Couch Trip

Jan 28, 2009 at 12:00 am

The Films of Michael Powell

Sony's double-disc set of Michael Powell movies honors the undisputed master of the British cinema with one movie from his primacy and one from his decline. Fans of such hereafter fantasies as Heaven Can Wait and Defending Your Life can do no better than the enchanting A Matter of Life and Death, which Powell made alongside his Archers production partner Emeric Pressburger. It's an utterly unique vision of the afterlife, which resembles an antiseptic science fiction set and provides a black-and-white counterpoint to the Technicolor real world. World War II airman David Niven manages to miraculously survive a burning jet crash, only to find out from a visiting spirit that he was supposed to have been killed — his survival amounts to little more than a technical glitch in the gods' accounting department, and it's time for him to meet his belated fate. But, in the short time after he cheats death, he falls in love with the radio operator (Kim Hunt) who listened to his horrible descent. In his eyes, he has a strong case for why he deserves to live, and he's eventually granted a trial Up There.

Is the entire concoction of the afterlife all in the pilot's head? Probably, but we go along with it anyway. One of the cinema's great iterations of "love conquers all," A Matter of Life and Death is filled with the wonderful flourishes that made the Powell and Pressburger team so untouchable. Their version of the Grim Reaper is a French dandy with a penchant for chess (a decade before The Seventh Seal!), and visual tricks include "freezing" time (whenever the Reaper arrives). The Archers also manage to take aim at the ripe target of cultural prejudice between Americans and the English, played out in the riveting, climatic courtroom drama. Full of special effects years ahead of their time and the kind of life-affirming joy that transcends any period, A Matter of Life and Death is a treasure worth revisiting time and again.

Unfortunately, this can hardly be said of the other film in this collection, Age of Consent, with James Mason as a painter of hacky, Key West-lite abstracts who finds his muse in the form of nubile beauty Helen Mirren (in her first major part) during a sojourn on Australia's Great Barrier Reef. The most interesting moments feature Mason's painter lost in the woodsy seclusion of the reef, with Powell's camera stressing his isolation and otherness. But as the meager story progresses, you realize it's much ado about nothing. It's a labored and ponderous offering that gives us little to ponder. Apparently, when Pressburger left, conflict and drama were eschewed with him.

Powell had an excuse. As the special features explain, he was in the financial dumps when he made Age of Consent. He had released his darkest masterpiece, the voyeuristic, viewer-implicating Peeping Tom, nine years earlier, and the response from the shameful press was so scathing that it killed Powell's career. Age of Consent would be his final theatrical release, and even that only received funding when Mason agreed to co-produce it.

Martin Scorsese, one of the Archers' strongest champions, reflects on both films in the discs' best supplements (no surprise there). Age of Consent also features interviews with Mirren and various crew members. Like the film itself, they're inessential, but A Matter of Life and Death is essential on so many levels that this reasonably priced collection is a must-own. —John Thomason

On Each Side
First Run Features

Metaphor is seldom more obvious or more heavily played than the one used by director Hugo Grosso in this 2006 film, his first non-documentary effort. Perhaps Grosso thought that without factual exposition to give viewers all the answers, we couldn't figure out that the building of a bridge — again, the building of a bridge — was going to connect people who lead different lives. But again and again, Grosso hits us with images of Argentina's under-construction Rosario-Victoria Bridge to underscore links between people with seemingly disparate stories. But it's no big deal because what On Each Side lacks in subtlety, it more than makes up for in its facility with tightly focused storytelling. Perhaps due to his documentarian background, Grosso's work finds dramatic arcs where many would see daily life. On Each Side brings us stories of small peoples' lives — two frisky sisters, a curious photographer, one of the bridge's engineers — and demonstrates the universal peculiarities that define people as individuals. The narrative is strong (with or without the symbolism) and funny, while Grosso's visuals provide a strong sense of intimacy. —Jason Ferguson

Taxi Blues
Koch Lorber

Although it's just now seeing its first DVD release, Taxi Blues was, at the time of its 1990 cinematic release, something of a revelation. As Russia was emerging from the thaw of the Cold War, Western audiences grew increasingly interested in how the global political situation was playing out on the ground in cities like Moscow. Taxi Blues gave those audiences a close-up look at exactly that. Shlykov, a gruff and hardworking taxi driver, gets shafted on a fare by Lyosha, a struggling and shiftless Jewish saxophone player. Shlykov chases Lyosha down; of course, the two assume the worst about one another; of course, stereotypes and prejudices are overcome and the two become friends. After that, however, director Pavel Lungin pushes the film into some interesting territory, revealing the daily struggles encountered by workaday folk in this newly opened society, most notably the disorientation Shlykov experiences in his adjustment to a post-Soviet Russia; it's very nearly heartbreaking when Lyosha gets a jazz gig in America and Shlykov is left with just his taxi. There's a certain syrupy melodrama here, but Lungin avoids tugging obvious heartstrings. While the film's visuals (and musical numbers) look quite dated at this point, it's easy to understand why Taxi Blues earned Lungin the Best Director award at Cannes in 1990; it's harder to comprehend why it's taken so long to arrive on DVD. —Jason Ferguson