Few lulls in moviedom are more exasperating than that brief period between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Virtually nothing worth seeing is opening, and all those potentially exciting A-List movies, like the next Lord of the Rings installment, Martin Scorsese's long-awaited Gangs of New York and the Spielberg-Hanks collaboration Catch Me If You Can, are all still weeks away. It's even a dry season for art film fans, with the most notable item on the horizon, Jean Luc Godard's In Praise of Love, not slated to open locally until Dec. 13. So what's a self-respecting movie lover to do?
You got it. Time to pull out the old credit card and start hitting the DVD stores in search of that perfect movie (or movies) for yourself or your loved ones. 'Tis the season, after all.
Probably the most magnificent gift you can give this year, even if only to yourself, is the Criterion Collection edition of The Complete Monterey Pop Festival. A lavishly produced three-disc package covering virtually every aspect of the legendary 1967 festival, the Criterion set includes the original Monterey Pop film, two separate short films presenting complete sets by Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding, and a final disc of two hours of outtake performances.
Shot by famed documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker (Don't Look Now), the music is glorious and the footage is dynamic and visually captivating enough to retain a feel of immediacy some 35 years later. Legendary acts like Hendrix, The Who, Simon and Garfunkel, The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield are captured in their prime, while appearances by numerous "lesser" entities like Quicksilver Messenger Service, Country Joe and the Fish and even Tiny Tim provide a unique glimpse into the era's more ambitious or just-plain-odd extremes. The performances here by Janis Joplin and Laura Nyro are among rock's finest moments, period.
If you can ignore the occasional hair stuck in the camera gate and plastered across the image, you'll be blown away by the stunning high- definition digital transfer and muscular, dolby 5.1 mix managed by Criterion (other sound options include basic 2.0 stereo and, for purists, the original mono mix).
The box set's extras are just as spectacular, and include indispensable commentary tracks by Pennebaker, producer Lou Adler and an assortment of music critics, as well as photo essays, scrapbooks, a video interview with Otis Redding's manager, audio interviews with Pete Townshend and David Crosby, and much more. Other films may have translated the rock experience in ways more elegant (The Last Waltz) or subversive (Gimme Shelter), but nowhere will you find the musical essence of the 1960s communicated as perfectly as on the three discs that make up this landmark set.
There would have been no Monterey Pop, of course, had it not been for The Beatles and A Hard Day's Night, still probably the best rock 'n' roll movie ever made. Director Richard Lester's charming and thoroughly infectious film offers a sweetly irreverent take on silent-era slapstick, combined with then-radical French New Wave techniques, while allowing the individual personalities of the Fab Four — and the music, of course — to shine through.
Buena Vista's new two-DVD set of A Hard Day's Night isn't quite the definitive treatment that Beatles fans were hoping for, but it's still pretty sweet. There are no audio commentaries here by surviving Beatles, and not even Lester's 1959 short Running, Jumping, Standing Still, which John and Paul loved (and which appeared on the now out-of-print MPI version of AHDN).
Still, what the new DVD does offer is a clean, crisp transfer of the film (complete with digitally restored soundtrack) and a whole disc full of featurettes and interviews with virtually everyone who ever had anything to do with the Beatles. From producer George Martin and pal Klaus Voorman, to the son of the guy who sewed the group's clothes (!), this is probably the most exhaustive tour of Beatlemania ever produced. There's even a DVD-Rom section featuring the entire first draft of the film's screenplay — and you know that can't be bad.
It's a long way from A Hard Day's Night to Viva La Muerte (Long Live Death), but the simple, strange truth is this was one of John Lennon's favorite films. A coming-of-age movie unlike any other, this 1970 film by the acclaimed surrealist author Fernando Arrabal is a hallucinatory portrait of a young boy growing up in Spain under the horrors of Franco.
The bulk of the film seems to take place in the boy's subconscious, a landscape populated by nightmarish visions where the political and the personal mingle in a sadomasochistic stew of sex, violence and head games. It's easy to see why Lennon loved Arrabal's nonstop assault of in-your-face imagery, a surreal explosion that pushed the boundaries of popular art as surely as did Tomorrow Never Knows way back when. The Cult Epics DVD of Viva La Muerte, which features a lovely transfer of the film and a rare (and outrageous) interview with Arrabal, restores yet another "lost" classic to its proper place in cinema's pantheon.
For a more modern take on South-of-the-border coming-of-age tales, proceed directly to Y Tu Mama Tambien, a smart but seriously steamy Mexican import about, among other things, two teenage boys living out their fantasies with a willing older woman. The two 17-year-old boys at the center of Y Tu Mama Tambien can barely control themselves — and while in Hollywood that would generally translate into another variation on American Pie, here it makes for an exuberant, wry and bittersweet experience.
The beauty and originality of Y Tu Mama Tambien lies not just in its empathy for its characters and its attention to the details of the Mexican landscape, but in its extraordinary honesty. It's an honesty that fully extends to the sexual realm and that manages to be both blunt and eloquent, often at the same time.
MGM has released two DVD versions of the film, one unrated and one a slightly censored "R" cut, and both include a solid, if not quite spectacular transfer of the film, as well as a few nice extras. Included are a handful of interesting deleted scenes, an amusing "making-of" feature, a provocative short film by the director, and a commentary track with the cast, bizarrely enough, speaking in unsubtitled Spanish. They sound passionate and totally involved in what they're saying, and it's a pity we can't understand a word of it.
Moving back up from Mexico to the sun-baked beaches of our home turf, we have John Sayles' latest, Sunshine State. This is a big film, with dozens of characters from all sorts of backgrounds, and dozens of tales that slowly entwine as the movie goes about its business. Sayles sets his film in a run-down Florida beach town in danger of being swallowed up by teams of competing out-of-state developers. The locals are conflicted about what to do, and the whole thing is further complicated by all sorts of factors, not excluding the various characters' race, gender and age.
Sunshine State weaves a rich, complicated web, both personal and political, threading a series of smart little character sketches into an appealing mix of soap opera and ideology (not to mention some great one-liners). The film is made up mostly of small, intimate moments, but it's essentially a panorama of American life, Florida-style, that at its best recalls Robert Altman's Nashville or, even more specifically, Sayles' own Lone Star.
The Columbia TriStar DVD of Sunshine State isn't exactly what you'd call jam-packed with bonus material, but the one extra it does boast is worth the proverbial price of admission all by its lonesome. The commentary track with director Sayles is smart, funny, informative and a must-hear for anyone interested in filmmaking, Florida history or just plain, old-fashioned, good storytelling. When push comes to shove, that's exactly what Sayles is — a first class storyteller — and his intimate little chat on this edition of Sunshine State is consistently fascinating in a way that makes us once again wonder how in the world we ever got along without DVDs.
Lance Goldenberg can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888, ext. 157.