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Blu-ray Review: Here Comes Mr. Jordan

Criterion continues their efforts to release classical Hollywood gems from Columbia Pictures in high definition.

4.0

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Here Comes Mr. Jordan

Death is a many-splendored thing in Here Comes Mr. Jordan, which treats the possibility of an afterlife not with somber religious symbolism, but a keen sense that a human being’s mortal end must be understood for its corporeal difficulties. There’s a grave levity to the way Mr. Jordan (Claude Rains) handles the death of Joe Pendleton (Robert Montgomery) as a clerical error made by his underling, Messenger 7013 (Edward Everett Horton). Hasty action on the messenger’s part has brought Joe, who was supposed to live another 50 years, to the pearly gates far too soon. Actually, there are no such gates in director Alexander Hall’s film. Heaven, instead, is simply a fog-filled runway where recently deceased souls arrive and await instructions to board a flight to their actual, presumably more heavenly destination. Ironic, then, that Joe died in a plane crash. It begs the question: Do planes crash in heaven?

One suspects Hall and screenwriters Sidney Buchman and Seton I. Miller would appreciate such a ridiculous inquiry given that Here Comes Mr. Jordan is filled with them, particularly once Mr. Jordan gives Joe the chance to return to life in another man’s body, completely as himself, and to no detection of those around him. It’s the type of fantasy premise that could be written in nearly any conceivable way, placing Joe, a Brooklyn-accented boxer, into a scenario that clashes or compliments his prior existence. Mr. Jordan settles on a millionaire named Farnsworth, who’s to be drowned in a bathtub by his wife, Julia (Rita Johnson), and her male accomplice, Tony (John Emery).

Here Comes Mr. Jordan is distinguished by little bits of business and rules that it’s constantly explaining, such as Joe and Mr. Jordan being able to scout anybody (and any body) they’d like without being detected by the living. In the film’s best scene, Mr. Jordan sits at a piano inside the Farnsworth home, cracks a slight smile to Joe, and calmly explains that the murder is taking place a floor above them. Mr. Jordan is neither visibly sad nor outraged over the act; rather, his measured response approaches the prospect of death as an inevitability that, no matter the course of its arrival, necessitates a detachedness that won’t interfere with his work as heaven’s even-tempered undertaker. However, the filmmakers don’t get into messier questions, like Mr. Jordan’s underlying motivations or allegiances to heaven’s affairs, as he’s simply trying to keep his books in order while instilling those still occupying the earthly realm with a more immediate sense of purpose and action.

In Joe’s case, that involves reversing Farnsworth’s heinous business practices to help Bette Logan (Evelyn Keyes) have her wrongly convicted father pardoned from prison, but it also establishes a romantic relationship between the pair that eventually drives Joe to stay in the millionaire’s body rather than hopping into a more boxing-ready, physically fit one. Here Comes Mr. Jordan goes to extensive lengths to explain Joe-as-Farnsworth so that Montgomery continues to be the actor on screen, even though he’s occupying another man’s body. It’s the film’s only piece that, on a fundamental level, doesn’t quite fit, not least because the suggested notion that other characters are befuddled by the irregular behaviors of Joe-as-Farnsworth absolves the viewer from occupying a similarly perplexed state.

In fact, the choice zaps much of the film’s potentially anarchic spirit. If another actor were channeling Montgomery’s physicality and mannerisms a la John Woo’s Face/Off, the film would visibly fulfill its premise by adding another layer of comedic possibility. It’s a safe gimmick, the same one that Ghost uses to avoid a sex scene between Demi Moore and Whoopi Goldberg late into that film. The device doesn’t quite grind Here Comes Mr. Jordan to a halt, but it places the viewer into a milder ironic position where laughs mostly come from the confused reaction shots of supporting players rather than the absurdity of the entire scenario as a whole.

If the film initially stands out for its decidedly sardonic treatment of death, it also relinquishes that through line for a more conventional love story between Joe (who’s in a third body by the film’s end) and Bette that merely affirms an “it’s the inside that counts” narrative of romantic attachment. Hall does little to maneuver the story beyond pat resolutions, so that when Bette encounters the “new” Joe, it takes merely a scene for them to pair. Of course, the film’s fantasy elements license such fairy-tale resolutions, but they also minimize broader sociological questions that would ground Joe’s existential dilemma in more complex, and potentially richer, terrain.

Image/Sound

Criterion’s buffed-up, 2K Blu-ray transfer of Here Comes Mr. Jordan has eliminated any signs of print damage or archival aging. The image is sharp throughout, suggesting that each frame has been given a thorough restoration. Moreover, the black-and-white cinematography brims with light, especially in the early scenes of a fog-filled heaven and in scenes set in the Farnsworth home. There are no signs of extensive digital augmentation and the monaural audio track remains free of distortion, as dialogue and music are balanced and equally mixed.

Extras

While this release lacks a video essay or a feature-length commentary, the included supplements provide a succinct overview of Here Comes Mr. Jordan’s riches, including a 1942 Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the film with Cary Grant filling in for Robert Montgomery. The jewel for cinephiles is a conversation between critic Michael Sragow and filmmaker/distributor Michael Schlesinger that covers a broad range of topics about the film’s influence and legacy, including Production Code restrictions that limited the extent to which matters of an afterlife and predestination could be discussed. The pair shares their favorite moments from the film and recount tidbits about its production history, such as Grant having been initially slated to play Montgomery’s part. Also included is a lengthy audio interview from 1991 with Elizabeth Montgomery discussing memories of her father’s life, a trailer, and an essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme.

Overall

With this sterling Blu-ray of Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Criterion continues their efforts to release classical Hollywood gems from Columbia Pictures in high definition, joining Only Angels Have Wings and In a Lonely Place as the third such disc of 2016.

Cast: Robert Montgomery, Claude Rains, Evelyn Keyes, Rita Johnson, Edward Everett Horton, James Gleason, Donald MacBride Director: Alexander Hall Screenwriter: Sidney Buchman, Seton I. Miller Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 1941 Release Date: June 14, 2016 Buy: Video

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Review: Satoshi Kon’s Millennium Actress on Shout! Factory Blu-ray

Kon’s landmark feat of Japanese animation at last receives a home-video release worthy of its beauty.

4

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Millennium Actress

Behold Millennium Actress, Satoshi Kon’s anime answer to Mulholland Drive. This radical work by the director of Perfect Blue mainlines into a cosmic crawlspace between reality and fantasy from which it never leaves. Kon’s love for his animated diva is supreme and he plays her romantic saga for delirious world-weary sorrow. The genius of Millennium Actress is infinite: the practically monochrome palette that slowly saturates color as the film moves forward in time; the meta-cinematic conceits Kon employs in order to have the film’s male documentary filmmaker penetrate what’s supposedly an older Japanese actress’s recollection of her own past; and the countless rhetorical shifts that evoke the woman’s projection of her romantic melodrama onto her art.

When a two-man documentary crew discovers the whereabouts of the reclusive Chiyoko Fujiwara, the legendary actress explains how her career in cinema ran parallel to her search for an elusive love. (The documentary filmmaker’s invasion of Chiyoko’s memory is dubious at first, but Kon soon reveals the man’s own romantic involvement in the actress’s life.) Despite her mother’s conservative wishes, a young Chiyoko is handpicked for stardom by a film studio that now lies in ruin. That fateful day, a mysterious young artist bumps into the girl while fleeing from a police officer with a hideous scar on his face. She falls in love with the boy but he disappears soon after meeting her, leaving behind only a mysterious key. For the rest of her life, she’s left to search for this “human-rights agitator” whose name she doesn’t even know.

Throughout much of her early career, Chiyoko performs with an older actress who doubles for Chiyoko’s two female enemies: the mother who almost denied her a career in cinema and the witch who may or may not have damned her to 1,000 years in the throes of eternal love. While in Manchuria shooting a film, she looks for her lover in order to give him his key. While on the set of a chamber drama, she discovers that her part also has her looking for a missing lover. During time off from production, she journeys through war-ravaged Manchuria in search of the activist. When her train is ravaged by bandits, she steps through one door and reemerges on the set of a lavish samurai epic that finds her trying to negotiate the arrows of Manchurian warlords. And Kon evokes these ravishing passages between Chiyoko’s reality and on-set fantasies often with as little as a superimposition or a mere door opening and closing.

Earthquakes and wars are serendipitously spun into the film’s many dual realities, and rubble is Kon’s metaphor of choice. From the fierce Edo-period samurai epic to the final space odyssey Chiyoko shoots before retiring from the screen, Millennium Actress’s many film-within-a-film set pieces give Chiyoko’s never-ending search for love various historical, political and cultural contextualizations. Hers is very much a tale of perseverance, so maybe this sweeping perspective is Kon’s way of celebrating the defiant Chiyoko’s power over various manmade creations and destructions in the film. Because her ability to project her emotional trauma onto her roles is so strong, it’s that much more difficult to distinguish between Chiyoko’s reality and Kon’s historical recreations.

Like Mulholland Drive, Millenium Actress concerns itself with our love affair with women in movies, many of whom are unceremoniously forgotten when they become too old. Here’s a love story that not only spans a lifetime but thousands of years of political upheavals. Kon offers several hints throughout the film that Chiyoko’s millennium sentence may be hysterically self-imposed, which makes the film’s cosmic to-the-moon sequence that much more powerful. Perhaps Chiyoko knew all along that she was chasing the shadow of a man, and as such the thrill she derives from the chase suggests she’s experiencing love vicariously through her acting. Indeed, Millennium Actress is very much a love poem to cinema itself. And Kon’s love for the medium, like Chiyoko’s eternal search, has no boundaries.

Image/Sound

Millennium Actress arrives on Blu-ray with a revelatory restoration, which blows every prior standard-def release of the film out of the water. The film’s thick line animation now boasts razor-sharp textures. Colors pop with intensity, particularly those recurring splashes of bright orange on everything from street signs to movie-prop spacesuits, while the more naturalistic hues are well contrasted. Shout! Factory includes a lossless 5.1 track for both the original Japanese track and an English dub, both of which ably mix the film’s complex sound design, as well as Susumu Hirasawa’s tense and ever-pulsing electronic score, across all channels, truly heightening the film’s paranoiac obsession with the blurring of reality and acting.

Extras

This disc comes with a series of interviews, including separate talks with English-language voice actors Abby Trott and Laura Post. No interviews with the Japanese cast are included, and at first blush it’s a bit disappointing to only hear from members of the dub cast, but both actresses prove to be informative and engaging as they discuss their love of the project and what spoke to them about the characters and themes. Post in particular dives deep into her inspirations and her interpretation of Eiko’s complexities. Meatier still is the interview with producer Masao Maruyama, who speaks at length on everything from the production’s beginnings all the way through its re-release. Having worked with Kon across several projects, he offers keen insights into the director’s work and personality, even comparing Kon to the character of Chiyoko. A briefer interview with producer Taro Maki more specifically cover’s Millennium Actress’s 4K restoration while also making note of the then-innovative methods that were used to blend hand-drawn and 3D animation for the film.

Overall

Millennium Actress, Satoshi Kon’s landmark feat of Japanese animation, at last receives a home-video release worthy of its beauty with this presentation of a new 4K restoration.

Cast: Miyoko Shôji, Mami Koyama, Fumiko Orikasa, Shouzou Iizuka, Masaya Onosaka, Shouko Tsuda, Masatane Tsukayma, Kôichi Yamadera Director: Satoshi Kon Screenwriter: Satoshi Kon, Sadayuki Murai Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 87 min Rating: PG Year: 2001 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Ronald Neame’s Tunes of Glory on the Criterion Collection

This release is an improvement over Criterion’s 2004 DVD release, but it’s still more than a bit off-key.

2.5

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Tunes of Glory

Toward the end of Ronald Neame’s Tunes of Glory, Jock (Alec Guinness), the acting commanding officer of a Highland regiment, and Colonel Barrow (John Mills), the man sent to relieve him of his position, discuss the vital importance of the “idea” behind the long-standing, highly regarded unit they oversee. Their starkly opposing views on this matter, particularly in regard to decorum and discipline, sparks a clash of personalities that propels the film’s narrative, leading to a protracted battle of wills that puts the leadership skills of both men to the test.

The jovial Jock, all too willing to color outside the lines when it comes to enforcing arbitrary regulations, runs his regiment with a keen attention toward brotherhood, frequently joining his subordinates for a rowdy night of drinking and dancing. All the while, he still manages to retain a distinct respect from those he commands. Barrow, on the other hand, is fresh out of Oxford and full of ideas learned not from commanding men, but from reading books. As Jock bristles at his unpopular demotion to second in command, Barrow steps in to sideline his predecessor’s chummy, communal approach to leadership in favor of a culture of rigorous discipline and practice.

Neame presents these two methods—warmth and camaraderie on one side, cold and methodical command on the other—as antagonistic forces, leaving Guinness and Mills to fill in the more subtle shades of their characters’ psychological makeups. Guinness, in particular, is up to the task, walking the thin line between petulance and ebullience that makes it abundantly clear why Jock’s men adore him so, while also allowing us to see why the officer’s headstrong behavior would so deeply infuriate the stiff-upper-lipped Barrow, who unwittingly walked into the lion’s den when he took Jock’s position.

In many ways, the film’s central ideological conflict is analogous to that of Dead Poets’ Society, another film where a leader’s unconventionally egalitarian methods defy the principles of draconian discipline. And as in Peter Weir’s film, Tunes of Glory’s professed support for its much-loved, rabble-rousing underdog ultimately proves to be illusory. After Jock punches a younger officer who was dating his daughter (Susannah York) behind his back, the film’s championing of the idiosyncratic leader and all of his shenanigans begins to wane. And the sobering final act that follows so strongly undercuts the gleefully rebellious tone of the rest of film that it’s difficult to see this diminishing reverence toward Jock as anything but an outright repudiation of his seemingly effective and more humane methodology.

In fact, Jock’s moral and disciplinary flexibility is tacitly acknowledged as the indirect cause of another man’s suicide, leading to a final rallying cry that plays not only as a show of respect for a fallen soldier and fellow man, but a plea for a return to the rigid order and unquestionable obedience that’s typical of elite military units. In abruptly changing its perception of Jock, and everything he stands for, Tunes of Glory takes an uncouth turn—one that sees Jock embracing the very ideals he’s been fighting against, and the celebration of individuality that colors much of the film fades in favor of a tonally jarring cautionary tale of the underlying dangers of straying from the strictures of institutional rules and regulations.

Image/Sound

Criterion’s transfer of Tunes of Glory on their 2004 DVD release was one of their weakest of the early-to-mid aughts, so the 4K restoration that serves as the source here is an obvious improvement. There’s far more detail in the frame this time around and the image is notably brighter, leading to a more natural rendering of skin tones and correctly balanced whites. Still, while the picture is less murky, colors are generally a bit washed out across the board, and there’s a softness to a number of scenes, particularly exterior ones, which have an overly brown, earthy hue to them. The monaural soundtrack is fairly clean, with not much to complain about aside from an intermittent echoey quality to some of the dialogue.

Extras

Criterion has opted for a straight port of the extras from their meager 2004 DVD release of Tunes of Glory. The only two video features are interviews with Alec Guinness and director Ronald Neame. Guinness is quite reserved and careful in doling out anything too personal, but discusses his early years in theater and how he eventually came around to embracing film, which he’d long seen as an inferior art form. Neame is a bit more candid, sharing a few choice stories of the friendly competition between Guinness and co-star John Mills on the set and of the actors’ struggles to learn how to properly walk and sit in their kilts. Also included is a brief audio interview with Mills, who dryly, and somewhat evasively, recounts his experiences working with Guinness and Neame and discusses how his performance in this film differs from those he gives in the numerous other war films he appeared in. In his booklet essay, film scholar Robert Murphy lauds Guinness and Mills’s central performances while unpacking the reasons for Tunes of Glory’s diminishing stock as a British classic.

Overall

Criterion’s Blu-ray upgrade of Tunes of Glory is an improvement over their 2004 DVD release, but it’s still more than a bit off-key.

Cast: Alec Guinness, John Mills, Dennis Price, Kay Walsh, John Fraser, Susannah York, Gordon Jackson, Duncan Macrae, Percy Herbert, Alan Cuthbertson, Paul Whitson-Jones Director: Ronald Neame Screenwriter: James Kennaway Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 106 min Rating: NR Year: 1960 Release Date: December 3, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan on the Criterion Collection

Criterion updates their old package with further context around the film’s heady investigation of ancient witchcraft.

4

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Häxan

Benjamin Christensen’s shape-shifting Häxan, which features such Boschian visions as a swarm of witches soaring briskly over a rear-projected, blue-tinted cityscape, begins with something like a primitive PowerPoint presentation. Announcing himself as both the filmmaker and first-person author of the intertitles, Christensen walks us through the history of witchcraft and witch persecution, lingering at length on the garish abuses of medieval times. While this account unveils itself, the screen is occupied by a series of optically printed slides of archival artwork depicting demonic activity—striking images that are intruded on periodically by a blackboard pointer in the foreground.

This plainly pedagogical opening is something of a misdirection, adopting an authoritative tone that this 1922 silent will then complicate when it segues into a collage of dramatic reconstructions immediately thereafter. An early ancestor to the essay film, Häxan freely mixes historical fact and collective imagination as it dredges up grotesque, crepuscular visions from ancient record, utilizing a style that draws no clear aesthetic distinctions between reality and fantasy. Veering away from the didacticism of the prologue, Christensen stages a pair of stories: In the darkly comic first episode, a community of witches in the late 15th century concoct a love potion out of pigeon heart and cat feces so as to hoodwink an unsuspecting monk, while the extensive follow-up assumes the dimensions of tragedy as a well-to-do family accuses a poor old beggar (Emmy Schønfeld) of bewitching their patriarch.

Both sections indulge occasional documentary-like detours, with the second in particular spinning off into a string of thorough diatribes against the clergy and the court, both ruled over by cruel and paranoid witchfinders. That Christensen himself appears in these reenactments as the Devil should leave no doubt as to both his impish sense of humor and his ultimate allegiance to the tortured women in these tales, forced as they are by a repressive society to embrace the carnal and the fantastical as a retreat from society’s relentless intimidation. The film radiates gleeful abandon in giving form to these communal nightmares, which account for its most radical imagery: a nocturnal woodland bacchanalia of feverish witches and cauldron-stirring demons captured with a low-budget studio ingenuity that clearly influenced Guy Maddin, and later, the truly gobsmacking shot of one witch-hunting victim, immersed in her fantasy world, birthing a seemingly never-ending chain of creatures with defects so monstrous that those of the Eraserhead baby seem minor by comparison.

Häxan concludes by tying, in great detail, these absurd and harrowing histories to contemporary life. Leaving no stone unturned, Christensen ventures to suggest all manner of modern practices as having roots in these ancient forms of misogyny, from hospitals diagnosing hysteria, police cracking down on kleptomania, nursing homes mistreating the old and poor, and even filmmakers manipulating their actresses. The last example, reinforced by a close-up of Schønfeld looking embattled and miserable, anticipates the essay film’s tendency toward self-interrogation long before Jean-Luc Godard or Chris Marker even picked up a camera, making Häxan as pioneering from an artistic standpoint as from a humanist one.

Image/Sound

The digital transfer here lives up to Criterion’s tradition of quality. Nowhere is there a sense that you’re enduring a dusty artifact with insurmountable blemishes, but rather a work of art brought to a 21st-century standard of clarity and visual richness. Contrast is lush, artifacts have been minimized, and grain is rich and consistent. The score, re-arranged from the original Danish premiere by Gillian B. Anderson and performed by the Czech Film Orchestra in 2001, has been recorded with an equivalent degree of dynamics and sonic fidelity.

Extras

Witchcraft Through the Ages, the version of the film re-released in 1968 with narration by William S. Burroughs and a clanging avant-garde jazz score by Daniel Humair, accounts for much of the real estate on the extra’s front. In addition to these obvious aesthetic distinctions, which offer a neat case study in the differing tastes of the two eras, this version also appears without the blue and red tinting of the original. Elsewhere, there’s a filmed introduction by Christensen, who discusses the profound havoc wreaked by the historical witch hunts, as well as a comprehensive bibliography of the sources used in Häxan’s opening passage. Assembled by scholar Casper Tybjerg, this supplement, linking woodcut illustrations, oil paintings, broadsheet prints, and more to their origins across the world and from as early as the 12th century, provides thorough footnotes to his already scrupulously researched commentary track. Rounding out the package is an unspectacular reel of outtakes and two fine booklet essays by Chris Fujiwara and Chloé Germaine Buckley—the former conducting a technical and formal analysis and the latter digging into the larger social history of witchcraft.

Overall

Häxan offers a radical early example of the essay film, and Criterion updates their old package with further context around the film’s heady investigation of ancient witchcraft and its modern equivalents.

Cast: Benjamin Christensen, Astrid Holm, Karen Winther, Maren Pedersen, Wilhelmine Henriksen, Kate Fabian, Oscar Stribolt, Clara Pontoppidan, Alice O’Fredericks, Johannes Andersen, Elith Pio, Aage Hertel, Ib Schønberg, Poul Reumert, Albrecht Schmidt Director: Benjamin Christensen Screenwriter: Benjamin Christensen Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 91 min Rating: NR Year: 1922 Release Date: October 15, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Fritz Lang’s Indian Epic from Film Movement Classics

Lang’s gorgeous, action-packed films pour new thematic wine into charmingly old-fashioned narrative bottles.

4.5

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Fritz Lang's Indian Epic

“Always finish what you start,” says Fritz Lang, appearing more or less as himself, at one point in Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt. That advice aptly summarizes Lang’s feelings toward his Indian Epic, the two-part remake of a 1921 film he co-scripted with then-wife Thea von Harbou but had been denied the opportunity to direct when its producer took over the reins. In many ways, these films constitute the closing of a circle, marking Lang’s return to the German film industry after nearly 30 years in exile, as well as his revival of a sprawling, multi-part style of fantasy-adventure storytelling akin to that of The Spiders and Die Nibelungen.

Superficially, at least, the Indian Epic may seem like an ill-conceived throwback to the outdated narrative devices—not to mention occasionally slapdash special effects—found in those silent-era films. The films, The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb, are inarguably best appreciated for their surface pleasures, foremost among them Richard Angst’s gorgeous color cinematography, lavished alike on the stunning and heretofore forbidden locations in Udaipur, India, and the massive, intricately detailed sets designed by Helmut Nentwig and Willy Schatz. But Lang still manages to imbue the films with his own longstanding stylistic and thematic preoccupations. If ever there were an ideal test case for the auteur theory, it would have to be these two works.

Lang, the onetime student of architecture, makes his hero, Harald Berger (Paul Hubschmid), an architect who has come to the kingdom of Eschnapur to design schools and hospitals for Maharaja Chandra (Walter Reyer). The films often make reference to Berger’s scale models and detailed plans of the Maharaja’s palace. Indeed, this floating fortress practically becomes a character in its own right. As in Moonfleet, there’s a striking contrast between luxurious aboveground spaces and the dank vaults and crypts of the subterranean realm. Water plays a key role here, as it does in many Lang films. Both the Indian Epic and Metropolis, for instance, end with climactic floods that serve to quell a rebellion.

Lang’s films often explore destiny in its manifold manifestations. (Even one of his earliest efforts is titled Destiny.) The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb work out this theme by frequently utilizing high-angle shots to indicate a sense of mastery, that characters feel themselves in command (rightly or wrongly) of all they survey. This exercise of power ties into the films’ invocation of divine authority. Not exactly dismissive of Eastern (read: non-Christian) deities, the Indian Epic unambiguously demonstrates their intervention in human affairs, albeit in ways that seem dispassionately tied to ritual practices. Thus, when temple dancer Seetha (Debra Paget) supplicates Shiva to aid her and Berger, the god shields their hiding place with a miraculously spun spiderweb. Just as surely, when Berger selfishly takes some of the offering to satisfy his own hunger, the god immediately rescinds his assistance.

The Indian Epic at times works to undermine the very Orientalist fantasies it seems to traffic in. For one thing, the Eastern ruler comes across as more cool-headed and deliberative than the rather impulsive Westerner, who rashly intrudes upon a proscribed temple ritual, breaking a hallowed taboo and transgressing the rules of hospitality into the bargain. When it comes to the final conflict between the two viewpoints, Berger proves himself prone to brutal outbursts of violence, yet ironically ends the second film, The Indian Tomb, prostrate on a litter, attended by the obliging Seetha. The Maharaja, for his part, is the one who decides to forego the dubious pleasures of retribution, opting instead for the decidedly Buddhistic path of renunciation. As Lang himself puts it in Contempt: “Death is no resolution.”

Image/Sound

The 4K restorations of the films, each housed on its own Blu-ray disc, look spectacular. Colors are slightly paler, compared to the 2003 Fantoma DVD set, but the overall image is brighter, and there’s more information visible on the sides of the frame. Clarity of details and image depth are increased. Where the Fantoma discs featured both German and English options, Film Movement offers only the German track in a two-channel LPCM mono mix that nicely brings out some of the ambient sound effects (rifle discharges, clanging swords, tiger roars), as well as a pair of rousing scores by Michel Michelet and Gerhard Becker, respectively.

Extras

Film historian David Kalat provides commentary tracks for both films. Given the considerable combined run time, Kalat has plenty of opportunity to display his encyclopedic knowledge of Fritz Lang’s life and films. He meticulously traces Lang’s obsession with the Indian Epic from its origins as a novel written by Lang’s one-time wife and screenwriting partner, Thea von Harbou, the rancor Lang felt when the subsequent silent film adaptation he was supposed to helm was taken away from him by producer Joe May, and his desire to “close the circle” by finally filming his own version when offered the opportunity by producer Artur Brauner. Kalat also does an excellent job of pointing out formal and thematic connections between the Indian Epic and Lang’s earlier films, from Metropolis to Moonfleet. (One of Kalat’s more intriguing digressions concerns Lang’s indirect yet significant debt to the writings of Karl May.)

From 2005, the making-of documentary “The Indian Epic” has talking-head commentary from producer Brauner, assistant director Eva Ebner, and co-star Sabine Bethmann, along with some delightful behind-the-scenes footage the actress shot on 8mm while on-location in India. Mark Rappaport’s visual essay “Debra Paget, For Example” explores the actress’s career from her first role in Robert Siodmak’s Cry of the City to her involvement in the Indian Epic, with a fascinating excursus about her marriage to a wealthy and reclusive Texas oilman, who just so happened to be a direct descendent of the Chinese philosopher Confucius. Rappaport emphasizes Hollywood’s oddly contradictory typecasting of Paget as either the wholesome girl next door type or else the exotic beauty with a penchant for performing seductive dance numbers. There’s also an illustrated booklet with an essay from film historian Tom Gunning that explores Lang’s investment in the themes of destiny and fatalism.

Overall

Fritz Lang’s gorgeous, action-packed Indian Epic pours new thematic wine into charmingly old-fashioned narrative bottles.

Cast: Debra Paget, Paul Hubschmid, Walther Reyer, Claus Holm, Sabine Bethmann, Luciana Paluzzi, René Deltgen, Valery Inkijinoff, Jochen Brockmann, Jochen Blume, Richard Lauffen, Giulio Celano Director: Fritz Lang Screenwriter: Werner Jörg Lüddecke, Thea von Harbou, Fritz Lang Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 203 min Rating: NR Year: 1959 Release Date: December 10, 2019

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Review: Jacques Rivette’s Joan the Maid on Cohen Media Group Blu-ray

This release of Rivette’s singular take on the story of Joan of Arc boasts an impeccable transfer of the new 4K restoration.

3.5

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Joan the Maid

Joan of Arc has endured as an evergreen inspiration to filmmakers since the medium’s infancy. Even more so than the Passion of Jesus, the story of the life and death of the Maid of Orléans has tested the screen’s capacity to capture religious ardor at its most fervent pitch of expression. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, in no small part due to Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s indelible performance in the title role, is regarded as the screen’s definitive translation of this tale of sainthood, but such varied directors as Robert Bresson, Roberto Rossellini, Otto Preminger, and Victor Fleming have also made their mark on the subject. And yet, for all the richness of their renditions, coursing throughout the lot of them is an unwavering emphasis on Joan’s sainthood, and on the trial by which she was branded a heretic and martyred at the stake.

Enter Jacques Rivette’s two-part, six-hour telling of Joan’s story, from which the narrative strictures of hagiography are notably absent. From Joan’s (Sandrine Bonnaire) journey to meet the deposed Dauphin of France (André Marcon), to her repelling of the Siege of Orléans, and onward to her capture by the British, Rivette charts the events of the warrior-saint’s life in steady, unhurried sequence, without the usual alternations of climax and catharsis. One lengthy, incantatory scene follows another, usually comprised of Joan and her ever-expanding entourage in the throes of discourse—ironing out a military tactic, debating a theological point, or merely attending to the practical needs of the day’s encampment. Rivette’s glacially modulated camera pans and tracking shots set a languorous pace; gone is the rush and the flurry of Joan’s deathward march which seems to consume so many other treatments of her life, the sense that all is hurtling ineluctably toward martyrdom. Rather, the film emphasizes Joan’s corporeal personhood at every turn. Fascinated by Joan as she might have actually existed in the present tense of her reality, Rivette is in no hurry to give her up to the saints.

Paramount to the film’s hypnotic power is the casting of Bonnaire in the central role. The actress demystifies the figure of Joan of Arc through a performance that’s at once seized with inflexible purpose and also given at the most remarkable junctures to expressions of warmth and compassion, laughter and tears. If the long-take precision of Rivette’s filmmaking—and the meticulous blocking and choreography that accompanies nearly every shot—at first suggests stolid perfectionism, it gradually becomes evident that he and cinematographer William Lubtchansky are following Bonnaire’s lead, and that the film’s meticulous control is wholly in service of the many-hued vitality of her acting.

Rivette is known for his intense collaborations with actors. If Joan the Maid seems a departure for a filmmaker perennially fixated on the existential entropy of the Parisian zeitgeist (Paris Belongs to Us, Out 1, and Le Pont du Nord among them), whose previous period film was 1966’s The Nun, it’s his total alignment with Bonnaire’s performance which most clearly situates the film within his larger body of work. But there’s also a fascination with sequential process for its own sake that follows directly from 1991’s La Belle Noiseuse, which tracked the minute gradations by which a work of art is created. In Joan the Maid, Rivette’s interest is in the real-time construction of history itself, for which he utilizes multiple camera-facing narrators to enrich his legend-in-the-making with added context and expository addenda.

Perhaps the film’s most immediately striking claim to greatness is the joint beauty and austerity of its images, which prioritize an unadorned, open-air clarity. Together, Rivette and Lubtchansky achieve an effect not unlike that of Barry Lyndon, in which the natural pallor of a landscape calmly surveyed instantly stimulates our historical imagination. Interior scenes are no less impressive; the crowning of the Dauphin might be the film’s signature sequence, a sustained passage of pure ceremony, immaculately rendered. That a relatively minor film in Rivette’s oeuvre should prove to be a major feat of period filmmaking is a testament to the artistry of a filmmaker who never settled for less than the medium’s fullest potential.

Image/Sound

The film’s new 4K restoration has been justly lauded since the film’s recent theatrical exhibition, and Cohen Media has done a stellar job of transferring it to disc. Suiting a film rich in the physical textures that come alive to natural light, the picture is invariably crisp and finely detailed, with no apparent loss in visual information. The DTS-HD audio is likewise seamless, with Jordi Savall’s medievalist score expertly balanced against the spoken dialogue which constitutes the lion’s share of the soundtrack.

Extras

Aside from a smattering of trailers, the disc boasts no extras—a shame, not only in light of the surfeit of context which might have been provided regarding Rivette’s singular approach to the story of the life and death of the Maid of Orléans, but also given how little information is readily available regarding the film’s production.

Overall

This release of Jacques Rivette’s singular take on the story of Joan of Arc boasts an impeccable transfer of the new 4K restoration.

Cast: Sandrine Bonnaire, André Marcon, Jean-Louis Richard, Nathalie Richard, Edith Scob, Hélène de Fougerolles Director: Jacques Rivette Screenwriter: Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent, Jacques Rivette Distributor: Cohen Media Group Running Time: 336 min Rating: NR Year: 1994 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Richard Franklin’s Road Games Joins the Shout! Factory

An exhaustive array of special features helps make up for a merely adequate audio-visual presentation of this Hitchcockian Ozploitation gem.

4

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Road Games

Richard Franklin’s Road Games is a hard-charging highway thriller that tears its way through the resplendent emptiness of the Australian Outback. Franklin, an ardent Hitchcock-ophile, craftily inverts some of the master’s most famous thrills, beginning with the film’s first major jolt: a reversal of the famous Psycho shower scene in which a shadowy figure exits a steamy motel bathroom and kills the naked woman waiting for him on his bed. From there, Road Games develops into what is essentially a riff on Rear Window, transplanting that film’s narrative about a voyeuristic amateur detective from a Greenwich Village apartment building to an isolated freeway in southern Australia’s arid Nullarbor Plain.

Pat Quid (Stacy Keach), an eccentric American long-haul trucker with a penchant for quoting Chaucer, keeps himself entertained on long, sleepless drives by picking up hitchhikers and rambling at his pet dingo, Boswell. After observing some suspicious activity involving the driver of a green camper van, Quid begins to suspect the man may be behind a recent spate of murders of young women. While hauling a trailer full of meat cross-country, Quid picks up a saucy young “walkaway,” dubbing her Hitch (Jamie Lee Curtis)—a rather unsubtle nod to Franklin’s filmmaking idol—who starts playing Watson to Quid’s Sherlock Holmes. The duo tracks the green van to a truck stop where Quid corners a man he thinks is the murderer in a bathroom stall. But after finding he’s confronted the wrong guy, Quid walks out of the restroom to find the van has made off with Hitch inside.

The tension ramps up as Quid sets out to find Hitch, bring the mystery murderer to justice, and prove to incompetent local authorities that he isn’t the killer. Franklin handles the suspense with a canny meticulousness, relying on a gradual escalation of narrative stakes rather than cheap shocks or gratuitous violence (though the opening murder scene, composed of jagged, giallo-esque close-ups of gloved hands strangling a woman with a guitar string, certainly leaves a savage impact). For much of its runtime, this is a one-man—and one-dog—show, with Quid cracking wise purely for his own amusement. Quid’s monologues are slightly over-written, with a reliance on overly cutesy patter about his fellow travelers; for example, he dubs a sniffling motorcyclist Sneezy Rider (Robert Thompson). But Keach delivers even the corniest jokes with a hearty swagger that makes Quid hard not to like, and his congenial charm is leavened with just a touch of vulnerability, evident in the defensive tone his voice adopts when he protests, “Just because I drive a truck doesn’t make me a truck driver.”

Franklin’s action set pieces are carefully crafted and deceptively elaborate, executing complicated choreography involving multiple high-powered vehicles with a clear eye and steady hand (shades of Steven Spielberg’s Duel). The film’s pièce de résistance is a climactic confrontation in which Quid’s massive tractor trailer becomes lodged in a narrow alleyway, stuck between the green van in front and a cop car behind. The sequence cleverly confounds our expectations of a blowout car chase, instead restricting the vehicular action to as confined a space as possible. The result is a hugely satisfying and uniquely claustrophobic finish to a film that largely trades on the vast open expanses of its Outback setting.

There is, however, a certain mechanical, calculated quality to the film. Road Games offers occasional hints at political and psychological subtexts: a militant butchers’ strike; a misogynistic slasher; and a roadside bar featuring murals of colonial violence on the walls (surveyed in an almost Godardian 360-degree panning shot). But Franklin never does anything with any of these tantalizing threads. He’s content to simply tell a ripping good yarn. The “wrong man” angle of the film is little more than a plot mechanism, totally lacking the palpable terror of false imprisonment that Hitchcock imbues into even his lighter entertainments like North by Northwest. And the romance between Quid and Hitch, while enlivened by Curtis’s brassy playfulness, feels sexless, is almost perfunctory.

While its taut suspense certainly earns it the comparisons to Hitchcock that it so clearly craves, ultimately, Road Games ends up highlighting what makes his work so much more powerful. Franklin evinces none of Hitchcock’s genius for infusing his work with his singular neuroses, compulsions, and fears. Franklin has clearly studied the master of suspense’s impeccable technique, but his film contains little of Hitch’s soul.

Image/Sound

The film’s vibrant colors and sweeping vistas of the flat, treeless Nullarbor Plains really pop on Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray release. The scan used preserves a pleasantly grainy film texture, which is true to Road Games’s relatively low-budget origins. However, little effort has been made to clean up the print, as specks of dust and debris are visible throughout the film, as is a slight discoloration around the edges of the frame in several scenes. The lossless monaural soundtrack is crisp and full, though this doesn’t always serve the film well, as its sound design can at times be crowded and shrill. The sonic elements are mostly well-balanced, though Brian May’s odd score, which combines martial drumming and harmonica melodies, seems slightly too loud at times. Overall, though, this is a more-than-serviceable presentation of a film that has been woefully unavailable on home video in the U.S. for over 15 years.

Extras

Shout! has packed this release to the gills with extras, including two commentary tracks, one with director Richard Franklin and another with cinematographer Vincent Morgan, production coordinator Helen Watts, costume designer Aphrodite Kondos, and moderated by director Mark Hartley. Both offer juicy reminiscences about the film’s arduous and financially troubled production. The disc also features interviews with Franklin, Stacy Keach, Jamie Lee Curtis, and several others, including a number of extended interviews filmed for Hartley’s Ozploitation documentary Not Quite Hollywood. Shout! has also included a making-of doc, “Kangaroo Hitchcock,” audio of a full script read from 1980, a lecture on the making of the film from the same year featuring Franklin, May, co-producer Barbi Taylor, and critic Tom Ryan, and a stills and poster gallery accompanied by demos of May’s score. All in all, it’s hard to conceive of a more thorough selection of extras to accompany this film than the one Shout! has assembled.

Overall

An exhaustive array of special features helps make up for a merely adequate audio-visual presentation of this Hitchcockian Ozploitation gem.

Cast: Stacy Keach, Jamie Lee Curtis, Marion Edward, Grant Page, Thaddeus Smith, Steve Millichamp, Alan Hopgood, John Murphy, Bill Stacey, Robert Thompson Director: Richard Franklin Screenwriter: Everett De Roche Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 101 min Rating: NR Year: 1981 Release Date: November 12, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: The Story of Temple Drake on the Criterion Collection

Criterion’s long-awaited foray into pre-code dramas shines a spotlight on a strange and emotionally rich gem.

3.5

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The Story of Temple Drake

The first glimpse we get of the protagonist of Stephen Roberts’s The Story of Temple Drake is of her left arm grasping the inside of her home’s front door. She’s standing outside, mostly out of sight to the camera, exhibiting equal measures of coquettishness and caution as she playfully fends off a companion who’s getting too frisky with her. It’s a striking image that positions Temple Drake (Miriam Hopkins) as a woman divided, perpetually torn between desire and shame. Temple later tells the most serious of her suitors, Steve (William Gargan), a local lawyer who sees only the good in her, that it’s like she has “two me’s”: one that would marry him on the spot and the other too indecent to put into words.

Temple’s wealthy, powerful family has granted her the privilege of walking the thin line between flirt and floozy without consequence, aside from nearly everyone in town, including Steve’s gossipy Aunt Jennie (Elizabeth Patterson), talking about her perceived bad streak. When a drunken joy ride with the reckless Toddy (William Collier Jr.) ends in an accident that leaves Temple stranded at an eerie, ramshackle plantation house turned speakeasy, the film appears to be setting up a simplistic cautionary tale wherein the rich, carefree teenager gets her comeuppance from the lecherous, drunken men she suddenly finds herself surrounded by.

But unlike William Faulkner’s Sanctuary, from which Roberts’s film was adapted, The Story of Temple Drake takes a sympathetic view of its heroine, remaining morally ambiguous about her behavior and fixating more on her attempts to avoid and later cope with traumatic events than on the depraved horde of men who victimize her. Roberts retains Faulkner’s uniquely Southern Gothic sensibility, but gone are the misogynistic overtones, suggesting that she was both “asking” for her eventual rape and came around to liking her rapist’s company.

Roberts, with the help of cinematographer Karl Struss, infuses the derelict mansion with an alarming sense of terror, employing angular compositions and expressionistic lighting that would later define the look of film noir and suspenseful music that would have felt equally at home in a Universal monster movie. Where the people in both her civilized town and in this sleazy booze den see Temple as either an object of desire or scorn, Roberts more compassionately presents her as a victim of her own carelessness and, even more so, of the ruthless objectification of men. If Temple becomes something akin to a “final girl” from a horror film, the slick yet terrifying gangster, Trigger (Jack La Rue), who tracks her like prey from one room to the next, is its lurching, irrepressible monster.

Even after Trigger rapes Temple, she remains his prisoner, left in a near-catatonic state as he drives her to a Memphis brothel where he attempts to persuade her into cherishing him. In a stunning and deeply unsettling series of shot-reverse-shot zooms, Temple pleads with him to leave her alone, and as his face fills the screen, he replies, smirking, “I ain’t hurt you none.” It’s this type of cyclical abuse, with violence followed by gaslighting that often leads victims of rape to remain silent, fearing both the judgment of society and facing their own shame.

When the film shifts tones again in the final act, from horror-tinged noir to courtroom drama, Temple is again divided, this time between her senses of justice and shame, finding herself as the only person who can exonerate an innocent man charged of a murder she saw Trigger commit. And it’s through her final act, when she speaks publicly of her rape and abuse, that she transforms from victim into hero—not merely because of the selflessness of her act, but through her willingness to openly discuss her abuse. It’s a courageous decision that suggests a conquering of the fear and shame that’s long haunted her, reinforced by Steve’s comment to her father to be proud of her. The scene exudes an extraordinary empathy, yet as Steve carries the seemingly lifeless Temple out of the courtroom after she faints, one is left with the lingering doubts of whether anyone else in attendance will grant her the same courtesy.

Image/Sound

If the Criterion Channel’s recent pre-code Barbara Stanwyck collection is any indication, the Criterion Collection is finally paying closer attention to an oft-neglected period of Hollywood filmmaking. With The Story of Temple Drake, the distributor has finally dipped their toes into the physical release of a pre-code drama and the results are spectacular. Both the tinniness of dialogue and the crackles and pops heard throughout silent stretches of many an early sound film are all but completely absent here. In comparison to the clean, precise audio track, Karl Hajos and Bernhard Kaun’s score sounds a tad meek, though frequent appearances of wind and thunder in the film’s middle section are effectively forceful in filling out the soundtrack. While Criterion’s source is only an HD, rather than 2K or 4K, restoration, the image boasts an impressive sharpness and the ample, even distribution of grain lends The Story of Temple Drake a pleasing softness that complements its woozy, off-kilter tone. The contrast is also quite strong throughout, with whites arising from the frequent backlighting of actors and objects exhibiting an eerie glow and inky blacks impressive throughout, particularly in the noir-esque nighttime sequences at the speakeasy.

Extras

None of the three new extras that Criterion includes on this disc clock in at over 20 minutes, but each provides a unique perspective on Stephen Roberts’s offbeat film and Hollywood’s brief but remarkable pre-code era. Film critic Imogen Sara Smith nimbly traverses The Story of Temple Drake’s murky morality, as well as the enigmatic qualities that make Temple at once vexing and profoundly human. In discussing the pre-code era’s general ambivalence toward modern females and their increasing sexual freedoms, Smith also touches on the slyly subversive content that rose to the fore in Hollywood films of the early 1930s. Critic Mick LaSalle also approaches the revolutionary content of pre-code films, situating them as a reflection of a generation disillusioned with institutions of power. The final feature, a conversation between Matt Severson and cinematographer John Bailey, finds the two men perusing Jean Negulesco’s highly stylized, almost surreal, storyboards (mostly of the film’s horrific rape scene), which convey a distinct sense of the film’s tone as well as merely laying out shot compositions. The package is rounded out with an essay by Geoffrey O’Brien, who teases out the similarities and differences between the film and Faulkner’s controversial novel.

Overall

Criterion’s long-awaited foray into pre-code dramas shines a spotlight on a strange and emotionally rich gem too often reduced to a titillating oddity that provoked the stricter enforcement of the Hays Code.

Cast: Miriam Hopkins, William Gargan, Jack La Rue, Florence Eldridge, Guy Standing, Irving Pichel, Jobyna Howland, William Collier Jr., Elizabeth Patterson, Louise Beavers, James Eagles Director: Stephen Roberts Screenwriter: Oliver H.P. Garrett Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 71 min Rating: NR Year: 1933 Release Date: December 3, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop Gets an Arrow Video Blu-ray Steelbook

This gnarly, amazing, quasi-hypocritical action thriller has been outfitted with an improved transfer and a superb bounty of extras.

5

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RoboCop

It’s never quite clear who the joke is on in Paul Verhoeven’s films, as the filmmaker thrives on mixed messages, fashioning an aesthetic that blends trashiness with designer style. Verhoeven has the chutzpah and the talent to do whatever he pleases, reveling in a freedom of kinetics. Take 1987’s RoboCop, which drops left-wing talking points in the middle of a vigilante thriller so sadistic it’d make Death Wish blush. This tension—between social protest and reactionary ultraviolence—yields a visceral kind of meaninglessness. Anyone of any ideology can bring to the film whatever sentiments they wish, and this malleability is Verhoeven’s most caustic punchline. RoboCop embodies the nihilism of self-interested, self-canceling political cacophony.

The most irritating facet of the prototypical American vigilante thriller, especially of the ‘70s and ‘80s, is its aura of macho self-pity. When middle-class white men kill in these films, it’s because they have no other choice in the face of crime that’s unpunished by liberal politicians. (Such a theme can’t be laughed off as a trope, as it continues to be a selling point for carny politicians even as the nation’s crime rate drops.) In RoboCop, Verhoeven and screenwriters Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner turn this cliché on its head, as the crime-ridden hellscape of future Detroit is controlled by capitalist fascists who run amok under the implicit protection of Reaganomics. Detroit’s government has been subsumed by OCP (which stands, hilariously generically, for Omni Consumer Products), a company with ties to the military that has recently taken control of the police department and is systematically crushing police unions while rendering human cops beside the point with new weaponry.

OCP is also in bed with street criminals, particularly the vicious Clarence (Kurtwood Smith), whom they play against the cops in a bid to wipe everyone out so as to realize a new gentrification project. This notion, of the government funding killers to suit its own means, suggests too many Reagan-era controversies to count. (The president’s proposed space defense program, Star Wars, is also referenced, and is revealed to have a habit of accidentally killing people.) Much of this world-building is introduced via TV soundbites that relate atrocity with a glibness that represents virtually no satirical exaggeration of news programs. The soundbites are punctuated with advertisements that also barely exaggerate the sorts of promotions of the time. Only one coherent message arises out of all this stimulation: Buy things, and, when you can’t, commit aggression. Buy a woman for a dollar, as a TV personality says, or pretend to nuke your brother from the comfort of your bedroom. (Lest we miss the point, Clarence, a budding entrepreneur, even directly says that there’s no theft like free enterprise.)

Yet there’s a key difference between RoboCop and most left-leaning message movies: Verhoeven gets off on the heartlessness of his villains, pruning his political platitudes of the earnestness that can often make message movies feel so naïve and insipid. This film, with its cold, hard, silver sheen, studied callousness, and whip-snap editing, understands the pull of capitalism, of the giddiness of exercised force, which is the hunger—for movement, for every desire to be gratified regardless of larger implications—that the action genre satiates to begin with. The film’s satire of America as a corporate wasteland is wallpaper laid upon bitter walls. Corporate overreach might be destroying us in RoboCop, but it’s also our savior.

A more earnest sci-fi auteur might’ve wrestled with the existential crisis of a man who’s turned into a machine, a development that suggests the ultimate commodified invasion of an invasive age. Verhoeven pays occasionally poignant lip service to this idea, and Peter Weller’s gravity in the central role serves as resonant emotional shorthand, but the filmmaker can’t wait to get his metal warrior—billed by the film’s poster as “part man, part machine, all cop”—out into Detroit’s ravaged streets to do battle with Clarence and his goons, who blew RoboCop’s human basis to pieces in a scene of ejaculatory violence that’s still shocking. (Verhoeven has as much fun in this scene as Clarence, and this killing mirrors an earlier murder committed by the ED-209, a law-enforcement robot with Gatling-gun arms that’s unable to arrest without excessive force. Such an echo further rhymes Clarence with the OCP.)

Once RoboCop hits the streets, the film becomes one of the most disturbingly exhilarating of all action thrillers. Like future Verhoeven mixtures of kitsch and art object, RoboCop is broken up into hard, tactile shards of action, from the stabbing of a thug’s throat to the splatter of another melting thug against a windshield. The very weighty metallic sound of RoboCop’s stride is intoxicating—a promise of violence to be unleashed that’s pronouncedly fulfilled. When he fires his gun, which suggests a steroidal .45, it resounds with the aural dimensions of a canon. RoboCop’s very invincibility serves to shed the vigilante film of its fake pathos, providing us with a wave of force, in which objects of left- and right-wing scorn are destroyed with equal prejudice. The film’s appeal resides in a willingness to allow everyone to have their cake and eat it too, as the right of the corporation’s power to inherit the world is ultimately vindicated in a finale of stunning violence that’s arguably sarcastic, though by this point such a distinction hardly matters. RoboCop is a celebration of the politics of unbridled formalism.

Image/Sound

RoboCop has always looked a little vague and blurry to these eyes over the years, and Arrow Video’s new 4K transfer addresses many of these issues. The glare of several transfers (particularly in rendering RoboCop’s suit) has been reduced; the silvers and whites are quite attractive here. Facial and clothing details are nuanced, and other colors are livelier than they’ve been before. If there’s still a certain pervading softness to the image, this seems to be inherent to the film’s memorably grimy aesthetic, especially in the deliberately cheap-looking videos that embody the film’s cynical view of the media. Which is to say that RoboCop has been subtly buffed up without compromising its aura of underground sleaziness. The multiple audio tracks are conventionally superb, and this is a film that allows for a real show-pony presentation, abounding in bass-y, cacophonic aural fireworks, which are tied together by Basil Poledouris’s quasi-ironically patriotic score. The 5.1 track offers an especially immersive soundstage, potentially inspiring you to dodge bullets, if that’s your thing.

Extras

This collection of extras is gargantuan even by Arrow’s obsessive standards. Three versions of the film are included: the director’s cut, the theatrical cut, and an edited TV cut. As a variety of featurettes contrasting the various versions remind us, Verhoeven’s cut was rated X by the MPAA and so trims were made, most famously to the scene where the ED-209 mows down an executive during a conference. (For what it’s worth, Verhoeven is right: The longer, gorier version is funnier, reveling in the sheer pointlessness of this machine’s depravity.)

There are also interviews and tributes, new and archival, centered on many a significant person involved in RoboCop’s production, including Verhoeven, screenwriters Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, the film’s stars (and even supporting bad guys), and the FX specialists who created the RoboCop suit and the ED-209. One of the most revealing of these programs is the interview with second-unit director and frequent Verhoeven collaborator Mark Goldblatt, who offers a succinct and informative description of the precise function of second-unit work, while discussing his specific role in Verhoeven’s productions. There’s also an archival commentary with Verhoeven, executive producer Jon Davison, and Neumeier, as well as two new commentaries by film historian Paul M. Sammon and fans Christopher Griffiths, Gary Smart, and Eastwood Allen, respectively. These commentaries, taken together with photo galleries, storyboards and alternate scenes, offer a comprehensive history of RoboCop.

And, yes, the filmmakers are very aware of the film’s mixed political messaging, and discuss it frankly, particularly in “RoboTalk,” a new conversation between Neumeier and filmmakers David Burke and Nicholas McCarthy, and in a 2012 panel discussion with most of the pivotal players who worked on the film. The best description of RoboCop is attributed to Davison, who’s said to have called it “fascism for liberals.”

Overall

This gnarly, amazing, quasi-hypocritical action thriller has been outfitted with an improved transfer and a superb bounty of extras. I’d buy that for a dollar.

Cast: Peter Weller, Kurtwood Smith, Ronny Cox, Miguel Ferrer, Nancy Allen, Ray Wise, Paul McCrane, Calvin Jung, Felton Perry, Robert DoQui Director: Paul Verhoeven Screenwriter: Edward Neumeier, Michael Miner Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 102 min Rating: R Year: 1987 Release Date: November 26, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Dario Argento’s Suspiria on Synapse Films 4K Ultra HD

Synapse takes what was already arguably the best single-title home-video release of 2018 and makes it exponentially more essential.

5

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Suspiria

In the giallo, as practiced by masters such as Mario Bava and Dario Argento, there’s an amoral yet almost joyful grasp of death as simply being a matter of aesthetic. The blood in these films is intentionally fake—gorgeous, garish paint that exists as another hue to complement the explosion of colors that define the giallo’s often extraordinary set designs. When a character splashes red wine all over a porcelain sink in Suspiria, Argento highlights the similarities between the drugged drink and the blood that splatters robustly throughout the film. It’s a joke on the nature of the giallo, linking violence to consumption, a sensual intertwinement that also leads inevitably to sex.

Suspiria is set in a dance academy in Germany, but Argento makes little effort to eroticize the dancers while they’re living, and they’re pointedly denied sex lives. The hallmarks of films concerned with perfecting dance—the scenes in which we see dancers dancing—are almost entirely elided. We see the American protagonist, Suzy (Jessica Harper), dancing once, and she becomes ill and is rushed out of class. Argento is more concerned with the architectural specifics of the academy, which is rich in labyrinthine hallways awash in explosions of red, blue, green, and black, dotted with malevolent mirrors and windows that suggest eyes as well as portals into other dimensions.

Suspiria is the ultimate horror film as baroque-rock concert. Retrospectively, it doesn’t feel negligible that it was released a few years after The Rocky Horror Picture Show and in the same year as Low, the first album in David Bowie’s Berlin trilogy. All three works bridge cinema and music while mining the hangover setting in from the debauchery of reactionary 1970s-era politics and counter-reactionary urban night life. There’s a sense in all three works of sex as having gone bad or having at least twisted itself beyond even the understanding of the inherently twisted—of revolutionaries being unable to grasp the power of primordial fascism. The German settings of Low and Suspiria aren’t incidental. As exuberant as Dr. Frank N. Furter can be in his transgressions, his actions nevertheless exude a whiff of desperate over-compensation. True to its title, Low is about the weirdly qualified beauty of bottoming out, while Suspiria similarly mines an eroticism of annihilation.

Regarding the prestigious Tanz Dance Academy’s luridly colored hallways, the audience may feel as if it’s looking at a building that’s set inside of a giant human heart that happens to house a gallery of classic and modern art. With all of Suspiria’s hallucinatory excess—including dizzying levels of prismatic imagery—one never quite knows where to look, which produces an anxiety in the audience that parallels Suzy’s mounting terror. These sets blend German expressionism with the neurotic Technicolor passion of films like The Wizard of Oz and The Red Shoes. Suspiria’s influence on other filmmakers is also difficult to overstate: A shot of curtains moving supernaturally behind Suzy has the velvety tactility of the curtain imagery in David Lynch’s productions, and the highly controlled mixture of found buildings and fastidious set design bring to mind the architectural formalism of Wes Anderson.

In death, however, the dancers are allowed to bloom. In one of the most beautiful and disturbing murder scenes committed to film, Pat (Eva Axén) is pulled through a bathroom window and stabbed repeatedly with a knife while atop the stained glass sunroof of an apartment complex. Characteristically of Argento, the building suggests an Art Deco theater of ultraviolence, and Pat’s murder virtually offers a pun on the phrase “danse macabre.” Before she’s lynched and thrown through the sunroof, her face is shown to be smeared in red lipstick that complements her blood-splattered body, and curled into an expression of terrifying, orgasmic ecstasy. In destruction, she finds freedom from the limitations of corporeality—becoming the sort of art object which dancers attempt to render themselves. The witches running this academy are true to their promises of allowing the dancers to perfect their craft.

Suspiria’s murder sequences also revel in the traditions of dance and rock music. Each killing is accompanied by Goblin’s equally elaborate synth score. The killings serve as choruses within the film, while the preceding stalking in hallways and deserted courtyards suggest musical bridges. Imagery and sound are intricately linked, as the murder sequences are chopped into hard fragments of incident, while the stalking is rendered in sensual tracking shots that gradually build to the catharsis. And the music is always with us, particularly the sounds of cooing and sighing that suggest that the very film itself is alive and breathing. (“Suspiria” is Latin for “sighs,” as this film was partially suggested by Thomas De Quincey’s 1845 essay “Suspiria de Profundis.”)

Suspiria is overwhelming in the breadth and intensity of its aesthetic, offering a radical departure from the sporadic surreality of Argento’s prior gialli. The aesthetic weds with the irrational and sketch-like narrative to fashion an abstract horror film that’s more closely aligned with A Page of Madness than with the American slasher genre that arose in the 1970s, partially in response to Argento’s early films. Argento plunges the audience into Suzy’s fragile consciousness, painting a rich and bottomless tapestry of fear.

Image/Sound

Not even 18 months ago, Synapse released their Blu-ray edition of Suspiria, boasting a brand-new 4K restoration of the Italian 35mm camera negative, personally supervised and approved by cinematographer Luciano Tovoli. And while the results were as much as any fan of the film could have hoped for, rightfully topping many year-end home-video lists, the urge to resist purchase until Synapse saw fit to unfurl the fruits of their labors in full 2160p was very real. Thankfully, the wait has proven brief, and favors those among us who chose to wait it out.

Every superlative one could lay on last year’s edition deserves to be amplified in exponential proportion. The sensuality of the film’s primary color palette now emerges as enchantingly tactile; the reds, for instance, have gone from loud to luxuriant. The rich depths of its visuals now flourish, as though your eyes have been given a chance to adjust to the darkness and can see with more nuance beneath the surface than you initially thought possible. The clarity and cleanliness of the print doesn’t just feel like the results of a top-notch Telecine bath, but as if the viewers have been sent back in time to 1977 and are donning a pair of white, cotton gloves to inspect the actual reels up close. The famous interlude in which one of the dance school’s ogre-like cooks flashes light into Suzy’s eyes with a knife, revealing a hallway filled with undulating clouds of dust, is as good as any single shot from a vintage film I’ve ever seen on home video, excepting any of the film’s other four or five dozen showstopper shots.

Synapse didn’t give just the images more breathing room. New to this edition is a Dolby Atmos soundtrack option, which whips an already scarily active sound mix into overwhelming overdrive. To my ears, it sounds like it takes some big liberties with balance and reverb, but it will be awfully hard for purists to carp over because Synapse also retained the prior Blu-ray’s DTS-HD Master Audio presentation of the original English-language track as purportedly used for Suspiria’s original 1977 release. (Also included is the original Italian track, for those who can’t handle the sometimes loose dubbing.) We’re still in the nascent stages of 4K releases for the classics, but Suspiria holds its own even when stacked against many new releases.

Extras

Synapse ports over the extras from their Blu-ray edition without adding anything new, which is to say that this is an essential package from top to bottom. One could still lament that they weren’t able to find a way to recycle a few of the better extras from other home-video editions. Specifically, the absence of the documentary “Suspiria: 25th Anniversary” from the 2001 Anchor Bay release wipes out firsthand testimonials from most of the film’s actual cast and crew, including Jessica Harper, Daria Nicolodi, Stefania Casini, and Dario Argento himself. (Only the 20-minute interview with an admittedly jovial and engaging Barbara Magnolfi, who plays the squawking, snakelike Mata Hari Olga, makes up the difference.) That aside, the set offers up scholarship and historical context in every flavor a cinephile could hope for.

The first disc features two separate commentary tracks. Each is informative in its own way, even if they occasionally repeat some of the same information between the two, as all participants are authors and historians on giallo and genre films, and Argento specifically. A flashier and more bite-sized distillation of what the commentary tracks have to offer comes in the half-hour featurette “A Sigh from the Depths,” which widens the pool of participants—again, almost entirely all authors. The featurette explores the film’s themes of witchcraft, central Europe’s “Magic Triangle” of evil, Daria Nicolodi’s role in altering the course of Argento’s career, the fact that he wanted to cast his horrific fairy tale with actual preteens, and the cinematographic innovations unlocked by Luciano Tovoli.

