Friday, March 23, 2018

King of Jazz


KING OF JAZZ (Anderson, 1930)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Mar 27, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

The jokes in “King of Jazz” (1930) aren't particularly funny and not every song swings, but this everything-and-the-kitchen-sink musical revue has one thing going for it: it never lets up, not for a second, not for a single beat.

Actually, it's got at least one other thing going for it in bandleader Paul Whiteman, the titular monarch whose reign over the American musical scene began in the 1920s and extended through much of the Depression era. A megastar in his day, Whiteman was known as much for his hefty Oliver Hardy-like physique (which he gleefully poked fun at) as his ornate symphonic arrangements, and this Universal project, produced by Carl Laemmle, Jr., was built entirely around his famous persona.

Eschewing any semblance of narrative, “King of Jazz” is structured as Whiteman's scrap book, sometimes literally as the pages of a giant book are turned on stage to introduce the next number. The film rockets through dozens of varied routines ranging from quick comedy bits (most of which were ancient in their day) to vocal trios like The Rhythm Boys (featuring a young crooner named Bing Crosby) to elaborate song-and-dance routines featuring dozens of performers. The most ambitiously and audaciously choreographed sequences helped to establish Hollywood musical standards later expanded on by Busby Berkeley and others. 


Inevitably, the bits vary wildly in quality, but both the hits and the duds celebrate the power of sheer chutzpah, and showcase a kaleidoscopic array of special effects. Whiteman's orchestra appears in miniature on a table top at one point, then crammed inside a giant piano. Double-exposed images are super-imposed over the numbers at times, and one singer's face is quadrupled in a proto-psychedelic shot. The greatest effect of all may be the early two-strip Technicolor, restored for this edition in all its gaudy glory.

No, check that. The greatest effects are still the performers themselves, especially a few of the more supernaturally flexible dancers. In “Ragamuffin Romeo,” dancer Marion Stadler is flung and spun into a series of seemingly impossible contortions, while in “Happy Feet” Al Norman shows everybody exactly how he earned the nickname “Rubber Legs.” A rousing rendition of “Rhapsody in Blue” (which Whiteman commissioned George Gershwin to compose for him in 1924) blows off the roof too. I'll admit that the film's over-over-the-top grand finale, a “Melting Pot” routine that consumes the final fifteen minutes or so, leaves me cold, but it sure as heck isn't for lack of trying.

The glaring problem with the film is that nary a black musician appears in this alleged kingdom of jazz, prompting the question “King, eh? Very nice. And how'd you get that?” A few of the experts who speak in the extras on this disc note this troubling element, and also point out that Whiteman wante to integrate his band and did employ African-American composers backstage. That doesn't change the fact that the film presents us with the absurd prospect of a supposedly comprehensive jazz revue that doesn't acknowledge the bulk of jazz history or its most prominent performers and pioneers.

“King of Jazz” followed on the heels of several uninspired Hollywood music revues and flopped at the box office, but it has since become a favorite of early music buffs and was added to the National Film Registry's archive in 2013. Since then, it has received an extensive restoration that led ultimately to this expansive Criterion Blu-ray release. Viewers might not be convinced that Paul Whiteman merited the title “King of Jazz,” but there's little doubt that he (and director/Broadway producer John Murray Anderson among many others) knew how to put on one heck of a show. 


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. This 4K restoration was undertaken by Universal Pictures and based on the film's initial 1930 release. Surely much of the labor involved restoring the two-strip Technicolor to its original state which is something to behold – the colors don't look naturalistic and sometimes bleed out into the frame, and it's all quite beautiful. Image quality varies a bit throughout and there are a few missing frames here and there (the film is presented “in the most complete form possible”), but the final high-resolution product has a luminous quality that should satisfy everyone.

Audio:
The film is presented with a linear PCM mono audio mix. I swear I thought I was listening to surround sound at times. This music might sound a bit tinny at times, but the mix has a full, vibrant quality to it that more than does justice to the eclectic musical selections. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Extras:
Criterion has absolutely stacked this Blu-ray disc with an array of features sure to please music aficionados.

The film is accompanied by a commentary track by jazz/film critic Gary Giddins, music and cultural critic Gene Seymour, and musician and bandleader Vince Giordano.

Criterion has also included two new interviews. In the first, Gary Giddins (17 min.) discusses Whiteman's influence on jazz, and also the film's reception. Musician and pianist Michael Feinstein (19 min.) talks about his love for Whiteman's work and provides more information about the other musicians in the film.

Authors/archivists James Layton and David Pierce recently published a book about “King of Jazz” covering its production through its recent restoration. In four separate short video essays (42 min. total) they touch on different issues surrounding the film. We also get an extra short gallery of images of composer James Dietrich's notations on the musical score.

Four Deleted Scenes have been included – these were restored for the film's 1933 theatrical re-release but aren't part of the original 1930 film and thus not included in the feature here.

“All Americans” is a 1929 short film (19 min.) presenting an earlier version of the “Melting Pot” routine that ends the feature, also directed by John Murray Anderson.

“I Know Everybody and Everybody's Racket” (1933, 21 min.) is an oddball short from Universal starring... Walter Winchell? The Broadway gossip columnist is presented hard at “work” trying to pick up juicy new tidbits at the Biltmore Nightclub in New York, where the Paul Whiteman orchestra happens to be playing. Bizarrely, Winchell is portrayed as something pretty close to a collaborator with mobsters and seems to have no problem with it. This short is surprisingly entertaining.

An early sequence in “King of Jazz” features a cartoon showing how Whiteman became “King of Jazz” (its point and relevance escapes me, however). Criterion has decided to include two Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons as final supplements, one of which co-stars an animated Paul Whiteman, and the other includes animation from the film. They run 13 min. total.

The insert booklet features an essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme.

Final Thoughts:
“King of Jazz” was a flop when it was released in 1930, but it has survived as a fan favorite more than eighty years later. This Criterion Blu-ray presents the film with a restored print showing off the glorious Technicolor and a vast array of extras more comprehensive than any of the film's fans could possibly have expected.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Passion of Joan of Arc


THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (Dreyer, 1928)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Mar 20, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

(Note: Pictures embedded with this review are not taken from this new Criterion Blu-ray)

Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer once said: “Nothing in the world can compare to the human face. It is a land one can never tire of exploring.” No director explored a face more remarkable than actress Renee Falconetti's, and never to such memorable effect as in “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928).

Falconetti was hardly an obvious choice for the title role. Not only was the 35-year-old actress nearly twice as old as teenage Joan, she had only played small roles in two films a decade earlier, and was best known in Paris as the affable star of comedic stage plays. She likely had little ideal of the ordeal facing her, no doubt one of many reasons Dreyer cast her.

Both Falconetti and Dreyer faced considerable pressure. Nearly a half-millennium after burning Joan at the stake (ostensibly for the crime of wearing men's clothing), the Church made up for their little boo-boo by officially canonizing her in 1920. Joan was already one of France's most beloved icons, but Saint Joan now became a world-wide sensation. The bonanza of Joan-related projects included the publication of a new book by Pierre Champion, which included the miraculously-preserved transcript of her trial.

Dreyer was actually commissioned by a French studio to adapt a different book on Joan, but he focused primarily on the transcript, which provides most of the film's text. Dreyer's hiring generated protests before production ever began – he was neither French nor Catholic, so how could he tell the story of our beloved Joan? Casting a French actress may have ameliorated the outrage a bit, but sticking closely to the historical record also guaranteed pushback from the Church, not keen on reminding the public of that time they tortured and murdered of a teenage girl. The one in 1431, I mean. The one in 1431 in Rouen.

Dreyer still took his share of liberties with history, mostly by compressing a months-long trial into a single day. This compression amplifies the intensity from the start, and Dreyer's other stylistic decisions only further up the ante. Though the film unfolds in one location over one day, the rapid cutting (approx. 1500 shots in an hour-and-a-half film) and the relative lack of establishing shots generate a queasy, disorienting feeling expressive of the overwhelming stress Joan is placed under by the leering, bullying, mocking Church inquisitors. Consecutive shots rarely follow the same character, and tight close-ups disrupt a clear sense of screen geography. Ultimately, the viewer can focus only on one steady element at the core of this cinematic world, Joan's face.

In one invasive close-up after another, Falconetti sweats and strains, glares defiantly or blinks back tears, and looks heavenward to the one true vision she can always see, and viewers struggle through jarring experience along with her. For ninety years now, filmgoers have been exploring that face, the face that defines cinema as much as any single image in the history of the medium. Falconetti walked away from the cinema after her grueling ordeal on Dreyer's set, and no other actor has ever exceeded her performance. 


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. From the Criterion booklet: “This new digital restoration by Gaumont and the Centre national du cinema et de l'image animee was created in 2K resolution from a duplicate negative made from an original positive print held by the Danish Film Institute.” That might sound a bit complicated, but understand that we're lucky a complete version of “Passion” exists at all and, indeed, most audiences didn't have access to one until the 1980s. For more information on the film's labyrinthine journey through the decades, you can read my brief essay at this link.

This is the first time I've gotten to see “Passion” in a high-def version and if it's not flawless, it's certainly a major improvement over anything I've seen before. The level of detail visible in the many closeups of Falconetti's face only heighten the intense experience of watching this film.

Criterion has also given viewers the option to watch the film at 24 frames per second or at 20 frames per second. As you may know, 24 frames per second is the standard projection speed for films in the sound era (synch sound needs to be played at that speed), but rates varied significantly during the silent era. There is no definitive “correct” fps speed to watch the film at, though scholar Casper Tybjerg argues convincingly that the slower 20 fps version also makes the actors look more natural in motion. The 24 fps version plays at 81 minutes, the 20 fps at 97 minutes.

Audio:
Not only is there no evidence that Dreyer ever selected an official score to be played with the film, it is possible he actually preferred to be played silently altogether, which would have been unusual for the silent era. In any case, Criterion offers a few audio options.

For the 24 fps version, viewers can play the film silently (OK, your Mute button would achieve the same thing) or with two scores: Richard Einhorn's “Voices of Light” score which many modern viewers are familiar with, and also a recent (2010) score by Portishead's Adrian Utley and Goldfrapp's Will Gregory. You can also select an Audio Commentary by Casper Tybjerg, recorded in 1999.

For the 20 fps version, viewers can choose the silent version or a 2005 score by Mie Yanashita.

Extras:
Criterion originally released “The Passion of Joan of Arc” on DVD way back in a whole different century (1999). This Blu-ray upgrade imports many of the old features from the DVD and adds a few new ones.

We'll start with the new stuff first. Now that Criterion has included both 24 fps and 20 fps versions of the film, scholar Casper Tybjerg provides a discussion (12 min.) of the merits of each version.

The disc also includes a new interview with composer Richard Einhorn (11 min.) and a new interview with composers Adrian Utley and William Gregory (15 min.)

Older imported features include an audio interview with Helene Falconetti (1995, 9 min.), conducted by Richard Einhorn. She speaks about her mother, Renee, and her experiences on Dreyer's set. We also get a Version History (10 min.), which touches on the film's many different versions over the years, a Production Design Archive (4 min.) and a Trailer (3 min.)

The thick insert booklet includes a new essay by scholar Mark Le Fanu, and also a brief statement by Dreyer and the libretto of the “Voices of Light” score.

Final Thoughts:
“The Passion of Joan of Arc” is the crowning achievement of one of the greatest directorial careers in cinema, and Falconetti delivers a performance for the ages. Criterion's new Blu-ray release provides “Passion” the high-def treatment it deserves, and the new transfer along with the multiple scores (and fps rates!) and other extras make this an early favorite for Blu-ray release of the year.

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Hero


THE HERO (Ray, 1966)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Feb 20, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

I continue to be astonished by Satyajit Ray's ability to breathe life into his characters in the space of a single shot; one line delivery or a quick facial expression provides instant access to a fully-fleshed personality. Ray's films are replete with people whose existence seems to preceded and extend past their time on camera. The viewer simply hitches a ride with them for a few minutes before they move on to other things.

In “The Hero” (1966), matinee idol Arindam Mukherjee (played by the most popular of all Bengali stars, Uttam Kumar) hops a train from Kolkata to Delhi to accept a prize. Within ten minutes of his arrival on the train, writer/director Ray sets a half dozen multi-layered characters into action. Each reacts in some fashion to Mukherjee's presence, yet each character follows their own agenda, all embracing the maxim that everyone considers themselves the main character in the story.

Aditi Sengupta (Sharmila Tagore) edits a magazine called “Modern Woman” and wrestles over whether to interview the star to boost sales or to keep her journal free of superficial movie gossip. Her smitten friend shyly eyes Mukherjee from a distance, giddily recounting his numerous heroic roles. Representing the skeptics, the elderly Mr. Chatterjee (Jogesh Chatterjee) takes every possible opportunity to lecture the actor about the failures of talking pictures, as well as the scientifically established fact that all movie stars are notorious drunks.

Arindam, in an unusually introspective mood after a personal crisis, greets everyone's advances with grace and a sense of detached amusement. In an obvious nod to Marcello Mastroianni's character from “8 1/2” he relies on his handsome looks, his winning smile, and his tinted sunglasses to keep the world at a distance, though Aditi's capacity to listen attentively in a non-judgmental fashion will eventually break through his defenses.

Kumar was a mega-wattage star of the Bengali cinema at the peak of his nearly unparalleled fame, and this was the first time Ray worked with such a commercial juggernaut. The casting prompted some critics to suggest the esteemed arthouse director of “The Apu Trilogy” (1955-59) and “The Music Room” (1958) was selling out, but Ray instead uses the opportunity to muse on his own relationship with actors and with cinema. Viewers should not assume the writer/director agrees with lines such as “A film actor is nothing but a puppet” but there's little doubt that Ray, also an accomplished novelist, composer, and illustrator, is working out some issues with his cinematic work while also poking fun at a mainstream industry that never quite found room for his brand of “alternative” cinema.

Furthering the film's apparent connection to Fellini, Ray presents a series of dreams and flashbacks, the most prominent being a sequence in which Arindam drowns in pools of money, reaching out for a hand that won't quite save him. I find these moments somewhat stilted and unconvincing, and far less satisfying than the rest of the film, though it's possible I am also locked into an overly specific view of what a Satyajit Ray film is “supposed” to look like. Also, I can't stand those scenes in Fellini's films either.

Kumar is utterly charming throughout, and if he's functioning as Ray's “puppet” he's certainly a convincing one, fully invested in the moment just like every Ray performer always seems to be. Sharmila Tagore is a revelation as well. Just seven years after playing the very young bride in “The World of Apu” (1959), she's now (literally, from the title of her magazine) a modern woman who more than holds her own when sharing the screen with a commercial superstar.

Whether or not Arindam really changes by the time the train pulls into Delhi is an open question, but it's certainly been quite a ride both the characters and the viewer. 


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. From the Criterion booklet: “This new digital master was produced from a restoration undertaken by RDB Entertainments under the supervision of Kamal Bansal and Varsha Banal. For the restoration, a digital transfer was created in 2K resolution on an ARRISCAN film scanner from the 35 mm original camera negative and a 35 mm print at Pixion in Chennai, India.”

The image quality and black-and-white contrast are sharp in this 1080p transfer, with a generally bright look throughout. Another strong effort from Criterion.

Audio:
The linear PCM mono audio track isn't designed to overwhelm, mostly just carrying the dialogue clearly. No complaints here. Optional English subtitles support the Bengali audio.

Extras:
Criterion has only included a few extras here, though they're both good.

First up is a 2008 interview (12 min.) with Sharmila Tagore, who doesn't appear to age like other people. She talks about her experiences working with Ray and her progression from child actor to adult actor under Ray's mentorship.

We also get a new interview (25 min.) with film scholar Meheli Sen, who talks in detail about the film's production and reception (it wasn't a hit like many of Ray's earlier films) as well as the unique status star Uttam Kumar had in Bengali film.

The insert booklet includes an essay by author Pico Iyer and a transcript of Satyajit Ray's comments at a 1980 commemorative gathering after Uttam Kumar's death.

Final Thoughts:
I don't think “The Hero” ranks as one of Ray's greatest accomplishments, but a middling Ray film towers over most of the competition. This Criterion releases only offers a few brief extras, but the transfer is strong, and if they feel like eventually releasing every single Ray title as part of the collection, I won't have any objections.

An Actor's Revenge


AN ACTOR'S REVENGE (Ichikawa, 1963)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Feb 20, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

After director Kon Ichikawa ran over budget on several films, his studio saddled him with the unpleasant task of remaking a creaky, cliched revenge movie from the 1930s. Ichikawa responded by transforming the hoary material into a daring, borderline-lunatic, visionary triumph no other filmmaker could have achieved. “An Actor's Revenge” (1963) scores another victory for the auteur theory.

Set in 19th century Edo (now Tokyo), the film opens with a kabuki performance, as rising star Yukinojo (Kazuo Hasegawa) dazzles the crowd as an onnagata, a man who exclusively performs female roles. Like so many shots in the film, the kabuki stage is shrouded almost entirely in darkness, with just Yukinojo visible and radiant in the center. He soon realizes that the audience contains people who wronged his family in the past (a sordid story that will gradually be revealed) and, like a pro, he continues his performance while also plotting his revenge.

Ichikawa showcases his elaborate design plans in this opening sequence of a film that seamlessly combines techniques both hyper-modern and archaic. Each of Yukinojo's intended victims is framed in an insert shot within the frame, hovering above the darkened stage, a device right out of the silent era. A fight shortly afterward takes place in near-total darkness with every inch of the film's widescreen 'scope frame exploited to its fullest. The balance of kinetic explosions and stasis, the contrast of vibrant colors and darkness, and the deployment of huge swathes of negative space lends the film a look and feel that might be described as psychedelic, yet not quite. Phantasmagoric? No, not that either. It's... unique, and simply defies adequate description.

For all the impressive visual flourishes, no effect dazzles as much as the performance of 55-year-old actor Kazuo Hasegawa, who actually performed the same role about thirty years earlier. He certainly hasn't lost his knack for the character. As a consummate professional, Yukinojo remains in onnagata character off-stage as well as on, and the gender ambiguity spices up the film considerably. Wearing a long, flowing dress, his eyes cast down demurely, Yukinojo speaks softly, moves delicately, yet pushes implacably towards his goal, reluctant but always ready to unleash a brutal flurry when forced to flaunt his training as a swordfighter.

The adapted script by Natto Wada (Ichikawa's wife, and writer of the director's masterpieces “The Burmese Harp” and “Fires on the Plain,” among others) features a plot as complex and disorienting as the film's visual design. The numerous twists revolve around the intoxicating effect the androgynous Yukinojo has on his audience, as everyone becomes besotted with him in some fashion, including a beautiful courtesan (Ayako Wakao), a brazen pickpocket (Fujiko Yamamoto), and even another character played by... Kazuo Hasegawa!

Yukinojo's ultimate revenge is truly an actor's revenge, enabled by his ability to assume a series of impromptu roles and to convince numerous people they're getting what they want from him while, in fact, he's playing them all for fools. He doubts himself constantly, and practically begs to be set free for his vow for revenge before doubling his resolve to see it all through to the gory end. The revenge genre has never seen a protagonist quite like Yukinojo.

“An Actor's Revenge” doesn't closely resemble any of the other Ichikawa films I've seen. Then again, it doesn't closely resemble too many films by directors other than Ichikawa either. And it's amazing.


Video:
The film is presented in its glorious original 2.39:1 widescreen aspect ratio. From the Criterion booklet: “This new digital restoration was undertaken from a 4K scan of the 35 mm original camera negative by Kadokawa Corporation at Imagica in Tokyo.” This 1080p transfer is impressive in the usual Criterion way, featuring rich colors and sharp image quality throughout along with a pleasantly grainy look. Setsuo Kobayashi's cinematography is sensational, particularly when focusing on single figures and details against inky black backgrounds, and this restored high-def transfer does his work justice. It's gorgeous.

Audio:
The linear PCM mono audio track is crisp with no noticeable dropoffs and if it sounds relatively flat, it's supposed to. Both evocative sound effects and the moody score by Yasushi Akutagawa and Masao Yagi are treated well here. Optional English subtitles support the Japanese audio.

Extras:
Criterion has included a few interesting extras for this Blu-ray release.

First, we get a lengthy (58 min.) 1999 interview with director Kon Ichikawa conducted for the Directors Guild of Japan, and recorded at his home. Interviewer Yuki Mori isn't shy about fawning over the master, but this is an engaging visit with Ichikawa, still sharp and robust in his 80s.

The disc also includes a new interview with critic and filmmaker Tony Rayns (13 min.) who examines the themes and visual style of the film. Rayns always brings his A-game to any features he's involved with and he provides a comprehensive discussion of the film and several of its players in a brief running time.

The insert booklet includes an essay by film critic Michael Sragow and a 1955 article by Ichikawa discussing his work in widescreen scope formats.

