In the final act of his storied career, Roberto Rossellini turned from the cinema to television and from contemporary stories to historical pieces. Criterion releases four productions from Rosselini’s cycle of historical films this week. Blaise Pascal, The Age of the Medici and Cartesius, all from the seventies, are collected in Rossellini’s History Films Trilogy –Renaissance and Enlightenment, a box set under the Eclipse imprint, Criterion’s budget-minded offshoot. (My copy arrived too late to review for this piece.) The 1966 The Taking Of Power By Louis XIV, Rossellini’s first film in this cycle, comes out as a Criterion proper release, with supplements and a booklet. Part history lesson and part political treatise, it is a strange and fascinating film with exacting attention to sets and dress and realities of the period. In the view of many critics and Rossellini scholars, it is the greatest of his history films and one the director’s masterpieces
Rossellini directs less like a drama than a pageant, with a largely non-professional cast arranged like figures in a painting from the era, right down to the formal poses and the full-shot framing. The sets, the props, the costumes are splendid and lavish but never distracting – they are part of his recreation of the world. The unemotional readings and unflustered reactions of his star, a non-actor named Jean-Marie Patte, is transformed by Rossellini into a confidence and a calculation behind the pageantry. It’s remarkably effective once he inhabits the center of the Versailles court, walking through the role without betraying an emotion, all part of the act. The dialogue serves not as revelations of character and motivation but as explanation and exposition, a series of history lessons that are startlingly clear and direct.
In the TV section of the column this week are a couple of British shows: Skins: Volume 1 is a raucous and exceptionally colorful British series about a group of high school teens in Bristol, England, and Saxondale: Complete Seasons 1&2 is another distinctive creation by actor/writer Steve Coogan. Skins opens with an episode that spotlights the most reckless and irresponsible behavior of these schoolkids. It’s an attention grabber, to be sure, leading off with sex, drugs, nudity (but only by the adults), bad behavior, and language that you can only hear on pay cable stateside. But as the series develops it dials down the shock value to delve farther in to the lives of the kids and their often fractured home lives and screwed-up authority figures. Bad judgment is not limited to just the kids here; they have merely made an art of it. In Saxondale, Coogan’s Tommy Saxondale is a retired rock band roadie and one-time counter-culture creature, well into middle age and trying to hold on to his ideals while getting by in suburbia. Pudgy, gray and often to be found behind the wheel of his beloved Ford Mustang Mach 1, Tommy is not a genius but every once in a while the wisdom of his years comes through.
Here’s a digest of the other DVD releases featured on my MSN column:
Appaloosa is the most pleasingly old-school western to come out in years. Directed by Ed Harris, from an adaptation of Robert B. Parker’s novel, it’s a classic buddy film on the frontier with Harris as lawmen-for-hire Virgil and Viggo Mortensen as his loyal best friend and deputy Everett, his quiet, plainspoken support. They take up their new posts in Appaloosa, a town terrorized by the lawless antics of cowhands working for the local cattle baron (Jeremy Irons), in perfect synch without saying a word: Virgil at point and Everett calmly taking up a strategic position as back-up.
TV: the British productions The Last Enemy and God on Trial and Make ‘Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America:
Billy Crystal hosts and Amy Sedaris narrates this six-part documentary series made for PBS. It’s not a history comedy pre se but a survey of the comics and comedy icons of the century and the way they defined and redefined comedy of his time, organized by theme: “Nerds, Jerks and Oddballs” (from Bob Hope to Jonathan Winters to Woody Allen to Robin Williams) and so on through “Breadwinners and Homemakers,” “The Knockabouts,” “The Groundbreakers,” “The Wiseguys” and “Satire and Parody.” It’s a conventional production with plenty of clips and new interviews from funnymen and women past and present.
Originally titled Police Story 3: Supercop, this 1992 Hong Kong extravaganza is arguably Jackie Chan’s last great picture in his old school style of incredible action and astounding stunts. Jackie is Inspector Chan, Hong Kong’s cop with the grooviest moves mixed with broad humor and physical comedy, on assignment in China where he teams up with an equally gifted mainland officer (Michelle Yeoh, she of the over-the-head kick).
The movie parody industry has been scraping the bottom of the barrel for years now, but this goof on Spider-Man (with random potshots at X-Men, The Fantastic Four, Batman, and even Dr. Stephen Hawking) reminds us why we used to like these films. Craig Mazin (who co-wrote Scary Movie 3 and Scary Movie 4) directs for genre godfather David Zucker (of Airplane! and The Naked Gun fame) and he comes the closest to recapturing the Airplane!-styled sight gags and rapid-fire delivery since Zucker himself. They may not all connect, but Mazin doesn’t linger…
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