Thursday, December 20, 2018

A Story From Chikamatsu

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Nov 13, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

Released just two years before Kenji Mizoguchi's death from leukemia at age 58, “A Story From Chikamatsu” (1954) shows the Japanese master continuing to experiment with form more than thirty years after his career began during the silent era.

The film adapts an 18th century play, but actually takes its name from the author, the celebrated playwright Monzaemon Chikamatsu who specialized in “double-suicide” stories, tragedies about doomed lovers. The doomed lovers here are Osan (Kyoko Kagawa), the much younger wife of a wealthy and cruel scroll merchant (Eitaro Shindo), and one of the merchant's apprentices, Mohei (Kazuo Hasegawa). An act of kindness by Mohei to help his master's wife out of a financial bind results in the two of them being forced to flee as fugitives. The penalty for adultery (a mere accusation will suffice) is a brutal one in this rigid law-and-order society, as one might glean from the film's alternate title in some countries, “The Crucified Lovers.”

In adapting Chikamatsu's play, Mizoguchi also incorporated some of the traditions of the bunraku theater (a form of puppet theater) in which the playwright often worked. Though there is a scene where Mohei cradles Osan at his side to lift her over a stretch of muddy water, it would be an exaggeration to say Mizoguchi directs his actors just like puppets. However, in many scenes, the actors' movements are tightly controlled, with a relatively distant camera situating them against the backdrop of the stage.

The shooting style doesn't really mark a major departure for Mizoguchi, always known for his long takes and lack of close-ups, but the film's sound design, borrowing heavily from theater, is more radical. Wooden clappers pound out an intense rhythm, sometimes banging loudly enough to jar the listener. Metallic clangs and insistent drums fill out the heavy percussion, accompanied by the more familiar plucked strings of the shamisen. The score (credited to Fumio Hayasaka, Tamezo Mochizuki, and Enjiro Toyosawa) draws enough attention to itself to be as prominent a feature as the narrative or the actors themselves. I'll leave it to real experts to determine exactly to what degree the music replicates the traditions of bunraku theater.

Mizoguchi combines these creative elements to depict a merciless society ruled by a disciplinarian ethos, where “justice” is determined exclusively by power and class. The slightest infraction is deemed punishable by death, and the lower-caste victims have internalized their oppression so much that they deem it a matter of honor to sacrifice themselves for the good of the rulers. In one of the most poignant scenes, Mohei's father expresses his deep contempt for his son's violation of the societal code, though he is not without compassion. The story revolves around a series of abuses and betrayals, but empathy and love transform the inevitable tragedy into a personal triumph of sorts, the only kind of victory the players can earn in a rigged game. At least, in the end, they will achieve the very thing every force in society conspired against: they will be together. 

The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. This “new 4K digital restoration” looks very sharp throughout with strong contrast in the black-and-white image. I feel like I wind up saying more or less the same thing with every Criterion high-def presentation of black-and-white films, but there's not much else to say. It looks great, with very little visible damage in this 60-year-old film.

The LPCM mono audio mix is sharp and seems to do a fine job of presenting the distinct sound mix of this film, capturing all of those percussive beats at their sharpest. Optional English subtitles support the Japanese audio.

The extras here are fairly slim for a Criterion release.

First up is a new interview (11 min.) with actress Kyoko Kasawa. Kasawa had already played the noble, sacrificing sister Anju in Mizoguchi's magnificent “Sansho TheBailiff” (and also appeared in Ozu's equally magnificent “Tokyo Story”) but she describes “Chikamatsu” as the first film in which she really learned the craft of acting.

We also get a lengthy video essay (2018, 41 min.) by film scholar Dudley Andrew, who focuses on the ways in which “Chikamatsu” is influenced by bunraku theater, though he also touches on a variety of other subjects.

The slim fold-out insert booklet features an essay by film critic Haden Guest.

Final Thoughts:
“A Story From Chikamatsu” is the ninth Mizoguchi film in the Criterion/Eclipse collection. It may not have as high a profile as titles like “Sansho the Bailiff” or “Ugestu” but it's a late-career gem from one of the greatest directors. The extras are on the slim side, but still engaging, and the restored high-def transfer is excellent.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Forty Guns

FORTY GUNS (Fuller, 1957)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Dec 11, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

“She's a high-ridin' woman with a whip!”

The theme song of Samuel Fuller's “Forty Guns” (1957) promises greatness, and the opening shot sure delivers. As the three heroic Bonnell brothers ride into town, their rickety little horse cart is nearly blown off the winding dirt road by Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck), decked out in black and ridin' high (though sans whip) on a white stallion. She kicks up a swirling cloud of dust in advance of the long line of men (her forty guns, splitting to the edges of the Cinemascope frame) trailing behind her. The Bonnells can only gasp in awe as she races away, not even noticing them.

Eventually, Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan) will prove man enough to earn Jessica's attention. The legendary gun fighter who avoids shootouts because he “can't miss” can't help but be fascinated by the woman who rules over a sprawling business empire. The two alpha personalities have something else in common, pesky little brothers weighing them down. In Griff's case, it's just eager beaver Chico (Robert Dix) desperate to prove he's man enough to assist big brother. For Jessica, it's the rotten-to-the-core Brockie (John Ericson), the kind of low-down owlhoot who'd shoot a blind man just for laughs.

Shooting independently, though with financing from Fox, Fuller indulges his pulpiest sensibilities, producing the florid but gritty style that made him a cinephile favorite. His punchy script is replete with shameless double entendres. Jessica asks Griff for his gun: “Can I feel it?” Griff: “It might go off in your face.” Fuller frames one view of actress Eve Brent from the inside of a rifle barrel, an early version of the trademark James Bond credits shot.

Stanwyck clearly relishes her role as the kind of woman who, as the song informs us, “commands and men obey.” In an inspired bit of staging, Griff delivers a legal warrant to Jessica while she dines at her compound. She sits at the head of a very long table with twenty men on each side, and the warrant is passed from man to man (Cinemascope at work again) before being placed respectfully into her hands. Just in case the message needs to be reinforced, Jessica later reminds one flunky, “I'm your boss, not your partner!”

The various relationships and conflicts among Jessica, Griff, and their respective siblings revolve around dueling standards of traditional masculinity, providing grist for the mill of many a psychoanalytic film studies thesis. However, the movie isn't as noteworthy for its plot as for its host of quintessential Fuller touches. The tight close-up on Griff's face as he strides implacably towards an overmatched Brockie in a street showdown surely provided the inspiration for many a spaghetti Western standoff. A jarring cut from a man swinging from a noose to a room full of jovial cowboys splashing in tubs is as pure Fuller as it gets.

Unfortunately, the theme song provides all too oracular: “If someone could break her and take her whip away... you may find that the woman with a whip is only a woman after all.” In what Fuller describes as a studio compromise from his bleaker initial vision, the film ends with Jessica having been almost fully tamed, ready to give up everything for the hero. Perhaps it played better with audiences back then. Today, I suspect we'd all rather see her ridin' high and flailing that whip.

Regardless, the film provided one last great leading role for Stanwyck who, nearly fifty when production began, was near the end of her feature film career, and clearly still at the height of her prowess. For Fuller, in his mid-forties and also at the peak of his career, it was just one of three good movies he would wrap in the same year, along with “Run of the Arrow” and “China Gate.” Fuller obviously didn't mess around on set.

The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 Cinemascope ratio. The Criterion booklet only mentions that the transfer was “restored by Twentieth Century Fox.” However extensive the restoration, this high-def transfer looks fantastic with a deep, grainy black-and-white image that looks, well, exactly like a Western should.

The linear PCM mono track is clean and functional. There's not much complex sound design to deal with here, just dialogue and, of course, that theme song. Optional English SDH subtitles support the English audio.

For a slight change of pace, Criterion has included a 1969 discussion with Samuel Fuller which can be played like a commentary track while watching the film. It was conducted at the National Film Theatre in London in 1969.

In “Fuller Women” (2018, 20 min.), the director's widow Christa Lang Fuller and his daughter Samantha Fuller discuss Samuel's work with a focus on the strong women featured in some of his films.

In “Woman With A Whip” (2018, 34 min.), critic Imogen Sara Smith, author of “Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond The City,” discusses both Fuller's work (particular its relationship to noir) and Stanwyck's career.

“A Fuller Life” (2013, 80 min.) is a documentary directed by Samantha Fuller. After an introduction by Ms. Fuller, the documentary consists primarily of a series of actors, directors, and other film figures (James Franco, Jennifer Beals, Mark Hamill, Wim Wenders, Monte Hellmann among them) who read excerpts from Samuel Fuller's memoir, “A Third Face,” sometimes over clips from Fuller's films, sometimes over never-before-seen home movies. It's a real blast, like a movie about Samuel Fuller should be.

Finally, we get a Stills Gallery, mostly on-set photos from “Forty Guns.”

The insert booklet includes an essay by critic and professor Lisa Dombrowski, author of “The Films of Samuel Fuller: If You Die, I'll Kill You!” as well as an excerpt from Fuller's memoirs concerning “Forty Guns.”

Final Thoughts:
Sam Fuller apparently shot this film in all of fifteen days, but then again, he was a no-nonsense kind of guy. This is now the eighth Fuller title in the Criterion/Eclipse library, but only the third on Blu-ray (“Shock Corridor” and “The Naked Kiss” were early Criterion releases that got later Blu-ray upgrades). The top-notch high-def transfer and the strong collection of extras make this, perhaps, the most appealing Fuller release from Criterion so far.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

A Dry, White Season

A DRY, WHITE SEASON (Palcy, 1989)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Dec 11, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

Director Euzhan Palcy's “A Dry, White Season” (1989) focuses in part on the awakening of a man who has remained willfully asleep for years. Born and raised in South Africa, the middle-aged Ben Du Toit (Donald Sutherland) still maintains his unquestioned faith in the Apartheid system. In Ben's worldview, black South Africans might be poorer than whites, but everyone's treated fairly in the eyes of the law, and they're all pretty happy too. His black gardener Gordon Ngubene (Winston Ntshona) has been a family friend for years, and their sons even play together.

It will take a lot to shake Ben's blinkered confidence. When Gordon's son is picked up by police simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and then brutally caned, Ben feels bad but insists, “He must have done something.” When a police assault on protestors results in the boy's death, Ben is upset, but still believes an appeal to the authorities will ensure that justice is done “to the full extent of the law.” Ben will need a lot of convincing to accept that the system is inherently racist and corrupt, but eventually his eyes will be pried wide open.

Ben's ignorance is all the more astonishing for the fact that he's actually a history teacher, which doesn't leave really leave him much of an excuse. Even more astonishing is the fact that director Euzhan Palcy's story isn't better known because her journey to making “A Dry, White Season” is nothing short of remarkable.

Born and raised in Martinique, Palcy moved to Paris as a teenager to study film and literature. At the age of 25, she directed her first feature film, “Sugar Cane Alley” (1983), which became a major festival hit. Earning the admiration and support of film luminaries such as Francois Truffaut and Robert Redford, she relocated to America and soon drew attention from Hollywood studios.

Palcy rejected a series of studio projects in order to pursue her own, an adaptation of Andre Brink's novel about Apartheid abuses, “A Dry, White Season.” To research the project, Palcy traveled to South Africa incognito to secretly interview victims who had been tortured by the state. Palcy not only became the first black woman to direct a film released by a major Hollywood studio (MGM), she even convinced the legendary Marlon Brando to return to the big screen after a decade-long retirement to play a fiery anti-Apartheid lawyer who knows his case is lost before he ever gets to court.

Shot primarily in Zimbabwe and employing many South African actors, Palcy's film enrages almost from the start. The police don't hesitate to employ deadly force at the first sign of even a peaceful protest from black South Africans. Torture is their first line of interrogation, used not so much to gain information as to assert white dominance. The details Palcy uncovered in her investigation make this aspect of the film particularly harrowing.

Ben may become a crusader for justice after his blinders are removed, but neither his colleagues nor his wife and daughter follow in his footsteps. If they were willfully ignorant before, once confronted with evidence of state abuse, they don't change their minds at all. They simply don't care, treating Ben as a pariah, and even, in his wife's words, a traitor to his race.

It might sound like the story risks wandering into “white savior” territory, but Ben is never held up as a a paragon. Political activist Stanley (Zakes Mokae in perhaps the film's best performance) provides Ben access to the lives of black South Africans, but he makes it crystal clear he has his own agenda and isn't there just to teach the white man a life lesson. When Stanley hides Ben under a mat in the back seat of his car to sneak him into Soweto, there's no doubt who the outsider is.

Apartheid still reigned in 1989, and Palcy and several of her cast members put themselves at personal risk to craft this testament to the immorality and corruption of the entire system, one supported actively by virtually every white South African seen in the film. It's absolutely infuriating from start to finish, a record of unadulterated evil that viewers are unlikely ever to forget.

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. From Criterion: “This new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution on a Lasergraphics Director film scanner from the 35 mm original camera negative.” The 1080p transfer is sharp throughout and looks good in motion as well. It might be a bit shy of Criterion's top-of-the-line transfers, but the image quality is quite strong.

The linear PCM stereo mix provides a solid treatment of the film's terrific soundtrack, featuring music by Dave Grusin and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Optional English SDH subtitles are provided.

The first extra is an interview of writer/ director Euzhan Palcy, conducted by critic Scott Foundas (2018, 35 min.) Palcy talks about her background and the heavy lifting she needed to do to get “A Dry, White Season” made at MGM. She's a very engaging speaker, and I found this to be one of the better director interviews I've seen in a while.

Palcy returns to analyze “Five Scenes” (29 min.) from the film, beginning with the early mass protest that ends in a police slaughter. Great stuff here too.

In 1995, Palcy met with South African President Nelson Mandela. Here, we get an excerpt (3 min.) from an interview she recorded with him in Johannesburg.

The disc also includes a short segment (5 min.) from a 1989 episode of NBC's “Today” show in which Bryant Gumbel interviews Donald Sutherland about the movie. And we also get a short (1 min.) video of Palcy receiving the 2017 Order of the Companions of O.R. Tambo, South Africa's highest distinction for foreign dignitaries.

The slim fold-out booklet features an essay by scholar and filmmaker Jyoti Mistry.

Final Thoughts:
I'm hardly an expert on the subject, but Euzhan Palcy's “A Dry, White Season” is the best film I've ever seen about Apartheid. As far as I know, this is the first Blu-ray release in North America of a film that surely deserves to be described as essential viewing. That's reason enough to call this one of the best Blu-ray releases of the year.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

The Magnificent Ambersons

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Nov 27, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

Orson Welles's “The Magnificent Ambersons” (1942) was the original Rocky Balboa. The boy genius's sophomore film suffered a vicious beatdown at the hands of studio executives, absorbing a whirlwind flurry of roundhouse cuts and haymaker reshoots. It lost its first fight but stayed on its feet, staggering and bloodied but stubborn and proud, winning the hearts of the public, becoming the ultimate people's champion, cherished by generations of film lovers as much for what it once was as for what it still is.

As a follow up to his star-making debut with “Citizen Kane” (1941), Welles chose a long-time favorite (relatively long – Welles was still just 26) novel to adapt, Booth Tarkington's Pulitzer-winner “The Magnificent Ambersons” (published in 1918). Welles, born an old man pining for the better days of yore, was drawn to Tarkington's elegiac tale of an allegedly more genteel time now lost, the idyllic rural life of the titular family of landed gentry displaced by the postlapsarian industrial horrors of the early 20th century when quiet towns were doomed to “darken into cities.”

One of Welles's biggest surprises in his second directorial turn was not to cast himself at all (save as a narrator), despite having already portrayed the spoiled scion George Amberson Minafer in a radio adaptation in 1939. Another surprise was to cast B-movie cowboy star Tim Holt in the role instead. Holt is stiff, stilted, and altogether an inspired choice for the last of the “Magnificent” Ambersons, an anachronism ill-suited to his changing times from the day he was born. Just like Welles. Maybe.

The story roughly centers on the inevitable, hard-earned “comeuppance” of the bratty George, who sneers at the very notion of work as uncivilized. But even in the film's severely truncated version (lopped down more than forty minutes from its initial cut) writer/director Welles vividly depicts several generations of Ambersons, from the brooding patriarch (Richard Bennett) to George's devoted mother, Isabel (silent film star Dolores Costello). Several almost-Ambersons play major roles too, especially industrialist Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) whose newfangled automobile becomes the symbol of everything that's wrong with this fallen world, at least in the eyes of George and some of the Ambersons.

I have left the unforgettable Aunt Fanny for last only because Agnes Moorehead's brilliant performance deserves to be singled out. Deluded, conniving spinster Fanny could have been a one-note shrew, but Moorehead develops the frustrated spinster into one of the film's most complex and sympathetic personalities, and Fanny's scenes with young George spark with a surprising chemistry.

“The Magnificent Ambersons” may not be held up as a paradigm-shifting stylistic landmark like “Citizen Kane,” but Welles's formal ambitions are on full display with the frequent use of long takes, especially in the film's celebrated ballroom sequence (or what's left of it). Welles, working with cinematographer Stanley Cortez (and then Harry J. Wild and then Russell Metty... it was a complicated shoot), experiments both with complex, sinuous camera movements as well as long takes with a relatively stationary camera, but with multiple bodies choreographed in motion. The film offers constantly fresh looks at familiar faces and places (the Amberson mansion is a character in its own right), a quality that has drawn viewers back time and again.

Welles already faced a tall order in trying to live up to the success of “Kane” but after the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred during principal shooting, a whole new set of challenges arose. Welles was enlisted to assist with war propaganda and flew to Brazil to shoot a documentary intended to generate good will in South America. While there, Welles, for a variety of reasons, couldn't supervise post-production on “Ambersons” as closely as he wanted to. And when a 131-minute cut of the film received negative feedback from a preview audience, RKO executives, already nervous that the somber film wouldn't connect with war-time audiences, took control, ripping the guts out of the film and tacking on a hokey upbeat ending in which I swear you can almost see a skeptical Moorehead flipping off the assistant director. As far as we know, the studio simply disposed of the cut scenes altogether, leaving nothing but the current 88-minute version.

What remains of “The Magnificent Ambersons” is remarkable enough, but the whole project resonates even more deeply with viewers enchanted by the dream of the lost vision. The mutilated cut speaks to the faded glory of the pure, noble version now gone forever, just as the Tarkington/Welles story evokes the lost Eden of the Ambersons before all those belching automobiles ruined everything. Bruised and battered in its first fight, “The Magnificent Ambersons” has remained undefeated ever since.

The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. This “new 4K digital restoration” from Criterion is astonishing, with rich black-and-white contrast and impressive image detail throughout. The Ambersons' mansion never looked so exquisite (not in home theaters anyway) and that ballroom sequence, oh my. This is a top-end effort from Criterion with no discernible flaws.

The linear PCM Mono audio isn't dynamic, but it's crisp and distortion-free. Nothing much to discuss here, really, just a solid, professional audio presentation. Optional English SDH subtitles support the English audio.

Criterion may not have been able to unearth the fabled 131-minute cut of “The Magnificent Ambersons,” but they've done their best to compensate by packing this Blu-ray with hours of meaningful extras.

Viewers can choose between two commentary tracks. The first is an import of a 1986 (!!) commentary by Robert L. Carringer. The second is a recent commentary by two of my favorite film critics, James Naremore and Jonathan Rosenbaum, who come to the table with an impressive amount of research regarding Welles's original plans for the film versus the studio's butchering.

The disc also includes two new interviews by prominent Welles scholars. Historian Simon Callow (26 min.), author of a multi-volume biography on Welles, discusses the director's long-term relationship with the “Ambersons” project, from his first radio adaptation of the novel in 1939 to his dubious claim that one of the book's main characters was based on his father. He also talks about how the film's production was impacted by the attack on Pearl Harbor and Welles's subsequent involvement in the war effort. Historian Joseph McBride (29 min.), also a Welles biographer, touches on some of the same issues, but with a different focus.

In a feature titled “The Cinematographers” (15 min.), Welles scholar Francois Thomas combs through detailed documentation to differentiate the scenes shot by the film's multiple cinematographers, including Harry J. Wild, hired by Welles to replace the allegedly slow-working Stanley Cortez, and even a bit by Russell Metty.

Criterion has also included an extensive excerpt from the May 14, 1970 episode of “The Dick Cavett Show” (36 min.) in which Welles, unusually nervous and tentative, holds court, spinning his usual combination of mesmerizing anecdotes and outright fibs. The show's other guest, Jack Lemmon, mostly just watches with amusement.

Bernard Herrmann scholar Christopher Husted (19 min.) reminds us that just as Welles's film was mutilated by the studio honchos, so too was Herrmann's score.

There's still more. The disc includes 36 minutes of audio excerpts from director Peter Bogdanovich's interviews with Welles, naturally those focusing on “Ambersons.” We also get an audio recording from a 1978 AFI Film Symposium called “Working with Welles” (30 min.) which includes several members of the Mercury Theater.

Criterion keeps it coming with two Radio Plays. The first is a warbly audio recording of the Oct 16, 1938 Mercury Theater adaptation of Booth Tarkington's novel “Seventeen” (60 min.) with Welles in a starring role. Second is the Oct 29, 1939 adaptation of “The Magnificent Ambersons” (55 min.) with Welles playing George.

“Pampered Youth” was a 1925 silent-film adaptation of “Ambersons” by director David Smith. This feature is actually a 2-reel re-release in 1931 (28 min.) under the title “Two to One.” It's... not so good.

The collection wraps up with a scratchy Theatrical Trailer (2 min.)

The insert booklet, stapled to look like the draft of a script (yeah, I know, you're supposed to put brads in your script) rather than the usual square-bound booklet, includes essays by writers Molly Haskell, Luc Sante, Geoffrey O'Brien, Farran Smith Nehme, and Jonathan Lethem, as well as essay by Orson Welles about his father.

Final Thoughts:
For everyone who skipped down here: Wow, the original 131-minute cut of “The Magnificent Ambersons”!!! It must be amazing. Too bad Criterion couldn't unearth it. What they've provided us, however, is a luminous high-def transfer of a gorgeous film and several hours of top-notch extras. This is obviously one of the best Blu-ray releases of 2018.