Monday, October 9, 2017

The Champion


THE CHAMPION (Perez, 2015)
Milestone Films, DVD, Release Date Oct 17, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

On the run from the big-city crime syndicate's goons, an intrepid band of heroes hides out in a sleepy little town …

No, that's not the set-up for a low-budget crime caper or Western, it's the set-up for actual film history. OK, perhaps the Motion Picture Patents Company (AKA The Edison Trust) wasn't an actual crime syndicate, but their rigorous enforcement of the stranglehold they held on crucial motion-picture equipment patents forced many independent New York-based filmmakers to devise more innovative methods of production.

One of the simpler strategies was to hop the ferry across the Hudson River to New Jersey, where it would be at least somewhat more difficult for Trust detectives to muscle out the competition. Film producer Mark Dintenfass was one of the first to make the leap, setting up his Champion Studios in Fort Lee, NJ, which kicked off a movie boom as other producers soon made the same move, all of which explains the title of the new documentary, “The Champion: A Story of America's First Film Town” (2015).

Produced by the Fort Lee Film Commission, directed by Marc J. Perez, and based on the book “Fort Lee, the Film Town” by Richard Koszarski, this sleek 35-minute documentary tells the story of the rise and fall of this pre-Hollywood movie mecca and the colorful personalities who flocked to it, and then soon fled. The list includes Florence Lawrence, often described as the first American actress to be studio-marketed by name; Theda Bara, who first vamped world audiences from Fort Lee; and trailblazer Alice Guy Blache, the first woman to run an American studio (Solax). Future Hollywood moguls such as Mack Sennett and D.W. Griffith filmed in Fort Lee as well.

Dintenfass's Champion cranked out a series of Westerns and Civil War pictures for a few years, before falling to local competition. The documentary, largely filmed on Fort Lee locations, vividly evokes the specific spaces of this old boom town, from Rambo's Hotel on the main street to the steep Palisades nearby which would provide the backdrop for many of the earliest (literal) cliffhangers. The Fort Lee boom wouldn't last long, petering out due to a host of factors: the waning of the Edison Trust's powers, war-time shortages, a flu pandemic that hit the northeast particularly hard, and, of course, the rise of Hollywood, California. But during its brief peak, the town still produced a plethora of significant early films.

Even with its short running time, “The Champion” pauses to mourn Fort Lee's fall from glory (as “the first film town” anyway) and particularly the degree to which even locals, let alone the rest of the world, have largely forgotten its movie history. Never fear. This sharp, engaging, and informative documentary brings this vital story back to life with passion and clarity, and once you've seen it, you'll never forget about Fort Lee's role in the formative years of the industry.

Still, at just 35-minutes, “The Champion” might be a tough sell as a stand-alone disc, but you may not be aware that this a Milestone Films release. And the name Milestone guarantees not just supreme quality but also a comprehensive roster of supplemental features on any release, and in this case, enough to expand “The Champion” into a 2-disc set.

Milestone has, in keeping with its glorious tradition, included not one, not two, not... aw heck, they've included nine additional films, all of which are accompanied by new scores.

DISC ONE includes the main documentary feature, “The Champion” along with six other films.

The first five extra films on the disc were shot at Champion from 1910 to 1912.

“The Indian Land Grab” (1910, 11 min.) tells the story of an Indian leader who petitions the federal government not to seize his tribe's land. You might groan a bit at the prospect of a film from this era depicting Native Americans, but the film portrays them as the aggrieved party out for justice and even takes time out for the Indian leader to fall in love with the daughter of a legislator which, according to the notes included with this set, generated controversy at the time.

“A Daughter of Dixie” (1911, 10 min.) presents viewers with an innocent, true-hearted Southern belle whose loyalties are torn when her brother joins the Confederacy and her boyfriend joins the Union. It's no masterpiece, but at least it doesn't indulge mindlessly in the pro-Confederacy nostalgia that was the coin of the realm in so much early cinema.

Florence Lawrence


“Not Like Other Girls” (1912, 9 min.) was shot for Universal Victor, a studio built primarily around Florence Lawrence, often called America's first named movie star. This was a bit of a thrill for me as I've actually lectured on Florence Lawrence without ever seeing a full movie with her before. Lawrence plays another true-hearted heroine who proves she doesn't love her beau just for his money. The movie is predictable fluff, but I give a big thumbs up to F-Law.

