Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Days of Heaven

DAYS OF HEAVEN (Malick, 1978)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Mar 23, 2010
Review by Christopher S. Long

Noël Carroll described Terrence Malick as a filmmaker who portrays the "primacy of experience." Malick attempts to capture images and sounds and words that are largely unfiltered by our usual perceptual processes. His films emphasize the act of looking for its own sake; they bypass language and other intermediary channels to plug the viewer directly into experience itself. Malick´s films, like many of Werner Herzog´s, layer one pristine image on top of another to create a density of imagery so tangible it becomes, in Carroll´s words "too much there."

Malick´s extraordinary second feature "Days of Heaven" (1978) is so much "there" it feels like a blanket enveloping the viewer or, to less sympathetic viewers, an impenetrable shield that prevents access. A swarm of locusts; a rippling stream; wheat fields shimmering in a gentle breeze; Malick´s world is alive in a way that only a few filmmakers have ever rivaled. Oh, there are people in Malick´s movies too, and they matter, but their stories don´t necessarily take precedence over the landscape's tale. All parts of the environment receive equal billing here: people, animals, insects, trees, clouds. Even the invisible is tangible here; the wind in "Days of Heaven" is practically a character unto itself.

Like Malick´s first film, "Badlands"(1973), "Days of Heaven" features a couple on the run; unlike "Badlands" this is only a minor aspect of the film´s mosaic. Bill (Richard Gere) accidentally kills a factory foreman, and runs away with his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and his little sister Linda (Linda Manz). They take up work as migrant farmers on a plantation owned by an unnamed Farmer (Sam Shepard, looking much younger than I ever remember Sam Shepard looking). The Farmer, dying of cancer, falls in love with Abby; Bill persuades her to marry the Farmer in a poorly-concoted scheme to inherit his money. Spending any more time on plot summary would grossly misrepresent Malick´s achievement.

The film is framed with a halting, awkward narration by Linda Manz who sounds as if she is groping for the words as she speaks them, yet another means by which Malick undermines the interpretive power of language. Here the words spring forth like a natural phenomenon, not fully planned but blossoming slowly into fullness. Linda is an odd choice for narrator since she remains so aloof from the action of the film, but then again everybody in the film is aloof in his or her own way. By emphasizing natural elements and dropping startling new images into the film seemingly out of the ether (oh, look, a flying circus has just arrived) Malick de-centers his narrative. The characters, human and otherwise, circle around the singularity at the very core of the film.

The editing is free-form, though positively classical compared to what was to come decades later in Malick's work. Certainly there are times when Malick employs standard narrative strategies, such as when he cuts to a shot of Bill and Abby holding each other as they walk away, to a brief shot of the Farmer looking suspicious. Other times, Malick will cut from a line of dialogue right into an entirely unrelated scene; even within a single dialogue scene, the characters appear to wander off in different directions only to suddenly find themselves back together again. Malick distills each moment to its essence, capturing the ineffable on film.

Many beautiful shots linger in the mind´s eye for days and forever, but the film´s most talked-about the scene is the fire near the end. Malick creates a Biblical conflagration (an impression heightened since the fire follows a swarm of locusts) with flames roaring high in the background, and swarms of (locust-like) humans depicted only as silhouettes in the foreground, futilely attempting to stem the tide. It is one of the most visually stunning sequences every committed to film.

Cinematographer Nestor Almendros, best known at that point for his 1970's work with the French New Wave directors, talks in the insert booklet that comes with this DVD about how he found a kindred spirit in Malick. Consistent with his focus on the "primacy of experience," Malick repeatedly asked Almendros to do less and less throughout the film; less lighting, no filters, etc. According to Almendros, the Hollywood-trained crew almost rebelled, but he was on the same page as the director. Almendros, with a little help from Haskell Wexler who came on to finish shooting after Almendros left for another commitment, wound up photographing one the most beautiful and memorable films of 1970's Hollywood.

I may have mentioned this already, but “Days of Heaven” is one of the most beautiful films ever made. Anyone who denies this can and must be ignored. It’s a visual pleasure junkie’s dream even on SD. The Blu-Ray release is so dangerously “pure” it should be a controlled substance.

Just take a gander at the climactic fire sequence as the definitive example. Each little detail stands out in sharp relief: the locusts, the tiny silhouetted people, the flames. Heck, even the wind looks great. Here you really see how much richer and sharper the shadows are – it really makes the SD look weak by comparison, and I thought the SD was pretty strong.

The Blu-Ray is presented in DTS-HD Master 5.1 audio. The lossless surround track is very deep and reinforces the sensory immersion experience of Malick’s “too much there” film. Sounds feel like they come from different planes of action within the frame, and the wind is practically its own separate soundtrack.

The extras are duplicated from Criterion’s 2007 SD release.

The audio commentary track features contributions by editor Billy Weber, art director Jack Fisk, costume designer Patricia Norris, and casting director Diane Crittenden.

Several interviews comprise the rest of the extras. There is a 2007 audio interview with Richard Gere (21 min), and a 2002 video interview with Sam Shepard (12 min.) We also get 2007 interviews with camera operator John Bailey (20 min) and with Haskell Wexler (11 min.)

The insert booklet includes an essay by film critic Adrian Martin, and a lengthy excerpt from Nestor Almendros´ 1984 autobiography "A Man With a Camera.

Film Value:
It would be nice if “Days of Heaven” came with more extras. This certainly seems like a title that deserves the deluxe Criterion treatment. But that’s a minor complaint compared to the opportunity to see one of the most luminescent films ever made in 1080p. Simply in terms of audiovisual quality, this is certain to be one of the best BR releases of 2010.


BADLANDS (Malick, 1973)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Mar 19, 2013
Review by Christopher S. Long

(It's time we get rid of Columbus Day once and for all, but of course nobody wants to lose a paid national holiday. A few worthy ideas have been bandied about, but to me the solution is obvious. Have Terrence Malick's birthday - Nov 30 - declared our newest and greatest national holiday. To get the ball rolling on that front, I am re-posting, with some substantial revisions, previous reviews of a few Malick films on Blu-ray from Criterion.)

Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen) is the most placid serial killer you could ever hope not to meet, his affable politeness as sincere and unaffected as his murderous explosions. Kit kills just about anyone who gets in his way, but he does so barely a hint of malice. Or remorse. It couldn't be any other way.

Everyone Kit encounters is merely an anonymous supporting character in the grand myth he has written for himself, a self-aggrandizing narrative crafted to transform a fired garbage collector into a very important person, a legend in life and his impending death. His victims have no interior lives in his eyes; they are all just “Bystander #1” whose deaths don't even register. Only one other person matters at all in Kit's world, his teenage girlfriend and fellow fugitive Holly (Sissy Spacek), but it's fair to wonder whether he feels anything for her or merely views her as a necessary accessory in his slipshod story; the girl, as Holly observes, destined to cry out Kit's name as he is gloriously gunned down by Johnny Law.

It's only appropriate then that director Terrence Malick reminds us that the natural world is similarly unconcerned with Kit and his adventures. The young couple traverses a breathtakingly beautiful mid-Western landscape (set in South Dakota and Wyoming, but filmed in Colorado) with the recent film school graduate indulging his deep-focus fetish at every opportunity with a series of sweeping panoramas that unfurl to the distant horizon, vistas simultaneously featureless and spectacular. Water burbles along streams, insects buzz and feed, all oblivious to Kit's drama, even as his killing spree terrorizes the local populace and mobilizes a massive manhunt. Kit might think he's the new James Dean; the universe cannot be bothered to shrug its shoulders. Werner Herzog, you have a soulmate.

“Badlands” (1973) is loosely inspired by real-life serial Charles Starkweather and his teenage companion Caril Ann Fugate, who stunned the nation with a nine-day rampage that resulted in ten murders, including the stabbing of Caril's two year-old sister. Malick, who also wrote the screenplay, pulls off a remarkable balancing act in a feature debut sensitive to the rhythms of its cold-blooded protagonists without romanticizing them. The camera attends to the expressions and especially the movements of the characters; the freckle-faced gamine Holly twirls her baton with effortless grace, anticipating the pirouetting Pocahontas (Q'orianka Kilcher) and the receding circular trajectory traced by Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) in subsequent Malick films. Both Sheen and Spacek, each comfortably playing about seven years younger than their true ages, wear the looks of pure, wide-eyed innocents (childlike innocence and casual amorality being strongly correlated) who may not quite be in love but are, at least, in this big ol' thing together, which may be the most either can hope for.

This tender treatment does nothing to alleviate the horror of the atrocities committed. Indeed, the tension is almost unbearable at times, particularly in a sequence (also inspired by Starkweather's exploits) in which Kit and Holly invade a rich man's home for supplies (“easier than shopping downtown”) and a much-discussed scene in which Kit quite matter-of-factly leads a young, unlucky couple into a storm cellar.

While Kit certainly hones the image he wants to project, it's both remarkable and disturbing to witness his lack of pre-meditation. Many of the killings happen so abruptly we might want to take Kit at his word when asked to explain why he shot somebody: “I don't know.” He acquires and discards a series of objects throughout the film, changing his mind about their relative importance on a whim. He spins a bottle to determine what direction to follow next, doesn't like the result, looks for a flatter spot to spin it again, then abandons the idea because it has now ceased to interest him.

Holly loses interest in the proceedings as well. The film is framed by her constant narration, presented in the overwrought style of a confessional romance (“I Rode With A Killer!”) but delivered almost entirely without affect, one of the film's many paradoxical qualities. Initially, she is excited by the prospect of frightened townsfolk cowering in the couple's wake, but she soon grows bored with day-to-day life on the lam. Even an older man who is “handsomer than anybody I'd ever met” starts to lose his charm when you can't find anywhere to take a bath or get a decent meal. The narration provides Holly her own shot at mythmaking, absolving herself of blame but with a narcissistic tone that invites further skepticism. In evaluating her by the end, it's difficult to forget an early scene when the sweet little naif tosses her pet catfish in the backyard to suffocate after it gets sick and, presumably, becomes too much of a nuisance to care for anymore. Is there any reason to expect her to treat Kit differently?

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and the new 4K digital transfer is “approved by Terrence Malick.” The film was previously only available on North American region DVD on a middling SD by Warner Brothers released in 1999. It's a genuine pleasure to watch “Badlands” in 1080p and if it is not quite the revelation of Criterion's Blu-ray release of “Days of Heaven” in 2010, it's still a major improvement. I was particularly struck by an early scene where Holly twirls her baton in the front yard of her small-town suburban home. In high-def, this scene is bathed in sunlight with subtle and radiant colors; the shot is so suffused with nature it is almost super-natural. Shots of the rolling plains are similarly buoyant and the image detail is sharp throughout and the fine grain structure has been well-preserved. An excellent transfer by any standard.

The linear PCM Mono audio track is surprisingly rich and does justice both to the brilliantly employed “Musica Poetica” by Carl Orff and Spacek's drawling, lilting narration. There is no sign of distortion of any kind. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

The Warner Brothers SD had no special features, and this criminal oversight has been addressed by Criterion. Sorry, folks, you're not getting a Malick commentary or a Malick interview, but you do get an excellent collection of interviews.

“Making 'Badlands'” (41 min.) is a 2012 feature by Criterion that combines interviews with Sheen, Spacek, and art director Jack Fisk (Spacek's husband; they fell in love on the set of “Badlands.”) There's quite a bit of interesting information from each of the three subjects. Sheen relates that he told Malick he loved the script but was simply too old for the role; Malick promised to re-write it to suit Sheen. They also talk about a major accident that occurred on set during the filming of a house fire.

The disc also includes a 2012 interview with Edward Pressman (12 min.) which isn't great, but does relate the amusing fact that Warner Brothers previewed “Badlands” on a double feature with “Blazing Saddles.” A 2012 interview with editor Billy Weber (22 min.) is very informative. Weber also edited “Days of Heaven” and “The Thin Red Line” and has plenty to say about his working relationship with Malick.

Criterion has added on a 1993 episode of “American Justice” (21 min.) about the Starkweather killings, though the episode focuses more on the case against his young girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate. It's filler material, but a quick and easy way to get the basics of the case.

A Trailer (3 min.) in somewhat rough condition rounds out the collection.

The 20-page insert booklet has beautiful portraits of Sheen and Spacek on the front and back covers and features an essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda.

