Thursday, June 22, 2017

Don't Touch The White Woman!


DON'T TOUCH THE WHITE WOMAN! (Ferreri, 1974)
Koch Lorber, DVD, Release Date July 14, 2009
Review by Christopher S. Long

As a great philosopher said, there’s a fine line between clever and stupid, and Marco Ferreri spent most of his career stumbling along that line like an unrepentant drunk, weaving back and forth until finally falling face first onto one side or the other. With the stark raving mad “Don’t Touch the White Woman!” (1974), Ferreri collapsed into clever and produced one of the strangest un-Westerns ever made.

The film is nominally a re-enactment of Custer’s last stand. Ferreri wasn’t particularly obsessed with historical accuracy and the keen-eyed viewer may spot a few inaccuracies along the way. First, all of the characters speak French. Second, there’s some guy who hangs around the set wearing a University of Denver sweater and eating potato chips. Third, while all of the principals are dressed in period clothing when they go to the train station everyone else is wearing jeans and t-shirts. Also, Richard Nixon is president.

This sounds like a film made on the cheap and it may well have been but it sure as hell attracted an all-star cast: Marcello Mastroianni (as Custer), Catherine Deneuve, Michel Piccoli (as Buffalo Bill), Alain Cuny (as Sitting Bull), Philippe Noiret, and scene-stealing character actor Ugo Tognazzi as Custer’s Native American servant named, of course, Mitch. 

Mitch is a total prick who thinks that selling out to the white devil makes him an equal in their eyes. But whenever his eyes look at their ladies, Custer slaps him: “Don’t touch the white woman!” Custer slaps a lot of people. He’s a total prick too, cruel, vain and petty. Come to think of it, Buffalo Bill’s a total prick too, and so is Catherine Deneuve’s character (Marie-Hélène), giving “Don’t Touch the White Woman” a significantly higher prick count than “Bruno.”


Ferreri shot the film on the site of a demolished mall in Paris. Instead of roaming the open plains, the Indians (led by Sitting Bull) mill about in the ditch that serves as the construction site. It’s basically a big hole with mounds of dirt and rocks all over the place. I think it’s supposed to be the reservation. The soldiers all live in a building at the top of the ditch and the two groups occasionally shout at each other seeing as they’re all of a few hundred feet apart.

Custer spends most of his time blustering, being jealous of Buffalo Bill, and trying to seduce Marie-Hélène. Mitch tries to play both sides of the fence which only results in him being despised by everybody. Sitting Bull eventually gets stoic, man, and prepares his people for the climactic battle.

And what a battle. It is so gloriously unconvincing, so utterly absurd that it achieves a kind of greatness, though precisely what kind scholars have not yet determined. When Custer sweeps onto the battlefield (i.e. goes down into the ditch) he is shocked when ambushed by a group of Indians who were pretty much just hiding behind a dirt mound. The last chunk of the film is basically just a slaughter with white men getting impaled, clubbed and scalped to death, and I’ll be damned if it isn’t a hell of a lot of fun to see them all get it all real good.

“Don’t Touch the White Woman” is a giant cup of “What the fuck?” but it’s absolutely riveting. And pure Marco Ferreri, which is unlike anything else ever.



Video:
The film is presented in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. This is a pretty miserable transfer, almost certainly a PAL dupe. A sickly green hue permeates the film, and the image is muddy and dull. It looks like a 3rd or 4th generation VHS dub. But it's still watchable.

Audio:
The film is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. Forced English subtitles support the French audio. The sound mix is adequate, at least compared to the video.

Extras:
The only extra is a 3-minute excerpt from the documentary “Marco Ferreri: The Man Who Came from the Future.”

Film Value:
Ferreri’s anarcho-anachronistic exercise in historical deconstruction is a feat of inspired insanity. I don’t know if it’s great film-making but it’s definitely… something. And I love it dearly.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Ugetsu


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 19, 2017

Marseille Trilogy


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

A Touch Of Sin

Dahai (Jiang Wu) gets even
A TOUCH OF SIN (Jia, 2013)
Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, Release Date April 8, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

It's both exciting and confusing when a filmmaker appears to make a decisive break with his previous work, complicating the picture for critics who thought they had him conveniently pigeonholed. Jim Jarmusch caused plenty of consternation with the release of his revisionist Western “Dead Man” (1996). While he certainly laced his entry in the quintessential American genre with his trademark deadpan humor, the easy-going satirist had made a surprisingly violent film, a scabrous indictment of the genocide inflicted by “stupid fucking white men” on Native Americans. Blood spurted, skulls were crushed, and bodies piled up in this nightmare on earth. Fans looking for the gentle laughs of “Down By Law” didn't quite know what to do, and a few former critical boosters (like Roger Ebert) took the opportunity to jump ship.

“A Touch of Sin” (2013) is, at least in some ways, director Jia Zhangke's “Dead Man.” There are noteworthy parallels between Jia and Jarmusch, though they shouldn't be overstated. Both directors cite Robert Bresson as a formative influence and both have often been attracted to marginalized protagonists surviving on the fringes of urban society. Like Jarmusch (born in 1953), Jia (born in 1970) is viewed as one of the defining figures of his generation's independent film movement; bootleg copies of Jia's heavily censored early films like “Pickpocket” (1997) changed hands regularly on the Chinese black market and inspired legions of cineastes from Jia's home province of Shanxi all the way to Beijing (and even attracted financial support from Takeshi Kitano's production company in Tokyo).

From the festival breakthrough “Platform” (2000) through critically praised works such as “The World” (2004) and “Still Life” (2006), Jia established himself as one of the preeminent chroniclers of China's rapid transformation to an industrial and capitalist economy, a globe-altering metamorphosis that displaced millions of Chinese citizens. Jia's characters face off against forces too big even to acknowledge their existence, but while his movies are inevitably tinged with a sense of sorrowful resignation, they also became increasingly playful, occasionally outright hilarious. They have also been, to the exasperation of many “slow cinema” skeptics, long on patient observation and short on dramatic incident.

“A Touch of Sin,” by contrast, plunges headlong into incident: no fatalistic watching and waiting here. In the first few minutes, a man on a motorcycle is accosted by thugs armed with hammers and axes; his handgun wins the day and initiates a body count that reaches double digits. And he's not even the main character of the opening section of a film organized into four separate but loosely connected segments (another Jarmuschian parallel, though JJ doesn't exactly own the format). 

Dahai is still mad
 That honor belongs to Dahai (Jiang Wu), a former coal miner turned social crusader in Shanxi who rages against the corruption of local officials who sold the publicly-held mine and clung very privately to the profits. Brash and loud-mouthed, he has probably never been good at winning friends and influencing people, but he does his best to funnel his furious protests through official channels before personally confronting the big boss, a meeting that winds up with Dahai being savagely beaten with a shovel wielded by one of the boss's thugs. Whether spurred by his head trauma or his innate obstinacy, Dahai grabs a shotgun and cuts a bloody swath through town starting with a low-level crooked accountant and ending with the money-grubbing politicos at the top.

Like most of the violence in the film, the shootings are artfully and artificially staged. Heads explode, bodies launch through the air on wires, geysers of blood soak clothing and walls. Nothing coy here, but also nothing particularly realistic. These are movie murders and Jia makes overt references to films most Western viewers (including yours truly) aren't too familiar with; the movie's English title is a pun on King Hu's popular wuxia (martial arts) film “A Touch of Zen” (1971). 

Xiaoyu (Zhao Tao) makes her point
 Jia loves to collapse the barriers between documentary and fiction, and freely mixes surrealism with naturalism. That's not quite what he's up to here, but it might explain the movie's abrupt detours into full-blown “movie-dom.” In the third segment, Xiaoyu (Zhao Tao, Jia's long-time muse and now wife) works in the “Nightcomer Sauna” as a receptionist. A pushy businessman mistakes her for something else and won't take no for an answer as he insists on a “massage.” The otherwise passive Xiaoyu reaches in her purse for a switchblade and, posing like an avenging angel from one of a host of wuxia films, slices the abusive john to bits, then wanders the streets in a daze, drenched head to toe in blood. I've spoken to some viewers who find moments like this distracting or phony, but they're intended to disrupt the apparent realism of each situation, though with my lack of familiarity with the cultural touchstones Jia references, I'm reluctant to guess precisely what his motivations are.

All four of the movie's major stories are drawn loosely from real-life incidents in China that went largely ignored by the state-controlled media. I don't know enough to claim that violent crime has become more common in China over the past decade or two, but “A Touch of Sin” definitely portrays a nation traumatized by upheaval, with money being the root of all brutality. In the final segment, a feckless but generally well-meaning teenager (Luo Lanshan) loses his soul to the twin destructive forces of young love and factory work, Jia's response to a rash of suicides by assembly-line employees at the multinational corporations that rushed in to exploit cheap Chinese labor. The protagonist of the second segment (Wang Baoqiang, also the motorcyclist from the opening) may be the most damaged character of all, but his dysfunction is more difficult to link to current events: he is a killer who likes to shoot guns because everything else (including village life with his family) is too boring. Perhaps the fresh whiff of prosperity, tantalizingly out of reach by legal means, has made it difficult for him to play by the rules anymore.

I should note that I haven't seen Jia's first film “Pickpocket” so it's possible that what I'm describing as a major departure is a return to roots. However, “A Touch of Sin” is not only much more graphic than Jia's previous 21st century movies, it also moves at a more relentless pace with few of the long, contemplative takes that have marked most of his work. The movie races from one violent eruption to the next, and the sense of inevitable tragedy builds implacably. There are still a few moments of Jia-esque humor (Dahai, in the midst of his righteous rampage, prepares to kick down a door but stumbles when startled by a phone ringing off-screen) but everyone here is just circling the black hole at the center of capitalist China, waiting to spiral into its gravity well and be torn to shreds.

It's all quite a shock for a Jia fan expecting more “Still Life” and it's a challenge to process. It might be my least favorite of his movies, but I still count it as one of the best films of 2013 which should tell you what I think of this extraordinary filmmaker. I can't wait to see whether this marks a new turn in Jia's career, or if it will turn to be a bracing exception. 


Video:
The film is presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. This high-def transfer from Kino Lorber has the slightly soft look of a movie originally shot on HD with the occasional instance of digital blurring in scenes with rapid motion, but nothing significant that would detract from the viewing experience. Image detail is sharp throughout and colors are vibrant, though the film (shot by Jia's long-time collaborator Yu Lik-wai) is not exactly meant to look beautiful. The look ranges from drab (a lonely, ignored statue of Mao overlooks a declining town square in Shanxi) to gaudy (a nightclub/sex fantasy room made up to look like a train car reserved for party officials) and the 1080p image presents it all vividly, though with a few flaws.

Audio:
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is crisp and has a convincing sense of depth; gunplay almost overwhelms the speakers at times. The sound is as angry as the story at times. Optional English subtitles support the Mandarin and Cantonese dialogue.

Extras:
All we get are five trailer for films from Kino Lorber.

Final Thoughts:
In my review of “Still Life,” I described Jia Zhangke as my favorite under-50 director. I've had no reason to revise that claim. “A Touch of Sin” may be his most accessible movie, admittedly an ambiguous description. It won Best Screenplay for Jia at Cannes in 2013 and placed highly on most year-end critical polls. Unfortunately this is a bare-bones release from Kino Lorber, but it's great to have this available to more viewers. Everyone needs “A Touch of Sin.”

Il Sorpasso


IL SORPASSO (Risi, 1962)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date April 29, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

“Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.”

Max Ehrmann shared that bit of advice in his overwrought and over-read 1927 poem “Desiderata,” though I'm not ashamed to admit that I long thought it was wisdom directly from the mind of Leonard Nimoy (Update: The late, great Leonard Nimoy, that is). If Roberto (Jean-Louis Trintignant), the younger of the two protagonists of “Il Sorpasso” (1962), had heeded Spock's, I mean Ehrmann's counsel, he would probably be a lot better off today. But he also would have missed out on the most exciting time of his life.

The terminally shy law student takes a break from his books to look out the window of his very neat and very lonely apartment and what does he see in the street below but his very own manic pixie girl, albeit one with an unusually deep voice and hairy chest. Bruno (Vittorio Gassman), the forty-ish stranger who has just pulled up in his car, bellows out a greeting to young Roberto because Bruno is all about making noise; he's even had the horn on his shiny Lancia Aurelia adapted to make the extra obnoxious sound he requires so that the whole wide world knows he is present. He will honk that damn horn over and over and still over again throughout the movie, and it's a sound you are unlikely to forget no matter how much you might want to.

Unable to find anything to do (or anyone to annoy) on a lazy holiday, the bored and restless Bruno rescues Roberto from his solitary studies and whisks the pliant young man off to a series of adventures on and alongside La Via Aurelia, the road that leads to and away from Rome. A short trip for a quick meal extends into an epic journey as director Dino Risi, loosely inspired by a few real-life acquaintances and co-scripting with future director Ettore Scola and veteran writer Ruggero Maccari, sends this tailor-made odd couple careening through the coastal towns of Tuscany over the course of a day and a night and the next day en route to perhaps the most popular Italian road movie of all-time.


As in many road movies, the highway is the thread that loosely connects a series of disparate episodes that provide an excuse for the mismatched characters to get to know each other. Bruno is a perpetual motion machine whose engine revs as high as his Lancia Aurelia, a car whose exclusive function is to pass every other car on the road (“Il Sorpasso” loosely translates as “passing” or, in this case, the need to pass everyone to prove your masculinity). He is equal parts charming rogue and infuriating loudmouth, and would surely be an insufferable companion in real life, but Gassman imbues him with an undeniable charisma thanks to an intensely physical performance (Bruno struts and preens with the best of them) leavened with surprising moments of self-awareness. Every now and then the self-absorbed hedonist catches his reflection in the eyes of his companions (including the estranged wife who tired of his act long ago) and sees just how absurd he looks. Not that it will make him change, mind you, but the recognition lends him an endearing touch of sincerity and complexity.

For his part, Roberto gradually loosens up and learns to enjoy himself under the tutelage of his mentor and de facto surrogate father figure. That's the most formulaic development in the film, but far more interesting is the way that Trintignant embodies the frustration of an introvert exasperated by the way the world so eagerly embraces a hyper-demonstrative blowhard; the ladies (including one Roberto has loved for a long time) swoon in Bruno's presence and all the men instantly want to be his best friend. All rules are made to be broken when good ol' Bruno's in town. Roberto seethes at the outpouring of affection he has never received thanks to his timid manner, but still grows to care for and even admire his new friend. Still, alpha dogs don't live to help the runts of the litter, and every minute in Bruno's presence is an ongoing peril for the meek young student. Better not to ask what's around that next curve and just enjoy the moment.

As wispy as the narrative might be, “Il Sorpasso” gains heft from a vividly evoked sense of time and place. Risi, who cut his teeth in documentary filmmaking, and cinematographer Alfio Contini race along to keep up with the boys and their propulsive car, but the camera often stops to catch a glimpse of the lives of one of the characters lurking in the background. Sure, many of these characters happen to be the exceptionally well-endowed women who miraculously populate the night clubs and sun-drenched beaches of the film, but we also get a taste of the way that working-class Italians enjoying the post-war “economic miracle” spend their free time. The story is universal, but it could not have been filmed anywhere (or anywhen) else. A caricature like Bruno comes more fully alive when anchored to such a concrete milieu, and the movie's time-capsule quality only adds to its enduring appeal. Since we're talking about Italian film it's obligatory to state that this comedy still displays the residual signs of neo-realism, though it's just as possible that Risi simply liked to pay close attention to the people and places around him.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The highway stretches vertically (vroom vroom honk!), but the beaches and other countryside location sprawl horizontally along the wide-screen frame. This 1080p transfer provides the expected sharp level of image quality. I felt that in some of the whiter spaces (the hood of the car or the brightest patches of sun) there was a bit of digital noise, perhaps from boosting, but it's a minor matter. The black-and-white contrast is strong and the rich grainy structure is well-preserved.

This is a dual-format release with two DVDs (one with the movie, one with the extras) and a single Blu-ray. The DVD transfer has not been reviewed here.

Audio:
The linear PCM Mono audio mix is fairly simple and straightforward. I didn't hear any distortion or other weak spots in the audio. Optional English subtitles support the mostly Italian dialogue.

Extras:
You might not think of a road comedy like “Il Sorpasso” as a candidate for a deluxe treatment, but Criterion has absolutely loaded this release with extras.

An introduction by director Alexander Payne (5 min.) provides an appreciative survey of the movie along with Payne's acknowledgment of the film's influence on his movie “Sideways.”

A Dino Risi interview (2004, 20 min.) conducted by critic Jean A. Gili catches the 88 year-old director (who passed away in 2008) in a nostalgic mood as he discusses the making of the movie. An excerpt (1983, 9 min.) of actor Jean-Louis Trintignant introducing a screening of the film on French television is fluff, but still neat. A new interview (2013, 14 min.) with Ettore Scola, the future director who co-scripted “Il Sorpasso,” provides more context about Italian comedy filmmaking in the '60s and his development of the character of Bruno as well as the movie's ending.

The most analytical extra is an interview with film scholar Remi Fournier Lanzoni (2014, 16 min.) who contextualizes the film both in Risi's career and within the context of Italian society where “the art of getting by” is an official national concern.

“Back to Castiglioncello” (11 min.) is an excerpt from a 2012 documentary that returns to the beach town that provides the setting for much of the film's second half. I think you have to be familiar with the area or a really big fan of the movie to get absorbed by this, but at least it's there.

“A Beautiful Vacation” (55 min.) is a 2006 documentary by Fabrizio Corallo and Francesca Molteni. It was shot for the occasion of Risi's 90th birthday, and includes interviews with the director as well as other collaborators; I only had a chance to skim through it and it seems heavily anecdotal.

“Speaking with Gassman” (31 min.) is a 2005 documentary by Marco Risi (Dino's son) which includes interviews with the director along with archival footage of Risi and actor Gassman (who died in 2000). They shot 16 films together and were friends in real life. They also apparently competed with each other for the affections of the ladies. I'm not normally interested in celebrity gossip, but this is probably the liveliest feature on the disc.

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

The 36-page insert booklet includes an essay by critic Phillip Lopate, another essay by critic Antonio Monda, and excerpts from multiple sources of “Risi In His Own Words.”

Film Value:
“Il Sorpasso” was a big hit with audiences both in Italy (where it was the top grossing film of 1962) and abroad, and remains a popular film five decades later. With two strong lead performances and its deft balance of comedy and tragedy, its appeal is still obvious today. Criterion has gone all-in with an ample collection of extras along with a typically strong high-def transfer that gives this sterling example of commedia all'italiana the grand treatment.