Monday, August 16, 2010

The View From Home 12: New releases on DVD


By John Thomason

Appointment With Danger,‭ ‬Dark City‬and‭ ‬Union Station (‬Olive Films‭)
Standard list price:‭ ‬$19.99
Release date:‭ ‬July‭ ‬27

Apparently,‭ ‬DVD labels distributed the memo well:‭ ‬2010‭ ‬is‭ ‬the year for classic film noir.‭ ‬Last month Columbia released its‭ ‬Film Noir Classics Vol.‭ ‬2‭ ‬collection‭ (‬SLP‭ ‬$44.99‭)‬,‭ ‬an essential five-disc set that included Fritz Lang’s‭ ‬Human Desire,‭ ‬Phil Karlson’s‭ ‬The Brothers Rico‭ ‬and Jacques Tourneur’s‭ ‬Nightfall,‭ ‬pulpy classics by undisputed masters of the form.‭ ‬A week later,‭ ‬Warner Home Video followed suit with its equally powerful‭ ‬Film Noir Collection Vol.‭ ‬5‭ (‬$37.99‭)‬,‭ ‬and eight-movie affair that featured Karlson’s‭ ‬The Phenix City Story,‭ ‬Anthony Mann’s lean and mean‭ ‬Desperate and Don Siegel’s‭ ‬Crime in the Streets,‭ ‬starring John Cassavetes.

For fans of hard-boiled dialogue,‭ ‬chiaroscuro lighting and moral urban decay,‭ ‬this summer has been Christmas in July,‭ ‬and it doesn’t end with these box sets.‭ ‬The latest noir celebration comes courtesy of Olive Films,‭ ‬which recently unearthed three classics from the Paramount archive.‭ ‬The earliest of these,‭ ‬1950‭’‬s‭ ‬Union Station,‭ ‬is directed by a minor name in the noir pantheon‭ (‬Rudolph Mate‭)‬,‭ ‬but it’s a propulsive,‭ ‬pulse-pounding police procedural with William Holden as a railroad lawman trying to solve the case of the kidnapping of a millionaire’s blind daughter.‭ ‬The combative,‭ ‬suspenseful storytelling is full of Langian brutality and complex set pieces:‭ ‬Its characters chase one another in,‭ ‬out and between train cars and up and down unfinished scaffolding.‭ ‬The violence has an unceremonious matter-of-factness,‭ ‬with one ill-fated villain meeting his death via a stampede of cows.

But the true gem here is William Dieterle’s‭ ‬Dark City,‭ ‬perhaps the noirest title ever.‭ ‬It marks the film debut of Charlton Heston,‭ ‬whose linebacker’s shoulders already cut a distinctive,‭ ‬rocklike figure.‭ ‬He plays a two-bit hustler and gambling bookie consumed with guilt over the suicide of a patsy he and his poker-playing pals conned out of five grand.‭ ‬The guilt soon turns to fear‭ – ‬and the textbook noir morphs into proto-slasher horror‭ – ‬as Heston’s coterie of heavies are systematically slain by the dead patsy’s psychopathic brother.‭ ‬Dieterle shows great command of the camera‭; ‬the poker scene in particular is a memorable montage of close-ups of grimacing,‭ ‬square-jawed fatheads.‭

Dark City may not be perfect.‭ ‬Dieterle’s choice to reveal the shadow-lurking killer only by the bling on his ring finger‭ – ‬accented with a melodramatically ominous score‭ – ‬is a clunky device even for its time.‭ ‬But the film gets away with sleazy scares one minute and references to Greek mythology the next,‭ ‬and it leaves us cheering for the survival of a two-bit thug.

The weakest entry in this‭ ‘‬50s trio is Lewis Allen’s‭ ‬Appointment with Danger,‭ ‬an overly talky‭ ‬policier with Alan Ladd as a relentlessly determined cop pursuing the mysterious death of a postal inspector.‭ ‬So much of the story is banal exposition leading to the titular appointment,‭ ‬and the screenplay’s reams of endless jabber make it feel considerably longer than its‭ ‬89‭ ‬minutes.‭

I’ve also never been a fan of Ladd’s blank,‭ “‬unsmiling hardness,‭” ‬in the words of film historian David Thomson.‭ ‬It may be effective in some parts,‭ ‬but here Ladd is flat and monochromatic,‭ ‬making me yearn for a William Holden,‭ ‬Joel McCrea,‭ ‬or perhaps a Robert Mitchum to bring some emotion into the part.‭ ‬But considering the movie begins with a laughable promotional video for the United States Postal Service,‭ ‬Appointment with Danger is ultimately OK,‭ ‬and it has some grody dialogue I won’t soon forget:‭ “‬Go swallow a germ,‭” ‬spits one criminal to his squawking dame.‭ ‬Now‭ ‬that’s noir.


