Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Friends of Eddie Coyle

Criterion Collection, DVD, Release Date 5/19/2009
Review by Christopher S. Long

(Criterion is releasing “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” on Blu-ray this week. I am re-posting my review of the 2009 DVD release of the same title; the Blu-ray does not include any new extras. You might want to look elsewhere if you want to read about, like, the plot. Or other stuff.)

Consider this a tribute to George V. Higgins (1939-1999), author of the 1970 novel “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” on which the 1973 Peter Yates film is based:

The director sat down next to the producer and smiled.

“Robert Mitchum,” the director said.
“Robert Mitchum?” the producer said.
“Robert Mitchum,” the director said. “He’s the only guy who can play Eddie Coyle.”
“That crazy bastard can’t be trusted,” the producer said. “He'll piss all over you. Literally.”
“I can handle him,” the director said. “I think.”
“But Eddie Coyle’s a two-bit nobody. Robert Mitchum’s a big-time somebody,” the producer said.
“Mitchum can do it,” the director said. “Didn’t you see him in ‘Ryan’s Daughter’?”
“OK. I can get him,” the producer said. “I’ll get him for you. I know people. I’ll get him.”

The waiter brought them two beers. The producer sipped his. The director didn’t. He had ordered a gin and tonic, but the waiter didn't like him.

“And I want Peter Boyle as Dillon,” the director said.
“You want Peter Boyle,” the producer said. “The guy that played Joe?”
“This guy’s gonna be big some day,” the director said. “I just know it. He’s just right. Think about it.”
“Yeah, I can totally see that,” the producer said. “But we need to talk about this title. The Friends of Eddie Coyle. It’s not like these guys are his friends.”
“It’s ironic,” the director said. “A guy like Eddie Coyle doesn’t have any friends. Nobody cares about Eddie Coyle.”
“The audience might not either,” the producer said.
“They will if we cast Robert Mitchum,” the director said.

“I see your point,” the producer said. “By the way, I understand the ironic thing already. You think you’re a clever prick, don’t you? But I still don’t like the title. It doesn’t look good on a poster. It’s not sexy.”
“There’s no sex in this movie. Not even a romantic interest,” the director said.
“Yeah, but we don't want the audience to think that,” the producer said.
“Nobody’s going to see this movie anyway, Paul,” the director said.
“That’s not funny, Peter,” the producer said. He wiped the beer suds from his chin. “Fine, the title stays. But this thing’s a bitch to adapt. The book’s almost all dialogue.”

“And movies are all pictures,” the director said, “no matter how bad they are. That’s the beauty of it. There’s stuff that happens in between the words – you just gotta read carefully. And all of that will be in the movie. It has to be because it’s all pictures. Even when it’s dialogue, it’s still pictures. Which is why we need Robert Mitchum because nobody holds a camera like Bob Mitchum.”
“Bob?” the producer said.
“We used to play bridge together,” the director said.
“Then why are you asking me to get him?” the producer said.
“Fine, we never played bridge together,” the director said. “Can you get him?
“Yeah, yeah. I think,” the producer said.

“It really is a great book,” the director said, “You have read it, haven’t you?”
“I’m writing the damn script,” the producer said.
“That doesn’t answer the question,” the director said.
“Stop busting my balls,” the producer said.
“But I like busting your balls,” the director said.
“I bet you do,” the producer said.

The director slammed back his beer in one swift motion. He leaned forward.

“Trust me, it’s gonna be a great movie,” the director said. “It can’t miss.”
“I know. But I worry,” the producer said. “That’s my job.”
“It’s gonna be a great movie,” the director said.

The critic adjusted his chair. He sipped his Diet Mountain Dew.

“It's a great movie,” the critic said. “A really great movie. And Robert Mitchum is the only one who could do it. He really holds the camera.”

The film is presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The anamorphic, progressive transfer is crisp with only minimal signs of damage. The film’s color palette is muted and the director approved transfer doesn’t tart it up, giving it just the right look to capture the grimy Boston underworld that provides the film’s setting.

The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. Nothing much to say here – crisp, clean, not too dynamic and not meant to be. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

This is a nearly bare-bones Criterion release. The only extra is an audio commentary by director Peter Yates.

The insert booklet includes an essay by critic Kent Jones and Grover Lewis’s 1973 “Rolling Stone” profile of Robert Mitchum, compiled on the set of “Eddie Coyle.”

Final Thoughts:
Like the George V. Higgins book, “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” is a lean, efficient crime drama, the kind of film that feels like it could only have been made during the '70s. Mitchum’s low-key performance as a total schlemiel is one of his finest. Contrast this with his phenomenal performances in movies like “Night of the Hunter” and “Cape Fear” and you’ll get an idea how much range this great and unique actor had.

Read the book. Watch the movie. You won’t regret either decision.

Friday, April 28, 2017


BLOW-UP (Antonioni, 1966)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Mar 28, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

“I didn't see,” repeats Thomas (David Hemmings), the London fashion photographer and protagonist of Michelangelo Antonioni's “Blow-Up” (1966). He's referring to a possible murder in the park that he didn't quite witness because he was too busy snapping pictures of the event.

With the lens serving as intermediary, Thomas is one step removed from the real; his refined pursuit of perfect framing pushes him even further from messy flesh-and-blood reality. However, the camera is a reliable recording device, and when he develops the pictures later, he gradually unearths evidence that points him to what was happening right in front of his eyes. But exactly what it all means is a different story altogether, because that requires the interpretive powers of the human brain, a much less reliable device.

The film's signature sequences are two prolonged stretches in which Thomas, ensconced in his posh London studio, examines the pictures with increasing interest, returning to his lab to blow up details within the photos as he gathers more clues to solve the mystery: a woman (Lynn Redgrave) looks off camera, a blurry hand grasping a gun gradually emerges into view.

Antonioni ratchets up the tension in these sequences by not tipping the viewer off, at least not at first, to what Thomas is in the process of discovering. We merely look at him looking and continuing to look, until finally he figures out what's going on, and why Redgrave's character is so eager to get the pictures back from him. Antonioni then spends the rest of the film methodically “unsolving” the case, leaving Thomas and the viewer knowing less than at the beginning. Events also reveal the stylishly disengaged young man, bored to tears by a daily routine which mostly involves beautiful young woman (including a young Jane Birkin) vying desperately for his attention, to be utterly impotent when he can no longer wield either a camera lens or his cultivated ennui as a shield against the real world.

For a director who often professed an interest in the image before plot, the focus on a photographer intently studying his images feel like an overdue, um, development (sorry about that). Viewers might want to follow suit as well, scanning the frame intently for the exquisite and enigmatic images Antonioni and cinematographer Carlo Di Palma have provided: the London homes painted in bold blocks of primary colors, the bodies of slim leggy models arranged in lifeless poses, the constant interposition of thick vertical and horizontal lines that partially obscure the actors. Like Thomas, you might get even more disoriented upon ever-closer examination of the evidence, but, man, what an aesthetic rush.

Somehow, this film with only the semblance of a plot (that hardly any of the characters care much about) and nothing resembling an explanation at the end became a commercial hit as well as a critical darling, making it a genuine international sensation. It's tempting to think audiences were just smarter fifty years ago, but it's possible they queued up because they heard they might get to see some pubic hair, and also because the film vividly captured the emerging Swinging London scene, so vividly it's difficult to think of another film as closely linked with this odd and enduring patch of youth culture. That's a pretty remarkable accomplishment for a 54-year-old Italian making his first feature film in English, but this is the man who had just directed “Il Grido” (1957), “L'avventura” (1960), “L'eclisse”(1962), and “Red Desert” (1964), all in a row. That's damn close to the most remarkable accomplishment by any artist named Michelangelo, so making a masterpiece in a foreign country and language was really no biggie.

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Color is important in any color film, but rarely more so than in an Antonioni color film. It sure looks like this new 1080p transfer gets it right – those blue and red painted houses pop off the screen. Thomas's busily decorated studio is visible in all its sharp detail. Flesh tones are warm, everything looks great in motion. I'm told there's some controversy over the correct aspect ratio which, as usual, is of little interest. Overall, this is the best I've ever seen “Blow-Up” look.

The linear PCM mono audio track is, like almost all Criterion mixes, crisp and free of any distortion or drop off. The film's score by Herbie Hancock, his first soundtrack, is an all-time great one and sounds fantastic here. The Yardbirds also drop in to perform a number. There are long stretches with minimal or no dialogue and only quiet sound effects (leaves rustling in the wind, a camera snapping, a tennis ball bouncing) and it's all clearly presented here. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

This is yet another fully-loaded Criterion release.

“Blow Up of 'Blow-Up'” (2016, 54 min.), directed by Valentina Agostini, is a documentary made for the 50th anniversary of the film's release last year, and combines interviews with crew members along with visits to some of the film's locations.

The disc also includes several interviews, both old and new. New for this Criterion release is an interview with Vanessa Redgrave (2016, 44 min.) which is shot in B&W for some reason, and which records a Q&A with the actress after a recent screening of “Blow-Up.” It's a pretty extensive conversation considering how briefly she's actually in the movie.

We get an older interview with actress Jane Birkin (1989, 9 min.), who plays “The Blonde” with whom Thomas briefly frolics, and she tells an interesting story about her very odd audition for the film. Two older interviews with lead David Hemmings are also included. First is a short 1968 interview (5 min.) shot on the set of “Only When I Larf.” It's mildly amusing to see Hemmings try to squeeze in interviews between calls to set, but otherwise this is just about content-free. Hemmings' appearance on a 1977 episode of “City Lights” (20 min.) is much more interesting. A collection of excerpts from the 2001 documentary “Michelangelo Antonioni: The Eye That Changed America” (5 min. total of excerpts) includes a brief clip of Antonioni accepting the 1967 Palme d'Or at Cannes and a few short interviews with the director.

The menu selection “Antonioni's Hypnotic Vision” leads to two separate features. “Modernism” (2016, 16 min.) provides curator and art historian David Alan Mellor an opportunity to discuss some of Antonioni's influences from the world of painting, including a major shift in the director's work which Mellor attributes, at least in part, to Antonioni's first encounter with the work of Robert Rauschenberg. I liked this piece quite a bit. “Photography” combines separate interviews with historian Philippe Garner and Walter Moser, head of the photography collection at the Albertina museum in Vienna.

The extras wrap up with a Teaser (1 min.) and a Trailer (2 min.)

The thick, square-bound insert booklet includes an essay by film scholar David Forgacs, an on-set account by Stig Bjorkman, questionnaires Antonioni sent to London photographers while researching the film, and the short story from which the film was very, very loosely inspired, “Blow-Up” by World Hopscotch Champion Jose Cortazar.

Final Thoughts:
“Blow-Up” might not be one of my five favorite Antonioni films. It is also one of my favorite films. Criterion's release is surely the definitive one to date, and it's tough to imagine a significantly superior one. The transfer is strong, the extras voluminous, and even the insert booklet is impressive. It's only April, but this vaults to the top of the list for best Blu-ray releases of 2017.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Belle Toujours - Manoel De Oliveira Toujours!

Portuguese director/national treasure Manoel de Oliveira died today at the age of 106. By most accounts he was the oldest active filmmaker, and by any account the shape and span of his career was virtually unparallelled. His first film, “Douro, Faina Fluvial”(“Labor on The Douro River") was a silent movie released in 1931; a bit later, “The Strange Case of Angelica” (2010) employed digital animation to relate its exquisite tale of haunted love. Perhaps the only parallel to Oliveira's film career is that of film itself.

Oliveira was largely silenced in the middle of the 20th century by oppressive censorship from the right-wing regime in Portugal. After 1942's “Aniki-Bóbó” he shot only one feature and several documentary shorts over the next quarter century. He was merely resting up for the greatest stretch run cinema has ever witnessed.

From the '70s on, Oliveira seemed to become more prolific with each passing decade. Oliveira released more than twenty films, a mix of features and shorts, in the 21st century, a century he greeted a few weeks after his 92nd birthday.

Oliveira's output as a nonagenarian and centenarian certainly contributed to his beloved status among cinephiles around the world, but he was no aged trick pony. His films, often about doomed love (indeed he made a mini-series called “Doomed Love”), were sensitive, literary, meticulously staged works of deceptive simplicity that speak to an eye that saw clearly well past the century mark. They would be great and celebrated films from a mere lad of eighty, or thirty for that matter.

Below I have re-posted my 2008 review of Oliveira's “Belle Toujours” which I'm not even sure ranks as one of his top five movies made since turning 90, but which is still a modest gem. For other great Oliveira films on DVD and Blu-ray, I recommend the Cinema Guild releases of “Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl” (2010) and the aforementioned “The Strange Case of Angelica” which also includes that first short “Douro, Faina Fluvia.” And if you can find a copy of the Image Entertainment's release of “I'm Going Home” (2001), one of Oliveira's finest, pounce on it.

BELLE TOUJOURS (the great Manoel de Oliveira, 2006)
New Yorker Films, DVD, Release Date June 24, 2008
Review by Christopher S. Long

It’s rare that I get to write about a hundred year old director but, to be fair, Manoel de Oliveira was merely a lad of 97 when he made “Belle Toujours” (2006). Also to be fair, de Oliveira has to wait another 5 months before he officially makes it to 100, but considering that he has released two features and two shorts in the last two years and has one of each in production in the current year, he doesn’t appear to be slowing down any time soon. He made his first short film in 1931, and his first feature in 1942 after which his career was derailed for nearly 15 years, and he would not release his next feature film until 1963 when, at the age of 55, he finally got things cranking.

As if flipping off Father Time, Oliveira has been more productive in the past decade than at any other time in his career, releasing 18 films (features and shorts) since 1998, nearly half his lifetime output. Please note that it is old hat (pun intended) to discuss Manoel de Oliveira’s age these days, but since this is the first opportunity I have had to write about this remarkable director, I’m entitled. I promise not to say a word about it over his next hundred years.

With “Belle Toujours,” Oliveira has made perhaps his oddest film, intended as a sequel of sorts to Luis Buñuel’s landmark “Belle de Jour” (1967). Except that “sequel” isn’t the right term; rather it’s an afterword written long, long after the main text. “Belle de Jour” is one of Buñuel’s most perverse and perverted films (and I mean that in a good way), the story of a bored housewife named Severine (Catherine Deneuve) who loves her devoted husband but still chooses to spend her days working in a high-end brothel. She harnesses her inner masochist with the help of her husband’s best friend Henri (Michel Piccoli) and an array of twisted clients.

“Belle Toujours” kicks off at a concert in which the much older but not necessarily any wiser Henri (played again by Michel Piccoli) spots the much older and possibly wiser Severine (played this time by Bulle Ogier) in the audience. He stare at her as if trying to mesmerize his former object of desire, but she proves elusive and disappears in a limo before he can speak to her. Henri is nothing if not dogged, however, and he soon tracks her down at her hotel. She has no interest whatsoever in catching up with her “old friend,” but he persuades her to have dinner with him. While killing time, he also stops in a bar to recount his story (the story of “Belle de Jour”) to an easily impressed bartender (Ricardo Trêpa, the director's grandson and star of some of Oliveira's later films) which isn’t really intended as exposition for the viewers, but further confirmation of Henri’s vanity.

You might be thinking this is a reunion story of sorts. That is, if you know nothing about Buñuel or Oliveira which, apparently, is true of whoever wrote the summary at Rotten Tomatoes which ludicrously describes the film as “a short and sweet elegy on aging, sexuality, and the power of cinema.”

“Belle Toujours” picks up right where “Belle de Jour” left off, digging perhaps into even more perverse territory. Henri’s patrician façade has no doubt fooled many a socialite into thinking him quite the gentleman, but his intentions to Severine are anything but honorable. Severine, we discover, has “redeemed” herself in the ensuing four decades, devoting herself to her husband and to God. Henri cannot let this affront to nature stand, and plays sadistic mind-games with her, and the real mystery for us to confront is whether Severine, despite her protestations, is every bit as much into humiliation as she ever was. Indeed, what else could she possibly expect when she (not so?) grudgingly accepts his invitation to dinner? Oliveira’s subversion of the need for the closure one might expect from a reunion narrative is his slyest, and cruelest, touch. Buñuel would be proud.

Indeed, the film is permeated by the spirit of Buñuel, not just in its direct references to “Belle de Jour” (a picture here, a gift there) but in its relationship to his entire work. Viewers unfamiliar with Buñuel might be puzzled when the film appear to continue one scene “too long” after the main characters have exited and the servants are talking to each other, but it’s the sort of moment that cropped up again in again in Buñuel’s work, most notably in his masterpiece “Exterminating Angel” (1962).

Piccoli, as usual, is brilliant. Though a mere whippersnapper next to de Oliveira, Piccoli has been a screen star for sixty years now, and has done some of his best work in recent years, especially with Oliveira (Piccoli was also phenomenal in 2001's “I’m Going Home”), and he relishes his opportunity to re-visit one of his best-known roles. Here, Henri Husson makes the leap from supporting character to protagonist with Severine as more of a fringe character who flits about the edges of the screen until the climactic dinner sequence. Bulle Ogier cannot match the screen presence of Catherine Deneuve, but she isn’t called on to do much here except to simply be Severine.

Will you be unable to enjoy “Belle Toujours” if you aren’t a Buñuel aficionado? No, though it’s fair to say you won’t necessarily be fully in tune with de Oliveira’s project. Even on its own, the film is an ambling, amusing psychosexual cat and mouse game which proves that the march of time doesn’t mean you have to be any less of a sick bastard. That’s a theme we can all identify with.

The film is presented in a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer. Though the transfer is interlaced, it’s unusually strong by New Yorker’s standards. The color saturation is just right (sometimes a problem with this studio) and the image quality is fairly sharp. Still, it would be nice if they could offer progressive transfers in the near future.

The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.

With such a short film, it would have been nice to get a few more extras. What we get isn’t bad though. There are four interviews, the best of which, of course, are the ones with de Oliveira (23 min.) and Piccoli (9 min.) Interviews with Bulle Ogier (5 min.) and
Ricardo Trêpa (2 min.) provide a few brief perspectives on working with the veteran director.

Also included are a Trailer, a Photo Gallery and a Press Kit which can be accessed as a PDF file on your PC.

Film Value:
At 65 minutes (not counting the end credits), this strange coda to “Belle de Jour” is over almost as soon as it starts or, more accurately, speeds away after its lightning-strike hit and run job. I suppose you could consider this film to be a meditation on aging (as many critics have written), but it’s a pretty pervy one and surely not a “sweet elegy” of any kind. In all honesty, I like this film more than “Belle de Jour” which, I admit, is not one of my favorite Buñuels. Long live Michel Piccoli! Long live Manoel de Oliveira! Well, I guess they’ve already done that. But you know what I mean.


TAMPOPO (Itami, 1985)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Apr 25, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

Everyone in writer-director Juzo Itami's crowd-pleaser “Tampopo” (1985) has strong opinions about food, from stuffy businessmen to dapper yakuza to homeless men who speak passionately of the virtues of Pichon Lalande while huddling for warmth. If the baby we see suckling contentedly at momma's breast could talk, it would surely be rating the milk for both temperature and sweetness.

The action kicks off when a pair of epicurean truckers, cowboy-hat clad Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and his sidekick Gun (a young Ken Watanabe), roll into a dusty ol' ramen shop run by a widow (Nobuko Miyamaoto) who hasn't quite mastered her craft just yet. Her name is Tampopo and when she asks the truckers for their opinion about her work, they break the news to her bluntly: “Your ramen sucks.”

It's not an insult. Though “Tampopo” is full of macho men posturing and threatening violence, the film is defined by the sense of community that a love and respect for good food engenders. Tampopo (her name means “Dandelion” by the way) accepts their honest criticism and then pleads for their mentorship, never really questioning whether two truckers are qualified to consult on restaurant management. Goro throws himself into the project with the same gusto with which he slurps noodles, running Tampopo through a series of kitchen drills and whipping her into shape in a montage intended to evoke the “Rocky” franchise. As Tampopo runs laps around Goro's bike (after all, he's not the one training), he barks out a gruff but friendly motivational message, “Ramen takes stamina!”

Itami serves up numerous side dishes along the way in the form of a series of vignettes unconnected to the main narrative. A fussy woman instructs her female charges on the proper etiquette for eating spaghetti without making a sound (it's considered rude abroad, she notes), but when they hear another man in the restaurant inhaling his pasta with abandon, they all follow suit with glee. A ramen sensei (in what turns out to be one of those ubiquitous ramen novels we all know and love) instructs his pupil on the proper way to consume the soup: “Quietly apologize to the pork.” A white-clad gangster (Koji Yakusho) returns periodically, sometimes directly addressing the audience when not occupied with food-assisted frolics with his very game girlfriend.

If you think every scene in a movie should advance the story (by which I mean if you've written a book on Hollywood screenwriting), you might get annoyed. If you can just savor each moment and each personality for its own textural qualities, you should have fun, which is obviously what Itami is after. In “Tampopo”, both food and film are intended to be enjoyed by everyone, and in precisely the way they wish to enjoy it all. Just as long as it's done with passion. 

The film is presented in its original 1.85: aspect ratio. Criterion's “new digital restoration... in 4K resolution” is razor sharp and pops with rich color. I don't own a previous DVD copy of this, but I remember thinking the film looked a bit washed out. That was obviously a product of the transfer and has been more than taken care of here. This looks great all around.

The linear PCM mono track is crisp and fairly simple in design. Itami mixes in some comic sound effects (to accentuate noodle slurping, for example) but nothing too complex. The playful score by Kunihiko Murai sounds strong as well. Optional English subtitles support the Japanese audio.

Criterion's April releases sure don't cheat on the extras.

“The Making of 'Tampopo'” (1985, 90 min.) is a documentary shot during the film's production. Narrated by Itami, it's fairly superficial and probably a bit too long, but it's fun for fans.

The disc includes new interviews with lead actress Nobuko Miyamoto (2016, 11 min.) and food stylist Seiko Ogawa (2016, 16 min.) Miyamoto discusses her conception of the character as well as working with Itami, who was also her husband – they remained married until his death in 1997. “Tampopo” is often given credit for popularizing ramen abroad and even invigorating the ramen scene in Japan, and Ogawa discusses the film's contribution to food culture. A similar discussion continues in “The Perfect Bowl” (2016, 22 min.), featuring interviews with several chefs as well as ramen scholar Hiroshi Oosaki.

“The Amateur and The Craftsperson” (2017, 10 min.) is a short video essay by filmmakers Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos, which argues that the film's central theme is the role of the amateur in appreciating aesthetic experiences.

“Rubber Band Pistol” (1962, 32 min.) is Itami's first film, and it's rough and messy and quite enjoyable, if a bit unwieldy in that uncomfortable “too long to be a short, too short to be a feature” zone.

Finally, we get a Theatrical Trailer (2 min.)

The slim fold-out insert booklet includes an essay by good and culture writer Willy Blackmore.

Final Thoughts:
Since I'm definitely not a foodie (I love food – I just don't care much how it's made, as long as it's plentiful), I sometimes don't fully warm up the most beloved food movies, like “Babette's Feast” (1987). “Tampopo” is an exception. It's so sweet, sincere, and funny (oh, yeah, and also really well-made) I can't help but enjoy it. “Tampopo” won a world-wide cult following when it was released, and its appeal remains undiminished more than thirty years later.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Buena Vista Social Club

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Apr 18, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

The secret to the smash success of Wim Wenders' “Buena Vista Social Club” (1999) is no secret at all: it dishes up great music and that most reliable staple of all filmmaking both fictional and non-fictional, instantly likeable characters.

The title album had been released two years earlier to great success, in part thanks to the producing and marketing efforts of American musician Ry Cooder, who was keen to share the sounds of the great Cuban soneros of the pre-Castro era who, if not forgotten, were not the stars they deserved to be. The album was an instant hit, but Wenders' follow-up documentary, which directly follows Cooder on trips to Havana as well as on tour with the Club, launched it into the stratosphere as one of the best-selling records in the world. Where Cooder helped to sell the music, Wenders painted vivid portraits of the musicians behind the sound.

Of course, the real credit belongs to the performers themselves whose extraordinary appeal revolves around their definitive repudiation of any notion that advancing age must lead to gradual obsolescence. Ranging from their swinging sixties to their virile nineties, these singers, piano players, guitarists and percussionists leap off the screen as the youngest, freshest act in all of world music. Listeners encountering them for the first time had no doubt that they were hearing these performers right in the the primes of their careers.

Singer Ibrahim Ferrer emerges as the film's star. A mere lad of seventy, Ferrer's smiling face lights up the frame and his soulful baritone is so rich and elegant, audiences will be shocked to learn that the Buena Vista Social Club was his first broad success aside from his club days in the fifties. Singer Compay Segundo charms audiences with a knowing wink by noting that, at age ninety, his main interests in life remain women and rum, and music too. Pianist Ruben Gonzalez and singer Omara Portuondo (in her mid-sixties, the kid in the group) are so charismatic, you only regret that the film afford them so little time.

Wenders has minimal interest in presenting context or exploring background, so curious viewers will have to hit Google to learn where some of these performers got their starts or even what the title actually refers to. Instead, Wenders balances the film between stage performances and studio recording sessions, and traveling shots that glide through the streets of Havana or probe gently into the homes and private lives of the musicians.

At times, I find myself frustrated by Wenders' predilection for cutting from the middle of a rollicking number to another shot of waves splashing over the sides of a low-lying Havana bridge, but fans can always cue up the album for more sustained blasts of musical bliss. The film tracks the band's journey from Havana to a sold-out concert in Amsterdam and ultimately to a climactic Carnegie Hall performance with relish, but the point, I believe, is that their ongoing story consists of far more than just a few high-profile concerts, or even that smash album.

I remembered “Buena Vista Social Club” as being much more of a sustained rush than it actually is. Its pleasures are more mellow and contemplative than your typical concert film, and if it leaves you wanting much more of the actual music, then consider the possibility that that was precisely Wenders' intention.

The film is presented in Wenders' preferred aspect ratio of 1.78:1. This was filmed during the brief period where MiniDV was all the rage. It felt like it looked good then, but admittedly hasn't worn well even after a short period of time. The original master tape was used to make a 35 mm negative and that was the source for Criterion's digital restoration. I'm not sure exactly how much restoration was done, but the image quality is crisp throughout even if the MiniDV color scheme inevitably looks a bit wan and the overall look will never knock anyone out.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is rich and vibrant and does justice to the music that is the heart and soul of the project. Optional English subtitles support the Spanish and English dialogue.

Criterion has piled on the extras once again, though some have been imported from earlier releases.

The commentary track with Wim Wenders was recorded in 1999, way back in another century.

Wenders also chimes in with a new interview (Dec 2016, 26 min.) recorded for Criterion in which he shares his obvious fondness for his subjects, and also speaks about his long-term working relationship with Ry Cooder.

The disc also includes a 1998 interview with Compay Segundo (60 min.), originally broadcast on the Spanish television show “Las Claves.” For fans who want much more of this nonagenarian dynamo, the interview delivers the goods.

We also get a series of short radio interviews with various Club members, including Eliades Ochoa (10 min.), Manuel “Puntillita” Licea (8 min.), Orlando “Cachaito” Lopez (5 min.), Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabel (7 min.), Juan De Marcos Gonzalez (11 min.), Omara Portuando (8 min.), Ibrahim Ferrer (6 min.), Barbarito Torres (7 min.), Pio Leyva (6 min.), Ruben Gonzalez (7 min.), Manuel Galban (9 min.), and Alberto “Virgilio” Valdes (8 min.) It's more than a little sad to realize that so many of the performers have since passed on – it still feels like many of us only just met them – but that only makes these interviews even more valuable.

Finally, the disc includes three additional scenes (19 min. total) which includes a full version of the song “Candela” performed in Amsterdam as well as a Theatrical Trailer (93 seconds).

The insert booklet includes a lengthy essay by author and geographer Joshua Jelly-Schapiro.

Film Value:
I dug up one review that predicted the “Buena Vista Social Club” would be unlikely to win over any new fans. Safe to say that call didn't pan out. “BVSC” is one of the most successful music documentaries of the past few decades, and its many pleasures are obvious to all. I do wish it was heavier on the music and perhaps a bit lighter on tracking shots through the streets of Havana, but that's a minor quibble, and fans who get a taste of the performers in this movie now have ample opportunities to seek out more of their work.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Woman of the Year

WOMAN OF THE YEAR (Stevens, 1942)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Apr 18, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

In a 1986 documentary about Spencer Tracy included on this Criterion disc, a very enthusiastic Katharine Hepburn promises neophyte viewers about to be introduced to Tracy's work that their impending experience will be “like eating a baked potato for the first time.” Tubers aren't often employed as sexy marketing metaphors, and Hepburn didn't exactly kick off a trend here, but she goes on to explain that baked potatoes are “pure” and “of the earth” and always “dependable.”

All of those descriptions seem perfectly apt for the hard-working, versatile star of 75 films who played roles ranging from the idealistic Father Flanagan in “Boys' Town” (1938) to a thinly-fictionalized stand-in for crusading lawyer Clarence Darrow in “Inherit the Wind' (1960). Earthy and dependable are not, however, the most likely ingredients for the creation of a romantic comedy lead. Nonetheless, the pairing of Tracy and Hepburn, often though not always in romantic comedies, became one of Hollywood's most reliable box-office pairings, and it all began with “Woman of the Year” (1942).

Tracy and Hepburn portray journalists who work at the same newspaper (The New York Chronicle, a go-to fake newspaper name), but who inhabit completely different worlds. Sam Craig (Tracy) is a gruff, working-class sportswriter who sputters indignantly when he hears the sophisticated political reporter Tess Harding (Hepburn) poo-poohing the great American pastime of baseball as an inessential distraction during wartime. Tess might be described as the second-most important “dame” in America after Mrs. Roosevelt, but Sam intends to knock her down a peg or two. Dueling newspaper columns substitute for a more traditional meet-cute, soon forcing the odd couple into each other's arms.

Their dance of seduction isn't exactly elegant. It's more like watching an aging, sleepy, slightly tipsy butcher awkwardly put his few limited moves on an undernourished grammar instructor, but audiences thrilled to the chemistry that also sparked an off-screen relationship and led to future pairings in blockbusters like “Adam's Rib” (1949), probably their most successful and popular film together.

If Tess and Sam's insta-romance seems like a contrivance, the Oscar-winning screenplay by Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Kanin quickly assures viewers that the unlikely couple will live happily never after, at least not before going through their mutual trials. Globe-trotting, politically-engaged Tess sees no reason to change her working habits just because she's changed her last name, and besides it's up to her to rescue Greek refugees and help scientists freshly escaped from the Nazis. This leaves Sam on his own to try to muscle his way into a very crowded world full of busybody personal secretaries, constant phone calls, and a steadily thrumming teletype. For you youngsters, the teletype is a device that brought information from the world into the home, and Tess is constantly staring at her toy, often ignoring people in the room with her, for fear of missing out on the latest news. But those were different times.

Director George Stevens, favored by Hepburn for this film because he was a “very male man”, is better known today for more serious fare like “A Place in the Sun” (1951), “Shane” (1953), and “Giant” (1956). However, Stevens's pre-war output crossed multiple genres from “boudoir” comedies to “Swing Time” (1936), easily one of the best Astaire-Rogers vehicles.

The director disliked the term “screwball” as applied to romantic comedies of the time, or at least to his comedies, and there's nothing particularly screwball about his approach. Stevens prefers to center sequences on Tracy's static detachment and Hepburn's controlled, sometimes icy elegance, with little reliance on rapid-fire Hawksian dialogue or frenetic staging. Even the film's climactic sequence, Tess's extended failure to succeed at preparing a good meal for her new husband, is rather languidly paced, despite the occasional piece of projectile toast.

Even most of the film's boosters admit that the ending, re-written after early test screenings sent the studio into a panic, is disappointing, if not outright disturbing. There was little doubt that Tess would have to change, but seeing the witty, courageous crusader tamed as the good housewife goes beyond the humbling Tess needs (as does Sam) into abject humiliation. It both provides an insight into gender perceptions of a very different era, and a reminder that some struggles are eternal, as Sam's “America First” attitude triumphs definitely over Tess's “globalist” agenda.

The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. There's the occasional tiny bit of damage visible in a few scenes, but this looks like it's been cleaned up quite well. The black-and-white contrast is strong throughout with a fine-grain structure that preserves that filmic look so well. Overall, it's a rich, pleasing image that should satisfy fans.

The linear PCM mono audio mix isn't very dynamic, but it gets the job done. Dialogue is clearly mixed, and the score by Franz Waxman (which I have to admit I found a bit overbearing at times) is well-treated. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Criterion has packed this disc with extras, though the heftier ones are older material.

Let's start with the new extras.

A short interview (6 min.) with the director's son, George Stevens Jr., is more of an appreciation than analysis. Biographer Marilyn Ann Moss, author of “Giant: George Stevens, A Life on Film”, describes Stevens as “the Walt Whitman of American film” in a new 14-minute interview, by which she means he had a knack for identifying and diagnosing the root problem in whatever slice of America he was examining. The piece touches on how much “Woman of the Year” was changed by test audiences, and particularly the women who disliked Tess for being so darn uppity. The other new feature is an interview (20 min.) with author Claudia Roth Pierpoint discussing the career of Katharine Hepburn.

The disc also includes two feature-length documentaries, previously released on other DVD sets. “George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey” (111 min.) is directed by his son, George Jr., and features interviews with many of the director's colleagues (Frank Capra, John Huston) and cast members (Tracy, Cary Grant, etc.) It's fairly standard fare for a director documentary, but provides a comprehensive view of an expansive and sometimes overlooked career.

“The Spencer Tracy Legacy” (86) min. is a 1986 documentary/tribute hosted and narrated by Katharine Hepburn, and does as good a job as possible of covering the bulk of Tracy's lengthy and busy career in under an hour and a half. It's even better than a baked potato, to be honest.

The extras wrap up with an old Trailer (2 min.) which really plays up the Tracy/Hepburn pairing.

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

Final Thoughts:
I'm still not sure I understand just why the Tracy/Hepburn pairing was seen as romantic comedy gold by audiences, but they are charismatic performers who make an uneven (though Oscar-winning) script work better than it should. This is where Tracy/Hepburn began, both on and off-screen, and Criterion has done a great job presenting the film in a lovely transfer and with a bountiful collection of extras.

Friday, April 14, 2017

La Vie De Boheme

LA VIE DE BOHÈME (Kaurismaki, 1992)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray. Release Date January 21, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

When the as-yet-undiscovered genius composer Schaunard (Kari Väänänen) sees a stack of money on a cafe table, he confidently assesses it as “At least sixty thousand francs.” Turns out it's fifteen, but to him fifteen might as well be sixty. Money is strictly an abstraction, or perhaps an urban legend, to a starving artist who remains pure in the pursuit of his craft. Except for the times when “artist” loses out to “starving.”

There's the rub, as the Danes say, and wouldn't a Danish taste good about now? But there's reason for optimism. Schaunard's got a pretty good deal going in cooperation with his fellow creative types, the impoverished Albanian painter Rodolfo (Matti Pellonpää) and the criminally unappreciated writer Marcel Marx (André Wilms). Granted, even a pooling of their resources still amounts to a mere trickle, but at least they're in Paris, the only city that can support their Bohemian lifestyle, i.e. permanent unemployment. Crucially, it's a Paris shot in grubby black-and-white because a color-saturated Paris just wouldn't have room for dreamers so willfully out of touch with their time.

You can also pick up a lot of women with the line “Hey, baby, wanna come back to my loft and see my art?” Alas, love stories that start with there tend to end with “I'm hungry.” But perhaps the awareness of an inevitable tragic fate only makes the creative life that much more vital, and every artist can use a good muse, or even a Musette (the name of Marcel's secretary/girlfriend played by Christine Murillo).

Finnish writer-director-producer Aki Kaurismäki read Henri Murger's oft-adapted mid-19th-century collection “Scènes de la vie de Bohème” as a teenager and instantly vowed to film it one day; he only had to wait a few decades to make good with this 1992 release. Undeterred that more than a dozen directors had already beaten him to the punch, Kaurismaki was eager to make his mark on the material, importing much of his familiar team. Who better to play an Albanian painter in France than the great walrus-mustached Finn Matti Pellonpää? Need an Irish composer of unendurable atonal post-modern music? Kari Väänänen, Kaurismäki's former village idiot and Polonius, is the obvious choice.

Kaurismäki's love for Murger's short stories dovetailed with his cinematic Francophilia, and he probably figured it would help to have a few actors in this French-language film who actually spoke the language, unlike Pellonpää and Väänänen who learned their lines phonetically. André Wilms was cast as Marcel and Evelyne Didi as Rodolfo's girlfriend Mimi; Kaurismäki liked them both so much he cast them both together a few decades later (as similar characters) in the lovely “Le Havre” (2011).

The film, like its characters, drifts around the same low-key Parisian neighborhood (actually a Parisian suburb that looked more like old Paris than modern Paris now does). The action picks up with the writer Marcel being evicted from his apartment; we realize he's unlikely to pay his back rent anytime soon when we find out his new script is titled “The Avenger – A Play in 21 Acts.” While homeless, he wanders into a cafe (much of the action takes place in a series of sidewalk cafes – it's Paris, after all) and splits a two-headed trout with the stranger Rodolfo. They become fast friends and return to Marcel's apartment which is no longer Marcel's, but fortunately the new occupant is Schaunard ,who has only Marcel's unclaimed furniture to fill his four walls. The men reach a mutually beneficial understanding.

The narrative plucks several different threads, but gradually focuses in on the budding relationship between the immigrant Rodolfo and Mimi, who has traveled to the big city to stay with a friend who, it turns out, will be staying in prison for a few years. The tragic lovers are clearly destined for each other, yet also destined to be kept apart by various factors: Rodolfo's lack of a visa, Mimi's health, and, always, money. But they will always find their way back together.

The film depicts its lazy dreamers with a combination affection and skepticism, but never condescension. We know they are not particularly talented (a brutal piano performance by Schaunard prompts an end to one relationship as the scales, so to speak, drop from one woman's eyes) but what matters is that they believe in themselves and can at least muster the courtesy to pretend to believe in each other. And, hey, every artist can, in theory, have his fans, as we discover when Rodolfo gains an unlikely patron in the form of a sugar baron and budding art collector played by Nouvelle Vague legend Jean-Pierre Léaud. Cameos by directors Sam Fuller and Louis Malle provide extra servings of cinephilic pleasure. I would also be remiss if I neglected to mention the moving performance of Laika as Rodolfo's faithful dog Baudelaire.

It's amazing to find out that Pellonpää and Väänänen spoke their lines phonetically. They are thoroughly convincing and certainly have no trouble sharing scenes with the Francophones; the whole cast develops an easy-going, naturalistic chemistry. It helps to have a face like Pellonpää's, such a natural deadpan template. Each of the characters has considerable flaws, but they all exhibit an endearing, if vain, nobility in their penniless suffering. They look foolish at times, but we all do to certain observers. The delicate stasis they craft together has an irresistible appeal; it's the kind of pocket universe you'd love to slip into for a summer or two, as long as you could stage a strategic exit before the food runs out.

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Timo Salminen's black-and-white photography looks particularly lustrous with this 1080p transfer, with sharp contrast and a satisfying fine-grain structure. On just a few occasions, I noticed slight signs of artifacting, a bit of distortion around foreground objects, but it's minor and nothing that detracts from the viewing experience.

The linear PCM mono audio track is crisp and distortion free as far as I can tell. The film is mostly dialogue-driven but a few prominent musical cues sound very strong here, the best being a performance of “Bird Dance Beat” by a bar band identified in the credits as The Fake Trashmen. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.

“Where is Musette?” is a 52-minute behind-the-scenes documentary directed by Veikko Nieminen. The on-set documentary features several interviews with Kaurismäki, but also emphasizes the collaborative nature of this intense, independent production. And at the half-hour mark, you'll get a brief performance by Sam Fuller.

The only other extra is a 2012 interview with actor André Wilms (11 min.)

The slim insert booklet features an essay by critic Luc Sante.

Film Value:
This might be my favorite Kaurismäki movie. The deadpan humor is pitch-perfect here, and the cast works in perfect harmony. This doesn't get as much attention as many other Kaurismäki movies, but don't miss out on it.