Monday, May 6, 2019

The Complete Mr. Arkadin


MR. ARKADIN, AKA CONFIDENTIAL REPORT (Welles, 1955)
Criterion Collection, DVD, Release Date Apr 18, 2006
Review by Christopher S. Long

(In honor or Orson Welles's birthday, I present a review of a Welles film that doesn't get discussed nearly as often as it should.)

This is going to take some explaining.

“Mr. Arkadin” (1955) may be the work of a revered auteur, but Orson Welles’ under-appreciated gem proudly displays its pulp-fiction roots. All the lurid elements of the noir genre are in place: a peg-legged gunman, a would-be detective with a checkered past, his equally seedy girlfriend, a mysterious millionaire and his beautiful daughter, and a trail of corpses strewn across half of Europe.

Guy Van Stratten (Robert Arden) is a two-bit cigarette smuggler minding his own business in Italy when he encounters a dying man named Bracco who tells Guy and his girlfriend Mily (Patricia Medina) a secret that will make them rich beyond their wildest dreams. Problem is, Guy’s dreams are pretty wild, and he parlays this secret into a meeting with the beautiful Raina (Paola Mori, sometimes known then as Mrs. Orson Welles) who happens to be the daughter of the enigmatic multi-millionaire Gregory Arkadin (Welles) who also happens to be the subject of Bracco’s death-bed secret. Arkadin has a job in mind for Guy, he wants him to investigate the true origins of a man named... Gregory Arkadin. You see, Mr. Arkadin is so mysterious he doesn't know his own past, remembering nothing before a day in 1927 when he was wearing a suit and clutching 200,000 Swiss francs. I told you this was going to take some explaining. Guy isn't sure if Arkadin's amnesia is real or faked, but then the subjects he interviews start dying off, he has little time to worry about anything besides saving his own skin.

The plot is as delightfully pulpy as can be, but the real pleasure of the film is the kinetic frenzy that infuses nearly every scene. With its story about a reclusive tycoon, the film superficially resembles “Citizen Kane,” but a more proper point of comparison in Welles’s oeuvre is “The Trial” (1962). Like the later Kafka adaptation, “Arkadin” employs a strategy of whirlwind movement, distorted camera angles, and geographical disorientation to keep the viewer constantly off-balance. The story hops constantly from country to country and the locations are so grandiose and baroque (castles, ruins, etc.), Welles’ s detective story takes on a science-fiction quality. The Martians may have landed at Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, but you can almost feel them hot on Guy’s tail as he races from Amsterdam to Hungary to Spain and points between and beyond.

Welles was famous for his fondness for magic, and here he functions as a specific type of magician, a mesmerist. He hypnotizes the audience by never letting them fully get their bearings; as soon as you figure out where you are, whoosh, it's off to the next exotic setting. Welles is the only guide through the maelstrom, and pity the poor viewer who places their unconditional trust in him. As an actor, his Rasputin-like Arkadin (complete with a ludicrously F for Fake beard) uses his magnetic stare and stentorian voice to bend everyone to his iron will. You will obey my every command!

Gregory Arkadin’s background is baffling enough, but the film “Mr. Arkadin” is surrounded by its own tale of intrigue. As happened with many of his projects, Welles was never able to complete the film on his own terms, and he re-worked his material long after the completion of principal photography. Welles re-wrote the script in the editing room and even dubbed voices (usually his own) over the characters’ lines to the point where the lip movements often don’t even remotely match the spoken dialogue (this can be distracting at first, but actually contributes to the disorienting experience of the film). Welles’s perfectionism tried the patience of many a producer, and in the case of “Arkadin,” producer Louis Dolivet (a shady character in his own right) eventually took the film out of the director's hands altogether.

Since then, the movie has been shown in multiple permutations, none of which can rightly be considered the “correct” one. There is no official “Director’s Cut” of “Mr. Arkadin,” there are only competing versions. This sprawling three-disc set from Criterion offers three of these incarnations. The Corinth version has been the one preferred by scholars since Peter Bogdanovich tracked it down in 1960. The “Confidential Report” version was edited by Dolivet and released by Warner Brothers in 1956 (with the title “Confidential Report” instead of “Mr. Arkadin”). And the new “Comprehensive Version,” which draws on the best of many different cuts was produced exclusively for this Criterion release. This selection might exhaust viewers, but hardly exhausts the extant possibilities; there are also two Spanish-language cuts, the “Mark Sharpe” cut, and the “Bob Harden” cut.

In most versions, the film begins with Van Stratten visiting Jacob Zook (Akim Tamaroff), a man who knew Arkadin from the old days which therefore makes him a potential target of Arkadin’s wrath. The film is then structured as a flashback with Van Stratten relating the story to Zook. The primary difference among the competing versions is the way in which this flashback structure is preserved.

I don’t have the time or space to detail all the differences between the versions. Instead, I will compare the opening ten minutes of the Corinth version and “Confidential Report” to give you a sense of how substantial some of the changes are. The basic structure is identical in both: after a few title cards, the film opens with a shot of an empty plane, then the opening credit sequence, Van Stratten’s visit to Zook’s apartment, and a flashback to Bracco’s death on the docks in Italy.

In the Corinth version, Guy walks up to Zook’s apartment under the opening credit sequence with the title music still playing. In “Confidential Report,” these shots don’t occur until after the opening credits have finished when, in voice-over narration, Van Stratten tells us that he is here to save Jacob Zook from Arkadin’s evil clutches. Then another switch. In the Corinth, the flashback to Bracco’s death includes Van Stratten’s narration (as he tells the story to Zook); in “Confidential Report” this extended sequence plays with no voice-over whatsoever.

The Corinth version returns repeatedly to Van Stratten’s conversation with Zook, thus structuring the film as a complicated series of flashbacks, much like “Citizen Kane.” “Confidential Report” never returns to Zook until the story catches up with him near the end, and the film proceeds in a more standard, linear fashion (one big, well-ordered flashback instead of multiple smaller ones). The opening voice-over in “Confidential Report” establishes Van Stratten as a more traditional hardboiled detective, while the Corinth version preserves the sense of mystery well into the first scene.

The Comprehensive Version, on the other hand, opens with a shot of a dead body before showing the empty plane, but now I'm even confusing myself, so we'll leave it there. The Comprehensive Version was assembled by critics Stefan Drössler and Claude Bertemes, with the optimistic intention of creating a cut closer closest to Welles’s original intention. Drössler and Bertemes base their version on painstaking research of Welles’s letters and interviews over the years, and they incorporate elements from virtually all versions of the film which makes their cut the longest at 105 minutes (Corinth clocks in at 99 min, “Confidential Report” at 98 min.) Both men admit that there is no real way to know what Welles would have done had he maintained control over the final cut, but they wanted to provide another perspective on this labyrinthine project. I am not certain that the addition of yet another version of “Mr. Arkadin” to the mix provides any clarity, but it provides Welles aficionados even more material to obsess and argue over.

There is much more to the “Arkadin” story, of course. The various cuts each contain scenes or extended shots not seen in the others (e.g. the longer masquerade sequence in “Confidential Report”), and the jumbled ordering of the scenes in each version only adds to the confusion and fascination that is “Mr. Arkadin.” I’ll leave you to discover most of these smaller differences on your own.

The film contains further delights I can only hint at here. A lively and eclectic score by Paul Misraki provides a worthy match for the frenetic visuals. Colorful cameos by Michael Redgrave, Mischa Auer and Katina Paxinou add to the depth and charm of this cinematic tour-de-force, and Tamiroff’s magnificent turn as the irascible Jacob Zook threatens to overshadow even Welles’s towering performance. If there is any weakness in the film, it is the mixed bag that comprises Robert Arden’s lead performance. He seems less assured than the rest of the cast, not a surprise since this was his first major film role. Van Stratten is a reed-thin character ill-qualified to serve as foil to Welles’s heavyweight champion, but Arden breathes a lean, feral intensity into the role. Guy Van Stratten isn’t the smartest, the toughest, or even the quickest, but he is determined to survive at all costs.

“Mr. Arkadin” should not be viewed as a minor Welles offering, but rather as a central component in his body of work. This Criterion goes a long way to assuring a critical re-evaluation of this endlessly fascinating movie.



Video:

All three versions are presented in their original 1.33:1 full-screen aspect ratios. “Confidential Report” offers the best picture quality of all the versions, not surprising since this was the version most closely controlled by Dolivet and used an original 35mm source print. The Corinth version has usually been seen in a version struck from a 16mm source print. However, Criterion’s transfer is mastered from three sources: a 35mm composite print, a 35mm duplicate negative, and a 16mm duplicate negative. The image in the Corinth version is a bit grainier and not quite as sharp, but is still very fine. The Comprehensive Version varies in quality since it draws on several versions of “Mr. Arkadin.” However, whenever possible Drössler and Bertemes used the superior “Confidential Report” picture.

Audio:

The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. The sound quality varies a bit, and the music can sound tinny at times, but overall, it's a solid effort. Optional English subtitles support the audio which is (mostly) in English.

Extras:

Criterion has chosen to spread out the special features on all three discs.

DISC ONE: THE CORINTH VERSION

The Corinth version is the only one accompanied by a commentary track, this one by Jonathan Rosenbaum and James Naremore, two of my favorite film critics. Each has written extensively on Welles, and they complement each other well on this incisive and sophisticated commentary.

“The Lives of Harry Lime” was a radio show that ran from 1951-1952, written and acted by Orson Welles who reprises his famous role from Carol Reed’s “The Third Man” (1949). Three episodes of the show are included here: “Man of Mystery” (April 11, 1952), “Murder on the Riviera” (May 23, 1952), and “Blackmail is a Nasty Word” (June 13, 1952). These episodes are a reminder that Welles made his fame first in radio, and the episodes also include several plot elements that Welles later deployed in “Mr. Arkadin.”

“Reviving Harry Lime” is a short documentary (21 min.) featuring critic Simon Callow who discusses Harry Alan Towers, the man behind the radio series.

DISC TWO: “CONFIDENTIAL REPORT”

“Men of Mystery” is a January 2005 video interview (25 min.) with Simon Callow. He discusses several of the personalities involved in the making of “Mr. Arkadin” including Michael Redgrave and producer Louis Dolivet (who comes with his own noir-style criminal background). A major chunk of this featurette revolves around audio interview material with Robert Arden.

DISC THREE: THE COMPREHENSIVE VERSION

“On the Comprehensive Version” is yet another video interview (20 min.) in which Stefan Drössler and Claude Bertemes discuss the guiding principles they used to compile the Comprehensive Version as well as the limitations in their approach. Peter Bogdanovich also shows up to remind us once again that he was really, really good friends with Orson Welles (at least for a while). Bogdanovich was integral in getting the Corinth version distributed, so his approval for the Comprehensive Version carries some weight.

Disc Three also includes several outtakes and rushes (approx. 30 min. total) which are real gems for the Welles fan and/or film historian. Of particular interest is the footage of Welles acting and directing. Watching Welles direct his actors’ every movement and inflection is a real blast, though perhaps traumatic for devotees of the Method.

Finally, there are two alternate scenes with Spanish actresses playing two key supporting roles. Welles filmed these to satisfy his Spanish financiers, and these scenes allow viewers to see pieces of the Spanish versions of “Mr. Arkadin” because, heck, you can never have too many Arkadins!

THE BOOK

Just in case the three discs aren’t enough, this Criterion set also includes a copy of the novel “Mr. Arkadin.” The book is printed under Welles’s name, but its true authorship remains in doubt. Welles once claimed he never had anything to do with an “Arkadin” novel, but he may been teasing.

A separate insert booklet features several critical essays, and helps explain the differences among the multiple versions of the film.

Film Value:

Each of the versions included here will have its proponents, and it is important to realize that there is no definitive Director’s Cut, and there never will be. What we can say for certain is that more than ten years after this splendid, ambitious release, “Mr. Arkadin” is crying out for a Blu-ray upgrade. Just in case Criterion is listening.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Stranger Than Paradise


STRANGER THAN PARADISE (Jarmusch, 1984)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Apr 9, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

When I first watched writer/director Jim Jarmusch’s breakthrough hit, “Stranger Than Paradise” (1984), many years after its original release, my first thought was “So that’s all?” I wasn't expressing disappointment. Rather, I was amazed that such a Great Film (caps intentional) could be made from so little raw material. Three characters, a handful of no-budget locations, and only the most tenuous of narrative threads, so diffuse it could barely be considered the force that propelled the film. No flashy camera tricks either. The entire movie is built on a deceptively simple visual rhythm: a series of long unedited takes interrupted by black leader; no post-production editing (aside from the black leader inserts between the long takes), and only minimal camera movement save for a few long tracking shots. The characters don't do a damned thing except sit around the apartment, watch TV, bitch, and play cards. Critic Pauline Kael dismissed them as “dead end kids.”

But “Stranger than Paradise” was hardly a dead-end film. It rocketed Jarmusch to instant fame (though not big financial success) and became one of the defining touchstones of '80s American independent cinema. Arriving on the heels of the first great wave of Hollywood mega-blockbusters, it proved a rallying point for audiences and critics desperate for something without aliens, Nazis, and big explosions. When Geoff Andrew wrote his book on American independent film in 1998, he titled it quite simply, “Stranger than Paradise.”

The film is separated into three sections or episodes - you can’t really call them acts. “The New World” begins with the arrival of Eva (Eszter Balint) in New York, fresh from Hungary. She is supposed to spend some time with her Hungarian cousin Willie (the laconic John Lurie, saxophonist and co-founder of the Lounge Lizards) before moving to stay with family in Cleveland. Willie aggressively denies his Hungarian heritage and therefore has little interest in his cousin from the old world. That’s OK, Eva doesn’t have much interest in him either. Willie’s friend Eddie (Richard Edson, the original drummer for Sonic Youth) plays the third wheel, dropping in from time to time like an '80s Ed Norton just to poke around and see what’s happening. Of course, nothing is ever happening. He’s the most gregarious of the three slackers, eager to buoy everyone’s spirits. When Eva mentions she is going to Cleveland, he offers his wisdom, “Cleveland, it’s a beautiful city. It’s got a big, beautiful lake. You’ll love it there.” Eva: “Have you been there?” Eddie: “No.”

“One Year Later” sees the two boys, still just hanging out in New York, steeped in hot water over a poker game gone wrong, prompting them to flee the big city to visit Eva in Cleveland. She's getting her taste of the American dream, working at the world's most desolate hot dog joint. Life in Cleveland isn’t much different for the mismatched group. They hang around at home, watch TV, bitch, and play cards. Except this time Eva and Willie’s very Hungarian Aunt Lotte wins every hand, declaring each time: “I am de vinner.” (Note: this is the best-delivered line in the history of cinema, and Aunt Lottie is the greatest supporting character ever. This is proven fact, you can look it up.) Even the less-than-philosophical Eddie is moved to comment on the generic similarity of their new home: “You know it’s funny. You come some place new and everything looks just the same.”

In “Paradise”, the final episode, the intrepid trio trundles down to Florida (Eddie: “Florida? It’s beautiful down there.” Willie: “You ever been there?” Eddie: “No.”) to see the gleaming white beaches and get rich betting on the horses. Here the ennui that glues these strangers together begins to lose its magnetic power, though Jarmusch saves a hell of a punch line for the end when, by sheer luck, Eva discovers the true American dream on a deserted beach road. If the film has any message, it’s this: The Puritan work ethic is a total mug's game.

The performances by the three leads are all magnificent, a testament not only to their abilities but to Jarmusch’s fondness for his actors. The long takes, so beautifully orchestrated by cinematographer Tom DiCillo, grant everyone time and space they need to let their personalities shine through. Lurie and Balint get plenty of much deserved credit, but Richard Edson lights up the screen whenever he's in frame. His range of bemused expressions is seemingly endless, and one of the film’s most reliable sources of laughs.

“Stranger Than Paradise” has plenty of laughs. It's one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen, though I don’t recall laughing out loud on a first viewing. Jarmusch and his cast create a world that invites you to return again and again, to discover a previously unseen pleasures or even just to revisit some of your favorite people and places. Now that I know Eva so well, I can’t stop from breaking up every time she cranks up Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s “I Put A Spell On You” and takes a long, slow walk down the oddly deserted streets of the Big Apple. And Willie and Eva’s conversation about American TV dinners gets funnier every time I see it, or even just think about it. Like right now.

Is that all there is? You bet, and it’s more than enough.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The movie (or at least the first part) was literally shot on leftover film stock, and has always been defined by its grubby, grainy, low-budget look. This high-def transfer preserves that quality while providing a sharper image than previous SD releases, with an uptick in the black-and-white contrast as well. It looks... like it should look.

Audio:
The LPCM mono track provides clear dialogue and a solid treatment of the music, including John Lurie's understated and marvelous score. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Extras:
Criterion has imported all of the extras from their previous 2-disc DVD release, though now all included on a single Blu-ray.

Criterion has provided one addition, however, now including the 1996 commentary track by Jim Jarmusch and Richard Edson, originally recorded for the laserdisc release. It's insightful and funny and eccentric, just like you'd expect.

The other features are all from the previous SD release.

The major extra on the disc is a whole extra film, Jarmusch's first feature “Permanent Vacation” (1980). Jarmusch shot “Vacation” while he was a student NYU, but didn't graduate because his thesis assignment was to make a short, not a feature. He appears to have done well despite the academic snafu. “Permanent Vacation” is essentially a character study, or rather a character observation, of Allie Parker, an aimless dreamer and drifter who bears a striking resemblance to its lead actor, Chris Parker, then a friend of Jarmusch’s. Allie has tuned in and dropped out, with an emphasis on the dropped out part, and spends most of his time wandering around the city, ever so vaguely searching for some meaning in life, and also digging on Charlie Parker (no relation). “Permanent Vacation” is not a masterpiece by any means, and has all the soft edges and awkward spots of a debut film, but it’s still mesmerizing in its own monotonous way. Tom DiCillo also filmed this one.

Kino ’84: Jim Jarmusch” is a 1984 documentary (41 min.) shot by Martina Müller for German TV. The documentary consists mostly of clips from Jarmusch’s first two films, and interviews with him and the cast and crew members. I enjoyed this one quite a bit. Jarmusch has always looked and sounded the same. It's kind of creepy, actually.

“Some Days in January” (1984) is a short (14 min.) silent Super-8 film shot by Tom Jarmusch, showing some on-the-set footage of the cast and crew at work.

The insert booklet reprints the content from the prior booklet. It features Jarmusch’s “Some Notes on Stranger than Paradise,” released with the press kit for the film in 1984. It influenced quite a few of the film’s initial reviews. The booklet also includes essays on “Stranger” by Geoff Andrew and J. Hoberman, and one on “Permanent Vacation” by Luc Sante.

Film Value:
Not everyone loved “Stranger than Paradise” when it came out. One rather hostile French critic observed that Jarmusch was 33 years old at the time, the same age when Jesus was crucified, and wished fondly for the safe fate to befall the filmmaker.

However, the film was a smash hit in its New York engagement (though hardly anywhere else) and became a critical darling in short order. Jarmusch’s career was launched, and he found himself at Cannes with his next film, “Down By Law” (1986). Jarmusch almost instantly became one of the defining figures of American independent film, and still holds a similar revered status 35 years later.

“Stranger Than Paradise” is achingly funny, incisively bittersweet, and truly one of the great American films of the past quarter century. This Blu-ray re-release only adds one extra (the 1996 commentary) to the previous SD release, but the high-def transfer is certainly a major selling point for anyone considering a double dip.

Police Story


POLICE STORY/POLICE STORY 2 (Chan, 1985 and 1988)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Apr 30, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

Starting as a Bruce Lee imitator in the early '70s, then briefly flirting with Hollywood, Jackie Chan entered the 1980s looking to forge his own distinct on-screen identity in Hong Kong cinema. “Police Story” (1985) wasn't the first box office success for the prolific actor and director, but it was perhaps the first time the character that fans still think of today as the definitive Jackie Chan fully crystallized.

It was a difficult balancing act that took time to perfect because Chan was trying to fuse two disparate elements into a convincing and compelling persona. On the one hand, Chan's signature character is supernaturally graceful (simply directing traffic in “Police Story 2” he performs like a ballet dancer) and not at all shy about flaunting his mad skills. On the other hand, he's also a working class Joe just like his target audience, and a serial schmuck who can win any fight, but lose at just about anything else in life. He'll bob and weave and kick his way to victory through a gamut of a dozen pipe-wielding hoods, then take a birthday cake in the face, tossed by a girlfriend who is absolutely sick of his bullshit.

This seemingly paradoxical creation connected with fans throughout the world (though box office success in America would prove elusive for a while) and justifies the frequent comparisons made between Chan and silent comedy stars Buster Kearon and, especially, Harold Lloyd. Lloyd's Glasses character could sell himself as a klutz while also dancing deftly through obstacle sources, and as a social outcast who was still inevitably going to win the day and, of course, the girl. Chan upped the action and downplayed the romance, but his connection to Lloyd is undeniable, and was directly acknowledged when Chan himself dangled high above ground from a giant clock face in “Project A” (1983), sixty years after Lloyd rewrote film history by doing the same in “Safety Last!” (1923)

In “Police Story,” Chan plays Ka-kui, a rank-and-file Hong Kong police officer assigned to protect Salina Fong (Brigitte Lin), a secretary to and now key witness against crime lord Chu Tao (Chor Yuen). It's a thankless job (it only pays an extra $32 a day!) but Ka-kui has himself to blame. Chu Tao is only on trial because Ka-kui spearheaded a daring, reckless police sting targeting Chu Tao that also, by happy coincidence, wound up destroying an entire shanty town and also led to all of the big boss's henchmen being flung headfirst out of a bus window. Ka-kui has his own style, you see.

Chan directed and also co-wrote (with Edward Tang) “Police Story” and he relies heavily on comic relief to remind viewers that Ka-kui is no superhero, no matter how brilliantly he fights. Much of the comedy revolves around a series of ongoing misunderstanding with his girlfriend May (Maggie Cheung, two years removed from her beauty pageant days, and just at the start of a career that would make her one of the great international art-house stars of her generation.) Some of these scenes are tedious, others quite charming, with Cheung proving her own moxie in a few stunt scenes, including one where Ka-kui plucks her right off a moving moped and drops her on the street. An accident, of course.

Chan's characters make ingenious use of their environment, transforming innocuous objects into game-changing weapons or, at times, comic fodder. A snatched umbrella proves the key to Chan's jaw-dropping, physics-defying pursuit of an escaping bus. One of the best comedy sequences sees Chan gliding around the police station in a wheeled office chair, answering every phone and getting completely tangled up in the cords, a bit in which he once again finds a way to appear both inept and in total control of an elaborately choreographed routine.

“Police Story” climaxes with one of the great set-pieces in action film history, as Ka-kui takes down the entire crime gang one-by-one and, in the process, obliterates a helpless shopping mall. You've never seen so much shattered glass, the flying shards lovingly rendered in slow-motion. The piece de resistance is Chan's spiral down a giant pole covered in Christmas lights, a stunt so nice they play it thrice, making the canny judgment that viewers couldn't care less about have any so-called spell broken as long they get to see this impossible feat yet again. If you're curious, yes, Chan did burn himself badly in the process. Which only makes it that much cooler in Jackie Chan's universe.

Second-degree burns didn't keep Chan and Ka-kui from returning in “Police Story 2” (1988) with the same chief bad guy, now with a few different assistants. Cheung also returns as May, and gets some better comedy bits, including a hilarious sequence where she hectors poor Ka-kui all the way into the men's locker room at the police station, her righteous fury preventing her from noticing the men in various states of undress cowering to hide their embarrassment.

The sequel delivers most of the same goods, and if it doesn't end with anything quite as brilliant as the mall demolition from the original, viewers are treated to the best one-on-one fight in the series, when Chan squares off against Benny Lai, playing a mute henchman who hurls firecrackers in between kicks. Lai, like most of the supporting actors in the film, was a member of the Jackie Chan Stunt Team, the daredevil unit that has gone through multiple generations now, crucial players in the creation of one of the greatest movie stars of the modern era.


Video:
Both films are presented in their original 2.35:1 aspect ratios. From the Criterion booklet: “These new 4K digital restorations were undertaken by Fortune Star Media Limited at L'Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, Italy. New digital transfers were created from the 35 mm original camera negatives on an ARRISCAN film scanner.”

The high-def transfers present a strong, grainy image, no doubt much better than most viewers were used to on a series of low-end home releases over the years. Both of these films were released several years ago on Blu-ray by Shout Factory, and I don't have that set to compare this to. I can't imagine any fans being disappointed by the quality offered by Criterion, though.

Audio:
Both films are presented in lossless mono audio mixes. The sound design isn't exactly complex or crucial here, and the cheesy '80s score is just as cheesy with a souped-up mix. But you get to hear Jackie Chan sing the theme song, so you might as well hear it the right way. Optional English subtitles support the Cantonese audio.

Extras:
“Police Story” and “Police Story 2” are housed on separate Blu-rays in this 2-disc Criterion set, with extras included on each of the discs.

Disc One's supplements begin with “Jackie Chan: My Stunts” (64 min.), a documentary showing Chan on set putting together some of his elaborate stunts, along with clips from his earlier movies. The English narration is bland and irritating, but otherwise this feature gives viewers a glimpse of the exhaustive amount of work required to stage even a short fight scene.

We also get an interview with director Edgar Wright (2019, 13 min.) in which he mostly name-drops the various Chan films he loves the most. This supplement is accompanied by an episode of “Talkhouse Podcast” (36 min.) from Oct 12, 2017, a conversation between Wright and Chan. I do my best to be thorough when reviewing these releases, but I draw the line at listening to a podcast. I'm sure it's wonderful.

In “Becoming Jackie” (16 min.), author and programmer Grady Hendrix traces Jackie Chan's on-screen history, focusing on his development of the modern film persona that has made him a global superstar.

The disc also includes an undated Jackie Chan interview (19 min.) in which he talks about how he begins by planning the fights, then develops the script around them – another similarity to Harold Lloyd, whose writing team usually built from the gag-level up. We also get a short excerpt from a 2017 Hong Kong TV show (12 min.) in which Jackie Chan has a tearful reunion with the members of the Jackie Chan Stunt Team, the old-school originals as well as younger ones- Chan sings the “Police Story” theme song along with his colleagues. An original theatrical Trailer and the Janus re-release trailer round out the offerings on Disc One.

Disc Two offers the Hong Kong Release Version of “Police Story 2” which was whittled down from 122 minutes (the main release on this disc) to 105 minutes. It's in high-def, but the transfer isn't as polished as the main feature.

Grady Hendrix returns for another discussion (21 min.), this time focusing on how Chan “reinvented” action in the '80s, his emphasis on “showing his work” to viewers, and even the subtle wire work employed in his films.

Criterion has also included an episode of “Son Of The Incredibly Strange Film Show” (41 min.), a BBC series hosted by Jonathan Ross, which goes on location to Hong Kong to talk with Jackie Chan and Maggie Cheung, and to run clips from Chan's films.

We also get an undated interview with Benny Lai (15 min.), who gets to play a great villain in “Police Story 2” along with a short Stunt Reel (5 min.) that shows some highlights and bloopers from Chan's films.

The collection wraps up with a Trailer (4 min.) and a short feature (5 min.) about the Peking Opera. The footage is from a 1964 French TV show, so no Jackie Chan, but it shows clips of the exhaustive training he would have gone through.

The fold-out insert booklet includes a fantastic essay by Nick Pinkerton. Really, it's great. I could have just pointed you to this instead of writing a review, but I'm supposed to do some work.

Final Thoughts:
Whether or not “Police Story” and “Police Story 2” are Jackie Chan's best films (Chan fans have, to say the least, strong opinions about their favorites), Ka-kui is undoubtedly one of his best-known and best-loved characters, and a sterling example of the persona he perfected by the end of the 1980s. Criterion has provided both films strong high-def transfers, and a wide array of supporting supplements. An if this set sells well, maybe we'll get some more Jackie Chan films in the Collection.

Monday, March 25, 2019

The Magic Flute


THE MAGIC FLUTE (Bergman, 1975)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Mar 12, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

The plot of Mozart's “The Magic Flute” never really made much sense. Prince Tamino's first accomplishment is to faint while fighting a dragon. This leads the Queen of the Night and her assistants to identify him as just the man to rescue the Queen's kidnapped daughter, Pamina. They probably just think Tamino's hot, which is fair enough. The Queen gives the prince a magic flute that will help him in his quest, but it doesn't really do much, and anyway, Tamino discovers that the kidnapper, Sorastro, isn't such a bad guy after all. A big battle brews at the end, but the bad guys just suddenly disappear, and everyone else lives happily ever after. Or maybe not, I'm not entirely sure. The End.

None of this has prevented millions from falling in love with one of the most-performed operas of all time, with Swedish director Ingmar Bergman proudly numbering himself among its biggest fans. Bergman actually tried to stage the opera in his childhood puppet theater, but wouldn't get to fulfill his dream until the much-ballyhooed 1975 release of his film adaptation.

After a few bucolic outdoor shots, Bergman moves into the theater (a recreation of the Drottningholm Theater, built in the 18th century in Stockholm) and lingers on the faces of the audience members as they listen to the overture. Though he focuses on a smiling little girl, Bergman shows close-ups of a diverse collection of opera enthusiasts of many ages and races, suggesting his eagerness to share his love of this opera with the whole world. To be honest, I found this extended montage of face it a bit on the interminable side, but it's certainly heartfelt.

Though Bergman made some substantive changes to the material (Sarastro is now Pamina's father, which casts the Queen of the Night as an embittered ex-wife), he and cinematographer Sven Nykvist present a fairly straightforward staged opera, though with a few playful looks backstage, including the Queen of the Night (Birgit Nordin) taking a smoke break at intermission. The action moves briskly as Bergman delights in underscoring the grand artifice of the big show, with unconvincing (yet charming) costumed creatures cavorting in the background and the actual text of the lyrics at times draped above the actors.

As Prince Tamino and Princess Pamina, Josef Kostlinger and Irma Urrila are little more than a blandly virtuous prince and a princess in need of rescuing, but they were cast to sing which they do pretty darn well. Hakan Hagegard steals all his scenes as the comic-relief chatterbox Papageno, whose function has always been to steal pretty much every staging of “The Magic Flute” so Bergman's just observing tradition here. Nordin shreds it as the Queen of the Night. Is “shreds it” standard opera criticism? Sorry, I am but a novice.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The film was digitally restored in 2017 by the Swedish Film Institute. Criterion originally released this on DVD in 2000 (it retains Spine Number 71) with a transfer many considered subpar by the company's high standards. This high-def restored transfer showcases warm colors and a bright overall look. The image generally looks a bit soft, or at least not as sharp as the best Criterion 1080p transfers, but it's still a strong effort. I don't own the old DVD as a comparison point, but from everything I've read and stills I've seen online, this looks like a substantial upgrade.

Audio:
The music for the film was prerecorded with Eric Ericson as orchestral director, and the singers mimed to their lines for the film. The lossless stereo mix captures the score quite robustly with no dropoff or any evident weaknesses at all. Optional English subtitles support the Swedish audio.

Extras:
The original Criterion DVD release was bare bones. This Blu-ray upgrade isn't exactly packed with extras, but offers a few interesting supplements.

In a new interview (2018, 18 min.), critic Peter Cowie discusses the film's production history and provides some analysis of the unique Bergman touches added to Mozart's opera.

The disc also includes an interview with Bergman (29 min.), conducted by Sigvard Hammar, which originally aired on Dec 27, 1974, in tandem with the film's holiday release. Bergman casts himself as a populist, making an opera that the whole family can enjoy.

“Tystnad! Tagning! Trollflojten!” (1975, 65 min.) is a behind-the-scenes documentary which originally aired on Swedish TV on Jan 6, 1975. I found it a bit dull and rambling, to be honest, but fans might enjoy some of the looks at the film's crew hard at work.

The slim fold-out booklet includes an essay by author Alexander Chee.

Final Thoughts:
Bergman's “The Magic Flute” is often described as one of the best filmed operas, a judgment I'm not qualified to assess. It's certainly a fun ride, a much more sprightly and pleasant film than some viewers might expect from the stern Swede, but then again he directed his fair share of comedies. Like “The Seventh Seal.” Seriously, that's a damn funny movie – Gunnar Bjornstrand's sarcastic squire cracks me up every time.