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DVD Video Reviews, Pt. 3 - Sept. 2003
Spirited Away (2002)

Hayao Miyazaki, animator
Studio: Studio Ghibli/Disney Studios
Video: 2.0:1 enhanced for 16 x 9
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, orig. Japanese soundtrack, also French soundtrack
Extras (mostly on Disc 2): John Lasseter introduces Miyasaki and Spirited Away, The Art of Spirited Away, Nippon TV special on The Making of the Film (with English subtitles), Select storyboard-to-scene comparisons, Behind the Mike with Suzanne Pleshette and Jason Marsden (doing English version soundtrack), Original Japanese trailers
Length: 125 min.
Rating: *****

Miyasaki is known as the Walt Disney of Japan and his latest in a series of wonderful family animated films has been variously called the best annimated film, best animated feature ever, a masterpiece, and spectacularly inventive. And it’s all true. Best family film I’ve ever seen and generally I hate family films. Even if you don’t care for animation you’ll probably love Spirited Away. It’s so spirited and original! The idea of seeing things thru the eyes of a child or teenager is a standard feature of Japanese anime (though this really isn’t anime) and of most U.S. family oriented live action pictures. But Miyasaki pulls it off effortlessly in this amazing fantasy about a young girl who is trapped in a strange world of spirits when her unwitting parents are magically transformed. She must work in a bathhouse for spirits and demons while trying to free herself and her family. The idea of all sorts of spirits, gods and demons existing ties in more closely with older Japanese beliefs and Shintoism, making the plot seem probably more exotic and strange to Western audiences.

The human characters are quite Western-looking though their gestures and actions are typically Japanese. Miyazaki based the character of the little girl on the daughter of a friend - something he has done in previous films. He has her get herself back to the ordinary world without battles or violence but by using her brain and thru friendship and devotion. It’s a lovely example for kids without any preachyness. The extras on the second DVD are really special. Miyasaki is shown to be just as loveable a person as his filmic creations. The NHK documentary on the struggle to complete the animation by a deadline gives a feeling for the tremendous amount of dedicated work that any animation requires. The behind-the scenes section on recording the English-language version with the voice cast is fascinating. It appears Miyazaki works in the reverse of most American animation, recording the soundtrack after the visuals are completed rather than starting with the soundtrack. You get a glimpse of his creative process by switching between the shots of his original storyboards and the final animated scenes, using the angle button on your remote control. There is also a discussion of how Miyazaki’s art was translated for English-speaking audiences. This brilliant work easily eclipses the typical cliched Hollywood animation and should be experienced by everyone of any age whatsoever. Purchase here

- John Sunier

Kiki’s Delivery Service

Hayao Miyazaki, animator
Studio: Studio Ghibli/Disney Studios
Video: 1.85:1 enhanced for 16 x 9
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, orig. Japanese soundtrack, also Spanish soundtrack
Extras (mostly on Disc 2): John Lasseter introduces Miyasaki and the film, Complete storyboards of the film, Behind the Mike with Kirsten Dunst and Phil Hartman, Original Japanese trailers
Length: 105 min.
Rating: ****

This earlier feature was considered Miyazaki’s masterpiece up until the making of Spirited Away. This DVD was issued by Disney at the same time as the latter and along with a third film, Castle in the Sky. (My favorite of his earlier animations is the 1993 My Neighbor Tatoro, available on DVD.) The story takes place in a country in which witches are part of the ordinary society and recognized for the useful work they do. Young girls must follow a special tradition to become a full-fledged professional witch, and that includes flying off to another city to take responsibility and become independent. Kiki is accompanied by her “familiar,” her long-suffering and witty black cat. Thru accidental means she ends up operating her own delivery-by-broomstick service and meets many unusual characters along the way. Again, her quick thinking aids in her survival and successes, though there are big disappointments along the way that she must also deal with. A superbly imaginative story from Miyasaki again. You may expect a cute little witch with a red bow tie in her hair to soar in your window at the end of his delightful film. Purchase here

- John Sunier

Talk To Her (2002)

Director: Pedro Almodovar
Starring Javier Camara, Dario Grandinetti, Leonor Watling, Geraldine Chaplin
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Video: 16:9 widescreen enhanced
Audio: DD 5.1 in either Spanish or French
Subtitles: English, French
Extras: Commentary by Almodovar and Geraldine Chaplin, Theatrical trailers
Length: 114 min.
Rating: ****

