Word from the Street: Blu-ray Releases 4-10-07

This week’s Blu-ray releases include: the 1975 Al Pacino classic “Dog Day Afternoon”, Mel Gibson in “Payback: Straight Up – The Director’s Cut”, and “A Scanner Darkly”, the rotoscoped animation film from 2006.

Dog Day Afternoon (Warner) [Blu-ray]
Featuring: Al “hoo-ha” Pacino, John Cazale, Penelope Allen, Sully Boyar, Carol Kane and Charles Durning

“Attica! Attica!!” So yells Al Pacino as Sonny Wortzik, a mentally unstable bank robber, to rile the crowds that have congregated outside of the Brooklyn bank he and his partner, Sal (a wonderfully downcast John Cazale) have decided to rob in order to get funds for a sex-change for Sonny’s “wife” (a vamped up Chris Sarandon). The robbery has all the makings of a media driven circus and the hostages truly get to know their captors in this brilliant anti-establishment (circa 1974-75) based on a real-life incident. The film is a hot, dreary looking actor’s movie, brilliantly paced and directed by Sidney Lumet. It’s a real New Yawk movie that gets all the details just right. You simply cannot believe how influential this little film is… and it is a little film in comparison to the bigger films of its day. Just about every major heist movie since the mid-70’s seems to references it, The Simpsons have called out “Attica” as well as Lt. Frank Drebin in The Naked Gun. Without it, Spike Lee would have had a much shorter running time in his recent Inside Man. It’s a film whose lines get great readings from a somewhat scenery-chewing Pacino (the script was nominated and won an Oscar® and it truly deserves the accolades it continues to get from those who have just discovered it as a showcase for fine acting.

As for the Blu-ray disc… well, you don’t get much in terms of visual quality. It’s a nice transfer, but the film is what it is— slightly drab, that certain 70’s look of drought and heatwave provide the film with a slightly washed out look that permeates the film. The VC-1 transfer is 1.85 widscreen in 1080p resolution, pretty standard stuff for hi-def, and the audio treatment is just plain sub-par. Maybe it’s the source material, but you basically get a less-than-dynamic Dolby Digital mono mix in English, French and Spanish. Subtitles are English, French and Spanish. The disc has a very interesting featurette though, and offers some other wicked cool items for burgeoning filmmakers regarding this well-made, well-remembered film (I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a landmark film, but it is extremely memorable and highly influential). The special items consist of a featurette on the Making of Dog Day Afternoon (a four-part documentary exploring the actual events that inspired the movie, casting, filming and aftermath), audio commentary by director Sidney Lumet, a vintage featurette: Lumet: Film Maker and a Theatrical Trailer.

Payback: Straight Up – The Director’s Cut (Paramount) [Blu-ray]
Featuring: Mel “Moonshadows” Gibson, Gregg Henry, Maria Bello, and David Paymer

Real pulp fiction never goes out of style… it just gets remade endlessly. Back in the day there was a guy named Donald E. Westlake (he’s still around, actually) who wrote in so many different genres and styles that he came up with a number of pseudonyms to disguise the fact that he couldn’t stop his writing habit from running roughshod over the publishing world. One of those pseudonyms was that of Richard Stark (and if it sounds familiar, it’s because Stephen King, another publishing giant who sometimes forsakes his famous moniker for a pseudonym, once published “The Dark Half,” a novel whose villain, Richard Stark, can’t stop killing or writing). I relate this all in passing because a Richard Stark (Westlake) book called “The Hunter” was such a choice piece of pot-boiling crime material that it became the perfect fodder for a small classic movie called Point Break, directed by John Boorman and starring tough-guy Lee Marvin as a career criminal whose partner double-crosses him after a heist, leaves him for dead and steals his ex-wife (the lady’s also complicit, as a bad dame should be). Of course, the not quite dead protagonist comes back and goes after the slime that tricked him, though he’s now part of a bigger operation and harder to get to (and kill). Sounds like the template for any number of crime-noir films that have always had popularity in one form or another.

With Payback, Mel Gibson assumes the role of Porter (named differently in previous incarnations of this material) and he’s coming back to settle the score. The film was pretty standard stuff (read: boring) when released in theaters, but that’s because the studio took the film away from its director, Brian Helgeland (the screenwriter of L.A. Confidential… the studio replaced him with some production designer from the film because they feared that Helgeland’s version was [sigh] “too dark”).

The film lost over 30% of its original material, and that has basically been what’s Putback: the director’s cut of the film as he originally intended it, straight up. This isn’t a lame, pick-pocketing double-dip rolled out by the studio on the premise that hi-def will allow them to build huge profits on old material. No— this is a real, honest director’s re-cut of a film that’s finally able to rise above the barrel of video mediocrity to which it was once consigned. The film seems more violent, a little more misogynistic (not that that’s a good thing, but it’s noir, and that’s that) and gets rid of some of the lesser aspects of the studio cut including a lack of sub-plots that made the theatrical release more complicated than it needed to be by way of explaining things that didn’t need to be explained (noir shorthand).

On the whole it’s a better experience than the studio cut, and offers Mel “King of Malibu” Gibson the kind of meaty, mean n’ nasty role that he can get into. Think his original version of Max in the first Mad Max film, and the crazy-eyed way that Max got when dispatching the baddies in that flick; Mel’s right at home in Mob Land… and it’s not a half-bad performance at that. With a reduction of the boom and bang of the action film the studio cut (again, this version highlights the characters in relation to the action), the hi-def release isn’t some kind of showcase disc, rather it’s a pretty good addition to your hi-def crime-film or film noir library from a script n’ story standpoint.

With a nice, crisp widescreen transfer (appears to be from super-35) from its 2.35 theatrical ratio release, the Blu-ray video quality is great but not outstanding. The audio is rather flat in Dolby Digital 5.1 and you get the feeling the studio could still care less about this film… there’s just nothing there to distinguish this as a valid hi-def release of a director’s true vision. On the features side you get audio commentary by writer/director Brian Helgeland, a couple of featurettes regarding the making-of aspects of the film: Paybacks are a Bitch: On Location in Chicago and Paybacks are a Bitch: On Set in Los Angeles. Then, last but not least, you get a couple of gems about how this classic noir story got put back together again for the DVD release(s): Same Story, Different Movie – Creating Payback: The Director’s Cut and The Hunter: A Conversation with Author Donald E. Westlake (this is pretty good stuff… “The Hunter” was the original source material and Westlake reveals much about the process from script to screen (redux).


A Scanner Darkly (Warner) [Blu-ray]
Featuring: Robert Downey Jr., Rory Cochrane, Mitch Baker, and Keanu Reeves

Contemporary cinema circa 1980 to present would be in a sad state of affairs were it not for the ability of some filmmakers to take the paranoiac fantasies of Philip K. Dick‘s novels and short stories and turn them into richly imagined SF movies that resonate deeply due to their philosophical underpinnings, mostly those revolving around the nature of reality and consciousness and the ability of the state to police and monitor its people with extreme prejudice. I mean, just imagine a world never influenced by the artistic vision that is Blade Runner (both Dick’s source novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” and Scott’s insanely vivid film).

PKD, as the late author is known by fans, wrote some incredible insights into the future… in much the same way the writing of Arthur C. Clarke presaged the Space Age in the mid-1960’s, PKD’s work presages a future that has largely come true for us in the present. The rise of 24/7 monitoring of the populace in Western countries, the creation of new forms of mind-altering substances, the Information Age in general… PKD was on the cutting edge, and in many ways, though as dead as dead can be, he still is. Richard Linklater’s animated film version of A Scanner Darkly is truly faithful to its source material. Though of course there’s the consolidation and restructuring that occurs with literary adaptations, the film represents a very accurate view of PKD’s vision for a future where a drug called Substance D has sway over a large part of the populace, though the film centers on Orange County, California and a lone undercover narc/cop whose codename Fred (Keanu Reeves in a somewhat multiple role) belies his real identity, and with the help of a “Scramble Suit” Fred’s identity is never truly known, even to his superiors. Fred is also known to the Substance D./drug underground as an addict named Bob Arctor, and it’s through this persona that we get to meet the other characters involved in the drama of substance abuse and a police state that’s possibly in collusion with the manufacturers of Substance D.

It’s a twisty little film that takes some careful viewing to discover the troubling philosophical issues at its core. The nature of reality and consciousness, primary to PKD’s work, are toyed with here by using an animation technique that Linklater and his head of animation, Bob Sabiston developed for another of his films, Waking Life. The result is pretty cool looking, definitely versatile in terms of underscoring the character’s psychological state, and trippy throughout. The Scramble Suit is wonderfully realized in a way that would have been difficult in live-action, even using CGI. On the whole this is, again, an actor’s film, with powerful performances from Robert Downey Jr. and Rory Cochrane in particular. Downey Jr. is simply astounding as usual, and there are some hilarious scenes of paranoiac banter that he enriches with his often rapid-fire delivery and gesticulations. Woody Harrelson is also pretty funny as a drugged-out slacker, and Reeves is his usual dour self. Winona Ryder comes off admirably as Donna, who has a bit of a intriguing background herself.

In all, the film is a slow moving, but visually engrossing view of PKD’s constant conundrum: how best to live in a society where reality is fractured and you may not be totally who you seem, even to yourself. The Blu-ray disc is a sharp, clean and wonderful looking transfer that’s not quite a showcase disc, but comes close because of the rotoscoped animation techniques used in the film. The video resolution is at 1080p with an aspect ratio of 1.85 widescreen. The audio offered borders on sub-standard for a hi-def release in my opinion, as this soundtrack of this film is as interesting as its look… here we are offered an English only Dolby Digital 5.1 (Plus) mix. Subtitles can be found in English, French and Spanish. Features include an audio commentary by Keanu Reeves, writer/director Richard Linklater, producer Tommy Pallotta, author Jonathan Lethem and Philip K. Dick’s daughter Isa Dick-Hackett. There’s a making-of feature called One Summer in Austin: The Story of Filming A Scanner Darkly, another one called The Weight of the Line: Animation Tales and a theatrical trailer. Not a bad package all-in-all and worth picking up if you’ve even got a passing interest in Philip K. Dick’s novels and short stories.

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