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Film Reviews: Now Available on DVD

Tuesday June 29, 2010 - 08:44:00 AM

Mystery Train 


Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train is a laconic journey, in three parts, through a Memphis of the imagination. Spurred by the passion and fury of a fierce backbeat, three interlocking deadpan vignettes find rock and roll pilgrims searching for something — the ghost of Elvis, the spirit of Carl Perkins, or a vague yearning for the vaguely defined essence of pompadoured rebellion — amid the empty streets and hollowed-out hotels of a faded town still trading on a brief epochal moment in its history. A young, star-struck Japanese couple, a rebel without a cause, and a comically stoic widow traverse the remnants of a mythic city in a mythic America in search of the reflected glory of the nearly mythic but everlasting moment of its ascendence. Screamin' Jay Hawkins, one of the real-life architects of rock and roll, takes a supporting role as an eccentric hotelier working the late shift. 


1989. 110 minutes. $39.95. 




Night Train to Munich 


Today, British director Carol Reed's reputation rests primarily on The Third Man, the 1950 post-war thriller in which Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles joined an international cast in the sewers of Vienna in the creation of a cinema classic. But Reed created at least two more masterpieces with The Fallen Idol and Odd Man Out, as well as a number of other fine but lesser-known films, produce both before and after his late '40s peak. 


Night Train to Munich is a delirious ride, a curious hybrid of espionage thriller, Allied propaganda and screwball comedy, in which Nazis pursue a Czech scientist and his daughter from Prague to England to a precarious tram in the Swiss Alps. Rarely seen today, it was quite a success upon its release in 1940, its wry wit, sly sexual innuendo and absurdist cloak-and-dagger romance taking viewers on a stylish and ironic — if low-budget — tour through a series of genre conventions. Rex Harrison is suave and sarcastic, if a bit smarmy; Paul Henreid turns his heroic image on its head; and Margaret Lockwood maintains her beauty, humor and poise throughout a parade of plot twists. 


1940. 90 minutes. $29.95. 




Steamboat Bill, Jr. 


In 1928, Buster Keaton was wrapping up an astounding decade of independent filmmaking, seemingly with another decade or two stretched out before him. But circumstances conspired to bring his remarkable string of sterling comedies to a premature end. During production on his tenth feature film, Steamboat Bill, Jr., Keaton's marriage ended in bitter divorce and Joseph Schenk, Keaton's producer and brother-in-law, sold his contract to MGM, a move that would render silent comedy's most innovative auteur a mere shift worker in Hollywood's largest cinema assembly line. And with the talkies just around the corner, it's no wonder that Keaton's loss of personal and professional autonomy should lead to a fierce bout of alcoholism and steep career decline. 




The great clown's depression is on clear display in Steamboat Bill's — and indeed the silent era's — most spectacular stunt, in which Buster stands motionless as gale-force winds bring a thousand-pound wall crashing down around him, the frame of a second-floor window passing neatly over his head and around his shoulders, leaving him stunned but unscathed. Keaton's crew tried to dissuade him from performing the stunt; the photographer cranked the camera with his eyes averted, and the co-director refused to take part at all, taking refuge in a nearby tent while praying for Keaton's soul. 


Keaton's career had reached an artistic if not commercial peak a couple of years earlier with The General, his Civil War comedy masterpiece. It was an expensive production that made relatively little profit and drew mixed reviews, prompting Schenk to require Keaton to make a markedly less ambitious follow-up. Keaton kept costs down on his next few films, including Steamboat Bill, saving his money for a lavish finish in which a hurricane wreaks havoc on River Junction. It's a remarkable sequence of daring stunts and comedic destruction, providing a climactic conclusion to Keaton's independent career, one that would, unfortunately, foreshadow the stormy times that lay ahead for him. 


1928. 70 minutes. $29.95. 




Close Up 


It was with 1999’s Taste of Cherry that Abbas Kiarostami firmly cemented his international reputation, becoming the first Iranian filmmaker to win the Palme d’or at the Cannes film festival. But by then, his contemplative, intelligent films had been spurring debate in his home country for many years. Close-Up (1990), Kiarostami's emphatic declaration of Iranian cinematic artistry, looked back on cinema itself through a refracted lens, blending fiction, fact and fantasy into a story both stimulating and sad. 


Close-Up was inspired by a news story Kiarostami read concerning Hossein Sabzian, an obsessive cinemaphile who impersonated Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and thereby insinuated himself into the life of a wealthy family, if only for a few days. Kiarostami then insinuated himself into Sabzian's trial, convincing the judge to not only allow the director to film the proceedings, but to question the defendant as the cameras rolled. The director also managed to persuade Sabzian and his victims to re-enact the story of their meeting and brief association, and then, upon Sabzian's release from jail, staged a meeting between the impersonator and the impersonated, with Mohsen Makhmalbaf carrying Sabzian on the back of his motorcycle to the home of his victims to ask for their forgiveness.The result is an examination of cinema and the troubled mind of a man who has devoted his life to a fanatic appreciation of the art. Close-Up, as with all of Kiarostami's best work, uses the drama and melodrama of everyday life to present his viewers with tantalizing, even baffling questions, and wisely leaves the answers to us. 


1990. 98 minutes. $39.95.