Thursday, April 14, 2011

InRO Feature: Home Movies - March (2011)

"Although Eclipse wins the pick of the month with their top-notch release of Mikio Naruse’s silent films and Criterion continually knocks our socks off, it's hard not to proclaim March 'The Month of Raro Video': Raro, an arthouse distributor not unlike Criterion, in Italy, landed on these shores this month to start unloading titles they've been specializing in for years elsewhere. Exploring the four films of Raro’s “Fernando Di Leo Crime Collection” was like discovering a whole new world that existed only in pastiche and appropriation; and at a cool 25 bucks, there is imply no reason not to own this four DVD set. On the other side of the proverbial coin, Raro also released Frederico Fellini’s obscure and esoteric made-for-TV ‘documentary’ “The Clowns.” Part novelty and part self-critic, “The Clowns” oddly brought a new perspective to Jacques Rivette’s most recent film, “Around a Small Mountain,” also out this month from Cinema Guild. Also on Raro’s recent roster, but not reviewed here: Antonioni’s “The Vanquished” and Francesco Barilli’s suspense-thriller “The Perfume of the Lady in Black.” If March is any indicator, Raro is one to watch." Kathie Smith [Feature by Jordan Cronk and Kathie Smith] [InRO]

(Note: For archiving purposes, I've included my personal contributions to this column below. Please follow the link provided above to read the entire feature - JC)

Yi Yi: A One and a Two [Criterion; Region A]

As we continue to wait patiently for Criterion to announce the addition of the immortal “A Brighter Summer Day” to the collection, they’ve partially sated Edward Yang diehards with this Blu-ray update of the Taiwanese new-wave pioneer’s final film—and final masterpiece—“Yi Yi: A One and a Two.” Yang would sadly pass away only six years after the release of this film, and despite not being an intended career capstone, "Yi Yi" manages to nevertheless represent a full reconciliation of the director’s many preoccupations—whether marked by the presence of an ever-persevering family unit, the precocity of youth, or the vital maturation of said generation, Yang’s unparalleled sympathy with the contemporary middle class is infused into every inch of this three-hour swan song. Charting the lives of an extended family over the course of a single year, Yang weaves characters and stories with the ease of Altman and the intimacy of Ozu. In fact, this may be the most intimate epic of the last decade-plus, with each carefully drawn character imbued with enough personality and dramatic interests to potentially sustain their own individual film. "Yi Yi's" narrative sprawls forth from this humanity, depicting life in all its inherent joy and tragedy, and all this without ever once approaching melodrama. This restraint yields maximum emotional impact at carefully spotted intervals—the most devastating being the film’s unforgettable final image as the family’s young son Yang-Yang—who plays something of an audience surrogate throughout, snapping pictures of various characters while conveniently finding himself amidst various familial quarrels—pays homage to his deceased grandmother with a maturity years his senior.

Criterion haven’t expanded supplement-wise on their original DVD in any way—this is basically just a ported Blu-ray—but there were quite a few worthwhile extras in that first incarnation. The one to cherish most is the commentary track by Asian film scholar Tony Rayns and Edward Yang himself; together they illuminate many of the themes and motifs in the film, and helpfully contextualize its relation to Yang’s prior work, most of which sadly remains out of circulation. The only other extra, besides a Kent Jones essay in the booklet, remains Rayns’s essential video interview regarding the New Taiwanese Cinema, in which he outlines the cinematic and political histories of this loose affiliation of directors—Yang, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang, and others—as well as the themes and styles which link them. In terms of picture quality, the film advances in all the expected areas from the DVD, with the 1080p transfer more accurately reflecting Yang’s conscious use of color while enriching black levels and tightening contrast. This is one of the essential films of the new millennium, and if you don’t own the original DVD, then an essential, no-questions-asked purchase on Blu-ray is required.

Au revoir les enfants [Criterion; Region A]

“Au revoir les enfants” is one of the greatest films about children ever made. That’s not to say, of course, that it is one of the best films for children, but with its backdrop of Nazi-occupied France and the adolescent students attempting survival amidst such atrocious circumstances, it still holds the power—regardless of age—to dramatically alter one’s perception. Directed by Louis Malle, one of the more legitimate French filmmakers not to originate from the Cahiers du Cinema school of film theory, “Au revoir les enfants” marked a return to homegrown moviemaking for the director after a stint working in Hollywood, and it remains one of his most beloved films—for the reasons outlined above, certainly, but also for its extraordinary selection of performances (mostly by children), and its base humanity, all but unrivaled in late-'80s world cinema. The film, which centers on two reluctant-at-first-but soon-inseparable friends, is based on Malle’s own childhood memories, while the central thrust of the narrative—a young Jewish boy hiding out anonymously amidst his schoolmates whilst his headmaster turns a sympathetic eye towards his plight—was lifted verbatim from an actual experience. Malle, who always had an uncanny knack for characterization (see his prior film, the legendary New York talkathon “My Dinner with Andre”), instills much of “Au revoir les enfants’” power in the film’s early scenes of adolescent bonding and day-to-day scholastic camaraderie. Nothing you haven’t seen in dozens of rudimentary come-of-age stories, right? Yet when the story climaxes and the boys’ realities reveal themselves and their destinies become irrevocably altered—along with the audience quickly reconciling the film’s title with a handful of the characters’ forthcoming departures—the film elevates itself beyond mere reminiscence, and toward something approaching pure tragedy.

Criterion’s new Blu-ray is another of their standard upgrades, with the picture quality making the requisite jump (texture, sharpness, and colors all transferring nicely to 1080p) and the soundtrack receiving a nice lossless rendering. As expected, the extras are duplicated from the earlier DVD edition, with a couple of informative interviews—one with Malle biographer Pierre Billard and the other featuring Malle’s wife, Candice Bergan—and a short documentary on the film’s kitchen assistant, Joseph, who was exposed for selling the school’s food on the black market. Also included is an audio interview with Malle recorded at AFI in 1988 that runs for almost an hour, and the entirety of Charlie Chaplin’s short film, “The Immigrant,” which is featured during one of the film’s lighter moments. A trailer and a handsome booklet with essays by Phillip Kemp and Francis J. Murphy round out the package, and just as is the case with most all of these straight Criterion Blu-ray upgrades, it’s more than worthwhile for those who have never added “Au revoir les enfants” to their personal home video library.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind [Walt Disney Studios; Region Free]

There’s a line of dialogue near the climax of Hayao Miyazaki’s “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” that pretty well sums up at least one important aspect of the Japanese animation legend’s thematic concerns. Speaking to a couple of prisoners in anticipation of an oncoming battle between two warring nations for control of the post-apocalyptic wasteland of the film’s title, Queen Kushana wisely declares, “The jungle is killing you, yet you want to live in harmony with it.” Far from subtle, this is still one of the film’s most pointedly allegorical moments. In fact, Miyazaki’s 1984 gem charts many of the courses that he continues to traverse to this very day. It’s tempting, then, to read this as first draft of many of Miyazaki’s later films, particularly 1997's “Princess Mononoke,” but such reductions fail to recognize ‘Nausicaä’ for the majestic display of hand-drawn artistry that it remains. The blunt new-age eco-parables surely could have been curbed, yet ‘Nausicaä’ thrives on its bombast. It’s a message film at heart, but it’s an action film on most all other levels, and the parade of colorful characters, including an impressive display of simultaneously primitive and futuristic creatures, are among Miyazaki’s most lasting creations. Walt Disney Studios— beginning with the digital release of Miyazaki’s most recent film, the charming and curiously underrated “Ponyo”—have embarked on a slow roll-out of the Miyazaki catalogue on Blu-ray. ‘Nausicaä’ is the second of his films to make the jump to HD, and like “Ponyo,” it’s a marvel to behold in this format. Textures are smoothed out, colors look brighter yet truer, and the picture as a whole looks significantly sharper, particularly in motion, which is the main drawback of animated films in standard definition. Disney also continues their commendable animated home video streak by stacking the two-disc set with near-completist levels of special features. The film is offered on both Blu-ray and DVD format (hence the two discs), and the features, which include three documentaries—the self explanatory trio of “Creating Nausicaä,” “Behind the Microphone,” and “The Birth of Studio Ghibli”—are spread across both discs. Rounding out the package is an interactive “Enter the Lands” Blu-ray feature, Japanese trailers and TV spots, and the entire film re-created via storyboards. Needless to say, this is now the definitive way to see one of Miyazaki’s most significant early works, and it bodes well for Disney’s ongoing Miyazaki Blu-ray campaign.

Topsy-Turvy [Criterion; Region A]

Released in 1999, “Topsy-Turvy” came at an interesting interval in Mike Leigh’s career. Not only was he closing out a decade which saw him release a handful of the most acclaimed films of their respective years—see in particular, 1993's seminal “Naked” and 1997's more mainstream breakthrough, “Secrets & Lies”—but was now knee deep in a period where his films were mostly touted by a select few (mostly highbrow critics), but ignored in the grand scheme of the public eye, not to mention a good deal of the indie crowd, which continues to comprise Leigh’s most devoted followers. It’s odd to think, then, that a film as ambitious as “Topsy-Turvy” could have been so under-recognized amidst the restless development of his career. True, this isn’t one of Leigh’s irreproachable classics (at least to these eyes), but it’s one of his most relaxed, free-wheeling entertainments nonetheless. Based on the Gilbert and Sullivan opera troupe of the late 1800s, and in particular on the duo’s formation of their most famous creation, “The Mikado” (which was first filmed under the same title by Victor Schertzinger in 1939, and which is being simultaneously released with “Topsy-Turvy” by Criterion), Leigh’s film unreels casually over the course of two-and-a-half hours, roping in elements of comedy, drama, opera, and musical-theater along the way. Plenty of the Mike Leigh stable of actors are featured as well, including Jim Broadbent, Timothy Spall, Katrin Cartlidge, and recent “Another Year” breakout Lesley Manville, decidedly marking “Topsy-Turvy” as a film not only for Leigh devotees, but also one with the charm and the dedication to historical detail to appeal to demographics wider than originally thought.

Criterion debuts “Topsy-Turvy” on Blu-ray in typically grand style, with an impressive transfer accentuating Leigh’s acute use of color and costumes—the film won Oscars for both its costume design and make-up—and really deepening the field of vision, which was already highly detailed and uncommonly lush. As for supplements, Leigh provides a droll commentary track, and also shows up in a new video interview between himself and musical director Gary Yershon. There’s a shorter making-of doc from the film’s year of release which features Leigh and members of the cast, deleted scenes, and a selection of trailers and TV spots. Leigh’s 1992 short film, “A Sense History,” is also a nice addition, and the illustrated booklet, which features an essay by critic Amy Taubin—who named “Topsy-Turvy” one of the ten best films of 1999—completes the package. I certainly won’t hesitate to recommend this release for fans of the director’s work, in addition to those with an interest in opera and theater, but one’s expectations for Leigh’s normally heavy emotional escapades should be kept in check.

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