Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Road Trilogy: Wim Wenders

THE ROAD TRILOGY (1974-1976, Wenders)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray Box Set, Release Date May 31, 2016
Review by Christopher S. Long

I wish I could come up with a more passionate argument for Wim Wenders' last few decades worth of feature film output than the claim that “Don't Come Knocking” wasn't completely terrible. But that's all I got. Still, I feel protective of the former New German Cinema titan when critics take too much pleasure in celebrating his decline. “Quite possibly Europe's worst working filmmaker?” C'mon, there's always Gaspar Noe.

Besides, “The Salt of the Earth” (2014) was kind of a knockout, even if it wasn't all Wenders. OK, maybe that doesn't quite make up for “The End of Violence” (1997) or the lingering horror of “The Million Dollar Hotel” (2000). Starting at “written by Peter Handke” and taking a detour to “based on a story by Bono” has got to be the most depressing road trip of all.

Of course, the man who directed “Paris, Texas” (1984) and “Wings of Desire” (1987) has nothing to make up for. Add in The Road Trilogy and you've earned lifelong bragging rights. Even if The Road Trilogy was only declared a trilogy after the fact by American critic Richard Roud and even if the middle film in the trilogy isn't nearly a match for the bookends (or even much of a road movie), this crowning achievement of Wenders' peak period is enough to secure a legacy, and also to make for one heck of a new box set from the Criterion Collection.

The Road Trilogy might not have been shot as an official trilogy, but the three films are united by several defining elements: Wenders' laconic, unhurried direction; the equally laconic Rudiger Vogler as lead actor; and spectacular cinematography from a young up-and-comer named Robby Muller. The trilogy is also suffused with bursts of American rock 'n roll and a lingering melancholy containing equal parts of fatalistic resignation and suppressed passion. And, of course, the road.

Vogler had never starred in a film before, but the trilogy is unthinkable without him. His piercing eyes perched above a thick, elongated nose could give him a sinister look in the right circumstances; in these films, he often seems lost in contemplation, if not outright wallowing in his own misery. Looking a little unkempt even when dressed neatly, he seems comfortable only in the transitory space of the road. This isn't a man who struggles into a tie and reports for the day shift.

In “Alice In The Cities” (1974),the first film in the trilogy and also the film that served as a breakout for Wenders on the international festival circuit, Vogler plays Phillip Winter, a German journalist assigned to write a story about America. Driving along the east coast from one neon-drenched motel room to another, Phillip finds himself unable to articulate his experience, producing only a series of Polaroid snapshots which also provide insufficient insight because the picture “never shows what you just saw.” His New York-based editor has even less use for the Polaroids and banishes Phillip back to Germany for missing his deadline.

At the airport, Winter meets a mother (Lisa Kreuzer) and her eight-year-old daughter Alice (Yella Rottlander), also planning to limp back to Germany after an emotionally and financially draining experience in America. The emigres join forces, but soon mom leaves to attend to unfinished business in the Big Apple, asking this new stranger to bring Alice back to Amsterdam (they can't fly to Germany because of a labor strike) where mom will meet them in a few days.

You can probably guess that mom doesn't show on schedule, prompting the film's main action. Phillip finds himself both in charge of the precocious girl and also entirely in her thrall as he must rely on her strands of faulty memory to try to reunite her with her European relatives. In a rented car, the unlikely couple (more big brother-little sister than father-daughter) crawl along cramped streets in German towns and cities looking for Alice's grandmother's house and slowly bonding even as the independent spirits grow increasingly irritated with each other's presence.

Vogler shifts effortlessly from sullen to sunny, all modulated by an inner grief. Phillip is moody, but also kind and he is genuinely fond of Alice even though, as a man of the road, he's not much for responsibilities or burdens. Vogler also deploys his marvelous wry smile to great strategic effect. Alice is more than Phillip's equal, one of the most fully realized little girls cinema has ever produced. In one early scene, Phillip pretends to blow out the lights on the Empire State Building. Little Alice is initially amazed by this bit of magic, then spies Phillip's watch, vaguely suspecting the truth: he was just waiting for midnight. She is clever and petulant, projecting a confidence beyond her years in one moment, then retreating to the bathroom to cry in the next. Rottlander, only seven at the time, is so good it's hard to believe she would only play one more film role.

Europe winds up looking an awful lot like America with another series of motel rooms (less neon though) and the idiot drone of “barbarous television” dominating spaces not lucky enough to be graced with a jukebox, always a holy relic for Wenders and almost always playing American rock or blues. One of the miracles of the film is that while the sights we see are often shabby, they spark to life in luminous black-and-white photography by Robby Muller, then in the early stages of one of the greatest careers of the modern era, one shamelessly unrecognized by a clueless Academy. In a shot that has no business being so gorgeous, Phillip pulls back the curtains on a window to reveal a neon tableau: a gaudy, giant arrow pointing to the sign for the Skyway Motel. It looks like a lost Edward Hopper painting: “Room By The Highway.”

Where “Alice” presented life on the road as a decidedly low-budget affair, “Kings of the Road” (1976) traces a route through the no-frills apocalypse of the present: abandoned gas stations, worm-eaten roadside food stands, monochromatic landscapes devoid of signs of human life. Did anyone ever live in this place?

Bruno Winter (Vogler again) is a traveling film projectionist who wrestles his oversized truck along West German roads bordering their eastern cousin (faraway, so close) in order to wrestle equally oversized projectors into working order for one more night of providing light and shadow plays to sparse, disinterested audiences hoping for porn. Here, size truly matters. These glorious projectors are hulking machines made of metal and they contain fire! Yes, film used to be a tangible object with weight and volume and heat and power, nothing downloadable here. Ah well. Made forty years ago, Wenders' film was already bemoaning the slow death of cinema as a communal event; today it's a eulogy for a friend long since buried, yet remembered every single day.

The ambitionless Bruno can't even be bothered to wear much more than a pair of farmer's overalls most days, but a semblance of structure enters his peripatetic existence when he witnesses a Volkswagen Beetle plunging headfirst into the Elbe River. The driver calmly gathers his suitcase and tromps back to shore while Bruno watches idly. This soggy soul is Robert Lander (Hanns Zischler), just as lost as Bruno, though for different reasons that will eventually become clear despite Bruno's rejection of any attempts to provide backstory (smart man, that Bruno.)

For nearly three hours, Bruno and Robert trudge along through more immaculately grubby Muller black-and-white landscapes. If it seems they have no purpose in mind, perhaps that's because Wenders shot without a script, or at least no script aside from a map of Germany with a few small towns marked off, the only ones that still had theaters. The tiny film crew lived and traveled together, shooting whatever they passed on the road, often with dialogue written shortly before each day's shoot.

Vogler and Zischler develop the easy chemistry so essential to the road movie, playing off each other while also maintaining their own trajectories. Both of their lives are partially defined by the absence of women, with missing mothers as crucial as unavailable lovers. They won't really solve any of their problems – who ever does? But, yeah, they learn a few lessons from their time together, not the least being that there's a little more compassion in the world than a self-absorbed cynic is keen to acknowledge.

Did I skip over the middle entry in the trilogy? It's a little tough to describe. “Wrong Move” (1975) is one of those movies. You know the kind. One of those movies where the main character meets a guy on a train and that guy always has a nosebleed and plays the harmonica and he travels with a mute acrobat girl. And then they all meet a really bad poet who takes them to visit his uncle except he goes to the wrong house but that's OK because the guy who lives at this random house was about to commit suicide and he likes to deliver long monologues about loneliness and then one of them turns out to have been a Nazi. You know, one of those movies.

Writer James Robison argues eloquently in favor of “Wrong Move” in his essay in the accompanying Criterion booklet, but not enough to sway my feelings about this exasperating and tedious exercise in seemingly random behavior. The great playwright Peter Handke, a longtime Wenders friend and collaborator, adapted the script very, very loosely from Goethe's bildungsroman “Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship.” Both Robison (in his essay) and Wenders (in an interview on the disc) explain that Handke actually wrote an antithesis to Goethe's story about a young writer who goes on a journey of self-realization, constructing instead a journey that doesn't change the main character in the slightest. Leaving home was the first of many “wrong moves” for our hapless non-hero.

Fair enough, but the characters are so thinly drawn and their behavior and dialogue so infuriatingly arbitrary it's difficult to take anything or anyone seriously, though I must confront the distinct possibility that the film is operating on a wavelength I simply don't receive. In any case, Vogler is back as the lead and we are treated both to the radiant Hanna Schygulla in a supporting role and a 13-year-old Nastassja Kinski (who could easily pass for 20) making her film debut as the aforementioned acrobat. So that's something. Maybe I would have liked it more if it wasn't the only part of the trilogy shot in color. I'm trying hard here.

I won't end on a sour note. The bookends to this unofficial trilogy are simply spectacular, some of the finest works the New German Cinema ever produced, and two of the best road movies of all time. That's more than enough to recommend the box set, and also to secure Wenders' place in world cinema in perpetuity. As long he doesn't work with Bono again.

As explained both in print and some of the features on the discs, many of Wenders' early films survived in a very perilous state. He also lost ownership of some of the negatives in an unfortunate business venture, so the process to restore them, headed by the Wim Wenders Foundation, he been an extensive and desperately needed project.

The negative for “Alice In The Cities,” for example, was so badly cracked and warped it had to be entirely digitally restored with some scenes in the original 16 mm negative supplemented by a later 35 mm duplicate.

Having said all that, it's amazing how great these restored transfers look. All three films are presented in 1.66:1 aspect ratios. For “Wrong Move” and “Kings of the Road” this means they are shown in their original aspect ratio. In the case of “Alice” this means both a change and a return to the director's vision: it was released in 1.37:1 as mandated by the company that commissioned the film, but Wenders and Muller always framed for 1.66:1.

All three films look great with these new digital restorations. “Alice” and “Kings” both feature sharp contrast in the rich black-and-white imagery, appropriately grainy throughout. Image detail is sharp, and the total package is a completely immersive experience. Amazing considering how damaged the original negatives were. “Wrong Move” shows off a warm but unobtrusive color palette with crystal clear image quality.

“Alice” gets a linear PCM Mono track, the other two films arrive with DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround tracks. Lossless audio is crisp and robust for all three films, though obviously not too dynamic on “Alice.” Optional English subtitles support the German audio. For “Alice” and “Kings” you can choose a second subtitle option which provides English subs for the German commentary track.

Each film is housed in a separate keepcase, all three of which are tucked alongside the thick insert booklet into a cardboard box that houses the set.

Each film is accompanied by a commentary track, though none of them are new to this set. “Alice In The Cities” has a German-language commentary (with optional English subtitles) featuring Wenders, Vogler, and Yella Rottlander. It was originally recorded in 2009. “Wrong Move” comes with a 2002 commentary by Wenders. “Kings of the Road” gets a 2005 German commentary (with optional English subtitles) by Wenders.

The “Alice In The Cities” disc also offers a 15-minute feature titled “Restoring Time” in which Wenders explains the project of the Wim Wenders Foundation. Restoring the negative was labor-intensive enough, but on films like “The Goalie's Anxiety At The Penalty Kick” (1972) they had to record new music because they couldn't clear rights to the old songs.

The disc also includes a lengthy Interview feature (2016, 27 min) combining interviews with Vogler, Rottlander, and Lisa Kreuzer. The most interesting bit is Rottlander explaining how Wenders would find a way to combine play with work in dealing with his child star. There are also 16 mintues of Outtakes and On-Set Footage though none of it is particularly revealing.

We also get two early short films by Wenders. “Same Player Shoots Again” (1967, 12 min.) repeats the same two-minute shot five times, each time with a different color tint. Wenders explains that the structuring principle was that of a pinball player who gets to shoot five balls. “Silver City Revisited” (1968, 33 min.) is most interesting for its soundtrack, which employs long stretches of scratchy near-silence with occasional musical outbursts. Wenders was recording directly from some old records in the attic of his film school. The visuals move between busy city streets and deserted rural roads with a guest appearance by The Rolling Stones.

The “Wrong Move” disc features a lengthy interview with Wenders, conducted by filmmaker Michael Almereyda (2016, 64 min.) Wenders discusses the entire trilogy as well as some of his other work, including how he turned his disappointment with his adaptation of “The Scarlet Letter” (1973) into the success of “Alice.” Wenders is quite revealing here, and tells a phenomenal story about the surprising, pivotal role a generous Samuel Fuller played in convincing Wenders to stick with “Alice” when he wanted to abandon it.

The disc also includes another interview (2016, 22 min.) with Vogler and Lisa Kreuzer and some Super-8 Footage shot on the set of “Wrong Move” (4 min.)

The “Kings of the Road” disc includes yet another lengthy interview (2016, 31 min.) with Vogler, Zischler, and Kreuzer. This was my favorite of the interviews as they talk about the intimate experience they and the crew had living together on the road for more than two months while shooting a film nobody knew much about. The final extra is another 21 minutes of Outtakes and On-Set Footage – nothing surprising here, though some footage of Wenders and Muller playing around on set is neat.

The square-bound insert booklet includes an overview of the trilogy by filmmaker Michael Almereyda and essays on each film by, respectively, filmmaker Allison Anders, writer James Robison, and writer Nick Roddick.

Final Thoughts:
I think we can all agree this review is long enough already. You like a good road movie? This is where to look.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Four By Agnes Varda

FOUR BY AGNES VARDA (multiple films by Varda)
Criterion Collection, DVD, Release Date Jan 22, 2008
Review by Christopher S. Long

(Happy 88th birthday, Agnes Varda! Here's a re-written, re-edited version of my review of Criterion's sprawling Varda box set released back in 2008.)

The French New Wave, much like the classical Hollywood it paid homage to, was almost exclusively a man’s game. Agnès Varda stands as the only major exception, aside perhaps from Marguerite Duras who wrote the script for Alain Resnais’ “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” (1959), though Varda's career both precedes and only briefly intersects the New Wave proper.

Varda sprung on the scene seemingly out of nowhere with her fiction-documentary hybrid “La Pointe Courte” in 1954. A true autodidact, Varda not only taught herself how to shoot a film, but claimed that she hadn’t even seen many other films at the time of her first work. That may or may not have been a bit of false humility; she was certainly well-versed in the arts, especially literature and photography.

“La Pointe Courte” was a bracing effort that won critical praise, but did little to jumpstart Varda’s career. She would not shoot another film for four years, and would not produce her next feature film until 1962. The wait proved more than worth it when that second film “Cléo from 5 to 7” became one of the defining works of the French New Wave, and was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Varda produced two more documentary shorts before releasing “Le Bonheur” (“Happiness”) in 1965, her most shocking and, perhaps, most overlooked film.

By then, Varda had already begun to drift away from the New Wave which was just as well since the other New Wave directors had done the same, and she has spent the rest of her career shifting seamlessly between non-fiction and fiction, and between short and long-form cinema. Varda’s film output was relatively sparse in the 1970s, which led to an understandable dwindling of critical interest, but she stormed back in the '80s with one of her finest works, “Vagabond” (1985). Varda, now 88 years eternal, is semi-retired (naturally, she has another film currently in production), but saved some of her best work for the 21st century with films like 'The Gleaners And I” (2001) and “The Beaches of Agnes” (2008).

Criterion’s boxed set “4 by Agnès Varda” collects (you guessed it) four of her feature films: “La Pointe Courte,” “Cléo from 5 to 7,” “Le Bonheur” and “Vagabond” along with several short films and a whole passel of extras which I will discuss below. “Cleo” and “Vagabond” were previously released by Criterion and retain their old spine numbers (73 and 74, respectively) while the other two get new spine numbers. Short reviews of each film follow.

La Pointe Courte

This film is sometimes identified by scholars today as the first French New Wave film, but that's only because some scholars strain too hard to rewrite history as a neat narrative. Varda preceded the New Wave proper by half a decade and shot and distributed her debut film as a true outsider and a virtual one-woman force of nature.

Like some New Wave films, “La Pointe Courte” blends fiction and non-fiction elements. Set in a Mediterranean fishing village, the movie tells two stories: one of a vacationing couple whose marriage is in jeopardy, and another which tracks the everyday lives of the villagers. Rather than interweaving the two main threads in a seamless fashion, Varda cuts abruptly back and forth between each story. This bold structure was inspired by William Faulkner’s novel “The Wild Palms” with its chapters that alternate between two separate stories.

I used to find the semi-ethnographic tales of the villagers and their clashes with government bureaucracy more compelling than the couple's story, but nowadays I find myself won over by the entire film. I'm particularly impressed by how Varda shifts styles so dramatically, employing fairly non-intrusive neorealist techniques to record the daily lives of the villagers, portrayed by local non-professional actors, and employing more self-conscious editing for the married couple, played by actors Philippe Noiret and Sylvia Monfort (Monfort being the more experienced professional of the two).

As the husband and wife struggle to find a way to continue together, they are often filmed in tight close-ups shot at jarring angles, with one lover's face partially obscuring the other. Some viewers might find the intimate portraits of faces reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman. It's frequently quite startling and totally unforgettable.

Cléo from 5 to 7

Best known today as one of the first “real time” movies, the film follows its titular protagonist through an hour and a half of personal anguish (the film actually only goes from 5 to 6:30 – “5 to 7” is a euphemism for the time after work when some French men visit their mistresses before returning home to the family). Cléo (Corinne Marchand), a slightly-vacuous and slightly-talented pop singer, fears the worst as she waits for the results of a recent medical exam, and tries to subsume her anxieties in a flurry of shopping and idle sightseeing on a meandering walk through the heart of Paris. I have always thought of “Cléo” as a film in which a seemingly shallow person is forced to confront some very profound thoughts. In the process, Cléo evolves from the frivolous pop singer her handlers want her to be to a thoughtful, complex soul. The movie is also a luminous document of Paris on a beautiful summer afternoon.

The film is so rich and densely packed that new details unfold on each viewing. Motice the ways in which the tarot card reader at the beginning of the film blows smoke right up poor Cléo’s lovely posterior. “Was your mother a widow?” “No.” “Then you have a close friend who is a widow.” It’s classic cold reading technique (i.e. bullshit) and may be yet another documentary aspect of the film that has gone largely unnoticed. And then there are the kittens tumbling and playing everywhere in Cléo’s absolutely fabulous apartment; they’re so cute and cuddly and teeny-tiny, she must have them turned in every three weeks for fresh ones.

Le Bonheur

Though often overlooked, this may be the crowning achievement of Varda’s career. Deceptively simple, so shiny and perfect on the surface, this tale of an absolutely typical and utterly perfect family is one of the most transgressive films of the New Wave. I can’t really discuss the movie without providing spoilers (warning: DO NOT READ THE CHAPTER TITLES ON THE INSIDE SLEEVE OF THIS DVD!). Instead, I’ll simply note that this film has more to say about the horrors of happiness than any other film I’ve seen. It is a testament to the notion that a person who is happy all the time either has to engage either in near total denial or be a genuine sociopath. Other movies have touched on the pathology of happiness, but none have done so with such boldness and clarity of vision. There is not a hint of irony or smugness in Varda's film, and for that matter it isn’t even pessimistic, just shake-you-to-your-core insightful. It’s the kind of film that can actually change your understanding of the world, and if that sounds like an exaggeration, then I can only ask you to watch “Le Bonheur” and see if you feel the same way.


Seventeen year-old Sandrine Bonnaire turns in a career-making performance as Mona, a drifter who has embraced the kind of freedom that others only dream about. She lives where she likes, does what she wants to, and even accepts charity from strangers without so much as a thank you. Mona’s free-wheeling ways touch the lives of almost everyone she comes in contact with, though she honestly couldn’t care less. Don’t let that description fool you into thinking this is a feel-good empowerment fest. There’s nothing romantic about this dirty, lazy girl eking out an existence on the fringe of the fringe of society. Life is cold and hard and ugly for someone with no roots and no aspirations, but Mona remains implacably Mona-esque no matter what happens. This is not necessarily a virtue. Whether you see Mona as the fun-house mirror image of the John Wayne rugged individualist or an exemplar of narcissistic nihilism, the film offers no easy answers and little direct access to its protagonist’s inner life. 

“La Pointe Courte” is presented in a 1.33:1 full-screen aspect ratio; the other three films are presented in the standard European 1.66:1 wide-screen aspect ratio. As you might expect, the restored transfers vary in quality. Surprisingly, “La Pointe Courte,” the oldest of the features, is the best-looking of the bunch. The black-and-white photography is crystal clear and the contrast is very sharp. Also surprisingly, “Cléo from 5 to 7,” the most celebrated film in the package, is probably the weakest transfer, though that’s on a relative scale. It still looks good, but there are several instances of debris and damage from the print source. The other two films are in-between, with “Vagabond” looking better all around then “Le Bonheur” which shows even more damage than “Cléo” but makes up for it with very rich colors.

The films are all presented in Dolby Digital Mono. The mixes are crisp, efficient, and not particularly dynamic which is my way of saying I have nothing much to say about them except that they do the job just fine. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.

Where to start? This may be the most extra-packed Criterion boxed set ever released. Each of the four discs contains one of the films and a selection of extras.

“La Pointe Courte”

The first disc eases into the extras orgy with just a few short offerings:
-Interview with Varda – a newly recorded (2007) interview with the director (16 min.)
-An excerpt (9 min) from an episode of the French television series “Cinéastes de notre temps” which originally aired May 19, 1964.

“Cleo from 5 to 7”

Now the fun really begins:
-“Remembrances” (36 min, 2005) – This short documentary, shot by Varda in 2005, reunites the cast and crew of the film.
-“Cléo’s Real Path through Paris” (9 min, 2005) – Pierre-William Glenn shoots from the back of a motorcycle as he retraces Cléo’s trip through Paris. An on-screen map orients viewers to where they are in the City of Lights.
-“Hans Baldung Green” – Green’s paintings inspired some of the shots in “Cléo.” This feature offers information about the painter as well as the opportunity to navigate through several still reproductions of his paintings.
-“Madonna et Agnès” – The only feature in the set that seems completely extraneous, this is a 2-minute clip from a 1993 French TV special about Madonna in which Varda speaks to the Material Girl.
-“Les fiancés du Pont McDonald” – Perhaps the most famous scene in the film occurs when Cléo enters a theater and watches a short film. The “silent” film within a film stars Varda’s fellow New Wavers Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina along with Jean-Claude Brialy and even Eddie Constantine. This feature produces the short film-within-a-film in its entirety which is pretty much how you see it in the film too, but here it comes with opening credits as well.
-“L’opéra mouffe” (1958, 16 min.) Varda’s first short film, and her first project after “La Pointe Courte,” is a surrealist montage from the rue Mouffetard in the Latin Quarter of Paris. It is told from the point-of-view of an anxious pregnant woman; Varda was also pregnant with daughter Rosalie at the time of shooting.

“Le Bonheur”

The third disc offers yet another cornucopia of extras:

-“Agnès on ‘Le Bonheur’” - A 3-minute 1998 interview with (and by) Varda.
-“The Two Women of Le Bonheur” (2006, 6 min) – Varda and her daughter speak with the two lead actresses of the film.
-“Thoughts on Le Bonheur” (15 min.) – Varda brings four intellectuals together to discuss the film and the nature of happiness in general. Each of the four brings a different perspective to the discussion, including one woman who just can’t understand what all the fuss is about.
-“What is Happiness?” – This section includes two short features which further explore the subject of happiness from different perspectives, both from people on the street and from philosophers and authors. My favorite quote: “Happiness is the silence of unhappiness.”
-An excerpt from the French television series “Demons et merveilles du cinema” (1964, 4 min) shows Varda on set working with her actors. It’s great to see Varda in action, but it’s a crying shame this feature is so short.
-“Du côté de la côte” (1958, 26 min) – Varda was commissioned to shoot a film about the Côte d’Azure and wound up making this impressionistic take on the resort’s history and its inherent falseness; it was originally titled “Fake Eden.”


The fourth and final disc keeps dishing out the goods:

-“Remembrances” (2003, 40 min) – Another documentary shot by Varda in which she re-examines the film and speaks with several cast and crew members.
-“The Story of an Old Lady” (2003, 4 min) – Varda revisits one of the actresses (Marthe Jarnias) from the film.
-“Music and Dolly Shots” (2003, 12 min) – Varda and music composer Joanna Bruzdowicz discuss the film’s score as well as the lengthy dolly shots used.
-“To Nathalie Sarraute” (1986, 9 min) – This is an excerpt from a radio show (with accompanying still images) in which Varda discusses the fiction writer who inspired her film. Varda dedicated “Vagabond” to Sarraute.

Each film is housed in its own separate slip case which fits into the boxed set alongside the hefty insert booklet which features essays as well as comments from Varda about each film.

Final Thoughts:
All four films in this set are exceptional. And with the incredible array of extras, the set is more than worth the purchase even for viewers who already own Criterion’s previous releases of “Cléo from 5 to 7” and “Vagabond.” Agnès Varda is one of the great French filmmakers of the past half century, and this set more than does justice to some of her finest feature work.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Captain America: Civil War

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (Russo Brothers, 2016)
Theatrical Release
Review by Christopher S. Long

Racing across the dimpled flatbed of a truck as fast as his little formic feet can carry him, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), marginally better known as Ant-Man, takes one giant leap for antkind, switches his wrist controller from Pym's No. 1 to something much stronger, and lands square on the tarmac of Leipzig/Halle Airport as the 50-foot colossus Giant-Man. Just recently ripping out Iron Man's internal wiring at microscopic size, the petty crook turned costumed crimefighter now towers above the German jumbo jets as he reaches out to pluck the flying War Machine clean out of the air and clamp him down in his monstrous mitt.

Here, the action pauses a beat for a medium close-up on Lang's mask as his eyes widen with mischievous glee and he can't help but chuckle, “Oh ho ho ho!” Because, you see, he can be as tiny as an atom and as big as Godzilla and, as you might guess, that's kinda totally freaking awesome. Lang's giddy reaction captures all the sense of wonder that has motivated millions to “Make Mine Marvel!” over the past half century plus, and a major key to the success of the Marvel Studios franchise is that the characters appreciate the rush every bit as much as the viewers.

No scene demonstrates the philosophical chasm between the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and the Zack Snyder Universe of Comics (ZSUC) as vividly as this modest highlight from the show-stopping battle at the heart of “Captain America: Civil War.” In the brightly-hued MCU, even characters who have been declared outlaws by an overreaching government and faced with battling their former best friends still stop to have a little fun. In the gray-and-other-gray ZSUC, the nigh-omnipotent Superman is adopted by an abusive stepfather who brainwashes him to be ashamed and afraid of who he is; to really drill the lesson home, he forces his son, who has already lost a whole planet, to stand by idly and watch his father die. In the MCU being a superhero is a gas, in the ZSUC an unspeakable nightmare.

While Snyder dreams of a way to enhance the survivalist paranoia of the ZSUC with a good prison rape scene (may I suggest a Busby Berkeley-style musical number?), the Marvel team fantasizes about both the joys and challenges of being able to soar above the earth, fire energy blasts, control your own density, manipulate probability, lift a hundred times your body weight, and... shoot arrows really well.
The animated Marvel Studios logo flips through a series of comic book pages with KABLAMS aplenty, and the various creators shepherded by MCU head honcho Kevin Feige take the source material very seriously, seriously enough to have a total blast with it.

That doesn't prevent directors Anthony and Joe Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely from tackling a few weightier issues in this latest Marvel joint. An early battle in Lagos pits Captain America (Chris Evans) and a few of his fellow Avengers against the surprisingly compelling B-list villain Crossbones (Frank Grillo). Naturally, they beat the bad guy but the fight results in the deaths of several innocent bystanders, forcing Earth's Mightiest Heroes to confront the ramifications of their various world-shaking skirmishes. Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) feels guiltiest and eagerly acquiesces to a government plan to place the Avengers directly under the control of the United Nations.

The team fractures almost instantly as members quickly choose sides, with Cap leading the resistance along with Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and totally-not-a-mutant Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). And, of course, you can never be sure what Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson, still bringing more life to the character than Widow ever had in print) is really planning. The plot gets even muddier when the Star-Spangled Avenger's best friend from his WW2 days, Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), is named as the lead suspect in a terrorist attack in Vienna, and Cap, going full rogue, nominates himself as the only man capable of proving his buddy's innocence.

The Russo brothers and their team have clearly been tasked with packing a trilogy's worth of story and characters and globetrotting destinations into a single movie, and they manage the elephantine task with only a modicum of awkwardness. The machinations of the mysterious Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) almost seem superfluous considering what's already at stake for the Avengers. And aside from the bravura introduction of Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman, fully embracing his shot at one of Marvel's greatest characters) as a major player in the MCU, the story sags a bit in the middle; when Cap and Winter Soldier are on the lam, the film threatens to buckle under its uncharacteristic solemnity. Where's that Marvel fun? The answer: Underoos!

Shoe-horned into the project at the last minute after a bit of corporate horsetrading, the Amazing Spider-Man, a Sony property on loan to Marvel Studios, arrives, like a streak of light, just in time to spike the energy level to new heights. The announced re-re-(re?)-reboot of Spidey to his youngest days courted potential disaster, but the instant teenage Tom Holland speaks, he assumes total ownership of the character in the best-written and best-acted scene in the movie. In just a few minutes, Holland conveys a distinct sense of the Peter Parker who changed the comic book industry in 1963 with all of his brilliance, his naivete, and the desperate insecurity he just barely covered up by blabbering endlessly through fights. Billionaire power broker Tony Stark arrives at Parker's modest Queens apartment as a noble philanthropist offering the impoverished boy genius a chance to upgrade his Spandex game and join the big leagues, but winds up being completely won over by his charm. Ditto for most of the audience.

Which brings us back to the Leipzig airport and the greatest battle scene in any super-hero movie. Sure, the kinetic freewheeling feels dropped in from a different movie than the one with all the somber, dutiful Winter Soldier stuff, but who cares? What could have been a tedious CGI mess with more than a dozen characters bopping around the frame winds up being remarkably well choreographed with individual side battles clearly demarcated, heroes creatively and intelligently deploying their powers (do the writers play Hero Clix?), and constant reminders of the mutual affection the once and future Avengers still share while unleashing traumatic fury on each other, because that's just what friends do in the MCU. And, yeah, the kid steals yet another sequence as Spidey bobs and weaves and motormouths his way among the legends, winning yet another admirer in Captain America even as the first Avenger swiftly dispatches the newest one.

