Lionsgate releases the inaugural Blu-ray releases of international classics in its “StudioCanal Collection” and it goes for the gold standard with definitive editions of Ran, Contempt and the original The Ladykillers.
I’m no expert in the technical details of converting European digital masters to American standards, but it appears than many of the problems that crop up in adapting PAL masters to NTSC DVDs are not an issue for Blu-ray. The frame rate is different but the lines of resolution are standard for high-definition across borders and, thanks to the technological advances in high-def TVs and Blu-ray players, region-free discs from Europe will play on American machines, which have the ability to adjust for frame rate. That’s prologue to acknowledging that these Lionsgate discs are in fact struck from StudioCanal’s digital masters (the folks at DVD Beaver, who are relentless about these things, have compared the Lionsgate Blu-ray editions to the European pressings and found them to be, with one exception, exactly the same) and StudioCanal has made an effort to create definitive editions for these films. Which means, not only are they freshly, beautifully remastered for Blu-ray with great care, but they are filled with substantial supplements worthy of the films. StudioCanal seem to be emulating Criterion’s commitment to fidelity and respectful tribute to their cinema classics and even the engineering of simple, uncluttered, quickly-loading menus. They don’t bother with flashy graphics on the screen. It’s all about the movies, and they are great.
And so, I offer as exhibit one, Ran (Lionsgate), Akira Kurosawa’s 1985 epic re-imagining of Shakespeare’s King Lear in sixteenth-century Japan. Tatsuya Nakadai plays the aging warlord who divides his empire among his three sons and slips into madness as he is neglected, betrayed, and stripped of his dignity. Kurosawa is not merely true to Shakespeare’s story, he brings scenes alive with a cultural twist and a visual mastery, from the pageantry of warriors filling vast fields of green with red and white flags and uniforms to the howling storm that strikes during the warlord’s spiral into madness. The spectacle is brought home with delicately observed performances and beautifully sculpted relationships, an intimacy that gives the epic its soul, and Lionsgate’s release offers an excellent master with stronger colors than have been seen on any previous home video edition (including an earlier Criterion DVD). The experience is supplemented by a collection of substantial documentaries including Chris Marker’s 1985 documentary A.K. (a profile of Kurosawa on the set of Ran), plus the original retrospective documentary Akira Kurosawa: The Epic and the Intimate and documentaries on “The Samurai” and “Art of the Samurai” (all in standard definition). It’s also accompanied by a booklet with an essay by critic David Jenkins.
Brigitte Bardot (in various states of dress and undress) stars in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 classic Contempt (Lionsgate), the director’s one and only flirtation with big budget studio production. At the conclusion of Band of Outsiders, Godard’s voice promises that “My next film with be in Technicolor and CinemaScope.” This is that next film, an unlikely meeting between Godard’s anti-Hollywood sensibility and the showman aesthetic of (uncredited) producer Joseph E. Levine in an international co-production about the clash between art and commerce, the politics of artistic integrity and compromise, and the dissolution of love. To meet his producer’s demands, Godard added an opening bedroom scene and inserted pin-up style nude shots of Bardot nadthen incorporates them into a comment on the very process of filmmaking compromise. Bardot has never been better as a young wife who feels betrayed by her writer husband (Michel Piccoli), who is being courted by the same smug Hollywood producer (Jack Palance, wonderfully crude and arrogant) who seduces his wife. Fritz Lang plays the director, named Fritz Lang, a European legend shooting a version of The Odyssey on the Mediterranean. Shot in hard, bright colors on a widescreen canvas, it’s stately and controlled where Godard’s earlier films were immediate and felt off-the-cuff, a gorgeous film in the key of alienation.
Godard scholar Colin MacCabe provides an introduction and it includes the essential archival documentary The Dinosaur and the Baby (1967), a filmed interview/conversation between Jean-Luc Godard and Fritz Lang that was also featured on Criterion’s earlier DVD special edition (now out of print). Godard has great respect for Lang, but Lang has almost as much for Godard and the give and take chemistry changes from master and acolyte to two artists comparing philosophies. Also features two well-produced new documentaries (“Once Upon A Time There Was…Contempt” and “Contempt…Tenderly”) and an archival 15-minute interview with Lang, plus a booklet with an essay by Ginette Vicendeau.
This first round of the “StudioCanal Collection” is completed by The Ladykillers (1955), the blackest of the Ealing Studio’s black comedies, directed by their deft director, Alexander Mackendrick, and starring Alec Guinness, Herbert Lom and Peter Sellers as gangsters who successfully pull off a heist but meet their match when they try to bump off their dotty landlady. Previously available on DVD through Anchor Bay (now out of print), it receives beautiful treatment on Blu-ray and supplements include an introduction by Terry Gilliam, commentary by British film critic Philip Kemp, the 2002 documentary Forever Ealing and interviews with British screenwriters Allan Scott and Ronald Hardwood and director Terence Davies, plus a booklet.
GoodFellas: 20th Anniversary Edition (Warner) – “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” It’s been twenty years since Martin Scorsese’s violent, dynamic, exhilarating adaptation of Nicholas Pileggi’s non-fiction book Wiseguy, about real-life wiseguy-turned-witness against the mob Henry Hill, exploded on the screen. The stylistic blast what is surely the first rock and roll gangster movie revels in the glamour then twists on the brutality of the mob life as experienced by the ambitious, amoral foot soldier Hill, played to perfection by Ray Liotta. His wide-eyed, willfully oblivious remembrance instills the story with a nostalgic reverence for a parasitic existence and the assumed entitlement that comes with the territory. Living from scam to scam, only an arrest away from complete collapse, Liotta’s Hill sees only the glamour that he dreamed of as a neighborhood errand boy to the made men of the mob. He’s so caught up in the lifestyle he never stops to take stock of his life until it crashes down on him.
Scorsese’s barely fictionalized adaptation of Hill’s memoir captures the charge of being a mobster on New York in the sixties and seventies without glorifying the behavior by keying into Hill’s willfully self-deluded perspective. The unbridled thrill of power within his neighborhood fiefdom (Liotta’s stroll through the back of a nightclub restaurant to a front row table is pure cinematic ecstasy) spirals into a drug-fueled paranoia delivered in an unnerving tour-de-force of edgy energy and pathetic self-pity of a wannabe criminal aristocrat turned stool pigeon. The only false note is the way Hill refuses any responsibility for the murders strewn through his life. Scorsese and Pileggi play into his denial but they also show up the sham of the criminal code for what it is. For all the talk of respect and rules (you don’t rat, you don’t hit a made guy), the film blows every honor among thieves romantic fantasy out of the water. They are bullies, psychos, predators and scavengers, immature and unrestrained children who mistake intimidation for respect and every single one of them is out for himself, for power or money or self-aggrandizement or, when their own position is in danger, for pure survival.
Robert DeNiro takes top billing as veteran mob lieutenant Jimmy Conway, whose own spiral into paranoia has less to do with drugs than pure greed, Joe Pesci is Tommy DeVito (“I’m funny how? Funny like a clown? I amuse you? I make you laugh?”), Lorraine Bracco is the nice Jewish girl who dives head-first into the moral compromise and self-denial of becoming a mob wife, and Paul Sorvino the paternal yet ruthless mob boss Paul Cicero. For all his sense of command, by the end of the film we see that he’s no Godfather, looking out for the neighborhood folks like some feudal lord. He’s just the king of the parasites, in it for himself.
GoodFellas was an early Blu-ray release. This new edition is actually a re-release of the same disc in a cool new book-style case with a 34-page booklet and a bonus disc. It is neither freshly remastered (the original disc looked fine if not stellar, but Warner has made great strides in the years since and this film deserves the best) nor newly enhanced with new supplements. The bonus disc, which includes the feature-length documentary Public Enemies: The Golden Age of Ganger Film and four classic gangster spoof cartoons, is itself recycled from the “Warner Gangster Collection Volume 4.” The rest of the supplements, including two excellent commentary tracks, three featurettes and storyboard-to-screen comparisons, are the same. Which makes it a great first-time purchase but no real upgrade from the previous Blu-ray release.