|by Peter Sobczynski
Saints, sinners, presidents past and present, frozen rivers and flux capacitors, martial arts mayhem and misbegotten literary adaptations--these are but a few of the things that you can experience this week through the miracle of DVD. (I know this isn’t the most inspired intro but you’ll have to forgive me--I still haven’t gotten over the news that Mandy Moore is apparently off the market. Happy Valentine’s Day indeed. . .)
For the most part, when a notable filmmaker gets to a certain age, one of two things usually happen--either they get into a routine of grinding out one anonymous project in order to keep on working (as Chaplin and Hitchcock did for the most part in their later years) or they give up the ghost altogether and hit the lifetime achievement award circuit. However, there have been some instances over the years in which certain directors of a certain age have miraculously recharge their creative batteries and created some of their most provocative and powerful works at an age when most people are contemplating retirement. For example, John Huston spent the last decade of his life turning out such brilliant works as “Wise Blood,” “Under the Volcano,” “Prizzi’s Honor” and “The Dead” while Akira Kurosawa pulled off the epic “Ran” at the age of 75 and still had three more films in him. However, one of the most stunning and sustained late-period triumphs pulled off by any auteur was the one done by the acclaimed Spanish director Luis Bunuel. Having shocked the world with the one-two punch of the surrealistic masterpieces “Un Chien Andalou” (1929) and “L’Age d’or” (1930), he more or less disappeared from view and while the next few decades saw some decent films (such as the haunting 1950 slum drama “Los Olivados” and his 1954 version of “The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe”), most of which were made in Mexico, they didn’t quite equal the impact of those earlier works. In 1961, however, the 61-year-old filmmaker came back with a vengeance with “Viridiana,” a powerful drama about a young nun whose life changes forever when she decides to visit a distant and unloved uncle before taking her final vows. This kicked off an incredibly fruitful artistic period that lasted until his passing in 1983 and which included such celebrated masterpieces as “Belle du Jour,” “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” “The Phantom of Liberty” and his final work, 1977’s “That Obscure Object of Desire.” All of these titles are currently available on DVD and are highly recommended and this week sees the long-awaited domestic DVD releases of two more of the films that he produced during this particular hot streak--1962’s “The Exterminating Angel” and 1965’s “Simon of the Desert”--and it is gratifying to watch them again and discover that they are just as strange and powerful to behold today as they were when they were first released.
Those who have seen “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” will recall that it present the surreal misadventures of a group of people who finds their dinner plans constantly interrupted by one bizarre incident after another. Produced a decade earlier, “The Exterminating Angel” offers up a neat and nutty inversion of that premise. Here, a group of boorish and bourgeois “friends” gather at a lavish country estate for a dinner party. After a long meal filled with barely noticed food and patently insincere conversation, the group moves into another room and soon discover that the servants have fled and that they are mysteriously unable to leave the room, let alone the house. As the days go by, they reduce their surroundings to rubble in order to survive (pipes are smashed for water, furniture is burned for heat and some sheep that just as mysteriously wander in are killed and eaten) while stripping away all social niceties so that each person can tell the others what they really think of them. What all of this is meant to represent is never explicitly revealed by Bunuel, though many critics have offered up their thoughts on what he was allegedly trying to say over the years, and because of its refusal to offer up any explanations as to what it is all about, the film maintains a timeless quality that allows it to continue to stand up nearly a half-century after its debut. It is definitely one of the strangest things that you are likely to ever see in your life, even by Bunuel’s standards, but this hilarious and horrifying work is something that you will never shake after seeing it and unlike a lot of decidedly bizarre works of cinema, it actually ends on a note that is completely satisfying.