“Do You Know Anything About Witches?” finds filmmaker Michael Mackenzie walking viewers through an abridged cut of the film, while his narration dances in and out of subjectivity and criticism. It is, in effect, a third mini-commentary track. And finally there’s an exploration of the film’s German locations, including the public square where the blind pianist is gored by his guide dog and where, in the 1930s, Hitler staged book-burning Nazi rallies.

Overall

With their 4K release of Suspiria, with gorgeously sumptuous images and multiple enveloping sound mixes, Synapse Films takes what was already arguably the best single-title home-video release of 2018 and makes it exponentially more essential.

Cast: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci, Miguel Bosé, Barbara Magnolfi, Udo Kier, Joan Bennett, Aida Vallli Director: Dario Argento Screenwriter: Dario Argento, Daria Nicolodi Distributor: Synapse Films Running Time: November 19, 2019 min Rating: NR Year: 1977 Release Date: November 19, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Rock ‘n’ Roll High School Joins the Shout! Factory

Allan Arkush’s anarchic ode to rock ‘n’ roll rebellion gets a major 4K upgrade as well as some choice new supplements.

4.5

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Rock ‘n’ Roll High School

The release of George Lucas’s American Graffiti in 1973 unleashed a groundswell of films and television shows that wistfully gazed back at the “good old days” of the late 1950s and early ‘60s, before the “loss of innocence” signaled by the JFK assassination and the escalation of the Vietnam War. Fueled by a double LP’s worth of period needle drops, Lucas’s film presents an anodyne, nostalgia-hazy view of the era intended as a kind of comfort food for the turbulent early ‘70s. Conversely, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School taps into the primal energy and anarchic brio of early rock music as the ideal analogue for the emergence of the punk movement in the face of late-‘70s social anomie and economic stagnation.

This parallelism between time periods carries through to the film’s visual technique, which evokes the sight gag-packed pages of Mad magazine and the cartoon-inflected films of Frank Tashlin, particularly his rock n’ roll music satire The Girl Can’t Help It, from which director Allan Arkush unabashedly purloins a scene. The punk-rock anthems of the Ramones also effectively bridge both eras, since their albums would typically include a cover song that highlighted their disparate musical influences—including the surfer-dude-friendly “California Sun” and the sock-hoppy “Do You Wanna Dance?”—both of which turn up on the soundtrack here. Not to mention the fact that, like most airplay-dependent early rock n’ roll music, their propulsive singles almost always clock in at a radio-friendly three minutes or less.

Rock ‘n’ Roll High School affectionately tweaks many of the conventions of high-school movies from the 1950s. Newly installed principal Evelyn Togar (Mary Woronov) displays all the sartorial severity and gleeful sadism of a women’s prison warden. The student body’s everyday needs are better served by the entrepreneurial Eagelbauer (Clint Howard), whose swanky office hides behind the homely façade of the men’s room stalls. (The character’s name, incidentally, is lifted from Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living.) If Miss Togar represents the “mindless authority” of the political system, as radio DJ-turned-Greek chorus Screamin’ Steve Stevens (Don Steele) helpfully glosses the situation at one point, then Eaglebauer stands in for the ostensibly helping hand of the free-market economy.

Perhaps the most innovative shift in narrative emphasis, however, has the love story between lonely quarterback Tom Roberts (Vincent Van Patten) and aspiring physicist Kate Rambeau (Dey Young) taking a decided backseat to the rebellious self-assertion of rock-and-roller Riff Randell (P. J. Soles). Riff isn’t looking for love, despite her avowed affection for Joey Ramone’s pizza-eating habits. Riff wants to become a songwriter—a career woman, in other words—and her one true goal is to deliver her tunes to the Ramones’s doorstep. The opposition that Riff faces from the puritanical Togar, whose disciplinarian mindset she describes as being “stuck in the 1950s,” ultimately prompts her to stage an insurrection at Vince Lombardi High School, where, after all, “winning is better than losing.” In a way that clearly presages Michael Lehmann’s Heathers, the standoff will end with the complete destruction of the school.

The specific details of Miss Togar’s objection to rock music (“lethal to mice”) are reductions to absurdity actually based, amusingly enough, on authentic “scientific” studies and newspaper accounts of the music’s deleterious effect on susceptible listeners. But somewhere just beyond the film’s keen-edged parody, there are intimations of truly, horribly repressive institutions. The lengths to which Miss Togar will go in order to destroy the source of this teenage rebellion recall nothing so much as the Nazi’s book-burning bonfires. Nor is this the only invocation of the Nazi era in the film. When the cafeteria staff are up against the wall, being pummeled by the Tuesday surprise, their pleas echo the defense frequently proffered by German soldiers at the Nuremberg trials: “We were only following orders.”

Rock ‘n’ Roll High School actively embraces teenage anarchy and rock ‘n’ roll rebellion in a real way. This is perfectly in keeping with the films produced by Roger Corman, which almost always offered some sly social criticism tucked away in the Trojan horse of exploitation filmmaking. It’s not entirely a joke, therefore, when, at the end of film, Screamin’ Steve offers to bring the explosive hijinks of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School to your school. And just in case you don’t happen to go in for the detonator, you can always embrace the radical inclusivity of punk rock. Like the Ramones, invoking Tod Browing’s oddity-embracing Freaks, used to sing: “Gabba gabba hey, we accept you, one of us.”

Image/Sound

Shout! Factory’s new 4K restoration of the film from the original camera negative constitutes a significant improvement over their 2010 Blu-ray, which was released under the now sadly defunct “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” imprint. Details of the costumes and set design stand out in palpable depth—and, when it comes to a film this laden with sight gags planted as background details, that’s a good thing. Flesh tones are lifelike, primary hues really pop (witness those molten blues and reds in the concert scene), and grain levels are satisfyingly filmic. On the sonic front, a Master Audio mono mix replaces the older Dolby Digital. The lossless track lends some solid ambience to the crowded hallway and audience scenes, while the central concert performance still sounds a little on the rough-and-ragged side. This is an unavoidable consequence of the low-budget filmmaking: The Last Waltz, this isn’t. Suffice it to say, though, that Rock ‘n’ Roll High School likely will never sound any better than it does here.

Extras

Shout! Factory presents their “40th Anniversary Edition” of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School packaged in a shiny steelbook edition with the iconic William Stout poster art emblazoned on the front and a cheeky “Togar Sucks” graffiti tag scrawled across the back. The big new extra here is “Class of ’79: 40 Years of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School,” a 70-minute deep dive into the film’s conception, production and legacy, tracing its evolution from the Animal House derivative Girl’s Gym to the Saturday Night Fever-inflected Disco High and on to its final incarnation. This one piece effectively synthesizes nearly all of the information presented in the various commentary tracks and other, earlier bonus materials. Talking-head contributors include writer-director Allan Arkush, co-writers Joe Dante, Richard Whitley and Russ Dvonch, cinematographer Dean Cundey, and critic Nathaniel Thompson. The other new supplement here is a brief introduction by Arkush, apparently filmed in his home office, to a Slasher Film Festival screening of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, complete with a goofily engaging reenactment of one of the Ramones’s songs using bobblehead dolls.

Shout! ports over all the other bonus materials from their 2010 Blu-ray. The archival featurette “Back to School” adds more personal reflections from actors P.J. Soles, Mary Woronov, Clint Howard, Dey Young, and Loren Lester, as well as Marky Ramone and producer Roger Corman. It’s an often amusing piece, and there’s very little overlap with the newer making-of material. “Staying After Class” reunites actors Vincent Van Patten, P.J. Soles, and Dey Young around a high-school lunch table to reminisce about their experiences on set. Soles brings along some cool mementos: a Ramones lunch box and a signed copy of the now-rare soundtrack album. There are a grand total of four commentary tracks that team up various configurations of the cast and crew, and they run the gamut from downright raucous to a bit more stately in their presentation. There are separate short interviews with Corman and Arkush, as well as a selection of radio and TV spots and trailers.

Overall

Allan Arkush’s anarchic ode to rock ‘n’ roll rebellion gets a major 4K upgrade as well as some choice new supplements.

Cast: P.J. Soles, Vincent Van Patten, Clint Howard, Dey Young, Mary Woronov, Paul Bartel, Dick Miller, Don Steele, Lynn Farrell, Alix Elias, Loren Lester, Daniel Davies, Grady Sutton, The Ramones Director: Allan Arkush Screenwriter: Richard Whitley, Russ Dvonch, Joseph McBride, Allan Arkush, Joe Dante Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 93 min Rating: PG Year: 1979 Release Date: November 19, 2019 Buy: Video

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