Saturday, November 03, 2007

Some Worthy DVD Rentals

Now that baseball season is finally over, it's time to watch DVDs again. Here are capsule reviews of some worthies, all available through Netflix.

Love Stories and Dramas.

Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1992) Dir. Peter Kosminsky. Notable cast: Juliette Binoche and Ralph Fiennes

You can hardly go wrong with Ralph Fiennes or Juliette Binoche and neither disappoint in this well-made and watchable adaptation of Emily Bronte's novel. But it's difficult to like the two star-crossed lovers, Heathcliff and Catherine, because they remind us how intensely narcissistic, selfish, and obnoxious certain lovers can be. Heathcliff especially is a brute who confuses love with selfish obsession. Indeed, this movie is a cautionary tale for women; if you ever find yourself loved by a Heathcliff, run, run, run away as fast and as far as you can. If you don't he'll drive you to your death and blame you for it. Your life will be remembered as tragic melodrama but without the great soundtrack of this movie. If that's your thing, get a vicarious experience and watch the movie instead.

Junebug (2005) Dir. Phil Morrison. Notable cast: Embeth Davidtz, Alessandro Nivola, Celia Watson, Scott Wilson, Ben McKenzie, and Amy Adams.

A very simple plot involving a newly married couple traveling from Chicago, where the wife is an art dealer, to North Carolina, where the husband is from, opens a window into family and relationships in an honest manner rarely portrayed on screen. This movie has the most integrity to its characters and story than any movie I've ever seen. The family relationships are uncomfortable to watch because they are so frankly portrayed. This is a slice of life story about characters who are very much real people. No sugarcoating, no judgments, and no pandering are what make this movie so good. That and the acting.

Zelary (2003) Dir. Ondrej Trojan. Notable cast: Ana Geislerova and Gyorgy Cserhalmi

This is a moving love story about two opposites, (she, the sophisticated urbanite, he, the simple farmer) who are forced together into marriage in order to escape the Nazi occupation of their country. "Green Acres" it is not, yet as the woman says goodbye to city life, she comes to love her new village, and love the man that fate chose for her even more. But this is an Eastern European movie, so it has a tragic sensibility. It's set during World War Two, so fate will touch the couple's lives again. Watch the movie and weep.

Asylum (2005) Dir. David Mackenzie. Notable cast: Natasha Richardson, Martin Csokas, and Ian McKellen.

An affair between a psychiatrist’s wife, unhappy in marriage, and a psychiatric inmate, provides the framework for this tragedy. Those who say this movie starts well and ends badly are exactly wrong. Force yourself to sit through the first 2/3 of the movie and the sordid inexplicable affair. The ending's intriguing psychological twist will stick with you.

Closer (2004) Dir. Mike Nichols. Notable cast: Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Julia Roberts and Clive Owen.

In the Era of Asymmetrical Warfare, of terrorism, of dirty warriors, this movie is a love story for our time that portrays love as a combat for affection. Clive Owen, Natalie Portman, Julia Roberts and Jude Law play four strangers who fall in and out of love with each other.

Early on, Larry (Owen, who reigns supreme in this movie) says of his rival Dan (Law), "I could have him. in a scrap." Larry, brutally honest but with the morals of a thug, recognizes the combat to follow and plays his part with relentlessness and brutality. Yet he never confronts his enemy straight on. Instead, he lays landmines of brutal truth that he knows will destroy his opponent.

But what about the women? Anna (Roberts) is an enigma who first appears strong but later becomes simply the prize. Alice (Portman), on the other hand, is nobody's prize and that's exactly how she wants it. She survives by telling lies. She lies so much and so well, that when she finally tells a truth, it's taken as a lie. Most important, she survives by keeping men just outside her emotional space. She moves through life unchanged by others. We see her at the beginning and the end of the movie walking down a sidewalk, cutting through the crowd the way a duck glides across the water: parting the water, leaving a wake, but never getting wet.

The movie leaves the viewer wondering about the motivations of the characters. That doesn't matter because this is not a movie about intimacy, it's about closing the deal. The lesson of Closer,for men anyway, is that love goes to the man who knows what he wants and fights the dirtiest to get it. Not a pretty picture.

War Stories

Japan’s Longest Day (1967) Dir. Kihachi Okamoto

This movie is the antidote to The Last Samurai. Japan's Longest Day shows the fateful 24 hours when Japan surrenders to the Americans and fights off a revolt of Army officers, who are overzealous with the bushido so admired by Tom Cruise's character in The Last Samurai, but which also led to the deaths of millions in World War II. Unlike America's The Longest Day, the movie about the Normandy invasion, the action in this Japanese movie involves less combat and more government officials arguing over the wording of the Emperor's surrender announcement and lots of anguished confrontations between soldiers forced to face defeat. There is the occasional sword and gun fight to whet the appetites of fans of war and samurai movies. But this movie is more about a militaristic country facing up to the shame of total defeat.

Bravo Two Zero (1999) Dir. Tom Clegg. Notable cast: Sean Bean

A remarkable movie about contemporary warfare based on an autobiographical book. Sean Bean is perfect as the lead. The movie follows British special forces soldiers during the Gulf War. The soldiers fly to the Middle East on what appears to be a commercial jet. A small squad is transported behind enemy lines on a sabotage mission, defeats a much larger Iraqi force, is captured, abused in captivity, and eventually released. Along the way the movie reveals what it's like to be a modern special forces soldier going from home to war and then back again in the space of a few short months. It's an insightful movie on the life of a professional soldier at war. Not an anti-war movie by any means. Not pro-war either. It's about war as a job.

Science Fiction

The End of August at the Hotel Ozone (1966) Dir. Jan Schmidt-Garre

When the world ends in nuclear holocaust a small band of Eastern European women, up to no good themselves, walk the landscape searching for survivors. There are two kinds of apocalypse movies. The Anglosphere genre is exemplified by The Postman, The Mad Max movies, Waterworld, even The Terminator. Despite the end of the world as we know it, each tells a story of personal heroism and hope. The other kind of apocalypse movie is European. It's exemplified by Le Dernier Combat, The Time of the Wolf, and this movie, The End of August at the Hotel Ozone. These are all movies of despair. The end of civilization is the end of the world. There is no personal heroism and no hope. Why the difference? Perhaps it's the Anglosphere's elevation of the individual. I don't know for sure. Watch them all and you decide, they are all worth the watch. (No doubt there are other types, and certain Anglo movies would fall into the European category, for instance, 28 Weeks Later, but for the moment, allow me this dichotomy.) Hotel Ozone shows animals killed on screen. The dog shooting is controversial as it appears to be an actual killing. It looks faked when slowed down, however. If that sort of thing bothers you, this might not be the movie for you.

The Chronicles of Riddick (2004) Dir. David Twohy. Notable cast: Vin Diesel, Judi Dench, and Colm Feore.

If you like spaceships and action, The Chronicles of Riddick could be your movie because it provides plenty of both. Although its quality doesn't measure up to its predecessor, Pitch Black,it is worthy as a sequel because it takes Riddick's story in an entirely other direction. The visuals are stunning. The plot is hardly more than an action movie, there's no situation so dire that it can't be beaten to death by Vin Diesel's fists, but the story does end at an unexpected place. It's also suggestive of today's world of religious combat with an invading army crossing the galaxy and converting the conquered along the way. And did I mention that the movie looks darn good?

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) Dir. Michael Gondry. Notable cast: Jim Carrey, Kirsten Dunst, Kate Winslet, Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo, and Tom Wilkinson.

Eternal Sunshine was for my money the best science fiction movie of 2004. Not too much in the way of special effects in this movie, just good screen writing that keeps tight control of the plot, well-managed direction, and superb acting by some of my favorites. It takes place in the present but it's pure science fiction as it explores the mind-bending consequences on human behavior of a new technology that can selectively wipe away bad memories from a person's brain.

Val Lewton’s Isle of the Dead and Bedlam (1945) Dir. Mark Robson. Notable cast: Boris Karloff.

Horror films in the 21st Century are dipping more and more into the gore bucket. The shock value is high but is it art? Producer Val Lewton's horror movies aimed higher, whether because of the censorship of the times or because of good taste and intelligence. Isle of the Dead is the one supernatural movie on this disc but the horror in this movie is what ignorance and superstition will lead human beings to do. Bedlam doesn't really count as a horror movie. Instead, it's a morality tale about an 18th Century English insane asylum, its evil proprietor, and the people who would reform the place. The commentary track of Bedlam is worth the listen as it explains the inspiration for the movie.

The Island (2005) Dir. Michael Bay. Notable cast: Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansson, and Steve Buscemi.

Okay, I'm a sucker for concept science fiction and action movies. This movie combines both. The first 20 minutes or so set up the concept. Why are these people living pampered lives in an enclosed and antiseptic habitat and why are they all so childish? Then suddenly the movie changes from being a "film" into being a Michael Bay movie, with the running, and the jumping, and the fighting, and things blowing up. Very exciting! There are some great chase scenes in this movie. Special effects have come a long way or somebody has invented really cool flying motorcyles. There's something for the brain too, with the movie's exploration of what it means to be human and the morality, or not, of treating human beings as tools for the benefit of others. Something for contemporary society to think about. Can you say “embryonic stem cells”?



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