Monday, March 27, 2017

45 Years

45 YEARS (Haigh, 2015)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Mar 7, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

In Andrew Haigh's relationship drama “45 Years” (2015), Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) Mercer while away their days in a pleasant if uneventful retirement in rural Norfolk; their main project is the preparation for their impending forty-fifth anniversary party with friends and family eager to help the happy couple celebrate their long journey together. It's quickly obvious that Kate is the calm, pragmatic planner in the marriage, but she didn't plan for the arrival of a letter that informs Geoff of a shocking discovery related to his past. His already eccentric behavior becomes increasingly erratic, and Kate's determined effort to unearth the reasons behind his deterioration will bring explanations, but not solace.

Level-headed Kate slowly but surely becomes increasingly rattled, though it's not easy to tell exactly why this particular news hits her so hard. Perhaps she's most disturbed by the unpleasant reminder that even an equilibrium established through forty-five long years of hard work and compromise can be so inherently unstable. Rampling earned a myriad of awards for her slow, simmering performance that never quite boils over, but still leads to a dramatic and definitive breakdown. I have to admit I didn't find her series of icy, increasingly hostile stares to be all that compelling, or even convincing, particularly in a final scene that felt forced to me, as if it was the one moment Haigh determined to work toward before planning anything else in his adaptation of David Constantine's short story, “In Another Country.”

On multiple occasions I wondered, “What in the hell is she so upset about?” The chorus of critical hosannas from around the world (at 97% on the Holy Tomatometer, “45 Years” was one of the most praised films of 2015) suggests I must consider the possibility that I flat out didn't get it, which has been known to happen from time to time. Perhaps it's just because I tend to be a lot less interested in dialogue-heavy, two-hander dramas than most viewers. A whole, whole lot less. Way less. However, I liked Haigh's previous film. “Weekend” (2011), also released by Criterion, so it'll just have to remain a mystery.

It's not a mystery I'm terribly motivated to solve. I'll encourage you instead to check out the film's more positive reviews. You won't find any shortage of them. 

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. As you would expect for such a recent film, the high-def transfer is practically immaculate, with razor-sharp image quality, and warm but subtle colors. No complaints at all on this front.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track doesn't have to deal with much beyond dialogue so don't expect any revelations on the surround front. But it's a crisp, distortion-free mix which more than does the job. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Criterion has gone a bit light on the supplements, but what's here is good.

The film is accompanied by a 2015 commentary track (“courtesy of Curzon Artificial Eye”) featuring director Andrew Haigh and producer Tristan Goligher.

“The Making of '45 Years'” (2016, 36 min.) combines interview with cast (Rampling, Courtenay) and crew (Haigh, Goligher, editor Jonathan Alberts, cinematographer Lol Crawley).

Haigh adapted the film from author David Constantine's (very) short story “In Another Country.” In an interview (13 min.), Constantine talks about his story and his reaction to the film version.

A Trailer (2 min.) rounds out the extras.

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

Film Value:
I'm confident that you'll like the film more than I did. And even if you don't, check out Haigh's “Weekend” which was also released by the Criterion Collection.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Riot In Cell Block 11

RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 (Siegel, 1954)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date April 22, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

“X marks the wild animal,” according to a sadistic prison guard referencing the men in solitary confinement, but “Riot in Cell Block 11” (1954) portrays an environment that renders sweeping generalizations inadequate.

In this torn-from-the-headlines film, the convicts who riot to protest inhumane conditions are a diverse lot. Dunn (Neville Brand), the de facto leader of the revolt, is in for robbery and murder and is described as psychotic, but while he struggles to control his violent temper he is no raving madman. Indeed, he matures surprisingly quickly into his role as a representative for many men, and the demands he issues are so reasonable (basically: stop abusing us and give us something to do with our time) that the warden (hard-boiled character actor Emile Meyer in one of his meatiest roles) admits that he had already made all the same suggestions to the state.

Dunn's right-hand man Carnie (brawny Leo Gordon), one the other hand, is all sinewy menace ready to explode at any moment, but as the warden notes he should be back in the psych ward from which he was recently transferred. The Colonel (Robert Osterloh) provides a more extreme contrast; dignified and calm, the former soldier only wants to serve out the few remaining days of his sentence in peace, but reluctantly adapts a more active role when he realizes the rioters desperately need a voice of reason.

Director Don Siegel often brought a pseudo-documentary touch to his genre pictures, lending them a substance missing from less accomplished peers. He and screenwriter Richard Collins pay attention to the nuances both in location (the film was shot in Folsom Prison and cast many real convicts as extras) and character, rarely settling for cheap stereotypes. In one of the small scenes that gives this black-and-white movie so much color, two guards take a position on a tower as the riot breaks out, prompting a weary exchange: “Well, here we go again.” “Yeah and all for fifty bucks a week.”

 Meyer's warden is tough but fair-minded. When the press and an irritating state apparatchik (Frank Faylen) cry for blood, the warden rattles off a series of depressing statistics about the lack of rehabilitation programs and the high recidivism rate. He knows there are no easy answers and that cracking the whip on prisoners is not only cruel and unusual, but also puts the public at greater risk when angry men with no skills and no hope are dumped on the streets. When asked what the prisoners are like, he observes that they're all different, just like people on the outside.

“Riot in Cell Block 11” may be a “quickie” genre pic, but Siegel and Collins certainly did their research. Producer Walter Wanger, who originated the project, conducted a different kind of research. In 1951, he became convinced that his wife, actress Joan Bennett, was having an affair with her agent; Wanger's somewhat imperfect response was to shoot and wound the man, netting Wanger (who pled temporary insanity) four months in jail. The experience rattled him and when a series of prison riots dominated the headlines over the next few years, he felt he understood why and wanted to make a picture that situated the prisoners as something more than the bloodthirsty animals the newspapers loved to linger on.

Striving for authenticity, the film begins with newsreel-style footage about recent prison riots as well as testimony from the director of the California Department of Corrections who puts the blame for the wave of uprisings squarely on the shoulders of public officials and the public as well. Wanger and company share the sentiment, taking multiple opportunities to argue that only the public, a public that recognizes prisoners as real human beings with reasonable expectations for equitable treatment, can pressure their representatives to provide a solution. The film occasionally preaches, but the plea is both sincere and sensible.

“Riot in Cell Block 11” shifts between the realism of its setting and no-frills shooting style, and the melodramatic clashes of the lead performers. Meyer excels as the warden, but the real standout is Neville Brand, a real-life tough guy who was a highly decorated (Purple Heart and Silver Star just to name a few) World War II soldier. His Dunn is one of the more complex characters you're likely to find in a prison film. He's neither demonized nor idealized. He's a violent criminal who seems all but certain to repeat offend once he's set free, and he often lashes out to the detriment of his own plans, yet he's bright and capable of restraining himself just enough to act as an effective negotiator. And in the subtlest touch of all, when he's asked (forced, really) to make the kind of sacrifice a more typical movie hero might gallantly offer, he's simply not ready for it. But he adjusts because he has to.

The plot relies on a prison guard making a monumentally stupid mistake to kickstart the main action, and that detracts a bit from this otherwise pragmatic film's claim to realism. But that's just about my only objection to this tightly wound, no-frills thriller, one of Siegel's finest early works.

From the Criterion booklet: “After extensively researching the ratio history of 'Riot in Cell Block 11,' Criterion found that theaters projected the film in aspect ratios ranging from 1.37:1 to 1.85:1. We are presenting the film here at 1.37:1.”

The 1080p transfer is exceptional preserving a thick grainy look that enhances the authentic look of the film. Image detail is sharp, black-and-white contrast rich. This looks like a movie... shot in a real prison. And it doesn't look like a particularly nice place to spend time.

This is a dual-format release including a single DVD and a single Blu-ray. The DVD has not been reviewed here.

The linear PCM Mono track is, like the film, efficient. It is crisp both in presentation of dialogue and some of the hollow, menacing sounds that mark prison life: the iron clangs of doors, footsteps echoing in empty corridors. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

The film is accompanied by a commentary by film scholar Matthew Bernstein, author of “Walter Wanger: Hollywood Independent.” Obviously, Bernstein spends time discussing producer Wanger's substantial creative role in the project, and also provides historical background and details about the talent that contributed to the film.

Two similar and unusual extras expand the collection. Don Siegel's son Kristoffer Tabori reads a chapter from the autobiography “A Siegel Film” (audio only – 25 min.) and a separate excerpt (13 min.) from the 1974 book “Don Siegel: Director” by Stuart Kaminsky. The former is more revealing with Siegel's detailed recollection of location scouting (they visited Alcatraz and San Quentin before settling on Folsom) and casting (neither Neville Brand nor Leo Gordon, an ex-convict himself, were obvious choices but both proved inspired). We also learn about the young personal assistant Wanger forced on Siegel, a kid named Sam Peckinpah. The second excerpt fills in some info as well. This “audiobook” format is a departure for Criterion, though I guess plenty of people are used to listening to books read by others. I'm not a huge fan unless it's the original author, but Tabori has a strong voice that commands attention.

The final extra is “The Challenge of our Prisons” (59 min.), excerpts from a March 1953 NBC Radio news special by journalists Peg and Walter McGraw.

Three features that are all audio-only make for a somewhat dull collection of extras, and I wound up just skimming through the news special. I guess the choices were limited, but at least one video clip (a visual essay perhaps) would have helped a lot.

The 28-page insert booklet includes an essay by critic Chris Fujwara and an article by Walter Wanger on the problems of American prisons. The article was originally published in the Feb 23, 1954 issue of “Look” magazine. We also get a brief essay by Sam Peckinpah titled “Don Siegel and Me.”

Film Value:
Listen, “A Man Escaped” is the greatest prison movie ever made, and don't let anyone even try to tell you otherwise. But this early film from Don Siegel is a sharp, no-nonsense prison pic that delivers a message while also telling a taut story. Though there are no big names in the cast, some of the performances are exceptional, especially Neville Brand in the lead role. Strongly recommended.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017


Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Mar 14, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

The dormant volcano La Malinche dominates the landscape in an early shot of “Canoa: A Shameful Memory” (1976), a mute witness to the human eruption that occurs below and which shapes the film.

Based on a real 1968 event, “Canoa” reconstructs the murder of several university employees at the hands of a bloodthirsty mob of villagers from the impoverished town of San Miguel Canoa, just outside the city of Puebla in Central Mexico. The young men are merely on a weekend trip to climb the volcano, but the locals, whipped into a frenzy by propaganda spewed by the town's corrupt priest (Enrique Lucero), become convinced the tourists are student communists who have come to defile their religion.

The event was still fresh in the minds of many Mexican viewers and directly linked to even more notorious traumas of a violent year, which left director Felipe Cazals and screenwriter Tomas Perez Turrent a difficult balancing act, seeking to engage a movie audience while not unduly exploiting real tragedy. Their solution is a film which some odd tonal shifts that complicate any immediate reaction or analysis.

The film begins with a very low-key scene in which a field reporter at a tiny, cluttered desk phones in news of the lynching to another reporter in a largely deserted newsroom, the latter being unimpressed as he pecks away at his typewriter to record the names of the victims. The film then shifts to a brilliant sequence in which the noise of a bombastic military parade is contrasted with the near-silence of the victims' funeral where protestors carry signs reading “We Demand Justice.” Cazals' presentation is so assured and efficient, the viewer can already safely guess said justice is unlikely to be forthcoming.

From this point, Cazals and his crew (he also gives ample credit to veteran cinematographer Alex Phillips Jr. as a shaping voice) mix and match a variety of techniques. Faux-newsreel interviews situate one local man as a de facto narrator and guide to the town's troubles, which revolve around poverty, alcohol, and that corrupt priest who has leveraged his divine authority into a privatization scheme to enrich himself and (perhaps) the church on the backs of poor, uneducated laborers. The film also spends a great deal of time with the young victims-to-be as they casually joke around with each other and remain blissfully oblivious to the fate that awaits them even as hysterical shrieks about the “Outlaws!” and “Communists!” blare over the loudspeakers that constitute the town's entire access to media, and which are, of course, controlled by the priest.

This naïve interplay provides Cazals the opportunity to ratchet up the suspense to nearly unbearable levels as the audience has been warned from the start of what will happen. It's fair to ask whether traditional suspense should be built up so relentlessly (including a final delaying cutaway once the angry mob leader's axe hacks through the door) while recounting a story of real victims, but the film doesn't let viewers escape with a cheap thrill, depicting the mob attack in brutal images that leave enough to the imagination to make it even more unnerving.

I find little evidence of the “gritty documentary style” promised on the blurb on the back of the Blu-ray (and mentioned by Guillermo del Toro in one of the disc's extras). The faux-newsreel footage is so stilted and mannered, it feels more like it's mocking the reliability of the format than striving for verisimilitude, and hand-held camerawork does not equal “documentary style” - gritty or otherwise. “Canoa” is more a horror film than anything else, and the real horror is that the eruption of violence may be as natural as the past and future eruptions of La Malinche. Sure, the priest and his minions spew poisonous rhetoric and the disinterested government officials gladly allow the uneducated laborers to be exploited, but the ultimate explanation for why hundreds or even thousands of people could band together one night to murder several men may boil down simply to one fact: that's just what people do.

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. This restored transfer was supervised by director Felipe Cazals and looks quite strong, as you would expect. Image quality is sharp throughout with an appropriately grainy look. The colors are quite rich and every now and then I thought perhaps a bit too much so, but that's hardly a complaint.

The linear PCM mono audio mix is on the flat and shallow side and I suspect is meant to be so. I think the film's audio design (no music, by the way) is one of its strongest aspects, with very effective use of strategic silence contrasted with louder environments, and this subtle mix renders it all quite well. Optional English subtitles support the Spanish audio.

Unfortunately, Criterion hasn't included too much on the extras front.

A brief introduction (3 min.) by director Guillermo del Toro shares his appreciation for the film, but not too much else.

The substantive extra is a lengthy conversation (2016, 54 min.) between Felipe Cazals and director Alfonso Cuaron. Cuaron is both a big fan of the film and one hell of an interviewer – he can conduct as many of these for Criterion as he wants to. It's a treat to see two great Mexican directors of different generations (Cazals is 24 years older than Cuaron) get the time to discuss their craft in detail. The focus is on Cazals, of course, but some of the best interplay involves obvious differences between them – Cazals dismissed the use of music in films out of hand, prompting an exasperated chuckle from Cuaron.

A lengthy theatrical trailer (5 min.) rounds out the collection.

The slim fold-out insert booklet includes an essay by critic Fernanda Solorzano.

Film Value:
Both Del Toro and Cuaron argue for “Canoa” as one of the most important Mexican films ever made. Criterion has provided a solid transfer of this influential films which I suspect even many ardent cinephiles have not previously seen. The extras on the sparse side, but it's great to expand the Criterion Collection to include more Mexican cinema.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Multiple Maniacs

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Mar 21, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

(Listen, there are some plot spoilers below. That's the least fucking offensive thing you're going to have to worry about.)

From puke eating to hairy-armpit licking to lobster rape (see below), “Multiple Maniacs” (1970) epaters the unholy shit out of le bourgeois in every sacrilegious (and sacrilicious) manner imaginable – and when the controlling imagination belongs to writer-director (producer-editor-cinematographer) John Waters, you can be sure that no taboo will leave unviolated. Viewers may wind up feeling equally violated; consider it a freebie included with the price of admission.

The film opens with Lady Divine's Cavalcade of Perversions, a makeshift circus pitched by low-rent carnival barker Mr. David (David Lochary) as “the sleaziest show on earth” and guaranteed to feature performers who are “not actors, not paid impostors, but real, actual filth!” The hapless local rubes who can't resist a free show before lunch get treated to a show starring the aforementioned puke eater and armpit lickers along with a real heroin junkie going through withdrawal, and a particularly delicate performance that induces the lucky onlookers to say, “Look at her cunt... I can smell it all the way from over here.” It's like “The Sound of Music” all over again. For the final act, the attendees get robbed and murdered by the freaks – yet another freebie. After that, the film starts to get a little gross, eventually requiring the national guard to clean up the mess.

Waters most certainly pursued shock for the sake of shock (what nobler goal?), but the film never feels like a phony exercise in cheap provocation precisely because the cast is populated with “real, actual filth.” Waters' Dreamland Players (a sobriquet designated by fans many years later) may not have been actual murderers or lobster fuckers (see below), but there was no mistaking them for professional actors playing at being junkies and freaks after months of careful field study – these were genuinely devout perverts who congregated at the church of the Pope of Trash. Most of the beloved players are here already in this pre-Flamingos phase, the great David Lochary in his finest role (his delivery of the line “I love you so fucking much, I could shit” is without peer) with plenty of room left for Mink Stole, Mary Vivian Pierce, and Cookie Mueller to shine, by which I mean wallow in the sewer. Plus the legendary Edith Massey makes her big screen debut.

Of course, the glorious, zaftig Lady Divine presides over all of the filth. Introduced as a Rubenesque nude in classic repose, clad only in a Liz Taylor wig, she will slowly but most assuredly transform into a genuine movie monster, the maniac of all maniacs. Divine snarls and threatens her way through every encounter (though as a doting mom she couldn't be any prouder of her slutty, drug-dealing daughter), inspiring either fanatical devotion or abject terror in everyone who crosses her exceedingly wide path, but universally acknowledged for her undeniable beauty and elegance even by her mortal enemies.

In this feature-length cavalcade of perversions, no spectacle is more morally repugnant than the sequence in which a man is stripped, beaten with whips and chains, repeatedly spat upon, then nailed to a crucifix and left to die. This grotesque display, of course, is familiar to Catholics like John Waters and yours truly as a Good Friday at Church, and his graphic staging of the Stations of the Cross (with Edith Massey as the Virgin Mary, natch) is a reminder that even the Pope of Trash can't outgross the Holy Church. They tell this blood-spattered story to kids – every damn year! The fact that Divine imagines said Stations while getting an energetic rosary job from Mink Stole is, well, it's just the kind of thing you have to see for yourself.

Divine's swath of pure rage, cut across the sparsely-populated streets of Waters' beloved hometown of Baltimore, can, as I'm sure you've already figured out, only lead to one logical and inevitable endpoint - being raped by a giant papier-mache lobster. The true genius of this magnificent scene, one of the very greatest moments in all of American cinema, is that Divine actually knows the name of her attacker and cries it out during the throes of passion, “Lobstora!!!” Does this mean they've dated before? It's almost inconceivable that John Waters had to wait until 2017 to receive a career achievement award from the Writer's Guild of America.

Thanks to the real, actual filth both in front of and behind the camera, “Multiple Maniacs” traffics in a brand of authenticity that speaks directly to the receptive viewer and spills over the bounds of the safe, traditional narrative cinema. But beyond the blasphemy (which sounds like a cable show John Waters should host), “Multiple Maniacs” ultimately succeeds because it is so clearly a labor of love, a film made by a group of friends giddy at the prospect of making a movie together, eager to share their world and maybe disrupt a few other worlds along the way. In other words, they sure as shit look like they're having a lot of fun.

Still, you have to wonder about the choice of a title. With the puke eating, lobster fucking (see above), rosary insertions, Edith Massey, off-screen gerontophilia, heroin shooting, and gang rape, it seems obvious that John Waters should have called it... The Aristocrats!

Seriously, who the fuck ever expected this to get a full digital restoration courtesy of Criterion? Waters actually kept the original reversal of the 16mm film in his attic for over twenty years – somehow it survived intact enough to wind up looking pretty damn good after a restoration. In one scene, a prominent bit of dirt couldn't be cleaned off, but does it really matter? I don't recall being able to see the décor of Divine's home in such detail before, including making out all the movie posters on the wall. The film is presented in John Waters' preferred 1.66:1 aspect ratio.

The LPCM mono track is reasonably clear, at least relative to the limitations of the original recording. Waters shot in a format that recorded the audio directly onto the film, which leads to some abrupt audio cuts and also to some audio dead space. It's all just fine. The eclectic music track sounds a bit tinny but, again, seriously, I mean – this is getting a damn Criterion release! Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

When “Multiple Maniacs” was first announced for Criterion release, I hoped we would get some of Waters' earlier films like “Eat Your Makeup” or “Mondo Trasho” as extras. No dice. Perhaps the music clearance rights still render any “official” releases unfeasible.

Fortunately, we get the most important of all possible extras, a newly recorded (2016) commentary track by John Waters. There are times when he clearly can't believe he actually made certain choices, and at least one moment where he says “Thank God my mother never saw this.” It's a wonderful commentary, as you would expect.

We also get a collection of interviews with some of the surviving Dreamland actors, including Mink Stole, Pat Moran, Susan Lowe, Vincent Peranio, and George Figgs. This 32-minute collection, recorded in 2016 in Baltimore, includes fond reminiscences about some of the departed Dreamlanders as well as insider accounts of what it was like to work for John Waters, who is generally depicted a rather exacting perfectionist on set. Lobstora's budget is quoted at $37.50 by designer Peranio.

“The Stations of Filth” (10 min.) is a short video essay by scholar Gary Needham, which combines analysis with some trivia (Waters recently described this film as “Rancid Strawberries” a la Bergman) and argues most persuasively that the film should be understood as surreal rather than primarily as camp, which is spot on.

The slim fold-out insert booklet includes an essay by critic Linda Yablonsky.

Film Value:
I am proud of myself for resisting the obvious line, “I love this movie so fucking much, I could shit.” That would be way too on the nose. Which is why I would never write it.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Ghost Bird

GHOST BIRD (Crocker, 2009)
Kino Lorber, DVD, Release Date August 16, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

No wonder nobody likes skeptics.

In 2004, an Arkansas man boating through the swamp spotted an ivory-billed woodpecker, a species thought to be extinct since the early part of the twentieth century. A fleeting glimpse of the majestic creature recorded on video set the bird-watching community on fire, attracting the attention of ornithologists and enthusiasts from around the world. The discovery breathed new life into the small town of Brinkley, AR; tourists flocking to spot the elusive bird could browse at an ivory-billed woodpecker gift shop, enjoy $25 ivory-billed woodpecker haircuts, and munch down on ivory-billed woodpecker burgers (not made of actual ivory-billed woodpeckers). Even the small-town newspaper the Brinkley Argus enjoyed a surge in circulation thanks to their new feathered friend.

Hosannas rang throughout the land and both man and bird lived happily ever after... until a few smarty pants scientists crashed the party by pointing out that the bird barely seen in the grainy video looked an awful lot like the plain old pileated woodpecker. And since nobody gives a damn about the plain old pileated woodpecker, a spirited debate ensued.

In “Ghost Bird” (2009), director Scott Crocker crafts a surprisingly suspenseful tale as he follows the battle of experts on each side as well as the more fundamental tug of war between faith and empiricism. Unlike with global warming, the scientific community did not reach consensus. A Cornell researcher claimed new audio evidence supported the discovery, but the skeptics continued to do their skeptic thing. The annoying fact that nobody else spotted the faintest sign of another ivory-billed woodpecker was problematic, but parties with vested interests as well as those who just think it's more fun to believe could cherry-pick the evidence to suit themselves.

Refreshingly, there are no villains in this nifty nature tale. Crocker discovers fascinating people on both sides, most notably Nancy Tanner, wife of the deceased ornithologist James Tanner who worked with ivory-billed woodpeckers more than half a century ago. She relates a rich history of this beautiful phantom creature, so revered by local Indians they called it “The Lord God Bird.” Even if you're not a bird enthusiast, the film makes it easy to appreciate why people would get so excited about the potential discovery, though one researcher offers the depressing observation that efforts to track the ivory-billed woodpecker in the past may have led directly to its extinction.

That's a sobering thought, but the movie is somewhat less successful when shoehorning in broader ecological concerns, including a somewhat arbitrary warning that humans will render fifty percent of species (all species?) extinct by the end of this century. Fortunately, the movie only occasionally wanders afield, usually staying focused on this amazing bird and the people who cared about it. Everyone wanted the unlikely survival story to be true, they just differed on whether they required proof to believe it.

The film is presented in a wide-screen anamorphic transfer. The SD transfer from Kino Lorber is a solid effort with no obvious signs of damage, boosting, or distortion. There are a lot of talking heads, but also some lovely swamp and forest footage (cinematography by Damir Frkovic) and the transfer treats it as well as a standard def transfer can be expected to.

The Dolby Digital Stereo mix is efficient if not dynamic. There's some great music in the film, including the Sonny Terry track “Lost John.” Only obsessed cinephiles would instantly identify that track with Werner Herzog thanks to its unforgettable use at the end of the masterpiece “Stroszek” (and “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” if memory serves). The company credited with the film is “Small Change Productions” with “small change” also being an unforgettable line from “Stroszek.” A coincidence? A fine original score by Zoë Keating helps too.

No subtitles are provided.

The disc includes nine extra/deleted scenes, running a total of approximately 40 minutes.

Final Thoughts:
“Ghost Bird” is the most compelling ivory-billed woodpecker documentary I've ever seen, and ever expect to see. Long may the Lord God Bird live.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

In The Land Of The Head Hunters

Milestone Films, Blu-ray, Release Date February 24, 2015
Review by Christopher S. Long

Note: In the past, I have expressed a certain disdain for lazy critics who rely too much on a film's press kit for their reviews. To not avail myself of the press material presented for “In the Land of the Head Hunters” (1914), however, would be irresponsible because the history of the production, release, and unlikely survival of this century-old film is so fascinatingly tortuous and the notes presented by the always fastidious Milestone Films are so extensive. Check out the info on their press page if you're interested.

Photographer Edward S. Curtis is best known for his sprawling twenty-volume reference “The North American Indian” which he began work on in 1906 with funding from a humble gentleman of finance named John Pierpont Morgan. Curtis's years of extensive field research soon left him strapped for cash despite his high-level backing and he hatched a plan to pool investors' money for a feature-length film about the Kwakiutl (now known as the Kwakwaka’wakw) people of Vancouver Island in Canada. The feature-length film itself was a relatively new idea (comedy shorts being the coin of the realm at the time) let alone one starring Kwakwaka’wakw actors and shot on a remote location with limited technological infrastructure. Curtis's audacity bordered on lunacy.

Curtis was already renowned for his luminous, lavishly produced portraits (today now highly sought as collectibles) and promised a similarly elegant design for his film, leading him to the heavy use of tinting and toning, a reminder that those old black-and-white pictures were not always just black-and-white. He also hired composer John J. Braham (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame) to prepare an original feature-length score, another fairly unusual idea at the time. With the crucial collaboration of George Hunt, a Kwakwaka’wakw man credited for interpretation and research but working as assistant director, Curtis launched three years of laborious pre-production culminating with a shoot on Deer Island and other nearby locations. By 1914 “In The Land Of The Head Hunters” was finished and was finally ready to take the world by storm.

It certainly looked like Curtis had a hit on his hands when the film debuted in late 1914 as early audiences queued up and critics waxed rhapsodic. Poet Vachel Lindsay described it as “a supreme art achievement” at a time when this disreputable proletarian medium was seldom taken seriously as art. Alas, an ongoing dispute between Curtis and the distributor torpedoed the film's chances at a sustained theatrical release. It came nowhere close to breaking even and Curtis eventually sold off the negative and, with it, the copyright in 1922.

That's only the beginning of this film's strange odyssey. Before we continue with that, however, let's talk about the movie itself.

Motana on his blue-tinted vigil
“In The Land Of The Head Hunters” tells a simple adventure tale of young Motana (Stanley Hunt), a chieftain's son, who goes on a vigil quest to gain spiritual power. Through a vision he falls in love with the maiden Naida (played by several different actresses) who is betrothed to a rival Sorcerer (Kwagwanu). The Sorcerer sends his powerful daughter (Mrs. George Walkus) to eliminate Motana but she falls in love with him instead. Eventually war breaks out between tribes over the impending wedding of Motana and Naida.

Curtis's scenario occurs in a historical era before contact with European settlers and emphasizes traditional (the unfortunate adjective in the film's subtitle is “primitive”) customs and equipment, including ornate costumes and outrageously beautiful giant war canoes that were built just for the film. The cliched details of the hero's journey pale in significance compared to the film's staging of rituals such as the mesmerizing Thunderbird Dance, a sea lion hunt, and the extraordinary extended sequence of a war party on the rampage. 

The Thunderbird dance
The shots of seascapes, rocky islands, intricately carved Kwakwaka’wakw buildings and especially those amazing canoes are sometimes breathtaking and made all the more vital by knowing they are now more than a century old. Sometimes the images are still clear if a bit soft; other times they can just barely be glimpsed around the edges of a nitrate frame that is in a desperate state of deterioration (though this too has a beauty of its own); and at several points, particularly in the opening, still images have been inserted to bridge missing scenes. And this is where we pick up the story of “In The Land Of The Head Hunters” after Curtis abandoned the negative.

The film was all but forgotten until 1947 when a 35mm print surfaced in Chicago in the hands of a private collector (it was allegedly found in a dumpster behind a theater). When it was screened the print caught fire but still survived and found its way to the Field Museum where a 16mm copy was created and the original (and highly flammable) 35mm print was destroyed.

Little was done with the remaining copy until 1972 when the remaining material was re-edited and given a new naturalistic soundtrack: birds chirping, paddles splashing in the water, and even faux-synch dialogue when actors' faces and lips were not clearly visible. The 43-minute “sound film” was released as “In The Land of the War Canoes” and marketed as a documentary. Setting aside the dubious nature of such an indexing strategy, the new release at least preserved images of a film all but forgotten.

Two more reels of the original 35mm nitrate surfaced later and found their way to the UCLA Film Archive and this would finally set the stage for the restoration of the film that Milestone Films has distributed as part of this two-disc set. A project spearheaded by academics Brad Evans and Aaron Glass sought to combine the Field Museum's 16mm copy, the two 35mm nitrate reels and an ample collection of stills in the Library of Congress's collection to bring the film as close as possible to its 1914 state.

For the details on this, I refer you to Milestone's press site once again. Suffice it to say that even with multiple sources, plenty of original material was missing and will likely never be recovered. The cut presented on this disc runs 66 minutes while the original may have been about twenty minutes longer, and that 66 minutes includes the aforementioned insertion of stills to preserve the narrative structure. Milestone also secured the rights to the original score which was then performed by Vancouver's Turning Point ensemble for this release, making it one of the earliest surviving feature-length scores.

“In The Land Of The Head Hunters” is definitely not a documentary (it is set well in the past, for one thing) and some of its representations of Kwakwaka’wakw traditions are inevitably the product of Curtis's vision and cultural biases rather than fully faithful recreations. Regardless, these images are still an invaluable record of a place and a people seldom represented on film and, just as importantly, of individuals now long gone. One of the most moving aspects of the features included on this two-disc set is hearing contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw descendants of the actors in the film speak so lovingly of the personal meaning the film has for them.

It's amazing that “In The Land Of The Head Hunters” was ever made in the first place, even more amazing that it has survived a full century. It didn't happen on its own. The extraordinary amount of labor required to restore the film to its current state and then to distribute it digitally is a testament to the love so many people have for this delicate medium as well as the esteem the various collaborators on this extensive project have for Edward S. Curtis's one-of-a-kind project.

For reasons stated above, this transfer of “In The Land Of The Head Hunters” does not and could not possibly provide a pristine picture. The quality varies substantially from radiant to almost completely decayed; a few shots offer only a hint of image around the burned-out spots comprising most of the frame. In several cases, stills from the Library of Congress's collection have been inserted to bridge missing scenes. A variety of tints and tones is on display as well, though the B&W images tend to be the sharpest. Title cards have been recreated and these, obviously, are the sharpest-looking shots in the movie. Fortunately the better-preserved shots still showcase the beauty of the film's photography; while seldom razor-sharp they display enough detail for viewers to appreciate the artistry of many of the intricate carvings constructed for the movie. And my goodness, those canoes are works of art! Understanding the age of the material and the perilous state of its preservation over the years, this high-def image is pretty miraculous.

“In The Land Of The Head Hunters” can be listened to with either a linear PCM 2.0 or a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. What you're getting with this silent film, of course, is the score - the original century-old score! - recently recorded by Vancouver's Turning Point Ensemble. The score sounds fantastic with either audio option and I don't think anyone could ask for better. “In The Land of The War Canoes” is presented with a linear PCM 2.0 track for its added naturalistic soundtrack which sounds a bit hollow and thin, but just fine.

This two-disc Blu-ray set is a Milestone Films release so you know it's going to be loaded with relevant and insightful extras.

For starters, Disc One includes this newly-restored cut of “In The Land Of The Head Hunters” while Disc Two is headlined by the 1973 release “In The Land Of The War Canoes” (see above for more info). Each film is accompanied by substantial additional features.

The extras on Disc One:
The film is accompanied by a commentary track by Bill Holm, Andy Everson, and Aaron Glass. I have, unfortunately, not had a chance to do more than briefly sample this yet since I wanted to be able to sort through all these extras on this set and post a review before the end of the year!

“Documents of Encounter: The Head Hunters Reconstruction Project” (2014, 37 min.) addresses the film's unusual production and release history with footage from a 2014 screening of this current cut in British Columbia. Another highlight is hearing from the son of the film's star Stanley Hunt. This feature suggests that the film remains very important to Kwakwaka’wakw people today.

A short feature (3 min.) shows a recording session by Vancouver's Turning Point Ensemble as they play the score for the film.

Disc One also includes a Stills Gallery (5 min.) and a Trailer (1 min.)

The extras on Disc Two:
As mentioned above, this disc includes a high-def transfer of “In The Land Of The War Canoes” (44 min.) This is the version most people knew if they knew the film at all. It has been edited to emphasize the adventure quality even more, especially the title canoes and has an added soundtrack with effects and dialogue.

The Image Maker and The Indians” (1979, 16 min.) is an informative feature about the life of Edward S. Curtis. An eccentric host takes us through Curtis's early career including an expedition to Alaska that helped establish his reputation. It also talks about the film's release and about George Hunt, the Kwakwaka’wakw consultant and assistant director who played such an important role in the film's production.

A “Cultural Presentation By The Gwa'wina Dancers” (2008, 83 min.) is a lengthy record of a performance by these dancers at a screening of “In The Land Of The Head Hunters” at the University of British Columbia on June 22, 2008. There are some amazing dances performed here and they sure went all out.

The disc also includes nearly a dozen audio recordings made by Curtis. These are wax cylinder recordings of various native singers in and near Fort Rupert in 1910. Each song runs about 1 minute.

Final Thoughts:
How many hundred year old feature films have you seen recently? This two-disc Blu-ray set pays tribute both to a remarkable film about a remarkable people and to the extraordinary collaborative effort to preserve, restore and distribute that film. Cinema's true power is primarily that of making images seen; that these luminous images can still be seen a hundred years later is something to cherish.

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Essential Jacques Demy

Demy, Deneuve, Dorleac on the set of The Young Girls of Rochefort

THE ESSENTIAL JACQUES DEMY (Many films by Jacques Demy)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray Box Set, Release Date July 22, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

Jacques Demy is mostly known in America for his wildly popular musical “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (1964) and its less commercially successful but still beloved sequel-in-spirit “The Young Girls of Rochefort” (1967). Close identification with two accessible films in a populist genre has, in an odd way, complicated Demy's legacy. Would a true French New Wave director spin such candy-colored confections? If Demy wanted admission to the politically-charged Left Bank Group (along with his wife, the brilliant director Agnès Varda), shouldn't he ditch the dancing and get didactic?

Demy has not exactly been forgotten since his death in 1990; the tireless and passionate advocacy of Agnès Varda has assured that will never happen. But being the square peg in every film movement into which he was awkwardly fit (if, for no other reason, than by time and geography) has often consigned him to sidebar status in film surveys; we praise filmmakers for being unique voices, but in what context do you write or teach about the lone wolves?

The Cherbourg-Rochefort nexus so dominates the discussion that it's easy to overlook the fact that Demy was not introduced to the world as the twirler of pastel-hued parapluies. Demy's first two feature films are sober (though not uniformly somber) black-and-white studies of the ravages of gambling, though in very different forms. 

Anouk Aimee in Lola
In “Lola” (1961) the characters proudly wear the scars wrought by first love. None have recovered from its wounds and none particularly want to as they cling to the flimsy hope that they'll experience that addictive endorphin rush once again; both the cruelest and sweetest thing about Demy's fantasy world is that it just might happen. Twenty-something Roland (Marc Michel) pines for the lost love of his youth whom he just happens to run into moments after mentioning her name. His childhood sweetheart Cecile has turned into the very grownup cabaret dancer Lola (Anouk Aimée) and she also longs for the love of her youth; unfortunately that obscure object of desire is not Roland, but a sailor who abandoned ship once Cecile/Lola made the mistake of getting pregnant. The sailor has been gone for years with nary a letter sent, but Lola still believes he will come back one day. Damn the odds, the payoff is too big to abandon the wager now. Roland's fantasy has her own fantasy, and whatever reality he can offer her will never suffice.

“Lola” is set in the port city of Nantes, Demy's childhood hometown, and as with many of his films the city serves as a major supporting character. The various players crisscross its roads and its intimate outdoor shopping malls, meeting in a series of carefully calculated coincidences. At every point in town, first love claims many victims. In one of the most heartfelt sequences, an American sailor who has been (hopelessly) wooing Lola takes a budding young girl (also named Cecile) about to celebrate her fourteenth birthday to the town fair; a modest and innocent gesture of kindness by him, but a moment that will define the girl's entire life and provide a crystalline memory to which no other man will ever measure up. A surprise happy ending provides a Rorschach blot for both romantics and cynics who will either accept it at face value or suspect that tragedy must lurk around the next turn; fast forward to Demy's “Model Shop” (1969, not included in this set) to find out if anyone really hit his or her longshot bet.

A blonde Jeanne Moreau in Bay of Angels

The gambling is more conventional in Demy's second feature “Bay of Angels” (1963). Jean (Claude Mann) is an unassuming young bank clerk whose curiosity is piqued by a co-worker bragging about a big win at the casino. A little luck at the local tables prompts him to hop the train to the Riviera where he encounters the enigmatic Jackie (a platinum blonde Jeanne Moreau), a woman firmly in the grips of her gambling addiction and savoring every minute of the wild ride: “Gambling is my religion!”

“Bay of Angels” is quite obviously patterned after Robert Bresson's brilliant “Pickpocket” (1959). Like many a Bresson model/actor, Jean is tall and lean and usually keeps his emotions tamped down. And as in “Pickpocket,” the lead man is inducted into a shady new world by a companion and meets a woman he sees as potential salvation (though neither Jackie nor Moreau fit the Bresson template) on the road to an ending so abrupt it leaves the viewer shocked.

Any director's sophomore effort would be expected to suffer by such a challenging comparison, but “Bay of Angels” captures the alternating despair and ephemeral joy of the gambler as vividly as any film ever made. Though shooting on the bustling Riviera and in (presumably) equally bustling casinos, cinematographer Jean Rabier's camera hangs so close to the newly-minted couple that they may as well be all alone as they stumble towards damnation.

The pathetic nature of their addiction is underscored by their game of choice: the pointless and tedious game of roulette, the gussied up version of “Pick a Number” from “Vegas Vacation.” Jackie's eyes light up every time the ball begins to spin around the wheel, and she appears equally confident in every hunch no matter how seldom they pay off. Because sometimes, just sometimes, they do, as was also true for the hopeful lovers of “Lola.” And so the film proceeds with sudden big wins followed by the instant hemorrhaging of all gains, then one more big win to prolong the cycle in which Jackie has clearly been trapped for years and which threatens to ensnare Jean alongside her.

I knew nothing of “Bay of Angels” before this set, and I think it's not just Demy's masterpiece, but one of the great French films of the sixties which is pretty high praise. Moreau is magnificent as the desperate, destructive, but undaunted Jackie (a shot of her walking in high heels across a rocky beach sums up her character succinctly) and the seemingly good-natured Jean manifests an unexpected dark side just when you think you have him pegged. It is the ultimate casino movie, in no small part because it makes no effort to glamorize the shabby experience. The film does not take a single false step and if you see no other movie from this set, please make sure you don't miss this one.

This is the point at which the characters in Demy's films begin to sing and, not coincidentally, this is also the point where I must largely recuse myself from the case. I am not entirely hostile to movie musicals, but I have long known that I am allergic to the version of the genre which Demy innovated, the one where the characters sing every line from poetic love songs to mundane exchanges like “Would you like fries with that? Yes, uh no, make it onion rings instead.” I paraphrase, of course.

Deneuve and... who cares, it's Deneuve in Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Many films ask you to buy into a certain brand of artifice, and I know that many, many viewers have happily bought into Demy's all-singing style as both “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and “The Young Girls of Rochefort” appear on quite a few all-time favorite lists. If you do buy in, each film quickly becomes a hermetic reality that provides a direct access to the characters' emotional state that is difficult to achieve by more conventionally naturalistic means and many have been moved to tears by these tales of loves both lost and achieved.

I wish I could buy in. It seems like so much fun. But I cannot, and believe me I have tried. I just keep waiting for them to stop singing even though I know they won't. Having said that, I am not immune to the considerable charms of both “Cherbourg” and “Rochefort,” chief among them the almost supernaturally flawless visage of a young Catherine Deneuve who would be rocketed to international stardom by her role in “Cherbourg,” a major popular and critical success for Demy. “Rochefort” was not as big of a hit, but it offers its own unique charms, pairing Deneuve with her real-life sister Françoise Dorléac (who died in an auto accident just months after filming) and also features Gene Kelly who helpsto add the dancing part of the equation to the wall-to-wall singing in Demy's first musical. These films are not my cup of tea, but I fully understand why they are so loved. Did I mention the colors? Good grief, the colors are worth the price of admission all by themselves.

Deneuve and Delphine Seyrig in Donkey Skin
That brings us to “Donkey Skin” (1970), which does not feature wall-to-wall singing (though there are plenty of tunes) but does qualify as the rare incest film meant for children. The film is based on a 17th century fairy tale by Charles Perrault, best known to Americans for cultural touchstones like “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty.” “Donkey Skin” is almost entirely unknown in America but remains a staple in France and tells the story of a dying queen who makes the king promise only to remarry a princess more beautiful than her. It turns out the only princess who qualifies is the king's daughter (Deneuve) and so he immediately proposes to her.

You can shake off the ick factor of the premise by realizing the story is told more or less from the free-floating perspective of the little girl who wants to marry daddy and needs to learn why that's not a great idea, but you can also understand why it hasn't gotten quite as much play here as Perrault's other standards. I was not, however, able to get past the design and tone of the film with its neighboring kingdoms filled, respectively, with blue people and red people. Demy borrows heavily from Jean Cocteau (even casting “Beast”ly Jean Marais as the king) but the surrealism that works so beautifully in “Beauty and the Beast” and “Orpheus” feels like forced whimsy here and all in the service of a rather unpleasant story.

I'll be honest. Just about everything in this movie rubbed me the wrong way, including the music, and I found it a challenge to sit through. There are two exceptions though. The great goddess Delphine Seyrig is perfectly cast as the kind but scheming Lilac Fairy. And the title donkey shits out heaps of gold and precious gems, which is pretty cool no matter what you think of the rest of the movie.

Un chambre en ville
The final film in this set is “Un chambre en ville” (1982) in which Demy returns to Nantes and to his all-singing format. I could only make it through twenty minutes, but keep in mind what I've already written. I am not qualified to pass judgment on the movie and won't do so. It was long difficult to find in any format in North America and the new availability of this late-period Demy film has been welcomed enthusiastically by many of his fans.

The six films in the set are each presented in their original aspect ratios ranging from 1.66:1 to 2.35:1. All of the films have been digitally restored within the past few years at different labs, all with the direct participation of Demy's wife Agnès Varda and their children Mathieu Demy and Rosalie Varda-Demy. “Lola” is the weakest of the lot with a surprisingly soft image throughout (hardly any grain visible); there is also some digital blur when characters or the camera are in motion. It's not terrible, but it's one of the weaker high-def transfers we've seen from Criterion and I suspect the problems are in the restoration process; the original negative was destroyed in a fire and the restoration had to be conducted from the best print that could be found, no doubt requiring substantial boosting at times.

“Bay of Angels” looks much better with a pleasing grainy image that looks appropriately drab even in the sunniest beach sequences. There's a lot of white in this black-and-white film and that can be hard to deal with in a digital transfer but everything looks pretty strong here.

“Cherbourg” and “Rochefort” were both restored in 2013 and the results are impressive. These are films with bright, saturated colors and they pop here without ever seeming too gaudy. Image detail is sharp and I can't imagine fans will have any complaints here.

“Donkey Skin” doesn't look quite as strong as the previous three films, but the restoration is more than competent with bright colors. Some scenes look surprisingly grimy considering it's a fairy tale adaptation, but Demy was going for a grittier naturalistic look as a counterpoint to the whimsy.

I only sampled twenty minutes of “Une chambre en ville” and noticed no obvious issues with the 2012 restoration. Image quality is sharp. Colors aren't meant to be as bright here and aren't.

This is a dual-format release which includes DVDs along with the Blu-rays. The SD transfers have not been reviewed because I wish both to retain my sanity and to have this review posted before 2015.

“Lola” and “Bay of Angels” get LPCM mono tracks. “Cherbourg,” “Rochefort,” and “Donkey Skin” get 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio surround tracks. “Une chambre” is presented with a 2.0 surround track.

Audio is clean and crisp on all six films. You probably care most about the music in the last four films and as far as I can tell you they all sound rich and vibrant. The great composer Michel Legrand was a close, long-time collaborator with Demy and scored all the films in this set except for “Une chambre” and his work is shown off quite well by these lossless audio tracks. Optional English subtitles support the French audio in all films.

Both Criterion and the Varda-Demy family have joined forces to offer a remarkable collection of extras, scattered across the six films in this boxed set.

First, a word about the packaging. Each film is housed in its own keep case and all six cases fit next to the square-bound insert booklet inside the large cardboard case with cover art for the whole “Essential Jacques Demy” set. Since this is a dual-format release, each case contains a single DVD and a single Blu-ray (“Une chambre” has two DVDs along with the single Blu-ray). It's a very handsomely-designed set which you can view in more detail here.

“Lola” includes a brief interview with actress Anouk Aimée (3 min.) which combines interviews conducted by Agnès Varda in 1995 and 2012. Varda is also interviewed (2008, 3 min.) about writing the lyrics for Lola's song. Like most discs in this set, we also get a Restoration Demonstration (10 min.) which details the considerable problems involved in restoring “Lola,” the negative of which was lost in a fire. The disc also includes a Trailer (2 min.) which references the restoration as much as the film.

Of greater interest, however, are the four short films by Demy included on this first disc. “Les horizons morts” (1951, 8 min.) stars Demy in a Cocteau-infused silent film (with music) about a man who mopes in his lonely room while thinking back to a lost love. “Le sabotier du Vale de Loire” (1956, 23 min.) is a splendid poetic documentary about an aging clog maker in the Loire Valley. It details his work, but also devotes plenty of time (via narration) to his ongoing love for his wife. “Ars” (1959, 17 min.) is a Bresson-influenced documentary about Jean-Marie Baptiste Vianney, a stern 19th century French parish priest in the small town of Ars. I loved it, but many will find it dry. “La luxure” (1962, 15 min.) is Demy's segment from the 1962 omnibus film “The Seven Deadly Sins” and is the least compelling of the shorts, but still of interest.

Unfortunately, “Bay of Angels” is pretty sparse on extras, a shame for the standout film in the set. We get an on-set interview with Jeanne Moreau (1962, 14 min.), conducted for the French television show “Cinépanorama” and an informative interview with writer Marie Colmant (2013, 10 min.) who discusses Demy's fondness for outcast characters. We also get another Restoration Demonstration (5 min.) and a Trailer (1 min.)

The extras on “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” kick off with “Once Upon a Time... The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” a 2008 documentary (54 min.) by Marie Genin and Serge July which includes archival interviews with Demy and new interviews with Catherine Deneuve, Michel Legrand, Agnès Varda, and others.

A substantial interview with film scholar Rodney Hill (2014, 23 min.) addresses the difficulty in categorizing Demy's work (New Wave, Left Bank, Tradition of Quality?) and provides more details about the production of some of his films, with a focus on “Cherbourg” of course. An excerpt from a 1964 episode of “Cinépanorama” (11 min.) features an interview with collaborators Demy and composer Michel Legrand. The disc also includes audio extracts from an appearance by Legrand at the National Film Theatre in London (1991, 27 min.) and an appearance by Deneuve at the same location (1983, 11 min.) And we get another Restoration Demonstration (6 min.) and a Trailer (2 min.)

“The Young Girls of Rochefort” is accompanied by an excerpt from a 1966 episode of the French TV show “Cinéma” (11 min.) with another interview with Demy and Legrand, as well as the second part of a six part 1966 “Behind-the-Scenes” series shot by André Delvaux about the production of “Rochefort.” Just this installation runs 35 minutes so the overall project must have been quite ambitious. We also get a 2013 interview (26 min.) with film scholar Jean-Pierre Berthomé and costume designer Jacqueline Moreau who worked on many of Demy's films and was a close friend of the director. No Restoration Demonstration this time, but there is a Trailer (2 min.)

The best feature on the disc, however, is the documentary “The Young Girls Turns 25” (1993, 67 min.) directed by the great documentarian Agnès Varda who returns to Rochefort, a town whose identity is still closely tied in with the film. The feature includes interviews with Deneuve (who also returns to Rochefort for the anniversary) and the many townsfolk who fondly remember (and probably misremember) their involvement with the production. This is a fantastic documentary.

“Donkey Skin” includes an excerpt from the French TV show “Pour le cinéma” (1970, 12 min.) which mixes interviews with Demy, Deneuve, and actors Jean Marais and Jacques Perrin. “Donkey Skin Illustrated” presents images from various print versions of the Perrault fairy tale and then provides narration over the pictures to tell the story. It's a neat feature though the repetition of some audio from the film gets irritating. “Donkey Skin and the Thinkers” is a 2008 interview with film critic Camille Taboulay, psychoanalysts Lucille Durrmeyer and Jean-Claude Polack, and 17th century literature specialist Liliane Picciola. This feature runs 17 minutes and if you make it all the way through, I think you win a T-shirt or something. “Jacques Demy at the AFI” is a lengthy audio excerpt from a 1971 appearance at the AFI (42 min.)

And if you think there have been a lot of extras so far, Criterion has saved some of the heftiest ones for the final volume which explains why “Une chambre en ville” is the only title that requires two DVDs along with the single Blu-ray. “Jacques Demy from A to Z” (2014, 61 min.) is a tremendous visual essay by James Quandt, perhaps my favorite working critic today. As the title suggests, this feature is quite ambitious and wide-ranging, proposing 26 separate topics for discussion. Perhaps the conceit requires a bit of a stretch (half the French directors who ever lived are cited as influences on Demy) but this visual essay is an invaluable and riveting companion to the films in this set.

“The World of Jacques Demy” (1995, 91 min.) is another documentary by Agnès Varda which addresses both the personal and professional and includes many interviews with Demy's collaborators over the years. And it is, of course, excellent. Because it's made by Varda.

The final disc also includes a Q&A session with Demy from the Midnight Sun Film Festival in Finland (1987, 16 min.), another Restoration Demonstration (6 min.) and a Trailer (2 min.)

In case the discs don't provide enough supplemental material, the 68-page square-bound insert booklet includes an essay on each of the films written, in order, by Ginette Vincendeau, Terrence Rafferty, Jim Ridley, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Anne E. Duggan, and Geoff Andrew. A seventh essay by Jean-Pierre Berthomé speaks more generally about Demy's relationship to his hometown of Nantes.

But aside from all of that, this set is pretty bare bones.

Set Value:
Some might argue that “Model Shop” needs to be included in any Jacques Demy set labeled as “Essential” but let's not quibble with the voluminous material included here. I wish I could be more enthusiastic about the musicals, but I have confidence that most of you will be. I would consider this set a towering triumph if for no other reason than the inclusion of “Bay of Angels,” a film that absolutely blew me away. I will never forget it. “Lola” is pretty damn good as well. So if you only think of Demy as the musical guy this set should cure you. This set is Criterion's most ambitious undertaking since “Zatoichi” and it more than delivers the goods.