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‘Le Quattro Volte’ – Life Cycle of the Spirit

The shepherd

Michelangelo Frammartino’s contemplative Le Quattro Volte (“The Four Times”) is inspired the “four-fold transmigration” of souls that Pythagoras proposed: the soul passes from human to animal to vegetable to, eventually, the eternal. That’s not something you need to know going in to this delicate film and you may not leave the it with that reading of the experience, but Frammartino clearly guides us through an interconnectedness of life (and death) through this little mountain village in Italy and, by extension, throughout the world.

The film opens and ends on smoke, an almost ethereal state that feels alive as it pools and eddies in the air and is carried along by the winds, yet is also a phantom of sorts, the ghost of past states of being scattered through the world. In between we observe the day to day routine of a old, sickly shepherd (his hacking cough peppers the soundtrack) struggling to march his little herd to the hills and back and dutifully ingesting his unconventional medicine every night until one morning he doesn’t get up. The screen fades to black (the nothingness of death?) and then, in a sudden cut, is back in the world with the birth of goat and a new cycle of birth and death and birth again. There is no dialogue and no explanation but the grace with which Frammartino carries us through these lives and states suggests a connection and a continuity.

It’s also a kind of stylized documentary of existence in this village, from the day-to-day rituals of work and rest to the holiday celebrations of its inhabitants through the seasons, such as the Easter procession of the Stations of the Cross and the raising of a totem in a village festival. It’s both an embrace of the comfort of ritual and certainly and acknowledgement of the magic of the unexpected and the accidental bringing change to routine.

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DVD: Claude Chabrol Begins – ‘Le Beau Serge’ and ‘Les Cousins’

Le beau Serge and Les cousins, the first two films from Claude Chabrol, mark the official birth of the French nouvelle vague. The two confident, mature dramas don’t have the stylistic flash or narrative invention of the more famous works by Godard and Truffaut that followed, but that was always the way with Chabrol, the classicist of the “Cahiers du Cinema ” crowd.

Gérard Blain and Jean-Claude Brialy in “Le beau Serge”

Where Truffaut added autobiography, enthusiasm and a palpable love of the act of filmmaking to his films, and Godard deconstructed filmmaking, storytelling and narrative expectations in his films, Chabrol used his camera like a microscope to study the psychology under the surface of human behavior in the Petri dish of social definitions and relationships. Alfred Hitchcock was his idol (he wrote, with fellow critic and nouvelle vague director Eric Rohmer, an early study of Hitchcock’s films) but it wasn’t the mechanics of suspense the interested him, it was the human equation: guilt, jealousy, obsession, the impulse to violence and crime and vengeance, the deflation of regret and loss. It all begins with these two features, which predated Truffaut’s The 400 Blows by mere months. True to form, they quietly established the arrival of a new talent, while Truffaut and Godard (with Breathless) caused a seismic shift.

The two films are like a match set of city mouse/country mouse tales, the first set in the dying community of a rural village (Sardent, Chabrol’s own hometown), the second in the decadent bohemian student society of Paris, with Gérard Blain and Jean-Claude Brialy as the provincial and the sophisticate (respectively) in both films.

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Blu-ray: “Star Wars: The Complete Saga” – Version 3.0

Long ago in a galaxy far, far away, I gave up my indignation over George Lucas screwing up Star Wars and sequels/prequels by re-editing scenes, adding special effects and rewriting small but central parts of the original experience. That doesn’t mean I like it—I’ve kept my lo-fi, non-anamorphic DVD edition of the original Star Wars, just so I can preserve a copy of the experience I first had way back in 1977 without the CGI noodling in the margins of the Mos Eisley spaceport and other scenes—just that I’m tired of complaining about it.

So in Star Wars: The Complete Saga (Fox), I can confirm that Greedo doesn’t noticeably shoot first (it’s pretty much simultaneous by now) and Muppet Yoda has NOT been replaced by a CGI version, that all those distracting CGI embellishments to the original Star Wars (aka A New Hope) are still there and still distracting, that Vader doesn’t scream “Noooooooooooooooo!” so much as growl “Nooo!” at the end of Return of the Jedi, and that I still don’t care about Episodes I-III.

With that out of the way, we get to the question that the collectors have: is it worth the upgrade? And the answer is pretty simple: if you want the highest quality of presentation for a high-definition system, then yeah, this is a definite step up in video clarity and audio muscle. It’s possible that it could be better, as Lucas is using digital source material created for its DVD debut, but it looks good to me.

If you are more concerned with the integrity of the original films, however, you might as well hang on to those unrestored editions on DVD. Those are hardly state of the art (Lucas made sure of that back in 2006 by presenting them in non-anamorphic editions—an unnecessary slight to his loyal fan base) but they are the original theatrical versions, which Lucas is apparently uninterested in making available on Blu-ray.

For more on the set and an MSN exclusive clip from the supplements, continue reading on Videodrone, the MSN Home Video blog

DVD/Blu-ray: Road to Nowhere

Road to Nowhere (Monterey), Monte Hellman’s first feature in 21 years, is a film about making a film and a film within a film, with an unknown actress (played by Shannyn Sossamon) hired to play a role in a film based on a murky true story about a politician who embezzled $100 million and disappeared with a young woman. From the opening scene, as a journalist drops a DVD (titled “Road to Nowhere”) into a laptop and watches a film (complete with fictionalized credits) roll out, the lines between the characters, the actors and the levels of stories within stories are blurred. The mystery of the missing politician and the stolen money that inspires the screenplay segues into a story about the mystery of cinema and the nature of stories and storytelling.

There’s plenty of nods to films and filmmaking and the conventions of storytelling laced through the picture via film clips and layered references. And when the director Mitchell Haven (Tygh Runyan), the director of the film “Road to Nowhere” within the film Road to Nowhere, is asked by Variety editor Peter Bart (played by real-life Variety editor Peter Bart) “Do you feel a little rusty in any way?” and he answers “A little. I’m just glad to be back on track,” it could be a comment on Hellman’s own career. Or an in-joke for folks in the know. Or maybe a personal nod to Hellman by screenwriter Steven Gaydos, a longtime friend who wrote the script for him.

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“Cul-De-Sac” – Waiting For Katelbach

Roman Polanski once cited Cul-De-Sac (Criterion), a sly little character piece set in an isolated medieval castle on the barren British coast, as his personal favorite of his films, and the closest he came to creating “pure cinema.” It’s also been the hardest of Polanski’s films to see, at least in acceptable (and legitimate) editions. Criterion’s release is the first official home video release in the U.S. and it is a superb disc and a welcome debut of a brilliant black comedy and a wicked little psychodrama.

It’s only Polanski’s second English language film, though he wrote the original script with Gerard Brach before making “Repulsion” and then rewrote it to fit the castle location. While it’s not as demented as Repulsion or as engaging and enraging as Chinatown, this is as assured and as perfectly crafted as anything in Polanski’s career, a miniature where every facet offers multiple reflections. The dialogue is as assured at the filmmaking, and is both right and proper and weirdly warped around the situations, thanks to Donald Pleasance (as the owner of the castle) delivering his lines with twitchy cadences and nervous pauses Françoise Dorléac (as his young French wife) and Lionel Stander (as an American thug crashing their private party while hiding out from a robbery gone wrong) bringing in their idiosyncratic approach to the English language.

Essentially a three-hander (with guests—not always wanted—periodically dropping by), it’s described in the liner notes as a “mental ménage-a-trois,” which I suppose is as good a description of the shifting dynamics of power and submission as any. There’s no real sexual tension (let alone sex) within this group but plenty of playing games and roles, from Pleasance donning a nightgown and eye-shadow in pre-invasion bedroom play with his wife to Stander posing as their surly servant when guests arrive.

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People on Sunday

In 1929, a loose collective of young German filmmakers working their way up the ladder of the German studio system took the reigns of a low budget production about a group of attractive young Berliners who meet up for a Sunday outing to lakes. They shot on the streets of Berlin and the parks and beaches of Wannsee on a minimal budget with non-actors (all playing variations of their real selves, right down to their names and occupations) and whatever equipment they could scrounge together, from rough script from which they improvised freely on location. People on Sunday is, in its own words, “a film without actors.” More than that, it was a film without a studio, a production without studio backing or distribution in place, shot on weekends with volunteer cast and crew: the very definition of independent filmmaking. But if the actors were all amateurs, the filmmakers were, to greater or lesser extent, professionals toiling at the lower levels of the film industry. This film was their chance to show the industry, and themselves, just what they could do.

