Criterion celebrates my one year anniversary of doing Home Movies for InRO with one of the most important releases to hit U.S. soil: “Letters From Fontainhas: Three Films by Pedro Costa.” I wish I could give it a proper appraisal, but it literally hit my door today, sitting next to my computer in the shrink wrap as I type these words. (Falling into the rabbit hole is something I'll do later and report back.) Joining Pedro Costa this month is four other recommendations and twelve other notable releases I couldn’t resist pairing in double features.
Letters from Fontainhas: Three Films by Pedro Costa [Criterion]
What Criterion misses when they introduce Pedro Costa as “one of the most important artists on the international film scene today” is that he is also of the most neglected in the way of accessible English friendly DVDs. Until recently, that is. Coming on the heels of two worthy imports of The Blood (1989) and Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (2001), Criterion completes the perfect circle with this 4-disc set which includes his Fontainhas Trilogy: Osso (1997), In Vanda’s Room (2001) and Colossal Youth (2006). This set does the invaluable service of pulling back the curtain on these much talked about but rarely seen films. Criterion provides access for those of us who have had only minimal exposure to Costa, but can’t wait for more, and to those who believe Costa is a mythical creature concocted in esoteric film circles. It was Colossal Youth that brought Costa to many people’s attention, but his interconnected Fontainhas Trilogy is the master cycle that earned him overwhelming critical claim. All shot in the Fontainhas slums outside of Lisbon, the trilogy offers portraits of the cast aside citizens of Costa’s homeland. The set is less an introduction on Costa than it is a master’s class, supplementing the films with an entire disc of documentaries, commentaries, interviews, essays and photos. Also included are two recent short films, Tarrafal and The Rabbit Hunter, that Costa made for two 2007 omnibus films, The State of the World and Memories respectively. My fervor for supporting Criterion—and the institutions who have screened his work theatrically (locally the Walker Art Center)—in their visionary efforts to make these films available is staunch. Save your money. Buy this set.
The Complete Magick Lantern Cycle by Kenneth Anger [Fantoma]
I wish there was a way for me to recommend this set and not feel guilty about the fact that Kenneth Anger, still alive, is most likely not receiving the financial benefit he deserves from its release. Anger’s discontent with Fantoma’s first two DVDs was more than apparent when I had the opportunity to meet him in 2007. Perhaps things have changed, but there is nonetheless something dodgy about this release. First, “The Complete Magick Lantern Cycle” seems to be a repackaging of Fantoma’s own “The Films of Kenneth Anger Vol 1” and “Vol 2” only at a cheaper price. Secondly, this release comes almost a year after BFI’s reportedly far superior Blu-Ray release that used Fantoma’s transfers. I’m confused. If that is too much politics to handle, I don’t blame you. Bottom line: Anger is a living legend of the avant-garde and his films, and the limits of their influence, know no boundaries. This set (or the previous set or BFI’s Blu-Ray) is the pudding of the proof. Included are 10 of his most well known shorts, from his groundbreaking Fireworks (1947) to his bombastic Lucifer Rising (1981). Controversial and confrontational, Anger has worked his way from underground filmmaker to tattle-tail author to the well-deserved recognition of the film community at large.
The Beaches of Agnès (2009) by Agnès Varda [Cinema Guild]
Agnès Varda, 80 year-old grandmother of the French New Wave, makes it very clear that she is still an artist to be reckoned with. Working in the style of a film essay, Varda’s autobiographical documentary is drawn with such charm and openness that it will have no problem winning over new admirers while reinforcing the glowing adoration of devoted fans worldwide. Beaches places Varda’s irresistible persona front and center as she chronicles her life as an experimental work and her work as an experimental life. Varda starts with her childhood in Belgium and guides us through her life using archive photos and footage, interviews, reenactments, staged vignettes, and Varda herself revisiting the landscapes of her past. Continually exploring and expanding her creative impulses, Varda seems more alive than ever. The Cinema Guild makes the most of this release and includes three previously unavailable short films by Varda. Around Trapese Artists and Daguerre-Beach are fully realized visual landscapes of vignettes featured in the film, and the third, Le Lion Volatil, is a fiction film made in 2003 loosely contemplating the permanence of the bronze Lion of Belfort statue through a romantic young woman.
We Live in Public (2009) by Ondi Timoner [IndiePix]
There is a fair amount of evidence that the Internet, including the insipid social networks that we all indulge in, has had a tremendous effect on 21st century life as we know it. But there are a few caveats to this notion: first is that this only includes the most privileged in a worldwide population, and second is that the greatest impact has not been social, but individual. Ondi Timoner’s fascinating documentary supports both assertions to an alarming or reassuring degree, depending on which Kool Aid you drink. Over ten years in the making, We Live in Public documents Josh Harris, “the greatest Internet pioneer you’ve never heard of.” One of the first people to realize the potential webcasting, Harris was also excited, not scared, by the notion of how the Internet could connect us all, all the time. The eventual loss of privacy was like a challenge to Harris. His experimental underground commune project walks a very fine line between visionary and completely crazy. Timoner, embedded in the action, keeps a surprisingly even-hand in doling out the narrative culled from thousands of hours of footage. Included on the DVD are two commentary tracks, one by Timoner and one by Harris, recorded during his first screening of the film. The DVD is far from the only way to see this film, and can be found on-demand via the Internet and cable, but I guarantee that after seeing the film you will wish you had the commentaries to help you digest. For anyone reading this review, exclusively online, We Live in Public is a must see.
The African Queen (1951) by John Houston [Paramount]
I’m going to equate The African Queen to comfort food. Although highly subjective, comfort foods usually follow demographics and offer the simple yet oh-so satisfying taste of the familiar. I’m a pretty good sport about indulging in, and sometimes even enjoying, others' form of comfort food, and The African Queen is no different. An enjoyable adventure-cum-romance, The African Queen survives on the notoriety of its director, John Houston, and teems with life thanks to the chemistry between Kathryn Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, both beyond their popular peak, but far from dead. The African Queen represented a triumph for both, but especially Bogey, earning him his only Oscar in a very long career. But the thing that makes this classic of classics’ release so notable is that, until now, it has been unavailable stateside on DVD. Whatever the delay, Paramount fortunately had the foresight to do the painstaking restoration work that the Technicolor film needed. The special features make spending the money on the ‘Commemorative Edition’ worthwhile, notably an audio recording a Lux Radio Theater version with Bogey reprising his role with Greer Garson and a copy of Hepburn’s now out-of-print 1987 memoir The Making of the African Queen: Or, How I Went to Africa With Bogart, Bacall and Houston and Almost Lost My Mind.
Double Dog Dare Double Features
Ponyo (2009) by Hayao Miyazaki [Disney]
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) by Wes Anderson [Fox]
Two of the most enjoyable theatrical experiences from last year may play out even better at DVD, particularly if you have young ones at home. That being said, I would never ghettoize either film as being a children’s movie. The wild creativity of Ponyo and the subtle humor of Fox never pander to kids as if they are stupid. Ponyo may not be Hayao Miyazaki’s best, but it delivers all the heart-warming adventure that you would expect from one of his films. Miyazaki is a singular talent who has the ability to turn a simply story into visual magic with earth shattering gentleness. Wes Anderson pulls out a huge surprise with a stop motion animation that, dare I say it, has more life that his live action films. Anderson and Noah Baumbach work wonders scripting this low-key escapade carried out by a group of richly imagined, preppy critters. Family movie night just got better with these two films regardless of the ages in your family.
Where the Wild Things Are (2009) by Spike Jonze
Tell Them Anything You Want (2009) by Spike Jonze and Lance Bangs
Watching Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s book is like having some sort of window onto your childhood psyche. Max’s dark and insecure feelings were intuited content as a kid, and as a cognizant adult watching the film, those irrational emotions of pain and joy hit hard. If seeing “Where the Wild Things Are” in the theater wasn’t enough, it’s time to watch it again at home and pick up the documentary that Jonze made in tandem with the film. Tell Them Anything You Want is an intimate portrait of Sendak and proof to the care and consideration Jonze took in adapting the book. The documentary is a fine companion to the film. So fine, in fact, you have to wonder why it’s not a special feature on the DVD release of the film.
Bigger That Life (1956) by Nicholas Ray [Criterion]
Dillinger is Dead (1969) by Marco Ferreri [Criterion]
These two timeless films from Criterion are a reminder that newer isn’t always better (an ethos that I sometimes have a hard time remembering.) Marco Ferreri’s laconic Dillinger is Dead from 1969 is as surreal and strange as anything heading down the contemporary experimental pipeline; Nicholas Ray’s intense Bigger Than Life from 1956 is as dark and shocking as any social critique made today. Bigger Than Life is a brutal portrayal of the atomic family that, unsurprisingly, did not go over so well at the time of its release. As a result, it faded into the background and was overshadowed by Ray’s more popular films, such as Rebel Without a Cause, released just two years earlier. Ferreri’s symbolic dark comedy faced similar dismissal, but only compared to colleagues, such as Antonioni and Godard. Both are available on DVD for the first time in the U.S.
Red Cliff (International Version) (2009) by John Woo [Magnolia]
Sherlock Holmes (2009) by Guy Ritchie [Warner]
Contrasting these two films would be a crime, but comparing them side-by-side, especially within their own very specific trademark style of action, would probably be as fun as it would be interesting. John Woo takes a classic story from the revered Chinese epic The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and adapts it for 21st century cinematic tastes. In many ways, what Guy Ritchie does with Sherlock Holmes is no different—Robert Downey Jr. certainly is not your grandparent’s Sherlock Holmes! Both Woo and Ritchie are able to re-envision these cultural archetypes with rich narrative flair and visceral kinetic panache. (Although committing to the International Version of Red Cliff means a whopping five hours, anyone interested should skip the truncated US theatrical release. You will thank me later.)
An Education (2009) by Lone Scherfig [Sony]
The Blind Side (2009) by John Lee Hancock [Warner]
As luck would have it, two films were released this month that had Best Actress nominees, including the one the won. Early in the year Carey Mulligan in An Education had all the critical attention and people were practically handing her the award…or at least Sandra Bullock was not being talked about as a possibility for The Proposal. Mulligan is undeniably brilliant in An Education, an adaptation of Lynn Barber’s coming of age memoir. At an age where confidence and vulnerability can believably exist, Mulligan’s charm steals the film. And then—bam—here comes that saucy Southern lady, struttin’ around, savin’ lives! It’s hard not to love an actress that shows up to accept her Razzie Award for Worst Actress, which Bullock did for All About Steve, but, between these two films alone, it’s hard to think the Academy got it right.
Up in the Air (2009) by Jason Reitman [Paramount]
Precious (2009) by Lee Daniels [Lionsgate]
Here’s another you-be-the-judge Oscar smackdown between two films that could not get more disparate. Up in the Air represents the modern Hollywood machine like no other. It has all the elements: the star (George Clooney, whose persona, and paycheck, trumps any character he is likely to play), the director (Jason Reitman, son of director Ivan Ghost Buster Reitman), and the story (the trials and tribulations of, um, corporate travel.) Precious, on the other hand, is the complete antithesis—a beacon for everyone and everything that is under-represented in Hollywood. It’s a miracle that this film got made and a double miracle that is saw the kind of success it did. Both were up for Best Adapted Screenplay. Precious took home the statue and Reitman took home his pouty lower lip. You made need therapy after watching these two films together, but, if I hadn’t already seen them, this would be my kind of double feature.