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The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

Around the World in 8 DVDs

Adam Jahnke - Main Page

One of my pet peeves is people who say they love movies but don't like foreign films (I also don't like people who use the phrase "pet peeves", so don't take it personally if you're in either group). The arguments against foreign movies are always pretty much the same. They don't like reading subtitles, they're too long, they're boring, blah blah blah.

What annoys me about this isn't so much the assumption that movies begin and end with Hollywood, USA, although that certainly is annoying. It's that people who say they don't like foreign movies say it as though "Foreign" was a genre unto itself. Certainly the layout of most video stores and movie guidebooks do nothing to dissuade one from that belief. Foreign films are almost invariably kept apart from all the other movies, as if just being near the English-language movies might somehow infect them with foreignness. And, of course, nobody ever considers movies like The Road Warrior, A Room With a View or Dead Ringers to be foreign, although last time I checked, Australia, Great Britain and Canada were still their own sovereign countries.

Thanks to the success of movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero, it would be tempting to say that the tides are turning and the bias against foreign movies is starting to vanish. Tempting but wrong. Let's face it. Movies like Kung Fu Hustle could be in an untranslatable dialect of Martian and you could still pretty much figure out what was going on. These movies are told visually, through brilliantly choreographed action sequences and carefully composed images. Don't get me wrong. I think these movies are great and I couldn't be happier that they're finding a large audience over here. But that still leaves plenty of countries and genres that are going by and large unseen.

In fact, the only time when it was really in vogue to see subtitled movies was back in the 1960s and early 70s. Films by Bergman, Kurosawa, Godard, Fellini, and others like them revolutionized the way an entire generation of moviegoers thought about cinema. Today, thanks to DVD, it's easier than ever to watch movies made half a planet away. But by and large, people don't.

Because of this subtitle-phobia, lots of folks are missing out on a lot of really wonderful movies. So, from time to time, I'll be checking in here with an all-foreign edition of The Bottom Shelf. I've got eight very different movies to kick things off with. The oldest one dates back to 1959. The newest came out just last year. They cover a range of genres and continents. Europe, Asia, even one English-language movie that's foreign in everything except for its screenwriter, leading actors, and setting. But let's begin our world tour in Spain with a pair of releases from one of that country's best filmmakers, Pedro Almodovar.


Bad Education
2004 (2005) - Sony Pictures Classics

The Flower of My Secret
1995 (2005) - Sony Pictures Classics

Like a lot of people, I suppose, the first film by Pedro Almodovar I saw was 1988's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. I didn't really know what to expect, although I do remember that for some reason I was not looking forward to it. Surprisingly, I enjoyed it immensely and did my best to follow his career from then on. Since I was living in Montana at the time, this was easier said than done. Every so often I'd catch a movie but never with any regularity until 1999. With the release of All About My Mother that year, Almodovar raised his game substantially. I wouldn't say every movie he's made since then has been better than the last. All About My Mother may well turn out to be his masterpiece. But both movies he's directed since then have been exceptional: Talk to Her from 2002 and last year's Bad Education.

Bad EducationThe Flower of My Secret

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In Bad Education, Gael Garcia Bernal from Y Tu Mama Tambien plays Ignacio, a struggling actor who turns up at the office door of Enrique (Fele Martinez), an old schoolmate who has become a successful filmmaker. Ignacio is looking for work as an actor and drops off a story he's written called "The Visit" based on their time together at Catholic school. "The Visit" tells the story of a drag queen who returns to that school in an attempt to blackmail the priest who molested him as a boy. Enrique decides to make "The Visit" his next movie but is suspicious of Ignacio's insistence that he play the drag queen.

When I sat down to watch Bad Education, I was afraid that it would simply be an anti-Catholic movie about abusive priests. It's not. In fact, there is nothing simple about Bad Education at all. The story unfolds on more levels than a multitiered wedding cake. Almodovar shows us the relationship between Enrique and Ignacio, plus "The Visit" (the film within the film), plus the actual memories of what really happened as told by Ignacio and, ultimately, the now-retired priest himself. The molestation aspects of the story are handled artfully and the story is told within the confines of a genre tale. Bad Education is not the angst-filled drama I'd feared it would be. Rather, it is a twisty, satisfying, carefully constructed thriller that unflinchingly tackles a very serious subject.

Infinitely less satisfying is Almodovar's 1995 feature The Flower of My Secret. Between 1990's Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and 1999's All About My Mother, Almodovar seemed to be making movies without passion. Movies like Kika went through the motions of what people probably expected from an Almodovar film. Garishly bright colors, kinky sex, and unrestrained adult humor but it all seemed rather lackluster and by-the-numbers. The Flower of My Secret is typical of Almodovar's mid-90s period.

Marisa Paredes stars as a middle-aged woman whose marriage is on the rocks. She also happens to be a highly successful romance novelist under a pseudonym. With her personal life floundering, she's finding it harder to write these frivolous books. Her latest book was rejected by her publisher, although a movie with an identical plot is about to go into production and no one seems to know how the movie people got ahold of the story. Paredes tries to expand her writing by taking on another pseudonym writing literary reviews for the newspaper and gives her personal life one last shot at reconciliation with her husband.

The Flower of My Secret is the only Almodovar film that I could describe as dull. He seems to be making a visible effort to mature as a filmmaker by reining in his typical excesses. It's an admirable attempt but Almodovar also doesn't seem to have much of a personal investment in these characters. Paredes is good, as is Juan Echanove as her secretly romantic editor at the paper. But it's difficult to get too wrapped up in these people's lives. Their problems seem fairly inconsequential, and while they're clearly enormous to them, Almodovar doesn't succeed in conveying that to us.

On DVD, Bad Education is big winner. Technically, it's a terrific disc. The picutre quality is outstanding in anamorphic widescreen (the aspect ratio actually changes throughout the film from 2.35:1 to 1.85:1 depending on what story we're seeing). The soundtrack is offered in its original Spanish. By and large, it isn't terribly active but the 5.1 does give you the opportunity to hear Alberto Iglesias's terrific score at its best. The Flower of My Secret isn't as impressive. The movie itself is ten years older than Bad Education and looks it. Not that it's a bad picture, just kind of soft and beaten up.

As for extras, Sony's Bad Education disc isn't bad, though it isn't quite as impressive as the list of specs might lead you to expect. Almodovar's subtitled audio commentary is the highlight of the disc, as he discusses his influences, his own upbringing, and the autobiographical aspects of the film. There are two deleted scenes, both interesting on their own but understandably cut. The Red Carpet footage from the AFI Film Festival premiere has a few moments of on-the-fly interviews with Almodovar, Bernal (an impatient publicist hovering close behind him), and Penelope Cruz (not that she has anything to do with the movie but she's worked with Almodovar and she's good-looking so that appears to be enough to justify her inclusion here). This is followed by Almodovar's introduction to the movie inside the theatre. This is fine but it's kind of Access Hollywood stuff and no replacement for a proper interview or documentary. And you might think you're getting that documentary in The Making of Bad Education. No, that's actually just two minutes of behind-the-scenes footage spliced together into a peppy montage. Unless this movie was actually made in two minutes, this is useless. At least the photo gallery is nice, tracing the evolution of the various ad campaigns for the movie. I love seeing rejected campaigns and poster designs on DVD and wish more discs would include them.

The Flower of My Secret also includes a making-of but this one is more substantial. Clocking in at almost 20 minutes, it interviews cast and crew on the set of the film. It's not great but it's the only real extra on the disc, so I guess it'll have to do. Both Almodovar discs also include a potpourri of trailers from other Sony Pictures Classics releases.

Pedro Almodovar has always been a highly capable filmmaker. Even his lesser movies have his own personal style stamped indelibly upon them. Lately though, he has emerged as one of the best European filmmakers working today. There is no mistaking an Almodovar film for a movie by anyone else. Watch any of them for a few minutes at any point and you'll know who made it. If he continues to make movies as compelling as Bad Education, he'll be a director to reckon with for some time to come.

Bad Education
Film Rating: A-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/A-/B-


The Flower of My Secret
Film Rating: C+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/B/C-



Eyes Without a Face
1959 (2004) - Gaumont (Criterion)

Our world tour now takes us over to France, home to some of Europe's greatest filmmakers. These are directors who can be identified by surname alone: Godard, Truffaut, Renoir, Bresson. But for all the classics the country has produced, horror movies are not exactly synonymous with French cinema. Well, there's at least one that can proudly hold its own with any of the horror classics: Georges Franju's creepy, darkly poetic Eyes Without a Face.

Eyes Without a Face

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Pierre Brasseur stars as Dr. Genessier, a surgeon obsessed with finding a way to regenerate dead skin. He's developed something called the "heterograft", a method of face transplantation that he hopes will benefit his daughter (Edith Scob). Her face was irreparably destroyed in a car accident caused by none other than Dr. Genessier himself. The only drawback to the heterograft is that it requires a living face to transplant and donors aren't exactly lining up outside Dr. Genessier's creepy mansion to volunteer. So he and his assistant Louise (Alida Valli) have been kidnapping young girls and performing clandestine operations in a hidden room.

For a movie made in 1959, Eyes Without a Face's notorious face transplant scene is surprisingly graphic. But as disturbing as that scene is, it's just one factor contributing to the overall sense of dread in Franju's film. Edith Scob gives a haunting performance as the disfigured daughter, floating through the movie wearing an expressionless white mask. The film was adapted from a novel by Jean Redon by the team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, authors of Diabolique and Vertigo. Eyes Without a Face has a similar quality, with nightmarish situations unfolding in a familiar place. Here, Dr. Genessier seems like a reasonable, respectable surgeon. It's the clinical, dispassionate way he goes about his criminal activities that makes it so chilling.


As graphic as Eyes Without a Face is, it's nothing compared to Franju's earlier short film Blood of the Beasts, included as a bonus on Criterion's recent DVD. Blood of the Beasts is a 22-minute documentary on French slaughterhouses. The film opens innocently enough, with beautifully composed shots of the French landscape and children playing while a female narrator describes the area. Next thing you know, we're in the abattoir, seeing a horse butchered in the same visual style we saw locals posing with their art seconds earlier. Blood of the Beasts is extremely difficult to watch, unflinching in its depiction of this work. It's also one of the best, most powerful short films I've ever seen. It's a harrowing twenty-two minutes and I'm sure there are plenty of people who won't be able to make it through the whole thing. Personally, I thought it was incredible.

Blood of the Beasts is only one of several outstanding extras on this disc. Franju (who died in 1987) is present via several interviews excerpted from various French television series. In one, he discusses Blood of the Beasts, while in another he speaks about Eyes Without a Face and horror in general on a campy mad scientist set. The hyphenated team of Boileau-Narcejac is also represented in a segment from a documentary called Les Grands-peres du crime. Selecting Medical Charts takes you to a gallery of stills, production photos and promotional material. Criterion also includes both the original French trailer as well as a trailer for the American release under the title The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus (released as part of a double bill with The Manster!). Finally, the booklet includes essays by film historian David Kalat and novelist Patrick McGrath.

The Criterion Collection isn't exactly overflowing with horror movies so their release of Eyes Without a Face is extremely welcome. Not only do they give an underrated horror movie a wider audience, they've also included a landmark short film in the bargain. Georges Franju may be better-known for co-founding the Cinematheque Française than for his directing but Eyes Without a Face demonstrates that he was certainly a formidable talent behind the camera in his own right.

Eyes Without a Face
Film Rating: A-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B/A-



Rendez-vous
1985 (2005) - MK2 (Home Vision)

Perhaps a more typically French film is Andre Techine's Rendez-vous, an erotic drama that gave Juliette Binoche her first major role. Binoche plays Nina, a naïve young actress who arrives in Paris searching for stardom. She lands a bit part as a maid in a fluffy play and stays for short periods with one of the many men she seduces. Finally tiring of this, she searches for her own apartment with the help of real estate clerk Paulot (Wadeck Stanczack). Like most men, Paulot falls for her almost immediately but Nina likes him only as a friend. She's sexually attracted to his dangerous, mysterious roommate Quentin (Lambert Wilson), an actor who works in a seamy live sex show. Their relationship escalates but Nina doesn't really learn anything about him until the arrival of Scrutzler (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a director who wants to cast Nina in his new production of Romeo and Juliet.

Rendez-vous

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Rendez-vous is a film that could easily dissolve into a pretentious mess in lesser hands. Fortunately, this movie has three very important things going for it. First, the screenplay, co-written by Olivier Assayas who would go on to direct such films as Irma Vep. The script is very careful in how much information it doles out and when. There is enough mystery here to keep us absorbed but not so much that it becomes impossibly dense. Second, the direction by Andre Techine. I've only seen one other Techine film, the excellent Ma Saison Preferee. In Rendez-vous, Techine keeps things focused and succinct, wrapping things up in an economical 83 minutes.

Finally and most importantly, there is Juliette Binoche. When you're making a movie about a woman that men fall in love with too easily, more than half the battle is casting the right actress. Binoche is terrific as Nina. She's unworldly, promiscuous, and insecure but never comes across as stupid. The fact that she's also incredibly sexy practically goes without mentioning but that beauty is put to a very specific use in Rendez-vous. It's risky for a young actress' first major role to be that of a not-exceptionally-talented young actress but Binoche does it beautifully.


Home Vision's disc both looks and sounds a little worn but considering this is a not-too-well-known French movie from 1985, it could be much worse. Extras are restricted to the original trailer and a liner notes essay by critic Brian McFarlane. Rendez-vous is an elegant, compelling drama. Fans of Juliette Binoche should definitely seek it out without hesitation.

Rendez-vous
Film Rating: B
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/C+/D



La Commare Secca (The Grim Reaper)
1962 (2005) - Janus (Criterion)

Now let's head over to Italy for the first film directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. La Commare Secca, directed by Bertolucci when he was just 21, is an interesting movie from a film history perspective but it's not, I'm afraid, all that terribly exciting or entertaining. The film follows a police investigation into the murder of a local prostitute. The detective (who remains offscreen through most of the film) interviews a number of people who were all at the scene of the crime. Through flashbacks, we see what they did on the day of the murder and how it occasionally contradicts what they're telling the police.

La Commare Secca

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The structure of the film is reminiscent of Kurosawa's Rashomon but La Commare Secca is otherwise not too similar to that classic. Bertolucci isn't particularly interested in the crime or in how different people remember the same event. Rather, he's concerned with the mundane details of a day that seems like any other but just happens to end with a murder. In each flashback, we eventually arrive at a point in the story when it starts raining. At this point, a crack of thunder takes us out of the story and over to the prostitute herself, waking up, making coffee, and getting ready for her day, never knowing that it's the last day of her life.

Some of this is quite interesting and even in his first film, Bertolucci creates some very memorable images with his restless camera. But ultimately there's a sameness to all of the flashbacks that makes the movie seem much longer than its 93 minutes. It also would have been nice if Bertolucci had at least a little interest in the crime itself. There's absolutely no tension or suspense in the unmasking of the killer. Bertolucci is just as interested in the killing of the prostitute as he is in a soldier wandering around killing time. That's a fine concept in theory but one is clearly more important than the other.


Criterion's DVD is one of their slimmer efforts, although the picture and sound quality are both very nice. The only extra is a new 16-minute interview with Bertolucci which, while brief, is quite illuminating. If you, like me, thought that art-house films like this were always personal projects immune from producer interference, this clears things right up. The project began as a story by Pier Paolo Pasolini and after the success of Pasolini's first film, Accattone, the rights-holder to La Commare Secca fast-tracked that project. But when Pasolini decided not to direct himself, his former assistant Bertolucci was assigned the project. I can just picture a Barton Fink-like producer asking Bertolucci to give him that Pasolini feeling. Bertolucci also discusses the awkward situation of being the youngest member of the crew, the reaction to the film, and his efforts to make the project his own.

La Commare Secca isn't a must-see landmark of Italian cinema. However, if you're already a devotee of these filmmakers, it's an interesting link between the work of Pasolini and Bertolucci. The movie certainly has its moments. But this is not the first film to watch if you're just beginning with Italian neo-realism.

La Commare Secca
Film Rating: B-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B/C


On to Part Two

Adam Jahnke - Main Page
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