Monday, August 31, 2015

Trouble the Water

TROUBLE THE WATER (Lessin and Deal, 2008)
Zeitgeist Films, DVD, Release Date Aug 25, 2009
Review by Christopher S. Long

(An edited, updated re-post of my 2009 review of what I still consider to be the best of many fine documentaries about Hurricane Katrina.)

Nothing is real in cinema! The minute you choose what to film and not to film you are creating fiction. Editing is manipulation. Even a documentary is crafted into a narrative form so it’s really fiction.

None of that is entirely wrong, but it entirely misses the point.

For all the critical and theoretical hand-wringing about the difference between truth and fiction in cinema, and the possible lack thereof, the power of many (not all) documentaries stems quite simply from the fact that they refer to real events. However manipulated it might be, documentary cinema carries a specific power that fiction only occasionally achieves. Bill Nichols calls it the indexical whammy, the recognition by the viewer that the sounds and images in the movie “really happened.”

This whammy powers the core of “Trouble the Water” (2008), one of the most emotionally wrenching documentaries I have ever seen. Though the film is directed by the team of Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, the most mesmerizing footage is that taken by New Orleans 9th Ward resident and aspiring rapper Kimberly Rivers Roberts. Roberts turns on her video camera in the days ahead of Hurricane Katrina to tell the “real story” as she and her neighbors hunker down in advance of the storm.

For viewers today, the early scenes are filled with the dread of knowing what’s coming. Roberts and her husband Scott don’t take things lightly, but even with TV warnings they can’t possibly know that the levees are about to be breached. After all, George W. Bush said there was no way to anticipate it (despite multiple warnings from engineers over the years.) It’s hard not to notice that, even before Katrina hits, Roberts' neighborhood already looks like it’s been partially abandoned though video taken two weeks later shows that things really could get worse, a lot worse.

The footage Roberts shoots during the storm is extraordinary and these scenes are more harrowing than virtually anything a feature film can produce. There’s the indexical whammy again. Replicate these exact images in a fictional context and you have another generic disaster movie; knowing that they're real lends them a unique and enduring power. The water builds and builds, forcing Kimberly and Scott retreat to ever higher ground until they finally share an attic with several other residents. Kimberly projects an optimistic spirit even as they huddle together: I got food and beaucoup water, just help yourself!

“Help yourself” is the operative phrase for anyone left behind because, as we all know by now, neither the federal nor local government was about to ride in on Mike Brown’s Arabian horses to save the day. In an absolutely riveting video sequence, Roberts' neighbor Larry literally comes floating by on a punching bag which he uses as a flotation device to take people one by one to safer ground as he swims through water that swells above the stop sign on the corner. Lessin and Deal deliver the final heartbreaking touch by following up the scene with several recorded 911 calls: “The police are not coming out until the weather gets better.”

And they’re not coming out next week or the week after that. Amazingly, when Deal and Lessin revisit the 9th Ward a year later it looks little changed from one week after Katrina. Any anger we feel about the lack of federal and local response during the storm is only amplified in the following months as Kimberley and Scott, like thousands of other Katrina survivors, are stymied at nearly every turn as they seek help. Still they soldier on.

“Trouble the Water” isn’t just a cry against the impotence of a government that failed in its most basic responsibility, but also an affirmation of the power of self-actualization. People like Kimberly and Larry and others come together in a time of need and survive because of their fortitude and cooperation. And the following weeks and months provide even more opportunity for them to use the experience to grow and re-focus their lives, each with varying degrees of success. Not that anyone (rational) watching this movie will ever think of Katrina as a “good thing.”

Kimberly Roberts (AKA Black Kold Madina) is an amazing subject, so it’s only appropriate that the film’s non-Katrina centerpiece is when she performs her rap song “Amazing.” “I don’t need you to tell me that I’m amazing. Come on and take a look and know that I’m amazing.” I cannot remember the last time I was left so slack-jawed by a musical performance.

Come on and take a look at “Trouble the Water” and you won’t need me to tell you that it’s amazing. And it really happened. Whammy.

The documentary is presented in an anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer from Zeitgeist Films. The film mixes Kim’s footage with footage taken by Deal and Lessin as well as media clips from the various news channels covering Katrina, so the image quality varies. Roberts' video footage is pretty soft and it’s tough to get a really nice looking still frame from it but I think she can be forgiven for shooting under trying conditions. Lessin and Deal’s footage is crisp and often beautiful even when surveying the damage left behind in a city that still hasn’t been rebuilt.

The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. Optional English and Spanish subtitles are offered to support the English audio. Forced subtitles are included for some of the dialogue that’s difficult to make out during the storm.

Zeitgeist has included a handful of interesting extras.

Four deleted scenes are included (actually two extended scenes and two new ones), total 18 minutes running time.

The DVD also includes a Q&A from the 2009 Roger Ebert Film Festival (23 min.) with a panel discussion featuring Deal, Lessin, and Kimberly and Scott Roberts and moderated by Richard Roeper.

Also there is a Q&A from the August 2008 New Orleans premiere of the documentary (14 min.)

The final feature shows Kimberley’s meeting with Mayor Ray Nagin at the Democratic National Convention (3 min.) It is identified as being August 27, 2009 but my hunch is that it was really in 2008.

The DVD also includes a Theatrical Trailer.

Final Thoughts:
“Trouble the Water” is one of the best documentaries of the new millennium. If you don’t find yourself moved by this direct kick in the gut then there’s something very wrong with you.

The DVD is being released on August 25, 2009 only a few days from the fourth anniversary of the Katrina disaster. Update on 8/30/15: And ten years after Katrina, the movie is every bit as potent.

Sunday, August 23, 2015


VISITORS (Reggio, 2014)
Review by Christopher S. Long

(Every now and then I watch movies in theaters too. And every now and then I write about them even before I own them on DVD.)

For his brilliant and criminally underappreciated not-a-documentary “Fata Morgana” (1971), young Werner Herzog and his crew ventured into the Sahara desert and brought back a collection of exotic, hallucinatory images: burnt-out vehicles and crumbling factories jutting out of the sandy landscape, sinuous dunes stretching for miles, people staring into the camera and gesticulating mysteriously, and, of course, goggled pimps playing drums while singing unintelligible lyrics. Confused viewers could be forgiven for not immediately recognizing Herzog's underlying concept that the film takes place “on the planet Uxmal, which is discovered by creatures from the Andromeda nebula, who made a film report about it.” The alien visitors, you see, had no idea what to make of this doomed planet and its bizarre inhabitants, so they made a really messed-up movie about it before warping back home to smoke some fine Andromedan weed and forget the whole experience.

The titular visitors of Godfrey Reggio's new movie might be from Andromeda (perhaps that's them soaring over the moonscape to catch a glimpse of Earth-rise) or they might be represented by Triska the lowland gorilla whose face (eerily delineated in high-definition; I mistook her for a digital simian) is the first of many faces in the film that stare directly at... well, it's hard to say for sure. In part, they're looking at the audience who may also be the visitors of the title. 

Whoever the visitors may be, they have a right, like Herzog's alien camera crew, to be perplexed by the spectacle in front of them. Following Triska the film presents a gallery of faces of all shapes, sizes and ages, shot in glossy black-and-white and suspended in darkness against what Reggio refers to as “the blackground.” Often they gaze blankly, other times expressions sweep over their visages in super slow-motion, rendering them both strange and ambiguous. It's hard to tell if one man is grimacing or laughing, or whether a young girl's scrunched-up mouth connotes irritation or bafflement.

Some sequences are more clearly contextualized than others. In one the film's most memorable segments, we see a montage of hands (also suspended in the blackground, severed from their anatomical moorings) as they jab at unseen touchscreens or clutch at invisible joysticks. The faces we see soon after are clearly gazing at computer screens of some kind, and even if they are all arranged in a single circular panning motion they are also, with few exceptions, completely alone as they peer into the matrix. Are they thinking anything at all as they slip willingly into the virtual stream? 

Reggio first began fretting about the technological transfiguration of the world thirty years ago in “Koyaanisqatsi” (1983). Back then his apprehension focused more on large-scale items such as giant transformers and power grids that crisscrossed the desert landscape, but his attention has inevitably turned to the micro and the intimate over the years, technology we interact with personally and constantly. The shift began with “Naqoyqatsi” (2002), the third film in the 'Qatsi trilogy, when his anxiety bloomed into full-blown panic at our move to a virtual existence, a move eagerly embraced by a population that should be resisting it. When I wrote about “Naqoyqtasi” recently, I noted that it had been released just before we became umbilically attached to our smartphones and I wondered, “How much more rueful would it be if it was made today?”

The answer depends on the viewer, of course. If you would sooner live huddled under a bypass than give up your data plan, you probably think Reggio is an alarmist fusspot. If, like me, you shudder in a low-level state of terror at the “Body Snatchers”-esque sight of everyone permanently transfixed by the images on their four-inch LCD screens, if that daily horrorshow fills you with despair as you realize that everyone you know and everyone you ever will know has already turned into a cyborg, then your answer is “More rueful.” Much, much more rueful. Rueful like, “Is this really all there is now? So that's why Lars von Trier says 'Melancholia' has a happy ending.”

“Visitors” isn't entirely about technology and it isn't all faces. The movie sometimes cuts away to shots of uninhabited buildings, empty amusement parks, and barren swamps (many of these scenes are shot in post-Katrina New Orleans, Reggio's home town). The ideas here are more muddled and some of the images rather trite. Shots of endless piles of tumbling garbage, soaring seagulls, and time-lapsed scudding clouds are both banal and too on-the-nose, but Reggio has really never been a particularly subtle filmmaker. He's making big statements here, but fairly obvious ones, which opens him to charges of unjustified grandiosity. Does he really think he's the first person to warn humanity that we tread a dangerous path as we happily construct our future robot overlords and, by the way, continue to pollute and torment our landscapes? Of course, he's right.

“Visitors” isn't particularly deep, nor is it a masterpiece. It's certainly no “Fata Morgana.” Or “Koyannisqatsi” for that matter. It's also not the equal of a host of other related films that come to mind: the cinema portraits by James Benning (“Twenty Cigarettes” in particular) or by Andy Warhol, Nicolas Philibert's “Nenette” (where the title orangutan stares back at the viewer for the length of the documentary), or Abbas Kiarostami's “Shirin” (in which we watch women watching a movie we never see). And it's nowhere near as visionary as “2001: A Space Odyssey” whose imagery the movie evokes on multiple occasions. But that still leaves plenty of room for “Visitors” to be better than most flicks.

It's not deep, but I find it deeply moving. Maybe I'm just a sucker for a good face. The direct look into the camera was one of the defining elements of pre-narrative cinema, and it retains its unique, disconcerting power even in the digital age. By holding so long on its faces and by showing those faces change in slow-motion, “Visitors” constructs a contemplative space for the viewer either to see the familiar as unfamiliar (much like repeating a word many times can make it sound strange) or, in Reggio's words, to “make the invisible visible.” It can sound like a cop out to claim that you will take away from the movie whatever you bring to it, attributing any shortcomings to the audience, but this is at the very least a movie that requires an active viewer to interpret and complete the material. And in the “Save the Cat” era of spoonfed stories that neither demand nor permit any contribution from the viewer, that's not something to be dismissed.

It would all be a lot tougher to swallow without the contribution of Reggio's long-time collaborator, composer Phillip Glass. His pounding, circular score is an integral element of every single shot in the movie, enveloping each image in an aural cocoon and providing the propulsive structure to this mostly narrative-free experience. If you can't stand Glass, I would expect you to feel the same way about the movie. If you're Glass-friendly or at least Glassnostic, perhaps you will find yourself swept away by this heady audiovisual experience.

A week later I can still close my eyes and vividly recall several shots from the movie. I won't soon forget the sequence where we ever so gradually realize that we have been watching a group of fans as they watch an unidentified sporting event. Either due to the slow-motion or to tweaking in the digital editing bay, they all seem slightly out of synch, cheering or jeering at different times, as if each isn't quite witnessing the same thing simultaneously. The result is both uncanny and beautiful, which pretty much sums up how I feel about the movie. Whatever “Visitors” lacks in philosophical heft it more than compensates for in sheer sensual, textual pleasure. It's good to have Mr. Reggio back.

Come Back Africa

COME BACK AFRICA (Rogosin, 1959)
Milestone Films, Blu-ray, Release Date Feb 25, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

With his debut film “On the Bowery” (1956), Lionel Rogosin melded the techniques of neo-realism and the works of pioneering documentarian Robert Flaherty (influences he openly cited) to form his own unique hybrid, a scripted movie that felt and looked so authentic it received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary. I described it as one of the most “lived-in” films I've ever seen, in part because Rogosin spent months actually living with and getting to know the down-and-out New York City day laborers of the Bowery before presuming to represent their lives on film.

If Rogosin was feeling his way through his first film, he was clearly pleased with the end result (he knew a good movie when he saw it) and brought the same humble and collaborative spirit to his next project, an audacious effort intended to expose the horrors of South African apartheid to a world that had little interest in the plight of poor black Africans. Rogosin was no longer a neophyte filmmaker, but faced a new challenge as he had to shoot clandestinely under the eye of a ruling power that knew how shameful its secrets were.

Rogosin and his crew convinced the South African government they were making a film about indigenous music that would show the world how happy black Africans were and spun other fanciful excuses when necessary. Meanwhile he teamed up with the writers and staffers of “Drum” magazine, many of whom were anti-apartheid activists, who helped guide him through the streets and tenements of Sophiatown, a nonwhite suburb of Johannesburg. 

“Come Back, Africa” (1959) begins with the proud claim that “There are no professional actors in this drama of the fate of a man and his country.” The story concerns Zachariah (Zachariah Mgabi) who has just moved to Johannesburg (and soon to Sophiatown), temporarily leaving his family behind in his rural home province as he seeks work in the gold mines. Zachariah finds a daily routine rigidly circumscribed by a Byzantine bureaucracy: he needs a permit to work, a permit not to work, a permit to leave, a permit to return, a permit to get a permit. However, the constantly watchful eye of the law blinks shut when the white citizens are not directly involved. One local explains a long-unsolved murder to Zachariah:”Nothing is ever discovered in Sophiatown.”

Eventually Zachariah sends for his wife and children, but life doesn't get any better once they are reunited. He drifts from job to job not because he is a poor worker, but because the slightest misstep or twist of rotten luck can result in immediate termination. And he has no recourse in a society where black Africans dare not get “cheeky” with the white elite or risk permanent repercussions. In one of the film's most powerful sequences, he seeks domestic work from a woman who decides to rename him Jack because Zachariah “won't do” and berates him so incessantly he has no choice but to quit.

Mgabi and the rest of the amateur cast deliver performances that are all the more compelling for a lack of polish heightened by the fact that some of the actors did not speak English as a first language. I can only return to “lived-in” as a descriptor. The drama is quite obviously staged, sometimes even rather rickety and contrived, and yet the viewer gets the sense of total immersion in a specific time and place. Sophiatown has no gleaming architecture or sculpted public spaces (many minority citizens had already been forcibly relocated and the suburb would soon be completely emptied and rebranded as Triomf for a mostly white demographic) but it is still represented in the film as a vibrant center of cultural and intellectual life. 

