Wednesday, December 30, 2015

My Favorite Movies Of 2015

By The Sea


No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman)
The Forbidden Room (Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson)
Taxi (Jafar Panahi)
The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer)
Entertainment (Rick Alverson)
By The Sea (Angelina Jolie Pitt)
The Pearl Button (Patricio Guzman)
Horse Money(Pedro Costa)
Creed (Ryan Coogler)
Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (Ronit Elkabetz, Shlomi Elkabetz)

Also Liked: Spotlight, Tales of the Grim Sleeper, Mountains May Depart, In Transit, Cartel Land, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Big Short

Some Movies I Haven't Seen Yet: In Jackson Heights, The Assassin, The Revenant, Hard To Be A God, Son of Saul, Right Now Wrong Then

Every year at this time, critics wax rhapsodic about the unprecedented bevy of riches the last twelve months have showered upon us cinephiles fortunate enough to live in this age of miracles. That reminds me - you still have time to contribute to my long-gestating book project: “Every Movie's A Masterpiece (And Every TV Show Too): The Story of Modern Criticism.”

As usual, I have no idea what they're talking about, but I'm glad they're having fun. I could fill a list twice this length with movies rated over 90% on the Tomato Meter that I either walked out on or deeply regret not walking out on, even the ones I watched at home. I won't name any. Except for “Room.” And “Sicario.” But no more. OK, “The Martian.”

But this is the time to focus on the positive, including the year's pleasant surprises, of which there were two.

I thought “Unbroken” (2014) was a serious misfire and after reading the critical savaging of Angelina Jolie's vanity project “By the Sea” I was tempted to push this one to the end of the viewing queue or pass on it altogether. Enthusiastic endorsements from go-to critics Kim Morgan and Sheila O'Malley persuaded me otherwise, and I thank them both for it. Vanity project? I guess that's what an achingly sincere story torn right from an artist's heart gets called when she happens to be a glamorous international celebrity. Hey, guess what, just because a famous married couple plays a married couple in a movie doesn't mean it's about the famous married couple. If this slow burn isn't your cup of tea I understand, but calling it “indulgent” just makes you look silly. Besides, you know what I want uniquely talented artists to do? Indulge!

I didn't really get Rick Alverson's 2012 film “The Comedy,” perhaps because I prefer my Tim Heidecker in 12-minute doses. But “Entertainment” blew me away, and I'm not ashamed to admit it's because it felt like a movie made specifically for me. This is a movie made by (and for) people who don't think that anything about this culture is OK and are baffled and frustrated that other people don't see it the same way. I've always liked Gregg Turkington's stand-up comic alter ego Neil Hamburger, but setting him on an American journey consisting entirely of crappy hotel rooms and even crappier clubs en route to the crappiest destination of all, the Hollywood celebrity scene, is absolutely inspired. Most films that set out to be provocations wind up somewhere between tedious and asinine (call it “Fight Club” syndrome). This is the rare provocation that succeed in being genuinely unsettling. I can't stop thinking about it.

I got “Gett” from the get-go, one of the more exasperating entries in the burgeoning field of “Religion sure can make us stupid” studies. Ronit Elkabetz knocks it out of the park in the title role, but the supporting cast of Men With Punchable Faces really makes it an infuriating viewing experience. In the best way possible.

Most of the rest of my favorites are from reliable filmmakers who delivered yet again. I voted for Jafar Panahi of “Taxi” (AKA "Jafar Panahi''s Taxi", AKA "Tehran Taxi") as best actor in the OFCS poll and didn't do it to be a smartass. Panahi's interpretation of himself as a pleasant if slightly incompetent cab driver in Tehran is brilliant, employing fastidious politeness to express rage at institutionalized injustice. Sylvester Stallone also plays himself (playing Rocky) in “Creed” for less subversive reasons than Panahi but still to great effect, the best effect being the way he sets the stage for Michael B. Jordan's star-solidifying performance in the title role. One of my favorite oddities in cinema this year – Jordan's Adonis Creed doesn't want to fight under a name that reminds people of someone famous. So he boxes as Don Johnson.

Guy Maddin can do no wrong for me, but “Keyhole” (2011) was slightly less right than his other movies. “The Forbidden Room,” which Maddin co-directs with Evan Johnson, is all kinds of right, embodying Maddin's beloved amnesia trope in its very structure. This movie is designed to make you forget what happened before – somewhere between the volcano and the dead father who won't go away, you briefly think, “Hey, weren't we on a submarine?” But then you forget all over again. Also, greatest credits ever. Ever ever ever. I demand that every filmmaker shoot credits this way from here on out.

“Horse Money” isn't quite as good as any of Costa's unofficial Fontainhas trilogy, but Ventura is a spectacular performer and there's plenty of room below “Colossal Youth” (2006) to still be great, and I bet this one gets even better on a second viewing. Similar story with “The Pearl Button” which isn't quite on the level of Patricio Guzman's magisterial “Nostalgia for the Light” (2011) but spins a contemplation of the relationship between Chilean society and the ocean (via the universe) into a moving and damning historical survey. It also preserves Kawesqar language on film. Joshua Oppenheimer's “The Look of Silence” also isn't quite as great as its prequel “The Act of Killing” but it seems to be designed to answer the complaints the dissenting minority had about that previous film. It's still unforgettable.

Saving the best for last. “No Home Movie” will count as a 2016 release for “official” purposes but I'm not really official. Chantal Akerman is gone and this deeply personal documentary will be her last movie and that's a terrible thought but it's another great movie from one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. I'm not ready to say anything more about it except that Chantal Akerman is irreplaceable and I will always miss her.

The Complete Lady Snowblood

(Fujita, 1973-1974)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Jan 5, 2016
Review by Christopher S. Long

Forget auteur cinema, this is arterial cinema. When Lady Snowblood strikes with her umbrella sword, blood spurts out in high-pressure streams, arcing majestically as it splatters faces, clothing and, most artfully, previously virginal snow. She didn't choose her name at random, after all.

Adapted from the original manga comic written by Kazuo Koike (perhaps best known for “Lone Wolf and Cub”) and penciled by Kazuo Kamimura, “Lady Snowblood” (1973) tells the tale of its appropriately one-dimensional character who is born for vengeance. Literally. The film begins with the sound of a crying baby (who keeps on crying for a long time) born in prison to a mother who vows that newborn daughter Yuki will carry on her vendetta, then promptly dies.

The origin story unfolds with relative efficiency. ' Round about 1870, Yuki's father was murdered by a gang of petty crooks who also gang-raped her mother. Mom waits patiently to administer justice to one of her attackers, but the rest remain free when she is arrested for the murder. After the traumatic birth, another inmate adopts Yuki and oversees her brutal training at the hands of a pitiless priest. Told she is an asura (a kind of demon), Yuki is molded through trial and terror into the relentless killing machine known as Lady Snowblood and finally set loose on her parents' tormentors some time in the 1890s.

Actress Meiko Kaji had already made her mark in “delinquent youth” films such as “Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter” and similarly lurid fare like “Female Convict Scorpion Jailhouse 41” making her both an obvious and perfect choice for the title role. Kaji compensates for a lack of apparent martial arts skill with a calm, commanding presence most forcefully conveyed through her steely stare – the film features many beautifully composed images but returns most frequently to a simple closeup of her piercing eyes and arched eyebrows. Snowblood is a column of stillness who erupts into controlled lightning strikes, a strategy that may only be effective when her half-witted opponents oblige by waiting patiently to be exsanguinated, but, hey, it works, and Kaji is integral to the success. She also sings the movie's theme song.

Director Toshiya Fujita may not be known as one of Japan's greatest stylists, but he exploits his widescreen frame fully, arranging bodies on all sides of the deadly assassin and letting viewers relish her finely-honed ability to hack her way through overwhelming odds. The action scenes are heavy on art direction and careful choreography and low on plausibility, but you're mostly watching for those geysers of blood.

Snowblood methodically tracks down her victims in predictable enough fashion, but the story takes a surprising turn when she encounters a roguish journalist (Toshio Kurosawa) who, after meeting her, is inspired to publish a story titled... “Lady Snowblood.” Don't expect the movie to get too meta, but at least it's the first sign of humor in a story that often wallows in sadism for its own sake – oh by the way, “Snowblood” is a Quentin Tarantino favorite and an acknowledged heavy influence on his “Kill Bill” movies. He even “paid homage” to the theme song.

“Lady Snowblood” was followed up quickly by “Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance” (1974). It lacks the simple-minded purity of the first film's revenge plot, but the more free-form narrative takes our deadly heroine in a slightly different direction. After a decade on the lam as a fugitive, Snowblood finally tires of fighting (though not before tallying a double-digit body count in the first five minutes) and surrenders to the authorities. She is sentenced to die, recruited by the secret police, and then won over to the cause of her intended mark, a radical played by Juzo Itami, perhaps best known to Western audiences today as the director of “Tampopo” (1985).

More hacking, more slashing, though the arterial sprays are mostly saved for the denouement. An early two-minute tracking shot may be the stylistic highlight of both films: Lady Snowblood walks methodically towards the retreating camera as would-be assassins mass both behind and in front of her, each eventually lunging to inevitable death by her casual sword stroke.

Oddly, Lady Snowblood recedes into the background for most of the sequel as a story of government corruption and resistance by the disenfranchised people takes center stage. Both films are set during the Meiji era as Japan transitioned from feudalism to the beginnings of a 20th century global empire. Economic miracles benefited only a few, providing Lady Snowblood the opportunity to serve as a champion of the people, though neither film explores this aspect of her mission in much detail. The “people” aren't exactly presented in the most flattering light either. A grotesque gang of commoners in the first film prepares to “pass around” Lady Snowblood, and the ersatz heroes of “Love Song” are more concerned with their own well-being than with social justice. But, hey, nobody's perfect.

Both films are presented in their original 2.35:1 aspect ratios. From Criterion: “These new digital transfers were created in 2K resolution on a Scanity film scanner from new 35 mm low-contrast prints struck from the original camera negatives.” Level of detail isn't as sharp as in many Criterion high-def transfers and the most notable quality is how pale some of the skin colors. Checking a few other online sources, Lady Snowblood doesn't look quite so alabaster from other sources, but it's possible this is a truer representation of the original – it would make sense. Unfortunately, I have no way to know. The blackest images (or parts thereof) look a bit blocky to me, perhaps as a result of some contrast boosting.

However, while these two transfer may not be among the elite Criterion 1080p efforts, they are still very strong overall and with the vivid reds I'm sure its ardent fans appreciate the most. That ruby red Karo syrup – I mean blood – sure stands out.

Both films have LPCM Mono audio mixes. The lossless audio is clean throughout though the audio sounds fairly flat with no real sense of depth – but this may be a product of the original source as well. Music sounds pretty good. Optional English subtitles support the Japanese audio.

Alas, Criterion has only included a few interviews and trailers along with the two “Snowblood” films, both of which are on the same Blu-ray disc.

Under the menu for the first “Lady Snowblood” you can access the two newly recorded interviews. The first is with Kazuo Koike (10 min.), writer of the manga from which the film was adapted. He talks about his inspiration for creating what was, at the time, an unusual character: a female assassin. The second interview features screenwriter (Noro Osada) who scripted both films, the second in collaboration with writer Kiyohide Ohara. Osada discusses the challenges of adaptation in general and specifically the challenge in adapting manga, something he had never attempted prior to “Lady Snowblood.”

You can also watch the original theatrical trailer (3 min.) for “Lady Snowblood.” The only extra accessible from the menu for “Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance” is also a theatrical trailer (2 min.)

The slim fold-out insert booklet features an essay by critic Howard Hampton.

Final Thoughts:
I usually find revenge stories tedious and sometimes outright repellent. I didn't always find the “Snowblood” films compelling, but the bloody charms mostly exceed the limitations, in large part thanks to Kaji's serene, iconic lead performance and an array of lovely widescreen compositions. The extras are pretty skimpy here, but the high-def transfers are solid. With two movies on one Blu-ray, this release makes for a pretty solid deal.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Medium Cool: A Tribute To Haskell Wexler


According to his son Jeff, Haskell Wexler died peacefully in his sleep yesterday at the age of 93. Like Alain Resnais and Manoel De Oliveira, Wexler had entered the pantheon of venerable presences whose shadow loomed so large over the world of cinema for such a long time that everyone had become accustomed to assuming he would be around forever. They had always been making movies, after all. As with Resnais and Oliveira, it comes as a shock to learn that was only a fantasy.

After serving in the U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II, Wexler began working as an assistant cameraman in the late '40s. It was the first step on a path that would cross virtually every aspect of American cinema during the last half of the 20th century and into the 21st.

By the '60s, Wexler established himself as one of the preeminent cinematographers of his or any other generation. After serving as director of photography on Elia Kazan's “America, America” (1963) and Tony Richardson's “The Loved One” (1965), Wexler netted his first Oscar for Mike Nichols' “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966). He would win another in 1976 for his pioneering Steadicam work on Hal Ashby's “Bound for Glory” after settling for a mere nomination on a little film called “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” the year before.

Lensing many of the landmark achievements of the '60s and '70s wasn't enough to keep the politically engaged Wexler fully occupied, however. He would direct numerous activist documentaries, including “Introduction To The Enemy” (1974) with Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden, a film potent enough to get boycotted by The American Legion, a distinction that put Wexler in the same admirable company as Charlie Chaplin. He remained almost supernaturally active in recent years, directing “Four Days In Chicago” (2012), a film about the Occupy Moment's protests at the 2012 NATO summit, and working tirelessly as cinematographer on numerous documentaries by other directors.

Wexler's influence extended from Hollywoood feature film to independent documentary, but cinephiles may know him best for his visit to one of the points in-between. The remarkable fiction-documentary hybrid “Medium Cool” (1969) not only became one of Wexler's primary calling cards, but was also swiftly embraced as one of the defining films of late-'60s America. Below, you will find my review of the Criterion Collection's 2013 release of Wexler's masterpiece.

I cannot offhand think of a figure analogous to Wexler in American cinema. He was a true original, a force of nature whose legacy we are only just beginning to process.

MEDIUM COOL (Wexler, 1969)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date May 21, 2013
Review by Christopher S. Long

To anyone who describes “Medium Cool” (1969) as feeling dated, my response is, “I know! Isn't it great?”

John (Robert Forster) is a Chicago-based television news cameraman who loves his job, until he is forced to confront the reality of it. That's exceedingly difficult because John has come to rely on the lens as an intermediary agent, a distorting shield that transforms the world into shots meant to be captured rather than life meant to be experienced. He wants to approach his job like his sound man Gus (Peter Bonerz) who views himself as just “an elongation of a tape recorder” - detachment as the defining mark of a professional. But it's 1968, and the bullets that ended the lives of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy have shattered any illusions of journalistic impartiality, rendered it impossible, or at least profoundly irresponsible, to remain aloof.

Cinematographer Haskell Wexler (fresh off an Oscar for “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”) had no qualms about diving right into the political and social muck as he prepared to direct his first feature. Wexler was initially hired by Paramount to adapt a novel about a boy who found wildlife in New York City (Jack Couffer's “The Concrete Wilderness”) but scrapped the story entirely for a film that engaged with more immediate concerns. Wexler had already worked on a few documentaries and integrated so-called non-fiction techniques with his fictional material. If there's a fight between the two, non-fiction wins by a knockout.

John quits his job after finding out the studio has been giving his footage to the FBI (be vewy quiet, they're hunting for wadicals) and falls in with relocated West Virginia war widow Eileen (Verna Bloom) and her ten-year-old son Harold (Harold Blankenship), both struggling to adjust to life in the big, bad city. John bonds with Harold; John and Eileen wind up at the obligatory late '60s psychedelic rock show; they groove at the roller derby. I last watched “Medium Cool” about fifteen years ago and I admit I had forgotten almost everything about these parts of the film. What I remembered was the yellow dress.

As various plot threads unravel, Eileen winds up searching for Harold in the midst of the protests surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention while John covers the event from inside the cocoon of the Chicago Amphitheatre. Wexler and other crew members follow Verna Bloom, decked out in her now famous yellow dress and staying gamely in character, as she winds her way through the chanting protesters and the police and National Guard decked out in riot gear. Narrative concerns recede as the camera simply tries to track the yellow dress that flits in and out of sight as the blood begins to flow and tear gas envelops the crowd as well as the crew, producing the much-discussed shout of “Look out, Haskell, it's real!” This legendary fourth-wall-shattering warning, by the way, was not real, but was added in post-production.

Wexler's camera (along with camera operator Mike Margulies) might not have shaped the events of 1968 (the film wouldn't reach theaters until 1969 – no instant YouTube uploads), but it has shaped the way the events have been remembered. As seen in the film, TV news crews, encumbered by their vehicle-mounted film fortresses, captured only the faintest sense of what was happening in the crowd as police and guardsmen waged war on American citizens. Wexler's sprier band of outsiders brought viewers into the heart and the heat of a shameful moment that now looks like a rehearsal for Kent State. And as the phrase “brave performance” is carelessly overapplied by film critics, let's take a moment to acknowledge that Verna Bloom showed true grit here.

“Medium Cool” deserves a better fate than to be reduced only to this climactic sequence. There are other great moments like when a group of black activists wrest control of an interview from John, the cinephilic name dropping from Godard to “Mondo Cane,” and Peter Boyle in his first credited role. But the vibrancy of the actuality footage (including scenes from National Guard training exercises shown earlier in the movie) eclipses most of the more traditionally scripted dramatic sequences, and compensates for a heavy-handed bracketing device that suggests a sense of closure somewhat out of place in a film defined by ruptures and chaos.

In a world where camera phones are ubiquitous and few filmmakers still cling to notions of objectivity in documentary, perhaps “Medium Cool” really does look dated. That is if, by dated, we mean pioneering, perceptive, and a vital capsule of an extraordinary moment in American history. We wouldn't still be talking about it if it wasn't.

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The new digital transfer has “been approved by Haskell Wexler” and this high-def treatment looks fantastic. There's no mention of a restored print, but the source is obviously in excellent condition because there is very little damage evident. A well-preserved thick grain structure gives the film an appropriately gritty look. When you see just how bad the clips in the Cronin documentary (an extra on the disc) look you can appreciate this version all the more.

The LPCM Mono track is solid if not dynamic. Most dialogue is clearly mixed. I believe that much of the sound in the street scenes was recorded separately from the image or added in post-production, but the mix still provides the impression of really being immersed in the moment. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Criterion has stacked the deck, starting with two commentary tracks. The first was recorded in 2001 and features Haskell Wexler, editorial consultant Paul Golding, and actress Marianna Hill. The second is newly recorded (2013) for this release and features film historian Paul Cronin.

The disc also includes excerpts from two Cronin documentaries.

“Look Out, Haskell, It's Real!” (2002, 53 min.) feels like a complete documentary but is described as consisting of “extended excerpts.” The documentary includes interviews with Wexler, author Studs Terkel (a consultant for the film credited as “Our Man in Chicago”), actors Robert Forster, Verna Bloom and Peter Bonerz as well as others. Extensive clips from “Medium Cool” are interspersed with the interviews, and the clips are badly washed out, but the interviews look fine and provide plenty of substantive content. Second is a collection of excerpts from Cronin's 2007 documentary “Sooner or Later” (16 min.), in which he catches up with Harold Blankenship. Blankenship was a child actor from West Virginia who never appeared in another movie. He was long considered “lost” to film history until Cronin found him. This portrait is vivid and engaging; film fame did not lead to personal or financial fortune for Mr. Blankenship.

Criterion has also included a new (2013) interview with Wexler. The interview covers much of the same ground as seen in Cronin's documentary, but at 15 minutes it's still worth watching.

“'Medium Cool' Revisited” (33 min.) is a 2012 documentary in which Wexler returns to Chicago, and also many of the locations from “Medium Cool,” in order to record Occupy's protest at the May 2012 NATO summit. I can't say it's as riveting as “Medium Cool,” but it's a nice addition.

A Trailer (3 min.) rounds out the collection.

The 16-page insert booklet features an essay by film critic and programmer Thomas Beard.

Final Thoughts:
Rest in peace, Haskell Wexler, a true titan of cinema.

Thursday, December 24, 2015


Review by Christopher S. Long

(Originally posted in 2008. Re-posted in 2015 with substantial revisions.)

Albert Serra’s “Birdsong” (2008) has been described as the best Spanish film of the past thirty years. Specifically, Albert Serra has described it as the best Spanish film of the past thirty years.

I don't know whether Serra's bravado is sincere or merely part of a very convincing performance act. It also doesn’t matter one whit. (2015 Update: Seven years later, I'm pretty sure it's sincere.)

From the first scene of this unique and extraordinary movie, shot in high-contrast black-and-white digital video, you know that you are in the hands of a director who has complete confidence in his mastery of the audio-visual medium. Serra’s vision is so singular and so intrinsically cinematic it’s a challenge to describe it in words. To borrow a phrase from the Hollywood publicity machine, “Birdsong” is a movie event, a full immersion in the moment, a daredevil plunge into a world that is simultaneously abstract and so tangibly dense that it can hardly be penetrated.

If we can’t penetrate it, we can still talk about it, or at least dance around it. The plot summary is the easiest part: The Three Wise Men wander through the desert looking for baby Jesus. Eventually, they find him. Sorry about the spoiler. It’s the “eventually” that’s the catch, of course. These three kings of dis-orient have traveled from afar, and they don’t really know their way around these parts. They aren’t sure whether or not they should climb a mountain. They change directions and stop for rest frequently. Fortunately, they aren't in any particular hurry. Neither is the director.

Serra is fond of the long take. Really fond of the really long take. The film’s most bravura scene is a nine-minute long static shot in which the Wise Men trudge off into the distance, disappear over a ridge, reappear over the next one, and then begin to walk back towards camera. Or at least they appear to; it’s difficult to tell. The longer the shot is held, the more difficult it becomes to suss out what’s going on which is what makes it so mesmerizing. The desert mirage becomes more hallucinatory the longer you look at it.

“Birdsong” is also a surprisingly funny movie. I have no idea whether or not Albert Serra is a Three Stooges fan, but I couldn’t help make the comparison, especially because one of them (Lluis Serrat) happens to possess a Curly-esque figure. In yet another long take, the Magi jockey for comfortable position as they sleep in close quarters. After debating whether to move a bit to the left or a bit to the right, our hefty friend shouts “Spread out!” Nyuk nyuk. 

And did you ever think about what the Magi did after they delivered their gifts to the Christ child? Here, they just hang around until Joseph is finally forced to resort to the Biblical equivalent of flicking off the lights. Listen guys, an angel told me I need to escape to Egypt so, um, could you get going now? And oh by the way, Joseph is played by Canadian film critic Mark Peranson who speaks Hebrew while everyone else in the casts speaks Catalan. Why? Because Peranson doesn’t speak Catalan, silly!

“Birdsong” generates an endless stream of breathtaking images and each viewer will have his or her favorites. I keep thinking about a shadowy shot filmed at dawn in which one of the Wise Men, visibly only as a silhouette, breathes the chill morning air in and out in little puffs. He almost seems to be biting at the air. Perhaps he’s praying quietly, or maybe he just likes seeing his breath evaporate. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the sheer pleasure afforded by this strange and evocative image.

And pleasure is what “Birdsong” is all about, specifically visual pleasure. This is for the cinephilic junky who likes to look and keep on looking. Set free from the demands of a taditiaonlly suspenseful narrative, viewers don't need to anticipate the next plot development, the next shot, or ever to ask the question “Why?” You look for the sheer pleasure of looking at something pretty and taking the time (a lot of time) to enjoy it, wallowing in the thrill of witnessing images seldom seen. These are pictures to be scanned from left to right, top to bottom, and then back again. In this sense, Serra’s film harks back to the earliest days of cinema in which, as scholar Tom Gunning has written, the real power of cinema was not in the telling of a story but rather the power of “making images seen” entirely for their own sake. Cinema then was a new way of seeing, which seems relevant to a story of these proto-Christians, pioneers who were the first to look at the world through a whole new lens.

