CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (A-)
U.S.-France; Julian Schnabel, 2007, Miramax
Julian Schnabel's new movie is a true story of tragedy and redemption that exerts an almost hypnotic power. Schnabel and star Mathieu Almaric show us the fall and rise of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the high-flying, philandering Elle magazine editor who suffered almost complete paralysis after an auto accident. Bauby, who saw his life become as shattered as his spine, fought back, despite what would usually be numbing difficulties, to write his moving memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly -- painstakingly dictating the entire manuscript to his determined speech therapist (Marie-Josee Croze) and stenographer (Anne Consigny) by blinking out the numbers of the letters of the alphabet.
This incredible story could have been saccharine. Instead Schnabel, screenwriter Ronald Harwood (The Pianist) and the French cast drain it of sentimentality, turning Diving Bell into a deep drama of human consciousness and will. Our perspective is Bauby's; with the usually hyperactive Almaric (Kings and Queens) here as still as a blinking statue, the camera becomes his eyes and heart. Despite being confined to the trap of his broken body, his soul pours out. His pain and struggle -- and triumph -- are ours too. (In French, with English subtitles. Extras: Commentary by Schnabel, featurette, Charlie Rise interview with Schnabel.)
The Red Balloon (A)
France; Albert Lamorisse, 1956, Criterion Collection
One of the most purely poetic children's films ever made, Albert Lamorisse's beautifully visualized fable about a small boy (played by Lamorisse's blond little son Pascal) and his red balloon, which seems to be alive, fills our eyes with the colored sights of '50s Paris. And it also fills our hearts and minds with fantasy, despite using only the most minimal special effects. An invisible wire on the balloon's trailing string suffices to make it a real live character.
The story is classic: poignant and terrifying as a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale. Pascal discovers the balloon on an outdoor staircase, and when he is forced to abandon it because of school time and streetcar rules, the balloon comes back. It follows him, flirts with a little girl's blue balloon, hangs around Pascal's schoolyard and defies his dyspeptic schoolmaster, accompanies him everywhere, stays outside his window at night and, finally, defies a violent, sinister crowd of jealous little boys who chase Pascal to kidnap the balloon and destroy it.
Few childhood sights are sadder than the close-up of the little, trapped red balloon, dimpling and shrinking after the bad boys' slingshot hits it. Yet this film, winner of an Oscar and a Palme d'Or at Cannes, was probably the most popular short art film of the '50s. Audiences couldn't get enough of it -- and still can't -- and the last soaring images of the revolt of the balloons of Paris are among the cinema's great visions of liberation. Red Balloon divides some critics. Andre Bazin adored it, but his acolyte and protégé Francois Truffaut ridiculed it, and probably wrote The 400 Blows partly in negative reaction. But Truffaut was wrong. This little balloon will never die, no matter how many boys and stones are hurled against it. (In French, without dialogue. Extras: booklet, trailer.)
White Mane (Crin Blanc) (A)
France; Albert Lamorisse, 1953, Criterion Collection
Three years before The Red Balloon, Lamorisse won a Cannes Grand Prix by telling essentially the same story -- this time, with a boy (Alain Emery) and the wild white horse he befriends on the stunning plains and coasts of Camargue in the south of France. The movie, also shot by Red Balloon's superb cinematographer Edmond Sechan, is just as lovely, and the ending almost as exciting and transcendent, but here the images are black-and-white and the form more clearly a variation on the classic western. (Tiny Pascal Lamorisse takes a small role.) Lamorisse, who died at 48 in a helicopter crash in Tehran while filming a documentary, had two great loves as film subjects: horses and balloons. These two films mark the peaks of his cinematic poetry. (In French, with English subtitles. Extras: Optional English language narration by Peter Strauss; trailer, booklet.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Midsomer Murders (B+)
U.K.: Various directors, 1997-2000, Acorn Media
If you're partial to English village murder mysteries -- the non-hard-boiled crime thrillers sometimes called "cozies" -- and you've exhausted the various Agatha Christie Poirot, Miss Marple and Tommy-and-Tuppence sets, this is the place to go. Midsomer Murders, a long-running British TV hit, is one of the best of the breed. It's based on the highly praised Caroline Graham mysteries with her hero, Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby. They're modern stories that preserve the feel of the classic Christies, while getting in plenty of contemporary culture, character, sexuality, perversity and social comment.
Barnaby (as played to bloody perfection by John Nettles) is a great detective: smart, intuitive, savvy about everything, and a little seething and on the edge. His sidekick in these early shows is young DS Gavin Troy (Daniel Casey), and Barnaby's wife and daughter are also around, played by Jane Wymark and Laura Howard. These are prize shows: The settings are gorgeous, the cinematography, direction and acting mostly razor-sharp and fine. There's also a special reason to get this early set. (The later ones are still periodically released.) Five of the actual Caroline Graham novels are adapted here, one by Graham herself.
