DVD-Video Reviews, Part 3 of 3

by | Mar 1, 2004 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Part 3 – March 2004

[Part 1] [Part 2]

Decasia: The State of Decay (2004)

Film by Bill Morrison
Music by Michael Gordon
Studio: Plexifilm
Video: 4:3 B&W
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Extras: Audio interview with Morrison and Gordon from WNYC
Length: 67 min.
Rating: ****

Morrison’s experimental feature could well appeal to the same audience as the Steve Reich video also reviewed this issue, but it probably has a wider appeal. In fact the Village Voice called it a movie with both avantgarde and universal appeal – though that may be overstating things a bit. Decasia has already won awards at Sundance and elsewhere and can truthfully say it is definitely like no other film you have ever seen, or actually no other film ever made previously! In fact, Morrison didn’t shoot a single frame of Decasia, although he is still a master filmmaker.

Morrison is an artist who is into things which have decayed. I was reminded of the artist who collects and photographs decaying dice; their material eventually breaks down in amazing ways, going one better than Salvador Dali’s distortions of reality. Well, Morrison’s medium is celluloid nitrate motion picture film, which was used by the film industry everywhere up thru the late 1940s. Celluloid was the world’s first synthetic plastic, and made by treating cotton combined with a mixture of nitric and sulfuric acids with a mixture of camphor and alcohol. The result was perfect as a transparent base for various photographic emulsions. The only problems were that it was a close cousin of nitroglycerine and thus highly flammable, and it is chemically unstable and begins breaking down the moment it is manufactured. Just opening a film can after some decades can result in an explosion or at least an instant inflagration. More than half of the feature films shot before 1950 have been relegated to powder, sludge or smoke. Different film stocks decay at different rates; for example footage from WW I has stood up much better than that from WWII, because the Allied need for nitrate meant that less was used in the film stock.

The filmmaker attended a convention of aficionados of antiquarian film, the Orphan Film Symposium. He learned of a collection of decomposing Fox Movietone newsreels right in his neighborhood and began to develop ideas of using some of the material for filmed backgrounds for an avantgarde theater he was working with. This interest grew into visits to many similar treasure troves of such material, including the nitrate film collection of the Library of Congress. He looked not just for decayed film but for decay set against a narrative of some sort – such as a struggle, rescue, thwarted love, or other themes he was trying to portray. There was great danger in handling the original film material. A specialist optically printed each frame separately for Morrison because the sprocket holes had usually shrunk and didn’t match up in projectors anymore. For a few scenes Morrison had to use a video copy since the original film had completely decayed by the time he got to it. Nothing was printed at the original 18 or 24 frames rate – it was slowed down to better appreciate the beauty of the decay – sometimes as much as four times. Some of the specifics of the decay include strobe effects, morphing of images into just globs on the screen, and solarization which reverses the black and white gradations of the images. Flesh seems to melt, a street seems to catch on fire, walls buckle and threaten. One of the most compelling images is of a boxer training with a boxing bag, but while the boxer’s image is normal, what had been the bag is now a monstrous glob that seems to reach out and attempt to absorb him as though in some sci-fi/horror movie.

Morrison edited the film partly to fit the original score that his composer Michael Gordon had created for it. He used the 55-member Basle Sinfonietta and created a piece which attempts to be an aurally decaying alter-ego of the images on the screen. Gordon de-tuned the instruments, and added a quartet of microtonally prepared pianos to assemble a continuous massive block of sound that envelops the listener/viewer in multichannel from every direction. It perfectly fits the violent images of decay on the screen, but if 67 minutes of it is a bit much for your ears, you can just turn it off and watch Decasia silently. It’s not like you’d miss any important dialog since there isn’t any.

– John Sunier

The Magic of Fellini (2002)

Film by Carmen Piccini
Studio: Image Entertainment
Video: 4:3 color & B&W
Audio: Dolby Digital stereo
Length: 55 min.
Rating: ****

Not the only documentary on the important Italian director, but a very good one. The list of interviewees who share their thoughts, laughs and remembrances is one of the big attractions here. They include: Martin Scorsese, Anthony Quinn, Claudia Cardinale, Anita Ekberg, Donald Sutherland, Woody Allen, Lina Wertmuller, Paul Mazursky, Ettore Scola, and others. The stories from some of the actors who worked with the cinema maestro are priceless. When Ekberg asked about the script and was told there wasn’t any she thought Fellini was crazy. Sutherland has many stories about his experiences starring in Casanova for the director. Anthony Quinn starred in La Strada and details both the genius of the director as well as the frustrations of working for him. The interviews are broken up by clips from appropriate sections of Fellini’s films, plus his drawings and photographs and some amateur behind-the-scenes footage. There is also some interview footage of Fellini himself, describing his process of making films as akin to making love. Piccini explores the director’s dreams and how they are visualized in his films. If you haven’t seen all of Fellini’s best films you may be moved to rent those you missed immediately upon seeing this fine documentary, and if you are familiar with most of them you may want to see again your favorites. (Juliet of the Spirits and Amarcord are mine.)

– John Sunier

Lola (restoration 2000)

Directed by Jacques Demy
Starring Anouk Aimee
Studio: Cine-Tamaris/Wellspring
Video: 2.35:1 enhanced for 16:9 widescreen, B&W
Audio: mono, French
Subtitles: English
Extras: Original trailer, Filmographies, Excerpt from The World of Jacques Demy
Length: 90 min.
Rating: ****

This lovely early film of Demy is not a musical, but has some story elements that are continued and developed in this later musicals such as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Young Girls of Rochefort. Aimee plays a nightclub dancer in a coastal French town. She was abandoned by her sailor lover seven years earlier and has been bringing up their son anxiously awaiting the return of her Michel, who went to America to seek his fortune. In his absence she spends time with an American sailor named Frankie and her friend from childhood, Roland. Of course they are both madly in love with the beautiful and sultry entertainer. Enough said or I’ll give away the happy ending.

The restoration, done under the supervision of Demy’s widow Agnes Varda, is as beautiful as Aimee. The black and white images have an excellent depth and detail. The sound doesn’t quite get such a restoration, but probably wasn’t very great to begin with. A thoroughly entertaining film which one critic many have only slightly overstated in calling one of the ten best of all time.

– John Sunier

Storyville (1992)

Starring James Spader, Jason Robards, Joanne Whalley-Kilmer
Studio: Columbia Tri Star
Video: 4:3
Audio: Dolby Stereo Surround
Subtitles: English, French
Length: 113 min.
Rating: ***

The jacket blurb calls this dramatic murder mystery from the co-creator of Twin Peaks a modern-day Chinatown. I think not, but it’s still worth watching, and especially pertinent at this time due to its story of a rising political candidate. The environment is New Orleans and Spader is the son of a rich and powerful Louisiana family; a fertile environment for all sorts of greed, lust, blackmail, crooked cops, family secrets and what have you. Even though he makes a few very serious missteps, the viewer feels empathy with Cray’s (Spader) search for the real truth behind his family’s power in the community. Robards excels at being, well, Robards. Involved are a beautiful Thai girl, some kinky surroundings, love in a hot tub, sex and videotapes. The grand finale is an amazing courtroom scene with more shoot-em-up action than one normally expects in such a non-Western environment. A well-mixed 5.1 soundtrack could have added some involvement to certain scenes in this film, because the Dolby Surround lacks evidence of the second half of its name.

– John Sunier

Returner (2004)

Studio: Columbia TriStar
Video: 1.85:1 enhanced for 16×9 widescreen
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 in English, Japanese or French
Subtitles: English, French, Portuguese, Spanish
Length: 117 min.
Rating: ***

This Japanese time-travel epic begins in 2084 with an alien invasion force close to completely destroying the world. Young guerrilla fighter Milly leaps into a waiting time machine which hasn’t yet been tested, just as the aliens kill off everyone at her outpost in Tibet. She sets out to convince Miyamoto, a young martial-arts expert in Tokyo, that she is from the future and there to save the world. He doesn’t believe or trust her until she finally shows him the spaceship and its imprisoned alien pilot, which are at that moment kidnapped by a notorious mafia figure with whom Miyamoto had a run-in before. The idea here is that the attack on earth by the aliens occurred because the pilot was not returned to them in due order. When the going gets tough, the couple of futuristic gadgets Milly has with her turn the tide at the last possible moment. The unlikely duo battle their way thru a daunting series of hurdles to achieve their goal of returning the alien to the aliens. It goes without saying they eventually do, but towards the end the continual reversals of fortune between the crime lord getting the upper hand, then the good duo, then the crime lord again, verges on the absurd. One side seems to kill the other off for certain each time, but then later they’re back again! However, any sci-fi time-travel buff like myself will not consider this 117 minutes wasted.

The transfer is clear and detailed without any noticeable artifacts. As with many anime DVDs with 5.1 soundtracks, less-than-subtle use of the surrounds and LFE channels are made. But thats appropriate for an action flick such as this, and if you have a low-frequency transducer in your seating you’ll be in on the action – or at least your nether regions will be.

– John Sunier

The Phantom of the Opera (1925 & 1929)

Starring Lon Chaney and Mary Philbin
Studio: Milestone/Image Entertainment
Video: 4:3 tinted and 2-color Technicolor
Audio: Dolby Digital stereo and mono
Extras: Both versions on two DVDs, 2 soundtracks, Audio commentary by film historian Scott MacQueen, Theatrical trailers from both versions, Stills gallery incl. missing scenes, 9 Audio-only dialog sections from the 1930 version for which there is no footage, Video interview with David Skal about Carla Laemmle, Extract from Faust operatic sound feature of l929, Interview with cinematographer Charles Van Enger
Length: 4 hours 28 min.
Rating: ****

This is a classic silent movie buff’s dream set. First, the restoration was greatly improved – especially in the 1929 version disc – over the cheap Alpha Video/oldies.com DVD I already had in my collection. Moreover, there are so many options and extras here that you could spend a week with Erik and Christine and have hardly dipped a tiny toe in that grand canal running under the Paris Opera. It turns out there were five different version of Phantom of the Opera from 1925 thru 1930. Disc 1 here has the original feature which runs 110 minutes with a score by Jon Mirsalis. It is extremely contrasty, like an endlessly-copied print. On Disc 2 you have the 98 minute l929 restored version with higher-quality images, with the original theatrical soundtrack (in scratchy mono of course) plus an option of choosing a newly-composed soundtrack in stereo by Carl Davis with the City Prague Philharmonic. Which sounds terrific, by the way.

The interviews and other material in the extras reveal that the original silent version was quickly considered out of date when sound came to movies, so new material was shot and sequences with dialog recorded for a sound version. When the Phantom spoke a stand-in was shot in silhouette against a wall so there didn’t have to be perfect synchronization with the lip movement. The audio-only dialog portions sound very stilted and forced. The decisions about which portions of the new version to make sync sound and which to use the standard inter-titles were very odd indeed. Sometime scenes such as the opera aria on stage couldn’t be re-shot with sound, so those are silent with titles. The directors of the original were not exactly cutting-edge in their filmic techniques; much of the film is shot as of a stage play – from the front of the proscenium. There are few closeups. Chaney evidently directed himself in some of his key scenes, and the few clever shots (such as when Christine tears off his mask) are due to his taking over some of the direction. I kept thinking of the many similarities of the Phantom story to Jean Cocteau’s much later Beauty and the Beast; not just the monster and the innocent girl captivated by him but also the ornate sets and costumes – though Cocteau’s artistic cinematography was light years beyond that seen in Phantom.

However, one technical innovation of the original was the use of not only tinting of the black and white film but an entire sequence in early two-color Technicolor as well as another in a different color process. That masked ball sequence has been completely and colorfully restored for this DVD. Chaney was the first film star to gain fame for his amazing transformations of his appearance. To achieve the Ghost of the Opera House he used chemicals to dialate the pupils of his eyes, fanged teeth for his horrible grin, cotton and celluloid discs to heighten his cheekbones, and even wires to pull his noise upwards, which frequently caused bleeding. This was one of the first real horror films the public had ever seen, and they didn’t quite know how to react to what was up on the screen. There was as yet no accepted style or cliches of horror films; some audiences didn’t grasp what was going on.

Fascinating material – even if you only have a few classic silents in your collection, this should probably be one of them (City Lights, The General and Metropolis would be my other choices).

– John Sunier

Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star (Special Collector’s Edition, 2003)

Starring: David Spade, Mary McCormack, Jon Lovitz, Craig Bierko, Rob Reiner
Directed by: Sam Weisman
Studio: Paramount Home Entertainment
Video: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1, English and French Dolby Surround
Subtitles and Captions: English Closed Captions
Extras: Director commentary, commentary by David Spade and writer Fred Wolf, four featurettes (“The True Hollywood Story”, “Pencil Dickie: Writing the Story”, “Behind Child Stars On Your Television” and “Reel Comedy: Dickie Roberts”), “Child Stars on Your Television” music video, theatrical trailer, four preview trailers (“The Fighting Temptations”, “Timeline”, “Tomb Raider: Cradle of Life” and “School of Rock”), nine deleted scenes, easter egg gag reels, scene selection
Length: 98 minutes
Rating: ***

Dickie Roberts is a 35-year old former child television star looking to revive his acting career. Currently working as a parking valet, Dickie hears about a new movie role that could turn his life around. The role would require Dickie to play the part of an average person, but because Dickie has never experienced living a regular life, he is initially turned down for the role. Undaunted, Dickie hires a family for $20,000.00 to give him the normal upbringing that he never had. Along the way, Dickie learns lessons about fame, family, and true love. I find David Spade’s humor to be generally funny, but usually only in small doses. I enjoyed his work in the film Tommy Boy and on the television show Just Shoot Me. He was a supporting player in both of those vehicles, therefore I had my doubts on whether he could pull off a credible performance in a leading role. After watching Dickie Roberts, I am happy to say that Spade was up to the task. The end result is a sweet and funny film in which Spade demonstrates acting depth beyond the mere wisecracking, superficial character he typically portrays.

The video quality of this DVD is excellent. Images are unblemished with sharp detail. Colors are vivid and bright with fully saturated hues. Black are uniformly deep and dark. Picture defect mastering is perfect with no major flaws or compression artifacts. The audio quality is very good with the English Dolby Digital 5.1 track serving as the basis for this review. The soundtrack mix favors the forward soundstage. Dialogue is natural sounding and firmly anchored in the center channel. The surround channels are moderately utilized for the music score and ambient sounds, and also contain a couple of split rear effects. The low frequency channel delivers crisp, tight bass to the film’s soundtrack. Tactile sound effects are present in the form of subtle to moderate impacts resulting from both sound effects and the music.

Reference equipment used for this review: [Video projector- Studio Experience Cinema 17SF; Projection screen- Da-Lite 106” Da-Snap; DVD player- V, Inc. Bravo D1; A/V Receiver- Sherwood Newcastle R-963T; Speakers- BIC Venturis; Tactile Transducers- Clark Synthesis Gold; Video Switcher- Key Digital SW4x1; Cables/Wires- www.bettercables.com ]

— Calvin Harding Jr.

Mad Love – The Films of Evgeni Bauer (1913-16)

Studio: British Film Institute/Image Entertainment
Video: 4:3 B&W and color tinted
Audio: Dolby Digital stereo
Extras: 37-min. documentary on Bauer, Press kit PDF file, Stills photo gallery
Length: 144 mins.
Rating: ***

Bauer is called in the documentary the greatest silent film director you have never heard of. The poet of early Russian film is said to combine the technical advancements of Griffith with the terror of Edgar Allan Poe and the artist’s eye of Vermeer. This DVD preserves three of the macabre silent films the director created over a period of about four years, all of them ahead of their time in smooth camera moves, striking sets and costumes, and artistic lighting effects. But it was their macabre and risque themes which resulted in Bauer’s films being locked up in Soviet archives for years – thought well over the top by the puritanical regime.

The first film, Twilight of a Woman’s Soul, dates from l913 and tells the surprising story of an upper-class woman who kills her rapist but doesn’t tell her husband-to-be. When he later finds out he kicks her out and she must find a new life for herself. Later he tracks her down (she’s now a famous actress under another name) and recants but she says it’s too late and he shoots himself. After Death is a Turgenev story about the psychological hold of the dead over the living. It makes frequent use of ghostly double-exposures, which were also the rage in stereo view stills of the period and so-called ghost photography. The mute ballerina in The Dying Swan had to find a new life for herself after she discovered her would-be lover had other lovers. Years later he rediscovers her (she is now a famous ballerina), apologizes and re-unites with her, and then arranges for a deranged artist friend to paint her portrait in the role of The Dying Swan. Only problem is the artist literally wants her dead to best pose for his painting. The depictions of both the choking of the ballerina in this film and the rape of the woman in the first film are so stylized that one isn’t sure what has just happened and therefore the plot is difficult to understand.

A famous ballerina of the Bolshoi Ballet played the leads in both After Death and The Dying Swan and a colleague of hers choreographed the dances in Bauer’s films. The British Film Institute commissioned new musical scores for all three films, adding greatly to the viewing experience. One would never know these films were shot in Russia – the buildings, cars and costumes could be most anywhere of that period in Europe or the U.S. The transfers to DVD as well as the soundtracks are superb. Bauer’s short career didn’t end because of the Revolution, but in a manner that seemed to flow from his dark obsessions: He succumbed to pneumonia after breaking his leg in l917.

– John Sunier

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