Saturday, November 28, 2009
Saturday Night At The Movies
Stocking Stuffers: Vintage reels for your Xmas creel
By Dennis Hartley
It’s that time of year- for the obligatory Top 10 lists. This week, I thought I would share some of my favorite “back catalog” DVD reissues for 2009, and perhaps give you some gift ideas for the discerning cinema buff on your list (BTW if you do click a movie link from this site and end up making a purchase, you will also be helping your favorite starving bloggers get a little something more than just a lump of coal in their Christmas/Hanukah stockings in these harsh economic times… *cough* … *wink*).
We’ve had a fair amount of “wish list” fulfillment this year, with some rarities making their belated debut on DVD, amongst the inevitable “Definitive Remastering of the Previously Ultimate Restored and Remastered” versions (what’s an obsessive-compulsive/completist to do-buy that new box set, or pay the rent? Oh, the humanity!).
So here are my picks for the top 10 reissues of the year (in no particular ranking order)…
Carny -This noir-ish character study/buddy film/road movie/romantic triangle melodrama is an oddball affair (think Freaks meets Toby Tyler in Nightmare Alley-with an “R” rating) but still one of my favorite films of the 1980s. Set in the seedy milieu of a traveling carnival, it stars the Band’s Robbie Robertson as the carny manager, Gary Busey as his best friend (and dunk tank clown) and Jodie Foster as a teenage runaway who gets caught up in their strange world. The story is raised above its inherent sleaziness by excellent performances. In all of his scenes where he dons the makeup (and persona) of the Insane Insult Clown, Busey is downright possessed; a reminder that at one time, he was one of the most interesting and promising young character actors around (at least up until the unfortunate motorcycle mishap). Director/co-writer Robert Kaylor also showed great promise here, but has quite the enigmatic resume; one film in 1970, one in 1971, Carny in 1980, followed by a non-descript Chad Lowe vehicle in 1989, then *poof*…off the radar. This DVD reissue is part of the Warner Archive Series, which is a maddeningly good news/bad news development for film buffs. Bad news first: These are bare-bones editions with a “homemade” vibe (they are burning them “on demand” based on number of orders placed direct from their website). Also, these are not necessarily restored prints (making the $19.99 list price a bit dubious, IMHO). But the good news is that Warner is claiming to be in the process of utililizing this new product line as an excuse to eventually clean out everything in their vaults previously unavailable on DVD.
Dodes'ka-Den-Previously unavailable on Region 1, this 1970 film by Akira Kurosawa rarely gets mentioned in the same breath as Seven Samurai or Ikiru; nonetheless, it stands out in his oeuvre as one of his most unique and impressionistic efforts. After 27 years (and nearly as many movies) into his career, this marked the first project that the great director shot in color-and it shows. Almost as if he was making up for lost time, Kurosawa saturates the screen in an explosion of every vivid hue imaginable, like an excited kid experimenting with his first 120-count box of Crayolas. Perversely, the subject matter within this episodic tale of life in a Tokyo slum (mental illness, domestic violence, rape, alcoholism, starvation, etc.) is as dark and bleak as its visual palette is bright and colorful. It’s challenging; but if you can give the director the benefit of the doubt and grant him the somewhat leisurely pace of the initial 30 minutes to get acquainted with the characters, your patience will be richly rewarded. The film creeps up on you with its genuine humanity, packing a real (if hard-won) emotional wallop by the devastating denouement. Criterion’s DVD features a lovely transfer and some nice extras.
