DVDs for 10/06/09 – High School Shamus, Direct-to-DVD Horror and the original Chinatown

Roman Polanski’s Chinatown gets a new special edition release this week. It’s hard to say if the timing is good or bad, given all the acrimony stirred up by Polanski’s arrest and probable extradition to the U.S. to face sentencing for a crime he confessed to before fleeing the country (over his fear of the rampant judicial misconduct in the case) over 30 years ago. Whatever one feels about Polanski the man (and in this case it is at the very least a disgust and revulsion for a man who raped a 13-year-old girl), it shouldn’t dim the accomplishment of the artist. Simply put, Chinatown is one of the masterpieces of American cinema of the seventies and a classic of American cinema, and Chinatown: Centennial Collection (Paramount) is a duly respectful DVD with intelligent supplements that dig into the creation of the movie and the Los Angeles history that inspired the story. Jack Nicholson strolls through the role of cynical private eye J.J. Gittes with the sneering confidence of a smart cookie in a situation far more complex than he realizes and Faye Dunaway brings an echo of tragedy to potential femme fatale Evelyn Mulwray, a socialite whose private life Gittes splashes across the newspapers. Robert Towne’s labyrinthine yet tight and resonant script, inspired by classic films noir and real Los Angeles history, won the film its only Academy Award (it was nominated for eleven, including Best Picture). Roman Polanski transformed the script into a modern film noir of sleek style, milky color, and sad cynicism, putting the corruption, greed, and moral monstrosity of Los Angeles in the thirties under the crisp light of the California sun. John Huston is brilliant as the maverick robber baron Noah Cross and Polanski gives himself an unforgettable cameo: he’s the weaselly thug who slices Nicholson’s nose.

Jack Nicholson in Chinatown
Jack Nicholson in Chinatown

“So the first thing I was struck by was how much I liked how sinister the logo treatment is in black and white,” says filmmaker and unabashed fan David Fincher to screenwriter Robert Towne, jumping right into the newly-recorded commentary without even a preamble. It’s a conversation between professionals rather than a lecture and Fincher plays the impassioned fan making astute observations and asking provocative questions of Towne. It sometimes goes silent for what seems like minutes, but all in all it is thoughtful, considered and introspective and Towne seems to get more modest with age. The two-disc set also includes the original three-part, 80-minute documentary “Water and Power,” which explores the real-life history and politics of the irrigation of California at the center of the film, and the new 26-minute featurette “Chinatown: An Appreciation,” with contemporary filmmaker and film artists discussing the film. Carried over from the previous DVD edition is a collection of three retrospective featurettes with interviews with director Roman Polanski, star Jack Nicholson, screenwriter Robert Towne, and producer Robert Evans. It’s a fine edition, but my question is: when will Paramount give it the Blu-ray treatment?

“The name’s Bobby Funke. I write for the paper.” At least that’s how this picked-on sophomore imagines himself in Assassination Of A High School President (Sony): the loner who walks a straight line through the crooked halls of his corrupt Catholic high school. Funke (who is inevitably called “Funky” by his schoolmates) narrates his tale in colorful metaphors and self-aggrandizing terms, a would-be private eye by way of Woodward and Bernstein on the trail of the biggest story this school has every seen: who swiped the SATs from the principal’s safe? Funke is instantly elevated to high school celeb when he cracks the case wide open and splashes it across the school paper, but it turns out to be only the beginning of this tongue-in-cheek take on hard-boiled detective story when he suspects he’s being played for a patsy. Think “The Breakfast Club” meets “Chinatown,” with a little “All the President’s Men” and a lot of satirical swipes at high school cliques and teenage pecking orders thrown in. Reece Thompson plays Funke, the dweeby dreamer who just wants to get the girl and get a little respect, with the right mix of ambition and naivete, Mischa Barton is the school beauty with a touch of femme fatale about her and Bruce Willis is the Desert Storm veteran principal with an obsessive intensity and an authoritarian streak. It’s not quite “Brick,” the gold standard for hardboiled teenage detective stories, but it is a smart and clever teen flick with an R-rated sensibility. Features commentary by director Brett Simon and screenwriters Tim Calpin and Kevin Jakubowski and two alternate opening scenes and eleven extended/alternate/deleted scenes (also with optional commentary).

