DVDs: A jazzy Anita O’Day, a longer ‘Watchmen’

July 24, 2009

I don’t usually review DVDs, but these are two that have the tang of the new to them, at least for me.


“Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer” is a documentary that got by me last year – but watching the DVD made me a fan. O’Day is one of those artists whose heyday predated, well, Elvis and the Beatles, which was a watershed moment for all popular music – and a death knell for the market for jazz singers, at least in the U.S.


Not that O’Day was ever a pop singer. She may have had a few hits, may have been on TV and played the club circuit regularly. But she was never a household name in the way Ella Fitzgerald or even Billie Holliday were.


Except to jazz fans: The critics, musicians and scholars in this film place her in the pantheon with Fitzgerald and Holliday as a stylist and innovator who could transform a song into something uniquely her own.


This nonfiction film, directed by Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden, has the advantage of both a trove of archival interviews and new film of O’Day – from the 1940s to the 21st century, including interviews the filmmakers conducted with O’Day. They also filmed her final recording sessions and gigs, carried off in her late 80s, shortly before her death in 2006 at age 87.


O’Day speaks a kind of fast-paced be-bop, just as she sang it, but isn’t afraid to tell stories of her arrest, drug addiction and loneliness. By the end of the film, you’ll have developed a crush on the young Anita – slightly buck-toothed but with class and snap – and you’ll want to nurture the older Anita – frail but so feisty she seems unstoppable.


And you’ll be diving into iTunes, trying to decide which of the many offerings to download to satisfy the Anita O’Day craving this film will instill.



Meanwhile, I also want to recommend – again – “Watchmen,” now on DVD in a director’s cut that runs 24 minutes longer than the version that came out in March.


The director’s-cut gimmick can be a mixed bag. The “Lord of the Rings” extended versions just got richer with length. And, as strange as it may sound, Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor” was a far better film at four hours than at three. On the other hand, the various “director’s cut” versions of “Blade Runner” couldn’t improve on one of the most overpraised sci-fi tales of the past 30 years (amazing visual imagination, weak story-telling).


I was a big fan of “Watchmen” in its initial release, not exactly a minority opinion but close (64 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, 56 on Metacritic). Watching this version, I was reminded all over again how much I was dazzled by the film, not only by Zack Snyder’s visual storytelling – with its hyperviolence and stylized blend of action and computer-graphics – but by the script, which condensed a complex graphic novel into a rich, dense cinematic experience that captured and expanded upon the original.


I’m sure Warner Bros. choked on the idea of releasing a three-hour comic-book movie – which is why the theatrical version was a mere 162 minutes (he said ironically). But I have to say that the longer cut – including another 24 minutes – doesn’t add significantly. Indeed, what’s been reinstated, for the most part, are a few seconds here, a slight elongation of a scene there – but little that adds to the the cinematic tapestry.


Putting that material back doesn’t detract – but it hasn’t enriched or broadened the film, either. The only obvious scenes added are a sequence in which original Night Owl Hollis Mason (Stephen McHattie) is attacked in his apartment by a gang of thugs, after which the new Night Owl (Patrick Wilson) exacts revenge on a gang member at the end of a bar scene that was in the theatrical version. It’s easy to see why Snyder cut it out to speed things up. While the attack has a nice blend of violence and memory, it makes points about how times have changed that already have been made.


Still, I think this is a terrific piece of dark fantasy, far superior to the overrated “Dark Knight.” If you haven’t seen it, by all means check it out (as long as you know what you’re getting into, re the graphic violence – and Dr. Manhattan’s big blue member). Even if you have seen it, it’s a thrilling tale that holds up under repeat viewing.


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