Monday, September 24, 2018

Andrei Rublev

ANDREI RUBLEV (Tarkovsky, 1966)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Sep 25, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

Fresh off the remarkable commercial and critical success of his debut feature, “Ivan's Childhood” (1962), Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky was under pressure to top himself, or at least to prove that he was no one-hit wonder.

Some directors might have played it safe while still building a reputation. Tarkovsky instead chose to shoulder the burden of filming the story of Andrei Rublev, a 15th century Russian icon painter who had only recently (late 1950s) been championed by Soviet authorities as a national hero. Not content with the social and political responsibilities entailed by such a project, the sophomore filmmaker made it clear from the start he had greater ambitions than crafting a mere artist's biopic. Indeed, “Andrei Rublev” (1966), co-scripted by Tarkovsky and future director Andrei Konchalovsky, would not feature a single shot of the title character wielding a paint brush. Instead, Tthe three-hour epic portrays nothing less than a whole culture, situating the artist not as a lone genius, but rather as a conduit for the passions and fears of an entire people. Their story is inextricable from his.

Andrei Rublev (Anatoly Solonitsyn) is only nominally the protagonist of the film whose title bears his name. Rublev wanders in and out of the movie, often disappearing for lengthy stretches of time throughout the seven loosely connected short stories that structure the film. Tarkovsky is interested in virtually everybody in this medieval kingdom, focusing his attention on both peasants and the cruel autocrats who exploit them, on dreamers and laborers and sometimes even on angels.

“Andrei Rublev” is a film of considerable beauty and cruelty. In the opening segment, a man soars majestically above the countryside in a makeshift balloon only to crash hard. In the closing sequence, a young craftsman slogs through the mud and has workers whipped on his way to casting a giant bell that rings deep and true throughout the land.

When he is introduced, Rublev he has already achieved modest fame as an icon painter, but his rise to legendary status will be a circuitous one. The ascetic monk needs to learn more than just the Scriptures to become a true chronicler of the people, and his meandering journey introduces him to many surprising experiences, ranging from a Tatar invasion, snow inside a church, a sustained vow of silence, and even a naked pagan ritual in the woods (always the best kind of ritual).

Shooting in stark black-and-white, Tarkovsky and cinematographer Vadim Yusov take full advantage of the 2.35:1 widescreen frame, often employing extended tracking shots that describe lengthy arcs or even repeat full circles. The staging of the Tatar raid that comprises the film's fifth sequence is a logistical miracle that constantly astonishes, and, in typical fashion, spends time alongside both invaders and their victims. Many descriptions of “Andrei Rublev” employ the adjective “tactile” with good reason. The movie's medieval Russia is built out of mud and blood and stone and straw, creating a concrete sense of time and place that embodies Tarkovsky's desire to make this “a film of the earth.”

After a long, sometimes exhausting journey, Tarkovsky ends his film with an eruption of color and passion. The camera pushes in tight for our first extended close-up look at Rublev's icons as they exist today, now faded and flaking but still captivating and, yes, as tactile today as the 15th century world viewers have lived in for the past three hours. It's a transcendent final note of Bressonian potency, one of the most extraordinary moments in the oeuvre of one of cinema's most extraordinary filmmakers.

The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The Criterion booklet doesn't provide much information about the source for this transfer, describing it only as “a new digital transfer … created in high-definition resolution … (with) additional restoration... performed by the Criterion Collection.”

This two-disc set includes two cuts of the film, Tarkovsky's approved 183-minute “Andrei Rublev” and also the initial 206-minute version released as “The Passion of Andrei Rublev” and later subjected to significant cuts mandated by Russian censors.

Disc One includes the 183-minute version and has clearly benefited from a good deal of restoration. Image resolution is sharp throughout as is the black-and-white contrast, all while preserving a rich grainy look that enhances that “tactile” feel of the movie. If you've seen this on Criterion's old 1999 DVD release (this release also use Spine Number 34), it's a massive upgrade. Disc Two has the 206-minute version and it hasn't had nearly as much restoration (if any), showing plenty of minor speckling and other damage. It's still fine, but could use a thorough restoration of its own.

The linear PCM Mono audio track on “Andrei Rublev” (the 183-minute cut) is clean and efficient with no evident distortion or dropoff. “Andrei Rublev” had optional subtitles which support the Russian audio. “The Passion of Andrei Rublev,” the 206-minute cut on Disc Two, has burned-in subtitles.

This two-disc Blu-ray set features two cuts of the film, as described in the Video section above. Disc Two includes only the 206-minute cut released as “The Passion of Andrei Rublev.” Disc One contains the 183-minute “Andrei Rublev” and all of the supplemental features. And, boy, has Criterion included plenty of them.

“The Steamroller and The Violin” (1961, 45 min.) is Tarkovsky's first publicly-released film, his student thesis. It tells a sentimental story of a young boy picked on by the other kids for always practicing his violin. He perks up when he meets a construction worker who lets him drive a steamroller and helps him to be a bit more “manly.”

“The Three Andreis” (1966, 19 min.) is a short making-of film by Dina Musatova which primarily focuses on Tarkovsky during the editing process of “Andrei Rublev” though we also get some footage of screenwriter Andrei Konchalovsky on set.

“On The Set of 'Andrei Rublev'” (5 min.) consists of snippets of silent footage of Tarkovsky at work.

“Tarkovsky's 'Andrei Rublev': A Journey” (29 min.) is a new documentary by Louise Milne and Sean Martin. It combines interviews with cinematographer Vadim Yusov, actor Nikolai Burlyaev, Tarkovsky's personal assistant Olga Surkova, Tarkovsky scholar Vida T. Johnson, and critic Dmitri Solynsky. They cover a wide range of subjects, including the censorship problems Tarkovsky faced in his home country.

The disc also includes an interview with film scholar Robert Bird (2018, 27 min.) He provides more information about the film's production as well as a closer analysis of some of the film's elusive supportive characters, along with a discussion of the film's delayed release in multiple countries.

Filmmaker Daniel Raim also provides a new video essay (13 min.) consisting mostly of Tarkovsky's own words, read over footage from the film.

We also get an older (1998) selected-scene commentary by scholar Vlada Petric, and the U.S. Rerelease Trailer (1 min.) from Janus.

The slim fold-out booklet includes an essay by film critic J. Hoberman and some 1962 remarks by Andrei Tarkovsky, translated by Robert Bird.

Final Thoughts:
If “Andrei Rublev” is a biopic, it's a biography of an entire culture. Few films have created such a palpable sense of time and place, one that feels every bit as modern as it does medieval. Criterion has provided a strong high-def transfer along with an impressive array of supplemental features, along with two separate cuts of one of Andrei Tarkovsky's masterpieces.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Memories of Underdevelopment

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date 8/28/2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

In a silent exchange, Sergio (Sergio Corrieri) bids farewell to his wife at the Havana airport, a scene the handheld camera almost seems to pick up by accident. Though his wife is heading off to Miami for good, Sergio doesn't seem particularly perturbed to stay behind alone.

Then again, nothing much seems to truly touch the suave playboy. It's 1961 and revolution has just swept his island home, but he whiles his days away either knocking about aimlessly in his swanky apartment, trying on his wife's stockings out of sheer boredom, or cruising the streets looking for young women to charm. Pity poor Elena (Daisy Granados) for being one of the first to catch Sergio's eye; he'll soon grow as bored with the teenage naif as he does with everything else in life. His crass treatment of the young girl (seduced and abandoned!) will eventually lead to a courtroom case where his lofty status in the former social hierarchy may or may not save him in the revolutionary order.

But that capsule summary misrepresents writer/director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's “Memories of Underdevelopment” (1968), widely hailed as one of the great masterpieces of Cuban cinema. Gutiérrez Alea's film only nominally follows the barest sketch of a plot. Instead, the film employs a dizzying array of audiovisual strategies to contrast the personal with the historical, a history playing out with equal force in both the past and the present.

Set in 1961 and 1962, essentially between the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis, the film mixes in ample doses of actuality footage from newsreels to still photographs. Sergio paces around his apartment while tanks rumble through the streets of Havana. Sergio expresses his idle thoughts in voiceover (“This island is a trap”) to nobody but himself; Fidel Castro spits fire to an entire nation at a fist-pounding press conference. Editor Nelson Rodríguez performs a minor miracle in deftly stitching all the disparate sources together in startling and provocative ways.

Sergio does everything he can to insulate himself from both his own past and his country's present. He laughs while listening to an audio recording of an argument he had with his wife, but when the film flashes back to depict the actual moment, even the faintest illusion of Sergio's cultivated aloofness is demolished; he is a coward and a bully. He can ignore those tanks rolling through the streets as long as he wants to, but they'll still be knocking down the walls of his apartment building any day now.

Gutiérrez Alea adapted a short novel by the Cuban writer Edmundo Desnoes, who also co-wrote the script along with the director. While the film savagely critiques the detached privilege and willful blindness of its wealthy protagonist, its attitude towards the Cuban Revolution is more ambiguous. Sergio has good reason to hide away in his fortress of privilege, and perhaps his wife was the smart one in showing the initiative and foresight to flee rather than staying behind because it was easier and more comfortable. 

The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The camera negative suffered from “advanced vinegar syndrome” which required the use of an interpositive print to replace multiple reels. The extensive restoration involved a host of entities including Cineteca di Bologna, L'Immagine Ritrovata, the George Lucas Family Foundation, and The Film Foundation's World Cinema Project.

The massive restoration project has certainly paid off. Though the occasional scene shows some signs of damage (mostly a few shots just looking a bit softer than the rest), the image quality is generally quite sharp. The black-and-white contrast isn't quite as sharp, but still strong. Few viewers have ever seen the film looking this good.

The linear PCM mono track is adequate if not particularly robust. A few pops and hisses, the occasional modest dropoff, but all due to damage to the sound negative. Optional English subtitles support the Spanish audio.

Criterion has stacked this new Blu-ray release with a diverse array of supplementary features, some made just for the Criterion release, others culled from archival sources.

The collection begins with two new interviews recorded by Criterion. In the first (2018, 19 min.), critics B. Ruby Rich and José Antonio Évora discuss Gutiérrez Alea's career, noting the esteemed status he held in Cuba's film community when he released “Memories of Underdevelopment” in 1968. This piece also emphasizes the director's focus on filmmaking as a communal effort. In another new interview (2018, 16 min.) novelist/screenwriter Edmundo Desnoes shares his ideological perspective when writing “Memories,” both the book and then the screenplay.

The disc also includes two recent interviews from 2017. Actress Daisy Granados (9 min.) talks about working with Gutiérrez Alea; Elena wasn't her first prominent role, but it was a major breakthrough for her. Editor Nelson Rodríguez (16 min.) discusses the rewards and challenges of working on a film project that didn't rely on a fully-fixed script. Gutiérrez Alea gave him a lot of latitude in the editing room, forcing Rodríguez to really push himself. He notes that edited archival footage (which, itself, was already edited) was the most difficult part. This is my favorite feature on the disc.

We also get an audio-only interview with Gutiérrez Alea, conducted in 1989. It runs 11 minutes and I wouldn't call it revelatory, but it's of interest.

The lengthiest supplemental feature on the disc is “Titón: From Havana to 'Guantanamera'” (2008, 96 min.), a documentary by Mirtha Ibarra, the director's widow. Ibarra notes that this documentary is her remembrance, but that “I want other to tell me about him.” She begins by talking to the director's sister about his childhood, then to numerous friends, co-workers and admirers.

The collection wraps up with a Theatrical Trailer (3 min.)

The slim fold-out insert booklet features an essay by author Joshua Jelly-Schapiro.

Final Thoughts:
I don't possess the requisite knowledge to assess what Gutiérrez Alea's is saying about post-revolutionary Cuba. I can understand, however, why “Memories of Underdevelopment” is widely heralded as on the greatest Cuban films ever made. Criterion has provided an excellent Blu-ray release, featuring a high-def transfer of an extensively restored print and an array of insightful supplements. This will no doubt feature prominently on many year-end lists of the best Blu-ray releases of 2018.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Dragon Inn

DRAGON INN (Hu, 1967)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date July 17, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

Writer/director King Hu's wuxia masterpiece “Dragon Inn” (1967) opens not with a flurry of whirling, clanging swords, but with a flurry of voice-over narration. Wisely packing all of the film's exposition into a few minutes, the narrator situates the film in the Ming Dynasty (1457 A.D. for Western audiences) against a backdrop of political intrigue, which basically boils down to the line: “Eunuchs have seized power at the palace.” Eunuchs? Oh yeah, this is gonna be a wild ride.

Beginning with a sense of the grand historical epic, the film quickly pares away all extraneous elements to pursue a simple, focused plot. The chief eunuch Cao Shao-qin (Bai Ying) has framed the loyal general Yu Qian for treason; the general is executed and the Yu family sent into exile. Eager to prevent any future problems, Cao secretly dispatches his forces to tear the surviving Yus “up by the roots.” Good guys race the bad guys (both sides being blessed with near-supernatural martial prowess) to defend the Yu family, and everyone meets at the title location, which provides the setting for the bulk of the film's action.

The Dragon Inn is a modest structure on a dusty road to nowhere in rural China, but King Hu went to great pains to construct his set with authentic, sturdy wooden material. After all, we're going to spend a lot of time at the inn and it will need to stand up a beating from both sides, corrupt government forces and the loose-knit collection of travelers and knights-errant who show up to combat them.

Master swordsman Xiao Shao-zi (Hu veteran Shih Chun) enjoys the first major confrontation with the evil Eastern Depot forces. In fact, he enjoys it over a good meal. Sitting alone in a dining room amidst a brigade of opponents, he calmly sips his bowl of noodles while deftly avoiding a bottle of poisoned wine and effortlessly snatching the occasional stray dagger tossed his way. He hardly even stands up, let alone break a sweat.

The sequence is so lengthy, it comes as a mild surprise that Xiao won't be the sole focus of the action, at least from the hero side. He is soon joined both by a pair of traveling brothers, one of whom turns out to actually be a sister, Miss Zhu (Shangkuan Ling-fung), one of the many great female action heroes King Hu brought to the screen, as well as by the innkeeper who's no slouch in the fighting department himself.

Hu, working with action choreographer Han Ying-chieh (who also plays one of the chief baddies), balances stillness with sudden bursts of action to great effect. In one major assault on the Dragon Inn, Miss Zhu strides methodically forward only to suddenly dodge a volley of arrows and then to just as abruptly find herself surrounded by warriors who appear almost out of thin air. In most duels, the combatants stalk each other, circling warily as they wait for the single sign of weakness that invites them to strike. Measure twice, slice once. All filmed in glorious 2.35:1 widescreen, which Hu and cinematographer Hua Hui-ying exploit to its very edges.

There's little doubt about which side will win, but Hu ratchets up the anticipation by withholding the battle with the evil Cao, renowned throughout the land as the greatest of all swordfighters, until the very end. The heroes will need to work together to defeat him, and they even employ a nasty trick to even the odds: they ruthlessly mock Cao for being a eunuch. Darned if those “I guess you don't have much to lose down there” jokes don't actually seem to hit home, as if he's never heard them before. It's almost enough to make you feel bad for the poor genocidal warlord – after all he was the victim of a horrible mutilation as a child but, nah, you're still cheering for him to get decapitated. Might as well lose it up top too, eh, buddy? C'mon, that really hurts!

“Dragon Inn” was King Hu's first feature after moving from Hong Kong to Taiwan, and it was a massive box-office hit, one that cemented his credentials as an independent filmmaker. It has also come to be seen as one of the defining films of the wuxia genre, a reference point for directors such as Chang Cheh, Tsui Hark, Ang Lee, and even Tsai Ming-liang, if in a rather idiosyncratic way. 

The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The film was digitally restored in 2013 by The Ministry of Culture and Chinese Taipei Film Archive, providing the source for this new 1080p transfer, supervised by cinematographer Hua Hui-ying. “Dragon Inn” is a gorgeous movie that gets a real showcase in this new digital transfer, featuring sharp image detail throughout and a subtle, naturalistic color palette. Looks fantastic, as expected from Criterion.

The linear PCM mono audio track is crisp and does a fine job of snapping off those wooden percussive clacks that supplement the action scenes so wonderfully. No distortion or drop off is evident. Optional English subtitles support the Mandarin dialogue.

The extras kick off with an interview (2018, 10 min.) with actress Shangkuan Ling-feung, who opens by explaining why she's conducting the interview in full martial arts costume. 'Cause she feels like it, that's why. She's quite a lively subject, delighted to share her honest impressions of director King Hu: “he had a very big head.” “Dragon Inn” was her film breakthrough, and she obviously remains very proud of it as well as the impressive career she built afterward. This is a lot of fun.

Criterion has also included an interview (2016, 11 min.) with actor Shih Chun, who also credits “Dragon Inn” with launching his career as the knight-errant of choice for discerning wuxia fans. He also discusses King Hu's fondness for the Peking Opera and its influence on the film.

In “Art In Action” (2018, 25 min.), author and critic Grady Hendrix analyzes a fight scene from the film, while also providing more background for the film, referring to “Dragon Inn” as “ground zero” for the modern action film, not just the wuxia genre.

The disc also includes a short newsreel (2 min.) touting the film's successful premiere, and a Re-Release Trailer (2 min.)

The fold-out insert booklet features an essay by critic Andrew Chan.

Final Thoughts:
“Dragon Inn” certainly wasn't the first wuxia film, but it's a landmark blockbuster in the genre, as much as “Goldfinger” was to the modern action film. This is the second King Hu film in the Criterion Collection after “A Touch of Zen” (1971) and here's hoping it's not the last.

Monday, July 16, 2018


MABOROSI (Kore-eda, 1995)
Milestone Films, Blu-ray, Release Date July 10, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

In the opening shots of Hirokazu Kore-eda's debut feature film, “Maborosi” (1995), young Yumiko chases after her grandmother, who is glimpsed only from behind and at a great distance, as a figure retreating first down a tunnel and later alongside a bridge. Little Yumiko begs her adored grandmother to come back, but the old woman states flatly that she wishes to her childhood home in Shikoku to die. Which she does.

Fast forward about eight years and adult Yumiko (Makiko Esumi) still carries the grief of this childhood loss with her. She shares her story with husband Ikuo (Tadanobu Asano) who listens attentively and sympathetically as he surely has many times before. They appear to have a good relationship, raising their baby boy together in Osaka. He works, she takes care of the baby, they talk during meals, and nothing much happens until one day when they say goodbye, same as any other day. From Yumiko's point of view, we watch Ikuo slowly walk away, glimpsed only from behind and at a great distance...

Innocuous in content, but perfectly rhymed with the opening images, this shot strikes like a bolt from a clear sky. There is little doubt that it announces another tragedy about to disrupt Yumiko's life. There is even less doubt it is the mark of a freshman feature filmmaker (a documentary veteran, however) who already enjoys a comfortable mastery of the medium. Nobody could have predicted that the next twenty-plus years would see Kore-eda become one of the leading voices of contemporary cinema, not to mention the Palme d'Or winner at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, but any viewer not wowed at the time was simply not paying enough attention.

Kore-eda has become best known for his intricate studies of family dynamics. In “Maborosi” (which translates as illusion or mirage), he paints a serene and stately portrait of grief, a grief that rarely erupts in tears but which always lingers, a parasite lying dormant at times but always ready to consume its host. The grief follows Yumiko everywhere, even when she makes her own move from Osaka to a tiny fishing village (shot on location to great effect) on the shores of the Sea of Japan to be with her new husband Tamio (Takashi Naito). The grief does not abate even when friends and family shower her with love and support, only strengthening its power as it becomes increasingly co-mingled with guilt.

Esumi, then a model making her film debut, delivers a confident performance, fully comfortable at her stillest, quietest moments, so often just marking time. Yumiko sometimes buries herself in work or in caring for her beloved son, but the past simply won't loosen its grip on her. That doesn't mean “Maborosi” offers Yumiko no hope, far from it, rather it acknowledges that we pick up certain unwelcome visitors in our lives, ones who stick around so long they eventually become defining aspects of our own identities, not even good or bad, but simply there.

Kore-eda rarely relies on close-ups, the camera hanging back at a discreet distance to observe the characters respectfully and with a clear eye. Strategically repeated sounds like the bells of a bicycle or the roar of a train provide the emotional heft of a story with few overtly dramatic elements aside from the crucial losses, which occur off-screen.

“Maborosi” was well-received on the festival circuit, but didn't play to a large audience. Kore-eda would experience a greater breakout with his next feature, “After Life” (1998), and secured international stardom with critical hits such as “Nobody Knows” (2004) and “Still Walking” (2008). “Maborosi” is as accomplished as any of them.

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The film has a generally soft, low-key look throughout, not much in the way of sharp contrasts. This high-def transfer preserves that feel, perhaps without the razor-sharp detail some high-def releases showcase, but the final product looks quite satisfying to me.

The LPCM 2.0 audio mix is crisp and efficient with no evident signs of dropoff or distortion. The film features a lot of silence, but its spare sound effects are still important, as is the quiet, moody score by Chen Ming-Chang. This mix does justice to it all. Optional English subtitles support the Japanese audio.

Milestone hasn't packed this with as many extras as some of their more comprehensive releases, but they've included a few strong supplements.

The film is accompanied by a full-length commentary track by professor and film scholar Linda Ehrlich. I've only had the chance to sample the first half hour of the commentary, but it's packed with information and close textual reading so far.

“Birthplace: Makiko Esumi” (30 min.) is a short documentary which follows the film's lead actress as she returns several years later to the village that served as the shooting location for much of the film. It's a little short on insight, but it's good to see some of the places and people again.

Final Thoughts:
Hirokazu Kore-eda's debut feature shows a filmmaker already performing at his peak. Amazingly, he's managed to remain there for about a quarter century, and he may only just be getting started. This Milestone release gives viewers a chance to check out where he got started.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Rocco And His Brothers

Alain Delon, as Rocco
Milestone Films, Bu-ray, Release Date July 10, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

Fresh off the train from their tiny rural town in southern Italy, matriarch Rosaria Parondi (Katina Paxinou) and her four youngest boys are duly awed by their first glimpse of the big city of Milan. Riding a streetcar to visit eldest brother Vincenzo (Spiros Focas), they gape at the bustling urban nightlife: “Look at those shop windows, those lights. It's like daylight!”

Just as no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, any dreams of Utopian bliss are dispelled the instant mamma Rosaria stumbles into Vincenzo's engagement party, and promptly declares war on her prospective in-laws, including Vincenzo's fiancee Ginetta (Claudia Cardinale in one of her earliest roles). It all sounds like the set up for a comedic clash of cultures, even prompting Vincenzo to quip that his family arrived in town “like an earthquake,” but “Rocco and His Brothers” (1960) descends rapidly and inexorably into a tragedy of operatic proportions.

Director Luchino Visconti stated that where Federico Fellini told a tale of the “Sweet Life (La Dolce Vita)” his movie chronicled “the bitter life” of the Parondi family. He certainly delivered on his promise, or perhaps threat. Though Milan is booming from the country's recent “economic miracle” (one that left the south behind), the Parondi boys won't reap the rewards.

Ostensibly, their troubles begin when prostitute Nadia (Annie Girardot) explodes into their lives, first entering into a tempestuous relationship with the second-oldest brother, Simone (Renato Salvatori), then later with the titular brother, Rocco (Alain Delon). Both men, in very different ways, seek to control Nadia, while she struggles to maintain her autonomy. Like Nadia, Simone and Rocco ultimately sell their bodies as well, both achieving a degree of success in the boxing ring, while each paying a heavy price in the process. Savage passions ultimately pit Simone against Rocco, threatening to tear the Parondi clan apart.

The whole family struggles, though Simone's personal and moral collapse is the most dramatic and unnerving, as he transitions from the family's brightest hope to its blackest sheep, with faithful Rocco gamely trying to redeem him even long after he lurches well beyond the point of redemption. Both Visconti and his co-scripter Suso Cecchi D'Amico attributed Simone's downfall (and that of the other Parondi brothers) to the corruption of the big city and the exploitation of capitalism, but this is a dubious claim.

Simone arrives in Milan as a lazy, entitled, dishonest bully, and then becomes increasingly narcissistic, cruel, and violent. Rocco, described by his younger brothers as “a saint” with an infinite capacity for forgiveness, extends his tolerance exclusively to his own family, demonstrating little empathy for the brutally victimized Nadia, the alleged love of his life. Perhaps the Parondis weren't corrupted by Milan, but boarded the train with their own troubling set of patriarchal old-school “family values” already fully intact.

“Rocco and His Brothers” is a truly beautiful film, even when photographed amidst the squalor of Milan's seediest neighborhoods. Shooting in lustrous, moody black-and-white, the great cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno dazzles from start to finish, from an early overhead still-life portrait of Milan's train station at night to a late tableau of uniformed workers filing into an Alfa Romeo factory after an afternoon break. In between, over nearly three hours, Rotunno's camera basks in soft Lombard sunlight and pierces inky nighttime shadows with equal precision and beauty, helping Visconti to achieve his vision of a neo-realistic film with an epic scope and feel. Oh, yeah, and the Nino Rota score isn't half-bad either. 

The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio.

The restoration process of “Rocco and His Brothers” was more elaborate than for many films. Parts of the original camera negative had been damaged by fungus, requiring some scenes to be replaced from a contact-printed interpositive. In addition, some scenes were censored after the film's debut at the Venice Film Festival in 1960, and these scenes appear in their unabridged version in this restoration, bringing the film back to its original 177 minute running time. The restoration was funded by Gucci and The Film Foundation, with color correction overseen by the film's cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno.

The diligent restorers appear to have resisted the temptation to buff and polish the image to excess. This high-def transfer showcases a rich, thick grainy look throughout with a remarkable amount of detail visible even in the darkest shots. The black-and-white contrast is sharp and naturalistic throughout. In short, this restoration looks phenomenal.

The monoaural track is crisp and consistent. The sound design is fairly straightforward, consisting mostly of the dubbed dialogue (French actor Alain Delon was dubbed by Achille Millo, if you're curious) and Nino Rota's score. I didn't notice any dropoffs or distortions in the soundtrack. Optional English subtitles support the Italian audio.

As mentioned above, the film runs 177 minutes, so Milestone has devoted the first of the two Blu-rays in this set exclusively to the film, save for a brief (3 min.) introduction by Martin Scorsese. You can choose to play the movie with or without the intro. The second disc houses all of the other extras.

Most interviews with the children or grandchildren of accomplished filmmakers consist of affectionate remembrances with little in the way of substance. The interview (41 min.) with Caterina D'Amico, daughter of the great screenwriter Suso Cecchi D'Amico, is a noteworthy exception in the sub-genre. D'Amico, a teacher and author, provides a truly impressive level of fine detail in her no-nonsense interview, covering every aspect of the film's genesis, from Visconti's first sketch of the story to her mother's involvement as one of several writers on the project, to the array of influences from the Bible to Thomas Mann to Dostoevsky. She speaks authoritatively about major changes from the structure of the plot in its earliest form to what finally made it to the page and then to the screen. This is one of the best interviews I've ever watched on any disc in quite some time.

The disc also includes a series of shorter interviews (34 min. total) with cast and crew, including Annie Girardot and Claudia Cardinale, with the longest and most substantive segment belonging to writer Suso Cecchi D'Amico.

We also get several Outtakes (6 min. total) and a brief “Before and After” piece (2 min.) on the film's restoration.

Also, as is frequently the case with Milestone releases, you can visit their website for a comprehensive press kit (this one running over 60 pages) for more information on the film and its restoration.

Final Thoughts:
“Rocco and His Brothers” generated great controversy on its initial release, drawing condemnation and censorship from Catholic groups in Italy, and playing in even worse-butchered versions overseas. The controversy may have actually helped the film to box-office success, as it earned big money in Italy and gave Visconti a crucial international breakout that opened new financing opportunities that would shape the rest of his career. The film has also exerted a tremendous influence on generations of subsequent filmmakers, a list that just begins with Martin Scorsese (Simone is certainly a Raging Bull) and Francis Ford Coppola. And as if that wasn't enough, it also provides some of the earliest prominent performances for Alain Delon, Claudia Cardinale, and Annie Girardot, young actors who would go on to become major stars.

This Milestone release provides a sparkling restoration of this major landmark of Italian cinema, along with a solid collection of supporting extra features, making this one of the most important Blu-ray releases of the year.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

The Starchild and the Dancing Chicken

by Christopher S. Long

(This is a re-post and slight re-working of a top ten list I wrote for another site that shall remain nameless. It's been a few years, but I don't think I'd really change my top ten much at all. I kinda like this piece. Hope you do too.)

One obvious common thread in this list is that the films don't feature a lot of what the kids tend to think of as acting in the traditional sense. From the models of Bresson to the somnambulists of Marienbad to the great Bruno S., there's not a whole lot of method in this madness, and they're a pretty buttoned-down bunch overall. This wasn't my intention, but it also won't surprise any of my friends who have long since tired of my complaints about “big” acting. Of course, Jack Nicholson's extra foot pounds of energy per second per second raise the average for everyone else; I'm not so foolish as to be consistent.

Four mid-century French-language films, two Kubricks, two Herzogs, and nothing before the 60s. Ten is a tiny sample and I made no effort to compose a diverse or representative selection. I might find room for a dozen Godards in my Top 100 and just as many documentaries and silent films and, yes, I am aware that not all movies are made in Europe or America. My top ten are simply my favorites, the films that have most insistently seeped off the screen and into my life.

10.  DEAD MAN (Jim Jarmusch, 1996)
Roger Ebert described Neil Young's heavy reverb score as the sound of “a man repeatedly dropping his guitar.” The untitled Track 11 runs over fourteen minutes, and I still vividly remember the time I pulled up to a bend at Badlands National Park and cranked this track up to max volume on my car stereo right at sunset. I timed it perfectly to end just as the upper edge of the sun's disc dipped below the distant hill-line, and for just a moment I had melted into transcendence. Keep dropping that guitar, Neil.

Each viewing convinces me that a movie I originally embraced for the warm friendship between Johnny Depp and the magnificent Gary Farmer  is actually one of the bleakest indictments ever made of America and its legacy of genocide that is so all-encompassing it warps not just the scorched earth of Jarmusch's American West, but even time itself. Depp's William Blake is reliving the same traumatic loop, riding that train to Machine over and over again.

Read my full review here

9.  THE SHINING (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
I have hated movie audiences for all sorts of reasons, but never so passionately as when I had to listen to a room full of hipsters howling their ironic little brains out at the sight of Shelley Duvall freaking out on the stairs of the Overlook. Whether Kubrick tormented it out of her or not, Duvall comes as close to an authentic breakdown on screen as I've ever seen, and I guess it's too much for the young'uns who prefer the simulation over the real deal. These bastards have obviously been around for a long time seeing as Duvall was nominated for one of the inaugural Razzies.

I don't think films are particularly good at being genuinely terrifying, but “The Shining” chills at absolute zero. And I cannot think of a movie sound effect that has embedded itself as deeply into my consciousness as Danny's Big Wheel rumbling  across bare floorboards, then gliding almost silently over carpets, then rumbling, gliding, rumbling as he heads to his unexpected play date.

