Mine is a blog of list. Someday I will have something with more words. Until then, enjoy the pretty pictures. Originally published on In Review Online.
I’m remiss to not use this space to either dog Mira Nair’s awful Amelia or defend Richard Kelly’s underrated The Box, both out on DVD this month, but there are simply too many films released that take priority against my critical vendettas. And if it looks like I am favoring Blu-Ray, that's because I am.
Bronson (2009) by Nicolas Winding Refn [Magnolia]
I have spent many hours watching people, mostly men, beat each other up in the most creative and dramatic ways, and there is almost always an acknowledgement of futility and resignation. Even the most reverent of fight films concede the sardonicism of the animal-like endeavor. Not in Bronson and probably not in Michael Peterson—aka Charlie Bronson, aka the most violent prisoner in Britain—who the film is based upon. The film revels in the character’s joy—no kidding, sheer joy—of fighting. Bronson, brilliantly portrayed by Tom Hardy, is a character is his own play. Thanks to Hardy’s spirited performance, it is easy to rally behind this celebration of raw sociopathic rage as both charming and entertaining. The DVD and Blu-Ray release include a host of interviews and behind-the-scenes footage that satisfies some of the enigma of this film. It’s hard not to be curious about the man behind the story, and a mere glimpse is included as a supplement: “Charles Bronson Monologues,” a twenty minute audio extra that plays along with stills from the film. The hard to understand lo-fi recording isn’t much, but an interesting extra that prison guards have no idea how or when it was made.
A Serious Man (2009) by Joel and Ethan Coen [Universal]
Joel and Ethan Coen return to their native Minnesota for a far more personal kind of film. Taking place in St Louis Park, the suburb of Minneapolis where they grew up, the Coens serve up nostalgia like a bitter pill. In retreating from the flashy all-star cast of their last few films, the Coens have endowed A Serious Man with a cast of authenticity, especially in the subtle hands of lead actor Michael Stuhlbarg. A large dose of sincerity balances out the sarcasm, and the nastiness, ala “Burn After Reading,” has been tossed out altogether. Although it received an Oscar nod, no one is thinking about A Serious Man when it comes to Best Picture. The DVD and Blu-Ray come with three featurettes: “Becoming Serious,” “Creating 1967” and “Hebrew and Yiddish for Goys” that total out at over a half an hour. The making-of material will no doubt spark great interest from the local yocals such as myself.
Revanche (2009) by Götz Spielmann [Criterion]
Revanche has all the makings of a classical tragedy—star-crossed lovers, plans to escape the suffocating confines of their current situation, an accidental death, and the smoldering anger from which the film gets its name, Revenge—but is also a contemporary psychological thriller of riveting intensity. The ripples in the water that we see when the film opens is a gentle symbol of the cause and effect motif that sends this film into a tailspin. Although Revanche is Spielmann’s fifth feature, it is only his first to receive US distribution. The yarn is drawn taught between anxious Robert and brusque Alex by the film’s confident camera work and powerful performances. Janus Films, the theatrical arm of Criterion, dives head first into the business of first run features with the inspired choice of Revanche, one of the best films from last year. For home distribution, it receives the Criterion treatment where we, the ravenous consumer and film fans, are sure to be the benefactors. The DVD includes a new interview with director Götz Spielmann, a half-hour making of, and Spielmann’s 1984 short film “Foreign Land.”
Hunger (2008) by Steve McQueen [Criterion]
Some years from now, when Michael Fassbender becomes a well-deserved household name, we will look back at Inglourious Basterds, Fish Tank, and especially Hunger as films that elevated him to greatness. Although Hunger belongs to Fassbender and the historical persona he portrays, Bobby Sands, the central figure in this film is the Maze Prison, which housed the core members of the Irish Republican Party and, in turn, represented the fear, paranoia and anger of the so-called ‘Troubles of Northern Ireland.’ We are all aware of the forms of protest the IRA used on the outside, but what happens when a man is stripped of all his freedoms inside the oppressive confines of maximum security? The bleak and visceral reality of people pushed to their limits (on both sides of this political issue) is the brutal art of Hunger. I honestly can’t think of a recent film more deserving of a Criterion release than Hunger. There is no skimping on quality and there is a fair amount of extras, including a 1981 BBC program on the Maze Prison and the hunger strikes.
The Informant! (2009) by Steven Soderbergh [Warner]
I’m having déjà vu. Didn’t I write about Steven Soderbergh last month? And then just a few months before that? Oh, right. Soderbergh is that prolific bastard that I can’t put my finger on, and “The Informant!” isn’t going to help me out one bit. I challenge anyone to find three films from one director that are more disparate than Che, The Girlfriend Experience and The Informant!—it may seem like Soderbergh-lite compared Che and far more funny and humanizing than The Girlfriend Experience, but it is no less relevant. The Informant! is a social comedy that asks us to laugh at ourselves as much as we laugh at the idiotic whistle-blower Mark Whitacre. Don’t expect too much in the way of extras with only a smattering of deleted screens that cater more to Matt Damon than the film.
Examined Life (2008) by Astra Taylor [Zeitgeist]
Examined Life is a documentary that got slighted in marketing and distribution. It was granted a theatrical run in NYC and limited special screenings, like the sold out screening I attended locally. And that’s too bad, because we could all use a little philosophic therapy like Examined Life effortlessly doles out. Astra Taylor, director of Zizaek!, takes eight great thinkers of our times—Cornel West, Avital Ronell, Peter Singer, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Hardt, Slavoj Zizek, and Judith Butler—and provides them with a space to ponder the personal, moral, social and political questions of today. Watching Zizaek, in a hilarious safety vest, expound on a environmental tangent in a garbage dump is as fascinating as seeing West, celebrity du jour, sit in the back of a taxi cab and deliver poetically draw lines between a vibrant mind and the elusive form of jazz. Thoughtful and compelling, Examined Life is a huge step above dime store philosophy without being overly academic. The DVD comes with extended interviews, and for those wanting just a little bit more there is also a companion book released last year.
The Damned United (2009) by Tom Hopper [Sony]
It is no wonder that in the land of the oblong football that Hopper’s critically acclaimed The Damn United didn’t get much buzz or play. American’s familiarity with soccer, let alone the history of the Leeds United team from which the film is derived , makes The Damned United a tough sell regardless of its merits. Based on the book by David Peace, the film tells the story of Brian Clough’s term as manager of Leeds in the 1970s. Even reading the synopsis is confusing to a non-soccer fan such as myself, but this film has not been championed for its factual accuracy. Instead it had been promoted for dodging sports film clichés and for its dramatic prowess under the handy work of Michael Sheen, best known for his role as Tony Blair in The Queen. The DVD is surprisingly full of extras that will help the soccer-impaired, including a commentary with director Tom Hopper, actor Michael Sheen and producer Andy Harries, and a bucket load of featurettes I can hardly make sense of: "Cloughisms" Perfect Pitch: The Making of Damned United, Creating Clough: Michael Sheen Takes on 'Old Big 'Ead' and The Changing Game: Football in the Seventies.
Bushido: The Cruel Code of the Samurai (1963) by Tadashi Imai [AnimEigo]
The release of Bushido should not be taken lightly. The film represents the first US release of the revered, but rarely talked about, Tadashi Imai. His lack of recognition runs parallel with the sparse of availability of his films outside his home country. In the world of Bushido, ‘the way of the warrior’, it is the ‘honor unto death’ that propels the story of the doomed family linage from the 1600s to present day. It is hard to make assumptions about a director after seeing only one film, but the tone of Bushido is so overtly bleak that Imai was obviously preoccupied with mankind’s oblivious inhumanity in the face of tragic suffering. Imai won the Golden Bear Award for the film at the Berlin Film Festival in 1963, and now, 47 years later, an unassuming niche distributor pulls it from the long forgotten archives like a gift. AnimEigo offers two trailers for the film, which are much more interesting than it sounds, and some contextual background material.
Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) by Leo McCarey [Criterion]
It is hard to watch Make Way for Tomorrow with its unspoken complexity and generation gaps without thinking of Ozu. That Ozu’s work is more prominent, at least in my mind, than McCarey, who came a decade before him, is a bitter irony especially given that “Tokyo Story” (1953) was supposedly inspired by Make Way for Tomorrow. Tomorrow features emotional subtlety that is not always heralded from the talkie 1930s Hollywood. McCarey is better known for his award winning The Awful Truth with Irene Dunne and Carey Grant which was release a mere five months after Tomorrow. Criterion’s restoration and release is bound to give this beautiful underseen film a new life.
Dead Snow (2009) by Tommy Wirkola [MPI]
I was very skeptical of Dead Snow and its snowmobile-heavy trailer, but, boy, was I wrong. This Norwegian horror showboat is clever, well made and extremely fun. What could be worse than Nazis? Bloodthirsty Nazi zombies! When a group of medical students retreat to a mountain cabin for a vacation filled with winter recreation, booze and sex, a battalion of Nazis laying dormant under the snow for 50 years are suddenly provoked from the dead ready to unleash years of pent-up twisted Nazi-ness. Dead Snow is relentlessly paced and thankfully has no other objective other than entertaining. The two disc DVD and Blu-ray is fan boy ready with more extras than the average sober adult would ever want. But if you sit down with a group of friends and a substance of choice, I guarantee you will be spinning through those extras as soon as the credits role.