Thursday, September 2, 2021

Still Life

 


STILL LIFE (Jia, 2006)

Playing on the Criterion Channel in September 2021

Review by Christopher S. Long


This month, the Criterion Channel is featuring eight films by Chinese director Jia Zhangke: “Xiao Wu” (1997), “Platform” (2000), “Unknown Pleasures” (2002), “The World” (2004), “Still Life” (2006), “24 City” (2008), “A Touch of Sin” (2013), “Mountains May Depart” (2015).

Jia may be my favorite filmmaker of the 21st century, so I'm posting a few reviews intended to encourage viewers to check out these extraordinary films while they're available on such a great platform.


Writer-director Jia Zhangke is perhaps the most prominent member of the Sixth Generation of Chinese filmmakers; he also happens to be one of the very best filmmakers working today. His first breakthrough hit on the festival circuit was “Platform” (2000) and he sealed his reputation as a modern master with 2004’s “The World”, the best movie ever made about cell phones.

Jia’s career continued to soar, and in 2006 he exploded onto everyone’s radar by winning the Golden Lion in Venice with “Still Life.” “Platform” was set in Jia’s hometown province of Shanxi in central China. In “Still Life” he sends two Shanxi natives south to Fengjie along the Yangtze River. Like many areas along the river, most of the residents of Fengjie have been displaced by the massive Three Gorges Dam project, now the largest power station in the world.

Coal miner Han Sanming (Han Sanming, a real-life coal miner who had small roles in earlier Jia films) has come to Fengjie to find his ex-wife and daughter, neither of whom he has seen in sixteen years. Treated in a largely separate story, nurse Shen Hong (Zhao Tao, Jia's frequent collaborator and now his wife) comes searching for her estranged husband. Both of these seekers will have to be very patient, as will viewers.

The only growth business left in the 2000-year-old town is demolition. Unable to locate his wife at her now submerged address (“See that island? That’s your town.”), Han settles for work on a crew while he waits for his wife to return. There’s really not much left to do in Fengjie except to wait. Shen Hong has to wait too, as her husband is a big-time boss (of the demolition company) who is difficult to track down. She whiles the time with one of her husband’s friends and glides along the fringes of the local business community.

As is usually the case with Jia, plot recedes into the background as time and location are emphasized. Working with high-def video, Jia and his great cinematographer Yu Lik-wai explore the environment so thoroughly and with such attention to detail that “Still Life” has the feel of a documentary, which is not a coincidence since Jia simultaneously shot the documentary “Dong” (2006) in the same setting. Nominally about painter Liu Xiaodong, the documentary rambles freely, sometimes observing Liu at work, and other times simply roving through the city. The two lead characters from “Still Life” wander through the documentary at different points as Jia’s fictional universe bleeds into his non-fictional one. One shot is even repeated in both movies. Jia isn’t necessarily making a formal point about the two modes of filmmaking so much as he is telling one unified story from multiple perspectives that are readily interchangeable.

In his early works, Jia could loosely be described as a neo-realist but beginning with “The World” he tapped into a more fanciful sensibility. In “The World” he used animated sequences when characters texted each other on their phones. In “Still Life” he blurs another boundary as live-action (“real”) settings suddenly become animated. A UFO abruptly shows up in one scene, providing an unlikely transition from Han’s story to Shen’s. It is never mentioned again. In another shot, a tall building in the background shrugs off its foundation and launches into the sky like a rocket ship. Why? According to Jia, it just looked like a rocket ship. Simple enough.

This playfulness reflects a generosity of spirit that imbues even the drabbest of Jia’s settings with a sense of vibrancy. Fengjie may be in the process of being sucked into the maelstrom of the Three Gorges Dam but the city and the countryside still shine like jewels. The beautiful river and hills always lurk in the background whether partly shrouded by polluted skies or shown in full bloom on a rare crystal clear day.

The people of Fengjie also refuse to go gentle into that good night. Even with limited options for work and play, they do their best to thrive. A boy shows up from time to time to whistle a tune and bum a smoke; he breezes through life just fine. Han also befriends a young man who models his every mannerism after Hong Kong movie star Chow Yun-Fat. He’s a wanna-be gangster with a smile and a snappy way of lighting a cigarette. Their budding friendship leads to yet another great cell phone scene in Jia’s oeuvre when the two exchange numbers and ring tones, setting up a powerful payoff later on.

Exchange is another major theme in the film as the characters trade luxury items with each other. Jia even uses on-screen titles to divide the film (very loosely) into chapters: cigarettes, tea, liquor, and toffee (or candy.) According to the director, these are items that were all strictly rationed in the past and had only recently become more widely available by 2006. They function here as means of forging a quick connection, or showing affection.

Like so many of my favorite films, “Still Life” affords the pleasure of spending time with characters and watching events leisurely unfold in real time. Jia’s use of long takes isn’t nearly as programmatic as in films by notoriously “challenging” directors such as Tsai Ming-liang or Bela Tarr. He varies duration and scale freely, moving from long-distance landscape shots to close-ups (though he seldom uses extreme close-ups) to strike a balance between the people and places, both of equal importance, in his movies. While “Still Life” offers several beautiful shots of distant hills, the most enduring image of all is probably that of Han in his tattered t-shirt that somehow looks distinct even compared to all the other tattered t-shirts.

Playful and moody, naturalistic and surreal, “Still Life” is a film not to be missed. It's probably my favorite Jia film, which means I also consider it one of the best films of the 21st century.


Platform

 


PLATFORM (Jia, 2000)

Playing on the Criterion Channel in September 2021

Review by Christopher S. Long


This month, the Criterion Channel is featuring eight films by Chinese director Jia Zhangke: “Xiao Wu” (1997), “Platform” (2000), “Unknown Pleasures” (2002), “The World” (2004), "Still Life' (2006), "24 City" (2008), "A Touch of Sin" (2013), and "Mountains May Depart" (2015).

Jia may be my favorite filmmaker of the 21st century, so I'm posting a few reviews intended to encourage viewers to check out these extraordinary films while they're available on such a great platform. And speaking of Platforms...


On one of the most famous intertitles in film history, Jean-Luc Godard proclaimed that his film “Masculin Feminin” (1966) could also have been called “The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola.” Jia Zhangke could just as easily describe “Platform” (2000), his second feature film, as “The Children of Mao and Coca-Cola.”

“Platform” is history writ small. Though the Cultural Revolution “officially” ended with Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, Mao’s influence on Chinese culture was still enormous in 1979 when “Platform” begins. In the opening scene, the Fenyang Peasant Culture Group performs a tacky play in which the actors portray the various cars in a train as it pulls into Mao’s hometown of Shaoshan. They have doubtless performed the play hundreds of times, and are resigned to performing it many times again all for the glory of the late, great Chairman.

But life in China is about to change significantly. Deng Xaoping, desperate both to distance himself from the “misguided” policies of Chairman Mao and to improve China’s competitive position in the global arena, opened up China’s culture and economy in the 1980s. New ideas, new fashions and new popular culture flooded into the People’s Republic from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and points much farther west.

The title “Platform” refers to a Chinese pop hit from the early 1980s, and music plays a central role in the film. One night, the troupe members huddle around a radio as it picks up a faint pop song from a Taiwanese radio station. Later, one of them gets hold of a cassette tape of rock-and-roll music, and just as paranoid parents in many 1950s films warned us, rock music encourages the kids to run wild. OK, maybe not exactly wild, but a transformation has begun. In just a few years, the Fenyang Peasant Culture Group becomes the All Star Rock ‘n Breakdance Band and the members of the troupe swap their Little Red Books for electric guitars (the film actually opens with a burst of electronic feedback which then turns into a traditional Chinese melody).

If I haven’t discussed any of the characters so far, there’s a reason. It’s not that we don’t get to know any of them. Mingliang (Wang Hongwei, a frequent Jia collaborator) is the protagonist and his faltering relationship with not-quite girlfriend Yin Ruijuan (Zhao Tao – Jia's muse and future wife, making her film debut) is the only narrative strand that runs through the entire film. Singer Zhong Ping (Yang Tianyi) and her boyfriend Zhang Jun (Laing Jingdong) are more of an official couple, but have plenty of their own problems along the way. But Jia’s main focus is not on any one character, but rather the changes that occur to the entire troupe, which serves as a stand-in for the broader changes in China in the 1980s, the decade in which Jia (born in 1970) came of age.

The characters are all in their 20s during this pivotal period in Chinese history, and they’re trapped between a Maoist heritage they are only distantly familiar with and a budding capitalism that is courted, but never fully welcomed, in China. The film focuses on this sense of suspension between conflicting ideas or lifestyles. Is it OK to pursue individualistic, materialistic goals? Their parents certainly don’t think so, creating even more tension. Besides, exactly how “open” is Deng’s new China anyway?

Here is a valuable geography lesson for you: China is a big country. “Platform” is not just a Chinese film, but more specifically is set in Shanxi province, in Jia’s hometown of Fenyang, west of Beijing (Jia's first three films are sometimes called his “Hometown Trilogy”). All the characters speak in Shanxi dialect. When Mingliang returns from a trip down south, his friends ask him if the food was any good there. “Yes, but not as good as here.” There’s no cooking like home cooking.

Transportation is another major theme in the film (“Platform” also refers to a train platform) and the characters travel often: by foot, by bus, by train. But every journey is an endless circle which always brings them back home. Even more disturbing, though, is the fact that home is constantly changing. New freedom may (or may not) be liberating, but it's also destabilizing. The future holds promise, but has also never seemed more uncertain. Though they have shucked off the trappings of Mao Zedong Thought, the characters have taken on new burdens and new responsibilities. It’s not easy to keep on rocking in the not-quite free world.

Jia shoots most of the film in long, master shots, his camera only seldom moving in close to the characters. Each scene plays out as a discrete episode that could be a short film unto itself. Some viewers might be put off both by the film’s leisurely pace and its lack of any obvious narrative drive. I was absorbed by it all, but I sometimes found it difficult to keep track of each character’s story.

“Platform” was Jia's second feature film, though the first movie that many festival audiences and critics saw as “Xiao Wu” (AKA “Pickpocket”) received a more limited release. I didn't fully appreciate it at the time, but today I see it as one of his best, along with “The World” and “Still Life” (two of my favorite films of all-time). Like all of Jia's work, “Platform” demands patience and effort from viewers, but meet it halfway and I think you will be amply rewarded.



Friday, August 27, 2021

Beasts of No Nation

 

BEAST OF NO NATION (Fukunaga, 2015)

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Aug 31, 2021

Review by Christopher S. Long

In the opening act of “Beasts of No Nation” (2015), young Agu (Abraham Attah) plays soccer, performs impromptu “imagination TV” acts with his friends, and pisses on his older brother as a bath-time prank. Embraced by his loving family, Agu has managed to lead a relatively happy childhood even though his country (an unnamed African nation, as per the title) is in a state of war between government and rebel forces.

Agu likely has little sense of how fragile the buffer zone in which he lives truly is, but all innocence is shattered when government soldiers round up the villagers, declare them rebels, and begin mass executions. Agu escapes into the bush where he is discovered by a rebel faction, a group consisting mostly of child soldiers led by the menacing Commandant (Idris Elba).

The Commandant is all ambition and no conscience, a sociopath capable of slaughtering villagers, raping children, and then piously leading his young charges in a prayer before their next righteous mission. Writer-director-cinematographer Cary Joji Fukunaga, adapting a novel by Uzodinma Iweala, turns his agile camera on a gallery of unspeakable horrors, never more effectively than when showing the carefully orchestrated indoctrination program used to brainwash vulnerable children like Agu. The Commandant initially dehumanizes Agu as “this thing” before later establishing himself as a domineering surrogate father, the boy's only protector. Agu (along with others) is subjected to ritual execution and burial alive to be “reborn” as a loyal rebel soldier, ready to follow all orders. Even to kill innocents on command.

Any movie on a topic so grim must stare into the abyss; to shy away from depicting violence for fear of alienating viewers would be irresponsible. But there are times when Fukunaga's unflinching gaze strays into questionable territory. What is the benefit of filming a meticulously choreographed sequence in which a boy shoots a woman in the head while she is being raped? That's a sincere question. Nobody has been appointed as the official moral gatekeeper in such matters, and Fukunaga's urgency in portraying the bleak plight of child soldiers is never in doubt. However, not everything that can be depicted audiovisually should be.

Elba received wide acclaim for his smoldering but never showy performance. A savvy exploiter, the Commandant is a plausible monster, a man who mistakes his ability to bully frightened children as heroic leadership, styling himself as a man of destiny entitled to fame and glory. He feels sincerely betrayed when he learns that his superiors see him as what he truly is, a disposable cog in a profitable war machine. The praise for Elba is fully justified, but Abraham Attah, a non-professional actor from Ghana making his debut, deserves every bit as much attention for his ability to navigate a perilous journey from playful child to trained killer while not fully losing his humanity.

Filmed primarily in Ghana, “Beasts of No Nation” showcases landscapes along with characters, from the red-brown soil along battle-scarred roads to the vast forest canopy stretching to the edges of the wide-screen frame. Fukunaga's cinematography is perhaps too beautiful at times, considering the ugliness of the events depicted, but his mobile camera immerses the audience fully in a harrowing environment.

The film ends on a note of tentative hope that may feel like the first “safe” choice made, allowing viewers a respite from the misery. After such a grueling experience, it's a welcome decision, even if it may seem a bit forced.



Video:

The film is presented in its original 2.39:1 aspect ratio. This “2k digital master, approved by director Cary Joji Fukunaga” looks great, with vibrant colors and sharp image detail. It's a recent film shot digitally, so this 1080p transfer likely looks very close to the original image.

Audio:

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track is “remastered from the original digital audio master files” and sounds both sharp and dense, with dialogue, sound effects, and music all well-presented. No distortion or drop-off, etc. Optional English subtitles support the audio.

Extras:

The film is accompanied by a new 2021 feature-length commentary track by Fukunaga and first assistant director Jon Mallard.

“Passion Project' (2021, 61 min.) is a new documentary produced by Criterion which features interviews with Fukunaga, novelist Uzodinma Iweala, producer Amy Kaufman, Abraham Attah, Idris Elba, and others. Fukunaga discusses his long-standing interest in the plight of child soldiers, and how he had been preparing a project on the subject for some time before he came across Iweala's novel. Iweala speaks about his book's genesis, including being mentored in college by Jamaica Kincaid. This feature also spends a good amount of time making it clear that the child actors were protected while filming this frightening story, a question that has to occur to anyone watching the movie.

Criterion has also included a discussion (21 min.) between Fukunaga and cultural commentator Franklin Leonard which touches on some of the same issues as the documentary does.

We also get an interview (20 min.) with costume designer Jenny Eagan and a Trailer (2 min.)

Final Thoughts:

“Beasts of No Nation” received attention not just for its content, but for its release strategy. Netflix won a fierce bidding war for distribution rights, then debuted it on their platform along with a simultaneous theatrical release. It was a groundbreaking decision at the time as well as a controversial one, prompting major exhibition chains to boycott the film. It's not the crowd-pleaser you might have expected Netflix to favor for such a daring move. The gambit didn't pay off in box-office returns, but the film earned both critical plaudits and numerous awards, though, to much derision, the Academy snubbed it completely.


Monday, August 23, 2021

After Life

 


AFTER LIFE (Kore-eda, 1998)

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Aug 10, 2021

Review by Christopher S. Long

“You died yesterday. I'm sorry for your loss.”

In writer/director/editor Hirokazu Kore-eda's “After Life” (1998), the recently deceased gather to be processed for their impending eternity. You can understand how it might take a little time to adjust. Their way station is a ramshackle office building run by a small staff of functionaries who gently explain the situation to the newcomers. Each arrival has three days to select their most cherished memory – a team will then reconstruct that memory as a short film in which the dearly departed will live forever, shuffling off the rest of their mortal coils.

Like much of the greatest speculative fiction (Octavia E. Butler's “Kindred” springs to mind), “After Life” spends no time explaining or justifying its fantastical premise; it is simply the stipulation around which this film's reality is constructed. The dead souls accept the set-up with few questions as well, though one person asks if everyone gets sent here, both good and bad. A counselor merely nods yes before continuing with business.

Most of the cases proceed routinely; the staff has been handling them for years. Perhaps many, many years; it's hard to judge time here. But a few clients have difficulty choosing a memory. Watanabe (Taketoshi Naito), a company man who died at 70, looks back on his unremarkable career and his unremarkable marriage and struggles to choose a vivid, happy memory he'd want to relive on an endless loop. His dithering causes trouble for his caseworkers, Takashi (Arata) and Shiori (Erika Oda), who try to guide Watanabe through the process while also struggling with their own personal challenges. They wait as Watanabe re-watches his life on a series of low-fi videotapes, one for each year lived.

Perhaps surprisingly, “After Life” hardly deals with theological issues at all. There is little talk of gods or heaven or even who recorded those VHS tapes of Watanabe's life, only pragmatic references to the next place to which all the clients must be sent by the end of the week to clear room for the following week's batch of dead travelers. The job is to keep the line moving as efficiently as possible.

Kore-eda is much more interested in the nature of memory, elusive and protean. When an older woman fondly recalls the beautiful dress she received as a childhood gift, her memory has clearly diverged greatly from the actual lived reality. Had she died ten years earlier or ten years later, that same recollection would have been different still. She has bent, blurred, and buffed that treasured memory over the years to best suit her present, a vast improvement over the more mundane reality. Like everyone, she is a writer, the author of her own history, a work in a constant state of revision. Well, at least until a few days after you die.

Memory can also be a burden. One client is relieved to learn that when he chooses his special moment, he will forget everything else. The rest of his life, it seems, only caused him pain, but once it is forgotten, it can't cause any more suffering. Sometimes memory can be trite. A teenage girl initially chooses to relive the joy of a ride on Splash Mountain at Disney Land, until a weary Shiori explains to her that dozens of other people make the same selection. Maybe she should pick something a little more personal.

Kore-eda honed his craft as a documentarian, and he brings that non-fiction sensibility to his second feature film. He actually interviewed about 500 people, asking them to share their fondest memories, ones they might want to relive in the next life. About half of the clients in “After Life” are played by these interviewees. Much of the film is shot as a series of head-on interviews, where the recently deceased speak at length about their experiences, smiling about happy childhood idylls, bragging about their sexual exploits, or recounting harrowing stories of survival during the war.

Kore-eda credits cinematographer Yutaka Yamazaki, an accomplished documentary camera man, with much of the film's naturalistic design, not just the interviews but the lived-in feel of the run-down office building, and the details of that space seemingly caught on the fly. There is nothing the least bit mystical or even slightly surreal about this unique workplace – just a big waiting room, dormitories, and harried, underpaid staffers rushing to get their cases resolved. Kore-eda also employed a second cinematographer, Masayoshi Sukita, to shoot the reenacted memory-films, which are integrated into the whole by showing “behind-the-scenes” work of the crews trying to find creative solutions on a tight budget. How about cotton balls to recreate the clouds in one pilot's memory of flying?

By remaining so understated in style, “After Life” focuses its attention respectfully on its subjects, both the newly dead clients and the workers who help to ease them through what could otherwise be a traumatic experience. The result is an empathetic and sometimes deeply moving meditation on memory, loss, and perseverance.



Video:

The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. From Criterion: “Approved by director Hirokazu Kore-eda, this new 2K digital restoration was created by TV Man Union. A new digital transfer was created in 2K resolution on a DFT Scanity film scanner, from a 35 mm duplicate negative made from the Super 16 mm original camera negative, at IMAGICA Lab in Tokyo.”

The high-def transfer of this film, which was shot on Super 16, is grainy and features a muted color palette – the drab building that houses most of the action isn't exactly decorated to impress. Detail is sharp and the naturalistic look of this transfer feels just right for the material.

Audio:

The linear PCM mono track is fairly simple, handling the spare, functional sound design of the film quite well. Optional English subtitles support the Japanese audio.

Extras:

The film is accompanied by a commentary track by film scholar Linda C. Ehrlich, author of “The Films of Kore-eda Hirokazu.” She covers a broad array of topics, from details about the film's production to an analysis of the film's major themes, including the nature of memory.

Criterion has also included a new interview (19 min.) with Kore-eda, in which he discusses the film's genesis, including how he was at least partly inspired by his childhood experience with his grandfather who suffered from Alzheimer's. He also talks about his early time working in documentary and how that influenced his feature film making.

We also get interviews with each of the film's two cinematographers. Yutaka Yamazaki (19 min.) also talks about how his documentary experience influenced his approach to “After Life,” his first feature film. Masayoshi Sukita (15 min.) provides a bit of a career overview, from his experience as a photographer (including many portraits of David Bowie) to his days covering counterculture movements in both Japan and America.

The final extras are a collection of Deleted Scenes (17 min.) and a Theatrical Trailer (2 min.)

The slim fold-out booklet includes an essay by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen.

Final Thoughts:

Kore-eda won the Palme d'Or in 2018 for “Shoplifters” and has earned critical praise for numerous other films like “Still Walking” (2008) and “Like Father, Like Son” (2013). He also directed “Air Doll” (2009), proof that you don't have to get it right every time to still be viewed as a modern master. “After Life” was Kore-eda's second feature, following “Maborosi” (1995), and was his first break-out hit. Criterion's Blu-ray release features a sharp high-def transfer and a handful of supplemental features that do justice to this thoughtful, sensitive film.


Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Mirror

 


MIRROR (Tarkovsky, 1975)

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date July 6, 2021

Review by Christopher S. Long

Andrei Tarkovsky's most overtly autobiographical film may also be his most impenetrable film, at least for viewers who insist on interpreting meaning, onfiguring out how the various piece fit together. But why waste a trip (either your first or your fiftieth) through “Mirror” (1975) on such childish games? Stop trying to solve the puzzle – there is no solution, and possibly no puzzle at all. Let the images and sounds of this poetic journey flow over you, cherish them for their sheer beauty and emotional resonance, and you may find “Mirror” to be a cinematic experience like few others.

Co-written by Tarkovsky and Alexander Misharin and loosely structured (and unstructured) as the reminiscences of a dying poet named Alexei, “Mirror” ranges freely across time periods. Young Alexei (Ignat Daniltsev) lives with his loving mother Maria (Margarita Terekhova) while also yearning for an absent father who only intermittently visits the family home, an isolated sanctuary that can only protect the boy for so long from the eruption of World War II. An adult Alexei (heard, not seen) argues with his ex-wife (also played by Terekhova), often about their son Ignat (also played by Daniltsev). The fact that the same actors play two different characters in two different time frames provides just the faintest essence of how disorienting “Mirror” can be even after repeat viewings.

It would be misleading to talk much more about plot. Just as the dying Alexei quests through his timeline to relive his most vivid memories, a viewer fresh off a screening of “Mirror” will likely recall a handful of evocative scenes with no particular connection to each other. In one of the film's most-referenced sequences, young Alexei and his mother watch helplessly as their barn burns down. The camera peers through a doorway partially veiled by a cataract of rain as the flames outside lick high and whip in the wind. Like so many Tarkovsky films, “Mirror” heavily emphasizes the natural elements. A field of tall grass ripples in a sudden breeze, a room crumbles apart under a flood of water pouring through the walls.

In a moment likely dreamed by Alexei, the mother washes herself at a basin. As she lifts her head from the water, her face is completely obscured by a thick mass of her dripping wet hair. Any way she moves, her mask of soaked hair hides all vestiges of human expression, a monstrous image straight out of a horror movie, yet perhaps intended simply as a tangible remembrance of mother. Later, we see the mother levitating above a bed, this time with her hair stretched out behind her, defying gravity, mother as the all-powerful mystical figure beyond mere mortal comprehension.

With actors playing multiple roles and the film drifting from era to era and from dreams to reality with no clear delineation among them, the most concrete presence in “Mirror” may be the camera itself. Free-ranging, cinematographer Georgy Rerberg's camera roams in long takes through the corridors of the house, slowly turning corners, panning to look into and away from many mirrors and through windows to the outside world, frequently from no identifiable perspective save perhaps that of Tarkovsky himself.

A brief listing of autobiographical elements may be relevant. Tarkovsky meticulously reconstructed his childhood home on its original foundations to serve as a major production set, and cast as his mother as the older (briefly glimpsed) version of the mother in the film. His father, writer Arseny Tarkovsky, was also largely absent from home, but is present in the film in voice-over, reciting his own poetry. But while Alexei (at all ages) is clearly a stand-in of sorts for Tarkovsky, don't assume a direct, literal correlation. That's too facile a take for such a complex, ambitious film.

“Mirror” doesn't just relay the experience of an individual recalling his life, but also the collective memory of a nation. Mixed in with the recollected moments and the dream sequences, Tarkovsky also uses black-and-white newsreel footage, including a harrowing sequence of Red Army soldiers crossing muddy Lake Syvash in 1943, material that had not been seen previously by the public. Alexei's story of a childhood before the war, an adolescence defined by the war, and an adulthood in the aftermath of the war is also the story of his whole country. Likewise, the mother in the film is not just a mix of Tarkovsky's real mother and Alexei's fictional mother, but the embodiment of multiple generations of Russian mothers.

But that's enough interpretation. Better to remember “Mirror” for its indelible images: the levitating mother, the disappearing heat ring left behind on the table by a ghostly tea cup, and the bird that lands on a boy's head. What does it all add up to? A masterpiece.



Video:

The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. This new 2K digital transfer showcases naturalistic colors and sharp image resolution. I've only ever had the chance to see “Mirror” on the mediocre old Kino DVD from 2000 and this 1080p transfer looks like an entirely new movie by comparison. I can't evaluate how true to the original it is, but it looks great.

Audio:

The linear PCM Mono sound track is sharp with no distortion. Dialogue, sound effects, and music (a mix of classical – lots of Bach – and an electronic-heavy score by Eduard Artemyev) are all cleanly mixed. Optional English subtitles support the Russian audio.

Extras:

Criterion has loaded this two-disc Blu-ray set with a diverse array of extras, both new and older.

Disc One includes the film and a single extra. “Andrei Tarkovsky: A Cinema Prayer” (2019, 102 min.) is a recent documentary by Andrei A. Tarkovsky, the filmmaker's son. It primarily consists of audio of director Andrei Tarkovsky speaking, played along with film clips and family photos. The director speaks frankly about this childhood, his philosophy, and his career.

Disc Two's collection begins with “The Dream In the Mirror” (2021, 54 min.), a new documentary by Louise Milne and Sean Martin, shot for Criterion. This documentary features several of Tarkovsky's collaborators and family members, including his sister Marina who tells us that their parents “weren't too thrilled with what they saw” when they attended a screening of “Mirror.” This feature touches on many details about the film's production.

“Islands: Georgy Rerberg” (2007, 52 min.) is a Russian documentary shining a light on the career of the cinematographer who shot “Mirror” as well as Tarkovsky's “Stalker” (1977).

The disc also includes a new interview (22 min.) with electronic composer Eduard Artemyev who explains that Tarkovsky informed him he wanted the sound in the film to be a character in its own right.

We also get a 2004 interview (32 min.) with screenwriter Alexander Misharin who co-wrote “Mirror” with Tarkovsky. He's a great speaker and storyteller who goes into detail about the tortured development of “Mirror.” He also speaks about his friendship and long-term working relationship with Tarkovsky. And he takes credit for “forcing” Tarkovsky to finally make “Mirror” when the director remained uncertain about actually realizing his passion project.

The extras wrap up with a couple of short news clips featuring Tarkovsky on French television in January 1978, running 4 min. and 3 min. respectively.

The thick, square-bound insert booklet runs 88 pages. It starts with an essay by critic Carmen Gray. The bulk of the booklet reprints the original 1968 film proposal for “Mirror” and then the literary script for the film, both by Tarkovsky and Misharin.

Final Thoughts:

For quite some time during post-production, Tarkovsky feared his footage couldn't be shaped into a coherent film, that he might have failed to achieve the dream project he'd labored over for nearly a decade. Today, “Mirror” is considered both one of Tarkovsky's masterworks and one of the greatest films of all-time. In the 2012 “Sight and Sound” poll, it finished in the top 20 films as voted by critics, and in the top 10 as voted by directors. Amazingly, it has never previously received a proper high-definition release in the North American region, making this Criterion release one of the major home theater events of the year. With its sharp transfer and strong collection of extras, this two-disc Blu-ray set from Criterion does justice to this remarkable movie. To borrow a phrase from a great artist, it's true poetic cinema.





Thursday, July 15, 2021

Deep Cover

 


DEEP COVER (Duke, 1992)

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date July 13, 2021

Review by Christopher S. Long

Director Bill Duke doesn't waste any time plunging viewers into the grimy, fallen world of “Deep Cover” (1992).

It's Cleveland, 1972, and a car cuts through the snow on a street festooned with Christmas lights as distant carolers sing “Silent Night.” The holiday cheer is undercut when the scene moves inside the car where a father snorts coke before asking his young son, “Whatchu want for Christmas?” The boy, Russell Stevens Jr., then watches helplessly as his father robs a liquor store and is shot to death, his blood spattering the car window. In voice-over, the adult Russell Jr. states bluntly that as he watched his father die in the snow, “I only had one thought; it wasn't gonna happen to me.”

Jump ahead twenty years and Russell (Laurence Fishburne in his first leading role) appears determined to keep his vow. Now a morally upright police officer, he reports for an interview with DEA Agent Gerald Carver (Charles Martin Smith) ready to do his duty. The smug Carver tries to ambush him with a racist challenge, but Russell's cool refusal to take the bait lands him Carver's respect and a dangerous assignment to go undercover as a drug dealer to infiltrate a Los Angeles cocaine ring.

So Russell sinks deeper into the muck where he encounters two-bit hoods, corrupt Latin American politicians, and, filthiest of all, David Jason (Jeff Goldblum), a crooked lawyer who dreams of becoming a drug kingpin, as long as it doesn't take too much work. “Deep Cover” features many sleazy characters and wild performances, but nobody embraces his own vileness with as much gusto as Goldblum. David can shift seamlessly from teaching his adorable daughter her multiplication tables to celebrating his first murder by leaning out of a moving car and shouting, “Then we'll have jumbo barbecued shrimp, you motherfucker!” When told by Russell that his sexual attraction to black women stems from his racism (“Maybe you feel like you're fucking a slave”), David just shrugs – that's fine by him. Your conscience can't be bothered when you don't have one.

The script by Michael Tolkin and Henry Bean was originally written for a white protagonist, but a studio executive hoping to cash in on the success of films like “Boyz n The Hood” (1991) proposed shifting to a black lead. In the process, director Bill Duke adapts many elements of classical Hollywood film noir, predominantly the domain of white characters, to the American War on Drugs, also depicted here as the American War on people of color, waged on violent city streets heavily populated by impoverished black and Latino citizens.

Young Russell may have sworn “it wasn't gonna happen to me” but many film noir protagonists are victims of a sinister fate beyond their control. In “Deep Cover” characters like Agent Carver (who is white) seem determined to ensure that “it” will indeed “happen” to Russell. That's what's supposed to happen to the black child of a junkie burglar, after all. Russell has his own plans, detailed in his frequent voice-over, perhaps the most traditionally noir-ish element in the film. “Deep Cover”, shot by cinematographer Bojan Bazelli, also transforms the inky black-and-white shadows of classical noir to the hot reds and sickly yellows of the City of Angels in the early '90s.

Race and/or class define most character interactions. Russell (posing as drug dealer “John Hull”) and David become business partners, but they'll never be friends for the simple reason that David is an entitled racist who always considers himself superior. Once, when Russell warns David, after one of his smarmy racist rants, to “watch your mouth” the lawyer snaps back like a spoiled child, “I can say anything I fucking want to say!” Which has, indeed, always been an assumed privilege in David's world, whereas the film shows Russell forced to constantly measure his words, not just to maintain his “deep cover” but to survive in American society.

The drug/crime plot is mostly standard issue, but even its more cliched or implausible touches are delivered with operatic flair by Duke and his cast, imbuing the film with a nervy brashness that powers it through its rougher patches. The late, great Gregory Sierra, playing a cocaine dealer, giddily channels the animal spirit of Al Pacino's Tony Montana when he disposes of an underling by the bloody and highly theatrical use of a pool cue. Another major confrontation takes place at a drug kingpin's headquarters, a movie theater where the bad guy is screening a Luis Bunuel film because, as we all know, that's just the kind of thing drug kingpins like to do with their free time. At least when they're directed by a graduate of the AFI Conservatory.

Fishburne shines in his first leading role, as a man repulsed by his corrupt world and everyone in it, including himself once he succumbs to the tempttions of the lifestyle of a high-rolling drug dealer. Goldblum wears the mantle of a shameless sleazebag so comfortably it's difficult not be won over by his undeniable charm even though Duke never lets us forget for a second that David is a loathsome, irredeemable pig.



Video:

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. This new 1080p transfer “approved by director Bill Duke” showcases bright primary colors and strong detail even in the darkest nighttime scenes. It doesn't quite have the grainy look you might expect from a (neo)noir, but this high-def transfer is strong all around.

Audio:

The film is presented with a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 sound track. Both sound effects and music, a mix of pop songs and original score by Michel Colombier, sound sharp with no evidence of distortion. Optional English SDH subtitles support the English audio.

Extras:

Criterion's collection of supplements consist primarily of interviews with the filmmakers and with critics.

First, the disc includes an interview with Bill Duke (2021, 18 min.) in which the actor/director credits some of his major influences (Gilbert Moses, Mario van Peebles, etc.) then discusses his career both as an actor in films like “Car Wash”, “American Gigolo”, and “Predator” and as a trailblazing television director – he was the first black director on series such as “Dallas.”

Next we get video of a 2018 post-screening Q&A panel (56 min.) at the AFI Conservatory, featuring Duke and Fishburne and moderated by critic Elvis Mitchell.

In a wide-ranging discussion (35 min.), film scholars Racquel J. Gates and Michael B. Gillespie help to place the film in the context of the '90s boom in African-American cinema and provide details about the film's production.

Scholar Claudrena N. Harold and professor/DJ Oliver Wang talk (17 min.) about the title song “Deep Cover” (by Dr. Dre and introducing Snoop Doggy Dogg) and its significance in hip-hop at the time.

The disc also includes a brief Trailer (44 sec.)

The slim foldout booklet features an essay by Michael B. Gillespie.

Final Thoughts:

“Deep Cover” was part of the early '90s explosion of African-American cinema in mainstream Hollywood. It didn't receive as much attention as John Singleton's “Boyz n the Hood” or Mario van Peebles' “New Jack City” (1991), but it's a significant film in its own right, helping to launch Fishburne as a leading actor and and allowing director Bill Duke to rework film noir in a unique fashion. It's also a hell of a lot of fun. This Criterion release provides a strong high-def transfer and an array of features that argue convincingly for the importance of re-introducing this film to 21st century audiences.


Monday, June 21, 2021

Visions of Eight

 


VISIONS OF EIGHT (Anthology Film, 1973)

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Jun 22, 2021

Review by Christopher S. Long

When executive producer David L. Wolper scoured the globe for a dream team of directors to shoot a film about the 1972 Munich Olympics, he didn't worry about whether any of them were actually fans of the games. Swedish director Mai Zetterling states explicitly that “I am not interested in sports” at the start of her segment, but it's clear that most of her colleagues also prioritize aesthetics over athletics.

With eight different “visions” this anthology film reflects a kaleidoscope of interests and perspectives, but a few dominant themes emerge. Zetterling, the only woman hired for the project, trains her cameras on the burliest men at the competition, weightlifters. She is primarily interested in the obsession required to train for such specific feats. What kind of man spends hours every day frog-hopping across a cold gym floor and pumping his body full of eggs and boiled ham all so he press an iron barbell over his head, preferably a bar loaded with 2 more kilograms than anyone else in the world can lift? I dunno – the kinda guy who really likes to lift heavy stuff, I guess.

British director John Schlesinger similarly wonders what would drive a man to spend hundreds of lonely hours running along country roads day after day just to be able to run a single marathon at the Olympics. While Zetterling's obsessive giants can be viewed with a mixture of awe and affectionate bemusement, Schlesinger's segment unearths a darker side to an athlete's monomania. One competitor reads newspaper reports of the murder of 11 Israeli athletes by Black September terrorists, literally just down the road from him in the Olympic Village, and tries his best to block it all out: “I'm here for one thing, and that's to run a marathon.”

Obviously, the murders overshadow everything else about the Munich Olympics, something Wolper could not have foreseen when he initiated the project. The failure to include anything but a fleeting reference to the terrorist attacks until Schlesinger's late segment also overshadows “Visions of Eight” and was the source of much of the controversy surrounding the film's 1973 release, first at the Cannes Film Festival, then to many negative reviews in the states. Perhaps an obsession with art above all other concerns also needed to be examined.

Along with obsession, the film's other dominant theme is failure. French filmmaker Claude Lelouch titled his segment “The Losers” and he provides a moving portrait of athletes at the moment they know their lifelong ambition has been thwarted, at least for now. A losing boxer rages futilely against cold fate in the ring before heading over to his corner for a consoling hug from his trainer. A gimpy wrestler gamely fights on, but has to be helped to the sideline by his opponent. As men and women weep openly, having given it their all and still come up short, the world moves on, leaving them alone and forgotten (except by Lelouch's camera, at least for a few minutes more.)

As Lelouch renders failure sympathetic, American director Arthur Penn transforms it into a thing of beauty. In the film's boldest stylistic segment, Penn composes slow-motion, sometimes blurry images of pole vaulters racing to their destiny. Soaring high and all alone in the universe, one man after another trips that cruelly fragile bar, then freefalls back to earth along with his dreams. When the montage of failed attempts finally morphs into triumphs, with bodies gracefully contorting themselves to just barely clear the bar, the strategic eruptions of applause (the only audible sounds in many shots) accentuate the viewer's euphoria.

In a segment by Japanese filmmaker Kon Ichikawa (director of 1965's “Tokyo Olympiad”), we see a Trinidadian sprinter pull up lame at the start of the 100-meter dash, then we see him do it again and still again. Ichikawa filmed this 10-second race with more than 30 cameras, pointed at each lane, from the sides and above, to document this brief blaze of kinetic energy. He's not just interested in the failure of the one runner, but in the experience of each of them, with slow-motion close-ups on their faces twisted into grimaces of maximum effort. It's a beautiful piece, but far too short.

The net result is indeed a film of remarkable visions, heavier on spectacle than on insight or analysis. Call it a sports film both by and for non-sports fans perhaps. Had it been filmed any other year, it would be easier to celebrate its chronicle of the beauty of bodies in motion, of the potential of human willpower properly harnessed. But it's difficult to think of the Munich Olympics for anything other than tragedy.


Video:

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Criterion included “Visions of Eight” as part of its sprawling “100 Years of Olympic Films” set back in 2017. I don't own that set for comparison. However, this 1080p transfer is sharp throughout, even with some of the extreme slow-motion footage where detail might be harder to preserve accurately. This 4K restoration “from the 35 mm original camera negative” has no obvious flaws.

Audio:

The linear PCM mono audio track is crisp and provides a strong presentation both of the classical music excerpts and the original score by Henry Mancini. Optional English SDH subtitles support the audio.

Extras:

The film is accompanied by a commentary track by podcasters Amanda Dobbins, Sean Fennessey, and Chris Ryan of “The Ringer.” To the best of my knowledge, this is the first Criterion commentary done by podcasters. They add a sports savvy that's largely absent from the film itself.

The main extra feature is a new Making Of documentary (2021, 54 min.). I suspect many fans only sample snippets from lengthy Making Of features, but this one is packed with information about an unusual and complex production. Claude Lelouch is the only director who worked on “Visions” who is still alive and he is featured here along with historian David Clay Large and the sons of both David L. Wolper and Arthur Penn. The most interesting aspect of this feature is learning about the other directors Wolper approached. Fellini never agreed to participate, but did allow Wolper to use his name to attract other talent. Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene shot a film about Olympic basketball, but his footage wasn't used for reasons that aren't fully explained. What a huge loss for the project – I'd love to know more.

The only other features are a short promotional film (6 min.) that accompanied the film's 1973 release and a short Trailer (3 min.)

The thick insert booklet includes George Plimpton's 1973 “Sports Illustrated” review of the film, an excerpt from David L. Wolper's 2003 memoir “Producer,” and an essay about the film by novelist Sam Lipsyte.

Final Thoughts:

In 1972, tragedy eclipsed athletics at the Munich Olympics. In 2020, global tragedy canceled the Olympics for the first time in the post-WW2 era. Here's hoping the 2021 Tokyo Olympics are remembered only for their pageantry and competition.


Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Streetwise

 


STREETWISE (Bell, 1984)

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date June 15, 2021

Review by Christopher S. Long

After a decade of economic struggles, Seattle officials were eager to rebrand the Emerald City as one of America's “most livable” locations heading into the '80s. Photographer Mary Ellen Mark and journalist Cheryl McCall were sent by “Life” magazine to the new, more “livable” Seattle and they returned with a devastating story about homeless teens eking out perilous livings on the streets. Their article was published in the July 1983 issue of “Life” by which time Mark had already contacted her husband, director Martin Bell, about featuring the kids in a documentary, a project that turned into “Streetwise” (1984).

“Streetwise” introduces viewers first to the big city and its vibrant waterfront, then to the broad array of teens who spend their days and nights along Pike Street near the Pike Street Market. The boys aggressively panhandle while most of the girls work as prostitutes. All look impossibly young while sounding so very much older than their years. Several girls speak quite matter-of-factly about being beaten and raped – by 14 or 15, such horrors have simply become an expected part of their daily lives. They calmly weigh the merits of various pimps (most of them also teens), sizing up who might offer them the best protection.

The film gradually begins to focus more on a few emergent stars. Rat, a scrawny boy who can't weigh 100 pounds soaking wet, dumpster dives for food and constantly hustles for cash, preferably with a more muscular partner backing him up. Lulu, a tough-as-nails lesbian, declares herself the unofficial protector of Pike Street; she evinces no fear whether dealing with violent homeless men or the police.

If this ensemble documentary has a single lead, it's 14-year-old Erin Blackwell, better known as Tiny. Tiny dreams of being “really rich” and living on a farm with lots of horses, but her current reality sees her spending more time at the free clinic where she worries about getting pregnant or contracting another STD from one of her “dates.” With a wry smile and a quick wit, Tiny appears to be a true survivor, though the threat of abrupt, unavoidable violence hangs over even the most grizzled veteran of the streets.

Unlike many of the other children, Tiny hasn't lost all contact with her parents. Tiny's mother feeds her a meager meal at the cheap diner where she works, marveling at how quickly her daughter has grown up in her new life away from home. Mom is fully aware of how Tiny earns her living, but dismisses the tragic situation as “just a phase,” justifying her inaction (and her preference for booze over parenting.) Tiny's decision to live on the streets has its own logic. Her home situation seems even worse, and the street offers the tantalizing illusion of freedom – new friends, no rules, and more money than mom could ever make.

One of the film's most unforgettable scenes involves another parent-child interaction. Dewayne, a skinny scrapper like Rat, visits his father in prison. Dad tries to scare Dewayne straight with a stern lecture about the right way to live that fails to convince when delivered through the plastic screen that separates them. He promises Dewayne “I'm gonna make it up to you” but neither of them believe he'll get a chance to deliver. The poignant image of the father pressing his hand helplessly against the screen as Dewayne turns his back to leave is difficult to shake off.

In contrast to the hand-held “fly on the wall” style associated with direct cinema, Bell prefers more static compositions, sometimes with the camera mounted on a tripod, producing many patient, beautiful shots of a hectic, ugly reality. This aesthetic approach communicates an air of respect for the film's marginalized characters, though it's fair to ask how anyone could witness this brutal exploitation of children without putting down the camera and intervening. In a 2015 excerpt included in the Criterion booklet, Mary Ellen Mark says that she and Bell offered to bring Tiny home with them in 1983, but that Tiny declined. Could they have done more? Could the social workers or other support figures only briefly glimpsed in the film have done more? Whatever the answer, the tragic fates that awaited so many of the film's characters (one of the girls was murdered by serial killer Gary Ridgway) once again raises doubts about the capacity of documentary to serve as a tool for social change.

If they didn't bring Tiny home with them, Mark and Bell did stay in touch with her over the years, shooting several short films and eventually the feature “Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell” (2016) which Bell completed after Mark died in 2015. Now in her forties, Erin is the mother of ten children along with many adorable little dogs. Erin raised some of her children; others became wards of the state at various points. As Erin inherited the problems of her parents, her kids have inherited many of her struggles. Some of them, like Erin, are drug addicts, some in and out of prison or juvie, and some are still wide-eyed, happy little kids. Much of the film consists of Mary Ellen and Erin reminiscing over footage from their earlier films, lending this follow-up project echoes of the “Up” series of documentaries. Whatever her travails, Erin keeps doing what she's best at: keeping on.



Video:

“Streetwise” is presented in a 1.40:1 aspect ratio, pretty close to a fullscreen ratio. “Streetwise” was shot on 16mm film and the 1080p restoration looks grainy as you might expect from the source. This transfer looks fantastic overall with rich detail and a naturalistic color palette.

“Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell” is presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. It was shot on digital, but includes a lot of 16mm footage from “Streetwise.” Obviously, image quality varies based on the source, but this is another strong 1080p transfer.

Audio:

“Streetwise” is presented with a linear PCM mono audio track. “Tiny” gets a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track. “Streetwise” features both direct sound and voice-over, as well as some overlapping dialogue and it's all crisply and cleanly mixed here. The film also makes prominent use of a street performance of “Teddy Bears' Picnic” by Baby Gramps and it sounds great here, as do songs by Tom Waits. “Tiny” doesn't make much use of surround channels, but doesn't need to – the audio is clear and distortion-free. Optional SDH English subtitles support the English dialogue in both films.

Extras:

This single-disc Blu-ray release from Criterion includes two feature films, “Streetwise” and "Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell.” Extras are included along with each feature.

“Streetwise” is accompanied by a commentary track by director Martin Bell.

Criterion has also included a new interview (2020, 10 min.) with Bell in which he discusses the film's genesis (from the “Life” article by Mary Ellen Mark and Cheryl McCall) and provides more detail about the production, including the fact that the budget mostly consisted of funding from singer Willie Nelson.

We also get a new interview (2021, 17 min.) with editor Nancy Baker who discusses how she shaped many hours of footage into a narrative. A Trailer (3 min.) is also included.

Under “Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell,” Criterion offers several more features.

This includes two other short films about Erin Blackwell's life, “Tiny at 20” (1993, 14 min.) and “Erin” (2005, 23 min.) Much of the footage from these two shorts is shown in “Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell.” “Streetwise Revisited: Rat” (14 min.) is a new feature which catches up with Rat, now a husband and a father and owner of a towing company.

“The Amazing Plastic Lady” (1995, 22 min.) is a short documentary. In 1993, Mary Ellen Mark published the book “Indian Circus” about child acrobats in India. This 1995 documentary follows up on that material, largely focusing on Pinky, a 10-year-old girl who can contort her body into a pretzel at will. The film covers both her family and work environment, and shares some clear similarities with “Streetwise.”

The last supplement is a Trailer (2 min.) for “Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell.”

The fold-out booklet includes an essay by historian Andrew Hedden, a reprint of the 1983 “Life” magazine article by McCall and Mark (along with some of Mark's magnificent photographs), and a brief excerpt from Mark's book “Tiny: Streetwise Revisited” in which she discusses her relationship with Erin Blackwell.

Final Thoughts:

“Streetwise” was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, losing to “The Times of Harvey Milk.” This two-film Blu-ray release from Criterion and its supplementary features give viewers the sense of the scope of the project that Mark, Bell, and McCall began with “Streetwise” and continued for the next several decades.


Tuesday, April 20, 2021

The Shooting/Ride In The Whirlwind

The Shooting

THE SHOOTING AND RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND (Hellman, 1966)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date November 11, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

[Director Monte Hellman died April 20 at the age of 91. Often labeled a "maverick" filmmaker, Hellman first honed his craft under producer/guru Roger Corman before striking out on his own to craft entirely personal and often startling (not to mention trippy and existential) entries in familiar genres. His "Two-Lane Blacktop" (1971) is celebrated by many cinephiles, including yours truly, as the greatest road movie ever made. This Criterion release showcases two of Hellman's idiosyncratic Westerns, perhaps the genre he was most identified with. "The Shooting" is also a reminder of one of Hellman's greatest contributions to cinema: serving up some of the very best roles in the career of one of Hollywood's best actors, Warren Oates.]

