Monday, June 22, 2020

Shirin


SHIRIN (Kiarostami, 2008)
Cinema Guild, DVD, Release Date Aug 24, 2010
Review by Christopher S. Long

(NOTE: Abbas Kiarostami, who died in 2016, would have turned 80 today. Here's a repost of my review of one of his lesser-known films, though certainly not one of his lesser films. And feel free to click on the 'Kiarostami' tag at the end of this post for links to several other films by this modern master.)

Abbas Kiarostami´s "Shirin" (2008) is the very model of simplicity, constructed entirely (aside from the opening and end credits) of a series of close-up shots of women in a theater watching a film. Well, not exactly. The actresses were actually filmed in small groups while sitting in Kiarostami´s living room, and they weren´t really watching a movie. In fact the movie doesn´t exist at all except as an audio track which was recorded after the actresses´ performances were filmed. So scratch that simplicity business. Chalk "Shirin" up as another of Kiarostami´s deceptively complicated, multi-layered meditations on life, the cinema and everything. We shouldn´t expect anything else from the director of “Close-up” (1990) and "A Taste of Cherry" (1997).

On the surface there seems to be something perverse about Kiarostami´s decision to work with a cast full of professional actors for the first time, and then to plop each of them in a living room chair and have them "simply" (that word again!) stare ahead as if watching a movie. Yet as revealed in the wonderful making-of documentary ("A Taste of Shirin") included on this DVD, these big-name stars of Iranian cinema (plus Juliette Binoche, perhaps prepping for her role in Kiarostami´s "Certified Copy") are not only acting, but pushing their craft into previously unexplored territory. As Kiarostami says to one of his performers: "You are now the spectator of movies you have been playing for years." This is surely a role none of them expected to be playing on screen, and the director doesn´t make it easy, paradoxically micromanaging them ("move your chin up") then asking them to create their own inner movie and express any resulting emotions with their eyes.

Cinema Guild has included two other Kiarostami short films on this disc which share the same formal concerns as the main feature, namely the intent study of images we rarely, if ever, get to scrutinize on film. In "Roads of Kiarostami" (2006), the director films not just roads but primarily his own photographs of roads winding through the countryside. We have seen images like this before even in Kiarostami´s own work (the winding road up the hillside in the 1987 "Where Is The Friend´s House?" being a standout) but the close "aerial" study of these two-dimensional photographs provides a unique perspective on these sinuous forms, appreciated for their formal beauty rather than their more pragmatic function. In "Rug" (2006), Kiarostami travels the "roads" of a Persian rug, the camera tracking its intricately woven patterns first in a counter-clockwise circle (or square, following its shape) then panning up and down before zooming out for a broader view. 


In "Shirin" he studies the roadmap of the face, faces of women both younger and older, faces framed by head scarves that are limned by the flickering light of the faux movie screen. For me, one of the greatest pleasures in cinema is watching people while they are watching or listening to something off-screen; absorbing, learning, thinking. Godard´s cinema is replete with such instances, the most famous being Anna Karina watching "The Passion of Joan of Arc" in "Vivre Sa Vie." The inherent creepiness of watching Danny watching a Roadrunner cartoon in "The Shining" also springs to mind. Kiarostami´s film takes this aesthetic to a whole different level.

The faces in "Shirin" tell a gradually unfolding story that relates to the story being told off-screen. Kiarostami´s audio movie is based on the medieval poem "Khosrow and Shirin" by Nizami Ganjavi, a tragic love story (the only kind) about a woman (Shirin) pursued by a king and an artist. What we hear suggests that this is a purely commercial melodrama which explains why it´s playing in a public theater rather than to a festival crowd like most of Kiarostami´s work. At first, the women´s faces are either impassive or pensive as they reserve judgment about the film, but they turn more expressive, tears eventually flowing as they are seduced by its pathos. Not that any of them were watching a film, of course. When an actress appears to be jolted by a sudden event on screen, she was actually startled by the director dropping a pan. Any trick to get an "authentic" reaction.

Perhaps Kiarostami is contemplating the relationship of his own contemplative, occasionally abstract work to the seductive power of narrative cinema. I'm not ready to venture into that interpretive mine field just yet. What I´m left with instead is the surface level, memories of a series of women´s faces looking ever so slightly off-screen (I don´t recall anyone´s gaze meeting the camera) giving us the opportunity to observe them as they observe a non-existent film. How beautiful. How fascinating. And, in the end, yes, how simple this film´s charms. 


Video:
The film is presented in a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer from Cinema Guild. The widescreen image is windowboxed for some reason, but otherwise I have no complaints. It´s tempting to carp a bit about how dark some of the images look, but this was meant to look like it was shot in a theater so obviously there are times that faces are going to disappear somewhat into the shadows. The flickering light sometimes shows up as looking a little blotchy on the ´theater seats" in the film, but this is a solid transfer all around.

Audio:
The film is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. If there is anything I was somewhat off put by, it´s that the film (dialogue and FX) we hear off-screen sounds more like a live radio play than a movie heard in a theater. When you see how the audio was recorded, it´s obvious why this is the case, so I think the sound is well replicated on this mix. English subtitles are provided to support the Farsi audio.

Extras:
With its simple black cover and stripped-down menus, this DVD initially appears to be a no-frills release, but the extras included by Cinema Guild are superb.

First up is the excellent "making of" documentary "Taste of Shirin" (2008, 27 min.) by Hamideh Razavi. As much as any "making of" featurette I can recall, this fits hand in glove with the main feature and can significantly transform your viewing experience. It shows Kiarostami at work with his actresses both in front of the camera and later in the audio booth.

What a treat for Kiarostami buffs to now have two of his recent short films available in Region 1.

"Roads of Kiarostami" (2005, 32 min.) is a natural development in the director´s lifelong passion for filming long, zigzagging roads. In this short, he shoots some moving images of roads, but mostly focuses on photographs (that I assume are his own) of roads, combined with a contemplative voice-over. There is also a brief video passage of Kiarostami on the road trying to capture some images.

"Rug" (2006, 6 min.) is a close-up study of the surface of a Persian carpet accompanied by audio of a man and women reciting poetry. It is quite lovely.

The extras are important simply for making Kiarostami´s short films available on DVD, but they also happen to fit seamlessly together. As mentioned above, all three Kiarostami films (the shorts and "Shirin") show the director´s interest in focusing on images seldom privileged on screen. As a group, these films offer a great perspective on the last five years of this Kiarostami´s thematic and formal concerns.

The slim insert booklet features an insightful two page essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum, one of America´s most eloquent and passionate critical champion of Abbas Kiarostami´s cinema.

Final Thoughts:
"Shirin" may be Kiarostami´s most experimental feature to date, but it´s as accessible as any of his films. Bolstered by the well-chosen extras, "Shirin" is yet another great release by Cinema Guild, and strongly recommended.

Friday, June 12, 2020

No No: A Dockumentary


NO NO: A DOCKUMENTARY (Radice, 2014)
Theatrical Release
Review by Christopher S. Long

(Today marks the 50th anniversary of one of baseball's most-celebrated no-hitters. Why does anyone still care about an early-June game between the Pirates and the woeful Padres? Read on and find out.)

Dock Ellis won 138 games in the major leagues, started an all-star game, and earned a World Series ring. But Dock Ellis will forever be known for pitching a no-hitter while (allegedly) tripping on LSD. As Ellis told and re-told the much-loved story, he couldn't even see the batters and just pitched to the reflective tape catcher Jerry May wore on his fingers. “High as a Georgia pine,” he walked eight and hit a batter. Trust Dock Ellis to pitch a no-hitter in his own style.


While “No No: A Dockumentary” (2014) shows us there is much more to Dock Ellis than just his June 12, 1970 gem against the Padres (yes, no-hitters pitched against the Padres still count officially) it still takes this cherished legend as its primary inspiration. It was neither the first nor the last time Dock (his given name, by the way) took the mound while under the influence of illegal substances.

Ellis's career (1968-1979) was a constant binge of LSD, vodka, and especially greenies, the amphetamines in widespread use in major-league baseball during the '60s and '70s. Ellis claims he would grab a fistful of pills from a bowl in the clubhouse, toss them in the air and take the ones that landed standing up... and then take the rest as needed. He enjoyed the night life too and was fortunate to find the perfect home with the party-animal Pirates headlined by Willie Stargell and Ellis's roommate and mentor Roberto Clemente. Fans of the team will enjoy the numerous interviews with Bucco stalwarts like Al Oliver (one of Dock's closest friends), Manny Sanguillen, Bruce Kison, and others.

First-time feature documentary director Jeff Radice plays the drug angle for the combination of awe and stoner humor that has usually accompanied the legend of Dock Ellis, but it's only fun and games until somebody gets hurt. The laughs stop quickly when we learn that Ellis choked his first wife Paula (she ditched him immediately) and later threatened to shoot his second wife, Austine, during a night-long ordeal as he raged after being released by the Pirates. According to the movie, Ellis took the second incident as a wake-up call, checked himself into rehab, and embarked on an unlikely post-playing career as an advocate for substance abuse treatment for professional athletes and a drug counselor in prisons.

Whether you buy the final act redemption story as neatly as presented here or not, Ellis emerges from the movie as a complex and thoughtful character. He loved to say and do outrageous things, but seldom did so without a calculated purpose. If there's a common thread to the controversies this self-described “angry black man” generated on a regular basis (I'll leave you to discover them in the movie in case you don't already know) it's that he didn't want anybody telling him what to do; not fans, not the press, and certainly not his employers. Ellis's defiant message to his teams was to watch how he played on the field and not to worry about anything else. 


The documentary also suggests a sensitive, almost artistic side to Ellis. One of the stranger aspects about one of baseball's strangest careers is that Dock's biography would be written by future poet laureate Donald Hall who spotted something unique in the outspoken pitcher. He wasn't the only one. Jackie Robinson was inspired to write Ellis an appreciative letter in which he cheered him for standing up for his values. Dock tries to read the text of the letter, but can't make it to the end as he breaks up in tears.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Losing Ground


LOSING GROUND (Collins, 1982)
Milestone Films, Blu-ray, Release Date April 5, 2016
Review by Christopher S. Long

(UPDATE 6/6/2020: The Criterion Channel has made several films by black filmmakers, along with a few other titles, available to stream for free. If you're looking for a place to start, I recommend "Losing Ground", available at the following link. Tip: The movie might not play on Chrome, but should work on Safari and Firefox and other browsers. I don't know how long it will be available for free, so don't let the opportunity slip by.) 

Though the centerpiece of Kathleen Collins's “Losing Ground” (1982) is the fraught relationship between a wife and her husband, the scene that has stuck with me the most is the one where an aspiring student filmmaker named George (Gary Bollins) shouts directions to his camera operator. A nice, slow tilt, then a diagonal pan, now dolly back to a wide... “Did you catch that subtle mise-en-scene, mi amigo?”

Aside from the nifty feat of combining three languages in eight words, writer/director/producer Collins displays a wry sense of humor about the filmmaking process – the vanity, the insecurity, and the sheer pleasure of making decisions on set, absurdity and ambition shouldering each other aside. “Losing Ground” is one of the first feature films directed by an African-American woman and Collins had to work hard to get it made, but it sure seems like she had fun in the process.


Fun is a challenge for Sara (Seret Scott), a terminally serious philosophy professor loosely inspired by Collins's experience as a film history and screenwriting teacher at City College of New York. Sara is perfectly comfortable lecturing on Sartre and Camus, but when she decides she needs to learn more about “ecstatic experiences” she follows the only route to wisdom she knows: a visit to the library to research it, like the Simpsons' “Itchy and Scratchy” staffer who wrote his “thesis on life experience.”

Her free-spirited artist husband Victor (Bill Gunn, the filmmaker of “Ganja and Hess” fame) would be the perfect counterbalance for her if only he could actually acknowledge anyone's experience (ecstatic or otherwise) other than his own. Victor has his moments of gentle humor, celebrating a museum sale by stating, “I'm a genuine success... a genuine, black success,” but his incurable narcissism imperils their relationship. For him, inspiration trumps reason, and he lets Sara know it: “What's the matter? Hegel and the boys let you down?”

Professor Sara looks so tiny as she sits in her massive chair in her similarly massive office (Collins has a thing for interiors with high ceilings), but she asserts her presence with greater authority, in fits and starts, as the story unfolds. Victor drags her along to a retreat in upstate New York, but when said retreat turns out to be another excuse for Victor to fool around with one of his artistic “subjects” (Maritza Rivera) Sara drops her books on Gnosticism and pursues her research on ecstasy by agreeing to act in George's film, a decision which thrills the budding auteur, one of many students besotted by Sara.


This serves the dual function of infuriating Victor (he's the only one allowed to pursue his muse) and introducing her to the mysterious Duke, who is just cool enough to wear a cape and hat without seeming like a hipster poser. Duke is played by the great Duane Jones, perhaps best known as the star of George Romero's genre-defining “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) and he steals most of his scenes. Director George (the student, not Romero) provides another laugh line when he shouts to his stars in the middle of a long take, “Sorry I didn't prepare you for this, but could you kiss? Really kiss?”

They do, and it's a crucial step in Sara's empowerment, enabling her to stand up to Victor when he makes a fool of himself at a party, and paving the road to an ending that I'll admit to feeling ambivalent about. Let me watch it again and maybe I'll have a better take.

Kathleen Collins


“Losing Ground” screened just one time in New York and barely received any press coverage, though it would accrue a growing army of admirers at college screenings and other specialty venues and the occasional TV or cable broadcast. Collins continued teaching, but never directed another film. Shortly before production on “Losing Ground” she discovered she had breast cancer, and died from it in 1988 at the age of 46.

Though her film never received anything resembling a proper release, “Losing Ground” touched many viewers deeply, and neither Collins nor her film would be forgotten. When Duart Labs begin divesting itself of its film inventory about ten years ago, Collins's daughter Nina rescued the negatives and set out on a path that eventually brought her to the right place, Milestone Films. And now Milestone has helped to bring “Losing Ground” to more viewers than ever in this magnificent and comprehensive two-volume Blu-ray release.


 Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. This high-def restoration shows a few minor flecks, mostly visible during the title sequences, but the overall quality is excellent with a thick grain structure visible throughout. Another knockout effort from Milestone.

Audio:
The lossless audio sounds crisp and clear throughout. There are moments when the dialogue sounds a bit hollow, but I suspect that's from the original audio source, perhaps from some dubbing. No problems worth noting here. Optional English subtitles support the audio.

Extras:
Reviewing a Milestone release is invariably a pleasure; it is also a commitment to a full 40-hour work week. They have been typically exhaustive in loading this 2-disc Blu-ray release with extras.

Disc One includes the film and a Theatrical Trailer. The film is accompanied by a commentary track by Lamonda Horton-Stallings, a professor of women's studies and literature at the University of Maryland College Park, and Terri Francis, a film scholar at Indiana University. They speak about their experiences first discovering Collins's film while also providing scene-by-scene analysis. They strike a great balance in providing expert insight and expressing their personal enthusiasm for the film and for Collins.

Disc Two, as is standard for most Milestone multi-disc products, could easily be its own stand-alone release.


“The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy” (1980, 49 min.) is Kathleen Collins's first directorial effort, working in collaboration with cinematographer Ronald K. Gray, also a crucial creative partner and cinematographer on “Losing Ground.” Collins was eager to parlay her experience in film editing, teaching, and writing into a directorial gig, but decided it would be better in her first turn behind the camera to adapt someone else's writing instead of her own. So she worked loosely from “The Cruz Chronicles” by Henry H. Roth, also co-adapting the script with Roth and Jo Tavener. I was wowed by the opening passages of this lyrical film imbued with a touch of magical realism. The oldest of the three Puerto Rican Cruz brothers, Victor (Randy Ruiz), is also the only one who can speak to his Poppa, who has long since passed on but still drops by to offer advice as a free-floating spirit represented POV-style with a similarly free-floating camera and voice-over by Ernesto Gonzalez.

Collins and Gray capture some elegant imagery of Victor, Jose (Lionel Pina), and Felipe (Jose Machado) palling around during mostly structureless days, playing along a bridge or shooting hoops. I found the film somewhat less compelling once Miss Malloy (Sylvia Field, formerly Mrs. Wilson of Dennis the Menace) enters the picture, hiring the brothers to rehabilitate her crumbling estate so she can hold one more ball before she dies, shades of Satyajit Ray's “The Music Room” perhaps. Field can be over the top and a bit stilted at times, delivering random lines like, “I'm looking for my life. Where is it?” I wasn't so crazy about the ending either. However, there are warm, vibrant moments and a good dose of humor, especially in poor Felipe's constant urge to quit and run away whenever things at Miss Malloy's house turn a bit too creepy... or if his ginger ale has too much ice.

“Cruz Brothers” is also accompanied by a commentary track, though not the typical one. This is actually an audio recording from a 1980 public screening and Q&A session in which Collins discusses the limited production (here she says it was made for $7,000, though $5,000 is the figure mentioned elsewhere) as well as her appreciation of directors like Eric Rohmer and her fondness for long takes and films that don't guide audience reactions too heavily. Author Henry H. Roth also chimes in around the 35-minute mark. The audio ends about five minutes before the film does.

“Transmagnifican Dambamuality” (1976, 7 min.) is a short film directed and shot by Ronald K. Gray. He describes this “Quiet, Domestic Drama” as a remembrance of his family life, especially his younger brother. It concerns a typical family going through their morning rituals, with mom alternately being exasperated with her son for wasting his time in his room to beaming proudly at him when he plays the piano beautifully. The film's defining feature is a comedic soundtrack with overwrought effects (a knife on a cutting board produces concussive explosions) that turns touchingly realistic at the end. I liked it a lot.

Of course, we haven't even gotten to the interviews yet. Milestone's first interview is a new one with Ronald K. Gray (46 min.) that covers just about all the bases, from Gray's early life and education to first meeting Kathleen Collins at City College of New York to their professional collaboration. Like all of the interview subjects, he expresses his astonishment at learning about Collins's cancer as she kept it a closely-guarded secret.

Another similarly expansive interview (40 min.) with the apparently ageless lead actress Seret Scott follows. She met Collins through a mutual friend, actor Gilbert Moses, and through their civil rights activism with SNCC. She quickly came to consider Collins both a mentor and a close friend, and notes that Collins almost always wrote a part with Scott in mind in each of her plays. She doesn't mention “Losing Ground” until past the halfway mark of the interview, but has plenty to say, especially about her co-stars about whom she speaks glowingly.

Nina Lorez Collins, Kathleen's daughter, also talks (26 min.) about life with mom and her memories of the various films; often cast and crew would not just be co-workers, but would be living in the Collins household during the shoots.

Fortunately, Milestone was able to dig up a video interview with Collins, conducted by Phyllis B. Klatman as part of a college-based interview program, and provided here courtesy of Indiana University Black Film Archive. This 23-minute interview gives Collins plenty of time to talk about her early career, including making a living as a film editor before becoming a teacher, as well as her teaching philosophy which includes familiarizing students with the earliest films so they can build from the ground up.

But aside from all that, there's really not much on the disc.

Final Thoughts:
“Losing Ground” offers so many other small pleasures I didn't even get to: the unabashedly intellectual exchanges that leap from French existentialism to early Christian mysticism, the student whose ill-considered idea of a great pick-up line is to brag about reading “that book on Genet,” and the wonderful performance of Billie Allen as Sara's mother. Thanks to this splendid and comprehensive release from Milestone, you now have the chance to discover them all and, most importantly, to discover (or re-discover) the work of Kathleen Collins.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Leave Her To Heaven


LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (Stahl, 1945)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Mar 24, 2020
Review by Christopher S. Long

The genres of melodrama and noir share only a short border, but both intersect in the enigmatic and magnetic blue-green eyes of actress Gene Tierney, star of director John M. Stahl's “Leave Her To Heaven” (1945).

