Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

Videophiled: The Grace and Grandeur of ‘Russian Ark’

RussianArkRussian Ark (Kino, Blu-ray, DVD), Alexander Sokurov’s tribute to the Hermitage Museum through time and space created, would be worth celebrating for its technical achievement alone. In a single, unbroken shot lasting over 90 minutes, the viewer is swept not just through the breadth of the physical space but through hundreds of years of Russian history as we travel through the State Hermitage Museum of Saint Petersburg.

This isn’t documentary, it is historical pageant, with scenes staged for each room along the journey. We glide back and forth in time as we cross the threshholds from one room to another, moving from contemporary patrons appreciating the masterworks on the walls to a carpenter constructing coffins for the dead of World War I, from visits with Catherine the Great to eavesdropping on Cold War era curators discussing to the difficulties in preserving the heritage in the face of a Soviet government intent on rewriting history, and finally dancing through a 19th century ballroom in a finale suffused with a luxurious nostalgia that is as poignant as it is ambiguous.

Our guide is a spindly time traveler (Sergey Dreyden) who flits through history as if at home in other eras, and the camera is the kino-eye of our narrator (Sokurov himself). The handheld camera floats through the world as the distant observer, taking in grand long shots filled with figures or the cavernous spaces of sparsely populated rooms, and moves in to commune with the characters and take in the minute details of individual paintings and sculptures. It’s a delirious piece of cinema, a metaphor for the transporting power of artifacts and art and historical preservation to sweep us into the past, and a work of filmmaking as graceful as ballet. There is nothing else like this.

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Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Technology

Here’s How Indie Movie Rental Stores Are Surviving the New Frontier

Seattle’s Scarecrow Video has been called the greatest video store in the country, praised by the likes of Bernardo Bertolucci (who discovered it while shooting “Little Buddha”) and Quentin Tarantino (who walked from downtown Seattle to the store’s University District location as a kind of pilgrimage to the video Mecca), explored by Bertrand Tavernier in 1997 (he took in the entire laserdisc section and gushed over the selection of Cy Enfield and William Whitney tapes), and voted the Best of Seattle consistently in the annual Seattle Weekly readers polls. (Full disclosure: I was a manager at Scarecrow for three years back in the nineties and I am still a regular customer.)

The floor of Seattle’s Scarecrow Video

Scarecrow opened in 1988 with a couple of hundred videotapes, many of them oddball cult titles, from the personal collection of founder George Latsios. Twenty five years later, after a near-bankruptcy and a rescue by a couple of Microsoft engineers (Carl Tostevin is now the store’s sole owner), it has an inventory of almost 120,000 titles, including the biggest selection of Blu-rays in the city and an envious collection of out-of-print DVDs (as well VHS tapes and laserdiscs that have never been released to DVD) that would command small fortunes on the collector’s market. (Those rentals require a deposit.)

And like most surviving video store in the age of instant streaming and video-on-demand, Scarecrow is struggling to keep customers coming through the doors. General manager Kevin Shannon reports that rentals have dropped over 50% in the last six years.

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Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Horror

Videophiled Cool and Classic: The most gothic ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Nosferatu’ restored

JaneEyreThe 1943 Jane Eyre (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) stars Joan Fontaine as Jane, the heroine of Charlotte Brontë’s classic Gothic romance about a meek orphan hired by a brooding aristocrat to be governess to his young ward, but it’s Orson Welles who dominates the drama with both his dark, electric presence as Edward Rochester and his influence behind the scenes of the production. He’s a bear of a Rochester, a rough, dark figure more at home with his hounds and horses than with people, and Welles drops his voice to a rumbling growl whether he’s barking orders or letting his guard down for a moment of intimacy.

The handsome production, one of the romantic classics of the forties, is directed by the literate British import Robert Stevenson but Welles had a considerable hand in the production, from the visual design of the production to script revisions, all of it uncredited. The result is a beautiful piece of Hollywood Gothic, sculpting a Victorian England completely out of Hollywood artifice and soundstage magic through magnificent set design, dramatic lighting and healthy helpings of stage fog. Just look to the cover of the disc for a sense of the visual atmosphere. This is one of the most expressionist American films of the era and Welles had no small hand in that.

Welles’ former producer and writing partner John Houseman co-wrote the literate screenplay with Aldous Huxley and Stevenson and longtime Welles composer Bernard Herrmann provides the dark, moody score. Agnes Moorehead (another Welles confederate) co-stars with Margaret O’Brien (as Rochester’s French ward), Peggy Ann Garner (Jane as a child) and Henry Daniell, and young Elizabeth Taylor has a small, unbilled role in the opening act as Jane’s only friend.

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NosferatuF.W. Murnau’s silent classic Nosferatu (Kino, Blu-ray) is the first great vampire film, an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” (it was tied up by the Stoker estate for years) which recreates the famous bloodsucker as a feral ghoul: bald, fanged, clawed, a bat-like creature whose bloodlust battles his sexual lust for the virginal Ellen. Count Orlock (played by the spindly, skull-headed Max Schreck) is a veritable force of evil, carrying disease and destruction with him, and Murnau shoots him as an eerie creature of the night, rising like a corpse from his coffin when the sun goes down and skulking in shadow. This Blu-ray debut was mastered in HD from the archival 35mm restoration by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung and features separate versions of the film, one with newly-translated English intertitles and another with original German intertitles (with optional English subtitles), both color tinted and accompanied by Hans Erdmann’s original 1922 score. It also includes the supplements from the previous Kino release: 52-minute documentary “The Language of Shadows: The Early Years and Nosferatu,” a three-minute featurette on the digital restoration, lengthy excerpts from other eight other Murnau silent films, and a stills gallery.

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Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

Videophiled: ‘Man of Steel’ gets solemn, ‘Prince Avalanche’ doesn’t

ManofSteelMan of Steel (Warner, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, DVD) is not a remake of Richard Donner’s Superman films but the inspiration there. Zach Snyder directs this retelling of the origin story, scripted by comic book movie-veteran David S. Goyer, with sturdy, stalwart, and somewhat inexpressive British actor Henry Caville as the adult Superman. The Krypton origin (with Russell Crowe playing his father, Jor-El, sending his baby into space as his planet blows up) and Earth childhood (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane play his loving and protective human parents) is here, as is a city-destroying fight with Krypton patriot Zod (Michael Shannon in this version), the villain of Superman 2. That destruction was singled out for being very un-Superman-like (wouldn’t the red and blue boy scout try to lure Zod someplace a little more remote?) and they have a point. This isn’t The Avengers protecting a city and its people from alien invasion. It’s personal, or at least Snyder tries to make it so, since the rest of the film is a somewhat portentous story of self-discovery by a (super)man who discovers he’s not of this earth but an orphan from space with power greater than any mortal man. With great power comes great responsibility, after all. Wait, that was the other guy, wasn’t it?

Another line from a superhero picture, this one a fellow DC Comics revival, springs to mind: “Why so serious?” There’s nothing wrong with taking a serious approach to the superhero genre – it worked for Batman and The X-Men – but Snyder’s solemnity tends to smother the experience. He give us big spectacle and epic damage in a dour world, draining the screen of bright colors and shooting with that ubiquitous shaky-cam, as if that makes everything seem like a news story in an alternate reality (enough with the exaggerated handheld camerawork already!).

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PrinceAvalancheDavid Gordon Green gets back to the basics with Prince Avalanche (Magnolia, Blu-ray, DVD), a modest, warm-hearted tale of two guys on a rural road crew, painting traffic lines and pounding in roadside posts on winding forest roads in 1988 Central Texas. Paul Rudd is the senior partner in this odd couple, embracing the solitude and peace of the job while professing his commitment to the girl he left behind, and Emile Hirsch is the little brother of his lady love, hired on as a favor even though the boy would rather be partying in the city. It’s a year after forest fires tore through the area and there’s a quality of ghost story to the film, a sense of loss and disconnection that extends to the relationships that get talked about instead of lived.

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Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Reviews

Videophiled: James Dean Ultimate Collector’s Edition

James Dean Ultimate Collector’s Edition (Warner, Blu-ray)

Before the 1950s, there were no teenagers in the movies, at least not as such. There were adults and children, and that awkward age in between was largely seen as, well, that awkward period in between. You had kids on the cusp, troubled young adults, and juvenile delinquents but the teenager, with his / her hormonal surges and anxieties and identity crises, was pretty much ignored.

In many ways, James Dean was the first American teenager, the screen embodiment of the strangled cry of inarticulate kids to old be considered children but unready for the adult world. James Dean had knocked around in small film parts and television plays for a few years before he was case as Cal in East of Eden (1955), Eliza Kazan’s adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel (or rather, a small portion of it), and he became an overnight star. He’s basically a frustrated Cain to the Abel of Richard Davalos’ good son Aron and his performance is raw, tense, a combustible mix of ambition and frustration and desperation as the “bad” brother vying for the attention of his father (Raymond Massey), a hard, driven Salinas Valley farming magnate.

Dean wasn’t Kazan’s first choice for the role – he wanted to cast Brando – but screenwriter Paul Osborne suggested Dean for the part after seeing him on Broadway. Dean came from the Actor’s Studio, where Kazan himself had been active and found Marlon Brando, and Kazan decided to shy away from Hollywood stars for at least some of his leads and instead cast out of the Actor’s Studio, notably Davalos, making his feature debut as the “good” brother Aron, and Julie Harris as Aron’s girlfriend Abra, with whom Cal is in love. Tony Award winner Jo Van Fleet, also from the Actor’s Studio, made her screen debut as Kate, the craggy madam of the local brothel in Monterey who holds a dark secret to the family past, and she took home the film’s sole Academy Award (out of four nominations) for Best Supporting Actress.

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Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

Videophiled: True Blu-ray Americana – ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’ and ‘The Right Stuff’

BestYearsLivesBy all rights, the 1946 homecoming drama The Best Years of Our Lives (Warner, Blu-ray) should have been another well intentioned film left to the dated dustbins of history, but World War II vet William Wyler (working from an original Robert Sherwood script) put more soul into this picture than anything else in his career. Clocking in close to three hours, the characters creep up on you: stiff Dana Andrews whose displaced working class joe can’t seem to find himself again, moral authority Fredric March as a family man and frustrated bank manager, and Harold Russell, a real life paraplegic war survivor as a kid dealing with the emotional and physical challenges of life without arms. They come from different services (Army, Navy, Air Force), different ranks, and different home life situations (upper class husband and father, middle class family son, working class newlywed adult), covering a lot of bases of experience. All they have in common is the same hometown and the same ride home. They get to know one another in the nose of a transport plane as they hop their way across the country. It’s enough to give them a camaraderie and a connection that even their loved ones back home can’t fill.

It’s easy to see the script designed as a “statement” about the experience of the returning veteran and the state of the nation after the end of the war, and there is something sturdy and square about the film, but it fits the subject matter and the gravity of the film. Wyler takes his time to let the characters out slowly, feeling their way back into lives they don’t quite fit into anymore. March won an Oscar for his witty portrayal of a man whose values have been knocked off-balance by the war. Though he’s the least scarred by the war, he’s the first to lubricate his discomfort at social gatherings, getting drunk to avoid facing serious emotional situations or distasteful business obligations. It’s not like he’s an alcoholic (or at least Wyler isn’t quite making that case) but it’s also not as cute as Nick and Nora at cocktail time. He’s getting drunk to escape in a way his buddies do not. And Russell won two Academy Awards for his debut as the easy-going, self-effacing vet who uses humor to deflect pity before it gets spoken but can’t help but feel like he’s come back less a man than he was – the only performer to ever win two Oscars for a single performance. But it’s Andrews who gets the everyman part, the confident American guy who made officer and commanded men under fire yet comes home to find nothing but the same dead-end service job waiting for him. He doesn’t want much, just a chance, and even that seems out of reach in the town the passed him by.

Coming home

Wyler and Sherwood resist any temptation for flashback illustrations (the closest they get is Andrews’ recurring nightmare of a bomber crash, all noise and shadows under his cries) and Wyler is very tender with their experiences. We twice see Russell’s ritual of removing his prosthetic arms and it is a quietly humbling experience that, when it’s over, leaves him dependent on others. Russell exhibits no self-consciousness in the scene, no self pity. It’s about vulnerability, helplessness, trust, and his willingness to be so naked in front of the camera invests an otherwise amiable performance with a life that the movies only previously showed in terms of horror or tragedy. Here, it’s just life and it goes on.

Interestingly enough, Myrna Loy gets top billing for a supporting role (and frankly, she is given little else to do, though she does it with grace, humor, and mature sexiness so little seen in the movies in any era), and Cathy O’Donnell, who went on to become the quintessential fragile or broken innocent of film noir, gets “introducing” credit. And while Virginia Mayo gets a rare dramatic role as Andrews’ fun-loving wife disappointed to find the dashing officer she married now a mere working class civilian, it’s bubbly Teresa Wright as the headstrong daughter of March and Loy who takes a decisive role in their drama.

It won seven Oscars in all, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. The Blu-ray debut is very handsome (Blu-ray can give black-and-white movies such visual depth!) and features a video introduction by Virginia Mayo and interviews with Mayo and Teresa Wright.

RightStuffThe Right Stuff (Warner, Blu-ray), Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s acclaimed portrait of the original NASA astronauts, is *the* American epic of the last great frontier and a genuinely romantic take on the first generation of space cowboys. In fact, we know that Kaufman’s heart lays with test pilot cowboy Chuck Yeager, played by Sam Shepard as a man who rides horses when he’s not punching a hole through the sound barrier. The three-hour-plus film, narrated by Levon Helm in a storyteller’s drawl as if recounting a myth, follows the story of the race to claim the skies from the competitive culture of the test pilots in New Mexico to the rush to beat the Soviets to the moon after they put the first man in space. The shift in national priorities (“You know what makes those ships go? Funding!”) and public attention left Yeager and the jet cowboys behind and gave us new American heroes: the astronauts. And while Kaufman clearly reveres Yeager, he celebrates the courage and the commitment of the original astronauts and gives them their own mythic resonance.

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Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

Videophiled: A longer ‘Hobbit’ and De Palma’s dispassionate ‘Passion’

HobbitExtThe Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – Extended Edition (New Line, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, DVD) follows the pattern that director Peter Jackson set on his The Lord of the Rings films. The theatrical cut came out earlier this year, and now the “Extended Edition” arrives. In the previous trilogy, those additions returned scenes from the book that had been edited out for narrative momentum, giving the film more heft as well as more intimacy. In the case of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, however, less than 15 minutes of footage is added to the film, and many (including myself) feel that it’s too long in the first place.

Tolkein wrote The Hobbit long before even contemplating his epic trilogy and the book is a modest, simple fantasy adventure compared to the sweep and scale of the subsequent books. Jackson approaches his adaptation, however, in light of the “events to come” and directs with the same gravity and sense of peril as we experienced in The Lord of the Rings, which seems like overkill to this smaller scale story. It’s impressively produced but overburdened with import and foreshadowing. Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and the dwarfs don’t even get out of the hobbit hole for an hour and they can just see their destination on the horizon before the credits roll. While some fans may enjoy the added time in Middle Earth, it just slows their journey that much more.

More attractive than the added footage is the epic extras. The theatrical cut carried about two hours of behind-the-scene featurettes originally produced for the web. This edition offers commentary by Jackson and co-writer Philippa Boyens and two more chapters in the epic “Appendices” with more than nine hours of documentaries, behind-the-scenes featurettes, interviews, and other explorations of the book and the adaptation. This is what makes Jackson’s special editions more special than anybody else’s.

PassionThere isn’t a lot of passion in Brian De Palma’s Passion (eOne, Blu-ray, DVD) but there is a love of kinkiness, flirtation, sensation, and the thrill of playing big business games and an odd intimacy that we don’t always get in De Palma’s coolly observed, stylistically exacting cinema. The opening scene has an easy intimacy of colleagues (Rachel McAdams as boss Christine and Noomi Rapace as trusted assistant Isabelle) with their respective guards down, or so it seems. “There’s no backstabbing here, it’s just business,” claims Christine after taking credit for Isabelle’s idea, and her attitude suggests that she really believes it. Isabelle, however, takes it personally, something between a betrayal and a personal affront, and when she kisses Christine on the lips, it’s not a seduction or a forgiveness. She’s planting the kiss of death.

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Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Reviews

Blu-ray: ‘The Spy Who Came In From the Cold’

John le Carré’s novels of national intelligence and international espionage during the Cold War arrived as an antidote to the Bond novels of the 1950s and spy fantasy movies of the 1960s and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, his third novel, perfected his morally ambivalent perspective. This is a culture where ordinary, drab men toil away unglamorously in the shadows while bureaucrats make calculated decisions and spin elaborate schemes that put men in harm’s way. The book was published in 1963 and in 1965 it became the first of le Carré’s novels adapted for the big screen.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is directed and produced by the versatile Martin Ritt, an American with a legacy of intelligent films and mature themes, including the somber, subdued, conflicted modern western Hud. He brings the same commitment to le Carre’s vision. It’s shot on location in Britain and Europe with a British screenwriter, crew, and cast, and it has a sensibility marinated in British restraint and Le Carre’s ambivalence and mistrust of methods and motivations on both sides of the Cold War.

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Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

Blu-ray: ‘Drug War’

Johnnie To never received the attention that previous Hong Kong action directors John Woo and Tsui Hark and Jackie Chan got in the U.S. While he delivers the goods when it comes to visceral violence and kinetic action, he’s not flamboyant or outrageous, and he focuses on the intimate more than the epic. The pleasures are as much in the tight plotting, the intricate weave of stories and plotlines and character journeys, and the stripped-down style as the spectacle of gunplay and chases and the physics of momentum and resistance.

