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Of Paramount importance: a pair of live-action reviews!

Congratulations to the winner of our Narnia: Prince Caspian contest: Phil Anderson, Grand Rapids MI, who’ll be back in the Narnian world thanks to Disney Home Video very soon!

Elsewhere on the site, it’s one of our occasional live-action days, as I take a quick look at a couple of recent releases, both Paramount titles and both of which take a look at the flipside of the Hollywood movie business. You’ll find comments on Sunset Boulevard: Centennial Collection and Tropic Thunder: Unrated Director’s Cut – both of which are well recommended – right at the end of this post.

Have a great weekend, and stay tooned! – Ben.

Sunset Boulevard: Centennial Collection

cinemania1-01.jpgParamount (1950 / 2008), 2 discs, 110 mins plus supplements, Not Rated, $25

An acerbic, biting satire of Hollywood and, most notably, the fading glamor of celebrity, legendary director Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard is one of the essential cinema greats. Famously opening with the dead body of its leading man in a private pool, Sunset defies all filmmaking conventions by having the dead guy narrating the picture, told in flashback, the sad, sorry slide into obscurity by one-time hot property Norma Desmond, a siren of the silent screen now an ageing has-been desperate for comeback glory. Sensing an easy ticket, William Holden is the impoverished writer who, at first, latches on to her, hoping that their teaming could lead to bigger things, but slowly coming to the conclusion that she is perhaps more desperate than even he is, before he realises that they have become hopelessly embroiled in a relationship that neither of them wants but which neither is willing to step away from.

A true classic, shot in the noir black and white that would also tinge Robert Aldrich’s similar look at stardom’s light being shone elsewhere, Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, Wilder’s film is richly black, a dark exploration into the underside of Tinsel Town that shows all that glitters isn’t gold. As Desmond, Gloria Swanson isn’t just play acting…this was a late career entry for her and she’s able to capture the desperation of wanting to be a star again that Desmond so craves. Holden matches her, playing his B-Picture hero straight early on but adding layers and nuances as the relationship between the two slowly switches dynamics. A great touch is the famed silent director Erich Von Stroheim as Desmond’s one time manager, now reduced to ex-husband and butler status, again demonstrating that although she has little need for him, Desmond is unable to let go of her past.

Sunset Boulevard is also a filmmaker’s film…it crackles with barbed dialogue aimed at the Hollywood Studios, and is even set on the Paramount backlot, where we find none other than Cecil B. DeMille at work on a movie. DeMille, of course, was the celebrated auteur who did manage to swap the silents for sound films and went on to make some of the biggest spectacles in Paramount’s history. There’s even room for the likes of Buster Keaton, as one of Norma’s dinner guests in a scene that plays like death warmed up. “It’s the pictures that got small” Desmond says triumphantly – a dig toward television – and at the film’s end she still hasn’t worked out that Hollywood has moved on: completely crazed, she advises Von Stroheim that she’s “Ready for my close up”. It’s a chilling end to an oh-so true story of jealously and betrayal.

cinemania1-02.JPGPreviously released as a Special Collector’s Edition during Paramount’s 90th Anniversary celebrations in 2002, Sunset Boulevard is released here in a “Centennial Collection”, the thick #1 on the spine marking this out in the first of a propose ongoing collection, finally suggesting that Paramount is starting to take its catalog of great films seriously. A Blu-ray Disc is on the cards, but it’s more than just for the stellar transfer that folks may want to upgrade for: a two-disc set, we’re treated to some wonderful new supplements. Carried over from before is a full length Audio Commentary by Ed Sikov, author of a definitive book on Wilder, and it’s a predictably scholarly track, though actually very fun and informative, revealing many facts about the production, alternate scenes and the character’s relationships. More, perhaps, of an audio essay, but never drawn out or obvious.

The menus for this two-disc affair differ from the private screening room approach from before, a minimal gold and black presentation that sets up the Centennial brand for future titles. Nicely, the disc doesn’t bombard one with previews – one, for It’s A Wonderful Life, is saved for its own optional section. The second disc holds the rest of the bonus material, a mix of content from the 2002 disc (a 25 minute Making Of Sunset Boulevard retrospective, the film’s Theatrical Trailer, a Hollywood Location Map, the Morgue Prologue script pages, Photo Galleries, Edith Head: The Paramount Years featurette looking at the legendary costumer, and The Music Of Sunset Boulevard featurette) and new extras. Best of the new supplements is Sunset Boulevard: The Beginning, the first of many generously timed featurettes that speak to as many people connected to the production as possible, including Swanson herself via archive interviews.

The Noir Side Of Sunset Boulevard and Sunset Boulevard Becomes A Classic are both featurettes that look at the personal and public reaction to the film, and among the talking heads is Glenn Close, who would become intimately associated with Norma Desmond when she took on the character for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical stage version of the role. The Two Sides Of Gloria Swanson looks at the original Norma’s career, and Mad About The Boy: A Portrait Of William Holden does the same for the leading man, while Stories Of Sunset Boulevard overlaps a little content from the commentary but makes much use of many terrific stills to illustrate its points. Recording Sunset Boulevard focuses on the film’s gritty score and its later re-recording by Joel McNeely as a soundtrack album (a recommended CD in itself), and The City Of Sunset Boulevard not only profiles the locations used in the film but reveals the man behind these exemplary supplements is Laurent Bouzereau, the well-regarded documentary filmmaker.

cinemania1-03.JPGFrom the last edition, Franz Waxman And The Music Of Sunset Boulevard naturally profiles the composer, and the same Hollywood Location Map again highlights several locations by way of selectable video clips. New to Sunset Boulevard is the Paramount In The 50s featurette, which I believe has shown up on previous special editions for other titles but was not included in the 2002 disc. Also new, and recently produced, is a great potted history of the beginnings of the Paramount Studio: titled Behind The Gates: The Lot, this looks to be the first of series that will probably build as the Centennial Collection adds more titles to its line up. This first edition follows the famous Studio from its founding by Adolph Zukor and through its early years, speaking primarily to producer A.C. Lyles; though it has little to do with the film other than a Sunset Boulevard clip’s reference to Paramount’s gates, this is a totally appropriate addition, and representative of the top of the line values in the good two or three hours worth of supplements presented here.

The correctly framed 1.33:1 image transfer is stunning…but then it also was on the 2002 disc. Gone is the slightly too clinical video look from then, however, though it’s a close call between the two: I’d say it’s even the same element just given another pass, but it’s certainly impressive and, given more room with the extras on the second disc, cleaner to boot, if that’s possible. Likewise the sound, presented in original and appropriate mono, is crystal clear, allowing Franz Waxman’s evocative scoring to push through as it should in the right moments. Losing the chapter index from the previous release, the Centennial Sunset Boulevard set makes its mark in a deluxe slipcover that adds to the importance of the film as opposed to simply replicating the sleeve art, as well as an eight page booklet featuring background information and stills.

A terrific salute to one of the all-time great films, and one that should be on the shelves of any serious movie buff, Paramount’s Sunset Boulevard: Centennial Collection is a classy edition of a must-have movie experience. Very highly recommended.

Sunset Boulevard: Centennial Collection
is available to purchase from Amazon.com now

Tropic Thunder: 2-Disc Unrated Director’s Cut

cinemania1-04.jpgDreamWorks/Paramount (2008), 2 discs, 120 mins plus supplements, Not Rated, $35

An acerbic, biting satire of Hollywood and, most notably, the fickle glamor of celebrity, Tropic Thunder is like the current crop of movie brats’ take on Sunset Boulevard. Fading action star Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) desperately needs a new hit, while Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black, channeling the look he sported in his small role in Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks!) is eager to prove himself an actor and break away from the gross-out comedies he’s a blockbuster hit in. Along with method thespian Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr), who has undergone a controversial skin pigmentation procedure to play a black role, the three find themselves on location in South East Asia, set to film an adaptation of a Vietnam War vet’s (a very grizzly Nick Nolte) book, Tropic Thunder.

With the production haemorrhaging time and money (“one month behind schedule just five days into shooting” a mocked up TV report says early on) and the first-time director under pressure, the make-believe squad find themselves out in the field, where the movie is going to be filmed, guerrilla style, from secretly placed cameras. However, little known to the group, including rapper Alpa Chino (an absurd gag name that is never at all referenced as anything out of the ordinary, much to the film’s credit) and brainiest of the “recruits”, Sandusky, they’ve gone and found themselves in a real troublesome spot, where native gangsters are out to protect their business at any cost. When the director steps on an old mine and is literally blown out of the picture, our ragged band of pampered Hollywood stars find themselves in a very real firing line…!

As much as anything, Tropic Thunder is as much a spoof of the commercial movie industry as it is a pastiche of the war movies (Apocalypse Now, Platoon, etc) it spoofs, even going as far as to present a bunch of fake commercials and movie trailers that precede the movie proper. These are great fun (“Approved For…Audiences” the green rating card reads) and parody the kinds of films the three fictional heroes have made their names in; best of all is the wonderful Eddie Murphy-like Meet The Fatties: Fart 2, and a serious starring vehicle for Lazarus, Satan’s Alley co-starring “MTV Best Kiss” award winner Tobey Maguire. Though these do add for a little flavoring, I did wonder how much more sharp Tropic Thunder could well have been if the actors had simply played “themselves” for real: how much closer to investing in these silly egos would we have been if it was “Ben Stiller”, “Jack Black” and “Robert Downey Jr” throwing their star strops? Perhaps the precious egos didn’t want to stretch that far, though names apart that’s the basic idea and would have certainly added some levels.

cinemania1-05.JPGFunnily enough, after his breakthrough in There’s Something About Mary, I’ve slowly slipped away from enjoying Stiller as much, though it’s certainly true that while he has repeated himself over and over, he’s far from becoming the churn-out master that a Will Ferrell seems to have become. Stiller is always amusing, but in that seen it before way, though whenever he’s in a good film, he rises to the material. I enjoyed his directorial debut The Cable Guy and his performances in a number of films, even the poorly received but darkly hilarious Duplex and brilliant Mystery Men, while Night At The Museum was a genuinely wonderful surprise, but I often find he takes himself too seriously. Stiller has that kind of Steve Martin face: one that’s not automatically hysterical like a Bill Murray or Jim Carrey but still quirky enough not to be taken as a serious leading man. They’re comic-actors’ faces, able to take the lead but ultimately best when playing in their default comedians’ roles. Actually, evoking Martin is warranted for another reason: I’m sure I’m not the first to draw comparisons between Tropic Thunder and Martin’s 1986 movie Three Amigos! in which three – you got it – actors are left stranded playing in what they think is a set-up when it is anything but.

Tropic Thunder is able to become its own movie, however, and feels like an alternate take on the same theme rather than a copy…although the parallels are interesting (both sets of actors must eventually take on the real danger to emerge true heroes on the other side), Tropic Thunder plays to its strengths of its leading players: Stiller as the inadequate know-all, lost more than he knows, Black as the “jelly-bean”-addicted clown and Downey Jr as a Russell Crowe-like thesp who doesn’t break character until the DVD commentary and tries to help Stiller to shake off the stigma of Simple Jack, a disastrously blatant attempt to draw sympathy from the Academy voters – all three are different enough to work on screen in their own way and not crowd each other. Throw in Tom Cruise as a passionately loathsome studio boss, and Matthew McConaughey as Stiller’s agent, and Tropic Thunder becomes one of the most outrageous and enjoyable hits of the year.

