The Lower Depths
(Criterion/Morningstar, 1936) D: Jean Renoir, w/ Jean Gabin, Louis Jouvet; (1957) D: Akira Kurosawa w/ Toshirô Mifune, Isuzu Yamada. Rating: NNNNN
Here's a fascinating contrast in directorial style. Jean Renoir and Akira Kurosawa each take on Maxim Gorky's turn-of-the-20th-century play, the former updating it to Depression France, the latter casting back to the end of Edo-period Japan (around 1850). Each stars its nation's most representative actor of the period, Jean Gabin and Toshirô Mifune, in the role of the thief. Renoir the romantic fatalist turns out to be more optimistic than Kurosawa the humanist, who sticks closer to the original story, treating the boarding house of lost souls as an integrated, almost theatrical space.
Renoir plays up a relationship that barely exists in the play, between Gabin's thief, a man of honour trapped by economics, and Louis Jouvet's baron, a degenerate gambler who actually finds his place when he sinks to the bottom.
It's our only opportunity to see Gabin and Jouvet in the same film. Jouvet, who also starred in Clouzot's Quai Des Orfèvres, was a theatre actor with the sort of reputation in France that Olivier enjoyed in England.
We get beautifully restored transfers of both films, and a nice array of extras with the Kurosawa, including an episode of the Japanese TV series It Is Good To Create, with Kurosawa, and a scholarly commentary.
It's a great year not only for Cronenberg fans, but for Renoir fans as well. Criterion has a three-disc set of Renoir's great colour films of the 50s, The Golden Coach, French Cancan and Elena And Her Men, coming July 20.
EXTRAS Introduction by Jean Renoir, It Is Good To Create - The Lower Depths, critical commentary on Kurosawa by Donald Richie, new booklet essays. English subtitles.
(NFB, 2002) D: Kevin McMahon, w/ Marshall McLuhan. Rating: NNNNN
Listening to Marshall McLuhan's words almost a quarter-century after his death and years since he became unfashionable, I'm startled by how current his thinking about media and culture have again become. His observation that media oversaturation creates a particular environment seemed vaguely cranklike when we had five TV channels.
In the 500-channel, hard-wired Internet universe, it's almost frightening. "We don't know who discovered water, but we know it wasn't a fish."
Kevin McMahon's film is an intriguing biographical/philosophical portrait of the scholar/prophet, utilizing a lot of the available television footage and comments from family and colleagues.
The DVD expands outward from the film, including two extensive audio chunks of McLuhan and interviews with Philip Marchand, Neil Postman and Lewis Lapham.
It's difficult to decide whether having Laurie Anderson do the narration was a smart decision. She has a very pleasant voice, but it's so distinctive that at times the film seems to become a Laurie Anderson performance piece.
Available from the NFB at www.nfb.ca .
EXTRAS Short film Descent Into The Maelstrom, interview with Corrine McLuhan, audio interviews with Eric McLuhan, Neil Postman, Lewis Lapham, Gerald O'Grady, Philip Marchand, Patricia Bruckmann, McLuhan address from 1966, photo gallery, huge DVD-ROM section of printable documents, including the script.
(Alliance Atlantis, 2003) D: Terry Zwigoff, w/ Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox. Rating: NNNN
An instant cult classic for those who hate Christmas, Bad Santa features the most gloriously disreputable performance of Billy Bob Thornton's career. He plays an alcoholic, chain-smoking, foul-mouthed thief who pulls off one job a year - at a department store at Christmas - where he gets a job as a Santa with his partner, played by Tony Cox, an extremely short black man. They're backed by a superb supporting cast that includes Lauren Graham, Bernie Mac and, in his last film performance, the late John Ritter as a prissy mall manager.
The script is endlessly quotable, though not in polite company ,and the cast throws itself relentlessly down to the almost irredeemable level of the characters. It puts the fun back in dysfunctional.
EXTRAS Deleted and alternate scenes, outtakes, making-of featurette. English and French versions, English captions. An alternate version out, Badder Santa, is six minutes longer. Given how hard an R rating this film has - adult situations, language, alcohol and drug use - it's hard to imagine what's in Badder Santa aside from "more."
(Criterion/Morningstar, 1962) D: Pier Paolo Pasolini, w/ Anna Magnani, Ettore Garofolo. Rating: NNNN
The rating is more for the package than the film itself. Pasolini's second feature stars Anna Magnani as a woman who returns to her small town after spending a couple of decades as a prostitute to reclaim the son she abandoned. Magnani is a big actress of the type referred to as a "force of nature," and like most actors of that type - Burt Lancaster and Gerard Dépardieu - is better when placed under serious constraints, the way Renoir did when he directed her in The Golden Coach.
This is Magnani in full earth-mother mode, and she's unstoppable - though one wishes someone had.
Pasolini simultaneously pays homage to and spits in the face of neo-realism, with phenomenal and odd scenes set in the night streets of Rome.
Criterion's package is exemplary. Like the recent issue of The Leopard, the restoration was supervised by the film's cinematographer (here Tonino Delli Colli). An unexpected bonus is the inclusiong of La Ricotta, Pasolini's half-hour contribution to the anthology film Ro.Go.Pa.G., about a director (Orson Welles) filming a movie about Jesus.
EXTRAS La Ricotta, original theatrical trailer, an hour-long documentary on Pasolini from 1995, new interviews with Bertolucci (once Pasolini's assistant) and Delli Colli, booklet essays by Gary Indiana and Pasolini biographer Enzo Siciliano, and excerpted interviews with the director. English subtitles.
(Columbia/TriStar, 2004) D: David Koepp, w/ Johnny Depp, John Turturro. Rating: NNN
Unlike the stories in different Seasons (Apt Pupil, The Shawshank Redemption), the stories in Four Past Midnight have yielded indifferent Stephen King adaptations, whether for television (The Langoliers) or here. Despite the gifts of writer/director David Koepp (Trigger Effect) and the perversely ingenious performance by Johnny Depp, Secret Window would be a lot more impressive if King hadn't already used the same plot twist in The Dark Half. Koepp even tips his hat to Dark Half's film version by featuring its star, Timothy Hutton, in a supporting role.
The film is well enough made - unfortunately it fails to transcend its source material - and Depp is very entertaining as a man slowly losing his mind. The DVD includes a good transfer of the film, a well-organized hour-long making-of and a good commentary by the director.
EXTRAS Director commentary, making-of feature.
Coming Tuesday, June 29
(Alliance, 2003) Nicole Kidman and Jude Law are noble and beautiful as lovers separated by the American Civil War, but the picture's stolen by the rawly stylized performance of Oscar winner Renée Zellweger and Brendan Gleeson's turn as her estranged father.
CSI: Miami, Complete First Season
(Alliance Atlantis, 2002) The suspense mounts as we try to discover whether David Caruso can go through a whole season without meeting the eyes of any other cast member.
South Park Complete Season Four
(Paramount, 2000) The season that asks the burning question: "Do the handicapped go to hell?" Nice to see that Parker and Stone are getting respectable.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb