Tuesday, 24 Feb. 2004
On the Street: Two new Criterion releases head up our street list this week Laurence Olivier's 1955 Richard III and Francesco Rosi's 1961 Salvatore Giuliano. Mainstream titles on the list include Warner's Matchstick Men starring Nicolas Cage and Sam Rockwell, while Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over is fresh from Buena Vista, and Ron Howard's western The Missing with Tommy Lee Jones and Cate Blanchett is new from Columbia TriStar. Additional catalog items from Columbia include The Chase and Just One of the Guys, while fans of Katie Holmes will want to get a look at MGM's Pieces of April. And new from Image is a collection of films starring silent pioneer Charley Bowers. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 23 Feb. 2004
Disc of the Week: Is there any way that Nicholas Cage can shake his off-kilter movie persona? Or even if he could, would he want to? Cage (né Nicholas Coppola) got his start in the film industry back when he was a teenager, scoring parts in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Cotton Club, and the cult hit Valley Girl. But his role as ex-con H.I. McDonnough in the Coen Brothers' Raising Arizona secured his place among Hollywood's leading actors; he would soon follow up with David Lynch's Wild at Heart, as well as Vampire's Kiss, a movie for which he was willing to eat a live cockroach. A student of the "Method" style (he's famously commented that there's a fine line between Method and schizophrenia), Cage took home an Oscar for his 1995 turn as a dying alcoholic in Leaving Las Vegas. Concerned that he was only getting new scripts with self-destructive characters, he subsequently made two action movies with producer Jerry Bruckheimer, The Rock and Con Air, as well as John Woo's Face/Off. But even these were played with Cage's notable sense of irony, as well as his disdain for simply drawn heroism. Originally cast in Tim Burton's ill-fated Superman project, he said he was attracted to the part because the Man of Steel should be played as a "beautiful, lonely freak who never fit in." It may be an unconventional way to view one of the world's most beloved superhero icons, but it also in part explains Cage's interest in Matchstick Men (2003), where he finds nobility and a bit of heroism in a nondescript L.A. con-artist.
Cage stars as Roy Waller, one of Southern California's many "flimflam men" or "matchstick men" confidence hucksters who pinpoint marks, develop elaborate schemes to gain their trust, and then pull the rug out from under them, often just moments after the scam is complete. The veteran Roy works with one partner, Frank Marcer (Sam Rockwell), whom he describes as his protégé. We first meet them as Frank sets up a "free prize" con on an eager, unsuspecting housewife a trip to Paris awaits, as long as she buys a water-filtration system and gives a check to their courier service right away. It sounds simple enough, but Roy and Frank give it a further twist by arriving at the woman's house the next day posing as Federal agents, revealing the con to her and her husband, and then collecting the family's bank-account information. But if Roy Waller is one of the best hustlers on the street, his personal life is in shambles. An obsessive-compulsive personality, he's severely agoraphobic, opens and shuts doors three times before walking through, and sterilizes his entire house if he forgets to take his medication. Needing a new prescription, he becomes a patient of Dr. Klein (Bruce Altman), who encourages Roy to talk more about his personal life, his divorce, and the child he has never met. Roy's ex-wife still wants nothing to do with him, but Dr. Klein soon learns that Roy's daughter Angela (Alison Lohman) is curious about her father. A visit is arranged, and before long the free-spirited 14-year-old moves in with her dad, who claims he's in the antiques business. But she learns the truth and it turns out that a teenage daughter might come in handy with Roy and Frank's latest scam.
