L.A. Story and the Mystery Of the Missing Commentary

Someone in the extras describes L.A. Story as being a brilliant comedic love story for the oft-maligned city of Los Angeles, which it absolutely is, and also a deeply beautiful romance between writer/ star Steve Martin and Victoria Tennant, which it isn't.  Yes, L.A. Story is a delight, full of brilliant gags, one of the world's best supporting casts (Richard E. Grant, Woody Harrelson, Rick Moranis, Kevin Pollak, Patrick Stewart, Chevy Chase, Larry Miller, Terry Jones, George Plimpton and even Juice Crew Allstar MC Shan) and genuinely intelligent writing about life in LA.  The opening homage to Fellini's 8 1/2 and the way it retains but deflates the pretentiousness of its many Shakespeare references are genius.  But the romance is shallow and feels tacked on.  It doesn't get as much screentime as it needs to flesh out the relationship, so it's forced to lean on textbook meet-cutes and coincidence-driven RomCom cliches.  And another sticking point is that Tennant is alright but a clear case of nepotism (she was Martin's wife at the time) spoiling the opportunity to cast a truly funny leading lady, like Lily Tomlin or Bette Midler, who could've brought as much to the role as the rest of the cast do to theirs.
Writing-wise, it's under-cooked too, and feels like it's pulling against the thrust of the main story.  Like, we have to keep stopping examining Martin's relationship with LA every time the screenplay takes a pit-stop at Tennant's B-story.  Really, she should be tied to the A-story.  I think the five-pointed love pentagram is over-complicated, since this film's already packed with so much great stuff already.  They probably should've aged up Sarah Jessica Parker's character (who manages to breathe a lot of humanity into an otherwise one-joke character), and have her been the final love interest.  So instead of Martin falling for this quirky journalist who just flew in from London, he'd be falling for this quirky shop girl (wink), whose eccentricities as an LA local would be part and parcel with Martin's love for LA, so every scene is on-theme.  Marilu Henner could be the outsider, a NY woman whose misunderstanding and lack of appreciation for LA's spirit would dovetail with them realizing they're wrong for each other.  Maybe that's too on the nose?  That's how I would fix it, but even if you don't like that, the point is that there is a major problem that needed fixing here.
But thankfully - dare I say magically? - Martin's homage to LA is so good, that you can easily get past the problem.  The film is packed with so many great jokes it starts out playing more like a classic Zucker Brothers' romp (or perhaps more significantly, like Martin's early classic films with Carl Reiner), but then Martin and director Mick Jackson manage to bump enough sincerity into it that you can't help being touched by the film's heart, even if it is misguided and rickety.  When the music swells and Martin and Tennant turn into small children, it really is an effective moment... helped by the fact that it's possibly the one moment where their relationship stays on-message with the rest of the film: LA celebrates and nurtures the residents' youthful ambitions.  The fact that it's dated (car phone jokes in the age of the smartphone, yadda yadda), doesn't even work against it, because you sense that it's perfectly capturing, and occasionally skewering, a very specific time and place in our history and culture in need of preserving... and a particularly silly one at that.
L.A. Story debuted on DVD all the way back in 1998 as a non-anamorphic disc in an Artisan snapper, which was reissued three years later with a proper amaray case.  They sowed some confusion as to whether these were actually the same discs (oh, we're going to get into that in a bit), but yes, they were.  We got updated discs in 2006, though, for Lions Gate's 15th Anniversary Edition (itself reissued in 2010 with a new cover and identical disc), which boasted a healthy, anamorphic remaster and all new extras.  And that's a good thing, because that's as good as it ever got, at least here in the USA.  In other parts of the world, it's actually been issued on blu plenty of times.  Personally, I went with the recent 2020 German release from Koch Media.
2001 Artisan DVD top; 2006 Lions Gate DVD mid; 2020 Koch BD bottom.
So the big upgrade came between the original DVDs and the 15th Anniversary.  Not only, as you can plainly see in the first set of shots, did we make the leap to an anamorphic picture, but the aspect ratio's been corrected from 1.80:1 to 1.84:1.  That may sound slim, but it means a decent chunk of image around the edges has been restored, in addition to some light overall reframing.  Also, the saturation has been brought down to normal levels as opposed to being blasted off the charts, which was an interesting look, but ultimately not too lifelike.  Then Koch's blu makes things even nicer.  It corrects the AR a bit more, to a good and proper 1.85:1, which despite technically being a tighter matte, actually adds extra slivers of info as it undoes some vertical pinching.  More importantly, though, it's just a sharper, clearer HD image with some nice, untouched film grain for an old master.  I was expecting that bare minimum bump, but the old DVD looks downright soft and messy compared to this surprisingly clean BD.  It's a pleasant surprise.

The original DVD includes the film's stereo surround mix with optional English and Spanish subtitles.  The 15th Anniversary DVD keeps all of that, but gets a bit showy by adding in a new 5.1 mix as well.  Well, happily, Koch has preserved both tracks in now lossless formats (PCM for the stereo and DTS-HD for the 5.1), as well as a PCM German dub.  The only downside is that they dumped the English (and Spanish) subs, replacing them with (naturally) German ones.
1998 US DVD top; 2001 US DVD bottom.
But doesn't the title of this post mention a "Missing Commentary?"  Yes, that's been the biggest drama in L.A. Story's history on disc.  See, the original 1998 snapper case listed its proper specs, but the 2001 re-release, which has the same UPC, featured new, updated specs promising a "Director's Commentary Track."  I can still feel how excited I was to upgrade, only to discover that inside was the same old, commentary-less disc, and the new information was some kind of crappy mistake.  Part of the reason it sticks with me is that this wasn't immediately obvious.  In those days you couldn't just pop a disc into your computer's DVD drive and analyze the disc's contents.  Finding obscure features and easter eggs was a slow, imperfect process that brought people like us together on online forums to puzzle it out.  It's not clearly demarcated on the menu and pressing the audio button during the movie doesn't work, but it certainly wouldn't have been the first DVD feature blocked from remote access.  And this disc WAS full of easter eggs tucked into obscure places that wouldn't even show up as distinct Titles in the disc directory.  So I know I'm the not the only person who wasted a lot of time hunting and pecking for that elusive commentary.  But no, it's definitely 100% not there. The 15th Anniversary Edition didn't come up with it either.
deleted scene... yes, John Lithgow is flying through LA in a jetpack
So instead let's talk about the special features that aren't dirty lies that conned us devoted double-dipping fans out of $20.  As you can see in the specs posted above, the original DVD had a featurette and easter eggs.  The featurette is your usual, brief promotional affair that doles out just the briefest interview soundbites and B-roll footage with a bunch of clips from the movie, almost like an extended trailer.  It's alright, but not much.  And the easter eggs, some easier to find than others, consisted of additional EPK interview clips with Jackson and the cast.  All told, there's a little over four minutes, which is nice but about as much as you'd expect for extras relegated to waster egg status.  It also has the trailer.

The 15th Anniversary was more of a special edition.  It still had the promo featurette, although in a slightly shorter form, cutting out about a minute of material including a clip from Roxanne, and a scene + interview clip with Sarah Jessica Parker.  But it adds higher quality stuff, including a detailed interview with the producer and an "interactive map," which basically amounts to an exploration of the film's shooting locations across thirteen video clips with the film's production manager.  These are both made with care and quite interesting.  But the jewel in the crown is the collection of over 20 minutes worth of deleted scenes, which includes a lot of great stuff.  There are whole subplots with John Lithgow and Scott Bakula who were completely cut out of the movie (though featured in the trailers), clearly just for time because they're great.  We also get an additional teaser, some bonus trailers, and a slipcover.
a brief, German-exclusive interview with Grant
And Koch's blu?  Happily, everything from the old DVDs is here.  Technically the easter eggs from the old DVD aren't, but all that footage and more is now spread across the other, newer extras.  The BD adds a collection of EPK interviews with the cast and producer, plus a collection of behind the scenes footage.  It also restores the longer version of the featurette... although that SJP soundbite, like the rest, are repeated in the extended interviews.  I'd actually recommend watching everything else and skipping the featurette, which is just redundant footage.  Anyway, the blu also now has five trailers for the film, additional TV spots and a stills gallery.  So yeah, it's nothing major, but it's everything from before and more.  The blu also comes in a slipcover and includes reversible artwork, so you can hide the garish yellow ratings icon.
So this blu is a strong recommend.  It looks better than I expected, with lossless audio and even some new extras.  But still no commentary.  I sometimes wonder if the session was planned but nobody got the memo that it had fallen through at the last minute, or if a commentary really was recorded and is still sitting in Artisan's vaults.  Maybe Jackson let it all hang out and the studio refused to release it, or maybe he was silent for more than half the picture, leaving the producers with a track full of dead air.  We'll probably never know.  But at least we finally have a home video edition that's worthy of this little gem.

No comments:

Post a Comment