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DVD Review: Mandingo

1.5

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Mandingo

Perceptively described by Godfrey Cheshire in Moving Midway as “a place of violence and gentility, of pride and shame,” the antebellum plantation remains a site of uncomfortable ghosts. Consider the purposefully degraded Mandingo an invocation and an exorcism. Gentility and pride have been boiled away, and violence and shame have been cranked up to 11: Such is the rotting Deep South depicted in Richard Fleischer’s infamous 1975 melodrama, a film that has been, not unlike its subject, largely filed away to a murky corner of our collective cultural psyche. This is a Gone with the Wind where Scarlett O’Hara coerces the titular walking-phallus slave into her featherbed by threatening to cry rape, and Rhett Butler sticks to the wenches until his Southern honor is threatened and he reaches for pitchfork and boiling caldron. Audiences at the time flocked to it even as critics foamed over its “trashiness” and “immorality”; today it seems relegated to movies-we-love-to-hate cultists when it should be discussed side by side with Toni Morrison’s novels and Spike Lee’s sharpest provocations.

Suffocating and decayed, the 1840s Louisiana of Mandingo is just as much a nightmare world as the futuristic dystopia of Fleischer’s Soylent Green. The setting is a slave-breeding farm that, with its dilapidated mansion and barren rooms, lays bare the darker side of capitalism; the Maxwell clan is headed by paterfamilias Warren (James Mason), whose inner corruption is signified by his rheumatism as surely as his son Hammond’s (Perry King) limp represents his unease as a more sensitive man locked in a society of systematic terrorism. Indeed, Hammond’s tenderness, which wins the love of his slave mistress Ellen (Brenda Sykes), stands as one half of the film’s elements of tentative hope for change, the other half being the burgeoning sense of rebellion of Mede (Ken Norton), the family’s strongest slave. “You are strange for a white man,” Ellen tells Hammond after noticing his gentleness, a comment later echoed by Hammond (“You sure are a strange kind of white lady”) to his wife Blanche (Susan George) when she tells him of her longing for sex. Masculine delicacy and female desire are portrayed as taboos almost as threatening to the fiber of a tyrannical system as the mixing of races. Boldly confrontational, the film explicitly braids the oppression of blacks and women, both victims of a culture of ownership; it’s no accident that the fruit of the oppressed, the baby born from Blanche’s affair with Mede, is what triggers the story’s tragic conclusion.

Quentin Tarantino once admiringly compared Mandingo to Showgirls. What the two films share is a kind of heightened impact that’s so astringent that many viewers try to distance themselves by focusing exclusively on their “camp” aspects. (Susan George’s fearlessly tantrum-y performance here is singled out for ridicule as blindly as Elizabeth Berkeley’s ketchup-dousing aria in that Verhoeven masterpiece.) In that sense, both films are descendents of Douglas Sirk’s sublime frenzies, utterly unafraid of looking the ridiculous straight in the eye.

Mandingo is excessive—as in Mede’s gruesome bout with a fellow slave, a bloody illustration of society’s view of blacks as mere bodies on display that further binds the film’s themes by being staged inside a brothel—yet its excesses invariably reveal the caustic truths of social critique. No character in the film is pure, and yet none is free: All are part of a self-perpetuating cycle that taints slave and master equally. The younger characters have the capacity to break the cycle (Hammond’s love for Ellen, Mede’s “No, Massah” declaration at the end), though Fleischer concludes, like von Trier in Dogville, that a corrupt order may have to be destroyed before it can be purified. That the film still remains incendiary may be the ultimate evidence that our darkest chapters are far from safely sealed in history books.

Image/Sound

Director Fleischer stated in an interview that the look of Mandingo should be that of a wedding cake full of maggots, and the film’s blend of the lush and the putrid comes through crisply. The sound is disappointingly flat, and Maurice Jarre’s score (with its sly incorporations of Old South hymns) is particularly tinny.

Extras

None.

Overall

A shamefully bare-bones DVD for a shamefully neglected film.

Cast: James Mason, Perry King, Susan George, Richard Ward, Brenda Sykes, Ken Norton, Lillian Hayman, Roy Poole, Ji-Tu Cumbuka, Ben Masters, Paul Benedict Director: Richard Fleischer Screenwriter: Norman Wexler Distributor: Legend Films Running Time: 121 min Rating: R Year: 1975 Release Date: June 3, 2008 Buy: Video

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Review: Todd Haynes’s Far from Heaven on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

Kino Lorber’s release marks the long-overdue arrival of Todd Haynes’s ravishing melodrama on Blu-ray.

4

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Far from Heaven

In Douglas Sirk’s 1955 masterpiece All That Heaven Allows, a middle-aged widow incurs the wrath of a small town when she falls in love with her young gardener. She sacrifices love for a community’s acceptance only to realize, perhaps too late, that she’s made the wrong decision. The film’s title not only refers to her upper-middle-class milieu and its grueling demands, but also to the widow’s own personal allowances. In Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Rainer Werner Fassbinder reworked All That Heaven Allows but introduced race and the ideology of a working-class Germany into the equation. Now, in Far from Heaven, writer-director Todd Haynes goes one step further by adding the element of sexuality.

The film opens with a dissolve between a painting of a tree branch and its real-life representation, a flourish that immediately calls attention to the mechanism at work in this melodrama. Haynes is fascinated with the thin lines that separate the world from an idealized version of reality and the paths of resistance that lie therein. At an art exhibition, Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) bumps into her African-American gardener, Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), who teaches her to interpret the Picassos and Mirós that hang on the walls and observes how modern art has pared religious art down to simple shapes and colors. Again, Haynes calls attention to the expressive elements at work in this magnificent experiment, the “smoke and mirrors” of a mise-en-scène that demand decodification.

Cathy, a mother of two, is married to a successful businessman, Frank (Dennis Quaid), who works for Magnatech, a powerful television sales company. (In All That Heaven Allows, television was used to keep women occupied and, therefore, out of trouble.) Cathy and Frank are referred to as “Mr. and Mrs. Magnatech,” no doubt because they embody everything that’s seemingly “perfect” about upper-middle-class suburbia. A Weekly Gazette reporter (Bette Henritze) does a story on Cathy because “behind every great man there’s a great woman,” and after the article causes a stir for claiming that Cathy is “kind to the Negroes,” her best friend, Eleonor Fine (Patricia Clarkson), covers for her, saying that she’s been called a “red” ever since “she played summer stock with all those steamy Jewish boys.” Society extols her even as they recognize that she may be a loose cannon. She may not be able to distinguish a fake Rembrandt from the real thing but she can appreciate Picassos.

Cathy’s willingness to understand others isn’t only implied by her support for the NAACP and her kindness to Raymond but in her willingness to forgive Frank after she catches him cheating on her with another man. “I know it’s bad because it makes me feel despicable,” says Frank to his psychologist (James Rebhorn). He looks to cure his “disease” just as Cathy looks to fix her husband before the world outside begins to notice that their lives are far from perfect. Indeed, when Frank accidentally strikes Cathy, it’s only natural that she hides her bruises from everyone around her. Haynes understands how women like Cathy were financially dependent on men, reduced to supporting players in their husbands’ lives. What he understands more, however, is how these women were forced to keep up appearances.

Far from Heaven is set in Hartford, Connecticut in 1957, the social realities and political upheavals of which are buried beneath a rich tapestry of signs. Haynes’s remarkable use of mirrors emphasizes the emotional distance between characters and the sad way they avoid confrontation. For Christmas, Cathy gives Frank a box full of vacation brochures, and front and center is a pamphlet extolling Cuba’s beauty. Not only was 1957 the height of Fidel Castro’s war against Fulgencio Batista, but it was also the year of the Little Rock school desegregation scandal. Haynes repeatedly frames Frank next to elaborate Eames-era light fixtures and, in one scene, implies that he broke a lamp in his office during a fit of rage and hid the broken pieces inside, yes, a closet. Cathy and Frank don’t go to Cuba, instead opting to travel to Miami, this in spite the prevalence of pink in the city’s architecture.

Elmer Bernstein’s score punctuates key moments with expert precision, complementing the tone of the characters’ voices and the traumas written on their faces. When Frank enters an underground gay bar, Edward Lachman’s camera evokes the character’s fear with a splash of menacing greens and muted reds. More remarkable, though, is how the film seemingly loses its color when things begin to go wrong for Cathy. Haynes seemingly suggests that there’s no need for labels (gay and straight, black and white, inside and outside) if people are willing to listen to others. Cathy is drawn to Frank not because of his race or because of her own sense of not-being, but because he’s willing to listen to her voice. Here is a film of great humanism that applies as much to the ‘50s as it does to the world today and everyone who inhabits it. Standing before a painting by Jean Miró, Frank and Cathy grow closer together. The name of the painting? The Beautiful Bird Revealing the Unknown to a Pair of Lovers. And so the film’s final shot evokes not only changing season, but hopefully also a changing cultural tide.

Image/Sound

The almost too-perfect colors of Ed Lachman’s cinematography absolutely pop on this release, rendering all those deep, moody periwinkles and rusty, autumnal oranges with a fidelity and grace that neither mutes the emotional force of the film’s heightened Technicolor-inspired artificiality nor exaggerates its vibrancy into garish excess. The disc’s sound, provided in DTS-HD 2.0 and 5.1 audio tracks, is similarly well-balanced, handling both the film’s subdued dialogue and Elmer Bernstein’s emotionally complex score with equal integrity.

Extras

There’s nothing new here, but the extras carried over from the film’s initial DVD release are solid. The highlight of these is undoubtedly the audio commentary by Todd Haynes, who provides a steady diet of anecdotes, technical insights, and essay-like analysis, often focusing on the film’s relationship to the work of Douglas Sirk and Rainer Fassbinder. One of the more cerebral directors of his era, Haynes often comes off less like a filmmaker commenting on his own creation than a critic interpreting a text. That same cerebral auto-analysis is on display in a well-produced half-hour documentary, originally made for the Sundance Channel, that dissects the film’s pivotal party scene, offering brief but incisive tidbits about the sequence’s editing, cinematography, production design, and more. The rest of the extras, however, are purely perfunctory: a trailer, a brief clip from a panel discussion with Haynes and Julianne Moore, and a by-the-book making-of featurette.

Overall

Kino Lorber’s release marks the long-overdue arrival of this ravishing melodrama on Blu-ray, and thanks to its vibrant audio-visual presentation, the wait was more than worth it.

Cast: Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert, Patricia Clarkson, Viola Davis, James Rebhorn, Celia Weston, Bette Henritze Director: Todd Haynes Screenwriter: Todd Haynes Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2002 Release Date: March 19, 2019 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Review: Riccardo Freda’s The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire on Arrow Video Blu-ray

With this noteworthy release, Arrow Video’s devotion to vigorously excavating lesser-known gialli continues unabated.

4.5

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The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire

Dario Argento is consistently deemed the preeminent giallo maestro by critics and fans alike because of how his films blend mystery and obsession into an irresistible concoction. In The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red, the gonzo plunge into the unknown doesn’t forsake the basic mechanics of plot and characterization. Yet the Argento-centric focus in giallo criticism and scholarship has effectively shortchanged the spectrum of diverse approaches to the genre, many of which seem to adopt incoherence as an almost philosophical aim. Whether The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire embraces narrative confusion by daftness or design, Ricardo Freda’s film nevertheless possesses a propulsive energy that gradually makes coherence an insignificant, even undesirable feature.

The film begins on a strange note, with wide shots of a motorcyclist making his way through Dublin. The Irish setting is random and nearly irrelevant to the subsequent story of a Swiss ambassador, Sobiesky (Anton Diffring), and his family being tormented by an unknown killer, but it does pave the way for some stunning footage shot near the Cliffs of Moher, where the ambassador’s daughter, Helen (Dagmar Lassander), flirts with John Norton (Luigi Pistilli), a detective in pursuit of the assailant. The film finds little meaningful activity for its characters to engage in amid this and other vistas, like the snow-covered ski slopes of Zurich in a later scene, besides moseying about. As sequences essential to developing the film’s themes or ideas, they’re practically useless, but as widescreen landscape footage, they’re magnificent.

The dissonance between story and image defines The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire, and sometimes in contrasting ways depending on the scene. The core of the film’s criminal investigation involves a plethora of suspects and possible motivations being discussed within the sparse confines of a police station. While Inspector Lawrence (Arthur O’Sullivan) is established in early scenes as the lead investigative figure in several interrogations of possible suspects, he’s gradually supplanted by Norton, whose own family becomes one of the killer’s targets. The switch plays less like a calculated shift of the audience’s expectations than an indication of Freda’s investment in the potential jolt of individual set pieces; in short, since Norton’s vulnerable mother and daughter make easy targets, the film uses their assault as the climax, pitting Norton face-to-face with the murderer.

That the killer’s identity is almost impossible to surmise becomes part of the broader absurdist tone that feeds into Freda’s knack for composing striking images amid so much narrative chaos. There’s a sense that Brian De Palma was influenced by The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire, as Dressed to Kill similarly blends reality and dreams to memorable visual effect; there’s also the matter of the killer in both films wearing the same clothes and using the same murder weapon. But whereas Freda funneled his story into the cinematic equivalent of a lottery machine, De Palma makes guessing his killer’s identity a cinch, prompting us to truly wrestle with the implications of Dressed to Kill’s psychosexual and oneiric imagery.

The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire demonstrates how the different shades of the giallo genre, made in Italy and beyond, require variable critical orientations for identifying their aims. If one assumes that Argento’s genre model is the supreme and only approach to the giallo, then other, less logically inclined filmmakers like Freda or Massimo Dallamano, risk being marginalized or, worse, lopped from the canon entirely.

Image/Sound

Struck from the original 35mm camera negative, this transfer marks the film’s first appearance on North American home video and should be cause for celebration. Particularly striking are the incredible on-location scenes in Ireland: The saturated greens and browns of the Cliffs of Moher are fully discernible, while Zurich’s snow-covered ski slopes shimmer with vitality. There are only minimal signs of image damage, including slight scratches and debris, throughout the film. The monaural soundtrack sounds clean and comes in both Italian and English versions. It’s a release like this, of a film that seemed to have been relegated to eternal damnation on VHS or low-grade streams, that calls for terms like “renaissance” in reference to the spectrum of giallo titles being made available in HD by Arrow Video.

Extras

Among the plethora of extras on this disc, most noteworthy is the audio commentary by film critics Adrian J. Smith and David Flint. Simultaneously playful and informative, Smith and Flint oscillate between providing historical information about The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire and their own personal takes on the film. A notable highlight of this commentary includes the revelation that, despite the credits citing a novel as the film’s source material, there was no such book; the claim was made in an effort to lend legitimacy to the production.

An interview with film scholar Richard Dyer provides a remarkably lucid explanation of the film’s themes and shortcomings. Dyer differentiates between the narrative details that provide the viewer with food for thought and those that are so thinly sketched or convoluted that even he can’t follow their logic. Elsewhere, DJ Lovely Jon gives an appreciation of composer Stelvio Cipriani, which is similar to but distinct enough from his words about the music of ‘70s Italian cult cinema on Arrow’s release of The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion. Also included are interviews with actress Dagmar Lassander and assistant editor Bruno Micheli, the film’s original and international theatrical trailers, a virtual copy of the film’s original photo novel published in 1971, an image gallery, and a booklet containing an essay by film historian Andreas Ehrenreich on the film’s creation from pre-production to post.

Overall

With this noteworthy release of Riccardo Freda’s 1971 film, Arrow Video’s devotion to vigorously excavating lesser-known gialli continues unabated.

Cast: Dagmar Lassander, Anton Diffring, Luigi Pistilli, Arthur O’Sullivan, Werner Pochath, Dominique Boschero, Renato Romano, Valentina Cortese, Ruth Durley Director: Riccardo Freda Screenwriter: Riccardo Freda, Sandro Continenza, Günter Ebert, André Tranché Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 1971 Release Date: April 9, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Clint Eastwood’s The Mule on Warner Bros. Blu-ray

There are no real supplements on this disc, but Eastwood’s eccentric and moving film speaks quite well for itself.

3.5

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The Mule

Clint Eastwood’s The Mule doesn’t move like many contemporary American films, especially those in the crime genre. Crime cinema is often pumped up on machismo, with breakneck action sequences and tough and derivative dialogue. Meanwhile, other genres—superhero films, musicals, horror films, politically motivated biopics, animated fantasies—are often tethered to so rigid a narrative structure that they lack the emotional contemplation and sense of being-ness that drove, say, the best of the westerns that Hollywood produced when Eastwood professionally came of age. In this wearying paint-by-numbers context, The Mule is bracingly warm and eccentric, with a wandering tempo that refutes the overstimulated hyperventilation of pop culture. The very pace of Eastwood’s new film is inherently political.

As actor and director, Eastwood is intensely in sync with the rhythms of Earl Stone, a 90-year-old horticulturalist who winds up smuggling cocaine for the Sinaloa cartel up from El Paso into Chicago, once his flower business falls apart due to competition from online corporations. Quite a bit of the film is devoted to watching Earl as he drives the countryside or bullshits with people, with time passing via intertitles and elegant fades and ellipses that communicate liberation and sadness. Earl is a cheeky old man who feels that he’s earned the right to do whatever he pleases, whether it’s savoring our country’s gorgeous landscapes, slowing down a drug delivery so he can savor the “best pulled pork sandwich in the Midwest,” or soliciting a threesome with prostitutes a fraction of his age. Along the way, Earl speaks to cartel members in fashions that could get him killed, and his shamelessness earns their and our respect.

Your average director might have used Earl’s vigor and personality to spice up a suspense narrative, but the old man’s devotion to screwing around is the very subject of The Mule. Enjoyable details—Earl listening to oldies on the radio, pulling into rest stops for a snack, and even bantering with members of the cartel—allow Eastwood’s complicated political ideology to come into focus with understated ease. Currently Hollywood’s most iconic conservative filmmaker, Eastwood revels in Earl’s sense of self—in his implicit ability to refute modern self-censorship with his racist humor and politically incorrect sexual indulgences, which in this film often suggest a clearing of repressed air. Eastwood celebrates Earl as a refutation of our current culture, in which we police everything we say and do out of perpetual fear of causing offense, and in which art is often celebrated merely for parroting liberal platitudes back to critics who’re understandably enraged by the current government. Earl’s staunch resistance to these trends, embodied by his resentment of cellphones, render him an alternately baffling, pitiful, and exhilarating figure to younger people—white, of color, straight and queer alike—who’re used to playing by the modern rules of the game.

Yet this conservative filmmaker is also deeply attached to community, understanding that our direct and personal connections keep us healthy and human. Eastwood reveres the sorts of institutions that Republicans usually can’t wait to defund, and this conflict between a fetishizing of self and a yearning for community often animates his films, most recently Sully and The 15:17 to Paris. Eastwood, then, is conflicted in similar fashions as America itself. This is a place built on oppression that has fostered the intoxicating, maddeningly elusive possibility of freedom, a possibility that’s somehow both represented and refuted in microcosm by Earl’s hedonism and willingness, in his own antiquated, occasionally embarrassing way, to meet people of all sorts on their terms. One of The Mule’s most moving and telling narrative detours shows Earl using some of his drug money to save the local V.F.W., which is expressed by a joyous dance scene that suggests the ideal of our society.

Eastwood and screenwriter Nick Schenk also understand Earl’s sense of self to be selfishness—a privilege that’s not available to all Americans, some of whom pay a price for Earl’s revelry (such as his family, one of whom is played, in a suggestively autobiographical touch, by Eastwood’s daughter, Alison Eastwood). Not everyone can do whatever they like on the highways of America. In a tense and heartbreaking scene, the D.E.A. agents searching for Earl, led by Agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper), pull over a Hispanic man. Terrified of being killed by police, this man telegraphs his obedience with haunting and resonant steadfastness, which Eastwood plays for pitch-black comedy that never fails to shortchange the man’s fear. And this sequence has a wicked and subtle punchline: As the man returns to his truck unscathed, a tractor trailer roars by the highway in the background, causing the audience to wonder if it’s carrying drugs right under everyone’s noses, just like Earl does.

Many critics took The Mule for granted as an offhand bauble, the sort of thing Eastwood can knock off whenever he likes. But Eastwood’s casualness here, as both actor and director, represents an aesthetic apotheosis—a realization of a tone that he’s been trying to conjure off and on for decades. The heaviness of Eastwood films that were taken more seriously by audiences, such as Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, is almost entirely absent from The Mule, as Eastwood sustains here a lightness of being—a sensuality—that contains multitudes of emotional, personal, and political textures. The film is a poem of an America that never quite was, an America that haunts the dreams of people of all political affiliations, especially as we move further into a corporatized, artificially connected and manipulated monoculture that, incidentally, doesn’t favor atmospheric character studies like The Mule. When Colin captures Earl, Eastwood frames himself in shadowy profile as Earl’s placed in a police car. This portrait of a legend’s face against a doorframe, ruing lost time, ruing the promises that he and his country failed to keep, is worthy of the final shot of John Ford’s The Searchers.

Image/Sound

As with many of Clint Eastwood’s recent productions, The Mule favors muted colors, abounding in blacks and blues throughout its interior scenes, which are contrasted here with the bright craggy landscapes of New Mexico. The colors are rich and well-varied in this transfer, and the settings boast a good amount of detail, per the tradition of Warner Bros.’s often superb presentations of Eastwood’s films. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack isn’t a show pony, as this is a film composed often of alternating silence and dialogue. That said, those elements are handled perfectly well here. The score and various sound effects—gun shots, cars screeching—also boast appropriate bass and body, the latter of which effectively startles the film’s often quiet soundscape.

Extras

A 10-minute making-of supplement is a traditional promotional puff piece, though one interesting detail emerges: Eastwood’s character in The Mule wears clothing worn by the protagonists he played in True Crime and Gran Torino, among others, giving the film a subliminal autumnal texture. A music video for Toby Keith’s soundtrack song, “Don’t Let the Old Man In,” rounds out a virtually nonexistent supplements package.

Overall

Though there are no real supplements on this Warner Bros. disc, Clint Eastwood’s eccentric and moving The Mule speaks quite well for itself.

Cast: Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Taissa Farmiga, Michael Peña, Alison Eastwood, Andy Garcia, Laurence Fishburne, Dianne Wiest, Manny Montana, Robert LaSordo, Jill Flint Director: Clint Eastwood Screenwriter: Nick Schenk Distributor: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Running Time: 116 min Rating: R Year: 2018 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice on the Criterion Collection

Criterion’s release breathes new life into a self-appraising late period work that’s a lavish and lugubrious meditation on art and death.

4.5

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Death in Venice

Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice opens with a steamer approaching Venice, the strings of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony gorgeously throbbing on the soundtrack. This opening suggests the Italian city as an entry of romanticized escape for Gustave von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde), a reserved German composer on sabbatical, but then the sequence’s staid rhythm is abruptly dispelled by a blast from the boat’s steam engine, as if to hint at all the scorching filth that underlies Venice’s hyperbolic beauty. Throughout the film, Aschenbach’s vacation getaway will devolve into a ruinously obsessive journey, as he becomes captivated by the beauty he’s spent a career idealizing, manifested in a 14-year-old Polish boy. And this while Venice, cosmopolitan center for European art and culture, falls prey to a hazardous cholera epidemic.

We intuit that Aschenbach has retreated from his native Germany after a hostile reception to the premiere of a new composition. Doctors recommend a long period of complete rest, and he ventures to the south alone. In Venice, Aschenbach’s noble pretenses are undermined almost right away by grotesque encounters with a made-up dandy and a nefarious gondolier. He isn’t met with the deference he’s used to receiving, but with recalcitrant mockery. In this way, Death in Venice has deep connective tissue to Visconti’s The Leopard, wherein the aristocracy of Old Europe comes to grips with its collapse. Here, Aschenbach feels like a vestige of that class of European: a 19th-century ghost who hasn’t realized his obsolescence.

Through flashbacks, the audience learns that Aschenbach’s music is committed to ideals of beauty. Whereas Alfred (Mark Burns), his friend and colleague, preaches of the triumph of the senses and the significance of ambiguity in art, Aschenbach believes that art should uphold the dignity of humanity. For him, the nobility of beauty and intellect triumphs over our rudderless senses. Yet just as disease grips Venice, Aschenbach’s sensorial enthrallment overtakes his sense of reason. He settles into his hotel, and as Visconti’s camera—doubling for Aschenbach’s gaze—spends several minutes canvassing the dense dining hall, our main character’s languor and detachment is impressed upon us.

It’s then that an aristocratic Polish family passes before Aschenbach and the man is instantly taken with the beautiful Tadzio (Björn Andrésen). Even when the boy looks back at Aschenbach with an ambiguous smile, there’s a subtle sense that the boy’s preternatural glance has been constructed in the composer’s head. In one scene, Aschenbach spies Tadzio playing the piano, only for Visconti to then reveal that the boy isn’t there at all. At first, this kindling infatuation within Aschenbach is exciting for him, then frustrating, and eventually infuriating. And Death in Venice aesthetically complements Aschenbach’s unraveling: Visconti’s stylistic approach remains staid and evenly controlled in its presentation, yet the stready progression of flashbacks offers more questions than resolutions, plying the story with the kinds of ambiguities a conservative artist like Aschenbach disdains, suggesting that he’s being destroyed as if by a contagion carving its way through him.

Throughout, Tadzio’s perfection contrasts with Aschenbach’s loss of control. In The Leopard’s famous ball sequence, the noble patrons maintained their grace despite being so sweat-stained. But in Death in Venice, the sphinx of Old Europe has fully eroded. Aschenbach even attempts to remake himself in a barber’s shop as a younger man, blackening his graying hair and reddening his cheeks. “And now the signore may fall in love as he wishes,” the barber says, and yet as the cosmetically redrawn Aschenbach wanders through the stench of an ostensibly desolate wasteland, he embodies a ridiculous (and futile) retort to time.

Death in Venice is based on a 1911 novella by Thomas Mann, who often connected themes of disease and erotic enthrallment. For his adaptation, Visconti reached beyond his source material and incorporates elements from Mann’s 1947 novel Doctor Faustus, wherein Germany’s abandonment of reason to tribal barbarism becomes analogous to an artist’s pact with the devil for acquiring genius. In that novel, composer Adrian Leverkühn’s means of sealing this deal is by visiting a prostitute who infects him with syphilis, a slow-moving contamination that isolates his body and mind just as it destroys them (the scenario is based on an apocryphal story about the philosopher Friederich Nietzsche, whose work influenced so much of the trajectory of thought in the coming century). With haunting precision and muted sexual ferocity, Visconti stages the brothel scene from Doctor Faustus as a flashback, as Aschenbach—in place of Leverkühn—visits the prostitute Esmeralda (Carole André).

This flashback connects to Aschenbach’s infatuation with Tadzio, as both Esmeralda and Tadzio are spotted playing Beethoven’s “Für Elise” on a piano. It’s not clear if Visconti’s Aschenbach, like Leverkühn in Doctor Faustus, acquired syphilis from Esmeralda. But in connecting Tadzio and Esmeralda, Visconti implies Aschenbach’s metamorphosis from a dignified disposition to some irrational urge for destabilization (Esmeralda is also the name of the ship that carries him to Venice). The film is constructed of long camera setups with impeccably calibrated zooms to capture Old Europe’s denizens marching through crowded frames, conveying the hold of a master filmmaker in his twilight years over the action. Yet thrashing beneath that control, the film is submerged in ambiguities and incongruencies.

In his 1943 novel Joseph and His Brothers, Mann—in exile from Nazi Germany—wrote, “Do not assume the human being’s deepest concern is for peace, tranquility, the preservation of the carefully erected structure of his life from shattering and collapse. Too much evidence goes to show that he is headed straight toward ecstasy and ruin—and thanks nobody who holds him back.” True to Mann, Visconti’s Death in Venice details the self-evisceration of an individual’s—and nation’s—proud ideals. Not reconciling such ideals with the demonic is a grave error. The dying Aschenbach spies Tadzio in the sun kissed Adriatic, unable or unwilling to see the specter of fascism and two World Wars over the horizon.

Image/Sound

The only version of Death in Venice available to most viewers since 2004 was the Warner Home Video DVD, which offered a patchy transfer worthy of Aschenbach’s own corporeal entropy. Comparatively, Criterion’s release, which comes from a new 4K digital restoration, is akin to Tadzio himself. Throughout, the colors are newly, vibrantly saturated, allowing the widescreen compositions to shimmer in ways they haven’t since, surely, the film’s original theatrical release. There’s also an exceptional clarity to the spectrum of skin tones, from Aschenbach’s deathly pallor to Tadzio’s youthful, full-blooded beauty. Another drawback of the old DVD was its often unintelligible dialogue, as well as how it made the wall-to-wall Mahler compositions sound like they were pulled from a secondhand recording. Criterion’s uncompressed monaural soundtrack breathes new life into the film’s corpse, as it were, with the sound effects (such as the oars brushing through Venice’s ravines) boasting a profound crispness. The dialogue is perfectly intelligible and the dubbing—however flagrant—never strident. Mahler’s strings don’t blare out so much as sweep in smoothly like a tide.

Extras

The most informative extra here features literary and cinema scholar Stefano Albertini, who digs deep into the genesis and themes of the film, in particular its place in Visconti’s “German trilogy” alongside The Damned and Ludwig and the director’s lifelong adoration of Thomas Mann. A 1971 short film by Visconti documents his continent-wide search for a boy to play Tadzio. When we see Björn Andrésen being auditioned in Helsinki, it’s obvious that he’s the stand-out, but even Visconti admits the boy—too tall and too old—isn’t at all perfect (the process will probably touch a disturbing third rail for viewers, given how this search relates to the story of erotic attachment for a child just broaching pubescence).

The grandest extra, though, is an hour-long TV documentary about Visconti’s life and work titled Visconti: Life as in a Novel. It doesn’t offer anything in particular that will be new to the filmmaker’s more ardent fans, but it features engrossing interviews with some of Visconti’s more notable collaborators, such as Burt Lancaster, Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale, and Silvana Mangano. There are also excerpts from a 2006 interview with Piero Tosi, whose journey with Visconti went from working as a lowly design assistant—who could only talk to the filmmaker through intermediaries—to finally graduating to the role of costume designer on several of Visconti’s later films, including Death in Venice.

A brief 1971 film festival interview with Visconti is of interest in how the aging director admits he doesn’t understand the new generation of filmmakers. Ported over from the Warner DVD is Visconti’s Venice, a rather ho-hum behind-the-scenes documentary filmed during Death in Venice’s production. Finally, the disc’s accompanying essay, “Ruinous Infatuation” by Dennis Lim, is a rewarding encapsulation of the film as a work of adaptation and how Visconti tackles the challenge of a turning a novella rife with metaphor and symbols into something tactile.

Overall

Criterion’s release breathes new life into a self-appraising late period work that’s a lavish and lugubrious meditation on art and death.

Cast: Dirk Bogarde, Björn Andrésen, Romolo Valli, Mark Burns, Nora Ricci, Marisa Berenson, Carole André, Silvana Mangano. Director: Luchino Visconti Screenwriter: Luchino Visconti, Nicola Badalucco Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 131 min Rating: NR Year: 1971 Release Date: February 19, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Carlos Reygadas’s Japón on the Criterion Collection

Criterion has graced us with an intoxicatingly beautiful release of a strange and challenging film.

4

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Japón

It’s unlikely that Susan Sontag ever saw Carlos Reygadas’s debut feature, Japón, which made the festival rounds just a couple of years before the writer’s death in 2004, but if she had, she might well have recognized in the young Mexican auteur a kindred spirit—an artist whose work achieves (or at least attempts to achieve) what Sontag identified in her classic 1964 essay “Against Interpretation” as the mark of all good films: “a directness that entirely frees us from the itch to interpret.” Because while Japón is rife with religious iconography, socio-political observations, and heady filmic allusions, it never seems to be saying something (a pejorative phrase for Sontag) about Christianity, Mexican society, or cinema itself.

An unnamed traveler (Alejandro Ferretis) journeys to a remote village to commit suicide, only to find himself strangely absorbed in the life of an elderly woman, Ascen (Magdalena Flores), with whom he stays. It’s a simple story that Reygadas approaches with a sense of wonder that borders on naïveté. Far less concerned with what his film says than in how it sees, Reygadas attempts nothing less than to recapture for the audience the feeling of perceiving the world for the first time. Shooting in a highly unusual 16-mm Cinemascope format, Reygadas expands our field of vision with the super-widescreen aspect ratio while at the same time reminding us of the limits of our perception by rounding off the corners of the image, which places the entire film in a subtle frame. The breathtaking vistas of the valley where most of Japón takes place takes on an eerie and disorienting aura when viewed through the grainy textures and washed-out color palette of Reygadas’s low-budget film stock.

Japón begins in the city, with a strangely unsettling montage of shots filmed from a vehicle moving through traffic, tunnels, and fog, all set to an ominous orchestral score. This opening exudes a tantalizing sci-fi vibe, a feeling of uncanniness that carries through to the rest of the film as Ferretis’s character treks across the countryside, a stranger in a strange land. His first action out here in the wilderness is simultaneously brutal and magical: He decapitates a bird with his bare hands, after which its head lies on the ground, continuing to caw. It won’t be the last instance of shocking, senseless violence the film will expose us to.

As in his later work, Reygadas isn’t particularly concerned with constructing a narrative or probing his characters’ psychology. Rather, he cycles through various narrative modes; at times we seem to be watching a parable-like tale of suicide in the vein of Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, at others an absurd, darkly comic journey like that of K. in Kafka’s The Castle, and at others a brutal, Herzogian struggle against the elements. Similarly, the behavior of the characters can often seem as arbitrary as the narrative curlicues, even downright weird. Why does Ferretis’s character want to kill himself? Why does he later propose to Ascen, out of the blue, that they have sex? And why does she accept? Not only are these questions left unanswered, but even to ask them feels somehow beside the point. Reygadas asks us not to analyze particular actions, but to feel them in all their elemental strangeness.

Not that everything in Japón is successful in attaining this feeling, as the ambling narrative pace can at times come off as pointless, and Reygadas’s long takes can sometimes seem like little more than patience-testing provocations. The overall effect of the film, however, is one of metaphysical intoxication, a kind of heady gratification brought on by the beauty of Reygadas’s images and the sheer eccentricity of the world the film conjures. In the film’s most memorable sequence, Reygadas depicts with impenitent matter-of-factness his main characters having sex. The filmmaker isn’t trying to turn us on, nor is he attempting to shock us with the unvarnished sight of two older people’s starkly naked forms. Rather, the scene provides the natural culmination of the main character’s journey. His is a quest for higher meaning that inexorably leads back to the base satisfaction of his animal urges.

Image/Sound

The new 2K digital restoration of Japón, supervised by Carlos Reygadas, honors the film’s strange, intoxicating imagery. Despite some small but noticeable image shuddering during a few of the film’s panning shots, it’s safe to say that Reygadas’s film hasn’t looked this good since its initial theatrical rollout. This release preserves the film’s muted yet striking color palette and the gorgeous granularity of its unique 16-mm Cinemascope cinematography. The DTS-HD Master Audio surround soundtrack which highlights the rich sonic environment of the film, from the remarkable subtleties of wind and animal sounds to spectacularly rich music cues from the likes of Bach and Arvo Pärt. This meticulous preservation effort makes a case for Japón as one of the most visually singular debut features of the 21st century.

Extras

The disc’s most notable feature is a conversation between Reygadas and filmmaker Amat Escalante that goes deep into the former’s creative process, influences, and biography. The interview provides a particularly incisive look at Reygadas’s use of storyboards, some of which are also reproduced in the release’s attractive full-color booklet along with production photos and a high-spirited essay by novelist Valeria Luiselli. Also included is Adulte, a Deren-esque short made by Reygadas as a way of teaching himself filmmaking, as well as a deleted scene, a trailer, and a video diary of the production shot by lead actor Alejandro Ferretis. It’s a rich assortment of supplementary materials that provides useful background on Reygadas’s creative methods without attempting to provide any answers to the film’s mysteries.

Overall

In restoring Japón to its original glory, the Criterion Collection has graced us with an intoxicatingly beautiful release of a strange and challenging film.

Cast: Alejandro Ferretis, Magdalena Flores, Yolanda Villa, Martín Serrano, Rolando Hernández, Bernabe Pérez, Fernando Benítez Director: Carlos Reygadas Screenwriter: Carlos Reygadas Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 134 min Rating: R Year: 2002 Release Date: March 26, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Kogonada’s Columbus on Oscilloscope Laboratories Blu-ray

Kogonada’s elegant and moving narrative debut has been outfitted with a lovely transfer that will hopefully expose the film to new audiences.

4

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Columbus

Early in Kogonada’s Columbus, Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) and an unnamed co-worker (Rory Culkin) discuss the notion of attention bias. When people prefer video games to reading, the co-worker says, they’re often said to have a short attention span, even if they’re concentrating on video games for hours at a time. However, a reader who’s unable to engage with video games is unlikely to weather the same criticism. Casey and her co-worker are both bookish young people, intellectuals in the making, who clearly favor reading over most anything else. But Culkin’s character raises an evocative and perhaps alarming point, challenging the tendency of readers and other connoisseurs of art to believe that their interests render them better people and are superior to other people’s pursuits. Is art another evasion for the introvert? The co-worker asks Casey, “Are we losing interest in everyday life?”

It might not occur to the audience until much later in the film that the co-worker is telling Casey that he’s in love with her, asking this guarded and intelligent young woman to truly see the person facing her every day among the comforting cavernousness of the library. This conflict would be enough for a good film, but Kogonada, who challenges every potential platitude that he uncovers, allows us to see that the co-worker also gently and almost imperceptibly retreats from Casey when she opens up to him.

Columbus is invested with the empathy, curiosity, and attention to detail that drive the video essays that Kogonada has produced for the Criterion Collection and Sight & Sound, among other places. A key to the film resides in a question that Kogonada posed in his extraordinary analysis of the work of director Hirokazu Kore-eda: “Does cinema offer escape from this world? Or deeper entrance?” These concerns implicitly fuel the co-worker’s occupation with attention bias, and they elucidate Casey’s obsession with the modernist architecture in their hometown of Columbus, Indiana. Art heightens a connection to the world, nurturing a sensitivity and an awareness of one’s surroundings, but it can quickly become an introvert’s crutch, providing an illusion of a life lived in full, rather than as an existence devoted to collecting and analyzing the ghosts of other artists’ dreams.

Kogonada surveys the town’s architecture with the exacting, worshipful eye that he’s brought to analyzing the cinema of his heroes, and it’s impossible not to wonder if Casey’s awakening—her discovery of her right to live her own life and to create her own art—is representative of Kogonada’s own drive to create. Like his video essays, Columbus is intensely occupied with the ways in which the space and symmetry of images reveal character and emotion.

As Culkin’s character discusses attention bias, our gaze is drawn to the square pattern in the library’s ceiling, which suggests a kind of cubist green quilt with lights housed in each geometric structure—the sort of wonderful texture that the co-worker feels they may be missing. A little later, Casey observes that a church has been designed with a deliberate sense of asymmetry, yet its total effect is one of balance. Every image is rich in striking, supple through lines and prisms, which are often made asymmetrical by the placing of human characters in the frame, celebrating the unlikely wealth of art that abounds in this town, capable of being beholden by citizens of all walks of life, as well as the distance from life that art can both obfuscate and crystallize.

Kogonada doesn’t fall for the false dichotomy between intelligence and emotion that frequently mars American culture, understanding that—for people such as Casey, her co-worker, and a visiting Korean book translator, Jin (John Cho)—intelligence is emotion, as well as a code of morality. Casey and Jin meet and engage in an erudite courtship that’s nearly unprecedented in American cinema, which Richardson and Cho perform with a lucid and magnificently poignant sense of control. The seeming miracle of Columbus is its mixture of formal precision with a philosophical grasp of human mystery, which recalls the work of Kogonada heroes such as Hitchcock, Tarkovsky, and Antonioni. Until the ending, Casey and Jin are often refracted through mirrors and other surfaces when they risk revealing too much of their pain and desire, suggesting their urge to efface themselves with their interests and blend into the nesting designs that comprise the grand patterns of life.

A relationship between symmetry and asymmetry governs the images as well as the narrative structure. Jin’s emotionally trapped by estrangement from his ailing father while Casey is, by contrast, suppressed by her devotion to her recovering meth-addicted mother (Michelle Forbes), which she uses as a front for her intellectual insecurity. A few scenes into Columbus, we see a shot of traffic flowing underneath the triangular Second Street Bridge, which we can assume to represent Jin’s arrival into town. Near the end of the film, Casey leaves under the same bridge to pursue her dream of studying architecture. This entrance and exit represent both a symmetry (one person is traded in Columbus for another) as well as an asymmetry, as Kogonada could’ve easily positioned the entrance and the exit as the exact beginning and ending of the film but doesn’t, though Columbus has a pervading emotional balance—a sense of two lives granting themselves the possibility of transcendence.

Kogonada offers, to use a phrase coined by Casey’s co-worker, a “critique of a critique,” as the rapturous clarity of his own images is the very source of his interrogation. In the context of this film, symmetry can mean a balance of life and art or refer to order that’s imposed on life, draining it of vitality. Meanwhile, asymmetry can evoke the wonderful chaos of life, or connote a lack of balance, as artists and aficionados retreat definitively into their own obsessions. Balance is tricky, in other words, and these anxious riddles inform the surpassingly beautiful Columbus with probing human thorniness, as it’s an art object gripped by the possibility that art, in the right light, can insidiously launder alienation. Though life without art, for people such as Casey and Jin, is akin to life without life.