Having offended religious types a few years earlier with “Viridiana,” largely because of a sequence that offered up a satirical visual pun on the Last Supper (years before Robert Altman did much the same thing in “M*A*S*H”), Bunuel then offered up an even-more devastating satire of religious hypocrisy with “Simon of the Desert.” In this 45-minute-long film, Claudio Brook plays Simon, a 5th century ascetic (loosely based on the real-life St. Simeon Stylites) whose devotion to God is so powerful that he rejects virtually every earthly pleasure, blesses everything down to the food stuck in his teeth and who has spent years standing atop a tall column in the middle of the desert to prove his devotion to God. Unfortunately, the people that he tries to help are unappreciative of his efforts and God seems to be completely ignoring what he is doing in His name. In fact, the only person who appears to pay Simon any mind is the Devil, who assumes the form of a beautiful woman (Silvia Pinal) and who tries to lure him down with tricks that culminate in a time-traveling trip to a Sixties-era New York nightclub. Although you may think, based on the above description, that the film might be a satire on the perils of blind faith in which Simon is constantly being mocked for his unanswered and unappreciated devotion, that is not the case. In fact, Bunuel is extraordinarily sympathetic towards Simon and his acts and save his satirical brickbats for the God that doesn’t appear to care about his existence and the pious, self-involved and self-described Christians who mock a person who genuinely takes his faith seriously instead of merely playing lip-service to those ideals. While this may not be the best introduction to Bunuel’s work--this is one film that could have used a longer running time to more fully flesh out its ideas--but for those who take both the cinema and religion seriously, it is a must-see.
Although neither disc is packed to the gills with bonus features (though just the fact that they exist on DVD in lovely transfers would be enough for most film fanatics), the people at Criterion has come up with some interesting extras for each title. “The Exterminating Angel” includes a second disc that kicks off with “The Last Script: Remembering Luis Bunuel,” a feature-length 2008 documentary overview of his life and work in which Bunuel’s son, Juan Luis, and longtime collaborator Jean-Claude Carriere tour the various cities in which he lived and worked while offering up home movies, photos and clips from his movies. Next up are interviews with actress Silvia Pinal, who worked with Bunuel on three films, and with filmmaker Arturo Ripstein, who speaks in general about his importance as a filmmaker with an emphasis on “The Exterminating Angel.” Finally, there is a 38-page booklet that includes an appreciation of the film from scholar Marsha Kinder and an interview excerpt from Bunuel himself conducted in the 1970’s that focuses specifically on the film. As for “Simon of the Desert,” the main extra is “A Mexican Bunuel,” an hour-long documentary from 1997 focusing on the portion of Bunuel’s life when he lived and worked in Mexico (this was his final film made in that country) that offers up such delights as the alternate ending that he was forced to shoot for “Los Olivados” when the producers decided that his original was too bleak and a story about the efforts to remove the column that Simon stood upon from the location where it stood for 30-odd years to another location where a retrospective of his work was being held. After that, there is another interview with Pinal that, among other things, explains the film’s abbreviated running time, and a booklet that includes an essay from critic Michael Wood and another interview excerpt featuring Bunuel talking about the film.
THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL: Written and directed by Luis Bunuel. Starring Silvia Pinal, Enrique Rambal, Claudio Brook, Jose Baviera and Augusto Benedico. 1962. 93 minutes. Unrated. A Criterion Collection release. $39.95.
SIMON OF THE DESERT: Written by Julio Alejandro. Directed by Luis Bunuel. Starring Claudio Brook, Silvia Pinal, Enrique Alvarez Felix and Hortensia Santovena. 1965. 45 minutes. Unrated. A Criterion Collection release. $29.95.
NEW AND NOTABLE
60 MINUTES PRESENTS: OBAMA: ALL-ACCESS--BARACK OBAMA’S ROAD TO THE WHITE HOUSE (Paramount Home Video. $19.99): If you are suffering from post-election year withdrawal, this quickie disc should take care of that. Culled from material gathered from nearly two years on the campaign trail by reporter Steve Kroft for “60 Minutes,” it contains the six different Obama-related segments that the show aired during that time (including Obama’s first post-election interview) as well as such other highlights as his candidacy declaration, major speeches that he delivered in Philadelphia on race and in Berlin on foreign policy, his acceptance speeches upon winning the Democratic nomination and the general election and his inaugural address.
BACK TO THE FUTURE 1-3 (Universal Home Entertainment. $19.98 each): The hugely popular trio of time-travel fantasy-comedies from director Robert Zemeckis return to DVD in versions that retain all of the bonus materials from the previous editions without the pesky framing issues that dogged those earlier releases and adds a bonus disc to the first film that offers up a few new featurettes and a complete tour of the now-defunct theme park ride. Of the films, the 1985 original is a hilarious and touching work marred only by one of the worst closing scenes of all time, the controversial 1989 sequel is a brilliant and bizarre deconstruction of the very nature of sequeldom that is perhaps the last example to date of the cheerfully anarchic tone that marked such previous Zemeckis vehicles as “Used Cars” and his screenplay for “1941” and the 1990 Western-themed finale, while the weakest of the bunch, is a reasonably entertaining blend of sci-fi silliness and horse opera clichés.
BLINDNESS (Miramax Home Entertainment. $29.99): In one of the biggest cinematic disappointments of 2008, the combination of a hugely talented director (Fernando Meirelles) and cast (including Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Danny Glover, Gael Garcia Bernal and Alice Braga) and an internationally acclaimed novel from Nobel Prize-winner Jose Saramago (in which the savage and horrific breakdown of society following a worldwide plague of mysterious blindness is witnessed by one woman who can still see) resulted in one of the most overwrought, unpleasant and visually awkward that you will ever see (or not). This isn’t even one of those botches that it is at least bad in an interesting way--this is just a murky drag from start to finish.
CHOCOLATE (Magnolia Home Entertainment. $26.98): No, this is not a re-release of the hideous Juliette Binoche-Johnny Depp film that none of us have given a moment’s thought to since it came out nearly a decade ago. Instead, it is a cheerfully preposterous action extravaganza from the director of “Ong Bak” and “The Protector” about a young girl who has the magical ability to absorb martial arts skills simply by watching them being performed and who puts them into practice when she goes after the people who owe her sickly mother money so that she can pay for the medical expenses.
CLINT EASTWOOD: AMERICAN ICON COLLECTION (Universal Home Entertainment. $19.98): No doubt assuming that Eastwood was going to be nominated for an Oscar, either for directing “Changeling” or starring in “Gran Torino,” Universal put together this box set consisting of four previously-released titles in an attempt to cash in on the expected hype. While those plans may have gone astray, this is still a pretty good collection, assuming that you don’t already own them. The films include 1968’s “Coogan’s Bluff” (in which he plays a laconic Arizona cop who ventures to big, bad New York City to pursue a suspect), 1971’s “The Beguiled” (a suspenseful sexual melodrama in which he plays a wounded Civil War soldier who takes shelter in an all-girls school, seduces several members of the student body and faculty and discovers that they aren’t as helpless as they appear) and “Play Misty for Me” (Eastwood’s impressive directorial debut in which he plays a laid-back DJ who has a one-night stand with fan Jessica Walter and discovers too late that she is not one to be loved and left behind) and 1975’s “The Eiger Sanction” (a fairly pedestrian Eastwood-directed spy thriller enlivened only by some impressive mountain-climbing sequences).
DENNIS POTTER--3 TO REMEMBER (Koch Vision. $39.98): Thanks to such landmark works as “Pennies from Heaven” and “The Singing Detective,” the late Potter is generally considered to be one of the most important and innovative people to ever work in the world of British television and this box set unearths three lesser-known, though no less gripping, works that were produced for London Weekend Television in the fall of 1980. “Blade of the Feather” involves an author (Donald Pleasance) who is visited by a fan (Tom Conti) who proceeds to seduce the man’s daughter before revealing that there is more to him than meets the eye. “Rain on the Roof” involves a teacher (Cheryl Campbell) who flirts with a somewhat simple-minded student after discovering her husband’s infidelity, only to discover too late that her target is taking her advances far more seriously than she has been. “Cream in my Coffee” follows an aging couple who revisit the hotel where they once had a pre-marital tryst and find themselves flashing back on those long-ago events. The package is rounded off with “The Last Interview,” a fascinating 1994 special in which Potter discusses his life and work in an extended interview conducted only three months before his untimely passing.
DOROTHY MILLS (The Weinstein Company Home Entertainment. $19.98): After turning heads and popping eyes with her star-making performance in Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book” and popping up briefly in “Valkyrie,” the stunning Carice van Houten returns in this direct-to-video chiller in which she play a therapist sent to a remote village to examine a teenage girl accused of murdering a local child. At first, she assumes that the girl is suffering from a multiple-personality disorder but when the younger woman begins speaking in the voice of her dead son, she begins to suspect that her patient may actually be channeling the dead, never a good thing in a film like this.
THE ENFORCER (The Weinstein Company Home Entertainment. $19.97): In this fairly badass 1995 Hong Kong action extravaganza from director/stunt choreographer Corey Yuen (who later went on to make “The Transporter” for Luc Besson), Jet Li plays an undercover detective who is forced to take on the vicious leader of a local gang with the aid of his young son after his cover is blown by another cop (Anita Mui). Although this disc contains a commentary track from HK action film expert Bey Logan and interviews with producer Wong Jing and co-stars Tse Miu and Ken Lo, it does not, alas, contain the original Cantonese soundtrack--only the ineffective English-language dub is offered here.