Includes: The Killings at Badger's Drift, Written in Blood Death of a Hollow Man, Faithful Unto Death, Death in Disguise, Death's Shadow, Strangler's Wood, Dead Man's Eleven, Blood Will Out, Death of a Stranger, Blue Herrings, Judgement Day, Beyond the Grave, Garden of Death, Destroying Angel, The Electric Vendetta, Who Killed Cock Robin?, Dark Autumn. (Extras: Documentary Super Sleuths with Nettles, Graham and others; booklet with essay by Nettles; Midsomer map; biographies and filmographies; featurette.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
27 Dresses (C+)
U.S.; Anne Fletcher, 2007, Fox
Sprightly romantic comedy about a wedding-aholic, unplain Jane (Katherine Heigl), who helps all her friends (26 of 'em) get married, and then has to be wedding boss and maid of honor when her sexy younger sister Tess (Malin Akerman) steals away the boss (Ed Burns) she loves. Don't worry: A cynical wedding critic (James Marsden) is in the wings. This one got pasted by a lot of critics, but I disagree -- at least partly. It's no Wedding Planner. It's no Four Weddings and a Funeral either, of course. But the acting is good and so is Anne Fletcher's direction. Like Jane, she'll get her bouquet and disarm her critics, eventually. (Extras: Deleted scenes, featurettes.)
Starting Out in the Evening (B-)
U.S.; Andrew Wagner, 2007, Lionsgate
A good, realistic urban drama graced by a very fine and controlled performance by Frank Langella as a noted author, handsome and aging, who falls into the trap of a younger sexual dalliance -- and pays.
Girls Just Want to Have Fun (D+)
U.S.; Andrew Metter, 1965, Anchor Bay
This dopey Girls-just-wanna-dance-on-TV comedy, which misuses the sparkling Cyndi Lauper hit that gave it a title, also misuses camera-catching young stars Sarah Jessica Parker and Helen Hunt. But they're pretty (and) good -- and doesn't almost everybody have skeletons (or '80s teen-sex comedies) in their closet?
Paddle to the Sea (B)
Canada; Bill Mason, 1966, Criterion Collection
This delightful Canadian children's film -- based on Holling C. Holling's picture book is an epic about a little wooden canoe carved by a boy, with a little wooden Indian paddler, traveling down the rivers to the ocean. This is two stories actually: the epic one told by Hollings, and the unpredictable real-life journey of Mason's tiny boat, which the film crew has to keep finding. Very unusual and a delight. (Extra: booklet.)
The Fall of the Roman Empire (B+)
U.S.; Anthony Mann, 1964, Weinstein Company/Genius Products
gives us a shorter, and far less accurate version of the decline and fall Thomas Gibbon once magnificently anatomized. But hey, it's only a movie! Visually a knockout, full of grand castles, exciting battles and nail-biting gladiator-fights, it features an impressive star cast that includes Sophia Loren (as Lucilla), Alec Guinness (meditating eloquently as Marcus Aurelius), Stephen Boyd (as Livius, the standard Charlton Heston role), Christopher Plummer (as Commodus), James Mason (as the Greek philosopher), John Ireland (as a barbarian) and Omar Sharif (as the Emperor of Armenia). Not as good as Mann's and Bronston's 1961 El Cid, the movie seems oddly slow in the beginning, but then the stately rhythm and Mann's terrific staging match up with the spectacular locations and visuals. Bronston didn't win the prizes and box office receipts he obviously wanted here. But in a way, he was vindicated in 2000, when some of the same story and the characters were recycled for the Oscar-winning blockbuster Gladiator. It's a great two-disc package from the Miriam collection, by the way. (Extras: documentary, featurettes, 1964 promotional film, trailer.)
Death of a Cyclist (B+)
Spain; Juan Antonio Bardem, 1955, Criterion
In 1955, the young Spanish writer-director Juan Antonio Bardem helped put his country on he cinematic map when his moody crime drama, Death of a Cyclist, won the Critics Prize at Cannes. Cyclist is a film noir right in the Double Indemnity tradition. An adulterous couple returning from a tryst (Lucia Bose and Alberto Closas) accidentally run down a cyclist on the road. The woman, fearing her wealthy husband's reaction, insists that they flee without reporting the accident, and both of them are plunged into a hell of suspicion, guilt and blackmail. A committed Communist and one of Spain's most fervent progressive film polemicists, Bardem uses this dark tale -- in which he fuses the styles of Hollywood noir, Soviet montage and Italian neorealism -- to expose the corruption of Franco's Spain and the hypocrisies of its upper class. Death of a Cyclist is a landmark of Spanish cinema; it also earned Bardem -- the uncle of actor Javier -- such enmity from the Franco regime that, when he won the Cannes Critic prize, he was in a Spanish jail. (In Spanish, with English subtitles. Extras: Documentary on Bardem, booklet with essays by Bardem and Marsha Kinder.)
Saludos Amigos/The Three Caballeros (B+)
U.S.; Norman Ferguson and others, 1942 & 45, Walt Disney
Disney's two Latin American cartoon packages, intended to foster World War II goodwill, show rambunctious ambassador Donald Duck cavorting with suave Jose Carioca and Panchito the Parrot -- and they're two of the best things Disney (and Donald) did in the mid-'40s. I loved them as a kid, and they're departures too: They're snappy, surreal, full of punchy sambas and that hip-swinging Brazilian beat. And did you know Donald Duck south of the border was such a wild lecher? Daisy Duck, keep a leash on this guy! (Extras: 1942 vintage documentary; two bonus Donald Duck cartoons, Don Donald and Contrary Condor.)