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.


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.

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.

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.

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. 

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.

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.

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.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Don't Look Now

DON'T LOOK NOW (Roeg, 1973)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date February 10, 2015
Review by Christopher S. Long

Don't be fooled by the title. If you want to get the most out of “Don't Look Now” (1973) you will have to look very closely.

In his third feature film, adapted from a short story by Daphne du Maurier, director and former cinematographer Nicolas Roeg achieved the perfect realization of his dense, elliptical and entirely idiosyncratic visual style. In the stunning opening sequence, a young girl decked out in a red raincoat plays by a pond. The film cuts inside to the family house where her father John Baxter (Donald Sutherland, with one of the most magnificent heads of hair in the history of cinema) is busily studying slides of a cathedral; John already knows he needs to look closely. 

The scene cuts back and forth between the two parallel actions. As Christine approaches the pond, John spills water on the slide causing an unidentified patch of red John has just noticed in the image to blur and spread in an arc across the picture. He instantly senses danger, a foreboding to which his wife Laura (Julie Christie, one of the most magnificent women in the history of cinema) remains oblivious as she leafs through reference books on the living room floor. John races out back to find that Christine has drowned.

It's a complex sequence that needs to be viewed multiple times to fully unpack it. What was that blotch of red in the cathedral and why did it bleed out in that shape? As he cradles his baby girl and sobs incoherently, does John briefly flash a look of disdain back to the house when he glimpses the still unaware Laura through the window as if to wonder “How could she not know?” Perhaps it is just all-consuming grief. At any rate, Roeg saves perhaps the biggest surprise for the final cut in the sequence, a jolting leap to a close-up of a loudly-buzzing drill that has suddenly transported us to Venice at an indeterminate period in the future.

John has been hired to restore the magnificent but crumbling church of San Nicolo dei Mendicoli, perhaps because the local bishop is so impressed by John's hair which is clearly a gift from the Lord. Unfortunately, neither work nor the move from England to the city of canals enables the couple to escape their grief. Roeg and his creative team, including cinematographer Anthony Richmond and editor Graeme Clifford, convert Venice into a nearly abandoned labyrinth with a constantly shifting geography. John and Laura wander the nighttime streets alone and lost as once familiar alleyways no longer lead where they should; they also appear to be the only guests still staying at their hotel which is about to close for the season. The traditional Venice tourist landmarks are all but absent (St. Mark's is seen in the background once or twice); this is a space, maybe a testing chamber, carved out specifically for the Baxters, or perhaps made by the Baxters as an expression of their unspeakable loss.

Laura falls in with two eccentric elderly sisters, one of whom is blind and claims to be psychic. The woman says that she has seen Christine in a vision and that the child is happy but also has a warning to pass on to John: he must leave Venice immediately or else. Laura believes because the evidence that Christine still exists has assuaged her pain, but John remains highly skeptical. It's a reminder that, as in the opening scene, the husband and wife are on very different wavelengths, a fact that surprisingly makes them that much more convincing as a couple on different journeys but still sticking together. It also heats up the film's (in)famous sex scene, a collision of naked bodies repeatedly intercut with shots of the couple dressing afterward. The piece de resistance in this steamy sequence: a quiet shot of a fully-dressed Laura looking in the mirror and just barely licking her lips. Scorching hot. Roeg has an unerring eye for the perfect image. Christie helps.

Skeptics, of course, rarely fare well in movies, and so John finds himself confronted by an increasingly hostile city (a murderer stalking the canals is but one threat) all while his senses appear to be failing him. Once again, you'll have to keep a close eye out for every detail, but don't forget to listen as well. “Don't Look Now” takes advantage of a wonderfully moody score by Pino Donaggio, but also makes the best use of silence and near-silence since “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Just as the city is largely devoid of people, the film features vast interior spaces with largely empty soundscapes, just a few isolated effects echoing in hollow chambers, rendering them sepulchral. Listen to the elaborate sequence where John nearly has a bad accident in the church for this film's finest sound design.

“Don't Look Now” is a film of thousand little frissons, perhaps not the stuff of nightmares but certainly of rough goosebumps. If it stumbles anywhere, even for a moment, it's in the divisive ending which I won't spoil for you here. Regardless, Roeg's masterpiece is a deftly conducted symphony, a virtually flawless coordination of cinematography, editing, performance, and writing. Every frame aches with sorrow with just a tinge of hope to keep everyone going.

Friends, this is what great cinema looks and sounds like. Great hair too.

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio . From Criterion: “Approved by Nicolas Roeg, this new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution on an ARRISCAN film scanner from the original camera negative at Deluxe Digital London.” Approved is not the same as “supervised” but we can still safely assume the image is true to the original intent. “Don't Look Now”has been released previously in SD. As is usually the case for Criterion, the image is slightly darker than previous transfers though perhaps that should read “is not as washed out as” previous transfers that boost and brighten as a short cut. The image isn't quite as grainy as I would have expected, but the image detail is sharp and the colors rich; those very select uses of red are as startling as they're meant to be.

The linear PCM mono track provides a crisp lossless sound which really accentuates the subtleties of this remarkable audio design. Isolated sound effects in certain sequences are both distinct and hollow as they are meant to be. Donaggio's score also sounds great here. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Criterion has cobbled together an eclectic mix of extras for this release.

The first two features are previously produced extras by Blue Underground. “'Don't Look Now' Looking Back” is a 2002 (19 min.) documentary mixing interviews with Roeg, cinematographer Anthony Richmond and editor Graeme Clifford. Worthwhile if not revelatory. “Death in Venice” (2006, 17 min.) is an interview with Donaggio who talks in detail about how a humble pop singer like him was chosen to do his first film score. Donaggio went on to fame in the business, known primarily for his work for Brian DePalma. I liked this piece a lot.

“Nicolas Roeg at Cine Lumiere” is a video recording of a Q&A session held in 2003 in London after a screening of “Don't Look Now.” It runs 47 minutes and is hosted by film writer Paul Ryan. Roeg is... elliptical in his responses though more straightforward when talking about how the “real” script for his prior film “Walkabout” was only 14 pages but he needed to fake a long one to satisfy financiers.

The rest of the features, aside from the Trailer, are new for this Criterion release.

“Something Interesting” (30 min.) combines interviews with Richmond, Julie Christie, Donald Sutherland and screenwriter Allan Scott. Scott discusses the script's development before Roeg was ever attached to the project. Sutherland relates a story about how he fought for a different ending for his character and was told in no uncertain terms who the auteur was on this project. Christie shares some of her discomfort with the film's ending.

“Nicolas Roeg: The Enigma of Film” (14 min.) is a gushing fan letter to Roeg from directors Steven Soderbergh and Danny Boyle. I appreciate their enthusiasm for one of their cinematic idols but this is pretty content free.

We also get a lengthy interview (43 min.) with editor Graeme Clifford, conducted by film writer and historian Bobbie O'Steen. I've only sampled the first fifteen minutes of this, but it is quite fascinating. This movie is certainly a study in pushing the limits of film editing.

The fold-out booklet has a large and very red map of Venice on one side. On the other we get an excellent essay by the estimable critic David Thompson.

Final Thoughts:
If Don King promoted “Don't Look Now” as a fight he would label it “The Menace in Venice.” I'll settle for calling it Nicolas Roeg's masterpiece (not that “Walkabout” is Swiss cheese) and one of my very favorite horror films. One of my favorite films in any genre, actually. It has never looked better than on this sharp 1080p transfer. The lack of a truly definitive extra feature is a mild disappointment, but the nearly three hours of extras that Criterion has included are quite good. Needless to say, this is highly recommended.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

For All Mankind

FOR ALL MANKIND (Reinert, 1989)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date July 14, 2009
Review by Christopher S. Long

If somebody tells you they just don’t understand what the big deal about space travel is, you probably won’t be able to explain it to them. And you probably don't want to bother because, really, do you need to hang out with a person who would say something like that? If you want to try anyway, though, point them to Al Reinert’s sublime archival footage documentary “For All Mankind” (1989.)

The Gemini and Apollo missions were filmed by some of the most advanced cameras available at the time, but not because the NASA crews were budding Sacha Viernys. The cameras were there to film moon rocks and moon dust and, um, other moon-related things. Did I mention moon rocks? This wasn’t art photography, this was for science with a few brief clips circulated to the media.

The majority of the mission footage not only went unseen by the public but was stored away in the NASA film archives possibly never to be looked at again. But journalist Al Reinert experienced a “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”-style epiphany, realizing that those millions of feet of cold-stored film contained a cinematic treasure trove. After years of meticulously combing through the archives, culling and editing the best material, Reinert produced one of the most beautiful American documentaries of the past thirty years.

Reinert wasn’t interested in making the kind of dry, didactic documentary school kids pretend to listen to on a trip to the planetarium. Working in the 1980s, he had the opportunity to look back on the entirety of humanity’s efforts to reach the moon and to appreciate the entire arc of the greatest exploration story ever told, and the film would be the story of that grand adventure.

Reinert, along with editor Susan Korda, who had one hell of a job on her hands, cobbled together footage from a half dozen different Apollo missions and, I believe, a little bit from Gemini (if I’m wrong, someone will tell me) and presented them as a single trip to the moon. This trip includes not only footage taken from space and on the moon, but also of the crew working back in Houston, and it’s the counter-cutting between these two that creates the illusion of a single trip from many.

This wasn’t a cheat by Reinert, but a truly inspired decision (cue the opening drum beats of “Zarathustra” again) that does justice both to the extraordinary beauty of the footage and to the communal spirit that united hundreds of men and women, galvanized by an edict from John F. Kennedy, in the pursuit of a single goal, the achievement of a dream so absurd that even believing it possible was an act of unmitigated audacity.

Reinert also recorded many hours of audio interviews with the astronauts and their commentary is interspersed throughout the film. They aren’t identified individually when they speak and it’s pretty hard to tell them apart in those lumpy uniforms too. These are the men of Apollo, the men who reached for the moon and, in some cases, got there. Blu-ray viewers have the option of choosing an alternate audio track that provides on-screen identification of each person we see and hear which is nice to have even if it somewhat undermines the triumphant universal spirit of a film intended “For All Mankind.”

Much of the “throwaway” footage turns out to the most exciting material. In addition to the installed NASA cameras, astronauts were given their own hand-held cameras and a limited amount of film. They usually chose to point it outside to ogle at the Earth visible as one big blue globe, but the more prosaic footage is indispensable too. Watching an astronaut eating ham spread in zero gravity tells more about life in space than even the most majestic, jaw-droppingly beautiful space shots. Contemporary astro-fans spoiled by Chris Hadfield's recent odyssey might take this kind of access for granted, but I will always see it as something special.

The most joyous moment in the film comes when Gene Cernan of Apollo 17 (the last mission to land on the moon) begins to sing “I was strolling on the moon one day in the merry merry month of… December.” Fellow moonwalker Harrison Schmitt says “No… May.” (Cernan was right, but Schmitt obviously cared more about meter and rhyme than historical accuracy.) The camera shows the two men skipping along the moon surface like a couple of schoolkids. Cernan forgets the lyrics, then expresses the whole reason for a lifetime of grueling training, of striving for the heavens: “Boy is this a neat way to travel. Isn’t it great? Dum dee dum dum dum.” Reinert then shows a series of shots of astronauts hopping around on the moon. You wouldn’t know it but he’s actually cutting back between two different landings. Apparently, grown men all tend to act the same on the moon. One astronaut in mid-leap shouts “Ya-hoo!” If you’re not smiling while you watch that, you’ve obviously never dreamed.

NASA didn’t send the cameras up there to bring images of America’s heroes playing hopscotch on the taxpayer’s dime, but they got them anyway, and they’re every bit as compelling as the far more famous footage of Neil Armstrong descending the ladder and taking that small step that became a giant leap for mankind. Thank goodness Al Reinert and his team found these wonderful pictures and sounds and had the sense and the artistic vision to transform them into this sublime, mesmerizing documentary. 

The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The image is windowboxed like most Criterion fullscreen releases - some viewers will see a black frame around the whole image.

The entire movie is composed of various archival sources, much of which is 16 mm, so the image quality varies and is generally very grainy and a little muddy. Forgive them, they weren’t able to set up the lighting equipment exactly the way they wanted.

The Blu-Ray, of course, represents an upgrade over the SD version of the film, and is appreciated even if the grainy archival footage still looks like grainy archival footage even in high-def.

The Blu-ray is presented with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. Some of the audio comments by the astronauts sound a bit tinny and garbled at times but that’s an artifact from Reinert’s recorded interviews with them. It all sounds clear enough. The stereo comes into play mostly with the louder rocket engine sounds. The original score by Brian Eno is well-presented.

Optional English subtitles are provided. As mentioned above, you can also choose to watch with subtitles and identifications of each of the speakers and missions being shown. I chose to watch this way but for the pure audio-visual experience of the film, which was not released with any background information or identifications, you might prefer to save this option for a second viewing.

The film is accompanied by a commentary track by Al Reinert and astronaut Gene Cernan, recorded in 1999 for the first Criterion release of this film on SD.

“An Accidental Gift” (32 min) is an excellent feature that recounts Reinert’s journey through the NASA archives and his labor of love while assembling the film. NASA archivists Morris Williams and Mike Gentry also speak about their jobs and their role in helping get the film made.

“On Camera” (20 min.) is an assemblage of multiple interviews of Apollo astronauts conducted by Reinert over several projects and cut together into one feature here.

“Paintings from the Moon” provides a series of paintings by astronaut Alan Bean of Apollo 12, the fourth man to walk on the moon. He provides an introduction (7 min) and then commentary for each of his 24 paintings presented here (37 min. total.)

“NASA Audio Highlights” includes 21 short audio recordings that were widely circulated to media outlets at the time and are mostly familiar to fans of the space program. You do know “The Eagle has landed,” right? 7 minutes total.

“3…2…1… Blast Off” cuts together five different NASA launches from different rockets (3 min. total.)

The insert booklet features a justifiably gushing appreciation by critic Terrence Rafferty and an essay by Al Reinert.

Film Value:
There are so many moments to cherish in this film, and I’ve only been able to discuss a few of them. I love the fact that the astronauts were each allowed to bring a cassette tape on the mission with music of their choosing. The astronauts went a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll. And “Zarathustra” too. You have to go “Zarathustra” if you’re ever flying in space.

Criterion re-released “For All Mankind” on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the moon landing back in 2009 but also as a testament to one of the human race’s finest achievements. Will we ever dream so big again? Mars is calling, but I have my doubts that we’ll ever get there. But if we do, you know the cameras will be running and it will make the amazing images New Horizons has been sending back from Pluto look... well, actually nothing could make those images from Pluto look anything but spectacular. But the Mars pics will be a blast too.