Originally published on In Review Online:
There is absolutely no fat on this list of August DVD picks that I painfully trimmed down to eleven. A handful of worthy and interesting new releases (Duplicity, Tyson, The Soloist, Rudo y Cursi, Surveillance, Katyn) did not make the cut in favor of five stellar new releases and six inspiring reissues. August was a jaw-dropping month for older films that were released either for the first time in the US (Jeanne Dielman, Icons of Screwball Comedy, Nikkatsu Noir) or as they have never been seen before (Husbands, Icons of Sci-Fi.) If my pockets were deeper, here is the order in which I would theoretically fill up my cart:
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) by Chantal Akerman [Criterion]
If there is one director who seems routinely ignored in the world of US DVD releases, it is Chantal Ackerman. Okay, maybe not the only director routinely ignored, but take a long look at the list of films made by this French auteur and then count the number available domestically. (I'll save you the trouble, Jeanne Dielman is only the forth.) It is with this kind of excitement that I greet Criterion’s release of Akerman’s 1975, 3 hour and 20 minute Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. I like long films and I especially like long films where ‘nothing happens.’ The film chronicles Jeanne Dielman who cooks and cleans and occasionally sells her body to support herself. Considered Akerman’s masterpiece, there are few films that I look forward to seeing more. The laundry list of extras included on this two-disc set are: a 69-minute documentary, a new interview with Akerman and cinematographer Babette Mangolte, an excerpt from a 1997 French television show “Chantal Akerman par Chantal Akerman,” an interview with Akerman’s mother (!), a television interview excerpt featuring Akerman and star Delphine Seyrig, and Saute ma ville (1968), Akerman’s first film.
Eclipse Series 17: Nikkatsu Noir [Eclipse]
Dug out from the vaults by Mark Schilling for a retrospective presented at the Udine Far East Film Festival in 2005, Nikkatsu Noir from Eclipse presents five of the 16 films he originally screened. During the late 50s and early 60s, Japanese film studios were turning the reigns over to untested directors in a last ditch effort to drag people into the theaters and away from their TV sets. The result was not only the Japanese New Wave, but also the freewheeling, shoot-from-the-hip action that flourished at Nikkatsu Studio. Caught between the past and the future, the War and Westernization, Japan was on the brink of something and so were these films that borrow as much from Hollywood as they do from Japanese culture. For fans, these five films represent the tip of the iceberg with eleven more prints from the retrospective subtitled and ready to go, not to mention the others that have never seen on these shores. The best buy of the month includes nothing but the most pristine transfers of: I Am Waiting (1957) directed by Koreyoshi Kurahara, Rusty Knife (1958) directed by Toshio Masuda, Take Aim at the Police Van (1960) directed by one of my favs Seijun Suzuki, Cruel Gun Story (1964) directed by Takumi Furukawa, and A Colt is My Passport (1967) directed by Takashi Nomura.
Trouble the Water (2008) by Carl Dean and Tia Lessin [Zeitgeist]
Adding a much needed and very personal commentary to Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke, Trouble the Water tells the unbelievable story of Kimberly River Roberts and her 9th Ward neighbors who rode out Hurricane Katrina. Armed with a video camera, Roberts, who has no car and no money to comply with evacuation, keeps the camera rolling for as long as the batteries hold out. She and her husband do everything they can to help other people stranded while help is nowhere to be found. Directors Carl Deal and Tia Lessin assemble this raw first-person footage into an overwhelming documentary that follows the Roberts for two years. As the bureaucrats point fingers, the Roberts and everyone they know struggle to carry on. Trouble the Water should be mandatory viewing, and a required addendum to Naomi Klein’s "The Shock Doctrine." The DVD supplements the information with deleted and extended scenes, conversations with the directors, subjects, film critic Richard Roeper and executive producer Danny Glover, and how Trouble the Water played out at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection [Sony]
No self-respecting kaiju fan would pass this set up, even if they do have other versions sitting on their shelves. Sony takes three sci-fi wonders from director Ishiro Honda and cleverly offers them in their original Japanese versions with subtitled and their American Saturday matinee versions complete with head-scratching cuts and cheesy dubs. All three of these films come on the heels of Honda’s international hit Godzilla, but show that he continued to be an innovator of the fantastic. The H-Man (1958) was blamed for ripping off The Blob (1958) even though it is chronologically impossible. Radioactivity, a constant evil in Honda’s films, has transformed six men into man-eating blobs. Detectives, thugs, scientists and a sexy nightclub singer find themselves knee-deep in a green ghostly mystery. In Battle in Outer Space (1959), the title says it all. The US and Japan join forces to battle the evil aliens called Natalians. Kaiju experts Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski offer an audio commentary. Mothra (1961) is probably the most well known film of the set. A moral tale that will make you think twice about kidnapping small fairies from uncharted islands, Mothra is a special effects masterpiece. Rifle and Godziszewski contribute a commentary on Mothra as well. Sony obviously does not understand fanboys. Three discs housed in one keep case with pretty bad cover art obviously misses to boat on design and the opportunity to charge a little more money.
Goodbye Solo (2008) by Ramin Bahrani [Lionsgate]
Goodbye Solo may go down in history as the film that spawned the lame term ‘Neo Neo-Realism’ which would be really unfortunate. A.O. Scott’s New York Times article espousing the virtues of American-made low-budget features about people on the margins focused heavily on Ramin Bahrani and coincided with the opening of this film. In a catfight that only salaried critics could appreciate, Richard Brody used his claws and A.O Scott bristled about semantics and the quiet films were lost amongst the fur. Goodbye Solo seems to be a natural progression from the street-wise real-life meditations of Man Push Cart and Chop Shop. While those first two films are set in NYC—where the tranquility is hidden within the storm—Goodbye Solo takes Bahrani back to his hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina—where Bahrani’s storm is hidden within the silences. Goodbye Solo is an unconventional buddy tale that matches an immigrant’s unwavering optimism with an older man’s resolute fatalism. More open to allegorical interpretation, Goodbye Solo is (in agreement with Scott) a film that lives inside of you for a long time after the lights go up. Having the opportunity to hear Bahrani speak, I know that the director’s commentary will be worth the price of the DVD.
Husbands (1970) by John Cassavettes [Sony]
Unless you have a good rep theater nearby or were around in 1970 when this film was release, chances are you have not seen John Cassavettes Husbands. Long unavailable, even on VHS, Sony restores the film to the original edit of 140 minutes that was paired down to two hours for its theatrical release. Archie (Peter Falk), Harry (Ben Gazzara) and Gus (Cassavettes) are three middle-aged buddies who decide on ‘celebrating’ their friend’s death by going on an extended bender that includes some mid-life crisis purging. The three actors give the kind of messy emotive performances that Cassavettes usually reserved for Gena Rowlands. Made between Faces (1968) and Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), Husbands is a self-indulgent misogynistic romp that is unforgettable. Sony’s DVD includes a making-of and a commentary by Marshall Fine who wrote the book "Accidental Genius: How John Cassavetes Invented the Independent Film."
The Window (2008) by Carlos Sorín [Film Movement]
Argentinean director Carlos Sorín may be best know for his 2002 award winning film Intimate Stories, and, although he has hardly been idle, US distribution is a fickle thing. The Window has been making the festival rounds since it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, and has fortunately been picked up by DVD-of-the-month club Film Movement. The Window is full of big screen moments of silent beauty. With an aesthetic that is summed up in its quietude, horizons, stillness and elegance, it tells the simple story about Don Antonio in the waning hours of his life. Bedridden from illness, he waits for the arrival of his son, a famous pianist living in Europe. His preparations are less for his son than they are for himself. Taking inspiration from Wild Strawberries, a film Sorín fell in love with 40 years ago, he creates a film that is nothing less than a poem. As with all of Film Movement’s DVDs, the extras are sparse, but it includes a slightly disturbing short film from Spain entitled “Seventy.”
The Class (2008) by Laurent Cantet [Sony]
Although I know plenty of teachers (and many who have taught in some of the most difficult circumstances), my insistence that they see this film was met with the same response across the board: why would I go to see a movie about teaching? In some respects, I think Laurent Cantet’s Palme d’Or winning The Class reveals why they wouldn’t want to see it. Although extremely enlightening to me, it probably just reiterates the frustrations they face on a daily basis. The cast of non-actors (the teacher is played by a teacher and the students are played by students) lends this film an unequivocal sense of authenticity. Set in a multiethnic school in Paris, the film follows a class for one school year. The push-pull relationship of authority and pupil has never been so delicately portrayed, or if it has, I haven’t seen it. The DVD includes a 42-minute making-of and a commentary for selected scenes by director Cantet and actor/writer François Bégaudeau.
Julia (2008) by Erick Zonca [Magnolia]
Tilda Swinton does her best award-garnering crazy lady in a film that is likely to be overshadowed by her over-the-top performance. Playing the character for which the film is named, Swinton is a middle-aged alcoholic who is dragging along rock bottom. The only thing worse than a drunk is a desperate drunk, which is exactly what Julia is—desperate for companionship and, after being fired and up to her ears in debt, desperate for money. With one wrong choice after another, Julia digs her hole so deep she herself can’t see her way out. Her solution? To blindly keep hurtling forward. As Julia’s character improvises, Tilda Swinton does the most incredible shape-shifting job of her career. The DVD includes 26 minutes of deleted scenes that convinced me that the lengthy 2 hour and 20 minute runtime was too short.
Icons of Screwball Comedy, Vol. 1 & 2 [Sony]
Although these eight films may have been icons of the moment, they have long since lost that status as Sony pulls films from Columbia’s vault of long-forgotten/never-heard-of films. And that is probably the best reason as any to cherish this two volume, four DVD, eight film set. Even if you don’t recognize the films, some of the stars will certainly ring a bell: Jean Arthur, Fred MacMurray, Melvyn Douglas, Rosalind Russel, Irene Dunne, Charles Boyer, Loretta Young, and Ray Milland were all huge stars of their time. Here’s what’s included on the no-frills sets: Vol 1, If Only You Could Cook (1935), Too Many Husbands (1940), My Sister Eileen (1942), She Wouldn’t Say Yes (1945); Vol 2, Theodora Goes Wild (1936), The Doctor Takes a Wife (1940), A Night to Remember (1942), Together Again (1944).
The Last Days of Disco (1998) by Whit Stillman [Criterion]
In a surprising move, Criterion releases Whit Stillman’s much debate and hated Last Days of Disco. If watching a pair of superficial friends navigate the New York City disco scene seems annoying, well, it is. But it is also funny and backed by an amazing soundtrack that takes me back to my childhood. Fortunately I was not in the clubs and certainly not in NYC in the early 80s, but change the fashions and change the songs and the vacant dialog could be overheard at a club near you. Chloe Sevigny makes her break from the Larry Clark and Harmony Korine slums in her passive but persuasive role as Alice. The DVD contains what you might expect from Criterion: essay, behind-the-scenes, deleted scenes with commentary and an audio recording of Stillman reading from his book of the same name. Naysayers beware!