Wednesday, January 16, 2019

4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days

4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, AND 2 DAYS (Mungiu, 2007)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date January 22, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

In just his second feature film, Romanian director Cristian Mungiu wasn't shy about tackling a challenge.

Set in 1987 at the tail end of the Ceausescu dictatorship in Romania, “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days” (2007) concerns a young woman seeking an abortion in an authoritarian state that has all but outlawed the procedure. As if the basic subject wasn't thorny enough, writer/director Mungiu also chose to make the young woman rather difficult to like, or at least difficult to fully sympathize with. Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) is passive, forgetful, flighty, and relies almost entirely on her friend Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) to negotiate all of the details of a complex (and illegal) deal. Safe in the security of being the “unreliable one” in the relationship, Gabi exploits Otilia's courage and conscientiousness, with harrowing repercussions for both of them.

It's understandable then that Mungiu tells the story from Otilia's perspective. It's an inspired decision, as is the casting of Marinca who, making her film debut, delivers one of the best performances of recent years. Bristling with steely pragmatism, Otilia solves each new problem that comes up (even finding a hotel room is absurdly complicated), and plunges ahead when she feels vulnerable, intimidated, and even betrayed by Gabita. Though clearly under great stress, she holds herself together even when threatened by Dr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), the monstrous abortionist who demands a steep price for his services.

Mungiu and cinematographer Oleg Mutu certainly understand the power of framing. Once “Doctor” Bebe, having terrorized the women before performing the procedure on Gabi, finally leaves the seedy hotel room, the camera remains fixed solely on Otilia as she sits and tries to recover. In one of the film's several long takes, she speaks to the off-screen Gabi, trying to figure out why her friend made so many terrible decisions in this whole process and put them both in peril. Leaving Gabi's feeble responses off-screen vividly underscores the dynamic between the two women and makes Otilia seem all the more heroic when she responds not by lashing out, but by continuing to support her vulnerable friend. Otilia is the stronger one, and Gabi needs that strength. So Otilia gives it.

The film delivers another tour-de-force shot when Otilia reluctantly visits her boyfriend's family for a birthday party. In a single shot running over seven minutes, an understandably frazzled Otilia looks entirely alone at thecrowded dinner table, the tension ratcheting up with each passing second and soaring to near unbearable levels when we hear a phone ringing off-screen. It might be the still-recuperating Gabi calling for help, but Otilia cannot move to answer it and, perhaps at that particular moment, doesn't really want to.

Mungiu paints a convincing portrait of a corrupt surveillance state where the black market is not only an open secret, but operates more efficiently than the official bureaucracy. You can buy prohibited American cigarettes from virtually anyone, but you can't check into or leave even a no-star hotel without having your ID scrutinized. Trust is in short supply in Ceausescu's Romania, which makes Gabi all the luckier to have a true-blue friend like Otilia.

“4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days” hit the festival circuit just after fellow Romanian director Cristi Puiu's bleak-comedy “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” (2005) wowed global audiences, and it won the Palme d'Or at the 2007 Cannes Festival. Its success prompted a full-blown critical frenzy over the emergence of the so-called Romanian New Wave. The very existence of a “new wave” was debated from the instant it was first dubbed – do a handful of directors constitute a wave and should they be lumped together simply because they're all from the same country and of roughly the same age? 

A little more than a decade later, all we can say for sure it that Romania has produced more than its share of great films, and that Mungiu was no flash-in-the-pan, having directed several well-regarded movies since, most recently “Graduation”, also part of the Criterion Collection. None of them have been quite as nerve-racking as "4 Months..." but it's difficult to think of any film released since then that could clear such a high bar.

The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The image detail is sharp, and the rather drab color palette is faithfully rendered. This isn't a film that's meant to look beautiful, but this 1080p transfer is strong.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track isn't called on to do much. There's almost no music, and the sound design is spartan, but the audio is crisp and distortion-free. Optional English subtitles support the Romanian audio.

Criterion has included an array of extras with this Blu-ray release.

First up is a 2016 interview with Mungiu (37 min.) in which he provides more historical context about late-'80s Romania and talks about the challenges and advantages of using many long takes, especially knowing there will be minimal post-production editing.

In another 2016 interview (24 min.), film critic Jay Weissberg talks both about the film and the broader Romanian New Wave movement.

Criterion has also included the entire press conference (44 min.) for the film from the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. The panel includes Mungiu and most of the cast.

We also get a 2007 documentary titled “The Romanian Tour.” The feature explains that there are few film theaters in Romania, so a tour was arranged for the film to be shown in various non-traditional venues. This documentary showcases both the people who conducted the tour (most of whom are German) as well as feedback from Romanian audience members, many of whom were seeing their first film in a theater in many years.

The disc also includes three Alternate/Deleted Scenes, running 13 minutes total, as well as a Theatrical Trailer (2 min.)

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

Final Thoughts:
I can't believe it's been more than ten years since “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days” was the talk of the festival circuit. I actually have a flashbulb memory of the first time I watched this remarkable movie. Criterion has provided a strong transfer and a solid collection of extra to supplement their release of one of the landmark films of the 21st century.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

24 Frames

24 FRAMES (Kiarostami, 2017)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Jan 8, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

As the late, way-beyond-great Abbas Kiarostami's final film, “24 Frames” (2017) can't help but stir up conflicting feelings. The posthumous release of the Iranian master's last feature partially fills the void left by his 2016 death from cancer, but however beautiful the movie is, it is also, as a title card shown in the film's final segment reminds us, the end.

“24 Frames” was a multi-year labor of love for Kiarostami, who was still editing the project on a laptop from his hospital bed. The film's structuring conceit is a deceptively simple one. A still image shows only a frozen split-second of time, but this only invites the viewer to speculate about the image. Where did it come from, and what happened next? Working with visual-effects artist Ali Kamali, Kiarostami begins with 24 still pictures and constructs a four-and-half minute film around each, imagining the events immediately preceding and/or following the still scene.

The film counts out the frames from 1 to 24. In Frame 1, Peter Breughel's famous 1565 painting, “Hunters in the Snow,” is augmented by animated smoke puffing from tiny village chimneys and a curious dog circling the party. The remaining 23 frames are all photographs taken by Kiarostami, including many largely-unpopulated landscapes with snowy woods and beach scenes particular favorites. In each short film, the still scene slowly comes to life, often due to the presence of digitally-added wildlife, crows streaking across the sky or cows tramping through the snow. Aside from Breughel's eponymous hunters, we see little sign of people until the halfway mark.

Sound design plays a major role as well. In Frame 21,probably my favorite of the shorts, we look through a thick window-shade at the silhouette of a tree listing in the wind. Loud off-screen footsteps indicate activity in the room, and then the shade is pulled up to reveal the nature landscape in its full glory. Classical music swells to create a surprisingly cathartic moment.

It's one of several shorts which initially requires viewers to guess what they're watching, details only gradually being fully revealed. Some of the shorts provide just the sketch of a narrative – a seagull may be standing vigil over a dead comrade or just taking a break while foraging. But most invite audiences simply to look and listen, sometimes at broad vistas (a roiling ocean of breaking waves) and sometimes through restricted viewpoints, such as Frame 14, an Edward Hopper-like image (I'm thinking “Rooms By The Sea” here) in which we peer out of a dingy room through a window at a partially-viewed event transpiring on the street.

Each short induces the quiet contemplation that fans have come to cherish in Kiarostami's work, and perhaps bring to mind Kiarostami's frequent claim that he doesn't mind one bit if viewers fall asleep during his movies. The shorts also amplify the continuing focus on the act of looking itself that became ever more prominent in the director's later work, such as “Shirin” (2008) in which the camera fixes on a series of women's faces as they watch a movie off-screen.

While I found watching “Shirin” an act of unbridled joy, “24 Frames,” while every bit as riveting, leaves me more uneasy. In “Shirin” the pleasure is in looking at real faces, and speculating about the thoughts and feelings playing out in their expressions in real time. “24 Frames” is, by contrast, largely an animated film, an act of manipulation rather than a record of reality. The final result is beautiful, hypnotic, and sometimes deeply moving, yet I can't help but feel a sense of loss, not just for Kiarostami, but for the power of the photographic image itself, the source of much of cinema's allure for over a century. I can't fully articulate the discomfort about this save to say, “But I don't wanna watch cartoons! I want real!” In the hands of a visionary like Kiarostami, these animation tools can produce something glorious, but there aren't any more Abbas Kiarostamis.

Instead of looking at “24 Frames” as a record of the transition of a medium, perhaps it's best to view the film as an ebullient showcase fora multifaceted artist. Kiarostami is best known by global audiences as a feature-film director, but he was also a graphic artist, a photographer, an illustrator of children's books, and a poet. “24 Frames” synthesizes these media and influences into a hybrid project like few others, and a final film that shows an accomplished artist who reached his peak several decades ago and never took so much as a single step down from the heights.

Is it too simplistic to say that while watching “24 Frames” I laughed and I cried? Well, I did. For a whole host of reasons. A week later, I haven't stopped thinking about it which is pretty much the effect most Kiarostami films have had on me. 

The film is presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Considering that the movie consists largely of video animation, it's a little difficult to assess the video quality. It's sharp and has a smooth, glossy look which is probably true to the source.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track consists mostly of music and sound effects like footsteps, the flapping of bird wings, cows mooing, etc. It all sounds clear and provides a sense of dimension and atmosphere.

Criterion has only included a few extras with this Blu-ray release, but they're all of interest.

In a short interview (8 min.), Ahmad Kiarostami, son of the late director, speaks about his role in shaping the final cut of the film. Abbas Kiarostami worked on many different “frames” (short films) for the project, but always planned to include just 24 in the film. When the director passed away, there were still 30 shorts being considered for inclusion. Ahmad wound up cutting out all the paintings except for the Breughel that starts the film.

In a short discussion (10 min.) film scholar Jamsheed Akrami and film critic Godfrey Cheshire discuss the film and the various influences from Kiarostami's career that helped to shape it.

We also get a short documentary (14 min.) by Kiarostami collaborator Salma Monshizadeh which shows Kiarostami at work on the project. Of particular interest are the scenes where we see the director working on shorts not included in the film, including his take on paintings like Millet's “The Gleaners” and Wyeth's “Christina's World.” I don't know if edited versions of these segments still exist, but it sure would be nice to see them as extras one day.

The slim fold-out insert booklet includes an exceptional essay by film critic Bilge Ebiri. Mr. Ebiri also recently took to Twitter to share the thoughts of another devoted fan of the film.

Final Thoughts:
Abbas Kiarostami was still innovating fifty years into his career. “24 Frames” is a remarkable final film from one of the world's greatest modern artists.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

A Story From Chikamatsu

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Nov 13, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

Released just two years before Kenji Mizoguchi's death from leukemia at age 58, “A Story From Chikamatsu” (1954) shows the Japanese master continuing to experiment with form more than thirty years after his career began during the silent era.

The film adapts an 18th century play, but actually takes its name from the author, the celebrated playwright Monzaemon Chikamatsu who specialized in “double-suicide” stories, tragedies about doomed lovers. The doomed lovers here are Osan (Kyoko Kagawa), the much younger wife of a wealthy and cruel scroll merchant (Eitaro Shindo), and one of the merchant's apprentices, Mohei (Kazuo Hasegawa). An act of kindness by Mohei to help his master's wife out of a financial bind results in the two of them being forced to flee as fugitives. The penalty for adultery (a mere accusation will suffice) is a brutal one in this rigid law-and-order society, as one might glean from the film's alternate title in some countries, “The Crucified Lovers.”

In adapting Chikamatsu's play, Mizoguchi also incorporated some of the traditions of the bunraku theater (a form of puppet theater) in which the playwright often worked. Though there is a scene where Mohei cradles Osan at his side to lift her over a stretch of muddy water, it would be an exaggeration to say Mizoguchi directs his actors just like puppets. However, in many scenes, the actors' movements are tightly controlled, with a relatively distant camera situating them against the backdrop of the stage.

