January 5, 2007

DVDs, 1/5.

DK Holm reviews the ways DVD specialists spent the holidays. A few notes follow.

The Black Dahlia In America, anyway, the week from Christmas to New Year's is a weird time, an interim between intense festivities, one private and the other public, at opposite ends of the hedonism scale. Right after Christmas, few people are buying anything; they are returning the unwanted junk that others gave them. But except for the still-crowded streets of gift returnees, the world grows quiet, as the public bides its time in order to get through the beginning of the new year, after which things will, presumably, return to normal. Like February or August, two other ass ends of the year, it's an odd time to release a "major motion picture," on screen or on DVD.

But then, maybe Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia isn't a major motion picture. Currently it rates only a 36 percent approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes, and most reviewers appear to have found it false to Hollywood and false to James Ellroy's source novel, many adding comparisons to the much superior but financially under-rewarded LA Confidential at Dahlia's expense.

Given De Palma's long history as a maverick filmmaker and as an influence on film buffs and filmmakers alike (Tarantino, for example), an assumption might be that the DVD reviewers, who are generally more serious film geeks than the majority of mainstream newspaper writers, would be more sympathetic to Mr De Palma.

Not necessarily so. Phil Bacharach at DVD Talk was one of the first DVD specialists to take on the film. Beginning with a career summary and an interesting thesis about De Palma's strengths and weaknesses, i.e., that De Palma "consistently does his best work when he isn't expected to make too much sense. But give the guy a big, juicy story to tell, and he winds up charred in a bonfire of his own bravado." Consequently, De Palma's version of the Ellroy book "mainly just disappoints." After attempting a plot summary, he ends up pointing out rightly that after a certain point, "what follows, however, is sheer incoherence... The deeper Bucky digs into the Dahlia mystery, the deeper the movie sinks into inscrutability. De Palma and screenwriter Josh Friedman are too enraptured by stylistic excess to streamline Ellroy's dense plot. Amid the period detail and De Palma's fluid camerawork, it is nearly impossible to catalog the mounting back stories of characters with whom we have only a glancing familiarity." The disc itself, however, offers an image that is "top-notch, devoid of glitches such as edge enhancement, noise or combing," with sound that is "rich, dramatic and making creative use of immersive sound."

About the extras, which consist of three promotional docs, Keith Uhlich notes at Slant that, "Cumulatively these mini-documentaries add up to slightly more than standard puff material, though there is an unfortunate superficiality to many of the observations that further suggests most artists should stay far away from the realm of PR-dictated addendums and footnotes and let their work speak for itself." Of the film itself, Uhlich praises it at the expense of LA Confidential, which he denigrates for its "Classics Illustrated mannerisms." Instead, he praises "De Palma's expert navigation of its frighteningly finite space. This is a fever dream vision of the City of Angels, the shared nightmare of its principal players whose every move, we realize in retrospect, is helplessly preordained." The Black Dahlia is also, it turns out, "one of the finest Cinemascope films of recent years," and "what prevents the transfer from getting perfect marks is the shaky rendering of certain digital fadeouts and effects: see, for example, the distracting white lines dancing across the black shadow obscuring the murderer's face during the central staircase set piece."

As usual, Gary W Tooze at DVD Beaver prefers to restrict himself to an account of the film's technical specs, but does allow: "I was entertained but can see how the typical reaction is so staunchly negative. Being a Noir devotee, we often feel starved for even a hint of the dark cinema style - and although De Palma's effort is far from perfect, I think it was a fair attempt. His penchant for exploitive obviousness is in full tow. Like myself, some may get off on the performances and seedy LA atmosphere." Of Universal's 2.35:1 transfer, Tooze notes that it is "progressive and appears to be faithful to the shadow-filtered intent of the theatrical, moody, atmosphere. It has the appearance of a black-boosted transfer but no untoward edge-enhancement is noticeable."

3 by Mikio Naruse

DVD Beaver is one of the few places, besides a lengthy round up over at Twitch, where I've been able to find a review of Masters of Cinema's box set of three Mikio Naruse films. As Gary Tooze points out, this "box set represents the first DVD release of any Mikio Naruse films in the English-speaking world and prefigures more Naruse releases by the British Film Institute (UK) and the Criterion Collection (USA) throughout 2007."

He adds: "Mikio Naruse demands a certain deserved reverence with film fans. His non-judgmental cinema creates a flirtation utilizing an unsentimental balance between compassion and sensitivity, steeped in subtly deep melodrama but frequently with an overall bleak and pessimistic outlook." The box contains three titles, Repast (Meshi, 1951), Sound of the Mountain (Yama No Oto, 1954) and Flowing (Nagareru, 1956), and in his plot summaries Tooze emphasizes that Naruse "preferred genre of shomin-geki (films about the daily lives of ordinary people)." Repast "offers a fascinating exploration of married life, from the habitual routine of everyday existence to the hope for a better tomorrow that may or may not keep such relationships alive," while Sound of the Mountain is a "domestic drama of rare existential insight and emotional subtlety," and Flowing is "a showcase for both Naruse's powers of empathy, and his natural talent in constructing complex female characters on-screen. The result is one of the most innovative and revealing of all geisha films." All three films "have been progressively transferred in the NTSC standard, coded for Region 2 and have optional English subtitles" and the "overall image quality is consistent in all three film-to-DVD transfers. There is some minor contrast flickering and very minimal damage (light scratches) with Flowing tending to show the most at the very beginning of the presentation."

"At his best, [Luc] Moullet is a brilliantly funny critic, reducing the clich�s of the war film (The Smugglers) or the western (A Girl Is a Gun) to a cranky minimalism in which a handful of characters struggle across harsh, mountainous landscapes while carrying out their genre-mandated duties with a minimum of enthusiasm and surface emotion." Dave Kehr picks the highlights of this week's DVD releases.

In the New York Observer, Charles Taylor admires "a model of how to do a reissue. A Get Smart collection should feel like a sleek gadget, and the handsome presentation, bounteous extras and crisp remastering accomplish just that."

A Scanner Darkly is "a hilarious, psychedelic picaresque masquerading as a tragic cautionary tale," writes New Republic senior editor Christopher Orr. "Another (relatively) recent DVD release in which the tale and the telling are at odds is A Prairie Home Companion."

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Posted by dwhudson at January 5, 2007 5:04 AM