Final Thoughts:
From the very opening scene of “An Actor's Revenge,” you can tell you're in the hands of a master director. The film is so inventive, so dazzling, the viewing experience can even be a bit overwhelming. Ichikawa goes all in, and comes out with a unique masterpiece for the ages. Criterion's release isn't packed with extras, but offers a strong transfer of a truly great film that not enough people have seen.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Night of the Living Dead


NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (Romero, 1968)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Feb 13, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

Watching George Romero's “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) for the … I dunno, 43rd time, 51st time, whatever... I'm now most impressed by the quality and tenor of the television newscasts staged for the film. Sitting at a very plain desk in an equally plain office (OK, it's a low budget movie), a newscaster calmly reads incoming bulletins informing the public that the “unburied dead (are) coming back to life” and “eating their victims.”

No pulsating “Breaking News” graphics, no dramatic musical cues, no insta-commentary from dueling in-house experts, and not even a shred of the hyperbole or exploitation that defines the modern news cycle. Advice to burn the bodies of any loved ones who die so they won't return to eat you is delivered with a rationality and responsibility our modern cable news stations can't muster when covering an impending rainstorm or the revelation (BREAKING NEWS!) that the president wore a tan suit today.

Even live cutaways to reporters in the field promote the sense that everything will sort itself out in due time. A rural sheriff leading a posse of zombie hunter (the film never uses the word zombie, but, yeah, they're zombies) answers a reporter's question with the film's funniest line, “Yeah, they're dead. They're all messed up.” Just a touch of the sly Romero satirical wit that would define his reputation once the “Dead” films became a full-blown franchise. We've got this whole mass-murdering cannibal thing under control.

The news reports don't provide even a hint of an explanation for the undead outbreak until nearly two-thirds of the way through the film (maybe it has to do with an irradiated space probe returning from Venus), a reminder of another of the film's greatest strengths. When Barbra (Judith O'Dea) and her brother Johnny (co-producer Russel Streiner) are attacked by the first zombie, the creature is just briefly glimpsed lumbering in the distant background, and his assault occurs right out of the blue. No exposition, no backstory, no explanation, none of the terrible things that terrible viewers want from their dumb, terrible movies. Zombies just happen, during daylight, right in rural Pittsburgh. They're coming to get you, Barbra, so don't ask why, just run!


Another brilliant flourish in a film as packed with them is the introduction of the film's eventual protagonist, Ben (Duane Jones). A terrified Barbra occupies the screen alone for almost ten minutes after the opening attack as she races for shelter to the house that will contain most of the film's action. Already rattled by seeing her brother's likely death, she's further unnerved by hoary horror cliches like the shock cuts showing the leering stuffed animal heads adorning the living room.

Ben then materializes out of the night, from a pair of hazy headlights, in a similar shock cut, a black man in a film otherwise consisting almost entirely of white characters, both living (for now) and dead. And with that scary intro, Ben instantly displaces the previous protagonist (Barbra) and never relinquishes the lead role, though frequently challenged by other survivors, including the cowardly Mr. Cooper (co-producer Karl Hardman). Racism is never explicitly discussed, even in passing, but racial tensions underscore many scenes, particularly Ben's thumping beatdown of Cooper.

Duane Jones's performance has been oft-praised, and for good reason. Ben is the film's most proactive character by far, the boldest, a mind and body constantly at work as he shoulders almost the entire burden of the group's survival against the massing, shambling hordes. Yet, Romero and co-screenwriter John A. Russo are too savvy to turn even Ben into a saint. His big escape plan goes awry almost instantly, and he winds up taking refuge in the very hiding place he argued so vociferously against for most of the movie – in fact, the selfish, reprehensible Cooper might actually be the one who was right all along. All of which combines to makes the ending, one of the most desolate and despairing in all of cinema, so unforgettable.

Anyway, even after a 53rd or maybe 65th viewing, “Night of the Living Dead” remains as potent and terrifying as ever, and seemingly eternally relevant to whatever the current political and cultural climate may be. No film in the genre Romero single-handedly created has ever topped or even matched it. Except maybe for Romero's next “Dead” film. And maybe the one after that. 


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio.

“Night of the Living Dead” lapsed into public domain a long time ago, which means that versions of the film in many formats have been both plentiful and usually substandard, though some quality releases exist. This Criterion release provides the film in the best version in which I have ever seen it. From the booklet, “This restoration by the Museum of Modern Art and The Film Foundation, with funding provided by the George Lucas Family Foundation and the Celeste Bartos Fund for Film Preservation, was undertaken from a new digital transfer created in 4K resolution on Cineric's wet-gate film scanner, primarily from the 35 mm original camera negative.” A few shots required the use of a 35 mm fine-grain positive.

The image quality is sharp with particularly strong black-and-white contrast, and not a single noteworthy blemish in sight. The transfer doesn't look quite as grainy as you might expect or want for this gritty low-budget B&W film, but this transfer is simply excellent overall, really shining with the detail visible in some of the darker shots.

Audio:
The film is presented with an LPCM mono audio track which sounds appropriately sparse and hollow. Romero and crew used both synchronized sound and post-production sound, so the quality of the dialogue varies, but that's endemic to the source, and it's all just fine. The soundtrack consists entirely of library music that was cheaply available at the time, and sounds good enough on this mix. Optional SDH English subtitles support the audio.

Extras:
Criterion's two-disc Blu-ray release arrives absolutely jam packed with extras, some old, and some new. I will try to keep it as brief as possible.

Disc One includes the feature film, which is accompanied by two full-length commentary tracks, both recorded way back in 1994. The first track features George Romero, producer-actor Karl Hardman, actress Marilyn Eastman, and co-writer John Russo. The second track brings together producer-actor Russell Streiner, production director Vincent Survinski, and several cast members.

Disc One also includes “Night of Anubis” (1968, 85 min.), an uncorrected 16mm work print of “Living Dead” under an earlier title, with some different credits, and also missing several scenes. There's nothing much new here, so it's basically just a chance to watch a lower-quality, incomplete version of the movie. Producer-actor Russell Streiner provides a short introduction.

Disc Two kicks off with “Light in the Darkness” (2017, 24 min.), a new feature that mixes together interviews with directors Guillermo del Toro, Robert Rodriguez, and Frank Darabont.

We also get 18 minutes worth of “Dailies”, some listed as never being seen before. This is a reel of silent footage from the film's production, mostly takes not used in the movie. You can also watch an introduction to the Dailies by sound engineer Gary Streiner.

“Learning from Scratch” (2017, 12 min.) is a new interview with co-writer John Russo who mostly discusses his years with Latent Image, the film company co-founded by a young George Romero, where he and his crew honed their craft working on commercials. Russo argues that many of the lessons they learned paid off big time in “Living Dead.”

“Limitations Into Virtues” (2017, 12 min.) is a new visual analysis by filmmakers Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos. I liked this feature a lot. The central argument is that the film's dynamic feel stems from the balance between synchronized sound footage (where the camera had to be stationary on a tripod) and the footage shot without sound where the hand-held camera could roam freely.

“Walking Like the Dead” (13 min.) mixes together interviews from a 2009 documentary in which several extras discuss how they portrayed the living dead.

In “Tones of Terror” (2017, 11 min.), producer Jim Cironella discusses the film's use of library music.

In addition to this new footage, the disc includes a great deal of archival material, starting with a “TV Newsreel” recorded by Pittsburgh-area newscaster Bill “Chilly Billy” Cardille, who also appeared as a field reporter in the movie. According to the disc, this three-minutes of silent footage is the only “behind-the-scenes” material from the film's production. It's not exactly revelatory, but it's nice to have.

“Higher Learning” provides a lengthy (45 min.) interview with George Romero, conducted by Colin Geddes after a 2012 screening of “Living Dead” at a Toronto International Film Festival venue.

We also get excerpts (18 min.) from the July 3, 1979 episode of “Tomorrow” hosted by Tom Snyder, on which both George Romero and “Phantasm” director Don Coscarelli are interviewed about their latest films and the appeal of horror in general.

We also get an interview with actress Judith Ridley (1994, 11 min.) and an audio-only interview with star Duane Jones (1987, 22 min.). Conducted by journalist Tim Ferrante, this is one of the few interviews in which Jones spoke at any length about his involvement with the film. The disc also includes a very brief (32 sec.) and rather pointless snippet of a newsreel about the Mariner 5 space probe, a loose inspiration for one small aspect of the film.

Finally, the disc wraps up with two Trailers (one from 1968, one from 2017), and several TV and Radio Spots.

The fold-out insert booklet features an essay by film critic Stuart Klawans.

Final Thoughts:
“Night of the Living Dead” barely made a tent culturally or commercially on its initial 1968 run, but became a phenomenon after its 1970 re-release. Fifty years later, it's difficult to think of a substantially more influential American film over the same period. Criterion's high-def release provides both a high-quality transfer and a bevy of extras, and will wind up as a must-own for any Romero fan.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Shoes


SHOES (Weber and Smalley, 1916)
Milestone Films, Blu-ray, Release Date Feb 6, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

Lois Weber may not be a widely-recognized name today, but in the silent era she was described by the industrial press not only as the top “woman director” but simply as one of the top directors in America. Known best for her socially earnest “problem films” from 1914-1921 (her career extended into the sound era, however), Weber was, at her peak, the highest paid director at Universal, and was also considered one of the young industry's major innovators. In the words of film scholar Shelly Stamp, Weber was viewed as one of the “three great minds” of early American cinema along with D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille.

Weber's reputation has since been eclipsed by her male peers for reasons both complex (the lapsing of a distribution deal with Paramount in 1922, health problems) and predictably simple (take a guess), but Milestone Films has made it their latest mission to remedy her unfair marginalization. Their Blu-ray release of the silent feature “Shoes” (1916), which Weber co-directed with husband and business partner Phillips Smalley, makes a convincing argument that many of us have been missing out on a special talent.

Based on a short story by Stella Wynne Herron which itself was inspired by the writing of social reformer Jane Addams, “Shoes” relates the straightforward story of working-class girl Eva Mayer, who toils all day but still can't save enough money to buy a desperately needed new pair of shoes. Each night, she rips away her makeshift cardboard soles and cuts out new ones so she can trudge through the rain-soaked streets of Los Angeles to her dead-end job at a five-and-dime store, only to hand all her earnings over to her mother to help support their large family.

Weber emphasizes the everyday plight of the working-class woman, but her focus on social realism still allows room for some highly stylized flourishes, including a literal “hand of poverty” reaching down to strangle young Eva in a nightmare. Eva doesn't merely wallow helplessly in her plight either, a mere sad sack intended to generate audience sympathy. She rages at her lazy no-good father who lays about all day reading instead of beating the streets to find a job. The soles of his shoes aren't nearly so worn. And she fends off the wolves as nobly and for as long as she can.

Eva is portrayed by one of Weber's discoveries, 16-year-old Mary MacLaren, plucked from the stage for the start of a film career that would extend into the 1940s. The teenager brings a poise and gravitas beyond her years to the role, rendering the moment (teased in the film's opening sequence) when she finally sells herself for that pair of shoes all the more poignant. A medium close-up on Eva as she sits in the Blue Goose Club and a man's hand caresses her shoulder is genuinely chilling. Though the plot is fairly standard-issue melodrama for most of the film, the ending achieves a kind of transcendence when mother reacts with understanding and compassion to her “fallen” daughter, all while a genuinely clueless father fails to understand why everyone isn't paying more attention to him. Even in the immediate aftermath of great personal tragedy, life must and will go on. 


Video:
Another reason Weber's fame has been obscured over the years is that so few of her films have survived. “Shoes” is one of the few exceptions, but its continued existence has been a perilous one, The restoration of this film, helmed by the EYE Filmmuseum in Amsterdam, was sourced from two different nitrate prints (one tinted, one toned) and also partially from a safety copy of the short re-edited “spoof” version of the film released as “Unshod Maiden” in 1932 (see Extras below).

The nitrate prints remained structurally intact, but suffered from considerable bacterial damage, resulting in white spots throughout the print. In one scene, these spots consume most of the frame, but in the majority of scenes, they lurk along the edges. Even considerable restoration efforts can only clean up so much. But even with this invasive damage, the image has the soft, luminous quality you only get from nitrate prints of this era, so beautiful, so damn flammable.

Audio:
Composers Donald Sosin and Mimi Rabson have provided a new score for the release of this silent film, and it sounds great.

Extras:
As always, Milestone has unearthed a bevy of extras on this release.

Let me start with one of the most remarkable and startling extra features I've ever seen. Remarkable, of course, does not automatically imply good. “Unshod Maiden” (1932, 10 min.) is a “Universal Brevity,” a short-lived (though not short-lived enough) series in which old silent films in the company catalog were sharply cut down and then re-purposed with new voice-over tracks.

A smug male narrator cracks one snarky joke after another over re-cut footage of “Shoes”, heaping derision on Eva, now identified as Mary: “In Mary's inmost soul, she felt like a heel.” The scumbag narrator transforms this tragedy about an impoverished woman driven to prostitution into a comedy, with the final punchline, “And that's how Mary learned to play the saxophone.” You'll want to reach back 85 years and strangle this bastard.

In an accompanying feature (7 min.), film scholar Richard Koszarski explains the motivation behind this Universal Brevities line, released at a time (just a few years into the sound era!) when silent films were viewed, by some money-grubbing studio execs at least, as hopelessly antiquated and useful only as objects for the vastly more sophisticated audiences of 1932 to mock. In other words, people never change.

The feature “Shoes” is accompanied by a commentary track by film scholar Shelley Stamp, author of “Lois Weber in Early Hollywood” and it's a top notch effort in every way. In addition, Milestone has included an audio interview with actress Mary MacLaren as a second audio commentary option though, of course, the interview does not correspond to the film the way most commentaries do. It was conducted in 1971 by Richard Koszarski.

We also get two short features about the restoration of the film by the EYE Filmmuseum in Amsterdam, running five minutes apiece.

The copy on the back of the Blu-ray also mentions the inclusion of the short film “The Price” (1911, 13 min.), written by and starring Lois Weber and husband Phillips Smalley. However, the film didn't make the disc, but has been made available online instead by Milestone at this link.

Final Thoughts:
“Shoes” tells a fairly conventional melodrama with efficiency, visual panache, and a moral force that becomes undeniable by the film's potent conclusion. Young Mary MacLaren is exceptional too. Milestone's release includes both the restored film and an impressive array of extras. I can't wait for Mileston'e upcoming release of “The Dumb Girl of Portici” (1916), starring legendary Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. I've already seen the movie and it's great – Milestone's Blu-ray release promises to be something special and should be available soon.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Kameradschaft


KAMERADSCHAFT (Pabst, 1931)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Jan 30, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

Based on a real 1906 coal mine accident in France but updated to 1930-ish and transplanted to the French-German border, G.W. Pabst's “Kameradschaft” (1931) opens on a note of despair. Not the disaster that will claim the lives of many miners, but rather the deep-seated nationalist divisions responsible for millions more deaths. German workers try to cross the French border each day, but are turned back so they won't steal jobs from French miners who might have steady work, but little more, and surely not enough to share with foreigners. Tensions manifest on more personal terms when a German man in a French bar abruptly finds himself surrounded by a mob itching for a fight.

Centuries-old ethnic tensions are quickly forgotten, however, when the first underground explosion sends a plume of black smoke belching into the sky above the French coal town. The warning “Gas! Clear out!” is met from across the border by the cry “A miner is a miner!” as German workers spring into action to help their French compatriots, though only after a struggle to secure permission from their bosses, who don't necessarily feel the same sense of solidarity as the proletariat.

Just a few years into his sound film career, Pabst uses cinema's newest dimension to remarkable effect, most notably with the relentless clanging on metal pipes used to signal rescuers. Creaking and rumbling, both near and distant, constantly heightens the sense of imminent danger as one section of the mine after another gives, soon leaving little hope for salvation, little but still some. After the unrelenting grimness of his World War I movie, “Westfront 1918” (1930), Pabst appears more inclined to believe in the potential of a happy ending as long as good people work together towards a common cause.

Some of the stage sets are a bit too large to evoke the true claustrophobia one might expect from a mining disaster, but the wider space gives Fritz Arno Wagner, one of the most celebrated German cinematographers of the era (ever heard of the Wagner projects “Nosferatu” and “M”?), ample room to explore every corner of these crumbling rooms with highly calibrated precision. It really is a remarkably filmed movie – I'm thinking in particular right now of the way the camera traces the miners' desperate search for a ringing phone amidst the rubble, hoping to preserve their one last longshot at salvation, but Pabst and Wagner concoct one astonishing shot after another.

Of course, the film doesn't suggest that one instance of solidarity will erase the nationalist stain. The tragicomic spectacle of a marker noting the exact spot of the French-German border about half a mile underground provides testament to the enduring stupidity of humans from all countries, but “Kameradschaft” also argues that they occasionally have the capacity to achieve something transcendent.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.19:1 aspect ratio, an unusual ratio used in the earliest years of sound cinema. The 2014 restoration by the Deutsche Kinemathek was created from a 35 mm duplicate positive of the German version of the film from the BFI archives, but the final scenes were taken from a 35 mm nitrate original camera negative of the French version from the CNC in Paris. The high-def transfer isn't nearly as strong as the one on Criterion's release of Pabst's “Westfront 1918.” It looks a bit soft at times and somewhat unnaturally smooth, less grainy than one would like. There are also several instances of damage visible throughout, no doubt endemic to the source prints, as well as a few missing frames skipped along the way. And the quality drops off notably at the end. Still, it's a strong enough presentation for such a fine film.

Audio:
The linear PCM mono audio track has a few dropoffs, with a particularly noticeable one at the end when we switch to the French source print, and has an overall hollow, tinny quality. It's OK, but nothing special, and it's clear enough throughout. Optional English subtitles support the German and French audio.

Extras:
Criterion hasn't quite stacked the disc with extras as they usually do, but we get nearly an hours' worth of illuminating interviews.

First up, film scholar Hermann Barth (2016, 30 min.) discusses both Pabst's career and the film's production, with the helpful observation that Pabst was actually more popular in France than in Germany at the time, making the choice of subject matter for this film a natural fit. Barth also offers a detailed analysis of the script in various drafts, and the changes when the project was finally brought to screen.

Film scholar Jan-Christopher Horak (2016, 15 min.), also featured on Criterion's “Westfront 1918” release, returns with more information, including the fact that the film was originally released without subtitles, so French viewers wouldn't understand the German speakers, and vice-versa. He also talks briefly about Pabst's career after the film, including both his brief move to Hollywood in the early '30s and his unfortunate return to Austria at the end of the decade.

We also get an audio-only interview with the film's editor Jean Oser from 1988 (12 min.) Some of the video played with his audio shows an alternate cut for the film's French release.

The insert booklet includes an essay by author and critic Luc Sante as well as the short 1930 text by writer Karl Otten on which the film was partially based.

Final Thoughts:
Pabst's career peak may not have extended long past the early '30s, but Criterion's dual releases of “Westfront 1918” and “Kameradschaft” prove clearly he had little trouble negotiating the transition to sound. This lean thriller may not quite be what you expect from the director if, like me, you know him best from films like “Pandora's Box” (1929), but it's tense, briskly-paced and quite riveting.

Westfront 1918


WESTFRONT 1918 (Pabst, 1930)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Jan 30, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

The naivete of a virginal student, the cheerfulness of a working-class Bavarian man, the hard-earned experience of an army lieutenant, the reluctant stoicism of of another infantry grunt – a wide gamut of personality traits and defense mechanisms, each pierced with equal disregard by steel-core bullets in G.W. Pabst's grim World War I movie, “Westfront 1918” (1930).

Pabst is best known today for his two silent Louise Brooks vehicles, “Pandora's Box” (1929) and “Diary of A Lost Girl” (1929), but most of his sound films aside from “The Threepenny Opera” (1931) remain largely overlooked. Criterion's twin releases this week, “Westfront 1918” and “Kameradschaft”(1931), prove that the great Austrian director made the transition to sound as smoothly as anyone.

“Westfront 1918” begins with the battle away from the front lines, as a group of soldiers relentlessly paw at a young woman (“Mine next!”) who has a full-time job fending off their advances before finding her way into the arms of her young lover, the aforementioned student. Later, the film will focus on the desperate straits of the German citizens suffering from wartime shortages, including endless food lines and a soldier's wife forced into dire measures to pay the bills while her husband is at war.

For all the attention lavished on the homefront, Pabst and screenwriter Ladislaus Vajda, adapting a novel by Ernst Johannsen, reach their heights when evoking the horrors of life and death in the trenches. Bravery is in no short supply, but it's defined not by grand heroic gestures, rather by the ability to endure the constant terror of slaughter, as likely to come from errant “friendly” fire as from the enemy hidden a few hundred yards away in the other trenches.

Death can arrive from anywhere and at any time. A soldier reaches to test a small wound on his neck and just has time to exclaim “Well, I'll be” before pitching forward. A small group of terrified men try to prop up a crumbling wall in one of their makeshift shelters, as the very structure built to protect them now threatens to bury them alive. There is nowhere to hide, and there never will be.

Like the best directors exploring the uncharted dimensions of sound cinema, Pabst doesn't pour on the sound design simply to simulate realism, but deploys sound selectively for specific expressive effects. The low whistle of an incoming shell is all the more frightening because of the relative silence it shatters. Pabst shot many scenes silently, layering in sound in post-production, freeing the camera to guide as fluidly as in his earlier films, though he also used synchronized sound in the few more dialogue-heavy sequences.

“Westfront 1918” generates much of its considerable power from the array of faces and bodies of all kinds documented by the camera, but never more so than during the hellscape that ends the movie, a makeshift hospital littered with the dead and dismembered, the living still unable to believe they no longer have legs or arms. The film's final note hardly inspires even the faintest shred of hope as a helpless man criesout for water. We fade-out before learning if anyone is left to hear him.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.19:1 ratio, a narrower ratio employed in the early days of sound film. The original camera negative is lost, and this 2014 restoration by the Deutsche Kinemathek relies on a 35 mm duplicate positive held at BFI, and a 35 mm duplicate negative from Praesans-Film AG to replace shots missing from the positive print. Considering the extensive restoration necessary, this high-def transfer looks remarkably sharp and shows off a grainy depth with surprising detail even in some of the darker scenes. There are a few instances of damage visible, but the final product is quite impressive.

Audio:
The linear PCM mono audio track sounds a bit hollow but is otherwise clear and consistent throughout. Optional English subtitles support the German audio.

Extras:
Criterion has unearthed one unexpected feature, a lengthy (71 min.) interview with several World War I vets, both German and French, who discuss their reactions to the film. As a group, they find it quite powerful and realistic. The interview was originally aired (along with the film) on a Nov 12, 1969 episode of the French TV program “Les Dossiers de l'Ecran.”

The disc also includes an archival audio-only interview (1988, 3 min.) with the film's editor Jean Oser, who mostly discusses how his early approach to what later would come to be known as Foley sound work.

We also get a new interview (2016, 18 min.) with film scholar Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film and Television Archive. He contrasts Pabst's film with Lewis Milestone's “All Quiet on the Western Front,” released at almost the same time, and then provides some fascinating details about the production of Pabst's film as well as about some of the cast members.

Finally, the disc includes a Restoration Demonstration (9 min.), featuring members of the team at Deutsche Kinemathek. I'm always riveted by this restoration featurettes and wish they were longer.

The slim fold-out insert booklet features an essay by author and critic Luc Sante.

Final Thoughts:
Many viewers know Pabst past as a master of silent cinema, but his first sound film ranks comfortably among his very best. Criterion has provided a strong high-def transfer of this recently restored film along with a solid collection of extra features. Obviously, this release is strongly recommended.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Claude Autant-Lara: Four Romantic Escapes


CLAUDE AUTANT-LARA: FOUR ROMANTIC ESCAPES FROM OCCUPIED FRANCE (1942-1946)
Criterion Collection (Eclipse Set), DVD, Release Date Jan 23, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long


During the Nazi Occupation, French director Claude Autant-Lara reeled off a series of box-office hits that struck a chord with audiences eager for a romantic escape from desperate times. He extended his commercial success through the post-war years, but then suddenly found himself under attack from an unexpected source.

Francois Truffaut's now-famous 1954 critique of “A Certain Tendency” in French cinema primarily targeted screenwriters Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost for their staid literary adaptations, but since they wrote many of Autant-Lara's most successful films (including all the films in this set) the director took heavy collateral damage and increasingly found his work marginalized as an exemplar of the dreaded “tradition of quality.” This new four-film box set from Eclipse suggests that the scorn was mostly unwarranted, and that a concerted critical effort at latter-day redemption is equally unnecessary.

“Le Mariage de Chiffon” (1942) is typical of most of the set. Pleasant, efficient, and almost instantly forgettable, it features Odette Joyeux, the stand-out star of the set, as a sheltered 16-year-old from an aristocratic family who is pursued by a much older military officer (Andre Luguet). Chiffon, however, has her heart set on another much older man who also happens to be her uncle (Jacques Dumesnil). OK, he's actually the brother of her step-father but still... I guess the times were just different as this story was apparently considered charming. Joyeux was nearly thirty at the time and hardly makes a pretense at actually playing an innocent teen, blunting some of the gross-out factor.

The plot is largely forgettable (did I already use that word?), but the film evokes some of the romance of the earl days of aviation as good old Uncle Marc risks everything to be first in flight. The faithful house servant Jean is also brought to life quite gamely by Pierre Larquey. A graceful, unobtrusive camera glides through many scenes, underscoring the delicate, audience-pleasing romance of... an underage girl finally hooking up with her uncle.

Anyway, it's just fine, but I can't say the same thing for “Lettres D'Amour” (1942) where the light, romantic touch tilts into vapidity. Less than a year after playing a teenager, Joyeux now plays a widow who gets enmeshed in a mistaken-identity caper in mid-19th century France, a convoluted tale involving Emperor Napoleon III, a lawyer, and nobody else that really matters much. While the camerawork remains smooth here, the editing is sometimes clunky, including a sequence when one character steals an object and is shown in multiple cuts leaving the room, walking away from the house, then entering yetanother room, a deft manipulation of scene transitions right out of the Tommy Wiseau school of filmmaking.

Fortunately, the next film, “Douce” (1943), is the stand-out feature in the set. Another tale of dueling romances, “Douce” strikes a much more serious tone. Joyeux returns to playing an aristocratic teen, or something close to a teen, who uncovers a plot between her governess (Madeleine Robinson) and the family's estate manager (Roger Pigaut) and decides to stop it by seducing the manager, a long-time crush of hers. The wealthy household is ruled by Douce's fiery grandmother (Marguerite Moreno) while her sad-eyed father (Jean Debucourt), a widower, largely plays the helpless bystander as the drama boils over. Marred by a final twist so abrupt it comes off as absurd, “Douce” still packs a punch and features Joyeux's most compelling performance in the set.

“Sylive et le Fantome” (1946) was released just after the war, and marries Autant-Lara's penchant for light romance with the ghost story genre as Joyeux, yet again playing a teen, falls for a long-dead man who played a role in her family's past. The story is pretty silly, but the film remains of interest because the ghost (or one of the ghosts) is played by the great Jacques Tati, in his first feature-film role. You honestly don't need to know more than that, so let's move on.

All in all, the collection comprises a group of mildly entertaining movies, not particularly noteworthy, but also not the abominations some assumed they were after Truffaut's critique. Are they therefore worth your time? Consider one complicating factor before making your decision.

Autant-Lara's public career ended in total disgrace. By the 1980s, he had embraced far-right politics and entered the European Parliament with Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front, launching a series of anti-Semitic attacks, and spewing Holocaust denial propaganda.

Many a think-piece has been written on how to approach the works of great artists who leave behind troubling legacies, but less thought is devoted to mediocre artists who do the same. I usually agree with the “separate the art from the artists” school of thought, but it also depends on how worthwhile the art is. I intend to keep listening to Richard Wagner for the rest of my life, but I feel I can safely live without any more Ted Nugent even if “Cat Scratch Fever” is pretty decent.

All art should be preserved and preferably be made available to as wide an audience as is feasible. But while you might be curious about a sweet, sunny, mildly diverting romantic farce by a future Holocaust Denier, nobody will blame you if you decide you have other priorities in life.


Video:
“Le Mariage de Chiffon” and “Lettres D'Amour” are presented in 1.37 aspect ratios, the other two films in 1.33:1.

Like all Eclipse releases, all four films are offered with standard definition transfers, with little, if any, new restoration for the set. The image quality is still surprisingly strong considering that, though the quality varies with each film. “Lettres D'Amour” shows more intermittent damage from the source print than do the other films. All four films are black-and-white, and the B&W contrast is satisfyingly robust on all films.

Audio:
All four films are presented with Dolby 2.0 mono sound mixes, which qualify as efficient and functional, and nothing more. Optional English subtitles are provided to support the French audio.

Extras:
Each disc is stored in a separate slim keepcase with its own cover art, with all four cases tucked into the now-familiar Eclipse cardboard sleeve.

As with most Eclipse releases, no extras are offered beyond the liner notes included with each disc, all of which are written by writer and translator Nicholas Elliott.

Final Thoughts:
It's great to have the Eclipse series back after a two-year hiatus, disappointing that the 45th installment may also be the least compelling of the series. April brings the next installment with Ingrid Bergman's Swedish years, so perhaps Eclipse will now return to a regular schedule, a welcome development for any film buff.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Some Thoughts From A Year Of Not Really Watching Films



MY FAVORITE FILMS OF 2017, OF WHICH I DID NOT SEE THAT MANY

mother! (Aronofsky)
A Quiet Passion (Davies)
The Death of Louis XIV (Serra)
Ex Libris (Wiseman)
Wormwood (Morris)
Jane (Morgen)
Columbus (Kogonada)
Song to Song (Malick)
Logan (Mangold)
The Beguiled (S Coppola)
The Square (Ostlund)

I saw fewer new theatrical releases in 2017 than in any other year this century, so I don't intend this as anything resembling a representative sampling of the most recent twelve months of cinema, a subject which holds increasingly less interest for me. I consider Criterion's release of “Barry Lyndon” on Blu-ray the major movie event of 2017.

Except for “mother!” 

I love “mother!” from its tiny little “m” to its glorious ! I love “mother!” so much I considered just listing it ten times and posting it as my top ten without further comment. Except maybe for a few extra !s. Like The Simpsons' “Man Getting Hit By Football” it works on so many levels. It's funny, it's frighteninging, it's a vivid depiction of the misogynistic horrors propagated by Christian mythology and male ego, it captures the naked terror of exposing your personal art to an audience, and it's exquisitely filmed from just a handful of efficient camera setups. Jennifer Lawrence and Michelle Pfeiffer are perfect, and, oh lord, the sound design... it's damned exciting, gonzo filmmaking. Really, I love it so much I need to wait a few more months before I can do more than gush. Naturally, critics couldn't wait to take a dump on it. I hope Aronofsky doesn't get tired of casting pearls. Illegitimi non carborundum, darren!

As much as I love, love, love the movie, I found several of the skeptical takes on “mother!” both reasonable and insightful, and I often found myself responding “You're not wrong... but that's exactly what I want from a movie.” The tiny handful of viciously negative takes on “A Quiet Passion” were, by contrast, nothing short of baffling. Cynthia Nixon delivers the performance of the century as a righteously indignant Emily Dickinson in Terence Davies' semi-biopic, the best film about an artist this side of Peter Watkins' magisterial “Edvard Munch” (1974). The weirdest, wrongest take of all is the weird, wrong suggestion that Nixon's portrayal of a “difficult” protagonist somehow makes her character unsympathetic. One critic even described Nixon's Dickinson as a “harridan.” WTF? I was moved to tears, felt a desperate urge to apologize to Dickinson across the centuries on behalf of a fallen world that didn't deserve her, and, above all, to read lots and lots of her poetry as one modest act of contrition.

Albert Serra's “The Death of Louis XIV” would have been a heck of a movie no matter the lead, but casting little Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) as the setting Sun King is the year's stroke of genuine inspiration. How can any cinephile not compare teenage Leaud in freeze frame circa 1959 to this craggy, withered, royal wreck and marvel at the special power of cinema? Great, gangrenous Louis waits (in full regal luxury, mind you) for the inevitable end that sure takes its sweet time arriving, while his faithful advisers fuss nervously in hushed, helpless meetings. The array of charlatans who propose ineffective cures provide some of the year's quietest comic scenes – bull semen cocktails for all! Paired with Roberto Rossellini's extraordinary“The Taking Of Power By Louis XIV” (1966), Serra's gem may vault Louis into the lead as the most cinematic European monarch ahead of Elizabeth I and Henry VIII. Now we just need a film about Louis' passion for ballet to complete the grand historic trilogy. If it turns one has already been made, feel free to let me know.

Any year which produces new films from documentary masters Frederick Wiseman and Errol Morris should be appreciated. “Ex Libris” turns Wiseman's studied eye to the glorious institution of the sprawling New York Public Library, proven here to be as vital as ever from boardroom meetings to dynamic guest speakers to endless shelves of real, actual, physical, beautiful books. In the six-part Netflix series “Wormwood,” Morris leads viewers through a few twists of the labyrinthine story of scientist Frank Olson, alleged to have jumped to his death from a New York hotel room in 1953, but possibly killed by the CIA because... well, because it's the sort of thing that CIA guys really get off on. Maybe. Eric Olson, Frank's son, still fighting (perhaps both futilely as well as nobly) for justice emerges as one of the year's most compelling characters. Both films showcase their directors' attention to detail and passion for rational investigation, though “Wormwood” also underscores the limits of empiricism when evidence proves elusive – that doesn't mean you stop digging, though! Both documentaries are sensational and my only complaint about each: too damn short.

The rest, in brief: “Jane” spins some glorious color footage of young Jane Goodall in Tanzania in the 1960s into one of the more beautiful documentaries of recent years. “Columbus,” the debut feature by director Kogonada (familiar to Criterion fans for some great extras features), turns architecture into a way of life and love and gives actors Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho ample room to shine. “Song to Song” is probably my least favorite recent Malick, but give me a chance to rewatch it and I may change my mind. Least favorite recent Malick still equals one of the year's best, of course.

Oh my god, Patrick Stewart is so great in “Logan.”

They don't have to be in competition, but I think Sofia Coppola improved on Don Siegel's original “The Beguiled” (1971). At the very least, she made it her own film, a fresh remake that actually has a reason to exist. “The Square” is a bit too long for my taste, and not nearly as good as “Force Majeure,” but Ruben Ostlund is becoming one of the modern masters of the squirm-laugh.

I greatly disliked a good deal of the year's critically praised movies, many of them likely award winners, but rather than mentioning duds like “The Shape of Water” or “Wind River” or “Three Billboards Blah Blah Blah” I'll limit myself to venting my spleen at “I, Tonya.” It's cruel, stupid, glib, condescending, and so incompetently made, it earned a glowing 90% approval from the Tomatogentsia, compelling evidence that we get the president we deserve. After a wearying year of unprecedented cognitive dissonance from every news source, I can't even face the prospect of speaking with someone who can't recognize what complete garbage this loathsome nothing of a movie is, and so I will never volunteer to speak of it again.