Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The View From Home 22: New releases on DVD

By John Thomason

Around a Small Mountain‭ (‬Cinema Guild‭)
Release date:‭ ‬March‭ ‬8
Standard list price:‭ ‬$26.99

Could it be that French director Jacques Rivette,‭ ‬the New Wave lion who just turned‭ ‬83,‭ ‬is finally slowing down‭? ‬What else can we make of the fact that his latest feature,‭ ‬which could very well be his last,‭ ‬is a scant‭ ‬84‭ ‬minutes‭? ‬For Rivette,‭ ‬Around a Small Mountain is the equivalent of most directors‭’ ‬short films.‭ ‬His leanest titles usually come in around‭ ‬150‭ ‬minutes,‭ ‬and his‭ ‬270-minute film‭ ‬Out‭ ‬1:‭ ‬Spectre was pared down from a‭ ‬12-hour movie shot for French television.

It’s a testament to Rivette’s style‭ – ‬a mix of realistic scripted dialogue with improvisation and documentary-like diversions‭ – ‬that his films never‭ ‬feel their length,‭ ‬and‭ ‬Around a Small Mountain goes by like a passing train.‭ ‬It stars Sergio Castelitto as Vittorio,‭ ‬an enigmatic Italian vagabond‭ ‬--‭ ‬a man without a past and,‭ ‬apparently,‭ ‬without a future.‭ ‬All we know of him is presented onscreen:‭ ‬We first see him pull over on a mountainous road to silently repair a broken-down car driven by Kate‭ (‬Jane Birkin,‭ ‬growing into a doppelganger for Annette Bening‭)‬.‭ ‬Their film-opening encounter is like an anti-‭meet-cute.‭ ‬No words are exchanged,‭ ‬and the drifter drifts on.

But their destinations,‭ ‬apparently,‭ ‬are the same,‭ ‬because they soon bump into each other again and speak the movie’s first lines of dialogue.‭ ‬Kate is returning to her late father’s dilapidated circus that she fled‭ ‬15‭ ‬years earlier when,‭ ‬as we later learn,‭ ‬a horrific accident left her banished from the business.‭ ‬Bringing herself back into the fold,‭ ‬Kate upsets the circus’s proverbial apple cart,‭ ‬which was already in shambles.‭ ‬The way Rivette directs it,‭ ‬the clown sketches,‭ ‬high-wire acts and feats of derring-do are presented like self-conscious performance art,‭ ‬played to catatonic,‭ ‬microscopically small audiences that make Clint Eastwood’s ragtag rodeo in‭ ‬Bronco Billy look like Ringling Brothers.

Then there’s Vittorio,‭ ‬who won’t seem to go away.‭ ‬If he carries a torch for Kate,‭ ‬he doesn’t do a very good job keeping it lit.‭ ‬Rather than slowly build up a romance,‭ ‬Rivette casts his two leads as impenetrable strangers whose brief,‭ ‬staccato conversations usually end disagreeably.

The absence of sentimentality and conventional plot mechanics is refreshing.‭ ‬Rivette frees his characters from the structure of narratives and just let them‭ ‬be,‭ ‬so that by the end,‭ ‬we tend to understand them as people even if we don’t understand,‭ ‬per se,‭ ‬the causal transition from one scene to the other.‭ ‬Character is always foregrounded over plot‭ – ‬a radical decision by Hollywood standards.

Rivette’s formal decisions are just as unconventional‭ ‬--‭ ‬and just as pleasing.‭ ‬He films most scenes in long,‭ ‬observational takes,‭ ‬planting the camera on a tripod and following his characters‭’ ‬small movements.‭ ‬There is almost no multi-camera coverage.‭ ‬It’s indescribably wonderful not to have to sit through another endless procession of shot-reverse-shot conversations.‭ ‬Formally and narratively,‭ ‬from the next edit to the next scene,‭ ‬we don’t know what we’re going to see.‭ ‬As a result,‭ ‬the spectator discovers the story along with the characters,‭ ‬rather than anticipates its inevitabilities‭ – ‬of which,‭ ‬in this case,‭ ‬there are none.

The director’s admirers will no doubt appreciate the film’s circus stagecraft,‭ ‬only the latest example of Rivette’s ongoing smudging of the boundaries between art,‭ ‬craft and life.‭ ‬His films are a veritable dissertation on the artificiality of performance‭ ‬vis-a-vis the messy realities of the real world,‭ ‬a theme that can be traced to his‭ ‬Paris Belongs to Us,‭ ‬Love on the Ground,‭ ‬The Gang of Four,‭ ‬La Belle Noiseuse,‭ ‬Va Savoir and,‭ ‬to some extent,‭ ‬his most well-known movie,‭ ‬Celine and Julie Go Boating.

At under an hour and half,‭ ‬Around a Small Mountain may be the best introduction to Rivette’s world view‭; ‬needless to say,‭ ‬it’s one of most overlooked films of‭ ‬2010‭ – ‬a sheer joy from beginning to end.

Rage‭ (‬Strand‭)
Release date:‭ ‬March‭ ‬8
SLP:‭ ‬$22.49

Spanish director Sebastian Cordero directed this moody pseudo-noir about an immigrant construction worker with severe anger management issues.‭ ‬Unable to control the rage boiling inside of him,‭ ‬Jose‭ (‬Gustavo Sanchez Parra‭) ‬attacks,‭ ‬and eventually murders,‭ ‬anyone who all but looks at his new girlfriend Rosa‭ (‬Martina Garcia‭)‬,‭ ‬the housemaid of the Torreses,‭ ‬an affluent married couple.‭ ‬When Jose pushes his former boss to his death,‭ ‬he hides out like an animal under the Torreses‭’ ‬noses‭ – ‬or,‭ ‬to be precise,‭ ‬above the noses‭ – ‬in their attic,‭ ‬surrounded by rat feces.‭ ‬Gazing at the family through keyholes,‭ ‬Jose becomes a living,‭ ‬voyeuristic ghost,‭ ‬haunting the creaky floorboards and calling Rosa on occasion from the upstairs telephone while never revealing his whereabouts‭ (‬lest he is captured by the inquisitive authorities‭)‬.‭ ‬In this bleak,‭ ‬cynical picture,‭ ‬only Rosa is worth cheering for‭; ‬Jose is a disturbed man who needs the mental health he’ll never receive,‭ ‬and the Torreses are a family of pampered,‭ ‬bourgeois miscreants,‭ ‬lechers and cockroaches plucked from a Bunuel film.‭ ‬But eventually,‭ ‬the movie sheds its moody,‭ ‬violent tone and becomes even more effective as a tragic story of forbidden love.

Letters to Father Jacob‭ (‬Olive Films‭)
Release date:‭ ‬March‭ ‬8
SLP:‭ ‬$26.99

Aki Kaurismaki may be the poster boy for Finnish cinema,‭ ‬but Klaus Haro now has eight movies under his belt,‭ ‬most of them heavy dramas and documentaries with minuscule distribution.‭ ‬His latest,‭ ‬Letters to Father Jacob,‭ ‬is a small,‭ ‬austere piece about a soul who needs saving and a blind priest fearful of his increasing irrelevancy in the modern world.‭ ‬The title character lives in a remote cottage blanketed by the gorgeous,‭ ‬agrestic Finnish landscape,‭ ‬where he waits daily for handwritten letters from parishioners who seek his prayers and advice.‭ ‬Unable to read the letters himself,‭ ‬he hires the newly pardoned Leila,‭ ‬a death-row inmate,‭ ‬whose shelter he provides in exchange for the opportunity to heal her emotional scars.‭ ‬It’s telling that there is almost no sign of electronic communication in the film‭; ‬everything in‭ ‬Letters to Father Jacob,‭ ‬including the transport of letters,‭ ‬is slower than in most movies.‭ ‬The film is an understated,‭ ‬minor-key redemption song with a predictably elliptical climax.‭ ‬Compared to the ascetic examinations of faith in the films of Bergman or Bresson,‭ ‬it’s small potatoes.

Hemingway’s Garden of Eden‭ (‬Lionsgate‭)
Release date:‭ ‬March‭ ‬15
SLP:‭ ‬$17.99

Crazy chicks are totally in vogue right now.‭ ‬But next to such stake-raising fare as Natalie Portman in‭ ‬Black Swan,‭ ‬Amanda Seyfried in‭ ‬Chloe and Leighton Meester in‭ ‬The Roommate,‭ ‬Mena Suvari’s borderline-suffering,‭ ‬shape-shifting flapper in‭ ‬Garden of Eden is a rather quaint psycho,‭ ‬acting out her pathology sexually in the bland environs of this adaptation of an unfinished Hemingway story.‭ ‬Catherine,‭ ‬Suvari’s imposing socialite,‭ ‬rushes a marriage to writer David Bourne‭ (‬Jack Huston,‭ ‬of‭ ‬Boardwalk Empire fame‭)‬,‭ ‬and most of the film charts the disintegration of their newfound relationship during an extended honeymoon in Europe.‭ ‬Changing her physical appearance as frequently as her moods,‭ ‬Catherine subjects David to demeaning sexual fantasies and belittles his literary kudos,‭ ‬finally inviting a sexy visitor‭ (‬Caterina Murino‭) ‬they meet on their holiday to spice up,‭ ‬and tear apart,‭ ‬their sex life.‭ ‬Hemingway’s Garden of Eden is postcard-pretty prestige porn,‭ ‬a sunlit Zalman King wannabe that celebrates,‭ ‬rather than exposes,‭ ‬hedonistic bourgeois vacuity.‭ ‬John Irvin,‭ ‬who directed‭ ‬Hamburger Hill and‭ ‬Next of Kin,‭ ‬can’t establish an iota of emotional connection to any of these people,‭ ‬and the film’s one strong element‭ – ‬its effective eroticism‭ – ‬dissipates into a laughable,‭ ‬cliché-riddled melodrama.

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