Aug 10 2009

DVDs for 8/11/09 – Lupino and Sheridan, Cantet and Wajda

Ida Lupino: a romantic and a realist

Ida Lupino: a romantic and a realist

Ida Lupino was one of Hollywood’s real tough cookies, a romantic heroine who could hold her own against the brawny heroes and rough villains of Warner Bros. crime movies. The Man I Love isn’t a crime film per se, but it’s far more than a typical melodrama, thanks in large part to the strong, tough direction of Raoul Walsh. Set in the post-war era of swank nightclubs and the seedy types they attract, it’s a refreshingly mature film rich with stories of frustrated lives, unrequited loves and tough times just getting by in the world without selling your soul. Lupino is the calloused heroine, a New York chanteuse who goes home to Los Angeles to see her family – a married sister with a child and a soldier husband in the hospital for shellshock, a sweet younger sister infatuated with the married man next door and a cocky brother who sees his future as a hired thug for sleazy nightclub lothario Robert Alda. Lupino knows her way around the octopus hands of night club operators and puts herself between Alda and her family to save their innocence from the urban corruption that threatens to seep into their lives.

The Man I Love

The Man I Love

Lupino may have a weak singing voice but her smoky delivery is filled with understanding and regret, as if she’s lived the lyrics of her songs of lost loves and bruised romanticism, and her tossed-off delivery of smartly scripted lines gives her an American urban worldliness. The film is best known today for Scorsese’s claims that it was his inspiration for New York, New York, but it’s not the plot that found its way into his film. It’s the shadowy culture of working class folks tangled in the post-war culture of seductive night life, of dive bars and the itinerate musicians and singers and underworld types who frequent them, and in the tough attitude that Walsh and Lupino bring to the film. They made a great pair and she is the perfect Walsh heroine: tough, smart, experienced, and still something of a romantic at heart. This is one of the great “women’s pictures” of the era, never showy but always simmering with complicated relationships, frustrated desires and unfulfilled affections that are more authentic and conflicted than most Hollywood pictures.

This is part of the recent wave of Warner Archive Collection, the no-frills line of DVD-on-demand. Also released are two more Lupino films – The Hard Way (1942) and Deep Valley (1947, with Dane Clark) – and a trio of Ann Sheridan films. She was called “The Oomph Girl” and was a popular pin-up in the war, but behind her all-American looks was an urban girl with a lot of grit. Vincent Sherman directs her in two of her more shadowy melodramas. The Unfaithful (1947) is an uncredited reworking of The Letter with Sheridan as a married woman who kills a prowler who turns out to have been her lover while her husband was in the war. The potential salaciousness of the material is played down as the characters at the center of it – including Eve Arden as a gossipy cousin who becomes protective of Sheridan as the media vultures swoop in for the story – deal with the issues like adults. Sherman also directs her in the noirish melodrama Nora Prentiss (1947). None of the films have been restored for DVD, but the preserved prints from the Warner library are fine for what they are.

The discs in the Warner Archive Collection are available directly from the Warner Archive website.

Laurent Cantet’s The Class, the story of a dedicated, idealist teacher in a junior high in one of the poorest suburbs of Paris, is not exactly To Monsieur With Love. Based on the memoir of real-life teacher Francois Bégaudeau (who plays a fictionalized version of himself in the film), it’s not your classic tale of an inspiring educator who wins the trust and respect of his triumphant class. There is plenty is mistrust and wariness, both class and cultural, and these kids don’t see a lot of reason to learn his lessons in language and literature and history. Shot like a documentary and performed with an authenticity that cuts deep into the fiction, it is remarkably observant, effective and affecting and the non-actors who play the junior high students over the course of a year are richly realized. It won the Palme d’Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival and an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. The scene specific commentary on the DVD by director/co-writer Laurent Cantet and actor/co-writer François Bégaudeau is really more like a collection of featurettes with the two men discussing three key scenes with extended clips and in-depth conversations, and the 41-minute making-of featurette takes the viewer deep into the production process.

Katyn is ostensibly about the Katyn Forest massacre, the mass execution of over 15,000 Polish officer, soldiers and civilian prisoners of war by the invading Soviet army in 1940. But director Andrjez Wajda, whose father was one of the officers killed in Katyn, uses the event to explore some of the unhealed wounds suffered by the Poles in World War II. From its opening scene in 1939, with the invasion of Poland simultaneously by the Soviets from the East and the Germans from the West, Wajda parallels the actions of the Soviets and the Germans, two military occupations that differ very little to the occupied citizens. But the great outrage for Wajda is the official lies about the war and the Katyn massacre denials that the victorious Soviets instituted and enforced through intimidation, threats and punishment – George Orwell’s 1984 in practice. One of the 2008 Academy Award nominees for Best Foreign Language Film, Katyn is not one of Wajda’s great films – the human stories are overwhelmed by and essentially put into service to the themes – but it is a devastating portrait. Not of the terrible massacre (which is unseen until the end) but of the systematic suppression of the truth and the it tore apart the Polish national soul before it could even heal from the war.

New to Blu-ray: John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China, his genre bending action fantasy and love letter to Asian martial arts madness, didn’t catch on in the U.S. back in 1986, but it’s since become a cult classic. In a world of Crouching Tigers and Hidden Dragons, think of Russell as Cocky Hyena: “I was born ready!”

For the rest of the highlights (including I Love You, Man and the Blu-ray debut of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles features) 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.

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