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Short Cuts – The Criterion Collection (Blu-ray Review)

short cuts coverThe Criterion Collection has been quite kind to director Robert Altman this year. In addition to putting out The Player, Nashville and McCabe and Mrs. Miller for the first time, we now have a Blu-ray release for his LA-based, character epic Shot Cuts. Inspired by a series of short stories and poems by Raymond Carver, many consider this 3+ hour film to be one of Altman’s greatest efforts and given the nature of this expansive comedy-drama, featuring an all-star cast, it is hard to argue. Now everyone can dive into this Criterion Blu-ray release and revisit the acclaimed film that spans a few days in the lives of many regular individuals.

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Film:

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As mentioned, this film is based around the lives of several individuals living in early 1990s Los Angeles. There is a lot of humor as well as a lot of drama and anyone who has seen Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia will certainly see this film as a key source of inspiration. As I also mentioned, director Robert Altman had his own key source of inspiration, which was the works of Raymond Carver. Working off of nine short stories and poems, Altman has constructed a feature that has the spirit of Carver’s writings, while also finding a way to interconnect all of these characters and utilize Altman’s cinematic style.

Among actors involved, the film features Andie MacDowell, Matthew Modine, Julianne Moore, Fred Ward, Anne Archer, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Chris Penn, Robert Downey Jr., Madeline Stowe, Jack Lemmon, Frances McDormand, Buck Henry, Lily Tomlin, Lili Taylor, Tim Robbins, Lyle Lovett, Peter Gallagher and Tom Waits. That is a gigantic list of actors (not unfamiliar for an Altman film), but they all get their due, as Short Cuts builds a number of stories that observe these characters in their lives without judgement and watches as a few things effect their reality. Some are more significant than others, but the film largely surrounds everyday life at its purest.

One key storyline features MacDowell in what is probably her career best performance. She is a wife and mother who finds her son at home, claiming to have been hit by a car. We know what happened (another key character struck him by accident and the son refused to get in their car, because of “stranger danger”), but the way this plot unfolds, in addition to connecting to a number of the other cast members, is emotional and a key example of how random life can be.

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Less impactful, but just as interesting, is the McDormand character, who must contend with her ex-husband played by Gallagher, as well as her current fling with Robbins, who is a married police officer dealing with the perils of raising three kids and a noisy dog, while his wife remains rightfully suspicious of him. I note this, because some characters start off seeming like the worst characters featured in this film, only to turn out as far better than others we are introduced to.

There are no real heroes or villains in this story, as much of what happens occurs by chance and the actions taken are less reflective of how to break a balance in the world and more in response to the lives they are living. As opposed to Altman’s previous feature, The Player, which dealt with the world of the Hollywood elite, Shot Cuts is focused on average families and middle class workers for the most part. The Player was packed with celebrity cameos and this film’s most notable celebrity is a brief appearance by Alex Trebek. This is on purpose, perhaps, as far as Altman’s choice in what film to make as a follow-up to that acclaimed film, but it is indicative of what Carver wrote about.

While not direct adaptations of his work (Altman changed the setting to LA, as opposed to the Pacific Northwest, for example), Short Cuts does capture the spirit of the writer’s work. There is a minimalist style to what Carver would put out there, mixed with a sense of realism and while this is a 3-hour epic, Altman does connect a number of various stories that, edited separately, do make up a series of bluntly told, mostly small-scale stories about ordinary people.

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Still, this is also very much an Altman feature. Overlapping dialogue, the use of music, lots of match cuts and familiar camera work can all be seen throughout this expansive feature. It is also never in a rush to nail specific plot points. The film takes its time, without making too much of an obvious statement out of what it is trying to do. That can perhaps best be taken way in the film’s abrupt ending. Some, especially nowadays, may feel left out by the film’s conclusion, but it speaks to what this film is trying to achieve. There is not a key resolution that is required, as these are people’s lives, which will carry on, even after the camera stops rolling.

Short Cuts may not be my personal favorite Altman film (The Long Goodbye still holds that honor), but it is a great example, along with Nashville of what the departed director was able to accomplish when he was at the top of his game and focused on telling a big story with so many different moving parts.

Video:

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Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

Clarity/Detail: Short Cuts arrives on Blu-ray with a new, restored 4K digital transfer, approved by cinematographer Walt Lloyd. This is Criterion we’re talking about, so it should be of no surprise that the transfer here is absolutely terrific. Clear of any major issues and management of various flickers and dirt, this is a clean transfer that still preserves the original look of the film. The level of detail found in the various homes and clothing of these characters is wonderful to take in, let alone the clarity in the different environments and more. There is a lot going on in Altman films and Short Cuts looks great.

Depth: Solid dimensional work here. As there are many characters all moving in and out of scenes, there is a strong level of work done to hold onto that focal balance and still feel natural.

Black Levels: Black levels are really deep and dark. No signs of crush here. The best example can be seen during the opening credits, which features helicopters swirling around in the nighttime sky and the skies look really rich.

Color Reproduction: Colors really pop here. Anne Archer’s character, for example, plays a children’s clown and the makeup and balloons stick out as one of the brighter elements featured. These elements look solid, along with many other instances of color seen throughout.

Flesh Tones: Skin tones are natural and consistent throughout. Facial texture is big on a film with so many characters and you can really take in all the various details found among all the actors featured.

Noise/Artifacts: There is an expected level of grain, but this is a great cleanup thoroughly looked over by the folks at Criterion and the film’s cinematographer.

 

Audio:

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Audio Format(s): English 2.0 Surround DTS-HD Master Audio, English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio

Subtitles: English SDH

Dynamics: True to Altman’s style, this is a dialogue-driven affair, but there is a great amount of music as well. It all comes through great thanks to having the original 2.0 soundtrack remastered from the 35 mm magnetic track. Additionally, the original 5.1 surround soundtrack was remastered from the 70 mm six-track magnetic track. As a result, you get a couple options to here incredible versions of the audio tracks provided for this film. Everything sounds clean and stable, as it bounces between all the dialogue and the score, in addition to the sound effects present.

Low Frequency Extension: There are some jazz performances during the film, which allow a chance for the LFE channel to shine, along with a couple other larger moments.

Surround Sound Presentation: With the overlapping dialogue, Mark Isham’s score and everything else going on, it takes a good amount of work to handle the sound design and it has all been greatly achieved as far as the surround presentation. Strong sense of balance allows for a good use of the center, front and rear channels. Nothing feels compromised for the sake of getting this all right.

Dialogue Reproduction: Everyone talk and everyone is heard very clearly.

 

Extras:

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Short of a new commentary track or retrospective, this Criterion Blu-ray release of Short Cuts is packed with extra features that may have been brought over from previous releases, but all do a great amount of justice to the film. Arriving in a two-disc package, while disc one contains an isolated music track, all the real supplements are featured on disc two. With a feature-length documentary, a 2004 retrospective and lots of focus on Raymond Carver, there are few stones that have gone unturned in delving into Robert Altman’s LA epic.

Features Include:

  • Luck, Trust & Ketchup (HD, 1:30:02) – A feature-length documentary from 1993, which goes over the making of the entire film. A lot of great material to be found here, which includes interviews with the whole cast and crew and all sorts of footage.
  • To Write and Keep Kind (HD, 56:48) – A 1992 PBS documentary focused on the life and work of Raymond Carver, featuring interviews with his family and friends, as they reflect on his short stories and poems.
  • Raymond Carver (51:47) – An audio interview from 1983, featuring Kay Bonetti of the American Audio Prose Library and author Raymond Carver. This is one of the few recordings of Carver’s voice.
  • Reflections on Short Cuts (HD, 28:56) – A conversation between director Robert Altman and actor Tim Robbins, recorded for Criterion back for its 2004 DVD release.
  • Marketing (HD) – Advertising materials including posters, trailers and TV spots.
  • Additional Scenes (SD): “Smoking” (1:08), “Hey, Clown” (0:38), “I Threw It Away” (2:24)
  • Music Demos: “To Hell with Love”, “I Don’t Know You”, “Full Moon”
  • Plus: An essay by film critic Michael Wilmington – This essay comes in the leaflet that accompanies all Criterion releases. There is also a detailed guide to all the music featured in the film.

 

Summary:

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Short Cuts is one of the great efforts from Robert Altman and continues to be a great release from Criterion, now that it has come over to Blu-ray. The film has so much going on, but is incredibly watchable, putting forth this wonderful combination of Carver and Altman’s style. The Blu-ray is terrific, as should be expected when it comes to Criterion. This disc features a great audio/video presentation, along with an amazing collection of extras. If you’re an Altman fan or one looking for more great films from Criterion, you can’t go wrong here.

 

Order Your Copy Here:

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Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Video Game Player, Comic Book Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

2 Responses to “Short Cuts – The Criterion Collection (Blu-ray Review)”


  1. Tom Bradford

    This a great movie, but I’ve not read a review that speaks to what I appreciate about it: That is that it’s a movie about JARRING JUXTAPOSITIONS e.g. men choosing to fish in a would-be tranquil location with a body floating in the water, a woman having an anger outburst with her husband while being naked from the waste down etc. Our emotions are given opposite/ opposing cues and the common place becomes irreconcilable.

  2. Aaron Neuwirth

    I’m glad you pointed that out, as it is something I would have gotten to, as opposed to only a brief mention of the clever match cuts, if I wanted the review to be even longer. There is a level of brilliance in just how informed Altman is in putting this film together in both connecting the characters directly and through the dialogue/situations they are put into.