Thursday, January 20, 2011

The View From Home 19: New releases on DVD

By John Thomason

Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss‭ (‬Criterion‭)
Release date:‭ ‬Jan.‭ ‬18
Standard list price:‭ ‬$21.99‭ ‬each

In all the documentaries and video interviews made about the work of the great director Samuel Fuller,‭ ‬the movie referenced more than any‭ ‬other is not even‭ ‬made‭ ‬by Fuller.‭ ‬It‭’‬s a scene from‭ ‬Pierrot le fou,‭ ‬Jean-Luc Godard‭’‬s manic farrago from‭ ‬1965.‭ ‬Fuller,‭ ‬in‭ ‬at the time in real life‭ ‬inching toward his ostracization from Hollywood,‭ ‬cameos as himself,‭ ‬stationed in Paris to film a picture.‭ ‬Asked by Jean-Paul Belmondo what makes a movie,‭ ‬Fuller responds‭ “‬A film is like a battleground.‭ ‬It‭’‬s love,‭ ‬hate,‭ ‬action,‭ ‬violence,‭ ‬death.‭ ‬In one word:‭ ‬emotions.‭”

Fuller‭’‬s concise summarization isn‭’‬t everyone‭’‬s definition of cinema,‭ ‬but it‭’‬s shorthand for his entire body of work:‭ ‬A bruising‭ ‬30-film oeuvre bristling‭ ‬with intensity and broadcasting from society‭’‬s corroded fringes.

A virtual nobody when he‭ ‬was‭ ‬most active in Hollywood‭ (‬under Darryl Zanuck‭’‬s employ‭)‬,‭ ‬it took the recognition of French polemicists like Godard and Francois Truffaut to recognize what critics in Fuller‭’‬s own country of origin didn‭’‬t see.‭ ‬Now he‭’‬s more or less a household name in cinema studies‭ (‬in Noah Baumbach‭’‬s‭ ‬Kicking and Screaming,‭ ‬a character applying for a job at a video store is asked by the proprietor,‭ “‬Who are your influences‭?”‬ He nervously replies,‭ “‬Samuel Fuller‭ …‬ all the good ones‭…”‬).

Retrospectives and revivals of his work are common in big cities.‭ ‬I saw my first two Fuller titles‭ ‬– Shock Corridor and‭ ‬The Naked Kiss,‭ ‬made at the end of his‭ ‬studio run‭ ‬– while studying cinema in college.‭ ‬At the time,‭ ‬they were all that was available on DVD.‭ ‬Criterion,‭ ‬the distributor responsible for these early releases,‭ ‬has just reissued both of these epochal titles,‭ ‬in better transfers than before and stocked with juicy extras.

Looking at‭ ‬Shock Corridor a second time,‭ ‬it‭’‬s even more brilliant than I remember it.‭ ‬The movie centers on Johnny‭ (‬Peter Breck,‭) ‬a journalist angling for a Pulitzer.‭ ‬His plan is to fake insanity so that he can be committed to a mental hospital and solve a murder that has stumped local authorities.‭ ‬As Johnny subtly interrogates the three suspected patients‭ ‬– a man who believes he‭’‬s a Confederate general,‭ ‬a self-loathing black racist donning Klan raiment,‭ ‬and a former nuclear physicist reduced‭ ‬to the intellectual capacity of a child‭ ‬– it‭’‬s not long before‭ ‬he loses his grip on reality as well.

Fuller‭’‬s genius touch in this disturbing,‭ ‬low-budget,‭ ‬black-and-white freak-out is the way he makes his characters‭’‬ subjective insanity our‭ ‬objective,‭ ‬onscreen reality.‭ ‬He floods the film‭’‬s soundtrack with the bombastic arias blaring in the head of Johnny‭’‬s roommate,‭ ‬a dime-store Pavarotti‭; ‬another patient‭’‬s shell-shocked,‭ ‬Technicolor visions of Japanese locales fill the movie‭’‬s frame.‭ ‬Their disease becomes‭ ‬our own,‭ ‬and the results are too tragic to be exploitative.

With‭ ‬Shock Corridor,‭ ‬Fuller used the platform of‭ ‬a Hollywood mystery‭ ‬to‭ ‬examine the long-term of effects of brainwashing to incite bigotry and mental corrosion.‭ ‬It‭’‬s one of any number of Fuller pictures that confronts the cancer of racial animus in America,‭ ‬a sensitive‭ ‬indictment buried underneath‭ ‬a violent,‭ ‬in-your-face style.

The impassioned melodrama‭ ‬The Naked Kiss,‭ ‬released a year later,‭ ‬picks up where the bonkers‭ ‬Shock Corridor left off.‭ ‬The movie is home to one of the most unforgettable whiz-bang prologues ever filmed:‭ ‬A bald prostitute beats the daylights out of her pimp‭ ‬– and the camera itself,‭ ‬and we the audience‭ ‬– with her purse,‭ ‬a pummeling stanza‭ ‬scored to the jittery wails of hot jazz.‭ ‬But Kelly‭ (‬Constance Towers‭)‬,‭ ‬the shaved-headed protagonist in question,‭ ‬is no ordinary hooker.‭ ‬She can quote Byron and Goethe at‭ ‬the drop of a hat,‭ ‬and she wants to get out of the business.‭ ‬This proves easier said than done.‭ ‬Despite a new hospital job nursing disabled children,‭ ‬her damaged past catches up with her.

The Naked Kiss is one of the oldest mainstream films in history to imply an act of child molestation by a pedophile‭ ‬– a revelation rendered in a crescendo-building series of close-ups that still has the power to shock today.‭ ‬All in a day‭’‬s work for Fuller,‭ ‬who once again uses his medium to expose the rot at humanity‭’‬s core.

Bonus features on these discs include new interviews with Constance Towers,‭ ‬interviews with Fuller on French television in‭ ‬1967‭ ‬and‭ ‬1987‭ ‬and new illustrations by cartoonist Daniel Clowes.‭ ‬The best of them all is the unorthodox‭ ‬1996‭ ‬documentary‭ ‬The Typewriter,‭ ‬the Rifle and the Movie Camera,‭ ‬about Fuller and his career.‭ ‬The film reveals how Fuller‭’‬s experiences in newsrooms and‭ ‬on battlefields directly informed his narratives,‭ ‬and it features a host of movie directors admiring Fuller‭’‬s influence.

Martin Scorsese waxes beautifully about Fuller‭’‬s inspirational formal qualities,‭ ‬while Tim Robbins and Quentin Tarantino are granted full access to Fuller‭’‬s home,‭ ‬where they fondle his movie‭ ‬detritus.‭ ‬It‭’‬s a surreal moment of one generation‭’‬s maverick passing the torch to another.

Alamar‭ ‬(Film Movement‭)
Release date:‭ ‬Jan.‭ ‬11
SLP:‭ ‬$22.49

Shot on location on Mexico‭’‬s environmentally bounteous Banco Chinchorro coral reef,‭ ‬Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio‭’‬s‭ ‬Alamar is a miniature epic of atmosphere and emotion,‭ ‬as simple in story as it is deep in suggestion.‭ ‬The plot is minimal:‭ ‬Shortly after a parental divorce,‭ ‬a child leaves his mother in Rome to take‭ ‬a maritime journey with his father,‭ ‬whose own dad is a local fisherman who makes a living lobster-diving off the reef.‭ ‬As the child absorbs the foreign lifestyle,‭ ‬what begins as a wordless relationship with his estranged father flourishes into a loving companionship,‭ ‬despite‭ ‬– or perhaps because of‭ ‬– their looming separation at the film‭’‬s end.‭ ‬There is no manipulation or dramatic tension‭; ‬the only suspense is whether the child will be reunited with a friendly egret.‭ ‬Alamar is more of a lyrical tone poem than narrative feature.‭ ‬Every shot is a self-contained work of art,‭ ‬meticulous in composition while still allowing for the beauty of life to flow,‭ ‬unpredictably,‭ ‬in front of Gonzalez-Rubio‭’‬s documentary-like lens.‭ ‬You get the feeling that the filmmaker‭’‬s immersion into the land,‭ ‬its local citizens and their workaday customs is as much a voyage of discovery for the director as it is the child in the movie‭ ‬– a sort of Robert Flaherty ethnographic doc filmed in the style of the Dardenne Brothers.‭ ‬However Gonzalez-Rubio managed to pull it off,‭ ‬it‭’‬s a miraculous achievement.

Paper Man
‭ (‬MPI‭)
Release date:‭ ‬Jan.‭ ‬18
SLP:‭ ‬$16.99

Between‭ ‬The Squid and the Whale and‭ ‬The Answer Man,‭ ‬Jeff Daniels has looked awfully good on a fictional book jacket of late‭; ‬he‭’‬s once again typecast as a cranky,‭ ‬reclusive author in‭ ‬Paper Man,‭ ‬the feature debut by writer-directors Kieran and Michele Mulroney.‭ ‬This time,‭ ‬he plays Richard Dunn,‭ ‬a writer of pretentious literature who is embarking on a small-town retreat and pseudo-separation from his wife Claire‭ (‬Lisa Kudrow‭) ‬to work on an epic novel about an endangered species of fowl.‭ ‬Delusional and marginally functioning,‭ ‬he still communicates with an imaginary friend from his childhood‭ ‬– a cape-donning,‭ ‬bleached-blonde superhero played with inspired mirth by Ryan Reynolds.‭ ‬Richard‭’‬s life changes when he meets Abby‭ (‬Emma Stone‭)‬,‭ ‬a local teen with a history of personal trauma that trumps his own quotidian angst.

Given that it‭’‬s divided equally between cult-cinema absurdity and the warm uplift of mainstream dramedy,‭ ‬Paper Man works a lot better than you might expect,‭ ‬earning great comic mileage from the charm of its charismatic leads and the Mulroneys‭’‬ witty screenplay.‭ ‬Some of the two-dimensional supporting characters,‭ ‬such as Abby‭’‬s over-the-top ass of a boyfriend,‭ ‬function only as,‭ ‬well,‭ ‬flimsy paper men for the audience to jeer accordingly,‭ ‬and as with most movies about writers,‭ ‬the literature read onscreen isn‭’‬t as profound as it‭’‬s intended to be.‭ ‬But this sweet bit of self-help cinema has a lot to say about forgiveness,‭ ‬redemption and shedding the growth-stunting baggage of the past,‭ ‬with corny platitudes kept thankfully to a minimum.

Catfish‭ (‬Universal‭)
Release date:‭ ‬Jan.‭ ‬4
SLP:‭ ‬$18.99

This DIY documentary begins with a look at an unusual pen-pal relationship between Nev Schulman,‭ ‬a‭ ‬24-year-old photographer from New York,‭ ‬and an‭ ‬8-year-old Michigan girl named Abby,‭ ‬who makes masterful paintings from many of Nev‭’‬s photographs.‭ ‬Eventually,‭ ‬the two connect on Facebook,‭ ‬which is where Nev meets Abby‭’‬s family,‭ ‬including her model-beautiful‭ ‬19-year-old sister Megan.‭ ‬Just as a long-distance romance begins to bloom online,‭ ‬Nev notices that some things about the family simply don‭’‬t add up,‭ ‬so he and his brother and best friend‭ ‬– filmmakers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost‭ ‬– travel to Michigan to uncover the truth.‭ ‬To reveal any more of the plot would be to spoil an initially compelling mystery that couldn‭’‬t be more relevant to our times.

On the surface,‭ ‬Catfish is accomplished filmmaking,‭ ‬but the more you‭ ‬think about it,‭ ‬the more questions it raises about the filmmakers‭’‬ decisions and motivations.‭ ‬The filmmakers swear their remarkable story is‭ ‬100‭ ‬percent fact,‭ ‬though much of the revelatory information we receive is presented dubiously,‭ ‬leading many critics and audiences to doubt the directors‭’‬ fidelity to the truth.‭ ‬That‭’‬s because there‭’‬s something,‭ ‬well‭ …‬.‭ ‬fishy about the final product,‭ ‬like we‭’‬ve been sold a bill of goods.‭ ‬Listening to the movie‭’‬s makers chat about‭ ‬Catfish on the DVD‭’‬s bonus features actually decreases the film‭’‬s appeal,‭ ‬as it shows how much better,‭ ‬and more raw,‭ ‬this expose of Internet deception could have been.

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