Hey, kids! Remember when I put together that massive Blu-ray disc Consumer Guide back in June, when the world was young and full of hope and promise? And it went over so well I thought, why, I ought to make this a regular, or semi-regular, feature for the pleasure and delectation of the Some Came Running readership? Yeah, those were the days. I had plans, big plans, for my second installment; among other things, I was gonna make it at least in part a referendum on opera on Blu-ray, because I know that's what the SCR audience craves. No, okay, it was because I felt like it and thought it might be interesting, same reason as I do everything I do on this blog. So there I was, working away on the thing...and then my plasma display ceased to function. And if you're not aware of what happened then, well, as Bryan Ferry once sang, you can guess the rest.
My plasma has been restored to me recently—albeit so late and under such tortuous circumstances that I am now afflicted with a neurosis that makes me believe that the thing is going to (metaphorically) blow up again every time I turn on its power, or every time a cable channel isn't coming in correctly, or...well, you get the idea—allowing me to take up where I left off, problem being that the titles I have notes and half-written entries for are all, well, pretty sorely out of date. Not that I ever intended this column to be dictated by the constraints of get-there-first timeliness (and in fact its model, music critic Robert Christgau's Consumer Guide was explicitly not, particularly in its early days; it kept up with new releases, sure, but it could sometimes take Bob several months to weigh in on a particular album) but still...
For all that, I didn't want to just throw away what work I'd done up to the point my set stopped working; by the same token, there are a lot of newer titles for me to look at/enjoy/assess. So. My idea was: forget the opera side-tack, which was going to take a fair amount more as far as consideration and time were concerned. Leave stuff like Red Desert and Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, which have already been discussed somewhat in earlier posts, be. And get out briefer-than-perhaps-normal-even-by-the-capsule-standards-of-this-format reviews of the rest. So as to clear the decks for what should be the next couple of what ought to be very proper Consumer Guides (if I can keep my damn display working). And show those publicists who have been so kind as to provide me with product that I haven't been defrauding them (although n.b., hardly all of the stuff under consideration here was comped). And so, this. Not quite as polished or expansive in the writing as it might have been, but a necessary step in getting one foot in front of the other and hopefully something of value to you.
Absolute Power (Warner): I haven't been able to see all of the Eastwood pictures that Warners has released on Blu-ray, in its recent big push to upgrade the Eastwood oeuvre to high-def. I have heard and read very mixed reports. Of course, many of us remember the rather problematic but hardly unwatchable Dirty Harry of a while back. I couldn't get my mitts on everything in the run of Warners' Clint stuff, but I was particularly keen to get this, which I find one of the man's juiciest thrillers on high-powered acting alone. The whole package made me think that maybe supposedly "indifferent" looking films (and I don't for the record, find Eastwood's films to be indifferent-looking, but I think you get the idea) can benefit especially from super-sensitive high-def mastering, largely because artifacts such as blocky blacks are more distracting within a "plain" frame than they are in one that's filled with stuff and movement, or one that doesn't hold for particularly long. As it stands, the Blu-ray of this 1997 picture looks very good, but not great; first 30 minutes of the picture constitute some of Eastwood's tersest, most effective, Siegel-inflected suspense filmmaking. And they take place largely in the dark. And the blacks are blocky. —B
Caddyshack (Warner): I do have quite a bit of affection, and not even of a vestigial kind, for this "slobs versus snobs" comedy, which throws in some not un-pertinent class analysis with its not-always-entirely-dumb humor. The Blu-ray looks nice, not eye-poppingly extraordinary, and is sharp enough that for some reason certain of its insert shots—for instance, Dangerfield's "pay up" bit near the very end are more obvious than they were in the theatrical projection. Nifty extras, including a previously-seen-on-cable making-of doc that I think may be longer than the feature itself. —B+
City of the Living Dead (Blue Underground): I don't know what's gotten into me. It's been years since I talked myself into believing that I've "grown out" of this kind of material, particularly this kind of material done as arguably ineptly and inarguably crassly as director Lucio Fulci does it, and still, I consumed this like a bowl of M&Ms. Blue Underground, you're like a drug...The picture is rather variable, sometimes razor-sharp, other times grainy, perhaps reflecting the dust-bowl phenom plaguing the film's setting of Dunwich (along with those living dead and all), ar ar ar. But that's a reflection of the materials, which really have been superbly mastered. A superb presentation overall, good for what ails you on those occasions when you, too, might need some Fulci. The guy had something, that's for sure. The gore effects—and in case you don't recall, this is the notorious 1980 film in which one of the characters vomits up the entirety of her internal organs, intestinal tracts and all—can still elicit "ughs" and "yeeechs!" 30 years later. —A
Close-Up (Criterion): My notes on the Blu-ray of this classic 1990 Kiarostami: "Raw, beautiful, old. The autumn leaves of Tehran/The backgrounds are somehow fascinating/Good, conversational commentary..." Of course this picture cannot be termed "old," but its Academy aspect ratio and the qualities of the film stock give it the feel of something not just from anpother country but another era. It's yet one more example of Criterion's exemplary policy of making a high-def video rendering of cinema look like film. If you get that, you're going to love this. And for other reasons as well.—A+
Darkman (Universal): Very strong rendering of Sam Raimi's idiosyncratic 1990 superhero not-quite classic. One of those films about which some might say it looks "better than it has any right to." And to heck with that; it looks pretty amazing, and is a real pleasure. —A
Everlasting Moments (Criterion): I was hoping that the release of this might function as something of a consciousness raiser with respect to director Jan Troell, who is at the very least one of the greatest cinematic craftsmen still working today. And...not so much. For now, let me just unreservedly recommend this, an immaculate rendering of an immaculate film, an account of an early 20th-century artist by accident, as it were, as sensitive a feat of lensing and construction as you're likely to see anywhere. —A
Flash Gordon (Universal): Very garish, but why complain, given the content and context of this 1980 Dino De Laurentis-produced mega-cheese fest, whose self-consciousness pertaining to its own cheesiness is still kind of hard to read. Hard to say how this Blu-ray looks in comparison to how it "should" look in a theater, but here the very vivid colors and near-3D qualities not only don't reek of overt digital manipulations, they feel entirely appropriate. Good surround audio on that goofy Queen score, too. I also have to admit I enjoyed the decadent-European-aliens debauching boring-wholesome-Americans subtext, such as it it, this time around, too. Fun, for what it's worth.—A
Greenberg (Universal): This 2010 Noah Baumbach character dissection is the sort of thing that some benighted souls look at and say "Why does this warrant a Blu-ray?" Well...because. Just on account of it's low-budget doesn't mean it's not meant to be seen. And Harris Savides' lensing IS by...Harris Savides. As it is, this film takes the '70s-ish lensing of Payne's Sideways a sunshine-is-boring step further; there are lots of revelatory perspectives on the dust motes floating around a kitchen by the much-used door just off a pool deck, for instance. The disc is very accurate in nailing the film's visual depiction of dingy, Southern California anomie. So that's why it warrants a Blu-ray. What I wanna know is why Resnais' great Wild Grass doesn't have a Blu-ray, but if I bring that up here, I'll be bitching to the wrong company, so there's that... —A
Happy Together (Kino Lorber): Ravishing, as have been all of the Kino Lorber Wong Kar Wai Blu-rays. Wait, there's only one other so far, Fallen Angels. That's great too. Essential. —A
Home (Kino Lorber): Another entry in the "Kino Lorber is doing something right" trend. A gorgeous rendering of a very interesting French film, a deadpan-surreal and genuinely galvanizing account of what happens when the highway that's supposed to have been operative right next to your quaint quiet home finally opens for real. Absolutely worth a look.—B+
Hot Tub Time Machine (Sony): The most salient technical feature of this disc is that it's really loud. The second most salient is that its picture detail makes its cheap-ass production values look even cheaper. Watching it in tandem with Caddyshack, I determined that squirrel jokes are not as funny as gopher jokes. Sample dialogue from the film: Character played by Craig Robinson: "I can't believe we're all here." Character played by John Cusack: "I can't believe we all made it." Sample dialogue from My Lovely Wife, on hearing this while getting ready for work: "I can't believe this is a script somebody actually wrote." —C
Jason and the Argonauts (Sony): This is not a film that needs to be oversold to its target audience, so let me just report that to my eyes the high-def rendering is superb, sensitive. The thing I feared most from this: that the detail doesn't exaggerate the nature of the rear-projection effects, does not happen. Which isn't to say that they don't look like what they are; they do. As they did in theaters, which is not enough to "take you out" of the thrills of a given sequence. Great stuff, and very good extras. —A+
Kelly's Heroes/Where Eagles Dare (Warner): A good strong vintage look, one would say. Not what you'd call pristine or revelatory, more like what you'd see at a drive-in where all the equipment was up to snuff and the projectionist knew what he was doing. Which is, really entirely appropriate for this pair of, shall we say second-tier '60s/'70s Clint Eastwood starrers, both directed, as it happens, by Brian G. Hutton. And that's not to say that certain details don't pop: Check out the blue in Carrol O'Connor's eyes in Heroes! Gorgeous! Look how solidly the high-def format holds the identical Gothic red type faces used in the opening credits of both films! In terms of content, Dare is probably best appreciated while half-asleep, and it should amuse some to note that Don Rickles' presence in Heroes has dated far less than Donald Sutherland's has. Just goes to show, I guess... —B
The Leopard (Criterion) Gorgeous; individual details in the early battle scene, and the introduction of Claudia Cardinale's character, and so on, just pop like mad. The inclusion of an English-language version with Burt Lancaster's own voice is very welcome, and the one we WWOR-raised tri-state area cinephiles remember; Peter Cowie's commentary is as epic as the film itself. Just magnificent. —A+
The Living Dead of Manchester Morgue (Blue Underground): This first-rate 1974 zombie cult item is, among other things, a remarkably well-photographed film (one of the last things shot by Francisco Sempere), and this is an excellent transfer. As was the custom of its time, the male lead is a great beardy-longhair obnoxious jerk (played to perfection by Ray Lovelock), which brings up the question as to whether the cover shot constitutes a spoiler. No matter, really. Another score for Blue Underground, whose catalog is growing as essential, in its way, as Criterion's (yeah, I know DVD Beaver's already said the same thing, or something, but I'm just concurring). —A
Mystery Train (Criterion) Just beautiful, great extras, and kind of revelatory; some have dismissed this as minor, frivolous Jarmusch, but looking at it again I see a great, melancholy hangout movie that's all the more poignant for its touches of whimsy. The director does an audio-only fan-submitted-query Q&A instead of a commentary, and it's entertaining, although I was personally frustrated by the fact that it never addresses the whole Stephen Jones thing. That's the guy who plays the ghost of Elvis, in case you're asking. And the guy who gave Paula Jones his last name, in case you're asking why I'm asking. Anyway... —A+
Showgirls (MGM):A missed opportunity: now that some people are beginning to actually take this film seriously (as I'm sure many of you already know, Jacques Rivette has always been a fan), MGM had a chance to issue an anniversary edition full of you-thought-this-movie-was-camp-crap-but-you-were-wrong extras. Demonstrating the lack of vision that has no doubt contributed to its business woes, it instead festoons this Blu-ray with the usual it's-so-bad-it's-good supplements, or something. The big news is the transfer/mastering; again, as with Flash Gordon, it's on the garish side, and again, this seems entirely appropriate to the film's milieu and, you know, mise-en-scene. But as just how you're supposed to take it seriously, this package will leave you high and dry.
A Star Is Born (Warner): Good lord. I'll admit it: this film completely wrecks me every time, and I hate it for it. That said, my word, this is a wonderful, wonderful presentation of it. For all its widescreen/color production value, it hits hardest in its intimate scenes, which feel just...that. Intimate, that is. Shows you Cukor's real value as a director. You need this. But handle with care, lest someone come home and find you in a fetal position on the couch, blubbering at the finale. A+
Steamboat Bill Jr. (Kino Lorber): This is just beautiful. The film itself, the restoration, the high-def mastering. "No jury would convict you..."; who else came up with that stuff? No one, that's who. Another library essential. —A+
The White Ribbon (Sony): I run hot and cold on Haneke,but I have to admit, this black-and-white semi-epic allegory got me good, at least up until its damn punchline. And even then, its particulars were such that it got me good anyway, in spite of the damn punchline. In any event, this high-def presentation of it is damn near perfect. Only the recent Criterion edition of Bergman's The Magician (discussed a bit here) beats it as an impress-your-friends B&W Blu-ray. —A