Tuesday, May 10, 2011

DVD/Blu-ray Review: 'Blue Valentine'

“Blue Valentine” garnered a great deal of buzz in December 2010 when it was slapped with an NC-17 rating. Eventually the Weinstein Company managed to release is with an R rating without having to make any cuts to the film. I honestly don’t see what the big deal was about, the sex scenes that were cited in the original ruling are way less graphic, and way more tame than what you get in a lot of standard R movies. The discussion about the arbitrary nature of the ratings system is a topic for another time, but “Blue Valentine” is now out on DVD and Blu-ray, so if you, like me, missed out on the theatrical release, you can check it out and judge for yourself.

The Movie:

“Blue Valentine” is an excellent film. Ryan Gosling continues to prove his talent and versatility as an actor, and Michelle Williams definitely earned that Academy Award nomination. It is a subtle, beautifully filmed, inventively structured portrait of a crumbling marriage and the lengths people will go to in order to save something that can’t be saved. It is also a stone fucking bummer. Good god “Blue Valentine” is depressing, but I guess a movie that begins with little girl looking for a lost dog that turns out to be dead doesn’t set the stage for roses and sunshine. Don’t get me wrong, you should definitely watch it, just prepare yourself to have a dark cloud cast over your day for 112 minutes. “Blue Valentine” is a movie about love, but it is most definitely not a cuddly date movie.

Cindy (Williams) and Dean (Gosling) are a married couple whose union is in some serious trouble, though neither will admit it. Dean is funny and charming, and delights their daughter, Frankie (Faith Wladyka) because he is essentially a child himself. You can imagine how this part of his personality once attracted Cindy to him, but as he encourages Frankie to “eat like a leopard” instead of getting her to eat her breakfast quickly so they can take her to school, you also understand Cindy’s frustration at having to deal with his antics day after day. She is solemn and dour, and thinks Dean is wasting his potential. What she doesn’t see is that this is his dream. He doesn’t need to drink a beer every morning before he goes to his job painting houses, he has a job where he gets to have a beer before work. His choice of employment is only a means to an end, spending time with Cindy and Frankie.

On a rare night without the rug rat, Cindy and Dean decide to get away and go to a skeevy sex hotel, the kind of place with themed rooms. In the middle of the “future room”, which looks like a rejected set from an episode of “Star Trek”, they pour bottle after bottle of booze on their problems, and all of their issues boil up to the top in a night of desperate sex and hard edged truths that they can’t avoid any longer.

As you watch the relationship between Cindy and Dean collapse, “Blue Valentine” flashes back to how they met, allowing you to witness the birth and death of their relationship simultaneously. While their romance is sweet and dreamy, at times it almost seems like fate that they met and got together, after a while you realize that everything is not as ideal as it seems at first. Their whole relationship is built on an unsound foundation. There is never one big moment where everything changes, in Dean’s case that’s the problem, but as you look back, you watch as things spiral out of control to the unavoidable conclusion.

“Blue Valentine” is raw movie, one that is not always easy to watch, but that in the end sticks with you. If for no other reason, check this out just to see Gosling and Williams together on screen. They’re young, pretty, and vaguely hipsterish, but despite those trappings, they both give astonishing performances, and their relationship is bleak and brutal, and most importantly, real.

The DVD/Blu-ray:

The centerpiece is the commentary track with writer/director Derek Cianfrance and editor Jim Helson, who have been close friends since film school, and have an easy back and forth. The track is a good mix of anecdotes and technical information. Cianfrance talks at length about his quest for authenticity in the film, going so far as to sneak in and film the actors being woken up. Frankie is supposed to hate oatmeal, but Faith Wladyka, the child actor who plays the young girl, is quite fond of the goopy stuff, so Cianfrance had Michelle Williams load it up with salt until he got the desired reaction. And just when you’re about to get sick of these on set stories, they drop a nugget about how they filmed the present sequences with a pair of Red cameras, but shot the flashbacks in Super 16.

There are 20 minutes of deleted scenes. One is a moment between Dean and a co-worker (Casey Westbrook) that is fun, but ultimately clashes with the tone and mood of the rest of the film. The remaining three are moments in the courtship between Dean and Cindy, where they do cute things like play fight in the rain and ride a merry-go-round at a park. In this case there were already scenes in the final film that accomplish the same thing while being much more streamlined and compact. If they had been left in, you would start to get annoyed by how cute and precious they are.

While the making-of item features the usual cast and crew interviews, it is interesting to listen to the approach Cianfrance took with his actors, and how he kept the idea fresh for himself, despite working on it for over a decade. With the flashbacks, Dean and Cindy had no history, and got to know each other on film, so Cianfrance kept Gosling and Williams apart until the first meet in front of the camera. The present scenes required them to have a shared history. In order to achieve this, they halted production for a month, and the two actors, as well as Wladyka, lived in a house together, where they cooked, cleaned, lived, and even made home movies together.

The final extra is s short home movie that Williams, Gosling, and Wladyka made together, about a unicorn and a musical animal doctor.

Unlike a lot of DVD/Blu-ray releases that come with a lot of extras that add little to the film, the bonus material on the “Blue Valentine” disc actually enhances the experience of watching the movie, and don’t say the same things over and over again.

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