Thursday, June 21, 2018

Manila In The Claws Of Light

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date June 12, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

Many films about people moving from the country to the big city detail the loss of innocence as the dream of a shining land of opportunity yields to a grim reality. Julio Madiaga (Rafael Roco Jr.) arrives in Manila with no such delusions. His eyes are already wide open to potential horror as he has come to search for his girlfriend Ligaya (Hilda Koronel), who he suspects has been lured into a sex trafficking ring. Already expecting to find a nightmare, what Julio discovers in Manila turns out to be even worse.

In “Manila, In The Claws of Light” (1975), director Lino Brocka, adapting (along with screenwriter Clodualdo Del Mundo Jr.) a novel by Edgardo Reyes, depicts the capital city of The Philippines as a broken society designed to exploit and ultimately destroy the working class. Julio risks life and limb working in construction for two and a half pesos a day, with his supervisor skimming almost half his wages in the process. Julio's eventual turn to the sex trade himself is entirely understandable, though it brings him just as much misery. In a country ruled by the iron-fisted martial law of dictator and kleptocrat Ferdinand Marcos, there is nowhere to turn for justice, certainly not to a corrupt police force.

Constantly seekingr his lost Ligaya, Julio at least finds some sympathy from his co-workers, who Brocka depicts as generous and decent, if perhaps a bit misguided. One dreamer argues the merits of the big city over the country, observing that life might be tough here, but at least you have a chance to win the jackpot. Maybe, just maybe someday. In a sense, Julio agrees, though the only prize he cares about is Ligaya, and he will suffer any indignity as long as the chance to find and rescue her remains alive.

Brocka had begun his film-making career directing more commercially-oriented soap operas, but after a brief self-imposed hiatus, he returned to cinema with the goal of making more socially engaged work. “Manila” was not his first success on this front, but it provided an international breakout that established Brocka as one of the preeminent voices of Filipino cinema. Today,the film is generally regarded as his masterpiece and perhaps even the greatest Filipino film of its time, though its fair to say that the majority of Western critics making such an assessment haven't seen enough Filipino cinema to really know. 

Like most of Brocka's films, the low-budget “Manila” is usually described with terms such as “realism” and “naturalism” which are both apt, but the film indulges in plenty of impressionistic touches, including the numerous flashbacks to Julio's nostalgia-tinged remembrances of more innocent times back home with Ligaya. The film's exquisitely rendered nighttime sequences in Manila also offer a striking visual and tonal contrast to the daytime shots, though the city is equally menacing at all times.

Roco was an amateur actor who Brocka found in a rehab center (at least according the documentary included on this disc) and his quiet, unassuming performance renders Julio a palpable and sympathetic figure, making it all the more painful to watch his grueling trudge along his own Via Dolorosa. Viewers will figure out early that the film isn't blazing a trail to a happy place, but the ending is still startling and unforgettable.

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. This restoration is another product of The World Cinema Project, headlined by Martin Scorsese.

From the Criterion booklet: “This work was restored in 2013 by the Film Development Council of the Philippines and the Cineteca di Bologna/L'immagine Ritrovata laboratory, in association with The Film Foundation's World Cinema Project, LVN, Cinema Artists Philippines, and cinematographer Mike De Leon. This restoration was funded by Doha Film Institute. Supervised by De Leon, this digital transfer was created in 4K resolution from the 35 mm original camera negative... Because of color decay in the negative, De Leon guided the grading phase and validated the color using a positive print as a reference.”

The decayed state of the negative presented numerous challenges to restorers, but the strong final product is a testament to their hard labor. A few shots, especially in the beginning, look a bit soft and lacking in detail, but this is only an occasional problem. Colors are bright though not gaudy, and it appears that restorers resisted the urge to “overcorrect” any degraded elements. You see a few scratches and other signs of damage, but it all has an authentic, naturalistic look.

The linear PCM Mono track isn't the most robust you've ever heard, and some of the dialogue and music sounds a bit thin or tinny at times, but it's not a problem. Optional English subtitles support the Tagalog dialogue.

Since this restoration is associated with The World Cinema Project, Martin Scorsese provides a brief intro (2 min.) about the film and Brocka.

