DVDs for 5/12/09 – Taken, Of Time and the City, Wise Blood and more

I’m an unabashed fan of Luc Besson’s Euro-thrillers,  the closest thing we have today to  the scruffy and spirited drive-in action films and low-budget thrillers of the seventies, and Taken, directed by Pierre Morel (of the crazed and gloriously adrenaline-charged exploitation-with-a-social-message action blast Banlieue 13, aka District B-13), is just the kind of thing he does well. This one stars Liam Neeson, who is perfectly cast as a seemingly unintimidating Dad who goes to Paris to rescue his kidnapped daughter the reveals his “very particular set of skills” as he tears through the Albanian underworld of Paris. He doesn’t show off or waste any energy. He only shoots to wound when he needs the victim alive to talk. Otherwise, he dispatches every crook in his way quickly and efficiently whenever he can. It’s almost creepy the way his single-minded pursuit ignores the other victims along the way. It’s also the kind of touch that really defines this guy and this film.

The commentary by screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen is excellent; you can read my review in the “Supplemental Notes” section of my Parallax View DVD column.

British director Terence Davies brings his distinctive sensibility and compassion to Of Time and the City, his very personal profile of Liverpool told from his ambivalent perspective of troubled affection and critical commentary. Davies illustrates this first-person essay with a vivid selection of archival news and newsreel clips, documentary footage and home movies, and personally narrates with a witty collection of literary quotes, song lyrics, movie titles and snatches of poetry backed by a collection of popular songs and snatches of classical music. It’s less a documentary than a lyrical essay that freely mixes history and remembrance, a wistful, funny, satirical, angry and forgiving portrait, as much about the artist himself as of the city that shaped Terence Davies and his art.

I review the film in greater detail at Parallax View here.

Criterion releases John Huston’s Wise Blood, his strange and funny and off-kilter adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s novel.

Brad Dourif stars as Hazel Motes, a young man who returns from the war (it’s not clear whether it’s World War II, Korea or Vietnam) and lands in the city preaching the “Church of Truth Without Jesus Christ Crucified.” Huston doesn’t try to hide the contemporary backdrop of the 1979 production but Motes could have escaped from the forties or even earlier. Dourif is mesmerizing as the man wrestling with God as he preaches atheism and Harry Dean Stanton and Ned Beatty headline the cast of eccentrics.

Eclipse releases a four-disc box of Alexander Korda’s Private Lives. Alexander Korda’s reputation as a producer and Britain’s pre-eminent film mogul overshadows his minor talents as a director. His studio was the standard-bearer for classy subject matter and production value in British cinema and films he directed for his studio reflected both his refined sense of taste and his producer’s sense of showmanship. Not that Korda was British – he was born in Hungary, where he directed his first films, and went on to make films in Hollywood and France before settling in London – but he essentially adopted England as his new home and christened his studio London Pictures. The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) was the film that launched his company and his success as a film mogul. I review the set in more detail on Parallax View here.

We Shall Remain, the five-part “epic history of America as seen through native eyes,” arrives on DVD the day after the final episode on the documentary series plays on The American Experience on PBS. The story of the Indian experience in America (“a story that spans over three hundred years and an entire continent,” as the opening sequence describes it) is told through five pivotal moments in their history, from the initial meeting of the Wampanoag tribe and the first European settlers in 1620s New England (the legendary “first Thanksgiving”) to the 1973 siege of Wounded Knee and the American Indian Movement that inspired the political action, each a mix of dramatic recreation, historical documentation and commentary from educators and historians. Chris Eyre (director of “Smoke Signals”) directs the first three documentaries, and Benjamin Bratt narrates.

New on Blu-ray:  Gillian Anderson gets top billing as the icy and tormented Lady Dedlock in the dense and dynamic BBC mini-series Bleak House, adapted from the Charles Dickens novel, but her melancholy performance is just one beautiful turn in a rich ensemble. The epic tale of love, murder, scandal, and a legal fight over an inheritance that drags on for generations follows three young characters as the center of the case — siblings and potential heirs Richard (Patrick Kennedy) and Ada (Carey Milligan) and their benevolent and innocent companion Esther (Anna Maxwell Martin), a woman whose potentially scandalous origins are shrouded in mystery — but the story encompasses a huge cast of characters, all with their own goals which are not always evident. The 8-hour drama was adapted by the BBC’s master craftsman Andrew Davies, who breaks with tradition to shape the novel into a series of dramatically packed half-hour episodes, perhaps to reflect the serialized format of the original publication of the novel (which played out in magazine installments), or perhaps as an inspired approach to re-energize the literary genre. Regardless of his intentions, it makes for a lively adaptation and directors Justin Chadwick and Susanna White drive the drama with a dynamic pace and a handheld camera that gives the production an energy missing from so many literary adaptations made for TV. Charles Dance is commanding as the ruthless barrister Mr. Tulkinghorn and Denis Lawson, Nathaniel Parker, Timothy West, Alun Armstrong, Pauline Collins, John Lynch, and Ian Richardson are among the co-stars.

For the rest of the highlights (including Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, Passengers and the Blu-ray release of the X-Men Trilogy), visit my weekly column, which goes live every Tuesday on MSN Entertainment, or go directly to the various pages dedicated to New Releases, Special Releases, TV and Blu-ray.

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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