by Tony Dayoub
Sometimes, when things seem bleakest, you discover a reason to keep watching movies. 2012 hasn't been a bad movie year. But perhaps being mired in the ins and outs of my wife's new business has distracted me from seeing some of the very best it has to offer. It has certainly been harder to get out to the theater. And at home, I find myself gravitating to old TV series I'm fond of, a televisual comfort food of sorts, rather than catching up with some of the better reviewed 2012 offerings I've missed. Here are four recent offerings on DVD and Blu-ray which I mostly liked.
The best of these, I'm quite surprised to say, is Franc Roddam's Quadrophenia. Just released this week, I had deliberately avoided watching this for most of my life, seeing as I'm not much of a fan of the Who (on whose rock opera this is based). So ignorant was I to what this film might have to offer, that I watched Ken Russell's Tommy (more like what I expected) as a sort of warm-up with potential for comparison. I couldn't have been further off about Roddam's film than if I'd expected a Shirley Temple movie. Where Tommy is a typical Russell head-trip awash with celebrity cameos and surreal excesses, Quadrophenia is a gritty, exhilarating look at the travails of Jimmy (Phil Daniels), a lower middle-class mod searching for his identity in early 60s West London. The anchor here is Daniels' strong performance as the antisocial Jimmy. In spirit, Jimmy is a descendant of the protagonists of the British kitchen sink dramas of the early 60s. But in physicality, Daniels' interpretation is strongly influenced by Robert De Niro's Johnny Boy in Mean Streets (1973). Jimmy is a rage-filled young man who's as likely to sabotage just about any social situation he finds himself in as the demented Johnny Boy. It is Daniels' live-wire energy that makes Quadrophenia feel more dynamic, more engaging, and more unpredictable than even a Ken Russell film... huh? Criterion's new blu-ray boasts an all-new 5.1 surround mix supervised by the Who. Look for extended cameos by Ray Winstone and Sting, then in the early stages of their careers.
While not quite as extreme, Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin), of Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret, can be as irritating a protagonist as Quadrophenia's Jimmy. A privileged New York teenager, Lisa gets a rude awakening after she inadvertently causes a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) to hit and kill a pedestrian (Allison Janney). The remainder of the film deals with Lisa's attempt to seek redemption while occasionally succumbing to an annoying tendency to overdramatize her role in the whole situation. During last year's awards season, Margaret became a sort of cause among film critics (on Twitter at least), many championing the film and Lonergan, who was locked out from completing his final cut after months of tinkering. As legal entanglements ensued, months became years, holding up Margaret's release until 2012. Other critics thought that the film as released was considerably flawed. So, many of Margaret's defenders demanded that Lonergan's cut be released, and it's gratifying to see that Fox Searchlight's blu-ray includes an extended 3-hour cut on DVD. As its only extra, it almost speaks for itself. Interminably long shots of the Manhattan landscape are made a bit more interesting in the extended cut because of dialogue of city dwellers newly looped in, giving the sense that Lisa's tempestuous drama is all the more smaller and less profound when viewed against the backdrop of a world where everybody is participating in their own "movie," so to speak. But now I'm even more certain that Lonergan's longer cut is not justified and is, in fact, not just a little bit pretentious and self-indulgent. What I do like about the movie is how Lonergan harnesses Paquin's grating acting style to extract a performance rarely seen in American films where something subtle but notable occurs. Lisa goes from oblivious self-centered teen to conscious self-centered teen after the harrowing accident. I identified with her first step towards adulthood in a way in which I never have in other coming-of-age films. And I like how Lonergan contrasts this bit of conscious "self-centered-ness" with the lack of sensitivity of most of the people Lisa encounters. This includes the decedent's best friend (superbly portrayed by Jeannie Berlin) and Lisa's self-absorbed actress mother (played by the underqualified J. Smith-Cameron, a flagrant bit of nepotistic casting on the part of her husband, Lonergan). Lisa's stage actress mom gives credence to the idle thought that the teenager comes by her histrionics naturally. Margaret isn't the best film of 2011, or even one of its better ones. But it is an interesting failure worth watching.
Cursed with a forgettable title, Something's Gonna Live is a fascinating documentary by Daniel Raim. You can tell it probably began life as an inquiry into the careers of the unsung production designers of some classic Hollywood films like North by Northwest, To Kill a Mockingbird and The War of the Worlds, all nonagenarians at the time Raim filmed the documentary. But somewhere in this tribute, between the wheelchairs and a brush with a more famous—and now deceased—artist like Conrad Hall, mortality starts to creep into its edges giving the proceedings an elegiac tone that turns the whole endeavor into something else entirely. Robert Boyle, Henry Bumstead and Al Nozaki, the frail and elderly stars of the film demonstrate that though their imagination is still quite boundless, the limitations of physical health catch up with us all.
Lastly, Jean Renoir's classic La Grande Illusion is now on blu-ray, in a beautiful edition padded with some insightful interviews with film scholars Olivier Curchod, Natacha Laurent, John Truby and Ginette Vincendeau. (If you have StudioCanal's European Release, this is basically the same save for two featurettes not included in the new Lionsgate release.) Although the transfer is a bit lower contrast than Criterion's 1999 DVD release, the sharpness looks more natural and less artificially edge-enhanced than that version's (the still above is a screen capture). Which is to say that its technical flaws and virtues are basically a wash, so the new blu-ray is worth purchasing—especially if you've never seen this classic film, generally considered among the very best of all time.