THIS WEEK IN DVD’S – Mar. 8th,2007
The Butcher BoyPerformance, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, & Ginger & Fred (Warner Bros)
Warner’s new Director’s Showcase line gets off to a rollicking start with the release of four films with such eclectic pedigrees that they’re almost Criterion-worthy. The Butcher Boy, Neil Jordan’s throbbing fever dream of a coming-of-age tale, has been long hard-to-find in America, and its release here comes as a bona-fide relief. Sure, the commentary and other mild bonuses aren’t anything to get riled up about, but the transfer afforded the picture is exceptional, and the movie’s buzzing soundtrack pops off the DVD like caps from a toy gun. Donald Cammell’s and Nicholas Roeg’s Performance is an equally beguiling entry here, if only for its postmodern narrative template. This film about an East London gangster and the washed-up rock star (Mick Jagger) he ends up inspiring ain’t exactly the most rapidly-paced movie in the world, but Roeg’s deft manipulation of Jagger’s celebrity iconoclasm is near-perfect (he ended up getting an even better performance out of David Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth six years later: Call Roeg the George Cukor of rock stars). Performance’s DVD ain’t all that, though — the disc sticks with the film’s original mono mix, and the only bonuses are two so-so featurettes and the film’s trailer. Tom Courtenay’s blinding performance in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Tony Richardson’s tale of a lower-class British cross-countryman who gets slammed with circumstance on his road to athletic glory, is the film’s standout facet (as a picture, it’s only so-so: It’s on par with, say, Chariots of Fire). It doesn’t help that this is the worst-looking disc of this Director’s Showcase—and with a simple mono mix and a mere trailer as a bonus feature, Long Distance Runner pales in comparsion, especially when viewed against Ginger & Fred, Federico Fellini’s hard to find showcase for Marcello Mastrioani and Giulietta Masina and their TV-lampooning interests. Yeah, it’s a bitch to not have this disc loaded with extras (we’ve been spoiled by Criterion’s bonus-heavy Fellini releases of late), but with a stellar video transfer in tow, it’s still a marvel to soak in the picture, one of Fellini’s late, complicated, giddy masterpieces.
We Jam Econo (Plexifilm)
I sometimes feel like a douchebag waxing eloquent about documentaries just because they feature icons from my own personal Valhalla, but fuck it: Whether or not We Jam Econo (Plexifilm) is any good or not, I must say this—it’s amazing. Mike Watt has been a Restaino hero from my music-boon college days, and just because We Jam Econo features the San Pedro bassist talking about his involvement with the Minutemen and the indie music scene that ended up revolving around that band’s irreplaceable (and loud) vortex makes it a de facto classic in my book. And the folks who offer their views on D. Boon and Watt’s influence on a generation of noise-hummers is outstanding (if anyone out-icons Mike Watt to me, it’s Thurston Moore, and he uses the term “prog-jazz” here, and it nearly made me fall to my knees). And this double-disc DVD is the real deal. Plexifilm has split it up into two discs—the first features the movie and a handful of bonuses; the second showcases a ton of hard-to-find concert footage—and the package is an absolute punk-sweat fever dream heaven. Suck on it and revel in the tinnitus.
The Fabulous Baker Boys & Fiddler on the Roof (MGM)
Two very different musicals that span the spectrum of what DVD has to offer: MGM’s recent releases of The Fabulous Baker Boys and Fiddler on the Roof showcase what a solid DVD presentation can do for a film. The Fabulous Baker Boys is one of the first films that made these young eyes bug out for women on celluloid (watching Michelle Pfieffer slink around on a grand piano still stirs my passions), but unfortunately, the film hasn’t aged well at all—it seems far more like a precious-adult John Hughes melodrama than a romantically supple old Hollywood musical. This is where Fiddler on the Roof has it beat: Fiddler may not be the best musical in the world—this writer prefers his Topol as Dr. Hans Zarkov in Flash Gordon than as Tevye here (even though this is the one for which he earned an Oscar nom)—but its fusion of old world pageantry and new-wave musical storytelling still wows. And its DVD is a stunner, to boot. Finally the film gets the 2.35:1 Anamorphic widescreen transfer it has deserved for years, and while the 5.1 Dolby Surround mix overdoes things a bit, at least MGM had the kindness to include the picture’s original mono track. Features-wise it’s also a hefty beast: While Topol’s and director Norman Jewison’s audio commentary doesn’t stay intriguing through its entire three-hour run, the huge amount of bonus featurettes and documentaries on this set’s second disc are really something (fans will really be interested in the original full-color presentation of the “Tevye’s Dream” sequence of the film included here). The Fabulous Baker Boys, though, only has a so-so 1.85:1 transfer, a sub-standard Dolby Surround Stereo track and not a single bonus to speak of. But then again, Michelle Pfieffer’s caterpillar sexcapades are enough to recommend this title on its own.
Brother Against Brother (Kultur)
The back of Brother Against Brother (Kultur) calls this 3-disc set of documentaries about a handful of the world’s bloodiest, gnarliest and divisive civil wars “authoritative and entertaining”. Um, no. Broken into three separate entities — The American Civil War, The English Civil War, and The Spanish Civil War — this set runs only 2+ hours, and it offers little that any PBS viewer hasn’t yet seen about these historical events. It goes without saying that Ken Burns’ The Civil War is an all but definitive documentary look at that particular travesty (the doc here sheds no new light on the subject), and the other two additions here, while relatively informational, have none of Burns’ narrative prowess or nostalgic flair. And to add insult to injury, audio and video quality are dirt-poor. The full-frame video transfers are shockingly filled with dirt and grime, and the 2-channel Stereo mixes do little to enhance the mood of any of the three pieces here. Also, no extras. Pick up that Civil War DVD box set from Ken Burns, and maybe rent the Spanish and English Civil War discs if you’re interested.
Wondering if you should pony up $40 for that two-disc spectacular? For all of your DVD questions, ask Mike at [email protected] .