Friday, December 30, 2011

The Commitments

Everyone wants to relive a magical cinematic moment. A film or theater or evening that just makes one want to return back in time. For me, one such experience was the first time I saw The Commitments (1991). It was a film that spoke endless depths of sincerity both in spoken and sung dialogue. When it first came out, Alan Parker’s film became a bonafide cultural phenomenon with the soundtrack album climbing up the charts. People were hungry for authentic-sounding music, tired of the hedonistic hairspray bands of the 1980’s. To its credit, the film still stands as an unabashed love letter to the belief that music can change your life and make a difference.

Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins) aspires to be the manager of the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band, with only one kind of music in mind: Soul. Disgusted with the current state of bands in Ireland, this determined young man decides to assemble an old school Dublin soul band in the tradition of greats like Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett. Jimmy holds auditions out of his parents’ house (in which he still lives, by the by) and soon assembles his group of young musicians whom he can’t wait to mould. With the help of Joey “The Lips” Fagan (John Murphy), the only veteran musician in the band, Jimmy begins to whip the rest of the members into stage-ready shape.

One of the things that makes The Commitments work so well is its brazen cast of relative unknowns. These actors come with no preconceived notions or baggage that name actors bring to the table (Bruce McDonald’s rock ‘n’ roll movie, Hard Core Logo, would also successfully employ the same technique). With the exception of two band members, they were all real musicians, lending the film fresh authenticity. Parker showed his aptitude for working with first-time actors with Fame (1980) and did it again, more genuinely, with this film.

For such a large cast, all of the characters are beautifully realized. From the egotistical lead singer, Decco (Andrew Strong), to minor characters such as Jimmy’s Elvis-worshipping father (Colm Meaney), Dick Clement, Ian Le Frenais and Roddy Doyle’s screenplay provides each character with his or her own unique character tics that define them. From Rabbitte’s colorful one-on-one interviews to Decco’s repugnant outbursts, the actors and their counterparts provide hit after hit.

The Commitments has been said to be a musical with dialogue intervals, due to the infusion of music everywhere. Everyone in the community is in touch with music. From the local gangster (“Everything’s shite since Roy Orbison died.”) to Mr. Rabbitte (“Elvis wasn’t a Cajun! That’s fuckin’ blasphemy!”), it’s in everyone. It is Jimmy who articulates the very essence that drives the film when he delivers an impassioned speech about the power of soul music. “Sure it’s basic and it’s simple but it’s something else. Something special. Cos it’s honest. There’s no fucking bullshit. It sticks its neck out and says it straight from the heart.” What unites The Commitments’ band members; however, is really a bit more than a love of music. This band is a way out for them. It is a release for them. It is something that they can all look forward to, something that represents possibilities. Bernie (Bronagh Gallagher), stuck working a chippie van, or Decco, the bus conductor — they’re all in need.

The dialogue, in particular the banter between the members of the band, is another strength of the film. Their conversations are littered with “familiar profanities” that are utterly convincing considering that these kids (the actors, that is) come from the urban slums of Dublin. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the film’s source material is Roddy Doyle’s book of the same name. Finally, the best part of the film is the music. The concert footage (and its corresponding audio) was recorded live, which separates it from films that use previously recorded music that always sounds too polished, too lip synched. There is a rawness and energy to the musical sequences that perfectly captures the experience of seeing a band live. This is due in large part to how the musicians perform, most surprisingly Andrew Strong, who was only 16 years old at the time and had a voice made to sing gritty soul music. It is also due to how Parker photographs them all. He uses snap zooms and employs many close-ups of their faces and them playing their instruments. It gives these sequences a you-are-there immediacy that is very effective.

After making several Hollywood films in the United States, Parker “wanted to do something that wasn’t so colossally expensive ... I wanted to do something lighter and with music.” While making Come See the Paradise (1990), two British screenwriters, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, turned him on to Doyle’s 1986 novel The Commitments. Parker felt that he understood and empathized with the characters. Clement, La Frenais and Doyle ended up writing the screenplay together.

Parker started work on the film in the summer of 1990 when he flew into Dublin to hold auditions. It was important to him that all of his actors be musicians first. Casting directors assembled 64 bands from Dublin’s club scene and after seeing approximately 3,000 musicians, Parker picked 12 for the main cast. According to the director, the musicians were cast “to be pretty close to the kinds of personalities they already had, so they’re not playing roles outside of themselves.”

The Commitments received mostly positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “The result is a movie that doesn't lead anywhere in particular and may not have a profound message — other than that it's hell at the top, however low the top may be. But the movie is filled with life and energy, and the music is honest. The Commitments is one of the few movies about a fictional band that's able to convince us the band is real and actually plays together.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “The Commitments finds Mr. Parker again doing what he does expertly: assembling a group of talented newcomers, editing snippets of their exploits into a hyperkinetic jumble, and filling the air with song.” Time magazine’s Richard Corliss wrote, “The Commitments finds Mr. Parker again doing what he does expertly: assembling a group of talented newcomers, editing snippets of their exploits into a hyperkinetic jumble, and filling the air with song.” However, Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “C” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “The idea that the Commitments are doing something revolutionary by ‘bringing’ soul to Dublin is downright insulting. In Parker's hands, soul music becomes little more than a self-serving metaphor — an easy symbol for ‘commitment’ and integrity. His film celebrates musical daring without having a shred of it.”

The Commitments refuses to resort to sappy altruism. This music isn’t going to save the world but it does enrich these characters’ lives for a brief moment in time. Apparently, other people felt the same way. After the film debuted in theaters, the band in the film actually toured (and continues to tour to this day albeit with only some of the original members) the country and people fell in love with the movie and the music. The Commitments ranks right up there with Hard Core Logo (1996) and Almost Famous (2000) as one of the greatest films about a fictional band’s rise and fall.

Friday, December 23, 2011

White Hunter, Black Heart

From early on in his career, Clint Eastwood has been interested in taking the path less traveled when it came to his career, taking on roles and making films that often subverted his Hollywood icon image. In particular, the films he has directed explore the darker side of humanity with topics ranging from stalking (Play Misty for Me), drug addiction (Bird), violence (Unforgiven), and child abuse (Mystic River). White Hunter, Black Heart (1990) is no different. Based loosely on Peter Viertel’s experiences working with legendary film director John Huston on The African Queen (1951), Eastwood plays John Wilson, a filmmaker more interested in hunting down and killing a wild elephant then making his next motion picture. He becomes fixated on this quest and Eastwood uses this story as an opportunity to explore the notion of obsession and how it can consume someone at the expense of everything else in their life.

White Hunter, Black Heart played several prestigious film festivals around the world and was admired by many critics but was never a commercial hit with audiences perhaps expecting an exciting adventure. What they got instead was something more akin to an art film that saw Eastwood yet again subvert the Dirty Harry persona that has defined his career for many years. White Hunter has become something of a forgotten effort in his filmography and considered a minor work but I’ve always felt that it was one of his more interesting pictures.

From the get-go, it is easy to see what drew Eastwood to this film. The opening voiceover narration describes his character John Wilson as “a brilliant, screw-you-all type filmmaker who continually violated all the unwritten laws of the motion picture business yet had the magic, almost divine ability to always land on his feet.” These words could easily be describing Eastwood and his career – one that saw him frequently go against prevailing trends to make the kinds of films he wanted to do. Wilson is gearing up to make a film in Africa and enlists the help of his good friend and screenwriter Peter Verrill (Jeff Fahey) to give the screenplay a rewrite. Pete’s not so sure as he’s working on a book and Wilson tells him, “There are times when you can’t wonder whether it’s the right or wrong thing to do … You just gotta pack up and go.” While they are there making the film, Wilson wants to go on safari and bag an elephant.

Wilson and Pete meet with the film’s producer Paul Landers (George Dzundza) who implores the writer to come on board if only to keep Wilson focused on the task at hand. It’s an entertaining scene as we see Wilson’s open disdain for Landers and the money men, especially when one of them informs the director that they’ve talked about replacing him with someone else. Wilson knows that all Landers cares about is that the film makes money no matter how just so long as it does. As he tells the exasperated producer, “You’d sell your mother down the river to make a deal.” Pete observes it all with the bemused expression of someone who has seen Wilson act this way before and is just enjoying the ride. The director doesn’t care about the business side of filmmaking – dealing with nervous producers and studio executives and every person who pitches him a lame idea for a film.

The chemistry between Clint Eastwood and Jeff Fahey is excellent in these early scenes as we see how well they play off each other, Wilson trying to convince Pete to do this film with him and the writer not really needing much convincing. The two actors do a nice job of conveying two men who have been friends for years by the way they act towards each other. In a nice, self-flexive bit, Wilson lays out his filmmaking philosophy but it could easily be Eastwood as he tells Pete that there’s two ways to go about it: “One is you can crawl and kiss ass and write their happy endings, sign their long-term contracts and never take a chance on anything and never fly, never leave Hollywood. Save all your goddamn money, every cent of it … The other way is to let the chips fall where they may. Refuse to sign their contracts and tell off the guy who can cut your throat and flatter the little guy who’s hanging by a thread that you hold.” Wilson is the quintessential film maverick and on the surface he certainly seems like one of Eastwood’s usual anti-authority protagonists – the cynic with a heart of gold. Wilson talks a good game, like how much he hates the movie business, but Pete knows him well enough to know that the curmudgeonly director wouldn’t have it any other way because he enjoys and thrives on conflict. It stimulates his creativity.

Once Wilson and Pete arrive in Africa, Eastwood opens the film up visually with stunning shots of the wilderness courtesy of long-time collaborator Jack N. Green and this gives a real sense of place. It’s a sharp contrast to the stuffy opulence of Wilson’s English mansion. There are also gorgeous aerial shots of herds of wild animals running across the plains. Eastwood really shows the exotic locale in all of its diverse glory: large lakes, jungle and dense wooded areas.

Wilson and Pete encounter quite a bit of racism from their English hosts. For example, there is the man who curses out and chastises the local team of football players for easily beating his team of all whites, or the posh wealthy woman who criticizes the Jewish people that lived in Soho during the Blitz in World War II. Wilson is disgusted with both of their attitudes and gets into a fist fight with the former and tells off the latter by recounting a hilarious story that really puts her in her place. Eastwood does a fantastic job of delivering this monologue with a mischievous twinkle in his eye as Wilson stands up for his friend Pete (who is Jewish). With the fist fight scene, we get a glimpse of Wilson’s self-destructive tendencies. Drunk and clearly outmatched physically, Wilson gets in a few good shots before being beaten down by the larger, stronger man. However, he feels justified in doing what he did because he stood up and fought for what he believed in.

While Pete continues to fine tune the script, Wilson plans their safari with the occasional detours to pre-production on the film. The director is all about testing his own limits, whether it is challenging a large man to a fight or taking a rusted out old river boat through dangerous river rapids. For him, that is what life is all about – experiencing it to the fullest with no regrets, much like I imagine Eastwood’s own outlook on life. Wilson thinks that bagging one of those giant elephants is a life experience he’s meant to have and becomes obsessed with it. Pete lets him know that he doesn’t want to shoot one because they are beautiful animals, a rare link to life before humans, which deserve to exist. There is something pure about them and shooting one would destroy that nobility, which is a rarity in this world. Over the course of the film, Wilson and Pete’s friendship is put to the test as the writer tries to keep the director focused on making the film.

Some critics felt that Eastwood miscast himself as a John Huston-type filmmaker but I think that what he does in White Hunter, Black Heart is fuse parts of Huston’s sensibilities with his own. In some respects, the two men are very much alike: larger than life icons that continued to make films well into the twilight of their lives, constantly bucking expectations and latching onto projects that interested them whether they were commercial hits or not. Eastwood understands the nature of obsession and how it can lead to self-destructive behavior.

Jeff Fahey is well cast as the audience surrogate and voice of reason. Pete may be Wilson’s friend but he won’t blindly follow him on every grand adventure that the director wants to pursue. Fahey brings an intelligence to the role, playing a character that has his own strong convictions and just doesn’t follow his friend around without question. The actor was on the verge of becoming a breakout star in the 1990’s with this film and The Lawnmower Man (1992) but for whatever reason his career didn’t take off like it should have and he ended up making a lot of forgettable genre films and television shows until as of late when he landed significant roles in high profile projects like Lost and Planet Terror (2007). It’s good to see this underrated actor enjoying a resurgence of sorts.

To say that The African Queen had a checked production history is a massive understatement. Most of the film was shot in Uganda and the Belgian Congo. Producer Sam Spiegel mortgaged his home in London and borrowed the rest while Huston made him sweat right up to the moment of filming with his indecisive nature. Spiegel put the film’s stars Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart (along with his wife Lauren Bacall) in an expensive hotel with no way to pay their bills. The cast and crew flew to their first location only to find out that the rains had come, which delayed filming. Instead of preparing for the project, Huston got the urge to shoot an elephant and took off on safari. The river that the director decided to shoot the film on was infected with bilharzias, a parasitic disease, Spiegel was bitten by a tarantula and almost died, while Hepburn drank only water and was stricken with dysentery. Peter Viertel, a novelist and screenwriter, had been hired to work on James Agee’s screenplay. He witnessed, first hand, Huston’s behavior and two years later published a little-read novel that fictionalized what had gone down. Incredibly, Huston actually liked Viertel’s book, signed off on it and even recommended a more tragic ending.

