DVD Traffic Report: March 4, 2008 – March 11, 2008

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No Country for Old Men
(Miramax)

No Country For Old Men is, probably,

the single most critically lauded film of the Coen Brothers’ career.

It’s also a departure, especially in that it largely subjugates their

own exhibitionist hallmarks of style and characterization to those

established in the source material – in this case an expertly grim

genre potboiler by Cormac McCarthy. No Country gets great benefits

from the outstanding performances at its center – Javier Bardem’s

cold-blooded killer the kind of outsized stereotype that

self-identifies as a Coen creation, but paying dividends in

counterpoint to Josh Brolin’s quiet desperado and Tommy Lee Jones’s

mournful good-ol-boy sheriff. I was yanked out of the story when

vibe-busting reminders of the old-school Coen Brothers’ schtick

appeared on screen, especially the straight-out-of-central-casting

types who inhabit the film’s smaller speaking parts – the motel

clerk who woodenly insists Brolin select from a menu of room choices,

the mama who dodders through her scenes like a Spike Jonze Jackass

parody of the elderly, and even the gas-station proprietor whose

highly directed performance almost wrecks that crucial early,

mood-setting scene with Chigurh. In a broad comedy like the wonderful

paean to country folk and bluegrass O Brother Where Art Thou or the

bountiful ode to stoner lifestyles The Big Lebowski, they’d be

welcome, maybe even show-stealers. But juxtaposed with No Country‘s

sad-eyed hero performances, they feel forced, inauthentic, even

(here’s that accusation so often lobbed at the Coens) crudely

condescending. That’s not to say that the Coens’ style is a

liability; they make consistently smart decisions in condensing and

adapting McCarthy’s novel, especially when it comes to packing the

gist of Ed Tom Bell’s lengthy monologues from the printed page into

snatches of dialogue on screen. They work the story for suspense,

fully exploiting the conventions of crime drama in a narrative

(McCarthy’s) that, eventually, deliberately flouts genre convention

to terminate in a meditation on aging and mortality and maybe

nostalgia. And they invent a scene that has the sheriff and the

killer coming almost eyeball to eyeball across the portal of a

motel-room door with a blasted-out lock cylinder, their simultaneous

proximity and distance a necessarily cinematic expression that vaults

beyond the source material. But the irony remains: two of our

greatest cinema stylists have made the most critically lauded film of

their career by ruthlessly corseting their formidable drive and

vision into the literary strictures dictated by a great American

novel. Seeing it a second time, at home, the melancholy grandeur of

the film’s final cut to black became even more apparent —

reassurance that I wasn’t simply bowing to conventional wisdom by

placing it on my top-10 list. No Country For Old Men is a triumph for

sure. But for the Coens, it’s also something of a capitulation.

Buy it from Amazon.com: No Country for Old Men or No Country for Old Men [Blu-ray]

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Into the Wild (Paramount Vantage)

I guess I like this more than No Country For Old Men partly because it’s markedly more personal in its execution. While No Country‘s exacting genre mechanics can feel overly mechanical, Into the Wild has a relaxed, freewheeling energy and a sensuousness that’s rare enough in contemporary Hollywood to seem noteworthy when it occurs. The performances are uniformly dedicated — sure, old guy Hal Holbrook deserved the end-of-year love he got, but not any more so than overlooked co-thesps Emile Hirsch, Catherine Keener, and even Vince Vaughn. The cinematography is a marvelous example of its type, and skillful editorial work helps Penn keep the momentum going throughout an expansive running time. Here’s what I wrote at the time: “As accomplished as the photography is, what’s even more glorious about Into the Wild is its essential messiness.” It’ll be reduced on a small screen, but undoubtedly worth the sit — maybe it’ll find the wide audience on DVD that eluded it in theaters.

Buy it from Amazon.com: Into the Wild or Into the Wild (Two-Disc Special Collector’s Edition)

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DVD Traffic Report: February 19 – February 26, 2008

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The Darjeeling Limited (Fox)

Is there some hope that Wes Anderson is ready to stop making

the same movie over and over? The Darjeeling Limited is charming and wise —

but so indulgent. Its sibling protagonists (Anderson stalwarts Jason Schwarzman and Owen

Wilson, plus newcomer Adrien Brody), lost boys whose fractious relationship was

highlighted by the unexpected death of their father, are overgrown children

gamboling across the Indian countryside in search of themselves and each other.

Anderson is

definitely operating at a high level of craft: the low-key screenplay (by

Anderson, Schwartzman, and Roman Coppola) has a few explosively funny

one-liners, and his trademark slow-motion shots remain gorgeous — especially as

they highlight the lanky frame of Brody, in a sinuous full-body performance

that borders on genius. And Wilson’s

performance beneath bandages is a moving exercise in sadness, made unavoidably

resonant by the actor’s recent suicide attempt. (Schwartzman, rocking a

ridiculous mustache, makes less of an impression.) Too much of it plays like an

in-joke for Anderson

groupies and an ode to the idle rich. But when these three are stopped dead by

an unplanned visit to a tiny village, the film jumps to life, breaking into a

larger universe outside Anderson’s

comfort zone. As far as the DVD goes, there’s good news and bad news. Importantly, the DVD includes “Hotel Chevalier,” a short film starring Schwartzman and a (nude, but not extremely so) Natalie Portman and designed to be seen before the feature. It was stupidly missing from prints distributed in the film’s original, post-festival but pre-platform release — though you could download it via iTunes for home-computer viewing — so it’s a very welcome feature here. Unfortunately, it’s from Fox, which means a Blu-ray version doing justice to Robert Yeoman’s location cinematography is not in the cards. (A version of this review originally appeared in the White Plains Times.)

Buy it from Amazon.com: The Darjeeling Limited

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Michael Clayton (Warner)

Your mileage may vary, depending in large part on how much tolerance you have for the climactic Clooney-Swinton smackdown, in which writer/director Tony Gilroy goes for the conventionally audience-satisfying climax against what had to have been his better judgment. Yes, Clooney and Swinton are giving career-high performances, but the resolution is almost hilariously pat — in a corporate world as roughly cynical and amoral as the one Gilroy illustrates for most of Michael Clayton‘s running time, Clayton’s do-the-right-thing shenanigans come impossibly easy. Redeemed somewhat by a terrific final shot detailing Clayton’s taxi ride to some kind of dark side; he may have claimed the moral high ground, but that ironclad non-disclosure agreement says he’s moving away from the light for sure. And Robert Elswit’s cinematography (supple camerawork, gorgeous colors, a classic yet wholly contemporary photographic style) is fast becoming the stuff of legend — this and There Will Be Blood in the same year? Phenomenal. My original capsule review, plus some more thoughts, is here.

Buy it from Amazon.com: Michael Clayton (Widescreen Edition) or Michael Clayton [Blu-ray]

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Margot at the Wedding (Paramount)

Writer/director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) goes Woody Allen one better with this dysfunctional-family dramedy that manages

to be psychologically astute as well as wickedly funny. Margot (Nicole Kidman)

and Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) are estranged sisters reunited on the

occasion of Pauline’s marriage at their childhood home somewhere in New England. (Jack Black plays the bridegroom as a rotund

little ball of insecurity.) The needy, scattered Pauline doesn’t have her life

together, but Margot is a real piece of work, lashing out at her sister, her

brother-in-law-to-be, and even Pauline’s redneck neighbors. The story

occasionally embraces cliché and stretches credulity, but Baumbach’s incisive writing

and direction tease out the character notes that underlie Margot’s cruelty,

adding depth to a woman who becomes less and less sympathetic, spinning her

wheels desperately in an effort to find traction in the failings of those

around her. You feel for the gawky but sweet son she keeps in tow (even as she

cuckolds his father), but not for Margot herself — it’s a rare American film

that revolves around such an unlikable character. Evocative cinematography — no

shadows, only shades of gray — by Harris Savides rounds out a unique and unsettling

package. (Review originally published in the White Plains Times.)

Buy it from Amazon.com: Margot at the Wedding

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DVD Traffic Report: February 12, 2008

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Gone Baby Gone
(Miramax)

In this gripping, self-assured crime drama, Ben Affleck flexes

directorial muscles that nobody knew he had (except maybe Mama Affleck). Set largely in the

working-class neighborhoods of South Boston, it begins with the

disappearance of a four-year-old girl from her Dorchester home and ends

in deeply ambivalent territory. Frustrated by law-enforcement efforts,

the girl’s aunt and uncle hire a local husband-and-wife

private-investigation team (Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan) to

pound the pavement for leads. Complicating matters, the girl’s mother

(Amy Ryan, teriff) is a drug addict with unpleasant entanglements of her own.

It takes a while to gel, but eventually works up a tension and

complexity that are underscored by a taut, troubled lead performance

from the director’s younger brother Casey. There’s something going on behind

that character’s eyes that’s hard to figure out, even after the film’s

richly suggestive final scene. It’s not a perfect movie, but there’s a

depth and urgency, not to mention a flotilla of generally expert

actors, that carry it over the rough spots. The elder Affleck, who doubled as

co-screenwriter, avoids pretension or high seriousness — this is highly

entertaining, pulpy stuff. But it generates a provocative atmosphere of

moral ambiguity that lingers for days. It’s a modest film, but an

excellent one. (A version of this review originally appeared in the White Plains Times.)

Buy it from Amazon.com: Gone Baby Gone or Gone Baby Gone [Blu-ray]

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We Own the Night (Sony)

With the heart of Greek tragedy and the soul of film noir, We Own the Night takes an intractable situation as its premise and then spends two hours

showing us bad things happening. Joaquin Phoenix is the devil-may-care

Bobby Green, who manages a successful-but-shady Brooklyn nightclub —

and just happens to have a brother (Mark Wahlberg) and father (Robert

Duvall) in high-profile jobs with the NYPD. They could use Bobby’s help

infiltrating the Russian mob, but his loyalties are elsewhere. Once

Bobby wakes up to the idea that he must choose sides, We Own the Night

so vividly depicts his various betrayals of trust that the sentiment

expressed in the film’s final scene feels somehow both monstrous and

hilarious. Whether you enjoy this will depend in part on how much you

mind a script that spells every little nuance of the story out in

clumsy lines of dialogue — it’s writer/director James Gray’s worst

impulse. But Gray has an appealingly old-fashioned approach to

filmmaking and, of course, a terrific cast. (Phoenix, in particular,

has never been better.) What’s more, he devises two show-stopping

action scenes that propel the film’s second half — including a stylish,

heart-pounding car chase in the rain. Good stuff. (This review originally appeared in the White Plains Times.)

Buy it from Amazon.com: We Own the Night, We Own the Night [Blu-ray] or We Own the Night [UMD for PSP]

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DVD Traffic Report: February 5, 2008

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The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Warner) Sometimes I wonder if I overrated this one, starved as I sometimes am for a sense of lyricism — anybody’s sense of lyricism — at the multiplex. And then I remember the arresting cinematography by Roger Deakins (this, No Country for Old Men, and In the Valley of Elah seeing release in the same calendar year constituting some kind of triple play, even if I have a few problems with Elah); the presence of Brad Pitt as a laconic but intensely charismatic icon; and a sneaks-up-on-you performance by Casey Affleck as a kind of emotional parasite. And I decide that no, it is pretty great, and I look forward to catching it again this week. Here’s what I wrote about it in October: Tracing the roots of celebrity culture all the way back to 1883, writer/director Andrew Dominik imagines the last few months of the life of Jesse James as a hazy battle of wits between the sharp, charismatic bandit (Brad Pitt) and the gang of thieves he no longer trusts. James has good reason to be wary — two of his men are plotting to turn him in for the reward money, and another, the young wannabe Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), exhibits a neediness that borders on creepy. (He even sneaks up on James in the bath.) Close to three hours in length, the film has time to precisely detail the ways Ford’s idolatry of James turned to resentment and betrayal, with an ironic reversal in the last reel. Pitt invests James with charm, humor and occasional murderousness, effectively imagining a man on the downhill side of his own legend. As the outlaw loses his drive (the clear suggestion is that his death was a form of suicide), the film becomes more clearly Ford’s story, and Affleck’s fine performance snaps unexpectedly into sharp focus for the film’s final third. The result is a languorous masterpiece — a revisionist western about myth, moral compromise, and the male ego. (This review was originally published in the White Plains Times.) Buy it from Amazon.com: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford [Blu-ray] or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Combo HD DVD and Standard DVD) [HD DVD] Continue reading

DVD Traffic Report: January 22, 2008 – January 29, 2008

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4 by Agnes Varda (Criterion)

Among the most important female directors* in film history, Agnes Varda may best be remembered for crashing the boys’ club that was the Nouvelle Vague with Cleo from 5 to 7, her 1962 study in real-time anxiousness — the title character hangs around in Paris, awaiting the results of a cancer biopsy. But she was already on the scene in 1956, when she made La Pointe Courte, a film-school standby and an important precursor to the French New Wave. This boxed set collects both of those high-water marks along with Le Bonheur (1965), the well-regarded Vagabond (1985) and a full load of extras. I haven’t seen it myself, but it’s on my list.

* No, there aren’t many of them. Another good reason to investigate the great ones.

Buy it from Amazon.com: 4 by Agnès Varda (La Pointe Courte, Cléo from 5 to 7, Le bonheur, Vagabond) – Criterion Collection

Monty Python’s Life of Brian (Sony)

How many times do you have to buy Life of Brian, anyway? If you already own a DVD version, this latest iteration — the “Immaculate Edition” — may be missable. But if you’re like me, you haven’t watched this since the Criterion laserdisc came out and need an upgrade. (You could also ask why you spent big money on a Criterion laserdisc that you would only play once, and why you would compound that fiscal error by sinking even more money into a DVD that you’re likely to only play once — but then you wouldn’t be like me.) My copy (Blu-ray) hasn’t arrived from Amazon.com yet, but it looks like this one contains the same five deleted scenes and the same twin commentary tracks as the Criterion version, which means I can thrill again to the sound of distinguished Python Terry Gilliam griping about how much better this film would have been if the group had let him direct. (He’s probably right, of course.) As Python goes, I honestly prefer the more madcap Holy Grail — but this one has the distinction of being perhaps the least offensive film ever to get a worldwide reputation for blasphemy. Here’s a recent interview with John Cleese on the subject.

Buy it from Amazon.com: Monty Python’s Life Of Brian – The Immaculate Edition or Monty Python’s Life Of Brian – Collector’s Edition [Blu-ray] (Note: Amazon.com says the Blu-ray version is two discs, but apparently it’s just one.)

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DVD Traffic Report: December 18, 2007

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Blade Runner (Warner)

It wants more life, father. The different versions of Blade Runner have taken on legendary status over the years, partly because this was an early, well-documented case of a film being changed — against the better judgment of its creators — by a studio made squeamish by middling test-screen results, and partly because it was one of the first high-profile films to have an alternate-version release in the then-nascent home-video market. The original Embassy Home Video VHS release presented Blade Runner in its European-release version, which included the bits of violence that were trimmed to secure an R rating in the U.S. That was a nice touch, but Blade Runner wasn’t really worth watching on home video until the letterboxed Criterion laserdisc came out. At the same time, the early workprint versions of the film that were screened for test audiences in Dallas and Denver gained currency on the fan circuit, and word started to spread that perhaps there was evidence in the source material indicating that replicant-hunter Deckard was himself a replicant with the same implanted memories as the poor souls he was charged with hunting down and exterminating. A lot has transpired since then, including a half-assed “director’s cut” release in 1992 that followed fairly close on the heels of an accidental, but well-received, screening of a 70mm blow-up from one of the workprints. This year, Ridley Scott created a “final cut” version of the film that includes some new material and digital tweaks to existing footage (a 60-year-old Joanna Cassidy reprised her role as replicant Zhora in newly shot material!), and that’s the excuse for this release. It’s available in a plethora of multi-disc configurations, but anybody with a serious interest in the long journey of Blade Runner from screen to screen to screen owes themselves the investment in this five-disc collection, which is the only way to get your hands on the original workprint version that represents Scott & Co.’s first close approach to the material. (Interestingly, the high-definition versions of the five-disc set are significantly less expensive than their standard-def counterparts, which are only available along with collectible geegaws in limited-edition packaging apparently patterned after a briefcase seen in the film.) For movie nerds of certain ages and proclivities, it’s a must-buy. (Also, Amazon dudes, why haven’t you mailed my copy yet?)

Buy it from Amazon.com: Blade Runner (Five-Disc Ultimate Collector’s Edition) or Blade Runner (Five-Disc Complete Collector’s Edition) [Blu-ray] or Blade Runner (Five-Disc Complete Collector’s Edition) [HD DVD]

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Once (Fox)

It’s an uncommonly great year for movie musicals, and I haven’t even seen Sweeney Todd yet. Director John Carney’s gentle romance turns a typically limiting digital-video aesthetic and resolute, not-quite-cloying sweetness into a winning combination. Not as pat as it sounds, nor as gloppy as might be suggested if you hear Glen Hansard’s songs — devastating in context — divorced from the story. I wrote a short review earlier this year.

Buy it from Amazon.com: Once

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DVD Traffic Report: December 4, 2007

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Ford at Fox: The Collection (Fox)

Yes, it’s expensive. And no, I haven’t actually checked out a review copy or anything like that. (I only wish.) But the DVD-format gift item to beat this year has got to be Fox’s mammoth, one-of-a-kind cataloging of this major director’s work at the studio. Is every film going to be a masterpiece? Of course not. For all I know, some of them may not even have the whiff of genius about them. But at a street price barely above $200, it’s hard to find fault with an offering of 24 films (plus a documentary) — at the very least you get a handful of stone classics like My Darling Clementine, Citizen-Kane-Oscar-stealer How Green Was My Valley, The Grapes of Wrath and Young Mr. Lincoln that put you well on the way to recouping that investment even if you hate the bulk of what’s left. Could it be better? Sure. It could be in high-definition. If it’s a hit, then such a thing could one day come to pass. And if nobody buys this, well, we can probably say goodbye to the idea of truly comprehensive home-video releases from the major-studio catalogs. And that makes it probably the most important home-video release of the year.

Buy it from Amazon.com: Ford At Fox – The Collection

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Exiled (Magnolia)

Not a revelation or anything, but a solid Hong Kong crime film for anyone who’s lately lamented the apparent absence of solid crime films out of Hong Kong. (Director Johnnie To remains the go-to guy for this kind of thing.)

Buy it from Amazon.com: Exiled

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DVD Traffic Report: November 27, 2007

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Waitress (Fox)

Waitress takes on an unavoidable added poignancy when you know the story

behind it. (Actress Adrienne Shelly, a staple of the New York indie film scene since the late

1980s, was poised for a breakthrough as a director with this romantic dramedy. After

the film was completed but before its Sundance premiere, Shelly was murdered in

Greenwich Village. Waitress therefore plays as

valedictory — a gently feminist celebration of love, life and

motherhood.) Keri Russell stars as a great

waitress and pie-maker stuck in a bad marriage (to a scruffy, clueless Jeremy

Sisto). She falls for her gynecologist (Nathan Fillion) and struggles toward

independence. Russell carries the film pretty well, and the deadpan Fillion (Serenity, Slither) is

an odd but endearing choice as her romantic foil. The men in the film are

completely out of focus, anyway, except for Andy Griffith (!), who appears in several

scenes playing a creaky old plot device. The biggest problem is that you’ve

seen this story many times before — woman with bad marriage and spunky

friends finds the courage to

make a new start. If this sounds like your idea of a good time, relax and enjoy.

Buy it from Amazon.com: Waitress (Widescreen Edition)

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