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Blu-ray Review: La Ciénaga

Lucrecia Martel’s aesthetically and thematically intricate debut is one of the most energizing additions to Criterion’s roster in some time.

4.0

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La Ciénaga

The humidity in La Ciénaga is so palpable it’s a wonder the screen doesn’t peel. Even the title credits look affected by the moisture in the air, gradually coalescing from puddles into words. The film takes place on the country estate of a bourgeois Argentinian family who retreat to their villa to escape the city heat, a move whose futility can be traced in the beads of sweat on every character’s face. Lucrecia Martel establishes the home with symbolic decay centered on a large, unused pool discolored from lack of care and teeming with leaves and untold numbers of mosquito eggs. Within seconds, Martel captures a sense of faded aristocracy, of a loss of status that certain families suffered generations ago that nonetheless weighs heavily on family members long removed from their noble past.

Around the fetid, stagnant pool sits a middle-aged couple and their friends, whiling away the time guzzling wine like water. As swiftly as she uses the country home to impart a sense of social and historical context, Martel frames the characters in such a way that the film attains a comic tone that suggests the demented family crises of Chekhov by way of the expressionistic grotesquerie of Buñuel. Long shots from high angles arrange the sunbathers like scattered corpses, atrophied beings whose only fully operable joints are the elbows that raise wine glasses to lips. Close-ups home in on sagging breasts, bulging bellies, and topographic outlines of stretch-mark rivers and hilly cellulite, all unflattering confirmations that these characters’ best days are behind them.

The narrative, such as it is, shifts into motion when Mecha (Graciela Borges), the family matriarch, falls while cradling several wine glasses and cuts herself, prompting numerous family members to converge onto the estate to be with her as she convalesces, among them Mecha’s eldest son, José (Juan Cruz Bordeu), and her cousin, Tali (Mercedes Morán), who arrives with her husband, Rafael (Daniel Valenzuela), and their children. Normally, this influx of dysfunctional family members would light a long fuse leading to a climactic powder keg, but the film diverts a protracted escalation of tension with the immediate outbreak of smaller fires that send the camera scurrying back and forth between various displays of interpersonal friction. An incestuousness runs between immediate and extended family members, and even partners from outside the family are drawn into the family’s insular sexual tension, as when Tali notes that Mecha’s husband, Gregorio (Martín Adjemián), cheated on his wife with, among others, José’s current partner. Tali frets over the possible revelation of this, but, in another thematic diversion, this mainly illustrates the power dynamics between Tali’s submissive relationship to Rafael versus Mecha’s consolidated control of her own husband.

The film takes numerous detours with individual characters, but the through line that links all of them is the family’s racism toward its servants, all indigenous aborigens whom the family members constantly accuse of theft and laziness. Mecha in particular cannot speak to or about one of the servants without lobbing accusations or criticizing them for not taking care to every single need in her life. Even Mecha’s teenage daughter, Momi (Sofia Bertolotto), who shares a close bond with head maid Isabel (Andréa Lopez), casts aspersions on the woman for lingering by a wardrobe for too long. Both Momi and José exhibit an eerie possessiveness of Isabel that warps fondness, even desire, around power: Momi regularly slips into Isabel’s bed without her permission, tacitly viewing the servant’s quarters and the servant who lives in them to be her property. José, meanwhile, starts a fight with Isabel’s boyfriend simply because she talks to that man instead of him, betraying his resentment that she should focus her attention on someone less worthy. It’s here that the film’s study of a rotting bourgeoisie comes into greatest clarity, and after a time, one gets the impression that the family accuses the servants of stealing so much simply because they now have to provide a wage for those who once would have been slaves.

On paper, all of this sounds like a work of social realism, albeit of the satiric variety, but Martel uses her debut to introduce a number of visual tics that lend the film an idiosyncratic edge. Like Bresson and Kiarostami, she employs ambient noise to triangulate off-screen space, but she also heightens rainforest sounds and dripping water to the point that it becomes a kind of torture, communicating dread more than simple place. Martel also displays an unorthodox method of shooting close-ups, preferring to crop at least part of a person’s head out of frame despite an abundance of available negative space. This lends the whole film a woozy, vaguely unsettling air that mimics the characters’ malaise, as well as their inability to find their appropriate place in the present world. This omissive style peaks in the L’Eclisse-esque finale, in which Martel crops the people out of the frame entirely as the camera regards the country home one last time. The human vacancy of Antonioni’s film bleakly confronted a future beyond its characters’ understanding, however, while Martel’s recapitulates a recent and deep history that is, troublingly, no easier to solve.

Image/Sound

Hugo Colace’s muted cinematography previously appeared washed-out on prior home-video releases, but Criterion’s Blu-ray preserves its rich textures and exceptional detail. The transfer proves its worth within the film’s first few minutes, capturing every skin discoloration or loose patch of flesh on the shiftless adults, as well as the verdant, mud-slicked areas on the surrounding grounds. Colors are perfectly balanced, and healthy grain ensures that even the most sweat-slicked face never looks smooth or unnatural. The lossless stereo track likewise highlights the care that went into the sound design, maximizing the film’s enveloping unease.

Extras

An interview with Lucrecia Martel delves into the director’s approach to filmmaking, as well as autobiographical details that shaped her consciousness and ethos. It’s a dense feature, and Martel’s own eloquence neatly summarizes a complex artistic process even as she delivers it all with poetic diversion and metaphor. Andres di Tella, cofounder of the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema, narrates a video essay in which he delineates Martel’s debut from other New Argentine films, highlighting how her character-based social commentary differed from the polemic, lecturing tone of many of her peers’ post-dictatorship work. The disc also comes with a trailer, and a booklet containing an essay on the film by University of Buenos Aires professor David Oubitia.

Overall

Criterion is long overdue for more canonization of South American cinema, and Lucrecia Martel’s strange, aesthetically and thematically intricate debut feature is one of the most energizing additions to the company’s roster in some time.

Cast: Graciela Borges, Mercedes Morán, Andrea López, Sofia Bertolotto, Juan Cruz Bordeu, Martín Adjemián, Daniel Valenzuela Director: Lucrecia Martel Screenwriter: Lucrecia Martel Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 2001 Release Date: January 27, 2015 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away Joins the Shout! Factory

This release leaves a bit to be desired in terms of extras, but the dazzling transfer and beautiful packaging are second to none.

3.5

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Spirited Away

The notion of “coming of age” suggests self-transformation, a crystallization of individual identity following a period of instability and discovery. In Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, this transformation isn’t only internal for the film’s 10-year-old heroine, Chihiro (Rumi Hiiragi), but made ubiquitous in the wondrously surreal, ever-changing world in which she eventually finds herself trapped. When Chihiro ventures from her parents’ car and through an ancient tunnel in the film’s opening sequence, all that’s familiar to her soon morphs into something foreign, ephemeral, or grotesque. Almost instantaneously, the comforts and security of her childhood are shattered as she enters the terrifying, expansive terrain of adulthood, embodied here by the Spirit Realm, a magical world in a state of constant flux, populated by a vast array of gods, demons, and animistic spirits.

The fluidity and inconstancy of this dominion quickly become apparent to Chihiro when she sees her voracious parents turned into pigs after they gorge on a feast left unguarded in the seemingly abandoned town they discover on the other end of the tunnel. Panicked and alone, Chihiro is aided by a young boy, Haku (Miyu Irino), who informs her that she must find a job in order to survive in the Spirit Realm, lest she’s made to disappear by Yubaba (Mari Natsuki), the evil witch who owns the town’s prominent bathhouse. And Chihiro’s initial step in navigating this frightening adult world is her first job, and a suitably backbreaking one at that: schlepping coal alongside little soot sprites down in the bathhouse’s boiler room.

The multi-tiered bathhouse, which Yubaba lords over from her luxurious top-floor oasis, serves as a visually rich and thematically potent metaphorical setting, a place whose social and class structures are akin to those of the world Chihiro has just left behind. And as she works her way up from the basement to servicing baths on the main floor, the young girl encounters the ugliness and greed of seemingly good, ordinary people, or, in this case, spirits. Throughout, Miyazaki’s most forceful illustration of adult excess and avarice comes in the mesmerizing scene where No-Face, a blob-like being who unwittingly manifests the desires of those around him, produces a ceaseless supply of gold as dozens of bathhouse workers and guests continue to feed him even while he grows increasingly colossal and monstrous.

Temptation abounds in Spirited Away, and part of what makes Chihiro one of Miyazaki’s most exceptional heroines is the grace and tenacity with which she meets the constant barrage of seductions and challenges that the nefarious Spirit Realm throws her way. As the formerly meek Chihiro becomes empowered through sheer strength of will and principle, Miyazaki builds not to a traditional showdown between good and evil via a dethroning of Yubaba, but rather to Chihiro reclaiming her agency and sense of self from the witch, who earlier stripped the girl of both her memory and name (she’s renamed “Sen” in the Spirit Realm).

Throughout, Miyazaki engages in flamboyant character doubling, from Haku, who’s cursed to intermittently take the form of a dragon, to Yubaba, whose twin sister and rival, Zeniba (Mari Natsuki), is her complete antithesis. The film is a study in dualities, pointing to Chihiro’s newfound ability to see the complexities surrounding her as well as the Spirit Realm’s tendency to mold individuals’ identities by stifling youthful ideals and fostering destructive ones like greed, gluttony, and pride—something she will carry back into the real world.

What makes Chihiro’s train ride to visit Zeniba near the end of Spirited Away so moving isn’t merely the stunning visuals of the train seemingly gliding on water as it approaches the horizon or the selflessness of Chihiro’s journey to save Haku. It’s also in her wordless, melancholic encounter with the faceless shadow spirits sitting around her and the sorrowful impression they leave on her, as she senses she could potentially share their dire fates. Chihiro escapes such a destiny not only through her newfound determination and cleverness, but also through a necessary expansion of her perspective, which allows her to discern what’s true and just in a world full of dangerous illusions, distractions, and hollow duplicates.

Image/Sound

Shout! Factory’s transfer has a clarity and vibrancy that highlights the skill and precision behind the rendering of Spirited Away’s elaborate settings and otherworldly beings. Everything from the shading and rich hues that dominate the film’s palette to the textures of walls and floors is rendered with remarkable exactitude. The audio is equally impressive, not only in the full-bodied mix of Joe Hsaishi’s score, but in the more subtle rendering of ambient natural sounds and background noises that fill out the film’s immersive soundscapes.

Extras

This release of Spirited Away is surprisingly light on extras, especially compared to the studio’s previous collector’s editions of Miyazaki films, My Neighbor Totoro and Princess Mononoke. As with those releases, they’ve included the option to watch the film in storyboard format, thus providing insight into the early stages of Miyazaki’s creative process. The only remaining disc extras are a smattering of original trailers and TV spots, along with a brief featurette, “Behind the Microphone,” in which many of the voice actors for the American dub offer trite sound bites about how excited they are to work on a Miyazaki film. The disc comes packaged in a thick, cardboard case that includes a CD of Joe Hisaishi’s soundtrack and a 40-page booklet with full-page stills from the film, a statement from Miyazaki, and two essays. In his essay, Leonard Maltin discusses Spirited Away’s box office impact and how the film diverges from the storytelling methods found in American animation, while Kenneth Turan focuses more on its intrepid heroine and Miyazaki’s singular approach to the Japanese fable.

Overall

Shout! Factory collector’s edition of Spirited Away leaves a bit to be desired in terms of extras, but the dazzling transfer and beautiful, sturdy packaging are second to none.

Cast: Rumi Hiiragi, Miyu Irino, Mari Natsuki, Takashi Naitô, Yasuko Sawaguchi, Tatsuya Gashûin, Ryûnosuke Kamiki, Yumi Tamai, Yô Ôizumi, Koba Hayashi Director: Hayao Miyazaki Screenwriter: Hayao Miyazaki Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG Year: 2001 Release Date: November 12, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Criterion’s Godzilla: The Showa-Era Films 1954-1975

Criterion celebrates a milestone with one of its most impressive packages to date.

4.5

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Godzilla: The Showa-Era Films 1954-1975

Alternately cheesy and chilling, the Godzilla franchise’s first 15 entries—produced during the Showa era and immortalized on Criterion’s 1,000th release—offer a fascinating glimpse into the ways a property changes over multiple sequels. Little needs to be said about the original 1954 film, which remains the most potent depiction of monster-as-metaphor since the heyday of gothic fiction. In just under 100 minutes, director Ishirō Honda visualizes the lingering national trauma of Hiroshima and renewed fears of radioactive fallout due to nuclear bomb tests in the Pacific, the anxiety over a depleted military’s defense capabilities, and the ongoing attempt to assert an Japanese identity in the wake of the nation’s defeat in WWII. With its apocalyptic imagery and depiction of the ways that men can make weapons even more monstrous than the foes they seek to repel, Godzilla remains as compelling today as it was 65 years ago.

The colossal success of the film easily justified a sequel, and Motoyoshi Oda’s Godzilla Raids Again bears all the signs of a rush job. Despite running only 80 minutes, it freely recycles shots from its predecessor and devotes a significant portion of its runtime to listless romantic drama and moments of jocularity between thinly sketched characters. Even so, the film boasts two showstopping moments worthy of Godzilla. One is a battle between Godzilla and the ankylosaurus monster Anguirus that’s played at a sped-up rate that clashes with the slow, ominous droning of Masaru Satō’s score and the occasional muted roar from one of the creatures, creating an atmosphere of dread that recalls the hellish tone of the first film.

The other, a climactic attack on Godzilla that sees Japanese jets bombing a mountain in order to bury the creature in snow and ice, is equally eerie, ending Godzilla Raids Again on a note of uncertainty rather than victory. Despite the sequel’s quick turnaround, Godzilla would not truly become a fixture of Japanese pop culture until Honda’s 1962 international smash King Kong vs. Godzilla, a garish spectacle with special effects somehow less technically impressive than those of its decade-older predecessors. It’s here, in the sight of obviously toy-seeming tanks melting under streams of fire that look as if they were produced by holding up a lighter to an aerosol can and a King Kong that suggests a Rankin/Bass yeti, that one gets the first glimpse of how silly a franchise rooted in nuclear terror could become.

The success of King Kong vs. Godzilla naturally inspired Toho Studios to flood the market with Godzilla films, ordering an average of one a year, with new monsters and even preexisting creatures from the studio’s other kaiju properties folded into the giant lizard’s extended universe. The remainder of the Showa-era films are wildly variable in quality (typically strongest when Honda returns to the helm) but surprisingly consistent in their evolution of tone. The horror of the original gradually morphs into a lighter, more action-oriented atmosphere as Godzilla himself transforms from the embodiment of annihilation to something of a chaotic good, the defender of Japan, not its destroyer. And as Godzilla became a fixture of Japanese entertainment, so, too, did it start to reflect new trends in pop culture. Godzilla vs. Megalon, for example, sees the monster team up with the giant robot Jet Jaguar, which is blatantly modeled after the Ultraman character that was popular on then-contemporary Japanese television. The film even went a step further to tie the character into the emerging mecha trend in live-action and animated entertainment.

Occasionally, the titles in the series returns to their socially conscious roots. Godzilla vs. Hedorah, from 1971, pits Godzilla against a smog monsters, at a time when Japan was dealing with a significant pollution crisis, while King Kong vs. Godzilla fascinatingly nests its narrative amid a framing device of exploitative television executives actively documenting the carnage of the monsters for ratings. (This is especially evident in the film’s original Japanese version, oddly relegated to a bonus disc on this Criterion set in favor of the English-language re-edit, which retains only a softened version of Honda’s intended satire.)

For the most part, though, the social awareness of the series during the Showa era is largely subliminal. Among other things, the series affords a window into the changing landscape of Japan as it rapidly became Westernized. The shogun-era buildings that dominate the early films with traditional Japanese architecture of curved, tiled roofs and wooden pavilions give way to the gleaming, anonymous skyscrapers that, in their own way, loom as coldly and dissonantly against the idyllic countryside as Godzilla himself. In that sense, the giant lizard, who comes to defend Japan while crashing through such buildings with indifference, represents a subtle level of defiance against the lingering effects of Western occupation, with the monster tacitly pitched as the unleashed id of a Japanese postwar identity.

The Showa sequels, in sharp contrast to their terrifying origin point, are often whimsical and goofy, softening Godzilla in order to appeal to children and the global market. Yet by bundling all of the original Godzilla films together, Criterion makes it easier to appreciate how small quirks grow into dominant traits across the franchise, or how the ever-expanding menagerie of beasts who battle or align with Godzilla, or both, fills in a rich universe of aliens, ancient cults, and contemporary humanity. Even the worst films here are worth recommending for one reason or another, and the best showcase a variety of thrills, be it the all-out action of Destroy All Monsters or the critique of reflexively violent mankind in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla. Through it all, one can see how a brutal metaphor for unfathomable destruction became one of Japan’s most enduring cinematic contributions, as much an affirmation of the country’s place in global culture as a symbol of what the nation had to overcome to reassert itself.

Image/Sound

All 15 films have received high-definition transfers, but image quality can be inconsistent. The original film looks pristine, its black-and-white photography rendered with no crushing artifacts and with excellent contrast. The remaining films show more in the way of debris and scratches, though each looks significantly sharper than they have on previous releases, with stable colors and textures and none of the softness that plagues old standard-def transfers. The audio is perhaps even stronger, completely free of any issues and so well-balanced that one can hear, in some cases for the first time, the sophistication of many of the films’ scores and sound design. (All of the titles include their original Japanese language tracks, while Invasion of Astro-Monster, Son of Godzilla, Destroy All Monsters, Godzilla vs. Megalon, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, and Terror of Mechagodzilla come with English-language dubs. The English and Japanese versions of King Kong vs. Godzilla are located on separate discs.)

Extras

For its 1,000th release, Criterion has gone all out, starting with the packaging. Foregoing a normal-sized box, the label houses the discs in an oversized book that suggests a commemorative edition of a graphic novel, right down to the highly chromatic artwork commissioned to represent each film. And each film also contains its own essay from a host of contributors, as well as an overarching essay by film historian Steve Ryfle. The set also comes with the English-language version of the original Godzilla, as well as the aforementioned Japanese cut of King Kong vs. Godzilla, alongside a host of other extras. Interviews with filmmaker Alex Cox and critic Tadao Sato extol the franchise’s virtues as political commentary and a source of national pride, while archival interviews with Ishirō Honda and various other members of the series’s cast and crew are included and detail the challenges of working on such effects-heavy productions. Behind-the-scenes documentaries show those extensive practical effects being filmed, and audio commentaries from critic David Kalat on Godzilla and its America re-edit delve into the overall themes and deviations between the two versions.

Overall

Criterion celebrates a milestone with one of its most impressive packages to date, one that not only preserves films that have long been subjected to shoddy video releases, but passionately argues for their importance alongside the high-art works that form the label’s backbone.

Cast: Takashi Shimura, Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi, Akihiko Hirata, Hiroshi Koizumi, Minoru Chiaki, Setsuko Wakayama, Michael Keith, Harry Holcombe, James Yagi, Yuriko Hoshi, Emi Ito, Yumi Ito, Yosuke Natsuki, Akiko Wakabayashi, Nick Adams, Kumi Mizuno, Jun Tazaki, Chotaro Togin, Pair Bambi, Tadao Takashima, Akira Kubo, Beverly Maeda, Yukiko Kobayashi, Kyoko Ai, Kenji Sahara, Tomonori Yazaki, Machiko Naka, Akira Yamauchi, Toshie Kimura, Hiroyuki Kawase, Hiroshi Ishikawa, Yuriko Hishimi, Minoru Takashima, Katsuhiko Sasaki, Yutaka Hayashi, Masaaki Daimon, Kazuya Aoyama, Reiko Tajima, Tomoko Ai, Tadao Nakamaru Director: Ishirō Honda, Jun Fukuda, Motoyoshi Oda, Yoshimitsu Banno Screenwriter: Takeo Murata, Ishirō Honda, Shigeaki Hidaka, Paul Mason, Bruce Howard, Shinichi Sekizawa, Kaoru Mabuchi, Yoshimitsu Banno, Jun Fukuda, Hiroyasu Yamamura, Yukiko Takayama Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 1295 min Rating: NR Year: 1954 - 1975 Release Date: October 29, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Don Siegel’s Neo-Noir Thriller Madigan on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

A new audio commentary offers ample justification of the film’s enduring legacy.

3.5

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Madigan

Countless police thrillers over the last several decades have doubled as meditations on the ideological perils of black-and-white morality, the authoritarian proclivities of law enforcement, and the proverbial thin blue line, but most have landed with a redundant thud in light of Don Siegel’s genre-defining crime movies of the 1960s and ‘70s. The filmmaker’s San Francisco-set Dirty Harry effectively bottled up the law-and-order zeitgeist of the late ‘60s, tackling police brutality and rising urban crime rates with a bareknuckle bluntness that would make most contemporary action directors blush.

Dirty Harry might not have come to be had Siegel not taken an earlier stab at telling the story of a loose-cannon cop with Madigan, though to deem the earlier film merely a warmup for a more iconic, more incendiary variation on the same themes is to undersell it. Scripted by Howard Rodman (credited under the pseudonym Henri Simoun) and the formerly blacklisted Abraham Polonsky from a novel by Richard Dougherty, a former police commissioner, Madigan tells the story of an unorthodox police detective, Dan Madigan (Richard Widmark), and his partner, Rocco Bonaro (Harry Guardino), who together botch a pickup of a homicide suspect and instigate a three-day manhunt that practically throws off the equilibrium of the entire New York Police Department. Where Dirty Harry isolated its magnum-wielding hero against a police force defined by bureaucratic tepidity and incompetence, Madigan gives conventional rules-and-regulations authority its due, incarnating it within the person of Police Commissioner Anthony X. Russell, played by a perfectly cast Henry Fonda.

Fonda had by this point cultivated a formidable roster of conflicted authority figures over a span of nearly four decades in Hollywood. His aged, beleaguered police commissioner is an idealist without a shred of naïveté, a man who has slowly been coming to terms with incidental moral corruption in all facets of his police force for some time but who’s never directly stared it down. That opportunity comes when his longtime friend, Chief Inspector Charles Kane (James Whitmore), is caught red-handed in a bribe. Russell sits on the information, keeps up a friendly façade, vents to a married mistress (Susan Clark) in a subplot that understatedly imparts the extent to which Russell’s high ideals have already eroded, and takes out his frustration on Madigan, with whom he has something of an antagonistic history.

The storytelling genius of Madigan is that Widmark and Fonda don’t come to occupy the same space until almost 90 minutes into the film. Russell may give the dangerous order for Madigan to apprehend the killer on the loose within a 72-hour window, but that order trickles down an elaborate chain of command before it reaches its recipient. While Madigan is racing against the clock on the gritty streets of Spanish Harlem and Russell is stationed in his plush office or making appearances at PR events, the tension between the two men is always palpable.

As for Widmark, it’s tempting to take his performance as the rough-around-the-edges detective for granted. One of the defining figures of 20th Century Fox’s noir cycle of the 1940s and ‘50s, specializing in cagey hoods and unhinged sadists (he was Oscar-nominated for Kiss of Death), Widmark had spent much the ‘60s acting in more respectable roles, with a newly emergent penchant for military brass. Madigan was an opportunity for the actor to summon some of his earlier street-smart edge, and his volatile scenes with Inger Stevens (as Julia, Madigan’s unfulfilled wife) contain some of the finest work of his late career.

Madigan has never perched near the top of the Siegel canon, and in terms of raw craftsmanship or personal expression, it has nothing on more provocative works like Riot in Cell Block 11, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or even The Beguiled. Perhaps a less intrusive producer than Frank P. Rosenberg—who assumed a near-total license to tinker with the shooting script, and much to Siegel’s chagrin—might have allowed the director more breathing room to execute his vision. But compared to some of Siegel’s lesser work, such as the same year’s relatively campy actioner Coogan Bluff, Madigan is a substantial achievement, an ostensible action picture cloaking a meditative character piece, and its innate quality of moral sordidness has stayed with genre forever since.

Image/Sound

Kino’s new transfer varies in image quality: The brightly lit, foregrounded surfaces are vibrant with definition—the scar-like creases of Henry Fonda and Richard Widmark’s close-ups now register with full clarity—but the picture loses considerable sharpness and solidity as visual information recedes toward the background, with consistently washed-out textures and the black levels frequently unstable. The DTS-HD audio fares better, especially as concerns the propulsive, yet atypically romantic score by jazz arranger Don Costa.

Extras

Excluding a trailer and a few TV spots for other Don Siegel films, the lone extra here is an audio commentary by film historians Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell, and Nathaniel Thompson. Fortunately, it’s a very good one, as these obvious Siegel buffs clearly size up every square inch of the film, while also bringing considerable historical muscle to the discussion. Scene-specific analysis alternates evenly with broader contextual discourse, broaching everything from the television cop dramas of the era to the studio practices of Universal. The result is as comprehensive a survey of the film’s production as is likely to be found anywhere.

Overall

This release of Don Siegel’s morally knotty police procedural isn’t the most well-rounded package, but a new audio commentary offers ample justification of the film’s enduring legacy.

Cast: Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Inger Stevens, Harry Guardino, James Whitmore, Susan Clark, Michael Dunn, Harry Bellaver Director: Don Siegel Screenwriter: Howard Rodman, Abraham Polonsky Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: November 12, 20109 min Rating: NR Year: 1968 Release Date: November 12, 2010 Buy: Video

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Review: Carol Reed’s The Man Between on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

This stylish and visually intelligent thriller has been preserved beautifully by Kino Lorber.

4

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The Man Between

Beloved by cinephiles today, Carol Reed’s Vienna-set The Third Man was also a sensation when it was released in 1949, popularizing zither music and inspiring a spinoff radio show starring Orson Welles as the droll but jaded black market dealer Harry Lime. The Man Between, Reed’s subsequent urban noir, was clearly intended to rebottle some of his earlier film’s magic. Set in rubble-strewn Berlin—and featuring, like The Third Man, an abundance of location photography, unique in a studio film of the era—The Man Between likewise addresses the conflicted postwar European character through a morally ambivalent but seductive male protagonist.

Ivo Kern (James Mason), like Harry Lime, has found dubious occupation in a Reich city. A former lawyer and, as a soldier in the Germany Army, a participant in war crimes, he now conducts kidnapping operations on behalf of the East German authorities, clandestinely bringing refugees or wanted men back to the Russian-occupied territory. Still, it’s not immediately apparent—though it probably was to 1950s viewers who saw Mason’s name on the marquee—that Ivo is The Man Between’s main character. As he did with Harry Lime, Reed delays the introduction of his film’s titular character, using the arrival of an outsider to first introduce us to the milieu of early-‘50s Berlin, and then to gradually construe the enigmatic Ivo as the subject of intrigue.

In the first quarter of The Man Between, Reed anchors the audience’s perspective in Susanne (Claire Bloom), a young English woman who’s come to Berlin to visit her brother, Martin (Geoffrey Toone), a military doctor who’s stationed in the city. She’s greeted at the airport by Martin’s wife, Bettina (Hildegard Knef), an archetypically tall, blond German woman who Susanne immediately suspects is hiding something. Quite the clever voyeur, as it happens, Susanne peeks unobserved around corners, from behind doors, and via angled mirrors to try to catch glimpses of the mysterious figure that the visibly distressed Bettina is in contact with. This will turn out to be Ivo, who’s in the process of extorting Bettina, scandalously revealed to be his ex-wife, for information on West German spies.

Until Ivo takes over the narrative reins and Susanne is settled into her ultimate position as love interest, it almost seems as though the film should be called The Woman Between. After all, Martin is a nonentity, and the drama of the early scenes plays out entirely between Susanne and Bettina. Reed’s handling of Susanne’s growing suspicion that Bettina is having an affair doesn’t add much to the character’s rather anemic characterization, but it does result in some brilliantly constructed scenes, as Reed uses Susanne’s oblique gazing at obscure events to suggest Berlin’s subterranean world of espionage and partially submerged pasts. Unconventional framing estranges the resplendent nightlife of the West, and an almost painterly use of film noir’s conventional low-key lighting lends a gothic, paranoiac quality to Bettina’s inherited haute bourgeois home on the edge of Berlin’s demolished no man’s land.

After Susanne comes in contact with Ivo, however, the narrative shifts focus. Ivo, at first appearing to have all the detached self-confidence connoted by Mason’s posh diction, turns out to be conflicted, haunted by his dark past and persecuted by his superiors in the East German secret police. He is, in other words, much more a character than Susanne gets to be, and The Man Between soon abandons Bettina almost entirely to focus on Susanne’s growing, selfless admiration for him. Perhaps inevitably, given the film’s era and context of production, Susanne’s character becomes the innocent damsel—representing, both metaphorically and mechanically, Ivo’s hope for asylum in the West. When she’s mistakenly taken prisoner by an East German secret police force headed by the dastardly Halendar (Aribert Wäscher), Ivo sees his opportunity to free her, and in doing so gain the favor of Western authorities.

