I don’t trust Joel and Ethan Coen. Well, that’s not exactly the case. I trust them to make refreshingly original motion pictures. I just don’t trust them with the facts.
For instance, they claim that the story depicted in “Fargo” really happened. It says so right on the box for the new Special Edition DVD of “Fargo”: “This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred ...”
As their equally fictitious editor, Roderick Jaynes, would probably say, “Balderdash!” When pressed about it, the Coen brothers sheepishly hem and haw and admit that, well, the tale was “inspired” by some events that may or may not have happened.
But that’s about all there is to quibble about on this delightful disk. This film rings true because of its crisp writing and direction, the magnificent cinematography and a cast straight out of a family restaurant off an isolated Minnesota highway.
Those among the Coen cognoscenti will be especially pleased with two of the features on the new DVD. One is a short documentary called “Minnesota Nice,” one of the rare behind-the-scenes featurettes with a theme. In this case, it’s the rampant politeness that permeates the Minnesota milieu. Within the expansive smiles and the “You betcha!”s is a sordid tale of greed and murder, a noir amid a blanket of white. “Minnesota Nice” illustrates the dichotomy perfectly. Pay special attention to the lengths to which William H. Macy went to get the part of Jerry Lundegaard. After watching his dead-on performance, you’ll wonder why it wasn’t the other way around. And as for Frances McDormand ... well, she’s Frances McDormand, O.K.? There’s a darn good reason why her name is above the title. You betcha.
Also fascinating is an audio commentary by director of photography Roger Deakins (and no, the Coen boys don’t provide an audio track themselves, but that’s O.K., since they’re featured prominently elsewhere on the disk, including on a segment of “Charlie Rose.”) There are only a few masters of cinematography working today — Vittorio Storaro, John Toll and John Seale come to mind — and Deakins is most certainly among them. His commentary provides insight into the difficulties of shooting on a tight budget where the cold, vast countryside is a main character unto itself and the snow and light won’t always cooperate.
Check out this special feature: There is a Trivia Track, similar to Pop-Up Video on VH-1, that runs the length of the movie. It’s a little silly sometimes when a character mentions a milk shake at McDonald’s and a little window pops up to tell you how many calories there are in the typical McDonald’s milk shake. But the factoids having to do with the filmmakers and cast are thoroughly enjoyable.
Suggested retail price: $24.98
'The Treasure of the Sierra Madre'
(Special two-disc set)
If there is one indisputable fact about Fred C. Dobbs, it is that he “ain’t a guy likes being taken advantage of.” How true. In fact, as anyone with a working knowledge of John Huston’s classic adventure tale knows, it is Dobbsy himself who is primarily responsible for the misfortune and eventual demise of Dobbsy, as well as the lousy luck of everyone else in his orbit.
Humphrey Bogart plays the grubby and distrustful Dobbs in perhaps his finest role ever. His performance also represents one of the great little ironies of Hollywood: Bogie played a character who earns great riches yet ends up with nothing; Bogie himself produced a gold nugget of a performance, but was left empty-handed when Academy Award nominations were handed out. Statuettes did go to Huston for his screenplay and direction, and to his father Walter for best supporting actor. The movie itself garnered a Best Picture nomination but lost in 1948 to Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet,” another guy with serious problems.
The new Two-Disc Special Edition DVD of “Treasure” is a mother lode of cinematic booty. One of the highlights is a making-of documentary narrated by writer-director John Milius. It’s an adventure story within an adventure story, since the long, serpentine path from first publication of the novel by a shadowy scribe named B. Traven to principal photography on location in Mexico - almost unheard of in 1947 - is itself as dangerous as an unexpected run-in with a gold-hatted bandito who has a disdain for badges (the marvelous Alfonso Bedoya). Producer Henry Blanke stalled the production until John Huston got back from World War II so he could direct.
With apologies to Bogart, the real star of “Treasure” is John Huston, who led one of those epic Hollywood lives jam-packed with booze, cigars, women, hunting, traveling, thrillseeking, moviemaking, partying, hunting and generally large living. Another doc on the disc, an older one about John Huston himself narrated by the late Robert Mitchum, could have used some gentle editing to pare down the less scintillating aspects of the director’s years. The movies he made were tight, concise and moved with the efficiency of a race-car engine; it only stands to reason that the story of his life should be told with the same economy. Still, there’s some delicious stuff in there, including a fascinating glimpse at Huston’s World War II documentary work and the U.S. Army’s efforts to suppress it.
The disc package also contains other goodies, such as a Humphrey Bogart trailer gallery (don’t miss his 1936 Tinseltown debut as the menacing Duke Mantee in “The Petrified Forest”), a feature length commentary by Bogart historian Eric Lax that is a veritable tidbit buffet, and an audio broadcast of “Treasure” from 1949 featuring Bogart and Walter Huston.
On the “making of” documentary, Martin Scorsese recounts a conversation he once had with director Elia Kazan (who passed away Sunday) in which Kazan commented on how fortunate they were to have worked in the same business that produced “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” After watching this disc, you’ll understand what he means.
Check out this feature: Casting is critical to the success of any production. The Warner Brothers/Looney Tunes short, “8 Ball Bunny” represents one of those magical moments when two legends of the screen, Bugs Bunny and Humphrey Bogart, collaborate, and the results are a filmgoer’s nirvana. The animated Bogie recreates the panhandling scenes with Bugs in much the same way the flesh-and-blood version worked with John Huston at the beginning of “Treasure,” although Huston with his impeccable white suit and hat puts the screwy rabbit to shame in the wardrobe department.
Suggested retail price: $19.98 (Warner Brothers).