Deliverance (1972, John Boorman) – Probably best known for containing one of the most culturally shocking depictions of human sexual humiliation in its era, John Boorman’s 1972 thriller Deliverance (adapted by writer James Dickey from his own novel) left a clear and indelible impression on the vacation based thrillers that would follow in its wake. A compelling and tense combination of man battling nature, self, and fellow man, the film boasts phenomenal technical achievements, some great performances, and a simple premise executed with great precision from a filmmaker who would sadly hasn’t had this great of a chance again at excellence since.
Four city boy friends, led by the alpha male Lewis (Burt Reynolds), decide to go on a hunting and fishing expedition along the Cahulawasse River before a dam gets built and it ceases to exist. Along with his buddies, the refined pipe smoking intellectual Ed (Jon Voight), the slick talking salesman Bobby (Ned Beatty), and the emotional, heartfelt musician Drew (Ronny Cox), they embark on a trip that goes fine at first until they run afoul of some of the sheltered and paranoid locals who happen to be running a moonshine distillery nearby. When the group assaults Ed and Bobby and Lewis kills one of the assailants, they have to engage in a fight for survival in a world that have absolutely no bearings in. They’re also forced to confront their own morality when Lewis believes they should simply cut and run rather than deal with any potential murder charges, justified or otherwise, all while being stalked by mountain men looking for revenge.
The set-up for Deliverance begins like a stage play with characters getting to spout off remarks upon the land that actually bring out who they are as characters (as well as some occasionally groan worthy foreshadowing about the fates of their characters that don’t get better with second or third viewings). That isn’t really a slight against the film since it’s very easy to care about the fates of these people even if not all of them are particularly likable outside of Ed and Drew. When the film quite jarringly snaps into action around the forty minute mark, we feel as if we know these people and in spite of their faults it’s hard and almost impossible to wish things upon them that are as bad as they get. The action pieces in the middle are tense and non-exploitative thanks to Boorman’s keen eye on keeping Dickey’s characters and story in the foreground, and the ending where the surviving friends have to face the truth of what they had done should stand as a shining example of the kind of thoughtful fare we’re often robbed of in modern thrillers.
In terms of performances, Voight shines above the rest in an already stellar cast and in one of the best and most physical performances of his long career. Reynolds exudes an oily charm and moral insouciance that he would trot out continually over the years. Beatty kind of missteps early on by playing Bobby a bit too broadly, but maybe it was a conscious choice to give weight to the character he’s forced to become later in the film. Cox doesn’t get to do a heck of a lot besides being a part of the iconic “Dueling Banjos” sequence, but he does get the best speech in the film as the man who seems to be forcing himself to assert moral superiority over their peers.
The film also boasts some of the best cinematography in the career of master lenser Vilmos Zsigmond. The man who would go on to shoot some of the most iconic films of the 70s, 80s, and 90s from The Deer Hunter and Blow Out to more populist fare like Real Genius and Jersey Girl was in rare form here, choosing wide angles and subtle pans with a great use of negative space instead of constantly using close-ups to convey terror and character. Even when a single character’s face is in frame, half of the frame is wide open for the background to shine through and on the river and through the woods these characters are made to look like the specks they truly are with the cliffs and rapids seemingly wanting to eat them alive. It might actually be the best work in the storied cinematographer’s career.
The 1972 Best Picture Nominee (which lost to The Godfather in a completely understandable move) now arrives for its 40th anniversary on Blu-ray despite most of the special features being ported over from the original 2007 Blu release. Even the picture and audio quality is fairly indistinguishable, but there’s still some good stuff here, including an insightful commentary track from Boorman, a four part hour long documentary that follows the making of the movie from the drafting of the novel through to the end of the film, and a really old behind the scenes featurette. New additions here include a 30 minute talk with the four leads, which is pretty awesome to listen to and packaging that comes with a 42 page commemorative book that really only goes over the same topics found in the four part doc already on the disc. It’s up to you whether you want to read it or watch it, but the movie itself remains a must see. (Andrew Parker)
Born on the Fourth of July (Oliver Stone, 1989) – Oliver Stone’s angry twist on Coming Home getting a fourth of July Blu-ray release is either a sick joke on the part of someone in the Universal home video department or just the result of someone noticing the title and Tom Cruise’s name without having seen the movie. It’s not exactly a movie to inspire rah-rah patriotism, but it is one of Stone’s films that’s aged surprisingly well and a vicious gut punch of Vietnam revisionism based on the life of Ron Kovic. Obviously it’s directed with the same kick-in-the-nuts level of subtlety of Stone’s most political work and holds up primarily thanks to an incredible performance from Tom Cruise that deliberately dragged his all-American boy image through layers of filth while the ludicrous bubble gum military propaganda and gay allegory of Top Gun was still fresh in everyone’s mind.
During the first thirty minutes of the film, you wouldn’t necessarily notice the accidental irony of the Independence Day release of this disc. Stone practically co-directs the opening section with Norman Rockwell giving Tom Cruise a post card American dream childhood that leads to him enlisting in the marines. It doesn’t take long for him to get shot and paralyzed, spend months in a filthy war hospital and return home disillusioned about the war and America in general, eventually becoming a political advocate. While Platoon showed the horrors of Vietnam through grunt level perspective of combat, this film is Stone’s purely ideological criticism of the war. Following one man’s descent from Ken doll soldier to antiwar activist, Stone is no less potent or visceral in his approach. Though didactic, it’s easily one of the filmmaker’s finest achievements and should be listed as Exhibit A alongside Magnolia as evidence for whether or not Tom Cruise can actually act. They say he only plays versions of himself, which is true. But watching him slowly transform from the idealized Tom Cruise movie star into the emotional trainwreck of Ron Kovic is an extraordinary piece of acting that’s sadly forgotten these days.
Born on the Fourth of July has received a series of disappointing home video releases over the years and thankfully the film’s debut on Blu-ray is one of the best. Though not exactly a Criterion-caliber catalogue transfer, Robert Richardson’s vibrant cinematography has never looked better and given that he and Stone were using every type of steadicam, crane, and remote control camera available to the at the time, there’s a lot to admire. There isn’t much in the way of special features, sadly. Oliver Stone does deliver one of his excellent, obscenely detailed audio commentaries discussing everything from his attempt to briefly make Tom Cruise paralyzed during rehearsal to the initial failed version of the film he tried to make in the late 70s starring Al Pacino and directed by William Friedkin (!). Other than that there’s a few of those 100th anniversary Universal Studios docs and a puff piece vintage featurette interesting only for the inclusion of interviews with the actual Ron Kovic. Though the film is certainly flawed, it’s an underrated Stone/Cruise joint that shouldn’t be ignored no matter how many romantic cornball passages Stone wallows in during the 2.5 hour running time. (Phil Brown)
The 39 Steps (Alfred Hitchcock, 1935) – That rolly-poly Brit with a delightfully morbid sense of humor Alfred Hitchcock has stuck around in the public conscious for a reason. It’s not just that he was Hollywood’s most famous star director during a golden period of studio filmmaking; the man also had a distinct personality both off screen and behind the camera that few (if any directors) can match. His classics like Psycho and Rear Window continue to play for audiences because big screen entertainment just doesn’t come much more expertly crafted. Yet, Hitchcock also had a full career’s worth of movies he made in Britain before crossing the pond that have sadly faded into obscurity for all but the most obsessive basement dwelling cinephiles. Thankfully the good folks at Criterion have been kind enough to unearth a pair of his UK masterpieces for the high-def generation. The master’s timeless mystery on a train The Lady Vanishes got loving restoration a few short months ago, and now Criterion has provided the same treatment for arguably Hitch’s finest British creation The 39 Steps. The film is kind of like a low budget dry run for his proto-action blockbuster North By Northwest, a ripping yarn between wrongfully accused lovers on the run, only on a smaller scale, shot in black and white, and frightfully British (in a good way).
Robert Donat stars as a Canadian in England who finds himself accidentally caught in the middle of an espionage plot he doesn’t quite understand. Along the way he’s forced to travel with Madeleine Carroll’s beautiful Pamela and as always happens in these movies bickering turns to love. It’s simple stuff produced by Hitchcock as fluff populous entertainment. Of course, what passed for fluff in the 30s seems far more sophisticated now, with a clever screenplay knotting up twists within twists and Donat constantly relying on verbal wit to get himself out of trouble, like amusingly giving an impassioned speech at a town hall meeting and winning over the crowd by accident. Compared to Hitch’s Hollywood movies 39 Steps can seem a little crude, with the director working under a tight shooting schedule and less sophisticated equipment. Yet, even when the camera set ups are simple, Hitchcock weaves them all together to carefully manipulate audience sympathies and get the pulse pounding through a few key suspense set pieces. All the tricks that made him a legend are there, with the film marking one of the first times they all came together so well that Hollywood had to eventually come calling.
Criterion’s Blu-ray presentation of The 39 Steps is incredible provided that you keep in mind the source material the company had to work in. Apart from the fact that they had to restore a 77-year old movie, the film stock and shooting style of movies of that time were defined by soft focus and fairly low contrast black and white. Compared to the many muddy public domain DVD releases The 39 Steps has received over the years, this presentation is stunning and probably about as good as the film could possibly look. Where the set really shines, though, are the special features. There’s a fascinating documentary about Hitch’s UK years made for British television in 2000 filled with delicious info nuggets as well as a vintage BBC broadcast from 1966 with Hitchcock discussing the films he made in his native land. In addition to those wonderful docs we also get an audio commentary from film scholar Marian Keane, a visual essay dissecting the director’s technique in the film, a collection of production design sketches, audio excerpts of the infamous Truffaut/Hitchcock interview, and a full 1937 radio play of The 39 Steps. Whew! That’s a pretty exhaustive special feature section for a movie approach 80. God bless Criterion for the effort. All my grandmother got for turning 80 was a new brand of back pills. (Phil Brown)
And Everything Is Going Fine (Steven Soderbergh, 2011) – Criterion’s latest release is a technically crude and emotionally raw documentary/labor-of-love from famed director Steven Soderbergh honoring the great monologist Spalding Gray. For the unfamiliar, Gray created some of the most remarkable theatre of the 70s and 80s simply by sitting in front of an audience and telling spiraling stories about his life. His monologues created endless suspense, humor, and drama through 90 minutes of embellished honesty. Spalding described his anecdotal art as “the well told partial truth to deflect the private raw truth,” and as dry as it might sound in theory his monologues were consistently fascinating, funny, and entertaining experiences. Put it this way, the three filmmakers inspired to turn Gray’s monologues into movies were Soderbergh, Jonathan Demme, and Nick Broomfield. If those three directors thought one guy at a desk could be a film, there must be something to it.
Gray’s work, life, and career are completely unique and Soderbergh makes no attempt to explain what made it special. In fact, his documentary doesn’t even bother with background interviews or freshly shot footage. Instead, he cleverly combines clips of performances, interviews, and home movies from throughout Gray’s career to create one final epic Spalding Gray monologue that spans his entire life. Beginning with his first ever monologue discussing childhood and concluding with interviews pulled from the final days of his life, it’s the definitive life story told by the only person who could. The uninitiated might find it a little difficult to play catch up with Soderbergh offering no set up, but for fans of Spalding Gray. It’s an insightful and deeply moving experience.
Criterion presents And Everything Is Going Fine on Blu-ray, which is hilariously inappropriate. The movie is composed entirely archival video footage (occasionally with time stamps at the bottom of the frame), so transferring to HD is problematic at best and essentially impossible at worst. However, that’s the style Soderbergh chose and it works. The words are what count here, not pretty pictures. Thankfully, studio did provide an impressive package for the low-fi film, offering a full, unedited 64 minute recording of Gray’s first monologue Sex and Death to the Age of 14 that is an incredible find for fans. There’s also a thoughtful documentary with Soderbergh, producer Kathleen Russo, and editor Susan Littenberg about the origins and production as well as the director’s personal relationship with Gray and his response to the actor/writer’s unfortunate death. Overall, it’s a nice little package for those who have been seduced by the endlessly chatty ways of Spalding Grey. A true testament to his life and career and a Spalding DVD/Bluray set topped only by the artist’s other collaboration with Soderbergh that Critierion also released. More on that in 3, 2, 1…. (Phil Brown)
Gray’s Anatomy (Steven Soderbergh, 1996) – Not quite as comprehensive a Spalding Gray document as And Everything Is Going Fine, this disc does present the man doing what he does best. It’s a filmed monologue that Soderbergh made during his 1996 escape from Hollywood alongside his artfully bizarre Schizopolis. Thought not nearly as whacked out of an adventure as that oddball peek into Soderbergh’s most bizarre cinematic impulses, Gray’s Anatomy is another wild and experimental project in its own way. While Jonathan Demme’s fantastic Swimming to Cambodia (which rights issues have kept from being commercially available since the ancient laserdisc days) was a live performance piece with an audience, Soderbergh has Gray speak directly to the camera a pulls about a grab bag filmmaking tricks to make a man sitting at a desk as visually exciting as possible.
The Gray’s Anatomy monologue concerns Gray’s adventure with a potentially blinding eye injury and an irrational fear of hospitals that saw the actor attempt everything from bizarre diets, sweat house rituals, and trip to a psychic surgeon in the Philippines. It’s not one of Spalding’s most profound monologues, but certainly one of his most jittery and exciting, laced with the monologist’s trademark deadpan sarcasm and morbid wit. Soderbergh’s approach to the material is inspired. The zero budget affair was clearly shot on a single stage, but the director has a roving collection of backdrops, props, and sets to weave in and out of the production. It sounds distracting but it’s not, with all the stage tropes and jarring editing tricks serving Gray’s monologue and matching his particular speech rhythms. It’s like having a screen projecting Gray’s imagination behind him while he speaks and works surprisingly well (even the director’s addition of black and white 16mm interviews with other people suffering eye injuries spliced throughout seem to slide into the monologue nicely). Obviously Gray’s life’s work was designed to be seen live and while other film’s might recreate that experience more overtly, Soderbergh somehow managed to convert the monologue into cinematic language without losing the core.
Gray’s Anatomy is far better suited to the Blu-ray format with Soderbergh’s endless and colorful experiments lighting up in HD. The disc itself comes packed a second full 90 minute monologue (A Personal History of American Theater), detailed interviews with Soderbergh as well as Gray’s longtime writing collaborator Renee Shafransky, and footage of Gray’s actual eye surgery for anyone desperate to see that little treat. When the producers of a Blu-ray go out of their way to secure medical surgery footage, you know the special feature section is as complete and thorough as humanly possible. This Blu-ray probably tops And Everything Is Going Fine overall, but together they combine for an undeniably impressive ode to a deeply underrated artist. It’s a shame Monster in a Box and Swimming to Cambodia weren’t included as well, but at least Soderbergh’s twin Spalding Grey movies combine together nicely. (Phil Brown)
WWE Falls Count Anywhere – The Greatest Street Fights and Out of Control Matches – A bit of a let down as far as the title is concerned, the latest compilation of gimmick matches from WWE focuses largely on street fights and falls count anywhere matches, two notoriously brutal confrontations without any rules and one of which states that one’s opponent can be pinned anywhere in or around the arena, city, state, or country, but since these matches usually make it onto other compilations as the best and without the inclusion of similarly themed Last Man Standing or TLC matches, it feels somewhat redundant as a set. Where it excels, however, is by not focusing exclusively on only proper WWE product, getting some of the collection’s most memorable matches by digging into the WCW and ECW vaults.
The first disc largely contains classic WCW matches including a full on, battle to the back brawl between the tag teams of Doom (Ron Simmons and Butch Reed) take on Arn Anderson and Barry Windham from the Four Horseman, Sting takes on Cactus Jack (in one of the set’s host Mick Foley’s personal favourite matches), and Booker T teaming up with Sting to take on The Road Warriors in a near marathon length Chicago Street Fight that actually builds to a pretty darn clever ending.
Things get a bit sillier on the second disc when WWE moves to the forefront, but an ECW title match between Tazz and Bam Bam Bigelow brings the house down quite literally before the end of the match. A pair of matches from 1999 – a strap match between The Rock and Triple H and an all out war between Shane McMahon and Test – stand out, but this disc seems to demonstrate why the short lived Hardcore Title was a bad idea and influence with some silly, but still entertaining matches that go out to the banks of the Mississippi River and to a kid’s indoor amusement centre, but the rest is kind of bland in terms of craziness and overall match quality.
The third disc, though, gets into the dregs starting with the beyond excellent Unsanctioned Street Fight in 2002 between Triple H and Shawn Michaels following his self-imposed retirement to heal from back surgery, but aside from the innovative and psychologically well staged Submissions Count Anywhere match from a couple of years ago when Michaels and Triple H took on Cody Rhodes and Ted DiBiase, there’s nothing memorable or noteworthy here. Even two matched with the late Umaga aren’t really great showcases of how talented he was in the ring. It all seems like a desperate to the set since today’s superstars can’t lean on the bloody theatrics and stunts of the eras that came before them. It’s just kinda boring after a while.
The Blu-ray features four bonus matches, but without any real added value since with the exception of a strange Boiler Room Brawl between Mick Foley and Santa Claus, the other three added matches are from the past two years and adequate at best. This isn’t entirely one for the collection, but it’s worth it for fans of the people involved in the best matches of the set. (Andrew Parker)