DVDs for 12/8/09 – John Dillinger, Harry Potter and Brigitte Bardot

Public Enemies (Universal) is Michael Mann’s take on the gangster glory days of the depression, when the most flamboyant and notorious bank robbers became the outlaw heroes of the day. Mann plays on that mystique in casting Johnny Depp as John Dillinger, a charmer and a cagey media player who was careful to maintain his folk-hero status as a kind of Robin Hood figure taking on the system (the banks, the cops, the government that failed America) in the depths of the depression. And while he has no compunctions about taking civilian hostages as human shields, he acts more like a host than a kidnapper, sharing jokes with his temporary captives and turning their ordeal into an adventure that they’ll be able to tell the papers and newsreels.

Johnny Depp as John Dillinger
Johnny Depp as John Dillinger

Mann is a director who loves to dissect the details of men at work and admire the professionalism of his characters in action, whether it’s the mechanics of a successful prison break or the systematic efforts of FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) and his squad to patiently gather evidence and tail suspects until he pieces enough together to find his man. And this is a thinking man’s gangster film, less about thrills than the mechanics of Dillinger’s heists and Purvis’ investigation, which he executes with his usual precision. But it’s also about the end of the gangster era, shut down not just by the efforts of the FBI but the increasing power of the mob syndicate as it leaves violent crime behind for the less public activities like gambling. See my feature review on my blog here.

Michael Mann provides a thoughtful commentary track focused on his efforts to evoke the people and the place: “Not just how 1933 looked, the cars and clothes, but how people in 1933 thought.” He pauses often for long breaks, however, throughout his solo track. The single-disc DVD also includes the ten-minute “Larger Than Life: Adversaries,” with Mann and stars Johnny Depp and Christian Bale discussing their characters and their research (actors love to show off their research – did you know Depp was born about 60 miles away from Dillinger’s birthplace?). The “2-Disc Special Edition” includes four more featurettes, including the twenty-minute overview “Michael Mann: Making Public Enemies” and the nine-minute “Criminal Technology,” a tribute to Mann’s exacting attention to period detail and the actors learning the tools of their characters’ trade, plus a digital copy of the film for portable media players. Exclusive to the Blu-ray edition is a picture-in-picture track of brief featurettes that you can bring up at key moments in the film or jump to via an interactive timeline, a gangster movie quiz and the usual interactive functions for BD-Live players.

It’s Harry Potter Mania this week, timed very nicely to the Christmas gift-buying season. In addition to the DVD/Blu-ray debut of the sixth film of the series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Warner), there is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: Ultimate Edition (Warner) and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: Ultimate Edition (Warner): newly expanded special editions of the first two films in series.

I like the direction that director David Yates has taken the series. His background directing character-based TV drama has come to the fore in keeping the focus on the characters and their place in the unfolding drama. The first films were very visually colorful and narratively dramatic, with big things happening and characters rising to heroic levels. By Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, it feels like we’re seeing these characters live through this story, rather than acting out an adaptation. The story flirts with young love (and love potions) at Hogwarts but also moves into a darker and more adult direction and Yates follows suit with a film that is more intimate and somber. The effects are excellent but secondary to the character drama. There is less rollercoaster action and splashy set pieces and more focus on the people at the center of the action.

Where the later films move away from the painstakingly literal translations of J.K Rowling’s increasingly sprawling novels, these first two films are perfect replicas created with a kind of funhouse spectacle of the wonders of the magical world come to life. Looking back on the original Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001), a lush, lavishly produced introduction to Potter’s world and the wondrous delights of the magic castle of Hogwarts, we can see that Steve Kloves’ script condenses scene after scene to essentials (of character revelation as well as plot necessities) and director Chris Columbus’ admirable desire to put the novel onscreen in all its detail ends up favoring events over people. It’s also a reminder of how the young stars have grown up through the films and how the sense of wonder has turned more ominous over time. Daniel Radcliffe has grown already by Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) and his presence benefits greatly from his increased confidence and maturity, and Kenneth Branagh is perfectly cast as the guest wizard, a glib, ego-maniacal author who spends more time preening that practicing spells. Columbus continues to delight in the phantasmagoria of the magical details (like the Whomping Willow) but, sadly, this film marks the final appearance of the late great Richard Harris as the paternal Headmaster Dumbledore. The sets feature both the original theatrical cut plus an extended version of each film, a digital copy of the film for portable media players and bonus discs of supplements. See below for details.

