DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

DVD Reviews Pt. 3 of 3


Published on March 1, 2005

Pt. 3 of 3 – March 2005   [Part 1]  [Part 2]

Sky Capt. Good Bye Lenin! Three Colors series Desire Under the Elms
Dassin's Thieves highway Falling Angels Combination Platter


Sky Captain DVD Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)

Starring: Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie
Studio: Paramount
Video: Enhanced for 16:9 widescreen (some black bars)
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French 2.0 stereo
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Extras: Commentaries by Producer, Writer and Director plus VFX crew, Short featurettes on Brave New World Chapters 1 & 2, The Art of World of Tomorrow, the director’s original six-minute demo short, Deleted scenes, Gag reel
Length: 106 minutes
Rating: ****

A most unusual feature film which started extremely small – director Kerry Conran had no film experience and created his demo short on his Macintosh with simple graphics programs. It was not a big-budget Paramount production but started as a struggling little effort many thought doomed to failure. It is the first feature ever to employ actors shot only against a blue screen (with a couple props), with the entire set and environment created later in computers using cgi. The story mixes elements of some of the great adventure serials of both network radio and the movies. One (who is old enough) thinks of Smilin’ Jack, Terry and the Pirates, Captain Midnight (I had his secret decoder ring!), Commander Cody, Captain Video and so on. And how many flicks can you name that include WWII-style fighter planes, dirigibles, rocket ships, giant robots, flying wings, and various dinosaurs – all in the same movie?

The art and design of the film vie for attention over the predictable story about Sky Captain stopping a plot to destroy the world before it’s too late. It draws not only from the aforesaid Saturday serials’ look but from art deco design in general and the wonderful mixing of dated technologies of the 30s and 40s .0 with sci-fi fantasies. Some action films have been derided as being all special effects. Well, except for the actors, this one is really that. But ti doesn’t spoil anything. There are some nice humorous bits throughout as well, proving that the film doesn’t take itself that seriously. Among the many gems in the detailed extras with the film are the backgrounds of the metropolitan skyline, drawn in homage to a famous art deco architect of the 30s; and if you look closely at the Empire State you will see King Kong at its apex – just one example. One running gag will appeal to any photographer, concerning the Paltrow character’s little Argus C3 camera. I’m certain never before has the last word of dialog in a feature film been “lens cap.”

- John Sunier

Good Bye Lenin! Good Bye Lenin! (2003)

Director: Wolfgang Becker
Studio: Bavaria Film/Sony Pictures Classics
Video: 1.85:1 enhanced for wide screen
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, German
Subtitles: English
Extras: Director’s commentary, Cast commentary, Deleted scenes with optional director’s commentary, Visual effects featurette, Mini Making-Of Featurette, Uncut “Aktuelle Kamera” telecasts
Length: 121 minutes
Rating: *****

Best foreign film I’d seen since Intimate Strangers. I’d read about this winner of six European film awards but understood it as a modest little film that didn’t warrant being at the top of my must-see list. Was I wrong! This is a major work of great depth that explores the whole Soviet period/Berlin wall/perestroika milieu in a heartwarming and humorous fashion whilst educating those of us who weren’t paying attention when it was all happening so far away from us. The DVD notes call it hysterically historical, and that sums it up.

But it’s not without plenty of pathos as well. Young Alex’s mother, whose husband defected to West Berlin and never came back, works hard in East Berlin, totally devoted to the communist state. When she sees Alex being brutalized by police during a political demonstration she has a heart attack and goes into a coma for eight months. When she awakes the doctors says anything could cause a relapse, but in the meantime the Berlin wall has fallen and everything is changing. Alex determines to surround her in her room with all the old Soviet-era trimmings and food and protect her from shock by keeping her in the dark as to what happened. His efforts to turn back the hands of time are touching and often humorous – such as searching for old bottles of Soviet-era pickles and then refilling them with all that is now available – imported from Holland. He even makes bogus TV news shows (“Aktuelle Kamera”) with a friend to show his mother on her TV. The couple of featurettes are also fascinating. They explain the extensive work required for some of the special effects. One wouldn’t even realize there were special effects, and that was the director’s intent – such as the helicopter flying by Alex’s mother suspending a huge statue of Lenin with his arm extended – the whole thing was cgi-created.

- John Sunier

Three Colors Trilogy (1994)

Directed by: Krzysztof Kieslowski

The Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski completed the Three Colors Trilogy, Blue, White and Red during 1993 – 94. These films are best viewed one after the other as one motion picture, though they stand beautifully on their own. Blue and Red are French language films. White is mostly in Polish. Blue was filmed mainly in Paris, White in Warsaw and Red in Geneva. The French ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity correspond to the three colors. Yet these are not political films. They are very personal and humanistic. In each film there is meticulous use of color throughout based on the color of the title. Kieslowski used a different cinematographer for each film. Each has its own look, dominated by the colors.

Having watched practically all of the amazing array of extras on all three discs, I have to say this was a veritable Kieslowski film festival. Especially enjoyable and compelling were the interviews with each primary actress, the interviews with and audio commentaries by biographer and film professor Annette Insdorf and archival materials of Kieslowski at work. There are also interviews with the producer, a film critic, another Polish director, crew members, etc.

Kieslowski retired from filmmaking after the Three Colors Trilogy. He died in 1996 at age 54. He has been described as a genius of the same caliber as Ingmar Bergman or Federico Fellini. He was brilliant in the inventive manner in which he developed his humanistic stories with unusual images and beautiful music. The time devoted to the special features of these DVDs is indicative of the importance of these films in film history. Anyone who loves French films or films in general would want to own these DVDs.

Images are clear and beautiful. The surround sound is used sparingly but effectively, particularly for the music. Acting, cinematography, direction and writing are all outstanding, particularly in Red, the acting of Irene Jacob and Trintignant together as well as Juliette Binoche throughout Blue. In many of her scenes Binoche is alone. What she conveys in this portrait of grief and redemption in stunning. The writing in each is spare and economical. Each film was pared down to between 90 and 100 minutes.

Blue Blue (1994 )

Directed by: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Starring: Juliette Binoche
Studio: Miramax
Video: 1.85:1 enhanced for 16:9 widescreen
Audio: Dolby Digital Surround Sound
Extras: Reflections on Bleu (Featurette), A Discussion on Kieslowski’s Early Years, Conversation with Juliette Binoche On Kieslowski, Audio Commentary with Annette Insdorf, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Cinema Lesson, Interview with Marin Karmitz Selected Scenes Commentary, Juliette Binoche Selected Scenes Commentary, Jacques Witta Interview/Commentary, Kieslowski Student Film: Concert of Wishes, Kieslowski Filmography
Language: French
Subtitles: English
Length: Approx. 98 minutes
Rating: ****

Blue begins with a terrible car crash which ends the lives of Julie’s (Juliette Binoche) husband, Patrice, a famous composer and their young daughter. Recovering in the hospital, Julie is numb with grief. Afterwards she begins methodically attempting to escape her grief by cutting off ties with the past and even with her memories. Kieslowski explores whether liberty can be achieved in a life without significant connections with others. Julie puts her big country house on the market and seeking anonimity leaves her home with little more than the clothes she is wearing to live in a bustling part of Paris. Patrice left an unfinished concerto that was to celebrate the unification of Europe. Julie attempts to destroy the music but unknown to her a copy has been saved. Eventually this music–she was her husband’s collaborating editor– will play a part in the resolution of her isolating grief. Julie exudes a need for privacy and distance, yet she is torn between isolating herself and helping others. Her humanity cannot be suppressed. She is surprised to discover her husband’s long term mistress and that her husband’s assistant is in love with her. Among a number of others, these two situations are pivotal in Julie coming to life again though not in predictable ways. Blue is a complex, inventive and accessible story of grief endured and completed and re-affirmation of life. Blue won best film and best actress at the Venice Film Festival.

White White (1994)

Directed by: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Starring: Julie Delpy, Zbigniew Zamachowski
Studio: Miramax
Video: 1.85:1 enhanced for 16:9 widescreen
Audio: Dolby Digital Surround Sound
Extras: A Look at Blanc, A Discussion On Kieslowski’s Later Years, A Discussion on Working with Kieslowski, A Conversation With Julie Delpy On Kieslowski, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Cinema Lesson, Audio Commentary with Annette Insdorf, Marin Karmitz Interview, Julie Delpy Selected Scenes Commentary/Interview, Behind the Scenes of White with Krzysztof Kieslowski, Kieslowski Student Films: Trolley, The Face, The Office, Kieslowski Filmography
Language: French and Polish
Subtitles: English
Length: Approx. 92 minutes
Rating: ****

White features Karol Karol (Zhigniew Zamachowski)–the equivalent in English would be Charlie Charlie–as a Pole who has moved to Paris with his new French wife, the beautiful Dominique (Julie Delpy). Since living in Paris, Karol has become impotent and as a consequence Dominique is divorcing him. She seems to relish being mean to Karol at every opportunity. In this somewhat light hearted black comedy, it would be difficult to imagine someone more down and out than Karol Karol. Completely broke and humiliated, he manages to get smuggled by a kind stranger he meets back to Poland in a suitcase. This adventure does not turn out as planned. Though life in Poland is grim for a while, Karol eventually achieves wealth on the black market. He has long dreamed of regaining the love of Dominique and he is also determined to get revenge. Though ostensibly about equality, White is a humiliation and revenge story of how destinies can reverse. Those of us on top can tumble down and those at their lowest can rise up again. The ending is intriguing.

Red Red (1994)

Directed by:Krzysztof Kieslowski
Starring:Irene Jacob, Jean-Louis Trintignant
Studio: Miramax
Video: 1.85:1 enhanced for 16:9 widescreen
Audio: Dolby Digital Surround Sound, French
Extras: Insights into Trois Couleurs – Rouge, A Conversation with Irene Jacob on Kieslowski, Audio Commentary With Annette Insdorf, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Cinema Lesson, Marin Karmitz Interview, Irene Jacob Selected Scenes Commentary, Behind the Scenes of Red With Krzysztof Kieslowski, Jacques Witta Interview/Commentary, Kieslowski Filmography, Red At Cannes 1994
Subtitles: English
Length: Approx. 99 minutes
Rating: ****

Red is about fraternity and like Blue largely about the necessity of connection, compassion and love. Kieslowski considered it the best of the three. It was my favorite overall with Blue a close second. Valentine (Irene Jacob), a model in Geneva, injures a dog with her car. She finds the owner of the dog, a retired judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who spies on his neighbors’ phone conversations with sophisticated surveilance equipment. An unlikely strong friendship develops with Valentine, an open, kind and decent young woman, trying to understand this embittered, isolated older man. Interesting things eventually happen with Valentine and a younger version of the judge. Much of the film concerns connections through chance. Both of the lives of Valentine and the judge are deeply affected by their friendship. The conclusion of Red ties Blue, White and Red together in a most wonderfully satisfying way and I wouldn’t dream of giving that away. Red was nominated by the Academy Awards for best director, screenplay and cinematography.

-Donna Dorsett

 

Desire Under the Elms Desire Under the Elms (1958)

Directed by: Delbert Mann
Starring: Sophia Loren, Anthony Perkins, Burl Ives
Studio: Paramount
Video: Enhanced for 16:9 Widescreen, B&W
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Language: English, French
Subtitles: English
Length: 111 minutes
Rating: ***

Desire Under the Elms is based on the 20th century classic play (1924) by Eugene O’Neill. Set in the 1850’s, the story centers on a tyrannical and embittered old New England farmer, Ephraim Cabot (Burl Ives) and the hatred and conflict between Ephraim and his sons, particularly his youngest son, Eben (Anthony Perkins, two years before Psycho). When the play was premiered in Los Angeles, the cast was arrested for performing an obscene work!

The drama of this family always comes back to who will own the farm after Ephraim’s death. From boyhood, Eben has felt resentment about his father’s treatment of his mother. He accuses Ephraim of marrying his mother for her land and causing her early death through overwork. His two older brothers decide to leave for San Francisco in search of gold. Eben gives them money for their passage in exchange for their giving up their claim to the farm. Later they return briefly to boast of their new wealth.

Eben emerges as kind and sensitive when he and Ephraim’s new young wife, Anna, (Sophia Loren in her first American role) begin a passionate affair and seems to be the opposite of his father is all respects. However, both Eben and Ephraim are equally obsessed with the land and equally greedy and bitter. Anna has married Ephraim solely for a home and a dream of having land of her own and matches the two men in her intense desire for material gain. Ephraim is so selfish he admits he would prefer to leave his land to no one and destroy it upon his death.

The scenes between Anna and Eben are very believeable. They initially hate each other. Then Anna seduces Eben. Initially she is using him to become pregnant and endear herself to Ephraim with a new son. But their passion becomes love and they are deeply committed, going far beyond their initial lust. (It is odd that Ephraim suspects nothing as the months go by, considering he is so naturally suspicious of others.)

Whether angry or seductive, Sophia Loren is gorgeous and fiery. A misunderstanding fueled by hatred and ever-present greed leads to a tragedy of ancient Greek proportions. This is, after all, a film based on the work of Eugene O’Neill. Burl Ives is powerful and convincing in his role as the embittered father, overshadowing Anthony Perkins as a not very believeable farmer type. He looked as though he should be going to the office each day.

The black and white photography, the impressive sets and lighting add to the grim and stark nature of this intense, not for laughs, film. The musical score by Elmer Bernstein suits the story very effectively. This film received an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography. Though it does not hold up extremely well due to a somewhat artificial and dated feeling, if viewed as a dark fable it is worth seeing – especially for the experience of the striking black and white cinematography. There are no extras on this DVD.

-Donna Dorsett

Thieves' Highway Thieves’ Highway (1949)

Director: Jules Dassin
Starring: Richard Conte, Lee J. Cobb, Valentina Cortesa
Studio: Fox/The Criterion Collection CC1603D
Video: 4:3 full screen B&W
Audio: PCM mono
Subtitles: English
Extras: Audio Commentary by Alain Silver, Video interview with Jules Dassin, Original theatrical trailer, Trailer for The Long Haul, Essay by film critic Michael Sragow
Length: 94 minutes
Rating: ****

This gutsy melodrama set in California was the last Hollywood film Dassin completed before he was blacklisted. His subject is the truck drivers who drive by night to bring produce to the markets of America’s cities. Nick and his father were both truckers but his father can no longer work because of injuries in an accident for which ruthless distributor Figlia (Lee J. Cobb) was responsible. Nick takes over the trucking and becomes entangled in the dirtier side of the produce business in San Francisco. He struggles to pick up and deliver two truckloads of apples to the market in San Francisco but everything goes wrong. Figlia also pays call girl Rica to soften up Nick, but she ends up going off with him in the happy Hollywood ending.

Dassin’s focus on men struggling with big trucks and the dangers involved reminded me of Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear. The infrequent soundtrack music is by Alfred Newman and fairly forgettable. Acting is about what you would expect of a Hollywood film of this time. I found the story more involving than I expected it to be. You certainly may think back to the mayhem involved the next time you pick up an apple at the produce section of your supermarket.

- John Sunier

Falling Angels Falling Angels (2004)

Directed by: Scott Smith
Starring: Miranda Richardson, Callum Keith Rennie
Studio: Film Movement
Video: Enhanced for 16:9 Widescreen
Audio: PCM Stereo
Extras: Biographies, Short Film: Scott Smith’s Ten
Language: English
Length: 109 minutes
Rating: ***

Falling Angels, a Canadian production based on the novel by Barbara Gowdy, contains some elements of psychological mystery. In the opening scene, the body of Mary (Miranda Richardson) the mother of three teenage girls is seen at a funeral home in a coffin. A reporter from the local paper inquires from the girls if this was an accident. And so begins a bizarre but not unrealistic tale of family dysfunction in the late 60’s. The story covers a year or so before the mother’s demise with several scenes in flashback to an earlier period, judging by the girls’ younger ages, the late 1950’s. Each of the flashbacks takes place in the family bomb shelter during a two week period when Jim, the father, forces his wife and daughters to live with him in the shelter in preparation for the real thing. Jim is most comfortable with a military style so this experiment suits him.

As a whole with their dynamics on display (a scrabble game is particularly telling) and as individuals trying to get through their days, each character in their private world, this family is clearly on the high end of dysfunctional. Jim seems determined to show a normal face to the rest of the world and needs to believe that everything is basically okay within his family. We learn there was a baby son who would have been 21 if he had not died as an infant. It isn’t clear how he died but this appears to be at the root of Mary’s deep depression. Mary spends most of her time in her bathrobe watching TV. The oldest daugher in particular is charged with “watching” her and tending to her, though each girl feels a strong sense of duty toward their mother.

If the time had been 10 or 15 years later, would the influence of feminism have caused Mary to defy her controlling husband and to gain sufficient self worth to emerge from her despair? The bomb shelter is a metaphor for the way this family believes that they must and can survive without the intervention of others as well as a symbol of their larger confinement. The father doesn’t want to involve the neighbors or other resources in their private problems though he isn’t equipped emotionally to handle them himself. (The girls buy into the need for this insularity. When Mary “escapes” one day momentarily seeking an solution, a change, a way out–the two older girls find her. Norma pleads “everything you need is at home.”) Periodically Jim is wildly out of control and inappropriate. LIke Mary, he is partly a victim of the time as well, with an inordinate need to be in charge of the family.

The middle child, Lou, the rebel, makes no secret of her contempt for her father. She is the only one who does not try to get into agreement with his volatile craziness. At one point, Lou retreats to the bomb shelter with her suitcase to get away from the others, saying “I quit!” The emerging adolescent sexuality of each girl is examined. Lou discovers a young hippie guy to whom she is drawn. Norma recognizes she is attracted to other girls. And Sandy, the youngest, naively becomes seduced and used by a 38 year old man with predictable but no less dreadful consequences.

Clinically depressed and alcohol dependent, Mary is fragile and barely speaks. Mary is a tragic figure, having lost her spirit and seeming to have no sense of her own place or value in the world or within her family. (After observing a number of scenes of Mary in her various pretty bathrobes in front of the television, the thought of relaxing on the couch watching television isn’t remotely appealing.) Though her family regards Mary as rather unaware of what’s going on around her, one brief moment in particular makes it clear that this isn’t altogether the case. Jim comes home angry. Mary murmurs to Norma “I think your father may have lost his sweetie pie. We’ll have to be very patient with him.” Early in the film there is a brief indication that Jim is having an affair, so we know Mary is on target.

The film concludes on New Year’s Eve, 1970. This family with its lies, secrets, love and hate is a memorable view at how three girls have grown up and survived considerable chaos. This is the night Mary ends up on the roof. Falling Angels is tragic and darkly amusing with a strong ring of truth. The excellent performance of the accomplished and versatile Miranda Richardson was to me the most worthwhile aspect of the film. All of the acting is first rate. The 1969 period is well represented with sets, costumes and the music which includes swing music of the late 40’s and early 50’s as well as late 1960’s Canadian pop hits. Falling Angels holds much appeal particularly for those of us of the boomer generation as well as having a broader, somewhat timeless appeal.

Film Movement is the first company to release films in theaters and on DVD at the same time to promote better access to outstanding films. For more information, you may visit www.filmmovement.com.

-Donna Dorsett

Combination Platter Combination Platter (2005)

Director: Tony Chan
Studio: Koch Lorber KLF-DV-3024
Video: 4:3 full screen
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, English & Chinese
Subtitles: English
Length: 84 minutes
Rating: ***

23-year-old director Chan knew exactly how to choose one from Column A and another from Column B in his effort to get his first feature film made. First, he shot on HD video – of course. Next, he used as his set the Chinese restaurant owned by his parents in Flushing, New York. Third, he drew his touching story from his own experiences and those of other illegal immigrants to the U.S. The result is a fun little film which only falters a bit in its rather murky images and unsatisfying ending. View it as a tasty slice of lychee.

Some of the kitchen mayhem and humor scenes reminded me of The Big Night. Having one of the waiters be Caucasian was a clever idea. In one scene he asks the story’s hero Robert how to say a profanity in Chinese. The scene in which the officials show up checking for everyone’s green cards adds suspense; one waiter bluffs thru by taking off his waiter’s jacket, sprucing up a bit and proceeding (from the restroom rather than the kitchen) to the counter where an official stands, and then asking when his takeout order will be ready. One of the side plots is Robert’s friend’s effort to get him to meet an American woman with the idea of marrying her to get a green card. This realistically doesn’t work out when she learns his reason for dating her.

- John Sunier




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