SOUND OFF: New Blu-ray Round-up: Two From Tarantino & Three Halloween Treats
Today we have a super-special DVD and Blu-ray overview as we take a look at and listen to five brand new Blu-rays hitting the shelves in October, including two stunning Blu debuts of two of Quentin Tarantino's seminal 90s films - PULP FICTION and JACKIE BROWN. While Tarantino won his only Oscar to date for his screenwriting work on PULP - a credit he shared with co-storywriter Roger Avery - it is his studied, mature and delicate directorial work on JACKIE BROWN that won over many film fans who may have found a bit too much flash, pop, sizzle and razzmatazz in the packed-to-the-gills PULP. Although, if all the Tarantino tough guy talk and off-the-wall soundtrack selections are not quite your preferred speed, we also have three early Halloween selections sure to send some shivers up your spine, with MANHUNTER, HANNIBAL and the original THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. While MANHUNTER was the movie-going public's first glimpse of what became the most beloved movie villain of all-time - the cannibalistic genius himself, Hannibal Lector - it was in a very different guise: noted stage and screen actor Brian Cox plays the role that eventually was made famous (and Oscar-winning) by Anthony Hopkins in the second film of the Hannibal Lector series, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (by Jonathan Demme), just a few short years after Michael Mann's treatment of the originAl Thomas Harris novel, Red Dragon. Of course, Red Dragon was also made into a movie of the same name more recently, directed by Brett Ratner and featuring an all-star cast comprised of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ralph Fiennes, Mary Louise Parker, Ed Norton, Harvey Keitel and many more. While many film fans certainly cite SILENCE as the finest Lector film - and it very well may be - my personal bias is for Ridley Scott's daring and gruesome 1999 hit, HANNIBAL, starring Hopkins alongside Julianne Moore in the role of Clarice Starling (made famous by Jodie Foster, who passed on the ultra-violent sequel script which at that point was penned by David Mamet, no less), which is also finally getting the Blu-ray upgrade along with Mann's MANHUNTER. Then, there is the tense and disturbing remaining one of our entries: one of the most scandalous and prurient torture porn films ever made - created long before that term was ever coined in the age of Eli Roth and the SAW series - Wes Craven's original harrowing horror revenge tale, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. Recent PROMISES, PROMISES on Broadway star Tony Goldwyn was an InDepth InterView participant not too long ago and told me about how pleased he was with the remake and while it does not have the seedy voyeuristic bent of the original - discussed below - it makes an impact in a new and equally entertaining way, so LAST HOUSE stands as one of the few double-dips worth your time. Whether checking out one or all of these superb new Blu-ray releases you are assured a memorable horror moviegoing experience at home, just as the temperatures begin to cool, winds begin to bluster and you yearn for nights of warmth inside away from the elements of the cruel world outside - which is certainly not to say the films we are discussing fail to show the cruel side of life. Just as good has its inverse, evil, so, too, does Christmas have Halloween!
The image pops. The soundtrack bumps. The dialogue crackles. The entire experience of PULP FICTION on Blu-ray is such a sensory overload that even if you have seen the film a hundred times before - and I have seen it at least twice that many - you will discover just as many new details on your first viewing of this pristine new transfer. This is as good as it gets when it comes to new, director-approved transfers of modern-day classics of moviemaking - Criterion being the gold standard - and Lionsgate needs to be commended for this release. Bravo. Also, that spiffy new Miramax logo looks almost 3D in Full HD - as do moments in the film! Indeed, as far as the film itself goes, it has never looked or sounded better and when I received it I was at first planning on checking out a few choice scenes before watching the film in full at a later date, yet I was immediately sucked in and watched it all, swept up into it like a whirlwind. Then, the next night I did the same. It's that impressive. As I said, the image is truly almost consistently 3D it is so vivid and rich - the highest compliment that can be given to a Blu-ray, for sure. This Blu of PULP is up there with the very finest remasterings available on the market and I cannot heap enough praise on the entire package. Oh, and one last thing: I never have noticed how absolutely integral each and every soundtrack selection is before I heard this awe-inspiring DTS remix. Both PULP and JACKIE really do feel like meta-musicals at times, as a result of these new and improved surround mixes. All that is really missing from this highly-recommended new Blu-ray release is a Tarantino commentary track - but, will he ever even commit to doing one again? I suppose we have to content ourselves with the copious interviews and discussions on both these discs until then - as well as the simply awesome new retrospective documentary featuring John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer and others. And, while I would kill to hear each and every one of Tarantino's thoughts on PULP, it's the next film up for discussion that I would want to hear his views on the absolute most of all - especially now, almost fifteen years after it was first released to some head-scratching, confused looks and yawns. How time smiles on modern masterpieces sometimes...
It's hard to believe Tarantino was not even forty yet when he made this mature, complex, dynamic character study. In its evocation of many of his European influences and then them merging with his predilection for grind house and blaxksploitation elements Tarantino finds the glue that binds this messy Elmore Leonard book all together so strongly. The subtlety at play in everything from the way the sound of the dialogue develops in the early scenes and the slow reveal of the backgrounds of the protagonists displays a diverse range and versatility and - most of all - a commitment to storytelling that many seem to forget when either praising or deriding Tarantino's multi-layered works. This is the layer cake of them all. While JACKIE BROWN has none of the snappy takeaway lines of RESEVOIR DOGS and lacks any of the unforgettably bizarre spectacles in PULP FICTION, it now cements itself in this new Blu release as a film for the ages in Tarantino's canon that could stand proudly alongside the work of Truffaut, who is a clear visual influence on this film more than any other Tarantino enterprise. This new Blu-ray looks pretty great, too - though not quite as spectacular as PULP - and the opening set to "Across 110th St." has never been as enthralling as it is in this sensitive transfer that amps up the candy-colored scenes - such as in the airport and the pivotal mall moments; but, also, Jackie's apartment and elsewhere - and reveals every crag and deep crease in the wrinkles on the central aging lovers' faces. I always refer to this as Quentin's French Film to friends, and, while it may be far too American to ever be truly Parisienne, there is a European filmmaking sensibility to the storytelling style and the subtle flourishes that give it a grace and gravitas that may make it truly timeless. This may very well be the one for the books - appropriately so, given that Tarantino so lovingly (if liberally) adapted it from Leonard's RUM PUNCH. As far as bonus features go on the new JACKIE BROWN Blu, there's pretty much the whole kit and kaboodle from the first special edition DVD as well as an interesting new roundtable discussion with a number of critics and internet commentators. While it would have been wonderful had a new retrospective documentary been done for this release as was done for the PULP FICTION Blu-ray, this lone new featurette (almost an hour) acts as a welcome addition to the excellent assortment of materials available to view on this must-own disc. Frankly, you would be best served to snatch up both JACKIE BROWN and PULP FICTION on Blu-ray while they are on sale this week since there are some unbelievable deals on them out there, and, after you bathe in their glories you will most certainly want to pick up some more copies for stocking stuffers come holiday time in (believe it or not) less than two months. These are both awesome entries in any film lover's collection, old or new.
Right off the bat I have to be completely honest and say that I find a lot of fault with Michael Mann's adaptation of the expertly written Thomas Harris novel that this film is based on and I really dislike a lot of the wardrobe and pervasive atmosphere created by Mann and company. That being said, MANHUNTER is a fascinating companion piece to Ratner's superior - admittedly, the first and last time I envision writing that phrase - Red Dragon. When it comes to film versions, if forced to choose one or the other, I almost always go with the more faithful adaptation over the expressionistic one when it comes to a film rendering of a novel - Stephen King's THE SHINING excluded - and MANHUNTER takes far too many liberties for my liking. Nonetheless, there are some chilling sequences and the green lighting has never looked better than it does here. Yes - if you have been wondering - the colors are finally correct! Truly, this is by far the best MANHUNTER has ever looked on home video and MGM has definitely done right by the fans (for those that are not aware, many video and DVD releases have had a host of technical deficiencies such as improper aspect ratio and incorrect color coding). On the negative side, MGM is notorious for poor bonus features and this disc is completely bare bones. The 50 GB/Dual Layer disc is definitely the way to go in the future and the quality of this and the other MGM title discussed soon - THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT - are both highly recommended. Why HANNIBAL was relegated to a paltry 25 GB transfer (with MPEG sound) I do not know, but it puts that disc at a considerable disadvantage when compared to the other two solid transfers. But, then again, HANNIBAL is a much newer film than the other two (and much better, too, in my opinion).
Thomas Harris managed to broach the dragon - literally; the Red Dragon, in this case - and outdo himself with the novel of HANNIBAL, which came ten years after the classic SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and more than fifteen after Red Dragon. Putting Hannibal at the center of the dramatic action for the first time - he was a tertiary character in Red Dragon (as Mann's MANHUNTER makes clearer than Ratner's more fleshed-out and Hopkins-heavy film) with Will Graham as the protagonist; and, the same also goes for SILENCE with Clarice Starling as the main player - and, if only for that major reason alone, HANNIBAL is the most fascinating of them all. The story told in the novel significantly diverges from the one told in the film, although what is seen on screen explores a few of the same ideas and themes and situations. Ridley Scott made the movie of HANNIBAL its own thing and it is an action film versus what could have very well been a much more cerebral and arty and Lynchian film. Indeed, it is really only about 1/2 to 2/3 of the novel, with the entire Il Mostro subplot excised, along with much of Mason Verger's Michael Jackson-esque background - complete with his creepy pedophilistic stable of orphans and the evil martinis made from their tears. But, hey, we still at least get to see the huge eel in its tank - even if he doesn't get to do all the stuntwork he would have gotten to do had Scott done a more judicious adaptation of the novel. The only element of the film that doesn't really work for me is the refrigerator dismemberment - although, as Scott relates on the commentary track (which was regretfully not ported over for this release; it is completely bare-bones), that concept was devised with input from Harris himself, who oversaw the final rewrite of the screenplay and the dramatic direction of the final scenes along with Steven Zaillian, the other credited screenwriter with Mamet. Of special note to Broadway babies: David Mamet wrote the first script for HANNIBAL and was paid a princely sum for doing so, although less than 10% of his screenplay remains in the final version of the film. Some lines certainly do scream Mamet - many uttered by Ray Liotta's Krendler, in particular - and you can find his dodgy original script online. More than perhaps any recent horror film, I would have loved to see a Director's Cut of this given the Blu opportunity, complete with the Il Mostro scenes inserted back in - along with the over thirty minutes of deleted scenes that were on the special edition DVD, and, again, not included here. Also, more than any other recent horror film, I wish somehow Scott could go back and fill in the other half of the novel that was not filmed or at least not shown (there are rumors of a four-hour cut), but that is surely a pipedream if ever there were any. As it is, HANNIBAL is a supremely, stunningly entertaining film with more style and elegance in one frame than a hundred horror movies of today - just ten years later - combined. Ridley Scott does it as an action/suspense/thriller film with horror elements and it works wonderfully. Oh, and the mini-opera in the film composed by Hans Zimmer is one of the most beautiful compositions of its kind I have ever heard for a film - and this column is usually dedicated to movie musicals and music-related releases. Ravishing. Too bad the rest of this new Blu-ray release does not really match the power of the truly terrifying and endlessly thought-provoking film being presented. It's the best looking version on the market, in any case.
THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT
Now, this one is definitely not for everyone. I knew very little about the original Wes Craven torture/revenge film before I saw it - and was subsequently scared witless - and if you have not seen the original or the remake then this review is for you. My only advice would be to just get your hands on this sometime between now and Halloween and turn up the lights before you watch it - you're probably going to need them on. If you want a film that speaks to our times and contains some really memorable performances - if occasionally for the wrong reasons - in a terrifying story told with some truly grisly and gruesome twists, your nightmare has come true and this Blu is for you, too. But, if you want some scares and some really disgusting Halloween willies - well, there's that, too. I am happy to report that this MGM release bucks the trend of being barebones - it is billed as a Collector's Edition - and instead offers a plethora of content sure to appease the casual LAST HOUSE fan and mostly everyone else, as well. The commentary tracks are fast-moving and contain lots of interesting production and behind-the-scenes tidbits - be sure to stick around and check out the second one featuring the original film's stars - and the Wes Craven interview is relatively rewarding and revealing, too - although I could always listen to Craven discuss film. We also get Craven's first short film here as a bonus - an unfinished experiment titled THINGS THAT'LL TEAR YOUR HEART OUT - rounding out the many bonus features nicely. Also, it must be said that of all the recent remakes of horror classics, LAST HOUSE is far and away my favorite of the bunch, but the original that inspired a million imitators is still as horrifying and nausea-inducing as it was almost forty years ago when it was released. Be sure to check out the remake as a companion piece if you enjoy this - and why not search out Aldo Lado's NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS, too, for a crosscountry train trip from Hell. Thanks to this stupendous Blu-Ray, the original LAST HOUSE has never looked better - or, should I say, worse.
More On: Quentin Tarantino, Brian Cox, Anthony Hopkins, Jonathan Demme, Michael Mann, Al Thomas, Red Dragon, Brett Ratner, Philip Seymour Hoffman.