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Blu-ray Review: King Hu’s A Touch of Zen on the Criterion Collection

It’s hard to imagine many films being more suited for the Blu-ray format than Hu’s sensual wuxia epic.

4.0

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A Touch of Zen

The first clangs of steel don’t happen until almost an hour into director King Hu’s A Touch of Zen, a grand-scale wuxia film that finds poetry in cinematic movement and action through the prismatic lens of genre. Comparable to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West for its playful tone and knowing deployment of archetypes, the film offers visually experimental battle sequences inside of a narrative mostly driven by chronological clarity and character development. Accordingly, the basis of wuxia isn’t contested, unlike in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin, so much as given a stylistic injection that allows for scenes with lightning-fast editing, slow motion, split-screen, color inversion, and quick-zoom close-ups.

It also allows for a deliberate pacing that, in Touch of Zen’s first hour, isn’t typically associated with the wuxia genre. As the camera finds Gu Sheng-zhai (Chun Shih), an aspiring scholar of the Ming Dynasty era, he’s opening a small studio where he draws sketches and portraits. Hu treats this early scene with unusual intimacy, as Gu readies his instruments and places paints in their appropriate position. The choice seems less strange, however, once a shadow cast by Ouyang Nian (Tian Peng), a mysterious loner, gradually covers Gu’s face, causing the pair to eventually lock eyes. A small exchange such as this encapsulates Hu’s filmmaking prowess, as he introduces a sense of fear and impending consequence through subtle changes within the mise-en-scène instead to resorting to threatening dialogue or overt, physical intimidation.

A Touch of Zen’s narrative is as convoluted as it is enthralling, with dozens of characters weaving through the film’s three-hour runtime. Moreover, the structure of the film causes unannounced shifts in primary action, so that Gu is initially the protagonist, but recedes to the sidelines as further details emerge regarding the identity of Yang Hui-zhen (Hsu Feng), a mysterious young woman living alone in a supposedly haunted mansion. Her identity fascinates Gu, whose mother (Cheung Bing-yuk) chastises him for not being more ambitious in his pursuits, either as a professional or lover. Initially, her goading leads Gu into Yang’s company, resulting in the pair’s off-screen consummation of a presumptive marriage, but Yang’s actual identity as a fugitive (and warrior princess) seeking shelter from members of the callous Eastern Depot completely dispenses with Gu’s expectations of marital calm.

While such expositional material could easily prove lumbering and tiresome in its deferral of conflict, Hu instead accentuates the sensuality of delayed narrative fulfillment with prolonged sequences of characters moving through darkened spaces and looking for one another. Hu follows eyelines with just as much, if not more, interest as his characters’ swords, so that Gu’s inquisitive gaze at Ouyang’s dubious activities attain an intense immediacy that even later scenes of characters fighting while anchored from bamboo stalks don’t quite match. While A Touch of Zen does indeed build to numerous fight sequences of varying setting and style, Hu’s primary strength as a storyteller lies in the assured narrative bridge he builds to get there.

The film’s final half introduces Yang’s allies against the capturing pursuits of the Eastern Depot’s villainous Men Da (Wang Jui), including General Shih Wen-chiao (Pai Ying) and a monk (Roy Chiao) whose weaponless fighting tactics explain the titular “touch of zen.” It also helps to explain Gu’s role in tactical warfare, as his plan to booby trap the allegedly haunted mansion, rather than launch an all-out assault, proves an effective means of combat. Given that Gu is initially an audience surrogate into the surrounding world of swordplay, torture, and defending one’s honor, his plan may also encompass Hu’s own narrative pursuits: indirect, but efficient.

Indeed, there’s a precision to A Touch of Zen that’s consistently reformed by Hu’s shifting use of color and cuts, so that the film never settles into a repetitious stylistic mode. This may invite accusations of unevenness, but the film fundamentally rejects that notion through its insistence that artistic exuberance can only result from a denial of symmetry and undulating consistency as a unifying principle. Gu’s timidity and disposition toward theoretical resolutions finds no purchase in this realm of hand-to-hand warfare, and it’s only when he uses his keen sensibilities, coupled with Yang’s more physical inclinations, that any meaningful effect can be reached. Thus, A Touch of Zen is, above all, about the necessity of a considered—and accomplished—process to realize any form of sustained societal change.

Image/Sound

Gorgeous from first to last frame, there’s hardly a scratch on Criterion’s stunning 4K, Blu-ray transfer, which brings the full-throated beauty of King Hu’s masterwork back to life. Exterior shots are sublime, with fully saturated colors and depth of focus consistently maintained. There are no signs of digital enhancement or alteration, as a healthy level of grain remains present at all times. The only drawback to this is that there are a few scenes that feature dark marks near the top or bottom of the frame, but the image quality otherwise remains so hypnotic that it’s hard to quibble. The monaural soundtrack sounds dense and well mixed, with dialogue, music, and clangs all resounding with force and clarity.

Extras

Criterion has given this disc a full plate of supplements, gathering biographical materials about director King Hu, interviews with the cast, and critical appraisals of the film. A feature-length documentary about the filmmaker is conventional in its composition, mixing commentary with clips from his oeuvre, but efficient and concise in dealing with both anecdotes about his life and production notes from various films. An interview with actress Hsu Feng reveals how she came to be a part of the film after playing a small role in Hu’s Dragon Inn, while a chat with Shih Chun details how he reluctantly became an actor for Hu, despite little prior experience. Director Ang Lee provides an insightful interview on Hu’s importance to his own work, including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Film scholar Tony Rayns gives a thorough talk about the film’s style and formal composition, which allows him to examine several different scenes at length. Finally, there’s a trailer, an excellent essay by David Bordwell, and notes on the film by Hu that accompanied the film’s 1975 showing at the Cannes Film Festival.

Overall

It’s hard to imagine many films being more suited for the Blu-ray format than A Touch of Zen, King Hu’s sensual wuxia epic, which finally makes its way onto high definition courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

Cast: Hsu Feng, Shih Chun, Bai Ying, Billy Chan, Chan Ming-wai, Chang Ping-yu, Cheung Bing-yuk, Tian Peng, Roy Chiao, Wang Jui Director: King Hu Screenwriter: King Hu, Songling Pu Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 180 min Rating: NR Year: 1971 Release Date: July 19, 2016 Buy: Video

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Alice Guy-Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers’s Films on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

These two key early filmmakers finally stand to get the widespread appreciation they’ve long deserved.

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Alice Guy-Blaché

Most books about the history of cinema are filled with ample praise for the work and innovations of the Lumière brothers, Georges Méliès, and Thomas Edison. Alice Guy-Blaché, though, remains at best a footnote in such texts, and it wasn’t until the Whitney Museum of American Art organized the first retrospective of her work in 2009 that she began to be more widely acknowledged as a trailblazer of early filmmaking. Kino Lorber’s phenomenal 2018 release of Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers was the next quantum leap toward restoring her reputation, devoting an entire disc to celebrating her diverse work, most notably Falling Leaves, The Ocean Waif, and A House Divided.

Now, with the release of Alice Guy-Blaché Volume 1: The Gaumont Years, not only is Guy-Blaché’s historical importance as the first female film director clearly made for the public record, but one can finally witness firsthand the full range of her talents. As not only a director, but a costume designer, writer, producer, and, after emigrating to America, the first female studio president, Guy-Blaché helped to shape the formal filmmaking techniques and artistic practices that would become popular in the early 1900s and lead the way through the transitional period of the 1910s. All the while, her business acumen played a critical role in developing the standard production and distribution methods in both France and America.

Guy-Blaché’s command of narrative, in both its structural and pictorial qualities, and her experimentation with color tinting, synchronized sound, and special effects are more than enough to secure her position among the aforementioned titans of early cinema. But it’s the wit and perceptiveness of her work, as well as her unmistakably feminine and feminist perspective, that make her a truly singular figure in those first two decades of the art form. Where Kino’s First Women Filmmakers offered a glimpse into Guy-Blaché’s work at her Solax Studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey, The Gaumont Years tracks the filmmaker’s career from its genesis, finding an artist bursting out of the gate with creativity and the flexibility to craft works in everything from comedy and westerns to melodrama and fantasy films.

Guy-Blaché’s attention to the experiences of women, as well as her tendency to both explore and poke fun at traditional gender roles, is evident in many of her early works. Her first short film, 1896’s The Cabbage-Patch Fairy, depicts a fairy traipsing about a field of cabbage patches, picking up various babies to coddle with affection. This idea is given further complexity in 1906’s Midwife to the Upper Class, in which a wealthy couple arrives at this very same cabbage patch and, with the help of a midwife, choose the child they wish to take home. It’s simple and direct, yet in just a few minutes, it weaves in commentary on class, in its suggestion of the ease with which the upper class deals with childbirth, and gently mocks society’s tendency to replace the harsh realities of childbirth with jejune fantasies.

Madame Has Her Cravings

A scene from Alice Guy-Blaché’s Madame Has Her Cravings

Madame Has Her Cravings, from 1907, is even more explicit in its flaunting of the taboo desires and difficulties related to pregnancy and childbirth. In the four-minute short, we see a pregnant woman overcome by strange, overwhelming cravings as she steals candy from a baby before moving on to swiping a glass of absinthe and tobacco for two different men. In each case, Guy-Blaché cuts to a medium shot of the madame, lingering on her as she takes immense pleasure in consuming her stolen goods. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the director’s often subversive and racy sense of humor, as well as her determination to present the experiences of women with unflinching veracity, yet with tongue planted firmly in cheek.

This subversiveness in Guy-Blaché depictions of the female experience reaches its radical peak in 1906’s The Results of Feminism, in which gender roles are swapped across the board. While all the women are shown at work, drinking at the bar, and behaving in sexually aggressive ways toward men, the men are seen as dainty and overwhelmed by their duties of housework and childcare, which the women in the film refuse to help with. The short ends with the men, frustrated by their traditionally female tasks, rolling up their sleeves, throwing the women out of the bar, and violently reclaiming the comforts of their own conventional gender role. To modern eyes, its portrayal of dandyism as inherently feminine may seem more than a bit misguided, but it’s a small misstep in an otherwise clear-eyed, funny, and astute feminist statement whose mere existence in the very early 1900s is a minor miracle in and of itself.

Following Guy-Blaché’s decade-long stint at Gaumont, she had two children, moved to the United States, and after a few years off, picked up filmmaking again upon founding Solax Studios. There, she further honed her craft as both a director and producer and became more involved in the distribution end of her films. Her work from this period is marked by the same feminist concerns as her earlier efforts for Gaumont but also bears evidence of more complex editing strategies and narrative structures, as well as a deeper emotional intelligence. Kino’s second edition of Alice Guy-Blaché’s work, Alice Guy-Blaché Volume 2: The Solax Years, contains over four hours of beautifully restored material from this period in her career.

Some of these films, such as 1911’s Making an American Citizen and 1912’s A Man’s a Man, display Guy-Blaché’s newfound interest in the immigrant experience, while others, like 1912’s The Strike and 1913’s The Thief, are more socially and class-conscious in their commentary. A sometimes blunt proselytizing accompanies these films, but it’s fascinating to see Guy-Blaché stretch her legs in dealing with such an array of dicey subjects, and approaching them from the point of view of both a woman and an immigrant.

It’s still in her comedies, though, that Guy-Blaché’s talents fully flourish, from the absurdist, anarchic mania of 1911’s Starting Something, another film which touches on the consequences of feminism, to the breakneck pace of the amusing, if slight, cross-dressing romp Officer Henderson, from 1913. But her finest work of this era is 1912’s Comedy of Errors, a playful farce about a woman forced to deal with both the unwanted advances of a neighbor (who believes she blew a kiss in his direction) and the rising jealousy of her husband, who abruptly returns home and believes she’s cheating on him. There’s a remarkable economy to Guy-Blaché’s direction here, not only in her command of space as the three characters frantically move about the different rooms of the apartment, but in her clever use of objects (the wealthy courter’s expensive coat, gloves, and umbrella) as both a material extension of the husband’s jealousy, and a means of escalating tension and propelling the narrative forward.

Wonderful Absinthe

A scene from Alice Guy-Blaché’s Wonderful Absinthe

While Guy-Blaché’s innovations have recently begun to be more widely recognized, another female writer, director, and production supervisor, Julia Crawford Ivers, still remains true to her nickname: “The Lady in the Shadows.” Her lack of recognition is certainly not aided by her extreme personal privacy or her short career, which lasted only 10 years, but Kino Lorber’s The Intrigue: The Films of Julia Crawford Ivers aims to correct that, finely highlighting both Ivers directorial work, with 1916’s A Son of Erin and the lone surviving reel of 1915’s The Majesty of the Law, and her efforts as a scenario writer. Her script for 1916’s Ben Blair is marked by a similarly feminine perspective as Guy-Blaché’s films, with a female go-getter at the center of the story and a healthy dose of male sensitivity from her love interest.

The highlight of the disc, though, is 1916’s The Intrigue, which Ivers wrote and Frank Lloyd directed. The film, running just a shade over one hour, is more reminiscent of the work of Louis Feuillade (who was coincidentally helped early in his career by Guy-Blaché) than any of her American colleagues. A rousing tale of espionage, The Intrigue tells the tale of an American scientist who creates an X-ray machine that can kill any target within 25 miles, and who travels to Europe to demonstrate it for various countries. It’s a taut yet alluringly knotty story that unfolds with clarity and purpose, displaying a pacifist streak that would only become more common in cinema in the following years as World War I came to a close.

As well-structured as The Intrigue is, it’s Ivers clever integration of empowered female characters, notably Countess Sonia (Lenore Ulrich), into a game of international diplomacy typically reserved for powerful men that’s its most impressive feat. Lilian Gish and Mary Pickford had both by this time played strong women in a number of films, but Countess Sonia is a more active participant in shaping the narrative in this film than Gish and Pickford’s characters were in their films. Rather than reacting to events that are happening around and to her, she’s constantly active, intelligent, and strong-willed, playing a major role in upending the aspirations of numerous world leaders and helping to redeem the male lead.

Such portraits of fierce, resilient women can be found throughout Ivers and Guy-Blaché’s work. But it’s more than a matter of representation that makes these films so unique; it’s also their highlighting of the sides of women that most male filmmakers ignored for decades that make their films so unique. Now, thanks to Kino Lorber’s three releases, these two key early filmmakers can finally get the widespread recognition and appreciation they’ve long deserved.

Alice Guy-Blaché Volume 1: The Gaumont Years, Alice Guy-Blaché Volume 2: The Solax Years, and The Intrigue: The Films of Julia Crawford Ivers are now available on Blu-ray.

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Blu-ray Review: Spike Lee’s Bamboozled on the Criterion Collection

Criterion’s new transfer brings out the unruly beauty of Spike Lee’s lurid, violent, daring political satire.

4.5

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Bamboozled

In Bamboozled, Spike Lee pushes racist images from the past into the forefront of our consciousness, rendering them inescapable, undeniable. The 2000 film is littered with Mammy dolls, lawn jockeys, coin banks, and other toys and figurines that feature grotesque caricatures of African-Americans. At the center of the film’s narrative are reconfigured tropes of minstrel shows, in which black performers act in blackface, dancing and joking in sketches that often liken African-Americans to animals and buffoons.

Throughout the film, Lee connects minstrelsy to stereotypes of modern pop culture, especially the gangland clichés that are peddled by white-owned corporations to consumers of all kinds, offering an illusion of danger, pivotally divorced of the actual violence of systemic racism. As such, these modes of entertainment sell a laundered form of subjugation back to us, and numb us to the atrocity of America’s original sin while allowing the power structure to continue to profit from it. In a time in which we choose our own news, in which portions of our country are trying to rewrite the past, the fury of Bamboozled is timelier and more poignant than ever.

If Bamboozled were only a lecture on racial images, it would be valuable but perhaps too comfortably processed as a history lesson. What gives the film its charge is that Lee is too much of an artist to merely demonize minstrel culture and its progeny. He sees the art in it—the soulfulness and timing of the performers. Lee uses minstrel shows to grapple with an ongoing irony of pop culture at large, as it is imprisoning, reducing people to often racist, ageist, and sexist consumerist quadrants, and freeing in terms of how it stimulates our hopes and imaginations. The fictional variety show in the film, Mantan: The New Millennial Minstrel Show, is indefensibly, disgustingly racist, though it features superb comic timing and dancing, and is filmed in a lustrous color scheme that stands in stark contrast from the hand-held, often bleached-out Dogme 95-esque aesthetic of other scenes.

Conceived by TV writer Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) as a protest against the clueless racism of his boss, Thomas Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport), who feels he’s an honorary brother for marrying a black woman and following sports, Mantan is set on a watermelon patch and features a “couple of real coons.” In the show, which borrows bits from African-American entertainers like Bert Williams and Mantan Moreland, among others, Mantan (Savion Glover) and Sleep’n Eat (Tommy Davidson) get into a variety of adventures, stealing chickens and eluding white overseers, and their routines are accompanied by a band outfitted in prison clothes, the Alabama Porch Monkeys (played by the Roots).

Much room is made for the extraordinary verbal and physical precision of Manray and Womack, the characters playing Mantan and Sleep’n Eat, which is tragic in this context, as their talent is placed in a framework of marginalization—a tragedy that Lee clearly sees as ongoing, rippling through the decades in various permutations. Upping the symbolic ante, Manray and Womack are homeless when Pierre discovers them, dancing for nickels. They are modern slaves who choose to sell their souls—a decision that’s underscored by their despairing application of the blackface, fashioned by burned cork and fire-engine lipstick that renders them otherworldly instruments of bitterness and ridicule.

Bamboozled often feels as if it’s on the verge of exploding; it’s a head-spinning work, and Lee’s use of objects and tropes as pieces of self-indicting social infrastructure is reminiscent of the fusion of pulp and essayistic montage that drove Godard’s 1960s-era films. The modern minstrel-show conceit is socially and thematically loaded enough, but Lee adds another narrative hook—in the key of A Face in the Crowd or Network—following a monstrous creation that outgrows its maker’s intentions. Rather than serving as a screw-you to Dunwitty, Mantan becomes a sensation, unearthing the racist roots of more insidious programming. Black viewers seem to enjoy the confirmation of their worst fears, while whites savor the ability to laugh at such caricatures out in the open. Even critics like the show, calling it a brilliant satire.

Bamboozled has a wrenching, meta-textual intensity. Is Lee critiquing the images that make up the film’s Mantan sequences, enjoying them for their lurid disreputability, or both? Lee is a political filmmaker with a penchant for genre-movie sensationalism—a conflict that has always imbued his productions with a daring that’s often lacking in self-consciously nourishing “issues” films. He’s socially engaged, but there’s also a hedonist in him who cherishes style as well as the cathartic energy of sexy, violent set pieces and loose, profane comedy. There’s a strong impression here that Lee, on a certain level, enjoys Mantan, and audiences who’re honest with themselves may have similar reactions. With typical Lee bombast, Bamboozled literally opens with the definition of satire, as Pierre talks to us while dressing for work. In this touch is a terror, on Lee’s part, that this film will be misunderstood.

Even outside of the Mantan scenes, Bamboozled largely suggests a modern minstrel show or sketch comedy. The film is a collision of various tones, with plenty of free-associational curlicues; it’s a parody of stereotypes that revels in all sorts of stereotypes itself. As played by Wayans, Pierre is a peculiar parody of the black man who longs to be white. Wayans speaks in a purposefully fake French accent that’s so broad that we’re reminded of his characters from In Living Color, which is mentioned here in dialogue, while adopting a rigid physicality. Meanwhile, Rapaport commits to the cliché of the rich, educated white dude who speaks in “street” slang that’s informed by pop culture, dropping the n-word liberally. Watching these actors project reductions of the other’s race and to one another is to feel as if you’ve entered a twilight zone of cultural scrambling. The characters are so conditioned by society to play caricatures that they suggest no one; their specificity is lost, and they seek to spread this virus of anonymity with Mantan. On the other hand, perhaps they truly feel at home when assuming accoutrements that are widely associated with another’s race, opening an existential debate as to where culture’s influence ends and the “real us,” whatever that is, begins.

Dunwitty is a one-joke character, but Wayans brings a startling pathos to Pierre. That French accent often seems on the verge of cracking, and Pierre’s intoxication with parroting racist words back to Dunwitty suggests a need to cathartically confront the absolute worst of white people’s assumptions about African-Americans—a need that’s extended via Mantan itself. In this and other ways, Bamboozled rhymes with Lee’s recent BlackKklansman, which featured a Jewish police office impersonating a Klansman and confronting, with this performance, the ugliness of discrimination—an act that isn’t without a certain strange rapture.

Lee shares in this rapture, as Bamboozled is a kinetic, weirdly exhilarating howl of rage that grows more varied and risky as it proceeds, featuring absurd, sexualized, profoundly realistic fake advertisements within the context of Mantan, as a well as interludes with a militant musical act, the Maus Maus, that suggests a blend of the Black Panthers and Public Enemy. Everyone here, even those who share Lee’s own convictions, is understood to be for sale and vulnerable to branding. (You may wonder if Lee, a wealthy African-American artist with a shrewd sense of promotion and style, who’s directed advertisements for Nike and other companies, is wrestling with his own branding complicity, though this possibility isn’t explicitly broached in Bamboozled, and it’s the film’s one failure of nerve.)

Bamboozled ultimately feels less like a satire than an act of conjuring, channeling pop culture’s manipulations into an unforgettable 136-minute torrent of hyper-kinetics. A sadness of the film, retrospectively, is that it’s dated. In our present-day era, with cellphones, the Cloud, and streaming sites, with the government giving more money and leeway to corporations every year, with news that’s designed to provoke and divide, with a president who actively encourages, and profits from, racism, craven branding culture has only grown more powerful, and notions of self only more fragmented.

Image/Sound

This new digital master, created in 2K resolution and approved by writer-director Spike Lee, boasts a wider spectrum of color than prior editions. The minstrel sequences, shot in 16mm, boast especially explosive colors, notably the reds, greens, and blacks that evoke, and parody, a diseased idealization of a slave plantation. The scenes outside of the minstrel show are grittier, with shriller lighting that’s very well rendered here, with newfound subtleties evident in Lee’s prismatic imagery, especially in reflections and frames within frames. Another ingenious, disturbing visual effect is also more pronounced than ever before: As Pierre begins to suffer from hallucinations, imagining his racist toys coming to life, the cinematography grows richer and more vibrantly dark, echoing the aesthetic of his minstrel show. Facial and clothing details are also astonishingly clear, which is of paramount importance to a film concerned with various distortions of human bodies. Meanwhile, the 5.1 surround soundtrack is a show-pony triumph, a fluid and cacophonous blend of various sources of music and a dense assemblage of diegetic effects, from the click-clack of tap dancing to the shockingly loud percussion of gunfire—sounds that even blend together in the film’s violent climax.

Extras

A 2001 audio commentary by Lee has been ported over from a prior DVD edition, and it remains a frank and informative discussion of an incisive film. The 55-minute “The Making of Bamboozled,” also from 2001, has been recycled here, though one wishes it favored on-the-set footage more than talking-heads puffery. A new conversation between Lee and critic Ashley Clark covers the film’s controversy, and Lee still seems nearly giddy with the outrage it provoked. Complementing this discussion is a terrific interview with film and media scholar Racquel Gates, who offers a primer on the history of minstrel shows, particularly the many performers who are referenced directly in Bamboozled. There are also poignant new conversations with actors Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson and costume designer Ruth E. Carter, who collectively describe Lee’s adventurousness and openness to contribution and collaboration. The best new extra, though, is Clark’s essay, which discusses Bamboozled’s wide spectrum of influences, ably contextualizing its resonance. Rounding out the package are music videos for the fictional band the Mau Maus’s “Blak Iz Blak” and Gerald Levert’s “Dream with No Love,” as well as deleted scenes, a poster gallery, and the trailer.

Overall

Criterion has brought out the unruly beauty of Spike Lee’s lurid, violent, daring political satire.

Cast: Damon Wayans, Savion Glover, Jada Pinkett Smith, tommy Davidson, Michael Rapaport, Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Paul Mooney, Sarah Jones, Gillian Iliana Waters, Susan Batson, Christopher Wynkoop, Jani Blom, Dina Pearlman, Danny Hoch, Mos Def, MC Serch, Gano Grills, Canibus, DJ scratch, Charli Baltimore, Mums, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, Tyheesha Collins, Cartier Williams, Jason Bernard, Baakari Wilder, Sekou Torbet, The Roots Director: Spike Lee Screenwriter: Spike Lee Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 136 min Rating: R Year: 2000 Release Date: March 17, 2020 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Review: Antonio Margheriti’s Cannibal Apocalypse on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

Cannibal Apocalypse suggests that war isn’t just hell, it’s also contagious.

4

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Cannibal Apocalypse

One of the most interesting aspects of the films from the golden age of Italian exploitation cinema, apart from their entertainment value and often sheer lunacy, has to do with the way they incorporate elements derived from a wide range of other recent films. The results are too easily dismissed as mere “rip-offs,” but the reality is that they’re much more akin to what a DJ does with sampling. Ideas, images, themes all get fused together in novel and often revelatory fashion. Consider in this regard co-writer-director Antonio Margheriti’s Cannibal Apocalypse.

The original Italian title of the film is Apocalypse Domani, which translates as “Apocalypse Tomorrow,” cheekily indicating its thematic debt to a certain Francis Ford Coppola film. In Apocalypse Now, Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard sails up a river into Cambodia to stop a madman’s guerilla war, only to learn that war (and not just the one in Vietnam) is madness and moral rot. But Margheriti’s film suggests that war is also contagious, when a trio of soldiers brings the conflict back home in viral form. What’s more, the very metaphor of conflict-as-disease further aligns Cannibal Apocalypse with films like George Romero’s The Crazies and David Cronenberg’s Rabid.

Cannibal Apocalypse opens in full-on action mode, with Green Beret Norman Hopper (John Saxon) blasting his way through a cadre of Vietcong who are holding a couple of American soldiers as POWs in a pit. But these are no ordinary soldiers; deprivation and torture have turned them into cannibals, evidence of which we soon see in all its gory glory. When Hopper reaches down to offer them a saving hand, he’s promptly bitten for his efforts. This is then revealed to be a dream sequence, albeit one that also serves as expository flashback, which we realize as soon as we see the scar on Norman’s arm.

All isn’t exactly quiet on the home front for Norman Hopper, whose name is a likely nod to Apocalypse Now actor Dennis Hopper. Norman’s marriage to TV broadcaster Jane (Elizabeth Turner) seems at a standstill. As a result, Norman takes a few too many liberties with Lolita-esque neighbor Mary (Cinzia De Carolis). The scene, already hinting at Norman’s cannibalistic urges, queasily conflates the twofold meaning of the word “carnal,” positing Mary as the object of Norman’s appetites, both sexual as well as gustatory. Needless to say, this is a plot development that precious few American films would pursue.

Things are further complicated when one of Norman’s POW buddies, Charlie Bukowski (Giovanni Lombardo Radice), is inexplicably furloughed from a mental ward, having been deemed totally cured. Soon he’s avidly cramming popcorn down his gullet at a movie theater, before taking a large chunk out of a female patron’s throat while she’s making out with her boyfriend. The film blazingly charts a vicious circle of ineffectual treatment and its resultant violence, as Charlie’s actions culminate in a tense standoff at an indoor flea market that ends with his return to the psychiatric facility. The entire sequence in the flea market takes up nearly a quarter of the film’s length, playing out almost in real time. Any resemblance to Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon is likely not accidental.

After an increasingly infected Norman liberates his two buddies, Charlie and Tommy (Tony King), from the psych ward, and with the help of Nurse Helen (May Heatherly), Cannibal Apocalypse morphs into a chase through the streets and sewers of Atlanta, with the foursome being pursued by the hyperbolically profane Captain McCoy (Wallace Wilkinson). This stretch definitely betrays a family resemblance to the urban-based opening of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, down to the makeup of Norman and his three tagalongs. Except that here the “heroes” are cannibals, and the infection they bear is spreading throughout the city.

Margheriti doesn’t take pains to chart the spread of the cannibal epidemic in the ways that Cronenberg would. Instead, he keeps close to the central foursome and their increasingly claustrophobic plight. Margheriti’s directorial strengths are fully on display throughout the sewer-set climax (clearly shot on a soundstage back in Italy): Clever camera placement and razor-stropped editing wring the maximum tension out of each further development. (Viewer beware, however, there’s some obvious fiery violence done to a live rat or two.)

The downbeat finale has Norman finding his way home to confront Jane, but not before he changes into full Army uniform. More than anything, this is reminiscent of Bob Clark’s Deathdream. Both films grimly highlight the death wish at the bottom of military endeavors. Conflict is a disease and, in the end, the best-case scenario for the couple is to put each other out of their misery, like you would a rabid dog. In its last moments, the film offers a chilling coda involving young Mary that reveals things are far from over with this contagion: Cold comfort comes from a severed arm in the neighbors’ icebox.

Image/Sound

Kino Lorber’s 4K restoration of Cannibal Apocalypse looks superb, with lots of fine details in the 1.66:1 image evident throughout, especially when it comes to the numerous sweat-drenched close-ups in the action sequences. Jungle greens, bloody reds, the teal hues of the climactic sewer scenes all register vibrantly, with black levels in the low-lit scenes pleasingly uncrushed. Grain levels are finely calibrated. The two-channel Master Audio mix is sufficiently sturdy, considering all the dialogue was looped in post, and gives suitable emphasis to Alexander Blonksteiner’s often contrapuntally funky score.

Extras

Film historian Tim Lucas delivers another exemplary commentary track, packed with information, and just enough breathing room for us to process it all. Lucas covers the backgrounds of the principal cast and crew, the film’s production history, and the location shooting around Atlanta (far more thoroughly than the perfunctory video tour that’s also included on this disc). Lucas does a particularly fine job when it comes to pointing out the myriad generic and narrative influences on Cannibal Apocalypse. The hourlong documentary Cannibal Apocalypse Redux from 2002 features star John Saxon, actor Giovanni Lombardo Radice (a.k.a. John Morghen), and writer-director Antonio Margheriti (who passed away later that year) giving their own take on the production. Both actors describe enjoying their collaboration with Margheriti, even if they weren’t always pleased with the things they were asked to do on screen. The filmmaker discusses his approach to the material, the vicissitudes of shooting in America, and his preference for filming action sequences.

Overall

Cannibal Apocalypse suggests that war isn’t just hell, it’s also contagious.

Cast: John Saxon, Elizabeth Turner, Giovanni Lombardo Radice, Cinzia De Carolis, Ramiro Oliveros, Tony King, Wallace Wilkinson, May Heatherly Director: Antonio Margheriti Screenwriter: Antonio Margheriti, Dardano Sacchetti Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 96 min Rating: R Year: 1980 Release Date: March 17, 2020 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: The Bolshevik Trilogy: Three Films by Vsevolod Pudovkin

Flicker Alley’s smartly packaged Blu-ray release is your essential introduction to an overlooked master of early Russian cinema.

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The Bolshevik Trilogy: Three Films by Vsevolod Pudovkin

While Sergei Eistenstein’s montage theory shaped Russian cinema in the 1920s, other filmmakers—such as Dziga Vertov, Lev Kuleshov, and Kuleshov’s student, Vsevolod Pudovkin—had their own ideas about how editing could be deployed to maximum effect. Central to Pudovkin’s approach to cinema is his belief that “editing controls the psychological guidance of the spectator”—a quote that gets at the heart of his opposition to Eisenstein’s tendency to focus on the unified masses over individuals and create meaning through a dialectical collision of disparate images.

In Eisenstein’s films, these collectives typically stand in opposition to their capitalist, autocratic oppressors, while individual characters primarily function as emotional signifiers rather than fully fleshed-out human beings. By contrast, Pudovkin’s films focus more on characters’ inner turmoil before spiraling out toward an understanding of collective organization and action. Where Eisenstein’s scene construction is often fragmented, abundant in jarring juxtapositions, Pudovkin’s is more fluid and psychologically motivated, wholly dependent on the specific characters within a given scene.

Pudovkin’s debut film, Mother, is perhaps the greatest illustration of his application of montage. Like Eisenstein’s Strike, released a year before in 1925, Mother tells the story of a factory workers’ strike, but much of the film’s first half plays out through the perspective of a single family: the son (Nikolay Batalov) who’s swept up in the workers’ movement; the father (Aleksandr Chistyakov) who’s recruited by the ultra-nationalist group, the Black Hundreds, to help violently shutdown the factory strike; and the mother (Vera Baranovskaya) whose initial worries about her son’s revolutionary acts eventually turn to sympathy for the cause.

Through this family drama, we’re given a sense of the divide between the classes and the struggles of everyday working-class people, with the son first standing up to his drunken father for beating his mother and later being blamed for his father’s death following a fight between strikers and members of the Black Hundreds. Because Pudovkin filters much of the proceedings through the eyes of the son, this death and the fallout it causes with his mother carries strong emotional resonance. Yet, Pudovkin still effectively weaves this experience into the larger fabric of these revolutionary times, using this event as a symbolic fracturing of the family dynamic—a form of collateral damage on the path to building a new communist society.

Following the father’s death, Mother opens up to the larger sense of sociopolitical upheaval, presenting a sweeping condemnation of Tsarist Russia, from the callous capitalist businessman to corrupt policemen and cruel, indifferent judges who condemn the son with little to no evidence against him. These men only make brief appearances in the film, but they’re granted a striking psychological realism through an array of close-ups of expressive gestures—a policeman stroking his hand, a factory owner tapping a cigarette on a fancy case, a disinterested judge sketching a horse while the son’s case plays out.

These miniature portraits are starkly contrasted with Pudovkin’s more blatantly symbolic use of nature, which always stands in direct opposition to tyrannical power. Pastoral fields (the domain of the workers) are presented in all their idyllic glory, and in a stunning sequence late in the film, melting sheets of ice flow downstream, paralleling the movement of now-empowered workers as they furiously march in protest to free their unjustly jailed comrades.

Pudovkin’s use of nature is used even more explicitly in 1927’s The End of St. Petersburg, with the beauty of the Russian countryside pitted against the harsh architecture and polluting factories of St. Petersburg. Through parallel editing, Pudovkin lays bare a nation’s class inequities, with rural areas rife with starvation and poverty while the city is controlled by an affluent upper class that’s indifferent to this suffering. The clash of ideologies is made even more glaringly apparent here than in Mother, as images of chaos at the stock market and of greedy traders and businessmen are repeatedly juxtaposed with shots of people struggling to survive in the countryside and workers suffering through long work days and the senseless violence of war, which is shown to benefit only the war profiteers.

Like Mother, The End of St. Petersburg filters the historical and the political through the hardships of an unnamed peasant (Aleksandr Chistyakov). And the man’s journey from the countryside to a factory in the titular city and then to the battlefield anchors the sweeping revolutionary history of 1917 Russia through a single perspective, at once unique and representative of the experiences of many thousands of others at the time.

Pudovkin’s final entry in his “Bolshevik Trilogy,” 1928’s Storm Over Asia, is a bit of an outlier, not only in its injection of historical fiction, with imperialist British rulers in power in Russia, but also in its ethnographic study of the daily lives of ordinary Mongolian herders. The film is stylistically and narratively the most straightforward of the three, relying on rapid montage only a handful of times throughout. Pudovkin’s focus instead lies in exploring the bonds between poor Mongolians and Russians, and conveying the value of their cooperation in helping to overthrow their domineering foreign rulers.

Pudovkin again works from the minute to the epic, first plunging the viewer into the world of a poor Mongolian herder, Bair (Valéry Inkijinoff), before contrasting the gorgeous, bucolic landscape in which the man lives and the cooperative nature of his people with the racist, materialist, and exploitive actions of the British. In a way, Storm of Asia is less pro-Bolshevik than anti-imperialist, but its more global perspective offers insight into how the Bolsheviks saw Russia in relation to the rest of the international community at the time. It’s a fitting finale to a trilogy that sets out to illustrate the various reasons for embracing a particular ideology as well as a potent display of Pudovkin’s ability to merge his examinations of individual turmoil with pointed social and political commentary.

Image/Sound

Neither Mother nor The End of St. Petersburg were transferred from restored sources, and the flawed presentation of both films highlights the myriad challenges that need to be overcome in order to restore any but the most well-preserved silent films. Both films here are obviously presented in HD and the sharpness and detail of the image is far superior to prior transfers. But quite a bit of damage and debris is on consistent display throughout both films; there’s also a recurring flickering that begins to wear on the eyes after a while. Blacks very frequently appear closer to milky grays, and although both films are still very much watchable in this state, it’s clear that they could use a hefty polishing to return them to their former state of glory. Fortunately, the transfer of Storm of Asia is sourced from a brand new 2K remaster, scanned from a 35mm print, and the difference is night and day. Blacks are considerably inkier, finer details are visible throughout the frame, and while signs of dirt and debris remain visible, it’s negligible compared to the other two films included in the set.

Extras

Flicker Alley’s two-disc Blu-ray set is brimming with informative and engaging extras that help to contextualize all three films within the period of Russian history and cinema in which they were made. The two beefiest features are the audio commentaries on Mother and Storm Over Asia. The first, by Russian film historian and curator Peter Bagrov, touches on Pudovkin’s approach to articulating the empathy and humanism of Maxim Gorky’s novel. Bagrov’s discussion of Pudovkin’s aesthetic, and the ways he uses distance, camera angles, and lighting to convey his characters’ psychological complexity, is particularly effective. Most surprising is Bagrov’s argument that American continuity editing, especially that of D.W. Griffith, helped to shape Pudovkin’s aesthetic. Film historian Jan-Christopher Horak’s commentary for Storm Over Asia is noticeably drier, as it sounds as if he’s reading from a script verbatim, but he nonetheless offers some intriguing observations, namely on the effects that Stalin’s rule had on Russian experimental cinema of the 1920s, along with a plethora of information about Mongolian and Russia history that sheds light on certain aspects of the film.

Most enlightening of the remaining extras is the 10-minute “A Revolution in Five Moves,” which uses specific shots and scenes from the “Bolshevik Trilogy” to illustrate Pudovkin’s use of motifs, symbolism, contrast, parallelism, and simultaneity. The slightly shorter “Five Principles of Editing” is a nice companion piece, giving more precise definitions of these concepts and additional examples from within the three films. Clocking it at under two minutes a piece, both “Amateur Images of St. Petersburg” and “Notebooks of a Tourist” provide a layman’s perspective of life in 1920s Russia. Pudovkin’s slight but amusing 1925 short film Chess Fever is also included as is a booklet with an essay by film historian Amy Sargeant.

Overall

Consider Flicker Alley’s smartly packaged Blu-ray release of Vsevolod Pudovkin’s “Bolshevik Trilogy” your essential introduction to an overlooked master of early Russian cinema.

Cast: Vera Baranovskaya, Nikolay Batalov, Aleksandr Chistyakov, Anna Zemtsova, Ivan Chuvelyov, Sergey Komarov, Valéry Inkijinoff, Viktor Tsoppi, Fyodor Ivanov, Boris Barnet Director: Vsevolod Pudovkin Screenwriter: Nathan Zarkhi, Osip Brik Distributor: Flicker Alley Running Time: 291 min Rating: NR Year: 1926-1928 Release Date: March 10, 2020 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Direct Cinema Classic Salesman on the Criterion Collection

One of the great and influential American films receives a notable visual upgrade.

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Salesman

David Maysles, Albert Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin’s Salesman truly sees its subjects, with none of the distancing formality that’s typical of documentaries or even narrative films. Following four Irish-Catholic salesmen as they work their trade in their selling territories in Boston and Florida, the filmmakers utilize no interviews or narration and make no reference to their own presence, while the salesmen exude a naturalistic ease with the camera that’s virtually unprecedented for non-actors. The result is an immersive drama that bridges real-life details with the catharses of parables with expressionistic on-the-fly camerawork, a blend of the textural and the poetic that’s hallucinatory and profound.

For contemporary audiences, Salesman will appear to be set on an alien planet. Most obviously, there’s the now-anachronistic notion of the salesmen, who appear to live on dollars at a time. The men sell illustrated bibles door to door for 50 bucks a piece, offering a variety of payment plans, which can go as low as a dollar a week. They receive their leads from the Catholic Church, which lends its prestige to the racket. We see many sales pitches in the film, and Zwerin and the Maysles foster a wrenching double-awareness: We’re empathetic to the salesmen, who’re making a precarious living, and to their intended customers, who’re often forced—via prodding, usually through means of religious guilt—to admit that they don’t have the money for an object that will probably be forgotten on a shelf the moment it’s received. When the customers are driven to these confessions, we’re aware of the camera despite its invisibility, as it’s serving to intensify the humiliation suffered by both parties.

Another detail that deepens the film’s despairing view of capitalism is that the salesmen, presumably living hand to mouth, nevertheless drive whip cars. There’s a lingering impression here that these men, as stuck as they are, have some form of security that reflects the long-gone middle-class prosperity of the post-war United States. Related to this security is the film’s proffering of another comfort that’s strange in this bleak context: The door-to-door racket, with the driving and the bullshitting and the conferences, is physically, socially tactile, in stark contrast to our present-day world, which is dominated by online transactions.

Yet these men aren’t to be envied, as they dress in drab suits, chain smoke, and live in anonymous motels and diners. (Notably, none of the salesmen are seen drinking.) The filmmakers carefully omit moments with the men at home, fashioning a slipstream of on-the-road exertions that comes to suggest a kind of purgatory. The closet we get to “home” is a brilliant scene in which the men sit in line on a motel bed, infantilized, waiting to take their turn to call their wives on the phone. Piercingly intimate details continue to surface, as a man’s wife poignantly reminds him to be sure to take care of his tires. Men who might blend into the woodwork of our lives are invested with the stature of tragicomic protagonists, as their individual personalities gradually rise to the film’s forefront.

The men are introduced while in the midst of their respective work, with on-screen text that provides names as well as nicknames. They’re Paul Brennan, “the Badger,” Charles McDevitt, “the Gipper,” James Baker, “the Rabbit,” and Raymond Martos, “the Bull.” The film reveals these monikers to be remarkably apt, especially for the Rabbit, a hyper-enthusiastic young buck, and the Bull, a stout brickhouse of a fellow who expertly wields his hail-fellow-well-met persona. These men give the film a comic pulse, as they thrive on the danger of their profession as well as on the oratorical power of their improvisatory gift for rationalization, which they render into a kind of American folk art. The star, though, is Brennan, an especially artistic and volatile soul who has a habit of perceptively, beautifully summing up his lot in life. He’s the reason that Salesman is compared to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Eugene O’Neil’s The Iceman Cometh, and he’s this film’s beating heart.

A successful sale hinges on a salesperson believing their own bullshit. McDevitt, Baker, and Martos seem to recognize that, but Brennan’s understanding of his job as a racket undermines him. Early on, while the men are trading war stories after a day’s work in one of countless motel rooms, Brennan holds a hand to make a “zero” with his fingers, succinctly, theatrically summing up his strike out. And this gesture plants the seed of the film’s arc, as Brennan gets locked in a losing streak that inflames his bitterness and, in turn, his losing streak.

One of the other men memorably tells Brennan that he’s fighting his customers, which they can detect. Brennan sinks into loathing, for himself and his marks, whom he sees as pitilessly wasting his time. (What he might not see is how he sometimes pesters them to the brink of harassment.) In one of Salesman’s many unforgettable scenes, Martos pitches a sale while Brennan observes in an easy chair in the background, seething. For a moment, there’s a reprieve from the fury, as Brennan playfully humors a little boy and his toy car before seething some more. Watching such moments, one is once again made aware of the camera, wondering if this film will get Brennan fired—a constant threat embodied by a supervisor who gives a speech that almost certainly inspired David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross.

As Brennan spirals downward, Salesman offers up other grace notes, in which he connects with customers and we see a gift for flimflam that appears to be rooted in authentic humanity. And as the film progresses, these moments increasingly feel like miracles. Brennan comes to suggest a struggling actor (a rumor carelessly perpetuated by Pauline Kael in her 1970 New Yorker review) who flounders less for his lack of talent than for his sensitivity. He’s in a human prison, which is counterpointed by Albert Maysles’s fluid, gritty black-and-white compositions, many of which include beautiful landscapes seen through windows in backgrounds, mocking the cavernousness of this profession. (Other images, of perspective customers in their homes after salesmen have left, suggest the unknowability of people.)

And the final image is among the most devastating in cinema, one which fully encapsulates Brennan’s predicament: Standing in a doorway, bordered on both sides by the negative space of white walls, he’s a man, a wreck of unarticulated rage, lost in himself as an artist with no audience. He’s all of the nightmares of failure that our society conditions us to nurture.

Image/Sound

The new 4K digital transfer of Salesman, undertaken by the Academy Film Archive, offers an image with stunning clarity and depth. This restoration is most notable for its emphasis on the backgrounds of images, which often underscore the worlds that exist outside of the homes where the sales pitches are taking place. Trees, roads, snow, playgrounds, and swimming pools are intensely present, as are the up-close details of the wardrobes and home apparel of the various subjects, which speaks volumes about their lives. The blacks of the cinematography are rich, and the whites are celestially elegant. Nevertheless, a certain grittiness, reflective of the improvisatory nature of the film’s production, remains in tact, preserving Salesman’s evocatively rough and wooly textures. The monaural soundtrack can be fuzzy at times, making speech occasionally difficult to discern, though other sounds—of people’s movement, of the turning of pages and lifting of objects, and so forth—are quite vivid.

Extras

Several of these extras have been ported over from Criterion’s prior edition of Salesman, and they’re still relevant and insightful examinations of the film. The 1968 television interview with Albert and David Maysles, conducted by Newsweek critic Jack Kroll, allows the filmmakers to discuss at length the Direct Film movement and its various misconceptions. Most valuably, the Maysles emphasize that their point of view is still ultimately expressed, and that pure objectivity is impossible. (Albert does suggest that the presence of their cameras didn’t materially alter the film’s situations, which I find highly unlikely.) Salesman’s star, Paul Brennan, is also talked about at length, leading to choice observations about artistic objectivity versus moralizing. And notions of subjectivity and empathy are explored in the detailed, personal, and unmissable 2001 audio commentary with Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin. Additional background pertaining to the Direct Film movement and its origins are also offered up by critic Michael Chaiken in the booklet essay included with the disc.

There are a couple of choice new featurettes. Bill Hader, an actor and comedian as well as a cinephile of impeccable taste and observation, who parodied Salesman in the IFC series Documentary Now!, discusses his love for the film, offering one particularly astute note: that the Maysles often shoot the listeners rather than the talkers, emphasizing how speech is processed rather than delivered. Rounding out the package is “Globesman,” an extraordinary episode from the aforementioned Documentary Now!, as well as the film’s trailer.

Overall

One of the great and influential American films receives a notable visual upgrade courtesy of Criterion, with a couple of fun new supplements also in the mix.

Director: Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 91 min Rating: NR Year: 1969 Release Date: March 10, 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: Jacques Tourneur’s Canyon Passage on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

An unfairly overlooked film gets a solid high-def release from Kino Lorber.

3.5

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Canyon Passage

Jacques Tourneur’s first color feature, 1946’s Canyon Passage, at first seems relatively straightforward compared to the borderline experimental black-and-white films that made him one of the classic studio era’s boldest filmmakers. Also his first western, the film tracks roughneck Logan Stuart (Dana Andrews) as he deals with local thug Honey Bragg (Ward Bond) and weighs his relationship to the virginal Caroline Marsh (Patricia Roc) against his budding attraction to Lucy Overmire (Susan Hayward), the girlfriend of his best friend, George Camrose (Brian Donlevy). This plot, a mixture of romantic melodrama and suspenseful action, is a far cry from the supernatural horror and existential noir on which Tourneur’s reputation stands, and the naturalistic hues of the Technicolor cinematography lack the almost avant-garde textural contrasts of his monochrome films.

Canyon Passage, however, gradually reveals strange undercurrents that complicate its seeming normalcy. Andrews plays Logan, who longs to roam the frontiers of Oregon rather than settle down, in the key of one of his existentially restless noir heroes. And the man’s romantic entanglements take on a psychosexual dimension when he inadvertently enters into a loose competition for Lucy with George, whose own proclivities add lascivious undertones to the film. At one point, Logan teases George for the chaste kisses he gives Lucy, to which his friend keeps asking, “Could you do better?,” before Logan finally walks over without a word and gives the woman a tender, passionate kiss to fulfill George’s cuckolding dares.

George, an inveterate gambler who exploits his position as a banker to embezzle gold dust savings from the miners of Jacksonville, Oregon, shows far more attention to money than he ever does to Lucy; in one early shot, the film’s drab colors and soft lighting brighten in a medium close-up of George weighing gold dust, reflecting his momentary euphoria at being in possession of such riches. And such subjective, hyper-stylistic flourishes recur in Canyon Passage whenever George attempts to flirt with Marta Lestrade (Rose Hobart), who presides over Jacksonville’s gambling scene, and who, given her black attire and severe visage, suggests death itself as she looms over George. Every shot that features the woman is marked by extremes in contrast, heavy shadows and stark diegetic lighting that accentuate cinematographer Edward Cronjager’s color palette. Ever so subtly, the film begins to shift from an objective, straightforward use of color and light to an increasingly expressionistic one.

That aesthetic shakeup increases dramatically when Logan and local townsfolk have to deal with raiding parties from a nearby Native American tribe. Though not as focused on the impact of white expansionism as I Walked with a Zombie, nor even as race-focused as Tourneur’s later western Stars in My Crown, Canyon Passage nonetheless acknowledges that frontier tensions owe much to Americans’ callous territorial annexations. Early in the film, Logan and Lucy visit Logan’s homesteader friend, Ben (Andy Devine), who freely admits, “It’s their land and we’re on it, and they don’t forget it,” when the topic of potential tribal aggression arises, though in the same breath he vows to defend his property with violence if necessary.

Later, when raiders approach a party celebrating a newly built cabin, they stand near a bonfire that bathes them in a reddish glow, the cinematography exaggerating their skin color and further casting them as ominous others. Even though that confrontation is dispelled peacefully, the film pointedly shows how the settlers’ mistrust of natives never fades; a raiding party plays a key role in dealing with Logan’s nemesis, local brute Honey Bragg (Ward Bond), but despite townsfolk allowing the tribe to deal with the thief and murderer, they wait to open fire on the indigenous people the second that the Bragg problem is settled.

Made under the aegis of Universal Pictures and on a large budget, Canyon Passage was Tourneur’s first major studio project, and as such it’s something of a transitional work in his oeuvre. At every turn, though, Tourneur’s mastery of visual storytelling and termitic social commentary is evident. The film’s increasingly feverish sexual energy and its handling of racial tensions form a clear link from his work for RKO to his later studio films, proving how well he could smuggle his strange, caustic vision onto a larger canvas.

Image/Sound

Kino Lorber’s disc is sourced from an unrestored transfer, as evidenced by the minor scratches and other decay throughout. There’s also some visible separation between color strips, resulting in an occasional haze around objects and especially faces. Nonetheless, the colors are richly presented, from the naturalistic oak-browns and forest greens to the later suffusion of glowing red. Black levels are also strong, with no obvious crushing and the only occasional softness looking like a result of the transfer source. The mono soundtrack is clear, with even distribution of music, dialogue, and sound effects.

Extras

Film historian Toby Roan provides a commentary track that’s informative, if at times too objectively minded, as his detailing of the actors’ biographies comes at the expense of critical analysis. Nonetheless, Roan provides a number of interesting details about the production that give insight into Jacques Tourneur’s working process.

Overall

An unfairly overlooked film gets a solid high-def release, though it’s hard not to wish for a full restoration of this subtly gorgeous Technicolor opus.

Cast: Dana Andrews, Susan Hayward, Brian Donlevy, Patricia Roc, Ward Bond, Hoagy Carmichael, Rose Hobart, Andy Devine Director: Jacques Tourneur Screenwriter: Ernest Pascal Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 1946 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy on the Criterion Collection

A zen-like study of aging and male friendship, Reichardt’s sophomore feature remains one of her best.

3.5

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Old Joy

Carefully accumulating and juxtaposing details to form an interconnected web of loneliness, regret, and longing for happier times gone by, Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy would warrant being called a mash-up of Sideways and Brokeback Mountain if it weren’t so superior to those heralded “independent” predecessors in both form and content. Reichardt’s deceptively simple film is pitched in the key of a leisurely Sunday-afternoon drive, providing an intimate fly-on-the-wall perspective on friends Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (Will Oldham) as they reunite to take a weekend camping trip to the hot springs nestled deep within Oregon’s Cascade Mountains.

Throughout their journey, almost nothing of particularly obvious importance occurs, as Mark and Kurt chat amicably, get lost, have breakfast, and quietly penetrate the lush, green wilderness while listening to Air America radio broadcasts in which both callers and hosts lament the sorry state of the Democratic party, national race relations, and the country’s two-party political system. And yet beneath this outdoor expedition’s façade of inactivity lurks the dull, persistent throb of heartache and anguish, a mood intensified by Reichardt’s exquisite attention to her milieu’s ambient sights and sounds, and brought to melancholic life by London and Oldham’s expressively minimalist performances. “Man, Mark, you really hold onto shit,” says Kurt after seeing his friend’s well-worn marijuana container, though the statement is just as applicable to the speaker himself, a bearded, balding guy who seemingly coasts along with blissful stoner nonchalance but who, it’s slowly revealed, also harbors inescapable sadness.

Mark and Kurt’s excursion instigated by the latter as a chance to reconnect after an apparently lengthy separation. The two men, accompanied by Mark’s dog, dutifully catch up on each other’s lives—Kurt’s miscellaneous stories about running into old friends, Mark’s feelings about his relationship with Tanya (Tanya Smith) and his fear of impending fatherhood—all the while carefully avoiding any overt talk about the tumultuous shared past that stands as the proverbial elephant in the forest. The two discuss topics such as an old record shop’s distasteful transformation into a health food shop (dubbed “Rejucination”), Mark’s father leaving his mother at the age of 70, and Kurt’s personal superstring theory that the universe is in the shape of a tear falling through space, all while a radio voice pontificates about the “uncertainties of the future.” Through such indirect conversations, as well as a naturalistic mise-en-scène encoded with oblique (but nonetheless ever-present and piercing) signifiers, Reichardt delicately reveals stratified layers of emotion.

While such reserve sporadically dampens down its narrative, Old Joy’s informality and subtlety is furthered by London and Oldham, with the former displaying a reticence that barely masks his character’s heightened anxiety, and the latter concealing an apprehensive hopefulness behind a charming, carefree affability. Reichardt fashions an intricate rapport between her protagonists and setting, the silence of the Oregon woodlands counterbalancing the noxious noise of the modern world (“You can’t get real quiet anymore,” Kurt says in explaining his affection for the rural), and the seclusion of their tree-lined destination conveying the friends’ inner and interpersonal alienation. That the hot spring baths are eventually revealed to be hollowed-out tree trunks in which people lie—thus entailing physical communion between naked man and his ancient environment—further reinforces the notion that the trip is, at heart, an attempted reversion to a more natural, harmonious state.

Yet even during Kurt’s climactic explanation of Old Joy’s title and subsequent stab at recapturing what he’d lost, Reichardt’s delicate touch is such that it creates room for an interpretative flexibility. The film’s pauses in dialogue and the unseen spaces between scenes breathe with palpable, mysterious life. It’s only fitting, then, that Old Joy concludes not on a display of expository enlightenment, but rather on an abrupt, inconclusive note that still rings with the sorrow of an airwave-transmitted Greek chorus.

Image/Sound

Old Joy was shot on Super 16mm, and Criterion’s 4K transfer preserves the tried-and-true characteristics of the film stock: warm pops of primary color, rich shadows and forgiving highlights, and a pleasing blanket of grain. Given that the film was shot largely in the Pacific Northwest wilderness, the greens and browns are especially lovely, with numerous shades of foliage represented to complement the red and blue elements in Mark and Kurt’s wardrobe. The soundtrack shares a similar analog warmth to the visual transfer. Old Joy is a quiet, ruminative film about the breakdown of connection, so certain dialogue scenes require extra attention to hear, but it’s to Criterion’s credit that they’ve preserved the dynamics of the film’s mix, allowing the whispered lines to rest right on the edge of audibility. By contrast, that’s not the case with Yo La Tengo’s lush guitar score, which comes through in loud, crisp stereo.

Extras

In newly recorded interviews, Kelly Reichardt and cinematographer Peter Sillen reminisce at length about the simultaneously arduous and informal production process, which required that everyone on the team wear multiple hats and lug equipment deep into the forests of the Cascade Range but which nonetheless sustained a friendly, casual atmosphere. Elsewhere on the disc, a sympathetic Jon Raymond, author of the short story from which the film is based (included in the liner notes), expresses his delight in how Reichardt expanded upon and recontextualized his words, and best of all, Will Oldham and Daniel London reunite for a conversation about their respective roles and the degrees to which they brought their own personalities into them. The essay included in the booklet is by avant-garde expert Ed Halter, who subjects the film to a thorough analysis touching on contemporary masculinity, the state of left politics in America, and Reichardt’s thrifty early career.

Overall

Kelly Reichardt’s sophomore feature is a zen-like study of aging and male friendship, and Criterion’s elegant package celebrates the independent initiative that brought it to the screen.

Cast: Daniel London, Will Oldham, Lucy, Tanya Smith, Keri Moran, Matt McCormick, Robin Rosenberg, Darren Prolsen Director: Kelly Reichardt Screenwriter: Kelly Reichardt, Jonathan Raymond Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2006 Release Date: December 10, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Quai des Orfèvres on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

Kino honors Clouzot’s post-war classic with a vivid presentation and some illuminating extras.

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Quai des Orfèvres

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s classic noir procedural Quai des Orfèvres doesn’t conclude, as episodes of the ABC police drama Naked City once did, with a narrator solemnly intoning, “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.” But it might as well, for while Clouzot’s film is shot through with certain remarkable coincidences and narrative implausibilities, it’s not a tale of exceptional people doing extraordinary things, but rather ordinary, dissatisfied Parisians driven to desperate action by the unwieldiness of their emotions and the proscriptions of their social circumstances. The film’s characters—mostly show-business types swirling around the seedy subculture of Paris’s post-war cabaret scene—are flawed, even pathetic, figures, but they provide a lens through which we can view the pervading anxiety and malaise of a nation recovering from its own near-destruction.

The plot—loosely adapted from a potboiler by Stanislas-André Steeman, who reportedly hated Clouzot and co-screenwriter Jean Ferry’s major revisions to his novel—revolves around the torrid marriage of Marguerite Martineau, a.k.a. Jenny L’Amour (Suzy Delair), a sultry burlesque singer, and Maurice (Bernard Blier), her jealous, weak-willed husband. Jenny, who spends much of the film clad in provocative lingerie or luxurious furs, is coquettish and free-spirited. She’s genuinely committed to her husband but also not ashamed to flirt with the right man if it will advance her career. Such behavior drives Maurice insane with jealousy; a man of upper-class stock who, the film subtly suggests, threw away his respectable classical training to be Jenny’s full-time accompanist, he takes a more conservative attitude toward the overflowing carnality of his proletarian wife. As one theatrical producer memorably observes, “It’s his bad upbringing. His parents were bourgeois. He sees vice everywhere.”

The duo’s passions truly come to a head when Jenny starts leading on Georges Brignon (Charles Dullin), a loathsome, malformed movie producer with a fondness for coerced sexual encounters with much younger women. After finding apparent evidence of his wife’s infidelity, Maurice sets out on a carefully planned but haphazardly executed plot to kill Brignon and provide himself with a rock-solid alibi. But when he shows up at Brignon’s house, Maurice finds that he’s already dead. We soon learn that Jenny had been at his house that night and bopped him over the head with a champagne bottle after he tried to force himself on her. It’s then that the film largely shifts focus onto the investigation headed by Deputy Inspector Antoine (Louis Jouvet), a chatty, Columbo-esque policeman whose world-weariness belies his quiet fascination with the tawdry criminal underworld he spends his life immersed in.

Though there will be additional details revealed about Brignon’s violent demise, Clouzot isn’t interested in telling a whodunnit mystery. Nor is the film really a police procedural in the traditional sense. With a lesser filmmaker at the helm, this all might have devolved into a trashy melodrama, but in Clouzot’s assured hands, Quai des Orfèvres blooms into a cynical yet deeply humane film populated by complex, full-bodied human beings whose emotional lives tangle together into a romantic Gordian knot. Perhaps no figure in the film is more deeply complicated than Dora (Simone Renant), a photographer neighbor of the Martineaus who secretly pines after Jenny. Dora is a tough yet vulnerable woman whose self-awareness about her own sexuality has done little but make her deeply unhappy, and she forms an oddly intimate relationship with Antoine. Together, they’re two knowing outsiders, doomed to a life of observation rather than participation.

Clouzot renders his characters’ lives with a deep precision and a lack of moral judgment. Shot mostly on carefully furnished sets in shadowy black and white, the film’s mise-en-scène deepens what could be simply a tale of crime and passion into a sophisticated social drama. Small details, such as the way characters frequently keep their coats on indoors, evoke the discomfort of their living situations. By contrast, scenes of a crowded, smoky dance hall where everyone checks their overcoat—the fact that Maurice doesn’t do so on the night of the murder becomes a key clue in Antoine’s investigation—feel positively muggy, thus suggesting that one of the major draws of the cabaret for its largely working-class patronage is simply the respite it provides from the chilly winter weather.

Throughout, we receive tiny little peeks at the lives of the many people that populate the periphery of the film, such as the barfly taxi driver (Pierre Larquey), a witness in the case who refuses to speak to police out of a deeply held antipathy for authority. (Eventually, Antoine, in perhaps his most devious moment, forces the man to make a key identification by threatening his cabbie’s license.) Or the languid chanteuse (Joëlle Bernard) whose ennui-laden rehearsal in one scene suggests a lifetime of bitterness and disappointment. A sequence in the police station, in which Antoine reads out Maurice’s statement to a typist, would seem to be an opportunity for Clouzot to juice up the suspense, but instead it’s presented as a lightly comic slice of office life populated by men and women dully going about their daily routine. However, later, there are indications of the Paris police’s use of torture against some suspects, indicating a corrupt and brutal underbelly to the forces of law and order in France.

The resolution of the murder investigation is essentially contrived, letting the characters off the hook in unconvincing fashion. But by that point, it scarcely matters. Quai des Orfèvres is fundamentally an exquisitely detailed snapshot of a particular time and place, one that focuses on a relatively small group of characters but which constantly spans out to evoke an entire society. It’s fitting then that the film ends not by closing in on itself with, say, a shot of Maurice and Jenny embracing, but rather finishes by opening out. The final image is of Antoine and the adopted African son he’d brought back with him after serving in France’s colonial wars. The shot is from the point of view of Maurice and Jenny’s apartment, and we watch as the pair strolls out of the courtyard and into the city at large. This has been one story of post-World War II Paris, but, Clouzot suggests, there are many, many more.

Image/Sound

Adopting the same recent 4K restoration of Quai des Orfèvres that Studio Canal used for its recent Region B Blu-ray release, Kino Lorber’s disc presents cinematographer Armand Thirard’s stunningly rich 1.37:1 black-and-white images in pristine fashion. There’s depth even in the darkest shadows, and every nuance of the complex mise-en-scène is brilliantly sharp. One can discover details hidden in the deep background of the smoky interiors of the film’s dance hall scenes. The DTS-HD Master Audio stereo track is similarly excellent, offering a nice balance of simple dialogue scenes, aurally dense musical sequences, and a few nearly silent stretches. The dialogue is ever so slightly muffled in a few spots, though this seems to be a product of the original elements rather than any error in the restoration or transfer. This is a truly dazzling presentation of a sumptuous and visually varied classic.

Extras

Drawing on historical research, academic studies, and his own incisive analysis, critic Nick Pinkerton provides a sharp, informative commentary track. He places Quai des Orfèvres in the context of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s career while excavating surprisingly detailed mini-histories of even minor performers in the film. But the strongest element of the commentary may be Pinkerton’s own trenchant critical observations on the film itself, particularly his thoughts on Clouzot’s subtle visual touches, the story’s class politics, and the non-stereotypical treatment of lesbianism. The disc also includes a 17-minute featurette on the film consisting of interviews with Clouzot and some of the key cast members culled from a 1971 French TV program. This doc focuses heavily on Clouzot’s cynical worldview and frankly abusive working methods. While not exactly loaded with extras, the disc’s two major features will be exceptionally illuminating for fans of the film.

Overall

Kino Lorber’s release of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s post-war noir classic with a vivid presentation and some illuminating extras.

Cast: Suzy Delair, Bernard Blier, Louis Jouvet, Simone Renant, Charles Dullin, Jacques Grétillat Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot Screenwriter: Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jean Ferry Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 107 min Rating: NR Year: 1947 Release Date: February 25, 2020 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Robert Altman’s Kansas City Joins the Arrow Academy

A criminally underrated late-period Altman film gets a burnished Blu-ray upgrade and a full slate of fine extras.

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Kansas City

Robert Altman vividly brings to life childhood memories of his hometown in 1996’s Kansas City. But this is no mere exercise in wistful nostalgia, as the filmmaker is irresistibly drawn to the seedy underbelly of the titular Missouri town, its garish neon-lit nightclubs and swinging jazz joints. From there, the film spirals out into one of Altman’s signature network narratives, using its sprawling cast of characters to investigate political corruption, race relations, and the effects of mass media on the public. Kansas City is also an unabashed love letter to 1930s jazz music, which plays almost uninterruptedly throughout the film. This allows Altman to bring in contemporary jazz musicians to portray historical figures like Count Basie, Lester Young, and Coleman Hawkins.

Kansas City opens with a kidnapping. The fact that kidnapping was considered the prototypical crime of the era is later a topic of discussion between kidnapper and kidnapped, who bizarrely seem to bond over the fate of the Lindbergh baby. For its first 20 minutes or so, the film utilizes a disorienting nonlinear structure that incrementally fills in the whys and wherefores that lead noticeably non-blonde flapper Blondie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to waylay laudanum-dependent society lady Carolyn Stilton (Miranda Richardson) at gunpoint. Mr. Stilton (Michael Murphy) is a local politico with some pull in New Deal-era Washington, and Blondie hopes he can help save her man, Johnny O’Hara (Dermot Mulroney), who’s gotten in over his head with nightclub owner and gangster Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte).

Kansas City hopscotches between these characters (among others) and their various milieu. Part of the film’s enjoyment lies in discovering their interrelations and crossed intentions. To take just one example: Blondie’s brother-in-law, Johnny Flynn (Steve Buscemi), is instrumental in bringing in dozens of fraudulent voters to cast their ballot in the upcoming election. When she explains the scam to Carolyn, the latter seems incredulous that both parties would engage in those sorts of tactics. To which Blondie cynically, if quite rightly, replies: “Democrats? They’re what they’re paid to be. This is America, lady.”

The opening section of the film takes place in the Union Station terminal and, fittingly, given the name, most of the major characters can be seen crossing its cavernous spaces, though it will be some time before we are fully aware of who they are and what they’re up to. We’re also given verbal (radio announcements) and nonverbal (signage) information that’s key to understanding the sociopolitical events that are about to transpire. This setup is very similar to Altman’s use of the airport terminal at the beginning of Nashville, to which Kansas City can be seen as a modest, yet equally incisive, companion piece.

Much like Fritz Lang, Altman is fascinated by the ways that various media link individuals. Communications technologies like the telegraph and telephone play an integral part in moving the plot along. Blondie’s social aspirations are encoded in her adoration for film actress Jean Harlow (another Kansas City native), whom she seeks to imitate late in the film by dying her hair platinum blond. Her house is plastered with photographs of Harlow torn from numerous fan magazines. Earlier, while they’re waiting to be contacted by Stilton, Blondie takes Carolyn to see Harlow’s recent talkie, Hold Your Man, and Blondie can barely tear her eyes from the screen, even when more pressing business awaits.

Johnny O’Hara spends most of the film in the Hey Hey Club basement being reprimanded by Seldom for his criminal audacity. Johnny robbed one of the club’s high-stakes gamblers while wearing blackface, a twofold offense for which Seldom takes his time figuring out the proper punishment. Along the way, he has a lot to say about the acquisitive and destructive attitudes of white society. Johnny reveals his glaring misapprehensions regarding race relations in his appeal for employment instead of assassination, during which he foolhardily claims that his life is somehow worth more to Seldom than his black accomplice’s was.

Again like Nashville, Kansas City concludes with a shocking act of violence. Only this time Altman doubles down with the cruel fate that awaits both Blondie and Johnny. Johnny is quite literally deprived of the guts that he’s so boldly bragged about possessing. And, responding to Blondie’s hysterical breakdown at Johnny’s demise, Carolyn coldly puts her down like you would a horse with a broken leg. It may be a mercy, but it’s one where the dissimilarity between killer and killed reveals a vast existential gulf. This divide is put even further in boldface by Carolyn’s final line of dialogue, once she’s finally reunited with her husband. Over at the Hey Hey Club, the band plays Duke Ellington’s “Solitude,” while the lights dim, and Seldom Seen silently counts out his daily take.

Image/Sound

Arrow’s Blu-ray of Kansas City improves by leaps and bounds over the 2005 DVD from New Line. Though the image is often dark and sometimes a bit soft, the HD transfer satisfyingly captures all the fine period details of costumes and décor. The nightclubs’ neon lights really pop, and color saturation overall is far richer than it was on New Line’s DVD. Grain levels are finely resolved and never chunky. The Blu-ray offers both the original stereo mix and a repurposed surround sound track. The latter provides some roomy spatialization for the almost continuous jazz music on the soundtrack, as well as some impressive canalization of sound effects like ringing gunfire and the clacking of dogs’ nails on parquet flooring.

Extras

Arrow offers an excellent selection of extras archived from both the earlier New Line release as well as a French-language release from 2007. On his commentary track, Robert Altman leans into the childhood memories of his hometown that informed his script. He talks about how the production designers reconstructed the era, describes his early exposure to jazz music, relates some amusing production anecdotes, and gets philosophical about his cinematic and existential influences. Two featurettes briefly explore the film’s evocation of period detail and the era’s musical culture. A DVD-era EPK has tantalizing snippets of interview with many of the cast and crew and some behind-the-scenes footage. French critic Luc Lagier provides a concise intro to the film, as well as an appealingly poetic reading of its themes of interconnection and disjunction. Arrow also tacks on a new bonus feature: an on-camera interview with critic Geoff Andrew, who begins by describing “the Altman style” (overlapping dialogue, roving camera), then provides a brief outline of peak-period Altman titles. Andrew goes on to discuss Kansas City’s depictions of class and race, the film’s rather cynical portrayal of the political process, and its skeptical take on the influence of the media.

Overall

A criminally underrated late-period Robert Altman film gets a burnished Blu-ray upgrade from the Arrow Academy, as well as a full slate of fine extras.

Cast: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Miranda Richardson, Harry Belafonte, Michael Murphy, Steve Buscemi, Dermot Mulroney, Brooke Smith, Jane Addams, Albert J. Burns Director: Robert Altman Screenwriter: Robert Altman, Frank Barhydt Distributor: Arrow Academy Running Time: 116 min Rating: R Year: 1996 Release Date: March 3, 2020 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Una Familia de Tantas and The Skeleton of Mrs. Morales

With these releases, VCI Video helps correct a gaping cultural blind spot.

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Una Familia de Tantas
Photo: VCI Video

Outside of the films made by Luis Buñuel during his two decades in Mexico, the golden age of Mexican cinema has remained largely unrepresented on home video outside of Mexico. Recently, retrospectives of Roberto Gavaldón’s work have sparked a reassessment of his career, but this rediscovery of a largely forgotten master only highlights the multitude of films still waiting to be unearthed from a national cinema that was a dominant cultural force in the aftermath of World War II and throughout the 1950s. But now, with VCI Video’s Blu-ray releases of 4K restorations of two treasures from that era, Alejandro Galindo’s Una Familia de Tantas and Rogelio A. González’s The Skeleton of Mrs. Morales, we move a little closer toward the correction of a gaping cultural blind spot.

Released in 1949, Una Familia de Tantas begins as a traditional domestic melodrama, with the patriarch, Rodrigo (Fernando Soler), running his household with the same exacting precision with which he balances his company’s books. His demands seem at first to be somewhat reasonable, if more than a bit strict (timeliness for meals and nightly curfews are de rigueur), but eventually the more draconian nature of his Catholic-infused discipline comes to the fore. There’s an undercurrent of perverseness in his obsessive need for control, particularly in his unceasing insistence that his 15-year-old daughter, Maru (Martha Roth), consider her older cousin, Ricardo (Carlos Riquelme), for marriage, as well as in his strictly observed golden rule that no man be allowed entry to the house without him present.

While Galindo stops short of linking Rodrigo’s pious authoritarian reign over his wife, Gracia (Eugenia Galindo), and daughters with an underlying sexual depravity, as Buñuel almost certainly would have, he shrewdly makes symbolic use of the domestic space as an unimpeachable domain of the patriarchy. Much of the film’s first half is set exclusively within the family home, with claustrophobic compositions underscoring the feelings of physical and psychological entrapment the various family members feel under Rodrigo’s thumb. Brief respites allow the eldest son and daughter, Héctor (Felipe de Alba) and Estela (Isabel del Puerto), to sneak out to the front gate to make out with their respective lovers, but their collective fear and paranoia inevitably draws them back inside to avoid their father’s wrath.

This testing of Rodrigo’s authority escalates more rapidly after a travelling salesman, Roberto (David Silva), tries to sell Maru a vacuum cleaner and, later, seduce her. His visit disrupts the heretofore undisputed dominance of Rodrigo’s patriarchal rule within his home, with Roberto’s arrival functioning as a metaphorical penetration of the father’s fortress of solitude and the beginning of a usurpation of an outmoded morality by a vision of modernity itself—both in the form of the modern, secular male, and in the new technological appliances he thrusts upon the family. The gradual destabilization of traditional familial structure ends with an expulsion of one family member, and ultimately leads Rodrigo and Gracia to exit the house for the first time and to a quietly negotiated reconfiguration of the family’s power dynamic.

If Una Familia de Tantas’s indictments of Catholic mores are inferred, The Skeleton of Mrs. Morales makes them largely the sole, explicit target of its contempt. Written by Luis Alcoriza—who collaborated with Buñuel on several of his Mexican masterpieces, including Él and The Exterminating Angel—González’s film ruthlessly excoriates the hypocrisies of both the church and its followers, and with a similarly acerbic wit and caustic humor as one would expect from Buñuel. Here, it’s the matriarch, Gloria (Amparo Rivelles), whose rigid ideological beliefs exert a palpable sense of sovereignty in the home she shares with her taxidermist husband, Dr. Morales (Arturo de Córdova). Yet, where Rodrigo, for all his faults, appeared wholly sincere in his Catholic beliefs, Gloria is far more conniving and prone to hypocrisy as she uses her puritanical ideals as a means of mentally torturing her husband.

From stealing the fun money that Dr. Morales has stashed away and donating it to the church, to ruining his enjoyment of both steak and sex by berating him for the disgusting nature of his job, Gloria employs an array of loathsome tactics simply to deny her husband the simple pleasures of life. Their bond is one of psychosexual torture, made all the more inextricable by Gloria incessantly playing up of the debilitating effects of her disfigured knee, which she uses to further exploit her husband’s sympathy and ensnare him in their relationship.

It’s through Dr. Morales’s increasingly desperate attempts to escape the highly dysfunctional marriage that González further lays out the corrosive effects of a form of sanctimonious self-martyrdom that stems from doctrinaire religious assumptions when mixed with an unhealthy dose of jealousy and resentment. But rather than leaning into the potential misogyny of this setup, González instead steers the plot straight into the realm of the macabre, probing the depths of human depravity with a delightfully cheeky and darkly humorous aplomb. His discerning eye reveals not only the duplicitous nature of the overly devout, but delivers a scathing indictment of a society overrun by the repressed and dispossessed.

Alejandro Galindo’s Una Familia de Tantas and Rogelio A. González’s The Skeleton of Mrs. Morales are now available on Blu-ray from VCI Video.

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