M (Criterion/Morningstar, 1931) D: Fritz Lang, w/ Peter Lorre, Gustaf Gründgens. Rating: NNNNN
It's remarkable to return to films that are 70 and 80 years old and realize that between Louis Feuillade's astonishing serials in the teens and Fritz Lang's thrillers of the 1920s and early 30s, virtually all the parameters of the modern thriller fell into place. Here are the criminal mastermind of the James Bond movie (Feuillade's Irma Vep, Lang's Mabuse), spectacular chases (Feuillade's Tih Minh) and the serial killer, making his first appearance in Lang's M, a movie that echoes down the corridors of film history. This new Criterion DVD represents a startling upgrade of the old, bare-bones edition, working from the 2000 Amsterdam restoration that corrects the aspect ratio from 1.33:1 to the astonishingly narrow 1.19:1. (In some early sound films, the soundtrack narrowed the image.) So M is now pillar-boxed, with bars on the side of the TV screen.
This is a gorgeous transfer from nitrate prints, and the extras are very impressive. Lang describes a visit by Goebbels that may or may not have happened shortly after the Nazis took power; it sounds like a sequence from a Lang film. The featurette on the physical restoration of the film includes excerpts from the French version, in which scenes were reshot with French actors and Lorre's performance was reshot in French, and an excerpt from the Nazi propaganda film The Eternal Jew, showing how the Nazis used M to promote anti-Semitism.
EXTRAS Scholarly commentary; 50-minute interview with Fritz Lang by William Friedkin; Claude Chabrol's M Le Maudit (a short film inspired by M); Chabrol interview; audio discussion by editor Paul Falkenberg keyed to relevant passages of the film; A Physical History Of M, discussing the different cuts, the restoration and the odd new aspect ratio; stills gallery; production sketches by art director Emil Hasler. German with English subtitles.
Hero (Miramax/Alliance Atlantis, 2002) D: Zhang Yimou w/ Jet Li, Zhang Ziyi. Rating: NNNN
Film lovers owe Quentin Tarantino a debt of gratitude. As he explains in one of this DVD's extras, when he first heard about Hero, he wasn't sure he actually wanted to see a martial arts film from the director of beautiful meditative historical epics like Raise The Red Lantern and Ju Dou. Then he saw the film and pressured the folks at Miramax, who'd been sitting on it for a year and a half, into actually releasing it in Zhang's cut. Given Miramax's history with Asian films, it was a major coup.
A visually spectacular examination of patriotism and the idea of heroism, Hero has unreliable narrators, false flashbacks and an ambiguous political text. Every time I see it, it seems more complex. It also has at least three fight sequences that belong in the martial arts film pantheon: the confrontation between Nameless (Jet Li) and Sky (Donnie Yen) in the rain, the fight in the yellow forest where Snow ( Maggie Cheung), tired of Moon's (Zhang Ziyi) attacks, says, "You wish to die. I will assist you," and the fight at the lake between Nameless and Broken Sword ( Tony Leung).
As of this writing, Hero is the best film I've seen this year, and the DVD transfer is spectacular.
EXTRAS Making-of featurette, conversation with Quentin Tarantino and Jet Li, theatrical trailer. Chinese, English and French versions, English and Spanish subtitles.
How To Steal A Million (Fox Studio Classics, 1966) D: William Wyler, w/ Audrey Hepburn, Peter O'Toole. Rating: NNN
Nothing dates more quickly than a movie made in the absolute present. Take the hyper-stylized 60s. Fashion changed so quickly then that whenever a film was made in the latest style it was dated about three days after its release. How To Steal A Million is a breezy mid-60s caper film shot around Paris with Audrey Hepburn in up-to-the-minute Givenchy that looked faintly ridiculous even then. It's hard to imagine anyone but the supremely elegant Hepburn pulling off this wardrobe. Pairing Hepburn with Peter O'Toole is very odd indeed, for O'Toole is the male star of the era most like Audrey Hepburn. I know that sounds far-fetched, but think about it. They're both fragile, mercurial, physically attenuated and improbably attractive. Seeing them paired - this is their one film together - is rather like watching the mirror scene in Duck Soup.
EXTRAS Commentary with Eli Wallach and Catherine Wyler, A&E Biography episode on Audrey Hepburn, theatrical trailer.
Spider-Man 2 (Sony, 2004) D: Sam Raimi w/ Tobey Maguire, Alfred Molina. Rating: NNNN
The folks at Columbia-Tristar-Sony have decided to jump over their usual lousy first special edition and go straight to the good special edition on Spider-Man 2. People who really like those bad special editions will have to forgo all the promotional junk like HBO First Look featurettes and settle for the good two-hour making-of documentary, with on-set footage of 75-year-old Rosemary Harris (Aunt May) doing a bit of wire work, extensive material on the development of Doctor Octopus's arms and all that fun stuff we've come to expect in post-Lord Of The Rings SEs. Spider-Man remains a superior superhero movie, if somewhat more reliant on Peter Parker's angsty crises than on the hyper-caffeinated lyricism that director Sam Raimi brings to the sequences of Spidey swinging through the canyons of Manhattan.
I think this is a good transfer, but it's really hard to tell when the distributor's sent me another one of those test discs with the seven-line anti-piracy message burned into every frame. It's like when a hair's caught in the projector gate at a theatre: after a while, you're watching the hair, not the film.
EXTRAS Commentary with Raimi, Maguire, producers Avi Arad and Grant Curtis, technical commentary, Making The Amazing, two-hour production documentary, three behind-the-scenes featurettes, multi-angle feature, music video, theatrical trailers and TV spots, blooper reel. English, French, Spanish versions.
Coming Tuesday, December 7
The Ultimate Matrix Collection (Warner, 1999-2003) Ten discs: all three movies plus The Animatrix, and, apparently, 35 hours of extras. Give this to the geek on your Xmas list and you won't see him for weeks.
24: Complete Third Season (20th Century Fox, 2003-4) One thought: with the commercials cut out, shouldn't they call it 18?
Wild At Heart (MGM, 1990) Special edition of David Lynch's Palme d'Or winner, plus transfer supervised by Lynch, featurettes and interviews, but no commentary.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb