DVD Video Reviews - November 2002, Pt. 2 of 3

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The Royal Tenebaums (2001)

Starring: Gene Hackman, Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Danny Glover, Anjelica Huston, Bill Murray, Gwyneth Paltrow
Studio: Criterion/Touchstone
Video: 2.40:1 Widescreen Enhanced
Audio: DD 5.1, DTS 5.1, DD 2.0, Audio Commentary
Extras: Scrapbook (includes Eric Anderson pictures and art from the film, Miguel Calderón stills and audio from Studio 360, covers of magazines and books in the film, accidental fire of Huston’s hair, stills by James Hamilton, excerpts from script, brief cut of plate spinning), Peter Bradley interview of Wes Anderson, trailers (3), interviews (8), With The Filmmaker, Deleted Scenes (3)
Length: 110 minutes
Rating: ****

What is it that makes a great film? Why do some films appeal to one person and some to another? I’ll be the first to admit that when I came out of the theater after watching The Royal Tenenbaums I was a little perplexed. The story was good, the acting was great, the film was not too long, but I didn’t feel completely fulfilled. I had heard so many critical reviews that pronounced the film a must-see and yet I couldn’t accede to its greatness. Therefore, when I had a chance to take a second look, I jumped at it. I’ve watched it three times now and I have a slightly different view. As with many classics of literature, there will be some that will not be liked by all. This does not make them any less great. It is thus with this film.

The story goes like this…Royal, the patriarch of the household (although he has been ousted by his family), is kicked out of his current residence in a fancy hotel. As a ruse, he claims to be deathly ill in an effort to receive sympathy from his children and his long-since separated wife. When they were younger, the children, two sons and an adopted daughter, were prodigies—all were outstanding and made a name for him/herself in one fashion or another. Unfortunately, this was the highlight of their lives. Since then, they have all fallen into a downward spiral of routine and unhappiness. When Chas, the widower, decides he needs to come back home and stay, it is only a matter of time before the rest of the family are all under the same roof again. The kids and the parents work with their ghosts of the past and try to come to terms with their demons of the present and accept their limitations.

Alec Baldwin provides the narration of the story that plays much like a fairytale. Wes Anderson has crafted a film that appears to be based on an imaginary book, complete with fake chapters and artwork to support the illusion. Much of the material of the film is based on his parent’s divorce and how he and his brothers responded to it. Throughout the film, there is a great deal of comic book style art that was provided by Wes’s brother Eric. A great deal of this art accompanied the script. Many detailed sketches of the household helped to provide a tremendous amount of detail to the actors. A lot of this art, and art by others used in the film, is available for viewing (as stills) on the second disc of this Criterion collection. A pamphlet is included containing drawings of the household and other art, and there is a reproduction of an article written about Wes Anderson praising his style and the film itself.

Like a children’s book, the film is a wash of color and imagery. All of the characters are well drawn to the point that they are caricatures of themselves. They dress as they did when they had success—their period of triumph and distinction. In the present, they struggle to deal with their failures in the aftermath of their genius. Many of the non-star actors have worked with the director in his previous work, and this past experience clearly helps to create more believable characters due to the understanding between the actor and director. Much of the movie points to the impact and influence that family has on its members. Even Eli, a non-family member, is all but adopted into the Tenenbaum family and his association with them has affected them all. The songs utilized in the film have all been chosen with extreme care. The opening sequence with “Hey Jude” playing throughout is a good example of the style and skill in presentation of the characters employed by the director. The music in the film helps to set the mood and reinforce the dependence, the feelings towards, and the relationship of one character to another. The sound and picture are a delight due to a carefully executed transfer. Missing this film will deprive the viewer of a provoking experience—the type of experience that any film lover should relish.

- Brian Bloom

Memento (Limited Edition) (2000)

Starring: Guy Pierce, Carrie Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano
Studio: Columbia TriStar
Video: 2.35:1 Widescreen Enhanced
Audio: DTS 5.1, DD 5.1, DD 2.0
Extras: Audio Commentary, Director’s Shooting Script, (in addition) are Trailers, Anatomy of a Scene, International Art Campaigns, Production Design Stills and Sketches, Original Short Story (but these features need to be “unlocked” and I was unable to get to them)
Length: 113 minutes
Rating: ***1/2

This edition of the film Memento is quite interesting. You have to get through some Q&A just to get the film to start. Even the menus are designed to resemble psychological tests. The DVD packaging is designed to look like a case file on Shelby Leonard, the main character. There are fake medical reports, evaluations, Mental Health exam paperwork and the like—really cool!

