Not the strongest week for New Releases, unless you have a fondness for Nicholas Sparks tearjerkers or Miley Cyrus vehicles (in which case the Disney drama The Last Song is just for you) or mindless cartoonish slapstick featuring live-action animals with animated facial expressions acting like Looney Tunes characters (that would be Furry Vengeance, from Summit).
But if you reach beyond the multiplex, you’ll find The Good, the Bad, the Weird (MPI), which plays like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly by way of Peking Opera Blues and Dragon Gate Inn. For a while, Korean action cinema seemed like the heir apparent to the great Hong Kong action cinema of the eighties and pre-reunification nineties, but its mastery of slick, explosive action and creative set pieces was always so deadly serious and humorless. Kim Jee-won’s self-described “Oriental Western,” set in 1930s Manchuria and featuring a cast of Korean thieves and killers and bounty hunters, is a madcap chase for a treasure map filled with double crosses, crazy escapes and lots of black humor.
Shot in Rio de Janeiro by a French director, adapting a Brazilian playwright’s take on a Greek myth, with a Brazilian cast and a non-stop beat of Brazilian percussion and Bossa Nova music, the 1959 Black Orpheus offered a look at Brazil’s culture far different from the clichés seen in Hollywood’s South American romantic fantasies. This showed poor black Brazilians who lived in the shacks in the poor favelas high above the more affluent Rio, a part of the city that Brazil’s government would have preferred to keep the rest of the world from seeing.
This was the world Orson Welles hoped to show in It’s All True, the ambitious project that was cancelled before it had barely begun. But where Welles was determined to show the poverty as well as the exoticism of Carnival, this portrait created its own fantasy of the favelas, all joy and communal idealism and color. It’s a far cry from the Cinema Novo films that more politically motivated directors like Glauber Rocha made in the sixties, and a decidedly romanticized portrait of slum life that films like City of God have put to rest in the past decade. And yet knowing that this is an exoticized portrait of Third World peasants by a European director doesn’t stop me from appreciating the energy and music and dance presented by director Marcel Camus and his cast (a mix of stage actors, musicians and non-professionals) and crew, or from enjoying the fantasy that is on screen.
I have a soft spot for Albert Lewin, a literary Hollywood writer/producer turned director with a continental sensibility an eye for handsome imagery (if not always cinematic storytelling). His productions tended toward literary adaptations (The Good Earth, 1937, which he produced, and The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1945, which he scripted and directed) but Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (Kino) is an original script (“suggested by the Legend of the Flying Dutchman,” in the words of the credits) reverberating with mythological themes, literary and classical references and a Hemingway-esque atmosphere of the lost generation of idle wealthy Europeans in early thirties Spain.
All of the men in the tale are in thrall to Pandora (Ava Gardner), a beautiful American nightclub singer who has come to Esperanza, Spain, via London, and spurns the attentions of her admirers with a mix of cruelty and ennui. Then she is drawn to the mysterious ship anchored in the bay and meets the ageless Renaissance man Hendrik (James Mason), a haunted loner whose story is the stuff of legends, and becomes captivated by this mystery man who seems to know her yet makes no advances.
If Elvis really does live, he’s now a 75-year-old dinosaur reliving his glory days doing karaoke versions of his hits in roadside taverns. But then he does live in a way, through his music and movies, which are perpetually rereleased with every notable anniversary (2007 was the last one, the 30th anniversary of Presley’s death). For the 75th Anniversary of his birth, Warner repackages its Elvis library along with the DVD debut of the last theatrical Elvis film that was, until now, unavailable.
The concert film Elvis on Tour (1972), which debuts on both DVD and Blu-ray, captures Elvis a couple of years into his seventies revival as a Vegas headliner and concert superstar with performances filmed during a 1972 15-city concert tour. Unlike the superior 1970 Elvis: That’s The Way It Is, this one captures the King after he’s settled in to live performance and his glitzy new style of showmanship. He’s still a dynamic performer but you can already see that he’s packing on weight (despite the grueling workout of his show, pouring off sweat through the sets) and at times he seems to be simply falling into familiar rhythms. He’s all professionalism and really connects with his fans (he showers the front rows with his trademark scarves) but only rarely is he gripped in the fire of genuine passion.
Kick-Ass is a comic book movie with a killer premise: what if regular people in the real world became costume vigilantes like the superheroes in comic books? Based on the uber-violent comic by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr., this film tosses a high school teenager (Aaron Johnson) into a crime-fighting culture he isn’t the least bit prepared for, and then pairs him up with an adolescent schoolgirl (Chloë Grace Moretz) who has been trained by a mentally unbalanced (yet absolutely loving) father (Nicolas Cage) into becoming a ferocious filling machine. Yeah, it’s completely f*****d up, and that’s what is both right and wrong with the film. Your appreciation will depend in how much you can appreciate it’s utter wrongness as a twisted virtue. Or how much you appreciate Nicolas Cage’s impression of Adam West’s Batman. Matthew Vaughn directs with plenty of brutal black humor, but he can’t quite follow the real-world blowback all the way down the inevitable spiral of doom. For all the collision between adolescent fantasy and material world reality, it’s just another kind of superhero fantasy, but with more blood and expletives along the way.
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.