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Of Time and the City and Alexander Korda – DVDs for the week

Of Time and the City (Strand)

timeandthecityIf Liverpool did not exist, it would have to be invented. And in some ways, that’s what Terence Davies does in his cinematic essay, a personal remembrance of a city that he recalls from his ambivalent perspective of troubled affection and critical commentary. Freely mixing history and remembrance, documentary and commentary, Davies offers up a very personal look at his hometown of Liverpool and the age in which he grew up in England. Though only brief moments of the film are actually shot by Davies himself (the rest is a mix archival newsreel clips, documentary footage, TV news clips and home movies), this is as personal as filmmaking gets and he personally narrates with a witty collection of literary quotes, song lyrics, movie titles and snatches of poetry delivered with a twist of his own sardonic humor. The port city and industrial center on the northwest coast of Britain is best known in America as the birthplace of the Beatles. They have little place in Davies’ remembrance. Though his commentary is backed by a collection of popular songs and snatches of classical music, it’s not the music of the culture so much as of Davies’ life, and by the sixties he had tuned out with the coming of The Beatles and the Mersey Beat and turned to classical music. That was also the time he discovered that he was gay and the culture that he thought was his turned out to be quite hostile to him.

It’s chronological, both temporally and personally, from the post-war years to the present, and he takes us from B&W to color in a particularly delightful transition involving the crowds taking the ferry to Brighton. “They got on in black and white, but they got off in color,” he deadpans, and from that moment the film remains in color. It’s the modern world and nostalgia is gone as Davies recalls his coming of age in every way. His view of the church shifts to one of suspicion and distrust and a class consciousness seeps in as he observes the royal family (“another fossil monarchy”) and its lavish pageants of marriage and coronation while millions lived in poverty, destitute in slums all over Liverpool. He reserves his most caustic commentary for royalty and the national obsession with the royal family.

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Wendy and Lucy and Enchanted April – DVDs for the Week

Wendy and Lucy (Oscilloscope)

Wendy and Lucy from Oscilloscope Laboratories
Wendy and Lucy from Oscilloscope Laboratories

Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy, a road movie that captured both the possibility and freedom of the weekend road trip and the tensions of anxieties of old friends who reunite only to find they have nothing in common anymore (not to mention the distinct shades and textures of Oregon’s backroads), was one of my favorite films of 2007. New York-based filmmaker Reichardt returned to the Pacific Northwest and reunited with writer Jon Raymond for Wendy and Lucy, an even less idealized look at life on the road. This isn’t the romantic road movie of Alexander Supertramp in Into the Wild. This is survival, revealed in all the mundane details of a documentary portrait and the simple power of Michelle Williams’ unadorned performance as Wendy, a single young woman heading off to find work on Alaska in a used car with only her dog, Lucy, for company and support. When Lucy runs off and Wendy tracks her to a group of young drifters gathered around a bonfire, Reichardt keeps her camera back to watch Williams’ careful and wary body language tell the story of her vulnerability. That vulnerability isn’t simply physical. With no fixed address, no cell phone and dwindling savings (all in cash), she’s practically off the grid. Every penny is accounted for. She collects bottles for the deposit and sweeps the seats for change.

The disarming directness and seeming simplicity of Reichardt’s direction can lull you into thinking that there isn’t anything going on, when in fact the film is built on a multiplicity of details and insights, never commented upon but essential to understanding the character and her situation. The subtlety of the plot’s emotional undertones hit hard, once the audience feels them via osmosis. Riechard could be directing a short on O2 broadband packages for all the difference it makes to the intelligence with which ideas are presented. Small thoughts and an endless supply of close reading material just appears as you’re watching. And there’s a reason they don’t jump out at you: they are the everyday details of living in the modern world as experienced by a person living on the edge. A setback that carries a costly but merely inconvenient price-tag to most of us is the disaster that pulls the rug from under Wendy. She’s been sleeping in her car all this time and now has to find a place to sleep (there’s nothing in the budget for a hotel room). Sleeping rough in the nearby woods, she awakens to find a hobo rummaging through her stuff and mumbling to himself. Her vulnerability is never more apparent than in this scene, which Reichert shoots in hard close-up on the intruder’s wild-eyed expression (Larry Fessenden, who is terrifyingly good at looking bedraggled and scary and utterly unpredictable) and Wendy’s paralyzed terror. It’s a terrifying moment and this intrusion into her personal space, as he rifles through her belongings while she wraps herself up in paralyzed terror, is a step away from rape or assault. The ripples of minor obstacles have major repercussions. So to do the small kindnesses of a security guard (Wally Dalton) and an understanding mechanic (Will Patton, who fills his tiny role with life and character). Wendy and Lucy is tender, tough and uncompromising, photographed with a disarming directness and seeming simplicity that looks almost naked next to the dramatic constructions of Hollywood road movies. It just makes her precariousness all them more real.

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Deadly Sweet, She Beast, Jean-Claude and Captain Kirk – DVDs for the Week

Deadly Sweet (Cult Epics)

"Deadly Sweet" from Cult Epics
“Deadly Sweet” from Cult Epics

Shot in England by an Italian director with a French leading man and a Swedish sex-doll leading lady (both dubbed into Italian), Deadly Sweet is advertised as a giallo (an Italian horror with cruel and flamboyant murders) but is really a vague murder mystery romp directed as a pop-art object. Jean-Louis Trintignant stars as an out-of-work actor who spots sex-kitten Ewa Aulin at a disco and rushes her out of a murder scene where she’s the prime suspect. As they flee down the steps of the fire escape, the screen shifts into grainy black and white and fragments into split screens and repeated images while the percussion of the metallic march fills the soundtrack. That’s just a taste of the stylistic playroom to come. Tinto Brass went on to a career in soft-core erotic movies (most notably the grotesque Caligula), but here he’s embracing the creative energy and anything-goes culture of sixties cinema and tossing every impulse into the film.

