Blu-ray reviews: ''Bigger Than Life'' and ''Summer Hours''

Bigger-than-Life-DVD-507_box_348x490  Imagine the bracing shock movie audiences, used to the comical and heartwarming depictions of suburban domesticity of Father Knows Best and I Love Lucy, must have felt in 1956 when they encountered Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life - a lush, Cinemascope vision of a seemingly sane man (James Mason) who gradually becomes a monster to his family.

One of Hollywood's first - and darkest - cautionary tales about the spiritual blankness of cookie-cutter suburbia, Bigger Than Life (The Criterion Collection, $40 DVD and Blu-ray) understandably flopped and has never before been available on home video. Today, the film strongly recalls The Shining, another story about a man driven by his failings to try to murder his wife and son. Instead of ghosts, though, the demons that possess Mason are steroids, used to treat a mysterious illness that racks his body with pain.

The drugs work, but Mason soon starts to abuse them, and the pills give rise to the rage and frustration he suffers while living up to his responsibilities as a father and husband on his measly schoolteacher's salary. Ray, who was coming off the biggest hit of his career (Rebel Without a Cause), and Mason, who had been nominated for an Oscar for 1954's A Star is Born (and also produced Bigger Than Life), proved natural artistic partners, using a deceptively simple tale to explore prescient themes of the implosion of the middle class, the darkness lurking beneath Norman Rockwell's America and the unexpected consequences of our increasing reliance on prescription medications.

Bigger Than Life looks positively striking on Blu-ray, the high-def image showcasing Ray's bold, widescreen compositions and ingenious use of light and shadow. The disc includes several substantial supplements, including a half-hour interview with novelist Jonathan Lethem (Chronic City), whose enthusiastic, intelligent appraisal of the film reveals subtle subtexts (such as the apparent, unspoken homosexuality of the family friend played by a young Walter Matthau). There is also a vintage 1977 episode from the TV series Camera Three in which Ray is interviewed by a visibly nervous, awestruck host about his career.

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Summerhours-a  Leisurely paced but as gripping as a relentless action thriller, Olivier Assayas' Summer Hours (Criterion, $40 DVD and Blu-ray) is a moving, compassionate look at three generations of a French family dealing with the death of their art-loving matriarch. Unlike most American pictures about ordinary people, which often anchor their plots around some sort of contrived situation or heightened drama, Assayas refrains from histrionics, allowing instead for the relatable humanity of his characters to carry the show.

The film opens with a long sequence in which the three grown children of Helene (Edith Scob) gather with their families at her sprawling country estate to celebrate her 75th birthday. Helene's kids (Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling and Jeremie Renier) clearly adore their mother, but they've also long grown busy with their careers and families - two of them don't even live in France any longer - and the birthday celebration captures the easy rapport and occasional awkwardness of family gatherings among relatives who feel vaguely guilty about not being nearly so close as they once were.

The rest of Summer Hours follows what happens after Helene dies, and her children must decide whether to respect her wishes and maintain her estate as a family heirloom or sell it off in pieces to museums and divide the money. The differences of opinion and bruised feelings that result are handled in a subtle, empathetic manner by Assayas, who uses his story to explore the ways in which cultural values and traditions among family members are sometimes diluted, if not lost entirely, over succeeding generations. The film's astonishing closing sequence argues that prevailing tastes and attitudes might change with the times, but certain things - including the way we look at the world - are infused into us by the people who raise us, never to be completely lost.

The disc includes a half-hour interview with Assayas, in which he eloquently expounds on the story's themes and the ideas he was trying to express, as well as a 25-minute making-of featurette, comprised of footage shot on the set and including interviews with Berling and Binoche.

A lost treasure, rediscovered

Bluray  Sometimes, even classics fall through the cracks into oblivion. John Huston's beloved 1951 hit The African Queen, the picture that brought together Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn for their first (and only) screen pairing, had not been available on home video in the United States since the VHS era, because the original negative had deteriorated so badly, a DVD release would have looked like mud.

But after an extensive frame-by-frame restoration, The African Queen (Paramount, $26 DVD, $40 Blu-ray; in stores today) looks better than ever, especially on Blu-ray; the image is so clean you can count the whiskers on Bogart's stubble. Some shots are still a little soft, and the resolution of the high-def image makes the blue-screen work stand out even more than before,but this is probably as good as the film is ever going to look.

After almost six decades, The African Queen remains a thrilling and captivating adventure - the sort of film parents can watch with their kids, and everyone will be equally entertained - even though its bulk consists of two people sailing down a river in a rickety boat, hoping somehow to sink a German gunboat during World War I. But what a river, and what a pair! Bogart, Hepburn and Huston had all fallen from favor when they collaborated on the project, their legendary status in Hollywood threatened by the brewing McCarthyism that would derail the careers of many other artists.

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So without the sanction or financing of a major studio, they hightailed it to Africa - specifically to Uganda and the Belgian Congo (now Zaire) - essentially using the same tactics independent filmmakers today use to raise their budgets. The African Queen was a smash when it was released to theaters and remains a sparkling entertainment today, a textbook example of how old-school Hollywood star power can trounce even the biggest names of today. Just imagine, say, Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler in its lead roles. The result would curdle the blood.

The DVD and Blu-ray include only one extra, but it's fantastic. The hour-long documentary Embracing Chaos: The Making of The African Queen uses new interviews with directors and critics (including Martin Scorsese, who can still remember the exact day and theater in which he first saw the film as a child); vintage clips with Hepburn, Huston and cinematographer Jack Cardiff, and comments by still-living members of the crew to recount the tumultuous story behind the film's creation.

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The documentary, which also makes ample use of a priceless trove of beautiful photographs shot on the set, is a perfect chaser to the main attraction, packed with great anecdotes and information. The script (co-written by the great film critic James Agee) originally ended on a downbeat note, like the C.S. Forester novel it was based on. But once shooting got underway, the chemistry between Bogart and Hepburn was so great, Huston realized he was really making a comedy and could not possibly kill off his two stars, so a writer was flown in to craft a new ending. The filmmakers also had to contend with everything from an attack by soldier ants to rampant dysentery and malaria (they had unwittingly been drinking unfiltered water). Only Bogart and Huston never got sick, because the only thing they ever drank was booze.

Huston also started every day on the set by getting his rifle and heading into the wild to hunt an elephant. Hepburn disapproved of the habit as "piggish," so the director took her along on one of his expeditions. They were almost trampled by a stampeding herd, but the adrenaline rush was so great that Hepburn changed her mind about Huston's obsession. The documentary has plenty more stories to tell, and all of them add to your appreciation of the movie. With this new release, a lost treasure has been found and given its due.

''Avatar'' coming to Blu-ray without a single extra

James Cameron is notorious for taking his sweet time to do his films justice on DVD: A proper release of 1997's Titanic wasn't out until 2005, the director's cut of The Abyss took ten years to put together (and still has never been issued in anamorphic format) and True Lies never received the special edition treatment it deserved.

AvatarCameron is also known for re-releasing his films on DVD endlessly (e.g. Terminator 2: Judgment Day), so it should come as no surprise that Avatar will make its home video debut on Thursday April 22 on DVD and Blu-ray in a bare-bones edition completely devoid of supplementary materials.

Producer Jon Landau has given the L.A. Times a juicy rationalization for the cash-grabbing double-dip movie-only decision. "Everything that is put on a disc takes up room -- the menus, the extras, the trailers and studio promotions -- and we got rid of all of that so we could give this movie the best picture and sound possible." Landau did not explain why the filmmakers didn't just throw in an extra disc of supplements, perhaps because the truth would make him sound greedy.

With 3D Blu-ray technology poised to hit the market, and the existence of a longer director's cut already confirmed, the home video re-release potential of Avatar is endless. "There are details that you can see on the Blu-ray that are just amazing," Landau told the paper. "And the reason the movie has done so well isn't because of the 3-D, it's because of the story and the messages and the imagination. The way I view the Blu-ray is a chance for people to go back to Pandora." Of course he does.

Abyss When Cameron does release a special edition, the results are usually fantastic (the making-of documentary on the DVD of The Abyss remains one of the best and most candid I've ever seen). So I'm sure the eventual tricked-out release of Avatar will be worth the wait. It's just going to be a long wait.

Random list of movies I wish I could get on Blu-ray

 
I'm about to sit down to watch the new Blu-ray of Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt, which I am thrilled got the high-def treatment.

Here are some other movies I wish the studios would put out on Blu-ray immediately, although I know it's going to be a while until some of these come out, if ever. I left out the movies that are coming out later this year, like the Alien films.

Rumblefish

Vertigo

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Badlands

Dreamers

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Apocalypse
I couldn't find a good image of the original poster, but I prefer the theatrical cut over the "Redux" version.

Duellists

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Yeah, I know, I know. But it's still awesome.

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Duh. Come on, Warner Bros. Bring it!

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Outsiders

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Give the people what they want, Lucas.

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 Af-poster

Rebel

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The Coen brothers look back on ''Raising Arizona'' and ''Miller's Crossing''

When I interview filmmakers I really admire, I often save the last question for myself, knowing it probably won't make it into the story I'm writing, but is something I personally want to know.

When my allotted time for interviewing Joel and Ethan Coen about A Serious Man was almost up, I told them I had gone back and watched all their movies again in chronological order earlier this year and discovered some of the films I hadn't liked the first time around (like Barton Fink or The Man Who Wasn't There) now struck me as near-masterpieces, and that Miller's Crossing, which I had always loved, has only gotten better with time. (I didn't mention that I still don't like O Brother, Where Art Thou? because there's no really need to be rude.)

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Then I asked the Coens whether they ever go back and watch their own movies again, because I've never heard them talk about their previous work much. Here's what Ethan said, which might surprise you.

Raising_arizona  "We almost never watch our movies again. I usually have to be forced to go back and watch them for a specific reason. We don't do it recreationally. But I just happened to have reviewed new video masters of two movies, Raising Arizona and Miller's Crossing, so I watched them for the first time since we made them. Raising Arizona, that one ain't so hot. But Miller's Crossing, I had the same reaction you did. I kinda liked it. The actors are pretty good and the movie kind of works. I enjoyed that one. I didn't enjoy the other one."

I would have loved to have asked Ethan more about his thoughts on Raising Arizona, but my time was up. I'm guessing he was approving new video masters for impending Blu-ray releases of those two movies, which would be very cool. A note to 20th Century Fox home video execs: Getting Barton Fink on Blu would be awesome, too.

My interview with the Coens about A Serious Man appears in Sunday's paper, but you can read it online here now.

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The secret Blu-rays you may not know about

The practice of releasing movies on Blu-ray format exclusively to one retail chain or another appears to be gathering steam. Highdefdigest reports copies of The Green Mile on Blu-ray magically appeared on Best Buy store shelves this week, without so much as a peep of promotion from distributor Warner Bros.

Gremlins  The studio took the same approach a couple of weeks ago when it quietly released Gremlins on Blu-ray, which you can't buy on Amazon or anywhere else online, but you can pick up right now at a Target near you. Same goes for the no-frills Blu-ray release of The Wizard of Oz: If you want the movie but don't feel like shelling out $85 for a mammoth box packed with Oz tchotchkes, you can buy a Blu-ray of the movie by itself for $35 at Target.

When Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen hits Blu-ray next week, the only way to watch the cut of the film created for IMAX (featuring a few extra scenes and some "opened-up" sequences in IMAX format, a la The Dark Knightwill be to buy the disc at Wal-Mart. Every other version of the Blu-ray will present the film in its standard theatrical cut.

I understand these exclusive deals with retailers are probably pretty lucrative for the studios. But when you're trying to make a niche format break through to the mainstream, doesn't it make more sense to make all your titles available everywhere, so people can buy them wherever and whenever they want? 

Blu-ray prices fall (a little) and sales grow (a little)

Video Business reports that prices of new releases on Blu-ray disc have dropped 12% since July 2008, to an average of $23.47. Prices of catalog titles have dropped 33%, to an average of $17.23.

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David T. Barker, vice-president of e-commerce marketing at DeepDiscount.com, told the publication “Studios are making these moves to drive some additional sales with Blu-ray. I definitely think that cost is still a factor, because getting a dollar from a customer isn’t easy.”

Blu-ray still accounts for only a fraction of overall home video sales. But that fraction is slowly growing.Last week, total Blu-ray sales grossed $13.2 million, which accounted for only 7% of total packaged-media sales revenue. But that number is an improvement of 143% over the same sale period in 2008.

DVD sales hit $154.8 million last week, which was down 6.8% from last year.

Nicknorah I still haven't bought The Dark Knight or Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist on Blu-ray, even though I really want them, because they're always priced around $25-$30 when I see them in the store. That's an impulse-buy killer. I know discs are cheaper online, and that great sales are plentiful. But I tend to be a brick-and-mortar shopper. When I want a Blu-ray, I want it now. But at the right price.

Stores don't do themselves any favors by mispricing their own product, either. I was at the new Best Buy on South Beach last weekend and picked up a few catalog titles I noticed were on sale on BestBuy.com. But the store had them stickered at full retail price and they rang up that way at the cash register. A manager had to come over and scan each title to confirm I wasn't making it up and that the prices really were 40-50% less than marked.

Studios need to cool it with the Blu-ray mark-ups, too. The new Blu-ray of Miramax Films' terrific Adventureland is fantastic, but the MSRP is an absurd $45. That's more than it would have cost on laserdisc. I know no one will actually sell it for that price, but still.

The Criterion Collection asks: ''What DVD slump?''

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In an interview with The Playlist's Kevin Jagernauth, The Criterion Collection's CEO Jonathan Turell says the company has not suffered as bad of a downturn in sales of classic films as other DVD distributors. “If we’re down, we’re down a very small amount," Turell told the website. "If we took the standard numbers [of dropped sales that other studios are experiencing] we’d be down more, but we’re not."

Last-days Turell also reveals why Criterion is so choosy about which titles they issue on Blu-ray, instead of offering all their releases on the format (like their terrific new disc of Whit Stillman's The Last Days of Disco, which I wish was available on Blu-ray).

"The cost of authoring [a Blu-ray disc] is very expensive compared to [Standard Definition], and the cost of manufacturing is multiples [compared to SD]. So if I sell a disc in SD and I sell it in BluRay I can do a much better job of paying overhead if I sell it in SD," said Turell.