cinemania1-06.JPGReleased on two-disc DVD and Blu-ray in an extended Director’s Cut, the only additions to Tropic Thunder seem to be some extra shots, some of them too risqué for the R-rating the film received in theaters, such as McConaughey’s choice of reading matter and the addition of a party scene early on: none of which is much more “outrageous” than what played in theaters. The first disc includes a pair of Audio Commentary tracks: the first with Stiller the writer-director and select crew, which is a fine discussion of the film – Stiller’s first such track – but far from being anything amazingly revealing. The second track, with the three principals – Stiller again, Black and Downey Jr – is much more fun as the trio rib each other. Staying true to character, Downey Jr records as Kirk Lazarus, but it’s a gag that Stiller doesn’t seem to be in on or want to be, letting the side down and once again seeming to prove that he can take himself too seriously…he’s done Stiller the serious director’s track: this one should have been more of a celebration but its reigned in somewhat, by his refusal to play along with Downey Jr, who continues anyway, along with Black’s sometimes “out there” remarks. The track sounds like it was recorded the morning of the premiere…topics include what the guys will be wearing, with some mocking towards Black’s choice for the Kung Fu Panda premiere. It’s at this point that you kind of wish the characters in the film had simply been Stiller, Black and Downey Jr, as the exact same dynamic plays out amusingly here.

The second disc lines up an impressive amount of background info and joke documentaries, starting with Before The Thunder, which describes the evolution of the plot and some more original concepts, while we get into the shooting with The Hot LZ, looking at the big action scene that opens the film, a theme continued in Blowing S#%t Up. Production topics are covered in Designing The Thunder and the self-explanatory The Cast Of Tropic Thunder, while Rain Of Madness takes great pains to create a completely compelling half-hour documentary from the movie’s fictional point of view, using faked background material and actual on-set footage to produce a very real diary of “production”, though it starts to feel like overkill in Dispatches From The Edge Of Madness, which further blurs the lines between reality and…not reality.

cinemania1-07.JPGA series of Deleted, Extended and Alternate Ending Scenes are introduced by Stiller, featuring more material that was even kept from this extended cut and, via audio comments, the explanations why. A Make-Up Test With Tom Cruise is a particular surprise highlight: Cruise garnered good will for spoofing himself as a ruthless studio chief, and while his physical transformation didn’t fool me the way some people struggled to work out who was under the prosthetics, it’s interesting to see the alternate choices made here. The MTV Movie Awards footage plays the entire promo created for the program, and funny it is too as Stiller plays up the inadequacies of starring against Iron Man and the Kung Fu Panda himself. The final two entries open up the movie process: Full Mags are complete takes for four full scenes, showing how a moment evolves in front of the cameras, and Video Rehearsals takes us back to the location planning for the shoot. The amount of material supplied may feel a little out of whack for what is ostensibly just a silly comedy, but there are some revealing insights in here that fans of the film will probably appreciate. Unfortunately, following other recent Paramount releases, there is no original theatrical trailer…a glaring oversight given the comprehensiveness of the rest of the package.

Presented in anamorphic 2.35:1, Tropic Thunder looks great, a finely detailed image in which the explosions emit real heat from the screen. The audio is pretty explosive too: a Dolby 5.1 track which is big fun and delivers each foul word in the expletive heavy language with perfect reproduction. The packaging follows Paramount’s recent suit of providing a slipcover that doesn’t just replicate the sleeve underneath, being the Tropic Thunder crew logo on the front and a very 1960s Vietnam War-esque shot of the actors underneath. The backs of both leave a little open to interpretation: instead of a plot synopsis they’re both mainly given over to stills and a listing of the bonus features, though a disclaimer does point out the recommendation that Tropic Thunder is for mature audiences only.

One of the funniest movies of the year, this might not be everyone’s cup of java, but it’s certainly very amusing filmmaking on a grand scale. Looking as epic as the movies it takes delight in taking pot shots at, Tropic Thunder is a blast. Highly recommended.

Tropic Thunder: 2-Disc Unrated Director’s Cut
is available to purchase from Amazon.com now

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