Category: DVD

Apr 01 2015

Videophiled: ‘Wild’ about Reese Witherspoon

Wild

Fox

Wild (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD), directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (The Dallas Buyer’s Club) and adapted from Cheryl Strayed’s memoir by novelist Nick Hornby (who also scripted An Education), is more than a vehicle for its star / producer Reese Witherspoon. It’s an odyssey on a human scale: a hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, a 1700 mile journey undertaken without any preparation or training. For Sheryl, pulling herself out of depression and a self-destructive detour into drugs, it’s an American walkabout cleansing by way of a dare, though the only person she has to prove anything to is herself.

Vallée favors the texture of her experience over her story and DP Yves Bélanger keep us rooted in the beauty and the isolation of the landscape. Hornby’s adaptation is remarkably empathetic to her ordeal, moreso on the trail than in the flashbacks of her spiral into self-destruction (where Laura Dern gives a sublime performance as her mother), and it keeps her voice front and center. And while there is a conventional backbone to the story, it keeps us rooted in the experience of a single woman taking on a challenge that some veteran hikers fail to complete, never forgetting the vulnerability of doing it alone. When a couple of teenage boys rib her about the “princess” treatment she gets from a park ranger (who clearly just wants to get into her tent), she doesn’t school them or remind the audience of some of the more threatening moments she’s endured. She just gets back on the trail and focuses on what matters: moving on.

On Blu-ray and DVD with commentary by director Jean-Marc Vallée with producers Bruna Papandrea and David Greenbaum, seven promotional featurettes, and a message from author Cheryl Strayed. The Blu-ray also includes three additional featurettes, an interactive map of the Pacific Crest Trail, and deleted scenes with optional director commentary, plus an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Mar 31 2015

Videophiled: Hard science and soft-headed people in ‘Interstellar’

Paramount

Interstellar (Paramount, Blu-ray, DVD) – Christopher Nolan used his clout as the director of the hugely successful Dark Knight trilogy and cerebral caper film Inception to get this big-budget science fiction epic made on a scale that otherwise would be out of reach. It’s set in a near future where overpopulation and global climate change has been catastrophic for the food supply and the culture has become hostile to science, as if it’s the cause of the problems rather than the only hope to solve them.

Matthew McConaughey is a widower father and former astronaut turned Midwest farmer who is essentially drafted into a covert project to send a ship across the galaxy to find a planet suitable for human habitation. That means abandoning his children, one of whom grows up into a physics genius (played by Jessica Chastain) who holds onto her grudge for decades. This is a film where complex concepts of quantum physics and powerful human emotions are inextricably intertwined and ghost the haunts the farmhouse has both a scientific explanation and a sense of supernatural power.

The family drama at the center is contrived and often unconvincing but Nolan’s visualization of amazing alien worlds, black holes, quantum physics, and the echoes of time and relativity in regards to travel through deep space and gravity distortions is engaging and thrilling. He imagines what a water planet near a black hole might be like and it’s like nothing you’ve ever imagined. The design of the robot helpers is something else. Neil deGrasse Tyson gave the film top marks for its science, which is pretty impressive. Yes, love conquers physics and the smartest people in the world do stupid, thoughtless things to give the plot its complications, but there simply aren’t many science fiction films that dare to be this brainy and visionary. Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley, Michael Caine, John Lithgow, and Topher Grace co-star.

Christopher Nolan shot Interstellar on film rather than digital cameras with a mix of CinemaScope widescreen (about 2.4:1) and IMAX full frame (the 1.78:1 of widescreen TV) aspect ratios. The Blu-ray preserves the shifting ratios and presents a strong, warm image. Paramount goes all out on the disc to make it something special and Nolan, a creator with a great track record for documenting his productions every step of the way, participates in the supplements, which are limited to the Blu-ray release, all collected on a separate Blu-ray disc. The 50-minute “The Science of Interstellar,” an expanded version of a program originally shown in TV, is the centerpiece of the bonus disc, which includes fourteen “Inside Interstellar” featurettes. The shorter pieces, which take on various aspects of the film, the story, production and special effects details (like the use of miniatures, which has become a rarity in the CGI age), range from under two minutes to just over twelve minutes. The Blu-ray set also includes bonus DVD and Ultraviolet Digital HD copies of the film.

It’s also on digital VOD and Cable On Demand, but those formats won’t look as good as Blu-ray and do not include the Blu-ray supplements, if that’s something that’s important you.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Mar 24 2015

Videophiled: Battling ‘The Hobbit’

HobbitBattle

Warner Home Video

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Warner, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, DVD, VOD), the third and final installment of Peter Jackson’s supersized take on J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy, opens with a spectacular dragon attack on Laketown and tops it with a battle that nearly dwarfs the Middle Earth-shattering war Lord of the Rings trilogy (pun intended). It’s Elf and Man against Dwarf, but for the Orcs it’s personal. Which, as any fan of the original novel “The Hobbit” will tell you, pretty much misses the point of the story. But then Jackson isn’t interested in a faithful interpretation of Tolkien’s novel as much as backfilling a prequel story to The Lord of the Rings, transforming the novel’s story of legacy and destiny warped into greed and hubris, a grand fantasy adventure with dragons and trolls and Shakespearean dimensions, into the initial stirrings of the evil Sauron and a war that will engulf the world and all the races.

That pretty much sidelines Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the ostensible hero of the tale, while redirecting the focus to characters who never appeared in the original novel or in Tolkien’s universe at all, namely the above-mentioned Orcs with a grudge against Thorin (Richard Armitage), the Dwarf who would be king. The final half of the film, which is already the third film in the telling, is an enormous battle and, yes, it is impressive as a physical thing. It’s also exhausting and overdone, with two Orc villains who prove comically unkillable. These guys are fiercer than the next generation Orc-Goblin hybrids that Sauroman breeds in Lord of the Rings.

Those caveats aside, it’s an exciting film with a grand sense of scale and sweep and a sure sense of weaving together multiple stories in the climactic battle. Jackson is quite adept at these things and he keeps the stories straight and the momentum up. What he misses is the heart of Tolkien’s tale. For that, we just may need to wait for someone to edit this story down rather than expand it even more.

It’s released in multiple formats. All of the disc editions offer five short featurettes, all 12-minutes or under: “New Zealand: Home of Middle-earth Part 3,” “Recruiting the Five Armies,” “Completing Middle-earth: A Six-Part Saga,” “Completing Middle-earth: A Seventeen-Year Journey,” and “The Last Goodbye: Behind the Scenes,” plus a music video. This is the same version that played in the theaters but come Christmas you can count on an even longer version from Jackson, with commentary and feature-length documentaries.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Mar 19 2015

Videophiled TVD: A revolutionary ‘Turn’

TurnS1

Anchor Bay

Turn: Washington’s Spies – The Complete First Season (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD) – The Revolutionary War was launched with a declaration of independence and fought for the ideal of self-determination and democratic representation. By any measure it was unprecedented and it gave birth to the first sustained democracy in the world (despite D.W. Griffith’s insistence that the Civil War as the Birth of the Nation), yet there are fewer dramatic portraits of the war in movies or on TV than practically any other American conflict, and fewer still that stand as significant productions in their own right: John Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk, the HBO miniseries John Adams, and… I’m sure there are others, but none jump to mind.

Turn from AMC (the cable network of Mad Men, The Walking Dead, and Breaking Bad) doesn’t quite jump to the top of the list, at least based on the initial season, but it is an intelligent show with a novel approach: it’s built around the civilian spy network supplying intelligence to the revolutionaries under the noses of the occupying British soldiers. This is historical drama, not documentary, but it is based on the true story of the Abraham Woodhull, the head of the real-life Culper Spy Ring in New York City and Long Island. Jamie Bell plays Woodhull, a farmer in Setauket, New York, who sells his produce on the black market to both sides while committing to neither until he’s recruited by an old friend, Continental Army officer Ben Talmadge (Seth Numrich), to use his smuggling routes to pass messages. The one-time favor turns into a full-time commitment and puts him on the opposite side of the conflict from his father (Kevin McNally), the town magistrate and a committed law-and-order British loyalist, and in partnership with his childhood sweetheart Anna Strong (Heather Lind), whose husband was sentenced to certain death aboard a British slave ship for a crime he didn’t commit.

