Buy, Skip or Rent - Videos February 2009

Posted on 09. Feb, 2009 by in Film/TV

by Todd Gilchrist

There are a lot of great movies being released these days, but most of them are heading to your living room, not your nearby theater. The great and expansive history of cinema is not merely a stopgap in between blockbusters, but a reservoir of background, context, and even perspective for the films we look forward to on the silver screen. There are few if any “new” movies that weren’t preceded by some other film which paved the way for some filmmaker’s creative impulses, or even commercial instincts. And because that history is far better represented on home video than at your local googolplex, it seems only fitting that this massive, growing library of titles get some column space of its own. As such, welcome to the inaugural edition of h Magazine’s new DVD and Blu-ray column, where we take a look at several of the month’s new releases and see if they’re worth your time, attention, and of course, money. 

Released on Feb. 3, Hal Ashby’s

Being There (Warner Brothers, $28.99) is a remarkable final achievement for director Ashby and one of the crowning ones of star Peter Sellers’ career. Adapted by Jerzy Kosinski from his novel of the same name, the film follows a solitary, TV-obsessed gardener named Chance (Sellers) who becomes the confidante of a dying power broker named Benjamin Rand (Melvyn Douglas) when Rand’s wife Eve (Shirley MacLaine) hits him with her car. A gloriously deadpan performance from Sellers anchors the film in hilariously poignant reality, as Benjamin, Eve, and everyone who meets Chance become enchanted by his simple demeanor and homespun garden-themed wisdom, literal though he means it. 

The Blu-ray edition is the preferable version of this film to buy, thanks to an amazing transfer (newly remastered from original elements), as well as a collection of fascinating bonus materials not included on the standard-definition DVD that includes an alternate ending, two recently discovered scenes, and a gag reel. If you’re curious where Wes Anderson got his dollhouse-movie sensibility or merely want to watch Sellers outside of his standard-bearer performances in The Pink Panther or Dr. Strangelove, check out Being There; you’ll be surprised how sophisticated simplicity can be. Buy It. 

Charles Stone III’s Drumline (Fox, $29.99) was released on Blu-ray January 27, and the film is long overdue for a real and sincere critical revisiting since its release during the 2002 holiday season. Not just another tale of an inner-city kid succeeding through the healing power of the arts, the film is an engaging and even transcendent story about a musical prodigy named Devon Miles (Nick Cannon, in his best role to date) who discovers that discipline and maturity are at least as important as raw talent. In addition to its captivating story, the film features several remarkable marching band performances, all of which are captured beautifully in high-definition. 

Additionally, the single-disc Blu-ray features a collection of featurettes that explore the world of college marching bands, and provide some real-world background on the movie universe Devon inhabits. At the same time, however, I can’t tell exactly what “added footage” has been included on this disc and what’s merely from the theatrical cut (despite having seen the film several times). But in any version, Drumline is a relentless crowd-pleaser that’s also subtle, thoughtful, and funny.
Rent It. 

With the new remake/update of Friday the 13th arriving in theaters this month, it seems only appropriate to look back at its predecessors in the franchise. Thankfully, the first three chapters are being given the deluxe treatment in both standard and high-def editions, although in some cases these new transfers, featurettes, and bonus materials point out more than a few of the films’ flaws. By all accounts (including director-producer Sean Cunningham’s), the original Friday the 13th (Paramount, $29.99) was intended to be a shameless, one-time moneymaker, but like so many simple Hollywood ventures it became much, much more. It should come as no surprise to even casual followers of the franchise that Jason is scarcely in this chapter, but the film nevertheless sets up the dogged, indefatigable storytelling pattern that provides the framework for every subsequent installment: hapless, often scantily-clad teenagers run afoul of a killer in the woods, and the body count quickly starts piling up. 

Interestingly, Part 2 (Paramount, $16.99) is actually far superior to the original film, and probably qualifies as the best of the entire series because it features kids who are thoughtful, or at least not completely unlikeable, not to mention it’s probably the most technically competent. Meanwhile, Part 3 3-D (Paramount, $16.99) is as bad as its predecessor is good, thanks to a spectacularly worthless heroine, vertigo-inducing old school 3-D and a plot that literally revolves around the cast going into a barn so that Jason can kill them. Only the first two films feature extensive extra content, including interviews, commentaries, featurettes and more, but die-hard fans can at long last celebrate the arrival of Part 3 in 3-D, even if it loses much of its appeal on a smaller screen. But as the three films from which the producers reportedly took most of their inspiration for the upcoming remake, these Friday the 13th installments are essential viewing for horror fans and a fun look back at the golden age of the slasher film. Friday the 13th: Rent It Part 2 – Buy It  – Part 3 3-D: Skip It 


Packaged in a two-disc set designed to look like an urgent letter to the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, David Fincher’s Zodiac (Paramount, $36.99) only seems unassuming. Fincher, the visionary director who gave serial killer stories their own genre with Seven, returns for a true-life chronicle of San Francisco’s Zodiac killer. His pursuit sadly never produced exciting car chases, shootouts, or even a definitive culprit, although its long and winding history does provide a crystal-clear portrait of law enforcement exasperation, and especially, self-destructive obsession. 

Fincher, always on the cutting edge of cinema’s technological advancements, shot the film on uncompressed digital video, which is why it remains an essential purchase on Blu-ray, preserving the gloriously clean and clear images that he created with cinematographer Harris Savides. Meanwhile, the two-disc set also features two commentaries – one by Fincher, and one by members of the cast and crew – a self-described “exhaustive” documentary on the making of the film, a visual effects featurette, another feature-length documentary on the history of the Zodiac killer, and a profile of Arthur Leigh Allen who is regarded as the primary suspect in the still-unsolved case. There certainly may be more exciting movies than this one that are released, but their impact won’t last; Zodiac is a film that continues to linger and leave an impression long after you’ve watched it. Buy It 


Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (Criterion, $39.95) has gone through several iterations over the years, thanks mostly to a “director’s cut” released several years ago that was only produced for Italian television. But at any length, the film is one of magisterial beauty, and one of the great, sweeping epics of cinema history. The film follows the life of Chinese Emperor Pu Yi (John Lone), who took the throne at age 3-years-old and grew up witnessing decades of political upheaval from behind the walls of the Forbidden City. Bertolucci, the first director to secure permission from China to film within the Forbidden City, recreates the Ching dynasty time period in astonishing detail, but manages to preserve the enormous historical and ultimately emotional context of the story with equal precision. 

Criterion issued a four-disc standard definition set in 2008, but the new Blu-ray demonstrates the vast possibilities that filmmakers have to add bonus content to their home video releases: even at one disc, the Blu-ray contains all of the same materials as the earlier DVDs. Among these extras are short films about the making of the movie, documentaries, interviews with key cast and crew members, and a commentary featuring Bertolucci himself. At the same time, the transfer is good, but does not look significantly superior to the standard-definition release, so if you already have the previous release, you may want to hold off, unless you’ve already gone totally Blu. A glorious addition to any Blu-ray or DVD collection, however, The Last Emperor is a beautiful, haunting masterpiece that only ages better with time thanks to this amazing set. Buy It 

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