Blind Chance: Completed in 1981, promptly censored by Polish authorities for its alleged political radicalism, and subsequently shelved for six years, Kryzystof Kieslowski’s Blind Chance (Criterion, $26.19 Blu-ray, $22.99 DVD) is an astonishing work whose moral and ethical ideas, juggled like so many magicians’ balls, anticipate his ambitious breakthrough, The Decalogue.
Bogusław Linda plays Witek, a medical student who finds himself at a crossroads in his life and career following the death of his father. On leave from the hospital, he buys a train ticket to Warsaw, at which point the movie presents three possible realities of diminishing lengths. In the first and longest, at about 50 minutes, he barely makes his train, where he meets an old Communist, falls under his sway, and joins the Party under its most dictatorial influence, a decision that puts him at odds with the subversive former girlfriend with whom he has reconnected.
In the second permutation, he misses the train, scuffles with a police officer, and is sentenced to manual labor, where he befriends members of the underground resistance he helped prosecute in the previous reality. And in the final possibility, he misses the train too, but retreats back to med school for a life of apolitical, middle-class normality.
Blind Chance, as its title suggests, reflects on the element of randomness in shaping life’s outcomes, presenting a convincing argument that even the staunchest worldviews are as malleable as the weather, defined by being in the right (or left) place at the right (or left) time. Today, with quantum theory the stuff of mainstream science, Kieslowski’s fungible riff on the butterfly effect looks more prescient than ever, an example of the multiverse in action.
Alternating between cipher and sage, Linda’s intelligent lead performance glues the three life paths together. In this astounding performance, a part of him seems subconsciously aware of the chances he didn’t take, or possibly had taken in other lifetimes, like traces of sense memory.
Every scene in the film is heavy with import, even if the messages conveyed can be obtuse for a contemporary Western audience. Kieslowski’s characters are so mired in the dense thickets of mid-to-late 20th century Eastern European politics that a fully engaged viewing requires some homework; it feels at times like sitting through a production of Tom Stoppard’s Rock and Roll. Though rest assured that the ride gets smoother as the narrative’s trisected structure takes hold.
The movie’s climax, which circles back to its confrontational prologue, is Kieslowski’s most existential masterstroke, suggesting the limits of free will in a future that is ultimately fixed. It’s heady, beautiful stuff, and bravura filmmaking, with all but one of the censored scenes fully restored to Criterion’s exacting standards.
Results: Indie auteur Andrew Bujalski’s first foray into commercial, star-attached cinema (Magnolia, $22.99 Blu-ray, $12.99 DVD) is set among the earnest, striving, prickly staff of an Austin-based fitness center. Trevor (Guy Pearce) runs Power4Life, a wellness mecca, soon to expand, whose numeric moniker seeks to enhance the whole body: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual. Outside the gym, he occasionally sleeps with his top trainer, the irascible Kat (Cobie Smulders), creating an unhealthy balance between life, work and love that both are forced to confront when a slugabed millionaire (Kevin Corrigan) requests their services and inevitably falls for Kat.
For Bujalski fans who have discovered truth and beauty in his raw relationship excavations — mostly on shot on antiquated film stock with nonprofessional casts — there’s something immediately depressing about Results, with its slick, packaged montages set to sunny music. This is the first of Bujalski’s films that he didn’t edit himself, and it shows. His script is even more indefensible, stumbling toward a third-act closure that sacrifices its characters’ complexities at the altar of rom-com convention.
The film is strongest in its meandering first hour, which retains Bujalski’s observant ear for naturalistic dialogue, and which gently satirizes the relentless positivity of gym ethos. The characters speak the language of self-empowerment, personal responsibility, and visualizing A Better You, philosophies that are put to the test when real-life drama punctures the wellness bubble. It’s a well-realized milieu that loses its credibility when the characters descend into convenient stock types; the movie’s final five minutes are beyond embarrassing.
Daniel: Sidney Lumet’s heart-wrenching 1983 adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel (Olive, $16.99 Blu-ray, $12.69 DVD), which itself was inspired by the case of convicted Soviet spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, fits snugly in a career defined by the director’s bleeding liberal heart, from 12 Angry Men and The Pawnbroker to The Anderson Tapes and Strip Search. Timothy Hutton plays the title character, the emotionally bruised and disillusioned son of the executed couple (here they’re called the Isaacsons), cynically drifting into adulthood in Vietnam-era Brooklyn. He’s become callous and withdrawn, but his suicidal, institutionalized sister Susan (Amanda Plummer) has it worse.
Lumet follows Daniel on his belated quest to finally confront and cope with the corrupt and ill-fought trial that sent his Communist parents to an early grave. His story shifts between a colorless Technicolor present and a vibrant sepia-toned past, when his parents (Mandy Patinkin and Lindsay Crouse) were full of life and dangerous ideas.
This bifurcated structure, which bleeds a cold war into a hot one and back again, reveals a history doomed to repeat itself, where dissent and thoughtcrime are perennially policed and criminalized, and where images of Che Guevara have literally become wallpaper on the sides of abandoned buildings. Lumet’s style is invisible as usual but constructed with care and deliberation — note the merciless wide shots of the young Daniel and Susan’s visit to their parents’ penitentiary — with a characteristic naturalism and specificity of time and place.
