The Man Who Fell To Earth
(Criterion/Vid Canada, 1976) D: Nicolas Roeg, w/ David Bowie, Rip Torn. Rating: NNNN
Criterion has put together an outstanding package for an outstanding movie that only becomes richer with repeated viewings. In Walter Tevis's original novel, included here, the alien's mission is clear - to develop technology that will allow him to bring the few survivors of his dying world to Earth. But in the film, that takes a back seat as David Bowie's perfectly cast and played alien sinks into the mire of life and director Nicolas Roeg explores human, and perhaps artistic, alienation and fragmentation. Everyone involved in the project has an opinion, and they're all interesting.
Roeg played on these themes in Performance (1970) and Bad Timing (1980), but in the original 139-minute version of Man Who Fell, he's able to go further. It's revealing, when he says in the excellent commentary of an unplanned shot of a large bouncing balloon, "It's telling us something." The man is a mystic at heart.
Extras Disc one: Roeg, Bowie, actor Buck Henry commentary. Wide-screen. English subtitles. Disc two: screenwriter, actors, production, costume designers, Tevis interviews, stills galleries.
(MGM, 1980) D: John Carpenter, w/ Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis. Rating: NNN
The Fog is one of the best ideas ever for a spooky movie: a town, swollen with civic pride but built on a guilty secret, is engulfed by a supernatural fog that destroys community and bears vengeance-seeking ghosts. A radio DJ broadcasts into the darkness and a priest guards his guilty knowledge. Nothing could be richer in opportunities for fright and the mythic resonances that make the best horror movies stick with you long after the lights go up. John Carpenter knows how to create atmosphere and deliver suspense, shocks and eerie moments, even if some of the best ones were after-the-fact fixes, as he explains in the very good retrospective making-of doc. His low-tech fog looks real and moves with an uncanny sense of purpose. His ghosts aren't all that convincing, but he knows how to use them for shock and gore.
On the other hand, as he's shown in movie after movie, from Halloween to Ghosts Of Mars, he's indifferent to values of plot and character, so The Fog is full of missed opportunities.
You'd think that he and Debra Hill, who co-wrote and produced, might have fixed things with the remake, out this week, that they jointly produced. But no. They've improved some things - the characters are more embedded in the story. But they've weakened others - the priest is now peripheral and the CGI fog less convincing. Doubtless they'll give us some good excuse on the remake's DVD. Meanwhile, if you like the original, the remake's worth a look at the theatres. Between them, they make one good movie.
Extras Carpenter and Hill commentary, making-of doc, contemporary interviews, outtakes, photo and ads gallery, storyboard and shot comparison. Wide-screen. English 5.1 and mono, French mono soundtracks. English, French, Spanish subtitles
(Fox, 1944) D: Alfred Hitchcock, w/ Tallulah Bankhead, John Hodiak. Rating: NNNN
Alfred Hitchcock has always been experimental and innovative within the confines of his commercial sensibility, and Lifeboat is one of his most radical works in content and style. The entire movie takes place in a 40-foot lifeboat, where eight survivors of a German U-boat attack struggle with the elements and each other. One of them comes from the U-boat, and the question of what he wants and what to do with him provides the plot and much of the suspense. It also gives ample opportunity for character development and side conflicts.
Stage star Tallulah Bankhead gives the best performance of her film career. She's perfectly cast as the shallow sophisticate reporter who falls for John Hodiak's working-class crewman and moves smoothly from cold-blooded professional and self-centred man-hunter to compassionate and thoughtful woman. Walter Slezak, as the German, offers a cliché-free Nazi, kind, cheery and genuinely decent. His performance makes the moral ambiguity of the other characters all the more believable.
The film never seems stagey or static. Hitchcock storyboarded the whole thing with an eye to keeping the action lively. He succeeds perfectly on that level and adds another by giving free rein to his talent for drawing drama from small bits of business. At the same time, he avoids soundtrack music, a radical move for the time, and relies on natural sound and careful matching of process shots with action to give a sense of realism to what was, in fact, shot in the studio.
What with the actors suffering the indignity of being perpetually soaked and the crew facing the indignity of Bankhead flashing them (she never wore underwear and the lifeboat set was built on a high platform), it was a tough shoot. The retrospective making-of doc gives a good look at the process and the film's subsequent fate, while Hitchcock scholar Drew Casper's commentary goes into detail on the director's themes and stylistic influences. But even without the extras, this is easily worth repeated viewings.
Extras Scholar commentary, making-of doc, photo gallery. Theatrical ratio, black and white. English, Spanish subtitles.
(Mongrel, 2004) D: Christophe Honoré, w/ Isabelle Huppert, Louis Garrel. Rating: NN
Isabelle Huppert is the world's greatest film actress. She can convey a world of emotion and thought by doing absolutely nothing, then change it all in a heartbeat by doing even less. She's used that remarkable inner power in a long string of classic roles in classic films, from Violette Noizière (Claude Chabrol, 1978) through Entre Nous (Dian Kurys, 1983) to The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke, 2001). Sadly, little of that ability is on display here. As Hélène, a young newly widowed woman who plans to have her friends sexually initiate her son, she's given little to do and little room to stretch. Her best scenes come near the beginning when she's telling her teenage son what kind of person his mom really is, a total slut.
It's meant to be very transgressive, and was when Georges Bataille wrote the novel in the late 40s. Best known for the cult classic Story Of The Eye, Bataille came to art porn via the Catholic Church, De Sade and surrealism. He's interested in evil, freedom and degradation and uses sex to talk about the big questions, which in the film yields dialogue like "Pleasure doesn't begin till the worm is in the apple" and scenes of the son praying.
There's a fair amount of S&M and masturbation staged in a realistic manner, but nobody seems particularly enthused. Partly to blame is Louis Garrel, who plays the son as a perpetual enervated mope who we just wish would get a life or get off the screen. Partly, too, it's due to director Christophe Honoré's decision to film in a contemporary sex-tourism centre, the Canary Islands. In the accompanying interview, he says he wanted to see if Bataille's ideas played in today's sexual climate. They don't.
Huppert isn't afraid of onscreen sexuality, and if you want to see what she can do, check out The Piano Teacher, where it's sex as obsession, and make up your own metaphysics.
Extras Director and actress Emma de Caunes interviews, deleted scene, alternate ending. Wide-screen. French soundtrack. English subtitles.
Coming Tuesday, October 25
(Columbia, 2005) Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell try to recreate that 60s sitcom magic.
Melinda And Melinda
(Fox, 2004) Strange gimmick movie from Woody Allen - the same story told twice, once as comedy, once as drama.
Tripping The Rift
(Anchor Bay, 2004) First season of the cult favourite animated space comedy.
The Wizard Of Oz
(WB, 1939) Massive three-disc collectors' edition.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb