DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

DVD Video Reviews Part 3 Features


Published on April 1, 2005

 

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

The River Donnie Darko Grande Ecole Angels w/Dirty Faces
The Public Enemy Tod Browning's Freaks The Cat & The Canary Sacred Planet IMAX DVD

The RiverThe River (1951)

Directed by Jean Renoir
Studio: Janus Films/Criterion Collection 276
Video: 4:3 fullscreen color
Audio: Dolby Digital mono
Extras: Intro to film by Jean Renoir, BBC 1995 documentary on author Rumer Godden, New video interview with Martin Scorsese – involved in the restoration of the film, Interview (audio only) with the film’s producer Ken McEldowney, Stills gallery with production photos and publicity stills, Theatrical trailer, Essays by film scholars Ian Christie and Alexander Sesonske in the color booklet
Length: 99 minutes
Rating: ****

Jean Renoir shot his first color feature entirely on location in India, and the audio commentary by its producer reveals the serious obstacles they had to overcome to complete the film. There were problems of weather, heat (the Technicolor film would melt), insufficient budget and time among them. This was the first and last film McEldowney – an LA florist – every produced. It is also a visual feast in color which occasionally even evokes the style and colors of the famous impressionist paintings by the director’s father. The story of Godden’s original novel based in India concerns the coming of age of three young women whose lives are tied in with the culture based around the holy Bengal River nearby. Most of the cast were not professional actors (Renoir originally wanted Brando for the visiting one-legged handsome war veteran but the budget wouldn’t allow for that). However, they all perform well, and their few bumpy spots in the film are forgotten in the communication of humanistic relationships and emotions amid the glorious images on the screen. One of the three girls had an India mother and Scottish father; she has the appearance and style of an Indian Audrey Hepburn. The Indian music on the soundtrack is very compelling. I once had a little 5-inch prerecorded open reel tape of it which I treasured and it probably was my introduction to Ravi Shankar’s music later on. The dynamics of the British occupation are strong and unmistakable in the story. The servants in the house and all the workers in the jute factory overseen by the father of one of the girls are of course natives working for the British. I recall being perfectly comfortable with that when seeing this originally in the theater in the 50s. How things have changed.

As often with Criterion DVD, none of the extras provided are duds. The interview with Scorsese is fascinating – he first saw The River as a nine-year-old and he speaks of the tremendous effect it had on him in many different ways. He feels it should be on the short list of greatest films ever. The audio comments by the original producer are lengthy but worthwhile listening, but the real gem here is the BBC documentary in which author Rumer Godden returns with her daughter to the locale of her novel and the film. The documentary filmmakers seem to have been influenced by the feature itself in shooting and post-producing their film in a most creative and artistic manner.

- John Sunier

Donnie DarkoDonnie Darko – The Director’s Cut (2001, 2004)

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore
Director: Richard Kelly
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Video: 2.35:1 enhanced for 16:9 widescreen
Audio: Dolby Digital English 5.1, Dolby Surround 2.0
Subtitles: English, Spanish; English closed captions
Extras: Audio commentary with writer/director Richard Kelly & Director Kevin Smith, DISC 2: Production Diary (optional commentary by Dir. of Photography), “They Made Me Do It Too” – The cult of Donnie Darko, Storyboard-to-Screen featurette, Darkomentary bh #1 Fan, Director’s Cut theatrical trailer
Length: 132 minutes
Rating: ****

I was surprised to see that this much-discussed cult film had just come out originally in 2001 – seems as thought I’d been hearing and reading about it for a decade. Now that I’ve finally seen it I still can’t be counted among the cult members, but I will agree that it is a fascinating take on the typical teen angst film and stands out as a potent and significant American film. I’m not a fan of coming-of-age films when the subject is a suburban teen such as Donnie, but if it avoids the usual disgusting cliches, throws in the sci-fi element of time travel, and makes one unsure whether what you are seeing is real or the character’s hallucination, you’ve got my attention. Donnie is seeing a therapist and taking medication, so that contributes to your interpretation of incidents.

High schooler Darko is the student who doesn’t fit in and has few friends. Instead he has a demonic-looking rabbit who is definitely not patterned after Harvey. This rabbit, who is obviously a guy in a rabbit suit, brings visions of the past and prediction of future events. He also directs Donnie to do destructive things such as axing his school’s water main, and burning down the estate of an EST-type charismatic leader played by Patrick Swayze, who has the entire school and PTA in his thrall. Drew Barrymore plays an English teacher, his favorite (so was mine). Many aspects of suburban upper-middle-class life are skillfully satirized in the film, with complete freedom from the sophomoric approach of many teen-centered features. The story is so offbeat and engrossing that I had no idea the film ran 132 minutes until it was over.

The transfer seems very successful, with good resolution and no noticeable artifacts. Dark areas exhibit plenty of detail. The 5.1 soundtrack does make some good use of the surrounds and sub channel, which it seems only noisy action movies bother with. The film’s length requires two DVDs and all the extras are on the second one, aside from the audio commentary which necessarily has to be on the first disc to watch during a repeat viewing of the film. One of the four featurettes is on The Cult of Donnie Darko and fills in the uninitiated on the history of this quirky flick. Even more quirky is the video made by a young rabid cultist in a competition to get it into these extras and by named #1 Fan. If I were this kid’s parent I think I would be seriously concerned about him. Siskel & Ebert gave Donnie Darko Two Thumbs Up and I think I will give it Two Rabbit Ears Up.

- John Sunier

Grande EcoleGrande Ecole (2004)

Director: Robert Salis
Studio: Wellspring
Video: 1.85:1 enhanced for widescreen 16:9
Subtitles: English
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Extras: “Making Of’ featurette, Deleted scenes, Theatrical trailer, Reactions from audiences, actors and playwright (Jean-Marin Besset)
Length: 110 minutes
Rating: ***

A provocative French film about the sexual and emotional power games played by a group of attractive 20-somethings attending an elite private school devoted to making them high-powered CEOs of tomorrow in big corporations. The primary character, Paul, has a strong relationship with his beautiful girlfriend in their hometown of Carcasone. (The director seems to be unaware that intercutting a sex scene with fireworks is a tired cliche, and good for him.) But when they both attend the school in Paris Paul finds himself to be bisexual and is attracted to both his roommate and to a lower-class Arab worker on the campus. I found the various relationships became a bit tiresome after awhile, although the scenes with Paul and his Arabian partner were well done. There is very little attention in the film to the actual school and classes; the director explains in the featurette that learning Life and Love was their real school. The playwright speaks of his main theme that “Desire knows no one gender.” The film has understandably been a hit at gay film festivals.

- John Sunier

Angels With Dirty FacesAngels with Dirty Faces (1938)

Starring: James Cagney, Pat O’Brien, Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sheridan, the “Dead End” Kids, George Bancroft
Studio: Warner Bros.
Video: 1.33:1 Full Frame B&W
Audio: DD Mono
Extras: Commentary by Dana Polan, Trailer, 1939 Lux Radio Broadcast, Featurette (22 min), Warner Night at the Movies 1938- Introduction with Leonard Maltin, Newsreel, Boy Meets Girl Trailer, Out Where the Stars Begin Short (19 min), Porky and Daffy Cartoon, Trailer.
Length: 97 minutes
Rating: ****

The symbolism in this film starts early on when destiny is decided by one kid who can run faster than the other. As two childhood friends get caught trying to steal fountain pens, one manages to escape and later becomes Priest Jerome Connelly. The other, ‘Rocky’ Sullivan, ends up in reform school where he soon starts his journey to become one of the leading bad guys in town. One crime after another and he is in jail for three years. Meanwhile, he lets his lawyer grease some palms and become part of the crime scene with the idea that he will join him when he gets out. Feelings change and when Rocky is released, his welcome is anything but genuine. But Rocky isn’t one to be taken advantage of and plots to get his due. First, he takes a trip back to meet his old buddy from the neighborhood and comes across a beautiful woman who he knew in his former life. They see the good in Rocky, even when others don’t. The neighborhood hoodlum kids idolize him and he quickly earns their respect. Connelly pleads with him to change his ways, but he has become what society has made him become. In the end, he will have to make a decision who the real William ‘Rocky’ Sullivan is.

Interestingly, groups at the time this film was made were rating the gangster films as morally objectionable and even condemning them. This led Warner Bros. to stop making gangster films altogether. Lots of material was left out of the film (details of the kidnapping, making a bullet-proof vest, gangsters couldn’t be shown carrying Tommy guns, and gangsters couldn’t be glamorized to the point that kids who watched the film would seemingly fall under their spell). But what was left in, is what made this film special and it received three Oscar nominations. The difference between this film and those that had come before it, is the social commentary depicting the elements that affected the main character and turned him into a bad man. But, even as a bad man, he is still portrayed as someone who is trying to make amends and do as much good as his tarnished character will allow. In the featurette the historians laud the director, Michael Curtiz, for his work on the film. He managed to make four films in the same year—three of which were hits. His touch is visible on many of the scenes, especially the final scene of the film. For those who don’t know, he worked with Bogart on a small film called Casablanca. A lot of elements come together in Angels with Dirty Faces and it is thought by many to be James Cagney’s greatest acting role. See if you agree.

-Brian Bloom

The Public EnemyThe Public Enemy (1931)

Starring: James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edward Woods, Joan Blondell
Studio: Warner
Video: 1.33:1 Full Frame, B&W
Audio: DD Mono
Extras: Theatrical Trailer; 1954 Re-release Foreward; Warner Night At The Movies (Introduction by Leonard Maltin, Blonde Crazy Trailer; Newsreel; The Eyes Have It Short (10 min); Smile, Darn Ya, Smile! Cartoon (7 min); The Public Enemy Trailer); Beer and Blood: Enemies of the Public (19 min); Audio Commentary by Robert Sklar
Length: 84 minutes
Rating: ****

From the beginning of the film the viewer is told that this is essentially a true story, and by chronologically moving within the life of one character, Tom Powers, we see the reasons why he has become the man he is. Even though his father is a cop, as a child he steals what he can to get spending money. His father continually beats him to try and show him the error of his ways, but that only serves to make him resentful and hardened. Tom’s brother leads the straight life, but he is unable to change Tom’s ways. When he’s older, Tom’s put on a job to steal some clothing. While he and his partner are in the warehouse, they get spooked and Tom shoots his gun off. A cop pursues, but Tom shoots him. They lay low and get a “normal” job, but soon are at it again—looking to steal booze. After a successful score they get hooked up with a big crime boss and Tom rises within the organization. He starts living big without a care for who he hurts or pushes aside. Tom’s brother Mike was in the war and when he comes back he can’t stand the man Tom has become. Even when Tom tries to give money to the family, Mike refuses it. Meanwhile, the boss dies and rival organizations are trying to take each other out. Tom gets pulled into the middle of it, vows revenge, and manages to take out most of the men responsible for his friend’s death. Unfortunately, he is shot and although it looks like he might make a nice recovery, he is snatched from the hospital. Mike and his mother wait impatiently after a phone call comes and says Tom will be coming home–but he isn’t in quite the condition they expect.

This is the landmark Warner Brothers Pictures gangster film that started it all for James Cagney. It is remembered most for the shocking “grapefruit in the face” scene and the final scene at the end of the movie. It’s based on a book called Beer and Blood about Chicagoland mobsters. Aside from historians and critics’ commentaries in the extras, Martin Scorcese lends his feelings and admiration for the film. The main character has gone from pickpocket to full-blown gangster and paid the price. There is no intended glamour or admiration in the depiction of the Tom Powers, only an attempt to show the impact and consequences of choosing a life of crime. Cagney was originally selected to play a secondary part, but when productions chief Darryl F. Zanuck saw how magnetic his performance was; he elevated him to the part of star. Veteran director William Wellman used his prowess to capture the essence of prohibition era America and preserve it for all to see. It was a violent, hard time that is illustrated through the main characters and their actions and sacrifices. Movies of this type plea for alternatives to the violence, but the characters cannot escape from their upbringing, the ills of society, and the paths they have chosen—a classic.

-Brian Bloom

Browning's FreaksFreaks (1932)

Starring: Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova
Studio: Warner Brothers
Video: 1.33:1 Full Frame B&W
Audio: DD Mono
Extras: Audio Commentary by David Skal; Special Message Prologue; Freaks: The Sideshow Cinema (63 min); Alternate Endings (3)
Length: 62 minutes
Rating: ****

Tod Browning, who was known for directing Dracula and other scary feature horror films, continues in that vein with Freaks. In a bit of a twist, instead of the freaks being oddities, they are the main characters. It is the “normals” who are the ones who act as if they are in the sideshow. The film is filled with real-life sideshow professionals: Siamese twins, microcephalics, midgets, a bearded lady, and men and women missing limbs. There are details on all the major performers (by section) in the featurette on the film. There are a few side-plots throughout the movie centering on romance and jealousy between different characters, but the main plot centers around a male midget and the lovely, cruel vixen trapeze artist. She views the freaks as subhuman and only conceals her disdain for them while she tries to cajole money from Hans, a midget who is rumored to have a fortune hidden away. Hans and Frieda (another midget) are an item, but the sultry, tall woman is too much for Hans. He gives her gifts and eventually marries her. When it becomes apparent he has made a colossal mistake—she has been trying to poison him–it is almost too late. But the code between the freaks is strong and they will have their revenge on those who have wronged them or their kind.

The Prologue details some of the mythology (that many may still hold true) regarding those who have the misfortune of being deformed at birth. The text explains the necessity to develop a rigid set of rules held by those considered to be “freaks” and implications and the seriousness of breaking those rules. The story is based upon this premise and suggested by Tod Robbins’ story “Spurs.” The result is a bit of a documentary, a Hollywood film, or even a soap opera whose main characters are members of the sideshow. The film only took 36 days to complete, but it was a huge risk for Browning. Never before (or since) has there been such a film, and the reaction of the public as a whole was less than pleasant. Many rumors suggest people were running from the theater in horror, screaming. Even with this shaky introduction, the film managed to stay in theaters for a short time before it was banned completely. It wasn’t until the 60s that the film was rediscovered. In 1994, the film was selected for the National Film Registry’s archive of cinematic treasures.

Browning was having a difficult transition from silent films to talkies and that shows with this production. The authenticity of the actors can’t be questioned (at least the freaks), but the real circus performers aren’t professional actors. By today’s standards this may be a little bothersome. Taken in today’s context of a horror film, this one won’t scare you out of your seat, although the ending sequence (which is still a shortened/edited version of what was originally intended) is, in many ways, uncomfortable to watch. One of the advantages of watching the film today is the audience will not be overly distracted by the look of the characters in the film and can instead concentrate more on the story. As one of the commentators in the featurette suggests, it is this loss of shock by the audience that will open up the door to identify with the freaks in the film. It further allows the viewer to understand the attitudes and prejudices and be able to apply them to everyday life in the present. This realization is what makes the film relevant to viewers today, and elevates the film to cult masterpiece.

-Brian Bloom

Cat & Canary DVDThe Cat and the Canary (1927)
Also Short: Haunted Spooks – with Harold Lloyd

Starring Laura La Plante, Creighton Hale
Director: Paul Leni
Studio: Blackhawk Films/Image Entertainment
Video: 4:3 silent format, Tinted B&W
Audio: Dolby Digital stereo, choice of two music scores
Length: 85 minutes
Rating: *** 1/2

I’d heard about The Cat and the Canary for most of my life, and recall that the stage play was once a favorite for production by high schools. In fact I believe my high school drama group decided between it and You Can’t Take It With You and chose to stage the latter. The setting of the story is a dark and stormy night. The greedy relatives of an eccentric wealthy man gather at midnight in his creepy mansion on a hill to hear his attorney read the will. For some reason there has been a ten-year waiting period after the man’s death before the will is to be read. All sorts of sinister things begin to occur after everyone has assembled in the living room. One of the characters is the dour and threatening housekeeper has been alone in the mansion for a decade with only the ghost of the deceased. (She seems like a rehearsal of Mrs. Manderling in Hitchcock’s “Rebecca.”) Hale’s coward-turning-into-hero brings humor to the horror story in a sort of Harold Lloyd style.

Some of the silent is as creaky as the door of the old mansion, but it would have been more so if the director had not been recent German immigrant Paul Leni, who got attention with his l924 film Waxworks, and brought German expressionism to Hollywood movies. His clever touches can be seen from the very beginning titles, which appear as a hand wipes away old cob webs covering them. I’d heard references to Laura La Plante, and now I finally got to see her. It has not changed my life. The viewer has a choice of selecting a soundtrack of music cues similar to what might have been heard in a so-called “silent” movie theater in the 20s, or of a new score composed by Franklin Stover, which gets into more modern sounds – but I preferred the more historically appropriate old-fashioned score. Both are in stereo. The Harold Lloyd comedy short, running 23 minutes, has some of his typical physical humor but is pretty corny. It also involves an old mansion that may be haunted. The scenes with the black servants are a reminder of the excruciatingly racist mores that were considered perfectly acceptable in mass entertainment at the time. After viewing it you will may come to the shocking realization that there is a strong connection intended between the plot and the title given this short.

- John Sunier

Sacred PlanetSacred Planet (IMAX reduction)

Director: Jon Long
Narrator: Robert Redford
Studio: Walt Disney
Video: Both 1.85:1 enhanced for 16:9 & 4:3 full screen
Subtitles: French
Audio: DTS 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1
Extras: Music video “Our Sacred Planet: Unseen Moments in Time,” “The Making of Sacred Planet” featurette, Audio commentary by the director
Length: 47 minutes
Rating: ****

While the astonishing cinematography comes thru very well on this DVD, this one made me want to see it in its original form at an IMAX theater (and not the ones with the dome as we have here in Portland, but a flat screen). Although it has some narration, this magnificent film is in the tradition of Koyanisqatsi, Chronos, and the few others combining amazing widescreen images of our world with a supportive original score on the soundtrack. The goal was to show some of the most exotic and remote places on earth, and in many of them one of the indigenous peoples’ elders living there tells us in their own words the wisdom they live by. The native American, for example, talks about everything on the earth representing the Great Spirit and how they honor all aspects of it. The music video in the extras is especially lovely, and provides a respite from Redford’s narration if it was getting on your nerves. It would make a perfect demo for home theater dealers! The fact that this was originally an IMAX production is kept almost a secret in the notes and DVD jacket, but one sees the large IMAX cameras in the Making Of featurette, and even without that one look at the better-than-normal resolution of the screen images indicates that the source was larger than the usual 35mm film format. This is another superb family film that replaces the usual silly stunts and bad taste with a visual and auditory celebration of the glorious spaceship earth on which we all sail the heavens.

- John Sunier




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