Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
I’m working on bringing all the contents and the daily pace of my DVD blog back here to AICN, so we can create a much more active DVD section here, and as a result, I’d like to hear what sort of content you guys would like in addition to the non-stop reviews. I consider the DVD blog a really successful test-run of a format I’d like to use here, and hopefully we’ll make that happen very soon. For today, I’ve got the weekly new release list for you, and it’s nice to see that it’s a better week than it was last week. I hate it when you have to really dig to find anything of interest to discuss, and this week makes it easy to put a list together.
And even though I was out of town last week, I’ve been working on another story about the format war, and I hope I’ll have that for you soon. Until then, check out this week’s list, starting with a film I like a whole hell of a lot:
BREAKFAST ON PLUTO
When Neil Jordan puts it all together, the results can be intoxicating, and that’s the case here with the story of Patrick “Kitten” Braden, played with verve and charm by Cillian Murphy in his best film work to date. Kitten’s got it rough, growing up an unapologetic cross-dresser in a small Irish town, but he copes by simply not taking any of it seriously. There’s an episodic nature to the screenplay by Jordan (adapting the Patrick McCabe novel), but that’s not a detriment. Instead, it allows Jordan to trace the full arc of this life lived at full volume. Kitten is determined to track down his mother, who abandoned him on the steps of the home of Father Bernard (Liam Neeson), the local priest, at birth, and his journey to find her leads him to connect (however briefly) with characters played by actors like Stephen Rea, Brendan Gleeson, and, most hilariously, Gavin Friday.
It’s a great-looking film thanks to the cinematography by Declan Quinn, and the non-stop barrage of pop tunes from the era works because of the specific choices Jordan made and because of the joy that the music conveys, even at the darkest moments of Kitten’s life. It’s a great transfer, too, with a full-length commentary by Jordan and Murphy that is enlightening and entertaining in equal measure. There’s a brief behind-the-scenes feature, but nothing special. Still, this is probably my most fervent recommendation of the week.
COACHELLA: THE FILM
I used to be a freak for live music. I used to make any effort required to see my favorite bands live. But right around the time I started yelling at the local kids to stay off my yard, I found myself increasingly unwilling to go out to see concerts except in certain circumstances. I wish I still had the stamina to go to the big giant outdoor festivals like Coachella. For fogeys like me, though, Coachella is finally putting out a DVD filled with two hours worth of highlights from the last few years. I wish it were a longer collection, as I’m sure they could easily have given us four or even six hours of performances, but still... how much complaining am I going to do when the DVD includes Spearhead, The Mars Volta, Belle & Sebastian, The White Stripes, Iggy & The Stooges, Prodigy, Oasis, Bjork, Roni Size, The Polyphonic Spree, Arcade Fire, Bright Eyes, Cut Chemist, The Chemical Brothers, The Crystal Method, The Pixies, The Flaming Lips (I’m hoping it’s the infamous bubble walk), Beck, Mos Def, and my favorite, Radiohead.
So... yeah. A little something for everyone.
THE COMPLETE MR. ARKADIN (Criterion)
Orson Welles was an undeniably gifted filmmaker, but he was also an undeniably frustrating filmmaker, a man whose prodigious gifts were often eclipsed by his own slow work pace and his willingness to walk away from something when challenged.
One of the most annoyingly incomplete films in his entire career is MR. ARKADIN (or CONFIDENTIAL REPORT), and there’s been quite a bit of ink spilled over the years on the subject of all the different versions of this film that are floating around out there. The project began life as an episode of The Lives Of Harry Lime, a radio show that Welles created after the success of THE THIRD MAN. Welles tried out several character and story ideas on that show that eventually found their way into MR. ARKADIN, and several of those episodes are included as part of this set. The film ran into the typical troubles of a Welles films, like lack of budget and producer interference, and as a result, it was taken away from him and recut in a variety of ways.
Criterion’s team has put together what looks like an exceptional package, featuring three different cuts of the film as well as a wealth of extras that trace the origin of the project and the differences between each cut. For Welles historians, this is a dream come true. For casual film fans, this is still a must-own because of the way it illustrates how minor changes can totally change the purpose of a film. I’ll be picking this up and reviewing it soon, and I can’t wait to dig in.
CROSS OF IRON
From Orson Welles to Peckinpah... you certainly can’t complain about lack of heavy-hitters this week. Sure, CROSS OF IRON isn’t Peckinpah’s finest hour, but it may well be one of his last solid moments, and it’s worth revisiting for war movie buffs, for James Coburn fans, or for people who want to see how Peckinpah’s work changed over the years. This was pretty much the last moment he was working on something he actually controlled, and the result is an uneven but interesting war movie about an officer played by Maximillian Schell who is obsessed with earning an Iron Cross for valor. When his moment arrives, he cowers in fear in his bunker, letting one of his men (Coburn) lead the others into battle. After the attack is successful, Schell demands that his men lie about his involvement so that he can get his medal, setting up an ethical conflict along the lines of a PATHS OF GLORY. The action scenes are rousingly staged, but some of the drama is obvious and falls flat. Even so, it’s worth checking out, and I’m curious to see the transfer from Hen’s Tooth Video.
For many people, this represents the high watermark of Paul “Not Thomas” Anderson’s career, and I guess I can see their point. I still think the film falls apart in the second hour in a big way, and that the art design is just plain goofy and over-the-top, but this new disc from Paramount looks and sounds damn good, and fans are going to have a blast with the second disc, which goes more in-depth than I’d expect.
You know what finally pushed me over the top in my appreciation of this film? It would have been very easy for this to be the “torture porn” film that it was accused of being, but it avoids that in a very smart way. By grounding the film’s perspective with Jay Hernandez and refusing to simply cut away so we can watch all the torture sequences as dispassionate third parties or even from the perspective of the people doing the torture, the film remains morally centered. It’s a tricky balancing act, but it refuses to wallow, and that surprised me. So often today, filmmakers seem to think that just because you can show something, you should show it, and HOSTEL manages to walk that tightrope very skillfully. Considering I wasn’t the world’s biggest CABIN FEVER fan, color me impressed, and I think this is a clear indication that Eli Roth may well live up to the hype that’s surrounded him for the last few years.
The disc is almost overstuffed with extra features, with no less than four audio commentaries. Somehow, they don’t just become redundant, as each one focuses on a different way to discuss the film. As much fun as the one with Tarantino, Boaz Yakin, Scotty Spiegel, and Eli is, and as much as I am contractually obligated to mention the one with Harry “My Boss” Knowles on it, the one I liked the most is the one where Eli goes it alone. When I recently spoke with George Folsey Jr., he talked about how incredibly professional and prepared Eli was, and that comes through loud and clear in this track, where you get a sense of how seriously he takes his job when he’s actually making a film.
Sure, Eli loves the rock star side of being a director, but when it’s time to buckle down, he does, and I’d recommend this to aspiring filmmakers even if they aren’t fans of the film.
MICHAEL PALIN: SAHARA
Either you understand the sublime pleasures of a Michael Palin travel show, or you don’t. Personally, I think the guy could make a trip to the grocery store seem compelling, and the way he seems to be slowly but surely documenting every corner of the planet is fascinating. This is one of the series he did that I haven’t seen yet, but I wouldn’t hesitate to pick it up based on his other work. Evidently, this time he travels from Gibraltar to Tangiers and the Arab world and then back into Africa. At 236 minutes, this disc set offers a lot to digest, and should make for a lovely weekend’s viewing in the near future.
Tobe Hooper takes a lot of shit from horror fandom, and personally, I think it’s a shame. When you make one of the five or ten best independent American films of all time early in your career, you’re inevitably going to be held to that impossibly high standard for the rest of your career. Lately, Tobe seems to have reconnected with his love of filmmaking, and even if I didn’t think THE TOOLBOX MURDERS or “Dance Of The Dead” were the greatest films ever made, I can at least see signs of life, and that pleases me. MORTUARY is his latest, the story of a mother (played by Denise Crosby) who is offered a chance to run a mortuary fresh out of mortician’s school. She moves her two sons to the small town, only to learn that all is not as it seems. Which horror fans pretty much expect. The disc also features a full-length commentary by Hooper and a one-hour behind-the-scenes documentary.
