Hungarian Master Keeps Feet on the Ground in Early Works




Before he became one of the planet’s great cinematic formalists and, with Theo Angelopoulos and Alexandr Sokurov, one of the reigning plan séquence masters, Hungarian dyspeptic Béla Tarr was a hard-bitten, post-Cassavetes realist, working in the mid-’70s subgenre known in Budapest as “documentary fiction.” He began to experiment with long takes and distance in 1982, with a TV version of Macbeth; his previous three features, all out on DVD from Facets, are a different species altogether, intimate, improvised, desultory, and inflamed with class rage. Just as despairing as his later films (and also shot in richly textured black-and-white), Tarr’s early works are more feet-on-the-ground and never indulge in metaphysics. Family Nest (1977), a spiteful, multigenerational drama of life on the dole, was the film Tarr made before he went to film school; The Outsider (1981) traces the aimless social descent of an off-the-grid violinist more concerned with boozing than with holding a job. Prefab People (1982) is the best of them, an unrelenting, smell-the-sour-breath portrait of a blue-collar marriage dissolving under pressure from Communist-era poverty, masculine inadequacy, and restless depression. As the imploding wife, theater vet (and recently, Hungarian politician) Judit Pogány is wrenchingly convincing. Each film comes with a set of concise notes, statements from Tarr, and a biography of the filmmaker. Michael Atkinson

ABC Africa

New Yorker

Arriving in Uganda with two digital cameras to prep for a documentary on the country’s AIDS-induced orphan crisis, Abbas Kiarostami left 10 days later with the material that would become ABC Africa. The director’s most accessible work, and as his first DV project, in a sense his most experimental, ABC Africa is surprisingly—indeed defiantly—upbeat. Kiarostami devotes large swaths of its 84 minutes to singing and clapping children, most of them orphans, who crowd curiously around the director and assistant Seyfolah Samadian, creating an intimacy unachievable in 35mm. Typically forthright about his outsider status, Kiarostami captures a stunning sequence in a Kampala AIDS center, where we see a small body being prepared for burial, taken out of the building on a stretcher improvised out of a cardboard box, and led away on a bicycle—right past Kiarostami, standing next to his car with a camera. It’s an extraordinarily complex scene—at once encapsulating the enormity of the crisis, the inadequate means of dealing with it, and the ethically tenuous position of the observer. The only noteworthy extra is the 55-minute Abbas Kiarostami: The Art of Living, a fine introduction to the master’s work highlighted by a revealing behind-the-scenes bit from The Wind Will Carry Us. JOSHUA LAND

House of Bamboo

20th Century Fox

The most lavish of Sam Fuller’s 20th Century Fox contract jobs, House of Bamboo (1955) is a paean to post-war Japan—fervently picturesque and full of gratuitous local color. Fuller didn’t write the script, but he incorporated a favorite trope (militarized gangsters) and constantly reiterates choice bits of slang (“Who’s the kimono?” “I’m your ichi-ban”). Robert Ryan stars as a suave mob boss in love with Robert Stack, the surly, robotic cop who infiltrates his organization. The triangle is completed by the ridiculously compliant and servile Shirley Yamaguchi (in real life a future member of the Japanese diet) who serves Stack his bacon and eggs “Japanese” style. Paper walls are regularly crashed through but, as in Pickup on South Street, there’s some unexpectedly brutal stuff and an impressive top-of-the-world ending on the roof of Matsuma Department Store. Part procedural, part caper, House of Bamboo is essentially a fantasy of military occupation—it would make an illuminating double bill with Imamura’s Pigs and Battleships. The DVD is letterboxed to accommodate Fuller’s muscular use of widescreen. J. HOBERMAN

The Maiku Hama Private Eye Trilogy


Drunk on B movie love, Kaizo Hayashi’s gumshoe trilogy offers welcome evidence in the age of nth-degree reflexivity that the art of retro-kitsch plunder doesn’t have to be mere necrophilia. Yokohama private eye and onetime juvenile delinquent Maiku Hama—with his nifty threads, lacquered hair, perfectly angled cigarette, and sunglasses at night—is an endearingly loopy vision of retro cool. (He’s played by art-film displacement icon Masatoshi Nagase, who drifted through Memphis in Mystery Train, Hong Kong in Autumn Moon, and Iceland in Cold Fever.) Driving around in a shiny vintage Metropolitan, spurred on by a bachelor pad bongos-and-brass soundtrack, Maiku works hard at a Spillane-worthy exterior, though it crumbles with amusing ease and regularity. The Most Terrible Time in My Life, 1993’s black-and-white first installment, goes from near cartoonish violence to a surprisingly sober portrait of bloody gang warfare, all the while reaching back to classic noir, nouvelle vague attitude-fests, and the nuttily anarchic yakuza variants cranked out by Japanese studios throughout the ’60s. Kino’s box packages Most Terrible Time with its two color sequels, The Stairway to the Distant Past (1995) and The Trap (1996). DENNIS LIM


Angel on the Right (First Run) Central Asia remains terra incognita even for many adventurous filmgoers—indeed, this 2002 dark comedy, released courtesy of the Global Film Initiative, may well be the first film from Tajikistan to appear on DVD.

Bad Guy (LifeSize) Korean bad-boy auteur Kim Ki-Duk turns his camera on Seoul’s red-light district for this 2001 study of sex, vengeance, and two-way mirrors, which received an eyeblink of a stateside release earlier this year. Extras include an interview with the director.

Point Blank (Warner Bros.) Lee Marvin is at his most iconic in John Boorman’s vengeance-obsessed neo-noir, which anticipated by several years the paranoia thrillers of the mid ’70s. Boorman is on hand for commentary along with Steven Soderbergh, and there’s a pair of vintage featurettes.

Unfaithfully Yours (Criterion) The only acknowledged classic of Preston Sturges’s post-Paramount period finally arrives on disc. Rex Harrison stars as a symphony conductor who, convinced his wife is having an affair, constructs elaborate revenge fantasies set to the music of Rossini, Wagner, and Tchaikovsky. Extras include a commentary track from a trio of Sturges scholars and an interview with the director’s widow, Sandy Sturges. JOSHUA LAND