Roberto Rossellini, Che, and Paris Texas
Talking Out of Frame:
One month into 2010, and we already have what seems like an embarrassment of riches in terms of DVDs. So, let's just jump in, shall we? Any month where we get new Steven Soderbergh is going to be a good one, but when it's as epic a release as the three-disc Che set from Criterion...well, there's a reason Casey Burchby ranked it in the DVD Talk Collector series. He writes:
"Few twentieth century figures have been so strangely abstracted from the reality of their times as Ernesto 'Che' Guevara. From a young age (I was born 9 years after his execution), I have only known his name and image. The use of Che's visage on posters and T-shirts, and the sloganification of his nickname, say much about the ability of capitalism to use even its supposed enemies for profit - while saying nothing at all about the man. Attempts at film biographies have mostly failed, not counting the recent and much-lauded The Motorcycle Diaries, directed by Walter Salles. Steven Soderbergh's four-and-a-half-hour two-part Spanish-language epic Che is a patient, detailed treatment of two key segments of Che's life, and while it doesn't fully succeed as a revelation of his character, the film does reveal and enliven history with an expert's storytelling technique.
"Soderbergh is an eclectic, enthusiastic filmmaker whose love of his craft is always evident. He is a director comfortable and fluent working in a number of different modes and tones, whether it's the Hollywood polish of Ocean's Eleven and Solaris, or the do-it-yourself indie scruffiness of Schizopolis and Bubble. Che lies somewhere in between. It's a labor of love and determination that finds the director utilizing something close to the journalistic approach of his Oscar-winning Traffic. The film proudly bears the influences of Francesco Rosi, Gillo Pontecorvo, and Costa-Gavras. The tone is always realistic and character-oriented. You won't find narrative or stylistic flourishes here. We are down in the grit with these people. We feel the pressure of encroaching soldiers, the desperation of near-starved guerrillas, and the calm still soul of Che guiding his men and their actions by example.
"These directorial choices reveal that Soderbergh's film looks upon Che Guevara with empathy, as a man who was driven by certain unwavering ideals. This will rile those who knew the real Che as less than saintly. Soderbergh has chosen his approach for a reason, however, and the film doesn't intend to fool us into icon-worship. In the film, Che is convincing as a character of unique, morally uncompromising strengths; yet in the storytelling, we see the weaknesses within and the ultimate failure of Guevara's belief that he alone could instigate and guide effective revolutionary warfare.
"The success of this portrayal is assisted in no small way by Benicio del Toro's quiet, controlled, inward performance. Del Toro submits himself to the character as egolessly as the Che he portrays would have had it - there are no great actorly 'moments' in Che. There are three or four scenes when Guevara exhibits naked emotion, and even those are restrained. Del Toro never indulges in theatricality, keeping his Che on an even keel; the character is guided only by an ideal - perhaps idealized - vision of himself." (Also peep Jason Bailey's Blu-Ray review.)
It's difficult to compete with the scope of Che, but sometimes a very human movie can feel just as epic. Take the Wim Wenders drama Paris, Texas, which Burchby calls "a film of countless pleasures. Every moment generates a sense that anything is possible - that feeling we all hope for from the movies, but is so rarely delivered. From the wide open spaces of the American Southwest to the Los Angeles suburbs at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, the film tracks the physical and emotional journey of a damaged man who struggles to put the pieces of his life back in their proper place. In the lead role, Harry Dean Stanton delivers a performance of unmitigated perfection - a weathered image of a man who self-destructed but lived to tell about it. As Wenders takes us through deserts, mountains, and cities, he shows us some of the subtle ways in which the American landscape has defines the character and fate of American people.
"A lone figure wanders across a beautiful but desolate wasteland in South Texas. Out of water, he stumbles into a tiny settlement - not big enough to be a town - and collapses. The doctor who revives him calls a number in the man's pocket, belonging to Walter Henderson (Dean Stockwell). Walt rushes from his home in LA to collect the man - his long-lost brother Travis (Stanton). Travis doesn't talk to Walt until they are well into their drive back to LA, and even then doesn't explain his whereabouts for the four years he's been missing - and presumed dead by Walt, his wife Anne (Aurore Clement), and Travis's son Hunter (Hunter Carson), who has lived with Walt and Anne since Travis's disappearance. Back in LA, Travis struggles to make sense of his situation, and to get to know his son, now nearly eight years old. Finally Travis decides to track down Hunter's mother, Jane (Nastassja Kinski), and takes his son on a road trip back to Texas to find her. The screenplay, a delicate work by L.M. Kit Carson and Sam Shepherd, provides a probing framework for powerful performances and the striking photography by frequent Wenders collaborator, Robby Müller. I think it's fair to say that Müller's work on Paris, Texas not only influenced a generation of photographers, but has trickled down to every facet of photographic media, including music videos and fashion magazines. This is the look of the 'modern' American West, where rusted automobiles, dilapidated buildings, and human beings themselves are dominated and reclaimed by the forces of nature. The landscape, despite the best efforts of people to stake their claim to it, always wins."
Another drama on the human scale is Kenneth Bi's The Drummer, a 2007 Chinese film just released by Film Movement. In that film, Sid (Jaycee Chan) is the rebellious teenage son of Kwan, a mid-level Hong Kong gangster (Tony Leung Ka Fai). When not pissing off his dad, he plays drums in a rock band--though even this activity is meant to get under the old man's skin. It's at one of the band's shows that Sid comes across Carmen (Hei-Yi Cheng), the moll of his dad's boss, and decides to bed her. Too bad the top dog, Stephen Ma (Kenneth Tsang), catches wind of their steamy rendezvous. He demands that Sid's father remove his son's hands as payback. Though Kwan is a monster and a nutjob, this is too heinous and crazy even for him, and so he sends Sid to hide out in Taiwan with his best man, Chiu (Roy Cheung). But what Sid finds in Taiwan proves more important than what sent him there. On a hike with Chiu, the boy stumbles on a camp where a group of monk-like beat worshipers practice the art of Zen drumming. Attracted both by the intensity of the drum circle, and by the pretty face of drummer girl Hong Dou (Angelica Lee), he decides to join their group and become part of the music. Only, it's not exactly as advertised. The group leaders have him schlepping water, making soup, and just about everything but drumming. You see, to drum, first you must not drum. Sid's absence causes people back home to re-prioritize, and though everything doesn't necessarily work out for the best, the boy and his family come to some real understanding. Sid's spiritual transformation is also very convincing, and he makes the right choices to avoid going down the same path as his father.
Second on the disc for The Drummer is a short animated film from Sweden. In Love and War, director Frederik Emilson works with puppets to tell the tale of Bunny and Bear, star-crossed lovers who meet at a time of war. Bear is a fighter pilot, and he must go into battle, where danger and possibly death await him. The story is told entirely through music, from courtship through the fighting and into the bittersweet ending. The puppets have limited movement, but that works well with the operatic storytelling--literally operatic, as all the dialogue is sung. What is not communicated in the song is communicated instead by gesture. Emilson does well with the romance, and even manages to inject a little humor, and the unique art style makes up for the fact that the puppet battles aren't very exciting. I might have actually liked Love and War better than The Drummer when it comes down to it.
Cameron McGaughy was also mesmerized by the French character study Give Me Your Hand: "If you find yourself asleep--or yelling at the screen--at the end of Give Me Your Hand, you only have yourself to blame. Knowing that it's French is ample warning, and for many viewers I imagine the film (a.k.a. Donne-moi la main) will be too slow, empty and (sometimes) annoying to enjoy. There's minimal dialogue--the first words (a prophetic 'We're lost...') aren't spoken until more than six minutes into the film, which is filled with long stretches of quiet. There's also very little character development (we don't even learn the names of the two protagonists until 35 and 52 minutes in) and action, and the ending will most likely leave you unfulfilled.
"So why did I like it so much? There's something hypnotic about the visuals constructed by director Pascal-Alex Vincent and cinematographer Alexis Kavyrchine, who have weaved together a mesmerizing 72-minute poem. There's a dark yet beautiful tone to the film, brought to life by the haunting performances of real-life twins Alexandre and Victor Carril. They play young twins Antoine (Alexandre) and Quentin (Victor), who we slowly learned have left their humble French home--and their father, a baker--on a road trip to Spain. They hike their way through the dark yet beautiful countryside en route to the funeral of their mother--a woman they never knew (a plot point the film shares far too soon, robbing it of a more intense ending)." Casey concludes, "...it's all about setting a mood open to interpretation. The lead performances--built more around expression and movement--are suitably intense, taking you on an emotional journey as you try to piece together their past and their future. Not much happens in Give Me Your Hand, which will frustrate most viewers--and an unsatisfying ending may annoy the rest of you. Still, I was surprisingly involved with this quiet, visually arresting film, one filled with mystery, anger, sexual intensity and love."
Director Chantal Akerman takes us on a journey of her own, one that is creative and personally expressive, in the boxed set Chantal Akerman in the Seventies - Eclipse Series 19. There are five films here: Le chambre, Hotel Monterey, News from Home, Je tu il elle, and Les rendez-vous d'Anna. When the young Beligan artist left home to go to New York in the early '70s, it started her on a pilgrimage that required her to travel great distances both physically and artistically. Across the films, we see a developing talent that is grappling with the idea of space and time, as well as wrestling issues about her own identity and how she relates to others. The first short film, Le chambre, features Akerman all alone in a small apartment, while the last movie, Les rendez-vous d'Anna, is a semi-autobiographical tale of a nomad-like film director on a journey toward home.
At the end of News from Home, an affecting juxtaposition of real footage from New York with actual letters written by Akerman's mother wondering when her little girl will return to Brussels, there is an extended shot of leaving New York City. Filmed from the back of a boat, we watch as the traveler gets farther and farther from the shore. It's one move in a journey that began prior to La chambre when Akerman left Belgium for the Big Apple. It's one that is turned to metaphor in Je tu il elle, and that is completed by the cycle of the successful filmmaker Anna passing through various stops in her life in Les rendez-vous d'Anna. The mother's letters receive their response and personal questions about art and sexuality and personal connections are at least broached, if not answered. The result is a radical redefining of cinema, one that stretches its boundaries and shows us a truly unique point of view in full bloom.
Jason Bailey gives us an evaluation of another artistic transplant with his review of An Englishman in New York. He says it is "a slight, minor work, but it is absolutely worth seeing as a showcase for a brilliant John Hurt performance. Quentin Crisp, the famed writer, raconteur, and all-around gay icon, is a role Hurt has played before (the 1975 TV version of Crisp's The Naked Civil Servant was a breakthrough role for the British thesp), but he brings to it the full skill of his decades as an actor; it's a snappy, razor-sharp performance, full of bitchy charm and devilish grins. It's also a warm, likable turn that pauses for pathos without clobbering the audience. If only the movie were having as much fun as he is. They're sometimes in sync, particularly in the opening scenes, which find Crisp arriving in New York in the early 1980s, thoroughly delighted by what he sees--he struts through the village to the sounds of Donna Summer and Rhinoceros, his voice-over assuring us that 'without her outcasts, the metropolis would be a very dull place indeed.' Brian Fillis' screenplay has moments of punchy exhilaration, but it often verges on didacticism; Cynthia Nixon is compulsively watchable as performance artist Penny Arcade, but her first set of scenes are written like position papers. And Fillis doesn't trust his own subtext. An early scene finds Crisp, at a cocktail party, failing miserably to connect with a young gay man who has been told to admire him. The awkwardness of their encounter is palpable, but that's not good enough--he has to walk away with a friend and sneer 'Welcome to the 1980s' under his breath.
"Director Richard Laxton has some difficulty staging big scenes. The theatrical sequences are too clean and easy; the Q&As feel scripted and tightly controlled instead of spontaneous (which they presumably were), and when that one goes wrong, the direction is too on-the-nose. The entire audience turns immediately, shaking their heads and muttering and overacting like extras in a high school play. It's a major moment in the plot (as it should be), but it's handled with the clumsiness of an amateur. In smaller, quieter scenes he fares much better; he appears to like actors, and is smart enough to stay out of Hurt's way...However, Laxton finds exactly the right nimble tone in the closing scenes, and has the good sense to hold that tone for as long as possible. Its final moments are just perfect, and they, along with Sting's closing title song (it's from his 1987 album ...Nothing Like The Sun and is based on Crisp, who was casual friends with the singer), leaves the viewer with a warmth and good cheer that the film may not have entirely earned."
Familiar stories can also make for intriguing transplants, as Jeremy Mathews finds with Jerichow. "Like a new interpretation of an old song, Christian Petzold's Jerichow twists a familiar tune and entrances with surprising variations. The setup recollects The Postman Always Rings Twice and Ossessione, but Petzold translates it to modern times and modifies the story's structure and essence into something fresh that's consistently compelling and suspenseful. He creates three main characters who are both mysterious and vivid, and slowly moves them toward a devastating finale.
"The film's anti-hero, Thomas (Benno Fürmann) isn't a drifter, but a man cornered in the German town where grew up, imprisoned by debts and roots. The excellent opening sequence finds his mother's funeral interrupted by an angry friend and/or money-lender who seeks to confirm that Thomas has no funds with which to renovate his childhood home or begin a new life. Thomas is the quiet sort, one who, for most of the film, seems resigned to go wherever life takes him. He soon finds himself working for Ali (Hilmi Sözer), an alcoholic Turkish businessman who runs a series of snack stands. He has driven his car off the road enough times that he now needs Thomas to drive for him. Ali enjoys being a big shot, and enjoys calling attention to Thomas's interest in his wife, Laura (Nina Hoss). But inevitably Thomas and Laura's interest will evolve into something deeper.
"Writer/director Petzold has a keen eye for striking visuals that accentuate the tension of his scenarios. He understands not only each character's relation to one another, but how to demonstrate it, often revealing more in one shot than many filmmakers do in 10. The simple matter of someone entering or leaving the frame alters the dynamics so dramatically that it's hard to ignore the impact these people have on each other's lives."
Jeremy also finds the joys of old tales recontextualized in Nina Paley's wonderful animated feature Sita Sings the Blues. "Myths and legends have a way of reinventing themselves. As they travel from place to place, they're retold in new ways, with different variations and emphases that reveal as much about their teller as the characters in the story. Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues manages not only to give new perspective to the centuries-old Indian Ramayana epic, but to do so in a fun, constantly inventive way.
"Made almost entirely by Paley on her Mac, the film proves that anyone with the proper skills and sensibilities can make a great-looking computer-animated feature without the mammoth staff and render farms of a Pixar production. Paley wisely avoided comparison by not trying to compete with 100-million-dollar 3D extravaganzas. Instead, she used flash to create a potpourri of style, feeding off a century of tradition to create a film entirely her own. She repeatedly cycles through three modes, effectively telling each chapter through a discussion of the Ramayana and its various incarnations, a musical number culled from an old recording by the charming (and in most circles forgotten) 1920s blues singer Annette Hanshaw, and a parallel modern-day story of her breakup with her husband. Semi-psychedelic interludes, one with a wild roto-scoped dance sequence, punctuate the proceedings.
"Due to the prohibitive cost of licensing the compositions that Hanshaw sings, Sita Sings the Blues almost never received a proper release. But lucky for us, Paley found a way to release the film for free over the internet, raise money and eventually distribute her film in art-house theaters. It may have been a long journey, like Sita's, but it was worth the effort."
From recycling stories to recycling for the environment, we next have a documentary called No Impact Man. Jason Bailey tells us, "Colin Beavan's heart is in the right place, but you can see how he'd be a little insufferable. No Impact Man is the documentary account of how he decided that he was going to spend one year making no environmental impact. He did it as an experiment, and also to provide himself with subject matter (Beavan is an author--he kept a blog throughout the project and just published a book about the experience); more importantly, it gave the self-proclaimed 'guilty liberal' the chance to put his money where his mouth is.
"The rules of the 'no impact' year are multitude: no automated transportation (biking only), no non-local food, no material consumption, no new clothes, no trash generation, no packaging. No meat and no television (there's the part where you'd have to count me out). Six months in, no electricity. And (gulp) no toilet paper. What keeps No Impact Man, directed by Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein, from descending into the well-intentioned but dull rhythms of most liberal eco-docs is the fact that Colin doesn't take on the experiment alone: he also has a two-year old daughter (she's charming and good on camera, which helps) and a wife, Michelle, who writes for Business Week and loves her retail and Starbuck's coffees. Her presence in the picture is absolutely invaluable; she's funny and interesting, and provides a valuable counterpoint, particularly in the early scenes.
"The picture doesn't really come to a definite ending--it ends more with a dash than a period--but I prefer that kind of modest, unassuming ending to the moralizing and monologues of something like Super Size Me (which the filmmakers pinpoint as an influence)...Worth a look, particularly by those who are down with the cause."
The Hurt Locker is all about impact--the imapct of explosions, how to stop them, and what might happen if you don't. Casey Burchby calls it "...an intense war picture that balances gripping suspense with thoughtful character development while eschewing the politics of the highly divisive war that it documents. As with most great war movies, this is one of its biggest strengths. There was a time when it was understood that war was simply hell - and that relative considerations of a war's justness or legitimacy paled beside that naked, raw reality. The Iraq War has been the subject of nonstop politicized abstraction - but The Hurt Locker does us the service of bringing the hellishness back to the surface.
"The film follows a three-man bomb disposal unit (technically an EOD, or Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit) with the Army's Bravo Company in Baghdad circa 2004. After the unit's leader is killed, Sgt. Will James (Jeremy Renner) joins the group. The others, Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Spc. Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), are put off by James' reckless methods. Tensions mount as James insists upon suiting up and approaching ordinance in person, manhandling explosives and placing himself unnecessarily in harm's way, instead of sending in a sophisticated bomb disposal robot. The stakes are ratcheted up when James comes to believe that a young boy who sells DVDs at the base has been killed by insurgents; this leads to an increasingly risky series of events that results in Eldridge sustaining a leg wound and being shipped out. As Sanborn and especially Eldridge show increasing signs of having been broken down by the war, James remains resolutely enthusiastic about his work.
"The script by Mark Boal is alternately patient and punchy. Dialogue is appropriately sparse yet effective. Character development is parceled out in tiny pinpointed doses. Director Kathryn Bigelow - whose sense of the military is both more charitable and more realistic than her ex-husband's bizarre, fetishistic mistrust of the armed forces - allows the longer set-pieces to develop slowly, downplaying unexpected moments, rendering them far more effective. I'm thinking specifically of sequences in which James pulls a pistol on an errant taxi cab driver who finds himself in the middle of a disposal perimeter, and the scene in which James carefully directs Sanborn as he picks off snipers miles across the desert floor. Patience and restraint of the type Bigelow displays here is exactly what make suspense play on film, and is in direct opposition to the offensively overblown carnival of horseshit thrown in our faces by the likes of Michael Bay."
Impact is also the focus of another documentary that Jason Bailey reviewed, though Brick City is interested in people who make an impact, but ones who do something rather than doing nothing to have a positive effect on their community. "The electrifying 2005 documentary Street Fight introduced filmgoers to Cory Booker, the young underdog mounting an uphill battle for the Newark mayor's post against 16-year officeholder Sharpe James (a corrupt member of the political 'old boys' network,' later convicted of five counts of fraud). In 2008, filmmakers Mark Benjamin and Marc Levin (Slam) went to Newark to embark on a multi-faceted documentary portrait of the city in flux, focusing not only on Booker's progressive administration, but the attempts to change the city's fates from within the police department, school system, and gangs. The resulting miniseries, Brick City, is a fast-paced, fascinating look at the complexities of city government and urban life; multiple critics dubbed it a nonfiction version of The Wire...it's an accurate (and deserved) comparison. The five one-hour installments span from Spring 2008 through the historic November election, as Booker watched another charismatic young African-American with an impressive academic history and a gift for oratory ascend to the highest office in the land.
"The show's six months in the life of the city are seen, probably accurately, as a series of crises and potential disasters: shootings, arrests, gang warfare, budget shortfalls, politics and in-fighting at the police department, and a looming, possibly unfeasible opening date for a new high school ten years (and $100 million) in the making. There are some concerns up front that the filmmakers are trying to take on too much, and doing it too fast, in too fragmented a style--we have to work a little to keep up. But once we have our bearings, the series draws the viewer in; it is gripping, riveting, intelligent television, and by the second episode, even something as seemingly mundane as a budget meeting makes for a compelling scene. The directors' only real misstep is in their use of occasional visual trickery (like slo-mo and faux-step printing); the filmmaking is so seamless otherwise, this unnecessary stylization calls attention to itself.
"The various disparate elements are pulled together in the show's knockout final hour, which juggles the city council race (in which the Booker-endorsed candidate faces off against the Sharp James-ish Charlie Bell), the Obama campaign, and the 'Blood Initiation Day' (with the gang announcing a goal of 25 murders) with real urgency and power. Principal Baraka speaks plainly, openly, and heatedly to his students, telling them that the dangers and odds that they face on a daily basis 'doesn't mean you're tough, it means you're oppressed.' It's a stunning moment, the kind of speech that any actor worth his salt would sell his soul to deliver in a film. The fact that this is no actor, but a dedicated educator who faces these problems every day, makes it all the more powerful"
Politics as performance, to true perfomance. Bailey also reviews Passing Strange, a new documentary from the increasingly versatile Spike Lee that Jason calls "a thrilling, energetic performance film of the vibrant Broadway musical...[Passing Strange] only ran 165 performances (symptomatic of a Broadway environment where critical kudos are seemingly less important than big stars or recycling of material). Lee was taken by the show, however, so he and his cinematographer, the brilliant Matthew Libatique (Iron Man, The Fountain), took their cameras to the Belasco Theatre to capture the show's final performances in July 2008.
"Singer/songwriter 'Stew,' with the backing of a terrific on-stage rock band (including his collaborator Heidi Rodewald), narrates his story. It begins in South Central Los Angeles in 1976, where the his 'Youth' alter ego (Daniel Breaker) decides to shake off his roots (and his loving mother, beautifully played by Eisa Davis) to pursue his dreams of musical stardom. He becomes obsessed with punk rock, and decides to broaden his horizons in Europe. First he visits Amsterdam, where he is intoxicated by the lax attitudes towards drugs and sex (of the latter, he sings: 'I love that they're so nonchalant/ About the only thing I want'). In the second act, he ventures to Berlin, where he is drawn into the underground political art scene; he amps up (and fibs about) his background for street cred, but is ultimately drawn to reassess his trajectory and sense of self.
"Passing Strange gets considerable mileage out of its inventive, funny book and clever lyrics--early on, for example, Stew sings that he's reached a good place for 'a showtune/ an upbeat, gonna-leave-town kind of showtune/ but we don't know how to write that kind of tune...' The use of the older musician and his younger counterpart is ingenious (he comments and interacts with his alter ego), while the staging is inventive and dynamic. And the music is just miraculous--memorable, soulful, wonderful."
Casey Burchby tackles a tale of fandom gone wrong in his review of Big Fan: "For some, an allegiance to sports teams comprises a big part of their identity. I continually encounter individuals who know more about their beloved baseball or football franchises than they know about their spouses. Self-identifying members of the 'Raiders Nation' or 'Colts Nation' exude a quasi-patriotic fervor that can at times be alienating and downright frightening to those on the outside. First-time director Robert Siegel's Big Fan asks a lot of questions about the limits - or lack thereof - of one sports fan's loyalty to his team, casting a darkly satirical eye on this dominant feature of American culture.
"Patton Oswalt plays Paul Aufiero, a Staten Island parking lot attendant and die-hard fan of the New York Giants. Paul's nightly routine is to compose long, enthusiastic calls into a late-night sports radio talk show, which he makes after his shift. These are usually barbed responses to a caller known as 'Philadelphia Phil' (Michael Rapaport), a supporter of the Giants' rivals, the Philadelphia Eagles. Paul and his best - and only - friend, Sal (Kevin Corrigan), go to Giants games but stay in the parking lot watching them on TV. One night, the pair spot Giants quarterback Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan - not Jon - Hamm) in a Manhattan strip club and a misunderstanding leads a drunken Bishop to beat Paul within an inch of his life. Paul's devotion to the team, however, means that he refuses to divulge details of the assault, which releases Bishop from league suspension.
