Thursday, June 21, 2018

Manila In The Claws Of Light


MANILA IN THE CLAWS OF LIGHT (Brocka, 1975)
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.


Video:
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.

Audio:
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.

Extras:
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


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. 


Video:
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.

Audio:
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.

Extras:
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


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.


Video:
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.

Audio:
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.

Extras:
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.

REASON ONE: Nobody

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. 



Video:
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.

Audio:
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.

Extras:
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.

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.