CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK
France; Jean-Luc Godard, 1959, Criterion Collection
Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless was one outstanding commercial hit in the career of a great cineaste who not only eventually abandoned commercialism, but practically went to war against it. For the rest of his career, Godard devoted himself to subverting and assaulting the mass appeal of his own movies. He became the ultimate radical aesthete cinema rebel.
Yet Breathless shows that he might instead have been a French Hawks, or at least a French Nick Ray. It's the story of a flippantly psychopathic young gun-guy hedonist, Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who has a fondness for old Bogey films and posters and who stumbles into crime almost by accident. After a thoughtless car theft and a casual cop killing, he goes underground, trying to avoid arrest and woo his opaque-faced American "Angel Face" doll of a girlfriend, Patricia (Jean Seberg). Patricia, a disturbing '60s-style femme fatale, reads Faulkner's Wild Palms ("Between grief and nothing, I will choose grief") and hawks Herald Tribunes on Paris streets.
Breathless is, with Francois Truffaut's Jules et Jim, one of the two quintessential '60s French New Wave movies. Michel and Patricia are the quintessential nouvelle vague couple. But the film probably hit big partly because of something almost as accidental as Michel's murder: the way Belmondo and Seberg clicked against the grain on screen. "Breathless" also had a luscious Raoul Coutard-shot surface and a nervous rhythm (created after mentor Jean-Pierre Melville's suggested Godard cut his overlong movie within scenes, resulting in the soon-famous "jump cuts" that prompted Time magazine to call Breathless a "cubistic thriller.")
That's a stretch. But Godard, like Picasso, was a revolutionary classicist who shattered expectations. He was also a movie man besotted with literature, a devotee of Albert Camus, Monogram pictures, buried grief -- and dangerous intellectual dames with pixie haircuts like Seberg's. (The French title for Breathless is A Bout de Souffle or "Out of Breath"; "Breathless" was, in fact the working title of a classic 1959 American thriller, Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest.)
Extras: Documentaries, including Mark Rappaport's Jean Seberg; interviews with Godard, Belmondo, Seberg, others; video essays; booklet with essays by Godard and Dudley Andrew, Truffaut's treatment, Godard's script.
Days of Heaven (A)
U.S.; Terrence Malick, 1977, Criterion Collection
Terry Malick's staggering, lyrical tale of love on the run in the early 20th century -- with Richard Gere and Brooke Adams as Bill and Abby, beautiful on-the-run lovers disguised as brother and sister, Sam Shepard as the nameless dying rancher who loves Abby and Linda Manz as Linda, the little sister who tells the story -- is quite possibly the most physically beautiful American movie ever made. It's a piece of cinematic poetry that can almost hypnotize you with wonder -- and also pretty close to the ultimate '70s American film classic, heir to all the freedom and license that Easy Rider begat and that climaxed with Apocalypse Now and Raging Bull.
Like Malick's 1973 Badlands, it's a rebel child of Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde, whose violent romanticism it takes to gorgeous, incredible extremes. Shot in golden wheat fields, mostly in the fabled magic hour, the cinematographer's golden time just before dusk, its great cameramen (Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler) capture images that can make you gasp with delight. If you haven't seen Days of Heaven, you've missed one of the greatest visual experiences American movies can offer. As much as Citizen Kane, Vertigo, The Searchers or 2001, it's a precious part of our movie canon.
BOX SET CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK
Stanley Kubrick: The Director Collection (A)
U.S.-U.K.; Stanley Kubrick, 1957-1999, Warner Home Video
Stanley Kubrick's films combine extraordinary visual beauty, overwhelming emotional power and a sometimes-raging nihilism only thinly disguised. They are portraits of a post-Holocaust world or sensibility, in which the fascistic madness and annihilation isn't directly mentioned, but often felt. No one conveys modern horror more fully and intensely than Kubrick; his greatest films are all poised above the abyss.
This excellent package strangely ignores all his pre-1968 classics, including Dr. Strangelove, which may be his masterpiece, but provides excellent versions of the later movies. I prefer the earlier Warners selection, but either one belongs in every film library.
2001: A Space Odyssey (A)
A Clockwork Orange (A)
The Shining (A-)
Full Metal Jacket (A-)
Eyes Wide Shut (A-)
The Sopranos: Season 6, Part 2 (A)
U.S.; Various directors, 2007, HBO
The Mob as a dysfunctional family. The merged traditions of Coppola's Godfather movies, Scorsese's Mafia tales and the Coen brothers comic film noirs culminate in some of the finest American TV ever. Yes, the ending looks like a hit to me too. (Whatever David Chase says.)
