I resist the temptation to call this a “historic” week for DVD releases, but the simple fact is that three historic and essential American films all debut on DVD this week (two of them simultaneously on Blu-ray). Elsewhere on my blog I review The African Queen(Paramount), one of the most beloved films of all time, Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life (Criterion), an often overlooked masterpiece of American cinema making its belated debut on any home video format, and The T.A.M.I. Show: Collector’s Edition (Shout! Factory), the original rock and roll concert film.
While that will keep cineastes and movie buffs busy, the big money—and the big attention—is still focused on what we still call the New Releases, the big Hollywood films making their expected and inevitable home video release in the second tier of the traditional release pattern. You can’t dismiss them and I wouldn’t want to, not with one of my favorite films of 2009 coming out.
Wes Anderson, director of offbeat tales of dysfunctional families, absent fathers and characters lost in ambition and obsession, turns to stop motion animation for Fantastic Mr. Fox (Fox), his adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s book, and it’s a delight, a playful storybook comedy filled with fabulous characters and a classic Anderson tale of family anxiety and eccentric personalities. I reviewed the film for The Stranger in 2009 here. The DVD has a light “From Script to Screen” featurette (see Wes Anderson act out the characters for the animators) and a piece on the stop-motion animation process (did you know that an overnight rain or a change in the barometric pressure can affect the relationship between the camera and the models?), plus the whimsical “Beginner’s Guide to Whack Bat.” The Blu-ray has more featurettes on the production and the cast, plus a bonus DVD copy and a digital copy. I reviewed the film for The Stranger here.
Mad Men: Season Three (Lionsgate) – Sterling-Cooper is sold to a British firm, the marriage of the suave, successful and philandering Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and his steely suburban princess of a wife (January Jones) unravels under his cheating and her frustration, Roger Sterling (John Slattery, the show’s most underrated asset) marries a woman as old as his daughter and Joan (Christina Hendricks) quits her job for married life, which bad news for Joan and for the show.
It’s not to say the season is disappointing, but the characters all seem to get mired in frustration (much of at the hands of the cost-cutting British overlords whittling down Sterling-Cooper for a sale) and it tends to put a damper on the drama as well, at least until the final episodes, when Don steels himself to make a change and brings along a small crew of conspirators (who just happen to be the most interesting characters from the firm). The energy that buzzes through the final episode isn’t just the daring of their plan and the momentum of the episode, it’s the feeling of these characters rousing themselves to a challenge and being inspired by new possibilities. Which will have to wait until nest season to play. No spoilers except maybe one: welcome back, Joan! We really, really missed you. Each of the 13 episodes on DVD and Blu-ray feature commentary tracks by Matthew Weiner with members of the cast and crew, and there are featurettes on key historic moments referenced in the series and on the artist who creates the ad art for the pitch meetings on the show (and all this time you thought it was Salvatore). No high-concept case this time, which is just fine by me. A simple case is a lot easier to use.
The African Queen is the most celebrated DVD debut this week, but I’d argue that Bigger Than Life (Criterion) is the most important. Never released on VHS, rarely seen on TV or cable (and even then only in pan-and-scan versions) or revived in the dwindling repertory circuit, this film has not received its due as a masterpiece of American social drama in large part because it’s been so damnably difficult to see. Criterion’s much-appreciated release now resolves that part of the problem with an edition that celebrates the film with due respect.
Ostensibly a drama about prescription drug misuse and abuse and drawn from an article in “The New Yorker,” this portrait of a grade-school teacher and middle class father (played by James Mason, who also produced and helped develop the project) is as much about adult male masculinity and responsibility as a husband and father, and the pressure on him to live up to the ideal, as Rebel Without a Cause is about the emotional realities of being an American teenager. Ed Avery (Mason, playing an American schoolteacher without even trying to mask his distinctive British accent) is already suffering (secretly and silently) from spasms of pain in his hands and back while he (also secretly) moonlights a few afternoons a week as a taxi dispatcher to make ends meet. He’s afraid to complain about the pain because he can’t afford to be sick. His wife, Lou (Barbara Rush), is just as anxious and just as nervous to say anything about it; she’s afraid he’s having an affair. And though they laugh it off when they come clean, that anxiety is never far from their suburban existence.
One of the most beloved and cherished Hollywood adventures ever made and long the top of every list of DVD requests, The African Queen (Paramount) makes its much anticipated debut on DVD and Blu-ray simultaneously. It was worth the wait: this is a stunning presentation, but more on that later.
The pedigree is impeccable: Sam Spiegel, a headstrong independent producer, bought the rights to C.S. Forester’s novel (it had been kicking around Hollywood for ten years) and John Huston, arguably the greatest Hollywood writer/director of literary adaptations, brought on James Agee (the most celebrated film critic of his age) as his screenwriting partner. The fears that audiences wouldn’t be interested in a romance between a pair of middle-aged characters was allayed when Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn were cast (and in hindsight, they seem like the ONLY actors for these parts). Bogart plays Charlie Allnut, the hard-drinking captain of a sputtering steam-powered boat that gives the film its title, and Katharine Hepburn is Rose Sayer, a spirited missionary spinster who came to German East Africa with her brother (Robert Morley) and, in September 1914 (the early days of World War I), watches German soldiers march off the local natives and burn down their huts, breaking her brother’s spirit (fatally, it turns out) in the process.
