DVDs for 01/26/09 – Rossellini begins, Barrymore bodychecks, Pontypool talks and Michael Jackson rocks
On a week as busy as this, you can only cover so much. Here’s what I was able to see. My pick of the week, Criterion’s Blu-ray and DVD special edition of Paris, Texas, is here, but a close runner-up is another Criterion release: Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy (Criterion).
Roberto Rossellini had been a journeyman director working within Mussolini’s Italian film industry when he redefined his career and all but inaugurated the neo-realist movement with this trio of films made at the end of World War II. Though he was no partisan, he started working on Rome Open City (1945) before Rome fell to the Allies and shot his drama of partisans fighting the Germans and the Italian Fascists in the streets of the liberated city, amidst the poverty and devastation and uncertainty of the future. Rossellini famously scrounged raw film and unused short ends from American newsreel crews for footage and that’s been the explanation for years of bleary looking prints and home video copies. And yes, the conditions of the shoot have an enormous affect on the finished film; Rossellini only had to point the camera to get a portrait of the hard life on the streets. But while Criterion’s disc is hardly Hollywood Studio crisp, the newly mastered digital transfer, restored from a fine-grain 35mm print, looks better than you’ve likely ever seen it. The same can be said for all the films in the set, which are clean and clear enough to see where Rossellini and his crew made due with out-of-focus and unsteady images and shots grabbed on the fly. The fast newsreel footage is grainier than the film stock he was used to using for his studio films, but it gave Rossellini and his crew a flexibility to shoot in available light on the streets and it gave the images that jolt of documentary immediacy in key scenes.
Looking back more than sixty years later, the newsreel immediacy is less apparent than the efforts of Rossellini and his writers (including Federico Fellini) to discard the conventions of conventional filmmaking and all the attendant melodrama and get at something more organic and authentic. The tension is palpable in Rome Open City, less so in his follow-up Paisan (1946), a portrait of the country in the final days of the war through six vignettes. This sketchier, more intimate film is less beholden to big drama (Anna Magnani’s anguished run down the street as her fiancée, a partisan, is arrested by the Germans is surely the most famous moment in Rome Open City) than to the little moments of survival, desperation, generosity and sacrifice captured in the small portraits of lives under fire. Rossellini uses the debris and devastation of the country as his set and non-actors as his cast and the results are more effective, and unsettling, than the comparatively conventional (though still daring) Rome. Germany Year Zero (1947) leaves Italy for the rubble of Berlin for a devastating portrait of post-World War II Germany, where an impoverished little boy falls under the sway of an unreformed Nazi whose propagandistic teachings results in terrible consequences, and Criterion masters its disc from the German version of the film. Between these films and Bicycle Thieves (1946), neo-realism was born and exported like a shot across the bow of studio glamour. And while I confess I’m not as taken with these films as later Rossellini projects, they are essential moments in cinema history, as much for their influence as for their expressive power as a independent vision.
Three discs in paperboard folders in a slipsleeve, with introductions to all three films by Rossellini (filmed in 1963 to accompany showings on Italian TV), commentary on Rome Open City by film scholar Peter Bondanella and the documentaries Roberto Rossellini (2001) and Once Upon a Time… Rome Open City (2006), which feature priceless archival interview clips with Rossellini and others. Also includes visual essays by Tag Gallagher, Mark Shiel and Thomas Meder, new and archival interviews and a booklet with essays on the director and on each film (by Colin McCabe, James Quandt and Jonathan Rosenbaum, respectively).
Whip It (Fox), the directorial debut of Drew Barrymore, is an uncomplicated, underrated little drama that skated into theaters on grrrl power attitude and Ellen Page’s winsome charms as a high school girl looking for her calling and finding it in the DIY world of contemporary roller derby leagues. The mix of anarchy, attitude, speed and self-made identity on the track is all it takes for Page’s Bliss Cavendar, a middle-class suburban girl going through the motions of local beauty pageants at the urging of her mother (Marcia Gay Harden), to embark on her secret life as the pocket rocket that turns perennial losers the Hurl Scouts into underdog winners in their Austin, TX league. Barrymore doesn’t throw any elbows into the familiar formula. All the familiar life lessons, about trust and truth and boys and family, are rolled out between the body checks and bruising bouts, but along with the team spirit and high energy is an engaging tale of self-empowerment, self-image and self-expression. The working class women of this team leave their low-wage jobs behind and become characters of their own making—Bloody Holly, Rosa Sparks, Eva Destruction, whatever—when they don the skates and pads and take to the track. The attraction and the thrill they get is more than simple adrenaline, and in Whip It it is palpable and contagious. Kristin Wiig is the team’s sweetheart of a mother hen and Juliette Lewis, Zoe Bell, Eve, Alia Shawkat and Barrymore herself co-star. I review the film on my blog here. The DVD doesn’t have much to supplement the experience beyond 16 minutes of deleted and extended scenes, including an alternate opening with Ellen Page and Alia Shawkat and additional scenes with the coach, Razor (Andrew Wilson), quitting the team in exasperation.
