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“BLOW OUT” (Blu-ray Review, Arrow Films)

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In the late 70s and early 80s, audiences didn’t look forward to the next movie directed by Brian De Palma, they got excited about the new Brian De Palma film. After the success of CARRIE, De Palma was able to disappear into his own imagination and create films routed entirely in his own interests. His director-for-hire phase would begin shortly with SCARFACE, but for a few glorious years De Palma was in charge of his own scripts and destiny and used his auteur power to dabble in grand entertaining thrillers that doubled as deadpan satires of filmmaking convention and self-conscious explorations of the director’s personal obsessions. Of this flock of golden age Brian De Palma, none were better than his 1981 flick BLOW OUT.

Conceived as a grungy low budget ode to post Watergate paranoia and Antonioni’s BLOW UP starring James Woods, De Palma’s buddy John Travolta took unexpected interest in the script and instantly turned the film into a grand scale summer blockbuster. BLOW OUT bombed in 1981 because cynical self-conscious filmmaking with a gut-punch tragic ending wasn’t exactly crowd-pleasing stuff in the summer of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, but in the years since the flick has become a favorite of De Palma aficionados and feels like the director’s masterpiece. Sounds like the exact sort of film that deserves an adoring Arrow Blu-ray release, right? Well, good news…

For the unfamiliar, Travolta stars as a sound man on cheesy B-movies (featuring a hilarious parody of John Carpenter’s iconic HALLOWEEN opening to set the scene) who accidentally records a political assassination while trying to get atmospheric sound effects for his latest drive-in sleaze.  Of course, he doesn’t know that at first. He thinks he simply recorded a car crash and saves the life of a prostitute who is involved (Nancy Allen, the director’s wife/muse of the time). Then as he becomes obsessed with the event, he’s sucked into a world of political corruption with a psychotic assassin perfectly and hysterically played by John Lithgow at the center.

Like any good Brian De Palma movie, BLOW OUT can play as either a straight-laced thriller filled with exquisitely crafted set pieces, or as a sly deconstruction of cinematic technique. You want set pieces? You’ll get some of De Palma’s best, like a brilliant, silent stalk n’ kill sequence with Lithgow in a train station, or a masterful spinning camera paranoia sequence featuring Travolta frantically searching through erased tapes. Would you prefer some movie in-games? There’s that hilarious slasher parody opening and a long homage to the most famous sequence of BLOW UP that deconstructs film editing and sound application for a mini exploration of the nuts n’ bolts of filmmaking. Either way you look at it, BLOW OUT works so well and features one of the most devastating finales in all of the director’s work.

Arrow’s Blu-ray of BLOW OUT is also one of the company’s best, paling only in comparison to Criterion’s recent release of the movie. The transfer and sound mix are ported over directly from Criterion’s master and is an absolutely beautiful restoration. The special features section is entirely unique to this release and there’s some great stuff there, even if the fantastic Noah Baumbach interview with De Palma and his underrated debut feature MURDER A LA MOD wasn’t transferred as well. Instead, Arrow included an incredible half hour interview with legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond that delves into every complex shot and he and De Palma’s attempts to recreate the effect of black and white film noir cinematography in color. The lovely and amusing storyteller Nancy Allen pops up for another interview that gets into a few behind the scenes anecdotes left out of her also wonderful Criterion interview.

Two other interviews with longtime De Palma collaborators are included. Producer George Litto and composer Pino Donaggio’s talks are filled with insights about working with the master throughout their careers and are valuable additions to the disc. Then, there are some behind-the-scenes stills, the original trailer, and a fat booklet featuring an insightful essay by film critic Michael Akinson and a wonderful vintage interview between De Palma and his adoring fan Quentin Tarantino. If the Criterion disc didn’t exist, this would be the definitive Blu-ray of BLOW OUT. It does, but the set has enough great stuff that North American completists should still pick it up for the two solid hours of excellent exclusive interviews, while the Brits should be pleased to know that they have a more-than worthy substitute. Hopefully, Arrow will be able to get their hands on every major genre movie for HD release, because it’s starting to feel like nobody does it better.

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About the author
Phil Brown
Phil Brown is a journalist, writer, and wiseacre who rattles his keyboard from somewhere in Toronto. He writes about film and comedy for a variety of websites/publications like Fangoria (duh!), Now Magazine, The Toronto Star, Comics And Gaming Magazine, Toro, Critics Studio, and others. He’s also been known to whip up the occasional comedy sketch or short film. If you feel like being friends, go ahead and find him. He doesn’t bite (much).
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