The most tender, touching and deftly told love story of the year is in the opening few minutes of Up (Disney), a wordless survey of a lifelong romance that plays out between the meeting of two adventure-hungry children and the lonely sunset years of the widowed husband decades later, the happiness gone with the death of his wife. That’s just the prologue but it communicates the depth of emotion and devotion and need that will continue to reverberate behind the comic comments and outlandish fantasy adventure, a mix Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, the romance of explorers from thirties lore and Boy’s Own Adventures, the bubble-gum colors of a children’s picture book and a bouncy humor, all stirred with memories of childhood dreams.
I review the film, which is another wonder from Pixar (this one directed by Pete Docter, of Monsters, Inc. fame), in detail on my blog here. As for the DVD and Blu-ray release, it’s another excellent Disney disc with well-produced supplements designed to appeal to adults and children alike. There are two animated shorts—Partly Cloudy, which preceded the film in theaters, and Dug’s Special Mission, an affectionate Looney Tunes-esque piece featuring the affectionate and overexcited pup that slowly reveals itself as a prequel of sorts—and a real-life adventure featurette. “Adventure is Out There” follows the production crew’s own trip to South America and the real-life table-top mountains that will become the film’s destination, and it’s a wonderful trip for us. Like the travelers themselves, we marvel at how much the amazing and unreal the actual formations look, and that personal connection makes this documentary into a adventure of sorts for the filmmakers. There’s also commentary by director Pete Docter and co-director Bob Peterson and the featurette “The Many Endings of Muntz,” where the writers and creators discuss how and why they settled on the final exit for the film’s villain and reveal so much about the Pixar storytelling process along the way. There’s a reason they are best storytellers working in animation (and some might say all movies) today.
Exclusive to Blu-ray is a collection of short but always interesting featurettes on the inspirations for the main characters and other animated elements. These don’t merely offer a glimpse into the research that the animators and producers have done, they illustrate how their discoveries translate into onscreen imagery and personality and the development of their stories. One standout is “Composing for Characters” with Michael Giacchino, which follows the evolution of a simple theme established in the beginning as a delicate music box tune into different incarnations for different scenes of the film. This is one of the nicest portraits of an evolution of a film score I’ve seen. Or rather, heard.
Ballast (Kino) the debut feature by Lance Hammer, is the kind of American independent feature that is becoming increasingly rare, at least outside of the festival circuit. Grounded in a specific place (a small Mississippi Delta town) and centered around the kind of lives that are so rarely seen on screen, this intimate drama is the cinematic equivalent of a miniature, a piece carved out of the stories of three troubled and damaged souls and the culture and poverty of their world. But it’s a highly charged miniature, roiling with rage and regret and sadness and desperation, and Hammer refuses to spell anything out for us. He simply throws us into the middle of their lives and expects us to piece their stories together along the way.
Hammer is a former special effects artist and art director (his filmography includes two of the Batman sequels of the nineties) but the only special effects in this low budget, regional indie drama are the expressive qualities of natural light 35mm film, the lonely atmosphere of the spare locations on the Mississippi Delta and the painful honesty of his non-actor stars. His camera is intimate but restrained, bringing us past their defenses and into their faces and their eyes. He’s attuned to the sounds of their world and there’s no musical score to get between the audience and the beautifully orchestrated soundtrack; every sound that splits the silence becomes music in itself, where it’s the sound of rain spattering into puddles in the yard or the crunch of gravel under Lawrence’s heavy feet as he marches between the homes. You can almost feel the chill of the winter air, or the warmth from the kitchen stove as the adults try to figure out how to turn a small neighborhood store into a shared business. Winner of Best Directing and Best Cinematography at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. Also features illuminating rehearsal footage that offers snapshots from the evolution of three key scenes through improvisational “conflict” sessions (can hear Hammer giving direction and prompting with questions) and scene rehearsals with the actors to the finished film, and a booklet with an essay by Amy Taubin.
Lake Tahoe (Film Movement), the sophomore film from Fernande Eimbcke (Duck Season) ambles along like a Mexican shaggy dog comedy in the Jim Jarmusch style. A teenager (Diego Catano) walks away from a minor car wreck (he’s run into a telephone pole, perhaps on purpose) and looking for a garage in a town that seems completely deserted but for a few odd characters who keeps crossing paths. But there’s an undercurrent of grief and confusion that slowly emerges, turning his aimless wanderings into a kind of search. Or maybe an escape. In Spanish with English subtitles. Also features the short film Noodles from France.
