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Embodiment of Evil: Coffin Joe Returns after 40 Years

Jose Mojica Marins created Ze do Caixao (Jose of the Grave), known to English speakers as Coffin Joe, in 1963 with At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul. This bizarre figure, a darkly fascinating mix of Dracula, demon, and Nietzschean superman who became kind of horror folk hero in his native Brazil, appeared in a number of films through 1979 but was the protagonist of only two films: Midnight and This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse (1967).

Embodiment of Evil (2008) is Marins’ belated conclusion of what is being called the “Coffin Joe Trilogy,” following the mad killer as he’s freed from the psych ward of a high security prison after serving 40 years. Now he’s also the dark priest of a Manson-like cult and, aided by hunchback assistant Bruno (Rui Resende), he picks up where he left off, looking for a perfect woman to bear his child. Taking up residence ostensibly in a favela on the outskirts of Rio (which looks more like an inner-city slum than the honeycombed hills of shacks and stairs of the crime-infested favelas seen in City of God), the film at first looks like he’s going to go all Walking Tall as he stands up to both the gangsters and the corrupt cops of his new home. But soon enough he’s back to spreading his terror and torture to anyone in his orbit. Coffin Joe is indeed an equal opportunity predator.

Imagine Aleister Crowley by way of the Marquis de Sade with a theatrical flamboyance, a voracious blasphemer in a Catholic culture who torments and tortures women (both willing and unwilling) ostensibly to test their worthiness to bear his spawn but probably more because he’s just a sick SOB. He sews one woman up in a corpse of a pig, feeds another a raw steak sliced off her own naked flank which she devours eagerly (that may just be a drug-induced hallucination, but then you could say that about the whole film) and sews their eyes and mouths shut. And those are the members of his cabal. His enemies he hangs from flesh-piercing hooks and skins alive.

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Silents Please! The Ten Commandments 1923

Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 The Ten Commandments is quite the landmark for the director. While not technically his first historical epic (that was the 1916 Joan the Woman), it was his first Biblical pageant and his first financially successful epic.

DeMille's original biblical epic

But it is also DeMille in the midst of his transition from the lively, witty director of sex farces and sexy romantic comedies with jazz-age sensibilities to the humorless director of white elephant epics, where he’s simultaneously become both more lurid and more pious, reveling in the sins of his characters and then punishing their excess to provide a lesson for us all.

DeMille spends a mere 45 minutes (of the film’s 135-minute running time) in ancient Egypt with Moses the Law Giver, who has already unleashed nine plagues as the film opens and exits after destroying the tablets in face of the blasphemy of his followers. For the rest, we dissolve to the present (circa early 1920s) to find a white-haired old mother reads from the good book to her two sons, one lost in the glory of the lesson (the all-American Richard Dix as John, a humble carpenter, of course), the other a restless, modern and cynical jazz-age kid (Rod La Rocque as Dan), bored with all “that bunk” of the Bible lessons. “No one believes in these commandment things anymore,” he sneers to his shocked old mother, and he marries another modern girl (Leatrice Joy as Mary, naturally) with a pledge to “live our life in our own heathen way.”

There’s plenty of decadence in both sides of this split identity production, from the orgiastic sin spectacle of hysterical partying and blaspheming with a false idol of the ancient section to Dan systematically breaking all ten commandments in his rapid rise to wealth (and, naturally, his precipitous fall) as a corrupt contractor whose reckoning comes when he builds a church with rotten concrete.

But DeMille’s trademark sensibility (revel in sin for the spectacle, then punish the transgressors for a moral lesson) aside, they two sections illustrate what the director gave up in his transformation into epic moviemaker. The section with Moses in the Holy Land is, dramatically speaking, little more than an epic version of a biblical pageant. Stodgy and stiff and as old fashioned as an early D.W. Griffith spectacle, it’s a series of tableaux with old man Moses (Theodore Roberts), in flowing white hair and madman beard, doing a lot of posing and pointing as he threatens the Pharaoh, leads his people into the desert and brings the wrath of God upon the Egyptian slavers and soldiers. But DeMille is a showman and he makes a show of this otherwise moving illustrations of bible stories with stunning special effects: the parting of the Red Sea (using the very same techniques as he did thirty years later in his 1956 edition), the wall of fire, the great balls of fire pyrotechnics for the will of God as he delivers the commandments to Moses.

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Excalibur Blu-ray and A Film Unfinished – DVDs of the Week

Excalibur (Warner)

The myth and legend of King Arthur has long been a favorite fascination of popular culture, the source of countless novels and movies and the inspiration for an iconic Broadway musical that became the nickname for John F. Kennedy’s too-short inspirational time as American President: “Camelot.” Forget the real-life history, the very mention of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table conjures up images and ideals of chivalry and honor, of magic and myth, of the shining light of hope in the midst of the Dark Ages. It’s a rousing tale of a lowly boy rising to become beloved King, a tragic love story, a thrilling adventure and an inspirational spiritual quest to heal the wounds of war and hate by finding the Holy Grail.

Arthur, Excalibur and the Lady of the Lake

John Boorman’s magnificent and magical Excalibur is, to my mind, the greatest and the richest of screen incarnation of the oft-told tale. Filmed on the rocky coasts and in the emerald forests of Ireland, Boorman turns this landscape into a primal world hewn out of stone and wood and mud by blood and iron. The primordial quality hits us from the opening scenes, as Merlin (Nicol Williamson), part ancient sage and part court sorcerer, draws the magic out of the dragon that is earth from a Stonehenge-looking monument on a hill overlooking a battleground of clashing knights in armor. It’s beautiful yet brutal and Merlin’s attempts at civilization are thwarted by the primal drives of the primitive Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne), but from his blood and flesh is born the once and future King Arthur (Nigel Terry), raised a squire but destined to be king.

This is the Arthur legend at its most primal, romantic and tragic, human and supernatural, set on the cusp between the old gods and the Christian God. Boorman and writing partner Rospo Pallenberg rework Thomas Mallory’s tale into an ur-myth of magic and men in the transformation of the world into the age of mankind’s dominion over the Earth through laws and reason and ideals. Every frame suggests the ancient world of wonder and primeval power; even the Christian wedding of Arthur and Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi) is set in the midst of a forest, the power of nature overwhelming the Christian imagery while the cloaked religious figures look as much like Druid priests as Christian soldiers.

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Excalibur

[First published in 1982, in “This Sceptr’d Isle” Autumn Quarter Film Series, Office of Cinema Studies, University of Washington.]

Bob Peak's original artwork for "Excalibur"

The Quarry, a 75-minute film for the BBC (early 1960s): A sculptor named Arthur quests for a very particular kind of stone, amid many references to King Arthur, Merlin, and magic.

Point Blank (1967): On some level, a conventional tale about betrayal and revenge among corporate gangsters and their women. This strange film, in which time slides backwards and forwards, begins in a deserted, decaying Alcatraz, where a man named Walker (provocative name for a quester) is doublecrossed and seemingly murdered by his wife and best friend. Reborn or resurrected in the waters of San Francisco Bay, he sets out to pay them back and to find out who ultimately “runs things.” Guided by Yost, a Merlin-like figure, Walker passes through a sterile city encased in plastic, metal, concrete, and glass. Nature is buried, love and friendship dead, and only the greedy accumulation of “things” and sensations a thriving concern. The film comes full circle back to its beginning, at a disused San Francisco landmark described as “safe as a church” and used for a gangland money-drop. Walker finally discovers the identity of the corporate puppetmaster: Yost/Merlin himself. Walker, a mindless, primitive force—perhaps a zombie—recedes into the shadows, back into his own dream, thwarted by a world in which the unconscious is an anachronism.

The Lord of the Rings (1969): An abortive project in which Frodo was conceived as a young King Arthur and Gandolf as Merlin. (Boorman’s Merlin script deemed “too expensive” to film by United Artists.)

Deliverance (1972): Four city men trek into a Southern forest and down river rapids with the notion that nature can test a man benignly. Where the land is to be “drowned” into a lake by the construction of a dam, primitive forces and emotions are loosed, and the four friends fall into terrible knowledge of themselves and their environment. They try to bury that knowledge, but the corpse’s hand that thrusts up out of the dark lake at the end of the film signals the futility of such repression.

Zardoz (1974): Its title an elision of The Wizard of Oz, this film takes place in a 23rd-century wasteland devastated by nuclear war. Survivors who have regressed into brutality are kept in check and occasionally exterminated by the Eternals, sexless, immortal intellectuals who cannot sleep and therefore never dream, but consider themselves the “custodians of the past for an unknown future.” A hand—holding a gun—explodes out of a heap of golden grain: thus Zed, a time-bound catalyst of evolution, is “born.” Three women assist Zed in his quest for the Creator—a scientist, a visionary, and his eventual mate. May, the scientist, warns him when he opens his mind to her knowledge, “It will burn you”; he replies, like Excalibur’s Morgana, “Then burn me.” The “wizard,” only a lesser god, turns out to be one Arthur Frayn, part show business con-artist, part magician, who professes admiration for Merlin and T.S. Eliot. Paradoxically, Arthur insists that he has “invented” Zed even as his intelligent primitive wrecks the godhead, kills the Eternals, and flees into the natural world, a new Adam with his Eve, promising to be fruitful and to multiply. In the last moments of the film, the couple make love in a cave and then, in a series of dissolves as they stare at the camera, at us, they pass from youth to age to death, and finally into dust. The cycle of birth and death, frozen by the Eternals, moves again and the earth is satisfied. All that remains of Zed is a hand painted on the cave wall and a rusted gun, symbols of making and destroying.

Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977): A child once possessed by the Devil becomes the best hope of salvation for humankind. This strange messiah is guided by a lapsed priest who must journey to Africa, where man began, to seek renewed faith and knowledge from a scientist who, in visions, sometimes becomes a primitive and powerful native priest.

***

The above is offered in evidence that John Boorman did not come to Excalibur unfamiliar with archetypal patterns of myth, especially as they are embodied in the legend of King Arthur, Merlin, and the Knights of the Round Table. Boorman is a literate man who has actually read those literary, philosophical, and critical works that inform, directly or by allusion, nearly all his films. Sometimes that’s made for a problem: too much self-consciousness about mythic ideas and images can retard the movement and impact of a visual narrative. People begin to say things so Significantly and take action that is so Fraught with Symbolic Weight that after a while there isn’t any life left in the old story—and myths are nothing if they aren’t alive and kicking us into new ways of seeing and being. Boorman has said that he wanted to make Excalibur “as if it is the story—not a retelling of the myth, but the very events on which the legend was based.” In this, I believe, he succeeded—as he had not done so completely in any of his previous films.

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Daughters of Darkness

Daughters of Darkness” (Blue Underground)

Loving daughters

“Every woman would sell her soul to stay so young,” remarks smarmy, troubled Stefan (John Karlen) to his newlywed wife Valerie (Danielle Ouimet). He’s referring to the impeccably poised Countess Bathory (Delphine Seyrig), who sweeps into the off-season luxury hotel they previously had all to themselves. Elegant and ageless, looking like some out-of-time aristocrat from Weimar cabaret high society, she could be a soul sister to Marlene Dietrich in her prime in perfectly coiffed hair and a deep red gown that radiates both opulence and taste. Stefan doesn’t know how right he is.

Poised on the shadowy margins between art cinema and sexploitation, Harry Kümel’s elegant and sexy vampire film draws on the legend of Hungary’s Countess Elizabeth Bathory, the notorious “Blood Queen” accused of murdering innocent maidens to bathe in their blood, and mixes it with the lesbian vampire story “Carmilla” and the new freedoms of seventies genre cinema ushered in by the lurid Italian thrillers and Hammer’s sex-and-blood horrors of the late sixties and early seventies. Delphine Seyrig, famed as a frosty beauty of art cinema (she appeared here between making The Milky Way and The Discreet Charm for the Bourgeoisie for Luis Bunuel), brings dignity and cool grace to the film with her imperious presence, and Kümel places this jewel of an actress in a perfectly elegant setting: a grand but empty hotel, the ominous mood of the Belgian coast in winter, the handsome medieval architecture of Bruges, where a day-trip brings the newlyweds face-to-face with another in a string of murdered women, all young, beautiful and drained of blood.

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Sweet Smell of Success – DVD/Blu-ray of the Week (Part 2)

Sweet Smell of Success (Criterion)

“I love this dirty town.” The first and only time that Burt Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker drops the cynical twist from his clenched smile and allows genuine appreciation cross his face in Sweet Smell of Success is when he drops that line while strolling down the nighttime streets of Broadway. It’s not a proclamation or even necessarily a compliment. He loves this town because he rules it from his tower of newsprint and television, making and breaking careers with a line and starving enemies into submission by conspicuous neglect.

Directed by Alexander Mackendrick (a master of deftly-played character comedy with an edge of social satire for Britain’s Ealing Studios), written by rising screenwriter Ernest Lehmann (drawing from a career as a New York press agent) and rewritten by the acclaimed playwright Clifford Odets (who is credited with tightening the action and giving the dialogue its edge), Sweet Smell of Success is one of the most lacerating and vicious visions of the predatory urban world in the American cinema, and one accomplished without a single murder, gunshot or pulled knife. This is Broadway Noir, the dark side of the intersection of show business, politics and social register in the era when newspaper columnists and television personalities held sway over a nation and not just a slice of the demographic.

New York is the world for J.J. Hunsecker and he rules this with an iron fist and a vindictive ferocity, hovering over the film long before Lancaster even appears on screen. Hunsecker is a classier, more cultivated version of Walter Winchell for late-fifties Broadway culture and Lancaster is smooth, silky and subtle, controlled and controlling in social situations, using silence and the threat of his voice behind the words as weapons in the power struggle of conversations. There’s not an exchange where J.J. fails to remind his listener what he has on them, and what they owe him.

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Senso – DVD/Blu-ray of the Week (Part 1)

Senso (Criterion)

Operatic, painterly, theatrical, musical. Senso (1954), the fourth feature from Luchino Visconti, is all of these, but ultimately this lush, lavish melodrama of a self-destructive love affair set against the idealistic passions of the Risorgimento (the fight for the unification of Italy) is the very definition of cinematic.

Alida Valli as Countess Livia, intoxicated by the revolution

Senso opens in La Fenice, the magnificent Venice opera house, during a production of Verdi’s “Il Travatore,” and as the aria ends with a climactic call to arms, the upper balconies explode with their own call to arms with a hurricane of three-color leaflets (red, green and white, the colors of the Italian flag) and bouquets showered upon the soldiers on the floor. The sequence is a visual symphony conducted masterfully by Visconti: art and life mirrored in the dramas on- and off-stage, political action battling social decorum and conformism for dominance in a communal hub where everything is a matter of etiquette and codes of behavior, the occupying army an island of Teutonic white uniforms in the center of Italian color and culture.

Visconti maintains the tension between the personal—the cagey flirtation begun by proud Venetian Countess Livia Serpieri (Alida Valli) to save her revolutionary-leader cousin from a duel with Austrian officer Franz Mahler (Farley Granger), a ladies man of a lieutenant in a crisp white uniform—and the national march toward revolution and unification. (Valli and Granger were not Visconti’s first choices—the original script was written with Marlon Brando and Ingrid Bergman in mind, but Bergman turned it down and the producers reportedly turned down Brando for Granger.)

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Black and Blu: “Kansas City Confidential”

Kansas City Confidential” (HD Cinema Classics/Film Chest)

The first of three collaborations between Phil Karlson, a director who graduated from B-movies with a strong storytelling punch and a tough, two-fisted sensibility, and John Payne, a former light romantic lead and bland song-and-dance man of Fox musicals, was a career changer for both of them. Payne was already reinventing himself as a hard, taciturn lead in the westerns and action films when he connected up with Karlson and (according to the director) they came up with the story: “he and I loaded with a bottle of Scotch. We wrote the entire script and then we turned it over to a writer to put it in screenplay form.”

Who were those masked men?

