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DVD Review: Rian Johnson’s Looper on Sony Home Entertainment

Looper injects the sci-fi actioneer with a much-needed jolt of moral consciousness.

3.0

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Looper

Writer-director Rian Johnson’s Looper is the rare contemporary American sci-fi action whirligig that actually improves as it proceeds along its narrative course. At the opening, we’re introduced to Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who explains via voiceover that he works as an unusual kind of contract killer in the early 2040s. Time travel doesn’t exist yet, but it will be invented soon only to be immediately outlawed, thus paving the way for a black-market practice in which criminal overlords ship their victims to the past to be immediately blown away and incinerated by people like Joe. Strikingly paid per corpse in bricks of gold and silver, the assassins, or “loopers,” enjoy a lifestyle that most any young man would envy: stylish duds (patterned, in a nifty joke, on 20th-century movies), readily available gorgeous women, primo drugs, and plenty of free time. It’s an ideal life for any amoral young man who thinks he’ll live forever (which is to say, most young, somewhat moneyed American men), but there’s one macabre catch: These killers are called loopers because they’re eventually, so as to ensure this practice’s secrecy, required to “close their own loop,” which is to say that the final hit of their career is the future version of themselves.

Needless to say that’s a mouthful, and that’s not including a number of other conceits, such as the existence of mild telekinesis, a practice of self-scarring, as well as a brutal form of retribution that’s visited upon the loopers should they welch on the final clause of their contract. If you’re familiar with Johnson’s prior films, Brick and The Brothers Bloom, then you can be forgiven for assuming that Looper will collapse under the weight of its gimmickry. The first act, while boasting a compellingly nihilistic atmosphere that’s been influenced by existentialist French crime epics, is also a bit of a convoluted slog.

The Brothers Bloom was hopelessly mannered, but there were moments in Brick that suggested a poetic David Lynchian metaphor for teen abuse, an impression that was significantly bolstered by Levitt’s heartbreaking work, which recalled his prior, much greater, performance in Mysterious Skin. Looper is a wonderful surprise because the filmmaker partially fulfills the promise he showed in Brick. Johnson gradually pars his film of narrative artifices as they become unnecessary, allowing a confident but routine future-shock thriller to evolve into an elegant and moving western.

The plot never makes much sense (why would a looper be charged with killing himself, as that leads to an obvious and avoidable conflict of interest?), but Johnson’s surprising moral urgency compensates to a considerable degree. Time travel is never more than a device that he utilizes in order to get two incarnations of the same man in the same room at the same time. Joe is inevitably called upon to off his future self, and Old Joe (Bruce Willis) is inevitably a more difficult target than Young Joe could imagine. In a plot thread straight from The Terminator, Old Joe is intent on killing a child in the 2040s who will grow up in the 2070s to become the Rainmaker, a mysterious über-criminal intent on prematurely closing all loops.

But Looper is really a parable of self-absorption, a story of a man looking himself in the eyes and coming to the startling realization that he’s allowed himself to become a monster. Johnson’s deft script initially splits your sympathies, as it’s difficult, at first, to tell which Joe is more emotionally centered. Old Joe eventually commits despicable acts that could be rationalized as potentially altering history for the better, but he’s really acting out of a desire to save the woman he will eventually fall in love with. Young Joe, in parallel, is forced on a collision course by his older self that enables him to achieve a measure of social awareness earlier than initially fated, which renders Old Joe’s disgusting quest moot.

It’s refreshing to see an action film this concerned with the actual consequences of violence. The loopers’ killings are jolting, and the third act pivots around the prevention of a murder that explicitly wrestles, admittedly simply, with notions of nature versus nurture. Most pop films, particularly in the vigilante-dominated action genre, embrace a devious form of self-gratification at all costs, but Looper slyly inserts an element of wounded longing among the instances of bloodshed.

Image/Sound

The image varies. The cityscapes boast sharp blacks and blues, but sequences set in the farmhouse and dilapidated portions of the city aren’t as crisp as they could be, and certain close-ups of the actors’ faces have a similar issue. The image is never bad, but one can’t help but sense that it could be better. The 5.1 Dolby Digital surround track, however, offers a clean and dense mix, and the action beats are rendered with particularly strong resonance.

Extras

In their audio commentary, director Rian Johnson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Emily Blunt offer traditional making-of anecdotes about the sets, casting choices, and general inspiration for the film. Johnson unsurprisingly dominates the proceedings, but all three participants are likeable and make for an engaging, if unremarkable, listen. The deleted scenes and making-of featurette are entirely forgettable, save for the fact of confirming for certain Looper geeks that Abe and Kid Blue are definitely not the same person. “Scoring Looper” is probably the best feature, as it provides interesting details on the number of household sounds that were used to fashion the film’s distinctive score. A Looper animated trailer also offers a refreshingly imaginative alternative to a DVD’s often obligatory trailer inclusion.

Overall

Looper injects the sci-fi actioneer with a much-needed jolt of moral consciousness.

Cast: Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, Noah Segan, Piper Perabo, Garret Dillahunt, Jeff Daniels Director: Rian Johnson Screenwriter: Rian Johnson Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2012 Release Date: December 31, 2012 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Review: Daughters of Darkness Gets 4K UHD Uplift from Blue Underground

Daughters of Darkness gets a significant facelift from Blue Underground alongside a smattering of new extras.

4.5

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Daughters of Darkness

The lifeblood of marriage was all but drained by the time Slovakia’s sullen vampires reached it in the early 1970s. Not that the bloodsuckers were the only ones targeting matrimony. Harry Kümel’s sapphic, Eurotrash vampire drama Daughters of Darkness has less in common with the likes of Vampyros Lesbos than it does with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Score, to name two great and, to be more direct, intensely homophiliac debasements of the sanctity of heterosexual newlywed-lock. Although, inversely proportional to Radley Metzger’s tour de foreplay Score, Daughters of Darkness kicks off with its hottest act of carnal pleasure, and as it turns out, it’s the requisite first post-nuptial screw shared by man and wife, Stefan and Valerie (played by John Karlen and Daniele Ouimet in full, hirstute The Joy of Sex glory).

But all is clearly not well in paradise, because their post-coital banter sees the two admitting that they don’t really love each other, perhaps half in jest, but certainly no less than half. Their lack of love makes them perfect for marriage, they conclude, and their perfectly imperfect union makes them an attractive target for the dissolute doings of Countess Elizabeth Bathory (an infallibly elegant Delphine Seyrig), the only other guest of note at the Belgian hotel at which Stefan and Valerie are spending their honeymoon. The countess wastes little time driving a wedge between the two, in what at first appears to be her own licentious way of killing the boredom of being moneyed enough to have one’s vacations stretch long into the off-season. It’s not long before the hotel’s concierge recognizes Bathory’s face, unchanged from how it was three decades prior. And then the morning-edition headlines start ringing the alarms about serial killings in nearby Bruges, and the countess’s traveling companion, Ilona (Andrea Rau), starts pulling grotesque poses outside the young couple’s bedroom window.

Kümel’s eroticism is far too methodical to ever tip over into the hysterical prurience that marks most of the other films that Daughters of Darkness would likely be compared to in retrospect. The lesbian overtones are strong but stingy, as though female-female lip-locks were to be used as sparingly as saffron. One wonders if he held himself back owing to Seyrig’s participation, just as one can’t fail to see lesbianism as preferable to whatever the violently AC/DC playboy Stefan’s got going on the side. (The film’s most shocking horror isn’t an act of bloodletting, but the long deferred reveal as to who Stefan’s mother really is and why he’s afraid to introduce his blushing bride to her face.) Whatever the cost for artsploitation perverts’ future enjoyment, Kümel’s impulse to remain on the waning edge of eroticism turns what could’ve been another cheap thrill into a genuinely unsettling examination of the human race’s most happily sanctioned form of vampirism: man-woman couplings.

Image/Sound

In short, a revelation, especially for those who own Blue Underground’s 2011 Blu-ray, on which the black levels are so strong that they sometimes threaten to swallow up the rest of the screen with them. No more, as the 4K restoration practically reinvents Daughters of Darkness right out the gate as rosy-faced Stefan and Valerie screw on the night train to Belgium, their compartment bathed in warm, naturalistic hues. The image is remarkably sharp across the board, which also means that there’s plenty of film noise, especially noticeable on the actors’ faces and especially light backgrounds, which won’t be a concern for anyone who likes being reminded of a time when all films were shot on celluloid. The English 5.1 DTS HD, which is preferable to the mono French dub, also consistently proves its might, especially when François de Roubaix’s superlative score fills the soundtrack.

Extras

Most of the extras here have been carried over from Blue Underground’s prior Blu-ray and DVD editions, including the self-serious and esoteric commentary featuring director Harry Kümel and a second with actor John Karlen and journalist David Del Valle that verges on proving Kümel’s apparent reservations about heterosexual masculinity entirely justified. You’ve got to love an actor who all but thanks the gay community for worshipping him and, in the same minute, licks his lips over his female co-stars, wishing he could go back and kiss them all over again. Not that Kümel and co-writer and co-producer Pierre Drouot prove much better when, as they’re taking a camera crew on a tour of the hotel locations where they shot Daughters of Darkness, they take pot shots at Danielle Ouimet’s allegedly robust measurements. Both Ouimet and Liza Minnelli look-alike Andrea Rou get a word in, and it’s a little saddening that the late Delphine Seyrig didn’t end up getting the same chance. All this chauvinism gets balanced by the inclusion of a third commentary featuring critic Kat Ellinger, whose enthusiasm for the film (and its restoration) is infectious from the start. Ellinger spent a decade writing Devil’s Advocates: Daughters of Darkness, and the knowledge that she brings to her commentary is enriched by conversations she had with Kümel at various points. No inclusion of Vicente Aranda’s The Blood Spattered Bride this time around, but de Roubaix’s score is included on its own separate disc. Finally, this three-disc set comes with a collectible booklet that includes a new essay by former Fangoria editor-in-chief Michael Gingold.

Overall

Making its 4K UHD debut, Daughters of Darkness gets a significant facelift from Blue Underground alongside a smattering of new extras.

Cast: Delphine Seyrig, Danielle Ouimet, John Karlen, Andrea Rau Director: Harry Kümel Screenwriter: Pierre Drouot, Jean Ferry, Harry Kümel Distributor: Blue Underground Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 1971 Release Date: October 27, 2020 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Henry King’s The Gunfighter on the Criterion Collection

This disc sheds light on an underrated, mournful western that anticipated the genre’s revisionism roughly a decade later.

4

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The Gunfighter

The protagonist of Henry King’s The Gunfighter will seem familiar to audiences of the revisionist westerns that surfaced in the late 1950s and flourished in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Loosely based on Old West outlaw Johnny Ringo, Gregory Peck’s Jimmy Ringo is a legendary killer with a gun that’s said to be as fast as Wyatt Earp’s, yet he’s beyond taking pleasure in such stature. He’s a solitary and regretful man in his mid-30s and carries the weight of his reputation in his anguished angular frame. In the film’s opening, we see Ringo kill a young hotshot looking to make a name for himself, and whom Ringo gives multiple chances to walk away. We keep hearing of how violent Ringo once was, yet what we see is a likable, tentative, assured person who desperately wishes to be left alone. And this contrast—between what we hear and what we see of Ringo—is intensified immeasurably by Peck’s performance.

Seen today, The Gunfighter has an incongruous element that many of its revisionist offspring lack. One may expect to see Warren Oates or Robert Ryan in the role of a taciturn, melancholy outlaw, as Peck is popularly associated with characters who embody a bedrock of shaman-like decency. But like the unduly sentimentalized James Stewart, Peck was willing to toy with this persona, which wasn’t cemented in 1950 at the time of The Gunfighter’s release. By this point, Peck had given what’s still his riskiest performance as the horny villain in King Vidor’s hallucinatory 1946 film Duel in the Sun, and had mined subtler forms of sexual obsession in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case the following year. Which is to say that Peck as a killer may have been less startling for audiences seeing The Gunfighter for the first time in 1950.

Regardless of context, Peck doesn’t even attempt to conjure the evil of an iconic killer, as his Jimmy Ringo is refined and unruffled, seemingly untouched by violence, and this disjunction is the point here. King’s film is a tall tale—or, more accurately, a resonant celebrity myth constructed by a person who no longer wishes to play it. The relationships between Ringo and the residents of a town called Cayenne, where he holes up for a morning, suggest a parallel for how modern icons are both empowered and entrapped by their disciples. Ringo’s failure to look the part of the killer, which triggers much of the violence that occurs in The Gunfighter, mirrors how many of us expect our favorite athletes, actors, and singers to be more than mere people. The film understands such an expectation to be a dangerous kind of dehumanization.

King and screenwriters William Bowers and William Sowers, working from a story co-written by filmmaker André De Toth, cannily physicalize the notion of entrapment by celebrity throughout. Ringo hides out in a saloon from various fans, as well from enemies looking to kill him, in order to avenge either nonexistent sleights or incidents that weren’t Ringo’s fault. And all the while, King and cinematographer Arthur C. Miller accentuate the vastness of the saloon while vividly establishing the spatial relationships between the bar and the surrounding buildings, imparting the sense that Ringo could get plugged anytime from anywhere.

The claustrophobia of the setting and the compact time period recall subsequent modernist western prototypes such as Fred Zimmerman’s High Noon and Delmer Daves’s 3:10 to Yuma. King also savors intimate moments of small-town American life, detailing, say, the specifics of shopping for potatoes and onions, or of the day-to-day trials faced by Marshal Mark Strett (Millard Mitchell), who has a relationship with Ringo that evokes the one between William Holden and Robert Ryan’s characters in Sam Peckinpah’s seminal The Wild Bunch. The film’s supporting characters indicate a flawed yet vibrant society that Ringo has divorced himself from via violence, while his long moments of thoughtfulness suggest atonement.

Yet Ringo’s ironic decency isn’t without sentimentality. The Gunfighter is highly critical of the young guns looking to bring down Ringo, while the protagonist himself, who once lived this sort of life, is uncriticized and unexamined—accepted by the filmmakers wholly as a doomed member of the reformed. If Ringo had shown even a trace of the crazy swagger that was said to once drive him—the kind of swagger that Michael Bien gave to a much different conception of the character in George P. Cosmatos’s 1993 western Tombstone—the film would have more bite. Think also of Clint Eastwood’s Will Munny in Unforgiven, or of the general air of hopelessness and viciousness that drives De Toth’s later, somewhat similarly plotted Day of the Outlaw. However, Peck communicates a supreme, restrained longing that quietly envelopes the film, imbuing it with a haunting, confessional grandeur. Like many postwar noirs, The Gunfighter is about a man who already knows he’s a ghost.

Image/Sound

Per the disc’s liner notes, this 4K restoration was undertaken by the Twentieth Century Fox Restoration Department in 2015. The image here is spotless: pristine and healthy, with sharp whites and rich, weighty blacks. This clarity particularly emphasizes the stature of Arthur C. Miller’s gorgeous deep-focus cinematography, which suggests the work of Gregg Toland. The disc’s single sound track, in English LPCM 1.0, is correspondingly nuanced, intensifying the film’s influential use of diegetic sounds to establish location and magnify suspense.

Extras

Two superb new supplements discuss the careers of director Henry King and editor Barbara McLean. Filmmaker, writer, and archivist Gina Telaroli offers an overview of King’s life, claiming that he was underrated because he lacked the flash of such contemporaries as John Ford and Raoul Walsh. Telaroli portrays King as a humble man and astute collaborator who was fascinated with the internal functioning of specific communities, such as a fair in State Fair, the military in 12 O’Clock High, and the western town of this film. Intriguingly, Telaroli compares King to documentarian Frederick Wiseman, perhaps the most famous portraitist of social infrastructure. Meanwhile, film historian J.E. Smyth charts the influence of McLean, who worked closely with King on several productions and was prized by studio head Daryl Zanuck as an auteur in her own right. McLean rose through the studio system and became so influential that she would sit on sets and tell directors when they needed to shoot more coverage for her cut, which often included working with the sound elements as well.

Nineteen-fifty was a big year for McLean, who not only edited The Gunfighter, which Smyth analyzes in exhilarating detail, but also Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve, which illustrated her gift for balancing spectacle with performance. McLean’s accomplishments are incredible for anyone, let alone a woman working in a male-dominated industry in 1950, though Smyth pushes back against this perception, reminding us of the enormous role that women played in the shaping of classic Hollywood. Two archive supplements allow us to hear from the subjects themselves: audio excerpts of McLean, from 1970, and King, from 1971, from interviews that were both conducted by historian Thomas R. Stempel for the AFI’s Oral History Collection. These interviews offer more context about each filmmaker’s career and their work within the studio system. Rounding out a slim but noteworthy package is a booklet featuring K. Austin Collins’s essay “You Can’t Go Home Again,” which beautifully contextualizes The Gunfighter’s melancholia within the framework of postwar America.

