DVDs for 2/23/10 – Informants, Conspiracies, Parallel Universe Heroes and Nazi Zombies

My DVD of the week, Make Way For Tomorrow (Criterion), was reviewed a couple of days ago here. Of slightly newer vintage is The Informant! (Warner), a film that straddles multiple eras: released in 2009, set in the nineties, directed with seventies flavor and set to a swinging Marvin Hamlisch score that channels the groovy sixties. I reviewed this lightfingered film, based on a true story but directed with a jaunty snap and a deadpan style that makes the absurd cascade of complications all the more astounding and hilarious, on my blog last year here. “Matt Damon is a constant churn of gee-whiz earnestness, righteous indignation, nervous exasperation and self-aggrandizing swagger as Whitacre,” I wrote. “It’s a brilliant dance of charm and delusion delivered with an amiable enthusiasm and wavering resolve and accompanied by a running stream-of-consciousness narration of constant distraction… “

Matt Damon is The Informant!

The DVD features four deleted scenes which run about six minutes and were cut simply to move the film along; the scene with Damon and his FBI handlers, however, is a nicely understated bit that adds to a twist to their complicated loyalties. Exclusive to the Blu-ray release is commentary by Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns. Soderbergh is one of the better commentary track jockeys around, having talked not just over his own films but been a guest on other film tracks. He brings that talent as a moderator to bring Burns front and center in a discussion that ranges over all aspects of the film, from its inspirations (Burns initially heard the story told on the public radio show “This American Life”) to Soderbergh’s conscious shift in style to working with composer Marvin Hamlisch. Also includes a bonus digital copy of the film for portable media players.

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DVDs for 2/16/10 Hunger and Revenge, Black Dynamite and Spring Fever

The DVD of the Week is, without a doubt, Criterion’s magnificent edition of the 2008 restoration of Max Ophul’s final film, Lola Montes, and I review it here. But along with something old, Criterion has something new, or rather a couple of somethings new, foremost among them Steve McQueen’s unforgettable Hunger (Criterion). Before he went out speaking the king’s as a crisply proper British officer in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, Michael Fassbender played Irish Republican Army member Bobby Sands who, at the age of 27, went on a hunger strike in 1981 to protest the British government’s refusal to recognize IRA inmates as political prisoners. British artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen creates a film unlike any traditional biopic or historical drama: an overwhelming visceral experience composed of the sight and sounds and sensations of men in prison, played out as an almost abstract portrait in power and resistance until the film’s sole dialogue, a debate between Sands and a Catholic Priest.

Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands in "Hunger"

McQueen isn’t taking sides or making political points; in the brutal world of Ireland during the troubles, there’s plenty of reprehensible behavior to go around. Hunger is a study in the deterioration of the human body (we literally watch him waste away on camera) and the will it takes to endure such self-mortification in the name of cause. Available on DVD and Blu-ray, both featuring the tightly focused 13-minute documentary “The Making of Hunger,” bonus video interviews with McQueen and actor Michael Fassbender and a 1981 British TV documentary on the Maze prison hunger strikes, plus a booklet. As a side note, the menus are particularly haunting and unsettling.

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DVD of the Week: Lola Montes

Lola Montes (Criterion), the final film from French auteur Max Ophuls, has been a hard film to see in any form resembling the director’s original conception. It was originally released in a version drastically recut by its producers, who were dumbfounded by the dense, layered carnival of affairs of the melancholy memory film Ophuls created. A restoration in the sixties only brought it partly back to Ophuls’ grand design. A previous DVD release by Fox Lorber was taken from the most complete version available but was poorly mastered in the wrong aspect ratio and a non-anamorphic presentation, with muddy color and crummy registration. Criterion has mastered this edition, for both DVD and Blu-ray, from the new 2008 film restoration (which received a too-brief release in repertory and arthouses across the country) and it is stunning, especially so on Blu-ray, where it seems to glow and arise from the screen. It’s the only film that Max Ophuls made in color and widescreen and has long been celebrated as one of the greatest triumphs of color film. This edition finally shows viewers why.

"Lola Montes" - Falling from social grace to the center ring

The tension between genuine emotion and the desire for love that suspends many of Max Ophuls’ dramas becomes the melancholy center ring of his final drama. He frames the story of “the world’s most scandalous woman” as a circus spectacle/pageant and contrasts the outrageous sensationalism of her reputation, garishly performed as a big-top cabaret narrated by ringmaster/MC Peter Ustinov, with offstage moments of tender candor and poignant, poetic flashbacks of her “notorious” affairs with artists, composers, politicians and royalty, from Franz Liszt (Will Qualdflieg) to King Ludwig of Bavaria (Anton Walbrook). Swept along by Ophuls’ gliding camerawork, which floats through the film as if on the wings of angels, her life bounces between cinematic ballet (with Ophuls the choreographer and conductor) and high-wire balancing act while the sweep and momentum of his camerawork weaves the spheres of her life—the flashbacks of her past life, the pageant presented in the center ring of the circus and the backstage drama of her failing health.

