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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Bonus Materials: David Lynch, nightmare membranes and Eraserhead

Posted by on Wed, Sep 17, 2014 at 2:07 PM

Thirty-seven years after its initial theatrical release, David Lynch's debut feature film Eraserhead has been reissued and upgraded to U.S. Blu-ray format in a gorgeous package from the stalwart archivists at the Criterion Collection. The reissue includes a full 4K digital restoration, six additional short films and the usual generous assortment of new and archival bonus materials.

Several years in the making, Eraserhead remains a masterpiece of American independent film, albeit one shelved back in the darker aisles—where the spiders and the molds grow. It defies synopsis. The story, so far as it goes, follows a fearful man named Henry (Jack Nance), caring for his deformed infant child in an industrial wasteland. Abstract sounds and visuals float about, and nothing is as it seems. ("They're still not sure it's a baby," his girlfriend proclaims.) It's dedicated Surrealist art all the way, teeming with personal and archetypal anxieties. Like much of Lynch's later work, it's also frequently funny.

In the years since its release, the film has been particularly lauded for its intricate sound design. The incessant industrial noises move beyond ambient audio into a soundscape that screams and moans like some parallel narrative. If you've got a good home theater setup, crank up the volume.

Also included in the package is the 2001 documentary Eraserhead Stories, assembled by Lynch himself. This is pure, weird gold for anyone interested in the excruciating minutiae of the filmmaking process—which in this case stretched over five years. Lynch, chain smoking and framed with an old-school radio microphone, free associates about the making of the movie with archival photos, "home movies" and audio clips woven in. Lynch even calls collaborator Catherine Coulson on the phone for some extemporaneous reminiscence.

Like most Criterion reissues, the Eraserhead package also comes with a booklet of printed material—a detailed Q&A with Lynch by Chris Rodley from his book Lynch on Lynch, and some details on the painstaking digital transfer.

It's a lot of fun to double back to Eraserhead, and even more fascinating to watch the film again in context of the bonus materials. Lynch's films and stories often squirm about on the surface of that thin membrane that separates nightmares from our waking life. This is where it all began, and if you're feeling intrepid, here's an option for the kind of scary movie night at home that will seep into your dreams.

Also new on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital:

  • Monster movie fans should enjoy the skyscraper-smashing mayhem in Godzilla, which crosses state-of -the-art FX with old Japanese kaiju movie in-jokes. 
  • Shailene Woodley plays a 16-year-old cancer patient in the YA weepie The Fault in Our Stars
  • The hardscrabble Philly neighborhood drama God's Pocket stars Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his final performances. 
  • Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche play an art teacher and a writing teacher, respectively, in the romantic drama Words and Pictures

Notable New Titles on Netflix in September:

All is Lost (2013)
A Simple Plan (2009)
The Double (2014)
Girlfight (2000)
Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
Le Week-End (2014)
Lords of Dogtown (2005)
Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
Your Sister's Sister (2011)

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    Criterion Collection reissues Lynch's debut feature in a gorgeous package

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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Bonus Materials: Bullet trains and class rage in Snowpiercer

Posted by on Wed, Aug 20, 2014 at 1:47 PM

Chris Evans stars in Snowpiercer - COURTESY OF RADIUS-TWC
  • courtesy of Radius-TWC
  • Chris Evans stars in Snowpiercer
The brutal and visionary South Korean science fiction thriller Snowpiercer made a splash a few weeks back when it finally got a wide release in U.S. theaters after an extended tussle with distributor Harvey Weinstein. That dispute almost kept it out of theaters here.

Details are too complicated to go into, but the upshot is that Snowpiercer is now available via video on demand at your friendly neighborhood cable provider or online retailer. If you didn't catch it in the theater, I highly recommend it for a movie night at home. It'll mess you up. But, you know, in a good way.

Best approached as a sort of wigged-out allegory, the film stars Chris "Captain America" Evans and an international cast that includes Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Octavia Spencer and Korean headliners Song Kang-ho and Ko Asung.

It's the year 2031, and the world has been plunged into a lethal ice age, thanks to some ill-advised atmospheric processing. The film's first grim joke is that mankind froze itself trying to compensate for global warming. The world's last survivors, human and animal, live aboard the massive bullet train Snowpiercer, which ceaselessly circles the planet, thanks to a futuristic perpetual motion engine and a dozen other mad-scientist conceits. It's the film's second grim joke that mankind's Ark is a train.

Our hero Curtis Everett (Evans) leads a rebellion from the train's rear cars—where mankind's dregs are kept prisoner—to the front cars, where the elite meet. The film is structured as an old-fashioned A-to-B quest, with the rebels fighting their way forward to the train's engine and its mysterious engineer.

The form of the story may be old school, but everything else is cutting-edge sci-fi weirdness. Director Bong Joon-ho conjures startling, hallucinatory images within the train, including an impossible aquarium, a drug-fueled rave and a deeply disturbing kitchen car. You may spot visual echoes of Blade Runner, Brazil and even The Shining, but the film has a nightmare aesthetic all its own.

It's class warfare made hellishly literal, and the film's heavy gore factor might be a legitimate concern for the squeamish. (This isn't a family-night movie.) But the audacious storytelling is something to savor. We get plenty of big-budget, Hollywood-crafted, sci-fi adventures each summer, but few leave a lasting impression. Snowpiercer is a jolt of adrenalin. We're reminded: "Oh, yeah, that's what great science fiction movies can achieve."

Extras: As an early-release VOD title, the version of Snowpiercer you get online or on cable is the same as you get in theaters. If the typical distribution patterns hold, we'll get a DVD/Blu-ray release in a few months with the usual suite of bonus materials.

Also new this week:
  • Director Jim Jarmusch takes a stab at the modern vampire romance with the hipster fable Only Lovers Left Alive, also starring Tilda Swinton and John Hurt. The cast also includes Tom Hiddleston and Mia Wasikowska.  
  • Tom Hardy headlines the British drama Locke, which manages to be dramatic and suspenseful despite almost everything taking place with Hardy inside a car alone. How'd they do that? Find out with the behind-the-scenes doc and director commentary track on the DVD and Blu-ray editions. 
  • HBO's excellent and addictive Prohibition-era crime drama continues with Boardwalk Empire: Season 4. The fifth and final season debuts in September, so now's the time to get your binge-watching on. 

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    Also new on DVD/digital: Only Lovers Left Alive, Locke, Boardwalk Empire season 4

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Bonus Materials: man, machine and Transcendence

Posted by on Wed, Jul 23, 2014 at 10:27 AM

Johnny Depp in Transcendence - COURTESY OF WARNER BROS. PICTURES
  • courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
  • Johnny Depp in Transcendence
Hollywood has yet to make an adaptation of William Gibson's 1984 cyberpunk novel Neuromancer. And it's not for lack of trying—probably a dozen projects have started and stalled in the last 30 years. 

But if you've read the book and followed science fiction movies in the years since, it's astounding how many of Gibson's ideas have percolated into the pop culture consciousness. What's more, dozens of tossed-off details from his early books have proven prescient in recent years—stealth wear, corporate personhood and our current surveillance state concerns. It's freaky. Get a couple of coffees in me and I can go on about this for hours.

Science fiction thriller Transcendencenew this week to DVD, Blu-ray and download—is the latest property to revisit Gibson's 30-year-old ideas. Johnny Depp plays Dr. Will Caster, a specialist in Artificial Intelligence, who uploads his consciousness to a networked supercomputer.

These days, the concept of merging man and machine consciousness is sometimes called the Singularity, a term popularized by author and futurist Ray Kurzweil. It involves a lot of current and emerging science about quantum computing, biotechnology and nanotech breakthroughs.

When Gibson dug into these ideas in the late 1980s, he was interested in the human, existential aspects of the scenario. The immortal "personality constructs" in his books want nothing more than to be unplugged; free to die the old-fashion way.

Transcendence goes a different direction. There's some fascinating material in the beginning and middle sections about the feasibility of "mind uploading" and the exponential growth of man-machine super-intelligence. Depp, along with fellow researchers played by Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman and Rebecca Hall, deliver the pseudo-scientific dialogue with reasonable aplomb. Director and veteran cinematographer Wally Pfister provides the visuals, including a digitized virtual Depp whose appearance recalls—on purpose, I assume—1980s cult sensation Max Headroom.

