Blu-ray Roundup: SUNSET BOULEVARD, THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL, and SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY

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The bad thing about watching three movies in a row is that they tend to blur together after a while; all movies, even the bad ones, deserve some breathing room.  The upside is that their strengths and weaknesses just pop – being forced together heightens the experience and throws all facets into sharp relief.  Whatever my viewing history might have otherwise been with watching The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Sunday Bloody Sunday, and Sunset Boulevard separately vanished, and I got the screening equivalent of a full-throttle burn.  There’s something to be said for that, I think.

First off, we note The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and this film puts me in a tight spot.  On one hand, this dramedy is utter drivel.  Directed by John Madden, the film has the syrupy treacle of his Captain Corelli’s Mandolin as opposed to the sly wit of his Academy Award-winning Shakespeare in Love; it follows the exceedingly predictable adventures of seven Britons finding themselves in India, and you can chart the exact trajectory of the forced uplift and hammy comic relief (most of the “humor” comes courtesy of an irritating Dev Patel) from minute one.  On the other hand, the performances of Said Seven Britons are uniformly fantastic. Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton, Maggie Smith, Ronald Pickup, and Celia Imrie give this rote nonsense far more dignity than it deserves, with Wilkinson the standout among his very capable peers.  His sensitive, touching work as a gay judge hoping for one last chance at happiness belongs in a far richer and more complex picture than this.

Ben Davis’ lush 2.39:1 cinematography looks fantastic on Twentieth Century Fox’s Blu-ray, and the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track complements it nicely.  Supplements include four fluffy behind-the-scenes featurettes – “Behind the Story: Lights, Colors, and Smiles,” “Welcome to the ‘Real’ Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” “Casting Legends,” “Trekking to India: ‘Life Is Never the Same’ ” – and the “Tuk Tuk Travels” promo.

Remember when I mentioned wanting a richer and more complex movie than The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel?  I was talking about Sunday Bloody Sunday.  This is one of the great films of the 1970s, a spare, literate drama about three people involved in a most unusual love triangle; the film eschews conventional romantic clichés in favor of refreshingly adult attitudes towards love and sex.  Callow young artist Bob (Murray Head) is engaged in simultaneous affairs with a weary divorcée (Glenda Jackson) and a middle-aged doctor (the great Peter Finch), and the two separate partners know the other exists.  They just don’t care (or say they don’t), preferring instead to hold on to Bob and what he means to them individually rather than disrupt their delicately wrought emotional minefield.  The three leads are brilliant (Finch, in particular, has a devastating final monologue that is as wise and tragic about the desires of the heart as anything I’ve ever seen), and director John Schlesinger – he of Midnight Cowboy and Marathon Man fame – cultivates an air of visceral naturalism.

Criterion’s Blu-ray affords the film a muted 1.661:1 transfer that is still full of subtle textures – the monaural LPCM soundtrack, while not showy, is crisp and effective, and its quiet tones fit a movie as restrained as this one.  In terms of features, this is Criterion, so what we get is comprehensive and intelligent.   That means five new interviews – with Head, cinematographer Billy Williams, production designer Luciana Arrighi, Schlesinger’s biographer William J. Mann, and Schlesinger’s lover Michael Childers – an audio seminar with the late director, the theatrical trailer, and a booklet featuring material from film critic Terrence Rafferty, cultural historian Ian Buruma, and screenwriter Penelope Gilliatt.

And then there’s Sunset Boulevard, or “Why Billy Wilder Was Better and Smarter Than Any of Us Will Ever Be.”  Over the course of the film’s brisk 110 minutes, Wilder (with a big assist from co-screenwriters Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr.) creates a vision of Hollywood that is either a) a noir masterpiece to rival Wilder’s own Double Indemnity, b) the blackest, most cynical comedy ever made about the vagaries of movie-making, c) a ghoulish, beyond-twisted romance between a man (William Holden) who only loves himself and a woman (Gloria Swanson) who can’t function if the whole world doesn’t love her, or d) all of the above.  Sunset Boulevard has lost little of its power to delight and shock, and it offers up one iconic scene after another.  Holden’s watery “introduction.”  “I am big!  It was the pictures that got small!”  A funeral for a chimp.  Swanson enveloping Holden like a spider.  Erich von Stroheim’s tragic/terrifying revelation about his devotion for Swanson.  Cecil B. DeMille’s wonderfully knowing work as…well, himself.  And, of course, “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.”  If there’s a time capsule, Sunset Boulevard had better be in it.

Of all the vintage titles that Paramount has given the Blu-ray treatment to, Sunset Boulevard looks and sounds the best.  The monochrome picture is rich and lushly defined, with great contrasts, and the monaural Dolby True HD soundtrack is brassy and clean and lively.  Supplements are also extensive, from a commentary with Sunset Boulevard expert Ed Sikov; script pages from the scrapped “Morgue” prologue; a short deleted scene; an interactive Hollywood location map; three media galleries; the original trailer; and thirteen behind-the-scenes documentaries: “Sunset Boulevard: The Beginning,” “Sunset Boulevard: A Look Back,” “The Noir Side of Sunset Boulevard,” “Sunset Boulevard Becomes a Classic,” “ Two Sides of Ms. Swanson, “Stories of Sunset Boulevard,” “Mad About the Boy: A Portrait of William Holden,” “Recording Sunset Boulevard,” “The City of Sunset Boulevard,” “Franz Waxman and the Music of Sunset Boulevard,” “Behind the Gate: The Lot,” “Edith Head: The Paramount Years,” and “Paramount in the ’50s.”

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Sunday Bloody Sunday are now available; Sunset Boulevard streets on November 6th.  Click HERE, HERE, and HERE for Amazon’s listings.

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