Earache in my eye

Ivan's Childhood
Criterion Collection

Ivan's Childhood may be one of the lesser works in the titanic oeuvre of Andrei Tarkovsky, only because we know the genius he would aspire to later in his short life. For most other directors, this humanist anti-war parable would be the zenith of their careers. Fans of Tarkovsky masterworks like Stalker and Solaris might be surprised by how linear and accessible the story is — not to mention the brevity of the shot length — but Ivan's Childhood still has an undeniable poeticism that foreshadows his inscrutable later work. And the shots of snow-covered trees in a dark forest seem to have been referenced in films as diverse as The Conformist and Cannibal! The Musical. Tarkovsky theorist Vida T. Johnson offers a helpful featurette on the movie's production and subtext, examining the film's mesmerizing dream sequences. Video interviews with the movie's leading actor and cinematographer, plus a booklet with a great piece by Tarkovsky himself, finish out the DVD extras. —John Thomason


The Abandoned
Lionsgate Entertainment

Spain's Nacho Cerda has been making the type of flicks that define a cult director's reputation. His first, Aftermath, deals graphically and metaphorically with the indignities inflicted upon a female corpse by a sicko coroner. His next, Genesis tells of a mourning artist who immortalizes his dead wife's image in a statue. His grief becomes tangible as his flesh turns to stone and the statue turns to flesh. Both films were shorts void of dialogue but brimming with stark visuals that examined the physical and psychological aspects of death.

It's no surprise Cerda continues his exploration in The Abandoned — his international take on the classic haunted house genre. It finds an American woman named Marie (Anastasia Hille), returning to Russia and her decrepit biological family's home, where she was adopted 40 years earlier. This journey of discovery through her family's dysfunctional past could've been a mere ghost story, but with Cerda's signature imagery and the talent of cinematographer Xavi Gimenez (The Machinist), the film unfolds into an existential mindfuck on why people should let the past rest. A thinking man's horror movie? Sure, but there are also plenty of jump-outta-your-seat moments and a jarring discordant score by Alfons Conde that begs to be heard in 5.1 SurroundSound. —Paul Knoll


Raise the Red Lantern

Not many directors can go from touching humanist dramas to dazzling swordplay adventures and then back again, but China's Zhang Yimou pulls it off without a hitch. Before impressing action buffs with Hero and House of Flying Daggers, Zhang made (among other harsh criticisms of Chinese society) Raise the Red Lantern, a ravishing and sorrowful look at a 19-year-old girl's (Gong Li) forced marriage as the fourth wife to a wealthy landowner. The master dictates which wife he's going to sleep with each night by filling her room with red lanterns, and when he chooses the beautiful young Gong night after night, the older wives' petty jealousies turn into spiteful hostility. Gong's character isn't let off the hook, either; her abusive treatment toward a belligerent servant girl mirrors the contempt the other wives express toward her. This sumptuous movie is a modern feminist classic about patriarchy and dehumanization, with a conclusion among the most distressing ever filmed. —John Thomason


El Cortez
Monarch Home Video

Lou Diamond Phillips has gotten a bad rap. No, really. A scant 20-years have passed since his star crested on La Bamba and Young Guns I and II. He's been languishing in direct-to-video flicks and TV guest appearances for the last decade. It's a shame he's not found more quality films like El Cortez. Phillips is Manny, a hotel clerk at Reno's El Cortez. He's autistic and trying to start fresh after a stint in a prison for the criminally insane. One guest, a wheelchair-bound prospector named Popcorn (Bruce Weitz) shows Manny a map to a goldmine. It isn't long before a few of the other shady El Cortez residents get wind of it. Soon Manny is mixed up with drug dealer Jack Clay (Glenn Plummer), his amoral girlfriend Theda (Tracy Middendorf) and crooked cop Arnie. Forget double crosses, El Cortez's plot twists and turns on itself so many times that there's no telling the good guys from the grifters and truth from con. Phillip's performance grounds El Cortez and gives you someone to root for among the scumbags and shysters. Phillips is still rippled and you get a glimpse of his junk and Middendorf's natural breasts during an exceptionally hot sex scene — a Hollywood rarity. El Cortez won't return Phillips to any former glory, but it's an excellent show nonetheless. —Paul Knoll

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