i am trying to break your heart (Plexifilms/ Sonic Unyon, 2002) D: Sam Jones, w/ Wilco. Two discs. Rating: NNNN
Photographer Sam Jones, an admirer of the rockumentary form, got more than he bargained for when he got permission to shoot a documentary about Wilco making their benchmark Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album. He got a band that had just fired its drummer, a band about to make its best album and a band about to be dumped by its label upon delivery of said album. So he got a movie about the music business in a state of panic and the dismay of a band whose sound doesn't quite fit about six different categories. Alt-country? Folk/electronica? Roots rock with existential angst? Who are these guys?
If shooting in grainy black-and-white 16mm is a bit of a pose (the filmmaker thinks he's making Don't Look Back), it also suits the sound of the band. And Jones has a good eye for the defining moment, like the odd endless argument between singer-songwriter Jeff Tweedy and future ex-band member Jay Bennett over a single edit. Seventy minutes of extra footage, including a lot of live performances of songs from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
DVD EXTRAS Director/band commentary, tons of deleted scenes, both hanging-around and live performance footage, 40-page booklet of director's notes, making-of documentary.
west side story: special edition (MGM, 1961) D: Robert Wise, Jerome Robbins w/ Richard Beymer, Natalie Wood. Two discs. Rating: NNNN
Is it unfair to call West Side Story the most overrated American movie classic? I've always been bothered by the weakness of the leads and the visual disjuncture between the opening, shot in the streets of New York, and the rest of the film, shot on Boris Leven's magnificent sets.
The great stuff in it is genuinely great: Bernstein's music, of course, Jerome Robbins's choreography and the three great lead dancers -- George Chakiris, Rita Moreno and Russ Tamblyn. (Tamblyn's not using a wire rig for those jaw-dropping flips.)
There are Steven Sondheim's wonderful cross-talk songs, America and Gee, Officer Krupke. But then it keeps jumping back to the Romeo And Juliet story and we're stuck with Arthur Laurents's limp dialogue.
It's certainly worth owning, and given the unlikelihood of someone unspooling a pristine 70mm print at the Cinesphere, this DVD has an outstanding restored print. The reds really jump in this transfer, and check the pure midnight black outside the candy store before the war council.
The extras include a new, hour-long making-of, all the trailers and a fat booklet with Ernest Lehman's script. No commentary, though, which is kind of a shame; Moreno, Beymer, Tamblyn and Sondheim are all still alive and chatty. And too bad they didn't do what Bollywood discs do, i.e., include a menu that lets you jump directly to the musical numbers.
DVD EXTRAS West Side Memories documentary, four theatrical trailers, storyboard-to-film comparisons, original cast recording examples, production design, storyboard and photo galleries, book including original screenplay, photos and original program book. English, French and Spanish versions and subtitles.
secretary (Lions Gate, 2002) D: Steven Shainberg w/ Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Spader. Rating: NNNN
the year's strangest love story, Secretary is a romantic comedy that refuses to treat the major kink in its characters' personalities (she's an unwitting submissive looking for a dom) as a problem.
In the commentary he shares with screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson, director Steven Shainberg notes that when he was pitching the story to studio executives, they kept perceiving the characters' erotic obsessions as something that had to be "solved," when in fact they're a solution, particularly for Maggie Gyllenhaal's depressive self-mutilator.
James Spader may have been brilliantly obvious casting as the emotionally unavailable attorney, but Gyllenhaal -- Jake's older sister -- is an astonishing find in the title role. She has something of the changeling quality of the young Sissy Spacek: her reactions are unpredictable, and one can never be sure what she'll look like from shot to shot.
DVD EXTRAS Functional director/ screenwriter commentary, making-of featurette. English and Spanish subtitles.
beatles anthology (EMI, 1995) D: Bob Smeaton, Geoff Wonfor, w/ the Beatles. Five discs. Rating: NNNN
The 4-n rating is principally for Beatles fans or those intensely curious about the 60s as a period in pop music history. Five discs, over 11 hours of obsessively detailed official biography, this is the long-awaited DVD release of the 1995 television show, or, as Tommy Lee Jones says in Men In Black, "It looks like I'm going to have to buy The White Album again."
Made with the participation of Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, The Beatles Anthology studiously avoids any aspect of their private lives that hasn't been publicly documented, which was probably essential to get the principals involved and to get Yoko Ono's permission to use the John Lennon material.
On the other hand, it's loaded with relatively obscure performance footage (I particularly liked watching the audience trying to clap along on a Swedish television program and being persistently half a beat behind the band) and a lot of film from the post-touring period, including well-mastered excerpts from Magical Mystery Tour.
Did the Beatles invent rock videos as we know them?
DVD EXTRAS A whole disc's worth, including the making of the Free As A Bird video, Paul, George and Ringo reminiscing with producer George Martin on various subjects. French, German and Spanish subtitles.
the truth about charlie (Universal, 2002) D: Jonathan Demme, w/ Mark Wahlberg, Thandie Newton. Rating: NNNN
red dragon: special director's edition (Universal, 2002) D: Brett Ratner, w/ Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes. Two discs. Rating: NNN
there's a right way and a wrong way to do a remake, and who'd have thought that Brett (Rush Hour) Ratner would get it right and Jonathan (The Silence Of The Lambs) Demme would get it wrong?
In Red Dragon, a remake of Manhunter, Michael Mann's 1985 adaptation of Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lecter, Ratner has The Silence Of The Lambs' screenwriter (Ted Tally) and production designer (Kristi Zea) and Manhunter's cinematographer, Dante Spinotti. He was smart enough to stay out of the way of a good script, though at times he seems to be channelling the Mann film. Emily Watson, in particular, is giving Joan Allen's performance.
In The Truth About Charlie, a remake of Charade, Demme took one of the most elegantly artificial Hollywood constructs (in its day, Charade was regarded as a North By Northwest rip-off) and, inspired by the early French New Wave, treats it as a loose, improvisatory goof.
A remake of Charade is not a bad idea. Jonathan Demme running around Paris with hand-held DV cameras pretending to be a French New Wave director is not a bad idea. Trying both at once is not a good idea. The concepts don't mix well, though Thandie Newton is an unexpected match for Audrey Hepburn's elfin charm in the original.
So why the ratings? Red Dragon's two-disc special edition just isn't that special. The picture's better than you'd expect, but the good extras, notably an isolated score/composer's commentary track, are on the first disc, unless you're really interested in Brett Ratner: A Director's Journey. If you want the film, the single-disc wide-screen edition should suffice and is a couple of bucks cheaper.
The Truth About Charlie is an inferior film, but it has the extra of the year so far -- an overdue anamorphic transfer of Charade on side two, with no extras clogging up the disc. It would have been nice if they'd leased the Stanley Donen commentary from Criterion, whose Charade is out of print.
DVD EXTRAS Red Dragon: director/ screenwriter commentary, isolated score/composer commentary, Inside The Mind Of Hannibal Lecter, theatrical trailer, A Director's Journey, screen tests, makeup tests, forensic set-dressing featurette. English, Spanish and French versions, English captions.
The Truth About Charlie: Charade, director commentary, theatrical trailer, deleted scenes, theatrical trailer, making-of. English, French, Spanish versions, English captions.
Also this week
FAR FROM HEAVEN (Universal) Julianne Moore's Oscar-nominated performance in Todd Haynes's homage to 50s melodrama
THE AMERICAN FILM THEATRE COLLECTION I (Kino/Pixi) Five plays produced as films in the 70s -- Butley, The Iceman Cometh, The Maids, Rhinoceros and Luther -- with casts that feature Glenda Jackson, Stacey Keach, Gene Wilder, Lee Marvin and Alan Bates.
NEW YORK STORIES (Buena Vista) An omnibus film with a glossy assortment of directors -- Woody Allen, Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese -- and only Coppola's contribution is negligible. Scorsese's Life Lessons, with Nick Nolte as an aging lion of the New York art scene, is a major work.
THINGS BEHIND THE SUN (Showtime) Allison Anders's portrait of a young musician haunted by her rape. From the director of Border Radio and Grace Of My Heart.
righting a wrong
one of the abominations of early DVD was Fox-Lorber's transfer of Kurosawa's Ran, finally being righted in April by Wellspring, which seems to have absorbed Fox-Lorber. Promised: a new anamorphic transfer, commentary and other goodies. Now, if only Wellspring would go to work on Fox-Lorber's botching of two classic Godard films, Breathless and Pierrot Le Fou.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb
No rating indicates no screening copy