At least Criterion doesn't charge extra for their Blu-rays, unlike every other studio, which mark up the disc's prices by $5-$10. Also, the picture and sound on Criterion DVDs are so expertly transferred that they often look very close to high-def, like their eye-popping release of Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, which I just watched again last week.

I've been a Criterion collector since their laserdisc days. I have fond memories of buying their fat Blade Runner laserdisc box in 1987 (which cost $100!) and spending a couple of days going through it. I'm hoping to set aside four hours this coming weekend to watch their new DVD of Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, which I've never seen.

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Give ''Duplicity'' a second chance

Duplicitybd How does a witty, clever movie starring Julia Roberts and Clive Owen as a pair of romantically-entangled spies playing head games on each other fail at the box office?

In the case of Duplicity (Universal Home Entertainment, $30 DVD, $40 Blu-ray), which stalled at a $40 million gross earlier this year, the culprit may have been a screenplay so packed with twists and turns it even outfoxed the audience. That shouldn't be as big of a problem on home video, where your trusty rewind button allows you to go back and rewatch scenes of exposition that might leave you a little befuddled.

But the beauty of Duplicity, the second film from writer-director Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton), is the speed and dexterity with which the complicated story unfolds. The film only seems confusing if you're not paying attention. Gilroy, who also wrote the screenplays for the three Bourne pictures, has an unerring sense for pace and plot construction. Duplicity is a big Bavarian pretzel of a movie, but one that has been beautifully contorted. In another era, the movie would have starred Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, and no one would have complained.

The DVD and Blu-ray versions include only one extra, but it's a great one. Gilroy and his brother John (who served as editor and co-producer) deliver an illuminating and informative commentary track recorded shortly before the film's release, so they never talk about the disappointing public reception of the movie.

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They do, however, go into great, fun detail about the project's history. Gilroy originally wrote Duplicity seven years ago for Steven Soderbergh to direct, with the provision that Soderbergh would set the script free instead of sitting on it indefinitely if he decided not to make it. "As complicated as the script might seem, it wasn't a complicated movie to write,'' Gilroy says. "I was really just trying to show off for Steven.''

Once Soderbergh passed, various others circled the project, including Steven Spielberg and David Fincher, but no one fully committed. Halfway during the filming of his first movie, Michael Clayton, Gilroy decided he'd make Duplicity himself, and after Clayton star George Clooney introduced him to Owen during a break in shooting, Gilroy knew he had found his leading man.

Gilroy says part of what makes Owen such a good actor is that he's utterly comfortable in his skin, so he's willing to play scenes in which he's emasculated by his female co-star in a battle of wits. "What's so liberating about Clive is you don't have to butch him up. You don't have to man him up, so he's comfortable enough to get knocked down a peg. He never came to me and said, `You think I could be a little cooler in this scene?'''

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Gilroy also reveals that Duplicity's opening scene, which is set in Dubai, was originally written at the request of Spielberg but that it was shot half-heartedly, because Gilroy never really intended to use it. But after test-screening the movie, Gilroy realized the scene was essential, because it made "little explosions of difference'' throughout the rest of the film, a testament to Spielberg's uncanny storytelling skills.

For more reviews of this week's new DVD releases, go here.

HD-DVD still dead, but twitching a little

Hd_dvd_bluray The Toshiba Corp., in an effort to recoup some of the huge losses the company incurred when it lost the high-definition war to Sony's Blu-ray last year, has licensed its defunct HD-DVD technology to China for a new disc-based format, the China Blue High-Definition Disc (CBHD), to be sold only in that country.

CBHD players are already outselling Blu-ray players 3 to 1 in China, and the discs themselves are priced at a quarter of what Blu-ray movies sell for, because Chinese manufacturers don't have to pay to Sony's steep royalty fees when making CBHD products.

Warner Bros. has announced it will aggressively support the new format, promising to have more than 100 titles available by the end of the year. Other studios are likely to follow, since the film industry is desperate to boost the sagging home video market by whatever means necessary. The low-priced CBHD discs could also potentially help staunch the massive piracy problem in China..

None of this will hurt Blu-ray sales, which continue to rise both here and abroad. But it does give former HD-DVD supporters the possibility of having new movies to watch on their players. I still use my trusty Toshiba HD-XA1 to watch regular DVDs, because the upconverted image is better than what my PS3 can manage. Overall, I preferred HD-DVD to Blu-ray, because the picture just seemed a bit crisper and more pleasing to my eyes.



Blu-ray gets another big boost

Dance-flick-poster Paramount Pictures has announced it will release Dance Flick on Sept. 8 in a barebones DVD rental version and an extras-laden Blu-ray. You won't be able to buy a standard DVD version until four to eight weeks later.

This follows a similar move by the Walt Disney Co. to release its upcoming special edition of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs exclusively on Blu-ray on Oct. 6. A standard DVD of Snow White won't be available until Nov. 24, although Disney's family-oriented Blu-rays all include a DVD copy of the film.

While sales and rentals of DVDs are dropping, Blu-ray sales continue to increase, and studios see the new format as an opportunity to revitalize the stagnant home video market.

