Arts & Events

On DVD: 'Bottle Rocket,' 'Magnificent Obsession,' 'Europa' and 'The Derek Jarman Collection'

By Justin DeFreitas
Thursday February 19, 2009 - 08:37:00 AM

Bottle Rocket 

Bottle Rocket not only holds up, but seems to get better with age. The 1996 debut for actor Luke Wilson, writer-actor Owen Wilson, and writer-director Wes Anderson, in many ways remains the best work of each.  

Bottle Rocket was initially a short, homemade film—shot in black and white and running just 13 minutes—which the Wilson brothers and Anderson screened at the Sundance Film Festival in order to attract financial backing. It worked; they got the chance to develop the film into a full-length feature, and their careers were launched. The resulting film, recently released by Criterion in a new two-disc set, embodies all the youth, vitality and enthusiasm of its creators, employing the low-key charm of Luke, the madcap verbosity of Owen, and the minimalist aesthetic of Anderson in the creation of a distinctive cinematic voice—a quirky, comedic voice suffused with a simple humanism. 

It's a style that spawned many imitators. The "indie" film scene has been dominated over the past 10 years by less talented mimics producing self-consciously offbeat comic dramas that ape the minimalist framings and understated humor of the Wilson-Anderson aesthetic. And yet Anderson has fallen prey to it himself. Rushmore continued the style effectively, but with The Royal Tennenbaums and its two successors, The Life Aquatic and Darjeeling Limited, self-consciousness seemed to creep in. The characters lost much of their freshness and become more precious, more self-consciously odd. The attempts to glean deeper insights from droll and somewhat two-dimensional characters often fell flat. And Anderson's tendency to rely too heavily on music video montage backed with 1960s mod rock has devolved into cliché.  

But Bottle Rocket is not saddled with the weight of pretension. The style is not yet impressed with itself, has not yet become quirky to the point of affectation. It is unpredictable and fun, ingratiating and playful. 

Criterion's new release includes many extra features, including storyboards, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes photos shot by the Wilson brothers' mother, and one of those bland, talking-head making-of documentaries that essentially shows the principal players telling us how much fun they had.  

But the best supplemental feature is Barry Braverman's Murita Cycles, a documentary portrait of the filmmaker's father, made in 1977, that greatly influenced Anderson and the Wilson brothers. Murita Cycles is an excellent use of the home movie, with Braverman interviewing his peculiar father Murray Braverman about his unique, if disconcerting, lifestyle. Murray lives alone since his wife's death in a house rapidly filling with junk—the overflow from a bike shop full of junk—which Murray sells, sporadically and piecemeal, as his needs require. He bathes rarely and spends most of his time sitting outside his Staten Island shop, which is so full of assorted spare parts and scavenged bric-a-brac that he really can't seem to get in the door anymore. The impact the film had on the Bottle Rocket boys is clear: Murita Cycles is an oddly moving story, walking the line between comic exposé and sympathetic portraiture, as a perplexed son struggles mightily to understand and appreciate his maddeningly eccentric and obstinate father. 


Bottle Rocket (1996) 

91 minutes. $39.95. 



Magnificent Obsession 

Director Douglas Sirk cranked up the melodrama, photographer Russell Metty saturated the color palette and composer Frank Skinner drenched the strings in syrup for the 1954 adaptation of a novel by Lloyd C. Douglas. Magnificent Obsession is movie of big emotions, and Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson play it for all it's worth. John M. Stahl's earlier version, starring Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor, included as an extra feature on Criterion's new two-disc release, is more comic in tone, drawing more on the screwball comedies of the era, highlighting the fun and the romance. But Sirk's version dives headlong in the story's grandiose tragedy, exquisite pain, and all-consuming romantic drama. 

Modern viewers may find the 1954 version something an acquired taste. It's a style that hasn't necessarily aged all the well, and thus takes some getting used to. Sirk puts a bold emphasis on pure melodrama: characters deeply in love yet suffering under great duress—the two apparently forever intertwined.  

