Once again it’s a week dominated by TV releases so my focus was mostly on small screen sets, both in viewing and in writing. Nonetheless, I have reviews on MSN of Ridley Scott’s new incarnation Robin Hood (Universal) with Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett, Neil Jordan’s Ondine (Magnolia) with Colin Farrell and (Untitled) (Screen Media) with Adam Goldberg and Marley Shelton, and I review the DVD of the week—the American DVD debut of Louis Feuillaude’s delirious criminal mastermind serial Fantômas—in a separate post. As for the rest, I spotlight a couple of other releases below.
Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl (Cinema Guild) – At over one hundred years old, Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliviera is the world’s oldest active filmmaker, and the last twenty years have not only been his most prolific period, but his most artistically satisfying. This miniature of a feature film, based on a short story by Eça de Queirós, is an almost abstract tale of obsessive love, enormous personal sacrifice and an almost capricious twist of irrational emotional reflex. Ricardo Trêpa stars as the young man who tells his story to a stranger on a train: the odyssey of an unambitious accountant smitten with a young beauty (Catarina Wallenstein) who lives across the street from his office window and. Forbidden by his uncle to marry, he sets out to make his fortune and win her hand. It’s kind of like a grown-up fairy tale with a deadpan humor and a wry irony.
For all the dialogue (it’s framed as a kind of confession told to a stranger on a train) it has the patience of a silent film, with long, still shots observing the characters until they reveal themselves through the smallest of telling action or the slightest emotional reaction to ripple across their face. Cinema’s grand old director has become a master of miniatures and this is a perfectly executed short story, slight yet delightfully told with minimalist direction and imagery and a very European sensibility. The DVD features a bonus 2009 short by Oliviera, a press conference from the 2009 Berlin Film Festival and a promo for his next film, as well as an insert with an essay by James Quandt.
The Secret In Their Eyes (Sony) – A retired prosecutor in Buenos Ares (played by the affected if effective Ricardo Darín, surely Argentina’s most exportable leading man) revisits to a particularly galling case of injustice in this arthouse murder mystery from Argentina, which won the 2009 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (as well as multiple awards from the Argentinean Motion Picture Academy and other awards groups and festivals). It’s a handsome production with a story rooted in the nasty past of political fascism, which may explain why it won, because it sure isn’t subtle or dramatically challenging. The direction by Juan José Campanella (a veteran of American TV shows like House and Law and Order: SVU) is lacking in grace and subtext and at times it’s even unduly confusing, drawing attention to reversals and complications that merely distract from an otherwise simple story with a blunt twist of vengeance and poetic justice. Even the romance feels like a distraction. Spanish with English subtitles, with commentary by director Juan José Campanella (also in Spanish with English subtitles), a casting featurette with audition footage and a generic promotional featurette.
The Actuality Dramas Of Allan King (Eclipse Series 24) (Criterion) – Canadian filmmaker Allan King has directed features, documentaries and a lot of episodic television but his most personal works are the intimate cinema-verité-style documentaries he made over the course of his career. Influenced by the “Direct Cinema” movement of the sixties, he called these compassionate portraits of mostly isolated social groups “actuality dramas.” This box set from Eclipse (Criterion’s no-frills budget-minded label) features five of his most celebrated films: Warrendale (1967), about an experimental rehabilitation home for emotionally disturbed children, A Married Couple (1969), Come On Children (1973), Dying at Grace (2003) and Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company (2005). Five discs in separate thinpak cases in a paperboard sleeve. No supplements beyond excellent notes on each film by Michael Koresky.
Directors: Life Behind The Camera (First Run) – This interesting but slight survey of making movies is not a filmmaking seminar but snippets of experience and wisdom from 33 American and British directors, from Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman to George Lucas and David Lynch to James Cameron and Spike Lee and Brian Singer, compiled from interviews originally conducted for the American Film Institute mostly in the 1990s. The range of interview subjects spans from indie filmmakers to Hollywood veterans and include a lot of Oscar winners—others include Robert Benton, Tim Burton, Jonathan Demme, Clint Eastwood, Nora Ephron, William Friedkin, Terry Gilliam, Ron Howard, Sidney Pollack, Ridley Scott, Oliver Stone and Robert Zemeckis—and all they have in common is that they were actively making films through the nineties.
Given the breadth of material at the disposal of the filmmakers, this is a pretty light program with less than four hours of material over the two discs, but it does present a great variety of approaches and perspectives through the general comments. The programs are divided into eight topics, most of them quite short (directing actors, scripts and scriptwriting, working with cinematographers and such), but the two extended programs feature all 33 directors. They discuss how they got into filmmaking in “Everyone has to Start Somewhere” and discuss a key film in their career in “One of their Most Compelling Films,” the only section that is supplemented with actor interviews (by the likes of Harrison Ford, Tom Hanks, Dustin Hoffman and others). You can also access the interview clips within each category by director, but many of them are under 30 seconds which can make this a frustrating approach, and the menu design and engineering is awkward at best. The list of directors so dominates the screen that viewers may not see that the “Play All” function is placed above the menu cursor, and you can’t skip to the end of interviews while accessing them individually. Most frustrating: there are no supplements, and this is a disc that at times plays like one big DVD supplement.
Gamera, a giant flying sea turtle with fire breath and jet-propelled shell, began life as Daiei’s answer to Toho’s “Godzilla” franchise but quickly became a juvenile fantasy series of low-budget monster movies when Gamera became a friend to children everywhere. Shout! Factory rolls out four more Gamera films in two double features—Gamera vs. Gyaos / Gamera vs. Viras: Double Feature and Gamera vs. Guiron / Gamera vs. Jiger: Double Feature—which feature the hero on the half shell rising to protect Earth (and adventurous children in particular) from rampaging monster. These are cheaply made films with cut-rate effects and goofy suitmation work, which are endearing to lovers of Japanese monster movies but wear thin with the rest of us. Each set presents the original Japanese versions of the film, uncut and widescreen with English subtitles, as well as alternate English dub soundtracks.
Also new this week: The Experiment (Sony) with Adrien Brody and Forest Whitaker, the comedy Alien Autopsy (Warner), The Legend of Bruce Lee (Lionsgate), Triple Dog (Well Go USA) and the direct-to-DVD kid vid animation Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue (Disney).