PICKS OF THE WEEK
Belle Toujours (A-)
Portugal/France; Manoel de Oliveira, 2006, New Yorker
Portugal's magnificent nonagenarian de Oliveira -- born on Dec. 12, 1908 and who may yet direct a movie past the age of 100 -- offers a very personal sequel to Belle de Jour, the perversely erotic masterpiece of one of his favorite filmmakers, Luis Bunuel.
This jewel-like film, which reunites the characters of Parisian wife/hooker Severine and bourgeois client/creep Husson, played by Catherine Deneuve and Michel Piccoli in the original, suffers from the absence here of Deneuve (though Severine is surprisingly well-replaced by Bulle Ogier). But Piccoli is, as always, superb and so is the ageless master de Oliveira. By the way, 99-year-old Manoel has directed four more films since Belle Toujours, and has two more in production. (Extras: Interviews with de Oliveira, Piccoli, Ogier and Ricardo Trepa; still gallery; trailer; essay by critic Randal Johnson.)
The Witnesses (B+)
France; Andre Techine, 2007, Strand Releasing
Andre Techine, always one of the finest contemporary French writer-directors, is at his most nakedly emotional in The Witnesses, a three-act drama about the AIDS crisis in the early '80s. The movie has an intelligence and empathy that are a welcome relief from superficiality and formulas, and, as usual with Techine, it offers really juicy parts to some of France's really excellent star movie actors: the gnomish sad-eyed clown Michel Blanc (here at his most serious), Moroccan actor Sami Bouajila (of the powerful war movie Days of Glory) and that radiant belle de jour Emmanuelle Beart, whose special blond beauty has rarely seemed more poignant or affecting.
Beart plays Sarah, a star of children's literature, now trying to write adult fiction, who has recently had her first child with husband Mehdi (Bouajila), a vice squad cop with a roving eye. Blanc is Adrien, an art-loving gay doctor, and Sarah's best friend; Adrien falls in love in the park with Manu (Johan Libereau), a carefree teenager of seemingly irresistible charm, whose sister Julie (Julie Depardieu), is a classical singer living in a hotel full of prostitutes. (The hotel is a target for Mehdi.) When Manu and Mehdi also pair off, the circle becomes two interlocking triangles -- and the stage is set for the tragedy that will ensue when the plague hits in the second act.
Techine specializes in psychological romantic dramas (Wild Reeds, My Favorite Season), and this is one of his best works. It's a film in which we can feel his deep involvement, one that moves from sunny eroticism to bleak horror and grief with such agility and compassion that we never spot an author's message surfacing -- though several are there. Thoughtful and passionate, this is a movie for smart, feeling audiences. In French, with English subtitles.
The Furies (B+)
U.S.; Anthony Mann, 1950, Criterion
Along with Anthony Mann's masterpiece Winchester 73, released the same year, this classic is the crucial link between the director's excellent low-budget '40s film noirs (T-Men, Raw Deal, Side Street) and his great big-studio '50s Westerns with Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper (The Naked Spur, Bend of the River, Man of the West). This more neglected black-and-white classic mates the two genres into an exciting hybrid -- with Barbara Stanwyck as a vengeful range vixen Vance Jeffords (one of her meanest roles since Double Indemnity), Walter Huston as Vance's Lear-like cattle czar father T.C., Judith Anderson as her witchy would-be stepmother and, among Vance's erotic conquests, the cold-blooded moneyman Wendell Corey and the hot-blooded lover/cattle-raiser Gilbert Roland.
Based on a novel by Niven Busch -- who also wrote the novel from which David O. Selznick drew his unforgettable, overheated 1946 opus Duel in the Sun -- The Furies has a similarly feverish mix of lurid sexuality, family tragedy, grand scenery and psycho shootouts. It's also, as much as Raoul Walsh's 1947 Pursued (scripted by Busch), a chillingly beautiful fusion of both the themes and the visual styles of the Western and the noir, with brawling towns and eerie plains replacing the night-shrouded cities, while danger-laden hills and spiny cacti are silhouetted against the deep sky that dwarfs the fighting, killing humanity below. If you love either movie genre, you shouldn't miss this exciting, beautifully dark Western noir. (Extras: Commentary by critic Jim Kitses from Horizons West; 1967 TV interview with Mann; 1931 film interview with Huston; new video interview with daughter Nina Mann; stills gallery; trailer; booklet with new essay by Robin Wood and a 1957 "Cahiers du Cinema" interview of Mann by Claude Chabrol and Charles Bitsch; and a complete paperback edition of Busch's original novel.)
Before the Rain (B+)
Macedonia; Milcho Manchevski, 1994, Criterion
It's the first and still best film produced in tiny Macedonia. Made while the Bosnian war was raging, Manchevski's often heart-breaking work is a visually stunning three-part portrait of the horrors of Balkan warfare and intolerance, and also a Pulp Fiction-like or even Borgesian construction that loops back on itself. It was also that year's Golden Lion (Grand Prize) winner at the Venice Film Festival, and a remarkable debut feature for Manchevski.
The three episodes include a lyrical and doom-haunted Romeo-and-Juliet story starring the youthful Gregoire Colin and Labina Mitevska and set in the conflict between Christian Macedonians and Muslim Albanians; a more mature romance in London between photojournalist Rade Serbedzija and Katrin Cartlidge (the late, great actress from Mike Leigh's company); and the final ironic and tragic climax with Serbedzija, back in Macedonia, near the beginning of the story. Throughout Rain, the beauty and mystery of the images mask and reveal the fierce emotions and dark historical currents surging beneath. Like all honest, sensitive films about war, it shakes you and saddens you. (Extras: Commentary by Manchevski and critic/teacher Annette Insdorf; interview with Serbedzija; documentaries and on-set footage; Manchevski photo gallery from his collection Street; Manchevski's award-winning Arrested Development music video "Tennessee"; booklet with Ian Christie essay.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
The Ruth Rendell Mysteries (B)
U.K.; Matthew Evans/Bruce MacDonald, 1997-2000, Acorn Media
This three-disc set is more evidence that contemporary British TV is still a treasure trove for literate, classically handled murder mysteries and crime dramas. Here, the source is top-notch: Rendell, the psychologically acute and tight-plotting British mystery writer who has only one rival (P.D. James) for the title of Agatha Christie's logical successor as England's, and the world's, queen of bookish crime.
Rendell specializes in the morbid obsession, sexual perversity, social conflict and latent murder that lie below the seemingly mundane surface of the everyday -- and her work has been adapted by, among others, France's prime film Hitchockian Claude Chabrol (for his 1995 masterpiece La Ceremonie). Here Rendell is in the hands of fellow Brits -- Evans and MacDonald are able helmsmen, if less inspired than Chabrol -- and the results are good, gripping, well-acted and crisply shot adaptations of two Rendell short stories and three of her novels.
Going Wrong (B)
Matthew Evans, 1997
Rendell demonstrates her flair for the dark side of romance; Teenage crush becomes wild obsession. With James Callis, Josephine Butler, Inday Ba and Sara Kestleman.
Harm Done (B-)
Bruce MacDonald, 2000
Pedophilia, wife-beating, abduction and murder are part of the witch's brew that haunts a bourgeois community and its staid Chief Inspector. With George Baker and Louie Ramsay.
The Fallen Curtain (B)
Matthew Evans, 1998
A young man, who suffered a mysterious case of abuse as a youth, recalls that dark childhood incident, while thrust into a similar crisis by a strangely flirtatious boy. Most engrossing of the lot, though the ending disappoints. With Barbara Ewing and David Daker.
The Lake of Darkness (B-)
Bruce MacDonald, 1998
Here's a slightly over-tricky tale of how a lottery win and seeming romantic success can be damnings in disguise. With Jerome Flynn and Sadie Frost.
You Can't Be Too Careful (B)
Matthew Evans, 1998
This is the best of the bunch -- a tense drama of two mismatched roommates (Serena Evans and Jane Hazlegrove) that plays like the nightmare version of The Odd Couple.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Japan; Shinji Aoyama, 2000, Panorama
Virtuosic black-and-white photography illumines this engrossing and disturbing tale of lives blighted by a busjacking and sudden violence. A Japanese art film that's both classically well handled and socially trenchant. Winner of both the FIPRESCI Prize and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at Cannes 2000; with Koji Yakusho, Aoi Miyazaki and Go Riju.
In Bruges (B)
U.K. Martin McDonagh, 2008, Universal
Modern film noir with an Irish-British twist is served up with tough grace and skill in playwright and short-film Oscar-winner Martin McDonagh's In Bruges, a sweet, salty thriller about two Irish hired killers (nervy Colin Farrell, melancholy Brendan Gleeson) who bungle a job and are stashed for a while, at Christmas, in the stunning Belgian medieval city, Bruges, by their infuriated Brit/London boss (Ralph Fiennes). Like most really good noirs, In Bruges is obviously hell-bent and doom-drenched. But McDonagh eases us into chaos. He delays the gunplay, gives the characters time to develop. The actors obviously relish the chance; Farrell, Gleeson and Fiennes are all top-notch. McDonagh is also intoxicated with Bruges -- and when cinematographer Eigil Bryld trains the camera on the lofty Bell Tower, the wide market square and the dreamy canals, McDonagh is obviously sharing something that he has grown to love. This movie is a killer, though not a perfect one. The wildly implausible gunfights at the end hurt it a bit. But McDonagh has his own distinct voice: tough, lilting, darkly comic, Irish-British and funny-sad.
France; Marjane Satrapi/Vincent Paronnaud, 2007, Sony
Iranian-French graphic novelist Satrapi writes the scenario and co-directs this unusual film adapted from her semi-autobiographical comic about an Iranian girl/young woman experiencing first the Islamic revolution and then the Bohemian side of Paris. Somewhat overrated, but definitely one of a kind, with content more adult and realistic than the usual feature cartoon. The voice cast includes Chiara Mastroianni as the girl, Catherine Deneuve as her mother, and Danielle Darrieux (of Mayerling and La Ronde) as her grandmother, plus Sean Penn, Gena Rowlands and Iggy Pop. In French and English, with English subtitles. (Extras: Both French and English language versions; commentary on select scenes by Satrapi, Paronnaud and Mastroianni; featurettes; 2007 Cannes Film Festival press conference.)
The Spiderwick Chronicles (Special Edition) (B-)
U.S.; Mark Waters, 2008, Paramount
A lavish family fantasy adventure adapted from the old-style fairytale series by artist Tony DiTerlizzi and writer Holly Black can be found in this two-disc set. Small tots may flinch at the scarier scenes: for instance, the hopping horde of marauding goblins who keep attacking the central set, the Grace family's country house, like a Night of the Living Dead restaged for Muppets. But it's a children's movie that doesn't go all gooey or preachy on you; it's entertaining without being sticky or self-conscious. And there's enough realism in the portrayal of the central family who go through the magical experiences -- perhaps thanks to co-writer John Sayles -- that older audiences don't have to feel like suckers. With Mary-Louise Parker, Freddie Highmore, Sarah Bolger, David Strathairn and the goblin voices of Nick Nolte, Martin Short and Seth Rogen.
10,000 B.C. (D)
U.S.; Roland Emmerich, 2008, Warner Home Video
The previous Hal Roach and Raquel Welch cave man epics may have taken us back to one million years B.C., but this less distant prehistoric opus doesn't give us much sense of the past at all -- except for the fact that the cast is wandering around in animal skins, and herds of CG woolly mammoths roam or stampede around to provide a little excitement. Elaborate but absurd; the cast includes Steven Strait, Camilla Belle and Cliff Curtis, all of whom seem a tad buff, cute and even fashion-model-ish for this kind of show. (Extras: Alternate ending, additional scenes.)
U.S.; Robert Greenwald, 1980, Universal
Olivia Newton-John takes Rita Hayworth's old role of the goddess coming Down to Earth, in a roller-boogie musical fantasy that makes Grease look like Citizen Kane, despite the presence of musical movie giant Gene Kelly. With Michael Beck and the voices of Wilfred Hyde-White and Coral Browne.