Monday, March 27, 2017

45 Years

45 YEARS (Haigh, 2015)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Mar 7, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

In Andrew Haigh's relationship drama “45 Years” (2015), Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) Mercer while away their days in a pleasant if uneventful retirement in rural Norfolk; their main project is the preparation for their impending forty-fifth anniversary party with friends and family eager to help the happy couple celebrate their long journey together. It's quickly obvious that Kate is the calm, pragmatic planner in the marriage, but she didn't plan for the arrival of a letter that informs Geoff of a shocking discovery related to his past. His already eccentric behavior becomes increasingly erratic, and Kate's determined effort to unearth the reasons behind his deterioration will bring explanations, but not solace.

Level-headed Kate slowly but surely becomes increasingly rattled, though it's not easy to tell exactly why this particular news hits her so hard. Perhaps she's most disturbed by the unpleasant reminder that even an equilibrium established through forty-five long years of hard work and compromise can be so inherently unstable. Rampling earned a myriad of awards for her slow, simmering performance that never quite boils over, but still leads to a dramatic and definitive breakdown. I have to admit I didn't find her series of icy, increasingly hostile stares to be all that compelling, or even convincing, particularly in a final scene that felt forced to me, as if it was the one moment Haigh determined to work toward before planning anything else in his adaptation of David Constantine's short story, “In Another Country.”

On multiple occasions I wondered, “What in the hell is she so upset about?” The chorus of critical hosannas from around the world (at 97% on the Holy Tomatometer, “45 Years” was one of the most praised films of 2015) suggests I must consider the possibility that I flat out didn't get it, which has been known to happen from time to time. Perhaps it's just because I tend to be a lot less interested in dialogue-heavy, two-hander dramas than most viewers. A whole, whole lot less. Way less. However, I liked Haigh's previous film. “Weekend” (2011), also released by Criterion, so it'll just have to remain a mystery.

It's not a mystery I'm terribly motivated to solve. I'll encourage you instead to check out the film's more positive reviews. You won't find any shortage of them. 

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. As you would expect for such a recent film, the high-def transfer is practically immaculate, with razor-sharp image quality, and warm but subtle colors. No complaints at all on this front.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track doesn't have to deal with much beyond dialogue so don't expect any revelations on the surround front. But it's a crisp, distortion-free mix which more than does the job. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Criterion has gone a bit light on the supplements, but what's here is good.

The film is accompanied by a 2015 commentary track (“courtesy of Curzon Artificial Eye”) featuring director Andrew Haigh and producer Tristan Goligher.

“The Making of '45 Years'” (2016, 36 min.) combines interview with cast (Rampling, Courtenay) and crew (Haigh, Goligher, editor Jonathan Alberts, cinematographer Lol Crawley).

Haigh adapted the film from author David Constantine's (very) short story “In Another Country.” In an interview (13 min.), Constantine talks about his story and his reaction to the film version.

A Trailer (2 min.) rounds out the extras.

The slim fold-out insert booklet features an essay by critic Ella Taylor.

Film Value:
I'm confident that you'll like the film more than I did. And even if you don't, check out Haigh's “Weekend” which was also released by the Criterion Collection.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017


Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Mar 14, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

The dormant volcano La Malinche dominates the landscape in an early shot of “Canoa: A Shameful Memory” (1976), a mute witness to the human eruption that occurs below and which shapes the film.

Based on a real 1968 event, “Canoa” reconstructs the murder of several university employees at the hands of a bloodthirsty mob of villagers from the impoverished town of San Miguel Canoa, just outside the city of Puebla in Central Mexico. The young men are merely on a weekend trip to climb the volcano, but the locals, whipped into a frenzy by propaganda spewed by the town's corrupt priest (Enrique Lucero), become convinced the tourists are student communists who have come to defile their religion.

The event was still fresh in the minds of many Mexican viewers and directly linked to even more notorious traumas of a violent year, which left director Felipe Cazals and screenwriter Tomas Perez Turrent a difficult balancing act, seeking to engage a movie audience while not unduly exploiting real tragedy. Their solution is a film which some odd tonal shifts that complicate any immediate reaction or analysis.

The film begins with a very low-key scene in which a field reporter at a tiny, cluttered desk phones in news of the lynching to another reporter in a largely deserted newsroom, the latter being unimpressed as he pecks away at his typewriter to record the names of the victims. The film then shifts to a brilliant sequence in which the noise of a bombastic military parade is contrasted with the near-silence of the victims' funeral where protestors carry signs reading “We Demand Justice.” Cazals' presentation is so assured and efficient, the viewer can already safely guess said justice is unlikely to be forthcoming.

From this point, Cazals and his crew (he also gives ample credit to veteran cinematographer Alex Phillips Jr. as a shaping voice) mix and match a variety of techniques. Faux-newsreel interviews situate one local man as a de facto narrator and guide to the town's troubles, which revolve around poverty, alcohol, and that corrupt priest who has leveraged his divine authority into a privatization scheme to enrich himself and (perhaps) the church on the backs of poor, uneducated laborers. The film also spends a great deal of time with the young victims-to-be as they casually joke around with each other and remain blissfully oblivious to the fate that awaits them even as hysterical shrieks about the “Outlaws!” and “Communists!” blare over the loudspeakers that constitute the town's entire access to media, and which are, of course, controlled by the priest.

This naïve interplay provides Cazals the opportunity to ratchet up the suspense to nearly unbearable levels as the audience has been warned from the start of what will happen. It's fair to ask whether traditional suspense should be built up so relentlessly (including a final delaying cutaway once the angry mob leader's axe hacks through the door) while recounting a story of real victims, but the film doesn't let viewers escape with a cheap thrill, depicting the mob attack in brutal images that leave enough to the imagination to make it even more unnerving.

I find little evidence of the “gritty documentary style” promised on the blurb on the back of the Blu-ray (and mentioned by Guillermo del Toro in one of the disc's extras). The faux-newsreel footage is so stilted and mannered, it feels more like it's mocking the reliability of the format than striving for verisimilitude, and hand-held camerawork does not equal “documentary style” - gritty or otherwise. “Canoa” is more a horror film than anything else, and the real horror is that the eruption of violence may be as natural as the past and future eruptions of La Malinche. Sure, the priest and his minions spew poisonous rhetoric and the disinterested government officials gladly allow the uneducated laborers to be exploited, but the ultimate explanation for why hundreds or even thousands of people could band together one night to murder several men may boil down simply to one fact: that's just what people do.

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. This restored transfer was supervised by director Felipe Cazals and looks quite strong, as you would expect. Image quality is sharp throughout with an appropriately grainy look. The colors are quite rich and every now and then I thought perhaps a bit too much so, but that's hardly a complaint.

The linear PCM mono audio mix is on the flat and shallow side and I suspect is meant to be so. I think the film's audio design (no music, by the way) is one of its strongest aspects, with very effective use of strategic silence contrasted with louder environments, and this subtle mix renders it all quite well. Optional English subtitles support the Spanish audio.

Unfortunately, Criterion hasn't included too much on the extras front.

A brief introduction (3 min.) by director Guillermo del Toro shares his appreciation for the film, but not too much else.

The substantive extra is a lengthy conversation (2016, 54 min.) between Felipe Cazals and director Alfonso Cuaron. Cuaron is both a big fan of the film and one hell of an interviewer – he can conduct as many of these for Criterion as he wants to. It's a treat to see two great Mexican directors of different generations (Cazals is 24 years older than Cuaron) get the time to discuss their craft in detail. The focus is on Cazals, of course, but some of the best interplay involves obvious differences between them – Cazals dismissed the use of music in films out of hand, prompting an exasperated chuckle from Cuaron.

A lengthy theatrical trailer (5 min.) rounds out the collection.

