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DVD Reviews

HTF Review: The Saddest Music In The World

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#1 of 19 OFFLINE   Jason Perez

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Posted December 03 2004 - 02:39 AM

Posted Image

The Saddest Music In The World

Studio: MGM
Year: 2003
Rated: R
Running Time: 101 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 16x9 Enhanced Widescreen (1.85:1)
Subtitles: English and Spanish
Audio: English – Dolby Digital 5.1

Release Date:
November 16th, 2004

While I believe his films fall squarely into the “not for everyone” category (indeed most operate in a world far removed from what most would consider “mainstream”), Canadian writer/director Guy Maddin (Dracula: Pages From A Virgin’s Diary) is certainly an uncompromisingly original and innovative filmmaker. Personally, one of the things I find most interesting about Maddin is his fascination with infusing the “feel” of the old silent films he loves into his creations, by employing such techniques as coating camera lenses with Vaseline to soften the image, removing frames during the editing process, and intentionally introducing grain and other imperfections into the image.

To be perfectly honest, I prefer the clean, colorful look of modern films. That being said, the way Maddin and company employ these archaic techniques to create such a wonderful atmosphere in his films, particularly The Saddest Music In The World, definitely strikes a chord with me. And while it may not be my usual cup of tea, I have the utmost respect for artists as proficient in their chosen medium as Guy Maddin is, and in this instance, I think his stylistic choices are a perfect fit for the film’s subject matter.

With regard to this particular film, over the past year I have heard several people argue that it is Maddin’s most “commercial” film yet, and while I agree to a point, The Saddest Music is still just as artistic, “out there”, and low-tech as any of the other Maddin films I have seen. Incidentally, aside from Dracula: PFAVD, and supposing that you care at all Posted Image , I have seen Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, The Heart of the World, and Cowards Bend the Knee. Eventually, I’ll see more, but I am sure you can relate to my problem - too many films to see, so little time to see them…

Anyway, since this portion of the review is supposed to give you an idea of what the film The Saddest Music In The World is about, I promise to stop prattling about the unique visual approach favored by Guy Maddin and begin describing the plot!
Our story commences in the year 1933, in Winnipeg, Canada, where the Lady Helen Port-Huntley (Isabella Rossellini) has just devised a contest to discover “the saddest music in the world”. The person submitting the winning song would receive the grand prize of $25,000, which is not exactly a lot of cash these days, but was a princely sum during the time of the Great Depression.

This may sound like the beginnings to a pretty straightforward story, but if you have seen any of Guy Maddin’s films, you already know that things are usually never as simple as they seem on the surface. For instance, our fair lady is not quite the patron of the arts that she appears to be. Indeed, as she has learned that Canada’s wealthy neighbor to the south is about to repeal its ban on alcoholic beverages, Helen’s devious ulterior motive is revealed…to utilize somber music (which presumably drives people to the bottle) to sell more alcohol, which she distributes. Hey, if this theory proves correct, what better way is there to sell her products than by continually playing the saddest song in the world?

Naturally, in Guy Maddin’s twisted world, Lady Port-Huntley’s contest draws forth an array of bizarre people that are competing against each other for the top honor, several of whom have extremely complex past relationships with each other. One of the top contestants is an entertainer/con-artist named Chester Kent (Mark McKinney), who has just returned to Canada with his memory-challenged girlfriend Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros) in tow. Looking for a way to score some cash, Chester stumbles across the information on Lady Port-Huntley’s contest, and sets his sights on the $25,000 prize money. He is confident that he has the talent to win, but his attitude changes a bit when he discovers that Lady Port-Huntley is a former lover.

As if the contest were not already interesting enough for Chester, he learns that his father, Dr. Fyodor Kent (David Fox) is planning to enter as well. Fyodor was in love with Helen first, but she ended up pursuing Chester, which caused the elder Kent to become an alcoholic. His addiction would have dire consequences for the Lady Port-Huntley as well though, for when she and Chester were in an automobile accident, the doctor removed both of her legs, in an effort to save her life. As it turns out, this procedure was unnecessary, but in his inebriated state Fyodor thought he was doing the right thing.

To continue with the family affair, Chester’s brother, Roderick (Ross McMillian), also throws his hat into Helen’s ring. Apparently, Roderick, who has been living in Serbia (going by the name “Gravillo the Great”), is also supremely confident that he can walk away with the prize. His reasoning is that he has suffered through many losses in life, including a terribly tragic event that later caused his marriage to dissolve, so he has the life experiences required to write truly sad music.

