Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

Aleksandr Sokurov’s Setting Sun, Tony Manero in Chile and Post-War Foyle – DVDs of the Week

The Sun (Lorber Films)

The third film in Aleksandr Sokurov’s continuing “Men in Power” series, impressionistic portraits of dictators and despots that seek to explore the inner lives of enigmatic figures, observes Japanese Emperor Hirohito on the eve of Japan’s defeat in the final days of World War II. As played by Issei Ogata and observed by Sokurov in the both intimate and alienated settings of his Spartan compound, he’s an almost childlike figure trapped in his identity of a living deity and rituals of deference that further separate him from the world. He’s not even allowed to open a door himself, which leads to an almost comic moment when, leaving a meeting with General Douglas MacArthur (Robert Dawson), he is momentarily stymied by the workings of a doorknob. Or is he simply savoring the moment, like a child suddenly allowed to play with a forbidden toy?

Issei Ogata in The Sun

Ogata’s performance is a wonder of affectation, distracted (behavior) and moments of dazed confusion, behavior no one would dare comment upon. Yet it’s clear that he is more aware of the contradictions of his position than any of his servants and officials, and that he understands that, in a strange way, Japan’s defeat becomes his opportunity to become a mere mortal. His response is complex, nuanced, and hidden in layers of protocol and ritual, yet it’s obvious that this reluctant Emperor is happiest studying marine biology and rhapsodizing over the wonders of the hermit crab.

Like the first two films in Sokurov’s “Men in Power” series, Moloch and Taurus (focused on Hitler and Lenin, respectively), The Sun is not a conventional biographical portrait by any definition, but rather a reflection in the inner life of the Emperor, a man who was considered a god by his people and treated as such. The style is dreamy and dislocating, purposefully blurring the passing of time and confusing the sense of space. I’m not sure what Sokurov (who serves as his own cinematographer) does to the digital image, but it has both a hyper-immediacy and an alienated disconnection, and at certain junctures, in place of an hard edit, Sokurov employs a rapid dissolve, like some live television trick used to further throw off our sense of engagement. The hazy, at times murky photography suggests both an unreal existence held together by denial and faith and a world overtaken by the smoking ruins of war (a devastated Tokyo, recreated as an equally dream-like special effect, is briefly glimpsed when the Emperor travels to see MacArthur). As such it’s less a history lesson than an intimate and sympathetic rumination on the man behind the power and the entire belief system brought down by defeat in World War II. In Japanese and English with English subtitles. Includes notes on the film by Aleksandr Sokurov, which are in fact excerpts from an interview presented as pages of onscreen text.

Tony Manero (Lorber Films)

The title of this dark crime drama (Chile’s official submission to the 2009 Academy Awards) refers not to a real person but the character from Saturday Night Fever played by John Travolta. Raul (Alfredo Castro), a middle-aged petty thief, lowlife and sociopath in the drab outskirts of 1978 Santiago, watches the film repeatedly at a local dive. He obsessively memorizes the dialogue and mimics the moves in a graceless recreation of Travolta’s commanding dance performance. He even has a replica of the iconic white suit, which he prefers to carry around like a talisman rather than actually wear it, at least until he unleashes his act on a chintzy TV talent show (the movie opens outside the TV studio but our would-be Manero got the wrong date and doesn’t realize he’s lined up with the Chuck Norris impersonators).

Alfredo Castro strikes a pose

Director/co-writer Pablo Larrain steers clear of overt political commentary but hints at the repression, the poverty and the underground resistance in the edges of the story. His commentary comes in his presentation of a miserable, impoverished world with a grimy style and murky palette, and the sociopathic thug at the center of it. Castro plays the part with a dead-eyed blankness, a hollow, terrifying a character who is as repellent as he is fascinating. Under his gray death-mask of a face, however, is a sexually impotent, impulsive, angry old man who fashions his identity after an American movie character and kills anyone who gets in the way of his fantasy. Disturbing, brutal, and with a streak of bleak dark humor, it’s a tough and often unpleasant film designed to discomfort viewers. The film features sexual acts, explicit nudity and brutal acts of violence. In Spanish with English subtitles.

Foyle’s War: Set 6 (Acorn)

Has there been a British TV mystery series (at least since Prime Suspect) with as passionate and loyal a following as Foyle’s War? In 19 episodes, the show gave us a unique perspective on the British homefront, from 1940 to the official end of hostilities, through the eyes of a World War veteran who, told he is too old serve, is coaxed into serving the civilian needs of his country as a Detective Chief Inspector solving domestic murders in rural towns of the southern coast of Britain. They were a fascinating look at a period not often plumbed for drama and stirred historical events into the fictional stories, giving smartly written British mysteries an injection of authenticity and a context that refracts the mysteries through a different social and political reality. And when it came to a very satisfying close with the end of the war, fans were disappointed that there would be no more Foyle’s War.

Mourn no more: DCS Christopher Foyle (Michael Kitchen) is coaxed back from retirement for a few brief months and a brief three-episode encore in these post-war mysteries, set in the upheaval and readjustment of the immediate post-war period. British soldiers are returning, American GIs are antsy as they transports back home lag, and political and social tensions are high. The first mystery, “The Russian House,” churns up a piece of political hypocrisy while Foyle clashes with former assistant Milner (Anthony Howell), when his new case crosses over with Milner’s first solo assignment, and with the military hierarchy when his murder mystery uncovers the military’s blind eye to an inhuman secret deal. Sam (Honeysuckle Weeks) is back too, and she just happens to be working for the victim. “Killing Time” tackles racism in American forces and the American efforts to keep the troops segregated on British soil, and the British accommodation to such “requests” despite the fact that segregation is illegal in Britain. “The Hide” gets into the murky world of double agents and traitors when a murder leads back to both a decades-old murder and the shameful history of the British Free Corps: British soldiers freed from German POW camps to fight for the German cause against the Russians.

Foyle confronts this political hypocrisy, racism, classism and the vestiges of post-war intolerance of all kinds (in his suspects and his superior officers), with his uniquely soft-spoken strength and unwavering moral commitment to the truth. The mix of murder mystery conventions, historical situations and the complicated social reality of soldiers and civilians in 1945 England is as compelling as ever as they adjust to life after war. Creator Anthony Horowitz personally scripts the first and final feature length episodes of this set. And this time, it looks like this time Foyle is retired for good. No supplements.

Available at Amazon:
The Sun
Tony Manero
Foyle’s War: Set 6

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