June 8, 2010

By Brakhage: An Anthology

Also this week: Shutter Island, Life, Ghostwriter: Season One, The Mist + 1408

Highlight of the Week
By Brakhage: An Anthology — Volumes 1 and 2 (Criterion, E1) His name may not ring as familiar as the likes of Andy Warhol, but Stan Brakhage is essential avant garde. He was also frighteningly prolific, making nearly 400 films over a 50-year career. Criterion’s second volume raises the tally of DVD-available works to 56. From childbirth to autopsy, Brakhage’s films go places most wouldn’t dare by way of unusual camera work, elliptical editing and painting and scratching directly onto celluloid. The digital representations aren’t entirely print-like, but Blu can do wonders with 16mm. If you’re tired of the same old narrative plotting and are feeling adventurous, here’s a way to discover a whole other plane of filmmaking. Anyone who can make it all the way through Dog Star Man without fidgeting is okay by me. Extras expand on the previous volume, with loads more interviews, essays, audio recordings and a wonderful 2009 short by Brakhage’s wife, dedicated to her brilliant husband. 
Also Available
Shutter Island (Paramount) In what’s been a dicey year at the multiplex, the biggest head-scratcher was the cold shoulder that Shutter Island received from critics. It’s hardly a by-the-numbers genre film — though perhaps the term “genre film” is why people chose to downplay not only the year’s best thus far, but also one of Scorsese’s best ever. Everything gels here: DiCaprio et al. give stellar turns, and elaborate clues lead to a dramatic payoff. A movie like this is what DVD repeat viewing is meant for. Paramount is on an AV winning streak, and this high-def release earns top marks. Ignore the ho-hum theatrical reception, just spin the damn thing and see for yourself. Extras: two nice featurettes on the story and characters, but a little more Marty would’ve gone a long way. 
Life (Warner) Coming off the heels of BBC’s winning nature series, Planet Earth, Life is somewhat in the same vein, only with upgraded techniques, especially in the aerial photography sections. Also, where the ’06 series had Sigourney Weaver as its American substitute for Sir David Attenborough, the US version of Life downgrades to Oprah Winfrey. Why we don’t get the option to switch narrators is anybody’s guess. Luckily, both versions are available in stores, so I would heartily recommend grabbing the quintessential Brit dub. Any way you slice it, this 11-episode voyage remains requisite viewing for all humans. The set comes with tasty extras like video diaries, deleted material and a music-only option (which, I guess, solves the Oprah problem). 
Ghostwriter: Season One (Shout! Factory) Am I dreaming, or did they actually release 870 minutes of my long-lost childhood staple? If you grew up watching this early-’90s series about a multi-ethnic group of brats who solve mysteries with the literary aid of a text-manipulating ghost-writer-ball entity, then this will probably blow your adult mind. What made the show so memorable, other than that amazingly dated theme song and Samuel L. Jackson’s cameos as the protagonist’s father (dad only appears in three episodes — what a deadbeat), is that viewers were encouraged to take down clues to solve puzzles, improve writing skills and fight crime. Touché, PBS. Extras: none, other than YOUR VERY OWN CASEBOOK!
The Mist + 1408 (Alliance) Unlike many double-bill releases, this one’s actually better than your typically irrelevant cash grab. In fact, these flicks share traits other than a common author: the one, the only, Stephen King. King’s page-to-screen transitions aren’t what they used to be (The Rage: Carrie 2 < Carrie), but all was forgiven in 2007, when two of his edgy, throwback short works actually translated into edgy, throwback films. Both adaptations (one, a bugged-out creature-feature, the other, a psychological mind-bender) know just when to turn the right spooky screws without relying too heavily on conventional shocks. Alliance’s two-pack is a barebones (even the transfers take a hit, yet still look way above standard) but budget-friendly way to check out one of the classier double headers in horror-dom.