The main character suffers from short-term memory loss and although he can remember everything up to the point of a very traumatic memory in his past, everything after that is all jumbled. He can remember what is happening for a minute or two and then it is gone. In order to enable his pursuit of the murderer of his wife, he takes Polaroid pictures of people and places. He then writes things on them as well as tattooing tidbits of information on his body. The main character narrates the entire film and as the story proceeds, the viewer becomes more and more understanding of the limitation imposed by Leonard’s disorder. There is a trick to the film but I won’t give it away. Let’s just say that it is very unique—never having been done in a previous film. It is often hard to tell if the people that Shelby meets are his friends or his enemies and in fact, he often cannot recognize this either. It all makes for a very interesting film that is worth [almost required!...Ed.] seeing more than once to fully understand all that happens.

The picture is better than the first release of the film, although not a great deal better. It is from a HD transfer so clarity is improved and video noise seems to be reduced. Sound is good although there isn’t a whole lot happening in the surrounds in most of the film. On the second disc we are again treated to a battery of tests before getting to the start. For film buffs, by using the angle button, it is possible to switch between the film and the director’s shooting script. Memento is a very impressive piece of drama that delves deeply into the psyche of a tormented man. The twisted characters surrounding him are believable enough, and saddening in a strange way. The film seems to be devoid of redeeming characters, and even our supposed hero’s actions are questionable in the end, or the beginning, depending on how you look at it. For a very welcome mind trip, you will want to check this one out.

- Brian Bloom

The Criminal (1999)

Starring: Steven Mackintosh, Eddie Izzard, Natasha Little, Bernard Hill
Directed by: Julian Simpson
Studio: Palm Pictures
Video: 16:9 Widescreen
Audio: DD 5.1, 2.0
Extras: Director’s Commentary, Cast & Director Interviews, Cast & Crew Bios, Behind the Scenes Featurette, Previews, Web Links
Length: 96 minutes
Rating: **1/2

Julian Simpson’s ‘The Criminal’ is another good film in a long tradition of British crime drama thrillers that pretty much keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout. Steven Mackintosh plays Jasper Rawlins, and unemployed musician just out for a few beers at the local pub. He meets an attractive young lady there, and their brief and seemingly innocent dalliance soon leads him into an ever-spiraling web of murder and international intrigue, and of course, he’s the prime suspect.

There are numerous good performances throughout, especially Bernard Hill as the tough, old-school, crack-a-few-skulls to get to the truth police detective, and the story is basically a good, gripping tale of society’s underbelly. You really empathize with Jasper (or ‘J’ as he calls himself); he’s constantly on the run and just can’t seem to get a break, and at every turn, someone else ends up dead, and he’s seemingly to blame.

The video quality is excellent, albeit quite dark through most of the film. The 5.1 sound is also excellent, and the surrounds contribute greatly to the overall feel and ambience of the film. You might want to turn on the subtitles, because the language (although it’s English) can be a little unclear occasionally.

There are plenty of extras on the disk, including a director’s commentary and cast interviews, as well as a behind the scenes featurette, to help you sort through the characters and complex action. The film really starts off well, but after about 45 minutes or so, the constant use of flashbacks as the main plot and character development tool becomes somewhat confusing and a little tiresome. This one definitely requires repeat viewings to try and figure out whodunit.

- Tom Gibbs

The Rocking Horse Winner (1950)

Starring: Valerie Hobson, John Howard Davies, Ronald Squire, John Mills
Directed by: Anthony Pelissier
Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
Video: 4:3 Full Frame B/W
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Extras: Pixelvision Short Film , Radio Broadcast reading of “The Rocking Horse Winner,” Excerpts from the chamber opera, 24 booklet that includes the short story by D.H. Lawrence
Length: 91 minutes
Rating: ****

‘The Rocking Horse Winner’ is an adaptation of a classic D. H. Lawrence tale of greed and excess. The story follows young Paul, whose father is a losing gambler, and whose mother is consumed with materialism. Her exotic and expensive purchasing habits far exceed the family’s means. Eventually, her debts catch up with her, and her wealthy brother refuses to bail the family out again. Her overwhelming desire for more money and all that it brings dominates every aspect of her existence, to the detriment of the entire family.

Young Paul quickly gains a keen awareness of his mother’s boundless desire, and develops a plan to help generate the necessary cash flow. Through several encounters with the family handyman, he learns about betting on the horses. While riding an elaborate rocking horse (another of his mother’s purchases), he is whipped into a hysterical frenzy and magically, the name of the winning horse at the local track is revealed to him. His betting starts out rather small, but soon balloons into an incredible amount of money. The wealthy uncle finds out about Paul’s talents, and soon, he assists him by funneling the money back to the family without his mother’s knowing where it came from. Paul’s mother is now equipped with even greater resources, but rather than recognizing her plight and taking the necessary action to change her ways, takes her spending to the next level.

The digitally remastered and restored film offers a really good image, with no traces of grain or artifacts and good contrast. The sound is mono, but quite good and with very little noise.

The DVD package is an impressive one, with an elaborate 24-page booklet that not only includes the original D. H. Lawrence story reprinted in whole, but also includes the libretto for a chamber opera version of the story as well. Extra features include a short film in Pixelvision that retells the story, a radio broadcast reading of the story, and excerpts from the chamber opera. A wonderful, if harrowing tale of morality and excess that should not be missed.

- Tom Gibbs

The Tiger of Eschnapur (1959)

Starring: Debra Paget, Paul Hubschmid, Walter Reyer, Valery Inkijinoff
Directed by: Fritz Lang
Studio: Image Entertainment/Fantoma
Video: 1.33:1 Full Frame
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Extras: English and German language versions, Gallery of posters & stills
Length: 100 minutes
Rating: ****

The Indian Tomb (1959)

Starring: Debra Paget, Paul Hubschmid, Walter Reyer, Valery Inkijinoff
Directed by: Fritz Lang
Studio: Image Entertainment/Fantoma
Video: 1.33:1 Full Frame
Audio: Dolby Ditital Mono
Extras: English and German language versions, Gallery of posters & stills
Length: 100 minutes
Rating: ****

Fritz Lang’s work is most often regarded for the fantastic visual images he presented; ‘Metropolis’ is still regarded as his masterwork, but mostly based on the powerful visual imagery of the film rather than his skills as a storyteller. These two films coming at the twilight of his career show abundantly that his skills as a visual artist had not diminished, and he also manages to tell a good story as well.

This release marks the first availability of these films in their complete, original form since their theatrical release in 1960. Although they fared well in Lang’s native Germany, they were critical and commercial failures in the U.S., a factor which undoubtedly contributed to their neglect in later years. That said, the restored versions are a revelation.

The story takes place in Eschnapur, a province of India, where a Western architect is overseeing the redesign of new palace. The ruler of the province has recently died, and a goodly portion of the plot action involves the ensuing power struggle between two sons and a brother of the late monarch. There’s plotting and scheming aplenty, and when a vixen of a temple dancer arrives on the scene, passions flare and things get really complicated for everyone. The story line is continuous throughout both films.

The visual elements of the film are stunning. Filmed on location in India, the size and breadth of the sets is overwhelming to say the least. Fritz Lang had lost none of the sense of visual style he imparted to ‘Metropolis,’ even after three decades. The restored print is pristine, with deeply saturated colors and crisp definition of all details, without a trace of grain. The sound is in mono, but it’s really pretty good mono with very little noise.

Extra features include an English language version as well as the original German theatrical release version, and each includes a gallery of posters and still images. A quick read through the accompanying booklet hints that Speilberg got most of his inspiration for the Indiana Jones series of movies from these films. Our architect here is no Dr. Jones, and the action is not as fast paced, but one definitely can see many parallels between the bodies of work.

The biggest complaint most anyone would have with either film would be the listless, sometimes ‘wooden’ quality of the actors – the films were shot in German for German audiences, so maybe there’s a slight problem in the translation. A few of the special effects are a little shoddy (the cobra in the temple dance scene comes to mind). But the two films still tell a powerful, involving tale and deserve a wider audience.

- Tom Gibbs

The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)

Starring: Alec Guinness, Stanley Holloway, Sid James, Alfie Bass
Directed by: Charles Crichton
Studio: Anchor Bay Entertainment
Video: 4:3 Full Frame B/W
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Extras: Trailer, Alec Guinness Bio
Length: 81 minutes
Rating: ***1/2

Alec Guinness, prior to his string of high-profile roles in blockbuster David Lean films (and before most folks today knew him as Obi-Wan Kenobi), starred in several Ealing Studios comedies in the early fifties which have recently all been released on DVD, and how refreshing they are to watch. The characteristic British wit and dark humor are omnipresent throughout, making these films a must-see for the uninitiated, and a sheer delight for everyone else in their restored versions.

Guinness plays Henry Holland, a mild-mannered bank clerk who oversees gold shipments, and has lived uneventfully for 20 years in a lower-class hotel on meager wages. Out of the blue, he’s struck by the meaninglessness of his existence, and decides he’s going to help himself to a million pounds of the very gold bars he’s faithfully overseen for the last two decades. He realizes that this undertaking will require quite a bit of planning and some willing accomplices. To his good fortune, a new boarder in the hotel (Stanley Holloway) has a small metal-casting business, which sets the wheels turning for Guinness’ plan to sneak the gold out of England. The plan is clever, and the laughs are non-stop.

Guinness was nominated for his first Academy Award for his role here, and it’s a real delight to see his lighthearted, understated work, much in contrast to later roles (Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Star Wars) that would make him an international star. Also, look closely for a brief appearance by a very young Audrey Hepburn.

The image quality is really good throughout, with only an occasional graininess (mostly in the Eiffel Tower scenes), and no artifacts. The sound is very good mono, with no background noise. The extras are sparse, but there’s a very informative bio on Alec Guinness. If you’re a fan of Alec Guinness, or just of the genre, this is a must-have.

- Tom Gibbs

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