DVDs for 11/17/09 – Downhill Racer, rebooting Star Trek and watching an even longer Watchmen

Downhill Racer (Criterion) is the feature debut of Michael Ritchie, the first project that frustrated actor and future movie star Robert Redford developed for himself and the first of Redford’s proposed trilogy about the meaning of “winning” in American culture. That’s what gives such a riveting perspective to what would otherwise be called a “sports movie”: Redford’s David Chappellet, the brash, self-involved hotshot on the American ski team, is less concerned with the beauty of the sport than the attention of victory and fame.

David Chappellet (Robert Redford) looks up to check his standing
David Chappellet (Robert Redford) looks up to check his standing

Directed from a script by novelist James Salter and shot on location on the European ski circuit (where the director and star incorporated ideas and opportunities into the film as they arose), Downhill Racer makes no bones about Chappellet’s fierce ambition or dismissive arrogance, but the downhill runs are shot and edited with a visceral quality that takes us off the sidelines and into the skier’s perspective. The screen goes silent but for the cut of skis slicing a track through the snow and whoosh of the crisp mountain air whipping by and the camera captures the run in long takes and full shots to study the integrity of the athlete’s movement and at times watches the rush through the skier’s eyes, to give is the rush, the focus and the intensity of the experience. The rest of the film reminds us of the industry behind the sport—raising money for the national team, traveling from one contest to another, negotiating for top draws (the earlier the pick, the fresher the snow pack) and managing the media—and the culture of fame. Redford’s matinee looks are more than just Hollywood casting in this context; the film never says it in so many words, but it’s clear that Chappellet’s popularity is as much for his good looks as for his success. The crowds love a handsome champion. Gene Hackman is the practical coach who doesn’t like Chappellet or his attitude but knows that his ambition is the team’s best chance for a win and sixties screen beauty Camilla Sparv is Chappellet’s counterpart, a ski company rep who treats romance with the same emotional disconnection that Chappellet treats everything else.

Criterion’s disc advertises itself as 1.85 but is actually adjusted to the TV widescreen standard of 1.77:1. The disc features two interview featurettes, each running about half an hour. “Redford and Salter” features new video interviews with Redford, who lays out the history of the film and his career and his determination to get it made in the face of studio resistance, and writer James Salter, who discusses the evolution of the script and how it changed during the filmmaking. “Coblenz, Harris, and Jalbert” features film editor Richard Harris, production manager Walter Coblenz, and former downhill skier Joe Jay Jalbert, who served as technical adviser and ski double. There are audio-only excerpts from a 1977 American Film Institute seminar with director Michael Ritchie, the archival promotional short How Fast? and a booklet with an essay by critic Todd McCarthy.

I’ll be writing about another essential release this week, Milestone’s excellent two-disc edition of Kent McKenzie’s The Exiles, as well as two features from Seattle filmmaker Lynn Shelton, My Effortless Brilliance and Humpday, in another post. As I’m personally involved in the former (I participate in the commentary with author and filmmaker Sherman Alexie and interview Alexie for a bonus audio supplement) and am friends with Shelton, director of the latter, I can hardly be objective. But I can and will be supportive of both releases in a separate piece. (Update: it’s now up and posted here.)

Completists, obsessives and helpless superhero junkies will probably have to own Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut (Warner), if only to add this third version of the film with the animated “Tales of the Black Freighter” incorporated into the narrative of the film. In the original graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, this was a comic within a comic and shift in tone and style within the page was part of the graphic quality of the drama. Not so here. Taken out of the original context of a static panel of the page and turned into a stark, grisly anime-style cartoon, it’s a distraction. More to the point, it’s a poorly animated addition and a bad adaptation that looks all the worse when cut into the density of Snyder’s movie. This is ostensibly even more faithful to Snyder’s admirably faithful cinematic replica of Alan Moore’s epic graphic novel, and it’s certainly longer (by more than half an hour) but it’s a far less effective movie. There’s a reason that he called his previously-release extended version his “Director’s Cut” and didn’t save the title for this release. (See my review of Watchman: Director’s Cut here.)