El Norte - Gregory Nava’s effective portrait of two Guatemalan siblings making their way to the U.S. after their activist father is killed by a government death squad will stay with you long after credits roll. The two leads give naturalistic, completely believable performances as the brother and sister whose desperate optimism never falters, despite fate and circumstance thwarting them at every turn. Don’t expect a Hollywood ending-this 1983 film is not easy to watch but thoroughly enlightening. Claustrophobic viewers are warned: a harrowing scene featuring an encounter with a roving rat colony during an underground border crossing though an abandoned sewer will give you nightmares. Criterion’s sparkling transfer is a world of improvement over the previous PAL editions.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle-One of the best film noirs of the 1970s finally made its belated debut on DVD this year, thanks to Criterion. This vastly underappreciated film from director Peter Yates features one of the last truly great performances from genre icon Robert Mitchum, at his world-weary, sleepy-eyed best as an aging hood. Peter Boyle excels in a low-key performance as a low-rent hit man, and Richard Jordan is superlative as a cynical and manipulative Fed. Steven Keats steals all his scenes as a skuzzy black market gun dealer. Paul Monash adapted his screenplay from the novel by George P. Higgins. A tough and lean slice of American neo-realism enhanced by DP Victor J. Kemper’s gritty, highly atmospheric use of the Boston locales. The print is outstanding.
Gone with the Wind-1939 was a good year for director Victor Fleming. Even if he had been hit by a bus after helming The Wizard of Oz , his rep would have been secured; but he also delivered a little sleeper you may have heard of called Gone With the Wind that very same year. Well, if you want to get technical about it, he sort of inherited the project from director George Cukor, who dropped out over differences with producer David O. Selznick (who in essence was a co-director as well). At any rate, no matter who actually called the shots, the end result is generally considered to be the quintessential American film epic. You likely know the story (based on Margaret Mitchell’s sprawling novel); spoiled, narcissistic Southern diva (Vivien Leigh) has an unrequited love for dashing Confederate war hero (Leslie Howard) who is betrothed to her saintly rival (Olivia deHavilland) and takes at least 2 hours of screen time to realize that she really belongs with the roguish (and equally self-absorbed) Clark Gable. The burning of Atlanta (and other Civil War distractions) provides an occasional sense of release from the smoldering passion and sexual tension (which finally reaches torrid consummation about 3 hours in). That’s a lotta foreplay, but in the meantime you are treated to a visually sumptuous cinematic feast and mythic screen performances by all four leads. While it has its dated flaws (the unfortunate characterizations of African-Americans) it is ahead of its time in one notable respect-it features some very strong and self-sufficient female protagonists. This is one film that transcends its own medium. Warner’s 2009 transfer is breathtaking.
The Hit- Directed by Stephen Frears and written by Peter Prince, this 1984 sleeper marked a comeback of sorts for Terence Stamp, who stars as Willie Parker, a London hood who has “grassed” on his mob cohorts in exchange for immunity. As he is led out of the courtroom following his damning testimony, he is treated to a gruff, spontaneous a cappella rendition of “We’ll Meet Again” by a group of Cockney thugs who look like they were on loan from The Long Good Friday. The oddly serene Willie doesn’t appear a bit fazed. Willie relocates to Spain, where the other shoe eventually drops “one sunny day”. He is abducted by freelancing locals and delivered to a veteran hit man (John Hurt) and his hotheaded young apprentice (Tim Roth). Again, Willie accepts his “situation” with a Zen-like calm (much to the chagrin of his captors). What is going on in Willie’s head? That’s what drives most of the ensuing narrative. As they motor through the scenic Spanish countryside (toward France, where Willie’s former boss awaits for a “reunion”) the trio engages in ever-escalating mind games, taking the story to unexpected places. Well worth rediscovery, especially since it has been given the deluxe Criterion treatment.
Last Picture Show & Nickelodeon-The main reason I was thrilled about Sony’s 2009 Peter Bogdanovich double feature reissue was that it made his 1976 film Nickelodeon available for the first time on Region 1 DVD (not to denigrate the status of what is arguably his crowing achievement, The Last Picture Show, which has already been available as a stand-alone disc for some time now). Nickelodeon is Bogdanovich’s love letter to the silent film era, depicting the trials and tribulations of independent filmmakers, circa 1910. It leans a little heavy on the slapstick at times, but is bolstered by charming performances all around from a great cast that includes Ryan O’Neal, Stella Stevens, Burt Reynolds, John Ritter, and Tatum O’Neal. The film is beautifully photographed by the late great DP, Laszlo Kovacs (who I paid tribute to in this post). Anyone who truly loves the movies will find the closing sequence incredibly moving. The real treat here is the additional inclusion of the director’s cut, in glorious B&W (Bogdanovich’s original plan). Bogdanovich’s commentary track is wry and illuminating.