If The Man Between pales in comparison to The Third Man, the problem is Harry Kurnitz’s screenplay, which tends toward the conventional. Despite strong performances from Mason, Bloom, and Neff, many of the characters here exude a bland, studio-manufactured quality. The exploration of the female characters ends about a third of the way through the film, while most of the supporting characters lack distinguishing color (Berlinerisch or otherwise). And despite Mason’s dashing charm, Ivo is never as seductive an antihero as the deviously mirthful Harry Lime from The Third Man. Also unlike that earlier film, there’s little that feels daring about The Man Between’s story, which, rather than confronting the darkness at the heart of postwar Europe, proves much more comfortable with the emergent Cold War global order.

Despite the evident similarities between The Third Man and The Man Between, their differences paint Vienna and Berlin as distinct places—and 1949 and 1953 as distinct moments in history. While the purportedly easygoing Vienna of The Third Man turns out to be suffused with an inescapable fatalism, the famously hardnosed Berlin of The Man Between represents the very possibility of flight from the cynicism and regret of postwar Europe, identified with the dilapidated and unfree East, into its democratic, morally rehabilitated future. Reed’s mise-en-scène conveys Berlin’s strange, often dangerous liminal quality, its status as an often dangerous interface between two worlds, but the director’s acute sense of atmosphere isn’t particularly well served by his Kurnitz’s script. The Man Between isn’t without anything to say about the order of things circa 1953, but it lacks the memorable characters and world-weary tone that have made The Third Man an indelible part of the film canon.

Image/Sound

The 1080p disc handles Desmond Dickinson’s high-contrast cinematography impeccably, presenting a perfectly balanced black-and-white image that preserves the atmospheric effects of the film’s heightened, nighttime suspense sequences—as well as the grittier, documentary feel of its daytime images of divided Berlin. Subtle film grain is preserved in the image, and the transfer is clearly based on a print that was either exceptionally well preserved or expertly restored, given that there are almost no pockmarks or other flaws on display. The mono soundtrack is likewise flawlessly reproduced on the disc’s DTS stereo track.

Extras

This release lacks any accompanying booklet but includes an impressive set of extras on the disc itself. A well-researched audio commentary by critic Simon Abrams draws upon the biographies of the stars and filmmakers, as well as contemporary critical reactions of The Man Between, to offer background on the film. Abrams adds his own critical interpretation of what he feels is a too-often neglected work, pointing toward Carol Reed’s artful scene construction and the themes of waiting and stasis that distinguish the film from The Third Man.

Also available on the disc is an interview with star Claire Bloom, who expresses little admiration for The Man Between, reiterating multiple times that it was chosen for her by producer Alexander Korda and that it isn’t a film that she would have chosen herself. She does, though, speak admiringly of Reed and co-star James Mason. As a production, the interview is rather slapdash: At one point, Bloom recounts working with Charlie Chaplin on his late-period film Limelight and the picture spliced into the video is, amusingly, a black-and-white still of Robert Downey Jr. as a young Chaplin in Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin.

Much more polished is Carol Reed: A Gentle Eye, a 45-minute documentary on the career of the filmmaker, featuring surviving collaborators discussing his versatility and his impact on British cinema. One intriguing insight offered here is the influence of the British documentary movement of the ‘30s and ‘40s on Reed’s filmmaking, which suggests The Third Man and The Man Between in a fascinating national lineage, leading up to the kitchen-sink cinema of the ‘60s. A conversation with Mason—every bit as disarming as Bloom—also appears among the disc’s extras, in the form of audio of a lecture and interview conducted at a career retrospective at the BFI in 1967. Finally, this release includes trailers for other noirs in Kino Lorber’s library.

Overall

Although not quite an overlooked masterpiece, Carol Reed’s The Man Between is a stylish and visually intelligent thriller from a master of atmospheric cinema, and it’s been preserved beautifully—and with a healthy set of bonus features—on Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release.

Cast: James Mason, Claire Bloom, Hildegard Knef, Geoffrey Toone, Aribert Wäscher, Ernst Schröder, Dieter Krause, Hilde Sessak, Karl John, Ljuba Welitsch Director: Carol Reed Screenwriter: Harry Kurnitz Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 102 min Rating: NR Year: 1953 Release Date: November 5, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Leon Gast’s When We Were Kings on the Criterion Collection

This release attests to the enduring power of Gast’s documentary.

3.5

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When We Were Kings

By the time the Rumble in the Jungle heavyweight world championship bout took place in Kinshasa in October 1974, Muhammad Ali was considered past his prime, standing almost no chance against a ferocious George Foreman, then 24 years young and undefeated. Despite this, Leon Gast’s When We Were Kings predominantly thinks in terms of the dialectic between Ali’s boundless charisma and Forman’s impervious aloofness, rather than the one between the former’s age and speed and the latter’s youth and brute strength. Ali was a 7-to-1 underdog heading into the fight, and his arrogance in the face of those odds, along with his wit, eloquence, and sense imagination, makes him a compelling, complicated, and compulsively watchable screen presence. And his fearless, vociferous activism in black communities and political dissent to American imperialism made him a fitting hero to his thousands of African fans, who swarmed him everywhere he went in the weeks leading up to the main event.

With Ali in the spotlight, When We Were Kings relegates Foreman unwittingly to the role of supporting player, a dour but menacing villain who’s seen primarily in glimpses, leaving impossibly huge dents in punching bags or speaking without any hint of emotion to the press. All the while, Ali is front and center, thriving in his leading role as the lovably mischievous, and all-too-cocky, David to Foreman’s Goliath—riffing poetically throughout press conferences and feeding off the energy of his loyal fans, whose constant chants of “Ali, bombaye!” (or “kill him!”) pumped him full of just enough gusto to allow him to actually believe half the things he said about destroying the seemingly unbeatable Foreman.

But Gast doesn’t cast Ali as the heroic underdog merely to set up the potentially monumental upset that comes to pass. Ali also serves as the embodiment of black unity, the de facto face of the Rumble in the Jungle; the fight was paired with Zaire 74, a music festival that featured all-black musical acts, including James Brown, B.B. King, Bill Withers, and a slew of African musicians. While aboard a plane in Africa, Ali quips, “All-black pilots, an all-black crew? The American negro could never dream of this.” It’s this ideal of communal solidarity and empowerment that Ali sought during this trip to his self-declared homeland, and which he hoped would reverberate back in America. As Gast and his crew capture Ali’s oratory ingenuity and intense training, as well as snippets of remarkable concert footage, When We Were Kings becomes a celebration of not just one man, but of black excellence as a whole.

Lurking beneath this fascinating, one-of-a-kind event, though, lies an undercurrent of nefariousness. Organized by none other than Don King, the shrewd huckster who later cheated Mike Tyson and other boxers out of millions of dollars, the fight was funded entirely by Zaire’s brutal dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, who, like King, used the event as a means to further his career and enrich himself. The ultimate goal of putting artistic, organizational, and monetary control into the hands of black talent certainly created a general sense of harmony and some genuinely inspirational moments, such as when dozens of African-American musicians jam and dance together during their flight to Africa. But the film also acknowledges the complicated and, perhaps necessarily, compromised nature of such a bold undertaking.

As the editing of the initially commissioned film didn’t begin until nearly two decades after Ali knocked out Foreman, Gast also judiciously employs talking heads, filmed in the mid-1990s, to help contextualize the cultural significance and impact of the fight and festival, and address the questionable behind-the-scenes dealings and Ali’s legacy as both a boxer and activist. With everyone from Norman Mailer and George Plimpton, who covered the fight from Zaire, to black artists, Spike Lee and Malick Bowens, on hand to offer fascinating and divergent perspectives on the events as they occurred and attest to their lasting importance, When We Were Kings provides a prismatic view of one of the biggest sports spectacles of the 20th century. It seamlessly captures the event’s politically radical undercurrent, and with both a tactile sense of urgency in its vérité archival footage and a reflectiveness about the role athletes can play in affecting social change, along with the inevitable costs that comes with it.

Image/Sound

Although the Criterion Collection’s release boasts a new, restored 4K digital transfer, this is a prime example of a film whose source materials benefit only modestly from a high-resolution restoration. The image is consistently bright, but this only exacerbates the film’s frequently blown-out and wildly shifting color tones from one scene to the next. Clarity is also incredibly erratic, with certain shots exuding a sharpness and depth of detail that one expects from a 4K restoration, while others are quite hazy and soft, even for 16mm footage shot on the fly over 40 years ago. Obviously, there’s only so much to be done with overexposed archival footage—which was also not helped by sitting in the can for nearly two decades before being compiled into the finished film—but the final result is less than impressive. Fortunately, the 5.0 surround DTS-HD audio soundtrack is nicely layered, with a richness to background and crowd noises, and is particularly booming during the musical interludes.

Extras

Cut from the same footage used for When We Were Kings, Jeffrey Kusama-Hinte’s 2008 documentary Soul Power serves as a perfect companion piece to Leon Gast’s earlier film, focusing primarily on the Zaire 74 music festival that was scheduled to take place right before the Rumble in the Jungle, prior to the fight’s six-week delay. The behind-the-scenes footage focuses a bit too much on the organization and construction of the festival, but the concert footage itself is impressive, featuring a typically electrifying and sweaty James Brown (donning an elaborate black-and-blue one-piece, bejeweled in pearls), Bill Withers, B.B. King, and a slew of remarkably talented African performers, including Fania All-Stars with Celia Cruz.

The only other disc extras are a pair of interviews: one with producer David Sonenberg, who delves into the process of getting When We Were Kings made, and another with Gast, who discusses how supportive Muhammad Ali was during filming, in stark contrast to a belligerent and uncooperative George Foreman. A fascinating essay by critic Kelefa Sanneh susses out both the complexities and contradictions of the Black Power politics espoused by Ali, Don King, and Mobutu Sese Seko, and also touches on the countless challenges of mounting the music festival and, later, getting both When We Were Kings and Soul Power made.

Overall

Criterion’s new 4K transfer may not be a radical leap forward from earlier ones of When We Were Kings, but this release attests to the enduring power of Leon Gast’s documentary.

Cast: Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Don King, James Brown, B.B. King, Mobutu Sese Seko, Spike Lee, Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Thomas Hauser, Malick Bowens Director: Leon Gast Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 87 min Rating: PG Year: 1996 Release Date: October 22, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Clive Barker’s Hellraiser Gets New Arrow Video Edition

Arrow reminds us that time has been relatively kind to Barker’s sadomasochistic morality play.

4.5

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Hellraiser

Violence and sex are intimately linked in the horror genre, though Hellraiser takes this connection to a remarkably explicit level. In his feature-length debut as a director, Clive Barker follows a family that’s splintered by its subterranean desires. Julia (Clare Higgins), not getting what she needs from her husband, Larry (Andrew Robinson), agrees to help Frank (Oliver Smith), Larry’s undead brother, restore his body with the blood of men she lures to the family’s home. Harlequin-like flashbacks, almost satirical in nature, explain the intensity of Julia’s commitment to Frank (played in human form by Sean Chapman), who brings Julia to climax with the threat of valuing his pleasure over hers. Frank eventually took his pain-as-pleasure ethos to supernatural levels, hence his present existence as an ectoplasm in the attic of his and Larry’s family estate—a place which Barker pointedly sprinkles with gaudy religious iconography (as well as clichéd haunted-house motifs).

Barker is in sync with a hunger that’s especially taboo now: the desire to be objectified and dominated. Larry is a sensitive and agreeable patriarch who exudes the stability we’re supposed to like about well-adjusted men—a callback to the 1950s-era idea of the nine-to-five breadwinner. Frank, stereotypical in an opposing direction, is the taut stud who has intense sex with Julia immediately upon meeting her. In the way he contrasts the men, Barker reveals that he’s too comfortable with shorthand, as he provides little context as to the brothers’ relationship beyond such broad differences. Larry never shares a scene with either the hot or grotesque version of Frank, which feels like a result of narrative pruning as well as, perhaps, a paucity of imagination. Larry isn’t quite a prudish foil, as Robinson imbues the character with a clueless vulnerability and earnestness that’s poignant, though he’s nevertheless undernourished, especially since there are also so few scenes between him and Julia.

Hellraiser often suggests a familial drama, though Barker isn’t especially interested in dramatizing the textures of domesticity. As sexually neurotic ‘80s-era chamber body-horror films go, Hellraiser is much thinner emotionally than The Fly. Where David Cronenberg is authentically interested in his characters, Barker regards Frank, Larry, Julia, and Frank’s innocent young-adult daughter, Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), mostly as variables necessary in the unleashing of his symbolism. Nonetheless, what gives Hellraiser its graphic power are the visual metaphors that Baker fashions for the yearning of the annihilation of self.

Barker establishes Frank to be a wayward stud who travels the Earth, presumably for the ultimate orgasm. His adventures lead him to a metallic Chinese puzzle cube that, when manipulated correctly, unleashes the Cenobites, otherworldly agents of torture and pleasure who, per the ringleader who would be identified in sequels as Pinhead (Doug Bradley), can serve as either angels or demons. With their rotating wooden pole of disembodied flesh, flesh-tearing hooks, leather gear, and deformities that are the result of hungers that had be actualized at the cost of the corporeal body, the Cenobites are unmistakable symbols of the fear and desire that can afflict those tempted by sadomasochistic sex. They also suggest debauched rock-stars who are so burned out they must travel all realms of existence to find comparative lambs for induction into their theater of damnation.

The Cenobites—especially Pinhead, a regal demon with pins sticking out of a white, bald dome that’s animated by piercing, hauntingly intelligent eyes—would become pop-cultural icons, and Barker uses them shrewdly and sparingly, contrasting them with the somewhat repetitive conflict between Larry, Frank, and Julia. One suspects that Barker wants the audience to yearn for the Cenobites, a reaction that fosters a kinship between us and the people of the world who have cravings which mainstream society abhors. (There’s a gay subtext in Hellraiser, and even an incestuous one, as Larry comes to steal Frank’s body—an act that feels sexual in itself—while leering at Kirsty.) Released during the AIDS epidemic, the film offers a nightmare of extremes: Frank and the Cenobites are prisoners of their libertinism, while Larry and Clare are entombed in the bitterness wrought by platitude and politeness. Both existences feel like hell.

Image/Sound

This new 2K restoration of Hellraiser, approved by cinematographer Robin Vidgeon, is rich and attractive, abounding in deep browns and blacks, garish reds, purposefully shrill whites and silvers, and robust flesh tones. Quite a bit of grain in this image, though it’s appealing and feels inherent to the film’s handmade, low-budget aesthetic. Two sound mixes have been included, an uncompressed PCM 2.0 and a DTS-HD MA 5.1, and both offer an immersive sound stage, though the Cenobites’ clinging and clanging really soars on the 5.1. Both mixes also honor the rich and elegant beauty of Christopher Young’s score, which goes a long way toward distancing Hellraiser from the various other ‘80s-era horror series.

Extras

“Leviathan: The Story of Hellraiser” is a feature-length documentary that offers an engaging deep-dive into the making of the film, particularly in terms of how its memorable creatures and special effects came about. (Doug Bradly, the actor who played Pinhead, is an especially memorable interview subject.) Clive Barker is notably missing from “Leviathan,” but he has two audio commentary tracks here, one by himself and the other with actress Ashley Laurence. The second track is unsurprisingly looser and more conversational, but both abound in juicy details about the film’s construction, symbolism, use of sets, and evolution of effects. (Barker is particularly engaged with an evocative bit of crosscutting, in which a flashback to Julia’s affair with Frank is interspersed with a sequence in which Larry tries to move his and Julia’s marital bed up into their bedroom.) Interviews with actors Sean Chapman and Bradley offer more insight into the film’s making, while another talk with ex-Coil member Stephen Thrower discusses the Hellraiser score that might have been. A variety of other odds and ends round out an excellent package, including a trailer and TV spots, an image gallery, a vintage featurette, and even drafts of the film’s screenplay via BD-ROM.

Overall

With a beautiful new transfer, Arrow Video reminds us that time has been relatively kind to Clive Barker’s sadomasochistic morality play.

Cast: Andrew Robinson, Clare Higgins, Ashley Laurence, Sean Chapman, Oliver Smith, Doug Bradley Director: Clive Barker Screenwriter: Clive Barker Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 93 min Rating: R Year: 1987 Release Date: September 24, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Ernst Lubitsch’s Cluny Brown on the Criterion Collection

Lubitsch’s film is a deceptively lighthearted exploration of class and gender issues in Britain on the brink of World War II.

4

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Cluny Brown

What is the “Lubitsch touch” if not the quiet thrill of being in on the joke? Ernst Lubitsch’s penchant for sly elisions—the knowing pan away from imminent hanky-panky or the arch relish of a double entendre—rests upon an implicit understanding between filmmaker and viewer, a trust that, coming from such a sophisticated source, feels like a gift unto itself. He takes for granted not only a worldly knowledge of sex, romance, class, and the multitude of ways that adults so royally mix them up, but an attitude toward such foibles that’s at once wry and empathetic. This cocktail of urbane compassion is a very specific blend—the eye must roll in bemusement, but also twinkle in self-recognition—or, rather, it feels specific when you watch a Lubitsch film, his observations on human experience as seemingly candid as a wicked bon mot murmured into your ear above the din of a cocktail party.

That comedy so seemingly contingent upon the felicities of individual temperament can tickle so many viewers speaks not only to the delicacy of Lubitsch’s tone and the mastery of his technique, but to the sneaky accessibility of his narratives, which frequently consider the pleasures and perils of social and sexual transgression. Decked in suave European refinement and surrounded by Lubitsch’s twin brands of dolt (clueless aristocrats and stick-up-their-butt philistines), his protagonists’ sly mistrust of societal convention marks them as isolated outsiders as much as stylish renegades. Lubitsch applauds their casting off of ridiculous communal strictures, while also recognizing the sting of rejection and the difficulty of sorting our life—and especially love—on your own terms. These pinpricks of regret and uncertainty ground the lighter-than-air farce in poignant self-awareness without deflating its comic buoyancy: an acknowledgment that being in on the joke often means choosing to separate oneself from the rest of the party—which was probably not worth attending to begin with.

Cluny Brown, Lubitsch’s last completed film before his death in 1947, offers ample evidence that the then-aging filmmaker still possessed a sharp eye for the absurdities of class snobbery. The year is 1938, and anti-Nazi Czech refugee Adam Belinski (Charles Boyer) has come to prewar London to find safe haven with a professor friend. Finding the apartment occupied by a fussbudget subletter, Hilary Ames (Reginald Gardiner), awaiting the arrival of a plumber to fix his stopped-up sink, the wily Belinski nevertheless makes himself at home. Enter the eponymous plumber’s niece (Jennifer Jones), a spirited orphan who arrives in her uncle’s stead and quickly unclogs the pipes. Belinski and Brown hit it off in their brief—and unexpectedly drunken—afternoon together, and are surprisingly reunited after she gets a job as a chambermaid for the wealthy Carmel family, whose earnest if callow son, Andrew (Peter Lawford), takes it upon himself to shelter Belinski at the family estate.

Belinski and Brown continually cross paths in the estate, sharing the kind of easy rapport that makes their eventual pairing a sweet inevitability. If Belinski and Brown dance around romance in a familiarly protracted manner, however, they move more to the rigid waltz of class consciousness than the looser rhythms of personal neuroses that usually drive movie couples apart until the closing act. Few Hollywood films of the time (or any time, for that matter) foreground the economic barriers between their characters as much as Cluny Brown, even if Lubitsch does so largely in the name of light-fingered satire. The Carmel estate proves a ripe target for skewering old-money intransigence, with father Henry (Reginald Owen) and the family’s butler both barely able to conceal horror when Cluny makes a whispered suggestion on which piece of meat to take from the tray as she serves the family dinner. And while Henry can barely muster the interest to keep track of the impending Nazi threat, Andrew twists himself in liberal-guilt knots over the forthcoming crisis, writing irate letters to The Times and threatening to join the RAF—though only after his marriage proposal is rebuffed by the coolly elegant socialite Betty Cream (Helen Walker). (Wife Alice, played by Margaret Bannerman, has some similarly oblivious moments, but possesses more intrinsic wisdom than she lets on.)

But Lubitsch chides the Carmels while still casting an affectionate glance at their daily lives and inner workings. He saves his most barbed humor for Wilson (Richard Haydn), a simpering, nasal-voiced pharmacist whose courtship of Cluny includes tea with his sour-faced mother. For all its delicious dialogue (courtesy of Samuel Hoffenstein and Elizabeth Reinhardt’s screenplay, adapted from the novel by Margery Sharp), the biggest laughs might come from this scowling matriarch, whose sole verbal utterances of harrumphs and throat-clearings speak volumes about the film’s vision of middle-class banality and pettiness.

Belinski remains a respected outcast within these overlapping milieus, a prototypical Lubitsch male who recognizes the blinkered sightlines of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie and gently manipulates them for his own survival. Cluny Brown largely downplays Belinski’s role as an anti-Nazi freedom fighter, though he does offer a plea toward the end for British intervention that feels strikingly earnest in a film whose eyebrow appears perennially cocked in self-amusement. (The issue of his German heritage aside, is it any wonder that Lubitsch’s disdain of uncritical groupthink would so often manifest itself in unsparing mockery of fascism?)

Cluny, on the other hand, lacks Belinski’s cosmopolitan defenses, and finds herself the clearest target of supercilious class condemnation. There’s a sad moment when she first enters the Carmel estate escorted by their neighbor, the courtly Colonel Duff-Graham (C. Aubrey Smith). Mistaken for an acquaintance of the colonel’s, she’s invited for tea by Henry and Alice. Cluny energetically chats up the Carmels, commenting on their graciousness and hospitality, until Henry and Alice suddenly realize who she really is. With little more than a few judiciously edited close-ups and medium shots (Dorothy Spencer is the film’s superb editor), Lubitsch charts the conversation’s sudden deflation to its quietly heartbreaking conclusion: a crestfallen Cluny sitting alone, her cup of tea a mocking totem of mistaken social parity.

The scene wouldn’t be such a punch in the gut if it weren’t for Jones’s vivacious performance; her breathless comic energy marks Cluny as a mold-breaking original and underscores those moments when the wind gets knocked out of the character’s sails by those attempting to squeeze her into “appropriate” social roles. Jones excels in that delicate balance of guilelessness and self-awareness shared by so many screwball goddesses of 1930s and ‘40s Hollywood comedies; somehow, we simultaneously buy that she knows Wilson is a dud and that she wants to live up to his skewered expectations of middle-class propriety. When she leaps from the table mid-dinner-party at Wilson’s to fix his backed-up sink, the look of revulsion on Haydn’s face and the slow track-in on Jones as he proceeds to dress her down stings like little else in all of Lubitsch’s oeuvre.

It’s difficult to say that Boyer and Jones have great sexual chemistry. Their burgeoning romance lacks the spark of such earlier Lubitsch pairings as Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan in The Shop Around the Corner or Kay Francis and Herbert Marshall in Trouble in Paradise. (Certainly, no moment in Cluny Brown matches the sly melancholy of Francis and Marshall’s late-film farewell, one of the great, poignant shrugs in the annals of American comedy.) Rather, they delight because they’re twin displaced souls stuck in a conformist universe, finding in one another the possibility of surprise and cheerful defiance.

Lubitsch, similarly, offers his viewers low-key pleasures over grand gestures throughout Cluny Brown, admittedly lacking some of the winking verve more prominently displayed in his earlier films. His penchant for hinting at off-screen naughtiness by shifting the focus onto telling details in the mise-en-scène is kept to a minimum—save for a film-ending joke involving a blossoming book series and its connection to the couple’s sexual shenanigans. DP Joseph Le Shelle’s camera moves with graceful unobtrusiveness, all the better to highlight the film’s note-perfect ensemble. Indeed, this formal simplicity fits snugly with Cluny Brown’s relaxed comic rhythms and gently skeptical view of social barriers and the rare people who can transcend them. For Lubitsch, happiness is the pleasure of having someone to smile with about the world’s absurdities. It’s his great gift as a director that, by the end of his films, we feel as if he’s graced us with that smile, and the sad, funny knowledge that comes with it.

Image/Sound

Criterion’s 4K scan from a 35mm composite looks robust, with a considerable boost in the fine details of clothing (like Peter Lawford’s pinstripe suit) and set design (you can now discern every bit of rubbish in that blocked sink) compared to earlier SD releases. Black levels appear dense and uncrushed. The LPCM mono track is sturdy, with optional subtitles available if you don’t happen to have an ear for the various British accents.

Extras

Criterion assembles a slender but informative roster of extras. The featurette “Squirrels to the Nuts” finds critics Molly Haskell and Farran Smith Nehme talking about the archetype of the “Lubitsch female,” how the director subverted gender stereotypes and audience expectations throughout his career, and the role of politics and class structure in Cluny Brown. Kristin Thompson exhibits her usual critical acumen in a video essay that formally deconstructs Lubitsch’s use of the reaction shot in the film, with a particularly nuanced reading of the birthday party scene. In “The Lubitsch Touch,” an archival program from 2004, critic Bernard Eisenschitz provides an overview of the filmmaker’s career from his youth in Berlin’s garment district, days as a member of Max Reinhardt’s famous theatrical troupe, silent film career in Germany and subsequent move to Hollywood, later health issues and distress at developments in postwar American politics, and inspirational role in the career of Billy Wilder (who famously had a sign over his desk that read “What Would Lubitsch Do?”). There’s an hour-long radio version of Cluny Brown from 1950 that finds Charles Boyer reprising his role as Adam Belinsky alongside Dorothy McGuire as Cluny. (If nothing else, this program pretty definitely proves the difficulty of catching comedic lightning in a bottle.) Finally, a booklet contains Siri Hustvedt’s essay “The Joys of Plumbing,” a thorough, thoughtful reading of the film, which is a definite plus, since Criterion’s release lacks anything in the way of a commentary track.

Overall

Ernst Lubitsch’s final finished film is a deceptively lighthearted exploration of class and gender issues in Britain on the brink of World War II.

Cast: Jennifer Jones, Charles Boyer, Peter Lawford, Helen Walker, Reginald Gardiner, Reginald Owen, Margaret Bannerman, C. Aubrey Smith, Richard Haydn Director: Ernst Lubitsch Screenwriter: Samuel Hoffenstein Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 1946 Release Date: September 17, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Abbas Kiarostami’s The Koker Trilogy on Criterion Blu-ray

This magnificent set of essential restorations is a strong contender for Blu-ray release of the year.

5

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The Koker Trilogy

The films in Abbas Kiarostami’s Koker trilogy have a sense of immediacy—an in-the-moment exactitude—that adds up to an expansive vision of life. After watching Where Is the Friend’s House?, And Life Goes On, and Through the Olive Trees, especially in close succession, it may feel as if you’ve actually navigated the Iranian farming village of Koker, perhaps even strolled the iconic zig-zag trail up a hill to what appears to be the neighboring village of Poshteh. In these films, Kiarostami revels in narrative, pictorial, and verbal patterns, which he revises to express the open-endedness of life, as well as the porous boundaries between “reality” and art. The master filmmaker also fuses documentary and fiction, elaborating on the strengths and limitations of each form, suggesting that documentary is fiction and vice versa.

Throughout the trilogy, Kiarostami keeps allowing people’s identities to fluctuate (for instance, a major character in one film might be an extra in another), with lines between scripted and “found” roles consciously blurred. This instability cumulatively communicates the changes wrought by the passage of time, and so the characters’ shifting identities render them more lifelike than the cemented stereotypes of TV shows and conventional movie sequels. Yet amid this fluctuation is the seeming permanency of that zig-zag trail, of a grove of olive trees, of a porch outside a fierce grandmother’s home, of landscapes that embody the Sisyphean comedy of everyday travails that come to mean everything.

The loose narratives of these three films offer another sort of permanency, as they all concern a variation of the same plot, following a protagonist who’s thwarted in his quest to communicate a message to another party. And none of these protagonists achieve their quest the way they had imagined, and this frustration acquaints them with the mystery and majesty of the quotidian of their lives, allowing them to integrate with their society.

In Where Is the Friend’s House?, Kiarostami spins one of the greatest of all films out of a child’s urge to return a notebook to his classmate. Dramatizing this dilemma, Kiarostami offers a tapestry of life, revealing how the domestic textures of Koker embody its class issues and politics. Trying to find his friend, Ahmad (Babak Ahmadpour) navigates multiple definitions of authority and varying generations of his family and neighbors. At first, Ahmad regards adults as impediments to his generosity, though the boy gradually comes to see that these men and women have their own vulnerabilities, which Kiarostami expresses in images of rapt beauty. The filmmaker renders common acts, such as an elderly craftsman’s task of taking off his shoes by his doorway, as emotionally revelatory moments of process.

And Life Goes On and Through the Olive Trees are wilder and more free-wheeling than Where Is the Friend’s House?, pondering the ramifications of the earlier film’s existence. In And Life Goes On, a filmmaker (Farhad Kheradmand) clearly modeled on Kiarostami searches for the children who appeared in Where Is the Friend’s House in the wake of the real-life earthquake that devastated Koker in 1990. In Through the Olive Trees, another Kiarostami stand-in (Mohammad Ali Keshavarz) shoots And Life Goes On, getting stuck on a vignette that reveals the real romantic tensions between two of his moonlighting non-actors. The films nest inside one another, freeing Kiarostami from the (comparatively) traditional plotting of Where Is the Friend’s House? With this freedom, Kiarostami creates sequences that are interlocked and isolated at once, existing as stanzas that are both journalistic and figurative.

The tedium of conventional three-act narratives rests in a certain rigidity: Most stories are equations with dilemmas that must be resolved as one might a proof, and to make such equations work, most filmmakers shortchange the spontaneous, ambiguous, sensual textures that are the manna of life. Kiarostami has it both ways, using formal patterns to convey stability, and to give us reassurance of the familiar, while abandoning plots to pursue his more original fancies. In And Life Goes On, there’s a powerfully pragmatic and intimate scene where a husband (Hossein Rezai) explains he and his wife’s need to marry in the face of tragedy, as well as a moment of profound insight in which a young man explains his need to watch the World Cup even among the ruins wrought by the earthquake. And in Through the Olive Trees, there’s a poignant yet piercingly unsentimental moment in which an illiterate villager pleads for the necessity of intermarrying between the rich and poor. Desperate to transcend himself, he’s both classist and self-loathing, willing to breed his people out of existence.

Above all, Kiarostami’s intermixing of fact, fiction, and metatextual confessional affords him and his audience space. These films have dozens of extraordinary moments in which narrative and time seemingly freeze to allow us to register characters’ complex reactions to common stimuli. Some of these sequences are simple and rapturous, such as a close-up of a soda bottle as a boy buys it from a store deserted in the wake of the earthquake; others are troubling and profoundly moving, such as a lingering medium shot of Ahmad as it dawns on him that he has his friend’s notebook, which could get the friend expelled. In the latter scene, we see the crystallization of this boy’s morality as well as his calculation of the perils of honoring it, and Kiarostami accords this moment its full weight without rushing along to tend to the plot. The true story of the Koker trilogy are such poetic moments of extremity, ones that seemingly arise out of nowhere and force us to reckon with the tenor of our existence.

Image/Sound

Criterion’s restoration and promotion of these films, given their relative obscurity in the West, is good news in itself, though the better news is the formal magnitude of these transfers. The images are pristine, with vibrant and varied colors and healthy grit. The textures of characters’ faces and of Koker’s natural landscapes are stunning, especially the rugged mountains and trees. The soundtracks are also impressive, particularly underscoring Kiarostami’s masterful use of diegetic sounds to establish a sense of place—especially the noises made by domestic animals and machines, such as construction equipment and cars. Dialogue is clear, unless it’s not meant to be, and music is rendered with clarity and a becoming lightness of body.

Extras

These extras offer a wonderful examination of the films in the trilogy and their larger cultural context. For a wide-reaching discussion of Iran’s political textures, and of Kiarostami’s use of varied perspectives, the new audio commentary on And Life Goes On with Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum, co-authors of Abbas Kiarostami, makes for invaluable listening that will be especially useful for Western audiences. Complementing the commentary are a variety of new interviews, such as the conversation between scholar Jamsheed Akrami and critic Godfrey Cheshire, in which the men wrestle with Kiarostami’s style and the use of the word “trilogy,” and an incisive discussion with scholar Hamid Naficy. Meanwhile, another new interview with Kiarostami’s son, Ahmad, offers a more personal perspective, while a 2015 interview with Kiarostami himself abounds in choice descriptions, such as his approach to non-actors: “They were not acting, they were living in front of the camera.”

A 1994 documentary, Abbas Kiarostami: Truths and Dreams, follows the filmmaker in Koker after the trilogy’s completion, and nearly functions as a sequel to the original films. Even better, Kiarostami’s 1989 documentary Homework is included here; it’s essential for helping to elaborate on the evolution that his filmmaking process was undergoing at this time. (Another critical film in Kiarostami’s canon, Close-Up, was a pivotal influence on And Life Goes On and Through the Olive Trees, and is prominently mentioned by many of the writers on this set.) Rounding out this essential collection of extras is a booklet featuring an essay by Chesire that beautifully encapsulates the complex humanist structure of these classic films.

Overall

This magnificent set of essential restorations, accompanied by passionate and well-researched supplements, is a strong contender for Blu-ray release of the year.

Cast: Babek Ahmed Poor, Ahmed Ahmed Poor, Khodabakhsh Defaei, Iran Outari, Ait Ansari, Sadika Taohidi, Biman Mouafi, Ali Djamali, Aziz Babai, Farhad Kheradmand, Buba Bayour, Hocine Rifahi, Ferhendeh Feydi, Mahrem Feydi, Bahrovz Aydini, Ziya Babai, Mohamed Hocinerouhi, Hocine Khadem, Mohamad Ali Keshavarz, Zarifeh Shiva, Hossein Rezai, Tahereh Ladanian, Hocine Redai, Nosrat Bagheri, Azim Aziz Nia Director: Abbas Kiarostami Screenwriter: Abbas Kiarostami Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 281 min Rating: NR, G Year: 1987 - 1994 Release Date: August 27, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London on Arrow Blu-ray

Landis’s landmark horror-comedy gets a colorful new transfer, as well as a pack of new bonus materials.

5

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An American Werewolf in London

Blending horror and comedy is tantamount to walking a tightrope. In the wrong hands, the disparate elements tend to undercut—thereby nullifying—each other. On the heels of the ticklesome trifecta of Kentucky Fried Movie, Animal House, and The Blues Brothers, no one would have doubted that writer-director John Landis could bring the funny. But that he could also terrify audiences with a canny updating of Universal’s 1940s monster movies would be demonstrated definitively by An American Werewolf in London.

The film pithily outlines the relationship between two American backpackers, David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne), as they make their way across the bleak, fog-shrouded Yorkshire moors. And their status as strangers in an increasingly strange land is rendered laughably evident when they enter a pub bearing the charming soubriquet of The Slaughtered Lamb. Inside, Landis ramps up the awkward comedy as the locals do their best to engage the interlopers, until Jack makes the mistake of inquiring about a pentagram daubed on the wall. The aftermath is equal parts menace and mirth. The way one dart player (David Schofield) intones, “You made me miss,” indicates just how easily the whole encounter could erupt into violence.

That explosion is delayed, however, until our boys have done an admirable job of losing themselves on the moors. Landis stages the sequence brilliantly, the tension steadily mounting as a terrible howling (accomplished by playing of a reverb-heavy elephant’s roar backwards) seems to come from all directions at once. You almost think that their camaraderie might get them through, until an act of proffered aid is interrupted by wanton slaughter. When David resumes consciousness, he finds himself in a London hospital.

An American Werewolf in London’s middle section effectively alternates between some delightfully surreal, if increasingly violent, dream sequences and a number of encounters with a progressively decomposing Jack, who advises David to take his own life before he can harm anyone else. Though the film’s interspersed with subdued moments of humor, the predominant mood throughout is one of impending doom and lingering melancholy, offset somewhat by David’s growing infatuation with a nurse (Jenny Agutter). Their relationship isn’t particularly convincing, since the characters aren’t really developed beyond their archetypal functions, but it’s appealingly conveyed through Naughton and Agutter’s performances.

The film’s indisputable centerpiece is the protracted werewolf transformation sequence. Earlier werewolf movies were content to get the transformation over with as painlessly as possible with a series of simple lap dissolves, wherein each shot finds the metamorphosing main character covered with more hair and other makeup applications, such as increasingly longer ears and teeth. But with An American Werewolf in London, special effects guru Rick Baker concocts excruciatingly realistic visuals (a lengthening hand, a growing snout) that occur more or less in real time, and by seamlessly combining makeup and practical effects. The trend Baker inaugurated here would continue throughout the 1980s in films like John Carpenter’s The Thing and David Cronenberg’s The Fly, where audiences turned out to gasp at the latest FX wizardry as much as (or even more than) the film’s narrative.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the transformation sequence is that, because it’s set to Sam Cooke’s plaintive rendition of “Blue Moon,” it taps into the same aura of sadness and regret as the film’s middle section. But An American Werewolf in London’s final act again doubles down on the gruesome humor. The werewolf’s nocturnal rampages sit alongside endlessly quotable lines like “A naked American man just stole my balloons!” At one point, Jack beckons David into a porno theater (Landis also shot See You Next Wednesday, the titillating title on display) where he meets the victims of his carnage, their wounds still bloody. It’s a consummately eerie sequence, leavened with some blithe comedy, that culminates with David’s final transition into the bestial. One can only wonder how it would have played out if it had been set in a “cartoon cinema” full of children, as Landis had originally scripted it.

When the beast gets loose in Piccadilly Circus, Landis indulges in some of the same Keystone Cops-refracted demolition-derby action that peppered The Blue Brothers, played here for a maximum of mayhem: bodies smashing through windshields, bodies being repeatedly run over, double-decker buses toppling sideways. The scene moves dexterously from actual location shooting to a mockup of the locale without missing a beat. But the sobering finale takes place in a back alley, where Agutter gets to play an emotional farewell opposite a slavering wolf. That she manages to come across as genuinely affecting is some of most impressive movie magic to be found in An American Werewolf in London.

Image/Sound

Arrow’s new 4K restoration improves considerably on Universal’s previous editions of the film, with colors in low-light and nighttime scenes really coming across (witness the neon-hued hairdos on those punks David encounters on the Tube). Black levels look deeper and better resolved. There’s also the anticipated upgrade when it comes to the fine details of costume and set design. This is the first home-video release of An American Werewolf in London to include the original mono track as well as the rejiggered 5.1 surround (both in Master Audio), and while the mono is obviously more limited in its dynamic range and channeling of effects, it’s nonetheless truer to the theatrical experience. It’s certainly nice to have it here as an option. Either way, the soundtrack’s needle drops sound crisp and clear, as do the snatches of Elmer Bernstein’s atmospheric score that crop up over the course of the film.

Extras

Arrow has ported over practically every available bonus feature from earlier Universal home-video releases of the film and added some impressive new ones. The best of the older material is far and away Paul Davis’s 2009 making-of documentary Beware the Moon, which runs slightly longer than An American Werewolf in London itself. Davis covers every detail and aspect of the film’s production from its conception in 1969 to its release and reception in 1981. There are talking-head contributions from practically the entire cast and crew. The documentary is so comprehensive that it renders some of the other archival extras a tad redundant, though it’s good to have them gathered here for the sake of completion, especially those involving special makeup effects guru Rick Baker.

The new audio commentary from filmmaker Paul Davis miraculously contains little in the way of overlap with his making-of documentary, culling new anecdotes that were uncovered during research for his book on the film, including some fascinating information about deleted and extended scenes whose original elements have been lost. The terrific feature-length documentary Mark of the Beast is a deep-dive into the figure of the wolf man from a well-selected roster of film historians and technicians, beginning with the ubiquity of the lycanthrope or shapeshifter archetype across human cultures, laying out how screenwriter Curt Siodmak singlehandedly concocted the “lore” of the werewolf (pentagrams, silver bullets, wolf’s bane) for The Wolf Man. The doc systematically then touches on practically every iteration of the werewolf film from The Werewolf of London through An American Werewolf in London, with particular emphasis on the films’ makeup and transformation effects.

There’s a recently filmed interview with John Landis in which the writer-director reminisces about the time he spent in London in the late ‘60s, his love of British cinema (from kitchen-sink realism to the Carry On films), and his experience working with a British cast and crew on An American Werewolf in London. The intriguing video essay “I Think He’s a Jew” examines the ways Wolf Man screenwriter Curt Siodmak encoded elements of the Jewish experience into his script and how Landis updates and expands upon them with some canny post-World War II refences in An American Werewolf in London. The new featurette “Wares of the Wolf” is a nifty glimpse at some of the remaining artifacts from the film, including David’s puffy red North Face jacket, one of the Nazi werewolf masks, and the prosthetic head used for the transformation sequence. Arrow also includes a wealth of swag in their packaging: a double-sided fold-out poster; six double-sided, postcard-sized lobby card reproductions; and a 60-page booklet featuring new essays from Travis Crawford and Simon Ward, as well as archival articles and original reviews. Altogether this is one of Arrow’s most impressive recent releases.

Overall

John Landis’s landmark horror-comedy gets the deluxe Blu-ray treatment, with a colorful new transfer, as well as a pack of new bonus materials.

Cast: David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, Griffin Dunne, John Woodvine, Brian Glover, Lila Kaye, Frank Oz, David Schofield Director: John Landis Screenwriter: John Landis Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 97 min Rating: R Year: 1981 Release Date: October 29, 2019 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Blu-ray Review: Chuck Russell’s The Blob Gets a Definitive Shout! Edition

This release comes outfitted with a spectacular array of fascinating extras and the best transfer of the film to date.

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The Blob

Chuck Russell’s The Blob toes a confident line between affectionate parody and straight-faced homage. Russell and co-writer Frank Darabont, at the time both young bucks hot off the surprisingly good and successful A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, clearly understand that the 1958 version of The Blob is ridiculous and hypocritically conformist, boasting young “rebels” that always seem to be ready at a moment’s notice to oversee the next policeman’s ball. The filmmakers also realize that a new Blob would have to up the ante considerably on the gore, which isn’t a tall feat in this case, as Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr.’s original film featured a jelly alien that was never seen doing much more than (weirdly and poignantly) ambling up an empty street with a casualness that might suit an offhand search for a soda fountain. Russell and Darabont shrewdly build these concerns into their version, transforming the titular blob into a vividly sticky, viscous creature and setting it loose in an anachronism of a small 1980s town that could fit, comfortably, into the world as it was presented by the already 30-year-old original.

The weirdness of this film’s small California town is never far from Russell and Darabont’s collective sense of awareness. Gorgeous establishing shots of the setting show us a burg that appears to be enviably beautiful and tucked into itself—a monument to “minding your own business” while the rest of the world goes to hell. A child attempts to cajole his mother into letting him go with his buddy to see a Friday the 13th clone, assuring her that there’s no sex or anything bad while boasting of all the dismemberments the film’s bound to contain. It’s a fun, decidedly Joe Dante-ish moment that skewers puritanical Americana while efficiently setting the stage for the eventual reenactment of the theater scene from the first film.

Most pointedly, the teenagers in this version of The Blob are actually shown doing the things that teenagers often try to do—namely, getting drunk and laid, preferably simultaneously. This carnality is often played for comedy at the expense of the teenagers’ parents, who all consciously resemble 1950s archetypes: the pharmacist, the diner waitress, the small-town sheriff, the folksy mechanic, and so forth. Most bluntly, the blob isn’t an alien this time, but a government experiment gone awry—a twist that informs the monster with a sense of metaphoric, Romero-esque outrage at society’s self-concern, and which also serves to undermine the authority that the original film unquestioningly celebrated.

But the filmmakers wear this subtext lightly; they’re pranksters, not preachers. The Blob is ultimately a drive-in movie similar to its predecessor, and the primary difference is that it happens to be pretty good. The most obvious triumph is the beastie itself, which has been reimagined as a memorably disgusting batch of ambulatory, ever-mutating, brownish-pink ooze that occasionally springs Thing-style tentacles while dissolving and contorting its victims in remarkably inventive fashions that testify to Russell and Darabont’s glee at implicatively tearing Mayberry down to its foundation. (My personal favorite set piece involves a poor dishwasher who somehow gets sucked down a sink drain.)

Like all great monsters, the blob is democratic in its bloodlust: Women, children, and the nicest guys most obviously up for the role of town savior are the first to suffer its indifferent, acidic wrath. The third act falters (too many perfunctory explosions and explanations, too little majestic blobbing), but The Blob still belongs to the tradition of ‘80s horror movies that updated ‘50s curiosities to surprisingly potent and resonant effect. It shows that a genre remake mustn’t solely be an act of studio bookkeeping, as it can also be a call for playtime.

Image/Sound

Shout! Factory’s transfer is crisp and clear, and although colors appear slightly muted at times, the image has a nicely textured look throughout, going a long way to highlight the intricacies of the film’s homespun, yet impressive, practical effects and production design.
The neutral color balancing makes for consistently natural skin tones, while the strong contrast ensures a wealth of detail remains present even in the film’s numerous misty nighttime and dimly lit sewer-set sequences. The 5.1 audio is evenly mixed, presenting clean dialogue and giving a robustness to the more action-heavy sequences.

Extras

“Collector’s Edition” is typically nothing but a cheap marketing ploy, a meaningless phrase slapped onto countless Blu-ray covers in order to convince prospective buyers that they’re getting the best possible release of a film. But given the quality of the bountifulness extras on their release of The Blob, Shout! Factory actually gives fans and collectors a Blu-ray that will stand as the definitive edition of Chuck Russell’s undervalued gem for many years to come.

For starters, the disc comes with three feature-length commentary tracks, two of which are newly recorded. In the first of those, Russell, special effects artist Tony Gardner, and cinematographer Mark Irwin get into The Blob’s botched theatrical release, the influence of Hitchcock’s Psycho on the film’s narrative misdirects, and the challenges of location shooting and working on a tight budget. The trio also takes a stimulating and informative deep dive into how the practical effects were achieved and the tactics they used to get the blob to move in a naturalistic manner. The second and other new track, with lead actress Shawnee Smith, offers little more than aimless reminiscing and admiration for how well the film holds up. And the third track is a previously recorded one with Russell and producer Ryan Turek, and as such has a bit of crossover with Russell’s newly recorded one. But their rapport is engaging, and Russell’s passion for his work and that of others is unmistakable, especially as he discusses his personal feelings for Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr.’s original The Blob and how he tried to strike new ground with his remake, while remaining respectful of its forebearer.

The disc also comes with a staggering 11 interviews, covering virtually every aspect of the film’s production and post-production processes. If his two commentaries weren’t enough, Russell is also on hand for another 40 minutes of on-screen talk concerning, among other things, how he was inspired by silent comedians and everything he learned about stunt craft while on set with Roger Corman. Elsewhere, Irwin provides some fascinating anecdotes about his work with David Cronenberg on Videodrome and The Fly, while actors Jeffrey DeMunn, Donovan Leitch Jr., Candy Clark, and Bill Moseley all discuss their early acting influences and how The Blob changed their careers. But the most fruitful interviews here are with the film’s unsung heroes—production designer Craig Stearns, mechanical designer Mark Setrakian, and “blob mechanic” Peter Abrahamson—each of whom reveal technical tidbits about the nuts-and-bolts of practical effects that will be an absolute treat for anyone with even a passing interest in FX work. The package is rounded out with some silent behind-the-scenes footage of the assemblage of a handful of effects, a few theatrical trailers, and a TV spot that’s even more ‘80s than the epically feathered hairdo of Smith’s character in the film.

Overall

Shout! Factory’s new Blu-ray release of The Blob comes outfitted with a spectacular array of fascinating extras and the best transfer of the film to date.

Cast: Kevin Dillon, Shawnee Smith, Donovan Leitch Jr., Jeffrey DeMunn, Candy Clark, Joe Seneca, Jack Nance, Del Close, Bill Moseley Director: Chuck Russell Screenwriter: Chuck Russell, Frank Darabont Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 1988 Release Date: October 29, 2019 Buy: Video

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