Film Value:
“Badlands” is a remarkable debut feature by one of the most remarkable American filmmakers of the last half century. It received mixed reviews during its initial run but after Malick released “Days of Heaven” in 1978, critics were ready to crown him the next great visionary. And some of them did, but they also had nothing else to do as they waited another twenty years for his third film, “The Thin Red Line.” Malick has suddenly become prolific as he glides gracefully through his seventies. Some critics think he has tottered over the (thin red) line into self-parody with his most recent works. On the other hand, those of us who know what we're talking about recognize him as the greatest American filmmaker still working today.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

One-Eyed Jacks

ONE-EYED JACKS (Brando, 1961)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Nov 22, 2016
Review by Christopher S. Long

I think I liked “One-Eyed Jacks” (1961) more before the election. A film constructed almost entirely out of lies, lies often paired with preening threats of faux-macho violence from men desperate to portray themselves as strong even though they're mostly just wimps, seemed a much more pleasant and harmless thought before, y'know, the fucking election. Yeah. So. Anyway, you've never seen a film with so many lies, the best lies ever, believe me.

After pulling off a successful bank heist, gunslingin' outlaw Rio (Marlon Brando) pledges his love to a pretty senorita and gifts her a very special ring (i.e. a ring he just stole), only to immediately yank it off her finger when he has to stage an abrupt escape from the law. What a cad, but maybe not all lies are bad. Rio soon turns his gift for prevarication to surprisingly noble use. When he and his partner Dad Longworth (Karl Malden) are hemmed in by pursuing rurales, he rigs a game of chance to ensure that Dad is the one to gets to ride off to find help while Rio stays behind to risk capture or even death. Too bad it turns out that Dad's a creep ought to save his skin, abandoning Rio to five years hard labor, a particularly grim prospect in 1880's Sonora, Mexico.

The lies have just begun. When Rio breaks prison and tracks down his old partner, now playing at being a legitimate town sheriff in Monterey, CA, Dad flat-out lies to him about what happened; Rio pretends to believe him and the clock starts ticking down to what we might expect to be an inevitable showdown, if we can trust anything in this dusty domain of deceit. Rio responds to Dad's craven dishonesty with his own elaborate plan to seduce Dad's innocent stepdaughter Louisa (Pina Pellicer) with one sadistic lie after another, which then prompts Louisa to lie to her dad, Dad, bolstered by her lying mother (Katy Jurado), all of which drives Dad into an indignant rage because, dagnabbit, lying's supposed to be for manly men.

This slowly unfolding revenge tale also relishes in revealing the lies at the heart of much of the Western genre. Dad's initial betrayal of Rio sets the template for a world in which honor among thieves is a laughable concept. Both lawmen and outlaws pay lip-service to Western shibboleths like the fair showdown in the street, but scheme to set up confrontations where the odds favor them heavily. The secret to a long life in the frontier West isn't being able to outdraw the other man, but making sure you've either emptied his gun ahead of time or hired a half-dozen snipers for your side.

No lie, “One-Eyed Jacks” was almost a Stanley Kubrick Western. And it's simply a statement of fact that the man who directed the greatest science-fiction movie, the greatest horror movie, the greatest war movie, the greatest period costume drama, and the greatest black comedy would also have made the greatest Western. Unfortunately, Marlon Brando gonged him off the picture.

Like many other actors in the '50s when the old studio system was crumbling (largely from the dual threats of anti-trust regulation and the advent of television), Brando set up his own production company, Pennebaker, Inc., and quested about for his first project to develop. Pennebaker, after setting up a deal to shoot at Paramount, eventually settled on Charles Neider's “The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones,” a novel very loosely inspired by Billy the Kid's life. An array of elite talent worked on the script from Rod Serling to Sam Peckinpah to Calder Willingham, the latter brought in when Brando hired another up-and-comer to direct, Kubrick, fresh off the success of “Paths of Glory.”

According to possibly true legend, Kubrick tossed out ideas while Brando indicated his displeasure by striking his handy gong. One of several Kubrick ideas nixed by Brando was replacing Karl Malden with Spencer Tracy, at least one case in which Brando proved definitely correct. It's uncertain whether Kubrick was fired or if the two willful artists agreed to a mutual parting of ways, but Brando assumed the director's chair for the first and last time.

The change of directors kicked off what would become one of the most notoriously “troubled” Hollywood shoots of the era. The production went over schedule and over budget as Brando (along with Guy Trosper, brought in to write after Willingham was let go with Kubrick) rewrote scenes between takes and engaged in extensive improvisation with his cast with the cameras running, explaining why one of the features on this Blu-ray is titles “A Million Feet of Film.” Brando was reportedly willing to wait for days along the coast in Monterey until the perfect waves could be filmed in the background as the brooding Rio contemplated his next move.

An even more tortuous post-production process produced sprawling rough cuts and eventually a strategic exit by Brando. Paramount took over the project and released the 141-minute version we have today with no further input from the director and star, not even during the theatrical run nearly three years after shooting began. Said cut therefore occupies the strange realm of being both the “official” version and definitively not the director's cut, allegedly with a relatively happy ending and a simplification of the good guy/bad guy dichotomy mandated by studio heads.

The final result is a rambling, unwieldy film, shot in glorious Vista Vision with gorgeous coastal shots and windswept deserts and replete with its share of unconvincing elements, particularly the perfunctory romance between Rio and Louisa. Yet, while it may not have fully realized Brando's stated goal of launching “an assault upon the citadel of cliches” the film is still, to use a technical term, “weird as hell” with both a showdown and a bank robbery that are delayed to the point of absurdity, and characterization that consistently confounds expectations. Rio, most assuredly not a good man, is still genuinely wounded by Dad's betrayal, initially resolved to the pure pursuit of vengeance, then so confused about how to proceed the film simply stalls out for much of the third act while he dithers.

The highlight for many viewers will be the subtly-layered interactions between Brando and his friend Malden as Rio and Dad's dueling visions of machismo, each composed largely of utter bullshit, are revealed as largely impotent. Add in memorable turns from character actors like Slim Pickens as a sleazy deputy, Ben Johnson as a no-good sonofabitch, and Timothy Carey as, well, Timothy Carey and it's easy to understand why this “troubled” production has become one of the most celebrated films maudit of the pre-”Heaven's Gate” era.

I still wish it had been a Stanley Kubrick Western, or at least that somewhere along the line we could have gotten a Stanley Kubrick Western because it would have the greatest Western ever, believe me. A Marlon Brando Western, however, is something to happy about, too. Or at least it would have about two weeks ago.

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. “One-Eyed Jacks” fell into the public domain at some point and has largely been available in inconsistent to piss-poor versions on home video. This high-def version has been sourced from a recent restoration by Universal Studios in collaboration with The Film Foundation (the one Martin Scorsese's involved with), no small undertaking considering the challenges of the VistaVision format.

The result is a crystal clear image with a vibrant color palette that nobody has seen with this film since (perhaps) its initial theatrical release. Grain isn't quite as prominent as I would have expected, and I don't know if that suggests a bit more boosting than usual, but let's be honest – only the helplessly obsessive care about that. This looks damn good.

The linear PCM mono audio is distortion-free and sounds sharp if not particularly deep. Brando does the Brando-mumble from time to time, but that's what the English subtitles are for. Spanish dialogue is only subtitled in Spanish, as Brando did not intend to translate any of the Spanish.

Criterion hasn't quite loaded the disc with extras, but what they've provided is quite compelling.

First up is a brief introduction (3 min.) from Martin Scorsese who participated in the film's restoration as part of The Film Foundation.

An unusual extra pairs Brando's voice recordings with clips from the film. Early in the development process, Brando recorded his thoughts about various scenes in the script. Comparison to the final film reveals the substantial changes along the way. At 33 minutes, this feature might need to be consumed in pieces, but it's a fascinating insight into the grueling development process.

“A Million Feet of Film” (23 min.) is a video essay by Western critic Toby Roan who has spent nearly forty years researching this film's production history. Presumably, not every day of those forty years, but still he brings to the table a considerable amount of detailed information from the establishment of Pennebaker Inc. to the film's release. I took a full page of notes, but I think it would be best for you to listen to Mr. Roan directly.

“I Ain't Hung Yet” (24 min.) is a video essay by critic and filmmaker David Cairns, who analyzes Brando's directing choices and the film's relation to the Western genre.

The extras wrap up with a lengthy Theatrical Trailer (5 min.)

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

Final Thoughts:
Seriously, don't we all wish Stanley Kubrick had directed a Western?