Among the featured reviews at my MSN home video column this week is Universal’s Blu-ray edition of Spartacus: 50th Anniversary. While I didn’t watch the entire Blu-ray (my review of the film itself was based on earlier viewings of the film, including the Criterion DVD), I viewed over an hour of the disc and found that it looked quite good, an improvement over Criterion’s 2001 DVD in clarity, if not quite in color, which I found it tilting a little toward red in the skin tones, but not to any egregious level. (For the record, I have a Panasonic 50-inch plasma screen that is now about three years old.)
But I also found a small but fierce uprising taking Universal to task for an inferior job of mastering, led by film archivist and restoration expert Robert Harris, who produced the 1991 theatrical reconstruction and restoration. (I thought about framing this with Harris a modern-day Spartacus leading a consumer uprising against the corporate masters, with Universal standing in for Rome, but thought better of it.) In a post in the Home Theater Forum (launching a thread numbering over 200 posts as of this writing), Harris decries the loss of detail due to the overuse of digital noise reduction (DNR) technology on ten-year-old HD master, instead of returning to the original materials with the latest technology and create a new, definitive HD master. There are some excellent frame captures at the AV Science Forum that support his criticisms. The comparisons between the DVD, HD DVD and Blu-ray images show greater clarity in the high-def formats, but also a “waxy,” smoothed-over quality, especially in the human faces. On DVD, we see a softness of detail, but on Blu-ray the increased film clarity is accompanied by increased digital grain.
The big releases this week are The Road (Sony), Corman McCarthy’s grim novel of a father and son surviving the desolate, savage wasteland of post-apocalypse America, the latest Nicholas Sparks tearjerker Dear John (Sony), with Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried. That’s all well and good and thoroughly covered at every DVD review page on the net (including my own column at MSN Entertainment), so let’s move on to other, more interesting releases.
The archival release of the week is a newly remastered edition of Stagecoach (Criterion), which I review here, but the notable DVD debut is Yesterday Girl (Facets), the debut release in Facets Video’s new “The Alexander Kluge Collection.” 15 discs of feature films and shorts made by the director over the span of 40 years have been announced, scheduled for release one a month through mid-2011. Released in 1966, Yesterday Girl is the film that marks the birth of the New German Cinema in the same way that Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows is the first feature the Nouvelle Vague. You can argue technicalities in the years of short films or any of the other features by young German filmmakers in the landmark year that established the aesthetic without receiving the acclaim, but Yesterday Girl, the story of a bright young German woman from East Germany (played by Alexandra Kluge, the director’s younger sister) who arrives penniless and jobless in West Berlin and drifts through a series of jobs, casual affairs and petty crime, was the most internationally acclaimed of these first features and the film that announced the new blood in the stagnant German film industry to the world. I wrote a substantial feature review of the release for the Turner Classic Movies website.
John Ford’s classic western is a landmark of the genre for so many reasons: mature, classically constructed and superbly directed, it made a star of John Wayne, revitalized the western genre and introduced Ford to the breathtaking landscape of Monument Valley, which would become the mythic backdrop of his west. It was once nicknamed Grand Hotel on wheels but Ford’s mix of high culture, working folk and disreputable characters tossed together under the threat of Apache attack is much more egalitarian and, for all of the melodramatic potential of the personal stories that collide, human than the famous, glossy MGM melodrama. A cross-section of the high and low of the new America setting the west—from a haughty southern socialite (Louise Platt) out to reunite with her cavalry officer husband to a “dance hall girl” (Claire Trevor) driven out of town by the new, judgmental forces of morality, from an Eastern whisky drummer (the appropriately named Donald Meek) to a lovable souse of a country doctor (Thomas Mitchell) who serves as the wry commentator of the changing social fabric of the west—board the stage to Lordsburg as an Apache uprising brews on the plains.
John Wayne’s Ringo Kid is the last of the passengers to be introduced but his entrance is a gift to this young actor, fresh out of his apprenticeship as a B-movie cowboy hero and handpicked for the role by the mentoring director. As the stage comes upon a lone figure on the trail, the camera rushes in to a close-up of this young cowboy, escaped from prison and hauling his saddle behind him (his horse died in the escape), and reveals a soon-to-be-star completely at ease in the desert and on the screen, waving down the audience as he waves down the coach. It’s not that Wayne is a great actor, but Ford presents him as a magnificent screen presence and Wayne communicates a sense of justice and integrity in every piece of dialogue and movement.
The Messenger (Oscilloscope) – Ben Foster is the combat tested Iraq war veteran who faces the emotional minefield of civilians dealing with the death of a loved one when he’s assigned to spend the last days of his tour on a new mission: casualty notification. “There is no such thing as a satisfied customer,” explains his senior partner, played by Woody Harrelson as a complete professional on the job and a lonely, reckless mess off duty. They are the face of the United States Army in those terrible moments when loved ones are told words they never wanted to hear and faces reactions as varied as the people he meets: rage, blame, despair, denial, and in one instance a tender kindness from a confused widow (Samantha Morton at her most vulnerable) that stings deeper than any verbal or physical lash.
In his directorial debut, Oren Moverman (screenwriter of I’m Not There) offers a poignant story of men in uniform nursing wounds and haunted by loss (both physical and emotional) but unable to see another life for themselves, and a powerful perspective on the casualties of war. Steve Buscemi co-stars a grieving father reduced to blind rage. Nominated for two Academy Awards (Best Supporting Actor Harrelson and Best Original Screenplay). Features commentary by director Moverman with producer Lawerence Inglee and stars Foster and Harrelson, a documentary on Casualty Notification officers, a behind-the-scenes featurette and an audience Q&A with the director and members of the cast and crew among the supplements.
The more prominent New Release this week is Invictus (Warner), Clint Eastwood’s reverent tribute to Nelson Mandella’s efforts to unite post-apartheid South Africa. Unfortunately, it’s less a film than a memorial: handsome, stately, well-meaning and dramatically inert. The film foregrounds Mandella’s efforts to enlist the national rugby team, which many blacks viewed as a symbol of white rule, in his efforts to unite the country around the 1995 World Cup Championship. Morgan Freeman earned an Oscar nod as Mandella and his gentle humor and quiet dignity helps soften the reverent tone that Eastwood brings to the film but doesn’t overcome the contrived efforts to wring an emotional response to every tiny show of solidarity or rouse up to cheer for the team to win that cup. Even Eastwood can’t make rugby look dignified on the big screen but Matt Damon brings great conviction (and a convincing Afrikaner accent) to his role as the team captain.
Rock ‘n’ Roll High School: 30th Anniversary Special Edition (Shout! Factory)
If Rock ‘n’ Roll High School isn’t the greatest rock and rebellion film of all time, it is certainly in the running, a pure, cheerfully juvenile blast of blitzkrieg guitar rock, Looney Tunes sight gags, teenage hormones and rebellion against authority because it’s there. They aren’t exactly rebels without a cause, it’s just that their cause is music and fun and the celebration of power punk rockers The Ramones, who in this universe play the rock anthems of the day. At the risk of dating myself, when I discovered the film playing in heavy rotation on HBO, I was in the high school that alternative music culture forgot and had no idea who the Ramones were (or even what punk music really was) but responded to the four-square rock anthems in three chords and double time the way I responded to Chuck Berry: the essence of the rock and roll. That’s what director Allan Arkush responded to as well. Various stories tell of producer Roger Corman’s bright idea to do a “Disco High School” movie (Arkush talked him out of that one) and of his preference to hire Cheap Trick as the featured band (too expensive, it turned out). And who knows, the stories may be true, or just more Corman musings that were never destined to actually go anywhere but make for great copy. What is definitely true is that Arkush wanted to try his hand at a rock and roll movie, an American A Hard Day’s Night with a B-movie budget, a California culture setting and an anything goes comic sensibility. It turned out that the Ramones were on the same page.
Thirty years later, the Ramones are part of my playlist and the film remains as energetic, endearing and fun as ever, not so much a dated artifact from my g-g-g-generation as a timeless slice of teenage kicks and a cartoon of youthquake rebellion against the killjoys of authority. While the seminal New York power punk band provides the beat, P.J. Soles powers the film as Riff Randell, rock and roller and aspiring songwriter who just wants to spread the gospel of rock music. Mary Woronov is her arch nemesis Miss Togar, the new high school principal whose controlling personality and authoritarian streak makes Nurse Ratched look soft and sweet. Where Soles literally dances her way through the film, swinging and swaying done the halls and barely able to keep still in class, Woronov is a drill sergeant in a skirt and a pinched expression who sends her toadying team of storm trooper hall monitors (imagine Jonah Hill and Seth Rogan in these roles) to tell on anyone who dares have any fun under her watch.
Warner has announced that two of its “event” DVDs—Citizen Kane and the 1961 Ben-Hur—will go on moratorium in the coming months.
No need to panic, however. Warner has DVD new editions in the works for late 2011 as well as their respective Blu-ray debuts.
The Oscar-winning Ben-Hur was last released in a four-disc edition in 2005. An even more lavish treatment has been promised for the 50th Anniversary release in 2001 (Jeff Baker, Executive Vice President and General Manager, Theatrical Catalog, says that is “has been selected to receive the Ultimate Collectors Edition treatment, reminiscent of TheWizard of Oz, Gone With The Wind and Woodstock , which celebrated anniversaries in 2009.”) Citizen Kane was released in 2001 in a 60th Anniversary Edition and will be celebrating its 70th Anniversary on its much-anticipated Blu-ray debut.
So if you don’t think you can live without them for the next 18 months, now’s the time to snap them up. But otherwise, don’t think of this as the last chance for these titles, merely preparation for the next generation releases.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Sony) – Terry Gilliam dives back into his diabolical imagination for this carny sideshow of a Faust tale, which he drops into the blurry boundary between the material world and the dream world. Christopher Plummer’s Doctor Parnassus could be an alter-ego for Gilliam, a showman fantasist trying to jump-start the imaginations of a modern world with his unique and eccentric theatrical spectacles and phantasmagorical dream worlds. For all the rough edges and dark patches, it’s a joy to get lost in. My feature review is on Parallax View here.
The DVD and Blu-ray editions are filled with a wealth of supplements. Gilliam overflows with stories and observations and background details to every scene in his solo commentary track (including the adjustments made after Heath Ledger died), which is marked by a mix of enthusiasm and modesty: he doesn’t always understand his creative impulses, but he feels the accumulation of the details. There’s a single deleted scene (with unfinished special effects) which can be viewed with optional Gilliam commentary, a handful of short featurettes and tributes to Heath Ledger (including a brief audio interview from 2007). Exclusive to the Blu-ray is the six-minute “The Imaginarium of Terry Gilliam” and a breakdown of a major special effects sequence in four stages, from animated storyboard to finished film.
Ride With The Devil (Director’s Cut) (Criterion) is Ang Lee and James Schamus’ reconstruction of their preferred cut of their 1999 Civil War drama, which they cut to under two hours and fifteen minutes to meet their contractually obligated running time for its theatrical release. This newly-prepared cut runs about 14 minutes longer. I hadn’t seen the film since its theatrical release so I can’t pass judgment on a preferred version (let alone explicate the differences), but I was gripped by the film in this reviewing in ways I did not expect. Based on the novel Woe to Live On by Daniel Woodrell and adapted by longtime Lee collaborator and producer James Schamus, the film is set in the divided state of Missouri, where neighbor really did fight neighbor and sides were chosen more out of social identity than political allegiance. Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire) and Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich) consider themselves Southern men and, when the “war of Northern aggression” hits the Jack Bull farm and becomes personal, they join the Bushwhackers and joins a brutal guerilla war between private militias conducting a war of terrorism, a fight that, in this film, culminates with the Lawrence Massacre, one of the great atrocities of the Civil War.
Bucolic scenes of men at rest in beautiful wild landscapes and families gathered over meals in manors and homesteads are shattered by battles fought with a brutality driven by something close to vengeance: it becomes personal to every man with a family touched by the war. There’s no romanticizing the fight or the values on the line here, and even those men who proclaim that it’s not about slavery but states rights aren’t about to let those damned abolitionists tell them that they can’t have slaves. But behind the rallying cries is a portrait of young men in war facing the reality of battle and seeing the brutality of their kind of war, fought outside the bounds of the army and driven by various levels of anger, vengeance or (in the case of the sneering son of the South played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers) pure sadism. At the risk of sounding as if I’m reducing the complex portrait to a cliché, it is a coming of age film of sorts, but for Jake it’s not just becoming a man, a husband and a father. It’s about bonding with freed slave Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright) and, trusting him with his life in ways he could never have predicted, seeing him as a human being with everything at stake in the war. That Daniel fights on the side of the South is one of the great contradictions that complicates and enriches the portrait. Identity and loyalty are ultimately defined by personal connections rather than social assumptions, political belief or even national status, and personal experience is the forge that shapes the evolution of Jake’s identity through the war.
