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Wednesday, May 5th, 2010
..MCN Weekend
..The DVD Geek Vault

The first but certainly not the last time James Cameron’s monster blockbuster spectacle of 2009, Avatar, will be released on home video, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment has issued the film on DVD and Blu-ray. The BD comes with both a BD platter and the DVD platter. There are no special features whatsoever, except for alternate languages and subtitling. The picture is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 1.78:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. In the history of his blockbuster films, Cameron has always been flexible with his image framing, and the picture fills a widescreen television with meticulous delights from one corner to the other. The image is so sharp that the differences between the DVD and the BD are negligible, although you feel the smaller details more intensely on the latter, and the action is vaguely smoother. As for the sound, the BD’s 5.1 DTS track has a great deal more punch and definition than the DVD’s 5.1 Dolby Digital, but there again, the movie’s audio has been worked over so elaborately that even the DVD is a totally thrilling and involving experience. The DVD has alternate French and Spanish tracks in standard stereo and optional English and Spanish subtitles. The alternate language tracks on the BD are in 5.1 Dolby and a Portuguese track has been added to the others, with additional Portuguese subtitling (there is no French subtitling on either platter).

If for no other reason than its boxoffice returns, the film represents a milestone in the integration of animation and live action, which is where movies have been heading from their very beginning (see George Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon, which, incidentally, should be added, perhaps at the top, to the long list of movies that Cameron can be said to have drawn from or imitated for his narrative). Not every shot is perfectly blended. The skins on some of the creatures don’t look real enough, and every once in a while a shot will feel subliminally but jarringly artificial. The overall impact of the work, however, is that it feels closer to the reality of Ben-Hur than to The Ten Commandments. Depicting a human who aids non-human characters in the defense of their verdant planet against scorched-earth ecological rape by other humans, the film runs 162 minutes, which may cut down on the repeat viewings a tiny bit, but not enough to degrade the juggernaut of the movie’s popularity for a long time to come, particularly if subsequent home video releases offer up additional footage or a presentation of the film in its artistically innovative 3D format. The characters are grownups, and very few of them are endearing. Indeed, for the climax, the viewer is rooting for the non-humans to slaughter as many humans as they possibly can. Given this valid but still unsettling inside-out moral orientation and a limit to the movie’s humor, the one aspect of the film that is undeniably responsible for its success is its vision. In the past, a single artist or a single writer would beguile the world with an individual imagination, but when movies were invented and became a popular artform, they also became a collaborative art, where dozens of different imaginations contributed to a single work. There is, in the visions of the world created in Avatar, an overwhelming sense of the interconnectiveness of the human imagination, and just as all of the beings within that world are part of a greater, functional whole, so is Avatar itself a starchild mass of what the future holds for human entertainment.

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

Picasso Summer

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

Pablo Picasso came this close to doing the work on the animated sequences in Picasso Summerhimself, and if he had, the film would have become one of the most important cinematic works of the Twentieth Century. But for whatever reason, he chose not to explore and conquer the one remaining artform open to him, and so the movie’s producer, Wes Herschensohn, did the animation instead (with Picasso’s tacit approval) and the film never received a theatrical run. In fact, it opens with the Warner Television logo on the Warner Home Video Archive Collection release , but at least it will now be able to get the recognition and dissemination that it deserves. The 1969 production is not a supremely commercial film, though one suspects that if it had made it into theaters in the late Sixties as it should have, it would have quickly acquired a cult reputation as a psychedelic adventure, and theaters would have been heavy with sweet-smelling smoke wherever it played.

Albert Finney stars as a burnt-out architect who takes a break and brings his wife, played by Yvette Mimieux, to the French Riviera in hopes of meeting Picasso. They ride about on bicycles and do a few other touristy things, and then Finney’s character takes off by himself on a side trek to Spain, where he meets the matador,Luis Miguel Dominguín, and practices bullfighting (although a double is used in a couple of stunts, Finney is genuinely in the ring with the bull during some significant pieces of action).

There are three major animated sequences, running about 19 minutes in total, with one depicting war, one depicting sex and one depicting bullfighting, all of which use Picasso’s images and designs, as figures morph and move from one emotional concept to the next. The sequences are meant to reflect the inner turmoil of Finney’s character, although, outwardly, he has a ‘perfect’ marriage that never wavers at any point in the film. The Mimieux role was clearly meant for Audrey Hepburn, and the script could desperately have used some ghosting byTwo for the Road’s Frederic Raphael, but, on the other hand, it is so unusual to see a feature film that does not look for splotches on the great canvass of marriage that it can be a refreshing and invigorating experience in that regard. It can also be argued that where drama must usually stir things up to examine the meanings of life, the discovery the characters make-of the beauty in their relationship, in art, and in the world surrounding them being greater than any imagined despair-is a genuinely radical concept.

The 94-minute feature is also a very good dabbling at an appreciation of Picasso-who, although widely acknowledged as one of the great artists, was not as universally admired in the Sixties as he would become later in the century-and gives the viewer a taste, at least, of the environment he inhabited-Dominguín was an associate and those really are Picasso’s clay reliefs on the bullfighter’s wall.

The musical score is one of Michel Legrand’s best efforts, and the principle theme became what turned out to be the film’s most prominent legacy, the song, Summer Me, Winter Me.While Robert Sallin is listed as the director in the screen credits, Serge Bourguignon did most of the film before pulling out, and Herschensohn was the movie’s primary creative force. The narrative is based upon a story by Ray Bradbury. The cinematography, which, along with Legrand’s music, is all you need to spend endless time watching the youthful Finney and Mimieux enjoying the French sun, was handled superbly by Vilmos Zsigmond.

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. Although there are speckles at times, the colors are bright and sharp, and fleshtones are lovely. The monophonic sound sustains Legrand’s music without significant distortion. There is no captioning.

– 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

Couples Retreat

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

There are, fortunately, a number of secondary players in Couples Retreat, a Universal release, who are funny in a classic, movie bit part sort of way, including Jean Reno, Peter Serafinowicz, Carlos Ponce, and Temuera Morrison, and between them and the Bora Bora location shooting, the 2009 film is not a complete waste of time, but it nearly is. The script is generally illogical and strained, and while the film is ostensibly a romantic comedy, there is very little romance in it that you actually believe. Vince Vaughn, Malin Akerman, Jon Favreau, Kristen Davis, Jason Bateman, Kristen Bell, Faison Loveand Kali Hawk are friends who get a group rate on what they think is going to be a regular resort but what turns out to have an intense couples therapy component, which they all end up taking advantage of, despite themselves. Reno and company play the therapists and resort personnel they come into conflict with. In theory, it’s a great idea, but in execution, it is awkward and unimaginative. At one point, there is a major confrontation where two characters face off against each other in a Guitar Hero competition that goes on, and on, and on. Really, is there anything less exciting than watching movie characters on a screen play Guitar Hero for more than a moment or two? And at the end, the leader of the camp distributes ‘totems,’ as indications that the characters have come to understand their true selves. There is one problem though. Only the men receive the totems. It’s like the women didn’t count.

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 colors are bright and sharp. The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound has a functional dimensionality. The 114 minute program has alternate French and Spanish tracks in 5.1 Dolby, optional English, French and Spanish subtitles, a 3-minuite blooper reel, 10 minutes of promotional featurettes, and a decent 20 minutes of deleted, extended and alternate scenes, including an ending that would have made one ending too many. Vaughn and director Peter Billingsley provide a commentary track over those scenes and the film, sharing a bit about putting the production together and working with the performers, but also talking a lot about what is happening on the screen. Billingsley erases forever the innocence of his Ralphie persona during the final credit scroll. “At the very end, there’s one last scene, a little thing we did about the Federal Reserve. A lot of American patriots are tired of standing by idly and are speaking up about the Fed.”

– 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 Informant!

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

An appealing bait-and-switch tale, pretty much based upon true events, Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant!, has been released by Warner Home Video. Channeling William H. Macy, Matt Damonstars as an executive in a large food conglomerate who confesses to the FBI that he has been involved in a worldwide price fixing scam when he is called in on the investigation of another matter. He agrees to help gather evidence against his supervisors, but the case unfolds in a number of unexpected ways. Scott Bakula co-stars. Although set in the Nineties, Soderbergh uses a Marvin Hamlisch musical score and title card typefaces that evoke the Seventies, with perhaps the reason for this being the same untethered spirit that informs the narrative and motivates the hero. The film has a satisfying level of sophistication in the complexity of the deals the hero is involved in that plays well against the inherent humor of his distracted and guarded personality.

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. As usual, Soderbergh does his own, typically murky, bland cinematography, which is transferred as well as it can be amid the haze. The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound has a reasonably effective mix and is adequately delivered. There are alternate French and Spanish tracks in 5.1 Dolby, optional English, French and Spanish subtitles, and 6 minutes of deleted scenes that often hit the nail too square on the head, although a couple are quite funny.

The Blu-ray can do nothing to rescue the cinematography and in fact, the way these things work, it actually makes it look worse, as you are more aware of how fuzzy everything is. The sound is better detailed, but the differences are minor. The subtitling and special features are carried over from the DVD, with one additional feature (which really belongs on a DVD for reasons of convenience), a commentary track featuring Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns. It is a reasonably informative talk, going over both the making of the film and the background of its subject. Near the end, they talk about how badly the film did in previews, but anticipate, since they were recording the track before the film’s commercial release, that the boxoffice gross would prove the previews wrong. Sorry guys, didn’t happen. They also, at another point, demonstrate an obliviousness to irony as they digress into a discussion of candy corn and how it has ‘no corn in it,’ when in fact, as the opening narration of the film clearly lays out, the candy, like practically every other food item, is loaded with corn syrup.

– 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

Paris, Texas

Tuesday, March 16th, 2010

Wim Wenders relaxed and off-center 1984 road movie, Paris, Texas, has been released in a two-platter set by the Criterion Collection. The transfer is outstanding. The picture is presented in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 1.78:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. The image is vividly crisp and colors are precise on every frame. The picture quality is highly captivating and, without distracting from the film’s essence, provides a dazzling showcase for Robby Muller’s superb cinematography. The musical score, by Ry Cooder, feels as smooth as silk on the 5.1-channel Dolby Digital soundtrack.

Harry Dean Stanton stars, first wandering out of the Texas desert, mute, and eventually retrieved by his brother, played by Dean Stockwell. Once he starts talking, they drive to California, where Stockwell’s character has been looking after the young son of Stanton’s character, and when the two re-unite, Stanton’s character takes the boy and returns to Texas, to look for the boy’s mother, his ex-wife, played by Nastassja Kinski. Their uneven reunion forms the climax of the 145-minute feature. They never actually travel to the titular location, although it is referred to in the dialog on several occasions. The film’s relative aimlessness-fully explained in the DVD’s supplement by the fact that the second half of the script was made up on the fly after the first half had been shot-is offset by its quirky atmosphere and masterful composition, components that are enhanced by the quality of the DVD and even more so by the quality of Criterion’s Blu-ray. Those who already like the film will be ecstatic with the presentation, while those who are not so enamored will be better able to appreciate its value and tolerate its shortcomings. The DVD is great, but the BD format places the title somewhere in the ‘all time greatest transfers ever’ category, and will leave even viewers who don’t care for the film mesmerized by every scene. The upgrade to DTS sound on the BD is equally rapturous, giving Cooder’s music a penetrating crispness and solidity of detail that the DVD’s track can only hint at.

The film is supported by optional English subtitles. Except for a trailer and Wenders’ commentary, the special features on the DVD are relegated to a second platter, but are combined with the film on the single BD platter. Wenders, in a vocal style that matches the downshifted pace of his films, shares many anecdotes about the production, describes the contributions of his cast and crew, discusses the ins and outs of the story and otherwise supplies a reasonably clear and comprehensive survey of the film’s creation and purpose.

There are 24 minutes of deleted scenes. Some are just more pretty pictures of Southwestern vistas, but there are several interesting dramatic sequences that were dropped for hints of redundancy or straying too far from the already meandering narrative vector. Wenders supplies an optional commentary explaining the reasons for their deletion. During one scene in the film, the characters look at ‘home movies’ that show Stanton and Kinski’s characters during a happier point in their marriage, and a more complete set of these films, running 7 minutes, is also presented. An exceptional collection of behind-the-scenes snapshots appear in still frame. Wenders discusses the film some more in a 29-minute interview made for German television in 2001. Another 12-minute TV piece, from 1984, shows Wenders and Cooder working on a sequence. A 43-minute retrospective piece includes interviews with a number of participants-while he hides it well, it is fairly clear that Stanton still despises the ending of the film-and there is an extended 20-minute interview with production assistant Claire Denis, who went on to become a director herself. But if you watch just one supplementary piece, it should be the 25-minute interview with Allison Anders, who also worked as a production assistant and has several terrific anecdotes, especially one about advising Stanton on what it is like to go mute for a while.

– 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


Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

Nothing like a good snowbound suspense thriller for a cozy mid-winter evening’s entertainment, and Warner Home Video has provided just thing with the 2009 production, Whiteout, which has nothing to do with secretaries trying to fix mistakes on requisition orders and everything to do with triple homicides and inclement weather in Antarctica. Kate Beckinsale is a United States Marshall who has South Pole duty, in charge of policing the scientists working in American research stations on the continent. Just before her tour of duty is up, however, a pilot spots a body in the snow in the middle of nowhere, and so the action begins. If you know anything about casting Hollywood movies, then you’ll spot the villain immediately, and on the whole the movie is really badly cast anyway-Beckinsale’s part ought to be filled by somebody funkier, and there is a major guy part that requires somebody more famous or more personable thanGabriel Macht-but the filmmakers clearly felt they could get away cheap on stars because the setting and concept are enough to make the film work, and for the most part, that is true. With the cold wind whipping around all five speakers and the heroine having no idea who is trustworthy and who wants to stick the ice axe in her back, the only thing you need to do is make sure that the popcorn is hot and the person next to you likes to snuggle.

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 whole concept of the film’s title is that at one key moment of excitement, so much snow is blowing around that the heroine can’t see where the bad guy is, and hence, the picture is sometimes no more than a vague blur of dark figures, but the delivery of those blurs is relatively stable and understandable, and when not beset by the elements, the image is sharp and glossy. The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound has some nice bass effects and a reasonably good punch. The surround definitions are less specific than the front separations, but they deliver the atmosphere effectively. The 101-minute program comes with alternate French and Spanish tracks in 5.1 Dolby, optional English, French and Spanish subtitles, and 4 minutes of really nice deleted scenes that don’t match the overriding tone of the film, but are definitely worth seeing.

The Dolby sound is even punchier and crisper on the Blu-ray, and you can also make out a little bit more of what is happening in the snow, though generally, the image quality is indistinguishable from the DVD. The audio options are the same as the DVD’s and the deleted scenes are carried over, but there are also 24 minutes of good production featurettes that show how the film was staged near a lake in Manitoba where the temperatures were actually lower than those at the South Pole. It is also worth noting that much of the impressive scientific station where a lot of the action takes place was actually constructed on location, and while the design is striking, you don’t have to be a South Pole scientist to know that if the passageways really were up in the air like that instead of hugging the ground, the cold winds would cripple them in no time.

– 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

Criterion Collection: Che

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

Steven Soderbergh’s two-part 2008 sequel to The Motorcycle Diaries has been released by The Criterion Collection as a three-platter set, Che. Soderbergh gave the films a slightly different look, although on a video screen, the change is modest. ChePart One, about Ernesto Guevera’s participation in the Cuban Revolution, is in classic widescreen, letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 2.39:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. Che Part Two, about Guevera’s failed attempt to ignite a revolution in Bolivia, is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 1:78:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. While this may have had a certain effect in theatrical venues-the world is ‘closing in’ on the hero-it has the opposite effect when more picture information is displayed on a non-variable screen. But the difference is minor and the two films are, as is indicated by Criterion’s packaging, intended to be seen as a single feature. Part One, which is upbeat (and is intercut with black-and-white sequences depicting a speech Guevera gave before the United Nations in the mid-Sixties), runs 135 minute and Part Two, which is downbeat, runs 136 minutes. Benicio Del Toro plays the title character.

What the film brings to mind more than anything else, however, is Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. It is masterfully composed and finely acted, with many distinctive sequences, but on the whole, it is as dull as a Party meeting. The only factor, other than historical accuracy, that saves it from being a complete waste of time is the sound mix in the battle scenes, which are especially rousing on Criterion’s two-platter Blu-ray release. The battle scenes are sporadic and often incidental, as if actually giving them an emotional arc would be too ‘Hollywood,’ but whenever they kick in, you start ducking, because bullets go whizzing by every which way, and it is a unique, heart-quickening experience. As for the rest of both parts of the film, there is very little life to it. Characters remain superficial-almost teasingly so when it comes to Fidel Castro-and nondescript. If it were not for fresh or passing memories of The Motorcycle Diaries, which Soderbergh of course had nothing to do with, Del Toro’s character would seem like an opportunistic mercenary with some medical skills. Within Che, there is no justification for his passion or his later suicidal folly. Haphazardly told, Part One is still periodically intriguing as the rebels gain in strength, avoid rivalries with other rebel movements and succeed in isolating and defeating the unprepared Cuban army. But Part Two is just, simply, a movie nobody wants to watch. Over the course of a year, Del Toro’s character, with lots of money, puts together a ragtag group, makes friends for a while with some peasants, and is then, after the money runs out, systematically tracked down, captured and executed. You get the feeling that if the Bolivian Army could take him down, it wasn’t that hard.

Part One appears on one platter (with a trailer), Part Two on another, and the third platter holds extra features. The films are shot in a documentary style, with jiggling camera movements and lots of grain, but it is clear that Criterion’s transfer is meticulous. The film is mostly in Spanish, with optional English subtitles. The same special features are split onto the two BD platters. The image is slightly sharper, but it is the nature of the film’s style that the differences between the two presentations are mostly irrelevant. The DTS sound on the BD, however, is much crisper, stronger and more detailed than the DVD’s 5.1-channel Dolby Digital track.

Trust Criterion, however, to take a lemon and make sangria. By adding a commentary to the film from Guevera biographer Jon Lee Anderson that focuses on the ‘real’ history of the Cuban revolution, the Bolivian expedition and the biographies of the individuals involved, the presentation brings true depth to an otherwise ambitious but shallow accomplishment. Anderson has thoroughly researched Guevera’s life and spoken to almost all of his surviving associates over the past couple of decades. During Part One, he also talks about the film, consistently pointing out its artistic failures. “It’s like taking someone on a tour of the sewers of Paris without ever showing them what’s above ground.” But it is Anderson who does show you what is above ground-describing the psychological, philosophical and emotional development of Guevera and his contemporaries-and the film is extensive enough and sufficiently detailed in historic veracity to serve as a consistent reference point to Anderson’s lecture. In Part Two, Anderson barely mentions the film at all and focuses entirely on his own story of Guevera’s Bolivian escapade. Anderson’s 4½ hour talk could not exist without the film supplying a unifying reference, but it is an outstanding and highly valuable summarization that not only provides the viewer with a clear picture of Guevera’s life, but also supplies an overview of the political dynamics of Latin America in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, with especial detail, of course, paid to the Cold War era. It is an aspect of history that is consistently shortchanged in U.S. textbooks, and one that Americans would sustain an ignorance of at their peril, as was clearly demonstrated in Missile Crisis of 1962 and, though not quite on the same level of danger, many times and coups since then.

It is best to listen to the commentary before turning to the two historical supplements on the third platter. One is a 26-minute black-and-white 1967 BBC news documentary, about Guevera’s execution and the imprisonment of a French writer in Bolivia who was sympathetic to Guevera’s cause. The other is a 35-minute collection of 2009 interviews with several of the surviving figures from the Revolution and the Bolivian campaign. Additionally, there are 21 minutes of sensibly deleted scenes, mostly from Part One, that explain certain story points in more detail; an excellent 33-minute segment on the state of the art digital camera Soderbergh used to shoot the film (the camera was not ready until a few hours before shooting was scheduled to start); and a good 50-minute production documentary that includes a lot of behind-the-scenes materials, although it also allows Soderbergh to blame the critics for his own shortcomings. At one point he complains, “It was odd to see people who are allegedly pro-cinema kind of rooting against it conceptually, ” and visually, a review from Variety is shown that quite soberly and, in hindsight, accurately, assesses the film’s boxoffice potential. If you want to start a revolution, you should avoid shooting the messenger.

– 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 Ten Best DVDs and Blu-Rays Of 2009

Monday, December 28th, 2009

1. The Great Garrick
(Warner Home Video DVD)
Disregarding the mass market for renters and chain store shoppers, home video for people who genuinely love, live and breathe movies has formed two distinct and mutually exclusive paths. On the one path are ultra-perfect Blu-ray releases of high impact films, both admired classics and current spectacles. When delivered through a large HD monitor and a full seven-speaker-and-one-subwoofer sound system, the presentation can mimic the movie-going experience in an upscale theater, making even the dopiest movies seem spellbinding, and legitimate entertainments transcendent. But the other pathway is equally compelling. The economics of DVDs are such that distributors with access to film libraries can produce the most obscure and unknown titles on their shelves, with decent transfers even, and turn a workable profit. Such titles will probably never released on Blu-ray-it is far more likely that they will shift directly into the downloading market once a successful distribution engine is perfected. Nevertheless, those DVDs remain, for the time being, a godsend to film lovers. I recall that when the home video market was first being developed in the late 1970s, a press release from what was then MCA Universal, promoting their laser disc format, suggested that the entire ‘11,000 titles’ in their library might soon all be available at, to paraphrase, less than ten dollars apiece. Well, it didn’t happen so soon, and Universal is still too distracted to make it happen there at the moment, but damn if it isn’t happening at Warner Home Video.

Yes, it was an absolutely wonderful experience to sit on my own couch, crank up the sound and spend two hours with J.J. Abrams’ marvelously witty thrill ride, Star Trek, on Blu-ray, but as rewarding as that experience was, the greatest joy came to me this year when I finally got to settle back and watch my very own copy of Jack Smight’s Kaleidoscope, in part because of the entertainment the film has to offer, but also in part because I have been wanting-pining, actually-to see again, and own, a film that had pretty much disappeared from view after its original theatrical release in the mid-1960s, and Warner’s Archive Collection program was what made that happen.

Warner has eliminated intermediate distribution with the Archive Collection, and the DVDs-about 300 or so at the end of 2009 (including Francis Coppola’s The Rain People, Robert Altman’s Countdown, Mark Rydell’s The Fox, Love with Greta Garbo and more and more), with thirty or more being released each month-are bare bones productions that have no special features except an occasional trailer. There are no captioning or subtitling or alternate language options. There is stereophonic sound, where appropriate, and, most importantly, the films are always presented in their proper aspect ratio, with an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback (don’t miss Robert Wise’s Tribute to a Bad Man, a film that is greatly enhanced by the quality of its playback). Marketed directly from a Warner website (, the films, all of which are titles that, for one reason or another, could probably not generate sufficient attention in the regular DVD market, are also available for downloading, as Warner has unceremoniously placed itself in the pole position for home video’s next phase (to be competing, one supposes, with remastered 3-D versions of the classic blockbuster titles on a next generation disc of some sort).

I have chosen James Whale’s The Great Garrick as the representative Archive Collection title-the ‘best’ of the year-because it was the most serendipitous of the Archive Collection titles I have reviewed. Whale turns out to have been a vastly underrated director who has still not received the credit he is due, despite having been the subject of a feature film and having directed several certifiable masterpieces. The thing is, as each new title of his becomes available on DVD, it too turns out to be a masterpiece. Garrick is a period comedy on par with the best of Ernst Lubitsch, about a group of French actors who take over a countryside inn to play a practical joke on an English actor, only to have him get the drop on them. It is an utterly delightful film, quite bawdy for a 1937 feature, and despite the apparent superficiality of the characters and their intentions, a film that is, in its essence, a celebration of the warmth of the human spirit.

2. Star Trek (Paramount Blu-ray)
But let’s not get carried away. Blu-rays, with their sound jacked up-and you can jack the sound up higher because there is less distortion-are an awesome experience. They can’t really do much to enhance the pleasure, such as it is, of watching a movie like Ghosts of Girlfriends Past – can anything? – but when it comes to a film such as Death Race or even something more noble, such as Slumdog Millionaire, the precision and depth of their replication are sublimely immersive, and accentuate any and all of a film’s entertainment assets. Movies such as Terminator Salvation and Transformers Revenge of the Fallenare intended as much for the power punch Blu-rays can give them as they are for the biggest exhibition screens. For a big-budget special effects spectacle with a top-level sound mix, of which Star Trek was the most intelligent and entertaining to be released on home video in 2009, the Blu-ray experience is unsurpassable in a home video setting. While Paramount’s DVD has a commentary and a couple of minor supplements, the BD adds to those a second platter full of extra features, and the film is the sort where many viewers will be enthusiastic to learn more about its creation and the choices the filmmakers made. The quality of the BD is especially poignant with Star Trek, because the franchise began as a kind of sophisticated tin can television production, and it has been as television itself has advanced that the subsequent Star Trek TV shows and films have followed suit. It comes full circle at the very end of the feature film on BD, when Alexander Courage’s original theme pours out of your surround speakers in Dolby TrueHD 5.1. This blending of past and present is not only a goose-bumpy moment, but a final ejaculative thrill to close out the film’s cliffhanger excitements and exquisitely detailed imagination-proof not only that one can go back in time, but that one can improve upon it.

3. The Films of Michael Powell (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, DVD)

Although Sony has lagged a little bit behind a couple of the other home video companies with large studio libraries, they have gradually been dipping into their resources in a careful and conscientious manner, and so when they do release archival material on DVD, it is usually a reliably worthwhile presentation, but the outstanding double bill in the Michael Powell set-his classic 1946 A Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairway to Heaven) and his almost lost 1969 gem, Age of Consent-is an even greater accomplishment, as important to the general study of filmmaking and a capsulation of the arc of Powell’s career as it is an eminently watchable and re-watchable pair of entertainments. The two films are superficially quite different. A Matter of Life and Death was one of Powell’s great wartime soundstage productions with its artificially ultra-real Technicolor designs and uniquely imaginative blend of fantasy and romance, starring David Niven and a young Kim Hunter. Although still tantalizingly colorful, Age of Consent, on the other hand, was shot in real locations on a very moderate budget and has an edgy, lascivious atmosphere, with James Mason as an aging painter living on a remote island and a very young and nubile Helen Mirren as his model. Accompanied by commentaries and retrospective interviews, and graced with consummate image and sound transfers, the presentation is an exceptionally well-produced preservation of two exceptional films, and the collection also represents, encouragingly, the ever-dwindling number of highly regarded classic movies that have yet to become available on home video.

4. Watchmen The Ultimate Cut The Complete Story (Warner, DVD & Blu-ray)

One of the great, unexpected advantages of home video has been the outlet it has provided for film directors to disseminate their true artistic vision without the compromises required for theatrical running times. The practice is abused now and then-‘Director’s Cut’ versions of films are issued with one or two scenes that were rightfully dropped, or other material that does not, in the long run, affect the overall artistic impact of the film, and just as often, a director, happy with the theatrical version, will still restore quite a bit of material to a film just for the sake of padding it out, giving the viewer a chance to spend more time in the film’s world, but not adding significantly to its drama or thematic resonance (asRon Howard did this year with a longer rendition ofThe DaVinci Code).

The theatrical release of Zach Snyder’s Watchmenwas a failure, but Director’s Cut, which added 24 minutes of material, turned it into an outstanding feature, a comic book film with intellectual heft and a wonderful array of fascinating, engaging characters. Ultimate Cut includes an additional 29 minutes of footage-primarily animated material that was also released separately as Watchmen The Black Freighter. Playing separately, it wasn’t particularly interesting, but integrated with the rest of the movie to create a work with a total running time of 215 minutes, the animated segments break the drama into distinctive movements and also comment upon the violence and madness that the characters are experiencing. The scope of Ultimate Cut and its ambitious re-creation of the complete graphic novel that served as its basis (for comparison’s sake, a minimally animated version of the graphic novel, entitled Watchmen The Complete Motion Comic, broken into twelve episodes and running a total of 325 minutes, is also included in the set) is an inspired undermining of the film production process to which the theatrical play of the film is a minor step leading to its ultimate manifestation as a compounded DVD. Extensive special features and commentaries are also included, expanding the film’s world even more (a make-believe documentary about the characters, running 38 minutes, works as an ideal prolog to the expanded feature), as well as deconstructing how the production was planned and executed.

5. The Wizard of Oz (Warner, Blu-ray)
In marked contrast to the rarity of the Michael Powell films, Warner’s home video presentations of the beloved 1939 MGM classic have not only been a ubiquity, they have repeatedly appeared on yearly ten-best lists for the quality of their transfers and extensiveness of their special features. And yet, there is no denying that with the BD presentation, Warner has exceeded itself once again with an even richer and more vivid picture transfer, a clearer and cleaner audio transfer, and a more comprehensive set of entertaining supplements that enable the viewer to understand not only how the film itself was created, but how the originalL. Frank Baum story grew out of genuine American folk culture and then thoroughly permeated the world’s consciousness with its surrealistic delights. It is also unlikely that this is the last time the film will find its place on a yearly Top Ten list, because 3-D is just around the corner, and it appears increasingly possible that within a lifetime, film companies will be remastering their classic movies as complete virtual reality experiences. It won’t be that long before home video fans can skip down the Yellow Brick Road with Dorothy or fly with the monkeys and call upon the citizens of Oz to surrender her.

6. Mad Men Season Two (Lionsgate, DVD & Blu-ray)
Every year more TV episodes are released on home video than one person can possible watch within that year. The very thought of holding a season’s worth of episodes in a single boxed set is a tantalizing feeling that gives gluttony a good name. And television is, increasingly, obtaining an artistic parity with motion pictures on almost all fronts, from science-fiction epics to intimate dramas. There were many terrific shows that either arrived on home video for the first time in 2009, such as True Blood and The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, or advanced to a fresh season of innovation and entertainment, such as Heroes and Dexter, and many were accompanied by extensive special features, including commentaries on every episode and comprehensive day-to-day production diaries. There are even some, like Pushing Daisies The Complete Second Season on Blu-ray, that are a marriage made in High Definition heaven. But this year, one show stands out as the very best that both television and home video have to offer, and that is the outstanding series about a New York advertising agency in the early 1960s, Mad Men. The show’s re-creation of the past has an almost science-fiction-like alien-ness to it, yet the emotional conflicts and psychological confusions the characters are confronting are enduringly universal in their accessibility. The show, which also represents an Odyssey-like journey taken by the hero, played by John Hamm, through the consciousness of his times, is a unique and multi-faceted history lesson, but like all really good lessons, it teaches us about today as much as it teaches us about the past, and entertains us at every step. The story is exquisitely plotted, and there is a terrific array of characters, backed up by exceptionally nuanced performances (although, as one actress explains on one of the commentary tracks, once you put on the 60s outfits, the rest just comes naturally). The show is also staged and shot with a sense of quality that is equal to a feature film, and it all comes across on every meticulously transferred episode. The musical score, delivered with a 5.1-channel dimensionality, is psychically transporting. Additionally, the supplementary features are outstanding. Many episodes have two commentary tracks, and the extras not only explore in detail how the show was developed and executed, but how the realities of the 60s are reflected in the drama.

7. Coraline (Universal Studios Home Video DVD & Blu-ray)
There were a couple of animated films released in theaters and then on home video in 2009 that gained greater critical regard, such as Up and Waltz with Bashir, and perhaps rightly so, but none was more interesting from a production history standpoint than the meticulously created 3-D stop-motion feature. Henry Selick’s film, about a young girl who discovers a malignant alternate world through a secret tunnel in her house, is both creepy and entertaining, but the DVD and BD releases earn a position among the best not only for the quality of the entertainment but for drawing the curtain back upon the unique effort that went into the film’s construction. Additionally, very few of the films that were released theatrically in 3-D have gone on to appear on home video in 3-D format, and again, because it was created in a genuine three-dimensional environment, and is offered on the one release in both 2-D and 3-D formats, the DVD and BD presentations of Coraline are exceptional for the breadth they bring to the exploration of the film and for the inherent pleasures the film itself has to offer.

8. Nikkatsu Noir (Criterion Collection, DVD)
That Cadillac of home video labels, The Criterion Collection, has been doing four different things lately. They have been going back through their catalog and bringing out their most ‘classic’ titles on Blu-ray, such as The Seventh Seal and Pierrot Le Fou. They have been foraging ahead with DVD releases of lesser-known classic titles, such as Hobson’s Choiceand The Exterminating Angel. They have been dabbling in classy presentations of contemporary releases, such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and A Christmas Tale. And they have been raiding the archives for collections of similar films in their ‘Eclipse Series,’ where several movies with a common factor are bound together at a relatively workable price point (any fan who wants one of the titles in the set is going to want all of the titles in that set). No special features are included, but the sets, such as Rossellini’s History Films Renaissance and Enlightenment and Dusan Makavejev: Free Radical, are given the very best transfers possible. Like Warner’s Archive releases, it is these collections that stand out, because in one fell swoop, you get several terrific yet obscure films that, because of their commonalities, make ideal multiple-title viewings for an afternoon at the home cinema.

The Nikkatsu Noir collection contains five super-cool black-and-white Japanese crime films produced at the Nikkatsu film studio in the 1950s and 1960s, Takashi Nomura’s A Colt Is My Passport, Takumi Furukawa’s Cruel Gun Story, Seijun Suzuki’s Take Aim at the Police Van, Koreyoshi Kurahara’s I Am Waiting and Toshio Masuda’s Rusty Knife. Each movie depicts a different sort of crime than the others, so there is variety in the collection, but each is also strikingly photographed, superbly performed and deliriously plotted (with ultra-hip musical scores, too), so that you essentially get five separate, gloriously atmospheric thrillers in one package.

9. District 9 (Sony DVD & Blu-ray)
This year’s Cloverfield, it is the thrill of the gore blowing up all over the place that makes the somewhat overstated symbolism and drama in Neill Blomkamp’s sci-fi film work so brilliantly. Presented as if it has been cobbled together from surveillance cameras and news report outtakes, even when it shifts to scenes where that couldn’t possibly be so, the film has elaborately executed special effects and yet always feels like it has been entirely improvised or ‘captured’ for real. On home video, the veracity of the playback is enhanced in a manner that is unavailable in theatrical presentations, because the film looks like it was made for a video screen. The sound is also cleverly conceived to maintain the illusion of the mundane, but then underscore the excitement at all the right moments. Like Star Trek, you really look forward to seeing how the filmmakers brought it all together, so the extensive supplementary materials are rewarding, and there are also close to a half-hour of deleted sequences, most designed to explore more aspects of the society of ghettoized aliens the film is depicting.

10. The Prisoner The Complete Series (A&E, Blu-ray)
Although current television programs are zipping onto DVD and even Blu-ray as soon as their seasons finish, the rush to disseminate older shows has slowed down quite a bit. While the home video companies are gradually following through on the seasons of classic TV shows that they began releasing several years ago, sometimes with very long gaps between season sets, first time releases of older programs are being relegated to bargain labels. Some of those releases have been highly appealing, including Shout Entertainment’s Peyton Place and Timeless Media Group’s M Squad, but the transfers are often lackluster and there is usually a complete absence of special features. The Prisoner does not really fall into that category, however. In fact, like Star Trek The Original Series, which also came out on distinctively produced Blu-ray sets this year, star Patrick McGoohan’s enigmatic 1967 quasi-miniseries has been available on DVD almost since the format first appeared. But the remastering the show has undergone for Blu-ray is so good, combined with the beauty of the Blu-ray delivery, that it refreshes every aspect of the program, glossing over the show’s compromises while accentuating the uniqueness of its vision and the stimulating engagement of its drama. Additionally, there is a wealth of supplementary materials that deconstruct the full history of the show’s creation and its various intentions, as well as analyzing, probably in a manner that could not have been done before he passed away, the personal storms that McGoohan endured as he forged ahead with the show. As the features end up revealing, the series became a reflection of his own psychological conflicts and demons. If there was any ambivalence about The Prisoner’s place in the TV pantheon before, the gorgeous Blu-ray boxed set eliminates all remaining doubt about its innovative intellectual brilliance and enduringly witty entertainment.

– 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

Gone With the Wind

Saturday, November 21st, 2009

Despite its antebellum subject (it opens with a text scroll that suggests slave ownership was somehow ‘gallant’), Gone with the Wind was the first ‘modern’ film, the first color epic to make extensive use of special effects (albeit matte paintings) and to replicate the sweep and depth of a novel, while instilling it with the excitement of live action drama. And now the 1939 Selznick International production achieves the peak of modernity as a Warner Home Video Blu-ray release, available at the time being only as a ritzy ‘limited edition’ (150,000 copies) four-platter 70th Anniversary boxed set. The 233-minute feature has undergone yet another color transfer for this event, and that transfer is also available on DVD as a Two-Disc 70th Anniversary Edition, but it is the BD that best delivers the improved color palette. In comparison to Warner’s last grand DVD production, the brightly lit shots of women in colorful dresses look pretty much the same, but in the long shots of landscapes, the night sequences, and any situation where the control of the lighting was more challenging, the BD’s image is greatly improved, with richer, sharper hues and more confident definition. There is less to add with the sound. The recording is too old to achieve a contemporary resonance and will always sound a bit tinny and flat, despite the subdued but earnest 5.1-channel Dolby Digital mix it underwent a little while ago. Still, the BD delivery is solid and the voices of the cast are finely detailed. A mono English track is also available, along with a 5.1 French track and two Spanish tracks, a Castilian track in 5.1 Dolby and a Latin track in mono. On BD, including the Overture, Entr’acte and Exit Music, the film appears on one side of one platter, a far cry from the 35mm cans that it originally took up, which would stack as tall as the average NBA basketball player.

As for the movie, despite the very happy slaves, the first part, depicting the effects of the Civil War upon the South, remains immensely entertaining, combining the vivid performances of the cast with the fabulous production design and effects. The early half of the second part, about Reconstruction, also has its entertainments, but the second half, as Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh’s characters get on each other’s nerves and their little girl dies, is more of a strain, which is necessary to believe that he would walk away from her in the memorable ending, but difficult to suffer through after multiple viewings. On the whole, however, the film holds up remarkably well for having such an archaic attitude toward race relations and such, and the BD puts the movie’s accomplishments on display in its best light.

On the DVD, the film is split to two platters, with the break at the Intermission point. The mono English track, 5.1 French track and mono Spanish track are included, along with optional English, French and Spanish subtitles. The only special feature is historian Rudy Behlmer’s commentary, which appeared on the previous DVD release.

Included in the fancy BD boxed set is a nice picture book, replications of a number of memos, a replication of the original souvenir program, ten post cards with production art, a 34-minute monophonic CD of the film’s original score recording, and the same two-sided DVD presentation of the multi-part documentary, MGM: When the Lion Roars, that Warner also included in its Wizard of Oz collector’s set. The first BD platter has the Behlmer commentary

The second BD platter, however, is loaded with extra features. Many appeared in the previous collector’s edition DVD, including the 123-minute 1989 retrospective documentary, a 39-minute retrospective interview with Olivia de Havilland from 2004, a 65-minute profile of Gable from 1975 hosted by Pat Lawford, a 29-minute profile of Leigh from 1990, 13 minutes of profiles of the supporting cast members, an 18-minute piece on the previous restoration, a minute-long explanation of the Civil War that was tacked onto the beginning of foreign releases, a black-and-white 11-minute MGM featurette about the War from 1940 entitled The Old South, a 4-minute newsreel clip about the film’s premiere, another 4-minute clip about a revival of the film in coordination with the Civil War’s centennial, a 3-minute compilation of foreign language clips, and five trailers.

The three new features are all quite satisfying. There is a fresh 33-minute retrospective documentary that is admittedly just covering odds and ends not picked up in the 1989 piece but is still full of fun little factoids, such as the revelation that Ted Turner’s mustache was directly inspired by Gable’s character. Tony Curtis plays David Selznick in the very entertaining 1980 telefilm, The Scarlett O’Hara War. Running 97-minutes, the program seems a little off-putting at first, with so many iconic stars (Joan Crawford, Paulette Goddard, Tallulah Bankhead, Katharine Hepburn, Charles Chaplin and so on) being played by unknown performers, but once the film gets into the heart of Selznick’s quest to find the perfect Scarlett, which went on until the night they actually started shooting the film, it is addictively enjoyable. There are also several performances that don’t throw you for a loop and help anchor the suspension of disbelief, especially Edward Winter’s spot-on imitation of Gable. It is a bit of a shame the film couldn’t get into the firing of George Cukor as well, but for what it is, it delivers the oft-told stories and a few lesser pieces of gossip and insinuation in a very entertaining manner. Finally, there is a marvelous 68-minute documentary about the greatest year the movies ever had, 1939, and the best pictures of that year (Thomas Mitchellseemed to be in every last one of them). The program gives at least a little bit of attention to non-Warner product as it surveys the output of each studio, profiles the greatest films and filmmakers, and also discusses what it was about America’s advancing culture that caused such an amazing watershed event.

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

Downhill Racer

Saturday, November 21st, 2009

Four decades and umpteen Warren Miller films later, the skiing sequences in Michael Ritchie’s 1969Downhill Racer are still hold-your-breath-and-don’t-blink thrilling. In fact, the whole movie is thrilling. Deftly staged and then masterfully edited, every sequence in the 101-minute feature is exquisitely succinct and yet abundantly rich in conveying the psychologies and emotions of the characters. Robert Redford stars as a hotshot American skier prepping for the Olympics, and Gene Hackman is his coach, with Camilia Sparv as his short-term romantic interest. Redford’s performance is as fearless as whoever was doing his skiing. His character is utterly self-absorbed and yet magnetically charismatic, so that the film, along with everything else, seems to be a primer on how unlikable people can still be heroes-because they channel their souls into what makes them heroic at the expense of everything else. The movie also captures what is now the several generations ago competitive skiing scene in Europe, from the beauty of the landscape to the clutter of the paparazzi. With the proliferation of cable channels, skiing has in essence disappeared from American television except during the Olympics, because there are too many other sporting programs competing with it, and the allure of downhill racing itself has receded in favor of extreme snowboarding events.

For reasons perhaps relating to this generational shift, Paramount never got around to releasing Downhill Racer on DVD and has instead signed the rights over to The Criterion Collection, which is fine by us. Except for the let’s-attract-as-little-attention-as-possible jacket cover, the presentation is outstanding. The film is 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 terrific. The film does have some grainy sequences as would be expected for its age and the lighting conditions dictated by the outdoor sequences, but the image is solid whenever possible and colors are as fresh as can be, with finely detailed fleshtones. Most importantly, the most challenging aspect of all in the transfer, the white snow, is always clearly delineated and textured. The monophonic sound is crisp and undistorted, except for a brief reverb near the beginning that is likely a flaw in the original recording. There are optional English subtitles, a trailer, a 12-minute promotional featurette from 1969 narrated by Redford with lots of skiing footage, an excellent 34-minute retrospective interview piece with Redford and screenwriterJames Selter (Roman Polanski was involved in the movie’s pre-production and contributed distinctively to its European orientation), another good 30-minute retrospective interview compilation with several members of the crew, and a rewarding audio-only interview with Ritchie from 1977 (he was promoting Semi-Tough) that runs about an hour and covers not only Downhill Racer but much of his career up to that point.

– 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

Drag Me To Hell

Saturday, October 17th, 2009

Sam Raimi’s 2009 horror thriller, Drag Me to Hell, feels like a remake of an old Universal horror film that never existed. The movie seems familiar while at the same time being refreshingly original in comparison to the majority of new horror films that invade the market each month. That new bugaboo, the bank loan officer, is the victim, when she refuses to stall on the foreclosure of an elderly woman’s mortgage. The old woman spits out a curse at her, and the rest of the 99-minute feature is about the curse methodically coming to pass. There are oodles of jump moments in the film-when was the last time a handkerchief made you leap out of your seat…twice?-and effectively conceived and executed characters, so that not only is the story compelling to follow, it is an effective thrill ride, clear up to its final turn.

Universal Studios Home Entertainment has released Drag Me to Hell as an Unrated Director’s Cut, presenting both the original theatrical version and the alternate version on the one platter. Both have essentially the same running time (the Director’s Cut is actually a few seconds shorter), but the gore is a little more intense in the unrated presentation. The picture is in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound is fantastic, loaded with directional effects and adding considerably to both the atmosphere and the screams. There are alternate French and Spanish tracks in 5.1 Dolby, optional English, French and Spanish subtitles, and a very good 35-minute production featurette that essentially presents all of the most interesting aspects of making the film.

– 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

Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Observe and Report

Monday, September 28th, 2009

2009 turned out to be the year of the ‘shopping mall security person’ comedy, and it shows you how fast trends turn over these days that there were only three months between the theatrical release dates separating the point where the genre was established, with Paul Blart: Mall Cop, a Sony Pictures Home Entertainment release, and was then undercut in cynicism, withObserve and Report, a Warner Home Video release.

Paul Blart is far and away the better of the two films. In fact, it is highly entertaining and had a brilliant marketing plan that never even slightly gave away the major plot twist that takes up the film’s entire second half. As the trailers and commercials implied, the first half is a slapstick comedy about an overweight and seemingly hapless shopping mall security guard, played by Kevin James, whose romantic life is as bleak as his career prospects. The hero accidentally gets drunk one night and pretty much obliterates what was left of his reputation, and at that point you start to wonder how in the world the 91-minute film ever became a blockbuster hit. It is best not to share what happens next, because the surprise is part of the excitement, but the film, like the hero, does get its act together and delivers enough satisfaction to deserve every penny it earned.

From the title, which is part of a motto displayed prominently in Paul Blart, to innumerable other details,Observe and Report almost seems as if it had been made to deliberately upend the other film’s presumptions. Seth Rogen is yet another overweight and sincere but inept shopping mall security guard, with the same romantic and career problems that James’ character had. Rogen’s character, however, also has a taste for bloodlust, and tends to go overboard in executing his duties. There is a good deal of slapstick in the film, but where the humor in Paul Blart was broad and benign, the humor in Observe and Report is dry and perverse. Ray Liotta gives a marvelous performance as an actual cop whose patience is stretched to its limits by the hero’s misguided intentions. Running 87 minutes, there are a pair of nominal crimes in the film that give the narrative its structure, but they are treated secondarily and are less important than the efforts Rogen’s character makes to prove his legitimacy. If watched first in what ought to be a tempting double bill, the film will seem to set things up for the other movie effectively and, thanks to Liotta, provide a reasonable amount of satisfaction, but seen after the other movie, it will be an anti-climactic letdown, in which its nastier attributes will become all the more magnified.

The picture on Paul Blart is in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 1.85:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. The color transfer looks fine and the 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound is adequate. There is an alternate French track in 5.1 Dolby, optional English and French subtitles, 12 minutes of deleted scenes that would have slowed the film considerably, and 50 minutes of production featurettes that do a good job of emphasizing the many skateboard and BMX bike stunts in the film. There is also a commentary track with James and producer Todd Garner, who provide a relaxed but reasonably informative description of the shoot (such as how convenient it was to be working in a real mall with a real food court) and how the humor and the story were developed and adjusted as they went along.

The picture on Observe and Report is available in both letterboxed format, with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback, and full screen format, which takes a little bit of picture information off of the sides and adds a little to the bottom of the screen. Again, the color transfer looks fine and the 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound is passable. There are alternate French and Spanish tracks in 5.1 Dolby and optional English, French and Spanish subtitles, but no other features. The Blu-ray, on the other hand, comes with a jovial commentary track featuring Rogen, co-star Anna Farris and director Jody Hill, who also appear in a picture-within-a-picture at the bottom of the screen. There also 27 minutes of deleted scenes, an 8-minute segment of Rogen and Farris improvising a scene, 12 minutes of bloopers, and 10 minutes of bland promotional featurettes. A second platter is included that contains a copy of the film that can be downloaded onto handheld viewing devices.

– 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

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

Monday, September 21st, 2009

A superficial but watchable comic book action film, X-Men Origins Wolverine, a summer of 2009 blockbuster hopeful that came up a hair or two short because of that superficiality, has been released by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. Since such films go down easier on home video, it probably won’t seem so bad and it really isn’t, it’s just that there isn’t that much too it. Hugh Jackman reprises his role from the other X-Men movies as the titular hero, who is unkillable and can extend very sharp blades from the spaces between his knuckles. The film starts off auspiciously with the title card, “Canada, Northwest Territories, 1845,” since, as any Canadian school child can quickly tell you, the Northwest Territories were not created until 1870 and doubtfully did not have such a nice house sitting in the middle of the woods until much later than that. In any case, although the character is immortal, he apparently had a childhood before growing into an adult and then conveniently stopped growing when he got to Jackman’s age and figure. He has a brother, played by Liev Schreiber, who sports a less compelled conscience and has similar, but not exactly the same, powers. A government agency, or one particularly obsessed military man, wants to catch Jackman’s character to take his ‘DNA’ or whatever in order to build better soldiers. This set of circumstances leads to plenty of energetic action scenes, and a couple of decent plot twists, and at least some token emotional interactions among the characters. There is no compelling metaphorical representation of adolescent alienation as there was in the first couple of films, but that idea had pretty much run its course anyway. There is nothing new to what Jackman is doing, either. He was more interesting, in fact, in the earlier movies, where his character is more burnt out and angst-ridden, and seeing how he got that way just isn’t as sexy. But the filmmakers did spend lots and lots of money on the special effects, and the story is not so flawed that you can’t roll with it in order to appreciate and even enjoy their efforts.

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 bright, sharp hues. The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound has a few scattered separation effects and a reasonable amount of power, but no real showy moments. There are alternate French and Spanish tracks in 5.1 Dolby, optional English and Spanish subtitles, and a 12-minute promotional featurette.

Fox has also issued a 2-Disc Special Edition, with a second platter that contains a copy of the film that can be downloaded onto handheld viewing devices. In addition to the featurette on the first platter, there is a good 16-minute conversation between comic book creator Stan Lee and one of the comic book writers who inherited the character, Len Wein; and 10 minutes of deleted scenes that enhance the viewer’s understanding of the characters (and also include a future X-Men character seen as a child). Director Gavin Hood supplies one commentary track, and producers Lauren Shuler Donner and Ralph Winter. Hood also speaks over the deleted scenes. The two talks complement one another quite well. It is Donner and Winter who go into the details of the day-to-day shoot. While Hood does describe what went into some of the bigger production sequences, he spends a lot of time talking about the characters and the story.

The Blu-ray also comes with a second platter containing a digital copy of the film. The improvements in the BD’s picture don’t contribute much to the entertainment except during some of the outdoor vistas when Jackman’s character is hiding from the world and working as a lumberjack. The sub-woofer has an added boost on the DTS audio track, and other sounds are crisper, but it is the movie’s sound mix itself that is blandly designed, and the BD really can’t fix that. The French track is also upgraded to DTS and there is a Portuguese track in 5.1 Dolby, with additional Portuguese, Mandarin and Cantonese subtitles.

In addition to the special features from the DVD, there are 54 minutes of featurettes about every significant character (and a few insignificant ones) in the film, a 6-minute segment on a major stunt and effect sequence, and a cute 6-minute segment on the film’s premiere, with girls squealing left and right when Jackman shows up. There are also four new options that playback as the movie unfolds. One is just a trivia track, but it is quite good, relying heavily on the comic book histories of the characters to explain various details. Another contains clips from other featurettes and from behind-the-scenes footage that match up to what is happening on the screen, and another inserts storyboards and more elaborately animated ‘pre-visualization’ sequences in tandem with the finished segments as they show up. Finally, Hood sits in the corner of the screen for another commentary, intercut with more behind-the-scenes shots of him at work.

– 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

Fast & Furious

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

Often feeling more like a video game than a movie,Fast & Furious, not to be confused with its predecessor, The Fast and the Furious, brings back the acting team that made the first film a hit and concocts a vaguely believable story about Mexican drug lords hiring street racers to zip their contraband across the border-in elaborate tunnels, which they have to travel through quickly for no apparent reason. Putting the drugs on the back of a donkey and having some old guy bring it across might take a little longer, but would probably be a lot more reliable. Anyway, the two heroes, played by Paul Walker, whose character has somehow gotten his position with the FBI back, and Vin Diesel, whose character has somehow not been caught by the FBI yet, go undercover as street drivers to bust the head drug lord and avenge the drug lord’s homicidal ways. The action scenes are energizing, and on the Universal DVD, with a nice picture and a jacked up soundtrack, it is easy enough to get wrapped up in the action scenes, admire how buff the male and the female characters, and their cars-look, and ignore the inanities of logic imperiling the story and the physics of the chases. It’s silly, but it’s watchable silly.

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 sharp and glossy, although even the action shots that aren’t enhanced by computer graphics often feel like they have been embellished thusly. The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound has lively separations and plenty of power. Running 107 minutes, the 2009 feature comes with alternate French and Spanish tracks in 5.1 Dolby, optional English, French and Spanish subtitles and a 5-minute blooper reel. There is also a commentary track featuring director Justin Lin, who talks about staging the various stunt sequences, about the story, and about working with the cast. “I remember talking to Vin, early on when we were writing the script, and I went over to his house. I remember standing by his pool, and he said, ‘So, uh, what is this film about?’ and, you know, we had the script and everything, but he was talking more about theme, and I thought, you know, it’s been fairly interesting, because for these kinds of ‘fast cars and hot chicks’ kind of films, the theme that has been driving these films has been about family. I think the exploration of what it means to have this non-traditional family. And I thought we had to kind of try to really push it forward and see what we can do, and I thought the theme for this film should be about sacrifice. The first film was about family, but at the end of the day, he took off. He left everybody. As soon as I mentioned ‘sacrifice’ to Vin, it clicked. I guess it wasn’t a hard sell because basically you’re saying, ‘Vin, you get to be Jesus Christ,’ and I think he took that well. It ended up being a great conversation.”

– 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

Watchmen: Director’s Cut

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

The theatrical release was a disappointment, but that has nothing to do with the much longer and immensely satisfying Warner Home Video release,Watchmen Director’s Cut. Directed by Zack Snyder, the 186-minute feature is a two-generation epic comic book movie that works on almost every level. It does not have the giddy momentum of the deserved mega blockbuster, The Dark Knight, but it is rich, complex, intelligent, adult, periodically thrilling, occasionally comical, and grandly promotes the further resurrection of Jackie Earl Haley as an acting force to be reckoned with in the representation of America’s darker spirits. It says everything about the movie that Haley, who steals most of it, plays one of the good guys. Jumping back and forth in time, the film presents an altered version of the late Eighties, where Richard Nixon has continued being president because the one super hero who has real powers helped him win the Vietnam War. The other heroes, many of whom are the sons and daughters of masked heroes who were working in the Forties to combat crime, are themselves retired or reclusive, but the event of a murder causes them to re-connect with one another and activates, with the systematic inevitability of the gears of a watch, machinations that will lead to a profound change in the course of Mankind. The film has the breadth to develop the personalities and psychologies of more than a half-dozen characters, while offering up briefer but equally indelible portraits of several more. There are a few big special effect sequences, but they are appropriate to an advancement of the narrative and are not overdone, while the film also derives a lot of energy from its smaller action scenes, which punctuate its more cerebral sequences quite effectively. Poorly marketed (when we saw the trailer, which has not been included on the DVD, we thought the film looked like a complete waste of time-it should have stepped back and explained to general audiences the significance of the breakthrough graphic novel source and the film’s fidelity to it) and then hit with a publicity-damaging rights conflict shortly before its release, the 2009 theatrical film flopped and perhaps deserved to, but the Director’s Cut is a major cinematic work, easily one of the best of the year, and deserves all of the attention it will now receive in its better-executed home video incarnation.

The picture on the two-platter Director’s Cut is 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 invigorating. The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound has some nice separation effects and brings a strong dimensionality to the musical score. The song clips that are included in the score are marvelous. There is an alternate French track in 5.1 Dolby, and optional English, French and Spanish subtitles. Along with a copy of the film that can be downloaded onto handheld viewing devices, the second platter contains a basic 29-minute history of the graphic novel and the impact it had on the comic book artform, 37 minutes of production featurettes that answer some of the basic questions about the effects, and a My Chemical Romance music video.

The Blu-ray has three platters. The movie appears on one platter accompanied by the 37 minutes of production featurettes. The image is not radically improved over the DVD, but it is solidly delivered. The 5.1 Dolby sound has a much crisper punch and better separation details, giving the film a grander presence. Another platter contains a copy of the film that can be downloaded onto handheld viewing devices. The special features BD platter has the 29-minute history piece, the music video, a so-so 26-minute segment on real vigilantes and an excellent 17-minute piece on what is real and what is imaginary about the physics depicted in the film.

In the graphic novel, there is an integrated subplot that has nothing to do with the central narrative beyond a touch of reflective symbolism. A young boy at a newsstand is reading a comic book, and as the Watchmen narrative advances, there are cuts and dissolves, sometimes with overlapping narration, to the story within the comic. Although recognizing that the story was too much for integration with the feature film, Snyder conceived an animated rendition of the comic, which will eventually be blended into an even longer director’s cut, but for now has been issued on DVD as a promotional tie-in, Watchmen Tales of the Black Freighter. The title is inspired by the Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht song, Pirate Jenny,which is actually about a ‘ship with eight sails,’ but such is the poetic license of translation. Anyway, the piece runs 26 minutes and is about a sailor who is the sole survivor of a shipwreck after a run-in with a ghost vessel. He drags himself home and tries to save his family ahead of the vessel’s own destructive path. There is an inevitable ‘Tales of the Crypt’-style twist at the conclusion. The animation is on the level of a television cartoon, with solid artwork and a moderate amount of movement. The piece will be of limited interest to casual viewers, despite its coherent narrative and resolute conclusion, but for fans of the source material it is a highly satisfying tidbit and its appeal in that regard will not be negated when it is eventually cut up and mixed in with the feature.

The picture is in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. The image transfer is crisp. The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound has a generalized dimensionality and is adequately delivered. There are optional English subtitles. Also featured is a 38-minute pretend television documentary profile of one of the characters in Watchmen who has written a bestseller about his experiences as a crime fighter. The piece is intended as a video rendition of text materials that were generated in support of the graphic novel, and fills in some background information and tone, though there is nothing especially clever about its execution. Along with a couple of promotional programs for other Warner releases, the DVD also features a decent 25-minute piece about the creation of the cartoon and the faux documentary. A second platter in the Blu-ray release, $36) contains a copy of the film that can be downloaded to handheld viewing devices. Otherwise, the BD has no additional features beyond the standard Blu-ray upgrades, although so far as the picture and sound are concerned, the added value of the BD playback seems like overkill.

The Black Freighter tale is integrated with the Watchmen story in the Warner release,Watchmen The Complete Motion Comic. Since the presentation, which is spread to two platters containing twelve 25-minute episodes, is a very thorough rendition of the graphic novel, it serves to emphasize how impressively Snyder remained true to the source with his motion picture adaptation. The program is also an intriguing DVD spearhead for Warner’s Motion Comic Internet series, in which they raid their DC comic book library, turning the titles into inexpensive but serviceable video programs. The animation is limited to Clutch Cargo-style stiffness, but it holds close to the original panel artwork so that each movement becomes a welcome enhancement over the printed page. The text appearing in the comic is re-created on the screen, but it is simultaneously read by a voiceover narrator, and the one significant drawback to the show is that the narrator reads both the male and the female dialog, with the latter being the only really disorienting aspect to immersing oneself in the flow of the story.

Each platter has a ‘Play All’ option. The episodes have no interior chapter encoding. The picture is presented in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 1.78:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. The image is sharp and colors are accurate. Featuring just evocative music and the narration-no sound effects-the 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound has a minimal dimensionality and no exceptional moments. There are optional English subtitles. The entire program fits on one platter of the Blu-ray release. Like the Black Freighter BD, there is a second platter containing a downloadable version of the film, and like the other BD, the improved picture and sound have no significant advantage over the DVD, although it is nice having the whole thing on the one platter. Included on the BD only is a 3-minute piece-part of the featurettes included with the feature film release-about author Dave Gibbons.

– 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

Waltz with Bashir

Wednesday, July 1st, 2009

The greatest so far untapped potential in all of cinema is the animated documentary. The genre got off to a rousing start with Winsor McCay’s contemporary 1918 depiction of the sinking of the Lusitania, but virtually nothing has followed up that effort beyond a few educational programs such as Frank Capra’s Hemo the Magnificent. In 2008, however, there was finally a film produced that demonstrates what incredible power and flexibility the genre can have, and it was so unusual that the establishment didn’t even acknowledge what it was, nominating it not for a Best Animation or Best Documentary Oscars, but for Best Foreign Film, Waltz with Bashir, now available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. Like John & Faith Hubley’s Moonbird and Nick Park’s Creature Comforts, the film takes recorded conversations-in this instance, oral records of a massacre committed by Christians against Palestinians in Beirut, witnessed by Israeli troops, who are doing the reminiscing-and brings them to life with stylized but recognizable animation.

Running 90 minutes, the film presents a series of anecdotes and dreams as its works its way from the beginning of Israel’s incursion into Lebanon to the incident that is at the core of its horror. The filmmaker, Ari Folman, also depicts the interviews themselves, creating a pointed contrast between the relative safety and tranquility of the conversations and the danger and tension of the warscape, a contrast that, to give just one of many examples, would not be available in a non-animated documentary format. Contrarily, if one approaches the film as a drama, then it is somewhat weak in character development and narrative coherency, but as a documentary, those concerns are less relevant, since its focus is more upon the failure of character of humanity as a whole, which it expresses with the evocative sorts of brushstrokes that harder images could never finesse. An animated documentary does not replace the standard documentary or other animation. It is, rather, an entirely different method that can be employed by artists to explore our world, and Bashir is an exciting initiation of what the genre can achieve.

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 colors are sharp and stable. The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound has a powerful subwoofer and some good dimensional effects. The film is in Hebrew with optional English subtitles and has an alternate English track that allows you to eliminate the distraction the subtitles cause, but creates a bit more alienation in accentuating the stiffness of the animation. There are 16 minutes of comparison sequences showing the various stages of animation, a passable 12-minute production featurette and a 9-minute interview with Folman. The entertaining Folman also supplies a commentary track, talking about the actual incident and explaining how the film was executed. “This whole film was made by eight animators. One day in the studio we saw Finding Nemo, and we saw the ending titles and there were forty people responsible for the lighting. We laughed so much, because they had forty people responsible for the lighting and we had eight people doing the whole film.

“The whole film was shot, first, on video, in a sound studio, because I thought that the human ear is totally non-tolerant towards location sound for animation. We’re used to all those Disney, pretty, beautiful movies with crystal clear sound and we need that crystal clear sound. So, for example, this scene, here in the car, was shot in a sound studio. I was sitting in a chair, [the other actor] was sitting in a chair beside me. He was holding a plastic wheel of my son, and we were pretending that we are in a car, and that whole interview was done this way. Then we took only the sound and we drew the scene from scratch. There is no rotoscoping here. If you tell my animators that it’s a rotoscope film, they can commit suicide, so please don’t.

“Coming back home from the war to Haifa, where my parents live, was a matter of 20 minutes. This is it. When an American soldier comes back to Wyoming from Iraq, [he] probably travels for 6 days or 7 days. When we were in the middle of battle in Beirut and we got a leave for 48 hours, they took us, we went on a helicopter and after 20 minutes, 20 minutes, we were from middle of battle to the middle of pretty streets of Haifa. The contradiction was something unbelievable.”

– 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

12 Rounds

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

Wrestler John Cena jumps off the ropes to take a shot at action hero stardom as a New Orleans cop in12 Rounds, a Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment release directed by the depreciated action maven, Renny Harlin. Aidan Gillen portrays an Irish terrorist who kidnaps the hero’s wife and makes him do all sorts of crazy things to get her back, often forcing him to rush at blazing speed from one end of town to the other. There is a method behind the villain’s madness, however, and it is this plot turn that changes the 2009 production from being just a mindless display of high-energy activity to being an enjoyable mindless display of high-energy activity. As for Cena, he’s a little too smooth and sculpted to make a believable cop (that was one thing Bruce Willis always had going for him-he was tough, but paunchy), but he still tackles his role gamely and performs his stunts without losing his character. Advantageously, the film has a minimum of special effects work to back up its crashes and falls, so it sustains the feel of the small, brisk thriller it wants to be. There are a few plot points that don’t quite hold up to close inspection, and until the twist, the villain’s manipulations seem absurd to the point where a viewer might not be interested in sticking with it, but on the whole the film is busy enough to hold one’s attention and clever enough to make that attention worthwhile.

Two versions of the film are presented, the theatrical version, which runs 108 minutes, and a director’s cut, which runs 109 minutes. Since the film was designed for general audiences, the additional moments mostly involve character development, and just a little bit of extra blood. 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.
The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound is not overly pumped, but supports the action effectively. There are alternate French and Spanish tracks in standard stereo, optional English and Spanish subtitles, a 5-minute ‘gag’ reel consisting mostly of behind-the-scenes hijinks, a good 10-minute segment on the film’s numerous stunt sequences and two minutes of slightly altered endings.

The film and the alternate endings have two commentary tracks, one from Harlin, and one from Cena and screenwriter Daniel Kunka. Harlin’s talk is very good, constantly describing aspects of the production process and how he achieved his goals in each sequence. He has, seemingly, no appreciation of cinema in his art. He mentions that the film has more than 3000 edits, which means that the camera never lingers on anything long enough to establish an appreciation. The greatest action directors could thrill you but still convey an aesthetic sensibility blended with the action. At 3000 edits, however, you never get beneath the surface, and it is that superficiality that has prevented Harlin from landing bigger gigs, despite his technical proficiency. Kunka and Cena supplement his talk with more anecdotes and a more relaxed assessment of the narrative. Cena also enjoys debunking some popular high-tech film clichés. “When you write a movie about a guy on a cell phone, everybody’s like, ‘Well, can’t you just track him on the cell phone?’ It’s funny. We met with the FBI and we’re like, ‘Hey, can you track cell phones?’ And they’re like, ‘Nah, not really. Sometimes. If we’ve got the number. If we don’t, we really can’t.'”

