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Blu-ray Review: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

Paramount rolls out the formal red carpet for Rogue Nation, a glamorous spy fantasy with shards of playful wit and meta derring-do.

4.0

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Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

As spearheaded by producer and star Tom Cruise, the Mission: Impossible films have quietly followed the opposite trajectory of the bloated, indecipherably “mythos”-laden Hollywood tent poles that presently glut theaters. These films began as upscale summer entertainments helmed by respected stylists, which was less common in the 1990s than it is today. But the series settled into a distinctively less distinctive groove after John Woo’s hyperbolic Mission: Impossible II was unjustly ridiculed. As other franchises attempt to outdo one another for operatic fatuousness, these films grow sleeker and more playfully reminiscent of one another with nearly every entry, seemingly existing in their own orbit, distinguished by the escalating immersive-ness of the fabulous action scenes, which appear to spring from Cruise’s eager-to-please obsessiveness as the series’s ultimate auteur.

The third, fourth, and fifth films have the same wisp of a plot, in which Cruise’s über man of mystery, Ethan Hunt, goes rogue after his espionage organization, the IMF, either turns on him or goes bust for whatever inessential reason the screenwriters have dreamed up at any given time. And Hunt has evolved into even less of a character over the years than he was in the first and best film, where he was already a deliberately rendered cipher. Cruise and his collaborators have somehow turned impersonality into an asset, a minimalist fashion statement—or at least as minimalist as an expensive corporate product can ever hope to be. The fourth and fifth Mission: Impossible films are the cinematic equivalents of beach reads that refreshingly regard themselves as such, cutting to the oft exciting chase with little of the tedious expository throat-clearing that routinely mars Marvel or D.C. products, the recent James Bond films, The Hunger Games series, or anything recently directed by Christopher Nolan.

The fifth and most recent entry, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, is the most enjoyable film in the series since Woo’s outing. Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie settles on an aesthetic that fits in somewhere between the workmanlike anonymity of J.J. Abrams’s Mission: Impossible III and the graceful comic precision of Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. McQuarrie is a wittier, more volatile director than Abrams, and though he lacks Bird’s formal ingenuity, he brings a certain rough-hewn panache to the proceedings. Rogue Nation is crueler than Ghost Protocol, which was still larded with a bit of that dulling, obligatory earnestness that Abrams injects into almost anything that bears his name as director or producer. Though Abrams also produced this film, it nevertheless emits a comic nastiness that unexpectedly highlights the series’s genre roots as a copy of a copy of Cold War-era spy fiction.

McQuarrie and the gifted cinematographer Robert Elswit, who also shot Ghost Protocol, inform this film’s imagery with subtle but palpable luridness. When Hunt ducks into an anachronistic phone booth somewhere in Britain, we see the oranges of nearby club life reflecting off his face, somehow signaling his aloneness, and the bright red paint of the phone booth itself is positively sinister. The wealthy patrons attending an Austrian performance of Turandot wear priceless garments that glow with an aura of gorgeous, moneyed rot, suggesting that Paolo Sorrentino might have taken a break from helming Youth to supervise second-unit shooting. One can occasionally even see the worried, aging faces beneath the makeup and the jewelry. Even Cruise, no one’s idea of a humble movie star (assuming such a creature exists), is often allowed to look weathered and beaten.

Eddie Hamilton’s editing is pointedly jagged, particularly compared to the smooth rhythms of Ghost Protocol. Beats often appear to be nipped off mid-movement, most strikingly in the fantastic motorcycle chase that occurs near the end of the film, or when Hunt dives into the huge man-made funnel-slash-waterfall that somehow protects a giant computer that’s required to, well, the specifics of all that don’t matter. What matters is the sight of Hunt jumping into the water, and the surprise of him leaping without the usual anticipatory fanfare. He just goes for it. It’s this sort of unfussy touch—unheard of in most contemporary franchise place-markers—that asserts a hero’s larger-than-life bona fides.

Cruise has aged into an exceptionally confident physical performer, one who’s insidiously capable in selling the audience his faux humility. Like every Mission: Impossible preceding it, Rogue Nation is firstly a testament to Cruise’s exceptional, well, everything, which the actor shrewdly counterpoints by allowing his exhaustion to show. These films always boil down to their star’s breathlessness. But Cruise has also learned how to occasionally cede the center stage, if for no other reason than to seize it again later with even greater emphasis than before. But these films could still use a sense of humor. When a character goes on and on about Hunt’s amazing-ness, for instance, one hopes he will rip off one of those fancy masks to reveal the speaker to be Hunt himself—a man who shares his creator’s gift for hyper-managed poetry of efficiency.

Image/Sound

The image is outstanding, with a notable sense of cinematic grit that’s increasingly unusual in contemporary blockbuster fare. The colors are deep and luscious, especially the blacks, grays, reds, oranges, and blues, often causing Rogue Nation to resemble a cross between a superhero comic book and the various 1970s-era spy thrillers that clearly informed Christopher McQuarrie. Flesh tones and textures are well-detailed (one can occasionally see hair subtly standing up on skin), and image depth is extraordinary. The various soundtracks are similarly top-notch, with the stand out being the 7.1 Dolby Atmos, which captures a wide variety of aural effects, balancing bass-y explosions with lush opera with all the minute click-clacks that comprise the noises one associates with cloak-and-daggering, such as the rat-a-tat of shoed feet walking down long hallways, or the furious punching of keyboards. These tracks are subtle and pinpoint precise, linking every sound effect explicitly to a visual cause, rather than enveloping one in a chaotic stew of noise.

Extras

The short featurettes are fun, particularly “Cruising Altitude” and “Mission: Immersible,” which briefly document the shooting of two of Rogue Nation’s most memorable and dangerous stunts. But the on-set footage included here isn’t nearly as revealing as the supplemental material included on the Ghost Protocol disc, and the various featurettes could’ve easily been condensed into one succinct, quasi-informative puff piece. The audio commentary with McQuarrie and Tom Cruise is rich in puffery as well, with plenty of talk of how brilliant everyone is, but their conversation is also peppered with evocative details concerning editing, set construction, location selection, and, of course, Cruise’s highly publicized determination to do his stunts himself.

Overall

Paramount rolls out the formal red carpet for Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, a glamorous spy fantasy with shards of playful wit and meta derring-do.

Cast: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Alec Baldwin Director: Christopher McQuarrie Screenwriter: Christopher McQuarrie Distributor: Paramount Home Entertainment Running Time: 131 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2015 Release Date: December 15, 2015 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Review: Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue on Shout! Factory Blu-ray

The film is a prescient vision of a modern world defined by media oversaturation and social media validation.

4

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Perfect Blue

Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue is a prescient vision of a modern world defined by media oversaturation and social media validation. In the film, Mimi (Junko Iwao), a J-pop girl-group singer who decides to give up music for acting, finds herself targeted by a stalker who threatens to ruin her if she doesn’t return to her old gig. More than just a stalker thriller, however, Perfect Blue unfolds as an extended study of Mimi’s fraying mental health as she begins to question her own identity as more and more crimes happen around her, with evidence pegging her as a suspect.

One avenue in which Mimi’s sense of self is undermined is, of course, the internet. Early on in Perfect Blue, she’s pointed to a website where she supposedly keeps a diary for her fans. Yet Mimi, who can barely even operate a computer, didn’t write the site’s entries, and she panics over the false confessions being posted on the web under her name. In the film, the internet is amusingly shown in its early days; URLs are absurdly long jumbles of letters and numbers, and sites are mostly text-based with maybe a background image added for flavor. Even here, however, the power of the web to enable false identities to propagate and be taken as legitimate is shown to be considerable, and Mimi is helpless to counter the lies put out by whomever has control of “her” site.

Resentment of Mimi’s abandonment of pop drives Perfect Blue’s violence, which befalls those helping the star’s pivot to acting. Kon’s depiction of violence is brutal, delivering a lot of ripped flesh and gushing blood. At one point, a photographer is stabbed in the eye with a screwdriver, while the climactic confrontation ends with so much blood that it seeps out of the victim’s body in a thick wall of sludge. Kon is circumspect only when it comes to the true source of the film’s crimes—obscuring, misdirecting, and withholding the identity of the killer at almost every turn. Throughout, we only see the murderer’s hands wielding weapons, and no clues are offered by the blurred, scrambled perspectives of the dying victims.

