The zombie comedy is hardly fresh territory (and really, will anyone top Shaun of the Dead?) but the creators of Zombieland (Sony) do a fine job of mining the humor inherent in the end of the world. Jesse Eisenberg is the loner college geek who finds that his obsessive-compulsive instincts are just what he needs to survive a world gone wild. He puts together his simple rules for survival and goes off in search of… what, we’re not really sure, but he’s happy to discover another warm body when the gun-toting Woody Harrelson comes careening down the wreck-filled highway and gives him a lift. This redneck madman takes a more devil-may-care approach (zombie-bashing as sport) while Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin, a cagey pair they find in a supermarket stop, have simply adapted their mercenary skills to life after people.
Think of Zombieland (as in “We are now the United States of Zombieland”) as I Am Legend as a road movie comedy. First-time feature director Ruben Fleischer moves it along with decent momentum while punctuating the sardonic humor with cheeky graphics that flash and crash on screen, and he certainly doesn’t skimp on the splatter or the sport. But it’s a character piece at heart and these oddballs discover that, emotional baggage and survival scars aside, there’s something to be said for human companionship in a world where every other living thing wants to eat you.
Winner of the Palme D’Or at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, Paris, Texas (Criterion) was not Wim Wenders’ first American film—that would be Hammett (1982), which proved to be a dispiriting experience when producer Francis Ford Coppola decided to step in and re-edit Wenders’ vision to something more commercial (so much for the creative freedom he promised filmmakers)—but it is the first American film where Wenders carved his own vision into the American landscape (both physical and cinematic). Just two years after the Hammett debacle, he returned to the U.S. his own terms, with a story he developed with Sam Shepard and financial backing from Europe that gave him the freedom to make his own film. Paris, Texas (a name that evokes the collision of and contrast between Europe and America) is a road movie, a drama of reconciliation and redemption, a modern western and an emotional odyssey of epic simplicity and emotional integrity set against an America both mythic (the stunning vistas of the Texas border desert are as primal as John Ford’s Monument Valley landscapes) and modern (from the lonely roadside motels and neon totems to the view down on Los Angeles from the hilltop family home).
Harry Dean Stanton (in his first and, to the best of my knowledge, only leading role to date) is Travis, a man who walks out of the desert and into civilization, parched and weak and mute but driven by purpose, even if it’s beyond his understanding at that point. Dean Stockwell is his brother Walt, who flies from Los Angeles to Southern Texas and drives him back, bringing Travis out of his almost catatonic, pre-verbal state as the journey brings him out of the wilderness and back to family, notably the son (Hunter Carson) he left behind four years before. Wenders and Shepard prefer spare dialogue that suggests more than it explains, letting the performances fill in the blanks and the images frame the drama. Longtime Wenders collaborator Robby Muller films the deserts and highways of the American southwest with a reverence for the primal beauty and the spare, expansive, seemingly unending landscape. Stanton looks carved from the same wind-scoured stone and sand when he emerges from the desert and Muller and Wenders slowly soften and humanize him as he tentatively but sincerely interacts with his family and returns to society, only to leave on a quest with the son he has just reconnected with. Nastassja Kinski is Jane, the young wife and mother first seen in the home movies that Walt shows one night, and it’s like that image of the happy family captured in warm, blurry super8 footage becomes his grail: he has to repair the broken family that, we are to learn, he himself destroyed.
Boogie Nights / Magnolia (New Line) – The two films that put Paul Thomas Anderson on the map arrive on Blu-ray this week. His sophomore feature Boogie Nights (1997), about the adult film industry in the late 1970s (partially inspired by the life of porno star John Holmes) is a surprisingly vibrant, funny, and at times quite warm story of a dysfunctional filmmaking family, with Burt Reynolds as a quiet but firm director Dad and Julianne Moore as the porn star surrogate mother to the company’s teen stars Rollergirl (Heather Graham) and Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg), the “natural” from the suburbs who is quickly recruited. Anderson’s flamboyant camerawork creates a heady atmosphere of excitement and energy that comes crashing down in the third act when the porno industry changes almost overnight and Diggler’s ego (fed by an out-of-control drug habit and delusions of talent) sends him out of his family’s bosom and into the cold, cruel world. And yet he still manages to pull out a happy ending (of sorts) against all odds. Magnolia (1999), Anderson’s third film, is a sprawling ensemble epic of lonely lives and damaged souls whose paths cross (however tangentially) over the course of two days in Los Angeles. The stories of over a dozen characters are held together by a web of coincidence (one of the film’s more abstract themes), Aimee Mann’s tough but tender songs, and Anderson’s energy and bravura direction, culminating in an astounding half hour crescendo that inexorably builds to a second act anti-climax, as sad and frustrated a moment as the cinema has seen. The final hour is dedicated to recovery, release and rebirth.
They make a beautiful matched pair of compassionate, impassioned and creative portraits of American souls in distress from an ambitious young filmmaker who throws himself headlong into his movies. By the time of There Will Be Blood, Anderson had honed his talents and his vision, creating images that look hewn out of the rock of his landscapes and stripped of all but the elemental essence of his film. These are different, the ambitious explorations of a young artist excited to explore the possibilities of the tools at his disposal, and for all the self-indulgence and unrealized ambition of the films, they are exciting and enthralling works carried along by his delight in filmmaking itself as much as by the stories. Magnolia especially is a kind of cinematic opera where each performance offers its own aria.
The year has barely begun and there’s already an embarrassment of rich cinema coming out on DVD, so many that I had to leave a few choice releases unexplored. I begin with the best film of 2009, now available for everyone to see before the Oscars.
The Hurt Locker (Summit) – Kathryn Bigelow has been making great cinema in a career that has given her far too few opportunities. This film, a low-budget, high-impact drama that follows the finals days in the rotation of a bomb disposal unit, should change all that. After a startling opening scene, the team gets new cowboy team leader, Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), a real maverick who steps up to a bomb like a gunfighter in an old west showdown, tough and swaggering and on his own terms. He doesn’t follow the rules and he treats every bomb like a challenge he refuses to back down from, even when the intelligence expert on the three-man team, Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), counsels him that he’s vulnerable to snipers. James simply tosses the headset and assumes his teammates will watch his back, scanning the windows and the roofs for any potential gunman, which in a busy urban street surrounded by apartment buildings and open roofs can be myriad. In one stand-out sequence, a desert stop to help out some the private soldiers (led by guest star Ralph Fiennes) back from a bounty hunt becomes an ambush. It’s the closest the film gets to a classic war movie: they become a team centered by James, who serves as spotter to Sanborn on the precision long-range rifle and gives verbal support to the less-steely Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) watching their backs. So many war movies get the chaos of battle and the suddenness of death. Bigelow is just as interested in the stillness, the patience, the importance of waiting until you have some certainty that there is no one else out there waiting to kill you. These guys do their jobs, trust one another to do their jobs and stay vigilant, and team leader James, up now seen as just a maverick without rule, shows himself to be an authentic leader and a crack soldier.
This may be the same sun-bleached Iraq of dusty dirt streets and open deserts we’ve seen in other Iraq war films, but it’s a different kind of movie. Bigelow’s handheld camerawork roams like a spotter’s eyes, always surveying, always getting another look, and the cuts are shifts of perspective that both to keep you off-balance and give a sense of how vigilant they are. Bigelow shows up how they see the world out of necessity. She also shows us that the quote by Chris Hedges that opens the film, “… war is a drug,” is not all about thrill. It’s about the need, not to kill, but to what you do. Jeremy Renner is remarkably effective as James, a man of action in the manner of a Howard Hawks hero: he’s defined by what he does and how he does it, not what he says. James is the best at what he does, and when he does it he is in control. When he’s not, he’s just another guy looking for his place in the world. There’s no political message here, nobody questioning their mission or arguing policy. These are just men doing their jobs in an unforgiving workplace, and Bigelow, more than anything, is interested in how they do it, because the how is the difference between going home at the end of the rotation in one piece or not. You can read my feature review on my blog here.
My annual “Best of DVD” (and Blu-ray) is currently running on MSN Entertainment: 10 movie discs/sets, 5 TV releases and 3 Blu-ray selections. And yes, I do bundle a few releases into a single pick, but hey, that’s the prerogative of the listmaker always trying to cram in that extra kudo.
10. ‘Pineapple Express: 2-Disc Unrated Special Edition’ (Sony)
The best outtakes come from Judd Apatow comedies, hands down, and this is the best DVD from the Apatow factory this year (released in the first week of 2009), a hilarious and unexpectedly visceral collision of road movie, action thriller, accidental buddy comedy and stoner goof. This edition is slightly longer than the theatrical cut, but it’s the hilarious collection of deleted and alternate scenes (including some apparently imported from an alternate universe) and generous helpings of behind-the-scenes footage that makes supplements so much more fun. “I Love You, Man” (Paramount) and “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” (Genius) are runners-up in the realm of great unused improvisations and cutting-room-floor scenes.
The New Releases of the week can’t help but fall in the shadow of a couple of mighty releases and one underrated film that should get a second chance on DVD. The blockbuster this week is The Hangover (Warner), the raucous comedy of a bachelor party gone horribly wrong and one of the surprise smash hits of 2009. And while it will likely be the sales winner of the week (which, like box-office numbers, I’ve found neither the need nor the desire to report on either on MSN or on my blog here), the more exciting release is Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (Universal). A surprise hit in its own right, Tarantino’s tribute to and complete rewrite of the World War II behind-enemy-lines/caper thriller is a mix of pulp fantasy, genre play, and narrative tropes resurrected with fresh takes and twists, all deliciously scripted into dialogue dances and verbal jousts and set against an occupied France informed more by the movies and Tarantino’s own “what if”? narrative doodling than any historical record. That’s from my feature review (you can read it on my blog here).
As for the DVD and Blu-ray, the disc producers have skipped the usual commentary track and traditional making-of documentary for a more eclectic collection of supplements, including all six minutes (credits included) of the film-within-a-film “Nation’s Pride” and three illuminating deleted/extended scenes. The extended scene of Shoshana’s lunch with Goebbels and Zoeller is mostly presented in a single long take, while a brief sequence celebrates the mechanics and showmanship of a presenting a movie in a movie palace of old. The highlight of the “2-Disc Special Edition” DVD and Blu-ray editions is 30-minute video interview with Quentin Tarantino and Brad Pitt (conducted by Elvis Mitchell for his radio series “The Treatment”) that brings out a calmer (yet still enthusiastic) QT to discuss the creative ideas behind his film, with Pitt in full support of his vision and his collaborative engagement with actors. Mitchell also narrates a tour through the film poster and film history in Tarantino’s movie. The rest are of the supplements are just grace notes: a relaxed interview with actor Rod Taylor, a tribute to “The Original Inglorious Bastards” with director Enzo Castellari and actor Bo Svenson (who both make cameo’s in QT’s film), a mock-featurette on “The Making of Nation’s Pride” (with the performers all in character – Eli Roth has a blast playing the sneering autocratic German auteur of this “lost” classic of Nazi propaganda cinema) and montages showing the playfulness of QT and his cast and crew on the set. Both deluxe editions include a digital copy of the film for portable media players.
The Tudors: The Complete Third Season (Paramount) – England’s young King Henry VIII works his way through wives three and four in the third season of Showtime’s rather lusty take on the historical drama. This isn’t the rotund, boorish glutton as defined by Charles Laughton. As incarnated by Jonathan Rhys Meyers he is a robust, virile, hearty young king with a lust for life, power and women. The British/American co-production was made for Showtime as part of their strategy to challenge HBO’s primacy in original programming, and the pay cable venue means that it can indulge in the lustier aspects of this slice of old England: the affairs, the dalliances, the seductions in fleshy detail.
But while the sex is the lure, the show is all about power and politics: the jockeying for influence in the court, the behind-the-scenes scheming to keep Henry’s favor, the treaties and royal marriages engineered for European alliances, and the increasingly tense relationship between the monarchies and the Vatican, which wields a power almost of powerful as that of royalty… until now. Henry makes himself head of the Church of England and brings the country to the verge of civil war. Meanwhile he grieves over the death of this third wife, Jane Seymour (Anita Briem), due to complications from childbirth and gives up on Anne of Cleves (Joss Stone), an unsophisticated German aristocrat to whom he is betrothed sight unseen, without ever consummating the marriage (his displeasure at the his advisor’s poor judgment – Henry finds Anne homely and unappealing in every way – has fatal consequences for the unlucky matchmaker). And, of course, there are the various mistresses along the way. A king has needs. Max Von Sydow co-stars this season as a Vatican Cardinal scheming to return the Catholic Church to power in England. Eight episodes on four discs, plus a featurette on the historical timeline. The fourth and final season begins on Showtime in 2010.
Lost: The Complete Fifth Season (Disney) – For a while it looked like “Lost” had indeed lost itself in its elaborate twists and strange turns but J.J. Abrams’ high concept survival series turned metaphysical epic is back on track and as riveting as ever. The castaways spent the first four seasons trying to get off the island. This season, the few souls who made it back to civilization spend their energy trying to get back while those left behind get tossed through time and manipulated in a power struggle that reaches beyond our mortal coil. Our castaways are mere pawns in a struggle that has gone on for millennia.
