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. 

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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. 

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.

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.

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 (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. 

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.

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

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.