DVD Review HTF Review: Undertow

Discussion in 'DVD' started by Jason Perez, May 11, 2005.

  1. Jason Perez

    Jason Perez Second Unit

    Jul 6, 2003
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    Studio: MGM
    Year: 2004
    Rated: R
    Running Time: 108 minutes
    Aspect Ratio: 16x9 Enhanced Widescreen (1.85:1)
    Subtitles: English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish
    Audio: English – Dolby Digital 5.1; French and Portuguese – Stereo Surround

    Release Date:
    April 26th, 2005

    Writer-director David Gordon Green, a young filmmaker whose star is on the rise, seems to have a fascination with both 1970s cinema and the American South, which his dark, gritty film Undertow’s style and substance makes evident! Of course, those of you familiar with Green’s films will know that he adds his own personal touches to the ‘70s blueprint that he follows, which has resulted in some truly unique, interesting, and critically lauded films. On that note, if you are unfamiliar with Mr. Green’s work, and taking in Undertow makes you interested in what else he might have to offer, check out his first two films, George Washington and All the Real Girls, which are really worth seeking out!

    Anyway, back to business - Undertow’s story unfolds on a tiny, isolated farm in Georgia, where widower John Munn (Dermot Mulroney) is raising his two boys Chris and Tim (Jamie Bell and Devon Alan, respectively). Chris, being the hardier of the two boys, helps out with the vast majority of the chores on the farm, and the younger, weaker Tim appears to have a variety of health, nutritional, and psychological issues. However, while the elder boy is more helpful, he is not without problems of his own, as he is a bit rebellious and gets himself in trouble while pursuing a relationship with a cute young girl that caught his eye.

    Yes, John has it tough – he is trying to cope with the loss of his spouse, keep his farm going with minimal help, and raise his two somewhat troubled boys alone. Things couldn’t possibly get any worse, could they? You bet they could, for when John’s ex-con brother, Deel (Josh Lucas), shows up unexpectedly, in hopes of finding a place to stay, the Munn family’s simple way of life is changed both suddenly and violently.

    Ever the con man, Deel claims to have changed his ways, and says he is hoping to reconnect with his brother. As it turns out, however, Deel believes John is responsible for cheating him out of his inheritance (and his woman), and is really after both revenge and a few gold coins he knows his brother has stashed away. When the inevitable confrontation between the siblings occurs, and their argument gets physical, John comes up on the losing end, dying by his own brother’s hand.

    Subsequently, the frightened Chris and Tim find themselves on the run, having to rely on their smarts (mostly Chris’) just to stay one step ahead of their violent and money-hungry uncle. Sounds like a straightforward thriller, right? Well, in the hands of anyone other than David Gordon Green, it probably would have played that way, but Green’s directorial skills and unique vision morphed what could have been a predictable, run-of-the-mill “chase” film into a wonderfully rich and complex drama about family ties.

    Granted, story-wise, this is not exactly ground-breaking material, but I think Green was able to compensate for this by using his skill and sense of style to craft a locale and characters that are richly realized, and set up an interesting showdown between the boys and their evil uncle Deel in an old junkyard. Further, while they are on the run, Green really develops a strong bond between the two brothers, rooted not only in their blood relationship but in the experiences they share, the trials they face, and the strange people they meet on their journey.

    It doesn’t hurt that the performances are also of high quality, which make the characters seem even more like real, honest-to-goodness people. For example, Jaime Bell (Billy Elliot) absolutely shines during the latter stages of the film, and Josh Lucas does a terrific job of making Deel Munn a really menacing and disagreeable person for him to lock horns with. Having seen Lucas only in The Hulk and Sweet Home Alabama (gotta keep the wife happy! [​IMG] ) I had no idea he was such a capable actor, and was impressed by the command he had over his role. Dermot Mulroney also proved to be an excellent choice to play the lone parent in the boys’ lives, and young Devon Alan gives the strange, feeble character Tim a lot of depth with a performance filled with subtlety and sadness.

    More impressive still is that while all of these actors turned in great performances, they really meshed well with one another. Perhaps their great chemistry is another reason why Undertow is a better film than a synapses of the story might suggest. Really, the interplay between this particular group of actors amazed me, and they were all so into their characters that it is hard for me to imagine a better fit for any of the lead roles in the film.

    From a technical standpoint, the film is also first-rate. More specifically, the visuals sure seem to achieve what David Gordon Green must have had in mind – lush textures, a vivid atmosphere, and an almost unbelievably beautiful rendering of some really grimy locations by director of photography Tim Orr. Indeed, imagery is almost a character in this film, and it really goes a long way towards establishing the appropriate atmosphere for the events depicted herein to unfold in. Philip Glass’ mesmerizing, ethereal score also aids in this regard, giving Undertow an even greater ability to generate the desired emotional effects in viewers.

    Then again, as good as all this sounds, I am also left with the feeling that a much of Undertow’s success is attributable to David Gordon Green, whose distinctive style goes a long way towards establishing a compelling, organic environment within which to spin his intriguing yarn. The sense of purpose with which he employs different visual techniques is amazing as well, as they not only avoid becoming “gimmicky” but also enhance the narrative! Keep your eyes on this man’s work, ladies and gentlemen, because he definitely has all the tools to continue making great films. Whether anyone will go and see them is another matter, but at least we have that wonderful little format called DVD to give films that deserve to be seen as much as Undertow does a new lease on life.

    As I alluded to above, Undertow is a film that is both muddy and beautiful all at once, and the anamorphically enhanced widescreen (1.85:1) presentation brings home both aspects of the image in a wonderfully realistic manner! I was particularly surprised to find that the rich, earth-tone-heavy colors are both smooth and nicely saturated, with even subtle gradations in the mud that frequently coats the characters being apparent. When you can see them, the actors’ skin tones also appear to be quite faithful throughout the feature.

    Another plus is that the film’s black level is stellar, so shadows exhibit plenty of detail and the image boasts an almost tangible sense of texture. The graininess (likely to be intentional) of many scenes is also never a source of distraction, and probably adds a degree of charm to the film, but I did notice some minor print damage from time to time, which was a bit surprising, given that Undertow is a pretty recent production.

    The only other knock I had against the transfer was the minimal, but still visible, application of edge enhancement throughout the feature. That being said, I did not notice the presence of artifacts or other digital nasties, and the ringing that results from the application of edge enhancement really cannot be called anything more than a very, very minor distraction. More precisely, I wish it wasn’t there at all, but I can’t imagine it will disturb most viewers too much.

    All in all then, aside from a couple of extremely minor issues, this is an outstanding image transfer, which presents Undertow very well!

    Offered by MGM in Dolby Digital (5.1), the soundtrack for Undertow is not quite as good as the image transfer, but it still reproduces the film’s audio information nicely, especially composer Philip Glass’ eerie score. Most importantly though, characters’ speech is clear and defined throughout, so it is never much of a chore to understand what is being said.

    The presentation is front-and-center for the most part, so the rear channels only see a lot of action during a handful of pivotal sequences when they are employed to give viewers an appropriate sense of ambience and space. More often than not, the rears are used in a more typical fashion, namely to emphasize the score or reproduce environmental sounds, although even in those cases their use is very, very subtle indeed. Bass response is equally reserved, which is to be expected, since there really are not too many instances where powerful, room-rattling bass is called for by the source material.

    Thus, on the whole, I would not count this Dolby Digital soundtrack in amongst the most immersive and engaging soundtracks I have heard, but it does offer a fine reproduction of Undertow’s audio information.


    Deleted Scenes
    Although they are not exactly in prime condition, in terms of appearance, two deleted scenes are included. Both of these sequences, which were introduced (via text) by David Gordon Green, were trimmed because they did not mesh well with the rest of the material in the film’s final cut. They are entitled:

    --- The Pelas’ Baby
    --- On The River Bank

    Under The Undertow
    This entertaining 30-minute “making of”, which has an optional introduction by actor Josh Lucas, offers a look at the making of the film via behind-the-scenes footage (recorded by Josh Lucas himself and other would-be documentarians) and interviews with the principal cast and crew. Overall, the footage has an intimate quality to it, and the interviews are extremely interesting and thoughtful, which makes it a great companion piece to the film.