SOME RELEASES THIS WEEK THAT ORDINARILY W0OULD HAVE BEEN PICKS OR CO-PICKS:
Into Great Silence (A-)
Germany; Philip Groning, 2007, Zeitgeist
Beautiful, near worldess portrayal of the cycle of seasons and life, as experienced by the monks who make wonderful Chartreuse liqueur and rarely speak.
Our Hitler (Hitler: A Film from Germany) (A)
Germany; Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, 1980, Facets
Syberberg's grand operatic rendition on Adolf Hitler, German culture and the soul of the people the tyrant seduced. One of the most intellectual and least compromising dramas on fascism you can imagine -- conventional critics ridicule it, but Susan Sontag called it one of the great works of art of the 20th century -- it's a movie so long (7 hours), so wordy, so artificial (most of it consists of actors reciting eloquent speeches against projected backdrops and a Wagnerian/classical underscore) and so densely packed, that you have to ease yourself into it, and let it envelop you. Trust me; it's worth the effort. Imported to the U.S. by admirer Francis Coppola, who probably would have liked to make films like this one himself, but didn't dare. (In English and German, with English subtitles.)
I Am Cuba: Ultimate Edition (A)
Russia-Cuba; Mikhail Kalatozov, 1964, New Yorker, Milestone From the great, underrated Russian director of The Cranes Are Flying: One of the most astonishing triumphs of film style and camera acrobatics in the entire cinema. It's an ode to the dream of Communism (not its reality), a multi-part portrayal of Cuba, from a director who sees it (then) as a revolutionary white hope. Like Eisenstein's Potemkin, though, this film far surpasses the predictable propaganda of its subject through its jaw-dropping, virtuosic handling. You should not miss it -- and this edition is loaded with documentaries and illuminating extras. (In Spanish, with English subtitles.)
Extras: Documentaries; interviews with Martin Scorsese and co-writer Yevgeny Yevtushenko; trailer; booklet.
A Christmas Carol: Ultimate Collector's Edition (A)
U.K.; Brian Desmond Hurst, 1951, VCI
One Dickens film that nearly everyone loves, this is, by common consent, the best of all the innumerable adaptations of Charles Dickens' immortal Christmas fable. It's the best presentation of the guilt-ridden miser Ebenezer Scrooge (here wittily and unconventionally played by comic actor Alastair Sim) and the comeuppance he receives during a triple dream visit by the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future. Brian Desmond Hurst (The Playboy of the Western World) makes it into one of those visually polished and deliciously acted British literary films that we Americans often love.
Extras: Commentary by actor George Cole; bios of Dickens, others; colorized version; trailer; optional narration for blind.
OTHER NEW RELEASES
Meet the Robinsons (C)
U.S.; Stephen Anderson, 2007, Walt Disney
An okay futuristic feature cartoon comedy, laced with time travel paradoxes in which a young inventor-to-be lands in the world he helped create and friends and villains he unwittingly set on their courses.
U.S.-U.K.; Clive Barker, 1987, Anchor Bay
Novelist-horrormeister Clive Barker dives into depravity and gore with this dicey blend of eroticism, masochism and horror. Andrew Robinson (the Scorpio killer in Eastwood's Dirty Harry) and Clare Higgins move into a house haunted by their bizarre and really bloodthirsty relative/lover; mayhem ensues.
Under the Volcano (B+)
U.S.; John Huston, 1984), Criterion Collection Part of the last great spate of literary adaptations from John Huston: a moving film of Malcolm Lowry's "unfilmable" Joycean-subjective booze-eloquent masterpiece about drunken diplomat Geoffrey Firmin (Albert Finney, burning up), his gorgeous wife Yvonne (Jackie Bisset, looking same) and the life that keeps closing in on him. As with his masterpiece Treasure of Sierra Madre, Huston shot this film in Mexico, and it seethes with on-the-edge atmosphere.
Extras: The documentary Volcano.
Fantastic Planet (B)
France; Rene Laloux, 1973, Facets
It looks tame next to the computer-generated marvels of today, but this arty French feature cartoon is a fine work in the old style: with strange little humans and giant robots coexisting in a world that reminds you of the blank-eyed fantasies of the surrealists, turned to languorous life. (In French, with English subtitles.)
El Bruto (B-)
Mexico; Luis Bunuel, 1952, Facets
One of Bunuel's Mexican potboilers -- about an exploited thug (Pedro Armendariz) who is hired by a vicious landlord to harass tenants but who, in the hands of some hot women (including Katy Jurado as his boss' doxy), eventually revolts. This is one of the great eye-slicer's lesser jobs-for-hire, but it grips you. And at least the bills it paid were Bunuel's. (In Spanish, with English subtitles.)