North by Northwest-One would be hard-pressed to find a more perfect blend of suspense, intrigue, romance, action, comedy and pure visual mastery than Hitchcock’s 1959 masterpiece. Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason and Martin Landau head a great cast in this outstanding “wrong man” thriller (a Hitchcock specialty). Almost every set piece in the film has become iconic (and emulated again and again by Hitchcock wannabes). Although I never tire of the exciting, action-packed Crop Dusting Scene or the Mt. Rushmore Chase Sequence, I’d have to say my hands down favorite is the Dining Car Seduction Scene. Armed solely with Ernest Lehman’s clever innuendo-drenched repartee and their superbly-tuned acting chemistry, Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint engage in the most erotic sex scene ever filmed wherein the participants remain fully clothed AND keep their hands where we can see them at all times (which is why Eli Wallach and Carroll Baker’s loveseat scene in Baby Doll comes in at a close second). Bernard Herrmann’s score ain’t half-bad either (heh). The 50th anniversary restoration by Warner is crystalline, and corrects the color issues that marred the previous DVD issue.
Wings of Desire-I’ve never sat down and tried to compile a Top 10 list of my favorite movies of all time (I’ve just seen too many damn movies…I’d be staring at my computer screen for weeks, if my head didn’t explode first) but I’m pretty sure that Wim Wenders’ 1987 stunner would be a shoo-in. Like 2001 or Koyaanisqatsi, if you try to synopsize this film in a paragraph or two for someone who has never seen it, it’s like describing color to a blind man. I mean, if I told you it’s about a trench coat-wearing angel who hovers over Berlin, monitoring people’s thoughts and taking notes, who spots a beautiful trapeze artist one day and follows her home, wallows around in her deepest longings, watches her undress, then falls in love and decides to chuck the mantle of immortality and become human…well, you’d probably say “Dennis, that sounds like a story about a creepy stalker.” And if I threw in the fact that it also features Peter Falk, playing an enhanced version of himself (he’s uh, an ex-angel), you’d say “OK, where’s the hidden camera? I’m being punk’d, right?” But it’s more than that. It’s about everything, and nothing; the universe and the subconscious…oh, crap…now I’m sounding too pretentious. Just watch it, dammit! Okay, maybe you should rent it first, THEN decide if it’s worth owning. Personally, I own two copies, MGM’s original DVD issue and now the new 2009 Criterion edition, which has a markedly improved transfer and a plethora of great extras.
Z- This 1969 film was a breakthrough for director Costa-Gavras, and a high-watermark for the “radical chic” cinema that flourished at the time. Yves Montand plays a leftist politician who is assassinated after giving a speech at a pro-Peace rally. What at first appears to be an open and shut case of a violent action by an isolated group of right wing extremists unfolds as a suspenseful conspiracy thriller. The story (set in an unspecified Balkan nation, but based on the real-life assassination of a Greek political figure back in 1963) is told from the perspective of two characters-a photojournalist (a young Jacques Perrin, future director of Winged Migration) and an investigating magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant). The great Irene Papas is on hand as Montand’s wife. Although the film is more of a static affair than its exalted reputation as a “fast-moving” political thriller may lead you to believe (there’s much more talk than action), it is still essential viewing. It’s a little bit Kafka, a little bit Rashomon , but ultimately a cautionary tale about what happens when corrupt officialdom, unchecked police oppression and partisan-sanctioned extremism get into bed together. Criterion’s new edition has a beautifully restored print.
Dennis Hartley 11/28/2009 05:30:00 PM