The third act devolves into low-rent ridiculousness involving Army jeeps and guns, but Transcendence is worth checking out for a couple of reasons. One is British actress Hall, who elevates every movie she's in. She seems to be the only participant interested in the story's human dimensions. Also, the film carries on the rich science-fiction tradition of taking our cultural anxieties and bouncing them back at us in narrative form. Our machines are getting awfully smart, and it's clearly freaking us out.

Transcendence is fun on a popcorn-movie level, with its detours into Luddite terrorism and networked pod people. It's slick, glossy and more than a little ditzy. If you're looking for something more nutritious, Spike Jonze's superior A.I. drama Heralso available on disc and digitally—tackles similar themes with more insight.

Extras: The DVD/Blu-ray retail edition includes four featurettes on the the science behind the movie, which play like infomercials crossed with a big-budget Discovery Channel special.

Also New This Week:
  • Michael Peña headlines the biopic Cesar Chavez, profiling the famous labor leader and civil rights activist, directed by Diego Luna. 
  • Ron Howard directs the combination concert film and music documentary Made in America, with performances from Jay-Z, Pearl Jam, Dirty Projectors, Odd Future, Run-DMC, Skrillex and Kanye West. 
  • The NBC miniseries Shogun, with Richard Chamberlain, has been reissued on Blu-ray with new bonus materials. 

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    Plus Jay-Z and Cesar Chavez, all out now on DVD and digital

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Friday, July 12, 2013

DVD+Digital: Aging, apocalypse and After People

Posted by on Fri, Jul 12, 2013 at 2:47 PM

  • courtesy of History channel

Ever since aging through the sad end of the 18-35 demographic, I find my television tastes have drifted. When clicking around these days, I tend to linger on the pop scholarship offered by basic cable stations like History, Discovery, National Geographic and Animal Planet.

My conclusion is that I like reality TV, I just don't like reality TV about people. As such, the three-disc collection After People — new to DVD from the History channel — is right up my misanthropic alley.

After People trades in that brand of speculation and imagery sometimes called apocalypse porn. The collection gathers four different specials aimed at the pessimist market — Life After People, After Armageddon, Mega Drought and Mega Freeze.

End-of-the-world scenarios are endlessly fascinating to those of us prone to worrying about such things. Life After People — which ran as a series from 2008-2010 — uses the usual blend of talking head interviews and passable CGI to depict the gradual decay of our man-made world when humans are removed from the picture.

The program begins where most apocalypse stories end. It's not concerned with how or why humanity dies off. It simply wonders aloud what would happen to the planet afterward. It's structured sensibly enough: We begin with what would happen one day after people, and proceed from there to one week after, one month, one year, etc.

Continue reading…

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    A new three-disc DVD set from the History channel provides delightful pop scholarship about the end of the world.

Friday, July 5, 2013

DVD+Digital: Mel Brooks, political correctness and The Producers

Posted by on Fri, Jul 5, 2013 at 6:48 PM

  • courtesy of Shout! Factory

As a filmmaker, Mel Brooks' brand of comedy is often broad, usually excessive and always delivered in the spirit of goofiness. In his best genre parodies — Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, High Anxiety — no gag is too obvious, no joke is too dumb.

Brooks' first movie, though, was different. Released in 1968, Brooks' barbed satire The Producers was considered so edgy and radical that none of the major studios would touch it. The director eventually secured independent distribution, but the film opened in only a handful of theaters and quickly disappeared.

Reissued this week in a new Blu-ray/DVD "Collector's Edition," The Producers stars Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel as a pair of small time Broadway schemers. Mostel plays Max Bialystock, a washed out stage producer now reduced to seducing old ladies for patronage checks. Wilder is accountant Leo Bloom, a meek and anxious sort who dreams of escaping the sucker's life.

Looking over the books one night, the two discover that a large-scale theatrical flop can be just as profitable as a hit. They hatch a dubious scheme: Mount the worst Broadway musical in history, close the show after one night, and pocket the money from investors.

Continue reading…

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    The comic legend's debut film gets reissued on DVD and Blu-ray.

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Thursday, June 27, 2013

DVD+Digital: Old reissues, new technology and infinite TV/movies

Posted by on Thu, Jun 27, 2013 at 2:35 PM

  • courtesy of Shout! Factory

It's a funny thing about new releases in the digital and DVD business — some weeks you get nothing particularly interesting, and some weeks you get everything under the sun.

A recent flood of titles suggests the variety of options in that realm we can still call, with relative accuracy, home video. The landscape is changing rapidly these days. Popular Hollywood movies no longer just "come out on video." Instead, they're rolled out in waves, in various retail packages — single disc DVD, multi-disc DVD/Blu-ray combo packs — and digital formats. ("Digital" is the emerging catch-all term for titles you can get via online streaming or download, via your PC or mobile device, cable box or game console.)

Digital is the coming thing, certainly. As more and more people get comfortable with online distribution, movies are gradually going the way of music. But those shiny little discs will be around for a while. Studios and distributors have concluded that there's a market for both digital and disc (at least for now) — and they're angling their offerings accordingly.

Take, for instance, the recent teen-romance-meets-sci-fi movie The Host — a big wide-release title in March and a would-be franchise from the author of the Twilight books. For the discerning but impatient teenager who can't wait to see this one — or perhaps see it again after its theatrical run — Universal has arranged for an early digital release this week. So if you're in a hurry, you can go purchase and download the movie via iTunes or Amazon Instant Video, right now.

You won't get any extras or bonus materials, though. For those, you have to wait until July 9, when the DVD/Blu-ray combo pack hits retail shelves, for purchase or (less often) rental. By keeping the bonus materials exclusive to the retail package, the studios hope to attract a different stratum of buyer — those who want the deluxe treatment, with behind-the-scenes details and a permanent, physical copy of the movie on the shelf.

What's more, The Host — like most DVD/Blu-ray combo packs — also includes a digital copy of the film. This digital version isn't actually in the shrink-wrapped DVD case you just bought. Instead, it lives in the Cloud and you use a special promo code to stream it to your smart phone, tablet, etc. Forever and ever, ostensibly. Or until the Skynet android revolution.

Continue reading…

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    Do you like to watch? Digital distribution and a forever expanding catalog are changing the game.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

DVD+Digital: Mike Leigh, British food trucks and Life is Sweet

Posted by on Sat, Jun 15, 2013 at 3:41 PM

British filmmaker Mike Leigh is known for his very particular way of making films. Rather than start with a script, Leigh works with his actors in a designated improvisation period before filming begins. The director provides sketched-out ideas and characters, but the actors become full collaborators in the creation of the story and the making of the film.

It's a model that's used by other filmmakers, often in comedies. Christopher Guest takes a similar approach in his mockumentaries, as does Larry David in the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm. But Leigh's technique is, by all reports, a very rigorous process with a different goal. The intent is to strip away intent — to capture on film the spontaneous comedy and tragedy of everyday life.

Among Leigh's gentlest and funniest films is the oddball 1990 family portrait, Life is Sweet. Reissued to Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection, the new edition features digitally remastered image and sound, a new audio commentary track with Leigh, and the usual complement of critical essays and archival documents.

Life is Sweet depicts a few weeks in the summer of a working-class family outside of London. It's an invitation, really. Leigh and his collaborators are cordially extending a proposal to the viewer to spend some time with these people, in this place and time.

Jim Broadbent plays family patriarch Andy, a catering chef who is long on big plans but short on the follow-through. Andy's wife Wendy (Alison Steadman) is the kind of loving but anxious sort who smooths everything over with a running patter of small talk and jokes.

Andy and Wendy's twin daughters, 22 years old, still live at home. Natalie (Claire Skinner) is sensible and still, with an androgynous style and an appreciation for the simple things in life, like a pint at the pub with her fellow plumbers. Her sister Nicola, on the other hand, is a mess. Played by Jane Horrocks, Nicola is a walking spasm of fear and self-loathing — feelings she directs outwards toward her exasperated but concerned family.

Continue reading…

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    The iconoclastic director's 1990 comedy gem gets a deluxe reissue on Blu-ray.

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Saturday, June 1, 2013

DVD+Digital: Spalding Gray, the theater of war and Swimming to Cambodia

Posted by on Sat, Jun 1, 2013 at 4:31 PM

  • courtesy of Shout! Factory

I first saw Swimming to Cambodia — the film version of Spalding Gray's groundbreaking monologue — on VHS my senior year of high school, by way of my first serious girlfriend Courtney. A fellow theater nerd, Courtney was also a dedicated goth girl and introduced me to many new and exotic things, like Bauhaus records and the BBC punk comedy The Young Ones.

As cool girlfriends often do, Courtney improved my taste and expanded my horizons. Here was an entirely riveting performance that featured one man, sitting behind a desk, talking about war and art and sex and drugs. About Nixon and Kent State, secret bombings and Thai brothels. About "an invisible cloud of evil that circles the earth and lands at random at places. Like Iran. Beirut. Germany. Cambodia. America."

It rather blew my mind. I knew nothing about experimental theater or performance film — forget about Southeast Asia. But I knew this was something different from our after-school rehearsals of Brigadoon, and that it represented a different trajectory if I wanted to follow along.

Incredibly, Swimming to Cambodia has never had an official U.S. DVD release until now. New this week from the pop culture archivists at Shout! Factory, Swimming to Cambodia features the full-length 1987 film along with a new interview with director Jonathan Demme.

Swimming to Cambodia is structured around Gray's experience working on the Academy Award-winning 1984 film, The Killing Fields. Gray spent two months filming in Thailand and he tells of his adventures, during his copious downtime, with Bangkok nightlife and the local high-grade marijuana. These are the funny bits. But Gray also goes into great depth about what he learned there concerning the recent history of Southeast Asia, the rise of the Khmer Rouge, and the subsequent Cambodian Genocide. For props, he has a desk, a notebook, a microphone, two pull-down maps and a glass of water. Behind him is a backlit projection screen. He simply talks, and you can't take your eyes off him.

Continue reading…

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    Jonathan Demme's pioneering performance film finally comes to DVD.

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Thursday, May 23, 2013

DVD+Digital: Ex-cons, Viagra jokes and Stand Up Guys

Posted by on Thu, May 23, 2013 at 4:42 PM

Slight, shaggy and sentimental, the crime comedy Stand Up Guys has exactly three virtues to recommend it.

Those would be the film's trio of lead actors: Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin. Nobody's gunning for glory with the performances here, but nobody phones it in, either. Anyway, these three could make a 90-minute film talking about the U.S. Tax Code and still be interesting.

Pacino headlines as Val, a career criminal just getting out of the joint after a 28-year stint. Val took the fall for his crew after a botched robbery and ended up doing the heavy time by refusing to rat on his friends. He is, as they say, a stand up guy.

Walken plays one of those old pals, a now-retired thief who goes by the name of Doc. When Val gets out of prison, it's Doc that comes to pick him up and take him out on the town. Understandably, Val is ready to party. So Doc dutifully escorts him to a bar, then a brothel, then a hospital. The 70-something Val, it seems, can't quite party like he used to.

There's another complication: Doc has been ordered by the local mafia don to kill his old friend Val. Doc doesn't want to, but he's on the hook — either Val goes into a shallow grave, or Doc does.

Continue reading…

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    Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin team up as aging wiseguys on one last caper.

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Thursday, May 16, 2013

DVD+Digital: Rooney Mara, antidepressants and Side Effects

Posted by on Thu, May 16, 2013 at 11:44 PM

  • courtesy of Open Road Films

The latest and maybe final film from director Steven Soderbergh, Side Effects isn't the movie that it first appears to be. About halfway through, the story pivots and another film emerges. Then a most curious thing happens: It isn't that movie, either.

Rooney Mara (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) stars as Emily Taylor, a formerly upper-crusty sort whose life is upended when her financier husband Martin (Channing Tatum) goes to prison for insider trading.

When Martin gets out of jail, Emily does her best to pick up the pieces, but she's paralyzed with severe depression and panic attacks. After a half-hearted suicide attempt, psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) prescribes a series of antidepressant drugs.

Some work, some don't, and some cause Emily to experience truly worrisome sleepwalking episodes. We also learn that the good doctor is participating in clinical trials for an experimental drug called Ablixa. Meanwhile, Emily's former shrink Victoria (Catherine Zeta-Jones) gets involved and the plot thickens.

It's around this point that Side Effects makes its first lateral leap. What appeared to be an issue movie about the evils of Big Pharma becomes a twisty thriller in the key of Hitchcock. Dark details emerge concerning Emily's past, and Dr. Banks' as well. A crime is committed and a murder mystery is hatched.

Continue reading…

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    Steven Soderbergh's final film, supposedly, examines the evils of Big Pharma. Supposedly.

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