Combustible Celluloid

Digital Watch

DVD Trilogies

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

Three is a magic number, so they say. So it makes sense that filmmakers would often conceive of and create film projects in sets of three.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers Extended Edition (2002, New Line, $39.99)
The second of Peter Jackson's superb filmic adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkein's epic novel now contains some 43 new minutes of footage. The film now spends more time with Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and their adventures with Treebeard (voiced by John Rhys-Davies). We also get a few more moments of interaction between Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Gollum (voiced by Andy Serkis) as well as some important new information about Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen). But, some of the new footage is practically useless; 11 minutes are taken up by the "fan club" credits. As expected the picture and sound are superior, and discs three and four contain hours and hours of talking-head documentaries about every conceivable aspect behind the film.

The Adventures of Indiana Jones (1981-89, Paramount, $69.98)
George Lucas and Steven Spielberg's swashbuckling adventure series is, in many ways, more joyous and playful than even Star Wars, and this box set would most certainly be among my desert island selections. Unfortunately, it doesn't offer much more than the widescreen laserdiscs that already graced my collection. The three movie discs come with excellent new picture and sound -- as well as great-looking menus -- but the fourth disc comes with an uninspiring set of talking-head documentaries about the making of the film. Neither Spielberg nor Lucas seemed interested in recording commentary tracks. One can only imagine what the two of them would talk about if shoved into a room together.

The Apu Trilogy:

Pather Panchali (1955, Columbia/TriStar, $29.95)
Aparajito (1956, Columbia/TriStar, $29.95)
The World of Apu (1959, Columbia/TriStar, $29.95)
Director Satyajit Ray forever changed the face of India's immense film industry with this uniquely personal trilogy following the lifelong trials and tribulations of one Apu (played by Subir Bannerjee, Pinaki Sengupta, Smaran Ghosal and Soumitra Chatterjee at different ages). The first film chronicles Apu's life in a rural village, the second, his move to Calcutta and the loss of his parents, and the third, his life as a young man and poverty-stricken student looking for romance. Using 16mm black-and-white film and guerrilla filmmaking techniques, Ray created a world where the unpredictable rhythms of real life danced on celluloid. A toothless old woman gums away at fruit, a monkey jumps on an unsuspecting woman trying to get water, and a flock of birds take flight at the moment of death. Just like life, the poetry comes only if you're open to it. A then-unknown Ravi Shankar adds his spirited score to the mix. Columbia/TriStar has not put much energy into these DVDs; the film stock is still riddled with dirt and flaws, the English subtitles are non-optional and there are no extras. But this stripped-down approach somehow adds a certain appropriate charm to these particular films.

A Film Trilogy by Ingmar Bergman (1961-63, Criterion Collection, $79.95)
After the worldwide success of "The Seventh Seal" and "Wild Strawberries," the very hot Ingmar Bergman turned to a trio of films to try to ask some complicated questions about religion and faith. The results are "Through a Glass Darkly" (1961), "Winter Light" (1962) and "The Silence" (1963), and each is better than the one before.

In the first, schizophrenic Karin (Harriet Andersson) vacations on a remote island with her father (Gunnar Bjornstrand), her husband (Max Von Sydow) and her little brother (Lars Passgard). She learns that her father has been using her illness to write his books, and everyone broods a lot. Bergman's wintry film has beautiful moments and Andersson gives a great performance, but the film can't shake the weight of the disease-of-the-week movie feel.

Winter Light is a less hysterical, more closely observed film with a priest who questions the power of his own faith. And The Silence explores the tensions between two grown sisters, one intellectual and sickly (Ingrid Thulin), the other sensual and alive (Gunnel Lindblom). During an unexpected stopover on a trip, the two sisters try to pass the time while vying for the attention of the latter's son (Jorgen Lindstrom). This third film gets the most intertwined with its subjects and comes out the most uncomfortably truthful. One question: why all the dwarves?

All three black-and-white films have been gorgeously restored in their full-screen aspect ratios, and the box set includes a fourth disc: a made-for-television documentary following the making of Winter Light. Critic/biographer Peter Cowie also provides plenty of information and insight into the trilogy.

Fassbinder's BRD Trilogy (1978-82, Criterion Collection, $79.95)
Short for "Bundesrepublik, Deutschland," the great and prolific German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder embarked on three films toward the end of his career, charting the progress (or lack thereof) of postwar Germany through the eyes of three women: The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978), Lola (1981) and Veronika Voss (1982). The first film alone makes this box set worth having; Fassbinder always dreamed of international success and "Maria" was the film that finally brought it to him. The film's epic structure and period detail has always pleased critics, but Fassbinder avoids the usual trappings of the genre and manages a raw intimacy throughout.
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