Munyurangabo (Film Movement) – Ngabo (Jeff Rutagengwa), short for Munyurangabo, and Sangwa (Eric Ndorunkundiye) are lanky teenage boys, almost young men, on a journey from the big city of Kigali to “find work.” At least that what Sangwa tells his parents, who he hasn’t seen since he fled his alcoholic father three years ago, in a brief detour that drags on as the reunion becomes a reconciliation. The real story and their terrible pasts are slowly revealed in the quietly measured drama from director Lee Isaac Chung. “When is the last time you saw your parents?” someone asks Ngabo. “The genocide,” he answers, with pain and loss in his eyes. The violence and racism of the past casts a long shadow over their journey and ultimately their friendship as Sangwa’s parents, who are Hutu, freeze out Ngabo, a Tutsi. “Hutus and Tutsis are enemies,” explains Sangwa’s father, who blames the Tutsis for his hardships. “Don’t you know that?” For Ngabo, the Hutus massacred his people and murdered his father. It’s something of a polemic to be sure, with politics upfront, but it moves at a different pace from American films, the storytelling seems to arise from their culture and it offers a heartfelt message of friendship and forgiveness and hope in the face of past atrocities and present poverty and hardships. The powerful poem of reconciliation and unity featured in the film is recited on camera by its author, Rwanda Poet Laureate Edouard B. Uwayo, who originally presented it at the official ceremony of Rwanda’s Liberation Day, which adds a profound piece of social history to the drama. In Kinyarwanda with English subtitles. The DVD also features the bonus short film, “Alptraum,” a clever little three-minute football fantasy from Switzerland.

Trick ‘r Treat (Warner) is the second direct-to-DVD feature out of the Warner Independent line to make the case that the lower-budget, more creatively freed format is a better source for interesting—or at least entertaining and unpretentiously creative—horror movies than the by-the-numbers remakes and sequels in the theaters. Michael Dougherty (screenwriter of X2 and Superman Returns) makes his feature directing debut with this lively horror anthology, stirring up, intercutting and at times interweaving the strands of his five short stories into a smartly paced, playfully directed and entertainingly atmospheric collection of serial killers, ghosts, vampires, werewolves, demon children and other creatures of the night who gather for an eventful Halloween romp. Anna Paquin plays a little red riding hood who goes for a walk in the woods, Dylan Baker is a high school principal who lets his more feral instincts loose on problem students and unsuspecting teens in the dark of the holiday spirit and Brian Cox is a cranky old hermit and humbug who gets a visit from the demon spirit of Halloween present. It has a great Halloween sensibility and a body count without becoming grisly or grim or slipping into self-parody. And while this technically direct-to-DVD horror film did not get a theatrical release, it did have a lively trip through film festivals around the world. Also features “Trick ‘r Treat: Seasons Greetings,” a 1996 animated short by Michael Dougherty that inspired a key figure in the film.

Audition: 2-Disc Collector’s Edition (Shout! Factory) – Japanese gonzo maverick Miike Takashi solidified his international reputation with his disturbed and disturbing 1999 psycho-horror nightmare that begins as a gentle romance based on a lie and then shoots into the Twilight Zone of obsession, sadism, and mutilation. Ryo Ishibashi is a quiet widowed father who decides to marry again and uses the audition process of a phony film as a dating service and Eihi Shiina is his ideal: elegant, submissive, demure. The restrained romance has the calm feel of a Yasujiro Ozu film, until she disappears halfway through and his investigation reveals a dark past with demented dimensions. Takashi plays with narrative sleight of hand in dreams and flashbacks that wind through the story and undermine any feeling of grounding, and the transgressive turns in the story plays on guilt, paranoia, and a fear of women that seems to permeate Japanese horror in an age when social expectations have turned inside out. Be warned: this is not for viewers with weak nerves. The film has been release twice before in the U.S., both in special editions. This edition is newly remastered for DVD and for its Blu-ray debut and features all new supplements, including commentary by Miike and screenwriter Daisuke Tengan (moderated by Masato Kobayashi) and over 70 minutes of new interviews with the cast members (all in Japanese with English subtitles).

Another late arriving set: The Paul Newman Tribute Collection (Fox) is a massive collection of the 13 films and 17 discs paying tribute to the legendary actor, star and humanitarian who died last year. The earliest film in the set is The Long, Hot Summer (1958), a sweltering adaptation of three William Faulkner stories with Newman (and his piercing blue eyes) as Ben Quick, suspected barnburner and notorious charmer. He wafts into a small Southern town controlled in the fat fist of Will Varner (Orson Welles) and begins wooing the old man’s spinster schoolteacher daughter (Joanne Woodward). Martin Ritt gets the hothouse atmosphere right and directs Newman to a blue-eyed devil of a performance as he throws sparks in his first onscreen pairing with Woodward, his (then) future wife. The Verdict (1982), the final film of the set, finds Newman a threadbare alcoholic attorney handed a case he was supposed to lose, and he grabs at it as an opportunity at redemption. Newman’s beautifully nervous, vulnerable performance as a man on the edge of his self respect earned him an Oscar nomination.

In between are some of Newman’s best and most beloved films, notably The Hustler (1961), featuring Newman as cocky poolroom hustler “Fast” Eddie Felson, a swaggering pool shark punk who works his trade in dingy bars and seedy poolrooms. After crashing into a pit of self pity after losing big to king of the poolroom Minnesota Fats (a cool, graceful Jackie Gleason at his most effortlessly confident), he pulls himself back with the help of an alcoholic debutante on the skids (a delicate Piper Laurie) and a shifty, calculating promoter (an icy George C. Scott in a career making performance). Director Robert Rossen’s atmospheric adaptation of the Walter Tevis novel rarely leaves the shadowy world of smoky poolroom caves—the film seems to be lit by the spill from of overhead pool table lights and bar lamps—and the film won well deserved Oscars for the deceptively austere art direction and Eugene Shuftan’s smoky B&W cinematography. Ritt directs Newman in Hombre (1967), a ruthless, revisionist take on Stagecoach adapted from the novel by Elmore Leonard. Newman is the blue eyed half-breed who has chosen to go native rather than live in the lies and corruption of the white world, and winds up putting his life on the line to save a coach full of corrupt, racist, and just plain crooked white passengers from a gang of outlaws (led by a wolfish Richard Boone). Newman and Robert Redford teamed up to play Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), the seriocomic buddy western classic that earned screenwriter William Goldman an Oscar. Also includes Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys (1958), From the Terrace, Exodus, Hemingway’s Adventures of a Young Man, What a Way to Go!, The Towering Inferno, and his two Robert Altman films, Buffalo Bill and the Indians Or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson and Quintet. The Hustler, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Towering Inferno and The Verdict are all two-disc special editions. Like Fox’s earlier box set collections of Ford at Fox and Murnau, Borzage and Fox, this is not designed to fight snugly on you DVD shelf, though the design is different from those photo album-sized tomes. The discs are organized chronologically in two fold-out paperboard sleeves which fit side-by-side in a wide case more suited to sitting on a mantle than on a bookshelf. The box also feature an accompanying soft-bound 136 page book with stills and notes on each film. It’s bulky and a little unwieldy, but it is a handsome package.

Blu-ray of the week: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: Diamond Collection (Disney) – It’s hard to grasp today how revolutionary Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was in 1937. The beautiful (and at times a little dark and scary) Grimm Brothers fairy tale of a pathologically narcissistic queen, a beautiful princess and a lovable troupe of little men who protect her was a grand gamble, an expensive animated feature in Technicolor made a time when animated features were practically nonexistent and Technicolor was Hollywood’s expensive new toy. It was dubbed “Disney’s Folly” by the industry, until it became a massive success. Though technically not the first animated feature, the elaborately painted images and graceful execution of the Technicolor feature redefined the idea of what animation could do, pushed the possibility of color cinema into a new realm, convinced the audiences that animation could tell a story for adults and kids alike and launched the Disney legacy. Delicately shaded and delightfully old fashioned, like a fairy tale come to life from a 19th century illustration, it remains to this day one of the most beautiful animated features ever made and my favorite Disney film of all time.

Disney has always treasured its animated classics and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has been treated with the respect it deserves. Now it’s been chosen as their first animation classic to get the Blu-ray treatment and the debut feature in the new “Diamond Edition.” The distinctive texture of the painted cels and the thirties-era colors are beautifully preserved in this new high-definition master. In addition to some of the supplements from the previous DVD edition (commentary by animation historian John Cannemaker, sing-alongs, activities) there is the new featurette “The One That Started It All” and a virtual tour of Disney’s “Hyperion Studios” through brief featurettes and archival galleries (they essentially replace the documentary “Still the Fairest of Them All: The Making of Snow White” from the previous DVD), recently discovered sketches and story notes from an unmade sequel “Snow White Returns,” two deleted scenes (in pencil animation, sketches and finished soundtrack) and new set-top games and activities, with an enhanced “Magic Mirror” guide through the disc. And there is a bonus DVD edition of the movie for the kids to have for their own, leaving the Blu-ray disc for the grown-ups.

For TV on DVD for the week, see my wrap-up here. For the rest of the highlights (including Year One, Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Mortal Transfer and the Blu-ray debut of Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory), 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.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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