Of course, all three Kent men desperately want to win, so they each try to use whatever will give them an edge in the contest. To give a couple of examples, Chester tries to rekindle his relationship with Helen, and Fyodor fabricates some prosthetics for her, as a testament to that his feelings for her also remain strong. The early advantage goes to Chester, who works closely with Helen on his tune of woe, but as I mentioned before, you can never be too sure how things will turn out for the characters in a Guy Maddin film...

Now I don’t want to reveal too much, in case you haven’t seen it, so I will stop here. Even in doing so, this superficial level of plot detail should be enough to make it evident that the story is chock full of incredible coincidences, which knocks the film down a notch. Further, while none of it was cringe inducing, dialogue has a tendency to be a bit on the corny side, which also hinders the film slightly.

In my opinion, these flaws are relatively minor, but I do want to bring up one additional point for your consideration. You see, in watching this film several times for this review, I noticed my initial infatuation with The Saddest Music In The World’s bizarre characters and their intricate relationships, and the intriguing plot, began to fade with successive viewings. Perhaps the novelty of the film’s stylishness and crazy characters simply wore off, or perhaps watching it three times within a couple of days overwhelmed me. Whatever the reason, since I am a person who can watch movies many, many times without tiring of them, I thought it warranted mentioning.

On the other hand, I suppose that once you are really familiar with any film, certain aspects of it, especially the humor found therein, become less effective. In this case, however, I would imagine that the silent-movie effects favored by Guy Maddin might also become a source of irritation for some viewers. For me, the film’s style was not a problem, and the aforementioned flaws are not only overcome by Maddin’s steady hand and creativity as a director, but are not big enough issues to drive most people away from this film (at least in my opinion). Moreover, the sheer passion and artistry behind The Saddest Music In The World, particularly Guy Maddin’s loving reproduction of early melodrama, makes it a film worth watching.

For all of its simplicities, however, The Saddest Music In The World is also a very complex and surreal experience, with hidden messages couched neatly throughout. Of course, I could be dead wrong, but I interpreted certain elements of this film as subtle criticisms or commentaries on the business practices of large corporations, which sometimes dilute the differences between cultures to market their products, and consumer culture, in general. I surely do not want to overanalyze this film too much, but I do want to point out that these complexities are there for those who wish to look for them.

As I mentioned earlier, with respect to style, Guy Maddin’s adaptation of a novel by author Kazuo Ishiguo contains plenty of the skillfully executed tributes to both German Expressionist films and the silent comedies/melodramas that were popular during the cinema’s infancy that you might expect from him. Again, it is hard to imagine that everyone will be interested in this style, but I think there is always enough raw imagination on display in The Saddest Music In The World to warrant giving this sad song a listen or two. Simply put, The Saddest Music In The World is creative enough, entertaining enough, and good enough to warrant some attention, even though it contains a few minor flaws and might not hold up to many viewings for some folks.

For once, I find myself almost at a loss for words…well not really Posted Image , but it is rather difficult to assess the image quality of a film that is intentionally made to look like it was filmed in the era of silent films. I suppose we should begin by discussing the clarity of the image, which is presented in 16x9 enhanced widescreen (1.85:1). Apparently, the majority of The Saddest Music In The World was shot on a film stock that produces a lot of grain, which was desired by director Guy Maddin. The image is also fairly soft, since Vaseline was deliberately placed over the lens of the cameras to increase the illusion of age.

Obviously, the result of these techniques is a film that is less sharp than most of those made today, and which also exhibits a grainy, almost antique appearance that adds to its charm. Just for good measure, some flickering and a few light scratches were thrown in. Since the transfer depicts these stylistic qualities admirably, I think it deserves high marks for that. At the very least, the image does not look like it contains print defects or grain that does not belong there.

Turning to other aspects of the image, whites are bright and largely noise-free, and blacks are dark, smooth, and detailed. Contrast also never poses a problem, and I noticed no overt signs of edge enhancement. It is important to note that a handful of scenes either exhibit a bluish or reddish tint, or appear as if they have been colorized by the butchers who used to colorize black-and-white classics some years back. These are similar in quality to the rest of the film, and fit in with its style, despite their somewhat unnatural appearance.

Essentially, this is a very nice transfer of a film that was deliberately made to look “old”. For those of you who enjoyed this film in the theaters, I can’t see you being disappointed with the way MGM has encoded it for home viewing.

Much like its visuals, the filmmakers purposefully manipulated The Saddest Music In The World’s soundtrack to enhance the feeling that viewers are watching an older film. In particular, crackling sounds, a light hiss, and other defects that go a long way towards achieving Guy Maddin’s desired effect have been sprinkled throughout.

Indeed, although it is always audible, dialogue often sounded thin to me, as if the media it had been recorded on had deteriorated due to extreme age. Again, however, this is a stylistic choice, and both characters’ speech and the music in the film sounds good, all things considered.

Since I usually begin this portion of the review with a comment on the spaciousness of the soundstage, or the quality of the disc’s frequency response, you may be wondering how the film sounds in 5.1 channel Dolby Digital. Well, honestly, this is a rather tame mix (fitting for the source material), with the vast majority of the film’s audio information is emitted from the front of the soundstage. More specifically, the LFE channel is used very subtly, and the surround channels are used mainly to generate ambience (crowd noise) or give the film’s music a bit more room to breathe. The rears are also used to reproduce a location specific effect or two, but make no mistake about it, this track almost might as well have been offered in monaural.


Short Films

There are three fairly interesting short films included, two of which seem like they could have been made concurrently with Saddest Music (they appear to have been filmed in the same style and on the same sets). “Sissy Boy Slap Party” was apparently filmed during 1995. Each of the films runs for four minutes, give or take. The following is a very brief description of each:

--- “A Trip To The Orphanage”
This short seems like it could have been an outtake from the film, and features a song of sorrow being sung in an orphanage. It concludes by posing the question: “The Saddest Music In The World?”

--- “Sombra Dolorosa”
In this short, a mother engages in a wrestling match with the demon “El Muerto”, and must defeat him before the eclipse, to prevent her daughter from taking her own life.

--- “Sissy Boy Slap Party”
The name about says it all – a bunch of semi-nude men slapping each other around. Bizarre and interesting, I suppose, but not really my thing…

Teardrops In The Snow
Clocking in at a robust 26-minutes, this making of The Saddest Music In The World offers an interesting look at an unusual and entertaining film. It is even narrated by Orson Welles (okay, not really)! During the course of its running time, there are a variety of interesting topics addressed by director Guy Maddin, and key people associated with this film, including the adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel for the screen, and Mr. Maddin’s approach to creating the film’s signature low-tech look.

If you are buying this film, I am sure you are already planning on watching this, so I am probably wasting my breath, but make sure not to miss this “making of”, as it is very thoughtful, interesting, and detailed! I only wish it was a little longer!

The Saddest Characters In The World
“Saddest Characters”, which runs for 22 minutes, is an interesting companion piece to the other featurette on the disc. In fact, it almost seems like a continuation of “Teardrops In The Snow”, only this time out the cast elaborates on the characters in this story, and the casting process. In my opinion, this featurette was not quite as interesting as “Teardrops”, but it is still a worthwhile watch for fans of the film.

There are a total of 9 short teaser trailers included, along with the original theatrical trailer for The Saddest Music In The World.

Promotional Materials
The disc kicks off with trailers for Walking Tall and Coffee and Cigarettes, which can also be viewed via the special features menu. On the same menu, there is a promo entitled “MGM Means Great Movies” and trailers for: Bubba Ho-Tep, Touching The Void, Walking Tall, Saved!, and Intermission.

In addition, there is cover art for: Fargo, Cyrano de Bergerac, Blue Velvet, Eat Drink Man Woman, and Wild at Heart: Special Edition.


(on a five-point scale)
Film: Posted Image Posted Image Posted Image Posted Image
Video: Posted Image Posted Image Posted Image Posted Image
Audio: Posted Image Posted Image Posted Image Posted Image
Extras: Posted Image Posted Image Posted Image Posted Image
Overall: Posted Image Posted Image Posted Image Posted Image

As I mentioned in my write-up on the film, I am certainly not as familiar with Guy Maddin’s work as some (probably most) of you that frequent the Home Theater Forum undoubtedly are. That being said, it seems pretty clear to me that The Saddest Music In The World is not a film that will appeal to the masses who line up in droves to the latest “heavy on effects, light on acting and plot” blockbuster playing in 10 of the 12 screens at their multiplex. Not that there is anything wrong with that, mind you…

In any event, if you have yet to experience one of Mr. Maddin’s films, The Saddest Music In The World would be the one I suggest you start with, as it is definitely the most “accessible” of his films that I have seen. At the very least, it should leave you feeling that there is still some originality in the wonderful art that is film. Now I am a bit concerned that the many coincidences in the story, somewhat corny dialogue, and unique look may mean that this film might not hold up to repeat viewings for some viewers. For me, however, this is one of the more unique and creative films I have seen in some time, and definitely a worthwhile experience (if only once or a couple of times)!

I will close by saying that if you have already seen the film, and enjoyed it, this release definitely warrants some consideration for a spot in your DVD library. In terms of the technical aspects of the disc, the transfers for both the audio and the image are fine, presenting the artificially “aged” source material with precision. In addition, there are a variety of interesting, strange, and well-produced bonus materials available for fans of the film to enjoy.

In considering all of these factors, I can easily recommend The Saddest Music In The World to both those who have seen it and those who think it sounds interesting! Of course, as always, if you have any doubts, rent or borrow first!

Stay tuned…
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#2 of 19 OFFLINE   Aaron Silverman

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Posted December 03 2004 - 06:42 AM

I haven't seen any of Maddin's films yet, but this one sure sounds interesting! Nice review.
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#3 of 19 OFFLINE   Jeff Kuykendall

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Posted December 03 2004 - 07:29 AM

Thanks for the great review. Maddin is one of my favorite filmmakers, and if you liked him, you should probably check out Careful (my personal favorite), on a great DVD from Kino which also has an hourlong documentary on Maddin's work, narrated by Tom Waits. Careful is an Oedipal drama set in an Alpine village where the slightest sound can cause an avalanche, so all residents speak in whispers, and the vocal cords of all the dogs have been cut (!). The use of color and stylized sets is amazing.
The only disappointing aspect of the Saddest Music disc, for me, is that there is no Maddin commentary track--unlike all the other Maddin DVDs out there, all of which are highly recommended. He's a very funny, intelligent speaker.
BTW, you mention the dialogue's kind of "corny"...this is obviously deliberate, and I think influenced by Maddin's love of 19th century Gothic-romance novels.
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#4 of 19 OFFLINE   ChrisBEA



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Posted December 04 2004 - 03:45 AM

Thanks for the review, this was my first experience with Maddin and I absolutely loved this film!

#5 of 19 OFFLINE   Joe Cortez

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Posted December 06 2004 - 02:15 PM

Thanks for the review. Maddin's definitely an acquired taste (one that I'm not sure I've gotten used to yet), but his stuff is definitely more interesting than most other films out there today.

#6 of 19 OFFLINE   Tom Tsai

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Posted December 06 2004 - 02:38 PM

Does anyone have the Canadian version by TVA Films? The only information I have is from the following pics:
http://www.dvdsoon.c....80&quality=0.8 Posted Image

It says 1.78:1 on the box while the MGM release has 1.85. Also, the Canadian version seems to be missing the "The Saddest Characters In The World" featurette. Can anyone confirm this?

#7 of 19 OFFLINE   Jeff Kuykendall

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Posted December 07 2004 - 02:30 AM

Ack! This one has director's commentary and the US version doesn't? Why?
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#8 of 19 OFFLINE   Rich Malloy

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Posted December 07 2004 - 03:24 AM

Thanks for the great review. Maddin is one of my favorite filmmakers, and if you liked him, you should probably check out Careful (my personal favorite), on a great DVD from Kino which also has an hourlong documentary on Maddin's work, narrated by Tom Waits.
I totally agree (in fact, I wrote a way-overcooked review of the DVD here: http://www.dvdbeaver...eful review.htm. This is the film that caused me to fall in love with Maddin's work, and it's still my favorite, though "Archangel" is nearly as good, and the short film "The Heart of the World" may truly be his most phenomenal creation of all.

And after hearing about "Sissy Boy Slap Party" for years, never expecting to actually see it, let me say that it comes as advertised and is even more hilarious than I'd hoped!

As for the Canadian TVA disc, well... a travesty, apparently. Read it and weep: http://www.dvdbeaver....intheworld.htm
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#9 of 19 OFFLINE   Tom Tsai

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Posted December 07 2004 - 03:37 AM

^ yikes to the Canadian version. Did TVA correct their mistake?

