(Criterion/Morningstar, 1984) D: Robert Altman, w/ Philip Baker Hall. Rating: NNNNN
Over the past few years, philip Baker Hall has emerged as a reliable veteran character actor and part of the Paul Thomas Anderson stock company.
When he played Nixon in Secret Honor, he was a 53-year-old with a lengthy stage resumé and a handful of undistinguished bit parts in film and television. It's a stunning performance, a fantasy of a disgraced Nixon, alone, drinking heavily and dictating memoirs into a tape recorder - Nixon as Lear, or perhaps O'Neill's James Tyrone, raging into the night, his paranoia on full display.
Altman didn't touch the script (by playwrights Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone) or the performance, but the almost symphonic orchestration of camera movement is pure Altman. It's a good transfer, though the original, shot in 16mm, isn't a great-looking film to start.
Altman's commentary is unusually good (he's the king of the lazy commentary, but this isn't one of those), and Criterion has included a treasure trove of Nixon video, including the Checkers speech, the resignation speech and the farewell to the White House staff.
EXTRAS Director commentary, writer commentary, Philip Baker Hall interview, archival Nixon footage. English only.
Dawn Of The Dead: Unrated Director's Cut
(Universal, 2004) D: Zack Snyder, w/ Ving Rhames, Sarah Polley. Rating: NNN
As I listened to the commentary for Dawn Of The Dead, I wondered if the studio had given the film to a hyper-caffeinated 15-year-old. Zack Snyder's favourite word is "awesome," odd for someone making his first film at 38.
Surprisingly, this remake of George Romero's 1979 zombie classic isn't bad. The imposing cast includes Sarah Polley, and watching the queen of indie sincerity blow away zombies is one of the most bracingly funny sights in any movie this year. Almost as odd is the shootout between Mekhi Phifer and veteran Canadian character actor Jayne Eastwood.
Universal's put out four different DVDs for this one. They seem to have the same extras, so the unrated wide-screen director's cut, 12 minutes longer than the theatrical cut, with more gore, is the way to go. The wide-screen designation is on the front of the case at the bottom. Good special features include the complete TV "news" broadcasts, the video diary of one of the secondary characters and extended features on the effects and zombie design.
EXTRAS Director/producer commentary, effects featurettes, Special Report: Zombie Invasion, The Lost Tape. English, French, Spanish versions, Spanish and French subtitles.
(Disney, 1994) D: Tim Burton, w/ Johnny Depp, Martin Landau. Rating: NNNN
tim burton likes to play at being the misunderstood, sensitive artist guy, so he follows up the Batman movies with Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood, a perverse and engaging homage to the man known as the worst director ever. (I suspect the people who hung that tag on Wood never saw anything directed by Doris Wishman.) It's perverse because as a director, on his best day, Wood didn't have the talent to carry Burton's viewfinder.
Ed Wood is an astonishingly fun movie. In addition to Martin Landau's Oscar-winning turn as Bela Lugosi, Bill Murray is brilliantly funny and Johnny Depp's performance as Wood, a turn Depp described as a cross between Ronald Reagan and the Tin Man from The Wizard Of Oz, has a lunatic charm.
The black-and-white transfer is beautiful, and check the commentary, not for Burton's desultory mutterings, but for screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who share some genuine insights into the process of getting the film made. For those unfamiliar with the Wood oeuvre, Image has just released a very reasonably priced six-disc Wood box, including Bride Of The Monster, Plan 9 From Outer Space, Glen Or Glenda and the documentary The Haunted World Of Edward D. Wood.
EXTRAS Director/writer/cinematographer/actor (Landau) commentary, 1994 promotional making-of featurette, featurettes on production design, makeup, theremin music, original theatrical trailer.
Mulan: Special Edition
(Disney, 1998) D: Tony Bancroft, Barry Cook, w/ Ming-Na, B. D. Wong. Rating: NNNN
For an adult without small children, one of the annoying things about the Disney DVDs of their big animation titles is the relentless kiddiness of the extras: lots of games and silly things that appeal to five-year-olds but not necessarily to the five-year-old in all of us.
The new two-disc edition of Mulan has some fairly grown-up extras, particularly the galleries of design sketches that show the evolution of the production design, costumes and characters.
The story, about a young woman who disguises herself as a man to serve in the army against invaders, holds up remarkably well, though some may prefer the more-singing, less-action school of Disney animated musical. Mulan has some spectacularly constructed action sequences to go with the excellent voice character work of Ming-Na as Mulan and that of virtually every Asian-American actor you can think of, including Pat Morita as the emperor of China. It may be unfashionable to say so, but Eddie Murphy's mouthy little dragon is a hoot.
EXTRAS Director/producer commentary, deleted scenes, deleted song, animation and design progressions, storyboard comparisons, multi-language reel (Mulan in Finnish!) and music videos. It says there are music videos featuring Christina Aguilera, Stevie Wonder and Jackie Chan, but I can't find them. I learned long ago that that doesn't mean they aren't there.
Coming Tuesday, November 2
Looney Tunes: Golden Collection, Vol. 2 (Warner) What's Opera, Doc? A full disc of Road Runner/Coyote cartoons. Porky In Wackyland. One Froggy Evening. Four discs.
California Split (Columbia TriStar, 1974) First time ever in any video format for Robert Altman's classic study of the gambling lifestyle. Commentary by Altman and stars George Segal and Elliott Gould.
Ten (Zeitgeist, 2002) The reductio ad absurdum of Abbas Kiarostami, Iran's automotive auteur: one driver, 10 passengers, just sitting, talking and driving.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb