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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

DVD+Digital: Box sets, board games and Tarantino XX

Posted by on Tue, Nov 20, 2012 at 9:30 PM

John Travolta is a strange dude. In all the on-camera interviews I've seen, Travolta has a weird vibrating kind of energy, a spaced-out thing where he seems to be channeling a more remote version of himself from somewhere very far away. This is the traditional time for a Scientology joke, but we're trying to run a classy operation here.

Travolta is just one of the many collaborators and admirers who contribute to Tarantino XX: 8-Film Collection, the new Blu-ray box set released — not coincidentally — just in time for holiday shopping. November always brings a flotilla of dubious DVD and Blu-ray collections, but this one is the real deal.

The collection gathers the seven feature-length films Tarantino has directed — Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill Vol. 1, Kill Bill Vol. 2, Death Proof and Inglourious Basterds — plus True Romance, the 1993 Tony Scott picture based on Tarantino's screenplay. Tarantino wanted to direct that one, too, but was outflanked by Hollywood dealmakers — just one of the many, many intriguing behind-the-scenes stories you'll find here.

But back to Travolta. When Tarantino cast the 1970s superstar in Pulp Fiction in 1994, he essentially resurrected the career of the then-struggling actor. Travolta speaks candidly about his first meetings with Tarantino in the extras gathered here.

What Travolta seems to have liked best about Tarantino, back then, is how much Tarantino loved him. One night, Travolta says, he and Tarantino stayed up until 6 a.m. playing with a Welcome Back, Kotter board game, Grease action figures, and other bits of Travolta merchandising detritus the director had collected over the years. It's one of the most deeply kinky Hollywood stories I've ever heard, but Travolta clearly regards the incident as a kind of artistic summit — serious-minded and entirely appropriate.

God, I love crazy Hollywood people; I really do. The upshot, of course, is that Travolta truly can be a brilliant screen performer and his portrayal of hitman Vincent Vega — as a hardboiled SoCal opiate philosopher — is the cool dark heart of the film.

Anyway, this passage is typical of the kind of material you get in the extras, which also include a critics roundtable led by Elvis Mitchell and a feature-length retrospective documentary. The assorted interviews and commentaries scattered about constitute a red carpet parade: Brad Pitt, Sam Jackson. Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer, Tony Scott, Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, Pam Grier, Robert Forster, RZA, Robert Rodriguez and many more.

Each of the individual films has its own slate of extras, many reprised from earlier DVD iterations: deleted and alternate scenes, commentary tracks, pop-up trivia, film festival footage, stills galleries, trailers and random goodies (the film-within-a-film Nation's Pride from Inglourious Basterds, bonus musical numbers from Kill Bill.)

And of course, you get the films themselves. Reservoir Dogs remains as bracing at was 20 years ago. True Romance is still good fun. Jackie Brown gets better every time I watch it. Technical specs vary, but all the films have HD sound, 1080P high-def picture and original aspect ratios. Packaging is busy and interesting too, with original artwork by the boutique movie poster maker Mondo.

Tarantino XX is a terrific box set, assembled with great care and high spirits. This is a good chance to frontload before Tarantino's new film, Django Unchained, coming to theaters December 25.

Also New This Week:

Director Ken Burns' The Dust Bowl examines the Great Depression catastrophe in a four-hour special aired earlier this year on PBS.

Deep breath: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Chuck Norris, Randy Couture, Terry Crews, Liam Hemsworth, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger jostle for position in the ensemble action film The Expendables 2.

The director's cut of Heaven's Gate, Michael Cimino's notorious epic Western, has been reissued to DVD and Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection.

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