Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
I don’t want to be long-winded about this upfront, so I’ll just welcome you to the first day of the new column and lay out my goals. First, I’d like to open up the dialogue about what’s good about this format, and about what could be better. My personal viewing habits have changed almost completely over the last year or so. I used to see at least three or four movies a week in the theater. Every week. Without fail. Now, I’m lucky if I see one thing every few weeks in the theater. I find that it takes a lot to motivate me to get out of the house, to take a break from work, or to give up quiet personal time. As a result, DVD has become so much more important to me. It’s how I see practically everything.
I find that a lot of my time online these days is given up to browsing and reading whatever DVD news and reviews there are. If you’re like me, you probably know a lot of the good sites by now, but it’s worth naming a few.
HOME THEATER FORUM, owned by Ronald Epstein, is a great discussion area for all things DVD related. They are an excellent resource for DVD reviews that emphasize both the content and the quality of the discs, and they do an excellent job of providing immediate feedback on their reviews, so readers can pipe up about technical issues they’ve encountered. Of course, there is The DVD Journal, where our own Mr. Beaks does some great work and where Alexandra DuPont publishes, as well. It’s a great overall site, with a really well-balanced mix of reviews and news. I love The Digital Bits, both because of their Daily Rumor column, and because of their upcoming DVD covers gallery, which is frequently updated. Great way to browse and decide what you want in the near future. Besides, you’ve got to love a website with a regular column by Robert A. Harris, the single best guy working in film restoration and archiving today.
There are others, definitely, and as we discuss DVDs and the coverage of them, I’m sure we’ll name quite a few of them here in this column. The point is, I don’t want anyone to think that I’m trying to set us up as any kind of end-all be-all coverage. It’s not going to happen.
Instead, this is personal coverage by one DVD collector looking to open the dialogue with other DVD collectors. Like all of the things that we cover on AICN, this column is born out of a completely personal motivation. This is what I’m thinking about these days... so why wouldn’t it be what I want to discuss with you guys?
As someone who’s been on the internet since 1995, I’m very set in my ways as a browser. I’m always looking for tidbits of information. Most DVD news is just releasing the specs for something that’s coming up soon. For example, I got a very passionate letter earlier today:
Link to the Alien DVD box setthat will rule all and actually SURPASS the LOTR discs in terms of quality and supplements. Moriarty, Harry, make sure to read past that list - you'll get some great info that you'd do well to pass on to the PERFECT audience for this stuff - your readers. If you guys can take time out of your day to shit all over Paul Anderson for Alien vs Predator and post god knows HOW many articles on how cool it'd be if Ridley returned to the saga, how come when Ridley, in a way, DOES return to the films, the site gives it a big fat ZILCH in terms of coverage?
Link to the trailer currently running in front of "The Order" and "Cabin Fever".
I know I've written an email about this before, but you guys can and should be giving this shit SOME play. At least Herc on the Coax side should be giving SOME lip to this DVD release, especially since Resurrection, Whedon's little addition to the mythos, is getting a re-working for set.
C'mon you guys, quit fucking around. Give these movies some coverage.
Well, part of the reason I’d been waiting to do anything about the ALIEN QUADRILOGY box is that none of the specs we’ve seen listed so far are complete. There’s one person I know who is involved with the project, and he’s been very, very tightlipped about it. All he has done so far is shoot down the various incomplete listings I’ve seen show up online with vague promises that “it’s much, much cooler than that.” It sounds like they’re going out of their way to put together something that will be the ultimate collector’s item for fans of the franchise. The thread I link to above is a great starting place for you if you want to get worked up about the set. Just realize that it’s very incomplete and they’re still working to figure out just what exactly will be on the discs. I’m just dying to hear the cast commentary for ALIENS. I have no idea who exactly they put together, but I bet it’s going to be a hell of a lot of fun to listen to. Now if only Fincher was actually involved with the whole thing...
Over at DVD File, they’ve got some updates about new titles. Pisses me off to read about a double (or does this make triple?) dipped THE DARK CRYSTAL coming out. I don’t really want to drop another $50 on the film. I see that BATTLE OF SHAKER HEIGHTS is set for December 9th. That was fast. I watched every episode of PROJECT GREENLIGHT this year, but didn’t make it to the theater for the film. Should I feel guilty?
I’m excited about Fantoma Films and their plans to release some of the American Zoetrope titles that aren’t already out. Their first release, ONE FROM THE HEART, sounds like it’s going to be a heck of a package. And the news about the release on November 18th of A TALE OF TWO JOHNS is a real pleasure. They Might Be Giants fans, get ready if you weren’t lucky enough to see this one in a theater. It’s a charmer, and it’s packed with great music and great interviews. Sounds like the disc is going to be something special, too.
Over on DVD Review, they’ve got an angry editorial under the “Smell The Coffee” byline that tackles the issue of Universal, a company plagued by some of the worst ongoing mistakes and technical cock-ups in the marketplace right now. They treat their titles poorly, and they have frequently put out substandard discs, even for high-profile releases. With the company facing some fairly major restructuring, my hope is that they’re about to be forced to get their shit together. For now, though, I think that editorial is exactly on-target.
FROM THE SHELF
The last couple of weeks, we’ve been watching a pretty odd mix of stuff here at the Labs. Just to give you some idea of the range of stuff I’d like to talk about, let’s tiptoe back through the stack and see what’s been in play.
For a solid week, we started every day with one of the recent batch of Don Knotts films that Universal has released. There aren’t really any extras to speak of, and that’s a shame. I would have loved to have heard actual commentaries from Knotts himself. I have been a lifelong fan of the guy’s work, and as silly and formulaic as they are, I really enjoyed revisiting THE RELUCTANT ASTRONAUT, THE SHAKIEST GUN IN THE WEST, THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN, HOW TO FRAME A FIGG, and THE LOVE GOD?, my personal fave of the bunch. The sound and picture on the discs is actually quite good, and two out of the five anamorphic transfers are in full 2.35:1. I found all five of the discs for under $10, so if you’re interested, a little smart shopping should fill in your collection quite nicely.
Another current daily ritual is watching one episode every afternoon from the recently released ALIAS: SEASON ONE box set. I reviewed the pilot way back when on AICN, but the actual scheduling of the show kept me from watching it once it got underway. The trend of releasing TV shows on DVD has meant that I am able to catch up on shows that I wanted to see but never did, and it’s even gotten me to take a chance on some things. With ALIAS, they’re perfect to watch this way, one per day. The cliffhangers from episode to episode make it a lot of fun, and having them all here makes the wait bearable. I know many people (including JJ Abrams) think I have a problem with him because of my SUPERMAN script review, but it’s simply not true. I judged that as a single piece of work, and based on the fun I’ve been having so far (we just watched episode eight, “Time Will Tell,” on Saturday), ALIAS is something very different. It’s his world, his mythology. He’s not reinterpreting someone else’s creation. This is his. Jennifer Garner is a great lead, and the supporting cast is perfectly chosen. As far as the DVDs themselves, the sound and picture quality is exceptional, among the best I’ve seen from a TV show being pressed to disc.
It was totally different with Seth McFarlane’s FAMILY GUY, a show I missed by design when it was on the air. I saw the first few episodes and didn’t like it. I thought the designs were ugly and the writing was obvious. The show managed to pick up a devoted cult during its spotty run on Fox, though, and people kept telling me to give it another chance. When the first box set was released with Seasons One and Two, I picked it up, and I have to admit... when the show works, it can be insanely funny. I don’t think it was consistently great, but as anyone who is enjoying the Fox release of THE SIMPSONS, season by season, can tell you, that show didn’t hit its stride until Season Three. When I got the new Season Three box for FAMILY GUY this past week, I watched one full disc per night, and devouring them fast like that, I think it’s clear that FAMILY GUY was also just starting to solidify its voice, and was about to get great. The commentary tracks with McFarlane and others from the show are a shock if only because I’m not used to hearing people swear on commentaries. There’s a sort of unspoken rule that commentary tracks are clean. Maybe I’m just conditioned from working my way through all of the excellent commentaries on the SIMPSONS and FUTURAMA boxes. At any rate, McFarlane is not one to curb his tongue, and Fox ended up slapping an extra warning on the front of the discs thanks to his liberal usage of the word “fuck.” The never-aired “When You Wish Upon A Weinstein” is probably the best of this set’s special features, and it seems ridiculous to have not aired the show. There’s nothing in that one episode that is any more offensive or shocking than the general content of the series. It’s certainly not a program for those who are easily upset by jokes, and it’s not as scathing or political as SOUTH PARK at its best, but for anyone who enjoys good ol’ fashioned dirty pop culture satire, FAMILY GUY manages to deliver the goods. Sound and picture is uniformly good throughout the entire set.
A lot of the films I bring home, I missed when they played in the theater. BULLETPROOF MONK and THE CORE are both good examples. I didn’t see either one earlier this year, and I picked them up used. That’s the price of myself and a date at the theater, so I don’t think it’s too big a deal to pick something up and give it a chance that way. I can always trade it later if I hate it, and if I like it, it’s there on the shelf. I gave up on rentals altogether a while ago, and have been much happier as a consumer ever since. The only reason I ever set foot in my local Blockbuster is because you can find some great deals on used titles there. We watched THE CORE one day, BULLETPROOF MONK the next, and in both cases, I feel like I got suckerpunched. THE CORE is awful in a way that almost has to be seen to be believed. I kept thinking back to Aaron Eckhart’s proud announcement that his performance in the film was dedicated to all the brave firefighters who died on 9/11 and wondering if their families had called Eckhart to ask him to reconsider. I like him as an actor, but he’s hilariously bad in several places in this film. The death scenes of at least three of the major characters had me laughing out loud, never a good sign. And most amazingly, the special effects, which should have been the one thing the movie got right no matter what, are anything but special. It’s a horribly designed film, visually confusing and dramatically inert. As my co-writer said at the one hour mark, “Jesus, you mean they’re going to be in trapped in their seats for the rest of the movie?” At least THE CORE is funny, though. BULLETPROOF MONK is one of those bad films that just bores. I felt bad for the cast, stranded by Paul Hunter’s miserable direction. Put him down in the column with Tarsem and Hype Williams, music video directors who can’t manage a feature film. From scene to scene, or from moment to moment, there’s no sense of storytelling. Hunter never once engages the viewer. MGM does a really nice job of putting together a special edition package for the film, and I like the inclusion of a writer’s commentary for obvious reasons. I’ve noticed this on a number of recent films (BASIC and TEARS OF THE SUN spring to mind), and I hope it’s a trend that continues just long enough for me to drive my most ardent detractors insane at least once with my Mountain Dew and ego-fuelled rant about why MORTAL KOMBAT 3 is better than CITIZEN fucking KANE. Ahem. I give credit to MGM for putting together a great package, but when the movie’s a total stiff like BULLETPROOF MONK, it hardly seems worth the effort.
Blue Underground is a fairly new label that was started by Bill Lustig, formerly of Anchor Bay, and so far, they’ve put together at least two great discs. The Larry Cohen films Q THE WINGED SERPENT and GOD TOLD ME TO! are classic ‘70s low-budget horror. Cohen frequently worked with no money, so he was forced to be a good writer in order to make his films interesting. His work on these two in particular reminds me of the work John Sayles did on ALLIGATOR and THE HOWLING. Solid, smart, character driven genre work. Q benefits greatly from the work of Michael Moriarty, Richard Roundtree, David Carradine, and the rest of the cast, and GOD TOLD ME TO features one of the most inventive plot twists I can remember, as well as some great near-documentary footage of a shooting during a St. Patrick’s Day parade that was shot completely without permits. I haven’t listened to these audio commentaries yet, but I plan to. Each film features a track with Cohen, making them well worth picking up for his fans. The print quality is about as good as can be expected in each case, and Blue Underground’s done a good job of trying to spruce them up for these new releases.
One of the things I love about DVD is finally having great prints of certain films so I can introduce people to these movies. Some friends of ours just moved to town from Austin, and they were here the other night to see a movie. We ended up putting on PAPER MOON, which Paramount just released along with TARGETS, another Bogdanovich gem. Again, I found these titles for less that $10 each, and would recommend both if only for the exceptional transfers. PAPER MOON is one of my favorite modern black and white films, and it looks beautiful here. Anyone who enjoyed MATCHSTICK MEN this weekend who hasn’t seen PAPER MOON owes it to themselves to see this movie. I find that age hasn’t dulled the film’s comic edge one bit. Tatum O’Neal is still one of the greatest child actors to have ever carried a film, and Ryan O’Neal is hilarious trying to deal with her. There’s something intoxicating about a film this simple, and the script by Alvin Sargent is packed with great dialogue. At one point, Mose barks at the little girl, “You know what scruples are?” Without missing a beat, she shoots back, “No, but if you got ‘em, chances are they’re someone else’s.” This is a great, conversational commentary track, and Bogdanovich strikes me as one of the guys who really understands and enjoys the potential of this format. After all, he has worked to preserve the stories of the filmmakers who came before him, and at its best, DVD offers a way for us to archive everything about these movies we love. Not just the films themselves, but the stories of how they got made.
I also just picked up INTO THE NIGHT, and it’s a little disappointing. When I pick on Universal, it’s because of how half-hearted their catalog releases seem to be. The transfer here is okay, but nothing special, and there is nothing that could even be mistaken as an extra feature on this disc. I’ve always been a fan of the film, and there are any number of things that could have been done. What about a list of all the great cameos in the movie and a visual guide pointing them out? What about a commentary by Landis? How about not throwing these titles out there and treating them like you hate them, Universal? I won’t even get into the way you just shat all over MORE AMERICAN GRAFITTI, an oft-maligned and deeply misunderstood movie. I’m just grateful I have a copy of it, no matter how mishandled I think the release was.
Lions Gate just released STEVIE on disc this past week, and for anyone who is a fan of documentaries, I want you to find this movie. It makes CRUMB look like a POLICE ACADEMY film in terms of tone, but despite being incredibly depressing and difficult, it feels worthwhile. Essential, even. Steve James was one half of the team who made HOOP DREAMS, and in some ways, this film feels like a direct answer to that one. HOOP DREAMS was about hope. HOOP DREAMS was about promise, and the future, and how someone can change their own life through sheer force of will. STEVIE is about neglect and failure and a downward spiral that is almost pre-ordained. It’s about regret on the part of someone who could have helped but didn’t. It is engrossing and human and enormously powerful. Like this year’s CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS, this film deals with a central character who may have done something horrible. We’re never told how to feel about Stevie. Even the filmmaker feels deeply conflicted. See, Stevie was his Little Brother. They’re not related... James was part of the mentoring program many years ago and actually Big Brothered Stevie for a while. A troubled, abused kid, Stevie was a part of James’s life for a few years, and then he moved away and left the kid behind. Ten years later, he returns with his camera to see what Stevie’s life has become. This rekindles a complicated relationship that plays out over the next two and half hours with an almost novelistic amount of detail and subtext. It’s a great movie, a real reminder of just how powerful the documentary can be when it draws us into someone’s real life without artifice or pretense to get in the way. You will be worn raw by the film, but it’s worth the ride.
Hats off to Palm Pictures for finally doing what someone has needed to do for a very long time.
See, I love music videos. Not all of them, of course. So much of what gets dumped onto the airwaves is just the same old crap, again and again. But when someone makes a great video, it’s not like anything else. They can be experimental or silly or powerful or hallucinatory, or all those things at once. Great video directors are not automatically great feature-length filmmakers. They’re different skills. I’ve always wanted someone to collect music videos by director, not by band, and now, thanks to the work of Spike Jonze, Chris Cunningham, and Michel Gondry, that’s finally happened. The three of them got together to start The Director’s Label, and in the coming months, each of them will issue a DVD of their work.
