Saturday, November 6, 2010

The View From Home 15: New releases on DVD

By John Thomason

The Magician‭ (‬Criterion‭)
Standard list price:‭ ‬$29.95
Release date:‭ ‬Oct.‭ ‬12

Ask‭ ‬10‭ ‬film scholars to name the‭ ‬10‭ ‬most important Ingmar Bergman films,‭ ‬and it’s quite likely‭ ‬The Magician wouldn’t make any of their lists.‭ ‬This is both a testament to the director’s career-long consistency in producing masterpieces and perhaps a grave oversight.‭ ‬Where anointed art-cinema benchmarks like‭ ‬The Seventh Seal and‭ ‬Cries and Whispers can today feel like leaden,‭ ‬portentous slogs,‭ ‬The Magician is both light on its feet and terrifyingly moody,‭ ‬more surface-enjoyable than the vast majority of the director’s canon while still managing to reinforce many of the metaphysical themes prevalent in his most humorless dramas.

The retrospective neglect of‭ ‬The Magician‭ – ‬mistranslated from its original Swedish title‭ ‬The Face‭ – ‬is doubly surprising considering the critical success of the film in its initial release,‭ ‬winning top prizes at the Venice Film Festival and the British Academy Awards.‭ ‬Stateside,‭ ‬however,‭ ‬it’s been one of the few remaining Bergman titles to not have a Region‭ ‬1‭ ‬release.‭ ‬Finally arriving on DVD via a luminous Criterion transfer,‭ ‬The Magician‭ ‬is now poised,‭ ‬with this exposure to a new generation of film buffs,‭ ‬to become the cult classic it always should have been.

Max von Sydow leads the cast of Bergman regulars as the title character,‭ ‬a supposedly mute conjurer by the name of Vogler,‭ ‬whom we first see leading a rickety caravan toward the baroque home of a Swedish consul.‭ ‬Charlatans and snake oil salesmen,‭ ‬Vogler and his team of assistants are about to put their misleading advertisements‭ – ‬promising legitimate mind-reading,‭ ‬profound illusions and the conjuring of spirits‭ – ‬to the test when they perform for the consul,‭ ‬a doctor and a police commissioner.‭ ‬The head skeptic is Dr.‭ ‬Vergerus‭ (‬Gunnar Bjornstrand‭)‬,‭ ‬whose belief in science trumps the existence of all things inexplicable or supernatural.‭ ‬He confronts the magician with undisguised scorn,‭ ‬establishing himself as the concrete-thinking nemesis to Vogler’s architect of the netherworld.

What transpires is an inspired,‭ ‬Gothic horror romp‭ – ‬but only after about a half-hour of jaunty sex comedy,‭ ‬courtesy of two giggly Swedish girls and the doctor’s supply of love potions and truth serums.‭ ‬The humor isn’t the stuff of high art,‭ ‬but it’s awfully funny,‭ ‬especially for its time,‭ ‬and it’s fascinating to watch a director immortalized for his unblinking seriousness working so deftly in comedic scenarios that wouldn’t be out of place in a Jerry Lewis picture.‭ ‬Though Bergman studies often overlook this element,‭ ‬The Magician‭ ‬is not alone in its sense of humor.‭ ‬It was released in‭ ‬1958,‭ ‬a few years after‭ ‬Smiles of a Summer Night,‭ ‬and a few years before‭ ‬The Devil’s Eye and For‭ ‬All These Women Now,‭ ‬Bergman comedies that hardly fit the director’s cerebral legacy‭ (‬and,‭ ‬unsurprisingly,‭ ‬still await Region‭ ‬1‭ ‬transfers‭)‬.

But‭ ‬The Magician was also released a couple of years prior to‭ ‬The Virgin Spring,‭ ‬the most disturbing and nerve-rattling film of Bergman’s career.‭ ‬Changing courses mid-stream,‭ ‬the movie eventually wends into a groove of haunting atmospherics and spooky visual trickery as Vergerus‭’ ‬entire belief system is threatened by Vogler’s apparent magic.

Lest you forget you’re watching a Bergman art film amid all the laughs and scares,‭ ‬The Magician‭ ‬is,‭ ‬per usual,‭ ‬an inquisition of God,‭ ‬albeit a more playful one than,‭ ‬say,‭ ‬The Silence.‭ ‬The movie’s metaphysical elements relate directly to the presence of an omniscient deity,‭ ‬and it contains lines that could just as easily been plucked from his more somber films:‭ “‬God is silent while men babble on‭…”

Bergman himself has considered his profession to be that of a conjurer of magical images,‭ ‬and several astute critics have interpreted Vogler as the filmmaker’s on-screen surrogate,‭ ‬with Vergerus the stand-in for the director’s numerous detractors.‭ ‬Bergman scholar Peter Cowie,‭ ‬in an accompanying video essay included in the special features,‭ ‬argues this point while providing a trove of perceptive information on the film’s back story.‭ ‬Contemporary French filmmaker Olivier Assasyas offers an eloquent take on the same subject in a‭ ‬1990‭ ‬article in‭ ‬Cahiers du Cinema that’s reprinted in the booklet for this release,‭ ‬in which he adds that‭ ‬The Magician is Bergman’s‭ “‬underground masterpiece.‭” ‬Let’s hope it doesn’t stay underground much longer.