I really didn’t have any interest in seeing this one when it played theaters last Christmas, but a director friend who was casting a film at the time asked me what I thought of Kelly Riley, one of the young stars.
I hadn’t seen it, so I couldn’t answer, but his enthusiasm for her stuck with me, so when The Weinstein Company sent this over for review, I felt compelled to throw it on. And damn if it’s not an enjoyable, well-made film about how we carry on in the face of tragedy. Dame Judy Dench plays a recent widow who decides to use her inherited fortune to buy and maintain a theater in London where she can present a musical revue under the direction of Bob Hoskins. Eventually, in order to keep the place open, they introduce nudity into the show, and what could just be a cheap joke actually becomes a nostaligic piece about life in wartime London and a serious look at the effects of grief on those who are left behind when loved ones die. The performances are strong across the board, which you’d expect from seasoned pros like Dench and Hoskins, but I agree with my friend... Kelly Riley does have something special going on. She gives the film a dramatic weight, and director Stephen Frears does excellent work at establishing both a specific tone and a real sense of time and place. Good stuff.
Tartan’s Asia Extreme line does a nice job of releasing a cross-section of films, never focusing on just one genre or style of film. This month, it’s NATURAL CITY that they’re releasing, a film I bought a few years ago as an import. NATURAL CITY isn’t terribly original, but as shameless BLADE RUNNER ripoffs go, it’s one of the best so far. And that’s not a bad thing, per se. Min Byung-chun has made a fairly serious, somber SF action film that has some gorgeous visuals, a couple of pretty great fight scenes, and a lead character who is grappling with moral and romantic dilemmas that Rick Deckard just barely touched upon. R (Yu Ji-tae) makes the cardinal mistake for a cop who hunts down killer cyborgs. He falls in love with a sex model named Ria (Seo Rin) during the last days of her life, and he’s determined to figure out a way to give her more days. He’s a prick to everyone around him, distancing himself emotionally even as he channels all his energy into doing the right thing by Ria. There’s a melancholy that settles over the entire film that is pretty well-done, and the DVD features behind-the-scenes material, deleted scenes, and cast interviews. Considering how derivative this is, there’s still a lot to enjoy, and any SF fan should consider checking it out.
And now here we are... ground zero. Launch day. Come hell or high water, the studios are planning to put out the first batch of HD-DVD titles this week. Of course, no one’s sure if the players for those discs are going to be in stores as well, but that’s what makes this format war so much fun... the sheer half-assedness of it all so far.
Here’s what early adapters have to look forward to when they hit whatever stores are actually stocking these titles tomorrow. If you’re one of the people who go, drop me a line and let me know what you find and where.
THE LAST SAMURAI
I wasn’t crazy about this wanna-be epic by Ed Zwick, and I thought Tom Cruise was miscast, as he always is in period films. Still, there’s a few good action sequences and a nice supporting performance from Ken Watanabe, and the photography by John Toll is lush and rich, which should give an HD-DVD player a nice test drive.
MILLION DOLLAR BABY
I’ll tread carefully here, since I’m tired of getting letters from the Paul Haggis Fan Club every time I mention him. This movie has many fans, but it seems odd to me that Warner Bros. would pick an intimate character drama, even one that was as acclaimed as this, as a launch title of a format that is supposed to show a marked improvement in visual quality.
PHANTOM OF THE OPERA
Joel Schumacher finally managed to wrangle Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical onto the bigscreen, and although I really don’t like the film at all, this might make a strong test disc based on the cinematography and the soundtrack. Of the three films Warner is releasing today, this is probably the best candidate if you’re just looking to test how much of an improvement HD really is.
Of course, you could skip the Warner launch titles altogether and just go straight to this, Joss Whedon’s space western, beautifully shot by Jack N. Green. Here’s the exact sort of title Warner should have used as their opening shot... an FX driven action film. I’ve talked to someone who has seen this transfer, someone who actually works in the production end of the DVD business, and they were knocked out by the picture quality on SERENITY. Of course, when they saw it, the mastering team couldn’t get half the file to play... but I’m sure that’s been worked out. If you’re looking to make your machine sit up and dance right out of the box, here’s your one safe bet for the week.