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Blu-rays for the Week: Lionsgate’s StudioCanal Collection and GoodFellas repackaged

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.

The pageant of Ran
The pageantry of Ran

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.

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Blu-ray for the Week – To Live and Die in L.A.

Revisiting To Live and Die in L.A. (Fox) twenty-five after its original release turned out to be a treat and an eye-opener. While on the one hand you can hold it up as the quintessential expression of the era’s music video aesthetics and sleek, slick style, it’s also a distinctively singular, perfectly pitched action thriller from William Friedkin, a director in full command of his tools, including the high-octane style of neon surfaces, rapid editing and driving music.

Outrunning the train

William L. Petersen was poised to make the leap from respected stage actor to intense screen star when he was cast as Secret Service agent Richard Chance, a rising star working in the Treasury Department who thrives on the adrenaline of the job. When his mentor, partner and best friend is murdered while following up a lead on counterfeiter Rick Masters (a feral Willem Dafoe in his breakthrough performance), he goes rogue and drags his new partner, the smart but still green John Vukovich (John Pankow), into his increasingly reckless stunts. The film’s defining scene is the ingenious, nerve racking car chase that sends Chance and Vukovich up an off-ramp the wrong direction on the L.A. freeway, swerving and skidding around oncoming traffic. But that scene is actually the climactic punch of a much longer, brilliantly composed car chase that begins in the no man’s land under the freeway (where they have just ripped off a smuggler), carries us into traffic with a perfectly executed traveling crane that reveals the chase car closing in and sends us winding through the freight-strewn alleys of this warehouse district and into the empty L.A. basin, where suddenly a small army of cars join in and up the stakes. There’s more to the little smuggling operation that they hijacked than meets the eye and they’ve got no idea just how badly they f****d up.

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Last Call for Nearly 30 Criterion DVDs (and one Blu-ray)

Just in this week on the Criterion website: Criterion is losing the rights a number of titles in their collection in March. (See the original post on Criterion Currents here.)

The curtain is soon to fall on the lavish DVD of Powell and Pressberger's "The Tales of Hoffman"

The home video rights to a number of films from the StudioCanal library will go to Lionsgate at the end of March. The Criterion editions will go out of print (or on moratorium, as they say in the video industry) and will be unavailable commercially on the U.S. until Lionsgate puts out their own editions. These aren’t the first Criterion DVDs to go out of print (from John Woo’s The Killer to Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs to Carol Reed’s The Third Man, and too many titles in between) and or even the first StudioCanal titles they’ve lost at the end of the contract, but it’s the biggest batch to go in a single swoop that I’ve seen and I appreciate Criterion giving us a heads up. Sure, it’s in their interest to do so, but in this their best interests intersect quite nicely with our interests.

As you may know, Criterion has direct access to the Janus film library, a tremendous collection of international classics that makes up the majority of its releases, but they also license many films from other studios and collections. Those contracts last for a period of time and then are up for renewal, and in this case StudioCanal did not renew with Criterion. It’s likely nothing personal, just business, as they say, and perhaps not even something they have a choice over. Lionsgate has been releasing a lot of StudioCanal films (coming up later this month are Blu-ray editions of Kurosawa’s Ran and Godard’s Contempt, both once available from Criterion in excellent DVD editions, and the Ealing Studios classic The Ladykillers) and this just may be a contractual part of their relationship. (This is, mind you, merely supposition on my part and not based on any inside information.)

Regardless, a number of Criterion titles (including a couple of box sets) will be unavailable by the end of March (see list below) so Criterion is offering a deal through their website: an extra $5 off each of these titles while supplies last. You can also continue to purchase them through Amazon and other traditional merchants until the end of March (or until the current stocks are depleted, whichever comes first).

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DVDs for 2/2/10 – Zombieland, Devil House, Medieval Thailand and Planet Hulk

The zombie comedy is hardly fresh territory (and really, will anyone top Shaun of the Dead?) but the creators of Zombieland (Sony) do a fine job of mining the humor inherent in the end of the world. Jesse Eisenberg is the loner college geek who finds that his obsessive-compulsive instincts are just what he needs to survive a world gone wild. He puts together his simple rules for survival and goes off in search of… what, we’re not really sure, but he’s happy to discover another warm body when the gun-toting Woody Harrelson comes careening down the wreck-filled highway and gives him a lift. This redneck madman takes a more devil-may-care approach (zombie-bashing as sport) while Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin, a cagey pair they find in a supermarket stop, have simply adapted their mercenary skills to life after people.

Batter up!

Think of Zombieland (as in “We are now the United States of Zombieland”) as I Am Legend as a road movie comedy. First-time feature director Ruben Fleischer moves it along with decent momentum while punctuating the sardonic humor with cheeky graphics that flash and crash on screen, and he certainly doesn’t skimp on the splatter or the sport. But it’s a character piece at heart and these oddballs discover that, emotional baggage and survival scars aside, there’s something to be said for human companionship in a world where every other living thing wants to eat you.

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DVD/Blu-ray of the Week – Paris, Texas, Criterion style

Winner of the Palme D’Or at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, Paris, Texas (Criterion) was not Wim Wenders’ first American film—that would be Hammett (1982), which proved to be a dispiriting experience when producer Francis Ford Coppola decided to step in and re-edit Wenders’ vision to something more commercial (so much for the creative freedom he promised filmmakers)—but it is the first American film where Wenders carved his own vision into the American landscape (both physical and cinematic). Just two years after the Hammett debacle, he returned to the U.S. his own terms, with a story he developed with Sam Shepard and financial backing from Europe that gave him the freedom to make his own film. Paris, Texas (a name that evokes the collision of and contrast between Europe and America) is a road movie, a drama of reconciliation and redemption, a modern western and an emotional odyssey of epic simplicity and emotional integrity set against an America both mythic (the stunning vistas of the Texas border desert are as primal as John Ford’s Monument Valley landscapes) and modern (from the lonely roadside motels and neon totems to the view down on Los Angeles from the hilltop family home).

Travis and Hunter at the crossroads of the 20th century frontier

Harry Dean Stanton (in his first and, to the best of my knowledge, only leading role to date) is Travis, a man who walks out of the desert and into civilization, parched and weak and mute but driven by purpose, even if it’s beyond his understanding at that point. Dean Stockwell is his brother Walt, who flies from Los Angeles to Southern Texas and drives him back, bringing Travis out of his almost catatonic, pre-verbal state as the journey brings him out of the wilderness and back to family, notably the son (Hunter Carson) he left behind four years before. Wenders and Shepard prefer spare dialogue that suggests more than it explains, letting the performances fill in the blanks and the images frame the drama. Longtime Wenders collaborator Robby Muller films the deserts and highways of the American southwest with a reverence for the primal beauty and the spare, expansive, seemingly unending landscape. Stanton looks carved from the same wind-scoured stone and sand when he emerges from the desert and Muller and Wenders slowly soften and humanize him as he tentatively but sincerely interacts with his family and returns to society, only to leave on a quest with the son he has just reconnected with. Nastassja Kinski is Jane, the young wife and mother first seen in the home movies that Walt shows one night, and it’s like that image of the happy family captured in warm, blurry super8 footage becomes his grail: he has to repair the broken family that, we are to learn, he himself destroyed.

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Blu-rays for the Week 1/19/10 – Bourne to Boogie (and Magnolia too)

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.

John C. Reilly in Magnolia

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.

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DVDs for 1/12/09 – Hurt, Bloom, Strange, Moon and Loop

The year has barely begun and there’s already an embarrassment of rich cinema coming out on DVD, so many that I had to leave a few choice releases unexplored. I begin with the best film of 2009, now available for everyone to see before the Oscars.

The Hurt Locker (Summit) – Kathryn Bigelow has been making great cinema in a career that has given her far too few opportunities. This film, a low-budget, high-impact drama that follows the finals days in the rotation of a bomb disposal unit, should change all that. After a startling opening scene, the team gets new cowboy team leader, Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), a real maverick who steps up to a bomb like a gunfighter in an old west showdown, tough and swaggering and on his own terms. He doesn’t follow the rules and he treats every bomb like a challenge he refuses to back down from, even when the intelligence expert on the three-man team, Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), counsels him that he’s vulnerable to snipers. James simply tosses the headset and assumes his teammates will watch his back, scanning the windows and the roofs for any potential gunman, which in a busy urban street surrounded by apartment buildings and open roofs can be myriad. In one stand-out sequence, a desert stop to help out some the private soldiers (led by guest star Ralph Fiennes) back from a bounty hunt becomes an ambush. It’s the closest the film gets to a classic war movie: they become a team centered by James, who serves as spotter to Sanborn on the precision long-range rifle and gives verbal support to the less-steely Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) watching their backs. So many war movies get the chaos of battle and the suddenness of death. Bigelow is just as interested in the stillness, the patience, the importance of waiting until you have some certainty that there is no one else out there waiting to kill you. These guys do their jobs, trust one another to do their jobs and stay vigilant, and team leader James, up now seen as just a maverick without rule, shows himself to be an authentic leader and a crack soldier.

