Michael Winterbottom's "The Claim" came out to positive reviews and good buzz. MGM/UA handled the 25 million dollar film less than well - it came out in December of 2000 and then dissapeared for months before returning again for an extremely limited theatrical release. The same time as this theatrical release, it was announced for a video release, which is never a good sign.
I've been a fan of the director's work and enjoyed both his recent "Wonderland" and "Welcome To Sarajevo". "The Claim" is a completely different genre than previous work and also, a change in tone. Yet, Winterbottom is still able to do fine work. The film takes place in the mid-1800's in the small town of Kingdom Come on the Sierra Nevada mountains. The Winter has a grasp over the town, which leads everyone inside, mainly to the bar or brothel (sort of like the 1800's version of "Coyote Ugly"). The town is run by Mr. Dillon (Peter Mullan), who has taken over the town due to the fact that there's gold in the hills.
Into town during the Winter comes two groups; one is Hope (Polley) and her dying mother, Elena (Nastassja Kinski). The other is a railroad crew lead by Donald Daglish (Wes Bentley of "American Beauty"). They're looking for the next stop in the railroad line, and the town is hoping that Kingdom Come will be it. At this point, the railroad is a lifeline, and Kingdom Come will not prosper further without it.
Years ago, Mr. Dillon gave up what was important to him to get Kingdom Come, but with the arrival of the two women, his past will come back to haunt him. I won't exactly reveal the details, but let me say that I enjoyed how "The Claim" went about unveiling the plot and moving the relationships between its characters along. Details are revealed to the audience in flashback, but the developments between characters are paced nicely. Several romantic entanglements insue; barmaid Lucia (Milla Jovovich) is with Mr. Dillon, yet becomes jealous of the return of his wife and ends up with Daglish, who is attracted to Hope.
The performances throughout "The Claim" are phenomenal. Although we expect excellent performances from many of the terrific actors who are included, several suprised me. Milla Jovovich, who was decent in Luc Besson's films, really gives her best performance here. On the other hand, I always expect to be impressed by Sarah Polley's effort, and this is no different. A wonderfully talented actress, she is full of subtle movements and true emotions. She's taken on several recent parts that have called for her to be more intense, but here, she lights up the room with her smile.
"The Claim" is deliberately paced and occasionally slow, but I certainly never found it boring and often found it to be a compelling, engaging drama with great performances. A sadly overlooked film at the theaters, hopefully it will find an audience on video.
VIDEO: This being a new release from MGM/UA, I expected a better effort than they usually provide with their catalog titles. I got that, but not by a whole lot. Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, the presentation has a lot going for it, but also suffers from several problems. Sharpness and detail are thankfully not one of them, though. Although the interior scenes, with their dim lighting, look a bit softer than the bright outdoors, the picture looked at least consistently well-defined.
Problems appear in several forms. First, there are more print flaws than I would like to see on a new release. They are not consistently visible, but there were some occasional marks and scratches that became noticable. Also, although similarly not a consistent problem, some scenes suffer from some noticable edge enhancement. Least of all, a couple of traces of pixelation pop up.
At its best, the picture gives you a good idea of how outstanding the image quality could have been had these flaws not appeared. Alwin H. Kuchler's tremendously elegant and beautiful cinematography often offers wonderfully composed images in the 2.35:1 frame. The sense of brutal cold has never been more palpable than it is here - you can almost feel the frozen winds and snow with the cold, snow-covered scenery.
With the often snowy, cold scenery, there really isn't much in the way of colors to be seen. The interiors, such as the brothel, provide warmer colors, but still the film has a very subdued color palette. This certainly isn't a bad or unwatchable transfer, but I believe that a better job could have been done.
SOUND: "The Claim" is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. As with a dramatic feature like this one, many of the scenes revolve around dialogue or conversations between characters. At these points, the audio generally folds up to the front. Yet, there are certainly a few points where it opens up. A fireworks display sends some audio to the surrounds, as well as a tragic explosion when the railroad crew is doing work. There's also some more subtle surround use, as the winds that whip through the town subtly are offered by the surrounds.
The other element of the sound that is most enjoyable is Michael Nyman's haunting and dramatic score, which often fills the listening space. Personally, I think Nyman is one of the best composers working today. I've always especially loved his score for 1997's "Gattaca" - although this score reminds me slightly of that one, it often takes on moods and tones of its own. Last, but not least, dialogue sounded clear and fairly natural.
MENUS:: Menus are non-animated, with very basic film-themed images serving as backgrounds.
Final Thoughts: "The Claim" is certainly one of the better films of 2000 and it's unfortunate that its release couldn't have been handled better. It's also a shame that its DVD couldn't have been handled better. Still, it's an excellent film that deserves a look at least as a rental.