Arnaud Desplechin’s mercurial, knotty and cinematically vibrant drama of family dysfunction stirred up over a Christmas gathering was the top film of my Best of the Year list in 2008. Now A Christmas Tale (Criterion) arrives on DVD in a presentation worthy of it. Directing with an even more restless energy than he showed in Kings and Queen, Desplechin sketches out a family tragedy, the untimely death of a first-born, that precedes the story by decades and then only overtly references it a few times, even as the shadow of that death hovers over the film: in the cancer that family matron Junon (Catherine Deneuve) has been diagnosed with, in the fragility of her teenage grandson Paul (Emile Berling), and in the odd sibling dynamics that have caused eldest daughter Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) to, in effect, legally separate herself from her brother Ivan (Mathieu Amalric, in a mesmerizingly manic-depressive performance).
“Henri is the disease,” she tells us in one of the film’s direct address monologues, but perhaps the disease is in the blood – the same disease that killed Joseph at age six, the same disease that will eventually kill her mother (even with a bone marrow transplant, which will only give her a few more years; they have the mathematical formula to prove it!), and maybe the same disease that haunts her own son, Paul. For whatever reasons, Paul seeks out his outcast Uncle Henri and invites him to the family Christmas he’s been banished from for five years; this helps stir up quite a holiday nog, complete with a brutal little brawl and a bit of adultery that may come some way to smoothing over a few emotional rough patches.
Desplechin marks the passing days over the Christmas holiday, but the film itself roams back through flashbacks, detours through old secrets and plays with clues that don’t always lead you to a solution. This is neither a farce of dysfunctional collisions nor a family drama where dredging up past sins and misunderstandings leads to teary reconciliations. It’s about the messy space inhabited by loved ones who will never know or understand everything about each other (or, for that matter, themselves) and may never overcome their own (rational or irrational) impulses and emotional reflexes. Some mysteries are never solved and some revelations are never explained, and it’s beautiful. Messy, yes, and sometimes a little oblique, but always pulsing with human life in all its irrationality.
The two-disc DVD and single-disc Blu-ray releases both feature the very personal 2007 documentary L’aimée, a 65-minute film he made upon the sale of the family home in Roubaix (where A Christmas Tale is set) that turns into a tour through his unexplored (and never talked about) family history, and “Arnaud’s Tale,” a 35-minute featurettes with new interviews with director Arnaud Desplechin and actors Mathieu Amalric and Catherine Deneuve (all in English). The nicely-shaped piece explores the origins of the film but is most illuminating when it comes to Desplechin’s creative approach and working methods. Also features French and American trailers and a booklet with an essay by Phillip Lopate. I wrote a more in-depth review for Parallax View here.
The heavy metal release for the week is the franchise reboot Terminator Salvation (Warner), a visually impressive spectacle that doesn’t offer much in the way of story, character or reason to continue following the franchise. More on that in my feature-length theatrical review (which you can find here). As for home video, the DVD features no supplements beyond a digital copy for portable media players but the three-disc Blu-ray edition features both the theatrical and a longer “Director’s Cut” of the film and offers the optional “Immersive Maximum Movie Mode” for the theatrical version, an audio/video commentary that allows McGee to take over the screen and deconstruct select scenes in illustrated detail. It’s really quite cool and very effective, the next generation of commentary. The Blu-ray also includes the featurettes “Re-Forging the Future” (a 19-minute overview of the film) and “The Moto-Terminator” (8 minutes on the creation of the Terminator cycles, designed with help from the folks at Ducati Motorcycles), 11 mini-featurettes on select production elements and exclusive BD-Live supplements, including access to a Live Community Screening with McG scheduled for December 5.
Blu-ray of the week: Gimme Shelter (Criterion) has been nominated as the greatest rock film ever made. It’s certainly in contention: as a rock ‘n’ roll road documentary, as a gritty concert film and as a document of an event of an ideal. What was meant to be a musical celebration soured into the symbolic end of the sixties and the Maysles Bros. (partnering with Charlotte Zwerin) were there to film it. You could call it the postscript to the record begun with Monterey Pop (which ushered in the summer of love) and peaking with Woodstock, which became more than a concert film. In a way, so did Gimme Shelter, a chronicle of the Rolling Stones’ 1969 American tour. The Stones were already the bad boys of rock ‘n’ roll next to the Beatles and the blues-inspired rockers didn’t need any more publicity to mark them as the devil’s music. Gimme Shelter didn’t feed the reputation but it put a frame around the notorious Altamont Speedway free concert that became the grim bookend to the decade.
