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Blu-ray Review: Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

3.0

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You asked for it, you got it: a wuxia epic built around a season-kickoff episode of Fringe. When a bigwig overseeing a massive construction project disintegrates in a ball of fire, seemingly from the inside out, an unlikely team of investigative professionals is thrown together to solve the mystery before China crowns its first female ruler. There’s the white-haired, by-the-books Shatuo Zhong (Tony Leung Ka Fai), whose pragmatism may get the best of him. There’s the slinky femme fatale, Shangguan Jing’er (Li Bingbing), whose covert agenda seems subject to change, based on the situation. And there’s the title detective, a loose canon with a brilliant mind, who at the start has been imprisoned for speaking out against the empress-to-be. Oh, and I should probably mention that the movie is set in the seventh century, where history did, in fact, see Wu Zetian disrupt the continuity of the Tang Dynasty and become the first woman who legitimately, as opposed to via surrogates and family, ran China.

Such an event, momentous in and of itself, but also set in the distant past, allows director Tsui Hark to weave into a straightforward detective story a number of fanciful ideas and images; the first hour alone contains a talking deer, a Styx-like underground river, and sawblade-spinning marionettes. Hark, one of the world’s most respected and admired action directors, doesn’t always get his due as a fantasist or absurdist filmmaker, or as a purveyor of rich period detail, but let us not forget the menacing, prehensile eyebrows in Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, the relentless kineticism and eye-popping production design of his Once Upon a Time in China series, or his only attempt at English-language crossover, which left in its wake the two weirdest movies of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s (or anyone’s) career: Knock Off and Double Team.

Shot with a Red Camera, and apparently sparing no expense in the areas of huge, epic sets, fight choreography, and special effects, Detective Dee loses a little intimacy in its attempt to get a good look at everything, and there’s almost as much exposition in the dialogue as there was in the notorious opening 70 minutes of Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins. But it’s also pretty rewarding, since every five or 10 minutes there’s something insanely mystical, or 90 bad guys firing arrows, or Detective Dee and Shangguan are having a knock-down, drag-out fight that’s nevertheless flirtatious and hot, and everything’s synchronized (courtesy Sammo Hung) and badass. Hark being Hark, there’s some slow-down between set pieces, but then he ups the ante on eye-popping spectacle until the film reaches some kind of action-drama-surrealist-historical nirvana.

Image/Sound

A little plasticine, but that’s 4K HD video plus rigorous color-correction for you. It’s also, unfortunately, the result of heavy edge enhancement, which over-clarifies the HD picture without subduing the digital noise that rises like a fog in dark scenes and solid color patterns. As you might expect from the title, there are plenty of flames to go around—torches, hearths, candles, spontaneous-combustion victims—and there’s also plenty of haloing around them. The best one can say about the visual presentation is that the over-management is well-intentioned, and Tsui Hark’s insane storybook images are made to pop.

Extras

Strictly by-the-numbers: a making-of documentary and some promo stuff. Better than nothing, but just.

Overall

Tsui Hark’s surreal wuxia gets problematic transfer, but lives to tell the tale.

Cast: Tony Leung Ka Fai, Andy Lau, Bingbing Li, Carina Lau, Chao Deng, Jean-Michel Casanova, Sos Haroyan, Jialin Zhao Director: Tsui Hark Screenwriter: Kuo-fu Chen, Lin Qianyu, Jialu Zhang Distributor: Vivendi Visual Entertainment Running Time: 122 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2010 Release Date: December 13, 2011 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Claire Denis’s Let the Sunshine In on the Criterion Collection

Criterion gives one of last year’s most deeply felt and beautifully shot films a rich transfer and a respectable set of extras.

4

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Let the Sunshine In

Claire Denis’s 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 that’s 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. “Give me a handjob,” 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.

Denis’s 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. It’s a 95-minute reconciliation with love, which has always been something of an unmitigable poison for Denis’s 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 her—and right away, one may wonder if this is a portrait of a liberated woman or a glimpse from the male gaze. There’s 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 Isabelle’s 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 Vincent’s 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 can’t 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 “the one” for Isabelle, but life (and self-destructive tendencies) have a way of ruining these kinds of things. Denis isn’t 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 Barthes’s 1977 exegesis The Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, a clinical examination of love that’s 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 love’s 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 nature—her career is rife with barbarities, with the dissolution of lives and loves—yet Let the Sunshine In is easily the most empathetic, heartfelt film of her illustrious career. Throughout, Isabelle’s romantic plight encapsulates the confusion of being alone. The film is garrulous and often uproarious, especially Gerard Depardieu’s late appearance as a psychic charlatan, but within these laughs is a deep, familiar disappointment, the sensation of irreparable loneliness.

Denis’s 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 Melville’s 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 that’s tender yet tormented, and not particularly comedic), feels, thematically and formally, like an epilogue to her favorite theme. It’s gentle yet devastating, like an insincere “I love you” whispered into one’s ear, the duplicity hidden behind upward-curving lips, the pangs of misplaced vulnerability. Isabelle isn’t emotionally reticent, and she opens up quite easily, but she tries to force love, afraid it will never find her. Denis’s 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 Depardieu’s lecherous skullduggery Denis lays the end credits, his affably manipulative performance and Isabelle’s swoony obliviousness suggesting that Isabelle will never find what she’s looking for.

Image/Sound

Color balance and contrast is consistent throughout this striking transfer. This is especially impressive considering the varied hues of Agnés Godard’s 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 characters’ faces. The sound is very clear, which is very important for such a dialogue-driven film. The 5.1 mix doesn’t get too much of a workout, but it does show its euphoric might whenever off-screen sounds and the occasional song—mostly notably Etta James’s “At Last”—flit into the mix.

Extras

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: Binoche’s 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 Agnés Godard. Also included is Denis’s 2014 short Voilà l’enchaînment, 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 Denis’s 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.

Overall

The Criterion Collection gives one of last year’s 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 Grévill, Bruno Podalydès, Paul Blain, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Gérard 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

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Review: Hal Ashby’s The Landlord on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

Kino offers a sturdy transfer of Ashby’s overlooked and still quite volatile feature film debut.

3.5

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The Landlord

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 critic’s respect, though both modes often feel pat, suggesting that the filmmakers believe they’re imparting concrete, unambiguous wisdom to audiences. By contrast, the best films about race in America—such as Imitation of Life, Nothing but a Man, Ganja & Hess, Losing Ground, Do the Right Thing, and O.J.: Made in America—tend to suggest the intense unknowability of the power of endemic racism to separate, limit, and destroy people.

The Landlord, Hal Ashby’s 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 Ashby’s subsequent films, as well as the ferocious humor of Gunn’s 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 Elgar’s trespass in a variety of often startling fashions.

The scenes establishing Elgar’s motivations are the film’s 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 Marge’s intelligent, weary eyes with an unexpected texture: pity.

This thoughtlessly powerful white man might be a sign of many of America’s injustices, but Marge understands that he’s essentially a boy, and she talks to him in a fashion that’s familiar of how African-Americans must gently “handle” 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.

Elgar’s intimate moments with Fanny (Diana Sands), a.k.a. “Miss Sepia 1957,” exude a similar aura of tenderness. It’s not difficult to understand what the characters see in one another. Soft, physically unimposing Elgar is a relief from Fanny’s 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 film’s 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 doesn’t 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. There’s 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 doesn’t understand, a world that’s 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 he’s attempting to flee. Elgar’s mother, Mrs. Enders, is played by Lee Grant, who’s so sexy she nearly throws The Landlord off its axis. Elgar and Mrs. Enders have a conspiratorial rapport that’s almost erotic, rooted in each character’s 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. Gunn’s astonishing dialogue has a terse, poetic bluntness, with punchlines that wouldn’t be permitted in our woefully cautious and polite contemporary cinema, such as Elgar’s 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 film’s wild-and-wooly tangents, giving an extraordinary performance that’s so natural it could easily be taken for granted. He plays Elgar’s poignant cluelessness, his lost-ness, without sentimentalizing the character’s self-absorption, as Dustin Hoffman did in The Graduate. In one of the film’s best and toughest scenes, Elgar discusses the child that Fanny has had—his child—telling 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 isn’t quite a hero—that he simply wants to be comfortable. And, though he eventually confronts the ramifications of his meddling in this other world, there’s 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.

Image/Sound

There’s quite a bit of softness to this image, which is mostly attractive and probably reflective of the film’s source materials, though background detail is occasionally murky. Facial detail and general foreground clarity is impressive though, with painstaking attention paid to textures of characters’ 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 there’s room for improvement.

Extras

Interviews with actors Beau Bridges and Lee Grant and producer Norman Jewison respectively cover the film’s making. Most interesting are Bridges’s 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 film’s 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 would’ve been nice. Several trailers round out the package.

Overall

Kino Lober offers a sturdy transfer of The Landlord, Hal Ashby’s 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

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Blu-ray Review: Michael Haneke’s Funny Games on the Criterion Collection

The dearth of substantial extras leaves the film, perhaps appropriately, to mostly speak for itself.

3.5

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Funny Games

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, “I can tear people away from the story, but in five minutes, they’re at my mercy again.” 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, “I rubbed their noses in it again and again: This is a film.” 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 isn’t an ordinary thriller, and Peter and Paul are certainly no ordinary villains.

These two assailants—whose purpose as constructs is underlined by their various pop culture-related nicknames, from Tom and Jerry to Beavis and Butthead—are 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 Paul’s lack of empathy by pitting them against a fully humanized married couple, Georg (Ulrich Mühe) 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 viewers—to 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 Paul’s ruthless methods, but we’re made aware that they’re 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 victims’ 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 that’s 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 Haneke’s hypocritical refusal to implicate himself in the perpetuation of the very violence he condemns us for enjoying.

Image/Sound

The clarity and depth of this transfer, sourced from a new 2K restoration, is impressive, taking advantage of the disc’s 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 film’s 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 Paul’s 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 that’s particularly appreciable during scenes where off-screen sounds play a larger role in the narrative.

Extras

The extras here are surprisingly scant by Criterion’s standards, but what’s worse is that only the interview with film historian Alexander Horwath approaches Funny Games with a critical approach that isn’t 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-‘90s, but as a forebearer to popular Hollywood films that tackle the nature of cinematic reality and reality itself. The most intriguing of Horwath’s insights, however, are the parallels he draws between Haneke’s film and today’s 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 Frisch’s interview offers little insight beyond his genuine love of Funny Games. The press conference from Cannes doesn’t disappoint in terms of controversy, but much of Haneke’s 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 Ebiri’s essay elaborates on the seeming contradictions underlying the cinematic violence in Funny Games as well as the film’s use of opposing styles of performance.

Overall

Criterion’s 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 Mühe, Arno Frisch, Frank Giering, Stefan Clapczynski, Doris Kunstmann, Christoph Bantzer, Wolfgang Glück, 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

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Blu-ray Review: Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth on the Criterion Collection

This is a beautiful refurbishing of one of Jarmusch’s more uneven films, which is still a must-see for a handful of beautiful performances.

4

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Night on Earth

Jim Jarmusch’s 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 cultivation—that is, the indie director equivalent of brand management. (Ironically, The Limits of Control, whose title essentially sums up Jarmusch’s most astute preoccupations, is one of his most smug and lifeless films.)

Jarmusch’s 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 Jarmusch’s rhythms and—despite the variety of terrific performances on display, as well as the usually impeccably hip artistic reference points—a certain tedium sets in that’s heightened by the reduction of each city to a series of pillow shots.

Night on Earth is hermetic—like all Jarmusch productions—and 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 Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels might have termed the “universality of man.”

The film’s 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), who’s 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.

Jarmusch’s 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 don’t appear to be talking about much. Rowlands’s deliberate diction and guarded timing mesh evocatively with Ryder’s 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 sitcom—and, 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 “name” 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 Bankolé radiates a ferocious sense of anger and emotional repression that shakes Night on Earth to its core, and he’s matched in intensity by Béatrice Dalle, who has the film’s single best absurdist joke. The cab driver asks the young woman, who’s blind, why she doesn’t wear sunglasses like other blind people, and she says she’s 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 Väänänen, Sakari Kuosmanen, and Tomi Salmela) pour into a cab, plying its driver, Mika (Matti Pellonpää), 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 Pellonpää 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 Jarmusch’s career, and it reminds one once again of the lovely surprises that can be uncovered via the filmmaker’s penchant of collecting actors he likes and bouncing them off one another. Jarmusch allows Rowland, Ryder, De Bankolé, Dalle, and Pellonpää to bloom, expanding on performances they’ve given in other films. Meanwhile, Jarmusch reduces other actors to stereotypes. The uncertainty of Jarmusch’s vision complements the driving obsession of his narratives, then, evincing a struggle for purity of empathy.

Image/Sound

This high-definition digital restoration, approved by Jim Jarmusch, has a healthy vitality that honors cinematographer Frederick Elmes’s stunning images. The nightscapes have a lush, enveloping sense of darkness that recalls Elmes’s 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 film’s various vignettes: New York City, for instance, has hot, bright colors, while Helsinki’s hues are more autumnal and depressive. There’s 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 Jarmusch’s wont, though it gives Tom Waits’s playful score a bass-y bounce that complements the gravelly tenor of the singer’s voice. The actors’ voices are clearer than they were in prior editions of the film, rendering it all the more vivid.

Extras

Disappointingly, there are no new supplements for this disc, but the featurettes ported over from the label’s 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 “first weeks” 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 Rowlands’s 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 doesn’t 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 Waits’s original songs from the film.

Overall

Criterion offers a beautiful refurbishing of one of Jim Jarmusch’s 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 Bankolé, Béatrice Dalle, Kari Väänänen, Sakari Kuosmanen, Tomi Salmela, Emile Abossolo M'Bo, Pascal N'Zonzi, Roberto Benigni, Paolo Bonacelli, Matti Pellonpää 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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Review: Jacques Rivette’s La Religieuse on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

Featuring a searing performance from Anna Karina, the film much more than the scandal that made it famous in France.

4

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La Religieuse

Jacques Rivette’s La Religieuse is based on an epistolary novel by Enlightenment philosopher Denis Diderot that decried the injustices of the Catholic church under the ancien régime by adopting the voice of a young woman forced into a convent. In this adaptation by Rivette and Jules and Jim screenwriter Jean Gruault, Diderot’s protest against the violation of an individual’s free will becomes not only a reflection of the individualist ethos of the French New Wave, but also an augury of uprisings of the late 1960s.

Suzanne Simonin (Anna Karina) is a young bourgeoise whose parents compel her to take vows as a nun after her father discovers she’s the child of an affair. Genuinely devout, Simonin nevertheless has no interest in a nun’s vow of “chastity, poverty, and obedience,” and endeavors to leave religious life and rejoin the world. The Nun opens with the ceremony at which she’s meant to pledge herself to her new order, as a desperate Simonin breaks away from the ceremony and begs to be let free, framed from the other side of the iron bars which she grasps to make her plea to the assembled witnesses.

Rivette would become known for his improvisational approach to the fiction film, but La Religieuse has all the marks of a tightly controlled production, from the way the director’s long takes follow the action with subtle but emotive re-framings, to the production design’s coordination between the gray-green of the nun’s habits and their convent’s walls (they seem to dissolve into their setting), to Gruault’s often poetic dialogue (“This robe has attached itself to my skin, to my bones,” Simonin laments at one point).

Even the lack of subtlety in aspects of Rivette’s aesthetic—as in the iron bars in the opening scene that paint the church as a prison—has a purpose, as the film is peppered with Brechtian touches that call attention to themselves as formal techniques. Just as we become engaged with the melodrama of Simonin’s dilemma, we’re jolted out of our credulity with a jump or smash cut, or a snippet of noise from the sparse, modern score. Such moments remind us that, while the story is set in the baroque past, it’s told with an eye toward the modernist present, when the individual is still under siege by the disciplinary control of societal institutions.

Rivette is aided in this oscillation between empathetic drama and distancing formal abstraction by Karina’s performance. It’s a role that could easily turn into hysteric caricature, particularly when Simonin’s convent confines her to her quarters, denies her food, and frames her as possessed by the devil. But Karina deeply communicates the trauma of a person trying to hold themselves together as the mechanics of power devastate her mind and body, and Simonin never seems to be merely a metaphor for the offenses against the individual perpetrated by the system—though, of course, she is that too.

Simonin’s first convent, run by Sister Ste Christine (Francine Bergé), exercises its dogmatic piety through cruel punishment and masochistic penance. It prohibits communion with even the natural world outside the gates, and relationships between the women are strictly regulated. After her ordeal, Simonin manages to have herself transferred to another convent, this one overseen by Madame de Chelles (Liselotte Pulver). Here, the nuns behave almost as school girls, frolicking in the yards and attending informal gatherings in the mother superior’s quarters. The convent’s seeming openness, though, masks the cult of personality de Chelles fosters around her, which she exploits to seduce the young nuns.

Sexual control, like institutional violence, is exposed here as another form of oppression women face, but the film’s condemnation of this oppression doesn’t moralize either about homosexuality or religion per se. The problem is the institutionality of the church rather than its professed system of belief, and La Religieuse is rather remarkable for the way in which it codes de Chelles’s unwanted advances as the continued violation of Simonin’s right to self-determination rather than a trespass against a moral order.

An emotionally searing conclusion drives this point home, but as memorable as this finale is, the romantic individualism typical of the New Wave belies the spirit of collective rebellion implicit in Rivette’s Brechtian touches. The film presents us with groups of women who, through violence or sex, relay the patriarchal power of the church, but it’s unable to imagine an alternative sphere where bonds between women might foster a more positive society. Though it critiques and defies the pretenses of hierarchical religious community, neither La Religieuse nor its main character is ultimately able to see a way out of alienated individualism.

Image/Sound

The transfer on this Blu-ray is from the gorgeous 4K restoration released in theaters last year, and it brings a renewed vitality to both the subtle color gradations of cinematographer Alain Levent’s muted gray-green palette throughout the scenes that depict Suzanne’s ascetic life, as well as the momentary flourishes of color—like the striking blue of her scarf early in La Religieuse—that point to the young woman’s desire for life outside the convent. The film, though, is at its most radical in its soundtrack, and the precise, often jarring use of off-screen sound and nondiegetic music is mixed evenly throughout the two channels.

Extras

Much of the extras here focus on the controversy surrounding La Religieuse. Indeed, while the featurette “Susanne Simonin, La Scandaleuse” is described as a “making-of documentary,” it’s much more a discussion about the film’s troubled release. Dennis Lim’s booklet essay, though short, provides a more wide-ranging account of the film’s making. A commentary track by film critic Nick Pinkerton covers much of the same ground as the featurette but includes a more thorough history of the story’s origins in the French Enlightenment.

Overall

Featuring a searing performance from Anna Karina, La Religieuse is much more than the scandal that made it famous in France. Kino Lorber’s release of the film’s recent 4K restoration is a service to a landmark film of the French New Wave.

Cast: Adilé David, Ginite Popote, Louise Labeque, Mackenson Bijou, Mathilde Riu, Ninon François, Patrick Boucheron, Saadia Bentaïeb, Sayyid El Alami, Wislanda Louimat Director: Jacque Rivette Screenwriter: Jean Gruault, Jacque Rivette Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 135 min Rating: NR Year: 1965 Release Date: May 28, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke on Shout! Factory Blu-ray

There’s no doubt that this will remain, for many years to come, the definitive home-video release of the film.

5

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Princess Mononoke

Hayao Miyazaki’s earliest films, from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind to Porco Rosso, abound in characters driven by an insatiable desire for adventure, and to take to the skies—a pursuit that offers a temporary transcendence of everyday reality. With a broom and an airplane, respectively, the main characters from Kiki’s Delivery Service and Porco Rosso cast off from a world that refuses to accept them for who they are, while the young siblings at the center of My Neighbor Totoro use the eponymous creature to ascend into the clouds and forget the problems that afflict their ailing mother, if only for a while.

It’s a stark contrast from that recurring motif in Miyazaki’s animated worlds that the characters from his 1997 film Princess Mononoke never take flight. It’s as if Miyazaki, by keeping them earthbound, is trying to remind them of the greed, vengeance, and lust for power that’s led to the destruction of their world. Indeed, there’s no escaping the increasingly dire consequences that arise from the environmental annihilation that occurs in the film.

A parable of man versus nature, Princess Mononoke is a damning, pessimistic, and downright angry environmentalist screed. But in refusing to draw a line in the sand between good and evil, Miyazaki presents a thoughtful, intelligent mosaic of visual and thematic ideas that ignores neither the brutal elements inherent in nature nor the potential for courage and compassion that lies within mankind. In the film, humans and animals alike are full of contradictions, which serves to consistently complicate Miyazaki’s initially straightforward message of humanity’s thoughtless destruction of the natural world.

Set during Japan’s medieval Muromachi period, during “a time of gods and demons,” Princess Mononoke follows the exploits of an idealistic young man, Ashitaka (Billy Crudup), who sets out on a journey from his small, rural village to the enchanted forests out west after being poisoned by a demonic boar. In typical Miyazaki fashion, the beast is a feat of unbridled imagination, yet that blood-filled mouth and those dozens of red tentacles protruding from its body are far from fanciful, planting the creature firmly in the realm of body horror. Once the beast is slayed, the cause of its terrifying transformation is revealed to be an iron bullet lodged in its chest, which is taken by the villagers as a sign of an imbalance in the lands out west.

On the flipside of the ghastly boar is the legendary Deer God, a strange yet elegant creature who protects the vast forestlands and is rumored to have the powers to heal both man and nature. As Ashitaka tracks down this mystical animal, hoping it will cure his poisoned arm, he finds himself playing the part of mediator between two warring factions. On one side is Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver), the rapacious ruler of a remote settlement named Irontown and owner of its iron factory, whose expansion necessitates the destruction of the nearby forest lands. And fighting to stop her are the wolves led by the wolf god Moro (Gillian Anderson), and the human she raised as her daughter, San (Claire Danes), also known as Princess Mononoke.

At first, there seems to be an ethical clarity to this conflict that makes it easy for the audience’s allegiances to turn in one direction and never waver, but moral certitude becomes increasingly muddied as Princess Mononoke progresses. While Lady Eboshi essentially functions as the film’s central villain, pumping her surroundings with weapons and pollution, she also shows a remarkable capacity for compassion, hiring and caring for a slew of lepers and prostitutes who shunned by society at large. Her workers are happy and faithful to her, and even the munitions she creates serve the greater good, as they’re used at one point to fend off a band of samurai robbers. And despite Ashitaka’s general desire to prevent warfare and save the wilderness, he’s driven by his own selfish goals of attaining the help of the Deer God. Even the natural world bares its teeth, as wolves, boars, and apes fight among themselves to establish dominance even as the world around them literally falls apart.

The film relishes in the beauties of the natural world, but Miyazaki doesn’t see nature as infallible or humans as irredeemable. The Deer God itself embodies the capacity for both creation and destruction, as grass and flowers grow beneath its feet wherever it steps, yet it can also kill living creatures with as little as a glance. Where Miyazaki lends the humans and animals in Princess Mononoke a sense of ambiguity, he’s unflinching in his belief that it’s our moral duty to seek a balance in the natural world that supports the whole in order to benefit all life cycles. For all of the film’s bloodshed, which by Miyazaki’s standards is quite shocking given the plethora of severed limbs and decapitations caused during battle, it’s the majestic and magical qualities of the untouched portions of the forest that linger strongest in one’s memory. From the kodama, the adorable and ghostly forest spirits who make strange clicking sounds as they shake their heads, to the Deer God, who at night transforms into The Night Walker, a translucent, shimmering giant who safeguards the forest from above, Miyazaki’s flair for embellishment makes clear his affection for the natural world.

After one too many human transgressions, The Night Walker turns into a black ooze that quickly spreads over the lands, destroying plants, wildlife, and humans in its wake. In an act of heroism, Ashitaka returns to the gargantuan creature its severed deer head, and in a particularly stunning sequence, Miyazaki shows the barren landscape slowly coming back to life. The innate power of nature is presented as a kind of magic trick, suggesting that even if humans drive through the Earth’s resources to the degree that the planet becomes uninhabitable, it will ultimately find a way to regenerate itself. Of course, Princess Mononoke also appears to believe that if humanity itself wants to stick around, it must seek a sustainable balance that doesn’t let things get too close to that point of no return.

Image/Sound

Shout! Factory’s transfer of Princess Mononoke might just be the most stunning home-video presentation that any Hayao Miyazaki film has received to date. There’s an impressive clarity to the images that makes it impossible to not fixate on every textural dimension of the animation, from the film’s most elaborately conceived creatures such as the Deer God and possessed boar, to simpler elements like grass, flowers, trees, and animal fur. The colors are truly eye-popping, particularly the greens of the natural world and the bright, rich reds of blood and the fabrics of characters’ clothing. On the sound front, Joe Hisaishi’s dynamic, emotional score is beautifully layered throughout the dense, enveloping soundscape.

Extras

In place of a commentary track, Shout! has included the option to view Princess Mononoke with storyboard stills of every shot in place of the final animated frames. These sketches are often crude, but the presentation is fascinating for allowing us such a detailed glimpse of Miyazaki’s vision in its nascent stage. The very simplicity of the sketches offers a compelling contrast to the rich, fully materialized world of the finished film, highlighting the staggering amount of time, effort, and imagination that goes into constructing a hand-drawn animated film. The featurette “Princess Mononoke in the U.S., which begins with amusing footage of the film’s glowing reception at the Toronto International Film Festival, follows Miyazaki on his journey from Toronto to Los Angeles and, finally, New York. The brief clips of press interviews are a potent reminder of how conditioned American audiences are to pat moral lessons in animated films. The most engaging stretch, though, is Miyazaki’s visit to Disney’s animation department, where he seems at home discussing animation techniques and approaches to story with his American colleagues. This release comes in a sturdy, gorgeous case that also includes a CD of Joe Hisaishi’s soundtrack and a 40-page booklet full of stills from the film and a three-part essay by film critic Glenn Kenny that’s as insightful as it is personal.

Overall

Shout! Factory’s stunning transfer and superb packaging and extras ensure that this will remain, for many years to come, the definitive home-video release of Hayao Miyazaki’s film.

Cast: Billy Crudup, Billy Bob Thornton, Minnie Driver, John DiMaggio, Claire Danes, John DeMita, Jada Pinkett Smith, Gillian Anderson, Keith David, Tara Strong Director: Hayao Miyazaki Screenwriter: Hayao Miyazaki Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 133 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 1997 Release Date: May 14, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: John Farrow’s The Big Clock Joins the Arrow Academy

The film receives a commendable high-def transfer and a handful of worthwhile extras from the Arrow Academy.

4

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The Big Clock

John Farrow’s The Big Clock is a marvel of production design that also features rich, weirdly amusing performances from both Ray Milland and Charles Laughton, but it’s too slight in its contemplation of power dynamics to rank high in the pantheon of film noirs. Though the film opens grimly near the story’s end, with George (Milland) evading capture inside a publishing office where he works for a murder he didn’t commit, the actual series of events that leads up to that point is closer in tenor to Hawksian comedy, with Milland’s working man juggling the demands of family and work in almost screwball fashion.

As editor-in-chief of Crimeways, George answers to Janoth (Laughton), who owns and oversees multiple magazines and their offices inside a New York City skyscraper, which contains the eponymous object that displays time zones from around the world. The clock isn’t only a striking visual touchstone around which much of the film’s action revolves, it also provides a symbolic basis for Janoth’s controlling of his employees’ lives. Due to Janoth’s uncompromising demands, George and his wife, Georgette (Maureen O’Sullivan), didn’t get to have a honeymoon five years ago, and his workaholic tendencies have begun to alienate her since then. Thus, an upcoming vacation to West Virginia is George’s last-ditch effort to prove his commitment to Georgette and their young son (B.G. Norman). But when Janoth insists that George delay the trip again, it sends George into a defiant and drunken tailspin, placing him in a position to be framed for murder.

While this sequence of events has the potential to emphasize how the postwar American workforce is reoriented by inhuman demands for around-the-clock labor, the filmmakers are hesitant to grapple with these ideas to their fullest extent. Instead, George’s workplace predicament is treated as a prelude to an absurdist punchline. When Janoth, who’s trying to cover his murderous tracks, assigns George to hunt down an alleged killer for a story, he’s ironically tasked with pursuing himself, as George is the man with whom Janoth’s victim spent the previous evening. The convoluted nature of how George even becomes a murder suspect indicates how the expansive set design is ultimately used less as a thematic trait of modernist architecture’s intersection with corporate ambition than as a maze for George’s deferral of his positive identification by a host of eyewitnesses roaming in and around the large building.

The plot’s devolution into a basic game of cat and mouse sidesteps any concern for business practices and competition that’s suggested early on as Janoth, speaking to a group of his employees, implores them to “anticipate trends before they are trends.” Early on, one might expect The Big Clock to do the same—namely, to utilize its unique setting and intriguing set of circumstances to arrive at something weightier, more morally indignant. Or, if the film is opposed to Janoth’s promotion of constant innovation, reveal how the cold logic of corporate pursuits jeopardizes the American family’s livelihood. Instead, as Janoth’s comprehensive threat is rather easily dispatched once it’s realized by George, The Big Clock proves content to prevent its bubbling critique of capitalism from ever reaching a boiling point.

Image/Sound

While The Big Clok hasn’t been given the 4K treatment that many films from the 1940s have received from various home-video publishers in recent years, this high-definition presentation is a considerable upgrade over Universal’s 2004 DVD release. Wide shots of the publication offices benefit most from the restoration work, as the finest of details, from elevator buttons to the patterns on walls, are readily visible. The close-ups are also quite impressive in their level of clarity. There are sporadic instances of light scratches or debris visible within the frame, but they’re by no means egregious. The monaural track is consistent, with the dialogue and Victor Young’s score registering quite strongly and clearly up in the front of the mix.

Extras

An audio commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin is full of insights about the film’s production history and John Farrow’s use of sequence shots. Martin gamely makes a case for Farrow as an unheralded artist of the period with a unique flair for detail, notably singling out an impressive early scene that necessitated set changes prior to the elevator doors of the high-rise office opening on various floors. Martin also points out where the film differs from the novel upon which it’s based, noting that certain tweaks were made to soften the premise of adultery in order to satisfy the production code. A featurette with critic Adrian Wootton fills in more details about the film’s pre-production history, including why Paramount was so keen to adapt the novel in the first place. Actor and writer Simon Callow chimes in with an appreciation of actor Charles Laughton, articulating what makes his performance in The Big Clock stand out. In addition to these excellent supplements, there’s an hour-long radio dramatization of the film performed in 1948 by the Lux Radio Theatre, the original theatrical trailer, and a gallery of original stills and promotional materials.

Overall

A minor film noir featuring top-shelf production design, The Big Clock receives a commendable high-def transfer and a handful of worthwhile extras from the Arrow Academy.

Cast: Ray Milland, Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Sullivan, George Macready, Rita Johnson, Elsa Lanchester, Harold Vermilyea Director: John Farrow Screenwriter: Jonathan Latimer Distributor: Arrow Academy Running Time: 95 min Rating: NR Year: 1948 Release Date: May 14, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Jan Němec’s Diamonds of the Night on the Criterion Collection

Němec burst out of the gate with this stirring, unorthodox depiction of trauma set during the Holocaust.

4

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Diamonds of the Night

Reflecting on his novel Darkness Casts No Shadows in Jan Němec’s short tribute documentary Arnošt Lustig Through the Eyes of Jan Němec, Holocaust survivor Arnošt Lustig recalls how his harrowing account of life under constant Nazi siege originated from the feeling, as he entered his 60s, of suddenly being on the precipice of death. Diamonds of the Night, Němec’s startling debut feature, translates the author’s sense of imminent mortality into a vivid atmosphere of free-floating menace that whips up the novel’s mix of real-time experience, memories, and dreams into one heterogenous montage, eschewing any aesthetic cues to delineate the separate planes. Running at a concise 66 minutes, the film substitutes plot and character detail with an evocative, interiorized representation of the experience of fleeing fascism, entrusting the viewer to immediately comprehend the gravity of its narrative terms from the staggering opening dolly shot, when a pair of frail boys hurtle desperately for minutes on end up a frozen hill to the sound of shouting and gunfire off screen.

Arguably one of the greatest in medias res openings in film history, and a sequence on which Němec expended approximately a third of his budget, Diamonds of the Night’s nerve-wracking teaser doesn’t resolve on any comforting decrescendo. Rather, the nervous pace and sense of peril linger over through the rest of the film, which follows two unnamed concentration camp fugitives played by newcomers Ladislav Jánsky and Antonín Kumbera through a series—or is it a loop?—of imposing enemy landscapes, from foggy forests and jagged rock fields to desiccated farmland and cottages. Periodically offsetting the traumatic present-tense turmoil are alternately delirious and peaceful visions of life prior to escape and woozy hallucinations from whose headspace it’s left tantalizingly unclear. If reality is a bleak, horizonless crusade of exertion and starvation, the mind at least offers some kind of refuge, be it a memory of a stroll through a deserted side street in Prague or a traded glance with a girl on a train.

Němec’s ingenious gambit is to unify his multiple strands of narrative information under the same visual and sonic language, alleviating reality with fantasy without modifying the gloomy chiaroscuro patina of the footage or the stream of muffled ambient sound heard by the boys as they drift through their purgatory. In this morass of past, present, and imagination, context-less images, untethered from discernible logic or chronology, stick out like transmissions from the subconscious—their appearances less skeleton keys for meaning than acute flickerings of a mind when pushed to the limits. Emboldened by Jaroslav Kučera and Miroslav Ondříček’s cinematography, Němec’s compositional eye shines in such passages, drawing out resonance from domestic still lifes and urban panoramas, eerily plaintive shots that depart from the fluid handheld intimacy with which the boys’ frantic wanderings are captured.

Alongside his colleagues in the Czech New Wave, Němec’s compulsion to work well outside storytelling convention and hybridize different filmmaking styles marked him as something of an enfant terrible in his nation’s film industry, enervating funding partners and ultimately cutting his career short. Diamonds of the Night’s unstable brew of historical realism, poetic reverie, and even surrealism—look out for those Bunuelian ant swarms and lethal loaves of bread—offers something of a comprehensive unleashing of Němec’s artistic vitality before these pressures took hold, and still the film seems to crystallize the director’s antipathy toward authority and suppression even at this early stage.

In the film’s grueling penultimate sequence, a group of loathsome, toothless old hunters round up the heroes in the woods and take them home to humiliate them during a night of carousing—an act of incipient violence that gets dragged on and over-emphasized until it achieves a numbing effect. The scene epitomizes the neglect of human dignity that characterized this awful historical episode, but given the film’s reduction of context and specificity, it also points to a more timeless dynamic between the powerful and the powerless.

Image/Sound

The silvery, high-contrast palette of Diamonds of the Night, which lends the film’s close-ups a shimmering clarity, has never looked richer on home video than it does on the Criterion Collection’s transfer. Shadows are about as black as black gets without becoming muddy, and the highlights, as seen in the glimmers in Ladislav Jánsky’s eyes, are positively ethereal. Most jaw-dropping are the lengthy handheld tracking shots through dimly lit woods, where the layers of skinny pine trees create striking vignette effects around the heroes as they trudge through the half-light. The film’s soundtrack is sparse and quiet, and Criterion has wisely kept the mix low and uncompressed so that the expressive sonic hierarchy—panting, for instance, is often louder than gunshots—is left intact.

Extras

Criterion has thankfully not skimped on the extras, offering three analytical supplements and two short films by Jan Němec. The two newly shot pieces include an interview with Irena Kovarova that takes a deep dive into Czech film history and a rewarding James Quandt video essay that explores the film’s quite pronounced roots in contemporaneous works by Alain Resnais, Robert Bresson, Ingmar Bergman, and Andrei Tarkovsky. Němec himself reminisces on the film’s production and its daunting opening tracking shot in an archival interview from 2009, while source novelist Arnošt Lustig digs into his own troubled past in the touching and intimate Arnošt Lustig Through the Eyes of Jan Němec. Best of all, however, is A Loaf of Bread, Němec’s award-winning college short film that plays, with its commanding use of handheld and ability to invest everyday objects into totems of life-or-death struggle, like a mature trial run for Diamonds of the Night. A Michael Atkinson essay rounds out the collection.

Overall

Czech radical Jan Němec burst out of the gate with this stirring, unorthodox depiction of trauma set during the Holocaust, and Criterion treats it as the watershed film that it is.

Cast: Ladislav Janský, Antonín Kumbera Director: Jan Němec Screenwriter: Jan Němec Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 66 min Rating: NR Year: 1964 Release Date: April 16, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Jonathan Demme’s Melvin and Howard on Twilight Time Blu-ray

Demme’s film is a repository for his comic, aesthetic, and observational gifts, and it receives a solid Blu-ray from Twilight Time.

3.5

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Melvin and Howard

Perhaps the closest that Jonathan Demme ever got to making a New Hollywood film, Melvin and Howard is set in the impoverished outskirts of the Nevada desert, a place where the ritzy neon and modern decadence of Las Vegas turns into graveyards of rusted, stripped car bodies surrounded by pockets of RV parks. The symbolism of Vegas as a shimmering mirage that offers the false hope of instantaneous wealth and instantaneous success to the struggling masses just outside the city forms the bedrock of the film’s story about a quixotic hustler, and the tone that the setting creates befits Hollywood’s most cynical era of moviemaking.

Even here, however, Demme’s capacity for warmth is unmistakable. The master filmmaker introduces eccentric mogul Howard Hughes (Jason Robards) with magic-hour incandescence and copious lens flares as the man races over the salt flats of the desert on his motorcycle. It’s as if the glowing images exist to suggest that Howard is the owner of this vast dominion. Compare that to the first shots of Melvin Dummar (Paul Le Mat), seen driving desert roads at night in a truck so rusty that you may wonder when was the last time he got a tetanus shot. Melvin, cooped up in this vehicle as he drives across pitch-black roads, looks utterly powerless, a peon drifting through a world that barely notices him.

Melvin stumbles across a crash-wounded Howard by chance when he stops to relieve himself, and he agrees to take the man to his hotel after Howard refuses medical treatment. Demme fully illuminates both characters in the uncomfortable ride that follows. Melvin, chipper and extroverted, immediately comes across as a man who’s devoted an immense amount of effort to getting rich without trying. Bragging about inane schemes, such as penning a Christmas novelty song, Melvin suggests a more benign than usual snake-oil salesman, harmless in his understanding of the American dream to mean that you can make enough money to do whatever you want. Of course, he’s sharing a car with the embodiment of that notion of wealth, and Howard scarcely looks like he’s on top of the world when not indulging his thrill-seeking. Gaunt and pale in close-up, Howard almost looks like he’s in Noh theater makeup, his withered, wide-eyed face not unlike Tatsuya Nakadai’s Lear figure in Akira Kurosawa’s Ran.

Apart from a recapitulation of this scene at the film’s conclusion, Howard doesn’t appear again after Melvin takes him back to Vegas, but his presence looms large over the film’s subsequent study of Melvin’s various get-rich schemes and blinkered dreaming. We see how Melvin’s reckless optimism drives his first wife, Lynda (Mary Steenburgen, in an Oscar-winning performance), to leave him, then take him back when he crashes her new gig as a stripper in order to demand her return. Demme’s mastery of neo-screwball mechanics plays out in a brief comedy of remarriage in which Melvin and a pregnant Lynda hastily renew their vows in a Vegas chapel, which leads to a scene in which the pair is forced to fill in as witnesses for other eloping couples. The subsequent montage of newlyweds smooching Melvin and Lynda is riotous in part for the way the grooms are so enthusiastic about kissing Lynda, and much to the chagrin of some of their brides. The scene is quintessential Demme, blatantly absurd on its face as couple after couple comes in for a kiss from Melvin and Lynda, but suffused with a giddy quality that strangely pulls the couple closer to each other in their shared affections.

Throughout the film, Demme never stoops to mocking Melvin, even as the filmmaker abundantly illustrates how divorced from reality the man is. The limitations of Melvin’s worldview is perhaps best exhibited by his love of game shows as a path to quick money and notoriety, and he even manages to book Lynda on a sleazy program in which contestants have to perform for a crowd to get a shot at playing games for cash. Demme could easily have lapsed into the cynicism that this kind of semi-fame embodies, and at first blush he seems to give into it when Lynda goes on stage to perform a tap-dancing number that initially earns catcalls and boos. Gradually, however, her sheer tenacity and charm wins over the audience, and by the end she gets a standing ovation. The good vibes are short-lived, though, as Melvin uses the cash Lynda wins to buy a boat despite living in the middle of the desert, cheerfully calling it an “investment” as Lynda finally snaps and leaves him for good.

Melvin’s refusal to take any of these twists and turns of life as a sign of defeat marks him as a quintessential early Demme protagonist, his sunny disposition and constant self-sabotage existing in strange harmony. Eventually, Melvin comes to appreciate the possibility of a less reckless life, and after a time lapse, we find him settled into honest work and a content marriage to his second wife, Bonnie (Pamela Reed). Of course, just as Melvin appears to have found his position in life, he receives a copy of Howard’s will, which names him a beneficiary and launches him into a media circus that ironically brings him the fame he always desired.

Melvin and Howard ends with Melvin defending himself from charges of forgery by lawyers determined not to let a little thing like Howard’s eccentricity split the spoils of his estate. Melvin’s aspirational hunger certainly gives him motive to lie, but the film takes the man’s claim of honestly receiving a copy of the will at face value, preferring to play up the oddity of this insignificant person going up against mirthless, high-priced lawyers. Demme never stoops to mocking Melvin. If anything, he finds in the man his archetypal protagonist: a weirdo who in truth has more in common with everyone around him than even he realizes.

Image/Sound

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray presents a sturdy transfer of the film. The bleak but beautiful panoramas of the natural world exhibit impressive color balance and contrast, showing off Tak Fujimoto’s incredible gift for on-location cinematography. Color tones are stable throughout, with only a few nighttime scenes showing signs of crushing. The lossless mono track is clean as a whistle, nicely separating dialogue and Foley effects throughout.

Extras

An audio commentary with Jonathan Demme and production designer Toby Rafelson is essentially a detailed celebration of the former’s subtle eye for detail. One particularly revealing moment is the acknowledgement that the stylized handwriting of the film’s credits were modeled after the real Hughes’s handwriting. One also gets a sense that, at the time of this track’s recording, Deeme hadn’t seen the film some time, as he frequently expresses appreciation and even surprise at some of the small touches in the actors’ performances. At times, he almost sounds less like the maker of the film than a devoted fan.

Overall

Jonathan Demme’s film is a repository for his comic, aesthetic, and observational gifts, and it receives a solid Blu-ray from Twilight Time.

Cast: Paul Le Mat, Mary Steenburgen, Pamela Reed, Jason Robards, Michael J. Pollard, Jack Kehoe, Dabney Coleman Director: Jonathan Demme Screenwriter: Bo Goldman Distributor: Twilight Time Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 1980 Buy: Video

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Review: Anatole Litvak’s The Snake Pit on Twilight Time Blu-ray

Twilight Time’s sharp transfer wonderfully preserves Litvak’s long-ago groundbreaking melodrama.

3.5

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The Snake Pit

The release of Anatole Litvak’s The Snake Pit in 1948, on the heels of Mary Jane Ward’s semi-autobiographical book of the same name, ushered in a sea change—namely, the reform of state mental hospitals. And although it stands as Hollywood’s first peek into the horrors of mid-20th-century mental institutions, it’s now more fruitful to view it in tandem with the more psychologically elaborate women’s films of the 1940s, such as Rebecca, Gaslight, and My Name Is Julia Ross, than with the decidedly more raw and authentic depictions of psychiatric hospitals that came down the pipeline in subsequent decades.

That isn’t to suggest that The Snake Pit doesn’t lack for disturbing sequences, from Virginia’s (Olivia de Havilland) first electroshock treatment to the stretch of time she spends in a squalid, overcrowded ward reserved for the most severely mentally ill patients. There’s even an unsympathetic nurse (Helen Craig) who’s on hand to squelch any sense of agency that Virginia develops throughout her extended stay in the hospital, and whose sadistic authoritarianism foreshadows that of Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

But perhaps because the public in the late ‘40s was so oblivious to the realities of such institutions and the basic tenets of psychology, Litvak frequently defaults to an educational mode of filmmaking. From sympathetic Dr. Kik (Leo Genn) straining to explicitly lay out the various methodologies of psychoanalysis to de Havilland’s excessive voiceover, which laboriously spells out every aspect of Virginia’s turmoil, the film’s banal narrative strategies lead to purely descriptive passages that hold viewers’ hands every step of the way. Every ounce of nuance and ambiguity is sufficiently squeezed out of the film in such moments, which are geared toward explaining mental illness rather than plumbing its complexities.

Litvak’s sympathetic fixation on Virginia’s suffering does become more compelling when The Snake Pit navigates the myriad ways that the men in her life—from her manipulative, domineering former boyfriend, Gordon (Leif Erickson), to her emotionally absent father (Damian O’Flynn)—have mistreated her. Told in flashbacks, these scenes delve into the root causes of Virginia’s nervous breakdown and subsequent hospitalization, transforming her suppressed memories into living nightmares. And as she’s forced to relive these past tragedies, the film takes on a distinctly feminine, if not feminist, perspective, outlining how Virginia’s ambitions to transcend the prescribed limitations of gender, evidenced by her work as a writer, are placed in the vice grip of seemingly inescapable patriarchal pressures.

It’s all a bit Psych 101 in its approach, further reinforced by the portrait of Sigmund Freud on Dr. Kik’s wall that looms high in the middle of the frame, paternally gazing down upon the doctor and Virginia during each of their sessions. But de Havilland’s emotionally expressive performance is so tightly controlled that she carries the film through many of its weaker stretches. Her uncanny ability to subtly shift moods on a dime, and sometimes several times within the same shot, lends credence to Virginia’s unshakeable sense of paranoia, repressed guilt and creeping self-doubt, making her suffering feel genuine and heart-wrenching. As Virginia grapples with her inner demons, as well as a memory loss that leaves her disoriented and unsure of who she can trust, The Snake Pit periodically transcends its archaic psychological trappings to become an empathic examination of a woman battling both the internal and external forces that seek to fully erase her sense of self.

Image/Sound

Twilight Time’s transfer is uniformly crisp and free of debris, boasting intricate details in both the interiors of the mental institution and in the actors’ faces. The blacks aren’t terribly deep, but the image contrast is still more than serviceable and consistent throughout. While the film consists primarily of interior close-ups and mid-shots, whenever Anatole Litvak opts for wider perspectives, such as in the overhead shot that reveals the meaning of the film’s title or the elaborate long shots during Virginia’s stay in the ward for the severely mentally ill, there’s an impressive clarity to the depth of field. The sound on the disc is also quite robust, enhancing the subtleties of both Alfred Newman’s wonderful score and the ambient background noise that fills out the soundtrack during scenes in the more overcrowded portions of the hospital.

Extras

A commentary track with film historian Aubrey Solomon is the lone substantial extra on this disc. Solomon provides the historical context surrounding the original theatrical release of The Snake Pit, describing the film as both of a piece with the sorts of socially relevant dramas producer Daryl Zanuck made throughout the ‘40s and an early example of Hollywood representations of psychoanalysis and mental institutions. Unfortunately, Solomon too often spends long stretches of time either completely silent, painstakingly listing out the credits of various actors and members of the production team, or reading direct quotes from critical reactions to the film around its 1948 release. His unpacking of the unsettling sequence in the ward for the severely mentally disturbed does finally touch upon the film’s intermittently expressive camerawork, but such deep, detailed scene dissections would have been welcomed earlier on. The disc also comes with an isolated music track, two vintage radio shows, and an essay by Julie Kirgo that delves into the backstory of how Mary Jane Ward’s novel was adapted to the screen and sings the praises of Olivia de Havilland’s performance.

Overall

Twilight Time’s sharp transfer of The Snake Pit wonderfully preserves Anatole Litvak’s long-ago groundbreaking melodrama.

Cast: Olivia de Havilland, Mark Stevens, Leo Genn, Celeste Holm, Glenn Langan, Helen Craig, Leif Erickson, Beulah Bondi, Lee Patrick, Howard Freeman, Natalie Schafer, Ruth Donnelly Director: Anatole Litvak Screenwriter: Frank Partos, Millen Brand Distributor: Twilight Time Running Time: 108 min Rating: NR Year: 1948 Release Date: April 16, 2019

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