I’ve been traveling as of late (including a weekend jaunt to San Francisco for the Silent Film Festival at the Castro; my coverage will be rolling out over the next few weeks) so I’ve had less time for DVD coverage, both watching and writing. Still, I’ll call out what I can over the next couple of weeks (including, I hope, the complete Criterion box set Presenting Sacha Guitry (Eclipse Series 22), which I explore in my MSN column).
I didn’t see Repo Men (Universal), the satirical sci-fi thriller about a future where organ transplants on credit are next big credit default market and starring Jude Law and Forrest Whitaker are the guys who do the repossessing, though my MSN and Parallax View colleague Kathleen Murphy found is dark fun. Unfortunately I did see the new Clash of the Titans (Warner), the 3D disaster that is arriving in standard 2D (or “flat”) DVD and Blu-ray. And yes, it’s as flat as they come.
The original 1981 Clash of the Titans, a fantasy adventure of ancient roman gods and monsters and hapless humans caught in the squabble, was the swan song of stop motion creature grandmaster Ray Harryhausen, the last celebration of old school craft in the age of modern special effects. It’s not a particularly good movie, but it has far more character than this CGI-dominated remake, a bland and flavorless spectacle centered on muscle-bound Perseus (Sam Worthington), a stiffly stalwart demigod who takes on an odyssey to defy the gods with no more personality than the slick but CGI creatures he battles along the way. He’s just another effect plugged into a picture that mistakes furious action for excitement and ponderous performances for drama. Liam Neeson is the most notorious transgressor of the latter as the imperious Zeus, proclaiming his stilted declarations from behind an absurd beard, while Ralph Fiennes slips back into the dark side as Hades, the Lord of the Underworld, who goads Zeus into giving the humans an ultimatum. Danny Huston just looks uncomfortable as Poseidon, little more than an celestial extra hiding behind his cartoonish make-up and costume. I do confess a fondness for the giant scorpions, though, which the heroes saddle up like elephants and ride across the desert. Mads Mikkelsen comes the closest to creating a real character out of his role as Draco, a soldier won over by the persistence of Perseus, and Gemma Arterton keeps showing up as an ageless beauty who guides Perseus along his quest.
The DVD features deleted scenes, about 18 minutes worth of footage, much of with the gods intoning their lines and most of it just as stilted as what’s left in the film. The Blu-ray features an alternate ending, which sends Perseus up to Mount Olympus to confront Zeus, and the “Maximum Movie Mode” which pushes the idea of commentary into a virtual documentary experience running simultaneously with (and in most cases proves more interesting than) the film. Video commentary, behind-the-scenes footage, interviews, production featurettes, storyboards and other bits of information run pretty much unbroken from the opening studio logo to the closing credits, and you can access “Focus Points” featurettes at key points in the film (which can also be accessed individually through the menu). It’s actually more interesting than the film itself. Also includes the featurette “Sam Worthington: An Action Hero For the Ages” plus a bonus DVD and digital copy of the film for portable media players.
The Secret of the Grain (Criterion) – Abdellatif Kechiche’s rich drama of an aging French-Arab shipwright who, with the help of his extended family, transforms an abandoned ship left for scrap into a floating restaurant, is a magnificent journey through culture and family and community. As the old man Slimane (Habib Boufares), divorced and living in a dump of hotel owned by his new lover, works his way through the bureaucracy with the help of the doting daughter of his long-time girlfriend (she treats him like and adoptive grandfather), we see an entire world is seen in the background, the stories of the children and grandchildren of Arab immigrants making a life in this French port town and finding their identity in the mix of cultures. The best of the film is expressed between the beats of the plot and the meandering conversations around dinner tables or over drinks on the sidewalk tables of a hotel bar. It’s as joyous and genuine a portrait of a community as you’ll see in the movies. Winner of four César awards, including best picture and director.
Criterion releases it on DVD and Blu-ray, both featuring a new video interview with director Abdellatif Kechiche, an excerpt from a French TV interview with Kechiche and actress Hafsia Herzi, and an extended version of the film’s climactic belly dancing sequence (introduced by the director). There are also video interviews with film scholar Ludovic Cortade, actresses Herzi and Bouraouïa Marzouk, and the film’s musicians, and a booklet with an essay by film critic Wesley Morris.
Ip Man (Well Go USA) – Hong Kong martial arts star Donnie Yen plays the legendary Ip Man, teacher and grandmaster of Wing Chun, in this biographical drama (one in a long line of such tributes) based on the master’s life during the Japanese occupation of China. Yen, a superb screen fighter with an often bland presence, creates the finest screen character of his career as the dedicated but modest master who becomes a teacher to the ordinary citizens facing the oppressive rule of the occupying Japanese army and the predatory attacks of Chinese bandits. It’s all quite conventional (including the inevitable showdown match between the pacifist Ip Man and the brutal Japanese commander who wants prove the superiority of Japanese martial arts and humiliate the Chinese citizens under his rule) and nonetheless rousing. Yen, a master martial artist who learned Wing Chun for the role, is a model of martial grace and physical control, meeting showy moves and furious force with minimal expenditure of energy. He’s the calm that beats the storm. The film won Best Film and Best Action Choreography at the Hong Kong film awards and has already spawned a sequel. Available in standard edition and 2-Disc “Collector’s Edition” on both DVD and Blu-ray, that latter featuring the 18-minute “The Making of Ip Man” (more promotional featurette than making-of documentary), deleted scenes, cast and crew interviews and a shooting diary among the supplements.
Batman: Under the Red Hood (Warner) is another DC Universe Animated Original Movie determined to be more than just a kidvid. Based on a dramatic storyline from the comic book, it pits the Dark Knight against a new villain in town, Red Hood. This violent vigilante turns out to have a personal connection to Batman (and not just because he appropriates the name used by the crook who became the Joker) which helps this is one of the darker tales from this series of original animated features. There’s brutality, death and the Joker having the time of his life watching the chaos spiral, even when he’s the one getting the beat-down. Definitely not for young kids, but it’s smart pulp writing and well put together for a direct-to-DVD animation. Bruce Greenwood voices Batman, Jensen Ackles is Red Hood, John Di Maggio is Joker and Neil Patrick Harris makes a great Nightwing (the “grown” incarnation of Robin). The DVD includes a promotional feature for the next DC Universe Animated Original Movie and featurettes on previous release. Exclusive to the Blu-ray is the animated short “DC Showcase: Jonah Hex” (a little slim but appropriately adult with gallows humor), solid featurettes on the two Robins of the comic book series and four episodes from the animated “Batman” series, plus a digital copy of the film for portable media players.
Joy / Joy and Joan (Severin) – Two pieces of eighties era Eurotica arrive on DVD in their uncensored form for the first time in the U.S. Joy (1983), a post-Emmanuelle romp starring America born/Canadian raised Claudia Udy as a French model whose uninhibited sexuality makes her a notorious figure and a jet-setting celebrity. The French have a way with bringing a touch of elegance to softcore skin flicks, which this ultimately is. And it gets the Mr. Skin brand approval. French porn legend turned genre icon Brigitte Lahaie takes over the role for the sequel Joy and Joan (1983), also available (separately) from Severin. According to the notes, the complete uncut and uncensored version of Joy was found in the screening room of a Paris brothel and Joy and Joan seized in a vice raid in Marseilles. But of course. Joy features a reflective 11-minute interview with Claudia Udy.
I write about Dark City and Hannie Caulder and other Paramount library titles released by Olive Films here.
Also new this week: Marco Bellocchio’s Vincere (IFC), the documentary The Art of the Steal (IFC), Rain (Image), Artois the Goat (IndiePix), Accidents Happen (Image) and G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero – The Movie: Special Collectors Edition (Shout! Factory) on DVD and Blu-ray.