Serra’s sublime slapstick won’t suit everyone’s taste but what worthwhile film does? I have no idea if “Birdsong” is the best Spanish film of the past thirty years, but it is certainly the best film I have seen in quite some time and one that I have not been able to stop thinking about since I saw it six months ago. I watch movies precisely because every now and then something like “Birdsong” comes along.

(2015 Update: Seven years later and I'm still thinking about “Birdsong.” And really disappointed that it still hasn't gotten a home theater release in North America. I can't help but think this is the “purest” of all Christmas movies, or at least in a tie with “A Charlie Brown Christmas.)

Monday, December 21, 2015

Blast of Silence

BLAST OF SILENCE (Baron, 1961)
Criterion Collection, DVD, Release Date Apr 15, 2008
Review by Christopher S. Long

(Looking for something a little different to watch this Christmas season? Try this grim holiday treat from Allen Baron.)

Not too many films begin with a point-of-view shot of the protagonist’s birth, but that’s only one of many unusual things about Allen Baron’s “Blast of Silence” (1961).

The opening shot of Allen Baron's “Blast of Silence” (1961) depicts two births. A distant dot of light hovers in a pool of inky blackness as the narrator speaks: “Remembering out of the black silence, you were born in pain.” A woman screams, a baby cries. The second-person narration, written by Waldo Salt and delivered by an uncredited Lionel Stander (both blacklisted at the time), continues, sharing the soundtrack with the mounting rumble of a train. The distant light grows steadily, tracks become visible, and as the train bursts out of the tunnel, our protagonist is “born”again, entering the story as an adult who now keeps the screams inside.

That protagonist is a plain vanilla hit man named Frankie Bono (played by director Barron) though the narrator, constantly haranguing poor Frankie in that gravelly Lionel Stander voice, probably deserves co-billing. Frankie’s riding the train into New York for his next job, a straightforward hit on a mid-level mobster as unremarkable as Frankie. It's just another job and Frankie has no interest in why he's been asked to do it.

The story, however, is not really about the hit at all, but how Frankie kills time all alone in the big city, where most New Yorkers are busily preparing for Christmas, while waiting for an opportune moment to complete his job. Through the narrator, we can guess that Frankie has a rich and tormented internal life, but he seems sadly unaware of it. For Frankie, life’s just a whole lot of waiting and trying your best not to think about it. “It” being anything at all.

Arriving three years after Orson Welles’s “Touch of Evil,” Baron’s film is either a straggler at the end of the classic film noir period, or one of the earlier neo-noirs. Film noir was a term applied many years after the noir cycle began, so it’s unsurprising that critics can’t agree on the precise timing of each of the noir cycles or even how to define the genre. Like most noirs, the film’s universe is one that is severed from any sense of a higher being (at least a benevolent one), a world covered by only a thin veneer of civilization where even the slightest mistake, a stumble or a wrong turn, leads inevitably to tragedy. Frankie was “born in pain” and he lives in pain, always trying to drown out the scream that heralded his entry into this cruel world.

For Frankie, the wrong turn comes when he picks the wrong place to have dinner; an old friend meets him and insists he attend a Christmas party. At the party, Frankie meets his old flame Lorrie (Molly McCarthy). This unfortunate encounter stirs Frankie from his life-long stupor, and prompts him to wonder, for the first time as an adult, if there’s a way to make meaning out of this meaningless world. Sorry, Frankie, you’re in a film noir.

Allen Baron was a graphic designer (he was a comic book artist for a while) who shot his first feature film entirely on location, then an unusual thing to do though hardly unprecedented. Baron scraped together financing in various stages and shot the film piece-meal over two years. His friend Peter Falk was originally slated for the title role but got a better offer (i.e. one that paid) so Baron was forced to step into the role. Baron appears ill-suited to be in front of the camera, which works just fine since Frankie is ill-suited to be anywhere. Frankie’s very birth was a mistake, and his continued existence only compounds the error. He’s a man out of place in every place he goes.

The film takes great advantage of its New York locations as well as the contrast between Frankie’s isolation and the communal nature of the Christmas season. Frankie walks past brightly lit Christmas trees and wanders through crowds of shoppers, severed from any connection to the people or to the holiday season. No joy to his world. “Blast of Silence” could just as easily have been titled with a different oxymoron, “Alone in a Crowd.”

Another highlight of the film is the performance by Larry Tucker as the sleazy, obese gun dealer Big Ralph. Tucker’s massive enough to have his own gravity well, yet so mousy and insubstantial he could sneak up on you without warning. Tucker later focused on a writing career (he was nominated for an Oscar as the co-writer of “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice”) but he turned in one more memorable role, as Pagliacci in Sam Fuller’s madhouse flick “Shock Corridor.”

No matter how many noirs you’ve watched, I guarantee you’ve never seen anything quite like this one. 

The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 full-screen aspect ratio. The image is not picture-boxed. The black-and-white photography looks sharp and beautiful in this restored transfer. Some evidence of wear and tear from the source is still visible, but it’s not even the slightest bit of a distraction.

The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. Optional English subtitles support the English audio. Stander's pervasive narration comes through loud and clear and the sound design has an appropriately hollow quality to it.

“Requiem for a Killer” is a 60-minute documentary featuring Baron as he revisits the filming locations of “Blast of Silence.” This feature is a 2006 assemblage by film historian Robert Fischer who uses footage from a 1990 West German TV documentary about Baron combined with new interview material.

“Locations Revisited” is a series of still photos that, well, revisit NYC locations. It’s a bit of a repeat of the material in “Requiem.”

The disc also includes a fairly extensive collection of on-set Polaroids (about 40 in all) with captions from Baron’s own descriptions written on the back of the photos.

The slim eight page insert booklet features an essay by film critic Terrence Rafferty. Criterion has also included an additional insert, a 4-page mini comic book by artist Sean Phillips (artist of the recent smash-hit Marvel mini-series “Marvel Zombies.”)

Final Thoughts:
After a promising film debut, Allen Baron went on to a career in television, directing episodes of a host of well-known 60s and 70s shows, including “Kolchak: The Night Stalker,” “The Dukes of Hazzard,” and even “Charlie’s Angels.” That only makes “Blast of Silence” even more of an anomaly, a bizarre one-off that is quintessentially noir while not particularly resembling many other noirs. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s damned interesting and even an under-the-radar Christmas film if you're not too wedded to the “Merry” part of “Merry Christmas.”

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Julien Duvivier In The Thirties: Eclipse Series 44

Eclipse Series From Criterion, DVD, Release Date Nov 3, 2015
Review by Christopher S. Long

If director Julien Duvivier's star dimmed in the post-war years, the 1930s witnessed him a the height of his prowess. Few directors would make the transition from silent cinema to talkies as seamlessly as Duvivier even if, like most directors, he made the change only with great reluctance.

Following a successful run of more than twenty silent pictures, Duvivier's talkie debut was an absolute stunner. “David Golder” (1930) isn't exactly a cheerful pick-me-up. The film's opening montage film shows a shouting crowd; characters super-imposed over the masses warn us that the film's title character is both a “scoundrel” and “a great man.” The paunchy, aging Golder (Harry Baur, who stars in all four films on this Eclipse set) backs up both claims in a difficult financial negotiation set in a smoky room lit mostly by the glare reflecting off sweaty, balding foreheads. This is a business man who means business. 

It's reasonable to be concerned about the ultimate purpose of a film centered on a greedy Jewish banker and his equally greedy wife and daughter. But the film, based on the debut novel of Russian-born Jewish writer Irene Nemirovsky, paints a vivid portrait of wealthy European Jews at the onset of the worldwide economic depression, filled with the intrigues and scheming of any insular group of power brokers, and any family corrupted by easy money.

In a truly harrowing sequence, Golder, recovering from a recent heart attack, argues with his wife Gloria (Paule Andral) while bed-ridden. After Gloria accuses him of being “the same little Jew” who sold scraps, he almost literally chokes her to death by grabbing her extravagantly jeweled necklace. He strikes another damaging blow when he reminds Gloria that she once was known as Havke. It's one of the most bilious displays I can recall seeing in any film, genuine, seething hatred from two fully invested actors.

