Monday, October 27, 2008

DVDebuts: A Quartet of Films, Two Wheat, Two Chaff

TrustMovies fell down on his viewing this week, what with the New York Tabletop Show in full swing (that's china, crystal, flatware & linens to you uninitiated). Or perhaps I should say "partial swing": the economy is affecting everything these days, and in very heady, heavy doses. Still, we managed to view eight films in the course of the week:

Journey to the Center of the Earth 3-D, YPF and The Incredible Hulk are all covered in the three prior posts, and Craig Lucas' interesting failure Birds of America will be found on GreenCine Guru Movie Reviews in the next day or so, I hope. Which leaves us with...

An uncredited rip-off of the much-better 2006 French film by David Moreau and
Xavier Palud, Ils (called Them in the USA), THE STRANGERS, as you might expect from an Americanized version (semi-stolen, at that), has racheted up the blood & gore (if not the suspense), explained a little too much, and added a few characters and backstory -- to no avail. If you have not seen the earlier film, you will probably find this somewhat enjoyable (if that is the right word for such a inhumane, ugly movie). Liv Tyler does a fine job; Scott Speedman has less to work with, and writer/director Bryan Bertino accomplishes his dirty deed with a kind of crass finesse. Ils, set in Romania, offered little explanation, but savvy viewers could piece together the awful circumstances and make something understandable of it. The Strangers, trying to have it all ways -- motiveless crime, irredeemable horror and a happy ending (of sorts) -- cheapens everything it touches.

If the name of the director attached to each of the six short films (made over forty years ago) that constitute PARIS VU PAR (SIX IN PARIS) was left out at the beginning of each episode, I wonder if even the savviest viewer would know which three were done by the famous (and now grand old men) of French cinema and which by directors/writers of whom most of us have never heard? Filmed in 1965, the movie remains surprisingly good fun today, even if the DVD transfer is among the worst I've seen from a major distributor (which I would call New Yorker Films, as far as independent/foreign fare is concerned).

No matter. What is on view here from Rohmer (above, right), Chabrol and Godard (above, left), who constitute the famous, and three lesser-known Jeans (Douchet, Rouch and -Daniel Pollet) provides wit, entertainment and a nostalgic look at mid-60s Paris, as well as mid-60s moviemaking. Both come off rather well, and the work of the three Jeans certainly stands up to that of their better-known brethren. Among the many delights: the chance to see Joanna Shimkus (later to become Mrs. Sidney Poitier) toward the start of her too-brief film career; Stéphane Audran and M. Chabrol himself on screen together as a nasty married couple; Barbet Schroeder in an early acting role in Rouch segment "Gare du Nord." Themes include the attitude of French men vs. that of American/Canadian women (Godard and Douchet), desire and happiness (Rouch), the worm turning (Rohmer), an unusual prostitute/client negotiation (Pollet) and the sins of the French bourgeoisie (yup: Chabrol). Not an episode outlasts its welcome and each is worth a watch, though I will say that Chabrol, thank goodness, has grown a little subtler over the ensuing decades.

I guess I am a sucker for a decent multigenerational family saga, and THE STONE ANGEL from Canada via adapter/director (from the Margaret Laurence novel) Kari Skogland fills that bill. The movie -- telescoped rather much, I should think, from the novel -- is episodic and often moves from present to past. Skogland handles this quite well, for awhile, at least, and her film, full of life and some simply magnificent cinematography from Bobby Bukowski, never dawdles. Eventually, however, this lack of dawdling, becomes troublesome. The telescoping begins to rush things and, during the middle of the movie, we don't mesh with the characters or their story in the way a better-realized family saga would allow us to do. In the final third the film gets back on course, and the sense of having lived through generations comes home with some feeling and force.

The cast is quite a help here. Ellen Burstyn has one of her best roles in a long time, and she fills it out beautifully. Her character Hagar is not always such as easy woman to like, and Burstyn lets us see all of her -- as does the beautiful young actress Christine Horne (above left), who plays Hagar in her younger years. It is also a pleasure to finally find the always-competent Dylan Baker (above right) in a pivotal role, and he, too, comes through. Cole and Wings Hauser play younger/older versions of the same character, and Ellen Page shows up for a small role, too. As good as The Stone Angel often is, you may sometimes wish it were a bit better. But if you’re a fan of the family saga, I warrant it'll get you where you want to go.

Once in awhile, you'll come across a straight-to-video that's a revelation. THE LAZARUS PROJECT is not one of these. However, for quite awhile it holds your interest, mostly via writer/director (from a story by Evan Astrowsky) John Glenn's surprisingly placid and simple filmmaking techniques. After being jerked around so frequently and so hard by moviemakers attempting to produce their own version of shock & awe, it's rather nice to discover a mystery/thriller that's quiet. Further, the cast, including the sexy/gorgeous Paul Walker (above left), the pert 'n pretty Piper Perabo (center), and Lambert Wilson slumming (above right) is nothing to sneeze at. Unfortunately the quietude gives way to typically overwrought melodramatics and an overlong chase sequence as the finale approaches, and the ending is one of the stupidest and most unbelievable I can recall in a very long time. (I'd explain why, but I do not want to spoil what minor surprise is in store, should you choose to rent.)

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