Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The View From Home‭ ‬26:‭ ‬New releases and notable screenings,‭ ‬May‭ ‬24‭ -June‭ ‬10

Donatas Banionis and Natalya Bondarchuk in Solaris‭ (‬1972‭)‬.

By John Thomason

Andrei Tarkovsky,‭ ‬the Russian New Wave’s most glorified director of rarefied museum pieces,‭ ‬represents,‭ ‬more than any director of his generation,‭ ‬the division between true cinephiles and casual‭ “‬movie buffs.‭”

The latter enjoys Fellini,‭ ‬some Godard and even an Antonioni picture or two,‭ ‬but Tarkovsky’s art-house pedigree is so pure‭ – ‬so dismissive of the standard that films be‭ “‬entertaining‭” – ‬that it alienates all but the minority set of cinemaniacs whose vacation planning revolves around New York or L.A.‭ ‬retrospectives of Chantal Akerman or Mikio Naruse films.

Tarkovsky’s cinema is as fastidious as it is foreboding,‭ ‬as personal as it is daunting.‭ ‬Watching works as dense as‭ ‬Stalker and‭ ‬The Mirror‭ – ‬films I loved,‭ ‬though I can barely explain why‭ – ‬you get the impression no one besides Tarkovsky can even begin to comprehend them,‭ ‬and that thematic deconstruction is a fool’s errand.

His‭ ‬1972‭ ‬Solaris,‭ ‬which just received a Blu-ray and DVD reissue from Criterion‭ (‬$21.99‭ ‬to‭ ‬$26.99‭)‬,‭ ‬is both an affirmation and an exception to the conventional wisdom on Tarkovsky.‭ ‬For a science-fiction film,‭ ‬it’s a deliberate,‭ ‬impenetrable frustration,‭ ‬but compared to the rest of the director’s canon,‭ ‬it’s a breezy flirtation with the accessible.

Marketed as the Russian‭ ‬2001:‭ ‬A Space Odyssey‭ – ‬the first clue that this is a cerebral genre film,‭ ‬and one that will be dutifully dismissed by some as a pretentious bore‭ – ‬it follows Kris Kelvin‭ (‬Donatas Banionis‭)‬,‭ ‬a blocky psychologist dispatched from an Edenic Earth to survey the strange phenomena on board the space station Solaris.‭ ‬There,‭ ‬he finds a skeleton crew of bedraggled scientists,‭ ‬one of whom recently killed himself thanks to the hallucinations prompted by the living,‭ ‬breathing atmosphere of the Solaris Ocean‭ (‬a murky miasma that looks today not unlike the Gulf Coast after the BP spill‭)‬.‭

He’s barely found the restroom until he too falls victim to the hallucinatory milieu,‭ ‬in the form of his clingy dead wife‭ (‬Natalya Bondarchuk‭)‬,‭ ‬who manages to regenerate anew,‭ ‬Groundhog Day-style,‭ ‬every time Kelvin tries to banish her.

The glacial alienation of Tarkovsky’s cinema never had a more fitting visual embodiment than the space station,‭ ‬a rickety edifice as functional and unromantic as a hospital.‭ ‬It’s not a vehicle anyone would willingly want to explore the universe’s frontiers‭ – ‬some of the padding on the walls conjures the look of a mental ward,‭ ‬a kind of character diagnosis via set design.‭ ‬The stirring beauty of the earthbound prologue,‭ ‬flashbacks and fantasy cutaways provide some release from the environs,‭ ‬and the station’s inhabitants movingly try to replicate its sensations onboard‭; ‬a fan hitting streams of hung paper is meant to simulate the susurrus of rustling leaves.

Solaris is about many things‭ – ‬loneliness,‭ ‬spirituality,‭ ‬love’s uncontrollability,‭ ‬the transience of happiness‭ – ‬and it predates more movies than it’s probably given credit for.‭ ‬Its status as a kind of interstellar chamber drama suggests the sci-fi movie Bergman never made,‭ ‬and at various other points,‭ ‬I saw premonitions of‭ ‬A.I.,‭ ‬Blade Runner and‭ ‬Inception.‭ ‬In his essay included with this disc,‭ ‬critic Philip Lopate also includes‭ ‬Invasion of the Body Snatchers,‭ ‬Ugetsu and‭ ‬Alphaville.‭ ‬As for Kubrick’s oft-studied space trip,‭ ‬it’s a masterpiece of comparatively sunny tones.‭ ‬The up-to-interpretation final shot of‭ ‬Solaris‭ – ‬arguably the key to the entire picture‭ – ‬is,‭ ‬to me,‭ ‬a cruel,‭ ‬existential,‭ ‬Twilight Zone twist of utter despair,‭ ‬a cosmic joke from a filmmaker many have said had no sense of humor.

DVD Watch:‭ ‬On May‭ ‬24,‭ ‬the ability to take Charlie Sheen seriously post-Violent-Torpedo-of-Truth is tested,‭ ‬in glorious hi-def,‭ ‬with the Blu-ray edition of‭ ‬Platoon‭ (‬MGM,‭ ‬$15.49‭)‬,‭ ‬Oliver Stone’s blunt,‭ ‬visceral study of servicemen in Vietnam.‭ ‬You’ll never again see Sheen give a better performance in a work of such magnitude.‭ ‬This week also saw the Blu-ray release of another tough-guy classic,‭ ‬Papillon‭ (‬Warner,‭ ‬$22.49‭) – ‬Franklin J.‭ ‬Schaffner’s well-crafted prison-break pic with Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen.‭ ‬The disc extras are scant,‭ ‬but the purchase comes with a‭ ‬34-page digibook with an essay and photographs.‭ ‬Elsewhere,‭ ‬actress Samantha Morton,‭ ‬best seen in Lynn Ramsey’s art-house opus‭ ‬Morvern Callar,‭ ‬makes her directorial debut in the heavy drama‭ ‬The Unloved‭ (‬Oscilloscope Laboratories,‭ ‬$26.99‭) ‬and experimental filmmaker Chris Marker deconstructs the life and work of Andrei Tarkovsky in the essay film‭ ‬One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevitch‭ ‬(Icarus,‭ ‬$29.98‭)‬.‭ ‬Last but most definitely not least,‭ ‬fans of‭ ‬Kids in the Hall can finally purchase the complete series of the legendary cult show in one affordable package‭ (‬A&E,‭ ‬$74.99‭)‬.

On May‭ ‬31,‭ ‬the release of the week‭ – ‬if not the year‭ – ‬is‭ ‬Stanley Kubrick:‭ ‬The Essential Collection‭ (‬Warner,‭ ‬$55.99‭ ‬or‭ ‬$104.99‭ ‬for a limited edition Blu-ray set‭)‬.‭ ‬This box set replaces the out-of-print‭ ‬Stanley Kubrick Collection from‭ ‬2001,‭ ‬retaining the same eight masterpieces from that set‭ (‬from‭ ‬Lolita through‭ ‬Eyes Wide Shut‭) ‬and adding in‭ ‬Spartacus and a boatload of extras.‭ ‬The prospect of seeing‭ ‬2001:‭ ‬A Space Odyssey and‭ ‬Barry Lyndon in the best video resolution available may finally make me invest in a Blu-ray player.‭ ‬A couple of cult genre films also make the Blu-ray cut this week:‭ ‬Sergio Leone’s operatic spaghetti western‭ ‬Once Upon a Time in the West‭ (‬Paramount,‭ ‬$15.99‭) ‬and Dario Argento’s giallo horror film‭ ‬Cat O‭’ ‬Nine Tails‭ (‬Blue Underground,‭ ‬$15.99‭)

On June‭ ‬7,‭ ‬I’m most excited about a pair of long-awaited,‭ ‬long-unseen classics from the tragic,‭ ‬ridiculously prolific German auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder:‭ ‬1976‭’‬s‭ ‬I Only Want You to Love Me,‭ ‬about a man driven to violence due to a lack of love,‭ ‬and‭ ‬1978‭’‬s‭ ‬Despair,‭ ‬a strange Nazi drama adapted by Tom Stoppard from a Vladimir Nabokov novel‭ (‬both Olive Films,‭ ‬$22.49‭ ‬each‭)‬.‭ ‬This week is also a Western bonanza‭; ‬the Coen Brothers‭’ ‬Oscar-nominated adaptation of‭ ‬True Grit arrives‭ (‬Paramount,‭ ‬$16.99‭ ‬DVD and‭ ‬$24.99‭ ‬Blu-ray‭ ‬+‭ ‬DVD combo pack‭)‬,‭ ‬along with the Blu-ray premieres of Robert Aldrich’s‭ ‬Vera Cruz‭ (‬MGM,‭ ‬$14.99‭) ‬and Clint Eastwood’s scorched-earth saga‭ ‬The Outlaw Josey Wales‭ ‬(Warner,‭ ‬$24.99‭)‬.‭ ‬On June‭ ‬10,‭ ‬Warner Archive will release‭ ‬Marlowe‭ (‬$24.49‭)‬,‭ ‬Paul Bogart’s obscure adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s‭ ‬The Little Sister,‭ ‬with James Garner as the iconic,‭ ‬titular gumshoe.

A scene from Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds‭ (‬1958‭)‬.

TV Watch:‭ ‬Turner Classic Movies has been honoring Andrzej Wajda this month,‭ ‬having already screened‭ ‬A Generation and‭ ‬Kanal.‭ ‬Set your DVRs:‭ ‬At‭ ‬2:15‭ ‬a.m.‭ ‬May‭ ‬29,‭ ‬the network will show‭ ‬Ashes and Diamonds,‭ ‬his most acclaimed war film and one of the cinema’s most humanist evocations of a soldier’s grim duty.‭ ‬For the whole night on June‭ ‬2,‭ ‬get out the popcorn and record your own‭ ‬Mystery Science Theater commentary tracks for an evening of‭ “‬Drive-In Double Features,‭” ‬from‭ ‬1964‭’‬s‭ ‬Ghidorah,‭ ‬the Three-Headed Monster to‭ ‬1969‭’‬s‭ ‬The Valley of Gwangi.‭ ‬At‭ ‬3‭ ‬a.m.‭ ‬June‭ ‬5,‭ ‬TCM will screen G.W.‭ ‬Pabst’s‭ ‬1931‭ ‬Kameradschaft,‭ ‬a socially conscious mining drama unavailable on DVD.

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