Lawrence Of Arabia (David Lean, 1962) – Have a conversation about the greatest films ever made for long enough and eventually Lawrence Of Arabia will come up. David Lean’s beloved and Oscar-winning epic can be described as one of the true purely cinematic experiences. A film that can’t really be accurately described and a story that could never possibly have the same impact in any other medium. Lean’s masterpiece is told almost entirely through images and what extraordinary images they are. The director waited all night in the desert to capture a perfectly framed sunrise on untouched desert terrain, filmed a genuine mirage in 70mm, crashed an actual train at full speed, and staged a city siege in a single wide master shot with hundreds of perfectly composed extras amongst countless other iconic images.
It’s the kind of massive physical production that no filmmaker would even dare to attempt these days and the sumptuously photographed images have a power that no CGI magic could come close to matching. That would be enough to make the film a classic, but the fact that Lean used those images and that scale of production to mount a complex character study of a flawed man playing hero elevates it to one of the finest and most daring achievements in the history of cinema. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Lawrence Of Arabia is one of those movies that should be seen in a theater to properly appreciate, but Blu-ray was made to allow spectacle like this play satisfyingly at home and this is easily one of the finest Blu-rays ever produced.
Taking a cue from Citizen Kane, the film opens with the death of eccentric British author and military leader T.E. Lawrence and follows a reporter determined to uncover his legacy from a collection of former colleagues with wildly different opinions of the man. It eventually settles into telling the tale of a wide-eyed British innocent who takes a military assignment in the Arabian dessert for “fun.” After having his guide shot by Ali (Omar Sharif) for drinking out of the wrong well without permission, Lawrence decides to unite the warring Arab tribes and topple the Turks for independence. Following a harrowing journey across the desert to unite the followers of Prince Faisal (Alec Guiness) and Auda abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn), Lawrence leads a triumphant battle and then continues to fight with the united Arab army. The power and desert soon drive him mad, and Lawrence quickly turns into a sadistic megalomaniac using terrorist tactics.
It’s a far from conventional hero’s journey with anything but a happy ending. Lawrence is presented with a moral ambiguity uncommon from any American film in 1962, never mind an epic with a budget that could sink a studio. Lean and screenwriter Robert Bolt make little attempt to whitewash their complex protagonist, presenting him with all of his insane flaws and virtues, even hinting at his homosexuality as frankly as could be allowed at the time. The result is a four-hour film with relatively little action and no love story. A movie driven by the rhythms of the stunning desert vistas Lean captured and the fascinating nature of the central character who the filmmakers knew all too well could never be fully captured. At the center of it all is Peter O’Toole delivering a remarkable performance in a career filled with them (see The Stunt Man, The Ruling Class, and My Favorite Year for more). It’s a role the actor knew would make his career and he delivered the goods, providing a complex characterization intriguing enough to compete with Lean’s remarkable visuals. Remembered primarily for the visual razmataz, Lawrence Of Arabia in a fascinating and rewarding film on every level with onion layers deep enough to reward endless screenings. Oh sure, there’s a little old fashioned colonial racism in both the presentation of a blonde, blue-eyed white Brit who was able to settle the mess of the Arabs and also in the decision to cast the major Arab roles with British stars Alec Guinness and Anthony Quinn in brownface, but at least that’s all handled as tastefully as possible.
Lawrence Of Arabia has always been a film too big for homevideo appeal, but Sonly’s freshly released Blu-ray delivers the closest home experience to date to the majesty of a big screen projection. Sony have outdone themselves with the video restoration. With 70mm to work with, details, colors, and textures never visible on TVs before are no there to get lost in. Finally the sequence in which Omar Sharif is introduced as a mirage on the horizon can be appreciated at home with all of the fluttering waves of heat visible to appreciate. There’s not a shed of film grain on a single frame or any distracting digital manipulation to smooth out the image. This meticulously crafted restoration is the reason why Blurays were invented and while any self-respecting film buff should still see the movie on a big screen once in their lives, at least now the film can be appreciated at home without making a major sacrifice in the presentation. The incredible lossless master audio track will pull you in as well, but it’s the visuals that truly make the Blu-ray (and the film for that matter) something special.