Matchstick Men marks a change of pace for director Ridley Scott, who's accustomed to helming epic films and isn't known for treading on David Mamet's turf. Scott took the job after reading the script by Nicholas and Ted Griffin (based on the novel by Eric Garcia) figuring that he wouldn't be needed for the entire six months of pre-production on Tripoli (not due in theaters until 2007), Scott decided Matchstick Men would be the right sort of project to fill his time. It's a remarkably modest undertaking in terms of modern film-production, with just a few carefully chosen sets and five principal characters. And of these, the central story concerns just two people, a long-estranged father and daughter carefully working their way through a newfound relationship. Alfred Hitchcock often would take small projects while waiting to embark on grander scenarios (Psycho was meant to be a low-budget thriller in preparation for The Birds), and one can sense Scott's talent straining at the seams of this small movie with his elaborate use of light, as well as his illustration of Roy's neuroses with color-tinting, jump-cuts, and camera speeds. He also shows that he's one of the quintessential actors' directors, allowing his cast to carry the bulk of the story. Sam Rockwell comes across with a flamboyant-yet-natural charm, while Alison Lohman manages to hold her own in her many scenes with Cage, countering his eccentricity with youthful enthusiasm. Meanwhile, Cage gets the sort of role he's built his career on, playing the smooth con-man in public, at other times breaking under the strain of obsessive-compulsion and violent facial tics. And his devotion to his daughter is both genuine and moving an even a little heroic leading to one of the smoothest endings in the history of heist movies.
Warner's DVD release of Matchstick Men features a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Supplements include a commentary track with director Ridley Scott and scenarists/brothers Nicholas and Ted Griffin. All three find plenty to talk about, with Scott discussing his working methods and preparing scenes, while the Griffins cover the adaptation and re-writing, and even how they first pitched their script to Scott at a Hollywood cocktail party. Additional features include the documentary "Tricks of the Trade: Making Matchstick Men," a 71-min. behind-the-scenes videography broken up into pre-production, production, and post-production. Matchstick Men is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: Four new films arrived in North American cineplexes over the weekend, but none were able to charm moviegoers which left Sony's 50 First Dates in the top spot for the second week in a row, far outdistancing the competition with $21 million for the frame and $72.3 million in just 10 days. Buena Vista's Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen took second place with $9.2 million, while Fox's Welcome to Mooseport wound up in fourth with $7 million. Rounding out the top five was DreamWorks' Eurotrip with $6.6 million. And coming in all the way down in eighth place was Paramount's Against the Ropes starring Meg Ryan with a paltry $3 million. Critics were mixed on Eurotrip, while the remaining titles were widely panned.
In continuing release, Buena Vista's Miracle starring Kurt Russell managed to rise above the pack of newcomers, taking third place with $8 million for the frame and breaking $50 million overall. MGM's Barbershop 2: Back in Business has slipped to sixth, where it has a $53 million cume after three weeks. And Warner's Mystic River continues to earn pre-Oscar attention, adding $3.1 million to $79.1 million overall. Dropping to tenth place is New Line's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, now with $361 million in hand. And on the way to DVD prep is Sony's Something's Gotta Give, which will close above $120 million.
Mel Gibson's much-discussed The Passion of The Christ arrives in theaters this Wednesday, while Friday debuts include the thriller Twisted starring Ashley Judd and Samuel L. Jackson, the comedy Broken Lizard's Club Dread, and Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights. Here's the top-grossing movies at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: New reviews this week from the gang include The Missing, Tunes of Glory: The Criterion Collection, The Chase, Pieces of April, The Damned, The Front, Matchstick Men, and Just One of the Guys. It's all under our New Reviews menu here on the front page.
We'll be back tomorrow with the rundown on this week's street discs.
Tuesday, 17 Feb. 2004
On the Street: It's a short street-list this week, but it's packed with good things. Criterion leads the way with three new numbers Henri-Georges Clouzot's Le Corbeau, Sam Fuller's Pickup on South Street, and Ronald Neame's Tunes of Glory. Warner's not far behind though, with continental releases that include Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup and Lucino Visconti's The Damned and Death in Venice. Fans of things more mainstream are bound to enjoy Fox's Runaway Jury starring John Cusack, Gene Hackman, and Dustin Hoffman, while David Spade can be found in Paramount's Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star. And new in a TV box is Roswell: Season One. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 16 Feb. 2004
Disc of the Week: During the German Occupation of France in World War II, the best game in town for pragmatic directors was Continental Films. There was only one catch: It was a state-sponsored organ of Josef Goebbels's Ministry of Propaganda, meaning that any filmmaker working under the company's auspices, no matter how sneakily subversive their work (because the company was government-controlled, the pictures were never submitted to the censors), would be derisively viewed as a Nazi collaborator by those risking their lives fighting for the French Resistance. Inevitably, at war's end, these artists would be harshly judged for their complicity; they were, after all, fueling their burgeoning careers with German money. One such filmmaker was Henri-Georges Clouzot, who drew especially harsh charges for his incendiary Le Corbeau (1943), a disturbing depiction of a nameless French village being torn apart by a rash of poison-pen letters. Though clearly intended as a none-too-subtle attack on the rampant and cowardly informing by anonymous citizens during the occupation, vindictive French officials, perhaps blinded by their anger at what they perceived as Clouzot's single-minded opportunism, accused the director of filming Nazi-sympathetic propaganda. In their view, the picture was a pernicious caricature of the French people, presenting them as ugly, scandal-mongering vermin concerned only with saving their own skin. Ergo, despite passionate defenses by the venerable likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, Marcel Carne, and Jean Cocteau, Clouzot was temporarily banned from filmmaking.
Placed in the context of that contentious period, it's not hard to see how Le Corbeau elicited such inflamed responses. Pierre Fresnay stars as Dr. Remy Germain, a drearily impersonal gynecologist who becomes the target of the film's titular letter writer, translated as "The Raven," ostensibly because he's conducting an affair with Laura (Micheline Francey), the wife of his superior, Dr. Michel Vorzet (Pierre Larquey). Soon, the entire town knows his secret but, even more destructively, the letters also drop in gossipy tidbits about the town's other citizens, including Denise (Ginette Leclerc), the prolifically adulterous wife of the school's headmaster, and Marie Corbin (Helena Manson), the hospital's pitiless head nurse who's trafficking morphine on the side. When one of Marie's patients commits suicide after receiving a letter cruelly informing him of his terminal condition, the townspeople suddenly believe she is "The Raven." But while the letters disappear for a time after her arrest, they soon reappear; thus, inciting anew the villagers' suspicions while further destroying Germain's reputation, which takes another hit when his dalliance with Denise is brought to light. Finally, the chief suspects are rounded up and forced to write letters in the all-capital-letters style of "The Raven" as Germain struggles to clear his good name, while Vorzet tries to reduce the town's rapidly elevating fever. But there seems to be no end to this epidemic. Soon, everyone is sneaking about, trying to catch the letter-writer in the act while eroding what remains of their own civility.
Sixty years after Le Corbeau nearly cost Clouzot his career, the film is easily viewed as a broadly applicable parable, what with the implied universality of its opening titles ("A small town, here or elsewhere.") After all, this rush to accuse has since been seen in such destructive witch hunts like the "Red Scare" and the widespread child-molestation charges of the early 1980s. What sets the film apart from its thematic kin, including Otto Preminger's remake The 13th Letter and Arthur Miller's The Crucible, is its lack of a purely noble protagonist. Though Germain does not lack for righteousness, particularly as he thunders against the town's bourgeoisie elite for investigating his carefully hidden, and quite tragic, past, Clouzot presents him as a morally compromised, uncompassionate individual. He's a man in perpetual mourning for his deceased wife, weakly submitting to a nihilistic quest for "oblivion," while showing reckless disregard for the feelings of others he so carelessly brings into his life. The film's most sympathetic character is probably Denise, the crippled sexpot who's had nearly every man in town as revenge for their haughty disapproval of her lifestyle. But Leclerc, under Clouzot's typically controlling direction, gives her a nearly impenetrable exterior of wanton carnality. Like everyone else in this toxic tale, she's too willingly diminished to be wholly likable. While Clouzot, as ever, deserves praise for his unflinching portrayal of the basest human behavior, the picture is too often one-note in its misanthropy. Unlike his subsequent masterpiece, Quai des Orfevres (1947), Clouzot doesn't appear to have any affection for his characters, and this inhibits the work from being at all involving. Had he employed a more darkly satiric approach, he might've been able to remedy this failing through the eliciting of laughter, but the picture too frequently feels like a wallow, which is probably a sign of the troubled times in which it was made. If Clouzot can't be fully forgiven for his decision to work with Continental Films, perhaps he can at least be absolved for the bracing bleakness of this most unpleasant work.
