Jul 23 2014

Blu-ray: ‘Trans-Europ-Express’

Alain Robbe-Grillet is best known as an experiment novelist in the nouvelle roman movement of the fifties and as the screenwriter of Alain Resnais’ elegant yet conceptually daring French nouvelle vague landmark Last Year at Marienbad. But Robbe-Grillet was also a filmmaker in his own right. He directed ten features in a career that spanned over 40 years. Until this year, only two of those films had been released on disc in the U.S.: the 1983 La Belle Captive (from the now defunct Koch Lorber label) and his final feature Gradiva (from Mondo Macabro). Now Kino Lorber, in partnership with the British label Redemption, has announced a slate of six Robbe-Grillet films for release on Blu-ray and DVD. Trans-Europ-Express is one of the first releases from this collection.

A lighthearted play with spy movies, erotica, and storytelling from 1967, Trans-Europ-Express is the director’s second directorial effort and his most popular success and audience-friendly production. It opens on a trio of movie folk–a director (played by Robbe-Grillet himself), a producer (actual film producer Paul Louyet), and a secretary / script supervisor (Catherine Robbe-Grillet–you get the idea)–boarding a train (the Trans-Europ-Express, naturally) and brainstorming a story for a film about drug trafficking between Paris and Antwerp. When the actor Jean-Louis Trintignant (fresh from furtively picking up a bondage magazine at the station newsstand) briefly ducks into their cabin, he’s recognized by the filmmakers and quickly cast as their main character, Elias, a smuggler involved in a big score with a shady criminal. Their sketchy, silly little plot (initially illustrated in a gag sequence right out of a silent movie parody) suddenly gets a face and a grounding. As much as a film that is constantly rewritten and revised can be said to be grounded.

Think of it as Robbe-Grillet’s Breathless, a pulp story refracted through the director’s own distinctive take on narrative deconstruction and sexual perversity.

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Jul 22 2014

Videophiled: ‘Transcendence’ and ‘Sabotage’ fail

Transcendence

Transcendence (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, Cable VOD) marks the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, Oscar-winning cinematographer to Christopher Nolan. His visual intelligence, however, doesn’t transcend the dead weight passing as a script in this confused science fiction thriller starring Johnny Depp as a computer science genius whose mind is uploaded to an experimental computer program with the potential capabilities of artificial intelligence. Sure enough, once the program loads, the intelligence is off and running through the interwebs, escaping the lab and making a fortune in the markets, enough to fund a secret site in the middle of the desert where… well, this is, after all, a film that opens with the end of the world as we know it, a technology dead zone where the human race becomes squatters in the husks of desolate cities, and flashes back to the events that brought us to this point.

Rebecca Hall stars as Depp’s nearly-as-brilliant but more socially-adept wife who embraces the cyber-Depp, whose voice seeps out of every corner of the wired world and whose digitized face emerges from screen, as if Depp 2.0 is still her husband but in digital form, not really taking over the world, just trying to fix it up to make her dreams of a better world come true. If that’s the case, you gotta give the guy points for going the distance to impress a girl. But the film itself isn’t so much ambiguous on the AI’s real’s identity and motivation as simply sloppy and lazy, straddling flat cliché and unconvincing sentiment without making either convincing. This virtual being of seeming unlimited power, which can sends bazillions of nanobots into the atmosphere and pull the strings on dozens of enhanced human soldiers in a guerrilla war, is faced with a dilemma that confirms that the screenwriter ran out of ideas early on in the screenwriting process. Pfister provides some really arresting imagery as the revolution is fought with nanobots and human drones and technology so advanced that it looks like magic to us, yet fails to make any of it interesting, let alone compelling. Even a solid cast – Paul Bettany as the best friend and nominal point-of-view figure, Kate Mara as the possibly mad anti-technology terrorist, Morgan Freeman as the Morgan Freeman character – can’t make us care what happens to anyone here. Suddenly, the idea of just shutting it all down and starting all over again doesn’t sound so bad.

Blu-ray and DVD, with the featurettes “What is Transcendence?” and “Wally Pfister: A Singular Vision.” The Blu-ray Combo Pack adds two addition featurettes (“Guarding the Threat” and “The Promise of A.I.”) and three viral videos, and includes bonus DVD and UltraViolet digital copies. Also available on Digital and VOD.

Sabotage

Sabotage (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, Cable VOD) is strange creature, a violent cop thriller from David Ayer that combines the gritty urban sensibility and revenge-movie doom of Ayer’s excellent End of Watch with a high-concept corruption plot and a clumsy star-vehicle lead by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is tasked with playing a papa bear leader to a team of adrenaline-junkie specialists in a DEA tactical unit with military skills and firepower. Their discipline ends when the mission is over, which makes them dangerous and unpredictable. And not particularly likable either, though Mireille Enos is awfully fun to watch as the team’s sole female warrior and most out-of-control element. The rest of the team members are less memorable despite the casting of such genre veterans as Sam Worthington, Joe Manganiello, Josh Holloway, Terrence Howard and Max Martini, and they are certainly less memorable as characters than murder victims.

The film opens with them making off with a drug lord’s fortune during an official police raid and soon afterwards the money disappears and the team members get hunted down and murdered in splattery fashion. This isn’t the spectacular, oversized kind of violence of “Red,” where everything is just a little tongue-in-cheek or at least comic-book unreal. This is all about the meat left behind a death-by-train, the spatter of a bullet wound, and the spewing exit viscera of a head shot, all of it photographed in dripping detail. It all gets pretty numbing, just like Schwarzenegger’s one-dimensional performance. And that love scene with Olivia Williams? I hope she got hazard pay for it.

Blu-ray and DVD with a short, promotional-style “Making Sabotage” featurette, deleted scenes, and two alternate endings. The Blu-ray also includes bonus DVD and UltraViolet digital copies. Also available on Digital and VOD.

More new releases at Cinephiled

Jul 22 2014

Blu-ray: ‘Performance’

To many fans, Performance (1970) is legendary as the dramatic feature film debut of Mick Jagger. Though released in 1970, the film–about a short-fused punk of a London gangster named Chas (James Fox) who hides out from the cops and the crooks alike in the basement flat of a reclusive rock stars’ (Jagger) dilapidated mansion–was shot in 1968, at the height of Jagger’s bad-boy infamy. The Rolling Stones had released “Between the Buttons,” “Their Satanic Majesty’s Request,” and “Beggar’s Banquet,” and Jagger and Keith Richards had been arrested and convicted on drug charges in 1967. By the time the film was released he was the poster man-boy of rock decadence and the devil’s music, dangerous and seductive, and he became a sexual icon in a way the Beatles could never be. But Jagger has less screen time and a far less central role in this drama than you might guess, given the way his presence transforms the film.

Performance opens as a crime thriller steeped in London gangster machismo. Chas, an angry, vicious young thug always on the edge of spinning out of control, is the young enforcer for mobster Harry Flowers (Johnny Shannon), an old school gang leader making his play to consolidate his control over his section of London. The problem is that Chas likes his work far too much and has a tendency to overreach his orders, especially when they call for restraint. Chas is an artist of destruction. Which of course comes back to bite him. His zeal threatens Harry’s new alliance and puts him in the crosshairs of the underworld and the cops alike.

Performance is the directorial debut of both cinematographer Nicolas Roeg and artist / writer Donald Cammell, who teamed up to co-direct. It’s a heady brew from the opening scene, which stitches two seemingly disconnected storylines with aggressive editing that seems to rewrite the script as it weaves scenes together.

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Jul 20 2014

Blu-ray: ‘The Big Gundown’

Sergio Leone is unarguably the godfather of spaghetti westerns. He directed its first international smash of the genre, defined the spare, savage style and mercenary sensibility, and made stars of journeymen actors Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef. But he was far from the only director who made his mark in the genre. Among the filmmakers who carved out their own style in the genre were Sergio Corbucci, Damiano Damiani, Enzo G. Castillari, and Sergio Sollima, whose trilogy of films with Tomas Milian take a more politically charged approach to the brutal tales of greed and betrayal and revenge that ground most spaghetti western scripts.

