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Blu-ray Roundup: BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, WEEKEND, FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA: FIVE-FILM COLLECTION, and DICK TRACY

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In many ways, Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature Beasts of the Southern Wild is the best film of 2012.  No other film this year (that I’ve seen, anyways) has conjured up such a tactile sense of place and time.  As we follow six-year-old Hushpuppy (newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis) through the storm-devastated remains of her “Bathtub” hometown, Zeitlin and his cinematographer Ben Richardson throw us into a realm pitched halfway between myth and reality; it’s post-Katrina Louisiana reflected through the prism of Maurice Sendak and Where The Wild Things Are.  Wallis delivers a magnetic star performance, and the loamy-seductive atmosphere holds us rapt through Beasts‘ fleet ninety-three-minute runtime.  Ultimately, though, I took issue with the film for the same reason I take issue with the works of William Faulkner – all the fluid technique and magical realism in the world can’t hide the fact that this is a movie about crazy people.  And not, “so crazy it’s cute” crazy: I’m talking full-on, alcoholic, living-in-squalor-and-loving-it delusional, and while I never found Beasts of the Southern Wild anything less than engrossing, I was certainly ready to escape the company of these lunatics by the movie’s (admittedly staggering) conclusion.

Fox’s luscious Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy combo pack does the film proud, offering a sparking transfer of the 16mm photography and a number of good bonus supplements, like the half-hour “The Making of Beasts of the Southern Wild” documentary, some deleted scenes with commentary from Zeitlin, Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry’s auditions, Zeitlin’s short film “Glory at Sea,” the theatrical trailer, and two mini-featurettes: “The Aurochs” and “Music.”

From a film history context, Weekend is an extremely important picture; it marked the point where filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard broke from everything he’d done previously.  Gone was the playful New Wave kick of his Breathless and Band of Outsiders; by Weekend, that postmodern optimism had curdled, with his myriad allusions and references now servicing post-apocalyptic futility.  In his depiction of an unhappy French couple plotting a weekend getaway for nefarious purposes, Godard charts nothing less than the breakdown of humanity.  I’m of two minds about Weekend.  On one hand, it is relentlessly, unforgivably unpleasant – Godard mixes an unholy cocktail of Brechtian distancing effects with graphic (for 1967) sex and violence.  On the other hand, I suspect he’s got me right where he wants me, and knowing you’re supposed to feel crappy leaves more time for appreciating Godard’s technique, most notably an eight-minute tracking shot that pans along an ever-more catastrophic traffic jam.  As the great Hunter Thompson once said, “Buy the ticket, take the ride.”

Criterion’s Blu-ray presents the restored version of the film alongside “Revolutions per Second,” an informative video essay from critic Kent Jones; a behind-the-scenes featurette on Weekend and Godard, excerpted from the French television program “Seize millions de jeunes”; interviews with actors Mireille Darc and Jean Yanne, cinematographer Raoul Coutard, and assistant director Claude Miller; the film’s original French and U.S. trailers; and a booklet with an essay from critic Gary Indiana.

Lionsgate’s Francis Ford Coppola: Five-Film Collection gets one thing wrong from the jump – there are only four films here.  The distributor is counting Apocalypse Now and its extended Redux version as separate features, and I ain’t buying it.  Other than that, this set is a more-than credible retrospective of Francis Ford Coppola the Dreamer, the Mad Schemer.  With the exception of the now-iconic Apocalypse Now, we don’t get any “Greatest Hits” (I’m thinking of the two Godfathers or Bram Stoker’s Dracula); rather, these are Coppola’s passion projects, the movies he made for an audience of one.  Between his Academy Award-winning Godfathers, Coppola snuck in The Conversation, which might be his best film.  It’s a wry, bleak character study of a surveillance expert (Gene Hackman, who wouldn’t give a better performance until 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums) struggling with the ethical ramifications of a job gone wrong, and it tapped into Watergate-era paranoia better than any other film made during the 1970’s.  The success of Apocalypse Now makes it the semi-anomaly in the set, but Coppola got lucky with that one: he almost lost his mind and his entire fortune trying to realize a film that, he claimed, was Vietnam itself.  Ironically, failure struck with the follow-up, his intimate musical-comedy One from the Heart, which ballooned to Apocalypse Now-type excesses and found no such critical and commercial acclaim.  His studio, American Zoetrope, went bankrupt off that one, and for a long time, Coppola started playing it safe, cranking out enjoyable-but-anonymous entertainments like Tucker: The Man and His Dream and The Rainmaker.  The old crazy came back with 2007’s muddled Youth Without Youth, and Coppola honed it down in 2009’s Tetro, a gorgeously shot family drama about two brothers (Vincent Gallo and Alden Ehrenreich) living in the shadow of their domineering father (Klaus Maria Brandauer).  Tetro isn’t the equal of Apocalypse Now, but it and the other films in the set share the same heedless filmmaking joy.

Lionsgate’s transfers of the four films are outstanding, with the three-color pop of Apocalypse Now taking top honors, followed by Tetro‘s monochrome cinematography, The Conversation‘s unassuming grit, and One from the Heart‘s vibrant – if slightly problematic – Academy ratio frame.  Coppola contributes commentaries on each film, and The Conversation, One from the Heart (which is available only through this set), and Tetro are loaded with hours of extra documentary materials.

Finally, we end with Warren Beatty’s brilliant Dick Tracy.  An adaptation of Chester Gould’s iconic comic-strip series, Dick Tracy never got a fair shake when it premiered in 1990; in terms of comic-book heroes, Tim Burton’s Batman was all the rage, and its prefabricated gloom wowed audiences more than Beatty’s impressionistic fantasia.  However, time has been kind to Dick Tracy, and it’s accrued a sizeable cult following.  I think it’s Beatty’s best work as a director.  Not only does he nail the requisite action beats that these movies must have, his world is floridly, gloriously unreal.  Richard Sylbert’s production design creates a hyper-real caricature of the noir city (speaking of caricature, kudos to John Caglione Jr. and Doug Drexler’s ghoulish makeup effects for a cast of villains that includes James Caan, Paul Sorvino, R.G. Armstrong, James Tolkan, Ed O’Ross, William Forsythe, Dustin Hoffman, and Al Pacino), and DP Vittorio Storaro (who also lensed Apocalypse Now and One from the Heart) bathes the film in colors straight out of the original newspaper inkings.  Only Madonna’s hammy, unconvincing work as femme fatale Breathless Mahoney hasn’t aged well, but otherwise, Dick Tracy is a still-unique blend of art-house aesthetics and funhouse dramatics.

Disney’s Blu-ray/Digital Copy combo pack is a thing of beauty; the film looks and sounds sharper now than it did in 1990.  Pity about the special features – we don’t even get a trailer.

Beasts of the Southern Wild, Weekend, the Francis Ford Coppola: Five-Film Collection, and Dick Tracy are now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s Beasts of the Southern Wild page, HERE for its Weekend page, HERE for its Francis Ford Coppola page, and HERE for its Dick Tracy page.