The Commitments (20th Century Fox, 1991) D: Alan Parker, w/ Robert Arkins, Colm Meaney. Rating: NNNNN
this two-disc collector's edition finally gives us The Commitments in its proper wide-screen format, replacing the old pan-and-scan bare-bones edition that litters the shelves of second-hand shops. Almost 15 years after its release, this adaptation of Roddy Doyle's novel remains on the very short list of good films about bands. With its canny combination of immortal soul classics, sociological observation and superb performances by its inexperienced cast, The Commitments is Alan Parker's masterpiece. Up against the challenges of a shortage of time, the non-pro cast and getting live recordings of the band's vocal performances, the director of such overwrought films as Evita, Mississippi Burning and Midnight Express couldn't overthink this one, and the result is an unexpected, casual honesty.
A sharp transfer with a very lively 5.1 remix of the original soundtrack and an informative commentary by Parker occupy the first disc. The second has the extras.
EXTRAS Trailers, the TV spots and an assortment of documentaries on the making of the film, the sociological background of Doyle's world and even a little Where Are They Now? featurette. Stills gallery. English, French and Spanish versions, English and Spanish subtitles.
Scenes From A Marriage (Criterion/Morningstar, 1973) D: Ingmar Bergman, w/ Liv Ullman, Erland Josephson. Rating: NNNN
this may be the most claustro phobic movie ever made that doesn't involve tunnelling out of a POW camp. Shot in almost unrelieved close-ups and cramped two shots, Ingmar Bergman charts the declining bourgeois marriage of Erland Josephson and Liv Ullman from smug apparent happiness to implosion. Criterion's three-disc set includes both the 163-minute theatrical cut that was released in North America and the five-hour mini-series that played on Swedish television. Peter Cowie, who offers a 15-minute introduction to the films, says he prefers the longer version and suggests watching it over six nights, as it was originally intended to be seen.
I agree. Scenes From A Marriage is a powerful film, but so emotionally naked - three hours of Ullman's evolution from cow-like placidity to confused anguish - that it's hard to watch. The transfer is a bit grainy, which is not surprising given the film's 16mm origins.
EXTRAS Video interviews with Bergman (1986), Ullman and Josephson (2003) and a video introduction by Peter Cowie. Booklet essay by Philip Lopate. Swedish with English subtitles.
Dawn Of The Dead (Anchor Bay, 1978) D: George Romero, w/ Gaylen Ross, Scott Reiniger. Rating: NNNN
with the unwarranted remake arriving in theatres this week, it's worth going back to George Romero's original, finally available in the unrated theatrical cut and the proper aspect ratio. Following directly on Night Of The Living Dead (it was shot 10 years later but takes place the next day or so), Dawn follows four survivors of the zombie apocalypse as they hole up in a shopping mall and wait for rescue - only they have to share the mall with the zombies. The new release has been colour-corrected, with Romero's approval, to a warmer palette than the original, and the blood looks a lot less orange than it used to, but this new version is still an indigestible chunk of horror. Brightly lit and relentless, it's less suspenseful than repulsive. You gradually realize that one of Romero's themes is that the zombies are the ultimate extension of consumer society - eventually, we will consume ourselves to death.
Hardcore fans of the film may want to hang on for a bit and start saving their pennies - Anchor Bay is promising a multiple-disc set of Dawn for the fall that will include three of the four different cuts of the film: this one, the Dario Argento version released in Europe and the longer Cannes festival cut.
EXTRAS Commentary with Romero, effects supervisor Tom Savini and assistant director Chris (Mrs.) Romero, theatrical trailers and TV spots, poster art gallery, DTS soundtrack and, thank you very much, the original mono soundtrack.
21 Grams (Focus/Alliance Atlantis, 2003) D: Alejandro Iñárritu w/ Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Benicio Del Toro. Rating: NNN
has anybody else noticed that the video/DVD window is shrinking? It used to be six months, but here's 21 Grams, which had its theatrical release in November and as of Sunday was still playing cinemas in Toronto. Mona Lisa Smile opened December 19 and hit DVD last week. The Cat In The Hat opened in November and here it is. These are major studio releases in stores less than four months after premiering. There's more and more truth to the idea that theatrical release is now a trailer for the home video. 21 Grams is a grimly serious study of guilt and vengeance, with a shattered mirror narrative style that has the audience puzzled for most of its first hour while treating them to the tortured emotional writhing of the film's Oscar-nominated stars. (Penn, though not nominated for his performance here, did ge the nod for Mystic River, of course). The disappointment is that Focus Features has spent nothing on the DVD. There are no extras of any sort, and this is a film where a director's commentary would be most welcome.
EXTRAS English and French versions and subtitles.
The Cat In The Hat (Universal, 2003) D: Bo Welch, w/ Mike Myers, Alec Baldwin. Rating: NN
the cat in the hat is a despicable film. It utterly betrays the wonderful, whimsical spirit of Dr. Seuss's books, giving us Mike Myers's out-of-control, internally inconsistent performance as the eponymous feline. The rating is for the DVD, which is a beautifully designed treasure trove of goodies, featurettes, outtakes and assorted, well, stuff. Little Easter eggs abound. If only they were on a good movie. This is a thin recommendation, but the small prize on the disc is the commentary by director Bo Welch and Alec Baldwin, who plays the villain. Listen closely to Baldwin. He's unfailingly polite, friendly and never says a bad word about the movie - yet manages to utterly trash it between the lines.
EXTRAS Director/star commentary, 16 deleted scenes (no wonder the movie only runs 82 minutes), outtakes, making-of featurettes, fun stuff for the kids like how to dance like the Cat. English, French, Spanish versions and subtitles.
Coming Tuesday, March 23
Shattered Glass (Lions Gate) Hayden Christensen plays Stephen Glass, who didn't realize that being a journalist didn't mean making stuff up.
Dirty Pretty Things (Alliance Atlantis) Stephen Frears's low-key thriller about the invisible London of immigrant workers, legal and illegal.
Honey (Universal) Save The Last Flashdance, starring Jessica Alba's fantastically toned midriff.
The Osterman Weekend (Anchor Bay) Sam Peckinpah's adaptation of Robert Ludlum's nightmare version of The Big Chill, with a real DVD treat - Peckinpah's rough cut of the film, before the studio took it away from him, on the second disc.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb