Hello fellow sojourners in the stateside mass media marketplace. Here's another chance to reminisce about the last month or so in home entertainment. Virtually everything you see here is something I wanted to see, a personal favorite or a film I hated enough to warn you about. That's why it winds up in the column. I do my best to approach what I'm doing here as a defense of curatorship and not just review whatever the PR types hype my way. What a world we live in huh? There's beauty everywhere in in the darkest tales but what else would give us hope in a darker than dark world than the chance to encounter the light however fragmented it's beam may be. So until next month when the demons of deadline demand know that I'll be out there looking for signposts, going where they lead, and reporting back the results.
A Streetcar Named Desire:The Original Restored Version BluRay
If you've never seen A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) I envy you. Besides the raw power of the film itself which features director Elia Kazan and actors Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh at the height of their powers, there is the near unreal quality of image and audio here. I would go so far as to say I have rarely ever seen a BluRay of a film this old that looks this gorgeous. This is the restored version that would have been seen in 1951 if the Legion of Decency had not demanded changes and offers up strong adult drama that will undercut anyone who thinks that black and white films are toothless. Necessary viewing at the very list. Virtually all the special features from the 2006 video Special here are re-presented including an audio commentary, feature length doc on Kazan, a number of featurettes totaling more than an hour in length total, Brando's screen test, half an hour of outtakes and finally trailers. The book packaging is excellent offering a variety of stills and a lot of basic information.
Frozen Planet: The Complete Series (David Attenborough-Narrated Version) Bluray
On a short list of what big screen TV's and BluRay players were invented for lies almost everything the BBC has produced in the way of nature docs. This is no exception. Prepare to be amazed and watch this on the biggest TV you can find. You get all the episodes of the show and a series of extras that are absolutely outstanding including mini-docs on the effects of Global Warming, the day to day work of scientific expeditions at the South Pole, featurettes detailing the making of each episode and a whopping 47 video shorts that give everyone involved in this remarkable series the chance to talk about their experience making it. Also included is a nifty 60 minute highlight compilation.
Don Juan Demarco Blu-ray
This is a charming if largely forgotten little movie somewhat in the vein of They Might Be Giants (1971) meets Benny and Joon (1993). Marlon Brando plays a psychiatrist tasked with curing Johnny Depp who plays a delusional young man who is convinced he is the living embodiment of Don Juan. But what the film is really about is nature of love. Faye Dunaway plays Brando's wife who, like most of the women the patient meets, wonders why he needs curing at all. She would love to have a little more romance if only the doctor could learn from his patient. The only extras here are a music video and the isolated stereo score by Michael Kamen. But the sound and the video are marvelous. Fans should definitely upgrade and first time viewers could do worse than purchase.
Shame Blu-ray/ DVD + Digital Copy
What happened around Awards season? This is a deeply nuanced look at the psychology of sexual addiction that should have gotten alot more love than it did. Fassbender was an easy pick for best actor but to not even get a nom? Director Steve McQueen also made some bold choices in his storytelling. What do you expect from a bunch of voters who couldn't also neglected to award Tree of Life anything. Graphic and bordering on the melodramatic at times, Shame (2011) isn't easy to watch but neither are people who struggle on the edges of sanity. Ready to step into dysfunctional shoes? Then, I can't think of a better film from last year. Unwilling to view for fear of being contaminated? Then remember that the title of the film is Shame for a reason. This isn't prurient display intended to inflame anything other than empathy. Shame also has one of the best final shots in 2011 cinema. No real extras which is basically inexcusable. But the film does look and sound dynamite.
Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey DVD
Anyone with any affinity for the Muppets at all needs to see this. Heck if you just like to dream big Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey (2011) will tickle you hard- pun intended. This much heralded doc tells the story of Kevin Clash a young kid who seemed destined for the sort of success that only comes from being nice, hardworking, truly gifted and willing to learn. I'll go so far as to say that this should be required viewing in grade school and the younger the better, as Clash' humility and infectious sense of destiny combine to create the ultimate feel good you-can-do-it-too, experience. A small caveat would be that the film's short runtime (less than 90 minutes) offer scant opportunity to explore the effect being Elmo had on Clash as a husband and father. We hear only too briefly about his constant absence. Extras you get on this DVD include several featurettes exploring everything from Clash mentoring other young people to the Sundance Q and A.
Only saw this a few years ago and it left my jaw on the floor. I remember feeling like I had been told the world's grimmest joke and been left to decide whether to laugh or cry. Director Roman Polanski directs Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, a mountainously evil John Huston and a host of other great character actors in a chilling modern noir that also happens to be laugh out loud funny. Would be gumshoe good-guy J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) gets in way over his head during what should be a routine case becoming a punching bag in the process. This is cinema for the ages not just because of the way Polanski and cast play with cliches but because of the way they craft them into an unforgettable tragic, even horrifying yarn. There's stuff about evil in here but there's also a lot about naive te and that's the stuff I find scariest of all.
Nicholson was well known by this time but Chinatown (1974) is the film that launched him into superstardom. All of the many excellent extras from the 2009 "Centennial Edition" DVD are included here the best of which is a feature length commentary featuring David Fincher lobbing questions at screenwriter Robert Towne. A feature length doc titled Water and Power underscores just how wild the real life history of the ginormous aquaducts and pipe systems that give water to the desert city is. The few remaining featurettes examine the historical importance of Chinatown from the point of view of various industry professionals.
The pic and audio quality here is a definite upgrade. But if you're a film grain fiend I can see how Chinatown would have been better left alone, film grain fully intact. It's a minor nit pick considering the generally excellent release and I'd highly encourage a purchase, especially for first time viewers of the film.
Mission: Impossible--Ghost Protocol Blu-ray/DVD Combo +Digital Copy
This was even better the second time around. Spectacular goofy, action-driven fun from start to finish makes this, in my mind, the best of the Mission Impossible films (and I'm a real fan of the first one). The Dubai sequence alone is breathtaking but by the time you add in the sense of humor and absolutely spot on fight choreography the only question is how much of an action snob you are. Me? I like it mainstream, indie, you name it. This is also the least annoying of the MI flicks treating Ethan Hunt and company as what they are, genre cliches. But though winks abound this isn't quite satire as the sense of danger to Hunt and his team is palpable throughout. This is also Simon Pegg's best cinematic turn since Paul (2011). Tech heads will find the audio and pic breathtaking. The extras are good. The many lengthy featurettes can be watched picture in picture and Brad Bird provides optional commentary on about 15 minutes of deleted scenes. I still would have preferred a straight commentary.
If I had to pick one thing to love most about this movie it's the grin inducing wonderment I feel at the thought of Brad Bird nailing this project so hard. The days when anybody ever wondered if the man would be recognized for his talent are long over and here he takes a really fun franchise and breathes huge life into it. MI III wasn't bad at all but this film may well be an American action classic.
The Wicker Tree BluRay
I watched it twice. The first time with somewhat lowered expectations but a real desire to connect with it on it's own terms. The second time was in hope that I may have missed some of the comedic edge. Final verdict? This was quite simply one of the worst films I've seen this year. The Wicker Man (1973) is a genre classic pitting competing worldviews against one another in a slow-but-sure build to a horrifying finish. Remade in 2006 and starring Nicolas Cage the film was badly re-envisioned as a feminist piece but still managed to generate some ideological complexity and campy charm. This version has absolutely nothing to recommend it. Performances are amateurish at best from the two leads and the rest of the more experienced cast is lost in the trying to bring the bad writing to life. Worst of all this is a movie that, unlike the original, has nothing new or worthwhile to say about it's subject, religion. Video is okay but not spectacular. Sound fares a lot better. Extras are sparse. For once the lack of an audio-commentary is welcome. Any attempt to explain this would be horribly embarrassing for all concerned. There is twelve minute behind the scenes featurette and about 15 minutes of deleted scenes.
Sleeping Beauty DVD
Easily the strangest film I have seen in a while this bold rethinking of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale is most definitely not for kids but thinking adults who are able to handle the erotically charged content are likely to find themselves challenged on the subjects of desire and the need to move past objectification in human relationships. Emily Browning bares all for the role of Lucy a young college student whose lackadaisical attitude towards sex extends as far as using a coin toss to decide whether to hook up with a stranger. After taking a job as a lingerie waitress she is offered an opportunity to become a Sleeping Beauty which entails being drugged and offered as a passive sexual object for people she will never meet. Inevitably she begins to long for this forbidden knowledge. What she discovers is a deeply unsettling truth about herself and the nature of physical love but that revelation may come too late to salvage what is left of her relationships in the real world.
There are no extras here which seems a sad shame for a film produced by Jane Campion, especially a film as compelling as this. Sleeping Beauty (2011) is gorgeous to look at on top of it all. What should be titillating never is. Instead the casting of Browning in the lead is a compelling idea all on it's own. The child actress turned starlet was last seen in the film Suckerpunch (2011) which offered a bone-headed, ham-fisted and disingenuous take on female empowerment. Here Browning is in the hands of a narrative and a director (Julia Leigh who also write the novel that became the basis for the excellent The Hunter (2011) last year) that have much to say. This is highly recommended.
Camelot BluRay Book
Book packaging nice. Movie, very, very silly. You have to an absolutely hopeless romantic not to giggle an awful lot when watching this ultra foofy version of the sixties musical. The marvelous musical numbers do save this from being just another counter culture relic and they are buttressed by a stunning cast that includes Richard Harris, Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero in the lead and character actors like Lionel Jeffriess and David Hemmings in supporting roles. But Camelot (1967) is a creature of it's time and at three hours viewers had better count on a full immersion flower child free love baptism. It Ain't Hair but it ain't Oklahoma either.
Should you upgrade? I would. As always the book packaging is nifty, and there is a solid new commentary track with film critic Stephen Farber that runs the entire length of the film. I tried comparing the extras package here but couldn't find specs on the old SE. What I did find leads me to believe this is original material for the most part. It's not a ton of stuff. You get a thirty minute vintage promotional TV special, a well done featurette on the end of the mogul system in Hollywood ( of which Camelot played a large part), five separate theatrical trailers and a CD featuring four tracks from the film.
Road Racers BluRay
Is it possible to love a filmmaker and yet not love most of his films? Robert Rodriguez has been living the dream for a while now and in that time he's given us a couple of undisputed classics. Sin City (2005) is, for me, easily his best film. Spy Kids (2001), The Faculty (1998), From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) and El mariachi (1992) are great genre romps. But I could take or leave anything else in his catalogue except for maybe his contribution to Grindhouse, Planet Terror (2007). Why? The guy has, like a lot of filmmakers been content to play with his tools, ending up with movies that are about as enjoyable as they were to make in the first place. Road Racers falls cleanly in the category of worth seeing without really being anything very memorable. This is early nineties tongue in cheek action stuff.