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Moscow cool

Profile image for By Boo Allen / Film Critic
By Boo Allen / Film Critic
William Powell, left, stars as sleuth Philo Vance alongside Mary Astor and Paul Cavanagh in “The Kennel Murder Case — one of six films in The Philo Vance Murder Case Collection.”Warner Bros. Digital Distribution
William Powell, left, stars as sleuth Philo Vance alongside Mary Astor and Paul Cavanagh in “The Kennel Murder Case — one of six films in The Philo Vance Murder Case Collection.”
Warner Bros. Digital Distribution

Musical about ’50s Russian rebels is a colorful treat

This week we begin in 1955 Moscow: Hipsters (****) Not rated, 125 minutes. Now available on DVD.

Moscow in 1955 is not where one would expect to find an engaging film bursting with color, dazzling musical scenes, rebellious youth, striking costumes and hilarious hairstyles, and a theme about the need for self-expression. But this crazy 2008 musical comedy-drama, totally original but reminiscent of a mixture of Chicago, Amelie, West Wide Story and others, now reaches American shores thanks to distributor Kino Lorber.

Co-writer and director Valery Todorovsky delivers an energetic work about nonconformist youths in Moscow who adapt Western-style clothing and hairstyles and listen and dance to forbidden American music. They naturally become targets for abuse and authoritarian repression.

A basic love story about outsider Mels (Anton Shagin) falling for hot yet elusive hipster Polza (Oksana Akinshina) goes on too long and feels stretched out, but the director delivers a series of engaging musical numbers, many popping up out of nowhere, and has assembled a talented young cast to complement the Romeo and Juliet figures.

Todorovksy imaginatively choreographs her scenes, spliced together with delicate editing to give a constant feel of animation. A real surprise, a real delight.


Tristana (***1/2) This latest release from the Cohen Film Collection, dedicated to reviving and rescuing notable films, showcases the biting 1970 puzzle from Spanish-Mexican director Luis Buñuel. The impish provocateur loved to skewer everything, but he particularly delighted in tweaking religious authorities and Francisco Franco’s government.

He bases Tristana on Benito Perez’s 1892 novel updated to 1920s Toledo, Spain. Catherine Deneuve stars as Tristana, orphaned and sent to live with a guardian, Don Lope (Fernando Rey). What starts out as abuse of the young woman ends up with her turning the tables on the predatory Don Lope, taking a lover (Franco Nero — seen recently in Django Unchained), and losing a leg.

Buñuel blithely mixes his diverse elements to render a satirical look at Spanish norms.

Not rated, 98 minutes. This remastered new Blu-ray disc includes a brief alternate ending and a 32-minute featurette with film scholar Peter Evans’ analysis of the film.


Philo Vance Murder Case Collection The Warner Archive Collection has assembled three discs of six films —The Bishop Murder Case, The Kennel Murder Case, The Dragon Murder Case, The Casino Murder Case, The Garden Murder Case and Calling Philo Vance — from the once-popular series based on novelist S.S. Van Dine’s gentleman detective Philo Vance.

The series, developed by several movie studios, ran from 1929 to 1948 or so, with more than half a dozen actors playing Vance at some point. These assembled six films give a good sampling of the actors involved, beginning with the best, the original Vance, a pre-<ITAL> Thin Man William Powell. He appeared four times as Vance and is seen here in the lively The Kennel Murder Case, directed by Michael Curtiz (Casablanca).

A pre-Sherlock Holmes Basil Rathbone played Vance in only the desultory The Bishop Murder Case. The remaining quartet of films featuring the Manhattan sleuth starred Paul Lukas, Edmund Lowe, James Stephenson and Warren William.

The Vance films enjoyed lean scripts and some noted directors, such as Curtiz. Also, up-and-coming marquee names and faces pop up during the series, such as 28-year-old Rosalind Russell in The Casino Murder Case.

The films feature concise and cleverly plotted murder cases, with Vance uncovering the culprit, among many suspects, only at the finale. These six were made between 1930 and 1940. Lengths vary, but all run 87 minutes or less.


Collaborator (***) Actor Martin Donovan makes an impressive writing and directing debut in this involving psychological thriller. He also stars as Robert Longfellow, a faltering New York playwright who returns to his Los Angeles home to stay with his mother (Katherine Helmond), see an old girlfriend (Olivia Williams), now a successful actress, and grudgingly converse with Gus (David Morse), the 57-year-old neighbor he grew up across the street from.

Various other subplots play out and build up tension along with a personal interest in Longfellow before the final parts of the film devolve into a hostage crisis story. But Donovan mostly succeeds in avoiding the cliches of that genre with deft character portrayals and some unforeseen plot twists.

Not rated, 87 minutes. The DVD contains interviews with Williams and Donovan.


Life of Pi (**1/2) Ang Lee directs David Magee’s script from Yann Martel’s allegorical and fantastical novel.

A boy, Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma), travels with his family from India to Canada. But a shipwreck throws him into a small boat with a group of zoo animals. Quickly, they are all reduced to a computer-generated tiger. The two co-exist, an absurdity that supposedly gives Zen-like life lessons to the boy. He eventually grows into the man (Irrfan Khan) who tells the story in flashback.

It’s a moderately entertaining pseudo-spiritual diversion with elaborate but not particularly awe-inspiring special effects. Pi was Oscar nominated for best picture and won best director for Lee. Rated PG, 127 minutes.


The Devil’s in the Details (**) What begins as a potentially engaging set of encounters between Navy psychologist Bruce Michaels (Ray Liotta) and Thomas Conrad (Joel Matthews), a soldier returning from intense combat, eventually turns into substandard torture porn.

Conrad, suffering the effects from combat, counsels with Michaels. Before long, Conrad, in some nefarious scheme by a Mexican cartel to smuggle drugs into the U.S., is kidnapped and tortured, a process director Waymon Boone drags on unnecessarily.

Rated R, 100 minutes. The disc contains a 12-minute “behind-the-scenes” featurette.


Gun Hill Road (**1/2) Esai Morales, as recently released convict Enrique, looks set to explode at any time throughout this first feature from writer-director Rashaad Ernesto Green. Enrique leaves prison after three years and returns to his Bronx home, where his wife, Angela (Judy Reyes), is scared and leery of him. Meanwhile, his teen son Michael (Harmony Santana) guards his new sexuality, all changes Enrique struggles to navigate without exploding.

Rated R, 86 minutes. The DVD contains an interview with Green.


And, finally, for kids this week:

Curious George Swings Into Spring In this full-length adventure, George and best buddy Hundley decide to take a closer look at nature. They investigate the season’s new flowers and the fresh arrivals of baby animals. Before the sojourn concludes, they take a canoe ride and George becomes airborne. Not rated, 57 minutes.

Angelina Ballerina: The Mouseling Mysteries, Thomas and Friends: Go Go Thomas and Barney: Play With Barney In this new trio of unrated titles, mouseling Angelina and friends, in five episodes (61 minutes), try to solve some mysteries; Thomas and friends, in five episodes (58 minutes), learn about being quick and ready as well as other lessons; and Barney stars in four episodes (76 minutes) devoted to the benefits and responsibilities of playing with others. The individual discs include additional games, music videos, puzzles and more.


Also available on DVD: Fairy in a Cage, Ministry of Fear, Ripper Street, Smashed.