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DVD Review: Michael Haneke’s Funny Games on Kino on Video

There’s always a sense that Haneke thinks he’s above his characters, his audience, and scrutiny.

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Funny Games

When I described Michael Haneke’s Benny’s Video on the site’s blog as “a whore dressed up for the society ball—you know she’s going to lift up her skirt and show you her cooch at some point,” I didn’t realize how much this notion also applied to Funny Games, the film Haneke used to mark his territory on the Euro-art film map. In the opening scene, an upper-middle-class family drives to their house in the country, heavy metal music sarcastically blasting on the soundtrack (not the family’s car stereo, which plays bourgeois-appropriate classical), and even before the whore has gotten a chance to flash her jewels, Haneke is already slapping her on the wrist. The filmmaker understands how audiences respond to terror on screen, thwarting our pleasure by toying with and condescending to our expectations—like a Catholic school nun sticking a pin into a voodoo doll of Regina Hall’s loud-mouthed character from the first Scary Movie. When Peter (Frank Giering), one of two preppy psycho killers who invade the family’s home, asks a bleeding Georg (Ulrich Mühe) for food, the man sends his son, Schorschi (Stefan Clapczynski), into the kitchen and Peter tells the kid not to go searching for a knife—or else. Later, when the mother, Anna (Susanne Lothar), makes it onto the road outside her house, she allows her defenses to drop, letting an ostensibly friendly passerby to, well, pass by, before—as implied by the next scene—hailing the car of the returning killers. These sequences are straight out of any rote thriller, but they’re meant to be profound—critical of the conventions of the genre—because Paul (Arno Frisch) breaks the fourth wall a number of times; this is Scream for art-house aficionados, with Haneke at one point curbing the audience’s euphoria by rewinding the film immediately after Anna shoots Peter in the chest. Buñuel died before video killed the radio star but Haneke, a great architect of sustained movie tension, shares with the late master an obsession with disrupting bourgeois complacency. What separates them is that Buñuel’s funny games were actually funny and whenever he pointed his finger, it pointed everywhere, including at himself. Haneke’s admonishments are disturbing only in the sense that they’re never self-critical, and while watching one of his films, there’s always a sense that he thinks he’s above his characters, his audience, and scrutiny.

Image/Sound

A lackluster transfer-no bleeding colors or edge enhancement to report but skin tones are pasty and the brightness of the image suggests an overcast day at the beach. Sound is serviceable-no hissing or scratching but the one or two gunshots sound like whimpers.

Extras

Haneke’s goes from honest to pot-calling-the-kettle-black: First he reveals that his decision to make the film was a sarcastic need to punish his audience, then he says something about hating writers who are more intelligent than their creatures. Also included here is the film’s theatrical trailer and a director bio.

Overall

Funny Games is the theme park ride for anyone wanting to experience what it must have been like for Catherine Martin to put the fucking lotion in the basket.

Cast: Susanne Lothar, Ulrich Mühe, Arno Frisch, Frank Giering, Stefan Clapczynski, Doris Kunstmann, Christoph Bantzer, Wolfgang Glück, Susanne Meneghel, Monika Zallinger Director: Michael Haneke Screenwriter: Michael Haneke Distributor: Kino on Video Running Time: 104 min Rating: NR Year: 1997 Release Date: May 16, 2006 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema on the Criterion Collection

Teorema is a film that’s short on incident but not at all lightweight or unserious.

4.5

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Teorema

Not long after the opening titles for Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema, the housemaid (Laura Betti) at an enormous, stately, and modern house in Milan is seen tending to fallen leaves, while a new guest at the house (Terence Stamp) smokes and reads on the nearby veranda. He’s absurdly beautiful. The maid is seized by an increasingly debilitating sexual attraction to the visitor: In the same moment she’s staring at his bulging crotch, he absent-mindedly lets some cigarette ashes fall onto his trousers. She rushes over to brush them off, and, newly possessed by a giddy, hyperactive spirit of her own making, goes into her private locker in the kitchen to plant kisses on the religious icons she’s pasted there, wordlessly admonishing herself for her lurid thoughts.

Resuming her care of the lawn outside, the woman enjoys no respite from her desires. What sets her off the second time isn’t the young man’s cock but his face, posed and framed unmistakably in the manner of a religious icon, the kind that depicts a saint or Christ gazing skyward, beset by spiritual, rather than carnal, yearning. It’s too much for her; face drenched in tears, she races into the house and pushes the kitchen gas hose down her throat. Seconds from death, she’s rescued by the visitor, who takes her to bed. Their embrace isn’t unfettered from the intimations of a holy benediction that have just been established.

In turn, and via different sets of circumstances, the visitor beds everyone else in the household: first the lanky, athletic son, Pietro (Andrés José Cruz Soublette); then the neglected mother, Lucia (Silvana Mangano); then the reserved, level-gazed daughter, Odetta (Anne Wiazemsky); and finally, after much inner turmoil expressed through sudden illness and frequent cutaways to blasted, volcanic landscapes, the father, Paolo (Massimo Girotti). Pasolini, like his countryman Michelangelo Antonioni, uses realist feints like natural landscapes, location filming, and an observational, largely anti-melodramatic timbre to construct an overall strategy that, paradoxically, produces dreamlike emanations, as if any surface could give way to the otherworldly, yielding only to a light touch. Hints, looks, and posturing convey much that isn’t seen or mentioned in this enigma of a film.

Pasolini, best remembered as an incendiary, outspoken, openly gay, Marxist, Catholic-turned-atheist filmmaker and writer, was less reluctant than Antonioni to use his art as a vehicle for his often-excoriating views. Most germane to Teorema, appearing during a year that’s often pointed to as the singular peak, just before the fall, of revolutionary fervor in postwar Europe, is the fact that Pasolini despised the bourgeois class—and the family that hosts Stamp’s mysterious visitor is nothing if not textbook Italian bourgeoisie.

Almost as soon as the visitor has circled the quintet, the hyperactive mail carrier (Ninetto Davoli) who implores the housemaid to smile early in the film returns, this time with a letter that will compel the visitor to bid the family adieu. Each of them, in turn (and now with no insinuations of sex), confides in him how they’ve changed, not in appearance or, necessarily, action, but in intangible, philosophical ways. Could Pasolini so hate the property-owning class that he gave them a perfectly conceived totem of his desire? What ensues is the consequence not only of the visitor’s departure, but of the fact that he gave them something unnameable, and they will, to varying ends, pursue that thing all the way to the end of the road.

Teorema is a film that’s short on incident but not at all lightweight or unserious. Pasolini’s idea of structure is to build with moods and reinforce with context, a risky approach that pays off as the film’s second half becomes stranger and stranger without ever seeming to lose focus. Rather than becoming diffuse, Teorema gains power by pressing down hard on the mystery of its conception. Having departed for points unknown (hinting at an Antonioni-esque “was he ever really here?” scintilla of additional mystery), the visitor never returns, but the idea of him has, somehow, seized permanent control of each of the five, casting them to different winds.

The first in the house to topple is Emilia, who departs by train to her home village, without a word. (In a hilariously dark and loaded gesture, she’s replaced by an almost identical maid, also named Emilia, played by Adele Cambrea.) Odetta begins to lie motionless in bed, one hand clenched unceasingly, eyes open, until she’s carted off in an ambulance. The original Emilia takes a seat at the edge of the village square, refusing to move or utter a word. The townspeople, all known to her, slowly begin to believe that she’s been transformed into a kind of religious manifestation, and regard her with awe. Some bring their afflicted children, hoping she can transmit miraculous cures. Others bring her cheese and wine, and Emilia tells them that she only wants to eat weeds plucked from the roadside.

Pietro buries himself in his project, oil painting on transparent materials. He experiences an initial epiphany when he regards his own incompetence as a visual artist, yet, instead of abandoning the endeavor, redoubles his efforts, delivering to himself heated lectures concerning the necessity of, and the means toward, disguising incompetence through arrogance and self-regard. He, too, has been touched by some manner of holy spirit. Originally filming the character as a jaunty, bounding figure of fun (and kind of a double for the simian mail carrier), Pasolini fills the frame with Soublette’s newly grim and determined face, which now seems imperceptibly older, leeched of joy but energized by purpose. As any artist will do when they’ve got enough time and near-limitless financial backing, Pietro holes up in a spacious studio, adorns its exterior windows with anti-establishment slogans, and attempts transgressive expressions of art like urinating on a blank canvas.

We follow the outward-spinning paths of Lucia and Paolo—her toward desperate sex with increasingly sketchy young men, him toward a more total self-erasure. It’s around this point, when Paolo wonders if he should give his factory away to his workers, that we realize that a sophisticated, film-length trap is now closing all around us. The perplexing events of the prologue, in which unnamed men discuss a factory owner who’s given away his entire operation to his workers, are contextualized as a flash forward, and we learn (or have likely already intuited) that Paolo is that factory owner, and his story has been leading to that crucial decision. Yet a throwaway line from the prologue, a hypothetical “whatever the bourgeoisie does is wrong,” suggests that even if a titan of industry destroys or gives away everything, and wanders the wastes, nude, screaming into the void, it’s not enough. The suggestion that the family’s every gesture is insufficient, incorrect, even pathetic, may be harsh, but a little analytical distance mitigates what may seem cruel in Pasolini’s judgments. The title of the film (Theorem in English) allows for a lens of interpretation, namely that this is a parable with a philosophical-mathematical spirit. The lives of these people are written on a chalkboard.

Pasolini, whose mind had a depth and breadth that remains inadequately measured to this day—mostly thanks to the notoriety of his final film, Salò—never commits to anything so easily reducible as a condemnation of Teorema’s central family. Pietro’s pretentious self-regard is kind of contemptible, but Lucia and Odetta’s suffering isn’t. Emilia, it might be argued, attains holiness as she buries herself in a construction site, her tears forming filthy pools next to her face, but Paolo’s ultimate destination may be the most tragically fitting of all. Wandering the billowing wastes that we’ve glimpsed now and then since the start of the film, the now-nude factory owner has renounced everything but has no one to witness his labored martyrdom—not even a crowd to hurl stones at him, like the mythic Wilbur Mercer in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Pasolini the atheist, anti-bourgeois filmmaker grants the family a visitation, maybe from something beyond their understanding, and even as he plots out their subsequent ruination, corruption, or debasement, it’s evident in the attitudes and weighted imagery in the film that he feels it. He feels all of it.

Image/Sound

Compared with the BFI’s 2013 Blu-ray release, this disc boasts a comparably healthy bitrate, but the Criterion Collection has also made clear and decisive choices that distinguish their release. The difference can most obviously be seen in skin tones and contrast levels: The BFI disc’s image indulges in a judicious application of dark pools of shadow, whereas on the Criterion, details in faces, decor, and architecture are sharp and vivid—never blown out. The close-ups of Soublette, late in Pietro’s arc, needed this sometimes-brutal sharpness, the better to indicate his transformation from carefree boy to consumed young man. But if that doesn’t illustrate it well enough, consider Silvana Mangano’s eyeliner, as we often lose her haunted, hungry eyes on the BFI transfer, while she’s shaded just right on the Criterion.

The disc provides two Dolby Digital monaural tracks, one in Italian, the other in English. (We hear Stamp speaking in his own voice in the latter.) The English track rates a little bit less than the Italian; there’s a lot less nuance in the translation, and the overall sound field seems a bit tinny, in comparison, but for the completist, it’s got library significance. Both tracks are clean and well-managed, especially allowing for the different registers of music, headlined by Ennio Morricone’s unusual score, as well as the terrifying Lacrymosa from Mozart’s “Requiem.”

Extras

Pasolini doesn’t strike one as his own best salesman, and so, the two-and-a-half minutes of 1969 interview footage where he gives cryptic answers to broad questions about Teorema may not give you the best pre-film introduction, though, peering from behind his Kiarostami-like shades, he makes a compelling figure, impish yet somehow deadly serious. The 2007 Terence Stamp interview, which runs about 30 minutes, fares a little better, with respect to the film. Stamp, as commanding and charming—and, occasionally, a bit cheeky—as he ever was, relates anecdotes that build on the story of the film’s genesis and production, though he sometimes seems stymied, even skeptical, of Pasolini’s whole, enigmatic, cranky persona.

So, it’s left to the other two supplements to do the heavy lifting. Center stage is the Robert Gordon audio commentary track, which has been ported over from the BFI disc, like the Stamp interview. Gordon’s prepared remarks are erudite, diving deep into a scene, or adding context regarding the source material, Pasolini’s life and preoccupations, and other assorted details. While the track is well-structured, and highly educational, Gordon will often simply describe action or mise-en-scène that’s already plain to see. Still, an essential listen.

Newly recorded for this release is John David Rhodes’s video essay. Rhodes, author of Stupendous, Miserable City: Pasolini’s Rome, gives a brisk yet well-mounted 16-minute summation of Teorema’s inner workings and fundamental mysteries, with a particular focus on the cast. While one may hypothesize that Stamp’s ethereal beauty is key to powering Pasolini’s semi-parable, semi-schematic fantasy, Rhodes moves the other direction, offering that Stamp’s movie-star wattage conceals Pasolini’s hands as he moves the game pieces around. What lends credence to this is that Rhodes shades in the backgrounds and associations carried by each of the other principal players, including Pasolini’s own mother, Susanna Pasolini, who plays a crucial role in the descending arc of Emilia’s story.

The crown jewel of this release, though, is the brilliant essay by James Quandt, “Just a Boy,” which, in a few, dense pages, manages to move mightily not only through the film’s texts and subtexts, but where it stands in relation to Pasolini’s poetry and personal politics.

Overall

The overall girth of Criterion’s Teorema release seems more dutiful than exalted; perhaps more of a ruckus could have been raised for one of the most singular and thrilling films of its era. Just the same, their decision to produce a transfer that’s rich in detail where previous releases erred on the side of waxy, dark accents is reason enough to rejoice.

Cast: Silvana Mangano, Terence Stamp, Massimo Girotti, Anne Wiazemsky, Laura Betti, Andrés José Cruz Soublette, Ninetto Davoli, Carlo De Mejo Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini Screenwriter: Pier Paolo Pasolini Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 1968 Release Date: February 18, 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Antonio Gaudí on Criterion Blu-ray

This side of a flight to Barcelona, Criterion’s gorgeous release is the next best option to appreciate the Catalan architect’s work.

4

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Antonio Gaudí

Had Lewis Carroll switched from jotting down his visions to carving them in stone, his works might have looked a lot like Antonio Gaudí’s. Both artists shared what Eric Rohmer once described (in a Cahiers du Cinéma review of a Frank Tashlin film) as “a rebellion against the straight line,” a quality amply displayed in Antonio Gaudí, Hiroshi Teshigahara’s meditative document about the great Spanish architect.

As Teshigahara’s camera travels through the streets of Barcelona, the majesty and sheer strangeness of Gaudí’s 19th-century combination of Art Nouveau arabesques and organic contours take over. The tour is centered on detailed views of the Casa Batlló and the Casa Milà, where ornate designs seem to alternately belong in a Kubrick film and in the Land of Oz, and on the Casa Vicens and Güell Palace, where medieval sumptuousness is skewed by twisty columns and undulating rooftops. Ditching talking heads in favor of Toru Takemitsu’s spellbinding score, Teshigahara cultivates an immersive tone as we float hypnotically from one architectural wonder to the next, from grisly murals to staircases that resemble a caterpillar’s segmented body.

The contrasting blends in Gaudí’s work (the ancient and the modern, the natural and the man-made) are reflected in shots of frosted glass on antique formations, and also of rocky hills that look like rugged visages. Visually ravishing and rhythmic, Antonio Gaudí feels like a well-made but impersonal travelogue until one recalls the Japanese filmmaker’s own use of nature’s unruly shapes in his classic Woman in the Dunes. Teshigahara’s refusal to provide extensive biographical or historical context to Gaudí’s structures won’t be of much help to art students cramming for a test, yet he understands how, when dealing with the maker of the monumental, unfinished La Sagrada Familia basilica, an artist’s life and times can be best summarized by letting the works speak for themselves.

Image/Sound

Criterion’s transfer of a high-def digital restoration offers significant improvements across the board from their 2008 DVD release. The magnificence of Antonio Gaudí’s art is often found in his extremely acute attention to details, so lovingly traced throughout Hiroshi Teshigahara’s tribute to one of his artistic heros. The high video bitrate used on Criterion’s Blu-ray lends the image a newfound sharpness, allowing for the fullest appreciation of Gaudí’s craftsmanship this side of a flight to Barcelona. The color balancing is equally impressive, presenting a vivid dynamic range of color and hues. As there’s no voiceover to speak of, Antonio Gaudí is a relatively quiet film, but the uncompressed monaural soundtrack gets the job done in the rare occurrences that Tôru Takemitsu’s typically off-kilter, ethereal score kicks into full gear.

Extras

The 72-minute Antonio Gaudí is indeed one of the shorter films to garner an individual release from Criterion, but the disc is packed with a nice variety of extras, albeit ones that are mostly ported over from the prior DVD release. Still, this is an astute batch of features that tackle Gaudí’s enduring legacy as well as Teshigahara’s long-running fascination with the Catalan architect’s work. An interview with Japanese architect Arata Isozaki offers insight into Japan’s ongoing fondness for Gaudí’s work, despite his free-flowing style being generally at odds with the straight lines and sharp angles that dominate Japanese architecture. In his hour-long documentary God’s Architect: Antoni Gaudí, art critic Robert Hughes takes great care to spotlight some of the architect’s less famous work, while not underestimating the importance of La Sagrada Familia as the final culmination of Gaudí’s artistic growth.

A pair of Teshigahara short films are also included: the silent Gaudí, Catalunya, 1959 documents Teshigahara’s first encounters with Gaudí’s work in Barcelona, while Sculptures by Sofu—Vita chronicles a gallery showing of the sculptures of his father, Sofu Teshigahara, whose fondness for Gaudi’s use of serpentine curves is evident in his own work. The package is rounded out with a beautiful 38-page booklet with a new essay by art historian Dore Ashton, a 1959 conversation among the Teshigaharas about their trip to Spain, and an anecdote by Hiroshi Teshigahara about his relationship with Gaudí’s work.

Overall

This side of a flight to Barcelona, Criterion’s gorgeous upgrade of Hiroshi Teshigahara’s tribute to Antonio Gaudí is the next best option to appreciate the Catalan architect’s work.

Cast: Isidre Puig Boada, Seiji Miyaguchi Director: Hiroshi Teshigahara Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 72 min Rating: NR Year: 1984 Release Date: February 18, 2020 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma on the Criterion Collection

All in all, hungry Roma-philes will remain engaged for the better part of a day.

4.5

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Roma

From the start of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, the banal and sublime walk hand in hand. Sloshing water transforms a tile floor into a mirror, capturing the reflection of a plane soaring across the sky above. There’s an almost magical quality to this image, and it’s an impression that’s undermined by the camera tilting upward to reveal the unglamorous reality of the water’s source: a maid washing dog feces out of a driveway.

The woman, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), works for the family of Dr. Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), a man who seems to be a guest in his own home. As a car pulls into the driveway, shots of the vehicle’s grille, tires, and gear shift make Antonio’s presence known. An entire dynamic between the patriarch and his family is established in the way the man’s wife, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), and their children gather to welcome him as if paying tribute to some visiting dignitary—their awestruck faces alight by the glow of the car’s headlights.

These initial moments give the audience a sense of this family’s perspective, but for the most part Cuarón roots the camera in Cleo’s point of view. An indigenous woman who speaks both Spanish and Mixtec, she switches between the languages on a dime depending on whether she’s talking to her employers or to the other servants in the house. Though Sofia is never depicted as an uncaring or inattentive mother, it’s clear from the start that Cleo is largely responsible for rearing Sofia’s children, who tend to respond faster to Cleo’s commands than to their mother’s own. Cuarón establishes the economic and class divisions of the Mexico City neighborhood where Antonio and Sofia live via scenes that place Cleo as one of a fleet of servants who toil inside the area’s homes, and in one long take, the camera floats over the rooftop of Antonio’s manse as Cleo hangs laundry, slowly revealing numerous other maids scrubbing and hanging clothes on roofs that stretch to the image’s vanishing point.

Cleo’s status as glorified second mother to Sofia’s kids is cemented further when Antonio, already such a spectral presence in the lives of his family members, moves in with his mistress under the guise of attending a medical conference. As Sofia realizes what’s happened, her grief and anger isolate her from the rest of her family, forcing Cleo to increasingly take on responsibility for the well-being of Sofia’s children, which includes sheltering them from the knowledge of their father’s abandonment. But as Cleo contends with the added tension in her employers’ household, she must also deal with an unexpected pregnancy and the sudden, violent rejection by her boyfriend, Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), who threatens to kill the woman and her unborn child if she makes him take responsibility as a father.

These relationship struggles veer Roma into melodrama, albeit of a kind whose emotions are frequently held at a distance by Cuarón’s aesthetic approach, which privileges long takes and master shots that often dwarf Cleo in the frame. In a scene where the maid goes to confront Fermín over their child while he practices martial arts with other men in a soccer field, she’s just a speck in a massive shot that takes in a mountain that looms over the scene as the men do their drills, their movements kicking up a thick cloud of dirt that hangs over the field like a fog. Cleo’s near-invisibility in the shot forecasts how much power she’ll project while dealing with the imposing Fermín, and similar methods of shrinking Cleo in the frame assert her diminished authority in Antonio and Sofia’s household. Cuarón calls attention to the unspoken wealth of the family Cleo serves by highlighting the size of their home, placing Cleo in the middle distance and background of deep-focus images that make the house seem as big as a castle, and the vastness of the space is subtly reinforced by the fact that in spite of the maid’s seemingly endless toil, the place never, ever seems to get clean.

Aparicio, a first-time actor who responded to a casting call without knowing who Cuarón was, gives a performance that’s defined by halting mannerisms. That’s an approach that makes sense for the actress’s character, a woman who’s paid to silently handle the life inconveniences of her bosses and who treats her increasingly prominent position in Sofia’s life with the caution of someone who’s inadvertently trespassing. Throughout, Cuarón emphasizes Cleo’s helplessness, whether she’s caught up in a riot that abruptly breaks out during a civil demonstration or dealing with complications during the delivery of her baby. And the depiction of said delivery—an unbroken long shot that captures the entirety of the birthing process—is the film’s emotional high point. By framing the moment in this way, Cuarón forces the audience to notice every new wrinkle in the delivery just as Cleo does—as her reactions gradually turn from pained to confused to panicked as problems arise.

Acting as writer, cinematographer, and co-editor on Roma, Cuarón exercises near-total control over every frame, and the static camera during the hospital scene captures as technically exacting an image as anything in the elaborate blocking that typifies Children of Men and Gravity. By the same token, Cuarón’s efforts to use his formal mastery to foreground Cleo’s physical and social place speaks to a focus on character that hasn’t been this thrilling in his work since Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. As showy as the film’s compositions and elegant camera movements can be, they consistently illuminate Cleo’s state of mind and social status, as well as give voice to all the emotions she lacks the freedom to openly express.

Cuarón mixes classical and modern modes of melodrama so freely that Roma calls to mind Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘80s films, which used similarly old and new Hollywood techniques to craft stories that wedded nostalgia with clear-eyed social commentary. But where Coppola set his fondness for old melodramas and musicals against the ills those films often papered over, Cuarón confronts his own personal privilege, ruminating on the perspective of the sort of woman who helped raise him. (Cleo is based on the filmmaker’s childhood nanny, Liboria Rodríguez.) In the end, Roma is autobiography as autocritique, and in exploring a point of view adjacent to his own, Cuarón appears to have rediscovered his identity as a filmmaker.

Image/Sound

With Roma, Alfonso Cuarón channels longtime collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki’s seemingly indefatigable virtuosity. The film sometimes even resembles a live-action playthrough of Lubezki’s Instagram account, which frequently features monochrome, deep-focus images of what could easily be mistaken for Roma production stills. Serving as his own director of photography, Cuarón shot Roma using the mighty Arri Alexa 65, then mastered it in 4K, giving the images a specific clarity of present-ness that actively resists overdosing on what could have been a soporific level of nostalgia. And this is unequivocally a Blu-ray release of flagship proportions, as Criterion’s encoding team has made sure that we get a bitrate that’s worthy of some of the most painstakingly composed black-and-white images in many a long year.

Roma’s sound design is just as rich. The film’s sound mixers and editors etch a soundscape with a technical lucidity that, complementing the crystal clarity of ultra-high-end digital video, somehow makes Cuarón’s memory deep dives a landscape of vivid yet alien effects. They deploy a sound as dramatic underpinning only at a few, prudently chosen points; elsewhere, even the most dazzling images are cloaked in eerie tranquility. It’s no surprise, then, that Criterion’s work on the audio—via an absolute barnburner of a format, Dolby Atmos Spanish TrueHD 7.1—will grace the right home-entertainment setup with peerless fidelity to the director’s autobiographical magnum opus. (Also, and exclusively for Spanish speakers who are hard of hearing, the alternate track is descriptive audio.)

Extras

The main supplement is a feature-length, behind-the-scenes documentary titled Road to “Roma” that, as with many projects of its kind, treats us to candid footage of the director and his crew brainstorming and fine-tuning the finished product. This kind of featurette has a double appeal, capturing the process as it happens, and, as a visual endeavor on its own, being just the right degree of bland to let us know that, when the rubber meets the road, camera position, lens selection, f-stops, and a million other factors make all the difference.

Alongside this, there’s an array of production photos, a featurette covering the film’s tour across Mexico, and a massive booklet of essays that illuminate several different aspects of the film’s production. There’s a compilation of tweets by author Aurelio Asiaín, poetically canvassing countless observations about the film, bolstered by several rounds of editing and re-editing after as many subsequent viewings. There’s also contributions by historian Enrique Krauze and novelist Valeria Luiselli. What stands out the most, besides these texts, is the inclusion of several foldout images from the film, paying printed homage to the widescreen motion picture. All in all, hungry Roma-philes will remain engaged for the better part of a day.

Overall

Alfonso Cuarón’s mitts are all over this director-approved Criterion Blu-ray release, and there’s good and bad with that, depending on your relationship with the film.

Cast: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Marco Graf, Fernando Gregiaga, Daniela Demesa, Carlos Peralta, Nancy Garcia, Jorge Antonio Guerrero Director: Alfonso Cuarón Screenwriter: Alfonso Cuarón Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 135 min Rating: R Year: 2018 Release Date: February 11, 2020 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Blu-ray Review: Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory on Sony Home Entertainment

Sony has outfitted Almodóvar’s newest memory play with a transfer that fully preserves the film’s painstaking gorgeousness.

3.5

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Pain and Glory

A film about an aging artist struggling to recapture his yen for creation, Pain and Glory has the makings of a deeply personal, career-capping work for Pedro Almodóvar. His name may be Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), but the gay filmmaker, with his tussled hair, white beard, and red turtleneck, may as well call himself Pedro. One of the very few differences between them is that Salvador has stopped making films while Almodóvar continues to work at a relatively steady clip. Pain and Glory is a ballsy admission on the auteur’s part that he hasn’t made a film in more than a decade that can compare with his most subversive output, which makes it all the more dispiriting that his latest only occasionally captures the spry, comedic rhythms and impassioned, melodramatic intensity that defined, say, Law of Desire, Matador, and Bad Education.

Pain and Glory is most surprising at the outset, as the stern narration that we’ve come to expect from an Almodóvar film is audaciously paired with CG graphics and abstract animations that illustrate Salvador’s anatomical and psychosomatic conditions. The man suffers from tinnitus, chronic back pain, severe headaches, anxiety, depression, and various other ailments. It’s a literally visceral way to begin a film that soon settles into the more familiar pattern of a two-track narrative: There’s Salvador in the present, who works toward repairing a friendship with the heroin-addicted star, Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), of his recently restored and most celebrated film, Subor, and there’s Salvador as a young boy (Asier Flores), preternaturally intelligent and perpetually optimistic, living in poverty with his ever-harried mother, Jacinta (Penélope Cruz), until he’s finally sent off to a seminary.

Perhaps all of this might have landed with a little more impact if Almodóvar hadn’t already covered so much of the same territory in Bad Education, which also centers itself around a film director’s relationship with an actor and tells the story of a young altar boy’s life, much of it spent at a seminary, through a series of flashbacks. Another rehash of a nearly identical plot point from that 2004 film is Pain and Glory’s intriguing meta conceit: Alberto convinces Salvador to let him perform a one-man stage adaptation of a monologue the former wrote long ago, an obvious nod to Almodóvar’s longtime collaborator, Banderas, playing a version of the filmmaker here. Pain and Glory is, in fact, defined by its abundance of conspicuously placed Easter eggs. Even in the scenes between the present-day Salvador and his dying mother (Julietta Serrano), namely the moment she tells him not to make films about her, Almodóvar points to the personal turmoil that led to the making of All About My Mother.

Putting aside the boldness of the sequences that kick Pain and Glory into motion, Almodóvar’s formal approach is generally subdued and disciplined throughout. His screenplay is also quite neat in its structure, relating its two plotlines in almost stubbornly linear fashion, reliably hitting standard narrative beats of interpersonal conflict and reconciliation. Almodóvar wouldn’t be the first filmmaker in the history of cinema to mellow with age, and there’s a sense that Pain and Glory’s artistry is a reflection of that trajectory, but that only makes the too-fleeting snapshots of Salvador’s hard-scrabble early years—which includes living inside a white cave with Jacinta and other migrants—feel as if they never transcend easy nostalgia.

Still, Almodóvar’s singular use of color as a barometer of characters’ interiorities and the emotional temperature of a scene remains on vibrant display throughout Pain and Glory. There’s also some wonderful comic repartee between the disheveled Banderas, so exquisitely committed to imparting a sense of his character’s almost ghostly status, and the perpetually bug-eyed Etxeandia. Alberto, upon reuniting with Salvador, almost immediately introduces him to heroin, and, improbably, the way in which they bond through their horrible addiction results in some of the funniest scenes in an Almodóvar film in some time.

It’s another reunion, though, between Salvador and Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), an ex-lover he hasn’t seen since the ‘80s, that finds Almodóvar delivering on the heightened promise of the film’s title. The men are brought back together through an absurd coincidence, after Federico wanders into the performance of Salvador’s play and recognizes that his life has been incorporated into the monologue, but the scene thrums with that distinctly magnetic force of love that’s fundamental to Almodóvar’s best work. Also, the actual moment of Salvador and Federico’s reunion is a gracefully staged dance of advance and retreat, beginning with a late-night conversation at Salvador’s apartment that never leaves the common area. Finally, after an intense kiss, Federico departs, and though he invites Salvador to come visit him and his family, both men seem to implicitly realize that they’ll never see each other again.

Salvador and Federico’s meeting unfolds almost in real time, and touches on their shared past, the lives they lived in the interim, and how much they’ve always meant to each other. The scene recalls other intense emotional meetings in prior Almodóvar films, but more than that, in its duration and focus, it seems drawn from more contemporary inspirations: Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, the final stretch of Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, even “Looking for the Future,” the finest episode of Andrew Haigh’s Looking. It also arguably packs even more of an expressive force than any of those works, and serves as a reminder that, however much Almodóvar’s formalist bona fides may have cooled, his ability to craft emotionally acute, achingly felt scenes between men in the throes of love is as vigorous as ever.

Image/Sound

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment superbly preserves the vibrancy of the film’s images: Colors are sharp, dynamic, and subtly varied—the gleaming whites of a childhood river are heartbreakingly beautiful—while backgrounds and foregrounds are pristine and well-detailed. Meanwhile, skin textures are intensely tactile, which is of paramount importance to a film concerned with aging and memory. Tactility is also a significant accomplishment of the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix, as it acutely balances the film’s painstaking use of small diegetic sounds to establish space—from the echoes of a cave dwelling to the churning of river water—with the plaintive melancholia of Alberto Iglesias’s score.

Extras

A Q&A with Pedro Almodóvar and Antonio Banderas covers the history of their collaboration over the years, including how Banderas’s decades of experience in Hollywood informed their first reunion film, The Skin I Live In. Almodóvar also speaks of how Pain and Glory both is and isn’t a personal film, as he used his life as a springboard for fictional reveries. Another interview, titled “Pedro Almodóvar: In His Own Words,” broadly covers the filmmaker’s career, such as how it was informed by various protests against the waning Franco regime. These supplements are diverting but fairly unsurprising, especially for audiences already familiar with Almodóvar’s cinema. The film’s theatrical trailer rounds out a slim package.

Overall

Sony has outfitted Almodóvar’s newest memory play with a transfer that fully preserves the film’s painstaking gorgeousness, though the supplements package is routine.

Cast: Antonio Banderas, Asier Etxeandia, Penélope Cruz, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Nora Navas, Julieta Serrano, César Vicente, Asier Flores, Julieta Serrano Director: Pedro Almodóvar Screenwriter: Pedro Almodóvar Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Running Time: 113 min Rating: R Year: 2019 Release Date: January 21, 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control on Arrow Academy Blu-ray

The film, as Arrow’s excellent assemblage of features proves, is rewarded by post-viewing conversation.

4

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The Limits of Control

At the center of writer-director Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control is a man identified only as the Lone Man (Isaach de Bankolé), a stone-faced figure perpetually clad in precisely tailored earth-toned suits. He alternates between strutting purposefully and waiting patiently in the cities and villages of Andalusia in the south of Spain. Seated at outdoor tables in Seville’s secluded, orange-tree-bedecked plazas, he meets with enigmatic types who exchange mysterious trinkets and coded phrases with him. “You don’t speak Spanish, do you?” each of them say in Spanish, proceeding to launch into a rambling excursus on a pet topic. The taciturn Lone Man listens attentively, though it’s not entirely clear whether he’s decoding secret instructions or genuinely interested in classic films, the etymology of the term “bohemian,” the provenance of the universe’s molecules, or peyote.

That is the long and short of the major action in the film, which deploys just enough generic codes to qualify it as a romanticized hitman flick in the vein of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai but curiously withholds much of what one might expect from the genre. Namely, the story lacks the armature of a true plot, the decisive events and abrupt pivots one encounters even in Euro-existentialist interpretations of pulp detective fiction. The Limits of Control gives us existentialism without the fatalism: The Lone Man awaits not fate but understanding, a wisdom accumulated through conversation, experience, and imagination.

“Reality is arbitrary,” his unnamed contractor (Alex Descas) advises him in the opening scene, seated in a business-class lounge in Charles de Gaulle Airport. “The universe has no center and no edges.” It’s advice that the Lone Man appears to take seriously, as, laid over in Madrid, he spends his time contemplating cubist paintings in the Reina Sofia Art Museum. Cubism—inspired, incidentally, by the shifting perspectives artists encountered in early cinema—presents the world without a center, beyond the limits of control. Still, the film suggests that there’s a possibility of control that extends to the borders of the self: Every morning in his hotel room, the Lone Man wakes to perform a tai-chi-like exercise, cinematographer Chris Doyle’s camera following the slow, ritualistic movements, as patient as the man himself.

The Limits of Control isn’t what you could call a cubist film, but the absence of a centering discourse like a plot certainly gives it avant-garde vibes. A coal-black helicopter periodically appears in the sky, following the Lone Man through his languid trek through Andalusia. A mysterious femme fatale (Paz de la Huerta) crops up, lying nude on her belly in his hotel bed with her rear end perked up in the foreground of the frame, having seemingly jumped ship from a mid-‘60s Godard movie. No sex when he’s working, the Lone Man informs her, and no mobile phones either. Surveillance without worry, ambiguously threatening women without sex—these images exist more to be contemplated than as elements in a story to be followed.

Jarmusch has one of the Lone Man’s co-conspirators, a platinum-wigged, cowboy-hat-wearing woman played by Tilda Swinton, speak of her love of Hitchcock, as if to emphasize the film’s studious avoidance of suspense in any conventional sense. The Limits of Control is shot with a placid meticulousness that seems to stem more from Jarmusch than from Doyle (though some more chaotic, washed-out and time-axis-manipulated early shots of the highway outside Madrid evoke Doyle’s work with Wong Kar-Wai). Instead of a medium for action and suspense, The Limits of Control suggests cinema instead as a meditative tool, a means of contemplating and exercising our facility to affect the shape of reality.

Image/Sound

Arrow’s Blu-ray presents a crisp and detailed image that preserves the vibrancy of the film’s Spanish settings to a greater extent than the previous DVD released by Universal. The saturation and range of the color constitutes an important facet of the film’s sense of atmosphere, as the yellows and oranges of Seville’s narrow streets and open plazas glow in the background of the Lone Man’s strolls and meetings. As the film’s sound mix is rather minimalist, the 5.1 audio track makes itself felt most when dreamy non-diegetic music envelops the channels, as when the Lone Man arrives in Madrid, or when we see Tilton Swinton’s character striding toward their meeting in slow motion.

Extras

Arrow has clearly dedicated a lot of effort to this disc’s extras, beginning with the reversible sleeve; you can opt for the cover art pictured above or one redolent of a classic post-noir French film poster. The booklet features an essay by critic Geoff Andrews that mostly focuses on Jarmusch’s work as a whole. Andrews leans a bit too heavily on the notion that Jarmusch is “misunderstood,” but he offers a substantive deconstruction of the filmmaker’s reputation as “the king of cool.” (Andrew’s encyclopedic knowledge of Jarmusch’s work is more effectively on display in the extended interview with him that’s included as a special feature on the disc.) Also included here is a feature-length documentary about the film, Behind Jim Jarmusch, that includes footage from the set, as well as conversations with Jarmusch about how he approaches directing actors and finding a story while shooting. Most helpful in providing a conceptual gateway into The Limits of Control, though, is the fantastic video essay by Amy Simmons, “The Rituals of Control,” which analyzes the film as a statement on the opposition of “aesthetic democracy” and “globalized capitalism.” Finally, the features are rounded out by an archival collection of location-scouting footage and the film’s trailer.

Overall

Obscure but unpretentious, Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control pulls an intriguing fake out, deploying conventions of the existential hit-man story to lead the viewer to a contemplation of the relation between cinematic image and reality. It’s a film that, as Arrow’s excellent assemblage of features proves, is rewarded by post-viewing conversation.

Cast: Isaach de Bankolé, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Gael Garcia Bernal, Bill Murray, Paz de la Huerta, Luis Tosar, Yuki Kudo Director: Jim Jarmusch Screenwriter: Jim Jarmusch Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 116 min Rating: R Year: 2009 Release Date: December 10, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Spike Lee’s Clockers on KL Studio Classics Blu-ray

It marks a specific convergence in Lee’s career, when his confidence as a filmmaker aligned with the boldness of his flourishes.

3.5

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Clockers

The Gowanus Houses, a public housing project in the heart of Boerum Hill, hasn’t changed much since Spike Lee filmed Clockers there a quarter century ago. In a borough of Brooklyn that’s been blasted wide open and transformed by gentrification and billions upon billions of dollars in development capital, the land and buildings within the NYC Housing Authority’s purview tend to remain, inexplicably perhaps, frozen in time. Still, it’s hard not to notice the glaring contrasts between the Gowanus Houses and some newer bulwarks, like the Barclays Center, the Red Hook IKEA, or the impenetrable and unobtainable houses occupied by the swells of nearby Cobble Hill and Brooklyn Heights. These monuments, and more, symbolize the city’s indefatigable efforts to eradicate “the ghetto,” as well as everyone living there, from a vision of the future that bears no scars but, paradoxically, requires regular blood sacrifices to expedite the progress of empire.

In the film, after crossing the artery of Flatbush Avenue, patrol cars and homicide detectives from the 88th Precinct on Classon Avenue regularly rain down on the Gowanus Houses like Luftwaffe bombers over London. We first see them harassing courtyard dealers known as “clockers.” Clumsy and naïve plainclothes narcotics police and uniformed patrolmen harangue them using brusque and ineffectual methods, shouting things like “Tell us where the drugs are!” and “I know you’re carrying!” It isn’t long before you notice that shaking these kids down for their concealed supply is just a pretext, whereas the cruelty—the forced strip searches, the dehumanizing language, the fondling of genitals—is the point.

Lee establishes this pressure-cooker milieu in a handful of brisk minutes that conceal a highly nuanced, ambivalent attitude toward the clockers. Before he does so, the film’s title sequence—a collage of crime scene photographs (recreations, it turns out) of murdered black people scored to R&B singer Marc Dorsey’s “People in Search of Life”—establishes a grave context that will envelop everything that follows. What matters, above all, beyond deeds sordid or noble, is that the black bodies in those photos, which had been alive only a moment before, were desecrated, and it makes precious little difference why, or by whom.

It’s through this prologue that Lee establishes his authority over Richard Price’s material (the film is based on his 1992 novel, which he and Lee adapted for the screen). One of our great crime fiction writers, Price is rightly celebrated for his command of geographic detail and street talk (especially when it comes to his police characters). He supplies Clockers with its whodunnit/why-dunnit foundation, but the structure built on top of it is Lee’s own. What emerges is a slice of life beset by a rising sea of lethal hazards and an assortment of stressors that can lay siege to an unlucky individual all at once, like a symphony in hell.

Strike (Mekhi Phifer) just happens to be that individual. Afflicted, like a Paul Schrader protagonist, with a stress-induced bleeding ulcer that he nurses with chocolate milk, Strike is the jagged cipher at the center of Clockers, irredeemable in the eyes of several of the story’s moral arbiters. Yet, compared to the likes of neighborhood kingpin Rodney Little (Delroy Lindo) and the killer Errol Barnes (Lee staple Thomas Jefferson Byrd), the latter disintegrating from AIDS, Strike is just a babe in the woods.

Early in the film, Little orders Strike to carry out a hit on a rival, a big-talking operator, Darryl Adams (comedian Steve White), who’s clocking from within a popular restaurant called Ahab’s. The hit, like the murder at the center of Price’s 2008 novel Lush Life, is rendered in ellipsis, leaving the characters, and us, to process clues and circumstances after the fact, and at a considerable disadvantage. Strike’s brother, the more accomplished and straight-edged yet equally troubled Victor (Isaiah Washington), confesses to the murder, but lead detective Rocco (Harvey Keitel) suspects there’s a lot more going on than he’s being told.

Far more than the murder story and what unravels in its wake, Clockers gains its power as an accumulation of pressures and clanging horrors. When a violent incident occurs later in the story, its aftermath flooding the narrative morass with even greater volatility, Lee masterfully delivers a singular, bold centerpiece: Rocco narrating and coaching Shorty’s statement. The sequence, a projection of Shorty’s imagination prompted by Rocco, turns the projects’ courtyard into a theater of exaggerated proportions and angles, with Rocco in the driver’s seat.

In the novel, this passage begins and ends across a few pages, and there are no stylistic flourishes to speak of, but Lee casts it in a role similar to Radio Raheem’s murder in Do the Right Thing—a cataclysm that releases an enormous amount of built tension and, in the same instance, accelerates and amplifies many of the story’s worst-case scenarios. And, having already shown us the complex architecture of the Gowanus Houses drug trade, with its interlocking machinery of power plays and strenuously managed appearances, an endlessly demoralizing grind that both sides of the law participate in, the sequence takes us on an unexpected detour into a kind of queasy puppet theater, paradoxically revealing the wounded heart that’s been beating underneath everything, all this time.

While Clockers would be Lee’s first real brush with the policier, it hasn’t been the last, so it’s worth pondering how he uses technique and storytelling to convey his conflicting attitudes toward the New York Police Department, and American policing in general. Neither he nor Price pull any punches in depicting cops, of all ranks, as casual, habitual racists, indulging in horrifying language; in the final minutes, we overhear a uniformed beat cop describing the projects as a “self-cleaning oven”—an image not without obvious, and chilling, connotations. In lockstep with his younger partner, Larry Mazilli (John Turturro), Rocco has all the earmarks of the asshole cop: He drinks on duty, spits racial epithets carelessly and cavalierly, and even sets up Strike to get whacked in order to produce a desired effect.

What does Octave say in Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game? “Everyone has their reasons.” And everyone is the hero of their own tale, even asshole cops. Rocco doesn’t pursue a path of compulsive self-destruction like the title character that Keitel played in Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant, a mere three years before this, but if you watch carefully, you’ll see that Clockers uses Strike’s hellbound—and hell on Earth—trajectory to deflect our attention away from details about Rocco’s path that aren’t trumpeted as loudly. Scene by scene, he pivots away from each normal source of motivation as he tries to use brute force and battlefield thinking to push through the mysteries of the case. At first, the Darryl Adams murder is routine. When Victor declares himself as the prime suspect, Rocco can’t accept it, and pivots to pursuing what he thinks is the real truth, against the express wishes of his precinct, and his peers, who think he’s out of his mind for choosing not to throw the book at Victor. Is he pursuing truth at any cost? Truth, as a principle, goes right out of the window when Shorty kills Errol, and Rocco (at the behest of NYCHA cop André, played by Keith David) feeds Shorty the best possible statement, with only an incidental relationship to the facts.

You could hypothesize that truth is tricky, grimy, complicated, and that Rocco isn’t so much a bringer of truth as an agent of justice, even as it displeases his superiors and perplexes his partner. What he does for Shorty, and, by association, the deceased Errol, qualifies as a kind of frontier justice, dispensed under the table and off the books. Nevertheless, justice in the Darryl Adams case eludes Rocco as the case simply collapses under the weight of an 11th-hour revelation delivered by Strike and Victor’s mother. Still, Rocco persists, but toward what? He delivers Strike to Penn Station, releasing him into the wilds beyond the Hudson River. No wisdom or reason can explain why Rocco made this call—not routine, not truth, not justice. As a long-term plan, it doesn’t even withstand a few minutes of scrutiny. Yet it seems to the viewer, and all parties involved, except the men who want Strike dead, that the problem of Strike has no tenable solution, though this is the one comes the closest.

It cannot be known, except to himself, what compels someone like Rocco. He might describe it as a grain of righteousness that never altogether dissolves, even as it flows along conflicting rivers. At the end of the road, as the two men sit in Rocco’s car, next to the entrance to Penn Station, Strike asks Rocco, “What made you give a shit?” It’s the one pointed question that’s directed at Rocco throughout the film, the one question that requires an inward gaze, but he declines to answer, instead telling Strike that if he ever sees him again, he’ll bust him on trumped-up charges. During quieter moments, Clockers shows Strike enjoying moments of stolen quiet, taking solace in his model train set. It’s in these moments that we glimpse his inner life. But what does a guy like Rocco see when he looks inward? That grain of righteousness? Or just a void in the shape of another dead body on the sidewalk?

Image/Sound

Clockers marks a specific convergence in Spike Lee’s career, when his confidence as a filmmaker aligned with the boldness of his flourishes. Perhaps emboldened by Oliver Stone’s JFK, he and cinematographer Malik Hassan Sayeed indulge in mixing up film stocks and F-stops to produce just the right visual cacophony to convey the hellworld that is Strike’s adventures in sewing and reaping. This Blu-ray edition preserves the film’s tricky aesthetic—a summary effect of Klieg lights and flashbulbs providing unreliable illumination of black flesh, while the rippling humidity of daytime supplies no real comfort. Of the two included audio tracks, I preferred the 2.0 stereo, for its richness and depth, to the 5.1 surround, but your mileage may vary depending on your setup.

Extras

Kino is making a big push to get several Spike Lee joints on Blu-ray, so it’s hard to criticize them for not releasing deluxe editions. Alongside a set of trailers for other recent Kino Studio Classics releases sits an indispensable audio commentary by Vanity Fair’s K. Austin Collins, easily one of the brightest and most erudite film critics we have. Collins builds on his personal relationship with Lee’s films, Clockers in particular, and produces a considerable amount of revealing details and contexts that enrich the viewing experience.

Overall

As Clockers is one of the best filmed-on-location New York crime movies, its absence on Blu-ray has long been a glaring oversight, which Kino now makes right.

Cast: Harvey Keitel, John Turturro, Delroy Lindo, Mekhi Phifer, Isaiah Washington, Keith David, Peewee Love, Regina Taylor, Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Sticky Fingaz, Fredro Starr, Elvis Nolasco, Lawrence B. Adisa, Hassan Johnson, Frances Foster, Michael Imperioli Director: Spike Lee Screenwriter: Richard Price, Spike Lee Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 128 min Rating: R Year: 1995 Release Date: February 4, 2020 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Review: Robert Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid on KL Studio Classics Blu-ray

Aldrich’s underrated, challenging, and brutally violent 1972 western has been outfitted with a superb audio commentary.

3.5

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Ulzana’s Raid

American westerns are often critically defined by how they complement our politics, by whether they rue or celebrate the imperialism at the heart of the country’s formation. Broadly speaking, conservative westerns celebrate manifest destiny, while liberal westerns are concerned with atrocities that serve as an American original sin that would continue with other manifestations of slavery and warmongering. With Ulzana’s Raid, director Robert Aldrich and screenwriter Alan Sharp took a different and highly disturbing tack, concentrating less on speechifying than on the nuts-and-bolts particulars of a battle between white and Apache war parties. This is a film concerned with moral relativism, with the essential alien divide between two cultures. Mr. McIntosh (Burt Lancaster), a white tracker who’s married to an Apache woman (Aimee Ecclés) and who has a history with her people, understands that divide, while young Lt. Garnett DeBuin (Bruce Davison) does not, as he shoehorns everything he experiences into the framework of his Christianity.

Set in 1880s Arizona, Aldrich’s 1972 film opens at night in the San Carlos Indian Reservation, where an Apache warrior named Ulzana (Joaquin Martinez) has escaped with a war party. This news travels to Fort Lowell, where the U.S. military understands Ulzana to be a threat who will rape and kill his away across the land, targeting white homesteaders. DeBuin is ordered to track Ulzana down, and it’s a task that he greets with enthusiasm, though his superior memorably informs him that he hasn’t been handed a present. Aided by Mr. McIntosh and an Apache named Ke-Ni-Tay (Jorge Luke), and accompanied by a group of soldiers who inevitably resent the lieutenant’s inexperience, DeBuin sets course across the punishing Arizona desert to find Ulzana’s party. DeBuin is ripe, of course, for lessons in the reality of the theater of war, particularly of the will and power of men he doesn’t fathom.

These characters are types that are familiar to various genres, especially the western, adventure, and action film—all of which are closely linked anyway, sometimes only distinguished from one another by setting. McIntosh and DeBuin settle into a master-and-student routine, though Aldrich and Sharp are more interested in the tactile details of battle than fortune-cookie sentiments. Much of Ulzana’s Raid suggests an elaborate game of ultraviolent chess, with discussions and executions of schemes involving the use of horses, doubling back, and strategically separating parties to baffle and misdirect the enemy—actions which Aldrich stages with masterful swiftness and clarity.

Debuin and McIntosh emerge as real human beings among these complications, and Ulzana isn’t rendered a stereotype for the sake of landing either right- or left-wing talking points. The Apache is clearly a brilliant leader, who outsmarts DeBuin at every turn and occasionally even bests McIntosh. Ulzana and his men are also merciless, as Aldrich lingers uncomfortably on their brutal treatment of homesteaders, especially when a few of the Apache cut the heart out of a white man and toss it around joyously like a hot potato. Later, Ulzana leaves a raped and beaten white woman, Mrs. Riordan (Dran Hamilton), alive for DeBuin and his soldiers to discover, so as to force them to reroute their party, which leads to a wrenching massacre.

The film’s moral compass resides in its refusal to offer one, and the narrative routinely confounds audience expectation. DeBuin is incredulous at the Apaches’ viciousness, which stems from his obviousness to his complicity in the European invasion and theft of Ulzana’s land. Ulzana responds in turn, and DeBuin’s failure to understand this fact reduces him to a fool. He tries to attach Christian pageantry to events that stem from the madness of war—attempts at gallantry that feel almost as obscene in this context as Ulzana’s violence.

When Ulzana is eventually killed, tellingly by Ke-Ni-Tay, DeBuin insists on a Christian burial. As a way of diluting this inadvertent violation of his own culture, Ke-Ni-Tay buries Ulzana himself. McIntosh, dying as a result of DeBuin’s incompetency, also refutes him by refusing a white man’s burial, preferring to expire as a man of the land he currently inhabits—the Apaches’ land. These plot turns, especially the casual acceptance of Ulzana as an astonishing and pragmatic tactician, still feel radically matter of fact. For a more conservative western, Ulzana might be a savage and DeBuin might prove himself in battle; in a more liberal variation on these themes, Ulzana might be a simpler object of pity and DeBuin a cardboard monster.

The film’s weary, empathetic, discreetly heartbroken worldview is embodied by Lancaster in one of his greatest performances. In Ulzana’s Raid and many other films, including several others for Aldrich, Lancaster offered the best of both worlds: machismo laced with sensitivity. McIntosh isn’t quite a traditional stud sage, but a man of pronounced sadness who’s come to know the savagery of humankind, a species whose capacity for monstrousness cannot be laundered by pretenses of religion, or by the faux-decency of message movies. Lancaster invests McIntosh with a haunting thoughtfulness, an authority of movement, a guarded stride, that’s achieved from the humbling terror of atrocity.

Image/Sound

This image could use a remastering. Blacks lack definition, most notably during nighttime sequences, and landscapes lack clarity, particularly in the backgrounds and even occasionally in the foregrounds. Close-ups are well-rendered, however, especially in terms of facial details. The 5.1 DTS-HD audio mix is far sturdier, offering an immersive soundstage that particularly stands out during the prolonged massacre that serves as the film’s climax. Gunshots are truly rattling here, as are the stomping of the horses and the collapse of expiring bodies. In other words, this presentation is a mixed bag, watchable but far from definitive.

Extras

The audio commentary by film critic Nick Pinkerton offers a deep dive into the careers of all the principle people who worked on Ulzana’s Raid, including director Robert Aldrich, screenwriter Alan Sharp, actors Burt Lancaster, Bruce Davison, and much of the rest of the cast. Pinkerton is especially evocative when discussing Aldrich’s still somewhat underrated career, and while examining the under-acknowledged ambiguity of the American western, which is too often vilified as simply imperialist. There are also discussions of John Ford and of Lancaster and Aldrich’s tempestuous partnership, which included Lancaster’s reediting of Ulzana’s Raid for European audiences. This commentary, a must-listen for fans of the film and for cinephiles in general, is the highlight of the supplements package, which also includes an interview with Davison and an archive “Trailers from Hell” segment featuring John Landis.

