PICKS OF THE WEEK
Tell No One (B+)
France; Guillaume Canet, 2006, Music Box Films/MPI
A somber provincial French pediatrician named Beck (Francois Cluzet) -- still tormented by the shocking murder on an idyllic lake, eight years earlier, of his lovely wife (Marie-Josee Croze) -- suddenly begins receiving emails that seem to be coming from the dead woman. When Beck investigates, questioning or re-contacting the police (Francois Berleand), her father (Andre Dussolier), her friends and others involved (Nathalie Baye, Jean Rochefort), he discovers a dark morass of guilt, lies, scandal and cover-up beneath the surface of the long-ago crime. And he also finds himself the target of a reopened police investigation -- fleeing the law and also some truly relentless and scary killers, while he desperately tries to uncover the truth.
A major Cesar (French Oscar) winner, for Best Actor and Director, this stellar adaptation of Harlan Coben's American suspense novel was one of the big foreign-language art house hits of 2008, a crisp, fast, suspenseful and penetrating psychological mystery/shocker, with a terrific cast of French acting luminaries, including that sublime English expatriate Kristin Scott Thomas. (Director-co-writer Canet, himself a star French actor, plays one of the nastier suspects.)
Tell No One suggests, surely not without intention, one of Alfred Hitchcock's "wrong man" thrillers, as well as his classic tale of the living and the dead, Vertigo. Canet is a real talent: The full-throttle suspense, headlong pace, Chabrolian atmosphere of bourgeois corruption and twisty, devious puzzle-plot all hook you, and so does the potent theme of yearning, undying love beyond the grave. (In French, with English subtitles. Extras: Deleted scenes, outtakes.)
A Grin Without a Cat (A)
France; Chris Marker, 1977 (updated 1993), Icarus Films
Chris Marker's epic documentary on the history of the New Left in France in the 1960s and 1970s -- which begins with a stirring montage of images from French newsreels and documentary footage intercut with Sergei Eisenstein/s revolutionary film masterpiece Battleship Potemkin (mostly the Odessa Steps sequence) -- is a cultural/political film landmark that distills decades of incendiary modern history into a provocative, engrossing, sometimes lyrical memoir. Marker (La Jetee) is a poet of memory, and here he examines a volatile past as it replays before us with a breathless contemporary air and tempo.
The cast of archive figures or influences is large and historically resonant: Fidel Castro, Chairman Mao, Regis Debray, Che Guevara, student leader "Danny the Red" Cohn-Bendit, Salvador Allende and many others. The narrators or voices include Yves Montand, Simone Signoret, Jim Broadbent, Robert Kramer, and Jorge Semprun.
And the often amazing historic footage shot mostly by passionately committed filmmakers like Francois Reichenbach, Pierre Lhomme, William Klein, Marker himself and many others, makes this, as much as D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation (in Woodrow Wilson's famous words) "history told by lightning." But it's a different kind of history than Griffith's or Eisenstein's explosive silent/dramatic dramatizations of Civil War battles or the massacre on the Odessa Steps.
It's the world as it happened, caught in images of stunning reality that keep unwinding or igniting before our eyes, bringing back a vanished era with incredible force. If you lived in places like Madison, Wis. during those years (as I did), Marker's movie is a highly charged experience: exciting, revelatory and nostalgically bittersweet. (In French, English, Spanish and other languages, with English subtitles. Extra: Booklet with Chris Marker essay.)
BOX SET PICKS OF THE WEEK
Czech Chillers (B+)
Czechoslovakia; Otakar Vavra, Jaromil Jires, 1969-70, Facets
An odd, memorable treat for connoisseurs of the weird, beautiful and horrifying: two fine, rare-ish Czech films from the end of that country's great New Wave. (In fact, both were released after the invasion by Russia, when the cinematic creative ferment of the '60s was about to be staunched.) Both are gems: unusual, provocative, full of horrors and beauties, excitingly well-crafted.
The sweeter and more surreal of the two, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, about a little girl's sometimes horrific coming of age, was written and directed by New Wave mainstay Jaromil Jires (1935-2001). Director of the neglected classics The Cry and The Joke, and a classmate of later Hollywood expatriates Milos Forman and Ivan Passer, Jires was one of the directors censored and hurt by Dubcek's fall -- though he did recover and kept writing and directing until 1999.
Otakar Vavra, his elder, was one of the movies' great survivors -- born in 1911 and still living today at 98, with a filmography that stretches, with few interruptions, from 1931 (when he made the short, Svetla Pronika Tmou or The Light Penetrates the Dark) all the way to his last film (to date) in 2003, My Prague. Vavra was also famed as a great teacher, one of the founders of Czechoslovakia's FAMU film school in Prague, where many of the eventual New Wave directors were his students and ardent proponents.
You've probably never heard of Vavra, much less seen his work, so it's a pleasure to report that the Vavra movie in this set was his own personal favorite, the remarkable witch hunt tale, based on Czech history, Witches' Hammer. A genuine masterpiece, it's a fit testament for the old Czechoslovakia's little known but ageless master. Both films are in Czech, with English subtitles. (Extras: booklets with articles on Jires and Vavra.)
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (B)
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Witches' Hammer (A)
Otakar Vavra, 1969
In 17th-century Czechoslovakia, a poor, superstitious old woman tries to spirit away her Holy Communion wafer from church to cure an ailing cow. Caught, she is branded a witch and forced (i.e., tortured) to accuse others of witchcraft as well. Fear spreads like plague after the parish's wealthy leaders hire a renowned but unscrupulous and brutal witch hunter, who begins using more extreme torture to extract false confessions and accusations, condemn innocent citizens and confiscate their property. In a crescendo of terrors, witch after witch is burned at the stake, and when the admired local priest objects, he too is accused and put on the rack. Based on Vaclav Kaplicky's novel, and on the actual transcripts of the real-life Czech witch trials (which Vavra faithfully re-creates on screen), this stark black-and-white classic is reminiscent of Arthur Miller's play The Crucible -- a powerful drama and, given the times, an uncommonly brave political statement. With Elo Romancik and Vladimir Smeral.
Alexander Korda's Private Lives (B+)
U.K.; Alexander Korda/Paul Czinner; 1933-36, Criterion/Eclipse
One of the masters of the film historical drama and the man who almost single-handedly established the British cinematic "tradition of quality" during the 1930s, was the Hungarian Jewish film director/producer/mogul Alexander Korda, who is amply celebrated in this excellent, historically invaluable box set.
Korda, who became world-famous with the earliest film in this set, 1933's spicy The Private Life of Henry VIII (starring Charles Laughton in his great Oscar-winning turn as the lusty, amoral, multiple-queen-abusing, chicken-chomping monarch), escaped Nazi Germany along with his filmmaking brothers Vincent (supreme art director) and Zoltan (another first-rate director, and the maker of The Four Feathers, Sahara and The Macomber Affair).
Together the three Kordas, in various combinations, collaborated with others on an extraordinary string of movies. Based on prime, fascinating historical and cultural subjects, these movies were intelligent, stylish and literate; well-researched historically; visually, lushly produced; and cast with the cream of British stage and film dramatic acting royalty. Many of them became classics. Together with the brilliant young London-born suspense director Alfred Hitchcock, Alex Korda put British filmmaking on the international map in the '30s -- both as director himself and as producer for others (including Zoltan, Paul Czinner in this set, Michael Powell in The Thief of Baghdad and later, in the '40s, Carol Reed and Graham Greene in The Fallen Idol and The Third Man ).
Korda, like Ernst Lubitsch, had an urbane, witty and sexually knowing take on royalty and power. He was aware of the naughty, scandalous, unjust, corrupt, and deeply human bits that other filmmakers usually left out of their historical films, and he and his scriptwriters (including Lajos Biro, Arthur Wimperis and Carl Zuckmayer) made sure to keep them in -- or at least imply them.
He also had a flair for sumptuous settings and grand personalities -- like the great Laughton, tossing partly-eaten chicken legs over his shoulder as the magnificently boorish Henry VIII, or tearing our heart as the poignant, impoverished, beaten-down old Rembrandt, ignored by the world and the foolish or bigoted patrons of the day but still an unchallenged monarch of his art.
These are wonderful films, dramatically moving and visually splendid. (All four were designed by brother Vincent and shot by the peerless French cinematographer Georges Perinal.) Even the so-called failures, like The Private Life of Don Juan, the notorious 1934 flop that was Douglas Fairbanks Sr.'s movie swan song, are interesting and entertaining today.
I have only one serious complaint. This set definitely should have included director-producer Korda's other historical masterpiece, the 1941 Lady Hamilton (a.k.a. That Hamilton Woman), starring Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, in their glorious youth, as the tragic Emma Hamilton and her lover Admiral Nelson. It was, after all, the favorite film of both a young American movie critic named Andrew Sarris and an old British warrior and statesman named Winston Churchill. (Extras: Notes by Michael Koresky.)
Includes: The Private Life of Henry VIII (U.K.; Alexander Korda, 1933, B+) with Charles Laughton, Robert Donat, Merle Oberon and Elsa Lanchester; The Rise of Catherine the Great (U.K.; Paul Czinner, 1934, B) with Elisabeth Bergner, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Flora Robson and Gerald du Maurier; The Private Life of Don Juan (U.K.; Alexander Korda, 1934, B); and, Rembrandt (U.K.; Alexander Korda, 1936, A) with Charles Laughton, Gertrude Lawrence, Elsa Lanchester and Roger Livesey.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Chandni Chowk to China (C)
China/India; Vikhil Aduani, 2008, Warner
A wildly sky-high over-the-top Bollywood/comedy/kung fu romp, starring bolly-superstar Akshay Kuhar as an idiot turned choppy-socky mega-hero, along with bolly-bombshell Deepika Padukone as the heroine and Gordon Liu as the heavy. Has to be seen to be believed, and even then you'll have trouble.
K*ke Like Me (C)
U.K.; Jamie Kastner, 2007, Kimstim/Kino
The title comes from John Howard Griffin's Black Like Me, the once-famous reportage of a white journalist masquerading as a black, made into a 1964 movie with James Whitmore. Here, Jamie Kastner pretends to be Jewish (we guess, though he plays coy all the way through) to expose anti-Semitism and confront Jewish culture throughout Europe.
There are some funny jokes, nice Jewish scenes, edgy moments of anger and very good extras here. But I thought this was more an overly self-convinced masquerade of a movie. I also had a low opinion of Kastner's handling of the German woman running a Jewish restaurant, from whom the director demands back money he gave her after she says she's not Jewish. No matter what her origin, why humiliate an old woman on camera? (Extras: Interviews with Christopher Hitchens and others, tour of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, trailer.)
My Father, My Lord (B+)
Israel; David Volach, 2007, Kino
This one has been out awhile, but I had to catch it up anyway; it's a sleeper. Beautifully filmed, directed and acted, it's a family drama, set in the Israeli Hasidic community, that casts a spell and builds to a very moving climax. A strict rabbi and father (Assi Dayan) is quietly but bullyingly firm with his inquisitive young son (Ilan Grif), disturbing the more sensitive wife and mother (Sharon Hacohen Bar). But their lives all take a wrenching turn when the little boy, momentarily under his father's care while the mother runs an errand, disappears on a beach. An extraordinary writer-director feature debut for David Volach, who comes from a fundamentalist background and re-creates it with both love and sorrow. In Hebrew, with English subtitles. (Extra: Trailer.)