“Captain America: Civil War” probably tackles too much for its own good. Cap sometimes gets lost in his own movie, which is really another Avengers movie, which is really being used to set up both the next Avengers movie and the new Spider-Man and Black Panther movies. The stabs at real-world gravitas are half-convincing, half-irritating. Yet the final product is simply a joy, if for no other reason than that the film gets all of the character right. Every single one of them. Exactly right. That's what happens when your creative team actually flips through all those comic book pages, something nobody appears to have considered over at the ZSUC.

Friday, May 6, 2016

F For Fake

F FOR FAKE (Welles, 1972)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date October 21, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

"Up to your old tricks, I see."

"Why not? I'm a charlatan."

What is "F for Fake"?

How do I begin to describe a movie that numbers among its "cast" members not only Orson Welles, but also a Hungarian art forger, Howard Hughes, the cathedral at Chartres, and Pablo Picasso? How do I categorize a movie that can be described equally well as a documentary, a fictional feature, an essay, or even as a super-sized clip show?

OK, I think I know where to start. "F for Fake" is a movie about Oja Kodar. Who is Oja Kodar? Oja Kodar was Welles's partner both in his creative work (she co-wrote "F for Fake") and in life. Oja Kodar is also a woman so beautiful that mere adjectives and adverbs do not suffice to describe her. I have to call in Raymond Chandler for help. Oja Kodar is the kind of woman who could, in Chandler's words, make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window. She's also the kind of woman who could convince Pablo Picasso to give her twenty-two original paintings and… No, that's the ending. Always save the best for last. And you don't get much better than Oja Kodar. Let me start again.

"F for Fake" is a movie about Elmyr de Hory, the world's second greatest art forger (the best is Oja's father but that's a different story.) Elmyr has painted more Modiglianis than Modigliani; he can have three new ones ready for you by lunch if you're willing to wait. His paintings hang on the walls of museums throughout the world, not that he'll ever officially admit to it. And the museum curators and art sellers, well, let's just say they'd rather not ask difficult questions. Elmyr also has a biographer named Clifford Irving who has been a busy man. Not only has he written a book about Elmyr, but he's also just ghost-written an auto-biography of Howard Hughes. Or has he? Hughes denies ever having met the man, though it also appears that Irving's wife just might have walked into a Swiss bank one day wearing a wig and pretending to be a woman named Helga Hughes and…

OK, now I'm getting confused again. What exactly is "F for Fake?" Let me try one more time, and this time I'll just start with the facts.

"F for Fake," released in 1972, is the final feature film completed by Orson Welles. He continued to film actively and obsessively until his death in 1985, but most of these projects (such as "The Other Side of the Wind" and "The Dreamers") remained unfinished due in part to a lack of funding, and also in part to an abundance of ambition. Welles was a tireless craftsman who needed to juggle as many projects as possible to keep himself occupied.

With "F for Fake," Welles intended to create a new type of film which combined elements of both non-fiction and fiction; a personal essay akin to the work of avant-garde documentarians like Chris Marker and Stan Brakhage, though I don't know that Welles cared either way for their movies. Though the bulk of the film ostensibly concerns the story of art forger Elmyr de Hory, Welles weaves Elmyr's story (and Cliff Irving's and Oja Kodar's) into his own biography. As he notes with a wink and a smile, his own career began with a rather (in)famous bit of fakery of his own, the "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast which drove hundreds or perhaps thousands (accounts differ) of viewers into a panic over a Martian invasion in 1938. Just as he did in his radio broadcast, Welles is both willing and eager to mix fiction with fact in his "documentary." Indeed, that's the entire point. How else do you tell a story about fakers except by faking it? And what is filmmaking if not the art of fakery, the craft of the magician who, with a little sleight of hand, can make you see whatever he wants you to see?

 "F for Fake" addresses many issues, but central to the film is the question of authorship. On one level, there's the question of Elmyr's status as an art forger. Welles repeats a question: "It's pretty, but is it art?" If you can't determine the difference between the original and the fake, perhaps there is no difference at all. In one telling scene, Elmyr forges a portrait and then signs Orson Welles's name (though he misspells it "Wells".) Whose painting is it anyway?

Furthermore, though "F for Fake" is an "Orson Welles film," much of the footage of Elmyr is taken from a documentary shot by Francois Reichenbach, and an early "study" of girl-watching was actually written and filmed by Oja Kodar several years before "F for Fake." Whose film is this, and does it even matter? Welles's suggestion is that all that matters is the final product, and he amply credits the film's other "practioners" – an intentional misspelling – in the opening credits. At one point, Welles stands in front of the magnificent cathedral at Chartres and marvels at its enduring beauty. He describes it as one of the greatest achievements in mankind's history, but notes that nobody ever bothered to "sign" it. It is anonymous, and eternal, and beautiful. It's pretty, but is it art? You bet, says Orson.

"F for Fake" tackles some hefty philosophical issues but it is also a joy to watch solely for its surface elements: Oja Kodar, Elmyr's eel-slick performance, Welles's stentorian voice, Oja Kodar, the kaleidoscopic editing, beautiful paintings, Michel Legrand's music and, of course, Oja Kodar.

"F for Fake" also features Welles at his most playful, a little boy who has never gotten tired of playing with grown-up toys like movie cameras and editing tables. The editing in "F for Fake" is downright silly at times, and wonderfully so. Welles revels in his ability to smash any two images together, and thereby create the rules for his own game in the process. There are many other Orson Welleses in this movie too: Welles the raconteur, Welles the magician, Welles the gossip, and Welles the gourmand. The man loved to eat, and he's not above poking fun at his own girth. In one scene, he hands a platter of utterly decimated lobster to a waiter and tells him to bring the steak au poivre next.

Finally, "F for Fake" is a masterpiece. It is one of Welles' greatest films which, by definition, makes it one of the greatest films of all-time. If we listen only to the Hollywood history, Welles's career was one continuous slide after achieving early greatness. In reality, he was a great filmmaker who continued to make great films at every stage of his career even in the face of endless financial struggles. If you want to count "Citizen Kane" or "The Magnificent Ambersons" or perhaps "Chimes at Midnight" as Welles's best, I won't argue much, but "F for Fake" is certainly not far behind. 

The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Compared to the 2005 Criterion DVD release, this high-def transfer shows expected improvement in image detail. Grain looks a bit richer as well. However, the improvement is fairly modest. There's nothing wrong with this transfer at all, but I don't know that you could call it a revelation. Just a refinement.

The linear PCM audio mix is crisp, clear, and relatively flat, as is probably appropriate for the source material. Not a lot to say here. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Criterion has imported all of the extras from its 2-disc 2005 DVD and included them all on this single Blu-ray disc. Oddly Criterion has added a single new extra with no notice that I have seen.

The new feature is the April 8, 1975 episode of “Tomorrow” hosted by the great Tom Snyder. Snyder has a long (44 min.) conversation with Orson Welles who is in fine fettle, enjoying a super-sized stogie (which just looks normal on the super-sized Welles) while regaling Snyder and the audience with stories from his career. It's not the puff piece you might think. Snyder was a great interviewer and he's not afraid to push back from time to time against the great charlatan, but this is still meant to be a celebration of Welles's career. As I'm sure you know, Welles is a riveting story-teller and there's plenty to enjoy in this new feature.

The repeats from the 2005 disc are as follows.

The film is accompanied by a commentary track by Oja Kodar and director of photography Gary Graver. More a series of observations than the typical wall-to-wall conversation that comprises most commentaries. I liked it a lot. Originally recorded in 2004 and 2005.

Peter Bogdanovich provides another of his numerous introductions (2005, 6 min.) Welles's friend and biographer, Bogdanovich describes the film as "unlike any other." Maybe so, though he acts as if Welles invented the film essay which would be great news to Chris Marker and Agnes Varda, among others.

"Orson Welles: One-Man Band" (1995) is a feature-length (87 min.) documentary made in cooperation with Oja Kodar. It includes footage from several of Welles's unfinished films: "The Other Side of the Wind," "Moby-Dick," "The Deep," and much more. There are also clips of Welles performing magic on stage, and several short comedy films he made late in his career which portray the playful, self-deprecating side he features in "F for Fake." This documentary is an absolute gem that would be worth buying all by itself. Plus it's got Oja Kodar.

"Almost True: The Noble Art of Forgery" (1997): A short feature (52 min) made for the Norwegian Film Institute about Elmyr de Hory. The "straight" version of Elmyr's story. A nice companion piece to the main feature.

"60 Minutes Interviews Clifford Irving" (2000, 9 min.): In 1972, Irving went on a relatively new show called "60 Minutes" to defend himself against claims that his Howard Hughes autobiography was a hoax. He lied through his teeth. In 2000, he was invited back on the show to explain himself.

"Howard Hughes Press Conference" (1972, 20 min.) Hughes held a press conference by phone to deny all of Irving's claims. This feature includes several audio clips of Hughes answering reporters' questions.

And finally we get a nine-minute trailer. Nine minutes?  Orson Welles did everything big. More a short film, it includes much footage recorded solely for the trailer. The "trailer" is hilarious, entertaining, and a perfect description of "F for Fake." Naturally, American distributors rejected it.

The slim fold-out booklet includes a very fine essay by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum.

Closing Thoughts:
My earliest memory of Orson Welles is as the host of an alarmist program called "The Man Who Saw Tomorrow" (1981) a so-called documentary about Nostradamus's prophecies. I was probably 11 or 12 years old when I saw it, and I didn't have the slightest idea who this fat guy with piercing eyes, a scruffy beard, and a booming voice was. Nostradamus was, of course, a complete fraud (as a prophet, that is – as a physician, he treated many plague sufferers who other doctors wouldn't touch), but when Welles spoke his (very loosely translated) words, he had me convinced. The world was going to end in 1987 when Halley's Comet returned ("when the comet shall run!") and I, for one, was scared to death. For Welles, it was almost true since his own world ended in 1985. I'm willing to bet that he knew it was all fake, though. That's why he was perfect for the job.

He's perfect for this job as well. It's been nine years since I wrote the review posted above and my admiration for “F for Fake” has only grown. It's Welles at his most Welles-ian, and that's the highest compliment I can pay it.