CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK
Senegal/France/Morocco/Tunisia/Burkina Faso/Cameroon; Ousmane Sembene, 2004, New Yorker Video
A modern African film classic from the late, great Senegalese filmmaker-novelist Ousmane Sembene (Black Girl, Mandabi). Age rules, in this case. At 81, Sembene released this little masterpiece: a charming and moving ensemble comedy-drama set in a West African village and also a condemnation of a particularly barbaric practice: the forced circumcision and sexual mutilation of young African girls as dictated by an evil but widespread traditional rite. Sembene entertains us, but he also bravely exposes and attacks the brutality of the old patriarchal tribal customs.
I first saw Moolaadé at Cannes, where it was one of the sensations of the film festival -- and deserved to be. The story hooks you immediately. When three frightened young women seek sanctuary with the well-respected wife of one of the village elders, she takes them in -- and her husband becomes infuriated at his wife's interference, a schism that tears the village apart.
Sembene, like many other cinema geniuses and originals (from Jean Renoir and Orson Welles, to Akira Kurosawa and John Ford), shifts easily between humor and pathos. He makes us laugh, cry and become angry by turns. Moolaadé is the valedictory of a great filmmaker too little seen and appreciated in the U.S.
Our Hitler (Hitler: A Film from Germany) (A)
Germany; Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, 1977, Facets Multimedia
Syberberg's bizarre and brilliant seven-hour investigation into Adolf Hitler and his cultural-political roots is a hermetic spectacle, a political grand opera and one of the remarkable films of its era. Shot on a sound stage, with an ingenious use of back projection to create multiple backgrounds and environments, the movie takes many of its texts from Hitler's speeches and ruminations and those of his cohorts (Josef Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler, etc.), employees and analysts. For Syberberg, Hitler was not an aberration but the mad logical end point of part of German culture, a melange of Wagner, The Ring Cycle and Nietzsche which he re-creates in eloquent, furious sound and image.
Our Hitler was imported to the U.S. by Francis Coppola, and it's so unusual and ambitious -- and so richly textured, theatrical and philosophical -- that it requires a real adjustment from the viewer. You have to take it with a seriousness you might usually reserve for deep books and classical art. Susan Sontag, one of the film's major admirers, called it "the most extraordinary...film I have ever seen" and "one of the great works of art of the 20th century." And though some will be alienated or confused by Hitler, its dense content and unique style, the film holds up. It also reminds you that, in cinema and history alike, we often just scratch the surface of the world. (In German, with English subtitles.)
BOX SET CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK
Federico Fellini: Criterion Collection Directors Series (A)
Italy; Federico Fellini, 1954-73, Criterion Collection
Fellini was one of the movies' great fabulists, clowns and myth-spinners, a blissful, intoxicating creator of sad carnivals and tuneful circuses, jet-set panoramas and sexual wonderlands. Here are four of his best: two from his early years -- La Strada and Nights of Cabiria (both starring Fellini's lifelong Chaplinesque muse and wife Giulietta Masina), when he was known more for humane poetics and neorealist fables; and two from his grand, fantastic and mesmerizingly self-indulgent later years -- the great self-besotted masterpiece 8½ (with Marcello Mastroianni as Fellini surrogate Guido) and Amarcord, a reminiscence of his Rimini youth that turns into beautifully grotesque balladry. (In Italian, with English subtitles.)
La Strada (A)
Nights of Cabiria (A)
Jean-Luc Godard: Criterion Collection Directors Series (A)
France; Jean-Luc Godard, 1969-64, Criterion Collection
Godard is accepted as a great film director by many of the most intelligent film critics, but to the average moviegoer and film fan, he remains a cipher. This package contains his one big world-wide audience hit, Breathless, a breezy, brainy little noir with Jean-Paul Belmondo as killer on the run Michel and Jean Seberg as his blank-faced Yank femme fatale Patricia, two amoral lovers who live in a world bounded by Bogart and Faulkner.
What else? The Godard set also has his more cryptic and allusive American-inspired thriller Bande a Part and his sumptuously uneasy backstage filmmaking romance Contempt, adapted from the Albert Moravia novel and starring Brigitte Bardot (her best role), Jack Palance and Michel Piccoli. (Piccoli, as Bardot's screenwriter husband, never removes his hat -- in homage to Dean Martin in Some Came Running.) (In French, with English subtitles.)
