Thursday, January 10, 2013

(Post) Holiday Video Gaggle: Attack of the Killer Criterions (and One More)

Okay, this roundup of memorable DVD and Blu-rays that have crossed my desk recently was supposed to go up before the holidays as a buying guide; unfortunately, between my over-indulgence in Egg Nog and a series of unexpected reversals in my mail-order gefilte fish business, I couldn't quite get around to writing it.

Mea culpa, obviously.

In the meantime, the following all make lovely birthday gifts for the discriminating cineastes on your list, so no harm done, right?

And of course, if you're so moved, they can all be ordered over at Amazon or -- save for number 3 -- over at the Criterion website.

You're welcome.

And in no particular order, here we go.

1. Quadrophenia (Criterion)

Here's a film that asks the cinematic question -- "What the hell ever happened to director Franc Roddam?" Seriously, the sadly unprolific Roddam's 1979 film, based on The Who's double album of the same name, is an absolutely brilliant evocation of a milieu and place -- the Mod/Rocker era of Brit pop culture, circa 1963 -- that seems as remote and exotic as the Pleistocene. It's also a quite astounding meditation on the erotic nature of violence and one of the best rock-and-roll flicks ever made; a pre-Tantric Sting makes a memorable cameo as the heppest cat on the dance floor. Just about every previous video version of this has, not to put too fine a point on it, sucked; Criterion's new DVD and Blu-ray versions, fortunately, do not. In fact, they look great (in a new transfer of the original director's cut, supervised by cinematographer Brian Tufano), and the 5.1 surround remix of the Who's music is guaranteed to rattle your plaster. Essential.

2. Purple Noon (Criterion)

This is the first -- and for my money, the far superior -- filming of sui generis psychological thriller novelist Patricia Highsmith's perversely intriguing The Talented Mr. Ripley, with the impossibly beautiful Alain Delon in the role that made him an international star in 1960; let's just say that Matt Damon, in the 1999 remake, lacks a certain je ne sais quoi by comparison. It's also a ravishingly beautiful film, visually; director René Clément made gorgeous use of his Italian locations, and Criterion's new widescreen transfer (from a newly restored print) renders them to perfection. Bonuses include archival interviews with both Delon and Highsmith.

3. Peter Gunn: The Complete Series (Timeless Media)

Blake Edwards' groundbreaking private eye show (which ran from 1958 to 1961) was the last gasp of authentic film noir (great b&w cinematography, and evocative sets from the backlots at Universal and MGM), and its familiar Henry Mancini music launched a thousand twangy guitars and the teenagers who played them. How does it hold up today? Pretty well, actually; the plotting is not always believable, but it has atmosphere to burn, the supporting cast is a veritable Who's Who of film and TV character actors of the era, and the chemistry between stars Craig Stevens and Lola Albright is great; they were the only couple on TV at the time who were obviously sleeping together, and the banter between them still sizzles. This new set features all 114 episodes of the series on 12 DVDs, and almost all of them have been transferred from prints that are in pristine shape or reasonably close. Terrific nostalgic fun, in other words, and you'll probably watch it like most people eat popcorn, which is to say compulsively and in spurts.

4. Heaven's Gate (Criterion)

I have long been a member of that small subset of humanity which has always insisted Michael Cimino's epic and legendarily reviled 1980 western was a misunderstood masterpiece.

Or as I said back in 2008:
This isn't the time or the place to go into a longwinded defense of the thing, which in any case, speaks for itself, but the short version is that the reason the critics went after it back in the day had little to do with the film per se or the fact that Cimino went over budget (you can see every goddamn dollar on screen, BTW), but rather with its defiantly left-wing politics (the story is about dirt poor farmers being murdered by greedy Ogligarchs,a deliberate parallel with what was going on in Central America in the Age of Reagan). The irony, of course, is that Cimino had earlier drawn the ire of the Left with his unflattering portrayal of the Vietcong in "The Deer Hunter," but that too is a story for another time and place.

In any case, the film -- gorgeously shot by the great Vilmos Zsigmond in an approximation of period sepia tone -- has been mostly butchered for home video.
I based that last assessment on what was then the most recent DVD version (2000), which apparently derived from the same crappy transfer familiar from the early 90s laserdisc edition; both were hideously washed out and all but unwatchable.

Criterion's new version, however, is all but perfection; a gloriously restored version of the director's cut (which is actually a minute or two shorter than the original theatrical version, since the intermission has now been excised at Cimino's request), and presented in as visually gorgeous a transfer as I've ever seen of anything. Trust me -- you need to get this. Both the DVD and Blu-ray versions feature new interviews with star Kris Kristofferson and an audio interview with Cimino, and I can now die happy.

5. Children of Paradise (Criterion)

This is often referred to as the Gone With the Wind of France, which is to say it's a sweeping and much beloved historical costume drama with a romantic triangle at the heart of it, although its milieu -- the theater world of early 19th century Paris -- is obviously way different from the antebellum South. In any event, it's a great film on every level, and this new version -- I lucked into the Blu-ray -- is a stunner. (By comparison, I pulled out my old Criterion laserdisc version from 1991, which was absolutely state of the art back then, and this is an improvement on every level, beginning with the transfer based on a gorgeous restoration job from 2011). Tons of great bonuses, including a brace of making-of documentaries, in particular one from 1967 featuring interviews with director Marcel Carné and stars Arletty (swoon), Jean-Louis Barrault and Pierre Brasseur.


pete said...

Saw Children of Paradise once, in the summer of 1966, and have never forgotten it.

steve simels said...

Saw it in the mid-70s on a Saturday night on the Late Show.

With commercials, and dubbed in English.

Stayed up till 5am watching it. I couldn't believe how amazing it was.

Anonymous said...

amazing stuff, but I wish you had spread them out a bit. I want to watch them all. together. at once.
you're killing me