October 25, 2006

DVDs, 10/25.

DK Holm has been watching DVD 'xperts react to major releases over the past several weeks; it's high time to catch up with the highlights.

Billy Wilder Speaks It's not like he's Garbo or anything. Billy Wilder, especially in his later years, would just as soon talk to reporters, students, panels, fellow filmmakers and whomever else as anything. But in Billy Wilder Speaks, he does so, most often in German, and fellow director Volker Schlöndorff was there to catch it.

The time-frame was during two weeks in Los Angeles in 1991 and the then-85 year old director apparently felt so comfortable chatting with Schlöndorff in his original language that he began to speak "out of school," violating the oath of omerta that rules over Hollywood, even decades after events. Schlöndorff vowed to release the resulting film only after Wilder's death, which occurred in 2002. Schlöndorff edited the material into six 30-minute episodes for German television collectively called How Did You Do It, Billy?. Later it was broadcast on British television in three one-hour episodes, and this version is a reduction by half of that broadcast. Kino has released the film on DVD (the street date was October 17), with about 70 minutes of extra footage and other materials.

Karasek: Wilder DVD Savant Glenn Erickson, as is his wont, explains how the film came about. "Wilder was working with another documentarian in his little writing office in Beverly Hills when Schlöndorff piggybacked his camera for a 'rehearsal' for a possible interview. He ended up getting two weeks of excellent on-camera reminiscences from the great director." Writer Hellmuth Karasek was also interviewing Wilder on for of his future biography. Erickson goes on to say that the "71-minute film is a delight." The interview proceeds chronologically, "right through his career from Germany to his early days in Hollywood, skipping over ground covered too well by others," with "even the Cameron Crowe book [stacking] up as a compendium of old stories compared to the freshness of the content heard here." There is some "breaking news" in the chat: "Wilder offers a number of observations not heard or read elsewhere, such as his description of Jack Lemmon's work ethic and Shirley MacLaine's doubts that The Apartment will be a success."

Jon Danziger at Digitally Obsessed begins by saying that there's "nothing quite like listening to a master talking shop, and that's exactly the opportunity we're given with this documentary," but finds that many of Wilder's anecdotes are "familiar, especially if you've read Conversations with Wilder." Adding that the "most intriguing part of the film, in some respects, is Wilder's discussion of Death Mills, which he directed for the Department of War in 1945, a look at the concentration camps that killed most of Wilder's family along with millions and millions of others," Danziger concludes that the film is "a modest disappointment that this is only just over an hour long - but then, nobody's perfect." Also, the transfer is "workmanlike" though "the clips from Wilder's films actually look pretty slick."

Conversations With Wilder Fernando F Croce at Slant is the most negative, dubbing the disc a "surprisingly thin session" and that it is "surprising, for all of Wilder's puckish volubility, is how slight this series of interviews feels, providing bite-sized movie-buffish info but little insight and even less of the intergenerational portrait and 'aural history of the movie business' promised by interviewer Volker Schlöndorff." For Croce, the film "feels as wispy a project as Cameron Crowe's softball book with Wilder in the mid-90s." On the transfer, Croce finds that the "interview footage offers a variety of faded tones, but movie footage remains sharp and clean. The sound is a bit better, though subtitles struggle to keep up with Wilder's energetic language-hopping."

The extras on this Kino disc include 17 trailers for Wilder's films (The Major and the Minor, Five Graves to Cairo, Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, Love in the Afternoon, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, One, Two, Three, Irma La Douce, Kiss Me, Stupid, The Fortune Cookie, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Avanti!), plus two TV spots (one for Sunset Boulevard, the other of Jack Lemmon summoning extras to Cleveland's Municipal Stadium on behalf of The Fortune Cookie), and 21 "deleted scenes." Also included in the package is an essay by Schlöndorff. Writes Croce, "Most fun is a nearly complete gallery of Wilder trailers, which taken together suggest the smarmiest filmography of all time."

It's one of the most long awaited DVDs, and one of the most unusual examples of a typical "important" Hollywood movie. Reds, Warren Beatty's biopic of radical journalist John Reed, the only American buried in the Kremlin, and his relationship with Louise Bryant, arrived in Region 1 on October 17 with an excellent transfer of Vittorio Storaro's superb, classical imagery in a fine 25th Anniversary Edition package consisting of a double-disc set with a short array of extras (about an hour's worth of "making of" material, broken up into seven discreet thematic units). Upon original release, the $36 million dollar movie garnered twelve Oscar nominations and won three, one to Storaro, one to Maureen Stapleton for best supporting actress and one for Warren Beatty for best direction. The DVD itself appeared to an explosion of reviews.

Reds For Karen Valby of Entertainment Weekly, Reds is "political, educational, provocative, difficult, and long (clocking in at well over three hours). It is also intellectually stirring and emotionally soap-operatic in the best sense of both those terms, and stars three actors at the very top of their game." Digitally Obsessed's Jon Danziger concludes that "Reds, like its hero, is courageous almost to the point of foolhardiness - it's politically committed, culturally knowing, historically relevant, and almost unimaginably poignant. It's got a vibrancy that comes only from art of the first order, and features actors and filmmakers of the highest rank turning in some of their very best work. Rejoice, comrades - finally it's on DVD, and it looks spectacular."

At DVD Beaver, Yunda Eddie Feng, after a thorough summary of the movie's history (and pointing out that "there is a thematic reason why Reds is being released in October rather than in any other month"), settles down to one of the site's characteristically detailed analyses of the transfer. "A few years ago, Paramount restored the Reds film negatives, though the studio and Warren Beatty decided to put off the DVD release until 2006. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is impressively free of debris such as dust and scratches, and it is generally sharp and clear. However, I saw a few defects that appeared briefly, sometimes for only one frame."

At the DVD Journal, the acronymal JJB asserts that Reds's near banishment from Oscar achievement by Chariots of Fire marked "the end of the New Hollywood," going on to say that Reds was "the last of its kind - a lavish, highly detailed, over-budget, epic-length historical drama shot in multiple countries for millions of dollars, and yet a singular artistic vision." After a detailed account of the film's political background, JJB notes that Reds "becomes a story that isn't about a singular mass of people, but just two - Jack and Louise - who find that their love for each other sustains them more than art, writing, or political ambition."

Deeming it a "handsome, unsatisfying DVD of a handsome, unsatisfying epic," Slant's Dan Callahan argues that the movie is at odds with itself: "There's an attempt to correlate the 'free love' theories of the 1910s with the ethos of the swinging 70s, but this parallel is mitigated by the mushy home life scenes between John and Louise, where it always seems to be Christmas or someone's birthday and cute puppies clamor to watch them make lingering love in silhouette."

John Reed: Ten Days That Shook the World In a feature story at the New York Times, AO Scott chatted about the DVD release with Beatty, who maintained that Reds was "the last Hollywood picture to be released with an intermission," with Scott adding that the film "does, in retrospect, seem to come at the end of a line of grand, sometimes grandiose movies that stretches back from the Godfather series, through Lawrence of Arabia, to Gone With the Wind." Scott concludes that Reds "remains a superior history lesson, thanks to Mr Beatty's thorough command of the material and to his inclusion of real-life 'witnesses' to the life and times of Reed. Their faces and voices give this romance some documentary ballast, and make it, now that they are gone, a moving archive of faded memories."

Ah, the witnesses. If there was one thing that Reds fanatics yearned to have on the DVD, it was the unedited footage of the remarkable interviews with such historical figures as Henry Miller, Rebecca West, Hamilton Fish, George Jessel, and Adela Rogers St Johns, among others. Unfortunately, the viewer gets only a small taste of the unedited footage in the course of Laurent Bouzereau's typical talking-heads-and-clips "making of" job. Entertainment Weekly finds that the "biggest treat of this special edition, though, is [Jack] Nicholson," who "explains [Diane's] Keaton's absence from the extras. 'She would find probably a lot to find fault with in this particular approach to making a documentary and getting poopsy about the period,' he says admiringly. 'Too much of this "Ooh! You made a movie!" blah.' Viva Diane."

DVD Beaver finds that "though very polished, Bouzereau's bonus materials are usually sterile and superficial; this explains why filmmakers with fragile egos like to work with him. He makes everyone look like a heroic, visionary artist struggling against incredible odds, which is essentially dishonest considering that even Beatty himself acknowledges that all of the major Hollywood studios were willing to finance his movies back in the late-1970s and early-1980s (and considering that the only odds that Spielberg faces nowadays are ones that he creates for himself)."

Digitally Obsessed complains that "one feature that's not included but that would have been very welcome would be identifying the witnesses." Callahan at Slant also complains that "using these 'witnesses' as a framework was an inspired idea, but the John Reed we hear about in these testimonies is not the one we see on the screen," and adds further that the extras are "fairly unilluminating, and mainly feature the near-70-year-old Beatty looking great and revealing little."

One of the biggest advocates of a Reds DVD release is Jeffrey Wells, and the writer got a chance to interview Beatty for his site, Hollywood Elsewhere. Beatty has become a real advocate for DVDs, which may be a harbinger of the future (as Beatty seemingly always is) as other directors such as Steven Spielberg still remain disdainful of the medium. Wells quotes Beatty: "DVD releases and the obviously long shelf life that comes with the DVD market are the replacement for the long theatrical life that films used to have in theaters, plus it saves the audience from having to experience the mall experience, which is largely a hormonal matter these days."

A Prairie Home Companion Mid-October saw the release of Robert Altman's adaptation of the American public radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, slaking the veteran filmmaker's thirst for audio games and big and varied casts (Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Lindsay Lohan, Kevin Kline, Tommy Lee Jones, Woody Harrelson, John C Reilly and Garrison Keillor among them), and Terry Zwigoff's collaboration with comic artist Daniel Clowes, Art School Confidential, which provided the dyspeptic director with another platform from which to rail against human mediocrity.

Tanner Stransky at Entertainment Weekly gave A Prairie Home Companion short shrift, but noted that "Altman and a tour-de-force cast elevate A Prairie Home Companion's dreamy elegy about an antiquated radio variety show into a twangy, rewind-worthy lullaby." Ed Gonzalez at Slant found that "Altman's graceful camera, the movement of characters across the frame, and the overlapping voices collectively convey a genial sense of place," but had to admit that "in spite of its lovely and limber exoskeleton, Prairie Home Companion is lighter than Light FM. Altman drops in and out of his character's lives as if he were switching between radio stations, but the transmission he picks up isn't always deep, the hee-haw music that dominates the film doesn't profoundly connect with the off-stage drama as it does in the director's little-seen gem A Perfect Couple, and the acting is off-center." Meanwhile, Dawn Taylor at the DVD Journal noticed that A Prairie Home Companion was "an interesting choice for Altman to make in his twilight years, being a film overwhelmingly about death," but also warns that both Altman and Keillor are "artists who inspire either passionate adoration or intense loathing of their work - just as there are people who can't stand Altman's pictures, there are those who find Keillor's particular brand of folksy entertainment to be corny and overly sentimental." For Taylor herself, though, the film is "a delight - a gentle, thoughtful, warm visit with people who are passionate about what they do."

Art School Confidential Taylor also pulled the Art School Confidential card at the DVD Journal, concluding that the film, "while very funny, doesn't succeed at either the sort of deeply wrought characterization that marks the rest of Clowes's work nor at the pitch-black, suffering-based humor of Zwigoff's. Unfortunately, the entire film just feels like an extended, very mean joke about how silly art school students are." Preston Jones at DVD Talk also traces a decline: "What begins as a scabrous satire devolves into ham-handed clichés that sabotage an otherwise darkly humorous work... Art School Confidential is a flat, overlong exercise in taking down those smarmy art kids a peg or two. While it might be fun for Clowes and Zwigoff, it's downright dull for those in the audience." But Jeremiah Kipp and Ed Gonzalez at Slant scrape away the surface to find that Art School Confidential is really "a tale of demolished idealism appropriate for any creative job market," and asserting that the "matter-of-fact filmmaking style is made up for by the vitality of the all-around fantastic performances, the striking use of color (much of the movie looks like an eye-popping comic book panel), and dialogue that's as tasty as an Ernest Lehman/Clifford Odets cookie full of arsenic." They add that the Sony disc's image is "pristine, boasting pleasant, film-like textures, smooth skin tones, excellent color saturation, with no evidence of edge haloes, dirt, or flecks."

Hail Mary Slant was also one of the few websites to cover the New Yorker Video release of Jean-Luc Godard's Hail Mary, made in 1985 but still controversial. Fernando F Croce finds the film to be a "profoundly felt, gravelly beautiful work of faith, where the potentially parodist aspects of the premise (the Nativity story recast in modern-day Geneva) are consistently tempered by august contemplation." However, Croce goes on to say the "sensuousness of Godard's images is not quite damaged by the somewhat slapdash transfer, though the full-frame dents the supernal quality of the framing. The sound almost makes up for it, capturing the dense aural mosaic of voices, music, and the murmurs of nature."

Letter to an Unknown Woman What Region 1 lacked, though, Region 2 made up for with Second Sight's recent release of Max Ophuls's Letter from an Unknown Woman, one of four films in its Max Ophuls Collection. In a lengthy review at DVD Times, Gary Couzens tracks the director's career, his critical standing, and his all-too-small DVD filmography. Couzens's analysis is that Letter from an Unknown Woman is "very much Lisa's story, and it's a measure of Ophuls's stylisation that we accept it totally, when looked at from another angle her behaviour becomes highly dubious - egotistical and deluded at best, that of a stalker at worst. [Joan] Fontaine gives a remarkable performance, aging from early teens to thirties and is utterly convincing. There's a self-belief matched with a vulnerability that Hitchcock had seen earlier in the decade in Rebecca and Suspicion which Ophuls makes full use of. This was, by the way, Fontaine's favorite of her own films." Couzens also observes that the film enjoys a "generally good transfer, though some scenes are a little too dark. Otherwise it shows all the shades of grey in [DP Franz] Planer's photography, and there's a pleasingly film-like grain." The disc also includes a 23-minute video essay by film historian Tag Gallagher. "Gallagher is an eloquent speaker, and it's a sure bet that you will find out things you didn't know about this film, however familiar you may be with it - I certainly did."

"Not just anyone could turn a slick, glib tobacco industry lobbyist into a sympathetic character," begins Betsy Bozdech in her review of Thank You for Smoking at the DVD Journal, before going on to announce that the film succeeds at that task admirably. Thank You for Smoking is, of course, the political satire that is also the coincidental product of scions. It's based on a novel by Christopher Buckley, son of the conservative columnist and author William F Buckley, and adapted and directed by Jason Reitman, son of director Ivan Reitman, shaper of Bill Murray's early screen persona (Meatballs, Stripes). Buckley's 12-year-old novel concerns a tobacco industry lobbyist kidnapped and abused with nicotine patches ostensibly by anti-smokers, but the movie is somewhat different, with a focus on the relationships between the lobbyist, Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), and his son (Cameron Bright) and a reporter, Heather Holloway (Katie Holmes).

Thank You for Smoking Bozdech goes on to ask, "How does Nick sleep at night? Very well, thank you; he's a champion debater with a self-described 'moral flexibility' that allows him to find satisfaction in doing what very few others would be able to (or, for that matter, would want to). For Nick, it's the easiest thing in the world to stand up for smoking as a personal choice - who is he to tell anyone else what they should or shouldn't do?" For Bozdech, the high points of the film are Naylor's occasional meetings with fellow lobbyists (Maria Bello and David Koechner) representing other despised industries, alcohol and firearms, who informally call themselves the M.O.D. Squad (for Merchants of Death).

Preston Jones at DVD Talk prefers to approach Thank You for Smoking (by the way, shouldn't that title be Thank You for Still Smoking, to more better match the rhythm of the catch phrase it is refuting?) as an Aaron Eckhart film, first summarizing his career before asserting that "Eckhart hasn't found another part that gave him as much to sink his teeth into as the one crafted by [Neil] LaBute [in In the Company of Men]. Say hello to Eckhart's triumphant comeback role: Nick Naylor, Big Tobacco's chief lobbyist, a slick sonofabitch," before concluding that "Thank You For Smoking is a razor-sharp satire that swipes at Hollywood, lobbyists, parenting and half a dozen other topics with the faintest whiff of conscience - whip-smart and hysterically funny." And Ross Johnson at Digitally Obsessed lobbies for the movie, which he found "brisk, and moves through its relatively short running time without ever really slowing down... There's a charmingly light touch throughout."

