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.

Friday, June 14, 2019

The Spy Behind Home Plate



THE SPY BEHIND HOME PLATE (Kempner, 2019)
In Theaters, Release Date May 24, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

There may be no more common commodity in the history of baseball than the backup catcher who can't hit a lick. Catching's hard work and every team needs some poor shnook who can give the real catcher a rest once a week. Just flash the right signals, tell the pitcher “Attaboy!” every few innings, and try not to ground into a double play every time up. OK, maybe the job's a bit tougher than that, but the point is that expectations are generally pretty modest, and every team churns through a vast and mostly interchangeable supply of supporting players over the years.

The rare balsa bat backstop who becomes a legend, though, is someone to cherish. Baseball fans throughout the land still venerate the great Bob Uecker, proud owner of a .200 career batting average. Uecker's only big hits were against himself: “I had slumps that lasted into winter” and “When I looked to the third base coach for a sign, he turned his back on me.” Uecker parlayed his futility into a thriving brand that extends from the broadcast booth to Miller Light and even “Mr. Belvedere.”

Catcher Moe Berg also couldn't hit and boy could he not run. He spent most of his 15-year major-league career (starting in 1923, ending in 1939) on the bench, and never snagged his own sitcom or even a beer commercial. So why are we still talking about him today? Well, there was that time he almost assassinated Werner Heisenberg...

But let's start at the beginning, since that's what director Aviva Kempner does in her new documentary “The Spy Behind Home Plate” (2019). Moe Berg was born in 1902 in Harlem to a working-class Jewish family. His father Bernard was a self-made man, a pharmacist who mapped out futures for his children as doctors, lawyers, and teachers. Baseball player was definitely not on the list of acceptable careers, and Bernard never changed his mind about the disreputable nature of the game, not even when baseball helped open the doors to a Princeton education for Moe at a time when few Jews were admitted to the Ivy League. Heck, not even when the major-league Brooklyn Robins came calling for young Moe's services with the idea of appealing to Jewish fans in New York.

Kempner's film brings young Moe Berg to vibrant life in these early segments, portraying him both as a rebel in his own family and as a pioneering Jewish athlete, who combined brawn, carefully groomed good looks, and brain. And oh what a brain. I don't want to traffic in lazy stereotypes about the intellectual capacity of professional athletes, but it's safe to say that only a few baseball players ever learned how to speak Sanskrit. As well as French. And German. And Hebrew. And Latin. And Yiddish. And Russian. And... Well, as one of his fellow players quipped about Berg, “He spoke a dozen languages. And couldn't hit in any of them.”

Berg's inability to grasp a bat as effectively as foreign syntax didn't prevent him from gaining a considerable reputation in the game for his glove and his savvy, a reputation that would assure him a decade and a half on an active roster even though his managers seldom saw fit to play him in an actual game. It also netted him a spot on the All-American team sent on a good-will tour of Japan in 1934, alongside luminaries such as Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, and Babe Ruth.

Berg used the long cruise to brush up on his Japanese and also to hit on Ruth's 18-year-old daughter, Julia. He also brought along a hand-held Bell and Howell camera which provides us our first answer as to why we're still talking about the kid who couldn't hit. Berg remained in Japan for a while after his teammates returned to the States, and while exploring, he also took some rather interesting footage of the countryside which he found a way to sneak home past vigilant authorities. Don't ask how.

Said footage may or may not have proven instrumental in U.S. war efforts in the following decade, but it definitely provided a glimpse of things to come. After Berg's playing career finally petered out in 1939, he soon began a surprising second career, as an agent for the newly formed OSS, the predecessor to the CIA. Details about Berg's spy career are understandably hazy and difficult to confirm, but he was involved in investigating Germany's efforts in atomic weapons development, which ultimately led him to attend a lecture in Zurich given by German scientist Werner Heisenberg. Berg arrived with a notebook in hand and a gun in his pocket, prepared to complete his mission by whichever means he deemed necessary. Spoiler, he wound up befriending Heisenberg. Moe just had a way with people.

Berg's unlikely secret agent career sure sounds exciting, but the film loses focus during this section. The unique and inspiring story of the multi-lingual, working-class Jewish athlete and scholar who embodied the American success story transforms abruptly into a broad-reaching lecture about the World War II spy program. Key players like William Donovan (head of the OSS) are introduced to provide context, but in the process Berg is reduced to a supporting player of uncertain significance in the grander scheme.

The generic nature of the WW2 section prevents “The Spy Behind Home Plate” from being as successful as Kempner's previous documentary about a Jewish baseball star, the fantastic “The Life And Times Of Hank Greenberg” (1998). But in her new film, Kempner still constructs a vivid portrait of a charismatic figure with no real equivalent in baseball history. You really can't go wrong with a Sanskrit-speaking Jewish athlete and spy who is still a disappointment to the father who just wanted him to become a lawyer. Oh, by the way, Berg graduated from Columbia Law School too, just as a side gig. Which might explain why he didn't have any free time left to take a few hacks in the batting cage.

If you want to learn more about Moe Berg, I strongly recommend Nicholas Dawidoff's 1994 biography, “The Catcher Was A Spy.”

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Overlord


OVERLORD (Cooper, 1975)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date May 13, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

Tom Beddoes (Brian Stirner) does not fight for glory or fantasies of heroism. The not-quite-21-year-old Englishman believes from the moment he is drafted that he will die fighting the Nazi menace; he writes as much in a letter to his parents. The opening shot of the film suggests the same thing to the audience, albeit in a somewhat hallucinatory manner. That path that “Overlord” (1975) traces from basic training to the storming of the beaches at Normandy is an inevitable one, rendering Tom's story both a tragedy and a tribute to the nobility of the soldier who stares fate square in the eyes and doesn't retreat.

Tom's perspective is really that of a filmmaker and an audience looking back on monumental events now receding (though never diminishing) in the past. Producer James Quinn initially wanted to make a documentary about a new memorial intended to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of D-Day. After Quinn recruited a young director named Stuart Cooper, who had developed a critical following with the short documentary “A Test of Violence” (1970) and his feature debut “Little Malcolm” (1974), the project began to transform.

Cooper stuck with the initial idea to employ documentary wartime footage from the massive archives of Britain's venerable Imperial War Museum, but weaved a fictional narrative (which he co-scripted with Christopher Hudson) through the grainy shots of aerial bombardments and naval skirmishes. Some of the archival footage is breathtaking and eerily surreal; a giant water wheel propelled by dozens of sputtering rockets clatters across a rocky beach before toppling over, an alien contraption almost comically ill-suited to its environment. The layering of movie-style sounds of gunfire and explosions to the silent footage (some of which was taken from cameras mounted in bomb bays or on the guns of fighter planes) sometimes undercuts the awe-inspiring ferocity of the visuals, but that's a minor quibble.


By contrast, the scripted sequences of Tom leaving home, going through boot camp, and biding his time before deployment are quiet and often serene, though flash forwards remind us of the freight train rapidly approaching. Brian Stirner portrays Tom as a gentle, thoughtful soul, clutching his copy of “David Copperfield” and shyly coming on to a pretty young woman (Julie Neesam) he meets during some rare down time. His philosophical bent proves to be a detriment when he has far too much time to think about what the future holds, but his less introspective peers are aware of their likely fate too; they simply don't articulate it the way Tom does.

Cinematographer John Alcott (best known for his collaborations with Stanley Kubrick on “A Clockwork Orange,” “Barry Lyndon,” and “The Shining”) shoots in a style that perfectly complements the documentary-fiction hybrid. Many scenes with Tom hanging out with his fellow soldiers or saying goodbye to his parents feel like kitchen-sink naturalism, but the film sometimes abruptly veers into abstraction (slow-motion, slightly out-of-focus shots of soldiers running) or stops for a meticulously crafted painterly composition: a low-angle shot of Tom peering over a hill with thick white clouds drifting above him (both beautiful and completely unaware of him) is particularly memorable.

“Overlord” won some festival awards at the time, but failed to pick up American distribution, largely disappearing until it was resuscitated and released a few decades later. There are numerous British films about soldiers and citizens maintaining a stiff upper lip during wartime; “Overlord” may not be the very best (Powell and Pressburger are tough competition), but it is certainly one of the boldest and most innovative. You've never seen anything quite like it. Unless you've seen it, of course. And with this Blu-ray upgrade of Criterion's previous SD release, there's no reason for you not to.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Since “Overlord” intercuts a great deal of documentary footage into its narrative material, the video quality can vary from source to source, but I can't imagine anyone being bothered by the slightly degraded or damaged image in some of the war shots. The image quality is consistently strong in the material photographed by John Alcott and this high-def transfer brings a lot of detail into sharp relief. Black-and-white contrast is meant to be soft and slightly gauzy in most scenes and the 1080p transfer preserves it all with a needed touch of subtlety.

Audio:
The linear Pcm Mono audio track sounds somewhat sparse, but that's by design. Dialogue is crisply mixed. Some of the war sound effects are mixed quite loudly, perhaps a bit too much so at times, but I'm sure that's also by design. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Extras:
Criterion has imported all of the extras from its 2007 SD release of “Overlord.”

The film is accompanied by a commentary track by director Stuart Cooper and lead actor Brian Stirner. Their commentaries were recorded separately. Cooper has much more information about the overall production of the film, but Stirner's unique perspective is enlightening as well.

“Mining the Archive” (23 min.) is an interview with Roger Smither and Anne Fleming, film archivists at the Imperial War Museum. The Museum's archives play a major role in the film and they have plenty to say about the way archival footage was introduced and how much the Museum served as a research source for the movie.

The Museum didn't just provide film footage. They also had extensive historical documents, including journals written by soldiers who participated in the D-Day invasion. The disc includes readings by Brian Stirner from the journals of Sgt. Edward Robert McCush (9 min.) and Sgt. Finlay Campbell (12 min.) We also get a brief introduction by Stuart Cooper (2 min.)

The shot feature “Capa Influences Cooper” discussed how photographer Robert Capa, who took photographs on Omaha Beach on D-Day, influenced the look of the film. This feature consists of audio commentary by Stuart Cooper played over footage from the film and some of the few remaining Capa photographs from D-Day (8 min.)

“Germany Calling” (2 min.) is a 1941 propaganda film that played before many films released in England during wartime. It cut footage of Nazis (most, perhaps all, taken from Leni Riefenstahl's “Triumph of the Will”) to comic music, speeds it up, and runs it backward to mock the goosestepping menace. Tom sees bits of this film during a scene set in a movie theater in “Overlord.”

“Cameramen at War” (1943, 15 min.) is a documentary by the British Ministry of Information (credited as “Compiled by Len Lye”) which talks about the courage of the men who embedded with the troops to shoot film. D.W. Griffith is identified in one scene.

“A Test of Violence” (1969, 14 min.) is Stuart Cooper's debut short film that won multiple festival awards. It is nominally about Spanish artist Juan Genovés, though it's a very abstract piece that recreates the violent scenes Genovés painted.

The disc also includes a Theatrical Trailer (3 min.)

The 28-page insert booklet includes an essay by critic Kent Jones, an excerpt from a presentation given by Imperial War Museum archivist Roger Smither, and excerpts from the novelization of “Overlord” written by Stuart Cooper and Christopher Hudson, co-screenwriter of the film.

Final Thoughts:
“Overlord” can feel a bit too portentous at times, but it is a sincerely moving portrait of a soldier bracing himself for the inevitable tragedy of wartime. Criterion hasn't added any new features from its 2007 SD release, but the high-def transfer is a strong one, as usual, and the original collection of extras was plenty good enough.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Let The Sunshine In


LET THE SUNSHINE IN (Denis, 2017)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date May 21, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

In a late scene in director Claire Denis' “Let The Sunshine In” (2017), a so-called psychic implores Isabelle (Juliette Binoche) to always remain “open” to the possibility of love. While a bland platitude is the best anyone can expect from a psychic, this statement is the very last piece of advice our protagonist needs.

“Open” is surely the one word that best defines Isabelle's character as revealed through the series of paramours or potential paramours she has encountered during the film's compact running time. A loutish banker, a handsome and feckless young actor, her ex-husband, a sophisticated work colleague, even a stranger in a dance club – Isabelle leaves herself wide open to the excitement, frustration, hope, and betrayal that could face her in each relationship. She's so open that one fears for her safety at times, but Isabelle definitely knows what she's doing.

A divorced painter in her fifties, Isabelle is a veteran of many intimate battles. She has emerged all the stronger from her experience not by encasing herself in a suit of armor to fend off the slings and arrows of outrageous lovers, but by never losing her faith that it's all worth it. He says he'll call tomorrow, but of course he doesn't; he thinks it's romantic to ask you to wait for a month to hear from him, but you find the prospect insulting; you thought your night together was nothing less than wonderful, only to hear him dismiss it as a terrible mistake best forgotten. Isabelle absorbs every bruising disappointment because she's certain the potential reward justifies the struggle, and it's her implacable openness and vulnerability and fragility that makes her so resilient.

Claire Denis and co-screenwriter Christine Angot, very loosely adapting a Roland Barthes book, build the narrative (a series of moments rather than a traditional plot) entirely around Isabelle's resolute search for love or at least for the relationship she wants, which also means relying primarily on Binoche's dynamism to propel the story. Cinematographer Agnes Godard knows just then to cut in – sometimes to leap in – to close-ups of Binoche's face, usually when she's listening to men ramble on, right at the moments when Isabelle realizes her partner's agenda and perspective in no way match hers. Binoche transitions from bliss to disenchantment with such ease, with just the twitch of a few facial muscles, that every moment feels fresh and immediate, perhaps also a residue of Denis opting for a minimum of rehearsal for her cast.

Isabelle's travails are quietly funny too, though I admit I didn't pick up on as much of the humor as I suspect I was supposed to until Gerard Depardieu shows up as the aforementioned psychic, introduced dealing with his own relationship troubles. The film had already offered a scene when the impossibly vain banker (director Xavier Beauvois) barrels through Isabelle's door brandishing a giant bouquet of flowers and the line, “I just got in from Brazil, and I felt like banging you.” So I probably should have noticed sooner.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.60:1 aspect ratio. Unsurprisingly, this recent film looks magnificent in this high-def transfer. The color palette is rich and naturalistic, detail level is consistently sharp throughout.

Audio:
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is equally sharp, heavy on dialogue. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.

Extras:
This disc is relatively slim on extras, but Criterion provides a new interview with Claire Denis (21 min.) and a new interview with Juliette Binoche (17 min.) Denis talks about the development and production of the film, giving ample credit to co-screenwriter Christine Angot. She also emphasizes how humorous she finds the story, a sentiment echoed by Binoche in her interview.

Aside from a Trailer, the only other extra is the Claire Denis short film “Voila l'enchainement” (2014, 31 min.) It stars Alex Descas (who also appears in “Let the Sunshine In”) and Norah Krief as a married couple going through a crisis.

The slim fold-out booklet features an essay by film critic Stephanie Zacharek.

Final Thoughts:
It's hard to believe Denis and Binoche hadn't worked together before. It's about the most natural contemporary director-actor pairing one could imagine. Criterion's Blu-ray disc isn't packed with extras, but the extra short film by Denis is a nice bonus, and the film couldn't look or sound any better.

Monday, May 6, 2019

The Complete Mr. Arkadin


MR. ARKADIN, AKA CONFIDENTIAL REPORT (Welles, 1955)
Criterion Collection, DVD, Release Date Apr 18, 2006
Review by Christopher S. Long

(In honor or Orson Welles's birthday, I present a review of a Welles film that doesn't get discussed nearly as often as it should.)

This is going to take some explaining.

“Mr. Arkadin” (1955) may be the work of a revered auteur, but Orson Welles’ under-appreciated gem proudly displays its pulp-fiction roots. All the lurid elements of the noir genre are in place: a peg-legged gunman, a would-be detective with a checkered past, his equally seedy girlfriend, a mysterious millionaire and his beautiful daughter, and a trail of corpses strewn across half of Europe.

Guy Van Stratten (Robert Arden) is a two-bit cigarette smuggler minding his own business in Italy when he encounters a dying man named Bracco who tells Guy and his girlfriend Mily (Patricia Medina) a secret that will make them rich beyond their wildest dreams. Problem is, Guy’s dreams are pretty wild, and he parlays this secret into a meeting with the beautiful Raina (Paola Mori, sometimes known then as Mrs. Orson Welles) who happens to be the daughter of the enigmatic multi-millionaire Gregory Arkadin (Welles) who also happens to be the subject of Bracco’s death-bed secret. Arkadin has a job in mind for Guy, he wants him to investigate the true origins of a man named... Gregory Arkadin. You see, Mr. Arkadin is so mysterious he doesn't know his own past, remembering nothing before a day in 1927 when he was wearing a suit and clutching 200,000 Swiss francs. I told you this was going to take some explaining. Guy isn't sure if Arkadin's amnesia is real or faked, but then the subjects he interviews start dying off, he has little time to worry about anything besides saving his own skin.

The plot is as delightfully pulpy as can be, but the real pleasure of the film is the kinetic frenzy that infuses nearly every scene. With its story about a reclusive tycoon, the film superficially resembles “Citizen Kane,” but a more proper point of comparison in Welles’s oeuvre is “The Trial” (1962). Like the later Kafka adaptation, “Arkadin” employs a strategy of whirlwind movement, distorted camera angles, and geographical disorientation to keep the viewer constantly off-balance. The story hops constantly from country to country and the locations are so grandiose and baroque (castles, ruins, etc.), Welles’ s detective story takes on a science-fiction quality. The Martians may have landed at Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, but you can almost feel them hot on Guy’s tail as he races from Amsterdam to Hungary to Spain and points between and beyond.

Welles was famous for his fondness for magic, and here he functions as a specific type of magician, a mesmerist. He hypnotizes the audience by never letting them fully get their bearings; as soon as you figure out where you are, whoosh, it's off to the next exotic setting. Welles is the only guide through the maelstrom, and pity the poor viewer who places their unconditional trust in him. As an actor, his Rasputin-like Arkadin (complete with a ludicrously F for Fake beard) uses his magnetic stare and stentorian voice to bend everyone to his iron will. You will obey my every command!

Gregory Arkadin’s background is baffling enough, but the film “Mr. Arkadin” is surrounded by its own tale of intrigue. As happened with many of his projects, Welles was never able to complete the film on his own terms, and he re-worked his material long after the completion of principal photography. Welles re-wrote the script in the editing room and even dubbed voices (usually his own) over the characters’ lines to the point where the lip movements often don’t even remotely match the spoken dialogue (this can be distracting at first, but actually contributes to the disorienting experience of the film). Welles’s perfectionism tried the patience of many a producer, and in the case of “Arkadin,” producer Louis Dolivet (a shady character in his own right) eventually took the film out of the director's hands altogether.

Since then, the movie has been shown in multiple permutations, none of which can rightly be considered the “correct” one. There is no official “Director’s Cut” of “Mr. Arkadin,” there are only competing versions. This sprawling three-disc set from Criterion offers three of these incarnations. The Corinth version has been the one preferred by scholars since Peter Bogdanovich tracked it down in 1960. The “Confidential Report” version was edited by Dolivet and released by Warner Brothers in 1956 (with the title “Confidential Report” instead of “Mr. Arkadin”). And the new “Comprehensive Version,” which draws on the best of many different cuts was produced exclusively for this Criterion release. This selection might exhaust viewers, but hardly exhausts the extant possibilities; there are also two Spanish-language cuts, the “Mark Sharpe” cut, and the “Bob Harden” cut.

In most versions, the film begins with Van Stratten visiting Jacob Zook (Akim Tamaroff), a man who knew Arkadin from the old days which therefore makes him a potential target of Arkadin’s wrath. The film is then structured as a flashback with Van Stratten relating the story to Zook. The primary difference among the competing versions is the way in which this flashback structure is preserved.

I don’t have the time or space to detail all the differences between the versions. Instead, I will compare the opening ten minutes of the Corinth version and “Confidential Report” to give you a sense of how substantial some of the changes are. The basic structure is identical in both: after a few title cards, the film opens with a shot of an empty plane, then the opening credit sequence, Van Stratten’s visit to Zook’s apartment, and a flashback to Bracco’s death on the docks in Italy.

In the Corinth version, Guy walks up to Zook’s apartment under the opening credit sequence with the title music still playing. In “Confidential Report,” these shots don’t occur until after the opening credits have finished when, in voice-over narration, Van Stratten tells us that he is here to save Jacob Zook from Arkadin’s evil clutches. Then another switch. In the Corinth, the flashback to Bracco’s death includes Van Stratten’s narration (as he tells the story to Zook); in “Confidential Report” this extended sequence plays with no voice-over whatsoever.