This observant picture grows in richness and clarity as it proceeds toward its catharsis, one of the most excruciating execution scenes in movie history. Daniel is sympathetic toward a man who was proven, per a series of released Soviet cables circa 1995, to have indeed couriered for the Russians, but this inconvenient fact does little to diminish this underrated film’s unsentimental power.
The Honeymoon Killers: The lone feature film written and directed by the enigmatic composer/librettist Leonard Kastle, this true-crime docu-thriller about the ‘40s-era “lonely-hearts killers” Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck is a train wreck of a movie, addictively watchable even if you often want to cover your eyes.
Shirley Stoler plays Martha, a depressed, obese nurse in Mobile, who joins a primitive dating service and strikes up a pen pal correspondence with Raymond (Tony Lo Bianco), a sociopathic Latin lothario. They meet and fall in love, even after she learns how Raymond makes his living: by duping moneyed spinsters with marriage proposals and running away with their savings. Martha joins his schemes by posing as his sister, all the while seething with jealousy and latent psychopathology, until their crimes graduate to murder.
Released in 1969, two years after Bonnie & Clyde, The Honeymoon Killers has earned its reputation as the naturalistic antidote to that movie’s romantic gloss. It feels positively dirty; even with the exceptional Criterion Blu-ray transfer, the grubby print itself looks like it needs a shower. Doris Roberts lends the only name recognition among the supporting cast, but everybody with a speaking part is photographed like a walking freak show, all shrill exhortations, hideous clothes, bad teeth and tawdry close-ups.
Audiences weren’t — and still aren’t — used to seeing such repulsive people on the silver screen, which gives the movie its bracing authenticity, even as Kastle’s deceptively artless direction hovers on the periphery of exploitation film, camp classic and black comedy. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that John Waters, no student of docu-realism, was influenced by Kastle as much as François Truffaut, who has called The Honeymoon Killers his favorite American film.
Kastle finds the movie’s tragic humanity, however, in its victims’ desperate final moments, finding the courage not to look away. Perhaps it’s a blessing that none of Kastle’s other screenplays were ever greenlit; that way, The Honeymoon Killers is secure in its singularity.
The Chambermaid: The third feature from German writer-director Ingo Haeb (Film Movement, $19.28 DVD) introduces a character of impenetrable interiority. Lynn (Vicky Krieps), who suffers from crippling shyness or mental deficiency (or both) has found the perfect job to match her OCD fastidiousness: cleaning rooms at a mid-scale hotel.
She literally buries herself in her work, crawling underneath the beds of the spotless suites, living vicariously through the actions of their inhabitants. It isn’t until a guest hires a dominatrix, Chiara (Lena Lauzemis), that Lynn transitions from voyeurism to action, and approaches self-actualization.
Like the early work of Tsai Ming-liang, The Chambermaid occludes more than it reveals, presenting Lynn’s cryptic behaviors in long takes and unhurried observations, without comment or explanation. It’s a movie that thinks highly of its audience, leaving us to piece together the fractured life of a character that doesn’t seem to belong in the world.
Krieps’ performance is a masterstroke of understatement, her character’s life slavishly adhering to robotic routine. Her passions, emotions and fears reveal themselves only through dreams and nightmares, which Haeb occasionally films with surrealist whimsy. The sex, if you can call it that, between Chiara and Lynn, is unlike anything I’ve seen before, not so much a bond between two women as between two mammals. The result is a rough carnality and rawness few films possess, as if rediscovering human sexuality.
Hidden Agenda: Ken Loach’s 1990 political treatise (Kino, $19.99 Blu-ray, $13.99 DVD) is set in the late ’80s, in Belfast, during the Northern Irish troubles. Peter Kerrigan (Brian Cox), a career officer for the British police, is assigned to investigate the roadside murder of Paul Sullivan (Brad Dourif, in one of his more hinged performances), an American lawyer probing civil rights abuses by government security agents. His investigation, conducted alongside Paul’s legal partner and girlfriend (Frances McDormand), leads to vast conspiracies, espionage and blackmail reaching the highest offices of Parliament.
Hidden Agenda can feel exhausting at times, because Jim Allen’s sweeping screenplay is talkier than many plays. It remains compelling for its unfortunate forecasting of the creeping fascism in this country — in Loach’s film, one captured activist describes the waterboarding techniques later adopted at our own CIA black sites, which are summarily dismissed as interrogation methods. Likewise, the idea of a security agency given unfettered reign to the private lives of political dissidents suggests our own alphabet agencies in the post-Patriot Act U.S.A.
As Kerrigan’s investigations lead him closer to the truth while digging his own grave, Cox’s righteous outrage is clearly Loach’s, as well. This is unsubtle agitprop done well, and it ends on a chilling summation from a real-life former British spy: “There are two laws running this country: one for the security services and one for the rest of us.” Indeed.