Monday, June 22, 2020

Shirin


SHIRIN (Kiarostami, 2008)
Cinema Guild, DVD, Release Date Aug 24, 2010
Review by Christopher S. Long

(NOTE: Abbas Kiarostami, who died in 2016, would have turned 80 today. Here's a repost of my review of one of his lesser-known films, though certainly not one of his lesser films. And feel free to click on the 'Kiarostami' tag at the end of this post for links to several other films by this modern master.)

Abbas Kiarostami´s "Shirin" (2008) is the very model of simplicity, constructed entirely (aside from the opening and end credits) of a series of close-up shots of women in a theater watching a film. Well, not exactly. The actresses were actually filmed in small groups while sitting in Kiarostami´s living room, and they weren´t really watching a movie. In fact the movie doesn´t exist at all except as an audio track which was recorded after the actresses´ performances were filmed. So scratch that simplicity business. Chalk "Shirin" up as another of Kiarostami´s deceptively complicated, multi-layered meditations on life, the cinema and everything. We shouldn´t expect anything else from the director of “Close-up” (1990) and "A Taste of Cherry" (1997).

On the surface there seems to be something perverse about Kiarostami´s decision to work with a cast full of professional actors for the first time, and then to plop each of them in a living room chair and have them "simply" (that word again!) stare ahead as if watching a movie. Yet as revealed in the wonderful making-of documentary ("A Taste of Shirin") included on this DVD, these big-name stars of Iranian cinema (plus Juliette Binoche, perhaps prepping for her role in Kiarostami´s "Certified Copy") are not only acting, but pushing their craft into previously unexplored territory. As Kiarostami says to one of his performers: "You are now the spectator of movies you have been playing for years." This is surely a role none of them expected to be playing on screen, and the director doesn´t make it easy, paradoxically micromanaging them ("move your chin up") then asking them to create their own inner movie and express any resulting emotions with their eyes.

Cinema Guild has included two other Kiarostami short films on this disc which share the same formal concerns as the main feature, namely the intent study of images we rarely, if ever, get to scrutinize on film. In "Roads of Kiarostami" (2006), the director films not just roads but primarily his own photographs of roads winding through the countryside. We have seen images like this before even in Kiarostami´s own work (the winding road up the hillside in the 1987 "Where Is The Friend´s House?" being a standout) but the close "aerial" study of these two-dimensional photographs provides a unique perspective on these sinuous forms, appreciated for their formal beauty rather than their more pragmatic function. In "Rug" (2006), Kiarostami travels the "roads" of a Persian rug, the camera tracking its intricately woven patterns first in a counter-clockwise circle (or square, following its shape) then panning up and down before zooming out for a broader view. 


In "Shirin" he studies the roadmap of the face, faces of women both younger and older, faces framed by head scarves that are limned by the flickering light of the faux movie screen. For me, one of the greatest pleasures in cinema is watching people while they are watching or listening to something off-screen; absorbing, learning, thinking. Godard´s cinema is replete with such instances, the most famous being Anna Karina watching "The Passion of Joan of Arc" in "Vivre Sa Vie." The inherent creepiness of watching Danny watching a Roadrunner cartoon in "The Shining" also springs to mind. Kiarostami´s film takes this aesthetic to a whole different level.

The faces in "Shirin" tell a gradually unfolding story that relates to the story being told off-screen. Kiarostami´s audio movie is based on the medieval poem "Khosrow and Shirin" by Nizami Ganjavi, a tragic love story (the only kind) about a woman (Shirin) pursued by a king and an artist. What we hear suggests that this is a purely commercial melodrama which explains why it´s playing in a public theater rather than to a festival crowd like most of Kiarostami´s work. At first, the women´s faces are either impassive or pensive as they reserve judgment about the film, but they turn more expressive, tears eventually flowing as they are seduced by its pathos. Not that any of them were watching a film, of course. When an actress appears to be jolted by a sudden event on screen, she was actually startled by the director dropping a pan. Any trick to get an "authentic" reaction.

Perhaps Kiarostami is contemplating the relationship of his own contemplative, occasionally abstract work to the seductive power of narrative cinema. I'm not ready to venture into that interpretive mine field just yet. What I´m left with instead is the surface level, memories of a series of women´s faces looking ever so slightly off-screen (I don´t recall anyone´s gaze meeting the camera) giving us the opportunity to observe them as they observe a non-existent film. How beautiful. How fascinating. And, in the end, yes, how simple this film´s charms. 


Video:
The film is presented in a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer from Cinema Guild. The widescreen image is windowboxed for some reason, but otherwise I have no complaints. It´s tempting to carp a bit about how dark some of the images look, but this was meant to look like it was shot in a theater so obviously there are times that faces are going to disappear somewhat into the shadows. The flickering light sometimes shows up as looking a little blotchy on the ´theater seats" in the film, but this is a solid transfer all around.

Audio:
The film is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. If there is anything I was somewhat off put by, it´s that the film (dialogue and FX) we hear off-screen sounds more like a live radio play than a movie heard in a theater. When you see how the audio was recorded, it´s obvious why this is the case, so I think the sound is well replicated on this mix. English subtitles are provided to support the Farsi audio.

Extras:
With its simple black cover and stripped-down menus, this DVD initially appears to be a no-frills release, but the extras included by Cinema Guild are superb.

First up is the excellent "making of" documentary "Taste of Shirin" (2008, 27 min.) by Hamideh Razavi. As much as any "making of" featurette I can recall, this fits hand in glove with the main feature and can significantly transform your viewing experience. It shows Kiarostami at work with his actresses both in front of the camera and later in the audio booth.

What a treat for Kiarostami buffs to now have two of his recent short films available in Region 1.

"Roads of Kiarostami" (2005, 32 min.) is a natural development in the director´s lifelong passion for filming long, zigzagging roads. In this short, he shoots some moving images of roads, but mostly focuses on photographs (that I assume are his own) of roads, combined with a contemplative voice-over. There is also a brief video passage of Kiarostami on the road trying to capture some images.

"Rug" (2006, 6 min.) is a close-up study of the surface of a Persian carpet accompanied by audio of a man and women reciting poetry. It is quite lovely.

The extras are important simply for making Kiarostami´s short films available on DVD, but they also happen to fit seamlessly together. As mentioned above, all three Kiarostami films (the shorts and "Shirin") show the director´s interest in focusing on images seldom privileged on screen. As a group, these films offer a great perspective on the last five years of this Kiarostami´s thematic and formal concerns.

The slim insert booklet features an insightful two page essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum, one of America´s most eloquent and passionate critical champion of Abbas Kiarostami´s cinema.

Final Thoughts:
"Shirin" may be Kiarostami´s most experimental feature to date, but it´s as accessible as any of his films. Bolstered by the well-chosen extras, "Shirin" is yet another great release by Cinema Guild, and strongly recommended.

Friday, June 12, 2020

No No: A Dockumentary


NO NO: A DOCKUMENTARY (Radice, 2014)
Theatrical Release
Review by Christopher S. Long

(Today marks the 50th anniversary of one of baseball's most-celebrated no-hitters. Why does anyone still care about an early-June game between the Pirates and the woeful Padres? Read on and find out.)

Dock Ellis won 138 games in the major leagues, started an all-star game, and earned a World Series ring. But Dock Ellis will forever be known for pitching a no-hitter while (allegedly) tripping on LSD. As Ellis told and re-told the much-loved story, he couldn't even see the batters and just pitched to the reflective tape catcher Jerry May wore on his fingers. “High as a Georgia pine,” he walked eight and hit a batter. Trust Dock Ellis to pitch a no-hitter in his own style.


While “No No: A Dockumentary” (2014) shows us there is much more to Dock Ellis than just his June 12, 1970 gem against the Padres (yes, no-hitters pitched against the Padres still count officially) it still takes this cherished legend as its primary inspiration. It was neither the first nor the last time Dock (his given name, by the way) took the mound while under the influence of illegal substances.

Ellis's career (1968-1979) was a constant binge of LSD, vodka, and especially greenies, the amphetamines in widespread use in major-league baseball during the '60s and '70s. Ellis claims he would grab a fistful of pills from a bowl in the clubhouse, toss them in the air and take the ones that landed standing up... and then take the rest as needed. He enjoyed the night life too and was fortunate to find the perfect home with the party-animal Pirates headlined by Willie Stargell and Ellis's roommate and mentor Roberto Clemente. Fans of the team will enjoy the numerous interviews with Bucco stalwarts like Al Oliver (one of Dock's closest friends), Manny Sanguillen, Bruce Kison, and others.

First-time feature documentary director Jeff Radice plays the drug angle for the combination of awe and stoner humor that has usually accompanied the legend of Dock Ellis, but it's only fun and games until somebody gets hurt. The laughs stop quickly when we learn that Ellis choked his first wife Paula (she ditched him immediately) and later threatened to shoot his second wife, Austine, during a night-long ordeal as he raged after being released by the Pirates. According to the movie, Ellis took the second incident as a wake-up call, checked himself into rehab, and embarked on an unlikely post-playing career as an advocate for substance abuse treatment for professional athletes and a drug counselor in prisons.

Whether you buy the final act redemption story as neatly as presented here or not, Ellis emerges from the movie as a complex and thoughtful character. He loved to say and do outrageous things, but seldom did so without a calculated purpose. If there's a common thread to the controversies this self-described “angry black man” generated on a regular basis (I'll leave you to discover them in the movie in case you don't already know) it's that he didn't want anybody telling him what to do; not fans, not the press, and certainly not his employers. Ellis's defiant message to his teams was to watch how he played on the field and not to worry about anything else. 


The documentary also suggests a sensitive, almost artistic side to Ellis. One of the stranger aspects about one of baseball's strangest careers is that Dock's biography would be written by future poet laureate Donald Hall who spotted something unique in the outspoken pitcher. He wasn't the only one. Jackie Robinson was inspired to write Ellis an appreciative letter in which he cheered him for standing up for his values. Dock tries to read the text of the letter, but can't make it to the end as he breaks up in tears.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Losing Ground


LOSING GROUND (Collins, 1982)
Milestone Films, Blu-ray, Release Date April 5, 2016
Review by Christopher S. Long

(UPDATE 6/6/2020: The Criterion Channel has made several films by black filmmakers, along with a few other titles, available to stream for free. If you're looking for a place to start, I recommend "Losing Ground", available at the following link. Tip: The movie might not play on Chrome, but should work on Safari and Firefox and other browsers. I don't know how long it will be available for free, so don't let the opportunity slip by.) 

Though the centerpiece of Kathleen Collins's “Losing Ground” (1982) is the fraught relationship between a wife and her husband, the scene that has stuck with me the most is the one where an aspiring student filmmaker named George (Gary Bollins) shouts directions to his camera operator. A nice, slow tilt, then a diagonal pan, now dolly back to a wide... “Did you catch that subtle mise-en-scene, mi amigo?”

Aside from the nifty feat of combining three languages in eight words, writer/director/producer Collins displays a wry sense of humor about the filmmaking process – the vanity, the insecurity, and the sheer pleasure of making decisions on set, absurdity and ambition shouldering each other aside. “Losing Ground” is one of the first feature films directed by an African-American woman and Collins had to work hard to get it made, but it sure seems like she had fun in the process.


Fun is a challenge for Sara (Seret Scott), a terminally serious philosophy professor loosely inspired by Collins's experience as a film history and screenwriting teacher at City College of New York. Sara is perfectly comfortable lecturing on Sartre and Camus, but when she decides she needs to learn more about “ecstatic experiences” she follows the only route to wisdom she knows: a visit to the library to research it, like the Simpsons' “Itchy and Scratchy” staffer who wrote his “thesis on life experience.”

Her free-spirited artist husband Victor (Bill Gunn, the filmmaker of “Ganja and Hess” fame) would be the perfect counterbalance for her if only he could actually acknowledge anyone's experience (ecstatic or otherwise) other than his own. Victor has his moments of gentle humor, celebrating a museum sale by stating, “I'm a genuine success... a genuine, black success,” but his incurable narcissism imperils their relationship. For him, inspiration trumps reason, and he lets Sara know it: “What's the matter? Hegel and the boys let you down?”

Professor Sara looks so tiny as she sits in her massive chair in her similarly massive office (Collins has a thing for interiors with high ceilings), but she asserts her presence with greater authority, in fits and starts, as the story unfolds. Victor drags her along to a retreat in upstate New York, but when said retreat turns out to be another excuse for Victor to fool around with one of his artistic “subjects” (Maritza Rivera) Sara drops her books on Gnosticism and pursues her research on ecstasy by agreeing to act in George's film, a decision which thrills the budding auteur, one of many students besotted by Sara.


This serves the dual function of infuriating Victor (he's the only one allowed to pursue his muse) and introducing her to the mysterious Duke, who is just cool enough to wear a cape and hat without seeming like a hipster poser. Duke is played by the great Duane Jones, perhaps best known as the star of George Romero's genre-defining “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) and he steals most of his scenes. Director George (the student, not Romero) provides another laugh line when he shouts to his stars in the middle of a long take, “Sorry I didn't prepare you for this, but could you kiss? Really kiss?”

They do, and it's a crucial step in Sara's empowerment, enabling her to stand up to Victor when he makes a fool of himself at a party, and paving the road to an ending that I'll admit to feeling ambivalent about. Let me watch it again and maybe I'll have a better take.

Kathleen Collins


“Losing Ground” screened just one time in New York and barely received any press coverage, though it would accrue a growing army of admirers at college screenings and other specialty venues and the occasional TV or cable broadcast. Collins continued teaching, but never directed another film. Shortly before production on “Losing Ground” she discovered she had breast cancer, and died from it in 1988 at the age of 46.

Though her film never received anything resembling a proper release, “Losing Ground” touched many viewers deeply, and neither Collins nor her film would be forgotten. When Duart Labs begin divesting itself of its film inventory about ten years ago, Collins's daughter Nina rescued the negatives and set out on a path that eventually brought her to the right place, Milestone Films. And now Milestone has helped to bring “Losing Ground” to more viewers than ever in this magnificent and comprehensive two-volume Blu-ray release.


 Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. This high-def restoration shows a few minor flecks, mostly visible during the title sequences, but the overall quality is excellent with a thick grain structure visible throughout. Another knockout effort from Milestone.

Audio:
The lossless audio sounds crisp and clear throughout. There are moments when the dialogue sounds a bit hollow, but I suspect that's from the original audio source, perhaps from some dubbing. No problems worth noting here. Optional English subtitles support the audio.

Extras:
Reviewing a Milestone release is invariably a pleasure; it is also a commitment to a full 40-hour work week. They have been typically exhaustive in loading this 2-disc Blu-ray release with extras.

Disc One includes the film and a Theatrical Trailer. The film is accompanied by a commentary track by Lamonda Horton-Stallings, a professor of women's studies and literature at the University of Maryland College Park, and Terri Francis, a film scholar at Indiana University. They speak about their experiences first discovering Collins's film while also providing scene-by-scene analysis. They strike a great balance in providing expert insight and expressing their personal enthusiasm for the film and for Collins.

Disc Two, as is standard for most Milestone multi-disc products, could easily be its own stand-alone release.


“The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy” (1980, 49 min.) is Kathleen Collins's first directorial effort, working in collaboration with cinematographer Ronald K. Gray, also a crucial creative partner and cinematographer on “Losing Ground.” Collins was eager to parlay her experience in film editing, teaching, and writing into a directorial gig, but decided it would be better in her first turn behind the camera to adapt someone else's writing instead of her own. So she worked loosely from “The Cruz Chronicles” by Henry H. Roth, also co-adapting the script with Roth and Jo Tavener. I was wowed by the opening passages of this lyrical film imbued with a touch of magical realism. The oldest of the three Puerto Rican Cruz brothers, Victor (Randy Ruiz), is also the only one who can speak to his Poppa, who has long since passed on but still drops by to offer advice as a free-floating spirit represented POV-style with a similarly free-floating camera and voice-over by Ernesto Gonzalez.

Collins and Gray capture some elegant imagery of Victor, Jose (Lionel Pina), and Felipe (Jose Machado) palling around during mostly structureless days, playing along a bridge or shooting hoops. I found the film somewhat less compelling once Miss Malloy (Sylvia Field, formerly Mrs. Wilson of Dennis the Menace) enters the picture, hiring the brothers to rehabilitate her crumbling estate so she can hold one more ball before she dies, shades of Satyajit Ray's “The Music Room” perhaps. Field can be over the top and a bit stilted at times, delivering random lines like, “I'm looking for my life. Where is it?” I wasn't so crazy about the ending either. However, there are warm, vibrant moments and a good dose of humor, especially in poor Felipe's constant urge to quit and run away whenever things at Miss Malloy's house turn a bit too creepy... or if his ginger ale has too much ice.

“Cruz Brothers” is also accompanied by a commentary track, though not the typical one. This is actually an audio recording from a 1980 public screening and Q&A session in which Collins discusses the limited production (here she says it was made for $7,000, though $5,000 is the figure mentioned elsewhere) as well as her appreciation of directors like Eric Rohmer and her fondness for long takes and films that don't guide audience reactions too heavily. Author Henry H. Roth also chimes in around the 35-minute mark. The audio ends about five minutes before the film does.

“Transmagnifican Dambamuality” (1976, 7 min.) is a short film directed and shot by Ronald K. Gray. He describes this “Quiet, Domestic Drama” as a remembrance of his family life, especially his younger brother. It concerns a typical family going through their morning rituals, with mom alternately being exasperated with her son for wasting his time in his room to beaming proudly at him when he plays the piano beautifully. The film's defining feature is a comedic soundtrack with overwrought effects (a knife on a cutting board produces concussive explosions) that turns touchingly realistic at the end. I liked it a lot.

Of course, we haven't even gotten to the interviews yet. Milestone's first interview is a new one with Ronald K. Gray (46 min.) that covers just about all the bases, from Gray's early life and education to first meeting Kathleen Collins at City College of New York to their professional collaboration. Like all of the interview subjects, he expresses his astonishment at learning about Collins's cancer as she kept it a closely-guarded secret.

Another similarly expansive interview (40 min.) with the apparently ageless lead actress Seret Scott follows. She met Collins through a mutual friend, actor Gilbert Moses, and through their civil rights activism with SNCC. She quickly came to consider Collins both a mentor and a close friend, and notes that Collins almost always wrote a part with Scott in mind in each of her plays. She doesn't mention “Losing Ground” until past the halfway mark of the interview, but has plenty to say, especially about her co-stars about whom she speaks glowingly.

Nina Lorez Collins, Kathleen's daughter, also talks (26 min.) about life with mom and her memories of the various films; often cast and crew would not just be co-workers, but would be living in the Collins household during the shoots.

Fortunately, Milestone was able to dig up a video interview with Collins, conducted by Phyllis B. Klatman as part of a college-based interview program, and provided here courtesy of Indiana University Black Film Archive. This 23-minute interview gives Collins plenty of time to talk about her early career, including making a living as a film editor before becoming a teacher, as well as her teaching philosophy which includes familiarizing students with the earliest films so they can build from the ground up.

But aside from all that, there's really not much on the disc.

Final Thoughts:
“Losing Ground” offers so many other small pleasures I didn't even get to: the unabashedly intellectual exchanges that leap from French existentialism to early Christian mysticism, the student whose ill-considered idea of a great pick-up line is to brag about reading “that book on Genet,” and the wonderful performance of Billie Allen as Sara's mother. Thanks to this splendid and comprehensive release from Milestone, you now have the chance to discover them all and, most importantly, to discover (or re-discover) the work of Kathleen Collins.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Leave Her To Heaven


LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (Stahl, 1945)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Mar 24, 2020
Review by Christopher S. Long

The genres of melodrama and noir share only a short border, but both intersect in the enigmatic and magnetic blue-green eyes of actress Gene Tierney, star of director John M. Stahl's “Leave Her To Heaven” (1945).

Ellen Berent (Tierney) and Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) size each other up on a train. Richard coyly steals glances while Ellen gazes with increasing boldness and evident hunger. The meet-cute turns meet-sinister when Ellen explains the fascination this stranger on a train holds for her: “You look so much like my father.” Yikes!

Perhaps a bright, successful novelist like Richard should take this was a warning to switch cars while he still can, but the problem is that Ellen looks so much like Gene Tierney. He was doomed the instant he spiraled into the gravity well of those inescapable eyes. Next thing Richard knows, they're married, even if he can't quite remember the proposal. Ellen has a way of getting what she wants, and she wants Richard. All to herself.

