Friday, September 21, 2007

What I've been watching at home

Lately, I've been leaping all over the place when it comes to DVDs. Here's a sampling:

Ace in the Hole. I finally caught up with Billy Wilder's 1951 box-office "catastrophe." A bomb with audiences in the '50s, Wilder's dark and unsparing look at the ravenous appetites of the media centers on an unscrupulous reporter played by Kirk Douglas. Those who know Wilder's work won't be surprised to learn that the movie contains a veritable cesspool of characters, almost all of them eager to exploit the fact that a man (Richard Benedict) has been trapped in an abandoned mine. Douglas' Charles Tatum is a talented but egotistical reporter who has lost a variety of jobs before landing in Albuquerque, a place he regards as the Siberia of journalism. Just about everyone in the movie gets skewered by Wilder, particularly the trapped man's wife, a greedy piece of work played by Jan Sterling. Douglas' over-the-top posturing takes some getting used to, as does Wilder's insatiable appetite for melodrama, but the movie remains worth seeing because when it's finished, you realize that Wilder -- unlike so many directors of his or any other time -- wasn't afraid to shine some light on the darkest corners of American experience.

Zubeidaa. Director Shayam Benegal received a tribute at the recently concluded Telluride Film Festival. The 72-year-old Benegal has been directing since the early 1960s, but his work remained unknown to me. For no particular reason, I started with "Zubeidaa," a story based on the life of writer Khalid Mohamed's mother. In "Zubeidaa" (2002), Mohamed creates a surrogate writer (Rajit Kapoor) who appears from time-to-time as he tries to learn about the title character (Karisma Kapoor), the mother who abandoned him when he was a boy in the 1950s. The daughter of a Muslim entrepreneur (Amrish Puri), the willful Zubeidaa can't quite find her place in a world that hasn't quite shaken loose from the strictures of tradition. Her domineering father forces her to abandon a budding career as an actress. She's pressured into a marriage that crumbles when the groom's family decides to move to Pakistan to escape Hindi prejudice against Muslims. Eventually, she meets a maharaja (Manoj Bajpai) who makes her his second wife. Before her life can go any further, Zubeidaa dies in a plane crash. Interesting for its social observations, as well as for its blend of styles, "Zubeidaa" stands as a strange concoction, a mixture of Douglas Sirk-style melodrama, Bollywood musical numbers and socially trenchant detail. For Western eyes, Benegal's game of stylistic hopscotch takes more than a little adjustment, and if "Zubeidaa" doesn't rank as a masterpiece, its rewards definitely build as it goes along.

Without A Trace (Sin dejar huella). Maria Navaro's road movie, which made the festival rounds in 2000, provides an interesting example of the way cultural vibes travel the world, mutating as they make their way into new locations. Often described as a Mexican "Thelma and Louise," "Without A Trace" tells the story of two women (Tiare Scanda and Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) who are headed toward Cancun, each for different reasons. It takes a bit of contriving to bring the women together, although they share common problems: Each is trying to escape the clutches of a man. Scanda's Aurelia needs to outrun the boyfriend from whom she took some money. Sanchez-Gijon's Ana, who traffics in fake art objects, must evade a sleazy cop whose interest in her extends beyond law enforcement. Not without its holes, the plot can become too tangled for its own good. Moreover, the relationship between the two women sometimes switches gears (from friendly to antagonistic) for no apparent reason other than to offer a bit of spice. Still, the undeniable appeal of the actresses and a journey through the exotic Yucatan give the movie a flavor that's far less formulaic than its premise suggests. I wasn't sure I got every nuance in "Without a Trace," but I liked the movie anyway. "Without a Trace" doesn't so much end, as relax its characters (and us) into increasingly less stressful states.

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