WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
My review of the first DVD incarnation of Raising Victor Vargas, which you can find here, was somewhat tepid. And although I wouldn't say my opinion of the film has changed a whole lot, I must admit that this new special-edition DVD—with its fascinating companion-piece short film and audio commentary—has definitely increased my appreciation of the film. In particular, the short film, called Five Feet High and Rising, serves as an enticing prelude to the feature and opens up the real-life world of these characters in a remarkable way. When I reviewed the first DVD of this film, it barely earned a recommendation. This time, I would say the DVD is definitely worth your time.
(The following comments are mostly taken from that earlier review, with some modifications.)
The charm of Raising Victor Vargas remains its bevy of natural, nonprofessional performances. There's an aura of urban authenticity that pervades this film, adding terrific depth to an otherwise ho-hum story. At its center, Vargas doesn't offer a whole lot that you haven't seen before. Beyond its inspired casting, essentially off the streets of Brooklyn, it features broad caricatures and plot devices. And at a certain point while watching, you'll experience that unfortunate moment when you understand that the film just doesn't have a lot to say. But at least the way it says it is striking.
Writer-director Peter Sollett has populated Raising Victor Vargas with an entire cast of first-timers, and all of them—I mean, all of them—deliver performances so genuine that you'll feel like you're eavesdropping on their arguments and private passionate moments. Taking place in New York's lower east side, the film concerns the rite of passage of Victor Vargas (Victor Rasuk), a hormone-propelled teenager on the prowl for sex as he struggles with becoming a man. Surprising himself, he finds that he's falling in love with the beautiful Judy Ramirez (Judy Marte), a quiet and proud young woman who at first rebuffs his awkward teenage posings. But gradually, and with many missteps—much to the chagrin of his guardian grandmother (Altagracia Guzman)—Victor finds himself becoming an adult.
As the title suggests, this is Victor's story, but each character is given weighty moments. Vargas is a nicely character-driven, ensemble piece, despite its focus. Victor's brother and sister wrestle with their own teenage demons, and the best friends of Victor and Judy share their own romantic entanglement that provides interesting counterpoint to the main pairing. In all these cases, the unstudied approach to the acting gives the film a unique gravity, and we feel like we're watching something other than drama. It feels like nonfiction—to a point.
The end of the film disappoints. Loose ends are tied up too easily, particularly in the case of Victor's sister. And the film as a whole is somewhat plodding. But if you can invest yourself in the power of the performances, you'll enjoy Raising Victor Vargas. This director is very much worth watching.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Columbia/TriStar presents Raising Victor Vargas in a fine anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's original 1.85:1 theatrical presentation. According to the DVD case, the film was "mastered in high definition," and it seems to be the same transfer that the original DVD contained. Which doesn't matter, because this is a great-looking image—particularly considering that the film was shot on Super 16mm and blown up to 35mm. Considering the budget, I wasn't expecting much, but the fine detail and the accurately grimy color palette give Vargas a pleasing depth.
There are minor flaws, such as blemishes, and I noticed minor mosquito noise and shimmering, but I saw only the most faint instances of edge enhancement. But this remains an above-average effort.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc offers a Dolby Digital 2.0 track that brings across the original theatrical soundtrack faithfully. Vargas is a dialog-driven film with not much in the way of audio dynamics, so the 2.0 track is just fine. The front soundstage is expansive. Dialog is clear and mostly clean, suffering only at the very high end.
This presentation sounds the same as that of the previously released DVD.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
The original DVD release offered only a selection of trailers, so this new special-edition DVD is definitely the one to buy. Its extras truly enhance the experience of the film and even elevated my opinion of it.
First up is an entertaining and informative Filmmakers' Commentary by director Peter Sollett, writer Eva Vives, and actors Victor Rasuk, Judy Marte, Melonie Diaz, and Altagracia Guzman. It's a group effort, as opposed to an edited-together track, and it benefits from the resulting friendly camaraderie. Highlights include a discussion about the short film upon which Victor Vargas is based, Five Feet High and Rising, as well as cast-member reminiscences about the circumstances surrounding their casting (essentially off the streets). They talk about the film's locations, and what's become of them, and—in perhaps the most fascinating segment—Sollett talks about how rehearsals and improvisation led to the film's story. The only drawback to the track is that Guzman can be a bit difficult to understand.
The supplement I found most illuminating is Peter Sollett's original 29-minute short film Five Feet High and Rising, presented in its native full-frame and Dolby Digital 2.0. This is the film that preceded and was the inspiration for the feature Raising Victor Vargas, and it's got an extremely similar look and feel, with many of the same scenes and dialog snatches. Best of all, it's got a large number of the same actors, looking young and innocent. This film has a more unstudies, fly-on-the-wall, improvised feel than Vargas, and for that, I think it's actually the more powerful film of the two. I especially enjoyed the way this powerful portrayal of young love comes to a conclusion.
The 10-minute Five Feet High and Rising Companion is a peek into the actors' lives and their feelings two years after making the short film. They talk about how they were cast, and they talk about their career ambitions. It's fun to see these actors in their home environments.
You get a Photo Gallery that holds 25 photos, including behind-the-scenes shots and candids from the set.
Finally, the disc gives you Previews for Bon Voyage, Breakin' All the Rules, and You Got Served. Interestingly, as with the previous DVD, there's no trailer for Vargas!
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
Enjoy Raising Victor Vargas for its people rather than its plot. I would recommend watching the included short film first, then move on to Vargas to compare. This new special-edition DVD improves the experience of this film, thanks to its generous supplements, but be aware that image and sound quality are the same—though both were impressive to begin with.