by Tony Dayoub
My apologies for leaving this website barren for the past two weeks. After the heightened activity of the Blogathon — and before it picks up again here next week with my reviews of entries from this year's New York Film Festival — I frankly needed a break. I've still been receiving plenty of Blu-rays to review, though. Here are some capsule reviews of my favorite ones released this past month.
I finally caught up with 3 Women (1977), one of my few but notable blind spots in Robert Altman's filmography. Upgraded to Blu-ray by Criterion, this feverish daydream is one of only a few surreal selections from the improvisational director. Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall star as two co-workers who share the name Mildred. Before 3 Women wraps up they will also share the same man, the same parents and just about everything else — with each other and a third woman who paints murals in swimming pools throughout the insular California desert community where all three live. Part of a long cinematic tradition of movies in which a number of females experience a traumatic identity crisis that produces potent, avant-garde imagery from established directors, 3 Women falls somewhere in between two kindred films. It is not as perplexing or satisfying as Bergman's Persona (1966), nor do I think it's meant to be as the picture seems to evoke the feeling of Altman toying with an itch he knows he can't scratch. However, it is more effective than Lynch's Mulholland Drive (2001) in maintaining a sense of cohesiveness. Just as in Lynch's film, 3 Women begins in a relatively realistic, albeit absurd, milieu before slowly sliding down into full creep-out mode. But 3 Women does it incrementally instead of in a pronounced snap like its descendant. In other words, Altman sneaks up on you in a way that the increasingly showman-like Lynch has forgotten how to. As always, Criterion's digital transfer is impeccable.
For full-on suspense let's turn to a thriller that also plays with dual female leads, Brian De Palma's Dressed to Kill (1980). Using Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) as a template, De Palma employs one of my favorite filmic structures. Like in Hitch's slasher film, the first female lead (Angie Dickinson) is caught up in a story that looks headed in one direction — in this case a morality tale about the perils of conducting an illicit affair. But her character is dispatched unexpectedly (and grotesquely) a half-hour in. This causes the film to re-focus on a second female lead (Nancy Allen) who must then tie up the loose ends left by her antecedent's early dismissal. Michael Caine stars as a psychiatrist whose involvement spans across the two parts of the schizoid film. And able support is provided by future director Keith Gordon (as Dickinson's son) and a young(er) Dennis Farina (NYPD Blue) playing, what else, a cop. Free from any distractions concerning the story (hardly an original one), De Palma, a master at formal technique, is able to concentrate on his superb craft. A Steadicam pursuit scene at an art museum — a prelude to Dickinson's adulterous rendezvous — is breathtaking in its fluidity and perfectly timed to set up the moment when the movie changes gears. And De Palma also cribs from Nicholas Ray's opening scene in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Just as in that scene, De Palma uses the multiple framed glass panes of a police precinct to separate the parallel streams of action unfolding after Dickinson steps aside for Allen. Though the movie may look softer than home theater enthusiasts are used to, it is a deliberate stylistic choice by De Palma and shouldn't discourage a purchase of this underrated mystery.
As controversial as De Palma's film was in its time, Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (1971) still proves to be now. Dustin Hoffman plays an American academic who moves to the small hamlet in the Scottish countryside where his wife (Susan George) grew up. Class distinctions, racial differences, and gender/sexual politics all play a part in lighting a volatile powder keg that finally explodes two-thirds of the way through. This Blu-ray reissue by MGM Home Entertainment could have used some of the special features included in its original Criterion release. Though the transfer is a cut above Criterion's, presented without such extras to place it into some context the movie seems even more problematic than usual in its depiction of George's character. Portrayed as a petulant child-woman, a harrowing rape scene is made worse by her ambivalent reaction as filmed by Peckinpah, a well-known chauvinist with a history of demeaning women on film — she seems to like the roughness at first; then she becomes terrified before maybe deriving some pleasure from it again. But if one can stomach the Neanderthal world view on display there is much to admire in the execution of Hoffman's complex character, an effete elitist who won't defend his wife but does overcome his timidity to stand up for a mentally-challenged man (David Warner) who is persecuted by a mob of town thugs.
Criterion gets a jump on Halloween with this week's Blu-ray of Victor Sjöström's eerie silent, The Phantom Carriage (1921). A film which heavily influenced the work of Sjöström's most famous successor in Swedish cinema, Ingmar Bergman, The Phantom Carriage vacillates between the moving and the deeply disturbing in its inquest into the life of alcoholic consumptive David Holm (Sjöström). Holm terrorizes his wife, kids, and a Salvation Army nurse who spends far more of her time than he's worth in trying to help him. Sjöström employs an array of in-camera effects techniques to recount this dark riff on Dickens's A Christmas Carol including double exposure and tinted film. The carriage driver/grim reaper of the film is an antecedent to Bergman's Death character from The Seventh Seal (1957), while Holm (as screenwriter Paul Mayersberg points out in an essay included along with the disc) is a forerunner of Kubrick's Jack Torrance in The Shining (1980). When Holm is drunk, it is as if a demon bursts forth from deep within him to terrorize his family. Criterion's dreamy-looking transfer heightens the hallucinatory quality of this dark tale, as does a beautiful experimental score by KTL, one of two that the label includes in the release.
Finally, from last year's TV arena comes Sons of Anarchy Season 3. Kurt Sutter's look at the internal conflicts of SAMCRO, a motorcycle club in Northern California, took an ambitious turn in its third season. Last year it tabled the central Hamlet-like intrigue between Jax (Charlie Hunnam), the club's VP, and his stepfather Clay (Ron Perlman), who became president after the mysterious death of Jax's dad. Instead, the show delved deep into the club's history, travelling to Belfast to visit their sister chapter SAMBEL, after Jax's baby son gets kidnapped as part of a power play by a gun-runner against the Real IRA. Though the plotline seemed interminable when it played out on TV, Blu-ray's ability to telescope the action (no ads) validates Sutter's decision to let the story in Ireland unfold. The doublecross-filled season finale unwinds perfectly towards a memorable conclusion which has the club settling its scores on a near operatic scale, spectacularly setting up the current fourth season.