View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray and DVD. Ratings are on a four-star scale.
Varda by Agnès, included in The Complete Films of Agnès Varda (Photo: Criterion)
(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray and DVD. Ratings are on a four-star scale.)
THE COMPLETE FILMS OF AGNÈS VARDA (1955-2019). It’s not surprising that Agnès Varda’s last completed work (Varda by Agnès) was released in 2019, the same year that this icon of international cinema passed away at the age of 90. Always on the go, always curious about the world surrounding her, and always able to find new artistic avenues to explore, one gets the sense that she would have kept working had she lived to be 100 or 110 or, heck, even 200. To celebrate her life, the Criterion label has produced a remarkable box set that showcases 39 of her films, adds a few more as bonus features, and throws in a 200-page book to cement the deal.
Varda was, among other things, a feature-film director, a documentarian, a staunch feminist, a pioneer of the French New Wave, a photographer, and a loving wife (she was married to director Jacques Demy for 28 years, until his death in 1990), and all facets of her personal and professional lives can be seen channeled throughout her works. Winner of various awards throughout her career (including a few at Cannes), she didn’t receive her first Academy Award nomination until she nabbed a Best Documentary Feature nod at the age of 89 for 2017’s Faces Places (thus surpassing 88-year-old Christopher Plummer as the oldest person nominated for a competitive Oscar), with the Academy also handing her an Honorary Award that same year for her body of work.
Would that every major artist be given a collection as monumental as this one. It begins with her first picture as director, 1955’s La Pointe Courte, and covers 64 years of features, nonfiction films, and shorts. All of the major fictional pieces are included, including 1962’s pensive Cleo from 5 to 7 and 1985’s Vagabond, the latter showcasing a devastating performance by Sandrine Bonnaire. There are numerous shorts, including 1961’s The Fiancés of the Bridge MacDonald; although filmed for inclusion for a scene in Cleo from 5 to 7, it’s a treat on its own, with Varda recruiting such luminaries as Jean-Luc Godard, Eddie Constantine and Anna Karina to perform in this silent comedy.
Justifiably regarded as two of her best documentaries are 2000’s The Gleaners and I and 2008’s The Beaches of Agnès. The first is a fascinating look that ties together those who pick up discarded farmland crops with those who rummage through trash on Parisian streets (it was followed by The Gleaners and I: Two Years Later). The latter is just about the most unusual and inventive biopic one could ever hope to see. Amusingly, it includes vintage footage of Harrison Ford, who was screen-tested by Varda on behalf of her husband for the leading role in 1969’s Model Shop (reviewed here); she relates how the studio refused Ford for the part and told him to give up acting since he had no future in cinema (oops).
Among the more unusual offerings in Varda’s oeuvre is 1969’s Lions Love (…and Lies), if only because this fictional yarn stars the unexpected trio of Andy Warhol discovery Viva and Hair creators Gerome Ragni and James Rado. As for the most unjustly forgotten film made by Varda, my vote goes to 1977’s One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, a powerful piece about the strong friendship between two dissimilar women (go here for a full review).
Blu-ray extras are plentiful, including film introductions by Varda; interviews with various collaborators; unfinished works; and behind-the-scenes footage.
DEATH ON THE NILE (1978) / THE MIRROR CRACK’D (1980) / EVIL UNDER THE SUN (1982). Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile is tentatively set for release later this year, but given the massive disappointment that was Branagh’s 2017 Murder on the Orient Express (reviewed here), a better bet might be checking out these winning Agatha efforts from earlier decades.
After their smashing success with the 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express (that one’s reviewed here), the producing team of John Brabourne and Richard Goodwin elected to stick with Christie, although none of their subsequent three pictures enjoyed the same level of critical or commercial kudos. Still, all provide plenty of enjoyment for fans of murder-mysteries, with Death on the Nile emerging as the best of the trio. After an heiress (Lois Chiles) is murdered aboard a luxury boat making its way down the River Nile, it’s up to that great Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov) to figure out whodunnit. Only Poirot’s longtime friend Colonel Race (David Niven) can be ruled out; every other passenger is fair game, since each had something to gain by the victim’s death. Among the suspects are the victim’s husband (Simon MacCorkindale), his former fiancée (Mia Farrow), a boorish businessman (George Kennedy), a shady doctor (Jack Warden), a busybody author (Angela Lansbury) and her soft-spoken daughter (Olivia Hussey), a wealthy American (Bette Davis) and her put-upon nurse (Maggie Smith), a hot-headed Communist (Jon Finch), and the victim’s maid (Jane Birkin). The intricacies of the plot, the top production values (Anthony Powell earned an Oscar for his costumes), and a splendid cast (Ustinov and Lansbury are the standouts) add up to stellar entertainment.
For The Mirror Crack’d, Lansbury moved up from suspect to star. She sets the stage for her success as Jessica Fletcher on TV’s long-running Murder, She Wrote (1984-1996) by portraying Miss Marple, here forced to solve a murder in her own small English village. The victim is a young woman (Maureen Bennett) who’s a fan of movie star Marina Rudd (Elizabeth Taylor), in town to shoot a film alongside her director husband (Rock Hudson), their personal assistant (Geraldine Chaplin), the picture’s producer (Tony Curtis), and her co-star and rival (Kim Novak). Also on hand is a Scotland Yard inspector (Edward Fox) who happens to be Miss Marple’s nephew. Much humor is mined from the preening behavior displayed by the show biz characters, and it’s only after the movie is over that film buffs might pick up that the horrific real-life tragedy involving actress Gene Tierney had served as the story’s inspiration.
Evil Under the Sun finds Poirot (Ustinov) investigating the murder of a despised actress (Diana Rigg) at an Italian island resort. Family members (Denis Quilley, Emily Hone), acquaintances (Maggie Smith, Jane Birkin), lovers (Nicolas Clay, Colin Blakely), and work associates (Roddy McDowall, James Mason, Sylvia Miles) all fall under the studious gaze of the brilliant detective. After Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun, Ustinov would return to the role of Poirot for three made-for-TV movies and a chintzy 1988 theatrical release from Cannon Films, the same outfit responsible for the dreadful Christie adaptation of Ten Little Indians with Frank Stallone (reviewed here).
All three Blu-rays (sold individually) contain audio commentaries by various film historians and theatrical trailers. Other extras consist of a making-of featurette and interviews with Ustinov and Birkin on Death on the Nile; TV spots on The Mirror Crack’d; and a making-of piece and radio spots on Evil Under the Sun.
Death on the Nile: ★★★½
The Mirror Crack’d: ★★★
Evil Under the Sun: ★★★
TOWN BLOODY HALL (1979). Filmed by D.A. Pennebaker in 1971 and edited down for release by Chris Hegedus in 1979, Town Bloody Hall centers on a lively panel discussion that took place at the New York City venue The Town Hall. Fresh from writing the controversial piece “The Prisoner of Sex” for Harper’s Bazaar, macho author Norman Mailer is placed on stage to serve as moderator and occasional punching bag for four prominent feminists. National Organization of Women president Jacqueline Caballos makes her opening speech and then says nothing for the remainder of the film. Author Jill Johnston has the audience laughing (and Mailer fuming) with a lengthy bit on how all women are lesbians, after which she makes out with another woman on stage and then disappears from the venue — and the movie — altogether. Dominating most of the time in exchanges with Mailer, and with each other, are literary critic Diana Trilling and Australian author Germaine Greer, who approach feminism in altogether different ways. Over the course of the evening, there are walkouts (by both men and women), comments from such notables in the audience as Susan Sontag and Betty Friedan, and quips from Mailer that are by turns funny, sensible, sexist and infuriating.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary (from 2004) by Hegedus and Greer; a new interview with Hegedus; Mailer’s 1971 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show to promote his book The Prisoner of Sex; and archival interviews with Greer and Mailer.
THE TRIP TO GREECE (2020). The Trip began life as a 2010 British TV series that was then edited down into a feature film. The same game plan (TV first, film second) was followed in 2014 with The Trip to Italy, in 2017 with The Trip to Spain, and now with The Trip to Greece. All four endeavors cast Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as exaggerated versions of themselves, bickering buddies who travel to different parts of Europe to sample the local cuisine and one-up each other with impersonations of famous actors. The Trip to Greece offers no small measure of uproarious moments, with the pair engaging in conversations about growing older, challenging each other to a swimming competition, and occasionally savoring the culinary delights (which, it must be noted, look spectacularly appetizing). There’s also ample humor milked from the fact that Coogan keeps yammering about his seven BAFTA Awards. Some of the celebrity impersonations are on the creaky side — personally, I think John Mulaney does a better Mick Jagger than these two — but there’s a hilarious bit where the pair decide to forego impersonating Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy and tackle Stan Laurel and Tom Hardy instead. The comic banter between the pair is pure gold, which makes it more of a shame when the film turns dark and dramatic with Coogan chatting over the phone with (fictional) family members and worrying about the imminent death of his (fictional) father.
The only Blu-ray extras are theatrical trailers.
Short And Sweet:
TONI (1935). Considering that Jean Renoir was on the verge of directing such enduring classics as Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, it’s perhaps not surprising that Toni is often overlooked in his filmography. It’s decidedly a less complicated piece, centering on a laborer (Charles Blavette) who finds his attentions divided between two women (Celia Montalván and Jenny Hélia).
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary (from 2006) by film critics Kent Jones and Phillip Lopate; a 1961 introduction to the film by Renoir; and a video essay on the movie.
A WHITE, WHITE DAY (2019). In this Icelandic mood piece, a police chief (Ingvar Sigurdsson) is still mourning the accidental death of his wife when he discovers that she might have been having an affair shortly before her demise. This sets the cop off on a mission of truth-finding and perhaps revenge. This study of repression and depression mingling with machismo — the sort of story Paul Schrader could do in his sleep — is languid to a fault, with writer-director Hlynur Pálmason burying some intriguing moments in a sea of ennui. In all fairness, though, it probably should be noted that the film has a 97% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, so YMMV.
The DVD also includes Pálmason’s 2014 short Seven Boats.