Thoughtful reviews, the Boulder film scene

" Nobody goes into the valley of death. That’s why they call it the valley of death. "
— Grant Heslov, The Scorpion King

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Movie Habit reviews DVDs, but we don’t exhaustively review every release. We can’t say with authority what the ten best DVD releases were in 2003. However, we can recommend a handful of the best discs we saw. If you got a DVD player for the holidays, add these to your to-rent or to-buy list.

The Adventures of Indiana Jones

While Harrison Ford, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas set out to salute the classic serials of the 1930s, the Indiana Jones movies have become classics all their own.

There’s the straight-forward one, Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which Indy struggles with the Nazis in a quest for the legendary Ark of the Covenant. There’s also the dark and under-appreciated one, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which took Indy on a roller coaster ride to Hell in the pulpiest of his adventures. And, finally, there’s the light-hearted one, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, with Indy teaming up with his father in a search for the Holy Grail.

While the fourth disc of supplemental materials culled from the Lucas archives is somewhat disappointing, there’s enough good stuff in the full-length documentary to make it worth viewing. In this case, though, it’s all about the movies and they are presented with startling clarity and terrific surround sound for the first time on DVD.

In bringing the films to DVD, there were reportedly around a dozen “tweaks” made to the films, most notably the removal of the cobra’s reflection as Indy crashes onto the floor of the Well of Souls in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Happily, though, Lucas’ penchant for reinventing his own movies was restrained by Spielberg’s more faithful approach to the restoration process and the other changes are imperceptible under casual viewing. After all, part of the fun of the movies is their lack of perfection. The occasional gaff is worn by these movies as comfortably as Indy wears his fedora and leather jacket.

That comfort level is hard to come by in movies these days and Indy’s “reintroduction” via DVD is enough to make one wish the oft-delayed fourth installment would remain in cinematic limbo rather than potentially spoil a good thing.

By Brakhage: an Anthology

Before Criterion undertook this project, the only way to see films by avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage (who died in 2003) was to attend his regular Sunday screenings in Boulder. Because Brakhage was so conscious of the medium of film — Mothlight, for example, projected light through the wings and bodies of dead moths Brakhage found in his light fixture — that producing a DVD of his work almost misses the point. If anyone could do it, it would be the careful, reverent team at Criterion. The box set consists of 2 DVDs, with 26 Brakhage’s films.

Eraserhead

David Lynch’s debut film in 1978 presaged a long, strange career in movies. For the last 20 years, Eraserhead was only available on VHS and a limited edition LaserDisc. Leave it to Criterion (again) to produce a DVD of a long-awaited cult classic.

Kiki’s Delivery Service & Castle in the Sky

Disney released two decade-old Miyazaki features when they released 2002’s Spirited Away. Castle in the Sky is a gorgeous tale about a lost city floating in a world above the clouds. But the better film is Kiki’s Delivery Service, which has a stronger story and more intimacy with its characters. While Disney’s DVD house is no Criterion — the menus are “cute” but badly designed, and the subtitles and captions are difficult to use — the fact that these lost gems were released on DVD is enough to earn them a spot on this list.

Lilo & Stitch’s Island Adventure Game

There are probably better DVDs in the world than this one, but it earns a spot on this list by making use of the medium. People have forgotten that the “V” in DVD means “versatile” and not “video.” The DVD specification requires players to work with variables, random numbers, and other programming constructs. Most of the time, these options are ignored. But Disney devised a new way to play a board game, using the DVD as a spinner and several decks of interactive “cards.” Although the game isn’t much fun for adults, it’s great for a slumber party of pre-teens.

Three Colors trilogy

Most critics, myself included, say that The Lord of the Rings is the best movie trilogy ever. But perhaps we should be more careful, because K Kieslowski’s “Three Colors” trilogy — Bleu, Blanc, and Rouge — may consist of better movies. All three movies were available on Video and LaserDisc, but it wasn’t until 2003 that Miramax finally offered them on DVD. Compared even to LaserDisc, the picture quality on this year’s DVDs is noticeably improved. In addition, Miramax includes interviews with Kieslowski, talking very frankly about making the movies. On each disc is an interview in which Kieslowski explains in depth how a particular scene was made. For example, on the Blue disc, He goes on for several minutes about trying to find a sugar cube that would absorb Juliette Binoche’s coffee in 5 seconds — not 7, not 4, but 5.

U2 Go Home

The first full-length concert video of U2 performing on their home turf, U2 Go Home captures the band at their best during one of their most historic and uplifting concerts.

Each year, the Earl of Mount Charles hosts 80,000 guests for an all-day music festival on the “back yard” of Slane Castle. It’s roughly the equivalent of holding a Woodstock on an annual basis in a quiet village that 364 days out of the year has a population of 680.

U2 Go Home marks the 20th anniversary of the first Slane festival, which featured a new band from the north side of Dublin, U2, opening for Thin Lizzy. Two decades later, and now the biggest band in the world, U2’s first Slane Castle gig as headliners, held on August 25, 2001, sold out all 80,000 tickets in 45 minutes. After petitioning the County Meath government to permit a previously unheard of second gig the following weekend, tickets for the second show were put on sale without fanfare and sold out in 90 minutes.

As part of their Elevation Tour, the Slane Castle shows caught U2 at their most down-to-earth and personal. The day before the first show, Bono buried his father, who died of cancer. The local hero and his mates performed like troopers that first night and by the second show, they were once again the world-renowned fun-loving – and politically charged – band with big ideas performing in front of their own tribe.

Originally filmed as a personal memento for the band mates, a portion of the concert was televised as U2’s Beautiful Day and fan clamor finally resulted in the release of this DVD. Lacking the gloss and technical choreography of U2 Live from Boston, also from the Elevation Tour, the Slane Castle DVD presents Bono running on full strength and shows the band at their most playful, from Bono draping himself in the Irish flag to repeatedly glorying in Ireland’s “beautiful goal” during the national soccer team’s match, broadcast at the field earlier in the day.

In addition to the concert, the DVD also features DVD-ROM supplements, including a 360-degree spin cam for three of the tunes.

The Work of Director Michel Gondry

More esoteric than its companion disc of Spike Jonze’s work, The Work of Michel Gondry is nevertheless more amazing, more visionary, and harder to pin down. Some of Gondry’s videos are so groundbreaking that you may not even realize what’s happening. Sugar Water (for Cibo Matto), for example, is a filmed palindrome (again, transferring film to DVD almost misses the point, but what are you gonna do?). The film could be run through the projector either backwards or forwards and you would see exactly the same movie. Star Guitar (for The Chemical Brothers) repeats footage from the window of a moving train to mirror the musical composition. And of course the video for Like a Rolling Stone (for The Rolling Stones) looks like a simple “Matrix”-style trick, except that there is something deeper at work, with the characters moving between morphs while the rest of the frame stays the same. Of all the discs on this list, this one probably has the best hours-watched-to-dollars-spent ratio.

The Work of Director Spike Jonze

Spike Jonze has stopped making videos because nowadays he’s too busy with his movies. But back in the day, he was willing to try anything. Think of any music video from the late 1990s, and chances are, if you remember it, it was made by Spike Jonze. The Happy Days video for Weezer? That was Spike. The one with Christopher Walken dancing to Fatboy Slim? Spike. The posthumous Notorious B.I.G. video with the lookalike kids? Also Spike Jonze. The cheezy Torrance dance troupe video for Fatboy Slim? That was not only made by Spike, but it featured his solo B-Boy dance. Everything on this disc is a joy to watch, especially his intimate, excruciatingly honest documentary about rapper Fatlip.