On DVD: Ride With the Devil (Criterion Collection)

It's easy to understand why Ang Lee's 1999 film Ride With the Devil flew under the radar, almost completely unnoticed, during its original brief theatrical release. It is an unusual film, one in which good and evil are intertwined in an uncomfortably gray braid of striated allegiances. Delicately shaded performances (particularly by Jeffrey Wright) ground the propulsive, suspenseful narrative amid a brutal but realistic world.

German-born Jacob Roedel (Tobey Maguire) is a Missouri youth shocked into defense of the South when his neighbor Jack Bull Chiles' (Skeet Ulrich) farm is burned and father killed by a band of jayhawkers - militant irregular pro-Union guerrillas. Jake and Jack Bull join a band of bushwhackers - the pro-Confederacy counterparts to the jayhawkers. They join in league with George Clyde (Simon Baker) and Clyde's best friend, a freed slave named Holt (Jeffrey Wright). After a series of raids under the command of Black John Ambrose (James Caviezel), the smaller group retreats to a rural dugout to wait out the winter.

There, Jack Bull romances their local sponsor's widowed daughter-in-law, Sue Lee (Jewel Kilcher). But the relationship is short-lived; after Jack Bull dies, Roedel and Holt team up again with Ambrose's bushwhackers for increasingly vicious attacks. After a murderous raid at Lawrence, Kansas, Roedel and Holt are both wounded, and from there they escape to a safe farm where Sue Lee has been living since Jack Bull's death. At the farm, Roedel and Holt recover from their wounds and make momentous decisions about the future direction of their lives.

No plot summary, however, can do justice to the film's finely-woven themes. German-born Roedel and former slave Holt come to understand each other thanks to similar experiences with prejudice - and, even more importantly, their muddled sense of identity. Roedel's family, as German immigrants, are fully aligned with the Union - yet Roedel himself becomes a bushwhacker out of loyalty to Jack Bull and because he has considered himself, naturally, a Missourian. Later, he learns that his father has been murdered by another band of bushwhackers, throwing his already precarious sense of identity and political position into chaos.

Holt, meanwhile, is a former slave, who nevertheless finds himself fighting on the side of the Confederacy, like Roedel, due to personal loyalty to a friend. Holt has no illusions about the contradiction inherent in what he is doing; it's his own morality that drives him to stand by Clyde. But after Clyde dies, Holt knows, for the first time, what real freedom feels like.

The intertwined stories of Roedel and Holt elegantly transcend issues of race, just as the characters themselves grow to understand that there are vastly more fundamental questions of the human condition than the color of one's skin. At the same time, the film hardly pretends that race isn't a key issue in American life - the struggles of the past are explicitly related to problems that still exist in our country. All of this is expressed by screenwriter James Schamus and director Ang Lee with a far finer sensibility than I am able to convey through words alone here. Such deep conveyance of a complex and insidious social issue is rare in film. It's not just the way Ride With the Devil "addresses" race; it's the way the story portrays the deeper consequences of racial division upon individual human beings.

Ride With the Devil received a lot of flack for its casting, but I can't find any fault with it. Tobey Maguire has a tendency to come off as "soft," but I think he does a fine job here. He is a good actor who carries most of the picture without showing signs of strain. (Although I do take issue with the scenes of domestic comedy in the movie's final act - Maguire handling a baby in particular - I can't blame the actor.) As Sue Lee, Jewel is mostly credible; the only thing she has working against her is that she's recognizable as a music superstar. Otherwise, her performance is fine, if not spectacular.

As Holt, Jeffrey Wright steals the show. Holt is a difficult character, as written, but Wright brings a sense of moral clarity to Holt's words and actions. I'll even go as far as to say that, thanks to Wright, Holt may be one of the most complex, interesting, and significant characters from the last couple of decades of movies. 

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On DVD: Michelangelo: Self-Portrait

Like the best documentaries, Robert Snyder's Michelangelo: Self-Portrait is simultaneously entertaining, enriching, and inspiring. Simple in concept, but complex in its editorial approach, Snyder's film is narrated through the artist's own words, taken from diaries, letters, and early biographers, and accompanied by images of his work. The result is a stirring and unique film biography, one that is devoid of narrative cheats and artifice.

We begin with Michelangelo's voice in a letter to the great biographer Giorgio Vasari; the artist complains of his various ailments and describes a new pietà he has begun (the Rondanini Pietà). From here, the narration consists of more or less chronological biographical information in "flashback" form, as Michelangelo regales us with tales from his early life, his first works, and his imbroglios with authority - particularly the painting of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo: Self-Portrait is grounded in the artist's own time and own words; we see him as an artist and a man, assessing his own work with honest criticism and equally fair egotism. He is not a monolithic cultural figure here - he's a man driven to make art, in his own way, and often at great personal risk. Immune to criticism now, that was hardly the case during his lifetime.

The most compelling aspect of this documentary is not the biographical detail, per se, nor the beautifully photographed works of art on display here; the most revealing content comes from Michelangelo's discussion of the sense of investment he had in his art - the passion he felt, as well as the highly personal details present in almost every work he made. In a post-Impressionist world, it's too easy for modern audiences to shrug off Renaissance artists as hired guns, working for the authority figures of the era, whether they were Church officials or the nobility. We are quick to allow for supreme technical proficiency, but just as quick to ignore the soul of their work. The more overtly expressive art of the last century is easier to attribute (or impose) emotional significance. Here, Snyder gets at Michelangelo's own assessment of his work, as well as the intense connection he felt to it. In particular, the physicality of sculpture seems to have engendered a stronger bond between artist and material than with frescos and other painting. Michelangelo speaks of growing up around quarries and the intimacy with which he understood the manipulation of stone. Just as the artist's mind is often ignored, the craft of art-making is undervalued today; we tend to place a higher value on "expression," even though it's wholly subjective and impossible to measure.

This is a carefully-constructed film, and an enormous amount of time was spent shaping the script and selecting the imagery. Snyder's camera is patient and loving when photographing the Michelangelo's work, and his approach to editing is fluid and informative, always cutting or dissolving to images that dovetail appropriately with the narration. The narrator, interestingly, is not credited; I would assume it's Snyder himself. Music is almost contemporaneous (Monteverdi and Frescobaldi), and quotations from Dante are judiciously included.

Snyder's film is a great work of art itself: a documentary that reveals a man whose life and mind have been clouded by the vast scope of his artistic achievement. But ultimately, he was someone with his own share of triumphs and tragedies, very much a human being, and Snyder finds a way to access Michelangelo's humanity from across the centuries, in spite of his legendary status. 

On DVD: Six Centuries of Verse

It seems like every so often someone raises an alarm that poetry is facing extinction or, at best, irrelevancy. It's an understandable concern. Not many people read poetry outside the classroom, and those who do suffer from the stigma of being intelligent. It's true that in the last half-century poetry has suffered from the kind of flighty "anyone can be an artist" attitude that flourished in the wake of the 1960s. Form became unfashionable and rhyme is still viewed with some suspicion, backed by a fear among poets of appearing trivial. Only a deeply willful and egregiously blinkered culture such as ours would toss the poetry of Thomas Hardy onto the great bonfire of unread literature. Currently, however, there are major poets working hard to re-establish the value of formal limitations in poetry, as well as the kind of readability of which the greatest poets of their respective eras were acutely aware.

In another fantastic release from Athena (see Ancient Lives and The Christians for others), this sweeping overview of 600 years of English poetry enlivens the written word - an achievement exceedingly rare on television. Originally broadcast on Britain's ITV in 1984, and presented by the late, great Sir John Gielgud across sixteen half-hour episodes, Six Centuries of Verse covers poets great and small in all genres. From the great Old English epic Beowulf to the work of modernist masters Yeats and Auden, host Gielgud provides contextual narration interspersed with readings of significant poems by a stable of actors that includes Julian Glover, Lee Remick, Ralph Richardson, and Anthony Hopkins. Far from being dry or perfunctory, these readings are impassioned, fully-realized performances, invested with all manner of drama and attitude.

Gielgud's wonderful voice, austere manner, and driest of English wits make him a charming and affable host. He guides us with smooth confidence through various developments in language, form, topical subject matter, and genre. The integration of Gielgud's narration with the readings makes for a languid yet engaging presentation. The half-hour format allows us to absorb each topic without packing our brains too full, or over-indulging to the point where the poems become indistinguishable from each other. Assisting in the latter matter are the readers themselves, who are shot in different locations selected to complement the poem being read. Occasionally, works written in multiple voices are semi-dramatized, as with "The Parson's Tale" from Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, or several selections by Shakespeare in the episode devoted to The Immortal Bard. (My favorite image from that episode, by the way, is without a doubt that of Gielgud and Ralph Richardson leaning over the top of a tall hedge, performing dialogue from Antony and Cleopatra.)

Episode titles are mostly self-explanatory:

Episode 1: "Chaucer - Ted Hughes, 1384-1984"
Episode 2: "Old English" (includes a discussion of Beowulf)
Episode 3: "Chaucer, 1340-1400"
Episode 4: "Medieval - Elizabethan, 1400-1600" (includes Thomas Wyatt, Marlowe, and Raleigh)
Episode 5: "Shakespeare, 1564-1616"
Episode 6: "Metaphysical & Devotional, 1590-1670" (includes Donne, Herbert, and Marvell)
Episode 7: "Milton, 1608-1674"
Episode 8: "Restoration & Augustan, 1660-1745" (includes Dryden, Swift, and Pope)
Episode 9: "Romantic Pioneers, 1750-1805" (includes Blake, Coleridge, and Wordsworth)
Episode 10: "Wordsworth, 1770-1850"
Episode 11: "Younger Romantics, 1800-1824" (includes Shelley, Keats, and Byron)
Episode 12: "Victorians, 1837-1901" (includes Tennyson, Bronte, Browning, and Arnold)
Episode 13: "American Pioneers, 1855-1910" (includes Whitman, Poe, and Dickinson)
Episode 14: "Romantics & Realists, 1870-1920" (includes Hardy, Hopkins, and Kipling)
Episode 15: "Early Twentieth Century, 1914-1939" (includes Yeats, Frost, Eliot, and Auden)
Episode 16: "Towards the Present, 1934-1984" (includes Dylan Thomas, Philip Larkin, and Auden) 

Read the full review here

On DVD: Summer Hours (Criterion Collection)

Olivier Assayas's Summer Hours (L'Heure d'ete) is a patient, beautifully-made film about a family dealing with a major, bittersweet transition. The influence of Eric Rohmer (another director who loved the summer) is unmistakable, but Summer Hours is very much its own film, one that looks at personal and familial legacies and how they are maintained - or not - by successive generations. Free of cinematic contrivance, this elegant movie challenges us gently, but firmly, to examine the proportions in which we value the past, present, and future.