“The Shooting” (1966) and “Ride In the Whirlwind” (1966) have always been joined at the existential hip for obvious reasons. Funded by Roger Corman and directed by Monte Hellman, the low budget Westerns were shot so close together they even share some of the same horses and were both filmed near Kanab, Utah, a hardscrabble moonscape of sterile rock and foot-high, sickly-green sagebrush. It seems only appropriate that a portion of the area now forms the bottom of Lake Powell as the people of both films could only fully belong to locations that aren't quite there.

Though they'll always be connected, each of Hellman's Westerns offers its distinct pleasures. “The Shooting” is, at its core, a documentary about Warren Oates being awesome. The best inventions seem so obvious you can't imagine nobody had thought of them before, and this movie will leave you flabbergasted that Hellman was the first person who had thought to make Oates a leading man. Has the camera ever loved a face so much? Oates imbues the role of cowhand Willett Gashade with a presence so palpably dense you can almost imagine he's the only person in the film who really exists and has simply dreamed everyone else (maybe the audience too) into existence just to keep himself occupied.

Warren Oates, being awesome

“Everyone else” in this case includes only a handful of other people, one of whom (B.J. Merholz as Leland Drum) is dead before the story begins. Among the living (maybe?) are Gashade's twitchy sidekick Coley (Will Hutchins) and an unnamed woman (Millie Perkins) who simply materializes on a distant ridge before hiring Gashade and Coley to... well, we don't really know. Mostly to pick a perilous path through an unpopulated desert in pursuit of whatever the woman is pursuing and to meet up with a toothy wolf of a hired gun named Billy Spear. Spear is introduced with a close-up of his eyes which must have seemed evocative and anonymous at the time, but which are now instantly recognizable as Jack Nicholson who also co-produced both films with Hellman.

The script by Carole Eastman (writing as Adrien Joyce and soon to be Oscar-nominated for “Five Easy Pieces”) is peppered with terse dialogue like Gashade's “My mind's all unsatisfied with it.” The essence of the project is revealed in a typically efficient exchange: Gashade says, “I don't see no point in it” to which the woman replies, “There isn't any.” Beckett rides again!

If the shooting of “The Shooting” was rushed there's no visual evidence aside from the occasional and irrelevant lapse in continuity editing; this film, like its twin, features consistently gorgeous cinematography by Gregory Sandor. The camera retreats to a high, distant vantage point for long panoramic shots that situate the lonely riders as shimmering dots who almost disappear into the landscape, then pulls in for meticulously composed close-ups that seize the opportunity to explore that pensive sculpture that is Oates' face which critic Kim Morgan so aptly describes as “handsome and sometimes ugly... a face with history and innocence.” In one of the most memorable shots, Oates squats down in the foreground and scans the horizon for the trouble he knows is brewing while Hutchins fiddles around with a bag of flour in the background; a gunshot sends Hutchins into a panicked run for cover with a trail of flour billowing behind him. Oates hardly budges because, well, he's Warren Oates.

“Ride in the Whirlwind” is, alas, an Oates-less oater, but compensates as best as possible by dropping us right into the middle of the no-nonsense action. I may not be qualified to declare anything the “best” of all-time but I can say the film begins with the most convincing stagecoach robbery I've ever seen. A group of men, not yet individuated, mill about nervously as they prepare to swoop in for the score. Shootings occur at a clinical distance that renders them as confusing as they must feel in the dusty swirl of action. It's all over quickly though nowhere close to cleanly.




Hanging out in Ride in the Whirlwind
“Whirlwind” is slightly greener than “The Shooting” and teeming with more human life. And death. The film switches from the robbers to three riders who happen upon a man hanging from a tree. These cowhands may be rugged but they don't dismiss the grisly sight, savvy enough to know that there but for the grace of a disinterested God go they. Vern (Cameron Mitchell) is the veteran leader of this strictly working class bunch, Wes (Nicholson again) the younger man who looks up to him, with the quiet Otis (writer Tom Filer in his only film role) rounding out the pack.

Seeking shelter for the night, they unwittingly stumble upon the thieves' hideout, a point at which “Whirlwind” further distinguishes itself from more formulaic genre entries. The film (with a script also by Nicholson) stages the “duel” between the two groups as a volley of anxious glances, awkward postures and forced politeness (everyone is "much obliged”). They manage to co-exist but quickly huddle up separately to share their fears, and the “bad” guys (led by Harry Dean Stanton without the Harry in his credit) are just as worried as the “good” guys. These are predators who know how easy it is to become prey.

The lesson is reinforced the next morning when a posse, like the mysterious woman in “The Shooting”, suddenly materializes in the morning. They threaten to smoke out the robbers and think, quite reasonably, that Wes, Vern, and Otis are with the outlaws as well, setting up the chase that structures the rest of the movie. Young Wes sulks at the unfairness of it all, “We wasn't doing nothin', damn it!”, an exclamation that now seems connected by genre-veins to “Unforgiven” and its “Deserve's got nothin' to do with it.”

This is the kind of world (maybe not unlike ours) where the innocent can be forced by circumstance to become the guilty and where the plainly guilty can still be victims of summary justice. It's certainly not the kind of world with muscular heroes or righteous lawmen, just survivors and the dead.

I always remembered “The Shooting” as the better of the two, perhaps because of its more abstract, hallucinatory qualities (I've avoided describing the doozy of an ending just for your sake, dear reader), but revisiting the pair for the first time in a half-dozen years I might give the nod to “Whirlwind” now. There's really no way to lose with either. Nicholson is marvelous, surprisingly vulnerable and looking even younger than 28 in one of his earlier major roles. The landscape is once again a character of its own, especially the box canyon that hems in our unlucky fugitives and reminds them that neither the terrain nor its designer will be providing them any refuge.

Both films failed to make any kind of box office impact on their initial release in 1966 but would eventually find a second life, in part because of Nicholson's growing reputation but also with fans drawn to Hellman's work through masterpieces like “Two-Lane Blacktop” (1971), one of several Hellman-Oates collaborations which also included the marvelous “Cockfighter” (1974) and “China 9, Liberty 37” (1978).

Hellman's entry in “The Film Snob's Dictionary” pokes fun at the considerable art-house reputation his low-budget genre films have earned, but the appeal should be obvious (the relatively pedestrian IMDB user ratings for both films fall under the category of “This is why we can't have nice things.”) Flawlessly shot and edited, built around focused, concrete scripts, these are the kinds of movies that should be held up as examples for aspiring filmmakers. Of course, not every film student has access to a Warren Oates or a Jack Nicholson or the talent of a Monte Hellman, but let's not quibble over details.



Video:
Both films, included on the same single Blu-ray disc, are presented in their original 1.85:1 aspect ratios. These new 4K digital transfers (supervised by Monte Hellman) do a fine job of capturing detail in the fairly uniform color schemes. “The Shooting” is a whole mess of dirt and dirt-colored rocks, the same hue filling the entire frame sometimes. The all-earth tone scheme makes flesh tones really stand out and the image detail is particularly strong in close-ups. Did I mention that the camera loves Warren Oates' face? So does high-def.

Audio:
Both films have linear PCM mono audio tracks. The lossless audio is as crisp as usual from Criterion; those old recycled ricochets never sounded so distinct. Optional English subtitles support the English audio and might be needed for time to with the idiomatic dialogue.

Extras:
Though Criterion has fit two features onto a single disc, they've still found room to include a good deal of extras without skimping on audiovisual quality.

Both films are accompanied by new commentary track by Monte Hellman and film historians Bill Krohn and Blake Lucas and Monte Hellman's dog Kona. Krohn and Lucas offer some genre analysis but Hellman's stories of the film's production and his thought process really power the commentaries.

The bulk of the extras are new interviews conducted by Hellman, the first being a reunion of sorts with Roger Corman (6 min.) Seeing these two together, and both looking fantastic, is a real treat. Hellman also speaks with actress Millie Perkins (16 min.), actor Harry Dean Stanton (3 min.), actors B.J. Merholz and John Hackett together (17 min.) and Gary Kurtz (19 min.) who served as assistant camera on “The Shooting” and assistant director on “Whirlwind.” A feature called “The Last Cowboy” mixes footage of Hellman interviewing chief wrangler Calvin Johnson (no relation to the Detroit Lions' Megatron) with footage of Hellman revisiting (what remains of the) locations from the films (17 min.) Film programmer Jake Perlin also interviews actor Will Hutchins (15 min.)

One of the best pieces on the disc is “An American Original” (14 min.), an appreciation of Warren Oates written and narrated by critic Kim Morgan. It's a great piece, the text of which I briefly quoted above and which you can also find at her blog Sunset Gun. I think she might be a fan of Mr. Oates.

The fold-out insert booklet includes an excellent essay by critic Michael Atkinson.

Film Value:
“The Shooting” and “Ride In the Whirlwind” were mostly seen on shoddy TV broadcasts for years and a few undistinguished DVD releases years ago only improved the situation marginally. These high-def restored transfers present the films in a state at least approaching their original luster and it's unlikely many people have ever seen them looking so good, maybe not even Mr. Hellman at least in quite some time. The films work alone and even better as a pair. Each deserves consideration in the pantheon of great Westerns and this disc should provide ample evidence to back up that claim.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Irma Vep

 


IRMA VEP (Assayas, 1996)

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Apr 27, 2021

Review by Christopher S. Long

I remember first watching “Irma Vep” (1996) in film school. Like many viewers, I was baffled by the film's enigmatic ending and couldn't get those final scratchy, assaulting images out of my mind for weeks. While struggling, like any earnest film studies scholar, to interpret their meaning, I failed, like any earnest film studies scholar, to notice the film's most obvious quality: It's a total hoot!

In his vertiginous portrait of the joys, terrors, chaos, jealousy, and inspiration that form the short-lived desert-bloom culture of a film set, writer-director Olivier Assayas has plenty to say about the perilous yet exciting state of French cinema as it celebrates its centennial and warily eyeballs a new millennium. But whether “Irma Vep” turns out to be a requiem for or a celebration of the seventh art, Assayas and his cast and crew seem determined to have fun along the way.

Actress Maggie Cheung, playing a fictionalized version of herself, arrives on the set of a low-budget French art film in which she will star. She's three days late thanks to her previous project, a big budget Hong Kong action flick that ran over schedule, a reminder that Cheung (both the real one and the film's fictional version) is one of the most famous movie stars in the world, even if some of the members of the tiny, insular French crew are barely aware of her work.

Cheung meets with director Rene Vidal (Nouvelle Vague icon Jean-Pierre Leaud) who has made the bold decision to cast the Hong Kong star in his remake of the Louis Feuillade silent film serial “Les vampires” (1915-16). Cheung will play Irma Vep, the daring criminal thief first portrayed by Musidora, an actress hailed at the time by surrealist poets as the very definition of the modern, liberated French woman and who was crowned Paris's Queen of Cinema in 1926. Why cast Maggie Cheung as this most definitively French of French icons? Vidal attributes his choice to Cheung's “grace” and her “mysterious” persona. In other words, he's turned on by her.

Libido is one of the primary engines of creativity, and Cheung's presence on set fuels a great deal of creativity. Costumer designer Zoe (Nathalie Richard), tasked with repairing the slinky but flimsy latex catsuit into which Cheung is poured, both befriends and lusts after the actress. Some crew members gossip about Cheung's alleged sexual exploits while others pigeonhole her in xenophobic fashion as “the Chinese girl.” Cheung, for her part, integrates herself into the film set's culture while retaining a bemused detachment, something necessary to carve out her own identity while being fetishized by her co-workers in this strange, new land.

Assayas served time as a critic before directing his own films, and he's keenly aware that everyone holds their own loopy view of what makes a movie great. A hyperbolic interviewer (Antoine Basler) browbeats Cheung with his unbridled enthusiasm for John Woo (ah, the “ballet” of violence!) and his devotion to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean-Claude Van Damme, true artists who make movies for real people, not the pallid arthouse fare served up by intellectuals for intellectuals. Conversely, two former militant leftist filmmakers screen their old agitprop movie at a late-night cast party, but to minimal enthusiasm. For an on-set accountant (Alex Descas), what matters most is that the film can be projected to amortize at seven percent – now that's a great movie!

Rene, described at one point as a director who “used to be very good,” experiences a violent breakdown and gets replaced on the project as it rapidly spirals out of control. But just when all seems lost, we see the short bit of film that Rene had a chance to edit before his ouster. The grainy black-and-white footage, with its visual and audio scratches, and crude animation seemingly drawn right onto the film, could be seen as evidence of the director's mental turmoil, or perhaps as the promise of a whole new direction in cinema, a merging of the experimental (those two leftists at the party) and the mainstream (John Woo's “ballet”) that has always defined the medium. Perhaps you can still be a radical after all, even after a hundred years of filmmaking and the need to coordinate budgets with a half-dozen international production companies. No wonder Assayas describes “Irma Vep” as his film that has the happiest ending. Of course “Irma Vep” only pulled in a few hundred thousand at the box office on a $1.4 million budget so, y'know, there won't be a sequel.



Video:

The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. According to Criterion: “This new 2K digital restoration was undertaken from the 16 mm and 35 mm camera negatives.” Most of the film was shot on super 16 and this 1080p restoration preserves the grainy look with sharp detail throughout.

Audio:

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track provides a sense of depth and handle's the film's eclectic soundtrack quite well. Optional English subtitles support the audio which is in French and English.

Extras:

Criterion has packed this release so heavily, they've spread the supplements over two Blu-ray discs.

In addition to the film itself, Disc One includes a recent interview (2021, 28 min.) with Assayas. The writer-director discusses the film's genesis, which started as a project with filmmaker Claire Denis. He also discusses how he first met Maggie Cheung (to whom he was married from 1998-2001) at Cannes, then writing and shooting “Irma Vep” rather quickly while he was preparing for a much larger project.

Disc One also includes two older supplements previously included on other discs. First is a conversation (2003, 34 min.) between Assayas and critic Charles Tesson. They discuss their shared passion for Asian film, and a 1984 trip they took to Hong Kong, which turned into a major article in “Cahiers du Cinema.” Second is an interview (2003, 17 min.) with actresses Maggie Cheung and Nathalie Richard regarding their experience on “Irma Vep.”

Disc One also includes thirty minutes of “On the Set” footage from the making of “Irma Vep.”

Disc Two leads off with “Les Vampires: Hypnotic Eyes” (2016, 59 min.), the sixth episode of Louis Feuillade's landmark serial film. I think “Les vampires” is public domain, though I'm not sure how that concept applies in French law, but I know it's not hard to find online. However, this 1080p upgrade of an episode is a pleasure to watch.

The second disc includes perhaps the best supplement in this package, the documentary “Musidora: The Tenth Muse” (2013, 68 min.) Directed by Patrick Cazals, this feature tells the story of the much celebrated French actress who portrayed the sultry Irma Vep, and inflamed the fantasies of a few generations of French film lovers. Musidora (real name Jeanne Roques) was far more than a fetish object. She was one of the first French women to direct films. She also produced and wrote in addition to acting, and hobnobbed with major figures of the time, including her friend Colette. Later, she worked with Henri Langlois and the Cinematheque. This is a fantastic documentary.

In “The State of Cinema 2020” (46 min.), Assayas holds court on what has and hasn't changed in film in the quarter century since he released “Irma Vep.” He has devoted a lot of thought to this and bombards the viewer with his densely-packed arguments, which is fascinating and also might require a few sittings to absorb.

Disc Two wraps up with two short supplements. “Man Yuk: A Portrait of Maggie Cheung” (1997, 5 min.) is a short directed by Assayas, which sort of picks up where those final images of “Irma Vep” left off. We also get 4 minutes of Black-and-White Rushes of Cheung on a rooftop set in her Irma Vep costume.

The slim fold-out insert booklet includes an essay by writer and film programmer Aliza Ma.

Final Thoughts:

With “Irma Vep,” Olivier Assayas appears to be asking a few major questions about his career and his medium of choice: “What have I been doing?” and “What can I do next?” The answer to the latter appears to be “just about anything.” “Irma Vep” argues, in part, that boundaries between genres and between high and low art are false. Cinema thrives on the confluence of its many historical crosscurrents, and Assayas's portrait of creativity as a gloriously chaotic mess is intoxicating and downright inspiring. Criterion has loaded this two-disc release with a strong array of extras to support this top-notch high-def transfer.