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DVD Reviews for 1/9: "This Is The DVD Column. Big, Isn't It?"

by Peter Sobczynski

Two of the most sought-after film titles finally make their long-overdue appearances on DVD, a bit of news that is so good that it actually makes up for the fact that this week also sees the release of four of 2008's worst films.

Generally considered one of the very best of all British filmmakers, the late Michael Powell has for the most part been relatively well-served by the DVD revolution as many of his most famous and acclaimed films, including such masterworks as “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,” “Tales of Hoffman,” “The Red Shoes,” “Black Narcissus” and “Peeping Tom” as well as less-famous wonders as “I Know Where I’m Going,” “A Canterbury Tale” and “49th Parallel,” have all been issued in lovely deluxe editions with all the bells and whistles that any fan and/or scholar could possibly hope for. However, while these films have been readily available for years, there have been two titles from his filmgraphy--his beloved 1946 wartime fantasy “A Matter of Life and Death” (retitled “Stairway to Heaven” for its American release, much to Powell’s displeasure) and his 1969 swan song “Age of Consent”--have remained frustratingly out of reach outside of the occasional rare screening on TCM and a VHS version of the former that emerged after it was restored and theatrically reissued in the mid-Nineties. Now, in a strange and entirely welcome turn of events, Sony Home Entertainment has quietly issued both films together as “Michael Powell Double Feature,” the second entry in a new line of director-based collection issued by the studio that began last year with their acclaimed set dedicated to the works of Budd Boetticher, and while we aren’t even going to be ten days into the new year when this is published, there is a very good chance that this will go down as one of the most important DVD releases of 2009.

Co-directed with longtime collaborator Emeric Pressburger when they were arguably the hottest filmmakers in England, “A Matter of Life and Death” stars David Niven as an RAF pilot in World War II who, as the film opens, is hurtling through the skies in his badly damaged bomber--although the rest of the crew was able to bail out, his parachute has been destroyed. While heading towards his fate, he happens to make contact with British-based American radio operator Kim Hunter and they instantly fall in love during their few minutes of conversation that end with Niven jumping from the plane, though not before delivering one of the all-time great lines in movie history--“I love you, June. You’re life and I’m leaving you.” However, while plunging to his certain death over the English Channel, the celestial emissary known as Conductor 71 (Marius Goring) sent to bring Niven to Heaven loses him in the fog and instead of dying, he wakes up the next morning on a sunny beach near where June is based. Before long, Niven and Hunter meet again and fall in love but before long, Conductor 71 reappears to inform Niven that his survival was an accident and it would be better for all involved if he accepted his fate and moved on. Niven refuses and demands the chance to appeal his case on the grounds that it wasn’t his fault that he survived. At the same time, his visions of Conductor 71 and celestial trials are diagnosed by a local surgeon (Roger Livesey) as symptoms of a rapidly worsening brain injury and schedules him for surgery. Alas, before he can perform the surgery, the doctor is killed in an accident and when he arrives in Heaven, he finds himself defending Peter at a tribunal (which of course parallels the surgery back on Earth) and against a Brit-hating prosecutor (Raymond Massey) on the grounds that his newfound romance with June is now more important than his presence in the afterworld.

Although it may not be as well-known of a film in these parts as its similarly themed American counterpart “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “A Matter of Life and Death” is one of the few films that really deserves the comparison. In fact, this is one of the all-time great romantic fantasies ever put on film. Visually, it is absolutely ravishing--Powell & Pressburger had the brilliant idea of shooting the Earthbound scenes in lovely Technicolor while doing the afterworld sequences in an equally ravishing black-and-white and the contrast between the two is often stunning to behold. From a thematic standpoint, it does an excellent job of tackling what was an enormously timely subject at the time--dealing with the grief of the countless lives that were cut short in the field of battle--in such a unique manner that it hardly seems dated even after more than 60 years. Despite the presence of death hovering over virtually every scene, there is also a lot of wonderful humor on display as well--the bit in which Conductor 71 finally admits his mistake is a little masterpiece of dry British humor. Most of all, it works as a glorious romantic spectacle that even the hardest cynic will have no trouble succumbing to--Niven and Hunter are perfect together and as a result, they actually make viewers even more invested in what happens to their love than they might have otherwise been if faced with two other actors.

While at the pinnacle of his career at the time of “A Matter of Life and Death,” Powell was pretty much at the nadir when he made “Age of Consent” in 1969--he had long since parted ways with Pressburger and his dark 1960 horror film “Peeping Tom” so repulsed viewers at the time that the outcry essentially brought his career to a standstill. (Of course, that film is now routinely listed alongside “Psycho” as one of the few authentic masterpieces of the genre but that reappraisal would occur for another twenty years.) Based on a novel by Norman Lindsay (whose work would later inspired the film “Sirens“), James Mason stars as Bradley Morahan, a famous Australian artist living in New York who finds himself increasingly bored and detached from both the world and his work and decides that the only thing that will help him is to abandon his current existence and move to a shack on a remote island off the Great Barrier Reef where no one will disturb him. Before long, he meets Cora (Helen Mirren in her first major role), the young and wild granddaughter of one of his few neighbors. To help her out, Bradley offers her a job as his model and she manages to finally get his creative juices flowing once again but just when the work is getting good, complications ensue. One of Bradley’s old pals (Jack MacGowran) shows up while on the run from the police over some back alimony--when Bradley refuses to give him any money, he just decides to stay there and hang out for a while. Later on, Cora’s grandmother catches her posing nude for Bradley and makes unseemly accusations towards him of the type that can only be satisfied with the little money he has yet. Finally, there is the fact that Cora has begun to fall in love with Bradley and despairs of ever getting him to look at her as something more than an artistic subject.

While “Age of Consent” isn’t a top-flight Powell film by any stretch of the imagination, it does contain more than its share of modest charms. Once again, it looks absolutely ravishing--one glimpse of the Great Barrier Reef as seen through the lens of cinematographer Hannes Staudinger and you may find yourself booking your next vacation there before you even get to the end of the film. The humor is a little broader than usual but there are a lot of genuinely hilarious moments sprinkled throughout as well as some thoughtful ideas about the artistic process and the need to create. (In many ways, it serves as the precursor to such better-known works as Jacques Rivette’s epic “La Belle Noiseuse” and Martin Scorsese’s “Life Lessons.”) Although it generally isn’t remembered as one of his great performances, Mason is excellent as the dissolute artist struggling to regain the impulses that he had as a young man that drove him to create in the first place. Best of all, however, is the presence of Helen Mirren as Cora. Under normal circumstances, the role of the sexy muse is not one that usually inspires a great performance but she does a wonderful job of conveying the carefree spirit and attitude of her character while being just as convincing during the parts where she becomes more serious as her relationship with Bradley deepens. And if you were one of those who was both impressed and delighted with those paparazzi shots of Mirren on the beach that popped up on the Internet last year, I will merely state that you will be more than pleased with her appearance here.

When it was announced that Sony Home Entertainment was going to be releasing these two titles on DVD, some fans worried that because of their relatively limited commercial appeal, they would be given the bare-bones treatment instead of the elaborate special editions that the Criterion Collection have provided for their Michael Powell titles over the years. Happily, that has proven not to be the case and both films have been provided with a decent and informative array of extras. Both films are introduced by no less of an authority than Martin Scorsese, who helped revive interest in Powell’s work in the late 1970s when he spearheaded a reissue of “Peeping Tom,” who offers up incredibly detailed discussions of the films and their creator despite only having a few minutes per title. More elaborate discussions of the films, their histories and Powell’s career are offered through the commentary tracks that appear on each film--scholar Ian Christie appears on “A Matter of Life and Death” and critic Kent Jones does the duties for “Age of Consent.” The latter title also has interviews with Ron and Valerie Taylor, who were responsible for the stunning underwater photography, and Helen Mirren herself. Again, these sections are brief but informative and help shed new light on a title that has been too often neglected in the annals of film history.

A Sony Home Entertainment release. $24.95


THE ALPHABET KILLER (Starz/Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $26.97): In this week’s DVD entry into the serial killer genre, Eliza Dushku plays a police detective whose obsession with tracking down a child killer leads her to a mental breakdown--when the killings begin again a couple of years later, she goes back on the trail at the risk of her sanity. Of course, I suspect that a good number of those who will be picking up a copy of this particular title less for the cat-and-mouse pursuit or the contributions of supporting players Cary Elwes and Timothy Hutton and more for the fact that Dushku briefly appears topless in a bit that will have many a “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” fan giving thanks for the glory that is the pause button.

BABYLON A.D. (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.99): You know, contrary to popular opinion, this sci-fi flop, essentially a fusion of “Children of Men,” “Blade Runner,” “The Fifth Element,” “The Transporter” and “Zardoz” in which Vin Diesel is charged with transporting a mysterious young girl through a hostile futuristic world for reasons that are only vaguely defined, is actually not entirely awful during its first two-thirds--it moves quickly enough, it has some nifty visuals here and there and director Matthieu Kassovitz (who would later deny all responsibility for the final product after allegedly being shut out of the editing room by Fox) does a relatively good job of creating his future world. However, the last third is such an absolute muddle that it single-handedly ruins the entire thing. Still, if you are looking for a movie to throw on at a party where you can just turn down the sound and trip out to the pretty pictures, you could do worse than this one.

BANGKOK DANGEROUS (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $34.98): In what one can only hope will stand as the absolute nadir of his career (at least until someone makes “Ghost Rider 2”), Nicolas Cage stars in the utterly superfluous remake of the 1999 Asian action hit in which he plays a tough hit man with a set of unbreakable personal rules regarding his job that he immediately begins to violate when he goes to Thailand for a series of jobs and bonds with the local guide that he was originally planning to murder once the jobs were done, sympathizes with the person meant to be the final target and falls for a blind girl who has no idea what he does for a living even when he does it right in front of her. And if you thought reading that description was mind-numbingly boring and free of anything remotely resembling tension or excitement, try to imagine what sitting through it must have been like.

BLIND MOUNTAIN (Kino Video. $29.95): In the event that you are feeling just a little too cheerful and happy-go-lucky these days, this latest effort from Chinese director Li Yang should take of that pretty quickly. It tells the story of a pretty and trusting college student who goes along on an herb-gathering expedition into a remote mountain village with a couple of strangers only to be drugged by her compatriots and sold to a pig farmer as his “wife” in a harrowing existence that she struggles mightily to escape from.

DISASTER MOVIE (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $29.98): Between my original review of this latest effort, for lack of a better word, from the twits behind “Epic Movie” and “Meet the Spartans,” and my defense of that review on Rotten Tomatoes against those who were offended that I spent so much time and energy on tearing it to shreds, I have already devoted more time and energy on this load of crap than anyone involved with its production did. Therefore, all I am going to add is that if you do decide to pick up a copy of this film to share with loved ones on a quiet January evening, you deserve everything that you are about to get as a result.

EDEN LAKE (Dimension Home Entertainment. $19.98): Having apparently learned nothing from the countless number of horror films that have emerged over the years that have begun in much the same way, a young and apparently idiotic couple decides to spend a weekend at a remote cabin in the woods. Along the way, they run afoul of a group of local delinquents and things escalate between them to the point where they find themselves fighting for their lives against the punks. Don’t look at me for sympathy--the minute you left civilization for the cheap showiness of nature, you signed your death warrant in my opinion.

ELEPHANT TALES (MGM Home Entertainment. $26.98): In what is essentially a retread of the animal film favorite “The Incredible Journey” with elephants in the lead roles, a pair of adorable baby pachyderms lose their parents to poachers and set off on a long journey to find other loved ones that finds them encountering cheetahs, chimps and giraffes along the way. Little kids--very little kids--may get a kick out of this but after a few minutes, anyone over the age of 10 is going to grow mighty weary of this well-meaning but exceptionally dull film.

PINEAPPLE EXPRESS (Sony Home Entertainment. $34.95): Whether you look at this film as a loving homage to Seventies-era action comedies like “Freebie and the Bean” and the oeuvres of John Landis and Hal Needham, an attempt to revive the long-dormant stoner film subgenre or as an exceptionally odd auteurist statement from director David Gordon Green (better known for such haunting and contemplative works as “George Washington” and “Snow Angels”), this saga of a pair of stoners (Seth Rogen and James Franco) who inadvertently stumble into a tangled web of murder and police corruption was one of the funniest films of 2008 and yet another hit for the seemingly unrelenting Judd Apatow laugh factory. The only real bummer--the fact that “Paper Planes,” the incredible tune from M.I.A. that became an enormous hit after being featured in the trailer, is not actually heard in the film itself.

THE PLOT TO KILL HITLER (Warner Home Video. $19.98): If you prefer your dramatic recreations of failed attempts by high-ranking members of the Third Reich to assassinate Adolph Hitler to be Tom Cruise-free, perhaps you will enjoy this 1990 TV movie version of the Valkyrie plot and how it wound up unraveling. However, since this version tends to put more of an emphasis on the relationship between plot leader Claus von Stauffeneburg (Brad Davis) and his wife (Madolyn Smith) than on the actual plot, it leaves something to be desired as well.

RIGHTEOUS KILL (Starz/Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $29.95): While this painfully derivative and utterly nonsensical would-be thriller--something about a serial killer who may actually be a cop killing off those that he can’t put behind bars--may not be the worst film that co-stars Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino (a long, long way from their previous collaboration on “Heat”) have ever made, it is arguably the most utterly useless and the only real mystery on hand (since the one on the screen can be figured out before the end of the opening credits) is why two such talented and charismatic actors (even given their current reputations as two people cheerfully willing to sacrifice their credibility for a big paycheck) would choose to work on a project that seems in every way, from its cliché-ridden script to its cheapo attempt to recreate New York City by utilizing the mean streets of Bridgeport, Connecticut to its very title, to be the kind of straight-to-video craptacular that might have been made back in 1991 with the likes of Michael Pare and Danny Aiello and even those two might have had enough self-respect to demand a few script rewrites before stepping in front of the cameras.

THE TUDORS: SEASON 2 (Showtime Entertainment/CBS DVD. $40.99)[/i[: Jonathan Rhys Myers once again shows us that it is indeed good to be the king, at least some of the time, in this second-season set of the Showtime series centering on the life and loves of Henry VIII that concentrates on his tumultuous relationship with Anne Boleyn (Natalie Dormer). Yes, the show is occasionally cheesy and soapy but is infinitely preferable to the unconscionably dull likes of the similarly themed “The Other Boleyn Girl.” Other TV-related DVDs appearing this week include “Battlestar Galactica 4.0” (Universal Home Entertainment. $49.98), “Duckman: Seasons 3 & 4” (CBS DVD. $49.98), “Mannix: The Second Season” (CBS DVD. $49.99), “The Secret Diary of a Call Girl--Season One” (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $29.98) and “Transformers: Season 2” (Paramount Home Video. $26.98).

THE WACKNESS (Sony Home Entertainment. $28.96): In what proved to be another in the long line of films to inexplicably attract some enthusiastic audiences at the Sundance Film Festival, only to completely crap out once they are viewed in a less hectic and more oxygen-rich environment, an eclectic cast (including Ben Kingsley, Josh Peck, Famke Janssen, Mary-Kate Olsen and column crush object Olivia Thirlby) and director Jonathan Levine (making his long-awaited follow-up to his still-unreleased “All the Boys Love Mandy Lane”) teamed up for an uncommonly dull reenactment of that heady time period known as the early 1990’s by following an aimless teen pot dealer (Peck) who finds himself falling for the spoiled stepdaughter (Thirlby, who gives the film its only real signs of life) of the shrink (Kingsley) with whom he trades weed for psychiatric advice in a story that contained all the excitement and flavor of a flat Zima. Unless you are a stone Thirlby obsessive or have an inexplicable yen to see what a James Toback film might be like in the hands of someone who isn’t James Toback, you can skip this one with a clear conscience.

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originally posted: 01/09/09 09:57:46
last updated: 01/09/09 10:47:54
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