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Saturday Night at the Movies by Dennis Hartley review archive

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Hullabaloo


Saturday, December 15, 2012

 

Saturday Night at the Movies

Blu Xmas: Top 10 Blu-ray reissues of 2012

By Dennis Hartley


























Since procrastinators (you know who you are) still have a little window to send packages in time for Christmas delivery (through the 21st for priority mail, according to the USPS), I thought I’d toss out some gift ideas for you, with ten Blu-rays to consider. Most titles also have a concurrent standard DVD edition available, so if you don’t have a Blu-ray player, don’t despair. As per usual, my list is presented in alphabetical, not preferential order. But first, we need to talk (awkward silence). Well, just a gentle reminder. Any time of the year you click a film title link from this feature and end up making a purchase (any Amazon item), you help your favorite starving bloggers get a little something more than just a lump of coal in their Christmas/Hanukah stockings… (*cough*). Happy holidays!

Chinatown - There are so many Deep Thoughts that I have gleaned over the years via repeated viewings of Roman Polanski’s 1974 “sunshine noir”.  Here are my top five:

  1. Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water.
  2. Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.
  3. You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but, believe me, you don’t.
  4. He owns the police.
  5. She’s my sister AND my daughter.

Of course, I’ve also learned that if you assemble a great director (Polanski), a killer screenplay (by Robert Towne), two lead actors at the top of their game (Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway), an ace cinematographer (John A. Alonzo) and top it off with a perfect music score (by Jerry Goldsmith), you’ll likely produce a film that deserves to be called a “classic”, in every sense of the word. Paramount’s Blu-ray has a beautiful transfer, and ports over the extras and commentary track from their previous SD edition.

The Deer Hunter - “If anything happens…don’t leave me over there. You gotta promise me that, Mike.” 1978 was a pivotal year for American films dealing head on with the country’s deep scars (social, political and emotional) from the nightmare of the war in Vietnam; that one year alone saw the release of The Boys in Company C, Go Tell the Spartans, Coming Home, and Michael Cimino’s shattering drama, which was (perhaps arguably) the most intensely affecting of the four. Cimino’s sprawling 3 hour film is essentially a character study about three blue collar buddies (Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and Jon Savage) from a Pennsylvania steel town who enlist in the military, share a harrowing P.O.W. experience in Vietnam, and suffer through P.T.S.D. (each in their own unique fashion). I still remember the first time I saw this film in a theater. I sat all the way through the end credits, and continued sitting for at least five minutes. I literally had to “collect myself”, and no film has ever affected me like that, before or since. Amazing performances from the aforementioned players, as well as from Meryl Streep, John Cazale, Chuch Aspegren and George Dzundza. The film has been long overdue on Blu-ray, and Universal’s hi-def transfer really showcases the exemplary Oscar-nominated lens work by Vilmos Zsigmond (the film did end up winning in five other categories, including Best Picture and Director). It’s a little skimpy on extras, but still worth owning.

La Grande Illusion-While it may be hard for some to fathom in this oh so cynical age we live in, there was a time when there were these thingies called honor, loyalty, sacrifice, faith in your fellow man, and (what’s that other one?) basic human decency. While ostensibly an anti-war film, Jean Renoir’s 1937 classic is at its heart a timeless treatise about the aforementioned attributes. Erich von Stroheim nearly steals the movie (no small feat, considering all the formidable acting talent on board) as an aristocratic WWI German POW camp commandant. Jean Gabin and Pierre Fresnay are also outstanding as French POWs of disparate class backgrounds. The narrative follows the prisoners’ attempt to escape, and the fateful paths that await each. Lions Gate’s Blu-ray release is part of their StudioCanal collection (their answer to Criterion). This edition sports an excellent transfer and illuminating supplements, particularly one covering the fascinating history of the film’s original negative, which somehow survived a circuitous journey (from WW2 to present-day) from France to Germany to Russia, and then back to France.

Harold and Maude - Harold loves Maude. And Maude loves Harold. It’s a match made in heaven-if only “society” would agree. Because Harold (Bud Cort) is a teenager, and Maude (Ruth Gordon) is about to turn 80. Falling in love with a woman old enough to be his great-grandmother is the least of Harold’s quirks. He’s a chronically depressed trustafarian who amuses himself by staging fake suicides to freak out his patrician mother (the wonderful Vivian Pickles). He also “enjoys” attending funerals-which is where they Meet Cute. The effervescent Maude is Harold’s diametric opposite; while he wallows in morbid speculation how any day could be your last, she seizes each day as if it actually were. Obviously, she has something to teach him. Despite dark undertones, this is one “midnight movie” that actually manages to be life-affirming. The late Hal Ashby directed, and Colin Higgins wrote the screenplay. The memorable soundtrack is by Cat Stevens (a disc extra features a recent interview with the reclusive musician, who for the first time talks about how all the songs came together). Criterion’s transfer is outstanding.

The Qatsi Trilogy(box set)-In 1982, an innovative, genre-defying film called Koyaanisqatsi quietly made its way around the art house circuit. Directed by progressive political activist/lapsed Christian monk Godfrey Reggio, with beautiful cinematography by Ron Fricke (who would himself later direct Chronos, Baraka, and Samsara) and music by Philip Glass (who also scored Reggio’s two sequels), the film was considered a transcendent experience by some; New Age hokum by others (count me as a fan). The title, taken from the ancient Hopi language, translates as “life of balance”. The narrative-free imagery, running the gamut from natural vistas to scenes of First World urban decay, is open for interpretation (depends on who you ask). Reggio followed up in 1988 with the equally compelling Powaqqatsi (Hopi for “parasitic way of life”), which focused on the Southern Hemisphere and the First World’s drain on Third World resources, then bookened his trilogy with the 2002 release of Naqoyqatsi (Hopi for “life as war”). The third film (arguably the weakest) takes a kind of Warholian approach, eschewing the organic imagery of its predecessors for a more obtuse collage of digitally manipulated archival footage, making some kind of point about how we are becoming the Borg (I think). Criterion has done its usual exemplary job with picture and sound restoration for all three films. The remixed audio pays off particularly well for Koyannisqatsi; I detected ambient sounds (wind, water, urban white noise, etc.) that I’ve never noticed before, as well as enhanced vibrancy for Glass’ score. Criterion has ported over the extras from the MGM and Miramax SD editions, and added some new 2012 interviews with the director.

Quadrophenia -The Who’s eponymous 1973 double-LP rock opera, Pete Towshend’s musical love letter to the band’s first g-g-generation of most rabid British fans (aka the “Mods”) provided the inspiration for this memorable 1979 film from director Franc Roddam. With the 1964 “youth riots” that took place at the seaside resort town of Brighton as his catalyst, Roddam fires up a raw, visceral character study in the tradition of the British “kitchen sink” dramas that flourished in the early 1960s. Phil Daniels gives an explosive, James Dean-worthy performance as teenaged “Mod” Jimmy. Bedecked in their trademark designer suits and Parka jackets, Jimmy and his Who (and ska)-loving compatriots cruise around London on their Vespa and Lambretta scooters, looking for pills to pop, parties to crash and “Rockers” to rumble with. The Rockers are identifiable by their greased-back hair, leathers, motorbikes, and their musical preference for likes of Elvis and Gene Vincent. Look for a very young (and much less beefier) Ray Winstone (as a Rocker) and Sting (as a Mod bell-boy, no less). Wonderfully acted by a spirited cast, it’s a heady mix of youthful angst and raging hormones, supercharged by the power chord-infused grandeur of the Who’s music. I’m so happy that Criterion was able to get their hands on this one; previous editions suffered from beat-up prints and poorly equalized audio. With a meticulously restored hi-def transfer and a new 5.1 sound mix, the film looks and sounds fabulous. The director commentary track is quite enlightening.

Suddenly -One of the earliest entries in the “conspiracy-a-go-go” genre (about which I expounded in much greater detail here), this relatively obscure 1954 low-budget noir stars Frank Sinatra as a sociopathic hit man who is hired to assassinate the POTUS during a scheduled whistle-stop in a sleepy California burg. Lewis Allen’s film is eerily prescient of JFK’s assassination; Sinatra’s character is an ex-military sharpshooter, zeroes down on his target from a high window, and utilizes a rifle of European-make (these uncomfortable parallels were certainly not lost on Sinatra, who, according to one of the commentary tracks on the new Blu-ray, fired off an angry missive to the head of programming for a TV network that planned to air the film a little more than a week after JFK’s murder). There have been countless public domain SD editions issued over the past decade, all of dubious quality, so Image Entertainment’s Blu-ray, with its transfer taken from an original 35mm studio fine grain master print, is most welcome. There are two commentary tracks, by Frank Sinatra, Jr. (including childhood recollections of being on set) and by Dr. Drew Casper (a professor of film studies at USC, not the shrink on CNN).

The 39 Steps - Along with The Lady Vanishes, this 1935 gem represents the best of Alfred Hitchcock’s pre-Hollywood period. In fact, many of the tropes that would come to be known as “Hitchcockian” are already fomenting in this early entry: an icy blonde love interest, a meticulously constructed, edge-of-your-seat finale, and most notably, the “wrong man” scenario. In this suspenseful, breezy, and wryly amusing spy thriller, .Robert Donat stars as a Canadian tourist in London who is approached by a jittery woman after a music hall show. She begs refuge in his flat for the night, but won’t tell him why. Intrigued, he offers her his hospitality, but imagine his surprise when he awakens the next morning, just in time to watch her collapse on the floor, with a knife in her back and a mysterious map clutched in her hand. Before he knows it, he’s on the run from the police and embroiled with shady assassins, foreign spies and people who are not who they seem to be. Fate and circumstance throw him in with a reluctant female “accomplice” (Madeleine Carroll). Criterion’s new Blu-ray transfer is as good as a 77 year-old film is going to look. The biggest improvement is in the audio quality, which has been problematic in previous DVD versions. A highlight amongst the extras is a 1966 TV interview, wherein Hitchcock shares some candid backstage tales about his early career.

Tokyo Drifter - The key to understanding what makes this existential hit man thriller from Japan’s Nikkatsu studios so uniquely entertaining…is to not try to understand it. Don’t get hung up on silly conventions like “narrative coherence”; just turn off your mind, relax and float downstream. If that sounds like the reassuring counsel someone might give to a friend who is taking their first acid trip…you’re right. Because when this film was made (1966), an awful lot of people were taking their first acid trip, including director Seijun Suzuki (at least that’s my theory). The “drifter” of the title is a yakuza with a strong personal code (and really cool Ray-Bans) who is trying to go legit…but of course, “they pull him back in”. But as he does not wish to dishonor his boss/mentor, who is also trying to get out of the game, he splits the big city to wander Japan and let the chips fall where they may, as members of various rival gangs dog his every step. Highly stylized and visually exhilarating, this is a real treat for lovers of pure cinema. Suzuki’s wild mash-up of genres, which quotes everything from French New Wave to James Bond and westerns to film noir, was pretty bold stuff for its time, and it’s obvious that postmodernists like Tarantino have watched it once or twice. Criterion’s Blu-ray transfer dazzles the senses.

Wizards-Within the realm of animated feature film, Ralph Bakshi’s name may not be as instantly recognizable (or universally revered) as Walt Disney or Studio Ghibli, but I would consider him no less of an important figure in the development of the genre. During his heyday (1972-1983) the director pumped out 8 full-length features (including Fritz the Cat, The Lord of the Rings and American Pop) using his patented blend of live-action, rotoscoping, and traditional cel animation. While I will grant that it is not for all tastes, I’ve always had a particular soft spot for his 1977 film, Wizards. Steamrolled during its original theatrical run due to a combination of limp promotion by 20th Century Fox and an unfortunate proximity to the release of that very same studio’s own Star Wars (much to Bakshi’s chagrin, as he bitterly recounts on the commentary track) the film has picked up a cult following, thanks to home video. It’s an elemental tale of two warring brothers, one good and one evil, who are both endowed with the magical powers of natural-born wizards. A familiar trope, to be sure, but Bakshi renders the story with originality, verve, and a fair amount of dark (and adult) humor (oh…and there’s a really hot elf princess!). Fox’s Blu-ray skimps on extras, but has outstanding picture and sound.
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