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.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Berlin Alexanderplatz


BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ (Fassbinder, 1980)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Feb 12, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

The Book of Job tells the greatest story in the Old Testament, but the protagonist is a bit of a stick in the mud, all virtue and faith and no fun. In his 1929 novel “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” German author Alfred Doblin created a Job with a little personality and an abundance of character flaws. Released from a four-year prison stint for the murder of his girlfriend, Ida, Franz Biberkopf vows to live honestly, but inevitably falls back into his old patterns, a little petty larceny here, a side of pimping there, and a sound trashing of his new lady love just to complete the circle.

Franz may not be the most sympathetic of protagonists, but his doomed struggle against the forces conspiring against him (call it God, fate, or maybe Berlin itself) carries a universal resonance or, at the very least, an undeniable train-wreck appeal. Surprisingly affable for a violent thug, this unholy fool is just perceptive enough to realize he's being jerked around by powers beyond his control, but neither smart nor self-reflective enough to mount a meaningful resistance against them. He's perfectly designed for suffering, and boy does Franz ever get put through his paces.

You can understand why the project would appeal to Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The German director first read Doblin's novel as a teenager, and the encounter struck him like a thunderbolt. Fassbinder said, “My life would have turned out differently” if not for Doblin's book, and by the time he began filming his adaptation in 1979, he claimed to know the book by heart. Fassbinder even flaunted his fandom by portraying a character named Franz Biberkopf in his 1975 film, “Fox And His Friends.”

The most notable quality of Fassbinder's adaptation is its epic length, a bit over fifteen hours in total, including thirteen episodes (all but the first an hour long) and a lengthy epilogue. After spending the last week deeply engaged with both, I can attest that the novel takes about half as long to read as the series takes to watch. Doblin's innovative novel was already famous for its loose, rambling approach to narrative, more a flurry of montages and impressions than a single story, and Fassbinder takes great pleasure in lingering on even the most minor moments and locations. The meandering is the point.

Doblin describes Biberkopf as “a coarse, rough man of repulsive appearance” so I'm not sure if actor Gunter Lamprecht was honored to be Fassbinder's choice for the role, but it was an inspired piece of casting. Slump-shouldered, his face sagging but his eyes bright and searching, Lamprecht shuffles his way through the trials and tribulations of Biberkopf, a lumbering hulk and hapless schmuck who, like R.E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian, is prone to gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, his sudden eruptions of laughter as violent as his rages. Franz styles himself an independent thinker, but his worldview is shaped by whomever he has spoken to last. Franz can fit in comfortably with the relatively new Nazi party one day, the Communists the next, and then reject all politics as a mug's game the day after before reversing course once more.

Franz wanders from woman to woman too, until settling on his beloved Mieze (Barbara Sukowa), the childlike naif who remains true blue to Franz even while he pimps her out to pay his rent. Franz is blessed with yet another defender in Eva (Hanna Schygulla), an old flame always ready to bail him out of trouble. But life and love get really complicated when Franz stumbles into the shiftless, low-life crook Reinhold (Gottfried John), who appeals to Franz in ways he can't quite articulate (Fassbinder called it a “pure love” but not a homosexual attraction, though numerous viewers would disagree). On their first encounter, Franz confidently sizes up Reinhold as a fellow ex-convict. He's dead wrong in this initial assessment, and will continue to be wrong about Reinhold throughout the film, a fatal error in judgment that costs Franz first his right arm, then his darling Mieze, and finally even his sanity.

Fassbinder amps up the melodrama in his stylized fashion, sometimes directing his actors to perform in grand gestures reminiscent of silent cinema. They burst out screaming and crying, or collapse abruptly, perhaps challenging the naturalistic expectations of some viewers hooked on method. Lamprecht shines in the broadest moments, throwing around his bulk and sheer presence to great effect, but also has fun with some of the quieter scenes including an endearing pub sequence where Franz has an intimate dialogue with the beers he is about to drink (taken almost verbatim from the novel, by the way).

German viewers complained about the shoddy quality of the image when the series was first broadcast on television, but Fassbinder and cinematographer Xaver Schwarzenberger attributed the problem to a subpar transfer from 16 mm film to video. The restored print here (released in theaters in 2006) showcases a lustrous if sometimes hazy image, replete with the numerous reflective surfaces that became so prominent in Fassbinder's later work. The net result is a look simultaneously seedy and mythic, perhaps like Weimar Berlin should look in movies.

Fassbinder's “Berlin Alexanderplatz” can be exhausting to watch, but it's surely meant to be. The sprawling running time provides the director the chance to include much of Doblin's dazzling language in voice-overs as well as in dialogue, but the length is essential to Fassbinder's merciless experiment. This clown, this bully, this dope, this sainted Job named Biberkopf is on the same life journey as the rest of us, just plodding on and on until he finally breaks. And after somebody breaks, he can break still further or perhaps, against all expectations, be stitched back together, albeit in a very different form.

It's not that there's a lesson to learned in the whole experience, just that we might as well acknowledge what's coming. We don't really have a choice, that's our curse. Doblin compares Franz to a pig at one point, noting the latter has a distinct advantage: “At the end of its life, there's the knife... before it notices anything... it's already kaput. Whereas a man, he's got eyes, and there's a lot going on inside him... he's capable of thinking God knows what, and he will think (his head is terrible) about what will happen to him.”

So there's that. Have a great day!


Video:
The entire mini-series was restored for a theatrical release a little over a decade ago, and that restoration was the source for Criterion's 2007 DVD release of “Berlin Alexanderplatz.” The same restoration now gets the high-def upgrade for this Blu-ray re-release. The image quality is on the weaker side for a Criterion release. I've seen a few grumblings about Criterion forcing fitting five hours worth of programming onto each of three Blu-ray discs (a fourth disc includes all the extras). I don't know if that's the issue, but there are a few instances where motion looks a bit blurry or blocky, and I couldn't describe this transfer as having the same “sharp image quality” associated with most Criteron Blu-ray releases. It's adequate, but doesn't really provide a significant upgrade over the old DVD release. The series is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio.

Audio:
The DTS-HD Master Mono mix provide a solid if unremarkable audio presentation. Peer Raben's score is a prominent creative element that I didn't really get time to discuss, sometimes overwhelming the dialogue, and it sounds fine here. Optional English subtitles support the German audio.

Extras:
All of the extras are included on Disc Four.

“Fassbinder's 'Berlin Alexanderplatz' A Mega-Movie and Its Story” (65 min.) is a 2007 documentary directed by Juliane Lorenz, editor of the film and president of the Fassbinder Foundation. The film returns to the sets and locations of the movie and features interviews with cast and crew members, including Lamprecht, Schygulla, Gottfried John, Sukowa, and others.

“Notes on the Making of 'Berlin Alexanderplatz'” (44 min.) is an on-set behind-the-scenes feature shot by Hans-Dieter Hartl. We get to see a whole lot of Fassbinder in action, directing several different scenes from the series. The Fassbinder presented in this documentary is much more calm and in-control than he is often made out to be.

Criterion has also included a 32-minute feature on the painstaking restoration of the series, featuring Juliane Lorenz and cinematographer Xaver Schwarzenberger.

We also get a 2007 interview (24 min.) with Peter Jelavich, author of a book on the various adaptation of Doblin's novel. Like a few other critics I've read, Jelavich compares “Berlin Alexanderplatz” to James Joyce's “Ulysses” and John Dos Passos's “Manhattan Transfer” for its innovative style, and as an exemplar of 1920's literature. Having read such takes on the book, I was surprised at how direct and accessible I found the novel. It was actually a pretty quick read, though I suspect having just finished watching Fassbinder's series shaped my experience. In any case, this piece offers a lot of interesting details, including the fact that a 1930 radio adaptation of “Berlin Alexanderplatz” was canceled at the last minute, for fear of the reaction of Nazi officials.

Finally, the disc includes the first film adaptation of the novel, a 1931 film directed by Phil Jutzi and starring Heinrich George as Biberkopf. Running just 84 minutes, it bears only a passing resemblance to the novel (despite Doblin co-writing the screenplay), presenting a more heroic protagonist and an upbeat ending, but some of its scenes of hectic Berlin street life are quite heady.

The thick insert booklet repeats the content of the 2007 DVD release, with essays by filmmaker Tom Tykwer and author Thomas Steinfeld, plus an interview with cinematographer Schwarzberger and a revealing essay by Fassbinder talking about his relationship with the novel.

Final Thoughts:
Trivia: The busybody landlady Frau Bast (played by Brigitte Mira) is one of the film's most memorable supporting characters, but has no equivalent in the novel.

A middling high-def upgrade might not demand a double dip, but “Berlin Alexanderplatz” is one of the crowning achievements of Fassbinder's career, certainly a long journey from his earliest years when he could knock out an entire feature film in just over a week of shooting. I find it compulsively watchable. Your mileage may vary, but it's an essential experience for any devoted cinephile.

Monday, January 21, 2019

A Best Of The Year List In Which I Write Nothing Bad About Any Movie At All


Hale County This Morning, This Evening

Nothing released in 2018 was as good as “mother!” So I'm not sure we can really say it's been a great! year in cinema. But I still saw some good movies.

MY TOP FILMS OF 2018

Hale County This Morning, This Evening (Ross)
Shirkers (Tan)
First Reformed (Schrader)
24 Frames (Kiarostami)
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Coen)
The Other Side of the Wind (Welles)
Zama (Martel)
You Were Never Really Here (Ramsey)
Black Panther (Coogler)/Avengers: Infinity War (Russo Brothers)
If Beale Street Could Talk (Jenkins)


Hale County This Morning, This Evening: Director/producer/writer/cinematographer/sound designer/editor RaMell Ross chronicles the lives of two young African-American men and their families in rural Alabama over the course of several years. That description doesn't even begin to do justice to Ross's remarkable debut feature. Combining impressionistic imagery with on-screen text and a dense, evocative soundtrack, Ross crafts a unique audiovisual language that allows viewers to adapt to its rhythms. Ross juxtaposes the personal with the celestial, sometimes playfully like when he cuts from a Chick-Fil-A waffle fry to the ghostly image of a partially eclipsed sun. In a stream-lined 78 minutes, the film expresses both unbridled joy and inconceivable tragedy. Ross has made a cinematic poem of radical empathy, and the most beautiful documentary I've seen in years. Move heaven and earth to find a way to watch this movie.

Shirkers: I guess we can't quite call Shirkers Sandi Tan's debut feature. Tan's documentary is actually about her own first film (also called Shirkers) which she made as a teenager with friends in her home country of Singapore. If you've never heard of it, well, there's a reason for that. The stranger-than-fiction story of how Tan's film was lost (stolen) is a jaw-dropping mystery in its own right, but I was even more moved by her ability to evoke the excitement of budding cinephilia. Tan and her friends built their own punk aesthetic around the films they loved and often struggled to find in Singapore (Jim Jarmusch and other American indie darlings among them) which eventually led to the DIY making of the lost (stolen) Shirkers and then to this documentary. Tan's writing and narration also strike a series of perfect chords. I love everything about this documentary, which is currently available on Netflix.

First Reformed: I'm delighted that Paul Schrader finally got to make his Diary of a Country Priest movie. It feels like he's been talking about it for nearly half a century. Schrader's film isn't quite on the level of Bresson's masterpiece (by which I mean one of the 100 greatest films ever made, though probably not a top five Bresson) but Ethan Hawke delivers the performance of the year as a priest tortured by the specter – no, make that the verifiable reality – of global environmental catastrophe, and the stupid, immoral species that could stop it but won't. His solution to the problem is... unique. But his ethical and spiritual struggle is a universal one, at least for that dwindling portion of the populace still tethered to reality. Everyone, please stop trying to interpret the ending, and just revel in the mystery.

The Other Side Of The Wind and 24 Frames : Two of the year's best new films are by deceased filmmakers which isn't really that surprising; dead people have numbers on their side. One of the most baffling recurring criticisms I've ever read about a movie regards Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark (2002). Said criticism goes: “If it wasn't shot in a single take, it wouldn't be so great.” Which is true, but, now stick with me here, it was, in fact, shot in a single take. So shut up. Likewise, some critics of The Other Side Of The Wind (shot in the 1970s, only recently completed and now released on Netflix) have suggested it wouldn't be received so rapturously if it wasn't a once-lost film by Orson Welles. But it is. And much of the film's pleasure derives from watching Welles (via on-screen-proxy John Huston as an embattled film director working on his final project) dunk on “these damn kids” of the '70s and their precious Antonioni-oni-o movies. The film is the finest and most inspired of messes, both hilarious and heartfelt, and every bit as radical as anything by the younger celebrated art-house darlings of the era. Plus Peter Bogdanovich (“What did I do wrong, daddy?”) and Norman Foster deliver great supporting performances. And Oja Kodar...

The late Abbas Kiarostami's 24 Frames is also great, and I already reviewed it here. I also previously wrote about the not-at-all-dead Coen brothers The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.

Zama: I admit that I was lost during the first half hour of Lucrecia Martel's newest film. After reading a brief plot summary online, I was able to stop worrying about what was happening, and let the rich images and sounds just wash over me. The title character is a sadsack Spanish officer stationed in an 18th century South American country ostensibly to administer the colony. Instead, Zama waits and waits and waits some more, eventually realizing he is in charge of precisely nothing, not even his own fate. Martel's indictment of colonial hubris is as wryly funny as it is formally accomplished.

You Were Never Really Here: A burned-out Joaquin Phoenix strives to rescue a girl from a powerful sexual predator. It might sound weird to say that such heavy subject matter winds up just barely mattering to the film, but director Lynne Ramsey appears to be more interested in color, sound, and texture than in narrative. Fine by me! She's continuing her formal experiments from We Need To Talk About Kevin with, to my taste, far greater success this time. Ramsey has created a sometimes overwhelming audiovisual experience, at once immersive and jarring and difficult to process on a single viewing.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever! DC Never!

Avengers: Infinity War: Grossly overstuffed, planet-hopping at breakneck speed, explaining the story in needless detail but still not making much sense, shortchanging all but a few characters, replete with gods and robots, and trying to wring sympathy from deaths that no sentient viewer believes will last through the next installment, Infinity War is a near-flawless page-to-screen adaptation of the maxi-series crossover events that have driven the comic book industry (sometimes into the ground) for the past thirty years. I loved every overwrought second, and I hope the next “Avengers” runs at least four hours. Starlord's still a tool, though.

If Beale Street Could Talk: James Baldwin infused with a touch of Jacques Demy romanticism. Tish and Fonny are the great movie love story of the year (2nd place: Orson Welles and Oja Kodar's ass). KiKi Layne is also the breakout star of the year. I'm baffled as to why James Laxton isn't getting more attention for the most lustrous cinematography in any American film this year. Is director Barry Jenkins really not even forty yet? That's just ridiculous.

A few quick honorable mentions:

Alice Rohrwacher's Happy as Lazzaro is an Italian neo-realist fable until it becomes totally something else and I wouldn't dare spoil it for you, but it's great. On Netflix. Julian Schnabel's At Eternity's Gate isn't a great film, but Willem Dafoe is a fantastic Vincent Van Gogh, despite or because of being 25 years older than Van Gogh ever lived to be. In the, like, totally psychedelic Mandy (dir. Panos Cosmatos), Nicolas Cage wields a series of oversized mystical blades in order to chop up demon bikers and Satanic cultists, and I don't want really want to know the kind of person who wouldn't want to watch that.

2018 was such an awful year (not talking movies here), I won't add to the misery by discussing any of the critically acclaimed films I thought were rotten. God, there so damn many... but no.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days


4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, AND 2 DAYS (Mungiu, 2007)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date January 22, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

In just his second feature film, Romanian director Cristian Mungiu wasn't shy about tackling a challenge.

Set in 1987 at the tail end of the Ceausescu dictatorship in Romania, “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days” (2007) concerns a young woman seeking an abortion in an authoritarian state that has all but outlawed the procedure. As if the basic subject wasn't thorny enough, writer/director Mungiu also chose to make the young woman rather difficult to like, or at least difficult to fully sympathize with. Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) is passive, forgetful, flighty, and relies almost entirely on her friend Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) to negotiate all of the details of a complex (and illegal) deal. Safe in the security of being the “unreliable one” in the relationship, Gabi exploits Otilia's courage and conscientiousness, with harrowing repercussions for both of them.

It's understandable then that Mungiu tells the story from Otilia's perspective. It's an inspired decision, as is the casting of Marinca who, making her film debut, delivers one of the best performances of recent years. Bristling with steely pragmatism, Otilia solves each new problem that comes up (even finding a hotel room is absurdly complicated), and plunges ahead when she feels vulnerable, intimidated, and even betrayed by Gabita. Though clearly under great stress, she holds herself together even when threatened by Dr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), the monstrous abortionist who demands a steep price for his services.

Mungiu and cinematographer Oleg Mutu certainly understand the power of framing. Once “Doctor” Bebe, having terrorized the women before performing the procedure on Gabi, finally leaves the seedy hotel room, the camera remains fixed solely on Otilia as she sits and tries to recover. In one of the film's several long takes, she speaks to the off-screen Gabi, trying to figure out why her friend made so many terrible decisions in this whole process and put them both in peril. Leaving Gabi's feeble responses off-screen vividly underscores the dynamic between the two women and makes Otilia seem all the more heroic when she responds not by lashing out, but by continuing to support her vulnerable friend. Otilia is the stronger one, and Gabi needs that strength. So Otilia gives it.

The film delivers another tour-de-force shot when Otilia reluctantly visits her boyfriend's family for a birthday party. In a single shot running over seven minutes, an understandably frazzled Otilia looks entirely alone at thecrowded dinner table, the tension ratcheting up with each passing second and soaring to near unbearable levels when we hear a phone ringing off-screen. It might be the still-recuperating Gabi calling for help, but Otilia cannot move to answer it and, perhaps at that particular moment, doesn't really want to.

Mungiu paints a convincing portrait of a corrupt surveillance state where the black market is not only an open secret, but operates more efficiently than the official bureaucracy. You can buy prohibited American cigarettes from virtually anyone, but you can't check into or leave even a no-star hotel without having your ID scrutinized. Trust is in short supply in Ceausescu's Romania, which makes Gabi all the luckier to have a true-blue friend like Otilia.

“4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days” hit the festival circuit just after fellow Romanian director Cristi Puiu's bleak-comedy “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” (2005) wowed global audiences, and it won the Palme d'Or at the 2007 Cannes Festival. Its success prompted a full-blown critical frenzy over the emergence of the so-called Romanian New Wave. The very existence of a “new wave” was debated from the instant it was first dubbed – do a handful of directors constitute a wave and should they be lumped together simply because they're all from the same country and of roughly the same age? 

A little more than a decade later, all we can say for sure it that Romania has produced more than its share of great films, and that Mungiu was no flash-in-the-pan, having directed several well-regarded movies since, most recently “Graduation”, also part of the Criterion Collection. None of them have been quite as nerve-racking as "4 Months..." but it's difficult to think of any film released since then that could clear such a high bar.



Video:
The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The image detail is sharp, and the rather drab color palette is faithfully rendered. This isn't a film that's meant to look beautiful, but this 1080p transfer is strong.

Audio:
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track isn't called on to do much. There's almost no music, and the sound design is spartan, but the audio is crisp and distortion-free. Optional English subtitles support the Romanian audio.

Extras:
Criterion has included an array of extras with this Blu-ray release.

First up is a 2016 interview with Mungiu (37 min.) in which he provides more historical context about late-'80s Romania and talks about the challenges and advantages of using many long takes, especially knowing there will be minimal post-production editing.

In another 2016 interview (24 min.), film critic Jay Weissberg talks both about the film and the broader Romanian New Wave movement.

Criterion has also included the entire press conference (44 min.) for the film from the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. The panel includes Mungiu and most of the cast.

We also get a 2007 documentary titled “The Romanian Tour.” The feature explains that there are few film theaters in Romania, so a tour was arranged for the film to be shown in various non-traditional venues. This documentary showcases both the people who conducted the tour (most of whom are German) as well as feedback from Romanian audience members, many of whom were seeing their first film in a theater in many years.

The disc also includes three Alternate/Deleted Scenes, running 13 minutes total, as well as a Theatrical Trailer (2 min.)

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

Final Thoughts:
I can't believe it's been more than ten years since “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days” was the talk of the festival circuit. I actually have a flashbulb memory of the first time I watched this remarkable movie. Criterion has provided a strong transfer and a solid collection of extra to supplement their release of one of the landmark films of the 21st century.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

24 Frames



24 FRAMES (Kiarostami, 2017)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Jan 8, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

As the late, way-beyond-great Abbas Kiarostami's final film, “24 Frames” (2017) can't help but stir up conflicting feelings. The posthumous release of the Iranian master's last feature partially fills the void left by his 2016 death from cancer, but however beautiful the movie is, it is also, as a title card shown in the film's final segment reminds us, the end.

“24 Frames” was a multi-year labor of love for Kiarostami, who was still editing the project on a laptop from his hospital bed. The film's structuring conceit is a deceptively simple one. A still image shows only a frozen split-second of time, but this only invites the viewer to speculate about the image. Where did it come from, and what happened next? Working with visual-effects artist Ali Kamali, Kiarostami begins with 24 still pictures and constructs a four-and-half minute film around each, imagining the events immediately preceding and/or following the still scene.

The film counts out the frames from 1 to 24. In Frame 1, Peter Breughel's famous 1565 painting, “Hunters in the Snow,” is augmented by animated smoke puffing from tiny village chimneys and a curious dog circling the party. The remaining 23 frames are all photographs taken by Kiarostami, including many largely-unpopulated landscapes with snowy woods and beach scenes particular favorites. In each short film, the still scene slowly comes to life, often due to the presence of digitally-added wildlife, crows streaking across the sky or cows tramping through the snow. Aside from Breughel's eponymous hunters, we see little sign of people until the halfway mark.

