DVDs for 1/19/10 – Soderbergh’s Che, Akerman’s seventies cinema, Altman’s Streamers

Rightly respected for its superb presentations of classic and contemporary cinema on DVD (and now on Blu-ray too), Criterion continues it’s relatively recent foray into shepherding select new films to home video in handsome special editions with their two-disc sets (on both DVD and Blu-ray) of Steven Soderbergh’s two-part Che (Criterion). Starring Benicio Del Toro as the revolutionary leader turned martyred legend and cultural icon, is not a tradition bio-pic. Spanning four-and-a-half hours over two films—Part One on the triumph in Cuba, Part Two on the failure in Bolivia—it’s both two films and a single, unified work that focuses on Ernesto Che Guevara’s experience as a revolutionary soldier and guerrilla leader to the exclusion of almost everything else. Soderbergh and screenwriter Peter Buchman dispense with the usual trappings of biographical drama—the early life, the intimate revelations, the historical backdrop—and forgo psychological interpretations and motivation. And apart from his enforcement of the revolutionary code on deserters and his confrontational visit to the United Nations in 1964 (a framing sequence shot in black-and-white like a cinema verite documentary), they don’t attempt to confront his controversial actions off the battlefield. It’s all about Guevara’s education as a revolutionary and his development as a leader in the jungles and in battle.

Catalina Sandino Moreno and Benicio Del Toro

Soderbergh photographs the films himself (under the credit Peter Andrews) in widescreen and lush color, shooting in long, deliberate takes that soak in the textures of the experience and the sense of time passing. There’s a romanticism to these guerillas in Eden (even if they are carrying guns) that is more idealized than convincing, but the immediacy of their day-to-day lives—training, working, interacting with local farmers and dispossessed peasants—is as captivating as the battles and skirmishes. The physical world is primary, from the reality of living in the wilds (as beautiful as it is) to the political organization of the guerrilla force and the military confrontations have an authenticity and immediacy of real people under fire. It’s not documentary or even neo-realism, but removed observation. It feels more European than American, with long takes and long shots that keep the characters firmly defined by their relationships to one another and to their environment. In the first film, the image are calmly recorded and the camera movements practical. Even the battle scenes, which have that battlefield photography look of camerawork on the run and under fire, are direct and observational. But where Part One is the triumph of the Cuban Revolution and Che’s part in making it a success, Part Two is the failure of the dream in Bolivia and the desperation and the failure is felt in more jarring camerawork.

There’s a little sloganeering but not a lot of political debate, and what we see largely is Che running his part of the campaign with the idealism that brought him there: treating the locals with respect, bringing medical aid and education to them, negotiating for food rather than stealing it. He insists his men learn to read and he holds them to standard of behavior. But if he’s driven by a passion for justice and an fervent belief in the ideals of his cause, he doesn’t let it show as a person. Through it all, Soderbergh keeps an emotional distance from Guevara and Del Toro’s Che never breaks character: once he embraces the role of revolutionary leader, Guevara becomes Che, leaving his personal life behind to be the teacher, the healer, the exemplar of the revolutionary code forever setting an example. By the end he’s as much an enigma as ever, but a mortal one, a man so dedicated to his cause that everything else—including his all but unseen family—is secondary, a sacrifice to his higher ideals. More in my theatrical review of the film here.

Each of the two parts of the four-and-a-half hour epic is separate disc of the two-disc box set. The commentary by Jon Lee Anderson, the historical consultant to the film and the author of a Che biography, is only tangentially concerned with the film. It’s more like a historical lecture focused on the man behind the portrait and the events and details that were left out of the film. More illuminating is the 49-minute “Making Che,” an original documentary that charts the origins and long development of the project and the guerrilla approach to shooting what was turned into an epic. It was also the first feature shot on the digital RED camera and the 33-minute “Che and the Digital Revolution” offers both a technical and practical portrait of the technology from the perspective of the filmmaking team. Also includes the 1967 documentary “End of the Revolution,” interviews with participants in and historians of the Cuban Revolution and Bolivian campaign, 14 deleted scenes and a booklet. Criterion continues its practice of pricing the DVD and Blu-ray editions at the same suggested retail price.

Criterion follows up the 2009 release of Chantal Akerman’s landmark Jeanne Dielman with Chantal Akerman In The Seventies (Eclipse Series 19) (Criterion), a three-disc set collecting the balance of Akerman’s seventies filmography. Disc one features “The New York Films”: the 11-minute La Chambre (1972), which consists of 360 degree revolutions and sweeping pans scanning Akerman’s New York studio apartment with the director herself sprawled on the bed, sometimes looking off, sometimes staring directly into the camera; the hour-long experimental feature Hotel Monterey (1972), a silent 16mm study of a New York residential hotel filled with senior citizens recorded in long static takes, slows sweeps and, for one long sequence, riding the elevator up and down to watch the inhabitants migrate in and out of the doors; and News From Home (1976), a series of New York street scenes, cityscapes and subway shots set to the soundtrack of city and intermittent letters from mother to daughter read over the soundtrack. The disconnected images and the lonely words of the letters (which were actually written by Akerman’s mother and read dispassionately by Akerman over the soundtrack) create a palpable sense of dislocation and alienation. You can see her working through the formalist techniques and minimalist style in these films that resulted in many of the visual tools used to such perfection in Jeanne Dielman.

The second disc features Je Tu Il Elle (1975), a minimalist narrative she shot in Belgium between her New York stays. Akerman herself stars as Julie, a young woman who spends the first act gripped in isolation in a ground-floor apartment where she obsessively writes and rewrites letters while slurping spoonfuls of sugar from a bag and systematically hauling out her furniture until there’s nothing but a mattress and a floor covered in sheets of paper she keeps rearranging. According her narration it’s been a month, but for all we know it’s a week or a day—she’s not the most reliable of narrators—before she impulsively hits the highway, hitchhiking through a surreal Belgium where American radio and TV play in cafes and truck cabs and landing at the apartment of an old girlfriend. The film made her name on the film festival circuit, possibly as much for the nudity and extended sex scene (Akerman laid herself bare for this film in every way) as for the focus and intensity of the eerily disconnected portrait. The final disc presents her 1978 feature Les Rendez-vou d’Anna, her first studio production, starring Aurore Clement as a filmmaker on a promotional tour, which takes her through a succession of train stations and impersonal hotel rooms and long waits as connections (personal and literal) are delayed. Three thinpak cases in a slipsleeve and no supplements beyond short essays on each disc by Michael Koresky.

In the early eighties, when his stock in Hollywood fell to its lowest point, Robert Altman turned to the stage and then came back to the screen with a series of cinematic theatrical adaptations. Streamers (Shout! Factory), Altamn’s 1983 production of David Rabe’s award-winning play, is his second of these and one of his best. Matthew Modine, Mitchell Lichtenstein and David Alan Grier (in his screen debut) are young soldiers at the end of basic training waiting to get shipped to Vietnam in the early days of the war and Michael Wright is an angry, anxious soldier from another barracks who arrives to stir up tensions. And there are plenty of them in this play, which explores issues of homophobia, race, machismo and simple fear that roil around the barracks under the joking, drinking and horseplay. Grier’s enlistee has embraced the boisterous show of soldierly pride of a career hardcase and bonded with Modine and the both pretend that the coy manner and flirtations of Lichtenstein is simple affectation, to avoid confronting the fact that he’s gay and the anxieties that come along with that knowledge. Wright’s streetwise soldier tracks down Grier in an effort to bond with another black man on base, but this twitchy, confrontational guy is out of place in this group in so many other ways. Altman uses the stylistic tools he mastered in his seventies ensemble films—the slow pans and subtle dolly shots through group shots, the patient zooms into telling details, the web of editing that turns ever scene into a mural—to a create a different kind of filmed theater that combines the intimacy of the original play with a cinematic expressiveness. The film won an unprecedented six Golden Lions for Best Actor—one for each of the central cast members—at the Venice Film Festival in 1983.

The disc features the new retrospective documentary “Beautiful Streamers,” with new interviews with film actors Matthew Modine, Mitchell Lichtenstein and George Dzundza discussing working with the text, collaborating with the other actors and Altman’s working methods, which they all appreciated. Also features interviews Bruce Davidson and Herbert Jefferson Jr., who starred in the original New York stage production, but their comments are unhelpfully sliced up into tiny pieces that you have to access individually in the menu.

There’s a more complicated explanation for the term, but when you comes right down to it, Pandorum (Anchor Bay) is just another word for space madness. An engineer (Ben Foster) and a pilot (Dennis Quaid) are roused from prolonged sleep on an interstellar ark to find the ship unmanned and the corridors roaming with mutant cannibals. Or rather, Foster finds out when he squeezes through the ventilation shaft (really? even deep space freighters have air ducts big enough to crawl through?) and drops into a jungle of sheet-metal trails and cargo bay caves and wary human warriors. Quaid stays behind to radio directions and face down another mad crewman (Cam Gigandet). It’s basically a zombie movie set-up on an industrial spaceship, a fast-moving B-movie that throws out lots of theories that don’t stand up to the light of reason and then moves on to the next chase and feeding frenzy by the mutant hordes. The backstory has been reduced to a kind of myth carved into a wall like hieroglyphics and narrated by an old coot of a survivor, which adds a nice touch of primitive myth-telling to the story while no making a lick of sense (seriously, it’s not like there’s been a culture to actually pass the stories down). And yes, there’s even a quasi-romance of sorts with a female survivor (Antje Traue) who transformed herself from botany officer to warrior woman. The American/German co-production was shot entirely on dark, claustrophobic sets in a Berlin studio with a German director (Christian Alvart) and international cast. Features commentary by director Alvart and producer Jeremy Bolt, a conventional making-of featurette where everyone praises everyone else, deleted and alternated scenes and a somewhat shabbily-tossed together short film that ostensibly shows what happened to the team in the botanical bay, among the supplements. The Blu-ray edition features a digital copy of the film for portable media players.

No Impact Man (Oscilloscope) – “What if I tried not to harm the environment? Is it possible? Is it practical?” New York City author and activist Colin Beavan conducts a year-long experiment in extreme green living, which begins with basic lifestyle shifts (buy locally, no new products, no disposable packaging) and ends by turning off the electricity (he is given a solar panel to generate enough juice to power his laptop—can’t stop blogging the experiment, after all). Compounding the issue is the reality of urban living in the middle of New York City (no elevators or cars or even mass transit) with a wife and young child (no disposable diapers) and the documentary is as much about the tensions and negotiations as the physical challenges. Where the stunt ends and experiment begins is hard to tell, with all the blogging and constant camera crew presence, and the fact that the experiment is a full-time job for Beavan is an unspoken reality. He can be preachy and a little insufferable as he pushes his wife to follow along on what is essentially his project (“It’s No Impact Man,” she reminds us). But Beavan is also fully aware that it is an experiment, not a permanent lifestyle change: “But if I don’t try it, I won’t know it at all,” is his mantra. He tries everything he can think of, one step at a time, to see for himself what is possible and practical to ease his impact, and uses the publicity from his stunt to promote his message via radio, TV, newspapers, speaking engagements and, of course, his running blog. And while you can nit-pick the negotiations and compromises he makes along the way (or, like many, dismiss it outright as some yuppie guilt trip), he really does walk the walk for the year of his experiment. His philosophy is consistent: we have a responsibility to our environment. “It’s not about deprivation, it’s not about not taking care of yourself,” he insists. “It’s the opposite. It’s about seeing if it’s possible to have a good life without wasting so much.” The disc (which comes in a recycled package, of course) includes a Q&A with Colin, Michelle and the filmmakers at Sundance and featurettes on various No-Impact solutions to urban living among the supplements.

I sat down with Kingdom of the Spiders (Shout! Factory) expecting a cheesy drive-in knock-off of the nature-gone-wild thrillers of the seventies, especially with William Shatner’s name leading the cast list. I was pleasantly surprised to find a perfectly serviceable (if never quite memorable) little film with a few good down-and-dirty stunts (love the crop-dusting plane crashing into a gas station with a flaming finality) and a cast of hundreds of real tarantulas swarming over the screen and, often, the cast members. Shatner is strapping, studly Arizona veterinarian Rack Hansen who investigates the mysterious death of local livestock and stumbles upon an unprecedented spider migration running right through his little desert town. The reality of the situation is brought home by an entomologist from Flagstaff (Tiffany Bolling) who explains that spider venom is killing the cattle between Rack’s smarmy passes and swaggering macho smirks. It’s part “The Birds,” part “Jaws,” part environmental commentary and all creepy crawly arachnid attack, where the lone hunters start to colonize and attack the human population. Plus it co-stars Woody Strode, which alone gives it points. Features commentary by director John “Bud” Cardos, producer Igo Kantor, spider wrangler Jim Brockett and cinematographer John Morrill, hosted and moderated by Lee Christian and producer Scott Spiegel, behind the scenes footage from the set and new interviews with spider wrangler Jim Brockett and writer Stephen Lodge, but most entertaining is a new interview with William Shatner, who chuckles, “When they had the spiders on me, it was not CGI” and remarks “There were a few harmed, but very few.”

Also new this week: The Invention of Lying (Warner) co-written and co-directed by and starring Ricky Gervais, Whiteout (Warner) with Kate Beckinsale, the literal video game movie Gamer (Lionsgate) with Gerard Butler and the German farce My Führer (First Run).

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.

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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