On The Shelf (4.20.09) Rourke's a 'Wrestler,' 'Frost/Nixon' butt heads, and 'Caprica' arrives
Is it time for another round-up of the week's DVD releases already?
Amazing. I started this week off with a review of "Caprica," the proposed prequel series to "Battlestar Galactica," and I'd strongly urge all SF fans to give it a try. It's not often that a new SF series comes out of the gate so strong, so focused on ideas instead of explosions (although there is a doozy in there), and I hope this gets picked up for 2010 in some form.
I think the big news today is that my favorite film of 2008 is available on DVD and BluRay finally. I am speaking, of course, about Darren Aronofsky's beautiful "The Wrestler." featuring Mickey Rourke's amazing performance as Randy "The Ram," a professional wrestler on the wane. I went crazy for it when I saw it at the AFI Fest last fall. And I named it number one on my ten favorite films of 2008 list. If it were just about the one performance, I wouldn't be quite as passionate as I am, no matter how good that one performance. But this is equally impressive for the work by Marisa Tomei and for the way Aronofsky has let go of his formal compositions and his rigid control, giving way to a shooting style that is loose, jazzy, emotional. It's a major step forward for one of the best directors working today, and I'm dying to see the gritty documentary-style photography on BluRay. And no, it's not because of Marisa Tomei's abundant nudity or because at 42 she's sexier than a whole hell of a lot of women half her age. Okay, yes, it is, but that's not the only reason high definition rules.
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Two high-profile films arrive this week based on true stories about very public media figures, and despite that similarity, they seem like radically different films. I thought Ron Howard's film version of the smash London and Broadway hit "Frost/Nixon" was a pretty canny piece of pop entertainment, bolstered by the tremendous chemistry between Michael Sheen as David Frost and Frank Langella as Richard Nixon. Admittedly, I'm a bit of a Nixon freak, having grown up in the post-Watergate era, and I'm always intrigued by efforts to portray him onscreen. Langella went above and beyond, though, and I think the not-so-much physical resemblance vanishes after a few minutes because of the precise emotional work that Langella does. Howard delivers one of his leanest and cleanest films as a director, and overall, I think this is one that's worth revisiting. I haven't seen "Notorious" yet, but I will as soon as I have it. All the screenings for the film took place while we were at Sundance this year, and I just haven't caught up with it. The film tells the life story of Christopher Wallace, known as recording artist Notorious B.I.G. during his too-brief life, and it attempts to trace just how Wallace got caught up in the romanticized gangster lifestyle, and what that cost him. Since it's Fox, it's available both BluRay and DVD today, in several different configurations including a one-disc director's cut.
If you're a BluRay freak, today's got some interesting catalog releases hitting shelves. I'm not a huge fan of "Arctic Tale," but I've noticed that my oldest son is mesmerized by nature footage right now. He has been watching "Planet Earth" and "Winged Migration," and I'm guessing he'll dig "Arctic Tale" as well. If you haven't seen it, it's basically a polar bear riff on "March Of The Penguins," doing its best to anthropomorphize the daily survival struggles of the bears. And I'll admit, nature footage is one of the things that benefits most from the BluRay treatment in my experience so far. I'm looking forward to picking up both the "X-Men Trilogy" set, featuring all three of Fox's live-action X-Men movies, and the "Sin City" release as well, which is the unrated extended director's cut. Just as exciting is the "Hellraiser" BluRay, and this is a movie that will require some special handling if it's going to really benefit from the move to high-definition. It was a low-budget English film in the first place, so it's not like the original theatrical release set some standard for sound and picture. Still, a careful transfer could be a nice reference quality copy of the film, and that's what I'm hoping for. Finally, I doubt "The Arrival" has been tweaked at all, but it's a low-budget sci-fi film I dig, and since I don't have it on DVD at all, I figure now's the time to finally pick it up, with BluRay being a lovely excuse.
Growing up on '70s TV means that I'm the mark they're looking for when they release something like "Hawaii Five-Oh: Season Six" or "Rhoda: Season One" on DVD. I've got all the "Hawaii Five-Oh" boxes so far, and they are great comfort food to put on while I'm working when I don't want to play something that actually requires my attention. And I really love that whole family of '70s sitcoms like "Mary Tyler Moore" and "The Bob Newhart Show" and "Rhoda," when they were struggling to write material with real social relevance and also to be just plain funny. Sitcoms don't aim as high as they used to anymore, and it's a shame. There was a time when some of the best commentary going on was in the half-hour comedy format.
