitiless Order in Clive Barker’s Horror Universe

[Published in conjunction with the blog seanax.com]

The Midnight Meat Train. What a perfectly descriptive and accurate title. The name alone should have secured this Clive Barker adaptation a theatrical release. In a youth film culture that has embraced increasingly violent and sadistic horror films, especially those that linger on acts of inhuman brutality and excruciatingly endured mutilations (quite accurately dubbed “torture porn”), what’s not to like about a film about a silent butcher who bludgeons the passengers of a late-night subway ride, preps the carcasses like slaughtered cattle and hangs them like sides of beef? Lionsgate, which turned the trap-and-torture Saw series into a lucrative franchise, apparently thought this was too much and dumped it directly into a hundred or so second-run theaters last fall, a nominal theatrical release in advance of the inevitable unrated DVD. Because the film was released direct to sub-run houses without a press screening, most newspapers never bothered to review the film. Most of the commentary comes from fan-ish websites and online genre hubs, where the focus is largely on the film’s effects and scare tactics.

Not to make too much of the film, which I caught up with via the unrated DVD, but it’s a gnarly little horror that delivers the grotesque spectacle without the usual brand of sadism. The Butcher, a silent, imposing slab of a man played with impassive focus by Vinnie Jones, kills his victims quickly and efficiently by design (a few put up a fight and take longer), dispatching most with a single blow from a steel hammer. Neither homicidal maniac nor bloodthirsty ghoul, he’s an unspeaking, unemotional servant, a man on a mission that he executes without pleasure or remorse.

Vinnie Jones rides the Midnight Meat Train
Vinnie Jones rides the Midnight Meat Train

The Butcher (identified as Mahogony in the credits but unnamed in the film) is the film’s bogeyman, an ominous golem who patiently and deliberately stakes out his space in the chaos of activity around him. Leon (Bradley Cooper), a street photographer who chases police calls for a living but prefers to document the underbelly of urban life (“I want to capture the heart of the city,” he explains to coolly powerful art world maven Brooke Shields), is the nominal hero. In terms of this film, it means he becomes obsessed with the Butcher, shadowing his movements from home (a gloomy hotel) to work (a commercial slaughterhouse hidden in a dinghy alley) to his nightly nocturnal rides on the subway. His waitress girlfriend Maya (Leslie Bibb) is disturbed by his obsession, which takes root in his mind like an infection. Or maybe it’s a kind of vaccine. After surviving one run-in at the slaughterhouse, Leon follows the Butcher on a midnight ride and catches him in the act on a subway train, and is in turn caught by the Butcher, who… lets him go. With a rune carved in his chest. A warning? Or part of a transformation? (The ordeal has already given this once-vegan a taste for beef. Cooked rare.)

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“Chocolate” – DVD for the Week 2/10/09

Chocolate
Chocolate

It may seem peevish to choose Prachya Pinkaew’s Thai action film over a pair of Luis Bunuel masterpieces or a Clint Eastwood box set or even Eric Rohmer’s latest delight. So be it. I concede that The Exterminating Angel is arguably the essential release of the week and that The Romance of Astrea and Celadon is a small release of a major film from a living treasure. But it’s just more fun to write about Chocolate.

Prachya Pinkaew put Thailand action cinema on the international map with Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior and The Protector (aka Tom Yum Goong), the martial arts movies that introduced stuntman Tony Jaa as an action hero. Like the martial classics of the seventies, these films threw stories together merely as an excuse to showcase the prowess of stars like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. Chocolate has a clever premise – the autistic (or “special”) daughter of a retired Thai gang woman turns out to be a martial arts savant, absorbing the lessons of the martial arts studio next door and the action movies she devours on TV – but it’s little more than an excuse to showcase Pinkaew’s latest discovery: JeeJa (also spelled JiJa) Yanin, a slip of a twenty-something woman playing the teenage dynamo named Zen.

Zen is the offspring of Zin (Ammara Siripong), a wild child on the Thai streets, and her Yakuza lover Masashi (Hiroshi Abe), who incurs the wrath of local crime boss, No. 8 (Pongpat Wachirabunjong) and is exiled back to Japan before his child is born. Zen is preternaturally attuned to the slightest sounds and movements around her and she obsessively watches martial arts movies (in particular, Ong-bak: The Thai Warrior), rewinding the fight scenes to catch all the moves. Her childhood buddy/honorary big brother Moom (Taphon Phopwandee) finds a way to turn her moves and hyper-senses into street-fair theater, playing barker while Zen catches objects out of the air without even turning her head. It’s all to pay for Zin’s hospital bills (did I mention she has cancer?) and Moom finds a potential payday when he finds a secret accounts book noting all these businessmen crooks who owe Zin money. Of course, they refuse to pay. Of course, Zen busts out her moves when every one of their manual laborers turns out to double as a henchman and unending streams of fighters converge on this diminutive girl. In one fight in an open-air butcher market, they brandish cleavers. Could you make her any more of an underdog?

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“Gumshoe,” “Five,” “Our Man in Havana” and Martini Movies – DVDs for the Week 2/3/09

What exactly is a “Martini Movie”? Sony hasn’t really explained the meaning behind the moniker it’s used to brand a collection of otherwise unrelated films from the Columbia Pictures catalogue. But based on the promotional featurettes the Sony has whipped up for each of the now ten DVDs released that imprint, a “Martini Movie” is a cinematic cocktail made up of varying measures of hard-boiled attitude, sardonic self-awareness, nostalgic naiveté and campy exaggeration. And, according the cocktail recipes printed on each disc, these are movies best seen under alcoholic lubrication.

Whether or not that’s an accurate overview of the first wave released in October 2008, which included the sub-Gilda noir exotica Affair in Trinidad with Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth, the racketeer drama The Garment Jungle with Lee J. Cobb and Sidney Lumet’s witty 1971 heist film The Anderson Tapes, it’s a downright disingenuous appellation for at least some of the films released under that brand on DVD this week. The five films in this eccentric collection are the hipster youth generation satire Getting Straight with Elliot Gould; the Jeff Goldblum psychics-on-the-run comedy Vibes (notable as the feature debut of Cindi “She-Bop” Lauper); Stephen Frears’ first film Gumshoe with Albert Finney; and the first-ever home video releases of Arch Oboler’s 1951 end-of-the-world drama Five and Carol Reed’s 1959 spy satire Our Man in Havana. It’s this latter trio of titles, minor classics debuting with little fanfare in bare-bones editions, that I hope to draw a little attention to.

“I want to write The Maltese Falcon, record ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ and play Las Vegas.” So proclaims Eddie Ginley (Albert Finney), a small-time bingo caller and wannabe stand-up comic, to his therapist in the opening scene of Gumshoe (1971). But he’ll settle for running an ad in the local paper offering his services as a private detective (no divorce cases), his present to himself for his 31st birthday. When he gets a call from a client, he just assumes his buddies are playing along for a laugh, but the package he gets from The Fat Man includes ₤1,000, a picture of a girl and a gun. Eddie’s no P-I and he knows it, but when his brother gets him canned from his only paying gig, there’s nothing stopping him from following the trail to the end of the line.

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“Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” – DVD for the Week 1/27/09

Is Marina Zenovich’s documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired in fact the “DVD of the Week” this week? I mean, is it the standout film this week, or an overlooked masterpiece, or a superior use of the DVD medium? Or am I just reaching to fill the slot of a weekly feature?

Some of the latter, possibly. Woody Allen’s Vicki Cristina Barcelona debuts on DVD and Blu-ray this week and it is probably the best new film of the week, while Martin Ritt’s Edge of the City and John Schlesinger’s Far From the Madding Crowd make their respective DVD debuts as well. All of them in simple movie-only editions (as if the Woodman would ever offer a commentary track). And my favorite release of the week is Shout! Factory’s three-disc set of The Secret Policeman’s Balls, which collects the performance films of five Amnesty International Benefit shows, from Pleasure at Her Majesty’s in 1976 (featuring members of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Beyond the Fringe and The Goodies) to The Secret Policeman’s Biggest Ball in 1989, featuring a rare reunion of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore among the comedy treats. The art is all onstage, however, as the films are basically no more than straight record of an event.

But Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired is a fascinating film and a terrific DVD. The film delves into the story of Roman Polanski’s notorious statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl, his indictment on six felony charges and his subsequent flight from the U.S. in 1977. Polanski’s story reaches much farther back, of course, and is framed by his history: he survived the Holocaust that killed most of his family and endured the murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate and the insatiable, irresponsible media circus that hounded Polanski and recklessly smeared his reputation before the investigation discovered and arrested Charles Manson and his followers (giving the press an even more sensationalistic story). That might screw up anyone, but it hardly explains or justifies Polanski’s “relationship” (his word) with 13-year-old Samantha Gailey, plying her with drugs and alcohol before having sex with her. The film doesn’t flinch from Polanski abhorrent crimes (to which he confessed and plead guilty) and the excerpts of police interview transcripts with Polanski and Gailey are discomforting and disturbing.

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The last list of Lists for 2008 – The Year in Cinema

The reading of the Oscar nominations marks the unofficial (and long overdue) end to the season of Top Ten lists and year-in-review pieces and various awards bestowed by every group who wants to add their stamp to the passports of Oscar hopefuls. So as a postscript, I gather a few lists and remarks from Parallax View contributors and friends, along with those published by Seattle top critics, as a snapshot of the way see 2008.

Sean Axmaker

A Christmas Tale
A Christmas Tale

1. A Christmas Tale (France) (dir: Arnaud Desplechin)
2. The Edge Of Heaven (Germany) (dir: Fatih Akin)
3. WALL•E (dir: Andrew Stanton)
4. Let The Right One In (Sweden) (dir: Tomas Alfredson)
5. Wendy And Lucy (dir: Kelly Reichardt)
6. The Fall (dir: Tarsem Singh)
7. The Dark Knight (dir: Christopher Nolan)
8. The Class (France) (dir: Laurent Cantet)
9. The Secret Of The Grain (France) dir: Abdellatif Kechiche
10. My Blueberry Nights (dir: Wong Kar Wai)

I also saw six films at various film festivals that could easily have made the list, were they eligible under most Top Ten guidelines (i.e.: a theatrical release). Some of them have been set for a 2009 release, a couple still await distribution.

Four Nights With Anna (Poland/France) dir: Jerzy Skowlimowski
The Hurt Locker dir: Kathryn Bigelow
L’heure d’ete (Summer Hours) (France) dir/scr: Olivier Assayas
Of Time And The City dir/scr: Terence Davies
Still Walking (Japan) dir/scr: Hirozaku Kore-Eda
Ain’t Scared (France) dir/scr: Audrey Estrougo

Robert Cumbow

(in lieu of a list, Mr. Cumbow put together his Observations, Reflections, and Ruminations from 2008 for Parallax View here)

Jim Emerson

(Ten Best Favorite Movies, from his Scanners blog) Click on the link for the video experience.

1. In Bruges (comedy, gangster; on DVD)
2. The Edge of Heaven (multi-narrative drama; on DVD)
3. A Christmas Tale (comedy, family)
4. Pineapple Express (comedy, stoner/bromantic, crime, action, Ninja; on DVD/Blu-ray)
5. Wendy and Lucy (heartbreaker)
6. Let the Right One In (comedy, tweener love story, horror)
7. Still Life (comedy, romantic/industrial; on DVD)
8. Chop Shop (docudrama; on DVD)
9. Shotgun Stories (Southern Gothic; on DVD)
10. The Fall (comedy, Western/Eastern fantasy adventure; on DVD/Blu-ray)
11. Che (instructional documentary, with re-enactments)

John Hartl

The Edge of Heaven
The Edge of Heaven

(more or less in order)

The Edge of Heaven
Man on Wire
WALL•E
Waltz With Bashir
The Pool
Milk
Taxi to the Dark Side
Boy A
Frozen River
and the most interesting SIFF film I saw that hasn’t been released: Tony Barbieri’s Em

Robert Horton

(from his blog)

1. The Edge of Heaven
2. The Duchess of Langeais
3. The Romance of Astrea and Celadon
4. The Dark Knight
5. Wendy and Lucy
6. Married Life
7. Priceless
8. In Bruges
9. Forever
10. Let the Right One In

Richard T. Jameson

2008 was one weird film year for a variety of reasons, and trying to throw a Ten Best list around it has seemed a fool’s-errand. This fool’s latest version of one, for the editor of Germany’s brave Steadycam magazine to post online, should be the last I hazard … though it, like its predecessors, ignores some half-dozen first-rate films seen at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival and unreleased as yet Stateside.

In Bruges
In Bruges

1) The Edge of Heaven (Fatih Akin)
2) A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin)
3) The Secret of the Grain (Abdellatif Kechiche)
4) I’ve Loved You So Long (Philippe Claudel)
5) Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt)
6) Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson)
7) In Bruges (Martin McDonagh) … hands-down favorite!
8 ) WALL•E (Andrew Stanton)
9) A Girl Cut in Two (Claude Chabrol)
10) Tell No One (Guillaume Canet)

Kathleen Murphy

1.  The Edge of Heaven
2.  In Bruges
3.  A Christmas Tale
4.  I’ve Loved You So Long
5.  Wendy and Lucy
6.  Let the Right One In
7.  WALL•E
8.  The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
9.  Vicky Christina Barcelona
10. Man on Wire

Andrew Wright

Let the Right One In
Let the Right One In

1. The Dark Knight
2. The Edge of Heaven
3. Let the Right One In
4. Burn After Reading
5. OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies
6. WALL•E
7. Redbelt
8. Encounters at the End of the World
9. Fear(s) of the Dark
10. JCVD

Select Seattle-area Critics

William Arnold, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

(in no particular order)

U2 3D
Milk, W., Frost/Nixon
The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button
The Reader
The Visitor
Cassandra’s Dream/Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Iron Man, The Dark Knight
Valkyrie
Slumdog Millionaire
WALL•E

Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times

(in alphabetical order)

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Frozen River
Man on Wire
Milk
Priceless
Revolutionary Road
Shine a Light
Tell No One
WALL•E

Tom Tangney, KIRO

1. The Edge of Heaven
2. Synecdoche, N.Y.
3. Boy A
4. I’ve Loved You So Long
5. Man on Wire
6. Funny Games
7. Towelhead
8. Wall•E
9. Rachel Getting Married
10. (tie) Slumdog Millionaire, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Dark Knight.

Wendy and Lucy
Wendy and Lucy

Interview: Darren Aronofsky on “The Wrestler”

Darren Aronofky comes across as a very centered, easy-going, down-to-Earth guy. Not what you’d expect from the guy who directed Pi, Requiem For a Dream and The Fountain. Maybe not even The Wrestler, though his love of the story and the characters comes through when he talks about. I interviewed Darren Aronofsky in Seattle back in November, 2008, during his national press tour to promote The Wrestler, which had won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and was the buzz of the Toronto International Film Festival. Since then, the film has been praised as one of the best films of the year and Mickey Rourke’s tender turn as aging wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson the comeback story of the year. Rourke earned a Golden Globe Award and early Thursday morning, January 22, both he and co-star Marisa Tomei were honored with Oscar nominations.

Early in the film, in the scene where Mickey Rourke’s character, Randy, has slept in his van and wakes up the next morning, he’s instantly surrounded by kids who adore him and he adores them, I though to myself, “He’s Wallace Beery in The Champ!”

(laughs) Sure. When we cast Mickey it was pretty hard to get the film made, and the reason was is because pretty much every financer in the world said that Mickey Rourke wasn’t sympathetic. So it was important for me to prove them wrong. And I think after the first three or four minutes of the film, you’re kind of hooked into Mickey. It’s partly because of that scene but I think it’s also because you look into his eyes and he’s very truthful, he’s filled with soul, he’s filled with spirit, and there’s just a burning desire in him.

Mickey Rourke as Randy "The Ram" Robinson
Mickey Rourke as Randy "The Ram" Robinson

Mickey Rourke has been doing great work for the last eight years but no one has been noticing it because they’re mostly small films and supporting roles.

He’s also had to play tough guys a lot. One of the great things about Mickey, that I remember from Angel Heart and The Pope of Greenwich Village and Barfly, is that even when he’s this incredible tough guy with all this machismo, there’s so much softness inside. And when you meet Mickey, that’s who he is. There’s a lot of armor built up, but it’s really covering up all this fear.

Casting him as a wrestler also evokes the boxing career he had after he left acting in the nineties.