The anonymous reviewer at Current Film emphasizes the performances, noting that they are "absolutely terrific," and that "Bright and Eckhart are believable as father/son," but avers that the film "doesn't hit its targets as fiercely as it could have (partially due to the fact that it plays things a little too safe at times)." And Kirven Blount at Entertainment Weekly complains that Reitman "undercuts the satire by hard-pedaling Nick's relationship with his son."

Christopher Buckley: Thank You for Smoking Thank You for Smoking garnered some attention at the Toronto Film Festival because of a bidding war, won by Fox Searchlight over Paramount Classics (which subsequently shed two of its executives), and then more at Sundance, where a sex scene between Eckhart and Holmes was cut. The DVD Journal's Bozdech, in discussing the supplements, which include a solo commentary by Reitman and his participation in a group chat, notes that "in both, Reitman discusses the circumstances surrounding the Eckhart-Holmes sex scene, which caused a stir at the Sundance Film Festival when it was accidentally dropped from the screening print and speculation about Scientology censorship ran rampant." Jones at DVD Talk calls the supplements a "veritable bonanza," and finds Reitman "candid, engaging," while Verdict's Masri rules that Reitman's solo commentary is an "amiable affair." But Obsessed's Johnson finds that the extras contain "more quantity than quality," and EW's Blount shows impatience with the supplements: "Reitman heaps profane abuse on those looking to point out continuity gaffes, and says he introduced himself to Buckley as 'the guy they hired to f--- up your book.' In another, he repeats himself, Eckhart quietly watches the film, and David Koechner (gun lobbyist Bobby Jay) tries to liven things up."

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Posted by dwhudson at October 25, 2006 6:23 AM


No surprise concerning Second Sight's version of Ophuls. I am glad I have Second Sight's version of "Pretty Poison" with director Noel Black's commentary, and "The Girl Can't Help It" with John Water's appreciation as opposed to Fox's no frills Region 1 versions of those films.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at October 25, 2006 7:56 AM

Thanks for the viewing tip. One other new filmmaker documentary from Kino is their 'EDGAR G. ULMER: THE MAN OFF-SCREEN
A Documentary Portrait of the King of the B's'

I'll forgo writing my own review, simply saying that it's a fun and informative pic, a highlight of which is Detour's Ann Savage being interviewed in an old convertible in front a rear-projection screen!

The rest of this is directly from the Kino website:


A "well wrought investigation of the often mysterious life of Edgar G. Ulmer," (Village Voice) that ambitiously blends film clips, interviews, audio tapes and vintage music cues into a fascinating documentary, Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen is "a nice homage" (New York Times) to the filmmaking genius behind The Black Cat, Detour, and The Man From Planet X. Featuring testimonials from Roger Corman, John Landis, Joe Dante, Wim Wenders, and Detour’s ultimate femme fatale Ann Savage, The Man Off-Screen paints a vividly impressionistic portrait of a no-budget auteur stylistically able to "take a rat and make Thanksgiving dinner out of it."

On his own and in collaboration with movie-legends F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder, from Berlin’s legendary UFA Studios to poverty-row purgatory in Hollywood (where he was blackballed for stealing a studio exec's daughter-in-law), Ulmer created a unique and heady blend of old world culture and twentieth century pulp pizzazz.

As a bonus, Kino pairs The Man Off-Screen with Isle of Forgotten Sins (aka Monsoon), a characteristically lurid Ulmer-helmed 1943 South Seas island adventure that pits John Carradine (The Grapes of Wrath) and Gale Sondergaard against Sidney "Charlie Chan" Toler in a deadly hunt for deep sea gold.

Austria/U.S. 2004 Color/B&W
77 Min. Not Rated 1.33:1

Isle of Forgotten Sins (aka MONSOON)
U.S. 1943 B&W 81 Min.
Not Rated 1.33:1

Posted by: Ju-osh at October 25, 2006 9:06 AM

Thanks for the tip back ... I'll look into those Ulmers.

Posted by: D. K. Holm at October 27, 2006 3:46 PM