Released on LaserDisc by Criterion back in 1993, Criterion now presents Robert Altman’s The Player on Blu-ray, delivering the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on this dual-layer disc. The new 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation is taken from a new 4K scan of the original camera negative.
The film was previously released on Blu-ray by Warner Bros./New Line, which went out of print a while ago (since the film now carries the Janus logo it appears Warner lost the rights). Though better than the very old, very dated presentation on the Platinum Series DVD, the New Line Blu-ray presents a number of artifacts (thanks to what looks like sharpening), lacks detail, while also presenting some severely crushed blacks. Criterion’s new 4K restoration improves things drastically. Actually, one of the best scenes to compare, I thought, was the finale in the screening room: details behind Peter Gallagher that were lost in the old Blu-ray are now visible in this new presentation. As well, details in the suits and the general setting also come through much clearer and the digital anomalies and pixilation present in the old Blu-ray (pixilation and noise around the edges of objects were particularly bad) are now gone and the image now looks far more natural and filmic.
I thought colours were also far more pleasing here, with better saturation, blues and reds coming off quite a bit better. Details are very sharp, pin stripes on some shirts and suits coming through quite clear and the film’s grain is retained, rendered nicely for the most part: a handful of darker scenes can be a little noisy, but not as bad as other recent releases like Mulholland Dr. or My Own Private Idaho. Depth is excellent and textures are rendered cleanly.
Restoration work has been more thorough. One of the big improvements of the New Line Blu-ray over the DVD was that a lot of the damage that was present on the DVD was gone and the image was certainly cleaner, but some remnants still remained. Criterion has been even more thorough and I don’t recall a blemish popping up. In all it looks terrific and the amount of work that has gone it to it has paid off. It looks much, much better than the old Blu-ray. 9/10
All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.
Criterion previously released the film on LaserDisc with a number of special features. Unfortunately not all of that material has made it over to here. The audio commentary (which I should note is not the same as the one found on the New Line DVDs and Blu-rays), featuring director Robert Altman, writer Michael Tolkin, and director of photography Jean Lépine, comes from the LaserDisc, and similar to a lot of older tracks recorded by Criterion the three participants have all been recorded separately (in fact, bits of Altman’s comments sound to have been lifted from an interview also found in the supplements here) and then the material has been edited together here. A moderator of sorts introduces the participants.
Lépine, who is missing from the New Line commentary, doesn’t show up a lot, just popping up in places to talk about set ups and lighting, with most of his focus appearing to be on the fundraiser sequence (which was a fairly elaborate sequence to shoot). Altman and Tolkin really take the reins here, with Tolkin talking initially about writing the novel, his original intentions with it (it started out as a story about a serial killer going around killing unproduced screenwriters) and how it morphed into its current narrative, which the films sticks mostly true to. Both Altman and Tolkin address the changes, some of them drastic, and why they were made, and it was sort of refreshing to hear Tolkin admit the changes, particularly the ending, were right since these moments as they were in the novel wouldn’t have worked for the more visual medium. The “meta-ness” to the film is pretty much exclusive to the film, not a byproduct of the novel, though it sounds like this may have been sort of added on the fly (in another feature Tim Robbins takes credit for coming up with the super-meta ending to the film). Both also talk about the criticisms that the film makes on the industry, with Tolkin maybe seeming a bit more—I don’t know—scathing (maybe even bitter) I guess, stemming more than likely from his previous failures as a Hollywood screenwriter. Altman addresses that he is and has been part of the problem and doesn’t separate himself from any of the criticisms the film makes: he admits that he wants to make art but he is just as guilty as everyone else in that he also wants to see audiences rush to his films. Altman also goes over the style of the film, wanting to make it “movie real” not “real.” There are a few surprises (he cast Richard E. Grant on the spot at the premiere of Hudson Hawk) and some funny bits. It’s a good track, flowing nicely with very few dead spots thanks to the edited nature of it.
Criterion next provides a new making-of, Planned Improvisation, a term used a few times in the supplements and explained in this piece. The 45-minute segment features new interviews with actor Tim Robbins, writer Michael Tolkin, production designer Stephen Altman, and associate producer David Levy. The film had been in a sort of production hell for years and some of this is hinted at in the commentary but it gets fleshed out a bit more here. The film was actually a for-hire gig for Altman, who was trying to get Short Cuts made, which is the film Robbins had actually first met Altman for. Mark Rydell was one of the directors originally considered to direct The Player, with Chevy Chase even in the process of being cast as Griffin Mill, though (maybe thankfully) that whole deal fell apart. In the commentary Altman would seem to suggest that he fell into making the film but according to Levy and Tolkin Altman actually fought very hard to do. From here all of the participants talk about the production from their perspective, Altman talking about the film’s look, Tolkin on the adaptation, Levy sharing general stories, and Robbins talking about constructing his character, whom he didn’t want to make completely evil. As well, despite there being a feature that exclusively covers the opening shot, there is quite a bit of material about the opening, its set up, and how it was planned (Altman apparently used models and Tonka toys), and there are comments about the cameos, which, surprisingly, didn’t sound to be all that hard to get.
The documentary is really just a long talking-heads segment but the backstory to the film’s production is fairly fascinating and the piece is edited well to trim out fat.
Next is a 1992 interview with Robert Altman that was made for the LaserDisc release. The 21-minute interview works sort of like a generalization of what he says in the commentary, though it sounds like a number of comments in that track were lifted out of this interview. He talks about a few other subjects (like the savings and loan crisis, which would have still been fairly fresh at the time) and working with the actors making cameos. Otherwise if one has listened to the track you can probably skip it.
Criterion then includes the full 56-minute Cannes Press Conference that followed the film’s premier. Participating here are Robert Altman, Tim Robbins, Whoopi Goldberg, Brion James, Michael Tolkin, Stephen Altman, and others. I’m a little conflicted on this feature: on one hand it’s nice to get the footage but on the other it’s long and doesn’t prove to be entirely worthwhile, and probably could have been edited down. Part of the problem is Altman is a bit cagey at times and likes to only give very simple answers, though in his defense a number of questions are, to put it bluntly, stupid. He also doesn’t react well to some smug questions, like one reporter’s question about “why” he would cast Lyle Lovett, to which he gives what is rightfully a smug response. There are also times where, more than likely in an attempt at being playful, he ends up coming off a bit prick-ish, like when someone from People Magazine asks a question and he says he won’t answer because the magazine gave the film a negative review (the question was about whether the person writing the post cards appears in the film, and this question is actually answered in the commentary and the making-of documentary on this disc for those wondering).
Still, there are moments where Altman comes off more engaging and informative, usually only when the question obviously interests him, and he seems especially amused by the appearance of a journalist from Iceland. Still, I found myself happier with the responses from Robbins and Goldberg who get more in-depth into the film and Hollywood. Goldberg also seems to handle at least the one smug question directed at her with a bit more tact in comparison to Altman. At any rate, it’s rough but it is here and certainly still has its value even if there were times I couldn’t get through it quick enough and I felt it could have been edited down a bit. Of course, if they did edit it down, I would probably be complaining that everything isn’t here, so I guess there really are moments where you just can’t please people.
Following the press conference is Robert Altman’s Players, a 16-minute video put together by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art documenting the fundraiser scene in the film. Mentioned elsewhere is how Altman and crew tried to film this sequence at real fundraisers with their visiting celebrities but they were restricted by too many rules that made filming impossible. What they ended up doing instead was setting up their own fundraiser, this time for the Museum of Art, and they could then have full control over the event and film when they wanted. Celebrities and donors would go but would be aware that the fundraiser served a double purpose and there was a possibility they would appear in the film. Interestingly it appears only Cher and Nick Nolte were the only cameos that were written into the script, while everyone else was there just showed up and were participants (I figured Altman regular Elliot Gould was written in but it appears he’s just one of the people in the industry that showed up). We get to see the fundraiser follow the normal course of the night, with interruptions with the audience being informed that a scripted sequence was about to be filmed. It’s a creative solution to the problem that Altman ran into, and rather big for what only takes up a small section of the film that actually feels almost like a montage, other than Robbins’ speech. Rather cool addition to the release.
Map to the Stars is a rather handy feature for those that find themselves watching the film and constantly going “hey, is that…!?” This gallery highlights all of the cameos that appear in the film, which you can navigate using the arrows on your remote. One sequence is a short video segment for Leeza Gibbons’ voice over appearance.
Criterion also includes a section for Deleted Scenes and Outtakes. Running a little under 13-minutes we get 5 deleted scenes, most just showcasing a few more cameos (one in a restaurant presents a rather large number of them) while another expands a bit on the relationship between Robbins’ and Scacchi’s characters (there’s further evidence she may not actually be from Iceland). There is then one outtake which is an extended bit from one of the films-within-the-film, the one featuring Scott Glenn and Lily Tomlin. This outtake runs 2-minutes.
Also here is a supplement devoted to the film’s 8-minute opening shot. This sequence can be played with one of two commentaries: one by Altman and the other featuring Tolkin and Lépine, both of which focus more on the technical aspects of putting the scene together.
The supplements then conclude with a section of theatrical trailers and TV spots. Though most are American we do also get a Japanese trailer and Japanese TV spots, which amusingly really push the fact that Bruce Willis is in the film. The included insert then features an essay by Sam Wasson, who offers a decent though not overly in-depth analytical slant, focusing on the film’s satire, meta elements, and plot holes (which Altman addresses in the commentary in all fairness, even explaining why he left such gaping plot holes).
The LaserDisc did feature a few other interviews, including from other Hollywood screenwriters, but for whatever reason those haven’t made it to here. Despite this it’s a very solid edition overall, rather fun to go through and improving over the previous New Line features (other than the trailers and deleted scenes, none of the features from that edition appear here but the same ground is still covered). 9/10