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Reviews

Digital Week 21: Stormy Europe

Blu-ray of the Week

Summer HoursSummer Hours
(Criterion)
Olivier Assayas has directed a superior soap opera about a trio of French siblings who must decide whether to sell the family estate–famous paintings, antique furniture, and all–after their 75-year-old mother unexpectedly dies. Skillfully juggling his disparate characters (oldest brother, who’s most conservative; middle sister, a free spirit living in New York and engaged to an American; youngest brother, working with a shoe company in Shanghai, his wife and three kids in tow), Assayas gives us glimpses into their lives with a single line of dialogue or a brief shot of subtle body language or minute gestures. He even frames Summer Hours with sequences showing the next generation—these characters’ children and (at the end) their friends—and there’s something simultaneously touching and sad about their lack of knowledge about their own past (with one exception).

There’s seamless acting from Charles Berling, Juliette Binoche, and Jérémie Rénier as the siblings and Edith Scob as the benevolent family matriarch. On Blu-ray, Assayas’ subtle color palette is rendered with expert consistency—this is another in a long string of flawless Criterion high-def transfers. The usual plethora of superb Criterion extras includes Inventory, an hour-long documentary about the relationship of the Musee d’Orsay in Paris to the film’s making; on-set interviews with Assayas and his cast; and an Assayas interview.

DVD of the Week

Storm
(Film Movement)Storm
In this harrowing drama directed by Hans-Christian Schmid, Kerry Fox persuasively plays a worn-out prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague with a nearly impossible task: how to convict an obvious guilty Yugoslav commander of crimes against humanity when her hands are, literally, tied by the court? Schmid concentrates on the minutiae of the political backstabbing and dealing that occur in a supposed place of justice, and only rarely does he go all wobbly trying to turn this already harrowing story into a “thriller” that relies on near-accidents and strange disappearances. 

Storm is an involving nail-biter, and complementing Fox’s terrific work is another spectacularly lived-in performance as a key witness by Anamaria Mancia, the actress so unforgettable in the Romanian abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days. As usual with Film Movement releases, the lone extra is a short film: from Germany, Toyland in 14 quick minutes asks still-pertinent questions about guilt and complicity.

Love, Loss, and What I Wore: Seams & the City

There's no saying when I'll forget what I wore when my engagement went bust, but so long as my brain connects with my heart, I suspect both organs will continue to drag in my wardrobe. Need I state that those black jeans went the way of that diamond ring?

Seeing Love, Loss, and What I Wore merely three months into my re-accessorized state, I worried that the Off-Broadway show at the Westside Theater might be a little too close for comfort. But Nora and Delia Ephron's collage of stories is entertaining enough to be therapeutic.

The sisters drew inspiration from Ilene Beckerman's 1995 memoir of "growing up in Manhattan in the 1930s, '40s and '50s through the clothes I wore," as the author says on her website.

Every four weeks it's performed by a new cast of five who sit and deliver. The lippy dames consult their scripts, adding to the informal, stripped down feel of the klatch. On the night that I saw it, Lucy DeVito, Melissa Joan Hart, Capathia Jenkins, Shirley Knight and standout Judy Gold comprised the ensemble.

Karen Carpenter's direction is as unfussy as the black clothing they wear. And as you'd expect from a New York play on fashion and feeling, that ne plus ultra color gets its share of riffs. A mini-disquisition on it climaxes with the quip, "Can’t we just stop pretending that anything will ever be the new black?"

Leading us through the monologues and one-liners is Beckerman alter-ego Gingy, interpreted by a winsome, if slightly distracted Knight. She opens with the clothed life's source of all wisdom, her mother. Displaying Madelinesque drawings of the Brownie uniform and taffeta dress her mother once sewed for her, she confides that what she really coveted were ready-made items from the store. There can be no doubt that mom is the ideal launching pad for a retro-glimpse at the fabric of our evolving identity and relationships.

Gingy's stage mates each play several characters in varying situations of love and loss. Some are more bitter than sweet. A particularly poignant vignette is about the lace bra that a cancer patient filled her reconstructed breasts with. Another eulogizes the boots and short skirts its owner wore until she was raped. (The boots stayed; the skirts went to Goodwill.) And a third recalls the bathrobe a new step-mother wore, which to the chagrin of her five step-daughters, was identical to their deceased mother's, only in "electric blue."

"Heels or think" was the choice one of DeVito's young personas faced. Bunions be damned, she favored the former until after her divorce, when "think" got the upper hand.

By far the best-tailored monologue is Nora Ephron's rant about purses. Taken from her humor anthology, I Feel Bad About My Neck, it declares war on the handbag and takes no prisoners of the offending clutter within. Jenkins vamped her way through the sheers-sharp pokes at stray lipstick and tampons, and simply brought the house down.  

For all the play's pinch and charm, it never fully recovers from that blow. Nora upstages herself and her sorority of creators, showing what can really be done with the material, and planting a vague qualm that Love, Lost has wispy clothes.

In its stage translation, Beckerman's book is fortified with stories by a bevy of media mandarins including Rosie O'Donnell and Alex Witchel. It could have used a page from Alison Lurie's The Language of Clothes. Or something akin to Paul Fussell's insight that, "because men's shoulders constitute a secondary sexual characteristic," epaulets are a macho look. In other words, I'd have invited some sartorial scholars to crash the slumber party.

But maybe that's just me. Judging by their appreciative laughter, the audience of mostly boomer females were plenty thrilled as it was. The Ephrons, whose screen adornments include Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Julie & Julia and Sleepless in Seattle (and Nora penned the Oscar-nominated When Harry Met Sally) have once again accoutered an appealing amusement with broad appeal to women and other clothes wearers.

Find out who's performing the next four-week cycle, among other details, at www.lovelossonstage.com

Love, Loss, and What I Wore
Westside Theater
407 West 43rd Street
New York, NY
(212) 239-6200

"Kick-Ass" Lives Up to Its Name

Directed by Matthew Vaughn
Screenplay by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, based on the comic book by Mark Millar, John S. Romita Jr.
Starring: Aaron Johnson, Nicolas Cage, Chloë Grace Moretz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Mark Strong, Xander Berkeley, Michael Rispoli, Lyndsy Fonseca, Yancy Butler

The Marvel Comics name is nowhere to be found in the delightfully dynamic Kick-Ass, which adapts the 2008-09 miniseries published by Marvel's creator-owned imprint, Icon Comics. Audiences may think that the Marv Films logo on it might be the indie/classics division of Marvel Films, but it's simply the name of director and co-screenwriter Matthew Vaughn's production company. Not that Marvel would have anything to be embarrassed about in the super-salty language and stylized ultra-violence of Kick-Ass — indeed, some of Marvel's Icon and MAX comics lines can put Quentin Tarantino potboilers to shame in the name of good, tough stories (except for 2001's repellent Fury series — fans, Stan Lee and George Clooney all agreed that was a mistake). Marvel's new parent, The Walt Disney Company, probably had nothing to with keeping Marvel's name — or even, hmm, the Icon Comics name — off the picture.

Kick-Ass lives up to its title. Unlike the execrable, albeit blockbuster, Wanted (2008), based on a pretty great Top Cow miniseries by Kick-Ass writer co-creator Mark Millar, it actually improves on the comic by not metaphorically kicking in our hero's teeth at the end and making him a sad-sack schmuck who was wrong about nearly everything. Vaughn and co-screenwriter Jane Goldman may be a little less experimental and more mainstream in their approach, but given how borderline-fantastical the story is in both media, it's more satisfying having a relatively happy ending (a major character still meets a bad fate) rather than suggesting that striving for heroism is a pointless, useless, dead-end thing to do.

This isn't to say Vaughn isn't unrelenting in his naturalism. A knife blade flashes, and a gut-stuck Kick-Ass — a.k.a. high-schooler Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), a comics geek who dons a scuba wetsuit and a couple of stick weapons to fight local thugs — starts bleeding out so badly you can practically feel him growing colder in front of you. When bad guys open fire, they aim for your head. And when Hit Girl — a.k.a. 11-year-old Mindy Macready (Chloë Grace Moretz), trained in martial arts and weaponry for six years by her obsessive, framed-cop father, Damon/Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) — slices predators with her katana, there's no dramatic hesitation or tough-guy quip; they're meat, not human beings, and dangerous meat at that. There's so little sentimentality that a minor-scale romantic subplot with Katie Deauxma (Lyndsy Fonseca), here much less Mean Girls than in the comic, proves a needed counterbalance to the otherwise pervasive sense of optimism being stripped away layer by layer, down below angry cynicism and headed straight down the hole to nihilism. And if that's all there is, then, as the movie would not euphemize, WTF?

Vaughn and company keep the nearly two-hour picture flowing as briskly as a comic but without sacrificing plot; time is taken to give an explanatory line of dialogue rather than gloss over potential plot holes. Comedy-of-manners dry humor — reminiscent of the pioneering Hokum & Hex from Marvel's 1990s Razorline imprint — plays seamlessly amid scenes of stylized, off-camera mayhem. You know the expression "Long story short"? Vaughn does that well, retaining pertinent details.

The movie's meta-comics worldview makes you wonder what a more intellectual filmmaker like Stanley Kubrick, who gave us the similarly fantastical, ultraviolent A Clockwork Orange, would have crafted of this material. Kick-Ass may not be a game-changing masterpiece, but it encapsulates a certain mindset of our era with knowingness and not so much wish-fulfillment as what-if fulfillment. That Vaughn can be this dark and violent and still come through with wit and a sense of hope is kind of a kick-ass accomplishment in itself.

For more by Frank Lovece: FrankLovece.com

 

Kevin's Digital Week 20: Middle Earths and Straw Hats

Blu-rays of the WeekPeter Jackson's  Trilogy

The Lord of the Rings
(Warner Brothers) 

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
(New Line)
Ralph Bakshi’s disappointing animated adaptation of the first two books of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was released in 1978; using Bakshi’s rotoscoping technique—shooting with real actors and hand-drawing over them, frame by frame—the result was certainly an arresting, if awkward, visualization of Tolkien’s legendary Middle Earth. But Bakshi’s other limitations as a director forced his film into a no man’s land between unflagging inventiveness and clichéd spectacle. Crippled by indifferent voice actors and laggard pacing, Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings remains a brave failure. The worn-out print isn’t done any favors by Blu-ray’s exceptional clarity, as scratches and visual noise Ralph Bakshi's Versiondistract from the vibrant colors and action. The film needs a true restoration, but will probably never receive one.

Peter Jackson’s epically-scaled (three films, over nine hours) adaptation not only won a boatload of Oscars but also became the last word in the fantasy genre thanks to the very real brilliance with which the director and his stellar technicians conjured up a fantastically breathtaking Middle Earth. Superbly acted and containing an extraordinary array of live-action and computerized effects, Jackson’s trilogy has earned its status as a cult classic and as a riveting, absorbing drama in its own right. On Blu-ray, the uniqueness of Jackson’s vision comes out in spades, thanks to a superb hi-def transfer. 

The Bakshi Blu has one extra: a 30-minute featurette about Bakshi’s career, which glosses over his work on Rings when it should dive into the difficulties of bringing it to the screen—it was originally supposed to be two films, instead of abruptly terminating before the second book ends. Jackson’s trilogy gets an extra disc for each film, with numerous and illuminating extras about all facets of the production. This Trilogy set will do nicely until the inevitable extended-version set comes along. 

DVD of the Week Rene Clair's Classic

The Italian Straw Hat
(Flicker Alley)
Rene Clair
, one of the pioneers of early French cinema (his A nous la liberte was an obvious inspiration for Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times), made this silent gem in 1927, transposing the action from 1851 to 1895, to the very beginning of motion pictures, which allows Clair the opportunity to make a delightful homage to those early, silly silent shorts. Frenetic farce, as Chaplin and Buster Keaton's silents have shown, rarely ages when done well, and Clair's fast-paced film deserves to be in that elite company. 

On DVD, The Italian Straw Hat shows its age, but the unavoidable blemishes are part of an 85-year-old movie's primitive charm; the print itself has a vividness remarkable for a film this old. Also included are a pair of music tracks—chamber orchestra and solo piano—which lets viewers enjoy Clair's classic in two different ways. The small but enticing set of extras includes La Tour / Eiffel Tower, a 1928 Clair short film, and Noce en Gouguette / Fun After the Wedding, a 1907 short by Ferdinand Zecca, an inspiration for the madcap chases in Clair’s film.

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