Thursday, August 15, 2019

The BRD Trilogy

Veronika Voss

THE BRD TRILOGY: THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN, 
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.


Video:
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.

Audio:
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.

Extras:
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.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

La Vie de Jesus



LA VIE DE JESUS (Dumont, 1997)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date June 18, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

Director Bruno Dumont was frequently likened to Robert Bresson early in his career. This comparison may have been overblown, not to mention lazy, but Dumont's debut film “La Vie de Jesus” (“The Life of Jesus”,1997) does remind me of a specific scene in Bresson's “L'argent” (1983).

At the end of Bresson's magnificent final film, a crowd of townsfolk gather outside a restaurant to watch as a notorious ax murderer is led out by police. When he's finally paraded by, they barely notice and keep looking, still waiting for... what? A REAL ax murderer, perhaps? Maybe one who actually looks like the blood-soaked monster who just chopped a kindly family to bits for no apparent reason, and not that harmless kid the cops just guided past them. You mean that was him? You can't be serious.

The protagonist of “La Vie de Jesus” is as seemingly innocuous as can be. Freddy (David Douche, a non-professional actor like the rest of the cast) is a teenager in a small rural town in France (Bailleul, near the Belgian border) who likes to ride his motor scooter, hang out with his do-nothing friends, and who especially likes to make love to his devoted girlfriend Marie (Marjorie Cottreel). Freddy still lives with his attentive mother (Genevieve Cottreel) who makes sure he gets to his frequent hospital appointments where doctors monitor his epilepsy. Nothing much happens. Freddy just whiles away one listless day after another on the path to nowhere, just like everyone else in town. Bored, alienated, mostly harmless, Freddy is just the young man next door. Which is the scary part.

Dumont roots his filmmaking firmly in the physical world (the movie generated some controversy for its close-up depiction of sexual penetration) and a sense of place. From the instant Freddy falls face first off his bike onto the hard dirt ground, he is directly linked to his bleak environment. Dumont frequently cuts away from characters just hanging out to shots of the countryside, or to the clouds drifting by, perhaps reminding viewers of possibilities the unimaginative, earthbound characters fail to notice. These brief moments of sublime beauty startle, but still fail to break up either the monotony or the deepening gloom.

(SPOILERS FOLLOW)

Once Kader (Kader Chaatouf), a young man who appears to be of North African heritage and is labeled an “Arab” by locals, begins to show interest in Marie, Freddy finally discovers an outlet for the resentment he had previously turned impotently against a body that betrays him and a town that provides no opportunities. Long free-floating bitterness crystallizes into rage which eventually erupts into murder, leading to an enigmatic final sequence as Freddy, now a killer just escaped from police, thrashes shirtless in the grass and finally takes a good long look at the sky Dumont's camera has shown us before. He sits upright, a tear trailing down his cheek.

An extension of the Bresson comparison might encourage a reading of this ending as a moment of redemption or grace, though not so much if we're talking late-Bresson like “L'argent.” But Dumont offers no obvious cue to viewers in this final shot. It certainly doesn't appear to be a plea for sympathy (aw, gee, that poor racist murderer Freddy) and isn't necessarily even an insight into Freddy's burgeoning inner life. Perhaps it's an acknowledgment that real people are too complex to be expressed in anything like a traditional character arc. 


Video:
The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. From the Criterion booklet: “The new 4k digital restoration was undertaken from the 35 mm original camera negative at Eclair in Vanves, France.”

I understand some previous DVD releases have been underwhelming and suffered from yellow tinting. I don't own those as comparison points, but this 4K restoration looks fantastic in Criterion's 1080p transfer. Image quality is sharp throughout, as is contrast. Everything looks great in motion. Nothing to complain about at all.

Audio:
The LPCM 2.0 stereo mix is crisp if not particularly robust. It's not called on to do all that much, and does it well. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.

Extras:
Criterion has only included a few extras with the first Dumont film in their collection.

We get an interview with Dumont (16 min.) in which he discusses how his philosophy studies influenced his first feature. He believes we don't need any more films that entertain us, we need films that awaken us instead.

The disc also includes a 2014 interview of Dumont conducted by critic Philippe Rouyer (39min.) and two excerpts from 1991 episodes of the French TV show “Le cercle de minuit” (26 min. total). There's also a Trailer (2 min.)

The slim fold-out insert booklet features an essay by critic Nicholas Elliott.

Final Thoughts:
I'll be honest. I'm not sure yet what to make of Bruno Dumont's debut film. Perhaps it would help if I had seen more than just one other Dumont (“Camille Claudel 1915” - which I liked a lot). All I know is I'm still thinking about it a week after first seeing it.

Criterion's Blu-ray release doesn't include many extras, but you get a too-notch high-def transfer and an introduction to a filmmaker whose critical reputation has grown considerably in the past twenty years. He's one of John Waters' favorite contemporary directors, which is pretty neat seeing that they're now both in the Criterion Collection.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

War and Peace



WAR AND PEACE (Bondarchuk, 1965-67)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date June 25, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

Taking advantage of the brief cultural Thaw under Nikita Khrushchev, Paramount distributed King Vidor's adaptation of Tolstoy's“War and Peace” (1956) in the Soviet Union in 1959. It was a hit as Russian audiences found Audrey Hepburn irresistible as their beloved Natasha Rostova and apparently managed to keep a straight face at the sight of Henry Fonda as Count Pierre.

Soviet authorities were less thrilled by the idea of a commercially successful American adaptation of the greatest Russian nationalistic novel, and they soon brought the full power of the state apparatus to bear in producing a home-grown response. Sergei Bondarchuk, an accomplished actor with only one directorial outing under his belt, emerged as the unlikely (and largely unpopular) choice to helm a project that would be both blessed and cursed with nearly unlimited resources along with an open-ended timeline. Bondarchuk was charged with putting Hollywood to shame by any means necessary, and boy did he ever take advantage.

Bondarchuk began shooting before “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962) was released and didn't finish until well after “Dr. Zhivago” (1965) charmed audiences around the world, but the Soviet director had an epic vision whose scale made David Lean look like a penny-ante operator (Ed. Note: OK, not really. Nobody could ever make David Lean look small). With over 300 speaking parts and battle sequences that employed more than 100,000 extras, Bondarchuk's “War and Peace,” released in four parts running over seven hours total, assumed the burden of representing the very soul of the world's largest nation, often soaring above the sprawling action with the kind of god's-eye view that only unfettered access to the Soviet Air Force can grant. The film begins and ends by gliding through the clouds, and you better believe it takes every opportunity to fly with the angels (and, yes, there's even a literal angel at one point). The great critic Manny Farber groused about the grandiosity of “white elephant” art – “War and Peace” puffs its hairy, nationalistic chest all the way to “blue whale.”

Bondarchuk (who fired a series of cinematographers, eventually settling on the relatively inexperienced Anatoly Petritsky for most of the project) prefers to film his massive battles from a remote vantage point, either from the heavens or the crest of a hill. The camera frames some of the most elaborate clockwork dioramas cinema has ever witnessed, with thousands of tiny soldiers surging across muddy terrain in tightly-controlled geometric patterns, billows of smoke enveloping them (and often the camera) in the chaos.

The movie occasionally cuts in to details in the great pageant, the tortured faces of wounded soldiers or bystanders and dozens of horses falling to the hard ground (maybe hundreds – far too many for my sensibility anyway), but Bondarchuk generally maintains an imperial distance, emphasizing the historic sweep over individual experience. This propensity for spectacle achieves a glorious and frightening apotheosis during the 1812 Battle of Borodino, the bloody, senseless culmination of which consumes much of the third film in the series, leaving viewers as shaken as the overwhelmed and largely helpless combatants of both the Russian and French armies. Ditto for the burning of Moscow depicted as a literal hell on Earth, flames stretching to both ends of the wide-screen frame. 


Bondarchuk displays a similar interest in the choreography of masses of people when he turns his attention to the elites in St. Petersburg. Safe and distant from the horrors of war, they gather for one ornate ball after another, to glorify Russian power brokers or to introduce debutantes to society. Once again, viewers are treated to the sight of hundreds of small bodies in formations, vying for attention in on the battlefield of courtly society. Petritsky had to got innovative to film the numerous dance sequences, placing his camera operators on roller skates, though with relatively quick cutting, these shots still lack the sinuous virtuosity of a Max Ophuls ball (admittedly, a lofty comparison.)

The film's monumental approach leaves less room for intimacy, and omits much of the copious detail Tolstoy devoted to the ruthless machinations behind the numerous marriage arrangements that account for much of the “Peace” portion of the novel. Vyacheslav Tikhonov is handsome and heroic as the dour Prince Andrei, great at suffering nobly but not terribly expressive. Petite teenage ballerina Ludmila Savelyeva brings an elfin grace to the role of young Natasha but (as in the novel) she's left to do little save be sweet, naïve, and occasionally a bit foolish. Andrei and Natasha's doomed love affair manifests mostly through a series of longing glances.

Count Pierre emerges as the most intriguing character, convenient since Bondarchuk chose to play the role himself, despite being about fifteen years too old for the part (he was still much younger than Henry Fonda). The timid yet quietly courageous humanist cuts quite the absurd and sometimes striking figure, a portly dandy prowling the hectic battlefield in his white top hat, blinking in confusion behind his glasses at a world full of people who refuse to behave according to the theories in his books.

“War and Peace” is big on grandeur, but sometimes too straitjacketed to breathe, to celebrate the pure joy of creation. Regardless, in sheer scope the film is nothing short of breathtaking, the epic of all epics. Even at seven hours, it can't hope to capture more than a fraction of Tolstoy's magisterial doorstop, but this is a film that had the resources of an entire nation behind it, and Bondarchuk proudly flaunts every bit of it. I'm not qualified to judge whether the film encapsulates the identity and soul of Russia – I'm not sure what that would even look like – but you have to admire a director and his cast and crew who were bold enough to make the effort.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. From the Criterion booklet: “This new 2K digital restoration was undertaken by Mosfilm from multiple partial 35 mm negatives from various archives, using a complete 35 mm positive print as a reference.”

Considering the multiple sources used and the massive scope of the restoration, the image quality is quite consistent throughout the four films, though I'll admit it's hard to track over seven hours spread out over a few days of viewing. The 1080p image is perhaps not quite as razor sharp as the very top-end Criterion transfers, but it looks strong overall, showing no problems in motion (even with thousands of bodies in motions and explosions all over the place). Colors are somewhat muted, but they're supposed to be.

Audio:
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track is at its most robust during the elaborate battle scenes. I can only imagine how immersive the experience must be in a theater with a booming audio system. At home, it's still quite impressive. Optional English subtitles support the Russian audio. Some French audio isn't subtitled, some is – all as Bondarchuk intended.

Extras:
As mentioned above, “War and Peace” was released as four separate films, totaling about 7-hours running time. Criterion's two disc Blu-ray release houses two films on each of the discs.

The only extra on Disc One is “Woina I Mir” (1966, 48 min.), a German B&W documentary by Thomas Schamoni. It provides some information about the production and includes an interview with Bondarchuk, but is pretty dry and not all that enlightening.

All of the other extras are stored on Disc Two.

We get a new interview with cinematographer Anatoly Petritsky (14 min.) in which he acknowledges some of the tensions on set with Bondarchuk (who seemed to alienate or at least stress out virtually everyone) but is also justifiably proud of some of his innovations on set, including a “flying” camera he put on cables to soar over the battlefields as well as his idea to put camera operators on roller skates to film the ballroom scenes.

The disc also includes a short new interview with Fedor Bondarchuk (6 min.), the director's son, who provides a little background regarding his father's career, and some of the resistance his father faced from fellow filmmakers unhappy that he was picked for the job.

By far the best feature on the disc is “Cold War Classic” (2019, 46 min.), a lengthy and substantive interview with historian Denise J. Youngblood. The author of a book about the film (and novel), Youngblood brings an astonishing amount of knowledge to this feature – I took almost a full page of notes, just about a record for me for an interview. She contextualizes the film as a response to the release of Vidor's “War And Peace” during the Thaw, discusses the numerous logistical challenges during production, and argues that, if you count access to the military, all state museums, etc., Bondarchuk's epic may be the most expensive film ever made with an estimated effective budget around $700 million to $1 billion! She also talks about the unhappy end to Bondarchuk's career, and his life in 1984. This is simply a fantastic interview, worth watching from start to finish and then watching again.

Criterion has also included an excerpt from the Nov 18, 1968 episode of the French TV program “Les Sovietiques” (27 min.) It touches on the film in general, but focuses mostly on actress Ludmila Savelyeva, framed here more or less as the Russian Anna Karina, and Western European viewers' idea of the modern Russian woman.

Disc Two offers another documentary, “The Making of 'War and Peace'” (1969, 31 min.), a Mosfilm release which functions mostly as propaganda about the glory of Bondarchuk's and, therefore, the Soviet Union's achievement. It's of interest, but don't take it too seriously.

The collection wraps up with the Janus Re-Release Trailer (2 min.)

The surprisingly slim fold-out insert booklet includes an excellent essay by critic Ella Taylor.

Final Thoughts:
Sergei Bondarchuk's “War and Peace” often soars to majestic heights and occasionally devolves into pompous showmanship. It never lacks for ambition, and is as epic as epic filmmaking can get. Criterion's two-disc release provides a strong transfer and a solid collection of extras to do justice to this recently restored classic.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Macbeth



MACBETH (Polanski, 1971)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date September 23, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

Roman Polanski's 1971 adaptation of Macbeth is long on action, but pointedly short on grandeur. Yes, this is a history of “great men” crossing swords for control of a kingdom, but what a shameful, shabby affair it all is. When the king (Duncan, before he gets MacSnuffed) and his courtiers gather in the throne room to celebrate victory in battle, they look like precisely what they are: a tiny group of poorly-groomed sycophants clustered in a filthy little room in order to curry favor and get drunk.

Macbeth (Jon Finch) only distinguishes himself from the pack by the extent of his ambition. Where Shakespeare's villain was at least courageous and valiant in his own way, this Macbeth is just a cruel opportunist. He's not particularly cunning or even charismatic, just an efficient and willing brute. Even his frequent expressions of guilt for his misdeeds fail to convince; this thug cannot feel remorse, only fear for his own well-being. Though he mounts an impressive final stand, by the time his head winds up on a pike the viewer is left with one main thought, “What a loser.”

The script, co-written by Polanski and famed British theater critic Kenneth Tynan, exhibits no admiration for its wretched subjects. Francesca Annis initially sparks interest as the scheming Lady Macbeth, her innocent appearance a stark contrast with her sadistic impulses, but her descent into madness plays out as good riddance to bad rubbish. She's gone and quickly forgotten, and soon the same will happen to her husband.

Cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, a long-time Polanski collaborator, develops the visual equivalent of the script's jaundiced perspective, depicting 11th century Scotland (shooting on locations mostly in Wales and England) as a grimy, murk-shrouded patch of nothing hardly worth fighting for. There is intermittent beauty in some of the more distant wide-screen panoramas and the silhouetted hills and forests, but nothing the Scottish tourism board will be using in its brochures.


The release of “Macbeth” in America was overshadowed by the circumstances of its production. It was the first film produced by Hugh Hefner's Playboy Production which meant it was preceded by expectations that it would be tasteless (it's not) and graphic (it is). “Macbeth” was also the first film Polanski made after the murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate, and critics (both then and now) couldn't help but see echoes of the real-life tragedy in the movie, particularly when Macbeth's soldiers murder the wife and children of his foe Macduff (Terence Bayler).

Perhaps this explains why so much of the commentary lingered on the film's alleged extreme gore and violence. The film does shift the murder of Duncan from off-stage to on-screen with a nifty geyser of blood as punctuation, but there is nothing exploitive or gratuitous in the movie. Polanski needed a brutal film to highlight the brutishness of his characters. An early scene in which a soldier stands over a wounded man lying face-down in the mud and promptly bludgeons him to death is the first subtle hint that we're not in King Arthur's chivalrous court.

Essentially, Polanski's interpretation of Macbeth boils the story down to another round of the time-honored game of “crown goes on, head comes off.” And Macbeth doesn't matter one whit more than any of the other fools who played and lost. Few directors were better suited to portray the futility and absurdity of their schemes than Polanski.

The film may suffer a bit by comparison to some of its peers. As an adaptation of the Scottish play, it is no “Throne of Blood,” but then nothing is. As a cynical deflation of medieval heroism, it is certainly not the equal of Robert Bresson's “Lancelot du Lac,” released just a few years later. But then nothing is. And in Polanski's oeuvre, it surely slots behind “Chinatown,” “Rosemary's Baby,” and several other works. Good thing there's plenty of room beneath the highest of bars for quality cinema.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Criterion's 1080p transfer is typically excellent with a rather muted color palette throughout – of course it's hard to tell under all the cloudy skies. Image detail is sharp enough to enhance the grimy, run-down feeling of it all. From the Criterion booklet, “The picture was restored by the Criterion collection... (and) additional restoration work was performed by MTI in Los Angeles and Sony Colorworks in Culver City, California.”

Audio:
The DTS-HD Master Audio offers a slightly unusual 3.0 surround track, staying true to the original source. The clanging of swords and thumping on castle gates ring loud and true in a mix that provides a real sense of depth and place. Music by The Third Ear Band (including a fantastic end credit track) is well-preserved. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Extras:
Criterion offer a lengthy feature which intercuts new 2014 interviews with Polanski, producer Andrew Braunsberg, assistant executive producer Victor Lownes, and actors Francesca Annis and Martin Shaw (who played Banquo). I winced when Polanski dismissed “Throne of Blood” as not being a real adaptation (he's not criticizing the film, just making the bizarre claim that since it's in Japanese it's not really Shakespeare) but there's plenty of detailed information here, though the various commentaries lean heavily towards a defensive position, i.e. this amazing film was horribly treated by distributors and critics.

“Polanski Meets Macbth” (47 min.) is a 1971 making-of feature with lots of on-set and behind-the-scenes footage. It was directed by Frank Simon and is clearly promotional in nature but still of interest.

The disc also includes two television excerpts. “Two Macbeths” features Polanski and British theater director Peter Cole discussing their different adaptations of Macbeth. The footage (30 min.) is from the Jan 27, 1972 episode of British program “Aquarius.” Of much greater interest is an excerpt from the May 7, 1971 episode of the Dick Cavett Show with co-screenwriter Kenneth Tynan as guest. Only the last few minutes of this thirteen minute segment addressed “Macbeth” but Tynan is such a magnetic raconteur, and Cavett such a fine reviewer, you'll want to watch if only to pine for the days of substantive talk shows.

A Trailer (4 min.) played at the Playboy Theater and promised patrons both a major renovation and the world premiere of “Macbeth.”

The slim fold-out booklet features an essay by critic Terrence Rafferty.

Film Value:
I don't know that there's a clear winner in the contest for Roman Polanski's bleakest depiction of human nature. But “Macbeth” is indisputably in the running. This Criterion Blu-ray offers a strong transfer and a substantial collection of extras, making it the definitive North American release of the movie.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Throne of Blood


THRONE OF BLOOD (Kurosawa, 1957)
Criterion Collection, Blu-Ray/DVD, Release Date Jan 7, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

An ambitious general receives a prophecy that he will one day rule the land. Spurred on by his ambitious wife, he kills his master, moves to assume power, is plagued by guilt and paranoia, and winds up snuffing it before he ever takes the throne. So yes, Akira Kurosawa's “Throne of Blood” (1957) is an adaptation of Shakespeare's “Macbeth,” but one that cuts out almost all of the dialogue, transplants the action to feudal Japan, and replaces the conventions of Elizabethan theater with those of Japanese Noh. So “Throne of Blood” isn't exactly an adaptation of “Macbeth.” Rather, it is most distinctly a film by Akira Kurosawa.

The movie opens on a desolate, fog-enshrouded rocky landscape populated only by a forlorn wooden marker indicating that a great castle once stood here; a chorus underscores the Ozymandias-like quality by reminding viewers to “behold the ruins.” When the music stops (and we've jumped back in time a few centuries), there's nothing but fog and a howling wind until a tiny figure on horseback finally wavers into view. The film maintains this Spartan look throughout, a gallery of empty spaces, ruined landscapes, and lengthy silences.


Raging against the void comes Toshiro Mifune in high dudgeon as General Washizu who, along with his Banquo-like friend General Miki (Minoru Chiaki), wanders through a labyrinthine forest that insists on funneling them to a specific clearing where they encounter the spirit (the eerie and effective substitute for Shakespeare's three witches) who seals their fate simply by revealing it to them. From this point on, it's clear that even (and especially) these most powerful of men are just puppets or, more aptly, fools embracing the illusion that they are masters of a world that views them as little more than a punchline in the cosmic joke. And perhaps not even that.

Oddly enough, the vain, ambitious Washizu appears sensitive to this aura of inevitability too. Mifune rants and raves as he hacks his way closer, but never close enough, to power, yet he is plagued by doubt and shame even before he crosses the line into cowardly treason. It's as if he's already read the script, even the parts the spirit hasn't related to him, and prepares himself for the inevitable, perhaps buoyed by the thought that, at the very least, he will be granted one of the greatest death scenes in movie history.


Dialogue is pared down massively with dramatic emphasis given over to music (piercing flute and percussion) and the tightly controlled physical performances typical of Noh theater that Kurosawa loved so much. Even the volcanic Mifune moves with a choreographed deliberation distinct from his more feral performances, and his scheming wife Asaji (Isuzu Yamada) sometimes looks like a statue with her rigid posture and chalky mask.

The stark black-and-white photography by Asakazu Nakai is never less than breathtaking, as are the blighted sets built, with great difficulty, on the slope of Mt. Fuji. It's a world of mud and crumbling rock and rolling fog banks, a nature that rejects its most misguided creations and has no patience for their silly game of thrones.

Kurosawa never created a more seductive atmosphere, and “Throne of Blood” goes down as one of the greatest “lost cause” movies ever made. Just enjoy the ride along with the doomed protagonists. It's OK, they deserve it.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. Like most new Criterions, this is a dual-format release, meaning that you get two separate discs, one with a SD-DVD copy, the other with a high def Blu-ray transfer. Only the Blu-ray is reviewed here.

A film constantly enveloped by fog might present problems for a digital transfer of any kind, but this high-def treatment captures the grimy black-and-white images with vivid sharpness. A rich grainy structure has been well preserved, lending to the stark look of the film. A few instances of damage are evident from time to time, not a surprise considering that the film's original negative no longer survives. From the Criterion booklet: “This new digital transfer was created in 2K resolution on a DFT Scanity film scanner from the original 35 mm fine-grain master positive.”

Damage, however, is fairly modest and doesn't detract from the impressive look of this 1080p image. The original Criterion SD, released ten years ago, was just fine. This is several steps above fine.

Audio:
The LPCM Mono track really sounds great. It's not very dynamic, but isn't meant to be. The sharper musical cues come through very clearly and the slightly hollow sound enhances the mood of the film.

Viewers are given the option to select between two different English subtitle options. The first (default) option is subtitled by scholar Linda Hoaglund, the second option is subtitled by the late, great scholar Donald Richie. There are significant differences between the two options, an indication of the latitude translators always take, and the particular challenges represented by the highly stylized, idiosyncratic dialogue in “Throne of Blood” that isn't necessarily best translated in a the most literal fashion.

Extras:
Criterion has added one Extra not included on its 2003 SD release of “Throne of Blood.” We get yet another installment of the apparently sprawling Toho Masterworks series, “Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful To Create” that has appeared on so many of Criterion's Kurosawa releases. This 23-minute excerpt from this massive series addresses “Throne of Blood” and heavily relies on an interview with the director.

Repeated from the 2003 SD is the commentary track (recorded in 2002) by Japanese-film scholar Michael Jeck who offers a wealth of information in a style that finds a happy medium between the conversational and the academic and should appeal to most listeners.

The only other extra, also repeated from 2003, is the four-minute theatrical trailer.

The 24-page insert booklet includes an essay by writer and film professor Stephen Prince as well as essays by Linda Hoaglund and Donald Richie explaining their respective approaches to subtitling “Throne of Blood.”

Final Thoughts:
I'm always surprised when “Throne of Blood” is described as being second-tier Kurosawa. It's never meant as an insult since his second-tier is above most first-tiers, but only to suggest that it isn't one of his very best films. I disagree vehemently. It's top three Kurosawa for me, though perhaps I am biased since this was my introduction both to Kurosawa and to Japanese cinema. Criterion's new high-def transfer is a real thing of beauty. Extras are somewhat sparse, but it's still a must-own for any fan of the director.

For another adaptation of the Scottish play, see Roman Polanski's groovy, grimy take.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Thief


THIEF (Mann, 1981)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Jan 14, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

Let us hark back to an ancient time, a mystical era known as the '80s, when master criminals were manly men with giant tools, the kind of tools that forced their users to grunt and sweat, great hulking tools that spewed giant arcs of flame. Real fire, not firewalls built to be hacked by myopic ectomorphs slouched over increasingly tiny keyboards. You needed hair on your chest, not Red Bull on your desk, if you wanted to move some serious capital back in the golden age.

For director Michael Mann, it was also a time of blue filters and tangerine dreams. “Thief” (1981) was Mann's theatrical debut after an apprenticeship in television that included an episode of “Police Woman” and the rock-solid TV prison movie “The Jericho Mile” (1979), and he intended to flex every stylistic muscle he had toned up. Mann portrays his hometown of Chicago as a sparsely-populated island enveloped by a darkness gashed only by flashing neon lights and slow-burning streetlamps, hemmed in on one side by a sprawling stretch of water that both promises and denies escape. Soft blues, muted reds, and orange sparks reflect off metallic surfaces; the hoods of cars can look like traveling kaleidoscopes, shimmering as they speed through the night. 


It's the perfect milieu for Frank (James Caan), a safecracker and diamond thief who operates as the consummate professional along with his equally efficient team. No need for attention or pizazz; just grab the goods and go. In the opening scene, Frank and partner Barry (James Belushi in his feature debut) pull off a nearly wordless heist that climaxes with Frank boring a gigantic drill through the cold thick steel of a safe door. The nearly ten-minute sequence is prominently accompanied by a pulsing electronic score from Tangerine Dream, a love-'em or detest-'em creative element that defines the movie's cool industrial attitude toward crime and the city.

After business it's time for pleasure, at least to the limited degree that Frank is capable of experiencing such an emotion. Frank is a state lifer, raised in an orphanage and handed over to the prison system where a short sentence for petty burglary morphed into a longer stint after the young man was forced to defend himself from jailhouse predators (or at least that's how Frank tells the story). More than a decade in the joint has chiseled a heart of stone; Frank proudly admits to Jessie (Tuesday Weld), a diner waitress who catches his eye, that he survived in jail only by getting to the point “where nothin' means nothin'.”


If you're looking for chinks in Frank's nihilistic armor, witness the way he eagerly flocks to the aid of his imprisoned mentor Okla (Willie Nelson), but this appears to be the exception. Even Frank's campaign to win Jessie's heart is strictly a business matter; he decided in prison that he wanted to settle down with a nice woman and have a child, and he's the sort of man who always follows through on his plans and by his own rules. When local gang boss Leo (Robert Prosky) tries to enlist the lone wolf in his ranks, Frank (who never uses contractions) means it when he replies, “I am Joe the boss of my own body.” Frank will soon remember what he learned in jail and ever so briefly forgets in the real world; you can only be in charge when you have no other responsibilities.

“Thief” is nominally based on Frank Hohimer's book “The Home Invaders,” though Mann claims he discarded everything but the basic idea. Mann's script is built mostly out of genre cliches: the hardened career criminal looking to make one last big score, the world-weary but loving woman who accepts his shady past, honor among thieves, the corrupt cops and two-bit gangsters who want a piece of the action. “Thief” distinguishes itself in terms of style and also by James Caan's lived-in performance; his hairy swagger and willingness to let actions speak louder than words make Frank entirely believable, even if unsympathetic. He is a bully and a narcissist whose tunnel vision and methodical calculation leave no room for the feelings of others. Knowing the tough upbringing that shaped him adds depth to the character, but still offers little to be fond of. He uses and abuses whenever he has the power to do so: “To hell with me, with you, with everything.” At least he's honest.

Mann's ultra-cool formalism has made him the favorite of many auteurist critics for reasons I've never fully understood. As a result, “Thief” is now often hailed as the precursor of a style-drenched decade, a game-changer, or something similar; as an auteur's first theatrical film, it simply must be historically important in some way. Better to set aside any alleged landmark status, and accept “Thief” as a crisply filmed, well-acted crime move that benefits immensely from the verisimilitude of its heist sequences. Real safes, real tools, real pillars of flame; these jobs are labor intensive, man. Pure sweat equity. It beats the hell out of the gravity-free zone of CGI action. Heck, there are even real pay phones here, and phone calls that can be missed if you're not there to take them. That's when men were men, and Mann was the Mann.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Criterion's 1080p transfer is virtually flawless, and I can only assume the vibrant chromatic palette is true to the original. It's easy to get lost in the precisely sculpted, moody imagery and the high-def treatment really brings it to life. There are plenty of nighttime scenes and the detail brought out in the darker shots is often remarkable; I'm sure fans who have only caught it on DVD will see things they've missed before. I can't think of anything to complain about.

Audio:
The DTS-HAD Master Audio 5.1 surround track is equally impeccable. Whether you love them or not, you get Tangerine Dream's score vividly presented in all its abstracted glory. The industrial sounds of men at work and the ambient sounds of the city all come through on this evocative surround track. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Extras:
The film is accompanied by a commentary track by Michael Mann and James Caan. It was recorded in 1995, and was included on the long-ago released SD by MGM/UA.

The rest of the extras are all newly recorded interviews. Critic Scott Foundas interviews Mann (2013, 24 min.) who discusses growing up in Chicago and his reliance on real-life thieves as consultants and actors (safecracker James Santucci plays a crooked cop in the film). We also get a new interview with James Caan (2013, 10 min.) who lists “Thief” as one of his proudest accomplishment and a new interview with Johannes Schmoelling, formerly of Tangerine Dream (2013, 16 min.) The disc also includes a Theatrical Trailer (2 min.)

The slim insert book includes an essay by “Sight & Sound” editor Nick James.

Final Thoughts:
I haven't liked a Michael Mann film in quite a while, but his career got off to a fine start with this stylistic crime movie and later peaked with the only true Hannibal Lecter (or Lecktor) movie, “Manhunter” (1986). Criterion's high-def transfer is superb; fans might have hoped for more extras, but the new interviews are certainly worthwhile.

Do The Right Thing


DO THE RIGHT THING (Lee, 1989)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date July 23, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

As “McCabe and Mr. Miller” is to snowy backwoods isolation, so “Do The Right Thing” (1989) is to the scorching summer day in the city. No film has ever evoked heat more vividly. Window fans churn their blades in futility. Newspaper headlines blare temperature warnings: Helter Swelter! Neighborhood kids jockey for the chance to get drenched by the blast of an open fire hydrant. Characters plunge their faces gratefully in ice-cold water or steal a few minutes to shower down in the middle of the day. It is, most undeniably, as local radio DJ Mister Senor Love Daddy (Sam Jackson) says: “Hotttssssss!”

Writer/director/producer Spike Lee turns the broiler up so high that when the film's famous riot scene finally breaks out, viewers are less likely to ask why, then to ask, “What the hell took so long?” When it's hotttsssssser than hell, something's gonna burn.

Lee's decision to set the entire film in one day and largely on one block in the Bed-Stuy section of Brooklyn ratchets up the pressure even more. We get to know an array of neighborhood characters all prowling the same cramped space, careening against each other. Most get along well, old friends just checking in. Some have minor dustups, such as Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), the block's wise overseer, constantly harping on the hapless but kindhearted Da Mayor (Ossie Davis). Da Mayor: “You been talkin' about me for 18 years. What I ever done to you?” Mother: “You a drunk fool.” Mayor: “Besides that.”

Other more serious tensions are evident, even if they haven't erupted yet. Sal (Danny Aiello) and his sons, the openly racist Pino (John Turturro) and the amiable Vito (Richard Edson), own and operate Sal's Famous Pizzeria (pronounced “Pitz-uh-ree-uh” by Sal), a neighborhood fixture for years. Sal's clientele is almost exclusively black, yet his Wall of Fame features nothing but “American Italians” (as Sal puts it). This prompts quarrelsome customer Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito) to ask why there aren't any black people on the wall. After an argument, Sal kicks him out, prompting Buggin Out to launch a boycott campaign that's ignored by everyone else, at least at first. “Shit, I was raised on Sal's pizza” is the opinion on the street and, besides, it's too damn hot for any damn boycott.

Mookie (Spike Lee) delivers pizza for Sal. Clad in his Jackie Robinson jersey (Brooklyn Dodgers, of course), he stalks confidently up and down the block, bothering the hell out of his little sister (Joie Lee), chatting with friends, and maybe getting a little love from his girlfriend Tina (Rosie Perez, in her film debut), preferably without getting hectored by her about his responsibilities, chiefly their baby boy. Mookie isn't shy about pushing back against Pino's racist bullshit, but he prefers to keep his head down and do just enough to earn a living.

As the mercury soars, it feels like we're building to an inevitable boiling point, but Lee often pauses the main action to focus on individuals in episodes largely unrelated to the propulsive demands of plot. On one delivery, Mookie encourages Vito to stand up against his bullying older brother. Da Mayor saves a young boy from being hit by a car, upgrading his status in Mother Sister's eyes. A chorus of three older men sit on the sidewalk, baking in the sun while they comment on the various injustices of the world – one of them answers to Sweet Dick Willie (Robin Harris) but he explains that's not actually what his mom named him. Senor Love Daddy keeps his eye on all that's happening while he continues to spin the platters that matter. Everyone's just hanging out, though not quite chilling.

The entire film was shot on the location where it was set (Stuyvesant Ave between Lexington and Quincy, now known also as Do The Right Thing Way) which presented a unique set of logistical problems for the crew who had to make a two-month shoot on a busy NYC block look like it happened on the same day. Continuity alone required a Herculean effort. Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson mastered every challenge, and took full advantage of the location shoot to photograph a film that showcases an authentic, naturalistic look laced with moments of heightened, poetic reality. The fiery red wall behind Sweet Dick Willie and his buddies bleeds right through the lens.

(Major spoilers follow, for those who don't think thirty years is enough time to close the spoiler 
 window.)


Eventually, Buggin Out enlists an ally in his insurrection. Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) still nurses a grudge after Sal booted him for playing his boombox too loud – Public Enemy's “Fight the Power”, of course, the only song Radio Raheem ever plays, convenient since Spike Lee commissioned the track for the film. They return to Sal's to demand their rights. Radio Raheem cranks up his music as high as the temperature and old lovable Sal, screaming the n-word, bashes the boombox to pieces with a baseball bat. A fistfight ensues which then prompts the arrival of the police, who swiftly choke Radio Raheem to death. A riot erupts and Sal's Famous Pizzeria is burned to the ground.

You can understand why the film was considered controversial at the time, but as Spike Lee has pointed out many times, some of the most scandalized critics focused their indignation on the property damage, fearing it would prompt black audiences to imitate what they saw on the screen. The murder of Radio Raheem didn't appear to bother them much at all. Interesting priorities. Unsurprisingly, Roger Ebert delivered a more clear-eyed, empathetic take: “Some of the advance articles about this movie have suggested that it is an incitement to racial violence. Those articles say more about their authors than about the movie. I believe that any good-hearted person, white or black, will come out of this movie with sympathy for all of the characters.”

Who am I to argue with Mr. Ebert? Lee shows genuine interest in each of his characters, providing everyone with room to air their grievances, to portray them as people with sincere desires and views, some quite repugnant. That doesn't mean lee isn't judgmental, only that he listens. To not judge Pino's racism would be a cowardly dodge by any filmmaker.

Today, of course, Pino is now the President and about 40% of the country thinks that's a great thing, and totally not at all racist in any way. Hey, Pino doesn't hate all “azupeps” - he likes the good ones like Magic Johnson and Prince, so how can he be racist? I suppose that's explanation enough as to why “Do The Right Thing” feels every bit as timely and vital as it did thirty years ago. And why it will still feel just as relevant in another thirty years, in a world a whole hell of a lot hotttsssssser.


Video:
Criterion released “Do The Right Thing” on a multi-DVD set back in 2001. This Blu-ray release retains the original Spine Number 97.

This “new digital transfer was supervised by cinematographer Ernest Dickerson” and it really shines in 1080p. I don't have the old DVD as a comparison point, but this image is as sharp as can be and looks flawless in motion as well. Another top notch high-def transfer from Criterion.

Audio:
The film is presented with a DTS-HD Master Audio surround mix. Like the picture, the audio is robust and without any apparent flaws. The score by Bill Lee (Spike's father) and featuring Branford Marsalis sounds great as does the frequently repeated Public Enemy track. Optional English subtitles support the audio.

Extras:
Criterion has absolutely packed this two-disc Blu-ray set with extras, with a mixture of old features from the 2001 DVD and some new ones made for this re-release.

Disc One features the film accompanied by the 1995 laserdisc commentary (also on the 2001 DVD) featuring Spike Lee, Joie Lee, cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, and production designer Wynn Thomas.

Also imported from the DVD is a Behind-the-Scenes feature (58 min.) which includes looks at rehearsals (in one, actors introduce themselves, and young Sam Jackson says “I've been in a few things. Doing a play now”), on-set footage, and the block party for the film wrap.

Another import shows Spike Lee's storyboard for the riot sequence. In his intro, Lee notes that he rarely storyboards, but felt he needed to do so for such a complex scene on a larger scale than he and his collaborators were accustomed to.

The disc also includes Deleted/Extended Scenes (11 scenes, totaling 14 min.) and Trailers and TV Spots (3 min. total).

Disc Two is loaded, mostly with material previously released, but with a few new features.

New for this Blu-ray release is “The One and Only 'Do The Right Thing'” (2019, 32 min.), a mix of interviews with NYC Council Member Robert Cornegy Jr., filmmaker Darnell Martin, and filmmaker Nelson George. Each of the interview subjects discusses the impact Lee's film had on them, the city, and culture in general – Martin worked as second assistant camera on the film, so she brings a first-hand perspective to the discussion.

Also new is a 2019 interview (16 min.) with costume designer Ruth E. Carter

The rest of the features were included on previous releases of “Do The Right Thing” though not all on the 2001 Criterion release.

The best of the lot by far is “Making 'Do The Right Thing'” (1989, 61 min), directed by St. Clair Bourne and produced by Spike Lee. Despite its generic name, this is one of the best “Making of” documentaries I've ever seen. It captures the intimate and intense production of the film, and the challenges both of shooting on location and making a film shot over more than two months look like it took place in one day (again, on location). Bourne brings a Wiseman-esque sensibility to the project, capturing as many perspectives as possible from construction crew to extras to the stars of the film. This is the rare “making of” project that's riveting in its own right, and brings new insight to the film it's documenting. It deserves attention as one of the great films about filmmaking in the modern era.

In “Back to Bed-Stuy” (2000, 5 min.) Spike Lee and producer Jon Kilik revisit the block where they filmed ten years before.

In “Twenty Years Later” (2009, 35 min.), Lee speaks with cast and crew on the occasion of the film's 20th anniversary screening in New York.

The disc also includes one of the music videos (7 min.) Spike Lee directed for Public Enemy's “Fight the Power” along with a short Spike Lee introduction.

We also get to see the Cannes Press Conference panel (42 min.) from when the film screened at the festival in 1989, the year the Palme D'or went to another American independent filmmaker, Steven Soderbergh for “sex, lies, and videotape.” Criterion has also included a 2000 interview with editor Barry Alexander Brown (10 min.)

Appropriately enough, the last extra on Disc Two is “Spike's Last Word” (2000, 6 min.) in which he reads some of the more clueless and offensive reviews of his film. He's clearly still angry about some of their claims, especially the paranoia raised about how black audiences might respond.

The thick square-bound booklet begins with a superb essay by critic Vinson Cunningham, and then includes a lengthy excerpt from Spike Lee's Director's Journal, with entries from Dec 1987 through Aug 1988.

Final Thoughts:
Great movie, great high-def transfer, great extras, just a great Criterion release all around. You need it.

As for what “Do The Right Thing” says about our current time, I'll just throw it back the golden tones of Mister Senor Love Daddy: “Waaaa-ake up! Wake up! Wake up! Wake up! Up you wake! Up you wake! Up you wake! Up you wake!”

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story By Martin Scorsese


ROLLING THUNDER REVUE: A BOB DYLAN STORY BY MARTIN SCORSESE (2019)
Currently Streaming on Netflix, Release Date June 12, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

Martin Scorsese is in a playful mood. He opens his (or is it really his?) newest movie with an excerpt from silent-film pioneer Georges Melies' “The Vanishing Lady” (1896), in which the illusionist-filmmaker delivers on the title, making a seated woman disappear and reappear through the magic of editing.

Why start a Bob Dylan documentary (or is it a documentary?) in 1896 France? The cheeky answer is that Scorsese just likes Georges Melies, but that doesn't make it a bad answer. It's a direct reference to Scorsese's “Hugo” (2011) in which Ben Kingsley portrayed Melies, which raises the possibility that Scorsese has issues of authorship in mind. Starting with a wink and a nod to your own work is an efficient way to impress your auteur stamp on a film that consists primarily of footage of other artists' work.

Choosing this specific Melies clip also serves as Scorsese's promise to deceive, and therefore to entertain, by any cinematic means at his disposal. He makes the promise clearer by transitioning directly from the Melies clip to the word “Conjuring” in bold blue letters, hovering alone on the screen for a beat before he adds the words “The Rolling Thunder Revue” right under it. Revue then becomes Re-vue, and is finally completed by the subtitle “A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese.” So much to keep track of and we haven't really even started.

You probably get it by now. Netflix might call this a documentary, but it's a story, and a story by a guy who loves to play tricks, so be careful what you believe. The ostensible subject of said story is the Rolling Thunder Revue, a barnstorming rock tour through both small towns and big cities in America and Canada in 1975 and 1976, spearheaded by Bob Dylan but featuring a dynamite troupe including Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Roger McGuinn, and many others. Poet (and sort-of aspiring musician) Allen Ginsberg even hitched along for part of the ride, and is feature at length here.

The film mixes interviews (mostly new, some archival) with concert and behind-the-scenes tour footage. Unsurprisingly, Dylan is the chief talking head, but, also unsurprisingly, he's not all that helpful, claiming not to remember a thing about the tour because “it happened so long ago, I wasn't even born.”

Sure, Bob. Dylan is still wearing a mask, just like he did while performing at many stops on the tour, either an actual mask or thick white face-paint. Scorsese is quite enamored of the mask as a running theme, cutting in random footage of masked film performers. This also explains why Scorsese introduces us to Stefan van Dorp, the enigmatic and pompous European filmmaker who shot all the concert footage and is delighted to brag today about his crucial role in the project. We'd probably tolerate his vanity better if he wasn't an entirely fictional character played by performance artist Martin von Haselberg and serving, perhaps, as a mask worn by Scorsese – note that Van Dorp is credited simply as The Filmmaker. Did Scorsese cast him just because his name is Martin too? Sounds good, let's print it. ("It's all true!," bellows an angelic Orson Welles from a steakhouse high above.)

Viewers may or may not realize which of the talking heads are fictional, though film buffs should figure out that something's up once we start hearing from former Senator Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy). What's clear is that there isn't a chance in hell we're going to get to know the “real” Bob Dylan or even the “real” Scorsese, and it doesn't really matter.

I won't claim to be certain exactly what all of Scorsese's chicanery accomplishes. It may frustrate some viewers who wind up feeling betrayed when, to take one example, they find out that story about Dylan hooking up with a teenage Sharon Stone might not actually be totally, entirely, completely true. For me the various contrivances and misdirections serve as a reminder that, when dealing with artists, all we can rely on for certain is the art itself, and boy does “Rolling Thunder Revue” deliver on that front.

At the twenty-minute mark, Dylan launches into a performance of “Isis” that absolutely rips the roof of the house, with Scarlet Rivera ripping it up on violin (she's amazing throughout the film). It's some of the best concert footage I've ever seen, and it's just the beginning. We get a knockout version of “When I Paint My Masterpiece” and, oh man, the most amazing “A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall” you've ever heard. Just one molten hot number after another, peak Dylan beyond what I previously thought his peak was. Any skeptic who has ever sniped, “But Dylan can't sing!” can watch this movie and then kindly please never speak on the subject again.

It's breathtaking at its best, but is this Martin Scorsese's movie or Bob Dylan's? Trick question, because the real answer is that now it's yours.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Ace In The Hole


ACE IN THE HOLE (Wilder, 1951)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date May 6, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

[The great director/writer Billy Wilder was born June 22, 1906. I won't claim I can identify the best film in a career that included "Double Indemnity", "Sunset Boulevard", "Some Like It Hot", "The Apartment" and... well, what I can do is share with you my review of my favorite Billy Wilder film.] 

"I've done a lot of lying in my time. I've lied to men who wear belts. I've lied to men who wear suspenders. But I'd never be so stupid as to lie to a man who wears both belt AND suspenders." -Chuck Tatum, ace reporter

You don't tug on Superman's cape. You don't spit into the wind. You don't pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger. And you don't hire Kirk Douglas for a role that requires subtlety. If you want scenery chewed and nails spit, Kirk is your man; he perfected "shock and awe" before anybody ever told fables of weapons of mass destruction. Fans may remember him best as Spartacus or perhaps Vincent van Gogh, but Kirk's finest hour was his turn as caustic newspaper reporter Chuck Tatum, the anti-Clark Kent. No mild manners here.


Chuck Tatum, ace reporter, ignoring the irony

Tatum knows newspapers backward and forward, up and down, inside and out. He can print ‘em, wrap ‘em, and ship ‘em. If there's no news, he'll go out and bite a dog. Yet here he finds himself in Albuquerque, a $250 a week man ready to work for the bargain price of $50. He makes this magnanimous offer to Mr. Boot (Porter Hall), the belt-and-suspenders editor of the humble Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin. Boot isn't exactly impressed, but gives Tatum a chance to redeem himself after he drank and/or philandered his way out of every major city paper in America. In case you can't tell that Tatum is a fish out of water, the message is delivered with a zinger when Tatum delivers his fire and brimstone speech about making news happen while sitting beneath a homemade macramé sign in Boot's office that reads "Tell the Truth."

Tatum languishes in his hicktown hell for six months, bored but hardly humbled by his exile. Then the newspaper gods deliver him a miracle. On his way to cover a thrilling rattlesnake hunt, Tatum learns that a man named Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) is trapped in a mineshaft in Old Indian Cliffs. As Johnny Law frets about how to get to Leo safely, the intrepid Chuck Tatum grabs a flashlight and plunges into the darkness to locate the trapped man and assure himself exclusive rights to the biggest story to hit Albuquerque since the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe came to town. What follows is one of the most cynical, jaundiced films ever made about the American media and American culture, writer-director Billy Wilder's scabrous “Ace In The Hole” (1951).

The engineers fear it will take nearly a day to shore up the walls enough to rescue Leo. One lousy day? You can't construct a solid narrative arc in one lousy day. Tatum, with the town sheriff in his hip pocket, convinces them to drill from above even though it will take a week to get to the man. Leo's a tough old soldier; he can last. Tatum covers every angle of the tear-jerking tale, making sure that the public gets to know the grieving widow… er, I mean wife, Lorraine (Jan Sterling). Never mind the fact that Lorraine thinks so little of her poor endangered spouse that she tries to split town right away, she's gonna play the grieving wid… wife and she's gonna like it. Especially as the tourists flock to town and pay for hamburgers and souvenirs before they go to ride the Ferris wheel hastily installed within comfortable viewing distance of the mine.

Douglas leads with his chest thrust out and his bronze-plated chin dimple preceding him by a full stride, but he doesn't just alpha mail in his performance. Tatum's dial goes way past 11, but he knows how to turn on the charm when he needs to. In the film's most potent scenes, Tatum chats with Leo who is pinned under a mountain of rubble. He assures him that everything is going to be OK, that his wife loves him, and that everybody's rooting for him. Even Leo doesn't believe it, but he has nobody else to rely on; ace reporter Chuck Tatum is his only friend in the world. Douglas's firebrand performance is textured enough to indicate that Tatum knows full well that he's betraying Leo's trust, and that he even feels profoundly guilty about it. Yet he does it anyway, making Tatum's ersatz redemption in the final act ring even more hollow.

The script, written by Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman, crackles with enough energy to keep up with its indefatigable star. There are great one-liners such as the time when Tatum urges the shy manners columnist at the paper to get involved with a trunk murder: "I could do wonders with your dismembered body." Not to mention the way Douglas spits acid every time he says the name "Mr. Boot." But the film is also full of myriad details that don't call attention to themselves, such as the way the price keeps rising on the sign that invites tourists to "visit Indian Cliffs" or the gawkers who compete with each other to prove that they were the first ones on the scene.

"Sunset Boulevard" was a bleak indictment of Hollywood and the pursuit of fame, but it looks positively Panglossian compared to the scorched Earth policy of "Ace in the Hole." Don't go looking for the American dream here, and you sure as hell better not hold out for a happy ending. Good news doesn't sell newspapers.

You remember newspapers, don't you?


Video:
Criterion's 2007 SD release of “Ace in the Hole” was described as being presented “in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1” and was also “window-boxed” as was Criterion's custom at the time. This 2014 release is presented “in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1” and is not window-boxed. I mention this since I know some of you like to go to war over these things. You can see slightly more information on the left and right in the new transfer if you compare screen shots between the two versions, though you'll have to look closely.

What matters most is the upgrade to the 1080p transfer. From the Criterion booklet: “This new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution... from a 35 mm duplicate negative, with specific portions taken from a 35 mm acetate fine-grain assembled from several sources; the film was restored in 2K.” If this high-def version has been built from a hodgepodge of sources, you really couldn't tell from the final product which features consistently sharp image detail and strong black-and-white contrast throughout. Maybe a few shots are just a tiny bit softer than others, but nothing substantial.

This is a dual-format release which includes two DVDs (one with the film, the second with most of the extras), and a single Blu-ray disc. The DVD transfer has not been reviewed here.

Audio:
The linear PCM monaural track has been “remastered at 24-bit from a 35 mm optical soundtrack print.” There's no noticeable distortion or damage on the audio track which may be something we take for granted but shouldn't in the case of a 60+ year-old film like this. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Extras:
Criterion has imported all of the extras from its 2007 SD release; the features spread across two discs in the SD version are stored on a single Blu-ray disc now.

The film is accompanied by a commentary track by film scholar Neil Sinyard which is packed with information and moves along briskly.

The most substantial extra is "Portrait of a 60% Perfect Man: Billy Wilder" (1980, 58 min.), a documentary directed by Annie Tresgot. The entire film is a conversation between Wilder and critic Michel Ciment, and showcases Wilder at his showman's best, brimming with colorful anecdotes and pungent one-liners.

"Billy Wilder at the American Film Institute" (24 min) presents excerpts from a 1986 interview by George Stevens Jr. conducted at AFI. The collection also includes interviews with Kirk Douglas (1984, 14 min.) and writer Walter Newman (excerpts of an audio interview from 1970, 10 min.) Spike Lee also chips with a video afterword (5 min.) We also get a Stills Gallery and a Theatrical Trailer.

The insert booklet, formatted as a fold-out newspaper, offers an essay by critic Molly Haskell, and some delusional rambling from Guy Maddin (this is intended as a high compliment when Mr. Maddin is the one sharing his delusions.)

Film Value:
"Ace in the Hole" was a box office failure on its initial release, and flopped once again when it was re-released as "The Big Carnival." That does not detract from the accomplishments of the film which, for my money, is Billy Wilder's best. As far as scathing condemnations of the American media go, "Ace in the Hole" has, in my opinion, aged far better than the histrionic "Network" despite being a quarter century older. This Criterion Blu-ray upgrade doesn't offer any new features, but provides a beautiful high-def version of a genuine American masterpiece.