The release of the week is easily Criterion’s Blu-ray edition of The Leopard, which I mull over here, and I write about the fifties gangster noir New York Confidential in a separate post here. Here are the rest of the releases.
The White Ribbon (Sony) – Winner of the Palm D’or at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography, Michael Haneke’s portrait of rural life in Germany before World War II is a beautifully shot film that evokes nostalgia in the austere black-and-white imagery while revealing a corrupt culture under the surface. It’s Haneke’s answer to the “kammerspiel” dramas like Heimat, about the more innocent days before the Nazi Party, the depression and the World Wars, with a visual style that evokes Fassbinder’s Effi Briest, but the simpler times and old world values that Haneke finds behind the doors of lovely manor houses and quaint homes are pure hypocrisy: where power is predation here and the children of the village, the would-be innocents, learn those lessons from the actions and attitudes of their elders. A lot of critics have praised this film highly, but while I appreciate the stunning visual evocation of the world and the unnerving atmosphere of punitive power and calculated cruelty under the carefully managed pose of piety, I find his sensibility sour and cynical, more of a horror film than a social commentary.
There are no supplements on the DVD but the Blu-ray has a substantial collection, including the well-made 50-minute documentary “Michael Haneke: My Life,” which was made for German TV during the production of “The White Ribbon” and features interviews with stars of his previous films (including Juliette Binoche and Isabelle Huppert), and the 38-minute “Making Of The White Ribbon,” which features a wealth of revelatory footage with Haneke rehearsing his cast (especially with the kids) and directing on the set. Also includes the press conference from the Cannes Film Festival premiere and a 14-minute interview with Haneke. The film and the supplements are all in German with English subtitles.
The Everlasting Moments (Criterion) of Jan Troell’s lovely drama are the photographs taken by the real-life Maria Larsson in the early 20th century. A mother and wife to an alcoholic dockworker, Larsson (played by Maria Heiskanen) came to taking pictures by chance and continued out of passion and talent, snapping portraits of her neighbors and even making a small business when her husband (Mikael Persbrandt) was in jail or serving in World War II. “Not everyone is endowed with the gift of seeing,” encourages the local portrait-taker (Jesper Christensen), and they play out an unconsummated love story through their shared love of photography. Troell give the color photography a burnished palette to evoke the quality of faded photos and the idealization of memory and creates a beautiful film about hard lives and resilient people and the power of photography to bring hope and beauty to both. Features the hour-long 2007 documentary “Troell’s Magic Mirror,” a career retrospective of the director, plus the 28 minute making-of “Troell Behind the Camera” and “The True Story of Maria Larsson,” a short survey of the life and photography of the real-life Larsson narrated by Agneta Ulfsater-Troell, and a booklet. Available on both DVD and Blu-ray.
Peter Ho-Sun Chan’s entry in the genre of Chinese military epics, The Warlords (Magnolia) stars Jet Li as General Pang, the sole survivor of a military massacre engineered by a rival, who held back his forces purposely in the complicated chess of game of power played by the royal advisors. Pang is taken in by a bandit brotherhood in the hills, a kind of Robin Hood outfit protecting the peasants from the predatory officials and armies, and convinces the beloved clan leader (Andy Lau) and his loyal lieutenant (Takeshi Kaneshiro) to help him form a new army and fight for the monarchy during the Taiping uprising. Pang’s drive for victory is as much revenge for that betrayal as his vision of a new kind of leadership, and part of the tragedy is how he sacrifices his ideals to attain the power to enact them. But ultimately, they are all pawns in the chess game played by the three old ministers who pull the strings of the monarchy to keep themselves in control. While it lacks the pageantry of Zhang Yimou’s period epics or the action painting beauty of John Woo’s “Red Cliff,” Chan offers a muscular character piece set against a massive war and the power relationships behind the battles (as well as more severed limbs than I’ve seen in a single film).
Features the 35-minute documentary “The Warlords 117 Days: A Production Journal” and deleted and extended scenes. Exclusive to the Blu-ray release is the shorter “The Warlords: Behind the Scenes” and a collection of 15 brief featurettes (running no more than 3 minutes apiece), as well as an English language promotional featurette. The rest of the supplements are, like the movie, in Mandarin with English subtitles (the film also includes an optional English dub soundtrack).
The current champion in the “description in the title” movie sweepstakes, Hot Tub Time Machine (Fox) tells audiences exactly what it’s about in four words: Back to the Future as a raucous guy comedy. This take swaps out Michael J. Fox for a quartet—best buddies John Cusack, Rob Corddry and Craig Robinson and Clark Duke as Cusack’s nerd of a nephew— a band of miserable brothers who head off for a ski weekend and wake up in the eighties. It also swaps out clever plotting and smartly-tuned dialogue for horndog humor, excrement gags, drunken shenanigans and, of course, wanton sex, which (apart from a few easy swipes at pop culture) is apparently all this movie has to offer as eighties culture. But it does feature a few tributes to Back to the Future, namely Crispin Glover (spot on as a surly one-armed bellhop whose appendage-ectomy is anticipated all through the eighties flashback), a future birth threatened by the trampling the space-time continuum (aka the butterfly effect, which resident nerd Duke explains ad infinitum) and the dubious lesson that self-empowerment is merely a matter of beating up that bully from the past. Cusack is ostensibly the lead but the antics of Corddry (whose alcoholic jerk of a character would be insufferable if he wasn’t so ferociously committed to the role) and Robinson constantly upstage him. And the material, though that’s not too hard considering the dim gags and the fashion show that passes for lampoon. The extended unrated cut is extended less than two minutes and there are no nuggets of unrefined gold in the ten minutes of deleted and extended scenes, though the montages of Rob Corddry and Craig Robinson adlibbing does suggest that the funniest lines were a result of the cast and not the script.
Any resemblance between Carol Reed’s Night Train To Munich (Criterion) and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes is strictly intentional and not particularly favorable to Reed. Scripted by the same screenwriting team of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat and featuring leading Lady Margaret Lockwood, this thriller once again sets ordinary Brits (and in this case, a couple of Brits playing Austrian refugees) against the Nazis in the days just before Britain declares war on the Third Reich. Reed was a long ways from the confidence and mastery of The Third Man when he made this confection. He lacks Hitchcock’s deftness and light touch and even his energetic direction can’t distract from the weak script or the implausible plotting that tosses the characters back and forth across the continent so rapidly the actors have little room to breath life into their roles.
What is does offer is a mix of wit and wiles, a genuinely startling sequence in a concentration camp (the grim reality of the Nazi occupation hangs over the entire enterprise) and sprightly performance by Rex Harrison as an engagingly cocky British agent who impersonates a Nazi officer to rescue prisoners from behind enemy lines. The extensive use of miniatures may look quaint and unconvincing to modern eyes, but the craft and detail has a charm and a beauty that modern movies sacrificed in the name of realism. Pre-Casablanca Paul Henried (credited here as Paul Von Hernried) is a very effective as a concentration camp prisoner who masterminds the escape from the camp and into Britain and Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne recreate their roles from The Lady Vanishes as blasé British tourists traveling through Germany (when Britain declares war they worry about cricket and the golf clubs they left behind in Berlin: “I’ll never replace those,” sighs Radford). The disc features a video conversation between film scholars Peter Evans and Bruce Babington and a booklet with an essay by film critic Philip Kemp.
When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors (Eagle Rock) – Tom Dicillo’s documentary about The Doors features no new interviews with surviving band members and collaborators or comments from music historians. Instead, provides a timeline of their brief history through archival footage of the band off-stage and in performance while narration (written by Dicillo spoken by Johnny Depp) fills in the details. The rich collection of rare and never-before-seen footage gives us a front-row seat to watch Jim Morrison construct his persona while Dicillo’s narration reminds us that the rest of the band members were creative partners even as Morrison overshadowed them in the media. The rest of the film simply tells the same stories and clichés of living hard and dying young. (“This much is true: you can’t burn out if you’re not on fire.”) The sole supplement is an eight-minute interview featurette with Jim Morrison’s father and sister.
Also new this week: Creation (Lionsgate) with Paul Bettany as Charles Darwin struggling to finish his defining work on evolution, The Crazies (2010) (Anchor Bay), a remake of George Romero’s low-budget bio-horror classic, the would-be franchise launching young adult fantasy Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief (Fox), Don McKay (Image) with Thomas Haden Church, The Eclipse (Magnolia) with Ciaran Hinds, the documentary It Came From Kuchar (IndiePix) and Linus Philips’ Bass Ackwards (New Video).