The slim fold-out insert booklet includes an essay by critic Fernanda Solorzano.

Film Value:
Both Del Toro and Cuaron argue for “Canoa” as one of the most important Mexican films ever made. Criterion has provided a solid transfer of this influential films which I suspect even many ardent cinephiles have not previously seen. The extras on the sparse side, but it's great to expand the Criterion Collection to include more Mexican cinema.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Multiple Maniacs

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Mar 21, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

(Listen, there are some plot spoilers below. That's the least fucking offensive thing you're going to have to worry about.)

From puke eating to hairy-armpit licking to lobster rape (see below), “Multiple Maniacs” (1970) epaters the unholy shit out of le bourgeois in every sacrilegious (and sacrilicious) manner imaginable – and when the controlling imagination belongs to writer-director (producer-editor-cinematographer) John Waters, you can be sure that no taboo will leave unviolated. Viewers may wind up feeling equally violated; consider it a freebie included with the price of admission.

The film opens with Lady Divine's Cavalcade of Perversions, a makeshift circus pitched by low-rent carnival barker Mr. David (David Lochary) as “the sleaziest show on earth” and guaranteed to feature performers who are “not actors, not paid impostors, but real, actual filth!” The hapless local rubes who can't resist a free show before lunch get treated to a show starring the aforementioned puke eater and armpit lickers along with a real heroin junkie going through withdrawal, and a particularly delicate performance that induces the lucky onlookers to say, “Look at her cunt... I can smell it all the way from over here.” It's like “The Sound of Music” all over again. For the final act, the attendees get robbed and murdered by the freaks – yet another freebie. After that, the film starts to get a little gross, eventually requiring the national guard to clean up the mess.

Waters most certainly pursued shock for the sake of shock (what nobler goal?), but the film never feels like a phony exercise in cheap provocation precisely because the cast is populated with “real, actual filth.” Waters' Dreamland Players (a sobriquet designated by fans many years later) may not have been actual murderers or lobster fuckers (see below), but there was no mistaking them for professional actors playing at being junkies and freaks after months of careful field study – these were genuinely devout perverts who congregated at the church of the Pope of Trash. Most of the beloved players are here already in this pre-Flamingos phase, the great David Lochary in his finest role (his delivery of the line “I love you so fucking much, I could shit” is without peer) with plenty of room left for Mink Stole, Mary Vivian Pierce, and Cookie Mueller to shine, by which I mean wallow in the sewer. Plus the legendary Edith Massey makes her big screen debut.

Of course, the glorious, zaftig Lady Divine presides over all of the filth. Introduced as a Rubenesque nude in classic repose, clad only in a Liz Taylor wig, she will slowly but most assuredly transform into a genuine movie monster, the maniac of all maniacs. Divine snarls and threatens her way through every encounter (though as a doting mom she couldn't be any prouder of her slutty, drug-dealing daughter), inspiring either fanatical devotion or abject terror in everyone who crosses her exceedingly wide path, but universally acknowledged for her undeniable beauty and elegance even by her mortal enemies.

In this feature-length cavalcade of perversions, no spectacle is more morally repugnant than the sequence in which a man is stripped, beaten with whips and chains, repeatedly spat upon, then nailed to a crucifix and left to die. This grotesque display, of course, is familiar to Catholics like John Waters and yours truly as a Good Friday at Church, and his graphic staging of the Stations of the Cross (with Edith Massey as the Virgin Mary, natch) is a reminder that even the Pope of Trash can't outgross the Holy Church. They tell this blood-spattered story to kids – every damn year! The fact that Divine imagines said Stations while getting an energetic rosary job from Mink Stole is, well, it's just the kind of thing you have to see for yourself.

Divine's swath of pure rage, cut across the sparsely-populated streets of Waters' beloved hometown of Baltimore, can, as I'm sure you've already figured out, only lead to one logical and inevitable endpoint - being raped by a giant papier-mache lobster. The true genius of this magnificent scene, one of the very greatest moments in all of American cinema, is that Divine actually knows the name of her attacker and cries it out during the throes of passion, “Lobstora!!!” Does this mean they've dated before? It's almost inconceivable that John Waters had to wait until 2017 to receive a career achievement award from the Writer's Guild of America.

Thanks to the real, actual filth both in front of and behind the camera, “Multiple Maniacs” traffics in a brand of authenticity that speaks directly to the receptive viewer and spills over the bounds of the safe, traditional narrative cinema. But beyond the blasphemy (which sounds like a cable show John Waters should host), “Multiple Maniacs” ultimately succeeds because it is so clearly a labor of love, a film made by a group of friends giddy at the prospect of making a movie together, eager to share their world and maybe disrupt a few other worlds along the way. In other words, they sure as shit look like they're having a lot of fun.

Still, you have to wonder about the choice of a title. With the puke eating, lobster fucking (see above), rosary insertions, Edith Massey, off-screen gerontophilia, heroin shooting, and gang rape, it seems obvious that John Waters should have called it... The Aristocrats!

Seriously, who the fuck ever expected this to get a full digital restoration courtesy of Criterion? Waters actually kept the original reversal of the 16mm film in his attic for over twenty years – somehow it survived intact enough to wind up looking pretty damn good after a restoration. In one scene, a prominent bit of dirt couldn't be cleaned off, but does it really matter? I don't recall being able to see the décor of Divine's home in such detail before, including making out all the movie posters on the wall. The film is presented in John Waters' preferred 1.66:1 aspect ratio.

The LPCM mono track is reasonably clear, at least relative to the limitations of the original recording. Waters shot in a format that recorded the audio directly onto the film, which leads to some abrupt audio cuts and also to some audio dead space. It's all just fine. The eclectic music track sounds a bit tinny but, again, seriously, I mean – this is getting a damn Criterion release! Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

When “Multiple Maniacs” was first announced for Criterion release, I hoped we would get some of Waters' earlier films like “Eat Your Makeup” or “Mondo Trasho” as extras. No dice. Perhaps the music clearance rights still render any “official” releases unfeasible.

Fortunately, we get the most important of all possible extras, a newly recorded (2016) commentary track by John Waters. There are times when he clearly can't believe he actually made certain choices, and at least one moment where he says “Thank God my mother never saw this.” It's a wonderful commentary, as you would expect.

We also get a collection of interviews with some of the surviving Dreamland actors, including Mink Stole, Pat Moran, Susan Lowe, Vincent Peranio, and George Figgs. This 32-minute collection, recorded in 2016 in Baltimore, includes fond reminiscences about some of the departed Dreamlanders as well as insider accounts of what it was like to work for John Waters, who is generally depicted a rather exacting perfectionist on set. Lobstora's budget is quoted at $37.50 by designer Peranio.

“The Stations of Filth” (10 min.) is a short video essay by scholar Gary Needham, which combines analysis with some trivia (Waters recently described this film as “Rancid Strawberries” a la Bergman) and argues most persuasively that the film should be understood as surreal rather than primarily as camp, which is spot on.

The slim fold-out insert booklet includes an essay by critic Linda Yablonsky.

Film Value:
I am proud of myself for resisting the obvious line, “I love this movie so fucking much, I could shit.” That would be way too on the nose. Which is why I would never write it.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

Criterion Collection, DVD, Release Date August 25, 2009
Review by Christopher S. Long

(An Akerman A Day wraps up today on Chantal Akerman's 65th birthday. The most difficult reviews to write are for the films you revere unconditionally. In 2009, I tried my best to express my reverence for Akerman's masterpiece "Jeanne Dielman." I would not argue with anyone who calls it the greatest film ever made.)

I have to dispel the rumor that Chantal Akerman's brilliant "Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles" (1975) consists of three hours of a woman doing housework. That's nonsense. It's three hours and twenty minutes. And she also goes shopping.

