Sep 21 2009

DVDs for 09/22/09 – Trips to Hunger Steppes, the Israeli desert and the foggy port towns of yesteryear France

Tulpan (Zeitgeist), the first narrative film from Russian documentary director Sergei Dvortsevoy is fiction steeped in the landscape and nomadic lives of the shepherds of unending plains of Kazakhstan. Asa (the optimistic and upbeat Askhat Kuchinchirekov) is a young Kazakh man who returns home from service in the Russian navy to join his sister’s family as a shepherd scraping out a living on the barren Hunger Steppes. He must have a wife if he wants his own flock and (dressed to impress in his naval uniform) he woos the shy Tulpan, unseen but for eyes only glimpsed behind a chador, but this is no romantic fable. The sheep are starving, the potential bride is unwilling and Asa’s buddy, a rowdy young man whose truck in the only link these folks have to rest of the world, wants Asa to leave it all behind and go with him to the city.

Hunger Steppes of Kazakhstan are alive with the sounds of music!

The film has a distinctive, deliberate rhythm that suggests the different pace of life here and Dvortsevoy shoots each scene as a single, unbroken handheld shot, which gives adds unexpected drama to the scenes, notably a live sheep birth that Asa must midwife without an assist from his gruff but experienced brother-in-law. There is plenty of life and humor to the film, thanks to the little kids scrambling around the yurt and singing their hearts out, and to a determined camel relentlessly following a calf wrapped in gauze and tucked into the motorcycle sidecar of the area vet. While it is no documentary, this lovingly made film captures a culture and a rural way of life with a mix of realism and poetry. In Kazakh with English subtitles.

The Adam of Adam Resurrected (Image) is Adam Stein (Jeff Goldblum), who survived the concentration camps of Nazi Germany but not the psychic scars of the ordeal. Flitting about an experimental psychiatric facility in the Israeli desert of the 1960s like he’s the emcee of the madhouse, loved by patients and staff alike while he makes his intermittent escapes and retreats into the bottles his hidden around the building the rest of the time. Those wounds refuse to heal until the dedicated and somewhat indulgent head of the experimental facility (Derek Jacobi) asks him to meet a feral, abandoned boy who has become a dog in his retreat from the horrors that he suffered. Helping to heal this innocent helps him open up his own suppressed ordeal as the personal clown of the camp commandant (Willem Dafoe). Goldblum plays the part as a charming showman, a celebrated clown before the Nazis banned Jews from the stage, now playing the life of the party with an effortless charm. It’s a devastating performance, a man loved by everyone who can only despise himself. Director Paul Schrader is too removed from the powerful emotions roiling through the film, but it may be the only way to handle the horrors he’s forced to confront. Ayelet Zurer (of Angels & Demons) co-stars as the head nurse and Adam’s willing mistress. Features commentary by director Paul Schrader, a film festival Q&A with Schrader, a featurette and deleted scenes on both the DVD and Blu-ray.

Dripping with doom and romantic tragedy, Marcel Carne’s 1939 Le Jour Se Lève (Criterion) is the quintessential expression of “poetic realism” in thirties French cinema and star Jean Gabin is its fallen angel of a tragic hero. Told in flashback as he waits, desperate and disheveled and utterly despairing, for the dawn in his hovel of an attic room while the police surround him, the film charts the dashed dreams and romantic trials that brought him to this state: a wanted murderer, yes, but also a man whose act of violence was in its own way a sacrifice to his love. The fog and shadows seep into the film like fate waiting to smother him. Jules Berry, Arletty, and Jacqueline Laurent fill out the complicated love quadrangle. Carne and screenwriter Jacques Prevert were frequent and fine collaborators on many films, most famously Children of Paradise, but I nominate this as their masterpiece. Criterion debuts this classic on DVD on their “Essential Art House” imprint, which in the past has offered stripped down versions of previously released special editions. This edition is bereft of supplements (I wonder why they didn’t save it for a Carne/ Prevert set on the Eclipse imprint) and the film looks very good though a little soft at times (par for the course for pre-war French cinema, much of which was hidden away from the Nazis). The film is available individually or in the six-disc box set Essential Art House Volume IV, which also features the DVD debuts of Anatole Litvak’s tragically romantic tragedy Mayerling (1936), starring Charles Boyer and a wide-eyed Danielle Darrieux, and Rene Clement’s Emile Zola adaptation Gervaise (1956), starring Maria Schell, and the aforementioned stripped-down re-releases of Criterion titles The Tales of Hoffman (Powell and Pressburger), The 39 Steps (Hitchcock) and Throne of Blood (Kurosawa).