In a TV culture of anti-heroes and compromised protagonists, this is a fairly straightforward conflict: there are a few honorable Brits (notably Major Hewlett, the garrison commandeer played by Burn Gorman) but far more of them are brutal and sadistic, while the rebel sympathizers may be conflicted but are ultimately on the side of their neighbors. The show has its share of romantic and dramatic complications, especially as Woodhull contrives to carry information through British territory to the rebel forces while posing publically as a loyalist, and it’s light on action and spectacle. It takes some time for the story to get any traction, but when, about halfway through the season, George Washington arrives to discuss the fledgling spy network with Talmadge, the show offers a crash course in state of the art spycraft, circa 1776. That’s a fascinating history lesson that gives scope to the personal drama and illustrates just how novel a civilian espionage circle was in warfare. As the season develops, it also takes on the issue of slavery, though while it shows the hypocrisy of the British (who free the slaves only to make them indentured soldiers in their fight) it’s frustratingly quiet when it comes to exploring the colonists’ relationship to the reality of slavery and shies away from seeing the war through the eyes of the blacks who, in the event of American victory, would remain enslaved.

What I find most interesting is the portrait of conflicted loyalties among the Americans. Friends, neighbors, even family members cannot necessarily be trusted, but that doesn’t make them enemies. Woodhull secretly defies his father’s allegiances but never his father, who he loves and protects through the conflict, and he keeps his activities secret from his wife (Meegan Warner), who suspects something is going on but isn’t sure what. That’s the real human story of the show, not the personal conflicts between Woodhull and sneering, sadistic British officer Simcoe (Samuel Roukin) or Talmadge and Scot mercenary Robert Rogers (Angus Macfadyen) or the renewed passions between Woodhull and Anna Strong, flamed by the danger of their missions.

There are also fun bits of history woven through here, like the crossing of the Delaware from the point of view of a soldier at the back of the makeshift armada (Washington is never seen) and a rousing rendition of a British drinking song over dinner with British officers, which became the tune to The Star Spangled Banner. These are dropped in without comment, nudging the viewer to dig into their American history (Wikipedia should get a workout while watching the episodes).

10 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with two very brief featurettes that are really no more than promotional pieces and about 25 minutes of deleted scenes. This season will also be available on Netflix later this month.

The second season begins in April.

Mar 18 2015

Videophiled: Chris Rock’s ‘Top Five’

TopFive

Paramount

Top Five (Paramount, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) is Chris Rock’s third film as a writer / director and his most personal. He plays a comedian named Andre Allen, once branded “the funniest man alive” for his electric stand-up act, who made a fortune in lowbrow comedies, bottomed out in alcohol, and wants to remake himself as a serious actor in his sobriety, which is hard to do when his upcoming marriage is little more than a reality TV stunt as far as his fiancée (Gabrielle Union) is concerned. It all plays out in an eventful 24 hours in NYC as a reporter (Rosario Dawson) tags along his errands and interviews on the opening day of his new film, a stiff of a well-meaning historical drama called “Uprize!,” and the day before his wedding, an affair more stage-managed than planned.

It’s very funny—Rock channels the uncensored language and subject matter of his stand-up act, which lands the film in decidedly R-rated territory—with a serious undercurrent. He’s a recovering alcoholic who’s afraid he’s no longer funny sober, with a career on life support and a marriage he now seems to dread. Dawson, one of the most underappreciated actresses around, matches Rock with confidence and intelligence as the journalist who pushes the comedian to be honest with her—and ultimately with himself.

It’s got an episodic structure, dotted with flashbacks (Cedric the Entertainer takes a starring role in “the lowest moment of his life”) and meetings with old friends (among them Sherri Shepherd, Jay Pharoah, Leslie Jones, and Tracy Morgan) and comedy colleagues. Rock lets these moments reveal different dimensions of the man behind the persona, while generously letting them show off their chops. It’s a familiar structure that Rock juggles well and fills with sharp, smart, and often hilarious take on the mid-life crisis of an artist caught between public expectations, private ambitions and anxieties, and professional compromises and commitments. There’s a complex understanding of the business of entertainment and celebrity behind the comedy, and a smart character portrait behind the performance.

On DVD and Blu-ray, but only the Blu-ray comes with extras: commentary by Rock and co-star JB Smoove, the featurettes “It’s Never Just a Movie: Chris Rock and Top Five” and “The Making of Top Five,” the “Top Five” stand-up outtakes and “Moments You Didn’t See in the Film,” plus deleted scenes and bonus DVD and Ultraviolet Digital HD copies of the film.

Also on Cable On Demand and VOD from Amazon Instant, Vudu, and Xbox.

More New Releases on disc and digital at Cinephiled

Mar 13 2015

Videophiled TVD: ‘Sons of Anarchy’ ends

SonsAnarchyFinalSons of Anarchy: The Final Season (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD) and Sons of Anarchy: The Complete Series (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD) – This drama of family ties, brotherhood, loyalty, betrayal, and honor in an outlaw motorcycle gang that practically runs the (fictional) Central California desert town of Charming grew from cult show to surprise hit for the FX network over the course of its seven season run.

The crime drama had taken on almost Shakespearean dimensions, from a “Hamlet”-like conflict between club heir apparent Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam) and his step-father Clay (Ron Perlman), while offering a kind of leather jacket soap opera and an idealized portrait of underworld brotherhood under fire. Jax was the well-meaning warrior prince determined to deliver Camelot to his brothers but constantly beset by blowback from his alliance and criminal activities. By the time the final season roared out in the fall of 2014, the club had left enough victims in the wake of their criminal activities and territorial battles to fill a small graveyard, including Clay and his own wife, murdered by his mother Gemma (Katey Sagal), the ferocious den mother of this wolf pack. As likable as this scruffy but loyal brotherhood could be, it was hard to overlook the violence of their business, the bodies dropped in misguided acts of vengeance (either by impulse or spurred by the lies of betrayals or cover-ups), and the innocents killed in the crossfire.

Those reservations aside, I remained a fan of the show to the end if only for creator Kurt Sutter’s commitment to the whole twisted idea of brotherhood and the fantasy that they are the protectors of their town. The bad boy romance of their world is a façade, but Sutter sure knows how to work that fantasy into brutal, bloodsoaked melodrama of retribution and redemption. The individual members of the club (at least those who survived to season seven) have all become distinctive, integral characters with their own issues and Gemma a broken, doomed figure spinning stories to delay the inevitable revelation and retribution. Jax’s young son (who knows what Gemma did) takes on the look of a zombie, haunted by the knowledge that his grandmother killed his mother and acting out with acts of violence at school. The hypocrisy he sees in the adult world is poisoning his soul, a truly innocent victim of the violent life of his father.

Annabeth Gish joins the show as the new sheriff of Charming, a veteran who understands that a certain amount of accommodation to the outlaw elements is necessary to keep things from blowing up on the streets, and Jimmy Smits is back as Nero, club ally and conscience to Jax, the compassionate and honorable father figure he lacked in Clay, and there are return visits from some familiar faces, notably Hal Holbrook as Gemma’s infirm father and Walton Goggins as Venus, a tough yet tender transsexual dominatrix with whom club hothead Tig (Kim Coates) falls in love in one of the most touching stories weaving through the series.

Guest stars include Marilyn Manson as a white supremacist taking care of business for the club in prison, Courtney Love as a pre-school teacher who tries to help Jax’s troubled son, Lea Michelle as a truck stop waitress who befriends Gemma, and small roles from Robert Patrick and Michael Chiklis (star of Kurt Sutter’s previous series, The Shield).

Charlie Hunnam and Marilyn Manson

As far as the idea of justice is concerned, the show follows its own tunnel-vision code. These guys sell guns to California gangs and run a brothel and a porn business (which, oddly enough, are managed by women and accommodating to the employees—you gotta love a socially progressive gangster) and routinely murder obstructions and threats, but Jax draws the line at drugs and the IRA pipeline that Clay established. In their world, that’s a moral stand, and while the show flirts with the collateral damage and unintended consequences of their business, it tends to overlook the bigger picture and ask up to look beyond the criminal code. But then that’s part of the outlaw romance of the series. And while there is a fatalism to much of it, Sutter also offers redemptive stories, rewarding longtime fans with a happy ending for a few deserving characters.

13 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, The final season expands each episode to 90 minutes (a little over 60 minutes without commercials), giving the stories more space to play out (it’s like getting an extra six episodes). The disc sets feature hour-long documentary “Carpe Diem: The Final Season of Sons of Anarchy” and featurettes on the legacy of violence, the motorcycles, the stories of the tattoos, and the guest stars of the final season.

Fox also releases the entire series in a box set on Blu-ray and DVD, a bargain way to get the complete show.

More TV on Disc at Cinephiled

Mar 12 2015

Videophiled TVD: ‘The Red Road’ begins

RedRoad

Anchor Bay

The Red Road: The Complete First Season (Anchor Bay, DVD) – Sundance TV (formerly The Sundance Channel) continues to establish its own brand of intelligent, dramatically compelling TV shows with this atmospheric series set in rural New Jersey.

A small town cop (Martin Henderson) enters into a wary partnership with a drug-dealing ex-con (Jason Momoa) from a nearby Native American tribe to cover up a hit-and-run that his wife (Julianne Nicholson), a recovering alcoholic, committed during what seems to be a relapse. In fact, it’s much more, which only makes Henderson more protective (to the point of denial). There’s an uneasy relationship between the town and the tribe, which is fighting for formal recognition from the government while struggling with poverty and crime, that is exacerbated by a forbidden romance between the cop’s teenage daughter and the ex-con’s young half-brother. The physically imposing Momoa, who played both Conan and the barbarian king from the first season of Game of Thrones, adds a dangerous edge to the drama simply by his presence, radiating anger and resentment from his every glance.

Following in the tradition of shows like Rectify and The Bridge, the series is deeply embedded in the cultural and regional specificity of the setting. It’s not just the social politics of the moment but a whole history fraught relations that hovers over the drama, and the idea of heroes and villains gets murky in a drama where the characters share a complicated history that is slowly revealed through the course of the six-episode season.

It has the look and feel of an American independent feature, helped immeasurably by James Grey (The Immigrant) helming the first episode and Lodge Kerrigan (Keane) directing two subsequent episodes of the series. They are instrumental in setting the careful, moody atmosphere. Supporting turns by Tamara Tunie, Tom Sizemore, Mike Farrell, and Lisa Bonet add to the weave of complicating factors.

Six episodes on DVD with three featurettes. It’s also streaming on Netflix.

More TV on Disc at Cinephiled

Mar 11 2015

Videophiled: Francois Truffaut’s ‘The Soft Skin’

SoftSkin

Criterion

The Soft Skin (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), Francois Truffaut’s cool, creamy smooth melodrama of a doomed affair, channels the director’s love of Hitchcock into a film that you wouldn’t otherwise associate with the work of the master of suspense. It’s not a thriller in any generic sense of the term, but Truffaut sets the lush romanticism of exciting indiscretion in a world where sudden stabs of ominous music hint at a tragedy in the making.

Literary critic Jean Desailly doesn’t have adultery on his mind when he becomes entranced with a lithe, lovely young stewardess (Francoise Dorleac) who keeps crossing his path on a speaking engagement—he’s happily married with a wife (Nelly Benedetti) and a daughter—but he plunges ahead with an affair that, despite his best efforts, begins to unravel all of their lives. Truffaut invests it with Hitchcockian echoes of guilt and fear of discovery as well as stylistic touches both effective (a meticulously plotted sequence of just-missed connections) and merely offbeat (a drive to the airport backed by a Psycho-like violin theme). Pulling back the veneer of chic elegance and attractive confidence, Desailly emerges not so much sordid as vain and pathetic, and his wife comes into her own with her heartbreaking discovery of his lies, at once angry, hurt, threatened, and grasping at reconciliation while sabotaging her own efforts with frustrated attacks. It’s an unusual film with sudden changes in tone that does little to prepare the viewer for the dark climax: the tragic side of Truffaut’s fascination of philandering men that runs throughout his career. Watch for the scene with the kitten who licks off the plate set out for room service; Truffaut recreated it for his film-within-a-film in Day For Night.

Previously only been available on a poorly-mastered (and long out-of-print) DVD in the U.S., it’s been remastered for Blu-ray and DVD from a new digital HD digital transfer from the original camera negative. It features commentary (in French, with English subtitled) by Truffaut’s co-screenwriter Jean-Louis Richard and Truffaut scholar Serge Toubiana (originally recorded in 2000), the half-hour 1999 documentary Monsieur Truffaut Meets Mr. Hitchcock (about the famous interview book), a new video essay by film critic Kent Jones, and an archival interview with Truffaut from 1965 about the film, plus a leaflet with an essay by Molly Haskell.

The Criterion restoration is also available to stream for Hulu Plus subscribers, but an HD stream can’t match the quality of a high-quality Blu-ray.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Mar 10 2015

Videophiled: Alain Resnais’ ‘Life of Riley’

LifeofRiley

Kino Lorber

Life of Riley (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD) – It is curious that Alain Resnais, who was the most narratively experimental and ambitious of directors at the birth of the nouvelle vague in France, spent the last two decade of his filmmaking career melding cinema and theater in productions that are both highly theatrical and uniquely cinematic. Life of Riley, the final film from the director (he passed away in 2014, a few months after the film’s debut), is his third adaptation of British playwright Alan Ayckbourn and, like his penultimate feature You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet (2012), revolves around the theater. In this case it’s an amateur production, a play within a play that we only get in glimpses of rehearsals interrupted by disagreements and digressions. The biggest digression is their friend George Riley, who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He never appears on screen but his presence looms over the film and his actions stir the drama between the three couples of the story: suburbanites Kathryn and Colin (Sabine Azéma and Hippolyte Girardot), wealthy friends Tamara and Jack (Caroline Sihol and Michel Vuillermoz), and George’s ex-wife Monica (Sandrine Kiberlain) now living on a farm with the older Simeon (André Dussollier).

“Drama” may not be the right word. The play itself is a pleasant frivolity, a mix of bedroom farce (without the bedrooms), romantic comedy, and self-aware theater that opens on the first day of rehearsals and ends after closing night, with a coda that brings us back to the themes of mortality and emotional connection. Resnais was 90 when he made the film and it is surely no coincidence that his final two features raise a glass to life by facing death and mortality.

Life of Riley is no funeral, though a funeral does take place before it ends. It’s a celebration, albeit a low-key one. It plays out in the gardens and lawns of the characters, represented by stylized, abstracted sets with hanging strips of heavy cloth as backdrops, with footage of driving down real country roads marking transitions and architectural drawings establishing the next location. It’s not necessarily a successful device but it is inventive and playful, just like the stylized performances. All the world is indeed a stage. This story simply takes place in the rehearsals and afterparties of the “official” performance, while between scenes George continues to play the womanizer, using sympathy and the romance of a dying man’s final fling to entice all three women into lending their attentions to his comfort.

Hippolyte Girardot and Sabine Azéma

It’s the end of a filmmaking career of over 60 years, perhaps not the last word he would have chosen (You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet is more profound, more rapturous, and more stylistically exhilarating), but a pleasant variation on a theme in a rich career, minor but sweet.

Blu-ray and DVD, in French with English subtitles, with a featurette of cast interviews and an accompanying booklet with essays by director Alain Resnais and film critic Glenn Kenny.

Also available on digital and VOD from iTunes.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Mar 09 2015

Milestones: ‘In the Land of the Head Hunters’

InLandHeadHunters

Milestone

In the Land of the Head Hunters (Milestone, Blu-ray, DVD) is not a documentary but it is an invaluable historical document nonetheless. Famed photographer Edward S. Curtis made a career documenting the native tribes on the west in the early 20th century, preserving the imagery of a culture that had almost entirely eradicated through resettlement and assimilation. He lived for a time with the Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl) people of British Columbia and filmed some of their traditional dance for his lectures before he came up with the idea of making a feature with the members of the tribe.

Neither documentary nor strictly recreation—Curtis wrote a melodramatic tale drawn as much (if not more) from western mythology and European fairy tales as from native cultures—In the Land of the Head Hunters showcases traditional dances and rituals from the era before contact with white settlers through its story of love and war. There’s a brave warrior in ritual of manhood, the daughter of a chief who is in love with him, a cruel sorcerer who plots to destroy the warrior, and the sorcerer’s brother. The actors were all non-professionals and Curtis, who is more documentarian than dramatic storyteller, a rudimentary filmmaker, but he worked with the tribe to recreate the costumes, masks, canoes, and longhouses of the old culture, preserving a legacy that the Canadian government was trying to stamp out (the tribes were forbidden from practicing their cultural rituals and this film provided an exception, which they eagerly took).

In this way, it anticipates Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, which staged recreated scenes to show a way of life that was no longer being practiced by the Inuit people. Though In the Land of the Head Hunters (a reference to a dramatic act in the film but a misrepresentation of the tribal culture) is fiction, it serves a similar purpose as an ethnographic record. The storytelling is rudimentary but the imagery is often gorgeous, with Curtis’ photographer’s eye capturing dramatic images set against striking coast landscapes and seascapes. The dances are gorgeous as are the costumes, recreated village sets, and other props. The ambition of the project can’t be overestimated: it was initiated before feature films had become dominant in the industry and released before The Birth of a Nation debuted in 1915.

‘In the Land of the Head Hunters’

The film was orphaned for decades and only existed in an incomplete version (titled In the Land of the War Canoes) reconstructed in 1973 from existing prints and set to a naturalistic soundtrack of native music, chants, and sounds until recently. In 2008 the original cut was reconstructed with newly-discovered footage and still images (to cover footage missing or damaged-beyond-reclamation), using and set to the original score composed for the 1914 debut. In addition to preserving that initial presentation, surviving copies of the sheet music with notations made by musicians helped in the reconstruction of the original cut. The condition of the footage is worn at best and badly decomposed at worst but it is a unique piece of film history that preserves some of the earliest footage of the distinctive culture of the North Pacific tribes. In 1999, it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

Milestone releases both versions of the film and includes scholarly commentary, the short documentary Documents of Encounter: The Head Hunters Reconstruction Project that explores aspects of restoration not always shown in such productions, a 1979 short documentary by Bill Holm and George Quimby (the men behind the seventies reconstruction) on the making of the original film, a feature-length presentation of Kwakwaka’wakw tribal dances performed by the Gwa’wina Dancers, and other supplements.

More restorations on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

Mar 08 2015

Milestones: Shirley Clarke’s ‘The Connection’

Connection

Milestone

The Connection (Milestone, Blu-ray, DVD), the debut feature from Shirley Clarke, turns a stage play originally produced by New York’s revolutionary Living Theater as a play within a play into an innovative work of cinema. Clarke was a pioneering American independent filmmaker before that label was even invented and this is Volume One of Milestone films’ Project Shirley, their program to restore and rerelease (in theaters and on home video) the works of Clarke. It’s actually their third disc release—the documentaries Portrait of Jason (1967), a landmark of queer cinema, and Ornette: Made in America (1985), were ready for disc before The Connection—but it really is ground zero for the project and her career.

In this adaptation, a filmmaker and his cameraman (William Redfield and a largely off-screen but present Roscoe Lee Brown in his film debut) film a group of junkies in a New York loft as they await to score heroine (paid for by the filmmakers) from their drug dealer, a flamboyant character named Cowboy (Carl Lee). While they wait, the men trade-off delivering soliloquies to the camera, a jazz quartet (which includes composer Freddie Redd on piano and brilliant sax solos by Jackie McLean, both reprising their roles from the stage play) periodically launches into impromptu jams, and the director spouts off about film theory and authenticity without having any idea about the world he’s trying to capture. They alternately provoke the filmmaker, who has never so much as a taken a puff of marijuana, and perform for the prowling handheld cameras, and then slip off to the bathroom to discretely shoot up.

It’s experimental theater meets cinéma verité with a self-aware sensibility: a drama in documentary form. The cameras never leave the derelict loft yet the film is constantly in motion, whether it’s the restless movements of the actors or the handheld camerawork, constantly picking out characters and details, and Clarke’s editing gives the film a rhythm that rises and falls like a sustained piece of music.

‘The Connection’

It wasn’t the first American film to take a serious look at drug use but it was the rawest to date and it faced censorship battles due to language that today is tame. Most of the cast member reprise their stage roles and bring a theatricality to their performances, which Clarke emphasizes. The film is as much about performance (as actors, as characters, as junkies doing what they need to do for a fix) as it is about addiction and the culture of these down-and-out men. Like her later film Portrait of Jason, it collapses the space between personality and performance. It’s also a pioneering “found footage” film, presented as if it’s simply a rough assembly of raw footage shot by the filmmakers on 16mm, though the strong images are very much sculpted in light and preserved on 35mm. The film is actually quite handsome.

Milestone Films restored the film to near pristine condition (a few minutes show minor wear) and includes illuminating supplements on Blu-ray and DVD. There’s a slideshow gallery of behind the scenes still set to music from the film, home movies shot on the set during the last day of filming, interviews with art director Albert Brenner and actor / musician Freddie Redd. Note that the 1959 radio interview listed on the case was left off the disc, apparently due to poor audio quality.

More restorations on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

Mar 04 2015

Videophiled: ‘Outlander: Season 1, Volume 1′

Outlander S1V1

Sony

Outlander: Season 1, Volume 1 (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD), a mix of historical drama, romantic melodrama, and time-travel tale based on the novels of Diane Gabron, shows that Starz is starting to figure out this original cable series thing. That’s not to say they haven’t had their successes—Spartacus did just fine for them, thank you very much—but Outlander manages to combine serialized storytelling, budget-minded historical spectacle, and pay-cable nudity in a compelling story that never feels contrived or exploitative. It’s intelligent and interesting, full of historical and cultural detail, and build on a situation that calls upon magic yet remains grounded in a very real world where the threat of violence and death are ever present. And it’s all told from the perspective of a smart, observant, modern (circa 1945) British woman doing all she can to stay alive long enough to escape back into her world.

Caitriona Balfe stars as Claire Randall, who spent World War II as a combat nurse and, with war’s end, is finally reunited with her husband (Tobias Menzies) for a second honeymoon in the Scottish highlands. That’s where (and when), after witnessing a ceremony at an ancient Druid shrine, she’s cast back 200 years, landing in the midst of war between the occupying British army and the rogue Highland clans who are considered savages by the British. Both sides believe she’s a spy (especially a cold-blooded British officer who happens to be her husband’s ancestor and is played by the same actor) but she is slowly accepted into the MacKenzie clan and married to the handsome young Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), cousin to the clan laird and a man with a price on his head. It’s her protection from the British soldiers, if only in legal terms. But this sympathetic Brit in a Scottish land is still an outsider, much more than even they realize, and she keeps her wits about her in the hopes of returning to the shrine and hopefully getting back to her world and her husband. Her first husband. Needless to say, it gets complicated, and not just the timelines. She starts to fall for the romantic young Scot and it seems that Dougal (Graham McTavish), the clan laird, is falling for her.

Ronald D. Moore, the Star Trek TV veteran who rebooted Battlestar Galactica for SyFy, developed the show for Starz and scripts the key episodes of the first eight episodes, which ran on Starz in 2014 to strong ratings and reviews. Balfe gives Claire a courage and strength of character that makes her drama matter to us. No wonder everyone in this world is so fascinated with this woman who speaks her mind and has the courage of her convictions.

Eight episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with the featurettes “An Epic Adaptation” and “The Dresses and Kilts of Outlander.” The Blu-ray also includes three additional featurettes, 21 deleted scenes, and a bonus Ultraviolent HD copy of all eight episodes. The second half of the first season begins in April and a second season is already in production.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

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