Tuesday, December 8, 2020



MOUCHETTE (Bresson, 1967)

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Dec 8, 2020

Review by Christopher S. Long

Mouchette (Nadine Nortier) is a teenage French peasant girl saddled with a dying mother and an abusive, alcoholic father. With her raggedy hand-me-down clothes and clogs two sizes too big, she finds no friends in school either, nor does she invite them, preferring to lob mudballs at her classmates during recess. Whether her aggression speaks of desperation or sheer spite, the saddest part is that the other girls don’t even care enough to retaliate. Mouchette simply means nothing to them. She doesn't matter to anyone at all.

If you're expecting this grim setup to turn into a triumphant redemption, you're obviously unfamiliar with writer/director Robert Bresson or with author Georges Bernanos whose 1937 novel “Mouchette” (1967) is adapted from. Bresson had previously tapped Bernanos as the source for “Diary of Country Priest” (1951), the first film in which the director transformed fully into the nonpareil Bresson celebrated by devotees today. “Mouchette” is somehow far bleaker than the first Bresson-Bernanos joint. Indeed, it's one of the most desolate films ever made, on a par with Kenji Mizoguchi's “Sansho the Bailiff”(1954), Kon Ichikawa's “Fires on the Plain” (1959), or perhaps Bresson's career-capping “L'argent” (1982).

Mouchette slouches through listless days at school and equally listless nights at home, where she is expected to handle all the household chores and care for the baby, while her no-account father and brother smuggle alcohol, mostly for their own consumption. At least these quotidian rituals provide some minor respite from a meaningless life, but Mouchette aches for an escape from the tedium.

She finds some relief in her daily walks through the forest, taking the long way home (for understandable reasons) but this “green place” offers her only the modest gift of solitude, not redemption. On one such walk, Mouchette is waylaid by a sudden rainstorm (she calls it a cyclone, but nobody believes her) which brings her face to face with Arsène (Jean-Claude Guilbert), a local poacher. Arsène believes he has just killed a man in a drunken argument (the disease of alcoholism stalks the countryside like the Black Death of half a millennium ago.) Arsène enlists Mouchette’s aid in providing him an alibi. She readily agrees, but their conversation turns ugly, and Arsène rapes her. In the morning, Mouchette slinks back home just in time to see her mother die.

Total abjection provides a form of liberation for Mouchette. She has been pushed beyond caring about any social niceties, about anyone’s rules. When the falsely pious townsfolk extend sympathy for her mother’s death, she figuratively spits in her faces, and literally treads mud all over their nice, pretty rugs. But poor Mouchette’s awakening still finds her with the same limited options she had before. She’s a rebel with nothing to rebel against, simply because nobody cares and all the rules are stacked against her. She cannot win, she can only leave the world on her own terms. And so she does.

In Bresson's prior films, his characters achieved a state of grace in their suffering, but it’s hard to say the same of Mouchette. Her suicide is simply tragic, painful, desperate, with no redeeming aspect. If she intends a big “fuck you” to the town, it will go almost entirely unnoticed and be quickly forgotten. Even dear old dad will use her death as just another excuse to get piss-drunk. At best, it can be seen as Mouchette’s defiant act of autonomy, taking control of her body and her life in a way the rotted-besotted town patriarchy would never allow. Ice cold comfort.

As in most Bresson, off-screen noises play a prominent role in structuring the film. Trucks constantly rumble by, unseen except when their headlights play across the wall of Mouchette’s hovel. The modern world is encroaching on this insular rural town that's wobbling on its last drunken legs. Bresson also uses music sparingly, with Monteverdi’s “Magnificat” serving as the only non-diegetic music in the film.

As usual, Bresson employs a cast of mostly non-professional actors whom he considered more as “models” than performers. Nortier is a typical Bressonian model, coached to act with as little inflection as possible. She moves slowly, walks slump-shouldered, and her face rarely registers much emotion, with the notable exception of the bumper-car ride when Mouchette briefly smiles and laughs like a “normal” girl. Some viewers have difficulty adapting to Bresson’s idiosyncratic approach to film acting, but for fans of the director he sometimes seems to be the only one who ever got it right. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but Bresson’s singular, obstinate body of work can really be compared to no other.

By holding back so much that we typically expect to see in a film (emotive acting, for example), Bresson ultimately unleashes a powerful force that is difficult to describe. Call it transcendental, call it sublime, call it ineffable. Whatever label you choose, it has an impact like nothing else cinema has ever produced. 



The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. According to Criterion, this new 1080p transfer is sourced from “a full 4K restoration.”“Mouchette” was Bresson’s last black-and-white film, and this high-def upgrade improves upon the original 2007 DVD release from Criterion, doing justice to Ghislain Cloquet’s starkly beautiful photography. Black-and-whit contrast is sharp, with most scenes looking rather dark, as intended.


The linear PCM mono track is sharp with no signs of distortion. Bresson's sound design is spare with limited music and only select sound effects. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.


All extras are imported from Criterion's 2007 DVD release with no new extras included.

“Mouchette” doesn't arrive with as many extras as some other Criterion releases of Bresson's work. However, the 2007 commentary track by Tony Rayns is superb, as we would expect from Mr. Rayns.

The main extra feature is “Au hasard Bresson” (1967, 30 min.), a documentary directed by German film critic Theodor Kotulla. Kotulla visited the set of “Mouchette” to speak with Bresson, and wound up with this little gem that delves much deeper than the usual “behind-the-scenes” documentary.

“Traveling” is an excerpt (7 min.) from a French television show which features interviews with some of the cast members of “Mouchette.” Nothing special here.

Perhaps the most intriguing extra for die-hard cinephiles is an original theatrical trailer for “Mouchette” cut by Jean-Luc Godard. Godard denied making this trailer, but it’s hard to believe anyone could mistake it for anything but a Godard work.

The slim fold-out booklet reprints the 2007 essay by critic and poet Robert Polito.

Final Thought:

“Mouchette” is grim, demanding viewing which requires patience even at its brisk 81 minute running length. If you have never seen a Bresson film before, don’t start here. “Mouchette” is hermetic, and utterly despairing, even by Bresson’s standards. Try “A Man Escaped” (1956), “Pickpocket” (1959), or “Au hasard Balthazar” (1966) first before you tackle this one. I don’t wish to convey the notion that Bresson is somehow esoteric or inaccessible; I don’t believe that at all. His films are concise and concrete, but their surface simplicity hides the degree to which each image and sound is so densely packed, and only proper context (training, if you will) can help viewers unpack them.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Ghost Dog



Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Nov 17, 2020

Review by Christopher S. Long

Critics who thought they had Jim Jarmusch safely categorized as a wry humorist and a minimalist observer of outsiders and “dead-end kids” (as Pauline Kael described the protagonists of “Stranger Than Paradise”) were forced to scramble when the revisionist Western “Dead Man” (1995) introduced shocking new elements to the writer/director's arsenal. Periodically erupting in graphic violent outbursts, “Dead Man” pointed an accusing middle finger at the “stupid fucking white men” who engineered a mass genocide against Native Americans, a slaughter so cruel and so vast it permanently scarred the landscape itself.

Jarmusch stayed in his new bloody lane with his next feature, “Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai” (1999). Now the stupid fucking white men are wheezing dollar-store mafiosos, old men who can barely climb a set of stairs or scrape together enough money to pay the landlord at their little clubhouse where they mostly watch cartoons. But the single defining truism about American life as portrayed in both “Dead Man” and “Ghost Dog” is that any stupid fuck can pull a trigger.

Like the mobsters, the film's title character adheres to an old code of behavior, but unlike them, he's put a great deal of thought into his guiding philosophy. Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) reads daily from the “Hagakure”, a book of samurai aphorisms he uses to shape his idiosyncratic approach to being a modern-day hitman. Ghost Dog samples freely from diverse sources of wisdom as well, including Mary Shelley's “Frankenstein”, Ryunosuke Akutagawa's short-story collection “Rashomon”, and modern hip-hop - RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan provides the film's propulsive, hypnotic score, and it seems like Ghost Dog can hear every non-diegetic note. And talk about keeping it old school, Ghost Dog even sends messages exclusively by homing pigeon.

Plot rarely matters much in a Jarmusch film, but to provide a brief capsule: Ghost Dog serves as a loyal retainer to low-level mobster Louie (John Tormey). While conducting a hit for Louie, something goes awry, and the other mobsters decide the assassin must be eliminated. To serve honor, or some such nonsense. This confrontation augurs poorly for the aging made men, of course – hell, Ghost Dog even knows how to shoot his mark from the other end of a kitchen sink drain – but Jarmusch lavishes as much attention on Ghost Dog's down time as on his killing exploits.

Ghost Dog likes to hang out with his friend Raymond (Isaach de Bankole), an affable Haitian ice-cream truck vendor who only speaks French. Ghost Dog only speaks English (or at least no French) but this doesn't interfere with their ability to understand each other. The spoken word is only one limited form of communication, a theme Jarmusch had already touched on in “Mystery Train” (1989) and other films. The efficient killer also bonds with Pearline (Camille Winbush), a nine-year-old bookworm who instinctively seems to “get” Ghost Dog.

The film piles up both bodies and humorous vignettes. In a hilarious display of a lack of self-awareness, a couple of the mobsters (including a stoic Henry Silva whose face is fixed in a rictus) mock both black hip-hop artists and Native Americans for adopting “funny” names like Flavor Flav or Red Cloud before calling out for their compatriots Joey Rags and Sammy the Snake. In the film's signature execution, Sonny Valerio (Cliff Gorman) dances alone in his bathroom while singing along to Public Enemy before Ghost Dog takes him out with one laser-pointer shot to the head.

The great cinematographer Robby Muller captures the moody night-time city streets (possibly meant to be New York, though mostly filmed in Jersey City) with an impressionist eye, employing multiple dissolves to show Ghost Dog gliding through the streets in his unique fashion, largely undetected by the locals, perhaps moving to the pervasive beat of RZA's driving score. The film's visual centerpiece, however, is Forest Whitaker's face, his drooping left eyelid (a congenital condition) drawing even more attention to the magnetic power of his gaze. Ghost Dog sees all from a serene vantage point, simultaneously positioned right at street level but also observing dispassionately from a spiritual plane at least once-removed.

Though the film pokes fun at its clueless, impotent mobsters, it still ends with a lament for the mutual obsolescence of both the way of the mafioso and the “way of the samurai.” As Ghost Dog puts it when he confronts Louie at the end, they both come from “different ancient tribes” now staring down the barrel of a new millennium that has no use for either of them. 




The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. From Criterion: “This new digital transfer was created in 16-bit 4K resolution on a Lasergraphics Director film scanner from the 35 mm original A/B camera negative” and was supervised by Jarmusch. The only other North American release I'm aware of is the 2003 SD release by Artisan. The colors on that one look a bit garish while this 1080p transfer showcases more muted, naturalistic colors. The image resolution is sharp and looks great in motion.


The DTS- HD 5.1 Master Audio mix treats sound effects well while also presenting RZA's score with depth. The disc also provides an audio option to listen just to the isolated score in a 2.0 mix. Optional English subtitles support the audio.


This Criterion Blu-ray release includes both new and older supplementary features.

As with a few past Jarmusch releases from Criterion, we get a lengthy Q&A session (84 minutes) with the director. He fields a random array of questions sent in by fans, touching on topics from the production of the film to what music he's been listening to during the pandemic and so on. This was recorded in June 2020.

Another new feature is a video conference interview (20 min.) with actors Forest Whitaker and Isaach de Bankole, conducted by film scholar Michael B. Gillespie. Again they cover an array of topics, though mostly centering on their memories of making “Ghost Dog” a little more than twenty years ago.

Criterion has also included an audio feature (15 min.) in which casting director Ellen Lewis discusses her process for auditioning various actors for roles. This turned out to be quite fascinating, especially because Lewis is clearly passionate about the casting even of minor roles in the film. It feels like she talks about virtually everybody who appears in the movie.

We also get two older interviews, which, though separate, are taken from the same taping session with Jarmusch, Whitaker, and composer RZA. The first is a 15-minute interview. The second is a 21-minute promotional piece titled “The Odyssey: A Journey Into the Life of a Samurai” which was included on the old DVD release from Artisan Pictures.

The disc also includes a short interview (5 min.) with Shifu Shi Yan Ming, martial arts teacher and founder of the USA Shaolin Temple. He's friends with both Jarmusch and RZA.

We also get a 15-minute piece about the music of “Ghost Dog” along with several short Deleted Scenes/Outtakes (5 min. total) and a Theatrical Trailer (1 min.)

Criterion has included two insert booklets this time. The 40-page booklet includes essays by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and Greg Tate, as well as excerpts from a 2000 interview with Jarmusch, conducted by Ted Lippy. We also get a tiny replica of the “Hagakure”, featured so prominently in the film, though this just includes a few short excerpts from the book.

Film Value:

“Ghost Dog” has been in need of a quality high-def release for some time now, and Criterion delivers the goods with a sharp 1080p transfer and a strong collection of extra features.


Monday, October 26, 2020



PARASITE (Bong, 2019)

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Oct 27, 2020

Review by Christopher S. Long

The Oscars had a chance to make history in 2020. Odds makers slightly favored Sam Mendes' “1917,” a two-hour video game cut scene featuring wooden acting and a histrionic plot that makes “Raiders of the Lost Ark” look like a Wiseman documentary. Following on the heels of “The Shape of Water” and “Green Book,” a Best Picture nod to Mendes' mendacious misfire would have secured the Academy three years of historic shame worth bragging about for life. Instead, voters eschewed a legacy by handing the statuette to Korean director Bong Joon-ho's “Parasite” (2019), an actual good movie, and the first foreign-language film to win the big award. Which is history too.

Set in Seoul, the film opens in the cramped semi-basement apartment of the Kim family. A long, thin window peeks out at an alley where drunks stop to piss and extermination trucks belch out thick billows of chemicals, unaware or unconcerned that anyone might be living nearby. Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), the family patriarch, welcomes the death cloud that envelops the entire family in their living room. After all, the apartment is infested with bugs, and the family can't afford pesticides on the salary they earn from folding pizza boxes. A job at which, to be honest, they're not even that good.

The son, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), soon seizes a better job opportunity, serving as an English tutor to the teenage daughter (Jung Ziso) of the wealthy Park family. Their gated house (built by a famous architect you've surely heard of) provides a stark contrast to the Kim estate. As Mrs. Park (Cho Yeo-jeong) introduces Ki-woo to his new workplace, the camera follows as they pass through glistening white rooms and walk down immense corridors that sprawl to both ends of the widescreen frame. The mansion's many windows offer a slightly more scenic view than a piss-soaked back street, mostly acres upon acres of sculpted green space, just sitting empty until the family decides to host its next party.

Ki-woo might have forged his credentials to get his tutoring gig, but initially he seems like an ambitious go-getter just trying to climb the ladder and haul his family out of poverty. By his own bootstraps, of course, just like all successful people. But the Kims (and, presumably, Bong Joon-ho, who also co-wrote the script) are too savvy to believe in the myth of easy social mobility, at least by legally sanctioned means. They realize that this situation calls for a full-blown caper, a con job, an outright heist. Ferreting out the needs and vulnerabilities of the upper-crust family, Ki-woo finds reasons to introduce his entire family, under various aliases, into the employ of the Parks, including his father, his sister (Park So-dam) and mother (Chang Hyae-jin).

The distinct contrast in living spaces potentially sets up a didactic clash of Kims vs. Parks as one of good vs. evil, privileged vs. exploited, but the film offers a much more nuanced social critique. To achieve their goals in a hardscrabble world where every winner requires a loser, the Kims engage in intra-class warfare, sabotaging the Parks' long-time servants, including a housekeeper (Lee Jung-eun) with both plans and working-class problems of her own. And the Kims' goal isn't so much to supplant the Parks, as primarily to install themselves as servants to the rich. Even the enterprising Kims at their most audacious can only dream so grandly; they know their place in modern society.

