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DVD Video Reviews - February 2003 Pt. 3

Band of Outsiders (1964)

Starring: Anna Karina, Sami Frey, Claude Brasseur
Dir. By: Jean-Luc Godard
Studio: Gaumont/The Criterion Collection
Video: 4:3 B&W
Audio: Dolby Digital mono
Extras: Interview excerpts with Godard, Behind-the-scenes footage, Interviews with Raoul Coutard and Anna Karina, Two theatrical trailers, Agnes Varda’s silent comedy Les Fiances du Pont MacDonald - featuring Godard and actors from Band of Outsiders, Visual glossary of Godard’s references and wordplay throughout Band of Outsiders, 16-page booklet with character descriptions by Godard, essay by poet Joshua Clover, and a 1964 interview with Godard
Length: 95 min.
Rating: ****

A beautiful digital transfer of a classic French New Wave film that I recall seeing not that long ago in a scratched and faded print with horrible sound. Two young men at loose ends enlist a beautiful girl they both desire in committing a robbery in the very house where she is staying. The standard two-guys-and-a-pretty-girl French film (think of Truffaut’s Jules and Jim) is re-imagined as a semi-innocent homage to American gangster films. In fact Godard based the screenplay on a poor French translation of an American pulp fiction novel by the same author as inspired Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player. There are some almost travelogue-style Parisian panoramas that demonstrate the director’s love for his city, and the influence of American pop culture on the young people is shown as strong. I couldn’t stop replaying the chapter where the three vagabonds dance the Madison in a cafe, with Karina wearing Sami Frey’s hat. After seeing the Visual Glossary in the extras you may want to see the film all over again for its many sly references to fellow directors such as Truffaut, Chabrol, Demy and Chaplin, and to American icons such as Billy the Kid. The interviews in the extras with not only Goddard but also with his longtime cinematographer, and with Anna Karina (taped recently) provide vital material to understanding Goddard's individual New Wave approach to filmmaking. the The occasional switch to English on the soundtrack is fun, as when the Frey character says he's Loopy the Loup, the French wolf - which was an American cartoon character who spoke with such a thick French accent nobody could understand him. By the way, I just realized we don’t get to laugh at inept subtitles anymore on DVDs - they’re all well translated and displayed legibly. Merde!

- John Sunier

The Harmonists

Dir. By Joseph Vilsmaier
Studio: Bavaria Film International/Miramax
Video: 2.35:1 widescreen enhanced for 16:9
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, in German, with option for French soundtrack
Subtitles: English
Extras: None
Length: 115 min.
Rating: ****

The six-man Comedy Harmonists were a real-life male vocal group in Germany during the turbulent 1930s. Modern vocals groups as wide ranging as the Swingle Singers, The Kings Singers and the Bobs owe them a great deal. I recently reviewed a Naxos reissue of some of the group’s 78s in our Reissues section. The film has imaginative down-at-heels comedian Harry recruiting the sextet members and their going on to become a sensation in Germany. But since two of the members are Jewish their success soon runs into the results of the Nazi takeover and the group is eventually torn asunder, splitting into one staying in Germany and the other leaving. Their struggles with lovers and wives are revealed, and there is also plenty of music - including a swinging vocal arrangement of an early Ellington tune. The actor playing Harry may remind you of a German Roberto Benigni. Both picture quality and surround sound are tops. This is a compelling and touching true-story motion picture.

- John Sunier

The Films of Charles & Ray Eames - Vol. 3: The World of Franklin & Jefferson

Studio: Pyramid Films/Image Entertainment
Video: 4:3 full screen
Audio: DD mono
Extras: none
Length: 55 min.
Rating: ****

Famed American designers Charles and Ray Eames during their lives contributed to the worlds of architecture, furniture design, industrial design and the photographic arts. This DVD is part of a series collecting some of the 75 short but extremely creative films made by this versatile husband and wife team. The three films were connected with the U.S. Bicentennial and used the lives of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson as prisms thru which to explore America of the colonial period. Gregory Peck narrates the introduction to the films. In addition to the main film on the world of Franklin and Jefferson, the DVD presents the team’s proposal film for the project as well as a short documentary on the opening of the exhibit in Paris.

The Eames use many closeups of objects, drawings, maps, and other antiques of the period as well as shots of architectural details of still existing buildings, as in Philadelphia’s old town. The preponderance of these three-dimensional and colorful objects, as well as the use of multi image techniques in presenting many different visuals while establishing connections between them, makes the American history come alive. I find it much more involving than the simple zooming in and out and panning of historic black & white photos that provide most of Ken Burn’s documentary images. One effective sequence has a timeline at the top of the screen with moving images in squares that are moving left to right over other objects they are related to below the timeline. Bear in mind that when these films were done there were no digital image processing/shortcuts available - the detail work involved in printing and masking these moving multi-images had to be truly tedious.

- John Sunier

Sergei Eisenstein’s Mexican Fantasy (1930)

Studio: CTB/Image Entertainment
Video: 4:3 B & W
Audio: Dolby Digital stereo, in Russian
Subtitles: English
Extras: None
Length: 99 min.
Rating: *** 1/2

Leading Russian film pioneer Eisenstein (of Battleship Potemkin, and October as well as developer of modern film editing theory) went to Mexico to create a film about this rich and varied country. He had no sound equipment and thus proceeded as with his striking silent films, capturing gorgeous images of nature, plants, traditional villages, and most of all closeups of a wide spectrum of fascinating faces. One imaginative sequence matches the profiles of a group of Mayans with the profiles of the similar faces on one of the Mayan temples. Eisenstein filmed the Mexican rituals for the dead, and some of their clashes with the authority of the dictatorship in power at that time.

Probably for political reasons, the director was forced to suddenly return to Russia and had to leave all of his film behind. He was never permitted to complete his lost masterpiece though he lived almost another two decades. Now Eisenstein’s biographer Oleg Kovalov has retrieved the original film elements still existing and fashioned them into this beautiful version of the film that Eisenstein might have made. A new stereo soundtrack had been created for the images and towards the end a plot of sorts emerges as some peasants still rifles and attempt to stage a mini-revolution against the wealthy land owner. They are caught and executed in brutal fashion, but a young woman in the land owner’s family - who foolishly wields a gun in the fracas herself - is also killed. The most famous clip from Eisenstein‘s film is probably the chapter titled “Courtship” here, with its hammock-lounging nude. It was all I had seen before of the legendary film artist’s would-be masterpiece.

- John Sunier

Robin Williams - Live on Broadway (2002)

Studio: HBO/Columbia Music Video
Video: 4:3 full screen
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, or PCM stereo, both rated XXX!
Extras: Williams interviewed by Marty Callner, the director of the special, Backstage footage before the live telecast, Williams “noises” edited together from the show, Hidden “Easter Egg”
Length: 126 min.
Rating: **** (if the profanity doesn’t bother you)

Not being an HBO subscriber I only appreciated via hearsay the fact that there was no censorship of broadcast material on this premium cable channel. Now, having seen Williams live, turning to his standup comedy roots on HBO, I appreciate very directly the fact that absolutely anything can be said - forget about George Carlin’s Seven Words You Can’t Say! If fact, if you just edited together the F words from this two hour presentation you’d probably have a ten minute or so text-sound piece of art. If you can accept all that, this is a very full plate of the super-manic energy of the madcap non-stop-talking comic. He didn’t turn me off as did Richard Pryor in his last live DVD. Williams deals with everything from the anthrax scare to surgically-enhanced breasts. His sound effects are an integral and hilarious part of the proceedings - they must be the reason this is considered by Sony Music as a “music video.” The Chapter Selection list allows you to go directly to your favorite parts. Great fun for some.

- John Sunier

Episode Three: New Tale of Zatoichi (1963)

Starring: Shintaro Katsu, Mikiko Tsugouchi, Seizaburo Kawazu
Studio: HVe/ Janus Films
Video: 2.35:1 Widescreen Enhanced
Audio: Japanese
Extras: Stills gallery
Length: 91 minutes
Rating: ***1/2

This is the first film in the Zatoichi series to be filmed in color. In all, there were 26 film sequels and over 100 TV episodes showcasing the legendary blind masseur with a talent for the use of a cane sword. In this episode, travelers have come looking for Zatoichi to settle a score—he has killed a member of their family. Needless to say, they are unsuccessful. When bandits steal money from an inn, it is Zatoichi who decides to avenge the poor travelers and get them more than their money back. As a traveling man, it is with joy that he comes to see his old master and his master’s sister, Yayoi. The young miss has no interest in an arranged marriage with a man she does not love and even with her brother’s insistence, she will not budge. It seems she has designs for Zatoichi, although they cannot be realized due to his standing as a Yakuza and a man of the sword. Although he tries to make things right, his past haunts him, and he has trouble living as a “honest man.” His sensei appears at every turn, and when a kidnapping occurs, it becomes clear who is on the side of right, and who is on the side of wrong.

It was truly surprising how enjoyable this film was given its age! There is solid drama, good acting, and the plot helps propel the movie forward at a nice pace. There are stops in between that include reverie by the characters with a nice blend of soundtrack and camera work. Much of the peaceful activities take place in well-lit areas and the quiet of nature, while the plotting and devious activities are present in the dark or shadows with characters in hiding watching the proceedings. There is a decidedly romantic element that is touching in its way. However, it is the main character that really makes this film, and most likely the whole series, as popular as it is. The fact that he is blind sets the stage for sympathy, but his actions, the restraint he shows towards violence, and the clear fact that he is a peaceful wanderer of low social standing (and just looking for a way to get by), lends a sense of reality to the story and helps the viewer connect with him. At times you feel sorry for him, at times he embodies the strength we all have deep down to rise above our standing in society, and at times the qualities for all to see are those of goodness, caring, benevolence, understanding, appreciation, and thoughtfulness. The film may not inspire to lead the crusade for justice in the world, but it is pretty darned entertaining.

- Brian Bloom

Shaolin Wooden Men (1976)

Starring: Jackie Chan
Studio: Columbia
Video: 1.85:1 Widescreen Enhanced
Audio: Mandarin/ English
Extras: Trailers (Panic Room, Spider Man, The One)
Length: 97 minutes
Rating: **1/2

Jackie plays a young mute who is apprenticing in a Shaolin Monastery. The other trainees laugh at him and make him feel weak and inferior. But he remains undeterred and will accept instruction from anyone who will give it to him. By chance he wanders into a forbidden area of the monastery where a strange prisoner is kept. This prisoner’s Kung Fu is quite masterful, and in exchange for food and drink, he takes the mute on as a disciple. The mute is haunted by a terrible memory of the murder of his father, and this encourages him tenfold in his training. His skills improve to such a high level that he attempts to pass the test of the wooden men. Many have tried to exhibit their skill but have left with bruised egos and a battered bodies. The mute is not fearful, but resolute, and manages to pass the test.

As he goes into the neighboring town to continue his search for his father’s killer, he meets a man whom he believes to be the one he is looking for. Meanwhile, his imprisoned master has achieved the skills needed to escape the monastery. It turns out that this man is evil and kills others indiscriminately. The mute realizes he must confront his master, not only to protect the members of the monastery, but also to discover the truth regarding the death of his father.

The picture quality of this DVD is about as bad as it gets. It suffers from video noise, altered color in portions of the film, poor contrast, and fuzzy video that looks worse than bad videotape. The audio is fine, and other aspects of the film are still worthwhile. The story is not original, but is presented in an acceptable manner. There is no lack of stereotypical silliness; including flying up into trees, one man taking on twenty men and winning, and cool Kung Fu techniques like “Three Deadly Palms” and “Lion’s Roar.” If you don’t take this film too seriously, and/or the viewer is used to watching Sunday afternoon Kung Fu on television, then this DVD will be enjoyed.

- Brian Bloom

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