Monday, October 21, 2019

When We Were Kings


WHEN WE WERE KINGS (Gast, 1996)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Oct 22, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

You've probably heard some variant of the claim that movies are primarily made in the editing room. Orson Welles, for example, said, “(F)or my vision of cinema, the editing is not one aspect, it is THE aspect.” You won't find many more illustrative examples of this maxim than the documentary “When We Were Kings” (1996).

Director Leon Gast was hired to shoot a documentary about Zaire 74, the music festival scheduled to accompany the massively hyped Rumble in the Jungle, the heavyweight fight between champion George Foreman and a scrappy little underdog named Muhammad Ali in Zaire (today The Democratic Republic of the Congo). The concert would feature an all-world lineup mostly headlined by African and African-American artists, including Miriam Makeba, James Brown, B.B. King, The Spinners, and many more.

A lineup like that couldn't possible miss, but when the Rumble was delayed because of a sparring injury suffered by Foreman, the show still had to go on, to a largely empty stadium since it was no longer attached to the biggest fight ever (free admission helped pack the stands on the final day, at least). After this major setback, Gast struggled to find funding to complete his project and hundreds of hours of footage would sit unused for many years.

In the late-1980s, Gast continued to shop his footage around and found a new booster in the form of lawyer and music manager David Sonenberg who became a producer on the new film-to-be. But was there really demand for a movie about the ill-starred Zaire 74, no matter how great the music was? Maybe, but in transferring and revisiting the old footage, Gast and Sonenberg (perhaps others were involved in the decision – I don't know) realized they were sitting on a trove of crackerjack material of Foreman and, especially, the photogenic and always media-available Ali, as they prepared to rumble. There would certainly be demand for a documentary about Muhammad Ali and the fight of the century.

Thus was born “When We Were Kings”, a documentary released twenty years after its main subject, which the filmmaker wasn't even directly pursuing at the time. It turned out to be a commercial hit and even an Oscar winner.

“When We Were Kings” still plays a bit like a concert film, and not because of the snippets of performances from James Brown, B.B. King, and others still in the movie. Ali, today described by some as the original rapper, entrances audiences of all kinds – groups of admiring children in Zaire, gaggles of giddy reporters, the filmmakers themselves – with his perfectly polished rhythms and cleverly scripted rhymes. “If you think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned, wait til I kick Foreman's behind.” And “(I) injured a stone, hospitalized a brick; I'm so mean I make medicine sick.”

Ali doesn't just bust rhymes (or skulls), of course. The film poignantly evokes the thrill Ali gets from being in Africa – in one of the most memorable scenes, he can barely contain the pride and joy he feels when flying on a plane staffed entirely by a black crew. Fans from Zaire were every bit as proud of Ali, who arrived as a legend and left as a demi-god (I'm understating the matter here). It's actually tough not to feel bad for the young Foreman whose chief sin was not being Muhammad Ali, and thus being identified by many as the evil American imperialist. “Ali, bomaye!” the crowds chanted. “Ali, kill him!”

The fight itself only takes up a few minutes running time in the documentary, but it remains a mesmerizing spectacle today, even for those who can't stand boxing. Ali's winning rope-a-dope strategy has been much discussed, but watching it in action provides a reminder that the Greatest's plan relied on two keystones. Step One – letting Foreman tire himself out by throwing flurries of punches while Ali leaned against the ropes - makes perfect sense. However, Step Two involves Ali resting up and conserving his energy by letting George Foreman beat the hell out of him for several rounds. I guess it works if you're Muhammad Ali.

The film also incorporates some newly-shot interviews which consist primarily of way too much Norman Mailer, not nearly enough Spike Lee, and just the right amount of George Plimpton. Their retrospective views are useful (just about everyone thought Ali would lose, Plimpton feared he might be killed), but the stars of the documentary are Ali and the people of Zaire. They truly loved Ali and, at least judging from what we see on screen, Ali loved them. The film captures that dynamic quite touchingly, which makes this something more memorable than just another boxing documentary.


Video:
The film is presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. From Criterion, “This new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution... from a 35 mm interpositive and restored at Deluxe in Hollywood.” The 16 mm archival footage looks surprisingly sharp in this high-def transfer, at least as sharp as you could expect given the source material.

Audio:
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix isn't called on to do much with most of the interviews and archival footage, but the film includes some brief snippets of great music from the Zaire 74 concert as well as the title song for the film. The lossless audio treats the music quite well. Optional English subtitles support the audio.

Extras:
The first extra on this Criterion release is a 1997 interview with director Leon Gast which only runs 4 minutes. The interview doesn't reveal much except the degree to which Ali was quite media savvy and helped set up some of those great “spontaneous” shots.

We also get a new 2019 interview (16 min.) with David Sonenberg, the producer who proved so pivotal in getting “When We Were Kings” made and released nearly two decades after Gast originally shot the footage. He speaks in detail about the unlikely and complicated process of converting an old concert movie into a fight documentary (though, of course, it's much more than that).

The star attraction in the Extras collection is “Soul Power” (2009, 92 min.), the concert movie also made from the footage shot in 1974. This film is directed by Jeffrey Kusama-Hinte (one of the editors on “When We Were Kings”) and showcases numerous great acts from Miriam Makeba to James Brown and so much more. It's a real blast and further proof of the degree to which a film is made in the editing room, though of course it helps to have music superstars to work with in the first place.

The slim, fold-out insert booklet includes an essay by writer Kelefa Sanneh.

Final Thoughts:
There's a whole subindustry of Muhammad Ali documentaries, but none are better than “When We Were Kings.” And if you already own it on DVD, there's still a good reason to upgrade in the form of the extra documentary “Soul Power.”

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Three Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg

Underworld (1927)

3 SILENT CLASSICS BY JOSEF VON STERNBERG
UNDERWORLD (1927), THE LAST COMMAND (1928), 
THE DOCKS OF NEW YORK (1928)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Oct 15, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

The adjective “poetic” was attached to Josef von Sternberg from the very start of his directorial career, a potential death sentence for an aspiring Hollywood filmmaker. But little about von Sternberg's career was typical.

The plucky teen immigrant (born in Vienna in 1894, emigrated with his family to New York in 1901) dropped out of high school and worked a series of odd jobs, eventually finding his way into film in the pre-Hollywood movie mecca of Fort Lee, NJ where he learned how to splice, edit, write, operate a camera, and virtually every phase of filmmaking. After a few returns to Europe and a stint in the U.S. Army, von Sternberg relocated to Hollywood where he continued to hone his craft in various supporting capacities.

He impressed many in the industry with his vast knowledge of the craft of filmmaking, but he wasn't content to methodically climb the ladder of success. He launched a bold attempt to spring directly into the director's chair, shooting a micro-budget independent film called “The Salvation Hunters” (1925). Praised for its “poetic” qualities and evocative imagery it naturally flopped, but generated buzz all around town and drew attention from no less a luminary than Charlie Chaplin.

Chaplin was impressed by von Sternberg's ability to communicate both story and character psychology in images, and tapped von Sternberg to direct a project for him, though not one in which The Tramp would act. Chaplin was apparently dissatisfied with the result (though he made no public comment) and chose not to release the picture. This would have proved a debilitating setback for many ambitious up-and-comers but the resourceful von Sternberg (the regal “von” was added by a Hollywood publicist, by the way) bounced back quickly.

Within a year, von Sternberg grabbed hold of an unexpected opportunity to direct another film, a gangster picture from a script by the hard-boiled journalist Ben Hecht. Hecht was by far the biggest name attached to the project, but that didn't stop von Sternberg from doing a major rewrite, enraging Hecht who initially demanded his name be removed from the film. Hecht was presumably more sanguine when he received the first-ever Oscar for Best Writing on an Original Picture.

In “Underworld” (1927), George Bancroft plays Bull Weed (I like to think his little brother's name is Dick), a boorish bank robber and gangster who runs into a drunk (Clive Brook) during one of his heists and arbitrarily takes it upon himself to redeem the man, now dubbed Rolls Royce. Bull sets up Rolls with some cash and his own apartment and darn if he doesn't clean up nice. Maybe too nice, as Rolls begins to draw the attention of Bull's lovely girlfriend, Feathers (Evelyn Brent).

It's a pulpy story with seemingly stock characters, but one of the hallmarks of the three films in this set is the surprising nuance with which even minor characters are imbued. Bull is a brute and a loudmouth – even in a silent film you can hear the beefy Bancroft bellowing – but during a protracted scene where he waits to kill a friend in a jealous fit of rage, he stops to feed a kitten by dipping his finger in a milk bottle and letting the kitten lick the drops. Feathers is named for her fondness for wearing feathered boas, but she turns out to be more than just a kitschy gangster's moll when she torments herself over whether to pursue her own happiness or loyalty to a man who helped rescue her from the streets.

“Underworld” turned into a surprise hit with theaters forced to add midnight showings to accommodate demand. It is frequently given credit for kicking off the craze in gangster films, though it's difficult to pinpoint its influence that directly. It certainly made stars of the three leads as well as of von Sternberg, the former boy genius of “Salvation Hunters” now all grown up into a top-line Hollywood powerhouse.

He followed up his break-out with another hit, “The Last Command” (1928), featuring the Swiss-German star Emil Jannings as an aging, enfeebled Hollywood extra cast to play the part of a Russian general in a picture about the Russian Revolution. Shaking with essential tremor, he tells his fellow extras he really was a Russian general, a claim they greet with open mockery, but an extended flashback reveals that he was telling the truth.

Or at least his truth. “The Last Command” (story by Lajos Biro) nests illusions within illusions like a Matryoshka doll, beginning with the opening title cards proclaiming “Hollywood – 1928! The Magic Empire of the Twentieth Century!” Jannings' character is cast to play a general in a movie that no doubt relates, a phony, sanitized version of Russian history, but surely his memory of events told in flashback are just as biased and divorced from reality. When he finally gets to the film set and is asked to pretend to be a general, his potentially fatal mistake is to treat the process as far too real.. Jannings (later a Nazi collaborator, but at this point in time just admired as a great actor) is sensational, a portly, blustering special effect in his own right, and he would win the first-ever Best Actor Oscar. Von Sternberg's mark was all over that inaugural Award ceremony.

In “The Docks of New York” (1928), released just at the end of the silent era, von Sternberg reunited with George Bancroft, who plays Bill, a ship's stoker on leave for one night in New York. He falls for dance-hall girl Mae (Betty Compson) and has to decide which siren call plays loudest for him, the open sea on his next job or the love of a good woman. Hyper-macho Bancroft is utterly convincing as the sweaty, coal-stained stoker who spends all his time around other sweaty, coal-stained men and therefore has no idea how to act around women except in the most straightforward, obvious way (I'm talking sex, people!) But maybe he's enough of a man to learn.

Those trademark character touches create more special moments. Witness the scene where a very impressed Mae ogles Bill's bulging, tattoed forearms with undisguised lust. Or how a seemingly minor supporting player, an ill-treated wife (Olga Baclanova), suddenly takes center stage from Bill and Mae, living out the aphorism that everyone sees themselves as the main character of the story.

Von Sternberg's poetic leanings are on full display in all three films. The heavy chiaroscuro design of “The Docks of New York” (cinematography by Harold Rosson) transforms a single night ashore into a moody character in its own right. Harsh beams of solid light knife through inky blackness, sometimes from lampposts above, sometimes from indoor spaces that erupt into the nighttime outside, promising sanctuary or perhaps threatening a different brand of meance. In other shots, a curtain of hazy, smoke-filled light blankets the background, sealing the docks off from the rest of the world.

Many scenes in these films possess that same hermetic quality. Von Sternberg has a knack for creating secret spaces, faerie ring subcultures that exist only for a moment in time. “Underworld” presents the Gangster's Ball where all the criminals set aside their quarrels for a night of hard-drinking camaraderie. In “The Last Command” a doomed train rumbles through the Russian night, its passengers oblivious to their fate. In “The Docks of New York” the denizens of a seedy bar unite to celebrate a wedding in their own unique style: “One of us! One of us!”

Von Sternberg was at his creative peak and made a seamless transition into the talking picture era, most famously in his films with Marlene Dietrich, starting with “The Blue Angel” (1930). His directorial career would begin to decline by the end of the 1930s and curtailed significantly after World War II. The three films in this set alone are enough to explain why Josef von Sternberg is regarded as a great and true one-of-a-kind artist.


Video:
The films are presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. I don't own the original 2010 DVD release as a comparison point, but reviews indicate that those were presented in a picture-boxed format which provided a slim black border around the image that was designed so it would look OK on older TV sets. Never mind that. Picture-boxing is dead, and these new high-def transfers are not picture-boxed. The 2K high-def transfers all look fairly strong to me, especially “The Docks of New York” which relies so heavily on chiaroscuro lighting – the black-and-white contrast needs to look sharp and it does.

Audio:
Each of the three silent films in this Criterion boxed set offers listeners the option of two different scores. Robert Israel provided new scores for each movie that were composed specifically for the original 2010 Criterion DVD release of this set. “Underworld” and “The Last Command” also arrive with scores by the Alloy Orchestra, scores composed for festival screenings in the late 2000s. “The Docks of New York” also has a Donald Sosin score that debuted in 2008.

The LPCM mono mix treats all the scores quite well, providing robust, enjoyable listening experiences for all of them. Audio on the extras is solid as well.

Extras:
This Criterion boxed set includes three separate keepcases which are stored in an outer cardboard case, with the square-bound insert booklet tucked alongside the discs. Each film is on a separate Blu-ray in each keepcase.

The extras are relatively modest in this set. All extras are copied from the old 2010 DVD set and no extras have been added for this Blu-ray re-release.

On the “Underworld” disc, we get a 2010 video essay (36 min.) by UCLA film professor Janet Bergstrom. It's jam-packed with information about von Sternberg's early career, and the unusual path he took to directing his break-out gangster hit. Bergstrom finds a way to pack a few hours worth of information into a fairly short running time.

On “The Last Command” we get a 2010 video essay (35 min.) by Tag Gallagher titled “Von Sternberg 'Til 1929” which covers what the title indicates. Gallagher provides more stylistic analysis, tracing out common motifs and themes in all three films included in this set. Because of that, you might not want to watch this until you've seen “The Docks of New York.”

On “The Docks of New York” disc, we get a 40-minute interview with von Sternberg that originally aired on Swedish television in 1968, just a year before the director's death. Von Sternberg wasn't always the most reliable narrator of his own career, but he's always an engaging speaker.

The thick, square-bound insert booklet is attractively designed. It's also loaded, starting with separate essays about each film, by author Geoffrey O'Brien (“Underworld”), film professor Anton Kaes (“The Last Command”) and critic Luc Sante (“The Docks of New York”). The booklet also includes Ben Hecht's original story for “Underworld” as well as a short essay about the film scores included here, and an excerpt from von Sternberg's autobiography concerning working with Emil Jannings.

Final Thoughts:
Fans spoiled by Criterion's jam-packed “Dietrich and Von Sternberg in Hollywood” boxed set from last year might find this Blu-ray upgrade of the old 2010 set somewhat lacking by comparison. Each film is only accompanied by a single extra, but we still get two scores for each movie and the movies themselves are pretty great, which is more than enough to recommend this set.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

The Souvenir



THE SOUVENIR (J. Hogg, 2019)
Review by Christopher S. Long

(I promised myself I'd write about at least a few new releases this year, so here are some quick thoughts about one title I just caught up with.)

The capsule descriptions of Joanna Hogg's “The Souvenir” (2019) seem specifically targeted to driving me away.

“A coming of age story.” Oh Lordy, there must be a good baseball game on somewhere.

“A study of a relationship in crisis.” Maybe this would be a good time to clean the bathroom.

Dialogue heavy, slice of upper-middle-class English life... Hoo boy. I only checked this one out of the library because it happened to sitting right there on the New Release shelf (yes, I still check actual, physical DVDs out of an actual, physical library) staring at me and because I'd read a good deal of persuasive praise about Joanna Hogg's previous films such as “Archipelago” (2010) and “Exhibition” (2013). I'm delighted that I did so.

“The Souvenir” is, at least to some degree, all of the things it was made out to be (though the “graphic nudity” warning tag hardly seems merited), but none of these quick hits touch on the film's idiosyncratic and deceptively complex style. But before delving into that, here's a quick plot summary: The setting is England circa 1983/1984, and Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is a 20-ish film school student deep in pre-production (the phase when your film has its best chance of being a masterpiece – before you actually start shooting) on her first feature. While polishing (and polishing and polishing) her script, she meets Anthony (Tom Burke), an apparently suave and wealthy Foreign Office functionary, and they fall in love.

Writer/director Hogg displays virtually no interest in exposition or set up of any kind. The instant Anthony is introduced, it feels as if he's always been there; perhaps because he so quickly becomes an important presence in Julie's life. Their relationship unfolds across discrete spots of time, the narrative leaping forward from one vignette to the next. Julie and Anthony have just met, and one cut later they're together. In the next scene they've been a couple for months, later they've clearly just had an argument, they've broken up, then reunited, etc. Hogg's confidence in her ability to convey a wealth of information with a few brushstrokes extends to her audience, who she trusts to do the work necessary to catch up and fill in the gaps. A bold bet to make, but also an efficient way of self-selecting the right audience for your work.

Much of the negative feedback stems from viewers who claim they don't understand what Julie finds so appealing about Anthony who, as it turns out, is hiding a secret that has the potential to destroy both of them. This complaint misses what's so powerful about the film's propulsive style. Every moment of the film is so immediate, so constantly now, that you simply accept what is happening as axiomatic. To ask why Julie loves Anthony makes as much sense as asking why it's raining now. It just is.

“The Souvenir” reminds me in a tangential way of Terrence Malick's shamefully underrated “To The Wonder” (2012) which also careened from highlight to lowlight to highlight in a tempestuous relationship. But where Malick was conducting a symphony, Hogg operates in a much less flashy idiom. Not prosaic, that's not right. I'm struggling for the proper description. More rooted? More improvisatory than carefully orchestrated? No, that makes it seem like she's not meticulously planning and in total control, which she certainly is. I dunno, give me more time to think about it. But Hogg speaks with a unique voice, and a style that is distinctive without ostentation.

Honor Swinton Byrne is great, turning in the best performance I've seen so far this year, though I admit I haven't seen many new releases so far. She plays meek and naïve and self-doubting without ever coming off as weak or straining viewer sympathy in the process. She's the daughter of Tilda Swinton, who also plays her mother in the film, so I suppose it shouldn't be a shock that she's so accomplished in her first lead role, also just her second official film credit according to IMDB. But she sure is fantastic.