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

Guédiguian’s French Resistance, Fuller’s America and Early Corman – DVDs of the Week

Army of Crime (Kino Lorber)

Don’t let the title throw you. The heroes of Robert Guédiguian’s based-on-a-true-story French war drama are not The Dirty Dozen unleashed on the Nazis but a remarkably effective resistance cell formed of French Jews, communists and immigrants—the very “undesirables” targeted by the Nazis for the camps. Guédiguian’s previous films—at least ones I’ve had the good fortune to see—have been small dramas about communities of immigrants, underemployed and outcasts that pull together and to maintain their identities. Army of Crime offers a much bigger canvas—and a setting with profound resonance—for that theme to play out, and Guédiguian invites members of his stock company to fill out major roles.

“Army of Crime”: Battlefield Paris

Simon Abkarian is the Armenian poet, Communist and pacifist who leaves a concentration camp with a lie and takes up arms to lead a team of members not known for following orders, Virginie Ledoyen his devoted wife and partner and Robinson Stévenin and Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet the reckless but passionate daredevil partisans under his command. Their stories play out slowly, the better to let the oppressive culture of occupied Paris (and of the widespread collaboration of police who support the racial policies, if not the authoritarian structure, of the Nazis occupation) sink in while sowing the tensions between the Communist leaders of the resistance and the non-Communist soldiers who fight for their own reasons: vengeance, defiance, love of country and the simple act of self-preservation under a regime dedicated to eradicating their existence. By the time the unit forms, you are ready for them to take the offensive, even as we know how it ends: the film opens with a spoken memorial to their sacrifice.

Read More “Guédiguian’s French Resistance, Fuller’s America and Early Corman – DVDs of the Week”

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

Real People in a Virtual World: The Social Network – DVD of the Week

The Social Network (Sony)

The DVD/Blu-ray release of the week is without a doubt the much-lauded The Social Network, the favorite leading into the Oscar season. Directed with typical technical fastidiousness and textural richness by David Fincher from a verbally dexterous script by Aaron Sorkin, this story of the creation of Facebook is not really about Facebook but the people who created it and how relationships unraveled on its trajectory to becoming a national (and eventually global) phenomenon and multi-million (now multi-billion) dollar business. There’s been more written about this film than anything other American release this year (or so it appears from my unscientific survey) and Time magazine’s decision to name Zuckerberg the Man of the Year has only added to the attention. And I’m still fascinated by the film and Fincher’s exacting direction, jumping between the two separate depositions that he weaves through the flashback narrative, not so much muddying the record as revealing through the complexity of the story and the characters. I’m not sure I have anything new to add to the discussion, but there’s still plenty in the film worth talking about.

The excitement of friends embarking on a great adventure

The Social Network presents Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) as a self-involved nerd genius in Harvard who wants social acceptance but hasn’t a clue as to how to social interaction really works, either on a date—the opening scene of the film, where he literally drives away his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara) by deriding her inability to keep up with his ping-ponging monologue and responding to her comments as if they were attacks upon his identity—or with his friends. The irony inherent in the film is that this young, arrogant genius with no people skills managed to deconstruct and reconstruct the social experience as a web-based simulacrum, and that this seriously uncool outcast designed an online community the thrived because it was cool.

Read More “Real People in a Virtual World: The Social Network – DVD of the Week”

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

Machete to the Catfish – DVDs of the Week

Machete (Fox)

Born of a tongue-in-cheek trailer for a border revenge movie that never was, Robert Rodriguez’s big-budget drive-in flick is a more convincing slice of B-movie love than his earlier Planet Terror, certainly more coherent.

Rousing the immigrant nation

Danny Trejo (a Rodriguez favorite) is the former Mexican federalé who turns into a one-man strike force after his family is massacred by a drug lord (Steven Seagal—who can’t keep his accent consistent, let alone convincing—as the pudgiest Mexican drug lord yet seen in the movies) and he’s framed for the attempted assassination of a corrupt Senator (Robert De Niro) by his drug-dealing campaign manager (Jeff Fahey). De Niro’s drawling politico plays the anti-immigration card as a racist scare campaign (he secretly funds a vigilante border patrol run by Don Johnson and uses the patrols as a target range with moving targets) as Rodriquez turns Machete into the protector of the downtrodden immigrants of Texas who fill the lowest-rung of the job market. It’s no coincidence that this hatchet-faced hero uses the tools of Mexican laborers to do most of his battling—hedge clippers, weed eaters, cooking utensils and his weapon of choice, the machete. Don’t call it political subtext, though. Rodriguez’s politics are right on the surface and about as complex as the film’s revenge plot, a kind-of populist response to the anti-immigration rhetoric from the more extreme margins of the political echo chamber. Rather, this is Rodriguez’s Latino answer to the blaxpoitation action films of the seventies, complete with Trejo as an accidental sweet sweetback sex machine, irresistible to every woman he meets without making the slightest overture to toward them.

Read More “Machete to the Catfish – DVDs of the Week”

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

Best DVD / Blu-ray of 2010

Best-of lists are by their nature subjective things, and even more so when it comes to DVD/Blu-ray. What makes a DVD release the “best”? The movie itself? The video and audio quality of the mastering and presentation? The supplements? Rarity of the title? Scope of the collection? Critical acclaim? Cult demand? Some inexplicable balance of some or all of these?

Well, I guess the latter is the closest we’ll come to quantifying the mysterious process, which is why rather than the usual Top Ten list, I’ve broken my picks into categories, so I can celebrate a box set achievement separately from a brilliant home video debut separately from a landmark restoration. Which is not to say this list is not run through with my own subjective judgments, simply that I have found my own way to spread the love around (including naming runners-up as my whims take me). I reviewed most (though not all) of these on various websites (including Parallax View) and have linked to these longer pieces wherever possible. And one last note: The picks are limited to American home video releases, simply because that’s my bailiwick and I haven’t the time or resources to explore the wealth of foreign releases that come out every year.

And for the 2010 release that I love most, allow me to present my…

DVD Release of the Year

Three Silent Classics by Josef Von Sternberg (Criterion)

Josef von Sternberg is the great stylist of the thirties, a Hollywood maverick with a taste for visual exoticism and baroque flourishes (which prompted David Thomson to dub him “the first poet of underground cinema”), but step back into his silent work and you’ll find a storyteller of unparalleled talent and one of the great directors of silent cinema.

Read More “Best DVD / Blu-ray of 2010”

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

Meet the Americans: John Doe and George Clooney – DVDs of the Week

Meet John Doe: 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition (VCI)

Frank Capra’s last feature before leaving Hollywood to contribute his filmmaking talents to the war effort is his most populist piece of social commentary, a cynical satire of a publicity stunt that turns into a popular political movement.

Hashing out the politics of John Doe

Barbara Stanwyck is equal parts street-smart spunk and ferocious ambition as Ann Mitchell, a newspaper columnist swept out with the rest of the staff when a new owner takes over and leaves a kiss-off piece that starts a ruckus, drives sales and puts her in a prime position to negotiate a new contract, providing she keeps delivering her voice-of-the-people. Gary Cooper is at his laconic, everyman best as former minor league pitcher Long John Willoughby, now a homeless, unemployed drifter hired to play the role of Ann’s fictional John Doe, the voice of the people whose “letters” she writes for the paper. He becomes the public voice, his lazy delivery, lanky body language and homespun spirit giving her words an authenticity that raises the depressed spirits of struggling Americans and sparks a spontaneous grass roots movement.

Read More “Meet the Americans: John Doe and George Clooney – DVDs of the Week”

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

Inception: It’s All in Your Mind

Inception (Warner)

Christopher Nolan’s Inception, a caper film that heists dreams instead of treasure, is surely the most cerebral action thriller to become a blockbuster. It’s a genre film that reshuffles the rules and lays them out in a mind-bending pattern. Playing out on multiple planes of dream reality, it’s also another Nolan film to completely reimagine the world of cause and effect. But rather than tell a story, Nolan builds a construct and then plays within that construct. This script is more designed than written, the film constructed as much as directed, and that becomes all the more evident on repeat viewings.

Leonardo DiCaprio faces the dream

This is architecture as cinema, on every level: Narrative, conceptual, symbolic, visual, with story and characters sacrificed to the density of rules and limitations of  fantastical (meta)physical laws. It is so dense with angles and layers and details of meaning that I don’t think there is a line of dialogue in the film that does not somehow serve the exposition. Inception is so high concept that it becomes all concept and puzzle and narrative play at the sacrifice of story. By that I mean it foregrounds plot (a series of events) over story (the journey of a character).

Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb is the team leader of this psych-squad with a simple motivation (clear his name and get back home), and a head case on a level all his own. The backstory explains how he lost his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), in experiments in dreamtime, and as a result lost his life, putting him on the run as a wanted man unable to see his children. She now haunts his psyche as a phantom turned nemesis. You could call her the ghost in the machine but really Mal is a symbol of guilt, loss and self-blame as an avatar, a manifestation of his own psyche punishing itself in the most effective way it knows: not simply to remind Cobb of what happened to her, but to sabotage his capers.

Read More “Inception: It’s All in Your Mind”

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

Liverpool and America Lost And Found: The BBS Story – DVDs/Blu-rays of the Week

Liverpool (Kino)

A journey through the bleak winter landscape of Tierra Del Fuego, Lisandro Alonso’s fourth feature Liverpool is part road movie and part enigmatic character piece. A sailor (Juan Fernández, a non-actor that Alonso met while scouting the area and developing the script) jumps ship when his freighter docks at the frozen port of the icy southern tip of Argentina and heads inland (to see, tells someone, if his mother is still alive). He hits a strip club, bums rides from truck stops and drinks himself into blackouts from a seemingly bottomless bottle. He wakes up one morning in an outhouse, almost dead from exposure, in a scene played for mordant humor, and takes stock of his town (less a village than a leftover community that remained behind after the collapse of a mill town) like a stranger who wandered in, without actually connecting with anyone.

Jumping ship in Liverpool

That’s pretty much the narrative movement of the film, but it’s not the story. Explanations are kept to a minimum (you have to wait for the final shot for any explanation of the title, and even then it’s no explanation, merely a suggestion of possibilities) and the motivations are vague, perhaps even to the protagonist (hero seems so inapt for this disconnected figure). The beauty is in the way Alonso observes his characters moving through space and time and measures the beats between the action. This sailor may not connect and Alonso’s removed vantage point may seem disconnected from the events, but he ends the film by leading into a new, more hopeful story family and community. He lets us connect.

Read More “Liverpool and America Lost And Found: The BBS Story – DVDs/Blu-rays of the Week”

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

Modern Times, Night of the Hunter and The Elia Kazan Collection – DVDs of the Week

An embarrassment of riches and due to combination of late arrivals, a weekend without movies, a pesky head cold and a time-consuming website upgrade, I had less time with them than I would have liked and and my coverage is late. Thus, a major box from a seminal American director (released November 9) and two previously available essentials getting the Criterion treatment on DVD and debuting on Blu-ray (released on November 16). Submitted for your approval.

The Elia Kazan Collection (Fox)

To call this exhaustive box set a labor of love from Martin Scorsese risks understating its importance to Scorsese. The filmmaker cineaste and film preservation activist is overflowing with labors of love. And while in some ways this is a celebration of one director’s tremendous legacy in the American cinema, it’s also a gift from a child of the fifties to a man he identifies as a father figure solely because of his cinema.

Elia Kazan

Along with the fifteen films in the set, Scorsese contributes a personal tribute to the director with a new documentary. The hour-long A Letter to Elia, written and directed by Scorsese and Kent Jones and narrated by Scorsese, is not a conventional survey of the director and his work or a simple tribute from another admiring director. This is a first-person reflection on the films and the creator, a mix of history, biography and aesthetic appreciation informed by the personal connection that one can have with films. Scorsese explores the powerful connection he made with Kazan’s art and vision, especially On the Waterfront, which Scorsese remarks was set in the urban New York world he lived in, and East of Eden, two formative films in Scorsese’s coming-of-age as an artist and a person: “It spoke to me in a way that no one else I knew in my life seemed to be able to,” he says of Eden. “The more I saw the picture, the more I became aware of the presence of an artist behind the picture.”

Read More “Modern Times, Night of the Hunter and The Elia Kazan Collection – DVDs of the Week”

Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Science Fiction, Silent Cinema

Metropolis Reconstructed and Vengeance Dissected – DVDs of the Week

The Complete Metropolis (Kino)

Maria! I just met a girl named Maria!

Fritz Lang’s 1927 epic is revered as a landmark science fiction filmmaking, a masterpiece of silent film and a visionary work of cinema, and its reputation has been based on an incomplete version of his original film. Less than six months after its premiere, the film was edited down by Ufa Studio by over half an hour, and cut even further as it made its way around the world.

With the miraculous discover of a damaged and worn 16mm print in Argentina, the Murnau Institute (which created a gorgeous, though far from complete, restoration from available materials less than a decade about) has been able to finally restore the film to its almost complete form (it is still missing a couple of minutes of footage). Lang’s visionary visual creation remains impressive almost 80 years later, from the densely imagined cityscape to the massive sets that dwarf the actors and the swarms of extras and give the film a monumental scale, and its socio-political themes are just as soft-headed and simplistic.

Read More “Metropolis Reconstructed and Vengeance Dissected – DVDs of the Week”

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

Antichrist and The Complete Larry Sanders – DVDs of the Week

Antichrist (Criterion)

I’m not sure how I manage to keep my simultaneous fascination with /repulsion for Lars von Trier in balance, but it’s back with a vengeance in Antichrist (Criterion), another provocation that is at once beautiful and perverse, personal and cynical, and filled with his sour vision of the emotional small-mindedness (small-heartedness?) of the human animal. This one, a portrait of marriage as a morass of anger, suspicion and power after she (Charlotte Gainsbourg) falls into a pit of suicidal depression and he (Willem Dafoe), a psychiatrist, takes personal charge of her treatment in a rural escape called Eden that von Trier twists into a diseased hell: paradise rotted.

Antichrist: Sex and Death

It all turns on the death of their infant child, which crawls through an open window and falls to its death while the parents are occupied in a slow-motion ballet of aggressive, feral sex. Anthony Dod Mantle is back behind the camera delivering Von Trier’s now familiar art-house look of carefully composed and stunningly sculpted establishing shots and framing sequences (like the B&W prelude of sex and death in the whisper of falling snow) while handheld photography takes us through the cover art frame and into their psychodrama.

Read More “Antichrist and The Complete Larry Sanders – DVDs of the Week”