Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Discs of the Year - 2008

Unlike choosing from the year’s theatrical releases, when we’re bound to new product, going for DVD and Bluray releases allows us to reach as far back as 75 years for Criterion’s Vampyr, or just a single turn of the calendar for Paramount’s Zodiac. The criteria varies from selection to selection, with some (like Criterion’s White Dog and Sony’s Icons of Horror set) chosen for their rarity and “wow, I never thought I’d live to see that come out!” factor, while others (like Warner’s How the West was Won and Fox’s Apes Evolution box) were chosen to single out for praise the efforts of major studios who do something special for catalog titles.

Zodiac – Director’s Cut (Paramount HD-DVD)
The best film of 2007 quickly became 2008’s most watched disc (at least at our house). Fincher’s blends his own ice-cool shooting style with a vintage 1970’s police procedural to create an unfailingly watchable portrait of the epic (and ongoing) search for the Zodiac killer. Although the HD-DVD format didn’t live to see the end of the year, this disc can’t be faulted; the 1080p picture presents Fincher’s vision (beautifully shot on digital video by Harris Savides, who will likely be robbed of an Oscar for Milk in much the same way as he was for Zodiac) in what amounts to a lossless hard drive transfer from the 1080p Viper digital camera. Accompanying the feature are two commentary tracks; an informative solo track with the director and a second featuring Fincher, producer Brad Fischer, writer James Vanderbilt, actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey, Jr., and author James Ellroy, clearly on board out of shear admiration for the project. Equally impressive are the supplemental features on the second disc, all presented in HD, discussing the gorgeously subtle visual effects, and the previsualization process. But the stars are the three long-form documentaries – His Name Was Arthur Leigh Allen (42min) discusses the now deceased prime suspect in the case, Zodiac Deciphered (54min) that focuses on the making of the film, and the best of the bunch, This is the Zodiac Speaking (101min) an exhaustive – but not exhausting – trip through the case, featuring interviews with many surviving victims, police, and investigators. This is class ‘A’ stuff all the way, beautifully fleshing out the film, while standing tall as informative documentaries on their own. Zodiac is the disc of the year. NOTE – we’re choosing the Bluray edition for the purchasing link because it’s virtually identical in terms of quality to the HD-DVD – and because HD-DVD doesn’t exist anymore.

Icons of Horror: Hammer Films (Sony DVD)
As of this writing, there are no Hammer films available on Bluray and that’s a potent reminder of how long it took for obscure catalog titles (that’s studio-speak for ’old’) to begin appearing on this new format. Sony’s second ‘Icons’ set of Hammer product – the first featured a quartet of little-seen swashbuckling tales – features four titles not yet released domestically. The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960) stars Paul Massie as a cuckolded husband and frustrated scientist and Christopher Lee (in a fabulous turn) as a sleazy friend of Jekyll who finds much more in common with the rakish Mr. Hyde. Scream of Fear (1961) was made when Hammer was turning out an interesting stream of B&W psychological shockers that bore a heavy Psycho influence, and Scream runs a close second behind the superb Paranoiac (available in Universal’s Hammer set). The Gorgon (1964) reteamed director Terence Fisher with stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee (in a fun, heroic turn) in a show that’s heavier on character than the typical Hammer monster tale. The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964) is a colorful, scope production but a bit lead-footed in terms of plotting. All the films look great, with vibrant colors that wash away the memories of the 2nd and 3rd generation bootlegs that fans have had to satisfy themselves with previously.

How the West Was Won (Warner Bluray)
Wow! It’s incredibly encouraging to see a major studio lavish this kind of attention on an older title – particularly one without the greatest reputation. HTWWW is one of a half-handful of pictures that were actually filmed in true 3-panel Cinerama (shooting essentially 3 separate frames of film with cameras physically linked together). Shown correctly, the film literally wrapped around the audience, covering – as long as you were sitting in the plum seats – your entire field of vision. Previous editions haven’t been able to convey so much as a fraction of this experience at home; presented in a normal letterbox mode, the image would have an aspect ratio of nearly 3:1 and that’s a lot of blank screen for the average home theater enthusiast to deal with. Warner Bros found a truly ingenious way around this by offering both a standard widescreen version and what they’re calling a Smilebox presentation, a more-successful-than-not attempt to have the image wrapped around you. Both versions have also had the frame marks that separate the camera negatives digitally removed. And even though the Smilebox version has trimmed some of the far sides of the image, it’s a small price to pay for the impressive effect – watching both versions (or, at least, flipping between them) makes for an interesting experience. There’s also a beautifully done long-form documentary on the process itself, Cinerama Adventure, which makes you appreciate the enormous effort that went into the few narrative features photographed in the format. The simply awesome 1080p picture on the Bluray disc showcases the staggering amount of detail captured by the oversized negatives – it’s the home theater demo disc of the year.

Vampyr (Criterion DVD)
Another masterful restoration from Criterion. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr, a film that had previously existed on video only in cobbled together versions with burned-in subtitles, is one of the last notable European stabs at horror before the influence of Universal’s 1930s monster films drifted across the Atlantic. Straddling the line between the silent and sound eras, Vampyr retains a hallucinatory power to disturb more than 75 years after its release, and Criterion’s extras (which include a reproduction of both the original screenplay and the novel “Carmilla” on which the film is loosely based) help put the film into context.

Rodan/War of the Gargauntuas (Classic Media DVD)
The latest in Classic Media’s line of Toho’s Kaiju Eiga films, with Godzilla taking a powder and giving Rodan and the Gargantua brothers a turn in the spotlight. It’s amazing what a caring presentation can do to aid a film’s reputation – Toho’s monster shows (along with Toei’s Gamera series) have become commonly thought of as juvenile jokes in their cropped, dubbed US editions. Seen in its complete form, Rodan is a revelation – a serious, at times suspenseful film that even manages to wring some pathos out of a SXF bombardment of a sweaty Japanese guy sealed in a rubber bird costume. War of the Gargauntuas is another matter entirely – a batcrap crazy show featuring weirdly disturbing monster suits that resemble feral children with a Frankenstein head and a dead-eyed ‘how did I get here?’ performance from Russ Tamblyn. Classic Media’s two disc set features both pictures in their original Japanese forms (with English subs) and their dubbed American versions.

The Naked Prey (Criterion DVD)
Another Criterion save from near obscurity, this masterful adventure tale from actor/director Cornel Wilde was made at a time when ‘white man in Africa’ clichés ran wild and free, and Wilde’s film (nearly wordless in the second half) shows an unheard of respect for both the audience, and the African tribe who pursues his character. Previously available only on a bargain VHS, Criterion’s DVD features the first widescreen transfer of the film on video and their usual superb array of supplemental features.

Grindhouse (Japanese import DVD)
An expensive Japanese import that is the only way (of this writing) to get the theatrical version of Robert Rodriquez and Quentin Tarantino’s epic salute to genre programmers of the 70s and 80s. Domestic SD-DVD and Bluray editions separate the films into individual extended editions, and omit the fabulous phony trailers by Edgar Wright, Rob Zombie, and Eli Roth. The double feature aspect is integral to the Grindhouse experience, and the Japanese import features that, along with the extended cuts and all the supplemental features from the US releases.

Planet of the Apes: 40 Year Evolution (Fox Bluray)
The feeling that you get revisiting a favorite film year after year to find that it hasn’t dated a bit is nothing short of thrilling –and that’s just what happens each and every time the original Planet of the Apes gets a showing at our house. From VHS, to Laserdisc, to DVD (twice!), and now – and probably not finally – to Bluray, Apes remains that rarest of beasts – a massively entertaining Sci-Fi actioner that’s also chock-a-bloc with imagination and wit. While this Bluray set isn’t quite the comprehensive behemoth that the previous Caesar-head box was (no TV series or already forgotten Tim Burton remake here, just the original 5 features) it includes the holy grail of the franchise, the original edit of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes featuring an outrageously bloody coda unencumbered by Roddy McDowell’s conciliatory words in Caesar’s final speech, enforced by a nervous 20th Century Fox after the violent and revolutionary-friendly film had its first uneasy test screening. All previous extras are present, with several new ones to boot, including a handsome hardcover book.

White Dog (Criterion DVD)
Poor Sam Fuller really got the business end of it in his final Hollywood film. Brought aboard by a studio that wanted an exploitable horror tale about a German Sheppard trained by racists to attack black people on sight, Fuller hoped to make a meaningful statement on the nature of racism couched in familiar genre trappings. But the film was buried by Paramount after a ridiculous story was circulated that the film itself was actually racist and Sam spent the rest of his days working on television and little-seen features in Europe. Previously available only as a grey-market bootleg, Criterion shamed White Dog’s home studio by issuing a remarkably colorful and sharp transfer along with a fabulous documentary on the film’s troubled post-production period.

Dr. Syn – The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh (Disney DVD)
It’s easy to boo & hiss at the creatively bankrupt, self-cannibalizing corporate behemoth that the once beloved Disney has turned into in recent years, but damn if they don’t have the ammo in their vaults to shut us right up. Filmed at Disney’s British studio, Dr. Syn took advantage of the top UK acting and production talent and the studio crafted a superb adventure tale (many boomers actually remember the film as a horror tale because of the admittedly creepy scarecrow mask worn by star Patrick McGoohan and his henchmen) that has never been available on video until now. Both the original 3-part television and theatrical versions are available on the set, and both are presented in 1.66 anamorphic widescreen (those seeing it on TV in the US had to deal with slight cropping, so this release is also the first time that the complete television version has been seen anywhere) with spectacular color for a nearly 50 year old film. Extras include a through (though a bit pie-eyed when it comes to the parent company) documentary on the production.

Dirty Harry Collection (Warner Bluray)
While it’s great to see Eastwood rightfully lauded whenever a new directorial effort arrives, it’s a shame that it’s typically at the expense of his action hits of the 70s. Don Siegel’s original is still the best police thriller ever made, mining a vein of droll humor in Eastwood and successfully bringing his screen persona into a modern context far better than the dull Coogan’s Bluff. And though the sequels exhibit the same diminishing return issues faced by all films forced into franchises, only the last – The Dead Pool – displays a bored lack of caring. No such lack was displayed in Warner’s Bluray box set, though, featuring sparkling 1080p transfers of all 5 films, and new commentaries (our favorite – writer John Milius on Magnum Force) and featurettes. A very welcome catalog release packaged with style.

James Bond Bluray sets vols. 1 & 2 (MGM/UA Bluray)
While Volume 2 is the clear winner in terms of quality, with Thunderball, From Russia with Love, and For Your Eyes Only, and volume 1 pins the series wellspring, Dr. No, beneath the layers of EFX heavy Die Another Day and the downright silly but still fun Live and Let Die, the breathtaking restoration from Lowry Digital makes even the nearly half century old Dr. No virtually pop off the screen with a vitality that borders on 3D. Though also sold separately, the 3 disc sets were priced to move on the major online retailers, prompting the beginning of a large scale double dip.

High and Low (Criterion DVD)
Criterion’s second go at Akira Kurosawa’s magnificent police procedural (based on a very American novel by Ed McBain) brings an improved anamorphic transfer and extras. One of Kurosawa’s best and most readily accessible pictures, and the prototype for nearly all kidnap dramas that followed. It also provides a textbook on the use of widescreen photography to intensify, rather than alleviate a feeling of claustrophobia.

Nixon (Warner Bluray) – JFK (Warner Bluray)
Yes, yes, we’re aware that it’s actually two separate releases, but Oliver Stone’s first two entries in his loose Presidential trilogy are the best modern examples of the sort of layered melodrama that Otto Preminger once cornered the market on. Both pictures perfectly suit Stone’s strengths as a filmmaker – each features broad political canvases populated with masculine, yet finally insecure characters. JFK’s chief weakness is in making the Garrison character such an iron willed do-gooder (a problem not aided by the casting of Costner) who’s only real fault is naiveté, but it seemed like Stone learned his lesson and left Nixon virtually devoid of heroic characters. Both discs feature the extended cuts of the films, which is a particular strength of Nixon, as it restores the brilliant, chilling scene between Nixon (Anthony Hopkins) and CIA chief Richard Helms (Sam Waterston, having a ball playing ‘the banality of evil’). Each disc also carries over the voluminous extras from previous sets.

A Passage to India (Sony Bluray)
Just being the only David Lean film available on Bluray should secure A Passage to India automatic placement on the list, even with a disappointing transfer. However, Sony eschewed the trend with certain catalog titles to over apply DNR (digital noise reduction) in order to give older films a more modern sheen – a practice that typically winds up with characters taking on a waxy appearance and leaving the entire show looking like it was shot on digital video. The Passage Bluray simply looks like film – a very, very good film.

Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Criterion DVD)
Without question one of the most (purposefully) unpleasant films ever made, Pasolini’s Salo still retains its pungent power to disturb more than 3 decades after its original release – a despondent artist’s final, brutal statement on the banality of evil (making its second appearance on this year’s list!) Criterion’s second go at the title – the original was one of their big first DVD releases and traded at the $500 level for years after it went out of print – is still missing a brief scene that is present on foreign releases (see DVD Beaver for a comparison and a still from the scene) but the extras make this the most desirable North American release yet.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (Criterion DVD)
On the spy-realism ladder, James Bond occupies the highest rung in the rarefied air of invisible cars and jet packs. Harry Palmer – in whose personage Michael Caine so deftly mixed charm with National Health Service glasses and crap assignments – sits comfortable in the middle. But keeping a shaky, alcohol-soaked grip on the bottom rung is John le Carre’s Alec Leamas, as played by Richard Burton in an understated, shattering performance. Director Martin Ritt crafted just about the least glamorous spy tale ever produced; a heavy, B&W actors piece that’s nearly devoid of humor and utterly devoid of the traditional escapist trappings of the genre. Criterion’s two disc set offers a superior transfer than the previous Paramount edition, in addition to the usual Criterion bells and whistles, including superb BBC archival interviews with le Carre and Burton.

The Man Who Fell to Earth (Criterion Bluray)
Nic Roeg’s hallucinogenic masterpiece landed its third Criterion edition (behind two disc DVD and laserdisc editions) in 2008 in a sparkling Bluray edition that this visually sumptuous film has been crying out for. Criterion’s laserdisc of many years ago led many to rediscover the film, which had been shorn of nearly 20min and its widescreen photography cropped to near unintelligibility. Each of Criterion’s 3 editions has been a high watermark for the corresponding format, and while we’re sad to see the reprint of Walter Tevis’ book missing, it does make folks who are prone to double dipping (like us) feel a little less burned.

The Ipcress File (ITV Bluray)
Though neither the picture nor audio quality is likely to set aflame the hearts of tech savvy home theater enthusiasts, the arrival on Bluray of Sidney J Furie’s superb adaptation of Len Deighton’s first Harry Palmer novel is still cause for celebration. Palmer, as played magnificently by Michael Caine, is an unrepentant thief forced into government service and frequently finding himself caught between murderous fellow spies and agents of one uncaring bureaucracy or another. From the beautifully Dutch angled shots of 60’s London to Michael Caine at his most charismatic to John Barry’s lush, jazzy score, Ipcress is an exhilarating show that never gripped the turf in the states the way it did in the UK. Currently, this Bluray is available only as an import, but the disc is not region coded and plays normally on our PS3. Though the difference between the SD DVD and ITV’s Bluray isn’t as drastic as some of their other releases (see below) there’s a pleasurable amount of detail added.

The Boys From Brazil (ITV Bluray)
Another vintage Bluray from ITV, thoughtfully pressed without region coding to be enjoyed by those of us in the Colonies. Boys has been the victim of unfairly negative reviews that have followed the picture over the years since its release in 1978. Both Lawrence Olivier, as a Simon Wiesenthal-like Nazi hunter and Gregory Peck as Josef Mengele, chew the scenery with wild abandon, while the stellar supporting cast, including James Mason, Uta Hagen, Denholm Elliott, and Bruno Ganz work quietly to keep the ship from slipping entirely off the edge. ITV’s Bluray is simply outstanding, utterly blowing away the previous, pitiful DVD issuances and demonstrating the quality that can be drawn out of a 30 year old film when proper care is taken.