"Margot Benacerraf, now in her 80s, only ever made one feature-length film," begins Josef Braun, "but that film remains so extraordinary, so very nearly singular, that it merits an admiration on par with many more prolific and esteemed bodies of work. After studying and gathering numerous influential allies in France and elsewhere, Benacerraf returned to her native Venezuela, specifically to an island no one had heard of, though when was discovered by the Spanish 450 years earlier it was deemed a sort of paradise on account of its abundance of one resource: salt, as valuable back then as gold. We can see the ruins of colonial fortresses erected to protect the island and its salt marshes, once the center of piracy in the Caribbean, during the prologue of Araya (1959). But historical context quickly gives way to the seeming timelessness of hard labour, to Benacerraf's lyrical approach to depicting the life of a community that was, at the time, so isolated as to resemble some primordial dream. Araya is now available on DVD from Milestone, the latest lost masterpiece resurrected by the same beloved company that re-released Killer of Sheep (1977) and The Exiles (1961)."
"In the City of Sylvia, a 2007 film by the Spanish writer and director José Luis Guerín, runs a mere 80 minutes and has almost no dialogue and the barest semblance of a plot," begins Dennis Lim in the Los Angeles Times. "But from seemingly minimal means, Guerín fashions a gorgeous object and an endlessly suggestive experience: a love story, a city symphony, a surrealist fable and a self-reflexive meditation on the thrill and the danger of looking." Out on DVD next week from Cinema Guild. Related reading: Darren Hughes's December interview with Guerín.
"As played by Ryô Ikebe in Masahiro Shinoda's Pale Flower, Muraki brings to mind Alain Delon in Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouraï," writes Bill Ryan. "Both are quiet, efficient, seemingly bloodless until something or someone gets that blood flowing again, and even then the change is almost entirely internal. You'd never tell by looking at them that each man had chosen to potentially ruin themselves for the sake of someone else. Of course, the other big difference between the two men is that Muraki ruins himself for reasons that are about as dark and inhuman as one can imagine."
The film's out on DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion today, and they've posted a fine piece by Chuck Stephens that begins like this: "'There was a strong influence of Baudelaire's Fleurs du mal throughout this film,' director Masahiro Shinoda would later remember of his 1964 squid-ink noir Pale Flower, made in the days when his career as a filmmaker and founding figure of the Japanese New Wave had only recently begun and with the pellucid young Shochiku ingenue Mariko Kaga as his Saeko — his finest film's fragile blossom. True, the fragrance of evil does cling to Pale Flower, a trendsetting bakuto-eiga (gambling film) about an aging yakuza named Muraki (Ryô Ikebe), fresh out of prison, and the giggling and mysterious siren, Saeko, who gaily escorts him to his doom. Evil, and death. 'When I finished shooting it,' Shinoda continued, speaking to interviewer Joan Mellen more than a decade after the film's release, 'I realized that my youth was over.'"
Terrence Rafferty on another Criterion release out today: "Henri-Georges Clouzot's cool, clammy, twisty 1955 thriller Diabolique is an almost perfect movie about a very nearly perfect murder, a film in which the artist's methods and the killers' are ideally matched, equal in cunning and in ruthlessness. The screenplay, adapted by Clouzot and three other writers from a novel by the crack French crime-fiction team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, is a fantastically elaborate piece of contrivance, but the scrupulous realism of the direction makes the unnatural tale somehow feel entirely likely. From the opening shot — of a stagnant, scummy pool, which later proves to be both an important element of the plot and an apt metaphor for the film's unwholesome conception of human nature — the director and his cinematographer, Armand Thirard, place us in a murky, overcast, oppressively drab world, the kind of physical and mental landscape in which nothing ever seems to happen, and anything can." Update: Diabolique is "a pitch-dark comedy about taking responsibility and assigning blame," argues Vadim Rizov at GreenCine Daily. "Clouzot's 1943 The Raven (Le Corbeau), a not-so-thinly veiled parable against French collaboration with the Nazis, nearly destroyed his career, but his post-war work started immediately jabbing again at the post-war French republic. Both 1947's Quai des Orfevres and Diabolique have real mysteries at their core, and both deliver satisfying twists and resolutions, but the larger focus is on people working as hard as possible to avoid being indicted for or accused of anything. Guilt is merely a question of plausible deniability… It's an occupation mentality."
Dave Kehr on Otto Preminger's Hurry Sundown (1967), with Michael Caine and Jane Fonda: "[T]his sprawling, 146-minute film would be the last of the ambitious literary adaptations to be directed by Preminger (in a run that included Bonjour Tristesse, Anatomy of a Murder and Advise & Consent) and the last to be shot in the grand, classical style — long takes and elaborate camera movements — that he had been cultivating since his debut film in 1931…. Hurry Sundown is one of two Preminger titles being released this week by Olive Films, the other being the even more challenging Such Good Friends, from 1971. If Hurry Sundown seemed behind the times in the year of Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, Such Good Friends — a black comedy based on a novel by Lois Gould — seems in active opposition to its cultural moment."
"One of Sam Fuller's most personal films, Park Row (1952), has been released on DVD through MGM's burn-on-demand service, the 'Limited Edition Collection' (available through Amazon and other retailers)," notes R Emmet Sweeney at Movie Morlocks. "Inspired by his time as a copy-boy for Hearst's New York Journal and as a crime reporter for the New York Graphic, it is an impassioned paean to American journalism… Fuller's artistic temperament was formed in his ink-stained years, as he wanted his films to have the visceral impact and clarity of a 100 point size headline. Park Row is his gift to the business that made him."
DVD roundups. Jordan Cronk and Katie Smith (In Review Online), Ed Gonzalez (House Next Door), Mark Kermode (Observer), Paul Matwychuk and Heather Noel, Noel Murray (LAT), Nigel M Smith (indieWIRE) and Mike Wilmington (Movie City News).
Just for the hell of it, I'm going to go ahead and note that it's a big day for book releases, too. The Millions rounds them up, beginning with the "huge, McSweeney's-published, John Sayles novel A Moment in the Sun," which "has been getting great reviews."