Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor has been out on DVD before, in both the original 165-minute theatrical version that won nine Academy Awards and the longer 218-minute TV version, the latter having been stamped with the label “Director’s Cut.” That’s an incorrect label, says Bernardo Bertolucci, who should know. On the Criterion blog “On Five,” DVD producer Kim Hendrickson writes about working with Bertolucci on preparing their lavish four-disc edition and Bertolucci’s remark that the longer TV version “in my opinion is not much different from the other one, just a little bit more boring…” According to the commentary track on the disc, the TV version was actually completed first and then Bertolucci continued to pare down and shape the film to his ultimate version.
The Criterion set features both versions, and the theatrical cut features commentary by Bertolucci (who launches in to the film before he remembers to introduce himself), screenwriter Mark Peploe (who calls it “the biggest screenwriting experience of my life”), producer Jeremy Thomas, and composer/actor Ryuichi Sakamoto, all recorded separately and edited together in a dense, meaty that builds on the accumulation of observations and insights. The final two discs of the set are filled with marvelous archival documentaries and TV programs and new interviews. “The Italian Traveler, Bernardo Bertolucci,” a 53-minute documentary directed by Bertolucci’s old assistant director Fernand Mozskowicz, is a meandering tour with the director as he reflects on past films while visiting the locations of 1900 and Last Tango in Paris and others, and ends with his trip to China to make The Last Emperor. Bertolucci narrates the whole way, and leaves with a thank you to China for giving him yet more places and experiences and people to draw from. There is no narration in Paolo Brunatto’s observational “Bernardo Bertolucci’s Chinese Adventure,” a behind-the-scenes look at the process of filmmaking, from on-set preparations and direction to editing to Ryuchi Sakamoto recording the score. And that’s just a start.
Bernardo Bertolucci’s magnificent epic tells the dramatic story of Pu Yi (John Lone), the last Chinese emperor. Crowned at age three, he’s a prisoner of his own palace, a puppet ruler manipulated by both the Western powers and the occupying Chinese, and finally a project for re-education by the Communist Regime, Pu Yi is a man buffeted by history, a figurehead whose power ends at the walls of the Forbidden City. Bertolucci’s production is sweeping and lavish – this was the first foreign production granted access to film within the walls of the Forbidden City – and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro uses color like a painter on an epic canvas. At the center of the spectacle, however, is the story of a boy raised to believe in his own divinity and a man who learns to become a simple human being against the backdrop of China’s volatile history. Winner of nine Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Oscars for director Bernardo Bertolucci, the screenplay adaptation, and Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography).
Also new this week is The Legend of the Black Scorpion, which was Hong Kong’s submission to the Academy Awards for Foreign Language Film in 2007. Haven’t heard of it? Probably because this lavish Chinese reworking of “Hamlet” with a flourish of martial arts spectacle was originally released to theaters under the title The Banquet. The film:
… transforms the drama of a young man caught between revenge and inaction into a dynamic tale of naked ambition and bold conspiracies in the chaos of China’s Tang Dynasty. Our Hamlet here, a Prince gone off to theater school (Daniel Wu), returns home while his uncle (You Ge) plots his assassination and his stepmother (in impenetrable Ziyi Zhang) is torn between her own ambition and protecting a stepson who was also once a lover. It plays out through ritualized ceremonies and martial arts sequences (choreographed by Yuen Wo-Ping) that merge ballet and dance with battle (one pas de deux between the Prince and the Empress mixes lust and violence to the point they are inextricable). It’s highly entertaining costume melodrama on a magnificent canvas.
Also in the Special Releases section of the DVD column this week: the great cult zombie shocker The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue and the direct-to-DVD animated feature Justice League: The New Frontier, an adaptation to Darwyn Cooke’s graphic novel of superheroes in the cold war atmosphere of the late 1950s.
Conquering hero Beowulf (Ray Winstone) swaggers in to a kingdom descended into decadence and vows to kill the monster that plagues the cursed kingdom. But as reimagined by writers Neil Gaiman (whose work is steeped in myths and legends, both old and original) and Roger Avary, this “Beowulf” has the dimensions of a Greek tragedy and a vain hero whose self-aggrandizing manner covers up weakness and indiscretion. Zemeckis returns to the “motion capture” technology of “The Polar Express” (the same process that turned Andy Serkis into Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings”), where the actors, sets and props are digitally “painted” over. The imagery is often impressive and the monster Grendel (Crispin Glover) is a magnificent, tortured creature in perpetual pain who lashes out like a wild animal, but the humans have the waxy look of animated dolls. The notable exception is Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother, a sexy demon by way of mythic Playboy centerfold clothed only in strategically-dripped liquid gold.
And new on TV DVD is the mini-series Comanche Moon: The Second Chapter in The Lonesome Dove Saga.
“Comanche Moon” is Larry McMurtry’s fourth and (to date) final “Lonesome Dove” novel, but (chronologically speaking) it’s the second story in the epic western tale of the changing face of Texas in the second half of 1800s, as experienced through the lives of best friends Gus McCrae and Woodrow F. Call. Set in 1858, this mini-series adaptation stars Steve Zahn and Karl Urban as Gus and Woodrow (respectively), members of a troop of Texas Rangers on the trail of Comanche horse thief Kicking Wolf (Jonathan Joss) and a renegade tribe lead by Buffalo Hump (Wes Studi) near the Mexico border. Simon Wincer, the Australian director of the original “Lonesome Dove” mini-series, returns to the characters with this prequel, adapted to the small screen by McMurtry and Diana Ossana. Urban is the least expressive of the actors to play Woodrow but Zahn fills Gus with a richness of character and experience and Val Kilmer brings an entertaining flamboyance to Captain Inish Scull, their idiosyncratic Yankee troop leader.
From Britain comes the excellent original mini-series State of Play (which is currently being remade as a star-studded American feature film) and the first season of the sexy and saucy Hotel Babylon, and from this side of the Atlantic is Newhart: The Complete First Season and B.L. Stryker: The Complete First Season, a series of TV mystery movies starring Burt Reynolds.
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[Note: click on DVD cover to find it on Amazon]