Sony’s Blu-ray comes packing a disc with the kind of insightful extras you would hope for such a beloved masterpiece. The lone new feature is an interview with Peter O’Toole, but it’s an absolute pleasure to watch. O’Toole has spent decades honing his skill with anecdotes in pubs and on film sets, so when he chats about the production it comes in wonderfully polished firsthand memories (the interview also amusingly cuts around a cup that O’Toole sips from while spinning his yarns and we have to assume it wasn’t just water). It’s an indispensable piece of movie history for fans. You’ll also get an amusing interview with gushing Lawrence Of Arabia fan Steven Spielberg, a handful of vintage newsreels on the film, a marketing gallery, and an entertainingly exhaustive documentary about the film that covers every aspect of production (the only thing missing from that wonderful doc was an interview with O’Toole, an omission the Blu-ray makes up for elsewhere). If you fork over the cash for the limited edition $100 box set you’ll also get a soundtrack, an 88 page coffee table book, a 70mm film frame, and an additional disc of extras (which includes a long lost deleted scene, a documentary about the restoration process, featurettes about TE Lawrence n’ backstage shenanigans, and appreciations from superstar directing fans like Martin Scorsese and William Friedkin). If you can afford it, the big box is definitely worth the upgrade, but the 2-disc set is certainly a worthy recession option as well.
There’s really nothing else you can say about Lawrence Of Arabia or Sony’s new Blu-ray that isn’t glowing praise. The film is that good, the disc is that good, and if you love movies this thing simply has to be in your collection. It’s a masterpiece that lives up to its reputation and a film that’s never been properly represented for home viewing before now. Buy it immediately and don’t be surprised if you find yourself breezing through the four hour running time after you spin the disc just to take a peak at the new transfer.
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982, Steven Spielberg) – Vintage Spielberg lovers (aka pretty well everyone with eyes and a pulse) have been spoiled over the last few months. August saw Jaws debut on Blu-ray, September brought Raiders Of The Lost Arc, and now the final masterpiece from his populist peak arrives in high definition with E.T. The film was the most successful of all time when released, then for a while is was wrongly dismissed as sentimental Spielberg schmaltz. I suppose that’s true in a way, but it’s also a massive mistake to write off the movie entirely. It might be simple, it might be for children, just not in a bad way. There’s something primal about the emotions of the story that continued to resonate long after the 80s references became dated. Spielberg has long described E.T. as his most personal film and even though it might sound odd to say that about a blockbuster with cinema’s friendliest alien, you can feel that personal connection in the material. Granted, it’s not as cool as the other Spielberg triumphs of the era, but sincerity and emotional honesty will never as cool as comic book entertainment.
By now we all know the story of a recently broken family brought together by the discovery of a sweaty little alien beacon of light, so there’s no need to describe it again. What does surprise while watching the material again is how dark Spielberg actually gets in the fluffy endeavor. The early scenes before Elliot befriends E.T. are surprisingly creepy and crafted with Spielberg’s expert sense of suspense, manipulation, and jump scares that he sadly rarely uses anymore. Likewise, the adults who chase the little alien are unexpectedly sinister and their threat to the family is very real in a way few children’s movie dare to attempt these days (especially since the CGI-sanitized anniversary version has been kindly wiped from history by Spielberg and those guns are back in the hands of the cops chasing kids where they belong). The family itself surprisingly naturalistic for a special effects flick and even though the recent divorce that clearly scarred the family is never really overtly discussed, it resonates strongly throughout movie. The film might be set in a Norman Rockwell fantasy of suburbia, yet this family isn’t idealized. They bicker, yell, and struggle to stay together as a family unit. Spielberg’s presentation of a recently divorced family is one of the most honest in Hollywood history and that’s where his most personal confessions as a filmmaker can be found.
Of course, this darkness occurs around the edges and flavors the movie in an interesting way. In the end, E.T. is about taking the audience on a glorious adventure of childhood imagination that leaves viewers with a feeling of elation (well, through the tears in their eyes of course). Close Encounters is obvious precursor to E.T. and not just in the friendly flying saucer subject matter either. No, the film also mirrors the ingenious entertainment structure Spielberg crafted that 1977 masterpiece, teasing his audience throughout before closing on an orgasmic alien lightshow of entertainment without a coda. It’s a perfect piece of manipulation, but what made E.T. resonate so much more deeply was the director’s simultaneous manipulation of his audiences’ emotion as well as their visceral pleasure centers. Somehow you care for this rubber puppet as much as any other character in the history of cinema. Part of that is the seamless combination of Carlo Rambaldi’s incredible puppet and a mime’s hands that feel more like a genuine onscreen being than any CGI cartoon. Part of it is John Williams remarkable score that guides the audience constantly, with the closing 20 minutes filled wall to wall and edited to the recorded track (like Sergio Leone used to do in his Spaghetti Westerns) to give the images a musical flow over conventional film grammar.
But, most of can be attributed to how Spielberg manages to put the audience into a child’s perspective. That comes from shooting exclusively from a child’s eyeline (giving most adults a headless Charlie Brown quality) and carefully nursing along remarkable performances from the pint-sized leads Henry Thomas, Robert McNaughton, and Drew Barrymore. The film never feels like a contrived tale made by adults assuming what children want to see. No, E.T. comes for a more pure swell of childhood emotion. A manchild filmmaker diving back into that world before maturing and finding a primal story of childhood connection, fantasy, friendship and loss that is universal, deeply moving, and can reduce anyone still in touch with that place in their lives to a mess of tears when the little guy flies away. Dismiss it as childhood whimsy if you wish, but actually engage with the movie and it’s hard not to appreciate what Spielberg accomplished. There’s a reason why the movie is timeless. It taps into themes that will exist as long as there are children, playing directly into their heightened sense of play, fantasy, and emotion.
Universal pulled out all the stops on their E.T. Blu-ray to give the Spielberg classic the same eye-popping upgrade into HD. The film looks like it was shot last summer, revealing details in the sets, faces, and designs never before visible and filling any home theater with an atmospheric Ben Burtt sound design. Sure, that also means there are some seams in the effects that were never noticeable before, but even allowing for that ,most of the analogue visuals trump any digital f/x creation. Two new special features arrive in a brief (but insightful) interview with Spielberg about a movie that clearly has a special place in his heart and an hour of footage shot on the set showing the director and cast at work. It’s similar to the Raiders backstage footage included on the recent Indy set and is just as compelling. How often do you actually get to see a classic movie being made and what are the odds that those making it seem to be enjoying themselves as much as you’d hope? All of the documentaries from the last DVD are carried over and much of the material will be new to viewers as the only way to get those unedited features in the past was through a massive box set that disappeared almost instantly. Overall, there simply couldn’t be a better package possible or a movie that deserves the special treatment more. This is one of those childhood favorites that’s actually better than you remember it, a work of childhood fantasy guaranteed to warm even the blackest of hearts (including my own).
They Live (John Carpenter, 1988) – From the late 70s until the early 1990s, John Carpenter made every genre fan happy to be alive. The guy specialized in B-movies, but did them better than anyone in the business. Halloween created the slasher movis, The Thing would become possibly the most loved horror movie of the 80s thanks to VHS, while Escape From New York and Big Trouble In Little China made an unexpectedly strong case to define Kurt Russell as a badass. Those films are now classics, transcending the audience of basement-dwelling genre geeks to appeal to even genre fans without glasses who live above ground. Yet for some reason They Live has never really extended to fans beyond the cult of Carpenter. Sure, it’s a weirdo genre mash-up laced with social commentary that isn’t exactly made to appeal to folks with Honey Boo Boo t-shirts, but in a world where The Thing action figures exist, it’s about time that more people discovered the joys of They Live. The good folks at Shout Factory are doing their bit to get the film a little extra recognition with a beautiful new Blu-ray set that treats the movie with the respect it long deserved. If you enjoy movies with violence, a brain, and lines like “I’m here to chew bubbe-gum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubble gum,” then get ready to discover your new hungover Sunday viewing favorite.
The film stars none other than Roddy Roddy Piper as a traveling loner who works when he can, helps those who need it, and is generally just a good old fashioned working class hero. While working construction at his latest stop on the road, Piper makes friends with Keith David who lives in a shanty town with a collection of people who are getting a little fed up with all of America’s delightful bigotry and economic disparity. They’ve got a feeling that something more is going on than Regeanomics and Piper’s hero instincts are peaked. Eventually he discovers a pair of magic sunglasses (stay with me) that reveal that aliens secretly walk among us. They took over the planet decades ago, live as the economic elite, and hypnotize humanity with subliminal messages through advertising that keep the masses subdued and content to lower their standards. Roddy isn’t the kind of guy who takes to kindly to that sort of thing, so he gets David to sign up to help (after beating the crap out of him for a hilariously long time) and together they decide to stop these aliens the only way any hero in an 80s genre movie could: with fists and machine guns.
Carpenter took a lot of flak during the peak of his career for profiteering in mindless violence. I’m not sure what movies those critics were watching in the 80s, because at that point he was always one of the few genre filmmakers who wanted to get a few ideas in amongst the violence. They Live is a perfectly pitched satire of 80s yuppie culture and in an age of 99%ers, the message is sadly just as relevant today. It’s about a cleverly constructed as any of George Romero’s social satire/horror flicks, while told with Carpenter’s usual stripped down storytelling and trademark visual style. The action/thriller/horror beats never slow down for a second in favor of the commentary and the director’s usual flowing steadicam cinematographer suits the material well (not to mention the fact that he also wrote the deep n’ funky synthesizer score himself). Carpenter is a genuine auteur and They Live uses all his tricks about as well as he ever managed, combining his skill at horror, action, and sci-fi movies with the anti-authoritarian streak that defined his approach to dealing with Hollywood dirtbags.
Make no mistake, it’s macho movie-making designed to appeal to folks who would rent a flick starring a pro-wrestler, but one with some surprising brains, style, and sarcastic comedy that will appeal to more discerning film fans as well. Carpenter also knows how to work with actors and gets about the best performance that Piper is capable of (it’s honestly a shame that he never had much of a career after this) while also nursing dependably strong work out of Keith David, who has been one of Hollywood’s most underrated actors throughout his career. Of course, there’s no way to review the film without mentioning the 8-minute fight sequences that Piper/David share. It’s incredibly well-choreographed and shot, while also lasting long enough to turn into a comedic parody of such scenes (South Park even did a beat-by-beat homage in the episode “Cripple Fight,” if you’d prefer see the fight in low-fi animation). The director and cast take that tongue-in-cheek approach to the entire movie, giving it a cheesy comedy charm that mocks the movie at it’s most ridiculous while also feeding into the social satire. Wiseacre viewers can appreciate The Live as a gentle parody of these sorts of films, while the less irony-inclined can enjoy it as a sincere genre outing that delivers the goods. There’s something for everyone, people!
Shout Factory’s They Live Blu-ray features all of the bells and whistles that instantly made the company one of the best Blu-ray horror dealers since they launched with Halloween 2 and 3 a few weeks back. You get a flat-out awesome new poster design (complete with a “Buy” sticker as an in-joke for fans) as well as the original poster art underneath for purists. Beyond the packaging, the disc features an incredible transfer that would make you swear the film was shot yesterday were it not for Piper’s mullet. On the disc itself is a collection of trailers, interviews with Carpenter (hilarious), David (sincere and insightful), actress Meg Foster (useless), as well as key members of the crew (hilarious/insightful), and some extended footage of the brilliant commercial parodies in the movie. But the best feature of all has got to be the audio commentary between Carpenter and Piper. When partnered with a collaborator, Carpenter gives the best commentaries in the business filled with amusing anecdotes from the set, behind the scenes secrets, comments on the motivation of the piece, and some hysterical pisstakes of the movie and his commentary partner. This is easily one of his best commentaries to date, with the director and star clearly friends who enjoy the film and eachother as much as their fans. For genre lovers, this They Live disc is easily one of the greatest Blu-ray releases of the year. Sure, some other discs might have shinier transfers and more bountiful bonus sections, but there isn’t anything about this They Live package to criticize. All the features are new and exclusive, while the move is a cult classic that deserves a larger and even more obsessed cult. Buy the disc and find out why. Or don’t, because as They Live tells us consumerism sucks. Seriously buy it though, you can have that revelation afterwards and enjoy some good ol’ 80s ass-kickery along the way.
Dark Star (John Carpenter, 1974) – At the end of the almost overwhelming informative documentary included on the Dark Star Blu-ray, co-creator Dan O’Bannon describes the film as being the most impressive student film ever made and also one of the least impressive commercially released sci-fi movies. That still holds fairly true, but is a little harsh on the 1974 cult flick that launched the careers of two big ol’ genre filmmakers. There’s not a moment watching Dark Star when you aren’t aware of its origins as a class project by a handful of stoned and overly ambitious film students. But that amateurish nature of the project is part of what makes it so impressive and hilarious. Those crazy kids had more talent and ideas than money and their weirdo surfer 2001 parody has enough charm, wit, and style in it’s best sequences to smooth over the bumps. It might not be as satisfying as their subsequent efforts, but if you’re a fan of John Carpenter (Halloween, The Thing, They Live, etc.) or Dan O’Bannon (writer of Alien, writer/director of Return Of The Living Dead) there’s no denying the fun to be had in seeing where those young punks began.
The film stars a collection of unknown bearded UCLA students and O’Bannon as a collection of lonely astronauts in the midst of a 20-year mission. They blow up planets, but essentially spend most of their time sitting around the ship trying to pass time. It’s boring in space. Little to do, tight quarters, and there’s only a collection of crewmates to speak to who you grew tired of years ago. The characters basically fall into the working-class space trucker category that O’Bannon would play out again in Alien. This time there’s no shape-shifting monster to fight though (well, unless you count the ridiculous beachball with claws that O’Bannon punches for a while). Nope, it’s just morons killing time and doing so in a pretty funny 70s slacker way. Eventually one of the sentient bombs on board becomes lodged and one of the crewmembers is forced to engage in an existential debate to calm it down before blowing everyone up. That’s what qualifies as Dark Star’s climax. Like I said, it’s a student film.
Most of the pleasures of Dark Star come from appreciating it as an artifact of a time and place. The special effects might not exactly be photo-real, but there’s hand made quality that has it’s own charms (and a few effects that pre-date Star Wars in an almost plagiaristic way, even if O’Bannon was hired to work on Lucas’ project). The humor is hit and miss, but the sequences that do work hilariously present sci-fi adventure as dull routine. The primary appeal comes from seeing two talents emerge fully formed out of film school. Carpenter’s long take shooting style and simple, but effective synthesizer score is already in present in a crudely effective form. O’Bannon’s script often feels like a comedic take on Alien and the knowing sense of dark humor and genre parody that later informed the screenplays for Return Of The Living Dead and Lifeforce is already present in both his writing and performance. It might be an undeniable air of amateurism about the whole affair, but it’s clear that these crazy kids were up to something.
The box for VCI’s new Blu-ray claims that the company believes “this is the finest presentation ever of this cult classic” and that’s certainly true, just don’t expect it to look like the Alien Blu-ray. The film was shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm, so detail and colors can only be so sharp. Within that context, the film does look quite strong, better than anyone could have expected. Sure, HD doesn’t do the special effects any favors, but seeing the seems in Dark Star is part of the fun (this is a movie with a beach ball alien for gods sakes, you’re supposed to laugh at the cheese). The disc is packed with bells n’ whistles, most notably a feature length documentary almost as entertaining as the film itself. Everyone involved in the production appears on camera (apart from Carpenter, who still contributes plenty of thoughts through an old phone interview). They spin a tale of an ambitious sci-fi project created purely because professors told Carpenter and O’Bannon it wasn’t possible, a short student production that spun so wildly out of control it was expanded into a feature, a theatrical release made in collaboration with a distributor the young bucks despised, a post production falling out between two friends/collaborators, and an unexpected cult legacy. It’s a deliriously entertaining and deeply informative doc worth the purchase alone. In addition to that VCI threw in an interview with the author of the tie-in novel (just as odd as you’d expect), an extended nostalgic interview with star Brian Narelle, a 3D CGI tour of the ship, a humorous written intro from O’Bannon, and a commentary by self-proclaimed superfan Andrew Gilchrist that’s actually more entertaining than you’d think. Overall, this is the best possible package one could hope for from Dark Star, a cult film that deserves to still be kicking around if only for fans of the talented and possibly insane students who made it.
Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968) – Criterion has started to make an annual tradition of slipping horror movies into their collection every Halloween. Underrated oddities like Guillermo Del Toro’s Cronos or the 1932 romp The Island Of Lost Souls have slipped out for the horror holiday in the past, but this year Criterion have outdone themselves. Somehow the company sweet talked Paramount into giving them the rights to one of the greatest horror films of all time and now Rosemary’s Baby has slid into HD in what is instantly the definitive home video presentation for the demonic pregnancy classic. The film kicked off the career of super-producer (and gravel-voiced anecdote specialist) Robert Evans, introduced Roman Polanski to Hollywood, made Mia Farrow a star, won Ruth Gordon an Oscar, and started the trend of Satanic Hollywood horror that would lead to other genre classics like The Exorcist and The Omen. So…yeah, Rosemary’s Baby a great movie, a masterpiece even, and the fact that Criterion got their mitts on it means that this is instantly one of the best Blu-rays of the year.
