The highly acclaimed and sparsely seen trilogy of films made by Pedro Costa in the impoverished Fontainhas neighborhood on the outskirts of Lisbon debuts on DVD in Letters From Fontainhas: Three Films By Pedro Costa (Criterion), a generous box set from Criterion featuring Ossos (1997), In Vanda’s Room (2000) and Colossal Youth (2006). Costa is an acquired taste and while I respect the artist and his vision, I’m not enthralled by his films. That’s no reason for anyone else to avoid these films, however, which have been embraced and celebrated by critics around the world. I review the set for MSN here, but you should really check out these pieces by Sam Adams (in the Los Angeles Times) and Dave Kehr (in the New York Times) to get a more in-depth and appreciative overview of his films.
The education of An Education (Sony), based on the memoir by Lynn Barber, comes to a smart and mature sixteen-year-old girl who, eager to escape her petite bourgeois life in early 1960s London, is swept off her feet by a confident, charming and worldly man with a lot of secrets. Carey Mulligan earned an Oscar nomination for her performance as a sophisticated girl intoxicated by the affair and Peter Sarsgaard is so deft that he staves off the creepy reality of a grown man seducing a high-school girl—until the reality of the situation becomes clear of everyone, including the complicit parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour). Beautifully directed and acted from a memoir deftly adapted to the screen by Nick Hornby. Features relaxed commentary by director Lone Scherfig and actors Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard (who spend as much time reminiscing over the shoot and appreciating key moments as discussing the production and the characters), a nine-minute making of featurette (which also includes interviews with screenwriter Nick Hornby and author Lynn Barber) and 11 deleted scenes among the supplements on both DVD and Blu-ray.
Is Robert Downey Jr. the new Sherlock Holmes (Warner), or just a fun alternate universe take on an iconic character? I lean toward the latter but I enjoy Downey’s offbeat take on Holmes, an eccentric genius with a bare-knuckle edge and a low threshold for boredom when there’s no case to solve, and Jude Law’s very capable John Watson. Guy Ritchie’s momentum and speed-ramping flourishes distract from the rickety mystery, but I’m not convinced that the old-school detective stories need to be turned into a spectacle-laden action film. The DVD includes the 14-minute featurette “Sherlock Holmes: Reinvented,” where the producers insist that this film is “truer to the original stories” than previous screen versions. I’m not convinced, but a least their take doesn’t repeat previous screen clichés. The Blu-ray edition features the Maximum Movie Mode, an interactive audiovisual track that is a production all its own. Director Guy Ritchie steps in periodically as a combination commentator and host to discuss the production and deconstruct key scenes (with illustrative video playing in the corner), and rest is filled with picture-in-picture interviews, behind-the-scenes footage and mini-featurette “focus points” (which can also be viewed individually at full screen). Much more than simply an illustrated commentary, it’s an exceedingly well-produced alternative to the conventional featurette and a lively way to explore the film. The Blu-ray also features the usual BD-Live functions, a bonus DVD Copy and a digital copy of the film for portable media players.
Directed by Uli Edel, The Baader Meinhof Complex (MPI) is a veritable political epic and a fascinating film document that surveys the history of the Red Army Faction, the real-life left-wing terrorist group that gripped Germany in the seventies. Along with vivid personalities behind the movement is a portrait of the culture that surrounded them, inspired them and embraced them as heroes while they robbed banks, planted bombs and released manifestos. It’s a little arch at times but the detail is fascinating and it is mesmerizing to watch this idealistic rebellion swamped by obsession, revolutionary fervor and the psychotic drive of Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu), the action-oriented rebel who put action to the intellectual framework provided by left-wing journalist-turned-angry revolutionary Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck). The two-disc DVD release (with terrific cover art by Shepard Fairey, who created the “Yes We Can” Obama posters) features over two hours of supplementary material, including a detailed half-hour making of, featurettes on the actors, the score and the research, plus lengthy video interviews with book author Stephen Aust and screenwriter/producer Bernard Eichinger.
Afghan Star (Zeitgeist), Afghanistan’s version of “American Idol,” is the most popular TV show the war-ravaged country where television and music was banned under Taliban rule. But more than a popular phenomenon, this documentary shows how a simple, completely apolitical piece of entertainment crosses ethnic, regional and cultural borders and even introduces the concept of democracy to citizens who have never encountered it before through the shows very structure: the fans vote to pick the winners. And as we follow the contestants through the competition, we get a revealing portrait of a country rebuilding itself from repressive rule and war. The fans may divide over who they support, but there is one thing that the people on the street all agree on: life was stifling and miserable under Talibal rule and Sharia law. Winner of two awards at the Sundance Film Festival. Features a ten-minute video interview with director Havana Marking.
The age old Burke and Hare tale of grave-robbing body-snatchers gets an undead twist in I Sell the Dead (IFC), Glenn McQuaid’s tongue-in-cheek horror of adventures in the resurrection trade. Dominic Monaghan narrates the tale as Arthur Blake, one-time partner in crime with veteran bodysnatcher-for-hire Willie Grimes (Larry Fessenden, looking every inch the English odd-job pug) and now on death row, spilling his story to a gregarious Irish priest (a marvelously wily Ron Perlman) as long as the whiskey flows. Monaghan and Fessenden have a lively rapport as longtime partners in a trade in a culture where the corpses of the undead are more valuable than the inanimate dead and they shift their trade accordingly. After the shock of a vampire rising from a coffin or a zombie crawling out of the dirt wears off, it’s just another job, a little more dangerous and a lot more profitable. There’s no real story to speak of and no narrative through-line, just a series of colorful vignettes executed with the requisite gore and gallows humor. But with Perlman in slyly hammy form, Fessenden in a cockney caricature and Monaghan’s boyish innocence balanced by the instincts of a jaded slum survivor, this underworld buddy story has personality to spare. It’s a zombie snack of a horror comedy: insubstantial but fun.
Even forgetting that it made John Woo’s reputation stateside and broke the Hong Kong market into the American mainstream, The Killer is an amazing film. A crime thriller melodrama transformed into an explosive revenge tale with the suave Chow Yun-fat as the soulful hitman of the title and Sally Yeh as a nightclub singer blinded during one of his assignments, it melds such divergent films as Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai and Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession into an explosive revenge tale. Woo balances high octane action, hard edged violence, stylized editing that would make Peckinpah catch his breath, and operatic melodrama into an action movie classic. And where his action scenes may have been topped (by Woo himself in Hard Boiled), no contemporary action film overflows with such emotion. It still awaits a definitive DVD release (earlier DVD editions are not only out-of-print, they are not anamorphically mastered for widescreen monitors) and sad to say that The Killer: Ultimate Edition (Vivendi) does not change things. Remastered for both DVD and Blu-ray, it comes from a clean print but is hazy and soft, lacking the sharp visual clarity and vivid colors of the theatrical prints. It also runs a short 106 minutes, which suggests a transfer from a PAL digital master (that would also explain the weaknesses of visual fidelity). You can find more detail on the technical aspects from DVD Beaver here.
And on the subject of John Woo, I review Red Cliff: Original International Version (Magnet) here.
Plus Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel (Fox), The Yes Men Fix The World (Docurama, released appropriately enough on April Fool’s Day) and Under the Sea (Disney), which I reviewed back in my Seattle Post-Intelligencer days here.