Terry Gilliam, the notorious perfectionist with a reputation for feuding with his producers, had just come out from a knock-down, drag-out fight with the Weinsteins over his last picture, 'The Brothers Grimm', an unwatchable mess and by far his worst film to date. Attempting to recover from that debacle, the director decided to bypass the studio system entirely for his next project, an independently financed adaptation of Mitch Cullin's dark fantasy novel 'Tideland'. Produced off the Hollywood grid in rural Canada with just a few sets, a handful of actors, and free reign to do whatever he wanted, the finished product is certainly one of Gilliam's most focused and consistent movies in years, 100% his vision without compromise. It's also his most difficult film to watch, and has been decried as a disaster by many critics and even some of his staunchest fans.
The movie opens with the introduction of Noah (Jeff Bridges), a washed up rocker turned paranoid and irrational druggie, his horrible shrew wife (Jennifer Tilly, doing a freakshow impersonation of Courtney Love), and their beatific 9-year-old daughter Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland, the child-in-danger from 'Silent Hill'). The parents, if you could accurately use that term, have no regard for their own lives, much less the little girl's. Having known no other way of life, Jeliza-Rose blithely preps the heroin needles to help daddy go on his "vacations" and massages momma's gnarled feet while listening to her manic verbal tirades. It isn't long before the mother drops dead and Noah, fearing imminent police intervention, hightails it out of town with daughter in tow on a bus ride to grandmother's house.
Located precisely in the middle of nowhere, the ramshackle old building they arrive at is spookily isolated on a vast prairie (horror fans will recognize it as the same setting recently seen in 'The Messengers'). Of course, grandma is long since dead, and Noah himself checks out soon after arrival, settling down for a vacation from which he won't return. Though she doesn't exactly comprehend the predicament, this leaves young Jeliza-Rose to fend for herself while daddy's corpse decomposes in the living room. Ick. Fortunately, she's brought along her four best friends, a set of disembodied doll heads she converses with regularly. Lacking any other form of support, Jeliza-Rose's active fantasy imagination is her only protection from the many adversities she faces, including abandonment, hunger, boredom, and her run-ins with the batshit-crazy lady from a neighboring property, whose mentally-retarded teenage brother will become the girl's closest living friend, as well as possibly a dangerous physical threat.
'Tideland' is a film with obvious artistic merit that is nonetheless extremely unpleasant to watch. Making the same mistake he did in 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas', Gilliam falls into the trap of wallowing in over-the-top filth, ugliness, and despair, hoping that the few shining moments of beauty he extracts will lead to transcendence. He almost gets there, almost entirely by virtue of the fact that Jeliza-Rose is a much more sympathetic character than those in 'Fear and Loathing'. Once Jeff Bridges leaves the scene (which isn't very far into the picture), the rest of the movie is practically a one-girl show for Jodelle Ferland, every scene told from her character's perspective. The young actress delves into dark areas that no one her age should ever be asked to go. Although Jeliza-Rose is never actually physically abused, she's put into many uncomfortable situations, some of her own doing and some not, involving emotional abuse, death, and sexuality, one after another in a constant stream of horrors she doesn't recognize or understand, but the audience certainly does. Ferland delivers a strong performance, but it's one that the material almost cynically demands be described as "brave."
For Gilliam, the film is clearly intended as a dark fairy tale, and he layers in many references to past works of the genre: mirrors, rabbit holes, a journey to grandmother's house, a wardrobe in the attic, etc. The trips through Jeliza-Rose's imagination allow him to indulge in the type of surreal fantasy set-pieces he's famous for, and there are many moments of true lyrical genius in the movie. But it keeps coming back to one central problem, which is that Gilliam has designed the picture as an affront on the audience's sensibilities, without ever making a case for why it's necessary. What is the point of putting this child into such harrowing circumstances? What is the message of the movie -- that children are resilient and fantasies help us to escape the unpleasantness of reality? Is that all, and if so is that really a sufficiently worthy goal that couldn't have been reached any other way? I think I could have gotten that message without needing to see Jeff Bridges' corpse taxidermied and propped up in bed for his daughter to snuggle with, thank you very much.
The HD DVD: Vital Disc Stats
The North American distribution rights for 'Tideland' are held by TH!NKFilm, a studio not yet committed to High Definition, and whose DVD edition of the movie was mastered at an incorrect aspect ratio in any case. Happily, Concorde Home Entertainment in Germany has treated the film with more respect, releasing it on both HD DVD and Blu-ray with an excellent transfer. The region coding of the Blu-ray is unconfirmed at present, but the HD DVD is region free (as are all discs from the format) and will function in any American HD DVD player.
The disc opens with a skippable anti-piracy ad, followed by a video introduction from the director that played before the film in theaters. The soundtrack here defaults to a German overdub (a narrator translating on top of Gilliam's speaking voice) that can be disabled by using the Audio button on the remote to hear the original English. After this, the movie starts immediately without a main menu page. Once again, the movie defaults to a German dub soundtrack until manually changed to the correct English. Although no pop-up menus were available during the intro, they are available once the movie starts. All menu text is written in German, but the organization is fairly straightforward and should be easy enough for an English speaker to navigate. Frustratingly, the menus disappear from the screen after barely a few seconds unless you actively move around in them and choose your selections quickly. Also, the disc automatically triggers German subtitles on screen and closes the menu when you select English audio, forcing you to re-open the menu to turn off the subtitles. It's a minor nuisance, but annoying all the same.
Inside the HD DVD case is a small booklet with some photos and notes (in German) about the movie.
The history of 'Tideland' on home video is practically a comedy of errors. The movie was shot using the Super35 format and projected at a 2.35:1 aspect ratio in theaters. Director Terry Gilliam felt that the framing was a hair too tight and instructed that the DVD releases open the mattes off the top and bottom slightly to 2.25:1. Somehow, this simple instruction was misinterpreted in a variety of ways. The UK DVD release from Revolver Entertainment left the top and bottom mattes in place as is, and instead cropped some picture off the sides, for a ratio of about 2.10:1. Later, the American DVD from TH!NKFilm mastered the movie with a screen-filling 16:9 transfer that completely lifted all of the vertical mattes and yet also retained the horizontal cropping from the UK disc. The result was a picture visibly missing information from the sides while exposing far too much unintended image above and below the active frame.
After all this, Concorde released the film on DVD and High Definition in Germany with a brand new transfer that restores the original 2.35:1 theatrical ratio. The following photo was taken from the same shot used for the Dreams comparison, and clearly matches the cinema framing (note that this picture is a camera snapshot pointed at a TV screen, and is not intended to represent any facet of the disc's picture quality other than the aspect ratio).
While it's true that Terry Gilliam never got the 2.25:1 ratio that he wanted, the German transfer is an accurate presentation of the theatrical framing and most closely captures his artistic intent. Further, it should be said that the 2.35:1 ratio looks perfectly balanced, and to my eye never seemed overly tight as Gilliam may feel about it.
In other respects, the quality of the transfer is pretty terrific. The picture is very sharp and detailed throughout, with no edge enhancement ringing to distract. There are many moments of truly breathtaking clarity once the action moves to the brightly lit, wide open fields on the prairie. The movie's color palette was digitally manipulated by the filmmakers in a number of ways and sometimes looks a little artificial, but is undoubtedly faithful. A mild amount of film grain is present in some scenes, well compressed and not noisy. The only negative thing I have to say about the picture quality is that a few of the darker scenes have elevated, washed out black levels. Whether this was present in the original photography or is an artifact of the disc transfer, I'm not sure. Regardless, the HD DVD has a wonderful, film-like image and looks great.
The DTS-HD High Resolution 5.1 soundtrack is also quite good. The track has pleasing fidelity, especially in the musical score. There generally isn't much low end activity, but the few moments that require heavy bass deliver as promised. Surround usage is a little schizophrenic. For the most part, the mix doesn't have much going on in the rear channels, until the fantasy sequences that become decidedly more aggressive and immersive.
The soundtrack has no problems with incorrect pitch, as has occurred on some other European releases (primarily from Studio Canal). The audio on the disc may not have wowed me, but I have no complaints either. It's a solid, satisfying presentation.
Frustratingly, the disc also has a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, but only for the German dub, not the original language. Subtitle options are limited to German subtitles or German Captions for the Hearing Impaired.
Amazingly, Concorde has provided almost all of the bonus features found on the 2-disc TH!NKFilm DVD.
I can see why many viewers develop a strong and almost instantaneous adverse reaction to 'Tideland', but I am not so quick to write it off. I recognize the artistry in the film, even if I don't have a compelling desire to watch it again right away.
This isn't the type of movie one recommends as a blind purchase. For Terry Gilliam fans who've already seen the movie or feel sufficiently prepared for it, the German import HD DVD has excellent picture, very good sound, and a decent selection of bonus features. It merits a qualified recommendation.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.