TV animation covers a wide spectrum of material these days, as evidenced by the release of both "Wolverine and the X-Men: Heroes Return Trilogy" and "Squidbillies: Vol. 2" today. The first is a juvenile-aimed take on the Marvel heroes, a little rough, but ultimately kid friendly. And I don't know what the hell "Squidbillies" is. I've watched it several times, but in typical Adult Swim fashion, it doesn't make a lick of sense, and that's the point. The network seems to have cornered the market on total non-sequiter humor, and it's obviously a cash cow for them. I think this one tries a little too hard, and maybe I'm just not onboard the hillbilly train, but I do like how Adult Swim treats their series on DVD in general. As always, the disc is packed with extras, and if you are a fan, you're going to feel like you get your money's worth. Definitely.
Another Tuesday, another batch of releases from Criterion, who are seemingly unstoppable these days. I've never gotten around to buying "The Wages Of Fear," so the release of it on BluRay gives me an excuse. Not a double-dip. I've been very, very pleased by the quality of the Criterion BluRay discs so far. These are incredible prints, beautifully mastered, and the closest thing yet in the digital realm to an actual print. I love "Wages." I'm also a huge fan of Friedkin's '70s remake "Sorcerer," a case where someone's remake is so ambitious and bold that I have to accept it as a separate piece of art. The original is a black-and-white masterpiece, a dream of a jungle, a tropic nightmare. It's sweaty and dark and miserable. At times, the image practically blasts into white. It's always been a hard film to capture on DVD. One of the reasons I never bought it is I saw someone else's, and I thought it looked fine. Not compelling. This time out, I'm going to take a shot on it being a true reproduction of what Clouzot intended. I'm not going to pretend I have any idea what "Science Is Fiction: 23 Films By Jean Painleve" is, since I don't know who Jean Painleve is. Here's what Amazon has to say about the disc:
"Jean Painlevé was a film director, critic, theorist, and animator, yet his interests and studies also extended to mathematics, medicine, and zoology. Amazingly, all these disparate strands came together in a groundbreaking, decades-spanning artistic career. Operating under the credo: Science is fiction, Painlevé forged his own unique cinematic path, creating countless short films for both the viewing public and the scientific community. Moreover, he was also one of the first filmmakers to take his camera underwater. Surreal, otherworldly documents of marine life, these films transformed sea horses, octopi, and mollusks into delicate dancers in their own floating ballets. This anthology features twenty-three of Painlevé's shorts in their original form, as well as Yo La Tengo's ninety-minute original score The Sounds of Science, written in 2001 to accompany eight of the director's films."
It's a huge three-disc special edition, too. New, restored digital transfers. The Sounds of Science, an original score by Yo La Tengo to Jean Painlevé's films, plus an interview with the band. More than two hours of interviews with the filmmaker, drawn from the eight-part television series "Jean Painlevé au fils de ses films," directed by Denis Derrien and Hélène Hazera. New and improved English subtitle translations.
PLUS: A booklet featuring a new essay by film scholar Scott MacDonald and notes on all the films by Painlevé."
So in other words, if I knew who Jean Painleve was, I'd probably be absolutely bugging out about how awesome this disc sounds. It's not a priority for me, but as with everything Criterion does, it sounds complete.
I saw "The Burrowers" at Fantastic Fest last year, and I thought it was a really strong, effective monster movie, but more than that, it was a real Western. It's not a gimmick. It's not just cheap cowboys and Indians. It's written as a real Western, about real people struggling to carve off a piece of the dream of the West, desperate... and how this outside force suddenly threatens what they've built. And to be out there... where you wanted to be... away from everyone, and to suddenly be afraid. That's pretty primal. It's a great addition to both genres, and that's rare. JT Petty is a filmmaker that really hasn't gotten his due yet, but he's turning out some consistently challenging movies, films that push harder than they have to. His film "S&Man" is a great horror movie. Great. I don't use the word lightly. I don't mean it like "it's fine." I mean it is above and beyond. I think it's unnerving and it's a stealth weapon, a film that bothers you more as you think about it afterwards, as you wonder about certain connections. "The Burrowers" is more of a direct assault, and he's very good at this. He creates his monsters with a sure hand, showing just enough at just the right times. If you're a horror fan, I give this my biggest recommend this week.
I have not seen "Laid To Rest" or "Dante 01," but in both cases, I have good reason to want to see the films. Robert Hall made a film a few years back called "Lightning Bug" that showed some promise, I thought. I hear that Anchor Bay's "Laid To Rest" is a pure, no-nonsense slasher film, and that Hall made something fast and bloody and mean, and I'm up for a new slasher instead of a remake. Bring on Chromeskull. And "Dante 01" is a film I've been waiting to see for a couple of years, I think. That's how long ago it was when I heard that Marc Caro, the other half of the filmmaking team behind "Delicatessen" and "City Of Lost Children", was making a SF horror film. Jean-Pierre Jeunet went on to make "Amelie" and "Alien Resurrection" and "A Very Long Engagement," of course. Caro, on the other hand, disappeared after "City," with the exception of a four-minute porno SF short film. So for him to finally return 14 years later as a director, working with a fair amount of the cast of the films he co-directed, I'm intrigued. I think that sounds exciting. Might be terrible. Might be great. But based on what he's been part of, how can I not be at least interested? It sounds like a crazy ride set on a space station/psychiatric hospital. Cool. You have me at hello, "Dante 01." It's a Dimension Extreme release, so I guess it's a pick-up for them, and they didn't really know what to do with it theatrically. At least we've got a shot at finally seeing it.
There are a fistful of other titles also of note this week, like the documentary "Glass: A Portait Of Philip In 12 Parts," which I've got here on my stack to watch soon. I love his work, and I'm curious to see if this is a good comprehensive look back at his very bold and strange body of composition. I've heard mixed things from a few trusted friends about "House Of The Sleeping Beauties," but I love the title. It's a remake of a remake, the previous versions being Japanese, this particular telling being German. It's the story of a man who loses his wife and child and, grieving, is told by a friend that there is a place he can go to be with a beautiful girl for comfort. Only, the girl is asleep. Always. All the girls in this particular brothel are always asleep, impossible to awaken no matter what you do. So obviously, all of you "Observe and Report" fans are going to want to make sure to pick this one up so your moral outrage muscle doesn't atrophy from a little downtime. I'm always surprised when I see a cover like the one for "The Last Word," with Winona Ryder and Wes Bentley and Ray Romano. How does a film like that simply exist with that cast and not register at all in any way until it's dumped onto home video? That's one of the great mysteries to me, and I'm sure it's got to be heartbreaking for a filmmaker. And I'm going to pick up "Voyage Of The Damned," a based-on-a-true-story film from the mid-'70s about a group of Jewish WWII escapees who set sail from Euriope for what they hope will be safe harbor in Cuba. Only once they get there, no one wants to let them off the boat. My one hesitation about this Lionsgate release is that the disc appears to be a full-frame transfer. The film was shot 1.85:1, so is this panned and scanned? I may ask Lionsgate before I pick up a copy of the film, and if I get an answer, I'll share it with you next week.
Finally, I'm absolutely frantic to get my hands on the double-feature disc of "Last Picture Show" and "Nickelodeon," two very good '70s films by Peter Bogdanovich. And, much as Friedkind decided to play with the most recent transfer of "The French Connection," Bogdanovich decided to release "Nickelodeon" in black-and-white. He went back and supervised a whole new transfer, the process of which is detailed on the disc, just to create a black-and-white version of this little-seen minor-key major work from a guy was absolutely on his game at that time. Early response is actually good, so I'm curious. And I love "Last Picture Show," and never got around to picking up a copy, so it's a great one-two set, one I'm eager to add to the permanent collection.
Next week should be all sorts of awesome. "In The Realm Of The Senses" on BluRay from Criterion would be enough to make it a great week, but the same day we also get "Star Trek: The Original Series, Season One" on BluRay? Oh, hell, yes. Bring it on.
On The Shelf appears here every Monday. Except when it doesn't.
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