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.

Continue reading “DVDs for January 6, 2009 – ‘The Films of Michael Powell’”

New reviews – ‘The Fall’ and others

A little late in updating my reviews this week. It’s not just SIFF – I spent the last few days moving – everything – and then spending a day sorting through new Internet connections. Back on line now.

Tarsem Singh’s second feature, The Fall, has been getting critically pummeled. I’m not sure why: I was utterly enchanted by the simplicity and innocence of the film. I reviewed the film in the Seattle P-I this week (following its appearance at the Seattle International Film Festival):

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It’s like a Terry Gilliam fantasy directed by Zhang Yimou and reimagined by a child, with the fears and fantasies that mingle through the film becoming almost naively direct reflections of their respective emotional lives.

The storybook images of stunning landscapes and lavish settings are a visual feast (Tarsem shot the fantasy scenes piecemeal all over the world over the course of four years) and the narrative innocence of wild turns and impossible feats (like traveling from China to New York to Paris on horseback in what seems like a day) is a charge.

But what’s so enchanting is the film’s celebration of the way stories, once told, take on a life of their own within the hearts and imaginations of those who hear them, read them, see them. Or is that something I’ve brought to his fantasy?

Read the complete review here.

Also reviewed in the P-I this week: Before the Rains, a Merchant-Ivory production directed by Santosh Sivan, and Hong Sang-soo’s Woman on the Beach:

South Korean director Hong Sang-soo has made a career of exploring emotionally arrested men and tolerant women in dryly satirical studies of frustrated expectations. In “Woman on the Beach” he creates complex and conflicted characters and he engages them with a compassion and maturity.