Buster Keaton’s The General and Sherlock Jr. are consistently cited as Buster Keaton’s great masterpieces and I don’t disagree—Sherlock is one of the most cinematically inventive and visionary films of its era and The General simply a perfect piece of filmmaking—but there is more heart and affection in Steamboat Bill, Jr. Keaton stars as a college dandy (complete with absurd mustache and beret) who arrives in the deep south to see his father (Ernest Torrence, who perfectly exudes tough love and gruff affection), a crusty paddleboat captain with a warhorse of a ship threatened by a brand new competitor on river. Buster is, naturally, in love with daughter (Marion Byron) of his father’s nemesis, a modern moneybags determined to put Bill and his relic of a ship out of business.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. features a spectacular hurricane sequence that leads to some of Keaton’s most inspired gags and dangerous stunts (a side of a house falls on our hero, who survives thanks to a well-placed window). But under the spectacle is a love between father and son that neither can express except through action and a nervous city boy who transforms from an oblivious klutz into a mechanical genius with a Rube Goldberg bent for mastering the mechanics of the riverboat in the midst of a storm. Funny, sweet and inventive, it’s one of the great silent movie comedies.
Special effects legend Ray Harryhausen turned 90 last month. Consider the Blu-ray debut of this 1963 fantasy classic as a present to all of us. Though credited only as associate producer and special effects creator, this is Harryhausen’s baby, from conception through production, and he offers his fantasia of the classic Greek myth with a brawny odyssey through lands of magic, all at the behest of the gods using humans as pieces in their competitive games and wagers.
Todd Armstrong is anonymously satisfactory as the heroic Jason, sent by the gods to retrieve the magical Golden Fleece, and Nancy Kovack is gorgeous as Medea, who betrays her own people for the love of this plundering stranger, but the real stars are Harryhausen’s magnificent creations: The great bronze giant that destroys Jason’s ship, the seven-headed hydra guarding the fleece (which Harryhausen knowingly imported from another myth), the lizard-like flying harpies and of course the seven armed skeletons that takes swords against Jason and two of his heroes. Harryhausen and his writers take some liberties with the myth, most obviously in the specifics of the various challenges along the way (which Harryhausen explains in his commentary) but most dramatically in removing all traces of the tragedy of Jason and Medea to give them a romantic happy ending. And Harryhausen has the added benefit of director who can create visual dynamism in the live-action scenes—Don Chaffey is no action auteur, but he is more accomplished than Harryhausen creature feature veteran Nathan Juran—and composer Bernard Herrmann, whose dramatic score adds greatly to the excitement.
I know that the special effect-laden sci-fi extravaganzas and action epics are what really drive home theater sales, with fans wanting to get theatrical presentation muscle into their home. But that’s all about showmanship (not that there’s anything wrong with that). What really sends me to heaven is watching a presentation of a cinema masterwork with the clarity, richness and integrity of a perfect 35mm presentation. Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963), quite simply one of my all time favorite films, is one of those masterworks and Criterion’s new Blu-ray edition (freshly mastered from a stunning print with unparalleled color and crispness) is as perfect a home video incarnation as anyone could hope for and better than any theatrical screening I’ve have the pleasure to experience.
I believe that Visconti’s 1963 adaptation of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel is his masterpiece. Burt Lancaster (his voice is dubbed by a deep-voiced Italian) may seem an unusual choice to play Prince Don Fabrizio Salina, an idealistic 19th century Sicilian prince (Visconti favored Laurence Olivier, a much more conventionally regal choice), but his confidence, his gravitas, and his understated cat-like grace as he walks through the world as if he owned it, creates a character of great authority and even greater melancholy. With the impoverished island nation of Sicily on the verge of revolutionary change and reform, Salina places his hope in this revolution to wipe away the corrupt ruling aristocracy (of which he is himself a member) and his upstart nephew Tancredi Falconeri (Alain Delon), who fights for a unified Italy with Garibaldi’s Red Shirts. “For things to remain the same, everything must change,” proclaims Tancredi as he sets off to join the revolution. Salina is publicly against the war but privately sympathetic and he sees Tancredi as the future of this country, or at least of his family, which is mired in a sinkhole of decadence and irrelevance.
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 most signification new releases this week and Paul Greengrass’ Green Zone (Universal), which I review for MSN here, and the Oscar-nominated The Last Station (Sony) with Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren, which I reviewed for “The Stranger” here (the supplements are considered briefly in my DVD review for MSN). I go in depth on Criterion’s beautiful edition of Abbas Kiarostami’s masterpiece Close-Up (Criterion) on Parallax View here, consider Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (Criterion) on my blog here, and celebrate the Blu-ray debut of George Cukor’s A Star is Born (1954) (Warner) on MSN here.
Given all that, here are a few releases that might get overlooked.
Le Combat dans l’ile (Zeitgeist) – The last decade has presented many magnificent rediscoveries when it comes to French cinema of the sixties, but none of them have taken me as off-guard as the 1962 feature debut of Alain Cavalier, all but unknown in the U.S. until its 2009 revival. With the cool B&W look of Louis Malle’s early sixties thrillers and a star-studded cast, the opening scenes seem to be leading up to a New Wave thriller set in the chicly impersonal world of Parisian high society. But when businessman Clement (Jean-Louis Trintignant) starts slapping his dizzy trophy wife (Romy Schneider) around as foreplay before heading out to train with his right-wing paramilitary cabal, you know this is heading into truly weird territory. When he starts unpacking his latest toy, a rocket launcher that he assembles right in his own living room, you know we’ve arrived. The scenes of training, followed by a beer-hall celebration, feels like some sick secret society where a weapons practice and fascist ideology just whet the appetite for a cold one with the boys, but he’s a true believer who puts his training into practice with an assignment to assassinate a Communist troublemaker.
The color debut of Michelangelo Antonioni continues his exploration into the cinema of alienation with a new dimension. And it’s not just the expanded palette, which he paints in the colors of waste. This drama of dislocation and neurosis is set against an industrial landscape where the rivers are choked black and oily with pollution, the barren lots around factories are dead, gray graveyards of junk and ash and waste, the horizon is made up of smokestacks belching smoke and flames and even the parks hiss smoke from pipes running under the sod.
Giuliana (Monica Vitti, Antonioni’s great muse) navigates this world tenuously, a fragile woman in a world where the detritus of industry has almost eradicated the natural world. Richard Harris (his voice dubbed into Italian) is a visiting corporate recruiter who becomes infatuated with the beautiful but nervous wife of his colleague. There’s a flirtation of sorts, but it’s as emotionally smothered as the industrial world around them.
Where previous Wong films like Ashes of Time and Chungking Express fractured the narrative with staccato editing and shifts back and forth through time, Happy Together presents a fairly straightforward narrative (even if the story is anything but conventional) and a visual style defined by longer takes and striking handheld camerawork that brings the viewer intimately close to the characters. And while it focuses on a gay couple (itself quite daring in Chinese cinema, which shies away from explicitly gay couples in movies and prefers suggestion to announcement), its portrait of characters who love each other but are combustible when together isn’t limited by the sex of the characters. They can be cruel, manipulative, dismissive and vindictive, but they are alive and vital. Cheung is all emotional impulse and convincingly reckless and self-destructive as Ho, a man used to seducing his way through life with his boyish beauty. Leung is more thoughtful and sad as the quiet, introspective Lai, whose ruminations provides the melancholy narration. “I always thought I was different from Po-wing. It turns out lonely people are the same everywhere.”
Ultimately, the film is about loneliness and disconnection, feelings exacerbated by being stuck so far away from home, in a culture that speaks a different language and dances to a different tune. Slow, sad tangos (predominantly Astor Piazzolla’s melancholy “Tango Apasionado”) sets the tone and the temperament of the film. It’s not always pleasant to be in their company and on initial viewing the characters can come off as emotionally brutal and callously manipulative, but under these actions they are vulnerable, yearning, fumbling people who genuinely love one another but keep falling into the same destructive patterns.
Among the featured reviews at my MSN home video column this week is Universal’s Blu-ray edition of Spartacus: 50th Anniversary. While I didn’t watch the entire Blu-ray (my review of the film itself was based on earlier viewings of the film, including the Criterion DVD), I viewed over an hour of the disc and found that it looked quite good, an improvement over Criterion’s 2001 DVD in clarity, if not quite in color, which I found it tilting a little toward red in the skin tones, but not to any egregious level. (For the record, I have a Panasonic 50-inch plasma screen that is now about three years old.)
But I also found a small but fierce uprising taking Universal to task for an inferior job of mastering, led by film archivist and restoration expert Robert Harris, who produced the 1991 theatrical reconstruction and restoration. (I thought about framing this with Harris a modern-day Spartacus leading a consumer uprising against the corporate masters, with Universal standing in for Rome, but thought better of it.) In a post in the Home Theater Forum (launching a thread numbering over 200 posts as of this writing), Harris decries the loss of detail due to the overuse of digital noise reduction (DNR) technology on ten-year-old HD master, instead of returning to the original materials with the latest technology and create a new, definitive HD master. There are some excellent frame captures at the AV Science Forum that support his criticisms. The comparisons between the DVD, HD DVD and Blu-ray images show greater clarity in the high-def formats, but also a “waxy,” smoothed-over quality, especially in the human faces. On DVD, we see a softness of detail, but on Blu-ray the increased film clarity is accompanied by increased digital grain.
The big releases this week are The Road (Sony), Corman McCarthy’s grim novel of a father and son surviving the desolate, savage wasteland of post-apocalypse America, the latest Nicholas Sparks tearjerker Dear John (Sony), with Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried. That’s all well and good and thoroughly covered at every DVD review page on the net (including my own column at MSN Entertainment), so let’s move on to other, more interesting releases.
The archival release of the week is a newly remastered edition of Stagecoach (Criterion), which I review here, but the notable DVD debut is Yesterday Girl (Facets), the debut release in Facets Video’s new “The Alexander Kluge Collection.” 15 discs of feature films and shorts made by the director over the span of 40 years have been announced, scheduled for release one a month through mid-2011. Released in 1966, Yesterday Girl is the film that marks the birth of the New German Cinema in the same way that Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows is the first feature the Nouvelle Vague. You can argue technicalities in the years of short films or any of the other features by young German filmmakers in the landmark year that established the aesthetic without receiving the acclaim, but Yesterday Girl, the story of a bright young German woman from East Germany (played by Alexandra Kluge, the director’s younger sister) who arrives penniless and jobless in West Berlin and drifts through a series of jobs, casual affairs and petty crime, was the most internationally acclaimed of these first features and the film that announced the new blood in the stagnant German film industry to the world. I wrote a substantial feature review of the release for the Turner Classic Movies website.
John Ford’s classic western is a landmark of the genre for so many reasons: mature, classically constructed and superbly directed, it made a star of John Wayne, revitalized the western genre and introduced Ford to the breathtaking landscape of Monument Valley, which would become the mythic backdrop of his west. It was once nicknamed Grand Hotel on wheels but Ford’s mix of high culture, working folk and disreputable characters tossed together under the threat of Apache attack is much more egalitarian and, for all of the melodramatic potential of the personal stories that collide, human than the famous, glossy MGM melodrama. A cross-section of the high and low of the new America setting the west—from a haughty southern socialite (Louise Platt) out to reunite with her cavalry officer husband to a “dance hall girl” (Claire Trevor) driven out of town by the new, judgmental forces of morality, from an Eastern whisky drummer (the appropriately named Donald Meek) to a lovable souse of a country doctor (Thomas Mitchell) who serves as the wry commentator of the changing social fabric of the west—board the stage to Lordsburg as an Apache uprising brews on the plains.
John Wayne’s Ringo Kid is the last of the passengers to be introduced but his entrance is a gift to this young actor, fresh out of his apprenticeship as a B-movie cowboy hero and handpicked for the role by the mentoring director. As the stage comes upon a lone figure on the trail, the camera rushes in to a close-up of this young cowboy, escaped from prison and hauling his saddle behind him (his horse died in the escape), and reveals a soon-to-be-star completely at ease in the desert and on the screen, waving down the audience as he waves down the coach. It’s not that Wayne is a great actor, but Ford presents him as a magnificent screen presence and Wayne communicates a sense of justice and integrity in every piece of dialogue and movement.
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.
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.
Rock ‘n’ Roll High School: 30th Anniversary Special Edition (Shout! Factory)
If Rock ‘n’ Roll High School isn’t the greatest rock and rebellion film of all time, it is certainly in the running, a pure, cheerfully juvenile blast of blitzkrieg guitar rock, Looney Tunes sight gags, teenage hormones and rebellion against authority because it’s there. They aren’t exactly rebels without a cause, it’s just that their cause is music and fun and the celebration of power punk rockers The Ramones, who in this universe play the rock anthems of the day. At the risk of dating myself, when I discovered the film playing in heavy rotation on HBO, I was in the high school that alternative music culture forgot and had no idea who the Ramones were (or even what punk music really was) but responded to the four-square rock anthems in three chords and double time the way I responded to Chuck Berry: the essence of the rock and roll. That’s what director Allan Arkush responded to as well. Various stories tell of producer Roger Corman’s bright idea to do a “Disco High School” movie (Arkush talked him out of that one) and of his preference to hire Cheap Trick as the featured band (too expensive, it turned out). And who knows, the stories may be true, or just more Corman musings that were never destined to actually go anywhere but make for great copy. What is definitely true is that Arkush wanted to try his hand at a rock and roll movie, an American A Hard Day’s Night with a B-movie budget, a California culture setting and an anything goes comic sensibility. It turned out that the Ramones were on the same page.
Thirty years later, the Ramones are part of my playlist and the film remains as energetic, endearing and fun as ever, not so much a dated artifact from my g-g-g-generation as a timeless slice of teenage kicks and a cartoon of youthquake rebellion against the killjoys of authority. While the seminal New York power punk band provides the beat, P.J. Soles powers the film as Riff Randell, rock and roller and aspiring songwriter who just wants to spread the gospel of rock music. Mary Woronov is her arch nemesis Miss Togar, the new high school principal whose controlling personality and authoritarian streak makes Nurse Ratched look soft and sweet. Where Soles literally dances her way through the film, swinging and swaying done the halls and barely able to keep still in class, Woronov is a drill sergeant in a skirt and a pinched expression who sends her toadying team of storm trooper hall monitors (imagine Jonah Hill and Seth Rogan in these roles) to tell on anyone who dares have any fun under her watch.