For the record,‭ ‬if I were one of those‭ ‬10‭ ‬film scholars ranking Bergman’s work,‭ ‬here would be my top‭ ‬10.

10.‭ ‬Saraband
9.‭ ‬Hour of the Wolf
8.‭ ‬Fanny and Alexander
7.‭ ‬Through a Glass Darkly
6.‭ ‬The Magician‭
5.‭ ‬Monika
4.‭ ‬The Virgin Spring
3.‭ ‬Winter Light
2.‭ ‬Persona
1.‭ ‬Scenes From a Marriage

The Secret of Kells‭
(‬Flatiron Films‭)
Release date:‭ ‬Oct.‭ ‬5
SLP:‭ ‬$21.49

I won’t make any friends with this review,‭ ‬but I found this lovable animated feature to be an out-and-out bore.‭ ‬Achieving early prominence with an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature long before it was distributed to the majority of the public,‭ ‬The Secret of Kells‭ ‬has quickly become a cult favorite for its crude yet dazzling animation style‭ ‬--‭ ‬an anti-Pixar,‭ ‬anti-3D throwback‭ – ‬as well as its seemingly epic story.‭ ‬It’s a Tolkeinian fantasy,‭ ‬rooted in Celtic mythology,‭ ‬about a‭ ‬9th-century boy who becomes the proverbial Chosen One when a master illuminator needs his help to save a monastery from marauding Vikings.‭ ‬This bookish adventure is all a bunch of talky yada yada yada made only slightly engaging by the admittedly unique and disjointed animation.‭ ‬But it’s troubling when a‭ ‬75-minute cartoon feels like it’s taking three hours‭ – ‬despite,‭ ‬or perhaps because,‭ ‬of the fact that there’s enough material in this film to comprise three features.

I Am Love
‭ (‬Magnolia‭)
SLP:‭ ‬$20.99
Release date:‭ ‬Oct.‭ ‬12

To best approach Luca Guadagnino’s‭ ‬I Am Love is to look beyond cinema.‭ ‬Channeling the emotional extremity of Italian opera,‭ ‬the layered structure of classic symphonies and the detailed sweep of the Russian novel,‭ ‬this torrid peek into the personal affairs and betrayals of a crumbling bourgeois family chastises its wealthy industrialists while providing one of them with a painstaking exit strategy.‭ ‬From the movie’s opening tableau‭ – ‬a lugubrious,‭ ‬snow-capped gathering at‭ ‬Milan mansion in which the Recchi family’s oldest industrialist will retire and name his successor‭ – ‬through the start of an unpredictable affair,‭ ‬a passionate respite in London,‭ ‬an unspeakable tragedy back home and finally a phoenix-like rise from the family’s metaphoric ashes,‭ ‬I Am Love lives up to its boldly presumptuous title.‭ ‬Cooking scenes are filmed like sex scenes,‭ ‬and the sex scenes are presented as if sex had never been filmed before.‭ ‬Guadagnino has the chutzpah to cut away from his poetic montages of fragmented,‭ ‬scintillating flesh to show us the steamy flora and fauna of the surrounding land,‭ ‬a gesture that could have been a corny attempt at soft-porn impressionism but instead suggests the epic totality of the characters‭’ ‬actions.‭ ‬I Am Love’s plot is a succession of unpredictable game-changers,‭ ‬and its bravura style pays homage to a century’s worth of Italian art while charting a new,‭ ‬inspirational path forward.‭ ‬And as for Tilda Swinton,‭ ‬speaking fluent Italian in the leading role‭? ‬She’s simply a revelation.

The Human Centipede‭ (‬First Sequence‭)‬ (IFC‭)
Release date:‭ ‬Oct.‭ ‬5
SLP:‭ ‬$14.99

When something is hyped as being one of the grossest,‭ ‬sickest,‭ ‬most vile things you’ll ever see,‭ ‬you should be wary‭ – ‬not because you may end up losing your lunch in the aisle of the cinema‭ (‬or in this case,‭ ‬in the discomfort of your own home‭) ‬but because you’ll probably be disappointed at the banal tameness of it all.‭ ‬Tom Six’s‭ ‬The Human Centipede‭ (‬First Sequence‭) ‬is one of those movies,‭ ‬a Z-grade schlock-horror picture about a mad German doctor‭ (‬Dieter Laser‭) ‬who sews together three tourists,‭ ‬mouth-to-anus,‭ ‬to form the titular experiment.‭ ‬The result is unpleasant to look at,‭ ‬to be sure,‭ ‬but it’s devoid of artistic merit,‭ ‬and it’s no more vomit-inducing than countless snuff offerings from‭ ‬Mondo Cane to Herschell Gordon Lewis‭’ ‬oeuvre to any number of war films.‭ ‬Those expecting the film to go anywhere beyond its certifiably outrageous premise will be disappointed.‭ ‬Instead,‭ ‬watch the trailer:‭ ‬It’s pretty much the entire movie.

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