DVDs for 9/15/09 – Nightwatching, Treeless Mountain and small screen sci-fi and horror

In Nightwatching (E1), cinema provocateur Peter Greenaway  turns art history into a stylized murder mystery with this provocative look at the creation of one of the most revered paintings in the history of western art: Rembrandt’s “The Nightwatch.” This is not your usual genteel portrait of an artist or biography of a painting and has none of the romantic tone of Girl with a Pearl Earring or visionary obsession of The Agony and the Ecstasy. As played by Martin Freeman, Rembrandt is earthy, arrogant and outspoken, and in his grief over the death of his wife Saskia (Eva Birthistle), he becomes obsessed with turning his commission to paint the group portrait of Amsterdam Musketeer Militia into an indictment of its grasping, corrupt members through carefully placed clues and symbols. Directed in a highly theatrical style on vast stage-like sets, painted in the somber shades of Rembrandt’s nocturnal colors and sculpted in tightly controlled pools and carefully controlled shafts of illumination that can only be described as Rembrandt lighting, the entire film is designed to look like a Rembrandt canvas, right down to the careful composition of the players within the frame.

Peter Greenaways Rembrandts JAccuse
Peter Greenaway's "Rembrandt's J'Accuse"

The two-disc set comes with Greenaway’s fascinating companion film Rembrandt’s J’Accuse, which is neither a making-of nor a tradition documentary but an essay film that continues his study of the painting and the story behind it with detailed analysis of the canvas and historical commentary of the culture around it. It’s a fascinating piece of art history with a provocative perspective as rife with social politics and power politics as it is aesthetics.

Treeless Mountain (Oscilloscope), set in the urban streets and rural countryside of South Korea, offers the story of two young girls left in the dubious care of an alcoholic, blithely negligent aunt while their single mother searches for their absent father. That outline hardly sounds uplifting, but in the hands of Korean-born and Brooklyn-raised director So Yong Kim, the film is tender, touching and charming, a portrait of quiet resilience and sisterly devotion grounded in Kim’s attentive observation of the behavior and interactions of these little girls. Seven-year-old Jin and her younger sister, Bin, are non-professionals and real-life sisters who are so natural in front of the lens that it at times feels like a documentary. To the film’s credit, their auntie is no villain, merely self-involved and lazy and oblivious to their needs, and thanks to the kindness of strangers and the attentions of a protective grandmother who overrules their flinty grandfather and takes them under her nurturing wing, these girls face no physical threat. It’s less about abandonment than survival and support, and at those times when these little girls only have one another, they rise to the occasion with a protectiveness and concern that rings true and sweet. The subtle, rich portraits that Kim creates of their emotional worlds makes this simply-made film an evocative and moving experience. In Korean with English subtitles.

Director Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel have a provocative idea in Deadgirl (Dark Sky), a clever but unconvincing genre mix about teenage boys who find the naked “deadgirl” of the title chained to gurney in the bowels of an abandoned hospital and decide to keep her as their personal sex slave. One kid broods over their moral duty, another turns alpha wolf and guards his treasure, and the deadgirl just bares her teeth with a trace of a feral smile. Her inexplicable resilience is out of a zombie movie, though the word is never mentioned and the genre is quite ingeniously bent to the purpose of the directors. Unfortunately, they are so determined to lay out their provocative themes that they fail to create any convincing characters or human drama behind the inhuman actions. It’s supposed to be some dark male sex fantasy of alienated boys suddenly in a position of power who become so drunk with it that they become monsters, but it’s more pose than convincing psychological portrait, leaving little more than a well executed horror film with a very different kind of sexual danger. Available in R-rated and unrated versions; the latter features cast and crew commentary, a making-of featurette and deleted scenes among the supplements.

Three of Hong Kong’s greatest action movie directors—Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam and Johnnie To—collaborate on Triangle (Magnolia), a fast-moving but confusing crime caper created almost like a cinematic version of exquisite corpse. The idea was for each not just to direct a segment, but to pick where the previous left off and run with it, so to speak, resulting in an action movie jam with lots of style but not much narrative sense. In a nutshell, three drinking buddies with money problems (Louis Koo, Simon Yam and Sun Honglei) team up for a heist, get sidetracked by a complicated treasure hunt and end up tangled in a mess of competing parties and double crosses. The directors don’t identify their contributions but fans will recognize the tightly choreographed action of the finale as Johnnie To’s work. Includes a behind-the-scenes featurette. Cantonese with English subtitles and optional English dub tracks.

Genre TV: It’s a great week for fans of small screen sci-fi and horror. Fear Itself: The Complete First Season (Lionsgate) is actually the only season you’ll see of the show, created as a network version of Showtime’s Masters of Horror anthology series. It’s even produced by Mick Garris and features some of the same directors (Stuart Gordon, John Landis) in a line-up supplemented by some impressive big-screen helmers: Brad Anderson, Mary Harron, Ronny Yu, John Dahl and (in the best episode) Larry Fessenden. They don’t do anything new with the anthology format and the (mostly original) short stories are short on creativity and fresh ideas. The level of violence and gore is strictly PG, which may be part of the reason it was cancelled before all 13 episodes had run. This four-disc set collects them all (in a frankly poorly designed case that stacks the discs on top of one another), plus a brief featurette (each with a director interview) for each episode.

Primeval: Volume Two (BBC Warner) is actually the third season of the British-made Walking With Dinosaurs meets Torchwood series. The team radically changes this season and it gets looser as a result: the original team leaders have all dropped out, the junior partners (Andrew Lee Potts and Hannah Spearritt) take over the science part and Jason Flemyng, a guest bystander in one episode, makes himself an indispensable troubleshooter for the team as rough-and-ready cop turned Danny Quinn. The story arc becomes an almost evolutionary apocalypse masterminded by time-traveling terrorist Helen Cutter (Juliet Aubrey), a scientist with an almost literal God complex (she clones her own army of soldiers and kills them just to see how well programmed they are). The cliffhanger ending is destined to remain hanging as ITV cancelled the show, but an American remake of the show is reportedly in the works.

The cast of Primeval that opens the season gets a shake-up by the end
The cast of "Primeval" that opens the season gets a shake-up by the end

One Step Beyond: The Official First Season (Paramount) is just what it sounds like: the first release of John Newland’s anthology series of paranormal phenomenon (most inspired by true, or purportedly true, stories) to come from the original master materials. The show itself is a little staid and stiff but it certainly established its cult credentials and has a following.

With so much going on this week, I never even got a gander at Sanctuary: The Complete First Season (E1), a British science fiction-meets-the supernatural series, or Doctor Who: The Next Doctor (BBC Warner), a single-episode disc that, as the title suggests, presents the passing of the torch from David Tennant to the next Doctor.

I also review The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency (HBO) here. For the rest of the highlights (including X-Men Origins: Wolverine and An American Werewolf In London: Full Moon Edition), 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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