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DVD Review: Eclipse Series 26: Silent Naruse

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Eclipse Series 26: Silent Naruse

Writing back in 1982, critic Dave Kehr reasoned, “I’ve only seen three films by Mikio Naruse…but with the personality, assurance and range of styles those three films show, it’s enough to convince me that Naruse belongs with the greatest Japanese directors—with Mizoguchi and Ozu.” An astonishing statement to be sure, but one that gets at both the continued difficulty in actually being able to view more than a handful of the director’s 67 surviving films—no less so now than 29 years ago—and the immense hold works such as Yearning and When a Woman Ascends the Staircase have on those who’ve managed to see them.

In fact, until Criterion’s recent release of the “Silent Naruse” box set through their Eclipse imprint, When a Woman Ascends the Staircase, a late masterpiece about a Tokyo barmaid’s dwindling prospects for a satisfying life, was the only of the director’s films issued on American DVD. With the availability of the Eclipse set, which contains all five of his surviving silents (out of 24!), the picture widens considerably. For those used to the unruffled, graceful aesthetic of his later films, these early pictures reveal an artist trying on a range of styles, much as his colleagues Mizoguchi and Ozu, similarly influenced by the American cinema, were doing at the same time. What we learn from “Silent Naruse,” is that between 1931 and 1934, the director was mixing fixed-camera setups with a whole playbook of alternative visual strategies, had already started moving toward the subject matter (the josei-eiga or woman’s film) that would represent his career-long turf even while bringing in elements of other genres, and had begun mapping out a range of repeated narrative and visual motifs (people getting hit by cars and trains, holes in shoes and socks) that appear in nearly all the surviving silents.

This mixture of styles and subjects is already readily apparent in Naruse’s oldest surviving film, the 28-minute Flunky, Work Hard. That 1931 effort somewhat clumsily, if nonetheless affectingly, juxtaposes bitter comedy and somber near-tragedy, wild avant-garde outbursts with a more restrained, if far from Ozu-esque, aesthetic. A tale of economic deprivation and male humiliation, the film is atypically centered away from its female characters. Introduced repairing a hole in his shoe with a newspaper insert, insurance agent Okabe (Isamu Yamaguchi) is able neither to provide his wife with the standard of living she demands nor his son with the toy airplane he longs for and whose want leads him to fights with the other neighborhood kids.

A large, ungainly man with comically boyish face, Okabe is subject to frequent humiliation, generally played for semi-cruel laughter. In the central set piece, the agent woos the five kids of a wealthy family he hopes to sell to by kneeling down and letting them leapfrog over him, trying not to take offense as they laugh at his hole-filled shoes or his watchless-chain, all the while vying with a shady looking competitor who wedges his way in by flirting with the family maid. Later, Okabe takes out his humiliation on his son, repeatedly hitting him for getting in a fight with one of boys of his potential client. After tragedy strikes, the tone shifts away from the comic, triggered by an impossibly fast-cut sequence exploding with every French Impressionist trick in the book, before giving way to the somber, shadowy expressionism of a vaguely sinister hospital in which flies lie dead in the sink pools created by perennially leaky faucets.

No less than Flunky, Work Hard, the following year’s No Blood Relation is a mixture of modes and styles. Shifting largely toward the female-oriented setting that would define the majority of Naruse’s subsequent work, the movie mixes the woman’s film with elements of the urban crime drama. Aesthetically, scenes built on a riot of track-ins (both on faces and intertitles!), back-and-forth pans, and odd angles share time with sequences given a more classical construction, the mélange of styles initially creating an exhilarating sense of disjunction, one that must rival the sense of disorientation felt by the hapless child at the film’s center.

Caught between the contesting claims of her adoptive mother and her birth mother, young Shigeko (Hisako Kojima) is nearly run over by a car in an early scene, is injured by a bicycle in a later one, and in between, gets abducted by the woman that gave birth to her, a person of whom she has no prior memory. Returning to Japan after leaving her husband and child six years earlier to become a wildly successful movie star in America, Tamae Kiyooka (Yoshika Okada) returns to seek her daughter’s affections, even though the girl was an infant when she departed and she was raised in the interim by her stepmother, Masako (Yukiko Tsukuba).

No matter. With Masako’s corporate exec husband in prison after bankrupting his company, Tamae kidnaps her daughter with the help of her money-hungry mother-in-law, her petty criminal brother and his stumbling, comic-relief-providing sidekick. Tamae just can’t figure out why her daughter won’t love her and why she should want to return to her now-impoverished stepmother, but her lack of maternal understanding isn’t mirrored by Naruse. With extraordinary sensitivity built principally out of an unparalleled attention to faces (a focus that begins in the frenetic opening scene where a fast-cut succession of visages call out to stop a purse thief), the filmmaker forces us to acknowledge the yearning in the birth mother’s countenance. She may put her own needs above those of her daughter, but thanks to Naruse’s endless track-ins, the viewer must acknowledge, if not the validity, than at least the legitimate existence of the older women’s needs.

The filmmaker’s next two extant works, both from 1933, similarly focus on the mother-child relationship. The pathetic melodrama Apart from You feels like a transitional work for Naruse, though given the extreme gaps in his filmography, it’s really impossible to say with any certainty. What can be said is that the filmmaker has begun to pare down his films to their essentials, reducing both the number of characters and situations found in No Blood Relation, as well as the visual flourishes. Yet, in telling the story of an aging geisha whose embarrassed teenage son has taken to cutting school and hanging out with a gang of juvenile delinquents, Naruse still clings to a crime-film subplot and spends at least as much time focusing on the disloyal offspring’s relationship with a younger geisha determined to keep her little sister from following in her footsteps as he does on the central filial relationship.

Similarly, even as the film is marked by a less frenetic, largely fixed-take aesthetic, Naruse calls on his track-ins when a scene requires special emphasis, as in a series of dizzying forward-moving shot/reverse shots of mother and son following a round of mutual recrimination, which movingly ends on a pair of extreme close-ups of the teary-eyed duo. Instead, Naruse spends his time picking out small, but telling details (repeated shots of the son’s hole-filled socks) or registering the film’s variety of settings (the bustling streets of the red light district, the waves lapping the rocks in a seaside town) in vivid aspect. Only in the film’s final sequences does he give in fully to the track/pan/quick-cut/superimposition tricks of his earlier movies—here employed with varying degrees of success.

Every-Night Dreams might similarly be termed a transitional work, though it uses camera movement a bit more selectively than Apart from You while telling an even more piteous tale than the earlier film. Centered on another single mother taking a disreputable job to support her son, Every-Night Dreams is as much a tale about male emasculation as it is about female sacrifice. Set in a crisply evoked dockside town, the film finds Omitsu (Sumiko Kurishima) working as a bar hostess and living alone with her preteen boy until her estranged husband returns and she reluctantly takes him back. Suffering the humiliation of being unable to find a job, watching through the windows as men make crude advances on his wife, the de-manned Mizuhara (Tatsuo Saito) ends up turning petty thief after his son is severely injured, a pursuit that leads inevitably to disaster. This hapless male’s misadventures stand as the tragic flipside to Okabe’s comic humiliations in Flunky, Work Hard.

Naruse’s is a pitiless vision and it’s in Every-Night Dreams that its full bleakness is first felt—at least among his surviving works. A devastating film, it makes pointed use of the director’s signature track-ins, employed judiciously to emphasize the expressions of the character’s faces as the import of the film’s tragedies register in their consciousnesses. Similarly, Naruse maps out a world of scrubby lots where kids play baseball as smokestacks spew their venom in the background, of the choppy waves that promise little redemption, and, above all, of the bar where Omitsu works. Nearly as vivid a creation as the raucous sailor’s haunt in Sternberg’s The Docks of New York from five years earlier, this seaside ale-house is a repository of graffitied walls (what’s that hammer and sickle doing there!?), nautical décor and quirky regulars, this last group taken in through a series of lateral tracking shots illustrative of the purpose with which Naruse has, by this point, learned to move his camera.

The director’s final silent, made before jumping ship from Shochiku to the sound-equipped Photo-Chemical Studios, Street Without End is a richly ambiguous melodrama whose sense of tragedy is balanced by the lead character’s ambivalent self-assertion during the movie’s climax. The director’s most fully realized film of the silent era and a true forerunner of his later josei-eiga despite his initial reluctance to tackle the project, Street finds its protagonist, Sugiko (Setsuko Shinobu) subject to oppression not at the hands of a man, but via a pair of women, specifically her mother- and sister-in-law. As much concerned with class as gender, and offering a scathing critique of the Japanese “feudal” family structure that still held sway in Tokyo’s upper crust clans in 1934, the film traces the consequences of waitress Sugiko marrying far above her station. When her ineffectual husband is unable to stand up to his overbearing mother and sadistic sister as they torment his bride with reminders of her shortcomings and her humble beginnings, he turns to drink while she stops bowing in acquiescence and takes flight.

Rich in thematically reinforcing subplot, which never threatens to overwhelm the main storyline, this last silent finds Naruse further refining his aesthetic, limiting his track-ins to two slow movements toward the heroine’s face. Not that his camera remains perfectly still, but the filmmaker saves his flourishes for privileged moments: a round of ultra rapid panning and cutting during the film’s two (!) auto accidents; alternating shots of Sugiko’s face, pointed in opposite directions as she debates her final course of action.

But mostly Naruse is interested once again in foregrounding the action in a firm sense of place, especially important in a film dealing with class where the characters can only be understood when framed against their social environment. Opening and closing his film with montages of street scenes in the Ginza neighborhood where Sugiko works, Naruse contrasts the vibrancy and variety of Tokyo middle- and working-class life with the bland, hermetically-sealed mansion owned by Sugiko’s in-laws whose only flourishes are a painting of birds nesting in a tree and an imposing portrait of a general, presumably a family forebear, coldly greeting all visitors, a stand-in for the sort of patriarchal authority passed down instead to the female head-of-household and sorely lacking from the latest in Naruse’s set of ineffectual men.

Image/Sound

Given the archival nature of much of the material, visual imperfections inevitably abound. The sound—consisting of original scores by Robin Holcomb and Wayne Horvitz—rings out crisp and clear, however.

Extras

As in all Eclipse sets, the only extras are typically thoughtful liner notes by Michael Koresky.

Overall

With Eclipse’s latest, the amount of region 1-available Naruse increases sixfold, but it’s still just the tip of the iceberg.

Cast: Isamu Yamaguchi, Tomoko Naniwa, Seiichi Kato, Shinyo Nara, Yukiko Tsukuba, Hisako Kojima, Fumiko Katsuragi, Joji Oka, Yoshiko Okada, Mitsuko Yoshikawa, Akio Isono, Sumiko Mizukubo, Reikichi Kawamura, Tatsuko Fuji, Sumiko Kurishima, Tatsuo Saito, Teruko Kojima, Setsuko Shinobu, Hikaru Yamanouchi, Nobuko Wakaba, Shinchi Himori, Chiyoko Katori Director: Mikio Naruse Screenwriter: Mikio Naruse, Shunyo Yanagawa, Kogo Noda, Tadao Ikeda, Tomizo Ikeda Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 320 min Rating: NR Year: 1931 - 1934 Release Date: March 22, 2011 Buy: Video

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Review: Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? on Twilight Time Blu-ray

One of the greatest of American satires finally hits high-definition video with an okay transfer of an inferior source.

3.5

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Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?

Frank Tashlin never could harmonize his celebratory/critical impulses toward American pop culture, so it comes as no surprise that Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? is both his funniest and most despairing picture. It’s also fitting that, after surveying a culture’s many popular obsessions (comic books, movies, rock ‘n roll), the director saves the sharpest knives for the institution whose job it is to package them for mass consumption: advertising.

Following a trademark bit of Tashlinesque wall-breaking (star Tony Randall plays the Fox fanfare on a small orchestra of instruments, then forgets the title during his introduction), the opening credits roll as a series of tableaux-like sketches, each skewering the inanities of ludicrous products pitched frontally to audiences (“Pour yourself a full glass of that heavily-brewed, clear swamp water, Shelton’s Beer”; “Wow Soap contains fallout, the exclusive patented ingredient”). The sequence hints at a trenchant critique under the rollicking humor; the phony ads, ridiculous but hardly too far removed from authentic commercials, posit the notion of consumers serving their products instead of the other way around, culminating with a spokesperson pulled into the hungry maw of a washing machine.

The characters are being similarly devoured by the system they breathlessly scramble to support, chief among them Rock Hunter (Randall), a Madison Avenue ad executive sinking in the quicksand of slogans, jingles, and campaigns. His spot in the company’s totem is low, and he may lose his position if he can’t come up with an idea to sell his newest product, Stay-Put Lipstick. Fortunately for him, flying into town is Hollywood glamour superstar Rita Marlowe (Jayne Mansfield), whose “oh-so-kissable lips” make her the perfect lipstick spokesperson, and Rock’s movie-mad niece (Lili Gentle) just happens to know where she’s staying.

In an attempt to make her latest beau jealous, and reap publicity for her studio, Rita snatches the first man to walk into her room as her new squeeze—a case of “being in the right place at the right time” for Rock, and the popcorn in his pocket erupts into fireworks as he smooches a towel-wrapped Rita. This comic serendipity isn’t a plot contrivance, but an illustration of Tashlin’s slashing view of how, in a capitalist society, everything and everyone can be packaged and sold, regardless of their abilities: Just as Edmond O’Brien’s gravel-voiced gangster was turned into a teen sensation at the end of The Girl Can’t Help It, so here is Rock, who has trouble keeping his long-stemmed smoking pipe lit, knighted “Lover Doll” and promptly mobbed by scores of screaming young fans.

Though several characters are aware of the ad world’s machinations, none of them are above its sway, and, in one of the film’s most merciless gags, the hero comes home one night to find both his niece and his fiancée (Betsy Drake) paralyzed from overdosing in bust-expanding exercises. Because Tashlin, like Billy Wilder, often equated success in “the nonsense of what we call our civilization” with prostitution (or, at least, hucksterism), the title’s query becomes not so much a matter of whether than of when: Rock’s ascension in his firm’s importance ladder may seem divine, but to Tashlin it’s all just a Faustian deal sealed with the coveted key to the executive bathroom, a corrupt Holy Grail complete with a heavenly chorus.

People in Tashlin’s films often become extensions of their material possessions, and the irony of the merchandising cuts both ways: Just as Rita is a hilarious pop construct—a Marilyn Monroe spoof that’s also transparently Mansfield’s own dig at her image—she also molds Rock into a replica of her long-lost true love. Throughout Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, characters contort themselves to fit the fetishization of image rampant through society, always causing pain to their own souls; Drake hopes to lure Rock back to her by turning herself into a buxom fembot, but as she pliantly puts it, “Those tight sweaters are too heavy.”

Savage as it is, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? remains, paradoxically, among Tashlin’s most joyous works. Continuously vibrating with comic energy, the Cinemascope screen is a playpen of jubilant brassiness, compounded by superb performances. The director may loathe that the characters sell their souls, yet he can’t help but admire the brio and creativity with which they do it, like the ravenous force with which Rock embraces his new stud persona or the slippery glibness his associate (Henry Jones) employs in navigating Madison Avenue’s polluted waters. Tashlin knew that he was inescapably a part of the culture he was satirizing, and the picture’s head-on immersion in proto-New Wave homage (everything from Tarzan and Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing to Louella Parsons and Groucho Marx) amounts to the auteur’s confession of his complicity. After all, when a young fan announces that she’s going to see The Girl Can’t Help It again, “courageous youth” is all caustic sidekick Joan Blondell can snap.