In the movie's best-known sequence, the journalists of “Drum” (including Bloke Modisane and Lewis Nkosi who both co-scripted the film with Rogosin) engage in an extended and riveting debate over the role that Liberals might play in the resistance and the root causes of organized crime in the slums. The scene climaxes with the arrival of local singer Miriam Makeba whose amazing song would vault her to international stardom (and even a 1966 Grammy) soon after the movie's release.

The movie's final devastating scene is profoundly moving, a testament both to Rogosin's skill as a director and dramatist and to Mgabi's ability to tap a raw vein. I won't say that a professional actor couldn't have pulled off a similar feat, only that Mgabi does it as powerfully and as sincerely as anyone could manage.

The same can be said of “Come Back, Africa” which succeeds simultaneously as activism, as drama, and as a time capsule. It feels like the delicate spell would be broken if a single variable was altered: the nonprofessional acting, the surreptitious location shooting, the combination of scripted drama and improvised dialogue, the sudden bursts of joyous music. Whether Rogosin stumbled onto a magic formula or carefully refined his craft through experimentation and an openness to collaboration, he and his crew flat-out nailed it. Again. “On the Bowery” was a tough act to follow. “Come Back, Africa” was one hell of an encore.

The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. This high-def transfer is sourced from a recent restoration conducted by the Cineteca del Comune di Bologna. There's just the occasional bit of damage visible from time to time and the black-and-white contrast isn't particularly sharp, but the image detail is strong throughout, essential in preserving the film's “documentary” sense of space. Milestone has provided yet another strong transfer on par with their excellent work for “On the Bowery.”

The LPCM 2.0 audio track is crisp. Dialogue is clearly mixed and the music (Makeba's vocals, street bands, and the score by Chatur Lal) is well treated by the mix. There are two different subtitle options. The first (default) option provides only English subtitles for non-English dialogue. The second option is SDH (Subtitles for the Deaf and Hearing Impaired) English subtitles for all dialogue which might be needed by listeners who have trouble with the accents. I was unable to access this second option either with the subtitle button on my remote or by going into the menu and turning the SDH subtitles on before watching the movie. I had to call up the pop-up menu while the film was playing and then turn the SDH titles on before it would work.

If you've ever had the pleasure of renting or owning a Milestone title before, you are aware of the extraordinary care they put into each release. “Come Back, Africa,” subtitled “The Films of Lionel Rogosin, Vol. II” is no exception.

This is a two-disc Blu-ray package (also available on DVD).

Disc One includes “Come Back, Africa” along with a couple of substantial extras.

“An American in Sophiatown” (listed on the package as 64 minutes but actually running at 52 minutes) is directed by Michael Rogosin and Lloyd Ross and provides a thorough look at the making of “Come Back, Africa.” Combining an older interview with Lionel Rogosin (who passed away in 2000) with interviews with co-screenwriter Lewis Nkosi (who died in 2010), anti-apartheid activist Myrtle Berman (who also played the abusive housewife in the movie), cinematographer Emil Knebel, filmmaker Jonas Mekas and others, this feature covers just about all the bases, providing historical context as well as details about the movie's production. The feature also briefly touches on the falling out between Rogosin and singer Miram Makeba. Rogosin helped get her out of South Africa, but she later refused to promote the movie and described him as “unkind.” Details remain unclear, and we mostly hear from Rogosin who expresses a sense of betrayal.

The disc also includes an audio interview (1979, 20 min.) with Rogosin conducted by UN Radio which doesn't offer much new material from the making of documentary. We also get a Trailer (2 min.)

The movie can be played with or without a two-minute introduction by the seemingly inexhaustible Martin Scorsese.

Disc Two would be a stand alone disc from just about anyone other than Milestone.

The main feature is Rogosin's 1970 documentary “Black Roots” (62 min.) This was restored by L'Immagine Ritrovata in 2012 and isn't nearly as sharp as the transfer for “Come Back, Africa” but still solid enough. The documentary consists mostly of spoken testimony by African-American musicians as well as (filmed separately) lawyer and civil rights activist Florynce “Flo” Kennedy. The men and women recount various stories of discrimination such as one musician's recollection when, as a teenager, he was asked by his seemingly friendly white employer to cling to the outside of a car rather than ride in the back seat next to a white girl. The musicians frequently pick at their guitars while telling their stories which gives the movie a sense of being a protracted blues performance. Among the musicians is accomplished blues/gospel singer Reverend Gary Davis AKA Blind Gary Davis who tells the most harrowing tale of all and with some serious panache.

In the great Milestone tradition even this “extra” film gets its own extra. “Bitter Sweet Stories” (28 min.) is directed by Michael Rogosin and includes interviews with musician Jim Collier (one of the stars of “Black Roots”) and others as they talk about the making of “Black Roots.”

But wait, there's more. Milestone has also included the eclectic and lively documentary “Have You Seen 'Drum' Recently?” (1989, 74 min.) The movie is directed by Jurgen Schadeberg, one of the photographers for South Africa's popular “Drum” Magazine which was also influential in the making of “Come Back, Africa” (see above). Unsurprisingly, the documentary features a virtually endless array of great photographs both from the pages of “Drum” and of the magazine's many staffers along with details about their lives.

If I was going to complain at all, I'd say that a comprehensive set like this could also use an insert booklet of some kind, but I admit I'm a printed page junkie and I'm not really going to complain about a disc so densely packed as this one.

Final Thoughts:
Milestone continues to fight the good fight. With “On the Bowery” they helped to introduce a new generation of viewers to the works of the great and neglected Lionel Rogosin. Rogosin Vol. 2 is just as impressive as its predecessor, including both “Come Back, Africa” and “Black Roots” as well as a host of substantial extras. Streaming is simply no substitute for a smartly curated collection like this. This will figure prominently in the year end “Best Of” polls.


TESS (Polanski, 1979)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray/DVD, Release Date Feb 25, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

I've never understood the current obsession with genealogical research. Everyone's probably got royal blood dripping from one of the upper branches of the family tree, but it's so diluted by now that any claim to kinship is about as meaningful as noting that we are all composed of atoms.

What's new is usually old, of course, and a fixation on even a distant lineage made more sense at a time when it was closely tied to property rights. Thus John Durbeyfield, a relatively happy and absolutely hard-drinking peasant from Wessex circa late 19th century, is thrilled to learn that he and his expansive family, all currently sharing a tiny shack, are descendants of the aristocratic D'Urberville line. Just like modern genealogists, he discovers that the knowledge does not bring even a whiff of either fame or fortune, but he's already gotten pretty wasted by then so no biggie.

The family's oldest daughter Tess (Nastassja Kinski) is dispatched to the nearest D'Urberville to see if they can claim at least a tiny part of their rightful inheritance, but her first interaction with so-called high society sets her on the inevitable path to destruction instead. A supposed cousin named Alec (Leigh Lawson) turns out only to have purchased the now-defunct blueblood name, but the sight of the lovely teenage Tess fills him with the desire to acquire a real D'Urberville as well. Tess fends off his advances nobly, but has no recourse when the suave seducer resorts to brute force.

In Victorian England, Tess will, of course, suffer all of the consequences of the rape. She bears a child out of wedlock, and finds little sympathy from church or community after the baby dies. To spare her family the shame she flees to work on a dairy farm where she finds true love in the form of the idealistic, handsome Angel Clare (Peter Firth). He loves her too but his idealism does not, unfortunately, extend to forgiving his new wife after she confesses to her past “transgression” even though she has just forgiven him his own affair. Whacky hijinks do not ensue.

I admit that I found Thomas Hardy's “Tess of the d'Urbervilles” an excruciating experience when I read (most of) it in high school. Perhaps I would be more receptive today, but the lingering trauma keeps me from a second try. Director Roman Polanski, however, was fascinated by the book from the moment his wife Sharon Tate insisted that he read it. They both thought it would be a magnificent role for her, but Tate was murdered soon after.

Polanski shelved the project for nearly a decade and a “Chinatown” or two, but decided to return to the project with seventeen-year-old Kinski, then best known as the daughter of Werner Herzog's best fiend Klaus Kinski, in the title role. Though she had appeared in a few previous movies, “Tess” (1979) was Kinski's introduction to the international film circuit and it came with a modicum of controversy. Rumors of a romantic relationship with the director have been denied, though she was certainly his protege, studying acting with Lee Strasberg at his behest. More controversial was the notion of a German actress playing the very British Tess by the very British Thomas Hardy. 

The concerns of Britain's cultural gatekeepers proved unfounded as Kinski adopted not only a convincing accent (the slight German inflection underscoring Tess's outsider status) but compellingly embodied the willful “pure woman” of Hardy's novel. For Polanski, the story of an innocent among predators was a natural choice, and if the film holds any surprises it's that the tasteful and lavish production comes off as rather tame, a contrast to the scandal that forced Hardy to self-censor his book. Though Polanski was able to show what Hardy could only hint at, the director doesn't linger on any salacious sequences (the rape is frightening, but not graphic) and the focus remains constantly on true-heart Tess and her fierce yet doomed resistance.

Cinematographers Geoffrey Unsworth and Ghislain Cloquet capture the sun-soaked French countryside (a splendid stand-in for Hardy's Wessex and environs) in all of its painterly glory, but no perfectly-sculpted landscape shot matches the beauty of Kinski's flawless face. It's extraordinary that a relative neophyte could project both fragility and strength with such naturalistic ease, though perhaps this is a case where genealogy comes in handy. Lawson and Firth are convincing enough, but their pitiful displays of manhood, one an outright cad and the other equally reprehensible in his cowardly hypocrisy, render them unfit to share the screen and the story with Tess. This is Kinski's show and she flat out steals it.

The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The image looks just a bit soft at times and the image detail doesn't jump off the screen the way it does in some Criterion 1080p transfers, but that slightly softer look may have been part of the film's visual design. Grain is present but not too noticeable. Colors are universally vibrant as the film clearly delineates the different seasons. The net result is quite beautiful, if not quite immaculate.

This is a dual-format release which includes two DVDs (with film and extras) as well as a single Blu-ray (with everything). The SD transfer has not been reviewed here.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is fairly robust though not particularly dynamic. Perhaps the lossless audio stands out most in its treatment of the score by Philippe Sarde. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

“Tess” may not occupy the same exalted status in Polanski's oeuvre as “Chinatown” or “Rosemary's Baby,” but Criterion has still given it the deluxe treatment.

The collection starts with a 1979 episode of the French television program “Ciné regards” (49 min.) which includes behind-the-scenes footage from the film intermixed with an interview with Polanski. I found this feature both meandering and ponderous and gave up around the twenty minute mark.

Unfortunately I felt the same way about the plodding “Once Upon a Time... 'Tess'” which is a 2006 documentary that looks back on the making of “Tess” through interviews with Polanski, Kinski, producer Claude Berri, actor Leigh Lawson and others. At one point the documentary narrator states quite matter-of-factly that “Tess” was shot “in 1978 and 1979, the most pivotal years of the twentieth century.” I assume this claim has something to do with the Bee Gees.

I'm sorry to be a downer yet again, but I didn't make it too long into an episode of the BBC's “The South Bank Show” (1979, 50 min.) I had to pull the plug early when host Melvyn Bragg described the rape allegations against Polanski as “just another chapter” in his life story.

The disc also includes three short 2004 documentaries by director Laurent Bouzereau about the making of “Tess.” “From Novel to Screen” (28 min.) is by far the most interesting of the lot featuring Polanski discussing the genesis of the project as well as other experts addressing the censorship problems Thomas Hardy encountered when his book was first serialized in 1891; it eventually netted him a tidy sum. “Filming Tess” (26 min.) is a broad but engaging look at the production. “'Tess' The Experience” (26 min.) functions mostly as an unnecessary catch-all for whatever interview snippets didn't fit into the first two features, consisting of whatever gossip and minutiae is mentioned by the subjects involved with an emphasis on what a happy family everyone was during shooting.

The collection wraps up with a Theatrical Trailer (2 min.)

The somewhat surprisingly slim insert booklet includes an essay by critic Colin MacCabe.

Final Thoughts:
The tasteful and relatively staid period picture was perfectly suited to the Academy's tastes, earning six total nominations (including Best Picture and Best Director) with victories for Best Cinematography, Best Art Design, and Best Costume Design. This was the year wizened Academy voters mistook the absurd “Ordinary People” for a masterwork, but that's not Polanski's fault. Though nobody knew it at the time, the release of “Tess” marked the beginning of a fallow period for the director; his next feature wouldn't be released until 1986 and “Pirates” was not exactly viewed as a return to form from the master. “Tess” is not one of his greatest films and might strain patience at just under three hours, but Nastassja Kinski's performance is impressive and the knockout cinematography shines through in this high-def release.


BREATHLESS (Godard, 1960)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray/DVD, Release Date Feb 14, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

What makes Jean-Luc Godard's "Breathless" (1960) one of the three or four most important sound films ever made? "Breathless" isn't the first French New Wave film, or even the first French New Wave film to win major awards; Alain Resnais' "Hiroshima Mon Amour" (159) was nominated for the Palme d'Or and netted Marguerite Duras an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay just the year before. Claude Chabrol was already an established New Wave figure, even if he didn't quite know it at the time.

"Breathless" is not the first film ever to use a jump cut, though it is the first to use the technique so extensively. "Breathless" was nowhere close to being the first film to shoot on real locations, and adopted many of its "fly on the wall" techniques from Italian neo-realism and direct cinema. "Breathless" hardly employs an original plot: just a guy, a girl, and a gun. It's not even Godard's best film. So why in the heck is "Breathless" so important?

Because "Breathless" changed everything. OK, that's an exaggeration. It didn't change the balance of power in the Middle East. It didn't catapult the Earth out of its orbit. It didn't make Americans care about soccer. But it changed pretty much everything else. 

"Breathless” is a unique hybrid, both the realization of years of critical writings by Godard and his fellow Cahiers du Cinema critics, and also a film made by an unabashed cinephile. In a sense, it is one of the earliest "fan pics" ever made. Godard did not come to destroy Hollywood, he came to celebrate it in all its genre-determined glory. "Breathless" contains enough references to other films and filmmakers that even Quentin Tarantino couldn't keep them all straight. By placing these cinematic references right alongside the literary and philosophical ponderings of his young protagonist (however shallow those thoughts might be) Godard also asserts that film is every bit as valid an art form as any other. Godard collapsed "high" and "low" culture before the practice became de rigueur in post-modern art.

"Breathless" is also a tour-de-force of guerilla film-making. Shot on a modest budget with hand-held cameras specially modified by now-legendary cinematographer Raoul Coutard, many scenes are filmed right on the streets of Paris or in tiny apartments where a standard movie crew for the time could never have fit. The City of Lights has rarely looked so intimate. This fly-on-the-wall approach gives the film the feeling of actuality footage; dialogue written on the day of shooting contributes to the impression of spontaneity. Godard has quite properly described “Breathless” as being primarily a documentary about actors Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg. 

