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.)

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

New review: Star Trek (2009)

Star Trek (dir: J.J. Abrams)

It’s just Star Trek. No numbers, no subtitles, no tag and no repeat of The Motion Picture. The newest take on the beloved franchise that spawned generations of Trekkies (sorry, I meant Trekkers) takes the Enterprise bridge crew back to their roots as Starfleet cadets, meeting cute at the Academy shuttle (or over a bar fight near the Iowa starshipyards) and clashing in their first bridge assignments on an emergency mission (hey, it’s cadets on a starship!). The old friends are just new acquaintances learning to work together here.

Kirk and Spock clash over the finer points of command
Kirk and Spock clash over the finer points of command

Most long-lived franchises survive through reinvention every generation or so, but the foundation of the Star Trek legacy is not the premise or the promise of a certain brand of SF adventure. It’s characters and personality. None of the Star Trek spin-off shows have captured the dynamic that Kirk, Spock and McCoy did on TV, and the young blood imported for the early Star Trek movies couldn’t hold their own against the old characters and their defining chemistry and were quickly beamed out of the series. Once the Next Generation crew took over the film franchise, the audiences lost interest.

Continue reading “New review: Star Trek (2009)”

DVDs for 4/28/09 – JCVD, Deadly Sweet, The Hit and Star Trek

JCVD (Peace Arch)

In the opening scene of JCVD, Jean-Claude Van Damme takes out one heavily-armed, vaguely military bad guy after another with his bare hands (and whatever blunt instruments and discarded weapons he grabs along the way) in an elaborately choreographed long take. He comes out the other end huffing and winded as the set falls down around and ruins the take. “It’s hard for me to do it all in one take,” he begs the arrogant, snotty young director. “I’m 47 years old.” And we can see the toll that age, exertion and high-living have taken.

Jean-Claude Van Damme: Inaction hero
Jean-Claude Van Damme: Inaction hero

JCVD is an action film where the flamboyant heroics occur only in fantasy. Van Damme’s most daring stunt is a monologue dropped into the middle of the movie, a self-pitying apologia, where he spins his story of a simple Belgian martial arts champ seduced by Hollywood, the naive innocent destroyed by the liars and corrupted by the sudden fame and decadence. It plays like Van Damme’s version of Bela Lugosi’s “Home? I have no home!” speech in Ed Wood’s Bride of the Beast, with Van Damme showing his thespian skills by letting a single tear roll down his cheek up as he rakes over the coals of his screwed-up life. His dramatic muscles are awfully creaky and it’s hard to tell if it’s achingly pretentious, deadpan self-parody or merely Van Damme’s idea of screen test.

But that ambiguity makes the scene so much more interesting and Van Damme is surprisingly engaging as a version of himself who is more vulnerable human being action hero as he tries to survive an armed gang of unraveling personalities. In the real world, he’s more apt to talk than take on a trio of thugs with guns. It’s his first feature in French, his native language. And he manages to maintain self-effacing dignity in the face of director/co-writer Mabrouk El Mechri’s take on his troubled private life. It’s an impressive stunt that pays off in an action film for art movie aficionados and a foreign film for the popcorn crowd. As long as they don’t mind reading subtitles.

I wrote about JCVD for my blog here and for for MSN here.

Deadly Sweet (Cult Epics)

Shot in England by an Italian director with a French leading man and a Swedish sex-doll leading lady (both dubbed into Italian), Deadly Sweet is advertised as a giallo (an Italian horror with cruel and flamboyant murders) but is really a vague murder mystery romp directed as a pop-art object. Jean-Louis Trintignant stars as an out-of-work actor who spots sex-kitten Ewa Aulin at a disco and rushes her out of a murder scene where she’s the prime suspect. As they flee down the steps of the fire escape, the screen shifts into grainy black and white and fragments into split screens and repeated images while the percussion of the metallic march fills the soundtrack. That’s just a taste of the stylistic playroom to come. Tinto Brass went on to a career in soft-core erotic movies (most notably the grotesque Caligula), but here he’s embracing the creative energy and anything-goes culture of sixties cinema and tossing every impulse into the film.

Continue reading “DVDs for 4/28/09 – JCVD, Deadly Sweet, The Hit and Star Trek”

DVD of the Week Extra – Star Trek – The Original Series Remastered Collection

The original voyages of the Starship Enterprise get more than a simple digital buffing with the newly “remastered” collection. The iconic bridge crew is at the helm – manly yet amiable Captain Kirk (William Shatner), unemotionally logical yet unfailingly loyal Vulcan science officer Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy, with elf ears and the Vulcan equivalent of a page boy cut), country doctor in space Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley), who has a penchant for prodding Spock into debates about logic and emotion, Chief Engineer Scotty (James Doohan), navigator Lt. Sulu (George Takei), communications officer Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), and Ensign Chekov (Walter Koenig), who joined the cast in the second season to provide the show with a heartthrob – and the episodes are complete and intact. What’s new are the enhanced special effects and sound effects, all redone with digital technology designed with a retro-look; the producers have been careful to match the look and style with the rest of the show. It’s a change that may upset die-hard Trekkers and offend purists, but I have to say that I don’t mind the effects overhaul. In a side-by-side comparison, the differences are startling, but in the context of the shows the new footage is well integrated into the existing footage, matching the style and sixties color scheme while giving the ship a more substantial, solid feel.

