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review added: 4/2/04



One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Special Edition - 1975 (2002) - Fantasy Films (Warner Bros.)

review by Adam Jahnke of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest: Special Edition Film Rating: A

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B/C+

Specs and Features

Disc One - The Film
133 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, Digipack packaging with slipcase, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 65:47 in chapter 16), audio commentary (with director Milos Forman and producers Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz), cast and crew bios, awards listing, film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (33 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1) and French (DD mono), subtitles: English, French and Spanish, Closed Captioned

Disc Two - Special Features
NR, full frame (1.33:1), single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), The Making of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest documentary, 8 additional scenes, theatrical trailer, film-themed menu screens with sound, languages: English (DD 2.0 Surround)


While most free-thinking film fans have long since stopped using the Academy Awards as any sort of reliable standard of excellence, it's still fun to handicap them in the same way as you would a horse race. In those terms then, it's exceedingly rare for a movie to pull off an Oscar exacta, winning the five big guns, Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay, either original or adapted. So far, it's only happened three times. The first time was in 1934, when Frank Capra, Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert and screenwriter Robert Riskin did it with It Happened One Night. Most recently, Jonathan Demme, Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster, and Ted Tally brought home a trophy case full of statues with The Silence of the Lambs. And in between those two sweeps came the 1975 classic, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest.

Based on the book by counterculture giant Ken Kesey, Cuckoo's Nest tells the story of Randle P. McMurphy (one of many defining performances by Oscar winner Jack Nicholson). McMurphy is a petty criminal transferred from the prison work farm to the state mental institution for observation and evaluation. Expecting an easy ride until his assumed release date, McMurphy makes himself right at home, becoming a role model and ringleader for the rest of the guys on his ward. But he doesn't count on the iron fist of Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), a woman who will brook no wavering from the strict rules she's laid down.

Clearly, Cuckoo's Nest is dominated by the commanding performances of Nicholson and Fletcher. This is a textbook example of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. From the second these two lay eyes on each other, we expect sparks to fly and we are not disappointed. But it must be noted that Cuckoo's Nest is also one of the greatest ensemble films of all time. The other patients on Nurse Ratched's ward are filled out by some of the most memorable character actors ever assembled, many of whom went on to become famous in their own right and made their film debuts here. Christopher Lloyd, Danny DeVito, Vincent Schiavelli, and Brad Dourif each turn in brilliant and specific portrayals. But for my money, top acting honors on the ward go to the late Sydney Lassick as Charlie Cheswick and the stoic Will Sampson as the Chief. Once you've seen these two in this film, you never forget them.

For director Milos Forman, Cuckoo's Nest was his first English-language film, following such great Czech comedy-dramas as The Firemen's Ball and Loves of a Blonde. Probably because he isn't as prolific as most of his contemporaries, Forman has never really earned a reputation as one of the world's great filmmakers, despite winning Oscars for both this and Amadeus. I've always considered him to be vastly underrated, with Ragtime ranking high among my personal favorites of his films (he's also responsible for a couple of more recent overlooked gems, The People vs. Larry Flynt and the Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon). Cuckoo's Nest finds him working at the top of his game, imparting a claustrophobic feel to the film that never feels staged or theatrical. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest may not necessarily be Forman's best film but it has endured. Unlike many, many other films from 1975, Cuckoo's Nest has not aged a day. Today it feels as fresh and original as it did the first time around.

Warner's re-release of the film marks a definite technical improvement over their first attempt. The picture is cleaner and a bit sharper than the prior release with no apparent edge enhancement or digital artifacting. The soundtrack has also been given a clean up and any faults here are inherent in the limitations of the original recording, not the new remaster. Nothing to give your home theatre a workout here but you shouldn't really be expecting that from this film anyway.

The main fault with the original release of Cuckoo's Nest lay in the knowledge that none of the extras from a previous excellent laserdisc had been brought over to the DVD. Warner apparently heard these criticisms and has attempted to make things right by giving Cuckoo's Nest the two-disc special edition treatment. Unfortunately, while their intentions might be good, the results are a decidedly mixed bag. The first disc boasts a feature-length commentary by Forman and producers Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz. In fact, this is the laserdisc commentary by Forman with separate interviews with Douglas and Zaentz edited in here and there. The results aren't bad necessarily. It's a reasonably interesting track with all of the participants providing insight into the making of the film. But the technical aspects of the track are a little frustrating. First of all, after you select the commentary option from the menu, you'd better be good and ready to listen to it. The disc launches you into it immediately without so much as a chance to get comfortable in your chair. Secondly, none of the participants are ever introduced. Fortunately, most people know what Michael Douglas sounds like and if you know that Forman speaks with a Czech accent, you can pretty much figure out the last man standing is Saul Zaentz. But if you don't know any of that, you're just going to have to play catch up as they go along.

Disc Two features a 45-minute documentary, "based on" the doc that appeared on the laserdisc. In regular English as opposed to creditspeak, this means it's an edited-down, shorter version of the earlier documentary. Why they decided to do this beats the hell out of me. Certainly what's left is very much of interest, although it fails to address the reaction and lasting effect the film has had. After you get through the eight deleted scenes, all of which are worth watching, and the theatrical trailers, you're done with the second disc. This is one of the few times I can remember that I spent less time going through the special features of a special edition DVD than watching the movie itself.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is undeniably a great film and Warner's special edition DVD is a far better treatment of the film than their original disc. But when all is said and done, I can't help but feel that there should have been more meat on the bone. There's nothing inherently wrong with simply porting the contents of a laserdisc over to a DVD. Criterion's Brazil is the standard bearer for this type of set. But if you're going to take that approach, why not go ahead and port the entire laserdisc onto the DVD? Whether or not Warner's reasons for editing the commentary and documentary into new configurations were justified, whether they were for legal or aesthetic reasons, the effect it ends up having is making the viewer feel like they're simply not getting everything they should.

Adam Jahnke
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com


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