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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Pineapple Express

The Judd Apatow factory, which has refreshed the coming-of-age comedy (for all ages of adolescent men) in comedies like Knocked Up, Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, has been stretching itself thin (that’s my best explanation for Drillbit Taylor and Step Brothers).

The superbad poster to "Pineapple Express"

One of the smartest things he’s done is to seek out directors not normally associated with his brand of humor and bring them on board. The sensibility of David Gordon Green, who jumps from indie dramas of small town tragedy to this stoner buddy comedy, is one of the reasons that Pineapple Express works. Not necessarily a director known for his sense of humor, he has a great time with the comedy while keeping his eye on the characters and the chemistry. The screenplay by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (from a story co-written with producer Judd Apatow) doesn’t really take us anywhere we haven’t been before, but it gets stoner culture in a way movies haven’t really done before, and it offers an accidental buddy film that works.

I don’t want to make too much of the film, mind you, but I don’t want to make too little of it either. This is a film that made me laugh and kept me so wrapped up in it that I didn’t even notice it ran almost two hours.

Seth Rogen is a wise-cracking straight man as Dale, a process server who is remarkably effective despite the fact that he tokes up between assignments. James Franco flashes his wide grin of innocence and benign amiability as the sweet, stupid, emotionally ebullient Saul, the friendly neighborhood dope dealer and the exclusive distributor of the sweet new herbal strain known as Pineapple Express. They’re not exactly angels – Dale has a high school girlfriend (who is, in all likelihood, more mature than he is, but still it’s a little discomforting and a lot inappropriate) and Saul gets a group of schoolkids stoned – but they are sincere and admirably loyal and don’t deserve the shitstorm that comes their way when Dale inadvertently becomes witness to a cop killing and leaves a calling card at the scene of his sloppy escape (note to self: don’t drive a getaway car when baked to the gills).

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