Sunday, August 26, 2018

Memories of Underdevelopment


MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT (Gutierrez Alea, 1968)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date 8/28/2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

In a silent exchange, Sergio (Sergio Corrieri) bids farewell to his wife at the Havana airport, a scene the handheld camera almost seems to pick up by accident. Though his wife is heading off to Miami for good, Sergio doesn't seem particularly perturbed to stay behind alone.

Then again, nothing much seems to truly touch the suave playboy. It's 1961 and revolution has just swept his island home, but he whiles his days away either knocking about aimlessly in his swanky apartment, trying on his wife's stockings out of sheer boredom, or cruising the streets looking for young women to charm. Pity poor Elena (Daisy Granados) for being one of the first to catch Sergio's eye; he'll soon grow as bored with the teenage naif as he does with everything else in life. His crass treatment of the young girl (seduced and abandoned!) will eventually lead to a courtroom case where his lofty status in the former social hierarchy may or may not save him in the revolutionary order.

But that capsule summary misrepresents writer/director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's “Memories of Underdevelopment” (1968), widely hailed as one of the great masterpieces of Cuban cinema. Gutiérrez Alea's film only nominally follows the barest sketch of a plot. Instead, the film employs a dizzying array of audiovisual strategies to contrast the personal with the historical, a history playing out with equal force in both the past and the present.

Set in 1961 and 1962, essentially between the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis, the film mixes in ample doses of actuality footage from newsreels to still photographs. Sergio paces around his apartment while tanks rumble through the streets of Havana. Sergio expresses his idle thoughts in voiceover (“This island is a trap”) to nobody but himself; Fidel Castro spits fire to an entire nation at a fist-pounding press conference. Editor Nelson Rodríguez performs a minor miracle in deftly stitching all the disparate sources together in startling and provocative ways.

Sergio does everything he can to insulate himself from both his own past and his country's present. He laughs while listening to an audio recording of an argument he had with his wife, but when the film flashes back to depict the actual moment, even the faintest illusion of Sergio's cultivated aloofness is demolished; he is a coward and a bully. He can ignore those tanks rolling through the streets as long as he wants to, but they'll still be knocking down the walls of his apartment building any day now.

Gutiérrez Alea adapted a short novel by the Cuban writer Edmundo Desnoes, who also co-wrote the script along with the director. While the film savagely critiques the detached privilege and willful blindness of its wealthy protagonist, its attitude towards the Cuban Revolution is more ambiguous. Sergio has good reason to hide away in his fortress of privilege, and perhaps his wife was the smart one in showing the initiative and foresight to flee rather than staying behind because it was easier and more comfortable. 


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The camera negative suffered from “advanced vinegar syndrome” which required the use of an interpositive print to replace multiple reels. The extensive restoration involved a host of entities including Cineteca di Bologna, L'Immagine Ritrovata, the George Lucas Family Foundation, and The Film Foundation's World Cinema Project.

The massive restoration project has certainly paid off. Though the occasional scene shows some signs of damage (mostly a few shots just looking a bit softer than the rest), the image quality is generally quite sharp. The black-and-white contrast isn't quite as sharp, but still strong. Few viewers have ever seen the film looking this good.

Audio:
The linear PCM mono track is adequate if not particularly robust. A few pops and hisses, the occasional modest dropoff, but all due to damage to the sound negative. Optional English subtitles support the Spanish audio.

Extras:
Criterion has stacked this new Blu-ray release with a diverse array of supplementary features, some made just for the Criterion release, others culled from archival sources.

The collection begins with two new interviews recorded by Criterion. In the first (2018, 19 min.), critics B. Ruby Rich and José Antonio Évora discuss Gutiérrez Alea's career, noting the esteemed status he held in Cuba's film community when he released “Memories of Underdevelopment” in 1968. This piece also emphasizes the director's focus on filmmaking as a communal effort. In another new interview (2018, 16 min.) novelist/screenwriter Edmundo Desnoes shares his ideological perspective when writing “Memories,” both the book and then the screenplay.

The disc also includes two recent interviews from 2017. Actress Daisy Granados (9 min.) talks about working with Gutiérrez Alea; Elena wasn't her first prominent role, but it was a major breakthrough for her. Editor Nelson Rodríguez (16 min.) discusses the rewards and challenges of working on a film project that didn't rely on a fully-fixed script. Gutiérrez Alea gave him a lot of latitude in the editing room, forcing Rodríguez to really push himself. He notes that edited archival footage (which, itself, was already edited) was the most difficult part. This is my favorite feature on the disc.

We also get an audio-only interview with Gutiérrez Alea, conducted in 1989. It runs 11 minutes and I wouldn't call it revelatory, but it's of interest.

The lengthiest supplemental feature on the disc is “Titón: From Havana to 'Guantanamera'” (2008, 96 min.), a documentary by Mirtha Ibarra, the director's widow. Ibarra notes that this documentary is her remembrance, but that “I want other to tell me about him.” She begins by talking to the director's sister about his childhood, then to numerous friends, co-workers and admirers.

The collection wraps up with a Theatrical Trailer (3 min.)

The slim fold-out insert booklet features an essay by author Joshua Jelly-Schapiro.

Final Thoughts:
I don't possess the requisite knowledge to assess what Gutiérrez Alea's is saying about post-revolutionary Cuba. I can understand, however, why “Memories of Underdevelopment” is widely heralded as on the greatest Cuban films ever made. Criterion has provided an excellent Blu-ray release, featuring a high-def transfer of an extensively restored print and an array of insightful supplements. This will no doubt feature prominently on many year-end lists of the best Blu-ray releases of 2018.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Dragon Inn


DRAGON INN (Hu, 1967)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date July 17, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

Writer/director King Hu's wuxia masterpiece “Dragon Inn” (1967) opens not with a flurry of whirling, clanging swords, but with a flurry of voice-over narration. Wisely packing all of the film's exposition into a few minutes, the narrator situates the film in the Ming Dynasty (1457 A.D. for Western audiences) against a backdrop of political intrigue, which basically boils down to the line: “Eunuchs have seized power at the palace.” Eunuchs? Oh yeah, this is gonna be a wild ride.

Beginning with a sense of the grand historical epic, the film quickly pares away all extraneous elements to pursue a simple, focused plot. The chief eunuch Cao Shao-qin (Bai Ying) has framed the loyal general Yu Qian for treason; the general is executed and the Yu family sent into exile. Eager to prevent any future problems, Cao secretly dispatches his forces to tear the surviving Yus “up by the roots.” Good guys race the bad guys (both sides being blessed with near-supernatural martial prowess) to defend the Yu family, and everyone meets at the title location, which provides the setting for the bulk of the film's action.

The Dragon Inn is a modest structure on a dusty road to nowhere in rural China, but King Hu went to great pains to construct his set with authentic, sturdy wooden material. After all, we're going to spend a lot of time at the inn and it will need to stand up a beating from both sides, corrupt government forces and the loose-knit collection of travelers and knights-errant who show up to combat them.

Master swordsman Xiao Shao-zi (Hu veteran Shih Chun) enjoys the first major confrontation with the evil Eastern Depot forces. In fact, he enjoys it over a good meal. Sitting alone in a dining room amidst a brigade of opponents, he calmly sips his bowl of noodles while deftly avoiding a bottle of poisoned wine and effortlessly snatching the occasional stray dagger tossed his way. He hardly even stands up, let alone break a sweat.

The sequence is so lengthy, it comes as a mild surprise that Xiao won't be the sole focus of the action, at least from the hero side. He is soon joined both by a pair of traveling brothers, one of whom turns out to actually be a sister, Miss Zhu (Shangkuan Ling-fung), one of the many great female action heroes King Hu brought to the screen, as well as by the innkeeper who's no slouch in the fighting department himself.

Hu, working with action choreographer Han Ying-chieh (who also plays one of the chief baddies), balances stillness with sudden bursts of action to great effect. In one major assault on the Dragon Inn, Miss Zhu strides methodically forward only to suddenly dodge a volley of arrows and then to just as abruptly find herself surrounded by warriors who appear almost out of thin air. In most duels, the combatants stalk each other, circling warily as they wait for the single sign of weakness that invites them to strike. Measure twice, slice once. All filmed in glorious 2.35:1 widescreen, which Hu and cinematographer Hua Hui-ying exploit to its very edges.

There's little doubt about which side will win, but Hu ratchets up the anticipation by withholding the battle with the evil Cao, renowned throughout the land as the greatest of all swordfighters, until the very end. The heroes will need to work together to defeat him, and they even employ a nasty trick to even the odds: they ruthlessly mock Cao for being a eunuch. Darned if those “I guess you don't have much to lose down there” jokes don't actually seem to hit home, as if he's never heard them before. It's almost enough to make you feel bad for the poor genocidal warlord – after all he was the victim of a horrible mutilation as a child but, nah, you're still cheering for him to get decapitated. Might as well lose it up top too, eh, buddy? C'mon, that really hurts!

“Dragon Inn” was King Hu's first feature after moving from Hong Kong to Taiwan, and it was a massive box-office hit, one that cemented his credentials as an independent filmmaker. It has also come to be seen as one of the defining films of the wuxia genre, a reference point for directors such as Chang Cheh, Tsui Hark, Ang Lee, and even Tsai Ming-liang, if in a rather idiosyncratic way. 


Video:
The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The film was digitally restored in 2013 by The Ministry of Culture and Chinese Taipei Film Archive, providing the source for this new 1080p transfer, supervised by cinematographer Hua Hui-ying. “Dragon Inn” is a gorgeous movie that gets a real showcase in this new digital transfer, featuring sharp image detail throughout and a subtle, naturalistic color palette. Looks fantastic, as expected from Criterion.

Audio:
The linear PCM mono audio track is crisp and does a fine job of snapping off those wooden percussive clacks that supplement the action scenes so wonderfully. No distortion or drop off is evident. Optional English subtitles support the Mandarin dialogue.

Extras:
The extras kick off with an interview (2018, 10 min.) with actress Shangkuan Ling-feung, who opens by explaining why she's conducting the interview in full martial arts costume. 'Cause she feels like it, that's why. She's quite a lively subject, delighted to share her honest impressions of director King Hu: “he had a very big head.” “Dragon Inn” was her film breakthrough, and she obviously remains very proud of it as well as the impressive career she built afterward. This is a lot of fun.

Criterion has also included an interview (2016, 11 min.) with actor Shih Chun, who also credits “Dragon Inn” with launching his career as the knight-errant of choice for discerning wuxia fans. He also discusses King Hu's fondness for the Peking Opera and its influence on the film.

In “Art In Action” (2018, 25 min.), author and critic Grady Hendrix analyzes a fight scene from the film, while also providing more background for the film, referring to “Dragon Inn” as “ground zero” for the modern action film, not just the wuxia genre.

The disc also includes a short newsreel (2 min.) touting the film's successful premiere, and a Re-Release Trailer (2 min.)

The fold-out insert booklet features an essay by critic Andrew Chan.

Final Thoughts:
“Dragon Inn” certainly wasn't the first wuxia film, but it's a landmark blockbuster in the genre, as much as “Goldfinger” was to the modern action film. This is the second King Hu film in the Criterion Collection after “A Touch of Zen” (1971) and here's hoping it's not the last.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Maborosi


MABOROSI (Kore-eda, 1995)
Milestone Films, Blu-ray, Release Date July 10, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

In the opening shots of Hirokazu Kore-eda's debut feature film, “Maborosi” (1995), young Yumiko chases after her grandmother, who is glimpsed only from behind and at a great distance, as a figure retreating first down a tunnel and later alongside a bridge. Little Yumiko begs her adored grandmother to come back, but the old woman states flatly that she wishes to her childhood home in Shikoku to die. Which she does.

Fast forward about eight years and adult Yumiko (Makiko Esumi) still carries the grief of this childhood loss with her. She shares her story with husband Ikuo (Tadanobu Asano) who listens attentively and sympathetically as he surely has many times before. They appear to have a good relationship, raising their baby boy together in Osaka. He works, she takes care of the baby, they talk during meals, and nothing much happens until one day when they say goodbye, same as any other day. From Yumiko's point of view, we watch Ikuo slowly walk away, glimpsed only from behind and at a great distance...

Innocuous in content, but perfectly rhymed with the opening images, this shot strikes like a bolt from a clear sky. There is little doubt that it announces another tragedy about to disrupt Yumiko's life. There is even less doubt it is the mark of a freshman feature filmmaker (a documentary veteran, however) who already enjoys a comfortable mastery of the medium. Nobody could have predicted that the next twenty-plus years would see Kore-eda become one of the leading voices of contemporary cinema, not to mention the Palme d'Or winner at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, but any viewer not wowed at the time was simply not paying enough attention.

Kore-eda has become best known for his intricate studies of family dynamics. In “Maborosi” (which translates as illusion or mirage), he paints a serene and stately portrait of grief, a grief that rarely erupts in tears but which always lingers, a parasite lying dormant at times but always ready to consume its host. The grief follows Yumiko everywhere, even when she makes her own move from Osaka to a tiny fishing village (shot on location to great effect) on the shores of the Sea of Japan to be with her new husband Tamio (Takashi Naito). The grief does not abate even when friends and family shower her with love and support, only strengthening its power as it becomes increasingly co-mingled with guilt.

Esumi, then a model making her film debut, delivers a confident performance, fully comfortable at her stillest, quietest moments, so often just marking time. Yumiko sometimes buries herself in work or in caring for her beloved son, but the past simply won't loosen its grip on her. That doesn't mean “Maborosi” offers Yumiko no hope, far from it, rather it acknowledges that we pick up certain unwelcome visitors in our lives, ones who stick around so long they eventually become defining aspects of our own identities, not even good or bad, but simply there.

Kore-eda rarely relies on close-ups, the camera hanging back at a discreet distance to observe the characters respectfully and with a clear eye. Strategically repeated sounds like the bells of a bicycle or the roar of a train provide the emotional heft of a story with few overtly dramatic elements aside from the crucial losses, which occur off-screen.

“Maborosi” was well-received on the festival circuit, but didn't play to a large audience. Kore-eda would experience a greater breakout with his next feature, “After Life” (1998), and secured international stardom with critical hits such as “Nobody Knows” (2004) and “Still Walking” (2008). “Maborosi” is as accomplished as any of them.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The film has a generally soft, low-key look throughout, not much in the way of sharp contrasts. This high-def transfer preserves that feel, perhaps without the razor-sharp detail some high-def releases showcase, but the final product looks quite satisfying to me.

Audio:
The LPCM 2.0 audio mix is crisp and efficient with no evident signs of dropoff or distortion. The film features a lot of silence, but its spare sound effects are still important, as is the quiet, moody score by Chen Ming-Chang. This mix does justice to it all. Optional English subtitles support the Japanese audio.

Extras:
Milestone hasn't packed this with as many extras as some of their more comprehensive releases, but they've included a few strong supplements.

The film is accompanied by a full-length commentary track by professor and film scholar Linda Ehrlich. I've only had the chance to sample the first half hour of the commentary, but it's packed with information and close textual reading so far.

“Birthplace: Makiko Esumi” (30 min.) is a short documentary which follows the film's lead actress as she returns several years later to the village that served as the shooting location for much of the film. It's a little short on insight, but it's good to see some of the places and people again.

Final Thoughts:
Hirokazu Kore-eda's debut feature shows a filmmaker already performing at his peak. Amazingly, he's managed to remain there for about a quarter century, and he may only just be getting started. This Milestone release gives viewers a chance to check out where he got started.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Rocco And His Brothers

Alain Delon, as Rocco
ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS (Visconti, 1960)
Milestone Films, Bu-ray, Release Date July 10, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

Fresh off the train from their tiny rural town in southern Italy, matriarch Rosaria Parondi (Katina Paxinou) and her four youngest boys are duly awed by their first glimpse of the big city of Milan. Riding a streetcar to visit eldest brother Vincenzo (Spiros Focas), they gape at the bustling urban nightlife: “Look at those shop windows, those lights. It's like daylight!”

Just as no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, any dreams of Utopian bliss are dispelled the instant mamma Rosaria stumbles into Vincenzo's engagement party, and promptly declares war on her prospective in-laws, including Vincenzo's fiancee Ginetta (Claudia Cardinale in one of her earliest roles). It all sounds like the set up for a comedic clash of cultures, even prompting Vincenzo to quip that his family arrived in town “like an earthquake,” but “Rocco and His Brothers” (1960) descends rapidly and inexorably into a tragedy of operatic proportions.

Director Luchino Visconti stated that where Federico Fellini told a tale of the “Sweet Life (La Dolce Vita)” his movie chronicled “the bitter life” of the Parondi family. He certainly delivered on his promise, or perhaps threat. Though Milan is booming from the country's recent “economic miracle” (one that left the south behind), the Parondi boys won't reap the rewards.

Ostensibly, their troubles begin when prostitute Nadia (Annie Girardot) explodes into their lives, first entering into a tempestuous relationship with the second-oldest brother, Simone (Renato Salvatori), then later with the titular brother, Rocco (Alain Delon). Both men, in very different ways, seek to control Nadia, while she struggles to maintain her autonomy. Like Nadia, Simone and Rocco ultimately sell their bodies as well, both achieving a degree of success in the boxing ring, while each paying a heavy price in the process. Savage passions ultimately pit Simone against Rocco, threatening to tear the Parondi clan apart.

The whole family struggles, though Simone's personal and moral collapse is the most dramatic and unnerving, as he transitions from the family's brightest hope to its blackest sheep, with faithful Rocco gamely trying to redeem him even long after he lurches well beyond the point of redemption. Both Visconti and his co-scripter Suso Cecchi D'Amico attributed Simone's downfall (and that of the other Parondi brothers) to the corruption of the big city and the exploitation of capitalism, but this is a dubious claim.

Simone arrives in Milan as a lazy, entitled, dishonest bully, and then becomes increasingly narcissistic, cruel, and violent. Rocco, described by his younger brothers as “a saint” with an infinite capacity for forgiveness, extends his tolerance exclusively to his own family, demonstrating little empathy for the brutally victimized Nadia, the alleged love of his life. Perhaps the Parondis weren't corrupted by Milan, but boarded the train with their own troubling set of patriarchal old-school “family values” already fully intact.

“Rocco and His Brothers” is a truly beautiful film, even when photographed amidst the squalor of Milan's seediest neighborhoods. Shooting in lustrous, moody black-and-white, the great cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno dazzles from start to finish, from an early overhead still-life portrait of Milan's train station at night to a late tableau of uniformed workers filing into an Alfa Romeo factory after an afternoon break. In between, over nearly three hours, Rotunno's camera basks in soft Lombard sunlight and pierces inky nighttime shadows with equal precision and beauty, helping Visconti to achieve his vision of a neo-realistic film with an epic scope and feel. Oh, yeah, and the Nino Rota score isn't half-bad either. 


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio.

The restoration process of “Rocco and His Brothers” was more elaborate than for many films. Parts of the original camera negative had been damaged by fungus, requiring some scenes to be replaced from a contact-printed interpositive. In addition, some scenes were censored after the film's debut at the Venice Film Festival in 1960, and these scenes appear in their unabridged version in this restoration, bringing the film back to its original 177 minute running time. The restoration was funded by Gucci and The Film Foundation, with color correction overseen by the film's cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno.

The diligent restorers appear to have resisted the temptation to buff and polish the image to excess. This high-def transfer showcases a rich, thick grainy look throughout with a remarkable amount of detail visible even in the darkest shots. The black-and-white contrast is sharp and naturalistic throughout. In short, this restoration looks phenomenal.

Audio:
The monoaural track is crisp and consistent. The sound design is fairly straightforward, consisting mostly of the dubbed dialogue (French actor Alain Delon was dubbed by Achille Millo, if you're curious) and Nino Rota's score. I didn't notice any dropoffs or distortions in the soundtrack. Optional English subtitles support the Italian audio.

Extras:
As mentioned above, the film runs 177 minutes, so Milestone has devoted the first of the two Blu-rays in this set exclusively to the film, save for a brief (3 min.) introduction by Martin Scorsese. You can choose to play the movie with or without the intro. The second disc houses all of the other extras.

Most interviews with the children or grandchildren of accomplished filmmakers consist of affectionate remembrances with little in the way of substance. The interview (41 min.) with Caterina D'Amico, daughter of the great screenwriter Suso Cecchi D'Amico, is a noteworthy exception in the sub-genre. D'Amico, a teacher and author, provides a truly impressive level of fine detail in her no-nonsense interview, covering every aspect of the film's genesis, from Visconti's first sketch of the story to her mother's involvement as one of several writers on the project, to the array of influences from the Bible to Thomas Mann to Dostoevsky. She speaks authoritatively about major changes from the structure of the plot in its earliest form to what finally made it to the page and then to the screen. This is one of the best interviews I've ever watched on any disc in quite some time.

The disc also includes a series of shorter interviews (34 min. total) with cast and crew, including Annie Girardot and Claudia Cardinale, with the longest and most substantive segment belonging to writer Suso Cecchi D'Amico.

We also get several Outtakes (6 min. total) and a brief “Before and After” piece (2 min.) on the film's restoration.

Also, as is frequently the case with Milestone releases, you can visit their website for a comprehensive press kit (this one running over 60 pages) for more information on the film and its restoration.

Final Thoughts:
“Rocco and His Brothers” generated great controversy on its initial release, drawing condemnation and censorship from Catholic groups in Italy, and playing in even worse-butchered versions overseas. The controversy may have actually helped the film to box-office success, as it earned big money in Italy and gave Visconti a crucial international breakout that opened new financing opportunities that would shape the rest of his career. The film has also exerted a tremendous influence on generations of subsequent filmmakers, a list that just begins with Martin Scorsese (Simone is certainly a Raging Bull) and Francis Ford Coppola. And as if that wasn't enough, it also provides some of the earliest prominent performances for Alain Delon, Claudia Cardinale, and Annie Girardot, young actors who would go on to become major stars.

This Milestone release provides a sparkling restoration of this major landmark of Italian cinema, along with a solid collection of supporting extra features, making this one of the most important Blu-ray releases of the year.