February 20, 2007

DVDs, 2/20.

Hollywoodland High time to catch up with some of February's releases. Following DK Holm's tour of the specialists' takes, a few extras.

Male film buffs of a certain age are plagued by a pernicious nostalgia for the old Superman TV show, which aired in syndication from 1952 to 1958, and then continued on in repeats well into the 1970s (ABC aired it during the show's last season). The show was probably more influential on the perception of the comic book character than the comic was, especially in emphasizing the sit-com like nature of the Daily Planet, and rendering most of the criminal life of Metropolis as mundane as Superman's foes in the earlier screen serials. Being lefties, Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had their hero originally doing battle with industrialists and politicians, but by the mid-1950s the comic had taken an intergalactic, science-fiction turn, with forays into parallel "imaginary tales" and dispatches from life on Bizarro world, but in the show Superman's foes were cheap hoods and con men.

This nostalgia for the simple tales of our youth has manifested itself most recently in the film Hollywoodland, a sentimental account of the life of the show's star, George Reeves (no relation, by the way, to Steve Reeves), played by Ben Affleck with easy going charm. A sort of LA Confidential Lite, with some tonalities of Ed Wood thrown in, Hollywoodland takes the viewer behind the scenes of life in show biz to reveal a struggling actor past his prime unable to capitalize on his cult fame while mixed up with behind-the-scenes power brokers beyond his ken. Directed by Allen Coulter of TV's The Sopranos from a script credited to Paul Bernbaum, the film posits a potential conspiracy to kill Reeves, who officially committed suicide in June of 1959. In the film, the case is investigated by a fictional, troubled private eye played by Adrien Brody.

The DVD came out on February 6, and Glenn Erickson, the DVD Savant, calls Hollywoodland a "complex neo-noir" that "goes in at least four directions at once, in two separate time frames" and feels that the film presents its movie lore "through the travails of an unsympathetic detective who must sort out his own domestic problems while trying to solve the mystery behind the death of every American kid's favorite hero. Hero worship confronts the big sell-out, as an entire town seems to position itself around the suspicious suicide." Extras on the disc include a commentary track by Coulter who focuses on "his directing choices and comes off as serious but not self-absorbed," plus some making ofs and deleted scenes.

At DVD Authority, Matt Brighton finds Hollywoodland lacking the "hard edge" of the similar LA Confidential, but "for those wanting a well-crafted murder mystery with some great performances, it's certainly worth a look." The anonymous reviewer at Current Film calls the film an "elegant and compelling mystery" and "a well-made, old-fashioned picture."

The Departed Coincidentally, The Departed, like Hollywoodland, is also a behind-the-scenes look at corruption and conspiracy and features in its vast cast Affleck's buddy Matt Damon. The Departed was one of the most anticipated films of last year, and now is one of the most anticipated DVDs of the month, arriving, on February 13, just in time to come to the aid of those people scrambling to get caught up with the best picture noms (Academy members have already voted, but they also receive free advance discs).

Randy Miller III of DVD Talk was one of the first to break out with a review of the two-platter Warner Bros release. "If you like your crime sagas bold, brash and bloody, this one's right up your alley," he writes of a film that is "partially fueled by precise editing and a blistering soundtrack." The two-disc version, however (there is also a single disc release, without extras), "feels a bit rushed," and comes with "a pair of loosely-related featurettes and a first person documentary following Scorsese's successful career," and 19 minutes of deleted scenes, with introductions by Scorsese.

Christopher Bligh at DVD Authority is the most authoritative on the transfer, noting that, while "there is slight roughage during the use of stock footage in the beginning (only a few minutes), the rest of the movie balances well in color and in the blacks without much speckilage or debris that can be evident in darker scenes for other films."

For Nick Schager and Ed Gonzalez at Slant, The Departed "jumps out of the gate like a caged lion freed into the wild," embellished, as usual, with "trademark Scorsese preoccupations: Catholicism, double lives, issues of honor, honesty, and deceit, and the bond shared between fathers and sons," but though "Scorsese's film, for much of its 150 minutes, rocks violently, passionately, urgently," the writers decry the film's "eventual, aggravating plotting missteps, with its elongated twists and turns and multiple false endings interfering with, and finally diffusing much of, the first half's high-wire ferocity and anxious tension. Worse than its narrative bloat, though, is Scorsese's abandonment of his initial fast-and-hard approach to the material in favor of a grander operatic line of attack. What begins as a breakneck descent into blunt cruelty and moral turmoil soon morphs into a cat-and-mouse game encumbered by self-consciously overcooked extravagance, a tonal and stylistic shift that not only doesn't quite suit the seemingly tongue-in-cheek Boston Massacre finale."

