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The DVD Geek: The King’s Speech

Tuesday, May 10th, 2011

Based upon a stageplay that serves as a showcase for some juicy acting, the 2010 Oscar-winner, The King’s Speech, released by Anchor Bay Entertainment, preserves the engaging byplay between Colin Firth, as a member of the British royal family impaired by stuttering, and Geoffrey Rush, as the therapist who oversees his adjustments to the condition.  The film also serves as a fine historical drama and, in essence, a prequel to The Queen (Helena Bonham Carter portrays the spirited character that Sylvia Syms embodied in the latter).  The script falls short in a couple of spots—the early part of the decision making process by Firth’s character is not as satisfying as it could have been—and whether out of royal discretion or an inability to break away entirely from the story’s stage beginnings, the director, Tom Hooper, does not always get as close to the characters as filmmaking could enable him to, but the material is so rich in drama and character interaction that such minor flaws are easily eclipsed by the joys of its discoveries and the excitements of its milestones. 

The picture on the feature is presented in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 1.85:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback.  Near the beginning, there is a clever audio metaphor employed, as Firth’s character makes an embarrassingly halting speech over a cavernous public address system, and while it is perfectly effective on the DVD’s 5.1-channel Dolby Digital track, the moment is chillingly enhanced by the detail afforded through the DTS track on Anchor Bay’s Blu-ray.  While on the whole, the 119-minute film is not the sort one rushes to the Blu-ray shelves to obtain, particularly when the DVD is at a lower price point and the supplements are identical, the enhanced quality of the image and sound delivery creates some subtle improvements to the play of the film.  The crisper, sharper colors bring out the luxurious details of the production designs surrounding Firth’s character, but they also magnify the oddly uncomfortable tightness of the living quarters of Rush’s character, and his dungeon-like office.  The film’s one other daring audio mix is to overlay the dramatic climax—the movie’s title can refer to how Firth’s character talks in general, but also specifically to the radio broadcast he makes after Germany invades Poland, which serves as the film’s emotional conclusion—with Beethoven’s 7th Symphony.  In a purer world, Hooper’s choice (actually, it was editor Tariq Anwar’s idea) would be the subject of grand debates, since it is a rather absurd distraction and yet one that nevertheless underscores the hero’s struggle and triumph with an unbound emotional precision (with bonus points for using a German composer), and on the Blu-ray, jacked up as high as you dare, it becomes even more of a triumph.

There are optional English and Spanish subtitles.  The story is also the sort of material that can be greatly enhanced by a smart set of supplements, and Anchor Bay does not disappoint.  Along with a decent 24-minute promotional documentary and another 22 minutes of interviews with Hooper and some members of the cast (including Claire Bloom, who once met the character she is portraying), another informative 11-minute interview with the grandson of Rush’s character (who, in terms of production time, revealed at the very last moment to the movie’s creators that his grandfather had left  a diary, which subsequently informed numerous scenes), there is a 2-minute newsreel clip of the real George VI giving a speech at the end of WWII, and a complete audio-only presentation of the real 6-minute title speech (it is only because you’ve seen the movie that you realize his pauses are in very odd places).  Hooper also provides a commentary for the feature, going into more details about staging the film and about the history it is depicting.

The DVD Geek: The Sweet Smell of Success

Tuesday, April 5th, 2011

Two sorts of viewers enjoy watching DVDs and Blu-rays.  One sort just wants something to do.  Maybe they’ve got a Blu-ray player and a couple of effects-heavy blockbusters in the format, but they mostly rent their movies and if they have much of a collection at all, it is largely made up of Christmas gifts and such that have only been viewed once or twice.  As soon as a soup-to-nuts Internet download mechanism with a single, set monthly payment is in place, and it is almost there, now (the ability to link large TV screens to routers is still in its adolescence), the DVDs will start gathering cobwebs.  The degradation in image and sound quality will hardly be a noticeable tradeoff for the convenience of access. 

The other kind of viewer, however, will be more discerning, because that kind of viewer truly loves movies, not for the distraction they offer from life, but for the embellishment to life the aesthetics of film enable.  What these viewers want most of all is to replicate the experience of seeing a movie in a movie theater.  With Blu-ray and a very large screen, the ability to replicate this experience is achievable.  It doesn’t happen very often, but it does happen.  There are many outstanding Blu-rays in the marketplace, and not a few of them have been released by the Criterion Collection, but every once in a while you come across a Blu-ray that is even better than outstanding, one that has an extra sort of subliminal something that crystallizes its perfection of delivery and transports the viewer to the illusion of a genuine theatrical experience.  Criterion’s The Third Man Blu-ray, now sadly out of print, was one such achievement, and Criterion’s new Sweet Smell of Success Blu-ray is another.

With its vivid black-and-white on-the-streets cinematography, which doesn’t so much capture a documentary view of New York City as it does use, spectacularly, that city and its nightlife as a soundstage, and with a jazz-based musical score, conceived primarily by Elmer Bernstein and, separately, Chico Hamilton, that matches the frenetic bustle of urban life with a swirling competition of melodies and harmonies that climb over one another in a Darwinian struggle to reach a pinnacle of musical expression—and can do so because the drama is so powerful that no amount of music can come close to overwhelming it—Sweet Smell of Success is a film that succeeds in a great part because its images and sounds are so sublimely designed and delivered, and so it is that Criterion’s meticulously and unrestrainedly produced Blu-ray creates a rapturous experience of movie watching, one that can forever be re-experienced and re-explored.

Directed by Alexander Mackendrick, Burt Lancaster is a manipulative gossip columnist whose absolute power has begun to instill sedentary flaws, and Tony Curtis is a desperately ambitious press agent whose energy exacerbates those flaws.  The 1957 film is specifically a portrait of its time, from the real streets where it was shot and the near-cutting edge music that paces its excitement to its barely veiled intention of exposing the now almost forgotten columnist, Walter Winchell, and his predilections.  Yet as time-centric as its nightlife milieu and fear mongering political insinuations are, the dynamics of its melodrama are readily recognizable in any age and are deftly moderated by its invigorating dialog, its magnetic performances and its taxi cab ride editing.  The film may have been a boxoffice failure in its day, particularly disappointing the pony-tailed teens who were reportedly squealing whenever they caught sight of Curtis on the streets, but the film cannot be understated for the acting creds it gave him within the eyes of the industry, resetting his career for a full decade as an ‘A list’ player.  His character, however, is only a youthful measure less venal than Lancaster’s, and it is this unholy contrast between the skyscraper beauty of the film’s artistry and the alleyway scummyness of the characters that gives Sweet Smell of Success its divinity.

The picture is windowboxed with an aspect ratio of about 1.66:1.  The monophonic sound is solid, and thrilling.  There are English subtitles.  Film historian James Naremore, who has written a book about the movie, shares everything he knows on a commentary track, including reeling off more than a dozen different endings to the film that were considered until the one that was used was worked out.  He talks about the film’s creators, including Lancaster’s production company and how its dynamics were a significant force in conceiving the film, and he identifies the references screenwriters Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman had included to real gossip columnists and publicity agents (who, Naremore explains, hovered around Winchell like, “pilot fish around a shark”).  He analyzes the music and the cinematography and explains what was shot on the streets and what was shot in the studio.  He discusses the skills not just of the primary cast members, but of the many supporting players, and he provides a comprehensive analysis of the story.

Along with a trailer, there is a very good 1986 profile of Mackendrick that runs 44 minutes, along with an equally enlightening 25-minute testimonial by director James Mangold, who was one of Mackendrick’s students during a second career as a film professor.  A nifty 1973 profile of cinematographer James Wong Howe, who got his start in silent pictures, runs 22 minutes and includes an extensive demonstration by Howe of lighting techniques.  Finally, there is a rewarding 29-minute reflection on Winchell by biographer Neal Gabler, although Gabler fails to mention one significant aspect of Winchell’s writing, that the ellipsis blurbs that often ran by scores in his columns resemble quite pointedly today’s Twitter gossip.

The MGM/UA Home Entertainment release of the film on DVD did not have 16:9 enhancement and, with a much weaker transfer, is now about as useful as yesterday’s sports pages.  Criterion has also released a two-platter, moving all of the special features except the trailer onto the second platter.  The transfer is the same as the one used for the BD, and it is great if that’s your only option, but the excitement that the crispness of the BD’s image and the power its audio track instills just isn’t there.

DVD Geek: Elia Kazan’s America America

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

Elia Kazan’s labor of love and the capstone of his career, the 1963 America America, has been released by Warner Home Video.  Based upon the experiences of Kazan’s uncle, but imbued with the internal drive and emotional power of a direct autobiography, the film depicts the emigration of a young boy, living in Turkey but of Greek heritage, who first leaves his village and then struggles in Constantinople to earn the passage for his ultimate destination, as indicated in the film’s title.  Having failed by laboring, he turns his attention to marrying well so he can afford the trip.  Running 168 minutes, the film conveys the scope and cathartic experience of the life-changing journey it is depicting.  It is strikingly photographed in black-and-white by Haskell Wexler and intricately edited by Dede Allen, so that specific moments have the same rapturous effects that one associates with the great black-and-white pantheon films, and Kazan’s guiding of the performances through those same moments is equally masterful—the scene in which the hero confesses to his fiancée that she is only his means and not his end is as great as filmmaking ever gets.  The movie is uniformly in English, which makes especially the transitions the hero goes through harder to absorb—unfortunately there is no alternate language track on the DVD, which might eliminate some of the jarring disorientation that occurs only because Kazan has otherwise staged the movie so genuinely that its English dialog just seems out of place—and is populated by a mostly still unknown cast.  Supporting player John Marley, who sports a beard but can be recognized by his distinctive voice, is the one performer whose career expanded substantially in the years after he made the film.  Stathis Giallelis stars.  Although the movie achieved general critical acclaim and was one of the most distinctive nominees in the 1963 Oscar ceremony, it was simply too much like a foreign film to attract a popular audience, but not enough like one to attract an art house following, and it hasn’t even had much of a life in syndication in the decades since.  As Kazan historian Foster Hirsch puts it on his commentary, “This is a film whose time has still not come.  I’m hoping that the release of this DVD will change that.”

The picture is presented in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 1.85:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback.  The picture transfer is spotless, and the larger the screen you can see it on, the better.  The monophonic sound is solid and the musical score by Manos Hadjidakis is beguiling.  There are optional English and French subtitles.

Hirsch has plenty of time to share everything he knows about the film, and at times he does fall into describing what is happening on the screen, but it is more for filler than for a misguided sense of purpose.  He is a strong Kazan enthusiast, but he does acknowledge the parallels between the characters within the film acquiescing to authority and Kazan’s own political follies.  Kazan shot some of the film in Turkey before being forced to complete it in Greece, but it would be interesting to know which footage was taken from where, even in general terms, which Hirsch is unable to elucidate.  He touches a bit on the conflicts Kazan had with Wexler because of his political stances, but does not go into enough detail for the viewer to judge whether or not it affected the work, although Hirsch gives his assurances that it did not.  The best passages come from where Hirsch has been able to talk with the film’s actors and elicit from them Kazan’s remarkable directing methods, which were essentially to understand the inner psychologies of both the actors and the characters so supernaturally well that he would only have to say a specific phrase or two to get the performance he wanted, and Hirsch is able to report what some of those words were.  One actor, for example, grasped the complete nature of his character after Kazan suggested to him that the character, “Sleeps with his hands between his legs.”

The DVD Geek: America Lost and Found: The BBS Story

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

The Criterion Collection has taken a trio of popular classic films from the Sixties and early Seventies that were produced by Bert Schneider, Bob Rafelson and Steve Blauner under the banner of BBS Productions and were considered the heart of the American New Wave cinema of the time, Easy Rider, The Last Picture Show and Five Easy Pieces, and have combined them with four more esoteric BBS productions, Head, The King of Marvin Gardens, Drive, He Said, and A Safe Place, in a DVD boxed set entitled America Lost and Found The BBS Story .   It is worth noting that Jack Nicholson was centrally involved in all but one of the seven films.  When he began working on them, he was a minor American-International Pictures headliner that nobody paid any attention to, and by the time he finished, he was a superstar.  While most viewers already own at least the big three films, one of them, The Last Picture Show, was in dire need of a fresh transfer, which Criterion has industriously supplied.  They have also supplied a welcome scrubbing and polishing of Head, and have come up with some terrific supplementary features for every feature.  But let’s not beat around the bush.  The one real reason why anybody would pay attention to this collection at all is that only Easy Rider had previously been released on Blu-ray, through Sony Pictures Home Entertainment  so that Criterion’s Blu-ray boxed set of the films is a fully loaded treasure trove of must-have movies delivered in the finest condition home video can supply, even though, for all intents and purposes, it is nearly impossible to differentiate the image quality between the Criterion DVD and BD versions of each title.  Each movie in the collection has English subtitling.

Criterion has given the Easy Rider Blu-ray a DTS track while Sony only sprang for a 5.1 Dolby track.  Under the supervision of co-star Dennis Hopper, who was the official director of the 1969 film, the movie’s musical score and a smattering of its sound effects were enhanced with a 5.1 mix a little while ago.  It was a welcome addition for many reasons, as commons sense would dictate that if the technology had been available at an affordable price, the film’s creators would certainly have done it at the time.  Most importantly, however, the film was attempting to explore America’s cultural divide, and was one of the most accomplished intentional depictions of the zeitgeist ever created on film.  Despite the accuracy of its portrait (Nicholson’s amazing monolog, “They’re scared of what you represent…” is as much an explanation of the Red State/Blue State animosities of today as it was an understanding of the ‘short hair’/’long hair’ conflict of its time), it is inherently, now, a film of nostalgia, and in the same way that all memory is an exaggeration, the depth and power with which the pop songs swirl out of the images like smoke from a hookah intensifies and embellishes one’s memory of experiencing the film in the past.  The effect of Hopper’s mix is made most compelling of all by the purity and force of the Criterion BD DTS delivery.

The picture is presented in letterboxed format with an aspect ratio of about 1.85:1.  The image transfer is essentially the one that was originally done for Sony’s DVD.  The Sony and Criterion DVDs are as indistinguishable as the BDs are, and the only differences between the DVDs and the BDs come from whatever improvements in BD delivery one’s home video system offers.  Sony’s BD has French, Spanish and Portuguese tracks in 5.1 Dolby and English, French, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles.  Criterion has just English subtitling.  Sony carries over a commentary by Hopper from the DVD, along with the very good 65-minute retrospective documentary.  Hopper leaves longish gaps between comments, particularly in the film’s second half, but he does explain the basics of the production and what he was trying to accomplish, as well as providing a few interesting anecdotes about the shoot.  Of much greater value is the documentary, featuring interviews with Hopper, Fonda and a number of other cast & crew members.  They have many interesting things to say about the production (the motorcycles were designed to look cool, not to take cross country trips) and the film’s meanings.  They swear it was real marijuana they used for the pot scenes, and real rednecks they used for the locals who harass the heroes.  They also reveal how awful communes really were (they sort of staged one in Topanga Canyon—gosh, we hope we aren’t spoiling cherished ideals here), suggest that Fonda and Hopper were not as friendly with one another as they pretended to be, and ponder Hopper’s first three hour plus cut.  It’s full of juicy tidbits that fans will not want to miss.

Although misidentified as having been recorded in 2009, the Criterion presentations also have the Hopper commentary, and include, as well, an engaging commentary Hopper recorded with co-star Peter Fonda and production manager Paul Lewis that was used on the second Columbia TriStar LD release, reacting to the film as it unspools.  Some information is presented indirectly (apparently in early drafts of the script the pair were motorcycle performers who appeared at fairs) but there is plenty of direct insight.  Hopper often explains why he is evoking John Ford or whatever in a particular scene, points out his tactical errors (he forgot to shoot one important scene and only realized his mistake after the wrap party was over) and how he solved problems on the fly when the improvisational passages got away from him.  On the downside, the three tend to name all their friends as they show up in the group shots (even little Bridget is running around in the commune), although few laser disc owners will care for that much arcane detail.  Like the movie itself, at first glance the commentary may seem a bit unstructured and spacey, but it is rich in both information and reminiscence, providing insight, nostalgia and, contrary to the film’s moral, proof that free spirits can indeed survive and prosper in modern America.

The film and its supplements are presented on a single BD platter, but the remaining Criterion supplements, except for a trailer, are split to a second platter on the Criterion DVD.  There is a cool 2-minute black-and-white clip from the movie’s promotion at Cannes, another terrific 30-minute retrospective documentary from 1995 (Karen Black does a great imitation of Terry Southern; the documentary contains a number of points that are not broached in the other materials) and an 18-minute interview with Blauner, who is a little more frank than the others are about some of the conflicts that occurred during the various BBS productions (he has a very telling story about Jim McBride).

“There would have been no Easy Rider without The Monkees, so they should canonize The Monkees, just for that,” says Blauner in his interview on the Easy Rider platter.  The television series, The Monkees, was the kitten, and the group’s 1968 feature film, Head, was the cat.  Not nearly as lovable, but it has had at least nine lives after its disastrous first theatrical run and is recognized today as a relatively sophisticated cult comedy based upon the precepts of experimental and avant garde film.  Rafelson’s first feature, the script was written primarily by Nicholson, who was essentially on a director’s career track himself until Easy Rider turned him into a movie star.  A deliberately peripatetic collection of sketches, including meta-sequences about the film itself being shot (Hopper, in his Easy Rider getup, can be glimpsed in one such scene), you could probably put the film on Repeat Play and then step into it at any point and watch it until that point is reached again.  The film has a vague theme about the entrapment of fame or bad contracts, which is embellished within the individual sketches with various metaphorical constructions—the heroes are trapped in large black box, or in Victor Mature’s hair, or are stuck in a desert with a Coke machine that doesn’t work, and so on—but it also seems as intended to end the reign of the band—which had essentially broken up anyway before the movie was shot—by including footage from the Vietnam war (such as the infamous ‘street execution’ shot) and a general atmosphere of unease that is always undermining the slapstick comedy.  Much admired today, the film’s soundtrack was also a flop at the time because it had no easily hummable Top-40 style tunes that would have attracted fans to the film.  The musical numbers usually identify a shift in the film’s situations or tone, but play no specific function other than to serve as milestones in the 85-minute movie’s endless loop of activities. 

The picture is presented in letterboxed format with an aspect ratio of about 1.78:1, trimming a little picture information on the top and bottom of the image in comparison to the full screen Rhino DVD, and adding a sliver to the sides.  The image transfer on Rhino’s version is essentially as colorful as Criterion’s, but Criterion has cleaned up the many speckles and scratches that marred the Rhino presentation, and the image is sharper, as well.  The monophonic sound is also richer, particularly on the BD. 

The four band members, Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork, supply a commentary, each one recorded individually and then intercut with the others.  The talk is not only about the movie, but about their entire experience as teenybopper idols, and it is consistently informative and reflective.  Nesmith has a great story about how they enlisted Mature’s participation—Schneider and Rafelson were afraid to call him, so Nesmith picked up the phone and dialed, Mature answered, Nesmith started talking to him, and Schneider and Rafelson thought he was putting them on.

There is a great 28-minute reminiscence by Rafelson on his creation of the band, the TV show and the film, a passable 28-minute analysis of what BBS accomplished as a whole by critics David Thomson and Douglas Brinkley (although we would take issue with some of their comments on the state of Hollywood films in the Fifties—they’re a bit selective), 19 minutes of intriguing black-and-white screen tests for the Monkees TV show that clearly demonstrate how much better the four stars were than others who were competing for their parts, a 5-minute color TV interview with the group to promote the film that is interesting for its roughshod staging, nine trailers and TV commercials, nine radio ads, and 7 minutes of unidentified audio ads accompanied by a nice montage of promotional stills.

The artistic pinnacle of BBS in general and Rafelson’s directing career in particular was the beautifully composed and enacted 1970 Five Easy Pieces.  You can’t really call Nicholson’s character a hero or anti-hero in the film, because he never commits a single benevolent act, although he tries to at a couple of points.  He is, instead, a villain, hurting or destroying the hearts of everyone around him because of his own selfishness and self-loathing.  He begins as an oilfield worker, saddled with a nagging girlfriend, a waitress played by Karen Black.  The viewer gradually learns that he is actually a former concert pianist and comes from a famous musical family, and he brings his girlfriend along, but then posits her in a nearby motel, when he learns that his father is ailing and goes to visit the clan.   The movie’s steady mix of drama and comedy, and the superb performances by everyone involved, demonstrate the infinite possibilities that character-driven dramas can manifest on film.  Beginning in the oilfields near Bakersfield California and concluding in the dripping Pacific Northwest, the film’s constant surprises and turns remain refreshing shifts in gear long after each change is readily memorized and anticipated.

The picture is presented in letterboxed format with an aspect ratio of about 1.85:1.  The color transfer is the most problematic of the group, but that is only on a micro scale.  László Kovács’ cinematography is exquisite, but it is also heavily grainy in places and victimized here and there by the limitations of the lighting.  The fleshtones on Criterion’s presentation are often slightly pinker than the original Columbia TriStar release, to a point where the more subdued tones are less disorienting, and other colors seem a little oversaturated in direct comparison.  To this end, the enhanced accuracy of the BD may even be counter-productive, magnifying the image’s anomalies.  Still, it is a minor point, and the BBS Story collection as a whole, again with the exception of The Last Picture Show, provides an interesting survey of studio-based low-budget color cinematography, during what turned out to be a delicate and not well managed transitional phase in the technology of manufacturing celluloid.  In other words, all of the movies look a little messy.

The monophonic sound is solid and stable.  There are three trailers, a 9-minute interview with Rafelson discussing the writing of the script (the screenwriter, Carole Eastman, had her name changed in the credits to Adrien Joyce because she didn’t like Rafelson’s ending, which in fact is much better and less clichéd than her own), a very good audio-only talk by Rafelson that runs 49 minutes in which he responds to questions from an audience and discusses the earlier part of his career in great detail, and an interesting 47-minute catch-all collection of interviews about the BBS films.  Rafelson also supplies a commentary during the film, talking at length about the different performances, the story, the cinematography, the production logistics and many other aspects of the film’s creation.

The Baltic Avenue of the BBS slate, Rafelson’s 1972 The King of Marvin Gardens, is an occasionally comedic drama about two brothers, a late night radio monologist played by Nicholson and a would-be real estate developer played by Bruce Dern.  Shot in Atlantic City in the wintertime when nobody would get in the way of the filming, the narrative is incoherent, with no dynamic middle act to pick things up the way there was in Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces.  Dern’s character is trying to put together a deal that he will clearly be unable to close, and for all of the avowed independent spirit and defiance of convention of the filmmakers, a gun gets passed around until its use becomes inevitable.  Essentially, the 104-minute film is ultra-Hollywood in concept, trying to repeat the formula that worked before, but following that formula on a superficial level without understanding why the formula had worked.  The characters are eccentric, but uninteresting, and there is not enough revealed about the story to define their drives or make you interested in their goals.  Because of the film’s star presence—Ellen Burstyn also has a major part—and its scattered humor, it is watchable if you know what you’re getting into, but because of that same star presence, it is a distinct disappointment, and remains so on multiple viewings.

The picture quality on the Columbia TriStar transfer is very good, but the Criterion presentation has richer, fresher colors, and unlike Five Easy Pieces, there is no ambiguity in the improvement.  The monophonic sound is clean and solid.  There is a trailer and a brief text profile of Rafelson.  Rafelson supplies a commentary for 101 minutes worth of segments from the film, talking about how various scenes were staged, what the actors were like, and what he was trying to accomplish.  There are also 21 minutes of additional reflections by Rafelson about various sequences, with inserted recollections by Burstyn, Dern (with some black-and-white footage of Dern, strategically drunk, trying to master a monolog), and Kovacs.

