DVD of the Week – ‘Jean-Luc Godard: 3-Disc Collector’s Edition’

“Why must there always be a story?” asks a director (Jerzy Radziwilowicz) attempting to create a film of beautiful images, modeled on the masterpieces of western art, in Jean-Luc Godard’s Passion (1982). Of course he’s speaking for Godard, who returned from his self-imposed video exile with this lush production. Perhaps the most physically beautiful of all of Godard’s films, he uses cranes, dollies, an elaborate set, and a vivid palette of rich colors to suggest the styles of the great European directors. But there must be a story, so the fictional director flits between his rich lover (Hanna Schygulla) and a working class protester (Isabelle Huppert) while agonizing over his film. This framework seems like an afterthought, but perhaps that’s the point: who needs a story when you have these amazing images?

Passion makes its DVD debut in Lionsgate’s new Jean-Luc Godard: 3-Disc Collector’s Edition, reviewed here in my DVD column:

 

“Passion,” perhaps his most physically beautiful film to date, launched a whole new phase in his career, where he played with ideas of human relationships and cinematic representation with the tools and techniques of his video work. This new three-disc set features four films making their respective DVD debuts.

The other three features are First Name: Carmen (1983), Detective (1984), and Helas Pour Moi (aka Oh, Woe Is Me, 1993), and the disc features the half-hour documentary “Jean-Luc Godard: A Riddle Wrapped in an Enigma,” with film critics and historians Kent Jones, Winston Wheeler Dixon and David Sterritt.

Also new on DVD this week is a new collector’s edition of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment:

After striking screwball gold with “Some Like It Hot,” Billy Wilder cast his eye toward the modern urban romance in a corporate culture, circa 1960, and came up with a sad and sweet story of adultery, opportunism and compromise. Jack Lemmon is the everyman who, struggling to break out of the pack of insurance adjusters, lends out his bachelor apartment to a group of cheating executives for extramarital trysts. He gets his promotion and trades the revolving door of sleazy execs running through his place for just one recurring tenant: big boss Fred MacMurray (who plays the biggest jerk of his career with cool hypocrisy).

And Sergei Paradjanov’s debut feature Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) makes its DVD debut this week, available as a single-disc special edition or in a box set with the director’s other three feature films.

Continue reading “DVD of the Week – ‘Jean-Luc Godard: 3-Disc Collector’s Edition’”

What’s in Your DVD Player, Eddie Izzard?

My interview with Eddie Izzard went live on MSN last week. (I just got back from vacation so I’m catching up on my online pieces.) He was a lot of fun to interview, I confess, and would have loved to talk more. As it is, we discussed his TV series The Riches, his stand-up comedy act, and his James Mason impression, among other things.

MSN Movies: What’s in your DVD player?

Eddie Izzard: Does it have to be DVD or can it be a download?

I’m open. What did you download?

Chinatown.” I know it’s not anything new, but that’s what I watched last night. I download a lot of films.

That’s the great thing about DVD and home video. You don’t have to see only what’s new, and the old films generally look better on DVD than the old prints that used to bounce repertory theaters.

And one thing I love about downloads is that, in 10 years, everything that was ever made can be made available, because it can exist in cyberspace. You don’t need shelf space at a shop.

“The Riches” is your first TV series. How did you get involved with it?

Dmitry Lipkin, who created the show, brought the idea to Maverick, the production company, 10 days before I got there. I was going there for a meeting about something else and they said that they happened to be doing this story, and I said, “Well, can I do that?,” which is a bit like being in school. Can I play in your game? And they said, “Yeah, do you want to?” It was the easiest gig I’ve ever landed in my life.

How much of you is actually in your character, Wayne Malloy?

In television, they tend to write towards one’s own personality. So 60 percent of Wayne is actually me and 60 percent of Dahlia is actually Minnie [Driver]. They take what you’re like in real life and sort of run with it. I am a relentless bastard. I just will not stop, and that quality I think is important to Wayne.

Read the complete interview here.

New reviews: ‘Over Her Dead Body’ and ‘Nanking’

I got the short straw in the review department at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer this week: Over Her Dead Body, a real DOA comedy with an utterly dead performance by Eva Longoria Parker (of Desperate Housewives) as the jealous spirit of Paul Rudd’s dead fiancee.

A stumbling romantic lark about a bubbly psychic who throws down with the shrill ghost of her boyfriend’s former fiancee, “Over Her Dead Body” is a stiff of a supernatural comedy.

Lake Bell is a sunny medium and part-time caterer (or maybe it’s the other way around — her business plan is pretty vague) who gets a visit from a skeptical widower of sorts (Paul Rudd) still grieving over the death of his would-be bride on their wedding day.

That would be “Desperate Housewives” siren Eva Longoria Parker. Given what little we see of her self-involved, high-strung mortal coil, it’s a puzzle what our easygoing hero ever saw in this petty siren beyond her runway figure. As a comically vengeful spirit, she’s as glibly self-involved as she is woefully unimaginative.

Read the complete review here.

Also this week I review Nanking, a documentary about the 1937 Japanese invasion of China and the atrocities committed in the attack upon and occupation of Nanking.

Directors Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman frame their documentary around the selfless acts of a handful of Westerners — American missionaries, doctors, even a Nazi businessman — who remained behind and created a “safety zone” to shelter thousands of Chinese civilians. The Japanese government refused to recognize the zone.

The presentation of the story creates the unintended consequence of shifting the focus away from the hundreds of thousands of Chinese victims. It becomes the story of 15 Western heroes. Yet their actions are beyond politics and nationalism and the tale of how a few individuals can make a difference in the face of such atrocities is inspiring.

Read the entire review here.

‘The Wild Bunch’ – Blasting the Western Conventions

“If they move … kill ’em.”

This line of dialogue, delivered by veteran outlaw Pike Bishop (William Holden) to his gang just before they rob a bank in a dusty frontier town, comes in the midst of the opening scene as preamble to the credit that reads, “Directed by Sam Peckinpah.” That’s not just a screen credit, that’s a director making an entrance onto the cultural landscape. It’s a threat, a dare, a provocation and an outlaw oath: These desperadoes are taking no prisoners, and neither is Peckinpah.

Holden’s aging Pike, abetted by his loyal lieutenant, Dutch (Ernest Borgnine), leads a ruthless gang of gunmen and killers made up of familiar veteran character actors (Warren Oates, Ben Johnson and Edmond O’Brien as the obligatory philosophical old coot) and new blood (courtesy of Jaime Sanchez and, briefly, Bo Hopkins as a decidedly psychotic young gun). Lying in wait for them is Pike’s former partner and one-time best friend, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), sprung from prison by corporate bankers to put a stop to Pike and his gang.

The Wild Bunch blazed onto theater screens in the era of Bonnie and Clyde, when genre conventions were being blasted away and directors pushed the boundaries of what was once considered “acceptable.” Peckinpah, ever the irascible maverick, rode roughshod over every unspoken rule of on-screen violence in his portrait of mortality in the savage life of an outlaw.

The film’s opening robbery-turned-ambush is a bloodbath the likes of which had not been seen before on American screens, a spurting blast of pulp and poetry choreographed into a ballet of violence. Thornton doesn’t bother hiding his disgust with his scurvy, squabbling mercenaries (among them Peckinpah favorites Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones), who don’t care who gets hit in the crossfire as they compete for bounty. A lot of critics didn’t bother hiding their disgust, either, and the film was met with a storm of controversy.

But the film is also an elegiac epic set on the twilight of the frontier, a romantic spin on the myth of “honor among thieves” played as an apocalyptic saga of friendship and loyalty in a world where such notions have lost their currency. “When you side with a man,” says Pike, “you stick with him,” for better and for worse. In The Wild Bunch, both outcomes take place in a blaze of righteous, bloody glory.

Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.

DVD of the Week – ‘El Cid’

“What a noble subject. If he had only a noble king.”

El Cid, Anthony Mann’s exceedingly handsome historical epic starring Charlton Heston as Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, aka The Cid, debuts on DVD this week. You might think that El Cid means The Stud, as Heston is truly macho and unwaveringly chivalrous throughout, but it’s a term of respect bestowed by a Moorish prince on the Catholic Spaniard for his humanity and his respect of the Muslim citizens of Spain, a people who are under assault by Rodrigo’s intolerant Catholic king. There’s a theme more timely now than ever. I review it in my DVD column on MSN

You can argue over what is the greatest historical movie epic, but “El Cid” is surely the brawniest. Not in the gladiator sense of muscled bodies and mano-a-mano combat (like “Ben-Hur”) but in the strength of its storytelling and its visual display of force and pageantry.

The story is pure melodrama centered on a larger-than-life romance between Rodrigo and Sophia Loren’s Chimene, his lady love turned mortal enemy (the two performers did not get along, which may explain the rather formal quality of their love scenes). But director Anthony Mann uses his stunning locations and choreographs his armies and crowds magnificently, not just showing off the budget but corralling it into the frame like an old master and creating a dynamic, powerful, living landscape.

Read the complete review here. It’s available in both 2-Disc set and in a deluxe Limited Collector’s Edition.

Also new on DVD this week: special editions of Monty Python’s Life of Brian and Groundhog Day and the home video debut of the documentary Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, Continue reading “DVD of the Week – ‘El Cid’”

The Exile: An Interview with Marjane Satrapi

Marjane Satrapi is the author of the acclaimed autobiographical novel “Persepolis” and the co-director of the feature film adaptation, which secured a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Animated feature. I interviewed Marjane Satrapi early in December for the Seattle P-I. I had a generous 25 minutes with her – it was her last interview of the day – and only a tiny portion of the interview was used in the final piece, “A Moment With Marjane Satrapi.”

Here is the (mostly) complete interview. Note that Ms. Satrapi speaks (at least) three languages. English is her third language. Maybe her fourth?

My review of the film can be found here at the Seattle P-I.

I read your graphic novels about a year ago and saw the film at Toronto. I thought it was remarkable how faithful the movie is to the character of the art and style of the original novels, and yet so fluid and creative in its use of the animation medium. What was the biggest challenge in moving from the static panel of the graphic novel to the medium of animation?

The first thing was to understand is that it is not the same narration, so we had to forget about the book and really start to make a new narration but with the same material. And that’s why, as you say, the book and the movie, they are very similar and at the same time they are very different and that is the whole paradox. In the relationship that reader, as with the comic books, and the viewer with the movie, to start with that, is not the same. Unlike literature, when you read a comic book, you are very active as a reader because between two frames you have to imagine the movement yourself. When you are watching a movie you are passive because you see the images. We’ll start with that. Then you have things like the sound, the music, etc., so if there is a feeling that I have to describe with one word or draw something in a comic, for example, I can count on the music to get this feeling. So it’s not the same medium. The whole danger of this project was to do exactly what everybody thought I would do, to take a camera and take it from the frame, one after the other, and think that we will get a movie. Since we knew this danger, we tried to avoid it as much as possible. And we thought about it as a movie, not even as an animated movie. We made it like a movie, the only thing is that it was drawn. People talk about animated movies as if it was a style. It’s not a style, it’s just a technique. It’s like comics. “Comics” is not a style, it’s not just superhero stories, it’s a medium. Animation is the same thing. So we approached it this way and just tried to make a movie.

Marjane Satrapi
Marjane Satrapi

Did you ever consider making it as a live action film?

Not at all because for a subject like that and for the purpose we had, me and Vincent, we wanted the story to be much more universal. I didn’t want it to become a political or historical or sociological statement, because I’m not a politician and I’m not a historian and I’m not a sociologist. I’m one person and I believe that there is only one thing that is important and that’s the human being, the individual. Individualism is the basis of democracy, without individualism we don’t have any. As soon as you make a movie in a geographical place with some type of human being, then it becomes the story of the Middle-Eastern, far from us: “They’re not us, they’re foreign.” There’s something about the abstraction of the drawing that everybody can relate to because drawing is the first language of the human being, before writing, before even the use of the language. We have so many different kinds of narration in the movie. We have the scenes of normal life, we have the puppet things that are the historical scenes, we have the more realistic scenes, meeting with the guard and all these scenes of the war, etc. The animation became an obvious choice, because otherwise we would have done something do vulgar going in the other direction. And that helped a lot.

Continue reading “The Exile: An Interview with Marjane Satrapi”

New reviews: ‘Persepolis,’ ‘How She Move’ and Children’s Film Festival Seattle 2008

My review of Persepolis, the Oscar-nominated animated feature from Marjane Satrapi, is in the Seattle PersepolisPost-Intelligencer:

A memoir in the form of an animated feature, “Persepolis,” adapted by Marjane Satrapi from her acclaimed graphic novels, is a remembrance told not with anger but disappointment.

The film unfolds as a flashback, the quiet color of the uncertain present giving way to the graphic boldness of black-and-white memory. The narrator shares the experience of coming of age in Iran in the wake of the Islamic revolution. At the same time she leads us through her developing perspective as she grows up from little Marji — a girl who adores Bruce Lee and rocks out to Iron Maiden — to empowered young woman Marjane (voiced by Chiara Mastroianni). Marjane quickly finds that her artistic ambitions and personal desires are constrained under the oppressive laws of her country.

Satrapi and co-director/co-writer Vincent Paronnaud embrace the comic-strip style of line drawing from her books, and find an evocative richness in the austere and seemingly simple form. Every hand-drawn line has character and personality, and creative flights of animated fantasy are used sparingly and subtly…

Read the rest here.

Also reviewed is the new urban dance drama from Canada, How She Move, and I preview the Children’s Film Festival Seattle 2008.

The third incarnation of the Children’s Film Festival Seattle opens with Lotte Reiniger’s magnificent 1926 animated classic “The Adventures of Prince Achmed.” Subsequently the festival will offer five feature films and more than 70 shorts (collected in nine separate programs) over the next nine days.

Reiniger’s adaptation of “The Arabian Nights” tale is the oldest extant feature-length animated film, and it is accomplished entirely in delicate, intricately designed cutouts silhouetted against a tinted backdrop. This is not animation as we think of it today but a shadow play of the figures like lace miming the most elaborate magic lantern show ever crafted. It’s magical, mesmerizing and absolutely unique, and will be shown with an original live score composed and performed by Seattle area musicians Nova Devonie and David Keenan (who perform as the musical duo Miles and Karina).

You can read the rest here. You can find the complete schedule at the Northwest Film Forum site.

A Moment with Marjane Satrapi

A kind of “highlights reel” of my interview with Marjane Satrapi, author/artist of the “Persepolis” graphic novels and co-director of the film, is featured in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer today. My review of the film will run in Friday’s paper.

Marjane SatrapiBorn and raised in Iran, Marjane Satrapi grew up in the aftermath of the Islamic revolution, where she watched the idealism in the wake of freedom from the shah’s rule give way to an oppressive culture of religious extremism. She left for Paris in 1994, when she was 26, and has been an exile ever since. “You become a stranger everywhere,” she said, “but in a way you are also an insider everywhere.”

Satrapi first told her story in the autobiographical graphic novels “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood” and “Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return.” Now she brings her story to the screen in the richly realized animated feature “Persepolis.”

She talked about her memoir, her film and her life on a recent visit to Seattle.

On why she chose the graphic novel/comic book medium for her story.

I have a brain that functions with text and images so this is it. It’s funny … nobody would ask a writer, “Why did you write a book and why didn’t you dance?”

On adapting her graphic memoir into an animated feature:

People talk about animated movies as if it was a style. It’s just a technique. It’s like comics. “Comics” is not a style, it’s not just superhero stories, it’s a medium. So we approached it this way.

On animation over live action:

As soon as you make a movie in a geographical place with some type of human being, then it becomes the story of a Middle Easterner: “They’re not us, they’re foreign.” There’s something about the abstraction of the drawing that everybody can relate to, because drawing is the first language of the human being, before writing or language.

Read the rest here.

My complete interview will run here sometime this weekend can be found here.

Oscar Snubs: They Shoulda Been a Contender

It’s an open question whether the red carpet, the stargazing, the invariably overlong ceremony with its record of misjudged entertainment set pieces, and the obligatory afterparties will be present, but to paraphrase one of this year’s big nominees: There will be Oscars.

Zodiac - Where’s Robert Downey Jr.’s nomination?My annual Oscar report card is up at MSN. There are a lot of good nominees. I list a few choices that I think would have been better. Everyone’s a critic…

For the most part, it’s a classy bunch, but there’s always room for complaining. There is no shortage of deserving artists who didn’t make Oscar’s cut and we’re not shy about sharing our opinions on where the academy went wrong. So here is our report card on Oscar’s slights and oversights. Call it: They shoulda been a contender.

Best Picture

The five Best Picture nominees are a worthy — if fairly dark — class this year, lightened only by the inclusion of the indie-ish comedy “Juno.” I adore the film, I confess, and find it far more interesting and alive than last year’s token quasi-indie “Little Miss Sunshine.” But I’d prefer to see Sean Penn‘s “Into the Wild” — the glaring omission of the category — in its place. This sprawling, ragged human epic throws the audience headlong into the romance of an odyssey across America, living in the moment and in the buzzing thrill of the quest for something that may not exist. Carved out of primal imagery, raw emotion and pure passion, Penn’s ambition may exceed his grasp but only by degrees.

Read the rest here.

Into The Wild - Director Sean Penn shoots Emile Hirsch

DVD of the week – ‘4 by Agnes Varda’

4 by Agnes Varda Agnes Varda, a key director of the French Wave, never belonged to the group proper. By her own admission she had seen less than two dozen films before she embarked on her own first feature, La Pointe Courte (1954), a study of a marriage on the rocks starring Silvia Monfort and Philippe Noiret. Instead she remained – and remains – happily on the fringe following her own muse and defying expectations with glee. Her debut feature debuts on DVD in new Criterion box set 4 by Agnes Varda, along with three of her best and most well known features. From the easy rhythms and delicate naturalism of Cleo From 5 to 7 (1961), her first critical success, to the rosy romanticism of the controversial Le Bonheur (1965) to the harsh beauty and alienation of Vagabond (1985), Varda shows herself a hard director to peg. Where Cleo, the story of a ninety minutes in the life of a flighty pop singer (Corinne Marchand) as she awaits the results of a cancer test, gives us rounded, vivid characters in the bustling real world of Paris, Le Bonheur, a lovely tale of a tragic love triangle, offers archetypes in a sun-drenched Eden, an impossibly idyllic world where even tragedy is transformed into a happy ending. The immediacy of Cleo becomes distanced in Le Bonheur and reaches its apex in Vagabond, where Varda’s removed observations chart (in flashback) the lives touched on by Sandrine Bonnaire’s drifter, who seems incapable of actually connecting with anything around her. Where Cleo suddenly clings to the life she sees with different eyes while awaiting news of her cancer test results, Bonnaire’s vagabond seems to skip along the surface, alienated from everything and everyone around her. Even the playful techniques so effective in Cleo (intertitles marking off and punctuating the scenes) and Le Bonheur (flashcuts, out of focus portraits, visual wordplays) are stripped away for the sobering drama of Vagabond. What ties these films together is a richness of detail and a consistency of style – a compelling form created for each individual film.

It’s featured on my MSN DVD column, along with other highlights this week. The John Frankenheimer Collection offer the DVD debuts of The Young Savages and The Train along with previously released discs The Manchurian Candidate and Ronin.

“The Young Savages” (1961), his sophomore theatrical feature, is a social drama produced by and starring Burt Lancaster as a passionate district attorney who investigates the racially charged murder of a blind Puerto Rican gang member by three Italian teens. Lancaster also produces and stars in the World War II resistance drama “The Train” (1965), a gritty, vividly directed thriller about a resistance leader (Lancaster) who reluctantly risks his agents and civilian hostages to stop a Nazi officer (Paul Scofield) from looting French art treasures during the German retreat from France.

Continue reading “DVD of the week – ‘4 by Agnes Varda’”

New reviews: ’27 Dresses’

New review in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: 27 Dresses

The movie is like Jane’s perfect wedding: it delivers everything you expect on a timetable you can predict to the minute. It’s filmmaking as a cross between a carefully choreographed dance and an elaborate pageant, where we all agree to pass off Heigl, the dream girl of “Grey’s Anatomy,” as the plain sister.

Read the rest of it here.

Also new this week: my review of Jerzy Skolimowsli’s 1971 Deep End, recently revived and shown in a newly-struck print. The review is on this site. See below or click here.

Deep End – Caught in the undertow

deependposter_0823200709181.jpgDeep End (1971)

directed by Jerzy Skolimowski

An unearthed classic of early seventies cinema, Jerzy Skolimowski’s darkly satirical psychological drama of young lust, sexual callousness, obsession, and fantasy is a different kind of coming of age film. 15-year-old Mike (John Moulder-Brown) gets his first job, as an attendant in the Men’s private baths of a dreary, clammy public swimming pool in suburban London. His tips, however, come from the middle-aged women in the other section, who pay generously for him to (in the words of his gorgeous co-worker Susan, played by Jane Asher) “just go along with the gag, that’s all they want.” All Mike wants is Susan.

Polish director Skolimowski is a curious cult director without a cult, the creator of another weird and creepy film deserving resurrection – the 1978 psychological mind game The Shout – who last had limited arthouse success in 1982 with Moonlighting, starring Jeremy Irons. He’s arguably had more popular success as an actor (most recently in Eastern Promises) than as a director, where his themes are reminiscent of the early work of his Polish film school comrade, Roman Polanski.

Deep End combines Skolimowski’s own darkly psychological interests with a perfectly British sensibility rubbed raw. He punctuates the veneer of social realism with cheeky sexual metaphors, from the red he injects into the film like a flush of lust and desire to the goopy spurt of an ineffectual fire extinguisher, which serves as the final punctuation of a scene of frustrated coitus. Cat Stevens sings a few songs with the group The Can, but they’re a lot darker that those he did for Harold and Maude, another film about a young virgin in a relationship with an older woman.

Continue reading “Deep End – Caught in the undertow”