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Cinematic force tweaked in Blu-ray debuts

By Tom Russo
Globe Correspondent / September 11, 2011

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Studios do a lot of strategizing and jockeying - and teeth-gnashing and cursing, no doubt - in trying to grab the most favorable release dates for their movies, particularly the biggies. It’s not just by chance that “Pirates of the Caribbean,’’ “Transformers,’’ and “Harry Potter’’ open when they do, and with at least a couple of weeks’ spread between them. There isn’t quite the same obsessive concern in the DVD corner of the business, at least judging by this week’s release slate, which includes the Blu-ray debuts of both “Citizen Kane’’ and “Star Wars.’’ You know, just a film widely acknowledged as the greatest ever made, and a franchise that changed the way movies are made, marketed, seen, and anticipated. (Oh, and we’ll also be seeing “Thor,’’ the year’s highest-grossing superhero movie, among other little odds and ends.)

Surprisingly, when “Star Wars: The Complete Saga’’ hits shelves on Sept. 16, it will mark the first time that George Lucas’s entire story line has been offered in one comprehensive edition. (The nine-disc set is priced at $139.99; separate sets of the original and prequel trilogies will also be available for $69.99 each.) The collection comes with 40 hours of geek-minded supplements, including previously unavailable deleted scenes. Look - it’s that abominable Wampa species from “The Empire Strikes Back,’’ not just manhandling Luke, but swarming the Rebel ice base! Among other bits newly sprung from the Lucasfilm archives: vintage interviews, concept art, and prop and costume studies. Meanwhile, a documentaries disc features a new 90-minute collection of “Star Wars’’ spoof highlights, from “The Simpsons’’ to Weird Al.

Still, none of that is what has fans furiously abuzz. The big, blogosphere-fomenting story about “The Complete Saga’’ is that Lucas has again tinkered with the movies themselves, just as he did when the original trilogy was re-released theatrically in 1997, and when it bowed on DVD in 2004. (For a recap, check out next month’s tellingly titled DVD offering “The People vs. George Lucas.’’) The faithful have mostly rolled their eyes at learning that Yoda, who was trotted out one more time as a puppet in 1999’s “The Phantom Menace,’’ has now been digitized in the film. But the mood has turned downright ugly over a change to a climactic moment in “Return of the Jedi.’’ In the original version, you’ll remember, Darth Vader looks on in silence as the Emperor threatens to torture Luke to death, leaving viewers to project their own sense of Vader’s inner turmoil onto that masked, expressionless face. On the Blu-ray, Vader cries out, “No!’’ before hurling the Emperor to his doom. Lucas isn’t radically changing the tone the way that he infamously did by, say, having Han Solo defensively shoot cantina nemesis Greedo in the ’97 “Star Wars’’ revamp. But it’s not a subtle move, either.

The tweak is intended to echo a similar outburst at the close of the prequel-capping “Revenge of the Sith.’’ But that’s no justification to many. Scoffs Entertainment Weekly, “This new ‘Noooo!’ is a slap-in-the-face reminder of . . . the precise moment when Darth Vader stopped being one of the great villains in cinema history and started being a punch line.’’ That’s hyperbole, of course - a fanboyish overstatement calculated to get people talking. And Lucas, let’s face it, is doing something not so different, really. Part of his motivation is creatively obsessive-compulsive, but part is also a characteristically shrewd play to keep “Star Wars’’ on the radar - to get people talking, or posting, or writing. Mission accomplished.

Consummate ‘Citizen’ There’s apparently somewhat less focus on generating fresh critical discussion about “Citizen Kane,’’ arriving on Sept. 13 in a sleekly packaged 70th anniversary “Ultimate Collector’s Edition.’’ The supplements accompanying Orson Welles’s masterwork are recycled from the film’s DVD debut a decade ago, notably commentaries by filmmaker-cineaste Peter Bogdanovich and Roger Ebert. Also included are the Oscar-nominated documentary “The Battle Over Citizen Kane,’’ chronicling the clash between Welles and fictionalized subject William Randolph Hearst, and the dramatization “RKO 281,’’ starring Liev Schreiber as Welles.

The Rosebud redux’s big emphasis, instead, is on presentation. The film has been restored in ultra-high-definition 4K resolution, rendering all of Welles’s technical virtuosity - the deep-focus camerawork, the shadow detail, the low-angle compositions - more dazzling than ever. (And boy, does that “News on the March’’ audio smash-cut give you a start now.) The set also boasts packaging that has some clever fun with Welles’s jigsaw-puzzle metaphors and motifs.

Maybe the vault minders could have used that as a theme - one of several, really - for reaffirming “Kane’s’’ relevance. Think of the possibilities: a commentary by Christopher Nolan on Welles and writer Herman J. Mankiewicz’s influence on non-linear puzzle box narratives to come. Or a roundtable with journalism heavyweights considering the film’s background portrait of an endangered medium from the vantage point of, well, an endangered medium. Or a segment riffing on how Charles Foster Kane’s ego-for-public-consumption approach to news plays in the social-media generation. These days, who isn’t the megalomaniacal chronicler of their own crazy world?

Tom Russo can be reached at

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