Thursday, 28 February 2002
On the Block: Our latest round of DVD auction rankings at eBay is in, and new to the chart is the Canadian DVD release of George Stevens' 1956 Giant, which was available from Warner for a very brief period of time before it was inexplicably withdrawn a rare copy was good for $182.50 after a fierce 22-bid session. Also new is a limited edition of Amelie from Region 2 that comes in a collectible tin case ($109.85), while Universal's out-of-print Scarface: Collector's Edition is climbing, despite the fact that it's a second-rate transfer that's up for replacement ($102.50). Criterion titles dominate the list as usual, with Salo ($415.00), The 400 Blows ($251.00), and The Killer ($225.00) leading the way. And for those of you who just can't stand the fact that TV series boxes are debuting overseas before they arrive in Region 1, there were two strong closes for Buffy the Vampire Slayer sets, while the new Angel: Season One in Region 2 fetched a $107.50 hammer-price.
Here's the highest recent closing prices of rare and out-of-print DVDs from online auctions at eBay:
Quotable: "As a voting member of the academy, I am happy to see this work recognized. All of the artists involved are clearly most deserving of their nomination. But it doesn't mean that the problem is solved. Obviously, it's better than nothing; it's better than two nominations. But the fact is we have an inherent problem, and it goes well beyond who gets nominated. It goes to which projects get made and who gets hired."
Television and film producer Suzanne de Passe
"To say that these nominations mean that African-Americans are now getting the recognition they deserve is to give a lot of power to people who don't have it. Three nominations means three nominations, nothing more or nothing less for black actors."
Oscar nominee Denzel Washington
Jennifer Connelly, talking to London's The
"These guys went over there with ideals and pride and desire to be the vanguard of freedoms most of us take for granted. Once they got there, they were under siege, backs to the wall. They didn't eat or drink or sleep. Basically, it became that they were fighting for each other. It's not mom or apple pie you're fighting for, it's the guy next to you.... Atrocities happen in war. It's lamentable, and there's no way to justify it. But it was the exception among the rule. Everyone in Vietnam wasn't a drug-taking, baby-fragging wacko. They were mainly men and women doing their duty."
Mel Gibson, who stars in the new film We
Kevin Smith signing: For our readers in the L.A. area, Kevin Smith will be at Dave's Video (12144 Ventura Blvd.) in Studio City on Saturday, March 2 from 1-3 p.m. signing copies of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. The disc must be purchased at Dave's, with a portion of the proceeds going to a charity of Mr. Smith's choice. He also will sign one additional item. Drop by if you get the chance.
Coming Attractions: We're headed back to the screening room for another fresh stack of DVDs, and new reviews on the way include A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Say Anything, and lots more. This also will be the last weekend to enter this month's totally free DVD contest for a copy of Ghost World, so be sure to visit our contest page if you haven't yet, and don't forget to take our monthly DVD poll while you're there. We'll be back Monday to announce the winner, and we'll have a new contest up and running as well.
Have a great weekend.
Wednesday, 27 February 2002
Mailbag: It's time for the mail dump letters from DVD Journal readers around the world sent to our high-tech HQ, and presented with minimal comments from your own humble editor. It's all tighter than a jimmy-hat, so let's put a little mo bass in tha mix and kick it old-school:
I cannot agree that "widescreen TVs will be the norm" soon. Frankly, television has done just fine for years in its standard 1.33:1 ratio, and many people I know, including myself, absolutely hate when a movie is letterboxed it just gets too small to enjoy. Believe me, I love movies, I love film, I love going to the movie theater (well, I used to, before commercials and cell phones and loud folks took over), but no matter how many times I watch a widescreen film on DVD, I cannot help feeling more removed from the movie, because it is not filling my normal TV screen. Watch the opening of Goldeneye if you can in full-screen you actually almost get vertigo for a second when James Bond jumps off the dam. In widescreen, it isn't nearly as effective because there is just too much blank screen. And whenever I watch a widescreen film on DVD and then go to the special features to see a trailer or clip in full-screen, I am amazed at how much fuller and bigger and just plain nicer things look.
I may be one of the few people who will ever admit that I am totally annoyed that Ben Hur and even It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World are so damned widescreen at 2.55:1. I mean, it looks like I am viewing the film through Geordi LaForge's visor! Way too narrow. And with all the hoopla surrounding many films (like Kubrick's) about whether or not full screen gives you more or less picture than in the theater, or was it "matted" in the theater, but unmatted on DVD, it just gets crazy. And lets be frank The Godfather should not look better on full-screen regular cable TV that it does on my new DVD version, but it does! I swear there is more picture on the full-screen format.
Call me crazy if you like, but full-screen is always a better choice in my opinion. I can't wait to buy the new Blade Runner when it comes out unless it is widescreen only. If that is the case, I will keep my old full-screen/widescreen double-sided disc and be happy.
Even for poor folks like me and my girlfriend, the answer was yes. Long live widescreen splendor!
* * *
Our recent discussion regarding some of the "best" DVD commentary tracks prompted several reader responses:
Cannibal the Musical: Probably one of the more entertaining commentary tracks I have heard in a long time. Matt Stone and Trey Parker and a number of cast members sit down with a couple of bottles of single-malt scotch, a case of beer, and who knows what else. By the end they are plowed out of their skulls, but getting there was most of the fun. (The track also explained that the film was actually more historically accurate than most films about those events!)
Elephant Parts: Michael Nesmith gives the most bizarre commentary I have ever heard on a DVD. He starts out talking about how the incredibly fake model town was real and that they actually destroyed it. He then goes off on a tangent somewhere out beyond Pluto. I am not going to even try and guess what he was on during that recording session...
The Pit and the Pendulum: Roger Corman gives a great commentary on how the film was made, as well as stories about some of the other films made right around the same time. A must for any fan of Corman's work.
The Usual Suspects: Another commentary that explains needed details about how the film was made (especially the "cigarette flicked in the eye" moment).
Dark City: Roger Ebert's commentary for the film was quite good.
Sadly, neither The Emerald Forest, Hope and Glory, nor The General have commentaries. Considering some of the personal nature of the latter two and the difficulties in filming the first, I can only imagine the tales not told.
Consider the folks at Artisan notified. Thanks, John.
We agree John, and we should note that MGM has done an excellent job over the past year to flood the DVD market with obscure titles that would never see the light of day if they were owned by other studios (who shall remain nameless). Columbia TriStar also has done an excellent job of releasing catalog titles, as well as foreign and art-house fare. Like you, we'll take what we can get, and we're not so impressed with extra features we'll only watch once or twice at the most. Give us the classics!
But what is truly pissing me off is the fact that Moulin Rouge got eight nominations! The film is the boisterous bastard celluloid child of Jerry Bruckheimer and Ken Russell a work of wretched directorial excess and muted emotions with art direction and loud-til-your-ears-bleed noise that drowns out plot, narrative, dialogue, and "acting." The fact that Nicole Kidman is getting a nomination for her "work" here, and got no recognition for To Die For and Eyes Wide Shut in the past, is unfortunate.
George, baby, sweetheart... for the love of everything holy, allow someone else to write the dialogue. Someone who understands that a man who decides to give his life over to controlling the universe and destroying all those who stand in his way might have, well, a "dark side." We need to save his creation from its creator. Then again, two guys are lining up right now at a Seattle theater that might not even show the movie, so what do I know?
I watched Phantom Menace again. It shaved a year off my life. Maybe, as one of the bazillion bonus supplements, Lucas should have included a good movie. Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, now with 3,000 hours of DVD bonus features, including Raiders of the Lost Ark. *Sigh*.
I think the question Mr. Dorr should have asked is "Has Bergman ever made a film that I would actually like?" Above he will find several suggestions.
We're with you on this one Neal commentaries and subtitle tracks that cannot be accessed with a remote control "on the fly" are among our biggest pet peeves. In fact your editor was recently previewing Fox's Sexy Beast DVD and quickly discovered he had to return to the menu to activate the English subtitles with our Sony player (and Sexy Beast is a movie that pretty much requires subtitles for anybody who didn't grow up in London). A minor pain in the ass, but we did get the subtitles to switch on a Toshiba deck, so it appears this can be a hardware issue as much as an authoring one.
Tuesday, 26 February 2002
On the Street: It's another slender street Tuesday, but we're sure most DVD fans will find at least one new item to add to their collections. New from Columbia TriStar is Larry Sanders: The Entire First Season, which is a pleasant three-disc set for the show's ardent admirers, while Columbia also has released a pair of smaller films, the office comedy Haiku Tunnel and Jacques Rivette's theater drama Va Savior. Those who can't get enough of Kevin Smith and crew will certainly look for Buena Vista's Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, while a small film from Smith's View Askew pals is also out today, Drawing Flies. Action fans will be picking up Universal's The Musketeer, and David Lynch collectors have another disc to get with the arrival of New Line's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. And we found New Line's Bones: Platinum Series to have a bang-up set of extra features, even if the movie did not match its full potential. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 25 February 2002
Disc of the Week: The "workplace comedy" is a tried-and-true formula that resonates on two basic levels: First, most of us work so there's a situation that's immediately familiar on some level to a vast number of viewers. Second, most of us hate our jobs, which provides endless opportunity for humor. While workplace comedy tends to primarily dominate television sitcoms, the last few years have also seen a spate of similarly themed movies (Clockwatchers, Bartleby, Office Space, and waydowntown, to name just four), generally aimed at urban cubicle-dwellers. Most are low-budget indie films made by people who have just escaped, as they see it, from the soulless hell of working purely for the paycheck when they'd much rather be doing something creative. Like, say, make movies about how awful it is to work for a living. An audience favorite when it premiered at Sundance, Haiku Tunnel (2001) differs from others of its ilk mainly in writer/star Josh Kornbluth's genuine affection for the workplace. Kornbluth notes the fears, annoyances, idiocies and inequities in cubicle-land, but he shares them with a refreshing lack of self-conscious, Gen-X cynicism.
Kornbluth plays a character named "Josh Kornbluth" who, he points out at the top of Haiku Tunnel, is a fictional character. The lawyer-characters he works for, he says, are nothing like the real-life lawyers he worked for when he the real Josh Kornbluth was a temp office worker. No, he explains, this story is all fiction, and it all takes place in a fictional place called ... San Franclisco. A wannabe-novelist, Josh claims to love being a temporary office worker. But in reality, he's depressed, lonely, incapable of committing to a relationship, and in need of some serious therapy. Which is why, when he takes a new temp assignment at the law firm of Schuyler and Mitchell ("S&M"), it's the promise of a benefits package that'll pay for his psychotherapy that sways him to accept an offer to "go perm." But as soon as he does, everything starts to crumble his boss gives him 17 Very Important Letters to type up and mail, and the bulk of the film concerns Josh's blackly comic, passive-aggressive efforts to both fulfill and avoid that assignment.
Kornbluth is a "monologist" and Haiku Tunnel is adapted from a piece he debuted in San Francisco in 1990 (and was later collected with two other monologues in the book "Red Diaper Baby"). The film is actually weakest when it retains the feel of a monologue; Kornbluth speaking directly into the camera really isn't all that funny. But Kornbluth (and his director, brother Jacob Kornbluth) learned a valuable lesson that other monologists like Spaulding Gray and Eric Bogosian never did: He put other people in his movie. Warren Keith is hilarious as Josh's tax-lawyer boss, capturing every bit of managerial doublespeak and distracted glad-handing with an undercurrent of shimmering evil. Harry Shearer shows up for a short scene as a corporate trainer, leading a day-long seminar on such scintillating topics as fixing a jammed copier and where the staples are kept. Most memorable is San Francisco performance artist Helen Shumaker as the spooky head secretary, Marlina D'Amore; in one of the film's funniest segments, Josh takes her up on her offer to call her at home if he has any problems at 2 a.m., leaving a rambling, hours-long message on her voice mail, blathering about his personal life. While not as sharply honed as Mike Judge's hilarious Office Space, the brothers Kornbluth have created a darkly funny yet affectionate homage to office-workers everywhere, and a welcome addition to the genre.
Columbia TriStar's new DVD release of Haiku Tunnel offers a lot for fans of the movie, starting with a good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) and both Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround audio. A very charming commentary track by Josh and Jacob Kornbluth reveals the immense affection they have for the film. They have funny, "gee our movie was soooo low-budget" anecdotes for almost every scene pointing out every single production manager/costume designer/script supervisor who stood in as an extra or said a line; discussing the use of "latex paint you have to get at a sex store" to turn Josh's boss into the Devil for a fantasy sequence; and laughing about how their lack of money meant they couldn't pay for the building they were shooting in to turn on air conditioning on the weekend: "The audience can't tell, but it was nine-hundred-thousand-million degrees Fahrenheit in that room." Outtakes and deleted scenes also are on board, including Shearer's ad libs, plus theatrical trailers and director's notes. Haiku Tunnel is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: Only months after perishing in a fatal plane crash, pop singer and budding movie star Aaliyah wound up at the top of the American box office with Queen of the Damned, which garnered $15.1 million for Warner. As is often the case with posthumous releases, Queen certainly attracted some curiosity-seekers, although Warner promoted the film in a straightforward manner. Also new over the weekend was Universal's Dragonfly starring Kevin Costner, which garnered $10.4 million. Reviews for Queen of the Damned were mixed-to-poor, while the supernatural Dragonfly earned negative reviews from virtually all critics.
In continuing release, last week's winner John Q, starring Denzel Washington, managed to drop only one spot with another $12.5 million in its second frame and nearly $40 million in ten days. Disney's Peter Pan follow-up Return to Never Land is also showing some legs, slipping one place to fourth with a $27 million cume. And for those of you who predicted that the Britney Spears movie Crossroads would sink like a cobblestone in its second week were dead wrong (that includes us) it actually took in another $7.1 million, and the $26 million gross to date virtually assures that Britney will make another movie before much longer. On Academy Award watch, New Line's Lord of the Rings now stands at $283.2 million, Universal's A Beautiful Mind is at $132.6 million, and Sony's Black Hawk Down has cleared the century with $101.4 million after nine weeks. And folks at Buena Vista have a hot one on the way to DVD prep, as Disney's Snow Dogs will finish with around $70 million for Cuba Gooding Jr. and his furry pals.
New films arriving this Friday include We Were Soldiers starring Mel Gibson, as well as the romantic comedy 40 Days and 40 Nights. Here's the top-grossing films at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: Greg Dorr has posted a sneak-preview of New Line's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, while new stuff from the rest of the gang this week includes The Larry Sanders Show: Season One, The Musketeer, Bones: Platinum Series, Mrs. Winterbourne, Va Savoir, A Glimpse of Hell, Haiku Tunnel, and two more Broadway Theatre Archive titles, Alice in Wonderland and The Time of Your Life. It's all fresh under the New Reviews menu here on the front page, or use our search engine to scan our entire DVD reviews database.
We'll be back tomorrow with the rundown on this week's street discs.
Thursday, 21 February 2002
Coming Attractions: New DVD reviews are on the way, including Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, The Musketeer, and more. We're back on Monday see ya then.
Commentary Clips: "Coming up is a famous Hitchcock scene (Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman) are going out to a balcony, which of course was shot in the studio with rear-projection of Rio in the background and you'll notice a cut to a tight two-shot, then the camera moves in slowly, and for the next two minutes and 40 seconds we have a continuous take of the two lovers. Hitchcock said that he felt that they should remain in an embrace, and that we, the audience, should join them. The whole idea was based on not breaking up the romantic moment. 'I didn't want to cut it up' (Hitchcock said), 'it was an emotional thing, the movement of that camera.' The kissing, he insisted, gave the public the great privilege of embracing Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman together. It was a kind of temporary ménage a trois. (Fashion designer) Edith Head said later on 'I learned my restraint lessons very well in what was one of the sexiest love scenes ever on screen, Bergman and Grant were totally dressed, but who remembers what they wore?' You'll also notice that there is no music during this scene. Normally, particularly at this time, there would be a love theme played beautifully in the background but in this case Hitchcock opted to go away from the cliché and have just the faint, natural sound of the beach in the background. Hitchcock said that 'Grant and Bergman told me they felt very awkward in that scene in Notorious, particularly moving their backs to the camera towards the telephone. But I told them not to worry, it would look great on film and that's all that mattered.' However, RKO executive William Dozier remembered seeing Bergman and Hitchcock go at it with hammer and tongs for half an hour one morning. 'Very well, Hitch, we'll do it your way,' she finally said. 'It's not my way, Ingrid, it's the right way.' Well, Hitchcock knew what he wanted to see on the screen, and the most important thing to him was what was going to be up on that screen. The actor accommodated himself to the camera not vice-versa."
* * *
"New York critic and screenwriter Frank Nugent wrote a piece for The New York Times in 1945 after he had visited the set while (the first dinner scene) was being shot. He reported:
"Hitchcock has said that he does not direct actors. 'I talk to them and explain to them what the scene is, what its purpose is, why they are doing certain things, because they relate to the story, not to the scene. The whole scene relates to the story, but that little look does this or does that for the story. I once said that actors are cattle, but that's a joke. However, actors are children, and they're temperamental, and they need to be handled gently, and sometimes slapped.' ... The reference to Hitchcock yelling on the set 'Bring on the puppets!' probably refers back to memos from (producer David O.) Selznick complaining that Hitchcock's characters were 'puppets in a melodrama' so I'm sure Hitchcock was having some fun at that point."
Film historian Rudy Behlmer,
Quotable: "We are not so far away from producing (blue-laser DVDs) in mass quantities. (We intended) to end speculation on what we wanted to do with blue laser and to show a uniform face."
Philips Electronics executive Jan Oosterveld, on
"Everyone is very sensitive about being appropriate. The studio feels her loss terribly, but they're not in the business of articulating that. And I personally believe that they were going to market the film the same way that Aaliyah was always the biggest name in the film."
Director Michael Rymer, whose Queen
Director Michael Mann, speaking to London's
"He should be on his third Oscar by now, and that might not be enough. I cannot absorb living in a world where I have an Oscar for best actress and Denzel (Washington) doesn't have one for best actor."
Julia Roberts, in a recent Newsweek interview
"George and I have an agreement that he doesn't do pranks on me and I don't kill him."
Don Cheadle on his frequent co-star George
Wednesday, 20 February 2002
Thanks for your letter, Art. Fundamentally, the quality of every DVD comes down to two items the source material and the transfer, and they work in that order, as the studio that produces the DVD provides the source material to an authoring house, usually a service bureau that is an independent company altogether. The quality of the film's print is a fundamental component, as is the format provided to the service bureau (note that film stock is not sent to service bureaus, but instead the title is sent on industrial-grade digital videotape, the most common being D1). The studios also provide other items, such as chapter breaks, audio options, and menu designs.
The authoring house is then entrusted with the MPEG-2 encoding process, reducing the analog signal of the videotape to a compressed digital code that removes redundant information as seamlessly as possible, and this is where we often wind up with bad transfers, especially on early DVDs from 1997 and 1998, many of which were plagued by artifacts, shimmer, and blocking. However, there has been a great deal of improvement with DVD authoring (and DVD authors) since then, and nowadays we only come across truly bad transfers with the "budget" home video companies, who often produce DVDs to sell on the street for less than $10. In fact, while Columbia TriStar has released a definitive version of the 1940 His Girl Friday, the film has been a public-domain item for several years, and we've sampled budget DVD releases with transfers unstable enough to make ordinary VHS look splendid.
However, despite the bad transfers we've dealt with over these few years, it is always the studio, not the authoring house, that is ultimately responsible for the quality of their DVDs, as they are the ones who sign off on the product and release it to the public under their corporate flags. We suspect that bad transfers still happen now and then like they used to, but we also suspect that the studios have gotten a lot better at catching them before they hit the street. Where studios still slip up is when they release DVDs of older films from inferior source prints or using previous sources from Laserdiscs releases rather than taking the time and expense to create a brand-new D1 from the best material available. But again, this seems to be changing. While many DVD fans decry the fact that some of their favorite movies are still MIA, one of the reasons why some top titles have yet to go digital is because the studios are taking more time to evaluate the materials they have on hand before rushing a title into the market and headlong into the wrath of DVD lovers.
Good point Glenn, but when DVD first got off the ground it was MGM, not Warner, who actually held the bulk of the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies catalogs as part of the Turner library, the rights reverted to Warner in a complicated 1998 library-swap with The Lion. Of course, that means Warner has had plenty of time to release a DVD series over the past few years, but until such happens head on over to eBay and search for "Golden Age of Looney Tunes" there were five Laserdisc box sets with five platters each released by MGM some time ago (in total about 45 hours of Warner Bros. animation), all of which are now out of print and trade for around $100 per box, and occasionally above $250 for sealed items.
MGM currently is out of the Looney Tunes business, but will Warner release similar, equally comprehensive collections on DVD? We're not holding our breath, but we're hoping to get some Warner animation classics eventually. We have one of the MGM Laserdisc boxes in our library, and we can assure you that most of these short titles are totally pristine.
But even if classic Warner animation makes its way to DVD, the issue of MIA shorts will be far from over, as it's well known that dozens of Warner cartoons from the '30s and '40s have been voluntarily edited or withheld from the public, and specifically 11 titles singled out in 1968 by United Artists, the rights-holder at the time it's a list that Ted Turner stood by. Among the titles are the certifiable animation classics "Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs" (1943) and "Tin Pan Alley Cats" (1943), as well as the Bugs Bunny short "All This and Rabbit Stew" (1941). There were rumors some time ago that Warner might allow these titles to be shown on cable placed in their specific context but we are unaware of such an airing ever taking place. Specialty video collectors used to be able to get bootleg versions on eBay, but it appears they are no longer easy to find on the massive auction site (the titles are still under copyright, after all). Classic Warner animation may arrive on DVD someday, but we are not expecting anybody to lift the veil of political correctness on these rarities, which may remain MIA forever.
(The lone exception the wartime short "Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips" (1944) was released on the first Golden Age of Looney Tunes MGM Laserdisc set, but deleted from subsequent pressings. As it was a legally produced item when first sold, it still is traded on eBay.)
Top of the Pops: Here's the top-selling Drama DVDs last week from our friends at Ken Crane's DVDPlanet.com. Click the links to read our reviews of these discs:
Bye for now.
Tuesday, 19 February 2002
On the Street: There's a variety of new titles on the street this week, in particular two BBC documentaries from Home Vision, The Confessions of Robert Crumb and Jackson Pollock: Love and Death on Long Island. Mainstream fare can be found with Lions Gate's O: Special Edition and Paramount's Hardball, while Fox has the thriller Don't Say a Word for grown-ups and animated titles Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, A Troll in Central Park, and Thumbelina for the kids. The 1982 Frances Farmer biopic Frances starring Jessica Lange and Sam Shepard is out from Anchor Bay, and serious film buffs will want to look for Russell Rouse's unusual The Thief, in a new DVD release from Image. And if you positively cannot wait for Fellowship of the Ring to arrive on DVD, the new National Geographic title Beyond the Movie: Lord of the Rings may hold you over for now. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 18 February 2002
Disc of the Week: While the term "experimental cinema" may cause most people to think of cheap black-and-white film-festival shorts that are as indulgent as they are impenetrable, in fact just about every major advance in the history of motion pictures is the result of an experiment of some kind. D.W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein broadened the language of cinema with such editing techniques as cross-cutting and montage. The Vitaphone sound system famous for giving voice to The Jazz Singer (1927) drew crowds and forced Hollywood to re-examine how movies should be made. The use of color became widespread thanks to the Technicolor system. And while widescreen films may be common today, various technologies had been tinkered with before the format took hold in the '50s. But the world of cinema is populated by artists, not scientists and artists often will resist the march of progress just for the sake of seeing what happens. Alfred Hitchcock created Rope (1948) without visible editing. Jean-Luc Godard used a limited budget to his own advantage in Breathless (1960) by tacking scenes together and thus creating the jump-cut. Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup (1966) abandons its own murder-mystery plot for a predominantly silent exploration of photography and perception. And recent films such as Pulp Fiction (1994) and Memento (2001) are popular examples of narrative disruption, while Memento also uses a blend of color and black-and-white stock as a dynamic narrative device.
It's not possible to detail all of history's notable film experiments, but a short list probably would include Russell Rouse's The Thief (1952), a daring project with a popular leading actor and a Cold War plot taken from the day's headlines. The only catch was that Rouse and co-scenarist Clarence Greene had written the entire script without dialogue nobody speaks throughout the 90-minute film. Ray Milland stars in The Thief as Dr. Allan Fields, a renowned American nuclear physicist who is collecting information for the Russians. At the film's outset we learn that Fields has a set routine to contact his Russian handler, as a series of rings on the telephone indicate he is to go to a certain location and wait for instructions, while sensitive microfilm is often passed from Fields to the Russian in the reading room of the Library of Congress. Fields is skilled at the espionage work, although it preys on his conscience and it's clear he would like to shake free of the whole business. But when a Russian courier is struck by a car and the police find he had delicate information from Fields' office, every scientist in the building is shadowed by the FBI in the hopes of finding the mole in their midst.
With cinematic experiments such as The Thief, two questions must be asked: First, does it work? And secondly, does it have value? In the first instance, Rouse's spy drama is a carefully crafted, functional bit of filmmaking, although mostly in terms of the film's elements, while not quite as much when taken as a complete experience. Rouse and Greene's intent when writing The Thief was clear enough since the advent of the "talkies" a scant 25 years earlier, the nature of dialogue had altered what was regarded as the "pure cinema" of the silent era, as it was much more convenient to convey spoken information rather than illustrate it visually. Indeed, the greatest masters of the sound era, such as Hitchcock and Welles, embraced sound but never were willing to break with the visual nature of the medium; Welles' Citizen Kane is primarily a visual experience, while Hitchcock was more fond of sound design than dialogue (Hitch usually hired people to write his scripts rather than do it himself). In this sense, The Thief is a throwback to the age of silents, and in a perfect setting, as Rouse's spymaster world of 1950s Washington D.C. and New York City operates in the shadows, where people live solitary lives and communicate with covert glances and signals. But while it's an entertaining film with more than its share of nail-biting segments, The Thief is more of a valuable investigation of film grammar than a moviegoing experience, primarily because dialogue integrated properly into motion pictures is a useful thing, and there are moments in The Thief where it's clear that people should say a word or two, but don't. At these points it's obvious that the film is hampered by its self-imposed edicts, at times stretching the bounds of realism. But all budding cineastes owe it to themselves to watch The Thief at least once, and it should be required viewing in film schools everywhere as an acrobatic display of the first rule of moviemaking: Don't say it when you can show it.
Image Entertainment's new DVD release of The Thief offers a clean transfer in the original full-frame ratio (1.33:1), with audio in Dolby Digital 1.0. The source-print is serviceable, but collateral wear is evident. This one also is as bare-bones as it gets, since the main menu doubles as the chapter-selection display. But it's worth a spin, and serious noir collectors will want this rarity their personal libraries. The Thief is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: Five new films debuted over the President's Day weekend, and claiming the top spot was Denzel Washington with New Line's hostage drama John Q., which earned $20.6 million over the past three days. And perhaps we should be grateful, for were it not for John Q., Paramount's Britney Spears star-project Crossroads would have been the number-one film in America in any event, it performed strongly with a $14.6 million bow for second place (far better than the oft-compared Mariah Carey washout Glitter, which never reached the top ten). Other new arrivals included Disney's Return to Never Land ($11.8 million), MGM's Hart's War ($8.3 million), and Fox's Super Troopers ($6.2 million). The new films received mixed reviews with the exception of Crossroads, which was jack-hammered by most critics (Ebert: "I went to Crossroads expecting a glitzy bimbofest and got the bimbos but not the fest.")
In continuing release, eight Academy Award nominations earned Universal's A Beautiful Mind another $8.5 million with $124.7 million to date, while the 13-time nominee Lord of the Rings is still hanging around, adding $5 million to its $277.9 million cume. Last week's winner, Warner's Collateral Damage, fell to fourth with $28.5 million so far, while Black Hawk Down now has $95.4 million after two months. And on the way to DVD prep is MGM's Rollerball, which had a $9 million break last week but has now vanished from sight.
New films opening this Friday include Dragonfly starring Kevin Costner and Queen of the Damned with Aaliyah and Stuart Townsend. Here's the top-grossing films at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: Betsy Bozdech has posted a sneak preview of the two-disc O: Special Edition, while D.K. Holm recently looked at the documentary The Confessions of Robert Crumb. New stuff from the rest of the gang this week includes Don't Say a Word, Hardball, Hot Pursuit, Jackson Pollock: Love and Death on Long Island, Nothing in Common, Fifth of July: Broadway Theatre Archive, The Thief, and Satan in High Heels. Everything's been added to the New Reviews menu here on the front page you can find even more DVD reviews with our handy search engine right above it.
Back tomorrow with this week's street discs.
Thursday, 14 February 2002
Coming Attractions: It's time to peel the plastic off some fresh DVDs, and new reviews on the way include Don't Say a Word, Hardball, and more. In the meantime, if you haven't entered our totally free DVD contest for a copy of Ghost World, 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. Have a great weekend.
Quotable: "Though it has rarely been the academy's style to embrace probing, difficult material, the year's events seemed to have if anything increased its love of the familiar. As a result, four of the five best picture nominees, even those with ostentatiously glitzy exteriors like Moulin Rouge, are conventional at their core. And, with one exception (the exceptional In the Bedroom), films that didn't fit that mold suffered in the voting. So the traditionally uplifting A Beautiful Mind was a big winner Tuesday, scoring nominations in most of the major categories, while the disquieting Black Hawk Down was something of a disappointment, failing to get a best picture nod. Since Sept. 11, Hollywood has been trying to gauge the national mood, and if academy voters reflect current tastes, everyone wants movies that go down easy."
Film critic Kenneth Turan, writing in The Los
Helen Mirren, nominated for her role in
"None of us get nominated if Russell Crowe didn't do the job he did in this movie. I feel everyone did a wonderful job, everyone deserves their recognition, myself included, but I must be very candid and frank with you: If the performance doesn't live up to the standards (Crowe) reached, the film is not going to be acknowledged as it was."
Director Ron Howard, who's A Beautiful
"I always find it strange when a film is nominated and not the director. I feel particularly bad about that."
Lord of the Rings director and Oscar
"There is, of course, a limit to the number of times one can take to the public stage to renounce one's country and heap scorn on its leaders after which audiences are bound to begin heading for the exits. Indeed, (Robert) Altman might do well to ration further public pronouncements on his wish to abandon the U.S. for France, Britain, and similar political Edens. Otherwise fearful vision we may find him wandering the shores of Europe in perpetuity, catching at the sleeves of travelers to announce that he has decided to leave America."
Wall Street Journal media columnist
Wednesday, 13 February 2002
Other goodies announced for the store include a remastered Eraserhead soundtrack CD and "BlueBob," Lynch's first-ever CD of original music (hints of which may be found on the Mulholland Drive CD).
* * *
So it looks like the store goes up on the 11th to members only, and the Collected Short Films will be available on that date, at an as-yet super-secret price point.
There's the juice folks Eraserhead is not quite ready to go digital, but keep your eyes on www.davidlynch.com for the director-approved version (and thanks to Jeremy keeping on top of this for us.)
Richard Linklater's low-budget 1991 cult hit Slacker a sprawling film concerning several young oddballs in the college town of Austin, Texas is completely MIA from DVD, but its status is hardly a mystery. Independently produced by Linklater's Detour Film Production, the picture originally was distributed theatrically by Orion Classics, and Orion released the first VHS edition as well. However, the Orion catalog eventually found its way to MGM, and The Lion released their Slacker VHS in February of 2000. For those interested in Laserdiscs, the sole LD release came from Image in 1993, but it's bone-stock and probably not worth much with a standard 1.33:1 transfer and Dolby Surround audio.
That leaves the ball in MGM's court, and for Linklater fans that may not be a good thing. We've praised MGM in the past for their aggressive DVD release schedule particularly since they own a back-catalog of 4,100 films and often we've been happy to get the classics on attractive, bare-bones DVDs (Inherit the Wind and Witness for the Prosecution have been two recent black-and-white treats from the studio). But it's also known that MGM earmarks just two or three titles a month for special-edition status, and often they are new movies. Perhaps sales of Terry Zwigoff's unusual teen film Ghost World will convince MGM that Slacker also deserves a special edition. But it's just as likely that the movie will arrive in one of the studio's catalog dumps under the "Contemporary Classics" folio.
And not to add insult to injury, but a missing Slacker DVD can hardly compare to a massive oversight by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who completely ignored Linklater's Waking Life largely considered to be one of the most ambitious, thought-provoking animated films of last year by failing to nominate it yesterday morning in the Best Animated Film category in favor of mainstream titles Shrek, Monsters, Inc., and Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. We thought the failure of Memento to earn a Best Picture nod was Tuesday's worst blunder, but the complete omission of Waking Life may be a close second.
Top of the Pops: Here's the top-selling Drama DVDs last week from our friends at Ken Crane's DVDPlanet.com. Click the links to read our reviews of these discs:
Tuesday, 12 February 2002
Academy Award nods: Here's the rundown this morning from sunny L.A.:
Leading the way was The Lord of the Rings with 13 nominations, while A Beautiful Mind and Moulin Rouge received eight apiece.
On the Street: Want a thin street week? Here's one but then again it's nice when you don't have to worry about what to pick up, because Criterion leads the way this morning with Milos Forman's Czech New Wave classics The Firemen's Ball and Loves of a Blonde, in addition to Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries, and all three transfers will satisfy fans. New from Warner is last year's Hearts in Atlantis starring Anthony Hopkins, in addition to the documentary Walking with Prehistoric Beasts, while Buena Vista has double-dipped the animated Peter Pan as a new special edition. If you're up for nostalgia, three Bad News Bears films from Paramount might be the thing for you. As for us, we're more tempted by two new cult releases from Image, Giants and Toys and Satan in High Heels. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Bye for now.
Monday, 11 February 2002
Disc of the Week: Every decade seems to offer its own regional film renaissance. Film critics and art house patrons go nuts over a suddenly emerging national cinema that inevitably seems more authentic and realistic than Hollywood product. In the immediate postwar era, Italy shone. France took the world by storm in the late '50s to the early '60s. Germany dominated the '70s, and currently Iran and Denmark are the critical darlings. But in the mid '60s it was Eastern Europe that swept through the film festivals and art houses. Each country had its own identity. Broadly speaking, while Polish films were the most hard-edged politically, often using World War II as a cover for contemporary commentary, Hungary and Yugoslavia were the most advanced in terms of camera movement and narrative experimentation, and Czechoslovakia preferred lightly comic tales about the common man. At the forefront of the Czech new wave was Milos Forman.
Not that Czech films weren't political. The Firemen's Ball (Hori, má panenko), shot in mid-1967, was banned in 1968 in its home country "for all time" by the Communist bureaucracy after it played for a few weeks near the end of Czechoslovakia's Prague Spring. That "time" ended with the fall of the Communist dictatorship in 1989. Today, it's difficult to see why The Firemen's Ball was so irritating to Party officials. After all, it only tells the simple story of a volunteer firemen's unit in a small town striving to throw a party to honor their retiring, elderly commander (Jan Stöckl), who has been diagnosed with cancer. Almost the whole movie takes place at the ball itself, and follows three narrative threads. Josef (Josef Kolb) has been placed in charge of the raffle prizes, but under his befuddled watch they start to disappear, a head cheese even pilfered by his wife (Milada Jezková). Meanwhile, the firemen are having trouble gathering candidates for a beauty contest, the embarrassed girls all fleeing to the bathroom. When a fire breaks out in the house of another elderly citizen (Frantisek Svet), thanks to snow and other impediments the firemen can only watch helplessly as the huge house burns to the ground. An attempt to cheer up the victim by arranging to have him win some of the raffle prizes backfires when it turns out that the coveted items have all disappeared.
The Firemen's Ball is quietly hilarious in its dismantling of misguided do-gooderism. But the film's mockery of indecisive bureaucracy is more universal than a simple attack on Communist inefficiency. And Forman, with his co-screenwriters Ivan Passer and Jaroslav Papousek, take a stance of wry amusement at human foibles. Arguably Forman is the least explicitly political of all the Eastern European directors who either stayed or fled, and his later work in Hollywood with such films as Amadeus is signaled here by his interest in group behavior and the machinations of what can only be described as mid-level managers, be they firemen's committee members or the musicians attached to a king's court. Unlike the historical literary adaptations of his later Hollywood career, The Firemen's Ball is based on observed reality. Forman, Passer, and Papousek actually attended just such a ball and converted their observations into an amused meditation on human inefficiency. The tale just happens to be set in a society that put a misguided premium on efficiency. The Firemen's Ball was shot in Vrchlabi with an amateur cast, adding to the naturalism of the film (though some cast members had worked with Forman before).
The Criterion Collection has done a marvelous job with its newly restored DVD version of The Firemen's Ball. The disc features a beautiful full frame (1.33:1) transfer of the movie, supervised by cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek. The Firemen's Ball was Forman's first color film, and his initial nervousness about the process was allayed when Ondricek arranged to purchase good color stock from the west, the investment made possible by producer Carlo Ponti, who unfortunately pulled out after he saw the finished film. According to the box, the new digital transfer was "mastered from a 35mm interpositive," from film elements housed in Czechoslovakia, the procedure observed by Ondricek. It's an impeccable, beautiful transfer, marred only by a vertical black scratch when Josef is first shown approaching the table of raffle prizes. Audio is Dolby Digital 1.0, but sounds fine. The box also announces new and improved subtitles, credited to Mark Valenta and Suzanna Halsey. Supplements include a 15-minute video interview with Forman and a four-minute account of the film's restoration, featuring a brief interview with Forman and footage of Ondricek going over the print transfer. Included is a six-page booklet with cast and credits and an essay by Village Voice movie reviewer J. Hoberman. Forman's quiet masterpiece is more than just a time capsule offering a look at a now long gone time and place, it is a poignant comedy of manners that takes on human foibles with gentle understanding. The Firemen's Ball hits the streets tomorrow.
Box Office: Arnold Schwarzenegger returned to the top of the box-office charts over the weekend with Warner's Collateral Damage, which earned $15.1 million and gave Ah-nold his first number-one film since 1997's Batman and Robin. Also debuting strongly was Sony's Big Fat Liar starring Frankie Muniz ($11.7 m) and the MGM remake of Rollerball, directed by John McTiernan ($9 m). Both Collateral Damage and Rollerball arrived after studio postponements and were savaged by film critics, while Big Fat Liar earned mixed reviews.
In continuing release, Sony's Black Hawk Down was knocked from the top spot on the chart after four weeks in wide release, but it's still holding steady with $8 million over the weekend and $86.7 million to date, while Buena Vista's surprise hit Snow Dogs has plenty of legs, with a $6.7 million weekend and $59.5 million cume after one month. Universal's Oscar favorite A Beautiful Mind now stands at $112.8 million, and it looks like Buena Vista's The Count of Monte Cristo is doing good word-of-mouth business with $32.2 million in three weeks of release. Off the charts is Paramount's Orange County, which will finish in the respectable $40 million neighborhood. But getting no respect at all were last week's dismal debuts, Sony's Slackers and Miramax's Birthday Girl, which had sub-$3 million breaks and already are off to DVD prep.
New films this Friday include the Bruce Willis vehicle Hart's War, Denzel Washington and Robert Duvall in John Q, Disney's animated Return to Never Land, and egads! Britney Spears stab at acting in the teen drama Crossroads. Here's the top-grossing films at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: D.K. Holm has posted a sneak preview of Criterion's Loves of a Blonde, while Greg Dorr also looks at a new Criterion title this week with Wild Strawberries. New stuff from the rest of the team includes Hearts in Atlantis, Funny Lady, Summer of '42, Legend of the Red Dragon, The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings, Shaolin Wheel of Life, Hallelujah I'm a Bum!, The Firemen's Ball: The Criterion Collection, and The Royal Family: Broadway Theatre Archive. It's all under our New Reviews menu here on the front page or use our search engine to rewind into some DVD reviews from weeks past.
We'll be back tomorrow to let you know about this week's street discs.
Thursday, 7 February 2002
Coming Attractions: We're off to spin a fresh stack of DVDs, and new reviews on the way include a trio of Criterion titles and more from the Broadway Theatre Archive. We're back on Monday see ya then.
Commentary Clip: "What makes a bad guy a bad guy? Was he born a bad guy? Did he hit a bunch of roadblocks on the way to becoming a bad guy that forced him, or caused him to become a bad guy? Or was he just a bad guy from the beginning? I'm really interested in human behavior and what makes people lead to their actions, and as a filmmaker you search for these types of characters. (George Jung's) life was a series of mishaps, and a series of... y'know... bad timing.... I'm not sure what made George Jung choose the things he did, but I am certain of a few things. I'm certain that he grew up in a household that was less than positive, he watched his parents fight tremendously, his mother unfortunately was medicated a lot, his dad absolutely loved his mom to the point where he would just take it on the chin whenever he could. George grew up really upset at watching his parents, who he loved very much, argue and fight all the time, and it really affected him, and it made him a loner and made him do things by himself. And he just didn't have a strong parental base growing up. So as a teenager he was really messed up, drinking a lot and getting into fights and getting into trouble, and eventually when he was old enough to leave the nest he went out on his own seeking acceptance anywhere he could. And seeking acceptance, you seek it on the wrong places, you find out. And George no one forced him to do anything he did, but he didn't have that base underneath him, and I feel really strongly that with people to influence him positively growing up he may have turned out differently."
Director Ted Demme,
Quotable: "At all times, MGM maintained that it would not resolve its dispute with New Line in the absence of a substantial cash license payment by New Line at levels comparable to what the Bond films customarily command from promotional partners."
A statement from MGM after the studio nixed the
"It's appalling that something like this could happen.... Oscar will never leave my house again."
Whoopi Goldberg, after her 1990 Oscar for Ghost
Brad Pitt, in an interview with London's The
"It's truly awful doing these love scenes, because I'm very prone to getting embarrassed. We were just sitting around for days, sort of naked. Between takes, Nicole and I would look at each other and say the most God-awful, stupid things like, 'Can you believe this weather?' 'Do you think they'll serve the good fish for lunch?'"
Ben Chaplin, on shooting nude scenes with Nicole
"She's the female equivalent of Battlefield Earth."
John Wilson of the Golden Raspberry Foundation,
Wednesday, 6 February 2002
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 of reader comments from this week:
It would be a daunting task to put together a definitive list of the absolute best DVD commentaries, but a few spring to mind. One of the finest examples of the form (maybe the best ever) is Michael Jeck's track on Criterion's Seven Samurai, not only because it's scholarly and informative, but also because the track does exactly what it should it places the film entirely in context, illuminating all sorts of details about Japanese culture and customs, and (like an annotated edition of Shakespeare) explaining important nuances about the smallest of details. Jeck manages to transform what many Western viewers initially regard as an exciting action-adventure into a subtle character-study. His comments also illustrate Akira Kurosawa's total obsession with detail again, something easily missed by first-time viewers who are swept up in the story.
Roger Ebert's track on Citizen Kane is also laudable for its scholarly insights. Some have noted that the famous Chicago critic tends to fixate on action appearing directly on screen, and he rarely adopts a raconteur's approach with behind-the-scenes stories. But Ebert performs an important service especially for those not familiar with Kane as he points out, shot by shot, just how much effort Welles and his production team put into every single moment of screen-time. When Ebert states towards the beginning of the film that Kane has more special-effects shots than Star Wars, it's easy to be skeptical. But by the time the movie's over, it's apparent that Kane is one of the greatest special-effects films of all time, as well as a masterpiece of production design and spatial composition.
For sheer fun, we've always been partial to Paul Thomas Anderson's commentary on Boogie Nights. Anderson recorded a track for the first New Line DVD and a separate one with cast members for the Criterion Laserdisc. When both tracks were included on the second Boogie Nights DVD from New Line, one simply paled in comparison to the other. The Criterion track (largely recorded at Anderson's home) is sometimes hard to hear, and a few cast members suffer from lack of insights. But on his own in the recording studio, Anderson simply unloads the many burdens of creating such a sprawling, difficult movie in what amounts to part liberation, part confession. He's animated, comically profane, and so full of discussion topics that he often bounces from one to the next at a rapid pace. Few commentary tracks make you wish you could hang out with the person speaking, but Paul Thomas Anderson comes across as one of the most down-to-earth people in Hollywood (even admitting in the opening moments that he learned a lot about movies from Laserdisc commentaries).
In the realm of edited group commentary, one of the standouts must be on Criterion's Spartacus. Ported from the original Laserdisc, the track features Kirk Douglas, Peter Ustinov, novelist Howard Fast, producer Edward Lewis, film restorer Robert A. Harris, and designer Saul Bass. It's a Bacchanalia of big egos, full of gossip and contradictions, with Douglas energetic but even-handed, Ustinov recalling on-set rivalries (and impersonating fellow cast members), and Fast settling a few scores over how his book was translated to the screen. Some DVD fans say edited commentaries are far too lacking when it comes to interaction between speakers. In this case, it's as compelling as secret grand-jury testimony.
Of course, there are more notable commentary tracks out there, but to be worth it they must in some way illuminate the film at hand. Edward Norton has several good insights into his character in Fight Club, while we think Steven Soderbergh (Out of Sight) and Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) are both entertaining and informative directors. John Carpenter and Kurt Russell are a lot of fun on Big Trouble in Little China, recalling how the film went from high-profile release to box-office disaster, and we also should say that film historian Tom Weaver has contributed a few funny, rapid-fire tracks on Universal's excellent Classic Monster Collection series. If a commentary rounds out the viewing experience in any way, we're all for it, but we're less interested in idle chatter, or worse, commentaries that serve as extra entertainment. Both Criterion's and MGM's This Is Spinal Tap discs feature commentaries from the cast. Criterion's is detailed, relaxed, and low-key, and your editor will always listen to it before the MGM track, where the actors speak in character throughout the film. They're funny guys, but Spinal Tap is funny enough on its own.
Costa-Gavras' classic 1969 political thriller starring Yves Montand may not have found its way on to DVD yet, but we think this is merely a matter of time. There have been two Laserdisc releases a full-frame CAV transfer from Image in 1989 (#ID7570AX), and a 1.66:1 CAV release from Criterion in 1997 (#342). As Z was shot in non-anamorphic 35mm, the full-frame transfer is not as offensive as a pan-and-scan hack-job, so those who find the Image LD for a good price may want to consider it. Both it and the Criterion laser can be found on eBay, but not very often.
As for who holds the rights, it is none other than Fox Lorber/Winstar, which makes the lack of a DVD rather puzzling since the distributor released a new Z widescreen VHS in February of 2001. Considering the amount of preparation that goes into any home-video release, usually companies will achieve an economy of scale by streeting VHS and DVD editions concurrently, but this has not been the case.
And for those who are hoping that Criterion may once again have the opportunity to release the film on our favorite shiny format, the chances are somewhere between razor-slim and nothing the Criterion versions of John Woo's The Killer and Hard Boiled were released under license from Fox Lorber (on both LD and DVD) before the company decided to put out their own discs. It appears this one will go digital under the Fox Lorber banner we just don't know when.
(And thanks to both of our letter-writers today Babylon 5 DVDs and t-shirts are in the mail.)
See ya tomorrow.
Tuesday, 5 February 2002
On the Street: It's that time of year when DVD fans start to wonder if some studios have quit the business. Not to worry things will pick up as spring approaches, and there are a few choice items to get today anyway. New from MGM is the awesome Ghost World, which we think is easily one of the best films from last year, while new titles from MGM's catalog holdings include After the Fox, Cast a Giant Shadow, Girl with Green Eyes, Hallelujah I'm a Bum!, Kings Go Forth, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and Town Without Pity. New from Warner is Alan J. Pakula's classic Klute starring Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland, while 1971's Summer of '42 is on the street as well. Columbia TriStar's out for laughs with the amusing Used Cars, in addition to Blind Date and Funny Lady, while Universal hopes Captain Corelli's Mandolin will find second life on home video. And if you're like us and think DVD means more than bright lights and subwoofers, new titles from the Broadway Theatre Archive (distributed by Image) include The Fifth of July, Fosse, The Royal Family, and The Seagull we'll be looking at more in this series over the next several weeks. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 4 February 2002
And the winner is: Alex Kost of Chandler, Ariz., wins the free Moulin Rouge DVD from our January contest. Congrats, Alex!
Our totally free DVD contest for the month of February is up and running, and we have a copy of MGM's Ghost World up for grabs, as well as a signed graphic novel. 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: Good comedies are rare, and it's unfortunate when they don't connect at the box office, but in recent years some of the funniest movies did not find an audience until home viewing. Perhaps it's because studios don't know how to sell comedies unless they star some ex-Saturday Night Live cast member, but many revered titles actually flopped in cineplexes on initial release Waiting for Guffman, This Is Spinal Tap, Top Secret, and The Princess Bride got lost in the box-office shuffle, found homes on VHS and cable, and only then developed cult followings. Such can be said of Robert Zemeckis' second feature film Used Cars (1980), which debuted the week after Airplane and floundered in the blockbuster's turbulence. Executive produced by Steven Spielberg and John Milius, Used Cars is the sort of razor-sharp comedy most people hope to see when they buy tickets for the latest Farrelly Brothers-inspired gross-out. But while it can be tasteless, Used Cars is so blessedly no-holds-barred that every gag pays off.
Kurt Russell stars as Rudy Russo, a "do anything for a sale" used-car huckster who works for Luke Fuchs (Jack Warden), a kindly old man who believes a little more in honest salesmanship. Unfortunately, Luke's brother Roy Fuchs (Warden, again) doesn't, and with a competing dealership right across the street, Roy schemes to have Luke killed by causing the sickly man to have a stroke. After the untimely death, Rudy takes over the sales department and he's promised to never allow the business to fall into the bad brother's hands. After burying his boss on the lot, Rudy keeps the death a secret between him, his extremely superstitious fellow salesman Jeff (Gerrit Graham), and the lot's mechanic Jim (Frank McRae). With Rudy in control, subtlety goes out the window in search of massive sales. After all, Rudy needs $10,000 to secure the job title he most lusts after: State Senator. But when his dead boss's daughter (Deborah Harmon) shows up, Rudy is caught in a tangle of lies even worse, she's totally hot, and he falls for her.
There are some monster laughs in Used Cars; if anything over his career, Zemeckis has shown that he is a cinematic master of giving the audience a great set up and a pay off and then a second one, and a third one. Based around the shameless exploits of a bunch of used-car salesman (why hasn't anyone thought of doing this before or after?), Used Cars is the kind of film W. C. Fields would have made if he had done R-rated comedies. There is a welcome meanness and profanity to the movie; at some moments in the film the utterance of a four-letter words can elicit laughs. As the salesmen, both Graham and Russell pull out every stop to sell cars, from public nudity to pretending to kill a dog, and the audience quickly appreciates their hucksterisms, especially since we're not the rube on the buying end. Besides, anyone who's suckered by these guys deserves what they get. Zemeckis has always had an eye for supporting players, here it's a jackpot: Gerrit Graham was always a wonderful comic presence it's a shame he didn't make more films and his twitchy performance here is nothing short of brilliant, perfectly complemented by the comedically off-kilter McRae. And there's also David Lander and Michael McKean (aka Lenny and Squiggy), who arrive as tech wizards to set up illegally broadcast TV commercials (which are the comic highlights of the film), while Alfonso Arau, Joe Flaherty, Dub Taylor, and Al Lewis all add some funny, often outrageous bits. But at the heart of the film is Russell's perfectly pitched manic performance. As the honest liar Rudy, he beams confidence and slick cool without ever becoming sleazy. At the time Russell was just leaving his stretch of Disney movies, and he plays the part for broke, nailing the patois of the oily huckster, but with that perfectly innocent face that suggests he might have a smidge of integrity. As Zemeckis says on the DVD's audio commentary, it's a Frank Capra kind of film except the Jimmy Stewart character has no morals.
For fans, Used Cars thankfully has been released as a special edition in all but name. Columbia TriStar's new disc presents the film in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) with monaural DD 2.0 audio. The chief supplement is the commentary with Zemeckis, Russell and co-writer/producer Bob Gale, where they revel in the movie's failure and seem amused that they are asked to talk about the picture at all. Also included is vintage advertising, four minutes of outtakes, a five-minute Kurt Russell radio interview, eight radio spots, bonus trailers, and filmographies. Best of the bunch: a 30-second TV spot Kurt Russell did for the actual Mesa, Ariz. car dealership featured in the film. Used Cars is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: In case anybody didn't notice, yesterday was Superbowl Sunday marking a weekend that studios avoid like the plague. With only two films debuting to dismal numbers, the chart remained largely unchanged from last week, with Sony's Black Hawk Down holding the top spot for the third week in a row with a sturdy $11.5 million over the weekend and $75.5 million to date. Much further behind were Sony's new Slackers, garnering just $3 million, while Miramax's Birthday Girl starring Nicole Kidman managed $2.5 million. Neither debut cracked the top ten.
In continuing release, Disney's Snow Dogs remains in second place, also for the third week in a row, passing $50 million and giving The Mouse House a pleasant surprise hit, while the studio's Count of Monte Cristo climbed three places in its second frame thanks to good reviews and positive word-of-mouth, with $23 million so far. And Universal's A Beautiful Mind a heavy favorite when the Oscar nominations are announced this month has now passed the century with a $104.6 million cume. Off the chart is another Oscar hopeful as well: Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums will finish above $40 million, surpassing the $17 million earned by his previous film, 1999's Rushmore.
Black Hawk Down may have trouble keeping that top spot after this weekend opening Friday are two long-delayed action films, Collateral Damage starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Rollerball with Chris Klein, Jean Reno, LL Cool J, and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos. Here's the top-grossing films at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: Dawn Taylor has posted a sneak-preview of MGM's Ghost World, while D.K. Holm has written an extensive retrospective of Alan J. Pakula's Klute, out this week from Warner. New reviews from the rest of the gang this morning include Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Sabrina (1995), The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, After the Fox, When Strangers Appear, Blind Date, Venomous: Special Edition, Used Cars, The Seagull: Broadway Theatre Archive, and the overseas import of the Twin Peaks pilot. All can be found under the New Reviews menu here on the front page, while our DVD reviews database features more than 1,400 additional write-ups.
Back tomorrow with the rundown on this week's street discs.