Wednesday, April 3, 2019

More reviews of those little silver discs...

You will notice that the vast majority of these reviews are very positive in nature. For the record, I will note that I lean these days toward reviewing things that I suspect I will love or am curious to see. (I wrote for several decades about movies that were mere commercial pap.) When it comes to defining things I enjoy, we return to the Funhouse specialty: “high art to low trash… and back again.”

One of Brigitte Bardot’s most serious (and successful) performances was in suspense-master Henri-Georges Clouzot’s La Verite (1960). The Criterion release includes much information on Clouzot’s career, and his heavy penchant for terrorizing cast members (including his wife Vera).

More gems from the Dick Cavett archive emerge. In new sets from S’more Entertainment called “Inside the Minds of…” are a selection of interviews he did with comedians on his “later” shows (on PBS, USA, and CNBC). 

The wonderful character study Mikey and Nicky (1976) might not be the sort of genre-inversion it’s touted as by film critics on the Criterion release of the film, but it’s still a wonderfully acted crime picture with a (literally) killer ending.

Another underrated gem from post-WWII France, Panique (1946) by Julien Duvivier is a powerful story of a man unjustly accused of a crime.

Chris Marker’s The Owl’s Legacy (1989), from Icarus, is a sublime miniseries that explores the lasting influence of the ancient Greeks. It’s more linear and “normal” than most of Marker’s work, but it still has some beautiful moments and brilliant insights into the modern world (courtesy of a long-gone civilization). 

Fassbinder’s long-missing miniseries Eight Hours Are Not a Day (1972) finally got a release in the U.S. and while it is (again, that phrase) a lot more “normal” than his other work, when it focuses on a working class family’s struggles to get by, it is terrific (although a little more of Kurt Raab’s weirdness would’ve been beneficial). The Criterion release contains much background info on the series (including a discussion by participants on how it was cancelled after five shows, when it was supposed to run eight).

Star/co-scripter Chris Elliott and director/co-scripter Adam Resnick spend a good deal of the time putting down their film Cabin Boy (1994) in the supplements found in the new Kino Lorber release of the film. They’re wrong — the film might have been a personal failure for them, but it now has a well-earned cult and is far better than its initial, vicious reviews indicated.

Terrence Malick’s lyrical, abrasive, and mind-altering Tree of Life (2011) is found in two 
different versions in the new Criterion release of the film. One is the theatrical version, while the other is a re-edited version with 50 minutes of unseen footage.

Olivier Assayas’ Cold Water (1994) has a bravura party sequence utilizing a great number of early Seventies hits from American, British and European musicians. It’s a beautifully choreographed scene that all but dwarfs the rest of the film, which is certainly good but not as kinetic as the party sequence.

The exemplary Criterion box Dietrich and von Sternberg in Hollywood includes the six films that Marlene Dietrich made in America with her mentor and Svengali, the stunningly talented Josef von Sternberg. The box includes many extras that explore several issues, from the fashion-related (Marlene introducing men’s pants as a garment option for women) to the deadly serious (the backlash in post-war Germany that plagued her, because she supported the Allies in the war and not her Fatherland!).

Francois Ozon’s Double Lover (2017), from Cohen Media, is a taut thriller that becomes predictable in the third act but has the same ominous edge that was found in Ozon’s best suspense dramas (See the Sea, Criminal Lovers).

The Arrow box set Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years.Vol. 2. Border Crossings: The Crime and Action Movies contains five crime pictures that foreshadow Suzuki’s great Sixties mind-blowers, with taut storylines, fragmented visuals, and absolutely stunning visuals.

Another beautiful working-class parable from Aki Kaursimaki, The Other Side of Hope (2017) is a second (after his sublime Le Havre) tale of immigrants attempting to assimilate (and to remain) in Finland.

Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse (1991), one of the finest films about the artistic process — and about the relationship between artist and model — comes back into print in the U.S., thanks to Cohen Media.

In the Seventies, Robert Altman had a run of stunning, startling films. Stunning because of their originality and innovation, startling because he leapt from genre to genre, reinventing each one as he went. Images (1972) was his take on the suspense thriller — it’s a dream film that blurs the character’s identities and probes the dreams and fantasies of its lead character (Susannah York).

