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by Sean Axmaker

Contributor

Reign of Terror and The Yankee Clipper – DVDs for the week

Reign of Terror (aka The Black Book)

Reign of Terror - finally in a decent DVD edition
Reign of Terror – finally in a decent DVD edition

Anthony Mann’s Reign of Terror (1949) has my vote for the most unique film noir ever made. All the hallmarks of great film noir – scheming and backstabbing characters, hard-boiled dialogue, narrow urban streets and dark alleys wet with rain and crowded with disreputable figures, and of course the shadowy visuals and extreme camera angles of an unpredictable world – are dropped into the chaos and cruelty of the French Revolution, here run by the most ruthless gang of criminals ever seen. Richard Basehart’s Maximilian Robespierre (“Don’t call me Max!”) is the icy criminal mastermind and Robert Cummings puts on his best sneering tough-guy act as an undercover agent who is sent by Marat to infiltrate the Committee of Public Safety and break Robespierre’s death grip on the revolution. Wouldn’t you know that Cummings’ Paris contact is former lover Arlene Dahl? Their reunion is a shock of recognition quickly turned into jaded indifference, wounded hearts playing at calloused detachment while trading hard-boiled expressions of lingering betrayal. Of course, passion still simmers under those cool poses of apathy. Arnold Moss is Robespierre’s mercenary henchman Fouché, an oily, enterprising operative whose allegiance is only to himself, and Charles McGraw has a small role as one of Robespierre’s more vicious thugs.

The plot turns on the scramble for Robespierre’s “black book,” where he’s listed the names of enemies and victims soon to be condemned and sent to the guillotine, and the subsequent gang war free-for-all as everyone looks to grab power by grabbing this tome is a perfectly appropriate metaphor for the chaos and cutthroat power struggle of the real life reign of terror.

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Pre-Code Paramount and Fleischer’s Superman – DVDs for the Week

Pre-Code Hollywood Collection / Cleopatra: 75th Anniversary Edition

Six sexy pre-code films from Paramount Pictures
Six sexy pre-code films from Paramount Pictures

Universal Home Video plunges into the sex, sin and bathtub gin of pre-code Hollywood films with their answer to the “Forbidden Hollywood” series from Warner. The Pre-Code Hollywood Collection is branded as part of the “Universal Backlot Series” but it actually collects six films Paramount Pictures (Universal owns the rights to the early Paramount catalogue), a studio with a sensibility as different as can be from the snappy, punchy, street-smart Warner attitude. Paramount boasted a more elegant style and opulent touch, more glamour and soft-focus gloss than the working class Warner films and a roster of directors that included Ernst Lubitsch, Josef von Sternberg, Cecil B. DeMille and Mitchell Leisen, a director who began as a costume designer and art director on Douglas Fairbanks adventures and Cecil B. DeMille spectacles.

I bring up Leisen in particular because his 1934 Murder at the Vanities is a highlight of the set, a combination backstage musical, showbiz comedy and murder mystery, all with the sex and smart-alecky attitude and snappy pace of the best pre-code studio pictures. Leisen mentored under DeMille as the director transformed himself from silky sex comedy director to self-promoting epic filmmaker and king of the spectacle. Leisen’s earlier film, the classy drama Death Takes a Holiday, is a somewhat lugubrious production but by Murder at the Vanities, Leisen starts to come into his own as a deft director of light romantic comedy and cool, clever Hollywood entertainment. It’s based on a play by Earl Carroll, creator of the “Vanities” stage spectacles, and while he doesn’t appear in the film as such, Carroll’s presence hovers over the entire film through cagey name dropping. Carl Brisson and Kitty Carlisle (as the singing stars and romantic sweethearts) headline the show onstage but the offstage antics by fast-talking manager Jack Oakie (playing a former newspaperman and all-around wise guy trying to prove himself to boss Carroll) steal the film. He outmaneuvers thickheaded Irish cop Victor McLaglen (in his usual hammy lug of a performance) in a race to solve a murder before the curtain drops and handily wins the battle of wits with snappy repartee and smartly delivered quips.

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Silent Light – Mortals and Miracles

The screen opens on the night sky, the stars glowing (not twinkling, mind you, but crisp and sharp and dense as seen from the clarity of a desert, with no city lights or urban pollution to muddy the view). The sounds of night are the only soundtrack, hyper-attentive to the natural world of insects. The starfield suddenly starts to bend and warp as the screen spirals and the camera readjusts. It’s only when the orange and green of dawn begins to overpower the black sky and drown out the stars and dark shadows of silhouettes are slowly revealed that we realize it is the horizon. It’s like watching the world being born in front of our eyes, with the sounds of farm animals waking to the dawn and the Earth rousing from slumber taking over the soundtrack. The camera silently tracks in to the scene, creeping so slowly it’s almost imperceptible but for the shifting perspective.

silent_light_2
Mennonites in Mexico

I can’t recall ever seeing such a vision of dawn as the birth of a new day, of the turning of the Earth as a literal rebirth of life, in a film, let alone in the defining first images. Silent Light, Carlos Reygadas’ third feature, is set in a Mennonite community in Mexico, an insular pocket of agrarian people that feels almost like a portal to old Europe within modern Mexico. This is not some Luddite culture – Johan (Cornelio Wall), the gentle patriarch of the farm family we meet over silent prayer and bustling breakfast, drives a sturdy new pickup and harvests the fields with combines and he joins his children to watch a DVD in a portable TV in a van – but these people hold close to their values, their religion and their way of life. Reygadas’ measured pace and the reflective observation of his patient camera is in tune with the movement of seasons and the cycle of crops, rather than the rush of urban life carved up into deadlines. It’s also in tune with the austerity of their surroundings and the quality of their spiritual lives. They are not a simple people, which sounds more like an insult than a description, but a community of people who seem to take the time to experience every moment, whether it is silent prayer over the breakfast table or a family bath in an outdoor pool.

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Warner Archive Collection – New Access to Old Movies

Warner’s launch of the Warner Archive Collection, its new DVD on Demand site, was well covered earlier this week (see The New York Times’ The Carpetbagger, Susan King at the LA Times and Lou Leminick at the New York Post) but there’s been little follow-up in the days since. Maybe that’s because we’re all waiting for that first disc to arrive before we pass judgment in the efficiency of the system and the quality of the discs. There was a pretty slow response time when I got on the site on Monday, March 23. It had been launched a week earlier but this was the date that the press releases went out and the home video sites and related blogs all spread the news. Everyone needed to check it out and a lot of folks made their first order.

Available from the Warner Archive now
Available from the Warner Archive now

The site launched with a curious collection of 150 films from the Warner Entertainment library of pre-1986 films from MGM, RKO Radio Pictures and Warner Bros., from westerns to romance, science fiction to melodrama, each one priced at $19.95 (or $14.95 for a digital download). They have little broad commercial appeal but have their fans, as evidenced by requests made over the years on sites like Turner Classic Movies and Amazon. Some of the more familiar titles include All Fall Down with Warren Beatty and Eva Marie Saint, Mr. Lucky with Cary Grant (it was ubiquitous on VHS but nowhere to be found on DVD), Abe Lincoln in Illinois with Raymond Massey and Possessed starring Clark Gable and Joan Crawford. There’s plenty of early Greta Garbo and second-tier Clark Gable and Joan Crawford and Cary Grant and Spencer Tracy titles, as well as auteur oddities like The Bamboo Blonde (Anthony Mann) Countdown (Robert Altman) and The Rain People (Francis Ford Coppola). I was most excited by the silent film selection and I ordered Rex Ingram’s 1923 Scaramouche. Just yesterday I just received confirmation that my order was sent (free shipping, UPS ground) and is expected to arrive on Tuesday, March 31. It a simple, no-frills disc, just the movie in a case with sleek artwork (and, if available, the original trailer), and George Feltenstein, senior vice president of theatrical catalog marketing for Warner Home Video, promises that they are all presented in their original aspect ratio. Given their source (most, if not all, have already been remastered and run on Turner Classic Movies), we should expect good quality transfers and mastering.

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William Wellman’s Forbidden Hollywood – DVDs for the Week

The studios are finally listening to me! Okay, maybe not, but fifteen months ago I did publish my wish list of Dream DVD Special Editions and Box Sets on GreenCine. Some of those wishes have since come true: Touch of Evil: 50th Anniversary Edition (with all three cuts of the film), The Films of Budd Boetticher (featuring all five Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott films made for Columbia), A Matter of Life and Death (Michael Powell) and Murnau, Borzage and Fox (a far more ambitious project than even I wished for). And one of my “Honorable Mentions” was a “Forbidden Hollywood” collection dedicated to the pre-code films of William Wellman, notably Heroes For Sale and Wild Boys of the Road. Yes, I know that these have been in works, in one form or another, since before I even started the piece, but there is still a little satisfaction in seeing my dreams come true, and this week another dream comes to life: Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume Three, subtitled “Six classic, provocative films directed by master filmmaker William Wellman.”

forbiddenhollywood3I’ve never been of the camp that embraced Wellman as a “master filmmaker,” though I have always appreciated him as a talented pro with good instincts and clean, no-nonsense direction. He was part of that early breed of two-fisted directors who drifted into the movies from more adventurous jobs. In Wellman’s case, he had been a member of the French Foreign Legion and the Lafayette Escadrille in World War I and was a flying instructor for the American Air Corps in San Diego when Douglas Fairbanks asked him to appear in one of his films, The Knickerbocker Buckaroo. Acting left a bad taste in his mouth but directing intrigued him and he worked his way up through the ranks, becoming a director in 1923 and jumping to the front ranks of the industry with Wings (1927), an assignment he reportedly received largely on the strength of his combat experience. They needed a war flier to helm the film and Wellman gave them the most impressive aerial spectacle the movies had seen. He made more than 80 films in every genre over the course of four decades, but he showed his most interesting directorial muscle in war films (Story of G.I. Joe) and westerns (Yellow Sky, Track of the Cat) and adventures (Beau Geste), while his distinctive snappy, hard-knuckle sensibility came out in urban crime (The Public Enemy) and showbiz pictures (A Star is Born, Roxie Hart).

But for my money, he was never more interesting than in the early sound era, where his energy and audacity powered over a dozen short, sharp, street-smart films filled with saucy sexiness and startling violence and mixed with varying measures of social commentary. Six of those films are collected on this four-disc set (Wellman’s pre-code classics The Public Enemy and Night Nurse have previously been released, the former separately and in the Warner Gangsters Collection, the latter in Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume Two) and they are something else, films strewn with wild melodrama, romantic triangles, brawny action and some of the sexiest scenes of heavy petting and passionate smooching you’ve seen out of old Hollywood, with more frank sexuality more suggested than shown but there is no mistaking the suggestions.
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Murnau in Germany – DVDs for the Week (Pt 2)

The Box Set
Murnau: A Six DVD Box Set

DVD has been as good to F.W. Murnau as any silent legend has a right to expect. Milestone Films released a gorgeous edition of his final film, Tabu, back in the early days of DVD. Flicker Alley released the 1922 rarity Phantom (restored by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation) a few years ago. Fox collected his American features — Sunrise (one of the unequivocal masterpieces of world cinema) and City Girl, along with a documentary tribute to his lost drama Four Devils — in the magnificent box set Murnau, Borzage and Fox. And Kino, which released the American versions of Murnau’s Nosferatu, The Last Laugh and Faust on DVD, has been faithfully upgrading and adding to the library with stateside releases of restorations helmed by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation. Murnau: A Six DVD Box Set is an upgrade from Kino’s five-disc The F.W. Murnau Collection from 2003. The disc of Tartuffe is the same the rest of the set is either upgraded or brand new: the recently restored German editions of Nosferatu and The Last Laugh (previously available from Kino in two disc “Deluxe Editions”) and the DVD debuts of The Haunted Castle and The Finances of the Grand Duke and the original German version of Faust, which are also available separately (with Faust offered in a two disc “Deluxe Edition” featuring the earlier DVD release). Milestone’s Tabu, which was on the earlier set, is not here, but it is available separately from Milestone. Confusing? Yes, it can be. If you’ve been picking up the restored upgrades all along, you’ll probably want to skip the box and just pick up the three DVD debuts separately. If you don’t have any of the restored versions, however, the box set is an essential instant collection for the Murnau fan or the silent movie obsessive.

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Shimizu in Japan – DVDs for the Week (Pt 1)

Two box sets reveal the riches of two classic filmmakers with radically different pedigrees. F.W. Murnau has long been considered one of the great directors of world cinema and Kino’s new Murnau: A Six DVD Box Set introduces two rarities in beautifully restored editions and an astounding restoration of Faust. (The review follows later this week.) Hiroshi Shimizu, however, is practically unknown in this country. Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu is as much a discovery as a celebration of this marvelous filmmaker, and I hope it’s merely the beginning of a revival.

Eclipse Series 15
Eclipse Series 15

Look up Hiroshi Shimizu on the IMDb and you’ll find 42 films made between 1924 and 1957 listed under his name. According Michael Koresky in the liner notes to the box set Travels With Hiroshi Shimizu (the 15th set from Eclipse, Criterion’s budget-minded label), he made over 150 films by most counts. That’s a lot of films for a director largely forgotten to time, even in Japan, but it isn’t the number of films that’s most alarming about his neglect. It’s the deftness and stylistic joys, the humor and humanity, the unexpected rhythms and a delightful stories on display in this set of four features. And the longest one of them clocks in at 76 minutes, although the term “tight” or “efficient” doesn’t seem to be appropriate to the generosity of his filmmaking. They are simply small stories, miniatures you might say, which unfold at their own distinctively wandering pace.

The title Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu is perfectly evocative of the films, not simply because they are about characters in transition – a bus driver on a mountain road route, seasonal masseurs who are walking to their summer position at a mountain resort in the first scene, vacationers at a mountain inn during the summer in a momentary community – but because Shimizu as much travel guide as storyteller, taking us on a tour of people and places and the stories of their lives.

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“Let the Right One In,” “Ben X” and “A Secret” – DVDs for the Week

Let the Right One In on Blu-ray
Let the Right One In on Blu-ray

March 10 is an unaccountably busy week for new films on DVD. Gus Van Sant’s Oscar-winning Milk (for Best Actor Sean Penn and for Best Original Screenplay), Jonathan Demme’s marvelous ensemble drama Rachel Getting Married (which earned an Oscar nomination for Anne Hathaway) and Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky (Oscar nominee for Best Original Screenplay, but Sally Hawkins was robbed of a Best Actress nomination) lead the list, which also includes Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, Cadillac Records (starring Adrian Brody as Chess records entrepreneur Leonard Chess and an all-star supporting playing R&B greats), Role Models with Paul Rudd and Battle in Seattle, Stuart Townsend’s dramatization of the 1999 WTO protests (my interview with Townsend is on Parallax View here).

With such an array of American releases, I’d like to draw attention to a trio of foreign affairs that I fear will be swamped in the deluge.

Tomas Alfredson’s Swedish vampire film / young love horror piece Let The Right One In (Magnet/Magnolia) is grounded in a devoted friendship that bonds two outcasts in a predatory world. Bullied schoolboy Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), a loner so blond he looks albino, meets twelve-year-old Eli (Lina Leandersson), a fellow loner hanging around the snow-covered playground of his Stockholm suburb in short sleeves, unfazed by the frozen night. “I’ve been twelve a long time,” she later confesses to Oskar, who understands that there’s something different about this girl who only comes out after dark. Which makes Sweden a great place for her: It’s night most of the winter, and the cold is no concern to a creature that doesn’t feel anything.

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This is Not a Watchman Review

[published in conjunction with the blog seanax.com]

The world doesn’t need another Watchmen review. Everyone with access to a preview screening and a web page has already done one. The world is not short of opinions and the web doesn’t seem to differentiate between considered responses and emotional reflex put to words, though you can find some of the better ones here (thanks to David Hudson at The Daily @ IFC.com for wading through the onslaught to pick out the more interesting responses).

So this is not a Watchmen review. It’s a consideration of what the film is and how it got that way: perhaps the most faithful cinematic replica of a comic book experience every accomplished.

Here is my question: why would anyone want that? I have the graphic novel. I’ve read it a few times and can pick it up anytime I want to.

Nite Owl and Archie
Nite Owl and Archie

I go to the movies to be immersed, impressed, awed, engaged. Zack Snyder’s Watchmen feels like a film made to deliver a sense of comfort that everything is exactly as you remember from the graphic novel. The character stories and arcs are all there, along with the complex backstories and the alternate history of America. The signature images from the comic books are all on display: the marvelous costume designs (which in some cases evoke comic-book silliness and garish impracticality of yesteryear costumed heroes), Doctor Manhattan’s Mars Fortress of Solitude, Archie the Nite Owl’s ship. In an interview Alan Moore gave to Wired Magazine, he complained that no film could get the texture of Dave Gibbons’ artwork. Maybe, but I can’t image anyone getting closer.

Yes, Snyder streamlined the story and judiciously edited out certain subplots and side-stories (notably the “Tales from the Black Freighter,” which will be released on a separate DVD later this month and is promised to be returned to the DVD release – though fans of the comic will notice that the news agent and the comic-book fan are present in a few shots). And he even dared to change the details of Moore’s original ending, twisting it with an insight so perceptive that one wonders if Moore would have done the same had it occurred to him, so beautifully does it wrap itself within the self-contained mythology and the character dynamics.

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New Yorker Essentials – DVDs for the Week

As the shock of New Yorker’s announcement sinks in, so does the complicated legacy of New Yorker. In conversations with friends and colleagues who programmed college campus films series and commercial repertory calendars (back when such things were a vital part of a metropolitan city cinema landscape), we all recalled the high prices of New Yorker film rentals and the deplorable condition of much of its print library. In my days as a video store manager, I sweated the premium prices of New Yorker videotapes, titles that would be lucky to break even, and they dragged their feet when it came to price reductions (many of which I wound up reviewing for Amazon.com during the early days of its home video launch). As a viewer I was often frustrated by the image interference caused by the heavy Macrovision copy protection. When it came to DVD, the quality was always fine, but never showed the crispness of Criterion restorations and digital mastering.

New Yorker Films' first release
New Yorker Films’ first release

Yet for all those gripes, New Yorker was essential to the richness of cinema culture in my time. It kept alive the canons of Bertolucci, Fassbinder, Godard, Herzog, but in addition to its commitment to the European canon, it brought to light filmmakers from neglected corners of the cinematic culture, in particular Africa, South America and Iran. Would the films of Ousmane Sembene be accessible to American audiences if not for New Yorker? Would the films of South America’s Cinema Novo movement have been “discovered” with them?

Just contrast New Yorker with Miramax. Back in their Miramax days, the Weinstein Bros. showed cagey instincts when it came to sifting through imports for that sexy title that they could sell with their own inimitable mix of art cinema ballyhoo and cultural cache. They outbid everyone else to secure those films in which they saw potential and sunk money into striking good prints with strong, readable subtitles, and into promoting their films. And at times they brought in the scissors to trim down their imports. They combined the arrogance of an old-time studio boss with the promotional savvy of a William Castle or a Kroger Babb, only with a touch of class.

New Yorker never had those promotional instincts and certainly never had the capital to compete with Miramax and the boutique divisions of the major studios that flowered in the wake of Miramax’s success. But then it never occurred to Dan Talbot and the New Yorker crew to edit down the films they imported. Miramax made foreign filmgoing special. New Yorker was about special foreign films and filmmakers. It was, in many ways, up to the audiences to find them.

Most of those studio indie/art film divisions have since been shut down or absorbed back into their parent companies, and the Weinsteins are still looking for a signature acquisition to re-establish themselves outside of Miramax (which is doing just fine in its more modest, post-Weinstein incarnation). On the home video side, we’ve seen  specialty labels like Tartan Films and NoShame close up and others struggle to continue.

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DVD for the Week – Remembering New Yorker Films 1965-2009

I got the news from Girish Shambu (via Facebook), who directed me to a report on IndieWire by Eugene Hernandez, who confirmed it: New Yorker Films is closing its doors. The devastating news is on the New Yorker homepage.

new_yorker_films_topAnyone who was active in film culture in the days before the video business gave us access to many (though by no means all) of the classics of world cinema will remember New Yorker Films. When repertory theaters and college film programs were our only access to foreign films new and old, New Yorker  distributed new films from great directors around the globe and built a small but essential library that kept in circulation the works of such auteurs as Jean-Luc Godard, Yasujiro Ozu, Robert Bresson, Werner Herzog, Louis Malle, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Ousmane Sembene… the list goes on and on. The prints weren’t cheap, but they kept the works and the artists alive.