Image/Sound

The image is strikingly attractive, honoring Kogonada’s symmetrical, colorful compositions, the beauty and fastidiousness of which reflect the emotions of characters who qualify their yearnings via discussions of architectural aesthetics. Colors are sharp—perhaps sharper than they were in the theater—and details are plentiful, with particular textural emphasis accorded to the buildings that serve as a kind of visual Greek chorus. The soundtrack is necessarily subtle, as this a film that’s often composed of silence and whispers, which are well-balanced here with a rich score and the minute sounds of the everyday.

Extras

The most notable supplement is a select scene audio commentary by actors John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson, who’re both intelligent, sensitive, intuitive performers who seem to enjoy a camaraderie similar to that of their on-screen counterparts. They speak of the various physical challenges inherent to their roles, particularly Richardson’s stillness in the film, which is somewhat at odds with her more frenetic way of being in real life. Cho and Richardson also celebrate working with Kogonada, whom they cumulatively describe as having an exact yet flexible vision. The deleted scenes are fine on their own, offering additional texture about the protagonists, though not revelatory. (In other words, they were justifiably cut.) A seven-minute short film by Kogonada, “Columbus Story,” free-associatively mixes footage of making the film with additional narration about the buildings of Columbus, Indiana. The theatrical trailer rounds out a slim but charming package.

Overall

Kogonada’s elegant and moving narrative debut has been outfitted with a lovely transfer that will hopefully expose the film to new audiences.

Cast: Haley Lu Richardson, John Cho, Parker Posey, Rory Culkin, Michelle Forbes, Erin Allegretti Director: Kogonada Screenwriter: Kogonada Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories Running Time: 103 min Rating: NR Year: 2017 Release Date: March 26, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Robert Zemeckis’s I Wanna Hold Your Hand on the Criterion Collection

The disc’s 4K restoration offers Zemeckis’s debut, a madcap celebration of the pop-cultural phenomena, a chance at a second life.

3.5

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I Wanna Hold Your Hand

Robert Zemeckis’s I Wanna Hold Your Hand is a film with the absurdist bent of a funhouse mirror. Set around the Beatles’s iconic 1964 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, the film is refreshingly free of baby-boomer nostalgia for a more innocent time. Zemeckis instead fully embraces the “mania” in Beatlemania, setting his focus on both the band’s fans and no less crazed haters and leaving the Fab Four on the fringes of the film (they’re only seen in archival footage and shots where the actors playing them are framed from behind or the waist down).

Zemeckis’s directorial debut unfolds in a series of mini-narratives that follow a group of New Jersey teens who make their way to New York City hoping to score tickets to the Beatles’s first live U.S. television appearance, or at least see them at the exclusive hotel where they’re holed up. Zemeckis and co-screenwriter Bob Gale capture not only the sheer lunacy of a wildly obsessive and fiercely loyal fandom, but also the various shades that exist within and around that distinctive subculture.

The loudest and most boisterous of this bunch is Rosie (Wendie Jo Sperber), who doesn’t hesitate to jump out of a moving car or break into a stranger’s hotel room if it means getting to a phone from which she can call the radio station giving away tickets to attend The Ed Sullivan Show. But where Rosie is the prototypical teenage Beatles fan, fainting at even a cardboard cutout of the dreamy Paul McCartney, she’s surrounded by friends and classmates whose motives for making the trip are less than pure.

The street-smart Grace (Theresa Saldana) arrives on the scene with camera in hand, hoping to get a snapshot of the band so as to jump-start her journalism career, and it isn’t long into the film before she finds herself moving on from her relatively innocent scam of selling squares of bed sheets the Beatles supposedly slept on to flirting with prostitution to get enough money to bribe her way into The Ed Sullivan Show. And then there’s the recently engaged Pam (Nancy Allen), who begrudgingly tags along with her friends in spite of knowing that her fiancé will be jealous. Of course, her worries quickly melt away later on when she finds herself alone in the band’s hotel room, where she tucks her engagement ring in her shoe before stroking and kissing the phallic neck of McCartney’s bass guitar as if it were a lover.

Lest it be populated entirely with fangirls, I Wanna Hold Your Hand also offers up an artsy poseur, Janis (Susan Kendall Newman), and post-greaser tough guy, Tony (Bobby Di Cicco), as prospective foils to Beatles fans everywhere. Janis and Tony join in on the fun only to protest the band’s sudden domination of the country’s entire cultural landscape. Where Janis sees the Brits overshadowing more socially important music like that of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, Tony yearns for a time when the Four Seasons and Elvis were still on top. Such anti-Beatles furor also torments the younger Peter (Christian Juttner), whose conservative father (Read Morgan) employs a one-eyed barber (Newton Arnold) to chop off his son’s mop top, only to be saved by Janis and Tony in an act of generational camaraderie.

Along with the onslaught of intricate and humorous character details that help form its multifaceted portrait of its particular cultural zeitgeist, I Wanna Hold Your Hand is defined by its relentlessly manic energy. Zemeckis’s fondness for Looney Tunes, which would be on more explicit display in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, is already in full effect here in the consistently heightened, cartoonish quality of the slapstick. From the often-spastic nature of the actors’ movements (particularly those of Eddie Deezen in his Jerry Lewis-like interpretation of a crazed Beatles trivia nerd) and their comically twisted facial expressions to the sheer speed of the action which is amplified throughout by undercranking the image, everything in I Wanna Hold Your Hand is pushed right up to the breaking point of absurdity. The lunacy of pop-culture infatuation is lent the undying fervor of a fever dream.

Image/Sound

The Criterion Collection’s transfer, from a new 4K restoration, is quite remarkable. The image is so crisp and clear that it’s hard to believe that I Wanna Hold Your Hand is a relatively low-budget film shot over 40 years ago. The reds and blues especially pop, and there are warm yet naturalistic hues to the actors’ skin tones. The contrast of the image is also perfectly calibrated, allowing for the highest quality and detail in both the brighter outdoor sequences and darker interiors. The 5.1 audio track is also beautifully layered, giving the numerous Beatles tracks a booming intensity, while the rapid dialogue remains clean and easy to decipher throughout. If there’s a minor flaw, it’s the slight disparity between those dialogue and music tracks, which may have you occasionally adjusting your volume level.

Extras

The beefiest extra on the disc is the 2004 audio commentary with Robert Zemeckis and co-writer and frequent collaborator Bob Gale. While their focus is more on I Wanna Hold Your Hand’s production than on breaking down the film in any meaningful way, they provide a wonderful variety of amusing on-set stories and insight into their casting process and how they ended up working with their mentor, Steven Spielberg, on the film. The discussion is brisk and light-hearted, which is fitting given how free and loose-limbed I Wanna Hold Your Hand is, but it also details Zemeckis and Gale’s process of working with mostly inexperienced actors and how many of the more challenging shots were accomplished.

The recent interview with Zemeckis, Gale, and Spielberg covers much of the same ground as the commentary, with some additional campfire stories pertaining to their later collaborations with John Milius thrown in for good measure. In Nancy Allen and Marc McClure’s accompanying interview, the actors talk about their fascinating experiences during the casting process, though they too often default to lavishing praise on Zemeckis and restating how enjoyable it was to work on the film. The release also includes an essay by Scott Tobias and two of Zemeckis’s student films, The Lift and A Field of Honor, the latter of which provides an interesting glimpse at his propensity for manic absurdism in its embryonic form.

Overall

The disc’s beautiful 4K restoration offers Robert Zemeckis’s debut, a madcap celebration of the pop-cultural phenomena, a chance at a second life.

Cast: Nancy Allen, Bobby Di Cicco, Marc McClure, Susan Kendall Newman, Theresa Saldana, Wendie Jo Sperber, Eddie Deezan, Christian Juttner, Will Jordan, Read Morgan, Dick Miller Director: Robert Zemeckis Screenwriter: Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 104 min Rating: PG Year: 1978 Release Date: March 26, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Douglas Sirk’s The Tarnished Angels on Kino Blu-ray

The Blu-ray boasts an exciting transfer of one of Douglas Sirk’s most visually resplendent films.

5

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The Tarnished Angels

Through the prism of the Technicolor camera, Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind elaborate on the perceived comforts of middle-class life. In these cinematic realms, the brightest of colors enliven the finely decorated homes of characters who, on the surface, appear to be living their ideal lives. As Jane Wyman’s Cary Scott from All That Heaven Allows sits in her living room across from a brand new television—a Christmas gift from her grown children—near the end of the film, Sirk offers up a seemingly picturesque snapshot of her class-based satisfaction. Yet the irony is clear: The children, having objected to their mother’s relationship with a man beneath her social class, see her as something to be tended to, not someone to really care for as an emotional being.