Some of W.C. Fields’ classic Thirties pictures were reworkings of his silent features like It’s the Old Army Game (1926). This particular silent, released by Kino Lorber, has some gags he later reworked with dialogue and some that function perfectly as visual gags (including one involving a baby gagging on a diaper pin). All that, and the usual Fields adorable, virginal young woman character is played here by Louise Brooks!

Finally, Fassbinder fans can see one of the finest lead performances he ever gave (in a film he didn’t direct). Volker Schlondorff’s Baal (1969) keeps Brecht’s text but moves the action into the present and includes some very memorable imagery, most of it inhabited by the perpetually swaggering Fassbinder as the charismatic, degenerate antihero.

The Arrow box set Jean-Luc Godard + Jean-Pierre Gorin: Five Films, 1968-1971 fills in the gap in Uncle Jean’s DVD-ography by offering a set of all but one of his “Dziga-Vertov group”-era films, beautifully restored and put into perspective by great visual and print documents.

The 1967 anthology feature The Oldest Profession offers different filmmakers’ takes on prostitution, with the most notable inclusion being “Anticipation” by Godard. His last collaboration with Anna Karina, it is a post-Alphaville slice of poetic sci-fi. 

Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years, Vol. 1: Seijun Rising: The Youth Movies features five early films by Suzuki that are mostly conventional compared to his later cult films. There are small seeds of the later stylistic “fever” he displayed, though, and the films are very watchable melodramas. 

Eight Films by Jean Rouch, an invaluable box from Icarus, gives American viewers a crash course in the work of this fascinating ethnographic filmmaker whose films are not strict documentaries but are instead a fusion of documentary, fiction film, and outright fantasy, concocted by Rouch in tandem with his casts of African non-professional performers. The best film in the box is hands-down Petit a Petit (1971), a wonderful, plotted film about African businessmen on the loose in Paris trying to figure out how to build a giant skyscraper in their home country.

Pennebaker’s landmark 1967 rock doc Monterey Pop was re-released both in its theatrical version and in a big box set with more concert footage.

Melville’s much copied Le Samourai (1967) was re-released with additional supplements. The film is a masterpiece, possessing an influence that grows with every passing year.

After several decades, Fellini’s final film The Voice of the Moon (1990) finally got an official U.S. release by Arrow. The film may not be Il Maestro’s finest, but it still has beautiful moments and a touching lead performance by Robert Benigni.

The superb filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa made his “foreign language” debut with Daguerrotype (2016), shot in French (and released to streaming platforms by the wonderfully titled studio “Under the Milky Way”). The film is a suspense drama about a photographer’s assistant who falls in love with his boss’s model (who also happens to be his boss’s daughter).

Orson Welles’ later films are exemplary models of how to make movies on low budgets. One of the best “lessons” in this regard is his visually arresting adaptation of Othello, made over a three-year period in two different countries (Italy and Morocco) with various and sundry budget limitations and cast difficulties blighting the production. Welles still came up with a masterpiece (released in two different cuts, in both 1952 and ’55) that perfectly catches the tone of Shakespeare’s work.

Godard’s La Chinoise (1967) stands not only as a razor-sharp depiction of upper-middle class radicals but also foreshadowed the feeling of youthful rebellion that led to the May ’68 riots in Paris. The Kino Lorber re-release includes some fascinating supplements.

John Garfield gives a terrific performance in the noir drama The Breaking Point (1950), an adaptation of a Hemingway story. The film offers much evidence as to why Garfield was such a revered performer (especially by other actors) and the way in which noir dread crept into even the most esteemed literary adaptations.

I have a lot of trouble with Michael Hanneke’s cinema, but his work with Isabelle Huppert in The Piano Teacher (2001) produced one of his best films and one of her best performances.

Albert Brooks succeeded with both critics and at the box office with his “yuppie road picture,” Lost in America (1985). The Criterion release contains an interview with Albert, which is honest (but fans of his comedy were hoping he would do an audio commentary for the picture).

Robert Bresson ended his career on a grim and beautifully innovative note with L’Argent (1983). The film is of a piece with his earlier work but also features a fascinating view of the modern world, which seems to indicate that Bresson had had his fill of mankind, and felt we cannot be truly redeemed. (And yet the film is one of the most engaging of his post-Sixties works.)

It’s great to see the works of the least-seen (in the U.S.) member of the French New Wave, get official U.S. DVD/Blu-ray releases. Arrow’s The Jacques Rivette Collection is a good sampler of his “mid-period work,” with Duelle (1976) being the best film in the collection.

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