Couch Trip

Joy Division
The Miriam Collection

The Miriam Collection

You don't have to worship at the altar of Joy Division to find this documentary a truly absorbing piece of work. Of course, fans of the post-punk Manchester quartet are legion, despite the group's short lifespan (mainly due to frontman-lyricist Ian Curtis' self-shortened lifespan; he killed himself at 23).

In terms of presentation, director Grant Gee lays things out in a typical talking head fashion, but the tale those heads talk about is a fascinating one. The three surviving band members are honest, open and quite lucid in recounting the origins of a group that began as a few lads with no pronounced musical ability and a definite love of early punk who found themselves on a meteoric rise.

On the eve of the band's American tour, Curtis — recently diagnosed with epilepsy and suffering onstage seizures and massive depression — hanged himself in his kitchen in 1980. Though the posthumously released single "Love Will Tear Us Apart" rode the charts, Joy Division was done; the remaining members formed New Order, all part of the story that unfolds.

Control is another look at the group. Released back-to-back with the doc, the black-and-white biopic stars an evocative Sam Riley as Curtis and underrated talent Samantha Morton as his suffering wife. Director Anton Corbijn's focus is not the band, however, but on the tortured existence of its singer. It's a stark, loving portrait of a troubled man, and a great companion piece to the doc. —Peter Gilstrap

Glitterbox: Derek Jarman X 4

With niche art films, unless you're dealing with a pedigreed distributor like Criterion, the initial ecstasy of finally getting to see out-of-reach titles on "Region 1" discs often carries with it a sizable "but ..." The catch for Zeitgeist Video's four-disc Derek Jarman collection? It calls itself Glitterbox, but however glittering the images from the late provocateur's films may have appeared in cinemas, you wouldn't tell it from these substandard transfers, taken from unconverted PAL sources.

Still, if you can get past the murky transfers (with their combing effects and 4 percent PAL speedups), you're sure to walk away from Glitterbox with a good taste of both the controversial auteur's narrative and experimental tendencies. The gem of this collection is Jarman's shattering swan song Blue, in which he chronicles his physical degeneration from the AIDS virus through narration, sound effects, and pop and classical music. The only image for the entire 78 minutes is a cobalt screen, challenging the very foundations of what a "motion picture" can be. The device is not a gimmick; rather, Jarman uses the blue screen as a kind of subjective camera, seeing as how the movie's narrator has gone blind, his retinas capturing only the titular color. Watching Blue is like listening to a superlative radio broadcast about suffering with the degenerative illness — unsurprisingly, it has been simulcast on radio in Britain — but with the perpetual visual reminder of the ailment adding incalculable emotional gravity.

Astonishingly, the narrator's descriptions of his hellish hospital stay are so detailed that images are not necessary, and their omission gives the viewer ample time to ponder the beautiful poetry in Jarman's script. Blue may be a cinema of deprivation but the irony is that this immersive movie provides a richer cinematic experience than almost any overstuffed visual epic.

Jarman's other purely experimental title here, 1985's The Angelic Conversation, is a collection of overtly queer, molasses-paced Super 8 footage, juxtaposed with a soundtrack of Shakespeare's sonnets (read by Judi Dench) and the ambient drones of Coil. It's not nearly as insightful as Blue, but it's a hulking, portentous project that's basically above reproach. It is what it is; either you like this kind of film or you don't. At the very least, you'll see some sepia-toned images that could have easily wound up as album art for Smiths singles.

This collection also includes two untraditional biopics: Caravaggio, Jarman's chronologically scattered account of the 17th century painter, and Wittgenstein, his Brechtian riff on the groundbreaking Viennese philosopher. The former has its striking images (and sadly the weakest transfer in the box set), but it's the latter that comes closer to the word "fun" than probably anything in the Jarman oeuvre. Just as Wittgenstein philosophized via the deconstruction of language, so does Jarman break down the language of film with a series of soundstage-shot tableaux, anachronistic props and witty repartee.

