(Holy crap. It's May. Somewhere in my past two weeks of movie going, I pulled this out of my arse for In Review Online.)
If I were forced at gunpoint to say one good thing about Avatar, it would be that it reinvigorated the notion of the theatrical experience. It’s unfortunate that Avatar had to be the film to do it, but people took notice of the value of seeing a film on a large screen. Just imagine, however, if 35 Shots of Rum had lured people to theaters, with its kinetic camera movements and intimate close-ups. Or what if people were lined up in droves to see Summer Hours and its luxurious green pallet on the big screen? If that were the case, our futures would be paved with creative subtitled films, all in 2D. Instead, Avatar has delivered a legacy of mindless 3D films that the industry will probably be shoving down our throats for the next decade. Avatar came out on DVD this month, but below are the ones you should buy or rent instead.
Icons of Suspense: Hammer Films (1958-1963)
Director(s): Cyril Frankel, Guy Green, Joseph Losey, Michael Carreras, Quentin Lawrence
Sony adds another edition to their ‘Icons’ series with six classic, but rare, potboilers from England’s Hammer Films. Don’t let the price fool you (six movies for around 20 bucks)—all the titles have been restored and presented in their uncensored form, many for the first time ever in the U.S. None of these films made huge waves in the U.S. and most were edited for middle-of-the-road television consumption. Hammer Films was better known for their Technicolor horror films (The Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula and The Mummy) that often overshadowed these low-key thrillers. The Snorkel (1958) is a murder mystery melodrama about a daughter who has serious doubts about her mother’s suicide. A family faces a losing battle with a powerful patriarch who harbors his dirty secret regarding his attraction to young girls in Never Take Candy From a Stranger (1960). After a terrible accident, a race car driver fights his unnatural desire to kill his wife in Stop Me Before I Kill (1960), known in the UK as The Full Treatment. Cash on Demand (1961) is a bank heist with a twist, before such a thing was its own pat genre. Maniac is a cautionary tale about the scheming women and their crazy husbands. And finally, These Are the Damned (1963) is a sci-fi drama that burns with the subtext of the social ills of the times. Although reviews and information exists on all these films, most refer to their previously censored releases that pale in comparison to what Sony has unveiled with this set.
35 Shots of Rum (2009)
Director: Claire Denis
InRO’s best film of 2009 needs little introduction. There are a few rare films out there that hand you an experience that feels like a gift—35 Shots of Rum is just such a film. I recently saw ’35 Shots’ for a second time theatrically and found it even more moving and beautiful than the first time. 35 Shots is a masterpiece from the heart that skirts around the edges of social politics with subconscious sublimity. The narrative is driven by a visual osmosis, slowly and subtle revealing truths and discoveries about the transcendental characters. At the center of the film is the relationship between a young adult daughter and her single father—both at junctures in their lives. Claire Denis cites Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring in this dedication to her mother and grandfather, but I still see more Hong Sang-soo (albeit a more gentle Hong) than Ozu in 35 Shots of Rum. Needless to say, there is plenty of repeat viewing in this DVD. Extras include a 20-minute interview with Clair Denis and a 70-minute conversation that she had with Judith Mayne at the Wexner Center for the Arts.
Summer Hours (2009)
Director: Oliver Assayas
Criterion makes another fine choice for their new endeavors into current film. Although Oliver Assayas has a knack for providing films that galvanize the opinions of audiences either for their merits or their inferiority, he does a 180 with a family drama that floats above where animosity exists. Simplicity and beauty are Assayas’s rallying points behind an understated tale about family and loss that is balanced with a celebration of art and life. Hélène is the matriarch presiding over a collection of personal belongings that have accrued in market value and artistic status. Faced with her declining health, her three adult children— Frédéric, Adrienne and Jérémie—prepare for the familial clashing of personalities and ideologies in dealing with the estate. Not exactly new or colorful material, but Assayas and his amazing cast and crew turn it into something that feels unique and looks vibrant. I particularly appreciate the line in Kent Jones’ essay included with the DVD in regards to the approach to cinema in Paris that is carried forward by Assayas: “Cinema meant a response to the world, as opposed to a distraction from it, an engagement with the present and the past, historical and aesthetic—in essence, a dismantling of the barrier between the two.” Criterion’s release is supplemented with all the extras you might expect: a new interview with Assayas, a making-of and a documentary, Inventory, about the way art is treated in the film.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)
Director: Terry Gilliam
Considering all the behind the scenes maelstrom, Terry Gilliam’s most recent film is exactly what it should be: a beautiful mess. Sometimes incomprehensible and almost always illogical, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is Gilliam’s war of the creative will, both literally and metaphorically: literally in his ability to pick up and finish the film after a trio of omens (Heath Ledger’s death, producer William Vince’s death and his own accident where he broke his back) and metaphorically in film as it champions the power of the imagination. The eye-popping visuals and the artistic grandeur are what you might expect from the man behind the animation of Monty Python. Parnassus is a fitting legacy for Ledger who plays a character that is neither here nor there, taking the form of a shape-shifting apparition. Christopher Plummer anchors the film with his more than human performance of the failing Doctor Parnassus, which is hard not to read as a stand-in for Gilliam himself. The DVD mines probably as much extra footage of Ledger that they could find, including a short audio interview and an even shorter wardrobe test. Gilliam provides a commentary for the film and a video introduction.
Director: György Pálfi
Taxidermia is a surreal Hungarian film ripe for cult adoration from the director of the much-loved Hukkle. Those expecting more of the same serenity should think again. An absurd allegorical fairy tail obsessed with carnality, György Pálfi’s creation completely tips the scales on visceral human vulgarity. Some people will find this film funny, many will find it dark, but most will find it utterly repugnant. If you combined Ilya Khrjanovsky’s bizarre 4 with one of David Cronenberg’s more fleshy films, you would have something close to Taxidermia. The narrative, such as it is, follows three generations of men, each one with a unique bodily compulsion: sex, food and, of course, taxidermy. Recommendation of this film comes with the explicit covenant of: don’t say I didn’t warn you. Taxidermia is a meticulously made confrontation of bodily fluids, internal organs and sexual perversion that is not for the faint of heart.
Director: Lukas Moodysson
Show Me Love and Together set up expectations for smart, tender dramas from Lukas Moodysson, but whatever popular or critical acclaim he had left with Lilya 4-Ever seemed to go right out the window with A Hole in my Heart and Container. Moodysson waved goodbye to distribution opportunities when he started mining dark and disturbing subject matter with a very stark unflinching eye. Returning to less experimental endeavors, Moodysson attempts to jump back into the ring with Mammoth and ends up falling flat on his face. In his first English language film, he employs two of the most marketable faces in indie film today (Michelle Williams and Gael García Bernal) and still can’t get any respect. Mammoth is largely a film riddled with the guilt of the privileged and the suffering of oppressed, portrayed with little finesse and a ham hand. But for those who are following Moodysson’s interesting trajectory (or who enjoy Williams or Bernal), Mammoth should not be tossed aside so quickly.
Director: Andrew Bujalski
I’m unwilling to use the term “mumblecore” (although, right there it is) and would rather shift these hipster head-scratchers into a more descriptive category. Painfully intimate and brutally reflexive on the people who are most likely the audience, these films nonetheless find life (or stagnation) in the overly self-conscious dialogue that renders the genre tag accurate. Watching Beeswax, or Andrew Bujalski’s mumbly debut Funny Ha Ha, can be as frustrating as it is when you hear the words ‘ I don’t know’ effortlessly slide out of your mouth. Strong reactions for or against these 21st century slacker films usually reside in the ability or refusal to recognize ourselves in these films. Beeswax is no game changer and continues on the same path that Bujalski paved eight years ago, albeit with a little more craft. He wrote the film for twin sisters Tilly and Maggie Hatcher who play the leads in the film. It is a perfect set up for discovering the subtle differences that exist in two similar people. The twins bring some levity to the film in their effortless chemistry in an otherwise overtly awkward film.
La France (2007)
Director: Serge Bozon
Debuting at Cannes 2007, this unique film has probably made the most stops internationally the last few years for the least viewers. A spare and somewhat abstract WWI meditation, La France often gets billed as a musical due to the fact that the moments in which the film breaks into song are so unusually. The film follows a wandering group of soldiers joined by a woman (disguised as a young man) who is searching for her soldier husband. Their travels are aimless and are ambiguously secretive with little notion of a war beyond the men’s period army uniforms. All members are lost physically and emotionally with a world caught up in war. But when the soldiers pull out their handmade instruments and sing an infectious pop song that is distinctly of a different era, you can’t help but be jarred from the somber sensibilities of the film. La France is a tough sell and is all the more special for it. Thankfully Kino has picked it up in a valiant effort to give this film more exposure.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)
Director: Werner Herzog
44 Inch Chest (2009)
Director: Malcolm Venville
Male characters don’t get much better than Nicolas Cage’s Terence or the ensemble cast that adorns 44 Inch Chest. I’m not sure what Werner Herzog is up to with Bad Lieutenant, but it sure is fun. He re-imagines Abel Ferrara’s original cop-gone-bad with surreal style that almost allows us to forget Harvey Keitel. Cage’s adoption of his character is the icing on the very weird cake. Far less chaotic, 44 Inch Chest survives on the vibrant personalities of the five main characters who are just as good as wielding words as they are fists. Colin’s wife has left him for a younger man. His friends pull together to help Colin enact revenge. The one woman in the film recedes as the male psyche takes center stage. Watching the six principal actors—Ray Winstone, Ian McShane, John Hurt, Tom Wilkinson, Stephen Dillane and Melvil Poupaud—clash and parry with one another is far more entertaining that the story even pretends to be. Between the two films you have one insane American cop and five British cads with latent thug tendencies—just try and imagine if they were thrown in the same room together.