DVDs for 1/13/09 – ‘The Taking Of Power By Louis XIV’

Louis XIV makes a spectacle of himself

In the final act of his storied career, Roberto Rossellini turned from the cinema to television and from contemporary stories to historical pieces. Criterion releases four productions from Rosselini’s cycle of historical films this week. Blaise Pascal, The Age of the Medici and Cartesius, all from the seventies, are collected in Rossellini’s History Films Trilogy –Renaissance and Enlightenment, a box set under the Eclipse imprint, Criterion’s budget-minded offshoot. (My copy arrived too late to review for this piece.) The 1966 The Taking Of Power By Louis XIV, Rossellini’s first film in this cycle, comes out as a Criterion proper release, with supplements and a booklet. Part history lesson and part political treatise, it is a strange and fascinating film with exacting attention to sets and dress and realities of the period. In the view of many critics and Rossellini scholars, it is the greatest of his history films and one the director’s masterpieces

Rossellini directs less like a drama than a pageant, with a largely non-professional cast arranged like figures in a painting from the era, right down to the formal poses and the full-shot framing. The sets, the props, the costumes are splendid and lavish but never distracting – they are part of his recreation of the world. The unemotional readings and unflustered reactions of his star, a non-actor named Jean-Marie Patte, is transformed by Rossellini into a confidence and a calculation behind the pageantry. It’s remarkably effective once he inhabits the center of the Versailles court, walking through the role without betraying an emotion, all part of the act. The dialogue serves not as revelations of character and motivation but as explanation and exposition, a series of history lessons that are startlingly clear and direct.

I review the DVD at Parallax View and in my DVD column at MSN here.

In the TV section of the column this week are a couple of British shows: Skins: Volume 1 is a raucous and exceptionally colorful British series about a group of high school teens in Bristol, England, and Saxondale: Complete Seasons 1&2 is another distinctive creation by actor/writer Steve Coogan. Skins opens with an episode that spotlights the most reckless and irresponsible behavior of these schoolkids. It’s an attention grabber, to be sure, leading off with sex, drugs, nudity (but only by the adults), bad behavior, and language that you can only hear on pay cable stateside. But as the series develops it dials down the shock value to delve farther in to the lives of the kids and their often fractured home lives and screwed-up authority figures. Bad judgment is not limited to just the kids here; they have merely made an art of it. In Saxondale, Coogan’s Tommy Saxondale is a retired rock band roadie and one-time counter-culture creature, well into middle age and trying to hold on to his ideals while getting by in suburbia. Pudgy, gray and often to be found behind the wheel of his beloved Ford Mustang Mach 1, Tommy is not a genius but every once in a while the wisdom of his years comes through.

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New reviews – ‘Appaloosa’ and ‘A Girl Cut in Two’

Appaloosa (dir: Ed Harris)

Ed Harris directs this adaptation of Robert Parker’s western novel, an old-fashioned western with some modern ideas about relationships. But for all the romance, it’s ultimately a buddy film, a two-hander between the tough leader (Ed Harris) and the loyal best friend and support (Viggo Mortensen), a team of lawmen who hire themselves out to troubled towns that need a firm hand to clean up the lawlessness. “What do you allow, Everett?” asks Virgil (Harris) when the town elders of Appaloosa, a desert town at the mercy of rancher Jeremy Irons and his scruffy crew, offer him the position of town marshal. “It’s what we do,” Everett (Mortensen) responds. Nothing more need be said. They take up their posts in the town of Appaloosa, Virgil at point, Everett quietly taking up a strategic position as back-up.

Everett (Viggo Mortensen) and Virgil (Ed Harris) ride into Appaloosa
Everett (Viggo Mortensen) and Virgil (Ed Harris) ride into Appaloosa

Virgil is a classic Western loner type, unfazed by violence and unflinching in the face of superior numbers, but downright flustered around a pretty woman. Allison (Renée Zellweger) steps off the train all schoolmarmish, but she’s no blushing innocent. She shows unsentimental survival skills when she’s taken hostage in a showdown with the rancher. If Virgil judges her for it, the film is more understanding.

Harris the director isn’t the least bit troubled by Virgil’s legally dubious methods. There’s not much moral nuance or little character dimension, but that fits the genre just fine. “Appaloosa” is a well-told, thoroughly enjoyable and refreshingly direct buddy Western, and that’s more than enough.

Harris takes his time telling the tale and embracing the romance of friendship forged on the trail and under fire. The relationship between Virgil and Allison has a refreshing honesty as they stumble and compromise and come to an adult understanding. The unspoken bond between the two men is the real love story.

Read the complete review here.

A Girl Cut in Two (dir: Claude Chabrol)

The old master delivers a murder and a sensational scandal, which curiously reworks the real-life turn-of-the-century Sanford White-Harry Thaw case dramatized in previous films (most notably “Ragtime”). But his direction is intimate and observational, and his story more about the psychological unease radiated by the possessive lovers and the emotional price paid by Gabrielle.

Read the complete review here.