One of the great frustrations of being a silent movie fan is the deplorable loss of so much of the silent film legacy. One of the great joys is the constant discovery of lost or unknown (or at least unknown to me) classics.
A Throw of Dice, a lavish 1929 melodrama about a royal struggle between rival kingdoms in India, based on a story from the epic Hindu poem “The Mahabarata,” is one of those discoveries that appears to come from nowhere. Shot in location in colonial India with an Indian cast and spectacular sets and locations, directed by a German veteran of UFA studios and produced with a consortium of German, British and Indian money, it’s a lively mix of cultures and sensibilities that merge rather than collide.
A handsome king falls for the beautiful daughter of a hermit on a hunting trip while his cousin and rival plots to kill him. The hermit, once a respected teacher in the royal court, fled the corruption of the social world to protect his daughter from the influence of these “Men from the world,” but he too falls victim to the plots and schemes and his daughter (Seeta Devi) is caught in the middle of these two kings: the kindly and trusting Sohan (Himansu Rai), whose naiveté is matched only by his gambling addiction, and the sinister Ranjit (Charu Roy) who lusts for his cousin’s kingdom and his cousin’s bride and preys upon Sohan’s weakness for the dice to get both. But the real joy of this film is the magnificent production, which opens on spectacular jungle imagery of animals fleeing the oncoming hunting party (except for the tigers, which take their time as if they could barely be bothered by the intruding humans) and movies on to spectacular palace sets. Director Franz Osten, a veteran of Germany’s UFA studios, is a dynamic director with an eye for spectacular imagery and romantic visions and a gift for visual storytelling and energetic pacing. The story never feels rushed even as the film seems to drive forward at a breathless pace.
Kino’s DVD features a beautiful transfer (taken from a British restoration, apparently direct from the PAL video master, resulting in some minor visual warbling) and a gorgeous new score that only enhances the experience.
Read the DVD review on my MSN DVD column here.
Also new this week is the first season of the TNT series Saving Grace with Holly Hunter as a brilliant investigator and a mess of a human being who winds up in her own version of Touched By an Angel and fights the divine intervention every step of the way. Having a drawling guardian angel (Leon Rippy) popping in to shoot the breeze hasn’t slowed down her extracurricular activities (an affair with her married partner, one-night stand with half the force, random pick-ups at bars).
In a TV culture of damaged men who flee the stresses of their lives and the ghosts of their pasts through sex and drink and reckless excess, Hunter’s Grace is really the first female member of this boy’s club, and even with Earl dropping by to chat at all hours she manages to get mess up plenty of lives along with her own…. Like a lot of commercial cable dramas, it pushes the envelope of sex and nudity and fills the drama with dark humor. It’s not always pleasant, but it’s as fearless as its star, Holly Hunter, who plays the role without vanity or apology.
Here’s a digest of the other DVD releases featured on my MSN column:
Movies: the anthology horror film Trapped Ashes (featuring contributions by Ken Russell, Monte Hellman and Joe Dante), Jason Statham in the old-school heist thriller The Bank Job and Christina Ricci as a modern-day princess with a fairy-tale curse in Penelope:
Penelope has a lighter sense of whimsy and a more subtle storybook play than the bright, insistent parody of Enchanted, and director Mark Palansky plays it in more modest key than Tim Burton’s imaginative fantasias. He fills his world with snooty blue-bloods out of an Edwardian drawing room comedy, shadowy gambling dens of forties crime films, and a timeless tabloid culture. There are some flat moments, to be sure, and Palansky’s direction can be a bit unsteady and awkward, but he doesn’t wallow in the eccentricities or the modestly self-empowering moral. This fairy tale feels pleasantly down-to-earth.
TV: the first season of the Burt Reynolds sitcom Evening Shade, the second season of the whimsical SciFi channel series Eureka and the short-lived superhero-noir series Birds of Prey: The Complete Series:
From the dark nights of a Gotham City abandoned by Batman comes this femme force superhero drama centered by The Huntress (Ashley Scott), the angry, wild-child daughter of Batman and Catwoman. She’s mentored by Barbara Gordon (Dina Meyer), who was once the Batgirl until the Joker put her in a wheelchair. Now she now fights crime as the Oracle, providing The Huntress with intelligence and advice and offering maternal support and training to new recruit Dinah Lance (Rachel Skarsten), a psychic runaway with a hidden past. Developed for TV by the Smallville production team, this slick superhero series delivers warrior women in sexy costumes and a noir attitude – think Xena in black leather on rain-slicked streets battling mutant menaces.
Special Releases: the Oscar winning French biopic Monsieur Vincent and Jacques Tati’s Trafic, his final appearance as M. Hulot.
This time the gangly eccentric in the mechanized world is the designer of a gadget-laden compact camper who takes his creation to a car show in Amsterdam. It’s a movie constructed from cinematic interludes, an automotive comedy of traffic jams, fender benders, border crossings, mechanical breakdowns and other motor-driven distractions, all played out like an abstract silent comedy (the dialogue is mere flourish) with the lively soundtrack a symphony of honks and hums and mechanical noises. While it never reaches the delicate brilliance of his masterpiece Playtime, it’s a pleasantly playful film with marvelous sight gags and brief moments of comic poetry.
The second picture in Hollywood history to sweep the top five Oscar awards hasn’t lost any of its power and it makes worthy edition to the Blu-ray library of film classics. Jack Nicholson won his first Oscar for his performance as Randle P. McMurphy, a wild man of a petty crook who fakes insanity to avoid jail and lands in a mental hospital ward controlled with icy domination by Nurse Ratchet (Oscar winner Louise Fletcher). His antics make him something of a counter-culture rebel, not so much defying authority as deflating it, but in this ward he’s something of a misfit king leading the subjugated souls to moments of freedom.
The weekly column goes live every Tuesday on MSN Entertainment.