Belmondo as Michel Poiccard. Seberg as Patricia Franchini. Along with Jean-Pierre Léaud's Antoine Doinel, they are the most iconic characters of the French New Wave. Belmondo delivers a single-mindedly superficial performance, full of self-conscious mannerisms, poses, and cool looks; that bit where he runs his fingers over his lips is still electric. Seberg was fresh off her critically panned performances for Otto Preminger in "Saint Joan" (1957) and "Bonjour Tristesse" (1958). The only good press she received was from the Cahiers' writers, especially Godard. Though her acting in "Breathless" hardly dazzles, she was nonetheless an inspired casting choice. Seberg speaks French with a grating American accent that no doubt made her seem that much more exotic and erotic to French audiences, and her cry of "New York Herald Tribune!" as she promenades down the Champs-Elysées is, in my opinion, the most memorable line in any French New Wave film. And just about any film.

Of course, there's also the editing. If you've ever taken a film class, you have already been trained to think "jump cut" at the first mention of "Breathless." The film indeed uses jump cutting extensively, but this was never the plan during shooting. In the editing room, Godard realized that many of the dialogue scenes were boring and overlong, so he simply decided to remove all the uninteresting stuff in the middle of each take, paying no heed whatsoever to Hollywood's sacrosanct rules about continuity. The stitches are meant to show rather than working invisibly to seduce the viewer into the world of the narrative.

And this, all of this and then some more, is why "Breathless" remains so phenomenally influential. While there is no single technique pioneered by Godard in this film, the combination of jump cutting, hand-held shooting, violations of the 180 degree line and a host of other convention-shattering choices set world cinema free. I exaggerate again, but “Breathless” sounded a clarion call to filmmakers young and old, from East and West. All rules are meant be broken, and there is no right way to make a movie. "Death to the aristos!" It also helped that while herding so many sacred rituals of filmmaking to the guillotine Godard also made a wildly entertaining movie.

At this point, I am supposed to write that "Breathless" may seem dated to modern audiences because so much of its style has been copied, and that which once seemed revolutionary now almost appears old-fashioned. But I'm not going to say that. Audiences today might not be shocked by the jump cutting, or awed by the documentary-style filming, but "Breathless" remains as fresh and vital today as when it was released over 50 years ago. "Breathless" is as essential as cinema gets.

Also, there's a plot, and it's a pretty nifty one about love and betrayal and misunderstanding and fate. I'm not saying it doesn't matter, just that you shouldn't let it distract you from all the good stuff. 

The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.

Criterion released “Breathless” on DVD in 2007 and on Blu-ray in 2010. This 2014 dual-release format combines both of those releases in the same package: 2 DVDs (one with the film and some extras, the other with the rest of the extras) and one Blu-ray disc. They offer the same transfers as before.

The SD was already a very strong transfer and the 1080p upgrade was/is even better, of course. The film is supposed to look a little rough around the edges at times, so you shouldn't expect a flawlessly smooth and shiny image. The image detail is superb throughout with a very satisfying grainy look present throughout.

The LPCM mono track isn't intended to sound too dynamic. The sound is always crisp and clean with the wonderful score by Martial Solal shining through in lossless audio. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.

All of the extras have been imported from previous releases.

We get archival interviews with Godard (May 19, 1960 and May19, 1964), Belmondo (1961), Seberg (July 2, 1960) and director Jean-Pierre Melville (July 13, 1963). They run just under a half hour in total.

"Chambre 12, Hotel du Suede" is a 1993 documentary (78 min.) directed by Claude Ventura in which the director revisits the people and places from "Breathless." It's a bit self-conscious, occasionally irritating, but very enjoyable for any fan of the film.

"Charlotte et Son Jules" (1959, 12 min) is a short film directed by Godard and co-starring Belmondo. The whole movie is basically a long-winded speech by a pompous ass trying to show off for his girlfriend and leading to a very funny punch line. Not a masterwork, but a cute movie, a reminder of how playful Godard was at the time.

"Breathless as Criticism" (11 min) is a video essay written by Jonathan Rosenbaum which explains some of the cinematic references Godard makes in the film, and connects Godard's critical writings to his work as a director on "Breathless."

"Coutard and Rissient" (22 min.) is a 2007 interview with "Breathless" cinematographer Raoul Coutard (who worked on many films for Godard) and cinema's great mystery man Pierre Rissient who also worked as assistant director on the film.

"Jean Seberg" (19 min) is a video essay by Mark Rappaport who directed the 1995 film "From the Journals of Jean Seberg." The essay examines the career and the memorable face of the actress who died far too young in 1979.

The collection finishes off with an interview (10 min.) with famed documentarian D.A. Pennebaker (who collaborated with Godard on the film "One A.M" which eventually became "One P.M.")

The disc also includes a Theatrical trailer.

The chunky insert booklet (80 pgs) features an essay by Dudley Andrew, several interviews and articles by Godard, François Truffaut's original (and very brief) treatment for "Breathless," and Godard's adapted scenario.

All that's missing is a commentary track. Phenomenal.

Final Thoughts:
People, it's “Breathless.” That's all you need to know.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Foreign Correspondent

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray/DVD, Release Date Feb 18, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

Alfred Hitchcock never worried much about realism. When intrepid reporter Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea), on assignment in the Netherlands on the eve of war in Europe, tracks an assassin to a rickety windmill, he doesn't bat an eye when the inside turns out to be approximately five times larger than the outside. Neither did Hitchcock. The gigantic grinding gears and multi-story machinery were the perfect way to convey the vastness and menace of the conspiracy in which our hero (and the rest of the world, by extension) was now enmeshed. And, besides, it just looks cool.

Sometimes the director's penchant for indulgence independent of external logic courts absurdity. In one scene, a shady detective invites Jones to the top of the Westminster Cathedral tower (the action has shifted to London) with the intent of sending him back down at terminal velocity. As Jones peers over the edge, the killer backs all the way to the opposite wall, raises his hands to push and then lunges blindly at Jones; a sharp cut from across he square shows a tiny body plunging down, down, down. Spoiler alert: it's not our main character. Bad technique, old chap. Better look next time... er, never mind.

Whether the sequence is meant to produce suspense or laughter doesn't really matter; Hitchcock is fully capable of juggling both modes over an entire feature. Indeed, though “Foreign Correspondent” (1940) is about the very serious subject of world war, the urbane and slightly aloof characters only take things seriously when circumstances absolutely demand it. Neither a dead body nor the specter of global war is reason to keep a good quip to yourself.

All-American Johnny Jones is assigned to the job by his newspaper publisher (Harry Davenport) precisely because he neither knows (What European crisis?) nor cares one bit about world events; readers want a ripping story, not boring analysis. Hitchcock and screenwriters Charles Burnett and Joan Harrison relate the almost-current events with a few crucial months of hindsight, critiquing the “What me, worry?” attitude towards the Nazi war machine that had perhaps been possible in 1939 (when the film is set), but seemed increasingly indefensible in the spring of 1940 when the movie was shot.

Jones (re-christened by Powers as the more distinguished Huntley Haverstock) treats his initial meeting with Dutch diplomat Van Meer (Albert Basserman) with suitable professionalism, but he's just as interested in Carol Fisher (Laraine Day), the lovely and quick-witted daughter of an activist (Hebert Marshall) who heads a European peace movement. In one of the film's more amusing touches, Hitchcock can practically be heard sighing over the contractual obligation to include a love story, “developing” it by simply having the two love birds quite abruptly say, “I'm in love with you and I want to marry you,” prompting Jones's quip, “Well, that cuts down on our love scene quite a bit.”

In typical Hitchcockian fashion, the plot depends on a series of neatly-fitting contrivances that can grow tiresome if you're not fully propelled by the insistent force of the narrative. The story also pauses for the occasional virtuoso set-piece, the finest being Jones's pursuit of the assassin through rainy London, forcing his way through a crowd of clueless onlookers stubbornly huddled under umbrellas that bob and sway to indicate the line of pursuit even as they hide it. 

Yet the final act turns out to be something entirely unexpected. After one puzzle piece after another snaps perfectly together, the seemingly inevitable denouement is derailed by the chaos of official no-doubt-about-it war, leading to a remarkable and surprisingly moving sequence aboard an airplane shot down over the ocean. Perhaps it seems too incongruous to some viewers, but I find it the strongest sequence in the movie because it feels the least coldly calculated though, of course, that's just an illusion.

The film is sometimes diminished as Hitchock's contribution to the war propaganda machine (“We must get involved!”) but propaganda is hardly a pejorative term. Even as the characters exchange witty banter and the comic flourishes pile up, the film accumulates gravitas from a journalistic sense of immediacy. It shifts as events do, almost playing like a live-action report on the cusp of one of the most transformative events of the 20th century. In a sense, “You Are There” and the film still vividly conveys the import of those crucial days.

The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. This 70+ year old film doesn't show much in the way of scratches or other damage. The 1080p transfer shows strong black-and-white contrast. The detail quality is perhaps not quite as sharp as Criterion's top-end high-def transfers, but it's still very solid, appropriately showcasing the special effects by the legendary William Cameron Menzies. A fine grain-structure is evident, but perhaps a bit softened by whatever boosting was required.

Like most Criterion releases today, this is a dual-format release. Two DVDs are included (one with the film, one with the extras) as well as a single Blu-ray. The DVDs have not been reviewed here.

The LPCM Mono track is clean and distortion-free with all dialogue clearly mixed. Alfred Newman's score may have sounded a bit more dynamic in theaters, but it's treated well enough here. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Criterion has included a solid array of extras.

Writer Mark Harris discusses “Hollywood Propaganda and World War II” (25 min.) in a new interview recorded by Criterion. He talks about how Hollywood embraced the idea of war propaganda more and more as the war progressed and discusses how “Foreign Correspondent” changed from its first days of development under producer Walter Wanger in 1936 to its eventual release in 1940. The film's last scene (a radio address) was tacked on at the last minute at the request of the studio and was scripted by Ben Hecht.

Criterion stalwart Craig Barron provides an analysis of the visual effects in the film (19 min.) which were supervised by William Cameron Menzies. This interview discusses the more obvious effects sequences (the airplane crash at the end) and some of the more subtle effects used in other sequences (matte paintings used to expand the sets). Very interesting material.

The disc also includes a 62-minute special in which Dick Cavett interviews Alfred Hitchcock. It originally aired on June 8, 1972 and features Hitchcock at his hammiest. I've only watched the first ten minutes, but look forward to the rest.

We also get an Audio Adaptation (25 min.) of “Foreign Correspondent” that played on the radio program “Academy Award Theater” on Jul 24, 1946.

“Have You Heard?” is a text and still feature that presents an article Hitchcock prepared for the Jul 13, 1942 issue of “Life” magazine to highlight the dangers of spreading irresponsible war rumors.

The collection wraps up with a Theatrical Trailer (2 min.)

The slim 16-page insert booklet includes an excellent essay by the excellent critic James Naremore.

Final Thoughts:
1940 was a busy year for Alfred Hitchcock as he was just making the full-time move to America. “Rebecca” took down Best Picture that year (though Hitchcock lost Best Director to John Ford for “The Grapes of Wrath”), but “Foreign Correspondent” also netted a Best Pic nod as well as five other nominations. It was quite an Oscar field with “The Philadelphia Story” and “The Great Dictator” also in competition.

“Rebecca” may or may not be the better film, but “Foreign Correspondent” is much more quintessentially Hitchcockian. Criterion's high-def transfer is strong, and the extras are fairly copious as well. Recommended, of course.

Fantastic Mr. Fox

FANTASTIC MR. FOX (Anderson, 2009)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray/DVD, Release Date Feb 18, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

For a filmmaker who has worked so assiduously to purge any vestiges of naturalism from his cinema, the move to animation is not so much the next step as a little shuffle to the side. In many ways, Wes Anderson's stop-motion foxes and badgers seem substantially more human than the characters of “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” (2004) whose capricious behavior is not the recognizable end-product of any branch of homo sapiens evolution I know of.

The title character of “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009), voiced by George Clooney, is endearingly simple and sincere. He is fox who, like most foxes, likes to steal chickens. It's what he does. At least until his newly pregnant wife (Meryl Streep) begs him to go straight. He obliges by becoming a newspaper columnist and a responsible husband and father (to his frustrated but well-meaning adolescent son Ash, voiced by Jason Schwartzman), but old habits die hard, especially for a wild animal. As the introspective Mr. Fox asks, “How can a fox ever be happy... without a chicken in his teeth?”

The answer is that he can't, but our vulpine hero wants more than just chickens (though he really, really wants chickens); he wants to do something that will make everyone think he is... fantastic. So he sizes up the most dangerous targets in town, the (live)stocks of the notoriously evil farmers Boggis (Robin Hurlstone), Bunce (Hugo Guinness), and Bean (Michael Gambon), identified by local children as “one short, one fat, one lean.” One daring raid (with friends and sometimes family in tow) leads to another and then to retaliation from these titans of industry who do not intend to be outsmarted by a lowly fox. Terrible tractors, rabid blueberry-loving beagles, and apple cider floods harry our band of adventurers at every turn, requiring both physical and mental agility to outpace impending doom. 

Anderson was raised on the works of Roald Dahl and began preparing his film adaptation (greatly expanded from Dahl's short book by Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach) years in advance, spending time at Dahl's legendary home which, in turn, inspired a primary setting in the movie. Demonstrating both wisdom and taste, he resisted the CGI siren call, relying on hand-crafted puppets and stop-motion animation supervised by Mark Gustafson and an army of collaborators. I am in awe of anyone willing to spend weeks putting just a few seconds of animated film into motion. The detail infused in each scene is often breathtaking (the set design is quite elaborate), though I respond most to the simplest of pleasures: seeing the foxes' fur rustle, evidence of a real object being carefully manipulated rather than a blob of pixels shimmering around a screen.

The sound design on the film is every bit as remarkable, and not just the top-notch voice work by Clooney, Streep, and an all-star cast including Bill Murray as a badger-at-law. Anderson chose to record the dialogue on location, at least in a sense. For example, in a scene where Mr. Fox is running through a field, Clooney does the same while delivering his lines. The result sounds both natural and pleasingly quiet. Studios today pride themselves on blowing out the speakers at every opportunity, but this gentle mix is all the more powerful for its restraint. I'm not quite as keen on the incongruous (to my taste) use of Beach Boys music on the soundtrack, but the score by Alexander Desplat is wonderful.

What can sometimes seem cloying and a bit twee in Anderson's live-action movies plays at the perfect pitch here. Mr. and Mrs. Fox may have the most convincing relationship in any of the director's films. He is sincere both in loving her and wanting to be the kind of fox she envisions; she is disappointed when he falls short, but still completely accepting of her wild animal of a husband. He's trying his best, and darned if he doesn't turn out to be pretty... fantastic.

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. From the Criterion booklet: “The film was shot with Nikon D3 digital cameras with Canon lenses, and the entire production was completed in a fully digital workflow. The final color-corrected files were output to Rec. 709 high-definition color space for Blu-ray and DVD release.”

“The Fantastic Mr. Fox” was released on a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack by 20th Century Fox in 2010. I do not own that disc for comparison. However, the high-def transfer here is almost supernaturally clean and sharp, and the colors are so vibrant they almost jump off the screen. Detail is simply off the charts. You can see every furry hair on the puppets, sometimes each of them twitching separately. I can't think of a single complaint; this transfer is flawless.

Like most Criterion releases now, this is a dual-format release. There are two DVDs (one with the film, one with most of the extras), and a single Blu-ray which has the film and the extras. I only briefly checked the DVD and it looks very sharp as well with, of course, the expected decrease in detail level. But darn good on its own merits.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track is crisp and distortion-free as you would expect. I think a lossless mix is necessary to appreciate just how subtle this quiet sound mix is. Music is richly rendered as well. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

This release is absolutely jam-packed with extras, including the short promotional features found on the 2010 Fox release and then a ton more new to this Criterion edition.

There are seven promotional features from the former disc, including pieces on Roald Dahl (3 min.), the Adaptation process (7 min.), Puppet Makers (8 min.), The Cast (6 min.), Designing the World (8 min.) and Bill and Badger (7 min.)

To the best of my knowledge all of the other feature are unique to the Criterion release.

The film is accompanied by a newly-recorded commentary track by Wes Anderson which is interesting if occasionally a bit exhausting. Anderson shares his many influences, sometimes in painstaking detail, and discusses his fondness for Dahl and his work. There is also a brief (1 min.) introduction to the film by Petey, a character voiced by Jarvis Cocker.

The disc includes the feature-length “Animatic” version of the film which includes most of the movie's final audio along with “slightly animated” storyboards. Think of this as the very rough-sketch version in pencil of the final movie. I only watched the first five minutes, but fans may enjoy the slightly surreal feel of this preliminary edition of the movie.

We also get seven short features under the “Making Of” sub-menu: Recording the Voices (8 min. - includes video of the cast recording outdoors rather than in a recording studio), Puppet Tests/Early Animation (4 min.), Reference for the Art Department (1 min.), A Visit to the Studio (10 min.), Time-Lapse Photographs (2 min.), Music (5 min. - showing the schoolboy choir recording as well as Desplat conducting a brass section), and Miniature Objects (1 min.)

Two of the more substantive features focus on Roald Dahl. First up is an audio recording of Dahl reading “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (53 min.) - unsurprisingly he's a natural storyteller. Second is a documentary (61 min.) titled “Fantastic Mr. Dahl” which provides a biographical overview of the man and his work. It's a bit dry, but still worthwhile. Another author-oriented feature is a stills gallery including pages from Dahl's Manuscripts; this includes his very rough art sketches as well as letters between Dahl and his editor whose suggestions greatly shaped the book.

The “Awards Speeches” sub-menu is kind of fun. It includes three very-short animated acceptance speeches done in the style of the movie. One is a thank you for a critical award (1 min.), one was recorded for the potential of an Oscar win (1 min. - it never aired because Pixar's “Up” won instead), and a 27 second “Press Statement” for the Oscars by Clooney as Mr. Fox.

We also get a “Discussion and Analysis” (11 min.) by two expert film critics.

The disc also includes Set Photography by Ray Lewis (a stills gallery accessed by the arrows on your remote), a brief video piece about the Witch's Tree on Dahl's property (2 min.), and a Sony Robots Commercial (1 min.) directed by Wes Anderson.

There are so many short features (as well as a few lengthy ones) it takes a long time just to access each of them on the menu, and quite some time to write about as well.

The 32-page insert booklet includes animation sketches as well as an essay by critic Erica Wagner, an essay by Anderson about Dahl's Gipsy House, and the brief comic book “White Cape” which appears in the film though I admit I missed it.

Final Thoughts:
I find animation today almost universally unwatchable as I have severely limited interest in images created entirely on a computer. But a good stop-motion feature (real puppets manipulated by hand) is fine by me, and “Fantastic Mr. Fox” certainly qualifies. Criterion's 1080p transfer is flawless, and the extras are truly copious. The Criterion gang has an ongoing love affair with Wes Anderson, and it shines through with this release.


THIEF (Mann, 1981)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Jan 14, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

Let us hark back to an ancient time, a mystical era known as the '80s, when master criminals were manly men with giant tools, the kind of tools that forced their users to grunt and sweat, great hulking tools that spewed giant arcs of flame. Real fire, not firewalls built to be hacked by myopic ectomorphs slouched over increasingly tiny keyboards. You needed hair on your chest, not Red Bull on your desk, if you wanted to move some serious capital back in the golden age.

For director Michael Mann, it was also a time of blue filters and tangerine dreams. “Thief” (1981) was Mann's theatrical debut after an apprenticeship in television that included an episode of “Police Woman” and the rock-solid TV prison movie “The Jericho Mile” (1979), and he intended to flex every stylistic muscle he had toned up. Mann portrays his hometown of Chicago as a sparsely-populated island enveloped by a darkness gashed only by flashing neon lights and slow-burning streetlamps, hemmed in on one side by a sprawling stretch of water that both promises and denies escape. Soft blues, muted reds, and orange sparks reflect off metallic surfaces; the hoods of cars can look like traveling kaleidoscopes, shimmering as they speed through the night. 

It's the perfect milieu for Frank (James Caan), a safecracker and diamond thief who operates as the consummate professional along with his equally efficient team. No need for attention or pizazz; just grab the goods and go. In the opening scene, Frank and partner Barry (James Belushi in his feature debut) pull off a nearly wordless heist that climaxes with Frank boring a gigantic drill through the cold thick steel of a safe door. The nearly ten-minute sequence is prominently accompanied by a pulsing electronic score from Tangerine Dream, a love-'em or detest-'em creative element that defines the movie's cool industrial attitude toward crime and the city.

After business it's time for pleasure, at least to the limited degree that Frank is capable of experiencing such an emotion. Frank is a state lifer, raised in an orphanage and handed over to the prison system where a short sentence for petty burglary morphed into a longer stint after the young man was forced to defend himself from jailhouse predators (or at least that's how Frank tells the story). More than a decade in the joint has chiseled a heart of stone; Frank proudly admits to Jessie (Tuesday Weld), a diner waitress who catches his eye, that he survived in jail only by getting to the point “where nothin' means nothin'.”

If you're looking for chinks in Frank's nihilistic armor, witness the way he eagerly flocks to the aid of his imprisoned mentor Okla (Willie Nelson), but this appears to be the exception. Even Frank's campaign to win Jessie's heart is strictly a business matter; he decided in prison that he wanted to settle down with a nice woman and have a child, and he's the sort of man who always follows through on his plans and by his own rules. When local gang boss Leo (Robert Prosky) tries to enlist the lone wolf in his ranks, Frank (who never uses contractions) means it when he replies, “I am Joe the boss of my own body.” Frank will soon remember what he learned in jail and ever so briefly forgets in the real world; you can only be in charge when you have no other responsibilities.

“Thief” is nominally based on Frank Hohimer's book “The Home Invaders,” though Mann claims he discarded everything but the basic idea. Mann's script is built mostly out of genre cliches: the hardened career criminal looking to make one last big score, the world-weary but loving woman who accepts his shady past, honor among thieves, the corrupt cops and two-bit gangsters who want a piece of the action. “Thief” distinguishes itself in terms of style and also by James Caan's lived-in performance; his hairy swagger and willingness to let actions speak louder than words make Frank entirely believable, even if unsympathetic. He is a bully and a narcissist whose tunnel vision and methodical calculation leave no room for the feelings of others. Knowing the tough upbringing that shaped him adds depth to the character, but still offers little to be fond of. He uses and abuses whenever he has the power to do so: “To hell with me, with you, with everything.” At least he's honest.

Mann's ultra-cool formalism has made him the favorite of many auteurist critics for reasons I've never fully understood. As a result, “Thief” is now often hailed as the precursor of a style-drenched decade, a game-changer, or something similar; as an auteur's first theatrical film, it simply must be historically important in some way. Better to set aside any alleged landmark status, and accept “Thief” as a crisply filmed, well-acted crime move that benefits immensely from the verisimilitude of its heist sequences. Real safes, real tools, real pillars of flame; these jobs are labor intensive, man. Pure sweat equity. It beats the hell out of the gravity-free zone of CGI action. Heck, there are even real pay phones here, and phone calls that can be missed if you're not there to take them. That's when men were men, and Mann was the Mann.

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Criterion's 1080p transfer is virtually flawless, and I can only assume the vibrant chromatic palette is true to the original. It's easy to get lost in the precisely sculpted, moody imagery and the high-def treatment really brings it to life. There are plenty of nighttime scenes and the detail brought out in the darker shots is often remarkable; I'm sure fans who have only caught it on DVD will see things they've missed before. I can't think of anything to complain about.

The DTS-HAD Master Audio 5.1 surround track is equally impeccable. Whether you love them or not, you get Tangerine Dream's score vividly presented in all its abstracted glory. The industrial sounds of men at work and the ambient sounds of the city all come through on this evocative surround track. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

The film is accompanied by a commentary track by Michael Mann and James Caan. It was recorded in 1995, and was included on the long-ago released SD by MGM/UA.

The rest of the extras are all newly recorded interviews. Critic Scott Foundas interviews Mann (2013, 24 min.) who discusses growing up in Chicago and his reliance on real-life thieves as consultants and actors (safecracker James Santucci plays a crooked cop in the film). We also get a new interview with James Caan (2013, 10 min.) who lists “Thief” as one of his proudest accomplishment and a new interview with Johannes Schmoelling, formerly of Tangerine Dream (2013, 16 min.) The disc also includes a Theatrical Trailer (2 min.)

The slim insert book includes an essay by “Sight & Sound” editor Nick James.

Final Thoughts:
I haven't liked a Michael Mann film in quite a while, but his career got off to a fine start with this stylistic crime movie and later peaked with the only true Hannibal Lecter (or Lecktor) movie, “Manhunter” (1986). Criterion's high-def transfer is superb; fans might have hoped for more extras, but the new interviews are certainly worthwhile.

The Long Day Closes

THE LONG DAY CLOSES (Davies, 1992)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Jan 28, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

British writer-director Terence Davies' reminiscence of his childhood appears, at first blush, to be a very flattering portrait that borders on narcissism. Amidst the grayness of 1950s Liverpool, twelve-year-old Bud (Leigh McCormack) shines like a delicate angel, almost literally. Bud is often framed dead center in an otherwise dimly-lit composition, gazing wistfully off-camera with his gentle, pensive face bathed in the light of a film projector, a television screen, the moon, or perhaps from an unspecified source even higher up as he imagines a world as happy as the one portrayed in his beloved Hollywood movies.

Add in the musical accompaniment of church choirs and even Debbie Reynolds, and it's enough to make the viewer wonder if this perfect, innocent child could possibly be of mortal born. Then again, one of the film's other defining images is that of Bud securely nestled against his even saintlier mother (Marjorie Yates), somehow all alone with his unflinching protector even though he shares a cramped rowhome with a bustling cohort of older brothers and sisters.

Davies, a Liverpudlian who was the youngest of many siblings, makes no secret that Bud (whose last name also happens to be Davies) is a portrait of the artist as a young man; Davies even faithfully recreated his childhood home, in slightly expanded and more flexible form, on set. It's fair to question why the director has chosen to portray his younger self as such a beautiful dreamer. The key comes in the director's explanation that the only truly happy time in his life was from age seven (after his abusive father died) to about age twelve, when a stable home life with mum gave way to conflict at secondary school and the adolescent (and adult) torment of a Catholic ashamed of his homosexuality. 

The film depicts the very end of this idyll, the moment when “The Long Day Closes” (1992). In other works (his “Trilogy” of short films shot in the late '70s and early '80s, and 1988's “Distant Voices, Still Lives”), Davies' screen memoirs focused on far more morbid material; with “The Long Day Closes” he opens the treasure chest safeguarding his most-cherished memories and shares them with the world.

The film is by no means all sweetness and light. Bud sees the avalanche that's coming, most vividly in the embarrassment he feels when a shirtless bricklayer mockingly returns the boy's furtive gaze, but for now he can sustain a blissful existence by retreating to his happy places: a home with a loving mother and supportive siblings, and always the local theater playing all those wonderful Hollywood movies. A tenuous lifeline, but sturdy enough to hold for a while. 

The movie's soundtrack is absolutely saturated with both music and dialogue from now-classic films; “Long Day” even begins with the 20th Century Fox theme playing as the camera roves over a street sign and a muddy Liverpool road that will lead us to the happy home that once was. Intrusions of more sinister film scenes (audio clips from “The Magnificent Ambersons” and of Mrs. Havisham in full meltdown in “Great Expectations”) remind us that all was not well even on the big screen, and that a storm is a-brewin'.

If this meticulously sculpted evocation of childhood sometimes seems a bit too pretty and ethereal, perhaps that's part of the point. Some viewers dismiss nostalgia as either sentimental or reactionary, but it can also be a corrosive. Such vivid memories of fleeting bliss don't necessarily bring happiness to the older artist mourning what is now lost forever. Perhaps it would be easier to forget it entirely and just trudge ahead. Davies keeps looking back until it hurts, and that's where his art just begins. 

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The new transfer was “created in 2K resolution... from the original 35 mm interpositive held by Channel 4.” The 1080p image is rich and sharp, vividly capturing the desaturated look Davies and cinematographer Michael Coulter wanted for the film (and augmented by a bleaching process at the lab). It looks both dreary and dream-like, perfect for the material.

The film is presented with an LPCM 2.0 stereo mix. “The Long Day Closes” encroaches on rock opera territory with its wall-to-wall soundtrack incorporating everything from classical music to religious hymns to movie scores and songs. Debbie Reynolds' “Tammy” is the most memorable musical cue, but the film tucks in Richard Rodgers, Nat King Cole, Judy Garland, and much, much more. This lossless mix easily does justice to the dense soundtrack, according the music an appropriately enveloping quality. Dialogue is clearly mixed, but you may need the optional English subtitles to make out some of the Liverpudlian accents. The subtitles, by the way, also identify each song and each film from which dialogue clips are taken, which is no small task.

The film is accompanied by a commentary track by Davies and cinematographer Michael Coulter. It was recorded in 2007 and was previously included on a BFI standard definition release of the film.

The disc also includes a 1992 episode of “The South Bank Show” (47 min.) which played on British television a month before “Long Day” debuted at Cannes. It's mostly a one-on-one interview with Davies in which he speaks candidly about his childhood and the various influences on the movie. Davies can sometimes come across as terminally serious, but he lights up when talking about his fondness for Hollywood musicals. Definitely worth watching.

An interview with writer Colin McCabe (2013, 14 min.) provides production background. McCabe was formerly head of the BFI Production Board which helped finance some of Davies' earlier films. McCabe served as executive producer on “The Long Day Closes” and he shares details about the film's journey from the planning stages to the big screen.

Production designer Christopher Hobbs (2013, 20 min.) is also interviewed about his remarkable work on a film that might look deceptively simple, but ask yourself how easy it is to shoot in a tiny multi-story rowhome.

The insert booklet includes an essay by critic Michael Koresky. Koresky writes most of the liner notes for Criterion's Eclipse collection and it's great to see him in longer form on a Criterion release. This is one of the best essays I've read in a Criterion booklet, and that's pretty high praise. [Update: Koresky's book “Terrence Davies” was published in August 2014 and has received praise all around.]

Final Thoughts:
“The Long Day Closes” is best seen when paired with “Distant Voices, Still Lives,” but this initial foray by Davies into the Criterion Collection is welcome even by itself. We can just hope that more will follow. The high-def transfer is sharp, the extras are solid if not extensive, and the movie's not so bad either. Strongly recommended.