Each room in Jeanne's cramped Belgian apartment is filmed from one or two fixed camera set-ups, always the same ones (at least for the first half of the movie; it opens up a bit later on). The camera, placed about waist high, never moves and the action in each shot is filmed in real time with no analytical editing. When Jeanne prepares dinner, we watch the entire process from when she spreads flour on the table, whips the eggs, breads the cutlets and so on.

In some ways, “Jeanne Dielman” feels like the first spycam movie ever made. Usually Jeanne is in the shot but sometimes she wanders in and out as she completes her chores. The camera doesn't budge. It's almost as if the cameras in each room are rolling 24/7 and simply waiting for Jeanne to enter their field of vision, and for viewers to switch channels to watch the next room. When Jeanne's not there, we stare at the sink or the tureen on the dining room table or the bedroom closet. The film provides an uncomfortably intimate exploration of this tiny, titular space that almost completely defines Jeanne Dielman's claustrophobic world.

"Jeanne Dielman" traces three days in the life of its title character, a widow and homemaker who receives male “clients" once a day to pay the bills. Each day is rigidly segmented, a series of domestic tasks and rituals performed at the same time every day, a comfortable tedium which protects Jeanne from the horror of having free time to contemplate her life. At least until something goes wrong on the second day and disrupts her delicate, hard-earned stasis. Then she leaves the lid off the tureen, fumbles with the silverware, overcooks the potatoes, and wakes up a little earlier than usual. Chaos theory style, these minor variations eventually lead to major consequences, and the potential energy built up by three-plus hours of this rigorously structured study of a body (often not) in motion erupts into an unexpectedly kinetic final sequence.

Chantal Akerman was only 25 when she made "Jeanne Dielman." It's hard to believe someone so young could have such a clear and unique vision and the ability to realize it so well, but it's best not to fall into the trap of lauding her as a solitary genius. She had many collaborators on this film, crewed mostly by women, chief among them cinematographer Babette Mangolte and leading actress Delphine Seyrig.

Mangolte teamed up with Akerman to produce this "spycam" film, adapting a shooting style to fit the restricted space of the real apartment the film was shot in (some scenes were re-staged in a studio, but this footage wasn't used). Unable to knock out walls or remove ceilings, Mangolte and Akerman devised a way to cover each room with just a few set-ups and still create an asphyxiating immediacy.

Delphine Seyrig was a huge star by the time she agreed to work with this young and relatively unknown director. There was little chance for money or glory in the role, but she believed in the project. Jeanne Dielman in her dowdy sweaters is almost the polar opposite of the glamorous fashion icon Seyrig played in "Last Year at Marienbad" (1961), but in both films Seyrig is asked to "behave" more than she is to act. In "Marienbad" she was mostly a shape situated in her environment. Jeanne Dielman is a relatively expressionless woman, a robo-mom who performs her chores mechanically and, at least on the first go round, with total efficiency. It's hard to imagine that Seyrig had much fun with the role (and we see evidence of this on one of the DVD features) but she inhabits the body of Jeanne Dielman with a stolid blankness that would be anathema to many actresses. By gradual accumulation and uncomfortably close observation, Jeanne becomes one of the most tangible presences the cinema has ever witnessed. For my money, she's the greatest film character of all-time.

"Jeanne Dielman" is a transfixing experience that inspires a kind of solemn awe on an initial viewing, but upon reflection it also yields its fair share of humor. There's that painfully awkward scene where Jeanne wanders around the apartment with her pot of overcooked potatoes and winds up in the bathroom for some reason. And her wimpy, dependent son (Jan Decorte) who barely speaks and never once says thank you, the little bastard, when mom clears off each course. And the most enduring image of all, both creepy and funny, is that of the frugal Jeanne obsessively clicking the lights on and off as she exits one room and enters another. Has anyone counted the number of times we see her flick a light switch? Dozens for sure, possibly in the hundreds.