The first half of the film charts the complications as the Stones’ organization tries to put together a free San Francisco concert while the band itself is rocking Madison Square Garden. They change venues twice, finally landing at the Altamont Speedway with a day to prepare, and by prepare, I mean set up stages, bring in a sound system, create enough parking for the anticipated hundreds of thousands of people and organize some semblance of security. Which is where everything broke down. At the time it should have been obvious that hiring the Hell’s Angels motorcycle club for stage security was a bad idea, but in retrospect it is almost criminally negligent: a band of bikers without any training asked to quell a crowd high on music, drugs and whatever else was in the air. And even after one of the Angels knocked Jefferson Airplane singer Marty Balin out cold, they were left in place as the Stones kicked off their set with “Sympathy For the Devil.” The film reconstructs the breakdown from a perspective that makes it all seem inevitable (the Maysles and their camera operators have an uncanny ability to pick out the people that are about to explode) and watches the music literally unravel as Mick pleads with the crowd to calm down, his swagger deflated in the face of the growing powder keg that finally blew up when a concert-goer pulled a gun and was stabbed to death by a member of the Angels. But then the film pulls back to the band viewing a rough cut of the film in the editing room, stunned and morose, to remind us just how this perspective changes everything.
Directors Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin and collaborator Stanley Goldstein recorded the commentary in 2000 for the original DVD release (recorded separately and edited into a seamless track) and it provides a thorough sketch of the production of the film, from the working relationship between the three directors to the complications of actually mounting and completing the production. The 18 minutes of outtakes offer four complete sequences from the workprint that didn’t make it into the final cut (including performances of “Little Queenie” “Oh Carol,” and “Prodigal Son,” and Mick jamming backstage with Ike and Tina Turner). Also includes a generous audio collection of excerpts from the four-hour post-Altamont call-in show on radio station KSAN, galleries of stills and a booklet with short essays and articles by Mick Jagger’s former assistant Georgia Bergman, music writers Michael Lydon and Stanley Booth, and film critics Amy Taubin and Godfrey Cheshire.
Also debuting on Blu-ray is Ghost in the Shell 2.0 (Manga), not a sequel but revised edition of Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 landmark anime feature. The cyberpunk thriller was the first Japanese anime created for the international market and it became the biggest animated import in the U.S. in years. Evoking future visions reminiscent of Blade Runner and the earlier anime hit Akira, Oshii’s dazzling science fiction mixes adventure, mystery, and metaphysics in a future where humans are routinely augmented with bionics and electronic implants, and then follows it through to the next evolutionary step. The original artwork and design is sleek and clean, full of fascinating detail and extreme motion, and the slightly choppy movement is nicely incorporated into the style of the film. For this next generation edition, Oshii has completely revised entire scenes (including the introductory sequence) with new CGI animation and re-recorded the soundtrack (with new voice recordings and a new score) for a more layered and sculpted audio (for the Japanese soundtrack only). The result is an odd hybrid of the original film and the slick 3D computer animation scenes, which is great for the cyber-imagery but looks more plastic and has less personality when it is used on the characters, or rather, character: the Major, the android leader of this special unit, is the only one reworked in CGI for a few select scenes. Better is the CG boost given to the original cel animation, which enhances and sharpens the imagery without actually replacing it. The disc also features the original version of the film, an English dub soundtrack and the original 1995 “making of” featurette. And for the time being, it’s a Blu-ray exclusive; the DVD release doesn’t come out until January 2010.
For TV on DVD for the week, see my wrap-up here. For the rest of the highlights (including Paper Heart, Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XVI and Cinema Libre’s release of Jean-Jacques Beineix’s original 185-minute French cut (or “Version Integrale”) of Betty Blue), 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.