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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 10/9/01

Meet Joe Black
Ultimate Edition - 1998 (2001) - Universal

review by Brian Ford Sullivan of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVsEncoded with DTS & Dolby Digital 5.1 Digital Surround

Meet Joe Black: Ultimate Edition Film Rating: B+

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

Audio Ratings (DD/DTS): A-/A

Specs and Features

Disc One: Meet Joe Black
180 mins, PG-13, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 1:29:24 in chapter 8), custom "see-thru" gate-fold packaging, production notes, cast and filmmaker bios, DVD newsletter, DVD-ROM features (including complete screenplay with scene access and weblinks), animated film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (18 chapters), languages: English (DD & DTS 5.1) and French (DD 2.0), subtitles: English and Spanish, Closed Captioned

Disc Two: Death Takes a Holiday
80 mins, NR, full screen (1.33:1), single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), Spotlight on Location featurette, photograph montage, theatrical trailer, production notes, cast and filmmaker bios, DVD newsletter, trailers for Scent of a Woman and 12 Monkeys, DVD-ROM features (including complete screenplay with scene access and weblinks), animated film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (18 chapters), languages: English (DD mono), subtitles: English and Spanish, Closed Captioned

"65 years. Don't they go by in a blink?"

So says Robert Parrish (Anthony Hopkins) on his 65th birthday, a day, which we learn earlier, will be his last on earth. It's this soft spoken line, overused in the commercials and trailers, that serves as the climax to Martin Brest's Meet Joe Black - the point at which Parrish realizes that his time has come and his life is complete. But as its 180-minute running time suggests, it's quite the long road to get to said revelation.

Meet Joe Black is a pseudo-remake of the 1934 film Death Takes a Holiday, in which Death takes corporeal form in order to learn more about what it means to be human. In this "incarnation," Death takes the form of a handsome stranger (Brad Pitt) and attaches himself to Robert Parrish, a telecommunications mogul on the verge of his 65th birthday celebration. It's in their initial meeting that Death tells Parrish that he's going to die, and that if he agrees to be his guide for a short while, his life will be prolonged for the length of Death's "vacation." This sets up the main thrust of the film as Death (nicknamed Joe Black by Parrish to fit in among his friends and family) and Parrish learn from each other and accept their places in life and... well, death.

Director Martin Brest has made a career of doing films about two strangers thrust together - from Al Pacino and Chris O'Donnell in Scent of a Woman to Charles Grodin and Robert DeNiro in Midnight Run - and his skill at making such films is apparent here. Pitt especially is notable - while forever known for his looks, his acting talent is sorely underrated when he can do the heavy lifting required in this film. Anthony Hopkins is, well... as good as one has come to expect from the celebrated actor. Together they are as great a pair as they were in Legends of the Fall, another film that demonstrates how good both these actors are.

But somehow, despite the fine work by Pitt and Hopkins, the film is muddled by somewhat tedious plot devices that don't serve much purpose, other than to be physical manifestations of the conversations between Joe and Bob. A perfect example is the subplot of Parrish's company being taken over by a larger corporation, which inevitably will change his company from what it was originally intended to be. An enormous amount of time is spent on said subplot, but none of it compares to Parrish's heartfelt declaration that "a man wants to have his life's work live on, not changed into something it wasn't meant to be." The subplot is eventually tied up to that point that Parrish's hanging fears are abated, when in reality we know such things are rarely possible.

The big struggle of the film though is with Joe's romance with Bob's daughter (Claire Forlani). And while Forlani is simply radiant as an actress, she's given a role that exists only as a cipher to develop conflict between Joe and Robert. Robert tells his daughter early on that he wants her to find someone that will make her heart soar (something that Robert's second in command, Jake Weber, doesn't do) and chides her for finding said thing in Joe. That thread, too, is also neatly tied up to abate Robert's fatherly concern over his daughter's future.

It's these types of things, wrapped up in nice pink bows, that draw away from the strength of the film and the key issue - coming to terms with dying. The film as a whole works best when Parrish is slightly confident, but still worried about what he leaves behind. Even in the film's hokiest moments (Joe for some reason can't get enough peanut butter and speaks in different tongues to different cultures) they are at least just that - hokey - instead of neatly ironed out corners on a bed sheet.

Make no mistake Meet Joe Black isn't an easy film to like. It's about big men who wear expensive suits and throw lavish parties. It's about the worries of a person that should be so lucky to have what he has. It's simply a film that asks us to feel sympathy for a man that has everything. Somewhere though, amongst these obstacles, are some moments where you do feel such things - who doesn't worry about what he will leave behind in their life or how their family will survive without them? But they are moments too fleeting and far between, especially considering the film's running time, to merit complete compassion. Nevertheless Black is an immersive experience as Thomas Newman's score and Emmanuel Lubezki's photography are hammer-on-the-nose-perfect for setting the high-class ethereal tone of the movie. Sadly, a too-in-love-with-itself screenplay foils the inklings of something great.

Universal has released two versions of Meet Joe Black on DVD - the recent 2-disc Ultimate Edition and the original more or less "movie only" release. You can read Todd's review of the original release here. Both versions offer the same fine video transfer - a beautiful anamorphic presentation that does justice to Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography. Aside from some stray edge enhancement it's a virtually flawless transfer. On the sound side of things, both versions offer a Dolby Digital 5.1 track that also does justice to the fine technical work done on this film. While fairly dialogue heavy, the score gets the royal treatment here as it provides a deep, echoed feel to the film. The Ultimate Edition also includes a DTS track, which takes it one step further as the sound becomes more natural and all encompassing instead of being specific to one speaker.

Now let's talk extras. Aside from a few supplements we'll get to in a second, the Ultimate Edition's major difference from the original release is the inclusion of the source film Death Takes a Holiday on the second disc of the set. Presented in all its 1934 glory, Death Takes a Holiday looks and feels like a semi-obscure film made almost 70 years ago. I have to say I didn't find the film all that engaging compared to Black, technical issues aside. The film is very soft and hazy for the most part, with as many nicks and scratches on the print you'd expect. On the audio side, it's not a much better story - the sound is at times covered with static, more or less par for the course for an old mono track. It's certainly a neat feature to have this film on the disc, however, as I can't really see purchasing Death Takes a Holiday if it was offered separately from Black.

Rounding out the extras on both releases are Universal's mainstay - the Spotlight on Location featurette - as well as production notes, cast and crew biographies and the film's trailer. New to the Ultimate Edition release is a brief, 6-minute photomontage using Thomas Newman's score, as well as trailers for Scent of a Woman and 12 Monkeys on the second disc. Also new on the Ultimate Edition is the DVD-ROM capability to view the film's script and jump to a specific scene. I have to say, despite the addition of Death Takes a Holiday, I was looking forward to the possibility of a Martin Brest commentary or deleted scenes. You can't help but feel a little let down. This isn't as ultimate an Ultimate Edition as you'd hope for.

The decision to upgrade to the Ultimate Edition more or less comes down to whether or now you want to invest in the addition of both Meet Joe Black and Death Takes a Holiday to your DVD collection, or just Black alone. All in all, Meet Joe Black is a film brimming with great ideas and feelings on the surface (not to mention a fantastic feel and look). But it remains disappointing in the overall execution, both as a film and a DVD.

Brian Ford Sullivan
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