First up is Spike, and it’s a hell of a way to kick the series off. I was sent two test discs, but I think when it’s finally released, it will be a double-sided single disc. On side A, you’ll find 15 of Spike’s videos, along with commentary on each and every one. People like Fatboy Slim, Weezer, The Pharcyde, Daft Punk, The Chemical Brothers, Bjork, Christopher Walken, and Puffy all show up to discuss visionary clips like “Drop,” “Cannonball,” Da Funk,” “Elektrobank” “Undone,” “Praise You,” and “Weapon Of Choice.” Watching this disc, you get a sense of just how influential Jonze has been with his work. There’s a sense of wit and absurdism to these clips that sets him apart from almost anyone else who gets regular MTV play. I was amazed to realize that the astounding video for “California” by Wax (which is pictured on the DVD’s cover) was shot on my street, less than a block from my house. If the commentaries don’t answer all your questions, then there’s a great book that comes with the DVD that is basically a 52 page interview with Spike illustrated with his drawings and photographs. Great, insightful stuff.
The second side was the real surprise for me, since I hadn’t really seen any of the material included. Two short films featuring Mark Gonzales kick the material off, and the first one, “How They Get There,” is laugh-out-loud funny. “The Oasis Video That Never Happened” is simple, but effective, a collection of interview footage with people on the street in England describing their own personal visions for an Oasis video. There’s a tape that was shot as a sort of warm-up for the justifiably-overplayed “Praise You,” in which “Richard Koufey” dances on the street to an earlier Fatboy Slim track, “Rockafella Skank.” And if you don’t get enough of Richard Koufey or the Torrance Community Dance Group from that, then there’s a documentary called “Torrance Rises” that traces their preparations to perform at the MTV Music Video Awards that is played completely deadpan. What blows me away is how many people never fully understood the joke. Even at the actual awards show, people seem to accept that Koufey is a real person and that the Torrance Community Dance Group is real. You gotta credit Spike for never once breaking character. He was excellent as an actor in THREE KINGS, but I think he’s better here. He almost seems to believe it himself as he goes through the process of choreographing and staging his award show number. There are two more documentaries included as well, and they’re both great. “What’s Up Fatlip?” traces the career path of Fatlip, a member of the Pharcyde, as he embarks on a solo career. Someone needs to put this guy in movies. He’s amazingly funny, and he is convincing, too. The documentary starts with him evidently homeless and drunk, exposing himself to people on the street. At first, I thought this was going to be a sort of BEHIND THE MUSIC-esque glimpse at a guy who fell apart after leaving a band, but it turns out he and Spike are just fooling around to see how people will react. I totally understand how Spike was involved in JACKASS now, having watched this disc. He seems to love playing conceptual jokes on people, and Fatlip is a willing collaborator. The last documentary on the disc is “Amarillo By Morning,” about a group of kids who want to be professional rodeo riders. It’s just a day in the life, something that sort of happened by accident when Spike met them while shooting something else. Like all great documentarians, Spike refuses to talk down to the people he’s filming. There is enormous sympathy built into the way he portrays these kids who are resolutely outside the mainstream, and who don’t care at all. It’s a sweet, poignant film, further proof of his great range as a storyteller.
There are previews on the disc for the upcoming collections for both Cunningham and Gondry, and anyone who knows their work knows that these are going to be amazing collections as well. The sound and picture on this release is exceptional, and I give this my highest recommendation. It’s a must-have for any collection, and the sort of disc that has tremendous replay value. Pick it up when it hits stores later this month.
So it’s off to bed now. First column down. I want your feedback here. This is for you as much as it’s for me. Tell me what you want. Tell me what sort of coverage you want. Tell me what you like. One of the things I’m going to do, and that I’ve been working on for the last two weeks or so, is compile my full collection as a page on DVD Aficionado. I know a lot of people also use DVD Profiler or Guzzlefish, but so far, I like DVDAficionado the best. If you feel differently, tell me why, but in the meantime, I’ll keep plugging to get the list some time in the next week or so.
In the meantime, here’s today’s question for discussion: what was your first DVD purchased, and why? I’ll be back with my answer tomorrow. Until then...