Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Here are some recent DVDs I've watched.

No One Knows About Persian Cats

One reason I love watching foreign films is to get a taste of a different culture and Iran is certainly a different culture. This film from director Bahman Ghobadi is part documentary and part fiction about the huge underground music scene in that country.

Ghobadi's film is the product of the underground. In the making-of feature, he explained that in Iran, one must obtain a permit to shoot a movie. The script and subject matter must be approved by government censors who want to make sure there is nothing that goes counter to the government or how they interpret Islam.

Tired of the bureaucracy, Ghobadi decided to shoot the film illegally and did so with a skeleton crew with their eyes peeled for the police. Despite the obstacles, the film has a very polished look and is very well edited.

The film tells the story of two musicians, Negar and Ashkan. They are trying to fill out their band, obtain a permit for concert in Tehran and then get visas and passports so they can tour Europe. Their search is a difficult one, taking them to secret rehearsal spaces and dealing with forgers to get the necessary papers.

I think they are a couple, but the film is extremely chaste. Only in the last few minutes does one get the sense they are in love.

Ghobadi filmed the performances of actual bands to present a flavor of the music scene and clearly young Iranians love all sorts of rock 'n' roll — folk rock, heavy metal and hip-hop are among the genres represented. Unfortunately, playing it can land them in jail.

The film is subtitled, although almost all of the music is sung in English, which must be the international language of rock.

Go to Netflix and check it out.

Behind the Burly Q

Director Leslie Zemeckis has produced what is clearly a labor of love. Starting in 2006, she began interviewing people who worked in burlesque — strippers, comics, straight men, theater owners and others — to capture a look at an American art form that only recently has seen a resurgence of interest.

Burlesque — a somewhat naughty combination of low humor, music and pretty unclad women — has been around in this country since the 1860s, but reached its classic form in the late 1920s and continued until the mid-1950s. Those on camera spoke fondly, most of their time on stage and generally explained how the reputation of burlesque's overt sexuality has been overstated throughout the years.

For some, burlesque was a training ground. Chris Costello, daughter of comic Lou Costello, spoke about her father's time in burlesque where he and Bud Abbott developed many of their most famous routines.

Alan Alda detailed how growing up in burlesque affected him. His father, Robert, was a singer in burlesque before he landed a movie deal at Warner Brothers and lead roles on Broadway.

Although the hazards of making a living doing something many people viewed as immoral took its toll on performers, the remarkable thing is how many of those interviewed seem to miss it.

For Springfield area residents who remember burlesque, "Behind the Burly Q" features a segment on Ann Corio, the stripper from Hartford, Conn., who used her fame to land movie roles in the 1940s.

Corio and her husband owned the Storrowton Music Theater in West Springfield for years where summer theater productions were presented, including versions of her own hit Broadway review, "This was Burlesque."

In this day of explicit entertainment, old-fashioned burlesque might seem like weak tea, but Zemeckis revealed the charms of the wink and the nod and leaving the audience wanting more.

Anything Goes

In 1954, Broadway legend Ethel Merman returned to a production that had helped make her a star 20 years previous, "Anything Goes," with songs by Cole Porter.

Merman recreated her role as brassy nightclub singer Reno Sweeney in an hour-long episode of "The Colgate Comedy Hour." The Archive of American Television has now released a DVD of the production and I'm sure Merman's fans as well as those of classic Broadway shows will have many reasons to rejoice.

There is another attraction to this long-forgotten show: Frank Sinatra.

This show was broadcast live 56 years ago and the DVD's source material is a kinescope — Merman's personal copy. Kinescopes were 16-millimeter films of live television with the image taken from a television monitor. I've seen some kinescopes where the image is soft and slightly out of focus. This image, though, is very sharp, making watching it a pleasant experience.

The DVD comes with a 20-page booklet that put the show into its historical context. Although Merman never had the kind of success in movies she had enjoyed on the stage, she was still a big draw in the mid-'50s. Sinatra, on the other hand, was in a career slump at this time.

The plot revolves around Merman's character finding her true love with Sinatra's gangster character as opposed to marrying for money and stability.

It's silly stuff — as most musical comedy is — and the bulk of the humor is carried on the capable shoulders of Bert Lahr — better known as the Cowardly Lion from "The Wizard of Oz."

What fascinated me about this show is that it's an example of what television used to be: live and willing to take chances. Theatrical productions were a key part of programming at that time.

Could you imagine a network forgoing its schedule of cheap reality shows to actually put a live theatrical event on the air today?

I'm not a big fan of either Merman or Sinatra, but these two performers seemed to enjoy what they were doing so much, their energy proved to be infectious.

For more information, log onto www.eonehomevideo.com.

Valhalla Rising

Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn is an up and coming filmmaker on the international scene and other critics have praised this art house film as a cult film in the making.

I've watched a lot of cult films and my share of art house films and all I can say is that Refn's film has a long way to go to measure up to the best in either genre.

Set in 1000 A.D., the film centers on an enigmatic prisoner held by a Viking clan and used as a fighter. One Eye, as he is known, doesn't speak, but is the champion at the fights that earn his captors money.

He hates them and manages to kill all of the tribe while escaping, with the exception of a boy, who had been charged to take care of him. After his escape, One Eye and the boy join up with a group of Vikings headed to the Crusades. Instead of the Middle East, they wind up in North America, where things don't go very well.

I thought Vikings were amazing mariners — not this bunch.

Refn's film is full of long, long shots of rugged landscapes or dirty actors clad in skins reciting pithy dialogue. It's a pretentious piece of claptrap. The glacier-like pacing of the film is punctuated by scenes of graphic violence. I've not seen a disemboweling in a movie for a long time — joy!

I'm sure the film was about something and had some deep inner meaning, but it wasn't apparent to me.

Sugar Boxx

This is what "Grindhouse" — the loving and entertaining recreation of 1970s drive-in movies — has brought about. Now, people like me will have to suffer through low-budget "homages" to independent fare from 35 years ago.

I would much rather watch the originals. Thanks goodness, they are now on DVD.

This particular film tackles one of the most controversial genres: the women in prison movies. It is next to impossible to craft a type of production that would have the potential for as much exploitation as the women in prison movies.

It is also next to impossible to defend the films — which date all the way back to the 1930s, but really didn't come into their own until the 1960s.

Despite the distinct lack of political correctness, women in prison films have always found an audience and I'm sure when "Sugar Boxx" pops up at a Red Box, it will also be a high renter.

Set in 1975 — although there are no indicators of a particular time — Genevieve Anderson stars as an investigative reporter who goes undercover at a notorious women's prison. All of the plot points and cliches of the genre are trotted out.

According to the making-of feature, this is all supposed to be amusing and hip. It's not. It's cheap, style-less and tawdry.

The movie also commits the unforgivable sin of being boring.

Pass this one up.

© 2011 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

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