Less a gourmet meal than a flaky pastry, Paris (IFC) is a slight but sweet love letter to the urban life of the city of lights celebrated through the lives of a dozen of its inhabitants (and as many peripheral characters) as they criss-cross, ricochet or simply graze one another over the course of a few weeks. The film opens on Elise (Juliette Binoche, as radiant as ever), a divorced single mother and social worker, and her brother Pierre (an intense Romain Duris), a nightclub dancer diagnosed with a fatal heart disease. While the lonely Elise, having given up on love, dodges the crude passes and rude comments of men on the street, Pierre casts his gaze over the city from his apartment window and muses over the lives he glimpses. The film casts its gaze out as well, to follow a disenchanted history professor (a hilariously morose Fabrice Luchini) suddenly enchanted by a beautiful young student (Mélanie Laurent of “Inglourious Basterds”), his anxiety-ridden brother (François Cluzet), and a conventionally gruff and earthy group of working class men who sell produce at an open-air market, notably Jean (Albert Dupontel), who works with his ex-wife and barely endures the crude manners of his friends and co-workers. “That’s Paris. Nobody’s ever happy. We grumble. We like it.”
Written and directed by Cedric Klapisch (L’Auberge Espagnole and Russian Dolls), the film is a lightweight mix of sprawling mosaic and intimate portrait that overcomes a few too many clichés and stereotypes with affection and appreciation. For all the mortality the stories touch on, it’s a sunny film of romantic optimism and hopeful endurance. It’s received mixed reviews and most of the critics I respect found it wanting—it certainly has none of the depth or resonance of the films of Arnaud Desplechin (A Christmas Tale) or Olivier Assayas (Summer Hours)—but I found myself won over by Klapisch’s good will and the charm of the superb cast. And yes, Paris looks marvelous as we skip around from (the Eiffel Tower figures prominently in most cityscapes) to neighborhood streets to such off-the-radar locations as the bustling produce night market.
Breaking Bad: The Complete Second Season (Sony) – The second season of the skewed cable crime drama about a meek middle class high school chemistry teacher who takes up a new career as a crystal meth cook and aspiring drug kingpin shakes up his life—and his moral equilibrium—even more. Walter White is one of the most fascinating characters on television, a once-promising research chemist who gave up his Nobel Prize dreams and ambitions to take care of his wife (Anna Gunn) and son, mired in the disappointments of his unfulfilling career as he fights terminal lung cancer and throws caution to the wind to build up a financial stake for his family before he dies. Now this one-time retiring fellow faces violent drug dealers, rivals and an investigation by the FBI (led by his own brother-in-law), not to mention the fatal inexperience of his drug-addict partner (Aaron Paul), a small-time dealer trying to play in the big leagues.
Written and created by X-Files veteran Vince Gilligan, the show has a wicked sense of humor and a bleak sense of disappointment. In a strange way, this dangerous new lifestyle gives White an indomitability and daring that he never had before and his new life burns with an intensity that he’s missed all these years. All it costs him is an ethical equilibrium. Bryan Cranston won Best Actor Emmy Awards for the second year running as White, making the character both vulnerable and fearless as he crosses moral lines with every step up to the big time. The transformation riveting and haunting: we can’t help but like and care for this guy, thanks to Cranston’s very human and at times comic performance, even as he loses his humanity and becomes less sympathetic to the lives that get chewed up in his wake. 13 episodes on four DVDs or three Blu-ray discs, each with commentary on four episodes (including the first and final episodes of the season), plus deleted scenes, webisodes and a lot of short promotional featurettes. Exclusive to Blu-ray is “The Writers’ Lab: An Interactive Guide to the Elements of an Episode.”
It’s Oscar week DVD releases and this batch includes one film that went home with two statues and an honorable runner-up that went home empty handed and deserved better. But, to quote an Oscar winner (albeit in a radically different context), “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.” (That mantra is how I watch the Oscars without getting aggravated.)
Precious came away with two wins but Up In The Air (Paramount) is, in my opinion, the superior film (it is certainly the more subtle and nuanced film) and should have taken the Adapted Screenplay award. It’s also a refreshingly mature movie about grown-up characters and serious issues, handled with a light touch with a depth of character and great intelligence behind it. George Clooney stars as a 21st century traveling man who has trimmed his existence down to what can be packed into carry-on luggage and turned business class seating and airport lounges into his comfort zone. He’s spent so much passing through life that he treats relationships like layovers: a brief, impermanent stop on a never-ending journey. Which makes it easier to do his job: he’s the man that companies bring to fire employees that they don’t want to face themselves, and he’s just been assigned to show the ropes to an ambitious young professional (Anna Kendrick) fresh from business school who finds that the human equation can be a tricky factor in putting theory into practice.
Hayao Miyazaki is one of Japan’s living treasures, a beloved filmmaker whose animated films number among the most beautiful and most enchanting productions ever drawn by hand. In this day of CGI productions, the aging artists still personally draws his key frames and defining characters, with a love and craft that comes through every frame. They may seem old fashioned and perhaps too sweet for American audiences—his films, while loved by many, have never found the huge audiences that flock to the more knowing and culturally savvy Pixar films and Shrek sequels—but the lovely fables, epic adventures, ecologically-minded dramas and modern fairy tales are all treasures.
His most recent film, Ponyo (Disney), is released this week by Disney, which—despite the great voice line-up of their English language adaptations—treats his films more like exotic imports than mainstream movies. Part Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, part ecological fable and part children’s fantasy come to life, this gentle storybook film is a simple, sweet tale animated with a delicacy unique to animated features. Ponyo is a water sprite, a curious undersea creature and daughter of the sea gods who gets swept to the shore, trapped in the pollution of the human world and rescued by a human boy, with whom she falls in love. This isn’t the romantic type of love of Disney’s The Little Mermaid but the unconditional affection of young kids and she takes human form to join him on land, which upsets the balance of nature so carefully kept in check by her wizard father (voice of Liam Neeson) and elemental mother (Cate Blanchett).
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… “
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.