Oct 27 2009

DVDs for 10/27-09 – Bunuel in the Garden and Woody back in the Big Apple

The “garden” of Death In The Garden (La Mort En Ce Jardin) (Microcinema) is the South American jungle, but there’s death everywhere in this rarely seen Luis Bunuel thriller. Chark, a hard-bitten prospector (Georges Marchal) wanders into a rural mining village and the middle of an uprising against the corrupt military rule. He’s hardly an innocent, but in this mercenary world he’s as close to hero as we’ll find even as he uses the uprising for his own revenge and escape from a criminal frame-up. Some escape; the second half of the film follows Chark and a rag-tag group of mercenaries (including Simone Signoret as an opportunistic hooker and innocents (Michel Piccoli as a naïve but sincere priest and Michèle Girardon as the deaf-mute daughter of a local miner) fleeing the violence of the uprising into the jungle, where they become lost in the “garden” which, true to Bunuel and his cheeky Biblical reference, is both beautiful and deadly.

Georges Marchal and Simone Signoret in "Death in the Garden"

Georges Marchal and Simone Signoret in "Death in the Garden"

This 1956 Franco-Mexican co-production was one of Bunuel’s “commercial” films and he delivers a wonderfully cynical thriller filled with brilliant Bunuelian flourishes (Chark is arrested but dragged to a church on his way to the station, where the cop kicks him in the leg to make him kneel in prayer) and a grim sense of futility. But Bunuel is also a solid commercial filmmaker and he delivers a tight thriller filled with cynicism right out of American film noir and an atmosphere unique to this film. The jungle scenes may be studio-bound, but the thick, smothering foliage creates a hothouse claustrophobia and the soundtrack is dense with the alien world of nature, whether it’s the oppressive white noise of the rain or the constant bird chirps and insect buzzing of day time scenes. The disc is nicely mastered from a restored print with vivid color and includes both French and Spanish soundtracks with English subtitles. There’s a generous new 35-minute career retrospective interview with Michel Piccoli conducted by Juan-Luis Bunuel, as well as an interview with Bunuel scholar Victor Fuentes, commentary by film scholar Ernesto R. Acevedo-Munoz and an accompanying booklet with essays.

Woody Allen, perhaps the quintessential New York filmmaker, left the city for a run of films made abroad, in Britain and Spain, that seemed to revitalize his creative juices. Whatever Works (Sony) is his first film back in the Big Apple and while it’s a return to the neurotic comedies that made his reputation, it’s also more affectionate and likable than the films of his pre-Europe slump. Larry David plays the Allen role here, a disillusioned nuclear physicist named Boris Yellnikoff, and it’s a match made in misanthrope heaven. “Let me tell you, I’m not a likable guy,” he explains in the opening address to the audience. He’s a genius, a cynic, a misanthrope and a griping curmudgeon with no patience for “inchworms,” which is pretty much the rest of humanity. This is classic Allen, full of philosophical asides and comic rants on the major contradictions and minor inconveniences of life, and yet another May-December romance (with sweetly naïve and utterly guileless Evan Rachel Wood). Just the thought to the two in some kind of romantic congress feels like a dirty old man fantasy yet Allen makes it work, or at least keeps it from being totally off-putting, thanks to his warm and human philosophy of life (as voiced by Boris): whatever works. It’s familiar stuff for Allen, a comic romance where happy endings come to all who let themselves grow beyond their repressive definitions of the world, but for all of Boris’ kvetching, this is more enjoyable than the threadbare comedies he was cranking out before his European sojourn. The break did him good. He actually likes his characters here. No supplements on either the DVD or the Blu-ray editions, which is not unusual given the Woodman’s reluctance to participate in such things.

Il Divo (MPI), subtitled “The Spectacular Life of Guilio Andreotti,” is a satirical political bio that is as witty as they come. Written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino, it’s a political portrait directed like a gangster film (with Andreotti as a paternal, enigmatic Godfather) by way of an Oliver Stone expose, full of conspiratorial threads, matter-of-fact corruption and intimate confessions full of self-delusion. It’s funny, wry, incredulous, appalled and thoroughly enthralled by this real-life giant of Italian politics, not so much a savage satire as one disenchanted with the institutional corruption of politics. Andreotti weathered corruption scandals (as he patiently explains at one point, he’s been called 26 times in front of 26 investigating committees and the charges have always been dismissed) to be the seven-time prime minister and “senator for life.” The political details are a bit arcane (there’s a prologue outlining his career for American audiences) but the overall portrait is spellbinding and Toni Servillo, with his window pane eyeglasses and hang-dog face of impenetrable expression (and a hint of sadness), is like a silent movie comic as a political power broker. The DVD includes “The Making of Il Divo, deleted scenes and an interview with its director, Paolo Sorrentino, among its supplements. In Italian with English subtitles.

“Thrill me!” Fred Dekker pays tribute to drive-in horror cinema with Night Of The Creeps: Director’s Cut (Sony), a colorful and highly entertaining invasion movie from 1986. The invaders are slugs from outer space that turn humans into bloodthirsty zombies and the heroes are hapless college kids and a hard-boiled detective (Tom Atkins) who talks like a character in a pulp novel: “What is this? A homicide, or a bad B-movie?” Given the black-and-white prologue, a veritable movie-within-a-movie featuring innocent teenage lovers, a meteor crashing in the woods, an escaped ax-murderer and a mutiny aboard a UFO, that’s a fair question. And I’ll hazard an answer: This is a terrific B-movie, full of genre love and filled with tributes to Dekker’s horror movie heroes (including characters named Landis, Raimi, Cronenberg. Romero and Carpenter). The DVD pays tribute with the affectionate hour-long “Thrill Me: Making Night of the Creeps,” two commentary tracks (one by Dekker, the other by the cast), a collection of deleted scenes and the alternate theatrical ending.

I review The Samuel Fuller Collection (The Collector’s Choice) (Sony) separately in this entry. For TV on DVD for the week, see my wrap-up here. For the rest of the highlights, including the Criterion release of the Costa-Gavras classic Z, 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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