The Big Gundown (1966), Sollima’s first spaghetti western, stars Lee Van Cleef in a rare heroic role as Jonathan Corbett, a dogged lawman without a badge who applies an unwavering sense of justice. Fresh off For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Van Cleef was an instant icon of the genre; the American posters even promoted the film with a reference to his Leone success: “Mr. Ugly is back.” (Never mind that he was actually “the bad” man of the trio.) Sollima casts him as an unusual kind of hero who hunts down wanted men yet refuses to collect the bounty on their heads. His code is honorable (he literally hands a ragged band of outlaws a chance to go out shooting rather than face the rope) but unforgiving, an Old Testament angel as gunslinger passing judgment on the wanted men of his promised land of Texas. His lean features, windblown face, and hard, piercing eyes makes him stand out in the cast of Italian and European actors standing in for American settlers and Mexican peasants.

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Jul 19 2014

Blu-ray: ‘The Wind and the Lion’

John Milius occupies a curious place in the culture of American filmmakers of the seventies. In the age of new, young, maverick voices, he’s the rugged American individualist with conservative politics and iconoclastic heroes. He’s fascinated with military culture and imperialist adventure, caught up in the tension between American isolation and intervention, in debt to the romantic ideals of honor and duty idealized in John Ford’s cavalry films, and celebratory of the glory of battle, whether in war, on a surfboard challenging waves, or swinging a sword in the age of barbarism. In an era of secular liberalism, he’s the wildman conservative of mythical heroes and combat veterans, but he’s also more than that, as David Thomson notes in his Biographical Dictionary of Film: “He is an anarchist, he is articulate, and he has an unshakable faith in human grandeur….”

The Wind and the Lion (1972), the sophomore feature of the film school-trained screenwriter turned director, takes on a romantic tale of rebellion and response, honorable ancient codes and modern military might, and the first stirrings of the United States of America, the modern, maverick young country in a political culture dominated by the history-seeped empires of old Europe, as a world power. And it does so in a cagily budget-minded take on the sweeping military epics and colonial adventures of the 1950s and 1960s, a sensibility appropriated in the opening seconds of the film as Jerry Goldsmith’s grandly dramatic score plays under the credits etched into the handsome parchment of a yesteryear Hollywood frame.

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Jul 19 2014

Blu-ray: ‘The Man From Laramie’

James Stewart roughed up his all-American nice guy image in five westerns he made with director Anthony Mann, the best of the seven films they made together in the 1950s, most of them for Universal Studios. The Man From Laramie (1955), their final collaboration, was made for Columbia and it was the first film that Mann shot in the still novel CinemaScope anamorphic widescreen format, which debuted just a couple of years earlier. It was a natural for Mann’s kind of western filmmaking, where the landscape and environment is a defining part of the drama and an integral element of the film’s tone and sensibility. For The Man From Laramie, Mann shot in the high plains and the ribbons of ridges of New Mexico, stretched far across the widescreen canvas. It’s lovely but forbidding, a mix of inviting green and forbidding desert and rock, and it is far from any other settlement, right in the heart of Indian country.

Into this beautiful but isolated land rides Will Lockhart (Stewart) and the wagon train of his freight company. He also has personal business in the territory and it has something to do with the charred remains of a wagon train they pass along the way. Stewart eases up on the neurotic edge he brought to earlier Mann films Winchester 73 and The Naked Spur and is even quite charming when he first arrives in town and meets Barbara (Cathy Downs) with his wagonloads of freight. When she offers him tea, he smiles at the thought of so civilized a break from the trail and watches her bustle about with an appreciation for the feminine presence in his life, no matter how fleeting. But he’s a hard, driven man as the dark expression that passes over his face at the massacre graveyard communicates.

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Jul 18 2014

Videophiled TVD: ‘Endeavour: Series 2’

EndeavopurS2

Endeavour: Series 2 (PBS, Blu-ray, DVD), the Inspector Morse prequel set in 1960s Oxford, opens with the young Detective Inspector Endeavour Morse (played by Shaun Evans) recovering from a gunshot wound that almost killed him at the end of the previous series. His superior officer and mentor DI Thursday (Roger Allam) worries that Morse has lost the passion and commitment to police work that made him stand out in a department filled with compromised and corruptible officers, but in his first investigation back on the job, Morse discovers evidence that a suspected suicide is actually murder.

