TV on DVD for 12/15/09 – More with Henry VIII, overworked law students and the original Australian cowgirls

The Tudors: The Complete Third Season (Paramount) – England’s young King Henry VIII works his way through wives three and four in the third season of Showtime’s rather lusty take on the historical drama. This isn’t the rotund, boorish glutton as defined by Charles Laughton. As incarnated by Jonathan Rhys Meyers he is a robust, virile, hearty young king with a lust for life, power and women. The British/American co-production was made for Showtime as part of their strategy to challenge HBO’s primacy in original programming, and the pay cable venue means that it can indulge in the lustier aspects of this slice of old England: the affairs, the dalliances, the seductions in fleshy detail.

Henry VII (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and Jane Seymour (Anita Briem)
Henry VII (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and Jane Seymour (Anita Briem)

But while the sex is the lure, the show is all about power and politics: the jockeying for influence in the court, the behind-the-scenes scheming to keep Henry’s favor, the treaties and royal marriages engineered for European alliances, and the increasingly tense relationship between the monarchies and the Vatican, which wields a power almost of powerful as that of royalty… until now. Henry makes himself head of the Church of England and brings the country to the verge of civil war. Meanwhile he grieves over the death of this third wife, Jane Seymour (Anita Briem), due to complications from childbirth and gives up on Anne of Cleves (Joss Stone), an unsophisticated German aristocrat to whom he is betrothed sight unseen, without ever consummating the marriage (his displeasure at the his advisor’s poor judgment – Henry finds Anne homely and unappealing in every way – has fatal consequences for the unlucky matchmaker). And, of course, there are the various mistresses along the way. A king has needs. Max Von Sydow co-stars this season as a Vatican Cardinal scheming to return the Catholic Church to power in England. Eight episodes on four discs, plus a featurette on the historical timeline. The fourth and final season begins on Showtime in 2010.

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TV on DVD for 12/8/09 – Lost, Rescue Me, Brick City and Johnny Mercer

Lost: The Complete Fifth Season (Disney) – For a while it looked like “Lost” had indeed lost itself in its elaborate twists and strange turns but J.J. Abrams’ high concept survival series turned metaphysical epic is back on track and as riveting as ever. The castaways spent the first four seasons trying to get off the island. This season, the few souls who made it back to civilization spend their energy trying to get back while those left behind get tossed through time and manipulated in a power struggle that reaches beyond our mortal coil. Our castaways are mere pawns in a struggle that has gone on for millennia.

"Lost" and found
"Lost" and found

Disney really knows how to put together a special edition DVD for the show and this season is no different. Along with the 16 episodes on five discs are commentary tracks on select episodes, 8 deleted/extended scenes, the obligatory blooper reel and a handful of featurettes. “Making Up For Lost Time” dives into the production challenges of keeping the locations straight in a show that leaps back and forth through time in each episode, “Lost on Location” is a collection of brief featurettes on key scenes from the season, “Building 23 and Beyond” is a tour of the Burbank production facilities with tour guide Michael Emerson and “An Epic Day with Richard Alpert” follows the actor through the final day of principle photography. The high concept “Mysteries of the Universe: The Dharma Initiative” is very clever—a mock-made-for-TV-doc presented as a lost episode of a short-lived 1980s series (it even looks like an old VHS recording)—but the gag wears thin long before it ends. Exclusive to the Blu-ray set is the BD-Live enabled “Lost University” with access to even more information on the show, while the “Season Play” function remembers where you left off and gets my vote for the most useful Blu-ray exclusive to date.

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DVD for 11/24/09 – Gomorrah, Funny People and Tora-san

Criterion is regarded by most collectors as the gold standard for international masterpieces and classic cinema on DVD. This season, it stakes itself out as a player in contemporary international cinema with the release of two acclaimed foreign films: Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale (due December 1) and, this week, Matteo Garrone’s sprawling docu-realist drama Gomorrah (Criterion). The signature image of Garrone’s adaptation of Robert Saviano’s non-fiction book, an exposé of the dominance of organized crime in Naples and Caserta, is a pair of teenage boys running around a deserted beach in their underwear while shooting off automatic weapons. (The cover of the Criterion edition transforms the image into a surreal vision of a skinny teenage boy walking through the city like a Godzilla child-man.) That’s as much glamour as you can expect from the this portrait of the mob: emotionally immature boys playing at gangster, oblivious of the reality behind their Tony Montana fantasy.

Boys with guns will be boys
Boys with guns will be boys

Set in the poverty of coastal regions of Naples and Caserta, Gomorrah is a long and at times grueling look at five stories of people caught up in the Neapolitan Camorra, the Mafia organization that rules the region. Their hands are in everything, from selling drugs and running guns to the rag trade and, yes, contracts to haul and dump garbage and toxic waste. The sprawl makes it hard to follow and harder to connect with the characters and their stories (I was far more engaged on a second viewing), but it makes its point about the reach of the Camorra and the culture it has spawned. Garrone, who came to features from documentary, he brings a clear-eyed approach to the film and captures an atmosphere of destruction and waste in a landscape of urban blight and poverty. Criterion is releasing the film on both two-disc DVD and single-disc Blu-ray (at the same price, as is their policy), each with the hour-long documentary “Five Stories,” video interviews with Garrone, actor Toni Servillo and author Roberto Saviano, deleted scenes and more.

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DVDs for 11/17/09 – Downhill Racer, rebooting Star Trek and watching an even longer Watchmen

Downhill Racer (Criterion) is the feature debut of Michael Ritchie, the first project that frustrated actor and future movie star Robert Redford developed for himself and the first of Redford’s proposed trilogy about the meaning of “winning” in American culture. That’s what gives such a riveting perspective to what would otherwise be called a “sports movie”: Redford’s David Chappellet, the brash, self-involved hotshot on the American ski team, is less concerned with the beauty of the sport than the attention of victory and fame.

David Chappellet (Robert Redford) looks up to check his standing
David Chappellet (Robert Redford) looks up to check his standing

Directed from a script by novelist James Salter and shot on location on the European ski circuit (where the director and star incorporated ideas and opportunities into the film as they arose), Downhill Racer makes no bones about Chappellet’s fierce ambition or dismissive arrogance, but the downhill runs are shot and edited with a visceral quality that takes us off the sidelines and into the skier’s perspective. The screen goes silent but for the cut of skis slicing a track through the snow and whoosh of the crisp mountain air whipping by and the camera captures the run in long takes and full shots to study the integrity of the athlete’s movement and at times watches the rush through the skier’s eyes, to give is the rush, the focus and the intensity of the experience. The rest of the film reminds us of the industry behind the sport—raising money for the national team, traveling from one contest to another, negotiating for top draws (the earlier the pick, the fresher the snow pack) and managing the media—and the culture of fame. Redford’s matinee looks are more than just Hollywood casting in this context; the film never says it in so many words, but it’s clear that Chappellet’s popularity is as much for his good looks as for his success. The crowds love a handsome champion. Gene Hackman is the practical coach who doesn’t like Chappellet or his attitude but knows that his ambition is the team’s best chance for a win and sixties screen beauty Camilla Sparv is Chappellet’s counterpart, a ski company rep who treats romance with the same emotional disconnection that Chappellet treats everything else.

Criterion’s disc advertises itself as 1.85 but is actually adjusted to the TV widescreen standard of 1.77:1. The disc features two interview featurettes, each running about half an hour. “Redford and Salter” features new video interviews with Redford, who lays out the history of the film and his career and his determination to get it made in the face of studio resistance, and writer James Salter, who discusses the evolution of the script and how it changed during the filmmaking. “Coblenz, Harris, and Jalbert” features film editor Richard Harris, production manager Walter Coblenz, and former downhill skier Joe Jay Jalbert, who served as technical adviser and ski double. There are audio-only excerpts from a 1977 American Film Institute seminar with director Michael Ritchie, the archival promotional short How Fast? and a booklet with an essay by critic Todd McCarthy.

I’ll be writing about another essential release this week, Milestone’s excellent two-disc edition of Kent McKenzie’s The Exiles, as well as two features from Seattle filmmaker Lynn Shelton, My Effortless Brilliance and Humpday, in another post. As I’m personally involved in the former (I participate in the commentary with author and filmmaker Sherman Alexie and interview Alexie for a bonus audio supplement) and am friends with Shelton, director of the latter, I can hardly be objective. But I can and will be supportive of both releases in a separate piece. (Update: it’s now up and posted here.)

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DVDs for 11/3/09 – The Noir and The Dead

The Dead (Lionsgate) – John Huston was not just one of the great American directors, he was the great translator of literary works from page to screen. He began his directorial career with The Maltese Falcon, not simply an iconic detective film and a defining film noir but an adaptation so precise that the previous screen versions have been long forgotten. It’s only fitting that he ended his career with an adaptation just as perfect, and insulting that after such a long wait for a DVD release, we get such a shoddy presentation. Based on a James Joyce short story featured in The Dubliners, The Dead (1987) is one of his most exquisite works, a perfect cinematic short story attuned to the rituals and touchy relationships of family and friends gathering in early twentieth century Dublin to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany.

Anjelica Huston and Donal McCann in "The Dead"
Anjelica Huston and Donal McCann in "The Dead"

Anjelica Huston and Donal McCann center the film as a married couple whose cool relationship is unnoticed by the rest of the guests but becomes obvious to us as Huston deftly brings us into the gathering, like an unseen guest, to witness privileged moments of intimacy. There’s a melancholy undercurrent to this happy occasion, as disappointment and regret and wistful remembrances reverberate through the songs and recitations of the gathering, but Huston’s hushed appreciation of the gathering and tender affection for the characters is sublime. Huston’s direction is pure grace, creating a world of relationships and a history of family in the rhythms and glances and comments (guarded and unguarded) of the guests. Donal McCann is particularly good as a tippling cousin who is always in danger of embarrassing himself and Dan O’Herlihy is fine as a patriarch who becomes increasingly red-faced and slurred throughout the evening. The disc quality of this long-awaited DVD debut, however, is appalling. The 1:85 aspect ratio has been shaved to fit the 16×9 widescreen format and the mastering is weak, with unstable, noisy colors and hazy resolution, adequate for a bargain-priced film but not worthy of the beauty of John Huston’s swan song. There’s no supplements, which is fine, but the film itself is cut by ten minutes (thanks to Tom Becker at DVD Verdict for identifying the missing footage, an entire sequence at the beginning of the film), for which there is no excuse. It’s still a beautiful film, but it’s not the movie that Huston released in 1987.

11/5/09 Update: Lionsgate has issued a recall for the DVD. Details here.

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Blu-ray of the Week: The Complete Prisoner

The Prisoner: The Complete Series (A&E) – “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered. I am my own man.” There are those who proclaim The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan’s cerebral spy show and portrait of personal freedom as an existential prison, the greatest TV show of all time. I won’t argue the point. His insidiously paranoid take on conspiracy, the world order and the nature of identity is no less timely forty years after it was made. No other TV show dared be as enigmatic or philosophically complex and the suspicious view of global power politics still tops the fantastic conspiracies of X-Files and Fringe and friends.

Patrick McGoohan makes his stand
Patrick McGoohan makes his stand

Star, creator, and sometime writer and director Patrick McGoohan mixes James Bond and “1984” in the story of an unnamed British agent (who bears a striking similarity to a certain John Drake) who, in the opening episode, resigns in a furious confrontation. But before he can leave, he’s ambushed and wakes up in a gingerbread-like tourist town called The Village: a prisoner in an isolated artificial society (a lovely Euro-mash of architecture styles and tourist town constructs), given a number in place of a name and put through elaborate theatrical pageants designed to break his spirit and his individualistic defiance. McGoohan turned the genre, and TV itself, inside out with this ingenious political allegory played as a conspiratorial mind-game of elaborate psychodramas and, though it ran a mere 17 episodes, it became an instant cult classic.

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DVDs for 10/20/09 – Cheri, Shohei Imamura’s Black Rain and Blood: The Last Vampire

Stephen Frears directs and Christopher Hampton scripts Cheri (Miramax), a deft adaptation of two Colette novels of love and life in La Belle Epoque Paris (when high society prostitutes were veritable celebrities), but it’s Michael Pfeiffer who brings the film alive as the aging courtesan Lea who makes a business of romance. “This was my only place of business and the customers have all gone,” she sighs while sitting on her bed, a mix of regret and relief and acknowledgment of her fragile power in a culture that reveres youth and beauty. So she reaches out for her own taste of youth through Cheri (Rupert Friend), the callow, decadent, 19-year-old son of a fellow courtesan she takes as a lover in brief affair that lasts six years, until social convention intervenes. It’s a flip on the usual May-December romance and the chemistry of these performers makes it not just believable but almost inevitable: emotionally guarded beauties who inadvertently allow affection into their relationship. Includes “The Making of Cheri” and deleted scenes.

Cheri dallies with a very good friend
Cheri dallies with a very good friend

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DVDs for 10/06/09 – High School Shamus, Direct-to-DVD Horror and the original Chinatown

Roman Polanski’s Chinatown gets a new special edition release this week. It’s hard to say if the timing is good or bad, given all the acrimony stirred up by Polanski’s arrest and probable extradition to the U.S. to face sentencing for a crime he confessed to before fleeing the country (over his fear of the rampant judicial misconduct in the case) over 30 years ago. Whatever one feels about Polanski the man (and in this case it is at the very least a disgust and revulsion for a man who raped a 13-year-old girl), it shouldn’t dim the accomplishment of the artist. Simply put, Chinatown is one of the masterpieces of American cinema of the seventies and a classic of American cinema, and Chinatown: Centennial Collection (Paramount) is a duly respectful DVD with intelligent supplements that dig into the creation of the movie and the Los Angeles history that inspired the story. Jack Nicholson strolls through the role of cynical private eye J.J. Gittes with the sneering confidence of a smart cookie in a situation far more complex than he realizes and Faye Dunaway brings an echo of tragedy to potential femme fatale Evelyn Mulwray, a socialite whose private life Gittes splashes across the newspapers. Robert Towne’s labyrinthine yet tight and resonant script, inspired by classic films noir and real Los Angeles history, won the film its only Academy Award (it was nominated for eleven, including Best Picture). Roman Polanski transformed the script into a modern film noir of sleek style, milky color, and sad cynicism, putting the corruption, greed, and moral monstrosity of Los Angeles in the thirties under the crisp light of the California sun. John Huston is brilliant as the maverick robber baron Noah Cross and Polanski gives himself an unforgettable cameo: he’s the weaselly thug who slices Nicholson’s nose.

Jack Nicholson in Chinatown
Jack Nicholson in Chinatown

“So the first thing I was struck by was how much I liked how sinister the logo treatment is in black and white,” says filmmaker and unabashed fan David Fincher to screenwriter Robert Towne, jumping right into the newly-recorded commentary without even a preamble. It’s a conversation between professionals rather than a lecture and Fincher plays the impassioned fan making astute observations and asking provocative questions of Towne. It sometimes goes silent for what seems like minutes, but all in all it is thoughtful, considered and introspective and Towne seems to get more modest with age. The two-disc set also includes the original three-part, 80-minute documentary “Water and Power,” which explores the real-life history and politics of the irrigation of California at the center of the film, and the new 26-minute featurette “Chinatown: An Appreciation,” with contemporary filmmaker and film artists discussing the film. Carried over from the previous DVD edition is a collection of three retrospective featurettes with interviews with director Roman Polanski, star Jack Nicholson, screenwriter Robert Towne, and producer Robert Evans. It’s a fine edition, but my question is: when will Paramount give it the Blu-ray treatment?

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DVDs for 9/29/09 – New Wallace & Gromit, old Tinto Brass and The Wizard of Oz on the Blu-ray Way

The cheese loving inventor and energetically eccentric entrepreneur Wallace and his silent but astute canine companion Gromit have become one of the most popular comedy duos in the movies after only three animated shorts (two of which won Oscars) and one feature film, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Not bad for a couple of plasticine creations brought to life through the painstaking process (and increasingly neglected art) of stop-motion animation. A Matter of Loaf and Death (Lionsgate) is their first screen appearance in four years and only their fifth film longer than three minutes since their debut twenty years ago, which makes it all the more exciting for fans young and old. Creator Nick Park is back at the helm for this “bread-based murder mystery,” which casts the pals and partners as bakers with a delivery business based out of an urban windmill that powers yet another magnificent collection of mechanical devices and Rube Goldberg contraptions. While Wallace falls in love with a former bakery pin-up girl, someone is killing the bakers around town and Gromit has a pretty good idea who… not that grinning goof Wallace will pay any attention to him in his starry-eyed infatuation.

Wallace and Gromit earn their bread and butter
Wallace and Gromit earn their bread and butter

It’s another half hour comic classic, with marvelously intricate bits of comic choreography and visual gags with the invention of Charlie Chaplin shorts and Bug Bunny cartoons, all rooted in the comfortable character of the moldable clay heroes. Fans of the series will be delighted. The DVD features the twenty-minute “How They Donut: The Making of a Matter of Loaf and Death” (it’s always a treat to see the models and the animators bring them to life) and a bonus “Shaun the Sheep” short, and it debuts in Blu-ray on a special edition disc featuring the Blu-ray debut of the previous three Wallace and Gromit shorts, A Grand Day Out (1989), The Wrong Trousers (1993) and A Close Shave (1998), plus making-of featurettes for each short and all ten Wallace and Gromit: Cracking Contraptions of adventures in inventing (each under three minutes).

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DVDs for 8/18/09 – Runaway Husbands, Undercover Beasts, Serial Killers and Deadly Venoms

John Cassavetes has been called the godfather of American independent cinema, and for good reason: he made highly personal, aggressively discomforting, astonishingly intimate films about troubled relationships in the modern world. Husbands, subtitled “A comedy about life death and freedom,” follows three middle-aged men (Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk and Cassavetes), long time friends and family men, as they run from their despair after the death of the man who completed their fun-loving group. This is a Cassavetes kind of mid-life crisis: they indulge their worst, most selfish instincts as they attempt to outrun their fears of mortality and frustrations of compromised lives. They carouse in all-night drinking binges, rush off for a weekend of gambling and cheating in London and slip into boyish giggling and sniggering whenever the situation gets too personal. Only while safely hidden in a bar room toilet do they let their fears pour out. It’s also interesting to note that this film was produced in 1969 and released in 1970, looking forward in style and subject matter to the films that would define seventies filmmaking.

