Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The View From Home 10: New releases on DVD

By John Thomason

Terribly Happy‭
(‬Oscilloscope Laboratories‭)
Release date:‭ ‬July‭ ‬13
Standard list price:‭ ‬$26.99

Following in the footsteps of Roger Vadim‭ ‬(…And God Created Woman‭)‬,‭ ‬George Sluizier‭ (‬The Vanishing‭) ‬and Michael Haneke‭ (‬Funny Games‭)‬,‭ ‬Danish filmmaker Henrik Ruben Genz becomes the latest foreign-language director to remake his own movie in English with his latest picture,‭ ‬Terribly Happy.‭ ‬This itch to Hollywoodize previous successes is a curious tendency that is probably worth an essay in itself,‭ ‬invariably suggesting creative stagnation,‭ ‬acknowledgement of imperfection in the original work,‭ ‬the chance to pursue new ideas in an old context or some combination of these motivations.‭ ‬Suffice it to say that in the particular case of‭ ‬Terribly Happy‭ – ‬Denmark’s official entry in this year’s Academy Awards‭ – ‬a Hollywood riff on the story makes more sense than any of these others,‭ ‬because‭ ‬Terribly Happy is already rooted in traditions of iconic American cinema‭; ‬it’s a film that’s foreign in language only.

Perhaps the most immediate genre identification is that of the classic American Western,‭ ‬albeit a subversive one.‭ ‬The protagonist‭ (‬and gradual antihero‭) ‬of the film is Robert Hansen‭ (‬Jakob Cedergren‭)‬,‭ ‬the archetypal new marshal sent to clean up a corrupt rural town.‭ ‬He carries his own distressing emotional baggage‭ – ‬he was reassigned to the town after a violent domestic dispute‭ – ‬but compared to the area’s drunken,‭ ‬drug-addled,‭ ‬pockmarked denizens,‭ ‬Robert is a force of sanity and ostensible goodness,‭ ‬trying as he might to play things by the book.‭ ‬But he’s soon informed that the previous marshal,‭ ‬like many people in the town who didn’t play by‭ ‬its rules,‭ “‬disappeared.‭”

The atmosphere of‭ ‬Terribly Happy is ominous,‭ ‬engrossing and sustained from the opening fade-in to the closing credit.‭ ‬The color-drained,‭ ‬barren tableaux of cows,‭ ‬mud and a forbidding bog provides a despairing context for the weird local color,‭ ‬including a shady doctor who shoots heroin‭ (‬Lars Brygmann‭)‬,‭ ‬a shopkeeper who locks children in storage compartments,‭ ‬and a little girl who pushes a stroller without a baby down desolate streets while her father‭ (‬Kim Bodnia‭)‬,‭ ‬the town’s intimidating kingpin,‭ ‬beats her mother‭ (‬Lene Maria Christensen‭)‬,‭ ‬the town’s closest approximation of a looker.

It’s through this prototype of the vulnerable,‭ ‬battered wife that Robert becomes entangled in his own sordid,‭ ‬bloody mess,‭ ‬calling to mind‭ ‬The Postman Always Rings Twice and the entire pulp-novel pantheon.‭ ‬Thus the film shifts from classic Western to classic noir faster than you can say‭ “‬Anthony Mann,‭” ‬while reinterpreting both Hollywood genres in a modern absurdist setting reminiscent of David Lynch’s‭ ‬Twin Peaks and‭ ‬Blue Velvet and,‭ ‬as many critics have already pointed out,‭ ‬the world of early Coen brothers.

Like those directors‭’ ‬best works,‭ ‬there’s an ironic smirk underneath the fatalistic terror of the practically predestined plot that many will find alienating.‭ ‬But I admire the film’s deliberate plunge into cult oddity,‭ ‬one that wears its cinematic references brazenly on its blood-stanched sleeve.‭ ‬Besides,‭ ‬beneath all the irony,‭ ‬there’s a bleakness no dark humorist could conceal.‭ ‬Robert becomes so hardened by his experience in the town‭ – ‬where it’s dump or be dumped in that hideous swamp‭ – ‬that the feeling you’re left with is fairly brutal and uncompromising,‭ ‬so much that no Hollywood ending could alleviate.‭ ‬Let’s hope Genz retains this atmosphere when he films his own Hollywood ending.

Everlasting Moments‭ (‬Criterion‭)
Release date:‭ ‬June‭ ‬29
SLP:‭ ‬$35.99

Shot appropriately in the faded sepia tones of turn-of-the-20th-century photography,‭ ‬Jan Troell’s‭ ‬Everlasting Moments is a handsome memory film about the real-life Maria Larsson‭ (‬Maria Heiskanen‭)‬,‭ ‬a housewife locked in a repressive marriage to a violent drunkard in pre-suffrage Sweden,‭ ‬who finds a liberating creative outlet in a Contessa box-camera.‭ ‬Everlasting Moments is a novelistic personal narrative,‭ ‬but it’s also a sweeping look at Sweden’s social and political history in the early‭ ‬1900s,‭ ‬refracted through the lens of Larsson’s camera and her ever-expanding family‭ (‬in a sobering reminder of those pre-birth-control times,‭ ‬we see a pregnant Larsson repeatedly jumping off her kitchen table in an attempt to abort her seventh child‭)‬.‭ ‬It’s an emotionally rich movie composed of tight,‭ ‬classical portraiture and little visual miracles,‭ ‬whether it’s a butterfly’s light reflecting onto the hand of a shopkeeper or a moving iris shot of Larsson,‭ ‬the unheralded photographer becoming,‭ ‬for once,‭ ‬the camera’s subject.‭ ‬Criterion’s two-disc,‭ ‬director-approved set includes an hour-long documentary about Troell titled‭ ‬Jan Troell’s Magic Mirror,‭ ‬a documentary spotlighting photographers from the real Maria Larsson and a featurette on the making of‭ ‬Everlasting Moments.

Lost Keaton‭ (‬Kino‭)
Release date:‭ ‬July‭ ‬6
SLP:‭ ‬$25.99

Unlike Charlie Chaplin,‭ ‬Buster Keaton never turned his iconic silent-film star status into an equally sensational career in the talkies.‭ ‬But this collection of‭ “‬lost‭” ‬shorts‭ (‬if they’re lost,‭ ‬how are we able to see them‭?) ‬debunks the popular wisdom that his career in sound cinema was a complete bust,‭ ‬and it’s due vindication for an actor I’ve always preferred over his main period rival.‭ ‬There are‭ ‬16‭ ‬shorts total here,‭ ‬shot between‭ ‬1934‭ ‬and‭ ‬1937‭ ‬and mastered from the archival‭ ‬35mm source materials.‭ ‬The two-reelers,‭ ‬which run from roughly‭ ‬15‭ ‬and‭ ‬20‭ ‬minutes each,‭ ‬find Keaton exploring his comic ingenuity on the baseball diamond,‭ ‬the opera,‭ ‬the chemistry lab and much more,‭ ‬and the DVD also includes a musical montage of Keaton’s pratfalls and stunts titled‭ “‬Why They Call Him Buster.‭” ‬It’s a real gem of a set,‭ ‬and it coincides with the July‭ ‬6‭ ‬two-disc reissue of‭ ‬Steamboat Bill,‭ ‬Jr.‭ (‬$26.99‭)‬,‭ ‬also from Kino.

Pretty Bird‭ (‬Paramount‭)
Release date:‭ ‬June‭ ‬29
SLP:‭ ‬$14.49

This poor little dramedy about three men who attempt to design and market a rocket belt debuted at Sundance at‭ ‬2008‭ ‬and never found a distributor.‭ ‬Looking at its belated DVD release,‭ ‬it’s easy to see why‭; ‬though it has some memorable characters and an appealing cast,‭ ‬its story is programmatic,‭ ‬never aspiring to anything more than going through the motions.‭ ‬Billy Crudup plays Curtis Prentiss,‭ ‬a delusional huckster and empty suit whose latest get-rich-quick scheme involves the development of a rocket belt,‭ ‬or jet pack,‭ ‬which has beguiled rocket scientists for decades.‭ ‬He culls his wisdom from corny self-help platitudes and tired‭ ‬Dead Poets Society dialogue‭; ‬his lack of business acumen and decidedly unhip cultural references make him a pretty funny character until you realize he’s just doing Michael Scott from‭ ‬The Office.‭ ‬Curtis recruits old friend and mattress salesman Kenny‭ (‬David Hornsby‭) ‬to be the money man on the venture,‭ ‬and he discovers out-of-work rocket scientist Rick Honeycutt‭ (‬Paul Giamatti in one of his more odious roles‭) ‬to do all the work for what turns out to be none of the credit.‭ ‬Cue the requisite internecine conflicts and spewn invectives that accompany any story of greed’s corrupting influence in the face of potential profit.‭ ‬Actor Paul Schneider,‭ ‬who also wrote the script,‭ ‬directs for the first time,‭ ‬and he brings an unobtrusive,‭ ‬workmanlike style to the material.‭ ‬But still:‭ ‬been there,‭ ‬done that.

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