Blu-ray: A Matter of Life and Death

A Matter of Life and Death (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)

Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger’s Matter of Life and Death (1946), originally released in the U.S. as Stairway to Heaven, is as gorgeous and romantic as films come.

Criterion Collection

The film opens with a celestial prologue and narration providing a sense of cosmic comfort of someone watching over it all, of some divine authority in charge. It plays like the British answer to the opening of It’s a Wonderful Life, which came out the same year (is it coincidence that the post-war era inspired such a need for heavenly affirmation?), but immediately swoops down from the majestic calm of the stars into the terror of World War II and a bomber pilot giving his farewell to life over the wireless as his plane burns furiously around him and he prepares to make a blind leap without a parachute. Powell gives the scene terrible beauty—the wind whips the cabin, the fire flickers around his face, the clouds have a texture so palpable they look like you could step out into the sky and walk to heaven on them—and an emotional power to match. Peter Carter (David Niven) is resigned to his fate but his heart beats with the desperate passion of a man determined to embrace every last sensation in the final seconds of his life. That combination of adrenaline-powered strength and mortal vulnerability gives him the permission and the need to embrace, if only through voice, the American girl (Kim Hunter) at the other end of the wireless. And she falls just as surely in love with him.

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DVDs for 11/09/10 – The Archers on The River Plate and Rediscovering John Cazale

Life and romance plays out like a series of videogame challenges by way of a comic book fantasy in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Universal), which I review at MSN. It’s based on a series of graphic novels and director Edgar Wright, whose love of popular culture bounces through his films and TV projects with creative abandon, celebrates the graphic qualities of the comic book origins in a playfully cinematic manner. Also new is Neil Marshall’s Romans-versus-Barbarians warrior epic Centurion (Magnolia), a survival thriller of a lost Roman legion in 2nd Century Britain that I reviewed as part of my SIFF coverage here, and Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (Criterion), which I review on my blog here.

The rich Technicolor of The Archers' Naval drama

The Battle Of The River Plate (aka The Pursuit of the Graf Spee) (Hen’s Tooth) – The penultimate collaboration of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the filmmaking team known as The Archers, is a World War II military drama with an unusual approach. The British campaign to stop German pocket battleship Graf Spee, a fast, well-armed ship wreaking havoc on British transports in the South Atlantic, was the first major British victory of the war. The Archers frame the conflict as a battle of wits between two brilliant naval minds (Peter Finch commanding the Graf Spee, Anthony Quayle conducting the British ships).

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For Love and Art: The Red Shoes

The Red Shoes (Criterion)

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.)

Invitation to the dance: Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes

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.

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DVDs for January 6, 2009 – ‘The Films of Michael Powell’

[Note – due to a glitch, some of the reviews for the MSN DVD column this week may not yet be up when you click on the links.]

Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (originally released in the U.S. as Stairway to Heaven) is as gorgeous and romantic as films come. The film opens with a celestial prologue and narration providing a sense of cosmic comfort of someone watching over it all, of some divine authority in charge. It plays like the British answer to the opening of It’s a Wonderful Life, which came out the same year (is it coincidence that the post-war era inspired such a need for heavenly affirmation?), but immediately swoops down from the majestic calm of the stars into the terror of World War II and a bomber pilot giving his farewell to life over the wireless as his plane burns furiously around him and he prepares to make a blind leap without a parachute. Powell gives the scene terrible beauty – the wind whips the cabin, the fire flickers around his face, the clouds have a texture so palpable they look like you could step out into the sky and walk to heaven on them – and an emotional power to match.

Kim Hunter and David Niven fall in love
Kim Hunter and David Niven fall in love

Unabashedly romantic, beautifully textured in warm color and cool monochrome, and brilliantly poised on the edge of fantasy and reality, Michael Powell’s 1946 A Matter of Life and Death is the first essential DVD release of 2009…. It’s a perfect romantic fantasy and a stunning creative achievement (“Ah! We are so starved for Technicolor up there,” quips the conductor as the gray monochrome of the afterlife blooms into the almost surreal hues of Earthly color), powered by the passion for life and love.

I write further on the film for Parallax View here and review the DVD for MSN here.

Also new this week in the TV section is Battlestar Galactica: Season 4.0, which features the first ten episodes of the show’s final season (the concluding episodes begin this month on the Sci-Fi Channel) plus the previously released “prequel” film Battlestar Galactica: Razor. The original Battlestar Galactica of the seventies was a simple show of heroic humans fleeing the evil Cylons, robots built to destroy the human race. That simplicity was tossed through the airlock for this gritty, rough and ready revision, but it flies into unexpected territory in the first ten episodes of the fourth and final season. One-time villain Baltar (James Callis) becomes a messiah, or at the very least a holy prophet. Our soft-speaking President (Mary McDonnell) resorts to dictatorial measures to quell dissent. Military career man Apollo becomes the advocate for civil rights. Meanwhile a civil war is erupting among the Cylon race, the newly “revealed” Cylon sleepers in the Galactica fleet face an identity crisis and the final conflict seems inevitable. This is still the best science fiction series on TV, a drama that thrives in the atmosphere of moral ambiguity, spiritual mystery and survivalist reality, which is only enhanced by the down and dirty production design.

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‘Tales of Hoffmann’ on TCM

After the artistic and commercial success of The Red Shoes, director Michael Powell aspired to create an even more “composed” film, a marriage of music, dance and cinema. That film became The Tales of Hoffmann, the adaptation of the Jacques Offenbach opera that Powell and his creative partner Emeric Pressburger released in 1951. I wrote about the film and its production for the Turner Classic Movies website.

The film opens with the atmosphere of a live performance, the sounds of orchestra tuning over the credits, and then the score jolts to life and the camera takes us into the highly stylized set of the framing sequence, a ballet performance (featuring Moira Shearer) with a smitten Hoffmann (Robert Rounseville) in the audience. When the curtain falls, our lovestruck hero retires to a lively beer garden with his school chum, Nicklaus (Pamela Brown), and tells three tales of doomed, devilish loves: a poet tempted by a life size doll (Moira Shearer) brought to life by clockwork mechanics, a courtesan (Ludmilla Tcherina) who helps her lover steal souls with a magic mirror, and a terminally ill woman (Anne Ayars) who will die if she sings. It’s not a slavish adaptation of the opera, but a creative reworking to marry opera, ballet and cinema (the part of the living doll was changed from a singing to a dancing role) and musical director Beecham was a dynamic partner in the collaboration, shifting music around to match Powell’s narrative changes and cinematic inspirations. Powell paid tribute to Beecham’s contribution by ending the film on Beecham himself conducting the final bars of the score.

Robert Helpmann and Ludmilla Tcherina
Robert Helpmann and Ludmilla Tcherina

There is no dialogue, only a sung libretto, and the entire score was prerecorded. Rounseville and Anne Ayars were the only cast members to record their own vocal performances but all of them lip-synched to the playback for the camera. “We were virtually making a silent film,” wrote Powell in Million Dollar Movie, the second volume of his autobiography. It’s an apt description for a production where the performances are entirely in dance, mime and song, all stylized expressions closer to the expressionistic qualities of silent cinema than the realism of even the most fantastic sound films. Even the special effects were accomplished with simple techniques that recalled the glorious imagery of silent fantasies.

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DVD of the Week – ‘The Inglorious Bastards’ – July 29, 2008

Quentin Tarantino loves Enzo G. Castellari’s 1978 warsploitation artifact The Inglorious Bastards (originally titled Quel maledetto treno blindato and released in the U.S. under numerous alternate titles) so much that he’s announced a remake as his next picture. Being Tarantino, he’s sure to overhaul the project from top to bottom, but it’s easy to see his attraction to this Dirty Dozen reworking/knock-off. A bunch of American soldiers in 1944 France, up for court martial and on their way to military prison, escape during a German attack on their convoy.

[update August 2009 – I review Tarantino’s film, which he purposely misspells as Inglourious Basterds, here.]

inglorious.jpgThey’re a colorful group: a decorated flier (Bo Svenson) with a tendency to go AWOL to visit his girlfriend in London, a black private (Fred Williamson) charged with murder (he killed his redneck superior officer, or so he says to another racist in an American uniform), a deserter coward (Michael Pergolani), a scavenger (Jackie Basehart) with hippie looks and a slightly Italian accent, and the joker misanthrope (Peter Hooten) who screws with everyone. It would be inappropriate to reveal Castellari’s most inspired twist, but suffice it to say that a combination of shame and responsibility and the last vestiges of honor and obligation land them in a suicide mission behind enemy lines. It’s a platoon thriller laced with the anti-hero cynicism of spaghetti westerns and the lurid violence of the post-Wild Bunch era and guided by the box-office instincts of exploitation filmmaking. In what other World War II caper film can you see the lost platoon stumble upon skinning dipping German babes, and then discover that these sex kittens come armed with machine guns?

Severin’s DVD release features an interview with Enzo G. Castellari conducted by Quentin Tarantino, or more accurately a conversation between fellow directors, one of whom happens to be the biggest fanboy behind a camera. Tarantino manages to dominate the video interview and is, frankly, the more interesting of the two, but he does get Castellari to talk about his work in some detail. Severin also offers a three-disc special edition featuring a terrific feature length retrospective documentary. Train Kept a Rollin’ gathers stars Bo Svenson and Fred Williamson, producer Roberto Sbarigia, screenwriter Laura Toscano and director Enzo G. Castellari (among others) to chart the making of the film, but it’s what isn’t spoken that’s most interesting, notably the tensions between Williamson and Svenson (and, as far as that goes, Castellari and Svenson). Williamson shows just what a cagey businessman he was and still is as he talks about the film as an opportunity to extend his reach into the European market. “In American I was a black actor,” he observes. “In Europe, I was an action star.” Also includes a featurette with Castellari revisiting the location and a CD soundtrack of what survives of the original score.

I review the film in my MSN DVD column here.

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