Movie Talk: DVD Review, Two by Michael Powell

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We've discussed Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger many times on Movie Talk so it is a delight to announce that two of Powells' most difficult-to-see films have finally made their way onto DVD. The Michael Powell Double Feature gathers together Powell's last financially successful film in his lifetime, A Matter of Life and Death (1946), called Stairway to Heaven in America, and done with his longtime partner Pressburger, and Powell's last film, Age of Consent (1969) based on an Australian novel by the multifaceted Norman Lindsay (who was also the subject of the mid-'90s movie Sirens) and shot down under. </P>

A Matter of Life and Death has heretofore been available here only on an inferior videotape. Now it comes in glorious, pristine Eastmancolor (with black and white passages) and a fine mono soundtrack. It tells of a flier (David Niven) a few days before the end of WWII who bails out of his disabled plane without a parachute. He survives, but the operators of a crowded heaven want him anyway. On earth he has fallen in love with American servicewoman Kim Hunter; in heaven he is defended before a tribunal by Powell regular Roger Livesey. It's an expressionistic tale, possibly going on solely in the mind of Niven, and unusually emotional for Powell. It blends poetry, philosophy, romance, drama, action, and comedy in an intricate blend whose imagery and ideas resonate back and forth throughout its running time.

Another Powell masterpiece, but far less recognized, Age of Consent is a variation on The Horse's Mouth, in this case a tale of an Australian painter (co-producer James Mason) who escapes from New York and back to Brisbane, as a stopover on his way to a remote island, inhabited luckily almost solely by Helen Mirren, in her first movie. The loping narrative simply recounts how the Gauguinesque painter, Bradley Morahan, acclimates himself to the island and takes on the near-feral Mirrin as a model. A Lawrencian figure, with a touch of Prospero, Morahan is on a back-to-nature, simplicity quest, which he doesn't necessarily find, but the remote island he finds himself on offers something much different.

The film is so crisply shot (by Hannes Staudinger) that you can almost feel the sand between Mason's toes as he walks along the sunset beach, or feel the sunlight against Mirren's frequently naked skin. Powell loved nature, and as what we call a "location masochist," like John Huston and Werner Herzog, preferred settings that were as difficult to reach as possible. Here he turns the screen into a bright pallet that matches the imagination of Mason's painter. Also delightful in the film is a terrier named Godfrey. Age of Consent has been restored for this disc, its original credit sequence and musical score put back in decades after Columbia took them out to make this art film more "commercial."

There is a discrete amount of supplements to support the two films. Both films feature a five or six minute video introduction by Martin Scorsese. A Matter of Life and Death also has an informative audio commentary track by Powell-scholar Ian Christie, whose books on Powell are well worth reading. Age of Consent has more in the way of extras. There is a sleepy-eyed yak track by Film Comment writer Kent Jones, who gives an account of the film's making from a younger generation's perspective, plus a making of, an interview with Mirren, and a small featurette featuring filmmakers Ron and Valerie Taylor, who did the underwater footage for the film (as well as for, more famously, Jaws).

The Michael Powell Double Feature comes from Sony on two discs and retails for $24.96, hitting the street on Tuesday, January 6, or available from NetFlix or a video store near you.