Stahl makes Tierney's uncanny beauty the centerpiece of the film, and not just by asking screenwriter Jo Swerling (adapting the best-selling novel by Ben Ames Williams) to devise excuses for the actress to slip into a diverse array of sweaters, bathing suits, and nightgowns. Tierney's flawless face matches the flawless d├ęcor of the palatial Berent estate, and her ruby-red lipstick, positively bleeding in lush Technicolor, shines as luminously as the sun that glistens off the pools and lakes featured in the film.

To the degree that “Leave Her To Heaven” qualifies as a noir, it is the rare noir that doesn't rely heavily on shadows and murky spaces. The lustrous colors and the sheer brightness of the set design threaten to envelop Richard as surely as the gloomiest of noir alleyways, and so does the ugliness lurking just beneath his perfect housewife's perfect visage. She won't let anything get in the way of their wedded bliss, not her family, not their baby, not even Richard's polio-stricken little brother (Darryl Hickman). Richard is warned that “Ellen always wins” but fortunately he's not in a full-fledged noir, so fate still permits him a potential escape route, primarily in the form of Ellen's true-hearted cousin Ruth (Jeanne Crain).

Ellen's beauty blinds Richard to her flaws and Tierney's beauty can blind viewers to the quality of her performance. She renders Ellen both as supremely domineering and also vulnerable as a woman who only “loves too much”, at least according to her mother (Mary Philips). And though Tierney relishes in some of the overwrought flourishes of the traditional melodrama (a spiteful trip down a flight of stairs among them) she creates one of the most soul-chilling scenes of 1940's Hollywood simply by sitting still and staring passively through a pair of dark sunglasses.

“Leave Her To Heaven” ends on its weakest note with an extended and tedious courtroom scene which at least gives Vincent Price something to do after only the briefest of cameos earlier on. But Tierney's performance is indelible and cinematographer Leon Shamroy, who netted the film's sole Oscar win, deftly paints peril into every frame of this glowing Technicolor dreamland turned nightmare. 


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. From Criterion: “This 2K digital restoration was undertaken by Twentieth Century Fox and the Academy Film Archive, with support from The Film Foundation. A new digital transfer was created from a 35 mm color reversal internegative. A 35 mm nitrate Technicolor print was used as a reference for picture restoration.”

Without the original Technicolor footage, we can't be certain how precisely the colors match the original release, but with the reference print, this 1080 restoration provides a robust, bright image bursting with color. I couldn't spot any obvious flaws in the presentation.

Audio:
The LPCM mono track is cleanly mixed with no evident dropoffs. The swelling original score by Alfred Newman is well-preserved. Optional English subtitles support the English dialogue.

Extras:
Criterion has gone light with the features this time, including only a Trailer (2 min.) and a new interview (26 min.) with critic Imogen Sara Smith, the author of “In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond The City.” Smith touches on the mysterious early life of director John M. Stahl, who long claimed to be born in New York but was, in fact, born in Azerbaijan. She also provides some visual analysis of a few scenes in the film.

The slim fold-out booklet features an incisive essay by novelist Megan Abbott.

Final Thoughts:
Gene Tierney was at her career peak, following up “Laura” (1944) with a role of a lifetime as Ellen in this film. Criterion offers little in the way of extras this time, though the interview with Smith is very strong, but this is a solid high-definition presentation of this strange melodrama-noir.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Destry Rides Again


DESTRY RIDES AGAIN (Marshall, 1939)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date April 14, 2020
Review by Christopher S. Long

“Destry Rides Again” (1939) is a Western starring James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich. If you're already thinking “That's all I need to know!” I'm not here to tell you you're wrong. But feel free to read on anyway.

Deputy sheriff Thomas Jefferson Destry Jr. (James Stewart) doesn't ride into the frontier town of Bottleneck until the start of the film's second act, but he quickly establishes his unique brand of machismo. When local saloon owner/bad guy Kent (Brian Donlevy) demands to confiscate the new lawman's guns, the soft-spoken Destry assures him that's not going to happen. As Kent prepares to draw, Destry quenches the smoldering spark of violence by adding that he simply means he doesn't carry any guns at all. He doesn't believe in them.

The saloon crowd jeers, mocking the outsider as a wimp. But Destry's true grit stems from his unshakable faith in his own code of honor. He knows he's right and he cares so little for what the unwashed mob thinks of him that he'll happily brandish a lady's parasol or wield a mop and bucket without feeling the least bit diminished or unmanly.

It's a role so tailor-made for Stewart – the aw-shucks master of rugged humility – that it's hard to imagine anyone else playing it. Yet Universal executives were skeptical that the gangly, drawling actor who'd only recently broken out as a star in Frank Capra's comedy “You Can't Take It With You” (1938) could headline in a virile genre like the Western. Stewart worked out just fine as a cowboy hero, thank you very much ma'am, though it would somehow take another decade before he'd strap on his spurs again in Anthony Mann's magnificent “Winchester '73” (1950).

Producer Joe Pasternak caused studio execs even more sleepless nights when he also pursued German siren Marlene Dietrich for the role of dance-hall singer Frenchy. Not only did it seem absurd to cast the thickly-accented actress in the most quintessentially American milieu, but Dietrich had proven to be box-office poison in recent years, all but abandoning Hollywood to return to Europe.

The unforgettable role of Frenchy represented both a triumphant comeback and a major transformation for Dietrich, her icy glamor melting into an earthy accessibility. Frenchy could belt out a mean tune (“See What The Boys In The Back Room Will Have,” soon to become a staple in Dietrich's repertoire), deftly cheat a man at poker, and claw her way through a prolonged catfight with a vengeful wife (Una Merkel). Frenchy, of course, eventually falls for the deceptive charms of the not-so-meek Destry, a man like no other in town. Stewart and Dietrich also conducted their own affair off-screen.

Universal had already shot a fairly straightforward adaptation of Max Brand's novel “Destry Rides Again” in 1932, with Tom Mix as the righteous hero. For this 1939 version, director George Marshall would shoot from a radically revised script (credited only as “Suggested by” Brand's book) which approached the material with more of a satirical eye. I'm not certain, however, that “Destry” can really best be described (as it usually is) as a comedic Western.

This “Destry” does offer its share of comic-relief characters such as the drunk-turned-sheriff (Charles Winninger) and the henpecked Russian husband (Mischa Auer), but is still composed primarily of standard Western elements. Kent is a cowardly, treacherous villain who all but twirls his mustache; some characters the audience cares for will be gunned down; and the pacifist Destry inevitably turns out to be a crack shot who may have to break his code to enact justice. The unexpected ending (which I won't spoil here) does represent a major departure from formula, but seems too radical to pigeonhole as comedy. Perhaps the film's enduring appeal rests in its ability to function simultaneously both as a revisionist comedy and as an exemplar of the classic genre with a unique and unforgettable hero.

In summary, “Destry Rides Again” is a Western starring James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich. Which is really all you need to know.