    For instance, among other amusing anecdotes from the set, viewers will learn how an accident involving Jamie Bell required director David Gordon Green had to serve as a stunt double in a scene that would have required the actor to run! There is also plenty of interesting and thoughtful analysis by the actors about the story and why they were attracted to it.

    To sum it up, this documentary is so well done and uncharacteristic of the promotional fluff usually included on DVDs that I am not going to ruin the experience by revealing too many details. I can tell you this though - if you enjoy Undertow, I think you will really get a lot out of this extra. Personally, I found it well worth the half-hour I spent watching it!!!

    Audio Commentary
    Wow! The feature-length audio commentary (which is excellent, by the way) is contributed by director David Gordon Green and actor Jamie Bell, who are not only very easy to listen to, but really seem to have developed quite a friendship while making Undertow. Among the more interesting tidbits these two men reveal are:

    --- David Green talks (very intelligently) about a myriad of films that influenced Undertow, his approach to storytelling, and the effort to pick locations that would give the film a distinctive look.

    --- The duo discusses a wild story involving the man who actually owned the tricked-out car Josh Lucas drove in the film, and became enraged by the way he felt the cast and crew were treating his “baby”.

    --- A chat about the fight sequence between Josh Lucas and Dermot Mulroney, which injured both actors, and the reveal of some camera and perspective tricks used to make the sequence less gory.

    --- Discussions about the casting process, including the rather unusual way Jamie Bell was cast, and a variety of interesting anecdotes from the set.

    All in all, this was a lively, fun, and informative commentary, which makes it a must-listen for those who enjoy the film. I realize that this is a subjective statement, but I certainly wouldn’t mind if all commentaries were this much of a pleasure to listen to!

    Photo Gallery
    The “animated” gallery contains 80 color production stills of the cast, crew, locations, and animals, which are exhibited over music.

    The original theatrical trailer for Undertow is included.

    Promotional Materials
    Under a “Other Great MGM Releases” section, there is an “MGM Means Great Movies” promo and trailers for Walking Tall, code 46, Die Another Day, and Assassination Tango.

    The disc also contains a “More Great MGM Releases” section, which houses the cover art for: Antitrust, Rain Man: SE, Bandits: SE, Ronin, No Way Out, and The Great Escape: SE.


    (on a five-point scale)
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    Audio: [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]
    Extras: [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]
    Overall: [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]

    In a fairly short time, David Gordon Green has not only become a very highly respected filmmaker, but has also managed to develop a distinctive style that sets him apart from many of his peers! In my opinion, Undertow shows that Green’s reputation is deserved, for he took what could have been a straightforward thriller and commingled it with elements of basic human drama, parent-child conflict, and an odd menagerie of side characters. The end result is a touching and entertaining motion picture with a wonderfully realized atmosphere, sharp dialogue, and excellent character development. It really is a shame that so few people saw this film in theaters…hopefully, its release on DVD will give Undertow a new (and well deserved) audience! I know I will give it a few more spins down the road!!!

    As far as its home video incarnation is concerned, Undertow has fared quite well, with a superb image transfer, a quality soundtrack, and some excellent value-added materials that really enhance the film experience. Let’s see…great film, a technically sound disc, and worthwhile bonus features. Sounds like a winner to me! Highly recommended!!!

    Stay tuned…
  2. Vincent_P

    Vincent_P Screenwriter

    Sep 13, 2003
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    I'm surprised Green shot this in 1.85:1- his first two films were anamorphic Panavision. I wonder if the fact that UNDERTOW underwent a Digital Intermediate stage* had anything to do with this decision.


    * The fact that it was a DI also makes me wonder why there's any print damage at all. I'd have thought they'd clean up any dirt in the digital domain, unless this release isn't a direct digital downconversion of the DI master but was "retransfered" from the outputted 35mm IP.
  3. Mick Wright

    Mick Wright Second Unit

    Mar 10, 2000
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    I loved All the Real Girls, so I'm adding this one to the queue. Thanks for the review, Jason.

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