Monday, August 21, 2017

Sid and Nancy


SID AND NANCY (Cox, 1986)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Aug 22, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

As a portrait of the London punk scene circa 1977, Alex Cox's “Sid and Nancy” (1986) relies on its fair share of shortcuts and cliches. Watch the scary punk smash his head against the wall! See him spray paint graffiti all over some poor sod's apartment! Yet as the film progresses, the carnivalesque caricatures resolve into more fully-fleshed personalities, and as the film's other elements drop off one by one, leaving the two title characters alone in their tiny pocket universe, it achieves a tragic resonance.

The film relates the squalid and now well-known tale of the doomed, co-dependent relationship between Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman) and American punk groupie Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb), a drug-fueled relationship that culminated with Vicious being charged with Nancy's murder in New York's Chelsea Hotel. Vicious died of a heroin overdose a few months later.

The loud-mouthed, heavily pierced punk rockers and various hangers on seldom appear to be having much fun, motivated primarily by a need to alleviate the boredom of (non)working-class life in mid-'70s England. This is hardly a romanticized vision of an angry outsider movement: the fans pay more attention to their faux-rebellious fashion statements and Sid's bandmate Johnny Rotten/Lydon (Andrew Schofield) contributes to the scene mostly by belching and farting. Under Nancy's expert tutelage, Sid becomes vastly more concerned with his next drug hit than with the band though, to be fair, he was never exactly big on practice in the first place.

After a few stumbles in London, “Sid and Nancy” picks up considerably when the action shifts to America for the band's failed tour which would see them break up before its completion. If Sid was never the most devoted bandmate, he suffers considerably when cut adrift from the Sex Pistols, now with the directionless Nancy as his only rudder. Thelovers settle into a grubby room at the Chelsea Hotel where only their drug dealers any attention to them as they pass an indeterminate number of blurry days by shooting up and passing out, too impotent and pathetic even to achieve Nancy's stated goal of going out in a blaze of glory.


I admit to finding Chloe Webb's abrasive caterwauling an irritation at times, but the limited archival footage suggests she was embracing the real Nancy with admirable gusto, and there's no denying the relentless ferocity she brings to the role. Pale, skinny Oldman, in his first significant film role, snarls and mumbles his way through an intensely physical performance; the semi-coherent, largely-inarticulate Sid looks ready to collapse at any moment, but somehow keeps powering through to the next day on a mix of spite and apathy. And heroin.

Cox is unflinching in his portrayal of Sid and Nancy's late-day degeneracy, a sticking point for some punk historians and fans as well as a few critics who found it exploitative. Cox and co-writer Abbe Wool certainly have no interest in depicting Sid and Nancy as star-crossed Shakespearean lovers, or as the romantic embodiment of the true punk ideal, but I think they still sympathize with them even at their most pathetic.

Amidst all the cramped, sparsely-lit bedrooms and dive bars (cinematographer Roger Deakins works wonders in dim, claustrophobic spaces), Sid gets one glamorous fantasy sequence. Stumbling down a set of neon-lit stairs that lead to nowhere, he spits out his own obscenity-laden version of “My Way,” a show-stopping scene that somehow remains poignant even after it erupts in gunfire.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. This new “16-bit 4k digital transfer” is virtually flawless, with sharp image detail and a vibrant color palette. It's so strong, I have little to say.

Audio:
The disc offers both linear PCM mono and DTS-HD Master 5.1 surround options. The film isn't quite as heavy on punk music as some fans might prefer (OK, as I might prefer) but in addition to a few Sex Pistols tracks, Joe Strummer provides multiple contributions to the film's score (with fake credits obscuring exactly what he did). Both audio options are crisp and distortion-free, as you would expect from Criterion. Optional English subtitles support the English audio, and might be needed when Oldman embodies Sid at his least articulate.

Extras:
Criterion has packed this Blu-ray release with an overwhelming collection of features, both old and new.

The film is accompanied by two different commentary tracks. The first, recorded for the Criterion laser disc release in 1994, features Oldman, Webb, writer Abbe Wool, cultural historian Greil Marcus, and filmmakers Julien Temple and Lech Kowalski. The second, recorded in 2001, features Alex Cox and actor Andrew Schofield.

In a new interview (2016, 24 min.), Alex Cox speaks about the film's genesis and production. Neat trivia bit: casting Sid came down to newcomer Gary Oldman and relative neophyte Daniel Day-Lewis.

The disc also includes excerpts (14 min.) from Danny Garcia's 2016 documentary, “Sad Vacation: The Last Days of Sid and Nancy.” We also get excerpts (10 min.) from Lech Kowalski's 1980 documentary on the Sex Pistols, “D.O.A.: A Right Of Passage.” The former combines interviews with many commentators. The latter consists mostly of footage of the real Sid and Nancy laying about, Sid stoned out of his mind and wearing a t-shirt with a swastika emblazoned on it.

The rest of the features are all archival material. We get audio of a phone call (13 min.) between Vicious and photographer Roberta Bayley, placed on Jan 19, 1978, a few days after he was hospitalized for a drug overdose on a plane.

In a brief excerpt (3 min.) from the Dec 1, 1976 episode of the British show “Today,” the smug host Bill Grundy outright mocks his guests, The Sex Pistols, and can barely tolerate what he sees as their pathetic, insincere act. The chaotic appearance helped boost their profile considerably.

We also get an excerpt (13 min.) from the Nov 28, 1976 episode of “The London Weekend Show” in which journalist Janet Street-Porter takes a look at the music and fashion of the London punk scene.

The final feature is a Theatrical Trailer (2 min.)

The insert booklet includes an essay by author Jon Savage and a compilation of some research conducted for the film by Alex Cox.

Final Thoughts:
I think “Sid and Nancy” is much more successful in its American scenes than its London ones, but perhaps that's because the most moving parts of the story involve Sid and Nancy in total isolation. With its exceptional transfer and a bounty of supplemental features, this Criterion release should provide fans everything they could ever wanted from a “Sid and Nancy” disc.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Hopscotch


HOPSCOTCH (Neame, 1980)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Aug 15, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

Some spies want to save the world, and some are in it just to get laid. Veteran CIA superagent Miles Kendig (Walter Matthau) just wants to be a bit of a prick.

Kendig, the protagonist of “Hopscotch” (1980), has his reasons. After wrapping a flawless mission during Oktoberfest in Munich, Kendig returns home to learn that he's being shunted to a desk job by his newly appointed boss Myerson (Ned Beatty), an officious paper-pusher short on both imagination and stature. Not one to sulk, Kendig immediately leaps into action, destroying his files and decamping for Austria where he hooks up with old flame Isobel (Glenda Jackson), a semi-retired agent with a similar contempt for the bureaucracy. 


Kendig launches one of the most idiosyncratic plans in the annals of spy thrillers: he writes his memoirs and taunts agencies around the globe by mailing them a chapter at a time from various hideouts throughout Europe and America. A terrified Myerson enlists the aid of Kendig's star CIA pupil and number one fan Joe Cutter (Sam Waterston) to “eliminate” the growing threat posed by the rogue retiree.

Matthau was born with drooping jowls and an AARP card, and it's hard to imagine anyone more perfectly suited to the role of the smartass who refuses to be put out to pasture and wants to make sure his bosses know about it (it's equally difficult to believe he was only 59 at the time). Kendig enacts an overly elaborate and risky scheme simply because it amuses him. He could wait until completing his memoirs before sending them to a publisher, but that wouldn't force Myerson the putz to scramble agents across the globe, always trailing one step behind. He knows his phony Southern accent convinces absolutely nobody, but he deploys it anyway just for shits and giggles. And as for where he decides ultimately to set up his headquarters, well, that's the ultimate flipping of the bird.

Though Myerson is exactly the kind of schmuck who would order Kendig to be “eliminated,” viewers will soon catch on that “Hopscotch” is not the kind of film in which Kendig or anyone else will actually get eliminated. Adapted from a more serious novel by Brian Garfield (author of “Death Wish” which inspired the gentle, philosophical film starring Charles Bronson), “Hopscotch” plants tongue firmly in cheek by sending up the paranoia and pretensions of Cold War spycraft, with the full force of the CIA deployed in a low-stakes venture where professional ego, not global security, is all that's on the hook.

Director Ronald Neame claims he had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the project, finally convinced only by the casting of Matthau. The immaculately directed film displays no signs of Neame's initial reluctance, leapfrogging all across the globe with glee and grace while maintaining a delicate comic balance. Though Myerson blusters and Matthau's schemes become implausibly complex at times, Neame (working from a script by Garfield and Bryan Forbes) still paints in naturalistic tones. His CIA men and the requisite Russian counterpart (played by the great character actor Herbert Lom) are entirely plausible buffoons (or, in the case of Cutter, skeptics who would rather see Kendig get away), bundles of righteousness and insecurity working out their neuroses in the field. Occasional dialogue exchanges deflate them with reminders of their numerous publicly-known failures. If there's one shortcoming in the film, it's that the magnetic Glenda Jackson is too often relegated to the sidelines, just waiting around for phone calls from the impish Kendig who gets to have all the fun.

Matthau is just phenomenal in this movie. He's one of the very greatest actors of all-time, so he's phenomenal in just about everything, but every choice he makes here is pitch perfect. Even a small choice like the way Kendig whistles and hums along to his beloved Mozart at strategic points adds layers to the character that no tedious exposition could provide. The supporting cast is great too, but “Hopscotch” is a pure joy to watch just for the sheer spectacle of Matthau operating at his peak.


Video:
The film is presented in a 2.39:1 aspect ratio. This 2K high-def restoration is sharp in detail if not quite eye-popping in terms of depth or vibrancy. I'd rate this a mid-level Criterion effort which means it is very good, but not quite top shelf. I don't have the 2002 SD DVD release from Criterion as a comparison point, but I have no doubt this represents a significant improvement.

Audio:
The linear PCM audio mix is crisp and efficient, if not overly dynamic. Dialogue and sound effects are clear, as is the frequent Mozart music. Not much to say here. Optional English subtitles support the English dialogue.

Extras:
Criterion hasn't really offered much new for this 2017 Blu-ray upgrade.

From the 2002 DVD release, they have imported an interview (22 min.) with director Ronald Neame and novelist/screenwriter Brian Garfield. Neame talks about his reluctance to direct the project and the pleasure of working with Walter Matthau, Garfield talks about his interest in following up the violent “Death Wish” with a spy novel in which nobody gets hurt at all. Also imported from the old DVD are a Trailer (3 min.) and a Teaser (2 min.)

New for this Blu-ray, Criterion has added an excerpt (22 min.) from a 1980 episode of the “Dick Cavett Show” with Walter Matthau. It's entertaining, but pretty lightweight fare.

The slim fold-out insert booklet features an essay by critic Glenn Kenny.

Final Thoughts:
I had never seen “Hopscotch” before watching it on this disc, and I wasn't expecting much considering the description and my lukewarm reaction to previous Neame films like “The Horse's Mouth” (1958), but I was knocked over by how much I enjoyed this movie. It reminds me a bit of one my favorite '70s films, “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” (1974), with its relaxed approach to narrative and its wry sense of borderline-absurdist humor. I understand that some look down on “Hopscotch” as a “lesser” entry in the Criterion Collection. I'm here to tell you that's nonsense. “Hopscotch” is an absolute blast.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Breaking Point


THE BREAKING POINT (Curtiz, 1950)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Aug 8, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

In the typical film noir one bad decision or wrong turn by the hero enmeshes him in a web of intrigue, plunging him a seedy underworld from which there is little chance of return. Of course, most films noirs are atypical, but “The Breaking Point” (1950) is atypical in a decidedly idiosyncratic fashion.

Harry Morgan (John Garfield) pilots the Sea Queen, a tiny fishing boat, on which he takes Southern California tourists out to fish for marlin or perhaps to get drunk and then lie about what they caught. It's honest work, but times grow ever tougher for Harry, a former soldier who appears to have been left out of the post-WW II boom: “Ever since I took that uniform off, I'm not exactly great.”

Tapped out after paying for gas and being stiffed by a selfish businessman, Harry reluctantly agrees to take on a group of passengers he knows are up to something illegal. A perilous nighttime trip suggests that he has entered that noir underworld for good but, oddly enough, he quickly calls the whole thing off. Not in time, mind you, not until after something very, very bad has happened which will haunt him to the end of the film, but, still, he cancels the trip and returns home to his devoted wife Lucy (Phyllis Thaxter) and their darling daughters.

The emphasis on the domestic space is what marks “The Breaking Point” as such a strange entry in the genre. Harry's family isn't just there to provide an early reference point from which he departs into uncharted waters, but as a constant presence. Lucy's unwavering love and ferocious loyalty tug constantly on Harry, trying to claw him away from the various noirish forces dragging him under, including a shady lawyer (Wallace Ford) and flirtatious femme fatale Leona (Patricia Neal). Sun shines constantly amidst the gathering gloom, yet Harry still stumbles step by inexorable step toward his doom.

Garfield portrays Harry as a victim of his own self-image as the stoic, macho provider now neutered by a post-war economy to which he has not adjusted, as well as the pressing duties of a family man. All evidence suggests he loves his children and his wife dearly, but as he says to the seductive Leona, a fella can love his wife and still want a little excitement. During the war, he understood what was expected of him, what constituted victory, but now he remains rudderless despite the steadying influence of so many people who care for him, including even Leona who turns out to be a pretty honest and good-hearted femme fatale, looking for love but not overly eager to wreck any homes or tear down any heroes.


Director Michael Curtiz was charged with this second Warner Bros. adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's novel “To Have And Have Not.” The film would not match the box office success of the first Bogart-Bacall vehicle, but it hews somewhat more closely to the source (Hemingway allegedly considered it the best film adaptation of his work), supplanting the triumphalism of the original with this more cynical, fatalistic tale. A consummate technician, Curtiz (working with cinematographer Ted McCord) maintains a graceful and mostly unobtrusive style, a steady hand that is equally convincing in soft daylight and hard-edged shadow. He and his crew are particularly adapt at negotiating confined spaces like the cramped Sea Queen, the scene of a genuinely nerve-wracking gun battle.

The script by Ranald MacDougall (the collaborator most interested in pursuing a more faithful Hemingway adaptation) offers a somewhat unwieldy structure. The constant returns to the domestic space and the sometimes static settings (Harry frequently waits around in bars or on his boat until something happens) don't produce a tradition buildup of constantly escalating tension. Rather, the film offers the spectacle of a man inexorably ground down, coming loose from his moorings bit by bit, all of which could easily be avoided... if only he was somebody else.

Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. According to Criterion: “This new digital transfer was created in 2K resolution on a Lasergraphics Director film scanner from a 35 mm safety fine-grain positive made from the original camera negative.” I have not seen the film in any home version before, so I don't have a comparison point, but this 1080p transfer from Criterion has a thick, grainy look with sharp black-and-white contrast and no noticeable signs of artificial boosting to sharpen the image. This transfer excels even by Criterion's demanding standard.

Audio:
The linear PCM Mono soundtrack is spare and crisp with no noticeable distortion or drop off at any point. The sound design isn't dynamic, but it's not supposed to be. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Extras:
Criterion has included a diverse array of shorter supplemental features on this Blu-ray release.

In a 2017 interview (21 min.), critic Alan K. Rode, author of “Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film,” provides background about the film's production (Kirk Douglas and James Cagney were also considered for the lead) while also arguing for Curtiz to receive acclaim as more than just a laissez-faire craftsman.

The disc also includes the short piece “Visual Style” (10 min.), an analysis of Curtiz's graceful camera work by filmmakers Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos.

Actress Julie Garfield discusses (17 min.) her father's career from his hard-scrabble younger days to his training in Stanislavsky's method to his career cut short both by false accusations of communism and then by a heart attack at age 39.

We also take a brief trip to the Hemingway House in Key West in this brief (5 min.) excerpt from the Dec 19, 1962 episode of the “Today” show. Filmed a little over a year after Hemingway's death, this isn't exactly a tour of the house as it consists entirely of three people standing at a desk and rifling through a stack of Hemingway's papers.

A Theatrical Trailer (2 min.) rounds out the collection.

The slim fold-out inset booklet features an essay by critic Stephanie Zacharek.

Film Value:
“The Breaking Point” was all but buried by Warner Brothers upon its release, particularly after star John Garfield was accused of being a communist by government propagandists. Some fans today view it as a forgotten film that desperately deserves to be rediscovered. I don't know that I'd quite call it forgotten, but this spiffy Criterion release with a sharp high-def transfer and a solid collection of extras will help make up for any historical injustices the film has suffered.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Cameraperson


CAMERAPERSON (Johnson, 2016)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Feb 7, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

In “Cameraperson” (2016), veteran documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson weaves together footage from twenty-five years worth of her film projects into an intricate and moving memoir that spans both continents and decades. The diverse array of subjects is dizzying, from a harrowing delivery in a Nigerian maternity ward to the reluctant testimony of war crime victims in Bosnia and even to the spectacle of a performative Jacques Derrida holding court on a Manhattan street.

Though she does not appear onscreen in full until the final moments of the movie, Kirsten Johnson's presence is felt in nearly every moment. In a film packed with riveting and sometimes devastating footage, one of the most memorable moments (commented on in at least half the reviews I've read) is also one of the quietest ones. Very early on, a dazzling bolt of lightning stabs down in the distance, prompting a startled gasp from Johnson (off-screen) which is then followed by two quick sneezes, making Johnson's camera wobble just as the film's title pops up, a gentle opening for a film which pays witness to a good deal of trauma.

In another shot, Johnson's hand enters the frame to clean off a car windshield in Yemen and we hear her off-screen voice often, but, as (re)contextualized in “Cameraperson,” the raw footage itself provides a constant reminder of Johnson's role in its making as the cinematographer, a role few viewers are likely to have given much thought to. The personality that emerges from behind that wide-roving camera is charming, playful, humble, witty, and, above all, deeply and personally engaged with her subjects.

This is crucial considering the perils aplenty in appropriating footage of documentary subjects (given by request to Johnson from the various directors of her many projects) for a movie they couldn't have known about when they were first filmed. But Johnson's empathy for her subjects spills out from behind the camera to the screen and then overflows the edges of the frame, and foregrounding her involvement with her subjects is one of the keys to the film's ethical and aesthetic structure. 


Though “Cameraperson” is very much a movie about the workplace (a globe-sized workplace), the footage proves that it was never just a job for Johnson or, perhaps more accurately, that she sees the professional as inextricably intertwined with the personal. Her empathetic eye leads directly to some of the film's most poignant moments, such as when she scrambles to follow a young Brooklyn boxer, stinging and raging from a narrow defeat, as he rushes for a comforting hug from his mother. Johnson's camera practically hugs the two of them, but from a respectful distance. Her instincts produce another memorable moment when an elderly Bosnian woman clearly remains too frightened to speak of the war crimes she witnessed (“I have no problems, and I never did!”) and Johnson brilliantly steers the conversation out of a dead end by asking the woman if she has always dressed so stylishly (“Always!”) You need to be intimately involved with the person you're filming – you need to care – to think of a question like that in such a moment. So much for the tired, debunked, yet stubbornly clinging notion that a documentarian's prime directive is never to interfere.

Johnson gets directly personal by also cutting in footage of her twin babies and then, most unforgettably, of her mother, suffering from advanced Alzheimer's and obviously not always clear about what's going on. This once again raises the specter of exploitation, but the answer to that thorny issue has always been a straightforward but unsatisfying one: you simply have to trust the documentary filmmakers to make responsible and ethical choices. No ideology, no non-fiction manifesto, no stylistic choice guarantees either truth or ethical clarity – only the judgment of the people making the film. By showing all of her work, by exposing herself on such a personal level, bu so clearly asking the tough questions of herself, Johnson provides viewers the access necessary to evaluate her integrity and her acumen.

“Cameraperson” is one the most remarkably edited films of recent years (with Nels Bangerter credited as editor and Amanda Laws as co-editor), leaping back and forth in time and across continents, chronology and geography subsumed into the film's broader philosophical arguments. After one Bosnian woman's harrowing testimony about systematic rape during civil war, the film cuts abruptly to cheerleaders whipping up the crowd at Penn State. Western viewers who were just wondering “How could they cover up such atrocities over there?” get their answer. Just as important, “Cameraperson” devotes considerable screen time to less overtly dramatic or traumatic footage. Bosnia is the film's most-visited location and it is the source of much trauma and horror, but Johnson also devotes plenty of time to the beauty of the countryside, the fresh food a family harvests, the quiet peaceful moments that make up their lives today.

I've watched “Camerperson” three times now and I am convinced it's one of the best and most vital films of the decade, so rich and so thoughtful that I still feel inadequate to plumb its depths or describe them. I promised myself a while ago I wouldn't rely on the cop out “You just have to see it yourself” so instead I'll say that I just have to see it again. And then again. Give me another year or two to think about it, and I'll get back to you. That seems only fair. Johnson spend twenty-five years making it, after all.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratios. The footage is culled from many sources, mostly digital. Despite the different sources, the 1080p transfer doesn't vary much in quality – I suspect the biggest challenge was in color correction, striking a balance between a consistent look for “Cameraperson” while also being true to the visual design of the original footage. In any case, the high-def transfer looks quite sharp and pleasing.

Audio:
The DTS-HD 5.1 Master surround track is crisp though the sound varies from source to source (the difference in sound among the many clips is more noticeable than the difference in image). Some footage has burned-in subtitles for various languages and Criterion provides an English SDH option for the English dialogue as well.

Extras:
“Editing 'Cameraperson'” (36 min.) provides fascinating insight into the development of the film, especially the considerable changes it underwent during post-production. According to Johnson and collaborators such as editors Amanda Laws and Nels Bangerter, “Cameraperson” began its lengthy journey as a much more “standard” documentary/memoir complete with extensive narration. But realizing that it wasn't quite working, Johnson and crew kept exploring new versions, coming up with what Johnson calls the “trauma cut” which was quite devastating then changing direction for its final, radically different configuration.

“In the Service of the Film” (39 min.) is a round-table discussion with Johnson, filmmaker Gini Reticker, and sound recordists Wellington Bowler and Judy Karp. It covers some similar ground to the “Editing” piece but expands to discuss different aspects of production, all emphasizing the collaborative nature of the project.

The disc also includes two “Festival Talks.” First, a Q&A session from a 2016 screening at the Traverse City festival (22 min.) with Michael Moore interviewing Johnson on stage, and then an Aug 15, 2016 Q&A session (15 min.) at the Sarajevo Film Festival.

Criterion has also included “The Above” (8 min.), a 2015 short film by Johnson which takes a U.S. military surveillance balloon in Kabul as its focus point, emphasizing how its looming presence affects the lives of people on the ground.

A Theatrical Trailer (2 min.) rounds out the supplemental features.

The slim fold-out booklet includes an essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda and also conveniently provides a complete list of the films from which Johnson has culled her footage.

Final Thoughts:
I'll keep it simply. “Cameraperson” is one of the best documentaries of the 21st century, and thus also one of the best films of the century. As a documentary memoir it has few peers. I was going to write “though the names Chris Marker and Agnes Varda spring to mind” but I wouldn't want to put that kind of pressure on Kirsten Johnson whose work stands quite proudly on its own.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Mildred Pierce


MILDRED PIERCE (Curtiz, 1945)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Feb 21, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

At the intersection of film noir and maternal melodrama sits “Mildred Pierce” (1945), a story of fresh home-made cakes and cold-blooded murder, though not in that order, although actually in that order.

The film opens in a beach house shrouded in night-time shadows where the first clear sound after the title music fades is a volley of gunshots rattled into a man (Zachary Scott) whose congenital shadiness is indicated with forceful economy by the thinness of his mustache. His final word as he drops to the floor is “Mildred” after which said Mildred (Joan Crawford) flees into the night, soon to be brought in by the police for questioning.

Even the most casual filmgoer can quickly figure out that the identity of the shooter wouldn't have been artfully concealed by director Michael Curtiz if it was, indeed, Mildred Pierce, but the film preserves the mystery as Mildred relates her tale of woe to the lead detective in an extended flashback which actually represents the bulk of the James M. Cain novel from which the film was adapted, the juicy murder being added for salacious purposes by the wise folks at Warner Bros.

In better days, Mildred is a diligent housewife baking cakes to sell to the neighbors and doting on her beloved daughters, teenage Veda (Ann Blyth) and little Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe). Diligent, but not happy. Her marriage is already on the rocks and soon ends with husband Bert (Bruce Bennett) moving out to live with another woman. When Mildred breaks the bad news to the kids, Veda turns out to be far more interested in the new dress that just arrived for her, the first indication that this seemingly formulaic story of marital strife is about to take a decidedly idiosyncratic turn.

Bert's fires a nasty parting shot at Mildred: “Let's see how you get along without me!” She proceeds to get along fabulously, parlaying her experience in the kitchen first into a gig as a waitress, then as a savvy entrepreneuse with an ever-expanding chain of restaurants that can barely accommodate the bustling crowds. The ring of spotlights flooding the night sky above the newest Mildred's announces to all nearby that the American Dream is alive and well and fully achievable through hard work and grit.


Yet Mildred is desperately in love, and it's an all-consuming love that will undermine all of her accomplishments. She's not in love with Bert, not anymore, nor with pushy. predatory real estate broker Wally (Jack Carson), and not even with creepy mustache guy from the opening. No, in a clever twist on the amour fou formula, Mildred obsesses endleslsy over Veda, her spoiled, icy-cold, sociopathic daughter, and she will do anything and risk anything to win her girl's love, though she's probably aware no such thing exists. Considering the sorry display of feckless manhood in the film, it's not as if Mildred was blessed with many outlets for her affections.

After playing the sweet teen ingenue in a few musicals the year before, 16-year-old Ann Blyth portrays Veda as the baddest of seeds, a brat who sees herself as entitled to all privilege and ashamed of the mother willing to work (“My mother, a waitress!”) to provide it all for her. Able to lie and fake-cry at a moment's notice, Veda is one of the strangest and most intimidating femmes fatales of the noir cycle, twisting her hapless mother around her bloodless little finger, toying with her for sport.

Mildred's doting approach to motherhood comes in for criticism by Bert, by her flinty friend Ida (Eve Arden), and most pointedly by Veda herself when she speaks her only truthful words, “It's your fault I'm the way that I am.” Mildred's unwavering devotion collapses into full-blown pathology and has left a few viewers exasperated with her destructive dependency (and also prompting a delightful Carol Burnett parody) but her unhealthy relationship with Veda is hardly unique. I can't help but be reminded of Anthony Trollope's 1875 masterpiece “The Way We Live Now” and the dandyish, dissolute Sir Felix Carbury, an idler who takes responsibility for nothing, cries every time someone holds him responsible for his actions, and is enabled by a mother who covers for his every offense. Sir Felix may be the most infuriating literary character I've ever encountered (oh, the sweet, sweet beatdown he finally takes!), demanding that everyone cater to his whims and running back to mommy every time he encounters the slightest obstacle. Felix and Veda are soulmates, but she would chew him up and spit him out on his skinny fop ass.

“Mildred Pierce” netted Joan Crawford her only Oscar and revitalized her flagging career, paving the route to some of her juiciest roles: “Possessed” (1947), “Daisy Kenyon” (1947), “Sudden Fear” (1952), and cinephile holy grail “Johnny Guitar” (1954). Crawford considered it her finest work and spoke of it often and fondly in later-career interviews. The film has since become a cult-favorite, still playing to sold out houses in repertory screenings over seventy years later.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. From Criterion: “This new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution … primarily from the 35 mm original nitrate camera negative. Some sequences, including the entire last reel of the film, were scanned from a 35 mm nitrate fine-grain master held by the Museum of Modern Art in New York and a 35 mm safety fine-grain master.” I didn't notice any difference in the final reel, or any other sections that might have been sourced from different prints. Overall, the black-and-white contrast is sharp and rich with plenty of detail apparent even in the darker sequences which show only modest signs of boosting. A few bits of minor damage are visible on occasion, but not much. Overall, the typical strong 1080p transfer from Criterion.

You can watch this short video about the film's restoration from Criterion on YouTube. This video has not been included on the disc as an extra.

Audio:
The linear PCM mono track is solid if unremarkable. Dialogue, effects, and music are crisp and clear, though not particularly dynamic. No complaints. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Extras:
Criterion has included a mixture of new and older supplemental features for this Blu-ray release.

The longest extra was included on the old Warner Brothers DVD release. “Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star” (2002, 87 min.) is directed by Peter Fitzgerald. This feature, narrated by Anjelica Huston, was made with the contribution of Crawford's daughter Christina and provides a career-length portrait of a highly-motivated professional who wasn't able to find as much time for her family as for her long and celebrated career. There's not as much film-specific content as one might like, but the feature covers a lot of ground in a short period of time.

Criterion serves up one brand new interview (2016, 23 min.) in which film critics Molly Haskell and Robert Polito discuss the film's cross-genre elements, the changes from the Cain novel, and a host of other issues.

Several other archival interviews have also been included. We get an excerpt (15 min.) from the Jan 8, 1970 “David Frost Show” in which Crawford reveals that her favorite food is pork chops. Next is a Q&A sesssion (24 min.) from the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, featuring guest star Ann Blyth at a 2006 screening of “Mildred Pierce.” The final piece is my favorite on the disc, an excerpt from the Nov 26, 1969 episode of “The Today Show” with Hugh Downs interviewing novelist James M. Cain, who holds court on a host of social issues and admits that he doesn't get Norman Mailer at all.

The final extra is a Theatrical Trailer (2 min.)

The slim fold-out insert booklet features an essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith.

Final Thoughts:
Critic Manny Farber found “Mildred Pierce” to be “badly hoked-up” and viewed Mildred as “a fool.” There's little doubt that the melodramatic story is overwrought at times, but that's hardly distinguishes it from many other melodramas. I don't think the film's a masterpiece, but Crawford's wonderful, and Ann Blyth repeatedly strikes the same single note in a convincingly chilly manner. And you're unlikely to ever see the film looking better than on this Criterion high-deg transfer.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Stalker


STALKER (Tarkovsky, 1979)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date July 18, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

Plot Summary: The Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky) guides two other men, the Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and the Professor (Nikolai Grinko) into the Zone, a dangerous and heavily guarded territory left behind by alien visitors (or maybe it was a meteor) some years ago. They infiltrate the Zone in search of the Room, located either a few hundred yards or a million miles from the Zone's outer border, a space where they hope to achieve their deepest desires.

There, now you know precisely nothing about Andrei Tarkovsky's “Stalker” (1979), loosely (and I mean loosely) adapted from the science-fiction novel “Roadside Picnic” by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, at least nothing of much relevance. You're welcome. I'll try to be more a bit more helpful. 


When I think of “Stalker,” I think of skulls. The three men's heads are balding, closely-shaved, and the camera lingers on their oblong craniums from behind, in front, and above, following closely (stalking) while they trudge slowly through the knee-deep water of the industrial wasteland of the Zone or clinging skull-tight as they sit or lie in the undulating grass and shifting sand dunes, contemplating where to move next, or whether there's still any point in moving at all.

When I think of “Stalker,” I think of the pollution. Tarkovsky may well have captured the single most fetid landscape in all of cinema. We might expect the “meatgrinder” sewer pipes to swell with waste, but the surface water teems with glistening oil as well, positively reeking of chemical effluent. No wonder the geography of the Zone shifts constantly, rendering even the seemingly straightest of paths a Mobius strip to nowhere – the Zone writhes in silent, unending torment.

When I think of “Stalker,” I think of how startlingly beautiful the film is despite this most devastated of landscapes. After all, the scenes outside of the Zone are filmed in drab, monochromatic sepia only to explode Oz-like into full color after the men cross an indeterminate barrier – not a Rubicon, they can turn around any time they want, but a definitive break into another realm, nonetheless, perhaps into the uncharted land of their own minds.


Everything about “Stalker” screams for a metaphorical interpretation – naming your characters only Stalker, Writer, and Professor certainly points viewers in that direction. But Tarkovsky said, “The Zone doesn't symbolize anything, any more than anything else does in my films; the Zone is a zone, it's life, and as he makes his way across it a man may break down or he may come through.” Many directors resist having their work pigeon-holed and it's reasonable to accuse Tarkovsky of playing coy here, but I choose to take him at face value.

Though the Stalker approaches the Zone with faith, as a holy seer of sorts (or at least as an aspirant), he winds up as lost as the Writer and the Professor. They stumble half-blindly through one maze-like section of the Zone after another, sometimes only to wind up back where they started, wasting time on ill-considered detours, yet stubbornly plunging ahead, all to reach a destination that may well prove to be a terrible disappointment. They ask a lot of questions along the way in lengthy, heady philosophical debates that straddle the border between profundity and sophistry, but find few answers, just more Zone to traverse.

All of which sure sounds like life to me. No clear path, no easy answers. Perhaps no destination at all, just the journey itself, made meaningful precisely my making it, and then making of it what you will.

Of course there's much more to the film. Much more than I've grasped yet. I haven't even mentioned the Stalker's wife and daughter, whom a cheeky critic could argue are the actual main characters of the story, though they spend most of it off-screen. Or how gloriously, rapturously slow “Stalker” is. Tarkovsky spoke often about sculpting with time, and his camera holds unwavering on lengthy shots of men walking or not moving at all, on fields of grass rippling in the breeze, yielding boredom in some viewers, hyper-attentive awareness to detail in others, carving out a contemplative space. If you fall into the latter camp, you might find yourself returning obsessively to the Zone, as thousands of other viewers have, searching for... but, no, just focus on the journey itself, and an immersive audiovisual experience like few others. “Stalker” joins “2001: A Space Odyssey” as one of the few films worthy of being considered “the ultimate trip.” 


Video:
“Stalker” recently completed a successful theatrical re-release with a new restoration from Mosfilm Studios, and this high-def transfer from Criterion is sourced from that restoration. “Stalker” mixes sepia-toned monochromatic sequences with naturalistic color ones and employed three cinematographers. With most of the principal filmmakers dead, nobody can confirm how close this restoration matches the original intent, but this 1080p transfer most certainly looks fantastic. Image detail is sharp throughout, the bright colors look rich and subtle, and the sepia that I used to think looked rather wan to a slightly distracting degree now looks better as well. I have no idea if some of the film's fanatical partisans are debating the “authenticity” of this Criterion release, but I've never seen the film looking any better (alas, I didn't get to catch it in a theater over the spring.)

The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio (as always, photos in this review are not taken from the Blu-ray). 

Audio:
The linear PCM mono track has an unusually dynamic sound for a monaural track. In “Stalker” the sound design is just as crucial a creative element as the visuals and this lossless mix really makes the distinct sound effects stand out, along with the spare score by Eduard Artemyev. Optional English subtitles support the Russian audio.

Extras:
As exciting as it is to have “Stalker” available with a great new high-def transfer and a sharp audio mix, the relative lack of supplemental features is mildly disappointing. Fans might have expected a film of this stature to arrive packed to the gills both with historical features and scholarly analysis.

Perhaps the heftiest features were tied up in rights controversies, but the only substantial extra included is a new interview (29 min.) with Geoff Dyer, author of “Zona: A Book About A Film About a Journey to a Room.” Dyer really loves “Stalker.” I mean, really, really loves it. A few years ago, in addition to writing his book on the experience of watching the film over and over again, he also wrote “...it's not enough to say that 'Stalker' is a great film – it's the reason cinema was invented.” Dyer takes a half hour to talk about his experiences with the film, from his impatience on his first encounter with this “slow” movie to how easily he gets sucked back into the Zone at each new screening he attends. He begins with the interview with caution about “permanently inhabiting the land of the superlative” regarding the film, but, well, that's just his zone. And he makes it work.

The other extras are all older interviews, with the film's composer Eduard Artemyev (2000, 21 min.), set designed Rashit Safiullin (2000, 14 min.), and cinematographer Alexander Knyazhinsky (1996, 6 min.), the latter filmed in his hospital room shortly before his death.

The slim fold-out insert booklet includes an essay by critic Mark Le Fanu.

Final Thoughts:
Final thoughts? How can you have final thoughts on a journey that's just getting started? I'll settle for saying that while Criterion's release doesn't offer the bevy of extra we might have hoped for, the image and sound on this version are immaculate, and that's more than enough to make this a must-own for any Tarkovsky fan.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

L'argent


L'ARGENT (Bresson, 1983)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date July 11, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

An old man walks down the street while reading a newspaper. He passes by a parked car in which our protagonist, Yvon (Christian Patey), sits quietly and looks straight ahead. Several police cars speed by, sirens blaring. The old man continues walking until he sees three men, presumably police officers, crouching behind their cars, so still they could be sculptures. The old man hurries away. Across the street, another man (who we can't see clearly) walks out of a bank, holding a woman in front of him. One of the crouching men very deliberately aims his gun.

Cut back to Yvon as he sits in his car still staring blankly. A single gunshot rings out off-screen, but if Yvon hears it, he does not react. The robber retreats cautiously back into the bank - who fired at whom and why doesn’t anyone seem to be panicking? Cut back to Yvon once again as a volley of gunshots rattles off-screen. He reaches deliberately for the ignition and starts the car. Hold on an extended closeup of Yvon’s hands (it's always hands with Bresson) on the steering wheel as more sounds play out off-screen: shouts, police whistles, etc. We finally cut to an exterior shot of Yvon’s vehicle as a police car pulls alongside him. Yvon, his expression still blank, shifts the car into drive and peels out.

It’s the strangest, most subdued bank heist you’ve ever seen on film, and it is also a text book example of the idiosyncratic style of the great French director Robert Bresson. At least three quintessentially Bressonian features are on display here. First, there's Bresson’s oft-discussed approach to acting. He employed non-professional actors, whom he described as “models,” and trained them to perform as automatically and mechanically as possible, often using multiple takes to wear them out: the goal was for the models to act without inflection, often resulting in the stoic, passive “Bresson face.” (For more discussion of Bresson’s use of models, please check out my review of “Au hasard Balthazar”.)

