On DVD: Bigger Than Life (Criterion Collection)

Never before available on home video domestically, The Criterion Collection has finally released Nicholas Ray's groundbreaking Bigger Than Life. It's a claustrophobic, small-scale portrait of 1950s suburbia torn apart by a family man's addiction to prescription codeine. James Mason (who also produced) gave a defining performance in the lead role, undergoing a gripping transformation from middle class dad to psychotic would-be prophet of anti-middle class revolution. Released in 1956 to a largely negative reception, it's no surprise that Americans of the 1950s - eased into self-satisfaction with the realization of the postwar American dream - rejected this depiction of small town lives being violently rent asunder by a repressed subconscious cut loose.

Ed Avery (Mason) is a middle class schoolteacher, who lives in a large house on a pleasant street with his wife Lou (Barbara Rush) and young son Bobby (Christopher Olsen). Plagued by mysterious recurring pain, Avery is prescribed codeine, a then-new "miracle drug" that saves his life. The side effects, however, cause creeping madness in Avery, who begins to envision himself as a hero to society, the savior of his family, and the protector of all morality and ethics. With the help of his friend Wally (Walter Matthau), Lou struggles to escape Ed's increasingly tight clutches and seek aid from his doctors.

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On DVD: Howards End (Criterion Collection)

Watching Howards End is the cinematic equivalent of eating a heavy slice of some magical hybrid dessert - say, tiramisu ice cream pie. It's so delicious and richly layered that it's impossible to enjoy all at once. Multiple viewings are required in order to fully absorb all the ingredients of this masterful movie: the intricate story and screenplay, the characters, the lush production design, the music, and the harmonious conducting of the lot by director James Ivory. True to the source book by E.M. Forster, Howards End is a densely-packed novel on film, consistently driven by detailed character dynamics, which, in turn, are rooted in a very British social hierarchy and the tangled garden of emotional responses that grow from it.

Films committed to the great storytelling traditions of English literature are increasingly rare, and with Merchant-Ivory Productions fading away (Ismail Merchant died in 2005), it's bone-chilling to think that novelistic character-oriented drama may be under threat of extinction. To quell such concerns, the Criterion Collection has re-issued Howards End, improving upon the previous DVD on the Home Vision brand, with updated bonus content. 

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Howards End (Criterion Collection)


On DVD: Project Runway: Season Six

In my review of Project Runway: Season Five, I had an opportunity to enumerate the reasons why I enjoy the program so much more than other reality shows. Project Runway
provides a legitimate forum for creative thinkers to make original work in a charged but realistically challenging environment - instead of being an excuse for auto-humiliation on a grand scale. With Season Six, the show retains its basic strengths, but a move from New York to Los Angeles proves detrimental to the integrity of the competitive aspect of the program.
I don't want to make a big huge "coast vs. coast" argument here, but New York is without a doubt the center of fashion in the United States, if not the world. For Season Six, the producers moved Project Runway to Los Angeles, for reasons that I've not been able to fully divine. It's possible that production costs were lower in LA than in New York, but I'm just making a guess. Whatever the reasons, Project Runway doesn't feel right in Los Angeles. For one thing, the contestant designers are still vying for the same grand prize: a runway show at Bryant Park during Fashion Week. So the setting is now oddly removed from the locale of the designers' goal. For another thing, although there have been and continue to be successful designers who come from and are based in Los Angeles, New York just feels like a more inspiring place for fashion design. Beyond that, New Yorkers are generally better dressed than Angelenos (painful, I know, but true), which further brings home the sense of disconnection between the show's object and its setting.

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On DVD: South Park: The Complete Thirteenth Season

After thirteen seasons and 195 episodes, South Park remains one of the smartest and most consistently funny shows on television. In its first season, the program was a crude, daring bad-boy, willing to do anything for a laugh - or to generate controversy. But as time passed, South Park's reputation quickly grew as the intelligence of its creators became evident, nearly every episode driven by sharp satire. The fourteen episodes of South Park: The Complete Thirteenth Season include a bunch of hits, a few that miss the mark, but, overall, add up to a wholly satisfying season with a number of classic plotlines and jokes.
I hate to try to demystify the difficult subject of comedy, but it's interesting to think about why some shows succeed for so long while other struggle and fail. Maybe South Park's ongoing effectiveness has to do with the continued ownership of the program by its creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker. Parker is credited as the writer and director of every episode of the thirteenth season, with Stone serving as a producer and voice actor.

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On DVD: Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire

The awkwardly-titled Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire is one of the most lauded films of 2009, nominated for six Oscars, all in "major" categories (including Best Picture). It is a portrait of urban life that pulls no punches, detailing elements of our society often considered unmentionable in mainstream films - abuse, incest, disease, and other plagues related to poverty - sometimes hinted at but rarely depicted in the fearless, straightforward manner of Precious. The value of the film lies with this courage, and with that of its actors. For all this, however, Precious can't help but feel like a really rough after-school special - a movie about social problems and a denigrated inner-city heroine who ultimately finds redemption. While the plot and subject matter may ring true, the themes, unfortunately, are trite, and despite the best efforts of a talented cast, the film doesn't rise above them.

