Thursday, July 2, 2009

DVD releases for June 2009

Ten of the more interesting DVD releases from last month (originally published on In Review Online):

Pick Up the Mic
(2005) directed by Alex Hinton
First pick of the month is one for those celebrating Pride. It has taken four years, but this independent documentary about the queer hip-hop scene is finally out on DVD. The fact that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people are infiltrating every aspect society is thankfully taken for granted, but in other cases it is an extraordinary act of bravery and confrontation. Such is homohop, where being out means challenging the homophobia that permeates the scene. Pick Up the Mic profiles over 17 hip-hop artists, their music and what it means to be an out MC. Standing up against the stereotype of being ‘gay’ and the stereotype of being a hip-hop artist, all these individuals are forging a new road. Pick up the Mic is a powerful celebration of diversity.

Last Year at Marienbad (1961) directed by Alain Resnais
At long last, Alain Resnais elusive and mesmerizing film Last Year in Marienbad is available domestically on DVD, and available in a very big way. Criterion packages a restored transfer and all the extras you might expect available on Blu-Ray, or just a plain ol’ 2 DVD set. I still find it shocking (and further proof we are moving backwards) that Alain Robbe-Grillet’s surreal script was nominated for Best Original Screenplay for the 1963 Academy Awards. (Just as amazing is that it was beat by Divorce – Italian Style.) The film was incredibly controversial at the time with most critics finding it pretentious and incomprehensible. Time has been kind to the film as it slowly transitioned from being considered one of the worst films ever made to one of the best. Having just seen the film six months ago during a Robbe-Grillet retrospective, I can attest that its enigmatic narrative and haunting visuals are as cutting edge now as they were 30 years ago.

Waltz With Bashir (2008) directed by Ari Folman
Equally as haunting as Last Year in Marienbad but immeasurably more relevant is Ari Folman’s memoir to the 1982 Lebanon War, Waltz With Bashir. Chasing after a phantom, Folman goes on a personal journey in search of the memories of the war he has lost. Painstakingly animated at a rate of 4 minutes per month by a 10-person crew, the result is visually unbelievable. As a person who watched a fair amount of alternative animation, I was completely blown away by the look of the film. Being snubbed at the Academy Awards in favor of the Japanese tearjerker Departure was a huge, if not predictable, injustice to most. Waltz With Bashir confronts the very personal and subconscious effects of war that we should all be thinking about. Experimental composer Max Richter contributes an engrossing soundtrack.

Une Femme Mariee
(1964) directed by Jean-Luc Godard
Tapping into what seems an endless mountain of films, comes yet another elusive Jean-Luc Godard film. Personally I can’t keep up, although Une Femme Mariee (A Married Woman) hardly emerged out of nowhere. Made between Band of Outsiders and Alphaville, Une Femme Mariee is at the heart of Godard’s most influential filmmaking period. As you can guess from the title, the film centers on a woman and the various men that revolve around her. Originally titled A Married Woman: Fragments of a Film Shot in 1964 in Black and White, the film follows this mode, pulling together vignettes that make up a less-than-straightforward narrative.

Evening’s Civil Twilight in Empires of Tin (2009) directed by Jem Cohen
Jem Cohen is an experimental filmmaker that you really don’t expect to find on DVD. Maybe the times are a changin’. Empires of Tin is less a film and more of a performance. Commissioned by the Vienna International Film Festival, Empires utilizes film, live music and live narration for what he calls “a documentary musical hallucination.” Without a doubt, ‘Empires’ is a heavily theoretical project marrying the decline of the Habsburg Empire with the crumbling of our own American empire. But the performance is something completely unique and, until now, only witnessed by a handful of people worldwide. Furthermore, it is bolstered by an incredible group of musicians including Vic Chestnut, Guy Picciotto, and musicians from The Quavers and Silver Mt. Zion.

Henry Hills: Selected Films (1977- 2008)
Also in an experimental vein is this new compilation of Henry Hills’ videos. Associated with the Downtown improvisers and the “Language” poets of New York City, Hills is a mind-boggling visual innovator. Hunt down his frenetic 1985 fourteen minute Money on the web and you might be the first to plunk down your hard earned cash for a personal copy of this DVD.

The Seventh Seal (1957) directed by Ingmar Bergman
The most iconic foreign film of all time gets the extra special 21st century Criterion treatment. Well-loved and well-parodied, The Seventh Seal is timelessly allegorical. The well stocked Blu-Ray and DVD set includes: introduction by Bergman, commentary by Berman and Peter Cowie, documentary Bergman Island (2006), audio interview with Max von Sydow, 1989 tribute from Woody Allen, video filmography Bergman 101, an essay by Gary Giddins, and of coarse a restored high-def transfer that includes uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-Ray.

Kaidan (2007) directed by Hideo Nakata
If there is a king of contemporary J-horror, it is Hideo Nakata. Ring (or Ringu if you prefer) brought with it a flood of remakes and formulaic imitations that all contained the elements of women and hair. With Kaidan Nakata takes a right turn with a period horror film in the tradition of Nobuo Nakagawa. It is a grand homage, not only to the origins of Japanese horror but also to classic Japanese cinema, referencing the austere and precise aesthetic not only of Nakagawa, but also masters like Kenji Mizoguchi and Masaki Kobayashi. Nakata pays tribute without parody creating a visually stunning experience with every frame. Although the most memorable elements of Kaidan may be the aesthetic, the remaining components render nothing less than an absorbing film.

The Strange One (1957) directed by Jack Garfein
A film lost to history until its uncelebrated release on DVD this month, The Strange One was Ben Gazzara’s first feature film, and, wow, is he young and handsome. Homoeroticism, hookers and a producer’s strong will seems to have sent this film down the road to no success when it was released in 1957. Put together by the Actor’s Studio in New York, The Strange One is a dark misanthropic look at the manipulative psychology of young men. Gazzara plays a ring leading bully who gets a young classmate expelled and wages an atmosphere of fear so others won’t squeal. Thankfully resurrected, The Strange One may have a second life 50 years after its release.

Hansel and Gretel (2007) directed by Yim Phil-sung
In the vein of Pan’s Labyrinth, Yim Phil-sung attempts to create a fairy tale for adults. When a young man is in a car accident, he wakes up only to be charmed by a young girl who takes him to her strange house. You brace for the worst when it becomes more than apparent that not all is well at the quaint cottage home. The overall style of Hansel and Gretel is absolutely lavish in its visual detail. Unfortunately, the narrative is a little lacking with weak writing and acting. The DVD is a Canadian release, but not too hard to find State side.


villainx said...

Did you ever see Sideways, and the Giammatti character describing his unpublished novel as devolves into a Robbe-Grillet thing? I couldn't help but crack up (out loud) at the theater when that came up.

Thanks for the thing and the card. I spun it a couple of times, but I've spent more time with your other recs off your '08 list (Santigold, M83, & Marnie Stern). Not bad.

Kathie Smith said...

Yes! I remember that! But I have to admit that the humor in that statement is much more evident now that I have seen a few of Robbe-Grillet's films. Crazy sublime stuff! I don't think Giammatti's character was quite there!

Marnie Stern is crazy. Check her out live if you can.

joetron2030 said...

Ah, so "Last Year..." got reissued. That explains why it magically appeared back in my Netflix queue after sitting in the "saved DVDs" section for so long. I look forward to seeing it finally. Might have to move it up the queue...

I recently saw "Waltz with Bashir" (via Netflix) based on your comments from seeing it at the MSPIFF (I think). I really enjoyed it. Though, personally, I found the very ending a bit too heavy-handed for my taste. The soundtrack was excellent, too.

Hmm... I was thinking about watching "Seventh Seal" again. In fact, maybe having my own little Bergman marathon. Perfect timing with a Criterion release!

Kathie Smith said...

Joe, you really have to get a Blu-Ray player - the Marienbad Blu-Ray is pretty unbelievable....crisp and glowing. Move it up in your queue, for sure.