Over the years, the rights to the novel passed from producer to producer with Burt Lancaster showing interest at one point. Several screenplays based on the story were commissioned but it wasn’t until Eastwood was given a copy of the novel by veteran film producer Ray Stark that there was an actual possibility it would get made into a film. He read it on the way back from Italy where he had been promoting the Charlie Parker biopic Bird (1988). In the past, filmmakers had stayed away from the project because Huston was still alive, the lead character wasn’t very likeable and it didn’t have a happy ending. This didn’t seem to bother Eastwood who used his clout with Warner Brothers to get it made. He was drawn to the story because he liked Huston’s attitude and his speeches about taking chances, not being afraid to try something different, and not caring what the audience thought. He also had an understanding of the Wilson character. “Now, I’ve never felt I wanted to kill wildlife,” Eastwood said in an interview with The Guardian, “or anything like that, but I think there’s a bit of him in my nature … You want to break out of what you’re doing and live differently sometimes. It’s something you have to prove to yourself.”

Early on in development, Eastwood restored the book’s unhappy ending because he felt that it was more faithful to the source material. Originally, he looked at shooting White Hunter, Black Heart in Kenya but the authorities there wanted input on the script and he had heard that there was real demand for bribes in order to do business. Zimbabwe was much more filmmaking friendly with the government being very accommodating to the production and so most of the film was shot there.

White Hunter, Black Heart divided mainstream critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “In the early scenes of White Hunter, Black Heart, Eastwood fans are likely to be distracted to hear Huston's words and vocal mannerisms in Eastwood's mouth, and to see Huston's swagger and physical bravado. Then the performance takes over, and the movie turns into one of the more thoughtful films ever made about the conflicts inside an artist.” Time magazine’s Richard Schickel praised Eastwood’s performance: “Eastwood has dared to attempt a faithful impression of the director, his growling drawl, his loose-limbed stride, the arrogant tilt of his head. The result is a stretch for him as an actor, and fun for the audience.” In his review for the Globe and Mail, Jay Scott wrote, “White Hunter, Black Heart is a beautifully made elaboration of a thesis that has thankfully lost its antithesis to time.”

However, in her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “And none of it works as fully as Mr. Eastwood obviously wants it to, as a consequence of the sheer sweep and colorfulness of the man being portrayed. But even in this relatively stiff, sometimes awkward form, the John Wilson character is as compelling as Mr. Eastwood's desire to play him.” Entertainment Weekly gave it a “C+” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “In the end, though, White Hunter, Black Heart emerges as little more than a plodding shadow of the great film it could have been. An actor making a stretch is one thing. As Huston, Eastwood is so out of his depth he seems to have lost his entertainer's instinct, not to mention his modesty.” The Toronto Star’s Peter Goddard found fault with Eastwood’s performance but not Jeff Fahey’s: “It is Fahey's Verrill who has the power of self-absorption that Eastwood's paper-thin Wilson lacks. Any question about Eastwood's insecurities should probably stop with this film because – as its director – he's given Fahey, a vividly handsome actor, every chance he can to steal scenes. And Fahey, aware of what he's been given, does just that.” USA Today gave the film two-and-a-half out of four stars and Mike Clark wrote, “Yet despite one of Eastwood's more respectable directing jobs, we never sense the method to his madness – or even if it is madness. Nor can Jeff Fahey lick his own character's novelistic origins: the first-person narrator (and Trader script doctor) who by himself isn't too compelling.” Finally, the Washington Post’s Rita Kempley felt that, “White Hunter, Black Heart is not about the making of The African Queen. It's Mondo Machismo, Hollywood on safari, a self-aggrandizing epic reeking of man scent.”

In the end, Wilson realizes that he’s not the rugged protagonist from one of his films but a film director who is sabotaging his own motion picture with this foolhardy quest. He finally acknowledges that nothing good can come of his obsession and that he must make a decision – continue to pursue it despite the consequences or let it go and focus on things that really matter. Unfortunately, he learns this at a painful cost and Eastwood doesn’t let Wilson off easy. His obsession has terrible consequences and the shameful expression on his face at the end of White Hunter, Black Heart suggests that it is something that will haunt him and that he will have to live with for the rest of his days.

Also, check out Joe Valdez's excellent look at this film over at his blog, This Distracted Globe.

Friday, December 16, 2011


With Ghost World (2001) and Sin City (2005), comic book creators have been taking a more active role in the cinematic adaptations of their work. Following in the footsteps of people like Daniel Clowes and Frank Miller, comic book legends Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean became filmmakers. They both rose to prominence in the comic book medium collaborating on numerous graphic novels, including the popular and critically acclaimed Sandman series. With Gaiman’s impressive storytelling ability and McKean’s dazzling eye for design, a film of some sort wasn’t completely unheard of – it makes sense that they would do this as McKean’s artwork has always been very multimedia oriented, mixing photography with drawing and painting. He continued this approach with Mirrormask (2005) while also adding in CGI animation and music into the mix.

Helena (Stephanie Leonidas) is a young girl whose parents own and operate a circus. Normally, it is a kid’s dream to run away and join the circus but the fun and novelty of it wears off if you’ve grown up with it your entire life. Her father (Rob Brydon) keeps it running on “charm and peanuts,” but she doesn’t share his dream. In fact, it is the fantasy world she wants to escape for a more real one. Helena is a typically petulant teenager rebelling against her parents. Her mother (Gina McKee) is in need of a potentially life-threatening operation and has been hospitalized just as the circus begins to collapse in on itself financially. Helena is an aspiring artist with all kinds of illustrations wallpapering her bedroom (it’s like McKean’s portfolio exploded in there) and she has the most bizarre, surreal dreams.

It is during one of these dreams that she enters a strange world resembling an oil painting where eyeballs sprout spider legs and books can be opened and used to float through this dream world. It’s a place where everyone wears a mask and Helena’s circus skills become quite useful. She learns that a dark shadow is falling over the land, threatening to engulf it. The City of Light is in danger of being eclipsed by the Land of Shadows and the White Queen (McKee again) is asleep, unable to wake. Helena must find the Mirrormask if she hopes to defeat the Black Queen (also McKee) and wake the White one. This fantastical dream world and the conflict it is embroiled in is obviously Helena’s way of dealing with her real life trials and tribulations. Solving the problems in one world mirror the problems faced in the other.

