Sep 07 2009

DVDs for 9/8/09 – That Hamilton Woman, Model Shop and Mad Monsters

The stars lined up for Alexander Korda when he made (reportedly at the request of Winston Churchill) That Hamilton Woman (Criterion). Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier had just become Hollywood stars (she with “Gone With the Wind,” he with “Wuthering Heights”) and, after a notorious affair, become husband and wife before shooting began. It was perfect casting for a film celebrating naval hero Lord Horatio Nelson and his scandalous affair with Emma Lady Hamilton in the late 18th century. Whether the passion on screen is their private life seeping into the film or simply superb acting, the result is an impassioned romance celebrated as a triumph of love and patriotic duty just as Britain entered World War II. It’s also the most gracefully directed and dramatically engaging film from British film impresario Korda, who generally directed like a producer. This is as episodic as all of Korda’s directorial efforts, but in this film he creates an elegance and rhythm that keeps the film flowing over the temporal leaps and the evocative cinematography by Rudolph Mate and production design by Korda’s brother, Vincent, sets it off like a jewel.

Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier

Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier

The B&W films looks very good, with strong contrasts and only light surface scratches and scuffs from the fine-grain master print, and has been very slightly windowboxed. The crisply-delivered commentary by film historian Ian Christie is filled with background on both the historical characters and the film production in addition to his sharp observations. His theatrical delivery keeps it lively and engaging. Michael Korda, son of art director Vincent Korda and nephew of Alexander and author of a Korda family biography, adds another perspective to the production history in a newly recorded video interview.

French New Wave director Jacques Demy found his specialty in colorful (if bittersweet) musicals and fairy tales, but for Model Shop (Sony), his one and only American film, he returned to the social settings and introspective character studies of his early films. Released in 1969, Model Shop has been called a sequel to his 1961 film Lola and indeed Anouk Aimee reprises the role of Lola, here an émigré trying to earn enough money to get back to France and her son by working in a Los Angeles “model shop,” where photographers hire out “private sessions” with the models. But the film is really about a disillusioned generation that has dropped out of society without finding a satisfactory alternative. Gary Lockwood (just as inexpressive as he was in “2001”) is a frustrated architect who has turned his back on his career and just drifts around in his convertible (which is about to be repossessed), as if trying to outrun the reality of his draft notice. Demy brings a fresh eye to late-sixties Los Angeles and finds evocative and unexpected images (an oil derrick perpetually pumping away in the front yard of a rented bungalow) while he slowly reveals the depth of inarticulate feeling under the blank canvas that Lockwood offers. It’s a far more sobering and pensive portrait sixties youth than usually seen from the era. The rock group Spirit appears in one scene (Lockwood’s character crashes in their communal pad) and provides the soundtrack. The film is branded with the “Martini Movies” imprint, but the rather campy logo suggests an attitude that has nothing to do with the film.

Mad Monster Party?: Special Edition (Lionsgate) – In the midst of making their classic Christmas specials (like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer), producer Arthur Rankin and director/lyricist Jules Bass put their stop motion “Animagic” talents to this monster movie spoof. The title says it all: “Uncle Boris” von Frankenstein (voiced by a paternal Boris Karloff) invites the monsters of moviedom, from Dracula to the Invisible Man, along with his white-sheep nephew Felix, a naïve klutz with a passion for science and the willful ability to treat the Wolfman as a puppy dog, to his island castle for a passing of the torch. The pun-filled concoction is stuffed with sight gags and one liners (give partial credit to co-writers Harvey Kurtzman and Forrest J. Ackerman, who were called in to give the script a little jolt) and quasi-adult asides (the va-va-voomish Francesca—the closest Rankin and Bass ever got to a real sex doll—comments to Felix when he remarks on her unexpected weight: “I wanted to show you I was no easy pickup”). The eclectic soundtrack see-saws from the standard Rankin-Bass sing-along styled, banjo-based “You Gotta Stay One Step Ahead” to the groovy pseudo-rock groove “Do the Mummy” to the James Bond vamping theme song (sung by Ethel Ennis in a Shirley Bassey impression). Hilarious? Not always, but the mix of innocence, stop-motion slapstick, off-beat spoofing, and just plain goofiness is a lot of fun, and sometimes the sheer absurdity of it all can sneak up on you. Phyllis Diller is unmistakable as the Monster’s Mate (the figure was obviously modeled on the real life comedienne, and she calls the Monster “Fang” throughout), and Gale Garnett and Allen Swift provide additional voices. This new edition has a fine retrospective featurette with producer Arthur Rankin and voice artist Alan Swift and Rankin/Bass historian Rick Goldschmidt, plus featurettes on the stop motion techniques and the music of the film (with composer Maury Laws).

Silent Light (Palisades Tartan), Carlos Reygadas’ third feature, is set in a Mennonite community in Mexico, an insular pocket of agrarian people that feels almost like a portal to old Europe within modern Mexico. This is not some Luddite culture – Johan (Cornelio Wall), the gentle patriarch of the farm family we meet over silent prayer and bustling breakfast, drives a sturdy new pickup and harvests the fields with combines and he joins his children to watch a DVD in a portable TV in a van – but these people hold close to their values, their religion and their way of life. all outward appearances aside, they are not a dour people. Johan jokes with his friend, Zacarias (Jacobo Klassen), before they engage in the topic that has Johan so emotionally torn up: he’s not only in love with another woman, they have been engaging in an affair. I love this film and I review it in detail on Parallax View here.

From the Czech Republic comes The Country Teacher (Film Movement), a  pastoral drama of a sincere but distant teacher, Petr (Pavel Liska), leaves a prestigious Prague prep school for a rural post. His cynical and frankly opportunistic new principal figures he’s fleeing a scandal, but it’s more personal. This coming out story (yes, he’s gay, and he’d just as soon keep that fact from him his new neighbors) feels about twenty years behind the times, which says a lot more about Eastern European cinema than it does about Petr or his complicated relationship with an older single mother and her teenage son, but the human story is quite tender. In Czech with English subtitles. Also features the short film “Peter and Ben” from the UK.

For TV on DVD for the week, see my wrap-up here. For the rest of the highlights (including Crank 2: High Voltage and Yoji Yamada’s Kabei: Our Mother), 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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