SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, K-19: THE WIDOWMAKER and ESCAPE FROM LA Blu-ray Reviews

     June 3, 2010

Paramount’s latest batch of Catalog titles includes Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. As of today, the replacement copies should be on the streets as there were some audio sync issues. Unfortunately a lot of early reviews did not catch this issue, which is likely because most critics (self included) don’t have DTS-HD master audio. Briefly, there is a core DTS soundtrack, and then the HD audio track, and if you don’t have the right equipment, you are not going to hear that audio track. Perhaps that’s what happened here. Don’t know. But Spielberg’s war opus hit the streets along with catalog titles Escape from LA and K-19: The Widowmaker, and my reviews of those titles follow after the jump.

With Saving Private Ryan, even its most ardent admirers will suggest that the bookends are the weakest element of the movie. This ties into one of the only complaints about Schindler’s List people make, which is the end of that film. William Goldman was the rallying cry for this complaint back in the days of Premiere magazine, when he called it bullshit because the film lies to you about who is telling the story. Goldman has a point, but the film also breaks first person point of view shortly after the D-Day invasion when the decision is made by the up and up’s to find and save the life of Private Ryan (Matt Damon).

And let’s give Spielberg credit, the framework device is brilliant in that it does something he also accomplishes with Pvt. Mellish (Adam Goldberg). Spielberg wants you to think Capt. John H. Miller (Tom Hanks) is safe; he wants you to think after Schindler’s List he wouldn’t kill off the Jewish character. And what happens is that the Jewish character gets one of the most personal, most painful, and most sexualized on-screen deaths in cinema (I was told but can’t confirm that the German says something along the lines of “you know you want it” when sticking the knife in). In that way, as much as the bookends exist to perhaps reiterate the sense of “the greatest generation” (as Tom Brokaw called the men who fought in World War II), it also shows the impish side to Spielberg, because he is messing with your expectations.

What’s also amazing about the movie is how Spielberg redefined shooting action with the film. The sensibility was grain and a “you are the cameraman” point of view, it changed how the industry covered big fight scenes in such a way that it’s influence is still felt on summer blockbusters, and changed how Ridley Scott shot action. The last ten years of Scott’s career is unimaginable without this film. You watch it now, and it still has the power of the visceral. Ryan has – in its way – become underrated over the last couple of years because it is so ripped off, and it’s Spielberg’s last film of the twentieth century, and last film before he made A.I., which is a huge transition-point in his career. Watching it again for the first time since it played theatrically, I walked away with a greater admiration for the movie (which blew me away when I saw it then). It’s just with a film like this, the Ten Little Indians nature of the violence makes it not a lot of fun to revisit. But that’s the point; Spielberg wasn’t trying to make a fun war movie. It’s as brutal as can be.

The film comes in a two disc set with the film on the first disc, presented in widescreen (1.85:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1 Master audio. Theatrically, the film felt grainier and hazier. Here the HD transfer seems cleaner, so it feels like a different aesthetic. Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography is excellent, but the film felt newer and fresher to me at home because it seemed removed from the complete wash-out I remembered from the theatrical experience. The second disc houses all the extras, with nothing exclusive to the Blu-ray version. They are “An Introduction by Steven Spielberg” (3 min.), “Looking in to the Past: The Research, the Screenplay and the Vision” (5 min.), “Miller and his Platoon (8 min.), “Boot Camp for the Cast” (8 min.), “Making Saving Private Ryan” (22 min.), “Re-creating D-Day: Omaha Beach (18 min.) “Music And Sound” (16 min.), “Parting Thoughts” (4 min.), “Into the Breach: Saving Private Ryan,” (25 min.), “Shooting War” (88 min.) and two trailers. The last two featurettes cover the historical basis for the film and the actual cameramen who shot the war for the government (including Russ Meyer!) For the most part the behind the scenes stuff is okay. There’s some set clowning around, and it’s got some insight, but the best is probably when the talk about sound design. It’s too bad nothing new was done for the film specifically for the Blu-ray as it would be interesting to see what Spielberg has to say about the film now.

When Kathryn Bigelow won the academy award for The Hurt Locker it made me interested to revisit one of her films that I had skipped, K-19: The Widowmaker. I think I passed because I had seen her Weight of Water, and just wasn’t interested in a submarine movie. Between The Hurt Locker and Edgar Wright giving Point Break a nod in Hot Fuzz, Bigelow’s comeback has arrived full force, and perhaps will make people re-evaluate her work. I’ve always loved Near Dark and Point Break, and had a soft spot for the flawed but fascinating Strange Days.

The problem with submarine movies is that they are by definition inaction films. Such is why Das Boat made such an impression, and why much of Red October takes place off of submarines. You’ve got men on boats pressing buttons, but by the nature of the beast, you can’t have the sub take too much damage because then the movie is over. K-19 is fascinating in the sense that the internal drama is that there’s a radiation leak and that’s the antagonist of the film. Though Harrison Ford’s character Capt. Alexei Vostrikov is put in opposition of Liam Neeson’s Capt. Mikhail Polenin, it’s more a matter of approach and it never gets to the heights of Crimson Tide’s questions of mutiny. It’s a long slog, but though it’s got two great leads, the film never comes together. I was waiting to be gripped, but the film just came off as a modestly interesting story about the Russians dealing with a leaky reactor.

Paramount’s Blu-ray is spotless, however. The film comes in widescreen (2.35:1) and in 5.1 Dolby TrueHD, with a commentary by Bigelow and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth. The film also comes with a making of (20 min.), “Exploring the Craft: Make-Up Techniques” (5 min.), “Breaching the Hull” (5 min.) on the CGI, and “It’s all in the Details” (12 min.) on the period work. The theatrical trailer is also included.

John Carpenter’s Escape from LA has a small cult following. The problem with the movie is that it is a very cheesy riff/remake of the original film and doesn’t take itself as seriously as the first film. It’s the Temple of Doom to the first movie’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. Snake Plisken (Kurt Russell) is sent into LA to retrieve a disc which has the power to cause an electro-magnetic pulse that shuts down the power anywhere its user chooses. Cuervo Jones (George Corraface) has it and the President (Cliff Robertson) wants it back because his daughter stole it. Snake has a similar chilly but slightly respectful relationship with the guy he talks to (Stacy Keach), and there’s goofy comic characters for Snake to play off of in LA (Steve Buscemi, Pam Grier, Peter Fonda), with a similar brief love interest (Valerie Golino), who saves Snake’s ass and almost as quickly leaves the picture.

Basically they are the same framework, but this one plays up the camp to the point of being a parody of the first film and tough guy genre films in general. Or perhaps it wouldn’t be as campy if the CGI wasn’t so terrible. The question the viewer has to ask themselves is this: do you think the makers of the movie think it’s cool that Snake is surfing in the movie? Does the movie know it’s silly? I would argue yes, though I heard that the original drafts of the film were much more brutal in its skewering of Los Angeles. This wouldn’t surprise me, but the film gets a lot of shots in about what is terrible about L.A., even though its targets would be obvious to people who don’t live there. I think the movie is funny, and mostly what they intended, with one of the best endings for a movie like this ever. I also tend to think people are upset that the makers made Snake into more of a joke (even he was obviously a riff on Clint Eastwood’s Man with no Name), as the constant desire for dark and played for real is the new rallying cry for comic book movies, and this definitely falls into that stratosphere, but has no interest in playing it straight. I enjoy that the film knows it’s a goof.

Paramount’s always been sort of embarrassed about this title, so the only extra is a theatrical trailer, which means we will probably never see a special edition of this film. The film does look good in widescreen (2.35:1) and in Dolby Digital 5.1 TrueHD, and though the picture is crisp, the effects couldn’t look more dated unless they had the year they were made painted on them.


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