The Parks themselves are not malicious, but mostly oblivious, though that may be even a greater sin in a nation defined by economic inequity. While the Kims (and the housekeeper and the chauffeur and virtually everyone else) struggle for everything, the Parks remain blind to the fact that anyone has to struggle at all. This makes them perfect marks for the Kims' improvised schemes, and also leaves the Parks, along with audiences, completely shocked by the eruption of violence in the third act. Why would anyone be mad at us?

The film shifts deftly from wry humor and the general warmth of the Kim family with each other to the ruthless competition for the scraps left behind by the rich and a Grand Guignol climax. The cast is uniformly convincing, with longtime Bong collaborator Song Kang-ho shining as a defeated but not despondent man with a cheerfully bleak view of a society which offers little hope for those born without connections. In his view, it's best not to have a plan at all, because then nothing can go wrong and “nothing fucking matters.”

It's easy to understand why the Academy voters were as excited as the Cannes jury members who awarded “Parasite” the Palme d'Or in 2019. Still, just imagine: “The Shape of Water,” “Green Book” and “1917” all in a row. The Academy could have ended the decade in utter disgrace, the same as America. It would have been glorious. 



The film is presented in its original 2.39:1 aspect ratio. This 1080p transfer looks nothing short of immaculate, so much so that I can think of nothing to say save that it surely looks as good as it did in theaters.


Criterion has provided a Dolby Atmos sound mix (7.1), and I won't claim that I know enough about audio formats to determine how different this sounds from the more typical Criterion stereo mix in DTS-HD Master Audio. I also don't own a system strong enough to showcase a more robust mix like this. I'll trust other reviewers who are wowed by the depth of this surround design. Optional English subtitles support the Korean audio.


Criterion has stacked the extras on this two-disc Blu-ray release.

The most notable feature is a black-and-white cut of “Parasite,” included on the second disc. This cut is identical in every way to the theatrical release of the film, except that it is rendered in black-and-white. When asked why he wanted to offer a B&W version even though the film was always intended to be shot in color, Bong states simply that it was “an itch I had to scratch,” and a nod to many of the classic films that fueled his cinephilia. It looks just as sharp in high-def as the color version on Disc One does.

Other supplemental features are spread out across both discs.

On Disc One, the film is accompanied by a new commentary track by Bong and film critic Tony Rayns.

The rest of the features on Disc One consist of interviews with crew members: Bong Joon-ho (36 min.) in conversation with critic/translator Darcy Paquet, cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo (21 min.), production designer Lee Ha-jun (22 min.), and editor Yang Jin-mo (15 min.) The interviews touch on a range of technical subjects, but the picture that emerges of Bong is of a director who plans everything ahead of time and usually shoots very closely to his storyboards. The disc also includes two Theatrical Trailers (4 min. total).

In addition to the B&W cut of the film, Disc Two includes a conversation between Bong and director Park Chan-wook (“Oldboy”, etc.) They talk about the emergence of New Korean Cinema, the film movement they played a major role in. They discuss the gradual thawing of South Korean censorship beginning around the early-1990s, which made many more films available to eager young movie lovers like themselves. VHS and DVD also allowed these budding filmmakers to watch scenes over and over to study them for their own work.

We also get a press conference (28 min.) from the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, where “Parasite” won the Palme d'Or. This is a panel discussion with Bong and his cast members.

Criterion has also included a “Lumiere Master Class” (82 min.) in which Bong is on stage in an event hosted by French director Bertrand Tavernier, who is a very, very big fan of Bong. For any audience members who have been shamed for asking silly questions at post-screening events, please note that the legendary Tavernier begins by, basically, asking Bong where he gets his ideas from.

Disc Two closes out with a Trailer (1 min.) and a “Storyboard Comparison” (6 min.) which, as you can probably guess, provides split-screen comparisons of the original storyboards to the final scenes from the movie.

The fold-out insert booklet features an essay by film critic Inkoo Kang.

Final Thoughts:

Did “Parasite” really win the Oscar this year? This decade-long year? That's not possible.

With a black-and-white version of the film plus a ton of extras, “Parasite” fans can't ask for much more than Criterion has provided with this two-disc set.


Sunday, October 18, 2020

The Gunfighter



Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Oct 20,2020

Review by Christopher S. Long

Nobody ever tried so hard to get shot as Eddie.

Poor, dumb Eddie (Richard Jaeckel). Just a kid raised on the thrills of the dime-novel insta-fables of the American West, and bored with the dusty, manure-drenched reality of actually living in the American West. When the legendary gunfighter Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck) saunters into the local saloon, a toothy smile cracks Eddie's face. That's the fastest gun in the West? The man who's tougher than Wyatt Earp? The killer who's gunned down fifty men just for looking at him the wrong way?

“He don't look so tough to me,” says Eddie before confidently striding up to the bar.

Rest in peace, Eddie. Nobody will remember you.

Jimmy Ringo really didn't have a choice. Honest. He gave Eddie every chance to walk away with his life and even his dignity intact, but the kid wanted to make a name for himself. And he drew first! You all saw it. Sure, but Eddie's brothers don't care who drew first, so Ringo rides off to the town of Cayenne where he is greeted with the familiar refrain: “He don't look so tough to me.” There's always another Eddie.

Director Henry King and star Gregory Peck had just bombed the hell out of the Nazis in “Twelve O'Clock High” (1949), and reteamed in “The Gunfighter” (1950) to tear down the myth of the fearless outlaw. Just 35-years-old, a weary Jimmy Ringo already buckles under the burden of a lifetime of bad decisions. He could have chosen love, but he wanted to be the best and most-feared gunfighter of them all, and so he is. Which means that every Eddie who wants to be the best gunfighter of them all needs to go right through him. Preferably with all six shots. (See also: The “Twilight Zone” episode “A Game of Pool” for a variation on the same story.)

Ringo is all but resigned to his fate, but he clings to one tendril of hope in the form of his old flame, Peggy (Helen Westcott), and their son, who doesn't even know who his father is. That's the real reason Ringo fled to Cayenne, but to get to Peggy he first has to get past town marshal Mark Strett (Millard Mitchell).

Up until this point, Peck has portrayed Ringo as grim and slouching, a lost soul with no joy, but when he sees the marshal he breaks out his movie-star smile. Mark and Ringo used to ride together, and Ringo know this is the one man he can trust in this fallen world. But the marshal also serves as a reminder of Ringo's misguided life choices. The reformed Mark has a purpose now, a community that relies on him. Mark is so at ease with his life and his home he doesn't even need to wear his guns. Ringo is a living legend, Mark is a grown man. Millard Mitchell, a reliable character actor, delivers a charming, confident performance that, at times, eclipses even Peck's leading man charisma.

The film's gunfights are few and barely glimpsed, over the instant they start, just a ringing shot and a puff of smoke left behind. King and his creative team, including cinematographer Arthur C. Miller and the redoubtable editor Barbara McLean (who receives a lot of attention on this disc's extra features), are more interested in creating a concrete sense of place that grounds the legend in reality. Mark repeatedly strides the length of the main road in Cayenne while Ringo remains trapped in the saloon, just waiting, constantly checking the clock. Boys crowd in to get a glimpse of the great outlaw, and the local Church ladies demand justice, a quick hanging perhaps. The bartender (a then still mostly unknown Karl Malden) looks forward to his saloon becoming a big tourist attraction thanks to Ringo. Peggy sees Ringo's inevitable fate even more clearly than he does.

And, of course, the next Eddie lines up for his chance to take down Jimmy Ringo. After all, he don't look so tough.



The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. From the Criterion booklet: “This 4k digital restoration was supervised by the Twentieth Century Fox Restoration Department in 2015. A new digital transfer was created from a 35 mm duplicate negative and restored at Cineric in New York.” This 1080p transfer presents the black-and-white photography in sharp detail with a thick grain that lends it an authentic filmic look. Detail is sharp in motion as well as in static close-ups.


The linear PCM mono audio mix is crisp with no evidence of distortion or drop offs. The film only features music (by composer Alfred Newman) at the beginning and end. Both sound effects and dialogue are treated well with this mix. Optional SDH English subtitles support the English audio.


Criterion has included a healthy selection of supplemental features on this Blu-ray.

The extras start with an interview (2020, 23 min.) with filmmaker, writer, and archivist Gina Telaroli who champions director Henry King, often overlooked because he wasn't as much of a stylist as more celebrated auteurs. She discusses his early career as a silent film actor and his transition to directing, emphasizing his interest in story and location.

Telaroli also discusses the contributions of editor Barbara McLean, but film historian and author J.E. Smyth takes a much closer look at McLean's career (2020, 23 min.) McLean received seven Oscar nominations and was the favored editor of both producer Darryl F. Zanuck and director Henry King. McLean was so powerful at Twentieth Century Fox she could not only order re-shoots, but even direct them when needed. This is a marvelous supplement and I would love to watch a full-length documentary about McLean. The second half of this feature analyzes the editing choices in a few scenes from “The Gunfighter.”

The disc also includes two audio features. Both compile audio excerpts from interviews conducted by Thomas R. Stempel as part of the AFI Oral History Collection. From a 1970 interview (33 min.) we get to hear from Barbara McLean about her career, while a 1971 interview (36 min.) hands the microphone to director Henry King.

The slim foldout booklet features an essay by film critic K. Austin Collins.

Final Thoughts:

Revisionist Westerns began well before the 1960s. No single film is the first, but “The Gunfighter” is a vivid early example of a deceptively simple story that interrogates and undermines many of the conventions of the genre. With a sharp transfer and a solid collection of extras, this release makes a fine addition to the Western corner of the Criterion Collection.

The Hit


THE HIT (Frears, 1984)

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Oct 20, 2020

Review by Christopher S. Long

Willie Parker (Terence Stamp) is a two-bit hood who sings like a canary to save his own skin. During his testimony, the “supergrass” (British slang for a snitch) mugs for his courtroom audience, relishing the brief moment when he actually matters. He has no idea just how much he matters until the former compatriots he's just sold out sing him off the stand with a menacing chorus of “We'll Meet Again,” an absurdist touch rendered no less absurd for the fact that it really happened to Bertie Smalls, the crook turned stool pigeon whose story loosely inspired director Stephen Frears's “The Hit” (1984).

Fast forward ten years and Parker is living the good life in rural Spain, still under witness protection. Parker's had time (he has nothing but time) to read and to think. The thief has turned philosopher, adopting a dispassionate outlook on life: “We're here. Then we're not here. We're somewhere else. Maybe.” His detachment serves him well when the day he knew was coming finally arrives (“Don't know where, don't know when”) and a group of thugs kidnap him from his home. He resists at first in an eccentrically staged fight that feels like a but of an homage to Nicolas Roeg, but once trapped on the roof he shrugs and resigns himself to his fate.

Parker is handed over to a pair of thugs, the world-weary Braddock (John Hurt) and rookie smartass Myron (an impossibly young Tim Roth in his first film role), whose assignment is to bring Parker back to Paris where his old boss will execute him. Myron snarls and preens, straining to look as cool and tough as possible, while the veteran Braddock plays it close to the vest, his tightly-drawn features revealing little, making his sudden violent eruptions even more frightening.

Braddock is a consummate professional, focused solely on the job at hand, but he becomes increasingly agitated by Parker's impenetrable serenity. This man knows he's going to die in a few days, so why the hell does he seem to be so happy about it? The implacable killer has survived many tight spots and outmuscled plenty of tough guys, but he may not be able to triumph against the most remorseless foe of all – philosophy. A hired gun can't maintain his sociopathic edge while contemplating the meaning of life.

Stephen Frears directed a feature in 1971, but honed his craft in television before returning to the big screen with “The Hit,” working from a smart script by Peter Prince. Frears displays an easy command of scale and location, contrasting numerous tense scenes in cramped cars with the wide-open beauty of the Spanish countryside. Ramshackle gas stations are filmed with the same beauty and dynamism as majestic windmills and waterfalls. The film also cuts away frequently from tight-quarters action to distant overhead analytical shots (tiny cars kicking up dust on lonely back roads) that chill the action and refresh the perspective. Prince's script, meanwhile, imbues each character with an independent vitality, including young Maggie (Laura del Sol), a gangster's fiery girlfriend who they pick up along the way. Everyone may be traveling in the same direction, but they're each on their own journey.

All of the film's knotty threads and character arcs converge in one memorable moment. When Parker's true devotion to his bespoke Zen doctrine is revealed, the irreverent punk Myron laughs derisively. It's a brilliant bit of acting, and an efficient expression of all the film's roiling tensions, all its turbulent crosscurrents swirling together in a short, sharp snort that says, “Are you fucking kidding me? Did we really come all the way just for this bullshit?”

Road movies frequently end up in the heart of nowhere. Few chart the journey it with the bleak panache of “The Hit.” 



The film is presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. This appears to be a 1080p upgrade of the previous transfer used by Criterion when they originally released “The Hit” on DVD in 2009. The color palette is rich and naturalistic and image resolution is sharp throughout, as is customary with Criterion high-def transfers.


The linear PCM mono sound mix isn't too dynamic, but is sharp. The raging title song by Eric Clapton and the score by Paco de Lucia are both presented strongly here. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.


Criterion's 2009 DVD release was fairly sparse on extras, and nothing has been added for this 2020 Blu-ray upgrade.

The film is accompanied by a commentary track featuring Frears, Hurt, Roth, Prince, and editor Mick Audsley.

Aside from a Trailer (3 min.), the only other extra is an episode of the British talk show “Parkinson One-to-One” (1988, 37 min.) The entire show is devoted to an interview with actor Terence Stamp. Stamp only briefly mentions “The Hit” but discusses his career ranging from his start as a cool '60s icon to his relative disappearance in the '70s and his return to Hollywood in “Superman.” This includes a fun anecdote about Marlon Brando.

The slim fold-out insert booklet features an essay by film critic Graham Fuller.

Final Thoughts:

“The Hit” was not a hit with audiences. Frears would have to wait a year for his break-out with “My Beautiful Laundrette” (1985). It is, however, a splendid gangster film that rejects any romanticizing of its lowlife protagonists. The Criterion disc is short on extras, but provides a quality high-def transfer of a very fine film.


Monday, September 28, 2020

Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project, No. 3




Criterion Collection, Dual Format, Release Date Sep 29, 2020 
Review by Christopher S. Long
If three is enough to form a pattern, we can now anticipate that Criterion will be releasing a new volume of the World Cinema Project every 3-4 years. And if the pattern continues, each volume in the set will be more than worth the wait.

The World Cinema Project, spearheaded by Martin Scorsese's The Film Foundation, states its commitment “to preserve and present marginalized and infrequently screened films from regions generally ill equipped to preserve their own cinema history.” This mission involves extensive restoration of films whose elements exist in a perilous state as well as the distribution of such films to a wider audience, both in theaters and on home video.

These Criterion sets comprise only a portion of the films promoted by The World Cinema Project. Earlier volumes spotlighted works from Senegal, Taiwan, Turkey, Kazakhstan, The Philippines, Thailand, Morocco, and several other nations. Volume Three spans four continents, six nations, and five decades – a typically eclectic selection for this ambitious series.

Humberto Solas's “Lucia” (1968) argues that there is no barrier between the political and the personal, and perhaps none between the past and the present either.

In this radical historical epic, three different women (each named Lucia) from three different revolutionary eras in Cuban history are betrayed or abandoned by the men they love. In 1895, during Cuba's War of Independence from Spain, the wealthy Lucia (Raquel Revuelta) is seduced by a suave merchant who has a hidden agenda. In 1932, the middle-class Lucia (Eslinda Nunez) falls for a poor, fiery young rebel battling the dictatorial president Gerardo Machado. In 196.. (a coy way of setting the final section 'round about the post-revolutionary present), farm worker Lucia (Adela Legra) marries a macho revolutionary whose idea of the people's revolution does not include women's liberation.

Solas employs a dazzling array of styles throughout this black-and-white film. The romance in the 1895 section explodes into glorious operatic excess, with a steamy seduction scene, staged in an abandoned palatial building, unfolding almost entirely in heated pantomime. 1932 relies heavier on contrasts, between the gritty violence of the revolution and the opulent corruption of the freedom fighters once they assume power. The final story plays out primarily in a realist tone though with brutal scenes of domestic abuse (Lucia's husband locks her up at home and screams “You will be mine!) contrasted with sly moments of humor.

A mobile handheld camera captures vertiginous action throughout. Viewers are hurled into a disorienting, muddy battle in 1895, and twirl along with revelers at the bacchanalia of the middle section. The dizzying camerawork and the decades-spanning scope create a heady experience, and a film with three unforgettable female leads who are both victims and survivors of Cuba's political maelstroms.

After The Curfew

“After The Curfew” (1954) opens on a noirish note with a closeup of a pair of feet clomping loudly along a rain-soaked road at night. Those lonely feet almost certainly belong to a doomed noir protagonist, an impression intensified when the scene turns into a chase through the darkness with soldiers pursuing Iskandar (A.N. Alcaff), an Indonesian freedom fighter just returning home after fighting to overthrow the Dutch colonizers.

Iskandar finds a temporary refuge with his faithful fiancee Norma (Netty Herawaty) and her well-connected family who promise to find him a good job. Norma brags about her hunky war hero to all her idle, privileged friends, but Iskandar is also a man of dark secrets. Is he war hero or war criminal?

Director Usmar Ismail, one of the most influential figures in Indonesian film history, was a veteran of the war himself, and he focuses the story on the difficulties Iskandar faces in reintegrating to civilian life. From his first day in his office job, it's obvious Iskandar sticks out like a sore thumb. His posture is never once at ease, and even his clothing somehow clashes with the décor.

Iskandar seeks to reconnect with his former military comrades, but finds a former superior to be corrupt, and a fellow soldier to have fallen into a shiftless life of gambling and petty crime. Unable to find comfort or direction, our protagonist may have neither time nor opportunity to blaze a trail of his own.

Alcaff is convincing and sympathetic as an alienated soldier, but once his wartime secret is revealed, it's difficult to excuse him simply because he was “following orders.” Does Ismail fully exonerate his protagonist as victim of circumstance and expect the audience to sympathize fully with him? I have no idea.


A still image featuring the angelic face of child actor Fernando Ramos da Silva promises that “Pixote” (1980) will be a delightful coming-of-age story about an adorable ragamuffin. It is anything but.

Argentine-born director Hector Babenco spent months researching the corrupt Brazilian reform system for a documentary, but abandoned the project in the face of state restrictions. He reshaped his film as a feature, one imbued with a gritty, naturalistic aesthetic that yields an unsparing, bleak vision. Minors in Brazil can't be charged with crimes, but are instead funneled into brutal reformatories that function just like prisons. In “Pixote” boys are stripped and thrown en masse into holding cells, gang raped, and whisked away into the night to be executed on the side of the road. Officials don't care what happens to any of the boys, only that no scandals are leaked to the press. They have no reason to care. The boys are either orphans or from families too poor to kick up a fuss, so cover-ups are easy, especially with a complicit police force looking the other way.

Babenco cast his film with non-professional child actors from impoverished families in and around Sao Paolo. Ten-year-old Pixote is one of the youngest of the boys, and young actor Fernando Ramos da Silva delivers not just the most memorable performance in the film, but one of the greatest performances by any child actor ever.

Da Silva's pixie face is central to the film's success. Pixote runs a gamut of horrors in the reformatory. He witnesses rape and murder, and expects to be beaten or stabbed at any moment. His only moment of joy arrives when he huffs a can of glue on the floor of a shit-stained bathroom. Through it all he retains a look of innocence, though his piercing eyes take in everything. That unspoiled quality renders Pixote an authentic and sympathetic character even after he exchanges the nightmare of the reformatory for a life of crime that will turn him into a thief, a pimp, and a killer. There's not one forced moment, not a hint of precociousness or affect in his performance.

“Pixote” offers no hope for a happy ending. Neither did real life for da Silva. He would be shot and killed by police at the age of 19.

Dos Monjes


“Dos Monjes” (1934) has it all. Battling monks, demonic possession, medical melodrama, and even a few musical numbers. This movie is so darn cool.

Directed by Juan Bustillo Oro, “Dos Monjes” is one of the earliest Mexican sound films (the first being released in 1932), and showcases many of the most luminous qualities of movies from that transitional period. The actors still perform in grand pantomime gestures and sound isn't just used functionally to replicate reality but as a moody, expressive element. The film opens with a line of monks shuffling through a ritual, one of them methodically clanging a bell. Later, music will boom through the previously unnoticed pipe organ, filling the monastery and entrancing every brother.

Bustillo Oro employs a flashback structure, the complexity of which only gradually becomes apparent. When Friar Javier (Carlos Villatoro) strikes Friar Juan (Victor Urruchua) with a giant crucifix (I told you this movie was cool), a senior priest demands an explanation. This leads to a tale of doomed Gothic romance featuring a consumptive musician, his treacherous friend, and the woman (Magda Haller) they both desire.

But is the friend really treacherous? It depends on your point of view, which is also the point of the story, from a script significantly rewritten by Bustillo Oro to add convolutions. After Javier has told his tale of woe, Juan recounts the same story, but we now view it from a different perspective, seeing shared exchanges of glances that we didn't notice before, learning new pieces of information that change our perception of the seemingly straightforward tragic events. As an added flourish, in each version, the person telling the story is dressed in white, the other in black. If you're already shouting “Rashomon!” you're not the only one, but let's not overstate the comparison.

The film is heavily influenced by German expressionism, evident in the set design (the giant off-kilter window in young Javier's parlor) and the many canted angles and decentered compositions shot by the great cinematographer Agustin Jimenez. Jimenez would go on to work with Bunuel and other great directors, but “Dos Monjes” was his first feature and shows him already in his prime. There's a moment where Juan just materializes out of the darkness to literally come between Javier and his lady love... this movie so damn cool.

Soleil O


In the most astonishing sequence in Med Hondo's “Soleil O” (1970), a black African man and a white French woman hold hands and walk together along the Champs-Elysees in Paris. Actual white passersby, unaware a film was being shot, turn and stare in shock and disgust. One young woman mimes a gag reflex, while an old woman keeps a wary eye on the couple as she walks slowly away. The film adds the sounds of barnyard animals clucking and screeching as the onlookers gawk at the “taboo” spectacle.

Hondo was born in Morocco and raised in Mauritania before moving to Paris in the '50s. He described “Soleil O” as his attempt to work through and perhaps get past the discrimination he faced in his return to the “fatherland.” In the film, the Visitor (Robert Liensol), a composite stand-in for many immigrants, arrives in Paris with a small suitcase adorned with stickers from various African nations (Mauritania, Ghana, Guinea) and a beaming smile as he greets his new home in voice-over: “Sweet France, I am coming home.” The resistance he meets while trying to secure a job as an accountant make it clear to him he will not be welcomed “home” with open arms.

“Soleil O” is formally audacious film that opens with an animated sequence that compresses decades of colonial impression into a few minutes (“We had our own civilization, we forged iron.”), then shifts from staged interviews (characters frequently look directly into the camera throughout the film) to heated political debates to musical performances. White Parisians tremble in fear of the “black invasion” from their former French colonies in Africa. But even the ostensibly friendly whites are warped by prejudice. One young woman takes the Visitor to bed, then sighs in disappointment later because, well, she had heard certain stories.

The Visitor is ultimately driven to madness, howling like Lear (or Delroy Lindo in “Da 5 Bloods”) in the wilderness. His screams, however, may not be a sign of defeat, but a promise of a revolution to come. The film's final resolute message: TO BE CONTINUED...



It's a minor miracle that we're able to see “Downpour” (1972) at all. After the Iranian revolution of 1979, all prints of “Downpour,” along with many other films, were seized by state authorities and likely destroyed. Director Bahram Beyzaie secured a single positive print with the English subtitles already burned in, now the only known source to exist. Threatened movies like this are just what the World Cinema Project was created to assist with.

I suppose “Downpour” can be described as a romantic comedy, though perhaps dramedy is more accurate. Or maybe trying to pigeonhole this unique film is a bad idea in the first place. Mr. Hekmati (Parviz Fannizadeh) is a bookish teacher who arrives at a new school and town where the locals aren't terribly receptive to the outsider. The boys openly mock him in class, prompting him to expel one of the more troublesome ones. The student's gorgeous adult sister Atefeh (Parvaneh Massoumi) confronts Hekmati about it, and their private confrontation unleashes a wildfire of gossip. Rumors of a budding romance between the two practically create the romance itself, leading to numerous complications.

Beyzaie filmed on a shoestring budget, sometimes restricted to shooting single takes because of limited film stock, and rewriting the script as he went along to adapt to contingencies. One result is that he appears to be having a lot of fun with his characters. To counter a local tough guy also vying for Atefeh's affections, the wimpy Hekmati decides to get buff, leading to a “Rocky”-style workout montage which culminates with the instructor gripping a tiny weight with a band held in his teeth, presumably to strengthen his chin muscles.

“Downpour” made Beyzaie one of the major players in the burgeoning Iranian New Wave. Shot before the revolution, it also features many spectacles that fans of Iranian filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, or Mohsen Makhmalbaf will find unfamiliar, such as drunken knife fights or Iranian women in skirts. 


All films are presented in their original aspect ratios. “Pixote” is in color, the other five in black-and-white.

The World Cinema Project emphasizes films in dire need of preservation, so each of the movies has its own issues, with some needing more extensive restoration than others. Films like “Lucia” and “Dos Monjes” were restored using multiple source prints of varying quality. The magnetic tracks for “Soleil O” were missing sound from some reels, so another source needed to be used.

In a few shots in “Lucia” the black-and-white photography is blown out or out of focus, obscuring detail in the images. This was due to advanced vinegar syndrome which actually warped the negative.

“After The Curfew” exhibits the most consistent damage, due to mold and vinegar syndrome. This mostly shows as a distorted vertical line through the middle of the frame in several scenes – it couldn't be removed through restoration without degrading the original image. At one point in this set, this is described as the first Indonesian film to be restored. I don't know if that's true, but the final product is impressive even with this damage evident.

“Pixote” also suffered from mold damage, perhaps mildly surprising considering how recent the film is, but there's not much damage apparent in this high-def transfer and the color photography looks rich and naturalistic.

“Dos Monjes” looks quite robust for an early sound film. “Soleil O” has no obvious drawbacks either.

As mentioned above, only one source print for “Downpour” exists and it has a few scratches and tears and the black-and-white contrast isn't so sharp, but it's fine and we're lucky to be seeing it at all.


All films are presented with LPCM Mono mixes, and in general, the audio quality on all films can be described as fairly flat, more or less reflecting the source.

All films except “Downpour” offer optional subtitles. As mentioned above, “Downpour” only has one known source, one with English subtitles burned into the print. These white subtitles aren't always easy to read. In addition, some lines of dialogue don't get subtitled at all, and other subtitles are slightly out of synch with the dialogue. You can get by just fine though.


This Criterion set includes three separate keep cases that are tucked into a large cardboard case alongside the insert booklet.

Each keep case contains three discs, one Blu-ray and two DVDs. Each Blu-ray includes two films and the supplemental features. Each DVD stores just one film and its extras. I have only reviewed the Blu-rays here. The first keepcase includes “Lucia” and “After The Curfew.” The second has “Pixote” and “Dos Monjes.” The third: “Soleil O” and “Downpour.”

Each film is accompanied by a short (usually 3-minute) introduction by Martin Scorsese who provides a little background about the film as well as the World Cinema Project's role in restoring and distributing the film.

Each film also gets a single additional supplemental feature. For “Lucia” we get the feature “Humberto And Lucia” (2020, 33 min.) which is adapted by Carlos Barba Salva from his 2014 documentary about director Humberto Solas. It features interviews with the director and each of the actresses who played Lucias as well as others. Solas talks a bit about how the complex screenplay was shaped throughout development.

“After The Curfew” offers an informative interview (2020, 19 min.) with journalist and film scholar J.B. Kristanto who talks about the lack of writing about Indonesian film history and his own work in trying to address that need. He also speaks about Ismail's career and his relationship to the wave of directors in the '50s who wanted to refocus Indonesian cinema on contemporary social issues.

“Pixote” offers two features. One is the short 2-minute introduction appended to the film for its American release, featuring the director Hector Babenco explaining to audiences how the Brazilian reform system works. We also get a 2016 interview (22 min.) with Babenco, just a few months before his death. He talks about his work as an extra in Spaghetti Western films by Sergio Corbucci before discussing the production of “Pixote.” He has a lot to say about the challenges of working with a large number of child actors.

For “Dos Monjes” Criterion has included an excellent interview (2020, 19 min.) with film scholar Charles Ramirez Berg. He provides a brief history of Mexican cinema's transition from silent to sound film, which happened roughly 3-4 years later than in the U.S., then talks about the role of this film in setting the standard for much Mexican Gothic horror that would follow.

“Soleil O” features an interview (2018, 21 min.) with Med Hondo, who died in early 2019. Hondo describes his film as therapy for all he'd been through, then also talks quite engagingly about how he fell in love with film in the first place (it started with an Errol Flynn movie) and his early work as an actor in television.

“Downpour” is accompanied by an interview (2020, 30 min.) with director Bahram Beyzaie, the only living director with a film in this set. He discusses his desire to create something different than the stale Iranian commercial cinema of the '60s, as well as his challenges in shooting on a limited budget and later in dealing with censorship in Iran.

The square-bound insert booklet features an introductory essay about film restoration by archivist Cecilia Cenciarelli. The booklet then includes individual essays about each of the films by an array of critics and scholars.

Final Thoughts:

Three volumes so far for the World Cinema Project sets from Criterion, and all three are winners. I suppose we'll get the next one in 2023 or 2024. I wonder how high sea levels will have risen by then. In any case, I'm sure it will be great. 

Monday, September 14, 2020

Christ Stopped At Eboli

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Sep 22, 2020
Review by Christopher S. Long

In 1935, painter, writer, and political activist Carlo Levi was sentenced by Mussolini's Fascist authorities to internal exile (confino) in an impoverished rural town in the Lucania region of southern Italy where local officials monitored his movements and communications on a daily basis. Levi was eventually set free, and in 1945 he published “Christ Stopped At Eboli,” a best-selling memoir about his time among the peasants of the south. In 1979, director Francesco Rosi adapted the book for the screen.

The nearly 20-minute opening sequence eases viewers into this strange new land along with the protagonist. Levi (Gian Maria Volonte) arrives at the train station, picks up a stray dog, and rides a rambling, rickety bus into the town of Gagliano, with the police close at his side. He rests his head against the window and watches wide pastures roll by where shepherds guide their flocks. A feisty old woman on the bus clutches two live chickens. Levi is a long way from his home in Turin, debating politics and aesthetics with his fellow intellectuals.

This long, meticulously detailed trip functions like a decompression chamber, allowing viewers to acclimate gradually along with Levi to this new environment. On his first night in town, a rattled, weary Levi pulls his blankets over his face so he can hide in the cocoon. In the ensuing days he will be shocked to witness boys pelting a priest with rocks and by the desperate poverty as well as the prevalence of malaria among the populace. Soon, however, he forges a connection with his prison-town and grows to love the stoic peasants and to admire their timeless ability to endure hardship.

The peasants embrace him too, especially once he serves as the town doctor, selflessly administering to all, at least when his jailers permit it. Levi's primary goal in publishing his memoir wasn't to recount his plight as a political prisoner, but rather to inform readers about this very different Italy, practically a foreign nation that has been ignored and abandoned by the developed north.

Local officials do nothing to make the peasants feel like they matter. The aforementioned priest (Francois Simon) dismisses his flock as “a town filled with animals, not Christians” but nobody takes the drunken clergyman seriously anyway; they know he was only assigned (sentenced) to their parish as punishment for past transgressions. The fascist-but-friendly mayor (Paolo Bonacelli) fancies himself an intellectual peer of Levi's, but can't fathom why the painter always wants to talk about the locals: “Why go on about the peasants? Forget about them.”

This explains the enigmatic title of both the memoir and film, inspired by an anecdote Levi overheard during his confinement. It refers to the impression some in the south have that the grace of the Church (also often the State in Italy) never spread past the town of Eboli, leaving much of Italy's “boot” out in the cold with no hope of salvation in this world, or perhaps even the next.