The long opening sequence takes place at the rural family home of the Marlys, where they are celebrating the 75th birthday of their matriarch, Hélène (Edith Scob). Hélène is joined by her three children, Frédéric (Charles Berling), Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), and their families. Hélène's work for the past several decades has been the preservation of her uncle's legacy; Paul Berthier was a major painter and she has served as executor of his estate, guardian of his papers, and promoter of his work. At the party, Hélène takes Frederic, the only one of her three children who still lives in France, on a guided tour of her final wishes as to the disposition of her belongings, which include two paintings by Corot, several pieces of rare furniture, decorative panels by Odilon Redon, and fine glassware. Frederic, of course, doesn't wish to entertain thoughts of his mother's demise.

But, when Hélène dies several months later, the three children gather again to decide what to do with the house and manage the rest of her estate. Representatives of the Musée d'Orsay in Paris wind up taking a large portion of Hélène's belongings into the museum's permanent collection, and the house is prepared for sale, much to Frédéric's chagrin.

Summer Hours is an immensely pleasant film to watch. Assayas has assembled a fine cast, all of whom work together as a credible family unit. The three Marly siblings actually feel related, unlike other "family" films, where a collection of A-list actors can easily come off as a contrived concentration of ego instead of a group of blood relations. The photography is both skillful from a narrative point of view, as well as beautiful to look at. The house is shot so lovingly that by the end of the picture we feel as though we have lived there ourselves.

Thematically, Summer Hours doesn't offer easy answers. For instance, what are we to make, exactly, of the passing of Hélène's belongings to the Musée d'Orsay? The museum was directly involved in this film's production, and certainly they have an interest in portraying the d'Orsay as the guardian of fine things and protector of legacies. Yet there is an interesting ambivalence in Summer Hours as to the value of that. The objects that wind up in the d'Orsay - a rare desk, a rarer cupboard, and others - are displayed to a largely indifferent audience who pass them by without a glace. A museum, then, no matter how much it reveres its own collection, can't replace successive generations of family, who enthusiastically pass on stories of a piece's provenance, history, and its connections to various people and places.

At the same time, it's demonstrable that the Marlys don't care enough to hold on to these works - or the house they came from, which was once the residence of their great-uncle, an influential painter. The Marly siblings, living continents apart, are complicit in the disintegration of their own extended family; they make conscious choices to remain untroubled by the past, abandoning their shared heritage to an institution.

The film's final sequence takes us back to Hélène's country home, where we see Frédéric's eldest daughter staging a final, massive party before the sale closes. It's a real rager, with dozens of teenagers arriving by car and motorcycle, carrying booze and junk food. With loud pop music blaring, it seems like the place is going to combust with debauchery. But Hélène's granddaughter, who planned it all, escapes the crowd with a boy, taking him on a sentimental tour of the property. This suggestion of a generational shift in values - from embracing heritage to disposing of it, and back again - ends the film on a perceptive, hopeful note.

Read the full review here

On DVD: Possible Films, Volume 2: New Short Films by Hal Hartley

Hal Hartley was, in a fairly quiet way, one of the defining filmmakers of the 1990s. His spare, mannered, witty style presaged the work of Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, and his influence is even visible, to an extent, in Quentin Tarantino's films. The verbose, often opaque dialogue of his strange, still, oddly focused characters suggested the particular angst of that decade - a moody inward paranoia about the location of the border that divides sincerity from irony. Two of his best films - Simple Men (1992) and Henry Fool(1997, and a Cannes winner for Best Screenplay) - deal with this theme in diverse and extremely funny ways. Henry Fool can be read as one of the central cinematic statements of the 1990s, a film that delves deep into the tenor of the era, through characters who grapple with varied, shifting permutations of authenticity.

Hartley has directed four features in the twelve years since Henry Fool - none of which have received much attention from any sector of the film-going population. His most recent, Fay Grim (2007), was a sequel to Henry Fool, and was released by Magnolia Films simultaneously in (a few) theaters and on DVD. The film was not only deeply uninteresting, it almost leeched power away from its immensely superior predecessor.

I'm not surprised that Hartley seems to be moving away from films - or at least, away from theatrical features. His work in the 1990s was so of the 1990s - and how does an artist so engaged with a decade deal with an evolving culture? So, he has moved around Europe a lot lately, doing theatrical work and short films.

It comes as a great sadness to report that the five shorts in Possible Films, Volume 2 - all of which were made in the last five years - are like soggy crumbs fallen from the plate of a master. These lifeless experiments in form and style breathe none of the wit or mystery of the work Hartley is known for; the very real enthusiasm for filmmaking one feels when watching his best features is totally absent. Hartley wields the camera here with desultory disinterest, capturing these indulgent shorts as if he's being forced to do so against his will. There's no heart in any of them.

