Monday, March 19, 2018

The Passion of Joan of Arc

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Mar 20, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

(Note: Pictures embedded with this review are not taken from this new Criterion Blu-ray)

Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer once said: “Nothing in the world can compare to the human face. It is a land one can never tire of exploring.” No director explored a face more remarkable than actress Renee Falconetti's, and never to such memorable effect as in “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928).

Falconetti was hardly an obvious choice for the title role. Not only was the 35-year-old actress nearly twice as old as teenage Joan, she had only played small roles in two films a decade earlier, and was best known in Paris as the affable star of comedic stage plays. She likely had little ideal of the ordeal facing her, no doubt one of many reasons Dreyer cast her.

Both Falconetti and Dreyer faced considerable pressure. Nearly a half-millennium after burning Joan at the stake (ostensibly for the crime of wearing men's clothing), the Church made up for their little boo-boo by officially canonizing her in 1920. Joan was already one of France's most beloved icons, but Saint Joan now became a world-wide sensation. The bonanza of Joan-related projects included the publication of a new book by Pierre Champion, which included the miraculously-preserved transcript of her trial.

Dreyer was actually commissioned by a French studio to adapt a different book on Joan, but he focused primarily on the transcript, which provides most of the film's text. Dreyer's hiring generated protests before production ever began – he was neither French nor Catholic, so how could he tell the story of our beloved Joan? Casting a French actress may have ameliorated the outrage a bit, but sticking closely to the historical record also guaranteed pushback from the Church, not keen on reminding the public of that time they tortured and murdered of a teenage girl. The one in 1431, I mean. The one in 1431 in Rouen.

Dreyer still took his share of liberties with history, mostly by compressing a months-long trial into a single day. This compression amplifies the intensity from the start, and Dreyer's other stylistic decisions only further up the ante. Though the film unfolds in one location over one day, the rapid cutting (approx. 1500 shots in an hour-and-a-half film) and the relative lack of establishing shots generate a queasy, disorienting feeling expressive of the overwhelming stress Joan is placed under by the leering, bullying, mocking Church inquisitors. Consecutive shots rarely follow the same character, and tight close-ups disrupt a clear sense of screen geography. Ultimately, the viewer can focus only on one steady element at the core of this cinematic world, Joan's face.

In one invasive close-up after another, Falconetti sweats and strains, glares defiantly or blinks back tears, and looks heavenward to the one true vision she can always see, and viewers struggle through jarring experience along with her. For ninety years now, filmgoers have been exploring that face, the face that defines cinema as much as any single image in the history of the medium. Falconetti walked away from the cinema after her grueling ordeal on Dreyer's set, and no other actor has ever exceeded her performance. 

The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. From the Criterion booklet: “This new digital restoration by Gaumont and the Centre national du cinema et de l'image animee was created in 2K resolution from a duplicate negative made from an original positive print held by the Danish Film Institute.” That might sound a bit complicated, but understand that we're lucky a complete version of “Passion” exists at all and, indeed, most audiences didn't have access to one until the 1980s. For more information on the film's labyrinthine journey through the decades, you can read my brief essay at this link.

This is the first time I've gotten to see “Passion” in a high-def version and if it's not flawless, it's certainly a major improvement over anything I've seen before. The level of detail visible in the many closeups of Falconetti's face only heighten the intense experience of watching this film.

Criterion has also given viewers the option to watch the film at 24 frames per second or at 20 frames per second. As you may know, 24 frames per second is the standard projection speed for films in the sound era (synch sound needs to be played at that speed), but rates varied significantly during the silent era. There is no definitive “correct” fps speed to watch the film at, though scholar Casper Tybjerg argues convincingly that the slower 20 fps version also makes the actors look more natural in motion. The 24 fps version plays at 81 minutes, the 20 fps at 97 minutes.

Not only is there no evidence that Dreyer ever selected an official score to be played with the film, it is possible he actually preferred to be played silently altogether, which would have been unusual for the silent era. In any case, Criterion offers a few audio options.

For the 24 fps version, viewers can play the film silently (OK, your Mute button would achieve the same thing) or with two scores: Richard Einhorn's “Voices of Light” score which many modern viewers are familiar with, and also a recent (2010) score by Portishead's Adrian Utley and Goldfrapp's Will Gregory. You can also select an Audio Commentary by Casper Tybjerg, recorded in 1999.

For the 20 fps version, viewers can choose the silent version or a 2005 score by Mie Yanashita.

Criterion originally released “The Passion of Joan of Arc” on DVD way back in a whole different century (1999). This Blu-ray upgrade imports many of the old features from the DVD and adds a few new ones.

We'll start with the new stuff first. Now that Criterion has included both 24 fps and 20 fps versions of the film, scholar Casper Tybjerg provides a discussion (12 min.) of the merits of each version.

The disc also includes a new interview with composer Richard Einhorn (11 min.) and a new interview with composers Adrian Utley and William Gregory (15 min.)

Older imported features include an audio interview with Helene Falconetti (1995, 9 min.), conducted by Richard Einhorn. She speaks about her mother, Renee, and her experiences on Dreyer's set. We also get a Version History (10 min.), which touches on the film's many different versions over the years, a Production Design Archive (4 min.) and a Trailer (3 min.)

The thick insert booklet includes a new essay by scholar Mark Le Fanu, and also a brief statement by Dreyer and the libretto of the “Voices of Light” score.

Final Thoughts:
“The Passion of Joan of Arc” is the crowning achievement of one of the greatest directorial careers in cinema, and Falconetti delivers a performance for the ages. Criterion's new Blu-ray release provides “Passion” the high-def treatment it deserves, and the new transfer along with the multiple scores (and fps rates!) and other extras make this an early favorite for Blu-ray release of the year.

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Hero

THE HERO (Ray, 1966)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Feb 20, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

I continue to be astonished by Satyajit Ray's ability to breathe life into his characters in the space of a single shot; one line delivery or a quick facial expression provides instant access to a fully-fleshed personality. Ray's films are replete with people whose existence seems to preceded and extend past their time on camera. The viewer simply hitches a ride with them for a few minutes before they move on to other things.

In “The Hero” (1966), matinee idol Arindam Mukherjee (played by the most popular of all Bengali stars, Uttam Kumar) hops a train from Kolkata to Delhi to accept a prize. Within ten minutes of his arrival on the train, writer/director Ray sets a half dozen multi-layered characters into action. Each reacts in some fashion to Mukherjee's presence, yet each character follows their own agenda, all embracing the maxim that everyone considers themselves the main character in the story.

Aditi Sengupta (Sharmila Tagore) edits a magazine called “Modern Woman” and wrestles over whether to interview the star to boost sales or to keep her journal free of superficial movie gossip. Her smitten friend shyly eyes Mukherjee from a distance, giddily recounting his numerous heroic roles. Representing the skeptics, the elderly Mr. Chatterjee (Jogesh Chatterjee) takes every possible opportunity to lecture the actor about the failures of talking pictures, as well as the scientifically established fact that all movie stars are notorious drunks.

Arindam, in an unusually introspective mood after a personal crisis, greets everyone's advances with grace and a sense of detached amusement. In an obvious nod to Marcello Mastroianni's character from “8 1/2” he relies on his handsome looks, his winning smile, and his tinted sunglasses to keep the world at a distance, though Aditi's capacity to listen attentively in a non-judgmental fashion will eventually break through his defenses.

Kumar was a mega-wattage star of the Bengali cinema at the peak of his nearly unparalleled fame, and this was the first time Ray worked with such a commercial juggernaut. The casting prompted some critics to suggest the esteemed arthouse director of “The Apu Trilogy” (1955-59) and “The Music Room” (1958) was selling out, but Ray instead uses the opportunity to muse on his own relationship with actors and with cinema. Viewers should not assume the writer/director agrees with lines such as “A film actor is nothing but a puppet” but there's little doubt that Ray, also an accomplished novelist, composer, and illustrator, is working out some issues with his cinematic work while also poking fun at a mainstream industry that never quite found room for his brand of “alternative” cinema.

Furthering the film's apparent connection to Fellini, Ray presents a series of dreams and flashbacks, the most prominent being a sequence in which Arindam drowns in pools of money, reaching out for a hand that won't quite save him. I find these moments somewhat stilted and unconvincing, and far less satisfying than the rest of the film, though it's possible I am also locked into an overly specific view of what a Satyajit Ray film is “supposed” to look like. Also, I can't stand those scenes in Fellini's films either.

Kumar is utterly charming throughout, and if he's functioning as Ray's “puppet” he's certainly a convincing one, fully invested in the moment just like every Ray performer always seems to be. Sharmila Tagore is a revelation as well. Just seven years after playing the very young bride in “The World of Apu” (1959), she's now (literally, from the title of her magazine) a modern woman who more than holds her own when sharing the screen with a commercial superstar.

Whether or not Arindam really changes by the time the train pulls into Delhi is an open question, but it's certainly been quite a ride both the characters and the viewer. 

The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. From the Criterion booklet: “This new digital master was produced from a restoration undertaken by RDB Entertainments under the supervision of Kamal Bansal and Varsha Banal. For the restoration, a digital transfer was created in 2K resolution on an ARRISCAN film scanner from the 35 mm original camera negative and a 35 mm print at Pixion in Chennai, India.”

The image quality and black-and-white contrast are sharp in this 1080p transfer, with a generally bright look throughout. Another strong effort from Criterion.

The linear PCM mono audio track isn't designed to overwhelm, mostly just carrying the dialogue clearly. No complaints here. Optional English subtitles support the Bengali audio.

Criterion has only included a few extras here, though they're both good.

First up is a 2008 interview (12 min.) with Sharmila Tagore, who doesn't appear to age like other people. She talks about her experiences working with Ray and her progression from child actor to adult actor under Ray's mentorship.

We also get a new interview (25 min.) with film scholar Meheli Sen, who talks in detail about the film's production and reception (it wasn't a hit like many of Ray's earlier films) as well as the unique status star Uttam Kumar had in Bengali film.

The insert booklet includes an essay by author Pico Iyer and a transcript of Satyajit Ray's comments at a 1980 commemorative gathering after Uttam Kumar's death.

Final Thoughts:
I don't think “The Hero” ranks as one of Ray's greatest accomplishments, but a middling Ray film towers over most of the competition. This Criterion releases only offers a few brief extras, but the transfer is strong, and if they feel like eventually releasing every single Ray title as part of the collection, I won't have any objections.

An Actor's Revenge

AN ACTOR'S REVENGE (Ichikawa, 1963)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Feb 20, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

After director Kon Ichikawa ran over budget on several films, his studio saddled him with the unpleasant task of remaking a creaky, cliched revenge movie from the 1930s. Ichikawa responded by transforming the hoary material into a daring, borderline-lunatic, visionary triumph no other filmmaker could have achieved. “An Actor's Revenge” (1963) scores another victory for the auteur theory.

Set in 19th century Edo (now Tokyo), the film opens with a kabuki performance, as rising star Yukinojo (Kazuo Hasegawa) dazzles the crowd as an onnagata, a man who exclusively performs female roles. Like so many shots in the film, the kabuki stage is shrouded almost entirely in darkness, with just Yukinojo visible and radiant in the center. He soon realizes that the audience contains people who wronged his family in the past (a sordid story that will gradually be revealed) and, like a pro, he continues his performance while also plotting his revenge.

Ichikawa showcases his elaborate design plans in this opening sequence of a film that seamlessly combines techniques both hyper-modern and archaic. Each of Yukinojo's intended victims is framed in an insert shot within the frame, hovering above the darkened stage, a device right out of the silent era. A fight shortly afterward takes place in near-total darkness with every inch of the film's widescreen 'scope frame exploited to its fullest. The balance of kinetic explosions and stasis, the contrast of vibrant colors and darkness, and the deployment of huge swathes of negative space lends the film a look and feel that might be described as psychedelic, yet not quite. Phantasmagoric? No, not that either. It's... unique, and simply defies adequate description.

For all the impressive visual flourishes, no effect dazzles as much as the performance of 55-year-old actor Kazuo Hasegawa, who actually performed the same role about thirty years earlier. He certainly hasn't lost his knack for the character. As a consummate professional, Yukinojo remains in onnagata character off-stage as well as on, and the gender ambiguity spices up the film considerably. Wearing a long, flowing dress, his eyes cast down demurely, Yukinojo speaks softly, moves delicately, yet pushes implacably towards his goal, reluctant but always ready to unleash a brutal flurry when forced to flaunt his training as a swordfighter.

The adapted script by Natto Wada (Ichikawa's wife, and writer of the director's masterpieces “The Burmese Harp” and “Fires on the Plain,” among others) features a plot as complex and disorienting as the film's visual design. The numerous twists revolve around the intoxicating effect the androgynous Yukinojo has on his audience, as everyone becomes besotted with him in some fashion, including a beautiful courtesan (Ayako Wakao), a brazen pickpocket (Fujiko Yamamoto), and even another character played by... Kazuo Hasegawa!

Yukinojo's ultimate revenge is truly an actor's revenge, enabled by his ability to assume a series of impromptu roles and to convince numerous people they're getting what they want from him while, in fact, he's playing them all for fools. He doubts himself constantly, and practically begs to be set free for his vow for revenge before doubling his resolve to see it all through to the gory end. The revenge genre has never seen a protagonist quite like Yukinojo.

“An Actor's Revenge” doesn't closely resemble any of the other Ichikawa films I've seen. Then again, it doesn't closely resemble too many films by directors other than Ichikawa either. And it's amazing.

The film is presented in its glorious original 2.39:1 widescreen aspect ratio. From the Criterion booklet: “This new digital restoration was undertaken from a 4K scan of the 35 mm original camera negative by Kadokawa Corporation at Imagica in Tokyo.” This 1080p transfer is impressive in the usual Criterion way, featuring rich colors and sharp image quality throughout along with a pleasantly grainy look. Setsuo Kobayashi's cinematography is sensational, particularly when focusing on single figures and details against inky black backgrounds, and this restored high-def transfer does his work justice. It's gorgeous.

The linear PCM mono audio track is crisp with no noticeable dropoffs and if it sounds relatively flat, it's supposed to. Both evocative sound effects and the moody score by Yasushi Akutagawa and Masao Yagi are treated well here. Optional English subtitles support the Japanese audio.

Criterion has included a few interesting extras for this Blu-ray release.

First, we get a lengthy (58 min.) 1999 interview with director Kon Ichikawa conducted for the Directors Guild of Japan, and recorded at his home. Interviewer Yuki Mori isn't shy about fawning over the master, but this is an engaging visit with Ichikawa, still sharp and robust in his 80s.

The disc also includes a new interview with critic and filmmaker Tony Rayns (13 min.) who examines the themes and visual style of the film. Rayns always brings his A-game to any features he's involved with and he provides a comprehensive discussion of the film and several of its players in a brief running time.

The insert booklet includes an essay by film critic Michael Sragow and a 1955 article by Ichikawa discussing his work in widescreen scope formats.

Final Thoughts:
From the very opening scene of “An Actor's Revenge,” you can tell you're in the hands of a master director. The film is so inventive, so dazzling, the viewing experience can even be a bit overwhelming. Ichikawa goes all in, and comes out with a unique masterpiece for the ages. Criterion's release isn't packed with extras, but offers a strong transfer of a truly great film that not enough people have seen.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Night of the Living Dead

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

Watching George Romero's “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) for the … I dunno, 43rd time, 51st time, whatever... I'm now most impressed by the quality and tenor of the television newscasts staged for the film. Sitting at a very plain desk in an equally plain office (OK, it's a low budget movie), a newscaster calmly reads incoming bulletins informing the public that the “unburied dead (are) coming back to life” and “eating their victims.”

No pulsating “Breaking News” graphics, no dramatic musical cues, no insta-commentary from dueling in-house experts, and not even a shred of the hyperbole or exploitation that defines the modern news cycle. Advice to burn the bodies of any loved ones who die so they won't return to eat you is delivered with a rationality and responsibility our modern cable news stations can't muster when covering an impending rainstorm or the revelation (BREAKING NEWS!) that the president wore a tan suit today.

Even live cutaways to reporters in the field promote the sense that everything will sort itself out in due time. A rural sheriff leading a posse of zombie hunter (the film never uses the word zombie, but, yeah, they're zombies) answers a reporter's question with the film's funniest line, “Yeah, they're dead. They're all messed up.” Just a touch of the sly Romero satirical wit that would define his reputation once the “Dead” films became a full-blown franchise. We've got this whole mass-murdering cannibal thing under control.

The news reports don't provide even a hint of an explanation for the undead outbreak until nearly two-thirds of the way through the film (maybe it has to do with an irradiated space probe returning from Venus), a reminder of another of the film's greatest strengths. When Barbra (Judith O'Dea) and her brother Johnny (co-producer Russel Streiner) are attacked by the first zombie, the creature is just briefly glimpsed lumbering in the distant background, and his assault occurs right out of the blue. No exposition, no backstory, no explanation, none of the terrible things that terrible viewers want from their dumb, terrible movies. Zombies just happen, during daylight, right in rural Pittsburgh. They're coming to get you, Barbra, so don't ask why, just run!

Another brilliant flourish in a film as packed with them is the introduction of the film's eventual protagonist, Ben (Duane Jones). A terrified Barbra occupies the screen alone for almost ten minutes after the opening attack as she races for shelter to the house that will contain most of the film's action. Already rattled by seeing her brother's likely death, she's further unnerved by hoary horror cliches like the shock cuts showing the leering stuffed animal heads adorning the living room.

Ben then materializes out of the night, from a pair of hazy headlights, in a similar shock cut, a black man in a film otherwise consisting almost entirely of white characters, both living (for now) and dead. And with that scary intro, Ben instantly displaces the previous protagonist (Barbra) and never relinquishes the lead role, though frequently challenged by other survivors, including the cowardly Mr. Cooper (co-producer Karl Hardman). Racism is never explicitly discussed, even in passing, but racial tensions underscore many scenes, particularly Ben's thumping beatdown of Cooper.

Duane Jones's performance has been oft-praised, and for good reason. Ben is the film's most proactive character by far, the boldest, a mind and body constantly at work as he shoulders almost the entire burden of the group's survival against the massing, shambling hordes. Yet, Romero and co-screenwriter John A. Russo are too savvy to turn even Ben into a saint. His big escape plan goes awry almost instantly, and he winds up taking refuge in the very hiding place he argued so vociferously against for most of the movie – in fact, the selfish, reprehensible Cooper might actually be the one who was right all along. All of which combines to makes the ending, one of the most desolate and despairing in all of cinema, so unforgettable.

Anyway, even after a 53rd or maybe 65th viewing, “Night of the Living Dead” remains as potent and terrifying as ever, and seemingly eternally relevant to whatever the current political and cultural climate may be. No film in the genre Romero single-handedly created has ever topped or even matched it. Except maybe for Romero's next “Dead” film. And maybe the one after that. 

The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio.

“Night of the Living Dead” lapsed into public domain a long time ago, which means that versions of the film in many formats have been both plentiful and usually substandard, though some quality releases exist. This Criterion release provides the film in the best version in which I have ever seen it. From the booklet, “This restoration by the Museum of Modern Art and The Film Foundation, with funding provided by the George Lucas Family Foundation and the Celeste Bartos Fund for Film Preservation, was undertaken from a new digital transfer created in 4K resolution on Cineric's wet-gate film scanner, primarily from the 35 mm original camera negative.” A few shots required the use of a 35 mm fine-grain positive.

The image quality is sharp with particularly strong black-and-white contrast, and not a single noteworthy blemish in sight. The transfer doesn't look quite as grainy as you might expect or want for this gritty low-budget B&W film, but this transfer is simply excellent overall, really shining with the detail visible in some of the darker shots.

The film is presented with an LPCM mono audio track which sounds appropriately sparse and hollow. Romero and crew used both synchronized sound and post-production sound, so the quality of the dialogue varies, but that's endemic to the source, and it's all just fine. The soundtrack consists entirely of library music that was cheaply available at the time, and sounds good enough on this mix. Optional SDH English subtitles support the audio.

Criterion's two-disc Blu-ray release arrives absolutely jam packed with extras, some old, and some new. I will try to keep it as brief as possible.

Disc One includes the feature film, which is accompanied by two full-length commentary tracks, both recorded way back in 1994. The first track features George Romero, producer-actor Karl Hardman, actress Marilyn Eastman, and co-writer John Russo. The second track brings together producer-actor Russell Streiner, production director Vincent Survinski, and several cast members.

Disc One also includes “Night of Anubis” (1968, 85 min.), an uncorrected 16mm work print of “Living Dead” under an earlier title, with some different credits, and also missing several scenes. There's nothing much new here, so it's basically just a chance to watch a lower-quality, incomplete version of the movie. Producer-actor Russell Streiner provides a short introduction.

Disc Two kicks off with “Light in the Darkness” (2017, 24 min.), a new feature that mixes together interviews with directors Guillermo del Toro, Robert Rodriguez, and Frank Darabont.

We also get 18 minutes worth of “Dailies”, some listed as never being seen before. This is a reel of silent footage from the film's production, mostly takes not used in the movie. You can also watch an introduction to the Dailies by sound engineer Gary Streiner.

“Learning from Scratch” (2017, 12 min.) is a new interview with co-writer John Russo who mostly discusses his years with Latent Image, the film company co-founded by a young George Romero, where he and his crew honed their craft working on commercials. Russo argues that many of the lessons they learned paid off big time in “Living Dead.”

“Limitations Into Virtues” (2017, 12 min.) is a new visual analysis by filmmakers Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos. I liked this feature a lot. The central argument is that the film's dynamic feel stems from the balance between synchronized sound footage (where the camera had to be stationary on a tripod) and the footage shot without sound where the hand-held camera could roam freely.

“Walking Like the Dead” (13 min.) mixes together interviews from a 2009 documentary in which several extras discuss how they portrayed the living dead.

In “Tones of Terror” (2017, 11 min.), producer Jim Cironella discusses the film's use of library music.

In addition to this new footage, the disc includes a great deal of archival material, starting with a “TV Newsreel” recorded by Pittsburgh-area newscaster Bill “Chilly Billy” Cardille, who also appeared as a field reporter in the movie. According to the disc, this three-minutes of silent footage is the only “behind-the-scenes” material from the film's production. It's not exactly revelatory, but it's nice to have.

“Higher Learning” provides a lengthy (45 min.) interview with George Romero, conducted by Colin Geddes after a 2012 screening of “Living Dead” at a Toronto International Film Festival venue.

We also get excerpts (18 min.) from the July 3, 1979 episode of “Tomorrow” hosted by Tom Snyder, on which both George Romero and “Phantasm” director Don Coscarelli are interviewed about their latest films and the appeal of horror in general.

We also get an interview with actress Judith Ridley (1994, 11 min.) and an audio-only interview with star Duane Jones (1987, 22 min.). Conducted by journalist Tim Ferrante, this is one of the few interviews in which Jones spoke at any length about his involvement with the film. The disc also includes a very brief (32 sec.) and rather pointless snippet of a newsreel about the Mariner 5 space probe, a loose inspiration for one small aspect of the film.

Finally, the disc wraps up with two Trailers (one from 1968, one from 2017), and several TV and Radio Spots.

The fold-out insert booklet features an essay by film critic Stuart Klawans.

Final Thoughts:
“Night of the Living Dead” barely made a tent culturally or commercially on its initial 1968 run, but became a phenomenon after its 1970 re-release. Fifty years later, it's difficult to think of a substantially more influential American film over the same period. Criterion's high-def release provides both a high-quality transfer and a bevy of extras, and will wind up as a must-own for any Romero fan.