Leave it to Spain’s wildest current director to push on a number of boundaries in most of his films. This one stars four individuals - two very different men - and their women who happen both to be in comas in a special clinic. As the men keep vigil over their lovers (or would-be lover in one case) they get acquainted and their unusual stories unfold in flashback as well as flash forward. The trailer was shown frequently at a local theater I frequent and it included a fantasy-like black & white sequence with a tiny man sitting on a woman’s pillow talking to her. I just had to find out how that fit into the film. It turns out it was a silent film within the feature film. The unsophisticated male nurse protagonist had seen it and gave him a dangerous idea; leading to his being eventually incarcerated. Surprising twists of plot without leaving you scratching your head about what it all meant at the end, like Memento and Swimming Pool. R-rated too. Both picture and sound quality are really excellent throughout, though little use is made of the surround. There are several very evocative soundtrack music selections of both Baroque orchestral and Spanish guitar music. Purchase here

- John Sunier

Autofocus (2002)

Starring Greg Kinnear and Willem Dafoe
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Video: 1.85:1 enhanced for widescreen 16:9
Audio: DD 5.1, French Dolby Surround
Subtitles: English, French
Extras: Commantaries by Director Paul Schrader, Kinnear, Dafoe, Producers Scott Alexander and Larry Karazewski, Writer Michael Gerbosi; Documentary: “Murder in Scottsdale;” Making-Of Featurette; Five deleted scenes with director’s commentary (optional); Theatrical trailers, Animated menus
Length: 106 min.
Rating: ****

Another even more R-rate gem. The film is based on the true life - colorful to say the least - of Hollywood TV actor Bob Crane, his on/off relationship with the home video maven played by Dafoe, and his eventual grisly and never-solved murder. Crane was the star of the successful TV series Hogan’s Heros and an extremely upstanding married man, but his steady slide into the seamiest side of celebrity lifestyles is shown so convincingly that one quickly loses empathy with him and feels a strong foreboding of what will eventually befall him. The pair’s fast living involves the video technician’s help in procuring both equipment and willing women to videotape their sexploits. The quirky nature of their extreme male bonding brought to mind the sub rosa homophile suggestions in the relationship of Dickie and Ripley in The Amazing Mr. Ripley. A gripping drama of a couple of out of control lives.

Don’t view the Murder in Scottscale documentary until after you see the feature film, and when you do keep your finger on the fast forward for the constantly repeated stills of the actual bloody crime scene, which are on screen far too long. The evidence seemed to point to the video man, to whom Crane had the day before told he didn’t want to see him again. But the court felt there was no hard evidence (an important piece mysteriously disappeared from the police files) and the trial never occurred. Purchase here

- John Sunier

Rocco & His Brothers (1960)

Director: Luchino Visconti
Starring: Alain Delon, Annie Girardot, Claudia Cardinale, Renato Salvatori
Studio: Image Entertainment
Video: 1.66:1 not widescreen enhance, Black & White
Audio: DD mono, Italian with English subtitles
Extras: None
Length: 168 min.
Rating: ****

This brilliant film classic was one of the highlights of the careers of both director Visconti and French actor Alain Delon. Its style grows out of the Italian postwar neo-realist movement, but it is not quite as gritty looking as most of those. The story concerns a family of four very poor but closely-connected brothers and their mother who move from the back country of southern Italy to Milan after the death of their hard-working father. The mother’s hope is to give them a chance to improve the family’s fortunes in the big city. The brothers all struggle to make it in their unfamiliar new world and Rocco and his older brother both fall for the same woman with disasterous consequences. Rocco seems too saintly in his extreme self-sacrifice for the good of the family and his brother, but Delon makes the character’s actions totally believable.

Yes, the film is long, but it is divided into sections titled by the name of one of the characters, which breaks things up a bit. Also there is the music of Nino Rota - one of his most emotional and atmospheric scores, making your involvement in the saga of this unfortunate family deeply affecting. The transfer is generally quite good for a film of this vintage, but at the beginning of Chapter 3 there is an entire scene with a big hair in the projector gate which was not removed. I don’t believe you would see this in a Criterion DVD. This is the first uncut version of Visconti’s original, which was edited by the Italian authorities due to its violence - namely, violent boxing closeups, fist fights, a rape and a stabbing. Actually I think the authorities were right. Purchase here

- John Sunier

Home Movie (2001)

Director: Chris Smith
Studio: Cowboy Pictures/Home Vision Entertainment
Video: 4:3
Audio: DD mono
Extras: Gator commercial clip, House of the Future promo film for Monsanto, History fo Kansas missile bases, Cat photo gallery, Linda Beech publicity stills, Theatrical trailers, commercial, Liner notes by Mark Borchardt of American Movie fame
Length: 85 min.
Rating: ****

Smith’s previous feature was a documentary on an unlikely blue-collar guy who struggled for years to make his own feature film on a shoestring and eventually did. This new film couldn’t possibly have a more appropriate title, because it concerns five people who have created a totally individual home of their own. They are settled very blissfully in their very own creations, rather than struggling in transition as were the stars of both of Smith’s previous two films. These five homes are first a ramshackle houseboat on the Louisiana bayou where an alligator wrangler lives and cracks his crabs, then a couple who bought a surplus army missile silo in the middle of Kansas and live in it underground. The peace loving couple has brought spiritual New Age vibes to their metallic space that it certainly must never have imagined before.

Third is a former American actress in Japanese television who has had built her own lovely Tarzan-style tree house high in the jungle of a remote Hawaiian valley - complete with waterfall-powered generators for her electricity. Cat lovers will meow over the California house with 140 feet of elevated cat walks throughout and cats everywhere. This couple make and sell cat toys and photographs of their cats. Lastly there is the all electronic house in Illinois in which the elderly owner seems to install a new futuristic gadget almost daily. It includes a walking robot which after his death he plans to inhabit at the astral level. There is also a young girlfriend who shares his psychic leanings and assists him in public presentations of his many mechanical and electronic marvels. If you liked Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, you will absolutely love this quirky documentary, part of a new trend of documentaries for the new century that are getting much wider audiences than documentaries could ever have hoped to get in the past. Purchase here

- John Sunier

Sullivan’s Travels (1942)

Directed by Preston Sturges
Starring: Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Robert Warwick, William Demarest
Studio: Criterion
Video: 1.33:1 Full Frame, B&W
Audio: DD Mono, Commentary track featuring Noah Baumbach, Kenneth Bowser, Christopher Guest (!), and Michael McKean (!)
Extras: Trailer, Stills Gallery, Storyboards, Scrapbook, Preston Sturges Interview (by Hedda Hopper), Preston Sturges recitation of “If I Were King”, Preston Sturges singing “My Love”, Sandy Sturges Interview, Preston Sturges: The Life and Fall of an American Dreamer (76 minutes)
Length: 90 minutes
Rating: ***1/2

A popular and successful studio director has decided to make a film about the hardships suffered by the poor. The execs are intent on destroying the young idealist’s plan by pointing out his lack of suffering, but he finally convinces them. His idea is to dress up like a bum and pass among the community to gain information and to experience the situation of the poor. At first, he starts as a hired hand, but that doesn’t really work out well. Later he runs into the lovely Veronica Lake, a transplant to Hollywood trying to make it big in pictures but not having any success. He has her convinced of his need, but his conscience overtakes him and he admits to her his true identity. This doesn’t go over too well with the young lady, but her fondness for the director softens her and she decides to go with him on his journey. They stay in a community of hobos, and finally come back to their regular lives. Another scheme is hatched and while giving out $1000 in cash, he gets hit on the head and stuffed in a train car. He’s confused and assaults a man. A speedy trial doesn’t help our favorite director and he is sentenced to a chain gang. Only through a creative breakthrough does he manage to find his way home after a long period of servitude.

It is easy to get distracted by fine personalities like Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake, but the real star of this film is Writer/Director Preston Sturges. The film is one of the early examples of a movie about making a movie, complete with lots of social commentary and comedy. The pace is fast throughout most of the film and there are a variety of slapstick and deadpan comedy routines including some humorous action sequences — some in the vein of Keystone Cops. Sturges started as a playwright and moved to writer. He realized that the director was really in control of the film (and writers of the time were not getting their due), so he eventually became a director. His skills extended to the directorial arena and he made a mark from the beginning with The Great McGinty. He won the very first Academy Award for best original screenplay. To see what all the hoopla is about, just take a look at this film. Purchase here

- Brian Bloom

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