#10 of 19 OFFLINE   WarrenM


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Posted December 07 2004 - 04:42 AM

Apparently TVA released a corrected version of the TVA release on the 23rd of November. I don't know anything about it, although there was some postings on amazon.ca that said it would be non-anamorphic.

#11 of 19 OFFLINE   Luc Labelle

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Posted December 11 2004 - 04:04 AM

The review on dvdbeaver.com is accurate, the framing and ghosting issues on this DVD are atrocious. I first viewed this movie at the NSI Film Festival for the Winnipeg premiere of The Saddest Music in the World. Both Guy Maddin and Mark McKinney spoke after the screening. They were equally funny and informative which is also reflected in the DVD commentary.

Oddly enough all of the extras were presented in their proper aspect ratios but the feature is butchered. I have contacted TVA about correcting this problem as I have no intentions of ever owning a DVD with an incorrect aspect ratio.

As far as the movie is concerned, I liked it the first time I viewed it but I was not completely satisfied. I have now seen it three more times and it has grown on me with each subsequent viewing. My favorite screening was at the Gimli Film festival where some of the movies are presented on a screen setup in Lake Winnipeg as we sit on the beach.

I will post again when I hear from TVA.

#12 of 19 OFFLINE   Luc Labelle

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Posted December 17 2004 - 04:01 PM

Well I have finally heard back from TVA. Paola Sarti stated the following:
Please return the DVD to your store and they will proceed with an exchange of product.
I have sent off another e-mail asking to clarify whether the exchange he mentions is for a corrected version of the same DVD. Unfortunately, I doubt that is the case. Exchanging for something different makes no sense... I want The Saddest Music in the World presented properly.

I could see asking for a refund because of the falsely advertised product. Though I could import the US version I would lose out on the Guy Maddin, Mark McKinney commentary.

#13 of 19 OFFLINE   Luc Labelle

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Posted December 21 2004 - 10:19 AM

TVA has contacted me clarifying the original e-mail. The exchange he mentions is for a corrected version of The Saddest Music in the World as Paola stated
Yes... as per my email... there is a corrected version widescreen 1:78. Please refer to your store.
So this has definitely been fixed though the incorrect version is probably still on store shelves.

#14 of 19 OFFLINE   Tom Tsai

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Posted December 21 2004 - 03:16 PM

^ so is it indeed non-anamorphic?

#15 of 19 OFFLINE   Luc Labelle

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Posted December 21 2004 - 03:42 PM

Judging by the way they handled the initial release I am afraid they may have taken the zoomed and cropped mistake and just matted it. Presto! 1.78 widescreen.

I hope not. I'll chime back in when and if I get my hands on the corrected version.

#16 of 19 OFFLINE   Joel C

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Posted December 21 2004 - 08:40 PM

How is the commentary? I wish it was on the US release, otherwise the disc is great.
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#17 of 19 OFFLINE   Rich Malloy

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Posted December 22 2004 - 04:26 AM

All of Maddin's commentaries are really interesting and engaging, so I'm holding off purchase to see whether TVA gets this right. If the "fixed" transfer turns out as good as the US version, then it would definitely be worth it to me to get the TVA version.
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#18 of 19 OFFLINE   Luc Labelle

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Posted December 24 2004 - 08:05 AM


The commentary is excellent. Guy Maddin and Mark McKinney are together and speak to one another during the entire commentary as they are watching the movie. It is all screen specific and either one is virtually always talking. The comments are varied, dealing with pre and post-production, casting, costumes and on-set experiences and technical issues and choices. Guy Maddin is very well-versed in film and world history and he comments often about specific influences even to the level of why he might have a certain object on screen in a scene.

I was somewhat surprised Mark McKinney was equally impressive a film buff giving very interesting anecdotes about script, performance and film-making.

My favorite comment was Guy Maddin discussing the cinematography for a scene.
One of the few three shots I've ever had in a movie and with depth of field, if you can call a shot that has film grain the size of baseballs depth of field..."

The commentary is technical, personal and informative and almost always humorous in some way.

I have contacted the store for a corrected copy but the process may be slow. They are going to contact their warehouse after Christmas and then make sure TVA has distributed a new version. I will post when I have the opportunity to view the new DVD.

#19 of 19 OFFLINE   Luc Labelle

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Posted April 03 2005 - 04:07 AM

screen capture comparison

I finally received the corrected version. It is easily identifiable by a widescreen banner at the top of the cover. As well, the UPC code for the correct version is 24255 00313.