Laurie Anderson would be proud: language is a virus in Pontypool (IFC), a zombie(-esque) thriller set almost entirely within the walls of a basement radio station. Stephen McHattie is brilliant as a frustrated former shock-jock now picking up a paycheck as the morning DJ in a rural radio station on the Ontario plain, where the morning news gets a jolt of unsettling reports of swelling mobs and inexplicable attacks. McHattie holds the film whenever he speaks and the glint in his eye and puckish expression and perfectly pitched body language are magnificent support, whether he’s tweaking his producer (Lisa Houle) by ranging off topic with provocative jabs at the cops or trying to get a grip on the disturbing reports of random attacks. There is none of the usual zombie gore and the violence is almost entirely offscreen (even a shot of survivors kicking an infected attacker to death frames out the victim). It’s carried by language and sound and silence. The anxiety is created by our fears of what exactly is happening on the other end of the phone or the other side of the wall (where we can just hear gunfire and military aircraft and the occasional chant of an infect mob). Meanwhile they have a real conundrum: how do you use radio to warn the populace when your own words may spread the contagion even further? Absolutely terrific. Director Bruce McDonald and writer Tony Burgess treat their commentary as a script conference and discuss the evolution of the different drafts. Also features a radio play version of the film (edited from the film soundtrack) and three short films, including The Deaths of Chet Baker with McHattie as Baker.
St. Trinian’s (Sony), a modern reboot of the British comedy series of the fifties about the rebellious antics of the problem children of a notorious girls school, was a hit in Britain (the sequel already hit the screens) and practically unknown stateside. And for good reason. Though it overflows with talent (Rupert Everett in two roles, including one in drag, Colin Firth, Russell Brand, Lena Headey, Stephen Fry and Toby Jones in the adult cast), this Animal House of private girls schools is a motley misfit of a misfit comedy that offers outrageous antics in place of actual humor. These bad schoolgirls (led by Gemma Arterton as the head girl, who makes the school uniform like a stripper’s outfit) make their own moonshine (that last batch, apparently, left a couple of casualties) cheat their way to the finals of a quiz contest and even execute their own heist of an art museum in an effort to save their school. Not out of school spirit, mind you, but because they could never get away with their extracurricular activities and terrorist-in-training ways in a normal school. I found Oliver Parker cinematically tone deaf when he tried to mount adaptations of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest, and he hasn’t improved much here. Talulah Riley is the ostensible heroine, the nice girl dropped into this hive who finds the inner rebel and soon lowers herself to the occasion, and Juno Temple and Lily Cole are among the hordes of girls who try to make bad behavior funny.
Two concert films this week. Michael Jackson’s This Is It (Sony) is a behind-the-scenes portrait of a concert that never was, part memorial, part celebration of Jackson’s creative energy and part quick cash-in on the legacy of the King of Pop. There’s no controversy here, this is simply one last look at Jackson doing what he does best, designed for the fans. And while the musical numbers are dynamic and it shows Jackson to be an amazing showman, there’s little of the man behind the image beyond a few polite words (always spoken with words) complaining of technical problems or sorting out miscommunications. The rest of oddly distanced from the man and the film is padded out with interviews (conducted before his death) with the starstruck dancers cast in the stage show. The DVD and Blu-ray feature a 40-minute documentary on the show and another 40 minutes of featurettes (on the costumes, the dancer auditions and a collection of remembrances from his collaborators). Exclusive to the Blu-ray are the complete “Thriller” and “Smooth Criminal” films (which were to be shown on a giant LCD screen during the concert) and a featurette on the making of “Smooth Criminal.” As in the film itself, the Jackson family is conspicuously absent from the supplements. FYI: as I was formatting this feature a couple of days before the Tuesday street date, this release was both number 1 (DVD) and number 2 (Blu-ray) on the Amazon DVD sales chart.
More engaging and, as far as I’m concerned, historically interesting is Soul Power (Sony), which profiles the dynamic landmark concert staged in Zaire before the legendary 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” showdown between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Apart from a few minutes featured in the 1996 documentary When We Were Kings, this footage has been unseen since it was shot in 1974. Jeffrey Levy-Hinte had hundreds of hours of footage, both on and offstage, to draw from and he resists the temptation to counterpoint the archival perspective with modern reflections, which gives the 90-minute portrait the look and feel of a seventies concert movie with sterling sound and a 21st century sensibility. James Brown and B.B. King and The Spinners may headline but the African acts get equal time. A lot of the film is given over to the negotiations, the interaction of the musicians with each other and the locals, and to Ali himself, which is my only (minor) complaint: I would have preferred less talk and more music. Features commentary by director Jeffrey Levy-Hinte and festival producer Stewart Levine and deleted scenes.
I said there was too much for me to cover alone and here are a couple of films deserving a lot more than a mention. Jane Campion’s Bright Star (Sony) is a gorgeous film that got unjustly overlooked come awards season (here’s The New York Times review by A.O. Scott) and I loved You, The Living (Palisades Tartan) when I caught it on the awards circuit a couple of years back and am thrilled it’s finally on DVD (again, I call on A.O. Scott). All this, plus Bruce Willis in Surrogates (Disney), Clive Owen in The Boys Are Back (Miramax) and more bodies in Saw VI (Lionsgate).