The young Stephanie Leonidas does an excellent job as the audience surrogate in this strange cinematic world. She has to gain our trust and empathy in the real one so that we’re willing to follow her into the elaborately designed dream world. She is the cinematic equivalent of Little Nemo and we are invited to tag along for the ride through her Slumberland. There is also a lovely short-hand between Helena and her folks that is believable and endears us to these characters.

Mirrormask reminds me of when I saw a travelling circus as a child with its acrobats, illusionists, jugglers, clowns, and various performers. It’s a dying art form that runs the risk of becoming extinct what with so many other forms of entertainment vying for our attention these days. The early scenes in the film have a handmade feel to them and this is contrasted by the CGI landscapes of the fantasy world later on. Helena lives in a drab, colorless concrete apartment building, which is juxtaposed with the rich colors of the circus and fantasy world. There are all kinds of gorgeous shots, like a long one of the outside of the circus big top bathed in red light with nearby vehicles and trailers illuminated in gold all reflected on the water, which makes the film so fascinating to watch. McKean also shows a keen eye for composition of frame, like the shot of Helena and her father talking on the balcony of their apartment with the ocean visible to the right.

In 1999, the Jim Henson Company was studying the figures of their DVD sales for the library of their films. They noticed that their fantasy films The Dark Crystal (1982) and Labyrinth (1986) sold very well with little to no promotion. They figured that there was a decent-sized audience for these kinds of films and looked into making a prequel to The Dark Crystal or a sequel to Labyrinth but in the end decided to create something else in the spirit of these films. Executive producer Michael Polis pitched this project to Sony Pictures and out of that came The Curse of the Goblin Kingdom, which originated from conversations with artist Brian Froud, the conceptual designer of both The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth.

Lisa Henson, CEO of the Jim Henson Company, was trying to get another Dark Crystal film going and Polis approached her with his project. She agreed to work with him on it. She was friends with writer Neil Gaiman and they were planning a film version of his television series Neverwhere when she contacted him in 2001 with the idea of making a fantasy film in the vein of The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. She asked him if artist and regular collaborator Dave McKean was interested in directing and if so would Gaiman be willing to write the story. He sent Henson a copy of a short film that McKean had made and she was impressed with the visuals and that he had made it so cheaply.

Polis considered teaming McKean up with Froud but soon realized that for the sake of coherence there could only be one particular style for the film and sided with McKean because he was going to direct. Henson and Polis then pitched Mirrormask to Sony who greenlit the film with a $4 million budget in 2003. Although, Gaiman and McKean worked for almost no salary, they were given complete creative freedom. The two men lived in different countries on different continents and ended up meeting at Henson’s house in London, England where they spent ten days creating a general story outline. It was felt that this environment was more conducive to creativity then a sterile hotel room. Gaiman wrote the script based on McKean’s specifications in 2002. For example, Gaiman came up with the idea of a girl who was part of a traveling theater and her mother got sick while McKean changed the theater to a circus (more interesting visually) and came up with the masks and the two mothers. Filming of the live-action footage took place in Brighton, England in June and July of 2003.

McKean wanted Mirrormask to have “a painterly, illustrative feel to it.” To this end, he had a very “loose working” relationship with 15 computer animators, many fresh from college, allowing for improvisation. There was never a worry that the film wouldn’t fit together because it was all based on his imagery. For example, when he designed the film’s creatures, he made them quite simple in order to give the animators a lot of room to work with. However, this approach extended the post-production phase, which was originally budgeted for approximately eight months, to 17 months.

Mirrormask was originally set for a direct-to-DVD release but it was accepted in the 2005 Sundance Film Festival and this convinced Sony to give it a limited theatrical release in the United States. The film received mostly mixed to negative reviews from mainstream critics. Roger Ebert gave the film two out of four stars and wrote, “I suspected the filmmakers began with a lot of ideas about how the movie should look, but without a clue about pacing, plotting or destination.” In his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden called it, “an example of too much lavished on too little. Because there is often more on the screen than the eye can take in, the originality of its visual imagination is compromised.” The Washington Post’s Desson Thomson felt it was “so single-minded in its reach for fantasy, it becomes the genre's evil opposite: banality.” The Village Voice’s Michael Atkinson wrote, “The measure of conviction needed to make and read comic books is all that's brought to bear, and the result might make good dope software, if you can sit still and stay awake.” However, Entertainment Weekly gave the film an “A-“ rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum called it a “dazzling reverie of a kids-and-adults movie, an unusual collaboration between lord-of-the-cult multimedia artist Dave McKean and king-of-the-comics Neil Gaiman (The Sandman), has something to astonish everyone.” In his review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Walter Addiego called it, “richly inventive.”

Naturally, Helena’s surreal dream world is where Mirrormask comes to life with one stunning visual set piece after another. As you would expect from a Gaiman/McKean production, it is very visual and rather non-linear in nature with a light façade but underneath lurks a darkness that is the hallmark of their collaborations. Every frame looks like a work of art, like one of McKean’s paintings come to life. There is so much to look at (like a landscape filled with red, spiral staircases) and it is a densely visual film much like a waking dream. Even though, at times, you may not know what is going on exactly, you trust that Gaiman’s storytelling abilities and McKean’s visuals are going somewhere. After recently watching Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009), I think it would make a fantastic double bill with Mirrormask as both films deal with vagabond performers traveling through England and how the real world becomes intertwined with a fantasy realm, each one feeding off the other.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

DVD of the Week: 12 Angry Men: Criterion Collection

Adapted from the 1954 teleplay of the same name, 12 Angry Men (1957) marked the auspicious feature film debut of director Sidney Lumet who had cut his teeth on live television in New York City. He brought a gritty, edgy realism to this film, an approach that flew in the face of traditional, more polished Hollywood cinema. With the exception of Henry Fonda, Lumet eschewed movie star casting in favor of actors with a background in New York stage and T.V. work, like E.G. Marshall, Lee J. Cobb, and Jack Warden. The film’s legacy has endured and been felt for decades and without it there would be shows like Law & Order or John Grisham novels. While 12 Angry Men was well-received by critics at the time, it certainly didn’t set the box office on fire but over the years its reputation has grown and is now regarded as a classic.

Lumet begins the film with a solemn opening shot of the impressive pillars of the hall of justice in New York City. In a court room, a Puerto Rican teenager has been charged with murdering his father. If the 12-man jury can find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, then he could be given the death penalty as is the case with first-degree murder. And so, the rest of the film plays out in a small room on “the hottest day of the year,” with no air-conditioning as these men must decide the fate of another.

Before they get started, the men engage in idle chit-chat – getting to know you stuff as their various personalities begin to emerge. During a preliminary vote, everyone says the kid is guilty except for one man (Henry Fonda) who doesn’t want to condemn him to death until they talk about it. As he points out, suppose they’re wrong. Each man says why they think the teenager is guilty and some range from flimsy (“I just think he’s guilty.”) to logical (E.G. Marshall) to opinionated (Lee J. Cobb) but no one can convince the dissenting juror who makes some pretty good points. The juror isn’t saying that the boy is guilty, just that he’s not sure that he did it. The longer they stay sequestered in that hot room, the more tempers flare up as their prejudices come to bear and the dissenting juror begins to garner support with his rational dissection of the evidence and the testimony from the case.

As the film progresses, this impressive cast of actors really impress as they bounce off each other in the small room, from the quiet, reserved juror played by Jack Klugman to the bluster of the juror played by Lee J. Cobb to the unwavering decency of the juror played by Henry Fonda. Lumet is able to keep our interest in the story that unfolds by maintaining the focus on his brilliant cast. He doesn’t try to get fancy with the camerawork or manipulate us with music. He lets the actors do their thing with the first-rate screenplay by Reginald Rose that results in a film that epitomizes the phrase, “hard-hitting drama.” 12 Angry Men is a powerful statement about the American judicial system – one that hasn’t changed much since this film was made except maybe it’s gotten worse – and how personal views and prejudices can influence a jury.

Special Features:

The first disc starts off with “The Television Version” that was directed by Franklin J. Schaffner and which first aired on September 1954 for the series Westinghouse Presents Studio One. It obviously doesn’t feature the star-studded cast of the film but is a pretty solid adaptation in its own right. Ron Simon, curator at the Paley Center for Media in New York City, introduces it and puts the program into context, talks about the director, cast and so on. He points out that it was experiment to see if theater could work on T.V.

12 Angry Men: From TV to The Big Screen” features film scholar Vance Kepley talking about how it went from a teleplay to film. Rather fittingly, he briefly gives the origins of 12 Angry Men and its numerous adaptations over the years. He talks about the challenges of working in live T.V.

Also included is a trailer.

The second disc includes “Lumet on Lumet,” a collection of archival interviews with the director who talks about his long career. He talks about getting into show business as a kid. He also discusses his work ethic and how he applied it to his films. Lumet also shares some of his interesting life experiences.

“Reflections on Sidney” features friend and collaborator Walter Bernstein sharing some of his observations of Lumet, like how he enjoyed working with actors. Bernstein also talks about how they became friends and tells some good stories.

Ron Simon returns to talk about the importance of writer Reginald Rose who wrote 12 Angry Men. He points that among the great early T.V. writers Rose is the least known and explains the reasons why.

Also included is Tragedy in a Temporary Town, a teleplay written by Rose and directed by Lumet. It aired in 1956 and features a few of the actors who would go on to appear in the film version of 12 Angry Men.

Finally, cinematographer John Bailey talks about fellow cinematographer Boris Kaufman’s visual style and work with Lumet. He gives a brief biographical sketch of the man. Bailey talks about Kaufman’s early, groundbreaking work with French filmmaker Jean Vigo. He also examines Kaufman’s work on 12 Angry Men.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Grace of My Heart

Grace of My Heart (1996) is Allison Anders’ unabashed love letter to three decades of popular music, from the doo-wop era of the late 1950’s, to the rise of girl groups in the 1960’s to the psychedelic era of the 1970’s, all seen through the eyes of a female songwriter cast in the mould of Carole King, among others. Anders’ passion project finally gave a substantial role to character actress Illeana Douglas who, finally freed from the shackles of numerous supporting character roles over the years, delivers a career-defining performance. Despite the pedigree of having Martin Scorsese as executive producer and the likes of John Turturro and Matt Dillon in supporting roles, Grace of My Heart was not a commercial hit, and was quickly eclipsed by another nostalgic look at popular music from the ‘60s that came out the same year – Tom Hanks’ That Thing You Do! (1996), which, incidentally, wasn’t a huge hit either but had much more advertising muscle behind it. For all of its flaws, which include a weak third act, Grace of My Heart is a fascinating look at a time when the craft of writing a good song mattered. It is a film that deserves to be rediscovered.

Edna Buxton (Illeana Douglas) comes from a wealthy suburban Philadelphia family whose mother has her life all figured out – marry a man from another wealthy family and live the rest of her life as an obedient housewife. Let’s not forget that the film begins in 1958 where this was the prevailing attitude. However, a chance encounter with a talented singer by the name of Doris Shelley (Jennifer Leigh Warren) backstage at a local talent contest inspires her to pick a different path in life for herself, one that is not planned by her controlling mother. Edna wins the contest, receives a recording contract and moves to New York City to make it as a singer.

However, Edna finds out that there are all kinds of women who sound just like her and sing the same kinds of songs. A kindly yet condescending engineer (Richard Schiff) tells her that guy groups are where it’s at. Her life changes when she meets Joel Milner (John Turturro), a brilliant record producer who convinces Edna to write songs for others. She figures that this will do until she can record her own material. He also changes her decidedly unglamorous name to the catchier Denise Waverly. They work out of the legendary Brill Building, the headquarters for pop-music during the ’50s and ‘60s and which saw the likes of Burt Bacharach, Neil Diamond, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Phil Spector and many others write some of the biggest hits at the time.

With Denise’s insistence, Joel records one her songs with a girl group known as the Stylettes and it is a hit, bucking the prevailing trend of popular guy groups. Joel then pairs her up with Howard Caszatt (Eric Stoltz), a Beatnik poseur who injects social issues into the songs he writes with her. I like that Anders shows Denise and Howard writing a song together and we see them coming up with ideas for lyrics and melodies. They soon become romantically involved and get married after she becomes pregnant. After she has the baby, Denise continues to work, quite unusual for the times, but it becomes obvious that she has a real knack for creating hit songs while Howard appears to be holding her back. This causes tension in their personal lives and it’s not long before she catches him in bed with another woman.

The next man in Denise’s life is popular radio disc jockey John Murray (Bruce Davison) who becomes smitten with her and uses his show to promote a controversial song she wrote. He’s a nice enough guy and seems like the one she should be with instead of the pretentious Howard; it’s just too bad that he’s married. During the course of the film, Anders also shows the rivalry between fellow female songwriters, like when Joel brings Cheryl Steed (Patsy Kensit) in to write hit songs and Denise immediately sees her as direct competition. Cheryl even gets a better office then Denise who has been there longer. Cheryl quickly becomes Joel’s new favorite songwriter, much to Denise’s dismay but she puts on a brave face in public.

Joel then decides to team her up with Cheryl as an experiment and the two women are instructed to write a song for bubblegum pop singer Kelly Porter (Bridget Fonda channeling Leslie Gore). Initially, they don’t know what to write about but after being privy to a secret part of Kelly’s personal life they figure it out. Cheryl and Denise bond over the Porter song, become close friends, and generate a hit. After years of writing songs for other people, Joel reminds Denise that she started working for him to create her own music and sets her up with Jay Phillips (Matt Dillon), a brilliant yet temperamental musician from the West Coast, to produce her single. It is at this point that Grace of My Heart shifts from songwriters working in the Brill Building to the experimental West Coast psychedelic scene and some momentum is lost. It may be that Jay and his world is just not as fascinating as Joel and his. It also doesn’t help that John Turturro’s performance is so strong and memorable, while Matt Dillon seems miscast as the mercurial Brian Wilson-esque Jay.

Illeana Douglas is an unconventional choice to play Denise. Her speaking voice doesn’t really match up with the person cast as her singing voice (the fantastic sounding Kristen Vigard) but it is refreshing to see someone who doesn’t look or act like your traditional A-list movie star and it would only happen in an independent film like this one. Douglas makes it work, using her considerable talents to show the different sides of her character – her doubts, fears and aspirations – while also running through the spectrum of emotions. There are scenes where she breaks down completely, is romantic, funny, and really digs deep within herself to fully inhabit Denise. The veteran actress shows a vulnerability that is fascinating to watch, especially the scene where she records her first single, the soulful and soaring “God Give Me Strength” (written by Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello no less!). This is a criminally underrated performance that should’ve won her every acting award the year it came out.

John Turturro, with his black suit, goatee and sunglasses, plays a nicer, more neurotic version of Phil Spector, the legendary record producer and pioneer of the Wall of Sound production technique, mixed with Don Kirshner, a rock producer who gave Neil Diamond and Carole King their starts. Of all the men that pass in and out of Denise’s life, he is a consistent presence and the voice of reason, constantly reminding her about her considerable talent while never candy-coating his opinions on her music or her life. He plays a flashy personality and one of the film’s pleasures is watching how he plays off of Douglas. There is a wonderful scene between them where Denise apologizes for her first single leading to Joel’s financial ruin but he dismisses that notion, reminding her that she wrote his first hit and many after as well as inspiring him to take chances he would have never done otherwise. It a touching moment between the two characters – one in which we see Joel let his guard down for moment and in doing so it reveals a lot about him. It is so rare that Turturro plays nice, decent guys and so it is a real treat to see him refreshingly cast against type in this film.

In 1994, Allison Anders was gearing up to direct Paul Is Dead from an autobiographical screenplay with Hugh Grant lined up to star. Then, a month before the start of filming, the actor pulled out and with it the financing, which was contingent on his participation. Understandably upset, Anders was woman without a film. In stepped Martin Scorsese who had written a fan letter to Anders after seeing Gas Food Lodging (1992). He was eager to team up his then girlfriend and actress Illeana Douglas with Anders for a film that he would produce. After making Cape Fear (1991), Douglas had acted in but was ultimately cut out of a string of impressive films: Jungle Fever (1991), Husbands and Wives (1992), and Quiz Show (1994). Feeling depressed as a result of these snubs, she talked to Scorsese who recommended she start developing relationships with directors. Douglas went on to make a low-budget film called Grief (1993) and went to the Sundance Film Festival with it. There, she met Anders and they became friends. Afterwards, the two women kept in contact in the hopes of making a film together.

Initially, they wanted to do a biopic about American poet Anne Sexton but couldn’t get the film rights to her life. They were both obsessed with music, in particular Anders with girl groups from the ‘60s. Douglas told her about how she used to work in the Brill Building as an assistant for infamous New York publicist Peggy Segal and that maybe they should do a film about it. As a result, Anders wrote the role of Edna/Denise specifically for Douglas. When it came to writing the screenplay, both women put a lot of personal details into it. For example, Denise’s relationship with Jay was reminiscent of Douglas and Scorsese. When Anders thought of Douglas for the film, she was looking for an actress to “embody all sorts of contradictions. I have to find the right woman to speak to other women.” However, the actress was worried about how women would react to Denise’s habit of getting involved with men who aren’t good for and tended to sidetrack her dream of recording her own album, “because women don’t want to think Edna would let a guy interrupt a career. But that’s the big secret: Women always think that being loved is much more important than being talented.”

The script originally started as the story of one singer/songwriter but then Anders and Douglas started to add aspects of others: Joni Mitchell, Phil Spector and the Beach Boys. Legendary songwriter Gerry Goffin, who was married to Carole King at one time, was brought into write three songs for the film (including one with his daughter and recording artist Louise Goffin) and also gave Anders a lot of autobiographical information, which she incorporated into the script. Instead of using actual songs that came from the time period, Anders decided to have new songs that sounded like they came from that era because “it would have been very confusing to have these fictional characters writing songs that were already well-known to the public.” Originally, Douglas expected to do her own singing, having started out doing musicals, but the studio wanted to make a lucrative record deal and she had to lip-synch to Kirsten Vigard’s voice.

Grace of My Heart is a treasure trove of hidden gems for music fans who are hip to the music and the musicians of the eras it depicts. For example, towards the end of the film Denise uses her skill for crafting pop songs towards creating very personal ballads, much like Carole King did with her top selling record Tapestry, which inspired some of the songs. In her previous films, Anders used alternative rock (Gas Food Lodging) and hip-hop (Mi Vida Loca) as the soundtrack for stories about young women. While Grace of My Heart is about music from a bygone era, she had contemporary indie rockers team up with seasoned veterans. Gerry Goffin, the inspiration for Howard Caszatt, wrote a song with Los Lobos. Brill Building veteran Carole Bayer Sayer teamed up with Eurythmics guitarist Dave Stewart on a song. Easily the best collaboration on the film’s soundtrack saw Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach pen the signature song “God Give Me Strength,” which went on to become more successful than the film itself.

Grace of My Heart was made on a small budget and there wasn’t much money to advertise it. The film opened in only 39 theaters in North America and failed to make back its $5 million budget. To make matters worse, it was quickly overshadowed by Tom Hanks’ That Thing You Do!, which came out shortly after. It received mostly mixed reviews with critics praising the time spent on the Brill Building era but criticizing the last third where Denise moves out to the West Coast to be with Jay. Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Once Grace of My Heart leaves the Brill Building, the movie gets stranded in a parade of '60s clichés. It turns into the most banal of melodramas, complete with a ''tragic'' finale that plays as borderline kitsch. Still, there's no denying Anders' talent. She should have been content to make a catchy single and not stretched it into an overblown rock opera.” The Globe and Mail’s Rick Groen gave the film two-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote, “In its embracing of easy melodrama, of the wronged woman who endures and then prevails, Grace Of My Heart hopes to emulate the elegant simplicity of the pop music it celebrates. But that combination, as potent as it is rare, is hard to bring off – like her hired melody-makers, Anders gets the simplicity yet misses the elegance. All the trite notes are there, but none of the redeeming grace.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Ms. Anders, who displayed such effortless, down-to-earth feminism in Gas Food Lodging, has to strain harder to make a heroine out of Denise. Ms. Douglas plays her eagerly, but the film casts her as an old-fashioned victim in many clichéd ways … This story offers so little novelty that the film's musical score and great retro costumes easily upstage its drama.”

The San Francisco Chronicle’s Edward Guthman wrote, “Anders is very good to her actors and writes smart, well-rounded characters. Her problem is loving them too much, embracing them too tightly and not knowing when to let go.” Roger Ebert gave the film two-and-a-half stars out four and wrote, “I would have preferred a more limited story that went deeper, instead of a docudrama that covers so much ground, so relentlessly, that we grow weary.” The Washington Post’s Richard Harrington wrote, “One major problem is that Grace of My Heart feels like a preview reel from some upcoming miniseries. Despite its two hours, events seem to unfold too quickly and in too little depth. Anders never really captures the communal bustle, competitive friendships or astounding productivity of the Brill Building's golden age.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Jack Mathews wrote, “Grace marvelously re-creates that atmosphere of sweatshop creativity, both the pressure and the joy, and Douglas' portrayal of a woman fighting for her own identity and a piece of the action gives the story a solid emotional footing.” USA Today gave the film three out of four stars and Susan Wloszczyna wrote, “Allison Anders (Gas Food Lodging) infuses her epic with joy and a keen eye for pre-feminist details, before the pill and pantyhose set us free.”

Ultimately, Grace of My Heart is the story of a survivor. Denise endures all kinds of ups and downs in her personal and professional life with music as the constant thread that runs throughout. It is always there for her whereas the men in her life come and go. Her personal journey propels the film and when it hits a lull this mirrors the lull in her life until someone like Joel comes along and gets her going and the film’s narrative starts up again. By the end of the film you really feel like you’ve been on a journey with this character. Denise channels all of her life experiences into her music and so it makes sense that the film climaxes with her finally recording and releasing the full-length album she had always wanted to do. It is rare when you see a film that is such a labor of love as this one. Anders and Douglas poured so much of themselves into this project and it shows. Grace of My Heart may strain at times under its own ambition but one has to admire its desire to do so in a day and age where so many films and filmmakers play it safe.

Friday, December 2, 2011

DVD of the Week: Three Colors: Blue, White, Red: Criterion Collection

With the unfortunate passing of filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski, cinema lost a great storyteller but he left behind an enduring legacy, most significantly Three Colors, a trilogy of films named after the colors of the French flag: Blue (1993), White (1993), and Red (1994). Each film explores the ideas that came out of the French Revolution: liberty, equality and fraternity. Kieslowski was not concerned about them as political concepts but rather how they pertained to the protagonists of all three films. Incredibly, he wrote, shot and edited them all in under three years and they were released at the prestigious film festivals in Venice, Berlin and Cannes to much critical acclaim. Previously released in a box set by Miramax, the Criterion Collection has produced their own edition with newly remastered transfers of each film and several new extras, giving Kieslowski’s films their trademark deluxe treatment.

When her husband and daughter are killed in an automobile accident, which she survives, Julie (Juliette Binoche) is understandably devastated. She shuts herself off emotionally, never wanting to feel anything again after such a traumatic experience. In the opening scenes of Blue, actress Juliette Binoche displays an incredible range of emotions as her character tries to comprehend her world, which has been shattered. She ends up suppressing raw emotion with detachment.

Over the course of Blue, Julie experiences a series of epiphanies as symbolized by bursts of the color blue and a loud swell of classical music, which acts as an emotional Greek chorus. Music is her voice, channeling the emotion she keeps in check most of the time. As the film progresses, she finds a way to free herself from her past and from the revelations about her husband’s life. She puts herself through a series of exercises to test her feelings – is she ready to face the world without emotion? Julie has shut herself off from the world but eventually learns how to become a part of it again. Kieslowski draws us into this world so that we become invested in its inhabitants, in particular, Julie who endures unimaginable tragedy and must find a way to continue.

If Blue is ostensibly a tragedy, then White is a darkly comic revenge story. Karol Karol (Zhigniew Zamachowski) is a Polish hairdresser who lives with his beautiful young bride Dominique (Julie Delpy) in Paris but she divorces him early on in the film for failing to consummate their marriage. She takes him to court and coldly tells him that she doesn’t love him anymore. Karol soon finds out that his bank account has been frozen and he becomes homeless, which leaves him wondering if he has the strength to go on. Dominique has completely destroyed him and so he goes back to his native Poland where he rebuilds his life and plans an elaborate revenge plot.

Actor Zhigniew Zamachowski has an incredibly expressive face that he uses to make Karol instantly sympathetic but it isn’t too hard after all the horrible things Dominique does to him. Your heart really goes out to Karol just as Julie Delpy’s cold, cruel character really makes you hate her and hope that she gets her well-deserved comeuppance, but as with Kieslowski’s films, it’s never that simple and the ending is surprisingly hopeful.

The first third of White is utterly heartbreaking as poor Karol deals with one soul-crushing injustice after another. In the second third, he rebuilds his life in Warsaw in an inspirational turn of events as he is employed as a bodyguard for a local criminal while cutting hair for his brother on the side. Karol is a quiet, unassuming guy. As a result, people, like his wife and the local crooks, underestimate him. They don’t realize just how clever he is and this is used to his advantage. Finally, the last third of the film is Karol’s payback on those who wronged him. In White, the traditional roles are reversed as Karol is the ingénue while Dominique is led by her sexual drive. Over the course of the film, we see him reassert his own identity while refusing to lose his optimism or romantic nature.