Alfred Hitchcock: The Early Years of the Master of Suspense Meanwhile, there are also new collections from two other Pantheon auteurs. On February 6, Lionsgate released Alfred Hitchcock: The Early Years of the Master of Suspense. This one's not to be confused with the plethora of previous Hitchcock box sets, including the 14-film box from Universal and the nine-film box from Warner - although mixing it up with the numerous previous boxes of Hitchcock from Delta, Brentwood, and other small companies is understandable given that the Lionsgate collection includes formerly out-of-copyright works that have been previously gathered together in mediocre transfers.

In the New York Times, Dave Kehr reviews the Lionsgate box. After explaining the current rights status of the five titles in question (The Ring, The Manxman, Murder!, The Skin Game, Rich and Strange) and noting that they appear to be the same transfers as those in the box's French progenitor (sans supplements), Kehr notes that while most of the films are of historic, rather than necessarily aesthetic importance ("atypical, nonsuspense films that Hitchcock directed before his brand name had completely come together"), the most important is Rich and Strange, from 1931, a film that "looks forward to Hitchcock's later series of couples films, including Mr and Mrs Smith (1941), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and Marnie (1964), in which mere marriages are transformed into sacred unions through the shared experience of suffering and temptation." Kehr goes on to enthuse that in the non-suspense films it is "fascinating to see Hitchcock directing the most prosaic dialogue sequences without any recourse to creative cutting or camera angles; he is there to play by the rules, and, contrary to his reputation, he is fine enough a director of actors to win the game."

Ozu: Vol 4 Almost simultaneously comes a box of Ozu films, released by Tartan in R2 on January 29, and making a fine companion to the Masters of Cinema release of three films by Mikio Naruse. John White of DVD Maniacs covers this small set of just two films, Late Autumn (1960) and An Autumn Afternoon (1962). Both are in color, both are co-written by Ozu with Kogo Noda, and they are his antepenultimate and last films, respectively. Rather direly announcing first off that "I won't pretend that Ozu is to everybody's taste," White quickly adds that Ozu's films are "almost pure cinema with the emphasis laid on capturing place, time and feeling rather than telling a story or dictating to the audience." White goes on to say that Late Autumn is "one of the most approachable of Ozu's films as it maintains a light comic tone as well as a good pace throughout," adding that it is also "one of the best of Ozu's films and an interesting attempt at considering women's position in Japan." Meanwhile, "as an epitaph," An Autumn Afternoon is "a resonant work" about "the slim compensations of life, regret and loss," and is tonally "darker and sadder than Late Autumn." White also notes that for supplements, the set features unusually interesting trailers that feature footage of Ozu at work.

Alice Faye Collection Glenn Kenny has nothing but praise for the new Alice Faye Collection, "featuring four films starring the great Fox musical star, whose reputation has in recent years fallen into what I consider a very puzzling neglect." But there's more to this than pure cinephiliac appreciation: "Back in 1993 I had the great privilege of bodyguarding Miss Faye. Sort of..."

"Its amateur acting and lack of structure are the sticking points for viewers who too often approach Border Radio as a dramatic feature," writes Sam Sweet. "The movie, like the portrait stills that accompany this Criterion edition, is better received as the mysterious, often accidentally beautiful home movies of a group of friends roaming a bone-dry, black-and-white Southern California landscape."

Also in Stop Smiling, Nicolas Rapold on the new edition of Don't Look Back, which includes Bob Dylan 65 Revisited, "a kind of complemental alternate take."

At IFC News, Michael Atkinson reviews the releases of Lunacy, "quintessential Svankmajer," and Apartment Zero, "co-opting primal Hitchcockian ingredients and going for broke."

Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist Dave Kehr in the New York Times: "It is not easy to fit Paul Robeson in a box, but the Criterion Collection has done its best with Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist, a four-DVD package that contains seven feature films, a documentary on Robeson's life and art, and a booklet full of essays that try to account for Robeson's complicated existence - as athlete, lawyer, actor, singer, activist — from several different points of view." And this week: "First Run Features has unearthed five important titles of the Cuban movement, ranging from 1962 to 1986, and packaged them as The Cuban Masterworks Collection."

Dennis Cozzalio has a DVD roundup.

Also recently released: Marie Antoinette. Reviews: Ed Gonzalez at Slant and Craig Phillips.

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Posted by dwhudson at February 20, 2007 4:51 AM