FROZEN RIVER (Sony Home Entertainment. $28.96): In this critically acclaimed drama from debuting writer-director Courtney Hunt, a financially single mother (Melissa Leo) finds herself pulled into the world of smuggling people into the country from Canada in order to keep herself and her children afloat. The film doesn’t really work--it basically comes across as refried John Sayles without the subtlety and nuance--but Leo’s performance (which was nominate for an Oscar along with Hunt’s script) is so rich and fully felt that it almost makes up for its other deficiencies.
GUITAR (Starz/Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $26.97): In the directorial debut of Amy Redford (yes, the daughter of you-know-who), Saffron Burrows stars as a young woman who, during the course of one especially bad morning, loses her job and boyfriend and is diagnosed with a terminal disease that has left her with approximately two months to live. Assuming she has nothing left to lose and won’t be around when the bills (literal and otherwise) come due, she decides to indulge herself by living off of her credits cards, indulging in numerous affairs, learning to play the guitar and, from the looks of it, posing for memorable DVD covers.
THE LODGER (MGM Home Entertainment. $19.98): Generally considered to be the best of the silent films made by Alfred Hitchcock, this 1926 effort, only his third as a director, used the Jack the Ripper killings as a springboard for this brilliantly made suspense thriller about a London landlady who begins to suspect that her mysterious new lodger is the same man responsible for a recent series of murders. Other early Hitchcock titles hitting DVD this week include 1936’s “Sabotage,” 1937’s “Young and Innocent” and 1947’s “The Paradine Case.” (MGM Home Entertainment. $19.98 each).
THE LODGER (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.96): Of course, if you are the type of person who would prefer a version of “The Lodger” with sound, color photography and actors who are still alive, perhaps you will feel more at home with the 2008 direct-to-video remake featuring the likes of Alfred Molina, Hope Davis, Simon Baker and Shane West instead.
MADAGASCAR: ESCAPE 2 AFRICA (Dreamworks Home Entertainment. $29.98): Since I have nothing left to say about this pointless-but-moneymaking sequel to the equally pointless-but-moneymaking 2005 animated hit about a quartet of pampered zoo animals who are unceremoniously deposited back into the wilds, I will simply quote what my beloved mother asked after watching it for herself: “Do kids today actually like movies like that?” Sadly, it appears that they do and they will no doubt be watching this disc (which comes with a bonus disc containing a new half-hour cartoon featuring the misadventures of the wacky penguins that provided the film’s only real laughs) until the release of the all-but-inevitable next sequel.
MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA (Touchstone Home Entertainment. $29.99): After years of talking about one day making a film that would finally shine a light on the often-overlooked participation of African-American soldiers during World War II, couldn’t Spike Lee have come up with something better and more penetrating than this ridiculous and ridiculously overlong mess about a group of soldiers who hole up in a remote Italian village populated with such boisterous stereotypes as a shifty-eyed traitor, an adorable orphan and a babe who inspires a romantic triangle amongst two of them? Although not Lee’s worst film to date (that title is still jointly held by “Girl 6” and “She Hate Me”), this is easily the dullest and arguably the most disappointing thing that he has ever put his name on.
MY NAME IS BRUCE (Image Entertainment. $29.98): Man-god Bruce Campbell goes the Charlie Kaufman route by directing and starring in this meta-monster movie spoof in which Campbell, playing himself (more or less), is kidnapped by some people from a remote mining town under attack from a vengeful Chinese on the assumption that the heroics (?) he displayed in the “Evil Dead” films can be put to use for their benefit as well. Fans of Campbell will surely eat this up but those not in on the joke will probably want to give it a wide berth as they will no doubt find it irritating beyond belief.
NASCAR: RIDE OF THEIR LIVES (Paramount Home Video. $24.99): Originally produced for CMT, this Kevin Costner-narrated documentary traces the history of NASCAR from its early days as a competition among moonshiners in the 1950’s to the multi-billion-dollar behemoth that it has grown into today. While it probably won’t convert those who aren’t already partial to the sport, fans will most likely enjoy both the film and the 60 minutes of bonus interview footage that has been included here.
