SEABISCUIT (Universal, 2003) D: Gary Ross w/ Jeff Bridges, Tobey Maguire. Rating: NNNN
anyone remember when this picture was being touted as a sure Oscar front-runner? It was only five months ago. Seabiscuit turns out to be a stately historical film about three men and a horse, with Jeff Bridges as the owner, Chris Cooper as the trainer and Tobey Maguire as the jockey. All of them are damaged and embittered by life, and all find healing power in their relationships with each other and the horse.
Gary Ross, who directed Pleasantville and Dave, is a fine director until he starts beating on his themes. That's also true of Seabiscuit, which offers excellent performances by Bridges and Maguire, who's way out of his usual range here. There are also some striking recreations of Seabiscuit's most famous races.
Universal's wide-screen transfer is gorgeous, and the commentary track with Ross and Steven Soderbergh (who has nothing to do with the film but contributes his insights and asks Ross some good questions) offers a feature I've never encountered before. The film actually stops if one of the speakers is going to go well into the next scene with a comment on what we're seeing, and we hear Ross request it on a couple of occasions.
EXTRAS Racing Through History, newsreel footage of Seabiscuit's actual races, making-of documentary, director commentary, gallery of photographs taken by Jeff Bridges during production. English and French versions, English, French and Spanish subtitles
ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK: SPECIAL EDITION (MGM, 1981) D: John Carpenter, w/ Kurt Russell, Donald Pleasence. Two discs. Rating: NNNN
there are three highlights to this not-so-special edition of Carpenter's classic dystopian thriller. The first is a crystalline anamorphic transfer of the film itself, including the odd lens-flaring common to Panavision's then new low-light lenses. The second is the original first reel of the film, which actually adds nothing - one can see why Carpenter cut it - but is nice to have anyway. The third is the retrieval from the trash heap of the 1994 laser disc commentary by Carpenter and Kurt Russell.
Carpenter on his own is rather dull, but as fans of Big Trouble In Little China and The Thing DVDs know, he and Russell together are always fun.
In the odd thoughts department, given the prominence of the World Trade Centre in the film (which is set in 1997, so the film's "future" hasn't yet been denied by reality), the old commentary means there's no thumb-sucking about the towers and 9/11.
It's still an impressive thriller, with a gallery of memorable character performances by Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau, Lee Van Cleef and Isaac Hayes. They set off Russell's indelible creation of Snake Plissken, war hero, bank robber and freebooter, sent into the prison city of New York to rescue the president.
There are no digital effects (the computer mapping of the city seen on monitors was done by making cardboard silhouettes of the buildings and outlining them with luminous green paint), just the wreckage of downtown St. Louis and one of the sharpest compositional eyes of the early 80s.
One question: when they restore old films for special editions, why don't they go the extra mile and restore the trailers as well, instead of leaving them looking all worn out and in non-anamorphic transfers?
EXTRAS Director/star commentary, producer/designer commentary, making-of featurette, special-edition Snake Plissken comic, deleted scenes, trailers.
AVALON (Miramax/Disney, 2001) D: Mamoru Oshii w/ Malgorzata Foremniak, Wladyslaw Kowalski. Rating: NNN
As the follow-up to the ghost In The Shell, one of the most highly regarded animes ever, director Mamoru Oshii decided to make a live-action, sepia-toned film in Polish. Fascinating film, bizarre career move. In the urban-ruin future, Avalon, a VR combat game, is so intensely realistic that young people are becoming addicted to it - and it may be deadly. Oshii's stylistic decision to shoot, or print, the first 75 minutes in sepia makes the film's jump into full colour - the game's "class real" - startling. But it's a striking addition to the "virtual reality" sub-genre of cinematic science fiction, certainly as thematically puzzling and interesting as The Matrix or eXistenZ.
EXTRAS The extras on this Miramax DVD are from the two-disc French special edition: interview with Oshii, effects featurette. (They would have done better to leave room for a DTS soundtrack - I saw this theatrically in Cannes, and the sound was spectacular.) Polish, French and English versions, English and French subtitles.
BAY OF ANGELS (Wellspring, 1963) D: Jacques Demy w/ Jeanne Moreau, Claude Mann. Rating: NNNN
LOLA (Wellspring, 1961) D: Jacques Demy w/ Anouk Aimée, Marc Michel. Rating: NNNNN
one has to admire agnès varda. Now in her 70s and still making her own films, she's also keeping the flame of her late husband's career alive by filming his childhood reminiscence, Jacquot De Nantes, compiling The World Of Jacques Demy and now supervising these beautiful transfers of his early black-and-white films. Regarded as a second-level New Wave director, Demy is like a gentler and more lyrical Truffaut, with a special feeling for France's coastal towns: Nantes in Lola, Cannes in Bay Of Angels, and, of course, Cherbourg and Rochefort in his two musicals. He treats his leading ladies with the same adoration Godard showed Anna Karina. And he got Anouk Aimée's finest performance in Lola, as an unconventional whore with a heart of gold.
These new DVDs also show off the work of two of the greatest New Wave cinematographers away from their usual collaborators. Godard's cinematographer, Raoul Coutard, shot Lola, and Jean Rabier was Claude Chabrol's cinematographer of choice for almost two decades. Wellspring also releases The World Of Jacques Demy this week.
EXTRAS Excerpts from The World Of Jacques Demy, English subtitles.
BONJOUR TRISTESSE (Columbia/TriStar, 1958) D: Otto Preminger, w/ Jean Seberg, David Niven. Rating: NNNN
preminger is one of american cinema's great objective directors - his camera prowls the space around the characters in long, fluid takes, but never comments. This makes him the ideal director for grand institutional investigations of the law (Anatomy Of A Murder), the government (Advise And Consent) or the military (The Court-Martial Of Billy Mitchell). Bonjour Tristesse, from Françoise Sagan's utterly subjective first-person novel, presented the interesting challenge of staying outside a narrator who is always "inside."
Bonjour Tristesse always had a better reputation among the French, who were not distracted from Preminger's brilliant compositional sense by Jean Seberg's affectless line readings as the devious daughter of David Niven's aging roué who decides to reform and marry the proper and serious Deborah Kerr. The film looks like a family melodrama with an unmined incest subtext, but it's really an analytical look at human motivation.
Beautiful transfer, with the slightly heightened colours of the original un-greyed in deference to contemporary ideas of realism. The south of France in summer actually looks like this.
EXTRAS: English, French, Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish.
Coming Tuesday, December 23
I Capture The Castle (Alliance Atlantis) Intriguing family drama/romance set in Depression-era England.
Anything Else (Universal) That whiny Woody Allen movie that nobody seemed to like, with Jason Biggs and Christina Ricci.
The Medallion (Columbia/TriStar) Jackie Chan as a cop on the trail of a mystical medallion. Too many special effects, not enough Jackie.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb