Unless you’re jonesing for the new seasons of Kelsey Grammar’s “Boss” and BBC’s “Merlin,” or the stand-up comedy of Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias, it’s undeniably a weak week for home-video headliners. Bill Murray’s FDR impression is more sit-down (and hold the comedy) in the middlebrow, miscalculated crowd-pleaser “Hyde Park on Hudson,” and even the Jet Li action-fantasy spectacle “The Sorcerer and the White Snake” can’t be saved by glossy production design or fizzy CGI effects from becoming a silly, swollen mess. Per usual, you’re better off feeding your eyes and ears on indie and international cuisines:
“In Another Country”
Typically, the films of prolific South Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo (“The Day He Arrives,” “Woman on the Beach,” “Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors”) have certain trademarks, from self-consciously segmented structures and awkward zooms (the latter appearing in most of his films since 2005’s “Tale of Cinema”), to themes of masculine insecurity and inadequacy, and always the sloppy miscommunications and inappropriate admissions that come from getting wasted on soju. So by its very summary—a mostly English-language comedy starring French icon Isabelle Huppert in three separate roles—”In Another Country” is an odd duck in Hong’s career. In a triptych of tales that re-enact the drafts of a female screenwriter (another Hong trope: self-reflexive filmmakers and comparable artists as stand-ins), Huppert’s three Annes are all visiting the coastal resort town Mohong during the low tide off-season. One is a successful director invited on holiday by a married colleague looking to rekindle an old affair, the second a married woman who is having an affair with a secret lover, and the last is a divorcee visiting a friend so as not to be lonely. Petty suspicions, ill-timed lusts and other intimate human weaknesses are delicately explored in the framing of awkwardly droll, lost-in-translation hilarity. If nothing else, this Cannes-vetted jest has a major standout: Yoo Jun-sang, this writer’s favorite Supporting Actor performance last year, as a bumbling, lovestruck lifeguard whose uneasy charm (like Korea’s answer to Adam Driver on “Girls”) gets big laughs in his broken-English deliveries: “I will protect you!”
Even in a technologically progressive era in which digital filmmaking has become dramatically more affordable, features still aren’t cheap to produce, which is why so many low-budget films chop down their number of locations to save on travel, hauling equipment, and the time to takes to shoot their scheduled days. The flip side is that creativity can flourish when such restrictions are put in place, the golden standard of which is Alfred Hitchcock’s “Lifeboat.” Not that “The Big Bad Swim” director Ishai Setton’s breezy dramedy, set entirely in a residential kitchen, has any business being compared to one of the suspense master’s landmarks, but the device (fiscal necessity?) adds a distinctive, even cinematic allure to a potentially sitcom-grade piece of fluff. In a foul mood at her own 30th birthday party, Jennifer (Laura Prepon of “That ’70s Show”) doesn’t want to talk about her fledgling new art gallery, her cheating ex-boyfriend who won’t go away (Bryan Greenberg, “Friends With Benefits”) or the two friends who may or may not be sleeping with him. Sure to dampen Jennifer’s mood even further is the appearance of her sister (Dreama Walker, “Compliance”), who’s about to drop a bomb that’s anything but festive. In and out of the room bob the various ensemble characters, each contributing some gab, anecdotes, one-liners, or insight to off-screen players as any party might. All of this would seem ambitiously slight or too familiar if it weren’t for an across-the-board, solidly entertaining cast and unpretentious visual storytelling. At times, it feels as if we’ve left that single room, but while the actors flow into adjacent spaces, the quasi-haunted camera is committedly bound to stay in its quarters… or perhaps the cinematographer didn’t want to venture too far from the chips and beer.
“Erroll Garner: No One Can Hear You Read”
(First Run Features)
Maybe you’ve never heard of Pittsburgh-born jazz pianist and composer Erroll Garner (1923 – 1977), but the slick-haired, mustachioed, magic-fingered prodigy is hardly an unsung hero, even if his story has previously gone untold. Through the filter of cinema alone, Garner’s 1954 jazz standard “Misty” (conceived all in his head during a flight through tumultuous weather; he was a self-taught virtuoso who couldn’t read sheet music) was immortalized in Clint Eastwood’s 1971 directorial debut “Play Misty for Me” and still turns up decades later (“Silver Linings Playbook,” “Ocean’s Eleven”). He also wrote the serenading theme to 1945’s “Laura,” and can be heard on five Woody Allen soundtracks. In fact, the Woodman turns up to pay his respects to the work (“likeable, accessible… melodic, full of rhythm”) in Atticus Brady’s jubilant, hour-long doc celebration of Garner’s life and career, a straightforward but welcome collage of vintage performance footage, talking-head testimonies from fans, friends and family, and impressionistic B-roll from the streets of New York to evoke yesteryear’s 52nd Street. The late Steve Allen talks about how Garner used his left hand as if he were playing a guitar, and fellow jazz pianist Dick Hyman agrees that he clustered notes together like a brass band. Most telling is one of his nine appearances on “The Tonight Show,” when host and long-time fan Johnny Carson asked Garner what makes his style so distinguishable, but only his house band’s pianist Ross Tomkins had the proper reply: “Happiness.”
Blu-ray of the Week: “Gate of Hell”
How, you might ask, could the 1953 Japanese samurai tragedy that won Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Costume Design (plus the Grand Prix award at Cannes, the Golden Leopard at Locarno, and more honors from the New York Film Critics Circle) have gone this long without a decent release? Cue Martin Scorsese, with a speech on why film restoration is indispensable. Yes, until a new 2011 transfer revitalized this aggressively vibrant, intricately detailed beauty (one of Japan’s first color productions, thanks to Eastmancolor), Teinosuke Kinugasa’s adaptation of Kan Kikuchi’s 12th-century-set stage play was virtually lost due to a deterioration by the same chemical treatment that made its hyper-real palette sing. During the Heiji Rebellion (the same era in which “Rashomon” is set), the Imperial Palace of Sanjo is attacked by an enemy clan, and a decoy plan dispatches warrior Morito (Kazuo Hasegawa) and lady-in-waiting Kesa (Machiko Kyo) out in place of the empress. The two learn some devastating news about Morito’s treacherous brother but survive, and in reward for his self-sacrificing courage, the imperial hero requests the lady’s hand. Alas, Morito is publicly humiliated as it’s revealed that Kesa is already married to good-natured guard Wataru (Isao Yamagata); thereafter, the love-triangle drama darkens as the once-righteous Morito’s obsession turns arrogant, maniacal, potentially murderous. But the rewards of “Gate of Hell”—or “Jigokumon,” the palace entrance where the decapitated heads of enemies and traitors are hung—are in the sensuous cinematography (tricky angles, shots through transparent and gorgeous fabrics, accentuated lighting within studio “exteriors”), vivid set pieces (a majestic horse race, the opening battle sequence) and hues so saturated that the print still seems wet. Criterion’s remastered edition may be bare-bones, but it’s still reason enough for Blu-ray technology to be embraced by wider-than-niche audiences.