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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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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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Learning to Do It Right: “The Wild Bunch” – A Personal Reflection

Law and order and grace and understanding are things that have to be taught. … People are born to survive. They have instincts that go back millions of years. Unfortunately, some of those instincts are based on violence. There is a great streak of violence in every human being. If it is not channeled and understood, it will break out in war or in madness. … [The children’s torture of ants and scorpions at the beginning of the film is] an ugly game, but it’s a game children play—unless they’re taught different. They would have had to be taught not to play that game. And man was a killer millions of years before he served a God.

—Sam Peckinpah, interviewed by Aljean Harmetz, The New York Times, 1969

The Wild Bunch is certainly Sam Peckinpah’s clearest, most heartfelt and poetic statement of his deeply-held belief that we are born animals, and that if we become human at all, it is by learning—from others and from our own experiences. We are not what nature or God makes us, but what we make of ourselves.

"The Wild Bunch" - the original poster
“The Wild Bunch” – the original poster

Whether you share that view or not, you’re a fool if you don’t confront it, and an orphan if you don’t let Sam Peckinpah take you on this spiritual journey to the darkest and the brightest sides of human capability.

When The Wild Bunch premiered in 1969, most viewers and reviewers reviled its uncompromising and unprecedented depiction of violence. Peckinpah himself became widely regarded as a violent personality who reveled in displays of brutality; and that legend only widened with Straw Dogs (1971) and The Getaway (1972).

Rarely have a director’s vision and career been so willfully misunderstood. Peckinpah was haunted by violence, physical and psychological, in his personal life and his profession, and he dared to confront it as few artists in any era or any medium have ever done. The fact that, after forty intervening years of de-sensitizing reality, movie violence, and gore technology, The Wild Bunch still has the power to shock and disturb is ample evidence that this film is no simple-minded kill-spree.

As those who refuse to classify Peckinpah and put him away in the box marked “violence” can readily tell you, both the man and the artist had a big, loving heart, and it was apparent to anyone who had eyes, not only in the gentle, understanding Ride the High Country (1962), The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), and Junior Bonner (1971), but also right alongside the savage violence of his masterpiece The Wild Bunch.

The Wild Bunch addresses violence not only as an individual but as a communal phenomenon, as a way of life and a facet of culture. It’s no accident that this tale of a band of outlaws who “share very few sentiments with our government” and take their last chance as gunrunners to a ruthless generalissimo in the Mexican revolution was written, filmed, and released at the height of our country’s ill-fated adventure in Vietnam. That the American experience has so often been a violent experience is part of the film’s core vision. But The Wild Bunch is neither pro- nor anti-Vietnam. Peckinpah was never as simple as that. And because he wasn’t simple about it, The Wild Bunch remains one of a very few films that capture the complexity of the upheaval in American politics and culture that occurred in the Sixties.

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The Night of the Hunter

[originally published on Robert Horton’s blog The Crop Duster on March 1, 2009]

“I’ll be back,” the man calls out, “when it’s dark.” Those words are the warning, and the credo, of every monster that ever slouched through fairy tale or film. Toward the end of The Night of the Hunter, they are uttered by Harry Powell, the evil preacher who burns through the movie like something out of an American folklore nightmare. Few monsters have embodied the shadow side of existence more absolutely than the murderous Reverend Powell. Where Harry Powell goes, it is dark.

Night of the Hunter
Night of the Hunter

Let’s be clear straight away: The Night of the Hunter is one of the greatest films in the American cinema. Although its web of influences can be identified (German Expressionism, the brothers Grimm, the films of D.W. Griffith and James Whale, Mark Twain), it is a singular movie; it resembles nothing else. It is also singular as the only film directed by the celebrated actor Charles Laughton, who suffered from one of the most tortured actor’s psyches ever—and that’s a crowded field—beset as he was by his keen intellect, fragile emotions, and closeted homosexuality. Laughton’s achievement is magnificent: there isn’t a single shot without visual interest, and the narrative tone is an amazing balancing act.

Laughton had distinguished collaborators. The film is based on a novel by Davis Grubb, whose gothic story is closely followed. To write the script, Laughton and producer Paul Gregory chose James Agee, the film critic and author of the Depression-era classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Night of the Hunter is also set during the Thirties). According to Laughton’s wife, the actress Elsa Lanchester, Agee wrote an unwieldy document that Laughton himself had to re-write.

