Sunday, November 19, 2017

Jabberwocky


JABBERWOCKY (Gilliam, 1977)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Nov 21, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

Human beings are tautly-stretched sacks of blood and puss who spend most of their day consuming and excreting matter, just eating, pissing, farting, and crapping their short lives away. That appears to be Terry Gilliam's primary thesis in “Jabberwocky” (1977), and even if you're in the minority who stubbornly disputes such an obvious claim, his first solo film as director provides ample evidence to support it.

When the film's protagonist, Dennis Cooper (Michael Palin), a simple villager named for his family occupation (Cooper, not Dennis, I mean), sets to wooing his sweetheart Griselda (Annette Badland), she responds to his tender entreaties by gnawing on a rotten potato, scratching her ass, and unleashing the occasional bum blast. Griselda's father, Mr. Fishfinger (Warren Mitchell), also conducts a blithely casual conversation with young Dennis while taking a equally casual dump out of a window and into the polluted water below.

When Dennis sets out, quite accidentally, to become a hero and slay the mysterious and menacing Jabberwocky that terrifies the countryside, he plunges knee-deep into mountains of dung and wakes up to a drive-by golden shower or two. Meanwhile, King Bruno the Questionable (Max Wall) orders a glorious joust to determine a champion to fight the Jabberwocky, and the results of each heroic battle are depicted primarily by the various fluids spattered on the onlookers. Robert Bresson may have dealt a fatal blow to chivalry a few years earlier with “Lancelot du Lac” (1974), but Gilliam took great pleasure in dropping by to crap on its corpse.

Any adaptation of Lewis Carroll's “Jabberwocky” would necessarily be a loose one, but Gilliam actually works in much of the poem's text into his film and ultimately delivers a genuine monster “with eyes of flame.” Hero Dennis Cooper is not, however, a particularly “beamish boy” unless “beamish” means “a colossally dull bean-counter.”

Portrayed with as little personality as possible by Palin, Dennis embodies another horrifying aspect of humanity beyond their oozing, stinking bodies: a relentlessly unimaginative obsession with profit margins. Dennis's father (Paul Curran) takes great pride in crafting quality barrels, in loving and respecting the wood he works with, and is mortified to learn that his son can see nothing but the opportunity to cut corners in the name of competitive business. Alas, Dennis is more in tune with his times than dear old dad. The nobles and businessmen of the utterly wretched city to which Dennis ventures to make his fortune are in no great hurry to eliminate the Jabberwocky. The threat of having all their flesh flayed from their skeletons keeps the peasants at home, and thus willing to work for lower wages, and the general chill even sparks a bull market in commodities.

Gilliam surely selected a pre-sanitation medieval setting to emphasize the filth, but the film's depiction of the squalid state of humanity has a timeless quality. Give them a few centuries and these miserable wretches will be spewing their filth into the atmosphere. A few years after that, the corporate machinery of Gilliam's “Brazil” (1985) would be run by a legion of paper-pushing Dennis Coopers, and dreamers are about as welcome in the society of “Jabberwocky” as in “Brazil.” Aside from Dennis's father, nobody here seeks or even imagines a better way of life because, quite frankly, they don't deserve and aren't capable of anything better. You are what you shit.

“Jabberwocky” manifests the expected unevenness of a first film. It's phenomenal at depicting the grotesque (special shutout to Annette Badland for gamely embracing her caricatured role) but it's not particularly funny, especially not when Gilliam seems to reaching most emphatically for laughs, a shortcoming that leads to some tedious stretches. However, the idiosyncratic vision that would soon produce gems like “Time Bandits” (1981) and “Brazil” (1985) arrives almost fully formed in Gilliam's solo debut. And the monster, held back until the very end, is pretty darn cool too.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. I only recall seeing “Jabberwocky” on the old 2001 Columbia DVD which was pretty flat and muddy looking. This recent restoration by the BFI National Archive and The Film Foundation works from the original 35 mm camera negative to produce an impressive 1080p image, sharp and richly textured throughout. It looks sharp in motion too. The color palette is fairly drab, but we're talking about Gilliam's version of the Middle Ages here – many piles of poop, few rainbows. All in all, this is a very strong high-def presentation.

Audio:
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is quite robust, effective with the sometimes elaborate sound effects (OK, by elaborate I sometimes mean sounds of suspicious 'plops' in the water) and the eclectic classical music mix. Optional English (SDH) subtitles support the English audio.

Extras:
The film is accompanied by an old 2001 audio commentary by Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin.

“Jabberwocky's Good Nonsense” (41 min.) mixes interviews with Gilliam, Palin, Annette Badland, and producer Sandy Lieberson. In sharing their reminiscences about the film's production, they cover mostly familiar ground with an emphasis on Gilliam's desire to break away from his Python roots in his first solo directorial effort.

In another interview (15 min.), special-effects artist and designer Valerie Charlton (co-credited for “Monster Creation” in the film) discusses the development of the film's title monster.

Cinematographer Terry Bedford (22 min.) also discusses his work with Gilliam on both “Holy Grail” and “Jabbewrocky” in these audio-only excerpts.

Criterion has also included the film's Original Opening. Gilliam changed the opening/title sequence for the film's U.S. release and settled on a hybrid version for home video release. This original U.K. Cut skips the paintings of the U.S. title sequence.

We also get a 2001 program which compares Gilliam's original sketches to the final screen version of several scenes.

Finally, in addition to a Trailer (1 min.), we also get a reading of the poem “Jabberwocky” by Palin and Badland.

The slim fold-out booklet features an essay by critic Scott Tobias.

Final Thoughts:
“Jabberwocky” is one of Gilliam's lesser efforts, but even if it's disappointingly short on laughs, it's a fascinating preview of the glorious visions to come from this one-of-a-kind director. Criterion's high-def transfer is stronger and the selection of extras is satisfying, if not overwhelming.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Philadelphia Story


THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (Cukor, 1940)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Nov 7, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

Wealthy socialite and bride-to-be Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) finds herself pursued by two prospective suitors, neither of whom happens to be the man she plans to marry tomorrow. Ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) disrupts Tracy's plans not only by barging in unannounced, but also by dragging cranky reporter Mike Connor along in his wake to cover the wedding for his magazine and to wreak further chaos. Tracy's fiance George (John Howard) barely merits a footnote even as his own day of bliss approaches.

Director George Cukor and screenwriter David Ogden Stewart adapted “The Philadelphia Story” (1940) from Philip Barry's 1939 smash-hit play, also starring Hepburn. The project was designed from the outset as an effort to re-establish Hepburn as a star after a series of box-office failure in the late 1930's, which included the now-beloved “Bringing Up Baby” (1938). Hepburn exerted considerable control over the production from the earliest stages, from choosing Cukor to direct to selecting her co-stars (though she initially wanted Spencer Tracy as one of the leads), and the result was a career re-defining triumph, scoring big at the box office and also at the Academy Awards.

Like most romantic comedies of the era, the film relies almost exclusively on the blunt force power of star charisma on which the world-conquering Hollywood system was built. Every seemingly implausible or rushed development in the script has a simple justification. When the cynical Mike abruptly stops grumbling about the corruption of the upper-class and confesses his undying admiration for Tracy, there is only one explanation for his change of heart: she is Katharine Hepburn, and everyone loves Katharine Hepburn. Why does the poised, urbane Tracy still fall for the boorish, narcissistic, alcoholic who once hit her? Because he's Cary Grant, and everyone loves Cary Grant. All of which goes triple for Jimmy Stewart.

I confess that I am largely insensitive to the charms of studio mega-stars, a natural defect which generally leaves me less receptive to the romantic comedies of the golden age than most other viewers are. But I can still acknowledge the impeccable sense of timing Cukor and his cast enjoyed, as well the myriad of little flourishes provided by a deft script engineered to augment the strengths of the performers. Stewart repeatedly spits out the full name “C.K. Dexter Haven” as an accusation targeted at an entire privileged class. Hepburn endures a baseless series of accusations blaming her for the shortcomings of every man in her life without losing either her patience of her dignity. And Ruth Hussey outshines the top-line stars in an underappreciated role as a photographer and Mike's ill-treated love interest.

The ending is utterly ludicrous, but it's Hepburn, Grant, and Stewart. No need to ask further questions.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The film's original camera negative was destroyed in a 1978 fire, so you would expect any restoration would have to make compromises based on the limitations of their source prints, but it's hard to see any compromise here. Criterion's 1080p transfer offers sharp image detail, strong black-and-white contrast, and a fine grain structure that really makes the film pop. The look is so consistent throughout, I honestly can't spot a noticeable dropoff or flaw of any kind. It's difficult to envision a superior version of this film.

Audio:
The linear PCM mono audio track is sharp and relatively flat, as the original audio mix was. The sound design qualifies as strictly functional with dialogue and a Franz Waxman score the only relevant elements. It's all clearly mixed and consistent throughout. Optional English subtitles support the English dialogue.

Extras:
Criterion has stacked this new high-definition release with an impressive selection of extras, though only a few are new for this Blu-ray.

The film is accompanied by a 2004 commentary track by film scholar Jeanine Basinger.

“In Search of Tracy Lord” (2017, 22 min.) details some of the real-life inspirations for Hepburn's signature character, inspirations which include Hepburn herself along with a few people in playwright Philip Barry's life. This feature combines interviews with Miranda Barry (Philip Barry's daughter), Janny Scott (granddaughter of Edgar and Hope Scott, the latter considered to be an inspiration for Tracy Lord), and Donald Anderson, author of a book on Philip Barry's plays.

“A Katharine Hepburn Production” (19 min.) is a new piece about Hepburn's role in shaping the film from the very start, and mixes interviews with filmmakers David Hedley and Joan Kramer.

The disc includes two full episodes of “The Dick Cavett Show” (69 min. each) which aired in October 1973. Hepburn was known for her reluctance to do interviews, so these lengthy discussions, conducted on a closed backstage, were quite a coup for Cavett and a treat for Hepburn fans. We also get an excerpt (15 min.) from George Cukor's appearance on a May 18, 1978 episode of “The Dick Cavett Show.”

Criterion has also unearthed a “Lux Radio Theatre” performance of “The Philadelphia Story” which was broadcast on June 14, 1943, and stars Loretta Young, Robert Taylor, and Robert Young in the three leads. Cecil B. DeMille serves as your host for the evening.

My favorite feature on the disc is a “Restoration Demo” (6 min.) with Criterion's expert technicians explaining the challenges in restoring the film, most of which stem from the fact that the original camera negative was lost in a 1978 fire at the George Eastman House.

The collection rounds out with a Theatrical Trailer (3 min.)

The slim fold-out booklet includes an essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme.

Final Thoughts:
A fantastic transfer and a stacked offering of extras. Fans of the film could hardly ask for more.