By chance, Nicholson shot some real campus riot footage when he was at the University of Oregon (standing in, unpersuasively, for an Ohio college) making Drive He Said in 1971.  The only film Nicholson directed in which he does not appear, William Tepper plays a star basketball player suffering from an early case of midlife crisis, while in a parallel story, his roommate, played by Michael Margotta, suffers a genuine mental breakdown when he engages in extreme activities in an attempt to exempt himself from the selective service.  Dern plays the basketball coach and Black has a major role, with Henry Jaglom, Robert Towne, Cindy Williams and David Ogden Stiers in smaller parts.  The film has a substantial amount of male nudity, something Nicholson speaks about with enthusiasm and pride in the 9-minute interview that accompanies the film (the interview makes the entire Drive He Said viewing experience worthwhile).  A great piece of nostalgia, the film is actually quite similar to Richard Rush’s Getting Straight and the two would make a viable double bill if you have enough patience for the Sixties.  Indeed, while the movie was a flop in its day and has a limited appeal beyond the dramatic engagement of a few individual scenes, it does, like Getting Straight, provide a very adept portrait of how the Sixties fell apart. 

The picture is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 1.85:1.  The image is often grainy, but that is inherent in the cinematography and when the presentation is smooth, it looks very fresh, with bright hues and accurate fleshtones.  The monophonic sound is okay.  A trailer is included.

Jaglom’s 1971 debut feature, A Safe Place, shares the same platter as Drive, He Said on the BD, although each film appears on a separate platter in the DVD collection.  Tuesday Weld stars, with Philip Proctor playing her boyfriend, Nicholson playing a visitor she has a fling with and Orson Welles playing a magician who comforts her.  Less than a minute into the movie, most viewers will recognize that the film does not have a boxoffice-friendly pace.  On his superb commentary track, Jaglom offers different interpretations of his creation, one viable explanation being that the entire movie is a Proustian exploration of the memories and feelings of Weld’s character as she listens to a single song, although during the course of the movie, other songs can also be heard.  Championed by Anaïs Nin, the film can also be said to unfold with an innovative female sense of values and harmonic emotions, as opposed to the linear, goal-oriented ‘male’ structure that most movies follow (even Head).  Or, it can be seen as a completely incoherent mess, which is the easiest way to dismiss it persuasively, except that it clearly has a greater sense of purpose, while the contextual comparison in the collection, The King of Marvin Gardens, does not.

Weld never had the kind of breakthrough hit that allowed her spectacularly good looks to catapult her outstanding acting talents.  Instead, those two aspects of her career were unable to coordinate and, unwilling to play the Hollywood game (a vague allusion to one of her greatest roles), she remained an oddity who attracted neither the fervent critical adulation or the hormonal sex symbol adulation she genuinely deserved.  Nevertheless, it is all there on the screen, to be savored, especially for the complex thoughts and feelings that Jaglom is asking her to communicate with, at times, only her eyes.  Nicholson, on the other hand, was still working out the balance between the lazy personality quirks that were filling his cash registers and the portion that he still had to lose of himself and ‘work’ to be a fictional character and justify playing a role.  If Weld’s beauty and talent are the film’s anchor, then Nicholson is its energizer, and it is the thrill of seeing him do his thing that enlivens the center of the 92-minute feature.  And then there is Welles, finally being allowed to practice his hobby—the art of stage illusion—on the screen.  Jaglom’s inclusion of him in the film could be written off as pure, misplaced hero worship, but on a visceral level, his presence is even more exciting theanNicholson’s, and the nuance he brings to his interactions with Weld should be sufficient proof that there is reason behind Jaglom’s scattered amalgam of contemplative characters and their conflicts with one another.  It should also be noted that Gwen Welles, no relation to Orson, delivers a really incredible monolog about sociological fear, and makes an intriguing counterpoint to Weld’s character.

Jaglom will be the first to tell you that image quality was not his top priority when he shot the film.  That said, however, the transfer, particularly with the precision that the BD offers, is outstanding.  You can often see the makeup on the actors, and every color or tone is vividly defined.  The image is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 1.85:1.  The monophonic sound is solid.  There is a trailer, a 7-minute interview with Jaglom that serves as sort of an executive summary of his commentary, a fascinating 28-minute 1971 TV interview with Jaglom and Peter Bogdanovich conducted by Molly Haskell (all three look so very young; even when Jaglom is trying to promote the film, he makes it sound like a boxoffice bomb), and a terrific 26-minute collection of outtakes (anything that has more of Orson Welles on the screen is a treasure) and screen tests, including what appears to be Paula Prentiss testing for Weld’s part (and turning the film, interestingly, into a farce).

For those who enjoy esoteric cinema, A Safe Place is worth viewing, but an even larger viewership ought to tune in to hear Jaglom’s commentary.  He explains his interpretation of the film’s events, shares frank stories about his life and career, and talks about working with the cast and crew.  The crew consisted largely of veterans who had no patience for Jaglom’s youth and inexperience, particularly since what he was asking them to do made no logical sense and clearly would not ‘cut’ properly together, until Welles pulled him aside and gave him a wonderful piece of advice—tell the crew they’re working on a dream sequence.  From there on out, everyone was gung ho.  “I went back to Orson and I said, ‘Why is that?  Why did that work?  I don’t understand.’  And he said, ‘You see, these are hardworking people.  They face struggles every day with real life.  They are committed to their sense of reality.  The one place that they’re given freedom, complete freedom, is in their dreams.  In their dreams, they don’t think that rules have to apply, they don’t accede to those rules, they’re free.  So, if you tell them it’s a dream sequence, you are freeing them from all the burdens of conventional thinking, and you’re doing them a great favor by liberating them from their concept of what can and cannot be done.’  And it worked.  There’s not a movie I’ve made since then that I haven’t at one time or another said to somebody, even actors, that as soon as I said to them, ‘It’s a dream sequence,’ it freed them to get creative themselves and contribute wonderful suggestions to what I was doing.”

When we reviewed Sony’s most recent DVD release of The Last Picture Show, we noted that the picture was overly soft and had a few stray speckles.  The image on Criterion’s presentation is a highly satisfying improvement.  It is sharpened, but not to a point of exaggeration, so that where director Bogdanovich wanted the greys to blend together, they do ease from one shade to another.  The film’s black-and-white cinematography is haunting, and even the minor changes that Criterion has achieved greatly enhance a viewer’s emotional response to the drama.  The 1971 feature is presented in its 126-minute ‘Director’s Cut’ format (the original theatrical cut has never been released on DVD).  The image is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 1.85:1, and the monophonic sound, with all of those Hank Williams singles wafting through the background, is crisp.  There is a commentary track featuring intercut reflections by Bogdanovich, Cybill Shepherd, Randy Quaid, Cloris Leachman and Frank Marshall.  Don’t think that Quaid snuck down from Canada just to share his thoughts, however.  The commentary is the one Criterion originally recorded for the LD.  Although Bogdanovich often points out the obvious to keep himself talking and thinking, the commentary is valuable, providing both production history and artistic insight.  He describes the different kinds of preparations he went through for the most important scenes, his reasonings for inserting the Director’s Cut footage, and specific problems he encountered along the way.  The statements by the actors concentrate upon craft, but their voices are more animated than Bogdanovich’s, adding a level of emotional understanding that mere transcription could never provide.  Hearing Shepherd describe how much fun she had kissing Jeff Bridges and Timothy Bottoms is also a kick.

A second commentary, by Bogdanovich, originally appeared on Sony’s DVD release, and is even more instructive.  It was once something of a mystery as to why this film is so much better than any other Bogdanovich film, but listening to his commentary, which is new, and to the excellent 65-minute retrospective documentary, which also appeared on the earlier DVD release, it becomes much clearer.  For one thing, he was working off of a Larry McMurtry novel instead of composing an original script, so the emotional wealth and backgrounds of the characters were already thoroughly established.  But he was also chomping at the bit to make a major film.  He’d done Targets, but that was a somewhat larkish project, based in part upon the limited availability of its star.  For Last Picture Show, he went all out.  He rehearsed extensively, had every shot and every scene visualized in his head, and it all came together just as he’d planned it.  “This next scene, which develops into a fight with Jeff and Tim, this was all shot in forty-five different set-ups, and they were planned rather carefully, and the actors and I rehearsed the scene quite a bit.  I remember rehearsing that previous weekend, and I told them exactly where the cuts were going to be.  I actually planned it while we were rehearsing it, so that they knew how far it would go without a cut and where the cuts would be.  It was a complicated scene and we had to do it in one day, so we were very prepared.  Every single shot, as you see it in the picture, is exactly the way it was shot.  We did it in sequence, shot by shot.”  He had a few more hits afterwards, but he probably never had the same ‘fire’ in his belly.

Like Easy Rider, the film appears on one DVD platter, with supplements on a second platter, while for the BD, everything is fit onto one platter.  The excellent 65-minute retrospective documentary that appeared on Sony’s original DVD is presented, along with the 13-minute Bogdanovich interview that appeared on the most recent DVD release, 6 minutes of silent location footage that originally appeared on the LD, a 2-minute montage of silent screen tests set to Hank Williams’ Why Don’t You Love Me (one actress flashes the camera), and a 5-minute color interview with Francois Truffaut praising Picture Show, which he compares, oddly, to Summer of ’42.  The most worthwhile inclusion, however, is an amazing 42-minute documentary that was shot by the late George Hickenlooper during the production of Texasville in 1990.  Ostensibly a promotion of the latter film, it is actually a fascinating exploration of the creation of Picture Show, focusing on the citizens of the town where the film was shot and the people who served as models for author Larry McMurtry’s characters, and including penetrating reminiscences of the cast and crew and their messy personal lives.

DVD Geek: The Town

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

Ben Affleck’s expansive crime drama about a Boston bank heist crew, The Town, has been released on a Blu-ray by Warner Home Video, containing both the 125-minute theatrical release and a 153-minute ‘Extended Director’s Cut.’  There is, interestingly, one scene in the director’s cut that repeats aspects of a conversation that occurs previously in the film, but it is actually like real life, where someone asks you the same question again because they don’t remember asking it before, and it is a nice little moment that never really happens in movies that are pared to the bone, even on director’s editions.  The longer version of the film is the more satisfying version because it has more time to explore the characters, and that is the point of the movie.  The theatrical version makes an efficient action film, but the Extended Cut keeps all of the action while letting it mean more because you know the characters better.  Affleck also stars, and in some ways the film is one of those wish fulfillment projects where, through his character, the director/star gets to live out a macho daydream.  But where directors like Steve Martin and Woody Allen have used this device to imagine that young women are attracted to them because of their personalities, Affleck is still young enough himself to believably get the girl, and instead gets to pretend that he’s a successful, high-adrenaline crook.  Giving the best performance in the film, Rebecca Hall plays a bank manager who is abducted during one of the heists and then released, with Affleck’s character, who had been disguised, then looking her up and striking up a relationship with her.  It’s absurd, but necessary to get the plot going, and since most of the film is relatively absurd anyway, if you accept these small exaggerations, you can have a very good time with how the story then plays out among the characters.  In another inspired piece of casting, John Hamm is the FBI agent heading the task force that is trying to bust the crew.  Curiously, there is one really nice sequence in the theatrical version near the end, showing how Affleck’s character evades some police checkpoints, that has been removed for no apparent reason from the Extended Cut, making his actions a little more confusing. 

The picture is presented in letterboxed format with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1.  The color transfer is sharp and accurate.  The DTS sound mix has some nice moments, especially once the shooting begins.  The theatrical version comes with alternate French and Spanish tracks in 5.1 Dolby Digital.  A second platter is included that contains a copy of the film on DVD and a copy that can be downloaded onto handheld viewing devices.  The BD has alternate English, French and Spanish subtitles, and 30 minutes of passable production featurettes.  An option also allows the featurettes to pop up in appropriate spots as the film is unfolding. 

Affleck supplies a commentary track on the theatrical version and the same track with additional comments on the Extended Cut.  Along with discussing his approach and technique in various scenes, he talks a lot about the Boston locations and Boston culture being explored in the film, and about the research he did with the real bank robbers who operate or have operated in the past in the area of Boston where the film is set.  At one point in the movie, the robbers put on uniforms to escape detection because, Affleck explains, “People see a uniform and not a person.  I always wondered about that until we had to shoot the piece going to the train on the end, and I actually decided to take the subway from where we were to South Station, where the train was, wearing this outfit, and not a single person said anything to me.”  Except one old woman, who came up to ask him for directions.

DVD Geek: The Complete Metropolis

Wednesday, December 29th, 2010

The gaps in Fritz Lang’s magnificently poetic special effects extravaganza, Metropolis, are mostly filled on the newly ‘restored’ 148-minute version that has been released on Blu-ray by Kino on Video as The Complete Metropolis.  Incorporating footage that was recently uncovered in Argentina, the new presentation of the silent production is almost the same as the one that premiered in Germany in 1927 and drove everybody crazy.  At least you don’t go crazy any more trying to understand how characters got from point A to point B.  There is one significant sequence that is still missing, although it is adequately summarized in title cards, and there are few other minor pieces of footage that are still unfound, but for the most part, viewers can finally appreciate the beauty and the fury of Metropolis as it was meant to be experienced and enjoyed.  The footage is fairly easy to spot, because the traditional footage is immaculately presented in full screen format, solidified by the lovely BD presentation with smooth, sharp contrasts and barely a scratch, while the restored footage is still quite battered and is slightly windowboxed, though perfectly viewable.  It’s not ideal, but it’s worth having, without hesitation.  The roles of several minor characters are substantially fleshed out, but the primary function of the missing footage is to expand the rhythms of the existing sequences, and to give the story and its wildly diverse themes more time to create and leave emotional impressions with the viewer as the film advances.  It is amazing how much footage was taken out of the finale, for example, and how much greater enjoyment there is of the excitement when everything is stretched out a little more. 

Every once in a while a film artist comes along and tries to buck the system, but for the most part, Hollywood demands that films have literal narratives.  It is less important in Japan and a few other places, and musicals are allowed to cheat a little bit, but clear, logical storytelling is the generally accepted format for marketable motion pictures.  Back in the Twenties and especially before sound came along, however, everyone was still learning about what movies were, and film artists could be financially successful and still explore the metaphorical parameters of the cinema.  Of course, Metropolis was a flop, but that just prevented other moviemakers, and Lang, from making more of them that particular way.  The movie is yet another example of a ‘thank goodness somebody was stupid enough to bankroll this’ masterpiece.  The film does have a coherent story, about workers who labor on massive machinery (mostly as human regulators) and live beneath their factories, while the owners luxuriate in skyscrapers overhead, and the social disorder that arises when these worlds intersect, but Lang was coming from a tradition of German Expressionism, and the film was never meant to be a realistic depiction of a futuristic society.  Rather, it is an emotional portrait of the future, a celebration of architectural design, a caution about what happens when management and labor are too separated from one another, and it is a warning about mob rule—even when the mob does burn the right witch, it is only by accident.  The narrative of Metropolis creates its rhythm (which, as we said, is why the restored footage is so vital), while its images are its melody.  A combination of animation, miniatures and massive soundstage sets (all of which are expanded with exciting new angles and materials in the restored footage), you do indeed come away from the film humming the scenery, but it is a tune that will never leave your head.

As for the film’s musical score, it is a fresh recording of the accompanying music originally composed for the film by Gottfried Huppertz.  At its best, it evokes Wagnerian themes that create an effective resonance to Lang’s earlier works (the character names in Metropolis follow Wagnerian motifs, as well), but it is, ultimately, an arbitrary application of music, and can be substituted for something else if the viewer desires.  The DTS mix has a subdued surround presence and not really as many front separations as the film truly deserves (a wild application of sound effects and a more eccentric score would not be out of place).  Along with a trailer, there is a decent 55-minute documentary that tracks the history of the film and its various restorations, and a 9-minute interview with Paula Felix-Didier, curator of the Buenos Aires museum where the longer version of the film was uncovered, who describes in more detail how the longer copy ended up in Argentina and how it was re-discovered.  

Kino had previously released the 2001 restoration of Metropolis as the Restored Authorized Edition, which was thought to have been the definitive version until the Argentine additions were uncovered.  Running 124 minutes, the version presented is very similar to the Complete version except for the missing footage.  The deleted scenes are summarized in brief intertitles, although the pacing of discovery is lost.  The full screen picture looks very clean, with solid contrasts and adequate details.  In direct comparison to the BD, there seems to have been a little more touch up done in the new version, and the BD’s delivery also sharpens everything, but the 2001 effort improved the film significantly over its earlier iterations and is nearly on par with its successor.  Another recording of Huppertz’s score is utilized.  It is in 5.1 Dolby Digital and has a presentable impact, though not quite the clarity and scope of the new recording on the BD’s DTS track. 

The DVD’s special features are very worthwhile, and it is a shame Kino didn’t carry a few of them over to the new release.  There is a terrific collection of captioned behind-the-scenes photos, still photos that describe the (since restored) missing scenes, some terrific architectural and costume drawings, poster designs, and extensive cast and crew profiles.  There is a 9-minute featurette about the cleanup the film underwent for its 2001 upgrade, with numerous examples of how it was improved, and a very good 44-minute documentary that goes over the whole history of German filmmaking and Lang’s early career, explains how the movie’s various effects were accomplished, and covers many other details about the film and its fate.  Film historian Enno Patalas also supplies a commentary track, often describing what is on the screen and then explaining the sources or the meanings of its designs.

DVD Geek: The Last Of The Mohicans, The Director’s Definitive Cut

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

Called the Director’s Definitive Cut, the 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment Blu-ray release of Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans runs 114 minutes, a little longer than the 113-minute original 1992 theatrical release and a little shorter than Mann’s previously tweaked 117-minute DVD.  The thrilling historical adventure and romance, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, is so good that the changes are generally irrelevant to its overall impact.  Of more importance is the significant difference in the color transfer when compared to the DVD.  The DVD looked terrific, while the BD has a riskier, more organic color scheme.  Had that color scheme been used on the DVD, it probably would have looked awful, but the BD has such solidity and assurance that it can get away with the warmer and more atmospheric tones.  In comparison, the DVD image looks too bright and, in a way, too phony.  Some viewers will prefer the DVD image, since it strives for crowd-pleasing clarity, but there is a poetic strength to the BD.  For one thing, what light there is in a scene always feels like it is coming only from the natural available sources, and for another, the humans tend to blend in more with their surroundings.  You feel more like they are part of the environment they inhabit, and not interlopers, the way they seem on the DVD. 

The DTS sound on the BD matches the DTS sound on the LD, but does not surpass it.  It does, however, vastly supersede what the 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound on the DVD could accomplish.  The rear channel presence on the 1992 film’s audio mix is relatively limited.  The quality of the front separations is lovely, and some sequences, such as the waterfall cave segment, are magnificent.  Overall, however, the mix is a little timid and weighted a little too heavily to the Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman musical score.  The presentation is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1.  The BD has English, French and Spanish subtitles, and two trailers, along with an excellent 2010 retrospective documentary running 43 minutes.  Mann also supplies a superb commentary track with very little redundancy to the documentary.  While he never addresses the changes he has made to the various post-theatrical versions of the film, he does talk about the shooting logistics and the various artistic contributions of his collaborators, as well as speaking extensively about the film’s historical sources (and the naiveté of the James Fennimore Cooper novel).

“Either the real uniforms didn’t exist and we had to make them our­selves, but they came out better than if they had existed and we rented them, or it was actually both cost effective and vastly superior to simply do it our­selves, so we had an entire factory in Ashland, North Carolina.  The wool of the red coat uniforms was dyed in North Carolina because we discovered that the color of light was so different than in California that what would look like the correct red in California didn’t look correct in the sun in North Carolina.

“Very early on I learned when you work with brilliant heads of department, such as [the costume designer], it becomes an education.  Initially I thought the way the British uniforms fit was very unappealing.  It made men’s shoulders seem small, the coats were too short, and [the designer] explained that if [the actor] held himself—British officers held themselves in a correct posture, which would have been the posture they would have held themselves in 1757, which had a lot to do with training—they would look right, and I trusted him on this, and he was absolutely correct.  So the cut, the design, the shoulders, everything about the pattern with the uniform is dead accurate, and the actors trained to hold themselves and carry themselves as they would have.  The net effect is that there is a verisimilitude and you believe these characters, and when your eye takes in things and your brain processes them, and they have a certain kind of unconscious truth telling style.  To me, it opens a channel and I’m drawn deeper into the emotions that are there.”  All the more so when that verisimilitude is supported by the perfections of Blu-ray.

Mann exhibits a dazzling command of the knowledge he gained while preparing the film and shares many historical insights, from esoteric trivia to far-reaching explanations of the political conflicts both among the Europeans and the indigenous Americans.  And his sense of perspective is always exceptional.  “The past is a lot closer than we think.  Eight or nine generations is all there are between when I made the film in 1990 and when these events occurred in 1757.”  But as the characters trudge past rushing whitewater in one of the film’s many shots of the pristine natural environment that was once America, Mann also explains how much has changed over time, “This is called the DuPont Triple Falls and there was some kind of DuPont chemical plant on the top of this mountain and there was a certain odor around this water that smelled like kind of film developer, so we were all a little suspect of getting too wet.”

DVD Geek: Frozen

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

A surprisingly entertaining and nerve-wracking thriller, Frozen, has been released by Anchor Bay Entertainment.  About three college kids who get stuck on a ski lift just as the slopes are closed down for the week, the reason it works so well is not just the gnarly tortures the three must undergo as they try to extricate themselves from their predicament, but the very smart emotional dynamics that are at play between the three of them to fill the pauses between the thrills.  It’s very basic—there’s a guy, his relatively new girlfriend, and the guy’s best friend, who now feels like a third wheel.  Basic stuff, but in this situation, something more complex or subtle is not required.  It just has to prevent the viewer from identifying too closely with the tedium the characters must also endure amid the cold and the wind and so on.  The film begins in a very pedestrian manner.  The shot setups are cheap and the dialog is uninteresting, but the film’s 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound mix is exceptionally good right from the start—as soon as light hits the screen, so do the noises all around you—and especially on the Blu-ray release, it is the audio that carries you along until the suspense takes over.  The makeup continuity is inconsistent and one of the male heroes should have been wearing a more distinctively colored parka so that you can recognize immediately what happened to him, but otherwise, the film is highly entertaining and a terrific crowd pleaser.

The picture is presented in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback.  The color transfer looks fine, with the BD’s confidence during the darkest sequences being just slightly more involving than the DVD’s.  The DVD’s sound is great, but it is the BD’s audio that really has the crisp directional effects and subtle dimensional touches.  Both presentations have an alternate Spanish track in mono, optional English and Spanish subtitles, a trailer, 6 minutes of sensibly deleted scenes, a minute-long piece about how the ski lift where the film was shot was haunted, and 86 minutes of very good production featurettes.  It should be noted that the entire film was shot on location, with the director and the cinematographer hanging precariously on a second chair in front of the actors, and the actors actually coping with the cold weather and other indignities, suspended fifty feet above the ground.

The director, Adam Green, supplies a commentary over the deleted scenes and is joined by stars Shawn Ashmore, Kevin Zegers and Emma Bell for a commentary during the film, talking all about the challenges of the production logistics and the unique demands of the shoot.  They also talk about the counter-intuitive realities of their predicament—once you get cold, your breath stops condensing as it leaves your mouth; and you also get so cold you don’t necessarily bundle your clothing as tightly as you ought to, because you get numb to the coldness.  Green has some marvelous stories about sitting anonymously with audience members at a preview screening and listening to their macho opinions about the situation the characters find themselves in.  “Before the movie would play, when people just knew the storyline, just listening to the balls on people, like, ‘Oh, man!  If that ever happened to me, yeah, all I would do is’—my favorite was—‘I would take my skis and wrap them around the cable, upside-down, and I would reverse-helicopter down to safety.’  Or, ‘I would take my pole and I would vault to the next chair, till I could get to safety.’  It’s hilarious how everybody became Indiana Jones or Spider-Man.  ‘Oh, it’s only fifty feet.  I would just jump.’”

The one additional special feature exclusive to the BD is a second commentary, with Green, cinematographer Will Barratt and editor Ed Marx.  They talk about the commitment that was necessary to do the shoot the way they did it, the challenges that were involved (sometimes the lighting was reflected off the snow and onto the actors), and how the choices they made were intended to affect the viewing experience.  As Barratt explains, “One thing that is kind of cool, starting [near the end], we made a conscious decision to start beating up the film.  You’ll see that we really start to crush the image and we start to really, as [the heroine] starts to go a little crazy and stuff, we start to break up the frame.  Completely on purpose, to let the viewer feel a little bit more what the character is feeling.  So, as you watch the movie, watch it as it progressively becomes destroyed, as image quality starts to go away and the grain starts to come up, the blacks start to get all crushed.  I love DI (digital intermediate) for that reason.  I don’t ever use it as a crutch or to fix anything.  I try to give the DI the densest negative I can, the highest quality negative I can, but then, that gives you the opportunity to really mess with it and get really creative with it.”

The DVD Geek: Harry Brown

Tuesday, October 26th, 2010

A British remake of Death Wish with the inspired casting of Michael Caine in the title role, Harry Brown, has been released by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.  Caine’s character, a former marine who is no stranger to violence, is a widower living in whatever the British version is of public housing.  His one friend is murdered by the slacker punks who generally terrorize the area, and so Caine’s character systematically wreaks his vengeance while a police detective, played by Emily Mortimer, gradually pieces together what is going on.  The 2009 film has limited artistic merit.  Despite its political undertones in addressing the connections between poverty and anarchy, the villains are superficially nasty in a classic, exploitation movie sort of way.  While Caine’s character is more realistically vulnerable than Charles Bronson, the purpose of the movie is to root for the old guy and disdain the snotty youngsters.  It’s an efficient formula and, thanks primarily to Caine, remains essentially entertaining.  The class he brings to the part, in fact, makes the 103-minute movie highbrow and lowbrow, simultaneously.

The picture is presented in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback.  The colors are generally drained and yellowish on purpose, and the movie’s grungy look is in keeping with its setting and environment.  The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound has a modest dimensionality, and there are optional English subtitles.  17 minutes of deleted scenes have also been included.  They answer a few story questions but were sensibly excised.  Doubling the value of the DVD, however, is a commentary track with director Daniel Barber, producer Kris Thykier and, most importantly, Caine.  Caine’s contributions to the chat are super.  As they go over how the film was staged and what went on during the shoot, Caine shares many terrific anecdotes about his career, including marvelous stories about Charles Chaplin and Alfred Hitchcock (who wanted Caine for Frenzy and was annoyed when Caine turned him down), and quite a few excellent insights to his craft.  “Stanislavsky is very good for movie actors, because the basic tenet is the rehearsal is the work and the performance is the relaxation.  If you’re still working on the performance in front of the camera, the camera will spot it.  It’s got to be the relaxation.  They talk about theater acting and film acting as though it’s a similar thing.  It’s a completely different animal.  I always remember when I was in theater the first time, my voice wasn’t very loud.  You know, I didn’t have one of these ‘actor voices,’ and the producer said, ‘Michael,’ he said, ‘There’s a man right in the back of the balcony who has paid to hear every word you say.  Let’s have some projection.’  In a movie, you’ve got to cover up any acting that you’re doing from a camera that is three feet away.  That’s how different it is.  And the problem with a lot of critics is that they start out as theater critics and move into film, and you see the most hammy performances getting great reviews and then the same guys, if you give a movie performance, they say, ‘I think he was just playing himself because he didn’t do anything.’”

The picture on the Blu-ray is a little sharper, but the colors remain deliberately ‘brownish’ and bland.  The DTS track, however sharpens the details on the audio, enhancing the thrill of the action scenes and making the film more involving over all.  The subtitling and special feature options are the same as the DVD.

DVD Geek: The Thin Red Line

Monday, October 4th, 2010

Bookended with cameo appearances—each has one scene—by John Travolta near the opening and George Clooney near the end, Terence Malick’s 1998 WWII feature, The Thin Red Line, about the taking of Guadalcanal, is filled with actors who were moderately well known at the time of the production and actors who have since gone on to become quite famous, including Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel, Ben Chaplin, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas, John Savage, Jared Leto and John C. Reilly.  It is clear looking back now, however, that Nick Nolte owns the movie.  His character, a passed over colonel who has stuck it out to be in a war, is not very likeable, which is why he was probably ignored amid the backhanded praises that it is an ‘ensemble’ film, but you fear for the man in almost every scene, that he might pop a vein.  He’s harsh, he’s pushy, he has an ugly haircut, and he’s out of place, surrounded by youngsters (Travolta plays his C.O.), but in every microscopic opening he gets, Nolte imbues his character with a deep humanity.  It would be so easy to take the character over the top—and many actors could probably do nothing else in the circumstances—but Nolte is as restrained and measured as his character is heated and maniacal, and the more often you see the film the more you suspect that it will end up being the actor’s crowning achievement.

The inclusion of Clooney and Travolta is essentially a distraction imposed by the studio.  It also, probably, turned people away, because those are the two actors in the cast that general audiences would have come to see—nobody in his right mind goes to see a movie only because Sean Penn is in it—and would have been disappointed by their limited screen time.  Running 171 minutes, the film is one of Malick’s handful of masterpieces—four movies in three decades, with a fifth to appear shortly—and blends the excitement, confusion and nihilism of war with careful reflections on the value of existence.  There are several points in the narrative where the film cheats to get past a tough spot (basically jumping ahead and not worrying about how characters solve various battle dilemmas), but once you come to accept that shortcoming, the rest is true glory.  It is, however, a film that depends desperately on the quality of its presentation to convey, most powerfully, its conflict between the horrors of war and the beauties of cinema, and rising to that occasion is the Criterion Collection Blu-ray release.  20th Century Fox Home Entertainment released the film on DVD initially.  It was a fabulous DVD, but the BD is a great deal better.  Presented in DTS, the film’s highly detailed audio mix is not only all-encompassing, it is designed to be amplified, so that you can raise it to a higher volume level than you do other films without encountering distortion.  The movie is intended to be an immersive experience—it says as much in its opening shots—and the louder and better the audio delivery is, the less aware you are of anything outside the film.  The picture is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1.  

The picture is a slight but distinctive improvement over Fox’s DVD.  On the DVD, the colors are a bit lighter, contrasts are less detailed and the image isn’t quite as sharp.  Fox had also released a DTS DVD, without the one extra feature, an excellent music sampler, that the standard DVD had.  The picture transfer is the same.  The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound on the standard DVD is somewhat mushy.  The sound on the DTS DVD is sharper, but it still has a very weak rear-channel presence.  The DTS track on the BD blows them both away.

The BD has a 35-minute segment from 1999, after the production was finished, containing interviews with several of the cast members.  Their various imitations of Malick during their recollections of events create a unique composite portrait of the director that will have to suffice in the absence of any direct depiction of him at work.  There is another 18-minute retrospective interview from 2010 with casting director Dianne Crittenden, who shares some great screen test footage, and tantalizing images of now famous actors who didn’t make the grade.  Another 27-minute retrospective interview with editors Leslie Jones, Saar Klein and Billy Weber from 2010 goes over Malick’s very challenging filmmaking process, coaxing his vision out of the enormous amount of footage that he shot.  They also reveal that during the process, Malick never, ever watched the film in full from beginning to end, as he preferred to look at and work on just portions of it at a time.  There is a very nice 16-minute retrospective interview with composer Hans Zimmer, who describes the collaborative and creative process he had with Malick in great detail, and uses his insider’s viewer to discus the dynamics of the film’s themes.  Shifting gears, there is a good 19-minute interview with Kaylie Jones, the daughter of novelist James Jones, who talks about her father’s background, his war experiences, and his life as an expatriate writer.

Included as well are 13 minutes of deleted scenes.  Most have slight tonality problems, presenting characters too negatively, but there is one terrific scene with Clooney that might have had to go to maintain the balance of his star presence.  A 7-minute montage of production stills (including photos of some of the elaborate crane set ups) are accompanied by a recording of a Melanesian Choir that was featured more extensively in the DVD’s sampler.  There are 15 minutes of original newsreels about the battles for Guadalcanal and the rest of the Solomon Islands chain, and a trailer.

The film is also accompanied by an excellent commentary track featuring producer Grant Hill, production designer Jack Fisk and cinematographer John Toll.  They identify where each sequence, and sometimes each cut, was shot—the three major locations were Queensland Australia, Guadalcanal itself, and California—and explain how the light, which was rarely supplemented with artificial illumination, was captured.  Both Toll and Hill compare working with Malick to working with Carole Ballard, and all three describe Malick’s methods as a director. 

“Terry was shooting and he said, ‘Cut,’ and suddenly Wardrobe and Hair and everybody ran in to make touchups, and he was so frustrated that I believe that was the last time he ever said, ‘Cut.’   Now he just shoots until he hears that flap of the film in the camera.”

“Terry had never done a film on this scale before.  That’s where sort of the frustration came in at times.  If you have five hundred people halfway up the mountain and for some reason, a technical reason or some performance reason, you have to stop and re-set, it’s 40 minutes by the time everybody is back to original positions, which was part of the reason Terry just decided to let them run out, because he figured maybe he’d get something in the last half of the roll.”

“Filmmaking is all about taking very limited amounts of film and piecing it all together and coming up with a sequence, and sometimes the more of those pieces you have to work with, the better off you are.”

“There are a lot of small pieces in this film that come from the ‘run up’ and the ‘run out’ of the reels.”

Hill also explains that unlike normal film productions, where each day’s shooting is planned down to the smallest detail, there was a controlled but fuzzier approach to the day’s work when Malick was involved.  “It wasn’t something that I was able to get a clear idea of just from reading the script because Terry said, he uses the script as a guide.  So eventually what we did is put all of the major sequences, in a sense, into individual boxes, as they were reflected in the schedule, and they became, in a sense, like sort of ‘playboxes.’  If a sequence had 10 days in the schedule, the understanding was that we’d support pretty much whatever we could do within that 10 days to do that sequence in terms of providing time and resources and whatever, but at the end of that time, what we walked away with would be the component pieces to make that sequence work.  It worked, I think, very well, and it worked, I think, very well for Terry.  It gave him freedom to shoot the sequences in a way that worked for him, but at the same time, it gave him the necessary breaks and the necessary time allocation that would keep him all the time within the overall schedule that we’d made, which was something that he was very keen to do, and in fact in the end he shot the movie in the number of days that he said he would be able to.”

DVD Geek: Yoo-Hoo Mrs. Goldberg

Tuesday, September 21st, 2010

An excellent documentary about the talented comedienne, Gertrude Berg, who wrote, produced and starred in her own comedy series, first on radio and then very early on television, essentially inventing the family situation comedy for TV in the process, Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, has been released by Docuramafilms and New Video.  Directed by Aviva Kempner, the movie has the advantage of being about an entertainer, so that it can always cut to the entertainment to keep its energy up, but Berg’s life was rich and fascinating—as a little girl, she helped out the family Catskill hotel business by ‘entertaining’ the guests—and parallels with equal fascination the epic transition in America from radio to TV.  It was her show, The Goldbergs, begun in 1949, that worked out the initial production strategies for live television while, week after week, she turned out basic but often brilliant scripts exploring the emotions of family life.  In doing so, she also aided greatly in the assimilation of Jewish culture into the American consciousness.  After the horrors of World War II, her weekly demonstrations that urban Jewish Americans, outside of the funny accents and a few exotic traditions, had the same problems, the same feelings and the same dreams that all Americans had, cannot be underestimated as a critical factor in the long term healing process, especially with those who had been influenced by reactionary American firebrands during the Depression and lived too far from urban centers to have any direct contact with Jews themselves.  In any case, Berg was a pioneer, an innovator, and an artist sensitive to the most delicate nuances of the human heart, and the 2009 feature certifies her deserved placement in the pantheon of American heroes (at the very least, as Kempner points out, they should issue a stamp already…).

But this is a two-platter DVD, and the 93-minute film is just its foundation.  As with all of the great documentary DVDs, the supplements, including several complete episodes of The Goldbergs, enhance the viewer’s experience significantly.  Kempner, for example, somewhat amazingly got Ruth Bader Ginsburg to sit and share stories of how The Goldbergs had influenced her as a child, but there was only so much of that footage that could be included in the movie itself without diverting its primary purpose.  On DVD, however, there is no such shortcoming.

The film is presented in full screen format and the transfer is solid.  Some of the music has a mild stereophonic dimensionality, and the program is captioned.  A trailer appears on the first platter, and Kempner supplies a commentary track.  Although she spends some of the time highlighting the 20 minutes of deleted scenes that can be found on the second platter, she talks extensively about Berg’s background, the backgrounds of the co-stars on the show—Philip Loeb played Berg’s husband until he was forced off the show by the blacklist (and served as the model for Zero Mostel’s tragic character in The Front)—and her adventures in securing the various interviews and archival footage she used to put the film together.  Given the opportunity to enhance the film’s themes and expand on its details, Kempner leaves no stone unturned.

The deleted scenes are mostly digressions that move the focus too far away from the central narrative, although that does nothing to diminish their value or worthiness, and anyone watching the movie will want to follow up with them immediately upon its conclusion.  Series co-star Arlene McQuade, for example, has a terrific story about how she helped a friend living in her apartment building land his very first screen role, of which excerpts are included in the clip.  Her friend, who gave the producers trouble when it came time to pay him because he insisted that the fantasy part qualified as two separate performances, deserving two separate paychecks, was Steve McQueen.

Also featured on the second platter are three complete episodes of The Goldbergs from various stages in its life, including a kinescope recording of a live broadcast and an episode from the final season when the show moved the family, somewhat unsuccessfully (although, from a writing standpoint, the setting gave Berg many fresh options) to the suburbs.  The episodes are undated.  The earlier ones are particularly fascinating even beyond the quality of their stories, for the strategies they employ in blocking and shooting.  Rather like Citizen Kane, the cast members are always moving around one another as they converse, as if it would be deadly to have them just stop and talk, although the times that they do stop and talk work like close-ups in emphasizing an emotional point or narrative climax.  And BTW, Berg’s character and her character’s husband sleep in one twin bed, even cuddling as they talk, something that hadn’t happened in movies for years and wouldn’t happen again on TV for at least a decade.

Berg’s scripts are outstanding.  In classic TV sitcom tradition, they take one simple, clear idea and riff with it for 30 minutes (the commercials were semi-integrated with the story), but the delicacy with which Berg explores the emotions of the various characters and develops the gradually burgeoning crisis the situations are causing is superb, and is especially remarkable when one considers that she was doing so many other things besides writing the weekly scripts.  Anne Bancroft had her first screen appearance in one of the episodes presented, in which she plays the new daughter-in-law of one of the friends of Goldberg’s character.  Out of fear, she hesitates in calling the woman, ‘mother,’ but the woman thinks it is because she doesn’t like her and it is up to the heroine to sort everything out, which she does with a beautiful Shakespearean delicacy.  In another episode, one of the suburban shows, McQuade’s character wants to get her nose fixed, and Berg’s character has to be extra clever in devising a way to talk her out of it.  Again, the raw emotions of the piece are just as potent as the earlier mother-in-law episode, and it is, perhaps, because the emotions of the characters are so immediate and graspable that when a point of comedy is inserted it carries an extra resonance—we certainly laughed out loud several times while watching the episodes—as a release of tension.  The third episode is a good example of how the show’s Jewishness was nevertheless transcribable as a universal conflict that any viewer could identify with.  A friend has his third child and is torn between naming it after someone on his wife’s side of the family and someone on his own side.  There will be severe repercussions from whomever gets slighted and again, the heroine must use her wits to find the acceptable compromise.

Also featured is a 2-minute clip from another episode that depicts the sort of stage show Berg herself put on in her youth at the resort hotel; an outstanding for so many different reasons 12-minute segment of Edward R. Murrow’s Person to Person in which he interviews Berg and lets the viewer see the dichotomy between the sophisticated writer/actress and her more down home character; a lovely 4-minute monolog Berg delivered on The Ed Sullivan Show about assimilating Hanukah with Christmas; and a 2-minute sketch from The Steve Allen Show where Berg imitates Alfred Hitchcock.   Featured as well is a text profile of Kempner, 2 minutes of video with Kempner’s family that was intended to be inserted in the film, a half-minute clip of a billboard being put up that promotes the movie, and an unsettling 2002 short film directed by Kempner entitled Today I Vote for My Joey, about Jewish senior citizens participating in the 2000 presidential election in Florida (they are excited about casting a vote for the Jewish Joe Lieberman as vice president).  Running 20 minutes, it ends on a remarkably prescient punchline but also gains an added irony in light of Lieberman’s later political antics.

Finally, there is a 14-minute episode of a special radio program broadcast in 1942 that adapted (along with other popular shows in other episodes) Berg’s Goldbergs radio show (which, again, she wrote, directed and starred in), to patriotically themed stories in support of the War effort.  In the piece, Berg’s character encourages a newlywed to go forward with her plans for having a baby even though her new husband is shipping out.  As with all of the other works presented, it establishes a powerful emotional message with just a few simple strokes, but it also, as a sample of Berg’s radio work, showcases the lovely rhythmic dialog of English with Yiddish accents, which may have been one major reason that the program, even as it dealt with everyday events or ‘nothing at all,’ remained so transfixing to listeners and, later, to viewers.

DVD Geek: City Island

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

Do not touch the ‘Eject’ button during the first 20 minutes of City Island, a wonderful film about a dysfunctional family that has been released by Anchor Bay Films.  You may be sorely tempted to cut the movie short at the beginning, because to set things up it regurgitates seemingly tiresome stereotypes—the husband and wife, played by Andy Garcia and Julianna Margulies, fighting; the son in his bedroom surfing porn; the daughter leading a secret life—but there is then a terrific and quite unexpected plot turn, and it is not saying too much that a convicted felon, played by Steven Strait, enters the household and, almost in Teorama fashion, solves everyone’s problems.  The 2009 film is set in a little Utopian nook in The Bronx and, running 104 minutes, it feeds off of its New York energy, but as resistant as you may be to any part of it at first, once that plot hook sinks in, you’re caught for the duration and happily so, every step of the way.

The picture is presented in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback.  The color transfer looks fresh and sharp.  The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound brings a workable dimensionality to the music and environmental sounds, but is not a significant factor in the entertainment.  There are optional English and Spanish subtitles, 16 minutes of good but sensibly removed deleted scenes, and a 16-minute retrospective discussion about the film with Garcia, Margulies, Strait, co-star Dominik García-Lorido and director Raymond De Felitta, who sit around a dining table, eating and talking about their experiences with the film.  It is a terrific format, because they really let their guards down, at least a bit, and it would be nice to see more such supplements accompanying other films.  De Felitta and Garcia also supply a commentary track, talking in a relaxed manner about the long process it took to bring the project to fruition, about the location, quite a bit about working with the other cast members (Garcia’s daughter plays his daughter), and about making movies these days.  During one major family dinner scene, De Felitta deliberately shook the camera a bit, and also, “We shot without any real regard for the eye lines.  Supposedly, you know, you’re always supposed to be very careful with your left to right and right to left, but I don’t necessarily believe that that’s all that important any more.  I think the visual literacy rate is pretty high in people watching movies.  But in addition to that, it kind of gives things a slightly unsettling way.”

The one advantage to Anchor Bay’s Blu-ray is that the quality of the presentation enhances your subliminal involvement with the film, so that you enjoy it more.  Yes, the picture and the 5.1 Dolby sound are a little sharper and a little more solid, but there is nothing in the film itself that makes the improvements exceptionally advantageous.  The special features are repeated, and there is a second platter containing a copy of the film that can be downloaded onto handheld viewing devices.

DVD Geek: The Runaways

Monday, August 30th, 2010

Not as tightly composed or as carefully devised as the most popular rock biography films, The Runaways, from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, is nevertheless a satisfying production. It tells the story of one of the earliest all-female, hard rocking bands, which got started in the mid-Seventies with Joan Jett. Later, the band broke up and Jett set off on her own to even greater fame, but her collaboration with pinup singer Cherie Currie (Lita Ford was also in the band) in the title group led the way for everything that followed. Ultimately, Currie could not handle the pressure of success, and so the 107-minute feature winds down uncomfortably in its final act, which may have turned some viewers off, but the essence of how the band got their start and what it was like for them as things began coming together (they were only fifteen or so at the beginning), as well as the emotional bonds that were created and broken as a result, is effectively explored, and backed up by good performances and terrific music. Kristen Stewart plays Jett, but the center of the film is Dakota Fanning, as Currie. In building what is already a remarkable acting career, Fanning’s conversion into Currie is amazing, as much for the range she brings to the specific part (unlike so many portraits of flawed singing stars, she doesn’t start out over the edge already, rather, she makes a detailed and believable transition) as for the utter dissimilarity to other roles she has played. Additionally, the 2010 film cleverly mixes the vocals of Stewart and Fanning, for some of the performance sequences, with the real band’s recordings, for background music and such, and it is a good enough match to support the story, which is all that they need it to do.

The picture is presented in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. The color transfer is okay, with the cinematography mixing some bright, solidly colored sequences (the opening has a cute ‘Seventies’ street scene) with deliberately murkier images as the characters’ various substance abuse extravagances start to have their effects. The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital track has a limited rear channel presence, but the strongest musical passages sound terrific. There are optional English subtitles, a decent 2-minute promotional piece, and a very worthwhile 16-minute production featurette. Finally, Stewart, Fanning and Jett herself supply a commentary track. Jett points out the dramatic licenses the film takes and what was really going on at various points in time, while Stewart and Fanning talk about the challenges they faced in taking on the parts. The talk rates very high in basic star appeal, but beyond that, it is also a reasonably informative supplement that enlightens the viewer about the dynamics of the drama and the significance of the accomplishments it is depicting.

Cop Out

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

Kevin Smith constructs an epic picture-in-picture commentary on the Warner Home Video Blu-ray release of Cop Out, stretching the 107-minute film to 175 minutes with asides, deleted scenes, outtakes and so on. At times, he not only delivers his spiel for the film, but he doubles or even triples his image to talk to himself about the movie and about his own indulgences.

Seann William Scott, who has a secondary role in the film, also recorded some material interacting with Smith, or at least pretending to. Smith’s riffs on the world of movies and moviemaking are always engaging, as much for the speed and dexterity with which his mind works as for the information he has to share, and with the elaborate BD presentation, rather than being an unseen voice, he becomes the film’s ringmaster, taking you through the movie, showing you the choices he had for various comedy scenes and guiding you over the construction of every sequence.

Poor Bruce Willis must have a hole on the inside of his mouth after all of the times he has to bite his lip to keep from laughing and wrecking the scenes in the enjoyable 2010 comedy, kind of an homage to the urban buddy movies of the Eighties (there is even a cheap little electronic keyboard musical score). Willis and Tracy Morgan play a pair of somewhat inept Brooklyn cops, who get suspended for messing up a drug investigation. They must then go chasing after the drug kingpin themselves, because he has something of value that was stolen from Willis’ character.

In any case, Morgan’s lovey-dovey antics are consistently humorous, and as funny as it is for the viewer, it is clearly absolute torture for Willis to try to keep a straight face and repeat his lines while responding to Morgan (and later, to Scott, who plays a wise-talking thief they pick up). Even Smith, who also took credit for the editing, gives up here and there, letting in a smirk or a laugh that is barely in character, probably because it was the only take where Willis had it even partially under control (Smith says in the commentary that one of his goals was to get Willis to break a smile during a take). The geography of the final shoot-out is a little off, and there are a few sequences where Smith’s duller image compositions go on a little too long without variation, but for the most part, the film is totally enjoyable, with one engaging comedic moment after another.

A second platter is included that contains a DVD copy of the film and a copy that can be downloaded onto handheld viewing devices. The BD is presented in letterboxed format with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1. The color transfer is solid and the DTS sound is clear, although dimensional effects are limited and the musical score is intended to be on the wussy side. There are alternate French and Spanish tracks in 5.1-channel Dolby Digital and optional English, French and Spanish subtitles, along with 4 minutes of Scott sharing mangled New Age proverbs and 21 minutes of eccentric but informative production featurettes.

Douglas Pratt’s DVD-Laser Disc Newsletter is published monthly.
For a free sample, call (516)594-9304 or go to his website at

A Star is Born

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

The outstanding George Cukor 1954 production of A Star Is Born has been reissued by Warner Home Video as a two-platter Deluxe Edition. The first version of the 176-minute feature was fit onto one side of a single platter, with special features placed on the other side. The new release splits the film onto two sides of one platter and moves the special features to the second platter. But not to worry. If you don’t feel like getting up at the Intermission and turning the DVD over, there is a Blu-ray release that presents the entire film on one side and comes with the DVD platter of special features. Before we even get to how gorgeous the BD looks, however, we must say that the new DVD is a substantial improvement over what was at the time a very nice looking initial release. Contrasts are compromised on the earlier version and blacks are not as rich as they are on the new release. Other colors are not quite as intense, either, and some shots on the older version look a little pasty. What the BD brings to the new transfer, however, is an atmosphere of image. Colors are bright on the DVD, but bright and glossy on the BD. They are more solid and more film-like, and therefore transport the viewer more readily into the film’s glossy, Hollywood milieu. The BD’s DTS sound is even more of an improvement over the DVD’s 5.1-channel Dolby Digital. The sound quality appears to be the same as it was on the first DVD, bringing an older but still thrilling dimensionality to the music and some nice directional effects to conversations and incidental noises. You can’t push the sound too high, however, without it breaking up, but with the DTS, you can push it higher and still hold onto the purity of the orchestrations and Judy Garland’s vocals. The DTS sound has more stability and more weight, and it is difficult to go back to the DVD once you’ve had a decent sampling of it.

The picture is presented in letterboxed format with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. The film’s cinematography is outstanding. The widescreen framing is meticulously composed and balanced, and colors and light intensities are strategically applied in support of the film’s emotions and themes. The movie is a musical, but it is most importantly a love story, with the songs that Garland sings being offered as one method of expressing the feelings of the characters in a graspable abstraction. The other method of expressing their feelings comes from the performances of the two primary cast members, Garland as the upwardly meteoric movie star, and James Mason as the alcoholic star on the downswing of his career, who discovers and supports her success. Garland’s performance is amazing-not just her singing, which is always amazing anyway, but the depth and complexity she brings to her relationships. Mason, however, and overshadowed because he does not sing, is equally outstanding, and it is because the romantic scenes between the two seem so real and so anxious that the whole film sustains its spellbinding power from beginning to end.

The BD comes in one of those jackets that looks like a small hardcover book and contains souvenir program-type layouts on the pages between the platters. Both the DVD and the BD have an alternate French track in stereo and a Spanish track in mono, with optional English, French and Spanish subtitles.

The first DVD contained a revelatory 17 minutes of alternately shot versions of the film’s best-known number, “The Man That Got Away.” Although lip-synching to the same recording, Garland’s performance is very different in each version-she’s also wearing different outfits-as Cukor gradually moves away from showcasing her abilities to integrating her performance with the reality of the scene and the point-of-view of Mason’s character. That footage is expanded to 22 minutes on the new special features, with an explanatory voiceover and more peripheral outtakes, and an absolutely thrilling split-screen sequence where you see Garland doing almost the same things but not quite as she works her way through the song. The minute-long outtake of another song that appeared on the earlier DVD is also featured on the new release, but in addition, there are 15 minutes of fresh alternate takes and outtakes (including footage that reinforces the parallel between Mason’s character and Errol Flynn).

Also carried over from the previous release are the 6-minute exhibitor’s reel, the 29-minute TV special about the film’s premiere and a trailer. Newsreel footage from the premiere was also included previously, but it has been expanded and reorganized on the new release, running a total of 10 minutes. New materials include the very funny 7-minute color Looney Tunes cartoon from 1956 called A Star Is Bored in which Daffy Duck is a studio janitor jealous of the stardom of Bugs Bunny, and becomes Bugs’ stand in; a 1942 Lux Radio Theater adaptation of the Janet Gaynor and Frederic March version of the story with Garland and Walter Pidgeon, running 55 minutes (and demonstrating that the story does not advance as tightly when the heroine’s talent is simply acting ability and not singing as well; it would be interesting to know just exactly how long Garland had her eyes on the project); a 3-minute audio interview with Garland by Louella Parsons in promotion of the film; and finally, 40 minutes of recording sessions that not only let you bask in the score, but include the very precious conversations that occur between takes, and other unguarded moments (including a full and amusing, prompting-style performance of one number by Garland’s long time accompanist, Roger Edens, who was moonlighting from MGM).

by Douglas Pratt


Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

The rounded down musical remake and homage of8½, Nine, has been released by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. As an attempt to be a boxoffice hit or attract year-end awards, the 2009 feature was a disaster almost from its inception, having the audacity to copy the Federico Fellini masterpiece shot for shot in some places, and then tack on both musical numbers and a sensible, ‘happy’ ending, dumbing things down the way almost all musicals do. Directed by Rob Marshall, the film is specifically a remake of a witty Broadway musical that had the opposite accomplishment-it took on an ‘impossible’ subject and made a real musical out of it, using to its advantage the simplification that the stage enforces to present a series of impressionistic interludes in which a successful but frustrated film director muses over the various women who have been in his life. But to then reintroduce the verisimilitude of film upon the musical’s narrative generalizations loses both the intricate psychological and thematic detail of the original movie and the conceptual power of the stage production, leaving you with a wishy-washy version of 8½ that has some hummable tunes and a few attractive players. It is something that the general public has no interest in whatsoever and even movie lovers would be justified in dismissing. But it is not a ‘bad movie,’ by any reckoning. With a script from Michael Tolkin and Anthony Minghella, outstanding cinematography that is way better than the work done on several movies that were nominated for an Oscar in that category (Nine was not), and with Marshall’s experience in adapting Broadway musicals into movies, it has a solid foundation. So perhaps it wasn’t the best movie of 2009, however more irresistible and satisfying it is than The Hurt Locker, but it is, without a doubt, the best Guilty Pleasure of 2009. It is overloaded with groovy actresses, includingJudi Dench, Penelope Cruz, Marion Cotillard, Sophia Loren and, in a part that feels like it was written for Britney Spears, Kate Hudson. It almost seems like Nicole Kidman was thrown in as an afterthought. If the stars thrill you, the movie may, as well, but it is basically attractive to people who love Italian movies from the early Sixties and Fellini movies in particular. When a black-and-white scene comes on that imitates a sequence from 8½ almost precisely, where some young boys offer their loose change to a mad woman living on the beach, only to have Fergie step out of the concrete bunker in the place of Edra Gale, it is intellectual camp of the highest caliber. When, at another point, the black-and-white explodes into color (and then later in the same number, when the camera angle changes to a wider lens), it is a dazzling wish fulfillment of the highest aesthetic order, and when Daniel Day-Lewis whisks around as an Italian, oozing suavity, but with just a touch of an accent, it is transcendent revisionism. We don’t want to relive the past as it actually happened, we want to relive our memories of its best parts. That was one of Fellini’s own primal themes, and that is what the movie will do for you, if you have those same fond memories of its sources. Indeed, it is also how you will think of Nine itself, a little bit after it is over.

It was Fellini’s La Dolce Vita that was shot in 2.35:1, while 8½ was, deliberately, made in 1.85:1, so it is inevitable that Nine would go with the legend rather than the truth. The letterboxing, in 2.35:1 with an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback, is highly gratifying, particularly during the musical numbers, which are superbly blocked and framed. The color transfer is also bellissimo, though one would expect no less. The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound has limited rear channel activity, but the front mix is fully dimensional and packs a decent punch. There are optional English subtitles, 11 minutes of music videos that essentially let you live through three of the numbers again, and 51 minutes of good production documentaries that include a lot of rehearsal and behind-the-scenes footage. (Talking about the conclusion of her big dance number, Hudson explains, using the family giggle, “I’ve never had that feeling before, and there’s nothing better. I’m sure it’s like hitting a home run with the bases loaded, you know. I say that because I have all brothers.” And you think, ‘Sure, hon’, A-Rod is the furthest thing from your mind.’) Marshall and producer John Deluca also supply a commentary track, talking about the casting process, the story, shooting the film in Italy and London, what they hoped they were accomplishing, and how enjoyable it was to work with the cast and the music regardless of what they accomplished.

– by Douglas Pratt

Douglas Pratt’s DVD-Laser Disc Newsletter is published monthly.
For a free sample, call (516)594-9304 or go to his website at

The Ultimate DVD Geek: Precious

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

Precious: Based on a Novel by Sapphire

The glamour of the Oscars, where Gabourey Sidibe was nominated for her performance in the central role, would fit perfectly into the dream sequences of Precious: Based upon a Novel by Sapphire, from Lionsgate, and the Awards served as a sort of an emotional epilog to the movie, one that to some extent counteracts the greater likelihood of the protagonist’s fate. In the film, her character, pregnant and (more…)

Precious: Based on a Novel by Sapphire

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

The glamour of the Oscars, where Gabourey Sidibewas nominated for her performance in the central role, would fit perfectly into the dream sequences of Precious: Based upon a Novel by Sapphire, from Lionsgate, and the Awards served as a sort of an emotional epilog to the movie, one that to some extent counteracts the greater likelihood of the protagonist’s fate. In the film, her character, pregnant and essentially illiterate, is accepted into a special educational and counseling program with about a half-dozen other girls. Over the course of the 109-minute feature she does indeed learn how to read and to keep a journal, and she betters her life enough that she is able to escape the hold of her extremely scary mother, played with a truly worthy and bestowed Oscar quality effort by Mo’Nique. The narrative of the film is a kind of disorganized jumble of classroom group therapy scenes and vignettes that in some ways could have come straight from To Sir with Love or something, but the film is an emotional construction, not a linear narrative experience, and these sequences supply the relief required to visit the abyss whenever Mo’Nique seizes the screen. It is the power of the interaction between the two actresses and the aria the older one unleashes in the film’s climax that make the movie a satisfying and memorable experience.

The picture is presented in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 1.85:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. The color transfer is okay, in that sequences with weaker contrasts or slightly off colors do not seem out of place in the poverty of the film’s setting. The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound services the late-Eighties musical score and otherwise presents the film’s audio in a competent manner. There are optional English and Spanish subtitles, a trailer, a 15-minute look at the author, ‘Sapphire,’ and her involvement in the film’s creation, a good 18-minute look at the cast, a 9-minute collection of interviews with producers Tylor Perry and Oprah Winfrey, an 8-minute conversation between director Lee Daniels and Sapphire, a 2-minute deleted scene that underscores the plot’s details a little too clearly, 3 minutes of Sidibe’s slam dunk audition, and an additional minute of brief but valid interview clips.

Daniels supplies a reasonably informative commentary track, as well. Although he freely shifts from referring to the people on the screen by their character names and by their performer names, he explains why various scenes were included, how they were staged, what kind of work he did with the actors, how he paid attention to the film’s Eighties period setting, and so on. At one point during a very intense argument scene between Sidibe and Mo’Nique,Mo’Nique pauses for a moment during her haranguing to clutch at her chest. A brilliant dramatic choice? Well, it seems no, it wasn’t, really. “When Mo’Nique grabs her chest right there, people don’t know it, but she’s really having, she’s start-we’re laughing, and it looks like she’s actually, you know, acting, and she’s in the moment, but we coasted through this movie laughing, because we couldn’t believe what was actually happening as it was happening, so there are many moments. Just know that as serious as this is, we were laughing, all three of us, Mo’Nique, Gabby and myself laughed throughout this entire tirade. Many of you won’t find it funny, but we laughed through the pain. It was a way to get to the truth.”

– by Douglas Pratt

Douglas Pratt’s DVD-Laser Disc Newsletter is published monthly.
For a free sample, call (516)594-9304 or go to his website at

Doctor Zhivago

Wednesday, June 9th, 2010

At long last, the Spring has broken through with all that your heart can hold, because Warner Home Video has done right by Doctor Zhivago. Past releases have never looked entirely pristine. The colors have always been a little bland or unstable, and the outstanding Freddie Young cinematography has never been fully or correctly articulated, until now. Warner has released a 45th Anniversary Edition, which is great, but the real thrill is the Blu-ray release. The colors are fantastic and fleshtones are flawless. Most importantly, shadows and colored streams of light are fully discernible. Some, such as a shot near the end where Julie Christie is bathed in red at the very bottom of the screen, have really never been seen before on home video. The effect of these improvements is essentially that the image is no longer a distraction.

Omar Sharif stars as the title character, a young doctor and poet, whose life is upended by the communist revolution in Russia. Geraldine Chaplin is his wife and Christie is his mistress. The 1965 David Lean epic has a number of subordinate characters as well, and the screenplay deftly weaves them throughout the story, so that while time advances and locations change, you are always drawn back to the movie’s heart through its various human arteries. The film is appealing both as a generational tale and as a tale of great adventure, one that spans the world’s largest continent during one of its most turbulent eras.

Lean lets scenes breathe to a much greater extent than most filmmakers today would allow. It is one of the reasons the movie has such a grand, one-of-a-kind feel to it. Previously, however, you had time to look around the screen and notice the flaws. Now, you just savor the atmosphere-Lean is also intent upon establishing an atmosphere for almost every moment-and the movie becomes that much richer of an experience. Those who dislike the film complain that it is just a hokey, melodramatic romance making use of the Russian Revolution as a unique setting, but what they miss is the tremendously satisfying balance between the movie’s melodramatic elements and the ambitiousness of its staging. Even the noticeable flaws in the story-such as the way in which the daughter of Christie’s character is always conveniently not around when the plot requires Christie and Sharif’s characters to be alone, regardless of the time of day-are not enough to interfere with the film’s impact. You can’t push the 1965 sound recording beyond reason, but on the BD, as you let the DTS track blossom around you while everything from the film’s vistas to the cast’s eyes enchant you in crisp detail, you are reminded with resonant joy that this is what the movies were meant to be.

Another reason to prefer the BD-you still have to turn the DVD over at the Intermission, while the BD plays out the entire 200-minute film (including the Overture, Entr’acte and Exit Music) on one side. There is a commentary featuring Sharif and Lean’s widow, Sandra Lean, intercut with memories from Rod Steiger (whose very serious part is nevertheless the film’s comic relief thanks to the wonderfully jovial timing of his line readings). A French audio track in 5.1 Dolby and a Spanish audio track in standard stereo are also included, along with optional English, French and Spanish subtitles (“‘M. Komarovski, sans offense, s’arrange-t-on avec l’âge?’ ‘On devient plus tolerant.’ ‘Parce qu’on a besoin de l’être envers soi-même.'”).

Much of what they have to say is repeated more concisely in the retrospective documentaries and there are many lengthy gaps, but there are some worthwhile elaborations, particularly as Sharif and Sandra Lean reminisce about David Lean’s manner and habits (Sharif: “What I noticed about David, he wasn’t extremely gifted when he had big crowds. It took him a long time, but then when he worked it out, he worked it out perfectly, but it didn’t come naturally to him. Contrary to what people think, he was brilliant on intimate scenes. He could do scenes between two people wonderfully, and he had no hard time getting it right. In other words, he was inspired much more quickly when he had an intimate scene of two people. And people think he was great at epics. He was, but it cost him.”) Steiger’s comments are less informative and not helped by the awkward format. At one point, Steiger talks about an individual who enjoyed British football, and you don’t know if he is referring to Tom Courtenay, who is on the screen at the time, to David Lean, or to someone else.

On the concluding side of the first DVD platter, there is a new 40-minute retrospective documentary mixing testimonials from other filmmakers with a deft analysis of the film’s strongest artistic attributes.

The special features on the second DVD splatter, like the commentary, most were available on the previous DVD release, including a 60-minute retrospective documentary from 1995, hosted by Sharif. Christie is absent, but they do manage to get Chaplin and Rod Steiger to talk about their experiences, and both are quite open and have some great stories. The documentary is one of the better offerings in the genre and is not afraid to touch on controversy, telling the story of an actress who was badly hurt during a stunt sequence (the shot is actually in the film) and detailing the reasons Nicolas Roeg was dropped as the cinematographer after shooting had begun, in favor of Young. Sharif also tells how Lean directed his performance (he was told to be intentionally passive, absorbing his surroundings as a poet might), providing a sudden insight to the interpretation of a great many scenes. The documentary explains that most critics first reacted negatively to the film, not realizing that what they were allowing to slip past them was one of the last great epics to be as humanist as it was lavish.

Also featured on the platter are eight original production featurettes that were included on the previous release, running about 37 minutes in total. There is a good profile of novelist Boris Pasternak, a look at how the sets were constructed in Spain, and profiles of the stars. A press interview with Christie running 10 minutes and another one with Sharif running 19 minutes are included, along with Chaplin’s 3-minute screen test and a trailer. Christie, despite having a very bad hair day, was especially adept at providing intelligent, thoughtful answers to extremely stupid questions. The original theatrical trailer is also fascinating-having three and a half hours from which to draw, it is able to include a great deal and still not spoil things, but it is geared toward male interests.

The BD comes in a small hardcover book jacket, featuring a souvenir-style booklet. In addition to the DVD’s audio options, there are German, Italian, Portuguese and Castilian audio tracks and nine subtitling options. The BD platter contains the new documentary, but the package also has the second DVD platter with the other special features, and a 21-minute audio CD of the film’s burned-in-your-brain Maurice Jarre musical score, which may be intended to compensate for the absence of the music-only track that the previous DVD had.

– by Douglas Pratt

Douglas Pratt’s DVD-Laser Disc Newsletter is published monthly.
For a free sample, call (516)594-9304 or go to his website at

Ride with the Devil

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

Generationally, the Civil War is still close to us, but what is most surprising about the Criterion Collection release of Ang Lee’s 1999 Civil War adventure, Ride with the Devil, is how topical it feels. It’s scary, how topical it feels. The heroes of the film are Confederate sympathizers living in Missouri (the film, quite beautifully, was shot on location there). They are not part of the regular army, but they are organized and conduct terror raids against Union sympathizers, just as similarly organized Union sympathizers conduct raids against their farms and friends. Within the group there are people who genuinely believe in the cause, and there are people who don’t completely understand what is going on beyond the need to defend their homes. But there are also people who are just in it for the bloodsport, and inevitably, they are the most vocal, both in spouting their patriotism and in hurling insults at others. In 1999, it was a movie about the past, but now, it doesn’t look that much different from the evening news.

Criterion’s release is an official ‘director’s cut,’ running 149 minutes. The original Universal release ran 139 minutes. The added footage mostly involves background details about the political conflict and the ways of life of the characters, but it greatly enriches the movie’s experience and validates its exposition. Although the film begins as a war movie with a challenging moral viewpoint, its last act is a romance with the war having subsided without spiritual consequence to the three surviving characters.

Thus the film pulls away from being the masterpiece (one of so many from 1999) that it appears to be at first, but it does not pull very far away and it is still a gorgeously staged and highly engaging experience. The cast is loaded with players who have made names for themselves in the decade following its production, including Tobey Maguire, Jonathan Rhys Meyers (who makes the strongest impression, as the film’s villain), Skeet Ulrich, Jeffrey Wright, Jewel, James Caviezel, Simon Baker, Mark Ruffalo and Tom Wilkinson. The battle scenes are thrilling, the romance is charming, the era-inspired dialog is lyrical and the period atmosphere is captivating. Lee himself was not as established in 1999 as he is today, and although some of his films are misfires, Ride with the Devil, originally seen as a curiosity in his budding oeuvre, can now take its place as one of his many diverse but superbly realized metaphorical depictions of human conflict and desire.

The picture on Criterion’s presentation is a significant improvement over Universal’s effort. The image is much sharper, and colors are brighter and better detailed. The presentation is in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 enhancement. The cinematography is outstanding, particularly in the movie’s many lowlight situations, and the DVD handles it so well that the Blu-ray (UPC#715515055017, $40) can add very little to the pleasures of the image. In brighter light sequences, there may even be a little too much ‘pop’ in some colors, such as natural greens, on the BD, making the DVD presentation preferable. But mostly it is a wash, so that the BD’s DTS sound is the one significant factor that makes it superior to the DVD and its 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound. The noises during the battles are better detailed, but even during quiet moments, the atmospheric touches have a more penetrating presence. There are optional English subtitles, and a 15-minute interview with Wright is included, in which he talks about his part as the only major black performer in the cast, and what it represented.

There are also two commentary tracks. On one, comments by Lee are intercut with comments by screenwriter James Schamus. They talk about the movie’s historical background-the actual history of the Missouri and Kansas border skirmishes during the Civil War is very different from the organized battles in the East and is often brushed aside as a footnote to the larger conflict-about the story’s structure, and about the challenges of shooting it in period, which didn’t just involve production logistics but extended to the work with the cast. Lee explains how he had to coax Wright through his part. “To make a period movie, I like to get how it was, which is difficult for him, because he is with a lot of modern pride and everything, issues. He knows a lot of things his character didn’t know, and he inevitably tried to make corrections, and that was not truthful in my opinion, so a lot of-not fights, like convincing needs to be done, and persuasion. Not so much as political argument. I just try to get back to what I think it used to be, and that was very hard for him. Truth is always the best policy for me, that’s what I was aiming at, not just this project, but in all the period work I did, I go for what I think happened.”

The second track is equally rewarding, as cinematographer Frederick Elmes, sound designerDrew Kunin and production designer Mark Friedberg explain in superb detail the intricacies of their crafts and the challenges the movie presented them. “All those little lanterns and candles and fireplaces, all have a certain quality to them that you weren’t used to, and where an electric light is on when it’s on, and you switch it on and it just happens and it’s constant, none of those lights are constant. They all have a little texture, a little flicker, a little different color. The color changes within the flicker. So when we were building the light sources that made those campfires, it was kind of a big and kind of an experimental deal to build that color and that flicker into the scene, and then to realize it wasn’t just this light on these three people, it was this one and the six people behind them and the twenty-five people behind them that all had their own fires and they should all be flickering as well.”

Additionally, they, too, talk about the movie’s historical basis and what lessons it has to offer. “Kansas was essentially populated with people from Massachusetts. People would be given money, sponsored by the Abolitionists movement, to move to Kansas, so that the anti-slave vote would increase. It was a very organized. The Abolitionist movement was organized. The probably best analogy for the Abolitionist movement in today’s world is the Right-To-Life movement. They were really avid and committed, and, to the point of John Brown, would commit murder in the name of saving lives.”

– by Douglas Pratt

Douglas Pratt’s DVD-Laser Disc Newsletter is published monthly.
For a free sample, call (516)594-9304 or go to his website at