I suppose that the studios have reasons for their releasing patterns, but it’s beyond me why so many major New Releases – from Oscar nominees and critical favorites to mainstream successes to notable foreign dramas – are getting poured into the DVD marketplace on March 10. It’s so busy that I bumped two of the foreign releases – Ben X and Claude Miller’s A Secret – to my March 17 column on MSN just so they wouldn’t get swamped in the deluge. And still there were so many that I was unable to fit in reviews of many interesting film that deserved coverage. I didn’t even get a chance to see Cadillac Records, the dramatized story of Chess Records starring Adrian Brody as Leonard Chess and a great supporting cast playing R&B legends (Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters, Cedric the Entertainer as Willie Dixon, Eamonn Walker as Howlin’ Wolf, Mos Def as Chuck Berry and Beyoncé Knowles as Etta James), which I missed in the theaters. And Synecdoche, New York and Battle in Seattle have been relegated to mere listings under the reviews.
So that’s what isn’t covered this week at MSN. What is? Gus Van Sant’s Milk, which won Oscars for Sean Penn’s inspiring performance as Harvey Milk and for Dustin Lance Black’s (for more conventional) screenplay. Their Harvey Milk is not a crucified messiah but a flesh-and-blood human being who rediscovers himself and his potential when he moves to San Francisco and comes out as a proud gay man. Penn plays Milk as a goofy, gay nerd who wins folks over with his sincerity, his passion and his complete lack of self-consciousness and the film focuses less on Milk’s triumphs than on his activism, how he shaped a movement and showed gay men and lesbian women all over the country that they could stand up for their rights as a political force.
Jonathan Demme’s marvelous Rachel Getting Married, which earned an Oscar nomination for Anne Hathaway and delivers one of the great ensemble performances of the year – Demme creates an incredible community/extended family and pulls it together with a great use of music. (I reviewed the film for the Seattle P-I here.)
Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, which earned star Sally Hawkins a basket full of awards but no Oscar nomination, and stands out as gloomy Leigh’s most genuinely and honestly optimistic film ever.
And my personal favorite of the New Releases this week: Tomas Alfredson’s Swedish vampire film / young love horror piece Let the Right One In, which was on my Top Ten list for 2008. (I review the film on my blog here and for Parallax View here.)
And that’s just the New Releases. In TV, there’s Season Twelve of South Park on DVD and Blu-ray (their first ever Blu-ray release!). I have to hand it to Trey Parker and his partner/best friend/creative sounding board Matt Stone, TV’s great equal opportunity satirists. For twelve years now they have lampooned the left and the right with equal creative fervor and inspired insight, and still mange to dance across the line of good taste with cheeky confidence. The proof is in the season debut: Cartman gets the HIV virus, gives it to Kyle to “teach him a lesson” and then helps find a cure. I love “Heavy Metal” tribute of “Major Boobage” and the job they did on Spielberg and Lucas in “The China Problem,” but my favorite episode this season remains “About Last Night,” where they turned the presidential election into an “Oceans Eleven” heist spoof. They pulled the entire thing together – complete with their take on Obama’s acceptance speech – in time to run the day after the election. And there’s no bleeping out the language on the DVDs either.
Luchino Visconti’s swan song L’Innocente debuts on DVD:
The final film from Luchino Visconti, the Italian auteur of aristocratic hypocrisy and decadence, is a delicately conducted drama starring Giancarlo Giannini as an unapologetic hedonist who spurns his wife (Laura Antonelli) for his fiery mistress (Jennifer O’Neill) and then becomes devoured by jealousy by his wife’s subsequent infidelity. Giannini is the model of cultured arrogance as the self-pitying aristocrat and outspoken atheist whose envy pushes him to an unforgivable act and the cinematography by Pasqualino De Santis is exquisite.
And the restoration of the week: Pinocchio: 70th Anniversary Platinum Edition, which has been painstakingly mastered for DVD and Blu-ray (Disney’s second animation classic to get a Blu-ray release). The clarity in the Blu-ray edition is stunning and manages to smooth out the film grain without losing the texture of the paint and ink artwork. That decision is bound to raise controversy, but those amazing pastel shades and translucent shadows and reflections have never looked so vivid and the process remains true to the efforts of the animators.
Not quite as admirable a restoration is Koch Vision’s new edition of The Fleischer Bros.’ 1939 Gulliver’s Travels, which was produced in the squarish Academy Ratio (1.37:1, essentially the same as an pre-widescreen TV set) but has been presented in 16×9 widescreen to fit the new widescreen TV standard (and thus framing out parts of the original image). As lovely as the images are, this release should raise the ire of the animation community. Read Gary Tooze on the transfer and the aspect ratio on DVD Beaver, with frame captures to illustrate.
And for Blu-ray, the original quartet of Batman films is collected in The Batman Anthology. The series ended in a pair of bloated, ridiculous misfires, but the first two by Tim Burton are still wonderfully distinctive films.
In the 1989 “Batman,” Michael Keaton plays the caped crusader (and his alter-ego, the suave millionaire Bruce Wayne), taking on the Joker (Jack Nicholson whooping it up behind a frozen grin and a nasty sense of humor). Burton found visual inspiration in Frank Miller’s film noir tinged graphic novel “The Dark Knight Returns,” but really found his balance of baroque style, exaggerated stories, expressionist art direction and droll humor in “Batman Returns” (1992). Michele Pfeiffer squeezes into form-fitting black latex to play the ferocious feline Catwoman and Danny DeVito is waddling underground crime-lord the Penguin in a film that has little to do with the comic book inspiration but comes alive in its own free-form take on the character.
For the rest of the highlights, visit my weekly column, which goes live every Tuesday on MSN Entertainment, or go directly to the various pages dedicated to New Releases, Special Releases, TV and Blu-ray.