A scene from No Home Movie (2015). (Icarus Films)
No Home Movie: The tragic coda that followed the completion of Chantal Akerman’s inadvertent swan songNo Home Movie (Icarus, $19.01 DVD) is forever inextricable from the picture itself. The documentary charts the director’s conversations with her 86-year-old mother Natalia during the last months of the latter’s life; Akerman took her own life a year-and-a-half later, two days before No Home Movie’s October 2015 U.S. premiere.
We hear of husbands or wives who die within a year or two — or in some astonishing cases, five minutes — of their spouses, with “broken heart” the pop-medical prognosis. After watching Chantal and Natalia during these two hours of unvarnished intimacy, it’s hard not to jump to a similar conclusion, that this yin could not live without its creative yang.
Akerman reportedly approached this project without a blueprint, shooting some 40 hours of footage with her mom — both in person, in Natalia’s Brussels apartment, and remotely, via Skype — for emotional keepsakes, or a possible video series. Only in retrospect did she discover a feature-length doc that so eloquently straddles the line between the personal and universal. Discussions between mother and daughter range from the domestic minutiae of potato-peeling and family gossip to the memories, reflections, affections and regrets of lives fully lived and choices painfully made. Natalia was a survivor of Auschwitz, whose traumas continue to resonate, making No Home Movie arguably Akerman’s most Jewish film.
As is often the case with her artiest movies, Akerman’s approach is radically pensive. She focuses for minutes at a time on empty spaces both inside and outside Natalia’s residence, with landscapes of vacant Israeli desert, filmed from a car’s passenger seat, serving as conversational interregnums. With one important exception I’ll address presently, her camera is polite and unobtrusive, lingering behind doorways and around corners, inventorying the space for posterity.
Along the way, we can see Natalia’s inevitable decline in unsentimental terms. Her naps increase, and she becomes progressively incommunicative during Chantal’s now-frequent visits. In the most agonizing scene inNo Home Movie, Natalia simply wants an afternoon nap, while family members pester her to stay awake during Chantal’s brief stay, seemingly aware that, with every passing day, they’re losing a little bit more of her.
Akerman presents herself as almost a ghost haunting the contours of her own movie. We see her as a shadow reflected in ripply waves, a reflection glanced briefly in a mirror, in a tiny box at the bottom-right of a Skype image. At Natalia’s home, she’s either behind the lens or blocked from our view by furniture or other people. As much as No Home Movie is about the connection between mother and daughter, it’s also about the director’s loneliness, detachment and depression, the kind briefly alleviated during the poignant conversation that comprise this film’s heart.
When Natalia asks her daughter why she films their Skype conversations, Chantal replies, “I want to show that there is no distance in the world.” As their dialogue continues, Akerman gradually zooms in on her mom’s pixelated face until it becomes an abstract blur. It’s an extraordinary example of a director doing everything she can within the limits of her medium to eliminate distance, to climb through the monitor and into Natalia’s home and head: mother and daughter, symbiotically linked, through life and death.
Charlotte Gainsbourg and James Franco in Every Thing Will Be Fine. (2015)
Every Thing Will Be Fine: Fans of Wim Wenders eager to herald the German auteur’s first narrative feature in seven years (IFC, $17.29 DVD, $12.55 Blu-ray) couldn’t avoid the rapid and unapologetic consensus surrounding his 2015’s feature’s abysmal day-and-date release: that it stinks, to paraphrase Jay Marvin. Out of directorial loyalty that will never die (no matter times Mssrs. Coppola, Allen and Gilliam disappoint, I’ll keep coming back), I wanted to check out Every Thing Will Be Fine anyway, hoping to discover its subversive poetry and pen a rebuttal against the philistine reviewing class.
Well, not quite. As much as I hate to pile more on this poor, misbegotten film, the consensus is oftentimes spot-on. Wenders makes movies about lost souls drifting through time and space, but this time, he seems just as lost as his characters. James Franco plays Thomas Eldan, a novelist who kills a pedestrian child during a desolate winter sabbatical in an unspecified, accent-agnostic country. It’s a snowblind accident that leaves the boy and his mother Kate (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in a state of shock and guilt: We find out later that if she wasn’t so rapt in her copy of Light in August, she would have summoned the child home earlier.
Thomas initially copes with the tragedy with a pitiful suicide attempt, withdrawing from his first wife (Rachel McAdams, wooden as a scarecrow) and, not coincidentally, writing the best fiction of his life. Two years pass, then four more, then four more. Wives and girlfriends change with the seasons. Thomas’ residence grows conspicuously grander with each book sale while Kate’s career as an illustrator remains in a rut. The lives of these fate-collided strangers meet again when Kate’s now-teenage son Christopher (Robert Naylor), who survived the accident, asks for a meeting with Thomas to finally provide the closure he never received.
Wenders is still a strong imagist. If Every Thing Will be Fine is as effective as Ambien, at least it’ll provide for a visually evocative lullaby (it was shot in 3D, and presumably projected in it, in some places). Would that the content offer the kind of glimmer and radiance of his mise-en-scène, starting with the egregious miscasting of Franco. An actor known for his jubilance, flirtatiousness and vibrancy is saddled with this humorless dirge of a role, all mope and no play. The subject of too many portentous montages of miserableness, he makes Morrissey look like Mr. Rogers. When asked where to place his shiny new literary award, he stares down and mutters, “I don’t care;” he’s even glum on a Ferris wheel.
Lethargy, ennui, emotional vacancy — these are the feelings, or lack thereof, that seep from every frame. There’s a nugget of insight somewhere in Wenders’s wandering film about the vicissitudes of chance and the way fleeting accidents alter lives forever, but none are original to this movie. Oh well. It might have sounded piercing with subtitles.
Joanne Dru and John Wayne in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. (1949)
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon: Released in 1949, the penultimate film in John Ford’s cavalry trilogy (Warner Archive, $21.99 Blu-ray) doesn’t quite eclipse its magisterial follow-up Rio Grande. But it remains another example of the master craftsman’s humor and humanism, pathos and patriotism, directed during what was arguably his peak period.
John Wayne, streaks of stressful gray hair aging him even older than he was at the time, plays the ironically named Capt. Brittles, a fearless cavalry captain counting down his final six days until retirement. His final mission: to counter a breakout from the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes in the wake of the Battle of the Little Big Horn. And he has to do it while chaperoning the wife and niece (Joanne Dru plays the latter, a dish fought over by two of Brittle’s soldiers) of his commanding officer to a place of refuge.
Ford had yet to atone for his role in the Western genre’s demonization of the indigenous — we’d need to wait another 15 years for his apologia, Cheyenne Autumn — but despite the ominous music accorded the Native American savages, Ford has enough empathy for everyone involved, in what increasingly becomes a fruitless stalemate. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is not a rousing adventure story so much as a document of micro-failures, rendered with plaintive burials and poignant surgeries, a judicious deployment of aching close-ups, clipped and concise dialogue, and music as an element of healing and commune.
And just when this horse opera seems destined for its direst emotional depths, the atmosphere is leavened by a slapstick barroom brawl instigated by Victor McLaglen’s hard-drinking Irish (is that a redundancy?) sergeant, a scene that forecasts that famous fisticuffs of 1952’s The Quiet Man.
But the real star isn’t Wayne, Dru or Ford’s well-curated supporting players (including Ben Johnson and John Agar). It’s the director’s beloved Monument Valley setting, an endless expanse of desert and red rock mountains. Ford and his Oscar-winning cinematographer, Winton Hoch, based their visuals on Frederic Remington’s mythic paintings, filming golden, impossibly rich sunrises and sunsets that are as extraordinary as they are artificial. Even the clouds look choreographed, with Warner’s Blu-ray transfer allowing for a visual richness heretofore uncaptured on home video.
Pernilla August and Samuel Fröler in The Best Intentions. (1992)
The Best Intentions: Denmark’s Billie August, of Pelle the Conqueror fame, won his second Palme d’Or for this three-hour 1992 epic, shaved down from a 323-minute TV miniseries (Film Movement, $24.02 Blu-ray). Novelistic, and seemingly losing little of the breadth of its extended format, August’s film boasts the period formalities and the curlicued production design of a Merchant-Ivory collaboration, a style the director marries to an alternately wistful and bone-scraping screenplay by none other than Ingmar Bergman.
Filmed nearly a decade after the master’s announced retirement from directing (he would return to his muse in 2003, with swan song Saraband), The Best Intentions is arguably Bergman’s most personal film, despite his lack of presence behind the camera. The story is based on the tumultuous relationship of his parents in the decade or so leading up to his birth, a connection the writer underlines by keeping their real surnames.
Henrik Bergman (Samuel Fröler) is a lower-class theology student at the film’s opening, and despite a fiancée in tow, he falls for his friend’s sister, Anna (Pernilla August), who comes from a well-heeled Uppsala family (its patriarch is Max von Sydow, one of the most luminous stars in the Bergmanverse). Both of their parents disapprove of their coupling, but they soldier on anyway, and the next few years teem with life’s miracles and tragedies: illness, deaths in the family, marriage, childbirth, job opportunities granted and rejected, abuse, separation, reconciliation.
Bergman’s parents are drawn with warts and all but with much care and tenderness. The perpetually conflicted characters are tormented by guilt, shame and pride, striving for humility and self-actualization. Witnessing Henrik’s anhedonic despair, the viewer can easily draw lines behind his sturm und drang and his son’s future films. There are moments of painful accuracy straight from Scenes of a Marriage, but when they bow to their better angels, it’s a lovely vision indeed.
Of course, the film wouldn’t work without August’s faithful direction and exemplary casting. His actors’ faces are maps of complications and conflictions that only a three-hour (or more) excavation can unravel. Bravo to Film Movement for releasing this movie on Blu-ray as part its Classics series; the candlelit peasant interiors, antiseptic estates and verdant scenery look ravishing.
Gerard Depardieu and Sandrine Bonnaire in Under the Sun of Satan. (1987)
Under the Sun of Satan: Maurice Pialat adapted this 1987 religious parable (Cohen Media, $29.99 Blu-ray, $23.99 DVD) from Georges Bernanos’ novel of the same name, which also inspired Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest and Mouchette. Pialat’s film is the remixed mash-up of both: His Mouchette (Sandrine Bonnaire) is a 16-year-old harlot and breaker of many commandments — a mercurial Machiavelli who kills one suitor and attempts to blackmail another with claims of pregnancy. His country priest, Donissan (Gerard Depardieu) is a self-flagellating, under-educated zealot suffering a crisis of faith who is reassigned, at his own request, to a rural village. It’s only a matter of time until these tortured representatives from clashing theological poles meet, with momentous results.
Some of the dialogue feels leaden, at least subtitled — stuff that reads like art-film parody, like “morality is the hygiene of the senses.” It’s worth walking on verbal stilts for a little while, because Pialat’s approach is extraordinarily powerful, nearly matching Bresson’s own. This child of the French New Wave jettisons realism, painting everyday actions with expressionistic strokes and treating the supernatural with matter-of-fact physics. Spasms of violence are intimated rather than dramatized, edited with brusque, evasive jolts, all of it offered with bold ambivalence.
We never know what to think or whom to believe, including — especially — what the camera shows us. This is never truer than the spectacular, blue-filtered centerpiece of Under the Sun of Satan, in which Donissan encounters a mystical hustler who may be Beelzebub while walking under a crepuscular sky. Secular and devout audiences will likely take away different messages from the film’s inquiries into God’s interventionist hand, the cost of miracles and karmic retribution, but all will be equally swayed by the movie’s emotional wallop.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman in 10 Cloverfield Lane. (2016)
10 Cloverfield Lane: A kind of spiritual successor to 2008’s Cloverfield, this year’s similarly J.J. Abrams-produced 10 Cloverfield Lane (Paramount, $19.99 Blu-ray/DVD combo) eschews found-footage monster-movie theatrics for the artistically fertile limitations of the captivity thriller. It’s neither another Saw nor Roombut borrows stomach-churning discomfort from both.
After a car accident sends Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) off the road one desolate evening, she opens her eyes hours (or days) later with IVs in her arms, handcuffed to a cot in a concrete bunker. Her captor, a survivalist named Howard (John Goodman), claims he rescued her from certain death just as the global population has been annihilated by an unknown force: chemical, nuclear, extra-terrestrial, take your pick. Michelle’s fear of being abducted by a rapist soon gives way to the panic that he might be telling the truth, as evidence of a barren and diseased outside world seeps into her consciousness.
With a scarred face, lazy eye and scraggly beard, Goodman is exceptionally cast as the dictionary image of a doomsday prepper, the sort of black-helicopter paranoiac who, according to the bunker’s other resident, Emmet (John Gallagher Jr.), has “a black belt in conspiracy theory.” The film’s copious strengths lie in its prismatic depiction of Howard, whose intentions and credibility change from scene to scene, inhabiting a gray zone between arch-villain and global savior.
Unpredictable through its final frames, 10 Cloverfield Lane occasionally jettisons logic as it presents an increasingly illogical world, but with a plot this effectively twisty and with a third-act gear-change this uncompromising and crackerjack, it’s hard to argue with any of its decisions.
Judd Hirsch in Altered Minds. (2015)
Altered Minds: A flawed doozy of a dysfunctional-family psychodrama, Altered Minds (Gravitas Ventures, $12.99 DVD) is set over one bitingly cold night in Pennsylvania, where Dr. Nathanial Shellner (Judd Hirsch), a Nobel-winning retired military psychiatrist, is celebrating what will be his 75th and last birthday. With lung cancer metastasizing quicker by the day, he’d like nothing more than to enjoy a rare night with his diverse extended family: devoted wife Lillian (Caroline Lagerfelt); biological son Leonard (Joseph Lyle Taylor); and his trio of sensitive adopted children, Julie (Jaime Ray Newman), concert violinist Harry (C.S. Lee) and tortured horror novelist Tommy (Ryan O’Nan).
The latter throws the first spoke in the wheel of this intended celebration. For the past 25 years, Tommy says, he’s suppressed the memory that his father, a man praised by presidents for his work with traumatized war veterans, conducted brutal mind-control experiments on him and his fellow madoptees. Though he initially sounds schizophrenic, Tommy’s quickly rebutted claims eventually gain traction when certain details resonate with his siblings.
Altered Minds cleverly borrows a 12 Angry Men structure, with the lone voice in the wilderness eventually convincing the rest of his colleagues to gravitate to his position. The effect is one of sunlight slowly, creakily disinfecting the darkness of memories long repressed but never forgotten. First-time writer-director Michael Z. Wechsler sets up each revelation early, through cryptic symbols — an urn, an icicle, a robin, a snowman — that function like fuzzy puzzle pieces in a faded picture of abuse.
Where Wechsler missteps is his preference for empty stylization, most notably in a misguided flashback montage that adds nothing to viewer comprehension and plays as unintentional parody. In moments like this,Altered Minds can feel like cut-rate Shyamalan, a comparison that persists through a third-act twist that ties up loose ends but not in a way that emotionally satisfies, or that rewards our patience. With its fine acting, atmospheric setting and constricted duration, there’s a better play in here than a movie, one that could grasp greatness with a more potent finale and a softer-handed director.
William Hartnell in Appointment With Crime. (1947)
Appointment With Crime: John Harlow’s 1947 feature (Olive, $13.99 Blu-ray, $9.99 DVD) borrows that most American of genres — film noir — and transports it awkwardly across the pond.
In Great Britain, a “smash and grab” thief named Leo Martin (William Hartnell) becomes a convenient fall guy for a criminal syndicate, only to serve his time and return from prison with vengeance on his mind. An attempt to frame the unctuous dancehall proprietor who abandoned him years earlier ultimately ropes in a cast of eccentric supporting players, including a penniless dancer, a crooked art dealer and an elegant hit man. Snooping around them all is a perceptive, square-jawed Canadian cop (Robert Beatty).
There’s a dry wit among the generic American hand-me-downs of Appointment with Crime: the familiar fedoras, lampposts, long shadows and institutions of ill repute that fill Harlow’s imprisoning mise-en-scène. Most of the humor is thanks to the surreally inescapable Britishisms: Hartnell speaks dialogue tailored to James Cagney, but does it in an accent ideal for ordering scones and a cup of English Breakfast.
The movie’s killer-for-hire doesn’t try to hide his manners: “Everything will be carried out in a characteristically safe and decorous matter,” he assures his desperate client. Even the tussles and murders are polite and unmessy. The novelty — and that’s all it really is — can’t sustain the entire picture, however, and as the screws tighten around poor, fatalistic Leo Martin, the movie’s embrace of its form’s clichés is as steel-trapped as his destiny.