Monday, October 21, 2019

When We Were Kings

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Oct 22, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

You've probably heard some variant of the claim that movies are primarily made in the editing room. Orson Welles, for example, said, “(F)or my vision of cinema, the editing is not one aspect, it is THE aspect.” You won't find many more illustrative examples of this maxim than the documentary “When We Were Kings” (1996).

Director Leon Gast was hired to shoot a documentary about Zaire 74, the music festival scheduled to accompany the massively hyped Rumble in the Jungle, the heavyweight fight between champion George Foreman and a scrappy little underdog named Muhammad Ali in Zaire (today The Democratic Republic of the Congo). The concert would feature an all-world lineup mostly headlined by African and African-American artists, including Miriam Makeba, James Brown, B.B. King, The Spinners, and many more.

A lineup like that couldn't possible miss, but when the Rumble was delayed because of a sparring injury suffered by Foreman, the show still had to go on, to a largely empty stadium since it was no longer attached to the biggest fight ever (free admission helped pack the stands on the final day, at least). After this major setback, Gast struggled to find funding to complete his project and hundreds of hours of footage would sit unused for many years.

In the late-1980s, Gast continued to shop his footage around and found a new booster in the form of lawyer and music manager David Sonenberg who became a producer on the new film-to-be. But was there really demand for a movie about the ill-starred Zaire 74, no matter how great the music was? Maybe, but in transferring and revisiting the old footage, Gast and Sonenberg (perhaps others were involved in the decision – I don't know) realized they were sitting on a trove of crackerjack material of Foreman and, especially, the photogenic and always media-available Ali, as they prepared to rumble. There would certainly be demand for a documentary about Muhammad Ali and the fight of the century.

Thus was born “When We Were Kings”, a documentary released twenty years after its main subject, which the filmmaker wasn't even directly pursuing at the time. It turned out to be a commercial hit and even an Oscar winner.

“When We Were Kings” still plays a bit like a concert film, and not because of the snippets of performances from James Brown, B.B. King, and others still in the movie. Ali, today described by some as the original rapper, entrances audiences of all kinds – groups of admiring children in Zaire, gaggles of giddy reporters, the filmmakers themselves – with his perfectly polished rhythms and cleverly scripted rhymes. “If you think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned, wait til I kick Foreman's behind.” And “(I) injured a stone, hospitalized a brick; I'm so mean I make medicine sick.”

Ali doesn't just bust rhymes (or skulls), of course. The film poignantly evokes the thrill Ali gets from being in Africa – in one of the most memorable scenes, he can barely contain the pride and joy he feels when flying on a plane staffed entirely by a black crew. Fans from Zaire were every bit as proud of Ali, who arrived as a legend and left as a demi-god (I'm understating the matter here). It's actually tough not to feel bad for the young Foreman whose chief sin was not being Muhammad Ali, and thus being identified by many as the evil American imperialist. “Ali, bomaye!” the crowds chanted. “Ali, kill him!”

The fight itself only takes up a few minutes running time in the documentary, but it remains a mesmerizing spectacle today, even for those who can't stand boxing. Ali's winning rope-a-dope strategy has been much discussed, but watching it in action provides a reminder that the Greatest's plan relied on two keystones. Step One – letting Foreman tire himself out by throwing flurries of punches while Ali leaned against the ropes - makes perfect sense. However, Step Two involves Ali resting up and conserving his energy by letting George Foreman beat the hell out of him for several rounds. I guess it works if you're Muhammad Ali.

The film also incorporates some newly-shot interviews which consist primarily of way too much Norman Mailer, not nearly enough Spike Lee, and just the right amount of George Plimpton. Their retrospective views are useful (just about everyone thought Ali would lose, Plimpton feared he might be killed), but the stars of the documentary are Ali and the people of Zaire. They truly loved Ali and, at least judging from what we see on screen, Ali loved them. The film captures that dynamic quite touchingly, which makes this something more memorable than just another boxing documentary.

The film is presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. From Criterion, “This new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution... from a 35 mm interpositive and restored at Deluxe in Hollywood.” The 16 mm archival footage looks surprisingly sharp in this high-def transfer, at least as sharp as you could expect given the source material.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix isn't called on to do much with most of the interviews and archival footage, but the film includes some brief snippets of great music from the Zaire 74 concert as well as the title song for the film. The lossless audio treats the music quite well. Optional English subtitles support the audio.

The first extra on this Criterion release is a 1997 interview with director Leon Gast which only runs 4 minutes. The interview doesn't reveal much except the degree to which Ali was quite media savvy and helped set up some of those great “spontaneous” shots.

We also get a new 2019 interview (16 min.) with David Sonenberg, the producer who proved so pivotal in getting “When We Were Kings” made and released nearly two decades after Gast originally shot the footage. He speaks in detail about the unlikely and complicated process of converting an old concert movie into a fight documentary (though, of course, it's much more than that).

The star attraction in the Extras collection is “Soul Power” (2009, 92 min.), the concert movie also made from the footage shot in 1974. This film is directed by Jeffrey Kusama-Hinte (one of the editors on “When We Were Kings”) and showcases numerous great acts from Miriam Makeba to James Brown and so much more. It's a real blast and further proof of the degree to which a film is made in the editing room, though of course it helps to have music superstars to work with in the first place.

The slim, fold-out insert booklet includes an essay by writer Kelefa Sanneh.

Final Thoughts:
There's a whole subindustry of Muhammad Ali documentaries, but none are better than “When We Were Kings.” And if you already own it on DVD, there's still a good reason to upgrade in the form of the extra documentary “Soul Power.”

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Three Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg

Underworld (1927)

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Oct 15, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

The adjective “poetic” was attached to Josef von Sternberg from the very start of his directorial career, a potential death sentence for an aspiring Hollywood filmmaker. But little about von Sternberg's career was typical.

The plucky teen immigrant (born in Vienna in 1894, emigrated with his family to New York in 1901) dropped out of high school and worked a series of odd jobs, eventually finding his way into film in the pre-Hollywood movie mecca of Fort Lee, NJ where he learned how to splice, edit, write, operate a camera, and virtually every phase of filmmaking. After a few returns to Europe and a stint in the U.S. Army, von Sternberg relocated to Hollywood where he continued to hone his craft in various supporting capacities.

He impressed many in the industry with his vast knowledge of the craft of filmmaking, but he wasn't content to methodically climb the ladder of success. He launched a bold attempt to spring directly into the director's chair, shooting a micro-budget independent film called “The Salvation Hunters” (1925). Praised for its “poetic” qualities and evocative imagery it naturally flopped, but generated buzz all around town and drew attention from no less a luminary than Charlie Chaplin.

Chaplin was impressed by von Sternberg's ability to communicate both story and character psychology in images, and tapped von Sternberg to direct a project for him, though not one in which The Tramp would act. Chaplin was apparently dissatisfied with the result (though he made no public comment) and chose not to release the picture. This would have proved a debilitating setback for many ambitious up-and-comers but the resourceful von Sternberg (the regal “von” was added by a Hollywood publicist, by the way) bounced back quickly.

Within a year, von Sternberg grabbed hold of an unexpected opportunity to direct another film, a gangster picture from a script by the hard-boiled journalist Ben Hecht. Hecht was by far the biggest name attached to the project, but that didn't stop von Sternberg from doing a major rewrite, enraging Hecht who initially demanded his name be removed from the film. Hecht was presumably more sanguine when he received the first-ever Oscar for Best Writing on an Original Picture.

In “Underworld” (1927), George Bancroft plays Bull Weed (I like to think his little brother's name is Dick), a boorish bank robber and gangster who runs into a drunk (Clive Brook) during one of his heists and arbitrarily takes it upon himself to redeem the man, now dubbed Rolls Royce. Bull sets up Rolls with some cash and his own apartment and darn if he doesn't clean up nice. Maybe too nice, as Rolls begins to draw the attention of Bull's lovely girlfriend, Feathers (Evelyn Brent).

It's a pulpy story with seemingly stock characters, but one of the hallmarks of the three films in this set is the surprising nuance with which even minor characters are imbued. Bull is a brute and a loudmouth – even in a silent film you can hear the beefy Bancroft bellowing – but during a protracted scene where he waits to kill a friend in a jealous fit of rage, he stops to feed a kitten by dipping his finger in a milk bottle and letting the kitten lick the drops. Feathers is named for her fondness for wearing feathered boas, but she turns out to be more than just a kitschy gangster's moll when she torments herself over whether to pursue her own happiness or loyalty to a man who helped rescue her from the streets.

“Underworld” turned into a surprise hit with theaters forced to add midnight showings to accommodate demand. It is frequently given credit for kicking off the craze in gangster films, though it's difficult to pinpoint its influence that directly. It certainly made stars of the three leads as well as of von Sternberg, the former boy genius of “Salvation Hunters” now all grown up into a top-line Hollywood powerhouse.

He followed up his break-out with another hit, “The Last Command” (1928), featuring the Swiss-German star Emil Jannings as an aging, enfeebled Hollywood extra cast to play the part of a Russian general in a picture about the Russian Revolution. Shaking with essential tremor, he tells his fellow extras he really was a Russian general, a claim they greet with open mockery, but an extended flashback reveals that he was telling the truth.

Or at least his truth. “The Last Command” (story by Lajos Biro) nests illusions within illusions like a Matryoshka doll, beginning with the opening title cards proclaiming “Hollywood – 1928! The Magic Empire of the Twentieth Century!” Jannings' character is cast to play a general in a movie that no doubt relates, a phony, sanitized version of Russian history, but surely his memory of events told in flashback are just as biased and divorced from reality. When he finally gets to the film set and is asked to pretend to be a general, his potentially fatal mistake is to treat the process as far too real.. Jannings (later a Nazi collaborator, but at this point in time just admired as a great actor) is sensational, a portly, blustering special effect in his own right, and he would win the first-ever Best Actor Oscar. Von Sternberg's mark was all over that inaugural Award ceremony.

In “The Docks of New York” (1928), released just at the end of the silent era, von Sternberg reunited with George Bancroft, who plays Bill, a ship's stoker on leave for one night in New York. He falls for dance-hall girl Mae (Betty Compson) and has to decide which siren call plays loudest for him, the open sea on his next job or the love of a good woman. Hyper-macho Bancroft is utterly convincing as the sweaty, coal-stained stoker who spends all his time around other sweaty, coal-stained men and therefore has no idea how to act around women except in the most straightforward, obvious way (I'm talking sex, people!) But maybe he's enough of a man to learn.

Those trademark character touches create more special moments. Witness the scene where a very impressed Mae ogles Bill's bulging, tattoed forearms with undisguised lust. Or how a seemingly minor supporting player, an ill-treated wife (Olga Baclanova), suddenly takes center stage from Bill and Mae, living out the aphorism that everyone sees themselves as the main character of the story.

Von Sternberg's poetic leanings are on full display in all three films. The heavy chiaroscuro design of “The Docks of New York” (cinematography by Harold Rosson) transforms a single night ashore into a moody character in its own right. Harsh beams of solid light knife through inky blackness, sometimes from lampposts above, sometimes from indoor spaces that erupt into the nighttime outside, promising sanctuary or perhaps threatening a different brand of meance. In other shots, a curtain of hazy, smoke-filled light blankets the background, sealing the docks off from the rest of the world.

Many scenes in these films possess that same hermetic quality. Von Sternberg has a knack for creating secret spaces, faerie ring subcultures that exist only for a moment in time. “Underworld” presents the Gangster's Ball where all the criminals set aside their quarrels for a night of hard-drinking camaraderie. In “The Last Command” a doomed train rumbles through the Russian night, its passengers oblivious to their fate. In “The Docks of New York” the denizens of a seedy bar unite to celebrate a wedding in their own unique style: “One of us! One of us!”

Von Sternberg was at his creative peak and made a seamless transition into the talking picture era, most famously in his films with Marlene Dietrich, starting with “The Blue Angel” (1930). His directorial career would begin to decline by the end of the 1930s and curtailed significantly after World War II. The three films in this set alone are enough to explain why Josef von Sternberg is regarded as a great and true one-of-a-kind artist.

The films are presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. I don't own the original 2010 DVD release as a comparison point, but reviews indicate that those were presented in a picture-boxed format which provided a slim black border around the image that was designed so it would look OK on older TV sets. Never mind that. Picture-boxing is dead, and these new high-def transfers are not picture-boxed. The 2K high-def transfers all look fairly strong to me, especially “The Docks of New York” which relies so heavily on chiaroscuro lighting – the black-and-white contrast needs to look sharp and it does.

Each of the three silent films in this Criterion boxed set offers listeners the option of two different scores. Robert Israel provided new scores for each movie that were composed specifically for the original 2010 Criterion DVD release of this set. “Underworld” and “The Last Command” also arrive with scores by the Alloy Orchestra, scores composed for festival screenings in the late 2000s. “The Docks of New York” also has a Donald Sosin score that debuted in 2008.

The LPCM mono mix treats all the scores quite well, providing robust, enjoyable listening experiences for all of them. Audio on the extras is solid as well.

This Criterion boxed set includes three separate keepcases which are stored in an outer cardboard case, with the square-bound insert booklet tucked alongside the discs. Each film is on a separate Blu-ray in each keepcase.

The extras are relatively modest in this set. All extras are copied from the old 2010 DVD set and no extras have been added for this Blu-ray re-release.

On the “Underworld” disc, we get a 2010 video essay (36 min.) by UCLA film professor Janet Bergstrom. It's jam-packed with information about von Sternberg's early career, and the unusual path he took to directing his break-out gangster hit. Bergstrom finds a way to pack a few hours worth of information into a fairly short running time.

On “The Last Command” we get a 2010 video essay (35 min.) by Tag Gallagher titled “Von Sternberg 'Til 1929” which covers what the title indicates. Gallagher provides more stylistic analysis, tracing out common motifs and themes in all three films included in this set. Because of that, you might not want to watch this until you've seen “The Docks of New York.”

On “The Docks of New York” disc, we get a 40-minute interview with von Sternberg that originally aired on Swedish television in 1968, just a year before the director's death. Von Sternberg wasn't always the most reliable narrator of his own career, but he's always an engaging speaker.

The thick, square-bound insert booklet is attractively designed. It's also loaded, starting with separate essays about each film, by author Geoffrey O'Brien (“Underworld”), film professor Anton Kaes (“The Last Command”) and critic Luc Sante (“The Docks of New York”). The booklet also includes Ben Hecht's original story for “Underworld” as well as a short essay about the film scores included here, and an excerpt from von Sternberg's autobiography concerning working with Emil Jannings.

Final Thoughts:
Fans spoiled by Criterion's jam-packed “Dietrich and Von Sternberg in Hollywood” boxed set from last year might find this Blu-ray upgrade of the old 2010 set somewhat lacking by comparison. Each film is only accompanied by a single extra, but we still get two scores for each movie and the movies themselves are pretty great, which is more than enough to recommend this set.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

The Souvenir

THE SOUVENIR (J. Hogg, 2019)
Review by Christopher S. Long

(I promised myself I'd write about at least a few new releases this year, so here are some quick thoughts about one title I just caught up with.)

The capsule descriptions of Joanna Hogg's “The Souvenir” (2019) seem specifically targeted to driving me away.

“A coming of age story.” Oh Lordy, there must be a good baseball game on somewhere.

“A study of a relationship in crisis.” Maybe this would be a good time to clean the bathroom.

Dialogue heavy, slice of upper-middle-class English life... Hoo boy. I only checked this one out of the library because it happened to sitting right there on the New Release shelf (yes, I still check actual, physical DVDs out of an actual, physical library) staring at me and because I'd read a good deal of persuasive praise about Joanna Hogg's previous films such as “Archipelago” (2010) and “Exhibition” (2013). I'm delighted that I did so.

“The Souvenir” is, at least to some degree, all of the things it was made out to be (though the “graphic nudity” warning tag hardly seems merited), but none of these quick hits touch on the film's idiosyncratic and deceptively complex style. But before delving into that, here's a quick plot summary: The setting is England circa 1983/1984, and Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is a 20-ish film school student deep in pre-production (the phase when your film has its best chance of being a masterpiece – before you actually start shooting) on her first feature. While polishing (and polishing and polishing) her script, she meets Anthony (Tom Burke), an apparently suave and wealthy Foreign Office functionary, and they fall in love.

Writer/director Hogg displays virtually no interest in exposition or set up of any kind. The instant Anthony is introduced, it feels as if he's always been there; perhaps because he so quickly becomes an important presence in Julie's life. Their relationship unfolds across discrete spots of time, the narrative leaping forward from one vignette to the next. Julie and Anthony have just met, and one cut later they're together. In the next scene they've been a couple for months, later they've clearly just had an argument, they've broken up, then reunited, etc. Hogg's confidence in her ability to convey a wealth of information with a few brushstrokes extends to her audience, who she trusts to do the work necessary to catch up and fill in the gaps. A bold bet to make, but also an efficient way of self-selecting the right audience for your work.

Much of the negative feedback stems from viewers who claim they don't understand what Julie finds so appealing about Anthony who, as it turns out, is hiding a secret that has the potential to destroy both of them. This complaint misses what's so powerful about the film's propulsive style. Every moment of the film is so immediate, so constantly now, that you simply accept what is happening as axiomatic. To ask why Julie loves Anthony makes as much sense as asking why it's raining now. It just is.

“The Souvenir” reminds me in a tangential way of Terrence Malick's shamefully underrated “To The Wonder” (2012) which also careened from highlight to lowlight to highlight in a tempestuous relationship. But where Malick was conducting a symphony, Hogg operates in a much less flashy idiom. Not prosaic, that's not right. I'm struggling for the proper description. More rooted? More improvisatory than carefully orchestrated? No, that makes it seem like she's not meticulously planning and in total control, which she certainly is. I dunno, give me more time to think about it. But Hogg speaks with a unique voice, and a style that is distinctive without ostentation.

Honor Swinton Byrne is great, turning in the best performance I've seen so far this year, though I admit I haven't seen many new releases so far. She plays meek and naïve and self-doubting without ever coming off as weak or straining viewer sympathy in the process. She's the daughter of Tilda Swinton, who also plays her mother in the film, so I suppose it shouldn't be a shock that she's so accomplished in her first lead role, also just her second official film credit according to IMDB. But she sure is fantastic.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

The Circus

THE CIRCUS (Chaplin, 1928/1968)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Sep 24, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

For years, Charlie Chaplin rarely talked about “The Circus” (1928), not even in his autobiography. This might seem odd considering that the film was a huge commercial hit and gave the greatest star in America a chance to celebrate his beloved circus performers, but the film was a deeply troubled production from the start. During two years of shooting, Chaplin had to cope with a bitter and public divorce from his second wife, Lita Grey, an IRS determined to carve out a huge chunk of his financial empire, and an array of disasters from fires to storms that forced long and costly delays. In addition, though Chaplin began shooting right at the commercial peak of silent cinema in January 1926, the film would be released in January 1928, near the beginning of the inconceivably rapid transition to talking pictures, a tectonic shift Chaplin would resist almost single-handedly for more than another decade.

In 1968, the septuagenarian director, now enjoying a lavish semi-retirement in his giant Swiss mansion with wife Oona and a brood of young children, revisited his labor of love, composing a new score for it and even singing the theme song himself (“Swing Little Girl, Swing High...”) to prepare for a re-release. Fortunately, Chaplin resisted any other extensive changes, still leaving “The Circus” intact as silent pantomime. He must have been reminded rather quickly of just how good his “forgotten” movie really was.

Chaplin unleashes his best gags at the beginning. The Tramp, homeless and starving, is mistaken for a pickpocket and winds up being chased by the police through an amusement park. An extended hall of mirrors bit is dazzling and disorienting enough, but Chaplin ups the ante with one of his finest stunts when he pretends to be an animatronic figure in a Noah's Ark set. As a confused policeman keeps a suspicious eye on him, Chaplin pivots in place like a clockwork cuckoo, bonking a man (the real pickpocket) on the head and rearing back in a mechanized laugh. It's one of the most convincing special effects of any era and it's pure Chaplin.

Forced to make a break for it, The Tramp stumbles into a circus where he unwittingly becomes the star attraction, prompting a previously bored audience to shout “Bring back the funny man!” Chaplin is no doubt patting himself on the back here, but he's also just telling the truth. American audiences really did fall in love at first sight with The Tramp back in 1914 because, gosh darn it, he's just a funny, funny man. The public wanted more back then, and by 1928, their appetite was nowhere close to sated, no matter their fascination with Al Jolsen and the newfangled talking picture.

There aren't many laughs behind the scenes at the circus, which is ruled by a tyrannical ringmaster (Allan Garcia) who saves his greatest cruelties for his daughter Merna (the ill-fated Merna Kennedy in her starring role), a horseback rider in the show. His abuse is genuinely frightening, and Kennedy endures some harrowing stunts as she is grabbed and hurled about the set with force. The Tramp, of course, falls in love with her and dreams of being the gallant knight who can save her. Unfortunately, he has stiff competition in the form of the brave and manly Rex (Harry Crocker), a genuine stick in the mud but also a daring tightrope walker who makes Merna's heart flutter.

Chaplin's most impressive trick isn't balancing on a tightrope or sharing a cage with a lion (two feature bits later in the film), but rather making The Tramp appear so effortless. In the film, he can only get laughs when he's being himself, not when he's trying to perform a routine. Of course, The Tramp just “being himself” was the result of thousands of hours of stage work in the British Music Hall and then in early Hollywood, an overnight success many years in the making. But the act works better when you don't give audiences time to think about that because they're laughing too hard.

Audiences watching “The Circus” today, just like audiences watching it in 1928 or in 1968, will be laughing mighty hard. 

The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. “This new 4K restoration was undertaken at the Cineteca di Bologna” from a 35 mm duplicate negative made in 1967. I don't think you can quite call the image quality “razor sharp” throughout. There are several scenes where faces and other details look a bit soft, but we're talking about a film made 90 years ago and now being sourced from a dupe negative made 40 years later. Black-and-white contrast is generally robust. Overall, the 1080p transfer looks quite pleasing, as good as you can reasonably expect for a 1928 film.

The linear PCM mono track only has to present the music which it does just fine. It's a bit flat but it was never meant to be a stereophonic blowout. Intertitle cards are in English, and no subtitles are provided.

Criterion has packed this release right to the tip of the big top.

The film is accompanied by a commentary by Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance.

The disc includes an interview (15 min.) with Eugene Chaplin, son of Charlie and Oona Chaplin. He takes viewers on a brief tour of the Chaplin family mansion in Switzerland and shares some home movies, most shot by Oona.

Film scholar Craig Barron, a familiar face to fans of Criterion's silent comedy releases, talks about the innovative visual effects used on “The Circus.” In this 20-minute piece, Barron goes into quite a bit of detail on the split screen techniques used to combine composite images. You mean Chaplin wasn't really up on that high wire and didn't really face down that roaring lion? This is a great piece.

“Chaplin Today: The Circus” (26 min.) is a 2003 documentary by Francois Ede and featuring some interviews with director Emir Kusturica, a big fan of the movie. There's some useful information here, but I didn't find this feature terribly enlightening or riveting.

In “Stepping Out” we're treated to approximately 40 minutes of outtakes from “The Circus.” Scholars Kevin Brownlow and David Gill screened many hours of outtakes from the Chaplin archives when they released the miniseries “The Unknown Chaplin” in 1983 (I remember I loved it, but it appears my no-doubt comprehensive review of the DVD has tragically been lost to history). One result of that project is the 10-minute scene included here, which they edited from “Circus” outtakes. It's mostly a scene of The Tramp taking Merna out on a date that, of course, goes wrong and, of course, involves twin boxers. This scene comes with a new score by Timothy Brock. We also get 30 more minutes of outtakes which are accompanied with narration by comedy choreographer Dan Kamin.

“A Ring for Merna” (7 min.) includes a few more outtakes from the scene where The Tramp buys a wedding ring that he plans to give to Merna. Though this piece runs 7 minutes, there's only a few minutes of outtakes that are edited into where they would have been in the film.

We also get audio excerpts (10 min.) of an interview conducted by Jeffrey Vance of Eric James, Chaplin's musical collaborator.

“Swing Little Girl” provides five minutes of an audio recording session for the title song Chaplin composed for the re-release of “The Circus.” It was originally meant to be sung by Ken Barrie before Chaplin decided he was the right man for the job.

The attractions continue with silent publicity footage from the movie's Jan 27, 1928 premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theatre. It includes circus stars (both humans and other animals) along with many of the film celebrities of the day.

We also get a brief excerpt (5 min.) of a 1969 interview Chaplin conducted for reporters at his Swiss mansion.

Finally, the extras wrap up with two Re-Release Trailers (5 min. total)

The slim fold-out booklet features an incisive essay by critic Pamela Hutchinson.

Final Thoughts:
“The Circus” might get overlooked today both because Chaplin himself tended not to talk about it and because it arrived in the middle of the all-world sequence of “The Gold Rush” (1925), “City Lights” (1931), and “Modern Times” (1940). But on a gag per gag basis, it's as funny as any Chaplin comedy, though it might feel a bit slight in terms of narrative heft. Criterion has loaded this fairly short feature (72 min.) with a ton of extras, which should be enough to please any Chaplin aficionado.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

The Cloud-Capped Star

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Sep 10, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

In “The Cloud-Capped Star” (1960), adapted from a novel by Shaktipada Rajguru, writer/director Ritwik Ghatak displays a fondness for off-center compositions. One shot in particular obsesses me even though it marks only a minor beat in the story. Neeta (Supriya Choudhury), the hard-working daughter of a Bengali refugee family now living in Kolkata, sits near the right of the frame, situated at a slight diagonal. Her face half-covered in shadow, she turns slowly to the camera and flashes a radiant smile, the serene smile Neeta wears as a mask as her sufferings mount. Choudhury supplies the magnetic smile, but the delicate and eccentric staging turns it into a magical movie moment, one of many that makes this film so powerful and transforms Neeta into one of the most unforgettable heroines in any melodrama.

Early images in the film link Neeta directly to nature - a flowing river dappled by sunlight, a magnificently flowering tree that stretches to the heavens - all emphasizing her potential to flourish. She's a bright university student who also tutors on the side, a gig that makes her virtually the sole breadwinner for her family. It's a big burden to take on at a young age, but Neeta is a pure soul always ready to do the right thing. As her brother Shankar (Anil Chatterjee) delights in telling her, this is her first mistake, and quite likely a fatal one.

Everyone exploits her goodness and forbearance. Shankar devotes all his time to studying to become a singer, and knows he can do so because Neeta will shoulder the financial load. Neeta's boyfriend Sanat (Niranjan Ray) can be a full-time student because he can bum lunch money off his best gal. Mother (Gita Dey) sees no reason to marry off her oldest daughter because then who would keep the household running? Father (Bijon Bhattacharya), a literature professor whose best days are well behind him, seems the most sympathetic figure, a bit detached but generally well-meaning, but looks can be deceiving.

As father becomes an invalid and another brother moves away, the family becomes ever more dependent on Neeta, and she bears it all with that quiet, enduring smile. But the smile takes more effort to maintain with each cruel turn of fate, sags more at the corners of the mouth with each new responsibility crushing her to the unforgiving ground.

Melodrama literally means “music drama” and Neeta's barely-suppressed sorrow explodes in one of several extraordinary musical sequence in the film. She asks Shankar to teach her a song by Rabindranath Tagore, the renowned Bengali artist and polymath. Brother and sister sing it together slowly and mournfully, and when it ends, Neeta collapses, finally ready to weep for herself.

She has to cry for herself because nobody else will. Not her family, not the sun-dappled river, not that magnificently flowering tree that stretches to the heavens. And once she starts coughing, well, this is a melodrama and you can guess where it's heading.

It's all so damn overwhelming, but Ghatak really twists the knife in the closing scenes when we visit Neeta one last time. Dying and abandoned, she once again sits at the right of the frame, now with a vast hilly landscape stretching out to infinity behind her, a landscape that doesn't listen as she shouts out “I really did want to live!” Jumping to the center of the frame now, she begs, “Tell me just once that I will live!”

I can't go on. Honestly. I watched this movie a week ago, and it's still difficult to talk about. Choudhury is amazing. The soundtrack (music as well as effects) is amazing. The photography by cinematographer Dinen Gupta and his crew is amazing. I need a little more time to process it, but “The Cloud-Capped Star” may well be the greatest melodrama I've ever seen. 

The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The Criterion booklet notes that “this new 2K digital restoration” used the 35 mm original camera negative preserved at the National Film Archive of India in Pune and also a 35 mm print from the Library of Congress “for sections of the film where the original camera negative was damaged or incomplete.”

With multiple elements used, the image quality does vary a bit but not in a pronounced fashion – a few shots perhaps don't look quite as sharp, but in general this looks good overall. The black-and-white contrast is strong overall, though a few scenes look a bit washed-out. Also in a few scenes white subtitles over white portions of the image can be a bit tough to read.

The linear PCM mono track shows more wear than the image does with a few moments where volume drops off and some extraneous noise can be heard on the soundtrack. The music can also be a bit tinny in a few scenes, but overall the audio is solid, surely as much as can be expected from the source. Optional English subtitles support the Bengali dialogue.

Criterion has only included a few modest supplements with this Blu-ray release.

We get a lengthy and substantive conversation between filmmakers Saeed Akhtar Mirza and Kumar Shahani. Both were students of Ghatak's at the Film and Television Institute of India at Pune, and they bring both personal knowledge of and a sincere admiration for Ghatak to this discussion, which covers a wide array of topics relevant both to the film and to Ghatak's career.

The only other extra is a Stills Gallery, which presents photos of Ghatak that were included in the book “Life After Ritwik Ghatak” cowritten by Surama Ghatak, the director's wife, and the director's grandniece, Nabarupa Bhattacharjee.

The slim fold-out insert booklet features an essay by film scholar Ira Bhaskar.

Final Thoughts:
I first read about “The Cloud-Capped Star” about 15 year ago, most likely from Jonathan Rosenbaum. Since then it's been at the very top of my list of Currently Unavailable Films I Desperately Want To See. It easily exceeded my lofty expectations. Criterion has made this masterpiece by Ritwik Ghatak available in the North American region for the first time (as far as I know) and even if it's a bit sparse on supplements, that makes this one of the must-have Blu-rays of the year.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Fata Morgana

FATA MORGANA (Herzog, 1971)
Blu-ray, Shout! Factory, Release Date July 19, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

How to make a movie the Werner Herzog Way, in four easy steps:

1) Show up in the Sahara Desert with a script for a science-fiction movie about an alien crew from the Andromeda Galaxy assigned to film a report about a strange planet called Earth.

2) Discard said science-fiction script on the first day of shooting because someone tells you that desert mirages can't be filmed and you, as both a Bavarian poet and a former Mexican rodeo rider, take that as a personal challenge.

3) Drive through multiple African desert nations in your rented VW van along with your tiny crew, filming whatever you find along the way until you get swept up in a coup d'etat in Cameroon and are thrown in an overcrowded jail where you almost die from malaria.

4) After being released from the Cameroonian prison, take your footage back to the editing room and create a masterpiece.

Yes, kids, it really is that simple.

Describing “Fata Morgana” (1971) is a daunting enough prospect, let alone interpreting it. Why does the film begin with over four minutes worth of footage of various planes landing in the shimmering heat of a desert runway? Why is every third person we meet wearing the same pair of goggles? Is that really Leonard Cohen we're hearing on the soundtrack?

The answer to the final question is yes. As for the other two, beats me. Not quite knowing what you're looking at or why you're looking at it is integral to the pleasure of a freewheeling film difficult to categorize as anything other than a hallucination. What I am certain of is that the one compelling argument this not-a-documentary makes is that there is nothing in cinema as mesmerizing as a long tracking shot.

Cinematographer Jorg Schmidt-Reitwein shoots from the roof of the VW van as Herzog drives past a sinuous ridge of sand dunes (some hand-sculpted by the production crew to create more evocative contours) as tiny billows of sand blow off in the hot breeze; the longer the tracking shot continues the more those billows start to look like sheer rippling fabric. Later, lengthy aerial shots glide across a landscape mottled with patches of ice, or maybe they're salt flats, or possibly desiccated earth. Have I mentioned yet that “Fata Morgana” means mirage?

For more than the first twenty minutes, this chimerical terrain is devoid of people, but Herzog doesn't intend to settle into any comfortable pattern here. Eventually we will meet a menagerie of animals and people, some staring directly into the camera for uncomfortably long moments, many appearing disoriented as they gesticulate insistently off-camera at... something. A group of boys led by a teacher declare that “War is madness” and an ersatz scientist captures a giant turtle only to release it so he has something to capture the next day.

As bizarre as that all sounds, Herzog's wildest invention is the soundtrack, combining narration and one of the most unpredictable selections of musical tracks you've ever heard. In voice-over, several different speakers (beginning with German film guru and Herzog mentor Lotte Eisner) relate a creation story partly inspired by the Mayan “Popul Vuh” mythos and only obliquely related to the actual footage. Surely there's an ironic connection between shots of bleached carcasses lying in the sand and a voice-over speaking about man's dominion over the animal kingdom. I suspect Herzog's main goal is to recontextualize all of his images to form a radical new perspective, situating the viewers as those Andromedans trying to make sense of a baffling new world. Planet Herzog, to be specific. The creation story is broken into three sections, each divided by the repeated image of a half-glimpsed vehicle (or something) turning circles at the edge of the horizon, perhaps the most enigmatic image in a film replete with them.

The musical track is stranger still, combining classical and ecclesiastically-tinged tunes with the otherworldly “Ghetto Raga” by Third Ear Band, and pop tracks from Blind Faith and the aforementioned Mr. Cohen. Curiouser and curiouser still is the manner in which Herzog self-consciously underscores his manipulation of the various musical cues. In a bravura five-minute tracking shot (a relentless glide to the right broken up only by one cutaway) over industrial detritus and the bleached trailers of a desert town, Herzog begins with silence, cranks up a lengthy excerpt from Cohen's “Suzanne,” stops for a few lines of voice-over narration (“In Paradise, man is born dead.”), then rolls into the bulk of Cohen's “So Long Marianne,” all playing over that same almost unbroken tracking shot. You ask: Why? I respond: I've watched and listened to that sequence more than fifty times and I am overwhelmed on each viewing. Not only do I need not need to know why, I would dearly prefer not to.

The great critic and programmer Amos Vogel, an early Herzog booster, described “Fata Morgana” as “a cosmic pun on cinema verite.” I'm not sure that conveys the core essence of the film, but the final section does descend fully into the absurd, beginning with the strangest musical act in cinemahistory (this one I've watched over a hundred times) and ending with confused tourists stumbling around in ditches (Herzog directed them to “turn the pig loose”) and characters practically laughing themselves to death on screen, cf. the ending of “Even Dwarfs Started Small.” If you want to hear the normally unflappable Herzog crack the hell up, just listen to the commentary track starting around the one hour, seven-minute mark.

That doesn't mean “Fata Morgana” is intended as a joke. It is playful at times, morbid at others. For the viewer who tunes into its wavelength, the film is a visionary experience that inspires wonder and sometimes outright awe as it creeps up to and kisses the sublime threshold. I also feel safe in claiming that there is absolutely nothing else like it, not even its semi-sequel “Lessons of Darkness” (1992).

But really, there's just no way to describe it.

Herzog Collection from Shout! Factory

The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The high-def transfer from Shout! Factory is another “meh” effort, perfectly serviceable but nothing to brag about. Some of the sun-baked desert shots looks somewhat washed-out and the mediocre bit rate doesn't present the sharpest image quality. It's fine, a slight improvement over the old Anchor Bay DVD which, by the way, has to qualify as one of the odder DVD anomalies since this all-time great film was merely included as a “Bonus DVD” for Anchor Bay's release of “Lessons of Darkness” (1992). Sure, “Lessons” is a hell of a movie too, and the two films are definitely spiritual siblings, but “Fata Morgana” only a “Bonus DVD”? That's a hell of a bonus.

Note: Images in this review are NOT taken from the Blu-ray.

The audio mix is competent if somewhat flat. No problems though. You can listen to the film with its German soundtrack or its English soundtrack (different narrators for both versions). Optional English subtitles support the audio, and can be a bit difficult to read over some of the whiter shots.

The only extra is a commentary track by Werner Herzog, along with moderator Norman Hill and just-hanging-out-that-day actor Crispin Glover. I keep repeating myself: Herzog's commentary tracks are a performance art unto themselves and can be enjoyed over and over again.

In this Shout! Factory box set, “Fata Morgana” shares the same Blu-ray disc as “Land of Silence and Darkness.”

Final Thoughts:
A top ten all-time film for me. It's one of the movies I can see when I close my eyes.

Friday, August 30, 2019

The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Aug 27, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

Taeko (Michiyo Kogure) and her friends celebrate at a hot springs retreat in Shuzenji, Japan. They revel not only in their vacation time, but also in the shared deceptive gambit that has brought them together, a convincing lie told to each of their husbands to free up a few days to relax away from domestic obligations. Taeko only wishes the ploy had posed more of a challenge. Her husband is so stupid and simple, a real “Mr. Bonehead” as she repeatedly calls him.

The other married women laugh, but Taeko's young niece Setsuko (Keiko Tsushima) joins in the mockery with some reluctance. After all, she likes her Uncle Mokichi (Shin Saburi) and when we finally meet him, after he's been framed through Taeko's eyes through most of the first act, Mokichi turns out to be a decent, hard-working man, maybe a little boring but surely no bonehad. Setsuko later confronts her aunt, vowing that she would never insult her husband like that. Of course, Setsuko isn't married yet and might not be for quite a while as she currently refuses to meet with the prospective suitor her mother has arranged for her.

Director Yasujiro Ozu's “The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice” (1952) has perhaps been somewhat eclipsed because it was released between two of his most-beloved masterpieces, “Early Summer” (1951) and “Tokyo Story” (1953), but nobody should think of it as minor Ozu. Is there even such a thing? The director, working once again with the great screenwriter Kogo Noda, uses his deceptively unobtrusive camera (moving a bit more prominently than in some Ozu films) and low-key approach to drama to observe a broad swath of post-WW2 Japanese society, or at least in Tokyo.

The film depicts a culture split by rigid gender and class divisions. Men spend most of their time socializing with men, women with women. As one of Taeko's friends notes, with sympathy, wives only see their husbands at home where they are “like turtles lazing in the sun” but in the workplace they're more “like racing hares.” Taeko remains skeptical that there's much “hare” in her Mr. Bonehead, but slowly and ever so subtly (we're talking Ozu here) her perspective shifts.

Young Setsuko feels far less restricted by hegemonic norms. Not only does she reject arranged marriage as “barbaric” but she appears supremely comfortable as virtually the only woman in male-dominated spaces, like in the stands at a bicycle race or at night at a pachinko parlor. At said parlor, her very supportive uncle thinks it's time for her to go home. When she respectfully declines his advice, he threatens to leave her alone, unchaperoned, which sounds like a mighty fine idea to Setsuko.

Taeko and Mokichi's marriage has been slowly fracturing along class lines for some time now. She's a sophisticated woman raised in the city, he's a simple working-class man and war veteran from Nagano. She's ashamed of his fondness for cheap Asahi cigarettes, but he likes the flavor and even the box design. She's embarrassed by the way he slurps his food, and he promises to do better in the future. Mokichi seems more tolerant of Taeko's expensive, modern tastes, but he's not the sort to express his resentments.

This makes Taeko sound like a judgmental nag and to a degree she is, but Ozu and Noda don't deal in one-dimensional characterizations. She's not a bad person, simply the product of her environment and she's also capable of change, and far more empathy than you might expect from someone who dishes out “Mr. Boneheads” for cheap laughs. To add another dash of complexity, it's the supposedly old-school Mokichi who endorses Setsuko's rebellion against arranged marriage, while the “modern” Taeko rages when her niece won't do the proper thing.

The film culminates in a truly extraordinary final act which a mere recounting can't possibly do justice to. A twist of fate reunites the couple unexpectedly for a night at home after their maid has already gone to sleep. They rummage through a kitchen they're clearly both unfamiliar with to prepare a light snack which they eat together. And that's it, almost the entire final act devoted to a quick meal, but that meal is everything, the entirety of a marriage, of two lives shared for many years, perhaps even of an entire society in constant change. And it is nothing short of sublime.

Can the simple taste of green tea over rice on one quiet evening save a crumbling marriage? With Ozu, nothing is insignificant, so why not? 

The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. From the Criterion booklet: “This new 4K digital restoration was undertaken by Shochiku from a 35 mm fine-grain positive at IMAGICA Corp in Tokyo.”

This 1080p black-and-white transfer may not be perfect, but it looks a lot sharper than any other version of the film I can recall seeing. The image is quite bright with excellent detail visible in fabric, interior decoration, and, of course, faces. I don't know how much boosting was required to achieve such a sharp look, but it doesn't seem like any detail was lost in the process. Black-and-white contrast is robust too. A couple shots looks a bit softer than the rest of the film, but it's not a problem. This high-def transfer looks wonderful.

The PCM Mono track sounds rather thin and hollow throughout, presumably due to the original audio source. There are no obvious dropoffs or distortions. Optional English subtitles support the Japanese audio.

A quick look at the back cover of the Blu-ray case makes it seems like it's a bit light on extras, but that's not true.

For starters, we get a second Ozu feature film! “What Did The Lady Forget?” (1937, 71 min.) presents a familiar scenario of a troubled couple with a freespirited niece named Setsuko. The wife here is depicted somewhat less sympathetically than Taeko, as domineering and vain, but it's still a fine Ozu film which provides an early version of some of his better later works. Video quality on this unrestored film is mediocre, but still solid enough.

The disc also includes a short documentary (16 min.) by filmmaker Daniel Raim which focuses on the relationship between Ozu and his longtime collaborator, screenwriter Kogo Noda. Ozu and Noda were good friends and blurred the lines between friendship and work by often hashing out ideas while staying up late drinking. Sounds like a good plan.

We also get a video essay by film scholar David Bordwell (25 min.) which touches on various topics, including some of Ozu's early influences (Harold Lloyd and Ernst Lubitsch) and some context about post-WW2 Japanese society.

The slim fold-out booklet features an essay by scholar Junji Yoshida.

Final Thoughts:
Two more Ozu films in the Criterion Collection. Don't they have enough Ozu already? Answer: No, not until they have them all.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

The Koker Trilogy

Through The Olive Trees
THE KOKER TRILOGY (Kiarostami, 1987-1994)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Aug 27, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

Nobody does reflexivity quite like the late, great Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami.

A good chunk of “Through The Olive Trees” (1994), the third film in the Koker Trilogy (which isn't exactly a trilogy, but let's worry about that later) depicts the efforts of a director to shoot a single scene from his film-within-a-film. Plenty of directors have made movies about the film-making process before, but these particular sequences are a tad more complicated than most. You see, these scenes feature an actor playing a director who is a stand-in (of sorts) for Kiarostami pretending to direct an actor who is also playing a director who is a stand-in (of sorts) for Kiarostami. In fact, the scene being shot is actually from the second film in the (sort of) trilogy, “And Life Goes On” (1992), except not really, because it's actually a recreation of said scene two years later with some, but not all, of the same actors and...

Maybe this will make more sense if we start again, from the beginning this time.

Where Is The Friend's House?

“Where Is The Friend's House?” (1987) is definitely the beginning. Sort of. Kiarostami had actually been directing both shorts and features for well over a decade by then, but this movie provided the director with the breakout festival hit that began his meteoric rise to becoming one of the world's most celebrated filmmakers in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. At any rate, the movie was definitely the beginning of what would emerge as the so-called Koker Trilogy, even if Kiarostami had no plans for a grander project at the time.

The movie centers on the efforts of second-grader Ahmad (Babak Ahmadpour) to return a notebook to his friend and classmate. Wide-eyed, semi-articulate little Ahmad struggles to get any adult to take him seriously. Not understanding the moral imperative of Ahmad's vital mission, his mother orders him to do his homework, then immediately orders him to feed the baby, then to finish his homework, then to fetch bread. How exhausting! Most adults barely hear him at all though, to be fair, he struggles to raise his voice above a thin whisper – he's been taught not to speak unless spoken to, after all.

Like a Joseph Campbell hero finally crossing the threshold, Ahmad escapes his domestic duties and surges up the zigzag path over the mostly barren hill that separates his town of Koker from the neighboring town of Poshteh, only to get completely disoriented and overwhelmed. He's a whole village over – an entirely new world – and nobody seems to know where his friend lives. His adventures take him back home and back over the hill again, from the relative safety of the warm sun to shadowy night-time alleys guarded by scary barking dogs. Our intrepid hero never gives up, however, and ultimately devises an ingenious and empathetic solution to his quandary.

“Where Is The Friend's House?” was a hit both on the festival circuit and in Iran, but Kiarostami moved on to other projects, including the film many consider his greatest achievement, “Close-Up” (1990). His plans changed on the day of his 50th birthday when a devastating earthquake struck in the region around Koker, killing nearly 50,000 people. With his young son in tow, the director drove into the ruined area to see if he could find out what happened to his young actors.

And Life Goes On

A few years later, this trip turned into “And Life Goes On,” though viewers shouldn't take it too literally as autobiography, no matter how much the film might encourage such a reading. A film director (played by Farhad Kheradmand, an economist Kiarostami recruited for the role) and his son Pouya (Pouya Payvar) drive along badly congested highways into the earthquake area. The director goes unnamed, but he's seeking the star of a film he made called “Where Is The Friend's House?” He even holds up a poster card from the movie featuring the boy when he asks passersby if they've seen him. At one point, he even sees a boy racing up the same zigzag path on the hill as in the first film.

As with many later Kiarostami films, much of the action takes place in the car as father and son talk and also survey both the rubble and the frantic reconstruction as they drive through demolished communities. The director remains determined to complete his straightforward quest, much like Ahmad returning the notebook, but as this film's title indicates, life turns out to be more complicated and far more interesting. Everyone the director encounters has lost friends and family, but they're also still interested in getting a TV antenna installed so they can watch the World Cup (c'mon, it's Brazil vs. Argentina!). Young Pouya quickly makes new friends and would rather hang out with them than tag along with dad. The landscape, now pockmarked by fissures, remains as beautiful as ever, and art and music as essential as always.

The unnamed director even encounters a newlywed couple who actually got married the day after the earthquake. Their homes were destroyed and most of their families were killed, but that only motivated them to move up the wedding. Now they argue over where the husband's socks are. And life goes on.

Right on to “Through The Olive Trees” which begins with well-known Iranian actor Mohammad Ali Keshavarz directly announcing to the camera that he is, you guessed it, playing an unnamed film director in the movie you're about to watch. The narrative revolves around various film set dynamics, from the no-nonsense professionalism of trusted assistant Mrs. Shiva (Zarifeh Shiva) to the challenges of working with non-professional actors.

The director repeatedly tries to shoot a seemingly simple scene in which Farhad Kheradmand plays an unnamed director who has encountered a couple who got married the day after the big earthquake, which ought to sound familiar. But only sort of. Because this scene isn't quite the same as the one we just watched in “And Life Goes On,” and the drama now centers on the real-life clash between the two actors playing the couple, which itself is based on a real incident from the previous film. But only sort of...

You get at least some flavor of the complexity involved, the multiple levels of narrative being peeled back. You might also suspect that this could easily devolve into something tedious and precious, an insider's take of interest more to filmmakers than to most viewers. But Kiarostami's intensely engaged humanism prevents any aspect of this project from spiraling into an exercise in tedious naval-gazing. Instead, his ever-closer examinations and his subtle shifting of perspectives produce a series of revelations not just about the creative process, but about human nature.

Kiarostami often spoke about the many “lies” involved in his deceptively naturalistic filmmaking. The earthquake zones seen in both films are primarily constructed sets (he was filming there a few years after the tragedy), and even that famous zigzag path seen in all three films was sculpted to the director's specifications. And everything, of course, is scripted.

Whatever the lies, Kiarostami always seems to care sincerely and passionately about his characters. The compelling charm of “Where Is The Friend's House?” lies in the sense that we are truly listening to little Ahmad, sharing his neglected point of view and understanding his motivations and frustrations. And it always feels like we stop to listen to everyone we encounter in all three films, to appreciate even their momentary concerns as important, far more important than some silly old plotline.

That may all be an illusion – all of these unique voices are inflections of Kiarostami's voice – but, if so, it's an effective and genuinely moving illusion. One that makes the films of the trilogy so powerful and one that makes our repeated cinematic visits to Koker so unforgettable. After watching these movies, you'll be able to close your eyes and see that zigzag path anytime you want. You might not even be able to help it.

All three films are presented in their original 1.66:1 aspect ratios. These 1080p transfers were all sourced from recent digital restorations. “And Life Goes On” shows minor damage in a few spots, but nothing significant. “Through The Olive Trees” probably looks the strongest of the bunch. Overall, the image quality is fairly sharp throughout this set with a soft, naturalistic color palette in all movies. I remember seeing “Friend's House” on a pretty miserable transfer quite a while ago, and still loved it despite the poor video quality. Now it looks pretty darn great with little Ahmad's bright eyes doing so much of the heavy lifting.

The films are presented with PCM mono audio tracks. The sound design overall is pretty straightforward. These audio tracks are clean and efficient which is all that's needed. Optional English subtitles support the Persian dialogue.

First, a note on the unusual design of this boxed set which is a tribute to the unique nature of the Koker Trilogy itself. Each disc is stored in a separate keepcase, and the keepcases all nest inside each other. “Where Is The Friend's House” is actually stored inside the other two, but it's the first disc the set opens to. So the other two films (or their cases) are actually “built” around it. The keepcase for “Through The Olive Trees” encloses the other two discs, and all three tuck into an outer slipcase. I may not have done a great job of describing this unique design, but it's very cool.

“Where Is The Friend's House” has two extras. The first is a lengthy interview of Kiarostami conducted by programmer Peter Scarlet on stage in Toronto during a 2015 retrospective of Kiarostami's work. It runs 67 minutes and covers a wide range of topics, all featuring Kiarostami's low-key sense of humor as conveyed wonderfully by the translator.

This first disc also offers us a whole extra Kiarostami film. “Homework” (1989, 77 min.) is a documentary, though Kiarostami describes it in the film as “a piece of research.” I guess he knows what he's talking about, because the idea of the movie is to speak to several young boys (and one adult) about what they think of their schoolwork. Made just after “Friend's House”, this film continues the director's interest in giving young boys a chance to express the world from their perspective. Most of the film consists of three simple setups: each boy talking, the cameraman as seen from the kids' POV, and Kiarostami occasionally seen asking questions though usually heard off-screen. The director is particularly interested in how the boys are motivated to do well, and discovers (or confirms) that the Iranian system is built almost entirely around punishment with little positive reinforcement. It's repetitive and you might space out a few times, but darned if Kiarostami doesn't find a way to wrap up this dry “report” with a sublime final shot.

“And Life Goes On” is accompanied by a Commentary track (the only one in the set) by critics Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum, co-authors of the book “Abbas Kiarostami” (orig. published in 2003, updated in 2018). I've only had a chance to sample the first fifteen minutes of this commentary, but it's great as you would expect from these two insightful and informed writers.

The second disc also gives us a new interview with scholar Hamid Naficy (15 min.) in which he provides a brief history of Kiarostami's earlier films and traces some of the themes and techniques prevalent in his work. In just 15 mintues, Naficy can only touch on so much, but there's enough here that you wish Criterion had given him more time.

“Abbas Kiarostami: Truths and Dream” (1994, 52 min.) is a documentary by Jean-Pierre Limosin which gives Kiarostami the chance to expand on some of his film philosophy, especially the notion that both documentary and feature filmmaking consist of big (or little) lies designed to tell truths. Like Werner Herzog, Kiarostami sees no clear dividing line between fiction and non-fiction cinema.

“Through The Olive Trees” is a bit slimmer on extras, including just two fairly short interviews, but both are strong. First is an interview with Ahmad Kiarostami (2018, 14 min.), son of the late, great director. He provides personal insight into how the 1990 earthquake changed his father's worldview and his approach to cinema. Second is a conversation between scholar Jamsheed Akrami and critic Godfrey Cheshire (19 min.) in which they provide more context for how this trilogy that wasn't meant to be a trilogy took shape as well as a few other important concepts such as Kiarostami's notion of the “half-made film.” Both are great and, once again, I wish this feature could have been significantly expanded.

The fold-out booklet features an excellent, comprehensive essay by Godfrey Cheshire, covering the trilogy as a whole as well as providing a more detailed examination of each film.

Final Thoughts:
I like every Kiarostami film I've ever seen. I can only say the same thing about a few other prolific directors: Ozu, Bresson. Hmm, maybe a few others, but no names spring to mind right now. The films of the Koker Trilogy are among his very best, and the solid transfers and extras accompanying these films make this a strong candidate for this year's best Criterion release, and one of the best Criterion releases ever.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

The BRD Trilogy

Veronika Voss

VERONIKA VOSS, LOLA (Fassbinder, 1979-1982)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date July 9, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

I'm often torn as to which Fassbinder period is my favorite. Sometimes I lean toward the less-than-no-frills frenzy of the “Love Is Colder Than Death” (1969) era. Just stand against that white wall and knock out your lines so we can wrap this thing – for God's sake, we've already been shooting for nearly a week! And we've got five more films to finish by the end of the year.

Other times, I prefer the expansive ambition of “Berlin Alexanderplatz” (1980), the mini-series that takes longer to watch than it takes to read the book it's based on. But who can resist the easy formal elegance of the BRD trilogy, among Fassbinder's last films and the subject of this review?

Then I remember that if the “mature” Fassbinder of the BRD trilogy wasn't cranking out six features a year anymore, he still preferred shooting single takes and barreling through production at a frenetic pace that would leave most young filmmakers gasping for air. Then again, he was still a young filmmaker, just 33 when he began shooting “The Marriage of Maria Braun” (1979), approximately his 34th feature (it's tough to keep an exact count). All Fassbinder is early Fassbinder, and maybe his forty-plus films should really all be considered of a single period. So I guess my favorite Fassbinder is all of it.

With the BRD Trilogy (BRD = Bundesrepublik Deutschland, i.e. West Germany), Rainer Werner Fassbinder turned his unflinching gaze to his home country's post-war years. He was particularly keen to examine the so-called “economic miracle” (mostly in the 1950s) that produced a startlingly swift recovery from the ruins, and the willful denial required to manage such a rapid transition. Move forward, never think back. Fassbinder chose to filter this history through the experiences of three title women: one who adapts confidently to post-war society, one who negotiates the new landscape with more mixed results, and one who remains mired in a past that everyone else is trying to forget.

“The Marriage of Maria Braun” opens with a depiction of the title event, first with audio of vows being exchanged under a poster of Hitler, then with bombs dropping around the wedding party. As buildings crumble, the still blissful bride makes sure that the Justice of the Peace signs the marriage certificate even as he lies cowering in the rubble. Maria (Hanna Schygulla) intends to get what she wants no matter the obstacles in her path.

When her husband Hermann (Klaus Lowitsch) deploys the next day and is soon lost in battle, Maria adapts to life as a war widow (though she steadfastly believes Hermann, her one true love, will return) in a methodical fashion. Climbing the business ladder by any means necessary, she consolidates power on her own terms, giving ground to nobody except the absent and therefore idealized Hermann. As for the rest of the characters, they can either get out of her path or just follow obediently in her wake.

Schygulla's magisterial performance is so confident and so layered, it's impossible to reduce Maria to any simple category, to price her as a consumer commodity, the defining aspect of the economic miracle she exploits so brilliantly. She's ruthless, but no Machiavellian sadist; loyal to her husband of “half a a day and a whole night” but no shrinking faithful maiden (nowhere close). She simply knows the score. “It's not a good time for feelings” is her sober assessment of post-WW2 Germany, a motto that could also be the organizing principle of much of Fassbinder's work.

Where Maria Braun resists being bartered, “Lola” (1981) does her best to set her own price. The titular cabaret singer/prostitute (Barbara Sukowa) faces a dreary set of choices as Fassbinder populates the film with a bevy of faux-macho posers puffing fat cigars in boardrooms, preening men circling each other in snarling, impotent displays of authority. Lola is ostensibly “owned” by one of them (Mario Adorf), a corrupt property developer and ersatz alpha dog among the equally corrupt power brokers in the city.

When the urbane, morally upright Von Bohm (Armin Mueller-Stahl) is appointed as the new building commissioner, he foils everyone's plans, but Von Bohm's growing obsession with Lola entraps him as well. Like any (mostly) innocent character in a Fassbinder film, Von Bohm faces two choices: destruction or capitulation. Von Bohm's only chance at happiness requires an act of denial in tune with the nation-wide act of forgetting necessary for an economic miracle. As for Lola, maybe she really can have everything, at least at the right price.

Loosely inspired by the tragic story of German actress Sybille Schmitz, “Veronika Voss” (1982) tells the tale of a faded actress from the war years who has now fallen on hard times. Voss (Rosel Zech) still clings to her identity as a top-line star, but both work and fame have become increasingly elusive. She now spends most of her time under the “care” of a dubious doctor who may actually be keeping her hostage.

Robert (Hilmar Thate) makes the mistake of acting kindly to Voss (who he's never heard of) one night, thus being dragged into her shady world, marking him as another ill-starred noir dupe, though with Voss as a decidedly unusual femme fatale. The film is shot in sultry black-and-white with an intentional preponderance of massive camera flares (more like mini-supernovas ), especially in scenes related to Voss's diminishing movie career. The nefarious doctor's office may be the whitest space ever created on film – overblown white on overblown white. Considering Voss's vulnerability and the seeming decency of both Robert and his faithful girlfriend (Cornelia Froboess), you might start to wonder if the cynical social realist director has gotten sentimental in his old age (he was about 35 when he shot the film). But then Fassbinder delivers an ending as pitiless as the one he reserved for himself in “Fox And His Friends” (1975).

It's understandable why many viewers deem Fassbinder to be one of the cruelest filmmakers of his or any generation. But if he was just wallowing in miserabilism for cheap sadistic thrills, his films wouldn't provoke such powerful reactions from his devoted fans. Fassbinder observes with a remorseless eye, seeking out the flaws and finding all the dirt swept under the rug, but also with so much tenderness, the emotions spill out beyond the edges of the frame. He tried so desperately to find a happy ending, but he just saw too clearly.

The BRD Trilogy is among Fassbinder's crowning achievements, though I have been grossly negligent in not previously mentioning that all three films were scripted by Peter Marthesheimer and Pea Frohlich. Both “Marian Braun” and “Veronika Voss” are genuine masterpieces, and if “Lola” is the weakest link, it's only due to a difficult comparison.

The BRD Trilogy was originally released by Criterion on DVD in 2003. Those transfers looked quite strong at the time, but we've become spoiled in the more than fifteen years since then. These 1080-p high-def upgrades represent substantial improvements over the previous release.

Each of the three films appears to have been digitally restored by different companies. “Maria Braun” and “Lola” are both presented in their original 1.66:1 aspect ratios, “Veronika Voss” in its original 1.78:1 ratio.

“Veronika Voss” particularly benefits. With the massive camera flares and several spaces being so intensely white, this is an image that needs the high-def treatment not to wind up looking washed out and indistinct. Here, it looks fantastic. The high-def transfers for the other two films look strong throughout as well.

All three films are presented with modest, clean LPCM mono tracks. They sound crisp and get the job done with no noticeable distortions or weak spots. Optional English subtitles support the German audio.

The BDR Trilogy is a boxed set with three Blu-ray discs on three separate keepcases. Along with the squarebound insert booklet, the three cases are tucked into a sturdy cardboard container that holds the entire collection. Each disc includes one of the three features and an array of extras.

The old 2003 release of this Criterion set contained four DVDs, the fourth devoted just to the supplements. All of the extras on this Blu-ray re-release are now spread out among the three filmdiscs, and have all been imported from the prior DVD release. All of the previous extras are included here, and there are no new extras for this set.

Each disc includes a Theatrical Trailer for each of the films.

On the “Maria Braun” disc, we get the old commentary by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and director Wim Wenders.

This disc also includes a 2003 interview with actress Hanna Schygulla (32 min.) in which she discusses first meeting a young Fassbinder. There's also a 2003 interview with critic Eric Rentschler (20 min.) who provides some context for the release of the BDR trilogy and its emphasis on the experience of women during the economic miracle.

“Life Stories: A Conversation with Rainer Werner Fassbinder” (1978, 48 min.) is a lengthy interview conducted by film scholar Peter W. Jansen at Fassbinder's Paris home. Fassbinder is surprisingly frank in answering some very personal questions. It's compelling material, but be aware that lengthy excerpts from this are included in “I Don't Just Want You To Love Me”, a feature on the next disc.

The “Veronika Voss” disc includes the 2003 commentary by critic Tony Rayns, which is as jam-packed with information and analysis as you'd expect from the always astute Mr. Rayns.

We also get a 2003 conversation (29 min.) between actress Rosel Zech and editor Juliane Lorenz. Fassbinder had long admired Zech's stage work, and wanted to work with her because he considered her the best Hedda Gabler the German theater had produced in his lifetime.

“Dance with Death” (2000, 55 min.) is a tabloid-y feature about the suicide of German actress Sybille Schmitz, the loose inspiration for the film.

By far the best feature on this loaded set is the exceptional documentary “I Don't Just Want You To Love Me” (1992, 96 min.) Directed by Hans Gunther Pflaum, this feature-length documentary mixes together interviews with many of Fassbinder's film “family” including Hanna Schygulla, Harry Baer, Ingrid Caven, Lilo Pompeit (Fassbinder's mother), composer Peer Raben, and many others. The interviews offer many perspectives on Fassbinder's life and career, and remarkable footage of a very young Fassbinder in his early Antiteater (his Anti-Theater acting group) days provides an added bonus. This is the rare supplemental feature substantial enough to merit its own separate release on disc.

The “Lola” disc has a 2003 commentary by film scholar Christian Braad Thomsen.

It also offers four of the old 2003 interviews. Actress Barbara Sukowa (20 min.) talks about meeting Fassbinder in theater, and the years they planned to work together before finally getting the opportunity on “Berlin Alexanderplatz.” Peter Marthesheimer (33 min.) co-wrote the screenplays (along with Pea Frohlich) for all three BDR films, and was also a television producer who developed several other Fassbinder projects.

We also get an interview with cinematographer Xavier Schwarzenberger (27 min.) who tells a great story about his first meeting with Fassbinder, which started out looking like a disaster and turned into a happy meeting of the minds. The final interview sees editor Juliane Lorenz back for a conversation with author and curator Laurence Kardish. Lorenz speaks at length about the unique editing method she employed on Fassbinder's work, almost instantly churning out near final cuts from the previous day's footage, trying to keep pace with the fast-working director. If you only check out one of the interviews on this disc, this is your best bet.

The square-bound 52-page insert booklet kicks off with an essay by critic Kent Jones which covers the entire trilogy, then includes essays/production histories on each of the three films by author Michael Toteberg. The booklet is almost identical to the one included with the 2003 release except, oddly, it doesn't include listings of cast and crew at the end.

Final Thoughts:
Criterion's Blu-ray release of “The BRD Trilogy” faithfully reproduces the 2003 DVD release – all the same extras, no new ones. The high-def transfers represent marked upgrades, and surely the best versions home viewers have ever gotten to see of these remarkable films.

Fassbinder died at the age of 37 in 1982, the same year “Veronika Voss” was released, with over forty films on his resume. You can appreciate the trilogy for its greatness, or take it as a bitter reminder of the many, many Fassbinder films we never got to see. I choose both options.