“Flo's Discipline” (1912, 11 min.) is another Florence Lawrence vehicle that is, alas, not as saucy as its title teases. Lawrence plays a teacher tasked with taming an unruly boys' school which requires a good deal of ingenuity and assertiveness on her part. Lawrence is no shrinking violet here, and the movie is a lot of fun.

“Marked Cards” (1913, 10 min.) was one of the last of Champion's films and it doesn't do much to argue that the brand should have continued. A banker gets ripped off in a crooked card game and seeks revenge in a rather half-baked manner. It's much hard-boiled then the other films on the disc, but not particularly successful.

The sixth extra film on Disc One is yet another documentary about Fort Lee. “Ghost Town: The Story of Fort Lee” (1935, 17 min.) adopts a full elegy mode little more than a decade after Fort Lee's boom went bust. Produced by New Jersey film buff Theodore Huff, it positions the collapse of “America's first film town” as a cautionary tale for a society built on the boom-bust cycle, the future ruins of capitalism visible in the ruins of Fort Lee's film studios. It's quite moving, and seems like a clear inspiration for “The Champion.”

DISC TWO offers three silent films also shot in Fort Lee, though not specifically for or at Champion.



“The Danger Game” (1918, 61 min.) is an early Samuel Goldwyn production, directed by Harry Pollard and starring Madge Kennedy, a Broadway comedienne then making the jump to the suddenly (somewhat) legitimate big screen. Kennedy plays Clytie Rogers, a sheltered young woman of privilege who fancies herself the next great American novelist. When her first book (published largely because of her well-connected father) is panned by a critic who accuses her of being too na├»ve to write convincingly about the world, she vows to prove she can commit to a life of crime. Hilarity ensues. The film adopts an ambivalent if not outright condescending view of the liberated post-war American woman, but Kennedy (perhaps best known to '50s audiences as Aunt Martha on “Leave it to Beaver”) is a game performer who throws herself headfirst into a series of challenges.

“A Grocery Clerk's Romance” (1912, 8 min.) is an early Keystone Comedy directed by Mack Sennett which was shot at Rambo's Hotel in Fort Lee. It's not quite as zany or kinetic as more familiar Keystone comedies, but it's got plenty of pizazz, not to mention bombs and quickie marriages. Starring Ford Sterling.

“Robin Hood” (1912, 31 min.) was shot at Eclair Studios, one of the most successful outfits to set up shop in Fort Lee. At a half hour in length and with some elaborate action sequences, it was a fairly ambitious undertaking for its time that remains quite compelling more than a century later.


Video:
Obviously, with ten total films released as much as a century apart, the video quality varies considerably. I'll just note that “The Danger Game” required the most extensive restoration and is still missing some footage (replaced with stills here) and is at its most perilous state of decay in the first reel. It's amazing that the film survives at all, and the restoration to reach its current presentable state has been quite extensive, more heroic work from our great film restoration experts.

Audio:
Each of the silent films is accompanied by a new score. All of the films aside from “The Champion” on Disc One have music by Ben Model. “The Danger Game” has music by Donald Sosin. “A Grocery Clerk's Romance” and “Robin Hood” are accompanied with music compiled by Rodney Sauer and performed by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

Extras:
The “extras” are all described above. The only additional extra is the slim inert booklet with summaries and historical background for each of the films includes in this two-disc set.

Final Thoughts:
“The Champion” is yet another lovingly and meticulously curated release from Milestone Films, telling a vital and largely forgotten story about the formative days of the American film industry. The inclusion of a cornucopia of silent films, many never previously released on DVD and some painstakingly restored here, is a source of celebration for any true film lover. Plus you get two Florence Lawrences!

Vampyr


VAMPYR (Dreyer, 1932)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Oct 3, 2017
Review by Christoper S. Long

(The following is a substantially revised version of the review I wrote back in 2008 on the occasion of Criterion's DVD release of “Vampyr.” Video, Audio, and Extras sections refer, of course, to Criterion's 2017 Blu-ray release. Images embedded in this review are NOT taken from the Blu-ray itself.)

Carl Theodor Dreyer's “Vampyr” (1932) shares several traits in common with Jacques Tati's “Trafic” (1971), also released by Criterion this month (Ed. Note: Criterion released both films on DVD in July 2008). Both films were intended to be more commercially viable follow-ups to box-office failures; respectively, “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928) and “Playtime” (1967). Both of those prior “failures” happen to be among the greatest films of all-time, each being comfortably ensconced in my personal top twenty, their box-office failure a testament to the failure of audiences (and maybe distributors, too).

Another similarity merits further discussion. Both “Vampyr” and “Trafic” feature idiosyncratic, elaborate sound designs which distinguish them sharply from most other films. When I initially wrote this review, I described both movies as “feeling like silent films” which was not terribly accurate. “Trafic,” like all Tati films, tells its story largely without words, while relying on the dense mix of sound effects and music to create a hermetic pocket universe. Tati-world resembles no other, but silent cinema it is not.

“Vampyr” also enjoys an otherworldly quality due in no small part to its sound design, but Dreyer didn't intend this from the get go. Dreyer, already one of the great masters of silent cinema, was somewhat reluctantly shooting his first sound project and had little interest in adapting his style, refined while working as a de facto independent filmmaker within the studio system. He shot the entire film without sound, and only recorded sound effects and voices (in three separate languages: German, English, and French) in post-production.

With the need for heavy blimps to muffle the noise from loud camera motors and microphones with limited range, the cameras on many (though most certainly not all) early sound films were often anchored in place. Unburdened by synchronized sound, however, Dreyer's camera remained free to glide wherever he willed it to go, roaming alongside and well ahead of intrepid adventurer/ghost hunter Allan Gray (Julien West) on his rambling supernatural journey. The tinny voices and exotic animal sounds (produced by local performers, not clipped from a sound library) combine with the gracefully untethered camera to lend the film a genuinely uncanny feel, a feel both perfectly suited to its pulpy material and all but unique to Dreyer's hybrid silent/sound film.

“Vampyr” loosely adapts two short stories by Irish author Sheridan le Fanu, situating protagonist Allan Gray in a world with all the stock elements now familiar to the vampire genre, a genre which had enjoyed a mini-boom in literature and on the stage but had only made a minimal impact on cinema. Allan Gray materializes out of the fog with virtually no back story. During his “aimless wanderings” he happens upon an isolated seaside inn. A strange man, also appearing without warning, wanders into Gray's room and cries out, “She must not die!” Gray soon discovers that this man's daughter, Leone (Sybille Schmitz), teeters on the brink of death, plagued by strange bite marks on her neck, while a creepy doctor (Jan Hieronimko) provides her dubious care. You know where this one's going, but most 1932 audiences probably didn't.


Gray, unable to sleep, wanders through the inn at night and then to the abandoned house out back where he encounters an array of spooky sights and sounds. Shadows dart across the moors, one appears to be “undigging” a grave, another peg-legged shadow moves independently of its more human (?) counterpart.

Gray does little but gawk at these supernatural displays, sometimes appearing to have no reaction at all. This is partly attributable to the fact that lead Julian West is really Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg, a non-professional actor who agreed to finance the film only if he got to star in it was well. His Allan Gray is bizarrely passive, which might sound like a flaw, but only further contributes to the unnerving quality and free-floating anxiety of Dreyer's immensely strange film.

And it sure is strange. Dreyer exhibits minimal interest in providing clear match cuts or other expected standards of film grammar (of which he was, let's once again note, already a master), rendering the timeline and especially the screen geography downright confusing and disorienting at times. There is no clear flow from room to room, from one location to another. Gray and other characters wander in and out of shots, which oscillate from point-of-view shots to objective shots, then back again. Is everything being filtered through Gray's perception, or have we entered a netherworld where the rules of time and space and logic simply don't apply? It doesn't become any clearer on multiple viewings, one of many reasons “Vampyr” is one of the most enjoyable horror films ever made.

At least one aspect of “Vampyr” is crystal clear. It features one of the greatest sequences in the history of horror film and, for that matter, in all of cinema. It's the sequence in which Gray imagines his own death and there's really no way to do it justice in mere words, so I'll let you discover it for yourself. I'll just say that I first watched it about fifteen years ago, and it still gives me chills just to think about it. That view through the window in the coffin...

That reminds me. I've made it this deep into the review without even mention the titular “Vampyr,” haven't I? Oh well, you'll have to discover that for yourself as well. If you dare!


Video:
This version of “Vampyr” is based on a 1998 restoration by Martin Koerber, as was Criterion's 2008 DVD release. This 1080p transfer still shows the scratches and other damage visible from the film's very old source print, but they seem less prominent in parts on this high-def upgrade. Overall, the image quality is quite sharp with an appropriately grain feel that's only occasionally a bit washed out due to likely boosting necessary to buff the image. The old DVD looked pretty darn good, but this 1080p transfer is a meaningful improvement for a film that more deserves the very best.

The film is presented in its original 1.19:1 “pillar-boxed' aspect ratio, a ratio only common for a few of the early years of sound cinema.

Audio:
The film is presented with a linear PCM mono sound track. I can't say I notice a huge difference from the old SD Dolby Digital mono mix, but it's a bit sharper and still preserves that tinny, haunted quality so crucial to the film's success. Optional English subtitles support the German audio.

Extras:
This Blu-ray imports all of the extras from the 2008 SD release with no new features added. However, the Blu-ray is now a single disc compared to the old 2-disc DVD release.

The film is accompanied by a 2008 commentary track by film scholar Tony Rayns. Rayns is one of the very best in the game and his commentary is packed with information and analysis and is riveting from start to finish.

Criterion has also included as “English Text” version of the film. As mentioned above, Dreyer shot in three languages. Though it's a sound film, he also includes silent-style title cards and this “alternate” version includes English text for those title cards instead of the German text in the more common version. The film is otherwise just about the same.

“Carl Th. Dreyer” (30 min.) is a 1966 documentary directed by Jorgen Roos on the occasion of the release of Dreyer's final film, “Gertrud” (1964). It touches on his pre-“Joan of Arc” career, which many Dreyer fans might not know as much about.

I greatly enjoyed the “Visual Essay” (2008, 36 min.) by film scholar Casper Tybjerg. Tybjerg discusses many of Dreyer's influences and also analyzes stills and clips, including some material removed by censors.

We also get a 1958 radio broadcast (23 min.) in which Dreyer reads an essay about film-making.

The Blu-ray is stored in a keep case which is tucked into a slip case alongside a very thick booklet, reproduced from the 2008 release. This very thick booklet includes the film's screenplay by Dreyer and writer Christien Jul along with Sheridan Le Fanu's short story “Carmilla” (1872), one of the sources from which “Vampyr” was loosely adapted. “Carmilla” is one of the classic pre-“Dracula” vampire stories and also features a lesbian subtext (more text than subtext, really) that Dreyer omitted from the film.

In addition to this additional booklet, Criterion has also included a more typical insert booklet, tucked into the keepcase along with the disc, which includes an essay by critic Mark Le Fanu, an essay by novelist Kim Newman, and an essay by Martin Koerber about the film's 1998 restoration. The booklet also includes a short interview with actor/financier Baron Nicolas de Gunburg, originally published in 1964.

Final Thoughts:
I used to think “Vampyr” was a great film, and certainly a unique entry in the horror genre, but clearly not on par with Dreyer masterpieces such as “The Passion of Joan of Arc” and “Day of Wrath” (1943). Now I see it as one of his most audacious and formally daring films, and quite possibly the best horror film ever made by anyone other than Stanley Kubrick. This Blu-ray upgrade more than does justice to Dreyer's remarkable and unparalleled achievement, and kudos to Criterion for once again including the marvelous supplemental booklet with both script and Sheridan Le Fanu story, a nice bonus for an already impressive package.

Monday, September 25, 2017

David Lynch: The Art Life


DAVID LYNCH: THE ART LIFE (Nguyen, Barnes, Neergard-Holm, 2016)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Sep 26, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

The most disturbing moment in the new documentary, “David Lynch: The Art Life” (2016), occurs as the film's subject relates a story from his youth. Lynch reflects back on the day when his neighbor Mr. Smith came by and... “I can't tell the story,” says a shaken Lynch. And, indeed, he does not.

The aborted anecdote feels like a quintessentially Lynchian moment not just for its enigmatic quality, but because it arrives amidst a series of tales of a fairly serene and utterly “normal” youth: a picket-fence suburban home, a loving family, and parents who believed in hard work and the American Dream. Is this frightening non-story of Mr. Smith the origin of the Lynchian vision of the horrors lurking in every nice and normal small American town?

Probably not. And Lynch isn't foolish enough to confirm or even entertain such a simple-minded take. Indeed, as the documentary's title (suggested by Lynch) indicates, art is nothing less than life itself, a life-long project, evolving every day with each scrape of the brush or smear of plaster or turn of the saw or snip of celluloid, and Lynch has been passionately living the art life for more than half a century.

Lynch does actually offer one clear-cut origin tale, the moment when he discovered his true calling. The revelation arrives during what he describes as a “dark” time in high school in Virginia, when he learned that his friend's father was an artist (Lynch's mentor-to-be Bushnell Keeler). The idea that a real, living person could actually be a full-time artist struck Lynch like a bolt from the blue and from that point on, he had little doubt what he wanted his future career to be. Whether the non-art aspects of life (wife, children, rent) would allow him to do so is another story.

Directors Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes, and Olivia Neergaard-Holm enjoyed surprising access to an artist both famous and celebrated for his reserve. Many Lynch fans thrill to the now-legendary interview in which Lynch opined, “Eraserhead is my most spiritual film” and replied to the interviewer's request to “Elaborate on that” with a blunt “No.” Lynch doesn't actually analyze his art in this documentary, consisting exclusively of interviews conducted with Lynch over a three-year period, but he is surprisingly candid about his life story, from his peripatetic youth to his disturbing college-age experiences in Philadelphia (“thick, thick fear... sickness, corruption”) to the major boost he achieved upon admission to the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, where he would spend several years filming his breakthrough feature debut, “Eraserhead” (1977).

Lynch's audio interviews are edited with close-ups of his artwork throughout the decades as well as numerous shots of him just relaxing and smoking, sometimes with rows of empty glass Coke bottles lined up next to his work station. There's nothing revelatory here, no a-ha moment that “explains” Lynch's work, but who would want such a terrible thing anyway? Instead, the directors have presented a portrait of man who works every day, takes his share of smoke breaks, and just keeps on living the art life, and that's about it.

Well, there's also the story about the naked woman who walked through town one day but...



Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The documentary was shot over several years on both a 5D digital camera and an iPhone5, so the image quality varies throughout, but looks sharp.

Audio:
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track is crisp and efficient. There's not too much to say about it, really. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Extras:
Surprisingly, the only notable supplementary feature is a new (2017, 16 min.) interview with co-director Jon Nguyen who talks about the genesis of the project, acknowledging that it was, for the most part, made to meet Lynch's approval. The film also uses three of Lynch's songs.

A Theatrical Trailer (2 min.) is the only other extra.

The slim fold-out booklet features an essay by film critic Dennis Lim as well as reproductions of some of Lynch's art.

Final Thoughts:
“David Lynch: The Art Life” is certainly essential viewing for Lynch devotees. It's an unusual release for Criterion, as it feels a bit more like one of the spectacular supplemental features the studio would offer along with another film than a stand-alone release with only one short extra. But it's certainly compelling.


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Certain Women


CERTAIN WOMEN (Reichardt, 2016)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Dare Sep 19, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

Before introducing any of the “Certain Women” in her film, director Kelly Reichardt begins with a long shot of a distant train rumbling along a track through a wide-open expanse of Montana countryside. As in the majority of her films, Reichardt foregrounds the landscapes her characters navigate – mountains and hills loom at the edge of the frame, even intruding as reflections in a car window during a tense, quiet conversation between driver and passenger. These exquisite shots by Reichardt and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt don't necessarily evoke a specific mood, but rather integrate the often-isolated protagonists with their environment, suggesting that a person's story cannot be related or understood without knowing about the spaces they inhabit.

In “Certain Women,” the limitless horizons of big sky country provide more obstacle than opportunity. Young lawyer Elizabeth Travis (Kristen Stewart) is forced to drive four hours each way to teach a night school class because she misread the name of the town when she signed up. Her bosses won't help her get out of the gig because they think it's funny. For businesswoman Gina (Michelle Williams), the remote, bucolic woods allow for a quiet camping trip and even a cheap place to build a country home, but no escape from the tensions of a badly fraying family life.

Laura (Laura Dern), the first protagonist in a film divided into three separate though slightly overlapping stories, interacts less directly with the sprawling Montana landscape than with the men who inhabit it and who also comprise most of her work and social circles. Her client, Will Fuller (Jared Harris), recently suffered a head injury in a workplace accident, and refuses to believe her when she informs him he has exhausted all legal recourse. Only the identical words from a male lawyer convince Fuller his case is lost, prompting him to take justice into his own hands in the film's sole “action” sequence in which Laura act bravely, patiently and sensibly, only to be all but completely ignored by the men who commiserate after the resolution of the crisis. 


In the second story, Gina and husband Ryan (James Le Gros) bicker on a camping trip while their petulant teenage daughter (Sara Rodier) shuts them both out. The about-to-go-nuclear family stops to visit an older acquaintance (Rene Auberjonois) to ask him if they can purchase a pile of sandstone on his property. He has also suffered a recent head injury that leaves him confused, and the young “power” couple briefly struggles with ethical concerns over negotiating a deal with him. Very briefly. He wasn't doing anything with it anyway, and there's just so much unused Montana space waiting to be developed.

The final story, widely and properly reviewed as the film's strongest, witnesses the aforementioned Elizabeth griping about her awful teaching job out in the sticks to one of her students, a young rancher (Lily Gladstone) who just wandered into the classroom on a whim. The rancher swiftly becomes enamored of the frazzled, frumpily-dressed Elizabeth, and seeks to impress her by offering her a ride through town on her horse.

Screenwriter/director Reichardt adapted the film from several short stories by Montana-raised author Maile Meloy. According to Meloy, Reichardt stuck fairly closely to the original material, though with the significant change of turning the male rancher from her story “Travis, B.” into a young woman.

I am not familiar with Meloy's work, but that final decision by Reichardt yields a true breakout performance by Lily Gladstone who shines both in her scenes alone, completing the grueling drudge work on the ranch with a perky corgi tagging along behind her, and especially as she rides through town with her new love clinging to the saddle behind her, her serene triumphant smile crowned by a nimbus of light from the streetlamps in the background.

Dern, Williams, and Stewart are sensational as well in what I thought was the best-acted film of 2016. And even in a small role, Rene Auberjonois shouldn't be overlooked either, but then nobody could overlook one of the most magnificent, expressive faces in the last half century of American cinema and television. 


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Shot on 16 mm, “Certain Women” has a grainy, sturdy look that has been well-preserved in this 1080p transfer. Image detail is sharp throughout. It's as strong as you'd expect from a recent film.

Audio:
The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio is crisp and rich, highlighting the details of a fairly quiet film in which seemingly “minor” sound elements are still quite important. All dialogue is clearly mixed and the audio quality is consistent throughout. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Extras:
Criterion has only included a few short interviews as supplemental features on this Blu-ray release, all of which were recorded in early 2017 for the Criterion Collection.

Kelly Reichardt (14 min.) speaks briefly about the project's development and makes sure to share credit with her many collaborators. Filmmaker Todd Haynes (14 min.), executive producer of the film, speaks about his longtime support for Reichardt (“I just dug her!”). Author Maile Meloy (13 min.) turns out to the relatively rare writer who is thoroughly pleased with a filmmaker's adaptation of her work. The only other extra is a Theatrical Trailer (2 min.)

The slim fold-out insert booklet features an essay by film critic Ella Taylor.

Final Thoughts:
Fans who felt Reichardt's previous film, “Night Moves” (2013), was her first misstep (and I was one) can relax. The director of “Old Joy” (2006), “Wendy and Lucy” (2008), and “Meek's Cutoff” (2010) is still one of the greatest contemporary American filmmakers, and “Certain Women” confirms she remains at her peak.

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 last-days 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.