The Corinth version returns repeatedly to Van Stratten’s conversation with Zook, thus structuring the film as a complicated series of flashbacks, much like “Citizen Kane.” “Confidential Report” never returns to Zook until the story catches up with him near the end, and the film proceeds in a more standard, linear fashion (one big, well-ordered flashback instead of multiple smaller ones). The opening voice-over in “Confidential Report” establishes Van Stratten as a more traditional hardboiled detective, while the Corinth version preserves the sense of mystery well into the first scene.

The Comprehensive Version, on the other hand, opens with a shot of a dead body before showing the empty plane, but now I'm even confusing myself, so we'll leave it there. The Comprehensive Version was assembled by critics Stefan Drössler and Claude Bertemes, with the optimistic intention of creating a cut closer closest to Welles’s original intention. Drössler and Bertemes base their version on painstaking research of Welles’s letters and interviews over the years, and they incorporate elements from virtually all versions of the film which makes their cut the longest at 105 minutes (Corinth clocks in at 99 min, “Confidential Report” at 98 min.) Both men admit that there is no real way to know what Welles would have done had he maintained control over the final cut, but they wanted to provide another perspective on this labyrinthine project. I am not certain that the addition of yet another version of “Mr. Arkadin” to the mix provides any clarity, but it provides Welles aficionados even more material to obsess and argue over.

There is much more to the “Arkadin” story, of course. The various cuts each contain scenes or extended shots not seen in the others (e.g. the longer masquerade sequence in “Confidential Report”), and the jumbled ordering of the scenes in each version only adds to the confusion and fascination that is “Mr. Arkadin.” I’ll leave you to discover most of these smaller differences on your own.

The film contains further delights I can only hint at here. A lively and eclectic score by Paul Misraki provides a worthy match for the frenetic visuals. Colorful cameos by Michael Redgrave, Mischa Auer and Katina Paxinou add to the depth and charm of this cinematic tour-de-force, and Tamiroff’s magnificent turn as the irascible Jacob Zook threatens to overshadow even Welles’s towering performance. If there is any weakness in the film, it is the mixed bag that comprises Robert Arden’s lead performance. He seems less assured than the rest of the cast, not a surprise since this was his first major film role. Van Stratten is a reed-thin character ill-qualified to serve as foil to Welles’s heavyweight champion, but Arden breathes a lean, feral intensity into the role. Guy Van Stratten isn’t the smartest, the toughest, or even the quickest, but he is determined to survive at all costs.

“Mr. Arkadin” should not be viewed as a minor Welles offering, but rather as a central component in his body of work. This Criterion goes a long way to assuring a critical re-evaluation of this endlessly fascinating movie.



Video:

All three versions are presented in their original 1.33:1 full-screen aspect ratios. “Confidential Report” offers the best picture quality of all the versions, not surprising since this was the version most closely controlled by Dolivet and used an original 35mm source print. The Corinth version has usually been seen in a version struck from a 16mm source print. However, Criterion’s transfer is mastered from three sources: a 35mm composite print, a 35mm duplicate negative, and a 16mm duplicate negative. The image in the Corinth version is a bit grainier and not quite as sharp, but is still very fine. The Comprehensive Version varies in quality since it draws on several versions of “Mr. Arkadin.” However, whenever possible Drössler and Bertemes used the superior “Confidential Report” picture.

Audio:

The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. The sound quality varies a bit, and the music can sound tinny at times, but overall, it's a solid effort. Optional English subtitles support the audio which is (mostly) in English.

Extras:

Criterion has chosen to spread out the special features on all three discs.

DISC ONE: THE CORINTH VERSION

The Corinth version is the only one accompanied by a commentary track, this one by Jonathan Rosenbaum and James Naremore, two of my favorite film critics. Each has written extensively on Welles, and they complement each other well on this incisive and sophisticated commentary.

“The Lives of Harry Lime” was a radio show that ran from 1951-1952, written and acted by Orson Welles who reprises his famous role from Carol Reed’s “The Third Man” (1949). Three episodes of the show are included here: “Man of Mystery” (April 11, 1952), “Murder on the Riviera” (May 23, 1952), and “Blackmail is a Nasty Word” (June 13, 1952). These episodes are a reminder that Welles made his fame first in radio, and the episodes also include several plot elements that Welles later deployed in “Mr. Arkadin.”

“Reviving Harry Lime” is a short documentary (21 min.) featuring critic Simon Callow who discusses Harry Alan Towers, the man behind the radio series.

DISC TWO: “CONFIDENTIAL REPORT”

“Men of Mystery” is a January 2005 video interview (25 min.) with Simon Callow. He discusses several of the personalities involved in the making of “Mr. Arkadin” including Michael Redgrave and producer Louis Dolivet (who comes with his own noir-style criminal background). A major chunk of this featurette revolves around audio interview material with Robert Arden.

DISC THREE: THE COMPREHENSIVE VERSION

“On the Comprehensive Version” is yet another video interview (20 min.) in which Stefan Drössler and Claude Bertemes discuss the guiding principles they used to compile the Comprehensive Version as well as the limitations in their approach. Peter Bogdanovich also shows up to remind us once again that he was really, really good friends with Orson Welles (at least for a while). Bogdanovich was integral in getting the Corinth version distributed, so his approval for the Comprehensive Version carries some weight.

Disc Three also includes several outtakes and rushes (approx. 30 min. total) which are real gems for the Welles fan and/or film historian. Of particular interest is the footage of Welles acting and directing. Watching Welles direct his actors’ every movement and inflection is a real blast, though perhaps traumatic for devotees of the Method.

Finally, there are two alternate scenes with Spanish actresses playing two key supporting roles. Welles filmed these to satisfy his Spanish financiers, and these scenes allow viewers to see pieces of the Spanish versions of “Mr. Arkadin” because, heck, you can never have too many Arkadins!

THE BOOK

Just in case the three discs aren’t enough, this Criterion set also includes a copy of the novel “Mr. Arkadin.” The book is printed under Welles’s name, but its true authorship remains in doubt. Welles once claimed he never had anything to do with an “Arkadin” novel, but he may been teasing.

A separate insert booklet features several critical essays, and helps explain the differences among the multiple versions of the film.

Film Value:

Each of the versions included here will have its proponents, and it is important to realize that there is no definitive Director’s Cut, and there never will be. What we can say for certain is that more than ten years after this splendid, ambitious release, “Mr. Arkadin” is crying out for a Blu-ray upgrade. Just in case Criterion is listening.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Stranger Than Paradise


STRANGER THAN PARADISE (Jarmusch, 1984)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Apr 9, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

When I first watched writer/director Jim Jarmusch’s breakthrough hit, “Stranger Than Paradise” (1984), many years after its original release, my first thought was “So that’s all?” I wasn't expressing disappointment. Rather, I was amazed that such a Great Film (caps intentional) could be made from so little raw material. Three characters, a handful of no-budget locations, and only the most tenuous of narrative threads, so diffuse it could barely be considered the force that propelled the film. No flashy camera tricks either. The entire movie is built on a deceptively simple visual rhythm: a series of long unedited takes interrupted by black leader; no post-production editing (aside from the black leader inserts between the long takes), and only minimal camera movement save for a few long tracking shots. The characters don't do a damned thing except sit around the apartment, watch TV, bitch, and play cards. Critic Pauline Kael dismissed them as “dead end kids.”