Home‭ (‬Kino‭)
SLP:‭ ‬$26.99
Release date:‭ ‬July‭ ‬27

A potent allegory about the unintended consequences of industrial development,‭ ‬first-time Swiss director Ursula Meier’s‭ ‬Home follows Marthe‭ (‬Isabelle Huppert‭) ‬and Michel‭ (‬Olivier Gourmet‭)‬,‭ ‬parents of three who live in an isolated home next to an abandoned strip of highway,‭ ‬which they’ve turned into an outdoor extension of their house.‭ ‬But when the public land is finally repaved for the construction of fully functioning multilane highway,‭ ‬the family’s world begins to crumble.‭ ‬The loss of privacy is one thing,‭ ‬and practical concerns abound,‭ ‬from how to transfer food and supplies from the roadside to the house amid steady traffic,‭ ‬to the kids making their way to school,‭ ‬to sleeping through the constant barrage of noise‭ – ‬not to mention the possibilities of exhaust fumes and other contaminants‭ ‬affecting the family’s health.‭ ‬Marthe,‭ ‬in particular,‭ ‬can’t handle their new home life but refuses to leave,‭ ‬eventually prompting Michel to imprison the family in walls of cement to block out the noise‭ (‬and,‭ ‬for most part,‭ ‬oxygen‭)‬.‭ ‬Changing tones dramatically from its lighthearted opening,‭ ‬Home is a dark and disturbing study of a nuclear family’s collective breakdown that had me thinking back to Michael Haneke’s corrosive‭ ‬1989‭ ‬drama‭ ‬The Seventh Continent.‭ ‬Meier,‭ ‬by contrast,‭ ‬at least provides her characters with some light at the end of the highway tunnel.



The Secret of the Grain‭ (‬Criterion‭)
SLP:‭ ‬$37.49
Release date:‭ ‬July‭ ‬27

For a‭ ‬2‭½‬-hour movie,‭ ‬Abdellatif Kechiche’s‭ ‬The Secret of the Grain has relatively few scenes,‭ ‬because each ones plays out like a domestic epic in miniature,‭ ‬building toward a kinetic and unforgettable climax.‭ ‬The story concerns a French-Kurdish family whose sad-faced patriarch,‭ ‬recently nudged out of his longtime construction job,‭ ‬decides to convert a dilapidated houseboat into a thriving restaurant.‭ ‬He encounters resistance all the way,‭ ‬from costs to licensing issues to interfamilial quarrels,‭ ‬with his possible future daughter-in-law his only tried-and-true partner and spokesperson.‭ ‬In his hectic,‭ ‬bustling family scenes,‭ ‬Kechiche has his characters talk over one another in a seemingly scriptless cacophony,‭ ‬brilliantly exhuming Altman and Cassavetes.‭ ‬Not to mention it’s a great food movie,‭ ‬joining the scrumptious pantheon of‭ ‬Babette’s Feast and‭ ‬Big Night.‭ ‬The Secret of the Grain is not without its low-key tragedies,‭ ‬but the film’s tone can best be described as hopeful pragmatism‭; ‬the movie reflects a world in which downsizing and outsourcing are rampant,‭ ‬but with enough community pride and togetherness,‭ ‬goals can be achieved even when the deck is stacked against you.‭ ‬Criterion’s two-disc set features‭ ‬a‭ ‬new interview with the director and film scholar Ludovic Cortade,‭ ‬an excerpt from a television broadcast on the movie,‭ ‬a new essay by critic Wesley Morris and more.



Tapped‭ ‬
(Disinformation‭)
SLP:‭ ‬$17.99
Release date:‭ ‬Aug.‭ ‬10

Following to the T the agitprop documentary formula popularized by‭ ‬An Inconvenient Truth,‭ ‬Tapped is the latest feature-length attack on a modern American convenience.‭ ‬Co-directed by Stephanie Soechtig and Jason Lindsey,‭ ‬the‭ ‬80-minute film identifies bottled water as an evil scourge that is damaging our health‭ (‬via the harmful chemicals in PET,‭ ‬which is in our plastic water bottles‭)‬,‭ ‬depleting our natural resources and turning our oceans into soups of discarded plastic‭ (‬so says one of the emotional,‭ ‬pedigreed experts‭)‬.‭ ‬Moreover,‭ ‬bottled water is impure‭ – ‬despite the false advertising of its supposedly virginal nature,‭ ‬it’s‭ ‬40‭ ‬percent tap water‭ – ‬and like most corporately controlled industries,‭ ‬it’s amoral:‭ ‬Tapped is most effective in its journalistic exposing of the Nestle corporation’s water mining in Maine and other water-fertile states,‭ ‬where,‭ ‬thanks to a legal loophole called absolute dominion,‭ ‬the company is permitted to steal the region’s natural water supply,‭ ‬even when massive droughts force fire trucks to provide basic drinking water.‭ ‬Convincing and possibly even lifestyle-changing,‭ ‬Tapped works better emotionally than intellectually or cinematically,‭ ‬where the directors‭’ ‬condescending treatment of bottled water executives has more than a whiff of Michael Moore-style manipulation and‭ “‬gotcha‭” ‬childishness.

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