Disney really knows how to put together a special edition DVD for the show and this season is no different. Along with the 16 episodes on five discs are commentary tracks on select episodes, 8 deleted/extended scenes, the obligatory blooper reel and a handful of featurettes. “Making Up For Lost Time” dives into the production challenges of keeping the locations straight in a show that leaps back and forth through time in each episode, “Lost on Location” is a collection of brief featurettes on key scenes from the season, “Building 23 and Beyond” is a tour of the Burbank production facilities with tour guide Michael Emerson and “An Epic Day with Richard Alpert” follows the actor through the final day of principle photography. The high concept “Mysteries of the Universe: The Dharma Initiative” is very clever—a mock-made-for-TV-doc presented as a lost episode of a short-lived 1980s series (it even looks like an old VHS recording)—but the gag wears thin long before it ends. Exclusive to the Blu-ray set is the BD-Live enabled “Lost University” with access to even more information on the show, while the “Season Play” function remembers where you left off and gets my vote for the most useful Blu-ray exclusive to date.
Criterion is regarded by most collectors as the gold standard for international masterpieces and classic cinema on DVD. This season, it stakes itself out as a player in contemporary international cinema with the release of two acclaimed foreign films: Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale (due December 1) and, this week, Matteo Garrone’s sprawling docu-realist drama Gomorrah (Criterion). The signature image of Garrone’s adaptation of Robert Saviano’s non-fiction book, an exposé of the dominance of organized crime in Naples and Caserta, is a pair of teenage boys running around a deserted beach in their underwear while shooting off automatic weapons. (The cover of the Criterion edition transforms the image into a surreal vision of a skinny teenage boy walking through the city like a Godzilla child-man.) That’s as much glamour as you can expect from the this portrait of the mob: emotionally immature boys playing at gangster, oblivious of the reality behind their Tony Montana fantasy.
Set in the poverty of coastal regions of Naples and Caserta, Gomorrah is a long and at times grueling look at five stories of people caught up in the Neapolitan Camorra, the Mafia organization that rules the region. Their hands are in everything, from selling drugs and running guns to the rag trade and, yes, contracts to haul and dump garbage and toxic waste. The sprawl makes it hard to follow and harder to connect with the characters and their stories (I was far more engaged on a second viewing), but it makes its point about the reach of the Camorra and the culture it has spawned. Garrone, who came to features from documentary, he brings a clear-eyed approach to the film and captures an atmosphere of destruction and waste in a landscape of urban blight and poverty. Criterion is releasing the film on both two-disc DVD and single-disc Blu-ray (at the same price, as is their policy), each with the hour-long documentary “Five Stories,” video interviews with Garrone, actor Toni Servillo and author Roberto Saviano, deleted scenes and more.
Downhill Racer (Criterion) is the feature debut of Michael Ritchie, the first project that frustrated actor and future movie star Robert Redford developed for himself and the first of Redford’s proposed trilogy about the meaning of “winning” in American culture. That’s what gives such a riveting perspective to what would otherwise be called a “sports movie”: Redford’s David Chappellet, the brash, self-involved hotshot on the American ski team, is less concerned with the beauty of the sport than the attention of victory and fame.
Directed from a script by novelist James Salter and shot on location on the European ski circuit (where the director and star incorporated ideas and opportunities into the film as they arose), Downhill Racer makes no bones about Chappellet’s fierce ambition or dismissive arrogance, but the downhill runs are shot and edited with a visceral quality that takes us off the sidelines and into the skier’s perspective. The screen goes silent but for the cut of skis slicing a track through the snow and whoosh of the crisp mountain air whipping by and the camera captures the run in long takes and full shots to study the integrity of the athlete’s movement and at times watches the rush through the skier’s eyes, to give is the rush, the focus and the intensity of the experience. The rest of the film reminds us of the industry behind the sport—raising money for the national team, traveling from one contest to another, negotiating for top draws (the earlier the pick, the fresher the snow pack) and managing the media—and the culture of fame. Redford’s matinee looks are more than just Hollywood casting in this context; the film never says it in so many words, but it’s clear that Chappellet’s popularity is as much for his good looks as for his success. The crowds love a handsome champion. Gene Hackman is the practical coach who doesn’t like Chappellet or his attitude but knows that his ambition is the team’s best chance for a win and sixties screen beauty Camilla Sparv is Chappellet’s counterpart, a ski company rep who treats romance with the same emotional disconnection that Chappellet treats everything else.
Criterion’s disc advertises itself as 1.85 but is actually adjusted to the TV widescreen standard of 1.77:1. The disc features two interview featurettes, each running about half an hour. “Redford and Salter” features new video interviews with Redford, who lays out the history of the film and his career and his determination to get it made in the face of studio resistance, and writer James Salter, who discusses the evolution of the script and how it changed during the filmmaking. “Coblenz, Harris, and Jalbert” features film editor Richard Harris, production manager Walter Coblenz, and former downhill skier Joe Jay Jalbert, who served as technical adviser and ski double. There are audio-only excerpts from a 1977 American Film Institute seminar with director Michael Ritchie, the archival promotional short How Fast? and a booklet with an essay by critic Todd McCarthy.
I’ll be writing about another essential release this week, Milestone’s excellent two-disc edition of Kent McKenzie’s The Exiles, as well as two features from Seattle filmmaker Lynn Shelton, My Effortless Brilliance and Humpday, in another post. As I’m personally involved in the former (I participate in the commentary with author and filmmaker Sherman Alexie and interview Alexie for a bonus audio supplement) and am friends with Shelton, director of the latter, I can hardly be objective. But I can and will be supportive of both releases in a separate piece. (Update: it’s now up and posted here.)
The Dead (Lionsgate) – John Huston was not just one of the great American directors, he was the great translator of literary works from page to screen. He began his directorial career with The Maltese Falcon, not simply an iconic detective film and a defining film noir but an adaptation so precise that the previous screen versions have been long forgotten. It’s only fitting that he ended his career with an adaptation just as perfect, and insulting that after such a long wait for a DVD release, we get such a shoddy presentation. Based on a James Joyce short story featured in The Dubliners, The Dead (1987) is one of his most exquisite works, a perfect cinematic short story attuned to the rituals and touchy relationships of family and friends gathering in early twentieth century Dublin to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany.
Anjelica Huston and Donal McCann center the film as a married couple whose cool relationship is unnoticed by the rest of the guests but becomes obvious to us as Huston deftly brings us into the gathering, like an unseen guest, to witness privileged moments of intimacy. There’s a melancholy undercurrent to this happy occasion, as disappointment and regret and wistful remembrances reverberate through the songs and recitations of the gathering, but Huston’s hushed appreciation of the gathering and tender affection for the characters is sublime. Huston’s direction is pure grace, creating a world of relationships and a history of family in the rhythms and glances and comments (guarded and unguarded) of the guests. Donal McCann is particularly good as a tippling cousin who is always in danger of embarrassing himself and Dan O’Herlihy is fine as a patriarch who becomes increasingly red-faced and slurred throughout the evening. The disc quality of this long-awaited DVD debut, however, is appalling. The 1:85 aspect ratio has been shaved to fit the 16×9 widescreen format and the mastering is weak, with unstable, noisy colors and hazy resolution, adequate for a bargain-priced film but not worthy of the beauty of John Huston’s swan song. There’s no supplements, which is fine, but the film itself is cut by ten minutes (thanks to Tom Becker at DVD Verdict for identifying the missing footage, an entire sequence at the beginning of the film), for which there is no excuse. It’s still a beautiful film, but it’s not the movie that Huston released in 1987.
11/5/09 Update: Lionsgate has issued a recall for the DVD. Details here.
The Prisoner: The Complete Series (A&E) – “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered. I am my own man.” There are those who proclaim The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan’s cerebral spy show and portrait of personal freedom as an existential prison, the greatest TV show of all time. I won’t argue the point. His insidiously paranoid take on conspiracy, the world order and the nature of identity is no less timely forty years after it was made. No other TV show dared be as enigmatic or philosophically complex and the suspicious view of global power politics still tops the fantastic conspiracies of X-Files and Fringe and friends.
Star, creator, and sometime writer and director Patrick McGoohan mixes James Bond and “1984” in the story of an unnamed British agent (who bears a striking similarity to a certain John Drake) who, in the opening episode, resigns in a furious confrontation. But before he can leave, he’s ambushed and wakes up in a gingerbread-like tourist town called The Village: a prisoner in an isolated artificial society (a lovely Euro-mash of architecture styles and tourist town constructs), given a number in place of a name and put through elaborate theatrical pageants designed to break his spirit and his individualistic defiance. McGoohan turned the genre, and TV itself, inside out with this ingenious political allegory played as a conspiratorial mind-game of elaborate psychodramas and, though it ran a mere 17 episodes, it became an instant cult classic.