[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.
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.
Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor has been out on DVD before, in both the original 165-minute theatrical version that won nine Academy Awards and the longer 218-minute TV version, the latter having been stamped with the label “Director’s Cut.” That’s an incorrect label, says Bernardo Bertolucci, who should know. On the Criterion blog “On Five,” DVD producer Kim Hendrickson writes about working with Bertolucci on preparing their lavish four-disc edition and Bertolucci’s remark that the longer TV version “in my opinion is not much different from the other one, just a little bit more boring…” According to the commentary track on the disc, the TV version was actually completed first and then Bertolucci continued to pare down and shape the film to his ultimate version.
The Criterion set features both versions, and the theatrical cut features commentary by Bertolucci (who launches in to the film before he remembers to introduce himself), screenwriter Mark Peploe (who calls it “the biggest screenwriting experience of my life”), producer Jeremy Thomas, and composer/actor Ryuichi Sakamoto, all recorded separately and edited together in a dense, meaty that builds on the accumulation of observations and insights. The final two discs of the set are filled with marvelous archival documentaries and TV programs and new interviews. “The Italian Traveler, Bernardo Bertolucci,” a 53-minute documentary directed by Bertolucci’s old assistant director Fernand Mozskowicz, is a meandering tour with the director as he reflects on past films while visiting the locations of 1900 and Last Tango in Paris and others, and ends with his trip to China to make The Last Emperor. Bertolucci narrates the whole way, and leaves with a thank you to China for giving him yet more places and experiences and people to draw from. There is no narration in Paolo Brunatto’s observational “Bernardo Bertolucci’s Chinese Adventure,” a behind-the-scenes look at the process of filmmaking, from on-set preparations and direction to editing to Ryuchi Sakamoto recording the score. And that’s just a start.
Bernardo Bertolucci’s magnificent epic tells the dramatic story of Pu Yi (John Lone), the last Chinese emperor. Crowned at age three, he’s a prisoner of his own palace, a puppet ruler manipulated by both the Western powers and the occupying Chinese, and finally a project for re-education by the Communist Regime, Pu Yi is a man buffeted by history, a figurehead whose power ends at the walls of the Forbidden City. Bertolucci’s production is sweeping and lavish – this was the first foreign production granted access to film within the walls of the Forbidden City – and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro uses color like a painter on an epic canvas. At the center of the spectacle, however, is the story of a boy raised to believe in his own divinity and a man who learns to become a simple human being against the backdrop of China’s volatile history. Winner of nine Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Oscars for director Bernardo Bertolucci, the screenplay adaptation, and Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography).