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Blu-ray Review: Drinking Buddies

Mumblecore, schmumblecore, Drinking Buddies finds Joe Swanberg growing confidently into his status as one of America’s most promising contemporary poets of not-quite-youthful confusion.

3.5

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Drinking Buddies

With Drinking Buddies, writer-director Joe Swanberg hitches his talents and concerns to the mainstream romantic comedy template and forges a mutation that occasionally resembles Lynn Shelton’s similarly intentioned Your Sister’s Sister. Swanberg’s film follows Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson), two friends working together at a micro-brewery who’re beginning to realize that they might be growing toward that point when drinking your weight in booze every night at the local bar isn’t cute anymore. It’s also immediately apparent that Kate and Luke are in love with one another, which is so obvious as to render the reveal of their actual significant others, Kate’s boyfriend, Chris (Ron Livingston), and Jake’s girlfriend, Jill (Anna Kendrick), as something of a shock.

All of Swanberg’s films are experimental in some fashion, and Drinking Buddies is clearly the director’s stab at making a film that honors his aesthetic while opening it out to a potentially much wider audience. The rough edges we expect of Swanberg’s films have been deliberately sanded away, particularly in regard to blocking and cutting, as this is perhaps the first of his films that could be said to be legitimately visually elegant. The director has cited 1970s landmarks such as Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice as influences and it shows; the images are alive and wonderfully open, and you can sense the assurance of a guiding hand directing your attention to the necessary details. The resonances and dissonances of the filmmaker’s earliest work often felt accidental, but here the subtext has clearly been actively achieved from scene to scene.

On the surface, Drinking Buddies is about a romance that can never quite happen, because its potential participants are at a weird age where they’re young enough to take it for granted that they will encounter love again, and old enough to have weathered a few scars that leave them hesitant to pursue an obviously promising opportunity. But it’s also possible that this read of the film may give Kate and Luke too much credit, as they appear to be profoundly superficial people: Swanberg, pointedly, tells us nothing about these two apart from their love of partying and for each other, and, after a while, we get to wondering why this pair merits a film.

Kate and Luke never do attain the stature of major characters, at least not in a traditional narrative sense, and that’s Swanberg’s intent, as this is a movie about a very particular and common type of rootless American who finds a way to make their post-college beer/bong fugue state last the better part of 15 years or potentially even more. But the emptiness of this life of temporary highs and fast food and cramped dirty apartments is losing its luster for both of them, and this urgency is manifesting itself in Kate and Luke’s blossoming romantic tension. Though Swanberg eventually has the daring to pull even that rug out from under us, as the ending implies that everything that we’ve seen occur between Kate and Luke has happened dozens of times before, probably when one or both of them have felt lonelier or less substantial than usual.

Drinking Buddies is ultimately revealed to be a precise and tender portrait of co-dependency as well as an exploration of the romantic confusion that’s arisen in relationships between members of the last few generations as a result of their “openness” with each other, especially about sex and love. Younger people might not observe the austere hypocritical decorum that characterized discourse between the men and women of portions of the baby-boomer generation, or of earlier generations, but that easy, carefree way that we’ve adopted of treating everyone in our lives in the same fashion, regardless of the context of their association with us, carries a creepy suggestion of anonymity that can leave us feeling adrift—empowered, untethered, but useless. This is Swanberg’s most conventional film, but only on the surface. Residing underneath is perhaps his most coherent and effective dramatization of the discrepancy between what Generations X and Y respectively say and what they actually mean.

Image/Sound

This image makes a strong case for Joe Swanberg’s blossoming formal craftsmanship and for cinematographer Ben Richard’s gift for shooting images that appear to spontaneously shift as necessary with the restless characters. Colors are strong, varied, warm, and there’s a sense of tangibly lived-in texture that’s still striking for a digitally produced image; it’s clean, but not supernaturally pristine in a creepily flawless video-game sense. (The filmmakers were astute enough to compose a visual palette with enough earthy variety to resist the blandish dangers of the digital realm.) The English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio surround track is an appropriately quiet, low-key mix that layers the differing volumes of incidental character chatter with subtle dexterity.

Extras

The audio commentary by writer-director Joe Swanberg and producers Andrea Roa Alicia Van Couvering is informal, unpretentious, and packed with insight into the intentions and realities of making the film. It’s a sturdy listen, particularly for aspiring directors, which are obviously the intended audience. It’s a good thing, too, because the rest of the supplements are meaningless throwaway puff pieces, particularly the interview with “Drinking Made Easy” host Zane Lamprey, which is so pathetic it may cause you to wonder if it’s a deliberate joke.

Overall

Mumblecore, schmumblecore, Drinking Buddies finds Joe Swanberg growing confidently into his status as one of America’s most promising contemporary poets of not-quite-youthful confusion.

Cast: Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston Director: Joe Swanberg Screenwriter: Joe Swanberg Distributor: Magnolia Home Entertainment Running Time: 90 min Rating: R Year: 2013 Release Date: December 3, 2013 Buy: Video

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Review: Phil Goldstone’s The Sin of Nora Moran on Film Detective Blu-ray

This Blu-ray should prompt a much-deserved rediscovery of Phil Goldstone’s strange and inventive pre-Code melodrama.

3.5

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The Sin of Nora Moran

As the old adage goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and that’s very much the case with Phil Goldstone’s wildly idiosyncratic The Sin of Nora Moran from 1933. A pre-Code B picture made on the cheap at the short-lived Poverty Row studio Majestic Pictures, it tells a tale common to many a film from the ‘30s: A young girl fallen into disrepute shacks up with a powerful man and finds herself wrapped up in potential scandal and, ultimately, murder. It’s the stuff of tawdry dime-store novels that routinely drew the eyes of Hollywood producers, but Goldstone’s approach to the material, while it bears the signs of budgetary limitations, is startlingly inventive, spinning otherwise mundane, melodramatic material into something far stranger and more deeply unsettling than any plot synopsis would lead you to expect.

Employing a nested narrative, with flashbacks within flashbacks, abrupt changes in point of view, and an array of surrealistic flourishes, such as lengthy, multi-layered superimpositions, this narratively and visually complex film proved too modern, and ultimately too vexing, for audiences of the time. Using a framing device in which the district attorney, John Grant (Alan Dinehart), who prosecuted Nora (Zita Johann) tells his sister, Edith (Claire du Brey), of the tragic circumstances that led to the young girl’s execution, The Sin of Nora Moran foretells the knottier narrative structures that would become the norm in ‘40s Hollywood, but which were not yet remotely close to being codified into the film grammar of the pre-Code era.

The Sin of Nora Moran’s flashback structure is further complicated by the frequent shifts in perspective from John inside his home to Nora as she awaits her death sentence in prison. These transitions are all the more disorienting, and in fascinating and enlightening ways, as the film weaves Nora’s subjective feelings of grief, guilt, and regret into the otherwise objective, past-tense retelling of her tragic past. The effects of Nora’s psychological turmoil intruding on the manner in which her story unfurls is downright proto-Lynchian.

In one flashback, Nora is suddenly disturbed when her beau, prospective Governor Dick Crawford (Paul Cavanagh), strokes her hair, only for a cut to Nora in prison revealing that her reaction stems from her hair being cut prior to her execution. In another scene, Nora mentions that she’s afraid and doesn’t want to open a door, knowing that it will lead to the murder that will seal her fate. Throughout, the way that her fractured psychological state is reflected in the structure of the film is eerily reminiscent of Mulholland Drive, whose protagonist’s agitations and regrets inform the way that specific events in the film’s flashbacks are portrayed.

The Sin of Nora Moran’s often-playful blurring of the line between subjective and objective truths is made possible by some rather unusual and unforgettable stylistic touches. In perhaps the film’s best sequence, where Dick, now the governor, pines for the woman he can save just prior to her death, Goldstone leaves a mostly still, superimposed close-up of the man’s face on screen as a series of flashbacks to scenes of him falling in love with Nora play underneath his awkwardly frozen expression. Its effect is ominous and disconcerting, much like in Twin Peaks: The Return when a superimposition of Agent Dale Cooper’s face fills the screen for several minutes in the penultimate episode of David Lynch’s series.

Soon after this point, an apparition of Nora appears to Dick in a dark room, angelically assuring him that it’s okay for him to let her die for love. This entire sequence is of the same brand of soapy romanticism that Lynch often toys with, and like his work, Goldstone’s film infuses overt melodrama with a brimming and vibrant sense of dread, transforming what would otherwise be hokey into something oddly, yet overwhelmingly, transcendent. It’s a chilling, strange experience, quite unlike anything else to come out of pre-Code Hollywood.

Image/Sound

Sourced from the recent 4K restoration of the film by UCLA, the Film Detective’s transfer is simply gorgeous. With the possible exception of the Criterion Collection’s 2019 release of Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour, this may be as good as any film made by a Poverty Row studio has looked on home video. There’s the occasional flickering of the image and a slight softness that renders the minutest of facial details invisible, but by and large, the picture is sharp and luminous, with a healthy, even grain distribution and a fairly high contrast ratio. The DTS audio, restored from the dual mono original, is free of the hisses, pops, and tinniness one typically expects to hear watching a B picture from this time period.

Extras

The lone extra is a 17-minute featurette, “Mysterious Life of Zita Johann,” narrated by film historian and producer Samuel M. Sherman. Some of The Sin of Nora Moran’s stylistic idiosyncrasies and highlights of Johann’s career are briefly touched upon, but the bulk of the time is spent covering Sherman’s own friendship with the actress, including how the two met after he saw a rare 16mm print of the film, then cast her in an independent film of his in the 1980s, and eventually became the heir to her estate. The limited-edition Blu-ray release, unlike the DVD, comes with a booklet with promotional pictures and an essay by Sherman, who discusses The Sin of Nora Moran’s surprisingly lengthy production process and Johann’s preference for the unreleased, and far more traditional, linear cut of the film.

Overall

The Film Detective’s Blu-ray release should prompt a much-deserved rediscovery of Phil Goldstone’s strange and inventive pre-Code melodrama.

Cast: Zita Johann, John Miljan, Alan Dinehart, Paul Cavanagh, Claire du Brey, Sarah Padden, Henry B. Walthall, Cora Sue Collins, Joe Girard Director: Phil Goldstone Screenwriter: W. Maxwell Goodhue, Frances Hyland Distributor: The Film Detective Running Time: 65 min Rating: NR Year: 1933 Release Date: July 29, 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: Lucky McKee’s The Woman on Arrow Video Blu-ray

McKee’s disturbing satire about family values gone horribly awry gets a superlative new Blu-ray package.

4.5

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The Woman

Lucky McKee’s The Woman is a welcome antidote to one of the most pernicious diseases of our times, an epidemic of glossy remakes that have gelded the relentlessly grungy energy of many a ‘70s horror classic. Scripted by McKee and novelist Jack Ketchum, the film is a slow-burning but incendiary device, a brutal satire on the sanctity of the nuclear family and its conservative “values” that, like the majority of Ketchum’s work, seems to delight in burrowing down to the dark discontents that gnaw away at what nowadays passes for civilization.

A sequel of sorts to Andrew van den Houten’s The Offspring, The Woman picks up with its titular character (Pollyanna McIntosh), the sole survivor of the earlier film’s cannibal clan, eking out an existence in the Maine woods like some unspoiled noble savage. The hallucinatory opening sequence plays like an unholy marriage between Lars von Trier’s Antichrist and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, down to the hand-scrawled title and synth-heavy score squalling and droning away on the soundtrack. Shot in dreamy slow motion, the Woman’s actions, loping with knife in hand through densely knotted underbrush, crawling into a cavernous lair to tussle with its lupine occupant, are played and replayed in multiple superimpositions, contributing to a fractured, febrile feel that’s only heightened by a surreal dream involving a swaddling infant and a she-wolf.

It’s at this point The Woman abruptly shifts in tone and location. An idyllic summer barbecue and pool party introduces the members of the Cleek family, each wrapped up in their separate pursuits, indicative from the start that this clan’s solidarity is entirely fictive. Soon enough, the postcard-pretty surfaces give way, revealing deep chasms of tension and resentment.

Chipmunk-cheeked patriarch Chris (Sean Bridgers) enjoys hectoring his tightly wound wife, Belle (McKee regular Angela Bettis), with a mix of derisive sarcasm with ice-cold contempt (shades of The Shining’s Jack Torrance), while she maintains an outward appearance of normalcy, zombie-shuffling along grocery store aisles and fussily baking cookies. (If you detect a sly nod to the Woman’s digit-devouring predilections in the scene where the Cleek kids delight in chopping up and chomping their gingerbread men, you just might be onto something.) Daughter Peg (Lauren Ashley Carter), a Wednesday Addams for the Twilight generation first seen poolside reading John D. McDonald’s The Price of Murder, harbors a scandalous secret under her baggy clothes: a budding baby bump. Compulsive hoop-dreamer Brian (Zach Rand), a sociopath on training wheels, soon reveals his cruel streak when he sticks gum in the brush of a girl who’s beaten him in a free-throw contest, all the better to helpfully yank her hair out by the roots. And then there’s little Darlin’ (Shyla Molhusen), the youngest, her untrammeled innocence up for grabs in the film’s blood-spattered endgame.

When huntsman Chris rides his ATV into the woods one morning, he spies the Woman washing herself in the river. He disguises his lust at first sight, given vent in a hilarious montage of prurient glimpses of the Woman’s nakedness set to a power-pop love song, by hatching a scheme to capture and rehabilitate the feral woman. Not one to fly solo, he enlists the whole family, tasking them with cleaning out the fruit cellar and making it comfy for their new guest—that is, if by comfortable you mean dangling her by the arms from a block and tackle. The Woman becomes a reclamation project of sorts for Chris, the recipient of an extreme makeover, Cleek Edition, as he imposes his own warped notion of civilized values on his captive, including rudimentary etiquette lessons like learning to croak a plaintive “please” in exchange for her gruel. As Chris opines, “We can’t have people wandering around the woods, thinking they’re animals. It isn’t right.”

McKee directs with assured simplicity, scoring points with his lucid shot compositions, like a startling two-shot that links mother and daughter, calling to mind the split-screen hijinks of peak-period Brian De Palma, just as an extended 360-degree pan near film’s end, with the camera swirling deliriously around Chris and Peg, plays as a perverse nod to similar emotional crescendos in Carrie and Body Double. Sean Spillane’s superb, protean soundtrack, straddling styles with chameleon-like adroitness, often stands in ironic counterpoint to events on screen. Ketchum and McKee dispense revelations and plot twists in canny dosages, allowing the viewer to connect most of the dots, a suggestive approach that works to maintain active involvement, rather than jolting the audience into passive capitulation.

That is, until an explosive finale, triggered by young Peg’s home situation draws the attention of her overly solicitous geometry teacher (Carlee Baker), whose good intentions prompt an ill-conceived visit to chez Cleek. Seems Chris has more to hide than his daughter’s pregnancy. There’s the little matter of a hitherto unseen family member who’s landed in the doghouse for an extended stay. Regardless of how you happen to feel about its outrageously graphic gore, the finale suffers by comparison for its too-pat “return of the repressed” resolution, meting out morally tidy eye-for-an-eye punishments. In the end, a radically realigned family unit emerges from the carnage, one that puts the blood back into blood relations.

Image/Sound

Arrow Video’s 4K restoration of The Woman from a digital intermediate looks spectacular, with a substantial increase in clarity and depth compared to the 2012 Bloody-Disgusting Selects Blu-ray. Black levels are deep and uncrushed, grain well managed, and flesh tones healthy. Colors are vivid and deeply saturated. There are two audio options: a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio surround mix and the original stereo track. The former finds some excellent use for the side and back channels for ambient sound effects like rattling chains, as well as sturdily conveys Sean Spillane’s pop singles-heavy soundtrack.

Extras

Arrow assembles a truly comprehensive selection of bonus materials for this Blu-ray release of The Woman. There are four commentary tracks, three by various combinations of cast and crew, which exhaustively cover every aspect of the film’s production history, from inception to reception. The fourth track is from writer Scott Weinberg, who offers a refreshingly chatty, informal, and sometimes humorous appraisal of McKee’s film, though you may wish that he hadn’t so heavily pulled “material” from his Twitter feed.

“Dad on the Wall” is 75 minutes’ worth of raw behind-the-scenes footage shot by director Lucky McKee’s father without any sort of talking-head commentary. A more compact version of the same, which does include observations from cast and crew, can be found in “Malam Domesticam,” which contains some pretty great footage that illustrates the grisly practical effects that dominate the film’s third act. It’s bookended by footage of the outraged Sundance premiere attendee who thought the film should be “banned and burned.”

“Meet Peggy Cleek” is a charming interview with Lauren Ashley Carter, who touches on the process of finding the emotional intensity her role required, that fateful Sundance premiere, and the odd accommodations during filming (a rundown boarding school complete with a tank of piranhas and frog living in one of the shower stalls). There’s a fascinating panel discussion from the 2011 Frightmare Festival, in which a rogue’s gallery of contemporary indie horror filmmakers—including McKee, Adam Green, Ti West, and Larry Fessenden—discuss the state of horror cinema at the time (which is still largely the case, alas), sharing plenty of hilarious anecdotes involving pitch meetings and studio notes. The roster of supplements is rounded out by some deleted scenes, a short piece of bizarro animation from The Woman’s editor Zach Passero, a music video, and assorted promotional materials.

Overall

Lucky McKee’s disturbing satire about family values gone horribly awry gets a superlative Blu-ray package loaded with fascinating extras from Arrow Video.

Cast: Pollyanna McIntosh, Sean Bridgers, Angela Bettis, Lauren Ashley Carter, Carlee Baker, Zach Rand, Alexa Marcigliano, Shyla Molhusen Director: Lucky McKee Screenwriter: Lucky McKee Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 103 min Rating: R Year: 2011 Release Date: May 26, 2020 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Tomu Uchida’s The Mad Fox Joins the Arrow Academy

Making its Blu-ray debut, Uchida’s film is a highly stylized ode to love and disorder.

3.5

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The Mad Fox

Though he’s nowhere near as well-known in the West, Tomu Uchida is considered in his native Japan to be a filmmaker on par with such contemporaries as Yasujirō Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi. One of the reasons for this seems to be a fundamental changeability both in his choice of thematic material and cinematic style. Consequently, his output ranges from the monochrome naturalism of 1955’s Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji to the searing Fujicolor panoramas and overtly theatrical tableaux of 1962’s The Mad Fox.

Based on a 17th-century play, in turn based on the folk tales and legends of medieval Japan, The Mad Fox draws on the idiosyncratic aesthetics of scroll paintings and Kabuki theater to convey its strange saga of imperial court intrigue. The film opens with a protracted lateral pan along an unraveling scroll, whose illustrations handily lay out the requisite backstory. At the end of this nearly five-minute shot, the image subtly shifts from the painted image of an erupting Mount Fuji to a live studio set flooded with unnatural crimson light. It’s the first in the film’s frequent shifts in register—from constructed sets to real locations, period-exact costumes to flagrantly histrionic masks, standard dialogue to bizarre internal monologues sung by an off-screen narrator. These sudden changes serve as Brechtian distancing effects, forcing us to remain keenly aware of the artifice involved in art.

Mount Fuji’s eruption signals chaos in the land. Only court astrologer Kamo no Yasunori (Junya Usami) can be counted on to properly advise the emperor by consulting the fabulous Chinese scroll known as the Golden Crow. Unfortunately, the prevailing disorder extends to Yasunori’s own household, where the rivalry for favor between virtuous Yasuna (Hashizô Ôkawa) and devious Doman (Shinji Amano) leads to a series of betrayals, torture, murder, and Yasuna’s ultimate madness and exile. Uchida’s deliberate pacing and penchant for exquisitely balanced (and decidedly painterly) compositions tend to drain these events of their inherent drama, another technique the director uses to seemingly hold the viewer at a remove.

The expressionistic manner in which Uchida illustrates Yasuna’s fit of madness is visually remarkable. After visiting the graves of those he’s lost, Yasuna wanders into a field of vivid yellow flowers. The scene then subtly shifts to a set: Behind Yasuna there’s a bright yellow curtain, and the stage, complete with artificial flowers, slowly revolves in circles, as the off-screen narrator croons, “Inside is emptiness. Never fall in love.” The tableau changes back to the field as the curtain drops to reveal an expanse of meadow with trees in the distance. It’s as surreal and disorienting a moment as any in Japanese cinema.

Yasuna now enters a landscape of swirling mists and mythological creatures. Where the first half of The Mad Fox could almost pass for your typical jidaigeki period piece, albeit absent all the sword- and spearplay, the latter half resembles films like Onibaba and Kwaidan that revel in the uncanny and the supernatural. Yasuna gets caught up with a clan of fox spirits who can take human shape. The young female, Okon (Michiko Saga), assumes the form of Yasuna’s lost love, Sakaki (Saga again), who had been tortured and killed by Doman. Kon uses her superhuman powers to construct a sort of isolated bubble in the middle of the forest, where she and Yasuna can live and love unimpeded by the outside world.

To emphasize the unnaturalness of this situation, Uchida again shifts to the theatrical register: We first see Yasuna and Okon’s shared hovel as a curtain draws back to reveal the façade of the structure. The surrounding landscape consists of painted flats, and the backdrop is patently two-dimensional. But the real world insists on intruding on their idyll, not out of political expediency, as it happens, but owing to untrammeled desire. Sakaki’s younger twin sister, Kuzunoha (Saga once again)—whom Yasura had earlier, in his delusion, mistaken for her sister—arrives to inform him she’s been pining away in his absence. (Even this doubling and trebling of identities smacks of dramaturgy.) As The Mad Fox winds down to its final shot of a deserted stage, the off-screen narrator again warns us of what can happen to those who, to quote another playwright, have “loved not wisely, but too well.”

Image/Sound

Touted as a “brand new restoration by Toei,” The Mad Fox looks excellent overall, despite some technical flaws inherent in the “Toeiscope” widescreen anamorphic format, as writer and curator Jasper Sharp points out in his commentary track. These mostly manifest as edge enhancement and distortion evident at frame’s edge as well as in some of the more prominent close-ups. Colors are bold and richly saturated, especially those overpowering yellows. Clarity of detail really stands out in the brightly hued textures of the medieval costumes. Black levels are deep and uncrushed, while grain is well modulated throughout. The LPCM mono track cleanly conveys the dialogue, as well as gives some decent presence to Chûji Kinoshita’s minimalist score for the shamisen and other traditional instruments.

Extras

The main extra supplied by Arrow is another richly detailed commentary track from Japanese film authority Jasper Sharp, who delves deep into the multifaceted historical and cultural contexts of The Mad Fox, identifies the film as a turning point between classical and “modernist” Japanese cinema in its formal experimentation and rejection of a naturalistic mise-en-scène, conveys lots of career information about the cast and crew, and points out numerous connections (both direct and more convoluted) between this film and the works of Kenji Mizoguchi. Also included on the Blu-ray is a theatrical trailer and image gallery.

Overall

Making its Blu-ray debut, Tomu Uchida’s film is a highly stylized ode to love and disorder.

Cast: Hashizô Ôkawa, Michiko Saga, Jun Usami, Shinji Amano, Sumiko Hidaka, Rin’ichi Yamamoto, Ryûnosuke Tsukigata Director: Tomu Uchida Screenwriter: Yoshikata Yoda Distributor: Arrow Academy Running Time: 109 min Rating: NR Year: 1962 Release Date: June 23, 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: Barbra Streisand’s The Prince of Tides on Criterion Blu-ray

Criterion’s Blu-ray provides a comprehensive window into Streisand’s creative process.

4.5

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The Prince of Tides

Unabashedly melodramatic yet psychologically complex, Barbra Streisand’s The Prince of Tides is a throwback to—and a twist on—the so-called women’s films of the 1930s and ‘40s. Adapted from Pat Conroy’s sprawling semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, the film concerns the stormy romance between a troubled middle-aged Southerner, Tom Wingo (Nick Nolte), and a stoic yet sensitive Manhattan psychiatrist, Susan Lowenstein (Streisand). It’s very much the stuff of a Bette Davis-Irving Rapper weepie, but if the classic woman’s film centered on the inability of a strongly independent, yet often emotionally fragile, woman to find her place in the world—sometimes with the assistance of a paternalistic therapist, as in Rapper’s Now, VoyagerThe Prince of Tides centers on a man struggling to do the same.

Opening with picture-perfect helicopter shots of the sunset over a South Carolina marsh set to the soupy strains of James Newton Howard’s score as Tom delivers a sentimental voiceover about his childhood, The Prince of Tides instantly conjures a saccharine and nostalgic mood that it proceeds to dismantle over the course of its running time. Tom, a driftless former football coach living along the South Carolina coast, at first seems to be longing for a return to innocence, but we soon find that his childhood is in fact the source of all his troubles. Tasked by his overbearing mother, Lila Wingo (Kate Nelligan), to travel to New York to take care of his sister, Savannah (Melinda Dillon), who’s been hospitalized following a recent suicide attempt, Tom soon forms a close bond with Savannah’s therapist, Dr. Lowenstein, who’s keenly interested in investigating Savannah and Tom’s difficult upbringing.

The script, by Conroy and Becky Johnston, radically alters the course of the novel, which is primarily told through Tom’s flashbacks to his childhood. The film, instead, is centered on the relationship between Tom and Susan, which grows from professional to friendly to downright steamy. Nolte is unusually histrionic, frequently shouting and gesticulating in an overbearing manner, while Streisand is overly subdued, her attempts to portray Susan as professional and emotionally reserved coming off as chilly and distracted. But while their performances may lack for nuance, they conjure up a certain sweet-and-sour chemistry that allows their characters’ romance to feel vivid and watchable even during some of the film’s hammier sequences, such as a verbal tiff that escalates with Susan throwing a dictionary at Tom’s head.

Unfortunately, when The Prince of Tides strays from this central relationship, it indulges corniness. A subplot involving Tom teaching Susan’s gangly son, Bernard (Jason Gould), how to play football is leaden and unconvincing, full of training sequences that have no feel for the sport. And the film is peppered with flashback sequences that are bathed in a wistful glow that belies the depths of Tom’s trauma. Streisand is clearly enamored of her film’s coastal shooting locations, what with all the sweeping crane shots and photogenic glimpses of shrimp boats cutting through sun-dappled waters, evoking the past with a superficial lusciousness that’s ill-suited to the wrenching pain that Tom ostensible feels inside.

In contrast to the noir-ish expressionism of many women’s films from the golden age of Hollywood, such as Now, Voyager, Otto Preminger’s Whirlpool, or Curtis Bernhardt’s Possessed, which sought to provide a visual complement to its characters’ unsettled psyches, Streisand consistently opts for a gauzy prettiness in the mold of Garry Marshall’s Beaches that reassures the audience that no matter how dark the subject matter may get, ultimately everything’s going to be okay. Meanwhile, Howard’s schmaltzy, overwrought score is like a warm blanket draped over the entire film, smothering whatever raw feeling might have been left over from the source novel, and the overall effect is tranquilizing in all the wrong ways.

Image/Sound

Boasting a new 4K restoration of the 35mm original camera negatives supervised by Barbra Streisand, The Prince of Tides looks positively sumptuous on Criterion’s Blu-ray release. The color grading of the restoration is particularly notable; all those scenic shots of South Carolina are vivid and vibrant, with deep oranges, purples, and blues clearly visible in the film’s picturesque opening sunset shots. The stereo soundtrack has also been remastered from the original 35mm master and provided in a lossless Dolby 2.0 surround track, and it’s beautifully balanced. Even in scenes where dialogue, voiceover, score, and sound effects are all playing at the same time, each element is always crystal-clear and easily distinguishable.

Extras

Criterion reached deep into its archive for this release, recycling a number of special features produced for its laserdisc edition of the film more than 25 years ago while also providing a bevy of new extras. The audio commentary straddles the line between old and new: While primarily consisting of Streisand’s original 1991 commentary, it also features updates from the actress-director recorded in 2019. This commentary, as well as the disc’s other extensive features, makes a strong case for Streisand as—in Jerry Lewis’s phrase—a “total filmmaker.” Not only did she produce, direct, and star in the film, she also pioneered her own process that involved shooting multiple versions of the same scene and keeping the option to use any of them alive throughout the editing process. Streisand made tweaks to the final cut even after the film’s test screening, removing her own song from the end credits because it didn’t feel right, despite the audience’s favorable opinion of it. While these supplements may not convert the film’s skeptics, they make a strong case for Streisand as a uniquely holistic filmmaker.

This release also includes extensive behind-the-scenes material and other extras organized into four main sections that chronicle Streisand’s filmmaking process: Pat Conroy, Preproduction, Production, and Postproduction. The Pat Conroy section, which documents Streisand and Conroy’s close working relationship, includes a promotional interview with the author, handwritten letters from Conroy to Streisand, and grainy footage of the pair dancing the shag. The Preproduction materials include 8mm video excerpts of the audition process, rehearsal footage, and costume and makeup tests. Supplements under the Production header include storyboards, footage of violinist Pinchas Zukerman, a photo album, and 8mm video excerpts of alternate versions of scenes from the film. Under Postproduction, we get deleted scenes, original end credits featuring Streisand’s song “Places That Belong to You,” and 8mm video excerpts of the film’s test screening. There are also two interviews with Streisand, trailers for the film, and a puffy promotional featurette. The package also includes a fairly slight booklet essay by critic Bruce Eder originally written for Criterion in 1994.

Overall

Featuring a luscious new restoration and a bundle of extras, Criterion’s Blu-ray provides a comprehensive window into Streisand’s creative process.

Cast: Nick Nolte, Barbra Streisand, Blythe Danner, Kate Nelligan, Jeroen Krabbé, Melinda Dillon, George Carlin, Jason Gould, Brad Sullivan Director: Barbra Streisand Screenwriter: Pat Conroy, Becky Johnston Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 132 min Rating: R Year: 1991 Release Date: March 31, 2020 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Abbas Kiarostam’s Taste of Cherry on the Criterion Collection

Criterion gives new life to Kiarostami’s lovely, understated rumination on existential quandaries.

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Taste of Cherry

“There is but one truly serious philosophical question,” writes Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus, “and that is suicide.” Faced with what Camus terms “the unreasonable silence of the world,” and believing that life is inherently meaningless, why should an individual choose to go on? This is the conundrum that confronts Mr. Badii (Homayoun Erhadi), the protagonist of Taste of Cherry, Abbas Kiarostami’s understated and evocative account of a man’s existential despair. Because Mr. Badii never reveals his reasons for contemplating suicide, the audience is left guessing. Backstory in this case would only reduce Mr. Badii to the status of a specific character who finds himself immersed in a particular set of circumstances. Absent that, he can serve more easily as an archetype, a kind of Iranian everyman.

For the first 20 minutes or so, we have no idea what Mr. Badii might be after. From the passenger seat of his Range Rover, we watch him drive from Tehran into the desolate outskirts of the city, which appear to consist of one enormous construction project. The occasional long shot situates the vehicle amid the arid landscape. Along the way, Mr. Badii pauses from time to time to converse with some laborers. His terse inquiries elicit mostly friendly yet noncommittal responses, except for one man who threatens to smash his face in. This aggressive reaction seems to suggest that he thinks Mr. Badii might be cruising for a male lover. But, as it turns out, all he wants is for someone to make sure that he’s gone through with the act of suicide and, if so, to toss “20 spadefuls of earth” over him.

Much of the film is taken up with conversations between Mr. Badii and three potential participants in his suicide pact. Each of their positions—soldier, seminarian, museum employee—represents a pillar of society, yet each of them is an ethnic outsider: a Kurd, an Afghan, and a Turk, respectively. It’s canny how Kiarostami indicates the ways in which a person can be bound up in the social fabric and still stand apart from it, but the disparity between Mr. Badii and his interlocutors is also economic: Though he speaks of friendship and receiving the gift of assistance, his primary persuader remains a large sum of money.

Where the soldier merely flees in fright, and the seminarian flatly refuses owing to religious prohibitions, the elderly taxidermist, Mr. Bagheri (Abdolrahman Bagheri), hesitantly agrees. And yet he hopes to use the very act of storytelling as a way to persuade Mr. Badii against his rash intention. The tale concerns his own futile attempt to hang himself from a tree branch. The unexpected appearance of mulberries on the tree—a sumptuous goad to the all-too-human senses—distracts him from his stated purpose. Though mute (at least according to Camus), the world has presence; it appeals to the observant eye. So it comes as no surprise that, near the end of the film, there are several long shots of Mr. Badii sitting on a bench or a hilltop, gazing out at the city and all of creation in the distance.

Significantly, Mr. Bagheri soon takes over the navigation of the Range Rover, which, until then, has been seen endlessly meandering in circles around the open grave that awaits Mr. Badii. The older man promises to take him along “a longer road, but better and more beautiful.” It’s hard not to see this as a touching metaphor for life itself. The vehicle soon passes from harsh earthen wasteland to lovely rolling hills spotted with trees in bloom. Curiously, some of the trees are green, some speckled with autumnal hues—a subtle reminder of the ways that life and death interpenetrate each other in cyclical fashion.

The last minutes of the film are its most remarkable. And they’re all about transitions. We see Mr. Badii in his grave. The screen goes black. Then, in clearly degraded camcorder footage, we’re presented with the making of an earlier scene. The actor Erhadi passes Kiarostami a cigarette. We’re behind the scenes, in another realm, with The Taste of Cherry having passed over from film to video, from fiction to the fact of its making, from death to life—or is it afterlife? We’ve also passed from silence to song. A film that hitherto had absolutely no score erupts into Louis Armstrong’s instrumental rendition of “Saint James Infirmary,” a blues number about looking coolly at death while celebrating life. That’s Taste of Cherry for you. To quote the lyrics of Cab Calloway’s rendition of the song: “We raise Hallelujah as we go along.”

Image/Sound

Criterion’s 4K restoration of Taste of Cherry is a vast improvement over 1999’s DVD edition, which was non-anamorphic and as such not enhanced for widescreen televisions. The image here is sharper, with far greater density and clarity on the textures of clothing and close-ups on faces, which are, after all, so integral to the film. Colors, from dun earth tones to the intense greens and yellows of the foliage, are vibrant and densely saturated. Grain levels are suitably cinematic. The LPCM mono track clearly delivers the dialogue and lends some depth to ambient industrial sounds and half-overheard conversations.

Extras

Criterion’s Blu-ray upgrade of Taste of Cherry includes a handful of welcome supplements, including the 1997 on-camera interview with Abbas Kiarostami that was the sole extra of note on the DVD. In it, the filmmaker discusses accepting the dictates of censorship as a series of challenges, preferring films that lull you to sleep over ones that nail you to your seat, extols the importance of the imagination in both cinema and life, briefly comments (breaking into English for the moment) on Quentin Tarantino as cinephile and filmmaker, and admits extracting his life philosophy from his frequent work with children.

Project is a 40-minute “sketch film” for Taste of Cherry, in which Kiarostami and his son, Bahman, rehearse a number of its scenes, intercut with footage from the finished film. In a new interview, Iranian film scholar Hamid Naficy talks about the influence of Kiarostami’s early work in advertising and documentary filmmaking on his later narrative films. In a brief but cogent episode of “Observations on Film Art” from the Criterion Channel, critic and historian Kristin Thompson highlights the importance of landscape in Kiarostami’s cinema and explicates his quite distinctive technique for generating narrative suspense. The illustrated foldout booklet includes a perceptive reading of the film from critic A.S. Hamrah, which, among other things, intriguingly compares Taste of Cherry to Barbara Loden’s Wanda.

Overall

A superlative Blu-ray upgrade from the Criterion Collection gives new life to Abbas Kiarostami’s lovely, understated rumination on existential quandaries.

Cast: Homayoun Ershadi, Abdolrahman Bagheri, Afshin Khorshid Bakhtiari, Safar Ali Moradi, Mir Hossein Noori Director: Abbas Kiarostami Screenwriter: Abbas Kiarostami Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 99 min Rating: NR Year: 1997 Release Date: July 21, 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker’s Airplane! on Paramount Blu-ray

Paramount’s newly remastered 4K transfer ensures that the film looks better than it ever has on home video.

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Airplane!

The stridently horny frat-house slapstick that defined legendary comedy troupe Kentucky Fried Theater’s aesthetic resulted in what could be considered the comedic equivalent of repeated premature ejaculations. The punchlines come quick and thick, with little foreplay or consideration for anything other than getting a physical reaction from the audience.

Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker’s initial foray into film was the disjointed, sporadically hysterical Kentucky Fried Movie, a raunchy, shapeless collection of movie- and TV-spoofing skits. Though the centerpiece Bruce Lee riff “A Fistful of Yen” demonstrated a reasonable level of “to-to concentwaysun” (as the kung fu master would lisp), the rest was content to show little girls frying cats in Wesson oil or bigger girls introducing each others’ bare bosoms by name (“Nancy, this is Susan. Susan, this is Nancy”). So it must’ve been something of a shock when their hit 1980 follow-up, Airplane!, sustained a single premise—spoofing the Airport disaster films—for its entire running time, and did so without going limp.

The reason for this is because the ZAZ team framed their zaniest conceits with an uncredited, scene-for-scene fabrication of 1957’s forgotten Zero Hour. Highlights include Barbara Billingsley trading jive with two unreceptive African-Americans, a furniture-smashing barroom brawl between two Girl Scouts, and the mass plane panic that’s undercut by a big-breasted woman running in front of the action for a single jiggly second. And the filmmakers restaged Zero Hour, which was based on a novel by Airport author Arthur Hailey, with straight faces, hiring a phalanx of B-listers like Robert Stack, Leslie Nielsen, and Peter Graves to deliver the corny action lingo as though they didn’t notice the watermelons dropping or arrows zinging around behind them. The tossed salad of sight gags, incidental vulgarity, fourth-wall obliteration, strident stupidity, intentional chintziness, Stephen “There’s a sale at Penneys” Stucker’s late-emerging queerness, and freeze-dried camp felt, at the time, like a new genre.

It wasn’t. The films of Frank Tashlin, Jerry Lewis, and Bob Hope and Bing Crosby all worked the same territory, and Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker were just taking it as far as it could go without snapping, as in the scene where the older woman, right after disapprovingly refusing a swig from a man’s whiskey flask, snorts a few lines of coke. But the ZAZ team’s major contribution to the blackout piss-take genre, and the main reason that none of their follow-up films seemed even remotely as “novel” as Airplane!, is that they assessed the humorlessness of antiquated thrillers and deemed it, across the board, as a camp sensibility.

Because their key ingredient is that all of the film’s characters are unflappably ignorant of being part of a comedy, the ZAZ formula has unfortunately provided the template for a lot of unnecessary revisionism. So even though this blockbuster is one of the most relentlessly inventive of American comedies, it’s impugned the ability for a lot of taut, professional, but now outmoded dramatic filmmaking to take any serious response from some modern audiences, a trend for which the equally ingenious MST3K would pound the final nail in the coffin. For the benefit of a truly limitless comedy where no reference point would ever be too beyond the pale and the only faux pas is taking any film at face value, the ZAZ team and Joel and his bots have unwittingly sculpted an army of cultural demolition monkeys, ready to pounce on and mock practically any half-assed but harmless film that has the bad fortune to have been produced before Marlon Brando’s second Academy Award.

Image/Sound

Paramount’s newly remastered 4K transfer of Airplane! ensures that the film looks better than it ever has on home video. The image is consistently sharp and details are visible deep into the frame, guaranteeing that you won’t miss the smallest of visual gags. The color balancing is strong and naturalistic, while skin tones are consistently even. Nonetheless, you may rue the lack of film grain, as the image exudes a slightly over-digitized look throughout. On the audio side, the mix is sturdy and nicely balanced, meaning that you won’t miss a second of the film’s rapid-fire, sometimes overlapping dialogue.

Extras

For this “Paramount Presents” Blu-ray edition, the studio trots out the same old commentary track with filmmakers Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker that’s been on every home-video edition of the film for the past two decades. It’s a relatively breezy, entertaining listen, with the trio offering plenty of jokes in between stories about, for example, battling studio heads over wanting to cast only dramatic actors in the major roles and the varying degrees to which those actors truly got the humor that the filmmakers were going for. The track does, though, run out of steam about an hour in, at which point all three men struggle to fill the dead air. The two remaining extras are brand new, but the first—an eight-minute featurette titled “Filmmaker Focus”—amounts to little more than a studio-produced puff piece. The second new feature is a 35-minute Q&A with ZAZ following a 40th anniversary screening of the film at L.A.’s Egyptian Theatre, and though the directors don’t tread much ground that isn’t already covered in the commentary, they offer a few new, amusing anecdotes and have a very playful rapport with their audience.

Overall

The extra features aren’t much of a step up from prior DVD and Blu-ray editions, but the transfer at least marks a discernible upgrade.

Cast: Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty, Lloyd Bridges, Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack, Peter Graves, Lorna Patterson, Stephen Stucker, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Director: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker Screenwriter: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker Distributor: Paramount Home Entertainment Running Time: 87 min Rating: PG Year: 1980 Release Date: July 21, 2020 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve on the Criterion Collection

Sturges’s farce remains a canny deconstruction of romantic-comedy tropes.

4.5

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The Lady Eve

With The Lady Eve, Preston Sturges casts a cool eye on that evergreen wellspring of endless comedies: the battle of the sexes. Only he flips the usual script, giving the advantage to his female lead, allowing her to be in the know and in control, whereas her tightly wound love interest remains hapless and often hopeless through practically the entire film. That Sturges never condescends to his characters, imbuing even the smallest role with nuance and a delightful lived-in quality, speaks to the writer-director’s urbane and egalitarian philosophy of life.

The film’s first half concerns the burgeoning shipboard romance between stuffed-shirt Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), amateur ophiologist and heir to the Pike Ale fortune (“The ale that won for Yale”), and pert Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck). As it happens, Jean is part of a group of con artists that includes her card-shark father, “Colonel” Harrington (Charles Coburn), and their wily partner, Gerald (Melville Cooper). Sturges cleverly, and often hilariously, parallels the process of Jean inveigling Charles and the trio attempting to swindle him. After Charles barely manages some sleight of hand, witness the sarcastic delight with which Jean informs her father: “Oh, he does card tricks, too!”

One of the most brilliant scenes in The Lady Eve unfolds when Jean first glimpses Charles across the ship’s crowded dining room. Viewing events in a compact mirror that comes to stand in for the film frame, Jean starts offering a running commentary on a series of risibly futile bids for Charles’s attention, before actively “directing” the action herself. The sequence plays as though Sturges ceded control over his film to one of its characters—at once a perfectly natural bit of business that illustrates Jean’s insight into human behavior and a wonderfully postmodern-ish commentary on the mechanics of feminine seduction. (In a nifty bit of cinematic intertextuality, Brian De Palma would appropriate the title of the book that holds Charles’s rapt attention, Are Snakes Necessary?, for his recent Hard Case Crime novel.)

Charles’s credulity is more than matched by the cynicism of his bodyguard, Muggsy (William Demarest), who soon ferrets out Jean and company’s true agenda. In an unexpected moment of cruelty, Charles tells a devastated Jean that he’s been on to her the whole time—a reversal of fortune that sets in motion the film’s second half, in which Jean will assume the identity of Lady Eve Sidwich in order to exact her revenge on Charles and his family in the form of a marriage proposal. Stanwyck’s makeover from Jean to Eve is remarkable: The clothes, of course, are different, in keeping with Eve’s more exalted status, but so, too, is her deportment, every gesture and tilt of the head, not to mention one terribly unsteady British accent.

In a hilariously circular bit of “psychology,” Charles explains to Muggsy how Eve can’t possibly be Jean, despite the uncanny resemblance, because they’re so physically similar that they just have to be completely different women. Just as earlier Charles couldn’t quite put his finger on the difference between beer and ale, even though “they’re nothing alike,” this scene likewise taps into the opposition between similarity and difference that runs throughout the film. Stacked atop that antagonism is the similar (but different) one between reality and appearance, how characters are taken at face value to be what they seem. This lies at the heart of the con artist’s modus operandi. If you can’t tell the difference, then you’re a “mug,” which makes it doubly ironic that Muggsy is the only one who does notice.

A lot of the dialogue in The Lady Eve skirts the censure of the Hays Office, but it’s still a wonder that they allowed the scene where Eve delays the inevitable honeymoon consummation by regaling Charles with fabricated accounts of her dalliances with other men. And Sturges externalizes Charles’s mounting distress in the increasingly foul weather besetting the train the couple is on. “Keep your head in,” advises a passing sign, which seems like excellent advice. Charles absconds as soon as the train’s in the station, but Eve feels no elation at her revenge, only sadness. The moment she slowly lowers the curtain on the end of their relationship is a perfect encapsulation of Sturges’s psychological acuity.

But The Lady Eve is a comedy. And so Charles and Jean meet cute (again) during a pratfall that literalizes the “fall of man” betokened in the film’s animated opening titles, where a top-hatted serpent contentedly slithers around the fateful apple. As Charles so often proves, you have to fall before you can find your feet. With Jean to guide his steps, they pick up right where they left off. Except for the niggling detail that they’re both married, and Charles remains oblivious to the fact that both of these women are, as Muggsy observes in the film’s final line, “positively the same dame.” We’re left to wonder: Will Charles ever learn the difference?

Image/Sound

Criterion’s 4K restoration of The Lady Eve was made from a master positive print, rather than an original camera negative, so you can expect some variations in image density, with slight fading here and there, and the occasional artifact evident. Notwithstanding these comparatively minor defects, the transfer looks mighty impressive overall. Compared to Criterion’s 2001 DVD edition, there’s a significant uptick in clarity and depth, especially noticeable in the fine details of background décor, not to mention Barbara Stanwyck’s frequently changed costumes. The 1080p image is also brighter and reveals more information along the edges than the DVD. The LPCM mono track can get a little shaky at times in the upper registers, but Preston Sturges’s rapid-fire dialogue comes across crisp and clear, and Charles Bradshaw’s score sounds better than ever in the uncompressed mix.

Extras

Criterion’s Blu-ray carries over the bonus materials from their earlier DVD, as well as offers several choice new supplements. There’s an on-camera introduction from 2001 by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, who praises The Lady Eve as one of the great screwball comedies, discusses the origins and highlights of the genre, and mentions that Sturges preferred to act out his scripts while dictating them to his secretary, rather than writing them down in a more conventional fashion. In her audio commentary, also from 2001, film professor Marian Keane delivers an incisive reading of the film as a prime example of what philosopher Stanley Cavell calls a “comedy of remarriage.” Keane proves she has a keen ear for teasing out the implications of The Lady Eve’s double entendre-laden dialogue.

A new video essay from David Cairns titled “The Lady Deceives” delves into Sturges’s working methods, the changes he made to Irish playwright Monckton Hoffe’s original story, and the inestimable contributions of Sturges’s stock company of memorable character actors. Cairns also mentions a fascinating connection between Sturges and notorious occultist Aleister Crowley, which he then deploys metaphorically to explain the “magic and alchemy” of Sturges’s films. Also new to the Blu-ray, “Tom Sturges and Friends” is a round-robin Zoom chat hosted by Sturges’s son and biographer, along with film historian Susan King, critics Kenneth Turan and Leonard Maltin, and filmmakers Ron Shelton, James L. Brooks, and Bogdanovich. Their discussion is replete with all the conversational pleasures and technological frustrations you’d expect from this sort of an endeavor in the time of Covid-19.

Also included is a Lux Radio Theatre version of the film from 1942 with Barbara Stanwyck and Ray Milland filling in for Henry Fonda. As usual with these adumbrated adaptations, it has more historical value than anything else. For completists, there’s an audio-only recording of “Up the Amazon,” the opening song from an unproduced stage musical based on The Lady Eve. The illustrated booklet contains an incisive essay from critic Geoffrey O’Brien on Sturges’s film career and a 1946 profile of the filmmaker from Life magazine.

Overall

Preston Sturges’s farce, delightfully marked by its verbal pyrotechnics and pure slapstick, remains a canny deconstruction of romantic-comedy tropes.

Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, Charles Coburn, Eugene Pallette, William Demarest, Eric Blore, Melville Cooper, Martha O’Driscoll, Janet Beecher Director: Preston Sturges Screenwriter: Preston Sturges Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 1941 Release Date: July 14, 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: Byron Haskin’s The War of the Worlds on Criterion Blu-ray

The film is one of the most influential and beautiful of all American sci-fi horror epics.

5

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War of the Worlds

The best American sci-fi films from the 1950s about alien invasions possess a poeticism that shames most modern-day FX extravaganzas. These ‘50s films often strove for a dream logic that was enhanced by the methods of creating their special effects, from mattes to paintings to miniatures and puppets. This handmade quality is naturally, resonantly unreal, while CGI often encourages filmmakers to achieve a kind of anonymous, forgettable realism that isn’t usually realistic anyway, fashioning a worst-of-both-worlds aesthetic. Producer George Pal’s 1953 sci-fi landmark The War of the Worlds is particularly gorgeous and intense, centered around various fears that still haunt us today.

The film’s opening is by itself more beautiful than many contemporary genre movies in their entirety. As opening portions of H.G. Wells’s 1897 source novel are read by Cedric Hardwicke, describing the cold Martian intelligence that’s enviously surveyed Earth for ages, director Byron Haskin spotlights the solar system’s planets, which are visualized as paintings by Chesley Bonestell. The paintings’ rapturous colors offer less a factual representation of the various landscapes than a rendering of the space of our imaginations, suggesting something closer to the sensibility of Edgar Rice Burroughs than Stephen Hawking. This eerie, nearly supernatural prologue primes us for the heightened atmosphere that will govern the film.

Shot in three-strip Technicolor by cinematographer George Barnes, The War of the Worlds abounds in lush reds, greens, and blues that link the Southern California small-town setting with Bonestell’s paintings as elements of a mythical, soon-to-be-bygone world. It’s as if the annihilation we’re about to see by the Martians is being remembered rather than witnessed, and that already extraordinary events have grown into folklore. The sets, featuring small-town touchstones such as the library, the diner, and the stoop where newspapers are sold, embody a dream of ‘50s-era Americana that’s cast, via the Technicolor colors, in a sinister light.

The effects everyone remembers of course pertain to the Martian war machines, which art director Albert Nozaki reimagined from towering tripods, per the Wells novel, into long, floating boomerang-shaped ships that suggest flying manta rays, out of which protrude a long and sleek periscope device that resembles the head of a cobra. The reveal of this thing is one of the great set pieces in sci-fi cinema, as the first war machine arises out of a smoldering meteor, gradually orienting itself while its first soon-to-be victims watch in naïve awe.

The sound effects intensify the ship’s semblance to a snake, suggesting the noise that might be yielded if a theremin was called upon to approximate hissing. This scene, relatively prolonged, invests the ship with a vast malevolent agency, dramatizing the violation of alien occupation. The ship may be just a vehicle, but it feels as if it’s the monster. The true Martians, weak, squishy little creatures with long arms and a central, three-lensed eye that’s divided into the three Technicolor hues, are almost poignantly beside the point.

The contrast between the powerful war machines and the dweeby aliens subtly honors one of the chief themes of the Wells novel, about humanity being humbled after a Martian invasion annihilates our illusion of supremacy. In the novel and film, the Martians regard humans as we might either cattle or the inhabitants of an enemy country: as organisms to be slaughtered for plunder. In each work, human society achieves equality via undiscriminating genocide by another species, which Wells explicitly sees as ironic just desserts for colonialist egotism and incuriosity. Yet the Martians are overcompensating, egocentric colonialists themselves, a shadowy reflection of us whose power also resides in military might, and their death is sealed by their ignorance of the land they seek to seize. This narrative simultaneously detonates the delusions of two different species, one imagined and one quite real.

Such a bleak theme is adaptable to whatever fear of doom plagues society, and in Pal’s version of The War of the Worlds, Wells’s portrait of a near-apocalypse is connected to the Atomic Age and the communist scare, as the Martian invasion then paralleled America’s worst fears of infiltration—fears that have stayed with us to this day, even as the perceived agent of death changes from era to era. Now, The War of the Worlds can even serve for modern audiences as a cathartic metaphor for the Covid-19 pandemic, as there are scenes—of people bunkered down, of life stalled—that bear an unmooring similarity to our present-day reality.

Pal, Haskin, and screenwriter Barré Lyndon affirm Wells’s relentless aura of futility, which was in vogue in McCarthy-era sci-fi films, permeating William Cameron Menzies’s Invaders from Mars and Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, among others. These productions lack the jingoism that often seeps into modern films about alien invasions, suggesting that the world, or, really, America, has a tenuous hold on its stature among other societies. This terror may be acutely felt by American audiences for a distinction uniquely specific to our country: Since the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, it has never before been invaded on a mass scale by an outside force, at least not until Covid-19. This premise really is endlessly malleable, as evinced by Steven Spielberg’s terrifying 2005 remake, which is rooted in the iconography of 9/11, until recently our closest brush with domestic invasion. In one fashion, however, The War of the Worlds is more idealistic than modern reality deserves, as it features scientists who are respected, a government that’s earnest, if ineffectual, and a populace that’s capable of acknowledging the aliens in front of its face.

Image/Sound

This disc is sourced from a 4K restoration of the original three-strip Technicolor negative, and the image is revelatory. The spectrum of colors is gorgeous, restoring to the film a nightmarish subjectivity. Reds, greens, and blues have a renewed sense of agency that’s complemented by rich and beautiful darkness, intensifying the mystery of the special effects. Close-ups boast impressive levels of detail, and the paintings of the solar system that open the film are once again properly, well, painterly. There are two soundtracks, one a traditional LPCM monaural, the other a 5.1 Master Audio that opens up the film considerably, fulfilling a once-discussed attempt to exhibit The War of the Worlds upon release in an aural presentation that suggested stereo before that technology existed (the creation of this second track is documented in a supplement included with this disc, “From the Archive: 2018 Restoration.”) Both mixes offer vividly immersive soundscapes, with the Martian rays exhibiting a particularly visceral sense of menace. It’s difficult to imagine this film looking or sounding much better.

Extras

Two supplements produced for Criterion in 2020, “Movie Archaeologists” and “From the Archive: Restoration,” offer bracingly specific details about the creation and restoration of The War of the Worlds. The MVP of these featurettes is sound designer Ben Burtt, who deeply researched the methods that were used to create the film’s unique sound effects, which would be reused by genre productions endlessly afterward and become iconic and pivotal to how we imagine alien invasion. (For instance, certain shrieking alien weapon sounds were created with violins and the reverb of a guitar played backwards.) In terms of preserving The War of the Worlds for future generations, a challenge was posed when the three-strip Technicolor was subsequently rendered on lesser and overly bright film, compromising the richness of the cinematography and the illusions of the effects, revealing the wires used to move the models of the alien warships. As the 4K restoration included on this disc illustrates, Burtt and visual effect supervisor Craig Wasson’s efforts are astonishingly successful.

“The Sky Is Falling” is a supplement produced by Paramount in 2005 that includes interviews with most of the principal actors, elucidating, along with “Movie Archaeologists,” the history of The War of the Worlds and how Cecil B. DeMille obtained the novel as a property that he eventually allowed his pal George Pal to tackle. A commentary track from 2005, featuring filmmaker Joe Dante, film historian Bob Burns, and writer Bill Warren, fleshes out this information, and Dante proves to have in particular an encyclopedic knowledge of the character actors who appeared in this film and the careers they had before and after its release.

Also included in this package is Orson Welles’s notorious 1938 radio adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel, as well as an interview he gave in 1940 with Wells in which they frankly discuss the respective effects of World War II on art in Britain and America, with a significant difference in sensibility being that America hadn’t yet entered the conflict. Meanwhile, a booklet with an essay by film critic J. Hoberman compares this version of The War of the Worlds to Spielberg’s 2005 remake, contextualizes it in relation to other Pal productions, including his Puppetoons animated series, and discusses its beauty as a classic 1950s-era spectacle. The theatrical trailer rounds out a wonderful collection.

Overall

Criterion’s astonishing restoration allows modern audiences to savor The War of the Worlds as one of the most influential and beautiful of all American sci-fi horror epics.

Cast: Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne, Robert Cornthwaite, Sandro Giglio, Lewis Martin, Houseley Stevenson Jr., Paul Frees, William Phipps, Vernon Rich, Cedric Hardwicke Director: Byron Haskin Screenwriter: Barré Lyndon Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 1953 Release Date: July 7, 2020 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: James Whale’s Show Boat on the Criterion Collection

Criterion offers an invaluable reference guide for lovers of the groundbreaking stage musical.

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Show Boat

Though its plot is ultimately concerned with the decades-spanning tragicomic travails of a white show-business family, James Whale’s film adaptation of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1927 musical Show Boat is bookended by the voices of black men. Its first line is spoken—or rather shouted—by an unnamed black townsperson (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson) excitedly greeting the arrival of the variety-show steamship Cotton Blossom as it docks in Natchez, Mississippi. And in the very last shot of the 1936 film we hear the stirring bass baritone of Paul Robeson as he sings a brief reprise of Show Boat’s signature tune, “Ol’ Man River,” over a picturesque shot of the Mississippi’s waters with the sunlight dancing in its currents. In between, we see a surprisingly nuanced, if at times woefully dated, attempt to depict the complexities of what W.E.B. Du Bois famously identified as the problem of the 20th century: the color line.

The second (and best) of three film versions of Kern and Hammerstein’s landmark stage musical—itself adapted from the sprawling 1926 novel of the same name by Edna Ferber—Show Boat paints racial segregation not as an impassable wall of separation, but as a constant negotiation between the dominant white society and communities of color. This is perhaps most evident in the figure of the Cotton Blossom’s star attraction, Julie LaVerne (Helen Morgan), who’s forced out of the show when it’s revealed that, though she’s been passing for white, she’s in fact biracial and thus her marriage to the show’s white male lead, Steve Baker (Donald Cook), runs afoul of Mississippi’s strict miscegenation laws. Though the couple is able to avoid charges when Steve lies to the local sheriff, Vallon (Charles B. Middleton), assuring him that he, too, has a drop of black blood in his ancestry, the two must quickly flee lest the racist locals catch wind that black and white actors are sharing the stage.

This plotline illustrates the consequences of overstepping the color line: By attempting to do so, Julie precipitates her downward spiral into divorce, poverty, and addiction. Her departure from the show makes room for the fresh-faced—and undeniably white—daughter of the riverboat’s proprietors, jolly Cap’n Andy Hawks (Charles Winninger) and shrewish Parthenia (Helen Westley), to take her place. Magnolia (Irene Dunne) will share the riverboat stage with her paramour, Gaylord Ravenal (Allan Jones), a charming gambler masquerading as an aristocrat. But she gets her first real break years later, when she auditions for a powerful Chicago producer with “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” a traditional African-American tune she’d been taught as a teenager by Julie, who also gives up her own role in the production to make room for Magnolia. The show will help vault her into international superstardom.

Julie’s relinquishment of her career to benefit Magnolia’s is played as a noble act of sacrifice, but it’s troubling in its implications: An impoverished and undeniably talented actress of color—we’ve just seen her deliver a show-stopping performance of the bluesy torch song “Bill”—gives up on herself so that a young white up-and-comer can have a chance at a lucrative career singing black songs. The scene is even more queasy when one considers that Julie is played by a white actress, and while Morgan, a member of the original Broadway cast, delivers a beautifully melancholic, world-weary performance that’s informed by her own struggles with addiction, her casting is indicative of the ways that Broadway and Hollywood have historically appropriated black music while depriving black people of the chance to perform it.

Another earlier sequence, added specifically for the film, drives this point home: Magnolia, dolled up in blackface and strumming a banjo, sings “Gallivantin’ Around,” a minstrel number written in a demeaning caricature of a black dialect. The sequence, like all of the showboat stage performances we see in the film, is intentionally crude, filled with hokey handmade effects, such as a stuffed duck sliding on a wire to simulate flight. The joke in this sequence is at least partially on the cornpone audiences who flock to the Cotton Blossom’s shows, but that doesn’t make it any easier for a contemporary viewer to swallow. This absurd, mortifying spectacle of a white woman pretending to be black for the amusement of a mostly white audience shows what an acceptable crossing of the color line looks like in this period. While it may be essentially illegal for Julie to present herself as white, when Magnolia garishly playacts as black, that’s entertainment! This vulgar blackface routine leaves a particularly bitter taste in one’s mouth when juxtaposed against the genuinely resonant numbers performed by the film’s black actors, including the most famous and still stirring song in the film: Joe’s (Robeson) plangent performance of “Ol’ Man River.”

Joe doesn’t sing his tune for anyone other than himself. Lazing on a haybale and whittling a stick, the song is an expression of his sorrow at the lot of black people living along the river who are forced to work “while de white folks play.” Like most of the film’s musical sequences, the moment is simply staged, with neither the extravagance of a Busby Berkeley number nor the virtuosity of an Astaire/Rogers routine. Rather, Whale employs the pure language of cinema to highlight the drama of the song, starting with the camera spinning nearly 360 degrees around Joe before moving in for a close-up on his face. To illustrate the lyrics, Whale intercuts expressionistic shots of toil and suffering that evoke the gloomy mood of the legendary horror films he made for Universal, such as Frankenstein and The Invisible Man. By the end of the sequence, Joe has been joined by a chorus of black townsfolk, expanding this solitary sigh of lament into a powerful elegiac anthem for the entire black South.

As a filmmaker, Whale was unusually fond of the moving camera, often finding ways to integrate cinematographic motion into scenes that other directors of the era might have covered in simple static long shots. In one of the most eloquent moments in Show Boat, Whale uses his trademark fluid camera to distill the entire racial dialectic undergirding the film into a quick series of shots. Early in the film, as the Cotton Blossom troupe parades through town upon their arrival in Natchez, we see a dolly shot surveying a group of white townspeople followed by a nearly identical shot of a crowd of black locals. These parallel shots highlight the rigid segregation of the town while also hinting that these two seemingly distinct groups may not be so different after all. Whale achieves a synthesis in the next shot, in which we see Julie and Steve in a medium shot riding through town. With extraordinary elegance, Whale suggests that some people don’t fall so easily into either side of this supposedly binary racial divide.

As in every iteration of Show Boat, the film suffers from a muddled second act, when the plot moves away from the boat itself and gets bogged down in the frankly dull romantic tribulations of Magnolia and Ravenal. But unlike the lavish 1951 MGM adaptation of the musical directed by George Sidney, which pushes aside its black characters as much as possible to focus on the insipid white romance between the two, Whale does everything he can to streamline this plotline while enhancing the roles of Joe and his wife, Queenie (Hattie McDaniel). The two share a comic number, “Ah Still Suits Me,” written just for the film that plays on the comedic dynamic between the ostensibly shiftless Joe and the nagging Queenie, but throughout the number, Whale frames the actors in portrait-like close-ups that hint at depths to the characters, as if picking of the lyrics’ slack. The result is a far more memorable sequence than any of Magnolia and Ravenal’s blandly sentimental duets.

If the plot concludes with one such tune—the duo reconciling and reprising their signature song “You Are Love” after decades apart—Whale refuses to give these white characters the last word. Their faces fade out as a shot of the Mississippi River fades in with “Ol’ Man River” bellowing one last time on the soundtrack. Magnolia may find a success that would never be granted to a black man like Joe, but it’s his voice that sticks with us long after the credits roll.

Image/Sound

Previously released by Criterion on laserdisc back in 1989, Show Boat receives a belated but more than welcome update to Blu-ray with a brand-new 4K restoration made from the film’s original 35mm camera negatives. The film looks sharper and more stunning than it has since its premiere over eight decades ago. Crowd scenes—such as a bustling New Year’s Eve party scene—reveal a remarkable level of detail and depth of focus captured by cinematographer John J. Mescall’s lens. The picture is noticeably grainy at times, though this is rarely distracting. There’s no hint of judder in the film’s many moving-camera sequences, and there is a pleasing level of contrast, particularly striking in some of Whale’s more expressionistic shots. The remastered monaural soundtrack is presented in uncompressed form, and while the audio is occasionally slightly tinny and evinces a slight background noise, this is expected given the source material. Overall, however, there’s a robust bass presence, most evident during Robeson’s singing, which is booming and satisfyingly full-bodied.

Extras

Criterion’s release places James Whale’s film in the context of the musical’s many different permutations: from novel to stage to screen to radio. The extras offer a chance to understand how the story has evolved and changed over many different productions. Musical historian Miles Krueger’s wide-ranging audio commentary has been carried over from Criterion’s original laserdisc release, and it remains a truly edifying presentation some 30 years on, particularly for its detailed comparisons of various versions of the musical.

Speaking of which, three additional adaptations are represented here: Harry A. Pollard and Arch Heath’s 1929 part-talkie and two radio plays. For the 1929 version, Criterion has provided a 20-minute segment of silent scenes from the film with additional audio commentary from Krueger, as well as four musical performances filmed with the Broadway cast, including white actress Tess Gardella in blackface playing the role of Queenie. (A fifth performance originally included in this prologue no longer exists.) These segments were tacked onto the completed silent film as a prologue to take advantage of the wide popularity of the stage show’s songs and provide a useful look at how the original production was staged. Two hour-long radio plays are also included. The first, from 1936, is produced by Orson Welles for The Campbell Playhouse and features Welles as Cap’n Andy, Morgan as Julie, and Show Boat author Edna Ferber as Parthenia. The second, from 1944, was recorded for The Radio Hall of Fame and includes Allan Jones and Charles Winninger reprising their roles from the 1936 film.

Additional special features highlight particular aspects of the film. A 20-minute interview with Whale biographer James Curtis situates the film within the director’s all-too-brief body of work, while an interview program entitled “Recognizing Race in Show Boat” features academic Shana L. Redmond grappling with the film’s complicated depictions of the segregated South. Redmond’s analysis resists conclusive statements about the work and tends to raise more questions than it answers. The disc also includes Saul J. Turell’s 1979 Oscar-winning short documentary Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist, which was previously included in Criterion’s Paul Robeson box set. The film has been newly restored for this release, and while it offers a compelling introduction to its subject, it downplays the true radicalism of Robeson’s political commitments. A sweeping essay by critic Gary Giddins rounds out the set, incisively combining historical information and formal analysis with a playful prose style that suits the film’s balance of light entertainment and heavy themes.

Overall

Criterion not only lovingly restores a neglected classic, it offers an invaluable reference guide for lovers of the groundbreaking stage musical.

Cast: Irene Dunne, Allan Jones, Charles Winninger, Paul robeson, Helen Morgan, Helen Westley, Queenie Smith, Sammy White, Donald Cook, Hattie McDaniel, Francis X. Mahoney, Marilyn Knowlden, Sunnie O’Dea, Arthur Hohl, Charles Middleton, J. Farrell MacDonald, Clarence Muse, Charles C. Wilson, Harry Barris, Stanley Fields, Stanley J. Sandford, May Beatty, J. Gunnis Davis Director: James Whale Screenwriter: Oscar Hammerstein II Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 113 min Rating: NR Year: 1936 Release Date: March 31, 2020 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story on the Criterion Collection

Criterion’s release of Noah Baumbach’s latest is built to last.

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Marriage Story

Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story initially occupies a rather nebulous spot between broad-strokes comedy and raw melodrama. For one, its depiction of the challenges of a young couple’s divorce makes plenty of room for inside jokes about the art world and its oddball denizens. But as the initially amicable split between an acclaimed New York playwright, Charlie Barber (Adam Driver), and his actress wife, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), takes a sour turn, the film becomes more acerbic, fixating on how familiarity breeds contempt. At one point, we catch a glimpse of an old magazine profile about the couple—written at the height of their artistic collaboration and domestic bliss—titled “Scenes from a Marriage,” a throwaway allusion to an Ingmar Bergman classic that’s also a winking promise of the decline and fall to come.

At first looking to handle their divorce without the involvement of lawyers, Charlie and Nicole hit a rough patch when the latter, who gave up a Hollywood career to move to New York and act in Charlie’s avant-garde plays, heads back to Los Angeles to shoot a television pilot, taking with her the couple’s young son, Henry (Azhy Robertson). While in town, the various divorcées on set encourage Nicole to lawyer up, and she takes a meeting with divorce attorney Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), a yuppie whose breezy chattiness can turn on a dime to cold-blooded strategic talk over how to win a court battle that Nicole doesn’t even want to be a part of.

Nicole, so passive at the start of her meeting with Nora, is initially marginalized within the frame by cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s camera, isolated in a corner of the room in angled compositions that make her look smaller than she really is. But as she begins to talk about her relationship, Nicole almost subconsciously begins to assert herself, getting up and walking around Nora’s office like she owns the place. Gradually, Marriage Story reorients the camera around Nicole, pushing closer until she dominates the frame. In an instant, you can sense that her meekness has been replaced by outrage at Charlie’s accumulated microaggressions.

Abruptly, an ostensibly pain-free divorce turns ugly, with Nicole serving a bewildered and hurt Charlie with legal papers. As Johansson plays up Nicole’s increasingly steely resolve against Charlie, Driver emphasizes Charlie’s bafflement as he’s forced to keep flying between New York and L.A. to meet with what few attorneys in town Nicole didn’t consult with first, thus limiting his options. As Henry grows more literally and emotionally distant from his father, Charlie is set adrift, haplessly attempting to retain his child’s love and keep his cool with Nicole.

At first, the film’s portrait of Charlie’s shortcomings, of the way he directs everyone in his life as if they were starring in one of his plays, is almost forgiving. Indeed, Charlie is so mild-mannered that Nicole’s vindictive behavior toward him comes to feel monstrous in its overreaction. But just as Baumbach’s understanding of Nicole starts to verge on the misogynistic, the film abruptly course-corrects, shedding light onto how much of Charlie’s ostensibly kind nature is a mask for a deliberately controlling, narcissistic personality. And in a handful of scenes, Marriage Story homes in on just how perceptive Nicole was of his manipulations, forcing us to reconsider the justifiability of her rage against her husband.

Baumbach executes this sudden clarification of Charlie’s true self with incisive aplomb, and in no small part with the help of Driver’s emotionally charged pivot toward manifesting the depths of Charlie’s toxic entitlement. Nicole’s unyielding resolve to open Charlie’s eyes to his worst flaws culminates in a furious argument between the two in which Driver rips the mask off of Charlie’s ostensible patience and good-faith attempts at an amicable split. The more heated the two get, the deeper they reach into their arsenal of repressed grievances to craft more savage criticisms of the other’s failings. Baumbach uses arrhythmic shot-reverse-shot patterns throughout the film to stress the latent tension in Charlie and Nicole’s interactions, but here each cut adds an element of danger, following the rapid escalation of fury between the frayed couple to the point that one expects violence at any second.

As dark as it gets, Marriage Story regularly offsets its tension with comic relief, particularly in a strong set of supporting performances. Alan Alda shines as Charlie’s genteel divorce attorney, Bert Spitz, who reassures his client that they won’t go all the way to court but must act as if they are, which, in a twisted bit of legal logic worthy of Joseph Heller, only makes a court battle all the more likely. And when a court-appointed social worker, Nancy Katz (Martha Kelly), comes to evaluate Charlie’s behavior around Henry, she exudes a stiff politeness, somehow both quizzical and clinically disinterested. This makes for erratic rhythms in conversation that, as a befuddled Charlie attempts to pass Nancy’s inspection, cast the woman as both straight man and foil. “Do you ever observe married couples,” Charlie asks at one point, desperate to fill the frequent silence left by Nancy’s visit. “No,” she responds, the confusion in her voice her first outward display of emotion. “Why would I?”

But the film’s prevailing mood is one of flailing anger and pain. Even at its most blistering, though, Marriage Story contains small moments of grace in which Nicole and Charlie reflexively help or comfort each other. These subtle glimpses of their lingering affection for one another and familiarity complicate the bitterness of their separation. Elie Wiesel once said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference,” and only two people who were once as deeply in love as Nicole and Charlie were could have spent so long observing every minute detail of their partner to become so obsessed with each other’s flaws in the first place.

Image/Sound

The Criterion Collection’s new 4K transfer, supervised by director Noah Baumbach, is superlative across the board, offering nearly as detailed an image as a new 35mm print. The film’s color palette is generally muted, but a more diverse range of hues is on dynamic display in several sequences, such as when the characters dress up for Halloween or Adam Driver sings Sondheim inside a dimly lit piano bar. Throughout, the image boasts strong contrast, most notably during the on-stage sequences early in the film, where the inky blacks of shadows brush against pools of light rich in detail within the same shots. The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack boasts squeaky clean dialogue and a robustness in its presentation of Randy Newman’s alternatingly buoyant and delicately somber score.

Extras

The behind-the-scenes footage that makes up “The Making of Marriage Story” captures the intensity of shooting the film’s more emotionally wrenching sequences. The feature, which clocks in at over 90 minutes, is at its most intriguing when lingering on Baumbach as he works with actors to determine everything from psychological motivations and the minutest of gestures to the staging and blocking of scenes. In a separate feature, shot in the Los Angeles apartment where Charlie stayed, Baumbach dissects how the location’s negative space, hard edges, and sharp angles were used to create a sense of discomfort and anonymity, particularly during the climactic argument scene between Charlie and Nicole.

The remaining extras included on the disc largely consist of interviews. In one, Baumbach discusses his attempts to surreptitiously shift the audience’s sympathy away from Charlie and toward Nicole and the influence of screwball comedy on some of Marriage Story’s lighter scenes. Divided into two sections, “The Players” and “The Filmmakers,” the interviews with the cast and crew, respectively, do more than a little fawning over Baumbach’s genius, but also make a great case for why the director is driven to do numerous takes. They even get at the methods used to make the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles feel distinctly claustrophobic. A final interview with Randy Newman speaks to the tremendous attention Baumbach pays to his films’ scores from the start of production through the final edit.

Criterion has housed the disc in a unique six-panel digipak, which includes sleeves that hold replicas of the letters that Charlie and Nicole read in voiceover at the beginning of the film. And finally, novelist Linn Ullmann contributes a short essay in which she compares Marriage Story to Marguerite Duras’s novel The Lover and commends the film’s effective portrait of the various performative elements involved in both marriage and divorce.

Overall

A solid union between sparkling A/V quality and a thoughtful, if not particularly diverse, assortment of extras, Criterion’s release of Marriage Story is built to last.

Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty, Merritt Wever, Azhy Robertson, Wallace Shawn, Martha Kelly, Mark O’Brien Director: Noah Baumbach Screenwriter: Noah Baumbach Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 137 min Rating: R Year: 2019 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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