I don't think a movie as inconsequential as Dance Flick will have any noticeable impact on Blu-ray sales figures. It will be interesting to see what happens when Paramount tries pulling the exclusivity deal on a major catalog title like The Godfather or a hot new release like Star Trek, or if Disney makes Pixar's Up a Blu-ray exclusive for the holiday season.

Seventhseal Although Blu-ray initially sounded like just another gimmick for studios to wring more cash out of their tired catalog titles, the format has proven to be a gift to cinephiles. Once you get used to watching films on Blu-ray, it's hard to go back to DVD. The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray release of The Seventh Seal, for example, is so sharp and vivid, it makes you feel like you're seeing the movie for the first time.


If you want to see what the format is capable of, ask a store salesman to throw on the Blu-ray of The Searchers and get ready for your eyes to pop out of your head.

I've just started the first season of Mad Men on Blu-ray, and the clarity of the image is startling - leagues beyond the quality of high-def cable and satellite TV. The better the image looks, the more captivated you are by what you're watching and the more enjoyment you derive out of it.

"Repulsion" still creepy after all these years

483_box_348x490 ``Like dancing a tango'' is how director Roman Polanski describes his collaboration with actress Catherine Deneuve on the commentary track of the outstanding Repulsion DVD and Blu-ray (Criterion Collection, $40 each). Originally recorded in 1994 for the film's laser disc release but unavailable in any format since then, the track, which also features Deneuve (recorded separately), is a film buff's dream, corralling the press-shy icons for detailed reminiscing on the making of the movie.

Made in 1965, Repulsion was only Polanski's second film (after the Oscar-nominated Knife in the Water), but the movie bears the artistic bravado of a much more experienced director. Essentially a horror picture in the vein of David Lynch's Eraserhead (which can be seen as a direct descendant), Repulsion tracks the gradual mental deterioration of a young woman (Deneuve) who shuts herself inside her London apartment and slowly goes insane after her roommate-sister leaves her alone and goes on vacation.

A deliberate exercise in audience manipulation, Repulsion is a singularly creepy and disturbing film. (Polanski never made another remotely like it, not even when he revisited the subject matter of an eccentric apartment-dweller in The Tenant.) The transfer on the Blu-ray version wrings every possible detail from the movie's beautiful black-and-white cinematography, and the image is so vivid and textured it looks more like projected film than video.

On the commentary, Polanski admits his motivation for making Repulsion was purely ``opportunistic.'' A producer of soft-core sex films wanted to go legit by making a low-budget horror flick, and Polanski seized the offer, although the movie he made was far different from the exploitation fare the money men had in mind.

Polanski says he purposely paced the first half of the movie slowly, so viewers would let their guard down, making them easier to shock (``You can only zap someone when they're on the verge of boredom''). Accordingly, Repulsion's first big ``Gotcha!'' scare, which happens at the 47-minute mark, might be one of the most effective in cinematic history (even when you already know what's coming, you're still startled).

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Polanski also talks about Deneuve's beauty, remarking that she still looked gorgeous even when shot with wide-angle lenses but that the actress was ``very touchy'' about nudity. Deneuve confirms this fact, saying Polanski even convinced her to pose for Playboy against her will to help publicize the film's U.S. release, a decision she now regrets -- and wishes the photos had at least been in black and white, to match the movie.

Deneuve also talks about how specific Polanski was in his direction, down to showing her the way he wanted her character to rub her nose. Polanski's attention to micro-detail can be glimpsed on one of the disc's extras, a 30-minute French TV documentary from 1964 made entirely of rare footage shot on the Repulsion set.

Another extra, the 24-minute retrospective featurette A British Horror Film, features more recent interviews with Polanski, the film's producers and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, who was handpicked by the director based on the strength of his work on Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove. Repulsion is not nearly so well-known as that earlier classic, but Polanski's freaky depiction of psychosis was arguably more influential than Kubrick's comedy. Criterion's fantastic new discs encourage you to make up your own mind.

Read more reviews of this week's DVD and Blu-ray releases here.

"Watchmen," belatedly

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Alan Moore was right: You can’t make a movie out of Watchmen. Zack Snyder’s adaptation of the seminal comic book written by Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons is as close to a standalone film as anyone is ever going to wring from this material, but it still doesn’t hold together. Watchmen moves in fits and starts, the way Snyder fiddles with the fast-forward/slow-motion speed controls during the action sequences. It has too many subplots and characters, yet leaves you wishing it had even more. Despite its overall faithfulness to the comics, the movie’s climax doesn’t generate the trippy power you felt while reading the books. The narrative struggles to keep up with the exposition and doesn’t always succeed. It’s an awkward, unwieldy, strange movie. I loved every minute of it.

There is thrilling, inventive filmmaking sprinkled throughout Snyder’s three-hour director's cut, which runs 25 minutes longer than the theatrical cut (I didn’t see that version, so I can’t compare the two, but I have to assume it was a lot murkier and harder to follow, since this version still feels too short; regardless, the theatrical cut is now officially obsolete). The ten-minute sequence depicting the origin of Dr. Manhattan is like a fantastic little sci-fi movie of its own – Billy Crudup’s performance as the blue-skinned demigod is one of the most underrated acting jobs of the year - and there are many others like it.

As a visual equivalent to the books, which did groundbreaking and daring things with traditional comic-book art and panels, the film does more than hold its own. I wouldn't want every movie to look like Watchmen, but for a stretch of three hours, Snyder's dense, demanding eye-candy is transporting to behold - and, like the comics, will be the prime motivator for repeat viewings.

Watchmensadface But most people - i.e. anyone who hasn't read Watchmen - will have trouble making it through the movie once. I was surprised when the film's box office gross plummeted after its $55 million opening weekend - a resounding rejection of the movie by the mainstream public. Having seen it, I'm no longer surprised.

 Most of the people I know who saw Watchmen didn't like it at all, and those who did were all enthusiastic fans of the books, with an emphasis on the enthusiastic. Fans of the comics know what it means when you see a couple of shots in the movie of a kid sitting on the curb reading Tales of the Black Freighter at a sidewalk news stand. To non-readers, the kid and the newspaper vendor barely register - they're just extras - and their deaths mean absolutely nothing.

That's a pervasive problem throughout the movie: Things don't resonate the way they did on the page. Snyder has crammed a lot of the books' details into the film, but they just rush by, with no apparent payoff. Aside from context, though, what ultimately defeats Snyder's Watchmen - what renders the material unfilmable after all, despite his heroic efforts - is that this story doesn't really work outside of its original medium. Watchmen was as much a deconstruction of superhero mythology as it was a deconstruction of the literal act of reading comic books: A big part of the thrill of what Moore and Gibbons created came in the way you interacted with the story, turning back pages to look at a previously meaningless panel again, discovering the layers of allegories and foreshadowing built into the artwork, teaching your eyes to surrender to, instead of shrinking from, the off-putting color palette used in the inking of the books (instead of bold primary colors like red and blue, a lot of Watchmen was rendered in sickly hues of orange, purple and green). 

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Transplanting Watchmen from the comic-book page to the movie screen immediately negates its reason for being, no matter how carefully you strive to preserve its essence. This is why Snyder is wrong, I think, when he says that casting Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise or Angelina Jolie in the movie would have been a mistake and detracted from the experience. Yes, Pitt as Dr. Manhattan or Cruise as Nite Owl would have made for an entirely different Watchmen in terms of tone and feel. But it would have also given the movie a distinct identity other than  a carbon copy - would have connected the movie to popular culture, the cinematic medium and the uninitiated viewer's reality in a way that the current incarnation can never achieve.

Snyder tries to accomplish that by other means, such as the movie's diverse jukebox soundtrack (I especially liked the subtleness of the Muzak version of Tears For Fears' Everybody Wants to Rule the World piped into Ozymandias/Adrian Veidt's office). But it's not enough. For all its artistic daring - and the fact this movie even exists, with its fat budget and R-rated sex and violence and epic running time, is kind of insane - Watchmen just sort of sits there, incomplete and distant, if you can't juxtapose the viewing of the movie with the experience of having read the comics.

Watchmeninsignia I recognize and agree with all this. And yet I still say: So what? The Watchmen books were a unique, once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing - Moore and Gibbons are both monstrously gifted, but they will never surpass their achievement here - and so I don't care that the movie feels like a supplement to the comics, forever tethered to and reliant on them, instead of standing apart as its own deal. I don't mind that one of the best things in the film is a departure from the books - Snyder's ingenious way of replacing the giant squid, which really was unfilmable, with something even better than what Moore dreamt up.

I suspect Stanley Kubrick would have loved Watchmen - its coldness, its merciless emotional tone, its unlikable protagonists (something more shallow critics complained about, as if it were written somewhere that all movies had to center exclusively on people you love), its shifting chronology that doubles back on itself, the shot of a bathroom door swinging back and forth, giving us glimpses of something awful transpiring inside.

I'd bet even the crabby Moore, if he ever sat down to watch it, would begrudgingly admit that Snyder did practically everything right (although I wish he and every other Hollywood filmmaker would stop with the computer-generated gore and go back to old-school Karo syrup and rubber prosthetics; CGI violence looks fake no matter who does it). No, Watchmen doesn't really work. I can't wait to see it again.

The return (or, "Where the hell have you been?")

Sick_in_bed

(Warning: Unusually long blog post ahead)

I'm back on the job after a doctor-ordered month-long leave. I spent most of that time in bed, due to the heavy-duty meds I was taking. I attended my first screening in more than a month on Saturday, when I saw Star Trek, which is lots of fun (it's the first Trek movie that didn't bore me at some point or another).

But I did watch an average of two DVDs a day while I was out, so I have a month's worth of old and relatively new movies swimming around inside my head I need to purge.

For example, I haven't been able to stop thinking about Martyrs, director Pascal Laugier's horrifically violent French-language thriller, which caused a few disgusted walkouts when it screened at the Toronto Film Festival last year. Laugier shows up to introduce the film on the DVD, and he seems to be a sane and amiable fellow. But although he warns the viewer that some people may hate the movie they are about to see, he doesn't tell you it might make you puke, too.

Martyrs_box_art_2d Making even the worst moments in Hostel and Saw seem like an episode of Teletubbies, Martyrs is one of the most viscerally punishing films I've ever seen - enough that I actually had to look away from the screen a few times, and I have a high tolerance for gory flicks.

What kept me watching to the end was not the violence, which would have become boring and tiresome in and of itself, but the film's intriguing and unpredictable structure, which pulls the rug out from under you in a major way five minutes in, then repeats the trick an hour later. Laugier is obviously talented (the film is exceedingly well-shot), but he overestimates the viewer's tolerance for brutality, and he overreaches in trying to invest that brutality with meaning.

There is an interminable sequence in the film, lasting 10 or 15 minutes, that consists of nothing else but the systematic abuse and torture of a young woman. As it turns out, there's a "reason" why so much screen time is devoted to her suffering, but it's not enough to justify having to sit through it. Martyrs is part of the ongoing French new wave of horror films (and may well top them all in terms of graphic violence), but unlike most of its counterparts, which aim to do nothing other than scare you, this one aspires to a profundity that is far beyond its reach. The only thing worse than a bad horror picture is a pretentious one.

Tellnoone Another French thriller that fares infinitely better is Tell No One (Ne le dis a personne), which I missed during its brief theatrical run last summer, but which would have certainly made my year-end top ten if I had seen it. The term "Hitchcockian" gets thrown around a bit too easily by critics sometimes, but this one genuinely deserves the compliment. French actor-turned-director Guillaume Canet preserves the fiendishly tricky twists and turns of Harlan Coben's source novel without once ever making you think "Oh, come on..." 

The potential for preposterousness was great in this story of a doctor (Francois Cluzet) who discovers that his wife, who was murdered eight years earlier by a serial killer, may still be alive. But although the complicated plot wobbles a bit in retrospect, there isn't a moment while you're watching the movie when you're not utterly engrossed. A Hollywood remake is already in the works, but there's no need to wait for that when the original is available now. The Blu-ray edition boasts a fantastic transfer, along with an excellent hour-long documentary not found on the regular DVD.

I was a big fan of Danish director Ole Bornedal's Nightwatch when it was shown at the Miami Film Festival in 1994, and I even enjoyed the neutered Hollywood remake he directed himself in 1997. But I had forgotten all about Bornedal in the ensuing 10 years, so I was pleased to find not one but two movies directed by him in my always-towering To Watch pile of DVDs.

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The first one, 2007's The Substitute, is a horror movie made for children, or at least family audiences, although just because kids are the target demographic doesn't make this one any less intriguing. Aided considerably by Paprika Steen's lead performance as the sixth-grade substitute who may be - OK, is - an alien from another planet, The Substitute is terrific, fantastic fun, with enough dark wit to render the obvious comparisons to The Faculty pointless.

The movie was obviously a low-budget affair, since it appears the filmmakers ran out of money while shooting the climax (there are some noticeably choppy edits and missing bits of continuity during the last five minutes). But those flaws are not enough to detract from the film entire, which features the kind of completely believable kid actors too often missing from Hollywood pictures.

JALS_KLF_poster The other Bernadel film I saw was 2007's Just Another Love Story, which just hit DVD this week (the front of the DVD jacket uses a photo that contains a gigantic spoiler; they should have gone with the original poster art, shown at left). Kind of like Vertigo in reverse, the movie centers on a forensic photographer (Anders W. Berthelsen) who becomes obsessed with a woman (Rebecka Hamse) involved in a car accident he inadvertently caused.

Rendered amnesiac and nearly blind by the accident, the woman is easy prey for the lovestruck photographer, who passes himself off as her boyfriend in order to get closer to her. Bernadel tricks out the movie with lots of stylistic tricks and ingenious cross-cutting between unrelated scenes to amp up the suspense, and the ending is as inevitable as it is satisfying. In film noir territory, happily-ever-after endings are a rarity. 

After watching No Country For Old Men again in the new two-disc "Special Edition" Blu-ray that recently came out, I was inspired to revisit the Coen brothers' canon - specifically the movies I didn't like the first time around - and see if time had changed anything.

1235359051_518rhyp79rl Maybe it's just that some movies work better on video when you're watching them from your couch at 2 a.m., but I've completely turned around on The Man Who Wasn't There, which I found tedious and monotonous when I reviewed it eight years ago, but which I now consider to be one of the Coens' best efforts.

I was particularly impressed by Billy Bob Thornton's lead performance as the cuckolded barber: Rarely has an actor conveyed so much while doing so little. Roger Deakins' cinematography adds immeasurably to the film (he deserved an Oscar just for the way he played with shadows in the prison scenes). The movie is so beautifully shot, you could watch it with the sound turned off and still be entranced.

The-ladykillers-poster I also warmed up to The Ladykillers, arguably the slightest and least memorable of all the Coens' movies, but a lot funnier when viewed with lowered expectations. It helps, too, to watch the DVD with the subtitles turned on, so you can understand everything Tom Hanks' ostentatiously verbose thief is saying. The movie is ultimately too mild for its own good, but there are a couple of priceless sequences in it, and I appreciated the way the Coens make sure every subplot and character thread pays off by the end.

I discovered I still don't like Barton Fink (too hermetic and self-consciously odd) and O Brother, Where Art Thou? (too precious and erratically paced). The Man Who Wasn't There left me in a film noir mood, so I watched Sunset Blvd. again for the first time in more than 20 years and came away unsure whether or not it qualifies as a true noir. The story elements are all there, and it certainly looks like noir. But the fatalistic mood that is a requisite of the genre isn't there, and Norma Desmond isn't so much a femme fatale as she is a kind of decaying Hollywood gorgon. This is probably still the best movie ever made about the film industry, though.

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Qualifying as a textbook example of noir was 1946's The Killers, which encapsulates every distinctive element of the genre into an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's short story. Director Robert Siodmak does some radical things with his use of light and shadow (that first shot of the killers outside the diner is a stunner) and Ava Gardner's maneating schemer is one of the most formidable villainesses ever, in part because she seems to do so little for so much of the film.

36_box_348x490 The folks at the Criterion Collection recently started releasing their films on the Blu-ray format, and one of their first titles happens to be one of my favorite movies of all time. Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1953 masterpiece The Wages of Fear (La Saliare de la Peur), about four men driving nitroglycerine-laden trucks through the jungle, is so suspenseful it still makes me gasp every time I watch it (the bridge sequence in particular makes me squirm).

The transfer on the Blu-ray is fantastic, with the movie looking sharper and more detailed than ever before. The film is accompanied by an informative host of extras, including a detailed list of all the supposedly anti-American content that was cut out of the movie during its original U.S. theatrical run. The only thing that would have made this disc better is if they had been able to include William Friedkin's infamous 1977 remake Sorcerer, which I am now jonesing to see.

469_box_348x490 Another of Criterion's Blu-ray releases, 1976's In the Realm of the Senses, was new to me. Highly controversial in its time (and still banned in its native Japan), I was expecting the hoopla to be much ado about nothing, the way decades-old controversies usually are. But this one definitely lived up to its billing - and then some.

It took me a little while to get used to the graphic nature of the film's sex scenes, but once I did, I was able to focus on what director Nagisa Oshima is doing, which is to use those scenes to chart the destructive relationship between his two lead characters. Here, finally, is a film in which the sex and nudity really are an integral part of the story (hell, the sex is the story). The eyepopping transfer on the Blu-ray boasts some startling colors, although this probably won't be a disc you'll reach for when showing off your home theater to company.

Outsiders 

I finally caught up with The Outsiders: The Complete Novel, in which Francis Ford Coppola reinstates more than 20 minutes of footage he was forced to chop out by the studio the first time around. I first read The Outsiders in the seventh grade and remembered the movie fondly, but had always wondered why Coppola had left so much stuff out.

The reinstated footage does make The Outsiders a lot more faithful to the book, although I didn't care for Coppola's decision to replace much of his father Carmine's lush score with period rock-and-roll tunes. The new music dramatically changes the tone of some of the movie's critical scenes, and it also diminishes the larger-than-life, Gone With the Wind-sized dimension the movie was designed to have. Coppola's widescreen compositions remain awe-inspiring, though: This is a beautiful-looking movie.

Prince I tried watching Sidney Lumet's 1981 drama Prince of the City eons ago, when I bought my first VCR and was renting VHS tapes like mad. But I remember not understanding it and pulling the plug after 10 or so minutes. This time around, I was able to follow the plot, but just barely: This is one dense, complex policier, a precursor to the storytelling style used in TV shows like The Wire and The Shield. The movie itself, a fact-based story on a New York City police corruption scandal, is OK, but it's got nothing on Lumet's Serpico, maybe because Treat Williams is no Al Pacino.

I could go on, but I think I'll stop here. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to make it out to the theater very much, which means I still haven't seen Watchmen. It's still playing at one theater in Hialeah: Maybe I'll head over there and check it out Thursday after I slog sit through a screening of Angels and Demons.

Alternate ending to "Pineapple Express"

Saw this on EW.com and thought I would share here. It's a very amusing alternate ending to Pineapple Express, which I probably would have before seen if I had been sent a review screener of the DVD. But nooooooo.

 
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