Monday, April 11, 2011

The View from Home 23: New releases on DVD

By John Thomason

The Father of My Children‭ (‬IFC‭)
Release date:‭ ‬March‭ ‬29
Standard list price:‭ ‬$18.99

At just‭ ‬28,‭ ‬French filmmaker Mia Hansen-Love has shown an Orson Welles-like prodigiousness,‭ ‬already with a short and two features completed and one more in post-production.‭ ‬Given that she’s engaged to established French director Olivier Assayas,‭ ‬has acted in a number of art-house films and is a contributor to the esteemed film journal‭ ‬Cahiers du Cinema,‭ ‬I guess we shouldn’t be surprised at her talent.

But her age is remarkable in light of her breakthrough feature‭ ‬Father of My Children,‭ ‬a film that explores delicate subjects best approached by directors twice her age‭ ‬--‭ ‬parenthood,‭ ‬coping,‭ ‬midlife crises and workaday struggles‭ – ‬all with unvarnished,‭ ‬lived-in verisimilitude.

The father of the film’s title is Gregoire‭ (‬Louis-Do de Lencquesaing‭)‬,‭ ‬a high-powered,‭ ‬chain-smoking producer of auteurist,‭ ‬adventurous art films‭ (‬not unlike‭ ‬Father of My Children‭) ‬who is raising three girls,‭ ‬two young ones of his own and a teenager from his wife’s previous marriage.‭ ‬Gregoire is a workaholic‭ ‬--‭ ‬his cellphone is practically an extension of his body‭ ‬--‭ ‬who runs a harried,‭ ‬threadbare production company beset by mounting fiscal calamities,‭ ‬from projects that are tanking at the box office to a perfectionist Swedish director who has gone wildly over-budget.

Gregoire finally takes out his financial frustrations in an excruciating,‭ ‬unpredictable act of violence,‭ ‬which,‭ ‬like everything else in‭ ‬Father of My Children,‭ ‬is presented to us with stone-cold,‭ ‬unsentimental matter-of-factness.

This travesty occurs no more than‭ ‬50‭ ‬minutes into a nearly two-hour feature,‭ ‬and everything that follows is predicated on this mid-film stunner.‭ ‬In light of spoiling the surprise,‭ ‬I must discontinue the plot description here.‭ ‬Suffice it to say that the moment in question is a monumental example of storytelling subversion on par with‭ ‬L’Avventura‭ ‬and‭ ‬Psycho,‭ ‬and,‭ ‬just as in those classics,‭ ‬we are deprived of preparation for it.

This one action shifts the film’s entire tone and texture‭; ‬a story that appears to be moving in an elliptical fashion derails itself,‭ ‬careening into a new direction‭ ‬--‭ ‬a kind of post-mortem of the previous narrative.‭ ‬The film’s violent turning point is usually the kind that ends films,‭ ‬not divides them into halves,‭ ‬but‭ ‬Father of My Children isn’t most films.

There is,‭ ‬refreshingly,‭ ‬not an ounce of studio-film sugar-coating in Hansen-Love’s style.‭ ‬Yes,‭ ‬it is a movie about transcending family hardships,‭ ‬but not with melodramatic platitudes,‭ ‬a weeping string section and an unearned happy ending.‭ ‬In fact,‭ ‬the ambiguous ending is anything but happy.‭ ‬It’s less like a pleasurable Hollywood conclusion than one of the melancholy,‭ ‬meandering climaxes from one of Gregoire’s art films.‭

At the movie’s core is an acute understanding that things don’t always work out,‭ ‬and sometimes we just have to deal with that.‭ ‬It sounds simple,‭ ‬but for a‭ ‬28-year-old maverick upstart,‭ ‬it’s a sensitive,‭ ‬unusually profound observation.