Video:
The film is presented in a slightly odd 1.35:1 aspect ratio, not that you'd notice the difference from a typical 1.33:1 if the Criterion booklet didn't list the specifics. Also from Criterion: “This new 4K digital restoration was undertaken by Universal Pictures in collaboration with The Film Foundation, with special consultation by filmmakers Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. A new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution from a 35 mm nitrate composite fine-grain and a 35 mm safety composite fine-grain.”

The high-def transfer provides sharp black-and-white contrast and a rich grainy look. I can't judge whether it looks as fresh as it did when it debuted in theaters in late December 1939, but this 80+ year-old film sure looks spiffy in this newly-restored 1080p transfer.

Audio:
The LPCM mono audio mix is both clear and appropriately flat. The audio design isn't terribly complex, but the mix does a fine job presenting both the Frederick Hollander composed tunes (lyrics by Frank Loesser) and the film score by Frank Skinner. Optional English SDH subtitles support the English audio.

Extras:
Criterion kicks off the collection of extras with an interview with film critic Imogen Sara Smith (2020, 17 min.) Smith discusses situates the film within the context of Stewart and Dietrich's career. This is one of the very few critic interviews I've ever seen in which the film's director isn't even discussed, perhaps a sign that while George Marshall has always been respected as a competent professional and jack-of-all-trades, he was never identified with a single genre or noted as a visual stylist. I note that I did nothing more than mention his name once in my review above. No insult intended, Mr. Marshall!

The disc also includes an interview with Donald Dewey, author of “James Stewart: A Biography.” Obviously, he provides more analysis of the role the film played in Stewart's career. Stewart was just emerging as a star, but wasn't quite yet a top-line household name. He had just filmed “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” but it wouldn't be released until production on “Destry” wrapped.

Criterion also offers a 19-minute audio interview with director George Marshall. This was recorded in 1973 at AFI and mostly covers Marshall's reminiscences about his silent film career.

Finally, we get a recording (54 min.) of the “Lux Radio Theatre” broadcast of “Destry Rides Again.” Broadcast on Nov 5, 1945, this truncated version stars Stewart with Joan Blondell as Frenchy.

The slim fold-out booklet includes a typically insightful and comprehensive essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme.

Final Thoughts:
I repeat: James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich in a Western. With a strong high-def transfer and a solid offering of extra features from Criterion. What more do you need to know?

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Three Fantastic Journeys by Karel Zeman

Invention for Destruction

THREE FANTASTIC JOURNEYS BY KAREL ZEMAN (1955-1962)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Feb 25, 2020
Review by Christopher S. Long

In the animated worlds of Czech filmmaker Karel Zeman, submarine-based pirates ride bicycles underwater, church bells chime like piano keys, and a knight's armor can transform in a twinkling into an astronaut's spacesuit complete with jetpack. Being swallowed whole by a giant whale merely provides the opportunity to meet new friends already inside. Zeman's vision captures the wide-eyed wonder of childhood imagination where all possibilities are treated as both equally plausible and as equal sources of awe and delight.

Zeman may not be a familiar name to you, but he remains a legend in the world of animation and fantasy, still revered today more than thirty years after his death in 1989. Terry Gilliam cites him as a major influence, and not just because they both made films about Baron Munchausen. Koji Yamamura, Tim Burton – the list of Zeman fans is long, yet nobody has ever made a film quite like the works of this pioneer and genuine original.

Zeman, who began directing animated shorts in the 1940s, combined live action with an array of animation/illustration techniques ranging from matte painting to stop-motion, paper cutouts, and a host of other devices. Action is often depicted on multiple planes with real actors in the foreground looking at hand-drawn vistas in the background, and then stepping right into them, new details being revealed the closer we get.

The director's earliest love was puppets and he uses them liberally in his work, both shot as full-scale models and as animated miniatures. This is showcased to great effect in the first film in this Criterion set, “Journey to the Beginning of Time” (1955), in which a group of adventurous boys encounter wooly mammoths, giant rocs, and even witness a groovy stegosaurus battle.

Perhaps the Zeman aesthetic could be summed up as proto-steampunk by way of Jules Verne (Verne's stories provided the loose inspiration for each of the three features in this set), a paradoxically cutting-edge retro style which tweaks antiquated technology into marvels of futuristic engineering. Pedal-powered dirigibles! But his willingness to incorporate a wide variety of effects in many shifting combination makes him difficult to pigeonhole, though I think it's fair to describe the feel of every frame of Zeman's animations as meticulously and lovingly hand-crafted.

The films in this set emphasize the creation of fantastical worlds populated with nifty gadgets and transportation devices, maritime vessels and flying-machines of all stripes. The story-telling is simplistic by design – gosh-wow adventure is the currency of Zeman's realm - and characterization definitely takes a back seat to the design.

The boys in “Journey to the Beginning of Time” (the only film in the set heavier on live action than animation) exist only as stand-ins for dinosaur-loving kids everywhere, gaping at the brontosaurus foraging in the forest and the pterodactyls swooping overhead as their boat drifts placidly along the river that carries them back through the prehistoric eras. Even the colorful title character of “The Fabulous Baron Munchausen” (1962) is little more than a blowhard fabulist with a cool beard, but this isn't a shortcoming. What character could compete with the spectacle of the caldera of an extinct volcano that serves as the hideout for the pirate villains in “Invention For Destruction” (1958)? The smoke coming from the volcano actually belches from the factories hidden inside! Now that's cool.

Sound plays a crucial role in Zeman's work too, which I guess is an obvious statement to make about most animation. The music of composer Zdenek Liska is often foregrounded in both “Invention” and “Munchausen” with the swordfights and horseback chases assuming a symphonic quality.

Zeman was no fringe figure beloved only by cultists. “Invention For Destruction” not only won attention on the festival circuit, it played internationally (opening in English-language markets as “The Fabulous World of Jules Verne”) and, by some counts, remains the top-grossing Czech film of all-time. “Baron Munchausen” was also a hit. Remaining largely apolitical, Zeman was able to continue working through multiple regime changes in Czechoslovakia, though his output would be severely curtailed after the crackdown following the Prague Spring in 1968, also coinciding with a time when he felt new developments in special effects rendered some of his own techniques less potent.

“Journey” is pitched primarily at kids, with their down-river trip through time functioning like a museum tour, with educational interludes along the way. “Invention” and “Munchausen” appeal to kids of all ages, and their elaborate animated worlds continue to amaze more than half a century later. Could any rational person argue that the average CGI-laden blockbuster today can compete with these hand-crafted marvels?


Video:
All three features in the set are presented in their original 1.37:1 aspect ratios.

The Karel Zeman Museum was founded in Prague in 2012, and has worked in cooperation with the Czech Film Foundation to digitally restore many of Zeman's films. The 4K restorations were created from the original 35 mm negatives, though a duplicate positive of “Journey to the Beginning of Time” was used to replace some damaged scenes.

The high-def transfers are strong throughout, even preserving the fine hatchwork that marks many scenes in “Invention” and “Munchausen.”

Audio:
The LPCM mono audio mix sounds surprisingly robust for non-stereo audio. Composer Zdenek Liska's music really sounds great in the final two films. Optional English subtitles support the Czech audio.

