Heroes: Season Four (Universal) – The hit show of the 2007 TV season, a live action graphic novel of ordinary humans with superhuman abilities, never regained the energy, creativity or popularity of its debut. The fourth season couldn’t stop the hemorrhaging viewership, even with the addition of the dark carnival and its vengeful ringmaster Samuel (Robert Knepper) trying to seduce our heroes in his fold and sacrificing others for his own ends. He’s a smooth, seductive sociopath who feeds off the powers of others, and charms them into remaining loyal even as his temper tantrums lay waste to entire towns.
Other storylines send Claire (Hayden Panettiere) to college (where she finds a girlfriend!), Hiro (Masi Oka) bouncing through time trying fix mistakes at the cost of his own health, and Sylar (Zachary Quinto) into a whole new identity with the help of a lot of mental surgery, a bunch of twists without any solid story to hold it together. The season finale ends with the promise of “Volume Six: Brave New World,” and a “To Be Continued…,” but it was cancelled long before the episode ever aired. A special introduction the finale by creator Tim Kring promises that the storyline will continue in some form. Maybe a comic series, a la Buffy and Angel?
Piranha (1978) (Shout! Factory) – “Lost River Lake: Terror, horror, death. Film at 11.” Roger Corman produced this shameless Jaws rip-off at the height of the “nature gone wild” boom of American cinema and struck B movie gold. Scripted by John Sayles (recruited by producer Roger Corman to make his feature film writing debut) and directed by Joe Dante (in his solo debut, after co-directing Hollywood Boulevard and cutting scores of Coming Attractions in the New World trailer department), the shamelessly exploitative tale of mutant piranha released in a Texas river becomes an energetic and inventive tongue-in-cheek thriller.
Bradford Dillman does his best Rip Torn impression as anti-social mountain man Paul Grogan and Heather Menzies is rookie skip tracer Maggie, looking for missing hikers and finding a long forgotten secret military lab where mutant piranha are being bred… which are, naturally, released into the river system. They race the little biters downstream while Dante and Sayles provide the requisite blood and gore for the drive-in meat-market: a kid’s summer camp and a waterfront amusement park await the little beasties.
I wrote on Criterion’s release (on both DVD and Blu-ray) of Jan Troell’s Everlasting Moments for the Turner Classic Movies website.
Everlasting Moments is based on the memoir by Maria’s daughter, Maja, and it plays like a memoir. Her story is as much about the detail of her daily life and the culture of her world as it is about her marriage, her hardships raising children with an unreliable and often absent husband (between a stint in the war, a term in jail and an affair with a barmaid, she’s left to support the family alone) and her work as a photographer, which in hard times she turns into a small business run out of the home. The portrait of Sigfrid is hardly favorable but Troell doesn’t demonize him, even in his worst moments (and there are many). “Why mother stayed with father, I’ve always found a mystery,” Maja contemplates in her narration, which frames the film. “Perhaps it was love.” Troell’s portrait suggests it’s more than that, a combination of duty, social expectations, concern for the children, and maybe even a little guilt. But perhaps love was a part of the equation too, for Sigfrid does love his wife and children and brief moments of intimacy remind us of that. There is even room for his redemption.
But Everlasting Moments is also about photography (as both art and documentary record) and “the gift of seeing” that Maria brings to it. There is a sense of magic to photography as presented in the film, from the ethereal image of a moth refracted through a lens by Pederson onto Maria’s hand (as beautiful and delicate an image you’ve ever seen in a feature film) to the unexpected emotional power of a heartbreaking portrait of a dead child in repose before the funeral.
Galaxy of Terror / Forbidden World (Shout! Factory)
I love to see classic movies debut on DVD and Blu-ray simultaneously. Even when they are low-budget exploitation drive-in movies? Hell, especially when they are low-budget exploitation drive-in movies.
Okay, that’s a little oversold, but yeah, I like seeing Blu-ray editions of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and Death Race 2000. The point of Blu-ray is not to see flawless images. It’s about getting the most accurate representation of the original film experience that you can get at home. These editions deliver just that, complete with all the flaws that opening night audiences saw intact. What we see is likely a better presentation than those theatrical runs, thanks to home theater sound and perfect projection (no slopping reel changes or out of focus images for us), but they preserve the texture of those prints and remind us that imperfect production quality often has its own charms. They look handmade by real people, not manufactured digitally and scrubbed clear of individuality.
Thus I celebrate the minor cinematic glories and the major exploitation movie pleasures Galaxy of Terror and Forbidden World, a double feature of Alien knock-offs produced by Roger Corman and his New World Studios in the early eighties, as they make their respective DVD and Blu-ray debuts from Shout! Factory, a label whose dedication to the strange and wonderful (and sometimes simply kitschy) cultural artifacts of the recent past is something else. Not because they are great films (they aren’t, even by the most generous stretch of the imagination) but because they are entertaining pieces from a distinctive period of B-movie filmmaking, as weirdly fun and perversely creative in their own exploitative way as kindred films from the forties and fifties and sixties.
There’s a real charge to the cinema of Michael Powell, a joy in the play of expressionist possibilities of the medium, that lights up his films with energy, color, and magic—the magic of love and life and art. That invention and play with cinematic technique sounds like another British director with great directorial control and imagination, Alfred Hitchcock, yet they couldn’t be more different. The unbridled imagination of Powell’s direction (especially in partnership with his creative partner, Emeric Pressberger, who Powell shared director credit with even though his contributions are largely in the writing and producing arenas) feels like an impish schoolboy running wild through the traditions of British cinema, finding ways to give us the subjective experience of his characters, letting the emotions overflow in explosions of cinematic excitement. (It’s no wonder that Scorsese responded to Powell so powerfully; at his best, Scorsese creates the same kind of experience with his own style.)
Yet where Hitchcock is celebrated by people who couldn’t tell you the name of even one of his films, Powell remains a cult director beloved by cineastes but known to the world at large mostly for the lush, lavishly realized The Red Shoes. To girls of a certain age and a predisposition to the romance and beauty of ballet, this film is a touchstone that remains an impassioned favorite long after their invitation to the dance is over. For me, it’s a film of dark fantasy, romantic passion and an infectious love of dance, music and cinema. In 2009, The Red Shoes was restored from scratch and the print premiered at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. This is what Criterion used for their new, freshly remastered edition, on DVD and making its debut on Blu-ray.
The title character of Chloe (Sony) is a beautiful, enigmatic young hooker (Amanda Seyfried, stepping out of her knock-out-next-door image) hired by a successful gynecologist (Julianne Moore) to test her husband’s (Liam Neeson) fidelityl. They are the model of the perfect couple on the outside but inside their magnificent home they exist in separate spaces, and director Atom Egoyan emphasizes the characters alone in open rooms and separated by levels and great, empty spaces. And whenever Neeson turns on the charm with a pretty younger woman (and there are many, Moore’s face tightens, gritting her teeth as she foresees her replacement. “Oh come on, I’m being friendly,” he responds to her complaint. She decides to test the lengths of his friendship.
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.