If these kinds of slippery distinctions between a character’s contentment and devastation tend to define Sirk’s oeuvre, then the New Orleans-set The Tarnished Angels finds the director slightly modifying his standard themes to examine the thin line between achieving happiness and crashing and burning in pursuit of it. Death literally looms large over Roger Schumann (Robert Stack), a World War I fighter pilot turned daredevil who takes to the sky as part of an airshow around the time of Mardi Gras. Stack plays him as an outright bastard plagued by undiagnosed PTSD; though not physically violent toward his wife, LaVerne (Dorothy Malone), and son, Jack (Christopher Olsen), Roger weaves a web of psychological entrapment that, at one point, involves him suggesting that LaVerne should sleep with local honcho Matt Ord (Robert Middleton) so that Roger might gain access to a particular plane.

The Tarnished Angels, written by George Zuckerman, complicates character motivation and action by using flashbacks and ellipses that sometimes make it difficult to discern when, or even if, certain events are taking place. Sirk uses black-and-white images to stage a contrast between the oneiric promise of the film’s nostalgic feelings for past glories and the stark reality its characters face when death comes knocking at their door.

Sirk frames the Schumann family as a nearly grotesque extreme of the American dream; from afar, they might appear to have obtained an intractable happiness. However, The Tarnished Angels uses journalist Burke Devlin (Rock Hudson) as a conduit for the viewer to realize that, in close-up, these are damaged human beings with little grip on their lives. That Devlin, too, is no better equipped to navigate his alcoholism and wayward idealism indicates Sirk’s perception of the fundamentally fractured logic that often founds a sense of duty to a particular cause. In Devlin’s case, his affection for LaVerne, combined with his drinking problem, clouds an ability to act rather than speak in grandiloquent terms.

The film makes the act of looking a significant part of the story, with several scenes featuring shots of audiences gawking and howling in appreciation as Roger flirts with death. When one flying event takes a tragic turn—and a screeching airplane hurls toward the grandstands—Sirk prompts us to ask if the inclination to watch near-death spectacle is an unconscious way of wanting to vicariously experience death. That Roger didn’t perish in WWI but plunges into the sand while displaying his aeronautical prowess for a stateside audience reinforces the theme of self-imprisonment, both personal and cultural, that runs throughout Sirk’s work.

Like Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, which creates a damning critique of media circuses that would allow a man to die if it means increasing readership, The Tarnished Angels understands the innate human desire to look at beauty or terror as the potentially catastrophic fuel of public interest. Yet, while Wilder never turned that critique on himself or his own film, Sirk, ever the craftsman of multi-vision art, sees that he’s no saint himself.

Image/Sound

The depth of field during the film’s airshow sequences is remarkable, while close-ups of faces are nicely textured. The black-and-white cinematography is consistently balanced throughout. While there are occasional small scratches or bits of debris that are visible within the frame, they don’t considerably distract from the viewing experience. The DTS-HD Master Audio track maximizes the potency of Frank Skinner’s memorable score, while the dialogue is clear and crisp. There are no distracting pops, hisses, or screeches.

Extras

The sole extra of note is a lovely feature-length commentary track by film historian Imogen Sarah Smith, who contextualizes Sirk’s career while offering an insightful reading of the film itself. Smith has put in the work here, speaking almost nonstop from beginning to end in a style that accomplishes the depth and rigor of a master’s thesis, with dates, names, and tidbits so thoroughly entwined with analysis that it’s an immediately essential listen for anyone who’s serious about their knowledge or study of Sirk. Smith’s tone is also conversational, leaning as she does on personalized takes on the characters; especially amusing, and succinct, is her explanation of Burke Devlin’s faults. The film’s theatrical trailer is also included.

Overall

Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray boasts a smashing feature-length commentary and an exciting transfer of one of Douglas Sirk’s most visually resplendent films.

Cast: Rock Hudson, Robert Stack, Dorothy Malone, Jack Carson, Christopher Olsen, Robert Middleton, Troy Donahue, Alan Reed, William Schallert Director: Douglas Sirk Screenwriter: George Zuckerman Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 91 min Rating: NR Year: 1957 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Barbara Loden’s Wanda on the Criterion Collection

Criterion has outfitted Barbara Loden’s Wanda with a beautifully rough-and-tumble transfer.

4

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Wanda

In Wanda’s first few minutes, writer-director-actor Barbara Loden renders the heart of America’s coal country with an empathetic scope that’s unrivaled in our country’s narrative cinema. It’s not Loden’s attention to misery—the wasteland of the gravel pits, the dirty dishes and Coke and beer bottles littered about indifferently, the altogether cramped and dingy homes—that distinguishes her vision, but her sense of the beauty that crops up even in lives of hardship. This film has a wonderful, hard-won sense of everyday rapture.

Before Loden cuts to a screaming child—the sort of image that’s common to earnest films geared toward bringing about social reform—the filmmaker lingers on a shot of an elderly woman looking out a window as the sun shines in and casts her in heavenly light. Such a grace note suggests the possibility of refuge in this world, illustrating the thoroughness and breadth of Loden’s curiosity. Quickly afterward, in a heartbreakingly brief and casual interlude, Loden lingers on a woman (Dorothy Shupenes) getting out of bed and sighing before addressing the screaming child, steeling herself for the day.

Those who know nothing about Loden’s film may assume that this woman is Wanda, and as such our protagonist, but she’s really Wanda’s sister. Wanda (Loden) is revealed soon enough, crashed out on her sister’s couch, her presence causing problems between the sister and the latter’s husband (Peter Shupenes), who storms out without taking his coffee. Wanda, a lost soul, doesn’t seem to belong to the world of the Pennsylvania coal mines as intently as her sister does, and her sense of misplacement mirrors our own. This isn’t to say that Loden telegraphs or “indicates” in the manner of an actor who might be touring America’s un-prosperous nooks and crannies for an Oscar. When Loden telegraphs, it’s always in character.

Often, Wanda arises from her sister’s couch, or a motel bed she just shared with a stranger who picked up her tab the night before, and holds her head in a universal sign of a godawful hangover. For Wanda, such a gesture is a cry for help—a break from her pervading insularity and illusiveness, which Loden renders with a committed and poignant airiness. Loden’s performance is a prodigious and ecstatic blend of naturalism and expressionism.

The film’s first act establishes Wanda’s aimless routine with merciless and detailed precision. We learn that she abandoned her family and can’t be bothered to fight for custody of her kids. In a court hearing, Loden allows us to see something that the other characters can’t or won’t recognize: that Wanda is unbearably depressed almost to the point of muteness. Wanda tries to get her job at a dress manufacturer back, but is told she’s too slow right after she’s informed that taxes get roughly 65 percent of what she was already owed. All that seems to remain for her are the bars and the one-night stands, which Loden renders with a sensitivity that’s as keen and insightful as the scenes set in Wanda’s sister’s house. Men call Wanda “tootsie” and “blondie” and treat her with unveiled contempt, regarding her as a nuisance, a drunk, and a whore. Such moments acutely allow one to sense the discomfort of a woman who’s subjected endlessly to unfeeling male scrutiny, recalling the similarly visceral films of Ida Lupino.

Just as the viewer settles in for the ride, perhaps presuming Wanda to be composed entirely of a drunk’s hopeless grasps for communion, Loden springs a conceit that’s daring in this context, threatening the stability of her closely observed character study. Wandering into one of her regular bars to clean up as best she can in the bathroom, she meets Norman Dennis (Michael Higgins), a bartender who’s actually a criminal holding up the joint.

As Norman, Higgins disrupts the film’s tender, depressive rhythms. Wanda is a modern portrait of a woman who’s subjecting herself to primordial sexism, while Norman, whom Wanda always calls “Mr. Dennis,” is a pointedly retro throwback to the male criminals of 1940s-era American cinema. Curt and squarely bespectacled, with a mustache that adds at least 10 years to his appearance, Norman is weirdly commanding in his confidence in his own skin, in the intensity of his conviction in his own old-fogey-ness.

Wanda goes on the road with Norman and the two become lovers on a crime spree in a trope that’s nearly as old as the movies, as if Wanda’s life became so untenable that a divine presence offered her an escape hatch through the rituals of genre cinema. In certain fashions, Norman is no less condescending to Wanda than anyone else, though there’s an unusual respect evident in his refusal to flatter her. He often prefaces his orders with “when you’re with me,” and the implication of this line is obvious: that she can either take it or leave it. Norman isn’t born of any fashionable act of man-hating, as we’re allowed to see his own misery—his inability to receive love. Comically and tragically, he tells Wanda that he doesn’t like “friendly” types as she caresses him after they have sex.

Loden also uncomfortably shows how Norman’s dictatorial ways fulfill Wanda. Norman asks her to dress differently, more like a woman before women’s liberation, and she looks happier and more comfortable in her skin. Loden understands that gender relationships can’t be reduced to think pieces and anal-retentive tabulations of how often women discuss men, as there are yearnings, pounded into us from cultural regiments, that seek expression whether or not they’re reputable. Wanda has wanted a Norman Dennis to come into her life and take control and give her function and meaning. Is this relationship a product of a kind of desperate Stockholm syndrome? Emotionally, this distinction almost seems beside the point.

Opposite Higgins, the carefully sustained flakiness of Loden’s performance becomes funny in a fashion that complicates its pathos. And this ironic flowering softens our guard for the hammer that falls in the third act, when the genre fantasy collapses and Wanda returns to the bars and the motels, alone among a crowd, searching for another qualified Prince Charming, settling for a beer, a smoke, a hot dog, and another night she won’t remember.

Image/Sound

There’s a hearty amount of grain in this image, reflecting Wanda’s sparse budget and docudramatic aesthetic. Colors are surprisingly rich and intense, particularly reds and blues. And textural details, which are the manna of this film’s power, are extraordinary. One can see the thin materials of Wanda’s worn-down wardrobe, and the way that beer cans are illuminated by shards of punishing morning sunlight. The soundtrack is a bit variable—it’s not always entirely hear what characters are saying—but this flaw appears to truthfully reflect the source material, deepening the film’s fly-on-the-wall verisimilitude. Secondary sounds—of sewing machines, cars, and beer cans being popped open, for instance—are quite crisp and lifelike.

Extras

Katja Raganelli’s 60-minute documentary I Am Wanda features intimate footage of Barbara Loden in 1980 not long before she succumbed to cancer. We see Loden coaching actors and reading passages from books at the dinner table with her children and husband, Elia Kazan, among other things. Loden discusses filmmaking and her artistic process with a sadness and vulnerability that, given the context of her illness, is almost unbearably moving. This sadness is also evident in the talk that Loden had with students at the American Film Institute in 1971, as she outlines the challenges of making a low-budget film.

One of the more fascinating inclusions in this supplements package is “The Frontier Experience,” a short educational film that Loden directed about a pioneer woman’s struggles in the largely uninhabited Kansas plains in the late 1800s. The film has the same emphasis on detail as Wanda, with long pauses and bustling winds that emphasize the grueling loneliness, and danger, of frontier life. Rounding out this package is a clip from Loden’s appearance in 1971 on The Dick Cavett Show, in which she artfully handles sexist condescension, Wanda’s theatrical trailer, and a booklet with an essay by film critic Amy Taubin that emphasizes how viscerally personal Wanda was to Loden.

Overall

Criterion has outfitted Barbara Loden’s Wanda with a beautifully rough-and-tumble transfer as well as supplements that movingly elaborate on the filmmaker’s life.

Cast: Barbara Loden, Michael Higgins, Dorothy Shupenes, Peter Shupenes, Jerome Thier, Marian Thier, Anthony Rotell Director: Barbara Loden Screenwriter: Barbara Loden Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 102 min Rating: NR Year: 1970 Release Date: March 19, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Robert Wise’s The Body Snatcher on Shout! Factory Blu-ray

This sterling Blu-ray transfer is occasion for reconsidering the film as more than a minor entry in producer Val Lewton’s body of work.

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The Body Snatcher

Robert Wise’s The Body Snatcher thrives on dramatizing how individual responsibility functions within a larger chain of command. Though the film is set in late-19th-century Edinburgh, the dilemmas faced by medical student Donald Fettes (Russell Wade) are in lockstep with the global catastrophe of World War II, as Fettes struggles to determine whether or not he should obey the unorthodox commands of his mentor, Dr. “Toddy” MacFarlane (Henry Daniell). MacFarlane employs the graverobber John Gray (Boris Karloff) to deliver corpses for his medical experiments, as bodies are in short supply due to legal reasons. While not an explicitly coded story about Nazi war crimes (for one, neither MacFarlane nor Gray profess an ideology of hate), the focus on the shadowy machinations of power is prescient of the rhetoric of the Nuremberg trials, where Nazis who participated in the atrocities committed in Auschwitz and other concentration camps denied their criminal culpability.

Though the stakes of The Body Snatcher are much lower than genocide, one of the film’s primary thematic concerns is the psychological guilt of those who participate in murderous schemes for personal benefit. The medical field becomes a conduit for fascism, as Fettes wants to develop a medical practice devoted to personal care rather than profit, personal agendas, or scientific advancement at all costs. And since these ideas are being explored under the supervision of producer Val Lewton, they’re conveyed in the style of his frightening poetics.

One remarkable scene finds Wise amplifying the claustrophobia of confined spaces through tight framings. In it, MacFarlane’s slow-witted assistant, Joseph (Bela Lugosi), has just announced to Gray his blackmail demands after learning of Gray’s body-snatching practice. Despite the initiative to profit from his knowledge, Joseph is at best inept and seems to be merely imitating the kinds of exploitation he witnesses all around him. Wise flips Lugosi’s popular on-screen persona from suave predator to clueless victim. Karloff gives Gray a snarling confidence that manifests in the steady luring of Joseph toward his death. Confronted with the reality of his actions, Gray immediately locks into a mode of self-preservation, seduction, and murder. Such cold and calculating actions project the underlying terror of how rationality might be abused to harm weak or unsuspecting citizens.

A lesser, plot-driven subplot of the film concerns the efforts of Fettes to restore spinal function to young Georgina (Sharyn Moffett), a paraplegic who arrives with her mother, Mrs. Marsh (Rita Corday), at MacFarlane’s home seeking help. Georgina feels like a redux of the girl from Wise’s prior Lewton production, 1944’s The Curse of the Cat People. Whereas in that film Wise gave profound expression to how a child’s mind is affected by parental abuse, The Body Snatcher reduces Georgina’s emotions to a plot device, as Fettes’s more personal and intimate approach to medicine is meant to impugn MacFarlane’s unfeeling, hard-nosed methods.

Even if the narrative threads aren’t as tightly focused on exploring a complex theme as one might hope, The Body Snatcher nevertheless manages to still send chills, and predominately through Wise’s fleet direction and Karloff’s unflinching embodiment of a real-world monster. As with other Lewton productions, the scares are rooted in how character guilt or corruption gives way to fear rather than vice versa. Indeed, while Karloff receives top billing as the film’s embodiment of terror, it’s actually Daniell’s MacFarlane who pulls the strings. In fact, after MacFarlane believes he’s snipped away all loose ends, it’s his own mind that proves to be the final obstacle that cannot be overcome. Less supernatural than secular, the film challenges viewers to look more closely at how society might be impacted by their own behaviors and actions—especially those conceived of or acted upon when others aren’t watching.

Image/Sound

While the DVD transfer of The Body Snatcher released with Warner Home Video’s The Val Lewton Horror Collection was certainly serviceable, the new 4K scan of the film’s original camera negative absolutely sparkles on this Blu-ray release. From beginning to end, the film’s sumptuous high-contrast, black-and-white images are stable and without discernible fault. Depth of field is sharp and focus remains consistent throughout. To this viewer’s eye, hardly a single shot looks anything less than superb. The DTS-HD monaural soundtrack is clean and highly audible, with dialogue and music perfectly balanced.

Extras

Several extras are holdovers from Warner’s 2005 DVD collection, including a feature commentary track by Robert Wise and historian Steve Haberman, as well as the documentary Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy. Each are a wonderful means to comprehend the significance of both this film and Lewton’s legacy, especially if one is just getting acquainted with the extent of the producer’s work. The one new extra is a brief appreciation of The Body Snatcher by Gregory Mank, who spends the bulk of his time talking about why Boris Karloff’s performance is so special. Also included on the disc are a theatrical trailer and a stills gallery.

Overall

Shout! Factory’s sterling Blu-ray transfer is occasion for reconsidering The Body Snatcher as more than a minor entry in producer Val Lewton’s body of work.

Cast: Boris Karloff, Rita Corday, Russell Wade, Henry Daniell, Edith Atwater, Sharyn Moffett, Bela Lugosi Director: Robert Wise Screenwriter: Philip MacDonald, Val Lewton Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 77 min Rating: NR Year: 1945 Release Date: March 26, 2019 Buy: Video

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