Kansas City Confidential opens on Preston Foster, a mystery man with a stopwatch and a checklist casing a bankfront, piecing together his plan and his crew, a real rogues gallery of desperate thugs all but blackmailed by this mystery man in a mask into filling out his strike force. The robbery is executed with clockwork timing and Karlson directs the scene with terse efficiency, snappy momentum and crack timing. It’s also where we get our first real look at delivery man Joe (Payne), the hard-luck working class guy flipped off by fate when the armored car heist uses his florist deliveries as cover and leaves him to take the fall: a patsy to give them camouflage and the cops a distraction as they make their getaway. He’s a decorated soldier and survivor, a war hero who took the hard knocks that came his way and rolled with the punches, but is almost knocked down for the count with this sucker punch. His name is smeared in the press and his livelihood stolen by suspicion, but he’s resourceful, resilient and unflinching when it comes to taking the hit. He follows his only lead out of the states and into a sleepy little Mexican vacation spot where a payoff already complicated by double-dealing and double crosses gets a new player.

The hoods in this film are a triumvirate of essential B-movie thugs with attitude and an edge of psychosis: a beady-eyed Neville Brand, a smiling cobra of a Lee Van Cleef and a skinny, sweaty Jack Elam, who later played his cock-eyed looks for shaggy humor but here works his gargoyle face for underworld shiftiness. They give the film a shot of raw menace, a trio of thugs who are quick with a gun and slow to trust anyone and would just as soon solve a problem with a bullet. Foster, never the most dynamic of screen professionals, doesn’t exactly radiate authority as a criminal mastermind but part of the film’s fun is the play of false identities and double lives and Foster’s ex-cop with a grudge is all about appearing innocent while pulling the strings behind the scenes. His revenge on his forced retirement is a doozy that, if all goes to plan, will leave both rich and a hero.

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Santa Sangre and WUSA: Blood and Hate Speech – DVDs of the Week

Santa Sangre (Severin)

A student of Marcel Marceau in Paris, a founder of the surrealist theater Panic Movement in Mexico City, a Zen Buddhist, playwright and comic strip author, the Chilean-born Alejandro Jodorowsky made his fame as a cult film director with his sprawling, symbolic, surreal films El Topo and The Holy Mountain, brutal and strange allegorical odysseys written and directed by and starring Jodorowsky that became staples on the midnight movie circuit and artifacts of the head film culture. They are also crude and grotesque productions that revel in the metaphysical mix of the sacred and the profane.

Blood cult: Jodorowsky style

Santa Sangre was made more than fifteen years after The Holy Mountain (and after the collapse of his attempt to bring Dune to the screen”) and his skills as a filmmaker and storyteller have improved with time. Whether or not this is the most accessible of Jodorwsky’s films (he also dabbled in more mainstream filmmaking), it is certainly the most accessible “Jodorowksy film,” a vision filled with circus imagery, surreal scenes, grotesque violence and psycho-sexual trauma. The director casts two of his sons as Fenix, his mad protagonist—Axel Jodorowsky as the grown man (introduced as an inmate in an asylum, regressed to savage behavior and pre-verbal existence) and Adan Jodorowsky as the young boy (a junior circus magician in tux and fake mustache watching the grotesque conduct of adults around him)—and then sends us into the psychodrama that sent him to the asylum. In flashback we watch his alcoholic brute of father (Guy Stockwell in slobbering degenerate mode) take time out of his knife-throwing act to seduce the voluptuous tattooed lady and his tempestuous trapeze artist mother (Blanca Guerra, all burning eyes and hissing fury) take her vengeance in a particularly personal way. In the present, he is drawn into the urban world for a field trip and wanders off to his waiting mother, who has plans to use his arms as the instruments of her continued revenge. Think of it as Jodorowsky’s Psycho by way of Fellini on shrooms.

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Guédiguian’s French Resistance, Fuller’s America and Early Corman – DVDs of the Week

Army of Crime (Kino Lorber)

Don’t let the title throw you. The heroes of Robert Guédiguian’s based-on-a-true-story French war drama are not The Dirty Dozen unleashed on the Nazis but a remarkably effective resistance cell formed of French Jews, communists and immigrants—the very “undesirables” targeted by the Nazis for the camps. Guédiguian’s previous films—at least ones I’ve had the good fortune to see—have been small dramas about communities of immigrants, underemployed and outcasts that pull together and to maintain their identities. Army of Crime offers a much bigger canvas—and a setting with profound resonance—for that theme to play out, and Guédiguian invites members of his stock company to fill out major roles.