The Enterprise from original broadcast version
The Enterprise from original broadcast version
The "remastered" Enterprise for DVD
The "remastered" Enterprise for DVD

And then, of course, there are the episodes. Season One opens with Man Trap, a classic Trek story of alien encounters and interstellar morality with a cast of characters in the early stages of narrative evolution. As the actors settled into the characters and the writers settled into the universe, the series developed into the iconic show still beloved by so many, with such season highlights as Balance of Terror (a battle of wits and strategy with the Romulans, in their first series appearance), Shore Leave (an amusement park of the mind, scripted by Theodore Stugeon), Arena (Kirk versus the lizard man in a macho battle to the death, adapted from the famous Fredric Brown short story), Devil in the Dark (one of the episodes that shows Roddenberry’s desire to twist stereotypes and create unexpected, peaceful resolutions to alien clashes), and the award-winning City on the Edge of Forever, scripted by Harlan Ellison). Other favorites include Mudd’s Women, which introduced interstellar conman Harry Mudd (played by Roger C. Carmel and still one of the favorite guest characters), Miri (“Bang, bang, on the head!”), The Corbomite Manuever (a deadly stand-off with an alien ship), and Space Seed (with Ricardo Montalban as a genetically engineered superman; the episode inspired Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan).

Continue reading “DVD of the Week Extra – Star Trek – The Original Series Remastered Collection”

DVD of the Week – ‘Route 66: Complete First Season’ – August 5, 2008

Route 66, the great American TV road show, started rolling out on DVD last year with a box set of the first 15 episodes on four discs. The mastering was, to be frank, a disappointment. The press materials claimed that it was digitally transferred from original masters “for the highest quality picture and audio possible,” but the old Columbia House VHS tapes looked cleaner. From the evidence on screen, the episodes looks like they were taken from 16mm syndication prints, nowhere near the original source material. The soundtrack is riddled with hiss, warbles, and hums, there is grit and scratches in the image is soft, not the sharp, clean mastering you get from such restored B&W shows like I Love Lucy or The Twilight Zone. But at least it was in the correct aspect ratio.

corvette_route661.jpgThe balance of the first season was released in a second four-disc set. The visual quality was improved but it was mastered in 1.77 widescreen, the image hacked and bent to fill the modern HD screens. Oddly enough, it looked pretty handsome most of the time, the frame shaved at the top and bottom without unduly crowding the composition and at times picking out the characters from the background, but it wasn’t the original version.

Route 66: Complete First Season corrects that mastering gaff by remastering the ill-advised widescreen episodes in their correct Academy ratio. The first 15 episodes are still rough but the quality is perfectly adequate for its needs and watching on a high-definition set certainly emphasizes the weaknesses. But I love this show and this is likely the best we’re going to get.

Martin Milner is Tod the college boy, whose privileged life disappeared with his father’s bankruptcy and death. George Maharis is Buz the street wise ladykiller with a chip on his shoulder. Boyhood friends, they hit the road in Tod’s sole possession, a Corvette convertible (“My father gave me that car, just before he died. It’s the only thing I’ve got left”), Buz riding shotgun as Tod drives too fast through a whole lot of shortcuts and into a lot of drama, all of it shot on location across the country. It was kind of a Playhouse 90 on the road, with Tod and Buz – the naïve idealist and the rough and tumble pragmatist – as hosts and eternal guest stars as they traveled this great nation of ours looking for work. Every episode opens against the landscape of their new location with Nelson Riddle’s jazzy theme song providing the continuity. Created by writer Stirling Silliphant and producer Herbert B. Leonard (who both came from the similarly structured “The Naked City”), it was the best of its kind and back in the eighties, when I discovered the show in syndication on Nick at Night during my final year of graduate school, it instilled in me a wanderlust that resulted in my own coast-to-coast road with a buddy.

r66_2.jpegThis season works its way from the shadowy deep south (the series debut, “Black November,” takes them to a gothic town frozen in time by its own guilt and shame and ruled over by a virtual dictator, Everett Sloane) across the gulf coast through the southwest desert states and over to the west coast. Along the way they roustabout on an oil rig, defend a bitter Suzanne Pleshette from a murder charge, go logging in Oregon, work as ranchers, field hands, pickers, crop dusters, and more. Tod drives a stock car, Buz boxes, they both do plenty of romancing, but nothing beats Joey Heatherton doing a sex kitten dance on a bar in “Three Sides.” Silliphant personally scripts more 75% of the first season, stamping the show with his brand of social drama and filling the dramas with troubled, tormented and just plain screwed-up souls looking for some peace. The shows don’t feel dated so much as dramatic time capsules – the language, the fashions, the details may change, but the characters are still dynamic and the the scripts bring out the best of the guest cast, a mix of aging stars, stalwart actor actor and up-and-coming performers: Janice Rule, E.G. Marshall, Leslie Nielsen, Jack Lord, Jack Warden, Lee Marvin, Patty McCormack, Sylvia Sidney, Walter Matthau, Dan Duryea, Robert Duvall, Darren McGavin and more. It’s still one of my all-time favorite TV shows.

I review the film in my MSN DVD column here.

Continue reading “DVD of the Week – ‘Route 66: Complete First Season’ – August 5, 2008”