Overall

With this characteristically beautiful disc, Criterion sheds light on an underrated, mournful western that anticipated the genre’s revisionism roughly a decade later.

Cast: Gregory Peck, Helen Westcott, Millard Mitchell, Jean Parker, Karl Malden, Skip Homeier, Anthony Ross, Verna Felton, Ellen Corby, Richard Jaeckel Director: Henry King Screenwriter: William Bowers, William Sellers Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 84 min Rating: NR Year: 1950 Release Date: October 20, 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: Solid Metal Nightmares: The Films of Shinya Tsukamoto on Arrow Blu-ray

This impeccable box set allows you to follow the development of one of contemporary Japanese cinema’s true visionaries.

5

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Solid Metal Nightmares: The Films of Shinya Tsukamoto

Since he first emerged on the international film scene with 1989’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Shinya Tsukamoto has evolved one of the most distinctive bodies of work within contemporary Japanese cinema. What’s more, he’s something of a one-man band—acting in, writing, directing, editing, and production designing his films. Arrow Video’s impressively compiled Solid Metal Nightmares: The Films of Shinya Tsukamoto contains eight feature films and two shorts, roughly half of Tsukamoto’s output over the last 30-plus years. The set provides an ideal opportunity to trace the emergence and development of the filmmaker’s key themes and visual motifs.

Though the individual surface textures of the films included in this box set may vary from, to take just one example, the harsh alienating cityscapes of his early films to some of the more bucolically inclined latter-day works, there are a few thematic constants that run like a scarlet thread throughout Tsukamoto’s filmography. There’s the ubiquitous emotional triangle (love, per se, not necessarily factoring into events), often with the focus on a strong, catalyzing woman caught between two very different men; an abiding interest in perverse, or at any rate extremely fetishistic, forms of eroticism; and a fixation on the human body, prone as it is to endless varieties of usually disturbing metamorphosis, in fraught relationship with its immediate environment.

Tetsuo: The Iron Man suggests the love child of a David Lynch and David Cronenberg film, combined with a little of Jan Švankmajer’s scrapheap stop-motion animation. The emphasis on the beauty of decay, not to mention the backdrop of a post-industrial heavy metal wasteland, could’ve been lifted straight from Lynch’s Eraserhead, while the progressive fusion of flesh and metal that Tetsuo’s nameless salaryman (Tomorô Taguchi) undergoes can be traced back to the biomechanical gun that James Woods pulls out of his gut in Cronenberg’s Videodrome. But the ultra-stylish deployment of these tropes is Tsukamoto’s own, epitomized by his razor-stropped editing techniques, set to the propulsive post-punk soundtrack of Chu Ishikawa, who went on to score most of Tsukamoto’s subsequent films.

The film’s eroticism is pronounced, starting with a round of sweaty sex between the protagonist and his girlfriend (Kei Fujiwara), followed by a surreal dream sequence where she sodomizes him with an immense serpentine strap-on, much to his chagrin. Things get even weirder in the final scenes when the wholly transformed salaryman is wooed by the “metal fetishist” (Tsukamoto) into complete bodily fusion. What emerges from their mating is a hybrid man-machine, resembling nothing so much as a giant cock rolling along abandoned Tokyo thoroughfares, as the duo promise to reduce the universe to dust and decay.

Tetsuo II: Body Hammer, from 1992, expands on the original in a number of ways. Gone is the high-contrast monochrome, traded in for full-color film stock that brings out the blues and grays of the modern and more prominently featured Tokyo cityscape. The cast has also been expanded from the central trio—here configured as two brothers (Taguchi and Tsukamoto) and one of their wives (Nobu Kanaoka)—to include a mad scientist (Torauemon Utazawa) and a pair of thyroidal weightlifting skinheads (Hideaki Tezuka and Tomoo Asada). And this time around the male leads are given something of a backstory involving childhood trauma and amnesia. When the repressed memory is finally recovered, it yields Body Hammer’s one real fetishistic flourish: an act of simulated fellatio, playing on that old gun-equals-penis metaphorical chestnut, that turns suddenly and gruesomely mind-blowing. Where the first film concluded with homo-eroticized destructiveness, the sequel proffers the reinstitution of the nuclear family, albeit against a backdrop of utter devastation.

Tokyo Fist, from 1995, begins by opposing Tsuda (Tsukamoto), another stereotypical salaryman, and his former schoolfriend, Kojima (Kôji Tsukamoto), who’s now a professional boxer. At first, the juxtaposition between the two types is clear-cut, but as the film progresses, and Tsuda takes up amateur boxing, Tsukamoto effectively blurs the boundaries between the two. At the same time, Tsuda’s fiancé, Hizuru (Kahori Fujii), explores radical body modification through tattooing and inserting metal rods into her flesh—in an obvious callback to the Tetsuo films. Tokyo Fist is Tsukamoto’s Raging Bull, where the body (especially the human face) does penance through its transformation into raw meat.

With its tale of a bereft loner out to score a gun and then some payback, 1998’s Bullet Ballet openly invokes another Martin Scorsese film: Taxi Driver. But Tsukamoto ultimately takes the film in a completely unexpected direction, teaming up his version of “God’s Lonely Man” (Tsukamoto) with a youth gang whose members, at first, seems to spend most of their free time kicking the shit out of him. What slowly emerges in an idiosyncratic spin on Taxi Driver’s notion of the generation gap, with the older man trying to save misguided youth from themselves. But, for Tsukamoto, age and experience only count for so much. Mostly it means you’re more proficient at coldly blowing away your competition.

A Snake of June, from 2002, is one of Tsukamoto’s most radical productions. It’s also his most flagrantly fetishistic. The setup is more or less straightforward, in keeping with your average Japanese pink film: Shutterbug and voyeur Iguchi (Tsukamoto) blackmails a neglected housewife, Rinko (Asuka Kurosawa), into some very public displays of exhibitionism. But about halfway through the script flips, and the timeframe alters, going back over events from the POV of Rinko’s husband, Shigehiko (Yûji Kôtari). Then, in its final act, the film shifts gears again into a surreal conflation of all three viewpoints, where time and place seem to come unmoored. Whatever exactly transpires, the film ends with Tsukamoto’s most unambiguous embrace of the married couple as a desiring machine geared for mutual gratification.

Where most of Tsukamoto’s earlier films had been concerned with acquiring self-knowledge through the process of transformation, 2004’s Vital explores techniques of stripping away as a means to wisdom and existential acceptance. Suffering amnesia as the result of a car crash that killed his girlfriend, medical student Hiroshi (Tadanobu Asano) discovers that the body currently on his dissecting table belongs to her. The film suggests that Hiroshi’s recollection of his relationship with Ryôko (Nami Tsukamoto) increases the deeper he delves into her innards. Of course, this being a Tsukamoto film, Hiroshi is at the same time engaged in a sadomasochistic relationship with straight-A student Ikumi (Kiki) that involves erotic asphyxiation. The film’s final images are a memory of nature’s verdant glory. But trying to decode precisely whose memory it is gives the ending the perfect note of ambiguity.

Suggesting a distaff spin on Fight Club, 2011’s Kotoko uses Tsukamoto’s disorienting editing techniques to put us squarely inside the headspace of the title character (Cocco), who suffers from schizoid visions of aggressive doppelgangers. Despite this description, the film plays for long stretches as a demented romantic comedy, after Kotoko meets famed novelist Seitaro Tanaka (Tsukamoto). Not surprisingly, their relationship consists of her plunging forks into Seitaro’s hands and beating him to a bloody pulp, for which he seems genuinely grateful. But when this regimen has her feeling whole again, Seitaro picks up and leaves (it’s implied that he’s only interested in her so long as she’s sick). Both Kotoko and the film soon spiral downward into one of Tsukamoto’s most heartbreaking final scenes.

Killing, from 2018, is a gory exercise in turning the conventions of the samurai film against themselves. There’s no glory or honor to be found anywhere in this tale of an older samurai, Sawamura (Tsukamoto), recruiting a younger man, Mokunoshin (Sosuke Ikematsu), to go off and fight for their kind in the imperial city of Edo. Rather than Akira Kurosawa, Killing is closer to Harold Pinter in its free-floating air of menace, and Samuel Beckett in its sense of utter stasis, since Sawamura and Mokunoshin never quite manage to leave the small farming village where the film is set. In Vital, the wonders of the natural world imparted a sense of pastoral calm and forbearance. But in Killing, nature is impassive, indifferent—a green world that only serves all the better to set off those prodigious gouts of arterial spray.

Image/Sound

There’s little information about source materials in the set’s accompanying book, other than the bald disclaimer: “HD transfers provided by the Nikkatsu Corporation.” Luckily, the films collected here look excellent overall, certainly several noticeable steps above previous DVD releases. There are only two relatively minor caveats: A Snake of June displays some persistent distortion at the top and/or bottom of the frame, and the SD video origins of Haze (not to mention its murky lighting schemes) leave the transfer looking noisier than usual. The films are all provided with Master Audio tracks that range from mono to 5.1 surround, all of which do fine by the films’ percussive sound design and evocative scores from Chu Ishikawa, which run the musical gamut in style from hardcore industrial to synth-heavy prog rock.

Extras

Packed inside the slipcase for Solid Metal Nightmares: The Films of Shinya Tsukamoto alongside the four individual jewel cases is a double-sided, foldout poster with newly commissioned cover art on one side and fresh artwork for Tetsuo: The Iron Man on the other. There’s also a nicely illustrated hardcover book with typically incisive essays from Kat Ellinger and Jasper Sharp on certain overarching aspects of Tsukamoto’s filmography.

All 10 films come with commentary tracks from Tom Mes, who literally wrote the book on Tsukamoto’s films: 2005’s Iron Man: The Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto. The tracks were recorded chronologically, as Mes often points out, making it all the easier to track the development of (as well as variations on) some of the filmmaker’s predominant visual motifs and thematic preoccupations. Not surprisingly, Mes is deeply versed in all things Tsukamoto, and delivers his comments in a low-key, occasionally humorous style.

Jasper Sharp’s visual essay “An Assault on the Senses” lays the groundwork for an appreciation of Tsukamoto’s themes and techniques. Extensive archival interviews with Tsukamoto cover all the films, including one from earlier this year that spans his entire career. He remains a perceptive explicator of his own work, touching on aspects of his life and filmmaking from early childhood fears to his unabashed love of celluloid as a medium. Finally, there are archival behind-the-scenes featurettes for A Snake of June, Vital, and Haze, as well as the requisite trailers, image galleries, and even some music videos.

Overall

Arrow Video’s impeccable box set allows you to follow the development of one of contemporary Japanese cinema’s true visionaries.

Cast: Shinya Tsukamoto, Tomorô Taguchi, Kei Fujiwara, Nobu Kanaoka, Torauemon Utazawa, Hideaki Tezuka, Tomoo Asada, Kahori Fujii, Kôji Tsukamoto, Kirina Mano, Tatsuya Nakamura, Takahiro Murase, Asuka Kurosawa, Yûji Kôtari, Tadanobu Asano, Nami Tsukamoto, Kiki, Cocco, Yu Aoi, Sosuke Ikematsu Director: Shinya Tsukamoto Screenwriter: Shinya Tsukamoto, Cocco Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 754 min Rating: NR Year: 1987 - 2018 Release Date: May 26, 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: Sidney J. Furie’s The Ipcress File on KL Studio Classics Blu-ray

Kino’s release of Furie’s seminal spy film boasts a strong A/V presentation and an abundance of fascinating extras.

4

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The Ipcress File

From the opening staccato notes of John Barry’s lilting score, so redolent of his music for the early Bond films, Sidney J. Furie’s The Ipcress File is very much in conversation with the spy franchise that rose to pop-cultural prominence in the early 1960s. Along with Barry, producer Harry Saltzman and editor Peter Hunt also joined in on this new endeavor after working on the first several 007 films, with the initial directive of making a low-budget knockoff. But Furie and cinematographer Otto Heller had other ideas, making a highly stylized, moody, and deliberately paced spy thriller that strives for an artful deconstruction of the Bond-iverse.

In attempting to bring a gritty realism and distinctly middle-class flavor to the milieu of international spycraft, The Ipcress File directly counters the more fantastical elements of the Bond series and deglamorizes the life and work of an intrepid, continent-hopping secret agent. When the film’s hero, Harry Palmer (Michael Caine), awakens blurry-eyed, putting on his thick pair of glasses before going about his mundane morning tasks, he feels very much like an ordinary bloke. He’s not the kind of guy who will turn heads as he walks by and, aside from a knowingly ridiculous shot where a female agent, Jean (Sue Lloyed), gazes excitedly down at his crotch as he stuffs his gun into his pants, Palmer’s sexual prowess is a non-factor—particularly compared to Sean Connery’s Bond, whose carnal appetites are ever threatening to burst through the surface of his cool demeanor.

At one point in the film, Harry is described by his boss, Major Dalby (Nigel Green), as “insubordinate, insolent, and a trickster, perhaps with criminal tendencies.” But Caine’s performance is so muted, his face rarely changing from a placid expression, that he comes across more as aloof and unflappable than the cad that Dalby describes. The man wouldn’t be out of a place in the minimalist noir world of Jean-Pierre Melville, but the absurd, convoluted story of The Ipcress File, complete with a high-tech MacGuffin, and its high stylization couldn’t be further from Melville’s stripped-down aesthetic approach to the crime film.

Nary a shot in Furie’s film goes without a canted camera angle or a busy mise-en-scène with objects deliberately obfuscating that action on screen. This is a handsomely shot film, and it’s a clever touch on the part of the filmmakers to make it seem as if the camera is often hidden from view, as if the audience were spying on the action. But the use of such techniques is simply too imprudent, with off-kilter shots being deployed with equal aplomb in lighthearted romantic scenes and the more suspenseful sequences, where they feel more organic.

The Ipcress File’s narrative also feels a bit at odds with the filmmakers’ intentions. When the film is focused on Harry as he goes about the legwork of tracking down a missing British scientist (Aubrey Richards) or sussing out a potential mole in his office, it’s firmly grounded in the workaday life of a secret agent. But as the larger, overarching elements of the plot take center stage, namely the revelation of the meaning behind “IPCRESS,” the film veers into the similarly ludicrous terrain of your average Bond caper. In the end, The Ipcress File abandons its more low-key, nuts-and-bolts depiction of spycraft, and as such morphs from the pure antithesis of a 007 romp into something far closer to a self-serious send-up.

Image/Sound

Kino’s transfer of a 2K restoration boasts a sharp, richly detailed image with color balancing that stays true to the film’s mostly drab color scheme, while still presenting a fairly high dynamic range of colors and strong black levels that help to emphasize cinematographer Otto Heller’s moody lighting. Grain levels are consistently solid and even, helping to retain much of the texture and depth of the original 35mm. The lossless audio is crisp and clear, revealing the depth of the mix in the film’s few fight sequences and in John Barry’s wonderful score.

Extras

Kino has gone the extra mile with the features on this disc. The first of two commentary tracks consists of a newly recorded and lively discussion between film historians Troy Howarth and Daniel Kremer, who profess their fondness for the film and make a compelling case for the value of director Sidney J. Furie’s lesser known work, like Leather Boys. The conversation also covers the film’s attempts to function as a deglamorized reaction to the early James Bond films and offers insight into the visual style employed by Furie and cinematographer Otto Heller, whose work here influenced the great Vittorio Storraro. On the second commentary track, Furie and editor Peter Hunt cover the film’s production issues, particularly the tensions between Furie and producer Harry Saltzman and the odd circumstances of the film’s editing process, which led Hunt to essentially have final cut before Furie ever saw the final product.

In an entertaining 20-minute archival interview, Michael Caine talks about his outrageous first day on the set when Furie burnt a copy of the script in front of him, deciding to have the film rewritten as they shot. He also recalls how he met Saltzman, who signed the actor to his first big movie contract after seeing him in Cy Endfield’s Zulu. Caine goes on to recount several amusing stories about the cantankerous producer, including how the two of them decided to come up with the most boring name they could think of for the film’s protagonist. The disc also comes with an interview with production designer Ken Adams, who describes the lengthy location scouting process, and a short Trailers from Hell segment focusing on the film’s score.

Overall

Kino Lorber’s release of Sidney J. Furie’s seminal British spy film boasts a strong A/V presentation and an abundance of fascinating extras.

Cast: Michael Caine, Nigel Green, Guy Doleman, Sue Lloyd, Gordon Jackson, Aubrey Richards, Frank Gatliff, Thomas Baptiste, Freda Bamford, Anthony Blackshaw Director: Sidney J. Furie Screenwriter: Bill Canaway, James Doran Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 109 min Rating: NR Year: 1965 Release Date: October 27, 2020 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite on the Criterion Collection

Bong historic international breakthrough receives a superlative Blu-ray package from Criterion.

4

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Parasite

The first film Bong Joon-ho has made in 10 years that’s set entirely in his native South Korea, Parasite finds the eccentric, genre-driven auteur scaling back the high-concept ambitions of his prior two films, the post-apocalyptic Snowpiercer and the globe-trotting ecological fable Okja, in favor of examining a close-knit family dynamic that’s reminiscent of the one at the center of The Host, Bong’s 2007 breakout monster flick. Except this time the monster isn’t some amphibious abomination that results from extreme genetic mutation, but the insidious forces of class and capital that divide a society’s people.

In a cramped apartment, a family of four are sent into a panic when the WiFi network they’ve been pirating goes offline. Ki-jung (Park So-dam) and her brother, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), scurry about as their father, Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), instructs them to try holding their phones up to the ceiling, and to stand in every nook and cranny of their home until they find a new connection. All the while, Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) bemoans her husband’s laziness and prods him to find work. But it’s Ki-woo who pulls his family out of their impoverished life, when he gets an opportunity to tutor Da-hye (Jung Ziso), daughter of the rich Park family.

Parasite essentially puts an absurdist spin on both the concept behind Hirokazu Kore-eda’s sentimental Shoplifters from last year and the bitter class commentary that underpins Nagisa Oshima’s 1969 film Boy. Bong positions Ki-taek and his family as grifters so adept at pulling off cons as a unit that they successfully convince the Parks to bring them all into their employ, in one capacity or another. Ki-jung becomes an “arts therapy” teacher for the Park clan’s precocious young son, Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun), and, later, the rich family’s driver and nanny are pushed out of their jobs through elaborate scandals manufactured by the poor family, in order to install Ki-taek and Moon-gwang, respectively, into those roles.

Bong pulls off a neat trick by insinuating that the parasite of his film’s title must be Ki-taek’s family; after all, they certainly live off the “host” to which they’ve attached themselves. But in typical fashion, Bong starts to lace Parasite with all sorts of complications that begin to challenge the audience’s perceptions—left turns and big reveals that not only bring new layers to the film’s social commentary, but also develop the characters and their attendant psychologies, which encompass the psychic toll of shame, lack of empathy, and deception.

The twists in this narrative also activate some of Bong’s more inspired and sociopolitically loaded visual ideas. At one point in the film, the slum village where Ki-taek and his family live is devastated by a massive flood during a night of severe weather. Meanwhile, in the upper-class neighborhood where the Park clan lives, a backyard camping trip is ruined by rain. The particular layout of one unexpected setting, which sees members of the lower class literally occupying a space below the rich, doubles as an ingenious metaphor for class subjugation. Remarkably, Bong even finds room for a commentary on Korean peninsula relations.

The only thing that keeps Parasite just slightly below the tier of Bong’s best work, namely The Host and his underrated and similarly themed 2000 debut film, Barking Dogs Never Bite, is the overstuffed pile-up of incident that occurs toward the end. This is frequently an issue for Bong’s films (both Snowpiercer and Okja climax with busy and disorientating action set pieces that lose sight of their characters in the process), and here it manifests in a boldly gruesome scene of violence that’s undercut by a lengthy and rather contrived denouement.

Ultimately, Bong’s excoriating indictment of South Korea’s dehumanizing social culture isn’t far removed from that of Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, but he mounts it with a dazzling control of genre conventions that he continues to seamlessly bend to his absurd comic rhythms. Parasite also reinstates the emotional core that’s been missing from Bong’s recent work, and even feigns a concise narrative structure. It’s the kind of bold and uncompromising work that confirms why Bong is one of our most exciting auteurs, for how his sociocultural criticisms can be so biting, so pungent, when they’re imbued with such great focus and sense of intent.

Image/Sound

The transfer on this Criterion edition remains faithful to Parasite’s theatrical exhibition, boasting sharp detail and vibrant color; the subtle visual and textural delights nestled within Bong Joon-ho’s stark compositions are perfectly preserved throughout. A second disc includes the film’s black-and-white version, but not unlike the similar retooling that Mad Max: Fury Road received, color is such a spectacularly rendered, carefully considered element of the original cut that this version feels superfluous. The soundtrack on both cuts is as enveloping as the film’s visual schema, calling particular attention to the retro sci-fi aspects of Jung Jae-il’s eerie, theremin-filled score while keeping dialogue and ambient effects clear in the mix.

Extras

With the film already available on 4K, the appeal of this Blu-ray release comes down to its extras, and on that front it certainly delivers. For one, the commentary track announces itself as a deep dive right of the gate, with Bong and critic Tony Rayns swiftly tying elements of Parasite to the director’s prior films and explaining the symbolism buried in minutiae of characterization and design. Interviews are included with crew members, including editor Yang Jinmo and cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo, who notes how he crafted the film’s look by making wide-angle lenses that didn’t distort the dimensions of the image. Bong himself has a lively discussion with critic Darcy Paquet, who changes things up for the press campaign-beleaguered director by using free-associative prompts to let him dictate the flow of the conversation. Bong and fellow South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook discuss the legacy of the New Korean Cinema movement, while footage from Parasite’s Cannes premiere and a Master Class lecture with Bong are also included. Storyboard comparisons with the final film demonstrate the director’s carefully mapped planning, and a booklet essay by critic Inkoo Kang that unpacks the film as the culmination of its maker’s career.

Overall

Bong Joon-ho’s historic international breakthrough receives a superlative Blu-ray package, though it inadvertently calls attention to Criterion’s slowness in pivoting to UHD.

Cast: Song Kang-ho, Choi Woo-shik, Lee Sun-kyun, Park So-dam, Cho Yeo-jeong, Lee Jung-eun, Jang Hye-jin, Jung Ziso, Jung Hyeon-jun Director: Bong Joon-ho Screenwriter: Bong Joon-ho, Han Jin-won Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 131 min Rating: NR Year: 2019 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Blu-ray Review: Stephen Frears’s The Hit on the Criterion Collection

The Hit is an enigmatic, existential fable about crime and punishment.

3.5

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The Hit

An unconventional British gangster film from director Stephen Frears, The Hit largely avoids the usual trappings of the genre—in particular, the penchant for ultraviolence on display in roughly contemporary films like The Krays—opting instead for a thoughtful, even philosophical, character study. For one thing, mob informer Willie Parker (Terence Stamp), actually reads. For another, he attempts to live his life according to the implications and complications suggested by these books. Not only that, but his books serve as plot points both major, providing the existential and metaphysical themes that crop up later in the film, and minor, as in his extensive collection of books, which come in handy as projectiles in an early scene where a gang of youths attempt to abduct him. Talk about your Foucauldian “power-knowledge.”

Employing a series of sinuous mobile crane and tracking shots, often combined with wide-angle lenses for some fashionable distortion, the film’s prologue, set in the early 1970s, succinctly lays out the requisite backstory: From his safe house, we follow informer Parker into the courtroom, where his testimony against leading mob bosses clinches his subsequent fate. Then, out of nowhere, the accused gangsters break out into an impromptu rendition of “We’ll Meet Again,” a moment that surreally blends menace and mirth.

The film then flashes forward 10 years, shifting location to a remote, desolate Spanish village. Parker is captured and handed over to two British hit men, who constitute your somewhat stereotypically mismatched pair: experienced, hardened killer Braddock (John Hurt) and overeager tyro Myron (Tim Roth). At one point, Braddock uses a photo of Stamp taken from his role in Poor Cow for the purposes of identification, leading Frears to joke in the commentary included on this disc that he’d got there years before Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey.

A battle of wills and wits ensues: Parker attempts to play the hit men off one another, suggesting to Braddock that Myron’s inexperience makes him unreliable and then planting the notion with Myron that Braddock is losing his nerve. All the while, a young Spanish woman (Laura del Sol), taken hostage along the way, simply tries to stay alive. As the foursome make their way toward a rendezvous in Paris, both Braddock and Myron have occasion to inquire after Parker’s apparent lack of concern over his inevitable fate. He replies that he’s had plenty of time to ponder and claims to have eventually reached a sense of acceptance. This existential quietude comes, at least in part, from his extensive reading. An earlier scene showed him acquiring a book that, judging from its Spanish title, might well be a copy of Italian poet and novelist Cesare Pavese’s diary The Business of Living. Pavese, who committed suicide in 1950, emphasized throughout his writings man’s inherent isolation and alienation, and frequently treated the motif of betrayal—themes that are just as germane to Frears’s film.

As the characters near the French border, Parker recounts the legend of Roland and Olivier making their suicidal stand against the Saracens during the Battle of Roncevaux Pass in the Pyrenees, which they are just then traversing. The chivalrous Roland represents a code of honor and conduct that stands in pointed contrast to the actions and activities of the British gangsters. The film’s central scene, a terse confrontation between Braddock and Parker, takes place in a forest at night. (Scenes late in the film provide in juxtaposition a verdant, fecund nature against the scorched and arid desert of earlier ones.) The ineluctable topic is death. Parker opines: “It’s just a moment. We’re here. Then we’re not here. We’re somewhere else…maybe. And it’s as natural as breathing. Why should we be scared?”

Is it all a ruse? Does Parker, in fact, harbor some grand scheme for liberation? The film’s conclusion suggests that Parker has attained his hard-won resignation only by envisioning a timeline. When his death is still remote, set for a certain day, and expected to come in a certain manner, he remains calm. But when things change, he breaks down. Calm and philosophical restraint go out the window, so to speak. The desperate, craven urge to live overwhelms, and it’s a shock to the characters, just as much as it to the audience.

In the The Hit’s memorable final scene, Braddock attempts to cross the border into France disguised as a backpacker. But Spanish police, who we’ve seen previously dogging the gangsters’ trail, intervene and corner him in a lamp store, chasing him down amid a myriad light fixtures. The resultant contrast between abundant light and incipient darkness, as Braddock faces his own certain demise, makes for a truly compelling final flourish.

Image/Sound

The Criterion Collection’s 2K restoration looks terrific, a serious step up from their already pretty solid 2009 DVD release, which went out of print years ago. Colors are brighter and more deeply saturated, which especially pays off in later scenes set among the verdant wilderness. Grain levels are well-managed and flesh tones lifelike. The LPCM mono track is clean and clear, nicely conveying composer Paco de Lucia’s surprisingly menacing flamenco score, not to mention the clangorous title theme from Eric Clapton.

Extras

Criterion ports over the slim-pickings bonus materials from their earlier DVD release. The commentary track is an expertly blended mosaic of input from director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Peter Prince (playing off each other nicely), editor Mick Audsley, and actors Tim Roth and the late, lamented John Hurt (all of whom fly solo). It’s an eminently worthwhile track that covers a lot of ground, from the philosophy of shot selection and film editing to a near-death experience when Tim Roth (who couldn’t drive) decided to test his skills with Hurt and Terence Stamp in the backseat. There’s a 1988 episode of TV series Parkinson One to One featuring Stamp, who discusses his working-class Cockney roots, finding fame, becoming the face of 1960s Swinging London, and trying to put the moves on Rita Hayworth. Stamp comes across as a funny, introspective sort, and it’s a delightful 37 minutes. Finally, there’s a foldout booklet with an essay from Graham Fuller, who contextualizes The Hit as a British gangster film, a road movie, and a philosophical character study.

Overall

Stephen Frears’s The Hit, which receives a fine 2K upgrade but no new bonus materials from Criterion, is an enigmatic, existential fable about crime and punishment.

Cast: John Hurt, Tim Roth, Laura del Sol, Terence Stamp, Bill Hunter, Fernando Rey, Jim Broadbent Director: Stephen Frears Screenwriter: Peter Prince Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 98 min Rating: R Year: 1984 Release Date: October 20, 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream on Lionsgate 4K Ultra HD

Aronofsky’s influential hellride of a film gets a sturdy 4K upgrade and a few new extras that extol its technical merits.

4

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Requiem for a Dream

Most viewers feel that Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream is either a gut-wrenching, formally adventurous masterpiece or an ugly, flashy piece of empty-headed propaganda. Thing is, both camps are sort of right. Aronofsky’s sophomore feature is undeniably accomplished, fully realized in its single-minded, fearless intensity, but it’s also, quite frankly, pretty melodramatic and dumb. Requiem for a Dream is an uncompromised, relentless descent into hell with just one thing on its mind: Drugs are really, really bad for you.

Requiem for a Dream is also the film that firmly established Aronofsky as a primarily visual filmmaker. His 1998 feature-length debut, Pi, was stylish but empty; later, he would elevate The Fountain’s philosophical hooey through sheer operatic force of will and The Wrestler’s solid but rote script through an expressive and soulful appropriation of the Dardenne brothers’ close-up tracking shots. If those later films are more successful than this one, it’s because their material could be elevated by style. In Requiem for a Dream, there’s nothing going on but style, and ultimately, that just isn’t enough.

For a while, though, it almost is. Requiem for a Dream’s first 30 minutes are some kind of tour de force, exploding out of the gate as the expression of a unique cinematic voice and introducing the stylistic techniques that structure the entirety of the film. Establishing Requiem for a Dream’s parallel editing schema, Aronofsky and editor Jay Rabinowitz cut between its central characters—Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn), her junkie son, Harry (Jared Leto), and Harry’s best buddy, Tyrone (Marlon Wayans), and girlfriend, Marion (Jennifer Connelly)—and their respective drugs of choice: heroin and ecstasy for Harry and Tyrone, heroin and cocaine for Marion, and sugar, television, and, eventually, amphetamines for Sara.

Utilizing an entire stable of visual tricks, from split-screens to slow- and fast-motion to rhythmically repeated inserts, these early moments are an exciting and purely cinematic experience. One scene, in which a moment of tenderness between Harry and Marion is presented through split-screened close-ups, may be the finest sequence of Aronofsky’s career, exquisitely expressing the characters’ intimacy as well as their fundamental distance.

Taking place over the course of one year, structured into four chapters tied to the seasons, the film starts bleakly and just gets bleaker, and as it progresses these stylistic decisions start to feel more and more oppressive. This is obviously by design, but there are only so many times you can show the effect of cocaine through fast motion or mental deterioration through fish-eye lenses before the techniques start to feel less expressive than lazy and obvious—crutches for a filmmaker who used up his entire bag of tricks in the first 30 minutes.

Narratively, as Requiem for a Dream spirals toward its nightmarish finale, things start to get so melodramatically awful for the characters that the film starts to seem like a modern-day equivalent to Reefer Madness, never so much as in the ugly way it introduces the character of a black drug dealer, Big Tim (Keith David), solely to exploit audience disgust at seeing a white woman taken advantage of by a black man. And no matter how relentlessly upsetting and effective Requiem for a Dream’s climax is—and it is effective, a self-contained masterpiece of aggressive cross-cutting and sound design—by that point it’s almost impossible to shake the image of Aronofsky as a gym coach hysterically lecturing his class on the dangers of drug use. Sorry, but this reviewer got enough of that in high school.

Image/Sound

Lionsgate Home Entertainment’s 2009 Blu-ray release boasted a strong image and even stronger audio. Its only egregious flaw was the occasionally soft edge, which isn’t evident on either the Blu-ray or 4K Ultra HD disc included with this new release. The grain level is consistent and cinematic throughout, with the 4K exhibiting stronger color saturation and more accurate skin tones. The film’s relentless sound editing and Clint Mansell’s remarkable score is perfectly presented, never sacrificing the clarity of the dialogue.

Extras

The two commentary tracks, one featuring director Darren Aronofsky and the other cinematographer Matthew Libatique, have been ported over from the prior standard-definition and Blu-ray editions of Requiem for a Dream. Aronofsky’s remains the most engaging of the two, as its enriched by his recollections of growing up in Brooklyn, among other things, while Libatique’s is good listening for anyone fascinated by the film’s technical attributes. Four new special features are included on the 4K and all of them make clear that Requiem for a Dream would not have been possible without Pi. In a 16-minute conversation, Ellen Burstyn remembers watching Aronofsky’s debut feature and it convincing her that “he’s an artist” and how she carried her experience of playing Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night into her role here. Clint Mansell discusses moving to New York, meeting Aronofsky, working on Pi, and the genre influences and disparate sonic elements of his score for Requiem for a Dream. Elsewhere, Dr. Bruce Isaacs, author of The Art of Pure Cinema and Toward a New Film Aesthetic, lavishes coolly hyperbolic praise on the film’s style. The extras are rounded out by five minutes of behind-the-scenes footage.

Overall

On the occasion of its 20th anniversary, Darren Aronofsky’s influential hellride of a film gets a sturdy 4K upgrade and a few new extras that extol its technical merits.

Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, Marlon Wayans, Christopher McDonald, Mark Margolis, Louise Lasser, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Sean Gullette, Keith David, Dylan Baker Director: Darren Aronofsky Screenwriter: Hubert Selby Jr., Darren Aronofsky Distributor: Lionsgate Home Entertainment Running Time: 102 min Rating: R Year: 2000 Release Date: October 13, 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: Helmut Käutner’s Black Gravel on KL Studio Classics Blu-ray

Black Gravel is a bleak yet vital interrogation of West Germany’s struggles after World War II.

4

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Black Gravel

We often hear little about the German films made between Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda films for the Nazi Party and the works of the New German Cinema of the late ‘60s, almost as if the German film industry were at a standstill during that time. But during and after World War II, the industry was churning out the escapist Heimatfilm—literally, homeland film—even after nearly all of its most talented directors had fled to the United States and France.

One of the few great filmmakers not affiliated with the Nazi Party to remain in Germany was Helmut Käutner, whose melodramas shot during WWI, such as Romance in a Minor Key and Under the Bridges, have an emotional sensitivity and fluid camerawork that recalls his compatriot Max Ophüls’s work. But because of Käutner’s suspect decision to continue working in his homeland throughout the ‘40s—or, perhaps, his inability to leave—his films received little fanfare outside of Germany, aside from European film festivals.

Once Käutner was out from under the censorial thumb of Adolf Hilter and Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Party’s minister of propaganda, he sought to make amends, expressing his disdain for Nazism and directly addressing Germany’s recent transgressions through films such as Seven Journeys (the first German film released after WWII) and, later, Black Gravel, a savagely bleak portrait of a wholly corrupt Germany that’s yet to come to terms with its wartime legacy. Set in Sohnen, a small village where a U.S. military base was recently built, the latter film conveys the palpable sense of despair and disassociation felt by many Germans, who, at the time, were coping with critical shortages of food and material items. It’s an unscrupulous environment whose pervasive depravity is reminiscent of Shohei Imamura’s Pigs and Battleships, also released in 1961 and which similarly depicts a country in a self-inflicted state of moral decay, forced to endure the ramifications of an ongoing U.S. military presence in the wake of WWII.

In Black Gravel, nothing is in more abundant supply than the countless vices indulged at one of Sohnen’s bars, which doubles as a bordello and caters to German locals and American military personnel alike. Tensions between the two nationalities are unsurprisingly high, but it’s the infighting between the Germans, who are involved in everything from pimping to embezzlement, that causes the most damage in Käutner’s intense crime drama.

Following the exploits of a truck driver, Robert (Helmut Wildt), involved in a scam to steal a couple of loads of the gravel he delivers each week, the film presents Germany as being stuck in a purgatorial state of recovery. The titular substance takes on a literal, material function in regards to reconstruction, specifically the building of a road around the air force base. But it also serves as a potent metaphor for the volatile state of post-war Germany.

The notion of hiding from one’s sins is a recurring motif throughout, and is often symbolically attached to the town’s giant gravel pit, which doubles as a makeshift burial ground. Early on, Robert tosses a dog, who was accidentally killed by a coworker, into the gravel pit for an unceremonious burial. This same pit is also used as the grave for a couple who Robert accidentally kills with his truck later in the film. In both cases, although the murder was unintentional, the attempts to escape blame and consequences are very much deliberate.

Käutner’s damning film sees a nation of people unwilling or unable to confront their history of violence—a notion further complicated when the owner of the aforementioned dog, Inge (Ingmar Zeisberg), is revealed to be a past lover of Robert’s. Where Robert is keen to resume their affair as if nothing happened in the intervening years, Inge dreams of moving to Canada with her American husband and leaving Germany forever behind.

These two opposing impulses—one to return to “glory days” and the other to flee—drive many of the characters’ behaviors, yet both point to an inability to confront the reasons behind the German peoples’ current state of absolute moral bankruptcy. In dressing this conflict, and an overwhelming sense of paranoia and entrapment, up in the tropes of a thriller, Käutner exhibits his mastery of atmosphere and mood, but the complex social commentary of Black Gravel offers a raw and eye-opening look at Germany at a time when its cinema mostly ignored reality and its true national history was often deliberately kept secret.

Image/Sound

For this Blu-ray, Kino has transferred both the uncensored “premiere” version of the film and the slightly shorter, censored “distribution” cut, sourcing a print of the premiere version that was preserved by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation in 2016. As the original camera negative was used for most of this preservation, the results are quite impressive, with a high contrast ratio and sharp image that’s consistently rich in detail. Scratches are evident from time to time, but the damage is relatively minor and typically visible for only a few seconds at a time. The distribution version is a tad washed out compared to the premiere cut, which, as houses the commentary track included on the disc, is effectively presented as the definitive version. The 16-bit audio track is suitably clear, with clean dialogue throughout.

Extras

On his commentary track, German film critic Olaf Möller provides a comprehensive yet accessible analysis of post-WWII cinema in Germany. He highlights the importance of Helmut Käutner’s films in West Germany in the mid-20th century and traces the rise and fall of the Heimatfilm, which eventually led to a resurgence of crime films like Black Gravel in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. Möller also details the controversy surrounding the film based on charges of anti-Semitism that led to one scene being cut for distribution. He clarifies that many Jewish groups disagreed with claims made against the film, as the scene in question clearly aims to sympathize with the former concentration camp prisoner after a racial slur is hurled in his direction. There are occasional dips in the conversation, but this is an indispensable commentary for anyone remotely interested in post-war German films.

Overall

Black Gravel is a bleak yet vital interrogation of West Germany’s struggles after World War II, and Kino’s Region 1 Blu-ray is one of the year’s essential releases.

Cast: Helmut Wildt, Ingmar Zeisberg, Hans Cossy, Wolfgang Büttner, Anita Höfer, Heinrich Trimbur, Peter Nestler, Edeltraut Elsner Director: Helmut Käutner Screenwriter: Helmut Käutner, Walter Ulbrich Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 114 min Rating: NR Year: 1961 Release Date: September 1, 2020 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou on the Criterion Collection

Criterion provides Godard’s freewheeling ode to amour and its ineluctable betrayal with a spiffy new 2K upgrade.

4

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Pierrot le Fou

Though I think I outgrew Michael Gebert’s personal taste in movies when I was around 19—and full-out rejected it later on when I realized I preferred Roberto Rossellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Brian De Palma to Vittorio De Sica, Federico Fellini, and Martin Scorsese—I can’t say I don’t return to his Encyclopedia of Movie Awards every now and again to relish a few of his surprisingly trenchant one-liners. In writing about 1965’s Alphaville, Gebert wrote that Jean-Luc Godard “was exciting when either you or the whole world was 20.” I’d push the age up at least another decade, but there’s certainly some truth in that notion, and the maxim applied most notably to Godard himself.

The films he made up to and including his 10th feature film, Pierrot le Fou, and perhaps the two or three things thereafter, pit insurgency against insouciance, foreboding against frivolity. If they act a little confused and a lot self-involved, it’s because they’re artistically pubescent in the best possible sense of the misnomer, and their good looks have you giving them the benefit of the doubt even as you yourself start to approach your ugly, embittered In Praise of Love years or give up on cinema for the third or fourth time.

Appropriately, Pierrot le Fou was supposed to be the tale of a May-December affair, but by the time 32-year-old Jean-Paul Belmondo had been cast in the lead role opposite 25-year-old Anna Karina, the film took on a slightly different aura. Formally connected with the later requiem of Weekend by the two films’ shared composer, Antoine Duhamel, Pierrot le Fou suggests the glamour of idealistic suicide, whereas Weekend embodies the residual rage of someone who couldn’t seal the deal. The ideas rattling around in the earlier film are as skeptical as they are profuse—guns, cars, ad copy, catchphrases, and wordplay dominate the mise-en-scène—but haven’t yet rotted into real-deal contempt.

The film begins with Ferdinand (Belmondo) apparently scraping together a nice bourgeois existence for himself and his wife, whose economic contentment is summed up by the fact that she can go to parties in her new panty-less, invisible girdle—a device that Godard, through Ferdinand, declares the apotheosis of modernism. Typical of the film’s high-wire act, the comment is clearly said in mockery of both consumerism and feminine concerns, but the image—that of a perfectly aligned Madison Avenue-engineered derrière—is just as clearly appreciative of what youth, fashion, and mass media can accomplish: great ass.

