Saturday, June 22, 2019

Ace In The Hole


ACE IN THE HOLE (Wilder, 1951)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date May 6, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

[The great director/writer Billy Wilder was born June 22, 1906. I won't claim I can identify the best film in a career that included "Double Indemnity", "Sunset Boulevard", "Some Like It Hot", "The Apartment" and... well, what I can do is share with you my review of my favorite Billy Wilder film.] 

"I've done a lot of lying in my time. I've lied to men who wear belts. I've lied to men who wear suspenders. But I'd never be so stupid as to lie to a man who wears both belt AND suspenders." -Chuck Tatum, ace reporter

You don't tug on Superman's cape. You don't spit into the wind. You don't pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger. And you don't hire Kirk Douglas for a role that requires subtlety. If you want scenery chewed and nails spit, Kirk is your man; he perfected "shock and awe" before anybody ever told fables of weapons of mass destruction. Fans may remember him best as Spartacus or perhaps Vincent van Gogh, but Kirk's finest hour was his turn as caustic newspaper reporter Chuck Tatum, the anti-Clark Kent. No mild manners here.


Chuck Tatum, ace reporter, ignoring the irony

Tatum knows newspapers backward and forward, up and down, inside and out. He can print ‘em, wrap ‘em, and ship ‘em. If there's no news, he'll go out and bite a dog. Yet here he finds himself in Albuquerque, a $250 a week man ready to work for the bargain price of $50. He makes this magnanimous offer to Mr. Boot (Porter Hall), the belt-and-suspenders editor of the humble Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin. Boot isn't exactly impressed, but gives Tatum a chance to redeem himself after he drank and/or philandered his way out of every major city paper in America. In case you can't tell that Tatum is a fish out of water, the message is delivered with a zinger when Tatum delivers his fire and brimstone speech about making news happen while sitting beneath a homemade macramé sign in Boot's office that reads "Tell the Truth."

Tatum languishes in his hicktown hell for six months, bored but hardly humbled by his exile. Then the newspaper gods deliver him a miracle. On his way to cover a thrilling rattlesnake hunt, Tatum learns that a man named Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) is trapped in a mineshaft in Old Indian Cliffs. As Johnny Law frets about how to get to Leo safely, the intrepid Chuck Tatum grabs a flashlight and plunges into the darkness to locate the trapped man and assure himself exclusive rights to the biggest story to hit Albuquerque since the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe came to town. What follows is one of the most cynical, jaundiced films ever made about the American media and American culture, writer-director Billy Wilder's scabrous “Ace In The Hole” (1951).

The engineers fear it will take nearly a day to shore up the walls enough to rescue Leo. One lousy day? You can't construct a solid narrative arc in one lousy day. Tatum, with the town sheriff in his hip pocket, convinces them to drill from above even though it will take a week to get to the man. Leo's a tough old soldier; he can last. Tatum covers every angle of the tear-jerking tale, making sure that the public gets to know the grieving widow… er, I mean wife, Lorraine (Jan Sterling). Never mind the fact that Lorraine thinks so little of her poor endangered spouse that she tries to split town right away, she's gonna play the grieving wid… wife and she's gonna like it. Especially as the tourists flock to town and pay for hamburgers and souvenirs before they go to ride the Ferris wheel hastily installed within comfortable viewing distance of the mine.

Douglas leads with his chest thrust out and his bronze-plated chin dimple preceding him by a full stride, but he doesn't just alpha mail in his performance. Tatum's dial goes way past 11, but he knows how to turn on the charm when he needs to. In the film's most potent scenes, Tatum chats with Leo who is pinned under a mountain of rubble. He assures him that everything is going to be OK, that his wife loves him, and that everybody's rooting for him. Even Leo doesn't believe it, but he has nobody else to rely on; ace reporter Chuck Tatum is his only friend in the world. Douglas's firebrand performance is textured enough to indicate that Tatum knows full well that he's betraying Leo's trust, and that he even feels profoundly guilty about it. Yet he does it anyway, making Tatum's ersatz redemption in the final act ring even more hollow.

The script, written by Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman, crackles with enough energy to keep up with its indefatigable star. There are great one-liners such as the time when Tatum urges the shy manners columnist at the paper to get involved with a trunk murder: "I could do wonders with your dismembered body." Not to mention the way Douglas spits acid every time he says the name "Mr. Boot." But the film is also full of myriad details that don't call attention to themselves, such as the way the price keeps rising on the sign that invites tourists to "visit Indian Cliffs" or the gawkers who compete with each other to prove that they were the first ones on the scene.

"Sunset Boulevard" was a bleak indictment of Hollywood and the pursuit of fame, but it looks positively Panglossian compared to the scorched Earth policy of "Ace in the Hole." Don't go looking for the American dream here, and you sure as hell better not hold out for a happy ending. Good news doesn't sell newspapers.

You remember newspapers, don't you?


Video:
Criterion's 2007 SD release of “Ace in the Hole” was described as being presented “in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1” and was also “window-boxed” as was Criterion's custom at the time. This 2014 release is presented “in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1” and is not window-boxed. I mention this since I know some of you like to go to war over these things. You can see slightly more information on the left and right in the new transfer if you compare screen shots between the two versions, though you'll have to look closely.

What matters most is the upgrade to the 1080p transfer. From the Criterion booklet: “This new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution... from a 35 mm duplicate negative, with specific portions taken from a 35 mm acetate fine-grain assembled from several sources; the film was restored in 2K.” If this high-def version has been built from a hodgepodge of sources, you really couldn't tell from the final product which features consistently sharp image detail and strong black-and-white contrast throughout. Maybe a few shots are just a tiny bit softer than others, but nothing substantial.

This is a dual-format release which includes two DVDs (one with the film, the second with most of the extras), and a single Blu-ray disc. The DVD transfer has not been reviewed here.

Audio:
The linear PCM monaural track has been “remastered at 24-bit from a 35 mm optical soundtrack print.” There's no noticeable distortion or damage on the audio track which may be something we take for granted but shouldn't in the case of a 60+ year-old film like this. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Extras:
Criterion has imported all of the extras from its 2007 SD release; the features spread across two discs in the SD version are stored on a single Blu-ray disc now.

The film is accompanied by a commentary track by film scholar Neil Sinyard which is packed with information and moves along briskly.

The most substantial extra is "Portrait of a 60% Perfect Man: Billy Wilder" (1980, 58 min.), a documentary directed by Annie Tresgot. The entire film is a conversation between Wilder and critic Michel Ciment, and showcases Wilder at his showman's best, brimming with colorful anecdotes and pungent one-liners.

"Billy Wilder at the American Film Institute" (24 min) presents excerpts from a 1986 interview by George Stevens Jr. conducted at AFI. The collection also includes interviews with Kirk Douglas (1984, 14 min.) and writer Walter Newman (excerpts of an audio interview from 1970, 10 min.) Spike Lee also chips with a video afterword (5 min.) We also get a Stills Gallery and a Theatrical Trailer.

The insert booklet, formatted as a fold-out newspaper, offers an essay by critic Molly Haskell, and some delusional rambling from Guy Maddin (this is intended as a high compliment when Mr. Maddin is the one sharing his delusions.)

Film Value:
"Ace in the Hole" was a box office failure on its initial release, and flopped once again when it was re-released as "The Big Carnival." That does not detract from the accomplishments of the film which, for my money, is Billy Wilder's best. As far as scathing condemnations of the American media go, "Ace in the Hole" has, in my opinion, aged far better than the histrionic "Network" despite being a quarter century older. This Criterion Blu-ray upgrade doesn't offer any new features, but provides a beautiful high-def version of a genuine American masterpiece.

Friday, June 14, 2019

The Spy Behind Home Plate



THE SPY BEHIND HOME PLATE (Kempner, 2019)
In Theaters, Release Date May 24, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

There may be no more common commodity in the history of baseball than the backup catcher who can't hit a lick. Catching's hard work and every team needs some poor shnook who can give the real catcher a rest once a week. Just flash the right signals, tell the pitcher “Attaboy!” every few innings, and try not to ground into a double play every time up. OK, maybe the job's a bit tougher than that, but the point is that expectations are generally pretty modest, and every team churns through a vast and mostly interchangeable supply of supporting players over the years.

The rare balsa bat backstop who becomes a legend, though, is someone to cherish. Baseball fans throughout the land still venerate the great Bob Uecker, proud owner of a .200 career batting average. Uecker's only big hits were against himself: “I had slumps that lasted into winter” and “When I looked to the third base coach for a sign, he turned his back on me.” Uecker parlayed his futility into a thriving brand that extends from the broadcast booth to Miller Light and even “Mr. Belvedere.”

Catcher Moe Berg also couldn't hit and boy could he not run. He spent most of his 15-year major-league career (starting in 1923, ending in 1939) on the bench, and never snagged his own sitcom or even a beer commercial. So why are we still talking about him today? Well, there was that time he almost assassinated Werner Heisenberg...

But let's start at the beginning, since that's what director Aviva Kempner does in her new documentary “The Spy Behind Home Plate” (2019). Moe Berg was born in 1902 in Harlem to a working-class Jewish family. His father Bernard was a self-made man, a pharmacist who mapped out futures for his children as doctors, lawyers, and teachers. Baseball player was definitely not on the list of acceptable careers, and Bernard never changed his mind about the disreputable nature of the game, not even when baseball helped open the doors to a Princeton education for Moe at a time when few Jews were admitted to the Ivy League. Heck, not even when the major-league Brooklyn Robins came calling for young Moe's services with the idea of appealing to Jewish fans in New York.

Kempner's film brings young Moe Berg to vibrant life in these early segments, portraying him both as a rebel in his own family and as a pioneering Jewish athlete, who combined brawn, carefully groomed good looks, and brain. And oh what a brain. I don't want to traffic in lazy stereotypes about the intellectual capacity of professional athletes, but it's safe to say that only a few baseball players ever learned how to speak Sanskrit. As well as French. And German. And Hebrew. And Latin. And Yiddish. And Russian. And... Well, as one of his fellow players quipped about Berg, “He spoke a dozen languages. And couldn't hit in any of them.”

Berg's inability to grasp a bat as effectively as foreign syntax didn't prevent him from gaining a considerable reputation in the game for his glove and his savvy, a reputation that would assure him a decade and a half on an active roster even though his managers seldom saw fit to play him in an actual game. It also netted him a spot on the All-American team sent on a good-will tour of Japan in 1934, alongside luminaries such as Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, and Babe Ruth.

Berg used the long cruise to brush up on his Japanese and also to hit on Ruth's 18-year-old daughter, Julia. He also brought along a hand-held Bell and Howell camera which provides us our first answer as to why we're still talking about the kid who couldn't hit. Berg remained in Japan for a while after his teammates returned to the States, and while exploring, he also took some rather interesting footage of the countryside which he found a way to sneak home past vigilant authorities. Don't ask how.

Said footage may or may not have proven instrumental in U.S. war efforts in the following decade, but it definitely provided a glimpse of things to come. After Berg's playing career finally petered out in 1939, he soon began a surprising second career, as an agent for the newly formed OSS, the predecessor to the CIA. Details about Berg's spy career are understandably hazy and difficult to confirm, but he was involved in investigating Germany's efforts in atomic weapons development, which ultimately led him to attend a lecture in Zurich given by German scientist Werner Heisenberg. Berg arrived with a notebook in hand and a gun in his pocket, prepared to complete his mission by whichever means he deemed necessary. Spoiler, he wound up befriending Heisenberg. Moe just had a way with people.

