DVDs for January 6, 2009 – ‘The Films of Michael Powell’

[Note – due to a glitch, some of the reviews for the MSN DVD column this week may not yet be up when you click on the links.]

Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (originally released in the U.S. as Stairway to Heaven) is as gorgeous and romantic as films come. The film opens with a celestial prologue and narration providing a sense of cosmic comfort of someone watching over it all, of some divine authority in charge. It plays like the British answer to the opening of It’s a Wonderful Life, which came out the same year (is it coincidence that the post-war era inspired such a need for heavenly affirmation?), but immediately swoops down from the majestic calm of the stars into the terror of World War II and a bomber pilot giving his farewell to life over the wireless as his plane burns furiously around him and he prepares to make a blind leap without a parachute. Powell gives the scene terrible beauty – the wind whips the cabin, the fire flickers around his face, the clouds have a texture so palpable they look like you could step out into the sky and walk to heaven on them – and an emotional power to match.

Kim Hunter and David Niven fall in love
Kim Hunter and David Niven fall in love

Unabashedly romantic, beautifully textured in warm color and cool monochrome, and brilliantly poised on the edge of fantasy and reality, Michael Powell’s 1946 A Matter of Life and Death is the first essential DVD release of 2009…. It’s a perfect romantic fantasy and a stunning creative achievement (“Ah! We are so starved for Technicolor up there,” quips the conductor as the gray monochrome of the afterlife blooms into the almost surreal hues of Earthly color), powered by the passion for life and love.

I write further on the film for Parallax View here and review the DVD for MSN here.

Also new this week in the TV section is Battlestar Galactica: Season 4.0, which features the first ten episodes of the show’s final season (the concluding episodes begin this month on the Sci-Fi Channel) plus the previously released “prequel” film Battlestar Galactica: Razor. The original Battlestar Galactica of the seventies was a simple show of heroic humans fleeing the evil Cylons, robots built to destroy the human race. That simplicity was tossed through the airlock for this gritty, rough and ready revision, but it flies into unexpected territory in the first ten episodes of the fourth and final season. One-time villain Baltar (James Callis) becomes a messiah, or at the very least a holy prophet. Our soft-speaking President (Mary McDonnell) resorts to dictatorial measures to quell dissent. Military career man Apollo becomes the advocate for civil rights. Meanwhile a civil war is erupting among the Cylon race, the newly “revealed” Cylon sleepers in the Galactica fleet face an identity crisis and the final conflict seems inevitable. This is still the best science fiction series on TV, a drama that thrives in the atmosphere of moral ambiguity, spiritual mystery and survivalist reality, which is only enhanced by the down and dirty production design.

Here’s a digest of the other DVD releases featured on my MSN column:

Movies: Baghead, The Wackness and Pineapple Express:

The Judd Apatow factory refreshes the stoner comedy in this hilarious and unexpectedly visceral hybrid road movie/action thriller. Seth Rogen is a wise-cracking process server and James Franco is his friendly neighborhood dope dealer, a sweet, stupid, emotionally ebullient guy with the innocence of child (albeit one who is baked to the gills), amiable stoners who witness a cop killing and flee a murderous drug lord (Gary Cole, perfect as always) and his hired assassins. The screenplay by Rogen and Evan Goldberg (from a story co-written with producer Apatow) doesn’t really take us anywhere we haven’t been before, but it offers a sly take on stoner culture and an accidental buddy film that works…

TV: The Tudors: The Complete Second Season, Nip/Tuck: Season Five Part One and Secret Diary of a Call Girl: Season One:

Showtime has found its niche in original programming – sex with style and a little wit –and “Secret Diary of a Call Girl” captures that balance with a lightness and slickness, if not quite ambition. Billie Piper, once the Doctor’s companion on “Doctor Who,” is now a paid companion, a high-class London escort who really enjoys her work. It’s ostensibly based on a memoir by a genuine professional escort, sort of a “Happy Hooker” for the 21st century, a colorful distraction with a lot of sex, plenty of lingerie, a little flesh and a few minor complications that pass for drama.

Special Releases: Hong Sang-soo’s Woman on the Beach:

This dryly satirical comic drama of a film director who flits between two lovers on a trip to the coast is the best film yet from South Korean director Hong Sang-soo, who has made a career with stories of emotionally arrested men and tolerant women.

Blu-ray: Joss Whedon’s Serenity, Caligula and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor:

Isn’t this what Blu-ray was made for?… Bertolucci’s production is sweeping and lavish – this was the first foreign production granted access to film within the walls of the Forbidden City – and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro uses color like a painter on an epic canvas. At the center of the spectacle, however, is the story of a boy raised to believe in his own divinity and a man who learns to become a simple human being against the backdrop of China’s volatile history.

The weekly column goes live every Tuesday on MSN Entertainment.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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