Second, this scene offers an instructional lesson on Bresson’s revolutionary approach to sound. For Bresson, sound and image are often redundant, and if the two work together they do not necessarily reinforce each other but sometimes cancel each other out. If a sound conveys the essential meaning of the scene, there is simply no need to show a similar image as well. Therefore, when we hear the volley of gunshots and the whistles, we do not see the police shooting at the robbers, but rather Yvon’s hands as they rest limply on the steering wheel as if awaiting further instructions from their master. As for what precisely occurs at the bank, we are left to wonder - in Bresson’s view, the ear is more imaginative than the eye, and sound is not merely the bastard child of image.

Third, Bresson’s emphasis on economy and precision (“L’Argent” runs at just 81 minutes) is evident in this scene. Bresson ruthlessly stripped away all extraneous elements from his films, until he was left with only the essential elements required to tell the story. After Yvon speeds away, we see a brief car chase which Bresson conveys by two primary images: Yvon’s feet as they switch from the accelerator to the brake, and a shot of the police cruiser as seen in the side mirror of Yvon’s car. Cut back and forth between these two shots a few times and… there’s your car chase. It is also worth noting that this is not merely economical from an artistic point of view but from a pragmatic perspective as well - Bresson seldom worked with big budgets.


These three elements (among others) defined Bresson’s films for the bulk of his career and combined to produced one of the most distinct, hermetic, and endlessly fascinating bodies of work in all of cinema. If Bresson had not perfected these techniques (how is such a thing possible?), he had finely tuned them by the time he directed “L’Argent” (“Money”) in 1983 at the age of 82, and it was the last film the French master would ever make. Bresson, who died in 1999, intended to continue directing, but was unable to secure financing for his long-planned adaptation of the Book of Genesis, and he unofficially retired by the end of the 1980s. Fortunately, Bresson’s final film is also one of his greatest.

“L’Argent” is loosely based on Tolstoy's short story “The Counterfeit Note” which also translates as “The Forged Note” or “The False Coupon.” The film adaptation, updated to contemporary France, begins with two young men who pass off counterfeit bills to a local photography shop. The store owners discover that the bills are forged, but don’t want to get stuck with the loss so they, in turn, pass them on to Yvon Targe, the young man who delivers heating oil to their store. After Yvon is caught with the counterfeit money, he returns to the store with the police in order to prove his innocence, but the owners pretend not to recognize him. From this point, Yvon’s fate is sealed and his situation degenerates from bad to worse to unspeakable.

“L’Argent” traces the spread of evil (flowing by the same route as capital) from its first flowering to its final violent explosion. As the counterfeit notes change hands, they leave destruction in their wake and nobody escapes fully unscathed. In the opening scene, a young man asks for a handout from his father; in the climactic scene a homicidal Yvon has only one question to ask: “Where’s the money?” 


Bresson believed in predestination (or maybe not – it's a thing critics have often written but it's a lot more complex than that) and Yvon is an innocent victim fated to be laid low by circumstances beyond his control. He is not merely falsely imprisoned but is actually transformed by the system; once released from jail, he decides he might as well become the monster everyone thinks he is.

Bresson’s films are often considered to be pessimistic and grim, but “L’Argent” ramps that dark vision up to a new level. In many of Bresson’s films, the characters achieve a kind of grace or even redemption by way of their suffering, but there is little, if any, sense of redemption in “L’Argent,” the ending of which is one of the bleakest notes in cinema. Except maybe in “Au hasard Balthazar.” Here you can choose from two Bresson quotes: one in which he described himself as a “jolly pessimist” and another in which he rejected the dourness ascribed to his vision: “You are confusing pessimism with lucidity.”

Like most of Bresson’s films, “L’Argent” accumulates its remarkable affective power through its puritanical restraint. Yvon remains an opaque figure with a blank expression even as he transforms from an innocent working class man into a remorseless killer. We could easily imagine the Hollywood version of the same story with a classically-trained method actor raving and gibbering and chewing the scenery with dramatic music to underscore the transition, but Bresson does not pursue that route. Nor does he linger on any of the typical gory elements. As he does in the car chase, Bresson simply picks a few objective details and deploys them to convey an entire scene. Bresson’s tendency to elide the main action is so pronounced in “L’Argent” that even an attentive viewer might miss altogether the fact that, in one sequence, Yvon murders two hotel owners. The ending is all the more potent and unnerving because of the sense of clinical detachment cultivated by Bresson; we are all invited to consider the proceedings with the dispassionate eye of a coroner rather than as a sympathetic and involved viewer.

We do not quite know why Yvon does what he does or why he selects his victims. Bresson’s cinema is one of surfaces, not psychology – which is to say it's grown-up cinema. Character is revealed only through behavior, not through exposition or analysis. There are no “character moments” offered as a sop to the audience, and Yvon’s sudden decision to cross the line into violence comes as a shock as we have not been prepared for it as we might expect. Bresson provides the what - the viewer, if he or she simply must, provides the why.


Video:
“L'argent” was released on DVD by New Yorker back in 2005 and as much as I love and miss that dearly departed label, this Criterion 1080p upgrade puts the old transfer to shame, and then some. The difference is considerable that I've decided to post the Criterion release as a separate review instead of just adding sections to my old New Yorker review.

The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. “This new 2K restoration was undertaken from the 35 mm original camera negative” and the improvement in the high-def image reveals much more detail while also providing warmer, more naturalistic colors. It's hard to imagine the film ever looking any better than this on home release.

Audio:
The linear PCM mono track is crisp and a very welcome upgrade that highlights Bresson's meticulous sound design, from the loud snaps of clothespins to the whining of a dog. Just as Bresson suggested sound could be more important than image, this audio upgrade may be more important than the sharper picture. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.

Extras:
Kent Jones's commentary track on the old New Yorker DVD may be my favorite commentary of all time, and it's a great disappointment Criterion didn't include it here. Perhaps there were licensing rights. Jones's commentary is so exceptional I would still recommend the New Yorker release, even with its inferior transfer, solely for his contribution.

However, as sorely as Jones's commentary is missed (and not replaced by any other commentary track), Criterion has included what may be their best extra of the year, a 50-minute visual analysis by critic James Quandt. In “L'argent, A to Z,” Quandt covers an astonishing array of topics while somehow managing not to skimp on anything, providing an essential primer on Bresson's unique working style and philosophy, touching on Bresson's emphasis on sound (silence) and his various artistic influences, and so very much more. If you're looking for an informative and accessible introduction to Bresson, Quandt's essay is your go-to choice.

The disc also includes a May 16, 1983 press conference (30 min.) at the Cannes Film Festival, including Bresson and most of his cast. He is typically elusive and absolutely magnificent. The only other feature is a very short (26 sec.) trailer.

The insert booklet includes a new essay by critic Adrian Martin and a transcript of a 1983 interview with Bresson conducted by critic Michel Ciment.

Final Thoughts:
Twelve years ago, I asked if “L'argent” was the greatest final film by an esteemed director. I suppose “Eyes Wide Shut” is a serious contender, but there's no need to choose. I had some vague concerns when I screen “L'argent” for a film class a few years ago, but my students were blown away, which affirms both their taste and Bresson's accomplishment. How much do I love Bresson? Sometimes I think both that “L'argent” is my favorite film and yet not even my favorite Bresson. Yes, he's so great he generates his own paradoxical field. And he's even greater than that. This Criterion release is a bit light on extras, but the Quandt essay is sensational and the high-def transfer a thing of beauty.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Ugetsu


UGETSU (Mizoguchi, 1953)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date June 6, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

For a sample of Kenji Mizoguchi's unique genius, I point you to one brief but memorable scene in the middle of “Ugetsu” (1953).

Tobei (Sakae Ozawa), one of the film's main characters, is a poor villager who dreams of becoming a samurai. In order to do so, he must first secure his own set of armor and weapons. He decides his only hope is to steal this expensive treasure from someone else, and goes out in search of a likely candidate. We have all watched similar scenes in movies before: our hero needs a quick change of clothing so he knocks out some poor faceless nobody (listed as HENCHMAN #1 in the screenplay) to get what he needs. No fuss, no muss. We don’t give the nameless goon another thought.

Mizoguchi adopts a different approach. As Tobei skulks along in the shadows, the film cuts to a conversation between two new characters, a general and one of his samurai. The general has been mortally wounded, and he orders his soldier to behead him to end the suffering. The samurai does as he is told, then turns from his revered master and stumbles away. With tears welling up in his eyes, he is about to sit down to gather his emotions. Just then, Tobei leaps out and stabs the vulnerable warrior to death, claiming the general’s head as his own kill and parlaying it into a short-lived stint as a full-fledged samurai in his own right.

What a startling and powerful scene. How are we supposed to feel about Tobei now? Can we ever forget the samurai and his general, characters glimpsed for a few fleeting moments? This it the special brilliance of Mizoguchi, at least in his best films (which is most of them): the ability to breathe life into every character and to weave a complex web of relationships among them.

We see this sensibility at play again in the central sequence of “Ugetsu.” Genjuro (Masayuki Mori), our main protagonist, is a potter who brings his wares to the big city in hopes of scoring a major sale. There he meets Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyo, who also played the woman in “Rashomon”) who asks him to bring his finest crafts to her manor. There he falls madly in love with her; as if in a fever dream, he forgets about his wife and child and agrees to marry the Lady.

Pretty soon we realize that Wakasa is not your typical lady, but rather a ghost (the pale-white make-up is a hint, the disembodied voice of her dead father is a better one). Genjuro languishes helplessly in her clutches until he meets a traveling priest who gives him the power to break free of her spell. But rather than a scene full of spooky howls and flickering candles, Mizoguchi fashions an emotionally resonant confrontation. A tearful Wakasa begs Genjuro to stay with her. Her nurse (also a ghost) explains that Wakasa died young without knowing the love of a man - isn’t she entitled to some happiness even in death? The scene is wrenching. We understand why Genjuro wants to escape; he has a family of his own, after all, and he must remain among the living. But he also promised his love to Wakasa, who returned it tenfold, though perhaps too much for a mere mortal to handle. Everyone is both right and wrong in his or her own way and each of the characters is fully alive (even the dead ones) in this dynamic and complex scene.


“Ugetsu” is more frequently listed as “Ugetsu monogatari” which translates roughly as ‘Tales of Moonlight and Rain”, the title of an 18th-century collection of ghost stories by Akinari Ueda. Ueda’s collection, along with a short story by Guy de Maupassant (“How He Got the Legion of Honor”), provides the inspiration for the film, though Mizoguchi and screenwriters Matsutaro Kawaguchi and Yoshikata Yoda (one of Mizoguchi’s most frequent collaborators) relocate the story to 19th-century Japan.

The story concerns two couples: Genjuro and his wife Miyagi (Mizoguchi regular Kinuyo Tanaka) and Tobei and his wife Ohama (Mitsuko Mito). Each of the husbands is blinded by ambition (Genjuro for gold, Tobei to become a samurai) and each subjects his wife to terrible hardship as a result of it. As is typical in a Mizoguchi film, the women must make terrible sacrifices due to the selfishness of the men in their lives. Each woman meets a separate bad fate, and both husbands get the opportunity to atone for their sins though each in a very different manner.

Ghosts travel freely among the living. Japan, as depicted in “Ugetsu,” is a country ravaged by civil war, and the violence has so brutally scarred the landscape that the border between this world and the afterlife has blurred beyond recognition. One of the many great pleasures in “Ugetsu” is the naturalistic approach Mizoguchi takes to his various ghosts and spirits. Lady Wakasa walks through the marketplace like any other customer. Ghosts do not jump out of walls screaming “Boo!” but are integrated into the domestic space. One character returns as a ghost only to cook a pot of stew and tidy up. A ghost ship encountered on the lake is both real and not real at the same time, and it is certainly a tangible object.

Like Ozu, Mizoguchi films most of his scenes in long master shots with minimal editing within any single scene. Unlike Ozu, Mizoguchi moves his camera constantly (most of the scenes were shot with the camera on a crane), gliding both horizontally and vertically to create a gentle, lyrical effect. I am tempted to push my interpretation a little too far and claim that the hovering camera haunts the film, but I will resist the urge. “Ugetsu” is a beautiful film even if the people in it are sometimes ugly. Full credit is due to renowned cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa whose black-and-white photography is simply breathtaking.

“Ugetsu” often places very highly in critical polls, and is usually considered Mizoguchi’s masterpiece. I actually prefer two other Mizoguchi films (also critical favorites): “The Story of the Late (or Last) Chrysanthemums” (1939), and especially “Sansho the Bailiff” (1954), one of the most devastating films I have ever watched. Regardless, “Ugetsu” is one of the defining films not only of Japanese cinema but all of cinema, and your film knowledge is incomplete until you have seen this gem. More than once.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The 2005 Criterion SD release of “Ugetsu” (in 1.33:1) was strong but displayed a considerable amount of damage from the source material, particularly some prominent scratches. This newly-sourced restoration eliminated many, though not all, of the scratches and other signs of damage, though a bit of flicker and the occasional soft shot still crop up. That's a minor complaint for an impressive 1080p transfer which represents a substantial improvement over the old SD in just about every way, even strengthening the already solid black-and-white contrast, and which justifies a double-dip purchase all by itself.

Audio:
The LPCM mono mix is crisp with just the occasional moment of slight dropoff. It sounds fairly hollow throughout, but this is due to the source and actually works quite well for such a haunted film. Optional English subtitles support the Japanese audio.

Extras:
The 2005 Criterion SD consisted of two DVDs in separate cases both tucked into the cardboard case. This 2017 Blu-ray upgrade imports all of the extras from the prior release but includes them all on a single disc with a fold-out case, inside of which the insert booklet is tucked. The keep case is then placed inside of a cardboard slip case with the same cover art as the 2005 case.

The film is accompanied by a full-length commentary track by critic Tony Rayns which matches his usual level of eloquence and excellence. The disc also includes three interviews. “Two Worlds Intertwined” is a 14-min. interview with director Masahiro Shinoda who describes the impact Ugetsu had when it was released. “Process and Production” is a 20-min. interview with Tokuzo Tanaka, Mizoguchi’s assistant director on “Ugetsu.” Both of these interviews were newly recorded for Criterion in Tokyo in May 2005. A 10-minute interview with “Ugetsu” cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, originally recorded in 1992 for the Criterion laserdisc, rounds out the interviews. We also get Theatrical Trailers

The meatiest extra on the disc, by far, is the lengthy (150 min.) documentary “Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director.” This received its own separate disc in the 2005 SD release. Directed by Kaneto Shindo in 1975, this sprawling two-and-a-half hour documentary provides a font of information about Mizoguchi who passed away in 1956 from leukemia. Unfortunately, the documentary focuses exclusively on a biographical approach with little critical discussion of Mizoguchi’s films or techniques. We are also treated to a loving closeup of an object identified as Mizoguchi’s “favorite urine bottle.”

The thick square-bound insert booklet is a copy of the 2005 booklet featuring an essay by critic Phillip Lopate and three of the short stories which inspired the film: “The House in the Thicket” and “A Serpent's Lust” by Akinari Ueda and “How He Got The Legion of Honor” by Guy de Maupassant.

Final Thoughts:
I've had twelve extra years to reflect on both “Ugetsu” and Mizoguchi since I originally wrote this review, and my appreciation of the film and the filmmaker have only increased with time. I'm pretty sure most film buffs have the same experience with this great master of cinema. It's too facile to proclaim an equal to Ozu and Kurosawa; he is also an equal to Resnais and Welles and Akerman and Apichatpong and Rossellini and Varda and... well, you get the picture. You should also get this impressive Blu-ray release from Criterion.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Marseille Trilogy


MARSEILLE TRILOGY (Pagnol, 1931-1936)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Jun 20, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

The appeal of Marcel Pagnol's “Marseille Trilogy” is captured vividly by a sequence from the middle film, “Fanny” (1932). The unmarried Fanny (Orane Demazis) confesses to her mother Honorine (Alida Rouffe) that she is pregnant. Honorine explodes with indignation, ordering Fanny to vacate the premises immediately. When Fanny faints, Honorine transitions into the doting mother offering apologies and unconditional support, and the instant Fanny comes to, she re-launches her splenetic attack against the child who has disgraced her. Meanwhile, Aunt Claudine (Milly Mathis) has Fanny's back all the way... until she notes quite matter-of-factly that Fanny can't be the family slut, because Aunt Zoe's already filling that role.

Like many scenes throughout the trilogy, the sequence unfolds slowly and offers multiple shifts in emotional tone, a roller-coaster experience sold by actors gifted enough to convince the audience they have no idea what's coming next or what to feel about it. They need time to sort through the roiling sea of anger, insecurity, and affection, and Pagnol always gives them ample time to do so. For some viewers, this provides a source of endless pleasure; for others, endless, or at least occasional, exasperation.

Pagnol had only quit his job as an English teacher a few earlier before to pursue a career as a playwright, and was bold enough to adapt his hit 1929 play “Marius” as a film just a few years into the talking picture era, in 1931. The talking part was essential for Pagnol, who once described cinema almost exclusively as an extension of theater, and all three films in the trilogy feature nearly wall-to-wall dialogue in just a handful of locations visited over and over.

Set in the southern port of Marseille (you probably guess that by now), “Marius” (directed by a youngster named Alexander Korda, though Pagnol worked with the actors) sets up the basic melodramatic structure of the entire trilogy. Marius and Fanny are in love, and are finally getting around to admitting it. Wedding bells would ring in the near future but Marius (Pierre Fresnay) hides a terrible, shocking secret: he has a shameful, irresistible attraction to... the ocean. He wants to hop the nearest ship and sail to exotic locations around the world and, really, who doesn't dream of huddling for months on end in a tiny wooden cage with dozens of sweaty men and drinking his own urine? 


If the love story was the entirety of the “Marseille Trilogy”, it would be a drag because, to be honest, those two crazy kids are the least compelling characters in the cast, and the viewer simply has to accept on faith that they love each other because the source of the mutual attraction is not readily apparent. This sounds like a fatal flaw, but Pagnol's supporting characters are so rich and textured, so warm and funny and charming, each could be the centerpiece of his or her own film.

Marius's father Cesar, owner of the Bar de la Marine on the docks of Marseille, towers above all. Played by the comic actor Raimu, not well-known before the trilogy but destined to become a beloved French icon because of it, Cesar sputters and smiles, gesticulates hysterically before dropping to a conspiratorial whisper, and enjoys life all the more for complaining constantly about it. Raimu is a shameless scene-stealer in the finest sense of the term, and though only the final film in the trilogy, “Cesar” (1936), is named for his character, he is the heart and soul of the entire project. Fernand Charpin is almost as indelible as M. Panisse, who transforms over the course of the trilogy from feckless con artist to respected friend and husband, and the aforementioned Alida Rouffe more than holds her own as Fanny's proud and confident mother Honorine.

Pagnol grew up in Marseille, and his films are attentive to the specific rhythms of daily life in the sun-drenched port city and its local speech patterns though this is, of course, difficult for non-Francophones to pick up on. The specificity of the location has proven to have a universal appeal, as the films were hits both in France and abroad at the time and continue to draw fans today.

Viewers less enchanted by “filmed theater” might be a bit more resistance to the trilogy's charms, but the scope of the project can't help but impress. Over six-and-a-half hours of film covering twenty years of story (“Fanny” picks up immediately where “Marius” leaves off, but “Cesar” jumps ahead two decades), viewers come to know the characters intimately, and to appreciate both their repeated behaviors and the way they change throughout the films. I imagine 19th century readers of serialized novels like “Middlemarch” developing a similar relationship to the characters, constantly tempted to return by the simplest but most powerful appeal of most drama: wanting to find out what happens to everyone next.


Video:
“Marius” and “Fanny” are presented in their original 1.19:1 aspect ratios, “Cesar” is in 1.37:1.

From the Criterion booklet: “These new digital restorations were created in 4K resolution from the 35 mm original nitrate negatives, 35 mm safety duplicate positives, and 35 mm duplicate negatives at Digimage Classics/Hiventy in Joinville-la-Pont, France. The restorations were undertaken by the Compagnie mediterraneenne de films and the Cinematheque francaise.”

“Fanny” is the weakest of the lot, though it's hard to tell if that has anything to do with the restoration, or rather the filming itself. A few scenes are out of focus, and a few others demonstrate rather soft focus – Pagnol's grandson says that Pagnol was unconcerned with technical qualities, so I don't know. “Marius” and “Cesar” both look much sharper and only marginal signs of damage are visible throughout the trilogy. Though considerable restoration was undertaken, it appears the restorers avoided the urge to buff and polish the image excessively.

Audio:
The LPCM mono track on all three films is fairly consistent in quality with only the occasional drop off. Dialog is clearly mixed and the score only warbles a bit – there's not too much else to the sound design beyond that. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.

Extras:
Each film is housed on its own Blu-ray disc which snaps into its own case. The three separate cases, along with the insert booklet, are tucked into the cardboard slip case for the entire trilogy. The overall set gets the Spine Number 881, with the other three films as 882-884. Each disc includes its own extras.

“Marius” kicks off with an introduction (19 min.) by director Bertrand Tavernier, who credits Francois Truffaut with turning him onto Pagnol in the first place.

Nicolas Pagnol, the writer/director's grandson, speaks at length (2017, 30 min.) about his grandfather's work, and discussing Marcel's relationships with his various collaborators. He emphasizes that Pagnol was an independent filmmaker who worked mostly with friends, despite also working for studios like Paramount.

“Pagnol's Poetic Realism” (2017, 30 min.) is a video essay narrated by Brett Bowles, author of the 2012 book “Marcel Pagnol.” Bowles situates Pagnol's work in the poetic realist movement of the '30s and '40s while noting that Pagnol added more comedy and a sense of social optimism to the usually grimmer, more fatalistic movement.

“Fanny” includes two episodes from the six-part series “Marcel Pagnol: Mourceaux choisis.” This 1973 series for French television covered Pagnol's entire career. The disc includes the excerpts applicable to the “Marseille Trilogy” - all of Episode 3 (58 min.) and about half of Episode 4 (27 min.)

“Cesar” collects older interviews with cast members Orane Denazis (1967, 3 min.), Pierre Fresnay (1956, 6 min.), and Robert Vattier (1976, 11 min.) The disc also includes a short documentary (12 min.) about Marseille that Pagnol shot in 1935, perhaps in tandem with the release of “Cesar.” The disc wraps with a 2-minute piece about the digital restoration of the trilogy.

The thick, square-bound booklet includes an essay by critic Michael Atkinson and excerpts of an introduction that Pagnol wrote for the 1964 publication of his Marseille plays and film scripts.

Final Thoughts:
With fine digital restorations and a substantial sampling of extra features, this Criterion boxed set provides an impressive release for Marcel Pagnol's best-known work.