Berg's unlikely secret agent career sure sounds exciting, but the film loses focus during this section. The unique and inspiring story of the multi-lingual, working-class Jewish athlete and scholar who embodied the American success story transforms abruptly into a broad-reaching lecture about the World War II spy program. Key players like William Donovan (head of the OSS) are introduced to provide context, but in the process Berg is reduced to a supporting player of uncertain significance in the grander scheme.

The generic nature of the WW2 section prevents “The Spy Behind Home Plate” from being as successful as Kempner's previous documentary about a Jewish baseball star, the fantastic “The Life And Times Of Hank Greenberg” (1998). But in her new film, Kempner still constructs a vivid portrait of a charismatic figure with no real equivalent in baseball history. You really can't go wrong with a Sanskrit-speaking Jewish athlete and spy who is still a disappointment to the father who just wanted him to become a lawyer. Oh, by the way, Berg graduated from Columbia Law School too, just as a side gig. Which might explain why he didn't have any free time left to take a few hacks in the batting cage.

If you want to learn more about Moe Berg, I strongly recommend Nicholas Dawidoff's 1994 biography, “The Catcher Was A Spy.”

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Overlord


OVERLORD (Cooper, 1975)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date May 13, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

Tom Beddoes (Brian Stirner) does not fight for glory or fantasies of heroism. The not-quite-21-year-old Englishman believes from the moment he is drafted that he will die fighting the Nazi menace; he writes as much in a letter to his parents. The opening shot of the film suggests the same thing to the audience, albeit in a somewhat hallucinatory manner. That path that “Overlord” (1975) traces from basic training to the storming of the beaches at Normandy is an inevitable one, rendering Tom's story both a tragedy and a tribute to the nobility of the soldier who stares fate square in the eyes and doesn't retreat.

Tom's perspective is really that of a filmmaker and an audience looking back on monumental events now receding (though never diminishing) in the past. Producer James Quinn initially wanted to make a documentary about a new memorial intended to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of D-Day. After Quinn recruited a young director named Stuart Cooper, who had developed a critical following with the short documentary “A Test of Violence” (1970) and his feature debut “Little Malcolm” (1974), the project began to transform.

Cooper stuck with the initial idea to employ documentary wartime footage from the massive archives of Britain's venerable Imperial War Museum, but weaved a fictional narrative (which he co-scripted with Christopher Hudson) through the grainy shots of aerial bombardments and naval skirmishes. Some of the archival footage is breathtaking and eerily surreal; a giant water wheel propelled by dozens of sputtering rockets clatters across a rocky beach before toppling over, an alien contraption almost comically ill-suited to its environment. The layering of movie-style sounds of gunfire and explosions to the silent footage (some of which was taken from cameras mounted in bomb bays or on the guns of fighter planes) sometimes undercuts the awe-inspiring ferocity of the visuals, but that's a minor quibble.


By contrast, the scripted sequences of Tom leaving home, going through boot camp, and biding his time before deployment are quiet and often serene, though flash forwards remind us of the freight train rapidly approaching. Brian Stirner portrays Tom as a gentle, thoughtful soul, clutching his copy of “David Copperfield” and shyly coming on to a pretty young woman (Julie Neesam) he meets during some rare down time. His philosophical bent proves to be a detriment when he has far too much time to think about what the future holds, but his less introspective peers are aware of their likely fate too; they simply don't articulate it the way Tom does.

Cinematographer John Alcott (best known for his collaborations with Stanley Kubrick on “A Clockwork Orange,” “Barry Lyndon,” and “The Shining”) shoots in a style that perfectly complements the documentary-fiction hybrid. Many scenes with Tom hanging out with his fellow soldiers or saying goodbye to his parents feel like kitchen-sink naturalism, but the film sometimes abruptly veers into abstraction (slow-motion, slightly out-of-focus shots of soldiers running) or stops for a meticulously crafted painterly composition: a low-angle shot of Tom peering over a hill with thick white clouds drifting above him (both beautiful and completely unaware of him) is particularly memorable.