“Army of Crime”: Battlefield Paris

Simon Abkarian is the Armenian poet, Communist and pacifist who leaves a concentration camp with a lie and takes up arms to lead a team of members not known for following orders, Virginie Ledoyen his devoted wife and partner and Robinson Stévenin and Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet the reckless but passionate daredevil partisans under his command. Their stories play out slowly, the better to let the oppressive culture of occupied Paris (and of the widespread collaboration of police who support the racial policies, if not the authoritarian structure, of the Nazis occupation) sink in while sowing the tensions between the Communist leaders of the resistance and the non-Communist soldiers who fight for their own reasons: vengeance, defiance, love of country and the simple act of self-preservation under a regime dedicated to eradicating their existence. By the time the unit forms, you are ready for them to take the offensive, even as we know how it ends: the film opens with a spoken memorial to their sacrifice.

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Real People in a Virtual World: The Social Network – DVD of the Week

The Social Network (Sony)

The DVD/Blu-ray release of the week is without a doubt the much-lauded The Social Network, the favorite leading into the Oscar season. Directed with typical technical fastidiousness and textural richness by David Fincher from a verbally dexterous script by Aaron Sorkin, this story of the creation of Facebook is not really about Facebook but the people who created it and how relationships unraveled on its trajectory to becoming a national (and eventually global) phenomenon and multi-million (now multi-billion) dollar business. There’s been more written about this film than anything other American release this year (or so it appears from my unscientific survey) and Time magazine’s decision to name Zuckerberg the Man of the Year has only added to the attention. And I’m still fascinated by the film and Fincher’s exacting direction, jumping between the two separate depositions that he weaves through the flashback narrative, not so much muddying the record as revealing through the complexity of the story and the characters. I’m not sure I have anything new to add to the discussion, but there’s still plenty in the film worth talking about.

The excitement of friends embarking on a great adventure

The Social Network presents Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) as a self-involved nerd genius in Harvard who wants social acceptance but hasn’t a clue as to how to social interaction really works, either on a date—the opening scene of the film, where he literally drives away his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara) by deriding her inability to keep up with his ping-ponging monologue and responding to her comments as if they were attacks upon his identity—or with his friends. The irony inherent in the film is that this young, arrogant genius with no people skills managed to deconstruct and reconstruct the social experience as a web-based simulacrum, and that this seriously uncool outcast designed an online community the thrived because it was cool.

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Machete to the Catfish – DVDs of the Week

Machete (Fox)

Born of a tongue-in-cheek trailer for a border revenge movie that never was, Robert Rodriguez’s big-budget drive-in flick is a more convincing slice of B-movie love than his earlier Planet Terror, certainly more coherent.

Rousing the immigrant nation

Danny Trejo (a Rodriguez favorite) is the former Mexican federalé who turns into a one-man strike force after his family is massacred by a drug lord (Steven Seagal—who can’t keep his accent consistent, let alone convincing—as the pudgiest Mexican drug lord yet seen in the movies) and he’s framed for the attempted assassination of a corrupt Senator (Robert De Niro) by his drug-dealing campaign manager (Jeff Fahey). De Niro’s drawling politico plays the anti-immigration card as a racist scare campaign (he secretly funds a vigilante border patrol run by Don Johnson and uses the patrols as a target range with moving targets) as Rodriquez turns Machete into the protector of the downtrodden immigrants of Texas who fill the lowest-rung of the job market. It’s no coincidence that this hatchet-faced hero uses the tools of Mexican laborers to do most of his battling—hedge clippers, weed eaters, cooking utensils and his weapon of choice, the machete. Don’t call it political subtext, though. Rodriguez’s politics are right on the surface and about as complex as the film’s revenge plot, a kind-of populist response to the anti-immigration rhetoric from the more extreme margins of the political echo chamber. Rather, this is Rodriguez’s Latino answer to the blaxpoitation action films of the seventies, complete with Trejo as an accidental sweet sweetback sex machine, irresistible to every woman he meets without making the slightest overture to toward them.

