Originally published on In Review Online.
Wizard of Oz (1939) by Victor Fleming [Warner Bothers]
If this column were solely geared towards the collector, this gem would be at the top of the list. Throw a Blu-Ray of a new film on and it usually looks pretty darn good. However, if you throw on a Blu-Ray of an older film that has become iconic through television and inconsistent 35mm screenings—providing it has been properly restored—you are likely to feel like you are seeing a new film. With its elaborate sets and Technicolor surrealism, The Wizard of Oz is the kind of production that begs for Blu-Ray magic. Although I can’t vouch for the perfection of the Blu-Ray transfer myself—as it is not in my hot little hands yet—you won’t have to look hard to find glowing reviews from people who have far better credentials than me. The 70th anniversary 4-disc Ultimate Collector’s Edition is no joke: contains 16 hours of enhanced content, four of which are brand new, including new documentaries and featurettes; 52-page production history book, Behind the Curtain; exclusive 70th anniversary watch with genuine crystals; reproduction of the original film budget; 1939 Campaign Book; exclusive 6-hour MGM documentary When the Lion Roars. The Wizard of Oz is a tried and true classic and Warner has set a new Blu-Ray standard by which all other re-issues will be judged.
That Hamilton Woman (1941) by Alexander Korda [Criterion]
If you’ve ever wondered what Winston Churchill’s favorite movie was, this is it. (He claimed to have seen it over 80 times!) A bit of British propaganda with a large dash of romance was apparently just what Sir Winston needed in those dark days of 1941 and the years that followed. Director Alexander Korda recruited the newly married lovebirds Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier to tell this war-torn melodrama of a scandalous affair between Lady Hamilton and British Navy officer Horatio Nelson. With the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, this lavish film takes up arms for the honor of true love and the righteousness of colonial victory. It is hard to ague the magnetism between the two leads, but it would be nothing without the visual work of Korda and cinematographer Rudolph Maté. With a film of this age, it is the preserved picture that is the biggest feature, but the DVD also includes a commentary by film historian Ian Christie, and a new interview with Michael Korda, Alexander’s nephew.
Wagon Master (1950) by John Ford [Warner Brothers]
Right smack in the middle of John Ford’s very prolific career is the understated Wagon Master that Ford counted as one of his favorite. The scaled back tone and lack of notable stars perhaps made it a personal memento for Ford, but these are the exact same attributes that have pushed it from the spotlight. Monochromatic enthusiasts will revel in the beauty and cowboy connoisseurs will savor the simplicity. Elder is the leader of a desperate group of Mormons heading west in hopes of escaping religious persecution. They make a deal with a couple upstanding horse traders who “don’t do no drinkin’ and don’t do no chawin’” to guide them to the San Juan Valley where they hope to start anew. Along the way there are predictable episodes of action, adventure and romance—all with an air of authenticity—but the film often gives way to mood setting song and Moab’s majestic vistas. Wagon Master may not eclipse Ford’s masterpieces but it stands out as a piece of Western high art that Ford often eschewed. The DVD offers a restored version of the feature as well as an audio commentary by scholar Peter Bogdanovich, who provides recordings of Ford from interviews he did in 1966, and actor Harry Carey Jr., who plays one of the cowpokes.
The Human Condition (1959-61) by Masaki Kobayashi [Criterion]
At nine-and-a-half hours, Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition is not exactly the kind of film your local theater is going to screen, I don’t care how ‘alternative’ they are. Good luck in getting people to sit for three hours, and even more luck in getting people to sit for three hours for three sessions. But due to the power of this film, that is the exact tenacity that a handful of theaters had this spring. Newly struck prints of The Human Condition adorned the screen around the country, and for those of us living in the hinterlands, Criterion is now releasing the work in the form of a 4-disc set. Although they are now presented together, the films were released separately in three parts between 1959 and 1961. Like most directors working in post-War Japan, Kobayashi’s work was guided by his experience in WWII. Recruited into the army in 1942, Kobayashi was sent to Manchuria and then later captured and held as a POW. Motivated by the release of Junpei Gomikawa’s autobiographical novel, The Human Condition, Kobayashi was moved to give voice to his traumatizing experience and ‘unpatriotic’ views though an epic film. The story of Kaji mirrors that of Kobayashi, a young man sucked into the malaise of the Imperial Army whose naïveté and idealism slowly but very certainly turns into bitterness and dissolution. The scope of the film is a testament to Kobayashi’s conviction. Criterion has done film enthusiasts a huge favor by restoring this film and presenting it on a four DVD set with ample extras, but I am dumbfounded why they wouldn’t also release this (and everything else, from here-on-out) on Blu-Ray.