The story is incomprehensible, having something to do with a stolen diary with apparently embarrassing disclosures, a dwarf who shadows the couple through the city, a group of thugs who kidnap Aulin, strip her down to her undergarments and tie her up in a kinky scene that evokes Bettie Page bondage. And yet it is a film of marvelous energy and delirious imagery. The style is appropriated from comic books, experimental cinema, the French New Wave and the British New Wave, with special attention to Godard and Richard Lester, Antonioni’s Blow-Up (a visit to a photography studio turns into an impromptu fashion shoot) and TV’s Batman (graffiti-esque word-balloon punctuations in a fight sequence). In other scenes, he sends the actors into the streets and shoots cinema verité style, following them through the foot traffic from a concealed camera and building the scene out of snatches reaction shots from the observers. It all ends up at “a happening,” a big counter-culture ball filled with hippies and social butterflies where Brass films the winding progress of Trintignant and Aulin through the crowd as if it were a concert movie. Aulin looks exactly like the kind of baby doll playgirl to be found at such a party, but Trintignant (who mugs it up in other comic scenes) it still pretty stiff and establishment in such a free and freaky atmosphere. It’s miscasting of the highest order and it matters not a whit. Brass is having a great time and it is infectious.

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The Wrestler and Nickelodeon on DVD, The Wages of Fear on Blu-ray – DVDs for the week

The Wrestler (Fox)

“Warm” and “human” are not two words you associate with Darren Aronofsky, but in The Wrestler he is both, thanks in large part to the heartbreakingly open and vulnerable performance from Mickey Rourke, the comeback story of 2008. It’s been a long time coming for Rourke, who has been doing tremendous, unshowy work in American indies and oddball pictures for years, all in supporting roles and character parts. But it still makes a great story given the parallels to the film, which is about a once-famous, largely-forgotten, pummeled-into-scar-tissue pro wrestler whose glory days were twenty years ago.

Mickey Rourke: The Ram out of the ring
Mickey Rourke: The Ram bundled up against the cold world outside of the ring

Randy “The Ram” Robinson still lives in that past, at least as far as his taste in hair metal music goes, and pushes an increasingly broken body into the ring for regional cards in the show-biz hinterlands of rural New Jersey for a few hundred dollars a night. At least until a heart attack forces retirement on him and sends him to try to connect with the aging stripper he loves (Marisa Tomei, equally vulnerable but more wary) and reconnect with the daughter he all but abandoned (Evan Rachel Wood). Aronofsky gives his blue collar world of trailer parks and strip clubs an understated authenticity and Rourke makes The Ram a flesh and blood character of natural generosity who just needs to be loved can only find it in front of the crowd. It grabs for the heart and it squeezes, but with calloused, knocked-about brand of sentimentality. The accompanying 42-minute Within the Ring is a superior behind-the-scenes documentary directed with a rough-around-the-edge sensibility that matches both the film and the culture of its characters.

Read my interview with Darren Aronofsky here.

Nickelodeon / The Last Picture Show (Sony)

Peter Bogdanovich had wanted to make Nickelodeon in black-and-white, as he had The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon (“In color it feels made up,” he explains, “In black and white it seems more real”), but coming to the project after a pair of flops (Daisy Miller and At Long Last Love), the studios weren’t very accommodating. So he turned to retrospective reconstruction to desaturate the color and create a black-and-white version for this “Director’s Cut”-branded revision. Keep Reading

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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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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“The Robe” introduced a new Scope

"The Robe" restored for Blu-ray
"The Robe" restored for Blu-ray

Whatever you think of the biblical blockbuster, The Robe, there’s no question that its phenomenal popularity marked a turning point in movie history.

Twentieth Century-Fox, which previously treated it rather shabbily on DVD, tape and laser disc, is finally recognizing its significance with a Blu-ray Special Edition that’s loaded with extra features. Among them: a featurette about the history of CinemaScope, a discussion of the script’s political implications, and an enthusiastic introduction by Martin Scorsese, who vividly remembers the impact it had at the time.

Just weeks after The Robe’s much-ballyhooed debut as the first Scope release in the fall of 1953, the movie was challenging Gone With the Wind by setting new box-office records, and theater managers were widening their screens and beefing up their sound systems.

Before the year was over, Scope had won the battle over screen shape and size, and even movies designed to be “square,” like Shane, were stretched and distorted to suggest a panoramic effect. A few major-studio films, including the Judy Garland remake of A Star Is Born, were partially reshot to take advantage of the new process.

The Robe led the way in replacing small screens and transforming monophonic sound systems. Although some critics suggested that wide screens were suitable only for photographing snakes and funerals, and Charlie Chaplin and Frank Tashlin made fun of Scope in their late-1950s films, the system eventually had an artistic impact. Hollywood’s famous 1950s spectacles and musicals were affected, and so were such meticulously designed wide-screen classics as La Dolce Vita, The Innocents, Jules and Jim and most of Robert Altman’s movies.

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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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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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“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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