Released in 1930, People on Sunday–one of the final expressions of the silent era in an industry giving over to sound cinema–became a surprise hit, a highly influential film and, over the years, something of a legend, as it was almost impossible to see in the United States for decades. And reputation aside, the collective that made it include some pretty significant names: Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer shared director credit, Billy (listed here as Billie) Wilder is credited with the script, “from a reportage by” Robert Siomak’s brother Curt (credited here as Kurt) Siodmak, with the legendary cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan behind the camera and Fred Zinneman assisting. That line-up alone (which includes more than one future Oscar winner) made the film a kind of grail for fans of classic movies and film history. The inventive filmmaking, breezy pace, light touch, luscious images and gentle, appreciative spirit of the film makes it a classic.

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“The Big Lebowski” Still Abides After All These Years

Rolling Stone once called it “the most worshiped comedy of its generation.” I like to think of it the Book of Duderonomy, the lost gospel of the post-modern Testament. Now the beloved Coen Bros. classic of easy living and competitive bowling on the absurdist mean street of Los Angeles arrives on Blu-ray. Presenting The Big Lebowski: Limited Edition (Universal). You’ll like its style, man.

Jeff Bridges is brilliant as the Dude, one of the most strangely centered individuals in the movies. This bowler/stoner/free spirit is mistaken for a millionaire (David Huddleston) by a band of German punk nihilists, and John Goodman is his Vietnam Vet bowling buddy, who sinks him deeper into trouble with one testosterone-and-rig?hteous-indignation-f?ueled scheme after another. Think of it as a slacker “The Big Sleep,” a shaggy dog parody of classic L.A. detective stories where the passive hero is threatened, confronted, assaulted, seduced, drugged and so completely bummed out that he’s forced to solve a mystery so everyone will just leave him alone to enjoy his dope and his Dylan.

The Coens concoct an absurdist Chandler-esque mystery, drop in a couple hilarious dream fantasies (including a bowling dream sequence by way of Busby Berkley, complete with credits), and even bring in a drawling Sam Elliot to narrate this tall tale like a western myth. Julianne Moore co-stars as an avant-garde artist turned Valkyrie fantasy, and Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ben Gazzara co-star.

It’s not the most successful, famous or critically acclaimed film by the Coen Bros., but it surely has the most dedicated fan base. In fact, the Blu-ray was launched at Lebowskifest 2011, complete with a cast reunion and an audience Q&A.

You can get a brief glimpse of highlights from the evening at Videodrone. The complete cast reunion Q&A — a very groovy event with Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro and “music archivist” T-Bone Burnett — can be viewed via Livestream on the movie’s official Facebook page. See Jeff Bridges lead the audience in a chant, hear John Turturro describe his idea for a sequel starring The Jesus (it’s called, of course, “The Second Coming”) and enjoy the group answering questions they can barely hear due to screwy stage acoustics. But you’ll need to hurry — it will only be up for a week.

Continue reading at Videodrone.

Sweet Jane: The new “Jane Eyre” is magnificent

Jane Eyre (Universal), the new adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s beloved Gothic romance starring Mia Wasikowska as the fiercely self-possessed governess Jane and Michael Fessbender as the darkly attractive and grimly tormented Edward Rochester, is the best kind of reminder why the classics remain alive after centuries and can be effectively remade every generation or so.

This one comes from American director Cary Fukunaga and British screenwriter Moira Buffini, both interestingly making their respective second features in an American/British co-production. The otherwise beautiful and buoyant Mia Wasikowska is amazing as the plain Jane who glows with the fire of intelligence and a sense of self-worth that the most soul-crushing abuse can’t smother. Michael Fessbender makes the most of Rochester’s grandly cinematic entrance, charging into the film and into Jane’s life with all the power of an untamed animal. The dark shadows over his spirit and the gruff edges under the moneyed manners makes him all the more seductive, which of course puts Jane on her guard even as it slowly seeps through her defenses.

Shot on wind-scoured landscape of the chilly highlands of Northern Britain, this new incarnation embraces the gothic gloom and lonely isolation of the novel but, like its stoic, strong heroine, never gives in to the darkness. It is gorgeous but never what you would call pretty. And for all of Jane’s careful social front, never letting her true feelings show through, she is forthright and true and unfailingly honest.

Continue reading at Videodrone.

For more DVD and Blu-ray releases, peruse The New Release Rack and check out the Hot Tips and Top Picks for August 16.

“Stake Land” – Welcome to the Vampire Apocalypse

The similarity in the title of the indie vampire drama Stake Land (Dark Skies/MPI) and the 2009 comic zombie road movie horror Zombieland is coincidental but fitting, as much for the differences in the films as for the similarities. There’s a plague turning humans into undead creatures out for blood, an orphaned boy (Connor Paolo as Martin) learning to survive, a father figure (Nick Damici) with an unspoken past (he’s simply known as Mister to one and all) and rumors of a safe place far away. And the vamps here are a lot more like zombies (by way of feral carnivores) than the social creatures we associate with vampire cabals.

But the similarities end there. This is no gallows comedy, it’s a survival drama that has more in common with The Road or George Romero’s late Dead films, but without the soul-crushing bleakness of the former or the horror-as-spectacle of the latter. The cabal here is a fringe Christian sect turned authoritarian cult that thinks the bloodsuckers were sent by God to cleanse humanity and they figure anyone who doesn’t tow their line needs a fatal cleansing. Quite frankly, they are scarier than the vamps.

The symbolism isn’t all that subtle and the backwoods fanatics tend toward hysterical stereotype—neo-Nazi nightmare by way of survivalist nutcase—but director Jim Mickle and co-screenwriter Nick Damici keep the film focused on the people and the relationships. There’s a scruffy immediacy to the direction—low budget production, practical locations and shooting on the fly—but also a grace to the imagery and a commitment to the performances. These characters don’t break loose and confess all, but the sense of comfort they find in one another warms the film.

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DVD/Blu-ray: Léon Morin, Priest

Léon Morin, Priest (Criterion)

Jean-Pierre Melville’s reputation rests predominantly on his amazing string of crime dramas but the director (who during World War II was active in the Resistance) also made three films about the life during the Nazi occupation. Léon Morin, Priest (1961), starring Jean-Paul Belmondo (fresh from Breathless) as an unconventional, at times radical young priest and Emmanuelle Riva (of Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour) as an atheist attracted to his intelligence and his charms, is his second and most unusual. The film opens with occupation and ends with liberation but focuses on the hothouse atmosphere of intimacy and separation, of desire and denial, in the private meetings of Léon (Belmondo), the unconventional, at times radical and undeniably handsome young priest, and Barny (Riva), a young widow (her communist husband was killed in the war) with a half-Jewish daughter and a strong attraction to Léon.

It’s quite the chamber drama, a war movie set in intimate spaces and played out in theological debates and guarded discussions. Melville plays on the power of Belmondo, a handsome, young, newly-minted movie star of French cinema in 1961, as a strong, striking, confident priest in a town of women without men. Behind the guarded figure in a black cassock and a serene, sly smile is a virile yet celibate man surrounded by desirable women and he wields that power to draw them into the faith and, chastely, flirt with them. It’s a cagey manipulation where he both seduces and judges their weakness as he gets them to confess the sins of their attraction, and you wonder if his ability to frustrate their desire is in some way his substitute for sexual pleasure. Belmondo never presents Léon as anything but dedicated, but his confidence and sexual presence makes him a magnet. All eyes are drawn to him when he’s on screen, a fact of which he’s very aware. There’s more behind his enigmatic smile than simply an object lesson.

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The Egyptian (1954)

The Egyptian (Twilight Time)

Several years ago, the Seattle International Film Festival asked local critics to choose and present a favorite “guilty pleasure.” One chose the divinely silly Susan Slade, while another went for the historical comedy, Start the Revolution Without Me.

My pick was The Egyptian, Darryl F. Zanuck’s lush 1954 adaptation of Mika Waltari’s once-popular novel (the No. 1 best-seller of 1950) about the revolutionary reign of the “heretic pharaoh,” Akhenaten, who established a form of monotheism that was quickly dismantled by his successors.

I don’t regret the “guilty pleasure” label – parts of the picture are incredibly cheesy, especially the woozier patches of dialogue and the casting of heavily accented Bella Darvi as a Babylonian whore. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Spouting lines like “I’m an evil woman, Sinuhe” and “I did not ask for this trash,” Darvi could give Maria Montez a run for her money in the camp sweepstakes. But she seems to have wandered in from a different, sleazier, less ambitious picture.

