- The Washington Times - Friday, March 20, 2009

The 400 Blows (Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, $39.95) — “The 400 Blows” is so many things: a semi-autobiographical look at one of cinema’s great auteurs, Francois Truffaut; a founding text of the French new wave; a heartfelt, unsentimental glimpse of childhood. As of Tuesday, it’s also a Criterion Collection Blu-ray, and a must-own for any cinephile.

“Les quatre cents coups,” as it’s called in the French, follows the travails of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud), a mischievous teenager whose home life is modeled on Mr. Truffaut’s own childhood. Constantly in trouble at school, Antoine finds little relief at home. His mother is distant and unaffectionate, while his kind stepfather thinks military academy might be the solution to his restlessness.

The 1959 film features the hallmarks of the French new wave. Freed from the constraints of a studio, Mr. Truffaut set young Antoine and his rascally compatriot Rene (Patrick Auffay) loose in the streets and cinemas of Paris. He embraced realism without getting bogged down in the stuffiness of the neorealists then at work in Italy.

As Annette Insdorf, professor and director of undergraduate film studies at Columbia University, notes in an essay accompanying the Blu-ray, “The 400 Blows” was “also an elaboration of what the French New Wave directors would embrace as the ‘camera-stylo’ (camera as pen), whose ‘ecriture’ (writing style) could express the filmmaker as personally as a novelist’s pen.”

The bonus features accompanying the disc are uniformly interesting, although they’ll be familiar to anyone who already owns the standard-def DVD release. Still, the pristine new transfer makes this a tempting purchase for anyone who has upgraded to a high-def system in the last few years.

A commentary by professor Brian Stonehill serves as an excellent crash course on both Mr. Truffaut and the French new wave, while a second commentary by the auteur’s “lifelong friend” Robert Lachenay sheds light on Mr. Truffaut’s early years that this film covers. There are also archive interviews with Mr. Truffaut in which he discusses his own critical thoughts on the film, American cinema, and a rare audition reel with the film’s major players.

Sonny Bunch

The Last Metro (Criterion Collection, $39.95 for DVD or Blu-ray) — “The Last Metro” (1980) was one of the last films Francois Truffaut made before his early death in 1984. The tale of a theater company struggling to survive in Nazi-occupied Paris feels like a crowd pleaser at first, with its handsome cast, romantic sparks and sometimes farcical humor. By the end it has become more, a very moving testament to human integrity and survival. France had seemed a bit unwilling to look at its years of collaboration, but “The Last Metro” was a great success, winning 10 Cesar Awards, including best picture, best actor and best actress.

The incomparable Catherine Deneuve stars as Marion Steiner, the gentile actress wife of a Jewish theater owner and director. She’s forced to take on the responsibility for running the business while her husband Lucas (Heinz Bennent) hides in the cellar yet follows everything that goes on in his much-loved theater. Some of the best scenes in the film showcase the loving back-and-forth humor of the couple, but the situation is almost as trying on Marion as it is on her husband. She spends more time these days with the handsome, budding young actor Bernard Granger (Gerard Depardieu). Nobody seems to notice that the man is distracted by more than just the pretty women around him — he’s also working with the Resistance.

It might be a bad time to be in Paris, but it’s not such a bad time to be in the theater business — many homes are without heat, so Parisians flock to the theater and cinema to stay warm. Marion and her crew have to navigate a course between principle and compromise, though, in getting a permit from the censor and staying in the good graces of critic-turned-collaborator Daxiat (Jean-Louis Richard).

This film is informed by politics through-and-through, but it’s the intimate scenes between men and women that give it the most poignancy. Perhaps the most memorable moments are when the two are combined: a seemingly simple scene in which Marion reads Daxiat’s review of their play, which the critic can tell Lucas has had a hand in, combines the urgency of both love and politics.

As usual, the Criterion Collection has given us both a beautiful transfer — the liberated stage is a bright contrast to the gloomy occupied streets of Paris — and an impressive set of extras. There are two audio commentaries: one by professor Annette Insdorf, an authority on the French New Wave; the other by Mr. Depardieu, historian Jean-Pierre Azema and Truffaut biographer Serge Toubiana. There are new video interviews with actresses and crew involved in the film, and one with cinematographer Nestor Almendros, who talks about his career with the director. One might wonder why the deleted scene included here was cut — it adds a lot to the film, but apparently Mr. Truffaut felt the film would be too long with it. (It’s 131 minutes as it stands.)

A French television interview with Mr. Truffaut and his two stars that was done when the film was released turns out to be very informative. The filmmaker says he based this work on real-life actors’ memoirs and newspapers published during the occupation. The interviewer compares this film to another of Mr. Truffaut’s look at actors, the movie-making crew of 1974’s “Day for Night.” The director slyly says, “I’ve made 19 films and sadly, we must reinvent ourselves, and we do that by copying our past work.” He then goes on to say how much “The Last Metro” shares in common with his “Jules and Jim.”

Another nice extra is the 1958 short, “Une histoire d’eau” (“A Story of Water”), co-directed by Mr. Truffaut and Mr. Godard. Mr. Truffaut’s sense of fun is on full display here.

Kelly Jane Torrance

Bolt (Disney, $29.99; three-disc set includes Blue-ray, DVD and digital copy) — This Oscar-nominated tale technically excels with brilliantly detailed animation in the spirit of such predecessors as “The Incredibles” or “Toy Story.”

Sadly, the same can’t be said for its story: A pampered action movie dog is thrust into reality and forced to survive on dirty city streets. The gist is that the grit and authenticity of real life trumps Hollywood, with all its smarmy agents and insincere praise.

Fine. But what’s in it for a 6-year-old? That’s hard to say because the movie’s opening scene — which includes a scary villain and his henchmen — would horrify any first-grader, and yet the story line is hardly sophisticated enough for a middle-schooler.

Bonus features include a music video with Miley Cyrus (who voices the film’s sweet girl star Penny, Bolt’s owner) and John Travolta (the voice of Bolt).

Gabriella Boston

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