The long-standing description of Buster Keatonâs deadpan as âThe Great Stone Faceâ misleadingly characterizes one of the most subtly expressive visages in the cinema. It might further encourage the false conclusion that impassivity or steeliness is a key property of his immortal character, as seen in the 19 silent shorts he produced, co-directed, and starred in between 1920 and 1923, following his apprenticeship with Roscoe âFattyâ Arbuckle. Seen together in this collection, one of the filmsâ great themes seems to be the adaptability of Keatonâs naif. Whether by design (heâs resourceful without much common sense) or serendipity, he smoothly glides into appropriate motion in inappropriate settings, as a blacksmith courteously offering horses a wide selection of footwear, or as a fugitive trapped in a riverboatâs paddle wheel who commences to run like a hamster. Along with the creation of these haunting, surrealist-friendly tableaus, Keaton remains a gymnastic, dynamically funny performer.
Though these two-reel comedies never attain the physical scope of his most epic feature, The General, the best of them are conceived with ambitious and screen-bursting acts of imagination. One Week finds newlywed Buster and his spouse (Sybil Seeley) assembling a prefabricated house according to a scheme sabotaged by an ex-rival; the resulting crazy-angled construction doesnât faze the couple much, they just cope with a foundationless hearth that spins like a top in a windstorm. In The Boat, Keaton and Seeley are now parents of porkpie-hat-topped mini-Busters, and his decidedly unseaworthy homemade vessel Damfino puts the family in the kind of mortal peril seldom associated with slapstick. James Agee termed this discreet but haunting vein of darkness âa freezing whisper not of pathos but of melancholia,â and it makes for an illuminating contrast with Charlie Chaplinâs shorts, with their strokes of sentiment and social commentary. When Keaton flees down a broad boulevard from hundreds of hell-bent police in his enduring Cops, thereâs not a whiff of the Little Trampâs oppressed victim, just an existential norm of pursuer and pursued.
If, as in my eyes, Keatonâs shorts take a back seat to Chaplinâs, just as his features seem a greater total achievement than his contemporaryâs, the distinction is narrow and mostly a function of artist fitting form. Keatonâs motifs of decisive action via modes of transit, struggles in wooing and forming a family, and dreams and fantasies would continue to grow rich and strange with his move into six-reelers, while Chaplin lost some of his snap and vulgarity in expanding his plots with melodrama and Victorian romance. While Keaton retired broad smiles with his stint as Arbuckleâs second banana, in The Playhouse he atypically pulls a plethora of simian faces when made up as a performing monkey, after an introductory fantasia in which he plays an entire orchestra, cast of minstrels, and audience members in a theater with characteristic elegance and poise. âThis fellow Keaton seems to be the whole show,â one of his incarnations remarks, and in these six-plus hours of innovative popular art, Buster seized his chosen medium with the confidence of a blooming master.
Remastered mostly from 35mm archival elements (in a few instances, from prints that were discovered in a Keaton home long after he moved out), the black-and-white, occasionally tinted visuals have plenty of imperfections, in keeping with Kinoâs policy of not using ânoise-reductionâ digital cleanup that would compromise the sharpness of the image. The result is nevertheless a pleasing upgrade from the distributorâs box set of a decade ago, with generally satisfying contrast and stills used to replace lost scenes in a couple of titles. (And four of the shorts do have alternate, digitally enhanced versions for non-purists.) The musical soundtracks are mostly those arranged by Robert Israel for the 2001 box, but six new ones are supplied by composer-accompanist Ben Model, all good to excellent.
Short of owning it in conjunction with the 11-disc Kino box of shorts and features, this set of supplements comprises a nonpareil visual seminar on Buster Keatonâs cinematic craft and history. Fifteen of the shorts have accompanying âvisual essays,â treating through clips and production stills such topics as Keatonâs casting of supporting players, his amateur engineerâs penchant for designing his props and sets to support elaborate trick effects, how his 1921-22 productions were affected by the scandalous trials of his mentor Fatty Arbuckle, and Kinoâs method of finding and restoring the intertitles for the films. Unique among the essays is accompanist Ben Modelâs explanation of how his scoring of Busterâs masterpiece Cops has evolved over 30 years of playing at screenings. Further, four short pieces by author John Bengtson employ detective work to identify Keatonâs shooting locations, many in the streets surrounding his Hollywood studio (the same facility where, just a half-decade earlier, Chaplin had made his brilliant series of Mutual shorts). The Men Who Would Be Buster shows examples from five contemporaneous shorts by other comics who borrowed gags or sequences from Keaton shorts (including Stan Laurel, pre-Hardy, and Charley Chase). Two shorts feature Keaton cameosâone in which he acts as a waiter to Chaplin and Hollywood mogulsâand there are a handful of alternate takes from The Blacksmith, The Balloonatic, and The Goat. The setâs eight-page booklet features an essay on Keatonâs career by Jeffrey Vance, with brief notes on the production and significance of each short film.
This three-year output of Buster Keaton Productions, exhibited and explained, makes for a Damfino time on the couch.
Cast: Buster Keaton, Sybil Seely, Virginia Fox, Joe Roberts, Joe Keaton, Phyllis Haver, Kate Price Director: Buster Keaton, Eddie Cline, Mal St. Clair, Roscoe Arbuckle Screenwriter: Buster Keaton, Eddie Cline, Mal St. Clair Distributor: Kino International Running Time: 390 min Rating: NR Year: 1920 - 1923 Release Date: July 12, 2011 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: George Stevensâs Swing Time on the Criterion Collection
Criterion offers a lovely transfer of one of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogersâs most enduring films.4.5
The maddening joke of 1936âs Swing Time is the effort it takes for Fred Astaire to dance with Ginger Rogers. Director George Stevens and his various collaboratorsâincluding screenwriters Howard Lindsay and Allan Scott and legendary songwriters Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fieldsâknew that the audience wanted to experience the bliss of watching one of cinemaâs most ideally matched pairs move. But as romantic comedies continue to teach us, part of the pleasure of coitus resides in interruptus. Astaire and Rogers are icons who must be first humbled by the strictures of three-act plotting, which comes to mirror the petty irritations that stymie our own lives. In this context, an Astaire and Rogers duet isnât only technically audacious, it suggests catharsisâa leap from the banal everyday into transcendence.
Swing Time has some of Astaire and Rogersâs mightiest set pieces, which are intertwined to reflect their charactersâ evolving relationship. Early in the film, Lucky (Astaire) tricks Penny (Rogers) into believing that he canât dance, showing up at the institute that employs her pretending to be a klutz. She tries to teach him a three-step move, inspiring him to tease her with pratfalls. (Astaire falling over is more graceful than most of us dancing.) When he finally decides to turn on the juice, he twirls Penny with peerless precision to the number âPick Yourself Up,â perfecting the three-step move, their bodies gliding through the dance hall like pendulums as they intuitively bridge swing with tap, polka, and ballroom dancing.
And as Lucky and Penny dance, a farce blossoms into romance, and a recurring pattern is subtly established. The swing gesture of this routine, with Astaire and Rogers alternately twirling one another and performing intricate solos, is laced into the subsequent numbers. Many dances also end with the duo spinning off a given stage, which comes to signal either the salvaging or the dissolution of Lucky and Pennyâs romance.
This number is even more exhilarating for the fact that it takes the film nearly 30 minutes to unleash it. In the first act, Stevens and his collaborators build a magnificent tension, teasing the audience. For an Astaire and Rogers film, Swing Time has an unusually involved, almost free-associational plot that suggests what might happen if every 1930s-era screwball comedy and crime caper had been thrown into a mixer. At the filmâs opening, Lucky is to be married to Margaret (Betty Furness), which inspires Luckyâs fellow song-and-dance men to stage a remarkably mean-spirited ruse that ruins the ceremony. Trying to patch things up with Margaretâs father, Judge Watson (Landers Stevens, the directorâs father), Lucky promises to go to New York City and make a man out of himself, which the judge values at $25,000. The song-and-dance men also screw up this plan, and Lucky hitches a ride on the back of a train, clad in tux, with his Sancho Panza-like friend, Pop (Victor Moore), in tow.
Scene by scene, the plot makes little sense, and at times this seems to be a deliberate, and effective, means of deriving comedy. The ease with which Lucky changes the judgeâs mind over an arbitrary figure is resonantly funny, evoking the patriarchy with which Margaret and especially Penny must contend, and the judgeâs hypocrisy is capped off with a sharp sight gag: a portrait of the man, initially frowning, is smiling once father and suitor have brokered a deal. This notion of unfairly wielded male power is revisited soon again when Penny reports a theft to a cop, who sides with the well-dressed male perpetrator, Lucky. And the plot continues to pivot on elaborate, also intertwined deceptions, in which Lucky and Penny must appeal to influential and unappealing men so that they may dance. At times, Swing Time may remind contemporary viewers of a video game, in which prized footage must be âunlocked.â
The elegance of Stevensâs direction is most evident in the attention thatâs paid to the characters even in the filmâs most ludicrous stretches. Lucky, Penny, Pop, and Pennyâs friend, Mabel (Helen Broderick), are moving archetypes that embody the fantasy of America as a place where people can pull themselves up by the so-called bootstraps, conning their way into the upper echelons of societyâan especially appealing fantasy during the Depression, when the screwball comedyâs conventions were cemented. Stevens spryly stages Lucky and Pennyâs courtships and breakups, though he doesnât give these scenes the subterranean emotional charge that an Ernst Lubitsch might have. Stevens values speed, racing through the script to get to the filmâs reasons for existing, and the scruffiness of the romantic comedy contrasts likeably with the mathematical brilliance of the dance sequences.
For most films, âPick Yourself Upâ might be a show-stopping climax, but for Swing Time itâs the aperitif for set pieces of escalating intensity, in which Astaire and his choreographer, Hermes Pan, stretch the boundaries of their formalist imaginations. âWaltz in Swing Timeâ suggests a furious riff on âPick Yourself Up,â with Astaire and Rogers elaborating on the latterâs swing motif with more pointedly syncopated solos that morph into duets. âBojangles of Harlemâ stops the film in its tracks, opening with nasty iconography as a prop modeled after a minstrel version of, presumably, Bill Robinson opens to reveal Astaire in blackface, presiding over a throne with giant legs and feet protruding out from him.
What follows is one of the most astonishing dances in the history of cinema, in which Astaire moves with 24 chorus dancers, who break up into trios before reuniting in a single vast line, allowing Astaire to partner with all of them simultaneously before moving on to a different set piece in which he out-dances a trio of shadows of himself. In these shockingly obsessive and insular sequences, Astaire pushes his co-stars aside to plumb the outer reaches of his own talent, and his angular, demonic racial caricature has undeniable force.
For a while, âLuckyâ is forgotten, as Astaire is channeling, probably both intentionally and inadvertently, the perverse America that resides underneath the screwball musicalâs Horatio Alger myths. And Astaireâs self-absorption is only partially exorcised by âNever Gonna Dance,â in which Lucky attempts to win Penny back on a deserted stage with a double winding staircase, their movements disconnectedly echoing one anotherâs in a haunting physicalizing of loneliness and heartbreak. At the end of the song, they reunite for a pained spinning gesture that explodes the emotion of the set piece, visualizing a failed stab at reconciliation.
Astaire and Rogersâs dances are as difficult to evoke in theory as jazz, as both arts can be described in technical terms that fail to honor their profound emotional power. Astaire holding Rogers in his hands and arms suggests a grace for which many of us yearnâan ability to fully express a sense of belonging or of disenchantment with a lover. The plots of Astaire and Rogersâs films, though often amusing, are irrelevant, aside from serving as a contrasting mechanism in relation to the dances. As actors, Astaire and Rogers are tasked with performing formulaic romantic melodramas; as dancers, they embody the deepest and most ineffable, beautiful, and disruptive stirrings of the soul.
The image here is often pristine, particularly in the wide shots of the fabulous sets. In these compositions, the blacks are rich and the whites really pop. Facial textures are occasionally soft and the details of the costumes are sometimes a bit vaguer than one would prefer, though neither of these issues are deal breakers. The monaural soundtrack, however, is positively dynamic, rendering the Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern songs (all now standards of the American songbook) with piercing clarity and nuance. The same can be said of the presentation of the score at large, as well as, perhaps most importantly, the visceral machine-gun tapping of Astaire and Rogersâs shoes.
This Criterion Collectionâs release of Swing Time balances archive supplements with new features, providing a rich examination of both the technical marvels and the social implications of Stevensâs film. A 1986 audio commentary by John Mueller, author of Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films, is a stunningly detailed examination of the filmâs dance sequences, explaining Astaire and choreographer Hermes Panâs working methods, and how these were folded into the production at large. Complementing this commentary are other older interviews with Astaire, Rogers, Pan, and George Stevens Jr. Some of these interviews are mere snippets, but they offer a piece of the living history that Mueller discusses.
Produced for Criterion in 2019, âFull Swingâ features jazz and film critic Gary Giddins, dance critic Brian Seibert, and Dorothy Fields biographer Deborah Grace Winer. This program isnât as exhaustively technical as Muellerâs commentary, but it offers a full portrait of the major collaborations that drove Swing Time, Astaire and Rogersâs sixth collaboration, and even some of their other films. The dancing, songwriting, screenwriting, and direction are all discussed, refuting the notion of filmmaking as the act of a single conjurer.
Meanwhile, a new interview with film scholar Mia Mask directly confronts the troubling racial implications of the âBojangles of Harlemâ numberâa subject everyone else on this disc more or less skirts. Mask offers a primer on the history of minstrelsy in America, discussing its roots in the ridiculing of slaves and connecting this legacy to Bill Robesonâs transcendent showbiz career and to Astaireâs âerasureâ of Robeson in Swing Time. Mask offers an incisive and wide-reaching work of criticism in only a handful of minutes, contextualizing the exploitation that powered even our most beloved entertainments. A booklet featuring a characteristically lovely and erudite essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith rounds out the disc.
Criterion offers a lovely transfer of one of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogersâs most enduring films, complete with a well-detailed and occasionally tough supplements package.
Cast: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Victor Moore, Helen Broderick, Betty Furness, Eric Blore, Georges Metaxa, Landers Stevens Director: George Stevens Screenwriter: Howard Lindsay, Allan Scott Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 103 min Rating: NR Year: 1936 Release Date: June 11, 2019 Buy: Video
Review: Paul Leniâs The Last Warning on Flicker Alley Blu-ray
The filmâs debt to Universalâs The Phantom of the Opera cannot be overstated.3.5
One of the last entirely silent films of its era, Paul Leniâs The Last Warning stars Laura La Plante as Doris Terry, a Broadway actress who finds herself in the middle of a murder mystery. An attempt to capitalize on the success of 1927âs The Cat and the Canary, Leni and La Planteâs first horror collaboration, The Last Warning plays like Universalâs curtain call to a certain stripe of horror movie that would be supplanted by their iconic monsters of the early talkies.
The Last Warning is an amusing, if clunkily structured, affair revolving around the unsolved murder of a theater companyâs leading man that took place during an on-stage theatrical performance. While the bulk of the filmâs action takes place years after that fateful performance, with the theater company reconvening to try and finally resolve the actorâs murder, a significant amount of real estate is taken up at the start by a lengthy and mostly unnecessary introduction of the companyâs actors and crew, including Doris, actor Harvey Carleton (Roy DâArcy), and director Richard Quayle (John Boles).
As was typical of how female stars were conceived within genre-oriented studio films of the era, The Last Warning sees La Plante less as a flesh-and-blood woman than as an icon of vulnerability and fear. Leniâs close-ups of this leading lady are essentially opportunities for her to make a show of Dorisâs various states of fear, confusion, and suspiciousness. And the womanâs suspicion is most evident in scenes where the story deliberately positions her as one of the prime suspects. But itâs clear that this tactic is a red herring. After all, to make the top-billed heroine of a silent-era studio picture a killer would not merely deviate from convention, but dismantle it, and the film is nothing if not married to convention.
Indeed, the film as a whole is too geared to its rather routine whodunit plot, which at various points flirts with the supernatural without every fully committing to it. At the behest of the companyâs producer, Mike Brody (Bert Roach), and the theaterâs new owner, Arthur McHugh (Montagu Love), the company decides to not only reenact the performance from the night of John Woodfordâs (DâArcy Corrigan) murder five years prior, but to put on the show for a paying audience. Alas, these flatly ridiculous story choices donât lead to any particularly terrifying moments, as theyâre mostly a jumping-off point for Leni to have a little bit of fun with shadows in order to suggest that the dead actorâs ghost might be haunting the theater.
The filmâs debt to Universalâs The Phantom of the Opera cannot be overstated, though Leni finally plays against the pathos of the 1925 filmâs sentimentality with a sequence involving a masked killer that plays more like a prototype for the Italian gialli films of the 1960s and beyond. Itâs only at the climax that The Last Warning embraces genuine thrills, as the killer, a member of the production crew, sets out to murder again. If the whole of the plot proves rather thin by the time the perp is unveiled, that impression is leavened at times by Leniâs visual choices. Most notable is the momentâso kinetic in its sense of terror and playâwhen Barbara Morgan (Carrie Daumery), an elderly actress with the theater company, leaps from atop the stage and plummets to the ground, with the camera taking on her POV.
Although the image has been struck from a 4K restoration, the visible deterioration and scratches on display suggest that the filmâs negative was beyond economical repair. Still, the damage isnât so bad that it prevents our enjoyment of The Last Warning, and, to be fair, the less damaged footage does give us a rather sparkling sense of what the film must have looked like during its initial run. Arthur Barrowâs newly recorded score, which vacillates throughout between the lightest and darkest of notes, sounds robust on the DTS-HD audio track.
The only extra of substance is a 10-minute visual essay by film historian John Soister on the filmâs significance within Paul Leniâs filmography. The Last Warning was to be Leniâs final work, as he died from blood poisoning less than a year after its release. Thereâs also an image gallery with some intriguing scans of vintage promotional materials and production stills from the filmâs initial run, an essay excerpt titled âOf Gods and Monstersâ from Soisterâs book of the same name, and a short essay by composer Arthur Barrow on his score for the film.
Less scary and innovative than modestly amusing, Paul Leniâs 1928 whodunit receives a new 4K restoration, utilizing the best available elements, from Flicker Alley.
Cast: Laura La Plante, Montagu Love, Roy DâArcy, Margaret Livingston, John Boles, Bert Roach, Carrie Daumery, Burr McIntosh, DâArcy Corrigan Director: Paul Leni Screenwriter: Alfred A. Cohn, Tom Reed Distributor: Flicker Alley Running Time: 78 min Rating: NR Year: 1928 Release Date: June 4, 2019 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: William Wylerâs The Heiress on the Criterion Collection
Criterionâs release excellently preserves William Wylerâs psychologically probing masterwork.4
William Wylerâs The Heiress demonstrates the filmmakerâs keen eye for composition as a means of enhancing his actorsâ performances. The spectacularly ornate home at the center of the film is befitting of the considerably wealthy Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson). Yet the ample space left between objects in a room hints at a hollow, impersonal atmosphere that envelops Austinâs unwed daughter, Catherine (Olivia de Havilland). A plain, naĂŻve, and shy young woman, Catherine comes across as a woman so socially awkward and insecure that the coldness of the family home seems comforting compared to the world outside.
Despite Catherineâs shyness, the young woman does want to socialize, and she accompanies her father one night to a party where she meets Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), the son of a local family in the Sloperâs aristocratic circle whose profligate spending has already decimated his inheritance. If Catherineâs array of nervous ticsâwidened eyes, reflexive but forced smilesâalienate her from others, Morrisâs magnetism is such that everyone is drawn to him. He takes a keen interest in Catherine and effortlessly carries the conversation when she gets flustered and doesnât know what to say.
De Havilland, who won an Oscar for her performance here, painstakingly captures Catherineâs manic, disbelieving glee at seeing a man talk to her, and in this moment, the camera moves more than it does for the remainder of The Heiress, not only in sync with the dancing at the party, but with Catherineâs sudden rush of infatuation. Morris thoroughly charms her and even puts on a face of mock dejection when a drunken old man cuts in for a dance, and when he calls on Catherine the next day, their courtship turns into an engagement in short order.
Catherineâs impending nuptials should be wonderful news for Austin, whoâs struggled to find a suitor for his child, but he rejects the union on the grounds that he believes that no man as handsome and suave as Morris could possibly be interested in his dull, homely daughter, and as such must simply want her for her inheritance. The disdain that Austin reveals for Catherine shocks her to the core, and to make matters worse, her father may be right about Morris. The dual blow of discovering that the men in her life see her largely as an object is shattering, and if Wylerâs mostly static compositions first communicated her introversion, slowly they come to reflect her abject misery. Some shots endure for so long that you can almost see as Catherineâs sorrow and humiliation harden into bitterness in real time.
Wylerâs willingness to set up a shot with exacting formal precision, then cede prominence to the actors who move within the space of the frame, results in a multivalent study of not only the storyâs characters, but of the classic Hollywood eraâs markedly different styles of acting. Richardson portrays even Austinâs more subtle gestures of contemptuousness with the most theatrical of cadences. Elsewhere, Cliftâs facility with intoxicating yet repellent characters stresses the ambiguity of Morrisâs devotion, and the longer any of Morrisâs scenes last, the harder it is to tell whether heâs manipulating Catherine or genuinely interested in her. Thereâs even the character-actress bawdiness that Miriam Hopkins brings to Catherineâs widowed aunt, whose genuine affection for her niece belies her own exploitative tendencies, as she lives vicariously through the younger womanâs romance.
Then, of course, thereâs de Havilland. The actress was often typecast as homely characters, and here she upsets common expectations by pushing Catherineâs innocence to parodic levels before shifting into a tragic-heroine mode worthy of the cinemaâs greatest depictions of emotional despair. The Heiress is mysterious when it comes to charactersâ intentions, but itâs downright confrontational in the brutal impact of its protagonistâs struggle for social acceptance. The finale, in which Catherine finally gains agency in her life only by consciously walling herself up in the very home that previously served as her cage, is an act of cruelty perpetuated as much against herself as those who wronged her.
Criterionâs Blu-ray boasts a sparkling transfer with only a handful of noticeable artifacts. For example, some shimmering is evident in scenes due to the clashing patterns of the charactersâ clothing. Otherwise, contrast is stable throughout, and detail is so sharp that the finest details of Edith Headâs costumes are plainly noticeable. The lossless mono track is faultless, with excellent dialogue clarity and no audible hisses or tinniness.
In an extended conversation, critic Farran Smith Nehme and screenwriter Jay Cocks extensively cover the film, from its influence on Cocks and Martin Scorseseâs The Age of Innocence to the manner in which Wylerâs mostly static, open compositions communicate the charactersâ psychological depths. Also included is an episode of The Merv Griffin Show that pays tribute to Wyler and includes interviews with the director, de Havilland, Bette Davis, and Walter Pidgeon, as are archival interviews with de Havilland and Ralph Richardson. An interview with costume historian Larry McQueen covers Edith Headâs designs for the film, noting how Catherineâs style of dressing slowly changes with her emotional arc. An accompanying booklet contains an essay by critic Pamela Hutchinson that thoroughly breaks down the film, from its faithfulness to and divergences from Henry Jamesâs Washington Square to its rich acting to Wylerâs sophistication as both a stylist and actorâs director.
Criterionâs release excellently preserves William Wylerâs psychologically probing masterwork.
Cast: Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson, Miriam Hopkins, Vanessa Brown, Betty Linley, Ray Collins, Mona Freeman, Selena Royle, Paul Lees Director: William Wyler Screenwriter: Ruth Goetz, Augustus Goetz Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 1949 Release Date: May 7, 2019 Buy: Video
Review: Edward Dmytrykâs Warlock on Twilight Time Blu-ray
Twilight Timeâs release of Warlock will bring some much-deserved attention to Edward Dmytrykâs morally knotty western.3.5
Edward Dmytrykâs Warlock, so abundant in richly drawn characters and moral ambiguity, is a meticulous deconstruction of western tropes, beginning with the heroic stranger riding into a troubled town. Indeed, when the stoic and implacable Clay Blaisedell (Henry Fonda) shows up in Warlock, armed with his famous pair of gold-handled Colt pistols and his loyal sidekick, Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn), at his side, heâs understood to be the townâs last hope of ousting a ruthless gang of criminals led by Abe McQuown (Tom Drake). Clayâs arrival lays the groundwork for a clearly defined conflict between good and evil, with the legendary aging gunman set to stand up to Abe and his thugs, whoâve been holding Warlockâs citizens hostage for months, running multiple sheriffs out of town. But the film undercuts expectations at nearly every turn, as characters frequently shift allegiances, effectively blurring the line between good and evil.
Despite Clayâs seemingly honorable intentions, heâs certainly no hero, but rather a mercenary who trades law and order as a commodity, providing it for the hefty price tag of $400 a month, quadruple the salary given to the townâs sheriff. While his ruthless methods make him seem quite cynical, heâs a realist at heart, admitting to the citizens committee that hired him that theyâll inevitably come to resent and fear him for retaining the power they hand over to him in desperation. And, of course, heâs right. But the filmâs thorniest dramatic entanglements arise neither from Clayâs uneasy alliance with the people of Warlock nor his ongoing conflicts with the McQuown gang, though the latter makes for a few outstanding action set pieces.
Instead of gun fights, itâs the psychological interplay between Clay and Tom, whose partnership grows increasingly tumultuous, that takes center stage. Tom, the Doc Holliday to Clayâs Wyatt Earp, worships his friend and remains as committed to establishing him as a living legend as he does to moving on to other towns in order to rake in as much money as possible. But even though Tomâs affection is genuineâhe almost tearfully admits that Clay was âthe only person who looked at [him] and didnât see a crippleââhe plays dirty behind his partnerâs back, setting up murders that might otherwise be unnecessary simply to protect his idol. And when Clay finds himself smitten with Jessie (Dolores Michaels) and talks of hanging up his spurs and settling down in Warlock, Tomâs mix of anger and melancholy is palpable.
The rift between the men is further widened when Clay finds himself in another thorny alliance, this time with Johnny Gannon (Richard Widmark), a world-weary thug who finally leaves the McQuown gang after they slaughter 37 cattle herders, and surprises even himself by accepting the open offer to serve as Warlockâs official sheriff. Johnnyâs transformation is as close as this otherwise sobering, pessimistic film comes to sketching a redemptive arc, but even he remains conflicted to his core, struggling to balance his burgeoning desire for uncompromised law and order and his emotional attachment to some of McQuownâs men, specifically his little brother, Billy (Frank Gorshin). The resulting showdown among Tom, Clay, and Johnny sees the men applying morally dubious methods as they vie to implement their own versions of justice in Warlock. But justice remains an elusive ideal in this rough, little frontier town where the cycle of violence continues unabated no matter whoâs in charge.
Near the end of Warlock, itâs Tom, as the audience surrogate, who hammers home the filmâs final blow to the mythmaking that drove so many Hollywood westerns of this era. In a last-ditch attempt to secure Clayâs status as a town legend, Tom keeps him alive by holding him at gunpoint and preventing him from fighting McQuownâs men once again. Afterward, Tom gleefully says, âYouâll be a hero again. Thatâs all I want Clay. Iâve won.â In disgust, Clay replies, âAll right, youâve won. Weâll play this out to the end just as you want it.â But Tomâs optimism is revealed as a delusion and Clay, who resigns himself to the inescapable transience of his way of life, doesnât deliver the happy ending the viewer has no doubt come to expect. Instead, he leaves behind everything thatâs made him a legend and rides into the horizon to yet another townâand without the girl, his partner, or his trusty gold-handled pistols.
Warlock has a color scheme thatâs familiar from so many â50s westerns, where the earthy tones of dirt and dust are intertwined with the vibrant colors of high-end saloon interiors, expensive fabrics, and big, blue skies. Itâs a tricky palette to correctly color balance, but Twilight Timeâs transfer is up to the task, retaining the richness of the primary colors without amping up the brightness of the entire image. There are a handful of shots that are less than sharp, especially in some of the wider exterior scenes, though this flaw, but the flaw is infrequent enough to never be distracting. Overall, thereâs a solid contrast to the image, and a bit of the grain from the 35mm is held over to provide a bit of depth and prevent the picture from appearing overly digitized. The lossless audio tracks are very clean, and mixed robustly enough to never miss the various aural details during the chaotic shootout sequences.
The disc extras are pretty meager, consisting only of the original theatrical trailer, the brief Fox Movietone Newsreel that shows the stars at the filmâs premiere, and an isolated music track. A small booklet is included with an essay by Julie Kirgo, who makes a case for the filmâs homoerotic subtext between Clay, Tom, and Johnny, while also covering the filmâs subtle tale of morality and themes of redemption and justice.
Twilight Timeâs release of Warlock will bring some much-deserved attention to Edward Dmytrykâs morally knotty western.
Cast: Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Anthony Quinn, Dorothy Malone, Dolores Michaels, Wallace Ford, Tom Drake, Richard Arlen, DeForest Kelley, Regis Toomey, Vaughn Taylor, Whit Bissell Director: Edward Dmytryk Screenwriter: Robert Alan Aurthur Distributor: Twilight Time Running Time: 121 min Rating: NR Year: 1959 Release Date: May 21, 2019 Buy: Video
Review: AgnĂšs Vardaâs One Sings, The Other Doesnât on Criterion Blu-ray
An optimistic celebration of women and their ongoing liberation, the film remains moving, inspirational, and perhaps a shade too relevant.4
AgnĂ©s Vardaâs One Sings, the Other Doesnât is about two friends whose lifelong bond is forged when, in 1962, 17-year-old Pauline (Valerie Mairesse) helps 22-year-old Suzanne (ThĂ©rĂšse Liotard) get an illegal abortion. Separated after the tragedy of Suzanneâs loverâs suicide, the pair encounter each other again in 1972, on the cusp of the legalization of abortion in France. From this point, the film follows their lives as they intersect and diverge, and as these two women are shaped by the politics of the 1970s. Reflecting on 15 years of second-wave feminism, One Sings, the Other Doesnât is a poetic homage to the strength of women as they fight a protracted battle for liberationâone thatâs made all the more relevant given the new generation of feminist activism thatâs confronting a fresh wave of assaults on womenâs rights.
Pauline and Suzanne encounter each other for the first time in 10 years at a protest outside the trial of a woman charged with terminating her pregnancy. Suzanne is in the crowd of protestors with her daughter when they see Pauline performing a folk protest song as part of the real-life feminist performance group OrchidĂ©e, whose members include JoĂ«lle Papineau, Micou Papineau, and Doudou Greffier. Suzanne, much more the calm bourgeoise than Pauline, runs a womenâs health clinic in the South of France. Pauline, who stole the money for the abortion from her parents and soon thereafter moved out to live on her own, is now an outspoken hippie activist whoâs changed her name to Pomme (or Apple).
One Sings, the Other Doesnât takes on the quality of a cinematic epistolary novel. Having reconnected, Pauline and Suzanne begin exchanging letters and postcards, read by the actresses in voiceover. This exchange becomes Vardaâs elegant celebration of a multi-vocal feminism. The women are different: one is orange-haired and outspoken, the other brunette and more reserved; one sings, the other doesnât. And yet, their friendship is close, held together by an almost utopian bond rooted in their shared experiences as women, both positive and negative. Varda is the implicit third member of this trio, also appearing on the soundtrack as narrator, mediating between the two perspectives like an older sister.
Through their letters, the pair recount to one another the course of their lives in a France being changed by womenâs liberation. Pomme, living on her own since she was 17, unified her ardent feminism with her passion for singing and OrchidĂ©eâs formation. Her story provides the filmâs exuberant feminist musical sequences, with music by FranĂ§ois Wertheimer and lyrics by Varda herself. One Sings, the Other Doesnât is sometimes described as a feminist musical, even though the songs appear infrequently and irregularly. Less vital to the narrative than the letters, they are asides that show how a joyful form of homespun artânot totally dissimilar to the handcrafted quality of Vardaâs film itselfâcan be an effective political tool.
When Pommeâs letters catch up to the filmâs current-day setting, sheâs taking a leave from the band to travel to Iran with her boyfriend, Darius (Ali Rafie). She falls in love with the exotic beauty of the countryâas does Vardaâs camera, lingering on the bright orange and yellow arabesques painted onto a mosque the couple visits. Caught up in romantic notions of the East, Pomme decides to marry Darius, and is soon pregnant.
In contrast to Pommeâs story of communal feminist activism and love, Suzanne was more or less banished to the countryside after the suicide of her married lover, JĂ©rĂŽme (Robert DadiĂšs), living with the conservative family who disapproved of her and JĂ©rĂŽmeâs two âillegitimateâ children. âI felt like I was frozen in time,â Suzanne recounts of her first years outside Paris, over Vardaâs representation of a desolate and stifling rural life. Varda uses impersonal lateral tracking shots, similar to those she would employ in 1985âs Vagabond, to convey Suzanneâs alienation as she performs chores around her familyâs farm. Gradually, Suzanne takes charge of her situation, learning typing skills, cutting her teeth in factory work alongside other women, and building an independent life for herself and her children.
In Suzanneâs words we are reminded of the importance of time to Vardaâs filmsâand to her feminism. Vardaâs ClĂ©o from 5 to 7 is one of the greatest films about time, exploring what it means to live inside a feminized body. One Sing, the Other Doesnât is a different use of cinema to represent time, capturing the duration of a political movement as it runs through the lives of these two women. When they first meet, Pomme and Suzanne are both dominated by JĂ©rĂŽme, the tortured-artist photographer, who takes black-and-white pictures of women looking weary and dissatisfied. By the end of the film, as each of them is surrounded by their children and friends, theyâre able to look forward with optimismâreflected in the vibrant colors of Vardaâs mise-en-scĂšneâto the next generation of women, represented by Suzanneâs teenaged daughter, Marie, played by Vardaâs own daughter, Rosalie Varda-Demy.
âThe personal is politicalâ declared second-wave feminism, and certainly Vardaâs depiction of an enduring female friendship is a realization of this slogan. One Sings, the Other Doesnât reminds us that womenâs personal livesâtheir relationships with men and each otherâare a political matter. Merely showing women who support each other across great distances and differences counts as a brash political assertion, both in 1977 and today.
The 1080p transfer, based on a 2K restoration of the film overseen by AgnĂ©s Varda and cinematographer Charles Van Damme, exudes a striking filmlike quality, preserving the grain of the 35mm original. The level of detail is impeccable throughout; even in low-light exterior shots of a harvested field late in the film, for example, it seems as if every blade of grass is visible. The PCM mono track, restored from the original 35mm magnetic mix, isnât terribly dynamic, but the dialogue and songs are nonetheless clear and crisp-sounding throughout.
In addition to âBodies and Selves,â an essay on the film by Amy Taubin that focuses on the audacity of AgnĂšs Vardaâs emphasis on issues of bodily autonomy, the discâs liner notes reproduce excerpts from the filmâs original press kit. Here, Varda and actresses ValĂ©rie Mairesse and ThĂ©rĂšse Liotard discuss the origins of the film and their experiences making it; Liotard and Mairesseâs observations about how much safer a woman-directed set feels reverberates in our Me Too moment. And on the actual disc weâre offered several extras that serve as perfect companion pieces to the feature. In Plaisir dâamour en Iran, a 1976 short film by Varda that stands on its own as a poetic exploration of erotic love, Darius and Pomme are seen sharing a blissful first few days in Iran. And in RĂ©ponse de femmes, a short essay film from 1975 that exhibits the same embrace of womenâs divergent lives and desires as the feature, Varda gathers a group of French women and girls of various ages to answer the question: âWhat is a woman?â Finally, a making-of documentary by Katja Raganelli titled Women Are Naturally Creative: Agnes Varda takes us into the Varda-Demy household, in which a very businesslike Vardaâfar removed from the coy old lady we know from her late documentariesâdiscusses the goals and pressures of being an independent female filmmaker.
An optimistic celebration of women and their ongoing liberation, One Sings, the Other Doesnât remains moving, inspirational, and perhaps a shade too relevant.
Cast: ValĂ©rie Mairesse, ThĂ©rĂšse Liotard, Ali Raffi, Robert DadiĂšs, Jean-Pierre Pellegrin Director: AgnĂšs Varda Screenwriter: AgnĂšs Varda Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 121 min Rating: NR Year: 1977 Release Date: May 28, 2019 Buy: Video
Review: Paul Leniâs The Man Who Laughs on Flicker Alley Blu-ray
The magnificent transfer further deepens the emotional resonance of Leniâs strange, transfixing, and compassionate film.4
Early on in Paul Leniâs The Man Who Laughs, the surgically perma-grinning Gwynplaine looks at himself in his dressing-room mirror. A one-time son of English royalty who as a boy was turned into a freak-show attraction by political enemies, Gwynplaine spends his time as a traveling performer whose wide crescent smile sends the great unwashed into tizzies of both horror and, eventually, delight. As he looks at himself in the mirror, heâs struck with the hollow ghastliness of his life, and his face sags into a visage of misery, with the exception of his perpetual grin. A moment of bravura acting by Conrad Veidt (already famous for his portrayal of Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), itâs topped by a wonderful cinematic grace note when Gwynplaine closes the doors of the mirror and finds them ironically painted with the Greek masks of comedy and tragedy.
Whether it was because Lon Chaney had recently signed a contract at MGM and was unavailable for work at Universal, or because one of the studioâs founders, filmmaker Carl Laemmle, had a great eye for German expressionism, The Man Who Laughs took the Universal âsuper jewelâ series of gothic horror to new and unparalleled heights in cinematic intelligence. Like many a German expressionist nightmare, the film, based on a novel by Victor Hugo, is a collision of non-complementary angles and framing that confuses as often as it elucidates. At the same timeâand unlike The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Leniâs own 1924 silent Waxworksâit itâs also remarkably clean in its delineation of action.
In the same manner that Veidt is both the filmâs central monster as well as its main source of pathos (all but laying out the blueprint for James Whaleâs Frankenstein), the filmâs fascination with bric-a-brac and its tendency toward spare, minimalist compositions is evidence of a stylistic schism. This obsessive dualism that runs throughout the film also informs the love triangle between Gwynplaine, his blind co-star girlfriend, Dea (Mary Philbin), and the Duchess (Ogla Baclanova). Itâs a little off-puttingâand probably also a function of Laemmleâs insistence that The Man Who Laughs rival Phantom of the Operaâs phenomenal box-office successâthat all superfluous characters basically adhere faithfully to one of two sides of the classic good-evil dichotomy, but even that framework could be taken as a critique on Leniâs part of Hollywoodâs psychologically limiting archetypes. Veidtâs terrifying grin masks the horror of having oneâs looks be objectified at the expense of their humanity.
Flicker Alleyâs transfer of a new 4K restoration by Universal Studios brings a remarkable depth and level of detail to almost every shot. A healthy amount of grain is evident throughout, and the strong image contrast highlights both the filmâs impressively detailed set design and the intricacies of the actorsâ faces, particularly that of Conrad Veidt, whose tortured, tragicomic expressions present the filmâs pathos at its most overwhelming. Thereâs the slightest bit of flickering in about one-third of the shots, and some far less frequent signs of scratching, but for a 90-year-old film, such minor artifacts of natural decay hardly count as negatives. The Berklee Silent Film Orchestraâs new score sounds fantastic, boasting a dynamic range that perfectly accompanies the filmâs dramatic ebbs and flows.
The lone extra on the disc, aside from a collection of production stills, is the short but informative âPaul Leni and The Man Who Laughs.â Despite its title, the featuretteâs focus is less on Leni than on studio head Carl Laemmle, whose âfondness for literatureâs quirky sideâ led him to produce The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Phantom of the Opera before taking on The Man Who Laughs. After quite a bit of historical context surrounding Universalâs release of the film and the reasons behind the studioâs inability to cast Lon Chaney in the lead, Leni is given his proper due, rightfully celebrated for his uncanny ability to mix black humor with an expressionistic eye. The Blu-ray, and accompanying DVD copy, comes with a 20-page booklet with an array of production stills and two essays. The first, by film historian Kevin Brownlow, covers the filmâs production history in detail and touches on each of the major performances, while also praising the film for its innovation and influence on later films such as Frankenstein and The Old Dark House. The second essay, by Sonia Coronado, discusses the creation of the new score and, in the process, provides unique insight into the scoring of silent films.
Flicker Alleyâs magnificent transfer only further deepens the emotional resonance of Paul Leniâs strange, transfixing, and compassionate film.
Cast: Mary Philbin, Conrad Veidt, Julius Molnar, Olga Baclanova, Brandon Hurst, Cesare Gravina, Stuart Holmes, Sam De Grasse, George Siegmann, Josephine Crowell, KĂĄroly HuszĂĄr Director: Paul Leni Screenwriter: J. Grubb Alexander Distributor: Flicker Alley Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 1928 Release Date: June 4, 2019 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Claire Denisâs Let the Sunshine In on the Criterion Collection
Criterion gives one of last yearâs most deeply felt and beautifully shot films a rich transfer and a respectable set of extras.4
Claire Denisâs 2013 film Bastards is a squalid and serpentine anti-thriller, the most lugubrious, nihilistic work in an already bleak oeuvre. In it, Denis depicts, with her usual salaciousness and elusivity, the vindictive stratagem of a sailor whose brother has committed suicide and whose niece is the victim of a barbaric sexual assault thatâs left her broken. He ascertains that the man responsible is a wealthy and sleazy septuagenarian, whose wife becomes a desired effigy, an object for masculine revenge. âGive me a handjob,â the old man demands of her, in his first scene. Shooting digitally for the first time, Denis drags the viewer through an aphotic, disconsolate endeavor, infected with the still-lingering influence of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. A lurid enigma, erotic noir as tragedy, Bastards is a film that burrows into genre like a parasite, while probing the darkest alcoves of the human heart.
Denisâs latest, Let the Sunshine In, is considerably less despondent, concerned as it is with the fragility, and perseverance, of the heart. Its modesty and intimacy runs the risk of being erroneously labelled slight. Itâs a 95-minute reconciliation with love, which has always been something of an unmitigable poison for Denisâs characters. The self-destructive nature of searching for meaning, for a partner, has long fascinated the filmmaker, and here she strips bare that hopeless pursuit. In those diurnal moments, the mundane, unexceptional motions that make up a relationship, Denis disinters the pleasures (however brief) and pain of love.
Isabelle (Juliette Binoche) is longing for love. Hers is a Sisyphean desperation. In a world of wolves, she finds selfish and acrimonious men with raging libidos and diminished morals. We first see her naked on her back as a man, Vincent (Xavier Beauvois), humps away on top of herâand right away, one may wonder if this is a portrait of a liberated woman or a glimpse from the male gaze. Thereâs much huffing and moaning and no cumming. Vincent asks if Isabelle came faster with her former lovers, which earns him a slap. Portly and pretentious, a sybarite banker with a posh apartment, royal blue shoes, and an abstract vermilion painting that resembles the blood-streaked wall from Trouble Every Day, Vincent is Isabelleâs first lover in the film. In a bar bedecked with glimmering top-shelf liquors and mood-setting candles, he instructs the bartender to leave him a bottle and two glasses, so he can pour the drinks himself. Denis shoots Isabelle and Vincentâs ensuing conversation with fluid pans instead of traditional reverse shots, evoking love as a continuous stream.
The next time we see the self-pitying Vincent, Isabelle calls him scum and kicks him out. He clings like a stain she canât scrub out, but she moves on to other lovers, from a beer-swilling actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle) to a gaunt, purportedly uneducated man (Paul Blain). She brings them home, begging if they hesitate, but fails to find that one true love, the kind you hear about in fairy tales and old French films. Denis regular Alex Descas portrays a man who could be âthe oneâ for Isabelle, but life (and self-destructive tendencies) have a way of ruining these kinds of things. Denis isnât known for letting her characters have traditionally happy endings, and the tragedy here is how normal that feels: how futile love can be for the unlovable.
The film is inspired by Roland Barthesâs 1977 exegesis The Loverâs Discourse: Fragments, a clinical examination of love thatâs comprised of quotes and musings from a medley of canonical and esoteric writers. Turning an unadaptable work of postmodern literature into an incandescent cinematic reverie on loveâs follies as a quick side project could have been a masturbatory exercise in intellectualism, but Denis finds the inexorable beauty (and sadness) in that most corrosive and fugacious of feelings. For Isabelle, love is a toxic need. Barthes, not known for sentimentality, discusses love as an intellectual pursuit, an aching inevitability, one to ponder rather than feel. Denis is also not known for producing art of a cuddly natureâher career is rife with barbarities, with the dissolution of lives and lovesâyet Let the Sunshine In is easily the most empathetic, heartfelt film of her illustrious career. Throughout, Isabelleâs romantic plight encapsulates the confusion of being alone. The film is garrulous and often uproarious, especially Gerard Depardieuâs late appearance as a psychic charlatan, but within these laughs is a deep, familiar disappointment, the sensation of irreparable loneliness.
Denisâs films reveal themselves with precision and control, and often with a macabre reverence for genre, probing the inherent rot in the human core. Trouble Every Day shrouds itself in the aesthetic of vampires and zombie lore; the poetry and pain in that film are innate in the seduction of venereal destruction, the entanglement of love and sex, love and hate, sex and death. Bastards wears the stoic face of noir so it can cogitate the roles of sex and betrayal. Beau Travail transliterates Herman Melvilleâs low-key homoerotic sailor tale Billy Budd, in which Melville wrestles with the magnanimity of God and the mendacity of man, as a vituperative study of imperialism and militarism as wanton outlets for flimsy masculinity.
Let the Sunshine In, the closest thing to a rom-com that Denis has made since Friday Night (a film thatâs tender yet tormented, and not particularly comedic), feels, thematically and formally, like an epilogue to her favorite theme. Itâs gentle yet devastating, like an insincere âI love youâ whispered into oneâs ear, the duplicity hidden behind upward-curving lips, the pangs of misplaced vulnerability. Isabelle isnât emotionally reticent, and she opens up quite easily, but she tries to force love, afraid it will never find her. Denisâs films often end with a reveal, a character learning something previously withheld, or the viewer learning that a character knew more than we expected. Here, nothing is learned; nothing changes. Over Depardieuâs lecherous skullduggery Denis lays the end credits, his affably manipulative performance and Isabelleâs swoony obliviousness suggesting that Isabelle will never find what sheâs looking for.
Color balance and contrast is consistent throughout this striking transfer. This is especially impressive considering the varied hues of AgnĂ©s Godardâs cinematography, from the dark colors that predominate in the settings and costuming, as in the low-sit clubs and nighttime streets, to the warmest of yellows that illuminate the charactersâ faces. The sound is very clear, which is very important for such a dialogue-driven film. The 5.1 mix doesnât get too much of a workout, but it does show its euphoric might whenever off-screen sounds and the occasional songâmostly notably Etta Jamesâs âAt Lastââflit into the mix.
Included on this disc are two separate interviews with director Claire Denis and actress Juliette Binoche, who discuss the origins of the project and hit on some of the same points: Binocheâs real-life love of painting, their momentary disagreement over costuming choices, and what the film has to say about being a single middle-aged woman. Denis gives much credit for the final shape of the film to her co-writer, the novelist Christine Angot, as well as to cinematographer AgnĂ©s Godard. Also included is Denisâs 2014 short VoilĂ lâenchaĂźnment, a heartfelt series of vignettes about a mixed-race couple. The liner notes contain a brief but insightful essay by film critic Stephanie Zacharek that places Let the Sunshine In in the context of Denisâs canon, as well as draws out its connections to the work of two of her major influences, critic and literary theorist Roland Barthes and filmmaker Jacques Rivette.
The Criterion Collection gives one of last yearâs most deeply felt and beautifully shot films a rich transfer and a respectable set of extras.
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Xavier Beauvois, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Alex Descas, Philippe Katerine, Josiane Balasko, Laurent GrĂ©vill, Bruno PodalydĂšs, Paul Blain, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, GĂ©rard Depardieu, Sandrine Dumas, Claire Tran Director: Claire Denis Screenwriter: Claire Denis, Christine Angot Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 95 min Rating: NR Year: 2017 Release Date: May 21, 2019 Buy: Video
Review: Hal Ashbyâs The Landlord on Kino Lorber Blu-ray
Kino offers a sturdy transfer of Ashbyâs overlooked and still quite volatile feature film debut.3.5
Mainstream American films concerning race relations tend to follow one of two patterns: Either they hopefully suggest that reconciliations are possible, or hopelessly dramatize the chasm of privilege existing between white people and everyone else. Hopeful films can win Academy Awards, while hopeless ones more reliably earn a criticâs respect, though both modes often feel pat, suggesting that the filmmakers believe theyâre imparting concrete, unambiguous wisdom to audiences. By contrast, the best films about race in Americaâsuch as Imitation of Life, Nothing but a Man, Ganja & Hess, Losing Ground, Do the Right Thing, and O.J.: Made in Americaâtend to suggest the intense unknowability of the power of endemic racism to separate, limit, and destroy people.
The Landlord, Hal Ashbyâs relatively and unjustly obscure directorial debut, similarly communicates the bewildering sense of apartness existing between two poles of social opportunity. Based on a novel by Kristin Hunter, which was adapted by screenwriter Bill Gunn (the director of Ganja & Hess), The Landlordhas the same shaggy intensity as Ashbyâs subsequent films, as well as the ferocious humor of Gunnâs later work. The narrative concerns a young, rich, white man, Elgar (Beau Bridges), who enters a low-income black world and mucks around in it with no consideration as to the outcomes of his actions. For Elgar, the New York slum building he buys is an upgradable dollhouse, an effort to prove to his family that he can handle a business venture. For his renters, of course, this building is their lifeblood, and they ready themselves against Elgarâs trespass in a variety of often startling fashions.
The scenes establishing Elgarâs motivations are the filmâs shakiest, as Ashby indulges in arty, essentially meaningless formal tricks, such as having the protagonist talk to the camera, but The Landlord quickly catches fire when Elgar begins mixing with his new tenants, whom he plans to evict. Marge (Pearl Bailey), the wise old broad of the place, who runs an illegal fortune-telling business out of her apartment, plies Elgar with soul food and attempts to prevent him from making an entire fool out of himself or getting killed. In a majestic performance, Bailey informs Margeâs intelligent, weary eyes with an unexpected texture: pity.
This thoughtlessly powerful white man might be a sign of many of Americaâs injustices, but Marge understands that heâs essentially a boy, and she talks to him in a fashion thatâs familiar of how African-Americans must gently âhandleâ whites who have an inflated sense of their own humanism. This understanding helps to give The Landlord its core toughness and dimensions of tragedy. Throughout the film, Ashby nurtures a sense of double awareness, imbuing scenes of communion with an undertow of guarded isolation.
Elgarâs intimate moments with Fanny (Diana Sands), a.k.a. âMiss Sepia 1957,â exude a similar aura of tenderness. Itâs not difficult to understand what the characters see in one another. Soft, physically unimposing Elgar is a relief from Fannyâs terrifying, tightly wound husband, Copee (Louis Gossett Jr.), who may be insane, and who brings to the fore the bitterness and violence that often churn beneath the filmâs surface. And for Elgar, Fanny is a beautiful and experienced older woman who is also, of course, forbidden fruit. This thread resembles the plot driving The Graduate, though The Landlord doesnât turn the older woman into a caricature to score easy generational points. Ashby and Gunn understand that Elgar and Fanny are mutually exploring one another for reasons that neither of them entirely fathom. Thereâs an impression here of sex only intensifying the very issues that tend to lead to love affairs.