Indeed, the film’s mid-narrative break could be seen as a reversal of the famous opening of The Girl Can’t Help It: Where Tom Ewell stretched the image into the widescreen rectangle, here Randall shrinks it down to the television square, made grainy and monochromatic “for all you TV fans.” Tashlin’s most radical rupture, however, lies in Blondell’s monologue about her days helping silent-film actresses and vainly attempting to forget a long-lost love, a moment of unexpectedly naked emotion where the character’s wisecracking façade is cracked and the pain underneath is captured in a harsh single-take.

Lured and trapped by the gilded cages of consumerism, the characters yearn for a Rousseau-like return to nature; Rock dreams of a chicken farm, while the company president (John Williams) would rather be tending to roses than clients. The film’s subversive tragedy is that the cartoon surfaces of Tashlin are closer to the entrapping gloss of Douglas Sirk than it is first apparent. The happy ending is nominally enforced, yet the characters remain frozen in their rigid roles, becoming, as Jonathan Rosenbaum has pointed out, “abstract Brechtian commentators on their own dilemmas.” Our laughter explodes only to dissipate grimly.

Image/Sound

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? is one of the most chromatically inventive, deliberately cartoonish live-action films ever made, and Twilight Time’s Blu-ray makes it obvious that it’s aged considerably and has yet to receive any kind of significant restoration. Colors are fuller here than they were on older DVD releases but still look rather faded. In terms of disc artifacts, there are few issues, most notably the instances of black crush that occur when the softer colors of a composition are also marked by thick grain. The sound presentation is significantly more stable: Both the surround and original 2.0 track are pristine, with the dialogue and the boisterous swells of Cyril Mockridge’s score balanced evenly throughout.

Extras

An audio commentary with film historian Dana Polan delves into the film’s satirical richness and how its mixture of broad comedy and subtler character acting elucidates its themes. Polan particularly highlights how all the product placement on display gleefully implicates the film in its own critique of increasing commercialization. Also included is an essay in which Julie Kirgo provides a thoughtful overview of the film and its themes.

Overall

One of the greatest of American satires finally hits high-definition video with an okay transfer of an inferior source, highlighting the need for future restoration.

Cast: Tony Randall, Jayne Mansfield, Betsy Drake, Joan Blondell, John Williams, Henry Jones, Lili Gentle, Mickey Hargitay Director: Frank Tashlin Screenwriter: Frank Tashlin Distributor: Twilight Time Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 1957 Buy: Video

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Review: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse on Sony Blu-ray

Sony’s Blu-ray does right by the film’s aesthetic wonders and includes a plethora of kid- and adult-friendly extras that dig into the complexity of the animation.

4.5

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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse may be definitive proof that the full potential of comic book movies can only be attained through animation. Unburdened of live-action superhero cinema’s tethers to reality, the film embraces the elastic properties of comics. Throughout Into the Spider-Verse, characters are rendered in expressionistic fashion. Take Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), who looks like a massive ink blot with a pale face located halfway down his torso, as if his body were so colossal that his spine lacks the tensile strength to support it.

Recent live-action Marvel movies have tended toward phantasmagoric colors and trippy effects at their climaxes, but they cannot hold a candle to the kaleidoscopic imagery of Into the Spider-Verse’s animation. Drawing inspiration from the rich palettes of most comics, the film compounds its chromatic intensity by mimicking the strobe effects of rotoscoping, creating color separations that add to the feeling of constant motion. So many superhero movies get bogged down in longueurs of exposition and somber reflection, but this one is purely kinetic. Into the Spider-Verse is a film that vibrates with youthful anxiety and energy, even when its narrative slows down.

Crucially, Into the Spider-Verse avoids rehashing Peter Parker’s story for the umpteenth time. The film’s protagonist is Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), an Afro-Latino teenager introduced nearly a decade ago by Marvel as an alternate-universe Spider-Man. A gifted, sardonic kid, Miles shares traces of Peter’s wit and intelligence but differs from his precursor in ways that are relevant to his context. Accepted into a local private school for his academic achievements, Miles understandably feels self-conscious about losing his sense of authenticity and his connection to his neighborhood. Miles’s avoidance of his father, by-the-book police officer Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry), isn’t your typical display of teenage alienation from a parent, as the boy’s anxiety stems from being seen by his friends and neighbors as a policeman’s son. That Miles prefers to spend his free time tagging graffiti with his ne’er-do-well uncle, Aaron (Mahershala Ali), exacerbates his desire to act out from being seen as clean-cut. Though the film deals with Miles’s origin story, he emerges almost immediately as a fully formed character, someone clearly defined well before he gains his superpowers.

Soon after Miles is bitten by a genetically altered spider and begins to experience all of the classic Spidey abilities, he comes into contact with Peter Parker, who tenderly recognizes that he’s found a kindred spirit and promises to train Miles but perishes while preventing Kingpin from tearing a hole in space-time using an enormous dimension portal. Before he dies, however, Peter gets to save the day one last time, though some slippage between dimensions occurs, effectively flooding Miles’s world with alternate spider-powered figures.

Into the Spider-Verse takes immense pleasure in assembling some of the more obscure what-if characters from Marvel lore, from a superpowered version of Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), to a Japanese girl, Peni (Kimiko Glenn), who pilots a robot, to Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), a porcine figure who is, quite hilariously, actually a spider who was bitten by a radioactive pig. The meatiest of these dimensional trespassers is another version of Peter (Jake Johnson), this one a divorced, depressed, out-of-shape cynic approaching middle age who takes to mentoring Miles exclusively out of a sense of lingering moral obligation. This Peter illustrates just how easily Spider-Man’s wit and juvenile spirit and curdle into sardonic bitterness.

These characters, in addition to having their own backstories, are distinctly animated. Spider-Ham has flattened, two-dimensional edges befitting his cartoonish nature, while Peni is, of course, rendered in an anime style, with sleeker lines and wider facial expressions than her compatriots. Comics have always relied on panel sequencing and the kinetic impression of individual compositions to convey a logical sense of movement, and Into the Spider-Verse translates that through staccato editing. Recalling the lower frame rate of silent film projection, motion in the film is rendered in jittery displays of an action.

And every character’s unique attributes, from Gwen’s lithe, acrobatic leaps to the chubby Peter’s languid swings, is folded into this approach. The unique body languages and movements of the characters does much to define their personalities, in much the same way that Spider-Man was arguably first established far more by Steve Ditko’s subtle anatomical proportions of the character and logically drawn action than Stan Lee’s purple prose.

With its fine-tuned comic timing and feeling of constant action, Into the Spider-Verse is downright invigorating, and that’s evident even before it gets to its dazzling, dimensional-colliding climax. Most impressive, though, is the way that the film also uses various permutations of Spider-Man to pinpoint the core of the hero that remains no matter who’s under the mask. Only Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man ever approached this level of empathy.

By juxtaposing an older, beaten-down Peter with a young, insecure Miles, the film reveals several stages of Spider-Man’s emotional journey at once, from his juvenile self-doubt and brashness to his later struggles with personal loss and the impact of sacrificing his happiness and peace for the greater good. There are moments of delicate tenderness throughout the film, such as a one-sided conversation that Jefferson has with his son where the policeman briefly drops his guard, or Peter occasionally letting his lifelong doubts and traumas slip out from behind the mask of his cynicism. Spider-Man remains the most memorable and relatable of Marvel’s creations, and Into the Spider-Verse is the best tribute to date to the seemingly bottomless depths and pleasures of Lee and Ditko’s iconic comic book character.

Image/Sound

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment’s Blu-ray wondrously represents Into the Spider-Verse’s vibrant and expansive color palette, really showing off the animation’s glowing neon streaks of purple and yellow-green amid all those old-school, 3D-aping blues and reds. Color contrast is strong throughout, while black levels are rich and deep. The sound is no less impressive, with Daniel Pemberton’s score nimbly and excitingly recalibrating in the side speakers in perfect sync with the aesthetic wrinkles of a given scene. Both the electronic-heavy soundtrack and boisterous action make great use of the subwoofer, with the wide range of bass noise throughout never muffling the crystal-clear dialogue.

Extras

The chummy and funny commentary track featuring directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman alongside producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller is rich in details about the film’s plot and animation. It will also be a treat for those who think they’ve found all of the film’s Easter eggs. “Alternate Universe Mode” offers a sort of recut version of film, now with alternate scenes—some finished and some still in storyboard phase—that flesh out the secondary characters and, in some cases, offer up some significant plot diversions, such as Miles’s roommate learning his secret almost right away. The recut is significantly longer and paced more like a lugubrious, plot-heavy live-action blockbuster than the kinetic kaleidoscope of the release cut. “Caught in a Ham,” a short film centered on Spider-Ham, is a fun, Looney Tunes-inspired barrage of antic shtick, puns, and self-reflexive visual humor. Rounding out the extras is a series of short but informative themed featurettes on subjects ranging from the film’s innovative animation to tributes to the late Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.

Overall

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a watershed of contemporary animation and superhero cinema. Sony’s Blu-ray does right by the film’s aesthetic wonders and includes a plethora of kid- and adult-friendly extras that dig into the complexity of the animation.

Cast: Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Lily Tomlin, Lauren Velez, John Mulaney, Nicolas Cage, Liev Schreiber, Kimiko Glenn Director: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman Screenwriter: Phil Lord, Rodney Rothman Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Running Time: 117 min Rating: PG Year: 2018 Release Date: March 19, 2019 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Review: Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady on Arrow Academy Blu-ray

Arrow Academy releases a fantastic Blu-ray transfer of a major work in the filmography of director Robert Siodmak.

4

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Phantom Lady

Gaslighting was the subject of numerous American films in 1944. Of course, George Cukor’s Gaslight immediately takes center stage in any conventional appraisal of this narrative device, as a woman is deliberately driven to madness by her conniving husband, but Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady, with its ingeniously structured screenplay and whiz-bang direction, is the more devilish concoction, designed to keep the viewer in a perpetual state of unrest.

From the start, as Scott (Alan Curtis) talks an unnamed woman (Fay Helm) into a night on the town, her demanding of anonymity strikes to the heart of post-WWII American life, where bars were no longer the raucous blowouts of the Jazz Age, but often sparsely populated spots for loners looking to drink away their sorrows. That’s what both Scott and the eponymous mystery guest have in mind, at least until Scott moseys home and finds that his wife has been murdered.

Whereas Otto Preminger’s Laura uses the apparent death of a woman to prompt a flashback into her life, Phantom Lady remains confined to the present, with only the murdered wife’s portrait hanging on the couple’s living room wall as evidence of her existence. When Scott is prompted by police to name his company for the previous evening—and cannot—he’s afforded no sympathy or benefit of the doubt, except from the office secretary, Carol (Ella Raines), whose crush on Scott, and her certainty of his innocence, prompts her to become an amateur sleuth along with Scott’s pal, Jack (Franchot Tone). They’re on the trail of someone who’s paid off witnesses for their denial of ever having seen the unnamed woman.

Siodmak’s playful direction deflates our uncertainty about the phantom lady’s existence, as the camera lingers for a beat longer than necessary on witnesses who express relief once interrogators have gone, as if they have something to hide. These shots tip off the viewer that something is amiss; one may wonder why Siodmak didn’t eliminate these winks entirely and make it seem, whether because of Scott’s imagination or disinterested observers, that the woman might really have never existed at all. The answer to their presence lies in Siodmak’s ultimate disinterest in playing up the whodunit, as the murderer—and orchestrator of Scott’s gaslighting—is revealed around the halfway mark as the only logical person it could be.

Finished playing guessing games with the audience, Siodmak frees himself up to throw down the gauntlet of expressionistic lighting and canted camera angles. This frenzy reaches its nearly orgasmic apex as Carol gyrates to a wild drum riff by Cliff (Elisha Cook Jr.), one of the key witnesses to the mystery woman’s identity, as he marvels at her with pure lust. The film inhabits the moment so fervently and with such precise editing by Arthur Hilton, that the viewer would be excused for forgetting there’s even a mystery to be unfurled. (Brian de Palma’s Femme Fatale is probably the closest any film has come since to representing the sheer power a woman’s body in motion can have over the heterosexual male psyche.)

Lest the rest of the film limp toward its resolution, Siodmak shifts gears toward depicting the killer’s inner turmoil. When the murderer appears to off Cliff for having a loose lip, he delivers a remarkable monologue about how a single pair of hands can either do “inconceivable good or unbearable evil.” A clear influence on Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, Phantom Lady morphs its perspective in the film’s back half toward the killer’s own, whose sudden “dizzy spells” are clearly coded bouts of schizophrenia, as he wrestles with the psychological demons demanding his allegiance. When the killer finally admits a motive of emasculation by Scott’s wife as his impetus for murder, Phantom Lady reveals just how influential it would become, on everything from Hitchcock’s Psycho to the giallo and beyond.

Image/Sound

The HD Blu-ray presentation brings cinematographer Elwood Bredell’s striking images to life, especially in scenes where depth of field is essential to appreciating the complexity of Russell A. Gausman and Leigh Smith’s set decoration. The film’s high-contrast lighting remains sharp, with no evidence of digital enhancement to the original film elements. However, there are numerous, if minor, signs of scratches and debris throughout, indicating that greater care could have been taken to restore this presentation to an ever richer approximation of the film’s original negative. The monaural soundtrack is full and free of distortion, allowing both the music and dialogue to unfold without distraction.

Extras

A pair of intriguing extras includes a nearly hour-long documentary made in 1994 called Dark and Deadly: 50 Years of Film Noir, which features numerous familiar talking heads, including Dennis Hooper, Ruby B. Rich, Robert Wise, and Edward Dmytryk, providing a deep dive into what constitutes the term “film noir.” The range of perspectives proves exciting, from Rich’s more academic gloss of the sociological aspects of noir, to Hopper’s bare-bones description of a woman hiring a dupe to kill her husband, to cinematographer John Alton’s eccentric descriptions of lighting. Bryan Singer also appears to offer his bit on how noir influenced his 1995 film The Usual Suspects. The other supplement of note is an hour-long 1944 radio dramatization of Phantom Lady by the Lux Radio Theatre, with Alan Curtis and Ella Raines reprising their roles. The audio is excellent and the adaptation itself from screen to radio works remarkably well. The disc also includes an image gallery of about 30 stills and distribution materials from the initial theatrical release, and a booklet containing an essay by Alan K. Rode that explains the film’s conception and production.

Overall

Arrow Academy releases a fantastic Blu-ray transfer of a pioneering studio noir in Phantom Lady, which is also a major work in the filmography of director Robert Siodmak.

Cast: Franchot Tone, Ella Raines, Alan Curtis, Thomas Gomez, Aurora, Elisha Cook Jr., Fay Helm, Regis Toomey, Joseph Crehan, Andrew Tombes Director: Robert Siodmak Screenwriter: Bernard C. Schoenfeld Distributor: Arrow Academy Running Time: 87 min Rating: NR Year: 1944 Release Date: March 12, 2019 Buy: Video

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