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Blu-ray Review: Captain America: The First Avenger

Joe Johnston’s rendering of Marvel’s Captain America is brisk and thoroughly entertaining.

3.5

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Captain America: The First Avenger

Captain America: The First Avenger isn’t a good movie, but it almost feels like one. The direction, courtesy of Joe Johnston, is efficient and competent, as are a great deal of the performances and the screenplay, but my contentment to, for lack of a better phrase, let Captain America have this one is more a matter of expectations. Captain America met my expectations of what a superhero movie should be, but it did nothing to hide the contentment of nearly everyone involved to do good enough, nothing more, nothing less; it also felt no need to mask the fact that it is, like Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, merely a wind-up for Joss Whedon’s upcoming The Avengers.

But credit where credit is due: One need look no further than the grossly over-praised X-Men: First Class and Green Lantern to know that good enough is hardly a given. So, when we first get a glimpse of Johnston’s nicely stylized 1940s, with its affinity for browns, dull greens, and yellows, it’s comforting to see that the director, who recently helmed the latest incarnation of The Wolfman, has, at the very least, convincingly rendered an unwavering sense of atmosphere and tone. In Germany, Our Boys are fighting against the Nazis and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) wants nothing more than to get his licks in. Trouble is he’s a weakling, almost supernaturally scrawny, and thanks to some nifty CGI work, Evans’s dumb-guy-handsome face remains on the stick-like frame.

When innumerable attempts to enlist fail due to a weak heart, asthma, and several other debilitating conditions, Rogers finds a sliver of hope under the guidance of Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who sees promise in the scrawny kid’s unyielding courage. Much to the chagrin of his superiors, including Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones, a towering, wryly comic presence even in a largely inconsequential role), Erskine chooses Rogers for an experimental procedure that turns the bag of bones into a high-grade beefcake, capable of advanced battle techniques and super speed. Thus Captain America is born, ready to battle not only the Fuhrer but Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), the mutated result of an earlier, unstable version of Erskine’s process with an army (Hydra) aiming to overthrow Hitler and, of course, the world with a futuristic yet quasi-mythological power source.

These tasks are put on hold, however, by screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who take a long inhale between Rogers’s first big post-upgrade action scene and Captain America’s bombastic first encounter with Red Skull. Much of the time in between is spent on a dumb but enjoyable enough side plot aimed at the propaganda of war, involving Rogers donning the now-famous superhero outfit to hock war bonds across the nation. There’s a strong whiff of subversion, suggesting that the great heroes of the war were as imaginary as comic-book characters, but it’s not developed beyond a safe set of parameters. And soon enough we’re back to the explosions, chases, battle sequences, kickin’-ass montages, and pointless romantic subplots that we’ve come to expect from these movies, the latter of which comes in the form of Phillips’s right-hand woman, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell).

The final section of the film, following the death of a prominent supporting character, is particularly limp and feels like a mad dash to the final Inception-like roe between Red Skull and Captain America. The pacing becomes sloppy, hyperactive even, which I at least partially blame on the need for the film to include an astoundingly pointless postscript, meant to drum up excitement (read: publicity) for The Avengers, rather than make a solid, self-contained film. It’s an insulting ploy that damages what’s otherwise a perfectly entertaining popcorn flick, for reasons that begin and end with the fact that everyone and their mother is going to see The Avengers no matter what.

Johnston, who worked on the original Star Wars franchise before striking out on his own, knows this sort of filmmaking well enough, and his choreographing of action sequences is consistently admirable. But Captain America remains just a little north of passable in its almost impressive lack of ambition, though it never even touches the level of low-brow action-movie spectacle that made Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk such fun, exciting experiences. Captain America is largely fun too, but whereas there was a strong, competent component of character development and storytelling in both the aforementioned films, Captain America seems happier to tease half-assed satire and self-aware winks at the audience. It’s good enough, until you realize that good enough isn’t necessarily good.

Image/Sound

First things first: The 3D rendering of Captain America on Blu-ray is, to be kind, less than great. It looks muddy, thanks largely to the purposefully dull colors that Joe Johnston uses throughout. On regular 2D, however, this is a largely successful, intermittently eye-popping 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer. Detailing is astounding, especially with faces, skin tones, and the textures on outfits and building facades. The entire transfer shows off a consistent clarity and, despite the dull colors, renders the color scheme crisply. Blacks are exceptionally stable and inky, and I can only report mild banding, in terms of faults. The audio portion is just as good and the 7.1 DTS-HD lossless soundtrack highlights the density of the sound design. Dialogue is out front, crisp and clear, while sound effects, atmosphere, and a variety of music, including Alan Silvestri’s appropriately immense score and some choice jazz and rock tunes, mixes together near-perfectly in the back. It all sounds beautifully balanced and makes for a great visual/audio experience.

Extras

The commentary by Johnston, editor Jeffrey Ford, and DP Shelly Johnson is a nice listen, though not hugely captivating. It deals largely with technical issues, less with tales from the production and the history of the subject matter, which makes for an interesting listen, but not a wholly entertaining one. The smattering of featurettes deals more with the production and the history of the characters, including the casting of Hugo Weaving as Red Skull. All the featurettes, none of which clock in over 15 minutes, tackle their particular subjects with requisite attention and a sense of fun but don’t add up to all that much. The deleted scenes are fun though, which is more than I can say for the short promo for The Avengers. Trailers are also included.

Overall

Joe Johnston’s rendering of Marvel’s Captain America is brisk and thoroughly entertaining, but is indicative of lowered expectations in its specific subgenre, despite looking excellent on Blu-ray.

Cast: Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Stanley Tucci, Sebastian Stan, Toby Jones, Dominic Cooper Director: Joe Johnston Screenwriter: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely Distributor: Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2011 Release Date: October 25, 2011 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Blu-ray Review: Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour on the Criterion Collection

This unbelievably beautiful restoration is a poignant testament to the talent of an obscure artist too often taken for granted.

5

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Detour

There’s a fragility to Detour that only strengthens its spell. Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1945 film is an inventively sparse mixture of docudrama and DIY expressionism: There are no lush sets and camera pirouettes on display here, as Ulmer makes do with found settings, isolated props, and abbreviated, shaky tracking shots that are rich in authentic and incidental textures. There is tension between edits that cobble sometimes mismatched takes together, meaning that one can almost feel the work that’s necessary here to sustaining an illusion with limited means. Detour has a fly-by-night intensity, then, that’s derived by the thinning of the distance between the film’s collaborators and the audience, suggesting the fluid quality of live art, particularly theater and musical concerts, with the gutter vitality of pulp fiction at its most wrenchingly subjective.

In this context, Detour’s tricky narrative resembles an auto-critical study of how to put a scheme over with no money. Al Roberts (Tom Neal) is an aspiring musician hitchhiking from New York City to Los Angeles to see Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake), who left him to try to break into movies. In the sort of observational flourish that’s typical of Ulmer’s films, we see Al playing a piano in an empty bar, with stacked chairs in front of him in the foreground that lend compositional dynamism to the image while casually illustrating his sense of rejection. To put it bluntly, Al may always be relegated to playing after hours rather than primetime, and Sue wants to enter the center ring. Both characters are stunted artists hamstrung by a lack of resources. In the tradition of disenfranchised men in film noir, Al gets into trouble.

Detour opens on Al at a diner, tellingly arguing with a customer over a selection on the jukebox after the film’s main events have already occurred. A shadow creeps over Al, enclosing his face in darkness as he begins to narrate for us, describing how he wound up as a drifter. Ulmer and screenwriter Martin Goldsmith never allow the audience to forget that Al’s telling the story, as he’s almost certainly an unreliable narrator. Al recalls being picked up off the side of the road by Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund MacDonald), who throws his money around before dying in circumstances so absurd as to lead us to suspect that Al is either hiding something or outright lying. After Haskell dies, Al, in a masterpiece of convenient rationalization, decides that robbing Haskell makes sense, as no one will believe that he didn’t kill the man anyway.

Driving Haskell’s car, wearing the man’s clothes and spending his money, Al gives a ride to Vera (Ann Savage), who’s hitchhiking near a gas station. In another twist so ludicrous that we doubt the veracity of Al’s story, Vera immediately discerns that Al isn’t Haskell, claiming to have recently ridden and fought with him—a development that’s foreshadowed earlier by the scratches on Haskell’s hand. Vera and Al are soon trying to sell Haskell’s car, becoming bound by desperation and sexual tension, as Vera reveals herself to be a formidable, bitter, and merciless opponent. Savage gives the film a jolt of hothouse energy, her curt, pragmatic ferocity serving as a counterpoint for Neal’s commanding recessive-ness.

Detour’s lean 69-minute running time also suggests simplification wrought by economics. Ulmer never resolves the mystery of Al’s trustworthiness, and another death, even less likely than Haskell’s, exacerbates the impression that Al’s attempting to kill his way out of a thicket of escalating crises. The audience is watching either the story of a delusional or unrepentant killer or of a man so profoundly unlucky he might earn words of sympathy from Job. This ambiguity amplifies the tension that’s been created and sustained by Ulmer’s raw yet beautiful style, while complicating the self-pity that often drives crime films.

Detour also pointedly lacks a third act, leaving Al drifting in the narrative ether. Vera tries to blackmail Al into helping her with the sort of conspiracy that drives many noirs, but this development is brutally curtailed, as is Al’s quest to find Sue. The film eats itself alive before the viewer’s eyes, post-modernly reflecting its hero’s doom, which functions as a heightened symbol for the ordinary disappointments of real life. Detour’s struggle to exist mirrors our efforts to do the same, and the film has an aversion to bullshit that’s livelier and more suggestive than anything in most contemporary cinema.

Image/Sound

This new 4K restoration, the result of over a decade of research, is awesomely pristine, rich, and detailed. To those who first came to Detour through subpar VHS editions and online streams and have come to associate it with a lurid crumminess that suggests the film equivalent of a beat-up E.C. comic, the transfer will likely look and sound too beautiful. But one quickly adjusts, as this Criterion edition honors Ulmer’s artistry, emphasizing the beauty he conjured even with a few thousand dollars and a week-long shooting schedule. Close-ups are vivid, revealing people’s wrinkles and creases, and clothing textures are shown to be pivotal illustrations of character. Above all, there’s a silkiness to the image, a velvety sheen that honors its aesthetic virtuosity. Meanwhile, the soundtrack gracefully oscillates between the various sounds of the road and diners and hotels, offering a subtle aural portrait of down-and-out life that contrasts with the dynamic mythmaking of the score. The hisses and pops of prior editions are gone, and so the film sounds as great as it looks.

Extras

Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen, a feature-length 2004 documentary, and a new interview with film scholar Noah Isenberg, author of Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins, cover overlapping ground but are each worthwhile. Both supplements discuss Ulmer’s background as an immigrant from the Czech Republic—though he, like many directors in America who hailed from that part of Europe, claimed to be from the more cosmopolitan Vienna—as well as Ulmer’s early working relationships with legends like F.W. Murnau and legends in the making like Billy Wilder. And both pieces attempt to explain how Ulmer, an intelligent, talented, and cultivated man, failed to achieve the recognition that was enjoyed by, say, Wilder. (Ulmer’s stunning The Black Cat figures into each account.)

The Man Off-Screen offers an appealingly wandering account of Ulmer’s life, with guests like Joe Dante, John Landis, and collaborator Ann Savage celebrating the filmmaker’s inventiveness. Meanwhile, Isenberg offers a concise examination of Ulmer’s aesthetic, suggesting that the filmmaker’s unsatisfied quest for mainstream success benefitted his art. Robert Polito’s essay, included with this disc’s accompanying booklet, examines the creation of Detour with exhilarating precision, while contextualizing the film within the crime genre at large, on the screen as well as on the page. The theatrical trailer and a supplement detailing the origin of Criterion’s extraordinary restoration round out a slim but nourishing package.

Overall

This unbelievably beautiful restoration is a triumph of preservation as well as a poignant testament to the talent of an obscure artist too often taken for granted.

Cast: Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Claudia Drake, Edmund MacDonald, Tim Ryan, Pat Gleason Director: Edgar G. Ulmer Screenwriter: Martin Goldsmith Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 69 min Rating: NR Year: 1945 Release Date: March 19, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue on Shout! Factory Blu-ray

The film is a prescient vision of a modern world defined by media oversaturation and social media validation.

4

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Perfect Blue

Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue is a prescient vision of a modern world defined by media oversaturation and social media validation. In the film, Mimi (Junko Iwao), a J-pop girl-group singer who decides to give up music for acting, finds herself targeted by a stalker who threatens to ruin her if she doesn’t return to her old gig. More than just a stalker thriller, however, Perfect Blue unfolds as an extended study of Mimi’s fraying mental health as she begins to question her own identity as more and more crimes happen around her, with evidence pegging her as a suspect.

One avenue in which Mimi’s sense of self is undermined is, of course, the internet. Early on in Perfect Blue, she’s pointed to a website where she supposedly keeps a diary for her fans. Yet Mimi, who can barely even operate a computer, didn’t write the site’s entries, and she panics over the false confessions being posted on the web under her name. In the film, the internet is amusingly shown in its early days; URLs are absurdly long jumbles of letters and numbers, and sites are mostly text-based with maybe a background image added for flavor. Even here, however, the power of the web to enable false identities to propagate and be taken as legitimate is shown to be considerable, and Mimi is helpless to counter the lies put out by whomever has control of “her” site.

Resentment of Mimi’s abandonment of pop drives Perfect Blue’s violence, which befalls those helping the star’s pivot to acting. Kon’s depiction of violence is brutal, delivering a lot of ripped flesh and gushing blood. At one point, a photographer is stabbed in the eye with a screwdriver, while the climactic confrontation ends with so much blood that it seeps out of the victim’s body in a thick wall of sludge. Kon is circumspect only when it comes to the true source of the film’s crimes—obscuring, misdirecting, and withholding the identity of the killer at almost every turn. Throughout, we only see the murderer’s hands wielding weapons, and no clues are offered by the blurred, scrambled perspectives of the dying victims.

Kon also uses this disjointed perspective to illustrate how Mimi’s sense of self slips away from her, not only from the paranoia mounting around her, but also from the regular degradations that the entertainment industry foists on her. Having left the world of pop and its machinations behind her, Mimi finds herself now at the hands of the masculine world of film. Her aspirations to be a serious actress lead her to taking the role of a rape victim in a production called Double Blind, and soon she’s suffering through uncomfortable scenes where she feels violated by the aggressiveness of the film’s scenarios. (She also gets booked with shocking speed for a nude photo shoot to emphasize she’s no longer a “good girl.”)

Much of Perfect Blue’s turmoil comes not from Mimi struggling to clear her name of murder accusations, but from her attempt to control her own narrative, to put forward an image that isn’t co-opted, as much by the killer as the normal power players in show business. Her inability to decide what kind of person she wants to be is as disturbing as the bloodletting that occurs all around her, and is one facet of what’s allowed Perfect Blue to endure as a masterful articulation of powerlessness in the age of media saturation.

Image/Sound

Shout! Factory’s release of Perfect Blue comes with a remastered presentation of the film, and comparing it to the old, standard-def version (also included here) reveals that the new transfer boasts richer color depth and sharper contrast. Yet the integrity of Satoshi Kon’s most minute aesthetic choices, like the way the grimy backgrounds and deliberately fuzzy line details contribute to the film’s hallucinatory edge, have not been compromised. The surround sound remix for both the English and Japanese language tracks ably distribute the dissonant sounds of violence (glass shattering, blood spurting) and Masahiro Ikuni’s score of unnerving drones and frenetic breakbeat production across the channels into a suffocating cacophony.

Extras

The most substantial feature included here is a 40-minute lecture on the film given by Kon himself, and in which he offers his interpretation of the material and insights into his filming process. Elsewhere, there are brief interviews with both the Japanese- and English-language cast in which they give their thoughts on the film, and both a recording session and ad hoc music video for the “Angel of Your Heart” song that plays during the photographer’s murder.

Overall

Perfect Blue looks excellent on Shout’s disc, though it retains the grimy, slightly indefinite features that contribute the film’s brilliant depiction of blurred reality and illusion.

Cast: Junko Iwao, Rica Matsumoto, Shinpachi Tsuji, Masaaki Ōkura, Yōsuke Akimoto Director: Satoshi Kon Screenwriter: Sadayuki Murai Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 81 min Rating: R Year: 1997 Buy: Video, Soundtrack, Book

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Blu-ray Review: Ingmar Bergman’s The Magic Flute on the Criterion Collection

Criterion’s new release of Ingmar Bergman’s The Magic Flute is a vast improvement over the studio’s 2000 DVD.

3.5

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The Magic Flute

With his uncharacteristically cheerful The Magic Flute, Ingmar Bergman managed the challenging task of preventing his brooding existential musings from coloring the proceedings, while also fusing the seeming incompatabilities of opera and cinema in a way that pays respect to both art forms. By embracing the pure artifice of opera while employing rhythmic editing, an abundance of his typically expressive close-ups, and Sven Nykvist’s especially nimble camerawork, Bergman transfigures the stage space into something truly cinematic, spinning a yarn with all the joy and warmth of a fairy tale, and with little more than the bare essentials that a typical theater would have provided him.

Filming exclusively on a full replica of Stockholm’s famed Drottningholm Court Theatre, Bergman relies on a purely theatrical set design full of painted backdrops, rudimentary yet meticulously handmade felt costumes for various animals, and elaborate paper scrolls with lyrics written on them which occasionally pop up in front of the actors as they sing their lines directly to the camera. Such techniques help to bring a charming and amusing meta-textual layer to the film that pays homage to the stagecraft of opera and is part and parcel of a whimsical aesthetic that helps The Magic Flute unfold in storybook fashion.

Other self-aware touches are less successful, such as the periodic backstage scenes and the repeated cuts to close-ups of a young girl (Helene Friberg) who, eyes full of wonder as she gazes at the stage, functions as a kind of saccharine surrogate for Bergman himself, who was drawn to Mozart’s opera in his youth. But these superfluous intrusions are primarily mitigated by uniformly stunning renditions of Mozart’s music and an abundance of dynamic performances. And Bergman’s unique capacity for capturing the ebbs and flows of people’s inner states lends the characters and their travails a palpable emotional weight that nicely complements the droll comedic touches that dominate the film.

While the first half of The Magic Flute is as light-hearted as anything Bergman ever made, the second half plays a bit more to his strengths, allowing for more expressionistic flourishes in the cinematography and more direct conflict between the darker impulses hinted at early on. From the fiery dungeon where Monostatos and his minions intimidate and terrify Princess Pamina (Irma Urrila) after kidnapping her and Sarastro’s (Ulrik Cold) cult-like and red-clad brotherhood, to the Queen of the Night’s (Birgit Nordin) terrifying rendition of the song bearing her name, Bergman and Nykvist move toward a more complex lighting, staging, and blocking that’s more cinematic than operatic as the drama begins to crescendo.

Yet while the story’s more foreboding elements are more in line with Bergman’s traditional thematic concerns, such as the shifting power imbalances between men and women, it’s the increasingly absurd foibles of Pagageno (Håkån Hagegård), who’s tireless in his search for true love in the form of an imagined Papagena, that’s most lovingly rendered here. Playing out alongside the more prevalent rescue-adventure narrative, Pagageno’s undying quest reveals him as something of a Shakespearean fool whose dopiness is only that much more apparent when contrasted by the suave and handsome Prince Tamino (Josef Köstlinger), whom Papageno is tasked with accompanying to save Pamina.

With precise comic timing, Hagegård brilliantly captures Papageno in all his ungainly glory as he stumbles in and out of humorous and dangerous ordeals. But as aimless and clueless as Papageno often seems, Bergman sees him as a wounded yet pure soul worthy of compassion. “Love brings relief in pain and sorrow. It soothes a soul in misery,” Papageno sings toward the end of the film. And in a rare happy ending for Bergman, albeit one already written for him, The Magic Flute goes out on a sweet, touching note that sings of love transcending all.

Image/Sound

Considering that the Criterion Collection’s 2000 DVD of The Magic Flute has often been deemed one of the distributor’s weaker image transfers, there was much room for improvement with this new release. And the 2K restoration the film on display here certainly delivers, boasting more well-balanced colors that bring a heretofore unseen richness to the costumes and backdrops. Skin tones have lost the orange hue of the earlier transfer and now appear more natural, and with a slight warmth to them, something that’s especially welcome given the film’s preponderance of close-ups. But the image still appears soft throughout, though that’s mostly noticeable in the wide shots. The sound, however, is practically flawless, with the uncompressed stereo track boasting effective channel separation that dynamically captures the beauty and raw power of the musical performances.

Extras

Tystnad! Tagning! Trollflöjten!, or Lights! Camera! The Magic Flute, is an hour-long behind-the-scenes feature made for Swedish television that provides a peek into everything from the various steps of the casting process to engineers and other craftsmen designing and constructing the replica stage upon which the film plays out. Certain snippets, like Bergman working with the orchestra or artists painting the elaborate backdrops featured in the film, are intriguing, but the documentary as a whole lacks focus. A 30-minute interview with Bergman, recorded just before the release of The Magic Flute, touches on many of the same topics already covered in Tystnad! Tagning! Trollflöjten!, though the director’s discussion of why he finds opera to be an essential, and still relevant, art form, coupled with his stories of his lifelong fascination with Mozart’s opera, sheds light into why he wanted to make this film. The interview with Bergman scholar Peter Cowie is regrettably the shortest of the three features, but his thoughts on Bergman and Nykvist’s aesthetic tactics are both detailed and insightful. The package is completed with a fold-out booklet with an essay by author Alexander Chee.

Overall

Criterion’s new release of Ingmar Bergman’s The Magic Flute is a vast improvement over the studio’s 2000 DVD, but don’t come to the show expecting a bounty of extras.

Cast: Josef Köstlinger, Irma Urrila, Håkan Hagegård, Ulrik Cold, Birgit Nordin, Ragnar Ulfung, Elisabeth Erikson, Erik Sædén, Britt-Marie Aruhn, Kirsten Vaupel, Birgitta Smiding, Helene Friberg Director: Ingmar Bergman Screenwriter: Ingmar Bergman, Emanuel Schikaneder Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 138 min Rating: G Year: 1975 Release Date: March 12, 2019 Buy: Video

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