In the tradition of many future Ashby protagonists, Elgar is subsumed into a world he doesnât understand, a world thatâs truly governed by women, who let the men have their saber-rattling theatrics while privately making the real decisions. Women rule the ghetto apartment complex that Elgar buys, and they rule the posh realm that heâs attempting to flee. Elgarâs mother, Mrs. Enders, is played by Lee Grant, whoâs so sexy she nearly throws The Landlord off its axis. Elgar and Mrs. Enders have a conspiratorial rapport thatâs almost erotic, rooted in each characterâs feelings of imprisonment. In fact, Elgar has more chemistry with his mother than he does with Lanie (Marki Bey), his biracial girlfriend, and so one wonders if Elgar is working through more than racial curiosity when he sleeps with Fanny.
You never know where this highly combustible production is going, as the filmmakers fuse a variety of seemingly contradictory tones with daring finesse. Gunnâs astonishing dialogue has a terse, poetic bluntness, with punchlines that wouldnât be permitted in our woefully cautious and polite contemporary cinema, such as Elgarâs alternate definition of the acronym N.A.A.C.P. And, working with cinematographer Gordon Willis, Ashby fashions a hallucinatory atmosphere in which sex, danger, and bonhomie casually comingle. The apartment building, particularly at night, comes to suggest an alternate dimension, most notably when the tenants have a rent party and get Elgar drunk and confess some of their true feelings about white society to him as he submits to the spell of the noir lighting and the booze.
Bridges grounds and unifies this filmâs wild-and-wooly tangents, giving an extraordinary performance thatâs so natural it could easily be taken for granted. He plays Elgarâs poignant cluelessness, his lost-ness, without sentimentalizing the characterâs self-absorption, as Dustin Hoffman did in The Graduate. In one of the filmâs best and toughest scenes, Elgar discusses the child that Fanny has hadâhis childâtelling her he has no room for a baby in his life. Bridges plays this scene as a perverse awakening, as one can see Elgar hearing his own words and becoming disgusted with the person speaking, a person Elgar might not have known himself to be capable of being. The film, then, is about Elgar, a faux-liberal, realizing that he isnât quite a heroâthat he simply wants to be comfortable. And, though he eventually confronts the ramifications of his meddling in this other world, thereâs still a lingering aura of disenchantment in The Landlord. No wonder that the film was relegated to cult status, as it asks Baby boomers to swallow a rather bitter pill.
Thereâs quite a bit of softness to this image, which is mostly attractive and probably reflective of the filmâs source materials, though background detail is occasionally murky. Facial detail and general foreground clarity is impressive though, with painstaking attention paid to textures of charactersâ skins. Colors are also robust, especially the reds and the blacks of the shadows. The 2.0 DTS-HD soundtrack lends the songs a sharp bounce, and captures all the subtle cacophony of the city life that has been so vigorously rendered by the filmmakers. This is an appealing restoration, but thereâs room for improvement.
Interviews with actors Beau Bridges and Lee Grant and producer Norman Jewison respectively cover the filmâs making. Most interesting are Bridgesâs recollections of feeling authentically threatened by the ghetto setting, and how co-star Louis Gossett Jr. helped acclimate him to some of the rougher locals. Wanting no police on the set, Hal Ashby also collaborated with the nearby hoods, hiring them as extras and supporting actors. Ashby is celebrated in all three of the interviews, which also include context regarding the social climate of the filmâs release, when the country was suffering from riots and upheavals that somewhat resemble the heated chaos of today. These are solid extras, but an audio commentary or wider-ranging documentary wouldâve been nice. Several trailers round out the package.
Kino Lober offers a sturdy transfer of The Landlord, Hal Ashbyâs overlooked and still quite volatile feature film debut.
Cast: Beau Bridges, Lee Grant, Diana Sands, Pearl Bailey, Walter Brooke, Louis Gossett Jr., Marki Bey, Mel Stewart, Susan Anspach, Robert Klein Director: Hal Ashby Screenwriter: Bill Gunn Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 110 min Rating: R Year: 1970 Release Date: May 14, 2019 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Michael Hanekeâs Funny Games on the Criterion Collection
The dearth of substantial extras leaves the film, perhaps appropriately, to mostly speak for itself.3.5
In a recent interview recorded for this Blu-ray release of Funny Games, Michael Haneke describes the self-reflexive tactics he deploys throughout his 1997 film as a means of scolding audiences for, among other things, falling prey to the tropes of the thriller genre. With a smirk and twinkle in his eyes, the Austrian auteur proclaims, âI can tear people away from the story, but in five minutes, theyâre at my mercy again.â The smug sense of superiority behind this sentiment is ultimately the dominant ethos at work throughout Funny Games, a film that delights in goading us into pre-conditioned responses to disturbing emotional and physical violence, only to slap us on the wrist time and again for getting sucked into the machinations of this twisted drama.
Haneke goes on to say later in the interview, âI rubbed their noses in it again and again: This is a film.â Like a child gleefully using a magnifying glass to burn helpless ants, Haneke plays the part of a vengeful god from behind the camera, torturing a vacationing bourgeois family via two teenage sociopaths, Peter (Frank Giering) and Paul (Arno Frisch). But this isnât an ordinary thriller, and Peter and Paul are certainly no ordinary villains.
These two assailantsâwhose purpose as constructs is underlined by their various pop culture-related nicknames, from Tom and Jerry to Beavis and Buttheadâare virtual tabula rasa, a comedic odd couple clad in matching white shirts and gloves. Their unsettling air of politesse, however, barely conceals their utter lack of emotions, discernible objectives, or endgame to explain their heinous actions. Their existence is, in essence, purely pedagogical, as, unlike the family they torture, they operate outside the realm of psychological or cinematic realism.
Haneke amplifies our disgust at Peter and Paulâs lack of empathy by pitting them against a fully humanized married couple, Georg (Ulrich MĂŒhe) and Anna (Susanne Lothar), and their young son, Georgie (Stefan Clapczynski). But this stark contrast between the extreme artificiality of the attackers and the realism of the family is only used to continually bait viewersâto toy with our innate desire for victims to ultimately get their bloody vengeance while delaying our gratification at every turn. We may spurn Peter and Paulâs ruthless methods, but weâre made aware that theyâre giving us the sort of titillation we crave through an array of postmodern techniques that stress our complicity in their continued violence, from Paul winking into the camera as he taunts Anna to him using a remote control to rewind the film itself and undo an event that may have led to his victimsâ salvation.
By luring us into an emotional connection with the victimized family only to repeatedly pull us out of the fiction with metatextual hijinks, Haneke deigns to force viewers to confront their motives for craving on-screen violence. But while the filmmaker is undoubtedly skilled in replicating the tense, unsettling experience of a thriller, his film is an unnecessarily dour, grueling experience thatâs akin to being taught how to box by someone who only wants to see you punch yourself in the face. As such, Funny Games ends up less like a film than a bullying thesis statement whose sense of suspense is mostly a show of condescendingly relentless sadism, and not least of which because of Hanekeâs hypocritical refusal to implicate himself in the perpetuation of the very violence he condemns us for enjoying.
The clarity and depth of this transfer, sourced from a new 2K restoration, is impressive, taking advantage of the discâs high bitrate to ensure that none of the inconsistencies apparent in earlier home-video releases of Funny Games, such as pasty skin tones, are reproduced. The earthy tones of the filmâs numerous interiors have a certain drabness that plays nicely against the infrequent but crucial intrusions of bright colors, from the yellow of broken eggs and Peter and Paulâs raincoats to the splatter of blood. The nighttime sequences exhibit a strong contrast between the deep blacks and characters as the move in and out of shadows. The 5.1 soundtrack is nicely mixed, with clean dialogue and a subtle layering thatâs particularly appreciable during scenes where off-screen sounds play a larger role in the narrative.
The extras here are surprisingly scant by Criterionâs standards, but whatâs worse is that only the interview with film historian Alexander Horwath approaches Funny Games with a critical approach that isnât already embedded in the film. Horwath establishes Funny Games not only as a response to the violent postmodern films of Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone, in vogue in the early to mid-â90s, but as a forebearer to popular Hollywood films that tackle the nature of cinematic reality and reality itself. The most intriguing of Horwathâs insights, however, are the parallels he draws between Hanekeâs film and todayâs video games and gaming culture. In the interview with Haneke, the director comes off as self-satisfied and didactic as his film, while actor Arno Frischâs interview offers little insight beyond his genuine love of Funny Games. The press conference from Cannes doesnât disappoint in terms of controversy, but much of Hanekeâs defense of the film, such as the inanity of approaching it from a psychological or sociological level, is amply covered in his other interview. Film critic Bilge Ebiriâs essay elaborates on the seeming contradictions underlying the cinematic violence in Funny Games as well as the filmâs use of opposing styles of performance.
Criterionâs release features a strong 2K digital restoration, but the dearth of substantial extras leaves Funny Games, perhaps appropriately, to mostly speak for itself.
Cast: Susanne Lothar, Ulrich MĂŒhe, Arno Frisch, Frank Giering, Stefan Clapczynski, Doris Kunstmann, Christoph Bantzer, Wolfgang GlĂŒck, Susanne Meneghel, Monika Zallinger Director: Michael Haneke Screenwriter: Michael Haneke Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 109 min Rating: R Year: 1997 Release Date: May 14, 2019 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Jim Jarmuschâs Night on Earth on the Criterion Collection
This is a beautiful refurbishing of one of Jarmuschâs more uneven films, which is still a must-see for a handful of beautiful performances.4
Jim Jarmuschâs films are often celebrations of blue-collar intellectuals who grapple with a classic balance between life and art, and, in his best work, his deadpan humor is revealed to be a pose that shatters, revealing longing and desperation. His best films (Dead Man, Coffee and Cigarettes, and Paterson) are about the limitations of even great art to soothe the tortured tides of the soul, while his worst suggest works of shrewd museum cultivationâthat is, the indie director equivalent of brand management. (Ironically, The Limits of Control, whose title essentially sums up Jarmuschâs most astute preoccupations, is one of his most smug and lifeless films.)
Jarmuschâs 1991 anthology film Night on Earth is a sampler of his best and more mediocre instincts, an example of a production being less than the sum of its parts. The film has issues that are common of most anthologies: inconsistency and redundancy. After a couple of these vignettes, one becomes accustomed to Jarmuschâs rhythms andâdespite the variety of terrific performances on display, as well as the usually impeccably hip artistic reference pointsâa certain tedium sets in thatâs heightened by the reduction of each city to a series of pillow shots.
Night on Earth is hermeticâlike all Jarmusch productionsâand rigidly structural even for an anthology film, as every story concerns an odd-couple pairing between a passenger and a taxi driver in an iconic city. Every story begins with the passenger being picked up, and ends with their delivery to their destination, after an oddball pseudo-catharsis has occurred. In his own puckish, glancing way, Jarmusch is rather preachy here, riffing on what the protagonist of Preston Sturgesâs Sullivanâs Travels might have termed the âuniversality of man.â
The filmâs first vignette is its best, dooming Night on Earth to an anticlimax from the outset. Set in Los Angeles, the narrative concerns a Hollywood casting executive, Victoria (Gena Rowlands), whoâs picked up from the airport by Corky (Winona Ryder). The contrast between these women is visceral and poignant without succumbing to cartoonish-ness, like the pairings of later episodes. Victoria is stylish and elegant, bringing to the cab all the gravity of, well, a legendary actress, while Corky is a small and spunky eccentric.
Jarmuschâs pared-down dialogue underscores a very truthful element of human communion, which recalls the meaning at the heart of the glorious scene between Jason Robards and Paul LeMat in Melvin and Howard: that people are most revealing when they donât appear to be talking about much. Rowlandsâs deliberate diction and guarded timing mesh evocatively with Ryderâs spitfire spontaneity. And Jarmusch ends this story with a beautiful punchline: Victoria offers to make Corky a star, but the girl declines. Corky wants to drive a taxi and to eventually become a mechanic. She wants to meet a man who will appreciate her soul. Unlike many of us, Corky knows who she is, and Victoria will probably never forget her.
Set in New York City, the second story pivots on a decent joke that quickly grows stale. Armin Mueller-Stahl plays an immigrant cab driver from Eastern Germany who can barely drive his cab, and who picks up a passenger (Giancarlo Esposito) who takes over the vehicle and drives them to Brooklyn. Mueller-Stahl and Esposito have lively timing, but the notion of a slow-on-the-uptake European and a brash New Yorker soon comes to feel as obvious as a sitcomâand, just when one wonders if Esposito has been intentionally instructed to reprise his frenetic performance from Do the Right Thing, along comes Rosie Perez, who repeats the profane shrillness of her own performance from the Spike Lee film.
Due to the charisma of the actors, this vignette nevertheless goes down fairly easily, but it still exudes a reheated quality. Equally glib, and quite a bit less palatable, is the episode set in Rome, featuring Roberto Benigni as a predictably oversexed Italian lothario who drives a predictably outraged priest (Paolo Bonacelli). In these portions of Night on Earth, Jarmusch falls prey to a problem that recurs throughout his filmography, congratulating himself merely on throwing ânameâ actors together in unexpected fashions.
The stories set in Paris and Helsinki, respectively, have the ambition and some of the gravity of the Los Angeles segment. As a Parisian cab driver who originally hails from the Ivory Coast, and who suffers racist and classist remarks even from African diplomats, Isaach De BankolĂ© radiates a ferocious sense of anger and emotional repression that shakes Night on Earth to its core, and heâs matched in intensity by BĂ©atrice Dalle, who has the filmâs single best absurdist joke. The cab driver asks the young woman, whoâs blind, why she doesnât wear sunglasses like other blind people, and she says sheâs never seen other blind people. The remark is inherently funny, and it also encapsulates the obsession with connectivity that runs through the film.
The Helsinki segment concludes Night on Earth on a heavy, melancholic note, tonally counterpointing the deceptive, multifaceted lightness of the Los Angeles narrative. A gaggle of drunk men (Kari VĂ€Ă€nĂ€nen, Sakari Kuosmanen, and Tomi Salmela) pour into a cab, plying its driver, Mika (Matti PellonpĂ€Ă€), with a sob story of losing a job and finding out that a teenage daughter is pregnant. Mika proceeds to top the story with a remembrance of losing a baby in childbirth, which PellonpĂ€Ă€ delivers with a magnificent and heartbreaking stillness that reflects an ongoing struggle to soldier on against hopelessness.
This monologue is one of the most vulnerable and straightforward scenes in Jarmuschâs career, and it reminds one once again of the lovely surprises that can be uncovered via the filmmakerâs penchant of collecting actors he likes and bouncing them off one another. Jarmusch allows Rowland, Ryder, De BankolĂ©, Dalle, and PellonpĂ€Ă€ to bloom, expanding on performances theyâve given in other films. Meanwhile, Jarmusch reduces other actors to stereotypes. The uncertainty of Jarmuschâs vision complements the driving obsession of his narratives, then, evincing a struggle for purity of empathy.
This high-definition digital restoration, approved by Jim Jarmusch, has a healthy vitality that honors cinematographer Frederick Elmesâs stunning images. The nightscapes have a lush, enveloping sense of darkness that recalls Elmesâs work for David Lynch, and the faces of the various actors sport striking detail. The clarity of this restoration further underscores the subtle visual differences between the filmâs various vignettes: New York City, for instance, has hot, bright colors, while Helsinkiâs hues are more autumnal and depressive. Thereâs also a strong element of attractive grit that gives Night on Earth a shaggy lived-in quality. (The film looks so good that one wishes that Jarmusch, an aesthete and traveler, had worked each city more intrinsically into the various narratives.) The 2.0 surround DTS-HD master audio soundtrack is fairly unassuming, given Jarmuschâs wont, though it gives Tom Waitsâs playful score a bass-y bounce that complements the gravelly tenor of the singerâs voice. The actorsâ voices are clearer than they were in prior editions of the film, rendering it all the more vivid.
Disappointingly, there are no new supplements for this disc, but the featurettes ported over from the labelâs 2007 edition hold up quite well. A selected-scene commentary featuring cinematographer Frederick Elmes and location sound mixer Drew Kunin details the making of an anthology-style production, which Elmes memorably likens to several âfirst weeksâ of shooting. The visual symmetry of each vignette is discussed, and ample technical information is provided, along with poignant personal anecdotes. (Night on Earth was Gena Rowlandsâs first film after her husband and collaborator John Cassavetes had died, and we learn here that Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, and others called in to check on her.) A Q&A with Jarmusch, in which he reads through questions that fans have sent him, is charmingly conversational, allowing the filmmaker to riff on the making of Night on Earth, including how he dealt with shooting scenes in languages he doesnât speak, as well as his favorite music and movies. A short Belgian TV interview with Jarmusch, from 1992, also includes some choice encapsulations of his reasons for initiating the project. Rounding out the package is a booklet featuring essays by filmmakers, authors, and critics Thom Andersen, Paul Auster, Bernard Eisenschitz, Goffredo Fofi, and Peter von Bagh, and the lyrics to Tom Waitsâs original songs from the film.
Criterion offers a beautiful refurbishing of one of Jim Jarmuschâs more uneven films, which is nevertheless a must-see for a handful of beautiful performances.
Cast: Gena Rowlands, Winona Ryder, Giancarlo Esposito, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Rosie Perez, Isaach De BankolĂ©, BĂ©atrice Dalle, Kari VĂ€Ă€nĂ€nen, Sakari Kuosmanen, Tomi Salmela, Emile Abossolo M'Bo, Pascal N'Zonzi, Roberto Benigni, Paolo Bonacelli, Matti PellonpĂ€Ă€ Director: Jim Jarmusch Screenwriter: Jim Jarmusch Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 128 min Rating: NR Year: 1991 Release Date: April 9, 2019 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
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