I missed G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (Paramount) in theaters (okay, “missed” is not the right word, as it suggests I actually meant to see it, but I digress). So I’m happy to say that it’s actually better (again, the wrong word; “not nearly as awful” is closer to correct) than the recent Transformers sequel, and significantly shorter to boot. Yes it’s is as busy, noisy, visually cluttered and CGIed into an unreal as anything you’ll see (another film that blurs the line between live action and animated feature). And I don’t believe I have ever seen an action movie with this many flashbacks, most of them edited with the same urgency and breathless impatience as any of the shoot-outs and smackdowns and superpowered chases through the streets of Paris. But while it’s a one-dimensional comic book movie, quite literally inspired by the eighties animated TV series created as a marketing tool for the newly-undated line of Mattel military-themed action figures (seriously, this is a prequel to the storyline of the animated series and the Marvel comic book of the same era) and the characters and dialogue are just as flat as the cartoon, it does move, furiously and absurdly.
Not much in the way of classics this week, so let me share with you some of the recent (or at least recently seen) release from the no-frills Warner Archive Collection, beginning with Gabriel Over the White House (Warner Archive). Gregory La Cava’s 1933 New Deal fantasy is one of the strangest political films to escape the studios. Corrupt President-Elect Walter Huston survives a near death experience through the intervention of an angel and comes out a changed man, a sort of philosopher king whose methods border on dictatorial militarism. I suppose this is the kind of leader Hitler assumed himself to be, but to Depression-era audiences this benevolent dictatorship must have seemed like an answer to their prayers. Looking back today it’s a fascinating little film, almost perverse in its vigilante justice, yet oddly engaging with its unusual romantic triangle (Huston, his aide Franchot Tone, and his mistress Karen Morley) and surprise ending. There was nothing else like this coming out of Hollywood in the thirties. It’s at the Warner Archive here.
Set in 1947 India, after World War II and in the early days of the independence movement, the 1956 drama Bhowani Junction (Warner Archive is a Hollywood drama with an old-fashioned sense of storytelling and a modern (for the time) approach to colonialism, bigotry and identity. Ava Gardner stars as the Anglo-Indian woman looking for her own identity in a country where neither the British nor the Indian population accept her, but while she looks heavenly in sari, it’s her strength and her fiery will that makes her so mesmerizing. While it’s a decidedly Western perspective on India with the usual cold war fear of communist influence, George Cukor gives us a complicated picture that isn’t all that flattering to the British, a portrait that we saw a lot more of in the films of the early sixties (from Lawrence of Arabia to 55 Days at Peking) than in the final days of the old studio system. Perhaps shooting on location gave Cukor a different perspective on thing. Stewart Granger is the exception as a career officer with a crisp manner and an unflagging devotion to duty, and he delivers a line that not only separates him from his fellow officers but is the best riposte to bigotry and racism you can find in a mere six words: “I don’t hate in the plural.” Find it at the Warner Archive here. Gardner is also in The Bribe (Warner Archive), looking very sultry and moving like a sex goddess through a minor 1948 film noir elevated by colorful character turns by Charles Laughton and Vincent Price.
And leftover from last week (skipped for time and space) is the grab-bag set The Claudette Colbert Collection (Universal), featuring sex film from the glamor girl turned screwball star and dramatic heroine, three of them co-starring the erstwhile Fred MacMurray. The set is notable mostly for the release of the Ernst Lubtisch classic Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938), a romantic battle of wills with Gary Cooper, and it also features the urbanites-on-the-farm comedy The Egg and I (1947). It’s often cited as the inspiration for the TV series Green Acres (though Colbert is hardly the Park Avenue socialite that Gabor plays on the show) but its real pop culture impact came from a couple of supporting characters who spun off into their own hicksploitation comedy series: Ma and Pa Kettle. The early screwball comedy Three-Cornered Moon (1933), the romantic drama I Met Him in Paris (1937), the Salem witch trials drama Maid of Salem (1937) and the comedy No Time for Love (1943) round out the set. Three discs in a strangely designed fold-out digipak that sacrifices efficiency for bulk: it takes up a lot more space than it needs to, and I can only assume that Universal wants it to look more substantial than it would otherwise.
Blu-ray of the Week: To the best of my knowledge, Kino’s The General is the first silent film to get the high-definition Blu-ray treatment, and deservedly so. Arguably Buster Keaton’s finest feature and one of the greatest comedies of all time, it stars the great stone face as a railroad engineer in the South who rushes behind enemy lines to save both his train and his sweetheart from the Union enemy. Keaton the performer becomes one with the locomotive, scrambling front to back in the amazing chases, and as director (he shares credit with Clyde Bruckman but Keaton is the real engineer here) he proves himself one of the most gifted storytellers of the silent era.
The 1920s was a golden age of cinema and a peak of film craft, and after years of poorly preserved and shoddily presented silent films, audiences are starting to see just how stunning Hollywood silents really looked. This is mastered from the same source as Kino’s excellent DVD special edition, a print struck from the original camera negative, with blemishes and flaws digitally repaired. This edition features three musical scores (including a superb orchestral score composed and conducted by Carl Davis) and all the (rather minor) supplements of Kino’s previous DVD release.
For TV on DVD for the week, see my wrap-up here. 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.