May 18 2010

DVDs for 05/25/10 – The Messenger and Mandella, Gamera and Dogora

The Messenger (Oscilloscope) – Ben Foster is the combat tested Iraq war veteran who faces the emotional minefield of civilians dealing with the death of a loved one when he’s assigned to spend the last days of his tour on a new mission: casualty notification. “There is no such thing as a satisfied customer,” explains his senior partner, played by Woody Harrelson as a complete professional on the job and a lonely, reckless mess off duty. They are the face of the United States Army in those terrible moments when loved ones are told words they never wanted to hear and faces reactions as varied as the people he meets: rage, blame, despair, denial, and in one instance a tender kindness from a confused widow (Samantha Morton at her most vulnerable) that stings deeper than any verbal or physical lash.

The Messengers prepare to deliver more bad news

In his directorial debut, Oren Moverman (screenwriter of I’m Not There) offers a poignant story of men in uniform nursing wounds and haunted by loss (both physical and emotional) but unable to see another life for themselves, and a powerful perspective on the casualties of war. Steve Buscemi co-stars a grieving father reduced to blind rage. Nominated for two Academy Awards (Best Supporting Actor Harrelson and Best Original Screenplay). Features commentary by director Moverman with producer Lawerence Inglee and stars Foster and Harrelson, a documentary on Casualty Notification officers, a behind-the-scenes featurette and an audience Q&A with the director and members of the cast and crew among the supplements.

The more prominent New Release this week is Invictus (Warner), Clint Eastwood’s reverent tribute to Nelson Mandella’s efforts to unite post-apartheid South Africa. Unfortunately, it’s less a film than a memorial: handsome, stately, well-meaning and dramatically inert. The film foregrounds Mandella’s efforts to enlist the national rugby team, which many blacks viewed as a symbol of white rule, in his efforts to unite the country around the 1995 World Cup Championship. Morgan Freeman earned an Oscar nod as Mandella and his gentle humor and quiet dignity helps soften the reverent tone that Eastwood brings to the film but doesn’t overcome the contrived efforts to wring an emotional response to every tiny show of solidarity or rouse up to cheer for the team to win that cup. Even Eastwood can’t make rugby look dignified on the big screen but Matt Damon brings great conviction (and a convincing Afrikaner accent) to his role as the team captain.

The DVD includes a brief featurette on Matt Damon’s rugby training. The rest of the supplements are reserved for the Blu-ray edition. It skips the familiar commentary track for a picture-in-picture track of interviews with cast members, filmmakers and the real-life people portrayed or represented in the film. The mix of commentary and documentary provides a marvelous historical reflection of the reality that inspired the film. Also includes the 20-minute featurette “Mandela Meets Morgan” and an abbreviated version of Richard Schickel’s retrospective documentary “The Eastwood Factor,” plus a bonus DVD and digital copy of the film for portable media players.

More compelling and complex is Andre Techine’s The Girl on the Train (Strand), starring Emilie Dequenne and Catherine Deneuve. I review it for MSN here.

Gamera – The Giant Monster: Special Edition (Shout! Factory) – When Toho’s rival studio Daiei decided to challenge the big gray rampaging lizard franchise they chose… a sea turtle? The 1965 debut is a compendium of Godzilla moments on a budget: an atomic origin, the stomp through a city, his booming theme all rooted in the first Godzilla feature, his affinity for children from later entries in the series. Gamera is caught in a strange netherworld between the somber seriousness of the Big G franchise and the juvenile target audience of this series; director Noriaka Yuasa takes pains to show people survive his rampage and even highlights Gamera saving the life of a small kid who worships the turtle as a hero in a half shell, then inexplicably has him kill hundreds in a spectacular train wreck. Ultimately the sober approach slips into silliness with a giddy space age ending—and ultimately that’s the film’s charm. Daiei’s cost cutting can be seen in everything from the clumsy monster costume to shaky special effects (not to mention shooting in B&W, which cuts production costs in both raw materials and special effects, which are more expensive to execute in color). Yet somehow the big green sea turtle comes through with jet propelled flying colors in style (if not much dignity).

The widescreen monster movie has been available on DVD in lots of cut-rate editions from PD outfits (most of them from the pan-and-scan TV prints). Shout! Factory’s edition not only preserved the widescreen in a very nice anamorphic edition but offers the American DVD debut of the original, uncut Japanese version. Also features commentary by Japanese monster movie historian August Rasone (who takes a cue from Stuart Galbraith IV and packs the talk with thumbnail histories of every actor and artist involved, but gets so bogged down in detail he loses sight of the film itself) and the 23-minute Japanese language featurette “A Look Back at Gamera,” which surveys the entire series through interviews from the original director and crew members and film clips, and offers an illustration of an unproduced treatment for an unproduced Gamera sequel through storyboards and models (which look suspiciously like toys). Japanese with English subtitles.

Dogora (Severin) – The career of acclaimed French director Patrice Leconte is rich with slapstick comedies and psychological dramas, satires and thrillers, romances and tragedies. Dogora (2004), a non-narrative, non-fiction survey of Cambodia, is his most unusual, not a documentary but a kind of visual symphony set to an original score by French composer Étienne Perruchon. It’s usually compared to Koyaanisqatsi and Baraka and other contemplative visual explorations of culture and nature in conflict that became its own subgenre, but while Leconte offers contrasts between poverty and affluence, and rural and urban life, the film stops short of any political or philosophical statement of life out of balance. It’s more like Leconte’s his answer to Berlin: Symphony of a City, but on a national scale: Cambodia: Symphony of a Country, even if that symphony sounds decidedly European. This visual survey a country and its people in a series of lovely images is edited to an Oratorio with chant-like vocals from a children’s choir and Eastern European musical styles.

For all the beauty of the landscapes and the lovingly photographed scenes of workplaces and street scenes, Leconte keeps returning to the faces of the people: at work and play, at night and in the day, in transit on bicycles and mopeds in the city and piled into pick-up trucks over country roads, scavenging garbage dumps, shopping in stores and selling from streetside booths. This isn’t a documentary, it’s a visual love-letter, less about education than aesthetic appreciation. Unfortunately, Leconte isn’t able to stretch himself much beyond the artistic postcard portraits and it ultimately resembles a lavish coffee-table travel book in motion. Features the 39-minute interview featurette “Leconte on Leconte Part 3,” where he discusses his career from 1998 to the present. (Parts 1 and 2 were featured on Severin’s releases of The Hairdresser’s Husband and The Perfume of Yvonne.) However, the DVD advertises a “stunning score in 5.1 DTS Surround Sound” and an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 (which is how it was released theatrically), but the disc features only Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1 soundtracks and an aspect ratio of 1.77:1.

Poliwood (Screen Media), Barry Levinson’s documentary (originally shown on HBO) about the intersection between Hollywood celebrity and political activism, touches on the issues we expect: accusations of elitism and arrogance lobbed at the most outspoken activists (and by extension all of Hollywood), the collision of passionate artists with a suspicious (yet accommodating) media, the hostility that many voters have toward actors and musicians who use their celebrity to voice political views (or at least those views contrary to their own). For the most part, however, is quickly skips across these issues to focus on The Creative Coalition, a non-partisan group of actors and artists promoting the importance of the arts in education, as they reach across party lines to make their case at both the 2008 Democratic and Republican conventions. His engagement with the artists themselves is the most interesting part of the film. The featured celebrities on Levinson’s piece—Tim Daly, Anne Hathaway, Richard Schiff, Rachel Leigh Cook, Ellen Burstyn, Giancarlo Esposito and others—are passionate about their cause. They see political involvement as their duty as a citizen, understand that their celebrity gives both them greater access and greater scrutiny, and wrestle with the responsibility of such potential influence.

Levinson periodically steps in to editorialize (the director of “Wag the Dog” has plenty to say about media and manipulation) and he notes how politicians have become celebrities in their own right in recent years, but the film never explores any of these ideas in any detail. He seems to be holding back from really engaging with the complications and complexities of politics, celebrity and media in this country. He’s more concerned with showing that most politically active actors and musicians are neither opportunists nor elitists, merely fellow citizens who have found success and want to give back. A fine point to make, but it could have probed much deeper. Other celebrities who are heard from include Spike Lee, Susan Sarandon, Ron Silver, Danny Glover, Charlie Daniels, Sting, Elvis Costello and Black Eyed Peas. The supplements are a collection of short clips of unused interviews that add up to about ten minutes.

Nicolas Roeg’s 1971 solo directorial debut Walkabout (Criterion) was one of Criterion’s first DVD releases back in the pre-anamorphic days of 1998. It’s been freshly remastered for both DVD and Blu-ray in a beautiful new edition. I review it for MSN here, but let me quickly praise two of the new supplements: an eloquent and inspiring remembrance from Jenny Agutter recorded for French TV in 2008 and an excellent Gulpilil—One Red Blood, an hour-long documentary on the life and career of David Gulpilil produced in 2002.

I review Oshima’s Outlaw Sixties (Eclipse Series 21) (Criterion) on my blog here.

Also new this week:

Extraordinary Measures (Sony) with Brendan Fraser and Harrison Ford, Valentine’s Day (Warner) with an all-star cast and an unending string of no-star reviews, The Spy Next Door (Lionsgate) with Jackie Chan giving up the last of his dignity to play a hapless babysitter, The New Daughter (Anchor Bay) with Kevin Costner and Jermal (IndiePix) from Indonesia.

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.

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