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Best DVD / Blu-ray of 2010

Best-of lists are by their nature subjective things, and even more so when it comes to DVD/Blu-ray. What makes a DVD release the “best”? The movie itself? The video and audio quality of the mastering and presentation? The supplements? Rarity of the title? Scope of the collection? Critical acclaim? Cult demand? Some inexplicable balance of some or all of these?

Well, I guess the latter is the closest we’ll come to quantifying the mysterious process, which is why rather than the usual Top Ten list, I’ve broken my picks into categories, so I can celebrate a box set achievement separately from a brilliant home video debut separately from a landmark restoration. Which is not to say this list is not run through with my own subjective judgments, simply that I have found my own way to spread the love around (including naming runners-up as my whims take me). I reviewed most (though not all) of these on various websites (including Parallax View) and have linked to these longer pieces wherever possible. And one last note: The picks are limited to American home video releases, simply because that’s my bailiwick and I haven’t the time or resources to explore the wealth of foreign releases that come out every year.

And for the 2010 release that I love most, allow me to present my…

DVD Release of the Year

Three Silent Classics by Josef Von Sternberg (Criterion)

Josef von Sternberg is the great stylist of the thirties, a Hollywood maverick with a taste for visual exoticism and baroque flourishes (which prompted David Thomson to dub him “the first poet of underground cinema”), but step back into his silent work and you’ll find a storyteller of unparalleled talent and one of the great directors of silent cinema.

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Meet the Americans: John Doe and George Clooney – DVDs of the Week

Meet John Doe: 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition (VCI)

Frank Capra’s last feature before leaving Hollywood to contribute his filmmaking talents to the war effort is his most populist piece of social commentary, a cynical satire of a publicity stunt that turns into a popular political movement.

Hashing out the politics of John Doe

Barbara Stanwyck is equal parts street-smart spunk and ferocious ambition as Ann Mitchell, a newspaper columnist swept out with the rest of the staff when a new owner takes over and leaves a kiss-off piece that starts a ruckus, drives sales and puts her in a prime position to negotiate a new contract, providing she keeps delivering her voice-of-the-people. Gary Cooper is at his laconic, everyman best as former minor league pitcher Long John Willoughby, now a homeless, unemployed drifter hired to play the role of Ann’s fictional John Doe, the voice of the people whose “letters” she writes for the paper. He becomes the public voice, his lazy delivery, lanky body language and homespun spirit giving her words an authenticity that raises the depressed spirits of struggling Americans and sparks a spontaneous grass roots movement.

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Inception: It’s All in Your Mind

Inception (Warner)

Christopher Nolan’s Inception, a caper film that heists dreams instead of treasure, is surely the most cerebral action thriller to become a blockbuster. It’s a genre film that reshuffles the rules and lays them out in a mind-bending pattern. Playing out on multiple planes of dream reality, it’s also another Nolan film to completely reimagine the world of cause and effect. But rather than tell a story, Nolan builds a construct and then plays within that construct. This script is more designed than written, the film constructed as much as directed, and that becomes all the more evident on repeat viewings.

Leonardo DiCaprio faces the dream

This is architecture as cinema, on every level: Narrative, conceptual, symbolic, visual, with story and characters sacrificed to the density of rules and limitations of  fantastical (meta)physical laws. It is so dense with angles and layers and details of meaning that I don’t think there is a line of dialogue in the film that does not somehow serve the exposition. Inception is so high concept that it becomes all concept and puzzle and narrative play at the sacrifice of story. By that I mean it foregrounds plot (a series of events) over story (the journey of a character).

Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb is the team leader of this psych-squad with a simple motivation (clear his name and get back home), and a head case on a level all his own. The backstory explains how he lost his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), in experiments in dreamtime, and as a result lost his life, putting him on the run as a wanted man unable to see his children. She now haunts his psyche as a phantom turned nemesis. You could call her the ghost in the machine but really Mal is a symbol of guilt, loss and self-blame as an avatar, a manifestation of his own psyche punishing itself in the most effective way it knows: not simply to remind Cobb of what happened to her, but to sabotage his capers.

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