New on Disc: 'Topsy-Turvy' and more …4 Apr, 2011 By: Mike Clark
Criterion, Drama, $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for a scene of risque nudity.
Stars Jim Broadbent, Allan Corduner, Lesley Manville, Timothy Spall.
1999. You can’t exactly say that writer-director Mike Leigh’s masterpiece — and yes, on a certain level, it probably is futile limiting that accolade honor to a single movie — was as underrated as his most recent achievement: December’s Another Year. Leigh’s film takes about 35 minutes to establish the frustrated ambitions but also the social affability of composer Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) before it even introduces the far more intimidating and even prickly librettist W.S. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent, accordingly given almost all the laugh lines). And unlike most backstage biographies, Topsy-Turvy opens and continues on with the team at mid-career point — when their comic-opera soufflés are becoming redundant, the critical huzzahs are falling off and Sullivan wants to go it alone composing more-serious works. In my view, there’s never been anything quite like Topsy-Turvy, despite the hundred of backstage movies that Hollywood and other countries have made.
Extras: There are the usual Criterion goodies: a Leigh commentary, a 1992 Broadbent-directed short that kind of planted the Topsy-Turvy seed, terrific deleted scenes and Leigh’s conversation with musical director Gary Vershon — because, yes, this also is a musical and a great one. As critic Amy Taubin notes in a wonderful accompanying essay, the movie (despite the oddity in Leigh’s filmography that it seems to be) is exacting in its delineation of a rehearsal process that is not very different from Leigh’s own.
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Rope of Sand
Olive, Drama, $24.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Burt Lancaster, Corinne Calvet, Claude Rains, Paul Henreid, Peter Lorre.
1949. The Rains-Henreid-Lorre Casablanca connection doesn’t exactly hurt this Hal Wallis action potboiler set in the opposite end of Africa, which essentially is a movie about the revenge Burt Lancaster’s character exacts for past beatings and even a flogging. And the latter is among the more memorable ones in a non-seafaring movie. Sand is the first salvo that Casablanca producer Wallis launched with shapely Corinne Calvet after signing her to a contract. Shot in glamour-conscious black-and-white by Charles Lang, the yarn has slick Rains (manager of the Colonial Diamond Co.) hiring Calvet to use her wiles on former game hunter Lancaster — a couple years after the latter discovered a secret cache of jewels. Straight-arrow Lancaster would have probably divulged the gems’ whereabouts, even without asking, had not sadistic police commandant Henreid gotten tough about it. Sand’s underrated director William Dieterle was a compatible match for Wallis during this period, and the Wallis Paramounts were an entertaining bunch in the late ‘40s before the producer’s output got too slick and formulaic in subsequent decades.
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A Cold Wind in August
MGM, Drama, $24.99 DVD, NR.
Stars Lola Albright, Scott Marlowe, Herschel Bernardi, Joe De Santis.
1961. If the movie version of Burton Wohl’s eponymous novel had been a product of the modern screen era, someone (its distributor or the actress herself) would have mounted a publicity campaign to get Lola Albright’s lead performance the Oscar nomination it deserved. A lot has been made of the fact that co-star Scott Marlowe was 29 playing 17 to Albright’s real-life 36, which takes some of the edge off this tawdry-for-its time romance between an apartment manager’s handsome teenaged son and a thrice-divorced tenant with aging banzai looks who isn’t advertising the fact that she’s a stripper. But even though Marlowe’s character is more emotionally ill-developed than he needs to be (this kid is always debating whether to enjoy rapturous sack-time or a ballgame with the guys), Marlowe gets the role’s psychology right, and the two generally make a convincing pair.
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The Windmill Movie
Zeitgeist, Documentary, B.O. $0.03 million, $29.99 DVD, NR.
2009. There are probably more than instances than not of self-referential cinema becoming off-putting, but in this case it’s a third party who is doing the referring — sort of. And it’s the “sort of” that makes this odd duck rather interesting, starting with the multiple levels on which this melancholy portrait can be appreciated. One of them is that mainstay of documentaries from recent years: the dysfunctional family that belies its outward social appearance.
The late Richard P. Rogers was a documentary filmmaker and film professor at his own alma mater Harvard — one who also, in the project that consumed his life, recorded substantial chunks of his daily existence long before it became a routine thing to do by teen partiers with cell-phones. In his case, the project wasn’t frivolous — though there were probably many times when even he had to wonder. What’s more, Rogers had a huge early-start advantage in terms of early footage because his well-heeled father got in early when it came to shooting home movies, which was probably once regarded as an exotic concept.
Rogers’ idea was to assemble this material into a film about his life and own perceived shortcomings, as in the self-alleged failure to have made more of himself despite all the advantages that a well-heeled life on Long Island and a lot of Hamptons beach time would signify. If there’s some whininess potential in all this (Rogers lamented that he wasn’t the filmic force Steven Spielberg is), there’s a certain disarming quality to this portrait: here, after all, is Rogers standing in front of the camera and telling us he knows he’s whining. And besides, not very before he ended up dying fairly young, Rogers suffered through an astonishing freak accident that constitutes this documentary’s No. 1 shock when we gaze at the aftermath in a hospital scene. So give him bonus points.
When Rogers died in 2001 artistically unfulfilled, his friend and onetime student Alexander Olch worked with Rogers’ widow (photographer Susan Meiselas) to assemble 200 hours of film and video into a completed work — that is, the one Rogers couldn’t crack himself. If the result inevitably has the tone of a stunt, it’s a heartfelt one. Named for the windmill that his grandfather had transported to the East Hamptons’ Georgica Pond for a constant visual motif, this backdoor tribute (complete with contributions by longtime Rogers friend Wallace Shawn) kind of creeps up on you.
For one thing, the summer scenes of young women bicycling and sunning themselves on the beach are irresistible and allow Rogers’ narration to make the point that if summer is a kind of dessert for having lived through the winter, it is summer that provides the substantial (and certainly formative) experiences in any kind of vital life. (You don’t have to agree with this, but I, for one, do.) For another, you have to take Windmill’s oft-stated references to mental illness that ran through the Rogers family and factor them into the equation — unless you simply shrug and think, “I would just taken the lifestyle and run.” But when we actually see the subject’s mother in the backyard being interviewed — wearing a mink coat in a windy June and making abrasive remarks — it’s obvious that there’s a lot to this story. And this is even before we’re told she once tossed Rogers and Maiselas out of her home one July 4 weekend after making anti-Semitic remarks about the latter during some sort of fracas over the defrosting of an icebox.
Maiselas, turns out, was one of … well, at least a few. Rogers had a wandering eye and wasn’t reticent to act on his impulses, though Maiselas lasted for the long haul and finally married him when it became clear that time was running out and that Rogers wasn’t going to beat cancer. At some point in the planned documentary’s production process, Rogers ceased writing narration — and his health deteriorated to the point where one wonders if he could have continued, anyhow. In the later portions, Olch takes over with his own voice and own written narration as Rogers — to a point where I forgot I was no longer listening to Rogers himself. If this is a compliment, there’s also something a little queasy about it — but maybe not that much more than having writers complete unfinished novels by deceased author-friends from notes, which is not that infrequent an occurrence. It’s just that film or video, by its very nature, ups the emotional ante.
So, yes, this is a picture about the mucky-muck good life (with all the outdoor drinking that entails); fear of romantic commitment and fatherhood (Rogers didn’t want to pass along iffy genes); the family unit (gone to hell); and self-worth. But it is also about obsession (all 200 of those boxes), which turns out to be the overriding theme — one that has served a lot of good movies. One can’t help but notice, though, that for someone so obsessed with creating … well, whatever it was going to be … that Rogers had the kind of personality that attracted a lot of friends. You wonder if maybe they shouldn’t have been more important than those boxes.
Extras: Two Rogers shorts and an essay by Film Comment’s Scott Foundas.