Sound design plays a major role as well. In Frame 21,probably my favorite of the shorts, we look through a thick window-shade at the silhouette of a tree listing in the wind. Loud off-screen footsteps indicate activity in the room, and then the shade is pulled up to reveal the nature landscape in its full glory. Classical music swells to create a surprisingly cathartic moment.

It's one of several shorts which initially requires viewers to guess what they're watching, details only gradually being fully revealed. Some of the shorts provide just the sketch of a narrative – a seagull may be standing vigil over a dead comrade or just taking a break while foraging. But most invite audiences simply to look and listen, sometimes at broad vistas (a roiling ocean of breaking waves) and sometimes through restricted viewpoints, such as Frame 14, an Edward Hopper-like image (I'm thinking “Rooms By The Sea” here) in which we peer out of a dingy room through a window at a partially-viewed event transpiring on the street.

Each short induces the quiet contemplation that fans have come to cherish in Kiarostami's work, and perhaps bring to mind Kiarostami's frequent claim that he doesn't mind one bit if viewers fall asleep during his movies. The shorts also amplify the continuing focus on the act of looking itself that became ever more prominent in the director's later work, such as “Shirin” (2008) in which the camera fixes on a series of women's faces as they watch a movie off-screen.

While I found watching “Shirin” an act of unbridled joy, “24 Frames,” while every bit as riveting, leaves me more uneasy. In “Shirin” the pleasure is in looking at real faces, and speculating about the thoughts and feelings playing out in their expressions in real time. “24 Frames” is, by contrast, largely an animated film, an act of manipulation rather than a record of reality. The final result is beautiful, hypnotic, and sometimes deeply moving, yet I can't help but feel a sense of loss, not just for Kiarostami, but for the power of the photographic image itself, the source of much of cinema's allure for over a century. I can't fully articulate the discomfort about this save to say, “But I don't wanna watch cartoons! I want real!” In the hands of a visionary like Kiarostami, these animation tools can produce something glorious, but there aren't any more Abbas Kiarostamis.

Instead of looking at “24 Frames” as a record of the transition of a medium, perhaps it's best to view the film as an ebullient showcase fora multifaceted artist. Kiarostami is best known by global audiences as a feature-film director, but he was also a graphic artist, a photographer, an illustrator of children's books, and a poet. “24 Frames” synthesizes these media and influences into a hybrid project like few others, and a final film that shows an accomplished artist who reached his peak several decades ago and never took so much as a single step down from the heights.

Is it too simplistic to say that while watching “24 Frames” I laughed and I cried? Well, I did. For a whole host of reasons. A week later, I haven't stopped thinking about it which is pretty much the effect most Kiarostami films have had on me. 


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Considering that the movie consists largely of video animation, it's a little difficult to assess the video quality. It's sharp and has a smooth, glossy look which is probably true to the source.

Audio:
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track consists mostly of music and sound effects like footsteps, the flapping of bird wings, cows mooing, etc. It all sounds clear and provides a sense of dimension and atmosphere.

Extras:
Criterion has only included a few extras with this Blu-ray release, but they're all of interest.

In a short interview (8 min.), Ahmad Kiarostami, son of the late director, speaks about his role in shaping the final cut of the film. Abbas Kiarostami worked on many different “frames” (short films) for the project, but always planned to include just 24 in the film. When the director passed away, there were still 30 shorts being considered for inclusion. Ahmad wound up cutting out all the paintings except for the Breughel that starts the film.

In a short discussion (10 min.) film scholar Jamsheed Akrami and film critic Godfrey Cheshire discuss the film and the various influences from Kiarostami's career that helped to shape it.

We also get a short documentary (14 min.) by Kiarostami collaborator Salma Monshizadeh which shows Kiarostami at work on the project. Of particular interest are the scenes where we see the director working on shorts not included in the film, including his take on paintings like Millet's “The Gleaners” and Wyeth's “Christina's World.” I don't know if edited versions of these segments still exist, but it sure would be nice to see them as extras one day.

The slim fold-out insert booklet includes an exceptional essay by film critic Bilge Ebiri. Mr. Ebiri also recently took to Twitter to share the thoughts of another devoted fan of the film.

Final Thoughts:
Abbas Kiarostami was still innovating fifty years into his career. “24 Frames” is a remarkable final film from one of the world's greatest modern artists.