Kenji Mizoguchi’s late-career masterworks Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff unfold with an existentially freighted sense of contemplation, allowing us to ponder the relationships between the oppressed characters and the expansive land that contain them. By contrast, A Story from Chikamatsu proceeds at a furious pace, succinctly establishing a dense thicket of betrayals that spring from a series of nesting infrastructural hypocrisies governing 17th-century Japan. The Kyoto of Mizoguchi’s 1954 film is a city riven with classist and sexist double standards, which are maintained by an ingrained surveillance state that keeps every citizen, poor as well as rich, in a state of panicked fever. In such a rigidly un-empathetic climate, small misunderstandings beget tragedy.
Based on the work of renowned Japanese playwright Monzaeon Chikamatsu, A Story from Chikamatsu revels in a thorny notion of poetic justice. Villains in narrative art are often understood to receive their comeuppances out of a sense of cosmic order—because, in other words, they deserve it. But the wealthy and highly connected scroll-maker Ishun (Eitarō Shindō) eventually comes to ruin for two reasons: because his mercilessness splinters his family, creating opponents within his own house, and because his superiors are equally cruel and hypocritical. Which is to say that Mizoguchi understands Japan to exist as an animal kingdom. The right people are occasionally punished because all, except for those at the very top, are punished.
Mizoguchi drops us without preamble into the house of Ishun, which is busy making calendars for royalty. In bursts of dialogue, we learn that Ishun is a master wheeler and dealer who’s cornered the market on scrolls, enjoying the Emperor’s exclusive patronage. Finely detailed compositions emphasize the lines separating Ishun’s personal house from his business, as well as the fashions in which these compartments chaotically collide. Mizoguchi lingers on apprentices, salesmen, managers, and various couriers and servants as they bustle through Ishun’s house, fashioning lively and overflowing multi-planed images that are characteristic of his late-period filmography. Mizoguchi casually establishes the fear of judgment that governs this society, which enslaves its citizens in catastrophic debt while punishing mid-level businessman for usury so as to enslave them in said debt as well, after they’ve performed their own suppressive duties.
Amid this complex intermingling of business and politics, Mizoguchi charts a romantic quadrangle that explodes the tensions of this society. Ishun, a womanizer who celebrates the execution of women for infidelity, makes overtures to one of his servants, Otama (Yôko Minamida), who’s in love with Ishun’s finest printer, Mohei (Kazuo Hasegawa). In a brutally concise gesture that communicates more physical violation than most films’ more explicit passages of sexual violence, Ishun slides his hand up and under the fabric covering Otama’s arm, referencing past visits to her bedroom. Otama tells Ishun that she’s engaged to Mohei, who later resists the subterfuge presumably out of loyalty to his master, though in reality he’s in love with Ishun’s wife, Osan (Kyôko Kagawa).
In one of the film’s many chilling counterpoints, Mohei insists that Otama fulfill all duties of her servitude, while a samurai’s wife and her lover are paraded through a street outside of Ishun’s home on the way to their execution. Mizoguchi underscores a ruler’s privilege to enjoy what for others constitutes a merciless death, and this sequence climaxes with a shockingly explicit shot of the crucified lovers, which has a pared-down sense of iconography that would clearly inspire Martin Scorsese’s Silence.
The loyalties ricocheting throughout Ishun’s house are physicalized by the film’s precise images, which emphasize order and decorum at the cost of humanity. Mizoguchi utilizes his famous flowing compositions, emulating the distance of scrolls and theater, though he occasionally breaks this aesthetic to purposefully jarring effect. When Otama lies for Mohei, in order to cover up his own lies for Osan, Mizoguchi briefly cuts to a close-up from Osan’s face to Mohei’s, signifying their subsequent union as well as their new partnership in love as well as deception. This highly emotional sequence alludes to the intimacy that’s often leeched out of the film’s masterfully choreographed interior spaces. And this sense of constriction also recalls the formality of other famous Japanese films, such as Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low and Kon Ichikawa’s An Actor’s Revenge, which are likely indebted to Mizoguchi.
If A Story from Chikamatsu lacks the supple majesty of Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff, it’s because the former’s sense of exterior space isn’t quite as inspired as that of the other films. A Story from Chikamatsu loses a bit of its volcanic sense of repression when Mohei and Osan become lovers on the lam, though a few of the countryside landscapes are as astonishingly evocative as one would expect from Mizoguchi, especially a wide, vertical shot of a hillside as Mohei attempts to flee Osan so as to save her. Yet it’s the venality of ancient Kyoto that most commands Mizoguchi’s imagination here, and audiences may weirdly miss its extraordinary aura of everyday evil.
The image has a bit of attractive grit, and details of the actors’ faces can sometimes be (appealingly) soft, but the compositions here have generally been rendered with a piercing clarity that honors the film’s formal beauty and exactitude. Foregrounds are particularly sharp, giving the images’ bold through lines—staircases, pillars, hills—the prominence they warrant. The whites of the image are also robust and easy on the eyes, emphasizing the theatrical brightness of the various scrims within the frame, such as of translucent windows and doorways. Meanwhile, the monaural soundtrack is pointedly crisp, emphasizing the musicality that bridges the dialogue with the non-diegetic instrumentation.
In “Mizoguchi: The Auteur Behind the Metteur en Scène,” film scholar Dudley Andrew offers a brilliantly precise examination of the filmmaker’s aesthetic, particularly the debt that A Story from Chikamatsu owes to Bunraku puppet theater. Andrew discusses Kenji Mizoguchi’s images, use of music, and his practice of literally serving as a puppet master, correcting actors’ gestures mercilessly from right outside of the camera’s boundaries. (Explaining the filmmaker’s direction, Andrew calls Mizoguchi an “inhumane humanist,” which pinpoints the paradox of many great artists of all mediums.) A short new interview with actor Kyōko Kagawa presents a more flattering portrait of Mizoguchi’s on-set practices, and she also speaks of the challenges of playing a married woman and adopting a Kyoto dialect. Rounding out a slim but significant supplements package is an essay by film scholar Haden Guest, who describes Mizoguchi’s influences and formalism in visceral and illuminating detail.
Criterion’s spare but beautifully detailed restoration of A Story from Chikamatsu will hopefully allow the film to enjoy the attention that’s been accorded to other Kenji Mizoguchi masterworks such as Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff.
Cast: Kazuo Hasegawa, Kyōko Kagawa, Eitarō Shindō, Eitarō Ozawa, Yōko Minamida, Haruo Tanaka, Chieko Naniwa, Ichirō Sugai Director: Kenji Mizoguchi Screenwriter: Yoshikata Yoda, Matsutarō Kawaguchi Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 102 min Rating: NR Year: 1954 Release Date: November 13, 2018 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma on the Criterion Collection
All in all, hungry Roma-philes will remain engaged for the better part of a day.4.5
From the start of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, the banal and sublime walk hand in hand. Sloshing water transforms a tile floor into a mirror, capturing the reflection of a plane soaring across the sky above. There’s an almost magical quality to this image, and it’s an impression that’s undermined by the camera tilting upward to reveal the unglamorous reality of the water’s source: a maid washing dog feces out of a driveway.
The woman, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), works for the family of Dr. Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), a man who seems to be a guest in his own home. As a car pulls into the driveway, shots of the vehicle’s grille, tires, and gear shift make Antonio’s presence known. An entire dynamic between the patriarch and his family is established in the way the man’s wife, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), and their children gather to welcome him as if paying tribute to some visiting dignitary—their awestruck faces alight by the glow of the car’s headlights.
These initial moments give the audience a sense of this family’s perspective, but for the most part Cuarón roots the camera in Cleo’s point of view. An indigenous woman who speaks both Spanish and Mixtec, she switches between the languages on a dime depending on whether she’s talking to her employers or to the other servants in the house. Though Sofia is never depicted as an uncaring or inattentive mother, it’s clear from the start that Cleo is largely responsible for rearing Sofia’s children, who tend to respond faster to Cleo’s commands than to their mother’s own. Cuarón establishes the economic and class divisions of the Mexico City neighborhood where Antonio and Sofia live via scenes that place Cleo as one of a fleet of servants who toil inside the area’s homes, and in one long take, the camera floats over the rooftop of Antonio’s manse as Cleo hangs laundry, slowly revealing numerous other maids scrubbing and hanging clothes on roofs that stretch to the image’s vanishing point.
Cleo’s status as glorified second mother to Sofia’s kids is cemented further when Antonio, already such a spectral presence in the lives of his family members, moves in with his mistress under the guise of attending a medical conference. As Sofia realizes what’s happened, her grief and anger isolate her from the rest of her family, forcing Cleo to increasingly take on responsibility for the well-being of Sofia’s children, which includes sheltering them from the knowledge of their father’s abandonment. But as Cleo contends with the added tension in her employers’ household, she must also deal with an unexpected pregnancy and the sudden, violent rejection by her boyfriend, Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), who threatens to kill the woman and her unborn child if she makes him take responsibility as a father.
These relationship struggles veer Roma into melodrama, albeit of a kind whose emotions are frequently held at a distance by Cuarón’s aesthetic approach, which privileges long takes and master shots that often dwarf Cleo in the frame. In a scene where the maid goes to confront Fermín over their child while he practices martial arts with other men in a soccer field, she’s just a speck in a massive shot that takes in a mountain that looms over the scene as the men do their drills, their movements kicking up a thick cloud of dirt that hangs over the field like a fog. Cleo’s near-invisibility in the shot forecasts how much power she’ll project while dealing with the imposing Fermín, and similar methods of shrinking Cleo in the frame assert her diminished authority in Antonio and Sofia’s household. Cuarón calls attention to the unspoken wealth of the family Cleo serves by highlighting the size of their home, placing Cleo in the middle distance and background of deep-focus images that make the house seem as big as a castle, and the vastness of the space is subtly reinforced by the fact that in spite of the maid’s seemingly endless toil, the place never, ever seems to get clean.
Aparicio, a first-time actor who responded to a casting call without knowing who Cuarón was, gives a performance that’s defined by halting mannerisms. That’s an approach that makes sense for the actress’s character, a woman who’s paid to silently handle the life inconveniences of her bosses and who treats her increasingly prominent position in Sofia’s life with the caution of someone who’s inadvertently trespassing. Throughout, Cuarón emphasizes Cleo’s helplessness, whether she’s caught up in a riot that abruptly breaks out during a civil demonstration or dealing with complications during the delivery of her baby. And the depiction of said delivery—an unbroken long shot that captures the entirety of the birthing process—is the film’s emotional high point. By framing the moment in this way, Cuarón forces the audience to notice every new wrinkle in the delivery just as Cleo does—as her reactions gradually turn from pained to confused to panicked as problems arise.
Acting as writer, cinematographer, and co-editor on Roma, Cuarón exercises near-total control over every frame, and the static camera during the hospital scene captures as technically exacting an image as anything in the elaborate blocking that typifies Children of Men and Gravity. By the same token, Cuarón’s efforts to use his formal mastery to foreground Cleo’s physical and social place speaks to a focus on character that hasn’t been this thrilling in his work since Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. As showy as the film’s compositions and elegant camera movements can be, they consistently illuminate Cleo’s state of mind and social status, as well as give voice to all the emotions she lacks the freedom to openly express.
Cuarón mixes classical and modern modes of melodrama so freely that Roma calls to mind Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘80s films, which used similarly old and new Hollywood techniques to craft stories that wedded nostalgia with clear-eyed social commentary. But where Coppola set his fondness for old melodramas and musicals against the ills those films often papered over, Cuarón confronts his own personal privilege, ruminating on the perspective of the sort of woman who helped raise him. (Cleo is based on the filmmaker’s childhood nanny, Liboria Rodríguez.) In the end, Roma is autobiography as autocritique, and in exploring a point of view adjacent to his own, Cuarón appears to have rediscovered his identity as a filmmaker.
With Roma, Alfonso Cuarón channels longtime collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki’s seemingly indefatigable virtuosity. The film sometimes even resembles a live-action playthrough of Lubezki’s Instagram account, which frequently features monochrome, deep-focus images of what could easily be mistaken for Roma production stills. Serving as his own director of photography, Cuarón shot Roma using the mighty Arri Alexa 65, then mastered it in 4K, giving the images a specific clarity of present-ness that actively resists overdosing on what could have been a soporific level of nostalgia. And this is unequivocally a Blu-ray release of flagship proportions, as Criterion’s encoding team has made sure that we get a bitrate that’s worthy of some of the most painstakingly composed black-and-white images in many a long year.
Roma’s sound design is just as rich. The film’s sound mixers and editors etch a soundscape with a technical lucidity that, complementing the crystal clarity of ultra-high-end digital video, somehow makes Cuarón’s memory deep dives a landscape of vivid yet alien effects. They deploy a sound as dramatic underpinning only at a few, prudently chosen points; elsewhere, even the most dazzling images are cloaked in eerie tranquility. It’s no surprise, then, that Criterion’s work on the audio—via an absolute barnburner of a format, Dolby Atmos Spanish TrueHD 7.1—will grace the right home-entertainment setup with peerless fidelity to the director’s autobiographical magnum opus. (Also, and exclusively for Spanish speakers who are hard of hearing, the alternate track is descriptive audio.)
The main supplement is a feature-length, behind-the-scenes documentary titled Road to “Roma” that, as with many projects of its kind, treats us to candid footage of the director and his crew brainstorming and fine-tuning the finished product. This kind of featurette has a double appeal, capturing the process as it happens, and, as a visual endeavor on its own, being just the right degree of bland to let us know that, when the rubber meets the road, camera position, lens selection, f-stops, and a million other factors make all the difference.
Alongside this, there’s an array of production photos, a featurette covering the film’s tour across Mexico, and a massive booklet of essays that illuminate several different aspects of the film’s production. There’s a compilation of tweets by author Aurelio Asiaín, poetically canvassing countless observations about the film, bolstered by several rounds of editing and re-editing after as many subsequent viewings. There’s also contributions by historian Enrique Krauze and novelist Valeria Luiselli. What stands out the most, besides these texts, is the inclusion of several foldout images from the film, paying printed homage to the widescreen motion picture. All in all, hungry Roma-philes will remain engaged for the better part of a day.
Alfonso Cuarón’s mitts are all over this director-approved Criterion Blu-ray release, and there’s good and bad with that, depending on your relationship with the film.
Cast: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Marco Graf, Fernando Gregiaga, Daniela Demesa, Carlos Peralta, Nancy Garcia, Jorge Antonio Guerrero Director: Alfonso Cuarón Screenwriter: Alfonso Cuarón Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 135 min Rating: R Year: 2018 Release Date: February 11, 2020 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
Blu-ray Review: Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory on Sony Home Entertainment
Sony has outfitted Almodóvar’s newest memory play with a transfer that fully preserves the film’s painstaking gorgeousness.3.5
A film about an aging artist struggling to recapture his yen for creation, Pain and Glory has the makings of a deeply personal, career-capping work for Pedro Almodóvar. His name may be Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), but the gay filmmaker, with his tussled hair, white beard, and red turtleneck, may as well call himself Pedro. One of the very few differences between them is that Salvador has stopped making films while Almodóvar continues to work at a relatively steady clip. Pain and Glory is a ballsy admission on the auteur’s part that he hasn’t made a film in more than a decade that can compare with his most subversive output, which makes it all the more dispiriting that his latest only occasionally captures the spry, comedic rhythms and impassioned, melodramatic intensity that defined, say, Law of Desire, Matador, and Bad Education.
Pain and Glory is most surprising at the outset, as the stern narration that we’ve come to expect from an Almodóvar film is audaciously paired with CG graphics and abstract animations that illustrate Salvador’s anatomical and psychosomatic conditions. The man suffers from tinnitus, chronic back pain, severe headaches, anxiety, depression, and various other ailments. It’s a literally visceral way to begin a film that soon settles into the more familiar pattern of a two-track narrative: There’s Salvador in the present, who works toward repairing a friendship with the heroin-addicted star, Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), of his recently restored and most celebrated film, Subor, and there’s Salvador as a young boy (Asier Flores), preternaturally intelligent and perpetually optimistic, living in poverty with his ever-harried mother, Jacinta (Penélope Cruz), until he’s finally sent off to a seminary.
Perhaps all of this might have landed with a little more impact if Almodóvar hadn’t already covered so much of the same territory in Bad Education, which also centers itself around a film director’s relationship with an actor and tells the story of a young altar boy’s life, much of it spent at a seminary, through a series of flashbacks. Another rehash of a nearly identical plot point from that 2004 film is Pain and Glory’s intriguing meta conceit: Alberto convinces Salvador to let him perform a one-man stage adaptation of a monologue the former wrote long ago, an obvious nod to Almodóvar’s longtime collaborator, Banderas, playing a version of the filmmaker here. Pain and Glory is, in fact, defined by its abundance of conspicuously placed Easter eggs. Even in the scenes between the present-day Salvador and his dying mother (Julietta Serrano), namely the moment she tells him not to make films about her, Almodóvar points to the personal turmoil that led to the making of All About My Mother.
Putting aside the boldness of the sequences that kick Pain and Glory into motion, Almodóvar’s formal approach is generally subdued and disciplined throughout. His screenplay is also quite neat in its structure, relating its two plotlines in almost stubbornly linear fashion, reliably hitting standard narrative beats of interpersonal conflict and reconciliation. Almodóvar wouldn’t be the first filmmaker in the history of cinema to mellow with age, and there’s a sense that Pain and Glory’s artistry is a reflection of that trajectory, but that only makes the too-fleeting snapshots of Salvador’s hard-scrabble early years—which includes living inside a white cave with Jacinta and other migrants—feel as if they never transcend easy nostalgia.
