Criterion is regarded by most collectors as the gold standard for international masterpieces and classic cinema on DVD. This season, it stakes itself out as a player in contemporary international cinema with the release of two acclaimed foreign films: Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale (due December 1) and, this week, Matteo Garrone’s sprawling docu-realist drama Gomorrah (Criterion). The signature image of Garrone’s adaptation of Robert Saviano’s non-fiction book, an exposé of the dominance of organized crime in Naples and Caserta, is a pair of teenage boys running around a deserted beach in their underwear while shooting off automatic weapons. (The cover of the Criterion edition transforms the image into a surreal vision of a skinny teenage boy walking through the city like a Godzilla child-man.) That’s as much glamour as you can expect from the this portrait of the mob: emotionally immature boys playing at gangster, oblivious of the reality behind their Tony Montana fantasy.
Set in the poverty of coastal regions of Naples and Caserta, Gomorrah is a long and at times grueling look at five stories of people caught up in the Neapolitan Camorra, the Mafia organization that rules the region. Their hands are in everything, from selling drugs and running guns to the rag trade and, yes, contracts to haul and dump garbage and toxic waste. The sprawl makes it hard to follow and harder to connect with the characters and their stories (I was far more engaged on a second viewing), but it makes its point about the reach of the Camorra and the culture it has spawned. Garrone, who came to features from documentary, he brings a clear-eyed approach to the film and captures an atmosphere of destruction and waste in a landscape of urban blight and poverty. Criterion is releasing the film on both two-disc DVD and single-disc Blu-ray (at the same price, as is their policy), each with the hour-long documentary “Five Stories,” video interviews with Garrone, actor Toni Servillo and author Roberto Saviano, deleted scenes and more.
Before they were stars, Adam Sandler and Judd Apatow hungry stand-up comics sharing an apartment in Los Angeles. Apatow draws on both of their lives, past and present, for Funny People (Universal), a character drama in the guise of a show-biz comedy. Sandler is the former stand-up comic turned movie superstar who returns to his roots when he’s diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia and Seth Rogen is the young comedian he hires as a gag writer, assistant and on-call buddy. Sandler has always been at his best with parts that allows him to turn the comic exaggerations of his infantile comedies into not-so-cute undercurrents of real human behavior and this is no different. His character, George Simmons, is publically affable and easy-going but he’s a self-involved guy with an arrogance and sense of entitlement that peaks out in private moments. He’s able to get away with almost anything thanks to his fame and his sense of humor but even after facing his own mortality and coming out the other end, he’s never quite able to get past himself and really connect emotionally with anyone, including the ex-girlfriend (Leslie Mann) who is now married with children. Apatow thanks James L. Brooks in the credits and no wonder: this is his James L. Brooks show-box dramedy!
More interesting than this melodrama, however, is the messy culture of young comedians trying to make their name in comedy clubs, which Apatow and his cast (Rogen, Jonah Hill, Aziz Ansari, Aubrey Plaza) bring to life with an authenticity that makes both the tiny clubs and the big venue concerts completely convincing. There’s a single disc edition, a two-disc special edition and a Blu-ray release, and of them feature both the theatrical version and an extended unrated version (which runs seven minutes longer) plus commentary by director Judd Apatow and stars Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen (which is a lively and funny as you would expect from three comedians remembering their experiences in the business) and a gag reel. Apatow’s special edition supplements are always terrific and this is no exception, from the 75-minute “Funny People Diaries” (a making-of documentary as a personal journey through the film guided by director Apatow) to the deleted/alternate scenes, montages of ad-libs and other goodies.
Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s beautifully observed Three Monkeys (Zeitgeist) is a poetic portrait of flawed individuals facing the consequences of bad decisions. The film opens on a hit-and-run, unseen by us but signaled by the screech of brakes intruding into the hush of night on a winding country road. It’s a politician behind the wheel, but it’s his driver who takes the rap and the prison sentence. It’s just business, a private contract with a cash payoff (the family straddles middle class aspirations and working class nervousness and the money is too good to pass up), but it’s beginning of the white lies, hidden truths and bad decisions that spiral out of the father’s absence. Or perhaps out of his example. Compromises are made, but as in the opening scene, Ceylan keeps the cascade of mistakes and mishaps—the things that most films foreground as defining and dramatic events—off screen. Celan, a Turkish filmmaker whose previous films include the equally intimate “Distant” and “Climates,” has an unerring gift for camera placement. His camera lingers on the actions and reactions of his characters in the wake of the repercussions, observing the human story behind and beyond the headline events with microscopic focus. His slow, measured scenes can be as hypnotic as they are lovely, at times much so that the characters feel trapped by his poetic perfection. At others they are all too human, confused and selfish and irrational. He observes it all with a pace and a texture that communicates a cultural perspective that’s just a little different than you find in American movies. Turkish with English subtitles. No supplements except for a booklet with a printed interview with director Nuri Bilge Ceylan.
Tora-San Collector’s Set: Vol. 1 (AnimEigo) marks the stateside debut of a contemporary Japanese cultural treasure: the first four of what became a series of 48 feature films chronicling the misadventures of travelling peddler Torajirô Kuruma (Kiyoshi Atsumi), a bumbling rube with a good heart and bad judgment. Atsumi meandered through these gently sentimental comedies for 27 years (setting a record for a continuing series with the same actor) and director Yoji Yamada (who recently made his name stateside with The Twilight Samurai and The Hidden Blade) directed almost all of them. The series begins with Tora-san: Our Lovable Tramp (1969, aka “Otoko wa tsuria yo,” which translates to “It’s tough being a man”), and it front-loads the film with exposition of who he is and where he comes from, but the rest of the film is what defines the character. He’s an uneducated bumpkin with an outgoing personality and a saleman’s patter, who nonetheless puts on a show of worldly wisdom that is punctured every time he slips into street slang and bathroom humor (the subtitles on the AnimEigo release helpfully explain cultural references and verbal humor). He’s obliviously crude and inappropriate when he’s sober and aggressively rude when he’s drunk, and he has a rare gift of misreading every delicate social situation and blundering through them with grace of a drunken water buffalo. And yet, whether because of his efforts or despite them, everything turns out all right when he’s around, and the outsized personality, impulsive generosity and wide grin that Atsumi brings to the role makes it easy to forgive his faults. Chieko Baisho plays his little sister, orphaned after the death of their parents (he returns home to do right by her in the first film, and then keeps checking in between his travels). AnimEigo’s box set features the first four films in the series in fine editions with commentary on the first film by film historian Stuart Galbraith IV and program notes on each film. The collection is filled out by Tora-san’s Cherished Mother (1969), Tora-san, His Tender Love (1970) and Tora-san’s Grand Scheme (1970), each film sending him another quest between visits home to cheer his loving little sister and exasperate everyone else. And despite his tendency to trip over his own words, he manages to be quite the matchmaker for everyone but himself. He is, as the box set brands him, “Japan’s most beloved loser,” and these are charming films.
And yes, this is the week of Angels and Demons (Sony), the absurd follow-up to The Da Vinci Code (the book that was actually written before Code but reframed in the script to follow the movie). Ron Howard’s plan must have been to move the action fast enough to keep anyone in the audience from thinking about the utterly ridiculous plotting and it apparently worked well enough to make it a hit, but it’s as ridiculous a thriller as you’ll find. I wrote a review for the theatrical release, which you can read here, and details of the DVD release are here.
Blu-ray of the week – “I am Jack’s Blu-ray”: Fight Club: 10th Anniversary Edition (Fox) was actually released on November 17 but 20th Century Fox keeps has a policy of not sending out review copies of most of their releases until street date, so I didn’t get a chance to look at this until now. David Fincher’s satire of consumerism, machismo, cultural asphyxiation and anarchy (adapted from the novel by Chuck Palahniuk’s novel) may well be the defining cultural fantasy of the nineties as well as a brilliant use of digital effects to create a surreal, alienated existence. Blu-ray is made for Fincher’s kind of dense imagery and technically complex visual manipulation; you can freeze frame those subliminal images and slow down those “flutter-cut’ sequences with even greater clarity than DVD. The new supplements are just fine: “A Hit in the Ear: Ren Klyce and the Sound Design of Fight Club,” an introduction to the art of sound design with rudimentary interactive sound board, really stymied me (maybe I don’t have the right set-up to make it work) but Mel Gibson wearing a Viking helmet and riding a horse to hand out to Fincher and company for Spike TV’s “Guy Film Hall of Fame” Awards is a sight worth seeing. But the original DVD supplements—including four audio commentary tracks, 17 thumbnail featurettes on key scenes and special effects, deleted/alternate scenes and galleries of goodies—are still more helpful and enlightening.
For TV on DVD for the week, see my wrap-up here. For the rest of the highlights (including Island Etude from Taiwan and a fine new DVD edition of the World War II classic A Walk in the Sun), 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.