By Douglas Pratt Pratt@moviecitynews.com

DVD Geek: ARRIVAL, 100 RIFLES, HACKSAW RIDGE, FLASH S2

ARRIVAL

We could begin with organic molecules, which have a natural tendency to replicate the components that bond them together, requiring energy to do so, but it is easier to jump ahead a billion years or two and look at bacteria instead. A bacterium also has a need to replicate itself and a need to acquire energy in order to do so, but the difference, besides, or, perhaps, because of the exponential increase in size from the organic molecules that form its material existence, is that those needs are not quantum or electromagnetically powered, at least not directly, they are emotions. Emotion makes the bacterium obtain the food and/or oxygen it requires for energy, and emotion makes it use that energy to break into two and replicate itself. As evolution found ways to improve both abilities, life became larger and emotions became more complex. The need for protection became fear, which bound itself with increasing complexity to the need for energy, just as the need for replication began to serve as a mitigation or balance to that fear, as love. Perception of senses was employed to bring order to these emotions, and the most ambiguous, the perception of time, became the force of that order. By that point, life had become substantially larger and often found that it could best protect and feed itself by forming social units that in many ways imitated the very structures of those original bacteria. In some cases, such as insect colonies, social units may actually have become a creature themselves, but in most others, individual creatures within a social unit still act in their own interests first and their society’s interests second.

As evolution continued its advance, it became necessary, in order for the society to function, that the individual creatures communicate their emotions to one another. Language, whether it is a bark, a tweet, a growl, a roar or a written review of a new Blu-ray, is a complex representation of an emotion. In the same way that an atom is nothing more than a probability of the presence of consistent electrical charges, words never have precise meanings, just probable meanings. All language is metaphor, a communication in a singular form that represents an underlying emotion that otherwise has no form of its own. The beauty of human language is that along with being a continual string of metaphors, it can also be used to create and express greater metaphors. God is a metaphor. The mathematics used to explain the creation of the universe is a metaphor. Even music, which attempts to circumvent language to express emotion more fluidly, is a metaphor. Like a time lapse depiction of a garden in bloom, language flowers and curls around itself to flower and curl again and again. We really forget that the language itself means nothing, and that emotions mean everything, because our success as social creatures has become utterly dependent upon the expression of language to communicate our needs.

And motion pictures, in true meta-metaphorical fashion, imitate this metaphor process on several levels, beginning with the idea that light, passing through a strip of film and distorted by a lens, replicates an enlarged version of that strip on the screen. A film captures images and sounds that convey the same emotions to a shared group of people. People may interpret those images or sounds differently, but the images, the editing and the sounds of the film are just like words in a sentence, and are the same for each person to see and hear. A film is an emotional expression created by a group of artists, who depend upon the commonalities of perception to convey their emotional communications, while, within a film, people—or anything, really, even abstract scratches on celluloid—also express emotions. Others then reinterpret those expressions, as characters within the movie and as viewers watching the movie, creating parallel (but never identical) narratives.

Movies about communicating with alien life forms have run the gamut through the history of cinema. The birth of motion pictures with complex narratives, Georges Méliès’ From the Earth to the Moon, was about men failing in their attempt to communicate with otherworldly beings. A few of these movies, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, are among the greatest achievements in the cinematic arts, and others are witty excuses to come up with new ways of sharing fear with viewers. There are also a few that are nightmares for an entirely different reason, where competent filmmakers have tried to imagine what it would be like to interact with other life forms and have instead created monstrosities of incompetence, such as Sphere and Contact.

It is, therefore, with great relief that Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 Arrival, a film about communicating with visiting aliens that has been released on Blu-ray by Paramount ($40), turns out to be a supremely intelligent and satisfying spectacle drama that not only embraces the complexity that such a meeting would involve, but replicates in its own structure the relationship between language and emotion as the heroes try to make sense of what the creatures with a very different set of perceptions and emotions are trying to tell them. Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner are scientists brought in by the military to communicate with the aliens, in a kind of race with others countries around the world, who have alien visitors of their own. The 118-minute film, which you have to see at least twice because of narrative information that is revealed in its second half—in essence, if you’d like to bring Heisenberg into it, the film is changed by the viewing of it—has a limited amount of action, which has soured some viewers expecting a sci-fi extravaganza, although its cerebral thrills are constant and engaging. There is a passage of dumber dialog as Adams’ character has to explain to the audience the basics of how languages work, but it is adequately glossed over in that she is supposedly explaining it to a military guy, played by Forest Whitaker, who may or may not be that dumb (the use of military command as a metaphor for grammar is one of the film’s wittiest touches). Otherwise the movie never waits for the viewer to catch up, even as it ever so cleverly and even stupefyingly shifts from language to emotion, to remind the viewer that regardless of our destiny in the stars, the very core of our reason for existence is family.

Throughout the movie, a motif of childbirth permeates everything, from images of hallways to the movie’s title itself. Letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1, the film opens on living room windows that look out over a calm water and some sort of shoreline. The windows have an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1. When Adams and Renner’s characters meet the aliens, the aliens are behind a clear glass barrier. Brightly lit in white, like a motion picture screen, the barrier also has an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1. Hence, the film, as it tells its story, is also creating its own poetic resonance, linking creation to filmmaking and language, and nudging the viewer toward an understanding of how all of these metaphors are related, and why they should be.

The image quality is excellent, and the film’s cinematography is lovely. The Oscar-winning 7.1-channel DTS sound has a terrific bass and many crisp directional effects. There is an audio track that describes the action linearly (“The heptapods are revealed as being massive squid-like beings with seven legs. We can see no obvious face on the creatures. One seems a bit shorter and stouter than the other, but they are otherwise identical.”), alternate French and Spanish audio tracks, optional English, French and Spanish subtitles, and 82 minutes of excellent production featurettes that focus on the film’s sound effects, its music, its editing (“Time is the editor’s superpower. You can jet between different time frames, you can expand a moment to make it feel slow, you can make things hurry. You can skip great big steps and it gives some satisfaction to the audience when they know where you’re going, to jump there. Of course, nonlinear time is a huge element of the story, and it’s also a huge element of editing.”), and, without spoiling the film’s magic, a discussion of the scientific principles that justify the film’s speculations and exchanges.

100 RIFLES

Made before Burt Reynolds became a superstar, he has third billing after Jim Brown and Raquel Welch in the 1969 20th Century Fox western, 100 Rifles, issued on Blu-ray by Fox and Kino Lorber Incorporated as a KL Studio Classics title ($30). Brown is a lawman looking to bring Reynolds’ character back from Mexico because of a bank robbery, and Welch is a revolutionary waiting for the rifles that Reynolds’ character bought with his robbery money for her. The three team up, however, when a vicious Mexican military man, aided by a German advisor, executes peasants to get the rifles himself. Fernando Lamas is the villain, and the stunning Soledad Miranda has a delightful scene with Reynolds at the start of the film.

Although Brown was billed above her, it was Welch who was the film’s star attraction, cast as a Mexican to take advantage, for the first time, of her Hispanic heritage. Her performance is one of the better efforts from that era in her career, and she has several memorable erotic sequences, including taking a shower, with her clothing on, under a train water tower, to distract an army so a band of guerillas can get the drop on them. Directed by Tom Gries, the action scenes are plentiful, and the byplay between the three stars is relatively enjoyable. The drama is just logical enough, or almost logical enough, to hold the entertainment together.

Running 110 minutes, whenever the film begins to sag, Jerry Goldsmith’s music kicks in and enlivens it again, especially when the volume is raised on the BD. The gunfights also have more punch that way, and the DTS mono sound can handle the amplification. The picture is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 1.85:1. The color transfer is solid, with accurate fleshtones and crisp details. There is no captioning. Along with a 2-minute montage of promotional materials, there is a trailer that includes fresh angles on the water tower shower.

A trio of experts in the glories of Sixties motion pictures, Lee Pfeiffer, Paul Scrabo, and Tony Latino, supply a decent commentary track, focusing primarily upon the legacies of the stars (although they give Miranda a woefully short shift, they do talk a lot about Lamas and co-star Hans Gudegast, and even more, of course, about the leads, although they forget to mention the important role the Cosmopolitan centerfold took in catapulting Reynolds’ career) and the backgrounds of the crew. They point out some of the strengths in the narrative, the glories of the movie’s many action scenes and make note of the high body count. They also can’t help themselves when it comes to preferring the past over the present, not just in terms of the quality of the films, the stars, and the music, but even the poster art. Talking about today’s posters, one points out that there is, “Nothing you’d want to put on a wall.” Another responds, “I’m also a fan of cars, and if you think about the automobiles today, you can’t distinguish one from another. But from the Fifties and Sixties, they’re actually beautiful, individual works of art.”

HACKSAW RIDGE

The first half hour, almost precisely, of Mel Gibson’s 2016 WWII feature, Hacksaw Ridge, (Lionsgate, $40), depicts the hero’s childhood, and the second half hour, also precisely, depicts his boot camp experiences (a viable romance, between the hero and the woman who would become his wife, is woven effectively into both of these sequences). Then, the second hour is the thrilling war sequence, as the hero, a conscientious objector played by Andrew Garfield who had enlisted to be a medic, rescues dozens of his fellow soldiers, sneaking them back and off the ridge one by one as Japanese soldiers scour the battlefield to execute the wounded in the aftermath of the fighting. The last few minutes of the 139-minute feature are about the consequences of his heroism, and a wonderful documentary montage of the actual individuals who were involved in the battle. Hence, with the exception of that final little segment, the movie has the classic structure of a war film, as so many features in the past have replicated the boot camp/real fighting narrative outline to tell their tales of various characters and various wars. The story in Hacksaw Ridge is stirring, with a strong spiritual component that is contrasted without detriment to the horrifying carnage of war. Gibson has the advantage, too, of modern times, so he need not hold back in depicting just how awful a battle really is from the standpoint of the humanity involved.

Letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1, the image during the first hour is smooth and idyllic, which gives way in the second hour to a deliberately hellish murkiness. The film’s Dolby Atmos sound is what Blu-ray owners live for, and while that is especially true of the battle scenes, it applies to the movie’s quieter and pastoral moments as well, where it is chirping birds and not bullets and explosions that are popping up everywhere above and around you. Two of the film’s scheduled composers passed away before they could work on the movie, so Rupert Gregson-Williams worked under a short deadline and created a lovely and moving score that fills the film’s Oscar-winning audio dimensionality on several different levels of consciousness. There are, within the war segment, three major battle sequences. As is explained in an excellent 70-minute production documentary, the first one has no music, the second one has some music, and the third one is accompanied almost entirely by music. “The third of anything is never as good as the first of anything. You can tire people out.” The filmmakers wanted a trade off that would make the sequences become more feverish as the film progressed, and the music serves that function effectively, while sustaining the lingering hint of a greater presence. There is an audio track that describes the action, or as much of it as it can (“They look out over the battlefield, where the two lines of troops face off against each other. There are casualties on both sides.”), an alternate Spanish audio track, optional English and Spanish subtitles, a trailer, a trailer masquerading as a Veterans Day tribute, and 5 minutes of interesting but wisely deleted scenes. The DVD is not as satisfying, as the 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound can’t come close to the thrills that the BD’s audio delivers.

THE FLASH: THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON

Kevin Smith directed the second episode on the sixth and final disk of the Warner Home Video release, “The Flash The Complete Second Season” ($45), and the assignment can readily be looked upon as a hearty badge of approval for the series as a whole from the comic book universe that spawned it. The show has many minor errors as it goes along—the faux science explanations that the characters spout sometimes make no sense whatsoever even with the logic the story is trying to operate with; unless it is an allusion to a simpler age, the hero’s ability to move at ‘Mach Two,’ i.e., twice the speed of sound, may be impressively speedy, but comes nowhere near the velocity needed to perform some of the feats he accomplishes (and where, for that matter, are the sonic booms?—he’s not always wearing his suit when he moves that fast); and in one scene that almost suggests the entire show is somebody’s dream, the hero, in costume, runs to enter a train leaving town with his recent girlfriend and, in costume, has a romantic conversation with her, but after he leaves and she sits back in her seat, the camera moves to the outside window of the train as she contemplates her life and the other passengers on the train act completely oblivious to what happened, continuing to read their magazines, etc^p. If the Flash went and embraced some girl on the train you were riding and then left, wouldn’t you immediately go over to her like an enthusiastic puppy, saying, ‘Wow! You know the Flash!?’ and so on? But absolutely none of that matters, because the show achieves an ideal blending of drama that does not insult your intelligence, and free spirited, comic book fantasy that feeds that intelligence’s desire for confectional nourishment. There is a character that is a half man and a half shark, the size of a city bus. There is an equally large, intelligent gorilla. There are constant trips to alternate universes, and back and forth in time. At the center, there is not just the hero, but a band of friends, all highly skilled at one thing or another, enabling the sigma of the relationships between these characters to create a solid foundation for the show’s premise, made exponential when the alternate universes and time travel are applied to the equation. Grant Gustin portrays the young, speedy hero, who is sweet and altruistic, and yet has a propensity for making ill-chosen decisions that propel the narrative again and again. He has just enough hubris to think he can achieve things he can’t quite achieve, without seeming self centered or vain, like the villains he encounters, and it then becomes the task of his friends to rescue him and join with him to achieve the ideals to which he aspires and the tasks he must accomplish to save the world, and save the world once more.

In First Season, along with establishing the basic premise, the heroes had to deal with a master villain who was secretly present within their midst. In Second Season, an even scarier villain resides in an alternate universe (one with a marvelous retro look that allows the show’s creators to resurrect the original Forties comic book design of the character) and desires to conquer the universe where the heroes live, initially by sending other super villains into that world to wreak havoc. (The ‘alternate universe’ scheme also allows the show’s creators to flit from one comic book world to another, such as when the Flash visited Supergirl in Supergirl The Complete First Season.) Some of the 43-minute episodes are relatively free standing, just dealing with the villain de jour, with minimal character advancement, but there are other, more elaborate arcs that can leave you glued to the series for hours. The twenty-four episode season also contains a major crossover arc with Arrow (the Green Arrow character does share the same ‘world’ with Flash) that is presented in full. The episode that Smith directed is one of those great moments in TV where genuine metaphor is achieved on a metaphysical scale, obligating the viewer to contemplate life and existence even as the entertainment barrels forward with excitement and delight. And speaking of metaphors, there is also a fearsome specter identified as a ‘time wraith’ who supposedly chases after characters that attempt to travel through time to change the past, but with great wit can also be seen to represent the nattering nabobs of negativism who disapprove when stories pretend that time travel has a logic to it. First Season ended with a grand cliffhanger, which kind of deflates, at least initially, with the opening of the first episode of Second Season, tying the two seasons together rather closely. Second Season, however, plays through quite well on its own, building to ever and ever greater climaxes until it reaches its grand finale. After everything is settled, there is another cliffhanger, a highly compelling one, in fact, but of an entirely different and more benign—at least, for the moment—nature.

Originally broadcast in 2015 and 2016, each disk has a ‘Play All’ option. The picture is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 1.78:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. The image is slick and the computer graphics look better and better every year—the shark guy looks about as believable as a shark guy could look. The DTS sound does not have a feature film mix, but it is energetic, with some directional effects and a decent amount of power. There is an alternate Portuguese audio track and optional English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese and Thai subtitles, a good 13 minute blooper reel, 45 minutes of panel interviews, a sizable 98 minutes of comprehensive production featurettes that include references to the show’s comic book legacy, and 34 minutes of deleted scenes that are slightly off tone but extend your time with the characters.

Finally, there is an outstanding 52-minute piece on Smith, which begins with video footage that he shot of himself watching the finale of Season One for the first time and breaking into tears—the series is THAT good—as it approached its climax. The piece details how he got roped into doing the Season Two episode and how his approach differed from other directors—basically, he was so excited to be working on the show that his enthusiasm became infectious. There are also details about how he coaxed more out of some of the actors than other directors had, how valuable he found every person working on the set to be, what it was like letting go of the post-production process he was used to controlling in his independent films, and how much his attitude has changed over the course of his career. Anticipating that other young, eager potential filmmakers will love the series so much that they will savor the supplements on the disc, he also tries to encourage their talent and speaks to them directly, from the heart. “The moment you take a step toward self expression, self expression will run at you like a dog, a giant St. Bernard—lick your face, paw you and push you to the ground—it just wants to be played with. Do something like write on the wall, make something that impacts someone, say something that grabs somebody, makes their day good, makes them change the way they face things. Just make a memorable episode of your life. There will be others before you and there will be others after you, but your episode, pour it all in, leave it on the table. When you approach your art like you’re saving the galaxy, whether it’s true or not—and let’s be honest, in most cases it’s probably not true—you’re gonna get something better.”

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What’s up with your people mover shot, where it seems like people are kind of floating along?
Oh, my signature shot? That’s just a new way for people to move! It’s really become my Alfred Hitchcock cameo. I did not invent that shot, but Ernest and I did it on the set of Mo Better Blues, when Shorty had to walk [through the park], and I thought, “Let’s try it.” But after that, we tried to have a reason for it. For example, that wonderful sequence in Malcolm X where you hear the great song, “A Change Is Gonna Come.” The final scene is like that, Malcolm floating along to his destiny. In 25th Hour, after Philip Seymour Hoffman has kissed Anna Paquin, we did a shot like that, and it shows his state of mind. In Inside Man, after Denzel thinks he’s witnessed the murder of a hostage, we did the floating shot there.

So you just like the way it looks?
Yeah!
~ Spike Lee To Matt Zoller Seitz

“I never accepted the term contrarian. I think that’s offensive, frankly. And my response to that is: if I’m a contrarian, what are other reviewers? What I strive to do is be a good critic, not somebody who simply accepts the product put in front of me. I guess it scares people to think that they don’t have any originality; that they don’t have the capacity to think for themselves.

“There’s a line a lot of reviewers use that I don’t like at all. They say ‘accept the film on its own terms.’ What that really means is, ‘accept the film as it is advertised.’ That’s got nothing to do with criticism. Nothing to do with having a response as a film watcher. A thinking person has to analyze what’s on screen, not simply rubber-stamp it or kowtow to marketing.”m

“To me, everything does have a political component and I think it’s an interesting way to look at art. It’s one way that makes film reviewing, I think, a politically relevant form of journalism. We do live in a political world, and we bring our political sense to the movies with us – unless you’re the kind of person who goes to the movies and shuts off the outside world. I’m not that kind of person.”
~ Armond White to Luke Buckmaster