Four friends, soon to be three
Four friends, soon to be three

As with most of Cassavete’s personal projects, his script was reworked through rehearsals and improvisations with actors investing themselves deeply in their characters and dramatic crises. The result is a mix of idiosyncratic insights and raw emotion pouring out in startling moments between long, rambling, often uncomfortable conversations which are as much about what is not said as what is, and sold by raw, intense performances and volatile ensemble chemistry. Cassavete’s original version was cut by the studio for wide release. This DVD is restored to its 142 minute running time. Cassavetes biographer Marshall Fine offers a well-organized commentary that is both a Cassavetes primer and a comprehensive study of the development of the film. The excellent 30-minute documentary The Story of Husbands: A Tribute to John Cassavetes features new interviews with Gazzara, producer Al Ruban and director of photography Victor Kemper, whose insights and remembrances fill out Fine’s portrait of Cassavetes even more. “John used rehearsals mainly for himself, to rewrite, to listen,” explains an aged but still very articulate Gazarra. “He had an idea of where this material was going, what played, what didn’t play. So we rehearsed for three weeks before we started shooting.” Adds producer Ruban: “His style, if you can call it such, is coming to the set, everyone, being prepared to do the day’s work and then discovering something that was totally unexpected from the actors…. And that’s why he is really an actor’s director.” The most unexpected revelation: Cassavetes didn’t know Gazarra or Falk before he cast them. He merely knew of their work and thought they would be good collaborators. His instincts were right: they became regular collaborators and lifelong friends.

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Playtime Goes Blu-ray

Playtime
Playtime

Blu-ray of the week, the month and perhaps the year is Jacques Tati’s Playtime. A film comedy directed with the grace of a ballet, the painstaking detail of an action painting and the affection of a love song, Playtime is one of the most sublime celebrations of individualism in the alienated landscape of modern urban life and consumer culture. This is a different kind of symphony of a city, conducted with rising and falling rhythms that segue from one movement to another over the course of a single day into the night and finally emerging into the dawn.

There’s no real “story” to the film, yet hundreds of tiny little stories can be found playing out in Tati’s widescreen images. Tourists arrive in an airport terminal with all the personality of an office building. In the swirl of organized chaos arrives Tati’s signature character, the gangly Mr. Hulot, decked out in his trademark overcoat and hat and clutching his familiar umbrella, on his way to a business meeting in the city. The tourists are efficiently shuttled off to busses for their whirlwind Paris visit, but this isn’t the Paris of ancient brick buildings and romantic bridges and historical monuments that, but of skyscrapers of steel and walls of glass looking out onto paved streets packed with commuters and busses and pedestrians in a hurry. As the tourists gawk at the marvels of new inventions and contemporary creature comforts, one young woman (Barbara Dennek) with a dreamy look in her eyes longs for the romantic Paris that is only fleetingly glimpsed in reflections of car windows and glass doors. Meanwhile, Hulot gets lost in the maze of office cubicles and glassed-in waiting rooms while trying to track down a business associate, dwarfed by the size and scale of the coldly impersonal surroundings as he meet indifferent efficiency with comic individualism.

The romantic landmarks of Paris, seen only fleetingly in a window reflection
The romantic landmarks of Paris, seen only fleetingly in a window reflection

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Inglorious Blu-ray! The Original Inglorious Bastards goes high def

We all know that Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds has little to do with Enzo G. Castellari’s original 1978 warsploitation artifact besides the setting and the (purposely misspelled) title [update: I review Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, here], but who cares? This violent knock-off of The Dirty Dozen and other “impossible mission / war caper” thrillers is great fun and now it’s out on Blu-ray, which is surely more respect than anyone involved with this energetic Italian knock-off ever expected. Check out the new trailer for the original film:

The premise is pretty simple: A bunch of American soldiers in 1944 France, up for court martial and on their way to military prison, escape during a German attack on their convoy and head off for Switzerland. They’re a colorful group: a decorated flier (Bo Svenson) with a tendency to go AWOL to visit his girlfriend in London, a black private (Fred Williamson) charged with murder (he killed his redneck superior officer, or so he says to another racist in an American uniform), a deserter coward (Michael Pergolani), a scavenger (Jackie Basehart) with hippie looks and a slightly Italian accent, and the joker misanthrope (Peter Hooten) who screws with everyone out of sheer cussedness.

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