CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK
Ace in the Hole (A)
U.S., Billy Wilder, 1951, Criterion Collection
Billy Wilder's dark masterpiece of '50s newspaper drama rips up the sleazy underside of the American media game, with Kirk Douglas in one of his primo "postwar heel" roles as Chuck Tatum, a ruthless big city headline reporter fallen on hard times. Bogged down in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Tatum, a proud cynic, thinks he's found the story that will scoop his way back out of the sticks, when he discovers local café/trading post owner Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) trapped in a cave.
Manipulating everyone -- the big city editors, the corrupt local sheriff (Ray Teal), Minosa's sluttish wife (Jan Sterling) and the gullible citizenry - Tatum milks the story to the max by dangerously extending the rescue effort. (The model for Wilder's script, his first after Sunset Boulevard, was the famous '20s Floyd Collins mine accident.)
The tale of Ace and its climax, unwinding like a rattler in the blazing New Mexico desert sunlight, is as dark as they come. This is the evil side of the American success odyssey and Wilder shows it all unrelentingly. A great under-seen American movie -- a hit in Europe, it was mostly ignored here -- the movie gets its due in this 2-disc set, with terrific Criterion extras, including a video appreciation by Spike Lee, who once named Ace in the Hole one of his three favorite movies.
Extras (A): Documentary on Wilder; interviews with Wilder, Douglas and co-writer Walter Newman; video afterword by Spike Lee; booklet with essays by Molly Haskell and Guy Maddin.
Iraq in Fragments (A)
U.S., James Longley, 2006, Arab Film Distribution
Contemporary documentaries about the Iraq war tend to get preachy or argumentative, or to hone in on combat. Not James Longley's superb Iraq in Fragments, an Oscar nominee and triple prizewinner at Sundance, which shows (beautifully) rather than tells. Structured as a three-part story about three of war-torn Iraq's "fragmented" communities -- focusing an 11-year-old Sunni boy on Baghdad, Shiite fanatics in Naseriyah, and Kurdish shepherds near the border -- it's both a searing journalistic piece and a brilliantly impressionistic portrait of the country and its people.
Without background, you might easily mistake it for a dramatic foreign art film. Longley's incredible footage is a tribute to his talent and courage, his eye and his heart. This is the best non-fiction film I've seen on today's Iraq.
Extras: Commentary and shorts by Longley; interview with Longley; in Arabic and Kurdish, with English subtitles)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Three Films by Hiroshi Teshigahara (A)
Japan, 1956-66, Criterion Collection
Back in 1964, Hiroshi Teshigahara's Woman in the Dunes -- with its haunting script by novelist Kobo Abe and music by Toru Takemitsu -- was one of the art-house sensations of the year. A beautifully shot, scorchingly erotic Kafkaesque fable, it's about a Tokyo entomologist (Eiji Okada) who is tricked by villagers in dune country into a trapped existence with a local woman (Kyoko Kishida) who lives in a huge imprisoning sand pit; there, he is forced to live a life of ravenous sex and Sisyphean sand-hauling.
An unforgettable, hypnotic film and a huge international hit, Woman earned Japanese indie maverick Teshigahara an Oscar nomination for Best Director. Though he was for a while considered a peer of Bergman and Antonioni, he eventually seemed to vanish like the entomologist, at one point abandoning filmmaking altogether to take over his father's famous flower-arranging school. Teshigahara remained in relative world obscurity until Gaudi, his remarkable 1988 documentary on the whimsical Spanish architect.
This box set, though, a real masterpiece of the art of DVD packaging, shows the filmmaker was no one-hit wonder. Teshigahara, Abe and Takemitsu, three kindred spirits, each a genius in his field, made three more films together, and two of them have been packaged here with Woman in the Dunes. The trio's 1962 Pitfall is an explosive mix of ghost story and labor crime drama, and The Face of Another (1966) is the eerie tale of a man (Tatsuya Nakadai) whose ruined face is replaced with a lifelike mask, both "liberating" and corrupting him. (The fourth of the trio's collaborations was 1968's Man Without a Map.)
This magnificent package has no commentaries, but it contains four early shorts by Teshigahara, a fine documentary on the director and writer Abe, an excellent video essay on each film by James Quandt of the Cinematheque Ontario, and a superb booklet, with a Teshigahara interview and essays by Quandt and others. For film buffs, devotees of Japanese culture, and lovers of visual beauty in all the arts, you couldn't ask for a richer treat than this.
Woman in the Dunes (A)
The Face of Another (B+)
Four short films by Teshigahara (B): Hokusai (1953), Ikebana (1956), Tokyo 1958 (1958), and Ako (1965).
Esther Williams Box Set, Vol. 1. (C)
U.S., various directors, 1944-53, Warner Bros.
The classic MGM musical may often be a treasure trove of Hollywood goodies, but the Esther Williams swim-fests show the studio at its campiest and silliest. Sexy, smiling Esther parades around in one-piecers, mooned over by Red Skelton, Peter Lawford, Van Johnson and others, before becoming the breast-stroking centerpiece of sub-Busby Berkeley aquatic ballets, while the hot bands of Xavier Cugat or Harry James rumba and wail and comics like Jimmy Durante and Skelton squeeze out a laugh or two.
I'm not saying these movies aren't fun, sort of. But don't expect Singin' in the Rain. (Bathing Beauty, by the way, was a legendary hit in postwar Yugoslavia.)
Extras (B): Turner Classic Movies interview "Private Screenings with Esther Williams," vintage shorts, cartoons (including Tom & Jerry), trailers, outtakes, sequences from other movies, radio interviews, Johnny Mercer demo recordings.
Bathing Beauty (B-)
U.S., George Sidney, 1944
Easy to Wed (C-)
U.S., Edward Buzzell, 1946
On an Island with You (C+)
U.S., Richard Thorpe, 1948
Neptune's Daughter (C+)
U.S., Buzzell, 1949
Dangerous When Wet
U.S., Charles Walters, 1953
TTHER NEW RELEASES
Factory Girl (C-)
U.S., George Hickenlooper, 2006, The Weinstein Company
Okay but glitzy-thin bio-drama on Andy Warhol deb-starlet Edie Sedgwick, well played by Sienna Miller as Edie and Guy Pearce as Warhol.
The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg (B)
U.S., Jerry Aronson, 2006, New Yorker Video
Moving portrait of poet-beat-Buddhist icon Ginsberg, a shaggy god of a guy.
Red Dawn (C+)
U.S., John Milius, 1984, MGM
Milius flaunts his macho conservatism in this U.S. teen guerrillas-vs.-invading Reds actioner, with Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen and Ben Johnson.
The Woman in the Window (A-)
U.S., Fritz Lang, 1944, MGM
Great Lang nightmare noir with Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea (the sordid trio of Lang's Scarlet Street.
The Stranger (B+)
U.S., Orson Welles, 1946, MGM
Very good small-town postwar noir with Welles, Loretta Young and Robinson; Welles' least personal feature and one of his few hits.
The Wedding Date (D)
U.S., Clare Kilner, 2005, Universal
Awful wedding-set romantic comedy with Dermot Mulroney as Debra Messing's hired date; grounds for divorce.
Avenue Montaigne (B-)
France, Daniele Thompson, 2006, Velocity/Thinkfilm
Likable French ensemble romantic comedy-drama, with Cecile de France and Claude Brasseur. (In French, with English subtitles.)