Each disc is stuffed with too many extras to name, the best of which are a 30-minute sit-down interview with Jarman for British television and the entrancing Glitterbug, a collage of Jarman's stills and Super 8 footage posthumously assembled by the filmmaker's friends and scored by Brian Eno. I'd say this box is an essential purchase for Jarman completists. —John Thomason

Dalí in New York

This 1965 film by Jack Bond comes across as the height of casual salon-borne iconography. Brimming with proto-psychedelic flourishes and post-Beat Generation cool, Dalí in New York is a portrait of the surrealist at the peak of his popularity, not to mention self-assuredness. Dalí is supremely aware of his image as an artistic provocateur and seems determined in the film's several "interview" sessions (which are more like charged roundtables where the artist swats down various criticisms and misinterpretations of his work) to make good on his reputation as a weirdo. The painter's canvases during this period shared this self-aware sense of "weirdness," and it's interesting that most of the works Bond chooses to show throughout Dalí in New York are from the previous decades. Dalí by this point is much more concerned with a sort of postmodern presentation of himself, and the various pieces of performance art he undertakes in the film — lip-kissing Michaelangelo's David, covering himself in dollar bills and ants — are more the actions of an aging huckster than a paradigm-smashing visionary. It's never clear if Bond himself was in on the joke, or simply enraptured by proximity to Dalí, but the film that he created with Dalí's cooperation does as much to lionize its subject as it does to ridicule it. Which is probably something Dalí would have heartily approved of. —Jason Ferguson

Trapped Ashes
Lion's Gate

Anthology films rarely work for me. Most of them are as uneven as 20 miles of bad road. Trapped Ashes is yet another bumpy ride.

Six people are trapped in a room and must confess terrible things that they've done (or had happen to them) to their host (Henry Gibson). What follows are four segments directed by auteurs not necessarily known for their horror chops (with the possible exception of Sean S. Cunningham). Each segment prominently features the ties between sex and death so prevalent in horror films. One features a woman with vampiric breasts whose lamprey-mouthed nipples suck the blood of her lovers. Another woman falls for a corpse who whisks her away to hell while on Japanese holiday. A succubus falls for Stanley Kubrick. And the last poor woman shares the insatiable hunger of her fraternal twin, a tapeworm.

The first segment sets up expectations that Trapped Ashes will be a much more lighthearted film. Surprisingly, this segment was directed by Ken Russell, though it feels like something from Joe Dante or Paul Bartel (it is especially reminiscent of Irvin Kershner's "Hell Toupee" episode of Amazing Stories). The Sean S. Cunningham sequence feels like a pale gaijin aping of Hideo Nakata (The Ring), and John Gaeta's just doesn't work at all. Courtesy of Monte Hellman, the Kubrick bit is solid save that the horror element feels like an afterthought.

Easily mistaken for one of the Tales from the Crypt ventures, this is one that can be missed by all except diehard John Saxon fans. John Saxon? Hell, yeah. —Mike White

The Beast In Space
Severin Films

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away — well Italy's kinda far — there was a director named Alfonso Brescia (aka Al Bradly). He became the dark lord of a not-so-recognized subgenre of cinema known as spaghetti sci-fi, a diabolical plan, sure, but not uncommon for an Italian director. He would create Grade Z films that cashed in on the popularity of American films — specifically the Star Wars phenomenon. His magnum opus would be The Beast in Space, a flick that starred one-time up-and-coming beauty Sirpa Lane. Lane worked with Roger Vadim and starred in the arty Bigfoot sex romp La Bête (The Beast). She's a long way from her art-house beginnings here where she plays Sondra, a sexy futuristic cosmonaut haunted by nightmares of being defiled by a cloven-hoofed creature. She and a crew of horny space travelers are sent to an unexplored planet in search of a mineral known as antaliam. The mission goes awry when they discover a megacomputer named Zocor controls the planet and is hoarding the precious mineral for itself. Makes sense, right? Hell no. Especially when the alert computer uses mind-control tricks to kick libidos into overdrive causing a planetary orgy that distracts them from their mission. Ain't nothing like some softcore sex, nudity and rape by a perverted overgrown cousin of Narnia's Mr. Tumnus to divert a viewer's attention from the ludicrous plot. Meanwhile, back on Earth — Brescia's intergalactic plan works. The sexploitation combined with the cheap sets, hollow dialogue, lousy dubbing and wretched special effects leaves schlockmeisters drooling. Those not so keen on the above could kneel at the altar of Roger Corman for B-movie intervention. With two official DVD versions now available — a plain ol' unrated or triple-X for you more curious folk — that badly dubbed version you bought on the gray market is now obsolete. Just make sure you display it proudly next to your Fellini box set for friends and family to see. It is the 21st century, after all. —Paul Knoll

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