The breezy 1935 version goes down a little easier, but is far less daring and unique, its middle-of-the-road commercialism and straightforward approach essentially rendering it an asterisk attached to Sirk's later version. The earlier film sees Robert Taylor sauntering through about like a dandified playboy, whereas the Hudson plays the role as a brooding thug, a violent, disdainful, silver spooned brute, the more dramatic portrayal lending greater weight to the character's personal transformation.  

Extra features included an essay by critic Geoffrey O'Brien and a 1991 documentary by Eckhart Schmidt about Sirk's career.  


Magnificent Obsession (1935 and 1954 versions) 

102 minutes and 108 minutes. $39.95. 



Derek Jarman 

Derek Jarman wasn't just part of England's independent film movement; for a long period of time, he simple was the movement, producing a string of low-budget films that broke cultural and cinematic taboos. Jarman blazed a trail not only for underground, independent filmmakers, but for openly gay filmmakers as well, establishing an oeuvre that was groundbreaking aesthetically as well as politically. Kino has released a box set containing three of Jarman's features, as well as a documentary about his life and career.  

Sebastiane (1976), Jarman's debut, is a historical drama about the martyrdom of St. Sebastian, but one which delves into the erotic underpinnings of the tale, achieving not just a landmark in the history of gay cinema but a pointed satire of the latent homosexuality that permeates Hollywood's Golden Age biblical epics. Telling the story entirely in Latin (with English subtitles) was a characteristically bold Jarman gambit. 

In 1979, Jarman released the first cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest, remaining for the most part faithful to the original but dressing it stylistic excess. Full of bright, vibrant colors, Jarman stages the film like a 1940s MGM musical garnished with 1970s camp and a dash of horror.  

Disc three features War Requiem (1989), which stars frequent Jarman collaborator Tilda Swinton in a wordless interpretation of Benjamin Britten's 1961 orchestral piece. It is a bold experimental film, using music and imagery to examine the tragedy and futility of war. 

Derek, a 2008 documentary about Jarman's life and work written and narrated by Tilda Swinton, features the actress strolling through the English locales that mark the director's life. Her stylized narration is interspersed with interviews with Jarman and clips from 17 of his films, providing a portrait of the artist's development, personally and artistically. However, the stylized atmospherics of the footage of Swinton, combined with her pseudo-poetic voiceovers, detract from the film; the effort to pay homage to her friend and mentor unfortunately strikes a note of pretense and self-indulgence. Far more compelling is the footage of Jarman himself, shot sitting casually in his home and speaking conversationally. With a subject so articulate and charismatic, why bother with dramatic narration and high production values? Just drop in a few clips from his films and you're done. Apparently the filmmakers had an inkling of this, as one of the extra features is an extended version of the 1991 interview, running some 70 minutes. 


The Derek Jarman Collection 





Danish director Lars von Trier reportedly gave the finger the to the Cannes jury when they failed to give the festival's grand prize to Europa, his 1991 film about Nazi Germany. They gave him a few other awards, but no matter; von Trier apparently felt he had created a masterpiece.  

He was wrong. The jury rightfully honored the technical and artistic prowess of the film, but it is simply much too obtuse to affect an audience in quite the way it should. Europa (retitled Zentropa when it was released in the United States) is a film of startling imagery. Von Trier blends black and white with splashes of color, process shots and overlays, creating a dreamlike montage that flows in and out of the past and in and out of various levels of consciousness. The trouble is, the imagery is so overwhelming that it distracts from the film itself, as plot and character and motivation are essentially drowned in a flood of visual virtuosity. The film ultimately descends into an extended reverie inspired by its own loveliness. 

Von Trier borrows freely from other films and genres. At times it seems that every other scene is a quote from another film, or a quote of a quote. What may have been intended as a sort of post-modern homage instead comes off like a series of in-jokes staged by a precocious movie brat who hasn't lived enough to infuse his film with life experience and can only borrow on the work of other filmmakers. Consequently, Europa's appeal is inherently limited, accessible only to those who share its frame of reference. 


Europa (1991) 

107 minutes. $39.95.