In light of his artsy, unaffected, at times entirely
improvised trilogy of “road movies”—Alice
in the Cities (1974), Wrong Move
(1975), and Kings of the Road
(1976)—Wim Wenders considered The
American Friend (1977) to be his riskiest film to date. Fortunately, the
gamble paid off and this picture, more than any of his prior efforts, placed
him prominently on the world stage, garnering him international attention and critical
acclaim. While Patricia Highsmith’s source novel, Ripley’s Game, was not his first choice of her work to bring to the
big screen (it was, in fact, not yet published), the end result is a satisfying
thriller enveloped in a morally ambiguous milieu of existential drama.
Stricken with a blood disease, workaday picture framer
Jonathan Zimmermann (Bruno Ganz) encounters disreputable forged art dealer Tom
Ripley (Dennis Hopper) at an auction, where the former is wise to the fakery
being peddled by the latter. When Ripley extends a hand to Zimmermann, who
ignores the gesture and rebukes the criminal with a dismissive, “I've heard of
you,” the snub rubs Ripley the wrong way. Based on this seemingly innocuous
slight, he and shady collaborator Raoul Minot (Gérard Blain) scheme to get
Zimmermann involved in a murderous plot. Playing off the threat that his
ailment has grown increasingly terminal (thanks to some fraudulent documents),
Ripley and Minot arrange for Zimmermann to take out a fellow gangster target. He
would be an unassuming figure for a murder anyway, with no connection to
Ripley, Minot, or the victim, and for his efforts, he would financially secure
his wife and young son in the wake of his death.
The initial catalyst of the forged painting, as well as the
ensuing personal deceitfulness, are indicative of the film’s primary theme, that
of the complex nature of mistaken and/or assumed identity. Early in The American Friend, when Ripley
ruminates, “I know less and less about who I am or who anybody else is,” it is
an explicit expression of this thematic thread. As the film plays out, he and
Zimmermann both embark on a profound journey building upon fluctuating ideals
and actions, sometime out of necessity—to adapt and stay alive—and sometimes just
for the pretense.
In any case, having done the deed, the oblivious yet
earnestly considerate Zimmermann (considerate for his family, that is, if not
the man he murders) evolves from an innocent amateur to an ethically problematic
criminal in his own right. The full weight of the abrupt shift to unscrupulous
behavior is made all the more disconcerting after he realizes no immediate consequences
for the assassination. First he is surprised and obviously pleased by the lack
of judicial punishment, then his joy borders on disturbing exultation. The man
who is at one point described as “quiet and peaceful” has now become a cold
blooded killer for hire. Just as with Highsmith’s most famous Ripley novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley, appearances here
can be deceiving and easily deceived. As the proliferation of illicit activity
runs far and wide in The American Friend,
the film frequently questions character authenticity and the uncertain true
intentions of those involved. To therefore say the ensuing bond between
Zimmermann and Ripley is an unlikely and unsteady one would be quite the
understatement, and however much the two grow comfortable with one another,
even trusting of each other, nothing about the collaboration ever settles
enough to be solidified as a mutual partnership. Even if the characters let
their guard down momentarily, the viewer is continually primed to expect a
Zimmermann’s potentially fatal flaw, then, is that he
fails to realize that in this world of treachery and viciousness, where others
are playing the same ruthless game he is, one has to assume they too are
capable of violence. In a 2002 commentary track with Hopper, as well as in a
more recent interview, both of which are included on the new Criterion
Collection release of The American Friend,
Wenders states his reluctance toward taking on an amoral character like Ripley.
But what becomes clear is that Zimmermann is the one with whom the audience is
more disappointed. Ripley and his cohorts are what they are and we expect
nothing less; Zimmermann, on the other hand, should have been above such
misdeeds. His desire to provide for his family is laudable enough, and the
prospect of quick cash would be tantalizing, but his decision to ultimately go
through with the murder makes him a most problematic protagonist.
Frankenheimer’s 1962 political thriller, based on Richard Condon’s 1959 novel,
is more relevant today than it has been in the intervening years since its
original, timely release. Back then, we were in the midst of the Cold War and
treading treacherous waters with the Soviet Union. The picture originally hit
the theaters during the thirteen-day
Cuban Missile Crisis of October, so it served as a cautionary tale, a
propaganda piece, and a scary, suspenseful nail-biter. After the Cold War
ended, The Manchurian Candidate maintained
its reputation as an excellent piece of cinema, but its political ramifications
diminished. Now that seems to have changed with the cantankerous, mistrustful
climate of this year’s U.S. presidential election shenanigans. Candidate currently speaks volumes.
Marco (Frank Sinatra) and Sergeant Shaw (Laurence Harvey) head up an army
platoon during the Korean War. They are captured by the Soviets, drugged, and
taken to Manchuria, China, where they are brainwashed. Shaw, in particular,
becomes a deadly sleeper-assassin for the Communists. A crack shot with a
sniper rifle, Shaw is programmed to obey any command after he views a queen of
diamonds playing card, usually presented to him during a game of solitaire. The
platoon is released with the false memories that Shaw saved their lives. Back
home, the other members from the platoon suffer from recurring, debilitating
nightmares they don’t understand until Marco—now a major—decides to do
something about it. Meanwhile, Shaw is under the control of his domineering
mother (Angela Lansbury), who is determined to get Shaw’s step-father, a
seriously right-wing, conservative McCarthy-like senator (James Gregory), the
nomination for president.
makes the movie so caustic today is that the hateful rhetoric spouted by the
fictional Republicans in the film is frighteningly similar to what we’re
hearing in the current election cycle. It’s a familiar tune: pick a
scapegoat—any scapegoat (in the picture’s case, Communists)—and exaggerate the
threat to scare an ignorant public for a political advantage. The campaign
climate of hate and finger-pointing depicted in the film hits uncomfortably
close to the contemporary atmosphere.
co-produced the movie with screenwriter George Axelrod, and it stands tall in
the director’s body of work. The story is told with a tense, underlying sense
of dread that perfectly captures the paranoia of the era—and today. Frankenheimer’s depiction of the brainwashing
demonstration to the Soviet and Chinese delegates is surreal. The soldiers
believe they’re sitting at a floral garden party in which proper old ladies are
discussing horticulture, when in fact the women are uniformed, male Communist
agents. The bizarre incongruity and parallel editing of the scene is masterful
(the picture received an Oscar nomination for Film Editing as well).
The exciting fight sequence between Frank Sinatra and Henry Silva is said to be the first depiction of a karate battle in a mainstream Hollywood film. Sinatra broke his hand during the filming of this intense scene.
is very effective as the “straight man” of the tale, and Harvey is suitably
creepy as the brainwashed killer, although the actor’s Britishness is sometimes
difficult to ignore. The movie-stealer, though, is Lansbury, who was nominated
for a Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance. “Mrs. Iselin” is a mother
worthy of Hitchcock, a true villain of Cruella de Vil proportions, and Lansbury
makes her very chilling indeed. Interestingly, the actress was only three years
older than Harvey, but we have no problem believing she’s his mother.
other glamorous blondes appear in the film. Janet Leigh looks fabulous as Marco’s
love interest, but in the overall arc of the story, hers is a somewhat
unnecessary character. The scene in which Sinatra and Leigh meet on a train is
the only eye-roll-producing bit in the picture, for she’s gives out her address
and phone number within minutes of meeting this obviously disturbed guy who
can’t even light a cigarette himself. The other beauty is Leslie Parrish, who
plays Harvey’s girlfriend. She is sparkling,
and certainly warrants more screen time. While Parrish made many movies, she is
mostly known for a trove of 1960s television work in such shows as Star Trek, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and Mannix.
new special edition features a restored 4K digital transfer of the film with an
uncompressed monaural soundtrack. There’s an audio commentary by Frankenheimer from
1997. Supplements include a new interview with Lansbury, who is amusing and
candid with her memories of making the film; a new interview with filmmaker
Errol Morris, a fan of the movie, talking about its strengths and influences; a
new interview with historian Susan Carruthers about the brainwashing scene; a
vintage filmed conversation between Sinatra, Frankenheimer, and Axelrod from
1987; and the trailer. The booklet contains an essay by critic Howard Hampton.
one of the best thrillers from the 1960s. Considering what’s going on in
America now, you might want to pop the disk into the Blu-ray player instead of
watching the latest presidential candidate debate. You’ll assuredly find it
much more entertaining.
What do you do when you despise the person most likely to bring your goals to fruition? We're not talking about the Republican establishment's dilemma with Donald Trump but, rather, the central plot premise faced by the U.S. Olympic ski team coach (portrayed by Gene Hackman) in director Michael Ritchie's acclaimed 1969 film "Downhill Racer". The protagonist of the movie is one Dave Chappellet (Robert Redford), an almost impossibly handsome young man from the rural town of Idaho Springs, Colorado, who has a single-minded obsession of being America's first gold medal winner for downhill skiing in an era when the sport was dominated by Europeans. With his good looks and superficial charm, Chappellet is used to being a big fish in a small pond. He is virtually penniless and, when not practicing on the slopes of European mountains, is forced to eek out an existence by living with his cold, unemotional father (non-professional actor Walter Stroud in a striking performance.) He has no career plans beyond his single-minded obsession with getting on the Olympic team. His lack of intellectual curiosity or abilities to socialize with others don't seem to phase him. Like any narcissist he savors any small victory as a sign of his superiority over the peasants he must occasionally interact with.Chappellet lacks any self-awareness or introspection. He takes a cocky delight in being able to drive down the main street of his one-horse town, pick up a local old flame and get her to have sex in the back seat of a car. He seems oblivious to the fact that the battered vehicle belongs to his father and that he doesn't even have a place of his own to carry out his carnal activities. Chappellet gets the big break he is looking for when a top skier on the Olympic team suffers a grievous injury. The team coach, Claire, calls in Chappellet to replace him. From the start, their relationship is a rocky one. It becomes clear that Chappellet is not a team player. He skis superbly and Claire recognizes him as the team's potential best hope for victory. However, he is also alarmed by his independent streak and his inability to follow protocols. Chappellet is in this for personal glory and his teammates are viewed as unnecessary distractions. True, he can go through the rituals of socializing. He's polite to his roommate and occasionally joins the other guys for beers, butChappellet is clearly a vacuous, self-absorbed figure. The film traces his achievements on the slope and Claire's unsuccessful attempts to turn him into a team player. Chaplette also meets a vivacious business woman in the sports industry, Carole (Camilla Sparv). He's instantly smitten by her exotic good looks and libertarian outlook toward sex. The two begin an affair but it turns sour when Chaplette can't accept the fact that Carole is an emancipated young woman who marches to her own beat. Her unwillingness to dote over him or to treat their relationship as anything but superficial bruises his ego. In Chaplette's world, it is he who treats sex partners like disposable objects, not the other way around. The film concludes with Chaplette and his teammates engaging in the make-or-break competition against top-line European skiers to see who can bring home the gold.
The Best of Frenemies: Redford and Hackman
"Downhill Racer" was a dream project of Robert Redford, who had championed the film, which is based on a screenplay by James Salter. Redford's star had risen appreciably with Paramount following the success of "Barefoot in the Park". The studio wanted to do another film with him and suggested that he play the male lead in the forthcoming screen adaption of "Rosemary's Baby". Redford pushed for "Downhill Racer", a film that the Paramount brass had dismissed as being too non-commercial. (This was before Redford would reach super stardom with the release of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid".) Thus began a game of brinksmanship between Redford and the studio. He managed to get Paramount to supply a small budget ($2 million) and creative control over the project to him and Roman Polanski, who was enthused about directing the film. However, the studio made a counter-move and lured Polanski to direct "Rosemary's Baby". Annoyed, Redford had to find a new director and settled on Michael Ritchie, and up-and-coming talent who was eager to make the transition from television into feature films. He and Redford, along with their tiny crew, used their limited budget to travel to international ski competitions in order to film real life action on the slopes that could later be combined into the final cut of their movie. For all their efforts, "Downhill Racer" was a boxoffice disappointment and would be overshadowed by the release of "Butch Cassidy" later in 1969. Yet its a film that Redford is justifiably proud of. There are many admirable aspects of the production, not the least of which is Redford's compelling performance as a protagonist who is not very likable or sympathetic. He's also not very intelligent, either, a character flaw that doesn't seem to bother him much, as he feels he can get by on his looks. The down side of "Downhill Racer" is that when the central character is a total cad the viewer finds it hard to be concerned with his fate, unless there is a major dramatic payoff as in the case of Andy Griffith in "A Face in the Crowd" or Paul Newman in "Hud", two of the most notorious characters in screen history. Where "Downhill Racer" blows it is in the final sequence during the championship ski run. There was an excellent opportunity to end the movie on a poignant note but the movie punts and leads to an emotionally unsatisfying ending. Nevertheless the exotic scenery and fine performances (especially by Hackman, who is under-seen and under-used) compensate for a story that is as chilling as the locations in which it was filmed.
Criterion has upgraded their previously released DVD special edition to Blu-ray and it looks spectacular. There is a wealth of interesting extras, all ported over from the previous release. These include separate interviews conducted in 2009 with Robert Redford and James Salter. I found them to be most enlightening because I was blaming Salter, as the screenwriter, for being responsible for the film's unsatisfying ending. Lo and behold, Salter expresses the same exasperation. Apparently his original script called for the more dramatic finale that I was envisioning. However, he says that Redford made the change without his permission. It's still apparently a sore spot with him. For his part, Redford is defensive about the decision, saying that he felt the the ending he insisted upon was the correct choice (Note: it wasn't.) It would be interesting to see Redford and Salter lock horns over this in the same interview at some point. In any event, Redford's enthusiasm for the film is evident even if it seems to exceed that of audiences. To reiterate, it's a fine movie with many qualities but Redford has had superior, under-appreciated gems in his career. Other bonus extras on the Blu-ray include interviews with editor Richard Harris (whose work on the film is most impressive), production executive Walter Coblenz and champion skier Joe Jay Jalbert who was hired as a technical consultant and became indispensable on the production, serving as double and cameraman. The footage he captured skiing at high speed with a hand-held camera is all the more amazing because he was a novice at shooting film. There is also a vintage production featurette from 1969 and a very interesting one-hour audio interview of director Michael Ritchie at an American Film Institute Q&A session in 1977. The affable Ritchie was there to promote his latest film "Semi-Tough" but goes into great detail about how he became disillusioned with the constraints of working in the television industry where directors at that time were just hired guns whose creative ideas and instincts were constantly being suppressed. Ritchie tells an extended anecdote about shooting an episode of "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." during which he came up with a suggestion to improve a key scene in the script. He was told to mind his own business by the producer (who he doesn't name). When series' star Robert Vaughn agreed with him, Ritchie shot an alternate version of the scene that was met with enthusiasm by the network. Instead of being congratulated, he was blackballed from the series henceforth. Ritchie would go on to make some very fine films including "The Candidate" (again with Redford), the wacko-but-mesmerizing crime thriller "Prime Cut", "The Bad News Bears" and others. However he never lived up to his full potential and ended up directing many middling films before his untimely death at age 63 in 2001. The AFI audio included here is a rare opportunity to listen to his views on filmmaking while he was at the height of his career. The Blu-ray set also contains the original trailer and a collectible booklet with essay by Todd McCarthy.
it has been released before on Blu-ray, the “Criterion treatment” is always welcome
for a classic, well-known film such as The
Graduate. Quite simply, it’s one of the most beloved pictures of the 60s,
one that hit a nerve in the public consciousness. It helped define those wildly
changing years at the end of the decade, illustrating how the country’s youth
rebelled against an established society that they were expected to join. The Graduate is a landmark of the New
Hollywood movement that took over the studios in those years and held reign
through the 70s.
Mike Nichols, fresh from his success as a debut helmsman for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), gave us a romantic comedy unlike
anything we’d seen previously—mainly because of the radically daring casting of
an unknown actor named Dustin Hoffman. Highly influenced by French New Wave, Nichols
brilliantly directed the entire picture, but his most important contribution to
the film’s triumph was the re-imagining the story not to be about a tall,
blonde, suntanned, southern California leading man type (i.e. “not Jewish”)
that was the norm for Hollywood. No, Nichols saw that The Graduate would be so much better if it was about a schlemiel. An Everyman that the audience
could perhaps recognize as one of them. Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock is
okay-looking, he’s not un-attractive,
he’s smart, and not a loser. Yet here he is, just out of college, not knowing
what the hell he’s supposed to do now, and he allows himself to be pulled into
an affair with an older, married woman who is one half of a couple that is close
to his parents. The youth of America apparently could relate. The Graduate changed the casting
philosophy in Hollywood overnight, opening the door for “unusual” actors to
come to the forefront and play leads.
striking directorial choice Nichols made was the use of songs by Simon and
Garfunkel as a soundtrack. Movies had previously contained pop music—but a
specific artist’s work hadn’t been used in such a personal, meaningful way.
It’s as if Paul and Art’s voices are our guides along Ben’s journey to find his
elusive purpose in life. It’s a perfect fit. It’s interesting to note that the
only original song in the picture, “Mrs. Robinson,” was an on-the-spot
creation, only the bare bones of which is used in the film. It was later, after
the movie’s release, that Simon fleshed out the song and the duo recorded the
hit single that appeared on the LP Bookends
in 1968. The hugely popular song was also a bit controversial, being that it
was about an adulterous affair and the Lord’s name was mentioned as “loving
Mrs. Robinson more than she will know.”
three leads are marvelous. Anne Bancroft, who received top billing, plays
against type as well. Robert Surtees’ carefully considered lighting and
photography makes her appear much older than 35, which is what she was at the
time. Ironically, Hoffman was 29—they were only six years apart in age. Bancroft
performs the unhappy Mrs. Robinson with cold and cynical aggressiveness, but
also with a vulnerability that is palpable. Katharine Ross became the
heartthrob of many young men in 1967, including me. She’s wonderful in the role,
but it is indeed her beauty that serves as yet another layer to the film’s
theme that yes, even a schlemiel can
end up with Katharine Ross. As for Hoffman, he plays Ben with just the right
amount of realistic, nervous anxiety—he is so true to the dramatic action that
some of the public accused him of not acting at all—he was “being himself.” He,
of course, would prove them wrong with his next choice of roles—the radically
different Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy—confirming
just how good Hoffman had been in The
it was nominated for many of the major categories at the year’s Academy
Awards—Picture, Actor (Hoffman), Actress (Bancroft), Supporting Actress (Ross),
Adapted Screenplay (Calder Willingham/Buck Henry)—only Nichols walked away with
the Director Oscar. For my money, The
Graduate was robbed (In the Heat of
the Night—granted, a wonderful picture—won).
new 4K digital restoration looks tremendous, the colors are rich and solid,
emphasizing the “modern” 1967 look and feel that distinctly identifies the
period. The film comes with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack (and optional
5.1 surround remix, approved by Nichols, presented in DTS-HD Master Audio).
You’ll be humming “Scarborough Fair” for days. There are two audio
commentaries—one from 2007 with Nichols and Steven Soderbergh, and one from
1987 featuring film scholar Howard Suber.
bountiful supplements include a new, long, fascinating interview with Dustin
Hoffman (his interviews are always good, he comes off as such a personable
guy); a new conversation between Buck Henry and producer Lawrence Turman that
reveals some surprising tidbits about the making of the film (e.g.,
Willingham’s script was thrown out and only Henry’s re-write was used for
shooting); and a new interview with film writer and historian Bobbie O’Steen
about editor Sam O’Steen’s work with Nichols. Several pieces of vintage
material appear on the disk—a documentary from 2007 on the film’s influence; a
1992 vignette on the making of the picture; a terrific interview with Nichols by Barbara Walters on NBC’s Today show in 1966; and an excerpt from The Dick Cavett Show featuring Paul
Simon as a guest. Along with the trailer are some interesting casting screen
tests—one with Hoffman and Ross, of course, but also other candidates for the
roles such as Tony Bill and Jennifer Leak, and Robert Lipton and Cathy
Carpenter. The booklet contains an essay by journalist and critic Frank Rich.
The Graduate was the most
intelligent, witty, and surprising comedy-drama
of its era. If you’ve never seen it, you owe it to yourself to dive into
Criterion’s superb new release.
off to The Criterion Collection for releasing Blu-ray editions of these two
remarkable motion pictures. They have not been available in the U.S. since the
days of VHS.
double feature is really one big movie divided into two, both of them epics,
approximately six-and-a-half hours in total length, with built-in intermissions
in each picture. It’s the monumental story of a group of Swedish emigrants who
make their way to America in the 1840s and settle in the Minnesota wilderness.
The tale covers roughly thirty years, but the story officially ends in 1890.
The Emigrants and The New Land were landmark Swedish imports that gained much
acclaim and popularity at the time of their release. The Emigrants was the third foreign language film to be nominated
for the Best Picture Oscar (in 1972; the previous year it had been nominated
for Best Foreign Language Picture). Jan Troell also received Directing and
Screenwriting nominations (co-written with Bengt Forslund), and Liv Ullmann was
given the nod for Best Actress (she lost to Liza Minnelli in Cabaret). The New Land was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film the same
year The Emigrants was up for Best
co-stars with her frequent Bergman collaborator, Max von Sydow, as Kristina and
Karl-Oscar, a poor married couple with children who decide that their farm in
Sweden is a loser and the government is corrupt and unhelpful. The dream of
many Europeans was to go to America, the promised “new land” of opportunity.
But in 1840, that wasn’t so easy. It took some money, certainly, but it also
required near-superhuman fortitude, health, and bravery. People could die crossing the ocean. Oh, and they
also had to know how to build their own house, toil the earth, grow and hunt
their own food, and fully support and protect their families in a time when
Native Americans (i.e., “savages”) were living amongst them. Karl-Oscar is up
for the challenge; after the death of their young daughter from starvation in
Sweden, Kristina finally agrees to emigrate. They join a straggly group of
friends and extended family and make the journey together.
on classic Swedish novels by Vilhelm Moberg, The Emigrants begins in Sweden, covers the harrowing trip over the
ocean and then the trek cross country from the east coast to the Midwest. The New Land follows their struggles to
make lives for themselves in a hostile, but beautiful, environment. The story
is presented with brutal realism and authenticity. After viewing the pictures,
there will be no doubt in one’s mind what it was really like to be an early
settler. The boat voyage alone is so powerfully realized that you won’t easily
forget it. The journey takes ten weeks, during which the twenty or so
emigrants, living in the cramped steerage of a relatively small packet ship,
undergo serious seasickness, scurvy, starvation, conflict, and some deaths.
protagonist couple meets each new obstacle with tremendous strength, although
the years and frequent childbirths begin to take a toll on Kristina. Both von
Sydow and Ullmann are exceptionally good, especially in the scenes of intimacy
between two people who obviously love each other very much and are willing to
sacrifice everything for each other.
Eddie Axberg, as Karl-Oscar’s younger brother, is also a standout with his own
set of adventures that develop into a subplot as he leaves Minnesota with a
friend and heads toward California and its siren call of gold everywhere.
photographed, the new high-definition digital restorations, with new English
subtitle translations, look fantastic. Troell’s pace might be considered slow
by today’s standards, but like Kubrick’s Barry
Lyndon, which also strived to recreate a time and place that no longer
exists and succeeded, both The Emigrants and
The New Land capture not only the
harshness of the era, but also its grace, simplicity, and beauty.
supplements in the two-disc set include a new introduction to the films by
theatre and film critic John Simon; a new conversation between film scholar
Peter Cowie and director Troell; a new interview with Liv Ullmann; an hour long
documentary from 2005 on the making of the pictures with archival footage and
interviews with key personnel; and trailers. An essay by critic Terrence
Rafferty appears in the booklet.
is impressive, exemplary filmmaking, something any devotee of quality European
motion pictures needs to see. You may not want to get on a boat ever again.
Criterion Collection continues its excellent re-issuing of Charles Chaplin’s
major works with The Kid, the first full-length
feature from the filmmaker. Released in 1921, Chaplin expanded on the two and
three reelers he had been making (a “reel” at that time was approximately 10-15
minutes long) to the six-reels of The Kid
(the original cut was just over an hour; Chaplin re-edited it in the early 70s
to create the now standard 53-minute version). It’s still a short film, but
longer than what were considered “shorts.”
The Kid received high
acclaim on its release and was one of the writer/actor/director’s most popular pictures.
This was in part due to the presence of young Jackie Coogan in the titular
role. Coogan, who grew up to play Uncle Fester in The Addams Family television series of the 1960s, steals the movie
from right under Chaplin’s little mustache. At age five, Coogan displays a
mastery of acting, mime, and acrobatics that is still remarkable today. He is a
natural in front of the camera, and he has loads of charisma to boot.
for Chaplin, he, too, is marvelous in this story about how his famous Tramp
character finds an abandoned baby on the street and takes it upon himself to
raise the child. Only a few years later, after he and his illegally-adopted son
have bonded and are “partners” in petty crime, does the kid’s mother re-enter
aspect that set The Kid apart from
previous Chaplin entries was his reliance more on drama than comedy. There is
no question that he infused his comedies with pathos from the very beginning,
but his last several shorts for the First National Company (his distributor at
the time) were “dramadies.” As the opening title of The Kid reads: “A picture with a smile—and perhaps, a tear.” My
father, who had seen the film in the 1920s, recalled how there wasn’t a dry eye
in the house when the authorities take Coogan away from Chaplin and the boy is
crying and reaching out to his “dad.”
delivers another superb-looking 4K digital restoration of the 1972 re-release
version, also featuring an original score by Chaplin on an uncompressed
monaural soundtrack (the score is lush, melodic, and gorgeous, as are all of
the artist’s compositions). There’s a new audio commentary featuring Chaplin
historian Charles Maland that is informative and serves as a nice complement to
the piece, since the movie is silent.
include Jackie Coogan: The First Child
Star, a new video essay by another Chaplin historian, Lisa Haven; A Study in Undercranking, a new
documentary featuring silent film specialist Ben Model on the tricks with speed
used by filmmakers of the period; vintage interviews with Coogan, and Chaplin’s
second wife Lita Grey Chaplin (who appears in the film as an angel); vintage
audio interviews with cinematographer Rollie Totheroh and film distributor Mo
Rothman; deleted scenes and titles from the original 1921 release; a 1921
newsreel documenting Chaplin’s first return trip to Europe; footage of Chaplin
conducting his score in Hollywood in 1971; a 1922 silent short, Nice and Friendly, featuring Chaplin and
Coogan, made with and for Lord and Lady Mountbatten for their wedding; and
trailers. The booklet essay is by film scholar Tom Gunning.
terrific addition to the Criterion-Chaplin library. Here’s hoping that The Circus is next!
Life Magazine called Rita
Hayworth “The Love Goddess.” Make no mistake—she was primarily known as one of the sex symbols of the 1940s. Nevertheless,
she was also a talented actress and a terrific dancer (she held her own with
Fred Astaire in a couple of movies). Strikingly beautiful, Hayworth was the
type of star who lit up the screen and oozed charisma. And her big breakthrough
to that position in Hollywood was Gilda,
the 1946 part-noir, part melodrama
that contained many of the iconic images for which Hayworth is famous.
Film noir historian Eddie
Muller, in a new interview included as one of the supplements, says Gilda is not film noir, although it’s got all the trappings. This is true. It’s
certainly made in the style of a film noir—the contrasting black and
white cinematography by Rudolph Maté (who later became a
director in his own right) is clearly derived from German expressionism, the
characters are untrustworthy and suspicious, and there’s a femme fatale.
wait—is Gilda really a femme fatale?
Not really. Sure, she’s manipulative and uses her sexuality to get the men in
her life to do what she wants; but Gilda is not a bad person—she’s just caught
in an uncomfortable situation and is acting out because she’s unhappy. A minor
subplot dealing with Mundson’s business dealings—with former Nazis—doesn’t
totally qualify Gilda as being a film noir, either. No, this is a movie
soap opera, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an entertaining piece of Hollywood
glamour that captures a cynical post-war mood prevalent in a lot of Hollywood
fare of the late 40s.
story takes place in Buenos Aires just as World War II is ending. Johnny
Farrell (Glenn Ford, in one of his significant roles as well) is a gambler,
drifter, and “tough guy” bumming around Argentina. There he meets a rich man,
Ballin Mundson (George Macready), who offers Johnny a job being his right hand
man at the casino. The two men work together well and become very chummy—until Mundson
returns from a weekend away with a gorgeous wife. She is, of course, Gilda
(Hayworth)—and it is immediately obvious she has a history with Johnny.
rest of the film is a melodramatic clash of wills within this triangle, and it’s
not a smooth ride. Much is made of the word “hate,” but in most cases in this
picture, that word really means “love.”
is quite good in the movie. She performs two song-and-dance numbers (for the
casino audience), but her singing voice is dubbed by Anita Ellis. These are signature
tunes—“Put the Blame on Mame” (done as a sultry striptease—almost), and “Amado
Mio.” (One wonders how Gilda managed to rehearse with the band and lighting
crew to do tight, theatrical show-stopping acts, seemingly on the fly.) At any
rate, Hayworth smolders as Gilda, and
she takes over every frame she’s in. Ford is fine, although he sure has a funny
way of hitting people. Macready provides the requisite sinister authority over
the other two characters, just as he would a decade later in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory.
aspects are top notch—the photography, music, editing, sets, and especially the
costume design. Hayworth’s gowns are right out of the catalog of Hollywood dreams. Perhaps the only weak
element is the writing. The story feels jumbled a bit, but the dialogue is rich
with memorable one-liners. “If I was a ranch, I’d been named the Bar Nothing,” Gilda famously says. The
screenwriters had challenges on their hands. The Production Code prevented the
filmmakers from fully exploring the relationship that is really going on between Johnny and Mundson. It’s pretty muted, but
it’s there, folks. Ford’s character is much more enamored of his boss than a
regular employee would be. How that wrinkle plays into the stew once Hayworth
arrives is the heart and soul of the picture. Read between the lines and you’ll
fathom what the writers intended, but
couldn’t quite get past the censors.
Criterion Collection’s new high-definition digital restoration, with an
uncompressed monaural soundtrack, looks and sounds exemplary. A wonderful audio
commentary by film critic Richard Schickel, made in 2010, accompanies the film.
include the previously mentioned interview with Muller; an interesting 2010
discussion with filmmakers Martin Scorsese and Baz Luhrmann about the film;
“Hollywood and the Stars,” a 1964 television show about Hayworth’s career up to
that point; and the trailer. The fold-out insert contains a poster of Gilda on
one side and an essay by critic Sheila O’Malley.
tag line on the movie poster read: “There never was a woman like... Gilda!” That’s probably true. Put the Blame
on Mame, indeed!
first Coen Brothers feature to be given the “Criterion treatment” is, oddly,
their most recent release—Inside Llewyn
Davis, which received (mostly) critical praise upon its release in late
2013. Kudos were especially heaped upon the film’s relatively new star, Oscar
Isaac. Sadly, while the picture recouped its investment and made a little
money, it wasn’t as widely embraced by audiences as it should have been. This
is probably because the Coen Brothers typically don’t make movies for the
masses. The auteur siblings create
art that appeals mostly to intelligent, hip audiences willing to enter a
strange, sometimes disturbing, always surprising, universe that is distinctly
Inside Llewyn Davis is presented as a
comedy, but in the Coen Brothers’ oeuvre,
“comedy” can mean many things. It can be wild and wacky (Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski) or it can be dark and foreboding
(Barton Fink, A Serious Man). Llewyn Davis leans
more toward the latter. In fact, it is a downright melancholy picture that will
leave in a funk any viewers who happen to be musicians. But that doesn’t mean the
film’s not funny, too.
Davis (Isaac, in a brilliant performance worthy of an Oscar nomination he
didn’t get) is a down on his luck but talented folk singer in 1961 Greenwich
Village. The setting is pretty much a character, too, for this was the hotbed
of the folk scene prior to the
arrival of Bob Dylan, who changed everything. The Coens and Isaac based the
Davis character on the very real folk musician Dave Van Ronk—but really only his
musical material (adapted by musical producer T Bone Burnett). While Davis is
on stage, he is magic. The songs are heartbreakingly beautiful. Off stage, though,
unlike Van Ronk, Davis is a mess. He’s cranky, cynical, and not a very nice
guy. He’s losing what friends he has and he’s his own worst enemy. The movie becomes
his journey through a bleak New York winter as he tries to eke out a living,
take care of a neighbor’s cat, and bring some sort of sense to the madness that
is his life. Even though he’s a trainwreck happening before our eyes, poor Davis
doesn’t realize he’s doomed until, at the end of the movie, he hits a
career-ending brick wall in the form of a certain person.
like most everything the Coen Brothers create, this revelation is exhibited
the Coens’ other musical feature, O
Brother, Where Art Thou?, this one explores a very specific music steeped
in Americana, and the movie is full of it. Justin Timberlake plays a supporting
role as another folkie, along with lovely Carey Mulligan. Much of the material
consists of wistful folk ballads, but the trio of Isaac, Timberlake, and Adam
Driver perform a song called “Please Mr. Kennedy” that is a laugh riot—the
funniest bit in the film—and why it wasn’t nominated for Best Song for that
year’s Oscars is a mystery.
Criterion Collection’s new special edition release of the film is very unique
in how much the Coen Brothers participated in the supplements, of which there are
an abundance. The brothers are usually unwilling to do interviews or support
“making of” documentaries. This time, however, they did a lot, the least of
which was approving the 4K digital transfer, which looks gorgeous. Director of
photography Bruno Delbonnel chose to shoot the picture with a soft focus and
muted colors that somehow evokes the black and white feel of the era. It works
beautifully to amplify the melancholy. The feature has a 5.1 surround DTS-HD
Master Audio soundtrack, plus an audio commentary by authors Robert Christgau,
David Hajdu, and Sean Wilentz.
running time of the supplements are more than three times as long as the
feature film. “Inside Inside Llewyn Davis”
is a forty-three minute documentary on the making of the film, revealing the
Coen Brothers at work, especially in the casting and working with Burnett on
the music adaptation. Additionally, the disk includes a long, fascinating interview
with the brothers conducted by Guillermo del Toro; a conversation between
Burnett and the Coens about folk music; a new piece about the Greenwich Village
folk scene of the era featuring Van Ronk’s co-biographer, Elijah Wald; a short
documentary by Dan Drasin about the 1961 clash between folk musicians and
police in Washington Square Park; trailers; and, finally, the awesome
full-length feature (originally aired on Showtime), Another Day, Another Time—a documentary by Christopher Wilcha that
covered the special concert of folk music held at New York’s Town Hall in
September 2013. Oscar Isaac performs along with the likes of the Punch
Brothers, Joan Baez, Marcus Mumford, Jack White, Gillian Welch, Lake Street
Dive, and many others. It’s worth the price of the disk. The booklet contains
an essay by film critic Kent Jones and a poster illustration of Isaac as Llewyn
you missed Inside Llewyn Davis during
its theatrical run, here’s your chance to explore the film in depth. As with
any Coen Brothers effort, it is a rewarding experience. Time will prove it to
be one of their better ones.
not sure how, when, and where Quentin Tarantino actually saw these two Japanese
films back in the day (they weren’t released in the U.S.), but the character of
a vengeful female samurai assassin was a major inspiration for the director’s Kill Bill pictures; in fact, Lucy Liu’s
character of O-Ren Ishii is so close to Lady Snowblood that it’s unclear if she’s
an homage or a rip-off. At any rate, if you’re a fan of Kill Bill, then you will most likely appreciate these low budget
cult action films.
on a Japanese manga by Kazuo Koike
and Kazuo Kamimura (Shurayuki-hime)
published in 1972 and 1973, both features star the beautiful Meiko Kaji as Lady
Snowblood, a kimono-dressed assassin who is active in the late 19th Century and
wields a mean blade hidden in an umbrella. Kaji is a popular actress in her
native country—she appeared in many B-movie action and martial arts pictures (i.e.,
the Japanese equivalent of exploitation movies) in the 70s, and then went into
television in the 80s. She is also an accomplished musical artist and singer,
having released many singles and a dozen LPs. She sings the main title song of Lady Snowblood (“Shuro No Hana”), and Tarantino used the same theme during a
sequence in Kill Bill, Vol. 1. Meiko
Kaji is perhaps the best reason to view this double feature.
first film is an origin story in which we learn that Yuki, aka Lady Snowblood, is
born to a mother who is in prison for killing one of a criminal foursome—three
men and one woman—who murdered her husband and son, and raped her. She passes
on the remainder of her vendetta to her daughter, who grows up to study martial
arts and become a vigilante. As an adult, Yuki tracks down the other three to
exact her revenge.
second picture finds Yuki as something of a hired hand of the secret police.
She must infiltrate the home of an anarchist in order to retrieve an item the
government wants—but, of course, her prey turns out not to be the true bad guy.
Lady Snowblood must switch allegiances and set things right with a lot of
swordplay, blood-letting, and Eastern-style poise.
movies are colorful and exotic in terms of photography, production design, and
costumes—the imagery of white snow splashed with red blood, mixed with the
period Japanese wardrobe and sets, exhibit a unique beauty that Tarantino
recreated in Kill Bill. Otherwise, the
two Snowblood movies are cheaply
done. The blood effects are, for the most part, ridiculous. One slash of a
throat and the blood laughably sprays like
a fire hose. The storylines are predictable, but like the manga from which they are adapted, are pure comic book pulp.
Criterion Collection presents both features on one disk. The new 2K digital
restorations look very good in that glorious and vividly garish color that is indicative
of the 70s. Each film has uncompressed monaural soundtracks, and there are new
English subtitle translations. The disk is short on supplements, containing
only new interviews with Kazuo Koike (the writer of the manga), and screenwriter Norio Osada. Trailers for both pictures
are included. The booklet features an essay by critic Howard Hampton.
for aficionados of Japanese exploitation and martial arts fare, which, in the
1970s, was the equivalent of fast food.
is the third excellent release of a Harold Lloyd film by The Criterion
Collection and it’s a welcome addition to sit on the shelf along with the
previous two (Safety Last! and The Freshman). I mentioned in a review
of one of the previous releases how wonderful it was that Criterion was
re-issuing Lloyd’s catalog. Most of his work had been unavailable for many
years; I grew up with Chaplin and Keaton, of course, but with Lloyd, not so
much. It’s a pleasure to discover him in this way.
Speedy was Lloyd’s final
silent film, released in 1928. Although he usually made his pictures in
Hollywood, this time he wanted to shoot in New York City. Bruce Goldstein,
director of repertory programming at New York’s Film Forum, explains in an
interesting supplement, “In the Footsteps of Speedy,” that Lloyd took his leading lady Ann Christy and canine
co-star King Tut on the railroad across country to make the movie. Quite a bit
was shot there, but in the end, though, nearly half the picture was also made
on the streets of Los Angeles, doubling for New York—and the matching up is
sometimes not very convincing. Still, it’s revelatory to see New York as it was
in 1928—Times Square, Washington Square, Sheridan Square, Brooklyn and Coney
Island—it’s all here, exactly the way it was. The establishing shot for Manhattan
was that of the Woolworth Building, because at the time that was the tallest and
most famous structure! Fascinating stuff.
story concerns Pop Dillon’s horse-drawn streetcar, the last one of its kind in
the big city, the tracks of which the railroad baron wants to demolish to make
way for progress. Pop’s daughter Jane (Christy) is engaged to Harold “Speedy”
Swift (Lloyd), who takes it upon himself to make sure Pop’s livelihood isn’t
taken away or at least insure that he’s fairly compensated. Why Harold is
nicknamed “Speedy” is not really clear... he’s the usual “Glasses”
character—naive, enthusiastic, positive—who works at one job and then another,
happily trying to make ends meet so he can marry Jane.
of the movie is a sightseeing tour of New York—the Coney Island scenes are
especially enjoyable, since Speedy and Jane ride many of the classic attractions
that don’t exist anymore. King Tut, the stray dog who picks Speedy to be his
master, is adept at many tricks and serves as a terrific little sidekick.
biggest draw, though, at the time of the film’s release, was the appearance of
Babe Ruth in a minor role as himself. Speedy is a baseball enthusiast—a plot
point that never really amounts to much—and he has a chance to give the Babe a
ride in his taxi (Speedy’s current job). The Babe invites Speedy to see the
game at Yankee Stadium, where our hero is able to avoid the cops who are after
him for traffic tickets. Babe Ruth had already appeared in a couple of films,
in one as himself and in another, a work of fiction called Babe Comes Home, as a baseball player very much like himself. Speedy came at the right time—1928 was the second year in a row the
Yankees won the World Series.
Speedy is certainly good
fun, although for my money I think both Safety
Last! and The Freshman are better
pictures. There are plenty of chases and slapstick bits, but the “thrill”
stunts Lloyd is known for are not in this one. Here’s hoping Criterion
continues its releases of Harold Lloyd classics, especially Grandma’s Boy, Girl Shy, and The Kid Brother.
movie looks terrific in a new 4K digital restoration from elements preserved by
the UCLA Film & Television Archive; there’s a musical score by Carl Davis
from 1992, synchronized and restored and presented in uncompressed stereo (and
it sounds great!). A new audio commentary is by Goldstein (see above) and
Turner Classic Movies director of program production Scott McGee. In addition
to the Goldstein documentary mentioned earlier, there is a selection of rare
archival footage of Babe Ruth, presented by David Filipi, director of film and
video at the Wexner Center for the Arts. A new video essay featuring stills
from deleted scenes is narrated by Goldstein. There’s also a cute collection of
Harold Lloyd’s home movies, narrated by his granddaughter, Suzanne Lloyd, as
well as a newly restored Lloyd short from 1919—Bumping Into Broadway, with a 2004 score by Robert Israel. The
booklet contains an essay by critic Phillip Lopate.
must-buy for fans of silent comedy and for those who want to enrich their lives
with the genius of Harold Lloyd.
works of famed director Akira Kurosawa are mostly associated with the samurai
film—pictures set in the time of feudal Japan, and usually starring the
brilliant actor Toshiro Mifune (Rashomon,
Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, The Hidden
Fortress, Yojimbo, among others).
However, Kurosawa made other kinds of movies that are probably not as well
known in the West except to film historians and true cinephiles—and fans of the
excellent DVD and Blu-ray label, The Criterion Collection. Some of Kurosawa’s
early work was made up of film noir gangster
and crime pictures (e.g., Drunken Angel,
Stray Dog, The Bad Sleep Well), but also, surprisingly, heartfelt social
dramas set in contemporary Japan—about ordinary people. Ikiru is one of the latter, and it’s a movie that Roger Ebert once
called Kurosawa’s “greatest film.”
Ikiru is set in Tokyo in
the early fifties. Kanji Watanabe (played by the wonderful Takashi Shimura) is
a middle-aged bureaucrat in City Hall, the chief of “Public Works.” He has
spent the last thirty years behind a desk, stamping endless pieces of paper
with his little seal, never causing trouble, and pawning off problems to other
departments, which, in turn, direct them to yet more departments. Bureaucracy
at its dullest and most inefficient. At the beginning of the story, several
women bring in a complaint about a mosquito-infested cesspool in the middle of
their district that should be covered or turned into a park or whatever. But no
one at City Hall wants to accept the responsibility of doing anything about it,
including Watanabe, and even the egotistical mayor.
to Watanabe’s stagnation are the attitudes of his grown son and his wife, who
live with him in the same house. All they’re waiting for is the inheritance
that will one day come their way (Watanabe’s wife is long dead). Then the
ultimate insult occurs—Watanabe discovers he has stomach cancer and has six
months to live. After the initial shock and depression, the news inspires him
to undergo a drastic change.
suddenly wants to make something of his life while there’s still time. He
befriends a young female subordinate and attempts to experience Tokyo’s
nightlife, but that doesn’t satisfy him. Finally, he embarks on taking it upon
himself to do something about that cesspool and turn it into a children’s
playground before he dies.
there is more going on in Kurosawa’s film—the director has something to say that
is universal regarding a) government bureaucracy; b) working for years in a job
that provides no pleasure; c) gossip among co-workers and family about things
for which they don’t bother to learn the truth; d) the medical profession’s
reluctance to tell a patient the hard facts; e) and, finally, how important it
is to find something in one’s life that is fulfilling. Ikiru means “to live” in Japanese.
brings me to the lead actor, Takashi Shimura. While Toshiro Mifune usually gets
all the accolades of being “Japan’s greatest actor” etc. etc., and while I
don’t begrudge Mifune-san this praise, I believe Shimura-san had a longer,
deeper, and more varied career as an actor. If you’ve seen Rashomon or Seven Samurai,
then you know who he is—Shimura played the leader of the seven samurai, and he
was the woodcutter in Rashomon. In
fact, Shimura, was in twenty-one of Kurosawa’s thirty films (Mifune was in
sixteen). Shimura also appeared in Gojira
(Godzilla, 1954, and its American
cut, Godzilla—King of the Monsters,
1956) in a major role of a paleontologist. The actor appeared in several other
Toho Studios monster movies released worldwide. In fact, Shimura was in over
200 films between 1934 and 1981 (he died in 1982 at the age of 76). Than man
was a genius. One only has to compare the actor’s performances in both Ikiru and Seven Samurai to appreciate the diversity this talented actor
possessed. Takashi Shimura is Japan’s greatest unsung cinema thespian.
has re-issued Ikiru with a new, very
good-looking restored 4K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural
soundtrack. There is an audio commentary from 2003 by Stephen Prince, author of
The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira
Kurosawa. Supplements include a 90-minute documentary from 2000 about
Kurosawa that features interviews with the director; a lengthy documentary from
2003 on Ikiru featuring interviews
with Kurosawa, one of the script writers, other members of the crew, and
Takashi Shimura. There’s a new English subtitle translation, and the obligatory
trailer. An essay by critic and travel writer Pico Iyer and a reprint from
critic Donald Richie’s book The Films of
Akira Kurosawa are included in the booklet.
Ikiru is a movie about
humanity, life, and death, and it’s perhaps Kurosawa’s most personal film. That
means it’s a must for connoisseurs of foreign cinema.
bet many of you cinephiles out there have heard
of Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s acclaimed trilogy of films from the
1950s (Pather Panchali,aka
Song of the Little Road, 1955; Aparajito,aka The
Unvanquished, 1956; and Apur Sansar,aka The
World of Apu,1959), but have
never actually seen them. Here is your chance to rectify that egregious error.
Quite simply put, anyone interested in film history needs to have this trio of
motion pictures under the belt.
Ray, who received an Honorary Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in 1992, began his
career as an illustrator of books. One of these was Pather Panchali, a classic of Bengali literature (1928) written by
Bibhutibushan Bandyopadhyay, and its sequel, Aparajito (1932). They comprise the story of the growth of a boy
from infancy to adulthood over the course of twenty-five years or so (from the
1910s to the 1930s), and how he rises from the extreme rural poverty of his
humble beginnings to becoming a writer and husband-then-father in the big city
of Calcutta (now called Kolkata).
two novels eventually became the basis for the trilogy of films Ray would make
between 1952 and 1959, when he kick-started his work in cinema. A lover of movies—especially
the Italian neo-realist works such as De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (aka The
Bicycle Thief)—Ray founded a film society in Calcutta in 1947 and became an
assistant to Jean Renoir in 1949 when the French filmmaker was in India making
his seminal The River (1951). With
Renoir’s encouragement and inspiration, Ray set out to begin making his own
films. He chose Pather Panchali to be
of continual problems with funding, the picture took nearly four years to make,
and with an inexperienced crew to boot. Released to overwhelming critical praise
and numerous prizes, including the “Best Human Document” award at the Cannes Film
Festival, Song of the Little Road stands
as one of the greatest debuts of any filmmaker.
the most striking of the three pictures, Song
presents in neo-realist style what it was really like to live in the rural jungle
of Bengal in the 1910s. Apu Roy is born the second child to very poor parents
who live in a crumbling ancestral home. Harihar, the father (Kanu Banerjee), is
something of a priest and writer, but he is always traveling, gone for months
at a time, and never brings home enough money. While he seems to be a nice man,
he is ineffectual as a husband and father. On the other hand, Apu’s mother,
Sarbajaya (brilliantly played by Karuna Banerjee, no relation to Kanu), is the
long-suffering, anxious, and stoic parent who provides for the children and
fends off criticism from neighbors. It could be said that Apu’s older sister, Durga
(played first as a younger child by Shampa “Runki” Banerjee, the real-life
daughter of Karuna Banerjee, and portrayed later as a young teen by the
wonderful Uma Das Gupta), is really the protagonist of the first film, and Ms.
Gupta is especially good in the role. And then there is “Auntie” (amazingly characterized
by 85-year-old Chunibala Devi, a veteran of Indian stage and silent films). The
woman is half-disabled, wrinkled, toothless, and cross-eyed—and despite being
addicted to opium during the shoot, her performance is quite remarkable. Apu
(Subir Banerjee, no relation to the others) is around 5 or 6 years old in this
picture and is mostly an observer of the hardships and tragedies that fall upon
picture is poetic, tender, and honest. Filmed by first-time cinematographer
Subrata Mitra, who went on to become Ray’s go-to DP, and scored by a young Ravi
Shankar (the sitar and bamboo flute music is fabulous!), Song of the
Little Road is a one-of-a-kind film that will move you in
the picture became a hit, Ray was encouraged to continue the story from the
novels and made The Unvanquished, in
which a slightly older Apu and his parents move out of the jungle to the holy
city of Benares (also known as Varanasi) on the Ganges. There, Harihar works as
a priest and Sarbajaya is still the strong one in the family—until tragedy
strikes again. Apu and his mother move back to the country, and there Apu
decides he wants to go to school and not be a priest like his father. It takes
money to attend school, so his mother does what she can to make it happen. An
older, teenage Apu then goes to Calcutta to attend college. Karuna Banerjee is
the focal point of this middle entry in the trilogy, and her performance is powerful
and heartbreaking. Apu is played by two different actors throughout the course
of the picture.
Finally, The World of Apu was made
after Ray took a break from the trilogy and made a couple of other films
in-between (e.g., the acclaimed The Music
Room,1958). In the third
chapter, Apu (played by longtime Indian star Soumitra Chatterjee) is now in his
twenties and living alone in Calcutta. He is a loner, a dreamer, and an artist.
He is writing a novel in which he has little faith, he isn’t interested in
working, and he has no money. And yet he is somewhat happy with his “freedom.”
Then, by happenstance, he is talked into an arranged marriage to a young girl,
Aparna (played by the beautiful Sharmila Tagore in her first film role—she went
on to become a star in Indian cinema), and Apu’s life is changed once again. The World of Apu is primarily a love
story, but it’s also about the assuming of responsibility for one’s actions.
too bad that there was never a fourth chapter in the story. It would have been
interesting to see what happened to Apu when he was in his forties or fifties.
Like Truffaut’s Adventures of Antoine
Doinel, which covers the life of a young man over the course of five films, The Apu Trilogy is a monumental epic—but an extremely personal and intimate one—that covers universal truths, emotions, and values recognizable
in any culture and language. It stands as one of the most heartfelt statements
on humanity ever put on celluloid.
Criterion Collection’s new boxed-set contains all three films, gorgeously and
meticulously restored in 4K digital, undertaken in collaboration with the
Academy Film Archive at the AMPAS and L’Immagine Ritrovata from existing prints
(the negatives were long ago destroyed in a fire). There are many supplements
on each of the three discs that include new interviews with Soumitra Chatterjee,
Sharmila Tagore, and Shampa Banerjee (now Shampa Srivastava), as well as with film
historian Gideon Bachmann, camera assistant Soumendu Roy, film writer Ujjal
Chakraborty, Ray biographer Andrew Robinson, and film historian Mamoun Hassan.
Vintage interviews include several with Ray, Ravi Shankar, members of the crew
and cast, and more. A handful of vintage documentaries are included, along with
footage from the 1992 Oscar ceremony, in which Ray received his honorary award
in a bed in a Calcutta hospital. The booklet features a selection of Ray’s
storyboards for Song of the Little Road,
as well as essays by critics Terrence Rafferty and Girish Shambu.
The Apu Trilogy on Blu-ray is a
landmark release from the Criterion Collection of milestones not only of
Bengali cinema, but of motion picture history. Check it out—you will find it a
profoundly rewarding experience.
In a relatively infamous review, a film critic from the
Atlanta Journal dismissively sniffed
that Dont Look Back (that’s not a typo, there is, mysteriously, no apostrophe
in the title) was little more than “the neighborhood’s biggest brat blowing his
nose for ninety minutes.” This harsh
sentiment was echoed by a critic from the Cleveland
Plains Dealer who added the film was “certainly not for moviegoers who
bathe and/or shave.” Time, of course,
has proven such histrionic appraisals of this very significant film to be entirely
wide of the mark. Most film scholars now
regard Donn Allen (D.A.) Pennebaker’s gritty and grainy opus as the first true masterwork
of rock music documentary filmmaking.
Though some of the earliest reviews were clearly nonplussed
with Pennebaker’s maverick “direct cinema” style of filmmaking, most of the critical
scorn was reserved for the movie’s principal figure, Bob Dylan. Even such early believers as Israel G. “Izzy”
Young, a folk-music enthusiast who took a chance in November of 1961 and chose
to produce Dylan’s first New York City concert, thought Dont Look Back, “A sad
event. Dylan surrounded by machinations,
appearing wherever he is told to, and resenting it. He is abusive to interviewers. Why? He didn’t have to agree to it.”
In defense of his detractors, both friendly and
antagonistic, it is true that few of Dylan’s Dont Look Back challengers are
spared the artist’s stony silence or mocking ridicule. In the course of the film the strikingly
young but already revered folksinger appears, at any given time, to be aloof,
condescending, or downright rude to those who might dare touch the hem. The devoted pilgrims, uncomprehending
journalists, and dullards who crowd and distract the musician in dressing rooms,
hotel suites, press conferences or out on the street are ceremoniously – and
sometimes painfully – put-on or put-off by this enfant terrible. Pennebaker’s
shoulder-held 16mm newsreel camera is seemingly always at the ready to capture every
glorious – and cringe-worthy - moment for posterity, all in a dispassionate and
non-judgmental manner. Since his two-camera
team rolled nearly continuously, Dylan himself opines on a supplement from this
magnificent new Blu-ray issue from Criterion, “After awhile you didn’t notice [the
What Dylan’s harshest critics totally miss is that the
singer’s perceived boorishness is reflexively defensive; it’s his dilettantish
but not too un-understandable coping mechanism to navigate the maelstrom encircling
him. Throughout Dont Look Back, the camera
establishes - in stark black and white imagery- that by 1965 Dylan was already caught
uncomfortably in the cross-hairs of the emerging culture-war. Dylan’s gift at word-play and his brilliant,
thoughtful songs brought him deserved attention; but they also managed, perhaps
accidentally, to tap into the zeitgeist of the brimming ‘60’s revolution. The singer’s mysterious persona, his wounded
singing-style, his elemental guitar-playing, and his haunting word-images were not
simply embraced. They were soon imbedded into the psyches of those most
deeply moved: academics, politicos, folk-music aficionados, devoted followers
and gossipy news gatherers. Viewing this
phenomenon through the prism of today’s prevalent cynicism is difficult; it’s not
easily explainable why Dylan’s most ardent admirers expected that this skinny, twenty-four
year old youngster – one with less than optimal social skills no less– had the
ability to impart wisdom befitting that of an ancient, wizened sage. Throughout the film the singer is pressed to share
the secrets of the universe that everyone presumes he’s holding close to his
chest. Though Dylan makes several
sincere attempts to explain, “I’m just a guitar player. That’s all…,” his protestations go unheeded.
There is one archival flashback near the film’s
beginning that provides a window of context for such deification. Upon a BBC journalist’s query “How did it all
begin for you, Bob?,” Pennebaker flashes to a civil rights rally where – in a
strikingly invasive full screen and spit-flicking close-up – Dylan brays out
the verses to one of his best “finger-pointing” songs, “Only a Pawn in their
Game.” The song, which would see issue
a half-year later on his seminal The
Times They Are A-Changin’ album, brashly charges not only the genuine
assassin of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, but a morally corrupt police
force, government officials, and court justices as malleable co-conspirators to
the murder. To the best of my knowledge,
this is the only footage in Dont Look Back that is not the product of
Pennebaker’s own set of voyeuristic cameras.
The rally footage came courtesy of Edmund Emshwiller, a
celebrated visual artist and illustrator who would dabble in experimental
filmmaking in the early 1960s. Carrying
along a single 16mm wind-up Bolex camera, Emshwiller followed a troupe of
Greenwich Village folk-singing activists (Dylan, Pete Seeger, Theodore Bikel,
and the Freedom Singers) in July of 1963 to a Voter Registration Rally on the
farm of Silas Magee in Greenwood, Mississippi. Emshwiller’s resulting short film, Streets of Greenwood, a reference to
the small town that was, at the time, a hotbed of racial discrimination and
KKK-vigilante violence, would, sadly, not see wide release. Pete Seeger would later suggest it was likely
Dylan’s inclusion in the finished experimental-film that doomed Streets of
Greenwood to near-oblivion. He was
An extremely limited release of this obscure agit-prop short
film had, reportedly, been blocked by Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman. Grossman was a major figure in the early
1960s folk-music revival, a tough and calculating business manager by
reputation; his table stable of clients would eventually include Peter, Paul,
and Mary, Janis Joplin, Odetta, Ian and Sylvia, Phil Ochs, and Richie Havens
amongst others. In 1962, Dylan signed a
ten-year exclusive contract with Grossman, an opportunistic move that in three
years time would swiftly transform the scruffy singer from little-known folksinger
to pop-music icon. It was also a
temporary alliance of strong personalities predestined to end acrimoniously.
of the more controversial motion pictures to emerge out of what film historians
call “New Hollywood” was In Cold Blood,
which was released to theaters “for mature audiences only.” The New Hollywood
movement began around 1966, when the Production Code finally started to
collapse (and before the movie ratings were instituted) and studios commenced
allowing auteur filmmakers to do
whatever the hell they wanted. The year 1967 was especially a groundbreaking
one with the release of such “adult” fare as Bonnie and Clyde, The
Graduate, In the Heat of the Night,
and In Cold Blood.
In Cold Blood is based on the
“non-fiction novel” by Truman Capote about the true crime of 1959 in which an
innocent family of four in Kansas were murdered by two ex-cons who believed
there was $10,000 hidden in a safe in the house (there wasn’t). Capote spent
several years writing the book, interviewing law enforcement men involved in
the case, as well as the two killers themselves—Perry Smith and Dick Hickock.
The accused were eventually executed in 1965. In Cold Blood turned out to be, along with Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter, one of the two most
successful true crime books ever published.
Brooks was a Hollywood veteran who had been working in the industry since
before World War II. In the 1950s, he made a name for himself as a
writer/director, especially as an adapter of previously existing material. He
had won an Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Elmer
Gantry (1960) and had brought to the screen other acclaimed pictures such
as Blackboard Jungle (1955), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), and The Professionals (1966). Brooks
received Oscar nominations for both Director and Adapted Screenplay for In Cold Blood.
filmed in black and white at a time when most movies were in color, the picture
is a stark, dark, and ultra-realistic depiction of two psychologically-damaged
men, brilliantly portrayed by Robert Blake as Smith and Scott Wilson as
Hickock. Brooks’ reasoning to film in black and white was that “documentaries
were usually in black and white” and he wanted that true-to-life feel. Conrad
Hall, the director of photography, used a palette of extreme blacks and harsh
whites to achieve a higher than usual contrast (Hall was also nominated for an
Oscar). This served to emphasize the darkness that resided in these two men’s
In Cold Blood is a tough picture
to watch. It’s very disturbing, even today. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have
its rewards. As a study of darkness, and a display of virtuoso filmmaking, it’s
easily one of the better motion pictures of that decade. Brooks considered it
to be the best film he ever made, and he’s probably right.
movie is very faithful to the book with a few minor exceptions, such as the
addition of a reporter character who provides some voice-over narration, and
the complete elimination of the trial. The only scene from the trial in the film
is the prosecutor’s closing argument for the death penalty. Oddly, one figure
is totally absent from the movie, and that is Truman Capote himself. As shown
in the recent pictures, Capote (2005)
and Infamous (2006), the author
inserted himself into the convicted men’s incarcerated lives on an intimate
level. (It is highly recommended that after viewing In Cold Blood, one might want to take a look at Douglas McGrath’s Infamous, an often overlooked and
underrated biopic on Capote that deals closely with the author’s relationship
with Perry Smith, who in this case is played by none other than Daniel Craig!).
have said that In Cold Blood is a
statement against the death penalty, but in many ways, it’s also the opposite.
While Brooks does a great job in evoking some sympathy for the killers by
portraying the hard life Perry had as a child and other circumstances that
brought the two killers to commit murder, it’s also difficult not to side with
the jury. The Clutter family—the victims—are presented in such a compassionate
light that, in the end—at least for this viewer—the verdict makes complete
Criterion Collection disc presents a new 4K digital restoration with 5.1
surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack (and the jazz score is by Quincy
Jones—also nominated for an Oscar!). Visually, the Blu-ray could not be more
striking. The abundance of supplements is also impressive. There are new
interviews with: a) Author Daniel K. Daniel on director Brooks, and this is
very enlightening; b) Cinematographer John Bailey about DP Conrad Hall and his
work; c) Film historian Bobbie O’Steen on the film’s editing; and d) Film
historian and jazz critic Gary Giddins about Jones’ score. Vintage interviews
include one with Brooks from 1988; one with Capote from 1966 during a visit to
the crime scene; and one with Capote from 1967 conducted by Barbara Walters.
There is also a short 1966 documentary on Capote directed by Albert and David
Maysles. The film’s trailer and an essay by critic Chris Fujiwara in the
enclosed booklet rounds out this excellent package.
In Cold Blood is not for the
faint-hearted, but it is also hard-hitting, arresting, and brilliantly made.
It’s a must for fans of crime drama and those who appreciate a little art with
all the talented filmmakers who have made a mark in the history of cinema,
there is that handful who belong in a
special category. Granted, many directors are auteurs, in that they have a recognizable style and thematic
consistency to their work—a “signature” that identifies them as the “authors”
of their pictures. But there is a rare sub-set of auteurs who are so strikingly original and iconoclastic that their
work is singularly their own and unlike that of any other filmmaker. David
Lynch is one of these. No one makes the kind of movies he does.
Mulholland Drive is easily one of
Lynch’s best pictures (and he’s not very prolific, either—only ten feature
films to date, not counting television productions). It was released in 2001 to
massive critical acclaim (Lynch shared Best Director at Cannes with Joel Coen,
and he was nominated for a Best Director Oscar), as well as a great deal of
bafflement and mutterings from exiting audiences such as, “Well, that was weird.”
it’s a strange film—after all, it’s a David Lynch picture, and he is, perhaps,
the foremost proponent of surrealism in cinema since the advent of Luis Buñuel.
But Lynch is also a romanticist, and his blending of these two somewhat
conflicting artistic movements result in a distinctly different kind of animal,
something that has been coined “Lynchian.” There is a beauty to Mulholland Drive that is mesmerizing.
The mystery and ambiguity of its narrative is almost secondary to the emotional
punch the director delivers to the audience.
has been written about the movie in an attempt to analyze it and make sense of
the non-linear plot, and it is, like all great art, open to interpretation. It
takes more than one viewing to “get” it, although I don’t think anyone can fully get it. If this is your first
encounter with Mulholland Drive—and
the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition is an excellent medium with which to approach the film—it is highly
suggested you watch the film in its entirety, and then view it again the
following day after thinking about it.
the film is the sad, tragic story of a severely depressed and failed Hollywood
actress named Diane (played by Naomi Watts, in a brilliant, breakout
performance that shot her to “A” list status) who has been jilted by her
lesbian lover, Camilla (Laura Elena Harring) for a film director (Justin Theroux).
Diane hires a hit man to murder Camilla, and then kills herself out of remorse
and guilt. Doesn’t sound too savory, does it? Never mind—Lynch tells this story
in the form of a compelling quasi-neo-noir mystery, and in the process he creates
a puzzle for the audience to solve in order to connect the dots. Out of the
146-minutes of running time, nearly the first two hours of it consist of a
dream Diane is having which casts her as a wholesome, talented, optimistic and
aspiring actress named Betty. She meets an amnesiac victim who adopts the name
Rita (also Harring), and they set about attempting to find out how Rita came to
be in her situation. At around the 1:57:00 mark in the picture, Diane wakes
from her dream to her reality. What follows then are several non-linear flashbacks
to events that happened prior to Diane having her dream.
logic is usually nonsensical when analyzed upon waking, but during the actual
dream, everything makes sense, right? When watching the first two hours, you’ll
see several characters and objects that appear in relation to the “plot” of the
dream... but later, in the wakeful reality, the actors who played the earlier characters
and the same objects appear in different contexts—with a little thought you can
decipher how the dream connects these elements with the real circumstances. The
clues are all there on screen.
interesting aspect of Mulholland Drive is
that it was originally a pilot for a possible television series a la Twin Peaks. Lynch had filmed the “dream”
section of the picture, but the network rejected it. The director got financing
elsewhere, re-tooled the existing footage, wrote the rest of the story, and
brought the principles back for more shooting. This is why the detectives,
played by Robert Forster and Brent Briscoe, simply disappear from the movie
after the first half hour—they were originally intended to be regular
characters in the TV series. One can’t help but wonder what if.
fascinating film comes with a gorgeous new, restored 4K digital transfer,
supervised by Lynch and director of photography Peter Deming, with a 5.1
surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray. Like most DVDs and
Blu-rays that Lynch approves, there are no chapter stops. Supplements include
some terrific new interviews with Lynch and Naomi Watts together (very funny
and revealing); Theroux, Harring, and Deming; composer Angelo Badalamenti (wait
until you hear how he got started writing film scores!); production designer
Jack Fisk; and casting director Johanna Ray. There’s a deleted scene, the
trailer, and a wonderful treat—on-set footage of Lynch directing several scenes
from the film. The booklet contains a 2005 interview with Lynch from Chris
Rodley’s book, Lynch on Lynch.
Mulholland Drive is a masterpiece in
David Lynch’s canon and the new Criterion release certainly does it justice. This
is a film that is haunting, beautiful, and full of secrets and surprises. It
really is the stuff that dreams are made of.
new release from The Criterion Collection in time for Halloween is the classic
Japanese ghost story anthology, Kwaidan,
which, upon its appearance in the mid-sixties, generated a good deal of
critical acclaim. After it premiered in Japan in late December 1964, the
picture was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 1965 (in a much shorter
version) and won the Special Jury Prize. The film was also nominated for the
Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (1965). It was also, at the time, Japan’s most
a long movie. Criterion has released a new 2K digital restoration of the original
183 minute director’s cut (complete with an intermission intercard) that was
shown at the picture’s premiere. Kobayashi was forced to edit it to just over
two hours for Cannes, and, for its general and worldwide release, to 164
minutes. “Kwaidan” means “ghost
stories,” and the movie consists of four non-related spooky tales from the
country’s folklore. The Japanese have always been great tellers of ghost
stories, especially ones that take place in feudal Japan—which these do. The
individual stories are based on Lafcadio Hearn’s collections of folk tales
written in the late 1800s (Hearn is Caucasian but was an expert in all things
Kobayashi’s film is strikingly gorgeous. The high definition improves the
quality of Criterion’s original release of several years ago—the colors are
vivid and bold, the picture is clear and sharp, and the costumes and set
designs are absolutely breathtaking. Kobayashi certainly draws from traditional
Kabuki, for the mise-en-scene is more
theatrical than cinematic. The settings look like they belong more on the stage
than on film. And yet, the director and his designer manage to recreate an epic
sea battle with samurai soldiers and wooden ships—in a studio. Impressive
the visual excellence on display, the four stories are of varying quality. The
first, “The Black Hair,” concerns a husband who leaves his wife to search for a
better life. He marries the daughter of a nobleman, but is unhappy. When he
finally goes back to the original wife, he doesn’t count on reckoning with her
long, black hair, which, ahem, has a mind of its own. In “The Woman of the
Snow,” a young man’s life is spared by a Yuki-onna
(a wicked female spirit) as long as he never reveals that he encountered
her. Well, ahem, guess what he does? The longest and slowest, and yet most
complex and opulent tale, is “Hoichi the Earless,” in which a blind biwa player (it’s a sort of Japanese
lute) is compelled to perform for an entire clan of samurai ghosts; they had long
ago perished in that legendary sea battle mentioned above. “Hoichi” features
actors Tetsuro Tamba (known to Western audiences for playing Tiger Tanaka in
the 1967 James Bond film You Only Live
Twice) and Takashi Shimura, one of Japan’s greatest actors, seen in many of
Akira Kurosawa’s pictures (he was the leader of the Seven Samurai). The final story is a short one, “In a Cup of Tea,”
in which a warlord’s bodyguard sees the face of a ghost in the tea he is
drinking—and that spirit pays him an unwelcome visit.
probably safe to say that many of the popular J-Horror flicks of the late 1990s
(e.g., Ringu, Ju-on) owe a debt to Kwaidan.
The earlier film isn’t gory, although for 1964 it was probably a little
shocking with a brief shot of nudity and a few instances of bright red bloodletting.
The film isn’t particularly scary, either, but it does have some creepy
moments. The sound design is especially notable for its subtlety and occasional
surprises that will make you jump. Modern audiences, however, will most likely
find Kwaidan too meticulously
measured to be a real fright fest. Perhaps it might be best enjoyed by viewing the
film in two parts.
include a new audio commentary by film historian Stephen Prince; a new subtitle
translation; an interview with Kobayashi from 1993, conducted by filmmaker
Masahiro Shinoda; a new interview with assistant director Kiyoshi Ogasawara,
which is interesting for the many revelations about Kobayashi’s working methods
and the reasons there were several cuts of the film; a new piece about author
Lafcadio Hearn; and vintage trailers. The booklet contains an essay by critic
film enthusiasts and devotees of Japanese folklore will certainly enjoy Kwaidan. I would especially recommend it
for viewers interested in production and costume design. For those two elements
alone, Kwaidan is a sumptuous
Cronenberg’s horror films always seem to tackle subjects that involve an
unpredictable human body and the terror of your consciousness residing inside
of it. He explored parasites in his first mainstream picture, Shivers (aka They Came From Within, 1975), and viral “stingers” than grow in a
woman’s armpit in his second, Rabid,
1977. The rest of his movies, leading up to the ultimate statement of being
trapped in a horrible body, The Fly
(1986), all dealt with some aspect of physical or mental transformation. The Brood, released in 1979, fits right
in with Cronenberg’s thematic fascination with flesh and blood. And it’s a
Reed plays Dr. Raglan, an unorthodox psychotherapist who uses controversial
techniques that cause his patients to manifest their inner turmoil and anger
into visible, bizarre growths on their bodies. One guy sprouts spots. Another
man grows a weird gland on the outside of his neck. The most extreme result of
Dr. Raglan’s methods occurs with a disturbed woman named Nola (Samantha Eggar),
who was abused as a child and is in the throes of a divorce and custody battle
with her husband Frank (Art Hindle). Nola is growing “wombs” on her body that eventually
give birth to horrific dwarf “copies” of her and Frank’s five-year-old daughter
Candice (Cindy Hinds)—except these siblings are murderous creatures unwittingly
and psychically controlled by their mother. They have the faces of trolls, no
navels, and are anatomically asexual, but otherwise they are somewhat identical
to Candice. (Where they get the clothes that Candice wears is unexplained.)
a horror film, The Brood brilliantly
succeeds. The shocks are genuine, the gross-out factor is palpable, and the
story—which is absurd on the surface—is intelligently well-written (by
Cronenberg himself). Apparently the impetus for the film was the director’s
harrowing experience in going through a divorce and rescuing his child from a
delivers one of his best campy performances, and Eggar is suitably deranged in
her part. Of particular note is young Hinds, who manages to be simultaneously
innocent and creepy—this was her first acting role. Perhaps the weakest link in
the picture is Hindle, who somehow never reaches the emotional heights that his
a fairly low-budget affair, made for a little less than two million dollars,
but the visual effects and production values are top-notch. As noted in the new
supplemental documentary on the film’s making, all the strange bodily terrors
were accomplished with clever makeup applications—in particular, the use of
various-sized condoms filled with movie blood and... other stuff. Eggar relates
how hilarious this actually was on the set; she could hardly keep from laughing
as the crew glued the ends of prophylactics onto her torso.
has released a new, restored 2K digital transfer, supervised by Cronenberg,
with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. As is usually the case with Criterion
Blu-rays, the video is gorgeous and vividly colorful—and this is one of those
movies in which the color is practically a character in the film! Supplements
include: the new documentary featuring interviews with Eggar, executive
producer Pierre David, cinematographer Mark Irwin, assistant director John
Board, and special makeup effects artists Rick Baker and Joe Blasco (neither of
whom worked on The Brood, but served
on other Cronenberg pictures); a 2011 interview with Cronenberg covers his
early career in the 70s; a 2013 interview with Hindle and a grown-up Hinds is
conducted by the editor of Fangoria magazine;
and—most fun of all—a segment from The
Merv Griffin Show from 1980, featuring Reed verbally sparring with Orson
Welles. There’s also a radio spot and an essay by critic Carrie Rickey in the
notable supplement is Cronenberg’s rare second feature film, Crimes of the Future (1970), made in
color on a shoestring budget. This is a truly bizarre picture about a world in
which all the women capable of reproducing are gone (killed by toxic cosmetics)
and men are attempting to compensate without a feminine influence in their
lives. A little too stilted for its own good, Crimes serves as a curiosity in the Cronenberg pantheon that is
worth seeing... once.
the main attraction is an excellent fright fest. The Brood has arrived in glorious high definition just in time for
Halloween. Grab the popcorn, turn out the lights, and prepare yourself for some
truly nightmarish material. The Brood is
Anderson’s marvelous 2012 comedy, Moonrise
Kingdom, was previously released on Blu-ray and DVD, but The Criterion
Collection has seen fit to issue an edition that blows the old one away. With
an abundance of fun, entertaining supplements and packaged ephemera—Criterion’s
disc is in keeping with the other fine releases the company has done for the
Moonrise Kingdom is the first Wes
Anderson movie I truly fell in love with. While I liked and appreciated his
earlier pictures, Moonrise is a
flawless masterpiece of style and wit—as is Anderson’s following film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. For my money,
these are two slam-bang pieces of comic brilliance.
setting is a small fictional New England island, during one summer in the Sixties.
A Boy Scout troop camps out there. Some families live on the island, others
visit for the season. Twelve-year-old Suzy (wonderfully played with a mature
sense of irony by Kara Hayward) falls for one of the scouts, Sam (Jared Gilman,
in another highly accomplished performance). They’re both intelligent, curious,
and have wicked senses of humor. They make plans to run away together, and when
they do, the adults (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand are Suzy’s parents,
Edward Norton is the scoutmaster, and Bruce Willis is the chief of police on
the island) go nuts. The whole island gets involved in searching for the
precocious lovebirds, including the entire scout troop. Add in an approaching
hurricane and you’ve got a wacky romantic farce with suspense.
you’re familiar with Anderson’s work, you’ll know to expect a good degree of
quirkiness—every frame of this delightful picture oozes with eccentricity.
Oddballs abound. The overall tone is light and whimsical, and yet the handling
of the subject of young love is powerfully poignant and painfully real. How
many of you remember what it was like?—that first, young love, the infatuation
with another person at such a tender, yet blossoming, age. Anderson captures it
all with a good deal of laughs and a lot of heart.
director and his team also managed to build an entire universe around this
little island—the detail is remarkable, all the way from hand-knitted
decorations to the invented library books Suzy has stolen to read over the
summer. The sense of community the picture conveys is palpable—and it’s no
wonder, since the entire cast and crew (and, of course, others from Anderson’s
stock company pop up—Bob Balaban, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, and Harvey
Keitel) lived together for a couple of months while making the movie. As
emphasized repeatedly in the supplemental documentaries, the cast and crew
became a family.
the restored 2K digital transfer, supervised by Anderson, is the kind of
picture one would use to demonstrate the joys of Blu-ray to a novice. It is a
colorful, vibrant picture with an imaginative look and feel, thanks to the
Production Design, Art Direction, and Set Decoration by, respectively, Adam
Stockhausen, Gerald Sullivan, and Kris Moran. The new audio commentary features
Anderson, Bill Murray, Edward Norton (who literally phones it in), Jason
Schwartzman, Roman Coppola, and others—and it’s all entertaining stuff.
supplements include special shorts that were used to promote the film, some of
which were previously released, such as the Bob Balaban-narrated overview of
the six library books Suzy is reading throughout the film, and Bill Murray’s
guided tour of the set. There’s a new behind-the-scenes documentary,
selected-scene storyboard “animatics,” audition footage of the child actors,
and interviews with many of the cast and crew. Edward Norton presents a
selection of short videos he shot with an iPhone, and there is a bit on
miniatures and props used in the film.
the packaging includes a few souvenir goodies—a “postcard” of the cast and a
map of fictional New Penzance Island. The enclosed booklet contains pictures of
merit badges, the library book covers and some illustrations, and an essay by
critic Geoffrey O’Brien.
back at 2012, it’s a shame that the picture’s only Oscar nomination was for its
Original Screenplay (by Anderson and Roman Coppola). It was my favorite picture
of the year, and Criterion did it proud.
De Palma’s crime thriller/horror flick, Dressed
to Kill, was a controversial release in 1980 for its depiction of violence
against women and its sexual content— nevertheless, it was a successful entry in
the director’s oeuvre during the most
fruitful period of his long career. The film was released in America with an
“R” rating—but only after De Palma, under protest, compromised with the ratings
board and agreed to cut some footage, re-edit a couple of sequences, and change
some lines of dialogue.
Palma’s preferred unrated version of the film was released on home video not
too long ago, but The Criterion Collection has seen fit to issue a new, 4K
digital restoration, supervised by the director, of what might have been an
“X”-rated picture back in the day. The results are gorgeous. De Palma’s
thrillers from the mid-seventies and early eighties tended to be shot with a soft
focus that emulated some of Hitchcock’s late work of the sixties and seventies.
This was intentional. De Palma himself admits in a new interview in the disc
supplements that he was in a “Hitchcock period.” The director on numerous
occasions paid homage to the master of suspense in more ways than just the
photographic style alone. For example, Dressed
to Kill contains cool blondes, kinky sex, shower scenes, cross-dressing
killers, the bumping off a protagonist early in the story, and a lush
orchestral score reminiscent of the way Hitch used Bernard Herrmann’s musical lyricism
to heighten tension.
story begins with Kate, a sexually frustrated Manhattan housewife (played by
Angie Dickinson), who is seeing therapist Dr. Elliott (Michael Caine) about her
marriage. Early in the picture there is a brilliantly-choreographed extended
sequence, set in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in which Kate plays
cat-and-mouse with and allows herself to be picked up by a strange man. Then
she gets into serious trouble inside an elevator. A blonde woman in a hat and sunglasses
(resembling Karen Black in Hitchcock’s Family
Plot) slashes her to death with a straight razor. We then learn that one of
Elliott’s patients—a disturbed transsexual—stole the razor from the doctor’s
amateur sleuths Peter, Dickinson’s science-nerd son (played by Keith Gordon)
and Liz, a high class hooker who witnessed the murder (portrayed by Nancy Allen).
They team up to find the killer since the police (represented by a young Dennis
Franz) are having little success with the investigation. The movie then becomes
Allen’s picture. As related by the actress herself in a new interview in the
supplements, De Palma wrote the role for her—after all, she was married to the
director at the time. Allen delivers a performance that got nominated for a
Golden Globe for “Best New Star,” but also for a Razzie (Raspberry Awards) for
outcome of the story is no surprise, but that probably doesn’t matter. Dressed to Kill is all about an exercise
in style. De Palma is the real star
of the movie, and his presence is felt throughout. His signature close-ups,
tracking shots, soft focus, and carefully orchestrated techniques for
generating suspense, scream to the viewer that an auteur is at work. Maybe a little too loudly. But that doesn’t mean
Dressed to Kill isn’t entertaining.
It is. It’s just that it feels like we’ve seen it all before. Perhaps in a
supplements on the disc are extensive. New 2015 interviews include the
previously mentioned ones with De Palma (who is in discussion with
writer/director Noah Baumbach) and Allen, but also producer George Litto,
composer Pino Donaggio, shower-scene body double (and Penthouse Pet of the Year at the time) Victoria Lynn Johnson, and
poster photographic art director Stephen Sayadian. Also new to the release is a
profile of cinematographer Ralf Bode, featuring director Michael Apted.
Previously released extras include a 2001 documentary, The Making of Dressed to Kill, a 2001 interview with actor Keith
Gordon, and more than one feature about the different versions of the film and the
battle with the ratings board. There’s also a gallery of some of De Palma’s
storyboards. The booklet includes an essay by critic Michael Koresky.
Dressed to Kill is not De Palma’s
best work by a long shot, but it is representative of the director’s superb craftsmanship
at a time when he was at the height of his powers. If you’re looking for
something sexy, provocative, and gloriously violent to serve with your popcorn,
Kill will fit the bill.
late Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski often dramatized
the theme of one’s destiny—whether it be determined by fate or by random
coincidences. His most well known work, the Three
Colors trilogy (Blue, White, and Red), certainly deals with the subject of chance, as do several
episodes of his celebrated television miniseries, The Decalogue.
in 1981 during the Solidarity movement and a time of political upheaval in
Soviet-occupied Poland, Blind Chance explores
the question of “what if?” If you did something as insignificant as bumping
into another person, would that change the course of your life?
film offers three alternate “lives” of a medical student named Witek (superbly played
by Boguslaw Linda). The first five minutes provide us with brief glances of
Witek as a child, a teenager, and then a young adult. After the death of his
father, Witek decides to drop out of medical school and travel to Warsaw to visit
his aunt. He is late to the station and must run through a crowd of people to
catch the train. What happens on the platform is the pivotal catalyst for the
rest of the story. He almost collides with a drunk—but doesn’t touch him—giving
Witek that extra second or two that allows him to catch the train. While
onboard, he meets an elderly Party-line Communist who takes a fancy to Witek
and offers him a job in the city. So, in this lifeline, Witek becomes a
Communist and works in opposition to the young people of his age group who are
protesting the government.
an alternate scenario, though, Witek actually collides with the drunk, but the man
with the beer remains standing. This causes Witek enough of a delay that he
misses the train. He then gets into a scuffle on the platform with a police
officer and is arrested. Once Witek is back on the street, he is forever prejudiced
against the Communist government. Thus, in this life he becomes an anti-Soviet activist
and a practicing Catholic.
in a third possibility, which may be what really happened, Witek accidentally knocks
down the drunk—delaying the young man a few seconds longer—so that Witek not only
misses the train, but he avoids the policeman on the platform. Instead, he runs
into a female medical student colleague. She persuades him to stay and return
to his studies. Witek marries the girl, has children, becomes a successful
doctor, and remains apolitical. Witek lives a happy life—until Kieślowski
pulls the rug out from under us and delivers a knife wound of an ending.
picture might remind viewers of Peter Howitt’s 1998 British film Sliding Doors, which also examined
alternate life paths—but only two. Blind
Chance does it with three, and the movie was made more than fifteen years
task of editing such a story is, of course, challenging, and editor Elzbieta
Kurkowska deserves special praise for keeping the complex narrative comprehensible.
In a 2003 interview, filmmaker and Kieślowski associate
Agnieszka Holland explains that she had seen the first cut of the film, which was
initially too confusing and didn’t work. Kieślowski made a
thorough assessment of what had gone wrong and completely recut the picture
with Kurkowska—resulting in the brilliant piece of work presented here.
you can get past the heavy political discourse that is an integral part of the
story, you will find Blind Chance to
be a fascinating and intelligent scrutiny of the way life rolls the dice for us
film was banned by the Polish government prior to its release, due to inherent criticisms
of the government. The picture was finally released in Poland in 1987 with some
cuts dictated by the censor board. It wasn’t until the fall of Communism in
Europe in 1989 that the complete works of Krzysztof Kieślowski
(who had been making movies since the 70s) emerged from behind the Iron Curtain
so that the rest of the world could discover him.
Criterion Collection has reassembled Blind
Chance to its 1981 version—with the exception of an audio-only portion of a
few seconds of a police beating that, for some reason, “couldn’t be restored.”
The 4K digital transfer, approved by cinematographer Krzysztof Pakulski, is
clean and sharp, providing the viewer with the best possible edition of this important
work. The soundtrack is in uncompressed stereo.
include the Holland interview; a new interview with Polish film critic Tadeusz
Sobolewski; and demonstrations of the nine pieces of the film that were
censored in 1987. The booklet contains an essay by film critic Dennis Lim and a
1993 interview with Kieslowski.
Blind Chance is recommended for
discerning cinema enthusiasts looking for a little European history,
intelligence, and artful filmmaking. A truly gifted auteur, Kieślowski departed this plane of existence way
too early (in 1996 at the age of fifty-four). Perhaps he is now living his own
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Truffaut had an all too short but certainly brilliant career as a filmmaker. He
began in the world of film criticism in France, but in the late 1950s he
decided to make movies himself. Truffaut quickly shot to the forefront of the
French New Wave in the late 1950s and early 60s, alongside the likes of
Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, Alain Resnais, and others. By the time the 70s
rolled around, Truffaut was a national treasure in France and a mainstay in art
house cinemas in the U.S. and Britain.
1973 masterpiece, Day for Night (in France La Nuit Américaine, or “American
Night”), won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film of that year, the only
time Truffaut picked up an Academy Award. Due to odd eligibility rules, the
picture could be nominated for other categories the following year. For 1974, Truffaut
was nominated for Best Director, the script by Truffaut, Suzanne Schiffman, and
Jean-Louis Richard was up for Best Original Screenplay, and Valentina Cortese
was nominated for Supporting Actress. Thus, Day for Night is perhaps one of the
auteur’s best known works outside of France.
title refers to a technique used in Hollywood pictures to create night scenes
shot during the day by using a special filter. In France “day for night” was
also known as “American night,” because it was an inexpensive and less
complicated method to achieve the effect.
title is entirely appropriate because the movie is about making a movie.
Truffaut plays a director named Ferrand (the filmmaker often acted in his own
pictures; most non-French audiences will remember his major role in Spielberg’s
Close Encounters of the Third Kind). The film he is making is a trite melodrama
about an older man falling in love with his soon-to-be daughter-in-law—which is
a plot that might very well have been in a real Truffaut movie. In fact,
several of the talking heads in the disc’s supplements suggest that Truffaut
was slyly making fun of his own 1964 melodrama, The Soft Skin (reviewed here),
which at the time of its release was a financial and critical disappointment
for the filmmaker.
Bisset and Truffaut
“plot,” as it were, of Day for Night is
nothing more than a freeform documentation of the movie’s shoot, particularly
focusing on the actors and crew and the on-screen and off-screen relationships
they have while on location—who’s falling in love, who’s breaking up, who’s
sleeping with or cheating on whom, and so on. In fact, mimicking the love
triangle that’s in the film-within-the-film, two of the lead actors, Julie
(Jacqueline Bisset) and Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Leaud) have an affair, jeopardizing the actress’
marriage, especially when Alphonse becomes enraged with jealousy when Julie
decides to reconcile with her husband when the man visits the set. There are
other dalliances among crew members... at one point a wife visiting her
henpecked production manager husband shouts at the entire production staff, “What
is this movie business? Where everyone sleeps with everyone! Everyone lies! Do
you think it's normal? Your movie world...I think it stinks. I despise it!”
it’s a romantic comedy, and there are quite a few laughs and whimsical moments.
Truffaut was often guilty of injecting sentimentality into his films, and it’s
here in abundance. This is not a bad thing, for the director did this thing
well. Day for Night is indeed very light, its buoyancy aided by Georges
Delerue’s sparkling score. It’s a quintessential Truffaut picture in that it
hits his various auteur thematic signatures—love affairs, infidelity,
reconciliation, pathos, and even cinema history. In fact, the picture is in
itself an homage to the art of making motion pictures. A key recurring sequence
is when Ferrand has fitful dreams at night, picturing himself as a young boy
desperate to steal lobby cards and press photos from the local cinema. As the
American movie posters claimed in the tag line, “it’s a movie for people who
cast is sensational. Besides Truffaut, Bisset, and Leaud, Jean-Pierre Aumont
plays the older screen idol who is nearing retirement, Valentina Cortese is an
Italian screen idol whose major earlier work was “with Fellini” (and this is
true for Cortese herself!). Other Truffaut “regulars” such as Dani, Alexandra Stewart, and Nathalie Baye, make
picture was shot at the legendary Victorine Studios in Nice, France (now called
Riviera Studios), the site where many noted films were made, such as To Catch a
Thief, Children of Paradise, Lola Montes, Mon Oncle, And God Created Woman, and
more. These photos depict what the grounds looked like in 2000, when I visited
the location while researching my James Bond novel, Never Dream of Dying (the
studios were used as a model for a setting in the book). While I walked around
the grounds, I mostly thought of Day for Night, for Truffaut’s movie had stayed
with me for decades since I first saw it on its initial release.
Photos taken by Raymond Benson at the filming location in 2000.(Photos copyright Raymond Benson. All rights reserved.)
Criterion Collection presents a gorgeous new restored 2K digital transfer,
supervised by director of photography Pierre-William Glenn, with an
uncompressed monaural soundtrack. Most of the supplements that appeared on the
Warner Brothers DVD of 2001 have been ported over, such as vintage “making of”
documentaries; interviews with Truffaut, Bisset, and several other cast and
crew members; a documentary on the film featuring film scholar Annette Insdorf;
and vintage news clips such as Truffaut being interviewed at Cannes. New
supplements include a fascinating video essay by the extraordinary filmmaker ::
kogonada; new interviews with DOP Glenn and assistant editor Martine Barraqué;
and a new engrossing interview with film scholar Dudley Andrew about the rift
that occurred between Truffaut and Godard after the release of the film. An
essay by critic David Cairns adorns the booklet.
for Night is easily one of François Truffaut’s best films. If you haven’t seen
it, you owe it to the movie lover inside you to pick up this one.
LIEUTENANT’S WOMAN” (1981; Directed by
By Raymond Benson
Fowles’ 1969 novel, The French
Lieutenant’s Woman, was a literary sensation, a best-seller, and a work
deemed “impossible” to film because it broke conventions and played with
narrative structure and point of view. And yet, there were several attempts in
the 70s to adapt the difficult Victorian story to something cinematic.
Apparently Dennis Potter took a shot at writing a screenplay at one point, but
it was playwright Harold Pinter who cracked the problem and presented the tale of
obsession, infidelity, and shame as two parallel stories—one in the Victorian
past, as in the book, and one in the present, dealing with the actors making the film we’re watching.
It was a unique and original approach to the material. With Karel Reisz at the
helm, the film adaptation became a critically-acclaimed art house delight.
a Czech director working in England, was at the forefront of the British New
Wave of the 60s with such pictures as Saturday
Night and Sunday Morning, Morgan!,
and Isadora. He brilliantly realizes
Pinter’s script with the help of the gorgeous cinematography by the great Freddie
Francis and the superb performances by Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons. It was
Streep’s first starring role (she had previously held supporting parts and won
her first Oscar for Supporting Actress for Kramer
vs. Kramer) and it earned the actress her first Oscar nomination in the
Leading Actress category. For many, especially in the U.S., this was the first
time Irons was seen on the big screen (he had previously done much work for
British television and had a small part in one feature film). Narratively, it’s
Irons’ movie—he plays the protagonist—but it is definitely Streep, with her
hauntingly quiet portrayal of Sarah, the fallen woman, who leaves an indelible
parallel stories follow illicit love affairs. In the present, actors Mike
(Irons) and Anna (Streep) are making a movie called The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Both are married to other people,
but they have an on-location affair while filming in West Dorset, England. Coincidentally,
the characters they play in the movie—Charles and Sarah—have a scandalous
affair in the same setting, but in the Victorian era. The point of the picture
seems to be that nothing has changed since the late 19th Century in terms of
morality, social mores, and how misplaced passion can wreck a life. Sarah is a
mysterious outcast in the seaside town of Lyme Regis, the subject of much gossip
as being the “French Lieutenant’s Whore,” i.e., she had an adulterous
relationship with a married, visiting French soldier. Charles is a
paleontologist working in the village; he is engaged to marry a well-to-do
local girl, but he unwittingly becomes obsessed with Sarah. This, of course,
leads to the man’s ruin. In both cases, the aftermath of the affairs leave
devastations... or do they?
Fowles’ novel, the consequences of Charles’ and Sarah’s affair is played out in
three different endings. It is up to the reader to decide which is the most
plausible—or morally acceptable. For the film, Pinter has twisted this conceit
into the two analogous storylines with dissimilar outcomes. Very clever indeed.
Perhaps Pinter’s script—which was nominated for an Adapted Screenplay Oscar—is
the real star of the picture.
the Oscar nods for Streep and Pinter, the film was nominated for Art Direction,
Costume Design, and Film Editing.
moody, beautifully shot, brilliantly written, and exquisitely acted, The French Lieutenant’s Woman is ripe
for rediscovery as an important piece of British cinema from the early 80s.
Criterion Collection does its usual bang-up job with a new 2K digital
restoration and an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. The images look marvelous.
Reisz’s attention to detail in the period setting is a feast for the eyes.
include new interviews with Streep and Irons, editor John Bloom, and composer
Carl Davis (whose score is evocative and sublime); a new interview with film
scholar Ian Christie about the making and meaning of the film; an episode from The South Bank Show from 1981 featuring
Reisz, Fowles, and Pinter; and the theatrical trailer. The essay in the booklet
is by film scholar Lucy Bolton.
Chariots of Fire may have taken the
Oscar gold for 1981, for me the finest British picture that year was The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
SAID—REFLECTIONS ON LOVE, UNRELIABLE MEMORIES, AND THE ATOMIC BOMB”
By Raymond Benson
Alain Resnais achieved worldwide acclaim with his documentary short, Night and Fog (1955), which revealed to
the world the true horrors of what went on in the Nazi concentration camps. For
his first feature film, Resnais turned to fiction; and yet, he maintained a
somewhat documentary approach in showing the world the true horrors of what
occurred in Hiroshima, Japan when the first atomic bomb was dropped. Beyond
that, Hiroshima mon amour (“Hiroshima,
My Love”) is an art film that not only signaled the beginning of the French New
Wave (although many film historians do not count it as an example of that
movement), it also established Resnais’ singular, enigmatic and ambiguous style
as an auteur. The director would go on to make even more thematically-mysterious
pictures (namely Last Year at Marienbad)
and become something of a French equivalent of Terrence Malick. Sort of.
Hiroshima mon amour
quite accessible, though, and it will surely stay with and haunt the viewer
long after watching the film. Primarily it’s a love story between a French
woman (Emmanuelle Riva, who returned to the limelight in 2012 with her
Oscar-nominated leading role in Amour)
and a Japanese man (Eiji Okada). The man is married, but his wife is away. The
woman is “married” to the ghost of her first love, a German officer who died
just before France was liberated in World War II. For that forbidden love, she
was ostracized and punished by the population of her small town, complete with
head shaving and shaming. This so psychologically damaged her that now, in the
present (1959), she is willing to embark on a two-night stand with a stranger.
The leading characters’ names are never mentioned, although they end up calling
each other by the city from which they hail—“Hiroshima,” for the man, and “Nevers”
(her home town in France), for the woman.
picture follows the short romance over the course of two nights and a day
in-between, juxtaposed with numerous flashbacks of the woman’s experience
during the war. Overlaid on all of this is visceral footage of the atomic bomb’s
aftermath in the city of Hiroshima, where the story takes place. Do the
characters tell the truth to each other? Are their memories real or imagined? She
might state something as fact, but then the man will say it isn’t true. And
vice versa. A facetious way to describe it the film is that it’s “He Said/She
Said in a Dreamscape.”
this doesn’t sound like a good time at the cinema, but don’t be fooled—Hiroshima mon amour is a powerful,
deeply moving piece of filmmaking that still resonates today. It explores how
we remember traumatic experiences in our lives, what we censor, and what we
embellish. The black and white cinematography, by Michio Takahashi and Sacha
Vierney (the picture was a French-Japanese co-production), is stunningly
gorgeous. The performances, especially by Riva, are outstanding. The musical
score, by Georges Delerue and Giovanni Fusco, alternates between playful and
melodic accessibility to avant-garde Stravinsky-like dissonance. And the direction,
well, let’s just say that Alain Resnais went on to become one of the most
revered French filmmakers, and Hiroshima
mon amour could very well be his masterpiece.
Criterion Collection released the film on DVD over a decade ago and they have now
seen fit to provide us with a new 4K digital restoration on Blu-ray with an
uncompressed monaural soundtrack. Criterion will always be the Cadillac of
Blu-ray restoration of old classics, and their work on Hiroshima is outstanding. All of the extras from the previous DVD
release are ported over, and there are some new supplements as well, including:
a program on the film’s restoration; a new interview with film scholar Francois
Thomas, author of a book on Resnais; and a new interview with music scholar Tim
Page about the film’s score. The previous supplements include an excellent audio commentary by film
historian Peter Cowie; interviews with Resnais from 1961 and 1980; interviews
with Emmanuelle Riva from 1959 and 2003; and an essay by critic Ken Jones and
excerpts from a 1959 Cahiers du cinema discussion
about the film, both of which appear in the booklet.
simply, Hiroshima mon amour is a milestone
of important international cinema. You owe it to yourself to see it. Maybe you
already have. Do you really remember?
Criterion Collection gave us the DVD versions of these two excellent crime
thrillers twelve years ago. The company
has now seen fit to upgrade the release to Blu-ray.
loosely on a short story by Ernest Hemingway, both versions of The Killers begin with the author’s
premise and then take off from there in very different directions. It’s
interesting to see how the respective screenwriters adapted the story and then
created two disparate feature-length tales out of it. In Hemingway’s piece, two
hit men arrive in a small town looking for “the Swede.” They terrorize the
owner, cook, and a customer in a diner in an attempt to find the guy. After the
killers leave in frustration, the customer runs to the Swede’s boarding house
and finds him in bed with his clothes on. He warns the Swede about the men, but
the Swede says he’s not going to do anything about it. The customer goes back
to the diner and, after realizing no one cares, leaves town. And that’s it.
1946 version faithfully captures the short story—even down to the dialogue—for
the first ten minutes. Where the short story ends, the movie goes on and we see
the hit men actually kill the Swede (played by Burt Lancaster in his first
starring role). Enter Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien, with third billing, but he’s
really the protagonist of the film!) as an insurance inspector—it turns out the
Swede had a life insurance policy that benefits an old lady who helped him
once. Reardon is determined to uncover the story behind it all, and the rest of
the movie follows his investigation into the Swede’s life in crime (told
entirely in flashbacks). The Swede was a boxer who got mixed up with Big Jim, a
racketeer (played by Albert Dekker), and falls in love with Big Jim’s gal,
Kitty (played by smokin’ hot Ava Gardner, in one of her first starring roles;
Gardner had been kicking around Hollywood since the early 40s—this was her big
break). As we all know, it’s not good to mess around with the crime boss’s
Siodmak received an Oscar nomination for Best Director on the picture (it was
also nominated for adapted screenplay, editing, and music score). There’s no
question that The Killers is a
seminal film noir, one of the best of
the bunch produced when Hollywood was churning out these types of gritty crime
pictures by the dozens. Siodmak’s hand is assured as he brings in all the
trademark film noir elements—expressionistic
lighting, a femme fatale, stark
brutality, a cynical attitude, flashbacks, a “man haunted by the past,” and
more. The picture could serve as a Film
Noir 101 course. Lancaster is fine and Gardner is sexy and dangerous, but
it is O’Brien who holds the movie together.
1964 version is a different animal. It was produced to be the very first TV
movie, but NBC viewed the finished product and deemed it too violent for
television. Instead, the producers released it theatrically worldwide. Directed
by Don Siegel (billed as “Donald Siegel”), The
Killers Mach II stars Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager as the hitmen, who here become the focal point
of the new story. John Cassavetes plays the Swede character, only here he is a
racecar driver named Johnny. The femme
fatale, Sheila, is played by Angie Dickinson, and get this... the crime
boss is none other than Ronald Reagan in his last film role before he became a
film begins basically the same way, but the setting is different. The two
hitmen come looking for Johnny and they kill him. Marvin’s hitman character then
takes over the dramatic action originally performed by O’Brien in the 1946
version—Marvin is the one who wants to find out why he and his partner were
hired to kill Johnny, as well as what happened to a load of stolen cash that
Johnny may have hidden.
not as important or engaging as the 1946 edition, The Killers Mach II is worth watching for Siegel’s solid
craftsmanship. NBC was probably right not to broadcast the picture on
television in 1964—given the time period, the movie is pretty brutal. Marvin
and Gulager are creepy bad guys, Cassavetes delivers his usual fine work, and
Dickinson displays her charms with aplomb. As for Reagan—well, let’s just say
it’s not too difficult to buy him as a crook. In hindsight, given that this guy
became a two-term U.S. president, his performance lends a “must-see” element to
gives us new high-definition digital restorations of both films (the 1964
version is in color and in 4:3 aspect ratio, since it was shot for television).
They look terrific. The black and white contrasts in the ’46 version are
especially sharp and unsettlingly beautiful. Almost all of the original
supplements are here—Andrei Tarkovsky’s student film adaptation of the short
story from 1956; a video interview with noir
expert/writer, the late Stuart M. Kaminsky; a video interview with Clu
Gulager; Stacy Keach reading Hemingway’s short story on audio; the Screen Directors’ Playhouse radio
adaptation from 1949 featuring Lancaster and Shelley Winters; an audio excerpt
from director Don Siegel’s autobiography read by Hampton Fancher; and trailers.
The booklets feature essays by novelist Jonathan Lethem and critic Geoffrey
O’Brien. Not sure why Criterion left off the production, publicity, and
behind-the-scenes stills, actor biographies, production correspondence, Paul
Schrader’s essay, and music and effects tracks, all which were on the original
DVD release. If those things are important to you, then you may want to hold on
for the Blu-ray restorations alone, The
Killers double feature is an excellent buy, especially for fans of film noir and crime pictures in general.
had seen Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King only
once, back in 1991 on its initial release, and I liked it very much. As years
went on, though, my memories of it were such that I considered it to be
atypical of Gilliam’s work. For me, he’s always been a hit-and-miss director;
some of his pictures are absolute classics and others not so much. There is a
certain beautiful sloppiness to his direction; to use a painting analogy, it’s
as if he throws a lot of paint on the canvas and maybe it’ll turn out to be
something coherent, funny, and meaningful. Gilliam, I think, is much more of a
visual designer than a people-director—his films always look great, usually very original and envelope-pushing in
their conception and the execution of the visuals. They are often big pictures on large canvases. They
contain lots of effects work, wild costuming, over-the-top performances, and a
frenetic energy that is exhaustive. And
a lot of fantasy.
viewing The Criterion Collection’s brand new Blu-ray release of the picture for
the first time since 1991, I now realize that The Fisher King is absolutely not
atypical of Gilliam’s work. I remembered it as being an intimate study of
two characters who go from despondency to finding meaning in their lives, with
not much “Gilliam-esque” aspects to the picture. Whoa, my memory was flawed.
Gilliam’s wildness, his visual extravagance, the over-the-top performances, the
crazy camera angles, fantasy, and the acerbic humor is all there. And it’s
terrific, easily one of Gilliam’s best movies (it’s certainly the one that
received the most Oscar nominations—five, including Best Actor (Robin
Williams), Supporting Actress (Mercedes Ruehl, who won), Original Screenplay (by Richard LaGravenese), Art
Direction/Set Design (of course!), and Original Score.
Lucas (Jeff Bridges) is a “shock jock” DJ who burns out when one of his
listeners becomes a mass murderer based on something Lucas said on the air. Three
years later he has quit his job, become an alcohol and drug abuser, and hooked
up with video store owner Anne (Mercedes Ruehl in an outstanding performance).
Then he accidentally meets a homeless man named Parry (Robin Williams), whose
wife was killed by that mass murderer in the incident that also wrecked Lucas’
life. Lucas and Parry form an odd couple friendship and Lucas gets the bright
idea of playing matchmaker with Parry and the woman the homeless man dreamily
watches from afar, Lydia (Amanda Plummer).
suffers from hallucinations (he believes a horrific “Red Knight”—a fantastic
accomplishment in visual effects and costuming—is after him, and that he must
find the Holy Grail—shades of Monty Python!—in order to bring his sanity back
to earth). Williams delivers one of his wild, crazy-man, wacky performances,
and it’s a gem. Bridges, too, is no slouch and he matches his co-star’s antics
with a grounded portrayal that is the anchor of the piece. One must also
mention Michael Jeter, who almost steals the movie as another homeless man who
does a song and dance in drag that brings down the house.
short, The Fisher King may be
Gilliam’s most “humane” picture, for it takes a serious look at homelessness,
mental illness, and the trappings of life that contribute to these ills.
Perhaps that’s why I remembered the movie as being “atypical” of Gilliam... it
had a message of social responsibility and wasn’t some dystopian fantasy set in
another world, although the director’s presentation of New York City certainly places Manhattan in another world!
new restored 2K digital transfer, approved by Gilliam, looks fabulous, of
course, and the 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is terrific.
There’s an enlightening audio commentary by Gilliam. Other extras include new
interviews with actors Bridges, Ruehl, and Plummer; as well as Gilliam,
producer Lynda Obst, and writer Richard LaGravenese. A new interview with
artists Keith Greco and Vincent Jefferds explores the creation of the Red
Knight. There’s a wonderful video essay of Bridge’s on-set photographs,
narrated by Bridges. Footage from 1991 of Bridges training as a radio
personality with acting coach Stephen Bridgewater is a lot of fun. There are
several deleted scenes with commentary by Gilliam, costume tests, and trailers.
But the most poignant—and absolutely the funniest—extra is a 2006 interview
with Williams discussing the film. An essay by critic Bilge Ebiri completes the
you’ve never seen The Fisher King, it
should be high on your list of “to-be-watched” titles. And if you’re a Gilliam
fan, well, it’s a must-have for the collection.
Rydell’s 1979 rock ‘n’ roll drama, The
Rose, made Bette Midler a star. While she had already done theatre, some
television, and live musical acts, as well as uncredited or tiny bits in some
films, Midler broke through to the mainstream with this picture and earned a
Best Actress Oscar nomination. There were many who felt that Midler should have
won the statue (Sally Field snagged the award for Norma Rae). The point is arguable, for Midler indeed displayed top-notch
acting chops as well as singing prowess. She also proved she could rock out.
project was originally intended to be a biopic about Janis Joplin, entitled Pearl. When Joplin’s family refused
permission, the producers morphed the script to feature a Joplin-like character
known as “The Rose”—but it wasn’t Joplin—and turned the story into fiction.
That said, the movie is very truthful about rock ‘n’ roll divas, touring, and
the heavy toll that this business takes on an artist.
the project was about a fictional character and not Joplin, director Rydell
signed on, and he was able to convince Midler to star. This was inspired
casting. Midler struts her stuff and oozes sexuality in the concert sequences in
front of audiences, explodes with violence in the scenes of conflict with her
manager or boyfriend, and she delivers vulnerability and insecurity in the
quiet moments. Addicted to alcohol and other drugs, the Rose is on a fast path
to self-destruction, and Midler brings the tragedy to life with aplomb.
Bates plays her British manager with the appropriate adoration of and frustration
with his talented, but flawed, client. Frederic Forrest turns in an
Oscar-nominated performance for Best Supporting Actor as the somewhat clueless
guy The Rose picks up after a disastrous meeting with a songwriter (Harry Dean
Stanton) who refuses to give her any more of his tunes. Forrest is terrific as
he takes a tremendous amount of shit from the stormy rock star, but then turns
around and gives it back to her with the same intensity.
music is dynamite—the end title song “The Rose” became a standard for not only
Midler, but other torch singers. Rydell’s direction is assured as he stages
both huge, arena-sized rock concerts with thousands of extras, along with
small, intimate scenes between a couple of actors.
Midler and Bates: sheer perfection.
new 4K digital restoration, supervised by director of photography Vilmos
Zsigmond, has a 5.1 surround DTS HD Master Audio soundtrack that will punch
holes in your eardrums (that’s a good thing for a rock music movie). Rydell
provides an audio commentary. Other extras are new, enlightening interviews
with Midler, Rydell, and Zsigmond. There are also archival interviews with
Midler and Rydell and footage from the set. The booklet contains an essay by
critic Paula Mejia.
The Rose is a brilliant, but sad,
look at the trials of rock ‘n’ roll stardom and the dark side of fame and
Chaplin’s Limelight was not quite the
swan-song for the genius filmmaker (he would make two more pictures in his
lifetime); but of these final three movies, Limelight
is the one that feels like the true farewell. It is more of a drama than a
comedy, and it is perhaps Chaplin’s most personal, introspective movie. The
fact that it is flawed and warrants criticism shouldn’t matter—it’s worth
viewing for a number of reasons.
my money, the director/actor/screenwriter/composer made a much funnier film, A King in New York (1957), after Limelight, but King is not as accomplished or well-known. Chaplin’s disastrous
final picture, A Countess from Hong Kong
(1967, starring Sophia Loren and Marlon Brando, with Chaplin appearing only in a
cameo) is best forgotten. Thus, most film historians focus on Limelight as being the conclusive
cinematic statement by the master.
Limelight presents a story
that begins in London in 1914, when the music hall, where Chaplin got his start
in show business, was the equivalent of America’s vaudeville. Chaplin’s own
father had also performed in the music hall circuit, but alcohol eventually
derailed the man’s career. Chaplin taps into this autobiographical history by
creating the character of “Calvero” a once-popular clown, but now an alcoholic
has-been. To be sure, though, there are within Calvero elements of the familiar
silent icon Chaplin once portrayed (at one point Calvero delivers a potent line
of ironic dialogue, “Perhaps it’s the tramp in me!”). Enter Terry, a young
ballerina (played by a nineteen-year-old Claire Bloom in her film debut), whom
Calvero saves from a suicide attempt. The couple forge an awkward friendship
that develops into romance (on her part,
not his—although Calvero’s attraction to her is painfully obvious), but of
course throughout the course of the picture they separate, get back together,
and, at the end, unwittingly and fatefully separate for good. The movie is an apparent
discourse on how the elderly must retreat from the limelight and allow the
young to step forward and carry on.
Calvero, Chaplin is very good, if more than a little melodramatic in the
non-comic scenes (of which there are many). Bloom is fine, if more than a
little melodramatic in nearly every scene (a stand-in ballerina, Melissa
Hayden, performs Terry’s dances). The supporting cast includes old pros like
Nigel Bruce and Norman Lloyd, but also Chaplin’s son, Sydney Earl Chaplin, who
delivers perhaps the most realistic and honest performance in the picture—it’s
a shame that he made only a few more films before deciding that acting was not
for him. Chaplin’s half-brother, Wheeler Dryden, plays a dual role, and, making
the movie a full family affair, six-year-old Geraldine Chaplin has a bit part
along with two of her younger siblings.
Keaton and Chaplin teamed on screen for their first and only time.
highlight, though, and pretty much the biggest reason to take a look at Limelight, is the climactic sketch featuring
Chaplin and Buster Keaton, the only time the comic masters ever appeared on
screen together. Their sequence is classic.
said, Limelight unfortunately comes
off as being overly sentimental. Chaplin palpably tugs too hard at the
audience’s heartstrings. The lush musical score, while beautiful, doesn’t help
tone down the ultimately maudlin proceedings. The film is much too lengthy as
well, clocking in at 137 minutes, making it Chaplin’s longest picture—and it feels interminable. Finally, the romance
between the very young Terry and the very old Calvero is barely believable, but
perhaps in 1914 such a May-December relationship might not have been so icky.
must be noted that at the time the picture was made, Chaplin was practically
Public Enemy Number One in America. He was a victim of the rabid and irrational
Red Scare that was going on in the country; the Hollywood blacklist was a
result of this insane paranoia, and Chaplin—while too powerful to blacklist—was
certainly shunned for his “socialist” political views (hmm, sound familiar?).
Chaplin premiered Limelight in London
in 1952, so the government took that opportunity to deny the artist re-entry
into the U.S. A fine way to treat someone who was arguably the cinema’s
greatest innovator and pioneer! Chaplin, heartbroken and bitter, took up
residence with his family in Switzerland, and didn’t return to America until
1972, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to forgive
and forget and award him with a Lifetime Achievement Oscar. And, since Limelight never got a proper release in
the states in ’52, it was re-released in ’72 and was thus eligible for Oscars. Limelight won for Original Score;
ironically, the only competitive Oscar that Chaplin ever won was for music. At
least the audience at the ceremony made him feel welcome—Chaplin received the
longest standing ovation ever at the Oscars.
new 4K digital restoration looks gorgeous, of course, and Criterion’s treatment
of the title is top-notch. Extras include a few that are ported over from the
2002 MK2 release—Chaplin Today: Limelight
(a documentary on the film); archival recordings of Chaplin reading two
excerpts from his own novella, Footlights;
a deleted scene and two trailers; and the uncompleted short, The Professor (1919). New extras include
Chaplin’s Limelight—Its Evolution and
Intimacy (a new video essay by Chaplin biographer David Robinson); new
enlightening interviews with Claire Bloom and Norman Lloyd (who is
100-years-old and sharp as a tack!); and a restored short, A Night at the Show (1915). The thick booklet contains an essay by
critic Peter von Bagh, excerpts from an on-set piece by journalist Henry Gris,
and lots of photos of ephemera.
all is said and done, despite its shortcomings, this new release of Limelight does have much to offer. And
suffice it to say that if you’re a Chaplin fan, then it’s essential.
I mentioned in last month’s review of The Criterion Collection’s new Blu-ray
release of The Palm Beach Story,
Preston Sturges was a rare breed in Hollywood in the early 1940s. After
Chaplin, he was the only working screenwriter/director in that he wrote
original scripts alone and then directed them, and he put an auteur stamp on each picture in terms of
style and themes. Naturally, the bigwigs in Hollywood resented the guy, and
Sturges often had a tough time at Paramount, where his most prolific and productive
five-year-reign took place. He was a flame that burned very brightly for a
short time. This brief career arc of a genius filmmaker is aptly presented in one
of the supplements on this new release—Preston
Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer, which originally
appeared on television’s American Masters
Sturges’ best work, Sullivan’s Travels was
released as a DVD from The Criterion Collection over a decade ago. The company
has seen fit to upgrade the film to Blu-ray with a new high-definition digital
restoration. Naturally, it looks magnificent, and I think by now we can take
for granted that Criterion will do a bang-up job on any digital restorations
has been written about Sullivan’s Travels
and there is no question that it is a remarkable piece of work. It premiered in
late 1941 but wasn’t released to the public until early 1942; nevertheless, it
received no Oscar nominations and at the time wasn’t as popular as Sturges’
previous pictures. Why? Possibly because it made audiences think. Yes, it’s a comedy, but that’s really only the first half.
After that, the picture becomes pretty serious, with a very sympathetic and
almost-sentimental social commentary on poverty and the Great Depression. It’s
true that the writer/director’s signature fast-and-witty dialogue is present
throughout, but the belly laughs are few in this particular title. Maybe
audiences in 1942 were wondering what happened to the Preston Sturges they
knew. Ironically (and Sturges was very big on irony), the film is now
considered a classic and Sturges’ masterpiece.
McCrea plays Sullivan, a popular Hollywood movie director who specializes in
comedies. What he really wants to do, however, is make a serious and
responsible Capra-esque picture about human suffering, entitled O Brother, Where Art Thou? (And, yes,
this is where the Coen Brothers got the title for their movie from 2000.) After
much haggling with the studio bosses, Sullivan dresses as a “tramp” and hits
the road in order to undergo first-hand what the American people have been
experiencing during the Depression. Along the way, he meets beautiful Veronica
Lake, and Sully unwittingly allows her to tag along. The movie is then made up
of the couple’s various misadventures, including a hard left turn in which Sullivan
is sent to a hard labor prison with a mistaken identity. One of the most
striking scenes in the picture is when an African-American church opens its
doors to the prisoners for a field trip to watch movies projected on the wall.
It is there that Sullivan has an epiphany about his work and life—and it’s a
very good lesson for us all.
Film noir wasn’t just
relegated to American Hollywood films of the forties and fifties. It was
something of an international movement, albeit an unconscious one, for it
wasn’t until the late fifties that some critics in France looked back at the
past two decades of crime pictures and proclaimed, “Oui! Film noir!”
was doing it, too. Carol Reed’s 1947 IRA-thriller-that-isn’t-an-IRA-thriller Odd Man Out is one of the best examples
of the style. Robert Krasker’s black and white cinematography pulls in all the
essential film noir elements—German
expressionism, high contrasts between dark and light, and tons of shadows. Other
noir trappings are present, such as stormy
weather, night scenes, exterior locations, bars, shabby tenements, a lot of smoking,
and a crime. And, for a movie to be “pure noir,”
there must not be a happy ending. Odd Man
Out fulfills that last requirement with shocking bravura.
Mason stars as Johnny, the leader of “the organization” in an unnamed Northern
Ireland city; it isn’t difficult to connect the dots and assume the
organization is the IRA and the city is probably someplace like Belfast (where
much of the second unit photography was done on the sly; the rest of the film
was shot in studios and locations in England). Johnny escaped from prison a few
months back and has been in hiding, secluded in a house with his girlfriend
Kathleen (the beautiful Kathleen Ryan) for months. He has gathered a small gang
to rob a mill for money to support their cause. The problem is that Johnny has
gone a bit “soft,” and isn’t properly prepared for the job. Nevertheless, the
four men pull off the caper, but of course it goes wrong. Johnny is shot in the
shoulder, he unwittingly kills a man in self defense, and he is separated from
the other gang members. The rest of the film is a D.O.A.-style story of the next twenty-four hours or so as Johnny
eludes capture from the police on the streets, all the while losing blood and
his life. So we know he’s probably not going to make it and we wait for the
inevitable—but what happens until that fateful ending (which manages to
surprise us anyway with an unexpected twist in how it’s done) is incredibly
Odd Man Out is one of the most
engaging and thrilling British films of the 20th Century. Period. It certainly
rivals Reed’s The Third Man, which is
also an excellent model of British noir.
Mason is terrific as he stumbles around the streets, delusional and suffering,
practically bouncing from one obstacle to another with no safe haven in sight.
Other familiar British and Irish faces crop up—Robert Newton, Cyril Cusack, Dan
O’Herlihy, F. J. McCormick—and Kubrick fans might recognize a younger Paul
Farrell (the tramp from A Clockwork
Orange) as a bartender named Sam.
new high-definition digital restoration looks marvelous, naturally. Once again,
the company’s mastering for Blu-ray outdoes the competition. The image is sharp
and without blemishes for the most part, and appears as if the film was made
yesterday. Extras include a new interview with British cinema scholar John Hill
on the picture; “Postwar Poetry,” a new short documentary; a new interview with
music scholar Jeff Smith about composer William Alwyn and his gorgeous score; a
nearly-hour-long 1972 documentary featuring James Mason revisiting his hometown
in Ireland; and a radio adaptation of the film from 1952, starring Mason and
O’Herlihy. The essay in the booklet is by critic Sara Smith.
of these supplements are very good, but the reason to run out and buy this
Blu-ray release is the film itself. Odd
Man Out is a landmark crime picture with wonderfully eccentric Irish
characters, lush atmosphere, and film
noir traits galore. Highly recommended.
of the late, great Ingmar Bergman’s skills as a filmmaker was to write and
direct memorable roles for women. He was one of the few directors, such as Ford
or Altman or Allen, who repeatedly relied on a “stock company” of actors
throughout his career. While there were many wonderful male actors who worked
for Bergman (Max von Sydow, Erland Josephson, Gunnar Björnstrand),
we generally remember the women—Liv Ullmann, Harriet Andersson, Ingrid Thulin,
Eva Dahlbeck, Bibi Andersson, among many—for baring their souls on screen in
Bergman’s challenging, difficult works that always elevated the art of film to
Cries and Whispers is an excellent
example of the power of the female actor. It’s essentially a four-woman chamber
piece, taking place in the late 1800s in Sweden, about three sisters and a
servant, their relationships to each other, to their pasts, and to their stance
on mortality. It stars (in alphabetical order) Harriet Andersson, Kari Sylwan,
Ingrid Thulin, and Liv Ullmann, and it is arguably Bergman’s most well-known
picture in the U.S. It premiered in late 1972 but its general release was in 1973,
thus qualifying it for the ’73 Oscars. It’s Bergman’s only film to be nominated
for Best Picture (as opposed to Foreign Language Film), competing against the
likes of The Sting (which won), The Exorcist, American Graffiti, and A
Touch of Class (how did that one
get in there?). Bergman was nominated for Director and his Original Screenplay.