Duvivier and his team of cinematographers balance grotesque imagery (David wanders in on a sweaty obese man toweling himself off while wearing only underpants) with many immaculate compositions, including a remarkable shot that allows separate actions to unfold in different rooms, each cordoned off in opposite halves of the frame. Duvivier is a big fan of parallel action; when not peering into two rooms at once, he cuts back and forth aggressively between simultaneous sequences, one of which ends with a suicide on a night-time street. The camera also lingers on the faces of impassive butlers while their “masters” discuss their various schemes, showing that Duvivier had no problems taking advantage of the new opportunities afforded by sound technology.

“David Golder” is so relentlessly gloomy that the next film in the set feels positively upbeat by comparison. After all the title character of “Poil De Carotte” (“Carrot Top”, 1932) is just a ten-year-old boy who contemplates suicide due to the cruelty of his mother and the benign neglect of his father (Baur). Carrot Top (Robert Lynen) does his best to endure a family situation in which he feels so disenfranchised he refers to his parents as Mr. and Mrs. Lepic. Mother openly despises him, perhaps because he arrived late in life as an unexpected gift, while doting on her feckless oldest son. Father is primarily concerned with escaping his wife and running for mayor of their small town.

The film was a huge commercial success for Duvivier in no small part due to the plucky performance delivered by young Lynen. Carrot Top has a rich imagination which both allows him to survive and also produces frightening manifestations such as the circle of phantoms who swirl about him as he makes a nighttime dash to feed the livestock. He is, unfortunately, too perceptive to deny his situation and his prayers for mother to “forget I exist” give way to voices in his head (also filmed as ghostly apparitions) urging him to end his problems for good. A last-minute reconciliation between father and son comes as an immense relief even if there's little reason to believe the boy will live happily ever after.

“La Tete D'un Homme” (1933) sees Duvivier try his hand at the detective story, this time casting Baur as Georges Simenon's world-famous Inspector Maigret. Duvivier and co-screenwriters Louis Delapree and Pierre Calmann remove all suspense from the story, providing viewers access to the planning and execution of the murder of an elderly American widow that kicks off the action. The tension builds slowly in the unraveling, first when a hapless schmuck of a thief (Alexandre Rignault, whose giant hatchet face pegs him as a born patsy) is framed for the crime and later as the supernaturally patient Maigret zeroes in on the real killer. Rignault's flight into the nighttime Paris is a sequence of moody perfection capped off by a thin, elongated shadow seemingly copied directly from “Nosferatu.”

Since the crime itself is a bit of a bore, the movie wouldn't work without an intriguing killer. Fortunately the film delivers in the form of the tormented Czech medical student Radek, a character seemingly plucked from a Dostoevsky novel. Thinking himself superior and the unfair victim of a terminal malady, he exhibits little guilt, preferring to taunt the police instead. Russian import Valery Inkijinoff adds another indelible face to the film's rogue gallery, his remarkably expressive features practically an open window to a shriveled soul. Baur is almost overshadowed in the process, but turns in a fine performance as a calm, implacable investigator whose secret weapon is the ability to listen.

The final film in the set provides at least intermittent respite from the misery of the first three entries. “Un Carnet Du Bal” (“Dance Card”, 1937) is an episodic feature that may play to some viewers like an early Max Ophuls film and is surely the most elegant feature in the set. Christine (Marie Bell) is recently widowed and hopes to alleviate her grief, or at least come to terms with it, by reconnecting with the male suitors who danced with her at her coming-out ball on her 16th birthday, nearly two decades ago.

Her adventures take her from Italy to France and through a varied series of encounters that prove that the past is irretrievable and the future entirely unforeseeable. Many of the men have fallen on hard times, a few because Christine did not entertain their advances back at the ball. Unsurprisingly, Harry Baur delivers the most memorable performance. His disappointment with Christine's rejection, as well as another great personal loss, drove him to the priesthood where he feels he does great good, but not enough to overcome his lingering heartache. In another vivid encounter, she meets with a former lover whose life has taken him from lawyer to petty crook. The two hours he spends talking with her may be the last he spends as a free man, but the opportunity to see himself through her eyes might make it all bearable.

Other men have adjusted to post-Christine life more happily, including a heroic but lonely mountain guide, a small-town mayor about to remarry, and an ebullient hairdresser with a penchant for dopey card tricks. Christine's travels are initiated by her memory of the ball, rendered by Duvivier and team as a carefully choreographed phantasmagoria reminiscent of Carrot Top's swirling ghosts, and her journey inevitably takes her back to the beginning, to another ball and then back home to the Italian villa she had shared with her husband. “Un Carnet Du Bal” was yet another big hit for Duvivier, released the same year as perhaps his best-remember film today, “Pepe Le Moko.”

The success of “Pepe” and, to a lesser degree, “Carnet Du Bal” brought Duvivier to Hollywood before he returned to France, with a few detours to the UK, after the war. While he still directed some fine films during the post-war period, his critical reputation would suffer once the “Cahiers Du Cinema” critics lumped him unfairly in with their despised purveyors of “the tradition of quality.” Duvivier has since been embraced once again by critics, but still remains eclipsed by the shadows of his contemporary stars like Marcel Carne and Jean Renoir, the latter of whom rated Duvivier as one of the greatest filmmakers of any era.

All four films are shot in black-and-white. “David Golder” is presented in its original 1.19:1 aspect ratio, a ratio used only in the first few years of sound film. The other three films are presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios. As usual with Eclipse releases, the films have not been restored for this release and they vary in quality. “La Tete D'Un Homme” shows the most damage with several short shots badly warped around the edges, but most of it still looks fine. “Poil De Carotte” probably looks the best. Overall, while the film's all show some instances of damage with the occasional skipped frame evident, they are still sharp enough to show a pleasing grain and a satisfying black-and-white contrast. Considering the age of the films, these “no frills” restorations look quite solid.

Each film is on its own DVD housed in a separate slim keep case. All four slim cases tuck into the cardboard packaging for the set.

All four films are presented in Dolby Digital Mono sound mixes. Voices sometimes sound a little tinny and the music a bit warbly, but overall the quality is acceptable if far from spectacular. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.

As with most Eclipse releases, no extras are provided aside from liner notes on each of the four discs by Michael Koresky who, as usual, does a fabulous job.

Final Thoughts:
I think “David Golder” is a flat-out masterpiece and “Un Carnet Du Bal” is so rich I expect to enjoy it even more on repeat viewings; the other two films are damned fine as well. Yet as marvelous as the movies in this four-disc Eclipse set are, they also provide a sobering reminder of the tragedy of history. Thanks to the success of “Poil De Carotte,” Robert Lynen became one of France's pre-eminent child stars in the '30s. By the age of 20, he joined the French Resistance and was executed by the Nazis in 1944. The great Harry Baur, nearly omnipresent in this set, appeared in several other films for Duvivier, enjoying his own stardom. Baur would also die at the hands of the Nazis in 1943. Novelist Irene Nemirovsky was killed in Auschwitz in 1942.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Apu Trilogy

THE APU TRILOGY (S. Ray, 1955-1958)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Nov 17, 2015
Review by Christopher S. Long

The scope of Satyajit Ray's “The Apu Trilogy,” adapted from the popular Bengali novels of Bibhutibhusan Banerjee, is nothing less than the life of its title protagonist from birth to adulthood, from an impoverished childhood in a rural Indian village to a university education in Calcutta and then to points beyond that. Any effort to encapsulate the entire series in a mere review is doomed to seem superficial and incomplete.

Better to recount only the moments that linger most vividly, though even they are so numerous as to cram a short-form essay to bursting, in the hopes of creating an impression for the reader of just how monumental Ray's achievement is, one of the most monumental in the history of cinema.

For starters, Apu is nowhere near the most interesting character in the first film in the series. The stars of “Pather Panchali” (1955) are three remarkable women. Mother Sarbajaya (Karuna Banerjee) shines in the first two films of the trilogy. In her debut, she provides the pragmatic ballast to her idealist husband Harihar (Kanu Banerjee), which leaves her to do the literal dirty work of the household as well as putting her in charge of discipline. The latter duty generally involves daughter Durga (Runki Banerjee as a little girl, Uma Das Gupta when older), the unrepentant petty thief so full of energy and joy that the confines of the crumbling family abode cannot contain her. She dashes through the countryside, dances in the rain, and cagily evades prying eyes to spend time with her beloved Auntie.

I am confident that nobody who has ever seen “Pather Panchali” will forget Auntie, played by 80-year-old veteran stage actress Chunibala Devi, coaxed out of a lengthy retirement by Ray. Auntie is an unspecified family relation so bent over by time her body forms a near-perfect right angle as she shuffles through the dirt, defiantly stealing one more day and still another, all with a quiet dignity and scrappy resourcefulness that inspires Durga, even as the burden of Auntie's upkeep frustrates Sarbajaya whose own dreams die each day she shoulders the role of universal caretaker.

All three women are so mesmerizing that little Apu (Subir Banerjee) can hardly make an impression by comparison. Yet his first appearance still provides one of the series' high points. Durga wakes up her sleepy-head brother who hides under a blanket until a single eye is visible peering out at his sister and at the audience. Both mother and sister dote on Apu to the point of ignoring their own needs, a testament to a patriarchal society but also to genuine love, which also conveniently sets us up for the next chapter when Apu will finally take center stage in his own trilogy.

The family home, a dirt courtyard and a few small rooms partially ringed by collapsing stone walls, is almost as memorable as the women of the film. Shots of the surrounding countryside further showcase the evocative power of effective location shooting, lending the film the sense of naturalism that earned instant comparisons to Italian neo-realism. Rendered in subdued black-and-white by cinematographer Subrata Mitra, this poor rural village is a defining element inextricable from the characters that populate it.

In “Aparajito” (1956) the family has moved to the holy city of Benares (now Varanasi) where Apu's father plies his trade as a local priest. Early shots of hundreds of people gathered along the Ganges, just about everyone dressed in a white that fills the visual field (occasionally making subtitles difficult to read) immerse viewers inthe new location. Apu (now played by Pinaki Sengupta) is a bit older, but still young enough to spend most of his day playing and wandering. This produces some dreamy interludes such as when he watches a muscle-bound man on the docks swinging a weighted rod, or when Apu feeds a cluster of monkeys who chatter and ring bells, performing a chorus just for the young boy.

Apu's idle adventures fire his imagination and lead to perhaps the most inspiring sequence in the trilogy. After Apu enrolls in school, his connection to a broader world of ideas yields a seismic effect. He explains the orbital mechanics of an eclipse to his wide-eyed mother and is transformed so completely that, without warning, in the space of a single cut, Apu has suddenly become a teenager (Smaran Ghosal) who is now the star pupil of his school.

If I have made the series out to be a childlike wonderland so far, let me disabuse you of the notion. Satyajit Ray is a cruel taskmaster. Death is a constant presence in the trilogy, but tragedy manifests by many other means as well. Apu's education is a personal liberation, but also drives a permanent wedge between him and his mother, who knows how bleak life will be if her pride and joy dashes off to Calcutta to continue his studies. Cinema has offered many a mother who tugs on the viewer's heartstrings, but I cannot offhand recall a more brutal moment in filmic mother-son relations than when the loving, hard-working, self-sacrificing Sarbajaya asks Apu “Am I to be cast aside?” and he, in effect ultimately answers, “Yes.”

By “Apur Sansar” (1959), the adult Apu (Soumitra Chatterjee, who would star in over a dozen Ray films) is alone in Calcutta and forced to abandon university studies, though hopefully not his burgeoning writing career, due to a lack of funds. After he unexpectedly finds himself pinch-hitting for the groom at a wedding, he embarks on a new chapter of his life as a married man. It is only after the marriage that he falls wildly in love with his young bride Aparna (Sharmila Tagore, just 13 at the time) and ready to enjoy life once again. In one of the most-quoted shots in the trilogy, Aparna rises from bed to conduct her morning chores, only to find that the mischievous Apu has tied her voluminous sari to his own clothing; she must pry it away before she can escape his tender clutches. Staying consistent with the pattern of the series, Ray doesn't allow happiness to last long, and Apu spends much of the film lost in the labyrinth his own grief, with no promise he will ever find his way back out.

The special place “The Apu Trilogy” occupies in the canon of world cinema is justified solely by its artistic achievements, but is buttressed in no small part because its story of the emergence and maturation of Apu mirrors that of its writer/director/producer. Satyajit Ray was no country bumpkin when he began shooting. A member of a proud artistic and literary family, Ray was an accomplished commercial artist whose book illustrations (including those for an abridged version of “Pather Panchali” adapted for children) were both well-known and respected. But Ray had nurtured a passion for cinema for years, co-founding the Calcutta Film Society in 1947, writing criticism (including an influential essay critiquing Indian commercial cinema), and participating in location scouting for Jean Renoir's 1950 film “The River.”

In the fall of 1952, Ray decided to start filming his screenplay of “Pather Panchali” with no prior directing experience. His severely underbudgeted crew was similarly inexperienced, including cinematographer Subrata Mitra, an accomplished still photographer now working with a motion-picture camera for the first time. With virtually no money, Ray's initial plan was to shoot a few scenes on location in rural Bengal, in hopes of using it to secure government funding to complete the film. His audacious gambit succeeded, though the shoot would proceed in fits and starts, taking about two years to complete due to multiple prolonged stoppages necessitated by the lack of cash flow.

“Pather Panchali” was a success in Indian theaters, a pleasant surprise in a country defined by lavish musical productions far removed from Ray's gritty, naturalistic, and sometimes depressing vision. When it hit the festival circuit, the film not only introduced Satyajit Ray to the world, but was largely credited with introducing the category of Indian cinema to international audiences. Ray would often be seen as the global representative of all Indian film, an unfair burden for the director and an equally unfair dismissal of one of the world's most prolific national cinemas.

“Aparajito” wasn't nearly as successful commercially in India, but it still earned positive festival attention and convinced Ray to complete the trilogy, which was not at all his idea from the start. By the time the world got to see Apu as an adult in “Apur Sansar,” the neophyte who took the world by storm had become an established star both at home and abroad. He had already snuck in another masterpiece, “The Music Room” (1958), before completing the trilogy and would waste no time in proving that he was no flash in the pan, churning out, seemingly effortlessly, equally great films such as “The Big City” (1963) and “Charulata” (1964). “The Apu Trilogy” was an achievement sufficient to secure an lifelong legacy - for Ray, it was merely the opening salvo in one of the most remarkable careers of the 20th century.

And, yeah, I swear, even here just past the 1,500 word mark, I really did just touch on a few of the highlights. And I didn't even talk about the trains. Or mention Ravi Shankar. 

Most of us have become accustomed to seeing lesser-quality versions of “The Apu Trilogy.” This is due in part to a 1993 laboratory fire in London which badly damaged the original negatives to several of Ray's films, including “The Apu Trilogy.” Sony Pictures Classics released the trilogy on DVD back in 2003 and though they'd had some restoration, the picture quality was disappointing even if it was “best possible” at the time.

The extensive restoration project undertaken by Criterion and L'Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, Italy for this Blu-ray release involved salvaging whatever of the burned negatives could still be restored (through rehydration, recreating sprocket holes, etc.) and scouring the globe for other sources to restore the rest of the material. A feature on disc three explains part of the laborious process.

The net result can only be described as a revelation for viewers. With multiple sources there is inevitably some variation with damage more noticeable in a handful of scenes, but so much of the trilogy looks outright luminous with sharp detail visible in scenes I had only seen in blurry, badly compromised versions before. The films generally look much brighter than in previous DVD releases which means the prominent whites can sometimes be a bit overwhelming (though seldom “blown out”) in these black-and-white images, but compared to the dingy, drab look before this is still a vast improvement. “Apur Sansar” is the most even in quality but this is probably due to the fact that none of the original negative could be used and the whole film “was restored from a fine-grain master and a duplicate negative.”

Considering how close we were to losing Ray's original negatives, it's simply extraordinary to have the opportunity to see them restored to this condition.

The audio required extensive restoration as well. Dropoffs in audio quality are usually more noticeable and jarring than, say, a slightly softer image might be. Considering how much damage was present and how many sources were used for these transfers, the consistent quality of the audio is nothing short of amazing. The voices in “Pather Panchali” may sound a bit tinnier than in the other two films, but that's likely attributable to Ray's low-budget approach in his debut film. The most important aspect of the sound mix is the Ravi Shankar score, heavy on sitar on flute, that helps to define the trilogy almost as much as the image, acting, and writing. In a word, it sounds great. I'm really not qualified to attest to how true to the original it is, but I can't imagine it's far off. Optional English subtitles support the Bengali dialogue.

There are no commentary tracks offered on this three-disc set, but Criterion has included an ample array of supporting extras on each disc.

Disc One (“Pather Panchali”) kicks off with “A Long Time On The Little Road” (14 min.) This is an audio-only extra that features Satyajit Ray reading from his 1957 “Sight & Sound” article about the making of “Pather Panchali.” The audio was recorded by film critic Gideon Bachmann. In addition to his seemingly endless artistic gifts, Ray had a magnificent speaking voice, rich and smooth and utterly mesmerizing.

The disc also includes several interviews recently recorded by Criterion. Soumitra Chatterjee (7 min.) does not appear in “Pather Panchali” but talks about how the film and his appreciation for Ray's early work prepared him for his film debut as the adult Apu in “Apur Sansar.” Shampa Srivastava (16 min.) played young Durga (credited as Runki Banerjee) and discusses what it was like to be a six-year-old actress on set with Ray, who she describes as tall and handsome, both imposing and awe-inspiring. Soumendu Roy (12 min.) was an assistant cameraman on “Pather Panchali” and later become one of Ray's regular camera operators. He discusses the challenges of location shooting in Boral Village and how the shoot felt very much like a family experience.

The disc also includes a short feature with the great musician Ravi Shankar (6 min.) who composed the music for all three films. This mildly disappointing feature consists of brief excerpts from a 2003 documentary titled “The Song Of The Little Road.”

Disc Two (“Aparajito”) begins with “The Small Details” (11 min.), a recent interview with film writer Ujjal Chakraborty who touches on Ray's career as a commercial illustrator while also providing some details about the shift in locations in “Aparajito.”

We also get another audio recording by Gideon Bachmann, this time of Ray speaking at the 1958 Robert Flaherty Film Seminar in Vermont in conjunction with the official U.S. release of “Pather Panchali.” This 14-minute audio-only feature sees Ray specifying his work as Bengali rather than Indian and touching on other details about the trilogy's release. Ray's voice – my goodness.

“Making 'The Apu Trilogy': Satyajit Ray's Epic Debut” (38 min.) is a new video essay written and narrated by Ray biographer Andrew Robinson. He describes the trilogy's impact as nothing less than a “radical re-orientation of the world's view of India” and provides plenty of information about Ray's career and insightful analysis of the trilogy.

“The Creative Person: Satyajit Ray” (29 min.) is a 1967 episode of the Canadian TV series “The Creative Person” directed by documentarian James Beveridge. Beveridge went to Calcutta to film Ray at work and this episode consists of interviews with Ray, Soumitra Chaterjee, Karuna Banerjee, and other cast and crew.

Disc Three (“Apur Sansar') offers a feature (15 min,) that combines new interviews with actor Soumitra Chaterjee and actress Sharmila Tagore. I was particularly interested in Tagore's account of being a schoolgirl thrown into a major shoot and discovering a previously unknown love of acting that would shape her life. She describes how heavily directed her performance was at this early stage of her career and how Ray didn't shoot many takes or conduct lengthy rehearsals.

“'The Apu Trilogy': A Closer Look” (43 min.) is a lengthy interview with Mamoun Hassan, filmmaker, producer and former head of production at the British Film Institute. Hassan provides a close reading of several motifs in the films with special attention to some of its more ominous aspects. And he talks a lot about trains.

The disc also includes a feature on the restoration of the trilogy, directed by filmmaker::kogonada and is offered both in a Shorter Version (3 min.) and a Longer Version (12 min.). For Criterion fans, the longer version will let you see and hear from several Criterion employees as well as from the diligent preservationists at L'Immagine Ritrovato in Bologna. Many of The amount of restoration that went into this project was nothing short of heroic.

The final feature is a 3-minute video of Ray's acceptance speech when he was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1992, shortly before his death. Even gravely ill in his hospital bed, he has a commanding presence and even gets a few good laughs.

The insert booklet includes essays by film critics Terrence Rafferty and Girish Shambu, whose blog at should be on every cinephile's reading list, as well as several of Ray's storyboards for “Pather Panchali” and a few pages discussing the films' restoration.

Final Thoughts:
Sorry, “Star Wars” fans, this is the greatest trilogy of all time. And this epic three-disc set from Criterion, restoring Ray's masterpiece to its audiovisual glory, is going to be hard to beat as the besst Blu-ray release of 2015.

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Exiles

THE EXILES (Mackenzie, 1961)
Milestone Films, DVD, Release Date Nov 17, 2009
Review by Christopher S. Long

(On Nov 12, 2015, TCM will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of the great independent distributor Milestone Films with a marathon of five of the great titles they've released during their impressive quarter-century run. Kent Mackenzie's "The Exiles" is one of the films in the program and, like all of them, is more than worth your while. I originally posted this review in 2009 - now re-posted with significant revisions - when Milestone released their meticulously curated DVD. If you click on the Milestone tab at the bottom of the review, you'll find that my reviews of their titles repeatedly gush over the care they lavish on their projects. If anything, I may not be doing them justice. You can also find my reviews for other films in the TCM tribute to Milestone, including Shirley Clarke's "The Connection," Lionel Rogosin's "Come Back, Africa," and Edward S. Curtis's "In The Land of the Head Hunters.")

In the great book “Movie Mutations,” critic Alexander Horwath discusses his concerns about “film-cultural globalization” and the tendency of the art-house circuit to focus disproportionately on “a few masters who can transcend all national borders and dance on all markets.” Films that “travel well” are celebrated for their universality, presumably the most laudable goal of art under this globalization model.

Horwath argues in favor of an alternative: “I am much more interested in filmmakers who speak in concrete words and voices, from a concrete place, about concrete plans and characters.” Specificity is the key here. Horwath values the films that depict the nuances and details of a singular time and place, irreducible qualities that would be lost if they were subsumed into a generic global culture in the pursuit of universality.

“The Exiles” (1961) is a sterling example of a film that speaks in “concrete words and voices, from a concrete place.” The words and voices in this case belong to several young Native American men and women who have moved from the reservation into the (now non-existent) Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles circa 1958-1959. The cast consists of non-professional actors who portray slightly fictionalized versions of themselves as they spend twelve hours roaming at night through the neighborhood.

Writer/director Kent Mackenzie goes to great pains to distinguish his characters from the depictions of Indians in American cinema and mainstream culture. The film begins with a montage of photographs by (in)famous photographer Edward S. Curtis whose Native American subjects are terribly serious and dignified. They’ve learned, a la “Smoke Signals,” to “get stoic.” Mackenzie then cuts directly to his modern characters with their blue jeans and slicked-back hair as Native chants are replaced with a bopping rock ‘n roll track by the Revels. Now it's time to “get down.” 

Expectant mother Yvonne (Yvonne Williams) struggles gamely to maintain a household on limited means and keep up her spirits in the process. Her husband Homer (Homer Nish) and his friend Tommy (Tom Reynolds) shoulder their burdens as well, but enjoy more freedom to shirk their responsibilities and blow off some steam. Homer dumps th harried Yvonne at the movies so he can hang out with his buddies and knock back more than a few cold ones, while slick-talking Tommy chases any skirt that wanders into his line of vision. All the while that great Revels music permeates the film, providing everyone a good excuse to dance and have a good time.

“The Exiles” is not a documentary, but it has documentary elements. Mackenzie constructed a narrative based on interviews and conversations with his actors (who he got to know well before shooting) and gives them a chance to speak about their own concerns in voice-over. Yvonne talks about her fears for her baby and her wavering faith. Homer relates an anecdote from his childhood on the Arizona reservation. The goal is to capture a twelve-hour slice of their lives, one that is true of their experiences but, as the narrator at the beginning of the film says, one that “is not true of all Indians today.” Only true of these young men and women (“concrete characters”) as well as many of their friends who are also seen in the movie, chilling, rocking, and living just enough for the city.

