March 15, 2011

It's not TV, it's Carlos

With this 330-minute saga about the infamous Venezuelan terrorist, Olivier Assayas holds his place as one of our generation’s most eclectic auteurs

Also this week: The Fighter, Yi Yi

Carlos: The Jackal (Mongrel)
 By far the director’s most ambitious effort to date, Olivier Assayas’ multi-decade/language/region biopic of Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (better known by his nom de guerre, Carlos) premiered out of competition at last year’s Cannes before airing as a three-part miniseries on French TV. 

When Carlos finally hit North America, audiences were given the choice between a truncated theatrical cut and a five-and-a-half-hour über-epic. As consistently swift and gripping as the latter is, both options seemed less than idyllic. Luckily, we can now enjoy the complete Carlos with self-appointed bathroom breaks. 

At once an unsentimental character study and an edgy geopolitical thriller, the story begins in 1973 (set to The Feelies’ “Loveless Love”… much to the band’s chagrin) before taking us through every assassination, bombing and flippant love affair Carlos engaged in before his eventual arrest in 1994. Of all his pursuits, the brazen-but-bumbling raid on a meeting of OPEC leaders in Vienna provides the film’s riveting centerpiece.  

From super soldier to Che Guevara doppelgänger to bloated boozer, relative unknown Edgar Ramirez’s portrayal of the titular terrorist’s many shapes and forms is astounding. In one of the many short-but-sweet extras on the Blu-ray — which features the miniseries in high-def and the theatrical cut in standard — Assayas addresses the significance of casting someone who could not only depict a man from his early twenties to his forties, but also in several languages. The director also confesses his displeasure with the TV-versus-cinema debate surrounding his film. “Not only was this going to be cinema, it was going to be something that would go well beyond the scope of French cinema,” he asserts. 

A more amusing tidbit comes from Ramirez in another brief Q&A, where he likens his character to a rock star with groupies, jets and guns replacing guitars. Also on hand is a so-so doc on the re-staging of the OPEC raid. Worth a gander, though not half as thrilling as the final product.  

Also Available
If you’ve gone this long without seeing David O. Russell’s scrappy sucker-punch of familial boxing drama, now’s the time to get in the ring. Call it a comeback, The Fighter (Alliance) put the hot-tempered helmsman back in Hollywood’s good graces, scoring Best Picture and Director nods at the Oscars. Though the competition was stiff, there was little doubt that Christian Bale and Melissa Leo would nab supporting statuettes for their respective turns as a crack-addicted brother and an overbearing, over-hair-sprayed matriarch. Some are calling this the Rocky of our time, which was the filmmakers’ intent, as they address that film among other influences like Raging Bull on the DVD’s excellent half-hour making-of that mostly focuses on the performances and real-life characters. If you want technical input, the director’s commentary should suffice. Those looking for the best presentation and package should opt for the Blu-ray — it sports a wonderfully gritty transfer, a short doc about the man behind Bale’s character and a whopping sixteen deleted scenes with O. Russell commentary. 

Another art-house feature worthy of its robust running time is Edward Yang’s masterful domestic drama Yi Yi (Criterion), which has just received a high-def facelift. The film opens with a wedding and closes with a funeral, but in between centres on the contemplations of a Taiwanese family’s patriarch, his teenaged daughter and young son. Equally charming and tragic, this poetic slice of middle-class melancholy was Yang’s final film before his premature death in 2007, seven years after it earned him a Best Director award at Cannes. This re-issue is as close as it gets to pristine 35mm, but Criterion’s 2006 standard edition still packs a visual punch while offering the same set of revealing extras, including commentary with Yang and film scholar Tony Rayns, and a very nice featurette on Taiwan’s new wave of cinema, in which Yang played a substantial role.