"Siegel's dark script keeps the satirical elements of the story embedded in Oswalt's character. It's a solid approach that makes for appropriately uncomfortable comedy. Oswalt's performance is very good, although the cadences of his stand-up persona occasionally sneak into an otherwise convincing portrayal. Corrigan is one of several actors who lend authentic, restrained support to Oswalt's lead. His Sal is another loser, but more of a hapless sidekick to the more aggressive, articulate Paul. Oswalt's round, bestubbled face is harshly-lit and unflattering. Paul's surroundings are dingy and he doesn't take care of himself. The photographic style has a washed-out look favored by filmmakers looking for an unpleasantly-heightened reality. It's a common approach that nevertheless works well here. The film is short and punchily directed by Siegel, whose debut is auspicious, entertaining, and constructively subversive."
Completely different than much of what we have been seeing here this month is Goodbye Gemini. Ian Jane reviews this 1960s cult movie: "Alan Gibson, best known for his output for Hammer Studios which included the infamous Dracula A.D. 1972, directs this quirky tale of twenty-year old twin siblings Jacki (Judy Geeson) and Julian (Martin Potter). The pair is a bit out there, almost on their own planet, and they don't really seem to feel much of a connection to anyone in the outside world. After playing a cruel prank on their landlady that winds up sending her to the hospital, they head out to a pub where a drag show is in progress. Here they meet a young man named Clive Landseer (Alexis Kanner), a swinging type who invites the pair out along with one of his female companions for the night. When Clive sets his sights on Jacki, Julian proves to be a very jealous thorn in his side and to get him out of the picture at a party one night, Clive gets him drunk and sends him off with two 'women' who turn out to be drag queens. Before Julian realizes what's happened, Clive's taken a series of photographs which he'll use to blackmail Julian for the cash he needs to pay off his bookie.
"More of a mod-style thriller than a flat out horror film like Gibson's Hammer offerings were, this movie works well both as a piece of psychologically twisted storytelling and as a time capsule of the London that was in its swinging heyday. Astrology, go-go dancing, cross-dressing and the big beat sound that was popular at the time all collide under Gibson's guidance and the mixture turns out to be quite good indeed. You almost get the impression that this was being filmed around the corner from where mod-mondo movie Primitive London was being shot, as it has the same sort of fashion conscious and (at the time) trendy aesthetic to it. By today's standards, it's horribly dated, but that's half the charm of the picture in a nutshell and exactly what gives it its time capsule qualities."
And just as we began this month, so do we end, with the scope of history told on a human scale. Criterion has really knocked it out of the park with their new boxed set Roberto Rossellini's War Trilogy. Watching this collection doesn't feel like you're just watching movies, but like you are watching history. The history of cinema, to be sure, but also a bonafide historical document. The films contained herein--Rome Open City, Paisan, and Germany Year Zero--were made between 1945 and 1948. They were shot on location, documenting the ravages of World War II by setting the drama in the bombed-out ruins of Italy and Germany. Working with many non-professional actors, operating on a shoestring budget and often shooting with scraps of film, this is the birth of Italian Neorealism.
From what we can gather from what the director said about these films, his intention with the War Trilogy was to make sure that the people remembered. Moving on from what happened was useless unless we remember what happened, and so while much of what is portrayed in Roberto Rossellini's War Trilogy is bleak, it's not unnecessarily so. Also, given the faith that Rossellini had in the power of cinematic images, he likely knew that filmgoers would walk away with the more hopeful messages tucked away in their hearts. The resistance fighters in Rome Open City, the people offering aid to one another in Paisan, even Eva hanging on to her principles when it would be so much easier to do otherwise in Germany Year Zero--these positives dominate over the negatives. Granted, we have the benefit of history to know where it will all go, but we also have the knowledge that history does repeat, having seen that governments and their people can still go in the wrong direction. Some will always refuse to learn from past mistakes, and we can only cross our fingers that there will always be more people like Roberto Rossellini and those he portrays that will do everything they can to stop the bad guys from getting away with it.
I ranked this group of movies in the DVD Talk Collector Series because Roberto Rossellini's War Trilogy - Criterion Collection is amongst the best of the best. Its like a treasure chest and a time capsule all in one! The packaging is fantastic, and the supplemental features are an extensive excavation into this compelling project. It belongs in any cinephile's collection.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. His most recent work is the forthcoming hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, drawn by the incomparable Joelle Jones. This follows his first original graphic novel with Jones, 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, all published by Oni Press. His next project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.
Special thanks to Jason Bailey, Casey Burchby, Ian Jane, and Jeremy Mathews for their contributions.
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