So for those unfamiliar with the film, I guess a little plot discussion is in order. Rosemary is a young n’ beautiful New York wife with a successful actor (John Cassavetes) on her arm, a ritzy new apartment to call home, and plans to get knocked up. She does, but something seems wrong. First of all, Rosemary passed out the night of conception and while her husband claims he slipped one in on ovulation night despite the passed out thing, she also had a strange dream involving a naked coven of her neighbors and sleeping with some sort of demon. But she tries to put that out of her mind like a good little wife until the pregnancy proves to be filled with agonizing pain and a little research into Satanism and the antichrist makes the whole situation sound frighteningly familiar. Much like in Repulsion, Polanski gently teases out the mystery for almost the entire film, presenting the story in such a way that it would be just as plausible that it could all be going on in poor Rosemary’s mind as it is that the antichrist is bubbling in her belly.
Rosemary’s Baby is one of those perfect storms of filmmaking that in theory Hollywood should be doing all the time. An ambitious producer finds material that he thinks could make an interesting film, puts it in the hands of a talented director who could pull it off, and hires some fresh-faced young actors for stardom. Oh if that were only the way in La-la-land these days. Ah well, at least that happened during one golden period in the late 60s and 70s. Polanski might not have dreamed up this story himself (that would be thriller novelist Ira Levin of Stepford Wives and Boys Of Brazil fame), but it fits perfectly into his style. If Hitchcock is the master of suspense, then Polanski is the master of paranoia. No one is better at putting the audience inside the mind of an uncertain and frightened protagonist, both thematically and visually (he has a way of shooting that is entirely subjective without POV. The camera peers over his characters shoulders and the audience is trapped with them, if not inside them).
There aren’t really conventional jump scares or gross out moments here. The horror is psychological, forcing the audience and Rosemary into a terrifying situation and then playing off the fear of whether or not it’s actually happening. It’s not a film to play for rowdy teens looking for sweet decapitations. But any viewer who can get invested in the story and situation will be unnerved all the way until the climax. It’s a stellar piece of craft from Polanski, with a perfectly chosen cast. Farrow’s wide eye innocence has never been better exploited, Cassavetes plays a thankless sleazeball role as well as possible, while Ruth Gordon is alternatingly chilling and hilarious depending on what’s required. Rosemary’s Baby might not strive for more than psychological chills, but does so about as effectively as possible. It’s hard to imagine a better version of this film.
As expected, Criterion pulls out all the stops on this Blu-ray. The transfer is a revelation, with Polanski’s preference for wide angle lenses ensuring deep focus, details, and warped perspectives made for HD. The colors are rich and while some of he dream sequence can seem a little soft, that’s a stylistic choice on Polanski’s part and Criterion’s transfer is faithful. The audio is mono as it was produced, so no surround sound here. But it is a lossless master track far more clear and layered than the DVD (and given the creepy sound design and score, that’s a good thing). There are only three special features, but they are extensive. First up is a freshly commissioned documentary from Criterion featuring new interviews with Evans, Farrow, and Polanski that covers all aspects of production and jumps into interesting territory ignored in previous documentaries (like Polanski’s feuding with Cassavetes, Frank Sinatra having divorce papers delivered to Farrow on the set, and Evans spinning some of his usual, highly entertaining and articulate bullshit). Criterion has only in the last few years started producing documentaries like this, but they are quickly starting to make the best DVD docs out there.
Next up is an entertaining vintage radio interview with Levin discussing Rosemary’s Baby and the sequel he wrote in the late 90s. Finally, a feature length documentary about composer Krzysztof Komeda that was produced for Polish television is thrown in, which is a great doc and this disc is an eerily appropriate venue for it sine he died shortly after completing the score for Rosemary’s Baby. Overall, this is the best possible Blu-ray presentation of Rosemary’s Baby that we could possibly ask for. It’s enough to make you wish that Criterion could be put in charge of the Blu-rays for all vintage films and given the state of the physical media business at this point, that’s a dream that’s sadly/excitingly close to reality.
Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950) – Some classic films can be crushed by the weight of their own reputation and are difficult to appreciate amidst all the decades of praise. Then there are those rare classic films that are actually even better than everyone claims. Sunset Boulevard is one such movie. It was made in the crossroads of Billy Wilder’s career when he was moving out of his early noir-flavored dramas (Double Indemnity, The Long Weekend) and into his future as a comedy specialist (Some Like It Hot, The Appartment). Sunset Boulevard magically falls somewhere between those two Wilder filmmaking tones. It’s an odd comedy noir and viscous satire on the opportunism and shattered dreams of Hollywood. Yet, somehow it’s not merely a game of inside baseball. While most people who watch the movie now will be film-loving maniacs who appreciate the commentary, references, and in jokes about the studio politics of the past, Wilder’s bitter portrayal of deception and delusion in La-Laland works for anyone because it’s such an accurate portrait of the psychology of failure (in showbiz and otherwise). Funny, perverse, dark, and emotionally resonant, Sunset Boulevard (like all Billy Wilder joints) is one of those old timey Hollywood classics that never feels like homework to watch. It’s timeless and iconic and also one of the strangest films ever made under the big, burning studio lights of the 1950s.
The film has one of the most memorable openings ever conceived, with Joe Gillis (William Holden) narrating as a corpse in a swimming pool on Sunset Boulevard. He promises to tell the audience the tragic story that got him there, starting with the struggling Gillis cranking out story ideas for studios with little luck. He’s about to lose his car and apartment when he accidentally stumbles into the home of former silent starlet Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). She thought Gillis was the man assigned to burry her dead monkey (true story), but is thrilled when she learns he is a screenwriter. He asks her to help polish up a comeback epic she’s working on and he agrees. Before Gillis can do anything to stop it, he finds himself living in Swanson’s crumbling mansion, with the only other resident her fiercely loyal butler Max (Erich von Stroheim). Gillis quickly ends up imprisoned by the starlet, getting room and board not to be a writer, but a boytoy who reminds Desmond of her glory days. Gillis soon starts sneaking out to work on a romantic comedy with a pretty young script girl Betty (Nancy Olson) who falls for him, but he can’t accept the relationship out of shame and the strange sense of comfort he’s found with the clearly insane Desmond. Eventually he tries to get the hell out of the mansion, but ends up in the pool instead.
Wilder uses the film as a fairly harsh attack on the way Hollywood spits out it’s old stars and how the business is consumed with desperate people clinging to and leaching off of each other. It’s a bitter little pill of a moral and like all of Wilder’s best films that dark core comes wrapped in sumptuous entertainment. The moral ambiguity and high-contrast moody lighting comes straight out of the writer/director’s background in film noir, but the script is laced with satire and dark humor, making the dominant tone harshly comedic. It’s a sadly accurate portrayal of the town run on celluloid dreams that has aged remarkably well. Hollywood is still a world of leaches and letches, they just all wear superhero costumes now. Former silent star Swanson essentially plays a twisted version of herself and while her theatrical portrayal of madness goes far over the top, it works in context. Since she’s playing a silent movie performer, her exaggerated gestures can be read as the actions of a madwoman performing day-in-day out. It’s not clear if Swanson was that self-conscious in her performance, but that’s irrelevant. It works regardless of her motivation. Holden is a strong, sarcastic lead who is willing to ditch thhise movie star baggage to play a fairly terrible human being. In fact, almost everyone in the film is an unlikable narcissist in need of punishment, with the warmest soul belonging to Von Stroheim’s Max. He seems like little more than a stock creepy butler at first, but as the film wears on and secrets are revealed, it becomes clear that he’s the only member of the central trio with generosity and a heart (even those qualities are misplaced to the point of madness). That progression is true of the film itself, which initially seems to be another black and white thriller before turning into an insightful satire laced with suspense.
Hollywood Boulevard debuts on Blu-ray in a standard issue release that would suggest a rush job until you pop it into your player. The film has been given one of the finest restorations of any black and white Hollywood classic I’ve seen and is a joy to watch in HD. Wilder often gets pegged as a brilliant writer and uninspired visual storyteller, but based on Sunset Boulevard alone I’m not sure where that all came from. Every shot is dripping with detail, mood, and style, gorgeously rendered on Bluray by the Paramount restoration team. This is how all films of the era should look in HD. The disc itself is packed with an informative commentary, a deleted scene, and no less than 13 featurettes covering everything from the film’s production to the career of the costume designer. It’s a remarkable collection of info that will answer any question you have about the film, the only problem is that none of it is new. It’s all been compiled from previous DVD releases, but considering the amount of repetition between just those features, I doubt any newly commissioned documentaries would add much to the package. Sure you could get some famous fans to chime in, but realistically this set has all you need. It’s odd that Sunset Boulevard coming out to relatively little fanfare, given that it’s not only one of the finest films ever made, but one of the finest Paramount catalogue releases of the year. If you’re a film fanatic, pick this disc up and cherish it. And feel free to do that if you aren’t one as well. Sunset Boulevard is that good.
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (Stephen Herek, 1989) – The delightful mix of Southern Californian stupidity and historical in-jokery that is Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure really shouldn’t hold up today. The movie is thoroughly a product of the 80s with all of the impossible innocence and fluffy fantasy that suggests. Yet there’s something weirdly timeless about these two idiot wannabe rockers’ adventures through time that just won’t go away. Maybe it’s that all the time traveling makes the dated 80s culture feel like part of the style, maybe the Wyld Stallyns music truly is a magical universal slice of art that unites all people in peace and harmony, or maybe it’s just a damn funny comedy and easy laughs never go out of style. Ok, it’s probably the last option.
So who are Bill and Ted you ask, person who was born after 1992? Well, they’re two high school morons and possible potheads in San Dimas California. Bill (Alex Winter) lives with his lax father and trophy wife who is about his son’s age, while Ted (Keanu Reeves) lives with his hard-nosed cop father who keeps threatening to send his idiot kid to Alaskan military school. Together they are Wyld Stallyns, a heavy metal band that they’ve started to promote despite not being able to play instruments. Eventually they will become a force of righteous rock that will unite the universe in peace, but right now they’re flunking history and might be separated due to that whole Alaskan military school thing. So Rufus (George Carlin) is sent from the future to give the boys a time traveling phone booth that will allow them to kidnap historical figures like Socrates, Abraham Lincoln, Joan Of Arc, and Napoleon that will totally allow them to ace their history presentation and save the band. Like I said, they are pretty dumb though, so hilarious antics will ensue throughout history. Mark my words.
The key to Bill and Ted’s success is the clever/stupid concept that mixes braindead teen humor with clever historical references (having Bill and Ted call Socrates So-crates is a dumb joke, but one that requires you to know who the philosopher is and how to spell his name to giggle) and also the wide-eyed innocence and positivity of the dumb-dumb duo. You laugh cause their stupid, but it’s impossible to hate the two kids who want nothing more than for every one to have a good time and you know, party on. Winter and Reeves were perfectly cast in the roles. It’s a shame Winter never got the career of Reeves, who managed to pull a Stallone and make everyone think his vacant debut roles were carefully crafted characterizations and not just the result a limited talent slotted an ideal big screen vehicles. The actors playing historical cameos all get the required laughs, while Carlin lends the movie some much needed comedy class. Critters director Stephen Herek shoots in scope and gives the medium budget comedy the epic scale it needs (despite some dodgy early CG time traveling animation), doing an impressive enough job to make you wish his talent wasn’t wasted in subsequent years on crap like Mr. Holland’s Opus and Man Of The House. But the true MVPs of Bill and Ted are co-writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon (who would go on to write Men In Black and was once roommates with Fred Dekker and Shane Black in the coolest/geekest Hollywood flea trap of the 80s). This isn’t the type of movie that jumps out as being well written because it seems so breezy and effortless. However, pulling together this mix of genres and tones into something that’s not only watchable, but ridiculously entertaining 23 years later is no easy task.
Matheson and Solomon get the best feature on the disc in a 20-minute interview about their famous creation. It’s clear they were almost Bill and Ted at some point in their lives and the movie was an in-joke that they somehow spun into a pop culture phenomenon. You don’t normally get to hear writers go this in depth of their work and with a duo this funny and honest (they admit the reason the sequel Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey was so dark was because they were going through personal drama as friends and took it out on their characters). It’s a great feature…unfortunately it’s recycled from the old DVD box set along with the discs other two features, a fairly useless joke doc on air guitar and an episode of the dated Saturday morning cartoon spinoff. It’s a shame nothing new was added, but that’s probably just because everyone is waiting for the long rumored threequel to come together before cranking out a new box set. On the plus side, the tech-specs of the Blu-ray are fantastic, with a glossy new transfer and lossless soundtrack showing off the slick production values that help sell the fantasy. In general, 80s comedies don’t benefit much for a high-def upgrade, but with something filled with as many special effects and set pieces as Bill And Ted, it’s like totally excellent. If you somehow haven’t seen Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure before now, run out and see it immediately you fool! If you have, you love it and you’ll want to pick up this Blu-ray for your fancy HD TV. It’s a shame that Bogus Journey wasn’t released at the same time since both movies are equally strong, but I guess that’s just something for us to all look forward to in the future, right dudes?