The shooting style doesn't really mark a major departure for Mizoguchi, always known for his long takes and lack of close-ups, but the film's sound design, borrowing heavily from theater, is more radical. Wooden clappers pound out an intense rhythm, sometimes banging loudly enough to jar the listener. Metallic clangs and insistent drums fill out the heavy percussion, accompanied by the more familiar plucked strings of the shamisen. The score (credited to Fumio Hayasaka, Tamezo Mochizuki, and Enjiro Toyosawa) draws enough attention to itself to be as prominent a feature as the narrative or the actors themselves. I'll leave it to real experts to determine exactly to what degree the music replicates the traditions of bunraku theater.

Mizoguchi combines these creative elements to depict a merciless society ruled by a disciplinarian ethos, where “justice” is determined exclusively by power and class. The slightest infraction is deemed punishable by death, and the lower-caste victims have internalized their oppression so much that they deem it a matter of honor to sacrifice themselves for the good of the rulers. In one of the most poignant scenes, Mohei's father expresses his deep contempt for his son's violation of the societal code, though he is not without compassion. The story revolves around a series of abuses and betrayals, but empathy and love transform the inevitable tragedy into a personal triumph of sorts, the only kind of victory the players can earn in a rigged game. At least, in the end, they will achieve the very thing every force in society conspired against: they will be together. 

The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. This “new 4K digital restoration” looks very sharp throughout with strong contrast in the black-and-white image. I feel like I wind up saying more or less the same thing with every Criterion high-def presentation of black-and-white films, but there's not much else to say. It looks great, with very little visible damage in this 60-year-old film.

The LPCM mono audio mix is sharp and seems to do a fine job of presenting the distinct sound mix of this film, capturing all of those percussive beats at their sharpest. Optional English subtitles support the Japanese audio.

The extras here are fairly slim for a Criterion release.

First up is a new interview (11 min.) with actress Kyoko Kasawa. Kasawa had already played the noble, sacrificing sister Anju in Mizoguchi's magnificent “Sansho TheBailiff” (and also appeared in Ozu's equally magnificent “Tokyo Story”) but she describes “Chikamatsu” as the first film in which she really learned the craft of acting.

We also get a lengthy video essay (2018, 41 min.) by film scholar Dudley Andrew, who focuses on the ways in which “Chikamatsu” is influenced by bunraku theater, though he also touches on a variety of other subjects.

The slim fold-out insert booklet features an essay by film critic Haden Guest.

Final Thoughts:
“A Story From Chikamatsu” is the ninth Mizoguchi film in the Criterion/Eclipse collection. It may not have as high a profile as titles like “Sansho the Bailiff” or “Ugestu” but it's a late-career gem from one of the greatest directors. The extras are on the slim side, but still engaging, and the restored high-def transfer is excellent.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Forty Guns

FORTY GUNS (Fuller, 1957)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Dec 11, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

“She's a high-ridin' woman with a whip!”

The theme song of Samuel Fuller's “Forty Guns” (1957) promises greatness, and the opening shot sure delivers. As the three heroic Bonnell brothers ride into town, their rickety little horse cart is nearly blown off the winding dirt road by Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck), decked out in black and ridin' high (though sans whip) on a white stallion. She kicks up a swirling cloud of dust in advance of the long line of men (her forty guns, splitting to the edges of the Cinemascope frame) trailing behind her. The Bonnells can only gasp in awe as she races away, not even noticing them.

Eventually, Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan) will prove man enough to earn Jessica's attention. The legendary gun fighter who avoids shootouts because he “can't miss” can't help but be fascinated by the woman who rules over a sprawling business empire. The two alpha personalities have something else in common, pesky little brothers weighing them down. In Griff's case, it's just eager beaver Chico (Robert Dix) desperate to prove he's man enough to assist big brother. For Jessica, it's the rotten-to-the-core Brockie (John Ericson), the kind of low-down owlhoot who'd shoot a blind man just for laughs.

Shooting independently, though with financing from Fox, Fuller indulges his pulpiest sensibilities, producing the florid but gritty style that made him a cinephile favorite. His punchy script is replete with shameless double entendres. Jessica asks Griff for his gun: “Can I feel it?” Griff: “It might go off in your face.” Fuller frames one view of actress Eve Brent from the inside of a rifle barrel, an early version of the trademark James Bond credits shot.

Stanwyck clearly relishes her role as the kind of woman who, as the song informs us, “commands and men obey.” In an inspired bit of staging, Griff delivers a legal warrant to Jessica while she dines at her compound. She sits at the head of a very long table with twenty men on each side, and the warrant is passed from man to man (Cinemascope at work again) before being placed respectfully into her hands. Just in case the message needs to be reinforced, Jessica later reminds one flunky, “I'm your boss, not your partner!”

The various relationships and conflicts among Jessica, Griff, and their respective siblings revolve around dueling standards of traditional masculinity, providing grist for the mill of many a psychoanalytic film studies thesis. However, the movie isn't as noteworthy for its plot as for its host of quintessential Fuller touches. The tight close-up on Griff's face as he strides implacably towards an overmatched Brockie in a street showdown surely provided the inspiration for many a spaghetti Western standoff. A jarring cut from a man swinging from a noose to a room full of jovial cowboys splashing in tubs is as pure Fuller as it gets.

Unfortunately, the theme song provides all too oracular: “If someone could break her and take her whip away... you may find that the woman with a whip is only a woman after all.” In what Fuller describes as a studio compromise from his bleaker initial vision, the film ends with Jessica having been almost fully tamed, ready to give up everything for the hero. Perhaps it played better with audiences back then. Today, I suspect we'd all rather see her ridin' high and flailing that whip.

Regardless, the film provided one last great leading role for Stanwyck who, nearly fifty when production began, was near the end of her feature film career, and clearly still at the height of her prowess. For Fuller, in his mid-forties and also at the peak of his career, it was just one of three good movies he would wrap in the same year, along with “Run of the Arrow” and “China Gate.” Fuller obviously didn't mess around on set.

The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 Cinemascope ratio. The Criterion booklet only mentions that the transfer was “restored by Twentieth Century Fox.” However extensive the restoration, this high-def transfer looks fantastic with a deep, grainy black-and-white image that looks, well, exactly like a Western should.

The linear PCM mono track is clean and functional. There's not much complex sound design to deal with here, just dialogue and, of course, that theme song. Optional English SDH subtitles support the English audio.

For a slight change of pace, Criterion has included a 1969 discussion with Samuel Fuller which can be played like a commentary track while watching the film. It was conducted at the National Film Theatre in London in 1969.

In “Fuller Women” (2018, 20 min.), the director's widow Christa Lang Fuller and his daughter Samantha Fuller discuss Samuel's work with a focus on the strong women featured in some of his films.

In “Woman With A Whip” (2018, 34 min.), critic Imogen Sara Smith, author of “Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond The City,” discusses both Fuller's work (particular its relationship to noir) and Stanwyck's career.

“A Fuller Life” (2013, 80 min.) is a documentary directed by Samantha Fuller. After an introduction by Ms. Fuller, the documentary consists primarily of a series of actors, directors, and other film figures (James Franco, Jennifer Beals, Mark Hamill, Wim Wenders, Monte Hellmann among them) who read excerpts from Samuel Fuller's memoir, “A Third Face,” sometimes over clips from Fuller's films, sometimes over never-before-seen home movies. It's a real blast, like a movie about Samuel Fuller should be.

Finally, we get a Stills Gallery, mostly on-set photos from “Forty Guns.”

The insert booklet includes an essay by critic and professor Lisa Dombrowski, author of “The Films of Samuel Fuller: If You Die, I'll Kill You!” as well as an excerpt from Fuller's memoirs concerning “Forty Guns.”

Final Thoughts:
Sam Fuller apparently shot this film in all of fifteen days, but then again, he was a no-nonsense kind of guy. This is now the eighth Fuller title in the Criterion/Eclipse library, but only the third on Blu-ray (“Shock Corridor” and “The Naked Kiss” were early Criterion releases that got later Blu-ray upgrades). The top-notch high-def transfer and the strong collection of extras make this, perhaps, the most appealing Fuller release from Criterion so far.