Still, Almodóvar’s singular use of color as a barometer of characters’ interiorities and the emotional temperature of a scene remains on vibrant display throughout Pain and Glory. There’s also some wonderful comic repartee between the disheveled Banderas, so exquisitely committed to imparting a sense of his character’s almost ghostly status, and the perpetually bug-eyed Etxeandia. Alberto, upon reuniting with Salvador, almost immediately introduces him to heroin, and, improbably, the way in which they bond through their horrible addiction results in some of the funniest scenes in an Almodóvar film in some time.
It’s another reunion, though, between Salvador and Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), an ex-lover he hasn’t seen since the ‘80s, that finds Almodóvar delivering on the heightened promise of the film’s title. The men are brought back together through an absurd coincidence, after Federico wanders into the performance of Salvador’s play and recognizes that his life has been incorporated into the monologue, but the scene thrums with that distinctly magnetic force of love that’s fundamental to Almodóvar’s best work. Also, the actual moment of Salvador and Federico’s reunion is a gracefully staged dance of advance and retreat, beginning with a late-night conversation at Salvador’s apartment that never leaves the common area. Finally, after an intense kiss, Federico departs, and though he invites Salvador to come visit him and his family, both men seem to implicitly realize that they’ll never see each other again.
Salvador and Federico’s meeting unfolds almost in real time, and touches on their shared past, the lives they lived in the interim, and how much they’ve always meant to each other. The scene recalls other intense emotional meetings in prior Almodóvar films, but more than that, in its duration and focus, it seems drawn from more contemporary inspirations: Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, the final stretch of Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, even “Looking for the Future,” the finest episode of Andrew Haigh’s Looking. It also arguably packs even more of an expressive force than any of those works, and serves as a reminder that, however much Almodóvar’s formalist bona fides may have cooled, his ability to craft emotionally acute, achingly felt scenes between men in the throes of love is as vigorous as ever.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment superbly preserves the vibrancy of the film’s images: Colors are sharp, dynamic, and subtly varied—the gleaming whites of a childhood river are heartbreakingly beautiful—while backgrounds and foregrounds are pristine and well-detailed. Meanwhile, skin textures are intensely tactile, which is of paramount importance to a film concerned with aging and memory. Tactility is also a significant accomplishment of the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix, as it acutely balances the film’s painstaking use of small diegetic sounds to establish space—from the echoes of a cave dwelling to the churning of river water—with the plaintive melancholia of Alberto Iglesias’s score.
A Q&A with Pedro Almodóvar and Antonio Banderas covers the history of their collaboration over the years, including how Banderas’s decades of experience in Hollywood informed their first reunion film, The Skin I Live In. Almodóvar also speaks of how Pain and Glory both is and isn’t a personal film, as he used his life as a springboard for fictional reveries. Another interview, titled “Pedro Almodóvar: In His Own Words,” broadly covers the filmmaker’s career, such as how it was informed by various protests against the waning Franco regime. These supplements are diverting but fairly unsurprising, especially for audiences already familiar with Almodóvar’s cinema. The film’s theatrical trailer rounds out a slim package.
Sony has outfitted Almodóvar’s newest memory play with a transfer that fully preserves the film’s painstaking gorgeousness, though the supplements package is routine.
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Asier Etxeandia, Penélope Cruz, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Nora Navas, Julieta Serrano, César Vicente, Asier Flores, Julieta Serrano Director: Pedro Almodóvar Screenwriter: Pedro Almodóvar Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Running Time: 113 min Rating: R Year: 2019 Release Date: January 21, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control on Arrow Academy Blu-ray
The film, as Arrow’s excellent assemblage of features proves, is rewarded by post-viewing conversation.4
At the center of writer-director Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control is a man identified only as the Lone Man (Isaach de Bankolé), a stone-faced figure perpetually clad in precisely tailored earth-toned suits. He alternates between strutting purposefully and waiting patiently in the cities and villages of Andalusia in the south of Spain. Seated at outdoor tables in Seville’s secluded, orange-tree-bedecked plazas, he meets with enigmatic types who exchange mysterious trinkets and coded phrases with him. “You don’t speak Spanish, do you?” each of them say in Spanish, proceeding to launch into a rambling excursus on a pet topic. The taciturn Lone Man listens attentively, though it’s not entirely clear whether he’s decoding secret instructions or genuinely interested in classic films, the etymology of the term “bohemian,” the provenance of the universe’s molecules, or peyote.
That is the long and short of the major action in the film, which deploys just enough generic codes to qualify it as a romanticized hitman flick in the vein of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai but curiously withholds much of what one might expect from the genre. Namely, the story lacks the armature of a true plot, the decisive events and abrupt pivots one encounters even in Euro-existentialist interpretations of pulp detective fiction. The Limits of Control gives us existentialism without the fatalism: The Lone Man awaits not fate but understanding, a wisdom accumulated through conversation, experience, and imagination.
“Reality is arbitrary,” his unnamed contractor (Alex Descas) advises him in the opening scene, seated in a business-class lounge in Charles de Gaulle Airport. “The universe has no center and no edges.” It’s advice that the Lone Man appears to take seriously, as, laid over in Madrid, he spends his time contemplating cubist paintings in the Reina Sofia Art Museum. Cubism—inspired, incidentally, by the shifting perspectives artists encountered in early cinema—presents the world without a center, beyond the limits of control. Still, the film suggests that there’s a possibility of control that extends to the borders of the self: Every morning in his hotel room, the Lone Man wakes to perform a tai-chi-like exercise, cinematographer Chris Doyle’s camera following the slow, ritualistic movements, as patient as the man himself.
The Limits of Control isn’t what you could call a cubist film, but the absence of a centering discourse like a plot certainly gives it avant-garde vibes. A coal-black helicopter periodically appears in the sky, following the Lone Man through his languid trek through Andalusia. A mysterious femme fatale (Paz de la Huerta) crops up, lying nude on her belly in his hotel bed with her rear end perked up in the foreground of the frame, having seemingly jumped ship from a mid-‘60s Godard movie. No sex when he’s working, the Lone Man informs her, and no mobile phones either. Surveillance without worry, ambiguously threatening women without sex—these images exist more to be contemplated than as elements in a story to be followed.
Jarmusch has one of the Lone Man’s co-conspirators, a platinum-wigged, cowboy-hat-wearing woman played by Tilda Swinton, speak of her love of Hitchcock, as if to emphasize the film’s studious avoidance of suspense in any conventional sense. The Limits of Control is shot with a placid meticulousness that seems to stem more from Jarmusch than from Doyle (though some more chaotic, washed-out and time-axis-manipulated early shots of the highway outside Madrid evoke Doyle’s work with Wong Kar-Wai). Instead of a medium for action and suspense, The Limits of Control suggests cinema instead as a meditative tool, a means of contemplating and exercising our facility to affect the shape of reality.
Arrow’s Blu-ray presents a crisp and detailed image that preserves the vibrancy of the film’s Spanish settings to a greater extent than the previous DVD released by Universal. The saturation and range of the color constitutes an important facet of the film’s sense of atmosphere, as the yellows and oranges of Seville’s narrow streets and open plazas glow in the background of the Lone Man’s strolls and meetings. As the film’s sound mix is rather minimalist, the 5.1 audio track makes itself felt most when dreamy non-diegetic music envelops the channels, as when the Lone Man arrives in Madrid, or when we see Tilton Swinton’s character striding toward their meeting in slow motion.
Arrow has clearly dedicated a lot of effort to this disc’s extras, beginning with the reversible sleeve; you can opt for the cover art pictured above or one redolent of a classic post-noir French film poster. The booklet features an essay by critic Geoff Andrews that mostly focuses on Jarmusch’s work as a whole. Andrews leans a bit too heavily on the notion that Jarmusch is “misunderstood,” but he offers a substantive deconstruction of the filmmaker’s reputation as “the king of cool.” (Andrew’s encyclopedic knowledge of Jarmusch’s work is more effectively on display in the extended interview with him that’s included as a special feature on the disc.) Also included here is a feature-length documentary about the film, Behind Jim Jarmusch, that includes footage from the set, as well as conversations with Jarmusch about how he approaches directing actors and finding a story while shooting. Most helpful in providing a conceptual gateway into The Limits of Control, though, is the fantastic video essay by Amy Simmons, “The Rituals of Control,” which analyzes the film as a statement on the opposition of “aesthetic democracy” and “globalized capitalism.” Finally, the features are rounded out by an archival collection of location-scouting footage and the film’s trailer.
Obscure but unpretentious, Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control pulls an intriguing fake out, deploying conventions of the existential hit-man story to lead the viewer to a contemplation of the relation between cinematic image and reality. It’s a film that, as Arrow’s excellent assemblage of features proves, is rewarded by post-viewing conversation.
Cast: Isaach de Bankolé, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Gael Garcia Bernal, Bill Murray, Paz de la Huerta, Luis Tosar, Yuki Kudo Director: Jim Jarmusch Screenwriter: Jim Jarmusch Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 116 min Rating: R Year: 2009 Release Date: December 10, 2019 Buy: Video
Review: Spike Lee’s Clockers on KL Studio Classics Blu-ray
It marks a specific convergence in Lee’s career, when his confidence as a filmmaker aligned with the boldness of his flourishes.3.5
The Gowanus Houses, a public housing project in the heart of Boerum Hill, hasn’t changed much since Spike Lee filmed Clockers there a quarter century ago. In a borough of Brooklyn that’s been blasted wide open and transformed by gentrification and billions upon billions of dollars in development capital, the land and buildings within the NYC Housing Authority’s purview tend to remain, inexplicably perhaps, frozen in time. Still, it’s hard not to notice the glaring contrasts between the Gowanus Houses and some newer bulwarks, like the Barclays Center, the Red Hook IKEA, or the impenetrable and unobtainable houses occupied by the swells of nearby Cobble Hill and Brooklyn Heights. These monuments, and more, symbolize the city’s indefatigable efforts to eradicate “the ghetto,” as well as everyone living there, from a vision of the future that bears no scars but, paradoxically, requires regular blood sacrifices to expedite the progress of empire.
In the film, after crossing the artery of Flatbush Avenue, patrol cars and homicide detectives from the 88th Precinct on Classon Avenue regularly rain down on the Gowanus Houses like Luftwaffe bombers over London. We first see them harassing courtyard dealers known as “clockers.” Clumsy and naïve plainclothes narcotics police and uniformed patrolmen harangue them using brusque and ineffectual methods, shouting things like “Tell us where the drugs are!” and “I know you’re carrying!” It isn’t long before you notice that shaking these kids down for their concealed supply is just a pretext, whereas the cruelty—the forced strip searches, the dehumanizing language, the fondling of genitals—is the point.
Lee establishes this pressure-cooker milieu in a handful of brisk minutes that conceal a highly nuanced, ambivalent attitude toward the clockers. Before he does so, the film’s title sequence—a collage of crime scene photographs (recreations, it turns out) of murdered black people scored to R&B singer Marc Dorsey’s “People in Search of Life”—establishes a grave context that will envelop everything that follows. What matters, above all, beyond deeds sordid or noble, is that the black bodies in those photos, which had been alive only a moment before, were desecrated, and it makes precious little difference why, or by whom.
It’s through this prologue that Lee establishes his authority over Richard Price’s material (the film is based on his 1992 novel, which he and Lee adapted for the screen). One of our great crime fiction writers, Price is rightly celebrated for his command of geographic detail and street talk (especially when it comes to his police characters). He supplies Clockers with its whodunnit/why-dunnit foundation, but the structure built on top of it is Lee’s own. What emerges is a slice of life beset by a rising sea of lethal hazards and an assortment of stressors that can lay siege to an unlucky individual all at once, like a symphony in hell.
Strike (Mekhi Phifer) just happens to be that individual. Afflicted, like a Paul Schrader protagonist, with a stress-induced bleeding ulcer that he nurses with chocolate milk, Strike is the jagged cipher at the center of Clockers, irredeemable in the eyes of several of the story’s moral arbiters. Yet, compared to the likes of neighborhood kingpin Rodney Little (Delroy Lindo) and the killer Errol Barnes (Lee staple Thomas Jefferson Byrd), the latter disintegrating from AIDS, Strike is just a babe in the woods.
Early in the film, Little orders Strike to carry out a hit on a rival, a big-talking operator, Darryl Adams (comedian Steve White), who’s clocking from within a popular restaurant called Ahab’s. The hit, like the murder at the center of Price’s 2008 novel Lush Life, is rendered in ellipsis, leaving the characters, and us, to process clues and circumstances after the fact, and at a considerable disadvantage. Strike’s brother, the more accomplished and straight-edged yet equally troubled Victor (Isaiah Washington), confesses to the murder, but lead detective Rocco (Harvey Keitel) suspects there’s a lot more going on than he’s being told.
Far more than the murder story and what unravels in its wake, Clockers gains its power as an accumulation of pressures and clanging horrors. When a violent incident occurs later in the story, its aftermath flooding the narrative morass with even greater volatility, Lee masterfully delivers a singular, bold centerpiece: Rocco narrating and coaching Shorty’s statement. The sequence, a projection of Shorty’s imagination prompted by Rocco, turns the projects’ courtyard into a theater of exaggerated proportions and angles, with Rocco in the driver’s seat.
In the novel, this passage begins and ends across a few pages, and there are no stylistic flourishes to speak of, but Lee casts it in a role similar to Radio Raheem’s murder in Do the Right Thing—a cataclysm that releases an enormous amount of built tension and, in the same instance, accelerates and amplifies many of the story’s worst-case scenarios. And, having already shown us the complex architecture of the Gowanus Houses drug trade, with its interlocking machinery of power plays and strenuously managed appearances, an endlessly demoralizing grind that both sides of the law participate in, the sequence takes us on an unexpected detour into a kind of queasy puppet theater, paradoxically revealing the wounded heart that’s been beating underneath everything, all this time.
While Clockers would be Lee’s first real brush with the policier, it hasn’t been the last, so it’s worth pondering how he uses technique and storytelling to convey his conflicting attitudes toward the New York Police Department, and American policing in general. Neither he nor Price pull any punches in depicting cops, of all ranks, as casual, habitual racists, indulging in horrifying language; in the final minutes, we overhear a uniformed beat cop describing the projects as a “self-cleaning oven”—an image not without obvious, and chilling, connotations. In lockstep with his younger partner, Larry Mazilli (John Turturro), Rocco has all the earmarks of the asshole cop: He drinks on duty, spits racial epithets carelessly and cavalierly, and even sets up Strike to get whacked in order to produce a desired effect.
What does Octave say in Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game? “Everyone has their reasons.” And everyone is the hero of their own tale, even asshole cops. Rocco doesn’t pursue a path of compulsive self-destruction like the title character that Keitel played in Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant, a mere three years before this, but if you watch carefully, you’ll see that Clockers uses Strike’s hellbound—and hell on Earth—trajectory to deflect our attention away from details about Rocco’s path that aren’t trumpeted as loudly. Scene by scene, he pivots away from each normal source of motivation as he tries to use brute force and battlefield thinking to push through the mysteries of the case. At first, the Darryl Adams murder is routine. When Victor declares himself as the prime suspect, Rocco can’t accept it, and pivots to pursuing what he thinks is the real truth, against the express wishes of his precinct, and his peers, who think he’s out of his mind for choosing not to throw the book at Victor. Is he pursuing truth at any cost? Truth, as a principle, goes right out of the window when Shorty kills Errol, and Rocco (at the behest of NYCHA cop André, played by Keith David) feeds Shorty the best possible statement, with only an incidental relationship to the facts.
You could hypothesize that truth is tricky, grimy, complicated, and that Rocco isn’t so much a bringer of truth as an agent of justice, even as it displeases his superiors and perplexes his partner. What he does for Shorty, and, by association, the deceased Errol, qualifies as a kind of frontier justice, dispensed under the table and off the books. Nevertheless, justice in the Darryl Adams case eludes Rocco as the case simply collapses under the weight of an 11th-hour revelation delivered by Strike and Victor’s mother. Still, Rocco persists, but toward what? He delivers Strike to Penn Station, releasing him into the wilds beyond the Hudson River. No wisdom or reason can explain why Rocco made this call—not routine, not truth, not justice. As a long-term plan, it doesn’t even withstand a few minutes of scrutiny. Yet it seems to the viewer, and all parties involved, except the men who want Strike dead, that the problem of Strike has no tenable solution, though this is the one comes the closest.
It cannot be known, except to himself, what compels someone like Rocco. He might describe it as a grain of righteousness that never altogether dissolves, even as it flows along conflicting rivers. At the end of the road, as the two men sit in Rocco’s car, next to the entrance to Penn Station, Strike asks Rocco, “What made you give a shit?” It’s the one pointed question that’s directed at Rocco throughout the film, the one question that requires an inward gaze, but he declines to answer, instead telling Strike that if he ever sees him again, he’ll bust him on trumped-up charges. During quieter moments, Clockers shows Strike enjoying moments of stolen quiet, taking solace in his model train set. It’s in these moments that we glimpse his inner life. But what does a guy like Rocco see when he looks inward? That grain of righteousness? Or just a void in the shape of another dead body on the sidewalk?
Clockers marks a specific convergence in Spike Lee’s career, when his confidence as a filmmaker aligned with the boldness of his flourishes. Perhaps emboldened by Oliver Stone’s JFK, he and cinematographer Malik Hassan Sayeed indulge in mixing up film stocks and F-stops to produce just the right visual cacophony to convey the hellworld that is Strike’s adventures in sewing and reaping. This Blu-ray edition preserves the film’s tricky aesthetic—a summary effect of Klieg lights and flashbulbs providing unreliable illumination of black flesh, while the rippling humidity of daytime supplies no real comfort. Of the two included audio tracks, I preferred the 2.0 stereo, for its richness and depth, to the 5.1 surround, but your mileage may vary depending on your setup.
Kino is making a big push to get several Spike Lee joints on Blu-ray, so it’s hard to criticize them for not releasing deluxe editions. Alongside a set of trailers for other recent Kino Studio Classics releases sits an indispensable audio commentary by Vanity Fair’s K. Austin Collins, easily one of the brightest and most erudite film critics we have. Collins builds on his personal relationship with Lee’s films, Clockers in particular, and produces a considerable amount of revealing details and contexts that enrich the viewing experience.
As Clockers is one of the best filmed-on-location New York crime movies, its absence on Blu-ray has long been a glaring oversight, which Kino now makes right.
Cast: Harvey Keitel, John Turturro, Delroy Lindo, Mekhi Phifer, Isaiah Washington, Keith David, Peewee Love, Regina Taylor, Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Sticky Fingaz, Fredro Starr, Elvis Nolasco, Lawrence B. Adisa, Hassan Johnson, Frances Foster, Michael Imperioli Director: Spike Lee Screenwriter: Richard Price, Spike Lee Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 128 min Rating: R Year: 1995 Release Date: February 4, 2020 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
Review: Robert Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid on KL Studio Classics Blu-ray
Aldrich’s underrated, challenging, and brutally violent 1972 western has been outfitted with a superb audio commentary.3.5
American westerns are often critically defined by how they complement our politics, by whether they rue or celebrate the imperialism at the heart of the country’s formation. Broadly speaking, conservative westerns celebrate manifest destiny, while liberal westerns are concerned with atrocities that serve as an American original sin that would continue with other manifestations of slavery and warmongering. With Ulzana’s Raid, director Robert Aldrich and screenwriter Alan Sharp took a different and highly disturbing tack, concentrating less on speechifying than on the nuts-and-bolts particulars of a battle between white and Apache war parties. This is a film concerned with moral relativism, with the essential alien divide between two cultures. Mr. McIntosh (Burt Lancaster), a white tracker who’s married to an Apache woman (Aimee Ecclés) and who has a history with her people, understands that divide, while young Lt. Garnett DeBuin (Bruce Davison) does not, as he shoehorns everything he experiences into the framework of his Christianity.
Set in 1880s Arizona, Aldrich’s 1972 film opens at night in the San Carlos Indian Reservation, where an Apache warrior named Ulzana (Joaquin Martinez) has escaped with a war party. This news travels to Fort Lowell, where the U.S. military understands Ulzana to be a threat who will rape and kill his away across the land, targeting white homesteaders. DeBuin is ordered to track Ulzana down, and it’s a task that he greets with enthusiasm, though his superior memorably informs him that he hasn’t been handed a present. Aided by Mr. McIntosh and an Apache named Ke-Ni-Tay (Jorge Luke), and accompanied by a group of soldiers who inevitably resent the lieutenant’s inexperience, DeBuin sets course across the punishing Arizona desert to find Ulzana’s party. DeBuin is ripe, of course, for lessons in the reality of the theater of war, particularly of the will and power of men he doesn’t fathom.
These characters are types that are familiar to various genres, especially the western, adventure, and action film—all of which are closely linked anyway, sometimes only distinguished from one another by setting. McIntosh and DeBuin settle into a master-and-student routine, though Aldrich and Sharp are more interested in the tactile details of battle than fortune-cookie sentiments. Much of Ulzana’s Raid suggests an elaborate game of ultraviolent chess, with discussions and executions of schemes involving the use of horses, doubling back, and strategically separating parties to baffle and misdirect the enemy—actions which Aldrich stages with masterful swiftness and clarity.
Debuin and McIntosh emerge as real human beings among these complications, and Ulzana isn’t rendered a stereotype for the sake of landing either right- or left-wing talking points. The Apache is clearly a brilliant leader, who outsmarts DeBuin at every turn and occasionally even bests McIntosh. Ulzana and his men are also merciless, as Aldrich lingers uncomfortably on their brutal treatment of homesteaders, especially when a few of the Apache cut the heart out of a white man and toss it around joyously like a hot potato. Later, Ulzana leaves a raped and beaten white woman, Mrs. Riordan (Dran Hamilton), alive for DeBuin and his soldiers to discover, so as to force them to reroute their party, which leads to a wrenching massacre.
The film’s moral compass resides in its refusal to offer one, and the narrative routinely confounds audience expectation. DeBuin is incredulous at the Apaches’ viciousness, which stems from his obviousness to his complicity in the European invasion and theft of Ulzana’s land. Ulzana responds in turn, and DeBuin’s failure to understand this fact reduces him to a fool. He tries to attach Christian pageantry to events that stem from the madness of war—attempts at gallantry that feel almost as obscene in this context as Ulzana’s violence.
When Ulzana is eventually killed, tellingly by Ke-Ni-Tay, DeBuin insists on a Christian burial. As a way of diluting this inadvertent violation of his own culture, Ke-Ni-Tay buries Ulzana himself. McIntosh, dying as a result of DeBuin’s incompetency, also refutes him by refusing a white man’s burial, preferring to expire as a man of the land he currently inhabits—the Apaches’ land. These plot turns, especially the casual acceptance of Ulzana as an astonishing and pragmatic tactician, still feel radically matter of fact. For a more conservative western, Ulzana might be a savage and DeBuin might prove himself in battle; in a more liberal variation on these themes, Ulzana might be a simpler object of pity and DeBuin a cardboard monster.
The film’s weary, empathetic, discreetly heartbroken worldview is embodied by Lancaster in one of his greatest performances. In Ulzana’s Raid and many other films, including several others for Aldrich, Lancaster offered the best of both worlds: machismo laced with sensitivity. McIntosh isn’t quite a traditional stud sage, but a man of pronounced sadness who’s come to know the savagery of humankind, a species whose capacity for monstrousness cannot be laundered by pretenses of religion, or by the faux-decency of message movies. Lancaster invests McIntosh with a haunting thoughtfulness, an authority of movement, a guarded stride, that’s achieved from the humbling terror of atrocity.
This image could use a remastering. Blacks lack definition, most notably during nighttime sequences, and landscapes lack clarity, particularly in the backgrounds and even occasionally in the foregrounds. Close-ups are well-rendered, however, especially in terms of facial details. The 5.1 DTS-HD audio mix is far sturdier, offering an immersive soundstage that particularly stands out during the prolonged massacre that serves as the film’s climax. Gunshots are truly rattling here, as are the stomping of the horses and the collapse of expiring bodies. In other words, this presentation is a mixed bag, watchable but far from definitive.
The audio commentary by film critic Nick Pinkerton offers a deep dive into the careers of all the principle people who worked on Ulzana’s Raid, including director Robert Aldrich, screenwriter Alan Sharp, actors Burt Lancaster, Bruce Davison, and much of the rest of the cast. Pinkerton is especially evocative when discussing Aldrich’s still somewhat underrated career, and while examining the under-acknowledged ambiguity of the American western, which is too often vilified as simply imperialist. There are also discussions of John Ford and of Lancaster and Aldrich’s tempestuous partnership, which included Lancaster’s reediting of Ulzana’s Raid for European audiences. This commentary, a must-listen for fans of the film and for cinephiles in general, is the highlight of the supplements package, which also includes an interview with Davison and an archive “Trailers from Hell” segment featuring John Landis.
Robert Aldrich’s underrated, challenging, and brutally violent 1972 western has been outfitted by Kino with an imperfect transfer and a superb audio commentary.
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Bruce Davison, Jorge Luke, Richard Jaeckel, Joaquin Martinez, Lloyd Bochner, Karl Swenson, Douglass Watson, Dran Hamilton, Aimee Ecclés Director: Robert Aldrich Screenwriter: Alan Sharp Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 103 min Rating: R Year: 1972 Release Date: January 21, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built on Shout! Factory Blu-ray
This Blu-ray should help boost the film to its rightful place among the upper tier of von Trier’s body of work.4
The way one responds to others’ behaviors, to institutions, to works of art, and to fame tends to be dictated by far deeper, more complex, and knotted influences than just those of reason and morality. For Lars von Trier, one of the motivating forces behind his work is a certain fascination, if not fixation, with the depths of human suffering. This can be traced all the way back to the juvenile violence of the short films he made as a pre-teen, and to the works of science fiction and horror—and films about the emptiness of faith—that he made in the 1980s and early ‘90s. But the true realization of the Danish director’s powers came in the form of three great, and particularly extreme, works released across two decades: 1996’s Breaking the Waves, 2004’s Dogville, and 2013’s Nymphomaniac.
These films are disturbing and, inarguably, morally compromised, but they distinguish themselves from von Trier’s others in the care they take to understand, feel, and process the weight of their violence; it’s their psychological density, and their emotional veracity, that makes them difficult to dismiss as mere provocations. Which isn’t to say they should be immune to criticism of their conceptions: Von Trier’s motives, the source of his fascination, and in particular the degree of consistency to which he’s chosen women as the subject of his films’ punishments have prompted important conversations that have been worth having and will continue to be. But it also doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest, at least on evidence of The House That Jack Built, that von Trier might encourage these conversations.
Built into the multi-leveled architecture of what already feels like von Trier’s greatest film to date is a relentlessly probing self-critique. The House That Jack Built resembles, at its foundation, various other predation and victimization narratives from throughout von Trier’s filmography, stringing together vignette-like “incidents”—five in all—that depict brutal murders committed by Jack (Matt Dillon), an OCD-afflicted psychopath. But embedded within the recognizable dramaturgy of von Trier’s formally accomplished serial-killer film is the frame of an essay—an enthralling discourse on art and violence conducted through dialectical narrators and dizzying montages that smash together Glenn Gould’s music, William Blake’s poetry, fermenting grapes, Nazi concentration camps, and clips from von Trier’s other films.
For some, the ideas that govern these essay sections may be even harder to stomach than the grotesqueries of the film’s violent set pieces. Given that Jack’s narration includes such lines as “Don’t look at the acts, look at the works,” it’s inevitable that such glibness will be interpreted as the director’s own philosophical worldview. And while that interpretation isn’t entirely wrong, to say that The House That Jack Built represents von Trier’s refusal of culpability for his behavior or that he makes no apologies for his art seems overly simplistic.
Jack does seem to represent some part of von Trier, and the director’s earnest engagement with the character’s compulsion toward violence leads to implicit, deeply disturbing parallels: Jack kills and maims women, while von Trier kills and maims women on screen. But von Trier is just as much represented in The House That Jack Built by the mysterious figure of Verge (Bruno Ganz), who acts simultaneously as a kind of therapist and debate partner, offering guidance to Jack and admonishing him for his arrogance, his misogyny, and his very “convenient” excuses. Verge is no straw man, as he frequently gets the last word. Through him, von Trier allows himself to openly grapple with his hubris and pride.
At the same time, though, the film isn’t self-negating, as it’s committed to what’s framed in one essay section as “the noble rot.” Von Trier finds a certain beauty in the recognition and exhibition of our basest capacities—and to that end, the five individual incidents in the film that depict Jack’s violence, though certainly not the most gruesome or gory of all von Trier sequences, are sadistic, cruel, and graphic. But it isn’t necessarily the acts of violence themselves that are most disturbing so much as the moments that occur prior.
An example of this is the incident in which Jack murders the young woman he calls “Simple” (Riley Keough). It’s indicated that the two have been seeing each other for a while when Jack decides, one night in her apartment, to subject Simple to psychological torment and physical mutilation. The scene is punishingly prolonged, depicting Jack repeatedly degrading and insulting Simple, only to win back her sympathies by playing on her insecurities with carefully deployed acts of emotional manipulation. Throughout, Von Trier trains his camera on Simple, and on the dawning realization of her fear, pain, and hopelessness. The effect is absolutely devastating, and in a way that violence depicted on film rarely is. It’s also further proof of von Trier’s distance from Jack, a character defined by an incapacity for empathy.
After all, it isn’t so much Jack’s philosophies on violence that make him a von Trier surrogate, but rather his regard for art as unbound expression. But even that idea is trickier than the vaguely alt-right connotation it portends: “Unbound” doesn’t mean “without consequence,” and the film’s last third is largely about disappointment and failure. This opens up a gaping chasm of self-doubt big enough for anyone to fall in, and so The House That Jack Built becomes an even broader consideration of individual fascinations and follies, of ways of responding to art without the boundaries of morality and reason.
This leads, unsurprisingly, to a particularly bleak place, and has even caused some viewers to voice concern over what von Trier may be trying to say about his own path forward as a filmmaker. But only von Trier knows whether the tossed-off suggestion of “Perhaps another one?” that Verge entreats Jack with near the end of the film should be taken literally, or if the defeatism in The House That Jack Built is meant to signify that this really is the last time at bat for the filmmaker. It’s certainly true that von Trier’s invocations of despair, though, have found beauty in the act of its transcendence before.
Manuel Alberto Caro’s stark cinematography retains all of its hyper-sharp detail on Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray. The muted color palette is immaculately rendered throughout, as are facial textures across the film’s many close-ups. The transfer displays the clearest of details even in the background of the deep-focus shots, and nighttime scenes show a nice range of black levels. The front-heavy soundtrack is as sturdy as the image, boasting clean dialogue and clear distribution of sounds. The film’s copious silences also make it easy to appreciate how elegantly the soundtrack mixes even the softest of ambient effects.
This disc comes with the theatrical and director’s cuts of The House That Jack Built, though the only difference between the two is that the latter includes more explicit imagery that was trimmed from the final cut so that the film could receive an MPAA rating. Von Trier reliably proves to be an alternately cagey and open subject in an interview conducted on the occasion of his receiving Denmark’s prestigious Sonning Prize. He makes deadpan jokes but also speaks frankly about his vision and working methods. Also included is a series of teasers and trailers.
This excellent Blu-ray should help boost this satirical, auto-critical epic to its rightful place among the upper tier of Lars von Trier’s body of work.
Cast: Matt Dillon, Bruno Ganz, Uma Thurman, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Sofie Gråbøl, Riley Keough, Jeremy Davies, Ed Speleers, David Bailie, Yu Ji-tae Director: Lars von Trier Screenwriter: Lars von Trier Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 155 min Rating: NR Year: 2018 Release Date: February 4, 2020 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe on the Criterion Collection
The beautiful transfer and thoughtful collection of extras attest to the enduring qualities of Lumet’s doomsday thriller.4
Given the extreme narrative similarities it shares with Dr. Strangelove, Sidney Lumet’s 1964 thriller Fail-Safe seems destined to live in the shadow of Stanley Kubrick’s canonical black comedy. Not only do their source materials bear a great resemblance to each other—indeed, Peter George, the author of Red Alert, sued the authors of Fail-Safe for plagiarism and eventually settled out of court—but they were also released the same year. Despite both Kubrick and Lumet’s worries that the other director’s film would be detrimental to the effectiveness of their own, the two works are surprisingly complementary yin-yang partners for the way they approach their shared subject matter: an impending nuclear doomsday and the manner in which those in positions of great power handle a situation of unimaginable horror.
Both films involve a U.S. military aircraft surreptitiously carrying nuclear weapons across the Soviet border, but while Dr. Strangelove approaches the material with cheeky abandon, Fail-Safe is relentlessly straight-laced. Aside from their disparate tones, a crucial distinction between the two films is where each one places the blame for the world being brought to the brink of annihilation. Kubrick excoriates human nature itself, particularly as it operates under the guise of leadership and global influence, suggesting that our pettiness and hunger for power will inevitably lead to our demise. Conversely, Lumet never quite grapples with the irony that those who bring us closest to destruction will likely also be the ones we need to save us. He shows a deep respect, even reverence, for those in power, locating the fatal flaw in mankind’s excessive trust in machines rather than the innately corrosive effects of power.
From the coolheaded guilelessness of the unnamed president of the United States (Henry Fonda) during telephonic negotiations with the Soviet premier to the anti-war stances of General Black (Dan O’Herlihy), Fail-Safe’s vision of political and military leaders unwavering in their dignity and compassion feels antiquated in ways that Dr. Strangelove’s never does. While some of Lumet’s portraits of powerful people veer toward idolatry, he takes great care to counter these individuals both with war-hungry Pentagon hawks—most notably the terrifying pro-nuclear military strategist Dr. Groeteschele (Walter Matthau), modeled after the notorious Cold War era reactionary Herman Kahn—and a fully integrated institutional apparatus of war that’s already too expansive and intricate to be controlled or restrained by a single man.
When the Soviet premier suggests that no one’s to blame for the mechanical failure that led to this doomsday standoff, the president replies that it’s both of their faults because they “let our machines get out of hand.” Unlike Kubrick, who portrays mankind as a very willing, even enthusiastic, participant in its annihilation, Lumet pins the blame on a removal of humanity from critical decision-making, pleading for a rollback on our overreliance on autonomous technology to make and communicate decisions being the necessary corrective.
Fail-Safe’s underlying reverence for those in power, however, does actually serve to amplify the tragedy of the events depicted in its final act, while Lumet’s moral clarity in his repudiation of nuclear armament is admirable in its forthrightness. There’s also an exacting precision in the film’s editing, its stark, minimalist compositions, and its frequent use of silence (there’s no score to be heard), which lends Fail-Safe a relentless white-knuckle tension, not only in its depiction of the military events that unfold, but in the philosophical battles that play out in rooms full of men who are quite literally shaping, or perhaps destroying, mankind.
Lumet’s depiction of that bureaucratic maneuvering carefully navigates the thin line between stockpiling nuclear weapons and being inextricably drawn into nuclear war. In doing so, he presents a discordant chorus of conflicting voices from all ideological corners during the atomic age. Despite lacking the satiric bite of Dr. Strangelove, Fail-Safe still offers a chilling reminder of how quickly poisonous rhetoric can lead to irrevocable harm.
Criterion’s transfer of a new 4K restoration beautifully captures the starkness of Fail-Safe’s spare visual scheme. It’s a film full of tense, often dialogue-free close-ups, and every crease on the actors’ foreheads or bead of sweat running down their faces is rendered with a startling precision. The image contrast is also incredibly strong, with a remarkable dynamic range that displays myriad shades of grey and deep, inky black in the pools of shadows found in many of the shots. While the film has no score, the uncompressed monaural audio presents mostly clean dialogue, with only a handful of lines sounding just a tad muffled.
In this disc’s only new extra, critic and author J. Hoberman provides ample historical context for Fail-Safe, discussing the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the doomsday scenarios that gripped the public’s imagination and that the State Department planned for in the early ‘60s. He stresses not only the authenticity of the film’s portrayal of heightened Cold War tensions, but also its influence on the Johnson-Goldwater presidential contest in 1964.
In his commentary track, recorded in 2000, Sidney Lumet also covers a wide range of topics, going into great detail about the political climate within which the film was released, as well as the U.S. Department of Defense’s complete lack of cooperation in helping the filmmakers attain stock footage for any of the flight scenes. He addresses the elephant in the room—Kubrick’s lawsuit to stop the production of Fail-Safe—and delves into the importance of having satirical and dramatic approaches to extremely similar source materials.
The final disc extra, a short documentary titled “Fail Safe Revisited,” doesn’t touch upon much that’s not covered in the other supplemental materials, but if you’re wondering why George Clooney loves Lumet’s film, tune into this one first. The package is rounded out with an essay by film critic Bilge Ebiri, who vibrantly writes of the effectiveness of Lumet’s humanistic realism in grounding a film about impending global catastrophe.
Criterion’s beautiful transfer and modest yet thoughtful collection of extras attest to the enduring qualities of Sidney Lumet’s doomsday thriller.
Cast: Dan O’Herlihy, Walter Matthau, Frank Overton, Edward Binns, Fritz Weaver, Henry Fonda, Larry Hagman, William Hansen, Russell Hardie, Russell Collins, Sorrell Booke Director: Sidney Lumet Screenwriter: Walter Bernstein Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 112 min Rating: NR Year: 1964 Release Date: January 28, 2020 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Anthony Mann’s The Far Country Joins the Arrow Academy
Mann goes northward and skewers the myth of western pioneering in The Far Country.3.5
Anthony Mann’s 1955 Technicolor western The Far Country sees the great expanse of the Alaskan frontier as a confining tangle of mountains and rivers where the few survivable traverses all lead to the same measly outposts of civilization. Deeply suspicious of the myth of great pioneers taming wild land, the film finds Jeff Webster, an opportunistic adventurer played by James Stewart, hauling his plentiful Wyoming cattle up to the Canadian-American border only to see his get-rich-quick scheme thwarted at every turn by corrupt lawmen, malicious competitors, and various other mountainfolk who want to benefit in some way from the man’s bounty. But The Far Country isn’t a cynical film, as the ways in which it erects obstacles to its hero’s ambition have less to do with damning him to hubristic failure than to guiding him toward a more altruistic consciousness.
The westerns that Mann made with Stewart throughout the 1950s are well known for rubbing the luster from the movie star’s image. Even so, The Far Country is especially strident in exposing Stewart’s knack for playing callous types, at one point showing Jeff dangling the promise of meat in front of the needy community of Dawson City if only to swiftly, remorselessly redirect the provisions to a higher bidder. Intimations of Jeff’s combative edge are evident from the first scene, when, at a Seattle port, he’s forced to pay off a pair of cattle drivers who clearly want him dead for some unstated infraction from the trip, clarified moments later when the men cry out that there’s a murderer on board. Dodging authorities, Jeff finds his way to Skagway, immediately running afoul of the town sheriff, Gannon (John McIntire), who will be the thorn in his side through the remainder of his quest.
Jeff’s only friend is Ben Tatum, the kind of selfless, trusty old sidekick that only Walter Brennan could play. In The Far Country, the relationship between Jeff and Ben goes beyond platonic collaboration and touches on a veiled romanticism that’s unmistakable from their first exchange, when they compliment each others’ appearances and Jeff lovingly inserts a phallic pipe into Ben’s mouth. Throughout their northward adventure, as Jeff coolly rebuffs the advances of both a stylish Skagway heiress, Ronda (Ruth Roman), and a more tomboyish hanger-on, Renee (Corinne Calvet), Jeff and Ben’s one-on-ones act as tender refrains in a film otherwise dominated by brute one-upmanship and cold ambition. The pair share dreams of overseeing an idyllic Utah ranch when they strike it big, a fantasy of withdrawal that accounts for no further social life (and certainly no women).
Much as Mann embraces the warmth of the Jeff-Ben partnership, giving Stewart and Brennan plenty of room to show off their chemistry, Borden Chase’s screenplay ultimately deflates the Utah dream in favor of celebrating the power of community over selfish delusions of grandeur. When Ben’s crew reaches Dawson City, the open expanses of the film’s frames become shrunken by the margins of the town and its many inhabitants, who treat Ben alternately as a liberator and an agitator. The weathered faces of the townsfolks fill what was once majestic Alaskan negative space, and Jeff is left with a choice between amoral individualism and participation in society, an internal battle finally made physical in a shootout staged, in a neat directorial embellishment, underneath the stairs of the town hall. It’s a rousing, nearly hokey conclusion rendered fascinatingly ambivalent by Stewart’s pained parting gesture, reaching vainly for a totem of his departed Ben as the survivors surround him in triumph.
For such an overtly picturesque film, Arrow Video’s transfer here leaves a bit to be desired. Ostensibly generated from “original film elements,” the image lacks the relative sharpness that one today expects from 4K transfers of films from the 1950s, and suffers especially during cross dissolves, where the resolution appears to temporarily downscale. Despite the Technicolor origins, the film’s color palette is muted as well, though it’s hard to say if this is reflective of an issue in digital conversion or in the quality of the surviving source material. Fortunately, the problems in visual clarity don’t carry over to the soundtrack, as there’s a pleasant consistency and balance between dialogue and score.
It’s always a treat to process the close readings of Adrian Martin, one of our finest critics and an Anthony Mann specialist to boot. Martin provides an astute commentary here, which stands as the strongest extra on a disc that also gives us a pedestrian talking-head overview from critic Kim Newman and a slightly longer documentary on Mann’s tenure at Universal. Like the liner notes by Philip Kemp, the latter offers compelling context about Mann’s career, but it’s Martin’s assessment of the director’s evolving use of landscape and compositional space throughout the film that really shines.
Anthony Mann goes northward and skewers the myth of western pioneering in The Far Country, now out in an underwhelming package from Arrow Academy.
Cast: James Stewart, Ruth Roman, Walter Brennan, John McIntire, Corinne Calvet, Jay C. Flippen, Harry Morgan, Steve Brodie, Connie Gilchrist, Robert J. Wilke, Chubby Johnson, Royal Dano Director: Anthony Mann Screenwriter: Borden Chase Distributor: Arrow Academy Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 1954 Release Date: November 12, 2019 Buy: Video
Review: Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother on Criterion Blu-ray
This resplendent Blu-ray testifies to the sumptuous beauty and thematic complexity of Almodóvar’s masterpiece.4.5
Pedro Almodóvar’s intimate and frank All About My Mother remains one of the Spanish auteur’s most affecting films. It begins by establishing the loving relationship, at once friendly and maternal, that an Argentine nurse, Manuela (Cecilia Roth), has with her teenage son, Esteban (Eloy Azorín). Given Almodóvar’s emotionally complicated, frequently parodic depictions of motherhood, Manuela’s shows of tenderness and affability are striking for their quaintness. Only the occasional scene of Manuela overseeing organ transplants at a Madrid hospital is palpable with any sense of disquiet, less for the nature of her work than the curiously drained expression on her face as she partakes in medical procedures. But as soon as we realize that these scenes are presented out of chronological order, the real source of her depletion at work becomes clear: that a heart she’s clearing for transplant is her son’s.
Broken by the experience of Esteban’s death, Manuela sets off to Barcelona to find the boy’s father, revealed to be Lola (Toni Cantó), a trans woman whose identity Manuela hid from their son. Manuela’s quest also brings her into contact with a number of people in Lola’s orbit: Rosa (Penélope Cruz), an HIV-positive nun who’s carrying Lola’s child; Agrado (Antonia San Juan), a trans sex worker and old friend of Manuela’s; and Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes), the actress whose autograph Esteban was chasing when he was struck by a car.
Adrift without her son, Manuela gradually forms bonds with these women. Manuela and Huma end up joining forces to track down Nina (Candela Peña), a drug addict who’s co-starring with the actress in a production of A Streetcar Named Desire, and the women form an instant rapport as mother figures searching for a lost child. Similarly, Manuela feels protective toward Agrado, with whom she reunites by stopping a man from sexually assaulting her.
Almodóvar, though, doesn’t reduce these women to motherly types, as Manuela and Huma both broach their sexual frustrations with the other women, sometimes with shocking frankness. In a scene where Agrado speaks crudely about oral sex, for example, Huma initially sits with a look of Victorian prudishness on her face before turning wistful as she thinks about how long it’s been since she’s performed the act. And then there are the moments in which the younger characters are forced to confront the tragedies that have gripped their own lives, most memorably in a scene where Rosa visits her Alzheimer’s-stricken father (Fernando Fernán Gómez) and suffers the heartbreak of the man’s dog recognizing her while he doesn’t.
Social mores have shifted significantly in the two decades since this Oscar-winning film’s release, but it’s impressive how flagrantly transgressive All About My Mother remains. The trans characters deal with gender dysphoria while also speaking defiantly about their bodies, as in Agrado saying of her clients that they prefer her and other trans sex workers to be “pneumatic and well-hung.” Later, Agrado performs an impromptu one-woman show to make up for a canceled performance by Huma’s acting troupe, describing all of her surgeries in hilariously graphic detail to an increasingly enraptured audience.
Even at its wildest, though, this is one of Almodóvar’s most tender and empathetic films. Buried within its characters’ forthright vulgarity is an invigorating pride, a refusal to succumb to the wearying effects of social ostracization and autoimmune disease. Rejected by blood relatives, the characters forge new families and communities with other outcasts. As floridly colored and brightly lit as any of his other films, All About My Mother is Almodóvar’s most loving tribute to women and an elegy for their ability to endure hardship.
The film’s vivid colors are perfectly rendered on the Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray. The omnipresent ruby reds and emerald greens of Affonso Beato’s color palette pop more than ever, and the overlit interiors sparkle and shine intensely. Compared to previous home-video releases of the film, image clarity has received a sizable boost, resulting in greater stability, more visible color gradations, and no image artifacts in darker shots. The 5.1 audio is immersive, fluidly mixing sound across all channels while retaining clear separation between elements even during the loudest swells of Alberto Iglesias’s score.
A 1999 short documentary consists of interviews with Almodóvar and his mother, Francisca, about his upbringing and her influence on his art, and includes footage of the family’s private life and the two discussing their odd but loving relationship. An hour-long documentary from 2012 covers the making of the film and includes retrospective interviews with the director, his brother and producer, Agustin, and members of the cast. There’s also footage from a 2019 Q&A conducted at a 20th-anniversary screening in Madrid, during which the cast and crew discuss their memories of the film and how it fits within Almodóvar’s body of work. An accompanying booklet contains an essay by film professor Emma Wilson that explicates All About My Mother’s themes of displaced motherhood, as well as an interview conducted at the time of the film’s release, and a written tribute to Almodóvar’s mother written by the director shortly after the film’s premiere and the woman’s death.
The stunning A/V transfer and in-depth extras on this resplendent Blu-ray testify to the sumptuous beauty and thematic complexity of Pedro Almodóvar’s masterpiece.
Cast: Cecilia Roth, Marisa Paredes, Antonia San Juan, Penélope Cruz, Candela Peña, Toni Cantó, Eloy Azorín Director: Pedro Almodóvar Screenwriter: Pedro Almodóvar Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 101 min Rating: R Year: 1963 Release Date: January 28, 2020 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: José Ramón Larraz’s Edge of the Axe on Arrow Video
Unavailable on home video since the VHS era, Edge of the Axe gets a finely honed Blu-ray presentation from Arrow Video.4
By the late 1980s, the seemingly endless proliferation of slasher films that had been inaugurated a decade earlier with the success of John Carpenter’s Halloween was experiencing a sort of doldrums, with most new titles entering the market as direct-to-video releases. Some of these were even shot on videotape, often resulting in a crapulent, low-resolution aesthetic approach. But such was not the case with Edge of the Axe, a Spanish-American coproduction that does its darnedest to emulate the look and feel of prior American entries in the slasher subgenre. The film’s moody, frequently color-drenched cinematography, courtesy of Tote Trenas, is one of its biggest draws.
It almost comes as a surprise that Edge of the Axe was directed by José Ramón Larraz, a master of Spanish horror whose ‘70s films, like Vampyres and Symptoms, tended to feature acts of startling sexuality and violence set against the idyllic backdrop of the British countryside. Adopting the Anglicized pseudonym Joseph Braunstein for Edge of the Axe, Larraz rarely indulges his more flamboyant impulses, which can be traced back to his early training as a comic strip artist. The most notable exception would be a scene set during a funeral that’s shot with a wide-angle fisheye lens, grotesquely bending and bulging the mourners’ physiognomies, which lends an aura of disorientation and uncertainty to the proceedings.
Reclusive computer nerd Gerald (Barton Faulks) lives in an octagonal cabin in the woods somewhere near Big Bear, California. Sometimes he helps out his best bud, Richard (Page Moseley), with his job as an exterminator. On one of these calls, they discover the hideously mutilated body of a barmaid crammed in the attic of her workplace, a death the authorities soon somewhat inexplicably decree to have been a suicide. In truth, it was the work of a blank-face-masked, axe-wielding maniac who will go on to accrue a respectably high body count for a slasher film antagonist. Blissfully ignorant of this fact for the time being,
Gerald meets cute with Lillian (Christina Marie Lane), the daughter of a local innkeeper who’s helping out around the place while she’s home from college.
Opening with a stunning murder set piece in an automatic carwash, Edge of the Axe doesn’t stint on the red stuff. The carnage on display in this and other set pieces isn’t graphic so much as it is brutally unrelenting. A lot of this has to do with the work of prop and makeup guru Colin Arthur, who created the fake axe used in the film, which allowed for shooting unbroken sequences where it crashes repeatedly into its victims without the necessity for the usual cutaways and inserts used in most horror films. What’s more, these set pieces are stylishly executed, with an eye for vibrant primary colors and evocatively diffused lighting. The film also contains some truly odd flourishes, like the sight of a decapitated pig’s head in a farmer’s bed or blood dripping from the ceiling and slowly filling a bowl of soup to overflowing.
Unlike most slasher films, Edge of the Axe works just as well as a murder mystery, bearing a passing family resemblance to the giallo film. This might to attributable to the participation of producer and co-writer José Frade, who was involved in the distribution of classic early ‘70s giallo titles like Lucio Fulci’s masterwork A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin. Edge of the Axe offers up a rogue’s gallery of perfectly reasonable suspects, including the local priest (innocent here, but often enough the killer in a giallo), unfaithful husband Richard, and local man-about-town Christopher Caplin (Euro-horror stalwart Jack Taylor). In its final act, the film does a commendable job of toggling suspicion between our two leads, Gerald and Lillian, before capping it all off with one terrific twist ending: a haunting final freeze frame strangely reminiscent of the one that concludes Sleepaway Camp.
Arrow presents Edge of the Axe in a 2K scan from the original camera negative. Colors look really vibrant, with appealingly deep saturation of the leafy greens and sanguineous scarlets. Grain levels are mostly well resolved, with just some minor blocking evident in the low-lit scenes, and black levels remain largely uncrushed. Depth and clarity of detail are both consistently maintained. Arrow provides both English and Spanish LPCM mono tracks, though the film was clearly shot in English, with a predominantly American cast, so that’s probably the way to go. The English track sounds clean and clear, with proper emphasis given to the eerie synth score from co-writer and composer Javier Ellioreta.
The bonus materials begin with three fairly brief on-screen interviews: actor Barton Faulks talks about getting his first starring role and his subsequent switch to a career as an acting teacher; actor Page Moseley discusses his early training, getting the role, and shares anecdotes from the location shoot in Spain; and makeup artist Colin Arthur shares some trades secrets, going into his designs for the prop axes, severed fingers, and his design for the blank-faced mask. There are also two commentary tracks. The first features actor Barton Faulks in conversation with one of his drama students, Matt Rosenblatt. It’s a loose, conversational track that dives deep into Faulks’s experience in Spain, his approach to acting in film and theater, and his current thoughts about his work in Edge of the Axe. The second track comes from the slasher-centric podcast collective known as the Hysteria Continues. With four knowledgeable and often amusing participants, there’s hardly a downturn in the conversation, which focuses extensively on the film’s European pedigree, its innumerable links to other American and European slasher films, as well as its place in director José Ramón Larraz’s body of work.
Unavailable on home video since the VHS era, Edge of the Axe gets a finely honed Blu-ray presentation from Arrow Video.
Cast: Barton Faulks, Christina Marie Lane, Page Moseley, Fred Holliday, Patty Shepard, Jack Taylor, Alicia Moro, Joy Blackburn, May Heatherly, Conrado San Martin, Elmer Modling Director: José Ramón Larraz Screenwriter: Joaquín Amichatis, Javier Elorrieta, José Frade, Pablo de Aldebarán Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 91 min Rating: NR Year: 1988 Release Date: January 28, 2020 Buy: Video