8.  PLAYTIME (Jacques Tati, 1967)
It took a 70 mm print (or was it 65?) of “Playtime” at the Egyptian Theatre to make me fully appreciate the audacity of this enterprise. Tati risked his personal capital on the construction of the glistening Tativille and then refused to cash in fully on his most bankable asset, M. Hulot. Letting Hulot take a back seat in many scenes to the “no names” in the cast may partially explain the movie's commercial failure, but it was integral to his democratized vision of cinema (and perhaps society). The result is a spatial symphony flawless in its harmonies and deeply empathetic to each lovingly observed actor. The film's wellspring of bonhomie is the perfect counterpoint to my previous two selections. It's also the only movie on my list that frequently arranges large numbers of people in the frame. In the movies as in real life, I tend to avoid crowds, but with Tati as my tour guide I'm willing to step out with the masses.

7.  FATA MORGANA (Werner Herzog, 1971)
How neglected is this Werner Herzog masterpiece? It is currently only available in Region 1 as a “Bonus Disc” on Anchor Bay's decade-old release of “Lessons of Darkness.” Nice bonus.

Herzog touched down in the desert with a science-fiction script in hand and discarded the pages by the end of day one. What he scavenged from the Sahara instead was a menagerie of people, animals, mirages, and heat-rippled panoramas that defies categorization. Call it an essay, call it poetry, call it a collage, call it a documentary if you really want to piss off the director, but “Fata Morgana” is simply unique. Many other filmmakers have directed landscapes, but Herzog's sinuous tracking shots alongside desert dunes (some painstakingly hand-sculpted by his gonzo crew) are absolutely breathtaking. And how can you beat hearing both Leonard Cohen and Blind Faith in a Herzog movie?
“Fata Morgana” has to be appreciated on a scene-by-scene basis. Perhaps my favorite is the unspeakably strange studio session at a brothel in which a goggled pimp and the madam play drums and piano, respectively, while the pimp belts out an indecipherable tune that has to be one of the most haunting sounds ever produced by a human being. Herzog has a knack for compositions that are simultaneously miserablist and sublime, and... just watch it.

6.  EDVARD MUNCH (Peter Watkins, 1974)
I am no artist, but I am convinced that “Edvard Munch” is the greatest film ever made about the creative process, primarily depicted here as “working your ass off.” Watching Munch build layers of paint, scrape frantically at his canvas, and shift restlessly from one medium to the next allows us to witness an artist reporting for duty each day and pouring in maximum effort, rather than a visionary who waits for the great epiphany that has marked the cheap turning point in far too many artist biopics.

Peter Watkins's pseudo-documentary style is infinitely pliable, and his free-floating, semi-omniscient perspective incorporates virtually any technique necessary to add context and to bore to the heart of the matter. I could just as easily have selected his magisterial “La Commune” (2000) for the same reasons, but “Edvard Munch” was my first exposure to Watkins, a man to whom we should be building monuments (but not monoforms).

5.  AU HASARD BALTHAZAR (Robert Bresson, 1966)
Tilda Swinton recently stated that the greatest performance of all-time was delivered by the title donkey(s) of this ferocious Bresson gem, and who I am to argue with the Queen? As Swinton says, this graceful, suffering, blank-eyed donkey is a “portal for the audience to project whatever they need to” and he is surely the ultimate Bressonian model. If you see nothing in Balthazar's gaze, it might be because you're looking at your own reflection. Debates over Bresson's religious beliefs will always be with us, but for me “Balthazar” joins “2001” as one of the few spiritual films for the atheist viewer. Balthazar kneeling in a field with a flock of sheep milling about him, their bells chiming a chorus ... I weep openly. So did most of the class I screened it for.

Read my full review here.

4.  LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (Alain Resnais, 1961)
I have as many theories about “Marienbad” as anyone else does, but I would hate for any of them to be true. Appreciate this grand and elaborate puzzle for its pieces, not for the way they snap together. On my first several tours through “Marienbad” (which is not set in Marienbad; that was last year) I grooved on the poker-faced gloom, but repeat viewings have made it clear just how playful and occasionally funny the movie is. I can't believe how long it took me to spot Hitch's cameo.
I don't know which Alain deserves the most credit (director Resnais or author Robbe-Grillet) for this mesmerizing study in gestures and surfaces, but I wish to thank them both. As well as the extraordinary actress Delphine Seyrig who has the distinction of starring in my fourth favorite film of all-time...

3.  JEANNE DIELMAN, 23 QUAI DU COMMERCE, 1080 BRUXELLES (Chantal Akerman, 1975) well as my third. What can I say about the Battleship Dielman, the unsinkable vanguard of the cinematic fleet? Jeanne Dielman (Seyrig) is eternal and immutable, born to be a .gif forever peeling potatoes and breading cutlets. She is an epic figure with such a radiant presence that all the other celluloid heroes huddle in her shadow. Director Chantal Akerman transforms the domestic space into something epic. My list is populated with the most memorable sets and locations in film history: The Overlook, Tativille, the hotel in “Marienbad,” but there is no movie space I know better than Jeanne's kitchen. I can close my eyes and picture the exact positions of the chair, table, coffeepot, bottle of dishwashing detergent, and scrub brush hanging off the tile wall.

Three and a half hours of watching Jeanne do housework is nowhere near enough. “Jeanne Dielman” may be a badge of honor film to prove one's devotion to the Church of Cinema, but it needs to be stressed just how much damn fun this movie is.  I cannot remember what movies were like before I saw it.

2.  STROSZEK (Herzog, 1977)
I suspect that Bruno S. was a savvier actor than he is generally given credit for, but if he was “only” playing himself, then what a self! It is difficult to pick his finest moment: perhaps the moment where he holds up a home-made sculpture that he describes a schematic of his brain, his long soulful look after sharing his woes with a stranger in a diner, or his quiet contemplation of newborns in a hospital ward. I'll go with this scene where he stages an impromptu glockenspiel performance in an alleyway. Bruno S. gets my vote for greatest performance of all time (OK, so I'm arguing with Ms. Swinton just a little) and now I find myself pondering the happy possibilities of a film starring Jeanne Dielman and Bruno Stroszek... in Vegas! But I digress.

My top two films also feature what I consider to be the two greatest endings ever. I mentioned Herzog's ability to meld the miserablist with the sublime and there is no more perfect manifestation of this than the dancing chicken and his penny arcade. Herzog says it is his greatest sequence, and he is indisputably correct though also typically modest; it is simply the greatest sequence ever filmed. Armies of directors and their special effects teams have squandered billions of dollars representing the end of the world, but nobody has ever topped the Apocalyptic Chicken strutting to "Old Lost John."

1.  2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (Kubrick, 1968)
There is a narrow highway from Gunnison, CO that crawls up a mountain to the ski resort of Crested Butte. If you drive it at night, you'll see posts with reflectors on both sides of the road, helpfully situated to prevent you from plunging off a cliff. If you crank up “Jupiter and Beyond” on your car stereo, you can pretend you're plunging through the Star Gate as you whiz past each pulsating marker. If your experience is similar to mine, all that will be waiting for you on the other side is a watered down margarita and a futon in your friend's loft, but evolution's always been a crap shoot. And at 14,000 feet, it doesn't take much alcohol to feel like a Star Child. It's the ultimate trip.

I think about “2001” at some point every single day, and that's not true of any other movie. I have seen it more than fifty times, and plan to see that many times more if I get the chance. (Update: Make that more than seventy times now.)


Thursday, June 21, 2018

Manila In The Claws Of Light

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date June 12, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

Many films about people moving from the country to the big city detail the loss of innocence as the dream of a shining land of opportunity yields to a grim reality. Julio Madiaga (Rafael Roco Jr.) arrives in Manila with no such delusions. His eyes are already wide open to potential horror as he has come to search for his girlfriend Ligaya (Hilda Koronel), who he suspects has been lured into a sex trafficking ring. Already expecting to find a nightmare, what Julio discovers in Manila turns out to be even worse.

In “Manila, In The Claws of Light” (1975), director Lino Brocka, adapting (along with screenwriter Clodualdo Del Mundo Jr.) a novel by Edgardo Reyes, depicts the capital city of The Philippines as a broken society designed to exploit and ultimately destroy the working class. Julio risks life and limb working in construction for two and a half pesos a day, with his supervisor skimming almost half his wages in the process. Julio's eventual turn to the sex trade himself is entirely understandable, though it brings him just as much misery. In a country ruled by the iron-fisted martial law of dictator and kleptocrat Ferdinand Marcos, there is nowhere to turn for justice, certainly not to a corrupt police force.

Constantly seekingr his lost Ligaya, Julio at least finds some sympathy from his co-workers, who Brocka depicts as generous and decent, if perhaps a bit misguided. One dreamer argues the merits of the big city over the country, observing that life might be tough here, but at least you have a chance to win the jackpot. Maybe, just maybe someday. In a sense, Julio agrees, though the only prize he cares about is Ligaya, and he will suffer any indignity as long as the chance to find and rescue her remains alive.

Brocka had begun his film-making career directing more commercially-oriented soap operas, but after a brief self-imposed hiatus, he returned to cinema with the goal of making more socially engaged work. “Manila” was not his first success on this front, but it provided an international breakout that established Brocka as one of the preeminent voices of Filipino cinema. Today,the film is generally regarded as his masterpiece and perhaps even the greatest Filipino film of its time, though its fair to say that the majority of Western critics making such an assessment haven't seen enough Filipino cinema to really know. 

Like most of Brocka's films, the low-budget “Manila” is usually described with terms such as “realism” and “naturalism” which are both apt, but the film indulges in plenty of impressionistic touches, including the numerous flashbacks to Julio's nostalgia-tinged remembrances of more innocent times back home with Ligaya. The film's exquisitely rendered nighttime sequences in Manila also offer a striking visual and tonal contrast to the daytime shots, though the city is equally menacing at all times.

Roco was an amateur actor who Brocka found in a rehab center (at least according the documentary included on this disc) and his quiet, unassuming performance renders Julio a palpable and sympathetic figure, making it all the more painful to watch his grueling trudge along his own Via Dolorosa. Viewers will figure out early that the film isn't blazing a trail to a happy place, but the ending is still startling and unforgettable.

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. This restoration is another product of The World Cinema Project, headlined by Martin Scorsese.

From the Criterion booklet: “This work was restored in 2013 by the Film Development Council of the Philippines and the Cineteca di Bologna/L'immagine Ritrovata laboratory, in association with The Film Foundation's World Cinema Project, LVN, Cinema Artists Philippines, and cinematographer Mike De Leon. This restoration was funded by Doha Film Institute. Supervised by De Leon, this digital transfer was created in 4K resolution from the 35 mm original camera negative... Because of color decay in the negative, De Leon guided the grading phase and validated the color using a positive print as a reference.”

The decayed state of the negative presented numerous challenges to restorers, but the strong final product is a testament to their hard labor. A few shots, especially in the beginning, look a bit soft and lacking in detail, but this is only an occasional problem. Colors are bright though not gaudy, and it appears that restorers resisted the urge to “overcorrect” any degraded elements. You see a few scratches and other signs of damage, but it all has an authentic, naturalistic look.

The linear PCM Mono track isn't the most robust you've ever heard, and some of the dialogue and music sounds a bit thin or tinny at times, but it's not a problem. Optional English subtitles support the Tagalog dialogue.

Since this restoration is associated with The World Cinema Project, Martin Scorsese provides a brief intro (2 min.) about the film and Brocka.

“Manila... A Filipino Film” is a 1975 documentary (23 min.) by filmmaker Mike De Leon (the cinematographer on “Manila”). This consists of some on-set footage as well as interview with Brocka and the cast.

“Signed: Lino Brocka” is a 1987 documentary (83 min.) by Christian Blackwood which consist mostly of Brocka either at work or just talking to the director about his career. He's an electric personality and it's a thrill to get to hear so much from him, especially considering Brocka would die in a car accident just four years later.

In “Challenging the Viewer” (19 min.) critic and filmmaker Tony Rayns discusses Brocka's early career (I had no idea he was a Mormon!) and then delves into the “Manila” adaptation in some detail.

The slim fold-out booklet includes an essay by film scholar Jose B. Capino.

Final Thoughts:
This is the second Brocka film released by Criterion in the past few years after “Insiang” (1976) was included as part of the “Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project 2”box set last year. It's great to see Brocka's signature film receive a stand-alone release with ample extras to support the film. I hope many more Filipino films will join the collection in the near future. “Perfumed Nightmare” could sure use the deluxe treatment.

Monday, May 21, 2018


GRADUATION (Mungiu, 2016)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date May 22, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

At first, I was tempted to describe writer/director Cristian Mungiu's “Graduation” (2016) as a naturalistic film that unfolds at a leisurely pace while observing the details of the everyday life in modern Romania. Dr. Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni), the film's protagonist, wants to make sure his daughter Eliza (Maria Dragus) doesn't lose her upcoming scholarship to Cambridge, which he views as a crucial chance for her to escape Romania for a land of better opportunities. Via numerous long takes, he spends a lot of time driving around, speaking to various bureaucrats, and running chores.

It's so realistic it's practically a documentary... except for the fact that the melodramatic complications pile up as rapidly as in a soap opera. First, Eliza is sexually assaulted on her way to school just before taking her final exams, prompting the good doctor to call in some favors on his daughter's behalf. But that's just the start of it. In an approximately fifteen minute sequence in the middle of the film (spoiler alert, if you're the sort that cares), Eliza discovers (or reveals that she already knows about) Romeo's affair with a patient, Romeo's ailing mother has a grave medical scare, his wife kicks him out of their home, and law enforcement shows up out of he blue to investigate some of Romeo's previously mentioned dealings to help Eliza. And then things start getting really complicated, but still with plenty of long takes.

“Graduation” is structured around other contrasts as well. Romeo views himself as a morally righteous old-schooler nobly willing to sacrifice his virtue to navigate a corrupt bureaucracy and win his daughter a better future. Yet, one of the first things we learn about Romeo is that he's having an affair which also may or may not explain the fact that this ostensibly quiet film begins with the sound of shattered glass when a rock is hurled through the Aldea family's apartment window. A friend of Romeo's also reminds him of the time a man helped get them out of military service when they were teenagers, and how said man could really use a new liver right now and maybe the doctor could look into helping with that.

Mungiu doesn't overtly inject any sense of moral judgment on the proceedings, preferring simply to observe his characters and their circumstances closely, seemingly with a mixture of amusement and bemusement at the convoluted social structures these strange human creatures have built for themselves. The film never collapses into despair, however, no matter how much the noose tightens around Romeo's neck. This is due in large part to the fact that Romeo balances hard-learned cynicism with the still smoldering ashes of the optimism that led him to come back to Romania many years before. He bemoans the inability of his generation to make any real changes, but retains faith that his daughter's might still be able to pull off the job. He even defends the nosy investigators who try to bully him: “They're young. Maybe they'll make things better.” Romeo doesn't sound too convinced, but maybe surely beats a definite no. 

The film is presented in its original 2.39:1 aspect ratio. Nothing much to say here. “Graduation” is a recent film shot digitally and immaculately preserved in this 1080p transfer from Criterion. Looks great, as you'd expect.

The film is presented with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround audio mix. The lossless sound is flawless and helps convey the sense of space in many of the film's frequently visited locations. Mungiu rarely uses non-diegetic music in his films, but Romeo listens to classical music in the car, and that is treated well in this surround mix. Optional English subtitles support the Romanian audio.

Criterion hasn't packed this Blu-ray release with extras, but they've offered a few interesting features.

An interview with the director (2018, 29 min.) is recorded specifically for Criterion. Mungiu speaks in general about what motivated him to make the film, but doesn't delve too deeply into detail. It's great to hear from Mungiu, but there's not much revealing information here.

The disc also includes the Cannes Film Festival press Conference (2016, 42 min.) in which director and cast field questions about the film that netter Mungiu a Palme d'or for Best Director (shared with Olivier Assayas). These press conferences are seldom riveting enough to watch in their entirety, but, hey, you can watch it in pieces at your leisure.

We also get Deleted Scenes (7 scenes, 8 min. total) and a Trailer (2 min.)

The slim insert booklet features an essay by film critic Bilge Ebiri.

Final Thoughts:
“Graduation” is only Mungiu's second solo feature film since his breakout hit “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days” ten years ago. I don't think it matches the high standard set by that film, but it's a potent reminder that Romania continues to produce some of the best films of the 21st century.


MOONRISE (Borzage, 1948)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date May 8, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

Depending on your social (media) circle, Frank Borzage is either an all-but-forgotten figure from Hollywood's distant past, or a name that scrolls by on your Twitter feed every few hours accompanied by hagiographic hosannas. Borzage began his Hollywood career, first as an actor then as a director, during the heyday of the silent one- and two-reelers, and flawlessly navigated both the transition to feature filmmaking and then to sound cinema. Both a critical favorite and a commercial powerhouse, Borzage netted the first-ever Best Director Oscar for “7th Heaven” (1927 – he won for drama and Lewis Milestone won for comedy), and reeled in a second win just a few year later for “Bad Girl” (1931).

Borzage became widely admired for his earnest melodramas, but his romantic vision largely fell out of favor during the WW2 years, though his anti-Nazi film “The Mortal Storm” (1940) made a significant impact at a time (before Pearl Harbor) when Hollywood studios generally shied away from criticizing Hitler and all of that “European business.” By the end of the war, Borzage was slumming it at Republic Pictures, a Poverty Row outfit often celebrated today by cinephiles, but hardly viewed as a plum assignment by the former major-studio star.

While dutifully fulfilling the end of his contract, Borzage more or less stumbled into “Moonrise” (1948), a project abandoned by United Artists. Adapted from a novel by Theodore Strauss (who, gasp, doesn't even have his own Wikipedia entry), “Moonrise” tells the story of hard-luck Danny Hawkins, a small-town Virginian marked almost from birth for the sins of his father who was hanged for murder.

Borzage, working from a script credited to Charles Haas, makes the notion of “marking” quite literal in the film's moody, unnerving opening sequence. The camera focuses on several sets of feet trudging through puddle-drenched mud at night as the condemned man is marched to the gallows. The film then cuts from a silhouette of the prisoner being being dropped from the scaffold to a startling image of another shadowy body (a doll, it turns out) dangling over a crib, prompting the baby inside to wail.

Nobody shows up to comfort the crying toddler, nor will they for years, as Danny is taunted both in school (“Danny Hawkins' dad was hanged!”) and as an adult for his supposed “bad blood.” This alleged bad blood boils over when Danny gets involved in a fight (with a young Lloyd Bridges) that turns lethal, and he spends the bulk of the film trying to stay ahead of the law in his tiny Southern town.

The adult Danny is portrayed by Dane Clark, better known as a supporting actor and this role didn't vault him to leading man stardom. Clark plays sullen and withdrawn just fine, but generates little in the way of charisma, which makes the budding romance with school teacher Gilly (Gail Russell, shortly before alcoholism ruined her career) seem so forced it's almost tempting to view the whole relationship as a figment of Danny's desperate imagination.

The script vacillated in its argument both for and against the notion of “bad blood.” Danny may have been defending himself in his first fight, but he struggles constantly with impulse control, snapping at Gilly for no reason, and violently threatening the town's innocent mute (played by Harry Morgan!) Likewise, a late visit to his grandmother (Ethel Barrymore) suggests bad blood might run deep in this family's veins, when she argues that Danny's father may well have done the right thing by murdering a doctor who, y'know, just didn't give good advice. Then again, it might not be exclusively a family issue. Danny's friend and mentor Mose (Rex Ingram) comforts him with the story of a basically decent man who was sent to jail for fifteen years just “for bein' lonseome”, by which he means raping a woman. Ingram is great, as always, but yeesh.

Though the film's opening is by far its strongest part, Borzage also generates considerable tension in a nifty Ferris wheel sequence, and the whole movie looks great, suffering neither from its modest budget nor from being shot entirely on cheap studio sets. I'm not convinced that “Moonrise” is the late-career masterpiece Borzage boosters make it out to be, but with a strong supporting cast and rich black-and-white photography that evokes a distinct sense of time and place, plus an ending that probably doesn't go where you expect it to, the film certainly deserves to be (re)discovered seventy years after its initial and unsuccessful theatrical run.

The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. “Moonrise” is a public domain film and I'm sure it's had its share of spotty no-frills releases. Obviously, that's not the case with this Criterion release. This “new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution” and showcases rich black-and-white contrast throughout. Much of the film is shot at night (or made to look so) which perhaps makes it a bit difficult to assess how much fine detail the 1080p transfer shows off, but this is a typically strong Criterion release.

The linear PCM mono track is crisp and free of noticeable distortion. The mix doesn't have to do much more than present the dialogue clearly, and it does the job just fine. Optional SDH English subtitles support the English audio.

This is a relatively bare-bones release from Criterion.

The only extra on the disc is a 17-minute interview with film historian Peter Cowie and critic Herve Dumont, author of “Frank Borzage: The Life and Films of a Hollywood Romantic.” They provide historical background about Borzage's career and the production and reception of “Moonrise.” Fairly standard stuff, but useful since Borzage is probably unknown even to many Criterion fans.

The fold-out insert booklet features an essay by critic Philip Kemp.

Final Thoughts:
Though “Moonrise” is championed today by many fans and critics as one of Borzage's best, it was a commercial flop that did nothing to revive his career prospects. He wouldn't make another film for ten more years, and never recaptured his glory years, passing away in 1962 at age 68. Criterion hasn't included many extras, but has provided an excellent transfer of the film.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Dead Man

DEAD MAN (Jarmusch, 1995)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Apr 24, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

I first watched “Dead Man” (1995), Jim Jarmusch's idiosyncratic take on the Western, in a tiny theater at the end of an alley next to my graduate film school. The second time I watched it was... the very next day, and the third time the day after that. Back then, paying for three movie tickets in three days meant eating ramen noodles for the next two weeks, but I had a good excuse. I had fallen in love.

After watching the film again on this new Criterion Blu-ray release, I've now seen it more than thirty times, and the blush of first love has deepened into the pleasure of a committed, long-term relationship. I have thought often about why the film continues to occupy my thoughts on a regular basis more than twenty years later. For your sake, dear reader, I will limit myself to just three reasons why I love “Dead Man” beyond all reason, and why I believe it is one of the best films ever made.


Super-short superficial plot synopsis: “Dead Man” relates the story of an unlikely friendship between two genuine outsiders, Bill Blake (Johnny Depp), a hapless accountant from Cleveland , and Nobody (Gary Farmer), a Native American loner exiled from his own people. Blake hops a train West for a job, quickly gets shot, and Nobody helps to treat his wounds, then to guide him through the Western landscape (circa 1870s) to his mysterious final destination. They shoot a bunch of people along the way.

Depp, fresh off “Benny& Joon” and “Ed Wood,” was not yet a superstar but was riding a rocket to Hollywood's upper echelon. He's marvelous as a clueless Easterner desperately out of his element, but Gary Farmer absolutely steals the show. I used to describe Nobody as my favorite supporting character in all of cinema, but I realize now that's misleading: he's the real protagonist.

Jarmusch risks depicting Nobody as a “magical Indian,” whose primary function is to help the white man learn an important lesson. But Nobody is such a rich character with a vibrant inner life that he frequently shares. He is a man of letters, who spends his time “wander(ing) the earth” engaged in deep philosophical contemplation. Contrast this with the limp figure of Blake, defined largely by his paralyzing passivity and his garish checkered suit. Nobody has plans and ideas, while Blake doesn't have a clue.

This explains why one of Jarmusch's most audacious gambits works so brilliantly. When Nobody asks “What name were you given at birth, stupid white man?”, said stupid white man replies, “Blake. William Blake.” This sends Nobody into a frenzy as he assumes he is in the presence of the literal reincarnation of his literary idol, the British poet of the same name.

It's an absurd assumption that could leave viewers skeptical of Nobody's sanity, but consider the fact that Nobody simply wants it to be true. Depp's Blake is a blank slate upon which Nobody chooses to write his own story. Though he ostensibly serves as Blake's guide through the wilderness, he's actually realizing his own fantasy. That fantasy involves not only hanging out with William Blake (and frequently reciting Blake's poetry), but molding him into something new, the person Nobody wants him to be, a killer of “stupid fucking white men.” Near the end of the film, Nobody beams as he brags of his accomplishment in song, “William Blake is a legend now. He's a good friend of mine!”

Farmer's performance is thoroughly endearings as he gradually reveals Nobody's plans with quiet confidence, and occasionally stopping to bask in the glow of his friendship with the new, improved William Blake he's created. Farmer is an impressive physical presence as well, and has the kind of magnetic face directors can only dream of, a special effect in its own right. I've loved him in every film I've seen him in, but never more than as the unforgettable Nobody who also, by the way, has just about the greatest origin story in the history of cinema.

REASON TWO: Robby Freaking Muller

Though it limited his potential funding, Jarmusch insisted on shooting “Dead Man” in black-and-white and he wisely secured the services of cinematographer Robby Muller for the job. Jarmusch had already worked with Muller on the gorgeous black-and-white “Down By Law” (1986), but somehow Muller found a way to top himself with “Dead Man.”

The film's imagery ranges from the abjectly grotesque to the sublimely beautiful. When Blake trudges through the industrial town of Machine to report for a job he has already lost, he sees a horse pissing in the mud-soaked street, a prostitute giving an alley blowjob to a grimy gunman, and bleached animal bones providing the town's only apparent decoration. Later in the film, a thick boot will stomp on a dead marshal's skull, sending viscous black blood spurting from every orifice. “Dead Man” portrays an American West and a Native American people all but destroyed by the technology and violence of European invaders, and Muller captures the historical horror with grim efficiency.

And yet, as Nobody and Blake wend their way steadily to the Northwest, staying just ahead of the gunmen hired to pursue them, viewers are treated to breathtaking shots of forests of thin white birch trees and magnificent redwoods stretching high out of sight. In one of the film's most memorable shots, a panorama of ocean waves seems to cover all of existence, further enhancing the growing feeling of awe inspired by Muller's lush black-and-white nature photography. The film's characters may not survive this Western charnel house, but the natural world will endure and ultimately thrive no matter how many stupid fucking white men try to destroy it.

REASON THREE: Greatest. Soundtrack. Ever.

The great Roger Ebert, may he rest in power, described Neil Young's original score for “Dead Man” as the sound “of a man repeatedly dropping his guitar.” Mr. Ebert, I revere you, sir, but you went and lost your damn mind when you wrote that.

Young recorded the soundtrack while watching an early cut of the film (see Extras below), prowling around his recording studio, reaching for various instruments for different scenes, though none featured as prominently as his relentlessly rumbling electric guitar. I don't know exactly to what degree Young improvised to the footage, but the result is nothing short of monumental.

Young's repetitive electric guitar, often heavy on reverb, punctuates many of the open spaces in the film, sometimes filling in a single breath, sometimes underscoring the image – when we see train wheels churning in close-up, Young's guitar mimics the circular motion. Other times, a wall of sound builds to all but consume the otherwise placid image, a transcendent effect for those who dig it, no doubt an irritation to those who just hear a man dropping his guitar.

I am not a music critic and don't know the language necessary to describe Young's work accurately, so I'll settle for an anecdote. I bought the CD of this soundtrack as soon as it was available (more ramen noodle nights for me) and it's been a defining aesthetic element of my life ever since. I keenly remember listening to the untitled 14-minute guitar track on the disc while watching the sun set behind the hills at Badlands National Park. I timed it so the final chord faded out just as the last ray of sunlight was extinguished by the banded rock face. A part of me never quite left that moment. I can't listen to the soundtrack while driving, though, because I become completely lost in its tide.

I feel bad that I haven't even mentioned the greatness of Michael Wincott's hyperactive performance as a chatterbox assassin-for-hire or Lance Henriksen as a cannibal with a toothache, or the glorious cameo by Robert Mitchum as a corrupt titan of industry, or that infinitely sad and beautiful tableau with the baby deer, or that shot of the horse on the shore which I only just realized reminds me of a similar moment in “Aguirre” or...

If I let myself go on about all the reasons I love “Dead Man” (oh, man, Crispin Glover too) without reserve, I'll never stop. And that would be a disservice to you. Instead I think I'll just go watch “Dead Man” again. I hope you'll be inspired to watch it, either again or for the first time, as well. 

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. This new 4K restoration supervised and approved by Jim Jarmusch improves greatly on the mediocre home-theater releases previously available. The black-and-white contrast is sharp and bold throughout and the image showcases a fine grain structure. Image detail is particularly noticeable in closeups on faces, but also in the ways the individual trees really stand out sharply. Overall, this 1080p transfer is a very strong one, as we would expect from Criterion.

The film is presented with a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 surround track. The lossless audio is most important for presenting the greatest soundtrack ever in an appropriate fashion, but this is the first time I've listened to the film at home and been able to pick out some of the conversation snippets that are intended to just be barely heard at a distance.

Also, one of the distinctive features of “Dead Man” is that Nobody and other characters speak multiple Native American languages, including Blackfoot, Cree, and many others, none of which are provided with subtitles. This was intentional on Jarmusch's part, a nod of respect to Native American viewers, and Criterion has wisely not provided subtitles here, except to indicate specifically which language is being spoken.

English subtitles are provided to support the English dialogue.

The films is accompanied by a selected-scene commentary track by production designer Bob Ziembicki and sound mixer Drew Kunin. The commentary doesn't cover every scene, but they do offer analysis or anecdotes for most of the film, and it's a welcome change to get the perspective of crew members on a commentary track instead of directors and actors.

Jarmusch continues his practice from previous Criterion releases of conducting an audio-only Q&A session in which he answers questions submitted by fans. This was recorded in November 2017 and runs about 48 minutes and presents Jarmusch with the opportunity to go off on tangents or just to speak about some of his favorite artists or hobbies.

We also get a new interview (27 min.) with actor Gary Farmer who shares his reminiscences about working on the film, and argues persuasively that Nobody should have met with a different fate than he does in the film. This is the rare actor interview I wanted to run much longer.

In “Reading Blake” (7 min. total) three of the supporting actors in the film read snippets of William Blake's poetry. I mean no disrespect to Mili Avital and Alfred Molina, who both do a great job, but you're going to leave this feature with Iggy Pop reading William Blake as your new fetish.

Criterion includes 15 minutes of Deleted Scenes, the same reel of deleted scenes from the old Miramax DVD. I have always found these quite revealing, and I particularly wish one extended death scene had been included in the final cut.

The gem of the collection is 25 minutes of footage shot by Jim Jarmusch of Neil Young performing the film's soundtrack. With scenes playing on monitors on stage, Young goes from acoustic guitar to organ to electric guitar, bobbing in place as he fully immerses himself in the moment. I find this footage every bit as riveting as seeing Miles Davis perform the legendary score for “Elevator to the Gallows” and it's a privilege to be a witness to this kind of creative effort. We also get a Music Video for the film with Young's music playing over edited scenes from the film (3 min.) - this was also included on the old Miramax DVD. While playing this video, you can also switch to an audio track of Johnny Depp reading William Blake, the same passage as is included on one track of the soundtrack CD.

The collection wraps up with a Trailer (2 min.) and a photo gallery of about 50 stills, many of which show color images from the set, a real treat for fans.

The slim insert booklet includes an essay by film critic Amy Taubin and an essay about the Neil Young soundtrack by music journalist Ben Ratliff.

Final Thoughts:
I have nothing left to say. Actually, I have everything left to say, but I'll leave it for another time. “Dead Man” is a masterpiece. This Criterion Blu-ray release is the finest presentation of the movie yet available.