A few DVD buys this week: Super 8, The Devil's Double (see below), The Pillow Book, and The Wrestler.
DVDs: Strap yourselves in, I overdid it a bit this week. First off, I watched Ferris Bueller's Day Off, the kind of movie that used to play on television so much, it's strange to hear it with the strong language. I kinda wish the sanitized track was available, just because it was so hilariously bad (another movie that stands out in my mind for the same reason is Die Hard 2). Ferris Bueller was never my favorite John Hughes movie - I just don't think the script is sharp enough - but it does have a great ending. And having seen it so many times, I tried to apply the "Ferris is just a figment of Cameron's imagination" filter to it, and while it doesn't really work (the movie's just not cooperating), those so inclined will find evidence to support that thesis (look especially at the parade sequence and the Cameron-Sloane relationship there). The DVD has some good, retrospective extras, with interviews from everyone involved, either from the time or recently, looking back. Behind the scenes footage, deleted scenes and goofy interviews conducted between the cast members add to the fun.
Though I'd seen The Draughtsman's Contract back in college when I was discovering art-house director Peter Greenaway, his first feature didn't at the time strike me as one of his most interesting. I mostly bought it to see if Zeitgeist Video's re-releases would be worthwhile. The answer to that is yes, at least. I also liked the film better this time around. The story: An 18th-century artist agrees to draw a wealthy household in exchange for sexual favors from the lady of the house, and he gets embroiled in a murder mystery for which he may end up the patsy. The look of the film is very stiff because Greenaway was applying a painterly approach, and the witty dialogue seems pulled from Restoration drama/comedy. So I understand the barriers that made my 20-year-old self lose interest. Historically interesting because Greenaway's usual theme of an artist being consumed by his art can be found in the rest of work, Contract also provides an unusual mystery, but not a pat solution. It's there in the clues, but there's no scene where all is explained. The DVD features a useful director's commentary (and video introduction), deleted scenes, behind the scenes footage, vintage interviews, a demonstration of how the film was restored for DVD, and a too-technical (but intriguing) interview with composer Michael Nyman. I'll be getting other Zeitgeist releases of Greenaway's work.
The Gangs of New York is a strange film indeed. We're used to westerns, and I suppose to urban films set in the same period among the middle or upper classes. Perhaps that's why the New York underworld of the mid-19th century feels so bizarre, although Scorsese does admit to having gone for a heightened, operatic feel. It's a mix of almost anal historical accuracy and fantasy opera, and the two styles don't sit well together. I think it's because we don't know enough about the setting going in. When you know something well, you can appreciate a stylized, exaggerated version of it. Here, even with the DVD extras to help you, it's very hard to grasp what's what, and the setting is fantastic enough that it probably didn't need the embellishments. If you imagine Scorsese's gangster films to exist in the same universe, then Gangs of New York is the precursor to them all. The DVD includes a director's commentary edited from in-depths interviews, and making of material that mostly explores set design (they built a huge piece of New York in Italy, it's pretty impressive), costuming and the true history of the Gangs. A Discovery Channel piece does the best job of chronicling both that history and how it was put on film. A U2 video completes the package.
Speaking of gangster films set in weird places, The Devil's Double is a biopic about the body double of Saddam Hussein's psychotic son, Uday. Playing out against the events of the 80s and early 90s, it really does treat Iraq's first family as gangsters, and Uday is their depraved and very violent loose canon. Uday's atrocities are rather brutal and shocking, even in bad taste, but they are a matter of public record (not that the film doesn't take a lot of creative license with the material). Dominic Cooper plays the dual role, about as far as he can get from his recent turn as Howard Stark in Captain America, and knocks it out of the park. Cinema has become so good at "doubles" that you can easily forget it's the same actor and not, say, Dominic's twin. Iraq is played by Jordan and Malta, which is probably less convincing to those who know, but the conceit is understandable. It's an intriguing story, well played in an exotic locale. The DVD includes a director's commentary that focuses on technical and budgetary issues more than historical ones, but proves a balanced account of the production. There's also standard making of material (behind the scenes footage and interviews), and a brief but interesting piece on the real body double, now living in Ireland.
I'm flipping my DVDs more or less in alphabetical order right now, so when I got to Gattaca, a favorite SF thriller from the 90s, I thought it couldn't really surprise me. But I'd actually forgotten some twists, so I was happy to revisit it this week. The look of the film is gorgeous, taking noir into a near future that is probably more relevant today than it was in 1997. Haven't heard much about stem cells lately (but the U.S. elections are coming up, so maybe soon), but the idea of doctors manipulating your child's DNA to realize a fuller potential is no doubt scientifically closer on the horizon. And of course, by giving in a noir, fascist architecture kind of feel, it makes the story more universal, evoking eugenics and segregation issues from the past century. It's hard now to get your head around the fact this was Jude Law's film debut, because he already comes off as the smooth actor he would soon become. The rest of the cast is just as stellar. The DVD has very Hollywood vintage featurette, but also a making of with interviews made recently and discussions on the science behind the fiction. Plus, deleted scenes and one outtake.
I like the fact that Stephen Soderbergh makes big movies like Ocean's Eleven to finance smaller, experimental projects, and I like it even when the experiment fails. The Girlfriend Experience, starring porn star Sasha Grey and many non-actors, is about a high-end escort who provides an intimate and unique service AND is in an (albeit open) committed relationship at the same time. It's shot in a strict documentary style, though no camera would ever have been allowed in those situations, and allows the "actors" to improvise guided conversations (similar to Bubble). I admire the non-linear editing the most, but quite frankly, many sequences come across as tedious. Most of "Christine"'s clients are rich businessmen who only talk about the crumbling economy (so I guess tedium is in part the point) and I find little as boring as real life business talk. It gets better in the last act, enough for a recommendation, but the documentary stiffness and dull conversations up front make this film hard to get through. The commentary track features both Soderbergh and Grey, and includes an interesting discussion of adult filmmaking vs. more mainstream work, and a completely different edit of the film that uses less whining about the economy and which I consequently like better. If I'd watched that first, I'd have been inclined to be a fan. Or perhaps the more I'm exposed to the film, the more nuances I get and the better I like it in any edit. Not sure. The DVD also includes a brief featurette that, aside from a couple of interview nuggets, is basically a trailer for the film.
The Good German is another Soderbergh experiment, this one stylistic. The idea was to do a 1940s Hollywood picture in the same way these would have been done at the time. The aspect ratio, sound, lighting, camera work, filters, acting style, use of locations and sets, even the casting of major stars (Cate Blanchett is especially convincing), ape the era (I do wish the DVD had some kind of feature on it, but it's completely bare... the Internet provides). What DOESN'T follow the style is the level of violence, nudity and coarse language, which are thoroughly modern (as well as the legally imposed credits and the odd CG clean-up). Can the film sustain the anachronisms? The story, a noir thriller set in American-Russian occupied Berlin, starts out as a romance, then a murder mystery, and finally a conspiracy and is rather plot-heavy. It mostly works and certainly looks gorgeous. Watch it for the look and Blanchett's performance, if nothing else.
Our KFF selection this week was the popular Stephen Chow comedy, Shaolin Soccer. The DVD includes both the U.S. cut and Chinese original, and we always go with Chinese originals. By this point, we can easily tell what bits were likely cut from the U.S. release, which in this case is most the romantic subplot between Stephen's Shaolin kick-star and the tai chi bun-maker. Some of that stuff is weird, yes, but she must come out of nowhere at the end of the U.S. version. Based on Kung Fu Hustle and the Royal Tramp films, I wasn't expecting Shaolin Soccer to have so much heart, but then all good sports movies should have heart, especially underdog pictures. Mighty Ducks + Mortal Kombat + an irredeemable villain typical of Hong Kong cinema + an extra helping of heart + a musical number. I call that a very successful Kung Fu Friday entertainment spectacular. Of all of Chow's films, this is easily my favorite.
Books: I read Julian Barnes' latest novel (2011), The Sense of an Ending, and though short at 150 pages, it is larger on the inside (so to speak) by dealing with an event from the past, and its ghost in the present more than 40 years later. In his youth, the protagonist loses a girlfriend, then a friend when she starts going out with him, and some time later, that friend commits suicide. In the now, he is mysteriously willed the friend's diary, though the girlfriend won't relinquish it. It is a reflective and honest book, in many ways about the unreliability of memory, of our perception of ourselves and of others in the past, especially as we begin to tell our own story. The protagonist's quest to find closure to a single incident in his life is wholly dependent on his understanding that incident and that life. In that way, it seems to share themes with Arthur & George (2005) which I also read this year. I wonder if I were to reread Barnes' earlier books (from the 80s and 90s) if I'd get a sense of that theme there as well. Or am I just trying to create links between impressions, opinions and memories that I had as another, much younger person?
Hyperion to a Satyr posts this week:
III.i. The Nunnery Scene - BBC '80