“Manila... A Filipino Film” is a 1975 documentary (23 min.) by filmmaker Mike De Leon (the cinematographer on “Manila”). This consists of some on-set footage as well as interview with Brocka and the cast.

“Signed: Lino Brocka” is a 1987 documentary (83 min.) by Christian Blackwood which consist mostly of Brocka either at work or just talking to the director about his career. He's an electric personality and it's a thrill to get to hear so much from him, especially considering Brocka would die in a car accident just four years later.

In “Challenging the Viewer” (19 min.) critic and filmmaker Tony Rayns discusses Brocka's early career (I had no idea he was a Mormon!) and then delves into the “Manila” adaptation in some detail.

The slim fold-out booklet includes an essay by film scholar Jose B. Capino.

Final Thoughts:
This is the second Brocka film released by Criterion in the past few years after “Insiang” (1976) was included as part of the “Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project 2”box set last year. It's great to see Brocka's signature film receive a stand-alone release with ample extras to support the film. I hope many more Filipino films will join the collection in the near future. “Perfumed Nightmare” could sure use the deluxe treatment.

Monday, May 21, 2018


GRADUATION (Mungiu, 2016)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date May 22, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

At first, I was tempted to describe writer/director Cristian Mungiu's “Graduation” (2016) as a naturalistic film that unfolds at a leisurely pace while observing the details of the everyday life in modern Romania. Dr. Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni), the film's protagonist, wants to make sure his daughter Eliza (Maria Dragus) doesn't lose her upcoming scholarship to Cambridge, which he views as a crucial chance for her to escape Romania for a land of better opportunities. Via numerous long takes, he spends a lot of time driving around, speaking to various bureaucrats, and running chores.

It's so realistic it's practically a documentary... except for the fact that the melodramatic complications pile up as rapidly as in a soap opera. First, Eliza is sexually assaulted on her way to school just before taking her final exams, prompting the good doctor to call in some favors on his daughter's behalf. But that's just the start of it. In an approximately fifteen minute sequence in the middle of the film (spoiler alert, if you're the sort that cares), Eliza discovers (or reveals that she already knows about) Romeo's affair with a patient, Romeo's ailing mother has a grave medical scare, his wife kicks him out of their home, and law enforcement shows up out of he blue to investigate some of Romeo's previously mentioned dealings to help Eliza. And then things start getting really complicated, but still with plenty of long takes.

“Graduation” is structured around other contrasts as well. Romeo views himself as a morally righteous old-schooler nobly willing to sacrifice his virtue to navigate a corrupt bureaucracy and win his daughter a better future. Yet, one of the first things we learn about Romeo is that he's having an affair which also may or may not explain the fact that this ostensibly quiet film begins with the sound of shattered glass when a rock is hurled through the Aldea family's apartment window. A friend of Romeo's also reminds him of the time a man helped get them out of military service when they were teenagers, and how said man could really use a new liver right now and maybe the doctor could look into helping with that.

Mungiu doesn't overtly inject any sense of moral judgment on the proceedings, preferring simply to observe his characters and their circumstances closely, seemingly with a mixture of amusement and bemusement at the convoluted social structures these strange human creatures have built for themselves. The film never collapses into despair, however, no matter how much the noose tightens around Romeo's neck. This is due in large part to the fact that Romeo balances hard-learned cynicism with the still smoldering ashes of the optimism that led him to come back to Romania many years before. He bemoans the inability of his generation to make any real changes, but retains faith that his daughter's might still be able to pull off the job. He even defends the nosy investigators who try to bully him: “They're young. Maybe they'll make things better.” Romeo doesn't sound too convinced, but maybe surely beats a definite no. 

The film is presented in its original 2.39:1 aspect ratio. Nothing much to say here. “Graduation” is a recent film shot digitally and immaculately preserved in this 1080p transfer from Criterion. Looks great, as you'd expect.

The film is presented with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround audio mix. The lossless sound is flawless and helps convey the sense of space in many of the film's frequently visited locations. Mungiu rarely uses non-diegetic music in his films, but Romeo listens to classical music in the car, and that is treated well in this surround mix. Optional English subtitles support the Romanian audio.

Criterion hasn't packed this Blu-ray release with extras, but they've offered a few interesting features.

An interview with the director (2018, 29 min.) is recorded specifically for Criterion. Mungiu speaks in general about what motivated him to make the film, but doesn't delve too deeply into detail. It's great to hear from Mungiu, but there's not much revealing information here.

The disc also includes the Cannes Film Festival press Conference (2016, 42 min.) in which director and cast field questions about the film that netter Mungiu a Palme d'or for Best Director (shared with Olivier Assayas). These press conferences are seldom riveting enough to watch in their entirety, but, hey, you can watch it in pieces at your leisure.

We also get Deleted Scenes (7 scenes, 8 min. total) and a Trailer (2 min.)

The slim insert booklet features an essay by film critic Bilge Ebiri.

Final Thoughts:
“Graduation” is only Mungiu's second solo feature film since his breakout hit “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days” ten years ago. I don't think it matches the high standard set by that film, but it's a potent reminder that Romania continues to produce some of the best films of the 21st century.


MOONRISE (Borzage, 1948)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date May 8, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

Depending on your social (media) circle, Frank Borzage is either an all-but-forgotten figure from Hollywood's distant past, or a name that scrolls by on your Twitter feed every few hours accompanied by hagiographic hosannas. Borzage began his Hollywood career, first as an actor then as a director, during the heyday of the silent one- and two-reelers, and flawlessly navigated both the transition to feature filmmaking and then to sound cinema. Both a critical favorite and a commercial powerhouse, Borzage netted the first-ever Best Director Oscar for “7th Heaven” (1927 – he won for drama and Lewis Milestone won for comedy), and reeled in a second win just a few year later for “Bad Girl” (1931).

Borzage became widely admired for his earnest melodramas, but his romantic vision largely fell out of favor during the WW2 years, though his anti-Nazi film “The Mortal Storm” (1940) made a significant impact at a time (before Pearl Harbor) when Hollywood studios generally shied away from criticizing Hitler and all of that “European business.” By the end of the war, Borzage was slumming it at Republic Pictures, a Poverty Row outfit often celebrated today by cinephiles, but hardly viewed as a plum assignment by the former major-studio star.

While dutifully fulfilling the end of his contract, Borzage more or less stumbled into “Moonrise” (1948), a project abandoned by United Artists. Adapted from a novel by Theodore Strauss (who, gasp, doesn't even have his own Wikipedia entry), “Moonrise” tells the story of hard-luck Danny Hawkins, a small-town Virginian marked almost from birth for the sins of his father who was hanged for murder.

Borzage, working from a script credited to Charles Haas, makes the notion of “marking” quite literal in the film's moody, unnerving opening sequence. The camera focuses on several sets of feet trudging through puddle-drenched mud at night as the condemned man is marched to the gallows. The film then cuts from a silhouette of the prisoner being being dropped from the scaffold to a startling image of another shadowy body (a doll, it turns out) dangling over a crib, prompting the baby inside to wail.

Nobody shows up to comfort the crying toddler, nor will they for years, as Danny is taunted both in school (“Danny Hawkins' dad was hanged!”) and as an adult for his supposed “bad blood.” This alleged bad blood boils over when Danny gets involved in a fight (with a young Lloyd Bridges) that turns lethal, and he spends the bulk of the film trying to stay ahead of the law in his tiny Southern town.

The adult Danny is portrayed by Dane Clark, better known as a supporting actor and this role didn't vault him to leading man stardom. Clark plays sullen and withdrawn just fine, but generates little in the way of charisma, which makes the budding romance with school teacher Gilly (Gail Russell, shortly before alcoholism ruined her career) seem so forced it's almost tempting to view the whole relationship as a figment of Danny's desperate imagination.

The script vacillated in its argument both for and against the notion of “bad blood.” Danny may have been defending himself in his first fight, but he struggles constantly with impulse control, snapping at Gilly for no reason, and violently threatening the town's innocent mute (played by Harry Morgan!) Likewise, a late visit to his grandmother (Ethel Barrymore) suggests bad blood might run deep in this family's veins, when she argues that Danny's father may well have done the right thing by murdering a doctor who, y'know, just didn't give good advice. Then again, it might not be exclusively a family issue. Danny's friend and mentor Mose (Rex Ingram) comforts him with the story of a basically decent man who was sent to jail for fifteen years just “for bein' lonseome”, by which he means raping a woman. Ingram is great, as always, but yeesh.

Though the film's opening is by far its strongest part, Borzage also generates considerable tension in a nifty Ferris wheel sequence, and the whole movie looks great, suffering neither from its modest budget nor from being shot entirely on cheap studio sets. I'm not convinced that “Moonrise” is the late-career masterpiece Borzage boosters make it out to be, but with a strong supporting cast and rich black-and-white photography that evokes a distinct sense of time and place, plus an ending that probably doesn't go where you expect it to, the film certainly deserves to be (re)discovered seventy years after its initial and unsuccessful theatrical run.

The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. “Moonrise” is a public domain film and I'm sure it's had its share of spotty no-frills releases. Obviously, that's not the case with this Criterion release. This “new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution” and showcases rich black-and-white contrast throughout. Much of the film is shot at night (or made to look so) which perhaps makes it a bit difficult to assess how much fine detail the 1080p transfer shows off, but this is a typically strong Criterion release.

The linear PCM mono track is crisp and free of noticeable distortion. The mix doesn't have to do much more than present the dialogue clearly, and it does the job just fine. Optional SDH English subtitles support the English audio.

This is a relatively bare-bones release from Criterion.

The only extra on the disc is a 17-minute interview with film historian Peter Cowie and critic Herve Dumont, author of “Frank Borzage: The Life and Films of a Hollywood Romantic.” They provide historical background about Borzage's career and the production and reception of “Moonrise.” Fairly standard stuff, but useful since Borzage is probably unknown even to many Criterion fans.

The fold-out insert booklet features an essay by critic Philip Kemp.

Final Thoughts:
Though “Moonrise” is championed today by many fans and critics as one of Borzage's best, it was a commercial flop that did nothing to revive his career prospects. He wouldn't make another film for ten more years, and never recaptured his glory years, passing away in 1962 at age 68. Criterion hasn't included many extras, but has provided an excellent transfer of the film.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Dead Man

DEAD MAN (Jarmusch, 1995)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Apr 24, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

I first watched “Dead Man” (1995), Jim Jarmusch's idiosyncratic take on the Western, in a tiny theater at the end of an alley next to my graduate film school. The second time I watched it was... the very next day, and the third time the day after that. Back then, paying for three movie tickets in three days meant eating ramen noodles for the next two weeks, but I had a good excuse. I had fallen in love.

After watching the film again on this new Criterion Blu-ray release, I've now seen it more than thirty times, and the blush of first love has deepened into the pleasure of a committed, long-term relationship. I have thought often about why the film continues to occupy my thoughts on a regular basis more than twenty years later. For your sake, dear reader, I will limit myself to just three reasons why I love “Dead Man” beyond all reason, and why I believe it is one of the best films ever made.


Super-short superficial plot synopsis: “Dead Man” relates the story of an unlikely friendship between two genuine outsiders, Bill Blake (Johnny Depp), a hapless accountant from Cleveland , and Nobody (Gary Farmer), a Native American loner exiled from his own people. Blake hops a train West for a job, quickly gets shot, and Nobody helps to treat his wounds, then to guide him through the Western landscape (circa 1870s) to his mysterious final destination. They shoot a bunch of people along the way.

Depp, fresh off “Benny& Joon” and “Ed Wood,” was not yet a superstar but was riding a rocket to Hollywood's upper echelon. He's marvelous as a clueless Easterner desperately out of his element, but Gary Farmer absolutely steals the show. I used to describe Nobody as my favorite supporting character in all of cinema, but I realize now that's misleading: he's the real protagonist.

Jarmusch risks depicting Nobody as a “magical Indian,” whose primary function is to help the white man learn an important lesson. But Nobody is such a rich character with a vibrant inner life that he frequently shares. He is a man of letters, who spends his time “wander(ing) the earth” engaged in deep philosophical contemplation. Contrast this with the limp figure of Blake, defined largely by his paralyzing passivity and his garish checkered suit. Nobody has plans and ideas, while Blake doesn't have a clue.

This explains why one of Jarmusch's most audacious gambits works so brilliantly. When Nobody asks “What name were you given at birth, stupid white man?”, said stupid white man replies, “Blake. William Blake.” This sends Nobody into a frenzy as he assumes he is in the presence of the literal reincarnation of his literary idol, the British poet of the same name.

It's an absurd assumption that could leave viewers skeptical of Nobody's sanity, but consider the fact that Nobody simply wants it to be true. Depp's Blake is a blank slate upon which Nobody chooses to write his own story. Though he ostensibly serves as Blake's guide through the wilderness, he's actually realizing his own fantasy. That fantasy involves not only hanging out with William Blake (and frequently reciting Blake's poetry), but molding him into something new, the person Nobody wants him to be, a killer of “stupid fucking white men.” Near the end of the film, Nobody beams as he brags of his accomplishment in song, “William Blake is a legend now. He's a good friend of mine!”

Farmer's performance is thoroughly endearings as he gradually reveals Nobody's plans with quiet confidence, and occasionally stopping to bask in the glow of his friendship with the new, improved William Blake he's created. Farmer is an impressive physical presence as well, and has the kind of magnetic face directors can only dream of, a special effect in its own right. I've loved him in every film I've seen him in, but never more than as the unforgettable Nobody who also, by the way, has just about the greatest origin story in the history of cinema.

REASON TWO: Robby Freaking Muller

Though it limited his potential funding, Jarmusch insisted on shooting “Dead Man” in black-and-white and he wisely secured the services of cinematographer Robby Muller for the job. Jarmusch had already worked with Muller on the gorgeous black-and-white “Down By Law” (1986), but somehow Muller found a way to top himself with “Dead Man.”

The film's imagery ranges from the abjectly grotesque to the sublimely beautiful. When Blake trudges through the industrial town of Machine to report for a job he has already lost, he sees a horse pissing in the mud-soaked street, a prostitute giving an alley blowjob to a grimy gunman, and bleached animal bones providing the town's only apparent decoration. Later in the film, a thick boot will stomp on a dead marshal's skull, sending viscous black blood spurting from every orifice. “Dead Man” portrays an American West and a Native American people all but destroyed by the technology and violence of European invaders, and Muller captures the historical horror with grim efficiency.

And yet, as Nobody and Blake wend their way steadily to the Northwest, staying just ahead of the gunmen hired to pursue them, viewers are treated to breathtaking shots of forests of thin white birch trees and magnificent redwoods stretching high out of sight. In one of the film's most memorable shots, a panorama of ocean waves seems to cover all of existence, further enhancing the growing feeling of awe inspired by Muller's lush black-and-white nature photography. The film's characters may not survive this Western charnel house, but the natural world will endure and ultimately thrive no matter how many stupid fucking white men try to destroy it.

REASON THREE: Greatest. Soundtrack. Ever.

The great Roger Ebert, may he rest in power, described Neil Young's original score for “Dead Man” as the sound “of a man repeatedly dropping his guitar.” Mr. Ebert, I revere you, sir, but you went and lost your damn mind when you wrote that.

Young recorded the soundtrack while watching an early cut of the film (see Extras below), prowling around his recording studio, reaching for various instruments for different scenes, though none featured as prominently as his relentlessly rumbling electric guitar. I don't know exactly to what degree Young improvised to the footage, but the result is nothing short of monumental.

Young's repetitive electric guitar, often heavy on reverb, punctuates many of the open spaces in the film, sometimes filling in a single breath, sometimes underscoring the image – when we see train wheels churning in close-up, Young's guitar mimics the circular motion. Other times, a wall of sound builds to all but consume the otherwise placid image, a transcendent effect for those who dig it, no doubt an irritation to those who just hear a man dropping his guitar.

I am not a music critic and don't know the language necessary to describe Young's work accurately, so I'll settle for an anecdote. I bought the CD of this soundtrack as soon as it was available (more ramen noodle nights for me) and it's been a defining aesthetic element of my life ever since. I keenly remember listening to the untitled 14-minute guitar track on the disc while watching the sun set behind the hills at Badlands National Park. I timed it so the final chord faded out just as the last ray of sunlight was extinguished by the banded rock face. A part of me never quite left that moment. I can't listen to the soundtrack while driving, though, because I become completely lost in its tide.

