The Blu Room: Overlooked Performances {#4}

Okay, I know I’ve been skirting my feature duties. By my calculations I haven’t done an installment of “The Blu Room” since August. Damn I’m slow. As a way to alleviate this stack of recent Blu-rays on my desk, I’ve pondered a series of articles, each of which will spotlight a particular subject.

This week: Overlooked Performances.

thetrumanshow

Paramount Pictures / 1998 / 102 Minutes / PG-13
Street Date: December 30, 2008
(Buy it at Amazon)

How strong of a director is Peter Weir? Well, he made two actors Oscar contenders almost single-handedly. That’s got to count for something, right? The first was Harrison Ford. Mr. Indiana Jones was a Best Actor nominee for Witness. The second was Robin Williams. Weir was able to rein Williams in and not have him be his usual erratic self – for too much, anyway. It also helped that the screenplay for Dead Poets Society played to the comedian’s strengths.

These two performances aside, there was another actor Weir masterfully directed yet went unrewarded with an Oscar nomination. His name is Jim Carrey and the film is The Truman Show. Apparently Carrey was good enough to win the Golden Globe for Best Actor-Drama (beating out three others that would go on to be nominated for Best Actor at the 1999 Oscar ceremony), yet the AMPAS must of thought it was a fluke victory. This is the same group that gave the statuette to an actor who, if you polled Joe Six-Pack, he would have gone, “who’s Roberto Benigni?”

When I first saw this imaginative, timeless film in theaters back in 1998 I wasn’t very impressed; I couldn’t understand all the praise that the film was getting. But I’ve since revisited it a few times on home video and have embraced its brilliance. Not only because Andrew Niccol’s (Gattaca) screenplay was a precursor to all the reality programs that have infiltrated TV land, but because of Jim Carrey and his first dramatic turn.

But is it really dramatic? The Truman Show is part comedy, part drama, part science fiction. Seeing as it is hard to pigeonhole the genre, so is Carrey’s performance. He plays the part of man whose life isn’t overly exciting, pretty humdrum. Yet he brings that trademark smile of his and walks in the shoes of Truman Burbank so effortlessly.

Peter Weir’s film takes a simple idea – a reality series based around one man – and makes it larger than life. At the start, “The Truman Show” is now in its thirtieth year on television. There are no second takes or redoes for missed marks or flubbed lines. Everything that happens goes on the air. Broadcasting live twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week, with more than five thousand cameras positioned throughout the picturesque make-believe town of Seahaven, which in turn is just one big set shielded by a giant dome that’s visible from space.

Its star, Truman Burbank, has no idea that everyone around him is acting. His wife Meryl (Laura Linney), his best friend Marlon (Noah Emmerich), both get paid to act natural, all the while name-dropping the latest “must buy” products. Since there are no commercial interruptions, this is the only way to make a return on such a painstaking production. (Though, on closer inspection, there are plenty of tie-in goods specifically about “The Truman Show,” like “Best of” DVD releases for those can’t get enough of Truman.)

For years Truman has wanted to leave Seahaven, but his fear of drowning has prevented him from leaving the island-like community. Factor in the rest of the community conspiring to prevent his departure, and the stranger Truman’s life becomes. If he only knew that freedom was but a flight of stairs and a doorway away.

The great thing about The Truman Show is simplicity on the surface. Everything looks quaint, but when you peak behind the curtain and see the wizard, Christof (Ed Harris), manipulating the production, there’s an Orwellian vibe taking shape. As such, thought-provoking themes abound. You could expound upon the Niccol’s prophetic vision of reality television, or discuss Truman Burbank’s modest existence and wonder why he was selected as a newborn to have an entire show about him. Endless possibilities.

Arriving on Blu-ray Disc from Paramount, The Truman Show is presented with an AVC encode. Pretty spectacular-looking image, which take into the account the different colors and pastels used in the city of Seahaven. Minor scratches on the print, but the visuals still stand out. Matching the visuals is the Dolby TrueHD track as well as DD 5.1 tracks in French and Spanish.

The BD release also carries over all the extras found on the Special Collector’s Edition release from 2005. The features are presented in standard definition, aside from the theatrical trailers, which are in HD. Considering that the first DVD release was bare bones, the extras are an added improvement. You get four deleted scenes, TV spots, and a photo gallery. But the bulk of the extras is a two-part documentary entitled “How’s It Going to End? The Making of The Truman Show Forty-one minutes in length, this doc isn’t your ordinary behind-the-scenes look. Except for Jim Carrey’s press junket comments, those by Weir, producer Edward S. Feldman and Ed Harris are done years after the film was released. When the comments are incorporated they make the making-of more like retrospective, looking back on a film that celebrated its tenth anniversary this year. There’s also a short visual effects featurette (“Faux Finishing: The Visual Effects of The Truman Show) that glosses over the use of computerized effects in the film.

