Saturday, June 26, 2010

The View From Home 9: New releases on DVD

By John Thomason

‭ (‬Criterion‭)
Release date:‭ ‬June‭ ‬22
Standard list price:‭ ‬$36.49

This two-disc Criterion reissue of one of the greatest‭ ‬– if not the greatest‭ ‬– films of the‭ ‬1990s replaces the‭ ‬out-of-print edition from Facets,‭ ‬and hopefully a new crop of young cinephiles will discover it.‭ ‬Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami wrote and directed the film after reading a short magazine article about a‭ ‬man named‭ ‬Hossein‭ ‬Sabzian,‭ ‬who was‭ ‬arrested for impersonating well-known Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf.‭ ‬Sabzian convinced a family‭ ‬he was Makhmalbaf,‭ ‬and this being‭ ‬the pre-Google age of the late‭ ‬’80s,‭ ‬they believed him.‭ ‬They‭ ‬even letting him live in their home for a few days after the promise that‭ “‬Makhmalbaf‭”‬ would shoot a movie in their house,‭ ‬with themselves as the cast.

Kiarostami soon found out Sabzian was no run-of-the-mill con‭ ‬man looking for money to steal‭; ‬he was an obsessed moviegoer who felt a deep sense of himself in Makhmalbaf‭’‬s‭ (‬and Kiarostami‭’‬s‭) ‬films and relished the illusory power of living in the auteur‭’‬s‭ ‬shoes‭ ‬– and in his psyche.‭ ‬Close-Up is Kiarostami‭’‬s exploration/re-creation of the events leading up to,‭ ‬and including,‭ ‬Sabzian‭’‬s fraud trial,‭ ‬with the principal players all reprising,‭ ‬and reliving,‭ ‬their real-life encounters.

Part documentary,‭ ‬part dramatic reenactment,‭ ‬there has never been anything quite like‭ ‬Close-Up before or since its release,‭ ‬and that‭’‬s partly what makes it so special.‭ ‬It examines the manipulation of reality and the‭ ‬nature of the documentary film,‭ ‬and how people change and adapt in‭ ‬the presence of a camera.‭ ‬Sabzian is a character more worthy of our pity than our scorn,‭ ‬and Kiarostami treats the disturbed man with empathy and even‭ ‬understanding.‭ ‬After all,‭ ‬Sabzian‭’‬s‭ ‬rationale‭ ‬– cinephilia as justification for fraud‭ ‬– is almost romantic at a time of all-digital movie theaters,‭ ‬disappearing arthouses and dwindling art-film distribution.

The bonus features make this release an essential addition to your collection,‭ ‬even if you already own the Facets‭ ‬DVD.‭ ‬Criterion has a charming little habit of tossing compelling,‭ ‬unreleased early features from prominent directors on bonus discs with little fanfare‭ ‬– see Jim Jarmusch‭’‬s‭ ‬Permanent Vacation and Richard Linklater‭’‬s‭ ‬It‭’‬s Impossible to Learn to Plow From Reading Books,‭ ‬on the‭ ‬Stranger Than Paradise and‭ ‬Slacker DVDs,‭ ‬respectively,‭ ‬and here they‭’‬ve thrown us a real gem:‭ ‬The Traveler,‭ ‬Kiarostami‭’‬s first true feature and a movie for which Sabzian,‭ ‬in his trial,‭ ‬confesses his love.‭

The black-and-white,‭ ‬verité-style film anticipates Kiarostami‭’‬s breakthrough feature‭ ‬Where Is the Friend‭’‬s Home‭?‬ by focusing its narrative on a rural child‭’‬s quest,‭ ‬this time to earn enough tomans to steal away to a major soccer‭ ‬match in Tehran‭ (‬you can also draw a direct line from‭ ‬The Traveler all the way to the similarly themed‭ ‬Offside,‭ ‬a masterpiece directed by Jafar Panahi‭; ‬the best films about children in the world continue to be produced in Iran‭)‬.‭ ‬Gently criticizing economic disparity and the unfairness of the world,‭ ‬The Traveler is an unabashedly inspiring movie in which the character‭’‬s journey is far more important than his destination.‭

Close-Up‭’‬s second disc provides more than‭ ‬90‭ ‬fascinating minutes of reflection and analysis from Kiarostami,‭ ‬Sabzian and Sabzian‭’‬s friends and neighbors:‭ ‬It‭’‬s a sort of documentary post-mortem of the world after‭ ‬Close-Up,‭ ‬divided into three featurettes.‭ ‬In the documentary‭ ‬Close-Up Long Shot,‭ ‬made six year‭’‬s after Kiarostami‭’‬s film,‭ ‬Sabzian remains a pitiful soul,‭ ‬but he‭’‬s filled with poetic insights.‭ ‬He candidly admits that‭ “‬I let my love for cinema destroy my life,‭”‬ just before the director‭’‬s camera lingers on a copy of the Koran that rests atop an instructional book about making movies on Super‭ ‬8.‭

Sure enough,‭ ‬some time later,‭ ‬as Kiarostami recounts in a newly recorded interview featurette,‭ ‬Sabzian‭’‬s life would end at‭ ‬52,‭ ‬and it was the cinema that killed him:‭ ‬He collapsed into a coma at a subway station on the way to meet film students who were to film him before he was to meet Kiarostami for a retrospective screening of‭ ‬Close-Up.‭ ‬With this grim endnote in mind,‭ ‬I‭’‬m left wondering if there has ever been a film that so eloquently expresses the immense power and influence of the very medium.‭ ‬Close-Up‭ ‬belongs at the Met and the Smithsonian as much as it does your Netflix queue.

Bluebeard‭ (‬Strand‭)
Release date:‭ ‬June‭ ‬22
SLP:‭ ‬$21.49

Admirers of Catherine Breillat know the French director as one of the cinema‭’‬s foremost purveyors of frank deconstructions of female sexuality and gender representation.‭ ‬That said,‭ ‬her latest film‭ ‬– an arch,‭ ‬emotionless rendering of Charles Perrault‭’‬s bloody fairy tale‭ ‬Bluebeard‭ ‬– may seem an unusual choice for the director.‭ ‬More straightforward than not,‭ ‬her terse adaptation lacks key Breillatian themes,‭ ‬namely the uninhibited sexuality that dominated even her repressive period piece,‭ ‬The Last Mistress.‭ ‬Bluebeard cuts between a poker-faced retelling of the‭ ‬1697-set Bluebeard fable,‭ ‬about a young girl betrothed to an ogreish aristocrat,‭ ‬and a more modern depiction of two adorable French girls who discover the Perrault text in their mothers‭’‬ attic.‭ ‬The contemporary story has an appealing sense of comic spontaneity,‭ ‬even when its frequent interruptions desensitize‭ ‬us to the‭ ‬17th-century drama and remind us we‭’‬re watching a movie‭ ‬–undoubtedly a deliberate distancing device on Breillat‭’‬s part.‭ ‬Bluebeard is,‭ ‬like much of Breillat‭’‬s oeuvre,‭ ‬more engaging as intellectual theory than entertainment.‭ ‬It‭’‬s an interesting work,‭ ‬but because it fails to provoke or subvert the gruesome folk tale in any way‭ ‬– feminist or otherwise‭ ‬– I couldn‭’‬t help but see it as a missed opportunity for the normally confrontational auteur.

Le combat dans l‭’‬ile‭ (‬Zeitgeist Films‭)
Release date:‭ ‬June‭ ‬22
SLP:‭ ‬$22.49

An esoteric soundtrack and luminous black-and-white photography mask a rather conventional story in French director Alain Cavalier‭’‬s stylish debut feature,‭ ‬Le combat dans l‭’‬ile.‭ ‬When‭ ‬abusive militiaman‭ ‬Clement‭ (‬Jean-Louis Trintignant,‭ ‬The Conformist‭) ‬is framed for an assassination attempt by the leader of his extremist political organization,‭ ‬he flees to Buenos Aires to kill the man.‭ ‬His wife Anne‭ (‬Romy Schneider,‭ ‬Cesar‭ & ‬Rosalie‭)‬,‭ ‬hiding in Paris,‭ ‬kindles a new romance with Clement‭’‬s old friend and modest printer Paul‭ (‬Henri Sierre‭)‬,‭ ‬who brings out the radiant stage actress Anne had long repressed.‭ ‬When Clement finally returns,‭ ‬he naturally wants his girl back,‭ ‬leading to a bloody duel between the two men.‭ ‬Released in‭ ‬1962‭ ‬at the height of the French New Wave,‭ ‬Cavalier‭’‬s film found itself lost to history amid the Godards,‭ ‬Truffauts,‭ ‬Malles and the other darlings of hip Francophilia.‭ ‬Its narrative and obligatory political ambience may come off‭ ‬as‭ ‬a bit rote today,‭ ‬but like many of those masters‭’‬ films,‭ ‬its formalism feels every bit as‭ (‬post)modern as the day it was released.

Green Zone‭ (‬Universal‭)
Release date:‭ ‬June‭ ‬22
SLP:‭ ‬$17.49

There‭’‬s an inherent problem with Paul Greengrass‭’‬ Green Zone,‭ ‬and it‭’‬s not the shaky,‭ ‬adrenalized,‭ ‬faux-realistic camerawork that‭’‬s become the filmmaker‭’‬s signature‭ (‬though viewers who succumb to frequent motion sickness‭ ‬might want to avoid this one,‭ ‬ditto to the director‭’‬s‭ ‬Bourne movies‭)‬.‭ ‬The problem lies more in the screenplay,‭ ‬about a courageous whistleblower‭ (‬Matt Damon‭) ‬from the U.S.‭ ‬army‭’‬s team of WMD hunters who works to expose lies and corruption surrounding the Bush administration‭’‬s justification for war in the early days of the occupation of Iraq.‭ ‬Most of the chief characters have real-life counterparts who have been written about extensively in books such as Bob Woodward‭’‬s‭ ‬State of Denial and Rajiv Chandrasekaran‭’‬s‭ ‬Imperial Life in the Emerald City,‭ ‬the latter of which inspired Brian Helgeland‭’‬s script:‭ ‬Damon‭’‬s character is modeled after chief warrant officer Richard Gonzalez,‭ ‬Greg Kinnear‭’‬s inept Pentagon bureaucrat is clearly based on Paul Bremer,‭ ‬Amy Ryan‭’‬s muckraking journalist is almost certainly Judith Miller,‭ ‬etc.‭ ‬Because the story is based on such recent‭ ‬– and widespread‭ ‬– public knowledge,‭ ‬the amount of suspense,‭ ‬twists and dramatic tension is almost nonexistent‭; ‬forget any chance of new revelations about the whole sordid affair.‭ ‬Still,‭ ‬Greengrass tries his darndest to turn Helgeland‭’‬s moral lecture on the war crimes of the previous administration into a straightforward action movie,‭ ‬and at this he mostly succeeds,‭ ‬despite scattered bouts of hand-cam incomprehensibility.

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