Sunday, January 18, 2009

DVDebuts: a round-up from the past month

Covering more new theatrical releases than usual over the past few weeks has rendered me MIA in terms of what's new on DVD -- which I'll now try to remedy with this post.

In an earlier review in the Spanish Cinema Now series for GreenCine, I covered EL REY DE LA MONTANA (King of the Hill) -- a film that stood out as one of the best genre (sub-genre: chase/thriller) movies in a long while. Seeing it a second time via its new DVD release, I find it so accomplished that it actually transcends the genre category. Available this coming Tuesday from Dimension Extreme, it deserves the "Extreme" appellation not because of its gore factor (very light) but due to its ability to involve, frighten and finally take us into uncharted, near-apocalyptic territory while doling out exactly the right amount of information to keep us consistently on tenterhooks. Its "hero," by the way, is played by Argentine heartthrob Leonardo Sbaraglia (that's he, dodging bullets, above), and hasn't this fellow had one amazing career? Taking chance after chance on unusual scripts, he seems to know how to pick consistently terrific movies in a variety of genres: Concursante, Cleopatra, The City Without Limits, Intacto, Wild Horses, Burnt Money, Don't Die Without Telling Me Where You're Going and on and on. His is a sterling record -- one that American heartthrobs-and-would-be-serious-actors can only observe with envy.

I wonder what Budd Boetticher or Don Siegel might have made of a western like APPALOOSA that wears its "Aren't we intelligent!" insignia a little too overtly? While those two renowned directors of laconic Westerns tended to treat the ladies in a very pre-feminist manner, director/co-writer/star Ed Harris goes post-feminist in a big way, making his lead female (played pretty well by Renée Zellweger) muy complicada to little effect. The men also talk too much and end up sounding way too smart for their own (and in the Harris character's case, illiterate) britches. The penultimate action scene is also handled poorly. Otherwise, this is an interesting enough attempt to bring back the western for today's audience (who, in any case, said "no thank you" at the box-office).


TOKYO GORE POLICE, with its hugely, bizarrely sexual man-made monsters and its dire warnings about where current Japanese society (for that matter, every other society that's not third world) is headed, has a somewhat "loaded" appeal. It's not up to the level of The Machine Girl (who makes her own appearance here!) story or plot-wise, however, and this renders its many gore scenes memorable only for their over-the-top bloodletting rather than for their message, satire or any interesting film technique. Yet for the scene in the sex club alone, I'd come back for more. Talk about vagina dentata: this one makes our own little independent nibbling labia Teeth look more like a dental dam.


More was clearly expected from the theatrical release of BRICK LANE (based on the popular Monica Ali novel), but the movie came and went without stirring up much critical or popular fuss. And indeed, for much of its running time, it is not all that special. Then slowly you may find yourself sucked into the life of -- not the main character or her daughters (and this is clearly a feminist kind of story) -- but the tubby hubby of our heroine, who begins as a thoughtless, pompous clod and slowly grows and changes into a figure of surprising sympathy and sadness. The character is played by Satish Kaushik, who gives a truly splendid performance -- because of which I find myself recommending this otherwise rather obvious and plodding movie.


The quietly shocking documentary THE ORDER OF MYTHS takes us into America's "new" South where we find… the old South, alive and well and making the usual excuses. Mobile, Alabama, it seems, has long had two separate-but-equal Mardi Gras festivals: one for whites, the other for blacks. How this came about and how it is changing by snail-like increments is the subject of Margaret Brown's fine film that never raises its voice as it allows many of Mobile's classy white community to knot its noose, toss it over a tree and then finish the job (and yes, if you remember that Mobile was the site of one of the very last lynchings of a Negro in America, you'd be on-target).


Hong Kong director Johnny To turns light and charming in SPARROW, his tale of rival pickpocket gangs and the woman who comes between them. It's very nice to see To go without so much as a single shootout. He still knows how to offer violence, however -- swift and surprising. But there's both a sweetness and a wisdom here that I have not so far encountered in his work, which I admit to becoming a bit tired of. Thanks for the reprieve, Johnny!


In BLIND MOUNTAIN, Yang Li's follow-up to his also-very-dark Blind Shaft, China gets yet another smack-down (after Up the Yangtze and so many other films) as a country with a social contract nearing zero. Here the subject is slavery, as a young woman is sold to a family in a mountain village and spends the rest of the film trying to escape. Melodramatic because it is not as well plotted as it should be, the film still carries a socko message and is very well acted by the entire cast. Whatever else it manages, the movie makes a fine bookend to another, infinitely more positive Chinese film about mountain folk: Yimou Zhang's Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles.


Is Jon Avnet one of the dumber directors (at least in terms of choosing projects for major actors) currently working in America? I ask because, now, with the pairing of Pacino and De Niro in RIGHTEOUS KILL -- after giving Al one of his more dismal flops in 88 Minutes -- it seems that Mr. Avnet can do no right. Actually, this film -- yet another serial killer (sort of) movie -- is somehow less ridiculous than 88 Minutes, and both Bobby and Al do good professional work, making the movie at least watchable while it lasts, as stupid as is much of the plotting. Avnet gets another raspberry for giving the wonderful Carla Gugino one of her worst roles, too.


Jessica Yu (who made the dead-wrong Henry Darger doc, In the Realms of the Unreal and then bounced back with the much better film Protagonist) now offers up her first narrative feature, PING PONG PLAYA, and it's a feel-good, culture clash, sports competition comedy with the requisite "heart." Considering all that, it ain't bad, if way too derivative. In Yu's favor is her ability to make much of what happens charming, if not the least bit credible. Cast as very odd brothers are the funny lead actor Jimmy Tsai (who's also the co-writer with Yu) and the gorgeous Roger Fan (from Better Luck Tomorrow and Finishing the Game).



A necessary documentary about women's right to sexual pleasure in a man's world (we're talking mostly Texas here) PASSION AND POWER: The Technology of Orgasm gives us the history of vibrators from their birth till now, along the way showing us what happens to one intelligent and caring gal who tries to educate Texas women about the enjoyment of their bodies. Not a smart move in that state, not even in this day and age. Co-writers/directors Emiko Omori (shown on log at right and Wendy Blair Slick (also logging, on the left) are not yet the slickest nor most incisive of filmmakers, but their doc does its job. Unless you’re some kind of fundamentalist or a very uptight male, you'll finish this film fuming.

A few of my reviews have appeared over the past weeks on Greencine's Guru site, involving several films I would recommend: THE GOOD LIFE, and (to a lesser extent) NETHERBEAST INCORPORATED. Also, four of the films from the new Murnau/Borzage collection: Liliom, Bad Girl, Young America and After Tomorrow are worth seeing. Borzage was a master of melodrama that lives and breathes beautifully -- to this very day!

OK. This should get your movie-watching in gear. Let me know what you think, and feel free to disagree....

2 comments:

GHJ - said...

Jim - Any way Sparrow makes it to Netflix, or am I going to have to buy it? I'm a huge To fan and I hate waiting the eons it usually takes to see his films.

James van Maanen, said...

Hey, GHJ-- I can't find it on Netflix, so evidently, they ain't got it. I rented it from GreenCine and the DVD transfer was a very good one. Here's the link: http://www.greencine.com/webCatalog?id=281148
It might be worth joining a second rental service -- just to get your fill of Mr. To.