A true marvel, A Matter of Life and Death is one of the best films by the storied English filmmaking team known as the Archers: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Among other felicities, this 1946 fantasy has one of the most crackling opening ten minutes of any movie you'll ever see: after a deceptively dreamy prologue, we are thrown into the conversation between an airman (David Niven) whose torched plane is about to crash in the English Channel, and an American military radio operator (Kim Hunter) operating the radio on the ground. Their touching exchange, made urgent by his imminent death, is breathtakingly visualized (you have never seen a WWII plane interior quite as vividly as this). What follows is glorious: Niven's death has been missed by an otherworldly collector (Marius Goring)--all that thick English fog, you know--and so he gets to argue his case for life before a heavenly tribunal. The heaven sequences are in pearly black-and-white, the earthly material in stunning Technicolor (the color is the cause of a particularly good in-joke). The Powell-Pressburger brief on behalf of humanity is both romantic and witty, and the wonderful cast is especially enriched by Roger Livesey (the star of Powell and Pressburger's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp), as a doctor with a camera obscura and an enormous heart.
Age of Consent, the other film in this two-disc set, comes from a much later period in Powell's career--indeed, close to the end of it. Made on a low budget in Australia in 1969, the movie depicts a disenchanted painter (James Mason) finding renewal in the isolation of an island and the beauty of the young woman (Helen Mirren) who models for him. The salt-and-pepper authority of Mason and the nubile freshness of Mirren give pleasure, although the theme is too on-the-nose (and Jack MacGowran's comic relief too broad) for a really subtle take on Powell's part. Extras include a seven-minute Martin Scorsese comment for AMOLAD, and a commentary track on that film by Powell-Pressburger authority Ian Christie; Scorsese chimes in again for Age of Consent, as does Helen Mirren, whose memories of her first movie are specific and fond. Kent Jones contributes the commentary track, a 10-minute interview with underwater photographers Ron and Valerie Taylor includes some Mirren comments, and a 16-minute making-of documentary gives some flavor of the set, including the memories of Powell's son Kevin. --Robert Horton