The Brigitte Bardot Classic Collection (Image) – Brigitte Bardot was never much of an actress, but she didn’t need to be. The shapely, fleshy starlet was all sex and innocence that radiated from the screen, even in complete fluff. This new set from Image packages together three films previously released on DVD by Home Vision early in the decade, including two such early, unambitious vehicles that offer the girlish sex symbol in her prime. In Plucking The Daisy (1956) she’s a young provincial woman who runs off to Paris to become a famous writer and winds up in a striptease contest (a nonchalant flesh pageant of sexy French misses), much to the consternation of her conservative father. The silly bon-bon of romantic travails and mistaken identities by Marc Allegret is an often overbearingly chauvinistic sex comedy that survives solely on Bebe’s charms: Sex bomb Bardot flutters her eyes in coy flirtation and come hither stares while squeezed into tight blouses, shrink wrap dresses, and lacy negligees. The Night Heaven Fell (1958) is her second film with husband/director Roger Vadim, who made her an international sex kitten in the 1956 And God Created Woman). In this arch, unsubtle melodrama set in the steamy Spanish high country, she’s a convent girl who moves in with her kindly aunt (Alida Valli) and sleazy, sex-crazed Uncle, and becomes entangled in a deadly erotic triangle when she falls for local tough guy Stephen Boyd. Vadin sells the picture by getting his wife out of her dresses and into lingerie, nighties, and less as often as possible. Sex sells, and the French know how to package a gift like Bardot. Vadim shoots it in earthy color and CinemaScope and the disc preserves both in an anamorphic widescreen transfer. Don Juan, or If Don Juan Were a Woman (aka Don Juan 73, 1973), Bardot’s final feature, rounds out the collection. The implicit answer to the title is that if Don Juan were a woman, she would be Brigitte Bardot, which sounds like an idea that now-former husband and director Roger Vadim would warm to. His salacious drama is about the sexual exploits and conquests of a woman who has spent her life devouring and destroying men, all told in flashback as she confesses to her priest and cousin.

High school poetry teacher and aspiring novelist Lance Clayton (Robin Williams) is not quite the World’s Greatest Dad (Magnolia), but his son (Alexie Gilmore) is a real jerk of a teenager, utterly foul and hateful and despised by everyone… until he kills himself and his suicide note and journals (written by Dad) are embraced by his students as the heartfelt cry of a misunderstood artist. It’s a black comedy of our impulse to deify the dead, especially a teen suicide, and Lance’s efforts to rewrite his son’s story is nothing compared to the way his classmates transform this outcast into their best friend. Written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, it’s more clever than smart, but very funny and Williams underplays the part nicely. Features commentary by writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait (recorded while on painkillers – and BTW, Bob, you didn’t talk too much on this track), two featurettes, deleted scenes and outtakes. Also available on Blu-ray.

Blu-ray(s) of the week: Harry Potter Ultimate Editions (Warner). See above for notes on the films themselves. The DVDs spread the films and supplements over five discs while the DVD packs it all into three per set. Each of these lavish editions feature both the original theatrical cut plus an extended version of each film, a digital copy of the film for portable media players and bonus discs of supplements. Along with all the interviews and deleted scenes and interactive activities of the original releases, these sets each include an excellent new hour-long “Creating the World of Harry Potter” documentary (where old and new interviews with the stars show just how they’ve matured over the years), more deleted scenes and other goodies: “Sorcerer’s Stone” features the nine-minute promotional TV special “A Glimpse into the World of Harry Potter” and a new introduction by Daniel Radcliffe and “Chamber of Secrets” includes screen tests of the young stars, a promotional featurette and a gallery of trailers and TV spots. Exclusive to the Blu-ray editions are picture-in-picture audio/video commentary with director Chris Columbus and BD-Live supplements. Each set snugly held in a heavy slipsleeve with a magnetic clasp which also contains an exclusive 48-page photo book and two character cards one thick card stock.

Also new this week: the acclaimed documentary The Cove (Lionsgate), Shane Meadows’ Somers Town (Film Movement) and Lion’s Den (Leonera) (First Run).

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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