Friday, April 28, 2017

Blow-Up


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.


Video:
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.

Audio:
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.

Extras:
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

Tampopo


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. 


Video:
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.

Audio:
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.

Extras:
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


BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB (1999, Wenders)
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.


Video:
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.

Audio:
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.

Extras:
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.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Safety Last!


SAFETY LAST! (Lloyd, 1923)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date June 18, 2013
Review by Christopher S. Long

(Re-posted, along with my review of Speedy, in honor of Harold Lloyd's birthday.)

Belief is an antiquated concept in the era of computer-generated cinema, but back in an age when the movies still had something to do with photography audiences believed in Harold Lloyd. For a grueling, thrilling, scary, hilarious twenty minutes, they believed that Harold Lloyd was climbing the side of a department store building and that he could fall at any minute. The tagline might have been, “You'll believe a man can die.”

Sure, the papers would probably have mentioned if Harold Lloyd had really splattered all over downtown Los Angeles, but this plucky little bugger with his horn-rimmed glasses and straw hat was no blob of pixels. He was an everyday Joe who had to deal with everyday problems like work and romance and gravity. The character he played was no daredevil either; he was just a guy who somehow found himself in a situation (OK, he did it to himself) where he had to scramble up a massive building one hardscrabble story at a time, facing brand new obstacles at each leg of the journey: pigeons, badminton nets, spinning anemometers, and the most famous clock in the history of cinema. He fell or almost fell time and time again, and audiences gasped each time, and then laughed when he recovered, and then gasped again at the next setback. 


The real Harold Lloyd might have had a safety mattress waiting for him on a platform about ten feet below, but even with a partially prosthetic hand (he had lost a couple fingers to a prop bomb that turned out to be a little too real) he was really letting it all hang out, his feet swinging free over the city streets as he dug his fingers, both real and fake, into ledges or dangled from the giant hands of a malfunctioning clock, finding a way to drag his body past overhangs that hung way, way over. The twenty-minute climb was the ultimate expression of a decade defined by daring stunts (human flies and flagpole sitters were all the rage) and it is certainly one of the defining sequences of silent cinema.

By now, Harold Lloyd's name has been restored to its proper place in the history books, but he is still generally viewed as silent comedy's “third genius” after Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Lloyd was just as popular in his day, but he held closely to the rights to all his films and didn't care to see them played on television where he had no control over broadcast editing, so his public profile diminished relative to his fellow geniuses. Film buffs and historians never let his memory fade, but it took plenty of heavy lifting to get his films back in circulation, an effort that got an extra boost from the advent of the DVD market.

“Safety Last!” (1923) remains the best known of his movies and with good reason. By the early-'20s, Lloyd had moved on from his Tramp-knockoff character Lonesome Luke and perfected his signature Glasses Character who could be meek or aggressive, sly or buffoonish, but always used those trademark glasses (no lenses, mind you) to forge a direct connection with the audience. Where Chaplin was an alien and Keaton was some kind of superhero, Lloyd as Glasses was an everyman. In “Safety Last!” he is a country lad who moves to the big city to make his fortune before he sends for the love of his life, played by Mildred Davis who also turned out to be the love of Lloyd's life. He works in a department store where he is unappreciated by his bosses and by his demanding customers, but never gives anything less than maximum effort, not for a second.


That was Lloyd's trademark as a craftsman and a performer as well. Never content to tell one joke, he constructed elaborate gags that led to other gags and then still more, a series of rapid-fire payoffs that kept audiences on their toes. Screenwriting manuals have turned the word “obstacle” into a risible cliché, but Lloyd knew all about obstacles and how to make viewers care as they watched him overcome one after another on top of another stacked inside of still another. Escalating action? Yeah, escalating right up a damn building!

The situations were utterly implausible but completely believable because of Lloyd's intense, wired physical presence. Forever hanging from that clock, he is the avatar of a heroic age of filmmaking where bodies defied gravity because they had no choice. It wasn't going to get fixed in post-production. No digital buffing or polishing, just sinew and sheer tenacity. We'll never see anything like it again, but that's OK because ninety years of evidence has proven that nobody's ever going to do it better.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. From the Criterion booklet, “The film is also presented at a variable frame rate of approximately 22 frames per second to conform to film historian Kevin Brownlow's presentation and the Carl Davis score that accompanies it.” It's a 1080i transfer, a rare interlaced high-def effort from Criterion, but the interlacing is barely noticeable at all.

There are scratches and bits of debris evident from the source material at times, but overall this high-def transfer is pretty spectacular with a rich gain structure and shockingly detailed image quality throughout. For anyone used to settling for whatever version you could find in the '80s and even for folks familiar with the solid but unspectacular SD release in 2005, this upgrade is quite a revelation. Crisp, sharp contrast, everything you could ask for. This movie is 90 years old?

Audio:
As you may know, silent films were seldom played silently. Criterion offers two scores. The default option is a jazzy orchestral score by Carl Davis, recorded in 1989. Second is a score by organist Gaylord Carter that was improvised to a screening of the film circa 1969. Carter is described as Lloyd's favorite theater organist. The Davis score is presented in stereo, the Carter score in mono, though I don't think you can tell much difference on that front. I prefer the Davis score, but they're both worth sampling. Both sound sharp and resonant in linear PCM mixes.

Extras:
Some of the extras were included on the SD release in New Line's 2005 “Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection” while others are new for this Criterion release.

The commentary track (offered on the SD) was recorded in 2005 and features critic Leonard Maltin in conversation with Harold Lloyd's archivist Richard Correll. It's rather breezy in nature and features a lot of scene-by-scene appreciations (Wow, isn't this awesome!) but also includes some historical and contextual information. Overall, it's mildly disappointing but of some interest.

Criterion has included an introduction (17 min.) by Suzanne Lloyd, Harold's granddaughter who was raised in Mr. Lloyd's house. I don't know if this was included on the old SD or is new for this set.

“Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius” (1989, 108 min.) is a great two-part television documentary directed by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill and narrated by director Lindsay Anderson. The program, originally presented as part of the American Masters series, is essential viewing for any Lloyd aficionado and includes ample archival footage along with interviews with Lloyd's collaborators, including producer/director Hal Roach.

“Locations and Effects” (2013, 20 min.) is a new interview with writer John Bengtson and visual effects expert Craig Barron which provides a fascinating analysis of both the downtown Los Angeles locations featured in the movie (notice the three different buildings visible in the background as Glasses makes his climb) and the effects used. Finding out about the tricks used will only leave you more amazed by the movie.

Criterion has also included a new interview with composer Carl Davis (2013, 24 min.) who talks about his work on “Safety Last!” and other silent films he has composed new scores for since the '80s.

Best of all, we also get new restorations of three of Lloyd's short films: “Take a Chance” (1918), “Young Mr. Jazz” (1919), and “His Royal Slyness” (1920). None of these films were included on the New Line boxed set. Each film comes with optional commentary tracks by Richard Correll and John Bengtson.

The 20-page insert booklet includes an essay by critic Ed Park.

Film Value:
“Safety Last!” has finally received the home theater presentation it deserves. Of course it's highly recommended.

Speedy


SPEEDY (Lloyd, 1928)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Dec 8, 2015
Review by Christopher S. Long

This iteration of Harold Lloyd's trademark Glasses Character earns his nickname Speedy (also the real Lloyd's nickname). A bundle of fast-twitch nerves, he races from one self-generated crisis to the next, leaving a trail of wreckage in his well-meaning wake.

This makes New York City, the town “where everyone's in a hurry,” the perfect home for Speedy. But while Lloyd's signature character was usually eager to fit in, whether in college (“The Freshman”) or at work (“Safety Last!”), he earned sympathy from the audience by situating himself proudly as an outsider. The young go-getting Speedy (also identified as Harold Swift on a series of traffic tickets scrawled by an exasperated policeman) actually makes his home in a quieter part of the city (round about Greenwich Village) where the more leisurely pace of life is embodied by Pop Dillon (Bert Woodruff) who operates the last remaining horse-drawn trolley car in New York.

When Pop's business is threatened by a corrupt rail tycoon who intends to acquire the old man's track by any means necessary, Speedy rushes to assist Pop. No doubt the young man is motivated by his love for Pop's charming granddaughter Jane (Ann Christy), but he also has the kind of big heart that drives him irresistibly to the cause of the underdog; Speedy will also ally with a group of grizzled Civil War veterans in a sprawling battle against the cheap hoodlums seeking to sink Pop's business, the vastly superior prequel to “Gangs of New York.”

“Speedy” (1928) was released at the tail end of a remarkable box-office run by Lloyd that rivaled or exceeded Charlie Chaplin's and would also be Lloyd's final silent feature – silent cinema itself would be all but finished a year later. His Glasses character was well-established by then, but the most noticeable change this time was a major shift in setting. Keen to move away from overly-familiar Southern California locations, Lloyd briefly considered shooting in Europe, then settled on filming on location in New York despite producer Hal Roach warning him of the inevitable logistical nightmares.

Lloyd needed to be pretty speedy on set. As one of the most recognizable people in America, he had to be ready to jump right into action in Greenwich Village or Times Square before crowds figured out what was happening. In some scenes, Lloyd's team deftly incorporated the throngs of onlookers into the action. Many sequences, both outdoor and indoor, were still filmed on studio sets back west, but the movie's shots of Coney Island, including a breath-taking vista of its glittering night-time lights, still thrill today. Some of the Coney Island rides were shot on location, others in studio, and all look so outrageously dangerous they speak of a less-litigious era. And that part where Lloyd flips himself the bird in the funhouse mirror remains the stuff of legend.


Even if you're not a city buff, “Speedy” offers yet another distinct thrill. Speedy is a die-hard baseball fan who requires that his numerous short-term jobs (he always finds another one on Monday) be within “phoning distance” of Yankee Stadium. In one of the film's quietest but niftiest gags, Speedy, working as a soda jerk, relays phone updates of the Yankees score to the kitchen staff by arranging bagels and pretzels in a display case to mimic the inning-by-inning scores. Zeroes are easy, threes a bit trickier. 


Speedy later gets works as a taxi driver, a gig that he only holds onto for a few hours because that's just the way he rolls, but Lloyd finds the time to pick up one of the few fares in the country who was more famous than him. In the midst of his legendary 1927 season, Babe Ruth appears as himself, first handing out signed memorabilia to kids and then as an unwitting victim locked in the back seat of Speedy's taxi. Rattled and shaken by the frantic ride, Ruth proves to have an even bigger heart than the film's star and invites Speedy in to watch the game. Unsurprisingly, Speedy doesn't stay seated for more than a few minutes before unleashing chaos, but it's the thought that counts, Babe.

Where “Safety Last!” featured one of cinema's most precise and awe-inspiring displays of virtuosity, “Speedy” settles more for madcap hijinks, sheer kinetic frenzy. The rumble between the aging Civil War vets and young toughs is a mess of grappling bodies livened by a few specific stunts, and the framing story about Pop's horsecar is put on hold for long stretches in favor of what's really important: racing furiously from one gag (or one vehicle) to the next with minimal concern for narrative structure.

Which is exactly as it should be when you've got a performer as winning and as relentless as Harold Lloyd, a star who connected with audiences like few others before or since. Of course, that means that Speedy ultimately saves Pop and gets the girl, and if you consider that a spoiler, welcome to your first movie. You've picked a great one to start with!


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The film was restored by Digital Film Restore in Burbank, CA and “this new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution... from a safety fine-grain master positive deposited at the UCLA Film & Television Archive by the Harold Lloyd estate.” Some scenes were scanned from the archive's preservation negative.

In high-def, this restored transfer looks fabulous with strong black-and-white contrast and a thick grain structure that provides a sense of texture and depth, which is all a way of saying this looks very filmic. There are some minor instances of damage and a few skipped frames, but that can all be forgiven for the opportunity to this 1928 film in such a marvelous version.

Audio:
The silent film is accompanied by a 1992 score by composer Carl Davis. The lively score has been synchronized and restored for this release and is presented in uncompressed stereo. It sounds great throughout, rich and resonant. Hey, how long do you expect an Audio section for a silent film to be?

Extras:
Criterion has provided an extensive and varied collection of extras for this Blu-ray release.

The film is accompanied by a new commentary track featuring Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming at the New York Film Forum and Scott McGee, director of program production at Turner Classic Movies.

Goldstein returns as director and onscreen narrator of “In The Footsteps of 'Speedy'” (2015, 31 min.) This short documentary discusses the many New York locations featured in the film along with background about the production and some great still photos. Goldstein is equally enthusiastic about the movie and about New York and offers plenty of remarkably detailed analysis of the city locations. This will be a treat for fans of urban history.

The bigger treat for a baseball junky like me is the lengthy (40 min.) Babe Ruth feature included on this disc. David Filipi, director of film and video at the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University has curated a program of archival film clips featuring the Babe. In this feature, he provides on-screen introductions for the remarkable variety of clips included. They're all great, but some of the highlights include seeing Babe Ruth playing golf with pitcher Bob Shawkey, umpire Bill Klem and New York Governor Al Smith; football coach Knute Rockne visiting Yankee Stadium to see Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Yankee manager Miller Huggins, and Babe conducting a 1940 hitting clinic for boys at Yankee Stadium. You also get some game footage, including brief clips from the 1932 World Series and the first two All-Star games. I love every second of this!

The disc also includes another short feature (4 min.) narrated by Bruce Goldstein, this time talking briefly about some deleted scenes with still photos as visual accompaniment.

We also get a selection of Home Movie (18 min.) from the Harold Lloyd Archives with narration by the director's granddaughter Suzanne Lloyd. This mostly consists of footage of Lloyd and family around the house, often entertaining their baby daughter Gloria (Suzanne's mother). Suzanne provides some affectionate and engaging commentary which helps when the footage drags on and feels a bit redundant.

The final extra is the 1919 short film “Bumping Into Broadway” (26 min.), the first two-reeler to feature the Glasses Character. The film is set in New York though not filmed there. Lloyd plays an aspiring playwright who crosses paths with a struggling show girl played by star Bebe Daniels. I thought this short was fantastic and darned funny. It benefits from a peppy 2004 score by Robert Israel.

The fold-out insert booklet features an essay by critic Phillip Lopate.

Film Value:
Harold Lloyd was s superstar every bit on par with Chaplin and Keaton in the '20s. “Speedy” is a splendid entertainment that showcases Lloyd at the height of his powers. Criterion has included some fantastic extras to augment the finest transfer you're likely to see of Lloyd's final silent feature. And the Babe Ruth program on the disc makes this an option for baseball fans who have yet to discover the joys of Harold Lloyd.

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.


Video:
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.

Audio:
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.

Extras:
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.