Monday, August 21, 2017

Sid and Nancy


SID AND NANCY (Cox, 1986)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Aug 22, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

As a portrait of the London punk scene circa 1977, Alex Cox's “Sid and Nancy” (1986) relies on its fair share of shortcuts and cliches. Watch the scary punk smash his head against the wall! See him spray paint graffiti all over some poor sod's apartment! Yet as the film progresses, the carnivalesque caricatures resolve into more fully-fleshed personalities, and as the film's other elements drop off one by one, leaving the two title characters alone in their tiny pocket universe, it achieves a tragic resonance.

The film relates the squalid and now well-known tale of the doomed, co-dependent relationship between Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman) and American punk groupie Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb), a drug-fueled relationship that culminated with Vicious being charged with Nancy's murder in New York's Chelsea Hotel. Vicious died of a heroin overdose a few months later.

The loud-mouthed, heavily pierced punk rockers and various hangers on seldom appear to be having much fun, motivated primarily by a need to alleviate the boredom of (non)working-class life in mid-'70s England. This is hardly a romanticized vision of an angry outsider movement: the fans pay more attention to their faux-rebellious fashion statements and Sid's bandmate Johnny Rotten/Lydon (Andrew Schofield) contributes to the scene mostly by belching and farting. Under Nancy's expert tutelage, Sid becomes vastly more concerned with his next drug hit than with the band though, to be fair, he was never exactly big on practice in the first place.

After a few stumbles in London, “Sid and Nancy” picks up considerably when the action shifts to America for the band's failed tour which would see them break up before its completion. If Sid was never the most devoted bandmate, he suffers considerably when cut adrift from the Sex Pistols, now with the directionless Nancy as his only rudder. Thelovers settle into a grubby room at the Chelsea Hotel where only their drug dealers any attention to them as they pass an indeterminate number of blurry days by shooting up and passing out, too impotent and pathetic even to achieve Nancy's stated goal of going out in a blaze of glory.


I admit to finding Chloe Webb's abrasive caterwauling an irritation at times, but the limited archival footage suggests she was embracing the real Nancy with admirable gusto, and there's no denying the relentless ferocity she brings to the role. Pale, skinny Oldman, in his first significant film role, snarls and mumbles his way through an intensely physical performance; the semi-coherent, largely-inarticulate Sid looks ready to collapse at any moment, but somehow keeps powering through to the next day on a mix of spite and apathy. And heroin.

Cox is unflinching in his portrayal of Sid and Nancy's last-days degeneracy, a sticking point for some punk historians and fans as well as a few critics who found it exploitative. Cox and co-writer Abbe Wool certainly have no interest in depicting Sid and Nancy as star-crossed Shakespearean lovers, or as the romantic embodiment of the true punk ideal, but I think they still sympathize with them even at their most pathetic.

Amidst all the cramped, sparsely-lit bedrooms and dive bars (cinematographer Roger Deakins works wonders in dim, claustrophobic spaces), Sid gets one glamorous fantasy sequence. Stumbling down a set of neon-lit stairs that lead to nowhere, he spits out his own obscenity-laden version of “My Way,” a show-stopping scene that somehow remains poignant even after it erupts in gunfire.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. This new “16-bit 4k digital transfer” is virtually flawless, with sharp image detail and a vibrant color palette. It's so strong, I have little to say.

Audio:
The disc offers both linear PCM mono and DTS-HD Master 5.1 surround options. The film isn't quite as heavy on punk music as some fans might prefer (OK, as I might prefer) but in addition to a few Sex Pistols tracks, Joe Strummer provides multiple contributions to the film's score (with fake credits obscuring exactly what he did). Both audio options are crisp and distortion-free, as you would expect from Criterion. Optional English subtitles support the English audio, and might be needed when Oldman embodies Sid at his least articulate.

Extras:
Criterion has packed this Blu-ray release with an overwhelming collection of features, both old and new.

The film is accompanied by two different commentary tracks. The first, recorded for the Criterion laser disc release in 1994, features Oldman, Webb, writer Abbe Wool, cultural historian Greil Marcus, and filmmakers Julien Temple and Lech Kowalski. The second, recorded in 2001, features Alex Cox and actor Andrew Schofield.

In a new interview (2016, 24 min.), Alex Cox speaks about the film's genesis and production. Neat trivia bit: casting Sid came down to newcomer Gary Oldman and relative neophyte Daniel Day-Lewis.

The disc also includes excerpts (14 min.) from Danny Garcia's 2016 documentary, “Sad Vacation: The Last Days of Sid and Nancy.” We also get excerpts (10 min.) from Lech Kowalski's 1980 documentary on the Sex Pistols, “D.O.A.: A Right Of Passage.” The former combines interviews with many commentators. The latter consists mostly of footage of the real Sid and Nancy laying about, Sid stoned out of his mind and wearing a t-shirt with a swastika emblazoned on it.

The rest of the features are all archival material. We get audio of a phone call (13 min.) between Vicious and photographer Roberta Bayley, placed on Jan 19, 1978, a few days after he was hospitalized for a drug overdose on a plane.

In a brief excerpt (3 min.) from the Dec 1, 1976 episode of the British show “Today,” the smug host Bill Grundy outright mocks his guests, The Sex Pistols, and can barely tolerate what he sees as their pathetic, insincere act. The chaotic appearance helped boost their profile considerably.

We also get an excerpt (13 min.) from the Nov 28, 1976 episode of “The London Weekend Show” in which journalist Janet Street-Porter takes a look at the music and fashion of the London punk scene.

The final feature is a Theatrical Trailer (2 min.)

The insert booklet includes an essay by author Jon Savage and a compilation of some research conducted for the film by Alex Cox.

Final Thoughts:
I think “Sid and Nancy” is much more successful in its American scenes than its London ones, but perhaps that's because the most moving parts of the story involve Sid and Nancy in total isolation. With its exceptional transfer and a bounty of supplemental features, this Criterion release should provide fans everything they could ever wanted from a “Sid and Nancy” disc.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Hopscotch


HOPSCOTCH (Neame, 1980)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Aug 15, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

Some spies want to save the world, and some are in it just to get laid. Veteran CIA superagent Miles Kendig (Walter Matthau) just wants to be a bit of a prick.

Kendig, the protagonist of “Hopscotch” (1980), has his reasons. After wrapping a flawless mission during Oktoberfest in Munich, Kendig returns home to learn that he's being shunted to a desk job by his newly appointed boss Myerson (Ned Beatty), an officious paper-pusher short on both imagination and stature. Not one to sulk, Kendig immediately leaps into action, destroying his files and decamping for Austria where he hooks up with old flame Isobel (Glenda Jackson), a semi-retired agent with a similar contempt for the bureaucracy. 


Kendig launches one of the most idiosyncratic plans in the annals of spy thrillers: he writes his memoirs and taunts agencies around the globe by mailing them a chapter at a time from various hideouts throughout Europe and America. A terrified Myerson enlists the aid of Kendig's star CIA pupil and number one fan Joe Cutter (Sam Waterston) to “eliminate” the growing threat posed by the rogue retiree.

Matthau was born with drooping jowls and an AARP card, and it's hard to imagine anyone more perfectly suited to the role of the smartass who refuses to be put out to pasture and wants to make sure his bosses know about it (it's equally difficult to believe he was only 59 at the time). Kendig enacts an overly elaborate and risky scheme simply because it amuses him. He could wait until completing his memoirs before sending them to a publisher, but that wouldn't force Myerson the putz to scramble agents across the globe, always trailing one step behind. He knows his phony Southern accent convinces absolutely nobody, but he deploys it anyway just for shits and giggles. And as for where he decides ultimately to set up his headquarters, well, that's the ultimate flipping of the bird.

Though Myerson is exactly the kind of schmuck who would order Kendig to be “eliminated,” viewers will soon catch on that “Hopscotch” is not the kind of film in which Kendig or anyone else will actually get eliminated. Adapted from a more serious novel by Brian Garfield (author of “Death Wish” which inspired the gentle, philosophical film starring Charles Bronson), “Hopscotch” plants tongue firmly in cheek by sending up the paranoia and pretensions of Cold War spycraft, with the full force of the CIA deployed in a low-stakes venture where professional ego, not global security, is all that's on the hook.

Director Ronald Neame claims he had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the project, finally convinced only by the casting of Matthau. The immaculately directed film displays no signs of Neame's initial reluctance, leapfrogging all across the globe with glee and grace while maintaining a delicate comic balance. Though Myerson blusters and Matthau's schemes become implausibly complex at times, Neame (working from a script by Garfield and Bryan Forbes) still paints in naturalistic tones. His CIA men and the requisite Russian counterpart (played by the great character actor Herbert Lom) are entirely plausible buffoons (or, in the case of Cutter, skeptics who would rather see Kendig get away), bundles of righteousness and insecurity working out their neuroses in the field. Occasional dialogue exchanges deflate them with reminders of their numerous publicly-known failures. If there's one shortcoming in the film, it's that the magnetic Glenda Jackson is too often relegated to the sidelines, just waiting around for phone calls from the impish Kendig who gets to have all the fun.

Matthau is just phenomenal in this movie. He's one of the very greatest actors of all-time, so he's phenomenal in just about everything, but every choice he makes here is pitch perfect. Even a small choice like the way Kendig whistles and hums along to his beloved Mozart at strategic points adds layers to the character that no tedious exposition could provide. The supporting cast is great too, but “Hopscotch” is a pure joy to watch just for the sheer spectacle of Matthau operating at his peak.


Video:
The film is presented in a 2.39:1 aspect ratio. This 2K high-def restoration is sharp in detail if not quite eye-popping in terms of depth or vibrancy. I'd rate this a mid-level Criterion effort which means it is very good, but not quite top shelf. I don't have the 2002 SD DVD release from Criterion as a comparison point, but I have no doubt this represents a significant improvement.

Audio:
The linear PCM audio mix is crisp and efficient, if not overly dynamic. Dialogue and sound effects are clear, as is the frequent Mozart music. Not much to say here. Optional English subtitles support the English dialogue.

Extras:
Criterion hasn't really offered much new for this 2017 Blu-ray upgrade.

From the 2002 DVD release, they have imported an interview (22 min.) with director Ronald Neame and novelist/screenwriter Brian Garfield. Neame talks about his reluctance to direct the project and the pleasure of working with Walter Matthau, Garfield talks about his interest in following up the violent “Death Wish” with a spy novel in which nobody gets hurt at all. Also imported from the old DVD are a Trailer (3 min.) and a Teaser (2 min.)

New for this Blu-ray, Criterion has added an excerpt (22 min.) from a 1980 episode of the “Dick Cavett Show” with Walter Matthau. It's entertaining, but pretty lightweight fare.

The slim fold-out insert booklet features an essay by critic Glenn Kenny.

Final Thoughts:
I had never seen “Hopscotch” before watching it on this disc, and I wasn't expecting much considering the description and my lukewarm reaction to previous Neame films like “The Horse's Mouth” (1958), but I was knocked over by how much I enjoyed this movie. It reminds me a bit of one my favorite '70s films, “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” (1974), with its relaxed approach to narrative and its wry sense of borderline-absurdist humor. I understand that some look down on “Hopscotch” as a “lesser” entry in the Criterion Collection. I'm here to tell you that's nonsense. “Hopscotch” is an absolute blast.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Breaking Point


THE BREAKING POINT (Curtiz, 1950)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Aug 8, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

In the typical film noir one bad decision or wrong turn by the hero enmeshes him in a web of intrigue, plunging him a seedy underworld from which there is little chance of return. Of course, most films noirs are atypical, but “The Breaking Point” (1950) is atypical in a decidedly idiosyncratic fashion.

Harry Morgan (John Garfield) pilots the Sea Queen, a tiny fishing boat, on which he takes Southern California tourists out to fish for marlin or perhaps to get drunk and then lie about what they caught. It's honest work, but times grow ever tougher for Harry, a former soldier who appears to have been left out of the post-WW II boom: “Ever since I took that uniform off, I'm not exactly great.”

Tapped out after paying for gas and being stiffed by a selfish businessman, Harry reluctantly agrees to take on a group of passengers he knows are up to something illegal. A perilous nighttime trip suggests that he has entered that noir underworld for good but, oddly enough, he quickly calls the whole thing off. Not in time, mind you, not until after something very, very bad has happened which will haunt him to the end of the film, but, still, he cancels the trip and returns home to his devoted wife Lucy (Phyllis Thaxter) and their darling daughters.

The emphasis on the domestic space is what marks “The Breaking Point” as such a strange entry in the genre. Harry's family isn't just there to provide an early reference point from which he departs into uncharted waters, but as a constant presence. Lucy's unwavering love and ferocious loyalty tug constantly on Harry, trying to claw him away from the various noirish forces dragging him under, including a shady lawyer (Wallace Ford) and flirtatious femme fatale Leona (Patricia Neal). Sun shines constantly amidst the gathering gloom, yet Harry still stumbles step by inexorable step toward his doom.

Garfield portrays Harry as a victim of his own self-image as the stoic, macho provider now neutered by a post-war economy to which he has not adjusted, as well as the pressing duties of a family man. All evidence suggests he loves his children and his wife dearly, but as he says to the seductive Leona, a fella can love his wife and still want a little excitement. During the war, he understood what was expected of him, what constituted victory, but now he remains rudderless despite the steadying influence of so many people who care for him, including even Leona who turns out to be a pretty honest and good-hearted femme fatale, looking for love but not overly eager to wreck any homes or tear down any heroes.


Director Michael Curtiz was charged with this second Warner Bros. adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's novel “To Have And Have Not.” The film would not match the box office success of the first Bogart-Bacall vehicle, but it hews somewhat more closely to the source (Hemingway allegedly considered it the best film adaptation of his work), supplanting the triumphalism of the original with this more cynical, fatalistic tale. A consummate technician, Curtiz (working with cinematographer Ted McCord) maintains a graceful and mostly unobtrusive style, a steady hand that is equally convincing in soft daylight and hard-edged shadow. He and his crew are particularly adapt at negotiating confined spaces like the cramped Sea Queen, the scene of a genuinely nerve-wracking gun battle.

The script by Ranald MacDougall (the collaborator most interested in pursuing a more faithful Hemingway adaptation) offers a somewhat unwieldy structure. The constant returns to the domestic space and the sometimes static settings (Harry frequently waits around in bars or on his boat until something happens) don't produce a tradition buildup of constantly escalating tension. Rather, the film offers the spectacle of a man inexorably ground down, coming loose from his moorings bit by bit, all of which could easily be avoided... if only he was somebody else.

Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. According to Criterion: “This new digital transfer was created in 2K resolution on a Lasergraphics Director film scanner from a 35 mm safety fine-grain positive made from the original camera negative.” I have not seen the film in any home version before, so I don't have a comparison point, but this 1080p transfer from Criterion has a thick, grainy look with sharp black-and-white contrast and no noticeable signs of artificial boosting to sharpen the image. This transfer excels even by Criterion's demanding standard.

Audio:
The linear PCM Mono soundtrack is spare and crisp with no noticeable distortion or drop off at any point. The sound design isn't dynamic, but it's not supposed to be. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Extras:
Criterion has included a diverse array of shorter supplemental features on this Blu-ray release.

In a 2017 interview (21 min.), critic Alan K. Rode, author of “Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film,” provides background about the film's production (Kirk Douglas and James Cagney were also considered for the lead) while also arguing for Curtiz to receive acclaim as more than just a laissez-faire craftsman.

The disc also includes the short piece “Visual Style” (10 min.), an analysis of Curtiz's graceful camera work by filmmakers Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos.

Actress Julie Garfield discusses (17 min.) her father's career from his hard-scrabble younger days to his training in Stanislavsky's method to his career cut short both by false accusations of communism and then by a heart attack at age 39.

We also take a brief trip to the Hemingway House in Key West in this brief (5 min.) excerpt from the Dec 19, 1962 episode of the “Today” show. Filmed a little over a year after Hemingway's death, this isn't exactly a tour of the house as it consists entirely of three people standing at a desk and rifling through a stack of Hemingway's papers.

A Theatrical Trailer (2 min.) rounds out the collection.

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

Film Value:
“The Breaking Point” was all but buried by Warner Brothers upon its release, particularly after star John Garfield was accused of being a communist by government propagandists. Some fans today view it as a forgotten film that desperately deserves to be rediscovered. I don't know that I'd quite call it forgotten, but this spiffy Criterion release with a sharp high-def transfer and a solid collection of extras will help make up for any historical injustices the film has suffered.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Cameraperson


CAMERAPERSON (Johnson, 2016)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Feb 7, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

In “Cameraperson” (2016), veteran documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson weaves together footage from twenty-five years worth of her film projects into an intricate and moving memoir that spans both continents and decades. The diverse array of subjects is dizzying, from a harrowing delivery in a Nigerian maternity ward to the reluctant testimony of war crime victims in Bosnia and even to the spectacle of a performative Jacques Derrida holding court on a Manhattan street.

Though she does not appear onscreen in full until the final moments of the movie, Kirsten Johnson's presence is felt in nearly every moment. In a film packed with riveting and sometimes devastating footage, one of the most memorable moments (commented on in at least half the reviews I've read) is also one of the quietest ones. Very early on, a dazzling bolt of lightning stabs down in the distance, prompting a startled gasp from Johnson (off-screen) which is then followed by two quick sneezes, making Johnson's camera wobble just as the film's title pops up, a gentle opening for a film which pays witness to a good deal of trauma.

In another shot, Johnson's hand enters the frame to clean off a car windshield in Yemen and we hear her off-screen voice often, but, as (re)contextualized in “Cameraperson,” the raw footage itself provides a constant reminder of Johnson's role in its making as the cinematographer, a role few viewers are likely to have given much thought to. The personality that emerges from behind that wide-roving camera is charming, playful, humble, witty, and, above all, deeply and personally engaged with her subjects.

This is crucial considering the perils aplenty in appropriating footage of documentary subjects (given by request to Johnson from the various directors of her many projects) for a movie they couldn't have known about when they were first filmed. But Johnson's empathy for her subjects spills out from behind the camera to the screen and then overflows the edges of the frame, and foregrounding her involvement with her subjects is one of the keys to the film's ethical and aesthetic structure. 


Though “Cameraperson” is very much a movie about the workplace (a globe-sized workplace), the footage proves that it was never just a job for Johnson or, perhaps more accurately, that she sees the professional as inextricably intertwined with the personal. Her empathetic eye leads directly to some of the film's most poignant moments, such as when she scrambles to follow a young Brooklyn boxer, stinging and raging from a narrow defeat, as he rushes for a comforting hug from his mother. Johnson's camera practically hugs the two of them, but from a respectful distance. Her instincts produce another memorable moment when an elderly Bosnian woman clearly remains too frightened to speak of the war crimes she witnessed (“I have no problems, and I never did!”) and Johnson brilliantly steers the conversation out of a dead end by asking the woman if she has always dressed so stylishly (“Always!”) You need to be intimately involved with the person you're filming – you need to care – to think of a question like that in such a moment. So much for the tired, debunked, yet stubbornly clinging notion that a documentarian's prime directive is never to interfere.

Johnson gets directly personal by also cutting in footage of her twin babies and then, most unforgettably, of her mother, suffering from advanced Alzheimer's and obviously not always clear about what's going on. This once again raises the specter of exploitation, but the answer to that thorny issue has always been a straightforward but unsatisfying one: you simply have to trust the documentary filmmakers to make responsible and ethical choices. No ideology, no non-fiction manifesto, no stylistic choice guarantees either truth or ethical clarity – only the judgment of the people making the film. By showing all of her work, by exposing herself on such a personal level, bu so clearly asking the tough questions of herself, Johnson provides viewers the access necessary to evaluate her integrity and her acumen.

“Cameraperson” is one the most remarkably edited films of recent years (with Nels Bangerter credited as editor and Amanda Laws as co-editor), leaping back and forth in time and across continents, chronology and geography subsumed into the film's broader philosophical arguments. After one Bosnian woman's harrowing testimony about systematic rape during civil war, the film cuts abruptly to cheerleaders whipping up the crowd at Penn State. Western viewers who were just wondering “How could they cover up such atrocities over there?” get their answer. Just as important, “Cameraperson” devotes considerable screen time to less overtly dramatic or traumatic footage. Bosnia is the film's most-visited location and it is the source of much trauma and horror, but Johnson also devotes plenty of time to the beauty of the countryside, the fresh food a family harvests, the quiet peaceful moments that make up their lives today.

I've watched “Camerperson” three times now and I am convinced it's one of the best and most vital films of the decade, so rich and so thoughtful that I still feel inadequate to plumb its depths or describe them. I promised myself a while ago I wouldn't rely on the cop out “You just have to see it yourself” so instead I'll say that I just have to see it again. And then again. Give me another year or two to think about it, and I'll get back to you. That seems only fair. Johnson spend twenty-five years making it, after all.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratios. The footage is culled from many sources, mostly digital. Despite the different sources, the 1080p transfer doesn't vary much in quality – I suspect the biggest challenge was in color correction, striking a balance between a consistent look for “Cameraperson” while also being true to the visual design of the original footage. In any case, the high-def transfer looks quite sharp and pleasing.

Audio:
The DTS-HD 5.1 Master surround track is crisp though the sound varies from source to source (the difference in sound among the many clips is more noticeable than the difference in image). Some footage has burned-in subtitles for various languages and Criterion provides an English SDH option for the English dialogue as well.

Extras:
“Editing 'Cameraperson'” (36 min.) provides fascinating insight into the development of the film, especially the considerable changes it underwent during post-production. According to Johnson and collaborators such as editors Amanda Laws and Nels Bangerter, “Cameraperson” began its lengthy journey as a much more “standard” documentary/memoir complete with extensive narration. But realizing that it wasn't quite working, Johnson and crew kept exploring new versions, coming up with what Johnson calls the “trauma cut” which was quite devastating then changing direction for its final, radically different configuration.

“In the Service of the Film” (39 min.) is a round-table discussion with Johnson, filmmaker Gini Reticker, and sound recordists Wellington Bowler and Judy Karp. It covers some similar ground to the “Editing” piece but expands to discuss different aspects of production, all emphasizing the collaborative nature of the project.

The disc also includes two “Festival Talks.” First, a Q&A session from a 2016 screening at the Traverse City festival (22 min.) with Michael Moore interviewing Johnson on stage, and then an Aug 15, 2016 Q&A session (15 min.) at the Sarajevo Film Festival.

Criterion has also included “The Above” (8 min.), a 2015 short film by Johnson which takes a U.S. military surveillance balloon in Kabul as its focus point, emphasizing how its looming presence affects the lives of people on the ground.

A Theatrical Trailer (2 min.) rounds out the supplemental features.

The slim fold-out booklet includes an essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda and also conveniently provides a complete list of the films from which Johnson has culled her footage.

Final Thoughts:
I'll keep it simply. “Cameraperson” is one of the best documentaries of the 21st century, and thus also one of the best films of the century. As a documentary memoir it has few peers. I was going to write “though the names Chris Marker and Agnes Varda spring to mind” but I wouldn't want to put that kind of pressure on Kirsten Johnson whose work stands quite proudly on its own.