A/Muse (2009, 11:00) is about a young German actress determined to be cast by a well-known director (implicitly Hartley) in his next feature. She writes to him and seeks him out at the theater where he is directing a play, but these connections are missed. She finally receives a letter in which the director explains that he has left Germany for New York, where he intends to start a new business selling a brand of European window. Coy without being charming, A/Muse is the perfect introduction to this set of five transparently self-absorbed films.

Implied Harmonies (2008, 28:05) is the most engaging of the five. It is a documentary about the production of an opera called La Commedia, composed by Louis Andriessen and directed by Hartley. (It was staged in Amsterdam.) This strange film, however, does not tell you a whole lot about the opera in concept or content. The film is too impressionistic to convey information, even though it's about a real project that actually took place. Still, there is something interesting here about the collaboration between Andriessen and Hartley, even though it's inadequately presented.

The Apologies (2009, 13:36) is about an aspiring actress who house-sits for a writer friend, where she practices a monologue repeatedly. The friend's ex-girlfriend shows up to drop off a set of keys and recite a rather trite monologue of her own, thinking the writer is in the apartment somewhere, hiding from her.

Adventure (2008, 20:26) is a really strange, alarming, and oddly invasive autobiographical piece about Hartley's relationship with his wife, the Japanese actress Miho Nikaido. Despite the film's ostensible "intent," I learned nothing about love, marriage, or Nikaido from this film - what I did learn is that Hal Hartley is a much bigger egotist than I would have imagined. There are cutesy title cards that talk about Hartley and Nikaido in the third person, a lot of tiresome shots of trains and orchards, and ongoing inane chatter. There's something particularly upsetting about the moment when Hartley casually presents his wife's candidly naked breasts for all to see.

Accomplice (2009, 3:08) is an indescribable short that includes shots of Hartley's colleague Jordana Maurer at work and a voice-over by Jean-Luc Godard about how it's always "possible" to make films. Easy for Godard - and Hartley - to say.

On DVD: Tales from the Script

Tales from the Script is documentary that consists solely of interviews with prominent (and a couple of not-so-prominent) screenwriters exploring the triumphs and tragedies of being a writer in Hollywood. The interviewees' comments are cut together in thematic groups that cover everything from making a pitch to working with superstars to the role of the writer on a film set. This compendium of anecdotes and insight is an excellent record of the writer's perspective on the film production process, and will be an invaluable document for those considering any kind of career in the movies.

Participants include Oscar-winners William Goldman, David S. Ward, and Bruce Joel Rubin; writers who have experienced huge commercial success such as Shane Black and John August; independent writers of more personal material like Ron Shelton and Paul Schrader; as well as writer-directors like John Carpenter and Frank Darabont.

Almost each and every interviewee in this documentary talks about the positive and the negative - the dark and the light in screenwriting. Their experiences have almost all been roller-coaster rides - and we're talking about some of the most successful writers in the business. This was the most surprising thing I learned from the documentary: that all of these writers have had markedly similar experiences - although well-paid and having a relatively good time, they all must confront the insurmountable frustrations of studio executives, their "ideas," and the vast unpredictability of the studios' decision-making process.

William Goldman expounds upon his theory that, in the film business, no one really knows anything. Paul Schrader explains why his Dutch Calvinism has gelled so well with Martin Scorsese's Italian Catholicism. Ron Shelton claims that all of his screenplays derive from his own personal background and interests. Shane Black talks about early successes (Lethal Weapon, etc.) that left him blocked for several years thereafter. David Hayter explains how he essentially fell into screenwriting while working on X-Men. Guinevere Turner pulls no punches discussing Uwe Boll's hijacking of her screenplay for Bloodrayne; on that project, Turner wrote only a single draft before it was accepted, heavily modified, and shot by Boll.

Although there is much to glean from the documentary, especially for those interested in pursuing a writing career, several of the interviewees (particularly Carpenter and Goldman) are adamant about the unpredictability of it all - that there are no hard and fast rules and that the ground is constantly shifting beneath a writer's feet. A need to stay agile, motivated, and informed seems to be one of the few substantial "rules" for Hollywood writers - and a key to maintaining one's creativity and sanity.

Tales from the Script was a parallel film and book project (see the above image), and First Run Features generously sent a copy of the book along with the DVD screener. The book is more thorough than the film, running about 350 pages. But the whole is a straightforward, well-organized set of material. The film alone is alternately inspiring and discouraging, although the discouraging parts grow out of a sense of realism rather than being merely depressing.


On DVD: The Blind Side

(The following was transcribed from the hand-written notes* of an assistant present during a pre-production meeting for The Blind Side attended by representatives from Alcon Entertainment and Warner Brothers. Items have been numbered and italicized for readability. My annotations are throughout. )

    1. Bestselling book by respected author Michael Lewis.
    2. Jettison Lawrence Taylor story; too edgy.
The book's full title is The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game. Had Lewis's book been fully adapted, telling the parallel tales of the young Michael Oher and of Lawrence Taylor at the height of his game, it would have made a vastly more interesting film. The significance that Lewis draws from pairing these stories - about the nature of football and how it has changed in recent years - is a sort of literary magic trick, but without fakery.

    1. For Christians; that "Thomas Kinkade" feeling.
    2. In Memphis, segregation is a fact of life.
This is an assumption by the filmmakers that is set down without giving us any idea of what Memphis, as a city, is like. Most of this film feels like it takes place in Memphis in, perhaps, the 1950s. In fact, it's set within the last decade. The racial attitudes that are portrayed do no credit to white residents of that city. I am in no position to say whether they are realistic. However, they certainly appear simplistic, and for a city in which racial tension has been a defining feature for centuries, it would seem as though finer nuance would exist on the spectrum between racism and brotherhood. In fact, I'd hazard a guess that Southerners generally hold a more mature, self-aware grasp of the issue than, say, Californians. But in The Blind Side, if you're white, you're either racist or angelically tolerant, like the Tuohys, who take in a black teenager without much fuss. The not-so-subtle racism of this movie is conveyed visually, too: if you're white, you exist among glowing amber hues; if black, you live in a perpetually cold steel-blue haze.

    1. Lead is a giant homeless teenage black boy whose parents are on drugs or dead, and he needs a leg up.
    2. White woman takes poor black boy to greatness; strong female lead (Leigh Anne).
    3. Are we nervous about seeming racist?
    4. Spunky.
    5. Spunky. Spunky.
    6. Sandra Bullock has turned script down.
Bullock should have never relented. It's a poorly-written role that calls for the following acting "challenges": Bullock must maintain an out-of-fashion frosted hairdo; she must stay chipper and aggressive and witty - you know, like Vicki Lawrence on Mama's Family, except with a great ass. Also, she must, at least once, restrain tears. How Bullock - who I won't deny has a certain innate charm - won an Oscar for this thin stereotype of a part is beyond my comprehension.

    1. Other black characters: dangerous, drug-addled, lewd.
    2. Other white characters: friendly, homespun, cuddles.
    3. Are we nervous about seeming racist?
    4. White woman's son is robust comic relief; cast Howdy Doody if available.
As the younger son, who goes by SJ, Jae Head proves to be one of the most annoying junior performers on film in a long time. He does look like Howdy Doody incarnate, and I'd rather the producers had cast the marionette instead of this grating child, whose incessant mugging and face-pulling is positively bizarre.

    1. Are we nervous about seeming racist?
    2. Director? Someone from the South; someplace homespun and friendly. NO ANGELENOS OR NEW YORK JEWS.
John Lee Hancock is capable of far better than The Blind Side. His much-maligned The Alamo is a lot better than its reputation; his Dennis Quaid baseball picture, The Rookie, is very strong; and his screenplay for Clint Eastwood's A Perfect World is nothing short of outstanding. (And his adaptation of the difficult Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil - also for Eastwood - wasn't bad, either.) So what happened here? I have no clue, except to say that the film is jam-packed with narrative shortcuts and clichés; it's a film that suggests a minimum of pre-production and a very fast production schedule. Everything is cursory, without attention to the details of character, setting, or even the movie's broader themes. In short, it's a hack job.

    1. Bullock would be wonderful. Why did she turn us down? How can we get her?
    2. Julia Roberts? Too metropolitan?
    3. Someone heard that Tim McGraw actually loves Taco Bell!
As the owner of several dozen Taco Bell franchises, McGraw gives the most convincing performance in the movie. Let me repeat that: Tim McGraw gives the most convincing performance in the movie. As Oher, Quinton Aaron holds his own and projects a certain power, and that's saying something because his under-written role has even less depth than Bullock's. Yet through the hysterical smoke screen of her peppy Southern maxims and nonsensical football dialogue, Aaron manages to convey something interesting.

    1. The 16-year-old daughter should be uncomfortably hot.
    2. SPUNKY. Sass-mouth. Straight-shooter. Loves Jesus. Homespun.
    3. Black boy shouldn't seem too "black." He's kind and sweet. Like Gentle Ben. Or Jesus. Some say He was black. We don't really know. Parallel could work. They both suffered with dignity.
    4. String out first hour so that it feels like three. Respectable films are slow!
The Blind Side runs 128 minutes and feels like it's at least 50% longer than that. The film's first half is very slow. Although further cutting would not have solved the film's fundamental shortcomings, you could easily cut 30 minutes without losing anything important.

    1. Bullock on phone now. She is still thinking about it.
    2. Lure Bullock with promises of enormous Oscar campaign. Keywords: respectable; prestige; homespun; cuddles.
    3. Does Bullock prefer "Sandra" or "Sandy" in casual conversation? Follow up.
    4. Call from Howdy Doody's agent! He has expressed deep interest. Requests huge supply of Pixie Sticks and Pepsi to be available on set at all times.
    5. Large black boy (Michael) and small white boy (Howdy) singing "Bust a Move" will be the mismatched comic highlight of the film.
    6. No one has that spunk but Bullock. She is a must. And she can do Southern accents.
    7. No writer yet. Screenplay writes itself. Whites helping blacks. Everyone feels good.
    8. Are we nervous about seeming racist? 


      Read the full review here

On DVD: Henri Cartier-Bresson: Collector's Edition

The father of photojournalism, Henri Cartier-Bresson is not as well known for his films as he is for his photographs. Known for his unromantic portraits of urban life and coverage of war-torn corners of the world, the co-founder of the international cooperative Magnum Photos and author of the book known in English as The Decisive Moment was also a documentarian. (He also served as second assistant director to Jean Renoir on two films, one of which was The Rules of the Game, in which he also acted!) This two-disc set from New Video thoughtfully compiles all of Cartier-Bresson's films, as well as a collection of short subjects about the man and his art.

Disc 1: In his sideline as filmmaker, Cartier-Bresson made two documentaries about the Spanish Civil War, one about prisoners of war returning home after World War II, and, much later, two short television documentaries in the United States. These five films are all included on the first of the two discs in this set.

Victory of Life (1937, 46:53) is very much a pro-Republican propaganda piece documenting the conditions on the ground in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War, for citizens and soldiers alike. It's an effective film assisted by the immediacy of the footage, much of which was shot on the front lines, and edited with a strong narrative sense.

Spain Will Live (1938, 43:50) tells a more politically-focused story, one that explicitly demonizes the Fascist-backed coup in Spain and details the political maneuvers behind the war. It's as interesting as the companion piece that precedes it.

The Return (1945, 32:22) is an American-funded documentary about the return of former prisoners of war to their homelands at the close of WWII. It contains much very moving footage, though its arrangement here seems hasty, and the narrative structure is weak. Still, it's of great intrinsic value as an historical document.

California Impressions (1970, 25:03) is the first of two short color films that Cartier-Bresson did for CBS News. It is, as its title suggests, impressionistic, lacking a narrative form. It's a collection of scenes - a ladies' auxiliary luncheon/fundraiser, high school flag girl tryouts, a United Farm Workers rally, antiwar protests, a strange "workshop" for couples - that provide an overview of the vast variety of lifestyles represented in the nation's most populous state.

Southern Exposures (1971, 25:13) is the second of the two CBS films. Cartier-Bresson provides a voice-over introduction to his trip to the American south. Like the California film, this one presents a variety of points of view and experiences. We meet a woman whose plantation home is open to tourists, Charles Evers (at that time mayor of Fayette, Mississippi), attendees at a cattle auction, a group of liberal white discussing race, and witness an altercation between state police and peaceful demonstrators. Powerful stuff.

Disc 2: The second disc contains material about Cartier-Bresson; only the final piece was personally made by him.

Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Impassioned Eye (2003, 52:04) is a recent piece made with Cartier-Bresson's participation. He is interviewed here at around age 90, just a few short years before his death. He remains a vibrant artist with strong ideas and direct involvement in making photographs. The documentary is dubbed, which I find distracting. I wish subtitles were an option.

Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Adventure (1962, 29:25) shows the photographer at work and in discussion of his artistic principles. This piece takes a somewhat academic approach, which offers a nice contrast to the other films in this set.

Contacts (1994, 11:51) looks at Cartier-Bresson's contact sheets. This proves more interesting than one might think. Movement from one shot to the next, to the next, and so on, provides insight into how the artist sees things, and into his compositional skills.

Flagrants Delits (1967, 27:25) is a straightforward montage of Cartier-Bresson's most well known photographs. Accompanied by an angular, non-melodic musical score by Diego Masson, this film is a nice introductory overview of the photographer's work.

A Day in the Studio of Henri Cartier-Bresson (2005, 15:43) was shot in 1989, and shows the artist at work: drawing, talking, painting, and talking some more. This is the only instance in this set of Cartier-Bresson speaking directly into a camera.

Lest We Forget: A Letter to Mamadou Ba (1991, 3:04) was made by Martine Franck and Cartier-Bresson for Amnesty International to protest the killing of two young Mauritanian shepherds by national police. 

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On DVD: The African Queen (Commemorative Box Set)

The African Queen, one of old Hollywood's most beloved films, has finally come to DVD after years of squabbling over rights and a meticulous digital restoration. The result is a happy new life for this painstakingly-produced romantic adventure, highlighted by two appealing lead performances.

After her brother's death, English missionary Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) and Canadian riverboat pilot Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) flee German East Africa. The First World War has broken out, and they are behind enemy lines. Aboard Charlie's boat, the African Queen, Rose devises a plan to thwart a German gunboat downriver by outfitting the Queen as a floating torpedo and ramming the Germans. Charlie is reluctant; the plan is suicidal. Rose maintains her commitment to the mission, however, and Charlie finally relents. From this point forward, the story follows Charlie and Rose as they travel downriver, encounter a number of rapids and other dangers, and fall into a tentative romance. Tension therefore develops along parallel lines; as the objective of their explosive plot grows nearer, so do the two leads to one another.

I should admit that although I like The African Queen, there are a lot of people who will like it more than I do. There is no doubt that it's charming and consistently engaging, but in the end, it feels like John Huston-lite. Huston's films are often challenging, even from a contemporary perspective, and they are marked by strong writing, memorable characters, and propulsive, economic direction. While much of that is true in The African Queen, its story is ultimately too thin to sustain this ambitiously-mounted film. This script, credited to Huston and James Agee, is skillful, and maintains a good balance of character development, humor, and suspense. Perhaps what prevents the movie from reaching the higher plateaus of Huston's best films (like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Maltese Falcon), is a lack of edge, and the fact that, although we like the characters here, they lack depth. There isn't much mystery as to who they are and what they want out of life. This renders the film's narrative arc kind of flat; onscreen danger can't compete with the metaphysical suspense of not knowing what a character may say or do next.

It's not news that The African Queen was a troubled production. Co-writer and director John Huston turned the film into a personal challenge to his own masculinity; uncredited co-writer Peter Viertel memorably fictionalized this in his novel (and later, screenplay) White Hunter, Black Heart (adapted to film by Clint Eastwood in 1990). The production difficulties are also well documented in the supplemental material included here. Given all that the cast and crew went through, it's amazing that the final film is as memorable and moving as it is. The leads were put through the wringer, but were able to deliver indelible portrayals nonetheless.

Hepburn and Bogart are well-matched. Hepburn's repressed, uptight old maid is somewhat more in her comfort zone than Bogart's squirrelly, ragged Allnut. Hepburn's performance is probably the more convincing of the two, even though Bogart won the Oscar. She exudes a buttoned-up comportment and contained Puritanical attitude that likely derives much from Hepburn's own Northeastern family background. Bogart, however, is playing against type as the screwy Allnut. He's primarily a comic character, a friendly, unsophisticated slob. Bogart is likable in the role; his metamorphosis from brooding loner into the gregarious Allnut is sure to have won over conservative oldsters at the Academy. But one can't help notice how hard he acts in the role; we are constantly being reminded that this is Bogart playing against type. It's an inescapable distraction. It's not a bad performance, just a very visible one.

Still, the leads generate a pleasing dynamic, and their budding romance is relatively believable. It is the heart of the movie, which, as it progresses, piles on a host of photographic techniques in order to keep the story credibly placed on an African river in 1914. The Technicolor photography by the great Jack Cardiff is excellent. The production design is brilliant. Studio shots and location footage are seamlessly matched. The restoration job highlights all of this wonderfully. 

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On DVD: Mad Men: Season 3

Warning: The following review contains a few mild spoilers.

After three seasons, Mad Men remains one of the most original, compelling dramas on television. Propelled by varied, complex characters and committed to a realistic depiction of its milieu, the series remains unpredictable, convincing, and always riveting.

Mad Men: Season Three takes place between March and December of 1963. The ad agency Sterling Cooper is now under the aegis of a British parent company, and a new in-house financial officer, Lane Pryce (Jared Harris), is sent from England. Pryce and his pandering assistant have a rough time fitting in with the existing corporate culture in New York. Other changes have taken place, too: Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) and Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton) are co-heads of Accounts. Sal Romano (Bryan Batt) begins directing television commercials. Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) is now Joan Harris, having sadly married the young surgeon who raped her halfway through the second season.

On the home front, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and his wife Betty (January Jones) have reconciled, and the birth of their third child is imminent. Betty's father Gene (Ryan Cutrona) moves in with the family as his encroaching dementia becomes more pronounced. Daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka) matures a bit, growing into a complicated and sometimes angry child.

The 1960s never looked so good, or felt so ominous. The program's lush production design and costumes, and amber-hued photography are like the water to the oil of the undercurrents that constantly beset its characters: social change, political violence, and suburban repression hide in every nook and cranny. Our protagonists are (mostly) prosperous and secure in this postwar idyll, but they have paid for it with a façade of cultural homogeneity that is under constant threat of being exposed as a fraud perpetrated in large part by the ad men themselves.

As the thirteen episodes unfold, familiar themes develop - but that is in no way a criticism. These characters live in a world shaped by unresolved, and therefore cyclical, issues of their repressed natures. The show's writing - overseen by creator and executive producer Matthew Weiner - is its most outstanding feature; coupled with the cast's deep engagement with their characters, this makes for winning television. Some familiar themes taken in new and sometimes startling directions include the following: Sal's apparent homosexuality is finally confronted directly. Don's obscure past is revealed more clearly than ever before. Tragedy strikes the Draper family. Copywriter Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) begins an alarming affair with a former Sterling Cooper executive. Roger Sterling's (John Slattery) marriage to former secretary Jane (Peyton List) causes a rift between him and Don. Draper begins a fruitless, dead-end affair, while Betty embarks on one that has serious consequences.

Mad Men's third season is very strong. The first seven episodes set up new dynamics, establish new subplots while illuminating existing ones, and continue to extrapolate new angles from the show's overarching themes. Character development is rapid, efficient, and always fascinating. We see Roger Sterling, for example, transform from a gregarious hob-nobber into an angry, somewhat alienated middle-aged loner. His company has been taken away from him (well, he sold it, anyway, and his role under the new regime is largely ceremonial), he has driven his family away by marrying the frivolous Jane, and his relationship with said new wife is hardly fulfilling. Peggy Olson, too, goes through some significant changes. She moves to Manhattan, gains more confidence in her talent, and, as I mentioned, begins an affair that seems ill-advised, at least on the surface.

However, these seven fantastic episodes of nonstop character and plot momentum give way to three duds, or near-duds. Episodes eight through ten virtually stagnate the season, with some rather ineffectual plotlines being quickly written into and then out of the show. Don and Betty take a trip to Rome during this lull, and it's a lot less picturesque and exciting that it should be. Also, these episodes include Don's rather arbitrary affair with a schoolteacher. Not only is the part of the teacher miscast and their dynamic is not convincing. However, one plot thread that successfully carries through these episodes is Don's growing personal and professional relationship with a well-known American entrepreneur and businessman (and real historical figure), whose identity I won't spoil here.

The season wraps up with three very solid episodes that bring the show back up to the level of greatness. The second-to-last uses President Kennedy's assassination as its backdrop, much as prior seasons used Kennedy's election and the Cuban Missile Crisis and the impetus for changes in tone, character motivation, and other circumstantial dynamics. The plot of the season finale is wholly satisfying - and can perhaps be read as a subtle harbinger of the even more drastic changes that the country would see over the years remaining in the decade.

Mad Men's commitment to an era and a way of life is unique. Watching it is the next best thing to living and breathing the advertising business and the shifting social and cultural mores of the early 1960s. Although dealing with a real historical period and a specific industry, the show never takes docudrama shortcuts or uses expository tactics to "catch us up" on what was going on in 1963. Instead, we interpret the significance of the times through the characters - their reactions, their dialogue, and their behavior. This clues us in to what we may be missing in terms of specific historical detail, and further develops the characters, which remains the primary interest of the series. And rightly so. Not only is this a cardinal rule of good dramatic storytelling, but Mad Men's characters are incredibly rich, shaped into vibrant, multi-dimensional figures by the peerless writing staff and brilliant performers.

Don Draper is one of television's greatest characters - not just at the moment, but of all time. This seemingly impenetrable executive with matinee idol looks could have been handled with cartoonish exaggeration by an actor less astute than Jon Hamm. But Hamm transforms Draper into an endlessly fascinating man who alternates rigid ethics with twisted morals. A stand-up guy, a no-nonsense boss, a demanding colleague, and a straight shooter with clients, Draper is also a liar, a philandering bastard who takes his wife and family for granted, doing everything for himself and not a lot for them. He expects to be taken care of, and in return, he hops from bed to bed all over the greater metropolitan region. For all this, we like Don Draper. We want him to do the right thing - which, in many contexts, he does. Just not with his family. He is a flawed, likable asshole we cannot resist watching episode after episode. Yes, he's a product of a certain era, but even more than that he's the product of his own particular background - a background that is fully elucidated, albeit incrementally, by the writers and production team.

Much has been written about Mad Men, and that will deservedly continue. (I haven't had a chance to say anything substantial about the show's co-protagonist, Peggy Olson, who's almost equally as interesting as Don Draper.) The program has so much to offer, so many layers of action and plot, with at least two dozen memorable characters rich with pasts and families and quirks and vulnerabilities. The third season does not disappoint. Even with a dull third quarter, Mad Men: Season Three ranks with the best television available. This challenging drama opens doors to variegated subject matter, prompting a further look at issues both American and universal, past and present, surrounding the meaning of moral identity. 

On DVD: Christianity: The First Two Thousand Years

Christianity: The First Two-Thousand Years is a documentary originally broadcast on A&E in 1998 and 2000. This DVD release does not add anything new, but it's a decent presentation of a solid documentary worth checking out if you haven't already. It's a substantial, weighty treatment of its subject, an approach that is increasingly out of step with the cheesy, overripe "documentary" programs currently seen on The History Channel and other places.

Divided into two parts (each treating a millennium) and narrated by Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, the 6 hour and 40 minute documentary compiles contemporary video footage, still images of art and architecture, and interviews with scholars and ecclesiasts. The whole is expertly edited into a seamless narrative that maintains its complex story while incorporating divergent viewpoints and a relevance to contemporaneous time periods. This ambitious survey tells of Jesus and the Apostles; the fathers of the early Church; medieval Catholic philosophers; the Protestant Reformation; the Inquisition; and much more, up to and including Mormons and modern day American evangelicals.

Despite the sweeping scope, we are afforded intimate, detailed portraits of important figures such as St. Paul, Constantine, St. Augustine, Empress Theodora, Charlemagne, Otto the Great (and Otto II), St. Dominic, Martin Luther, and Henry VIII. These mini-biographies are helped by the input of Professors Paul Maier of Western Michigan University, Elaine Pagels of Princeton, Karen Jo Torjeson of Claremont Graduate University, John Dominic Crossan of DePaul University, Jeffrey Burton Russell of Loyola Marymount, and many others. The commentators are generally engaging; their vast command of the subject renders their participation enthusiastic and energetic. Never do they come off as aloof or condescending. Pagels and Crossan are particularly good storytellers, as their many best-selling books would suggest. Close editorial attention results in seamless transitions between narration and interviewee comments.

The whole program is cohesive and visually appealing, although occasionally marred by unfortunate editorial choices such as weird color filters. Still, a major strong suit of this documentary is the consistent relevance of its imagery. Lesser productions rely on repetition of images and film footage, which, after a while, render such visuals meaningless as the viewer's eyes glaze over. This one maintains a constant flow of new images that effortlessly complement the narration or commentary, avoiding repetition and hence staleness.

Christianity: The First Two Thousand Years avoids value judgments, although it certainly treats its subject with reverence. It does not include interviews with anyone who disputes Christianity's core tenets, which is unsurprising. Nonetheless, it comes off as philosophically even-handed, presenting the storied history of Christianity's development and spread with a view to well-established facts, avoiding controversy and interpretive commentary.