Monday, January 8, 2018

Some Thoughts From A Year Of Not Really Watching Films


mother! (Aronofsky)
A Quiet Passion (Davies)
The Death of Louis XIV (Serra)
Ex Libris (Wiseman)
Wormwood (Morris)
Jane (Morgen)
Columbus (Kogonada)
Song to Song (Malick)
Logan (Mangold)
The Beguiled (S Coppola)
The Square (Ostlund)

I saw fewer new theatrical releases in 2017 than in any other year this century, so I don't intend this as anything resembling a representative sampling of the most recent twelve months of cinema, a subject which holds increasingly less interest for me. I consider Criterion's release of “Barry Lyndon” on Blu-ray the major movie event of 2017.

Except for “mother!” 

I love “mother!” from its tiny little “m” to its glorious ! I love “mother!” so much I considered just listing it ten times and posting it as my top ten without further comment. Except maybe for a few extra !s. Like The Simpsons' “Man Getting Hit By Football” it works on so many levels. It's funny, it's frighteninging, it's a vivid depiction of the misogynistic horrors propagated by Christian mythology and male ego, it captures the naked terror of exposing your personal art to an audience, and it's exquisitely filmed from just a handful of efficient camera setups. Jennifer Lawrence and Michelle Pfeiffer are perfect, and, oh lord, the sound design... it's damned exciting, gonzo filmmaking. Really, I love it so much I need to wait a few more months before I can do more than gush. Naturally, critics couldn't wait to take a dump on it. I hope Aronofsky doesn't get tired of casting pearls. Illegitimi non carborundum, darren!

As much as I love, love, love the movie, I found several of the skeptical takes on “mother!” both reasonable and insightful, and I often found myself responding “You're not wrong... but that's exactly what I want from a movie.” The tiny handful of viciously negative takes on “A Quiet Passion” were, by contrast, nothing short of baffling. Cynthia Nixon delivers the performance of the century as a righteously indignant Emily Dickinson in Terence Davies' semi-biopic, the best film about an artist this side of Peter Watkins' magisterial “Edvard Munch” (1974). The weirdest, wrongest take of all is the weird, wrong suggestion that Nixon's portrayal of a “difficult” protagonist somehow makes her character unsympathetic. One critic even described Nixon's Dickinson as a “harridan.” WTF? I was moved to tears, felt a desperate urge to apologize to Dickinson across the centuries on behalf of a fallen world that didn't deserve her, and, above all, to read lots and lots of her poetry as one modest act of contrition.

Albert Serra's “The Death of Louis XIV” would have been a heck of a movie no matter the lead, but casting little Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) as the setting Sun King is the year's stroke of genuine inspiration. How can any cinephile not compare teenage Leaud in freeze frame circa 1959 to this craggy, withered, royal wreck and marvel at the special power of cinema? Great, gangrenous Louis waits (in full regal luxury, mind you) for the inevitable end that sure takes its sweet time arriving, while his faithful advisers fuss nervously in hushed, helpless meetings. The array of charlatans who propose ineffective cures provide some of the year's quietest comic scenes – bull semen cocktails for all! Paired with Roberto Rossellini's extraordinary“The Taking Of Power By Louis XIV” (1966), Serra's gem may vault Louis into the lead as the most cinematic European monarch ahead of Elizabeth I and Henry VIII. Now we just need a film about Louis' passion for ballet to complete the grand historic trilogy. If it turns one has already been made, feel free to let me know.

Any year which produces new films from documentary masters Frederick Wiseman and Errol Morris should be appreciated. “Ex Libris” turns Wiseman's studied eye to the glorious institution of the sprawling New York Public Library, proven here to be as vital as ever from boardroom meetings to dynamic guest speakers to endless shelves of real, actual, physical, beautiful books. In the six-part Netflix series “Wormwood,” Morris leads viewers through a few twists of the labyrinthine story of scientist Frank Olson, alleged to have jumped to his death from a New York hotel room in 1953, but possibly killed by the CIA because... well, because it's the sort of thing that CIA guys really get off on. Maybe. Eric Olson, Frank's son, still fighting (perhaps both futilely as well as nobly) for justice emerges as one of the year's most compelling characters. Both films showcase their directors' attention to detail and passion for rational investigation, though “Wormwood” also underscores the limits of empiricism when evidence proves elusive – that doesn't mean you stop digging, though! Both documentaries are sensational and my only complaint about each: too damn short.

The rest, in brief: “Jane” spins some glorious color footage of young Jane Goodall in Tanzania in the 1960s into one of the more beautiful documentaries of recent years. “Columbus,” the debut feature by director Kogonada (familiar to Criterion fans for some great extras features), turns architecture into a way of life and love and gives actors Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho ample room to shine. “Song to Song” is probably my least favorite recent Malick, but give me a chance to rewatch it and I may change my mind. Least favorite recent Malick still equals one of the year's best, of course.

Oh my god, Patrick Stewart is so great in “Logan.”

They don't have to be in competition, but I think Sofia Coppola improved on Don Siegel's original “The Beguiled” (1971). At the very least, she made it her own film, a fresh remake that actually has a reason to exist. “The Square” is a bit too long for my taste, and not nearly as good as “Force Majeure,” but Ruben Ostlund is becoming one of the modern masters of the squirm-laugh.

I greatly disliked a good deal of the year's critically praised movies, many of them likely award winners, but rather than mentioning duds like “The Shape of Water” or “Wind River” or “Three Billboards Blah Blah Blah” I'll limit myself to venting my spleen at “I, Tonya.” It's cruel, stupid, glib, condescending, and so incompetently made, it earned a glowing 90% approval from the Tomatogentsia, compelling evidence that we get the president we deserve. After a wearying year of unprecedented cognitive dissonance from every news source, I can't even face the prospect of speaking with someone who can't recognize what complete garbage this loathsome nothing of a movie is, and so I will never volunteer to speak of it again. 

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Dec 12, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

How the heck did director Barbet Schroeder score direct access to Idi Amin, the controversial military dictator of Uganda? He simply asked.

The title star of “General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait” (1974) may have been mocked by the Western intelligentsia as an ignoramus and a buffoon, but he understood the importance of the media and, especially, the importance of being on camera as much as possible. The self-made general and self-styled savior spewed absurd lies while also claiming to be universally loved because he was the only man who told the truth, and to be feared throughout the world for his unparalleled savvy and might. It never mattered how ludicrous his empty posturing was, only that people were constantly watching and listening. Of course he said yes to the Frenchman who wanted to make him a movie star.

I know what you're thinking, dear 2017 reader. If you are tempted to draw a seemingly obvious comparison to a current world leader, however, please note that in his not-brief-enough tenure, Amin allegedly murdered a few hundred thousand of his fellow citizens, and jailed many more of his real and imagined political foes, so let's respect the horror suffered by a generation of Ugandans and move on.

Schroeder was aware of the perils of providing grist for Amin's publicity mill, leading to the canny decision to subtitle the film “A Self-Portrait” by Amin. In so doing, Schroeder acknowledged his potential complicity as a propagandist, but also mitigated the damage by emphasizing that this awful, asinine man called the shots (at one point he even orders the cameraman to film a helicopter), so viewer beware and do not be deceived by the term “documentary.”

Amin struts and preens his way through a series of pathetic military exercises, including one in which his crack paratroopers prepare for battle by leaping off a two-inch-high porch step, and equally pathetic cabinet meetings where he promises he wants nothing but openness and honesty, and pauses for neither. The question isn't so much whether Amin believes his preposterous rhetoric, but whether he thinks anyone else will believe it, at least anyone not living under immediate threat of his force.

Schroeder notes that Amin was such a natural on camera that he only needed about eight hours of total footage during his two-week shot to accumulate enough material for a feature-length cut. The general is undeniably magnetic and all the more terrifying for his carefully rehearsed sense of calm. He does not yell or directly threaten anyone, but his over-the-top laughter, feigned interest in conversations that are really monologues, and his icy stare speak volumes.

The documentary opened to widespread acclaim in 1974, and multiple descriptions of the film as the funniest comedy of the year provide evidence that irony-drenched hipsters are not exclusively a twenty-first century creation. Certainly, the film offers its share of absurdist humor (“Dada”), such as Amin cheating in a swimming race by barreling over an opponent who quite obviously had no intention of daring to challenge the great general, but it is also a chilling record of a genuine monster, a sociopath too irresistibly and disturbingly entertaining to be easily forgotten. 

The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. I can't imagine too many people were clamoring for a high-def upgrade of this documentary, but the “new 2K digital transfer” certainly looks sharper than the old 2002 SD Criterion release, and features more subdued color tones.

The linear PCM mono track is crisp and efficient. There's not much to say about a film consisting mostly of interviews save that there are no audio problems that would distract the viewer. Optional English subtitles support the audio.

The 2002 Criterion DVD was scant on extra features, and this 2017 Blu-ray upgrade only adds a few small ones.

We get the old 2001 interview with Barbet Schroeder (26 min.) and a new 2017 interview (12 min.) with the director which covers a good deal of the same ground. But, oh, that story of how Amin “suggested” certain film cuts to Schroeder can't be told enough.

The only other extra is a 2017 interview with author Andrew Rice (16 min.) who discusses Amin's reign from seizing power to his self-imposed exile (he ran like a coward).

The slim fold-out insert booklet includes an essay by film critic J. Hoberman.

Final Thoughts:
Go ahead, laugh at the movie. It's funny. But reflect on Amin's long, dead-eyed stare that wraps up the film before you go calling it a rip-roaring comedy. In any case, it's a great and essential documentary.

Monday, December 18, 2017

The Complete Monterey Pop Festival

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Dec 12, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

On a 1958 episode of “What's My Line?”, pioneering rock-and-roll songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller faced the withering condescension of the show's self-appointed cultural gatekeepers. An outright vicious Dorothy Kilgallen sniped “That's no excuse!” when the pair's commercial success was mentioned, and the not-at-all-with-it host, John Daly, offered the friendly hope that the boys would “go on and do perhaps more serious things in music.”

In 1967, director D.A. Pennebaker was only a few years younger than both Kilgallen and Daly were in 1958, butwas fortunately far more receptive to the nation's new dominant musical genre. When tasked with filming the Monterey Pop Festival on three sunny California days in June, 1967, Pennebaker not only took the event seriously, he rendered it an almost instantly myth, a cultural landmark that still exerts considerable sway a half-century later.

Pennebaker was hired in part because of his success with the Bob Dylan documentary “Don't Look Back” (1967), but he still wasn't entirely familiar with the whole scene organized by festival producers Lou Adler and John Phillips (of The Mamas & The Papas). He claims he didn't even know who Janis Joplin was (they later became friends), and had only heard snippets of Jimi Hendrix before. Fortunately, Pennebaker and his team, including Direct Cinema stalwarts Albert Maysles and Ricky Leacock, were able to employ their hand-held cameras, mobile direct sound, and versatile 16-mm Ektachrome stock with free-wheeling versatility, sometimes capturing entire sets by the relentless parade of star acts, some already legendary, others whose fame would be launched in no small part by the festival and the film. 

“Monterey Pop” eases into this now-fabled launch of the Summer of Love, waiting nearly ten minutes to actually get to the music, focusing on the crowds of flower-power youth completing their solemn pilgrimage. One bright-eyed fan promises that it's going to be like Easter and Christmas and New Year's all rolled together and that “the vibrations are just gonna be flowing.” Police worry about the rumored threats of the Hell's Angels and Black Panthers, but joking interactions between hippies and cops suggest that all will be well.

The rest is the stuff of legends, as vital and vibrant today as when first captured on film. Grace Slick and Joplin at their peaks. Cass Elliott charming the audience. Hendrix setting his guitar aflame. Otis Redding just months before his tragic plane crash. All amazing, but can any of them top sitar-master Ravi Shankar completely owning not just the crowd, but a whole new musical world with a performance that staggers belief? No need to pick your favorite act. Who could?

If there's any disappointment with Pennebaker's magical film, it's that it's too damn short at just 79 minutes. But if you finish feeling like you could listen to hours more, well, that's just what this Criterion Blu-ray set is for.

The films in this 3-disc set are presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios. After the original 2002 SD-DVD release, Criterion re-released “Monterey Pop” (see below) on Blu-ray in 2009. However, this 2017 Blu-ray re-release features new 16-bit 4K resolution transfers. I don't have the 2009 Blu-ray to compare to, but the difference between these transfers and the 2002 DVDs represents a considerable improvement, a total transformation really. Of course the audio quality is going to be of greater interest to those considering a double dip.

Linear PCM and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mixes are available options for the films in this set. The 5.1 mix, newly remastered from the original 8-track audio, are exceptionally robust with no drop-off or distortion audible anywhere. It sounds even better than you'd imagine possible for a concert captured with mobile synch sound equipment of the '60s. I can't imagine it can ever sound better than this. No subtitles are provided, which I suppose isn't a big deal, but I still wouldn't mind having them.

It's easy to get confused by the many Criterion releases of “Monterey Pop.” It was first released as two separate DVDs in two separate keepcases back in 2002. They then released the set again on Blu-ray in 2009. And in 2017, they are releasing both a single-disc ob Blu-ray and the three-disc set which is reviewed here.

What you really need to do is that this three-disc set includes all the original extras from the 2002/2009 releases and also adds a second disc consisting of over two-hours of outtakes/extra performances from the festival. We'll get to it all eventually.

Disc One includes the main documentary (79 min.) which is accompanied by the 2002 commentary track by Pennebaker and festival producer Lou Adler. Older features also imported include a 2001 interview with Pennebaker and Adler (29 min.) and interviews with John Phillips (16 min.), Cass Elliott (12 min.), David Crosby (9 min.), and Derek Taylor (29 min.). More older material: promotional TV and radio spots, festival ephemera (including a photo essay by Elaine Mayes), and images of the original festival program.

New features on Disc One include a 2017 interview with Pennebaker (15 min. - it's actually a mix of three interviews) and a 2017 interview with Lou Adler (12 min.) These cover some of the same material as their joint 2001 interview. In addition, the disc includes the short film “Chiefs” (1968, 20 min.), directed by Ricky Leacock, concerning a convention of American police chiefs in Waikiki. It's relevance to “Monterey Pop” is based mostly on Leacock's involvement in both projects.

Disc Two will thrill music lovers with 129 minutes of additional musical performances from the festival. I've done my best to list them in detail. They are organized by each day of the three-day festival.

Day One:

The Association – Along Comes Mary
Simon and Garfunkel – Homeward Bound, The Sounds of Silence

Day Two:

Country Joe and the Fish – Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine
Al Kooper – (I Heard Her Say) Wake Me, Shake Me
The Paul Butterfield Blues Band – Driftin' Blues
The Steve Miller Blues Band – Mercury Blues, Super Shuffle
Quicksilver Messenger Service – All I Ever Wanted To Do (Was Love You)
The Electric Flag – Drinkin' Wine
The Byrds – Chimes of Freedom, He Was A Friend of Mine, Hey Joe
Laura Nyro – Wedding Bell Blues, Poverty Train
Jefferson Airplane – Somebody to Love
Moby Grape – Hey Grandma

Day Three:

The Blues Project – Flute Thing
Big Brother and the Holding Company – Combination of the Two
Buffalo Springfield – For What It's Worth
The Who – Substitute, Summertime Blues, A Quick One While He's Away
The Grateful Dead – Viola Lee Blues
The Mamas and the Papas – Straight Shooter, Somebody Groovy, I Call Your Name, Monday Monday, San Francisco, Dancing In The Street

The disc also includes footage of Tiny Tim performing in the Hunt Club (the festival's official green room), four short songs in all.

Disc Three:

And we still haven't gotten to perhaps the most substantial extras in the set.

This disc includes two more Pennebaker films: “Jimi Plays Monterey” (49 min.) and “Shake! Otis at Monterey” and you should be able to figure out the subjects of both films, which are wonderful. “Jimi” has a 2002 commentary track by music critic Charles Shaar Murray and also a brief interview with Pete Townshend (1987, 4 min.” “Shake!” comes with two commentaries by music historian Peter Guaralnick along with a 2002 interview (19 min.) with Phil Walden, Redding's manager. These are all imported from the original 2002 SD release, but now in high-def.

The thick, square-bound 72-page insert booklet includes essays by Michael Chaiken, Armond White, David Fricke, and Barney Hoskyns as well as Michael Leydon's article about the festival, originally published in “Newsweek” in 1967.

Final Thoughts:
Great high-def transfers and rich DTS 5.1 audio mixes are reason enough to recommend this upgrade, but the real treat is the more than two hours of additional concert footage included on Disc Two (listed above). This set has been available in some form for quite some time now, but comprehensive re-release genuinely deserves the title “The COMPLETE Monterey Pop Festival.” Strongly recommended.

Sunday, November 19, 2017


JABBERWOCKY (Gilliam, 1977)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Nov 21, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

Human beings are tautly-stretched sacks of blood and puss who spend most of their day consuming and excreting matter, just eating, pissing, farting, and crapping their short lives away. That appears to be Terry Gilliam's primary thesis in “Jabberwocky” (1977), and even if you're in the minority who stubbornly disputes such an obvious claim, his first solo film as director provides ample evidence to support it.

When the film's protagonist, Dennis Cooper (Michael Palin), a simple villager named for his family occupation (Cooper, not Dennis, I mean), sets to wooing his sweetheart Griselda (Annette Badland), she responds to his tender entreaties by gnawing on a rotten potato, scratching her ass, and unleashing the occasional bum blast. Griselda's father, Mr. Fishfinger (Warren Mitchell), also conducts a blithely casual conversation with young Dennis while taking a equally casual dump out of a window and into the polluted water below.

When Dennis sets out, quite accidentally, to become a hero and slay the mysterious and menacing Jabberwocky that terrifies the countryside, he plunges knee-deep into mountains of dung and wakes up to a drive-by golden shower or two. Meanwhile, King Bruno the Questionable (Max Wall) orders a glorious joust to determine a champion to fight the Jabberwocky, and the results of each heroic battle are depicted primarily by the various fluids spattered on the onlookers. Robert Bresson may have dealt a fatal blow to chivalry a few years earlier with “Lancelot du Lac” (1974), but Gilliam took great pleasure in dropping by to crap on its corpse.

Any adaptation of Lewis Carroll's “Jabberwocky” would necessarily be a loose one, but Gilliam actually works in much of the poem's text into his film and ultimately delivers a genuine monster “with eyes of flame.” Hero Dennis Cooper is not, however, a particularly “beamish boy” unless “beamish” means “a colossally dull bean-counter.”

Portrayed with as little personality as possible by Palin, Dennis embodies another horrifying aspect of humanity beyond their oozing, stinking bodies: a relentlessly unimaginative obsession with profit margins. Dennis's father (Paul Curran) takes great pride in crafting quality barrels, in loving and respecting the wood he works with, and is mortified to learn that his son can see nothing but the opportunity to cut corners in the name of competitive business. Alas, Dennis is more in tune with his times than dear old dad. The nobles and businessmen of the utterly wretched city to which Dennis ventures to make his fortune are in no great hurry to eliminate the Jabberwocky. The threat of having all their flesh flayed from their skeletons keeps the peasants at home, and thus willing to work for lower wages, and the general chill even sparks a bull market in commodities.

Gilliam surely selected a pre-sanitation medieval setting to emphasize the filth, but the film's depiction of the squalid state of humanity has a timeless quality. Give them a few centuries and these miserable wretches will be spewing their filth into the atmosphere. A few years after that, the corporate machinery of Gilliam's “Brazil” (1985) would be run by a legion of paper-pushing Dennis Coopers, and dreamers are about as welcome in the society of “Jabberwocky” as in “Brazil.” Aside from Dennis's father, nobody here seeks or even imagines a better way of life because, quite frankly, they don't deserve and aren't capable of anything better. You are what you shit.

“Jabberwocky” manifests the expected unevenness of a first film. It's phenomenal at depicting the grotesque (special shutout to Annette Badland for gamely embracing her caricatured role) but it's not particularly funny, especially not when Gilliam seems to reaching most emphatically for laughs, a shortcoming that leads to some tedious stretches. However, the idiosyncratic vision that would soon produce gems like “Time Bandits” (1981) and “Brazil” (1985) arrives almost fully formed in Gilliam's solo debut. And the monster, held back until the very end, is pretty darn cool too.

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. I only recall seeing “Jabberwocky” on the old 2001 Columbia DVD which was pretty flat and muddy looking. This recent restoration by the BFI National Archive and The Film Foundation works from the original 35 mm camera negative to produce an impressive 1080p image, sharp and richly textured throughout. It looks sharp in motion too. The color palette is fairly drab, but we're talking about Gilliam's version of the Middle Ages here – many piles of poop, few rainbows. All in all, this is a very strong high-def presentation.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is quite robust, effective with the sometimes elaborate sound effects (OK, by elaborate I sometimes mean sounds of suspicious 'plops' in the water) and the eclectic classical music mix. Optional English (SDH) subtitles support the English audio.

The film is accompanied by an old 2001 audio commentary by Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin.

“Jabberwocky's Good Nonsense” (41 min.) mixes interviews with Gilliam, Palin, Annette Badland, and producer Sandy Lieberson. In sharing their reminiscences about the film's production, they cover mostly familiar ground with an emphasis on Gilliam's desire to break away from his Python roots in his first solo directorial effort.

In another interview (15 min.), special-effects artist and designer Valerie Charlton (co-credited for “Monster Creation” in the film) discusses the development of the film's title monster.

Cinematographer Terry Bedford (22 min.) also discusses his work with Gilliam on both “Holy Grail” and “Jabbewrocky” in these audio-only excerpts.

Criterion has also included the film's Original Opening. Gilliam changed the opening/title sequence for the film's U.S. release and settled on a hybrid version for home video release. This original U.K. Cut skips the paintings of the U.S. title sequence.

We also get a 2001 program which compares Gilliam's original sketches to the final screen version of several scenes.

Finally, in addition to a Trailer (1 min.), we also get a reading of the poem “Jabberwocky” by Palin and Badland.

The slim fold-out booklet features an essay by critic Scott Tobias.

Final Thoughts:
“Jabberwocky” is one of Gilliam's lesser efforts, but even if it's disappointingly short on laughs, it's a fascinating preview of the glorious visions to come from this one-of-a-kind director. Criterion's high-def transfer is stronger and the selection of extras is satisfying, if not overwhelming.