NIGHTS IN RODANTHE (Warner Home Video. $28.98): In their third and least effective screen pairing, Richard Gere and Diane Lane play, respectively, a plastic surgeon haunted by the loss of a patient and a woman who despairs of ever finding love again after her husband dumps her for a younger woman (despite looking exactly like Diane Lane) who come together at a quaint South Carolina inn as it is buffeted by a hurricane. This bit of overly melodramatic romantic glop was based on the novel by best-selling hack Nicholas Sparks, which means that if you are even slightly familiar with his work (which also inspired “A Walk to Remember” and “The Notebook”), you can pretty much figure out how it all turns out in the end.
RONA BARRETT’S HOLLYWOOD: NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH (Infinity Releasing. $24.98): Proving once again that virtually anything that was ever once broadcast on television will one day turn up on DVD (with the exception of the deliriously crypto-fascist Reagan-era cop show classic “Strike Force”), the once-influential Seventies-era gossip maven hosts a retrospective of old and usually fawning interviews with, among others, Cher, John Wayne, Donna Summer, John Travolta, Robin Williams and Burt Reynolds
SOUL MEN (The Weinstein Company Home Entertainment. $28.95): Even if the late, great Bernie Mac had passed away unexpectedly a couple of months before the release of this road movie about a former R&B duo (Mac and Samuel L. Jackson) who travel cross-country to play at a memorial concert for their former bandleader, it still would have come across as a messy, inane and weirdly raunchy misfire that completely missed the boat, not to mention the planes, trains and automobiles. Unfortunately, his passing (not to mention that of Isaac Hayes, who turns up in a supporting role) winds up casting an additional pall on the proceedings--watching him waste his talents on such substandard material with the knowledge that he is no longer around is almost unbelievably depressing.
TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE: THE FIRST SEASON (CBS DVD. $36.98): For a while, fantasy/horror anthology shows like “Amazing Stories” and the revivals of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “The Twilight Zone” were all the rage and while this syndicated take on the genre, executive-produced by none other than horror legend George Romero, may not have had the same amount of hype, money or marquee talent of its competitors, it managed to attract a loyal legion of fans over its four-season run. Alas, some of those fans may find themselves a bit disappointed with this collection of the 23 episodes that comprised the first season (which includes adaptations of stories by Stephen King and Harlan Ellison and appearances from the likes of Justine Bateman, Tippi Hedren, Christian Slater and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as a genie) as the musical scores for virtually every installment have evidently been replaced with new music and the only real extra of note is a single commentary track from Romero that appears on the premiere episode. This week's other TV-related DVD releases include "Melrose Place: Season 5, Volume 1" (CBS DVD. $39.98), "Shaun of the Sheep: Back in the Ba-a-ath" (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $14.98) and "The Wizards of Waverly Place: Supernaturally Stylin'" (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $19.95).
W. (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $29.95): When it was announced that Oliver Stone was going to do a film on the life and political times of George W. Bush, even as he was still in office, many expected a wild satirical excoriation of the man and how he and his advisers presided over what is already being writing off as one of the most disastrous presidencies in the history of our country--a “Natural Born Dumbass,” if you will. Instead, the film turned out to be a relatively straightforward narrative that largely eschews stylistic excesses and bizarre speculations in order to present a simple and, at times, strangely sympathetic look at a ne’er-do-well whose combination of personal magnetism, a powerful name and his innate sense of his own righteousness helped to make him the most powerful man in the world and whose personal demons and willingness to be swept up into the sinister intrigues of others left him sitting in the Oval Office when everything began crashing down. While the film as a whole feels at times like a rough first draft for a better, fuller film to come, it is worth watching simply for the magnificent central performance from Josh Brolin as the title initial--he actually figures out a way to bring depth and soul to a man not often accused of possessing either and to see his reduction from a supremely self-confident leader to the sunken man at the end flop-sweating through a press conference is enough to make even the most liberal of filmgoers feel a slight twinge of sympathy for the man
WAY OF WAR (First Look Pictures. $28.98): Presumably stepping into the roles that Steven Seagal can no longer fit into, Cuba Gooding Jr. stars in this direct-to-video actioner about a crack paramilitary assassin who ventures off to the Middle East to whack a terrorist, uncovers a vast conspiracy that reaches to the highest levels of our government and tries to expose what he knows before he is permanently silenced. Don’t worry, I wouldn’t dream of ruining the ending for you.
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originally posted: 02/13/09 10:29:24
last updated: 02/13/09 11:19:36