He tends to alienate the veteran officers with his intellect and his abrasive, argumentative attitude and Thursday protects him from the older commanding officers, though by the final mystery of this set Thursday is pressured to retire, which leaves Morse with little incentive to remain. More interesting than the personal conflicts of this series is the way that the four mysteries reveal an environment of intolerance and abuse and, in the final mysteries, a culture of corruption that goes back decades and reaches to the most powerful people in Oxford. And on a lighter note (because it can’t all be gloomy and dire), Endeavour starts dating a nurse in his apartment building. This series forges its own identity unique from the beloved “Inspector Morse” series and the second series develops the show into one of the best British mysteries running today. Four feature-length mysteries on two discs on Blu-ray and DVD. The discs offer the complete British versions of the shows, which are longer than the versions broadcast on Masterpiece Mystery on PBS.

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Jul 17 2014

Videophiled TVD: ‘Orphan Black’ is Back

OrphanBlackS2

Orphan Black: Season Two (BBC, Blu-ray, DVD) confirms what I suspected back when I binge-watched the first season on disc last year: this BBC America original series (which is, of course, produced in Canada by a Canadian creative crew) soars almost entirely on the wings of its star Tatiana Maslany, who not only plays the five clones at the center of the conspiracy drama but a few others who have drifted in and out of the show in its initial two seasons. It’s more than simply an impressive performance, or rather collection of performances, as each character has a distinct and different personality. Maslany brings the show to life with the intensity of each of the characters and the evolution of their relationships to one another, often acting against herself through digital trickery. The characters are far more engaging than the conspiracy storyline, which runs through familiar cycles of shadowy corporations and treacherous agents working for their own devious ends.

The second season opens with Sarah (the streetwise orphan) searching for her kidnapped daughter and Cosima (the scientist) working with the shadowy group run by Rachel (the cold, manipulative one) to find a cure for the illness that is beginning to appear in the clones. Maslany also plays an alcoholic suburban mom and a crazy assassin who is only slowly learning to trust her sisters, and amazingly she makes all five these characters riveting. The complications include a survivalist religious cult that wants to give birth to more clone offspring, a former boyfriend (Michel Huisman of “Game of Thrones”) who helps Sarah hide out from the research group, and the accidental murder of a manipulative scientist. The cover-up of this crime oddly enough helps repair a failing marriage, just one of the bits of dark humor that helps it overcome the otherwise familiar collection of mix-and-match tropes.

And it’s not just Maslany who energizes the show. Jordan Gavarish is quite winning in a splashy role as Sarah’s devoted foster brother and Maria Doyle Kennedy is wonderfully enigmatic and ferocious as Sarah’s shadowy foster mother, a member of a resistance group that she realizes is also untrustworthy. Like so many conspiracy thrillers, these folks learn that the only ones they can trust are family, however they define it. That’s what ultimately has made the show a cult favorite.

10 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with a “Cloneversation” interview hosted by Wil Wheaton, deleted scenes, and four behind-the-scenes featurettes among the supplements.

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Jul 16 2014

‘King & Country’ on TCM

teaser

Joseph Losey was riding high on the international acclaim of The Servant (1963), the director’s first collaboration with screenwriter Harold Pinter and second film with actor Dirk Bogarde, when Bogarde presented him with the script of a small television play called Hamp. Set in World War I, it’s a war drama with no battle scenes, the story of the court-martial of a young, uneducated working class soldier who, after three years in the trenches of World War I, simply walked away from the front lines in a hopeless attempt to walk home. Bogarde was very much interested in the project. He had served in World War II and recalled the trauma his father suffered after his service in World War I. He sent Losey to the Imperial War Museum and gave him a copy of “Covenant of Death,” a book of photographs and paintings of World War I. Some of those photos found their way into the film, framing the story with images of death and devastation on the muddy battlefields.

Losey handed the script to Evan Jones, who had previously scripted Eva (1962) and These Are the Damned (1963) for the director. With Losey’s blessing, Jones jettisoned the teleplay and returned to the source, and at his request added a kind of Greek chorus of soldiers to provide an additional perspective to the ordeal of the trenches. Bogarde, an author in his own right, also contributed to the script, rewriting some of his scenes and providing the background of experience, all of it uncredited on the film but acknowledged by Losey in later interviews.

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Plays on TCM on Friday, July 18

Jul 15 2014

‘The Criminal Code’ on TCM

The Criminal Code (1931) refers to the unwritten law of prison: a convict never rats out a fellow convict. They have their own rules of justice behind bars. It’s both the title and the defining premise of a 1929 Broadway drama, a socially-relevant play that makes a case of prison reform, and it became an accepted convention for all subsequent prison films.

Harry Cohn bought the play for Columbia, a small studio that competed with the major Hollywood players with its relatively meager resources. Columbia didn’t have a stable of bankable stars under contract or the money for a big slate of expensive pictures but Cohn had big ambitions and he produced a couple of major pictures every year, usually with talent hired from other studios on a per-picture basis. He signed up-and-coming Howard Hawks for a picture and he offered him the project. “It had a great first two acts, then a bad third act,” explained Hawks to Peter Bogdanovich, and he brought in screenwriter Seton I. Miller (who had scripted the 1928 A Girl in Every Port and Hawks’ 1930 sound debut The Dawn Patrol) to rework the drafts penned by the original playwright, Martin Flavin. Hawks didn’t like sentiment in his films and had Miller play against the overtly sentimental scenes with brusque dialogue, a kind of tough-guy shorthand that acknowledges the emotion without making a show of it.

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Plays on TCM on Thursday, July 17

Jul 15 2014

Videophiled: Scarlett Johansson gets ‘Under the Skin’

UnderSkin

Under the Skin (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, Cable VOD) isn’t a film that wants to make things easy for the viewer. The experience is not unlike that which I suppose its unnamed protagonist, an alien reborn in the body of a human host (Scarlett Johansson), goes through as it (she?) settles in to its new body and the emotions and impulses surging through it that collide with its mission. That mission has something to do with driving around Scotland and picking up men that it appears to devour in a pool of lightless liquid. That’s my best guess—there’s no exposition or explanation to clue you in to what it all means—but it’s all quite strange and beautiful and weird.

This is the first feature from Jonathan Glazer since Birth (a film that had its share of critics but has grown to almost cult stature in some circles since its 2004 release) in part because he did not want to compromise his vision. The film opens on abstracted sounds, like a human voice learning its sonic possibilities, and enigmatic imagery, and Glazer expects us to create our own meaning from the clues we take in along the odyssey. The defining color is black, the inky night of her nocturnal hunts and the deep, bottomless dark of her alien retreat. The characters seems to float untethered in these scenes, as if they’ve slipped into another reality.

Glazer is less interested in the what and the why than in the texture of the experience, the intensity of the imagery, the sense of adaptation and alienation as this alien starts to connect with her victims. Johansson delivers a performance like she’s never given, slipping between a focused, unreadable blankness and the easy charm of a young Scottish woman chatting up the men she picks up in her van, a part she keeps perfecting as she gets a feel for the culture of Glasgow at night. (Some of the scenes were shot with a hidden camera as civilians were picked up by Johansson in character, like a reality show in the Twilight Zone, and Johansson is not only game for the stunt, she’s quite adept at it.) This is a film of sensations best experienced in an immersive environment; watch this on the biggest screen you are able to, with the lights out and distractions kept to a minimum, to best fall under its spell.

On Blu-ray and DVD, with “The Making of Under the Skin,” a 42-minute collection of brief featurettes covering various aspects of production. The production is as unconventional as the film story and direction and these featurettes share some of the process. The Blu-ray also includes an UltraViolet digital copy. Also available on Cable On Demand.

More new releases on Blu-ray, DVD, Digital and VOD at Cinephiled

Jul 15 2014

Barry Jenkins: Long Story Short

Barry Jenkins currently calls San Francisco home but he was born and raised in Florida and attended the filmmaking program at Florida State University, where he made his first films. Inspired by his friend and collaborator James Claxton, the director of photography on most of his films, he moved to San Francisco after graduation. That’s where he made his first feature, Medicine for Melancholy, about a two young African Americans in San Francisco who wake up together after a one-night hook-up and spend the next twenty-four hours getting to know each other as they compare notes being a minority in the city and the effects of gentrification. The film picked up three Independent Spirit Award nominations, including Best First Feature and Someone to Watch For, and landed a distributor. Jenkins has been busy developing follow-up features in the years since, including one with Focus Features, but to date nothing has made it to production stage. In the meantime, he’s continued to make short films.

'Tall Enough'

“I like making things and every now and then an opportunity presents itself,” he explains. “The majority of these films, and I guess it’s how it always is with a filmmaker, is someone saying ‘Hey, I got a little bit of money, do you want to make something?’ and me going, ‘Sure, I’ll make something.’ I’m never going to turn down an opportunity to make something.”

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