Despite all that, one could argue that the real star of the film is Sven
Nykvist, whose cinematography did win
the Oscar that year, and deservedly so.
one of Bergman’s few films in color, one must recognize the difficulty Nykvist
had in photographing rooms that were entirely red—red walls, red carpeting, red
furniture, red bedspreads—with touches of white in the drapes, clothing, fine
china, and sheets. Contrasting these intense shades with the flesh tones of
human beings and making it all work, especially in the early 70s, is nothing
short of remarkable. Thankfully, The Criterion Collection has seen fit to
upgrade their original DVD release to Blu-ray, and the results are absolutely
gorgeous. The new 2K digital restoration is superb.
the surface, the story seems simple—Agnes (Andersson) is dying of cancer. Her
two sisters, Karin and Maria (Thulin and Ullmann), are holding vigil and
waiting for the inevitable to happen, but it is the servant, Anna (Sylwan, who
made her extraordinary film debut with the picture) who does all the
caretaking. The four performances are gut-wrenching. Ullmann actually plays a
dual role as the sisters’ mother in flashbacks, and there are men on the
periphery as well, including Bergman regulars Erland Josephson and Anders Ek.
the movie’s 91 minutes, Bergman explores these women’s fears, loves,
prejudices, and faiths through flashbacks, dreams, and conflict with each other
and themselves. Never in Bergman’s work was the influence of playwright August
Strindberg more palpable, but there is a great deal of Anton Chekhov at play
here as well. This is serious, complex, soul-searching—and soul-shattering—stuff.
rather grueling, doesn’t it? Well, it is, but that doesn’t make it any less
entertaining. The director’s use of the color red is fascinating—film scholars
have interpreted it to represent the “inside of the womb,” or perhaps the
“color of the soul.” For me it’s the interior of the heart, and it’s a
simultaneously warm and cold one. For, ultimately, what the movie is about is
the pain that we can cause our loved ones, the very people for whom we are
supposed to provide solace.
extras include a wonderful new and revealing interview with Harriet Andersson
conducted by Bergman scholar Peter Cowie. There’s a 2001 introduction to the
film by Bergman. “On Solace,” by the terrific video essayist ::kogonada, dissects
the three acts of the film. There are thirty minutes of behind-the-scenes
footage narrated by Cowie, the theatrical trailer, and the port-over from the
original DVD release, Ingmar Bergman:
Reflections on Life, Death, and Love with Erland Josephson, a fifty-two
minute dialogue between the director and actor. The booklet contains an essay
by film scholar Emma Wilson.
you’re debating whether or not to upgrade from Criterion’s original release,
the answer is a resounding YES. If you’ve never seen Cries and Whispers, then you’re missing an essential piece of
few documentary filmmakers are able to break into the American mainstream (and
abroad) and become both a critical and commercial success. The majority of
documentaries made do not get seen in your average metroplex, but a lucky
bucketful—Michael Moore’s films, for example—get wide releases.
happened to Errol Morris in 1988 with the release of his excellent docu-drama, The Thin Blue Line. Critically acclaimed
(but excluded from Oscar consideration because it contains recreated sequences),
Morris’ tale of Randall Dale Adams, a convict sitting in a Texas penitentiary who
may have been convicted, imprisoned, and sentenced to death for a crime he
didn’t commit, struck a chord with the audience. It also became a cult hit and
served as Morris’ gateway to becoming one of the best-known and respected documentarians
of our day. After all, the film indirectly resulted in Adams’ exoneration and
release. (Morris eventually did win the Oscar for Best Documentary in 2003 with
The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the
Life of Robert S. McNamara.)
month The Criterion Collection delivers a one-two punch from Errol Morris—The Thin Blue Line on one disc, and,
packaged separately, a double-feature of Morris’ first two acclaimed
documentaries—Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida. The two releases
provide the viewer with a look at the evolution of a filmmaker over a ten-year,
the time, The Thin Blue Line explored
new ground in documentary approach, presenting a crime story in a style akin to
television’s America’s Most Wanted,
which, coincidentally, debuted the same year. It was “reality cinema,”
containing POV interviews with suspects, lawmen, attorneys, and witnesses, and
footage of the “crime” staged and recreated by actors—all standard stuff of
reality crime shows on TV today. It was new then.
interesting to note that Morris didn’t set out to make a documentary about
Randall Dale Adams. His original intent was to cover the psychiatrist known as
“Dr. Death,” a man in Texas who testified at every capital sentencing as to the
defendant’s likelihood of committing more crimes if he was not put to death.
But in the course of researching his subject in Dallas, Morris came across
Adams’ case and turned his attention to that.
picture is as riveting and suspenseful as any fiction crime drama. The spoken evidence
Morris presents is compelling, but it’s the visual testimony—the Rashomon-style different points of view
of the crime reenactments—that supplies the picture with its engrossing neo-noir sensibility. Of particular note
is Philip Glass’ haunting score, which perfectly captures the melancholy and
paranoia of the world of crime and punishment.
new high-definition digital restoration, supervised by Morris and producer Mark
Lipson, has a 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, and both are
fabulous. Extras include a new interview with Morris, an interview with
filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer on the picture, and a Today Show excerpt from 1989 covering Adams’ release from prison.
The booklet contains an essay by film scholar Charles Musser.
Gates of Heaven put Morris on the
map with this idiosyncratic look at the development of a pet cemetery in
California. Featuring interviews with the personages involved, as well as a
now-iconic clip of an old lady getting her dog to sing with her, Gates reveals the filmmaker’s quirkiness
and his ability to capture the truly weird on film. Vernon, Florida was actually Morris’ first endeavor, but he’d left it
unfinished. He went on to make Gates and
then returned to complete the short. It’s about some truly eccentric
individuals who live in a small whistle-stop town in the boondocks. Originally,
Morris had planned to cover an insurance scam that was prevalent in the
town—people were cutting off limbs and submitting accident claims, earning the community
the name “Nub City.” Morris gave up that idea when he was beat up by some of
the people he was interviewing!
Criterion’s disc features new 2K digital
restorations of both films, supervised by Morris. Extras include two new
interviews with the director about each picture, footage of director Werner
Herzog talking about Gates at the
1980 Telluride Film Festival, and the gem of the entire collection—the short
film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, a
1980 short, directed by Les Blank, that documents Herzog cooking and devouring
his shoe in public—he had bet Morris that if the young documentarian would
simply get out there and make his first feature (Gates), then Herzog would “eat his shoe.” While it’s great to have
the two documentaries on Blu-ray, I’m not so sure the two films deserved a
separate release of their own (they could have easily been extras on the Thin Blue Line disc).
talk about the eye of a filmmaker! Errol Morris works with one eye at full
strength and his other at a diminished capacity as a result of a childhood medical
condition, but that doesn’t keep the director from possessing a wonderful sense
of mise-en-scéne. He manages to depict the odd, the ironic, and the
profound all in one take. Check out both releases.
film noir pictures take place in
urban centers—New York City, Los Angeles—where the big city is as much a
character as the unhappy humans in these often bleak and brutal, sometimes
brilliant, Hollywood crime films that spanned the early forties to the late
fifties. Film noir peaked in the latter half of the forties, with an
abundance of the classic titles released between 1946-1948.
of the more unique things about Ride the
Pink Horse is that the urban setting is gone. Instead, the action is set in
a border town in New Mexico, where there is indeed danger, to be sure, but
there’s also a little less pessimism among the inhabitants—unlike in the urban noirs in which everyone’s a cynic.
Interestingly, one might say that the “border town noir” could be a sub-set of
the broader category, for Ride the Pink
Horse isn’t the only crime movie of the period set away from the big city.
Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil is
another good example.
Ride the Pink Horse, based on a novel
by Dorothy B. Hughes, became actor Robert Montgomery’s second noir in which he both starred and
directed. His first directorial effort was Lady in the Lake (also 1947),
in which the actor played detective Phillip Marlowe. Here, Montgomery plays
Gagin, an ex-GI, with a take-no-guff attitude but also with a subtle sense of
cluelessness—he is definitely a fish out of water in “San Pablo.” His mission
there is to locate a crook named Hugo (Fred Clark) to avenge the murder of
Gagin’s best friend. What he thought might be a simple task turns out to be a
lot more complicated, for the FBI is in town in the form of amiable Retz (Art
Smith), and the Feds want Hugo, too. On his first night in town, Gagin falls
in with Pancho (Thomas Gomez), a Mexican who runs a cheap merry-go-round for
the kids, and Pila (Wanda Hendrix), a young woman who speaks little, but seems
to know a heck of a lot about the goings-on in town. As it turns out, Gagin
isn’t really the tough guy he pretended to be at the beginning. He really is in over his head, and he needs the
help of his newfound Mexican friends to simply survive.
merry-go-round could be some kind of metaphor for the film’s message—possibly
that we can go round and round and still wind up where we started. On the other
hand, the ride might suggest that it is a source of innocence, something to
which our hero can’t return. Even if you ride the pink horse; you get the same
truth on a horse of any other color.
setting’s flavor is pleasingly captured in the stark black and white
cinematography by Russell Metty, especially during the “Fiesta” sequences. One
striking sequence takes place with the camera on the merry-go-round—as it goes
around we see two thugs giving Pancho a beating at the side of the ride; with
every revolution our glimpse of the violence is increasingly upsetting. The
production design by Bernard Herzbrun and Robert Boyle, is very impressive,
seeing that, ironically, the picture was filmed on the Universal lot in
Hollywood and not in New Mexico.
story, adapted by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, is engaging enough, although Ride the Pink Horse doesn’t seem to
reach the climax that is promised by the opening half-hour. Nevertheless, the
performances are very good, especially that of Gomez, who, with this picture,
became the first Hispanic actor to be nominated for an Oscar—Best Supporting
new 2K digital restoration looks sharp and clean. An audio commentary by film noir historians Alain Silver and
James Ursini accompanies the film. The only two extras are a new interview about
the film with Imogen Sara Smith, author of In
Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City; and a radio adaptation starring
Montgomery, Hendrix, and Gomez. The booklet contains an essay by filmmaker and
writer Michael Almereyda.
Ride the Pink Horse
for film noir enthusiasts looking to
get out of the city and travel somewhere a little different.
have been a lot of movies about adultery and the ultimate havoc it can cause. More
recent titles would include the likes of Fatal
Attraction or Unfaithful. Some of
them have a happy ending, others not; however, there is always a moral to these
tales: Don’t do it unless you want to wreck your life.
riding the crest of the French New Wave, François Truffaut followed his huge
1962 success, the delightful Jules and
Jim, with his fourth feature, the unexpectedly somber drama, The Soft Skin. In fact, it shares
elements with the thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock. Truffaut presents us with the cautionary
story of a successful and respected publisher and writer (Jean Desailly) who
meets and begins an affair with a flight attendant (Françoise Dorléac). The man
is also married with a young daughter. The development of the tale emphasizes
the danger involved in embarking on such an act. How do you keep it a secret
when you’re well known? How do you manage to live the double life and deceive your
wife? Truffaut directs the piece as if it were indeed a crime drama. The
suspense comes in watching Desailly dig a hole so deep that he can’t get out of
it. And then the violent ending—well, let’s just say it’s a shocker.
the period between Jules and Jim and
the making of The Soft Skin, Truffaut
had collaborated with Hitchcock on the landmark interview book Hitchcock/Truffaut, so it’s not
surprising that the French director was influenced by the master of suspense. A
video essay extra on the disc by filmmaker and critic Kent Jones examines these
traits and the many ways filmmakers can be influenced in general ways by other
artists. The Soft Skin could very
well work with a Bernard Herrmann score, but instead Georges Delerue delivers an
appropriately melancholic and tragic soundtrack that fits beautifully with the
events unfolding before us.
is very good as a man blinded by lust but bound by social convention. Dorléac,
who was the elder sister of Catherine Deneuve, is, of course, gorgeous, and
Truffaut’s cinematographer Raoul Coutard allows the camera to lovingly dwell on
her. Ironically, Truffaut left his own wife after the completion of The Soft Skin and began dating Dorléac. Dorléac
was an actress on the same professional trajectory as her sister when her life
was cut short in a disastrous automobile accident in France in 1967. One can
only imagine how Dorléac’s career might have blossomed and how she would have
aged along with Deneuve. Like her sister, Dorléac would have been a timeless
The Soft Skin may not be one of
Truffaut’s masterworks, but it is one of his more solid efforts that was perhaps
not sufficiently appreciated at the time of its release. It is, in fact, a
sincere, atmospheric, and wistfully sad drama about the many ways that love can
cause terrible pain. The picture’s warning to would-be adulterers is quite
clear—don’t do it.
new high-definition digital restoration beautifully shows off Coutard’s sharp
black and white imagery. Interestingly, a few New Wave traits—freeze frames and
jump cuts—still linger in Truffaut’s work in ’64.
extras include the excellent 1999 documentary Monsieur Truffaut Meets Mr. Hitchcock, about the historic
interviews conducted for Truffaut’s book; an interview with Truffaut from 1965
about the film; and an audio commentary by screenwriter Jean-Louis Richard and
Truffaut scholar Serge Toubiana.
The Soft Skin reveals a
different side of Truffaut than you may be accustomed to. Check it out.
first saw Fellini Satyricon four or
five years after its initial release in the USA (1970; originally released in
Italy in 1969) on my college campus. It wasn’t a very good print and all I
remember was that the film was weird, confusing, and not as good as some other
Fellini pictures I had seen. Over forty years later, I sat down to view the new
Criterion Blu-ray release, and... wow.
I couldn’t believe it was the same movie I’d seen as a freshman in college. For
one thing, I’m older and more appreciative of what Fellini did with his films, Satyricon notwithstanding. Secondly,
Criterion’s new 4K digital restoration, supervised by director of photography
Giuseppe Rotunno, is absolutely gorgeous. The colors are vivid and the focus is
sharp. The new subtitles are readable and clear. It is an entirely different
film from what I remembered.
Fellini Satyricon is loosely adapted
from an ancient satirical “novel” by Petronius, and we learn from the extra
documentary interviews with classicists Luca Canalli (a consultant on the film)
and Joanna Paul, that only fragments of Petronius’ work survived. Roughly three
“chapters” of the original novel is all Fellini had to work with, and therefore
he fashioned the film as if we are looking only at scraps of a story. This is
why the film seems to cut inexplicably from one situation to the middle of
another. The final tableau of ancient ruins, upon which the main characters are
frescoed, sums up the this theme very well—the picture consists of glimpses into Petronius’ tale of three
students/vagabonds/thieves who travel through a bizarre and barbaric universe
that is ancient Rome. Once this concept is understood, then the film makes a
lot more sense.
Fellini chose to envision this special world within the sensibilities of 1969;
therefore, the picture is incredibly psychedelic. This is ancient Rome on an acid
trip. The grotesquery on display is meant to shock, of course, but it’s also
strangely beautiful. The colors of the settings, costumes, flesh, and blood
assault the senses, rendering the audience into a state of hallucinatory
hypnosis. This is Fellini’s most imaginative and mesmerizing film. Oddly, the
only Oscar nomination it received in 1970 was for Best Director; it most
definitely should have been honored in the technical and design categories.
episodic story is told in vignettes as Encolpius (Martin Potter), Ascyltus
(Hiram Keller), and Giton (Max Born)—three Adonis-like bi-sexual
lovers/friends—move from one fantastic set piece to another, the most
fascinating being the feast/party of a rich man where decadence and debauchery
abounds. For 1969, this was powerful, out-of-the-box stuff.
extras on the disc include a fascinating hour-long vintage documentary, Ciao, Federico!, shot on the set during
the making of the film. Audio commentary of the film itself features an
adaptation of Eileen Lanouette Hughes’ memoir On the Set of ‘Fellini Satyricon’—a Behind the Scenes Diary.
There’s a new interview with Giuseppe Rotunno, archival interviews with
Fellini, and a new interview with still photographer Mary Ellen Mark. Felliniana is a presentation of numerous
Satyricon ephemera. The booklet
contains an essay by Michael Wood.
any Fellini film deserved “the Criterion treatment,” it is Fellini Satyricon. Do yourself a favor and pick up this magnificent
edition and behold its wonders. You’ll never think of ancient Rome in the same
is the dominant force in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t
Look Now, a magnificently rendered drama about psychic premonition, death,
and grief. Some would say it’s a horror film, and indeed it is truly creepy and
atmospheric in the way most good ghost stories are presented.
familiar with Roeg’s work will recognize his signature arty editing and
striking eye for composition. He began his career in cinema as a
cinematographer (he worked on Lawrence of
Arabia, The Masque of the Red Death,
Fahrenheit 451, Casino Royale (’67), Far from
the Madding Crowd, among many others) before venturing into directing.
After co-directing Performance (1970)
and helming Walkabout (1971) solo, he
delivered what could very well be his masterpiece in Don’t Look Now.
Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland as a married couple that loses a child in
a drowning accident at the beginning of the story, Roeg’s picture examines how
their grief is at first somewhat overcome by their own strong love for each
other, but is then exploited by seemingly predestined tragedy. The setting of Venice
is picturesque and beautiful, but at the same time dark and foreboding in its
labyrinth of canals, narrow streets and alleys, and decaying architecture. When
the couple begins to see a “child” wearing the same red slicker that their
daughter was wearing when she drowned, things become very strange—especially
after they meet a blind psychic woman who tells Christie that her daughter is
still with them.
editing screams of 1970s art house fare, but it still works. Of note is that sex scene, often called the most
erotic sex scene in cinema history and one that has been plagued by rumors that
Sutherland and Christie really “did it” in front of the camera (the rumors are
NOT true). The editing cuts back and forth from the nude couple in bed to them getting dressed to go out, which is
striking in its uniqueness and originality. Actually, it’s not a sex scene, but
rather a real love scene—for I can’t
think of another picture in which the love between a married man and woman is
displayed so honestly. Kudos to both actors for the trust they obviously had in
Donaggio’s score adds a haunting poignancy to the proceedings, and
cinematographer Anthony Richmond paints the imagery with a deft eye for
color...and there’s that ever-sinister RED that keeps popping up with a
multitude of meanings. Roeg’s direction is much more than an exercise in style,
and the truthful performances by Christie and Sutherland elevate the film to
new 4K digital restoration (approved by Roeg himself, now in his eighties) is
first class. Extras include a new documentary featuring interviews with
Christie, Sutherland, Richmond, and co-screenwriter Allan Scott; interviews
with Steven Soderbergh and Danny Boyle on Roeg’s work; a Q&A with Roeg from
2003; a new conversation between editor Graeme Clifford and film historian
Bobbie O’Steen; a 2002 documentary on the making of the film; and a 2006
interview with composer Donaggio.
Don’t Look Now is arguably not
only one of the finest British films of the 70s—it’s one of the greatest
British films ever. Don’t Miss It.
“A DAY IN THE
COUNTRY” (1936—but released 1946; Directed by Jean Renoir)
The Criterion Collection has released A Day in the Country, Jean Renoir’s short film (40 minutes) that was shot in 1936, abandoned as unfinished, and then edited and released by its producer ten years later without Renoir’s involvement. Based on a short story by Guy de Maupassant, the picture is a light tale about a Parisian family that decides to spend an afternoon in the country—only to have the wife and daughter wooed by two randy countrymen.
Renoir fans will certainly want to check this out, but in my opinion, when compared to Renoir’s great works such as Grand Illusion or The Rules of the Game, this is fluff. More interesting are the extras, which include a90-minute compilation of outtakes from the film and footage that shows Renoir at work. This is exceptional stuff and worth the price of admission.
Sturges was a rare breed in Hollywood in the early 1940s—he was a
writer/director auteur who penned
original comedies and directed them himself. Perhaps Chaplin—and Keaton, to a
degree—were the only other filmmakers up to that point who did the same,
picture after picture. Sturges began as a screenwriter authoring some of
Hollywood’s better comedies of the late ‘30s; finally, he told Paramount he
would sell them his script for The Great
McGinty only if they allowed him to direct it. The studio bosses relented
when Sturges took a cut in salary to do both jobs. McGinty was a hit and went on to win a screenplay Oscar for
Sturges. Then, during the war years, Sturges enjoyed his remarkable run before
succumbing, in the later years of the decade, to the inevitable “falling out of
fashion” that so often occurs in Tinsel Town.
comedy is sophisticated, intelligent, and witty; but it’s also wacky, off the
wall, and spitfire fast. He specialized in screwball comedy—i.e., absurdly zany
love stories between two likable but eccentric characters—and The Palm Beach Story, released in 1942,
is a prime example. Following his masterpiece (but, at the time, misunderstood
and not well received financially) Sullivan’s
Travels, Palm Beach stars Joel
McCrea (“Tom”) and Claudette Colbert (“Gerri”—Tom and Gerri, get it?) as an
unhappily married couple who split up and ultimately get back together. Classic
screwball comedy structure. What makes the film different from other screwball
comedies is what happens in-between. And at the beginning.
the beginning. Over the main title credits, we see a series of strange clips
that appear to be taken from later in the picture—but they’re not. In fact,
they’re never really explained at all, which does cause some confusion with the
audience. This opening has been debated by film scholars ever since the movie’s
release. It’s actually exposition, but cut down to brief snippets of visuals,
edited to the tune of a rollicking William
Tell Overture. We see a maid frightened by an imposing figure—she faints. A
concerned priest is at the altar, looking at his watch. We see Colbert, tied up
and gagged in a closet. And then we see Colbert in a wedding dress, rushing to
get ready? Is she the same Colbert as before? After that we
discover McCrea in wedding garb rushing to get in a car—obviously late for the
ceremony. But in the car he changed into another
set of wedding clothes. The bridal Colbert runs by the maid, who screams
and faints again. The tied and gagged Colbert breaks out of her binds and kicks
her way out of the closet. The recovering maid sees her, screams, and faints. Then the parties rush to the chapel—where
McCrea and Colbert (which one?) get married. The caption reads: “And they lived
happily ever after... or did they?”
don’t really find out what was going on in the credits until the end of the
movie in a somewhat contrived but typically Sturges-style explanation of what’s
been going on in the picture. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that Colbert plays
twin sisters, but McCrea also plays
twin brothers. The two sisters are in love with one of the McCrea twins (not “Tom”),
and he is about to marry the one who is not named Gerri. However, Gerri has
tied up her sister and taken her place at the altar—but somehow “Tom” has taken
his brother’s place at the chapel—and Tom and Gerri—the wrong couple—get
married. At least that’s how I interpret
five years of marriage, Tom and Gerri are at each other’s throats (but they
really do love each other, they just don’t realize it yet). Gerri leaves for
Palm Beach and Tom follows her. Gerri begins a relationship with billionaire
Rudy Vallee, and Tom is snared by Vallee’s maneating sister, Mary Astor, and
then things really get complicated.
in Sturges’ standard stock company of character extras—William Demarest, Sig
Arno, Robert Dudley, Franklin Pangborn, Arthur Hoyt, Chester Conklin, Jimmy
Conlin, Robert Warwick, and several others (all faces you will recognize but
won’t know their names) and you’ve got one crazy oddball of a movie. And it’s
4K digital restoration looks gorgeous, as always (how does Criterion manage to get the best-looking presentations of
black and white classic films on Blu-ray?). There are two new video interviews
with (a) writer and film historian James Harvey about Sturges and his works,
and (b) comedian and actor Bill Hader, also about Sturges and the picture. A
WW2 propaganda film, written by Sturges for the State Department, Safeguarding Military Information, is
included (and features Sturges regular Eddie Bracken). A 1943 radio adaptation
by Screen Guild Theater is also included, plus the informative essay by critic
Stephanie Zacharek in the booklet.
too bad that Preston Sturges’ flame burnt out by the end of the forties—he was
a talent that was often miles ahead—and above—his peers. The Palm Beach Story, while perhaps not his best work, is certainly
indicative of the man’s genius.
fans can now officially rejoice! The Criterion Collection has produced a
fabulous Blu-ray edition of Sydney Pollack’s outstanding laugh riot, Tootsie, although one could safely say
the picture not only belongs to Pollack, but to Dustin Hoffman, the movie’s
star. It was his baby all the way, from its conception to its final,
brilliantly written, acted, and directed finish. The American Film Institute
voted Tootsie to be the Number 2 best
comedy of all time (after Some Like it
Hot, coincidentally another film in which men dress up as women!); whether
or not you agree with that ranking, you have to admit it is a virtual lesson in how to make a good, funny
story is already well-known: struggling middle-aged actor Michael Dorsey
(Hoffman) decides to dress up as a woman to audition for a soap opera, and he
gets the part; thus he has to continue the charade in order to keep his job.
Complications ensue when he falls in love with Julie (Jessica Lange), another
actor on the soap. The story only gets more “nutty” (as uncredited but
hilarious co-star Bill Murray calls it) from there.
what the movie is really about—repeated by several of the picture’s creators in
the several excellent extras on the disc—is how a man learns to become a better
man by being a woman. This is not a “feminist” film. It’s indeed a movie about
the sexes, but its message is for men on
how theyneed to get their act
together before they can successfully relate to women in a positive way.
the many displays of genius that Hoffman has brought us over the years, Tootsie is easily in the top handful. His
performance, nominated for an Oscar, is the crux of the film’s success—if he
hadn’t been believable, if the cross-dressing hadn’t been convincing, if he
hadn’t gone for the absolute truth of
the role, the picture would have fallen flat. Luckily, Hoffman IS Tootsie.
that’s not to downplay the strength of all the other actors—Lange (who did win an Oscar for Supporting
Actress), Teri Garr, Bill Murray, Dabney Coleman, Charles Durning, and even
director Pollack, who is fabulous as
Hoffman’s agent—are all great; I can’t imagine the movie with anyone else in
their respective roles.
Tootsie had a long and
difficult gestation period. As we learn from the documentary extras, Hoffman
and playwright Murray Schisgal had been working on a story about a
cross-dressing man who was a tennis pro, but they couldn’t get it to work. Then
they came across Don McGuire’s play about an actor who cross-dresses to get a part, so the rights were
purchased, they changed the protagonist’s profession, and voila—they had the workings of Tootsie.
Hal Ashby was originally set to direct and had begun shooting tests of Hoffman
in makeup, but the studio ultimately didn’t want him. Enter Sydney Pollack, who
brought in Larry Gelbart to bring more humanity and drama to the script. Then
Hoffman brought in Elaine May to work on the female roles (why May isn’t
credited for the screenplay along with the other three writers is a mystery).
The script took forever to get right,
but once it was to everyone’s satisfaction, the production went ahead. The
conflicts between Hoffman and Pollack are legendary, but in the end it was
Hoffman who wanted Pollack to play Michael Dorsey’s agent because the
characters’ relationship in the story reflected the real-life rapport between
actor and director.
new 4K digital restoration looks gorgeous,
but that’s what we expect from the Rolls-Royce of Blu-ray labels. The audio
commentary is by the late Pollack. Included are new interviews with Hoffman (in
an especially touching and revealing piece) and comedy writer Phil Rosenthal
(who tells us exactly why Tootsie is
a great comedy); a vintage interview between “Dorothy Michaels” and critic Gene
Shalit that was deleted from the film; a vintage “making of” documentary and a
longer, more detailed “making of” doc from 2007; deleted scenes; and screen and
wardrobe test shoots shot by Hal Ashby. The booklet contains an impressive essay
by critic Michael Sragow.
Tootsie is one of those
pictures that stands the test of time and gets funnier with subsequent
viewings. Get it now on Blu-ray—it’s a must for anyone who likes to smile.
never had a chance to see these two legendary westerns that were made
back-to-back in the mid-1960s, presented by Roger Corman, directed and
co-produced by Monte Hellman, and starring a young Jack Nicholson (among
others), for they were elusive. I’d heard they were quirky, moody, and very
different takes on the western genre, so I was excited to hear that The
Criterion Collection was releasing both pictures as a double-bill on one
Blu-ray disc. Now you, too, can view these strange little movies in all of
their high definition glory.
was one of the few directors that producer Corman would let helm pictures for
his studio, which at that time was famous for low-budget horror films,
youth-in-rebellion pictures, and, later, rock ‘n’ roll counterculture flicks.
Jack Nicholson was also involved with Corman since the late fifties, doing much
of his pre-Easy Rider work for the
producer as an actor and sometimes writer. In this case, Nicholson served as
co-producer (with Hellman) on both pictures and wrote the script for Ride in the Whirlwind. At first, Hellman
presented Corman with the script for The
Shooting, written by Carole Eastman (using the pseudonym “Adrien Joyce” and
who would later write the screenplay for Five
Easy Pieces). Corman suggested that Hellman shoot two westerns at the same
time to get more bang for the buck, so to speak. Therefore, Nicholson came up
with Whirlwind and both movies were
shot together in the Utah desert with the same crew and most of the same cast.
The two motion pictures were seen at several film festivals in 1966 and the
distribution rights were bought by the Walter Reade Organization, which
promptly sold them to television. They were broadcast sometime in 1968 and were
then lost in limbo.
The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind could be called “existential westerns” because
they are indeed philosophical, atmospheric, and, well, arty. Very arty. Corman
had insisted that Hellman and Nicholson add more action to both scripts—which
they did—but you still can’t say these are in any way typical westerns. At a
time when Sergio Leone was tearing up the genre Italian-style, it’s no wonder
that the two pictures slipped into obscurity.
the one hand, both films are interesting simply because it’s fun to see the
young actors that appear in them—Nicholson, Warren Oates, Millie Perkins (the
original Anne Frank from the 1959 The
Diary of Anne Frank, now a grown up and a babe), Harry Dean Stanton (billed
as “Dean Stanton”), and a not-so-young Cameron Mitchell. No one in the films,
except maybe Mitchell, looks particularly comfortable on a horse; it’s rather
obvious that these actors are “playing at” being in a western. Other positive
aspects include the cinematography—by Gregory Sandor, for both pictures—and the
strange musical scores—by Richard Markowitz (The Shooting) and Robert Jackson Drasnin (Ride in the Whirlwind).
the other hand, as narrative westerns, they don’t measure up. The acting is,
for the most part, pretty bad. Nicholson is the heavy in The Shooting, and he spends most of the time sneering. The
higher-pitched voice of the young Nicholson doesn’t really work for the
character; he is much better in Whirlwind
as one of the good guys. Oates is suitably ornery but not much else. Perkins
seems like a fish out of water in both films. Will Hutchins, who plays Oates’
simple-minded sidekick, straddles a fine line between being quite effective and
incredibly annoying. Mitchell is forgettable. Stanton is—well, Harry Dean
first time a comedy swept the Academy Awards was in 1934, when Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night took home the
prizes for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Clark Gable), Best Actress
(Claudette Colbert), and Best Screenplay. (The next time all five major awards
were snagged by one picture was in 1975 for One
Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.)
was the beginning of the screwball comedy movement. It Happened One Night may not have been the first screwball comedy,
and it may not even really be a
screwball comedy (according to critics Molly Haskell and Phillip Lopate, in a
video conversation supplement in which they discuss screwball comedies, Happened is lacking in the chaotic
elements that one would find in, say, Twentieth
Century, which came out the same year, or even Bringing Up Baby, perhaps the quintessential screwball comedy). But
while Capra’s beloved film is often lumped into the category of screwballs, one
thing is certain—it’s the archetype for the modern American romantic comedy. And Hollywood keeps
remaking it, so to speak, over and over.
picture came out in early 1934 when the movie business was still in the
“pre-Code” era (the Hays Code didn’t kick in full-force until July 1 of that
year), so Capra and company were able to get away with some rather risqué
elements, such as two unmarried people bunking up in a motel together with only
the “wall of Jericho” between them. Or Clark Gable demonstrating the fine art
of how men remove their clothes. Or Claudette Colbert revealing her shapely
gams in order to catch a ride on the road. Yes, that’s one thing we learn from It Happened One Night—how to hitchhike.
Capra was hired by the poverty-row studio, Columbia, as the talkies began, and
in a few short years the director elevated the company to the majors. He then
began a hugely successful run, winning three Best Director Oscars in five
years. His pictures later became known as “Capra-corn,” for their idealistic
and sometimes sentimental look at Americana. But, as pointed out in the
excellent supplemental documentary included on the disc, Capra’s films
definitely had a dark side to them. Perhaps not so much in Happened, but the evil that men do is certainly present in, say, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or It’s a Wonderful Life.
It Happened One
an excellent lesson in screenwriting, structure, dialogue, and pacing. It’s a
near-perfect picture, and it’s still funny today. Gable is at his most winning.
Colbert is terrific, although it’s stated several times throughout the
supplements how much of a snooty b*tch she was during filming—she didn’t want
to make the picture, complained the entire time, insisted on twice her normal
salary to do it, and told friends after its completion that she’d just made the
worst movie in her career. She changed her tune after winning the Oscar, and
then she had nothing but praise for Capra and the film. Those fickle movie
does their usual bang-up job. The new 4K digital restoration is gorgeous.
Extras include the previously mentioned Haskell/Lopate video; the
feature-length documentary on Capra, Frank
Capra’s American Dream; an interview with Frank Capra Jr. from 1999; a new
digital transfer of Capra’s very first film, the silent 1921 Fultah Fisher’s Boarding House, with a
new score by Donald Sosin; and—the most interesting—the hour-long televised AFI
tribute to Capra from 1982 (it’s great fun playing spot the celebs!). An essay
by critic Farran Smith Nehme fills the glossy booklet.
many people in the general public of the USA today know who Jacques Tati is?
Film buffs, certainly, but not many others. It’s a shame, for in the 1950s and
60s, Tati was world famous and well known for his on-screen persona, the
bumbling but well-meaning Monsieur Hulot. After all, one of the Hulot pictures,
Mon Oncle, won the Oscar for Best
Foreign Film of 1958. Jacques Tati was once a big deal. The Criterion
Collection’s new release on Blu-ray of a boxed set containing Tati’s entire
catalog should provide sufficient firepower to make Jacques Tati a big deal all
short, The Complete Jacques Tati is a
magnificent package. The Frenchman’s genius is well documented, not only in the
six feature films and seven shorts included in the set, but in the multitude of
excellent extras—documentaries, vintage footage, and visual essays that
Criterion has assembled. The collection could easily be one of the best Blu-ray
releases the company—or any home video label—has ever done. It’s that good.
are seven discs—one for each of the six features and one for the shorts. A 62-page
booklet containing essays by critics James Quandt, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Kristin
Ross, and David Cairns completes the package.
those unfamiliar with the artist, Jacques Tati (1907-1982) was a comedian and
mime who drew his influences from the old school—Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd—and
thus created a comic style highly dependent on visual sight gags. But what Tati
did beyond the three silent film stars was incorporate the use of sound effects
for humor. The features are full of odd and funny aural jokes—the thoink of a swinging door as it opens
and closes, the ridiculous beeps and blurts of a machine, or the
mumbling-style dialogue of eccentric characters (it doesn’t matter what they’re
saying, it’s more about the sound of their speech). Tati made some shorts in
the 1930s; after the war, he formed his own company with a fellow producer and
began his journey into making movies. Tati, in his later works, liked to
explore the theme of how “modern” technology is taking over a purer essence of life.
Most of all, Tati himself, as an actor, is a wonderfully physical comedian.
Just the way he appears as Mr. Hulot—with trademark hat, pipe, raincoat, and
entire book could be written about Tati’s work, herewith is a brief description
of each of the films.
Jour de Fête (aka The Big Day),
1949. Tati’s first feature film is a disarming comedy in which the super-tall
actor portrays a postman. Very different from the Mr. Hulot character, Tati’s
postman is fussy, ornery, and prone to “lose it” when a traveling fair comes to
town and messes up his route. It’s an affectionate look at French rural life.
The 2K digital restoration is in black and white, as was the original
theatrical release—however, Tati always meant for the picture to be in color.
He therefore revisited the film later in order to make it so. Extras include two alternate versions of the film on
the same disc—Tati’s own 1964 re-edit featuring hand-colored objects and newly
incorporated footage, and a full-color 1995 re-release completed from Tati’s
original color negatives. Stéphane Goudet, a
Tati expert, presents a 2013 visual essay that tracks the evolution of Tati’s
comedy. A 1988 documentary traces the restoration of the film to Tati’s color
1953. Mr. Hulot is introduced in this charming look at how the French often
took holidays at a seaside resort. Well-choreographed sight gags dominate the
free-flowing, plotless narrative that features many odd characters, dogs,
boats, and drooping taffy. The main version on the disk is a 2K digital
restoration of Tati’s 1978 re-release. Extras include the original 1953 version;
an introduction by Terry Jones; another visual essay by Stéphane
Goudet about the debut of Hulot; an interview with Tati from 1978; a new
interview with composer/critic Michel Chion on Tati’s use of sound design; and
an optional English-language soundtrack for the re-release version.
Mon Oncle, 1958. Tati’s
Oscar-winner could very well be his best work. This one, in color, is the story
of how Mr. Hulot becomes the relative-of-choice for his young nephew, whose
parents are too caught up in being “modern” (their house, car, automatic garage
door, and that awful fish fountain) to properly pay attention to their son. The
garden party sequence and the plastic hose factory scene are timeless. The new
2K digital restoration looks fabulous. Extras include another introduction by
Terry Jones; My Uncle—the English
language edit of the film; a documentary from 2008 on the making of the film; a
2005 program on the film’s fashion, architecture, and furniture; a Stéphane
Goudet visual essay comparing the film to other Hulot pictures; and a 1977
French TV episode featuring Tati.
Playtime (also written as Play Time or PlayTime), 1967. What an amazing, highly original film! Francois
Truffaut once said that Playtime is a
movie that might have been made “on another planet where they don’t make films
like we do here.” Hulot is one of many characters in this collage about the
clash of modernity and humanity. At the time, it was France’s most expensive
production—and all the money is there on the screen in the form of an entire downtown with streets, buildings, and
traffic that Tati had built outside of Paris. “Tativille,” as it was known, is
a remarkable accomplishment in set design. It forecasted the use of office
cubicles at least ten years before they became a reality. Very funny stuff, but
at the time audiences were confused by the lack of a story and the differences
between it and previous Hulot features. Tati insisted on the film being
released in 70mm; thus there is something going on in every corner and space on
the frame. It’s a picture that demands to be viewed more than once. The new 4K
digital restoration has a 3-0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. Extras include
another introduction by Terry Jones; three selected-scene commentaries; another
Goudet visual essay; a 1967 TV program on Tativille; a 2002 documentary
featuring behind-the-scenes footage; an interview with script supervisor
Sylvette Baudrot; an audio interview with Tati from 1972; and an optional
Trafic, 1971. The final
Hulot film features the character working for an auto manufacturer whose
employees must get its latest creation—designed by Hulot—to an auto trade show
in Amsterdam on time. As the title suggests, they run into some traffic.
Terrific sight gags abound, as well as Tati’s ever present discourse on how
technology is ruining our world. Along with the 2K digital restoration, the
extras include a 1976 Omnibus episode
from British TV featuring an interview with Tati.
Parade, 1974. Tati’s
final film does not feature Hulot. It’s actually a performance piece in front
of an audience, in which Tati teamed up with a circus of clowns, jugglers,
acrobats, and contortionists—but the great thing about it is that we can see
Tati perform mime acts. The picture was originally made for Swedish television
(!) and is a delightful cap to Tati’s career. The disk sports a 2K digital
restoration, along with extras such as a two-part 1989 documentary on Tati’s
life and career, made by the director’s daughter, Sophie Tatischeff; another Goudet
visual essay about Tati’s appreciation of the circus and clowns; and a 1982
French TV episode featuring a tribute to Tati by his friend and set designer
Tati Shorts. 2K digital
restorations of the following shorts are presented: On demande
une brute (1934); Gai dimanche (1935);
Soigne ton gauche (1936); L’école
des facteurs (1946)—which
features the postman character Tati played in Jour de Fête; Cours de soir (1967); Dégustation
and Forza Bastia (1978). Tati wrote
and starred in the first three. He wrote, directed and starred in the next two.
The sixth short is a César-winning piece by Tati’s daughter; and
the seventh is a soccer documentary started by Tati and completed by his
daughter after his death. Extras include a 2002 short film about Tati’s career;
and a lecture program by Goudet on Tati’s cinema.
will take many hours to get through this marvelous set. The Criterion
Collection has outdone itself with The
Complete Jacques Tati, and any of you out there who is interested in the
history of cinema must purchase it immediately. It will be an education.
title of Federico Fellini’s landmark, influential 1960 film La dolce vita (“The Sweet Life”) is
ironic. Marcello (exquisitely played by Marcello Mastroianni) is a Rome
journalist working in the tabloid trade, specializing in stories of the rich
and famous. While Marcello’s day-to-day existence might indeed at first seem
like the sweet life, he is, in fact, a lonely, unhappy soul. And that’s the
point of Fellini’s comedy-drama that still manages to enlighten audiences
today, fifty-four years later. Fellini seems to be saying that no matter how
hard you pursue “the sweet life,” you will still be left with yourself—and if
you don’t like yourself, then you’re in trouble.
La dolce vita was released just
as the French New Wave was making a splash, when America’s Production Code was
being chipped away at, and when Italy was making the painful transition from
the post-war doldrums to the hipster avant-garde 60s. Fellini’s movie signaled
his own creative evolution from his early Italian Neo-Realist beginnings to a
more surreal, playful, and stylized sensibility that would grow more outrageous
as the decade went on. La dolce vita is
mostly in the neo-realist vein of Nights
of Cabiria and La Strada, but
Fellini always adds an extra touch of whimsy and peculiarity to his pictures
that the hardcore neo-realists like De Sica or Rossellini didn’t do. And that’s
what made him Fellini.
nearly three-hour movie is a Homeric odyssey of sorts as Marcello spends seven
days and nights on assignment for his tabloid, chasing down famous actress
(Anita Ekberg in an iconic role as “herself”), the purported sighting of the
Madonna, and other sensational stories—but mostly he’s chasing the nightlife,
love, attention, and intellectual intercourse with Rome’s elite. And women, of
course. Marcello is the ultimate playboy, a persona that would follow the actor
Mastroianni his entire life. Through the episodic film, Marcello encounters
sex, debauchery, pathos, and tragedy. But never happiness.
film was controversial at the time for revealing the underbelly of Rome’s
“sweet life,” and mostly for offending the Catholic Church with the opening
scene of a helicopter flying a suspended statue of Christ over ancient ruins in
the city—perceived as parodying the “second coming.” But offending the Catholic
Church with film in the early 60s was a badge of honor—nearly every important
and innovative picture was guilty of it. The bravura opening sequence aside,
the picture was still deemed scandalous for exposing Rome’s hypocrisies and
decadence in a “docu-drama” that tackles sex, religion, and politics.
within its realism, Fellini’s touches of extravagance are everywhere. Characters
become caricatures to be gawked at. The ever-present Fellini prostitutes are
simultaneously human and grotesque. The costumes (Oscar winner) themselves are
glorious and so utterly “modern.” The widescreen black and white cinematography
by Otello Martelli is gorgeous with striking contrasts, especially on
Criterion’s new 4K digital restoration by The Film Foundation. It looks even
better than the Fox/Lorber restored special edition that came out on DVD a few
might want to hold on to that Fox/Lorber edition, though, for The Criterion
Collection’s version does not have the same extras—in fact, the earlier DVD
edition has the better crop of goodies. That said, Criterion brings us a number
of new extras that are well worth the purchase price of the Blu-ray. Among
these are a new interview with director Lina Wertmuller, who was assistant
director on the picture (whatever happened to her?); a new interview with
scholar David Forgacs about the period in Italian history when the film was
made; a vintage interview with Fellini from 1965; an audio interview with
Mastroianni from the early 60s; Felliniana,
a presentation of La dolce vita ephemera;
an exceptional visual essay by filmmaker :: kogonada which reveals the clues
that Fellini is moving away from neo-realism and into more fanciful territory;
and more. Gary Giddens provides the essay in the booklet.
La dolce vita is one of the
greats. If you don’t already own it, now’s the time to get it.
filmmaker George Sluizer suddenly passed away quite recently—September 20—so it
is a quite fitting, albeit unplanned, tribute that The Criterion Collection has
re-issued a new 4K restoration on Blu-ray. The
Vanishing (original Dutch title: Spoorloos)
is Sluizer’s best known work. Not only was the 1988 original picture, presented
here, an international success and now something of a cult film, Hollywood
remade the movie in 1993 with American actors—but with Sluizer directing again.
It was not a success; its chief sin was changing the ending to a happy
one. It completely destroyed the message
and power that the original picture had and still exhibits.
The Vanishing straddles a line
between a crime thriller and a horror film. The shocking finale easily belongs
in the latter category—it is horrific indeed. Sluizer plays a clever trick on the audience by giving us two POVs to
follow—and the character we’re really meant
to follow is not the one you’d expect. Is this the victim’s story or the
perpetrator’s story? The movie starts
with the former, but by the end it’s the latter’s. Does it matter? Perhaps.
is a story of how we take our everyday lives for granted until it’s changed in
an instant by chance. We’re all playing the lottery of life... and death. Saskia
(Johanna der Steege in a small but significant role) didn’t count on running
into Raymond Lemorne (frighteningly played by the late Bernard-Pierre
Donnadieu) at a highway rest stop crowded with travelers. She didn’t count on
meeting a man who discovered he was a sociopath at a young age and relished that
fact by spending his days rehearsing for the moment when he would kidnap a
random woman. Lemorne displays true evil but hides it well, for he is a
respectable middle-class employed man, married to a devoted wife (although she
suspects her husband of having affairs) and two teenage daughters. After
several trial runs and botched attempts, the sociopath succeeds at drugging and
abducting a woman—who by accident happens to be Saskia. What he plans to do
with his victim after the kidnapping is a secret kept from the audience until
the picture’s final moments.
boyfriend, Rex (Gene Bervoets), is a bit of a jerk at first. Early in the film
he leaves her alone in the car while it’s dangerously stuck inside a dark
tunnel, the point being that this is a man who takes his life for granted and
needs a firm kick in the arse. But when Saskia simply vanishes under the noses
of dozens of people, Rex changes his tune and realizes what it truly is that’s important.
The Vanishing is also about unexpected,
random violence. It can happen anywhere—even at a conspicuously “safe” convenience store and
petrol station crowded with families in the middle of the day. This is scary
stuff, folks, and Sluizer’s direction is of high caliber from the early tension
of the tunnel sequence, through Rex’s cat-and-mouse game with Lemorne, to the
final terrifying roll of the dice—for Rex must surely make a serious gamble to
find out what really happened to Saskia.
Dutch/French film is subtitled; the images look fabulous on Blu-ray. The disc
is short on extras—only two recent interviews with the late director and
actress der Steege. Critic Scott Foundas writes the booklet’s fine essay on the
of the best thrillers of the 80s, The
Vanishing would make good Halloween night viewing. Grab it now!
of this review are reprinted from the article “Playboy Goes to Hollywood,” by
the same author, which appeared in Cinema
Retro, Volume 2, Issue #5, 2006.)
Criterion Collection has seen fit to release on Blu-ray and DVD (separate
packaging) Roman Polanski’s striking film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, originally released in 1971.
Not very well received at first, the picture’s reputation has grown over the
years such that it is now arguably considered the definitive version of the “Scottish
play” on celluloid (although Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 Throne of Blood is certainly a contender). Gritty, realistic, and
violent, Polanski’s vision is dark and troubling—as the story is meant to be.
It’s possible that some of the negative
press it received in 1971 was due to the fact that it was the first major
motion picture produced by Playboy Productions, with Hugh M. Hefner serving as
executive producer, while Playboy executive Victor Lownes II served as assistant
executive producer (Andrew Braunsberg, a close friend of Polanski’s, was credited
as producer). The film came about as a result of the friendship between
Polanski and Lownes.The director had
been recovering from the tremendous amount of grief he had suffered after the
murder of his wife Sharon Tate at the hands of the Manson family in 1969—he
needed something that would help purge himself of the ugly and violent images
in his head and heart. Shakespeare’s controversial and bloody play seemed to be
the right vehicle. (Some say the play is unlucky—there are still theatre people
who refuse to refer to it by name.)
Indeed, making the film was something
of a catharsis for Polanski—there were a few occasions in which he unwittingly
referred to the lead actress as “Sharon.” Adapted by renowned playwright and
critic Kenneth Tynan, Polanski’s Macbeth
became a poster child for the handful of ultra-violent pictures to be released
in 1971—the same year as A Clockwork
Orange, Dirty Harry, and Straw Dogs. The blood flows freely in Macbeth—a decapitation is even presented
most realistically—but to focus solely on the film’s violence does not do it
justice. The film is a remarkably faithful adaptation of the play.
“Corporate was initially against the
idea,” Hugh Hefner said in a 2006 interview for Cinema Retro. “It was not a very commercial undertaking, and I knew
it wouldn’t make any money. Victor made a strong case to do it and I agreed
with him. It was more of a prestige thing for Playboy. Playboy and Shakespeare?
Who would have thought?”
The film was made in Scotland, of
course, and featured mostly unknown but highly talented stage actors—Jon Finch
as Macbeth, Francesca Annis as Lady Macbeth, Nicholas Selby as Duncan, Stephen
Chase as Malcolm, Martin Shaw as Banquo, and Terence Bayler as Macduff. At one
point during production, Polanski ran over schedule and over budget, causing
the insurance backers to drop the guarantee. Hefner had to fly to London, take
stock of the situation, and personally guarantee the completion of the film
with Playboy Productions’ money.
Back home in the States, Hefner viewed
the dailies at the Playboy Mansion. Hefner remembered, “For my birthday that
year, the cast—on film—suddenly stopped the action of a scene and began singing
‘Happy Birthday’ to me.”
The film did receive a number of very positive reviews and a few awards,
too—it won Best Picture from the National Board of Review and won a BAFTA for
Costume Design. “Of course, as I predicted, it didn’t make any money,” Hefner
said. “In fact, it lost money. But we
didn’t really care. It was a good picture and I’m proud of it. I believe since
its release the film has gone into the black.”
Criterion’s new 4K digital restoration,
approved by Polanski, with 3.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is
assuredly the best possible presentation of this remarkable film. The dreary
Scottish landscapes are gorgeous in their own way, and you can feel the mud and
slop in every scene. Extras include a new documentary featuring interviews with
Polanski, Braunsberg, Lownes, and actors Annis and Shaw; a 1971 documentary
featuring rare footage of the cast and crew at work; an interview with Kenneth
Tynan from a 1971 episode of The Dick
Cavett Show; and a segment from the 1972 British TV series Aquarius featuring Polanski and theatre
director Peter Coe. Critic Terrence Rafferty’s essay in the booklet rounds out
this exceptional package from The Criterion Collection.
Grab it! Just don’t ever pronounce the
name of the play aloud!
appreciated upon its original release in 1961, The Innocents is today considered one of the great film ghost stories. After all, it’s based on Henry James’
creepy The Turn of the Screw, a truly
scary masterwork published in 1898. In the capable hands of Jack Clayton (fresh
off his success with Room at the Top,
which had been nominated for Best Picture and Best Director in 1959), the
picture delivers a classic Gothic punch that is strange, beautiful, and,
ultimately, powerfully disturbing. Faithful to the source material, the story
is set in the Victorian era. The gorgeous and inimitable Deborah Kerr stars as
a naive and, as it turns out, sexually repressed governess who is hired by an
eccentric and secretive man (“The Uncle,” played by Michael Redgrave). She is to
be a governess to his orphaned niece and nephew at a lonely country estate,
aided by only a couple of servants. He neglects to tell her the place is
haunted as hell.
film scholar Sir Christopher Frayling, in a video introduction on the background
and production of The Innocents, says
that a pivotal scene in the film might be more unsettling today than it was in
1961—and that is when the young nephew (Martin Stephens) plants a very adult
kiss on his governess. Yikes! Frayling’s right! At this point the movie takes a
sharp left turn into true darkness, the prickly kind that prompts you to turn
to your neighbor and say, “Eww.” That’s right, this is a film more about sex than
it is about ghosts, although it is certainly that, too. The ghosts happen to be
the former governess and valet, who apparently had a steamy love affair in the
house, not caring who witnessed it—not even the children. Both died in
unnatural ways. The plot gets even more sick—the ghosts are attempting to
possess the children so they can continue their love affair in new bodies.What?The bodies of siblings, the ages of whom are somewhere between ten and
right there we know that the giant multi-room house, inside of which the
governess is losing her mind, is haunted by sex.
Vile, evil sex. And Ms. Kerr’s Miss Giddens, the daughter of a conservative pastor,
reacts appropriately. Thus, we are presented with the best kind of ghost story—an
ambiguous one. Are there really ghosts? Or is Miss Giddens skyrocketing off her
rocker? It’s up to us to decide. It’s not on a whim that the film was originally
marketed as adult fare.
sensitive and assured direction, along with Kerr’s riveting performance,
certainly bring to the film its winning qualities, but two elements of the production
are essential to the picture’s success—the cinematography by Freddie Francis
and art direction by Wilfred Shingleton. Francis’ work is specially showcased
in this new Blu-ray disc from The Criterion Collection. Francis shot the movie in
CinemaScope black and white, and yet he also shaded the corners to shape the
image into a subtle, oblong, and more tunnel-like rectangle. The striking
contrasts in lighting that occur throughout the interiors and exteriors are, oddly,
almost characters themselves in this eerie story. Brilliant stuff.
it all looks marvelous, for Criterion’s new 4K digital restoration is
flawlessly executed—the images truly reach a high-water mark for black and
white celluloid on Blu-ray. Sir Christopher Frayling also provides an informed
audio commentary. Other extras include a video interview with cinematographer
John Bailey about Francis and his work, and a new documentary featuring
interviews with Francis himself, editor Jim Clark, and script supervisor Pamela
Mann Francis. The essay in the glossy booklet is by Maitland McDonagh.
question, The Innocents is a classy
and elegant release of a stylish and chilling motion picture. Highly
One of the many excellent
supplements that appear on this disc is a rare video interview from 1979 with
David Lynch (and cinematographer Frederick Elmes). For those of us who have
aged along with the director, it is a striking glimpse at a young artist at the
beginning of his strange and wonderful career. In it, he explains that he is
attracted to sometimes harsh, oppressive settings, such as the nightmarish
industrial cityscape in Eraserhead.
“What everyone else finds ugly, I find beautiful,” he says proudly. And the
director has pretty much remained true to his word, hasn’t he?
a landmark picture, but its original release in 1977 was slow to reach an
audience. It gained its must-see reputation only after the film was picked up
to run on the midnight movie circuit that was popular on college campuses and
in the big cities at the time. The midnight movie fad had been around a while
but it especially picked up steam in the early-to-mid-70s with titles like El Topo, The Harder They Come, Pink
Flamingos, and The Rocky Horror
Picture Show. By 1980, Eraserhead had
reached cult status, and Lynch was hired by Mel Brooks to direct The Elephant Man. “You’re a madman!
You’re hired!” Brooks purportedly said.
If you’ve never viewed Eraserhead, there is no better
introduction to it than diving into The Criterion Collection’s new Blu-ray
release. The 4K digital restoration, supervised by Lynch, looks magnificent—the
ugly is indeed quite beautiful. Yes, it’s a strange movie. I’ve heard some
folks say it’s the weirdest movie they’ve ever seen. That could very well be
true, for today Eraserhead is
considered to be one of the classic
surrealist films, sitting alongside Un
Chien Andalou or Blood of a Poet.
Despite its intentional
strangeness, the story is simple. Longtime Lynch collaborator Jack Nance (here
credited as John Nance) plays Henry, a nervous man who is afraid of the
responsibility of becoming a father. He marries his already-pregnant girlfriend
anyway, and the child that is produced is, well, a monster. After a experiencing
a nightmare in which he is decapitated and has his head sold to a company that
somehow converts it into actual pencil eraserheads, Henry attempts to murder
the child (to this day Lynch and his cast/crew have never revealed how the special
effect of the baby was achieved), which causes the destruction of Henry’s
Okay, yeah, it sounds pretty
strange—but it’s also very funny.
It’s the blackest of comedies made with that quirky “Lynchian” (I suppose
that’s a real cinematic term now) humor that audiences in the 70s weren’t quite
ready for. And yet, Lynch also manages to balance the dark satire with
menacing, creepy horror, thereby creating a one-of-a-kind, unique and personal art
The supplemental material
from the DVD box set that Lynch’s company released in 2001 is included
(“Eraserhead Stories,” a 90-minute documentary on the making of the film),
along with a new piece featuring interviews with actors Charlotte Stewart and
Judith Roberts, assistant to the director (and wife to Jack Nance at the time)
Catherine Coulson, and DP Elmes. Additional archival interviews and trailers
and the illustrated booklet containing an interview with Lynch rounds out the
But there’s more! Also
included on the disk are all but one of Lynch’s works that were released on DVD
in 2002 as The Short Films of David
Lynch. The titles on the Criterion edition are: Six Men Getting Sick (67), The
Alphabet (68), The Grandmother (70),
two versions of The Amputee (74), and
Premonitions Following an Evil Deed (95).
Missing from the earlier set is The
Cowboy and the Frenchman (88), and it’s a mystery as to why this is
Nevertheless, Criterion’s new
Blu-ray release of Eraserhead is an
essential purchase for Lynch fans. It is indeed the definitive presentation of
this remarkable piece of celluloid—so settle in, turn out the lights, and
prepare to have your mind blown.
the turn of the Millennium, several film directors from Mexico were gaining
attention and acclaim—guys like Alfonso Arau, Alejandro Gonzales Iñárritu,
Guillermo del Toro, and this year’s Oscar-winner as Best Director, Alfonso Cuarón
(for Gravity). Cuarón’s
career trajectory has been, for me, the most interesting of the bunch. He broke
into the international scene with the 2001 coming-of-age drama, Y Tu Mamá
También, and followed that with, of all things, the megahit Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,
which, I argue, is the best of all eight Harry Potter movies. The terrific
dystopian thriller Children of Men followed
that, and then came Gravity.
than the superb handling of each specific film’s material, there isn’t much
similarity between these pictures, and yet it’s apparent that Cuarón
brings an auteur sensibility to his work. This is most evident in the more
personal Y Tu Mamá También, a film Cuarón
made in his native Mexico with no Hollywood studio in sight. The director and
his brother Carlos Cuarón claim in the terrific new extra of recent
interviews about the making of the film that the picture is not
autobiographical. However, a much of the world in which our two high school-age
protagonists exist is similar to the more middle-to-upper-class upbringing the
and Julio (honestly played by Diego Luna and Gael García
Bernal), are typical, urban, horny hormone-raging teenagers ready to graduate
from school and step out into adulthood. But for that to happen, a rite of
passage must occur to shake the boys out of decidedly vulgar adolescence,
mischief-making, and carefree attitudes.
an older unhappy married woman, Luisa—Maribel Verdú, in a tour de force performance—whose tragic
secrets motivate her to recklessly accompany the boys on a road trip to “the
beach.” The journey is a rite of passage for her, too, but the teens don’t know
this. What happens on that trip will change the two boys’ lives forever. In
essence, the film is a frank and modern Summer
of ’42 meets Jules and Jim. In
fact, Y Tu Mamá También does seem to be
inspired by the French New Wave—not only Jules
and Jim but also, as revealed by the Cuarón brothers in the
documentary, Godard’s Masculin Féminin. The detached, omniscient voice-over
narration in Y Tu Mamá evokes these 1960s classics in a more contemporary context.
And, like Godard’s films, Y Tu Mamá contains commentary on the then-current
political situation in Mexico, when the ruling party of 70-plus-years was voted
out. The upheaval, while not directly affecting our three characters, is
constantly in the background.
film is also sexually explicit. The picture was released in the USA unrated,
which means it otherwise would have received the problematic NC-17. The raw
naturalism of the sex scenes is indeed shocking, but without it the movie would
not have the impact that it does. As it is, Y
Tu Mamá También packs a punch. The Big
Reveal about Luisa at the end of the story can possibly change in an instant a
viewer’s reaction to the film up to that point. Along the way, you will have
laughed, cringed, laughed some more, and observed a loss of innocence as it
often occurs—unexpectedly and with deeply emotional prices to pay.
three leads are exceptional. Cuarón was fortunate to
employ actors who courageously bared their souls—as well as their skins—to make
this truly remarkable, highly recommended film.
new, restored 2K digital film transfer is gorgeous (the cinematography is by
the great Emmanuel Lubezki). The Blu-ray features a 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master
Audio soundtrack. Extras include vintage and new behind-the scenes
documentaries featuring the director, cast, and others; Carlos Cuarón’s
very funny short film You Owe Me One (2002),
a new interview with philosopher Slavoj Žižek
about the film’s social and political aspects, and deleted scenes.
RETRO-ACTIVE: THE BEST FROM THE CINEMA RETRO ARCHIVES
DVD and Blu-Ray
on A.E.W. Mason’s classic 1902 adventure novel, The Four Feathers had been made three times before this definitive version
of a “British Empire Adventure Film” was released in 1939.Produced by Hungarian-born but UK-based
Alexander Korda, one of the great filmmakers of British cinema, and directed by
his brother Zoltan Korda, The Four
Feathers represents the best of what England had to offer during its day,
as well as the epitome of the kind of yarns spun by Kipling and his ilk.
vivid Technicolor and sporting a cast of hundreds of ethnic extras, the picture
captures the grand Victorian era of the British military and takes place mostly
in Africa some ten years or so after the fall of Khartoum.The story is simple (albeit somewhat
improbable):a young officer (John
Clements) is accused of cowardice by his associates and fiancée after he
resigns his post on the eve of a major deployment to take back the Sudan.Setting out to prove the opposite, he
disguises himself as a mute Arab so that he can “make a difference” from the
inside of the enemy camp and show his “friends” what he’s really made of.At one point, his rival in love, portrayed by
the excellent Ralph Richardson, is struck blind by excessive exposure to the
desert sun—and our hero must help him trek across the country to safety, all
without saying a word or revealing to the man that he’s his old colleague.
particular version of The Four Feathers would
be an impressive film if made today, but for 1939, it’s a masterpiece (the
recent 2002 version doesn’t compare).With its tremendous logistical challenges and
extreme conditions on location, the picture is a marvel to behold.It also contains tons of what are now
familiar clichés of British Empirical tales, mostly embodied by the humorous
performance of overly stately C. Aubrey Smith—and this, too, is a testament of
the film’s influence.The picture is
also a timely (and embarrassingly hilarious) lesson in how racism was taken for
granted during its day.
new Criterion edition, of course, looks gorgeous in a high-definition
restoration.At that time, Natalie
Kalmus (the wife of Technicolor’s inventor, Herbert Kalmus), was forced upon
filmmakers as “color coordinator” if one wanted to use the process, and she had
total control over its application.Whether it was appropriate or not, Natalie went for bold, vivid colors;
in this case the result is happily spectacular.
audio commentary by Charles Drazin is interesting, but the true gem of the
extra features is the interview with Zoltan Korda’s son, David.He sheds light on the lives of the amazing
trio of brothers—Alexander, Zoltan, and Vincent—who became one of the most
important British film families in its history.There is also a vintage documentary short about the Kordas’ studio,
London Films, which features rare footage of Zoltan in action directing The Four Feathers.
about any Criterion Collection release is a must-have.This is one has that quality in spades.
“TIE ME UP! TIE ME
Directed by Pedro Almodóvar)
FIFTY SHADES OF
By Raymond Benson
twenty years prior to the popularity of Fifty
Shades of Grey, acclaimed and eccentric Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar
delivered to the world a kinky morsel of bondage-love—Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (original Spanish title: Átame!). The director had just come off the international success of his 1988 picture, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,
which earned an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. While the
filmmaker’s early ‘80s films are certainly of note, it was Women that thrust Almodóvar into the
when it came to releasing his next film in the U.S. in 1990, Almodóvar
was met with some resistance from the MPAA ratings board. The dreaded X rating
was threatened, forcing Miramax, the film’s distributor, to sue. The film was
eventually released “unrated”; however, it was this lawsuit that prompted the
MPAA to change the stigmatized X to the more consumer-friendly NC-17. (Henry and June became the first U.S.
film to be released with the new NC-17 rating. Ironically, the NC-17 rating
wasn’t an improvement. The stigma remained and the media in many areas of the
country continued the policy of refusing to advertise NC-17-rated movies.)
picture does give you a pretty good barometer on judging the level of
sexually-explicit scenes in the cinema. It’s pretty shocking—however, intelligent
adults in the audience might recognize that Almodóvar is pulling a
fast one on us—which is very much a stylistic signature trait of the
director’s. We just didn’t know that in 1990.
Tie Me Up! Tie Me
a comedy, a dark one at that, but I’m sure many people might see it as
offensive and misogynistic, especially in the wake of recent events such as the
Cleveland, Ohio kidnappings, enslavement, and ultimate rescue of three women in
2013. That’s essentially the plot of the film, except it’s only one woman in
Banderas plays Ricki, an unbalanced, violent, but charming mental patient who is discharged from the institution.
Why? Who knows—he should never have been let out. Anyway, he has a fixation on
a Marina, a former porn actress now making B-movies (courageously played by
Almodóvar favorite Victoria Abril). Like in
William Wyler’s 1965 film, The Collector,
Banderas kidnaps his prey—and isn’t very gentle in going about it—and keeps
Marina a prisoner in her apartment. Ricki’s goal is to “get her to love him” so
they can be married and have children. At first, she is naturally repulsed,
terrified, and resistant. Until he can trust her, Ricki binds her to the bed
whenever he has to go out. This goes on for some time until finally Stockholm
Syndrome sets in and Marina actually does
fall in love with her captor. I won’t spoil the ending, but let’s just say
that things turn out in Almodóvar’s typically
they might have missed was the fact that Almodóvar intended the
piece to be like the B-movie that Marina is making within the story. He wanted
to make a “Roger Corman movie.” Thus, much of the picture has the trappings of
a cheap horror film. Even Ennio Morricone’s score is sinister and nervy—and
this is the clue that Almodóvar wants us to
laugh at the situation. Banderas’ Ricki is so
utterly likable (as well as handsome, hot, etc.) that we are fooled into
ignoring the seriousness of his crimes. Marina’s reactions to him also become
unbelievably tolerant, despite the fact that she is his captive. It is this
heightened unrealism that is the key
to not only Tie Me Up! but also much
of Almodóvar’s work. In other words, this is theatre of the absurd. Go with the flow
and you may come out of it enlightened by notions of human sexuality and
relationships that you might not have considered before. Besides, the two
central performances are so winning that you can’t help but stay riveted to the
screen. Banderas, in particular, has never been better.
restoration is gorgeous, colorful, and sharp, as it was supervised by both
Almodóvar and his brother, executive producer
Agustin Almodóvar. Extras include a brand new documentary
on the making of the film, featuring current interviews with the director,
Banderas, Abril, and others involved in the production. There is also a new
interview with Almodóvar collaborator and Sony Pictures Classics
co-president Michael Barker. A 2003 conversation between Almodóvar
and Banderas is included, as well as footage from the film’s 1990 premiere
party in Madrid. The included booklet contains a piece Almodóvar
wrote about the picture, a 1989 interview with the director, and a dialogue
about the film between filmmaker Wes Anderson and critic Kent Jones.
get out the handcuffs and rope, settle down with your significant other, and
have yourself a kinky old time with Tie
Me Up! Tie Me Down! Adults only please!
are certain films that capture the zeitgeist of an era, and The Big Chill is definitely one of them.
If a movie like, say, Annie Hall,
hits the nail on the head of urban relationships in the late 70s, then Chill embraces the Baby Boomers’ angst
of adulthood in the early 80s—a time when the partying and discoing Carter
years were undoubtedly over and we, in the USA, were solidly entrenched in
Reagan’s world of hippies-turned-yuppies. The
Big Chill is a love letter to the Baby Boomers, as it explores themes of
regret over wasted opportunities, friendship and camaraderie, nostalgia, and the
eternal question of what-happens-next.
and co-writer Kasdan, in a recent video interview (included as an extra on the
disk), states that one of his influences for the picture was Jean Renoir’s 1939
classic, The Rules of the Game, which
also dealt with an ensemble of characters coming together for a reunion at a
country house. While the former film is bigger, more populated, and infinitely
more complex than The Big Chill, one
can definitely see the similarities. So-and-so has a history with whozit, but
whozit is now married to you-know-who; whereas, you-know-who is really in love
with so-and-so... and, well, you get the idea.
The Big Chill, a group of close-knit
friends from college reunite for the funeral of one of their own. Alex (who was played by Kevin Costner in
flashback sequences that were ultimately edited out of the picture), was
staying in Harold (Kevin Kline) and Sarah’s (Glenn Close) country home in South
Carolina and committed suicide there. Alex apparently had an affair with Sarah
(who is married to Harold). Vietnam vet and druggie Nick (William Hurt) once
had a thing with hot-stuff but now-married Karen (JoBeth Williams), but Karen
was really in love with hunky, now-TV-star Sam (Tom Berenger). Nerdy-and-socially-inept
Michael (Jeff Goldblum) and smart-but-bitter Meg (Mary Kay Place) got it on in
the past, but today Meg just wants to have a baby as a single mom and Michael
is just, well, horny. But really, none of these histories make much difference
on the story or unfolding of events during the weekend at the house. Over the
course of the film’s 105 minutes, the characters laugh, fight, dance, expound
philosophy, laugh some more, reflect on their lives, have sex (some of them
do), and bond again with their “family.” Anyone who has gone to college can
most likely relate.
Kevin Kline and Glenn Close
intelligent script by Kasdan and Barbara Benedek was nominated for an Original
Screenplay Oscar, and the film was nominated for Best Picture of ’83. Oddly,
Glenn Close received the only acting nomination (Supporting Actress), whereas
Goldblum, Place, and especially Hurt probably deserved nods as well (Goldblum
certainly has the best lines!).
there’s the soundtrack, which is the ultimate Baby Boomer collection of rock
and soul gems from the late 60s and early 70s—the period in which the
characters were in college in Michigan. Isn’t it true that our favorite music
is still what we heard in high school
and college? In this case, there’s a lot of Motown, sprinkled with some Rolling
Stones, Three Dog Night, Procol Harum, and other iconic pieces from the era.
The music is as much a part of the film as is the characters. Perhaps it is a character.
new, restored 4K digital film transfer, supervised by DP John Bailey and
approved by Kasdan, looks terrific on Blu-ray. There’s an alternate remastered
5.1 surround soundtrack, presented in DTS-HD Master Audio on the Blu-ray disc.
Extras include the aforementioned interview with Kasdan, a reunion roundtable
discussion with the cast and some crew in 2013 (it’s interesting to note that
none of the women in the cast bought into the plotline in which Sarah lets her
husband Harold sleep with Meg as a favor), a documentary from 1998 on the
making of the picture, deleted scenes (unfortunately, though, none with Costner),
and the usual excellent essays in the enclosed booklet (one by Lena Dunham).
you’ve never seen The Big Chill,
now’s the time to do it. And if you have, maybe it’s time for a reunion with
the French had their own Batman-like character in the early days of silent
film. Created by Louis Feuillade and Arthur Bernède, Judex (“judge”
in Latin) was a crime-fighting avenger that appeared in silent serials in
1916-17. The character was resurrected once in 1934 in a sound feature, and
once again in 1963 by celebrated director Georges Franju. The Criterion
Collection has seen fit to release Judex,this later version, on Blu-ray and DVD
in a dual format package. The results are splendid.
doesn’t bother to disguise his face when he’s in character. He wears a black
cape and a Zorro-like hat. You could say he’s kind of like The Shadow. By day,
though, he applies old-age makeup and assumes the role of Vallieres, the right-hand
man to an evil banker. Judex is in love with the banker’s daughter, Jacqueline,
who is played by Franju regular Édith Scrob, the
thin doe-eyed actress who was creepily effective in the director’s excellent
horror film, Eyes Without a Face
(also on Criterion). Judex himself is played by an American stage magician,
Channing Pollock, who curiously has little screen presence but performs a lot
of impressive sleight-of-hand in the picture.
crime-fighter and his team (a group of guys all dressed in black) quickly
disposes of the evil banker and locks him away, but Jacqueline is kidnapped by
the family’s governess, Diana (superbly played by Francine Bergé),
who in reality is a masked Catwoman-like criminal. She plans to hold Jacqueline
for ransom, that is, until Judex comes to the rescue.
sounds like an episode from the 1966 Batman
television show, but in fact, Judex is
stylish and in some spots very surreal. For example, the scene in which the
banker is “poisoned” (actually drugged by Judex) is a masked ball. The
attendees’ costumes—many of which are birds—are bizarre and unsettling. Franju
turns the pulp material into something rather poetic, despite numerous holes
and flights of fancy in the plot.
notable is that Franju seems to be more interested in his villain than in
Judex. Bergé’s Diana is the most engaging character and has the most
screen time in the film. In a 2012 video interview extra with the actress, Bergé reveals that she was told to simply play “evil”—and that’s
what she does, with a capital “E.” It’s her performance that makes Judex a fascinating piece of celluloid.
The Blu-ray looks great with its new 2K
digital restoration. Extras include a 2007 interview with co-writer Jacques
Champreux and an excellent 50-minute documentary of Franju’s career. The best
extras are two Franju shorts—one is a documentary about a Paris military
complex; the second one, a film about filmmaker/magician Georges Méliès (who is
played by Méliès’ son), is almost worth the price of the entire package. The
enclosed booklet contains an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien and an interview