Aside from an excellent cast, the other major collaborator was cinematographer Stanley Cortez, an unusual figure who also shot the glorious Magnificent Ambersons for Orson Welles and the gloriously pulpy Shock Corridor for Samuel Fuller. Cortez was a master of black and white contrast, and The Night of the Hunter afforded rich opportunities for the play of light and shadow; but Cortez also had his hands full with the film’s complex blend of naturalism (no Hollywood version of Mark Twain ever had a small town look as authentic) and stark stylization. Cortez later counted Welles and Laughton as the two most formidable directors he worked with.

You know something is odd from the first moments of the film, when the disembodied heads of Lillian Gish and a group of children fill the screen, hanging amongst the stars of night. Gish’s opening remarks are shaped as a parable to the children, invoking the bible and explicitly making what follows a “tale” intended as a moral fable. “Beware of false prophets,” she warns, and the film jumps to a fantastically strange sequence introducing preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum). First the camera swoops down, from a great height, to see children playing in a field (hide and seek, apparently, which also describes the movie’s plot). A child looks in the cellar, only to stop short: a pair of legs sticks awkwardly, almost obscenely, from the door. The cinematic memory can’t help but flick to another great fable, The Wizard of Oz, and the legs of a dead witch curling out from beneath a similar midwestern home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Published in conjunction with the blog seanax.com]

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

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

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

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

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

Chocolate
Chocolate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Gumshoe

Albert Finney
Albert Finney plays hard-boiled

[originally published in Movietone News, May/June 1972]

“SAM SPADE: Ginley’s the Name—Gumshoe’s the Game.” After a year of psychoanalysis, brought on by his girlfriend’s marrying his brother and terminated by his genial conclusion that the shrink is “off his head,” Eddie Ginley places the foregoing advert in a Liverpool paper. His breakfast-time reading is The Thin Man and his running patter — when not actually performing his job as emcee at a bingo club — is case-hardened Humphrey Bogart. His own voiceover commentary (“For everyone else in Liverpool it was just another Friday morning…”) eases into boyish practicality long enough to make clear Eddie doesn’t expect to be taken seriously: when a phone call sends him to that hotel room to receive a wrapped parcel from a Fat Man smoking a cigar on the other side of a tall chair, he assumes it’s just his mates’ way of slipping him a birthday present (he’s making the gloomy turn to 31). The package proves to contain a thousand pounds, a girl’s photograph, and a revolver to—presumably—do her in.

From the opening titles, nicely evocative of the old Universal Sherlock Holmes credits, Gumshoe is a minor masterpiece of faultless footwork, treading with absolute conviction that high wire of stylistic commitment with clinical absurdity lying to one side and shallow sendup to the other. Stephen Frears’ direction, Neville Smith’s dialogue, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music all take that necessary chance of pushing just a little too far, which is the only way to push far enough. But as much talent as these gentlemen evidence, Gumshoe would only be charmingly lightweight without the rigor and intensity of Albert Finney as a standup comic in a trenchcoat trying to come of age. It’s tempting to speculate on the origins of Gumshoe, and how much Eddie Ginley might have been conceived and written for Albert Finney, who was last seen in his directorial debut, Charlie Bubbles, climbing into an utterly improbable carnival balloon and sailing up out of all his insoluble problems. Charlie Bubbles moved some observers, appalled others (I stood among the latter), but it will be worth re-viewing if only to strengthen one’s appreciation of this new gem. There Charlie/Finney’s estranged wife was superbly played by Billie Whitelaw; here she plays Eddie’s lost love, to whom he repairs now and again for psychic rearmament — to stage a smoky, piano-playing, late-night reunion or to be kissed goodbye/kissed off at a railway station. In the incestuous way of private-eye thriller plotting, Gumshoe enables Eddie Ginley to pay off, by means of melodramatic ingenuity, those very psychic wounds that have necessitated his fantasy-embracing lifestyle. The ambiguity of the last lengthy shot — whether Eddie has been trapped forever in his dreamworld or whether he has taken a decisive step toward adulthood — is profound rather than facile, and thoroughly earned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Roberto Rossellini

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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