Bande a Part (Band of Outsiders) (A)
Jim Jarmusch, Criterion Collection Directors Series (A)
U.S.; Jim Jarmusch, 1984-91, Criterion Collection
Jarmusch is the definitive American independent moviemaker of the post-1980 era. Here are three of his most characteristic and best films. First, there's the wonderful black-and-white minimalist road movie Stranger Than Paradise -- with those terrific long takes and that terrific lower-case cast, John Lurie, Richard Edson and Eszter Balint. Down by Law is the nifty-noir prison break flick co-starring Lurie, Tom Waits and, surprisingly, Italo-clown Roberto Benigni. And the all-star, multi-episode Night on Earth gives us some winning nocturnal cab rides around the world, from L.A. to Helsinki.
Stranger Than Paradise (A)
Down by Law (A-)
Night on Earth (A-)
Two Lane Blacktop (A-)
U.S.; Monte Hellman, 1971, Anchor Bay/Starz
In 1971, it was touted as the next Easy Rider, but Hellman's stunning, cryptic road movie, with its Antonioni mood and images out of Nick Ray and Sam Peckinpah, bewildered some audiences all too ready to be, once again, born to be wild. Today, Blacktop is more clearly a classic. Balladeer James Taylor and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson play the laconic hippie drivers in an epic cross-country race for the pink slips; Warren Oates is the motor-mouth GTO driver who out-talks and out-acts everybody. If you haven't seen this one, you've missed a quintessential '70s movie. (Extras: Commentary, featurettes, trailer.)
The Jason Bourne Collection (B+)
U.S.; Doug Liman, Paul Greengrass; 2002-2007, Universal
Adapted from intriguemeister Robert Ludlum's novel of amnesiac CIA hit man Jason Bourne and his attempts to unravel the nightmare around him, Doug Liman's 2002 The Bourne Identity, with Matt Damon as a perfect Bourne, is one of the best movie thrillers of the decade, a hypnotic gripping ride with great action scenes. I disagree that the two sequels -- which tend to ignore Ludlum's last two Bourne novels and try to repeat, both times, the winning formula of Identity -- are in the same league. But they're fun, fast and expertly done by director Paul (Bloody Sunday) Greengrass and his high-tech team. And this box set, disguised as a Swiss safety deposit box and including a fake Jason Bourne passport, is fun too. (Extras: Commentaries by Liman and Greengrass, documentaries, featurettes, deleted scenes, trailers.)
The Bourne Identity (A)
Doug Liman, 2002
The Bourne Supremacy (B)
Paul Greengrass, 2004
The Bourne Ultimatum (B-)
Paul Greengrass, 2007
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
U.S.; Steve Buscemi, 2007, Sony
A good actor's showcase for director-star Buscemi, as a surly and acidulous political reporter who seems to resent the "puff piece" assignment he's been given: chatting up a gorgeous B horror movie actress, played (very well) by Sienna Miller. Based on murdered Dutch director Theo Van Gogh's movie; well-done but unremarkable. (Extras: Commentary by Buscemi, featurettes.)
Silent Night, Deadly Night (F)
U.S.; Charles E. Sellier, Jr., 1984, Anchor Bay/Starz
Anchor Bay is often exemplary at bringing back (or instigating) first-rate, low-budget horror movies. But this one is a real stinker; a bloody dud about a maniacal murderous Santa running and ho-ho-hacking around town, trying to outdo Freddy and Jason and failing miserably on every level. Watching a chili dog heat up in your microwave would be more entertaining. And scarier.
Jud Suss (D)
Germany, Veit Harlan, 1940, Archiv/DVD
The notorious anti-Semitic epic based (very unfaithfully) on the nonracist historical novel by Lion Feuchtwanger, one of the most brilliant literary refugees from Nazi Germany. Bad, noxious stuff, but this edition also contains some important counterbalancing extras: 11 shorts -- including Billy Wilder's Death Mills doc on the death camps and an essay placing the film in context. (In German, with English subtitles.)
The Bourne Ultimatum (B-)
U.S.-U.K., Paul Greengrass, 2007, Universal
Jason Bourne (Damon) is back, and still running, still killing. Technically a whiz-bang, but there aren't many real surprises, despite screenwriter Tony Gilroy (the other Bourne movies and Michael Clayton). With Julia Stiles, Joan Allen, David Strathairn (a good smug heavy), Albert Finney and Scott Glenn. (Extras: See Jason Bourne Collection above.)
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (B)
U.S.-U.K.; David Yates, 2007, Warner Bros.
The latest Potter is one of the darkest, as Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his chums (Emma Watson and Rupert Grint) study hard at Hogwarts wizard-witch school, confronting evil and an astonishing ensemble of the best British character actors around (Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane and, new here, the delightfully villainous Imelda Staunton (yes, Vera Drake). (Extras: featurettes, interviews, deleted scenes.)
Harry Potter Years 1-5 (B)
U.S.; various directors, 2001-2007, Warner Bros.
Wait for the full set.