Stander is a movie marketing conundrum. The film itself is actually a terrific little gem that is stylish, smart, exciting, features a charismatic leading man whose career is finally on the cusp of stardom, and most importantly is entertaining as all get-out. Yet almost no one on the planet has even heard of it, much less seen it. Despite a storyline with an easily exploitable hook, the movie's distributors just couldn't figure out how to sell it. A planned theatrical run in 2004 was pulled at the last minute and, aside from a few festival appearances and random screenings, the movie is going direct-to-video with no publicity or promotion.
So what's the problem? The most obvious explanation is studio incompetence, but I think there's also another, more complex factor at play. You see, even though the movie has all sorts of terrific things in it to get excited about, it's so good that you don't want to give them away. The film works best if you know absolutely nothing about it beforehand. Go into it, sit down with no expectations for what it's supposed to be, and just let it take you on its crazy journey. Now how the hell do you sell that?
As a viewer who first came across the film under exactly those circumstances, I'd love for everyone else to experience it in the same way. To achieve this, you'd have to diligently avoid any trailers, plot summaries, reviews (aside from this one, which I will keep as free of plot spoilers as possible), IMDb user comments, historical research, and even the text on the back of the DVD case. Good luck with that.
Here's what you need to know: Stander is based on a true story that you have most likely never heard of. It's a police thriller set in South Africa during the late '70s/early '80s and has tons of groovy retro style plus an exotic foreign locale with a lot of political intrigue. Thomas Jane stars, and based on his performance here you'll forgive him for Dreamcatcher and completely forget The Punisher. The movie starts out as one thing, but just as you settle in and start thinking that it's all very good and interesting, it shifts gears and becomes something else entirely, something much more fun. The big plot twist comes fairly early into the picture, and the nature of this turn of events is so central to what the film is about that it's impossible to tell you anything more about the story without ruining the surprise.
I guarantee that every other review of the movie, whether in print, online, or on television, will give away the whole show. It's almost unavoidable. I wish everyone could just take my word on this one. Rent the movie (or buy it if you're adventurous) without reading the back of the case, and pop it right into your DVD player as soon as you get home. Then be sure to tell all your friends to watch it too, but don't tell them what it's about.
The movie's original 1.85:1 framing has been slightly opened up to fill a 16:9 screen. The anamorphically enhanced picture has minimal edge enhancement and excellent detail in close-ups, but wide shots are less appealing and suffer from compression and detail filtering. The movie has a very groovy '70s photographic style that was fairly grainy in theaters, but has apparently been run through a lot of noise reduction for DVD. This results in a cleaner but less vibrant image. When we do see grain, it tends to look noisy and "digital". Colors are slightly filtered, but that part is accurate to the stylistic intent. This is a good but imperfect transfer.
My first reaction to the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack was that it sounded dull and had no bass at all. Then when I couldn't make out any of the dialogue I realized that the volume is set way below that of an average DVD. I had to raise my receiver's master volume by a full 10 dB over my usual default. Once you compensate for this and really boost the amplification, it sounds much better.
Some of the South African accents are a bit thick, but dialogue is generally intelligible at proper volume. Surround envelopment is fair, becoming more aggressive in key scenes such as the riot early in the film which has a terrific moment of intentionally disorienting directionality with voices moving back and forth across the rear soundstage (including the center channel if EX decoding is enabled). Gunshots that sounded lifeless at my default volume have their snap properly restored when amplified. The funky score is a blast and sounds great.
It's a decent but somewhat frustrating 5.1 track. Also provided is a Dolby 2.0 Surround mix that sounds largely the same except for the lack of discrete rear channels (a real loss in a few scenes).
Optional English or Spanish subtitles are available, as well as true English closed captioning. Note that some scenes in the movie with Afrikaans language dialogue have burned-in English subtitles that cannot be removed.
Considering its utter lack of promotion, Columbia TriStar's DVD is a modest special edition with a few worthwhile bonus features. Unfortunately, the disc begins with an annoying forced trailer before getting to its otherwise cool menus.
The audio commentary by director Bronwen Hughes is quite thoughtful and intelligent. She fills in many details of Andre Stander's life that she didn't have time for in the film, and freely discusses those parts where the movie takes dramatic license. She also mentions the dramatic possibilities of how a good surround sound experience can actually enhance the content of a scene.
We get two deleted scenes. The first (frustratingly presented in non-anamorphic letterbox) is very funny and I wish it had remained in the film. The second (properly anamorphically enhanced) is OK but unnecessary, and the movie doesn't suffer without it.
The Anatomy of a Scene special from the Sundance Channel runs a half hour and provides a general overview of the movie and a breakdown of how the riot scene was put together. The show is kind of slick and superficial (and filled with plot spoilers), but fairly informative overall.
The theatrical trailer is only provided in non-anamorphic letterbox. It's a pretty good trailer, actually, but does give away too much information for my liking. Some other random trailers for unrelated crap from the studio have also been foisted onto the disc.
No ROM supplements have been included.
My review above may have been a little coy in avoiding telling too much about the movie. I'll leave it to other sources to spoil the details. I honestly think you'll have more fun knowing next to nothing at all. If you want the whole thing spelled out in advance, read another review.
The DVD from Columbia TriStar has reasonable picture and sound that are somewhat disappointing, but does come with a few good supplements. If you're skeptical, at least give it a rent. I think the movie is one of the best and most unfortunately overlooked films of 2004 and can't recommend it enough.