Couch Trip

Oct 1, 2008 at 12:00 am

The Anderson Tapes

In 1971'S The Anderson Tapes, just about everybody resembles a noirish heavy and talks like a '40s thriller transplant — not in a way that resembles hat-tipping homage or sly subversion, just out-of-touch distraction. It's one of many signs that director Sidney Lumet, who made masterpieces long before and long after this neglected heist film, simply wasn't comfortable with the material. Sean Connery stars as Anderson, a suave ex-con planning that proverbial last heist so he could retire to a life of crab fishing. He amasses a band of merry misfits and scouts out the territory — a moneyed apartment in his girlfriend's building — in turgid preparatory scenes that were already standard-issue going into the '70s. The script is composed of spurts of sleazy dialogue in between artless, leaden pauses, and when the robbers' nefarious communication invariably stumbles toward the heist itself, it's as exciting to watch as a funeral dirge. The film's sole distinction —aside from being the screen debut of Christopher Walken as a just-released delinquent — is its grating soundtrack of omnipresent surveillance bleeps. Late in the movie, Lumet uses said bleeps, along with freeze frames, to intercut the robbery with post-heist investigation scenes of the terrorized tenants. The Anderson Tapes may look ahead to Coppola's Orwellian surveillance nightmare of The Conversation, but all of its aural and editing-room tricks only have the effect of diluting the suspense. There are no supplements on the disc aside from a trailer and a couple of lame promotions for Sony's "Martini Movies" series, of which The Anderson Tapes is a part. I'd suggest kicking one back before you start watching it; the movie's inherent clunkiness may go down easier. —John Thomason

Abel's Island
The Marzipan Pig
First Run Features

If you have children, you know how exhausting and soul-draining contemporary animation can be. Filmmaker Michael Sporn apparently feels the same way — the writer-director has been crafting languid, literate cartoons for almost three decades, defying the flashy commercialism that drives most kids' fare these days. Delicately paced and warmly narrated by such stars as Tim Curry, the actual animation in Sporn's films is less noteworthy than the intelligent, unaggressive way he approaches cartoon-making. These two DVDs are the latest additions to First Run Features' collection of Sporn DVDs, and each contains two works from the late '80s and early '90s. Abel's Island is based on the story by William Steig (Shrek), and tells the tale of a charming and wise mouse who's stranded on a desert island. It's joined by The Story of the Dancing Frog, which comes off like a sweeter, less cynical version of Warner Bros.' soft-shoeing Michigan J. Frog. The Marzipan Pig is, of course, the same story in the beloved kids' book, but its DVD accompaniment — Jazztime Tale — is the best of all these features. With narration by Ruby Dee, the magical little film evokes Jazz Age Harlem from a child-centric perspective that's as nostalgic as it is warmly personal. Which, when you get down to it, is about a perfect distillation of Sporn's approach. —Jason Ferguson

Without the King
First Run Features

There are only a few countries in the world that still have absolute monarchies, and the tiny southern African nation of Swaziland is one of them. However, unlike its compatriots in the Kings Club, Swaziland can't claim the infinite riches of Brunei or Saudi Arabia. Instead, the country is largely impoverished. Life expectancy in the country is less than 40 years, and the country's HIV infection rate is not only more than four times the rate of other sub-Saharan African countries, but at 39 percent, is the highest in the world. Yet, there sits King Mswati III in his ornate royal compound, a fleet of European luxury cars at his disposal, and a daughter attending a private Christian school in Los Angeles. Unsurprisingly, the natives are restless in Swaziland; since Mswati's father suspended the country's limited constitution in 1973, a nominal "state of emergency" has been in place, limiting free speech and any oppositional movements. Without the King provides a startling, intimate look at the situation in Swaziland, with surprising access to both the king and his family as well as struggling protest groups. The aforementioned princess is a hip-hop-loving, superficial, and spoiled child, but she deeply cares about her country in that benevolent, patronizing way of monarchs. However much "concern" she offers up, the opulent lifestyle of her family is a horrible contrast to the plight of everyday Swazis — 69 percent of the country's population lives on 63 cents a day and considerable donations from the World Food Programme, while the majority of the country's wealth is owned by, you guessed it, the royal family. As one shantytown native sadly points out that as villagers are frying up intestines they've dug up from a nearby dump, "the king is eating pizza." It may not have the poetic ring of "let them eat cake," but the point is made clear by the filmmakers that Mswati's time as absolute ruler is running out. —Jason Ferguson

Aki Kaurismaki's Proletariat Trilogy
Criterion Eclipse

Aki Kaurismaki has been called the Finnish Jim Jarmusch, and for good reason: His films are just as visually sparse, his characters just as laconic (In The Match Factory Girl, no dialogue is exchanged until 20 minutes in, yet we know everything we need to know about the titular protagonist by this time). Like Jarmusch's droopy anti-heroes, his characters all sport a hangdog visage and often say the darndest things. Moreover, Kaurismaki's Shadows in Paradise ends on a long ellipsis shot of a sea voyage, just like Jarmusch's debut Permanent Vacation, and Jarmusch even acted in Kaurismaki's brilliant road movie Leningrad Cowboys Go America. Kindred spirits, to be sure, with one major difference: Jarmusch's characters live in a playfully quirky world removed from reality as we see it, while Kaurismaki's piteous losers struggle to eke out a living in the bitter reality of the Finnish lower-class.

The 12th installment of Criterion's slim, discount-priced, supplement-free Eclipse Series, Kaurismaki's Proletariat Trilogy includes Ariel as well as the aforementioned Shadows in Paradise and The Match Factory Girl. The films are doggedly of a piece with each other — watch them all in a row and you may have trouble remembering which scenes and characters came from which film. They all feature clock-punching proles doomed to fatalism or imprisonment; if they do manage to survive, the future is always uncertain. Deaths and dinners are depicted with an equal amount of deadpan matter-of-factness and inevitability. In Kaurismaki's world, life is a perpetually drab Möbius strip of sorrow, and it's to the director's remarkable credit that his films manage to cull humor from his sad-sack scenarios. A domino effect of tragic causality may give Ariel the feel of a Dostoyevsky work, but when comedy and tragedy coexist so effortlessly within the same scenes — the same shots even — the director concedes that sometimes the only way to deal with life's struggles is to laugh at them. —John Thomason