Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) ✬✬ on Blu-ray

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) is an obscure fantasia from the fading days of the Czech New Wave. One could argue that its obscurity was richly deserved and that it unfortunately may end now with the release of this new Criterion Blu-ray. The film is a bewildering, at times amateurish, amalgam of the very worst instincts of David Hamilton and Ken Russell mixed with a barrage of B movie horror cliches. And those are some of the best scenes. In between there’s much fret over some magic necklace or earrings or something, and Valerie’s grandparents and/or parents - it’s hard to tell them apart - and a cloaked figure who flits about looking like a hybrid of Nosferatu and Darth Vader. Sorry this synopsis is not more coherent, but this reviewer’s eyes had glazed over long before the film reached its conclusion.

On the other hand, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders does have a few pluses and some admirable aspects. For one thing, it’s mercifully short, clocking in at a mere 76 minutes and some of that time is taken up by the end credits so there’s that. Leading lady Jaroslava Schallerová is a lovely creature to look at and fortunately appears much older than her 13 years. This is good because along the way viewers will be shown her every square inch, and otherwise the proceedings would have been gotten even more icky. In fairness, the first 15 minutes or so of the film are really not bad, with director Jaromil Jires constructing a fascinating Fellini-esque psychological dreamscape. However the film’s early success only deepens the disappointment when it soon devolves into shock imagery, ham fisted symbols and non-linearity for non-linearity’s sake.

Valerie and her wonderful week aside, director Jaromil Jires remains an interesting, one could say tragic, figure in the history of Czech cinema. His first feature The Cry (1964) was screened in the Main Comp at Cannes. It is generally credited as the first film of the Czech New Wave due to its dark humor and realist style. Throughout the 1960s, Jires’ films pushed the boundaries of taste, explicitness and President Alexander Dubček’s tolerance for political dissent. In 1968, when a killing frost of Soviet tanks abruptly ended the Prague Spring, a number of Czech filmmakers, including Milos Forman and Ivan Passer, decided to flee the country and set up shop in Los Angeles. Jires remained behind, electing to fight the system from within. But as was often the case, the system fought back, forcing Jires to temper his passions and concentrate on personality profiles, music documentaries, heroic WWII melodramas and other non-controversial topics for the remainder of his career.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders appears, for better or worse, to have been Jires’ last foray into unbridled creativity. While he certainly kept busy - releasing over thirty film and television products until his death in 2001 - none of his subsequent work has attracted nearly the attention bestowed on Valerie. And, despite the carping of this unimpressed reviewer, the film does have its champions, including many highly respected critics and scholars and it enjoys very high ratings on a number of film websites. Reaction to the film seems to be anything but neutral, and that alone is enough to make Valerie and Her Week of Wonders a significant artifact of cinema history.

Disc Review 

There’s no denying Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is a visual feast, with superb cinematography courtesy the prolific Jan Curik. With an aspect ratio of 1.37:1, Criterion’s transfer is rich, sharp and absolutely beautiful. Sourced from the original camera negative, this burn has a remarkable consistency of look, despite the film’s wide ranging and often bizarre settings and subject matter. The monaural track gives no reason for complaint either, with its barrage of sounds rendered cleanly and crisply, with no indication at all that it was struck from a 45 year old recording.

Three early shorts by director Jaromil Jireš: Uncle (1959), Footprints (1960), and The Hall of Lost Footsteps (1960)

These short subjects are in many ways more interesting than the disc’s feature, and are highly recommended. Uncle is a comedic six minute tale about a house burglar who gets more than he bargained for. The 13 minute Footprints is a creepy WWII drama concerning an escaped Russian prisoner, and The Hall of Lost Footsteps is a romantic allegory for the nuclear age that runs 11 minutes.

New interview with Czechoslovak film scholar Peter Hames

Hames attempts to unpack Valerie and Her Week of Wonders and place it within a defined genre. He goes into biographical detail on Jires’ life and offers perspective on Valerie’s place within his filmography. Hames discusses the film’s sexual overtones and context. and offers theories on the psychological landscape of the Valerie character. 16 minutes.

Interviews from 2006 with actors Jaroslava Schallerová and Jan Klusák

Schallerová discusses the lengthy audition process and how she was picked from the 1500 girls who read for the part. She relates some humorous stories about her family’s reaction to the film, and how she met her future husband Petr Porada on the set. 7 minutes.

Klusák, who played a perverted priest. relates his memories from the film, which he admits are “mostly bad.” He cites long weather delays, dangerous stunts he was required to perform, and the constant hazing he had to endure from the crew among his litany of complaints. 6 minutes.

Alternate 2007 psych-folk soundtrack to the film by the Valerie Project, with a new video piece on the music’s origins
This 15 minute segment chronicles the creation and live performance of an original rock score by Joseph Gervasi and Greg Weeks. The complete score is also offered as a separate audio track option on the disc.

PLUS: An essay by critic Jana Prikryl

Prikryl’s essay thoroughly analyzes Valerie’s many symbols and subtexts, and is presented as part of a 12 page fold out brochure with production credits and film stills.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is highly reminiscent of the type of film folks of a certain age would go to see at midnight forty years ago, after an evening of bong hits and attempting to decipher hidden messages in Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. One could easily picture it sharing a marquee with El Topo or 200 Motels, so to some the film may have a nostalgic value. However, beyond that segment of the populace, it’s tough to imagine it striking any sort of mass audience chord. Still, if you’re a fan of cinematic oddities - and they don’t come much odder than this - you may want to carve out time in your week for Valerie and Her Week of Wonders.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Jaws Turns 40

Thanks to David L. Wilkins for allowing us to repost his brilliant prose poem celebrating 40 years of Jaws.

A 40th anniversary recognition. June 20, 1975: Jaws opens in the U.S.

Moonlight glinting off a calm sea and idyllic dunes isn’t the stuff of nightmares, and few sounds are as tranquil as the gentle ringing of a buoy bell. Similar thoughts might have drifted through the girl’s mind in the moments before an unseen primeval force jerked her sharply downward. We’ll never know the shock-induced images that raced through her mind as she was vaulted upward, and was shaken violently side to side. Her world was a shrinking point of light, as our collective nightmare began.

Going to the beach the next day held all new meaning, just as sitting in the theater the night before had altered our perception of filmic entertainment. With Jaws, Spielberg changed us a little bit, just as Hitchcock had in 1960, with Psycho. I like to think that similar cinematic revelations lie ahead, but I’m not sure they can, or will.

Jaws helped change the mind-set in which movies are made and distributed. The time honored method of progressive-release gave way to wide-release, at least for studios larger scale efforts. The dollar figures that accompany Jaws, from first theatrical run to subsequent, from international business to home video rentals, are almost mind-numbing. The blockbuster truly was born, with Jaws becoming the highest grossing film in history up to that time. A couple of years later Star Wars came along, and the rest as they say, is history.

Jaws became a cultural phenomenon, with dialogue and images cropping up in diverse places since its release, and it’s not over yet. But what do you say when you talk about Jaws? I’ll bet it’s not a recitation of statistics, or even about the cast. You probably talk about how it made you feel, and that’s the essence of anything memorable.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Today in Bunched History: June 17, 2008

Summer Palace (2006)

This movie isn't really very good - sort of a Chinese St. Elmo's Fire - but artsy and with more nudity. A lot more nudity. But I suggest you watch the bonus material before screening the film. The most interesting thing about this movie is the Chinese government's petulant and paranoid reaction to it. After the movie was screened at Cannes, the filmmakers returned to China to find that the government had banned Summer Palace and forbidden them from making any more films for a period of five years. A ridiculous reaction, considering the Tiananmen Square protests are only a very small part of the script, and the characters are not activists, just interested observers.

Once you know about the injustices done to director Ye Lou and his producer, you will have much more respect for this film and what it represents. The film itself is a gritty depiction of life at Beijing University in the 80s, where life was apparently one big party. I say apparently because some of the scenes appear to be lit with one 25 watt bulb and are quite hard to see. The film tracks the lives of the college friends from that time to the early 2000s. The film is rather long (I suggest watching it over 2 sittings), but the character of Ye Hong is mildly interesting, although her actions are not always easily understood. Or understood at all. Still, Summer Palace has become a film festival darling and an international symbol of the dangers of repressive governments.

More Info

Saturday, June 13, 2015

News and Notes: June 2015

We've cracked the Top 100 Most Influential Film Blogs at #93 according to Teads Labs. I'm not sure what it means, but considering there are zillions of film blogs out there I'll take it. Thank you for your support!

Attention Cable Cutters: Fandor looks like a good source for streaming high quality international fare. Quite a selection for $65/year. Here are their new releases for June.

Hey Star Wars geeks! The fine folks at Morphsuits.com have created a cool fun fact infographic.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Nashville Turns 40

A Best Picture Oscar nominee from 1975, Robert Altman’s Nashville is a sprawling satire that both lampoons and laments the American Dream, which was beginning to show signs of serious leakage – if not outright rupture – by the mid 1970s. Yet to the film’s array of hopeful goofballs, Music City USA was still the land of opportunity. Nashville is the story of these innocent souls who, plucking battered dreadnoughts and emitting nasally warbles, gather at the city’s dark, dank honkytonks seeking quick fame and easy riches.