Overall

Robert Aldrich’s underrated, challenging, and brutally violent 1972 western has been outfitted by Kino with an imperfect transfer and a superb audio commentary.

Cast: Burt Lancaster, Bruce Davison, Jorge Luke, Richard Jaeckel, Joaquin Martinez, Lloyd Bochner, Karl Swenson, Douglass Watson, Dran Hamilton, Aimee Ecclés Director: Robert Aldrich Screenwriter: Alan Sharp Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 103 min Rating: R Year: 1972 Release Date: January 21, 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built on Shout! Factory Blu-ray

This Blu-ray should help boost the film to its rightful place among the upper tier of von Trier’s body of work.

4

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The House That Jack Built

The way one responds to others’ behaviors, to institutions, to works of art, and to fame tends to be dictated by far deeper, more complex, and knotted influences than just those of reason and morality. For Lars von Trier, one of the motivating forces behind his work is a certain fascination, if not fixation, with the depths of human suffering. This can be traced all the way back to the juvenile violence of the short films he made as a pre-teen, and to the works of science fiction and horror—and films about the emptiness of faith—that he made in the 1980s and early ‘90s. But the true realization of the Danish director’s powers came in the form of three great, and particularly extreme, works released across two decades: 1996’s Breaking the Waves, 2004’s Dogville, and 2013’s Nymphomaniac.

These films are disturbing and, inarguably, morally compromised, but they distinguish themselves from von Trier’s others in the care they take to understand, feel, and process the weight of their violence; it’s their psychological density, and their emotional veracity, that makes them difficult to dismiss as mere provocations. Which isn’t to say they should be immune to criticism of their conceptions: Von Trier’s motives, the source of his fascination, and in particular the degree of consistency to which he’s chosen women as the subject of his films’ punishments have prompted important conversations that have been worth having and will continue to be. But it also doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest, at least on evidence of The House That Jack Built, that von Trier might encourage these conversations.

Built into the multi-leveled architecture of what already feels like von Trier’s greatest film to date is a relentlessly probing self-critique. The House That Jack Built resembles, at its foundation, various other predation and victimization narratives from throughout von Trier’s filmography, stringing together vignette-like “incidents”—five in all—that depict brutal murders committed by Jack (Matt Dillon), an OCD-afflicted psychopath. But embedded within the recognizable dramaturgy of von Trier’s formally accomplished serial-killer film is the frame of an essay—an enthralling discourse on art and violence conducted through dialectical narrators and dizzying montages that smash together Glenn Gould’s music, William Blake’s poetry, fermenting grapes, Nazi concentration camps, and clips from von Trier’s other films.

For some, the ideas that govern these essay sections may be even harder to stomach than the grotesqueries of the film’s violent set pieces. Given that Jack’s narration includes such lines as “Don’t look at the acts, look at the works,” it’s inevitable that such glibness will be interpreted as the director’s own philosophical worldview. And while that interpretation isn’t entirely wrong, to say that The House That Jack Built represents von Trier’s refusal of culpability for his behavior or that he makes no apologies for his art seems overly simplistic.

Jack does seem to represent some part of von Trier, and the director’s earnest engagement with the character’s compulsion toward violence leads to implicit, deeply disturbing parallels: Jack kills and maims women, while von Trier kills and maims women on screen. But von Trier is just as much represented in The House That Jack Built by the mysterious figure of Verge (Bruno Ganz), who acts simultaneously as a kind of therapist and debate partner, offering guidance to Jack and admonishing him for his arrogance, his misogyny, and his very “convenient” excuses. Verge is no straw man, as he frequently gets the last word. Through him, von Trier allows himself to openly grapple with his hubris and pride.

At the same time, though, the film isn’t self-negating, as it’s committed to what’s framed in one essay section as “the noble rot.” Von Trier finds a certain beauty in the recognition and exhibition of our basest capacities—and to that end, the five individual incidents in the film that depict Jack’s violence, though certainly not the most gruesome or gory of all von Trier sequences, are sadistic, cruel, and graphic. But it isn’t necessarily the acts of violence themselves that are most disturbing so much as the moments that occur prior.

An example of this is the incident in which Jack murders the young woman he calls “Simple” (Riley Keough). It’s indicated that the two have been seeing each other for a while when Jack decides, one night in her apartment, to subject Simple to psychological torment and physical mutilation. The scene is punishingly prolonged, depicting Jack repeatedly degrading and insulting Simple, only to win back her sympathies by playing on her insecurities with carefully deployed acts of emotional manipulation. Throughout, Von Trier trains his camera on Simple, and on the dawning realization of her fear, pain, and hopelessness. The effect is absolutely devastating, and in a way that violence depicted on film rarely is. It’s also further proof of von Trier’s distance from Jack, a character defined by an incapacity for empathy.

After all, it isn’t so much Jack’s philosophies on violence that make him a von Trier surrogate, but rather his regard for art as unbound expression. But even that idea is trickier than the vaguely alt-right connotation it portends: “Unbound” doesn’t mean “without consequence,” and the film’s last third is largely about disappointment and failure. This opens up a gaping chasm of self-doubt big enough for anyone to fall in, and so The House That Jack Built becomes an even broader consideration of individual fascinations and follies, of ways of responding to art without the boundaries of morality and reason.

This leads, unsurprisingly, to a particularly bleak place, and has even caused some viewers to voice concern over what von Trier may be trying to say about his own path forward as a filmmaker. But only von Trier knows whether the tossed-off suggestion of “Perhaps another one?” that Verge entreats Jack with near the end of the film should be taken literally, or if the defeatism in The House That Jack Built is meant to signify that this really is the last time at bat for the filmmaker. It’s certainly true that von Trier’s invocations of despair, though, have found beauty in the act of its transcendence before.

Image/Sound

Manuel Alberto Caro’s stark cinematography retains all of its hyper-sharp detail on Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray. The muted color palette is immaculately rendered throughout, as are facial textures across the film’s many close-ups. The transfer displays the clearest of details even in the background of the deep-focus shots, and nighttime scenes show a nice range of black levels. The front-heavy soundtrack is as sturdy as the image, boasting clean dialogue and clear distribution of sounds. The film’s copious silences also make it easy to appreciate how elegantly the soundtrack mixes even the softest of ambient effects.

Extras

This disc comes with the theatrical and director’s cuts of The House That Jack Built, though the only difference between the two is that the latter includes more explicit imagery that was trimmed from the final cut so that the film could receive an MPAA rating. Von Trier reliably proves to be an alternately cagey and open subject in an interview conducted on the occasion of his receiving Denmark’s prestigious Sonning Prize. He makes deadpan jokes but also speaks frankly about his vision and working methods. Also included is a series of teasers and trailers.

Overall

This excellent Blu-ray should help boost this satirical, auto-critical epic to its rightful place among the upper tier of Lars von Trier’s body of work.

Cast: Matt Dillon, Bruno Ganz, Uma Thurman, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Sofie Gråbøl, Riley Keough, Jeremy Davies, Ed Speleers, David Bailie, Yu Ji-tae Director: Lars von Trier Screenwriter: Lars von Trier Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 155 min Rating: NR Year: 2018 Release Date: February 4, 2020 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe on the Criterion Collection

The beautiful transfer and thoughtful collection of extras attest to the enduring qualities of Lumet’s doomsday thriller.

4

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Fail-Safe

Given the extreme narrative similarities it shares with Dr. Strangelove, Sidney Lumet’s 1964 thriller Fail-Safe seems destined to live in the shadow of Stanley Kubrick’s canonical black comedy. Not only do their source materials bear a great resemblance to each other—indeed, Peter George, the author of Red Alert, sued the authors of Fail-Safe for plagiarism and eventually settled out of court—but they were also released the same year. Despite both Kubrick and Lumet’s worries that the other director’s film would be detrimental to the effectiveness of their own, the two works are surprisingly complementary yin-yang partners for the way they approach their shared subject matter: an impending nuclear doomsday and the manner in which those in positions of great power handle a situation of unimaginable horror.

Both films involve a U.S. military aircraft surreptitiously carrying nuclear weapons across the Soviet border, but while Dr. Strangelove approaches the material with cheeky abandon, Fail-Safe is relentlessly straight-laced. Aside from their disparate tones, a crucial distinction between the two films is where each one places the blame for the world being brought to the brink of annihilation. Kubrick excoriates human nature itself, particularly as it operates under the guise of leadership and global influence, suggesting that our pettiness and hunger for power will inevitably lead to our demise. Conversely, Lumet never quite grapples with the irony that those who bring us closest to destruction will likely also be the ones we need to save us. He shows a deep respect, even reverence, for those in power, locating the fatal flaw in mankind’s excessive trust in machines rather than the innately corrosive effects of power.

From the coolheaded guilelessness of the unnamed president of the United States (Henry Fonda) during telephonic negotiations with the Soviet premier to the anti-war stances of General Black (Dan O’Herlihy), Fail-Safe’s vision of political and military leaders unwavering in their dignity and compassion feels antiquated in ways that Dr. Strangelove’s never does. While some of Lumet’s portraits of powerful people veer toward idolatry, he takes great care to counter these individuals both with war-hungry Pentagon hawks—most notably the terrifying pro-nuclear military strategist Dr. Groeteschele (Walter Matthau), modeled after the notorious Cold War era reactionary Herman Kahn—and a fully integrated institutional apparatus of war that’s already too expansive and intricate to be controlled or restrained by a single man.

When the Soviet premier suggests that no one’s to blame for the mechanical failure that led to this doomsday standoff, the president replies that it’s both of their faults because they “let our machines get out of hand.” Unlike Kubrick, who portrays mankind as a very willing, even enthusiastic, participant in its annihilation, Lumet pins the blame on a removal of humanity from critical decision-making, pleading for a rollback on our overreliance on autonomous technology to make and communicate decisions being the necessary corrective.

Fail-Safe’s underlying reverence for those in power, however, does actually serve to amplify the tragedy of the events depicted in its final act, while Lumet’s moral clarity in his repudiation of nuclear armament is admirable in its forthrightness. There’s also an exacting precision in the film’s editing, its stark, minimalist compositions, and its frequent use of silence (there’s no score to be heard), which lends Fail-Safe a relentless white-knuckle tension, not only in its depiction of the military events that unfold, but in the philosophical battles that play out in rooms full of men who are quite literally shaping, or perhaps destroying, mankind.

Lumet’s depiction of that bureaucratic maneuvering carefully navigates the thin line between stockpiling nuclear weapons and being inextricably drawn into nuclear war. In doing so, he presents a discordant chorus of conflicting voices from all ideological corners during the atomic age. Despite lacking the satiric bite of Dr. Strangelove, Fail-Safe still offers a chilling reminder of how quickly poisonous rhetoric can lead to irrevocable harm.

Image/Sound

Criterion’s transfer of a new 4K restoration beautifully captures the starkness of Fail-Safe’s spare visual scheme. It’s a film full of tense, often dialogue-free close-ups, and every crease on the actors’ foreheads or bead of sweat running down their faces is rendered with a startling precision. The image contrast is also incredibly strong, with a remarkable dynamic range that displays myriad shades of grey and deep, inky black in the pools of shadows found in many of the shots. While the film has no score, the uncompressed monaural audio presents mostly clean dialogue, with only a handful of lines sounding just a tad muffled.

Extras

In this disc’s only new extra, critic and author J. Hoberman provides ample historical context for Fail-Safe, discussing the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the doomsday scenarios that gripped the public’s imagination and that the State Department planned for in the early ‘60s. He stresses not only the authenticity of the film’s portrayal of heightened Cold War tensions, but also its influence on the Johnson-Goldwater presidential contest in 1964.

In his commentary track, recorded in 2000, Sidney Lumet also covers a wide range of topics, going into great detail about the political climate within which the film was released, as well as the U.S. Department of Defense’s complete lack of cooperation in helping the filmmakers attain stock footage for any of the flight scenes. He addresses the elephant in the room—Kubrick’s lawsuit to stop the production of Fail-Safe—and delves into the importance of having satirical and dramatic approaches to extremely similar source materials.

The final disc extra, a short documentary titled “Fail Safe Revisited,” doesn’t touch upon much that’s not covered in the other supplemental materials, but if you’re wondering why George Clooney loves Lumet’s film, tune into this one first. The package is rounded out with an essay by film critic Bilge Ebiri, who vibrantly writes of the effectiveness of Lumet’s humanistic realism in grounding a film about impending global catastrophe.

Overall

Criterion’s beautiful transfer and modest yet thoughtful collection of extras attest to the enduring qualities of Sidney Lumet’s doomsday thriller.

Cast: Dan O’Herlihy, Walter Matthau, Frank Overton, Edward Binns, Fritz Weaver, Henry Fonda, Larry Hagman, William Hansen, Russell Hardie, Russell Collins, Sorrell Booke Director: Sidney Lumet Screenwriter: Walter Bernstein Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 112 min Rating: NR Year: 1964 Release Date: January 28, 2020 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Anthony Mann’s The Far Country Joins the Arrow Academy

Mann goes northward and skewers the myth of western pioneering in The Far Country.

3.5

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Far Country

Anthony Mann’s 1955 Technicolor western The Far Country sees the great expanse of the Alaskan frontier as a confining tangle of mountains and rivers where the few survivable traverses all lead to the same measly outposts of civilization. Deeply suspicious of the myth of great pioneers taming wild land, the film finds Jeff Webster, an opportunistic adventurer played by James Stewart, hauling his plentiful Wyoming cattle up to the Canadian-American border only to see his get-rich-quick scheme thwarted at every turn by corrupt lawmen, malicious competitors, and various other mountainfolk who want to benefit in some way from the man’s bounty. But The Far Country isn’t a cynical film, as the ways in which it erects obstacles to its hero’s ambition have less to do with damning him to hubristic failure than to guiding him toward a more altruistic consciousness.

The westerns that Mann made with Stewart throughout the 1950s are well known for rubbing the luster from the movie star’s image. Even so, The Far Country is especially strident in exposing Stewart’s knack for playing callous types, at one point showing Jeff dangling the promise of meat in front of the needy community of Dawson City if only to swiftly, remorselessly redirect the provisions to a higher bidder. Intimations of Jeff’s combative edge are evident from the first scene, when, at a Seattle port, he’s forced to pay off a pair of cattle drivers who clearly want him dead for some unstated infraction from the trip, clarified moments later when the men cry out that there’s a murderer on board. Dodging authorities, Jeff finds his way to Skagway, immediately running afoul of the town sheriff, Gannon (John McIntire), who will be the thorn in his side through the remainder of his quest.

Jeff’s only friend is Ben Tatum, the kind of selfless, trusty old sidekick that only Walter Brennan could play. In The Far Country, the relationship between Jeff and Ben goes beyond platonic collaboration and touches on a veiled romanticism that’s unmistakable from their first exchange, when they compliment each others’ appearances and Jeff lovingly inserts a phallic pipe into Ben’s mouth. Throughout their northward adventure, as Jeff coolly rebuffs the advances of both a stylish Skagway heiress, Ronda (Ruth Roman), and a more tomboyish hanger-on, Renee (Corinne Calvet), Jeff and Ben’s one-on-ones act as tender refrains in a film otherwise dominated by brute one-upmanship and cold ambition. The pair share dreams of overseeing an idyllic Utah ranch when they strike it big, a fantasy of withdrawal that accounts for no further social life (and certainly no women).

Much as Mann embraces the warmth of the Jeff-Ben partnership, giving Stewart and Brennan plenty of room to show off their chemistry, Borden Chase’s screenplay ultimately deflates the Utah dream in favor of celebrating the power of community over selfish delusions of grandeur. When Ben’s crew reaches Dawson City, the open expanses of the film’s frames become shrunken by the margins of the town and its many inhabitants, who treat Ben alternately as a liberator and an agitator. The weathered faces of the townsfolks fill what was once majestic Alaskan negative space, and Jeff is left with a choice between amoral individualism and participation in society, an internal battle finally made physical in a shootout staged, in a neat directorial embellishment, underneath the stairs of the town hall. It’s a rousing, nearly hokey conclusion rendered fascinatingly ambivalent by Stewart’s pained parting gesture, reaching vainly for a totem of his departed Ben as the survivors surround him in triumph.

Image/Sound

For such an overtly picturesque film, Arrow Video’s transfer here leaves a bit to be desired. Ostensibly generated from “original film elements,” the image lacks the relative sharpness that one today expects from 4K transfers of films from the 1950s, and suffers especially during cross dissolves, where the resolution appears to temporarily downscale. Despite the Technicolor origins, the film’s color palette is muted as well, though it’s hard to say if this is reflective of an issue in digital conversion or in the quality of the surviving source material. Fortunately, the problems in visual clarity don’t carry over to the soundtrack, as there’s a pleasant consistency and balance between dialogue and score.

Extras

It’s always a treat to process the close readings of Adrian Martin, one of our finest critics and an Anthony Mann specialist to boot. Martin provides an astute commentary here, which stands as the strongest extra on a disc that also gives us a pedestrian talking-head overview from critic Kim Newman and a slightly longer documentary on Mann’s tenure at Universal. Like the liner notes by Philip Kemp, the latter offers compelling context about Mann’s career, but it’s Martin’s assessment of the director’s evolving use of landscape and compositional space throughout the film that really shines.

Overall

Anthony Mann goes northward and skewers the myth of western pioneering in The Far Country, now out in an underwhelming package from Arrow Academy.

Cast: James Stewart, Ruth Roman, Walter Brennan, John McIntire, Corinne Calvet, Jay C. Flippen, Harry Morgan, Steve Brodie, Connie Gilchrist, Robert J. Wilke, Chubby Johnson, Royal Dano Director: Anthony Mann Screenwriter: Borden Chase Distributor: Arrow Academy Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 1954 Release Date: November 12, 2019 Buy: Video

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