But “Stranger than Paradise” was hardly a dead-end film. It rocketed Jarmusch to instant fame (though not big financial success) and became one of the defining touchstones of '80s American independent cinema. Arriving on the heels of the first great wave of Hollywood mega-blockbusters, it proved a rallying point for audiences and critics desperate for something without aliens, Nazis, and big explosions. When Geoff Andrew wrote his book on American independent film in 1998, he titled it quite simply, “Stranger than Paradise.”

The film is separated into three sections or episodes - you can’t really call them acts. “The New World” begins with the arrival of Eva (Eszter Balint) in New York, fresh from Hungary. She is supposed to spend some time with her Hungarian cousin Willie (the laconic John Lurie, saxophonist and co-founder of the Lounge Lizards) before moving to stay with family in Cleveland. Willie aggressively denies his Hungarian heritage and therefore has little interest in his cousin from the old world. That’s OK, Eva doesn’t have much interest in him either. Willie’s friend Eddie (Richard Edson, the original drummer for Sonic Youth) plays the third wheel, dropping in from time to time like an '80s Ed Norton just to poke around and see what’s happening. Of course, nothing is ever happening. He’s the most gregarious of the three slackers, eager to buoy everyone’s spirits. When Eva mentions she is going to Cleveland, he offers his wisdom, “Cleveland, it’s a beautiful city. It’s got a big, beautiful lake. You’ll love it there.” Eva: “Have you been there?” Eddie: “No.”

“One Year Later” sees the two boys, still just hanging out in New York, steeped in hot water over a poker game gone wrong, prompting them to flee the big city to visit Eva in Cleveland. She's getting her taste of the American dream, working at the world's most desolate hot dog joint. Life in Cleveland isn’t much different for the mismatched group. They hang around at home, watch TV, bitch, and play cards. Except this time Eva and Willie’s very Hungarian Aunt Lotte wins every hand, declaring each time: “I am de vinner.” (Note: this is the best-delivered line in the history of cinema, and Aunt Lottie is the greatest supporting character ever. This is proven fact, you can look it up.) Even the less-than-philosophical Eddie is moved to comment on the generic similarity of their new home: “You know it’s funny. You come some place new and everything looks just the same.”

In “Paradise”, the final episode, the intrepid trio trundles down to Florida (Eddie: “Florida? It’s beautiful down there.” Willie: “You ever been there?” Eddie: “No.”) to see the gleaming white beaches and get rich betting on the horses. Here the ennui that glues these strangers together begins to lose its magnetic power, though Jarmusch saves a hell of a punch line for the end when, by sheer luck, Eva discovers the true American dream on a deserted beach road. If the film has any message, it’s this: The Puritan work ethic is a total mug's game.

The performances by the three leads are all magnificent, a testament not only to their abilities but to Jarmusch’s fondness for his actors. The long takes, so beautifully orchestrated by cinematographer Tom DiCillo, grant everyone time and space they need to let their personalities shine through. Lurie and Balint get plenty of much deserved credit, but Richard Edson lights up the screen whenever he's in frame. His range of bemused expressions is seemingly endless, and one of the film’s most reliable sources of laughs.

“Stranger Than Paradise” has plenty of laughs. It's one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen, though I don’t recall laughing out loud on a first viewing. Jarmusch and his cast create a world that invites you to return again and again, to discover a previously unseen pleasures or even just to revisit some of your favorite people and places. Now that I know Eva so well, I can’t stop from breaking up every time she cranks up Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s “I Put A Spell On You” and takes a long, slow walk down the oddly deserted streets of the Big Apple. And Willie and Eva’s conversation about American TV dinners gets funnier every time I see it, or even just think about it. Like right now.

Is that all there is? You bet, and it’s more than enough.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The movie (or at least the first part) was literally shot on leftover film stock, and has always been defined by its grubby, grainy, low-budget look. This high-def transfer preserves that quality while providing a sharper image than previous SD releases, with an uptick in the black-and-white contrast as well. It looks... like it should look.

Audio:
The LPCM mono track provides clear dialogue and a solid treatment of the music, including John Lurie's understated and marvelous score. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Extras:
Criterion has imported all of the extras from their previous 2-disc DVD release, though now all included on a single Blu-ray.

Criterion has provided one addition, however, now including the 1996 commentary track by Jim Jarmusch and Richard Edson, originally recorded for the laserdisc release. It's insightful and funny and eccentric, just like you'd expect.

The other features are all from the previous SD release.

The major extra on the disc is a whole extra film, Jarmusch's first feature “Permanent Vacation” (1980). Jarmusch shot “Vacation” while he was a student NYU, but didn't graduate because his thesis assignment was to make a short, not a feature. He appears to have done well despite the academic snafu. “Permanent Vacation” is essentially a character study, or rather a character observation, of Allie Parker, an aimless dreamer and drifter who bears a striking resemblance to its lead actor, Chris Parker, then a friend of Jarmusch’s. Allie has tuned in and dropped out, with an emphasis on the dropped out part, and spends most of his time wandering around the city, ever so vaguely searching for some meaning in life, and also digging on Charlie Parker (no relation). “Permanent Vacation” is not a masterpiece by any means, and has all the soft edges and awkward spots of a debut film, but it’s still mesmerizing in its own monotonous way. Tom DiCillo also filmed this one.

Kino ’84: Jim Jarmusch” is a 1984 documentary (41 min.) shot by Martina Müller for German TV. The documentary consists mostly of clips from Jarmusch’s first two films, and interviews with him and the cast and crew members. I enjoyed this one quite a bit. Jarmusch has always looked and sounded the same. It's kind of creepy, actually.

“Some Days in January” (1984) is a short (14 min.) silent Super-8 film shot by Tom Jarmusch, showing some on-the-set footage of the cast and crew at work.

The insert booklet reprints the content from the prior booklet. It features Jarmusch’s “Some Notes on Stranger than Paradise,” released with the press kit for the film in 1984. It influenced quite a few of the film’s initial reviews. The booklet also includes essays on “Stranger” by Geoff Andrew and J. Hoberman, and one on “Permanent Vacation” by Luc Sante.

Film Value:
Not everyone loved “Stranger than Paradise” when it came out. One rather hostile French critic observed that Jarmusch was 33 years old at the time, the same age when Jesus was crucified, and wished fondly for the safe fate to befall the filmmaker.

However, the film was a smash hit in its New York engagement (though hardly anywhere else) and became a critical darling in short order. Jarmusch’s career was launched, and he found himself at Cannes with his next film, “Down By Law” (1986). Jarmusch almost instantly became one of the defining figures of American independent film, and still holds a similar revered status 35 years later.

“Stranger Than Paradise” is achingly funny, incisively bittersweet, and truly one of the great American films of the past quarter century. This Blu-ray re-release only adds one extra (the 1996 commentary) to the previous SD release, but the high-def transfer is certainly a major selling point for anyone considering a double dip.

Police Story


POLICE STORY/POLICE STORY 2 (Chan, 1985 and 1988)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Apr 30, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

Starting as a Bruce Lee imitator in the early '70s, then briefly flirting with Hollywood, Jackie Chan entered the 1980s looking to forge his own distinct on-screen identity in Hong Kong cinema. “Police Story” (1985) wasn't the first box office success for the prolific actor and director, but it was perhaps the first time the character that fans still think of today as the definitive Jackie Chan fully crystallized.

It was a difficult balancing act that took time to perfect because Chan was trying to fuse two disparate elements into a convincing and compelling persona. On the one hand, Chan's signature character is supernaturally graceful (simply directing traffic in “Police Story 2” he performs like a ballet dancer) and not at all shy about flaunting his mad skills. On the other hand, he's also a working class Joe just like his target audience, and a serial schmuck who can win any fight, but lose at just about anything else in life. He'll bob and weave and kick his way to victory through a gamut of a dozen pipe-wielding hoods, then take a birthday cake in the face, tossed by a girlfriend who is absolutely sick of his bullshit.

This seemingly paradoxical creation connected with fans throughout the world (though box office success in America would prove elusive for a while) and justifies the frequent comparisons made between Chan and silent comedy stars Buster Kearon and, especially, Harold Lloyd. Lloyd's Glasses character could sell himself as a klutz while also dancing deftly through obstacle sources, and as a social outcast who was still inevitably going to win the day and, of course, the girl. Chan upped the action and downplayed the romance, but his connection to Lloyd is undeniable, and was directly acknowledged when Chan himself dangled high above ground from a giant clock face in “Project A” (1983), sixty years after Lloyd rewrote film history by doing the same in “Safety Last!” (1923)

In “Police Story,” Chan plays Ka-kui, a rank-and-file Hong Kong police officer assigned to protect Salina Fong (Brigitte Lin), a secretary to and now key witness against crime lord Chu Tao (Chor Yuen). It's a thankless job (it only pays an extra $32 a day!) but Ka-kui has himself to blame. Chu Tao is only on trial because Ka-kui spearheaded a daring, reckless police sting targeting Chu Tao that also, by happy coincidence, wound up destroying an entire shanty town and also led to all of the big boss's henchmen being flung headfirst out of a bus window. Ka-kui has his own style, you see.

Chan directed and also co-wrote (with Edward Tang) “Police Story” and he relies heavily on comic relief to remind viewers that Ka-kui is no superhero, no matter how brilliantly he fights. Much of the comedy revolves around a series of ongoing misunderstanding with his girlfriend May (Maggie Cheung, two years removed from her beauty pageant days, and just at the start of a career that would make her one of the great international art-house stars of her generation.) Some of these scenes are tedious, others quite charming, with Cheung proving her own moxie in a few stunt scenes, including one where Ka-kui plucks her right off a moving moped and drops her on the street. An accident, of course.

Chan's characters make ingenious use of their environment, transforming innocuous objects into game-changing weapons or, at times, comic fodder. A snatched umbrella proves the key to Chan's jaw-dropping, physics-defying pursuit of an escaping bus. One of the best comedy sequences sees Chan gliding around the police station in a wheeled office chair, answering every phone and getting completely tangled up in the cords, a bit in which he once again finds a way to appear both inept and in total control of an elaborately choreographed routine.

“Police Story” climaxes with one of the great set-pieces in action film history, as Ka-kui takes down the entire crime gang one-by-one and, in the process, obliterates a helpless shopping mall. You've never seen so much shattered glass, the flying shards lovingly rendered in slow-motion. The piece de resistance is Chan's spiral down a giant pole covered in Christmas lights, a stunt so nice they play it thrice, making the canny judgment that viewers couldn't care less about have any so-called spell broken as long they get to see this impossible feat yet again. If you're curious, yes, Chan did burn himself badly in the process. Which only makes it that much cooler in Jackie Chan's universe.

Second-degree burns didn't keep Chan and Ka-kui from returning in “Police Story 2” (1988) with the same chief bad guy, now with a few different assistants. Cheung also returns as May, and gets some better comedy bits, including a hilarious sequence where she hectors poor Ka-kui all the way into the men's locker room at the police station, her righteous fury preventing her from noticing the men in various states of undress cowering to hide their embarrassment.

The sequel delivers most of the same goods, and if it doesn't end with anything quite as brilliant as the mall demolition from the original, viewers are treated to the best one-on-one fight in the series, when Chan squares off against Benny Lai, playing a mute henchman who hurls firecrackers in between kicks. Lai, like most of the supporting actors in the film, was a member of the Jackie Chan Stunt Team, the daredevil unit that has gone through multiple generations now, crucial players in the creation of one of the greatest movie stars of the modern era.


Video:
Both films are presented in their original 2.35:1 aspect ratios. From the Criterion booklet: “These new 4K digital restorations were undertaken by Fortune Star Media Limited at L'Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, Italy. New digital transfers were created from the 35 mm original camera negatives on an ARRISCAN film scanner.”

The high-def transfers present a strong, grainy image, no doubt much better than most viewers were used to on a series of low-end home releases over the years. Both of these films were released several years ago on Blu-ray by Shout Factory, and I don't have that set to compare this to. I can't imagine any fans being disappointed by the quality offered by Criterion, though.

Audio:
Both films are presented in lossless mono audio mixes. The sound design isn't exactly complex or crucial here, and the cheesy '80s score is just as cheesy with a souped-up mix. But you get to hear Jackie Chan sing the theme song, so you might as well hear it the right way. Optional English subtitles support the Cantonese audio.

Extras:
“Police Story” and “Police Story 2” are housed on separate Blu-rays in this 2-disc Criterion set, with extras included on each of the discs.

Disc One's supplements begin with “Jackie Chan: My Stunts” (64 min.), a documentary showing Chan on set putting together some of his elaborate stunts, along with clips from his earlier movies. The English narration is bland and irritating, but otherwise this feature gives viewers a glimpse of the exhaustive amount of work required to stage even a short fight scene.

We also get an interview with director Edgar Wright (2019, 13 min.) in which he mostly name-drops the various Chan films he loves the most. This supplement is accompanied by an episode of “Talkhouse Podcast” (36 min.) from Oct 12, 2017, a conversation between Wright and Chan. I do my best to be thorough when reviewing these releases, but I draw the line at listening to a podcast. I'm sure it's wonderful.

In “Becoming Jackie” (16 min.), author and programmer Grady Hendrix traces Jackie Chan's on-screen history, focusing on his development of the modern film persona that has made him a global superstar.

The disc also includes an undated Jackie Chan interview (19 min.) in which he talks about how he begins by planning the fights, then develops the script around them – another similarity to Harold Lloyd, whose writing team usually built from the gag-level up. We also get a short excerpt from a 2017 Hong Kong TV show (12 min.) in which Jackie Chan has a tearful reunion with the members of the Jackie Chan Stunt Team, the old-school originals as well as younger ones- Chan sings the “Police Story” theme song along with his colleagues. An original theatrical Trailer and the Janus re-release trailer round out the offerings on Disc One.

Disc Two offers the Hong Kong Release Version of “Police Story 2” which was whittled down from 122 minutes (the main release on this disc) to 105 minutes. It's in high-def, but the transfer isn't as polished as the main feature.

Grady Hendrix returns for another discussion (21 min.), this time focusing on how Chan “reinvented” action in the '80s, his emphasis on “showing his work” to viewers, and even the subtle wire work employed in his films.

Criterion has also included an episode of “Son Of The Incredibly Strange Film Show” (41 min.), a BBC series hosted by Jonathan Ross, which goes on location to Hong Kong to talk with Jackie Chan and Maggie Cheung, and to run clips from Chan's films.

We also get an undated interview with Benny Lai (15 min.), who gets to play a great villain in “Police Story 2” along with a short Stunt Reel (5 min.) that shows some highlights and bloopers from Chan's films.

The collection wraps up with a Trailer (4 min.) and a short feature (5 min.) about the Peking Opera. The footage is from a 1964 French TV show, so no Jackie Chan, but it shows clips of the exhaustive training he would have gone through.

The fold-out insert booklet includes a fantastic essay by Nick Pinkerton. Really, it's great. I could have just pointed you to this instead of writing a review, but I'm supposed to do some work.

Final Thoughts:
Whether or not “Police Story” and “Police Story 2” are Jackie Chan's best films (Chan fans have, to say the least, strong opinions about their favorites), Ka-kui is undoubtedly one of his best-known and best-loved characters, and a sterling example of the persona he perfected by the end of the 1980s. Criterion has provided both films strong high-def transfers, and a wide array of supporting supplements. An if this set sells well, maybe we'll get some more Jackie Chan films in the Collection.

Monday, March 25, 2019

The Magic Flute


THE MAGIC FLUTE (Bergman, 1975)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Mar 12, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

The plot of Mozart's “The Magic Flute” never really made much sense. Prince Tamino's first accomplishment is to faint while fighting a dragon. This leads the Queen of the Night and her assistants to identify him as just the man to rescue the Queen's kidnapped daughter, Pamina. They probably just think Tamino's hot, which is fair enough. The Queen gives the prince a magic flute that will help him in his quest, but it doesn't really do much, and anyway, Tamino discovers that the kidnapper, Sorastro, isn't such a bad guy after all. A big battle brews at the end, but the bad guys just suddenly disappear, and everyone else lives happily ever after. Or maybe not, I'm not entirely sure. The End.

None of this has prevented millions from falling in love with one of the most-performed operas of all time, with Swedish director Ingmar Bergman proudly numbering himself among its biggest fans. Bergman actually tried to stage the opera in his childhood puppet theater, but wouldn't get to fulfill his dream until the much-ballyhooed 1975 release of his film adaptation.

After a few bucolic outdoor shots, Bergman moves into the theater (a recreation of the Drottningholm Theater, built in the 18th century in Stockholm) and lingers on the faces of the audience members as they listen to the overture. Though he focuses on a smiling little girl, Bergman shows close-ups of a diverse collection of opera enthusiasts of many ages and races, suggesting his eagerness to share his love of this opera with the whole world. To be honest, I found this extended montage of face it a bit on the interminable side, but it's certainly heartfelt.

Though Bergman made some substantive changes to the material (Sarastro is now Pamina's father, which casts the Queen of the Night as an embittered ex-wife), he and cinematographer Sven Nykvist present a fairly straightforward staged opera, though with a few playful looks backstage, including the Queen of the Night (Birgit Nordin) taking a smoke break at intermission. The action moves briskly as Bergman delights in underscoring the grand artifice of the big show, with unconvincing (yet charming) costumed creatures cavorting in the background and the actual text of the lyrics at times draped above the actors.

As Prince Tamino and Princess Pamina, Josef Kostlinger and Irma Urrila are little more than a blandly virtuous prince and a princess in need of rescuing, but they were cast to sing which they do pretty darn well. Hakan Hagegard steals all his scenes as the comic-relief chatterbox Papageno, whose function has always been to steal pretty much every staging of “The Magic Flute” so Bergman's just observing tradition here. Nordin shreds it as the Queen of the Night. Is “shreds it” standard opera criticism? Sorry, I am but a novice.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The film was digitally restored in 2017 by the Swedish Film Institute. Criterion originally released this on DVD in 2000 (it retains Spine Number 71) with a transfer many considered subpar by the company's high standards. This high-def restored transfer showcases warm colors and a bright overall look. The image generally looks a bit soft, or at least not as sharp as the best Criterion 1080p transfers, but it's still a strong effort. I don't own the old DVD as a comparison point, but from everything I've read and stills I've seen online, this looks like a substantial upgrade.

Audio:
The music for the film was prerecorded with Eric Ericson as orchestral director, and the singers mimed to their lines for the film. The lossless stereo mix captures the score quite robustly with no dropoff or any evident weaknesses at all. Optional English subtitles support the Swedish audio.

Extras:
The original Criterion DVD release was bare bones. This Blu-ray upgrade isn't exactly packed with extras, but offers a few interesting supplements.

In a new interview (2018, 18 min.), critic Peter Cowie discusses the film's production history and provides some analysis of the unique Bergman touches added to Mozart's opera.

The disc also includes an interview with Bergman (29 min.), conducted by Sigvard Hammar, which originally aired on Dec 27, 1974, in tandem with the film's holiday release. Bergman casts himself as a populist, making an opera that the whole family can enjoy.

“Tystnad! Tagning! Trollflojten!” (1975, 65 min.) is a behind-the-scenes documentary which originally aired on Swedish TV on Jan 6, 1975. I found it a bit dull and rambling, to be honest, but fans might enjoy some of the looks at the film's crew hard at work.

The slim fold-out booklet includes an essay by author Alexander Chee.

Final Thoughts:
Bergman's “The Magic Flute” is often described as one of the best filmed operas, a judgment I'm not qualified to assess. It's certainly a fun ride, a much more sprightly and pleasant film than some viewers might expect from the stern Swede, but then again he directed his fair share of comedies. Like “The Seventh Seal.” Seriously, that's a damn funny movie – Gunnar Bjornstrand's sarcastic squire cracks me up every time.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

The Kid Brother


THE KID BROTHER (Wilde/Lloyd/Milestone, 1927)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Mar 12, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

In “Safety Last!” (1923), Harold Lloyd climbed to cinematic immortality. With each grueling step up the side of a towering office building, the traffic-clogged streets of Los Angeles clearly visible far, far below, he ratcheted up the tension to nearly unbearable levels. This greatest and most audacious of all action sequences still astonishes nearly a century later, generating the nervous laughter that became a Lloyd trademark and leaving even the savviest of viewers wondering how in the hell that lunatic didn't kill himself in the process. Never mind that Lloyd made the climb while missing a couple fingers on his right hand.

Lloyd followed up in other films by clambering over rickety construction sites and other perilous locations, gleefully jangling everyone's nerves, but in “The Kid Brother” (1927), silent cinema's great daredevil proved his versatility by making a climb strictly for love. As the sweet and shy Harold Hickory (Lloyd, decked out as his signature Glasses character) bids farewell to the sweet and shy Mary Powers (Jobyna Ralston), he scrambles to the lowest branch of a tree so he can keep his darling in sight just a second longer. She waves goodbye again and crests a hill, so Harold climbs to the next branch, still savoring the sight of his dearest. And then the next branch and then... a hard tumble all the way down, where the smile on Harold's face as he sprawls in the dirt shows it was all worth it. It's one of the most endearing sequences in Lloyd's work, a heartstring-tugger that showcases the combination of heart and chutzpah that made Lloyd one of the most popular movie stars of any era.

Harold Hickory isn't just eager to impress Mary. He's equally desperate to prove that he's as manly a man as his father (Walter James), the heroic sheriff of the town of Hickoryville (it's a family tradition) and his strapping brothers (Leo Willis and Olin Francis) who have little patience for their wallflower kid brother. Lloyd was a gifted athlete, notorious in the Hollywood scene for his ferocious tennis and handball play, and created the impression of being a Harold Milquetoast by casting the film with literal heavies, not just his brawny family members, but also the central villain, a grotesque bruiser played by German wrestler Constantine Romanoff, who is listed on IMDB at 6'2” but absolutely towers over the lithe 5'10” Lloyd.

“The Kid Brother” mixes in as many gags per minute as any Lloyd picture, with some of the biggest laughs coming in an extended sequence where Harold's he-man father and brothers cower in terror for fear of being seen in their underwear by Mary. But the film only really ramps up the tension in the final act, when Harold boards an abandoned ship to retrieve some money stolen from his father. Once Harold boards the listing Black Ghost, he has to negotiate a landscape of wild diagonals, the 45-degree environment making the climactic battle all the more harrowing, and demanding all of the kid brother's ingenuity. This includes figuring out how to get a tiny monkey to wear heavy boots and clomp around the boat, but that's a complicated story.

Watching almost any Lloyd film, you know that, no matter how long the odds may seem, he's going to save the day, and yet you're still going to cheer when the big moment arrives. Fifteen years and a few hundred films into his career, Lloyd had already perfected the blockbuster formula, one that would carry him well into the sound era. He and his team of gag writers and directors (the film is credited to Ted Wilde, though others directed, including the great Lewis Milestone) knew every button to push and every beat to hit. You know you're being played like a fiddle, and you don't mind one bit. 


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. From the Criterion booklet: “This new digital transfer was created in4 K resolution at the Packard Humanities Institute in Santa Clarita, CA, on a Scanity film scanner from Harold Lloyd Entertainment's 35 mm fine-graint struck from the original camera negative and preserved by the UCLA Film & Television Archive. The image was then restored by L'Immagine Ritrovata in Bolgona, Italy.

Lloyd owned most of his films and stored them on his estate. Some were destroyed in a fire, but those that survived are generally in better shape than most silent films. Even knowing that, the quality of this 1080p is astonishing, with crisp image resolution and sharp B&W contrast throughout. Some modest signs of damage to this 90+ year-old print are evident at times, but far less than you would expect. Quite simply, this new high-def transfer looks great.

Audio:
Listeners can choose their musical accompaniment, with a 1989 orchestral score by composer Carl Davis as the default option, with an alternate choice of an archival organ score performed by the great Gaylord Carter, who passed away in 2000. Both enhance the experience greatly, and sound robust in an LPCM 2.0 mix.

Extras:
“The Kid Brother” clocks in at a crisp 82 minutes. Criterion has supplemented it with over two hours worth of supplementary features.

The film is accompanied by the commentary track from the 2005 New Line Home Entertainment DVD release, featuring film historian Annette D'Agostino Lloyd, Harold Lloyd archivist Richard Correll, and Harold Lloyd's granddaughter Suzanne Lloyd.

The new feature “Harold's Leading Ladies” (30 min.) is a conversation between Suzanne Lloyd and author Carl Beauchamp. This discussion covers the three main leading ladies from Harold Lloyd's films: Bebe Daniels (to whom Harold was engaged), Mildred Davis (his wife, and Suzanne Lloyd's grandmother), and Jobyna Ralston (co-star of “The Kid Brother.”)

In “Anatomy of a Gag: Monkeyshoes” (9 min.), critic and filmmaker David Cairns touches on how Lloyd constructed some gags, with a focus on the film's frenetic final act.

In “Close to Home” (16 min.) author and location historian John Bengtson talks about the locations used in the movie, providing some fascinating information, including the fact that the town of Hickoryville was built on part of the location that is now Forrest Lawn Cemetery.

“Greenacres” (15 min.) is a 2005 piece also imported from the old New Line release in which Suzanne Lloyd takes viewers on a tour of what remains of Harold's vast Greenacres estate, one of the earliest sprawling movie star mansions built in Beverly Hills. It must have been quite a place to play as a kid.

We also get an interview with Harold Lloyd (16 min.) which was originally broadcast on Dutch public television on Dec 14, 1962, on the occasion of the release of his popular compendium film, “Harold Lloyd's World of Comedy.” Lloyd talks about his career, his feelings about contemporary comedy, and directs a brief tour of Greenacres, which includes a shot of the famous gigantic Christmas tree Lloyd showed off every year.

The disc also includes a collection of Behind-the-Scenes still photos from the movie's production.

As wonderful as many of these pieces are, the real gems in this collection, and genuine treats for any Lloyd enthusiast, are two short films that were once believed to be lost (Lloyd owned all of his films, but many prints were destroyed in a fire on his estate.) “Over the Fence” (1917, 5 min.) is actually the first appearance of Lloyd's trademark Glasses character. Glasses tries to take his gal (Bebe Daniels) to a baseball game, but things go wrong in classic Glasses fashion. He eventually winds up pitching and then knocking out the umpire. I loved it. “That's Him!” (1918, 11 min.) shows Lloyd and Daniels as a poor newlywed couple who inherit money, but have challenges in claiming it. It's pure knockabout hijinx and plenty of fun. Both shorts are accompanied by new scores by organist Mark Herman. See the “Wurlitzer” feature below for more information.

The two shorts are accompanied by the featurette “Preserving Harold” (11 min.) in which archivist Dino Everett of USC discusses the challenges of restoring these two films from unusual formats (9.5 mm and 28mm).

I loved the riveting short documentary (20 min.) about a giant Wurlitzer organ used during the silent era that has been preserved and restored by composer Nathan Barr. Barr and organist Mark Herman provide a multi-room tour of this massive and unbelievably versatile behemoth that provided the live accompaniment to many silent films. What a machine! Herman performed the scores for the two short films mentioned above on this Wurlitzer.

The slim fold-out booklet features an appreciative essay by critic Carrie Rickey.

Final Thoughts:
When asked for his favorite film, Lloyd often chose “The Kid Brother.” I wouldn't quite agree with him, as I think this is a step below his best-known films such as “Safety Last!”, “The Freshman” (1925), and “Speedy” (1928). But it's still a gem that was a big hit in its day (like virtually every Lloyd film was, even his first few sound features) and reminds of just how versatile his Glasses character could be.