The Times of Harvey Milk‭ (‬Criterion‭)
Release date:‭ ‬March‭ ‬29
SLP:‭ ‬$21.99

Rob Epstein’s Academy Award-winning‭ ‬1984‭ ‬documentary‭ ‬The Times of Harvey Milk doesn’t have any pomp,‭ ‬circumstance or stylistic flash,‭ ‬but when the material is this compelling,‭ ‬there’s no need for any of it:‭ ‬Epstein just lets the extraordinary stock footage speak for itself.‭ ‬Charting assassinated civil-rights leader Milk’s ascent through the San Francisco political establishment,‭ ‬his constant battles against a regressive conservative regime and the details surrounding his murder,‭ ‬The Times of Harvey Milk is an emotionally gripping clip show,‭ ‬aided by interviews with Milk’s closest associates and Harvey Fierstein’s sober narration.‭ ‬Funny,‭ ‬incisive,‭ ‬infuriating and ultimately heartbreaking,‭ ‬it does a far better job than the fictionalized biopic‭ ‬Milk at deconstructing the dog-and-pony show that was supervisor Dan White’s murder trial.‭ ‬The second disc on this exemplary collection includes even more on the White trial,‭ ‬via a reflective panel discussion,‭ ‬plus a rare collection of audio and video recordings of Milk,‭ ‬excerpts from Epstein’s research tapes and several new documentaries.‭ ‬Essential stuff.

Rope of Sand‭ (‬VCI Entertainment‭)
Release date:‭ ‬April‭ ‬5
SLP:‭ ‬$22.49

Journeyman director William Dieterle directed this fine Saharan adventure story from‭ ‬1947,‭ ‬notable as the American debut of French bombshell Corinne Calvet.‭ ‬She plays a primitive variation on the hooker with the heart of gold‭ – ‬a sex kitten with a nondescript European accent who is lured into the scheme of a diamond syndicate chairman played by Claude Rains.‭ ‬Calvet becomes the bait for two men‭ – ‬Paul Henreid’s sadistic police commander and Burt Lancaster’s laconic hunter‭ – ‬who had a famous brawl two years prior and now seek a batch of diamonds whose location only Lancaster knows.‭ ‬It’s a lean,‭ ‬occasionally talky story that harbors some fun surprises over the course of its‭ ‬104‭ ‬minutes.‭ ‬Mostly,‭ ‬the movie is an opportunity to see great actors honing their personae:‭ ‬Rains is effortlessly dapper and sophisticated,‭ ‬Lancaster memorably brooding but secretly wily and Henreid casually ruthless.‭ ‬And it never hurts when you throw in Peter Lorre playing Peter Lorre.

Thunder in the City‭ (‬VCI‭)
Release date:‭ ‬March‭ ‬29
SLP:‭ ‬$13.49

The noirish title of this‭ ‬1937‭ ‬feature is a misnomer:‭ ‬Thunder in the City is actually a romantic dramedy set in the burgeoning,‭ ‬pre-Madison Avenue advertising culture.‭ ‬Edward G.‭ ‬Robinson is a roguish ad executive for a G.E.‭ ‬style industrial manufacturer who,‭ ‬in the film’s unintentionally hilarious opening,‭ ‬is chided by his corporation for his grandstanding ways‭ – ‬including,‭ ‬God forbid,‭ ‬bruiting the company’s name on blimps.‭ ‬His employers seek a more‭ “‬dignified‭” ‬approach to advertising,‭ ‬so they banish him to Great Britain,‭ ‬an apparent bastion of classy salesmanship.‭ ‬While weekending in the labyrinthine estate of an affluent dupe,‭ ‬Robinson comes upon a nifty business scheme surrounding an untapped‭ “‬magnalite‭” ‬mine.‭ ‬He soon uses his New York-honed showboating acumen to create a national sensation out of the precious metal,‭ ‬while falling for his investor’s daughter.‭ ‬Once you get past the paradoxical concept of dignity in advertising,‭ ‬you can appreciate the movie’s satire,‭ ‬one predicated on glaring cultural and class differences between Yanks and Brits.‭ ‬Robinson is great as a primitive,‭ ‬smarmy antihero,‭ ‬keeping this post-Depression parable alive even as it progresses inevitably into uninspired convention.

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