The five-disc set gathers up all the previous “Watchman” supplements from various releases into a single package: the mock documentary “Under the Hood” (directed as a seventies-era TV special), the two-disc “Watchman: The Complete Motion Comic” (a flash animation-style presentation of the comic book, panel by panel), four featurettes on the film and the comic, and the “Watchman Video Journals” (11 brief featurettes that were originally incorporated in the “Immersive WB Maximum Movie Mode” of the Blu-ray release). New to this edition is a pair of solo commentary tracks. One is a very packed talk by director Zack Snyder who has something to say about every scene, the how and why of his adaptation and asides about where he snuck things from the novel into shots just to pay tribute to the original. His devotion to the project and being true to the source comes through in every utterance. Dave Gibbons, the artist of the original graphic novel, enjoys talking about the imagery and the detail of the film but really hasn’t much to share and his pauses get longer and longer. 3 ½ hours is a long haul to do a solo commentary and it might have been better to pair him up with someone.

Prequel, relaunch and self-aware tribute, Star Trek (Paramount) is all of these and more, a reboot of the franchise that takes us back to the cadet days of the Enterprise bridge crew and sends them on an adventure into a whole alternate universe that rewrite Trek lore. Talk about boldly going. I wrote on the film on my blog here. The DVD and Blu-ray gets the usual deluxe treatment (this being a big budget space adventure hitting home video for the holiday season). Director J.J. Abrams is joined by writers Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman, producer Damon Lindelof and executive producer Bryan Burk (joining via satellite from NY) for a lively and busy commentary track that manages to cover a lot of territory while having fun. It’s all over the place but it does engage the film scene by scene and these guys really do seem to enjoy one another’s company. There’s three hours of featurettes. Leonard Nimoy plays goodwill ambassador for this new film in the “Casting” featurette. “To Boldly Go” is a basic overview, “A New Vision” is more production oriented and shows TV vet Abrams resorting to old school solutions to many of the visual effects (from miniatures and forced perspective for in-camera effects to green screen cheats and physically shaking the camera), and there are plenty of to craft specialties (“Starships,” “Aliens” and my favorite, “Ben Burtt and the Sounds of Star Trek,” which takes us on a history lesson as Burtt researches the sound effects of the original show). The nine deleted scenes include the birth of Spock and another scene with Kirk and a green girl (which Abrams has turned into a series in-joke), the obligatory gag reel and a digital copy of the film for portable media players. The Blu-ray features extended versions of the featurettes via “branching pods.”

Thirst (Universal) – Korean cult director Park Chan-wook, of Oldboy and Vengeance trilogy fame, takes on the vampire movie with this strange and stylish thriller. Song Kang-ho stars as a dedicated Catholic priest who volunteers for a medical experiment and emerges as a bloodsucker, a classic old school vampire who has to duck sunlight and drink human blood to survive (as the resident priest of a hospital, he finds he can get by with borrowing a little from a comatose patient). He treats the desires as just another test of his faith, but the prospect of death has also given him a new passion for life and its visceral pleasures. In contrast his restraint is the feral response of his lover, who goes from being cowering, repressed victim to hearty predator. Park hits all the classic vampire themes in a loose, often meandering narrative that enters “The Postman Always Rings Twice” territory with an undercurrent of Catholic guilt, holy miracle and supernatural thriller. Though it’s so overfull with ideas that it tends to get lost them, it’s a fascinating cultural twist and creative variation on the classic European horror. My full-length theatrical review of the film is on my blog here. The DVD features no supplements.

Blu-ray(s) of the week: Gone with the Wind 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collectors Edition (Warner), one of the most beloved and revered of American classics, showcases the best and worst of old Hollywood. You can’t miss the idealization of ante-bellum South, presented as some sort of proud aristocracy blinded by arrogance and yet elevated to some kind of American Camelot served by complacent slaves, or the patronizing-at-best characterizations of the black folk, loyal to their masters in the face of Northern soldiers and carpetbaggers. But the story of Scarlett O’Hara, the narcissistic yet driven Southern belle who defies all convention to rise from the ashes of the Civil War as a steely, ruthless businesswoman, is as seductive as they come, and David O. Selznick’s lavish super-production is the great exhibit in the argument for Hollywood filmmaking craft and moviemaking machinery, in this case filmmaking as a producer’s vision rather than a director’s art (the production went through at least three directors). British actress Vivien Leigh, then unknown in America, was a once-in-a-lifetime find. She plays Scarlett like a jungle cat, purring and soft yet ferocious when she wants something, while Clark Gable is a dream Rhett Butler: insolent, rakish, charming, and even noble under his gambling man exterior. How could she prefer that aristocratic fop Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) to this red blooded Southern wolf? Winner of 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Vivien Leigh), Best Supporting Actress (Hattie McDaniel), Best Director (Victor Fleming), and Best Screenplay (Sidney Howard). Olivia De Havilland co-stars as the long-suffering Melanie, Thomas Mitchell is Scarlett’s doting father, and Evelyn Keyes, Ann Rutherford and Butterfly McQueen co-star.

It looks magnificent in its Blu-ray debut, with color that looks as if it’s lit from within, a particular kind of warmth unique to this era of Technicolor, and it fits the entire film on a single disc. The rest of the set is equally packed. From the previous DVD releases are the commentary by film historian Rudy Behlmer (who keeps it interesting and informative for four hours!), the superb 1989 made-for-cable The Making of a Legend: Gone With the Wind, an exhaustive feature-length documentary that features rare screen tests of the all-star gallery of female stars who didn’t land the lead, the original prologue from the International release version, and more interviews, featurettes and archival shorts and supplements. New to this set is the 1992 documentary miniseries “MGM: When the Lion Roars” (an sprawling history of the studio hosted by Patrick Stewart), the 1980 TV movie “The Scarlett O’Hara War” (about the drama behind the production and casting, starring Tony Curtis as David O. Selznick) and the new 2009 TCM documentary “1939: Hollywood’s Greatest Year.” The box set (and it’s a box, all right) also includes a booklet, miniature reproductions of art prints and the original theatrical program and a CD soundtrack sampler. If you hunger for all things Gone With the Wind, this collection will make you never go hungry again. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

And a belated runner-up: Near Dark (Lionsgate), Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 modern south-western with teeth, is a vampire road movie noir that never utters the word “vampire” and a feral, ferocious take on vampire lore that is grounded in family, even when that family is essentially a wolf pack. Beautiful blue-eyed farmboy Adrian Pasdar succumbs to the little girl lost charms of honey-voiced Jenny Wright, the doe-eyed junior member of a scruffy pack of human predators that hunts the backroads by night. Their meeting is something to behold, and to hear what’s really on their mind as the cocky teenage cowboy flirts with the new girl in town on a moon-bright night:

“Can I have a bite?”
“I’m just dyin’ for a cone.”

They are family in every meaningful sense—Lance Henriksen’s scarred survivor is a kind of dad, Jenette Goldstein’s soiled peroxide blonde lapses into mothering instincts, Bill Paxton a wild man big brother—and Bigelow manages to combine the frontier community romanticism of a John Ford western with the violent ferocity of a Sam Peckinpah film: “There’s a price for the night,” indeed. This is a movie about blood in all senses of the word and it defies the traditions of vampire lore with a moving portrait of healing and sacrifice. Bigelow’s night shooting has a stiletto crispness to it, her daytime scenes have a foggy haze, and her sunlight sears like a laser as it burns through the shadows of their shelters through bullet holes and broken walls. In other words, a film begging for the Blu-ray treatment. This edition also includes the supplements from the previous DVD special edition releases, including Bigelow’s incisive and thoughtful commentary, a deleted scene with commentary by and the 47 minute documentary Living In Darkness. Along with the usual production history, cast members Henriksen, Goldstein, and Paxton describe the back stories they created for their vampire characters and discuss the “vampire boot camp” where survival exercises were worked into the film. “I think it’s more interesting to physicalize a character…” explains Bigelow, and that approach is still in evidence today in The Hurt Locker. Go here for an earlier short essay I wrote on the film.

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.

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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