(Sony, 2006) D: Paul Verhoeven, w/ Carice van Houten, Sebastian Koch. Rating: NNN ; DVD package: NNNN
This is one of those odd movies that play better on the small screen, where Paul Verhoeven's conventional, slightly old-fashioned approach to the visuals and one-thing-at-a-time scenes seem more at home and where story is king.
Even though it's one giant flashback, so we know that the heroine survives, there's still lots of suspense inherent in a young Jewish singer (Carice van Houten) hiding from the Nazis in 1944 Holland, being drawn into the resistance and sent to seduce the local SS commandant.
Van Houten, Sebastian Koch and Thom Hoffman are attractive and likeable as the young woman and, respectively, the SS commandant and the resistance hero. But they're clean and well fed throughout, which makes them unconvincing in terms of the story.
Then you hear Verhoeven's outstanding commentary and learn both how closely he and co-scriptwriter Gerard Soeteman stuck to the truth and how they changed it to write a drama that plays like pure fiction.
Every one of the key characters and lots of the main events are based in reality. Verhoeven relates the real-life details, then explains exactly where and how they changed things. You couldn't ask for a better course in fact-based screenwriting and the importance of attention to detail.
When he's not doing that, Verhoeven simply talks us through the scenes. Though his commentary begins as simple, annoying descriptions of the onscreen action, later, when things get tangled, it becomes a first-rate lesson in screenwriting, focused on dovetailing and layering.
Extras Verhoeven commentary, making-of doc. Wide-screen. Dutch audio. English, French, Spanish subtitles.
(WB, 1980) D: William Friedkin, w/ Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino. Rating: NNN ; DVD package: NNN
Somebody's murdering the denizens of New York's gay leather bars, and young cop Steve Burns (Al Pacino) goes undercover to try to draw out the killer. But the work starts to change him.
This was hot stuff in 1980, when the leather underground really was underground. Gay men protested the film during shooting, and it got negative reviews on release. But it's neither a condemnation of the lifestyle nor a bad movie.
William Friedkin has done a stellar job of capturing the atmosphere of the clubs, with undressed location shooting and lots of real clubbers behaving as they normally would. Though he never gets explicit, we see enough to know exactly what's going on.
He also gives us a New York we seldom see, and infuses it with both an erotic charge and a sense of oppression via moving camera and a monochrome colour scheme.
Pacino heads a cast of solid New York actors who bring the film to life, but somehow it never achieves the intensity it promises. Friedkin spends a lot of time in his commentary describing Burns's inner state and growing conflict. But while that conflict is part of Pacino's performance, his character is so underdeveloped that it doesn't really come into focus. Is he turning gay? Kinky? Or just panicking at the the thought?
You might find an answer in the climactic knife fight. If so, you'll be ahead of Friedkin, who by that time in his commentary has fallen into mere description. You might wonder if he's avoiding the subject.
Friedkin aside, the two making-of docs do a good job of describing the shoot, the controversy and the real-life leather bar murders and undercover cop that the movie draws on.
Extras Friedkin commentary, two making-of docs. Wide-screen. English, Spanish audio. English, French, Spanish subtitles.
(WB, 2006) D: Andrea Arnold, w/ Kate Dickie, Tony Curran. Rating: NNN ; DVD package: n/a
Jackie (Andrea Dickie) monitors the closed-circuit cameras that blanket Glasgow and sees a man (Tony Curran) she thought was in prison, a man she has bad history with. She begins to follow him, first on the cameras, then in person, getting closer and closer. It's clear she wants some kind of reckoning, but how and for what?
Andrea Arnold delivers this quiet suspense story with complete naturalness. Surveillance and hand-held video footage reveal Glasgow as a depressed city with none of the noir glamour and studied compositions we're used to.
Dickie, onscreen for the whole movie, seems as artless as the visuals, delivering a good less-is-more performance with barely a flicker of expression.
There are few thrills here, just a quiet build-up of tension as the woman goes further and further off the rails and we wait for disaster to strike. When it comes, it's well worth the wait.
Extras Widescreen. English, French subtitles.
Robinson Crusoe On Mars
(Criterion, 1964) D: Byron Haskin, w/ Paul Mantee, Victor Lundin. Rating: NNN ; DVD packge: NNN
This isn't the masterful cinema with extensive high-end extras we expect from Criterion. (Think the remastered Seven Samurai.) It's more an interesting oddity or a noble failure.
The amusingly rancorous commentary sounds like separate interviews from 1994 involving original screenwriter Ib Melchior, actors Paul Mantee (the stranded astronaut) and Victor Lundin (his man Friday), production designer Al Nozaki and director Byron Haskin spliced together with clips from a 1979 interview. Haskin claims he brought realism to monster pulp. Melchior accuses Haskin of credit-grabbing. The actors thought, mistakenly, that this film would launch their careers, and everybody moans about the budget.
Despite this, they all show real affection for the movie, and it's easy to see why. The story of a man battling a hostile environment and loneliness with nothing but his own resources holds up as well in the new setting as it did when Daniel Defoe penned it in 1719. It also delivers some decent mild thrills, thanks to good Death Valley location work and some not-bad effects.
Extras Commentary, doc on Mars and various depictions of it, Lundin music video, downloadable Melchior script excerpts, appreciation essay by filmmaker Michael Lennick. Widescreen.
Coming Tuesday, October 2
(Alliance Atlantis, 2007) The star-studded lineup in this mother-daughter drama includes Vanessa Redgrave, Claire Danes, Meryl Streep and Glenn Close.
Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer
(Fox, 2007). Massive CG and Jessica Alba. Put your brain on hold.
Caligula: Three-disc Imperal Edition
(Image, 1980) All you could possibly want of Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione's grand folly: hardcore sex 'n' violence with fine acting by Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren and Peter O'Toole.
The Films Of Kenneth Anger, Vol. II
(Fantoma) Newly restored versions of key works by the legendary underground filmmaker include Lucifer Rising (1972), Invocation Of My Demon Brother (1969) and others, plus some Anger commentary and appreciations from Martin Scorsese, Gus Van Sant and Guy Maddin.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb