Connect with us

Video

Blu-ray Review: I Married a Witch

The extras are skimpy, but René Clair’s delightful, creative romantic comedy looks better than ever thanks to the Criterion Collection’s excellent A/V transfer.

3.5

Published

on

I Married a Witch

René Clair opens I Married a Witch, his second American feature, with a mordant ribbing of a distinctly American atrocity: the Salem witch trials. A large audience has gathered to enjoy the burnings of Daniel, a warlock, and Jennifer, his witch daughter, and a vendor walks around offering “hot maize” in small bags to the townspeople. Among the crowd is Jonathan Wooley (Fredric March), the puritan who denounced the pair and who speaks nervously about being briefly seduced by Jennifer’s wiles. In retaliation for Wooley’s betrayal, Jennifer curses Wooley and his heirs to be unlucky in love, and with a swift comical montage of the (increasingly miserable) Wooley lineage through the years, Clair demonstrates that Jennifer’s curse wasn’t mere bitter words.

Jennifer’s true day of reckoning comes in 1942, as Wallace Wooley (March) prepares for his wedding to Estelle Masterson (Susan Hayward), the daughter of his primary backer in his gubernatorial run, which is in its final days. It’s during a fundraising-cum-engagement party for the couple that Jennifer and Daniel are released from their prison underneath a tree, and they’re portrayed as talking puffs of smoke, voiced by Cecil Kellaway and Veronica Lake, and realized thanks to some lovely pre-digital compositing. Eventually, Kellaway embodies Daniel on screen and Jennifer comes to take the form of Lake, whose relationship with March on set was notoriously adversarial and flirtatious. This backstage acrimony does the film well when Lake’s Jennifer gloms onto Wooley, following a daring rescue from a hotel fire. At first, revenge is of paramount concern to Jennifer, but her flirtations switch from torturous to enthusiastically adoring when she accidentally takes a love potion meant for Wooley.

As Wooley’s wedding day collapses into calamity, drawing him closer to Jennifer, Clair captures a rare sort of barbed playfulness between his stars, and his days as an avant-gardist comes into delightful, subtle aid with his use of visual effects. There’s a wonderful sequence in which Daniel makes a taxicab fly through the air during a police chase, and there are a number of smaller visual notes: flying brooms, a slide up the stairs, a sudden windstorm, and the aforementioned hotel fire. They may seem like pedestrian images, but Clair’s gives them distinct attention, and this goes similarly with his auditory effects. The director has a way of accentuating his effects by clearly but not distractingly giving over entire parts of sequences to effects. Early on, some sweet talk between young lovers is potently drowned out by the sounds of the storm that releases Daniel and Jennifer.

Clair’s focus on the visual magic of filmmaking, the sly technical maneuvers that make the impossible possible on screen, resounds the narrative’s depiction of love as a wild, chaotic sort of spell. The inherent strangeness of the first image of Jennifer, being no more than a puff of smoke and voiceover, seems embedded in Lake’s punchy, ecstatic energy. For his part, March conjures a beautifully modulated performance of comic panic and exhaustion. As they play off one another, Clair’s imagery breaks down the sense of a world dictated by the logics of science or anything resembling reason, and thus inventively conveys an exhilarating sense of the madness of love.

Image/Sound

The print isn’t perfect, but Criterion’s transfer is a remarkable improvement from Warner Home Video’s 1993 VHS release. Delineation between blacks, whites, and greys are excellent, and clarity, on the whole, is stunning, bringing out various textures and detail. Shadows are generally fantastic looking. As for the audio, dialogue is crisp and out front, and crucial sound effects, along with Roy Webb’s spirited score, come through cleanly.

Extras

There’s one single extra on the disc: an audio interview with director René Clair where he discusses the production of the film and his preferred methods of filmmaking. It’s a nice listen, but not as wholly informative as one might have hoped. There’s a better interview with Clair in the booklet, conducted by R.C. Dale, which offers a small bounty of tidbits about the filmmaker’s time in Hollywood and the relationships he formed there; the bits involving his collaborative friendship with Preston Sturges are particularly interesting. There’s also a solid essay by Guy Maddin on the film and a trailer included.

Overall

The extras are skimpy, but René Clair’s delightful, creative romantic comedy looks better than ever thanks to the Criterion Collection’s excellent A/V transfer.

Cast: Fredric March, Veronica Lake, Robert Benchley, Robert Warwick, Susan Hayward, Cecil Kellaway, Elizabeth Patterson Director: René Clair Screenwriter: Robert Pirosh, Marc Connelly Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 77 min Rating: NR Year: 1942 Release Date: October 8, 2013 Buy: Video

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Advertisement
Comments

Video

Review: Robert Fuest’s And Soon the Darkness on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

Fuest’s taut thriller makes its debut on Blu-ray with a beautiful new transfer and a couple of choice extras.

4

Published

on

And Soon the Darkness

Robert Fuest’s And Soon the Darkness is a taut, precision-crafted Hitchcockian thriller, drawing particular inspiration from one of the master of suspense’s most famous sequences: the crop-duster scene in North by Northwest. Like that now-classic set piece, Fuest’s film builds an escalating sense of menace and imminent danger from a confrontation with a location’s wide open spaces and bright sunshine. Only here the setting is rural France, and we’re accompanying two English girls on an ill-fated cycling holiday.

The film’s setup is archetypal. In addition to being proverbial strangers in a strange land, Jane (Pamela Franklin) and Cathy (Michele Dotrice) are a temperamentally mismatched pair. Jane is rigid and regimented, maybe even a trifle priggish, while Cathy’s more freewheeling and open to the possibilities around her. And Soon the Darkness establishes the dynamic of their relationship right out of the gate, under the opening credits, before the audience has even heard a single line of dialogue: Jane suddenly swerves off onto a side road and Cathy, after realizing what’s happened, backtracks and dutifully follows her friend.

The young women’s attitudes toward the opposite sex are also neatly established by visually rhymed sequences: When Jane rides by a trio of policemen who openly admire her, her downcast eyes and wry smile telegraph her prim-and-proper demeanor. Passing a darkly handsome fellow on a moped, Cathy stops in the middle of the road and does a protracted, frankly voracious double take. The fact that the girls work as nurses in an obstetrics ward, and later discuss the death of a newborn, only adds to the queasy atmosphere of sexuality and its possibly unpleasant consequences that hangs over the film.

Cathy abruptly goes missing at about the 40-minute mark, after the girls separate owing to an argument over their itinerary, in a narrative move that clearly echoes, not so coincidentally, Hitchcock’s Psycho. The rest of the film has Jane frantically cycling along the same lonely stretch of road between two remote villages, with stops at the ominous copse of woods where Cathy disappeared. Along the way, Jane encounters a handful of off-kilter characters, each of whom provides a convenient sort of red herring for the proceedings.

Foremost among them is the aforementioned moped rider, Paul (Sandor Elès), who offers to help find Cathy, claiming to be an officer in the French Sûreté. Elès plays the character on the fine edge between solicitous and potentially dangerous. And then an expat British schoolmarm (Clare Kelly), who may have a more than protective interest in Jane, warns her about a homicide that occurred on the same stretch of road three years before. “It was more than murder,” the woman practically purrs, “if you know what I mean.”

Fuest augments the film’s aura of unease through precise framing and a sinuously mobile camera, often using Fordian shots to emphasize the wide, flat expanses of the countryside, effectively isolating a lone figure against the immense backdrop of all that open space. Alternately, he favors extreme close-ups, in the vein of Sergio Leone, that play up a character’s discomfort upon finding themselves in an uncertain, often dangerously confined space.

And Soon the Darkness climaxes in a dazzlingly mounted game of three-way cat-and-mouse set among a clutch of abandoned buses and mobile homes. Cinematographer Ian Wilson gets to deploy some seriously noirish shadow play, and there’s even a moment that eerily presages a similar scene in John Carpenter’s Halloween. The ultimate revelation of the killer’s identity, whether or not it comes as a complete surprise, cleverly plays into the era’s profound distrust of authority figures. And the film’s penultimate shot conveys an unexpected pang of melancholy, before the ending effectively circles back around to the film’s beginning in a manner that confers a gratifying sense of open-endedness.

Image/Sound

Kino Lorber debuts a new 4K master of And Soon the Darkness that looks positively smashing, with the vibrant greens of the landscape and the primary hues of the girls’ clothing really popping in HD. The Master Audio stereo track is very good, with no hiss or distortion apparent, clearly conveying the dialogue—including passages in French that remain untranslated to help augment the film’s atmosphere of alienation. Laurie Johnson’s terrific score modulates from the incongruously jaunty title track (which is cleverly reprised at a later point on Cathy’s portable radio) to lots of ominously fluttering flutes and staccato string effects later in the film that owe a clear debt to Bernard Herrmann’s work for Hitchcock.

Extras

The archival commentary track by director Robert Fuest and co-writer and producer Brian Clemens, moderated by Jonathan Sothcott, covers the autobiographical experiences and archetypal fears that fed into the screenplay, the decision to extend the location shoot in order to maximize the film’s broody verisimilitude, casting choices (Clemens comes down pretty hard—and pretty unfairly—on Elès in particular), as well as more technical information about decisions regarding lighting, blocking and camera movement. There’s much discussion about most members of the crew transitioning directly from the TV series The Avengers to this film, and an intriguing digression into Fuest’s subsequent involvement with American International Pictures on the Dr. Phibes movies. All told, it’s an engaging, informative, frequently wryly humorous listen. The second, newly commissioned commentary track by film historian Troy Howarth opens with some personal comments about his first exposure to the film, then goes on to pay particular attention to the career trajectories of the cast and crew. Howarth makes a cogent argument for And Soon the Darkness as a quasi-giallo thriller with just a touch of the proto-slasher film about it. As usual, Howarth is an articulate, often opinionated guide.

Overall

Robert Fuest’s taut Hitchcockian thriller makes its debut on Blu-ray with a beautiful new transfer and a couple of choice extras.

Cast: Pamela Franklin, Michele Dotrice, Sandor Elès, John Nettleton, Clare Kelly, Hana Maria Pravda, John Franklyn, Claude Bertrand, Jean Carmet Director: Robert Fuest Screenwriter: Brian Clemens, Terry Nation Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 99 min Rating: PG Year: 1970 Buy: Video

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Video

Review: Pixar’s Toy Story 4 on Disney Blu-ray with Alternate Ending

Pixar’s superfluous but characteristically touching epilogue for its flagship franchise gets an equally fond send-off on home video.

3.5

Published

on

Toy Story 4

It’s probably uncontroversial to claim that Toy Story’s Woody (Tom Hanks), a flawed leader whose genuine concern for his compatriots intermingles with a narcissistic streak that can get him and his fellow toys into trouble, is one of the great characters in the history of cinema. That this animate, outdated cowboy toy continues to feel just as compelling and just as layered and relatable four entries into this series is a major achievement, and speaks not only to the dedication of his creators, but also to the strength of his original conceptualization. While other Pixar sequels have run their concepts and characters into the ground, or cheapened them for laughs, the Toy Story sequels have remained true to Woody, even deepening his character by finding new existential crises to throw him into.

Toy Story 4, though, finds the series suffering from brand fatigue. While prior entries put new spins on the fear of obsolescence that drove Woody in the original Toy Story, this film is a compendium of elements from its predecessors. We’ve already witnessed Woody desperately try to regain the love of a child, intentionally become a “lost toy” in order to chase down a missing friend, escape from monstrous (but probably just misunderstood) toys, and face the temptation of a new life outside of a child’s toy box. That all of these moments recur in Toy Story 4 is one reason the film doesn’t quite pack the emotional weight of its precursors.

Gifted to a new, preschool-age child, Bonnie, at the end of the last film, Woody opens Toy Story 4 having fallen from his treasured position as the favorite toy. Your typical preschool girl, after all, has little interest in a cowboy toy from “the late ‘50s, I think,” as Woody recounts his own vague origins. Wistful for his days with Andy, his previous owner, Woody tries to insert himself into Bonnie’s (now voiced by Madeleine McGraw) life by sneaking into her backpack on the first day of kindergarten. And it’s there that he witnesses her crafting her new beloved toy: a spork with googly eyes and pipe-cleaner arms she calls Forky (Tony Hale).

Forky is a terrible toy insofar as he has no desire to be a toy at all; a very funny recurring gag early in Josh Cooley’s film sees the toy repeatedly trying to throw himself in the trash, where he feels that he belongs. Woody gloms onto Forky, partially out of genuine concern for his and Bonnie’s well-being, and partially as a way of maintaining a connection to the little girl. And when Forky goes missing during a family vacation, Woody ventures out on his own to retrieve the haphazardly assembled toy and return him to the family RV.

Forky is as familiar as the other toys that populate the Toy Story universe: Many children have made small avatars of themselves out of popsicle sticks and plastic bits and invested far too much emotion in it. As a character, Forky doesn’t hold much all that much water, his development from trash to toy more a gimmick than a fully textured character arc. Wisely, though, Toy Story 4 damsels Forky, so to speak, as Woody must engineer a way to rescue him from the clutches of a malicious talking baby doll named Gaby (Christina Hendricks).

Gaby and her army of unsettling, limp-limbed ventriloquist dummies rule over an antique shop that Woody and Forky pass through on their way back to the RV park. A lonely toy discarded decades earlier because of a defective voicebox, Gaby kidnaps Forky to extort from Woody a part of his drawstring-powered sound mechanism. To break into the cabinet where Gaby is holding the sentient spork, Woody must assemble a team of allies that includes Bo Peep (Annie Potts), whom he finds living on her own in the RV park as a lost toy, and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen). Woody and Bo Peep rekindle their (G-rated) feelings for each other as they recruit the daredevil action figure Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) and the plush carnival-prize dolls Bunny and Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele) to help retrieve Forky.

Among the familiar elements here is the abandoned and resentful toy as a villain who holds the heroes hostage, which easily invites comparison to Lee Unkrich’s brilliant Toy Story 3. It’s a comparison that doesn’t favor the new film, which isn’t as impactful in terms of story or image. Cooley’s direction is fluid, seamlessly interweaving the fun escapades and the earnest emotions, but it lacks the visual power of the prior film. There’s no equivalent to the moment in Toy Story 3 when, headed into a blazing incinerator, Woody and his friends silently grasp hands, taking comfort in one another as they face their ends head-on.

So, as well-told and emotionally effective as Toy Story 4 is, it’s difficult not to believe the third film would have functioned better as a send-off to these beloved characters. In fact, Toy Story 3 might as well have been a send-off for everybody but Woody, as the new and potentially final entry relegates the traditional supporting cast of the Toy Story films—Rex (Wallace Shawn), Hamm (John Ratzenberger), Jesse (Joan Cusack), Slinky Dog (Blake Clark)—to the background. Even Buzz is reduced to dopey comic relief, pressing the buttons on his chest to activate the pre-recorded messages he now misunderstands as his “inner voice.” Toy Story 4 is very much a Woody story. His gradual acceptance of his new position in life and his reconnection with Bo Peep are moving, and it’s still remarkable how much Pixar can make us identify with a toy. But for the first time, a Toy Story film feels a bit like it’s resting on its plastic laurels.

Image/Sound

Disney’s Blu-ray immaculately highlights everything from the incredibly detailed rendering of raindrops in the opening sequence to the subtle refractions of light off of the porcelain characters’ bodies. The exaggerated hues of all the film’s toys are vibrantly rendered, and they really pop against the naturalistic backdrops, which display subtler color variations. Throughout, textures are so precise that it’s almost impossible to miss the smallest of details, such as the stitching on Woody’s sewn clothes and the signs of age and wear on plastic faces. The disc comes with both 7.1 and 5.1 mixes (curiously defaulting to the latter), and both ably balance the film’s dialogue, sound effects, and score. Surprisingly, both tracks err on the side of being too quiet, necessitating an occasional adjustment of volume that then has to be turned down again during the film’s more sonically antic scenes. Even in these moments, however, each element of the soundtrack is distributed evenly in all channels.

Extras

An audio commentary with director Josh Cooley and producer Mark Nielsen abounds in copious information about the film’s narrative and technical construction, such as the revelation that the opening sequence alone accounted for half of its effects budget. The rest of the Blu-ray is given over to the usual slew of themed featurettes that approach various topics of the production, though in this case the focus is less on the technical aspects of the film than a nostalgic look back at the Toy Story franchise. Even the featurettes that tackle the film’s animation do so through the prism of how much more the technical team could do with some of Pixar’s first characters, and one video involves the voice actors reminiscing about their own favorite childhood toys. A handful of deleted scenes, presented in various stages of storyboard images and partial animation, slightly extend some of the scenes in the final cut, and a brief rundown of new characters and the film’s carnival centerpiece are also included.

Overall

Pixar’s superfluous but characteristically touching epilogue for its flagship franchise gets an equally fond send-off on home video with a solid AV transfer and nostalgic extras.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Tony Hale, Christina Hendricks, Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, Annie Potts, Keanu Reeves, Jay Hernandez, Wallace Shawn, Joan Cusack, Don Rickles, Jeff Garlin, Laurie Metcalf, John Ratzenberger Director: Josh Cooley Screenwriter: Andrew Stanton, Stephany Folsom Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Release Date: October 15, 2019 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Video

Blu-ray Review: Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero on the Criterion Collection

Forsyth’s whimsical but satirical masterpiece contains riches far deeper than its deceptively simple surface might suggest.

4.5

Published

on

Local Hero

Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero has a lighthearted tone that belies the sharpness of its social and class-conscious comedy. It begins in Houston, with Knox Oil executive “Mac” MacIntyre (Peter Riegert) tasked with having to convince the residents of Ferness, a seaside Scottish village, to sell their land in order to make way for a refinery. Mac gets the job for no other reason than his superiors, among them the company’s chief, Happer (Burt Lancaster), think that his name will appeal to locals. As Mac is briefed about the job, he’s told that he cannot use his usual tactics of merely negotiating a quick land sale via a phone call to individuals from more impoverished nations. After all, the Scots look like him, and as such will require a modicum of respect that the oil company has clearly not extended to anyone whose first language is something other than English.

Dispatched to Ferness, Mac is set up from the start to play the urban, bloodthirsty capitalist determined to oust eccentric villagers from their quaint family homes. Yet Forsyth flips that script almost from the outset, showing how quickly Mac is smitten with the natural beauty of the area and plugs into the slower-paced life style there, while the locals hilariously jump at the chance to get a massive buyout from an oil conglomerate, feigning disinterest solely to drive up their asking price. This inversion of expectations forms the bedrock of Local Hero’s wry comedy, which sees Mac increasingly wracked with guilt over potentially expelling people who he comes to like from their homes, and those very people talking among themselves about all the luxuries they intend to buy with their settlement money.

Local Hero’s comedy is subtle, predicated on dramatic irony and the restrained games that both Mac and the Scots play with each other. That sense of humor, all insinuation and gesture, often plays out visually, from gags that take aim at Mac’s obliviousness—as in a scene where he converses with one local in the foreground and fails to notice dozens of residents leaving the church behind him—to the exaggerated gestures of Lancaster’s oilman, whose body language communicates both his authoritarian command and his quirky distractedness.

The man’s eccentricity is most apparent in his overriding interest in star-gazing, a subject that he takes such a keen interest in that, in addition to charging Mac with buying out the people of Ferness, he also instructs his employee to “keep an eye on Virgo” and alert him of any potential comet sightings. For an oil tycoon, Happer is oddly affable, though the extent to which the entirety of Local Hero follows forth from both his commercial and hobbyist whims is another of Forsyth’s clever structural tricks, recasting the protagonist’s journey as one not of self-discovery or reflection but of catering to the true powers that be.

Even the film’s ending, perhaps too tweely fanciful from a distance, fails to follow the expected path of Mac’s arc. For if Local Hero ends happily, it does so for nearly everyone except Mac, whose mission is successful yet benefits everyone but himself. It’s a sly critique on Forsyth’s part of the unequal rewards of labor, as Mac does all the work but ends up the middleman of his own story. Local Hero’s unhurried pace, pleasingly odd cast, and moments of gorgeous pastoralism gives it a lightweight, effervescent quality, but the barbed undercurrent of its social critique makes Forsyth’s intimate comedy one of the most insightful films of the 1980s.

Image/Sound

Chris Menges’s cinematography looks resplendent on Criterion’s Blu-ray, which is sourced from a 2K restoration by Goldcrest Films. The skies in the natural location shots pulse with the most vivid of blue hues, while the exaggerated lighting and color schemes that mark the film’s interiors shine just as brightly. There are no visible scratches or debris throughout, and the depth of image detail testifies to the carefully composed beauty of such an ostensibly innocuous, small-scaled comedy. The mono soundtrack ably balancing dialogue with songwriter Mark Knopfler’s score, which is mixed dynamically in order to reveal its careful blending of Celtic folk, laidback jazz, and the occasional burst of rock.

Extras

An audio commentary with Forsyth and critic Mark Kermode is heavy on production details while also, true to the film’s wandering spirit, prone to diversions and wistful appreciations of Local Hero’s subtler visual and verbal jokes. An interview with Forsyth and critic David Cairns gives an overview of the film’s themes and formal elements, which the director reveals were celebrated by no less an authority than Michael Powell. The rest of the extras consist of archival interviews and documentaries on Forsyth, Chris Menges, and Local Hero, each running nearly an hour in length and extensively covering the production, from the film’s writing to its critical and commercial success. Each of these features, recorded mostly in the space between the releases of Local Hero and Comfort and Joy, testify to the seismic impact of Forsyth’s breakout films on the Scottish film industry. An accompanying booklet contains an essay by film scholar Jonathan Murray that likewise analyzes Local Hero as well as the broader outlines of Forsyth’s career and its popularization of Scottish cinema.

Overall

Bill Forsyth’s whimsical but satirical masterpiece contains riches far deeper than its deceptively simple surface might suggest, and Criterion’s Blu-ray, with its superb A/V transfer and wealth of extras, pays tribute to this small film’s profound influence.

Cast: Peter Riegert, Burt Lancaster, Denis Lawson, Peter Capaldi, Fulton Mackay, Jenny Seagrove Director: Bill Forsyth Screenwriter: Bill Forsyth Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 113 min Rating: PG Year: 1983 Release Date: September 24, 2019 Buy: Video

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Video

Blu-ray Review: Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus on the Criterion Collection

The film remains a hilarious, inventive, and moving paean to the vaudevillian era.

4

Published

on

The Circus

The film that most definitively silences critics who claim that Charlie Chaplin’s movies aren’t cinematic, The Circus is a great elegy to the lost art of music-hall pantomime and, for that matter, the soon-to-be lost art of silent-film comedy. Production on this most underrated of Chaplin’s silent features wrapped three days after the premiere of Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer. And yet, though the writing was on the wall that the silent clowns’ days were numbered, The Circus never feels maudlin or self-pitying like Chaplin’s later Limelight, where he mourns not the end of a particular aesthetic, but the very loss of his audience. This is impressive, because the circus has become, in the hands of other filmmakers like Cecil B. DeMille and Federico Fellini, a site of calculated emotional manipulation, a setting where directors tweak our feelings with the subtlety of ringmasters cracking their whips.

The Circus is the most distant of Chaplin’s silent features, even existential in its portrayal of the Tramp, who ends the film in circumstances pretty much unchanged from where he starts. One sequence, in which Chaplin pursues a thief to a Noah’s Ark amusement ride is particularly Keaton-esque in the way he limits his behavior to appear like an animatronic prop, only mechanically beating his foe with a cane every few seconds, when he, as a clockwork figurine, would be able to. An homage to his earlier, more gag-driven one- and two-reelers, the film lacks a conventional plot, but is rather a pearl necklace of strung-together episodes, each built around gags that snowball almost to the point of flying off the screen.

The Tramp, unfairly accused of stealing, is chased into the middle of a circus performance, where he unintentionally wows the crowd and lands a job as a clown. Chaplin strings together several great set pieces, but two in particular really stand out. In the first, the Tramp, having swallowed a massive horse pill, is chased across the circus lot by a donkey and inadvertently seeks refuge in a sleeping lion’s cage, and when he turns to leave, the door locks behind him. He tries to crawl into the next cage, but that one’s holding a very-awake tiger. The ringmaster’s stepdaughter (Merna Kennedy) stops by and, before fainting from the very idea of where he’s trapped, opens the door. Trying to impress her, he stays in the cage acting like he’s not scared—until the lion roars and the Tramp finally comes charging out.

The second great sequence involves the Tramp’s attempt to woo the ringmaster’s stepdaughter by showing her that he can stroll the high-wire as fluidly as her beloved tightrope walker, Rex (Harry Crocker). The Tramp’s already arranged it so that he’ll be tethered the whole time, since he has no actual tightrope-walking experience, but, of course, as soon as he gets up there, the tether breaks. A pack of wild monkeys accidentally set free earlier climb up to the tightrope and start crawling all over him, one sticking his tale in the Tramp’s mouth, another biting his nose. To make matters worse, he starts losing his clothes. It took Chaplin 700 takes to get this sequence exactly right, and it shows. Building these gags as much in the editing room as in front of the camera, Chaplin allows not one second of wasted screen time.

Of course, the audience at the circus—and at the movie theater—eats it up, because the comedy is completely unexpected. When the Tramp purposefully tries to be funny, he’s not; when he doesn’t try, he is. Some of the gags he puts on display, like the William Tell joke, would formerly have captivated the moviegoing audience even just a decade before. Now, Chaplin, along with Henry Bergman as an outmoded clown in the commedia dell’arte tradition, aims to show how such a joke in its basic form, can’t work for the more story-hungry audience of the late ‘20s, because they’ve seen it all before. The jokes that ‘20s audiences would appreciate would be more visual in nature, like a dazzling sequence in which the Tramp is pursued into a hall of mirrors, inspiring all of the great funhouse scenes in the future, from the climax of Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai to Tonino Valerii’s My Name Is Nobody.

Unable to reinvent himself, the Tramp is left behind at the end, alone in the center of the circle where the Big Top once stood. He doesn’t project sadness at this moment, but acceptance that his fate has brought him back once more to obscurity. Chaplin employs the circle as the primary motif of his film, from the very opening shot of a paper hoop through which the ringmaster’s daughter emerges, to the trapeze rings that support her in the air during the opening song “Swing Little Girl,” to the rotating treadmill platform on which Chaplin attempts to flee a policeman, to the circle he finds himself sitting within at the end. He’s back where he started, but when he leaves the circle at the end, and the iris closes in on him, it is as if, like Monica Vitti’s exit from the screen at the end of L’Eclisse, his existence ceases entirely.

There’s no room for this version of the Tramp in a world without the music hall, without silent film, just as practitioners of other art forms—whether radio dramatists or hand-drawn animators—have found themselves at the height of their skills but without a medium. Indeed, though Chaplin kicked and screamed his way into the sound era, elements of sound design are crucial to City Lights and Modern Times, if even to just highlight his self-conscious absence of sound. But, for one last time, in The Circus, words didn’t matter.

Image/Sound

Since no known original prints or camera negatives of The Circus still exist, the new 4K restoration of the film was sourced from a 35mm duplicate negative of the silent classic’s 1969 reissue. The image appears a tad on the soft side, particularly in wide shots, but details are still clearly visible deep in the frame, as in the famed funhouse mirror sequence where dozens of Charlie Chaplin’s reflections share the screen. Most signs of damage and debris have also been removed, and there’s an even grain distribution that helps retain a textured, film-like look. The uncompressed, monaural soundtrack obviously comes into play only through The Circus’s music, but it more than serviceably captures the melancholy tone of Chaplin’s opening song and the lilting, waltz-like qualities of much of the film’s score.

Extras

Criterion never skimps on the extras when it comes to one of their releases of a Chaplin film. The most substantial of these features is the new audio commentary by Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance, who efficiently details the film’s storied and highly troubled production history and Chaplin’s meticulous shooting process, which involved countless retakes and reworkings of sight gags to achieve what he saw as the perfect result. Vance also discusses the film’s self-reflexive techniques and Chaplin’s extensive use of in-camera, split-screen effects to capture the most dangerous stunts. The featurette “In the Service of Story” delves further into the technical manner in which Chaplin achieved these effects, with film scholar Craig Barron not only describing how the matte technique worked but demonstrating it on an era-specific camera similar to the one Chaplin used to shoot The Circus.

Perhaps the most essential extra here is a deleted sequence, wherein the Tramp confronts a bullying prizefighter, that was cut together by film archivists Kevin Brownlow and David Gill. The 30-minute breakdown of outtakes from this sequence by comedy choreographer Dan Kamin demonstrates Chaplin’s magnificent sense of scene construction, achieved through improvisation and subtle shifts in blocking and timing from one take to the next. A short 2003 documentary, “Chaplin Today: The Circus,” tracks the genesis and evolution of several gags and narrative beats as they evolved from bits in Chaplin shorts to full scenes in The Circus.

The remaining extras include an interview with Eugene Chaplin, the fifth child of Chaplin and Oona O’Neill, footage from the film’s Los Angeles premiere at the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, the original audio recording of “Swing Little Girl,” and an audio interview with Eric James, who worked with Chaplin to create the additional music for the film’s 1969 rerelease. Pamela Hutchinson’s essay “The Circus: The Tramp in the Mirror” teases out the film’s extensive use of doubles and discusses how Chaplin’s personal troubles affected the filming, as well as how the arrival of the sound era lends a melancholy tinge to the film.

Overall

Criterion presents a beautiful release of Chaplin’s most slyly self-referential film, which remains a hilarious, inventive, and moving paean to the vaudevillian era.

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Merna Kennedy, Al Ernest Garcia, Harry Crocker, George Davis, Henry Bergman, Tiny Sandford Director: Charlie Chaplin Screenwriter: Charlie Chaplin Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 72 min Rating: NR Year: 1928 Release Date: September 24, 2019 Buy: Video

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Video

Review: Otto Preminger’s Whirlpool on Twilight Time Blu-ray

For such an unusual and intriguing film, the Region 1 Blu-ray debut of Preminger’s Whirlpool is pretty inauspicious.

3

Published

on

Whirlpool

In his landmark essay “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema,” French film critic and theorist André Bazin distinguished between two types of filmmakers: those who put their faith in the image and those who put their faith in reality. Otto Preminger, the great Hollywood iconoclast, falls firmly into the latter camp. His films, with their emphasis on long takes and deep-focus cinematography over montage or showy pictorialism, offer such a perfect illustration of Bazinian realism that it’s mildly astonishing to find that the critic offered so little discussion of the director’s work in his writing. Preminger’s objective style can at times come off as detached, but it’s borne of a genuine attempt to maintain a sense of ambivalence toward his characters and their situations, to allow the audience to make up their own minds rather than controlling their responses. Preminger, in essence, is the anti-Hitchcock.

Which is what makes Whirlpool such a fascinating curiosity: a Hitchcockian suspense tale full of wild implausibilities and sensational subject matter (murder, marital infidelity, hypnosis) delivered in Preminger’s signature register of sober ambiguity. The result is a confident, controlled thriller that pulls the viewer in from the very first scene. The film opens with a woman, Ann Sutton (Gene Tierney), exiting a department store and getting into her car, but just before she’s about to drive away, a store detective approaches and asks her to come back inside because he knows she’s shoplifted an expensive brooch. Ann is helped out of this jam by a mysterious man, David Korvo (Jose Ferrer), who convinces the store to show her leniency, as she’s the wife of a famous psychotherapist, William Sutton (Richard Conte).

Korvo, it turns out, is an astrologer, hypnotist, and all-around mental manipulator, who uses his knowledge of Ann’s kleptomania as leverage to persuade her to accept treatment from him. Korvo’s treatments help Ann, curing her of a recent bout of insomnia brought on by her deep anxiety over hiding her psychological issues from William, but the hypnotist has a dastardly ulterior motive: He’s drawing Ann close in order to frame her for the planned murder of his former patient, Theresa Randolph (Barbara O’Neil), a wealthy widow who’s now being treated by none other than Ann’s husband. William has no inkling of his wife’s mental distress until he gets the shocking call that she’s been arrested for killing Theresa. Unable to believe his wife capable of such a brutal act, he sets out to prove her innocence.

Like Preminger’s more famous Laura, Whirlpool is pitched somewhere between noir, psychological thriller, and woman’s picture. The script, co-written by Ben Hecht and Andrew Solt, is sharp-edged and well-paced, balancing twisty puzzle-box plotting with emotionally complex characterizations. The story may take a number of unlikely turns and climaxes in a wildly implausible fashion, but somehow Preminger’s quasi-journalistic direction manages to sell the material. It helps that Tierney is so compellingly ambiguous as Ann, with a stoic façade that only hints at the depths of her chaotic mental state. Ferrer oozes oily charm as Korvo, who may be a conniving schemer, but thanks to the actor’s assured, phlegmatic performance, we can understand this man’s appeal to vulnerable women.

There’s an undeniable feminist subtext to the film, though it’s one that’s flecked by trite psychologizing and a patronizing tone toward Ann. As the wife of a Very Important Man, she seems driftless and misunderstood. She would seem to have a life of ease and luxury, and yet she rebels at the meaninglessness of it all, as well as the quiet condescension of the men in her life. But the film inadvertently mirrors the phallocentric cluelessness it attempts to indict as it shifts focus away from Ann and onto her husband’s quest to figure out her mental issues. The film’s second half largely consists of men standing around talking about Ann when she’s not in the room. Typical of Hecht’s fondness for pat psychoanalytical reasoning (see Hitchcock’s Spellbound), the film ultimately offers a shallow Freudian rationale for Ann’s kleptomania hinging on her rich father’s stinginess toward her when she was a child.

And yet, despite its faith in a certain kind of outmoded and implicitly sexist mode of psychoanalytical reasoning, the film never feels like some antiquated case study of hysteria. For one, even William himself recognizes that his wife’s problems stem from his own blindness toward her needs. If the rest of his analysis of Ann’s behavior mostly rings hollow, that’s in part because Preminger’s cool, distanced approach to this material allows us the space to form our interpretations and critiques of these people and their social mores. Ann is a woman who wants so badly to be “normal” that she’s willing to place her faith in an obvious charlatan over her own husband, supposedly an expert in the affairs of the human mind. Whirlpool may think it’s drawing a clear distinction between the hard, rigorous science of William’s psychiatry and the conniving gimcrackery of Korvo’s astrology and hypnosis.

But despite the film’s traditionally happy ending, there’s a subtextual suggestion that the two men are merely different sides of the same coin, that William’s work is driven just as much by ambition and a lust for power as Korvo’s. Ultimately, it’s not clear either man truly understands Ann, nor knows how to help her. What they do know is how to manipulate her.

Image/Sound

The 1080p image is generally clear, and all of the sonic elements of the soundtrack, presented in both mono and stereo, are discernible. However, there’s a slight lack of distinctness in the picture quality, with some imperfections noticeable across the film, including a few scratches and an odd warping of the image that reappears several times. There’s also a very slight but audible hiss and crackle throughout. While not exactly stunning, this release—limited, like most Twilight Time discs, to a run of 3,000—presents a rare film with enough fidelity that the viewer is at least unlikely to be distracted by any audio-visual flaws.

Extras

The only significant special feature included on the disc is an audio commentary by critic Richard Schickel, who offers some insightful commentary and analysis on the film but also frequently slips into a perfunctory regurgitation of what’s on screen. The release also includes the theatrical trailer, an optional isolated music track for both the film and the trailer, and a booklet with a few stills, a reproduction of the original poster, and a brief, trivia-heavy essay by film historian Mike Finnegan. Twilight Time releases aren’t typically noted for their wealth of extras, but this disc feels especially stingy.

Overall

For such an unusual and intriguing film, the Region 1 Blu-ray debut of Otto Preminger’s Whirlpool is pretty inauspicious.

Cast: Gene Tierney, Richard Conte, José Ferrer, Charles Bickford, Barbara O'Neil, Eduard Franz, Constance Collier, Fortunio Bonanova Director: Otto Preminger Screenwriter: Ben Hecht, Andrew Solt Distributor: Twilight Time Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 1949 Release Date: September 17, 2019 Buy: Video

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Video

Review: Ida Lupino Filmmaker Collection on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

This excellent set makes a case for Lupino as one of the most socially conscious, psychologically observant filmmakers of her time.

4

Published

on

Ida Lupino
Photo: Photofest

The first film in Kino Lorber’s Ida Lupino Filmmaker Collection doesn’t carry Lupino’s name as director. The 1949 social-issue drama Not Wanted was co-written by Lupino and began production with Elmer Clifton in the director’s chair, but after Clifton suffered a heart attack on set, Lupino filled in behind the camera. Perhaps inevitably, it’s hard to distinguish between Clifton’s work and Lupino’s, but regardless, the film’s spare visual style belies a keen ability to suss out the psychological collapse of an unwed mother, Sally (Sally Forrest), who’s forced to contend with both with the unreturned affections of her baby’s caustic and disdainful father, Steve (Leo Penn), and the stigma of single motherhood. Sally’s continued lust for the man who wants nothing to do with her roils with repressed sexual tension, which only compounds her despair over her shame and guilt.

Lupino’s ability to plumb psychological depths with minimal resources is even more apparent in 1950’s Never Fear, her first credit as a director. Again teaming up with Sally Forrest, here playing Carol Williams, a dancer whose career is scuttled by polio, Lupino grounds the protagonist’s melodramatic breakdown in minute observations of individual behavior. In particular, the subtle modulations that Lupino captures in Carol’s face speak to the complexity of recovering from a crippling disease, from Carol’s relief at regaining her motor functions to the residual bitterness she feels over being unable to dance again.

As sentimental as her films could seem on the surface, Lupino brings a radical empathy to bear on her subjects that deepens what could have been no more than pat melodrama. Nowhere is that more apparent than in 1953’s The Bigamist, in which a traveling salesman, Harry (Edmond O’Brien), is discovered to have two separate families by a social worker (Edmund Gwenn) reviewing his adoption application. The agent’s initial disgust over this revelation gives way to understanding, though, as Harry explains his situation. Through flashbacks that illustrate how he gravitated from his workaholic wife, Eve (Joan Fontaine), toward the wry and affable but lonely Phyllis (Lupino), Lupino portrays Harry not as a careless philanderer, but as a man struggling with his sense of isolation on the road. Lupino also takes time to get to know Eve and Phyllis, showing how their alternating affections and withdrawals are informed by their own sadness and thwarted desires. Never stooping to mockery or outrage, The Bigamist finds Lupino tweaking her socially conscious outlook to tackle an unsympathetic subject with the same care she devoted to depictions of unwed mothers and arduous convalescence.

The centerpiece of this set, of course, is 1953’s The Hitch-Hiker. This vicious noir is an extreme outlier in Lupino’s filmography, but it’s also the apotheosis of her work behind the camera. Taking place almost entirely inside a car, the film renders its cramped conditions almost abstractly, a hellacious void where only the streaks of light passing by as the vehicle speeds down country roads suggest that the characters—two buddies (Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy) on a fishing trip and the hitchhiker (William Talman) they pick up—are still on Earth and not some purgatory. Amazingly, the scenes that take place outside the car may be even more claustrophobic, with Lupino emphasizing the isolation of desert roads that leave nowhere for the killer’s unwitting chauffeurs to run. The Hitch-Hiker plays Lupino’s interest in social ills for horror instead of moral instruction, yet it does no less than those films to demonstrate the director’s firm grasp of contemporary fears.

Image/Sound

All four films have been transferred from 2K and 4K restorations, and the images are consistently strong. Barring minor instances of residual debris and scratches, each film looks clear and textured, with stable contrast in the black-and-white frames. There are no major instances of print damage, and fine details in the deep-focus shots can be spotted even in the background. The soundtracks betray only the slightest residual tinniness common to old mono mixes but otherwise lack any artifacts. Dialogue and music are clearly balanced on each film.

Extras

Each film comes with a audio commentary track: Barbara Scharres, director of programming at the Gene Siskel Film Center, and film historian Greg Ford on Not Wanted; historian Alexandra Heller-Nicholas on Never Fear; historian Imogen Sara Smith on The Hitch-Hiker; and historian Kat Ellinger on The Bigamist. Each track covers its respective film, as well as Lupino’s broader filmography as a director, writer, and actress. A recurring theme of the commentaries concerns the disconnect between Lupino’s confident direction and her constantly demurred public image, which emphasized her nonthreatening femininity, a subject that also comes up in the booklet essay by critic Ronnie Scheib. The essay is filled with insights into the films in Kino’s set and Lupino’s other directorial output, including the brilliant observation that her films fit comfortably within the more bullishly rebellious work of Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller as attempts to reckon with trauma and forced normality in the postwar era.

Overall

The four films gathered together on this excellent set make a case for Ida Lupino as one of the most socially conscious, psychologically observant filmmakers of her time.

Cast: Sally Forrest, Leo Penn, Keefe Brasselle, Edmond O’Brien, Edmund Gwenn, Ida Lupino, Joan Fontaine, William Talman, Frank Lovejoy Director: Ida Lupino, Elmer Clifton Screenwriter: Ida Lupino Distributor: KL Studio Classics Running Time: 322 min Rating: NR Year: 1949 - 1953 Buy: Video

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Video

Review: Alfred Hitchock’s Blackmail on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

Kino’s restoration of Hitchcock’s first sound production happens to feature a gorgeous transfer of…a silent film.

3.5

Published

on

Blackmail

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1929 thriller Blackmail is generally considered to be the first British sound film, as well as a formative production in the director’s career. With such historical pedigree, it’s tempting to see the film primarily through a retrospective lens, mining it for indications of the depths that Hitchcock’s artistry would achieve. And it’s indeed rewarding on those grounds. There’s a sophisticated vertical tracking shot that follows a couple up an elaborate staircase—building dread as to where their evening is headed—that should be the envy of most modern filmmakers. There’s also a murder sequence that, in characteristic Hitchcock fashion, blurs the lines between carnality and violence: A woman stabs an aggressor behind a curtain that obscures them from the viewer, and their scuffling resembles the exertions of sex. In death, the man reaches beyond the curtain, a single hand upturned. When the woman later walks the streets of her neighborhood, she continues to see this hand. These sublime Hitchcockian touches, only a few among many throughout Blackmail, remind one of just how quickly the filmmaker was showing signs of mastery at the start of his career.

However, Blackmail is more than a chain of promises and footnotes. While the film lacks the feverish, autocritical neuroses of Hitchcock’s mid- and late-period masterpieces, it often superbly plumbs notions of guilt and vulnerability, all the while cheekily satirizing Scotland Yard as a swayable arbiter of justice. When Alice White (Anny Ondra) kills Mr. Crewe (Cyril Ritchard) in self-defense as he tries to rape her, she’s plunged into a subterranean world where the empowered male ego reigns supreme. Frank Webber (John Longden), a detective and a very recently spurned lover of Alice’s, knows that she killed Crewe and attempts to help her elude prosecution despite her obvious misgivings about the charade. This fraught arrangement is complicated by the arrival of Tracy (Donald Calthrop), who can place Alice at Crewe’s loft on the night of his death, taunting Alice and Frank with potential blackmail.

The film has an adventurous structure, composed of a few long scenes staged with a careful sense of escalation, concerning negotiations that illustrate the webs the exist between sex, violence, business, and power. The narrative opens with a (silent) chase, which gets the audience’s collective pulse up while establishing that Frank prioritizes the job over Alice, then segues into Frank and Alice’s testy date, which leads to Alice’s subsequent date with Crewe. All of these situations illustrate a complicated mixture of gender and class issues with the aid of carefully placed symbols: a teacup, a mask, a painting, a costume, and so on.

The latter encounter, as Hitchcock dramatizes each stage in Crewe’s transition from seducer to attacker, is a nearly peerless examination of a how man curdles when he realizes that a woman isn’t going to sleep with him. This sequence climaxes with a chillingly direct and simple image: an in-camera split screen showing Crewe playing the piano on one side of a folding screen, while Alice, as she attempts to get her dress back from Crewe, is visible in her slip and stockings on the other. Hitchcock doesn’t fetishize Alice the way he would the future blondes at the center of his films, and her humiliation is allowed to be authentically disturbing.

Alice’s assault is complemented by Blackmail’s last long sequence, which is the film’s true climax, even though a traditional Hitchcock chase set against a real backdrop, in this case the British Museum, is still to follow. Tracy appears at the shop run by Alice’s family, and smugly holds her and Frank hostage with intimations of the power his knowledge gives him. It’s at this point, nearly an hour into an 85-minute production, that blackmail figures into a film called Blackmail—an action that in this case never quite occurs. Alice very purposefully and poignantly recedes from the narrative, as the men who’ve eclipsed her take over the film. (In this transition there are seeds of Psycho’s startling narrative U-turn.)

Alice is crippled by guilt and fear, as Frank and Tracy distort notions of law enforcement to suit their whims. As grotesque as Tracy is, he’s an innocent who’s eventually trampled to keep the gears of society running. Hitchcock caps the film with sounds of police laughter as proof of Alice’s guilt is stored away. A painting of a clown mocks our illusions of stability, showing Hitchcock’s macabre sense of irony already in bloom.

Image/Sound

Though Blackmail is considered a sound film, a silent version was also released and was more commercially successful than its counterpart, partially because theaters in 1929 and the early ‘30s were only beginning to become equipped to play sound productions. Also, Alfred Hitchcock’s claims of recording sound “live” during the filmmaking process might partially be an example of his gift for mythmaking. In Blackmail, we rarely see people speaking on camera, allowing for the possibility of mixing in post-production. Kino Lorber has included both the silent and sound versions of Blackmail in this set, though their presentation of these films adds to the confusion regarding this production’s precise cinematic legacy.

In this package, the sound version of Blackmail is presented as the centerpiece, though this restoration is extremely uneven, particularly in terms of image quality. There are many scratches and blemishes, as well as white lines that occasionally outline actors. The exterior shots are most problematic, while the interiors, especially an artist’s loft, are clearer and occasionally even beautifully pristine. The silent version, however, is ravishing, with strong whites and blacks and exemplary depth. The versions also sport different aspect ratios: the silent one is in 1.33.1, while the sound one is in 1.20.1. In fact, two variations of the sound version are presented here, which Bluray.com describes as Kino’s attempt to correct the patchy early restoration, though the image here is uneven for both sound versions.

Ironically, this restoration of the silent version of Blackmail also trumps the sound version when it comes to the soundtrack. The sound version often boasts a tinny resonation, while the silent version has been outfitted with a lush new score courtesy of the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. Based on pure sensory experience, the silent version of Blackmail feels definitive, regardless of its placement in this package. Disappointingly, no literature is offered here discerning the differences between all these various iterations of Blackmail.

Extras

In a typically superb audio commentary, film scholar Tim Lucas provides an illuminating glimpse at the blossoming British sound film industry around the time of Blackmail’s release and particularly the differences between the silent and sound versions of the film, somewhat clarifying some of the confusion of the package’s organization. (Lucas also discusses certain visual differences between the two versions of the film.) A portion of François Truffaut’s interview sessions with Hitchcock (which became the classic Hitchcock/Truffaut book), trailers, a screen test, and an introduction by Noel Simsolo round out a sturdy package.

Overall

Kino Lorber’s restoration of Alfred Hitchcock’s first sound production happens to feature a gorgeous transfer of…a silent film.

Cast: Anny Ondra, Sara Allgood, Charles Paton, John Longden, Donald Calthrop, Cyril Ritchard, Hannah Jones, Harvey Braban, Joan Barry, Percy Parsons Director: Alfred Hitchcock, Benn W. Levy Screenwriter: Alfred Hitchcock, Benn W. Levy Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 1929 Release Date: August 13, 2019 Buy: Video

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Video

Review: Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The BRD Trilogy on Criterion Blu-ray

Fassbinder’s trilogy is accorded a series of breathtakingly, resonantly gorgeous transfers by Criterion.

4.5

Published

on

The BRD Trilogy

The films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s BRD trilogy pull off a difficult magic trick, feeling timeless and viscerally in the moment. With his supernatural ability to crank out productions at a rapid clip, Fassbinder achieved what Kent Jones describes as a “direct correlation between living and fiction-making”—a quality that’s also evident in Jean-Luc Godard’s early films. These directors worked so fast as to annihilate the distance between inspiration and realization that often governs studio filmmaking. As a result, The Marriage of Maria Braun, Veronika Voss, and Lola are works of many astonishing contradictions, symmetries, parallels, and political and personal reverberations. They are expressions of macro concerns that are wrested from a singular soul.

The Marriage of Maria Braun, Veronika Voss, and Lola collectively chart Germany’s economic resurgence in the wake of the damage it suffered from defeat in World War II. In each film, Fassbinder utilizes a melodramatic template and a distinct cinematic style of the past and imbues them with homegrown political texture—a contrast that serves as a microcosm of his governing obsession. The melodrama competes with the history and social critique, suggesting how culture is used to launder evil. Given the beauty of Fassbinder’s actresses, and the exhilaration of the filmmaker’s formal craftsmanship, it’s very tempting to drink the filmic sensuality in and leave the history to the academics. There’s a portion of Fassbinder that resents this distracting power of pop culture, as he’s authentically enraged by how easily his country could move past the atrocities of the Nazi regime, and there’s another portion that’s enthralled with the accumulative spell of sex, cinema, music, sports, business, bars, and brothels. This contradiction is what gives the BRD trilogy its pulse, and keeps it from slipping into the false sense of retrospection that fossilizes so many historical narratives.

Maria (Hanna Schygulla), Veronika (Rosel Zech), and Lola (Barbara Sukowa) are all performers who embody the precarious art of surviving as women in a male world. The men of these women’s lives have the power to scam and legislate, rebuilding Germany on the power of the initiatives of Ludwig Erhard, the Minister of Economic Affairs who’s associated with the country’s economic “miracle,” known as the Wirtschaftswunder. During this time, building regulations were eased and commercialism was emphasized, which Fassbinder despairingly equates to a mass selling of souls. Each woman either figuratively or literally prostitutes themselves, and Fassbinder grooves on the inventiveness and power of his protagonists, respecting their ability to bend a chaotic and patriarchal society to their will, though he also ultimately sees them as pawns in a diseased capitalist game. This divide in sentiments, another contradiction that’s inherent in most people and at the root of the challenge of social reform, is often missing from modern and fashionably leftist narratives.

At their simplest, all three films riff on the notion of martyred women living in an impossibly rigged society, sowing plentiful allusions to the films of Douglas Sirk. Sirk’s notion of suburban America as an prison was radical in the 1950s and is perhaps even more so now, given the amnesia and political naïveté of modern pop cinema, but Fassbinder takes this idea to the next level, offering an origin story as to how Germany developed what he sees as a corresponding form of imprisonment. Such a development involves a complex collaboration between men and women that resists easy victim/dominator roleplays, though Veronika, the least powerful of the trilogy’s protagonists, comes closest to fulfilling such a function. However, Veronika’s victimhood is another form of subversion. Based on actress Sybille Schmitz, Veronika is a Nazi-era actress and drug addict, a rumored ex-lover of Goebbels who’s destroyed in the ‘50s by the German upper class in an implicit effort to obscure shameful history.

There’s a brilliant moment in Lola in which Fassbinder asserts that we’re not quite playing by Sirk’s rules. Von Bohm (Armen Mueller-Stahl), a Prussian refugee in a blossoming West German city as the new building commissioner, buys a television set for his apartment. Audiences complicit with Fassbinder’s Sirk fanaticism may expect a quotation from the classic moment in All That Heaven Allows in which we see a reflection of a woman’s face framed in a TV set, seemingly trapped in her own privilege. Instead, Fassbinder frames the TV as a little monolith in the middle of the room, pointedly refusing to quote the earlier film because von Bohm doesn’t know that he’s gradually entombing himself, as his infatuation with Lola makes him a slave to the elite who’re breaking building codes and remaking the city. One day, however, von Bohm may watch that set and see the reflection of a sad and compromised man. (Lola, also a riff on The Blue Angel, divorces the von Sternberg film of its masculine self-pity, depicting Lola as a realist and von Bohm as a pious fool and hypocrite.)

Veronika Voss and Lola are difficult films—hermetic, compacted, and hopeless from the opening frames. Their styles aren’t entirely pleasurable, as Fassbinder’s formalism is far less free in those two films than it is in The Marriage of Maria Braun. Modeled after German expressionism of the 1920s, Veronika Voss is so funereally bright and prismatic that you feel as if the film can cut you. Lola is the opposite: a bright burst of Technicolor debauchery that’s so lurid it’s apocalyptic. In this context, with piggy characters who’re high on their greed, it’s as if Fassbinder is decrying the very carnal power of this seductive color scheme, yet, again, he’s also intensely in love with the primordial powers of the form.

But Veronika Voss and Lola also have sustained sequences in which Fassbinder grants his characters fits of emotion so intense they feel as if they could break the foundation of the filmmaker’s careful constructions. Most notable is Lola’s astonishing and ambiguous performance of “The Fishermen of Capri” once von Bohm has discovered that she’s a prostitute. It’s difficult to tell if her passion springs from spite at von Bohm or sadness that his worship of her has been tarnished or both, though her rendition of this song is so full and sensual and sad that the distinction eventually seems to hardly matter.

The Marriage of Maria Braun, one of Fassbinder’s greatest works, is so unshakeable because the filmmaker’s judgment of Germany takes a back seat to his spellbinding powers as a storyteller; the critique is very present here, too, but it bobs up and down between text and subtext in surprising fashions. The implications of the opening are unmistakable though, as the film begins with a wall adorned with a portrait of Adolf Hitler exploding, cutting short Maria’s wedding. In a matter of seconds, Fassbinder communicates the terror of a conquered society, a terror that’s understood to lurk in Maria even as she evolves from a prostitute to a mistress to a businesswoman controlling a textile plant.

Fassbinder doesn’t reduce his characters here: Maria is at once warm and cold, and the men she takes up with are poignant lost souls who attempt to rejoin their society via commerce—a longing that’s humanized further by the haunting shots of buildings that have been torn to pieces by warfare. Yet their longing is nevertheless dangerous. A second explosion, a reverse deus ex machina, closes the film, killing characters too distracted to see the menace bubbling up in front of them. Tellingly, this happens while a sporting event plays over the radio, the sort of thing that seeks to divert us, then and now, from systemic catastrophe.

Image/Sound

These pristine restorations are visual and aural marvels that underscore the profound aesthetic difference between each film in the BRD trilogy. The Marriage of Maria Braun has a wonderful scruffiness, with vivid flesh tones and attractive grit. Veronika Voss is shot in black and white, which is rendered here with a shrillness that’s purposefully stifling. The whites are so gleaming they threaten to efface the richer comforts of the blacks—a conceit that was evident in the prior Criterion version but is much more pronounced here. Meanwhile, the deep and garish colors of Lola suggest an unholy fusion of Technicolor musicals with gialli, and they pop off the screen here with unprecedented feverishness. Facial textures are superbly detailed in all three films, and grain has been cleaned up but not unnaturally eradicated. The soundtracks remind us that Fassbinder’s ear was exacting as his eye, as little supporting sounds are frequently heightened to establish setting as well as the emotional climates of the characters—nuances that are expertly supported by these mixes.

Extras

These supplements have been ported over from Criterion’s 2003 DVD edition with no updates, though this package is so rich and exhaustive it hardly matters, offering a couple of semesters’ worth of context pertaining to German film history, German social upheavals, and the multifaceted life of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Firstly, each production features an audio commentary—by filmmaker Wim Wenders and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (on The Marriage of Maria Braun), film critic and author Tony Rayns (on Veronika Voss), and film scholar Christian Braad Thomsen (on Lola)—that justifies the price of admission alone. This mixture of filmmakers with erudite critics offers a variety of practical and theoretical perspectives that illuminate the creations of these films and their subsequent social impact from all sorts of angles. Complementing these commentaries is a conversation from 2003 between author and curator Laurence Kardish and film editor Juliane Lorenze, and a booklet featuring a great essay by critic Kent Jones, who elaborates on Fassbinder’s idea of his career as a “house,” and production histories by author Michael Töteberg.

Other supplements fill in the personal history of the BRD trilogy’s various artists. There are interviews from 2003 with all three leading ladies, Hanna Schygulla, Rosel Zech, and Barbara Sukowa, in which they testify to Fassbinder’s humanism as well as to his propensity for manipulation and tyranny. Those elements of the filmmaker are illuminated as well in Hans Günther Pflaum’s I Don’t Just Want You to Love Me, a feature-length documentary on the man’s life and career, while “Life Stories: A Conversation with R.W. Fassbinder” allows him to speak for himself. There’s even a program here, “Dance with Death,” that discusses the inspiration for Lola, Ufa studios star Sybille Schmitz, as well as a variety of other conversations. Which is to say that this collection is, in itself, a house.

Overall

Fassbinder’s trilogy is accorded a series of breathtakingly, resonantly gorgeous transfers, with the older extras still cutting the mustard as supreme examinations of a rich and difficult epic.

Cast: Hanna Schygulla, Klaus Löwitsch, Ivan Desny, Gisela Uhlen, Elisabeth Trissenaar, Gottfried John, Hark Bohm, George Byrd, Rosel Zech, Hilmar Thate, Cornelia Froboess, Annemarie Düringer, Doris Schade, Erik Schumann, Barbara Sukowa, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Mario Adorf, Matthias Fuchs, Helga Feddersen, Karin Baal, Ivan Desny, Elisabeth Volkmann, Karl-Heinz von Hassel Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder Screenwriter: Rainer Werner Fassbinder Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 339 min Rating: NR Year: 1979 – 1981 Release Date: July 9, 2019 Buy: Video

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Film

Blu-ray Review: Aldo Lado’s Who Saw Her Die? on Arrow Video

Arrow’s sterling Blu-ray presentation should serve as an excellent character witness for Lado’s elegiac giallo.

4.5

Published

on

Who Saw Her Die?

The early 1970s brought us two thrillers with all of the following elements: an estranged couple mourning the tragic death of a daughter; a grief-stricken sex scene crosscut with glimpses of its doleful aftermath; a series of murders occurring against the backdrop of Venice in the offseason; and a canal-bound funeral in a black-draped barge. The more famous, of course, is Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. The other is Aldo Lado’s less acknowledged giallo film Who Saw Her Die? But the real surprise here, given the Italian film industry’s not entirely undeserved reputation for the quick cash-in and cheapjack rip-off, is that Who Saw Her Die? actually came out first.

The film opens on a ski slope in France, as a young redheaded girl runs away from her nanny, only to have her head bashed in with a rock by a shadowy figure in black, a sequence seen largely through the killer’s subjective POV. Since violence against children is exceedingly rare in the giallo, even by the bloody standards of the genre, this is an especially shocking set piece. Indeed, the best point of comparison is with Lucio Fulci’s brilliant and disturbing Don’t Torture a Duckling, which came out the same year as Who Saw Her Die?

Both films feature a murderer who’s ultimately revealed to be a priest (or at least a man masquerading as one), whose bizarre motive for murder is to “save” the children from the moral pollution of modern society. Doubtless this coincidence has something to do with the shifting moral climate in Italy at the time, with the recent legalization of divorce and an increasing permissiveness toward depictions of sex and violence in popular culture. Who Saw Her Die? treats this broadmindedness with notable ambivalence, seeing as how its wealthiest and most cultured characters uniformly turn out to be deviants and sexual predators.

Lado introduces us to two of his main characters through a clever bit of visual trickery. We first see Franco Serpieri (George Lazenby) as he waits to greet someone among a group of arriving plane passengers. The camera picks up a pretty brunette woman, and crosscuts between the two as Franco proffers a heartfelt greeting. Only then do we hear an unexpectedly girlish voice in response, as the woman continues on, and Franco stoops down to hoist his daughter, Roberta (Nicoletta Elmi), into shot. Given her striking resemblance to the girl in the film’s prologue, you would not be altogether mistaken if you suspected that this does not bode well.

Throughout the first act, Lado uses his wintry Venetian locations to optimum atmospheric effect. He continually frames Roberta against eerie, nearly empty streets, bridges, and squares. (It doesn’t help that the caring, yet somewhat negligent Franco often leaves her to her own devices, either to pursue work or more personal pleasures.) The sense of foreboding that Lado carefully builds throughout Who Saw Her Die? is cleverly encoded even into the children’s games that Roberta participates in, none more so than the uncanny round dance whose chant supplies the principal motif for Ennio Morricone’s unsettling score. Lado shoots this whirling rondeau with a dizzying verve that would make Brian De Palma proud.

Roberta’s inevitable disappearance is signaled through an adroit visual metonym: the loud shutting of a local butcher shop’s doors. A subsequent shot of the charwoman mopping up a blood-spattered floor leaves little doubt about Roberta’s ultimate fate. Franco, like many a giallo hero before him, takes on the role of amateur detective once Roberta’s body turns up floating face down in the Venetian lagoon. (Female protagonists usually must battle against some sort of attempted gaslighting.) Because Franco is a struggling sculptor, most of the list of suspects happen to be members of his inner circle. Such emphasis on the artistic demimonde is an element of the giallo that was inaugurated by Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, the film that almost singlehandedly revamped the genre for the ’70s.

The amount of bloodshed in the film’s murderous set pieces is fairly chaste when compared to other giallo titles, which isn’t to say these sequences aren’t executed with distinctive visual aplomb. The standout killing, via a pair of scissors, takes place against the sterile white preserves of an indoor aviary. And Lado even goes in for a bit of meta filmmaking when one potential eyewitness is garroted in a darkened movie theater. But the most spectacular moment comes when the child murderer finally gets his just desserts, a fiery finale Lado plays out several times over, with Morricone’s music swirling up into the stratosphere, before the killer finally—and rather rudely—comes to ground. Only a producer-imposed final line of dialogue serves to blunt the impact of this chilly, surprisingly elegiac giallo film.

Image/Sound

Arrow Video’s new 2K presentation of Who Saw Her Die? represents a marked improvement over previous SD releases dating back to the film’s home-video debut as part of a 2002 Anchor Bay giallo box set. The Blu-ray image reveals more information on the right-hand side, appears darker overall, with less harsh whites, and displays far greater depth and clarity of detail. The English LPCM mono track is quite good, though it’s a shame that former 007 George Lazenby didn’t loop his own voice on the track. For the first time on domestic home video, the Italian-language track has been included. As always, it’s interesting to study the differences in dialogue between the two tracks. Fortunately, both of them do justice to one of the film’s strongest assets: a haunting score from Ennio Morricone that prominently features a heavily reverberated children’s chorus chillingly chanting the film’s Italian title over and over again.

Extras

Although it’s only infrequently scene-specific, author and critic Troy Howarth’s commentary covers a lot of giallo-related ground, from the give-and-take relationship between Italian genre filmmaking and more hifalutin arthouse cinema, to the evolution of the giallo genre over the years, arising as an idiosyncratic witches brew out of the cauldron of film noir, the Hitchcockian thriller, and the German krimi films. Howarth also extensively covers the careers of the principal cast and crew. In the featurette “I Saw Her Die,” director Aldo Lado discusses his early years working as assistant director for Bernardo Bertolucci, working on his other giallo-related titles (Short Night of Glass Dolls and Night Train Murders), the personal and professional vicissitudes behind being assigned to Who Saw Her Die?, the ethics of casting the film, and handling child actors. Lado also expresses his personal antipathy for the clergy and the changes to the film’s ending that were mandated by the producers.

The featurette “Nicoletta, Child of Darkness” provides a career-overview conversation with child actress Nicoletta Elmi. When it comes to What Saw Her Die?, Elmi really only remembers playing around both on- and off-set with Lazenby, as well as her one scene with the sterner, more imposing Adolfo Celi. Elmi relates an amusing anecdote about working with Dario Argento on Deep Red, decries the need for censorship (with regard to the themes of Who Saw Her Die?), and describes her own fraught relationship with the horror genre. “Once Upon a Time, in Venice…” features Francesco Barilla, the film’s charmingly opinionated co-writer, talking about his career as writer and occasional director, crafting bizarre secondary characters like the table tennis fanatic in Who Saw Her Die?, blending together various subgenres to optimum effect, and how he would have directed certain sequences in the film (including some very specific costume changes). Lastly, giallo authority Michael Mackenzie delves deeply into the film’s genre bona fides for “Giallo in Venice,” including the particularly gruesome flourish maestro Ennio Morricone built into his evocative score.

Overall

Arrow Video’s sterling Blu-ray presentation should serve as an excellent character witness for Aldo Lado’s elegiac giallo.

Cast: George Lazenby, Anita Strindberg, Adolfo Celi, Dominique Boschero, Peter Chatel, Piero Vida, José Quaglio, Alessandro Haber, Nicolette Elmi, Rosemarie Lindt Director: Aldo Lado Screenwriter: Francesco Barilli, Massimo D'Avak Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 1972 Release Date: September 17, 2019 Buy: Video

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Video

Review: Yasujirô Ozu’s The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice on Criterion Blu-ray

Criterion’s stunning transfer and small, but substantial, array of extras should inspire a serious re-evaluation of the film.

4

Published

on

The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice

In mid-20th century Japan, married couples frequently spent a significant amount of time apart, not unlike Mokichi (Shin Saburi) and Taeko (Michiyo Kogure), the middle-aged couple at the center of Yasujirô Ozu’s The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice. But their separateness from one another derives less from an adherence to cultural norms than a mutual stubbornness and refusal to compromise their deeply ingrained, class-informed attitudes. Unsurprisingly, their marriage is primarily defined by petty squabbles and white lies. While Taeko concocts an elaborate story that allows her to jet off to the spa with her friends, and later to a baseball game, Mokichi sneaks out for drinks after work with a co-worker, Noburo (Kôji Tsuruta), who soon drags him out to a pachinko parlor and bicycle races. In short, they take any excuse to be away from home, as the rare times that the couple are together typically lead to Taeko berating her husband for his boorish table manners and preference for cheap cigarettes and Mokichi respectfully taking note of his wife’s grievances, yet showing no sign of changing his own behavior.

Much of their tension stems from their disparate upbringings, as Taeko comes from a wealthy and traditional Tokyo family and Mokichi from a more restrictive rural family. Ozu further complicates the film’s notions of deeply rooted class division with the addition of the couple’s niece, Setsuko (Keiko Tsushima), who frequently visits them, and whose presence in the narrative brings to the forefront post-war Japan’s increasing social anxieties due to Westernization and the shifting gender roles that came with it. It’s her decision to bail on a meeting with a potential mate for an arranged marriage that leads to Mokichi and Taeko’s biggest argument. But while this disagreement temporarily drives a wedge between the husband and wife, Setsuko’s rebellion ultimately serves as the catalyst that shakes Mokichi and Taeko from their marital stupor, forcing them to confront their deep-seated issues.

In Ozu’s post-war films, waning traditions and weakening family ties, often due to members of the younger generation striving to claim a sense of agency, are typically presented with a tinge of melancholy or as the cause of much adversity. Here, though Setsuko is certainly a disruptive force, her youthful ideals—particularly her desire to marry for love and alack of concern for class divisions—are shown in a resoundingly positive light, not only in her influence on Mokichi, but in her deepening bond with the working-class Noburo. The egalitarian nature of their courtship is a stark contrast to Mokichi and Taeko’s relationship, suggesting the possibility both of what their marriage could be, and, perhaps, what it once was.

The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice’s jubilant portrait of young love certainly hints at a brighter future for modern marriages, but Ozu eventually reveals a surprising depth of emotion and sensitivity in Mokichi and Taeko’s connection as well. When Taeko returns home after storming out on her husband days earlier, Ozu spends nearly four minutes lingering on her as she silently moves about her home in a state of rumination, growing increasingly eager for Mokichi’s return as she examines objects that remind her of him. Throughout this scene, Ozu cuts away several times to extended shots of empty spaces within the home, emphasizing Mokichi’s absence from the domestic space and the void it leaves behind for Taeko.

The dining table, which is foregrounded in numerous shots across the film and was the arena of much of the couple’s bickering, becomes the site of their reconciliation upon Mokichi’s sudden return. Realizing she misses her husband’s little eccentricities, Taeko invites Mokichi for a late-night snack, and as their maid (Yôko Kosono) is already asleep, they fumble throughout the kitchen together in a tender, humorous sequence where they function as equals for the first time in years. And, in a delicate grace note so typical of Ozu, the two sit across from one another, finally content to enjoy life’s simple pleasures (here, Mokichi’s favorite dish of green tea over rice) with one another, free of judgment and criticism.

Image/Sound

Yasujirô Ozu’s film is defined by its faces and spaces, and Criterion’s stunning transfer, sourced from Shochiku’s new 4K restoration, offers a vivid rendering of both. The image is consistently sharp, boasting strong contrast and nicely balanced by an even distribution of grain, ensuring a slight filmlike softness is retained throughout. Faces, as well as the fabrics of suits and kimonos and objects in the foreground, are particularly rich in detail. The uncompressed monaural soundtrack is evenly mixed, though its robustness is primarily noticeable in the noisy pachinko parlor or the rare, but moving, swells in Ichirô Saitô’s score.

Extras

This release may not come with a commentary track, but Criterion has done us one better by including a second feature-length film at no additional cost: Ozu’s delightful 1937 comedy What Did the Lady Forget? The film shares much of the same DNA as The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice, with enough overlap in both plot and character to serve as a nice companion piece that lets one see how Ozu approached similar material before and after World War II. A new 25-minute video essay by film scholar David Bordwell offers an in-depth and enlightening breakdown of Ozu’s narrative and aesthetic strategies in this film, from the parallels between various couples and the division of men’s and women’s social worlds to food and drink-related motifs and the purpose behind Ozu’s slight and infrequent camera movements. Daniel Raim’s short, but very sweet, documentary Ozu & Noda explores the friendship and working relationship between Ozu and Kôgo Noda, his frequent screenwriting collaborator. The package is rounded out with an essay by scholar Junji Yoshida, who writes of, among other things, Ozu’s delicate balancing of class and gender concerns in the film.

Overall

Criterion’s stunning transfer and small, but substantial, array of extras should inspire a serious re-evaluation of one of Ozu’s most overlooked films.

Cast: Shin Saburi, Michiyo Kogure, Kôji Tsuruta, Chishû Ryû, Chikage Awashima, Keiko Tsushima, Kuniko Miyake, Eijirô Yanagi, Kôji Shitara, Yôko Kosono, Yûko Mochizuki Director: Yasujirô Ozu Screenwriter: Kôgo Noda, Yasujirô Ozu Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 116 min Rating: NR Year: 1952 Release Date: August 27, 2019 Buy: Video

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading
Advertisement

Giveaways

Advertisement

Newsletter

Advertisement

Preview

Trending