Ellen Berent (Tierney) and Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) size each other up on a train. Richard coyly steals glances while Ellen gazes with increasing boldness and evident hunger. The meet-cute turns meet-sinister when Ellen explains the fascination this stranger on a train holds for her: “You look so much like my father.” Yikes!

Perhaps a bright, successful novelist like Richard should take this was a warning to switch cars while he still can, but the problem is that Ellen looks so much like Gene Tierney. He was doomed the instant he spiraled into the gravity well of those inescapable eyes. Next thing Richard knows, they're married, even if he can't quite remember the proposal. Ellen has a way of getting what she wants, and she wants Richard. All to herself.

Stahl makes Tierney's uncanny beauty the centerpiece of the film, and not just by asking screenwriter Jo Swerling (adapting the best-selling novel by Ben Ames Williams) to devise excuses for the actress to slip into a diverse array of sweaters, bathing suits, and nightgowns. Tierney's flawless face matches the flawless d├ęcor of the palatial Berent estate, and her ruby-red lipstick, positively bleeding in lush Technicolor, shines as luminously as the sun that glistens off the pools and lakes featured in the film.

To the degree that “Leave Her To Heaven” qualifies as a noir, it is the rare noir that doesn't rely heavily on shadows and murky spaces. The lustrous colors and the sheer brightness of the set design threaten to envelop Richard as surely as the gloomiest of noir alleyways, and so does the ugliness lurking just beneath his perfect housewife's perfect visage. She won't let anything get in the way of their wedded bliss, not her family, not their baby, not even Richard's polio-stricken little brother (Darryl Hickman). Richard is warned that “Ellen always wins” but fortunately he's not in a full-fledged noir, so fate still permits him a potential escape route, primarily in the form of Ellen's true-hearted cousin Ruth (Jeanne Crain).

Ellen's beauty blinds Richard to her flaws and Tierney's beauty can blind viewers to the quality of her performance. She renders Ellen both as supremely domineering and also vulnerable as a woman who only “loves too much”, at least according to her mother (Mary Philips). And though Tierney relishes in some of the overwrought flourishes of the traditional melodrama (a spiteful trip down a flight of stairs among them) she creates one of the most soul-chilling scenes of 1940's Hollywood simply by sitting still and staring passively through a pair of dark sunglasses.

“Leave Her To Heaven” ends on its weakest note with an extended and tedious courtroom scene which at least gives Vincent Price something to do after only the briefest of cameos earlier on. But Tierney's performance is indelible and cinematographer Leon Shamroy, who netted the film's sole Oscar win, deftly paints peril into every frame of this glowing Technicolor dreamland turned nightmare. 


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. From Criterion: “This 2K digital restoration was undertaken by Twentieth Century Fox and the Academy Film Archive, with support from The Film Foundation. A new digital transfer was created from a 35 mm color reversal internegative. A 35 mm nitrate Technicolor print was used as a reference for picture restoration.”

Without the original Technicolor footage, we can't be certain how precisely the colors match the original release, but with the reference print, this 1080 restoration provides a robust, bright image bursting with color. I couldn't spot any obvious flaws in the presentation.

Audio:
The LPCM mono track is cleanly mixed with no evident dropoffs. The swelling original score by Alfred Newman is well-preserved. Optional English subtitles support the English dialogue.

Extras:
Criterion has gone light with the features this time, including only a Trailer (2 min.) and a new interview (26 min.) with critic Imogen Sara Smith, the author of “In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond The City.” Smith touches on the mysterious early life of director John M. Stahl, who long claimed to be born in New York but was, in fact, born in Azerbaijan. She also provides some visual analysis of a few scenes in the film.

The slim fold-out booklet features an incisive essay by novelist Megan Abbott.

Final Thoughts:
Gene Tierney was at her career peak, following up “Laura” (1944) with a role of a lifetime as Ellen in this film. Criterion offers little in the way of extras this time, though the interview with Smith is very strong, but this is a solid high-definition presentation of this strange melodrama-noir.