March 23, 2010

Bigger Than Life

Also this week: The African Queen, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Days of Heaven, Yojimbo/Sanjuro, Toy Story 1 & 2

Highlight of the Week 

Bigger Than Life (Criterion) Best known for capturing James Dean’s defining performance in Rebel Without a Cause, Nicholas Ray took another stab at middle-class melodrama one year later with this unusual project that starred James Mason as a suburban patriarch besieged with mounting psychosis brought on by a miracle drug prescribed to cure a terminal illness. Ray’s In a Lonely Place, Johnny Guitar and Rebel are justifiable classics, but Bigger Than Life may be the venerable auteur’s most subversive and significant handiwork. It’s depressing that this marks the film’s debut on DVD, but having it simultaneously introduced to high-def (hello expressionistic colours!) makes the holdup somewhat pardonable. Extras: commentary with critic Geoff Andrew, intriguing and awkward half-hour interview with Ray, featurette by fan and author Jonathan Lethem, interview with widow Susan Ray.

Also Available

The African Queen
(Paramount) Another 1950s gem makes a tardy appearance on DVD (and Blu) this week. A romantic adventure starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn at peak performance, John Huston’s The African Queen is held up as a most-beloved mid-century classic for good reason. Paramount cleans up every frame and tweaks those rough rear-projection shots. This release provides one lone extra, but the making-of is nearly as indispensable as the feature itself, with fresh anecdotes from filmmakers (Scorsese, natch), critics, historians and surviving crew members.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (Fox) Despite being a stop-motion adaptation of an early Roald Dahl bestseller, the cussin’ fantastic Fantastic Mr. Fox is pure Wes Anderson. Adding the trustiest constants from his oeuvre (dejected loners, domestic dynamics, unlawful mischief, wowzer art direction, Bill Murray), it essentially plays like live-action Anderson, but there’s new-found warmth to this handcrafted aesthetic that paradoxically makes the proceedings feel even more human than his non-animated output, and infinitely more enchanting than other movies in the CG pack. Single disc extras: three fairly weak featurettes — what the cuss?

Days of Heaven (Criterion) Terrence Malick has released only three films since 1973’s Badlands (number four  is currently slated for a 2010 release), and his 1978 follow-up to that movie remains his crowning achievement. Its enigmatic love-triangle set in the pastoral wheat fields of Texas (shot in Alberta, btw) in the early 20th century is only a slight element within the film’s bigger-picture agenda. Days of Heaven is almost untouchable in terms of style, tone and lyrical grandeur. Criterion’s hi-def upgrade is what the technology was invented for. Extras: same as before, we get commentary featuring multiple crew members and interviews with camera operator John Bailey, cinematographer Haskell Wexler and actors Richard Gere and Sam Shepard. 

Yojimbo/Sanjuro Box Set (Criterion) Partly influenced by John Ford Westerns, Yojimbo, Akira Kurosawa’s darkly comic tale about a twitchy ronin — brilliantly played by frequent acting collaborator Toshiro Mifune — went on to serve as inspiration for Sergio Leone’s early Spaghetti Western flick A Fistful of Dollars and a heap of subsequent action titles. With Sanjuro, this re-issue of two stellar samurai flicks is a leap worth taking for AV enthusiasts. Telephoto lens visuals are even trippier in HD. Extras: commentary from Kurosawa scholar Steven Prince and a hearty making-of for each disc.  

Toy Story 1 & Toy Story 2
 (Disney) Has it really been 15 years since Disney/Pixar’s first CG feature? By the look and sound of their sparkling new presentations, neither ’90s flick feels remotely dated. These special editions are tops in terms of goodies and downright mind-blowing for anyone reared on VHS and square TVs. Extras are new and old, but don’t sell off that “Ultimate Toy Box” edition you might already have — it still rules in the bells-and-whistles department.