This next film shares one similarity with The Truman Show: the need to escape.

intothewild

Paramount Pictures / 2007 / 148 Minutes / R
Street Date: December 30, 2008
(Buy it at Amazon)

Into the Wild, inspired by Jon Krakauer’s best-selling novel, is the story of Chris McCandless (played effectively and emotionally by Emile Hirsch), who, after graduating from Emory University in 1990, abandons his possessions, sets fire to his Social Security card and gives his life savings to a charity, and hitchhikes around the continental U.S. He visits the states like South Dakota and New Mexico before finally making his way to Alaska where he would meet his end.

Sean Penn has never struck me as a particularly good filmmaker. He’s made a few films over the years that were side projects to an already stellar acting career, having played in Oscar-attention films like Dead Man Walking, Mystic River, and most recently Gus Van Sant’s Milk. Strong dramatic performances each, even if Penn only did Spicoli from Fast Times for his acting career, I’m sure he would be enshrined in some acting hall of fame for that performance alone.

Having never read Krakauer’s work, I can only base my feelings on Penn’s own interpretation. This is a cathartic journey of one man who accomplished what he set out to do. Not in a suit and tie, or in some dead-end forty-hour-a-week job, but as someone who lives life as it should: full and fulfilling. In a year that gave us No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, both dark and brooding, Wild is a rich character study that is highlighted Emile Hirsch’s performance as Chris McCandless. Hirsch has been theatrical films since 2002. He looked like one of those young up-and-comers that you see plastered in Abercrombie and Fitch ads. You know the type: easy to look at, but eventually forgettable. I first noticed him in the little-seen comedy The Girl Next Door, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Risky Business. But Hirsch didn’t have the Tom Cruise breakout moment with this comedy. Nope, it would come three years later with Sean Penn’s prodding.

Watching this film again, Hirsch disappears on screen as McCandless. He is so convincing as someone who is disconnected from his own welfare. The story pushes him to extreme limits. Kayaking. Climbing rough terrain. Taking up residence in a weathered, abandoned bus in Alaska. And with eight months of dieting Hirsch went from 156 pounds to 115. Nobody likes to see the deterioration of someone they love, or anyone for that matter. We are observers to such an act, helpless to stop it. But this is McCandless’s quest, a path towards happiness. Maybe not something we’d envision as pleasurable, but for McCandless nights inside a frigid bus were better than any predefined future.

Into the Wild is Sean Penn’s best directorial work to date. Netting only two Oscar nominations (for editing and supporting star Hal Holbrook), sadly Hirsch was overlooked. Did it receive as much outcry as DiCaprio’s snub for Titanic? Probably not. Probably didn’t even muster more than a whimper. Hirsch had the misfortune of headlining a film the same year as a singing Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd) and a milkshake-drinking Daniel Day Lewis (Blood). Yet his performance was better than Depp’s as well as Tommy Lee Jones (In the Valley of Elah).

Despite the snub, Penn’s film, like the novel, will have longevity. Its non-linear story is a one of a kind identity search of an unorthodox life. Full of pity. Full of heartbreak. Full of greatness.

But enough about the film itself, how does the Blu-ray release stack up? Colors are vibrant in this 1080p/VC-1 encoded transfer. Facial features are sharp, almost lifelike. Thankfully there’s no edge enhancement or significant articfacting to distract your enjoyment of the film. Audio options consist of a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track. Dialogue is clear, effects are realistic in surround speakers. Good acoustics and ambient noise throughout.

The supplements included are those that are found on the two-disc DVD and HD DVD editions. The pair of standard definition featurettes by renowned film documentarian Laurent Bouzereau (having produced more than 200 different DVD featurettes) whet your appetite but don’t begin to fully explore some of the themes of Into the Wild. “The Story, The Characters” (22 minutes) has comments from Penn, author Krakauer, Hirsch, Holbrook, William Hurt and Jena Malone, and other key members of the cast and crew. This mini-doc covers the book, Penn’s inspiration (he read the book twice in one night), his casting and the overall passion the actors had for the project. “The Experience” (17 minutes) focuses on the production and Hirsch’s commitment to the role of Chris McCandless, to the editing and incorporating Eddie Vedder’s songs into the film’s soundtrack. A simple behind-the-scenes look, but nothing you’d probably watch more than once or twice. Completing the extras is the three-minute theatrical trailer in HD. (After watching the film, revisit the theatrical trailer and notice that the trailer’s music score doesn’t match the essence or mood of the final product.)

So what is the better release to pick up? Hard to say. Both offer underwhelming supplements, a slight edge to The Truman Show‘s better two-part documentary. Each are classics, but would the viewers rather want to experience Jim Carrey’s first foray in a dramatic vehicle or Emile Hirsch’s breakout performance. Answer that question and you are well on your way to cinematic bliss, be it a make-believe town called Seahaven or a trek across country.