Red concludes the Three Colors trilogy with a moving examination of the notions of fate and chance as a beautiful runway model named Valentine (Irene Jacob) crosses paths with Joseph (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a bitter retired judge, when she accidentally hits his dog with her car. She lives in Geneva and maintains a long distance relationship with her irrationally jealous boyfriend over the phone. There is also subplot concerning a young man studying to be a judge and who is also having relationship problems.

Joseph spends his time eavesdropping on his neighbors’ phone calls, an odd hobby for a retired judge. Valentine is struck by his honesty and fascinated with his outlook on life, shaped by years of his profession. Now, he is a voyeur, listening to other people’s conversations while he has no life of his own. She believes that people are basically good while he believes the opposite, which was no doubt cultivated over years of seeing the worst of humanity paraded in front of him. Valentine inspires Joseph to reconnect with humanity while he inspires her to be more independent and proactive in her relationships.

Initially, Valentine comes across as a ditzy model with no common sense (especially in regards to the dog) but Irene Jacob’s soulful performance suggests that there is more to her character and this becomes apparent over the course of the film. Like Julie in Blue, Joseph is emotionally disconnected from others and seems not to care about Valentine hitting his dog with her car. Jean-Louis Trintignant is excellent as the jaded ex-judge and it is fascinating to watch his character go from an indifferent observer to someone that can reconnect with the rest of humanity. Trintignant has wonderful chemistry with Jacob and it is fascinating to see the relationship develop between their characters during the course of the film. With Red, Kieslowski reminds us of the importance of being connected with others and with humanity. By that extension, the entire trilogy is an epic treatise on the strengths and weaknesses of humanity.

Special Features:

Those of you who own the Miramax box set might want to hold onto it as not all of the extras have been carried over to the Criterion Collection edition. For example, the audio commentaries film scholar Annette Insdorf did for each film have not been included. Also omitted are the selected scene commentaries that actresses Julie Delpy and Irene Jacob did for White and Red respectively. While some of Kieslowski’s student films have been included on this new set, Concert of Wishes, Trolley, and The Office have been omitted. Completists will want to hold onto the Miramax edition.

New to this set is “On Blue,” a video essay by film studies professor Annette Insdorf where she gives a brief background to the Three Colors trilogy before examining the themes explored in Blue. She also analyzes the film’s striking style as well as the moving classical score.

“Kieslowski’s Cinema Lesson” sees the filmmaker discussing a specific scene from Blue and the importance of close-ups in the film.

Also included is a selected scenes commentary by actress Juliette Binoche. She talks about meeting Kieslowski for the first time and how they talked about philosophy. She turned down a role in Jurassic Park (1993) to do Blue. The actress gives her impression of the director and what it was like to work with him.

There is a new interview with composer Zbigniew Preisner. He had worked with Kieslowski on several films, including the Three Colors trilogy. By the time they did Blue together the two men had a very familiar shorthand and knew what the wanted. Preisner recalls first working with Kieslowski and talks about his working methods.

“Reflections on Blue” takes a retrospective look at the film with critics and historians talking about the production and offering analysis. They point out that Kieslowski avoided making an overt political statement with these films by focusing on the personal: the tragic life of a woman. The film’s cinematographer, editor and Binoche also offer their thoughts on the film.

Another new extra is “On White,” a video essay by film scholar Tony Rayns. He provides backstory to the film. It was the first film Kieslowski had made since The Decalogue (1989). Rayns also provides details on the socio-political conditions in Poland at the time. In White, Kieslowski confronted the changes to the country since the fall of Communism.

“Kieslowski’s Cinema Lesson” features the director’s views and he talks about the opening scene of the film. He also explains why he included shots of the suitcase and how it ties in with the opening scenes of the other two films.

There are new interviews with actors Zbigniew Zamachowski and Julie Delpy. They talk about how they met Kieslowski and were cast in White. They both talk about working with the director and how he was very exact in his methods with no improvisation.

Another new extra is an interview with co-writer Krzystof Piesiewicz where he talks about working with Kieslowski. They first met in 1982 and Piesiewicz noticed that the director was lost in life having gone through some personal ordeals. They became friends and worked together over 15 years on 17 films.

“The Making of White” features some excellent behind the scenes footage of Kieslowski making the film in Poland. He describes White as a “lyrical comedy” and also a “sad comedy.”

Yet another new extra is “On Red,” a video essay by film critic Dennis Lim. He discusses the film’s themes, chief among them the notion of isolation. He also analyzes Red’s style, in particular, the use of color.

“Kieslowski’s Cinema Lesson” features the director discussing a scene with Valentine and the dog she accidentally hit with her car. He says that it is the film’s first critical moment. The ever eloquent director explains his intentions with this scene and why it was shot the way it was.

There is a new interview with actress Irene Jacob and she talks about her experiences working with Kieslowski on Red. She also discusses her first meeting with him and how that led to her being cast in The Double Life of Veronique (1991). Jacob talks about working with her Red co-star Jean-Louis Trintignant and comes across as a smart and engaging person.

Producer Marin Karmitz talks about the making of Red and tells a story about an elaborate shot that was achieved and the difficult logistics involved. He also recounts a story of how the film received three Academy Award nominations as an American film!

Editor Jacques Witta talks about why certain scenes in Red were cut and his impressions of working with Kieslowski. There are excerpts of this footage which are quite interesting but one can see why they were removed.

“Kieslowski Cannes 1994” is a short documentary about Red’s world premiere at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival where the director famously announced his retirement. There are interviews with the two lead actors who came to the festival to help promote the film. This is a nice snapshot of Red’s debut.

“Kieslowski: The Early Years” takes a look at the director’s early life with interview soundbites from film scholars and collaborators. He moved around a lot as a child and didn’t dream of being a filmmaker but rather fell into it. This featurette provides insight into what motivated Kieslowski to become a filmmaker and how it shaped his later films.

Also included are two student films, The Tram (1966), about a boy flirting with a pretty girl, and The Face (1966), where he played a tormented artist.

There are two short documentaries, Seven Women of Different Ages (1978), which looks at several ballet dancers, each one on a different day of the week, and Talking Heads (1980), a fascinating film where 40 different people of various ages are asked the three same questions.

Also included are trailers for all three films.

“Behind the Scenes of Red” features footage of Kieslowski directing the film juxtaposed with the actual scene as it appeared in the film. This featurette provides some insight into how he worked.

Finally, a new addition to this set is “Krzysztof Kieslowski: I’m So-So,” a 55-minute documentary made in 1995 shortly after he retired from filmmaking. He talks about his life and films. As always, Kieslowski speaks eloquently and thoughtfully about a variety of topics in this fascinating portrait.