What’s most startling about Mohammad Rasoulof’s 2013 Iranian thriller Manuscripts Don’t Burn (Kino Lorber, DVD, Netflix) is its audacity. Iranian filmmakers have a history of couching its criticisms of life in Iran in metaphor. This film puts its portrait of authoritarian oppression out in the open.
We open on a contract murder that plays like an American gangster picture dropped into dusty slums outside Tehran, then take a circuitous route through the workings of a totalitarian state that intimidates and terrorizes its intellectuals and dissident writers. Along with the web of writers connected by censored and suppressed works, we follow the thugs doing the dirty work for the vindictive minister of the security services, including a man whose motivation is simply money to pay for his son’s operation (it’s not a corny as it sounds). He’s constantly stopping along the route to see if the money has reached his account, interruptions that keep the political horror story firmly framed within the banalities and anxieties of everyday life.
The script is complicated and a little confusing, stirring in characters who appear without introduction, and it gets a little repetitive in the second act, but it seems churlish to complain that such a provocative, covertly-made portrait of the Iranian government as a brutally repressive regime could “use a little cutting.” The confusion sorts itself out as the intimidation turns into outright terrorism, 1984 by way of The Godfather, while an inspired formal twist puts the whole ordeal on continuous loop, a cycle of never-ending despotism. There are echoes of The Lives of Others in the routine surveillance of citizens but this is more confrontational and brutal and Rasoulof hasn’t the safe distance of exploring a fallen regime. His targets are current and he puts a target on his chest for his efforts. For that reason, he’s the only artist on the film who takes credit; the other names are hidden for fear of reprisals (we assume the actors are expatriates safely out of country). The film was, of course, banned in Iran and Rasoulof (against the advice of friends) returned home to Iran after premiering the film at Cannes (where it won the FIPRESCI Prize), where a prison sentence hangs over his head. His passport has been revoked and he is unable to see his family, whom he has already moved out of country. That’s some sacrifice.
In Persian with English subtitles. No supplements. Also available to stream on Netflix.
L’avventura (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), Michelangelo Antonioni’s elegant masterpiece of alienation and emotional disconnection, made a star of Monica Vitti and put Antoni-ennui on the international map. Vitti stars in a mystery of sorts: a woman (Lea Massari) disappears while vacationing with friends in a yachting tour of the islands off the coast of Sicily. Vitti plays the missing woman’s best friend, who goes searching for her with the woman’s lover (Gabriele Ferzetti), but she is never found and the two searchers become close and finally lovers. Vitti is at her haunted best as a woman whose emotional honesty and optimism collides with the cynical and self-destructive Ferzetti, who sabotages the potential love affair rather than open himself up to emotional vulnerability.
The film continued the exploration of dislocation and desolation in modern Italy that Antonioni had begun with Le amiche (1955) and Il Grido (1957), but with a modernist approach and a contemplative, austere style that denies the familiar narrative conventions of story. He turns his camera into a microscope and studies his characters as figures in an alienated landscape in long, still takes that linger on the gorgeous but lonely landscape of the Italian coast. The images are beautiful but the experience unsettling, portraits of characters disconnected from their world and from one another, with Vitti is the only empathetic figure in the emotionally empty crowd. And it is self-consciously designed to keep audiences from connecting with the characters and the characters from connecting with one another. This is a film that keeps everything at a distance.
The film won a Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 1960, where the film was actually booed at its premier screening, and became an international hit, launching a loose “trilogy of alienation” that was completed with La Notte (1961) and L’eclisse (1962), both of which Criterion has released on Blu-ray in the last couple of years. Criterion originally released L’avventura on DVD over a decade ago. This release, mastered from a new 4K digital restoration from the original 35mm negative, completes the high definition upgrade of the trilogy.
New to this edition is “Olivier Assayas on L’avventura,” a 27-minute analysis and appreciation of the film recorded by filmmaker and critic Assayas in 2004. Carried over from the earlier DVD is commentary by film historian Gene Youngblood, the 1966 documentary Antonioni: Documents and Testimonials directed by Gianfranco Mingozzi, writings by Antonioni read by Jack Nicholson plus Nicholson’s personal recollections of the director, and a foldout insert with an essay by Geoffrey Nowell-Smmith and a reprint of Antonioni’s statements about the film that originally circulated after the its premiere at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival.
A Life in Dirty Movies (Film Movement, DVD) – The work of Joe Sarno is little known outside of cinephile and cult cinema circles, and not widely seen even among cineastes. That’s because he, with the support and collaboration of his wife Peggy, made his low-budget explorations of adult sexuality within the confines of the sexploitation industry, where they played in grindhouse theaters under such titles as Sin in the Suburbs (1964) and The Love Merchant (1966). His films, however, were handsomely made, carefully composed and lit, and focused on the odysseys of women exploring their sexuality and their desires in a society stumbling through the sexual revolution. In a cinematic culture that focused on men getting their rocks off and women taking their clothes off, Sarno made women the active protagonists of his films. And while he satisfied the requirements of nudity and sexual spectacle (within the conventions and limits of the pre-X-rated era), his idea of a money shot was a close-up of a woman’s face as she reached climax. That sensitivity to women’s experiences and his lovely black and white photography earned him the nickname “The Bergman of 42nd Street.” In fact, he found more respect in Europe and even made films in Sweden, such as Inga (1968) and Young Playthings (1972), which played in the U.S. as foreign imports and earned Sarno a kind of critical respect his American films never received.
A Life in Dirty Movies gives viewers an overview of his career and its decline, when X-rated films displaced the softcore culture and Sarno was no longer able to make his kind of movies, but director Wiktor Ericsson is more interested in the couple themselves, together and still in love after more than 40 years, and on Joe’s doomed attempt at a comeback at the age of 88. Peggy actively encourages him and provides constructive criticism but confesses to the camera that Joe is hopelessly out of step with the times. His health was clearly declining while this documentary was being shot (he died in 2010, soon after production wrapped), and Ericsson finds his story in Peggy’s protectiveness and support of Joe in his decline, still defending her husband to her disapproving parents. Ericsson includes illuminating film clips but only a general overview of his career and he completely ignores 15 years when Sarno made X-rated films under a number of pseudonyms. The most interesting story is their long partnership, Sarno’s drive to keep making films, and Peggy’s determination to support his dreams even though she knows he’ll never make another film. Features bonus interview clips and two cut scenes.
What Is Cinema? (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD) isn’t so much a lesson in film history and aesthetics as a survey of the breadth of cinematic possibilities. Filmmaker Chuck Workman (most famous for his short films and clip montages at the Oscars) throws a wide net and gives documentary, avant-garde, and experimental filmmaking an equal footing with Hollywood classics, independent film, and foreign cinema. Among his commentators are David Lynch, Mike Leigh, Costas-Gavras, Kelly Reichardt, and Jonas Mekas, all sharing their cinema loves (Leigh basically talks about his own method), and the gamut of featured filmmakers run from Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Bresson and Robert Altman to Abbas Kairostami and Chantel Akerman and Bill Viola. It’s not so much about defining cinema as exploring the possible, a celebration more than a history illustrated with clips from 100 films. Workman is a wizard with clips and you can lose yourself in the montage of images and the enthusiasm of filmmakers talking about the films that inspire them. But it does feel more like you’re wandering through a film museum than getting a guided tour with a point of view.
Features 10 bonus experimental shorts glimpsed in the documentary, including three films commissioned by Workman.
White Christmas: Diamond Anniversary Edition (Paramount, Blu-ray) – Irving Berlin’s iconic Christmas ballad “White Christmas” debuted in the 1942 musical for all seasons “Holiday Inn,” where Bing Crosby crooned it into the best-selling song of all time. Twelve years later it was revived for another Crosby film, this one a lavish Technicolor production with Crosby and Danny Kaye as song and dance men and Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen as a struggling sister act that the boys help out of a tight spot in Florida (they dress in drag and lip-synch to the girls’ signature number “Sisters” with feather fans and coy glances while the girls escape). Together they stage a revue to save a failing Vermont country inn. This 1954 holiday classic, directed by reliable studio hand Michael Curtiz, is sentimental, contrived and stiffly silly, yet it still charmed its way to become the biggest hit of its year, thanks largely to the Irving Berlin score, colorful studio production numbers and the relaxed presence of Crosby, who even calms down the usually hyperactive Danny Kaye. There are better musicals but this is a beloved classic and a slice of Hollywood innocence.
It’s been out before on both Blu-ray and DVD. This edition includes new supplements (on DVD only), including Christmas TV show appearances by Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, the 1954 documentary “Assignment Children” with UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Danny Kaye (introduced by Michael Bublé), and other archival clips. Carried over from previous releases is commentary by and an interview with Rosemary Clooney and additional featurettes. The Blu-ray edition also includes a DVD edition of the film and a bonus CD with Christmas songs sung by Bing, Danny, and Rosemary Clooney (and friends).
Lines of Wellington (Film Movement, DVD) is officially credited to director Valeria Sarmiento but it was begun by Raul Ruiz, who died before he could complete it. John Malkovish, Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Jemma West, Mathieu Amalric, Marisa Paredes, Melvil Poupaud, Elsa Zilberstein, and Vincent Perez are just a few of the stars of the this international drama set during the Napoleonic Wars of 1810. In English, Portuguese and French with English subtitles.
Two of Robert Altman’s most interesting adaptations come out on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber’s Studio Classics line. The Long Goodbye (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) updates Raymond Chandler’s classic novel to seventies Los Angeles and casts Elliot Gould as an easy-going Philip Marlowe. Thieves Like Us (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray, DVD), about young outlaws in Depression-era south, stars Keith Carradine and Shelly Duvall in a crime drama that plays like a folk song.
The Expendables 3 (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, Cable VOD) adds Harrison Ford, Wesley Snipes, Antonio Banderas, and Mel Gibson to the cast of Sylvester Stallone’s over-the-hill gang action franchise.
The November Man (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD) stars Pierce Brosnan (another aging action hero thanks to his years playing James Bond) as a spy brought out of retirement for one last mission.
The Giver (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD), based on the award winning young adult novel by Lois Lowry, stars Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep, and What If (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD) is a twentysomething romantic comedy with Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan as friends who realize they may want to be more than just friends.
Before I Disappear, starring Shawn Christensen as a suicidal misanthrope and Emmy Rossum as his estranged sister, debuts on VOD on Friday, November 28, same day as theaters.
The Michael Bay-produced reboot Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Paramount, Digital HD) is available for digital purchase three weeks before disc and VOD and the inspirational sports drama When the Game Stands Tall (Sony, Digital HD) comes two weeks before disc.
Tootsie (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
30 for 30 Fifth Anniversary Collection (ESPN Films, DVD)
Les Blank: Always For Pleasure (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
Shock Waves (Blue Underground, Blu-ray, DVD)
Masque of the Red Death (1989) (Scorpion, DVD)
Mystery Science Theater 3000 Volume XXXI: Turkey Day Collection (Shout Factory)
Bill / Bill: One His Own (Hen’s Tooth, DVD)
Jeeves & Wooster Complete Collection (Acorn, DVD)
Upstairs, Downstairs: The Ultimate Edition (Acorn, DVD)
Inspector Lewis 7 (Masterpiece Mystery) (PBS, Blu-ray, DVD)
Adventure Time: Finn the Human (with Finn Backpack) (Warner, DVD)
Better Off Ted: The Complete Second Season (Olive, DVD)
Drunk History: Seasons 1 & 2 (Paramount, DVD)
When Calls the Heart: Television Movie Collection (Millennium, DVD)
The Definitive WWI and WWII Collection (History, DVD)
Guardians of the Museum (BBC, Blu-ray, DVD)
War Story (IFC, DVD)
A Madea Christmas: The Movie (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, VOD)
Touch of the Light (Well Go, DVD, Digital)
Beyond the Edge (IFC, DVD)
Copenhagen (Level 33, DVD)
Nymphomaniac: Extended Director’s Cut (Magnolia, Blu-ray, DVD)
Road to Ninja – Naruto The Movie (Viz Media, Blu-ray, DVD)
Tyler Perry’s Hell Hath No Fury Like a Woman Scorned – The Play (Lionsgate, DVD, Digital HD, Digital VOD)
Rhymes for Young Ghouls (Monterey, DVD)
Hard-Core on the Gore (Camp, DVD)