Sunday, June 30, 2019

Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story By Martin Scorsese

Currently Streaming on Netflix, Release Date June 12, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Ace In The Hole

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

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

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

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

Chuck Tatum, ace reporter, ignoring the irony

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

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

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

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

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

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

You remember newspapers, don't you?

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.

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.

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

All That Jazz

It's showtime!

ALL THAT JAZZ (Fosse, 1979)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date August 26, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

“All That Jazz” (1979) pits choreographer-director Bob Fosse's razzle-dazzle against lead actor Roy Scheider's serene confidence to create a movie musical like few others.

Fosse, who also co-wrote the script along with Robert Alan Arthur, takes the autobiographical impulse as far as any feature filmmaker this side of Terence Davies. Joe Gideon (Scheider) is a famous Broadway musical director who has spent most of his life pushing every boundary of personal and professional conduct and now also finds himself pushing fifty. Through flashbacks, we find out that Joe (like Fosse) grew up in show business; an adolescence in the company of burlesque strippers proved to be the ideal apprenticeship for the big stage and also explains the constant charges of vulgarity that dog much of Joe's work. Fortunately the supremely talented Mr. Foss... I mean Gideon doesn't lack for confidence, at least until his heart gives out on him. It's a wonder it held up up so long, having to power a body that has already burned through a dozen lifetimes, not to mention a few hundred thousand cigarettes.

Expanding the style he first fully explored in “Cabaret” (1972), Fosse (along with editor Alan Heim, who netted an Oscar for his efforts) wasn't shy about chopping his dance numbers into snippets of motion and gestures and re-assembling the sequence in post-production. The frenetic, kaleidoscopic style thrills fans with its nova-burst energy while frustrating other viewers who would rather see more documentary evidence of an actual physical performance, though it looks positively tame compared to the absurd, fully-mulched extreme to which Rob Marshall took “Chicago” (2002). Factor in the film's complex time-hopping structure, which often returns to a black-clad Gideon conversing backstage with a very sympathetic angel of death (Jessica Lange), and it's not hard to understand why the film has sometimes been described as both indulgent and excessive – by supporters as well as detractors.

Roy Scheider provides the calm amidst the sensory maelstrom. He imbued every role he ever took with instant credibility, whether blowing up sharks, piloting a helicopter, or sorting out a massive Broadway casting call while confronting his impending death. Scheider is the ballast that steadies the entire production, so at ease in the role you'd never know he wasn't a song-and-dance man by training. Maybe his career as an amateur boxer was better preparation for life both as and under the direction of Bob Fosse. Scheider is at his best when showing just how hard Foss.. I mean Gideon works at just about everything: his choreography, the movie he edits in his non-existent free time, his drugs, and his very active love life. Few characters better embody the credo that it's better to burn out than to fade away.

With apologies to the movie's many ardent fans, I find most of the Cuisinarted musical numbers to be gaudy and irritating. Fosse was used to that kind of criticism and even addresses it with humor in the film when Gideon suffers a second heart attack while watching a vapid TV film critic tear apart his new movie.

Ending on a high note

The film's final number, recently parodied (perhaps “paid homage to” is more appropriate) in the “Eagleheart” finale, is a distinct exception. Actually I guess it isn't much of an exception. Gideon's final farewell is even more ostentatious than every other number, but it is so profoundly heartfelt that it moves me to tears despite my not feeling much for the protagonist up to that point.

Whether or not Fosse was indulgent (and don't we want talented artists to indulge that talent?), he was honest. This was his genuine vision and he worked relentlessly to achieve it. It's not my bag, but it's still damned impressive, and thank goodness he found such a perfect collaborator to realize that vision in Roy Scheider. 

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Criterion's 1080p transfer is spectacular as usual. Perhaps surprisingly, the film isn't particularly colorful. However the image detail is sharp throughout and the rich grain structure lends it a very filmic look.

From the Criterion booklet: “Undertaken by Twentieth Century Fox and the Academy Film Archive in collaboration with The Film Foundation, this new 4K digital restoration was produced from the original camera negative at Sony Colorworks in Culver City, California.” The restoration has certainly paid off.

Criterion goes with a DTS-HD Master Audio in the original 3.0 surround track. The lossless sound is sharp and dynamic without a hint of damage or boosting anywhere. Optional English subtitles support the English dialogue.

I guess Criterion has embraced the excess that comes with Bob Fosse as they have included thirteen separate extras totaling approximately four hours running time.

And that doesn't include the feature-length commentary track by editor Alan Heim, originally recorded in 2007.

If that track isn't enough, you also get a Selected-Scene Commentary by Roy Scheider, recorded in 2001 and running 35 minutes in all. Both of the commentaries were included on previous DVD versions of the film from Fox.

Other carry-overs from previous DVDs include: “Portrait of a Choreographer” (2007, 23 min.) which includes interviews with Liza Minnelli, Rob Marshall and others; “The Soundtrack: Perverting the Standards” (2007, 8 min.), a compilation of interviews with composers Glen Ballard, Jerry Casale, Mark Mothersbaugh and Diane Warren; and “The Making of the Song 'On Broadway” (2007, 4 min.) which is an interview with singer-songwriter George Benson.

Most of the other features are new to Criterion's Blu-ray. These include a new interview with actresses Ann Reinking and Erzsebet Foldi (2014, 34 min), who play Gideon's girlfriend and daughter, respectively, and also interviews with editor Alan Heim (2014, 15 min.) and Sam Wasson (2014, 21 min.) who wrote the biography “Fosse.” The Heim interview is of particular interest and also encompasses his work with Fosse on “Lenny” (1974).

Archival footage includes the Jan 31, 1980 episode of Tom Snyder's “Tomorrow” show, with Fosse and Agnes De Mille as guests (32 min.), the Mar 8, 1981 episode of “The South Bank Show” (27 min.) hosted by Melvyn Bragg, and a 1986 interview of Fosse conducted by critic Gene Shalit (26 min.) There are also two short on-set featurettes: “Fosse Directing” (8 min.) and an on-set interview with Roy Scheider (4 min.). A Theatrical Trailer (2 min.) rounds out this exhaustive collection.

The 28-page insert booklet includes an essay by writer Hilton Als.

Film Value:
Criterion has released a definitive version of “All That Jazz” with a flawless transfer and as many extras as could be squeezed onto a single Blu-ray, I'm sure. Fans shouldn't hesitate to add this to their libraries.

The Spy Behind Home Plate

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 (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.

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.

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.

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.