When home video changed the landscape of film distribution and pretty much ended the culture of repertory cinema, New Yorker’s print library found fewer venues for theatrical showings. The rights for home video distribution were not in those original contracts and foreign studios shopped many of those rights around to other video distributors and, later, DVD labels. I hadn’t heard the rumblings at New Yorker, but I saw the signs. DVDs were announced, then delayed, then delayed again. The number of titles on their schedule dwindled. And, to be honest, New Yorker was still looking to define itself on DVD. They were late to mastering widescreen films in anamorphic widescreen. The quality of DVD masters, while fine, often showed the telltale signs of PAL-to-NTSC conversion, rather than a fresh digital master for American DVD. Supplements were slim, if there were any. Criterion had established itself as the gold standard for classics on DVD. New Yorker struggled to catch up, but you could see the efforts in recent releases.

But I imagine that the real culprit in New Yorker’s demise is the changing face of film distribution: foreign films are finding a harder time finding screens, local coverage of non-mainstream films is dwindling, and even the alternative weeklies in major cities can’t be counted upon to cover these films that live and die by local support.

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Interview: Lynn Shelton on “My Effortless Brilliance”

[I interviewed Lynn Shelton in Seattle on May 17, 2008, to talk about her then new film, My Effortless Brilliance, and her debut feature, We Go Way Back. This interview was originally published on GreenCine on May 24, 2008. Since this interview, Shelton made Humpday, which was chosen to play in the exclusive competition at Sundance 2009 and was quickly scooped up as the festival’s first film sale, and won the Acura Someone to Watch Award for My Effortless Brilliance at the 2009 Spirit Awards. I revisit the interview for Parallax View.]

Lynn Shelton
Lynn Shelton

Lynn Shelton is part of a hardy breed: the regional filmmaker who creates feature films within a community far outside the L.A.-centered base. That means casts, crews, locations, post-production and even financing is all locally based. Her debut feature, We Go Way Back, made after a decade of honing her skills on experimental films and documentaries and editing the features of other local filmmakers, won the Jury Prize at Slamdance in 2006. Her second film, My Effortless Brilliance premiered at SXSW in 2008 and gets it hometown premiere during the opening weekend of the Seattle International Film Festival.

Both of these films are small, intimate, character-based pictures. We Go Way Back, the story of a young actress in a kind of emotional stupor as she struggles to make her way as an actress at the expense of her own sense of self, tosses in a high concept twist – her 13-year-old self, present in letters written to her future self full of confidence and creativity and ambition, arrives in the flesh. What could be a Lynchian bend in time and space and identity, however, is played with naturalistic calm. She’s not here to judge, only to heal and center her emotionally fractured older self. My Effortless Brilliance shifts to male relationships, specifically the “break-up” of old friends and the desperation with which one man (played by Sean Nelson – singer, songwriter, former frontman for Harvey Danger and, in the interest of disclosure, my friend and colleague), a novelist struggling to repeat the success of his first book, attempts to reconnect. His motivations are less out of affection than ego – dude, he was dumped! The film’s reception was mixed, which may have as much to do with the seeming lack of narrative drive and plotting and its undeniable similarities to Old Joy as with the discomforting portrait of male relationships. Yet I found the texture of the relationships and the sly humor winning and was impressed with the performances, especially Nelson, who’s a natural in the role, subtly establishing the sense of ego and vulnerability and self-aggrandizement in the character with brave intimacy. Shelton’s observations of male relationships and the rhythms of old friends falling into old patterns are spot on, helped immensely, surely, by the collaboration of the cast, who played the scenes without a script, only an outline.

I met Lynn Shelton for breakfast at Mae’s on Phinney Ridge (a great little breakfast spot near both of us) and, starting out over cups of green tea (“I love it,” she said – our first connection made), she launched into the history of how she started making features and where My Effortless Brilliance came from.

We Go Way Back is the quintessential chick flick and My Effortless Brilliance really is the quintessential guy flick,” she began. “I’ve yet to meet a guy who does not like my new movie. And there are a lot of people who like it, but there are some who just can’t find a way into it. They just can’t relate to it, basically. And We Go Way Back is the exact opposite. Every woman has a very homogeneous sense of love for this movie. A lot of men love it too, but sometimes men are just like, ‘Whatever.’ It’s really, really interesting. So I like that dichotomy.”

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“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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