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On DVD: Fantastic Mr. Fox

There are so many things to enjoy and appreciate in Wes Anderson's adaptation of the classic Roald Dahl book Fantastic Mr. Fox that it's difficult to acknowledge the odd chill I felt when it ended. Anderson has created a meticulously crafted stop-motion world suffused with a lovely golden light. The voice performances are outstanding and heartfelt, aided by the dry wit of Anderson's and co-writer Noah Baumbach's screenplay. Anderson's uncanny ability to compose densely-packed shots that narrate themselves, so to speak, meshes well with the anarchistic whimsy that Dahl specialized in. Stop-motion is the perfect medium in which to tell this story, and each frame is invested with Anderson's special touch.

So with all those positives, what's the problem? Unexpectedly, the movie ends on a cool, detached note that I have been unable to fully diagnose. Let me cover the obligatory plot summary before I continue.

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On DVD: Hunger (Criterion Collection)

Watching Hunger is a painful and illuminating experience. It cuts to the marrow of a tendentious, charged historical moment via flawless visual storytelling. The film starts out by documenting the effects of external brutality upon a group of jailed IRA soldiers. A long conversation between two key characters serves as a kind of entr'acte, wherein we are privy to the logic behind the inversion of that brutality. The second act allows that inversion to play out through Bobby Sands' conscious decision to subvert the external brutality with self-imposed starvation, a tactic that simultaneously takes him out from beneath the boots of his jailers, while condemning himself to an even harsher fate than that of his fellows. The film's structure is deliberate and purposeful. In telling the story of the Maze and Bobby Sands, the filmmakers have eschewed historical context and political angles in favor of focusing almost exclusively on life inside the prison. It's a narrow way of covering true events, but it also allows the craft of filmmaking to intuitively find the heart of the story without becoming stuck in the minutiae of historical re-creation.

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On DVD: A Serious Man

A Serious Man is the Coen brothers' fourteenth feature film. It is a new treatment of themes that have characterized much of their work. The thematic material I'm referring to is difficult to describe, because the Coens embrace the ambiguous and avoid the didactic. The Coens' dark and often pessimistic worldview has something in common with that usually ascribed to Stanley Kubrick, although the Coens' humor and style - among other things - make their work distinct from Kubrick's and everyone else's. A Serious Man takes these pet themes - many of which show up in different forms in their Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men, and other Coen films - and re-casts them in a new milieu, shedding light on certain things having to do with inevitability, fate, suburbia, and personal integrity. The Minnesota natives, in a way, seem to be providing an "answer" of sorts to that other storytelling son of their home state, Garrison Keillor. Whereas Keillor's witty, nostalgic homilies are fond and generous, the Coens' film is a metaphysical mailbomb disguised as a love letter.

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On DVD: Paris, Texas (Criterion Collection)

Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas is a film of countless pleasures. Every moment generates a sense that anything is possible - that feeling we all hope for from the movies, but is so rarely delivered. From the wide open spaces of the American Southwest to the Los Angeles suburbs at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, the film tracks the physical and emotional journey of a damaged man who struggles to put the pieces of his life back in their proper place. In the lead role, Harry Dean Stanton delivers a performance of unmitigated perfection - a weathered image of a man who self-destructed but lived to tell about it. As Wenders takes us through deserts, mountains, and cities, he shows us some of the subtle ways in which the American landscape defines the character and fate of American people.

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On DVD: Che (Criterion Collection)

Few twentieth century figures have been so strangely abstracted from the reality of their times as Ernesto "Che" Guevara. From a young age (I was born 9 years after his execution), I have only known his name and image. The use of Che's visage on posters and t-shirts, and the sloganification of his nickname, say much about the ability of capitalism to use even its supposed enemies for profit - while saying nothing at all about the man. Attempts at film biographies have mostly failed, not counting the recent and much-lauded The Motorcycle Diaries, directed by Walter Salles. Steven Soderbergh's four-and-a-half-hour two-part Spanish-language epic Che is a patient, detailed treatment of two key segments of Che's life, and while it doesn't fully succeed as a revelation of his character, the film does reveal and enliven history with an expert's storytelling technique.

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On DVD: The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker is an intense war picture that balances gripping suspense with thoughtful character development while eschewing the politics of the highly divisive war that it documents. As with most great war movies, this is one of its biggest strengths. There was a time when it was understood that war was simply hell - and that relative considerations of a war's justness or legitimacy paled beside that naked, raw reality. The Iraq War has been the subject of nonstop politicized abstraction - but The Hurt Locker does us the service of bringing the hellishness back to the surface.

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