DVDs for 06/15/10 – The Book of Eli, Mystery Train and Divided Heaven

I found The Book of Eli (Warner) more interesting than the conceptual mix of post-apocalyptic spaghetti western atmosphere (lone stranger, corrupt town, searing sun and desert of ash) and spiritual odyssey by a kick-ass pilgrim might suggest, and suggest why in my MSN review here. Denzel Washington is well cast as the soft-spoken traveler on a mission, a survivalist samurai who never provokes and never backs down and if Gary Oldman overacts the role of the despot with a dream (note that he’s reading a Mussolini biography in his introduction), he at least tries to inject a little color into the palette. But I appreciate the acknowledgment that power is not merely control of water and trading protection for obedience. In a culture where books are just as scarce as a resource as food (for reasons ultimately spelled out in the dialogue; desperation and despair creates the ideal situation for hysteria and extremism), knowledge really is power. See the MSN review for notes on the supplements.

The Book of Eli: The future looks very, very bleak

I review the other substantial marquee release this week, Youth in Revolt (Sony), on MSN here, and I reviewed the “Interview with a Doomsday Prognosticator” documentary Collapse (MPI) for The Stranger back in 2009, with notes on the DVD supplements on MSN here.

Previously available in a film-only edition from MGM (long out of print, and with dodgy subtitles to boot), Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train (1989) gets the Criterion treatment this week. The title comes from the bluesy recording Elvis made for Sun Records in 1956 but the stories of wandering tourists and lost souls drifting through Memphis are pure Jarmusch: young Japanese tourists (Masatoshi Nagase and Youki Kudoh) arrives in Memphis to take the Elvis tour, an Italian woman (Nicoletta Braschi of Life is Beautiful, and not coincidentally the wife of Roberto Benigni of Down By Law) gets a surprise visit from a wandering spirit and three Memphis low-lifes (including Steve Buscemi and Clash guitarist Joe Strummer) take an aimless and ultimately fateful midnight cruise around town. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins is all calm restraint the sleepy manager of a flea-bag hotel that puts them all up, doing a deadpan double act with Cinque Lee as wary, wide-eyed bellhop. Jarmusch lazily unfolds his tales at the speed of life and his unhurried rhythms give the deadpan mix of quirky Americana, pop culture, and cinematic poetry a quietly lived-in quality, while he juggles timelines in a trick that Quentin Tarentino borrowed (and, to be fair, completely reconceived in his own unique way) for Pulp Fiction. The offbeat interweaving is just another pattern to the crazy quilt, lovely examples of the mercurial playfulness of life as seen by the always idiosyncratic and individualistic auteur is a true American independent. The spirit Elvis touches each tale, but it’s the spirit of Jarmusch that gives them life.

“This is in lieu of a commentary,” begins Jim Jarmusch in “Q&A with Jim,” a 69-minute audio-only recording with Jarmusch answering fan questions submitted to him for this purpose. He brings both a sense of humor and a sense of purpose to the project and provides good company along with his answers. A 17-minute excerpt from documentary “I Put a Spell on Me” spotlights Jarmusch telling many of the same Hawkins stories he shares in the “Q&A” supplement, and the original 17-minute featurette “Memphis Tour” provides a social and political history behind the film’s locations. Also includes on-set and behind-the-scenes photos and a booklet with original essays by Peter Guralnick and Dennis Lim. Best of all, Criterion releases it in both DVD and Blu-ray editions at the same price point.

Konrad Wolf’s Divided Heaven (First Run), his adaptation of the novel by Christa Wolf (no relation), was made during the brief “thaw” of the sixties, when socially daring and politically critical films were allowed to be produced. I find it amazing it got made at all even in that relatively tolerant period, where the degree of freedom can be considered lenient only in comparison to the restrictions of the past (and, as it turned out, the near future). Renate Blume stars in the coming of age film set in 1950s East Germany and she’s introduced in a state of crippling depression, suffering from “nervous break,” according to the doctor. “Thus begins our story,” informs the narrator, making this the narrative baseline: not the ideals of socialism in action, but the disillusionment of a once idealistic young woman.

The flashbacks take us through a whirlwind romance with Manfred (Eberhard Esche), an ambitious (and older) chemical engineer with a great future and high hopes, and her own “promotion” to a teaching college (and the attendant party meetings that will ultimately pass judgment on her—and everyone else’s—commitment to the socialist ideals). While she takes a summer position building railroad cars, she watches the veteran socialist true believer, both an idealist and a realist, scapegoated for production problems and replaced by a young manager who comes in brimming with socialist slogans but little understanding of humans under pressure. Meanwhile Manfred watches science takes a back seat to politics and becomes increasingly cynical about the ideals he once embraced. Wolf’s unusual use of widescreen, which blurs and smears the edges of certain scenes (at first I thought it a problem with the print or the digital master, but it’s too ordered and patterned to be anything but purposeful), only exaggerates the tensions of the political debates and frustrated allegiances with its dislocating visual distortions. Divided Heaven is a dense film, with politics playing out in complicated power struggles and personal conflicts, and it’s difficult to sort through the battle of political philosophies. But it is as critical and disillusioned about the reality of the petty bureaucratic squabbles and political philosophical currents of East Germany in the fifties and sixties as it is about the so-called paradise of the west, as remarkable a portrait of East Germany as you’ll see and a heartfelt requiem for the divided Germany. In German with English subtitles, with cast and crew bios.

Christopher Walken delivers an engagingly offbeat performance as novelist Whitley Strieber in Communion (Hen’s Tooth), the 1989 adaptation of his best-selling memoir about strange dreams, suppressed memories and alien abduction. That goofy, playful and at times terrifying intense portrait is the most engaging part of the film. Philippe Mora directs from a screenplay by Strieber himself and takes it all very seriously without managing to convince us of that seriousness. Though purportedly a true story (so says Streiber, anyway, and it’s his memoir), Mora’s trippy take ends with Walken partying with the alien visitors and embracing his status as a chosen one (anal probes and all), a man at peace with his nightmares. The DVD debut features the commentary by Philippe Mora and William J. Birnes (publisher of UFO Magazine) from the original laserdisc release and new commentary by Philippe Mora recorded in 2010, plus 14 minutes of outtakes with commentary by director Philippe Mora and videotape footage of what is purported to be a genuine alien implant removal among the supplements.

Unthinkable (Sony) – I’ll resist the temptation to make a bad joke at the expense of the title and rename this pretentious polemic of a thriller “Unwatchable,” simply because Sam Jackson is invariably watchable when he does his thing. Even if, as in this film, his thing is the systematic, relentless and inhuman torture of a terrorist suspect. Starring Jackson as a black-ops expert in torture interrogation and Carrie-Anne Moss as an FBI agent appalled by his methods, it’s a clumsy polemic that bounces between the boundaries of stage-play debate and torture porn spectacle as everyone argues over ethics, morality and just what we are willing to sacrifice to safeguard against a nuclear terrorist strike. Michael Sheen is the American Muslim who endures the torture, as if to prove a point. Just like the film, which puts everyone to the test and finds that everyone is a hypocrite when survival is at stake: the higher the pay grade, the more hypocritical they are. Except, of course, the man who actually does the dirty work, who is honest, up-front consistent from start to finish. Oh my god, is that ironic or what?. Glib, pretentious and cynical, this is both unpleasant and insufferable. There’s a reason the film did not get a theatrical release. The extended version features an alternate ending (which isn’t so much satisfying as appropriate to the film’s debate) and commentary by director Gregor Jordan. The Blu-ray also features the usual interactive BD-Live functions.

Also new this week: Rom-com cutesiness from Kristin Bell in When in Rome (Disney), the Oscar-nominated documentary Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country (Oscilloscope), the animated Mary and Max (IFC) and the “Zatoichi” forerunner The Blind Menace (AnimEigo) from Japan, starring Shintaru Katsu as a different kind of blind rascal.

For TV on DVD for the week, see my wrap-up here.

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.

6 thoughts on “DVDs for 06/15/10 – The Book of Eli, Mystery Train and Divided Heaven”

  1. I’ve spent 20 minutes searching for less-than-stellar reviews for “Unthinkable” and yours is the first I’ve found. Hopefully not the last.

  2. I wish this thing had gotten a release if only to have read the scathing reviews that Sheen would have gotten and deserved! What a terrible actor.

  3. (sorry for the late entry)
    I wish I could agree with comments above and the overall review of “Unthinkable”, but I cannot. Most will not bother with the film because they simply cannot imagine it; nor do they need to. I don’t see that it matters how hypocritical everyone is or if Sheen couldn’t be innocent/evil enough or to little. Wouldn’t be easier for YOU to say this film IS a “stage-play debate and torture porn spectacle”? The real question I think would be: is it relevant to you. I feel it is while I live off of $26,000/year roughly and would have nothing to do with it otherwise. I suppose you answered that question already by giving more credit to a dim film about a holy samurai delivering a holy book across imagery and screen play that has been used in every post-apocalyptic movie, game, and book before it with a dash of religion.

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