‘Drug War’

To has been working this manner of crime cinema for decades, but it was with The Mission (1999) that he really found his métier: the dynamics of teamwork in a world of violence, whether crooks (Exiled, 2006, Vengeance, 2009) or cops (PTU, 2003). He also continues to make hit comedies, romances, and social dramas, but his crime dramas are his most distinctive and accomplished films and he’s been continually streamlining his style, stripping his films of extraneous detail, be it personal subplots or backstories or the kinds of motivation these films always feel the need to express in breaks for exposition. For To, character is defined by what side you pick and how you do your job.

Drug War is To’s first crime thriller set in Mainland China. He trades the urban overcrowding and overheated capitalism of Hong Kong for the open plains and lonely highways of Tianjin but otherwise it is a classic Hong Kong-style police procedural driven by one of To’s trademark teams. It opens on a police stake-out for drug mules at a border crossing and rapidly upshifts into a once-in-a-lifetime crack at the crime kingpins thanks to a remarkably accommodating informant (To regular Louis Koo) and a tight timeline. A major heroin deal is about to go down and they have to improvise on the fly if they want a shot at following the trail to the kingpins.

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Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

Videophiled: The Blood of ‘Byzantium,’ the Dreams of ‘Tabu’

ByzantiumThe timing of Byzantium (IFC, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital, VOD), arriving two days before Halloween, is not coincidence, but Neil Jordan’s take on the vampire genre (from a play by Moira Buffin) is not a traditional horror film. There is blood, of course, and there is sex, but it’s less eros and more survival here, with Clara (Gemma Arterton) walking the streets (on in this case, the boardwalk of a British coastal town in the off-season) to pay the bills for herself and her daughter Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), an eternal sensitive teen pouring out her soul in unread letters cast to the wind. It’s a Gothic tale with a twist of conspiracy and a radically different take on vampirism as ancient earth force tightly controlled by a male cabal who treat the transformation like a patriarchal right. Only men can birth eternals and Clara has broken the covenant by giving immortality to her dying daughter. Which makes her a target.

Jordan keeps returning to themes of fairy tale and myth and Byzantium is rich with metaphor and sexual politics, almost overwhelmingly so. Set in a seedy coastal town, where Clara has dragged Eleanor after escaping an assassin, and peppered with flashbacks to a life of degradation at the hands of a British officer (a proudly debauched Jonny Lee Miller), it plays with tropes of the female vampire as icy seductress. Clara is more of a tigress protecting her cub from a hunting party of male predators and her victims are, for the most part, predators in their own right while Eleanor, locked in transition from girl to woman for a couple of centuries, is the eternal innocent who only feeds on the willing like a melancholy angel of death. Clara’s feeding can get a bit messy but Eleanor takes only by consent and leaves them in a state of peace.

You won’t find fangs or wooden stakes here (they draw blood with knife-like fingernails) and sunlight doesn’t sear the flesh. Jordan creates his own rituals, notably the transformation as sacrificial offering to the Earth itself that is sealed in blood running over the black rocks of a forsaken island off Britain. That’s a primordial image as resonant as any classic vampire movie and it gives the film a foundation stronger than the script’s Masonic conspiracy of loyal eternals hunting down our heroines. (If souls are the cost of eternity, then men give them up willingly to the cabal in this version.) For all its darkness (literally as well as figuratively) and blood, it’s quite lyrical and evocative and elemental. Vampirism is both a gift and a curse, a kind of priesthood bestowed by the Earth and corrupted by the men who would try to control it. These women offer an alternative moral approach. The discs features interviews.

TabuMiguel Gomes’ Tabu (Kino Lorber, DVD), not to be confused with Murnau classic, almost defies description. It’s a film split in two parts, the first half set in present-day Lisbon where middle-aged Pilar (Teresa Madruga) falls into a routine that includes checking in on her elderly, deteriorating upstairs neighbor, Aurora (Laura Soveral). She calls for a Mr. Ventura as she dies and, as he tells Pilar the story of their past in colonial Africa of the early 1960s, “Paradise Lost” shifts back to “Paradise,” a dream-like remembrance told in voice-over. There no dialogue in this impressionistic recall of a lugubrious life out of time where days run into months without a change in routines or even weather, but ambient sound (and a soundtrack including Portuguese takes on Phil Spector music) adds to the spell this poetic picture casts.

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