The Egyptian was the first movie I’d seen that took a single central character from childhood to death. Its dark, troubling, sometimes pretentious account of that journey made a lasting impression. So did the lavish visualization of ancient Egypt. It’s full of lines like “all existence is vanity” and “I made the evil in myself,” as its self-loathing hero tries to come to terms with a mostly wasted life. Seeing it for the first time as a nine-year-old, I was riveted by an ancient-world epic that entertained such pessimistic thoughts and didn’t deal simply with the triumph of good. When Cecil B. DeMille’s staff first saw it, they stopped worrying that The Ten Commandments, the less ambiguous Egyptian epic DeMille was preparing, would be challenged by it at the box office.

The central character is not Akhenaten but the fictional Sinuhe, a peasant boy who is actually of royal birth (his fate is an ironic variation on the Moses story), though he doesn’t know this as he grows up to become pharaoh’s physician. When he makes a mess of his life, betraying his parents as he pursues the manipulative Babylonian, Sinuhe runs away from his birthplace, returning years later to see Akhenaten’s revolution collapse in civil war. Disillusioned by pharaoh’s mistakes and his own dubious adventures in other lands, Sinuhe is at first skeptical about Akhenaten’s achievements, and he prepares to be the king’s executioner.

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The Music Room

Satyajit Ray became internationally acclaimed with his first two features, Pather Panchali and Aparajito, which owed much to the traditions of documentary, poetic realism and the Italian Neo-realists. His fourth feature, The Music Room (1959), marks a significant and important step in his career. Following the critical and popular failure of the comedy The Philosopher’s Stone, The Music Room showed the world that Ray had great range and talent beyond the naturalism of his first films. Ray takes a classical approach, informed by the masters on international cinema that he revered, for this drama set in the fading decadence of old-world feudal life of the 1920. Pather Panchali is a work of social observation with a director in sympathy with the plight of the characters. The Music Room offers a more complicated attitude toward its main character and to the changing world in which he lives. His portrait of the aristocracy, with its wealth and rituals and sense of social superiority and entitlement, increasing impotent and irrelevant in an India moving toward modernity, was his most accomplished film up that time and many critics still hold it as the director’s masterpiece.

Chhabi Biswas as Biswambhar Roy in the twilight of "The Music Room"

Chhabi Biswas, a popular and respected actor of his day, plays Biswambhar Roy, once a powerful feudal lord, or zamindar, now a threadbare remnant of the old world. The opening scenes present him alone in his crumbling palace, sucking on his hookah like a pacifier, looking out over the ruins of his one mighty lands as the modern world passes him by. The sounds of a concert from a neighbor’s estate sends him back to a time when his wife and son lived and he spent lavishly on recitals and celebrations. His great love is music and he considers himself a connoisseur and a patron of the arts, indulging in his hobby to the neglect of his fortune and his lands, which are slowly being swallowed up by the river. It’s also a matter of social currency and vanity. To be a lover of music is not enough. Roy must be seen to be a true connoisseur with a public show of patronage and a subtle mastery of the art of presenting a master artist in his private music room.

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Battle Beyond the Stars

When Star Wars became the smash hit of 1977 by turning B-movie adventure into big-budget spectacle, drive-in mogul Roger Corman saw the writing across the stars. The producer and former director had made his share of drive-in science fiction and space adventures, but they had all been cobbled out of spare parts and imaginative art direction, with simple miniatures and animation providing the space ships. Now Hollywood was moving in on his brand of genre filmmaking and action fantasies with budgets he couldn’t match and he needed to raise his game to meet them.

Battle Beyond the Stars was Corman’s answer to the new Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster. The script is from John Sayles, whose screenwriting apprenticeship came from such Corman productions as Piranha and The Lady in Red, with a story credit shared with Anne Dyer, but the concept was from Corman himself: “The Seven Samurai in Space,” with a few hints of Star Wars tossed in around the edges. Richard Thomas, fresh off six seasons of the folksy family TV drama The Waltons, plays the film’s innocent, idealistic hero Shad. He’s Luke Skywalker by way of John-Boy, a farmboy on a peaceful agrarian planet that looks like a counter-culture commune in ancient Greek garb. When the vicious warlord Sador (John Saxon) brings soldiers and his answer to the Death Star to their planet and gives them seven days to surrender, Shad sets out in a talking space ship (in the tradition of referring to vessels in the feminine, this one quite literally has a voluptuous pair of breasts protruding from the bow) to hire a fighting force of mercenaries to defend themselves from the invasion.

After a detour at a nearly abandoned space hub, where he manages to recruit the only single girl (Darlanne Fluegel) his age in the region, he starts putting together his team: a drawling smuggler who goes by the handle Space Cowboy (George Peppard, offering the film’s answer to Han Solo), a lizard-like slaver with a grudge against Sador, a hive being of multiple clones in search of new sensations and experiences, a pair of heat-producing beings known as The Kelvin, a buxom Valkyrie warrior (Sybil Danning in a costume that barely covers her) in a mosquito of a fighting ship seeking battle glory, and in the film’s inspired casting coup, Robert Vaughn as a jaded bounty hunter who joins their fight in exchange for “a meal and a place to hide.” It’s the same role he played in The Magnificent Seven, the original western remake of The Seven Samurai. Corman also casts a pair of respected Hollywood greats in small roles: Oscar nominated actor Sam Jaffe as a mad scientist who has wired himself directly into his space station and legendary acting teacher and character actor Jeff Corey as the blind tribal elder.

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War of the Rings: Is the new “Lord of the Rings” Blu-ray the One True Edition?

Has Sauron struck again? From the furious debates playing across DVD/Blu-ray forums, where some the most passionate fans and exacting collectors can be found registering their praise and displeasures with upcoming and new releases (often in hyperbolic dimensions and a hostile tone), you might assume that there’s a new war brewing over the fate of the One Ring on Blu-ray.

Warner released the theatrical editions of the The Lord of the Rings trilogy on Blu-ray last year but held the Extended Editions for 2011. Not just some longer version with deleted scenes cut back in, the Extended Editions were painstakingly reedited for home video by Peter Jackson with new special effects, a reworked score by Howard Shore to match the new rhythms of the narrative and some lovely scenes that were cut for time in the theatrical version of the film but add depth to the characters and the scope of the epic. They were released on DVD years ago. For Blu-ray release, Warner returned to the film’s original 2K digital intermediate files (the final digital edition before striking film prints for theaters) for the source of the Blu-ray master.

Here’s where it gets complicated. While the masters of The Two Towers and Return of the King were completed digitally, The Fellowship of the Ring was partly digital master but mostly completed on film, where it was color-timed photochemically rather than digitally. For the theatrical release on Blu-ray, Warner used a digital master taken from a release print, but for the extended edition, Jackson wanted to rescan the original elements to get the most visual detail and clarity, and them retime the color for home viewing, adjusting the brightness, intensity and hues to best effect on TV monitors. So while The Two Towers and Return of the King were mastered from the same source as previous release, The Fellowship of the Ring was not.

That’s the simplified version of a very complex, but the upshot is that the Fellowship of the Ring: Extended Edition Blu-ray looks different from all previous incarnations (film, DVD and Blu-ray) of the film.

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Suckered? Why Zach Snyder’s “Sucker Punch” deserves reconsideration

Sucker Punch (Warner)

There is no doubt that Zach Snyder’s Sucker Punch, the director’s first original script, is a mess of movie. Even the term “original” is a questionable description, as the wide range of influences define the film as much as his own pop sensibilities. Yet Sucker Punch was so critically derided that I think it’s been dismissed without really acknowledging the mad mix of inspirations or Snyder’s own blinkered passion for the project, clearly something that, for reasons he may not be able to articulate, he poured his creative energies into.

Sucker Punch's Baby Doll squad

The vague mid-20th Century setting with a 19th century Gothic attitude and 1990s music-video stylings drops Baby Doll (Emily Browning) into a private sanitarium that looks like something out of the Batman movies. But before we have a chance to ruminate on this post-Dickens orphanage horror we are plunged into her fantasy of the place as a bordello prison fronted by a gangster (the head orderly, with a pencil mustache and zoot suit) in the flesh trade, with the Cuckoo’s Nest of pretty young inmates (Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung) now dancers in the show, which is just part of the club’s entertainment. (The extended version on Blu-ray features an elaborate musical number that puts their chorus girl moves on display.)

But that’s just the first step down the rabbit hole of escapist fantasy. Under the hypnotic sways of Baby Doll’s magic moves, the girls are refashioned as jailbait stripper fantasies (all with exposed navels and a flash of thigh) and arm themselves with heavy metal artillery to take on one anachronistic video game scenario after another: a samurai rite of passage, a World War II mission against zombie Nazis, a siege on a castle of Orc-like beasts and dragons, a sci-fi odyssey against robot terrorists on a moon of Saturn. Because nothing says female empowerment better than little babydoll outfits and really big guns.

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