by Raj Ranade
An onslaught of Oscar-grubbing prestige pictures will be hitting theatres soon, but now is a good time to catch up on some of the best of the rest of the year, as well as other gems from the past. Here are some of the highlights that will be new on DVD in November (two other great November DVD releases, “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” and “I’m Still Here”, have been reviewed in full on the Ace Weekly blog).
The Kids are All Right (out on DVD on November 14th): Organic vegetables! Gay marriage! Unconventional family units! A shallow survey of the plot elements of “The Kids are All Right” may suggest a political tract aimed at only the most granola-munching of NPR listeners. But this smart and sexy film from indie auteur Lisa Cholodenko challenges for liberals and conservatives alike – it dives into the uncomfortable, messy human truth that is often forgotten in debates between ideologues.
The film focuses on a lesbian couple (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) who pride themselves on the utter normality of their nontraditional two-child family. Their familial bliss is upset, however, when their children seek out their sperm donor biological father (Mark Ruffalo), an uncouth slacker with terrific charm. This new disarray allows Cholodenko, a lesbian herself, to dive into some bold analysis of this alternative way of life. This is the kind of film that simultaneously shows gay relationships to be as loving, rewarding, and occasionally dysfunctional as straight relationships, while also seriously entertaining the question of whether children might really need a male father.
It’s also the kind of film that floats along with effortless romantic comedy grace thanks to its vibrant cast. Ruffalo and Moore are both tremendously appealing, but the true standout is Bening, as a high-stress alpha-female bent on presenting an ideal image of a gay family to the world, even if it comes at the expense of her family’s actual happiness. Like the film as a whole, Bening maintains a careful balance between humor and drama that is as entertaining as it is illuminating.
“Antichrist” (out on DVD November 9th): Directors like David Fincher and the Coen Brothers tend to be rather shy and reticent about their body of work; Lars von Trier, on the other hand, held a press conference after the loudly booed premiere of his 2009 film “Antichrist” to declare that he was “the greatest director in the world”. Critics disagree on whether Von Trier, the mind behind incendiary and politically-charged films like “Dogville” and “Dancer in the Dark”, should be renowned or reviled for his unique style of art-house provocation, but it’s hard not to respond in some way to the man’s undeniable artistry.
“Antichrist” opens with a scene that has a De Beers commercial visual sheen and a gut-punching emotional shock – a graphic scene of a couple (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) having sex is intercut with their baby’s escape from his crib and his subsequent fall out a window to his death. The wife is quickly thrown into an unstable depression, and when her psychiatrist husband takes her to a remote cabin in the woods hoping to heal her, her demons start manifesting themselves in nature and through frightening sexual behavior. These first sections of the film are tense emotional battles accompanied by gorgeously creepy set design and unnerving jump-cut editing – it seems like a smarter version of your typical horror film.
And then the talking fox shows up. “Chaos reigns”, he says, which pretty accurately describes the mayhem that ensues. Without giving anything away, suffice it to say that things get weird and violence occurs that will make both genders cross their legs and wince. There are things about “Antichrist” that are despicable, not to mention things that are unintentionally hilarious or just flat out idiotic. At the same time, it’s hard to deny the film’s power to really burrow under your skin – silly, stupid, and scary, “Antichrist” has the kind of force that can only be obtained by exploring the freakiest depths of the human soul. (Note: If the film seems to intimidating to tackle on your own, you can catch it on December 1st at the main auditorium of Bluegrass Community and Technical College, where the Bluegrass Film Society will be screening it at 7:30 PM).
“The Night of the Hunter” (out on DVD November 16th): The scariest thing about 1955’s “The Night of the Hunter” isn’t the murderous false prophet at its center – it’s the shadows. Darkness always has an eerie power of course, but in the expressionistic style of director Charles Laughton, the shadows seem to have a life of their own – they twist and mold, contorting as the emotions in the air dictate, heightening rage and amplifying terror.
Laughton’s ominous visuals remain impressive to this day, and combined with a spellbinding portrayal of evil from the great Robert Mitchum, they make for a film that deserves its status as a true cinema classic. “Hunter” tells the story of the “Reverend” Harry Powell, an ex-con seeking the money that his cellmate hid in the home of his wife and children. Powell quickly seduces and marries the man’s wife when he comes to town, but his children aren’t so easily fooled, and they find themselves on the run when the marriage turns suddenly and brutally violent.
As the creepy preacher, Mitchum gives what was probably the best performance of his career. Like most major stars of his era, Mitchum was usually slotted neatly into roles as a traditional leading man, but his screen persona didn’t precisely fit into that role. He was certainly handsome, but there was a roughneck intensity to his manner and a hint of a sinister glint in his eye. His best performances harnessed the ambiguous nature of that kind of presence. As in “The Night of the Hunter”, they didn’t skimp on representing the powerful wave of his charisma, but they also made room to show the dangerous undertow that could come along with it.