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Le Divorce
20th Century Fox DVD

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It’s likely that the Merchant Ivory team made Le Divorce as a kind of rueful love letter to Paris, so lovingly does the camera linger on the interiors of apartments, the merchandise in shops and, in one short sequence, the courses of an expensive restaurant meal.

Kate Hudson plays Isabel, an American college dropout who arrives in Paris to visit her pregnant sister Roxy (Naomi Watts) on the day her husband leaves her. In short order, Isabel becomes the mistress of Roxy’s estranged husband’s uncle, while Roxy descends into a picturesque despair that culminates in a wholly unconvincing suicide attempt.

Their parents arrive from California, there are many lovely meals, visits to the countryside, and finally a double murder as free of dramatic resonance as Roxy’s suicide attempt. It’s all, like the female stars of the movie, very pretty and very bloodless, and all the more difficult to bear since nearly every character surrounding the girls is despicable.

The cast is impressive – Leslie Caron, Thierry Lhermitte, Glenn Close, Matthew Modine, Stockard Channing, Sam Waterston – and perhaps they all mistook the sumptuous bourgeois set dressing around their characters for some evidence of virtue or taste. The French characters all regard the Americans with distaste (the only thing that rings true in the whole film), while the audience is likely to share their cultivated revulsion when surveying the whole sorry lot.

But the French come off worst of all, portrayed to a man and woman as a nation of passionless philanderers, pitilessly smug, incompetent and mean-spirited. While it’s a stereotype with some currency these days, it’s hard to square with the film’s worshipful prostration at the altar of French culture, and makes Le Divorce smack of a witlessly over-refined aestheticism. No extras.

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Super Fly
Warner Bros. DVD

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The Best of Soul Cinema
MGM DVD box set

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Gordon Parks Jr.’s 1972 hit Super Fly was, alongside Shaft, the beginning of the “blaxploitation” genre, the movie without which hip hop would have lost most of its visual style.

Warner’s DVD release of the film is suitably serious, packaged with a retrospective “making of”, an interview with star Ron O’Neal made when the film became a hit, and a smirking little short on the film’s jaw-dropping wardrobe. Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack is treated with appropriate reverence.

What came after was mostly awful, and MGM’s Best of Soul Cinema box set collects a few ripe examples, like Super Fly rip-off Hell Up In Harlem, and two films featuring Pam Grier’s pneumatic charms, Coffy and Foxy Brown. Keenen Ivory Wayan’s 1988 satire I’m Gonna Git You Sucka is mostly beside the point, since blaxploitation was already a parody of itself.

The gem of the set is 1975’s Cooley High, a film long known as the “black American Graffiti”. Set in the projects of 1964 Chicago, it’s the story of two high school buddies - Glynn Turman and Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs (Washington from TV’s Welcome Back Kotter) – on the make in the lead up to graduation, trying to score with girls and outrun the local thugs. The sparking energy of the cast overcomes the limitations of the budget, camerawork and the story.

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Thirteen
20th Century Fox DVD

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Parents should brace themselves before watching Thirteen, a harrowing tale where every prospective nightmare looming behind adolescence comes true for Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood), a nice girl who goes spectacularly bad in the first few weeks of seventh grade.

Co-written by one of its teen actors, the film has a rawness that never allows for neat villains or satisfactory blame, though Holly Hunter’s immature and overwhelmed mom comes off poorly. The tone is – perhaps suitably – inconsistent, swinging from prurient shock to celebration of the girls’ wicked energy, often within a scene. Comes with a short “making of”, deleted scenes, and a commentary track with the director and her young collaborators.

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Spellbound
Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment DVD

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2003 was a dry movie year, made bearable mostly by a crop of remarkable documentaries, like Etre Et Avoir, Capturing The Friedmans, and Spellbound, a patiently absorbing look at the young competitors in the annual Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee, the Rose Bowl for middle school brains. At the end, you feel like the film has given you a glimpse of the rumbling social landscape of America over the shoulders of the children. Comes with deleted scenes, games, a commentary track and updates on the progress of the profiled kids.

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The Rules Of The Game
Criterion DVD

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Jean Renoir’s 1939 Rules Of The Game is usually in some critical shortlist of the Greatest Films Ever, for good reason. This elegantly disturbing film – packaged with Criterion’s exhaustive double-disc care – takes a look at the moral exhaustion and simmering violence of Europe just before World War Two. Basically the story of a country house party among the idle rich, it was a resounding flop when it was released, a reflection of how uncomfortably well it essayed an anxious time.

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The Postman Always Rings Twice
Warner Bros. DVD

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“Their Love was a Flame that Destroyed” went the tag line on the posters for this 1946 melodrama, and there are moments when the film – the story of a love triangle gone homicidal – suddenly goes into emotional boldface, picking up second and third winds in its complicated emotional journey.

John Garfield is a drifter whose job at a roadside diner leads to an affair with Lana Turner, the bombshell wife of the elderly owner. Turner, in this critic’s opinion, was Hollywood’s halting dry run for Marilyn Monroe, so it’s good that Garfield is onscreen most of the time to give the story its juice. Comes with a decent biography of Garfield, an intense but mostly unsung actor who paved the way for the Brandos and Deans to come.

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Barney Miller: The First Season
Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment DVD

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Barney Miller’s cop comedy was set in the bleak “Ford to City: Drop Dead” New York of the 70s, a place where jokes about the city’s decline were a surefire laugh. The premiere 1974-75 season of the show is a gem, fast-paced, well-written and acted, from Hal Linden’s affable precinct captain, to Abe Vigoda’s decrepit Fish. The addition of Steve Landesberg’s erudite Lt. Dietrich to the cast was a season away, as was the classic hash brownies episode, which kindles some hope that the series’ whole seven year run might see print.

©2004 rick mcginnis all rights reserved.