Sure. I thought that, since he was a boxer, it would be very easy for him to learn how to wrestle. It was actually, I think, twice as hard for him. In boxing you want to hide your punches, you don’t want your opponent to see the punches. In wrestling, you want people in the back rows to see the punch coming two minutes before it ever happens. So Mickey really had to unlearn how he moved in the ring. I think also, as a boxer, you really look down on wrestling because it lampoons what you are doing. So it was hard, at the beginning, until Mickey learned to respect it as something that was as much sport as theater. Once he accepted that there was something theatrical going on, he was able to understand how to approach it.

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“Magnificent Obsession” – DVD of the Week 1/20/09

Deep in the second act of Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession, as Jane Wyman’s blind heroine Helen Hudson mourns for her lost sight after a disappointing prognosis from the world’s greatest ocular specialists in a Swiss Clinic, she steps out of her bedroom and into the drawing room of her accommodations (no tourist class for this class act). The conversation of the previous scene took place in full light, but as Helen glides into the room like a whisper the room is suddenly in shadow, as if dusk has crept up on Helen and her devoted step-daughter Joyce (Barbara Rush). “The night is the worst time,” she confesses to Joyce, her face picked out of the darkness by a sliver of rim lighting on her cheek, like a crescent moon. “It does get darker, you know. And then when I finally do get to sleep, I know that when I get up in the morning, there won’t be any dawn.” We’re not quite blind, merely drifting at the edge of her perpetual darkness, and it casts a somber atmosphere over the scene. There is no “realistic” reason for our plunge into darkness and Sirk makes no explanation as he, for a few brief moments, takes us into her twilight world. But it feels right. His use of light and color is not unlike the way the underscore builds through the scene. As Helen gropes through the apartment to reach the balcony, where her fumbling knocks a pot off the ledge and smashing into the street below, the score crescendos on the shattered pot, the physical echo of her shattered hopes as she sobs over her affliction. Like the music, Sirk conducts the light to reflect the inner world rather, not the material world. When Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) swoops in to cheer her up, the rooms lights up with him. “I’d forgotten how happy I could be,” she chokes in the brief glow of his presence. It’s doomed to be short lived in this world of grand emotions and self-sacrifice, at least until the final triumph where love does indeed conquer all.

Magnificent Obsession is the first of Douglas Sirk’s great Hollywood melodramas, a romantic tale of hubris and loss and sacrifice and rebirth in a rarified Technicolor world of storybook-pretty homes and sun-dappled preserves of nature. The setting is the lakeside village of Brightwood, part idyllic, unspoiled small town, part playground for the rich, all wooded and bright, but apart from a few location shots, the Eden-like town is artificially created in the movie studio to give the director a painter’s control of his portrait’s landscape. And paint he does, embracing the unreal hues and constantly playing with his light as if he was directing a piece of expressionist theater, while never breaking the spell of his heightened world of American affluence and emotional turmoil.

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Douglas Sirk: An Introduction

[Criterion releases Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession this week. In celebration, I offer this essay, which was originally published on GreenCine in 2007]

Written on the Wind
Written on the Wind

Halfway through Written on the Wind (1956), after oil baron Robert Keith has been bluntly confronted by the tawdry affairs of his alcoholic daughter Dorothy Malone, the dialogue drops out and the driving rumba takes over the soundtrack. Malone kicks up a storm sashaying in her girdle, perversely proud of the discretion that has wounded her upright dad, while Keith walks the staircase and out of camera, only his hand in tight close up as it grips the banister and shivers in convulsions before Keith pitches down the spiral staircase: a heart attack, appropriately enough, as his heart is finally shattered by his bad seed daughter. The camera feels almost alive as it rushes with Rock Hudson and Lauren Bacall, the “good” kids Keith never had, as they run to his side, while Malone obliviously rumbas to her private tune. It’s a moment of pure baroque cinema that puts the opera back in soap opera, a delirious rush of melodramatic extravagance in hyper-real Technicolor gloss.

Written on the Wind is the mad masterpiece of Douglas Sirk’s great glossy, giddy melodramas, the (largely Technicolor) films of the last decade of his career that made his auteur fame. He turned suburbia into a storybook-pretty but socially arid prison of conformity and high living mansions into tarnished nurseries of corrupted values and festering jealousies. Simply reading their plots might cause the uninitiated to regard his canon as some perverse auteurist joke, but under the kitschy trappings and absurd situations is an ironic (back before irony had become the cinematic norm) and at times surreal refraction of the American self image.

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Interview: Steven Soderbergh and “Che”

Steven Soderbergh’s Che is both two features and one work, a 4 ½-hour production that carves out what Soderbergh, producer/star Benicio Del Toro and screenwriter Peter Buchman see as the two defining periods in the life of Ernesto Che Guevara: the Cuban Revolution and the Bolivian expedition. Except for a brief scene where Guevara meets Fidel Castro in Mexico City and newsreel-like segments chronicling Guevara’s 1964 visit to New York and address to the United Nations. There’s practically nothing of his personal life, no effort to put his campaigns in political or social context, and no attempt to address his controversial actions (including the execution of political prisoners) as part of Castro’s government in the aftermath of the Cuban victory.

It’s not that Soderbergh and screenwriter Peter Buchman assume that spectators will arrive with knowledge of that history. You can glean some of that from the dialogues, from Guevara’s idealistic drive, and from the New York sequences and his unblinking enforcement the revolutionary code on deserters and criminals in the jungle. Che is neither hagiography nor deconstruction and its certainly not an exploration of the man behind the myth. It’s about how Dr. Ernesto Guevara transformed himself into revolutionary leader Che, an idealist with a gun, a teacher with a mission, a single-minded warrior for social justice who never betrays his feelings to his followers. And it’s a classic rise and fall, each part a different film – the underdog campaign and triumph in Cuba in Part One, the effort to repeat it in Bolivia, where it failed, in Part Two – that are reflections of one another, two parts of a whole. The rise and the fall. The success and the failure. The inspiration and the disillusionment. In Soderbergh’s own words: “Let’s put it this way: when people ask me how many films I’ve made, I treat it as one film.”

Benecio Del Toro as Che Guevara
Benicio Del Toro as Che Guevara

The film premiered at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival as a single presentation and opened in a limited roadshow run, with both films presented back to back (with an intermission) as a single program, in New York and Los Angeles in December. Its success encouraged IFC to expand the roadshow release to ten more cities, including Seattle, on January 16. I interviewed Soderbergh by phone on Friday, January 9, a week before its Seattle premiere.

Benicio Del Toro had been trying to get this film made for some time before you got involved. What was it about the project that made you want to jump on board and do it?

Well, really him [Del Toro], because there was nothing other than his desire and [producer] Laura Bickford’s desire to see it made, but that was it. They were working off of John Lee’s book, but John Lee’s book covered his whole life and they didn’t really have a take on it yet. So I honestly said yes without really knowing what I was saying yes to.

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“The Taking Of Power By Louis XIV” – DVD of the Week 1/13/09

“I don’t interpret. I don’t transmit any message. I avoid expressing theories and forcing meanings. I reconstruct documents, I offer information which leaves to the spectator the entire responsibility for his own judgments.”

– Roberto Rossellini

 

This week, Criterion resurrects key productions from Roberto Rossellini’s cycle of historical films directed for television in the final act of his career. Largely overlooked in light of his legendary neorealist dramas and his more intimate dramas starring his lover Ingrid Bergman, these films are could technically be considered historical dramas, but they are nothing like the spectacles that you usually find under this genre.

 

Criterion releases four of these productions. Blaise Pascal, The Age of the Medici and Cartesius, all from the seventies, are collected in Rossellini’s History Films Trilogy –Renaissance and Enlightenment, a box set under the Eclipse imprint, Criterion’s budget-minded offshoot. (My copy arrived too late to review for this piece.) The 1966 The Taking Of Power By Louis XIV, Rossellini’s first film in this cycle, comes out as a Criterion proper release, with supplements and a booklet. Part history lesson and part political treatise, it is a strange and fascinating film with exacting attention to sets and dress and realities of the period. In the view of many critics and Rossellini scholars, it is the greatest of his history films and one the director’s masterpieces

 

The film opens on the deathbed of Cardinal Mazarin, the Chief Minister of France who has amassed a fortune in his position. The ambitious and corrupt Fouquet is jockeying to take his place (and enrich himself in the process) and the entire court is full of intrigue and plotting at the Cardinal’s illness, all figuring how to make their power play. Or so we’re told, as this information is all exposition, a dialogue serving largely to explain and explicate everything to the audience. (Rossellini also takes time to explore in detail the state of medical science: doctors passing judgment on the odor and color of the Cardinal’s urine, and prescribing more bleeding. Isn’t it lucky that they’ve measured just how much blood a man can lose and still remain alive?)

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Seattle Post-Intelligencer: Up For Sale, Up in the Air

[Published in conjunction with the blog seanax.com]

You could say it came as a complete surprise when, on Thursday evening, local TV station KING-TV announced that, according to unnamed sources, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer would be put up for sale. The P-I staff had no news of it and the Hearst Corporation, which owns the P-I, would not comment. It could have been a rumor, a hoax or just an incorrect story. At least that’s what many of us hoped. It wasn’t until Friday afternoon that news was confirmed and the news made public.

But if the announcement was a surprise, the closing of a Seattle newspaper was hardly unanticipated. Traditional print newspapers have been on life support for years and Seattle was the last city of its size to still have two competing daily newspapers. Both the Seattle Time and the P-I have both been losing money. The two papers appeared to be attempting to outlast the other and be the last paper standing. While the locally-owned Times has a significantly larger circulation (198,741 to the P-I’s 117,572 as of September, 2008, according to a P-I report), it is also deeply in debt and its sale of a number of newspapers in Maine (which are being sold at a significant loss) is running into problems. Many thought that the more financially robust Hearst would be able to hold out longer in the face of losses.

The Hearst Corporation says that if the paper is not sold within 60 days, it will either be shut down or turned into a web-only publication with a greatly reduced staff. A sale in this climate seems unlikely, as the economic downturn has reduced advertising dollars even farther.

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“A Matter of Life and Death” (The Films of Michael Powell) – DVD of the Week 1/6/2009

The Collectors Choice presents A Matter of Life and Death
The Collector’s Choice presents “A Matter of Life and Death”

I’m starting the new year with something old and something new. I’ve imported my “DVD of the Week” feature from my blog, www.seanax.com, and reworked it into a focus on a single release, with links to further reviews and resources. And we start the year with the first essential DVD release of 2009.

Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (originally released in the U.S. as Stairway to Heaven) is as gorgeous and romantic as films come. The film opens with a celestial prologue and narration providing a sense of cosmic comfort of someone watching over it all, of some divine authority in charge. It plays like the British answer to the opening of It’s a Wonderful Life, which came out the same year (is it coincidence that the post-war era inspired such a need for heavenly affirmation?), but immediately swoops down from the majestic calm of the stars into the terror of World War II and a bomber pilot giving his farewell to life over the wireless as his plane burns furiously around him and he prepares to make a blind leap without a parachute. Powell gives the scene terrible beauty – the wind whips the cabin, the fire flickers around his face, the clouds have a texture so palpable they look like you could step out into the sky and walk to heaven on them – and an emotional power to match. Peter Carter (David Niven) is resigned to his fate but his heart beats with the desperate passion of a man determined to embrace every last sensation in the final seconds of his life. That combination of adrenaline-powered strength and mortal vulnerability gives him the permission and the need to embrace, if only through voice, the American girl (Kim Hunter) at the other end of the wireless. And she falls just as surely in love with him.

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“Revolutionary Road” and “The Reader”: On the Oscar Run

Tis the season. Oscar bait season, that is, when the studios line up the major releases jockeying for spots on Top Ten lists and critics groups awards on the way to the Oscar nominations in January. Unlike the superhero movies and fantasy blockbusters and comedy vehicles that are crammed into thousands of theaters in a blanket release covering the entire country, these are often launched in a couple of theaters in New York and Los Angeles and slowly expanded into more theaters and more cities over the next couple of months (the way most movies were released, back before the era of the blockbuster changed releasing patterns forever). But to get on those lists, they are press screened to critics in major cities. Two of those films, Revolutionary Road and The Reader, have just gotten their Oscar-consideration releases (to the best of my understanding, they need to have at least a week-long theatrical run in New York and Los Angeles in the 2008 calendar to qualify for an Academy Award). These films have all the hallmarks for Oscar-bait: literary sources, “serious” themes, credentialed casts and the kinds of directors that value words over cinematic expression. While they have been racked up Golden Globe nominations, they have been conspicuously absent from major critics lists and critics groups’ awards. At their best, they are thoughtful and engaging. At their worst, they are self-important, self-conscious and stupefying.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in "Revolutionary Road"
Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in "Revolutionary Road"

Revolutionary Road is at the top (or, more accurately, the bottom) of the list of offenders. Sam Mendes (American Beauty) directs the adaptation of Richard Yates’ novel with such exacting (and unimaginative) control that he sucks the air from the world, like vacuum sealing it in plastic and putting it on display. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet play Frank and April Wheeler, a middle class couple in the late fifties, with a carefulness that nudges out all possibility of the unexpected. These are performances – and lives – lived in quotation marks. Roger Deakins (arguably the most talented cinematographer working in American cinema today) shoots the film with a perfection that is, like the performances, too well groomed. And that I lay at the feet of Mendes, whose control smothers the film in weighty importance and foreshadows every narrative development with the cinematic equivalent of a brick through a window.

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The Essential DVD Debuts of 2008

I’ve done the best DVD releases of the year in some incarnation or another for years. This one is a little different. This is not a celebration of the most impressive special editions, the most stunning transfers or the best supplements. This is my list of what I consider the essential movies that debut on DVD — from long awaited classics to rare cult discoveries — done up right in worthy editions. That doesn’t mean great supplements (though those are always appreciated) but worthy transfers and fine mastering.

Forgive the U.S.-centric spin. Some of these may have been released in other countries with other region codes, but not everyone has an open-code, region free, PAL-converting DVD player. And those of us who do don’t always keep on the releases in other regions. I have a hard enough time keeping up with what’s coming out here.

This is a decidedly subjective list, influenced by personal taste, excitement of discovery (or rediscovery) and rarity. While films that have been previously available on VHS or are periodically revived in retrospectives or cable showings are still valued DVD releases, the release of something unavailable in any form is an even greater cause for celebration, and that is reflected in my subjective hierarchy.

#1 – The Films Of Budd Boetticher

The cycle of films made by Budd Boetticher with star/producer Randolph Scott and writer Burt Kennedy include some of the greatest American westerns of the fifties — or ever, for that matter. Until this year, that was a contention that many folks had to take on faith, as these films were difficult to see at best. Apart from Seven Men From Now, released on DVD a few years ago by Paramount, none of these collaborations were on DVD and the selection arbitrarily released on VHS years ago were part of a failed experiment in low-cost/low-quality tapes from Goodtimes, whose tapes were recorded in the substandard EP (extended play) mode. And of course, the two widescreen films in the cycle were only ever seen on TV or video in pan-&-scan versions, which ill-served the integrity of Boetticher’s films. Has any major American director been treated with such shabby neglect on home video as Budd Boetticher?

The five-disc set The Films of Budd Boetticher from Sony Pictures Home Video more than doubles the number of Boetticher films on DVD (before the release of this box set, only four of his 35 features were available, and only a few more on VHS and laserdisc), but more importantly, it finally gives this American director his due with beautiful editions of his essential films, especially his definitive The Tall T (mastered to fit the 16×9 frame) and his widescreen classics Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station, all tightly scripted by Kennedy with a lyrical approach of dialogue, all set in an increasingly abstract nowhereland of the desert. The offbeat black comedy Buchanan Rides Alone and the grim Decision at Sundown are minor companion pieces with a few major pleasures (among them a beautiful turn by a young L.Q. Jones as an amiable young cowpoke in Buchanan). In all of them, Boetticher took the “limitations” of his stiff, craggy star and turned them into essential elements of his characters: a hard, inexpressive man at home on a horse and in the wilderness, a survivor with few words and no wasted actions. The same can be said for Boetticher’s direction: every shot of his best films is austere and pared to the essentials, yet directed with an ease that made them live and breath. Martin Scorsese provides a marvelous video introduction to The Tall T (and, by extension, the entire series) and Ride Lonesome with a mixture of historical perspective and cinephile love of the films and Clint Eastwood introduces Comanche Station, but an even greater contribution is the documentary Budd Boetticher: A Man Can Do That, a feature-length portrait of the director and his life and career produced by Eastwood and directed by Bruce Ricker.

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