|In the home entertainment world, 2008 will most likely be remembered as the year when Blu-ray officially emerged as the sexy new technology that dominated the headlines. But some of the year's most exciting releases, both in film and television, came from the lowly DVD. This shouldn't come as a huge surprise. As Blu-ray takes hold, studios will concentrate on new releases and popular catalog titles that will attract the widest audiences, leaving DVD to rummage around in the vaults for interesting titles. What I didn't expect was for these rarities to be packaged with such loving care and attention to detail.
Back in November, Sony partnered with the nonprofit group The Film Foundation to create the Collector's Choice series starting with The Films of Budd Boetticher. This was the most exciting DVD announcement I'd read in years. Boetticher, a terrific director of tough, lean B-westerns during the 1950s, had been largely unrepresented on disc. This set, collecting five of his best collaborations with Randolph Scott, went a long way toward correcting that oversight. The films, The Tall T (1957), Decision At Sundown (1957), Buchanan Rides Alone (1958), Ride Lonesome (1959) and Comanche Station (1960), all star Scott as a solitary figure riding the west, usually seeking vengeance. The movies are thematic precursors to the Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood pictures of the 60s and distinctly unlike most other Hollywood westerns of the era. They're grim, thoughtful and laconic. Boetticher and his collaborators take their time laying out their stories, sucking you into the film without your even realizing it. All of the movies in this set are worth watching but my personal favorite is Comanche Station, with Scott rescuing a woman from the Comanche, then running into trouble getting her home once he finds out there's a big reward waiting for whoever brings her back. It's a fascinating, multi-layered movie with real sadness lurking around the edges.
Sony's box set presents all five movies on five individual discs, restored and looking better than ever. Each movie includes an introduction by some very noteworthy Boetticher fans. Martin Scorsese takes on The Tall T and Ride Lonesome, Taylor Hackford does the honors on Decision At Sundown and Buchanan Rides Alone, while Clint Eastwood reflects on Comanche Station. Hackford returns for an audio commentary on Comanche Station, while film historian Jeanine Basinger handles The Tall T and historian Jeremy Arnold discusses Ride Lonesome. Trailers for each film are included as well. The best extra is the feature-length documentary Budd Boetticher: A Man Can Do That, found on disc one. Executive produced by Eastwood, the documentary is a great look at Boetticher's life and career (and unlike a lot of filmmakers, Boetticher's Hemingway-esque life is at least as interesting as his films).
As thrilled as I was about the Boetticher set, I was even more excited to get my hands on the second release in the series, The Films of Michael Powell. I've been harping on studios to release one of the films in this set, the 1946 classic A Matter of Life and Death, since my first wish list column way back in 2003. When I read that it was finally coming to DVD, I almost fell out of my chair.
David Niven stars as a British pilot who bails out of his burning plane without a parachute. He should have died but his escort to the other side (Marius Goring) misses him in the fog. Niven meets and falls in love with Kim Hunter, an American radio operator whose voice was the last he heard before he jumped. Niven argues that this gives him new responsibilities on Earth that Heaven cannot deny and he must fight for the right to stay alive in front of a heavenly court of law.
A Matter of Life and Death is one of my favorite movies of all time, a witty, lushly filmed, unabashedly romantic film that works on every level. I've watched it repeatedly and enjoy it more every time. It's co-feature in this set is Powell's final feature film, Age of Consent from 1969. James Mason stars as a painter who retreats to an island on the Great Barrier Reef to reconnect with nature. He finds his muse in the stunningly beautiful Helen Mirren (making her film debut), a smart but simple young woman longing to get off the island and away from her domineering grandmother. Age of Consent is more interesting to students of Michael Powell's career than it is entertaining to general audiences but it's worth a look for the performances of Mason and Mirren.
Once again, Scorsese contributes introductions to each film in the set. Historians Ian Christie and Kent Jones deliver highly informative audio commentaries for A Matter of Life and Death and Age of Consent, respectively, both of which deepen your appreciation for the films. Age of Consent also includes a well-made featurette on the making of the film, an interview with Mirren, and an interview with underwater photographers Rod and Valerie Taylor. All of the extras are produced with care and are worth investigating. Also, the films themselves have been beautifully restored, particularly A Matter of Life and Death, which looks absolutely breathtaking.
The Collector's Choice series is off to a flying start and I plan on getting any and all future releases Sony and The Film Foundation produce. If it isn't too much to ask, I'd love to see a second volume of Budd Boetticher movies including his bullfighting films (The Bullfighter And The Lady, The Magnificent Matador and Arruza) as well as a set spotlighting the work of Nicholas Ray. But if future releases live up to the first two volumes, I'll take whatever they offer.
On the TVD front, the most surprising release of 2008 was the Studio One Anthology, a massive six-disc collection spotlighting the best episodes of the long-running series from the golden age of television. For those of us born too late to experience it first hand, Studio One was one of the best examples of the dramatic anthology series, a genre that has totally vanished from the television landscape today. The series offered a mix of stories ranging from original dramas (the best known of which is probably 12 Angry Men), adaptations of classic literature (including Wuthering Heights and 1984), and even opera (The Medium). Along the way, some of the best writers in the medium worked for Studio One, including Rod Serling, Gore Vidal and Reginald Rose, and spotlighted such now-legendary actors as Art Carney, Sal Mineo, Jack Lemmon, Geraldine Fitzgerald, and Charlton Heston.
Viewed today, Studio One unavoidably lacks the electricity of the live performance and often can seem dated and stagy. However, as a peek back at what television used to be like, it's a fascinating experience unlike any other. Koch Vision has done a terrific job bringing these shows to disc, many of which were long thought lost to the ages. The set includes 17 episodes, not all of which are indicative of the show at its best (The Medium was particularly trying to get through) but some of which, including the fascinating satire Confessions of a Nervous Man, are truly innovative and highly entertaining. Video and audio quality is not the best but considering what there is to work with, it's a bit surprising they're around at all. The set includes a wealth of extras including a 1987 seminar from the Paley Center for Media, a historical overview featuring interviews with the likes of Charlton Heston, excerpts from an interview with director Paul Nickell, and a Voices From The Archive featurette with interviews with William Shatner, Jack Lemmon, Mike Wallace and many others. The set also includes an informative Reference Guide that includes contributions from Gore Vidal and TV historian Larry James Gianakos.
Releases like the Studio One Anthology will probably never make it to Blu-ray, at least not for a very, very long time. The technical limitations of the source material coupled with its relatively limited audience make it not-ready-for-high-def. Fortunately, we still have DVD for just such a release. As long as we have sets like the Studio One Anthology and the Collector's Choice series, there's life in the old format yet.
The Films of Budd Boetticher
Film Ratings (all): B+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B-/A
The Films of Michael Powell
Film Ratings - Matter of Life & Death: A+/Age of Consent: B-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B-/A
Studio One Anthology
Program Ratings (average): B-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): C-/C-/A-