Though its historical accuracy is...questionable at best, Paul Schrader's Auto Focus (2002) casts a harsh spotlight on the sad, spiraling state of actor Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear) during the last decade of his life. In 1965, he shot to stardom as the lead of Hogan's Heroes, lost his footing after its cancellation in 1971, and was found murdered seven years later. (The case was never solved.) He'd been married twice and was going through divorce proceedings at the time, rarely drank, never smoked, and was so thoroughly addicted to sex that he rarely went a day without seeking a new conquest.
Auto Focus' fixed narrative mostly concerns Crane's ongoing friendship with John Carpenter (Willem Defoe, and not that John Carpenter), a tech expert who hooks celebrities up with the latest hi-fi and video equipment. After they meet on the set of Hogan's Heroes, Crane and Carpenter begin their normal routine of visiting local strip clubs (many of which Crane, an accomplished drummer, would eventually play at) and prowling for women. Carpenter does most of the driving at first: he's more sexually driven and has no trouble with the advantage of Crane's celebrity status. Soon enough, their roles are reversed and, while his first marriage to Anne (Rita Wilson) dissolves and his second with co-star Patricia Olson (Mario Bello) begins, Crane is so far gone that he'll probably never recover. His post Hogan's Heroes years, a cocktail of minor movie roles and dinner theater appearances, aren't paying the bills. The only constants in his life are random women and "Carpy", who's always eager to show off a brand-new gadget for their tawdry recording sessions.
The film's source story is indeed fascinating and, for the most part, it's captured in a way that suits the material. Crane and Carpenter's "routine" gradually devolves from provocative to downright numbing, while the latter's fixation on new equipment shows how desperate he is to keep the spark lit. Auto Focus also employs a number of visual techniques to mirror Crane's fall from grace: early scenes are organized and cleanly shot with candy-colored palettes, while the second half gradually shifts towards desaturated tones, cluttered interiors, and increasingly unstable hand-held camerawork. It sounds heavy-handed and obvious on paper but is done in a rather subtle manner, enough so that first-time viewers may not even realize what's happening. The film is also aided by its two perfectly cast lead performances and a memorable score by Angelo Badalamenti, perhaps best known for his frequent collaborations with David Lynch.
Still, the numbing way in which Auto Focus depicts its central characters also keeps it from maintaining momentum, while a few side plots and supporting characters are either ignored or barely even register. It seems like a lot has been left out; combined with the film's constant focus on "routine", all of its unexplored elements make this feel like an unfinished film. (Small chunks of exposition are even served via awkward voice-overs by "Crane", including a post-murder speech that oddly suggests an all-knowing presence over his own life.) Long story short: Auto Focus works well when each of the parts are moving correctly, but its reach exceeds its grasp during several stretches and ends up dulling some of the experience. Luckily, Twilight Time's new Blu-ray serves up an outstanding A/V presentation and plenty of bonus features, all of which work in the film's favor and may likely sway anyone stuck on the fence. It's also worth noting that, like Sony's 2003 DVD, this Blu-ray includes the "edited" American cut that obscures two separate sex acts during the film.
Presented in a slightly opened-up 1.78:1 aspect ratio (the film's original format is 1.85:1), Auto Focus looks tremendous on Blu-ray from Twilight Time; while it's not advertised as being from a new restoration or scan, this stands head and shoulders above Sony's old 2003 DVD in every department. The film's subtle but clearly intentional degradation has been preserved nicely: early scenes are clean and uncluttered with candy-shop reds and golden hues, while later scenes are bleached and much more desaturated in direct comparison (the camerawork changes too, and even the set designs!). In both cases, this looks like a very accurate presentation of unique source material, with excellent levels of image detail and strong textures that pop during outdoor scenes. Even the low-lit and nighttime locales look great with deep shadow detail and no obvious crushed blacks. Overall, this is certainly a top-tier effort that fans will really appreciate.
DISCLAIMER: The promotional stills and screen captures on this page are decorative and do not represent the title under review.
Audio is presented in your choice of DTS-HD 5.1 or 2.0 Master Audio, along with a separate Isolated Music Track featuring the great score by Angelo Badalamenti. The default 5.1 option is quite good with crisp audio and sound effects, a few clever panning effects, and rare but noticeable amounts of rear channel activity during the music cues, bustling parties, and Crane's daydream sequence. That said, Audio Focus mostly plays it straight up front, so even those who opt for the more dialed-down 2.0 option shouldn't be disappointed here. No obvious hiss, drop-outs, sync issues, or other obvious defects were heard along the way. Optional English subtitles are included during the main feature only.
The interface is plain but perfectly functional, with quick loading time and the bare minimum of pre-menu distractions. This one-disc release arrives in a clear keepcase with colorful poster-themed artwork and a short Booklet featuring production stills, promotional artwork, and another brief but insightful new essay penned by Julie Kirgo.
Aside from the welcome new Isolated Music Score, everything here is from Sony's 2003 DVD -- that is, to say, quite a lot. These outstanding extras include three separate full-length Audio Commentaries (one features director Paul Schrader with actors Greg Kinnear and Willem Dafoe, there's a second solo track with director Paul Schrader, while the third features writer Michael Gerbosi with producers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski), the 50 minute real-life documentary "Murder in Scottsdale", five Deleted Scenes with optional audio commentary by director Paul Schrader, a short promotional Behind-the-Scenes Featurette, and two original Theatrical Trailers including the explicit "red band" version.
Paul Schrader's forgotten Auto Focus puts two desperate, pathetic figures under the microscope, showing us all their sins and shortcomings in almost monotonous detail. This is a movie that ought to work a little better than it actually does: it's based on an interesting slice of Hollywood history (and a book by the great Robert Graysmith) that features two well-cast leads, good supporting performances, unique cinematography, and a memorable score by Angelo Badalementi...yet it has trouble keeping the intrigue and momentum up during several key stretches. The whole is slightly less than the sum of its parts and, though certainly watchable, isn't one that most viewers will likely reach for very often. However, Twilight Time's Blu-ray tips the scales firmly in its favor: featuring an outstanding A/V presentation and all the great bonus features from Sony's 2003 DVD (plus an exclusive isolated score track), this is a welcome upgrade for a film that, until now, was doomed to standard-definition purgatory. Mildly Recommended, but more so for established fans.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes, and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.