Battleship Potemkin is the second silent classic released on Blu-ray by Kino (and for that matter, any label) in the United States. I review the film and the disc for the Turner Classic Movies website.
Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin was commissioned by the Soviet government to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the failed 1905 uprising against the Czar. The government hoped for a traditional film extolling the heroism of the sailors who led the mutiny against the Czarist military commanders. Eisenstein delivered a film that carried his revolutionary message of collective action against corrupt authority in the very form of his film, most directly through the editing that put his theories of montage to practice. Battleship Potemkin is agitprop, but cinematically magnificent agitprop, an attempt to redefine the conventions of narrative storytelling away from emotional connections with the dramatic journeys of individual characters and into a “socialist ideal” of revolutionary art where the hero is the collective hero and the individuals are simply members of the movement: faces in a crowd dedicated to the ideals of social justice.
Avatar (Fox), the top-grossing movie of all time, hits DVD and Blu-ray, albeit without the 3D glory that helped make it such a theatrical experience (no surprise here: Cameron waited a decade to the technology to catch up with his vision, he’s certainly not going to put it through the primitive 3D processes available to most home theater owners today).
Fox is keeping a lid on review copies—critics don’t get a copy until everyone else does on the April 22 Earth Day release date (it’s a Thursday)—which means I can’t comment on the quality of the image and sound (with Cameron behind it, I’m sure it’s stunning), but it turns out I don’t have to worry about the supplements. There aren’t any on this initial release. Cameron stripped all extraneous material to give a higher bit-rate to the film, which ostensibly should provide the highest quality image, and a portion of the proceeds from the DVD and Blu-ray sales will go toward planting one million trees around the world by the end of 2010. I review the film for MSN here and report on the Earth Day tie-in at MSN here. A “Special Edition” release is planned for November (just in time for the holiday shopping season).
Jean-Luc Godard’s fourth film marked a significant new direction for young turk director, away from the impassioned sketchiness of his furiously directed first films and into the realm of carefully composed scenes and formal visual strategies. Developed to showcase his wife and muse Anna Karina (they were on the verge of breaking up), the film follows the journey of shop girl Nana (both a reference to the Zola novel and an anagram for Anna) from frustrated aspiring actress surviving on the generosity of her dates to professional prostitute. Karina isn’t given a glamorous treatment here, not like in the playful musical A Woman is a Woman, but the camera adores her in her simple shop girl clothes and Louise Brooks “Lulu” bob and Godard directs her to the performance of her career, giving a humanity to this shallow girl. It’s not just the famous close-up of Karina, with tears streaming down her cheeks, intercut with Falconetti in Dreyer’s Joan of Arc, but her distinctive body language, her distracted behavior around her “dates” and furtive response to a police interview.
Godard makes it a mix of character study, social commentary and street tragedy broken into twelve distinct tableaux (the full French title is Vivre sa vie: Film en douze tableaux), many of them composed of carefully arranged long takes by Raoul Coutard. On the one hand it’s a provocative portrait of social and sexual politics (at one point the soundtrack reverts to a recitation of laws on the business of prostitution) directed with Godard’s distinctive gift for counterpoint and dramatic disassociation, on the other a moralistic tale of a shallow, emotionally reckless young woman ultimately punished for her ambitions and infidelities.
Richard Curtis’s Pirate Radio (Universal), a tribute to the pirate radio stations that broadcast rock and roll from the ships off the British coast when rock music (and, in fact, all pre-recorded music) was restricted on BBC stations in the mid-sixties, is a perfectly enjoyable comedy that never strays beyond its playlist of colorful personalities and comic antics.
There’s no political meat in its satire of the British government or any real story in the episodic succession of events, and its portrait of the (pop) culture of the time is really just a movie fantasy. But the cast (which includes Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rhys Ifans, Nick Frost and Bill Nighy, who proves himself once again the funniest deadpan on Earth) is good company, the film has a killer soundtrack (the British title of the film is “The Boat that Rocked,” and it does) and you get to hear Kenneth Branagh (as the ultimate petty bureaucrat determined not to let anyone have any fun) say “Twatt” and “Clitt” (the unfortunate names of his immediate subordinates) repeatedly. As I wrote above, it’s episodic and there’s another 45 minutes of deleted episodes (not just cut scenes but complete sequences) in the supplements. The Blu-ray has a bunch of inconsequential bonus featurettes as well. I review it for MSN here.