Homicide (1991) by David Mamet [Criterion]
Only David Mamet could deliver such eloquence in vulgarity. Mamet wields words like a ninja employs throwing stars, with skill and intent. His 1991 slow-burning Homicide has been resurrected by Criterion. Not that it had been forgotten, but it has languished, only available on VHS, for the past fifteen years. I remember seeing this film in the theater and literally walking out feeling like I had been physically assaulted. My skin is much thicker now, and it’s not the brashness that stands out, but rather the uncompromising ingenuity of his dialogue and his directing. Joe Mantegna plays Bobby Gold, a police detective in an unnamed large city. Bobby’s a tough guy who gets caught up in the murder of an elderly Jewish woman. The investigation, however, turns out to be one of a more personal nature as he is forced to examine his Jewish heritage and the anti-Semitism he has absorbed into his psyche. Mamet brilliantly weaves a psychological thriller like nothing else I have ever seen. Hopefully the new ‘director approved’ edition has forced Mamet to revisit his more potent days as a socio-political director and we can put Redbelt behind us. The DVD includes an audio commentary by Mamet and William H. Macy (who plays Bobby’s partner) and interviews with recurring Mamet actors Steven Goldstein, Ricky Jay, J. J. Johnston, Joe Mantegna, and Jack Wallace. There’s an unlikely gag reel also included that is a nice release from this very dark and tense film.
Trumbo (2007) by Peter Askin [Magnolia]
For those who think blacklisting was just a product of the dark, fear driven days of the late 40s and early 50s needn’t look far out the window to find similarly audacious uses of slander and bigotry to mold public minds in US politics. Dalton Trumbo was at the heart of a witch-hunt investigation by the House Committee on Un-American Activities into communist activities within Hollywood. Part of the Hollywood Ten, his blacklisting and refusal to budge from his First Amendment rights cost him 11 months in prison and his career as a screenwriter. Although he returned to Hollywood and screenwriting, he never shook the stagnancy caused by the slander. Peter Askin creates a rich documentary on Trumbo’s life written by Dalton Trumbo’s son, Christopher, who had originally written much of the material for on off-Broadway play of the same name. Drawing from archive footage and interviews, Trumbo is not a portrayal of a fallen man, but one of a fervent and artful linguist whose talents were forcefully displaced. Askin assembles an impressive cast (Joan Allen, Brian Dennehy, Michael Douglas, Paul Giamatti, Nathan Lane, Liam Neeson, David Strathairn, Josh Lucas, and Donald Sutherland) to read from Trumbo’s impassioned letters that he wrote between 1942 and 1962 (also found in the book Additional Dialogue.) The DVD unfortunately skimps on extras, providing only two extra reading (from Giamatti and Danny Glover) cut from the film and a photo gallery. (Sorry, but a photo gallery is not an extra.) There is no doubt a whole mound of material that could have accompanied this riveting documentary.
Silent Light (2007) by Carlos Reygadas [Vivendi]
If you were to watch all three of Carlos Reygadas’ feature films in a row—hypothetically, of course; I don’t actually recommend it—it is much easier to see him as a formal troubadour rather than the overbearing disciplinarian that his films might singularly suggest. That suggestion is very much present during the opening of Silent Light, a very long still shot of a sunrise. Slow and methodical throughout, it is part morality tale and part visual tome set in the idiosyncratic Mennonite community in Chihuahua. Stifled emotions and misogynistic oppression rule the family of Johan and Esther and their brood of children. But Johan has a dirty little secret in the form of welling passion for another woman. But don’t hold your breath tumultuous emoting as the characters maintain a tempered state defined by petulant silences. A thematic riff off of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet, Silent Light studies the powerful effects of faith, beauty and love, all with devastating resonances. The DVD includes a making-of, an interview with Cornelio Wall (who plays Johan), and deleted scenes.
Tulpan (2008) by Sergey Dvortsevoy [Zeitgeist]
In defying my preconceived expectations, Tulpan left me with the misconstrued feeling of disappointment. Rather than a gentle and quirky drama speckled with cultural insights, Tulpan is an unrelenting testimony to the harsh physical realities of life on the steppe in southern Kazakhstan. Asa is a young man who is full of tall-tales and modest dreams. Fresh off the boat from serving in the Navy, he has returned home to find a wife and start his own herd of sheep and herd of kids (in that order.) But things are not so easy. Most of the young people have abandoned this severe landscape where the wind never breaks and the dust never settles for the more prosperous city. An attempt to arrange a marriage with an unseen woman named Tulpan fails, but Asa resolves not to give up, committing his heart and energy to win her over. In the meantime, he must help his sister and brother-in-law maintain their own herd of sheep that seems curse with only baring stillborn lambs. Although Tulpan is not without its charms, it is a story of hardship and reality where death and drudgery have a gritty physicality. Tulpan is a stunning film that is more bitter than sweet. The DVD is spare in the way of extras only including an interview published in Cinema Scope last year.
Treeless Mountain (2008) by So Yong Kim [Oscilloscope]
So Yong Kim's second feature film emits self-assurance without losing the simplicity of her unique first feature, In Between Days. Treeless Mountain is a pared-down portrait of two young sisters forced to deal with a world being turned inside out. Directed with clarity and intimacy, the film places all its trust in the subtleties of the amazing performances from the two young leads—and to great effect. Abandoned by their mother, Jin and Bin are left with their preoccupied Aunt and the heartbreaking promise that their mother will return for them. The more their situation deteriorates, the more the girls long for their mother. In spats of maturation and regression, the girls are forced to deal with their reality on a day-to-day basis. The fragility of childhood is painfully on display in Treeless Mountain with no irony and no clichés. The DVD includes a commentary with Kim and producer Bradley Rust Gray, a recorded post-screening Q&A, and a short interview with the two young actors.
Sugar (2008) by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck [Sony]
Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck had the spotlight a few months ago with the opening of their film Sugar, but it all faded so fast. Coming off the moderate success of their debut Half Nelson, the indie-directing duo seemed poised for a hit. But Sugar came and went so fast, you could almost here the ump saying “steeee-rike.” Sugar only pulled in about half of what Half Nelson made, which confounds all logic: Sugar is a far more engaging and enriching film; they fielded interviews and articles in all the right places at all the right times; and, of all things, it’s about baseball! I’ll admit that baseball is only a subtext, but any fan would be able to look at their favorite major or minor league team and find a character that is not too far from Miguel Santos. Miguel, who goes by "Sugar,” is a pitcher from the Dominican Republic whose hopes of making it big in baseball seem to be coming true when he is called up for spring training. Sugar is not Bull Durham (by a long shot) but they both have a grounded specificity for the organization of baseball that is rare. Although you won’t find an obligatory triumphant final game worthy of a baseball rally cry in Sugar, you will find a very smart and moving portrait that falls outside of sport film platitudes. This release comes at the end of baseball season with a potential of finding a better audience at home than it did in theaters. Personally, I would much rather watch this film than see the Twins lose to the Tigers. The DVD includes a making-of, a short documentary about baseball in the Dominican Republic, and a casting interview with the amazing Algenis Pérez Soto who plays Sugar.
The Girlfriend Experience (2009) by Steven Soderbergh [Magnolia]
Steven Soderbergh is one crazy bastard. I think it is safe to say that he is one of the most skilled filmmakers working today, but who is this guy? He is attracted to projects involving revolutionaries, whistle-blowers, Egyptian pharaohs, double-crossers, and, in this slick film, high priced prostitutes. With each successive Soderbergh film I try to find where they all connect and with The Girlfriend Experience I think I have found the perfect analogy: Steven Soderbergh is the skilled prostitute, able to provide his own kind of girlfriend experience to us—the film fan and the unsuspecting audience. We know we are being duped and slightly manipulated by our inherent attraction to the superficial, but, if we relax a little bit, we sure can have a good time. Sasha Grey is Chelsea, a very expensive escort who is willing to be your girlfriend, and whatever that entails, for an hourly rate. Of course, under the very polished façade of The Girlfriend Experience is an off-the-cuff commentary on the economic crisis perfectly juxtaposed with the cost of ‘companionship’ (or, in the case of Chelsea’s boyfriend Chris who is a personal trainer, the cost of self-esteem.) Grey doesn’t necessarily extend herself as an actress but certainly holds her own with poise and beauty. The DVD contains a commentary track with Grey and Soderbergh and an alternative cut that is only titillating referred to as “unrated” only because it never had to pass through the hands of the ratings board.