Did I mention the baby scene? No? Well let's just say it's not funny at all. In fact it's one of the saddest, most gut-wrenching scenes ever put on film. Just another of many remarkable moments from a remarkable film.

Spycams indulge voyeuristic impulses, of course. "Jeanne Dielman" is certainly not intended to appeal to prurient interests. Even a scene in which Jeanne bathes (waist-level camera unmoving, of course) isn't the least bit erotic. But the film does provide viewers the opportunity to see images (or "images between the images" in Akerman's terms) that they would not otherwise get a chance to see. More specifically, the film provides images of the domestic space previously deemed unfit for cinematic treatment, at least in such detail and clarity. Akerman relocates the traditional epic to the kitchen, the bedroom, and the dining room, turning the camera on a world known to hundreds of millions of women throughout the world but seldom the subject of cinema. I'd say that's the greatest accomplishment of "Jeanne Dielman," but there's a long list of accomplishments to choose from.

"Jeanne Dielman" is on the short list of films that changed the way I understood film. Every bit as much as Kubrick's “2001,” this domestic odyssey is the ultimate trip.

The film is presented in a 1.66:1 widescreen (anamorphic) ratio. The progressive transfer was digitally restored under Akerman's supervision. The grainy, textured image looks great. Sharp contrast, everything you expect from Criterion. Except that it's not high-def. But maybe someday soon...

The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.

This two-disc package is absolutely loaded.

"Autour de ‘Jeanne Dielman'" (69 min.) is the best on-set feature I have ever seen. Filmed by actor Sami Frey, this feature shows Chantal Akerman and Delphine Seyrig at work on set, and demonstrates the degree to which collaboration can also be a battle of wills. Seyrig struggles to understand what Akerman wants while Akerman strives to communicate as little as possible. Just enough to give the actress what she needs but not so much that she runs the risk of introducing too much psychology into the project. The back-and-forth conversations between them are fascinating. Seyrig is frustrated but always cordial. Akerman obviously has a crystal clear vision in her mind of what she wants, but some difficulty (and reluctance) in verbalizing it. It's an amazing feature, and deserves to be a staple on film school curricula.

"Saute ma ville" (1968) is Akerman's first short film. The 18-year-old Akerman stars as (does this sound familiar?) a woman in a kitchen who tends to a few chores and quickly falls apart. This is much more playful than "Jeanne Dielman" and has a lovely soundtrack which consists of (I presume) Akerman humming. It's wonderful to have an opportunity to see the first film by such a great director.

"Chantal Akerman on Filmmaking" is excerpted from a 1997 episode of "Cinéma, de notre temps" in which Akerman directs an episode about herself. It is basically a monologue in which she shares some fairly personal reflections on her craft.

The collection includes several interviews: Chantal Akerman (20 min, recorded in April 2009 for Criterion), cinematographer Babette Mangolte (23 min, April 2009), and a 2007 interview in which Akerman interrogates her mother Natalia (28 min.)

A brief interview with Akerman and Seyrig is excerpted from the February 15, 1976 episode of "Les rendez-vous du dimanche" (7 min.)

The insert booklet features an essay by Ivone Margulies, author of "Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman's Hyperrealist Everyday."

Final Thoughts:
Chantal Akerman is a much celebrated figure in cinephilic and academic circles, but largely unknown even to many fans of Francophone cinema. Criterion's release of "Jeanne Dielman" will, I hope, begin to remedy the situation. "Jeanne Dielman" is indisputably one of the greatest and most important films of the past half century. Though it is probably Akerman's greatest achievement, it's hardly the only highlight on her resume. "Je, tu, il, elle" (1974) is an intensely personal film that can be just as harrowing as "Jeanne Dielman." "News From Home" (1977) and "From The East" (1993) are exceptional as well. And “La chambre” (1972). And “Hotel Monterey” (1972). Well, you get the picture.