Criterion presents Le Corbeau in a fantastic full-frame transfer (1.33:1 OAR) , with crisp Dolby Digital 1.0 audio. Extras include a video interview with filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier (22 min.), whose thick accent and sometimes imprecise English makes this otherwise informative discussion a rough listen. Also included is an excerpt from the documentary The Story of French Cinema by Those Who Made It: Grand Illusions 1939 1942, which finds Clouzot sharing his own recollections of this controversial production. Finally, there are three essays, a new one from film historian Alan Williams, and two vintage, differing-opinion pieces from 1947 by Henri Jeanson and Joseph Kessel. Le Corbeau: The Criterion Collection is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: With only one new film opening in wide release over the President's Day weekend, there was little mystery what would wind up on top Sony's 50 First Dates starring Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore took the pole position, and with a solid $41 million opening. The win bested last week's winner, MGM's Barbershop 2: Back in Business, which slipped to second place, adding $15.6 million to a 10-day tally of $44 million. Critics were mixed-to-negative on 50 First Dates.
In continuing release, Buena Vista's well-received Miracle is holding down third place with a $14 million weekend and $37 million so far. Besides that, all other films failed to break $6 million for the frame, with New Line's The Butterfly Effect ($50 million) and Sony's You Got Served ($32 million) rounding off the top five. New Line's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is still racking up numbers in the doldrums of February with $357.2 million, while Miramax's Cold Mountain has been an $87 million slow burn. The Academy Awards have given Warner's Mystic River new life, keeping a top-ten spot after nearly five months in release. And off to DVD prep is Sony's Big Fish, which will jump the $60 million mark in second-run theaters.
No less than four new films hit the cineplexes this Friday Against the Ropes starring Meg Ryan, Welcome to Mooseport with Gene Hackman and Ray Romano, Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen with Lindsay Lohan, and the comedy Eurotrip. Here's the top-grossing movies at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: D.K. Holm has posted a sneak-preview of Warner's Blowup, while new reviews this week from the rest of the team include Runaway Jury, Intolerable Cruelty, Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star, In the Cut (unrated version), Pickup on South Street: The Criterion Collection, Mambo Italiano, Death in Venice, Camp, Kanto Wanderer, Le Corbeau: The Criterion Collection, and Roswell: Season One. All can be found under the New Reviews menu here on the front page.
We'll be back tomorrow to let you know about this week's street discs.
Tuesday, 10 Feb. 2004
On the Street: It's a light street-week, but there will be plenty of stuff to pick up next time around. New this week from Universal is the Coen Brothers' Intolerable Cruelty starring George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones, as well as the biopic Sylvia starring Gwenyth Paltrow. Meg Ryan takes an unusual turn in the thriller In the Cut, out now from Columbia. And fans of Boogie Nights may want to look for an alternate version of the famous Wonderland Drive murders in Lions Gate's two-disc Wonderland starring Val Kilmer. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 9 Feb. 2004
Disc of the Week: Few things are as enjoyable in American films as watching the maturation of a beloved actor. Clint Eastwood may have taken his knocks for movies like Bronco Billy and Pink Cadillac, not to mention starring opposite an orangutan on more than one occasion, but by the 1990s he would redeem himself by directing Unforgiven and then appearing in several good movies that would utilize his age, rather than overlook it. Somebody, somewhere, must have given Bruce Willis a good talking to were it not for some savvy career choices, he might still be reliving his Die Hard glory with self-serving slop like Hudson Hawk and Striking Distance. Instead, the mega-star took a part in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction and reinvigorated his career by working with directors like Terry Gilliam, Luc Besson, and M. Night Shyamalan, cementing his position on the A-list for some time yet. And while Bill Murray has been responsible for more than his share of hits, ranging from Stripes to Groundhog Day, he's also taken easy paychecks with Ghostbusters II and The Man Who Knew Too Little. Thankfully, with Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation (2003), one realizes that Murray's turn in Wes Anderson's Rushmore (1998) was not an aberration, but an indication America's favorite smartass also happens to be one our most genuine and poignant film actors.