As conceived by Altman and writer Joan Tewksbury, everything about Nashville is larger than life. From its massive melange of roughly two dozen principle characters to its tongue-in-cheek hillbilly anthems to its 160 minute running time, the film’s contours gleefully blur the lines between Grand Opry and Grand Opera. In Altman’s oeuvre, there are no such things as starring or supporting roles but rather a swirl of eccentric egalitarianism, with box office heroes sharing full screen time with below-the-line nobodies. This populist approach extends to the storytelling as well, as tales of the rich and famous fully commingle with the lives of lonely drifters and talentless wannabes.

Nashville’s hulking batch of characters and leisurely, off beat rhythms create a delightful sense of disorientation. It’s reminiscent of a Godard film from the 1960s – complete with a massive traffic jam – relocated to a red state. But viewers will soon find themselves seduced by Altman’s sprezzatura, for within his complex narrative juggling there are comedic joys, heartbreaking delusions and a shocking, all too American climax.

As the great Barbara Harris rises from the debris to lead us in a bluesy rendition of “It Don’t Bother Me,” the vacuous world of pop culture shrugs off tragedy and returns to spinning in its oblivious grooves. Nashville’s loosely spun web of plots and subplots, narrative motifs and leitmotifs, establish, develop and turn back on themselves like a slow motion kaleidoscope of post-Vietnam Americana. It is a film drenched in the zeitgeist of the 1970s, yet within its twangy folds are truths that are universal and timeless.

Monday, June 8, 2015

New on TV: June 2015

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2015) ✭✭✭✭

Tina Fey is one of the producers so if you liked 30 Rock you'll like this. Perky Ellie Kemper stars as former member of a weird religious apocalypse cult who spent 15 years locked in a bomb shelter. Finally free to explore the world, she flees to NYC where a massive dose of culture shock awaits. It's paced like 30 Rock, with a joke every 5 seconds and most of it is pretty funny.

Grace and Frankie (2015) ✭✭✭½

This show has some very good moments, largely thanks to its cast of acting legends. However, it really makes you feel old if you remember Hanoi Jane and movies like Barbarella and Badlands. It also has a tendency go get a bit formulaic, but it's good see these talents we've all grown up with still out there and having fun.

Garfunkel and Oates (2014) ✭✭

I liked this show better when it was on HBO and called Flight of the Conchords eight years ago. Because that show was funny. This re-gendered version, not so much.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Quickies for June 2015

Murmur of the Heart (1971)✭✭✭✭½

A light, breezy coming of age romantic comedy about incest. Only the French.

Simon of the Desert (1965) ✭✭✭✭½

An in-your-face religious allegory. Weird and wonderful, you'll be thinking about it for days.

Elevator to the Gallows (1958) ✭✭✭✭½

Classic, stylish romantic crime drama. Tale meanders in all directions, but ties up neatly at the end. Fine example of B material lifted by visionary direction. Superb Miles Davis track.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Ran Turns 30

“Man is born crying. When he has cried enough, he dies.”

Celebrating its 30th anniversary, Akira Kurosawa’s Ran remains a cinematic experience of unparalleled splendor. Set in feudal Japan and based on Shakespeare’s King Lear, Ran is the story of an aging and ailing warlord named Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) who relinquishes his land and armies to his three sons (Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu and Daisuke Ryû) in hopes of living out his final days in peace. But old grudges and jealous infighting among the siblings make Hidetora’s plan for an orderly succession crumble into dust, and soon a bloody internecine war erupts.

Despite graphic battle scenes aplenty, Ran is at heart a poetic film that induces a strangely blissful hypnosis in the viewer. It won a much deserved Oscar for costume design, and rarely has wardrobe played such an important part in advancing a film’s narrative. In Ran a number of massive armies and militant factions square off during the course of the film, each clad in their own distinct, colorful regalia. Without these visual identifiers, it would be difficult at times to tell precisely who is attacking who, but Kurosawa’s exquisite execution keeps it all beautifully coherent and on track.

The 1980s were an exciting and productive decade for Kurosawa. In addition to Ran, he completed two other highly successful films: the equally ambitious Kagemusha (1980) and the profoundly mystical Dreams (1990), all while overseeing the construction of his own studio, Kurosawa Films, which opened in Yokohama in 1983. The fact that Kurosawa was well into his 70s makes his achievements during this era even more impressive. At an age when most filmmakers are limping toward retirement - if they’re able to work at all - Akira Kurosawa was still going strong. Ran is a superb addition to the Kurosawa canon, and stands as a shining testament to the director’s talent and determination.