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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 3/21/00

The Big Brass Ring
1999 (2000) - Columbia TriStar

review by Brad Pilcher of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

The Big Brass Ring Film Rating: A+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A+/B-/A-

Specs and Features

104 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (1.78:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, single-layered, Amaray keep case packaging, promotional trailer, bonus trailers, commentary with director George Hickenlooper and co-writer Oja Kodar, deleted scenes, production notes, talent files, film-themed menu screens, scene access (28 chapters), languages: English (DD 2.0), subtitles: English, French and Spanish, Closed Captioned

"In pursuit of power, the only thing worse than denying the truth - is telling it."

Highly complex political dramas make for fantastic film, but it isn't exactly easy to pull one off. Where Primary Colors soared, Wag the Dog crashed and burned. Where The American President endeared itself, Absolute Power turned you off. The point? When political dramas work, they can be absolutely incredible. But if they don't they can be incredibly bad.

With this in mind, enter The Big Brass Ring. Starring William Hurt, the film is based on an unfinished script by Orson Welles. Although this version has been seriously altered from the original Welles' draft, have no fear. The film maintains much of the cinema legend's vision, even if Welles died before he could finish it. Resurrected by director George Hickenlooper, the film takes place during the Missouri governor's race. Hurt is Blake Pellarin, the independent favored to win the election. Miranda Richardson is Pellarin's "richer than God" wife who seems there more out of political commitment than romantic affection. Nigel Hawthorne is the flamboyant former senator, Kim Mennaker, who has exiled himself to Cuba after falling from political grace. Irene Jacob finishes off the key players as reporter Cela Brandini, who is hot on the story of Pellarin's past.

The reality is that characters abound in this story, all of them with shades of complexity. The story is almost formulaic. Wunderkind Pellarin has the requisite skeletons from his past, which he must overcome to survive. But this film, never benefiting from a commercial theatrical release, is anything but formulaic. It strives to express the depth of relation between people the media might otherwise paint in one or two dimensions. The notion of two independents effectively eliminating the major political parties is there, but glossed over. The interplay of political hangers-on, whose loyalty is more about riding the wave of their candidate, is equally as forceful here. All of these issues add an indelible impression to this modern film masterpiece.

The movie is so good, it absolutely requires multiple viewings to catch the inflections of what is award-winning acting. Hurt is extraordinary, carrying his intricate persona in a million facial expressions. You could literally spend hours attempting to dissect this alone. The script is also powerful, giving the acting that much more of a lift. To be certain, I have not seen a political drama this solid since the 1962 film Advise and Consent.

The video presentation here is top-notch. The anamorphic transfer is pristine, moving fluidly from the pale palette of the Mississippi River bank to the rich hues of the Louis Quatorze. Film grain is so invisible, I had to look for half an hour just to find any. The color levels are near perfect. Artifacting is non-existent. The vibrancy is just right, not too much and not too little. Wow! There isn't much in the way of high-octane imagery here, but it's reference quality on the more subtle scale. The audio is good as well, but nothing to get too excited about. It's encompassing for a DD 2.0 track, that's for sure. It carries the inflections without missing a beat. The only problem here is that the dialog is done at a volume that is just a bit low. Nothing too terrible, but it required me to turn it up to hear some parts. That's always a detractor when it comes to audio.

The extras are also done very well. I have to keep putting this film in context, because I myself can't believe that this film never got a commercial theatrical release (although it deserved one). Because of that, there is no theatrical trailer. Hell, it had a budget of only $7 million, which is a paltry sum considering Primary Colors cost some $65 million to make. With all of this in mind, it would not have surprised me to see this film devoid of extras. Columbia TriStar, however, did this disc proud. There is a promotional video trailer (since no theatrical one exists), although it's a pan & scan presentation. There is also a bonus trailer for David Mamet's The Winslow Boy and Arlington Road. For your perusal, you'll find a series of deleted scenes (that should definitely have remained deleted) which complements the film nicely. These were basically extended cuts of some scenes, which at times certainly fleshed out a few points. However, the film did fine without these and they are not the kinds of scenes you'd want to see re-edited back into the picture. Closing out the list is a very good audio commentary with director George Hickenlooper and co-writer Oja Kodar. They speak throughout, never leaving you hanging, and comment on a variety of issues. It's not the greatest commentary in the world, but it does provide interesting morsels of information and reflects their love of this movie.

Columbia TriStar has done it again. With only slight audio detractions aside, we have an amazingly deep and driven film with a nice anamorphic transfer and solid extras. For a film that had to be picked up by Showtime to even be seen outside of a few film festivals and art houses, this disc is a blessing. Politicos take heed. Buy this disc now!

Brad Pilcher
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