Wednesday, 31 January 2001
Mailbag: It's the last Wednesday of the month, which can only mean one thing time for the mail dump, letters sent from DVD fans around the world to our high-tech HQ, and presented with minimal comments from your editor:
We agree, but those X-Files boxes have four hour-long episodes per disc, which is way better than the three episodes (30 minutes each) on the South Park series.
We agree again give us stuff like the comprehensive X-Files boxes, or give us squat.
Indeed, Warner's early Amadeus would be a more acceptable flipper had it included the original theatrical intermission and flipped at that point. At least they got Gone With the Wind right.
We also received a few notes after a recent discussion on public-domain Hitchcock films on DVD:
Seckin (from Turkey)
Thanks for the notes guys we were hoping for some comments about the Rykodisc/Whirlwind series of DVDs, which we hadn't seen until just last week, when we obtained the current series of ten Hitchcock films. We've only had a few days to sample them, but in terms of quality they are superior to the Madacy versions. We found the source-prints on the Whirlwind discs to be comparable (in some instances slightly inferior) to the Delta/LaserLight discs, but the audio in other places is the cleanest and most resonant we've heard yet on these titles, particularly in Young and Innocent (the best British-period Hitchcock film not yet released on DVD by Criterion). Also, the Whirlwind discs are all double features (the folios say "The Europa Film Series"), so they should have additional appeal for folks who want to save space, or those who will enjoy the genre supplements (newsreels and cartoons from the era) and eight-page fold-out booklets. Anybody planning to build a collection of vintage Hitchcock should look into the Whirlwind series as with the LaserLight releases, only digital restorations from Criterion or another non-budget vendor will be a substantial improvement over what's found here.
Top of the Pops: Here's the top-selling DVDs last week from our friends at Reel.com. Click the links to read our reviews of these discs:
Tuesday, 30 January 2001
On the Street: It's a big street Tuesday today with numerous offerings from several studios, not least of which being three jazz titles from Warner Clint Eastwood's Charlie Parker biopic Bird, along with Round Midnight and Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser. Anchor Bay has a choice limited edition with their Manhunter: Director's Cut as well as an unlimited theatrical version, and there are bare-bones and SE versions of last year's animated Dinosaur out today from Buena Vista as well. Columbia has a two-disc version of Edward Zwick's Glory on the shelves, while Spike Lee joints can be found from Universal (Mo Betta Blues) and Columbia (Get on the Bus, School Daze). Criterion has a trio of new arrivals with Black Narcissus, Double Suicide, and Fiend Without a Face, which we'll be spinning this week. Still not sick of football? Necessary Roughness, The Longest Yard, and North Dallas Forty are on the street from Paramount. Want some cheesy horror? Try DreamWorks' What Lies Beneath. But if you're in the mood for a good mascara-streaked cry, Universal's documentary The Eyes of Tammy Faye charmed us. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of Reel.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 29 January 2001
And then there were three: Savvy DVD fans have been trying to figure out if anything else is on the chopping block from Criterion in coming weeks, and more than a few have noted that both The Silence of the Lambs and Robocop are Orion films, and both due to be discontinued in the Criterion editions. And yes, there's one more Orion title Criterion's release of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Inevitably, folks have been writing us over the past several days, asking it it's currently out of print.
Well, yes and no. It's still available at most online retailers (at last check, only Buy.com has delisted the title). But our sources tell us that Unbearable Lightness is a Criterion title released under the same license as SOTL and Robocop, and thus due to transfer to MGM at the end of March. Also, our info is that these are the only three films under the agreement more Criterion titles could go out of print later this year, but this trio is a package deal with a March 30 deadline.
Then again, Unbearable Lightness arguably has the least popular appeal of the three Orion/Criterion DVDs, and it's readily available for sale everywhere. We'll call it toast in April, or when bids for sealed copies start to climb on eBay. Unlike Robocop and SOTL, the market hasn't tightened up on this one yet.
Disc of the Week: As John Lennon once said, "Genius is pain." But then again, what did he know? He was just some long-haired rock-n-roller. Now Charlie Parker there's genius. And pain. And jazz. And when he wasn't fucked up, that man could blow an alto sax like nobody else alive. Charlie "Yardbird" Parker, born in Kansas City in 1920, started to make his mark on the American jazz scene in the 1940s, when it was at its absolute peak. The legends, such as Basie and Ellington, were going strong, joined by a new generation of musicians such as Thelonius Monk and Miles Davis, who were pushing the edges of the genre with increasingly complex compositions and unheard-of gifts for improvisation. After joining several bands in Kansas City and elsewhere, Parker eventually relocated to New York City, where he joined a small group led by pianist Jay McShann (with whom he first performed his legendary "Cherokee"), later hooking up with Dizzy Gillespie their subsequent studio sessions with lead sax and trumpet formed the foundation of "bebop," catching the attention of the jazz world.
However, Clint Eastwood's 1988 Bird a pet-project Charlie Parker biopic on an epic scale, starring Forest Whitaker does not exist merely to instruct the audience on Parker's contributions to 20th century music. Rather, it's a story about a gifted musician who, like so many artists, is burdened by addiction in Parker's case, prescription drugs and heroin. Operating in several flashback sequences, and opening with a suicide attempt late in Parker's life, Bird chronicles the offstage struggles that made his personal life a mess, and his professional work increasingly harder to maintain. Many flashbacks are introduced by Parker's wife Chan (Diane Venora), where we witness his mercurial live performances as he rises in the jazz world, but also the eventual breakdown of his marriage, the death of his young daughter, and the loss of his Cabaret Card in New York, which prevented him from getting gigs.
When it comes to epic biographies on film, the most important element will always be the leading actor, who has the unenviable task of re-creating a historical figure, and often one who isn't always sympathetic. In this regard, Whitaker's performance elevates Bird beyond its sometimes-despondent subject matter, primarily because his Parker is a wholly formed figure and not just a horn-blowing washout in a junkie melodrama. As conveyed in Bird, Parker had a great love for life, a man always ready for a laugh with friends, and with unbounded enthusiasm for his craft so much so that he hates his addictions and always wants to get the better of them, getting clean for a while, but inevitably going back to the smack. A key scene late in the film between Parker and Gillespie (Samuel E. Wright) sums up the difference between the two jazz icons: "How come when I'm supposed to hit at 9:30, I hit at 9:30?," Gillespie asks. "How come I can land on a cat I love and then fire his ass for showing up late or stoned? Because they don't expect me to. Because, deep down, they like it if the nigger turns out unreliable.... I won't give them the satisfaction of being right." It's the "answer" Parker has been looking for from his mentor, but the saxophonist can't be a reformer like Gillespie not when the needle is a cheap, reliable way to treat his physical and mental agonies.
Warner's new DVD edition of Bird offers a strong anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with a newly remastered soundtrack in Dolby Digital 5.1, and the chief supplement is outstanding an isolated score, which includes many original Parker solos, lifted from early recordings in 1988 and re-recorded for the film with new backing tracks. Bird is a movie that offers almost non-stop music, be it the performances or many subtle underlying tunes, which the isolated track (in Dolby 2.0) gives full clarity. After watching the film, running the disc again with just the isolated score is as entertaining and edifying as any commentary track out there. Bird is on the street tomorrow morning.
Box Office: With the Superbowl keeping a lot of beer-chugging American men parked in front of their TVs yesterday, the weekend box-office was a battle of the chick-flicks, and Sony's The Wedding Planner, starring Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Lopez, debuted in the top position with a $14 million bow, and despite some poor reviews it knocked Paramount's Save the Last Dance from the top spot, which it held for the previous two weeks. Also new was New Line's cheerleading crime-caper Sugar and Spice, which managed $6 million, but also was not screened for critics a sign that it tested poorly with preview audiences. Still in continuing release, Fox's Cast Away has only slipped to third place after six weeks and has $194 million to its credit, while Paramount's What Women Want is fading, but has racked up $168 million so far. And say goodbye to Disney's The Emperor's New Groove. Finishing around $80 million would be good for most films, but as far as animated features from the Mouse House goes, it was an underperformer particularly as a holiday-season release.
Love is in the air this weekend, as the touching romance er, make that slasher/horror flick Valentine goes wide. Here's the top-grossing films at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: Our man Mark Bourne must be positively schizoid by now, as he sat through the excellent 1922 Nosferatu and the mind-numbingly bad Battlefield Earth in the same week his lengthy observations have been posted, along with Dawn Taylor's look at the documentary The Eyes of Tammy Faye and Betsy Bozdech's sneak-peek at Universal's forthcoming Bring It On: Collector's Edition. Additional staff reviews this week include Death Wish, North Dallas Forty, Black Caesar, Bird, Coffy, and Cotton Mary it's all under the New Reviews menu here on the front page, or find lots more on our Full Reviews and Quick Reviews pages.
Back tomorrow with the street discs.
Thursday, 25 January 2001
Coming Attractions: We have another round of DVD reviews already underway, including The Eyes of Tammy Faye and (you betcha) Battlefield Earth. But before we take off, we want to note that Paramount's Wonder Boys has returned to the Release Calendar, where it's now due on March 13. Also, if you haven't entered our totally free DVD contest for a copy of The Birds: Collector's Edition, be sure to visit our contest page if you get the chance, and don't forget to take our monthly DVD poll while you're there.
We'll be back on Monday morning see ya then.
Commentary Clip: "There's Walter Matthau, who you see now as a 'grumpy old man.' One of the great comic actors, but what very few people know about him is that he was just a brilliant actor he was a marvelous actor in drama as well, and we had worked together a lot in television, in the theater, and I was thrilled to be able to provide him with a part where the dramatic side of him could emerge. Walter is playing a character called Groeteschele, who is based really on (American policy theorist) Herman Kahn. This was a very peculiar time in America. There were tremendous conflicts going on, and had been going on not only after the atom bomb, but after the creation of the hydrogen bomb, and as well as scientists being on different sides, there were also a great many lay-people, political scientists, who argued about the consequences of a nuclear war. There were those who believed that nothing would survive (a war) I was one of those and there were people like Herman Kahn who wrote long and complicated articles about the fact an atomic war was winnable. Not much would survive, but what should survive should be 'us.' It got almost absurd, in the sense that even Kahn entitled one of the chapters of his book '60 Million Dead: Will the Living Envy the Dead?' I mean, on that kind of sophistry the arguments would go on, and they were theoretically very respectable opinions.... A great many of us who got involved with the picture got involved because we did care about the way things were going politically."
Director Sidney Lumet,
Quotable: "Why is it that people define me as a right-wing misogynist? It's baffling. I'm not like that at all. I guess it's because I'm Catholic, have ideas on birth control, and used to joke about keeping women barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen, so it seems that I'm some sort of brute, but, hey, I haven't stayed married for 20 years by being a caveman.... The feminist thing is a manufactured idea that was put out to make a lot of women dissatisfied with stuff. Of course, they should be paid equal pay for equal work, but there's a difference between the sexes, no matter what you say."
Mel Gibson, in an interview with the
Wednesday, 24 January 2001
Mailbag: Wednesday is the day we get to our reader mail here at The DVD Journal, and while we aren't able to personally respond to all of your letters, we'd like to let you know that we read everything we get. Here's a couple reader comments from this week:
Along with this accolade comes a request/suggestion to continue keeping your eagle-eyes open for us on this front, if possible. As noted above, nobody else seems to be in the guard tower watching for DVDs that might escape, particularly unassailably cool ones like SOTL and Robocop (or Sid and Nancy, which I managed to grab the day I read about its heading out of print and guess where I read about that).
Also, possibly somewhere in this here rambling, a question: Is Criterion unusually vulnerable to such "here today, gone in two years or less" problems, given that their rights to films seem to expire as quickly as milk in my fridge? Some other specialty houses seem iffy in this regard also, like Elite (are they even still around?), whose Re-Animator and Night of the Living Dead are harder to find than a pensive moment in a Michael Bay film (the former of which is promised this year or next from Anchor Bay, though who knows if it'll have the same set of goodies). Should our motto be "If it's Criterion and you want it, you better get it while it's to be had"?
The point of this all being, y'all have saved my bacon three times now, rescuing me from that horrid empty "dammit, I was going to buy that DVD eventually!!" feeling, and if I'd been reading you a while ago, I wouldn't have had to pay $40 for the OOP Re-Animator from a Canadian e-tailer (only to discover Anchor Bay plans a re-issue... grumble mumble). Thanks for the good work, and keep it up. I'll keep looking to The DVD Journal for the scoop on which fruits of DVD may fall off the tree next.
Thanks for your comments Rob we're glad to hear we've been of service. As for your concern about Criterion DVDs and if they stand to go out-of-print eventually, it all depends on who has the rights. As you're aware, most Criterion releases are not owned by the company, but instead are licensed for DVD release, and the key to finding out what comes from where is to look in the fine print. On the back of Sid and Nancy is a New Line Home Video logo, while The Silence of the Lambs and Robocop have Orion logos. It isn't easy to see on the semi-transparent slipcase, but Brazil bears the stamp of Universal. And Buena Vista has offered Criterion several licenses, including for Armageddon, Rushmore, and Chasing Amy. Since Criterion doesn't own these, they have to share the revenue for the DVDs with the licensing studio, while proprietary rights are split the studio owns the feature, Criterion owns any supplements they created for the title. And sometimes who owns what supplements isn't always clear. Criterion normally produces their own commentaries, but many of the extras on their Se7en Laserdisc wound up on New Line's DVD, as the studio provided them. Along the same lines, the cover-art and most of the supplements on Criterion's Boogie Nights laser re-appeared on the New Line DVD (second edition), as Paul Thomas Anderson owned them personally including the commentary track for that one.
But fundamentally, if you see a logo from a Hollywood studio on a Criterion disc, that studio could choose not to renew the license at some point in the future. Or when a studio acquires the rights to a film as MGM did with This Is Spinal Tap, SOTL, and Robocop they can choose to part ways and release their own DVD. It appears to us that the safest licenses are from overseas proprietors, so look for Toho, Rialto, Pathe, and other foreign distributors if you want to know what should have the longest lifespan. We also think most of the Buena Vista stuff is safe-ish, as they've released corresponding bare-bones discs and don't seem so interested in special editions. Ditto Brazil Universal originally licensed the title to Criterion for the five-platter Laserdisc, and we'd be surprised if they pulled a DVD set that has become legendary in a short space of time. Finally, while a Janus Films logo appears on every Criterion DVD, titles that actually are from the Janus collection aren't going anywhere, as Janus has a financial stake in Criterion (or Criterion has a stake in Janus, or whatever).
But we can't tell you how long each license lasts, or what licenses won't be renewed. Such details are only known by Criterion and their partners, and they are constantly negotiating not only to get more quality titles under their folio, but also to keep everything they can in print. All we can say is that the Red Phone to Criterion HQ is on your editor's desk, where most conversations are strictly off the record. But when we're told we can go public with new information, you'll be the first to know.
I wanted to inquire about comments you've made recently with regard to Hitchcock DVDs. You said you've been generally pleased with the quality of editions put out by Delta/LaserLight, and the comment makes me wonder if I'm missing something. I have not seen any of LaserLight's Hitchcock discs, mostly because I got their edition of Orson Welles' The Stranger, which left a bad taste in my mouth and soured me on the label. The Stranger has a horribly soft image quality, almost to the point of being unwatchable. Worse, the "Delta" logo appears in the bottom-right corner every ten minutes! The disc includes an introduction by Tony Curtis, which one might expect to be a nice addition, but even the intro disappoints, with Curtis dressed like a disheveled chauffeur, looking confused and saying nothing of consequence.
I only paid $8 for the disc, and it does include a documentary on Welles. But the quality of the movie is so bad, not only have I vowed never to buy from LaserLight again, but I haven't even had the heart to watch the documentary!
Is The Stranger an exception to LaserLight's usual quality, or will I be equally disappointed by their Hitchcock editions? I'd love to add more early Hitch to my collection, but I don't want to pay $8 a pop to sit through a distractingly bad transfer with "Delta" intruding on my screen at regular intervals.
We haven't seen LaserLight's The Stranger Scott, and frankly we're surprised to hear it's so disappointing, as we're big fans of LaserLight's Hitchcock releases. They don't have a "Delta" logo anywhere in the transfers, and we think the overall quality is a hell of a deal for the price (as low as five bucks apiece online). However, it's hard to gauge exactly what will suit your tastes the transfers do have a soft quality, but we think a lot of this has to do with the source prints. Nor are these prints restored, whereas Criterion's editions of The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes are. But those discs retail for around $40 spare change for some folks, sure, but LaserLight's 39 Steps and Lady Vanishes are acceptable substitutes for the budget-minded DVD consumer.
And before anybody buys any of the early public-domain Hitchcock films from LaserLight and then sends us letters telling us we're full of crap, a brief caveat these DVDs are not for the causal DVD fan (or Entertainment Weekly subscriber) who is looking for an enveloping cinematic experience. They are for Hitchcock buffs, and we shower praise upon them because, before DVD, we spent years watching piss-poor budget videotapes of Hitch's British films. The source prints were half-wrecked on various transfers, and the audio was so overwhelmed by ambient noise that a lot of dialogue was unintelligible. Criterion's DVD editions of The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes set the standard for early Hitch films, but seeing a Hitchcockian gem like 1937's Young and Innocent on the LaserLight release is a revelation. The source-print isn't a distraction at all, and one can actually hear the dialogue. But for those who expect miracles from the DVD format, don't look here. These prints are still damaged to a degree, and the ambient noise simply has been contained, not eliminated. Nothing from LaserLight should be filed under "demo disc."
As for other vendors of public-domain Hitchcock films, Madacy has released most of them, and while marginally acceptable, they are inferior to LaserLight's editions. Throw in Madacy's disc of the 1936 Secret Agent and we're getting closer to those videotapes of days gone by muffled, scratchy audio (with a piercing high end), a bit of video noise, and a print with minimal low-contrast details. As they cost roughly the same as the LaserLight discs we don't recommend them, although they still are a step up from VHS. Rykodisc has also gotten into public-domain Hitch films recently, but we haven't seen any of these. They might be good, but clearly LaserLight has done an outstanding job with their source materials, and we'd be surprised if anybody but Criterion could improve upon them.
But we won't claim to be authoritative on this topic it's just our take, and many more Hitchcock collectors than us have bought loads of early Hitch films on the cheap. So we open the floor to our readers: Tell us what you think of LaserLight, Madacy, Rykodisc, et. al. when it comes to Hitchcock at email@example.com and we'll post a few reader comments here.
Top of the Pops: Here's the top-selling DVDs last week from our friends at Reel.com. Click the links to read our reviews of these discs:
Tuesday, 23 January 2001
On the Street: MGM is back on the board with several new releases, including the excellent Babette's Feast, David Mamet's American Buffalo, the '80s cult favorite The River's Edge, and many more. In the meantime, Fox has double-dipped three more discs, with a re-vamped X-Files: Fight the Future that has a new commentary track by Chris Carter, while The Last of the Mohicans (a director's cut) and The Thin Red Line offer anamorphic transfers all three have DTS audio on board as well. And for fans of Spike Lee, his documentary 4 Little Girls claimed by the director to be his own favorite film is out now from HBO. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of Reel.com and Image Entertainment:
Back tomorrow with the mailbag.
Monday, 22 January 2001
'Globes' give nods: The Golden Globes, determined by balloting of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, were handed out last night. A lot of people like to say that they are a forecast of March's Academy Award winners, even though it's all speculation and never a sure bet. In any case, here's the rundown from last night's ceremonies:
Shut out from the ceremonies? Requiem for a Dream, You Can Count on Me, Dancer in the Dark, and The Contender, amongst others. The Oscar nods will be revealed next month.
(As for Elizabeth Taylor last night, is it just us, or do you think she'd had a few?)
Disc of the Week: For such an unconventional, experimental director, it's not surprising that Luis Buñuel was something of a vagabond. Generally regarded as one of the founding members of the early-20th-century Surrealist school of art, Buñuel co-created perhaps the most famous short film of all time, the incongruous, brutal 1928 Un chien andalou (An Andalusian Dog) with Salvador Dali (Buñuel described it simply as "a despairing, passionate call to murder"), but when the equally disturbing L'age d'or (The Golden Age) was banned by the French government after its 1930 release, and then his documentary Las Hurdes was banned by the Spanish Republican government, Buñuel would not make another film for 15 years, hanging on the edges of the European film industry until he emigrated to America in 1938 (the Germans at that time, like the French and Spanish, weren't too big on freedom of expression; they weren't too big on France or Spain either.) It was in Mexico and America that Buñuel continued his long, storied film career, starting with 1947's Los olvidados (The Forgotten Ones), later returning to Europe to create a rush of important works in the '60s and '70s, including El angel exterminador (The Exterminating Angel), Belle du jour, Cet obscur objet du désir (That Obscure Object of Desire), and one of his unqualified masterpieces, 1972's Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie (The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie).
Essentially a series of dream-sequences enclosed within a larger dream of Rafael Acosta (Fernando Rey), an ambassador from the Latin American country of Miranda stationed in France, Le charme discret concerns six members of the upper class, including Acosta, who repeatedly attempt to dine together, only to have their meals repeatedly interrupted by unforeseen circumstances. At times it's for innocuous reasons, such as when guests arrive for a dinner party on the wrong night. Others are more unusual the proprietor of a restaurant has suddenly died; because of a lunch-rush, another restaurant has run out of everything but water; a military regiment on maneuvers drops by a household and there's not enough food to go around. Throughout, Buñuel weaves his dream-sequences, with every dinner ending in a seemingly more bizarre fashion until the final meal another abortive attempt to dine, and one that has a distinct note of finality to it.
In-jokes are something Buñuel always delighted in to a degree, and Le charme discret has a few (Rey, as the Mirandan ambassador, is smuggling cocaine, a clear nod to his role as a heroin druglord in The French Connection a year earlier; Buñuel credits himself on the film for "sound effects," despite the fact that he was nearly deaf at the time). But Le charme discret has a clear target as well, the privileged classes that Buñuel held in disdain, and the function of eating is not a capricious centerpiece after all, wealthier people with more leisure time and acquired tastes are more inclined to indulge in lavish social dinners, where the main function of the Bourgeois (socializing, impressing others) is radically different from the activities of the working classes (productive labor). The desire to dine with others, as opposed to simply eating for sustenance, is Buñuel's pivoting metaphor for the Bourgeois classes, and with the various dream-sequences, social meals are always interrupted, being as fruitless and pointless as their own unexamined lives (a secondary metaphor, where all six charcters walk briskly down a country road but headed nowhere in particular, is frequently repeated). However, the actual events that disrupt the meals, while somewhat political (and Marxist) in tone, have a decidedly surreal, almost Dadaist bent. Among the most comic is the scene where one couple (Jean Pierre-Cassell, Stéphane Audran), with dinner guests waiting downstairs, decides to escape outside to have sex in the bushes. But more low-key events have more gravitas, as one meal turns out to be on a theater stage (with stage-prop food), or when a political dispute between Acosta and a military officer turns violent. Throughout, Buñuel tells the story will little flash and great subtlety. Hollywood has conditioned a lot of American viewers to expect a certain flourish with plot twists, be it brisk editing or a crescendo in the score, but Buñuel is less a showman and more an illusionist in Le charm discret. Like a close-up card magician, he smoothly moves from one bit of trickery to the next, letting his material do all of the talking.
Criterion's new two-disc DVD release of The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie is a stellar package that will not disappoint any Buñuel fan, with a clean transfer from a recently restored print that has rich color and little in the way of damage it's remarkable, considering that this is a European film that's 30 years old. Audio is in the original mono (French, DD 1.0), with recently revised digital subtitles in English. The first disc also includes the original theatrical trailer (in French with subtitles) and "El naufrago de la calle de Providencia" ("The Castaway on the Street of Providence"), a 24-minute documentary from 1970 by longtime Buñuel friends Arturo Ripstein and Rafel Castanedo. But the chief feature that will delight Buñuel fans is on Disc Two, with A proposito de Buñuel (Speaking of Buñuel), a 98-minute documentary created for French television in 2000 that covers the entire course of the director's career. The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie: The Criterion Collection is on the street now.
Box Office: With little in a way of new films arriving in North American theaters over the weekend, Guy Ritchie's Snatch had the opportunity to make a strong opening, but it only managed fourth place in its first wide weekend with $7.6 million even though critics seem as much in love with the new film as they were with Ritchie's Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. However, things did not go as well for Warner's The Pledge, as even Jack Nicholson couldn't boost the Sean Penn-directed film past 10th place with a disappointing $5.75 million debut (however, it was Penn's best directorial opening). The top three positions remained unchanged from the previous week, with Paramount's Save the Last Dance garnering $16 million and a solid $46.8 million to date, while Fox's Cast Away earned $11.3 million and is poised to break the double-century. And Steven Soderbergh's Traffic continues its steady pace with another $8.2 million, lending to a $46.6 million cume. Also in continuing release, Paramount's What Women Want is at $162.4 million, Disney's The Emperor's New Groove will finish shy of $80 million, and Sony's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is adding more theaters, boosting its totals every week it now stands at $37.6 million. Off the charts and on the way to DVD prep is Universal's The Family Man with a respectable $70 million to its credit. But the same can't be said for this week's Stinko Award winner, as MGM's Antitrust didn't crack the top ten when it debuted 10 days ago and has since vanished without a trace.
Save the Last Dance will have fresh competition this Friday as The Wedding Planner with Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Lopez goes wide, while fans of Willem Dafoe and John Malkovich can look forward to the F.W. Murnau biopic Shadow of the Vampire. Here's the top-grossing films at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: Our in-depth survey of the 11-disc Oliver Stone Collection from Warner (and other collaborating studios) has been posted by D.K. Holm, and while a hit-and-miss affair, the new box does have its delights; D.K. also has added fresh looks at JFK: Director's Cut, Natural Born Killers, Nixon, Heaven and Earth, and the one-hour documentary Oliver Stone's America. Also new this week are reviews of Babette's Feast from Dawn Taylor and What Lies Beneath by Greg Dorr, and additional staff write-ups include Bait: Special Edition, Me, Myself & Irene, A Walk in the Clouds, Mystic Pizza, Autumn in New York, Steal This Movie, The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and Foxy Brown. It's all under our New Reviews menu here on the front page, while many, many more reviews can be found on our Full Reviews and Quick Reviews pages.
We'll be back tomorrow with the rundown on this week's street discs.
Thursday, 18 January 2001
Criterion's 'Robocop' on shaky ground: Just one week after a buying rush on Criterion's The Silence of the Lambs which is currently headed out of print and on its to way to MGM for a revamped special-edition DVD release Amazon.com yesterday briefly placed their standard out-of-print notice on Criterion's Robocop, another title that has been the subject of rumors over the past few months, while at last check Image's bare-bones Robocop is unavailable on the site. And in just the past few days Buy.com, another major Internet e-tailer, delisted the Criterion Robocop from their database, even sending out a notice to some recent buyers (and DVD Journal readers) informing them that their purchase cannot be fulfilled. Is a conspiracy afoot?
Not really we got on the Red Phone yesterday to Criterion HQ in Chicago. A senior spokesperson confirmed to us last week that The Silence of the Lambs was a goner, and thanks to some quick legwork we've now been told that Criterion's licenses for SOTL and Robocop expire on March 30, 2001, when the home-video rights for both films transfer to MGM. But that does not necessarily mean that DVD fans who want to add the titles to their collections can wait until the end of March to get 'em copies of SOTL are already scarce because, with the expiration looming in just a matter of weeks, available discs are running short. The same goes for Robocop, where online availability will be spotty at best until it's completely out of stock everywhere. Late last night we did a quick check of a few other e-tailers (including Express.com, DVDEmpire.com, and DigitalEyes.net) that still claim to have copies on hand not a guarantee that your order will result in a shipped DVD, but orders are still being accepted. And Amazon did reverse course (perhaps securing more copies), accepting new orders for Criterion's Robocop last night, if not the Image disc.
It's not hard to predict what happens from here Robocop: The Criterion Collection will have a modest increase on eBay over the next few weeks, where some sealed copies of The Silence of the Lambs are already clearing $50 and higher (some folks, its seems, would rather part with the extra cash and just get the DVD as soon as possible, rather than look for stray copies online or elsewhere). But as for the eventual MGM edition of Robocop, it's anybody's guess, and perhaps not even decided by MGM at this point. We've been reliably informed that a new special edition of SOTL is already in production, but when MGM picked up the rights to Sid and Nancy last year, the new disc was released bare-bones, making the out-of-print Criterion release the superior edition. The MGM Robocop could be bare-bones as well, particularly as so many features-spare discs are coming from the studio this year. Or it could rival the Criterion release, as their Spinal Tap re-issue did.
And there's one big X-factor here Criterion's Robocop is an unrated cut. Will MGM will embrace that version, or will they opt for the theatrical release?
Commentary Clip: "One thing that I wanted to mention here (in the first scene with Lou Gossett Jr.), and that is my cinematographer, Don Thorne... this was his second D.P.-ing gig and he was really wonderful, but at the very beginning we were just getting to know each other, and I was shooting this sequence and he came up to me and said 'Are you trying to kill me?' And I said 'Well... Don, what do you mean?' He said 'You give me a black actor, and then you set him against white buildings, and then you put a broad-brimmed hat on his head.' (laughs) 'How can I get light into his face?' In this instance, it's purely a lighting situation of course, but you need light, and when you're shooting black against white it's very, very difficult. I said 'Don, listen.... Uh, this is a (drill instructor), he has to wear that hat, and there's nothing we can do about it.' And, y'know, Lou was privy to this whole thing, y'know obviously we all understood we had to deal with this, and we did we had bounce-boards on the floor, we were shining huge amounts of light in, and I was able to get this sequence, and it worked great, it really worked fantastic because you get this unique and terrifying figure.
"I think the other thing to say is I collaborated with Lou differently than the other cast. Y'know, every director has little things that they do, and this was only my second feature film. But I said to Lou, 'Lou, I know everybody knows you're an actor you're a famous actor. But in this particular instance you don't know any of these young guys and women and I want at the very beginning of this rehearsal program' and up until we do this scene 'I don't want you to talk to anyone. I want you in fact not only to not talk to them, but be totally antisocial. I want you to eat separately, I don't want you to talk with them. If they look at you, just stare them down and walk away.' And Richard Gere obviously knew there was a game being played, y'know, he'd been in the Seattle Rep, he knew this stuff. But it worked. I remember David Keith coming up to me and saying 'God! I love Lou Gossett's work but I just walked up to him and I said Hey man I'm really a big fan and he just looked at me and turned and walked away,' he says, 'God! He's a bastard!' I said 'Yeah, he's tough.' And in reality, y'know, that's a game, but when he walked down that aisle at the very beginning and saw those recruits, they didn't know they thought it was a game, but they didn't really know, and he was a very frightening figure. Ramrod straight, bone-thin, and mean as could be."
Director Taylor Hackford,
Quotable: "For some people (media violence) was in their minds the major purpose of this report. We did not find the media to be a major factor (just) a factor.... The most critical risk factor for violence for your children is the behavior of their peers. Know who your kids associate with and encourage healthy peer relationships."
U.S. Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher, discussing a new
"I'm gonna design my own fleet of trailers. No! I'm gonna record an album like Jennifer Lopez. It'll be an acoustic version of K.C. and the Sunshine Band. Then maybe I'll design a line of clothes like Puff Daddy, but all in synthetic fur."
Brad Pitt, in an upcoming interview in Details magazine,
Coming Attractions: We're buried in new discs, so we'll be back next week with a new round of reviews from the team, including a survey of the Oliver Stone Collection, Babette's Feast, and plenty more. See ya Monday.
Wednesday, 17 January 2001
'Perfect Storm' on the Web tonight: For those of you who have a Perfect Storm DVD handy, Warner will be hosting a "Virtual Theater" Web event tonight at 9 p.m. Eastern / 6 p.m. Pacific. All you need is a decent Internet connection and a DVD-ROM equipped PC (if you have a Mac, good luck to yer), and the full-length screening of the film via your DVD will be accompanied by a live chat with Perfect Storm director Wolfgang Petersen. Log in sometime today at www.warnervideo.com/perfectstormevents to register for the event, and also to pre-submit questions if you like. And for those of you who don't have DVD-ROM, you can still participate in the chat, but not the actual screening.
Well Ken, actually it's the Top 50 DVDs, not 100, in the current Entertainment Weekly, and our only sensation was deja vu, as 18 of our Top 25 (a list we've maintained and updated since January of 1999) appeared on EW's list which we figure means that most quality discs are above dispute (or the folks at EW, like us, have a taste for obscure Criterion titles). However, we didn't agree with EW's methodology on selecting discs, as they claimed in the introduction to the feature article that "This is not a list of the greatest movies ever.... it's a celebration of unique-to-disc extravaganzas that best exploit DVD's massive storage capacity and multiple-choice, chapter-surfing flexibility to somehow radically enhance whatever the main event is." But by that criteria, pretty much any porno DVD with multiple-angles and other digital goodies would have to make the list. And if family-friendly standards means adult content must be excluded, then it's pretty clear to us that the SHORT series (formerly Short Cinema Journal) must win the top award hands-down for most innovative use of the DVD format.
But as we've noted, our Top 25 is pretty much in agreement with the EW top 50. Nonetheless, our list is meant to reflect a combination of the best movies on the best DVDs thus, we're inclined to highlight titles like Columbia's special edition of It Happened One Night and Warner's double-cut of The Big Sleep, whereas EW included such releases as Starship Troopers and Pee Wee's Big Adventure fine discs mind you, but hardly important films. And we were dismayed that EW's top DVD, Fight Club didn't get a glowing movie review, even though it was the number-one frickin' DVD! "...critics were divided and audiences were undecided" the magazine hedges. It's number two on our list for more reasons than it being just a great DVD, as we're on record calling it one of the best films of the '90s, and therefore entirely worthy of a stellar DVD package no ifs, ands, or buts about it.
And okay, everybody on every DVD message board on the Internet has been picking over the Entertainment Weekly top 50 this week, so perhaps we'll jump on top of the dogpile. They're big boys we're sure they can take it:
But for folks who just got new DVD players for Christmas, this week's Entertainment Weekly cover story will be valuable reading, and we found it to be largely entertaining. Besides, that's who the feature was aimed at, not daily visitors to DVD news and review websites, and especially not DVD journalists on the Web who will pull it apart like a freshly baked croissant. As for the small capsule on "Missing in Action" DVDs in the current EW (21 titles, 19 of which are catalogued on our long-standing Missing in Action page), we're sure that's just a coincidence.
The Rocky disc in the Rocky gift-set due on April 24 will be the SE, and in fact the original plan at MGM was to send the bare-bones Rocky out of print entirely. However, in recent weeks they decided to keep the original Rocky in circulation, along with the new SE as a stand-alone and the five-disc box of all five Rocky movies. Rocky III was never released on DVD (because of legal issues we understand), but as the remaining Rocky discs previously released will now only be available in the box, we think bids for the originals on eBay will remain above average for now especially for folks who will buy the Rocky SE and only want perhaps Rocky II and Rocky III in their collections. Otherwise, we all get to own Rocky V and ain't that exciting?
Top of the Pops: Here's the top-selling DVDs last week from our friends at Reel.com. Click the links to read our reviews of these discs:
Bye for now.
Tuesday, 16 January 2001
On the Street: It's an Anchor Bay street Tuesday this morning, with new releases of John Woo's A Better Tomorrow and A Better Tomorrow 2, Pedro Almodovar's Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, and C.H.U.D.: Special Edition for those of you who can't get enough of cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers. But Paramount's grabbed our attention with a new release of Brian De Palma's 1987 The Untouchables, along with the Charles Bronson vigilante classic Death Wish. Those of you looking to dump a few bucks can get either the six-disc or ten-disc version of Warner's Oliver Stone Collection, but if you're just looking for a cheap laugh, Battlefield Earth might do. Meanwhile, Disney has one for the whole family, Pete's Dragon, now on disc after some delay. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of Reel.com and Image Entertainment:
See ya tomorrow.
Monday, 15 January 2001
Disc of the Week: Can somebody please tell us what happened to Brian De Palma? The wunderkind of next-generation American directors that arrived in the '70s, De Palma built his reputation on such horror/suspense classics as Sisters, Blow Out, Body Double, and Dressed to Kill, and delivered a cinematic landmark with 1983's Scarface. But the past decade has seen De Palma in decline, helming films like The Bonfire of the Vanities, Raising Cain, and the critically reviled Mission to Mars. Mission: Impossible from 1996 was a financial success, but some De Palma watchers thought it didn't carry his directorial stamp. And with a film like 1998's Snake Eyes among his most technically dazzling, with asynchronous narrative, split-screens, and long tracking shots the overall effect was hampered by a second-rate script and a lot of overacting by Nicholas Cage. The fact is that De Palma is only as good as his material and his cast, and when a shoddy sci-fi like Mission to Mars gets greenlighted by studio execs, not even De Palma's gifts can rescue it. When Tom Hanks is dreadfully miscast in something like The Bonfire of the Vanities, compelling direction won't help. But fortunately, 1987's The Untouchables had all the right ingredients a heady rush of prohibition-era Chicago mythology written by Chicago playwright David Mamet, and a trio of sturdy leads, Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, and Robert De Niro. To date, The Untouchables stands as one of De Palma's best films yet.
More a gangland fable told and retold to later generations than an actual piece of American history, The Untouchables efficiently relates the saga of U.S. Treasury agent Elliot Ness (Costner), who is sent to Chicago by the Feds to bring down the illegal liquor rackets, and particularly Al Capone (De Niro), the de facto lord of the city who has more control over the cops, judges, and juries than any elected official. Aggressive and idealistic, Ness teams up with the Chicago P.D. to go after Capone's booze, but before long he realizes that Capone will be notified of any police raid before it happens, turning hot leads into blind alleys. Thus, on a chance meeting Ness hires Jim Malone (Connery), a ruthless yet honorable cop who walks the beat despite his senior status because he's not on the take. Police recruit and top marksman George Stone (Andy Garcia) is drafted directly from the Academy, and with the addition of federal lawyer Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), the four become "The Untouchables," a group of lawmen who cannot be reached by Capone's influence, forcing the legendary ganglord to wage all-out war against them.
With Mamet's script and talented, engaging actors in the leading roles, The Untouchables probably could have been directed by any kid fresh out of film school and been a moderate success. But in De Palma's hands it's a playground of cinematic delights. Often he needs to do little virtually every scene with De Niro is a small Mamet masterpiece, and in Capone's famous baseball-bat allegory a single overhead zoom-back punctuates the aftermath of his violent rage. A raid on bootleg liquor crossing the Canadian border is done on horseback, even though there's no reason why Ness and the government couldn't do the same thing better with autos, but it's a wonderful excuse for cinematic flourish, and the sequence forms the thematic apex of the story. But most remarkable and best remembered is the train station shootout. De Palma often was accused of being a Hitchcockian acolyte in his earliest films, but here he reaches back to the earliest days of cinema and Sergei Eisenstein's Potemkin to create a slow-motion montage of gunplay and fear (complete with baby carriage). But he also does the Russian one better, for Potemkin was a silent film, and title cards forced breaks in the slaughter on the Odessa steps. De Palma's sound design illustrates how crucial audio elements are in contemporary films, as he completely compresses the soundtrack during the shootout to a few small elements gunshots, piercing violins, the squeaks and clatter of small wheels thumping down stairs. It's a few brief minutes, but it's also one of the high points of American cinema from the entire decade.
For such a noteworthy film, Paramount's new DVD edition of The Untouchables is a bit of a letdown, as the studio did not see fit to include any substantial supplements on a DVD release at this time. However, for those who will enjoy the film on its own merits, it comes in a crisp anamorphic widescreen transfer (2.35:1) and a new Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that captures both the dynamic sound design and Ennio Morricone's score. For fans of the movie, it's worth having. The Untouchables hits the street tomorrow.
Box Office: The three-week reign of Fox's Cast Away at the top of the box-office chart has come to an end due to Paramount's Save the Last Dance, starring Sean Patrick Thomas and Julia Stiles, and with just a $13 million budget the dance-club romance has already turned profitable. But Tom Hanks and Fox have little to complain about, as Cast Away in second place after the weekend has surged to a $165.1 million gross in just a month and certainly will clear $200 million and beyond before much longer (with Oscar nominations on the way in February, we don't think $300 million is entirely out of the question for this one). Meanwhile, Stephen Soderbergh's powerful, tense Traffic is a hot ticket, earning third place with $11.1 million, adding to a $33 million gross, while New Line's Thirteen Days went wide Friday to the tune of $10.2 million, and Buena Vista opened Double Take to $10 million even.
Still in continuing release, Mel Gibson has proved he's bankable in both action and light comedy films, as Paramount's What Women Want has earned $152.4 million so far. And Sandra Bullock has trustworthy fans as well, as Warner's Miss Congeniality has been good for $78.1 million to date. From Sony, Finding Forrester added more theaters over the weekend and boosted its total to $19.6 million, as did their Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which now has $28 million to its credit.
Fans of British director (and Madonna hubbie) Guy Ritchie can look forward to his latest caper film, Snatch, which opens this Friday. Also due is The Pledge, starring Jack Nicholson and directed by Sean Penn. Here's the top-grossing films at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: Kerry Fall has posted a fresh look at Michael Mann's The Last of the Mohicans: Director's Expanded Edition, while D. K. Holm recently spun the re-issued The X-Files: Fight the Future, and Mark Bourne is on the board with the latest from John Waters, Cecil B. Demented. Additional reviews from the staff this week include The Way of the Gun, Alice's Restaurant, The Thin Red Line, The Untouchables, and Python. It's all under the New Reviews menu here on the front page, while hundreds more DVD write-ups are on our Full Reviews and Quick Reviews indices.
We'll be back tomorrow with the rundown on this week's street discs.
Thursday, 11 January 2001
On the Block: Our latest rankings of DVD auctions at eBay are in, and ultra-rare demo discs still have plenty of cachet, as a 1997 THX Theatrical Trailers demo disc crossed the board for $500 after a heated 20-bid auction. And while it's still too early for Criterion's out-of-print The Silence of the Lambs to climb the chart, many other OOP Criterion discs continue to draw top dollar, including Salo, The Killer, Hard Boiled, and The 400 Blows. It's also too early (we think) for the recently OOP Army of Darkness: Director's Cut Limited Edition to draw competitive bids, but that didn't stop one auction from clearing $127.50 for the disc. It was the same top price, incidentally, that the two-disc AoD earned from one eager bidder, but we think confusion has inflated some bids for the one-disc Director's Cut. Clearing $100 was Warner's bare-bones Willy Wonka disc (expect an SE later this year), as well as MPI's A Hard Day's Night, which will re-appear on DVD March 20 from Miramax. That Dune disc with the $96 hammer-price isn't the new one recently seen on the Sci-Fi Channel, by the way it's a two-disc set from Japan with a three hour cut of David Lynch's film. And yes Buffy fans, even though we are not expecting Season One of Buffy the Vampire Slayer here in Region 1 until this fall, the set is already in Region 2 that $76 top close for the multi-disc set looks like a steal.
Here's the highest recent closing prices of rare and out-of-print DVDs from online auctions at eBay:
Commentary Clip: Dey: "The fight with the horseshoes was something that, when we were in Beijing and we were location scouting with Jackie, a group of martial artists put on this show, and one of the fight techniques they showed us was sort of this metal spike at the end of a rope that this guy was able to do wild things with flying it around and whipping it off different parts of his body, and so this (scene) is an idea that I came up with, I used the horseshoe to achieve that sort of martial artistry. It's something that is thousands of years old, that they used in the Chinese navy I guess to fight between boats, they would use this weapon. I said to Jackie 'We have to put this in the movie, this rope trick.' And he just looked at me and said 'So-ooo difficult. So difficult.' "
Chan: "Yes the fight with the horseshoes was very, very difficult. I remember I hurt a Canadian stunt guy a few times, in the face, in the body Boom! Boom! 'Oh! So sorry, so sorry.' It's a very, very difficult scene to shoot. It's not a fake thing. We used a very heavy metal (horseshoe)."
Director Tom Dey and Jackie Chan,
Coming Attractions: We're off to spin more new DVDs, so we'll be back next week with the latest news and reviews, including more DTS re-issues from Fox. In the meantime, if you haven't entered our totally free DVD contest for a copy of The Birds: Collectors' Edition, be sure to visit our contest page if you get the chance, and don't forget to take our monthly DVD poll while you're there. See ya Monday.
Wednesday, 10 January 2001
There was an enormous amount of work with the original sources to get them in the condition they are in today, as Still In Motion did a full digital picture restoration that took over three solid months working around the clock with numerous artists painting out much of the dirt, scratches, and original technical flaws from the 1980 one-inch videotape masters. Many of the source tapes literally snapped or fell apart when we transferred them to DigiBeta. There was banding and edge damage, and the masters were incredibly "noisey," as all of the effects composites were done in analog video over 20 years ago. Cosmos Studios went through 200 boxes of original film and videotape, and numerous versions of the shows, in order to find the best elements to re-build the series. The final shows, with new footage added and old footage restored, were then digitally tape-to-tape color corrected. Finally, before and during compression, we used proprietary digital signal processing for noise reduction and image enhancement, which created images that are better than the 20-year-old, original one-inch analog videotapes.
Cosmos is a labor of love for me, as I was one of the lucky folks to work on the original PBS series. I had the extraordinary experience of working, talking, and hanging out with Carl Sagan. We are very proud of our restoration, compression, and authoring here at Still In Motion. Again, thank you for your support of the Cosmos series, and of Carl's message to the world.
Steve Wyskocil, CEO
Thanks for your letter Steve a hard-copy is pinned on the wall of our newsroom, where it probably will grow tattered and faded before anybody takes it down. It is DVD releases like Cosmos that make this job worthwhile indeed, that restores our faith in DVD. It used to be, back in the earliest days of the format, that just about any new DVD title was a revelation, as early adopters gushed over marvelous transfers of films like The Fifth Element and Starship Troopers, not to mention the seemingly endless array of new discs that offered what fans like us were looking for clean, colorful widescreen transfers of popular films that otherwise would have languished on VHS. But now, in 2001 and with nearly four years of DVDs behind us, just about every new disc has a crystalline transfer and booming 5.1 audio, and after sitting through hundreds of commentary tracks it's become clear that some folks are a lot better in the recording booth than others and just because a disc has a commentary on it doesn't mean that it's going to be a slam-dunk with our review team. What's more, if the general quality of films from last year is anything to go by, the first half of 2001 won't have a lot of knockout new releases. Some, sure. But not a lot.
But for us, the promise of DVD isn't so much about high-quality home video in and of itself, but the opportunity it presents to restore and preserve important titles from the past. Last Nov. 21 when such top-selling DVDs as Gladiator, X-Men, and Chicken Run hit the street, the new disc we enjoyed most from that notable week was His Girl Friday, as Howard Hawks' 1940 classic never had a decent home-video release on VHS, and the new DVD transfer from Columbia TriStar was nothing short of a revelation. And we have several other catalog favorites on DVD as well, most that have undergone extensive digital or print restorations, like Vertigo, Criterion's The 39 Steps and Seven Samurai, and with Columbia's' Lost Horizon the restorative efforts, as well as the informative commentary, exceed the quality of the film itself. All of these films have been in various stages of neglect over the decades from minor damage to risk of permanent decay but both print and digital restorations, along with a transfer to a high-definition, mass-media format like DVD, means that they will survive indefinitely, even if only on video monitors and projectors.
Maybe we're starting to become DVD cynics slowly and regrettably, but surely enough. Too often we hear about the latest and greatest DVD, which may be of a decent action or sci-fi movie, but certainly not a high-stakes enterprise where history is on the line. And for us, too often DVD is just an "eye candy" format, ideal for folks who love nothing more than to gaze at endless CGI landscapes from the latest Hollywood spectacular. Indeed, a lot of people actually are clamoring for a Phantom Menace DVD, despite the fact that it's a remarkably awful movie. Films like Citizen Kane, The Rules of the Game, On the Waterfront, and Treasure of the Sierra Madre will be our black-and-white eye-candy when they arrive on shiny new discs.
So we must salute you and your team at Still in Motion, as well as all the folks at Cosmos Studios, for making the effort to get Cosmos back on home video, and now on DVD, after a decade-long absence. Television has been with us for roughly half a century, and to say that Cosmos is the greatest thing to ever happen on TV is not overstating the matter no scientist in history was able to make a connection with the public the way Carl Sagan did, and Cosmos probably did more to get Americans, and people around the world, interested in science and astronomy than any 20th century event besides perhaps the Apollo moon landings. It's distressing to hear that the condition of the source materials was so poor when your team undertook the project, but it's also a story that's been told too many times when titles are neglected in film and television archives. Fortunately for Cosmos, the story has a happy ending. Compared to the original videotapes released by Turner in the 1980s (and we have 'em here), we have nothing but praise for the remarkable improvements on DVD, and everybody who enjoys the new release is very much in your debt, ourselves included. A lot of stellar DVDs arrived in 2000, but we think Cosmos was the most important of them all.
We had a few letters yesterday asking that we come up with something a little more firm than our (reasoned) speculation that Criterion's The Silence of the Lambs DVD is now out of print (see Tuesday's update). Normally when Amazon.com lists a title as OOP we figure there's little room for doubt, but your editor did get on the phone to Criterion HQ in Chicago yesterday, where Lambs' OOP status was flat-out confirmed by a senior spokesperson. Neither the Image Entertainment DVD database nor Criterion's own site has posted this info yet, but more and more e-tailers have run out of stock in the past 48 hours. At this point, if you manage to get an order in somewhere, or find a stray copy at a brick-and-mortar retailer like Tower Records, consider yourself very fortunate.
Tuesday, 9 January 2001
SMACKDOWN! Criterion's 'Lambs' out of stock at Amazon!: Do not say we didn't warn you. Rumors have been circulating for months that Criterion's DVD edition of The Silence of the Lambs would go out of print early this year rumors backed up by our own sources who told us a while ago that a new special-edition disc is already in production at another studio (whose initials happen to be MGM). However, we had no idea that Lambs would disappear this early in the new year, but so it appears to be. As of yesterday, Amazon.com ceased accepting orders for both Criterion's Lambs disc and the bare-bones version released under license by Image (with their boilerplate out-of-print notice), which means just at it was last October with Criterion's Sid and Nancy the rush is on, and digital die-hards will be spending the next day or two trying to get last-minute orders in at e-tailers who still have copies on hand. As of this point, the Image Entertainment DVD database is not listing Criterion's The Silence of the Lambs as out-of-print, but the projections are in, and the news team at the Journal is calling it this baby's toast, and nobody knows how much of the feature-set will reappear down the road.
On the Street: MGM have no less than 21 new DVDs on the street this morning (and most other studios seem to have gotten out of the way), including Rob Reiner's long-awaited When Harry Met Sally and Norman Jewison's 1967 In the Heat of the Night, while blaxploitation flicks appearing on DVD for the first time include such classics as Coffy and Foxy Brown starring Pam Grier. Columbia TriStar has released Tsui Hark's full-length Once Upon a Time in China, in addition to Steve Buscemi's second directorial effort, Animal Factory with Willem Dafoe. And Fox has two on the board today as well, A Walk in the Clouds and Prelude to a Kiss. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of Reel.com and Image Entertainment:
Back tomorrow with the reader mail and a special look at how much effort went into restoring Carl Sagan's Cosmos for DVD.
Monday, 8 January 2001
Disc of the Week: A lot of people were blown away by The Matrix in 1999, and in particular the stunning fight sequences, but aficionados of Hong Kong cinema knew the Wachowski Brothers hadn't invented a new genre they merely imported one. The "wire-fu" of The Matrix currently a de rigeur element of most American action films (even the frothy Charlie's Angels) comes from a long tradition of Hong Kong films, themselves a dramatic outgrowth of the Peking Opera. The most famous practitioner of wire-fu today is Yuen Woo Ping, and while he did not contribute to Tsui Hark's 1991 Once Upon a Time in China, his stamp is on the film after all, the action sequences were choreographed by Yuen family members Yuen Chong-Yan and Yuen Shun-Yi, in addition to Lau Kar-Wing. Combine that with the directorial skills of Tsui Hark sometimes described as the "Steven Spielberg of Hong Kong" for his pioneering use of special effects in the HK film industry and it's little wonder why Once Upon a Time in China is generally considered one of the best films to ever come out of Hong Kong.
Jet Li stars in Once Upon a Time in China as Wong Fei-Hong, a 19th century healer and martial arts teacher, and a famous Chinese folk hero (whose film appearances date back to 1949, although this was Li's first time in the role). With the continuing colonization of Asia by Britain, America, France, and other western countries, Wong is charged by the leader of the Black Flag Army with training the young men in town in the art of kung fu, in order to defend Chinese sovereignty. But it isn't just foreigners who are up to no good a local Triad is leaning on the townsfolk for protection money, and there's Master "Iron Robe" Yim (Yan Yee Kwan), who wants to open his own martial arts school, but first wants to defeat Wong in order to establish his reputation. Meanwhile, the American-owned Sino-Pacific company is involved in both labor and prostitution rackets with the Chinese underground, giving Wong a trio of troublesome groups to bring under control.
As is the case with many Asian films, there's a generous amount of silly slapstick humor in Once Upon a Time in China, especially in the early scenes as different characters are introduced, and it must be noted that the "humor" is not very sophisticated, nor does it fare well in translation (but then again, The Three Stooges probably doesn't work well overseas either). However, some of the foreign characters are funny, if in an unintended way, as the American antagonists are uniformly evil, replete with bad dialogue and mustache-twirling bravado. But even with the odd comic bits and a more complex plot than the majority of HK action films there's still plenty of set-pieces that show off both Hark's directorial skills and the hand-to-hand mastery of Jet Li, in particular a brawl in a restaurant where Li makes clever use of an umbrella, and another wild fight at a local theater. But the most memorable sequence comes towards the end, as Wong does battle with Master Yim. Set in the local Sino-Pacific shipping warehouse, several ladders reaching high storage lofts are used for various purposes, be it attack or retreat, and the massive set means there's plenty of room for wire-fu it's a fight sequence that's easily as impressive as anything in The Matrix, both for its cleverness and its length.
Columbia TriStar's new DVD edition of Once Upon a Time in China features a clean anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) from a source print that has its drawbacks, but may be the best available at this time. There is some flecking and minor collateral damage, although mostly in the early going, and the color has a muted quality, which means the blacks and other dark tones are never fully saturated. Audio is in the original mono (Dolby 2.0) in either Cantonese or Mandarin, and a dubbed track in English is also included (which is pretty much as silly sounding as all English dubs of Asian films). But despite these issues with the source materials, the English subtitle track is good, and the best feature on board makes the disc worth the price of admission a commentary track with martial arts and Hong Kong film expert Ric Meyers, a casual, witty raconteur who is full of anecdotes about this picture, the movies of Jet Li and Tsui Hark, and the history of Asian films in general. Once Upon a Time in China is on the street tomorrow morning.
Box Office: Fox's Cast Away continues to dominate the box-office, remaining the number-one film in America for the third straight week, and with $143.5 million to date and possible Oscar recognition in coming weeks, the Tom Hanks vehicle should easily break $200 million. Also still doing boffo at the box is Paramount's What Women Want, with Mel Gibson leading the way to a $137.8 million gross for a film that has held either first or second place on the charts for a solid month. The big movie arriving over the weekend was Steven Soderbergh's Traffic, and while highly praised among the American filmerati, the nearly $15 million opening was only good enough for third place. But it was a strong debut (considering the competition), and Soderbergh's film is likely to gain more viewers as the Oscar buzz grows.
Still in continuing release, Warner's Miss Congeniality is shaping up to be a respectable hit for Sandra Bullock (critics be dammed) with $66.2 million in the bank, while Disney's The Emperor's New Groove, Sony's Vertical Limit, and Universal's The Family Man have similar cumes. But still hot in limited release is Sony's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which has earned nearly $19 million over the past five weeks while never appearing in more than 200 venues across the country.
Expect that Tiger and others to give Tom and Mel a run for the money this weekend going wide on Friday are Crouching Tiger, the Coen Brothers' O Brother Where Art Thou, the Cold War thriller Thirteen Days, and Gus Van Sant's Finding Forrester. Here's the top grossing films in North America from last weekend:
On the Board: Our man Mark Bourne has posted an in-depth look at George Pal's 1960 The Time Machine (and a guess on how H.G. Wells would regard the adventure film), while Betsy Bozdech has a look at When Harry Met Sally, and Kerry Fall is on the board with the 1967 In the Heat of the Night. Meanwhile, new quick reviews from the team this week include Courage Under Fire, The Alamo, Once Upon a Time in China, and Animal Factory. It's all under the New DVD Reviews menu on the left-hand side of the page (along with everything from the past month), and hundreds more DVD reviews can be found on our Full Reviews and Quick Reviews pages.
We'll be back tomorrow with news on this week's street discs.
Thursday, 4 January 2001
Coming Attractions: We're off to spin a new batch of DVDs, including In the Heat of the Night, When Harry Met Sally, and more, so we'll see ya Monday with new reviews, the box-office report, and all the latest. Enjoy the weekend.
Commentary Clips: "The sequence (between the two submarines) was shot in an enormous exterior tank in the island of Malta, the Mediterranean Film Studios. And these were tanks that were specifically built for filming purposes we don't even know when they were built, we think they might have been built in the '30s by the British film industry. This for me as a filmmaker was really the most daunting aspect of the movie because here I'm making a movie where I'm trying to make everything look real, and I was really stretching the limits of what this tank was capable of doing, primarily because of the scope of what we were attempting. We have two submarines here, both of which are in excess of 200 feet, and they barely fit in this tank, and we're trying to film this sequence at night... and covering this massive set in the rain is a huge problem in and of itself we actually had to create the largest rainstorm ever in the history of motion pictures... and we were dumping we estimated about 15,000 gallons of water per minute on these actors. And in fact that's so much water you can't just use fresh water, so we were running lines down to the ocean and pumping salt water. So these poor actors are having to act this sequence with salt water coming down in their faces, and it stings the eyes it's very difficult. Plus the water is 50 degrees. Um, most of these actors are wearing wetsuits. I was afraid after the first night they'd mutiny on me, that they'd signed up for this picture but they had no intention of it ever turning this horrible, and after the first night of filming they all came to me, and they were ecstatic. They loved it. In fact, the more horrible I could make it for them the better, they just got off on being in the elements I think it was so exciting for them to be in this kind of picture. Which, by the way, aside from Bill Paxton and David Keith, none of these actors had been in a real, true action picture before, so they just enjoyed the novelty of it. Harvey Keitel I was thinking would, um, refuse to be in these scenes any more, but he almost more than anybody loved it. And between takes they'd have water fights, and they just had a great time. And we spent five weeks doing this.... Myself, I was sitting in a nice little tent sipping a cappuccino with a bunch of heaters surrounding me, and talking to them over a bullhorn. But, uh, much to my surprise they didn't come throw me in the water."
Director Jonathan Mostow,
Twohy: "Wish I didn't have it."
Twohy: "It's because, the story is we only had one take there... Following you down it goes up and down and it bounces, but that's because I never thought it would be in the film. I was shooting it because you wanted that shot, and I'm thinking 'I'll give this fucker one take, it will never be in the film, I do not need it..."
Diesel: (laughing) "That's true...."
Twohy: "I was just going to (finish the scene), and that was it cut! And Vin says 'No! I got more, I got more to give you! I'll go down on the ground, I'll do all this stuff..."
Diesel: (still laughing) "That's right, that's right...."
Twohy: "And I gave it to him, but I said 'Shyuh! Never be in the film.' And you know what? I saw it, and you sold it so well, and I said it's gotta be in..."
Diesel: "Thank you."
Twohy: "Camera bump and all."
Director David Twohy and actor Vin Diesel,
Quotable: "I really found the critics were a lot more conservative than I had imagined. It was almost like, 'Lynch him, lynch the guy.' Right-wing. I started to view critics as having sensibilities way narrower than I expected."
Gus Van Sant on his critically reviled remake of Alfred
"The original promise of TV was that it was going to be our Homeric form. I take that at face value. I want to sing the epic verses of my people, not around a campfire but an electronic campfire."
Director Ken Burns, whose latest essay of America, the
"I find those questions offensive. Everything I say gets misconstrued. We are actors fully entrenched in the business. I look at my loving, personal relationship as something separate. I want to protect it."
Actor Benjamin Bratt, who refuses any and all interview
"To be asked to write songs for Disney characters meant that, if you did it successfully, those songs would become immortal and last for generations. That really appealed to me."
Sting, who composed music for Disney's The Emperor's
"You know what? I could kick the butts of all those guys driving their trucks. Come by me, man, and I'll tear you apart. And you know what? I've only got one good shoulder."
Tom Hanks, regarding a new Ford TV ad that mocks the
"I have two words for Tom: 'Bosom Buddies.' Not exactly the essence of toughness."
Lew Echlin, marketing manager for Ford Motors.
Wednesday, 3 January 2001
On the Street: We have two weeks of street discs to catch up on, but as often happens right after Christmas, the studios are releasing new titles rather slowly. New from Warner on Dec. 26 was the new Exorcist: The Version You've Never Seen and the Wesley Snipes shoot-'em-up The Art of War, while yesterday saw the release of Jazz, Ken Burns' latest documentary miniseries, which will run on PBS this month. Columbia TriStar kept us busy over the past couple of weeks with several notable releases, including Timecode, Hollow Man: Special Edition, Under Suspicion, and Godzilla 2000, and Fox got a series of DTS discs underway with Courage Under Fire and reissues of Predator and The Siege. And two discs are out that we're hoping to review in short order The Way of the Gun from Artisan, and the 1922 classic Nosferatu from Image. Here's the notable street discs from the past two weeks, courtesy of Reel.com and Image Entertainment:
Back tomorrow with more stuff.
Tuesday, 2 January 2001
And the winner is: Niraj Sarda of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., wins the free Perfect Storm DVD and movie poster signed by Wolfgang Petersen from our December contest. Congrats, Niraj!
Our totally free DVD contest for the month of January is up and running, and we have a copy of Universal's The Birds: Collector's Edition up for grabs. Be sure to drop by our contest page to send us your entry, and don't forget to take our monthly DVD poll while you're there.
Disc of the Week: When it comes to the sort of things we'd most like to see on DVD, there's an obvious shortlist of classic films stuff yet to be released like The Godfather, Citizen Kane, and Lawrence of Arabia, and great movies already on disc, like Casablanca, His Girl Friday, and A Streetcar Named Desire. But as the DVD format has left its infancy, it also has become an ideal repository for television shows series and miniseries alike. We already have box-sets of the enormously popular The X-Files and The Sopranos, numerous classic shows like The Twilight Zone and The Avengers, and even boxes for Ken Burns miniseries like Baseball and Jazz. So as we now officially journey into the 21st century (yes, yesterday was the start of the new millennium), it's wholly appropriate that the best thing to ever happen on television is now on DVD Carl Sagan's Cosmos. At 13 hours long, it's mighty big. Covering all aspects of the natural world, from evolution to extraterrestrial life, it has never been equaled. And Sagan was one of the foremost scientific geniuses of the 20th century, a fact often belied by his desire to present the mysteries and joys of scientific exploration to the masses.
First appearing on PBS over the course of two weeks in 1981, Cosmos was a television event only surpassed by Ken Burns' The Civil War some years later. It has been estimated that Cosmos was seen by 50 million people, and it succeeded by Sagan's storytelling instincts. Cosmos is science in bite-sized servings, with each of its 13 episodes addressing a separate element of natural history or scientific discovery. Beginning with "One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue," Sagan explores the laws of natural selection and evolution, while "Harmony of the Worlds" debunks the pseudo-science of astrology and documents the life of pioneering astronomer Johannes Kepler. "Heaven and Hell" takes in comets and meteorites, while "Blues for a Red Planet" is a sober examination of Mars in light of human legends. Further episodes, addressing topics ranging from human genetics and extraterrestrial life to the once-controversial Big Bang, bring the series towards its conclusion, but we are most fond of "Journeys in Space and Time," which deftly explains Albert Einstein's special and general theories of relativity (in one of Sagan's famous metaphors, a boy on a bicycle, riding at light speed, illustrates Einstein's twin paradox). For us, Cosmos has become a magnificent documentary to enjoy again and again, and its immense length is a tonic for anybody who's bedridden for a few days with the winter flu.
Cosmos was originally released on home video (both VHS and Laserdisc) by Turner in the 1980s, but it went out of print in the '90s, and full sets were hot items on eBay, trading into the hundreds of dollars. But the new seven-disc Cosmos: Collector's Edition, released independently by Cosmos Studios last month, is readily available and a fitting tribute to Sagan's work. All of the original materials (both video and film sources) are in remarkably good shape, and the audio for all episodes has been remastered in Dolby Digital 5.1 (something the producers could not have anticipated in 1980 when Sagan plays a 20 Hertz signal from a tone generator in a sequence on whales, he notes it's too low for television speakers to transmit, but it comes through loud and clear on the .1 track). The remix is wonderfully handled, with Sagan's original narration locked on the center channel and music and spatial effects spread across the soundstage, and those elements are available in a music and effects track, which eliminates Sagan's narration (although only those who have seen all of Cosmos a few times probably will want to investigate this feature).
Also included is an introduction by Sagan's wife and co-writer Ann Druyan, and most episodes are followed by brief "updates" by Sagan, filmed in 1990, while additional scientific updates are available on a special subtitle track. It all comes in a folding seven-DVD digipak with external paperboard slip-case, but note that Cosmos: Collector's Edition is only available for sale via www.carlsagan.com, www.onecosmos.net, and www.amazon.com.
Box Office: No new films were released over the New Year's weekend as the studios made sure all of their holiday fare was in theaters in time for Christmas, and the end-of-year winner is Fox's Cast Away, as a marooned Tom Hanks raked in $31.2 million from last Friday to Sunday, and took less than 10 days to break the century. Also arriving for Christmas was Warner's Miss Congeniality, produced by and starring Sandra Bullock, which had a $15.5 million weekend, pushing its total to $42.6 million, while Universal's The Family Man with Nicolas Cage has done similar business. But the Thanksgiving-to-Xmas champ was none other than Universal's The Grinch, which saw some post-holiday drop-off but still has a blistering $252.5 million gross and counting, making it one of the top 20 films in Hollywood history when not adjusted for inflation. Disney's The Emperor's New Groove hasn't done blockbuster business, currently shy of $50 million after three weekends, but Sony's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon continues to draw the crowds, earning $3.5 million on just 162 screens nationwide. Meanwhile, Warner's Proof of Life is on its way to DVD prep, as even Russell Crowe, Meg Ryan, and tabloid gossip couldn't get it past $30 million before exiting first-run cineplexes.
USA has moved Steven Soderbergh's Traffic up a week to go wide this Friday, where it will be joined by Lasse Hallstrom's Chocolat, arriving from Miramax. Here's the top-grossing films at North American theaters from last weekend (Friday through Sunday):
On the Board: D.K. Holm whiled away part of his vacation in the screening room, and he's posted new reviews of Paul Verhoeven's Hollow Man: Special Edition and Mike Figgis's Timecode, while Damon Houx spun the delayed, improved Princess Mononoke, and J. Jordan Burke is on the board with a look at Cosmos and the life of Carl Sagan. In the meantime, new reviews from the staff this week include The Blob: The Criterion Collection, Fox's reissues of Predator and The Siege, Takeshi Kitano's A Scene at the Sea and Kids Return, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, Under Suspicion, The Art of War, and (last but not least) Godzilla 2000. It's all under the New Reviews menu on the left-hand side of the page, while hundreds more reviews can be found on our Full Reviews and Quick Reviews pages.
Back tomorrow with the rundown on this week's street discs.