“Overlord” won some festival awards at the time, but failed to pick up American distribution, largely disappearing until it was resuscitated and released a few decades later. There are numerous British films about soldiers and citizens maintaining a stiff upper lip during wartime; “Overlord” may not be the very best (Powell and Pressburger are tough competition), but it is certainly one of the boldest and most innovative. You've never seen anything quite like it. Unless you've seen it, of course. And with this Blu-ray upgrade of Criterion's previous SD release, there's no reason for you not to.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Since “Overlord” intercuts a great deal of documentary footage into its narrative material, the video quality can vary from source to source, but I can't imagine anyone being bothered by the slightly degraded or damaged image in some of the war shots. The image quality is consistently strong in the material photographed by John Alcott and this high-def transfer brings a lot of detail into sharp relief. Black-and-white contrast is meant to be soft and slightly gauzy in most scenes and the 1080p transfer preserves it all with a needed touch of subtlety.

Audio:
The linear Pcm Mono audio track sounds somewhat sparse, but that's by design. Dialogue is crisply mixed. Some of the war sound effects are mixed quite loudly, perhaps a bit too much so at times, but I'm sure that's also by design. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Extras:
Criterion has imported all of the extras from its 2007 SD release of “Overlord.”

The film is accompanied by a commentary track by director Stuart Cooper and lead actor Brian Stirner. Their commentaries were recorded separately. Cooper has much more information about the overall production of the film, but Stirner's unique perspective is enlightening as well.

“Mining the Archive” (23 min.) is an interview with Roger Smither and Anne Fleming, film archivists at the Imperial War Museum. The Museum's archives play a major role in the film and they have plenty to say about the way archival footage was introduced and how much the Museum served as a research source for the movie.

The Museum didn't just provide film footage. They also had extensive historical documents, including journals written by soldiers who participated in the D-Day invasion. The disc includes readings by Brian Stirner from the journals of Sgt. Edward Robert McCush (9 min.) and Sgt. Finlay Campbell (12 min.) We also get a brief introduction by Stuart Cooper (2 min.)

The shot feature “Capa Influences Cooper” discussed how photographer Robert Capa, who took photographs on Omaha Beach on D-Day, influenced the look of the film. This feature consists of audio commentary by Stuart Cooper played over footage from the film and some of the few remaining Capa photographs from D-Day (8 min.)

“Germany Calling” (2 min.) is a 1941 propaganda film that played before many films released in England during wartime. It cut footage of Nazis (most, perhaps all, taken from Leni Riefenstahl's “Triumph of the Will”) to comic music, speeds it up, and runs it backward to mock the goosestepping menace. Tom sees bits of this film during a scene set in a movie theater in “Overlord.”

“Cameramen at War” (1943, 15 min.) is a documentary by the British Ministry of Information (credited as “Compiled by Len Lye”) which talks about the courage of the men who embedded with the troops to shoot film. D.W. Griffith is identified in one scene.

“A Test of Violence” (1969, 14 min.) is Stuart Cooper's debut short film that won multiple festival awards. It is nominally about Spanish artist Juan Genovés, though it's a very abstract piece that recreates the violent scenes Genovés painted.

The disc also includes a Theatrical Trailer (3 min.)

The 28-page insert booklet includes an essay by critic Kent Jones, an excerpt from a presentation given by Imperial War Museum archivist Roger Smither, and excerpts from the novelization of “Overlord” written by Stuart Cooper and Christopher Hudson, co-screenwriter of the film.

Final Thoughts:
“Overlord” can feel a bit too portentous at times, but it is a sincerely moving portrait of a soldier bracing himself for the inevitable tragedy of wartime. Criterion hasn't added any new features from its 2007 SD release, but the high-def transfer is a strong one, as usual, and the original collection of extras was plenty good enough.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Let The Sunshine In


LET THE SUNSHINE IN (Denis, 2017)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date May 21, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

In a late scene in director Claire Denis' “Let The Sunshine In” (2017), a so-called psychic implores Isabelle (Juliette Binoche) to always remain “open” to the possibility of love. While a bland platitude is the best anyone can expect from a psychic, this statement is the very last piece of advice our protagonist needs.

“Open” is surely the one word that best defines Isabelle's character as revealed through the series of paramours or potential paramours she has encountered during the film's compact running time. A loutish banker, a handsome and feckless young actor, her ex-husband, a sophisticated work colleague, even a stranger in a dance club – Isabelle leaves herself wide open to the excitement, frustration, hope, and betrayal that could face her in each relationship. She's so open that one fears for her safety at times, but Isabelle definitely knows what she's doing.

A divorced painter in her fifties, Isabelle is a veteran of many intimate battles. She has emerged all the stronger from her experience not by encasing herself in a suit of armor to fend off the slings and arrows of outrageous lovers, but by never losing her faith that it's all worth it. He says he'll call tomorrow, but of course he doesn't; he thinks it's romantic to ask you to wait for a month to hear from him, but you find the prospect insulting; you thought your night together was nothing less than wonderful, only to hear him dismiss it as a terrible mistake best forgotten. Isabelle absorbs every bruising disappointment because she's certain the potential reward justifies the struggle, and it's her implacable openness and vulnerability and fragility that makes her so resilient.

Claire Denis and co-screenwriter Christine Angot, very loosely adapting a Roland Barthes book, build the narrative (a series of moments rather than a traditional plot) entirely around Isabelle's resolute search for love or at least for the relationship she wants, which also means relying primarily on Binoche's dynamism to propel the story. Cinematographer Agnes Godard knows just then to cut in – sometimes to leap in – to close-ups of Binoche's face, usually when she's listening to men ramble on, right at the moments when Isabelle realizes her partner's agenda and perspective in no way match hers. Binoche transitions from bliss to disenchantment with such ease, with just the twitch of a few facial muscles, that every moment feels fresh and immediate, perhaps also a residue of Denis opting for a minimum of rehearsal for her cast.

Isabelle's travails are quietly funny too, though I admit I didn't pick up on as much of the humor as I suspect I was supposed to until Gerard Depardieu shows up as the aforementioned psychic, introduced dealing with his own relationship troubles. The film had already offered a scene when the impossibly vain banker (director Xavier Beauvois) barrels through Isabelle's door brandishing a giant bouquet of flowers and the line, “I just got in from Brazil, and I felt like banging you.” So I probably should have noticed sooner.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.60:1 aspect ratio. Unsurprisingly, this recent film looks magnificent in this high-def transfer. The color palette is rich and naturalistic, detail level is consistently sharp throughout.

Audio:
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is equally sharp, heavy on dialogue. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.

Extras:
This disc is relatively slim on extras, but Criterion provides a new interview with Claire Denis (21 min.) and a new interview with Juliette Binoche (17 min.) Denis talks about the development and production of the film, giving ample credit to co-screenwriter Christine Angot. She also emphasizes how humorous she finds the story, a sentiment echoed by Binoche in her interview.

Aside from a Trailer, the only other extra is the Claire Denis short film “Voila l'enchainement” (2014, 31 min.) It stars Alex Descas (who also appears in “Let the Sunshine In”) and Norah Krief as a married couple going through a crisis.

The slim fold-out booklet features an essay by film critic Stephanie Zacharek.

Final Thoughts:
It's hard to believe Denis and Binoche hadn't worked together before. It's about the most natural contemporary director-actor pairing one could imagine. Criterion's Blu-ray disc isn't packed with extras, but the extra short film by Denis is a nice bonus, and the film couldn't look or sound any better.