– 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

Last Year at Marienbad

Saturday, June 27th, 2009

What excited folks in 1961 about Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad was its overpowering formalism and mastery of style. Each shot seems so meticulously composed, down to the mannerism of every actor on the screen, that it leaves the impression that Resnais had absolute, total control over every pixel on the screen. The lack of an immediately apparent narrative-set in a palatial hotel, a man and woman talk about having met previously as other guests engage in equally idle chatter-prevents the film from being more than cinematic modern art. Unlike the films of an intense stylist such as Stanley Kubrick, there is no appreciable sense of humanity (or its insignificance) in Marienbad. The cast is part of the decoration. But the 94-minute feature is so viscerally intoxicating that it remains one of the great movie-going experiences-whether or not one accepts the validity of its art, one is still moved to have a strong opinion about that validity-and nowhere is that experience more compelling in home video than on the Criterion Collection single-platter Blu-ray release. Criterion has also released a two-platter DVD, which substantially supersedes the old Fox Lorber release. 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 Fox Lorber release had no 16:9 enhancement. Fox Lorber’s black-and-white source material had stray speckles, the transfer had slightly weak contrasts, the image was a little soft and the monophonic sound was noisy. Criterion’s DVD is a great improvement, with vivid, crisp details, glossy blacks, and clean, solid, monophonic sound. The film is in French with optional English subtitles. It is the BD, however, with its ultra-solid image and uncompressed audio that best enhances the film’s strengths and creates the most transfixing and transcendent viewing experience. Decades after the movie’s creation, its initial notoriety, backlash, and the eventual consensus that it is more of a dead end curiosity than a central promenade in the evolution of cinema, the BD demonstrates why the film can still be the bravura knockout it must have seemed to audiences that had never seen anything like it before.

The special features on the BD are duplicated on the two DVD platters. The first platter contains 6 minutes of trailers. The second DVD platter has a 33-minute audio-only interview with Resnais, played over a montage of images from the film, its production and its promotion. He talks about the challenge of getting the production off the ground (Germany had better locations than France), staging various sequences (the shadows in the film’s most emblematic outdoor scene were painted on the ground) and marketing the film once it was completed. There is also a good 33-minute retrospective documentary that goes over the same topics from other perspectives, and an excellent 23-minute analysis of the film by critic Ginette Vincendeau, who provides a persuasive argument that the story is about rape (Resnais actually eliminated the most obvious references to the rape from the script; just because the story can be decoded doesn’t mean that the narrative is involving, especially if one is not steeped in a familiarity with the movie in the first place) and otherwise enlightens the viewer to the dynamics of its execution.

Finally, two impressive documentary shorts made by Resnais have been included, Toute la mémoire du monde from 1956 and Le chant du styrène from 1958. Highly reminiscent of the works of Charles and Ray Eames, both films are exquisitely composed and achieve an ideal balance of knowledge and poetic expression. In the same way that Eames made use of Elmer Bernstein in his beginning years as a film composer, so does Resnais employ Maurice Jarre in the 21-minute full screen black-and-white Toute la mémoire du monde, a tribute to the Parisian library system that explores the buildings, the books, the cataloging, and the request and retrieval systems with an architectural classicism that underscores the nobility of the services the system provides. In dazzling full screen color, the 14-minute Le chant du styrene begins as if it is a nature film, but turns out to be about the creation of plastic, working its way back from the finished product to its sources, while at the same time reflecting the antithetical ecological impact of the process. It is a masterpiece, and again, on BD, its artistry is transcendent.

– 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 Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Thursday, May 7th, 2009

His consciousness advances and matures in the normal manner, so it is only the body of the hero that ages in reverse in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, an extended romantic story with what can readily be considered a fresh perspective. David Fincher directed the 2007 production, with Brad Pittundergoing innovative makeup effects for the central role and Cate Blanchett portraying his lifelong love. The narrative also tracks through much of the Twentieth Century, but not in any sort of gimmicky way. With the exception of World War II and a couple of other incidents, the characters are, for the most part, oblivious to current events. The film is based upon a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald (who also once wrote a fantasy about a family that owned a diamond as large as a hotel building), but the tale’s one make-believe element justifies its 165-minute running time, turning a typical story about a career-obsessed woman and an unanchored man into a genuinely touching experience, rich with oblique symbolism about the phases of spiritual growth. The hero beats on, in his boat with the current, ceaselessly into the future to be born, or something like that. It is apparent that even without the fantasy, Fincher’s direction is so good at creating a sense of place (a good deal of the film is set in New Orleans), communicating atmosphere, overseeing performances and modulating pace that just a normal love story in his hands would be mesmerizing, but the fantasy creates a special viewpoint. It is not displaying the arcs of life and loving for the first time, but it is showing them with some standard filters removed and some unusual ones added, stimulating new ideas and responses in every beholder.

Paramount has released the film on DVD, but they have also turned the title over to The Criterion Collection for a two-platter collector’s edition. On both, 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 picture transfer is crisp and, when appropriate, glossy. The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound has a compelling dimensionality and clear details. There are alternate French and Spanish tracks in 5.1 Dolby and optional English, French and Spanish subtitles. The standard DVD has no other features. Criterion’s presentation is accompanied by a commentary from Fincher, who shares his experiences in making the film, explains what he likes about it and talks about other aspects of the filmmaking process. “It’s an interesting thing, shooting a movie with septua and octogenarians as extras because, you know, extras, normally, from the standpoint of the production team, do not engender a lot of sympathy. In fact, a lot of times they’re sort of considered to be the most problematic department. It gave me a whole new take on how difficult and confusing the process of making movies is, to people who have never read the script and have no idea what it is you’re trying to do. These are people who are very frail. It’s like you don’t kind of realize how frail somebody who’s seventy-eight is until they have to stand up and hold a glass of lemonade for 13 hours and be in continuity. So, I have a newfound respect for extras.”

The second platter on Criterion’s release presents one of the great production documentaries (how tempting it must have been to start with post-production and conclude with pre-production, but fortunately they didn’t), which not only chronicles the development of the film’s innovative special effects, but also records Fincher coaxing his cast through various scenes, places the creation of the film within its own historical context in regards to the destruction and revitalization of New Orleans (they were scouting the city for the film before Hurricane Katrina hit), and conveys a comprehensive and accurate sense of how the daunting task of creating the film was broken down into its manageable units and then gradually brought together again as a whole. The program runs 175 minutes. Also featured on the platter are two trailers and extensive still-frame presentations of storyboards, production and costume designs, and photos.

– 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 Da Vinci Code: Extended Cut

Saturday, May 2nd, 2009

Exclusive to Blu-ray, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has released a 175-minute Extended Cut 2-Disc Set presentation of Ron Howard’s The Da Vinci Code. In terms of entertainment, the shorter version works better. The film may have been rightly lambasted by critics, but it has a breathless pull-you-through-it pace and creates an intriguing blend of historical trivia and speculation as the academic hero, played by Tom Hanks, runs away from the French police after being accused of murdering a fellow scholar, and attempts to decipher the messages the scholar had left for him. The longer version, adding more background detail and character development, stretches things out a bit and slows that pace down, making a viewer more aware of how superficial the characters are and how artificially manipulative the ‘puzzles’ are. But cinematically, the longer version is a great improvement. One of the first added sequences is a stroll down a hallway in the Louvre as the hero and the cop who will be chasing him, played by Jean Reno, approach the crime scene. The conversation is a little absurd (they talk about the expense of security cameras) and it makes sense that Howard jumped over it to get to the corpse, but, especially on Blu-ray with its vivid, crisp image reproduction, the enormous, genuine Louvre canvasses that the two actors pass as they talk are stunning, and there is a strong temptation to back up the scene a couple of times to replay the visual pleasure it provides. There is also a terrific flashback earthquake sequence that was not necessary for the advancement of the narrative but is unlike any earthquake scene previously staged for film (there are extensive, and quite effective, long shots). Since most fans of the movie will have accepted its limitations anyway, Extended Cut, which is the only version available in the BD format, will be a worthy upgrade from the DVD.

The letterboxing has an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1. A couple of the added shots are a touch out of focus, but otherwise, the quality of the BD image is compelling, especially in the film’s exploration of architecture, sculpture and other antiquities (although one of Howard’s questionable choices as a director is to not have given The Last Supper a more detailed pan or a longer steady closeup while the conversations of the heroes ensue). The TrueHD 5.1 sound is less engaging. Although Hans Zimmer’s orchestral score has a suitable body that is well supported by the quality of the playback, the separation details in the mix are rarely interesting and there is a general blandness to the film’s sound design as a whole. There is an alternate French track in TrueHD 5.1, and optional English and French subtitles.

An option on the BD brings up a dizzying array of alternative background segments activated by a variety of icons as the film unspools. Most of the documentary material is available in other special features, but there are also trivia details, and a deconstruction of the film’s various symbols and codes. Additionally, Howard speaks over 39 minutes of clips from the Extended Cut, talking about both original scenes and new scenes, as well as about working with the various cast members and the challenges of shooting in various locations. An 8-minute promotional segment for the 2009 installment of the adventures of Hanks’ character,Angels & Demons, is also featured.

The DVD came with 106 minutes of decent production featurettes. The second platter of the BD includes those, and adds another 66 minutes. The new material is of ‘lesser’ importance, but is still informative not only to the construction of the film, but also to the context of the story and its interpretation of history.

– 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