Sunday, October 19, 2008

DVDebuts, Wheat-to-Chaff in one fell swoop

The most interesting --and unexpected -- film I saw all week was SHELTER ME (scroll down two posts for the full review). Other than this, the DVD releases from the past ten days or so ranged from good to mostly OK, with only one waste-of-time in the bunch. We'll start at the top and work our way down….

How nice to see Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator, Dagon, King of the Ants) working with a good cast, on a smart B-movie like STUCK. His rendition of Mamet's Edmond was not particularly well-received; though worthwhile in patches, it didn't quite cohere. His latest endeavor, however, allows him to give full rein to his preference for gore and pain but in a more believable (not sci-fi, not fantasy) manner than usual. My companion, who closely followed the true-life tale that the movie takes as its jumping-off point, remarked at the close of Stuck that it was good that Gordon did not adhere too literally to the truth. Instead, he allows his imagination to take flight in regard to both character and story. And with two fine actors like Stephen Rea and Mena Suvari in the leads (check out her good work in Scott Caan's clever The Dog Problem), the film seduces us to watch in fascination and horror as two decent people collide, and then one of them, rather than accept responsibility, goes step by step to the dark side.

SAVAGE GRACE took a pretty severe critical drubbing, but, really: How difficult is it to surrender to a story chockablock with this much sex, sin, and perversion? Top it off with a cast that includes Julianne Moore, Hugh Dancy, Stephen Dillane, relative newcomer Eddie Redmayne and others, good period costumes and setting and a story based more than loosely on fact and you've got a pretty good movie. In his first full-length film since 1992's Swoon, writer/director Tom Kalin does an adequate job of serving up these very strange characters. There's a flatness to his handling that good performances can lift only so much. On the other hand, with this amount of bizarre behavior, better flat than over-the-top.

With STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE releasing to DVD so soon after Taxi to the Dark Side (which deservedly copped the Best Doc Oscar for Alex Gibney), how much Iraq torture can viewers handle? Since both films bombed at the box-office, not much, it would seem. From the outset S.O.P. offers the usual Errol Morris signatures -- repetition in images and music, re-enactments -- this time with a smoother, higher-budget look that belies the documentary form and makes it appear that the film is glossy fiction. But once Morris gets into his interviews, reality takes over and we're hooked. If only the filmmaker did not keep coming back (and back and back) to his usual tropes. He doesn't need them here.
A nasty, jolting surprise, JOY RIDE: Dead Ahead is an example of paint-by-numbers done with enough style, speed and creep-outs to drag you along on its merry/bloody way. Only the denouement disappoints. (Spoiler ahead, but not really -- not if you've seen a couple of slasher/thrillers lately.) Please: Will movie-makers and their stupid studios retire forthwith the nonsensical You-just-can't-kill-him ending. It worked once, twice, maybe thrice. Now it is simply an abysmal "sequel" ploy, and this movie -- its straight-to-video release notwithstanding -- is too good for it.

A kind of Genghis Khan - The Early Years, MONGOL is a stately "actioner" that's too long for its own good and manages to repeat itself (he escapes, he's caught; he escapes, he's caught) with alarming regularity. It is quite beautiful to watch, however; the performances are capable and the actors nice to look at. I would recommend it, depending entirely on your taste and tolerance for this sort of thing.

Another film that's too long for what it has to say, BEAUFORT tackles the Israeli military and the men at the top through the eyes of the grunts. It reminded me at times of everything from Pork Chop Hill (Korea) to Go Tell the Spartans (Viet Nam) to Sam Fuller and especially another Israeli war film Yossi & Jagger. Over its long running time, however, I found myself growing as tired of this ancient fort in which the combatants are forced to remain as they themselves do. And I feel now even more convinced of the injustice done prior to last year's Academy Awards by the foreign film committee in declaring The Band's Visit ineligible due to too much English being spoken. What a crock. That fine film might just have stolen the award from The Counterfeiters, which was also a fine, if much darker movie, but not, I think quite as interesting or rich as that band and its wary/welcoming villagers.
As a big fan of Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Cercle Rouge and Le Samourai), I was probably looking forward to LE DEUXIEME SOUFFLE a bit too much. In any case, this 1966 offering in wide-screen black-and-white has now been given the Criterion treatment, and the DVD is a visual delight -- even if it is far too lengthy at 2-1/2 hours. Though its title translates as "Second Wind," the movie barely gets its first. You'll know where it's going even if you can't predict all the details, and the fact that the actors include the likes of Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse, Raymond Pellegrin and Marcel Bozzuffi, each sporting no more than 1- 1½ expressions throughout grows increasingly tiresome. (Sometimes, as in a movie like Le Trou, also written by José Giovanni, the lack of expression seems real and necessary, but here it appears to have more to do with style than humanity.) The leading lady, Christine Fabréga, an absolute icon of mid-60s, teased-and-sprayed-hair, does not quite make it past a single expression. But boy, she captures the time period -- as does the film itself. Its depiction of criminals as utterly ruthless yet often with a soft spot for each other seems simultaneously real and phony. Try it, but you may not buy it. (It certainly does not pass the fabled Harry Cohn test -- when your posterior goes numb from too long a sit.)

Not being a fan of M. Night Shyamalan, I didn't expect much from THE HAPPENING and so was no more disappointed than usual. This is another of his poorly thought-out, gosh-what's going-on? movies without even the silly surprise ending that has come to be expected from M. There are some truly weird moments (the men falling from the construction site is dreamy, stunning and terribly upsetting) but, as ever, your final question may be, "So what?"

Has anyone else experienced the trouble I've had in renting the newly-released-to-DVD version of Vertigo -- the new "Legacy" version? Instead I keep receiving either the very old, non-wide screen or the slightly newer version in which you just hit "zoom" to widescreen it -- and consequently lose a lot of sharpness and detail. Well, I'll keep trying….

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