I feel bad that I haven't even mentioned the greatness of Michael Wincott's hyperactive performance as a chatterbox assassin-for-hire or Lance Henriksen as a cannibal with a toothache, or the glorious cameo by Robert Mitchum as a corrupt titan of industry, or that infinitely sad and beautiful tableau with the baby deer, or that shot of the horse on the shore which I only just realized reminds me of a similar moment in “Aguirre” or...

If I let myself go on about all the reasons I love “Dead Man” (oh, man, Crispin Glover too) without reserve, I'll never stop. And that would be a disservice to you. Instead I think I'll just go watch “Dead Man” again. I hope you'll be inspired to watch it, either again or for the first time, as well. 

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. This new 4K restoration supervised and approved by Jim Jarmusch improves greatly on the mediocre home-theater releases previously available. The black-and-white contrast is sharp and bold throughout and the image showcases a fine grain structure. Image detail is particularly noticeable in closeups on faces, but also in the ways the individual trees really stand out sharply. Overall, this 1080p transfer is a very strong one, as we would expect from Criterion.

The film is presented with a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 surround track. The lossless audio is most important for presenting the greatest soundtrack ever in an appropriate fashion, but this is the first time I've listened to the film at home and been able to pick out some of the conversation snippets that are intended to just be barely heard at a distance.

Also, one of the distinctive features of “Dead Man” is that Nobody and other characters speak multiple Native American languages, including Blackfoot, Cree, and many others, none of which are provided with subtitles. This was intentional on Jarmusch's part, a nod of respect to Native American viewers, and Criterion has wisely not provided subtitles here, except to indicate specifically which language is being spoken.

English subtitles are provided to support the English dialogue.

The films is accompanied by a selected-scene commentary track by production designer Bob Ziembicki and sound mixer Drew Kunin. The commentary doesn't cover every scene, but they do offer analysis or anecdotes for most of the film, and it's a welcome change to get the perspective of crew members on a commentary track instead of directors and actors.

Jarmusch continues his practice from previous Criterion releases of conducting an audio-only Q&A session in which he answers questions submitted by fans. This was recorded in November 2017 and runs about 48 minutes and presents Jarmusch with the opportunity to go off on tangents or just to speak about some of his favorite artists or hobbies.

We also get a new interview (27 min.) with actor Gary Farmer who shares his reminiscences about working on the film, and argues persuasively that Nobody should have met with a different fate than he does in the film. This is the rare actor interview I wanted to run much longer.

In “Reading Blake” (7 min. total) three of the supporting actors in the film read snippets of William Blake's poetry. I mean no disrespect to Mili Avital and Alfred Molina, who both do a great job, but you're going to leave this feature with Iggy Pop reading William Blake as your new fetish.

Criterion includes 15 minutes of Deleted Scenes, the same reel of deleted scenes from the old Miramax DVD. I have always found these quite revealing, and I particularly wish one extended death scene had been included in the final cut.

The gem of the collection is 25 minutes of footage shot by Jim Jarmusch of Neil Young performing the film's soundtrack. With scenes playing on monitors on stage, Young goes from acoustic guitar to organ to electric guitar, bobbing in place as he fully immerses himself in the moment. I find this footage every bit as riveting as seeing Miles Davis perform the legendary score for “Elevator to the Gallows” and it's a privilege to be a witness to this kind of creative effort. We also get a Music Video for the film with Young's music playing over edited scenes from the film (3 min.) - this was also included on the old Miramax DVD. While playing this video, you can also switch to an audio track of Johnny Depp reading William Blake, the same passage as is included on one track of the soundtrack CD.

The collection wraps up with a Trailer (2 min.) and a photo gallery of about 50 stills, many of which show color images from the set, a real treat for fans.

The slim insert booklet includes an essay by film critic Amy Taubin and an essay about the Neil Young soundtrack by music journalist Ben Ratliff.

Final Thoughts:
I have nothing left to say. Actually, I have everything left to say, but I'll leave it for another time. “Dead Man” is a masterpiece. This Criterion Blu-ray release is the finest presentation of the movie yet available.