Murray stars in Lost in Translation as Bob Harris, an American movie star who's nearing the age when most action-genre performers start to think about hanging up their holsters. When not doing film projects, Harris might be found on the stage, or even spending time with his children. But instead he winds up in Tokyo, taking a $2 million payday to endorse Suntory whiskey in television and print ads ("Make it Suntory time.") Also in Tokyo is Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a recent Yale grad who has decided to tag along on a job with her photographer husband John (Giovanni Ribisi), although the two don't seem to have much in common, and he's too busy to have much time for her anyway. Meanwhile, Bob hides out in the hotel and talks on the phone with his wife Lydia, who also faxes him messages while looking after her busy domestic life with their children. Before long, Bob and Charlotte meet in the hotel bar. That brief encounter leads to another, and then to a night on the town. But even though it's clear that both have been struck by an inexplicable kismet in each other's company, they also understand that life's many complicated circumstances will force them to part ways before the week is through.
Along with the two central characters in Lost in Translation, the third character of the film is the city of Tokyo itself. With capable photography from d.p. Lance Acord, the movie is content to linger within the city's confines, either with high shots of the vast cityscape, as seen from Charlotte's hotel windows, or of the crowded, brightly lit life at street-level. It's a remarkable examination of a foreign city that's rarely found in contemporary American films, capturing both Tokyo's human density and modern Japan's strange fascination (some would say obsession) with bright lights, cheap technology, and pop culture. Decades distant from postwar ruin, the city comes across as an extraordinarily happy place which also makes it an ideal counterpoint for Coppola's unpretentious look at human loneliness. The title's wordplay certainly isn't vague: Both Bob and Charlotte are "lost," abandoned by their spouses, at arm's length from most everyone they meet, and stuck in a city that is far more puzzling than enticing. But as they spend more time together, it becomes clear that both feel abandoned by the goals that they have set out for themselves. They also are kindred souls with different public personas smart-aleck Bob jabs with directors, photographers, and chat-show hosts, while Charlotte is withdrawn and overwhelmed by her inability to take advantage of life's opportunities. Sometimes their conversations make them sound like lovers (as when they compare how they reacted the first time they saw each other), at other times like a father and daughter. The relationship never spills over into an affair, but their chaste love-story is bound by their inert, loveless marriages. For Charlotte, this offbeat older man offers her wisdom and patience and experience behind closed doors qualities she may never see in her husband. And if Bob is physically attracted to Charlotte, it's matched by his need to act as a responsible mentor to a younger person something he suspects he's failed to do within his own family.
Universal's new DVD release of Lost in Translation features a clean anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Supplements include "Lost on Location," an unnarrated video diary of the production in Tokyo featuring Coppola, Murray, and various cast and crew members (29 min.); "A Conversation with Bill Murray and Sofia Coppola," which apparently was shot in Italy months after the 27-day shoot in Tokyo was completed (Murray sports white hair and a beard) (9 min.); "Matthew's Best Hit TV," with Murray's full appearance on the Japanese talk show, which appears completely ad-libbed by the actor (5 min.), five deleted scenes, Kevin Shields' music video for "City Girl," and the theatrical trailer. Lost in Translation is on the street now.
Box Office: Ice Cube and the gang clipped their way to the top of the box-office over the weekend in MGM's Barbershop 2: Back in Business with a $25.1 million debut the win was more than enough to edge out the week's other contender, Buena Vista's ice-hockey drama Miracle starring Kurt Russell, which still delivered a robust $19.4 million. Arriving much further down the chart was Fox's Gen-Y caper flick Catch That Kid, which generated $6 million. Meanwhile, Newmaket's Monster starring Charlize Theron and Christina Ricci expanded to wide release after six weeks in limited locations, adding $3.5 million to a $15.2 million total. Critics were kind to Barbershop and Miracle, while Kid was widely dismissed. Monster already has earned numerous rave reviews.
In continuing release, Sony's hip-hop movie You Got Served dropped to third place from its big win last week, taking in $7.7 million for the frame and $26 million to date. Slipping to fourth spot was Universal's Along Came Polly starring Ben Stiller and Jennifer Aniston, which has raked in $75.2 million over its first month. And rounding out the top five is New Line's The Butterfly Effect starring Ashton Kutcher, which has $41.5 million in the bank. Crossing $350 million and change is New Line's The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, and it doesn't look like it's through yet. But getting spanked off the chart in a hurry was Warner's The Big Bounce starring Owen Wilson and Morgan Freeman, which barely cracked $3 million last week and has since disappeared without a trace.
Only one new film goes wide this Friday 50 First Dates starring Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler. Here's the top-grossing movies at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: Damon Houx has posted a sneak-preview of Lions Gate's two-disc Wonderland, while new spins this week from the rest of the team include Angel: Season Three, Maîtresse: The Criterion Collection, Tattooed Life, The Great Ziegfeld, Underworld Beauty, Lost in Translation, and The Work of Director Chris Cunningham. It's all fresh under the New Reviews menu here on the front page.
Back tomorrow with the street discs.
Tuesday, 3 Feb. 2004
On the Street: It's a sizable street-list this week, led by several past Oscar-winners from Warner's vaults Gaslight, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Grand Hotel, The Great Ziegfeld, Mrs. Miniver, and Mutiny on the Bounty make their DVD debuts this morning, along with a two-disc update of My Fair Lady. Fresh off its Oscar nod for Best Picture is Universal's Lost in Translation, HBO's American Splendor is sure to move some copies, and New Line's Secondhand Lions is one of the best family films to come around in a long time. We have two from Criterion this morning, Diary of a Country Priest and Maîtresse, while The Diary of Anne Frank arrives under Fox's "Studio Classics" folio. And some things old in DVD somehow become new again updates of Planet of the Apes and Rain Man can be found on shelves this week. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 2 Feb. 2004
Disc of the Week: For a director so singularly concerned with exposing the internal struggle of ordinary human beings, Robert Bresson had a curious distaste for actors. Like the neo-realists who were his contemporaries, he preferred to cast non-professional or relatively inexperienced performers, but his was no cinema of the streets. On the contrary, Bresson's films are far more philosophical and stylized, and can at first seem impenetrable for their contradiction of formal mastery and performing awkwardness. Bresson's controlling tendencies are strongly evident in his actors' work their movements, their line readings, their very expressions often appear etched by the director himself. At times, they seem to be moved about with the artless èlan of pawns on a chessboard, threatening to further distance an audience already put off by their obvious amateurism. But, if one is able to stick with the picture, this madness slowly gives way to a method, and, in time, the method reveals a spiritual transcendence lurking beneath the emotionally exhausting despair at the surface.
His first film in six years after the then-icily received Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945), Bresson utilized in Diary of a Country Priest (1951) all of the techniques that would come to be known as his trademark style. As a narrative, it is pared down to the essential, telling the story of an idealistic young priest (Claude Laydu) who ineffectively ministers to a small, indifferent parish in the French countryside. Subsisting on a strict diet of wine, bread and fruit due to an undiagnosed stomach ailment, the priest is always of a gaunt, sickly appearance, which makes the cruelty heaped upon him even harder to bear. When he seeks council from his superior, the Priest of Torcy (Andre Guibert), he is advised to abandon his desire for acceptance within the community. "A good priest is never loved," says his elder. But clearly, he is not a harsh man; indeed, his lack of resolve drives Torcy to believe that he is a poor fit for the priesthood. Nevertheless, the priest soldiers onward despite his poor treatment at the hands of his parishioners, and eventually he finds himself forced into a conference with the Countess (Marie-Monique Arkell) after her daughter, the manipulative Chantal (Nicole Ladmiral), confides in the priest, distraught at having discovered her father's ongoing affair with their Governess. In the film's most spellbinding sequence, the priest goes head-to-head with the stern Countess, who has, essentially, ceased to feel after the death of her son some years prior. Drawing upon an inner strength fueled solely by his unwavering faith, the priest is able to wear down the severe older woman, offering up something perilously close to absolution; thus, it is far from surprising when she is found dead the next morning. He has saved a soul, but the priest is not at all comforted. Even more troubling, he soon finds himself charged with having bullied the woman to an early grave by Chantal, who overheard their weighty exchange and has (perhaps willfully) misinterpreted it. Suddenly, the priest is more of an outcast than before, causing his mental and physical health to rapidly deteriorate. At last, he is a man nearing a premature death, waging one last internal battle for his own soul before quitting this harsh and cynical world.
It's possible that no filmmaker elicits more divergently personal interpretations than Robert Bresson, and Diary of a Country Priest is no exception. Through the sickly personage of the titular character, the viewer is forced to confront the depths of their own beliefs, which can lead to wildly different readings of spiritual desolation or sublime, hard-won deliverance. However, where all can be in agreement is that this is work of supreme oppressiveness. Bresson demands the viewer's participation, and he expects us to engage in our own introspection. Few filmmakers so vehemently demand this level of commitment, but the reward for such effort can be great, if terribly unpleasant. Even today, in the face of the horrible scandals that have beleaguered the Catholic Church, it is impossible to not sympathize with the priest. He is a man of such pure spirituality that we want to see him touch his parishioners' lives in a profound manner, if only to see him at peace with himself. But he is doomed to failure, making each of Bresson's trademark fades-to-black heavier than the last. The film's pervasively dour tone is brilliantly enhanced by the great Leonce-Henri Burel's striking black-and-white cinematography, as well as Jean-Jacques Grunenwald's dirge-like score. Bresson would be at the height of his powers with this picture and his subsequent work, A Man Escaped (1956). But while these films are as close to perfect as artistic expression can be, they remain difficult to embrace which, frankly, may be the highest praise one can accord the work of Robert Bresson.
The Criterion Collection presents Diary of a Country Priest in an excellent full-frame transfer (1.33:1) that preserves the film's original aspect ratio, while the nicely cleaned-up audio is on a Dolby Digital 1.0 track. Supplements include a feature-length commentary from film historian Peter Cowie, who seems most interested in praising Bresson's "cinema of the essential" by reciting passages from Bernanos's novel that were omitted in the adaptation. This proves illuminating and tiresome in fairly equal measure. Cowie is at his best when breaking down the film's pivotal scene between the priest and the Countess, or sharing anecdotes about Bresson's working relationship with his actors, who sometimes bristled at his heavy-handedness (Laydu is quoted as saying the director "works on an actor like a sculptor models his clay.") Rounding out the package is an essay by critic Frederic Bonnaud and the theatrical trailer. Diary of a Country Priest: The Criterion Collection is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: Super Bowl weekend is often considered a black hole on Hollywood's calendar, but Sony's You Got Served stumped a lot of expectations the hip-hop flick about rival dance troupes took in $16 million, beating out last week's winner, New Line's The Butterfly Effect, which dropped to third place with $9.9 million for the frame and $32.4 million so far. Two other debuts over the weekend got clobbered Paramount's The Perfect Score took in just $5 million, arriving in fifth place, while Warner's The Big Bounce starring Morgan Freeman and Owen Wilson only managed $3.3 million and didn't crack the top ten. And all three new movies this week earned terrible reviews from critics.
In continuing release, Universal's Along Came Polly starring Ben Stiller and Jennifer Aniston is showing some legs, staying put in second place with $10 million over the weekend and $66.7 million to date. And New Line's The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King has become a top-five fixture with $345.2 million after nearly two months. Sony's Big Fish continues to win fans, breaking $50 million after a month in wide release. Returning to more theaters after the Oscar nods was Warner's Mystic River, adding $4.4 million to its $64.8 million cume. Well into triple-digits is Sony's Something's Gotta Give, now holding down $112 million. And off to DVD prep is The Last Samurai with a $105 million finish.
New films arriving on screens this Friday include Miracle starring Kurt Russell, Barbershop 2: Back in Business with Ice Cube and the gang, and the heist flick Catch That Kid. Here's the top-grossing movies at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: D.K. Holm has posted a review of Warner's new two-disc My Fair Lady: Special Edition, while new spins this week from the rest of the team include Secondhand Lions: Platinum Series, Cabin Fever, Grand Hotel, Rain Man: Special Edition, Gaslight, The Diary of Anne Frank: Fox Studio Classics, Spellbound (2003), Mrs. Miniver, Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), Swing Shift, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Diary of a Country Priest: The Criterion Collection, and The Critic: The Complete Series. Everything's been added to the New Reviews menu here on the front page.
We'll be back tomorrow with news on this week's street discs.