Boogie Nights / Magnolia (New Line) – The two films that put Paul Thomas Anderson on the map arrive on Blu-ray this week. His sophomore feature Boogie Nights (1997), about the adult film industry in the late 1970s (partially inspired by the life of porno star John Holmes) is a surprisingly vibrant, funny, and at times quite warm story of a dysfunctional filmmaking family, with Burt Reynolds as a quiet but firm director Dad and Julianne Moore as the porn star surrogate mother to the company’s teen stars Rollergirl (Heather Graham) and Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg), the “natural” from the suburbs who is quickly recruited. Anderson’s flamboyant camerawork creates a heady atmosphere of excitement and energy that comes crashing down in the third act when the porno industry changes almost overnight and Diggler’s ego (fed by an out-of-control drug habit and delusions of talent) sends him out of his family’s bosom and into the cold, cruel world. And yet he still manages to pull out a happy ending (of sorts) against all odds. Magnolia (1999), Anderson’s third film, is a sprawling ensemble epic of lonely lives and damaged souls whose paths cross (however tangentially) over the course of two days in Los Angeles. The stories of over a dozen characters are held together by a web of coincidence (one of the film’s more abstract themes), Aimee Mann’s tough but tender songs, and Anderson’s energy and bravura direction, culminating in an astounding half hour crescendo that inexorably builds to a second act anti-climax, as sad and frustrated a moment as the cinema has seen. The final hour is dedicated to recovery, release and rebirth.
They make a beautiful matched pair of compassionate, impassioned and creative portraits of American souls in distress from an ambitious young filmmaker who throws himself headlong into his movies. By the time of There Will Be Blood, Anderson had honed his talents and his vision, creating images that look hewn out of the rock of his landscapes and stripped of all but the elemental essence of his film. These are different, the ambitious explorations of a young artist excited to explore the possibilities of the tools at his disposal, and for all the self-indulgence and unrealized ambition of the films, they are exciting and enthralling works carried along by his delight in filmmaking itself as much as by the stories. Magnolia especially is a kind of cinematic opera where each performance offers its own aria.
Both have been out on DVD before on a couple of different editions. These discs don’t add anything more to the supplements—Boogie Nights features two commentary tracks (one solo by Anderson, one with the cast), deleted scenes and a series of entertaining extended scenes and outtakes with John Reilly and Magnolia features the 72 minute documentary Magnolia Diary, a cut Frank T.J. Mackie seminar sequence (very funny) and “Seduce and Destroy” infomercial, a series of production snapshots spanning the entire shoot and Aimee Mann’s “Save Me” video, and none of the supplemental video is remastered for HD—but the beautifully mastered image and sound is superb.
The Bourne Identity / The Bourne Supremacy / The Bourne Ultimatum – Blu-ray/DVD Combo Discs (Universal) – The HighDef battle is long over but the labels are still trying to find ways to speed up adoption of the format. With DVD sales flattening out in the past couple of years, Blu-ray is where the growth is, and the home theater boom in increasingly larger and sharper widescreen monitors and more powerful sound systems, we’ve reached the point where general consumers can see the difference. We’ve seen labels increasingly add not just a bonus digital copy for PC, iPod and other portable media players, but bonus DVD copies, especially in the case of animated features and other family films. In a situation where kids may have their own playroom TV and DVD player, a separate disc they can use on their own is an attractive option that offers the best of both worlds: the Blu-ray clarity for the home theater and a DVD for the kids to handle (leaving the Blu-ray untouched by grubby little hands).
Universal has now launched its own alternative to the Blu-ray vs. DVD/Blu-ray plus DVD option: putting them both on a single disc, with the Blu-ray on one side and the DVD on the other. The they are launching this new paradigm with the three films of the Bourne trilogy, released separately for the first time on Blu-ray (the past release was as a set). The movies themselves are marvelous. Doug Liman directs The Bourne Identity (2002), an adaptation of Robert Ludlum’s novel about an amnesiac human weapon trying to discover his true identity while the CIA hunts him down, and Matt Damon delivers a performance of pure focus, as if all the vulnerability of his human self is taken off-line and replaced by instinct and programming whenever he’s in the line of fire. The two sequels directed by Paul Greengrass are even better as Damon becomes the great anti-Bond of Hollywood action cinema with The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. Greengrass shoots in a rough and ready style, choreographing complex action scenes on location and throwing the audience into the middle of the chaos with a handheld camera that whips and searches and follows the action as if the cameraman was catching it all on the fly. His style is closer to The French Connection than to the unreal spectacles of modern special effects thrillers, bringing a visceral immediacy to every scene and putting the audience in the front seat of every car chase and collision, while his narrative efficiency is stunning and his overdrive pacing never misses a beat. Both the DVD and Blu-ray formats feature the commentary tracks, deleted and alternate scenes and treasure chest of featurettes from previous releases and the Blu-ray versions include the interactive “U-Control” and BD-Live supplements.
As to the new format, honestly I’m not sure what the reasoning behind is. Sure, it might make sense for a consumer who is contemplating a Blu-ray upgrade but has yet to make the plunge, and even for a Blu-ray convert it’s always better to have the option than not. Putting them both on the same disc hasn’t, by my admittedly unscientific sampling, affected the clarity or effectiveness of either format. But by putting both version on the same disc, it removes the flexibility inherent in two discs, and the flipper style more than doubles the chances of smudges and dirt getting on the disc. You certainly don’t want to leave this disc lying around outside the case, and not only because it can be easily scratched or otherwise damaged with one programming side always exposed. With no “label side,” you have to look closely to read the title on the inner ring. Perhaps it’s a cost-saving measure, though the raw costs of a second blank disc is minimal (the packaging may be another matter).