A new community: Wagon Master

A new community: "Wagon Master"

I’ve been waiting for John Ford’s underrated 1950 classic Wagon Master (Warner), one of my favorites, for years. It’s as gentle and warm a film as he ever made and it follows a classic Ford theme—the creation of a community in the west—through an often lighthearted tale of a pair of wandering horse traders (Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr.) hired by a worldly Mormon elder (Ward Bond, who commands the film with his generous yet authoritative nature) to lead his wagon train to the promised land of Utah. Along they way they pick up show people (gasp!) stranded in the desert, who are tentatively embraced by the sheltered Mormon folk, and meet up with a vicious outlaw gang, a soured version of the classic Ford family unit led by Uncle Shiloh Clegg (Charles Kemper), who is kind of a B-movie Old Man Clanton who spins a fake paternalism as he schemes his next scam. Joanne Dru is tough and sexy as the showgirl who is warmed by the welcome and attracted to the strong, silent Johnson (who is fine in first lead but not quite magnetic) and Alan Mowbray is the silky but ultimately honorable snake-oil salesman leader of the gypsy caravan. Features commentary by Harry Carey Jr. and historian/filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich with archival audio clips of John Ford.

I was also quite charmed by Bent Hamer’s O’Horten (Sony), a charmingly eccentric and perfectly low-key character piece about a retiring train engineer named Odd (a name more expressive of the film than his own laid-back, generous nature) looking to find his place after 40 years of piloting the local train line.

And while “charmed” is not how I’d describe my reaction to Observe and Report (Warner), it is a smart and weird comedy about a, angry, unstable, bi-polar security guard (Seth Rogen) at a shopping mall with delusions of power, violent fantasies and a bigotry bubbling up under his frontier marshal pose. Hill mines laughs from behavior that would be disturbing in other circumstances—his sometimes vicious overreaction would get him arrested in real life, let alone fired—thanks to Rogen’s everyman fumbling and his genuine longing to be a hero (even if his fantasies are larded with violent retribution). I review the DVD for MSN Entertainment here.

Blu-ray of the week: The Complete Monterey Pop (Criterion), the concert event that unofficially symbolizes the flourishing of the summer of love. Two years before Woodstock, Lou Adler and John Phillips (of the Mamas and the Papas) launched the first (and only) Monterey Pop festival: a San Francisco-flavored festival with three days of rock, folk and soul. D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop (1968) is a concert film as a cinema vérité documentary, a little shaggy, a little low-fi, up close and intimate and very much in tune with the audience basking in the joy of the music, like the rock music version of Jazz on a Summer’s Day. Beginning with a brief sketch of the festival’s origins and organization, it jumps into a sampling of the performances and performers—among them Simon and Garfunkel, the Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas, and dynamic performances by Janis Joplin and Otis Redding before they had become superstars—not chronological (which is a shame) but workable. The Who end their set in typical fashion, with Pete Townsend and Keith Moon utterly destroying their instruments. Jimi Hendrix follows a few acts later in the film but in real life was the next act and he enters the film like a rock shaman as a guitar phenom, playing the feedback of his instrument like a mysterious chant, and ends by burning his guitar and shattering it to pieces, like an offering to the gods of music. The whole concert feels like a communal sharing of spirit and music and Pennebaker ends the film in that spirit with Ravi Shankar. As the rhythmic, rolling sound fill the film, Pennebaker remains on the audience, a congregation blessed out on his epic raga jam, then brings us to the musicians and ends the film on the rapturous response: the crowd leaps to its feet for the only standing ovation shown in the film.

The rough, grainy footage doesn’t look appreciably better on Blu-ray but it’s a beautifully produced edition with all the supplements of the previous DVD release. The film features commentary by and new video interviews with the festival producer Lou Adler and director Pennebaker, archival audio interviews and two hours of outtake performances: 30 songs by 16 acts in all, including more by Simon and Garfunkel, The Byrds, The Who, The Mamas and the Papas, The Association’s funky presentation of “Along Comes Mary,” Jefferson Airplane knocking the crowd back with “Somebody to Love,” Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” (how this performance never made the final cut I’d love to know) and four songs by Tiny Tim, lit by tabletop candles and playing unplugged for the musicians and friends in the Green Room. A second disc features two short films Pennebaker later created from unused footage—Jimi Plays Monterey (1986), a 50 minute presentation from his legendary set, and the 20 minute Shake! Otis at Monterey (1987)—and there are booklets with essays and notes.

For TV on DVD for the week, see my wrap-up here. For the rest of the highlights, 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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