Jeremy Renner in the best film of 2009, now in DVD

This may be the same sun-bleached Iraq of dusty dirt streets and open deserts we’ve seen in other Iraq war films, but it’s a different kind of movie. Bigelow’s handheld camerawork roams like a spotter’s eyes, always surveying, always getting another look, and the cuts are shifts of perspective that both to keep you off-balance and give a sense of how vigilant they are. Bigelow shows up how they see the world out of necessity. She also shows us that the quote by Chris Hedges that opens the film, “… war is a drug,” is not all about thrill. It’s about the need, not to kill, but to what you do. Jeremy Renner is remarkably effective as James, a man of action in the manner of a Howard Hawks hero: he’s defined by what he does and how he does it, not what he says. James is the best at what he does, and when he does it he is in control. When he’s not, he’s just another guy looking for his place in the world. There’s no political message here, nobody questioning their mission or arguing policy. These are just men doing their jobs in an unforgiving workplace, and Bigelow, more than anything, is interested in how they do it, because the how is the difference between going home at the end of the rotation in one piece or not. You can read my feature review on my blog here.

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The Best DVDs of 2009 – The MSN List

My annual “Best of DVD” (and Blu-ray) is currently running on MSN Entertainment: 10 movie discs/sets, 5 TV releases and 3 Blu-ray selections. And yes, I do bundle a few releases into a single pick, but hey, that’s the prerogative of the listmaker always trying to cram in that extra kudo.

10. ‘Pineapple Express: 2-Disc Unrated Special Edition’ (Sony)

The best outtakes come from Judd Apatow comedies, hands down, and this is the best DVD from the Apatow factory this year (released in the first week of 2009), a hilarious and unexpectedly visceral collision of road movie, action thriller, accidental buddy comedy and stoner goof. This edition is slightly longer than the theatrical cut, but it’s the hilarious collection of deleted and alternate scenes (including some apparently imported from an alternate universe) and generous helpings of behind-the-scenes footage that makes supplements so much more fun. “I Love You, Man” (Paramount) and “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” (Genius) are runners-up in the realm of great unused improvisations and cutting-room-floor scenes.

What’s number one? You’ll have to check it out to find out. And it’s right here.

DVDs for 12/15/09 – Inglourious Basterds, Woodstock pilgrims, 20th Century Boys and a Headless Woman

The New Releases of the week can’t help but fall in the shadow of a couple of mighty releases and one underrated film that should get a second chance on DVD. The blockbuster this week is The Hangover (Warner), the raucous comedy of a bachelor party gone horribly wrong and one of the surprise smash hits of 2009. And while it will likely be the sales winner of the week (which, like box-office numbers, I’ve found neither the need nor the desire to report on either on MSN or on my blog here), the more exciting release is Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (Universal). A surprise hit in its own right, Tarantino’s tribute to and complete rewrite of the World War II behind-enemy-lines/caper thriller is a mix of pulp fantasy, genre play, and narrative tropes resurrected with fresh takes and twists, all deliciously scripted into dialogue dances and verbal jousts and set against an occupied France informed more by the movies and Tarantino’s own “what if”? narrative doodling than any historical record. That’s from my feature review (you can read it on my blog here).

The Basterds send their love
The Basterds send their love

As for the DVD and Blu-ray, the disc producers have skipped the usual commentary track and traditional making-of documentary for a more eclectic collection of supplements, including all six minutes (credits included) of the film-within-a-film “Nation’s Pride” and three illuminating deleted/extended scenes. The extended scene of Shoshana’s lunch with Goebbels and Zoeller is mostly presented in a single long take, while a brief sequence celebrates the mechanics and showmanship of a presenting a movie in a movie palace of old. The highlight of the “2-Disc Special Edition” DVD and Blu-ray editions is 30-minute video interview with Quentin Tarantino and Brad Pitt (conducted by Elvis Mitchell for his radio series “The Treatment”) that brings out a calmer (yet still enthusiastic) QT to discuss the creative ideas behind his film, with Pitt in full support of his vision and his collaborative engagement with actors. Mitchell also narrates a tour through the film poster and film history in Tarantino’s movie. The rest are of the supplements are just grace notes: a relaxed interview with actor Rod Taylor, a tribute to “The Original Inglorious Bastards” with director Enzo Castellari and actor Bo Svenson (who both make cameo’s in QT’s film), a mock-featurette on “The Making of Nation’s Pride” (with the performers all in character – Eli Roth has a blast playing the sneering autocratic German auteur of this “lost” classic of Nazi propaganda cinema) and montages showing the playfulness of QT and his cast and crew on the set. Both deluxe editions include a digital copy of the film for portable media players.

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