In the next scene, the discussions among a group of party guests become product placements, with women in particular prattling on about all their new sartorial acquisitions even as they mysteriously lose pieces of their clothing while Ferdinand wanders from room to room. Immediately fed up, he returns home and runs off with the family babysitter, Marianne (Karina). Godard foreshadows the futility of their attempted escape from vapid pop culture by staging their vehicular flight in a dizzying blizzard of richly hued lights—meant to represent passing streetlights—that are the same colors of the rooms at the party.

Sure enough, once the couple gets past a few murders loosely connected with Marianne’s apparent associations with organized crime, and Ferdinand settles into a Robinson Crusoe-by-way-of-Holden Caulfield lifestyle along a stretch of the French Rivera not a half-mile down from the tourist hotels, the allure of escape begins to fade. Ferdinand tries to devote himself to the lost art of reading, but sneaks into movies (sitting behind Jean-Pierre Léaud), and Marianne insists they move onto their next adventure, preferably one with a little bit more connection with the material world that previously provided her with so many enjoyable 45s.

Both Ferdinand and Marianne ultimately fail to better themselves romantically, intellectually, politically, or philosophically, and it’s one of Pierrot le Fou’s unique charms—and one reason why the film stands out as a particularly beloved entry among those who adore the French New Wave—that Godard doesn’t regard their situation with emphatic mockery or inordinate reverence. (It’s worth mentioning that his next film, Masculin Féminin, isn’t quite as magnanimous about the harmless dangers of pop music.) Though the whiz-bang, comic book-panel aesthetic of Pierrot le Fou is as potentially intoxicating as any contemporaneous head movie, it’s also one of his most finely balanced works, one that successfully straddles generational gaps far wider than the one separating Ferdinand and Marianne—even the one separating 1960s-era Godard from latter-day JLG/JLG.

Image/Sound

Criterion presents Pierrot le Fou in a new 2K restoration that’s a few notches above their already excellent—and long out-of-print—2009 release in terms of color saturation and the clarity of fine details. Raoul Coutard’s ravishing Techniscope cinematography looks livelier than ever. There is, though, one slight discrepancy between the two releases: The earlier Criterion release applied a green filter to the scene where Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Ferdinand meets Samuel Fuller at a boring bourgeois party, while the new 2K edition lacks the hue. The French LPCM mono track is a workhorse, doing well by the recondite score, whether it be snatches of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or Antoine Duhamel’s broody score.

Extras

All of the extras on this Blu-ray release of Pierrot le Fou have been ported over from past Criterion releases of the film. In an interview from 2007, Anna Karina discusses how her working relationship with Jean-Luc Godard gave her the opportunity to play very different characters from film to film, how they worked from a daily script installment, and how important her relationship with him was for her personal development. Jean-Pierre Gorin’s 2007 video essay, A “Pierrot Primer, is a brilliant, incisive reading of about the first 15 minutes of Godard’s film—so bursting with ideas and insights that you may wish he’d done a piece on the whole film. Godard, l’amour, la poésie, an intimate documentary from 2007 by writer and director Luc Lagier, delves into the complex working and personal history between Godard and Karina, with talking-head commentary from collaborators who knew them relatively well. There’s also a puff profile piece on Belmondo with contributions from Godard and Karina, and an extract of interviews with the three principals for the 1965 Venice Film Festival. Finally, the set includes a thick illustrated booklet that contains a 1969 review of the film by Andrew Sarris, a 1965 interview with Godard, and a 2007 essay by film critic Richard Brody that explores the improvisatory nature of Godard’s process, and never more so than in Pierrot le Fou.

Overall

Criterion provides Jean-Luc Godard’s freewheeling ode to amour and its ineluctable betrayal with a spiffy new 2K upgrade, but all the extras have been ported over from past releases.

Cast: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina, Graziella Galvani, Dirk Sanders, Raymond Devos, Roger Dutoit, Hans Meyer Director: Jean-Luc Godard Screenwriter: Jean-Luc Godard Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 1965 Release Date: October 6, 2020 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: William Wyler’s The Shakedown on KL Studio Classics

Wyler’s flawed yet fascinating film offers a look at a future Hollywood master in the nascent stage of his career.

3.5

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The Shakedown

William Wyler’s 1929 silent film The Shakedown is a boxing drama that staves off the saccharine sentimentality of a tried-and-true redemption story with its ribald sense of humor and hard look at its working-class milieu. The action opens in a smoky pool hall, where pretty boy Dave Roberts (James Murray) convinces patrons that he can’t be punched before storming out the door to save a damsel in distress from a brawny meathead boxer, Battling Roff (George Kotsonaros). We soon learn, though, that Dave isn’t much of a hero and all that commotion was part of a scam cooked up by Roff and his manager (Wheeler Oakman) to sucker locals into betting their drinking money on Dave, who’s been paid off to take a dive in the second round of an upcoming match with Roff.

It’s a classic con that these men have been executing in small towns across America’s heartland, and Dave’s all-American looks and swagger make him the perfect hustler to keep their operation going. His willingness, however, to continue playing the fall guy is tested as he grows increasingly attached to the latchkey kid, Clem (Jack Hanlon), who he saves from a passing train. It’s a baldly manipulative ploy straight out of a cheap melodrama that the filmmakers punch up by giving Clem a resilience and abrasiveness that keeps the audience’s pity and sorrow at bay. He’s sympathetic, sure, but he’s also a petty thief with quite the hot temper, as Dave’s “trainer,” Dugan (Harry Gribbon), who often finds himself the victim of the boy’s slingshot or angry parade of silly faces, can attest to.

Clem is something of a more youthful, slightly less corrupted version of Dave, as underlined in a scene where Clem reveals that he used loaded dice to swindle locals out of a few bucks. In a cut to a close-up of Dave, Wyler highlights the conflicted nature of his protagonist’s reaction, finding him simultaneously horrified and proud that the boy is already so streetwise at such a young age. This pairing of a surrogate father and son has all the makings of a hokey subplot, but Wyler diminishes the mawkish nature of their bonding by clarifying that Dave is using the boy, as well as a local woman, Marjorie (Barbara Kent), who’s taken a liking to him, as a way to garner more support, and as such more bets, for his next match with Roff.

The narrative’s trajectory is every bit as predictable as the results of Roff and Dave’s fights, but Wyler makes Dave’s redemptive journey as tough as it is thrilling, with an extended and invigoratingly brutal boxing match that sees Dave atone for his sins by staying in the ring and surviving the pugilistic fury of the enraged Roff. Employing an impressive range of visual tactics, such as whip pans, rapid cutting, and superimpositions, Wyler gives Dave’s transformation from fraud to champ a striking dynamism. At just 65 minutes, The Shakedown moves as swiftly as a well-trained boxer, and while the director would certainly go on to make better films, this early silent effort displays a keen understanding of the medium and the ability to wring genuine emotion and excitement out of wholly mediocre material.

Image/Sound

For this Blu-ray release of The Shakedown, Kino Lorber has sourced Universal’s recent 4K restoration of the film from a 35mm duplicate negative. There are stretches, particularly during much of the first reel, where scratches and debris are evident, and one can only assume that, given that the film was lost for nearly 70 years, the damage to the negative was too severe to be completely removed digitally. Still, even these rougher patches look gorgeous, boasting an impressive contrast ratio, with strong black levels and an abundance of grain that retains the soft, textured look of celluloid. Image clarity is also very good, as there are no signs of motion-blurring during the constant, rapid movements during the film’s boxing matches. The disc contains only the silent version of the film (the sound version is still lost), so the only audio is Michael Gatt’s electronic score, which sounds great.

Extras

On his commentary track, film critic Nick Pinkerton covers a lot of ground in 65 minutes, touching on the careers of all of the film’s major players, Universal’s challenging transition to sound, and William Wyler’s transition from short westerns to feature filmmaking. Most interesting is his discussion of the many tropes and traditions that inform the film, from, most obviously, the boxing picture, to the American grifter and the pairing of a latchkey kid with a rough-edged father figure. Kino has also included a booklet with an essay by writer Nora “The Nitrate Diva” Fiore in which she details the ways in which Wyler injects life into a fairly familiar story, through both his actors’ performances and his camerawork.

Overall

William Wyler’s flawed yet fascinating The Shakedown offers a look at a future Hollywood master in the nascent stage of his career.

Cast: James Murray, Barbara Kent, George Kotsonaros, Jack Hanlon, Harry Gribbon, Wheeler Oakman Director: William Wyler Screenwriter: Charles Logue, Albert DeMond Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 65 min Rating: NR Year: 1929 Release Date: July 27, 2020 Buy: Video

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