While tracking his characters, Mackenzie evokes a powerful sense of place seldom seen in movies. Homer and Tommy cruise from café to café, drive through tunnels (with open beer bottles in hand), and walk down alleyways all within a couple square miles of each other. You get the impression that they haven’t left the confines of their Bunker Hill neighborhood in years and have probably never thought twice about it. It’s just their world, a world captured at night in gorgeous black-and-white by cinematographers Erik Daarstad, Robert Kaufman, and John Arthur Morrill over a lengthy, intermittent shoot from 1958 to 1959.

Mackenzie’s film played a few festivals and then, failing to secure distribution, was all but forgotten by most viewers for nearly four decades until filmmaker Thom Anderson brought it back to the attention of both audiences and critics in his 2003 documentary “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” praising it as the best Bunker Hill film. The badly faded clips he showed rekindled interest in this “lost” film. Happily the UCLA Film and Television Archive and Milestone Films were eager and willing to pick up the project. UCLA’s restored print is a luminescent miracle and looks like it was struck from the original negative yesterday. Milestone’s extraordinary contributions to the project are discussed in the sections below.

There are a few remarkable moments in “The Exiles” that stand out for me, some of those “concrete details” that Horwath wrote about: Yvonne shopping at the bustling Central Market, Homer’s friend lounging on the bed reading a comic book with the title “The Terrible Toy!”*, the television jingle for “Double Crisp” that plays in the background while Tommy tries to scam money from his girlfriend/wife, the many different faces at the Columbine Café, the light glistening off a policeman’s twirling baton, Tommy playing “air piano” on the bar as the omnipresent jukebox blasts the Revels. Certainly everyone can connect to these characters and their experiences (that universal thing again), but it’s the specific touches that give the film a time capsule power that makes it so special. Bunker Hill may not exist anymore, but this Bunker Hill, on this night (a “single” night created over multiple nights on a lengthy shoot), is palpable and will exist forever.

Mackenzie worked on several short films but only completed only one other feature, “Saturday Morning” (1971), before his death in 1980 at the age of 50. “The Exiles” alone is enough to secure his place in history as a great American independent filmmaker. It is a history from which he has been all but erased until now. Thanks to Thom Anderson, UCLA, Milestone, the Mackenzie Family, and many others, his name is back in the books and his film, no doubt, will be back on film school curricula where it belongs. This DVD set from Milestone is as much a tribute to the director as it is to his signature film. Read on for more of the juicy details.

The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. As mentioned above, the film has been laboriously restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive and it is breathtaking. The film clips seen in “Los Angeles Plays Itself” (perhaps taken from a badly-worn VCR copy) show how much work has been put into this project. The black-and-white photography is sharp both in resolution and contrast. The transfer by Milestone is very strong as we would expect from them.

The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. Mackenzie did not film with synch sound for budgetary reasons, and had his actors record their lines later. The dialogue has a strange, hollow quality to it that makes it sound like it’s coming from an off-screen space. Everyone sounds like they’re speaking in this same space, no matter how they’re arranged in the frame. It can be little distancing if you're not used to it but it works just fine.

No subtitles are provided.

There are many passionate distributors who put a lot of effort into their DVD releases, but when Milestone assembles a package it brings a level of passion and dedication to the project that nobody else can beat. Their DVDs are lovingly produced with tremendous respect for the material at end. That was the case with last year’s magnificent “Killer of Sheep” release and it’s just as true of “The Exiles.”

Disc One features the restored film and allows the option of playing with a commentary track with author and filmmaker Sherman Alexie and critic Sean Axmaker. I enjoyed this commentary enough to watch the film twice in a row, once without commentary and once with.

Disc One also includes Mackenzie’s USC graduate film,“Bunker Hill 1956” (17 min.), which shows the neighborhood from a different perspective than seen in “The Exiles.” Even by 1956, the residents of Bunker Hill knew that the city was planning to move them out to make way for “progress.”

Milestone has also included a three minute clip from Thom Anderson’s “Los Angeles Plays Itself.” Actually, it’s two separate clips that reference “The Exiles.” It’s great to have any footage from Anderson’s brilliant movie available, but what a cruel tease. “Los Angeles Plays Itself” has not been released on DVD because of the numerous copyright problems involved with the hundreds of film clips it uses but, please please please, can somebody work a miracle and get this movie out to a home audience? (Update: Cinema Guild stepped up to the plate in 2014 and answered my plea with a DVD and Blu-ray release of Anderson's great film.)

Disc One also offers an Audio Recording (51 min.) of the film’s Los Angeles Opening Night at UCLA and features several speakers involved with the restoration project.

That would be enough for many DVD packages but we haven’t even gotten to Disc Two yet.

The second disc features three short films by Kent Mackenzie.

“A Skill for Molina” (16 min.) is an educational short about an unemployed family man who is learning how to become a welder in a government sponsored training program.

“Story of a Rodeo Cowboy” (25 min.) is a beautiful short documentary about three men who try to scrape up a living on the rodeo circuit, hauling halfway across the country to try to win enough prize money to pay their entry fees and travel expenses to the next rodeo. A slow motion shot of one of the men on a bucking bronco is quite lovely.

“Ivan and His Father” (13 min.) records a group therapy session with teenagers and older counselors. Ivan is a young man working out problems with his father, and other members of the group help him play-act an imagined confrontation. Mackenzie steps out from behind the camera to role-play the father. It gets pretty heated and doesn’t end with an easy resolution.

Milestone’s box set is not only a tribute to the filmmaker, but also to the Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles which essentially no longer exists. Two short films provide glimpses of the area.

“Robert Kirste’s Last Day of Angels Flight” (2 min.) provides video footage of the final day of operation of the Angels Flight, a funicular railcar that carried riders up a steep slope. It was a major landmark in Bunker Hill and features prominently at the beginning of “The Exiles.” It closed in 1969.

“Bunker Hill: A Tale of Urban Renewal” (23 min.) is a short film by Greg Kimble who details the rise and fall of Bunker Hill. It’s not just a historical documentary but an angry indictment of shortsighted urban renewal plans in a city whose planners have never had much of a plan. Los Angeles is not a city that cares much about its non-Hollywood history.

One last film is a real treasure for cinema history buffs. “White Fawn’s Devotion” (1910), directed by James Youngdeer, is described in its opening title card as “A Play Acted By A Tribe of Red Indians in America.” It has been credited here as the first Native American film though film historians know the perils of attributing the distinction of “first” to any film. Nobody would confuse this with a masterpiece, but it’s a film of historical significance that was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2008.

Disc Two also includes two Audio Features. First up is a second interview with Sherman Alexie and Sean Axmaker (38 min.) which sounds like it precedes the commentary track included on Disc One. Next is an episode of “The Leonard Lopate” radio show (18 min.) on WNYC. Lopate interviews Sherman Alexie and filmmaker Charles Burnett, who are both credited as presenting “The Exiles,” along with Dennis Doros of Milestone Films. All of these features are wonderful but you will wind up listening three separate times to Alexie’s story of where and when he first watched “The Exiles.”

Are you still with me? There’s even more.

You can access an extraordinary number of files from your DVD-Rom drive, including (but not limited to) six different scripts for The Exiles, the funding proposal for the film, promotional materials, and even Kent Mackenzie’s final resume.

But no liner notes. Geez, put a little effort into it, Milestone!

Film Value:
I think it’s fair to say that Milestone has pulled out all the stops for this all-encompassing boxed set. Simply making “The Exiles” available to a home audience would have been contribution enough, but this exhaustive compilation is a work of scholarship and a labor of love. What more could anyone ask for? Not only has Milestone never disappointed, they exceed themselves with each new release. I can’t imagine how they could top this one, but I’m sure they’ll find a way.

“The Exiles” is indisputably one of the best DVD releases of 2009.

*Trivia: The comic book with the gaudy title “The Terrible Toy!” is Issue 63 of “Astonishing”on stands in August 1957.