This column offers a method of film criticism that dwells entirely (almost entirely) on the film itself. It is not interested in ideological approaches to film or contextualization in regards to an auteur theory that privileges the authorial perspective of a director. It comments on recent DVD releases and attempts to offer something in return but only a something which has been taken from the film and did not originate in the writer. The column accepts that this approach breaches much of modern aesthetic theory and tries not to care.

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Saturday, May 4, 2013

DVD Column Seven

DVD Pick:

Elena [Blu-ray] (Zvyagintsev, 2011) RB UK New Wave Films

Elena is a film that pays attention to details and its gesture of crucial action are tied up with that attention to detail. It is a presentation of an older Russian women married, for the second time, to a retired high-up in the Soviet army. He has money, she has him, his daughter is seen to (despite her resentment), her son and his family are not (despite their apparent need, a need connected to their laziness about their own plight and their proclivity to reproduction). This causes tension between the married couple, a tension that delicately comes to be central in their lives and with profound but not conclusive results. It is a film about loyalty and very little in it exclusively understands loyalty as essentially virtuous. The movie is slow but when it moves it does so with a palpable degree of tension. In this way, it echoes not real life but our terror about real life that we find in apprehension of possible expectations. A young man (the grandson of Elena) goes off with his gang of friends for fun and the frolic of violence and we, impotently watching, dread what we can conceive of as the only possible outcome. This is the essence of the viewer’s experience, edge of your seat dread as to what might and should (although there is no definite logic to this demand) happen. What is Elena doing, what has she done? Does she know what she is doing, what has she set in motion? All of it is the drama of ordinary lives with some of the mystery of what certain members of a family do behind the scenes. No one else knows what anyone else is doing and yet there are acts being committed that would make us blanche while we delightedly accept them. Not a character in the film is without tremendous interest and I only wish that I could have seen all of them in private as we do Elena. This is a gentle and ruthless film.


Also Recommended:




The Kid With a Bike [Blu-ray] (Dardenne, 2011) Criterion

The Kid With A Bike represents a break from previous Dardenne brother films (the use of a steadi-cam, soundtrack music) but not a radical one. It is another film about how adults manage to coexist with and give to a child in trouble. The trouble, this time, is twelve year old Cyril and his rage against the world due, in part, to being completely rejected by his beloved and apathetic father. He ends up in the home, for his own strategic reasons, of hairdresser Samantha, for no apparent reason at all. It is the lack of Samantha’s reason to care for this hellion of a boy that gives the film its enormous power and importance. That is all there is, an extremely and justifiably angry young boy acting out, trying to find a male figure in his life to look up to and instead he finds a woman who cares for him unconditionally, irrationally and responsibly. In order for the moral joy of the film to work the boy has to be terrible and unbearable. This is accomplished in ways that are believable and disturbing. What is less believable but undeniably truthful is Samantha’s perpetual willingness to give with nothing in return. Undergraduates like to trot out the notion that there is no such thing as pure altruism, that everyone does good for the good that they eventually receive. The film outrages this notion by giving us a woman who is more punished than placated or pleasured by what she gives. She is good, for no reason at all and this, the alarming suggestion is, is the only way to be good. It also follows that it is the only way to parent and to befriend.

The Man With The Iron Fists [Blu-ray] (RZA, 2012) Universal

It is cartoonish and it is fun. It is an update of the Shaw Brothers films in every way except that the Wu-Tang Clan is on the soundtrack (a welcome addition). I am not going to bother with plot points or discussions of possible moral connection. The commendable moral of the film is that it is startlingly discrete in its treatment of women and that it is non-stop action. It is fun.

The Right to Live (Keighley, 1935) Warner Archive Classics


On paper this film sounds trite: injured man sets up fiancée with his brother in order that she can experience life. This is also the premise of Von Trier’s classic: Breaking the Waves and this film like that one has much to recommend it. The method by which this romantic melodrama turns into a mystery is compelling and so necessary that the viewer feels validated by its happening. It is a film that sets itself out to be a debate on moral rights to life and to die but like any good morality tale this becomes the setting and not the event. The questions you ask yourself are not the questions that correspond to the title but become personal ones: what was he thinking, how does she feel, and so on. The dialogue is sharp enough to let you into something other than speechmaking.

The Silk Express (Enright, 1933) Warner Archive Classics

New York needs silk and the main distributer has a monopoly and with that all the abuses of price gouging predictably occur. A leader of the silk merchants orders from Japan, the silk arrives in Seattle and is put on a train for New York, it has forty eight hours to get there. The monopoly has a vested interest in preventing this and thus we have a film that is exciting and smart. It is not clear to me why the time constraint is so tight but I did not care when faced with a smart hero and a smart villain battling it out on the train rails. The suspense was genuine and I felt like a child again watching an exciting and meaningless movie. But I am not a child and I no longer am nearly as able at forgiving or suspending the aspects of a movie that seem poorly conceived or heavy handed. This was the source of my pleasure here, I did not have to pretend to be someone younger and dumber than I am. I was returned to boyish enthusiasms without leaving myself. When that happens you love movies.

Sweepings (Cromwell, 1933) Warner Archive Classics

This was the best of the Warner Archive batch for this week. Yes, it is old fashioned and you have to accept, if this is foreign to your movie watching experience, a grainy black and white picture and a style of acting and filming that does not dispel any of your thoughts of what movies were like in decades past. It is the content that demands your attention. The great Chicago fire provides opportunity for Daniel Pardway who opens a store, selling anything that people want or need, finds immediate success. He is attentive to expenses and enjoys the hard work necessary for the type of success that he is lucky enough to have fallen into. In the title scene he discovers that even good things can be found in the garbage that one does the labor to sweep up. It is this metaphor that bears heavily on the rest of the film. The Pardway’s have four children, each cherished and adored, the last killing the mother and provoking in the father the usual cinematic promises of loving care. The film is devoted to the relationship that this father has to his increasingly disappointing children or sweepings. It is on these points that the film is particularly striking. The failure of the children to aspire to the heights of the father is presented both as an ethical lacking and an inheritance from a father devoted to capitalist principles. No one is unmarked, the father is disreputable in his way, blind to the natures of his children with his vision of them as his children; negligent of the actuality of a work ethic and its tremendous costs in those around him, devoted but not blood. His children are spoiled rotten but are also just rotten and spoiled by alcoholism, sexual impropriety (and the film is unusually frank in that regard) and by not having anything to do with their own lives. One son survives the devastating disappointment of his father by being, unstated, gay and he is accepted for not being like the rest who are just failures without the excuses, as far as a blind father can see, of their own private turmoil of identity. The film tries to end with the appearance of hope but only the most naïve of viewers would accept that the hope will be borne out in actuality. The film is cynical and dark but only so in relation to the false truths and light that are there to be sold.


Also seen:



Skyfall [Blu-ray] (Mendes, 2012) Twentieth Century Fox

There are twenty-three official James Bond films. I, and many others, own all of them on DVD. I, and many others, have a tendency towards curiosity whenever a new one comes out. I want to see it. Of the twenty-three I consider two of the films to be very good (Goldfinger, Casino Royale), about the same amount to be okay and the rest to be not very good at all. Right now, Skyfall is okay, ten years from now or even less it will likely fall in with the rest of them. Let me be clearer because I don’t think you and I are all that far apart on this: we love the idea of these films but they are not very good. Each of the junk ones has a moment or two you remember but to commend a film on that basis would be likely watching up to the opening credits, declaring your universal affection, and then turning it off. Actually, that is exactly what I do.


Ginger & Rosa [Blu-ray] (Potter, 2012) RB UK Artificial Eye

The first two thirds of this film are pretty ordinary. Two young girlfriends become caught up in issues of identity development at a moment of history that is dealing with the fearful rhetoric of nuclear annihilation by the presence of nuclear warheads on British soil. The two moments, of course, clash and comingle, identity becomes conflated with death and the usual good and poor behaviors, as reaction and reflection, occur. This is a lot for a film to capture and it is only in the last third where the psychological effects of all the fear and all the righteousness of rebelling against sources of fear without come to a head that the film soars. It is not enough to recommend because the glories of the conclusion are still touched by the inadequacies of the set up (and by Elle Fanning’s constant face pulling).


The Thieves [Blu-ray] (Dong-hoon, 2012) Well Go Entertainment

I enjoyed all the Ocean films (11 to whatever) that I saw. This is the South Korean version of those films except without the traces of all those Hollywood stars. It has style, miles of it, so much that one could say it is wasted. It is wasted on a film that is more complex than it is enjoyable. Double crosses and surprises happen so frequently that they are no longer surprising and when that happens you are the only one who is being double crossed.

House of Whipcord [Blu-ray] (Walker, 1974) Redemption

I can make no claims about Pete Walker’s finesse as a director of actors or of his ability to accentuate his meagre plots but he does know a thing or two about hiring repulsive male villains. Like Die Screaming, Marianne, House of Whipcord (both have titles more salacious than their content) offers the figure of a lipless elitist with high cheekbones who reeks of untrustworthiness. Despite this he is a charmer with women and here he uses the success of that charm to demonstrate the moral weakness and corruption of said woman. The story about moral superiority and the sexual status of women is an important one; more important than exploitation of both, as presented in the film, can bring to justice.


Silent Hill Revelation [Blu-ray] (Bassett, 2012) Universal Studios

I have not played the PS3 game nor have I seen the first film and I think it matters with this sequel which I am guessing is not a movie on its own but a continuation. All I have to recommend is an appreciation for some startling special effects (my favorite being a spider made from living mannequin parts that has a human head at the end of each limb). More human elements, such as the actors, are less appealing and I am not drawn, mistaken as this may be, to catch up on the back story.


The Sessions [Blu-ray] (Levin, 2012) Fox Searchlight

This is yet another cinematic example of a noble premise that traps its viewer into an affection or sympathy that the film does not earn. Sure, I am all for the lives of the disabled being improved in any way that they can. But does this mean I have to be moved by a film on this topic that lacks any complexity of character and that dehumanizes their challenged lead characters by making them saints? The film is stupid because everyone in the film is so noble you feel the profound need to be the only jerk in the room if only for the sake of human balance.


Ruby Sparks [Blu-ray] (Dayton and Faris, 2012) Fox Searchlight

A squirrely famous writer invents a female character that comes to life and becomes his love. The film is supposed to be interesting in how it comments on the ways that we try to write each other, especially in issues of romance, but if it is not. It is a film about a bad writer and his badly written girlfriend and that is all.


Midnight Son (Leberecht, 2011) Image Entertainment

My sense of well-wishing goes out to this film about a young security guard who develops a fixation for the taste of blood and who ropes a young woman into his world. The acting is good, the writing is okay, and the cinematography is passable. But it is too terse, too serious all the time, and as such is too dark for the viewer to see their way in. It is a failure but not a complete one.


Perks of Being a Wallflower [Blu-ray] (Chbosky, 2012) Summit Entertainment

I accept that I am not the target demographic for this one. I am also happy that my children are not of this demographic and hopefully never will be. The teenagers in this film are affluent and all too cool to be believed; even their problems are cool ones heavy with drama and the enticement for a self- involvement for which this age group is already fertile soil. It is a film about being included with somebody who accepts you and that this is all that is really necessary for a healthy life. It is childish.


Bully [Blu-ray] (Hirsch, 2011) Weinstein

A film about children devastated and destroyed at the hands and mouths of bullies is not a social issue with apparent nuance. Who can help but take the side of these battered kids? Of course we should but all social issues have nuance and films about them if they are to be more than propaganda are about demonstrating this nuance. This film is allowed to beat you about the head because it knows you surrendered in advanced.


Die Screaming, Marianne [Blu-ray] (Walker, 1971) Redemption

The betraying villain is also presented as a lothario of some reputation. Only one of these aspects is remotely believable and it sets the tone for the film. Half of it is ridiculous and the other half is disturbing in an uncomfortable way. It is startlingly casual about incest and other debaucheries.

Score [Blu-ray] (Metzger, 1974) RB UK Arrow Films

Like The Lickerish Quartet this is soft-core porn advertised as an art exposure of human sexuality. A swinging couple seeks to convert another more innocent, but oh so tempted, younger couple into their liberated ways. The general view is that sex is everything needed for a good life and the wilder the sex the wilder the life. It is a stupid idea smugly presented. Film Comment made this release a feature recommendation.

Mimesis [Blu-ray] (Shultze, 2012) Anchor Bay

Paranormal Activity cost $15,000. Mimesis cost $500,000. It was in watching Mimesis that this fact infuriated me. All this money and there is nothing to show for it, not a thrill or a moment of suspense. The fault is entirely in the vision of the film-makers; everything else involved with the project is fine. It is they who have blown it because of their lack of interest or ability in doing something with their opportunity. I know that I, and others, could have made a film with this cast and with this director of photography that actually provided some moments of intrigue and interest but we do not have the money. This film is a “clever” remake of Night of the Living Dead but the irony of that film being made cheaply but effectively is lost on its makers but annoyingly not on me.


The Lickerish Quarter [Blu-ray] (Metzger, 1970) RB UK Arrow Films is a valuable website. It provides good information about release schedules that I, for one, find useful. They are by no means complete and I have found that to develop a list I need to look around at least four or five different sources to get a sense of a week’s releases. I can count on dvdbeaver to provide the release dates for older rereleases of films that are basically softcore porn with an artistic pretense. This is not a vice of just dvdbeaver it is present throughout much of the film criticism world, older smutty (to use an older word) movies are largely guaranteed a moment of recognition in the splashy press of your mainstream film journals. Metzger is a hack who knows where the safe money is but like any pervert he also wants to believe that his voyeuristic impulses are satisfied and sanctioned by a larger and grander impulse. It may be but I cannot make the same case or justification for my own watching. This film about a family of three finding the star of a pornographic star and then falling into her sexual web may be making a comment about the negative power of pornography but the point is vague and only clever. It is clever not smart and so it still falls into the range of the stupid.



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