Extras:
Criterion has provided an affectionate tribute to Zeman's work with this three-film box set, beginning with the unique design of the case for the film. Inside a typical cardboard outer-casing, the three discs in this set are tucked into an interior case which opens out with 3-D pop-up art, featuring mammoths and hot-air balloons and cannons. Be careful when you open it, you'll want to preserve this one.

Each of the three feature films in the set is housed on a separate Blu-ray disc, each of which has its own selection of features.

Sprinkled across all three discs are a series of short Museum Documentaries (most ranging from 2-6 minutes), all produced by the Karel Zeman Museum. They're all short informational features, some about the filmmaker, some about the making of each film, or the effects, the restoration, etc. There are 4-6 Museum Documentaries on each of the three discs.

The “Journey To The Beginning Of Time” disc also includes the 1960 U.S. release of the film, in which the four Czech boys are converted into Americans by way of a newly-short framing device set in New York and the dubious miracle of dubbing. The body of the film remains mostly intact, save for the dubbing. The disc also includes a Trailer (2 min.) and an interview (12 min.) with animation filmmaker John Stevenson.

On the “Invention For Destruction” disc, we get an Alternate Opening for the U.S. release which features... Hugh Downs (huh?) lecturing on Jules Verne and speaking of the wonders of “Mystimation” viewers are about to see. The disc also offers “Making Magic” (23 min.), a 2019 interview with special-effects artists Phil Tippett and Jim Aupperle. I enjoyed this interview, though it feels like half of it consists mostly of them gushing about Zeman and only getting to the analysis of his techniques at the end. We also get a Trailer (1 min.)

The “Invention” disc also provides four short animated films by Zeman: “A Christmas Dream” (1945, 11 min.), “A Horseshoe For Luck” (1946, 4 min.), “Inspiration” (1947, 11 min.), and “King Lavra” (1950, 30 min.) They're all lovely, but “Inspiration” is the real standout. Dedicated to Czech glassmakers, it takes on the challenge of animating glass figurines, all presented as microbial life in a droplet of rainwater. It's just gorgeous.

The disc for “The Fabulous Baron Munchausen” provides the heftiest extra in the set, the 101-minute documentary “Film Adventurer Karel Zeman” (2015). Including interviews with the filmmaker's daughter Lyudmilla Zeman, filmmakers Terry Gilliam, Koji Yamamura, and others, it covers the director's career from his days in advertising to his more challenging final years. The disc also includes a Trailer (2 min.) and a brief promo for the Karel Zeman Museum (1 min.)

The slim fold-out booklet features an essay by critic Michael Atkinson.

Final Thoughts:
The most playful and inventive of Karel Zeman's films play out like the kind of dreams you used to have with your eyes wide open. Maybe you still have those dreams. Zeman held on to them for most of his career and realized them in a groundbreaking style that has influenced many. Criterion's set includes three of Zeman's best-loved feature films, several shorts, and a host of extras, all wrapped up in a slick design with pop-up art. This is a must-own for any animation fan.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Teorema


TEOREMA (Pasolini, 1968)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Feb 18, 2020
Review by Christopher S. Long

As in many of the greatest works of speculative fiction such as “Jeffty Is Five,” “The Exterminating Angel,” and “Groundhog Day,” the uncanny premise of Pier Paolo Pasoilin's “Teorema” (“Theorem”, 1968) is neither explained nor justified in any logical fashion. It's just assumed to be a reality in the story.

A telegram is delivered to the patriarch (Massimo Girotti) of an upper-class family in Milan announcing “Arriving Tomorrow”, and so The Guest (Terence Stamp) arrives the next day. The Guest then immediately begins disrupting the household's fragile status quo simply because that's what the film's “theorem” posits he would do.

Emilia (Laura Betti), the family maid, ogles The Guest while he lounges about at full manspread. He reads Rimbaud, book cradled at crotch level (Stamp's “power angle” features prominently in the film), and Emilia is driven into a frenzy by his Rimboner. She flits frantically about the palatial estate, failing in her assigned chores, then races into the kitchen to asphyxiate herself at the stove. The Guest intuits what she's doing and rushes to save her, or perhaps he wants to preserve her for future torment. We don't know enough to guess which, and we never will. In either case, he makes love to her instead.

Rarely speaking, but always piercing the soul with his sky-blue-eyes, The Guest systematically seduces each member of the household, including the factory-owner husband, wife Lucia (Silvana Mangano), daughter Odetta (Anne Wiazemsky), and son Pietro (Andres Jose Cruz Soublette). Surprisingly, Pasolini leaves a lot to the imagination, and the film's scandalous reputation (it was banned in Italy) derives from its basic premise rather than its graphic content. After securing his conquests, the Guest then abruptly departs, leaving the second half of the film to follow each of the characters as they descend into madness, now left rudderless in a world without their beloved stranger.

Is he devil or angel? Pasolini coyly described The Guest as just “a boy” but also referred to his arrival as, in effect, the traumatic injection of authenticity into the shallow lives of the sheltered bourgeois family. Ejected from the Eden of their blissful ignorance, they struggle to make meaning out of their lives now that they have knowledge of real pleasure. Odetta begins measuring the lawn with a tape ruler. Pietro starts painting increasingly deranged abstract art, a project that includes pissing on a canvas (sorry, Andy, you weren't the first). I'll let you discover what happens to Emilia on your own.

The film jumps around in time, though that's not clear until near the end, and also shifts from a muted palette to a sepia interlude and then to lush color at the party that introduces The Guest. Stamp's blue eyes may be the film's most enduring image and its greatest special effect. The music, composed and selected by Ennio Morricone, also runs the gamut from jarring electric guitar to somber Mozart, most of it working to defamiliarize the domestic setting.

Pasolini's theorem isn't a particularly persuasive one, at least as sociopolitical critique. If it just boils down to Pasolini's claim that “a member of the bourgeoisie, whatever he does, is always wrong” that isn't exactly a testable, rejectable hypothesis. Viewed more as Bible-inflected science-fiction as filtered through a Marxist lens, “Teorema” is quite thought-provoking, in no small part because it resists any pat psychological motivations. “The Book of Job” and “Stranger In A Strange Land” meet up to wrestle with the class struggle, and all that's left to do in the end is to strip naked and scream into the void. Sounds like a blast. Is it any wonder the pope condemened it?


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. “This new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution … from the original 35 mm camera negative at Cinecitta in Rome.” The film shifts color palettes a few times, and this high-def transfer does a good job of capturing its full range of tones. Most of the film is shot with bright colors, and they pop here, especially Stamp's blue eyes. Another strong Criterion transfer, as usual.

Audio:
The linear PCM mono track provides a flat but clear sound. Both dialogue and the Morricone music are cleanly mixed. Listeners can also choose the English dub which isn't as sharp, but still sounds good. Optional English subtitles support the Italian audio.

Extras:
The film is accompanied by a commentary track by Robert C. Gordon author of “Pasolini: Forms of Subjectivity” which was recorded in 2007 and originally included on a BFI release of “Teorema.”

The disc includes a brief introduction (2 min.) which is really a snippet of a 1969 interview with Pasolini in which he describes the film as a “parable” or “enigma” but mostly avoids providing much of an interpretation.

Another feature from the 2007 BFI disc is offered here in the form of a 33-minute interview with Terence Stamp, which is far more substantive than most actor interviews. Stamp discusses his work with Fellini, which first brought him to Italy, and the ways in which he brought his own philosophy to the character of The Guest, something he needed to do since Pasolini was reluctant to tell him much about the character (and also secretly filmed Stamp even while not acting).

We get one brand new feature, an interview (16 min.) with John David Rhodes, author of “Stupendous, Miserable City: Pasolini's Rome.” Rhodes discusses some of Pasolini's influences (Marxism, etc.) and also touches on the film's importance in queer criticism/film history.

The slim fold-out booklet includes a remarkable essay by critic James Quandt, always a must-read on any topic.

Final Thoughts:
Any movie condemned by the pope has to be worth seeing, right?

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

I Thought 2019 Was A Pretty Good Year For Movies

Joe Pesci in The Irishman

These Best of 2019 lists still count as long as they're posted before the end of January, right?

2019 was the first year in quite some time when I actually watched more new releases than I had in the previous year. Perhaps that explains why I thought this was an unusually strong year, at least for feature film. I think my top four were all sensational movies, each a serious candidate for my Top Films of the 2010s list. I think this Scorsese kid has a future.

I didn't see a 2019 documentary quite on par with either the great “Hale County” or “Shirkers” from 2018, but there were enough exciting and vital non-fiction films to force me to expand my top 10 to a top 16.

The Irishman (Scorsese)
A Hidden Life (Malick)
The Lighthouse (Eggers)
Ash is Purest White (Jia)
63 Up (Apted)
Honeyland (Kotevska and Stefanov)
Long Day's Journey Into Night (Bi)
The Souvenir (Hogg)
Image Book (Godard)
For Sama (Al-Kateab and Watts)
Black Mother (K. Allah)
Los Reyes (Osnovikoff and Perut)
The Disappearance Of My Mother (Barrese)
The Mountain (Alverson)
Tell Me Who I Am (Perkins)

I'm feeling generous today, so I'll keep the comments brief.

The Irishman: “It was like... Remember Moses? When he walked into the ocean, the sea, whatever the fuck it was? And it opened up!”

A Hidden Life: Malick has directed not only one of the most grueling and moving films about a martyr since “The Passion of Joan Of Arc” but also the perfect movie to show to your authoritarian friend who insists that no matter what you think of the man, you have to respect the office.

Ash Is Purest White: The amazing Zhao Tao gets stuck with a loser partner on screen; fortunately her partner behind the camera is still one of the best directors in the world.

Honeyland: Everything you ever imagined a documentary about a Macedonian beekeeper could be, and so much more.

Long Day's Journey Into Night: This year's great film with a really long take.

Image Book: Some movies are just meant to be watched at home and stopped every 30 seconds so you can try to Google the references.

For Sama: No glib one-liner for a movie this potent. Waad al-Kateab films herself surviving the ongoing siege of Aleppo, Syria. She somehow finds a way to live and grow under unspeakable conditions, starting as a teenage marketing student, then falling in love, raising a baby, and helping to save the lives of her neighbors. There are still heroes, even in a world that doesn't care much about them.

Black Mother: Photographer and filmmaker Khalik Allah delivers a meditation (and accusation) on the legacy of colonialism in Jamaica that also turns out to be a visionary tour-de-force that renders the political as intimately personal.

Los Reyes: A fascinating observational documentary about two stray dogs who live in a Chilean skate park, both of whom would have been more convincing in “Jojo Rabbit” than Scarlett Johansson.

The Disappearance Of My Mother: When mom tells you to leave her the hell alone, you should strongly consider her advice.

The Mountain: No, seriously, just leave mom alone.


The two worst 2019 releases I saw are, of course, two of the leading contenders for Best Picture, so I'm going to say something nice about each of them.

Joker (Phillips): “Joker” is plagued by a few minor flaws, chief among them a hackneyed story and script that makes every obvious decision at every point. But there's one moment that really sings. Arthur (the Joker-to-be played by Joaquin Phoenix) shares an elevator with his neighbor (Zazie Beetz) – to express her exasperation with her day, she mimes putting a gun to her head. In the hallway, the desperately awkward Arthur tries to connect with her by repeating the gesture. He overdoes it so badly, she instantly knows he's a man best avoided, a fact to which he is oblivious. It's a moving, human moment from one of our greatest actors. Everything that follows is bland and forgettable.

1917 (Mendes): Sam Mendes has now directed three films I consider to be the worst movies in their respective years of release. “1917” is almost certainly somewhat better than the other two.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Le Petit Soldat


LE PETIT SOLDAT (Godard, 1963)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Jan 21, 2020
Review by Christopher S. Long

In retrospect, Jean-Luc Godard's “Le petit soldat” (1961) predicted the singular and stubborn career that would unfold over the next sixty years (and still counting).

The 30-year-old critic turned director had scored a huge commercial hit with “Breathless” (1960), his feature debut drenched in giddy cinephilia and pitched at the hip youth culture from which the Nouvelle Vague originated. Naturally, he decided to follow up his breakthrough with “Le petit soldat” (shot in 1961, but released in 1963), a grim political thriller short on thrills and heavy on torture scenes.

Not content with just alienating returning audiences looking for more doomed romantic fun, Godard also infuriated both wings of the political spectrum. The conservative establishment railed against Godard's frank acknowledgment of French war crimes in Algeria and the lack of justification for the ongoing occupation. Meanwhile, the director's decision to only depict on-screen torture conducted by agents of an Algerian rebel force (the FLN) generated even stronger condemnation from many on the left. The film was banned and not released in France until 1963, not coincidentally after Algeria won its hard-fought independence.

Charges that Godard was equivocating were enhanced by his choice of protagonist. Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor) flees to Geneva (circa 1958) to avoid conscription in the French military, but he professes no particular political ideology. He's pressured by a French intelligence group to assassinate an Algerian sympathizer, and resists, mostly because he just wants to be left alon. He also falls for the beautiful Veronica Dreyer (Anna Karina, in her first film with Godard) who may or may not be a political agent as well.

Much of the film is filtered through Bruno's perspective with heavy use of narration by Subor which reveals Bruno as sexist, self-absorbed and also undeniably perceptive: “I think actors are stupid. I despise them.” Who can argue with that? He wants to blaze his own path, but winds up caught between both factions of the war he's tried to escape.

In the film's most-discussed sequence, Bruno is kidnapped by FLN agents and subjected to a series of tortures, ranging from burning to near drowning to electrocution. Some viewers were repelled by what they felt were graphic depictions of suffering, but the real horror is that Godard depicts the torturers as a couple of bored guys just clocking another day at work. They display neither reluctance nor joy in their efforts. They've got a script, they've done this all before, and they'll do it again tomorrow with some other victim, whoever that happens to be.

Cinematographer Raoul Coutard (who gets a sly name drop in the film) may be the real star of “Le petit soldat.” The opening shot starts with a slow pan that rockets to whip-speed to settle on Bruno as he drives across the border into Switzerland. Shooting in black-and-white, and balancing long moments of stasis with abrupt kinetic bursts, Coutard creates a stark look that matches both the story and the protagonist's soul.

Subor doesn't offer much beyond dry indifference, tough but not terribly charismatic. Karina is Karina, of course, but has a thankless role as an inscrutable object of desire. And an object of exchange. Money changes hands when a friend introduces Veronica to Bruno. Eventually she will be treated as a disposable pawn, her final fate barely remarked upon by the men busy playing their power games. In a terse, bloodless fashion, the film's final minute is just as brutal as the torture scenes.



Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. From Criterion: “This high-definition digital transfer, undertaken by StudioCanal and approved by cinematographer Raoul Coutard, was created from the 35 mm original camera negative...” The image resolution is sharp and if the black-and-white picture sometimes looks excessively bright at times, that's how it's meant to look (as far as I know). Another solid high-def transfer from Criterion.

Audio:
The linear PCM Mono audio mix is sharp and somewhat flat, as is the source. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.

Extras:
Criterion has only included a few brief supplements with this Godard release.

The disc starts with a 6-minute excerpt from a 1965 interview with Godard in which he briefly discusses the film's troubled reception. Half of this already short excerpt consists of a clip from the film.

In a 1963 interview (14 min.) filmed at a boxing gym where he trains, actor Michel Subor discusses why the film was banned, while also making the ludicrous claim that it isn't really a political film at all.

We also get an audio interview (1961, 29 min.) of Godard conducted by critic and filmmaker Gideon Bachmann.

The slim fold-out insert booklet includes a sharp and comprehensive essay by critic Nicholas Elliott.

Final Thoughts:
“Le petit soldat” is one of my least favorite Godard films of the early '60s, but it's still of interest both as a bold choice to follow up “Breathless” and for introducing Karina (even though viewers saw her in “A Woman is a Woman” and “Vivre sa Vie” before this film hit theaters). To the best of my knowledge, this Criterion edition is the film's first Blu-ray release in North America, which makes it a must-own for Godard fans even if the supplements are fairly modest.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Holiday


HOLIDAY (Cukor, 1938)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Jan 7, 2020
Review by Christopher S. Long

Recently engaged after a whirlwind romance while on vacation, Johnny Case (Cary Grant) takes the bold step of actually visiting his fiancee at her New York home, just to get to know her a bit. Johnny accidentally shows up at the servants' entrance around back in the kitchen, a particularly disorienting faux pas since he had no idea his fiancee lived in the sort of home that had a servants' entrance. Not to mention majestic spiral staircases and even an elevator that travels at least four floors.

It seems Johnny didn't ask many questions about his betrothed Julia Seton (Doris Nolan) who turns out to be a member of THE Setons of New York, an upper crust family with a fortune built on Wall Street success. Soon, he will be rigorously vetted by the family patriarch (Henry Kolker) and you can guess from his early identification with the maids and butlers that Johnny will have some trouble passing muster. After all, he is from Baltimore.

“Holiday” (1938), adapted from the blockbuster 1928 Philip Barry play, declares its concerns with class from the outset. However, birth is not destiny here, and Johnny finds some allies within the family, chiefly in the form of Julia's free-spirited older sister Linda (Katharine Hepburn). Unlike her sister, Linda is keenly aware of her privilege and quite embarrassed by it, not to mention bored by a rudderless life in which she wants for nothing and is therefore expected to do nothing. Johnny, for his part, has no particular hankering for the job in finance that both Julia and his prospective father-in-law envision for him. He'd prefer to enjoy his leisure time now, rather than at the end of a lucrative but unfulfilling career.

Linda takes an immediate shine to the plucky, easy-going Johnny, and the feeling is reciprocated. In their first substantial encounter, Linda hands Johnny her partially eaten apple. He gamely chomps into it then holds onto it for the rest of the scene. If you haven't figured already out that Linda is the Seton sister Johnny will wind up with, congratulations on watching your first movie.

Director George Cukor was one of Hepburn's earliest champions, and his confidence in his atypical leading lady remained unshaken even after she endured a string of box office disappointments in the mid-1930s (“Holiday” would be another). And having already directed them together in “Sylvia Scarlett” (1935), Cukor knew how well Hepburn and Cary Grant, still perfecting his bumbling but somehow still suave heartthrob persona, worked together on screen.

“Holiday” is a romantic comedy that opts more for congenial playfulness than over-the-top screwball hijinks or rapid-fire repartee. Grant, an accomplished acrobat, turns the occasional somersault or rides a tricycle to demonstrate that he's still a kid at heart. Linda helps to stage an impromptu Punch and Judy show in a quiet upstairs room which serves as a sanctuary for her and her friends while the social climbers hobnob down below at the snooty engagement party her father has planned for proper society.

Cukor realized the Hepburn-Grant pairing was the film's central draw, so the film places them together as much as possible, just quietly enjoying each other's company and letting affinity blossom naturally into love. Perhaps this makes “Holiday” more of a hang-out movie than a typical romantic comedy, and that works just fine. 


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. This new 4K digital restoration from Sony Pictures Entertainment was created “from a 35 mm nitrate duplicate negative and a 35 mm nitrate print, both preserved by the UCLA Film & Television Archive.” The high-def transfer has a very thick grainy look, a delightful reminder of a thing that was once called “film.” Black-and-white contrast is strong and there's no damage evident.

Audio:
The linear PCM mono track provides a crisp, flat sound with no noticeable distortions or dropoffs. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Extras:
Cukor's version was not the first film adaptation of “Holiday”. Criterion has included the 1930 film (91 min.), directed by Edward H. Griffith. It stars Ann Harding as Linda, Mary Astor as Julia, and Robert Ames as Johnny. I haven't had a chance to watch it yet, except to sample the video quality which looks fairly clean but also rather washed-out.

The disc includes a new interview (34 min.) with film critic Michael Sragow and filmmaker Michael Schlesinger in which they offer some background about “Holiday” as a play and in its film forms.

We also get audio excerpts (21 min.) of George Cukor speaking for an oral history recorded for AfI in 1971 and 1972 and conducted by author Gavin Lambert.

The final extra on the disc is a Costume Gallery, which consists of sketches by costume designer Kalloch, paired with stills from the film.

The slim fold-out insert booklet features an essay by critic Dana Stevens.

Final Thoughts:
“Holiday” wasn't a commercial hit and has often been overshadowed by the more celebrated Cukor-Hepburn-Grant vehicle, “The Philadelphia Story” (1940). It's rather low-key by romantic comedy standards, less concerned with plot and more with simply letting audiences enjoy Hepburn and Grant's easy chemistry.