Volonte played his share of volatile characters and was also known as a firebrand off-screen, but his Carlo Levi is a tousle-haired, sad-eyed observer, humble and genuinely curious about the people of Gagliano. He learns how a resourceful butcher inflates a dead goat to salvage every body part and tries to hide a smile when his fiery housekeeper Giulia (Irene Pappas) spins the elaborate web of superstitions that dictate her behavior - you can't throw trash out at night because you'll toss it right in the face of the angel who guards the door!

Giulia is one of many strong-willed woman in Gagliano. Many mothers raise their children alone because they have been abandoned by husbands and lovers who have fled to America seeking the opportunities southern Italy doesn't offer. The Great Depression has forced some of those men to return, leading to one of the film's most rousing scenes when a group of inebriated men sing of the glories of New York City (it would have been our capital if we had one!) as well as their homeland, but Rosi cannily defuses the celebration by cutting abruptly from their joyous rendition of “Viva L'Italia” to a fascist rally in the town square. The shadow of Fascism has not stopped at Eboli.

Rosi originally shot his adaptation as a four-part television miniseries, running 220 minutes in the cut included on this disc. Aside from Levi's tentative emergence as the town doctor, there's little central tension driving the narrative. “Christ Stopped At Eboli” is more a film of quiet impressions and almost random encounters that slowly accrete to form an empathetic, kaleidoscopic portrait of a neglected people. The film refrains from passing overt judgments on any of the characters, not even the drunken priest or the indifferent mayor. Carlo Levi, a simple prisoner in Gagliano just like everyone else, merely watches respectfully, helps when he can, and commits every detail to memory so he can share their story.

As mentioned above, Rosi shot “Christ Stopped At Eboli” as a four-part miniseries running about 55 minutes per installment. It was also released in a much-shorter theatrical cut. Criterion has only included the miniseries, which plays as a single film from the menu, though each part has its own opening and end credits.

The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. From Criterion: “This new digital transfer was created in 2K resolution... from the 35 mm original camera negative.” Colors are naturalistic, heavy on earth tones, and the image resolution is sharp throughout.

The linear PCM audio mix is flat but crisp with no noticeable distortion. Optional English subtitles support the Italian audio.

Criterion has gathered several shorter supplemental features for this Blu-ray release.

In a new interview (2020, 27 min.), translator, interpreter, and writer Michael F. Moore discusses his work on the subtitles for this release, which required dealing with multiple Italian dialects. He also talks a bit about Francesco Rosi, who honed his craft as an assistant to Luchino Visconti on neo-realist films like “La terra trema” (1948).

The disc also includes an excerpt (24 min.) from the July 5, 1978 episode of the French TV series “Cine regards.” This piece, directed by Bouramy Tioulong, combines interviews with Rosi, Volonte, and director Elio Petri with some on-set footage from “Christ Stopped At Eboli.”

“Bad Earth” is a segment (27 min.) of the Aug 9, 1974 episode of the French talk show “Italiques” in which Rosi and Levi discuss a variety of subjects ranging from Levi's exile to the general state of post-war art. Rosi proudly refers to Levi as one of his major artistic influences.

We also get an interview (2014, 13 min.) with Rosi in which the director remembers actor Gian Maria Volonte. Though Volonte was rumored to be difficult to work with at times, Rosi has nothing but glowing words for his frequent star, who died in 1994. According to Rosi, Volonte didn't want to live in a hotel like a typical actor but wanted to spend time with peasant households to immerse himself in the character and the location. This was Rosi's last on-camera interview – the director died in 2015.

A Trailer for the film's re-release by Rialto rounds out the supplements.

The slim fold-out booklet includes a comprehensive essay by writer and film professor Alexander Stille.

Final Thoughts:
The film's considerable length and loosely-structure narrative require patience from the viewer, but that attention will be rewarded by a film that immerses audience in a specific time and place that feels authentically rendered. Rialto restored “Christ Stopped At Eboli” at its full running-length for theatrical release last year, and Criterion has done a splendid job providing a Blu-ray with a strong high-def transfer and a solid array of supplemental features.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Town Bloody Hall

Greer and Mailer in Town Bloody Hall
TOWN BLOODY HALL (Hegedus and Pennebaker, 1979)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Aug 18,2020
Review by Christopher S. Long
In the documentary “Town Bloody Hall” (1979), Norman Mailer accuses virtually everyone of misunderstanding what he wrote. A lesser writer might have considered this an opportunity to reflect on the possible shortcomings of his craft, but for an author who styles himself as a heavyweight prizefighter, it's an excuse to come out swinging at the puny pretenders who dare to challenge the champ. Mailer doesn't really land any haymakers, but he certainly stirs his share of shit.
Mailer had just stirred an Everest of shit with his essay “The Prisoner of Sex” (published in the March 1971 issue of “Harper's”), a retaliatory strike against feminist author Kate Millett, who had recently criticized him. While (big surprise) accusing Millett of misunderstanding him, he mischaracterized and derided much of the women's liberation movement, igniting a firestorm which branded him, for some, as the nation's male-chauvinist-in-chief, and therefore an inviting target.
The still white-hot controversy generated a April 30, 1971 panel discussion/fundraiser at The Theater of Ideas in Manhattan's Town Hall, ostensibly pitting Mailer against four feminist thinkers, though framing the event and labeling the participants in that manner grossly oversimplifies. Documentarian D.A. Pennebaker and his crew were on hand to film the evening, though the footage would be shelved for several years until editor Chris Hegedus (also credited as co-director) cut it into an actual film that was finally released in 1979.
The documentary begins with the crowds both outside and inside the venue, and the first distinct impression of the evening is the total lack of diversity. This event appears to be exclusive to white attendees, both on stage and off. One heckler, seen a few times, reminds participants that the admission fee precludes the poor from participating in this “open” discussion.
Mailer's bluster threatens to overshadow the circus-like atmosphere, but the four women who speak on stage aren't intimidated by his preening machismo. They also each bring their own perspectives to the program, making it clear that women's liberation circa 1971 is a series of movements, not a monolith. Jacqueline Ceballos, president of the New York chapter of NOW, admits she represents the “square” feminist organization, while the esteemed literary critic Diana Trilling expresses skepticism about what she considers to be the more radical feminist wing, especially those who deny the role biology plays in gender politics, aligning her at least to a modest degree with Mailer.
Germaine Greer, whose landmark “The Female Eunuch” was published the year before, represents that more radical wing, though she asserts that she speaks for nobody but herself. She postulates that the hallowed masculine artist is a figure granted far too much power in modern culture, much to Mailer's amusement. Jill Johnston, then well-known as a dance and cultural writer for “Village Voice” and soon after as the author of “Lesbian Nation” (1973), takes over the stage by all but ignoring both the format and Mailer. She performs a raucous and hilarious poem/speech that culminates in a pantomimed make-out session with two other women. Understanding the virtue of ending on a high note, she then promptly exits stage right, never to return.
The other panelists remain for a contentious discussion which Mailer largely dominates, frequently whining to the audience that he just wants the chance to say something when he has, in fact, been doing all the talking. Greer seems to be the only one really interested in dueling with him aside from audience members, including a few elites selected to ask questions or shoot barbs at Mailer, including Susan Sontag, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Betty Friedan, among others.
Stylish and poised, Greer (much-criticized today for her transphobic comments from several years ago) emerges as the fearless heroine of the evening, at least after Johnston's triumphant exit, while Mailer, at least in my eyes, plays the buffoon. Did Hegedus edit the footage to emphasize Mailer's boorishness? This Criterion disc includes a Mailer appearance on “The Dick Cavett Show” (see below) which raises the possibility that Hegedus may have actually done her best to make the pugilistic author appear reasonable and charming. Mailer calling a woman in the audience “cunty” can almost be dismissed as yet another tedious provocation. But his rambling discursion about how women who take “advantage” of a man who they know won't strike them are actually committing violence against the man would ring as obscene from any speaker, let alone from a man who had stabbed his wife.
Viewers aren't likely to learn much about second-wave feminism from “Town Bloody Hall,” but it's surprisingly entertaining and sometimes outrageous. It also provides a window to a moment in American culture when public intellectuals did something other than whine about cancel culture on social media.

The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The event was shot on 16 mm, and Pennebaker's crew didn't have official permission to film the event. So the footage looks grainy, isn't always well-lit, and features plenty of shaky framing and swish pans. This is a new digital transfer “created in 4K resolution” but it's only going to look so sharp. However, this 1080p more than does justice to the source.
The LPCM Mono audio mix is fairly crisp, though sound quality varies at time considering the venue and filming conditions – audience members who shout out weren't miked up, after all. Optional English subtitles support the dialogue, and I found it helpful to turn them on the whole time.
Criterion has included a variety of supplemental features for this Blu-ray release.
The film is accompanied by a commentary track featuring Germaine Greer and co-director/editor Chris Hegedus. This was recorded in 2004.
The disc also offers a new interview (2020, 25 min) with Hegedus, discussing her early career and influences (Maya Deren among them) as well as her involvement with “Town Bloody Hall.” As mentioned above, Pennebaker shelved the footage for years. Hegedus, an admirer of some of the women featured on the panel, was excited to have the chance to shape the material into a film. The movie premiered at the Whitney in 1979, but received limited play elsewhere, on college campuses and on PBS in NYC.
“Reunion” (22 min.) shows footage from a 2004 event in which several of the panelists (Mailer not among them) got back together for a screening and discussion of the film at the National Arts Club in NYC.
We also get a 2001 interview (12 min.) in which Greer discusses her impressions of Mailer leading into the panel discussion. She admired him greatly as a writer but had problems with the format of the event since the women were generally expected to march to Mailer's tune. Perhaps surprisingly, she talks about her desire to impress him at the time.
Finally, Criterion has included a full episode (67 min.) of “The Dick Cavett Show” that aired on Dec 15, 1971. Author Gore Vidal and journalist Janet Flanner were guests along with Mailer. Cavett brings out each guest in turn, with Mailer heading on stage last, about a half hour into the episode. Cavett's discussions with Vidal and Flanner were quite controlled, but once Mailer, possibly drunk, shows up it turns into a circus even more overwrought than the town hall event in the main film. Mailer arrives in a rage over some perceived insult from Vidal and fails to connect with a series of embarrassingly lame one-liners. Some of his insults are so incoherent Cavett asks him directly what he even means, and Mailer has no coherent response. The audience turns on Mailer quickly as well, which only provides him with even more energy as he wonders if they're all idiots because, of course, everyone misunderstands him.
The fold-out insert booklet features an essay by film critic Melissa Anderson.
Final Thoughts:
“Town Bloody Hall” may not be the kind of movie you desperately need to see on Blu-ray with a new high-def transfer. But Criterion has loaded this release with extra features that make it a worthy addition to anyone's home video collection.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Taste Of Cherry

TASTE OF CHERRY (Kiarostami, 1997)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date July 21, 2020
Review by Christopher S. Long

Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi) spends the bulk of Abbas Kiarostami's “Taste Of Cherry” (1997) circling the dusty roads of suburban Tehran, offering rides to a series of men. Is he out cruising? One rough-edged worker thinks so, and threatens to punch Badii in the face, but as our protagonist interrogates each man – a soldier, a security guard, a seminary student, a taxidermist – it becomes increasingly clear (or perhaps slightly less opaque, as Kiarostami is in no hurry to show his cards) that he has a different, though equally primal, goal in mind.

Badii probes relentlessly to ferret out each man's job situation, and once he learns that each is in financial need, he offers a substantial payment if they will help him with a job. That's predatory behavior by any standard, especially from a (presumably) wealthy city man seeking out working-class marks, but once Badii finally reveals the nature of this mysterious job, and his pressing, existential need, viewers may forgive him. Your first viewing of the film will be different whether you know this “twist” or not, so consider this a spoiler warning. Proceed at your own risk.

Badii intends this very evening to swallow a bottle of sleeping pills and lie down in a hillside grave he has already dug for himself. He wants someone to come by in the morning and call out his name; if he doesn't respond, that person must bury him and then can take the money in his car as reward for a good deed. He dismisses it as “only twenty shovelfuls of dirt” but it's not hard to understand why each of his new acquaintances is shaken by the request, and it requires multiple attempts before he finds a reluctant taker.

As shocking as the premise is, especially in an Islamic Republic where suicide is complete taboo, Kiarostami makes a bolder decision by refusing to explain his desperate protagonist's motivations. “Taste Of Cherry” is one of the most powerful ripostes to literal-minded viewers who constantly cry out for more background information, demanding that filmmakers shine a floodlight on their characters' darkest, most private spaces so that everyone can clearly see into every cobwebbed corner.

Kiarostami is a more mature and empathetic storyteller than that and it's difficult not to hear him speaking directly to the audience when Badii responds to one man's request for an explanation, “How come? It wouldn't help you to know and I can't talk about it.” There's your Masterclass in screenwriting right there. Ershadi was a non-professional actor at the time, but his sad, piercing eyes and the finely worn lines of his fifty-ish face convey a depth of insight that no flashback or exposition could possibly match. To explain would eradicate the mystery and, anyway, perhaps he doesn't know why. Or maybe there's no why at all. Does it change how much you care?

Few directors were better than Kiarostami at filming extended driving sequences. Badii's car kicks up billowing dust clouds at a hardscrabble construction site and winds along sinuous hillside roads, perhaps the same paths already traveled on foot by the unforgettable young hero of “Where Is The Friend's House?” (1987). One of Badii's passengers convinces him to take a scenic detour, possibly signaling a turn in the story itself as nature's beauty forcefully asserts its presence. Yet we have to squint closely to detect any sign that Badii is wavering, that he has found anything new to connect to.

Will he or won't he? That might not even be the right question to ask. The film's focused narrative seems locked into a binary resolution, but Kiarostami's ending insists that cinema encompasses far greater worlds than mere narrative. The ending, which I will leave unspoiled here, drove some critics batty (the later, great Roger Ebert detested it, but found little value in the rest of the movie either) while others found it sublime. More than twenty years later, it remains a fertile subject for debate, which I suppose is a defining element of much of Kiarostami's open-ended, reflexive, and deeply sensitive art. 

Criterion released “Taste of Cherry” on DVD way back in 1999 with an SD transfer that seemed strong enough at the time, but which pales in comparison to this 4K digital restoration which is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio.

The image resolution is sharp throughout and the color palette looks subdued and naturalistic – lots of earth tones from its locations. I've never had the chance to see this either on film or in high-def, so this 1080p transfer was a genuine pleasure to watch. I can't imagine the movie has ever looked any better.

The linear PCM mono sound track is sharp and spare, mostly dialogue and naturalistic location sounds. Optional English subtitles support the Persian dialogue.

The 1999 DVD release offered only one notable feature, a interview of Kiarostami (18 min.) by film scholar Jamsheed Akrami, and that has been included on this new Blu-ray.

Criterion has also added some new features for this release, starting with “Project” (1997, 39 min.), a “sketch” film which shows Kiarostami preparing for the full shoot. In most of the film's conversations that take place in the car, Kiarostami was actually sitting in the other seat directing his actors, something he seamlessly hides in the final cut, so it's enlightening to see him “show his work” here.

Film scholar Hamid Naficy (2019, 17 min.) provides a brief overview of Kiarostami's career preceding this film and then analyzes a few moments in the movie.

Criterion has also included a short episode (7 min.) from the Criterion Channel's “Observations on Film Art” series in which film scholar Kristin Thompson underscores a few basic themes and element common to much of Kiarostami's work.

We also get a Theatrical Trailer (1 min.)

The slim fold-out booklet includes an essay by critic A.S. Hamrah.

Final Thoughts:
Kiarostami had already been making films for over 20 years and was at the peak of his career, yet “Taste Of Cherry”, which won the Palme d'Or in 1997, is frequently highlighted as the film that enabled him to break out as a major force on the international festival circuit and, with it, much of the Iranian New Wave. Its victory at Cannes and its 1999 release by Criterion made it the first Kiarostami film that many Americans saw, providing both the opportunity to discover some of his previous masterpieces (such as the amazing “Close-Up”) and to keep up with the series of landmark works he released until his death in 2016.

With this Blu-ray upgrade of an early title, Criterion has provided a superb high-def transfer and an array of supplements that should please any Kiarostami fan.