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Urban Fairy Tales

by Shawn Stone on July 27, 2011

Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild is an adventurous romance that’s funny and dark, energizing and violent. It begins and ends in a multicultural New York City where identities and sexuality are fluid, a rainbow of groups are shown to peacefully coexist, and waitresses break into song. (This is sweetly utopian.) The middle of the picture, however, is a journey deep into flyover country where identities are fixed, the past is always present and the cost of challenging who you were and what you’ve done is paid in blood. (This is dazzlingly dystopian.)

In a downtown Manhattan lunchroom, Lulu (Melanie Griffith) looks up from her lunch (and the Freda Kahlo bio she’s reading) to spy a well-dressed yuppie (Jeff Daniels) skipping out on his check. This catches her eye, and soon she lures him into her car, plies him with booze and spirits him through the Holland Tunnel to a Jersey motel. The yuppie, a bank exec named Charlie, freaks out at first but soon likes being under the spell—and control—of Griffith’s unpredictable Lulu. Soon enough, however, Charlie learns that Lulu isn’t who he thinks she is, and their road trip into darkest Pennsylvania leads them to her ex, the charming, deadly Ray (Ray Liotta).

When it was released in 1986, Something Wild’s mix of comedy and violence turned off audiences who only expected laughs. But it’s one of Demme’s very best, a fairytale in the Grimm sense, and a picture that, we learn in an interview extra on the new Criterion Collection edition of the film, remains very dear to the director. This 30-minute interview, along with a five-minute chat with the screenwriter E. Max Frye, is just about the only extra on this bare-bone disc. But the transfer is beautiful and the film itself—which features career performances by Griffith and Liotta, and a great characterization by Daniels—is worth the Criterion price.

People On Sunday is something of a fairy tale, too. A late silent-era collaboration between a group of cinematic newcomers including credited directors Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer, screenwriter “Billie” (Billy) Wilder, cowriter Curt Siodmak and camera operator Fred Zinnemann, it was a largely improvised effort. These ambitious young men, who all went on to successful Hollywood careers, were trying to break into the studio system—the studio being Ufa, in Germany, in 1929.

They scrounged up some money, advertised for amateur actors, and brought in an established cinematographer (the great Eugen Schufftan, who later shot The Hustler) and made a loose-limbed, non-narrative, very entertaining picture about four Berliners on a Sunday holiday in the country.

There are two men and two women. They swim, they flirt, the fight and they plan—maybe—to do it all again the following Sunday.

The film is innocent and cynical, but most of all it is an exhilarating portrait of a city—Berlin—on holiday. You would never, ever, imagine that this was only a couple of years before some of the many real “extras”—Berliners—in People On Sunday voted the Nazis into power.

This Criterion disc is lovely to look at, with a very nice score by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. (There’s a second, modern, score on the disc as well.) The extras include an interview with the one surviving cast member, a featurette on the film’s restoration, a 1931 short directed by Schufftan, an essay on the film’s production, and remembrances by Wilder and Robert Siodmak.

Bargain Bin

Regrettably, Warner Home Video’s DVD of The Year of Living Dangerously seems never to have gotten an upgrade; the cut-out I picked up recently is a less-than-great transfer from what would now be considered subpar source material, and it dates to the turn of the century. (Clearly, it didn’t sell as well as the other titles that did get beautiful remasterings in the mid ’00s—and, more recently, Blu-ray releases—like The Wild Bunch and Bullitt.) This is a huge drawback to a visually beautiful ’scope film, but for $3 it’s anacceptable introduction.

The Year of Living Dangerously is a political thriller set in Indonesia in the mid-1960s, at a crucial moment when Muslims and Communists vied for power. Director Peter Weir, making his first “mainstream” film, sets the drama at the intersection of the political and the personal, making it accessible without too much oversimplification. Mel Gibson stars as a neophyte Aussie journalist in Jakarta, but it’s Linda Hunt’s Indonesian photographer who is the real storyteller here. When the lens man loses control of the narrative, it’s a brave, bracing, heartbreaking moment. While Hunt’s trans-racial and –gender performance is wonderful, and Sigourney Weaver is sleek as a British diplomat, it’s Gibson who’s fascinating to watch in retrospect. This was just before his blockbuster success playing the “crazy” cop in Lethal Weapon, which set the mold for most of his subsequent career. We may have to count on Warner Archive to remaster this essential ’80s film.

Andrew Fleming’s colorful Watergate burlesque Dick earned great reviews but sank at the box office back in 1999. What a shame: Fleming is clearly engaged with the subject. This pop-savvy satire features a vindictive, condescending, paranoid “Dick,” er, President Richard Nixon (Dan Hedeya), making friends with a couple of clueless—but not stupid—high school girls (Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams). It’s ridiculous and true to the spirit of the saga. Fleming’s Nixon was funny, and still totally evil. The superb cast includes Will Ferrell and Bruce McCulloch as those preening jerks Woodward and Bernstein, Harry Shearer as a manic G. Gordon Liddy and Dave Foley as a wily but weary Haldeman. The DVD includes a making-of featurette, a blooper reel and a deleted scene, harkening back to the days when “added value” was a selling point to home media.

Titles I’ve picked up for a couple of clams ($3-$5 for new DVDs) recently but haven’t had the time to watch thoroughly enough to review include Doris Day’s first movie, Romance on the High Seas (Warner Home Video), a stunning Technicolor musical directed by Michael Curtiz; Richard Linklater’s rotoscope-animated gabfest Waking Life (WHV); and George Stevens’ classically inclined western, Shane (Paramount). See you in the cut-out section!