Kon also uses this disjointed perspective to illustrate how Mimi’s sense of self slips away from her, not only from the paranoia mounting around her, but also from the regular degradations that the entertainment industry foists on her. Having left the world of pop and its machinations behind her, Mimi finds herself now at the hands of the masculine world of film. Her aspirations to be a serious actress lead her to taking the role of a rape victim in a production called Double Blind, and soon she’s suffering through uncomfortable scenes where she feels violated by the aggressiveness of the film’s scenarios. (She also gets booked with shocking speed for a nude photo shoot to emphasize she’s no longer a “good girl.”)

Much of Perfect Blue’s turmoil comes not from Mimi struggling to clear her name of murder accusations, but from her attempt to control her own narrative, to put forward an image that isn’t co-opted, as much by the killer as the normal power players in show business. Her inability to decide what kind of person she wants to be is as disturbing as the bloodletting that occurs all around her, and is one facet of what’s allowed Perfect Blue to endure as a masterful articulation of powerlessness in the age of media saturation.

Image/Sound

Shout! Factory’s release of Perfect Blue comes with a remastered presentation of the film, and comparing it to the old, standard-def version (also included here) reveals that the new transfer boasts richer color depth and sharper contrast. Yet the integrity of Satoshi Kon’s most minute aesthetic choices, like the way the grimy backgrounds and deliberately fuzzy line details contribute to the film’s hallucinatory edge, have not been compromised. The surround sound remix for both the English and Japanese language tracks ably distribute the dissonant sounds of violence (glass shattering, blood spurting) and Masahiro Ikuni’s score of unnerving drones and frenetic breakbeat production across the channels into a suffocating cacophony.

Extras

The most substantial feature included here is a 40-minute lecture on the film given by Kon himself, and in which he offers his interpretation of the material and insights into his filming process. Elsewhere, there are brief interviews with both the Japanese- and English-language cast in which they give their thoughts on the film, and both a recording session and ad hoc music video for the “Angel of Your Heart” song that plays during the photographer’s murder.

Overall

Perfect Blue looks excellent on Shout’s disc, though it retains the grimy, slightly indefinite features that contribute the film’s brilliant depiction of blurred reality and illusion.

Cast: Junko Iwao, Rica Matsumoto, Shinpachi Tsuji, Masaaki Ōkura, Yōsuke Akimoto Director: Satoshi Kon Screenwriter: Sadayuki Murai Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 81 min Rating: R Year: 1997 Buy: Video, Soundtrack, Book

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Blu-ray Review: Ingmar Bergman’s The Magic Flute on the Criterion Collection

Criterion’s new release of Ingmar Bergman’s The Magic Flute is a vast improvement over the studio’s 2000 DVD.

3.5

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The Magic Flute

With his uncharacteristically cheerful The Magic Flute, Ingmar Bergman managed the challenging task of preventing his brooding existential musings from coloring the proceedings, while also fusing the seeming incompatabilities of opera and cinema in a way that pays respect to both art forms. By embracing the pure artifice of opera while employing rhythmic editing, an abundance of his typically expressive close-ups, and Sven Nykvist’s especially nimble camerawork, Bergman transfigures the stage space into something truly cinematic, spinning a yarn with all the joy and warmth of a fairy tale, and with little more than the bare essentials that a typical theater would have provided him.

Filming exclusively on a full replica of Stockholm’s famed Drottningholm Court Theatre, Bergman relies on a purely theatrical set design full of painted backdrops, rudimentary yet meticulously handmade felt costumes for various animals, and elaborate paper scrolls with lyrics written on them which occasionally pop up in front of the actors as they sing their lines directly to the camera. Such techniques help to bring a charming and amusing meta-textual layer to the film that pays homage to the stagecraft of opera and is part and parcel of a whimsical aesthetic that helps The Magic Flute unfold in storybook fashion.

Other self-aware touches are less successful, such as the periodic backstage scenes and the repeated cuts to close-ups of a young girl (Helene Friberg) who, eyes full of wonder as she gazes at the stage, functions as a kind of saccharine surrogate for Bergman himself, who was drawn to Mozart’s opera in his youth. But these superfluous intrusions are primarily mitigated by uniformly stunning renditions of Mozart’s music and an abundance of dynamic performances. And Bergman’s unique capacity for capturing the ebbs and flows of people’s inner states lends the characters and their travails a palpable emotional weight that nicely complements the droll comedic touches that dominate the film.

While the first half of The Magic Flute is as light-hearted as anything Bergman ever made, the second half plays a bit more to his strengths, allowing for more expressionistic flourishes in the cinematography and more direct conflict between the darker impulses hinted at early on. From the fiery dungeon where Monostatos and his minions intimidate and terrify Princess Pamina (Irma Urrila) after kidnapping her and Sarastro’s (Ulrik Cold) cult-like and red-clad brotherhood, to the Queen of the Night’s (Birgit Nordin) terrifying rendition of the song bearing her name, Bergman and Nykvist move toward a more complex lighting, staging, and blocking that’s more cinematic than operatic as the drama begins to crescendo.

Yet while the story’s more foreboding elements are more in line with Bergman’s traditional thematic concerns, such as the shifting power imbalances between men and women, it’s the increasingly absurd foibles of Pagageno (Håkån Hagegård), who’s tireless in his search for true love in the form of an imagined Papagena, that’s most lovingly rendered here. Playing out alongside the more prevalent rescue-adventure narrative, Pagageno’s undying quest reveals him as something of a Shakespearean fool whose dopiness is only that much more apparent when contrasted by the suave and handsome Prince Tamino (Josef Köstlinger), whom Papageno is tasked with accompanying to save Pamina.

With precise comic timing, Hagegård brilliantly captures Papageno in all his ungainly glory as he stumbles in and out of humorous and dangerous ordeals. But as aimless and clueless as Papageno often seems, Bergman sees him as a wounded yet pure soul worthy of compassion. “Love brings relief in pain and sorrow. It soothes a soul in misery,” Papageno sings toward the end of the film. And in a rare happy ending for Bergman, albeit one already written for him, The Magic Flute goes out on a sweet, touching note that sings of love transcending all.

Image/Sound

Considering that the Criterion Collection’s 2000 DVD of The Magic Flute has often been deemed one of the distributor’s weaker image transfers, there was much room for improvement with this new release. And the 2K restoration the film on display here certainly delivers, boasting more well-balanced colors that bring a heretofore unseen richness to the costumes and backdrops. Skin tones have lost the orange hue of the earlier transfer and now appear more natural, and with a slight warmth to them, something that’s especially welcome given the film’s preponderance of close-ups. But the image still appears soft throughout, though that’s mostly noticeable in the wide shots. The sound, however, is practically flawless, with the uncompressed stereo track boasting effective channel separation that dynamically captures the beauty and raw power of the musical performances.

Extras

Tystnad! Tagning! Trollflöjten!, or Lights! Camera! The Magic Flute, is an hour-long behind-the-scenes feature made for Swedish television that provides a peek into everything from the various steps of the casting process to engineers and other craftsmen designing and constructing the replica stage upon which the film plays out. Certain snippets, like Bergman working with the orchestra or artists painting the elaborate backdrops featured in the film, are intriguing, but the documentary as a whole lacks focus. A 30-minute interview with Bergman, recorded just before the release of The Magic Flute, touches on many of the same topics already covered in Tystnad! Tagning! Trollflöjten!, though the director’s discussion of why he finds opera to be an essential, and still relevant, art form, coupled with his stories of his lifelong fascination with Mozart’s opera, sheds light into why he wanted to make this film. The interview with Bergman scholar Peter Cowie is regrettably the shortest of the three features, but his thoughts on Bergman and Nykvist’s aesthetic tactics are both detailed and insightful. The package is completed with a fold-out booklet with an essay by author Alexander Chee.

Overall

Criterion’s new release of Ingmar Bergman’s The Magic Flute is a vast improvement over the studio’s 2000 DVD, but don’t come to the show expecting a bounty of extras.

Cast: Josef Köstlinger, Irma Urrila, Håkan Hagegård, Ulrik Cold, Birgit Nordin, Ragnar Ulfung, Elisabeth Erikson, Erik Sædén, Britt-Marie Aruhn, Kirsten Vaupel, Birgitta Smiding, Helene Friberg Director: Ingmar Bergman Screenwriter: Ingmar Bergman, Emanuel Schikaneder Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 138 min Rating: G Year: 1975 Release Date: March 12, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? on Twilight Time Blu-ray

One of the greatest of American satires finally hits high-definition video with an okay transfer of an inferior source.

3.5

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Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?

Frank Tashlin never could harmonize his celebratory/critical impulses toward American pop culture, so it comes as no surprise that Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? is both his funniest and most despairing picture. It’s also fitting that, after surveying a culture’s many popular obsessions (comic books, movies, rock ‘n roll), the director saves the sharpest knives for the institution whose job it is to package them for mass consumption: advertising.

Following a trademark bit of Tashlinesque wall-breaking (star Tony Randall plays the Fox fanfare on a small orchestra of instruments, then forgets the title during his introduction), the opening credits roll as a series of tableaux-like sketches, each skewering the inanities of ludicrous products pitched frontally to audiences (“Pour yourself a full glass of that heavily-brewed, clear swamp water, Shelton’s Beer”; “Wow Soap contains fallout, the exclusive patented ingredient”). The sequence hints at a trenchant critique under the rollicking humor; the phony ads, ridiculous but hardly too far removed from authentic commercials, posit the notion of consumers serving their products instead of the other way around, culminating with a spokesperson pulled into the hungry maw of a washing machine.

The characters are being similarly devoured by the system they breathlessly scramble to support, chief among them Rock Hunter (Randall), a Madison Avenue ad executive sinking in the quicksand of slogans, jingles, and campaigns. His spot in the company’s totem is low, and he may lose his position if he can’t come up with an idea to sell his newest product, Stay-Put Lipstick. Fortunately for him, flying into town is Hollywood glamour superstar Rita Marlowe (Jayne Mansfield), whose “oh-so-kissable lips” make her the perfect lipstick spokesperson, and Rock’s movie-mad niece (Lili Gentle) just happens to know where she’s staying.

In an attempt to make her latest beau jealous, and reap publicity for her studio, Rita snatches the first man to walk into her room as her new squeeze—a case of “being in the right place at the right time” for Rock, and the popcorn in his pocket erupts into fireworks as he smooches a towel-wrapped Rita. This comic serendipity isn’t a plot contrivance, but an illustration of Tashlin’s slashing view of how, in a capitalist society, everything and everyone can be packaged and sold, regardless of their abilities: Just as Edmond O’Brien’s gravel-voiced gangster was turned into a teen sensation at the end of The Girl Can’t Help It, so here is Rock, who has trouble keeping his long-stemmed smoking pipe lit, knighted “Lover Doll” and promptly mobbed by scores of screaming young fans.

Though several characters are aware of the ad world’s machinations, none of them are above its sway, and, in one of the film’s most merciless gags, the hero comes home one night to find both his niece and his fiancée (Betsy Drake) paralyzed from overdosing in bust-expanding exercises. Because Tashlin, like Billy Wilder, often equated success in “the nonsense of what we call our civilization” with prostitution (or, at least, hucksterism), the title’s query becomes not so much a matter of whether than of when: Rock’s ascension in his firm’s importance ladder may seem divine, but to Tashlin it’s all just a Faustian deal sealed with the coveted key to the executive bathroom, a corrupt Holy Grail complete with a heavenly chorus.

People in Tashlin’s films often become extensions of their material possessions, and the irony of the merchandising cuts both ways: Just as Rita is a hilarious pop construct—a Marilyn Monroe spoof that’s also transparently Mansfield’s own dig at her image—she also molds Rock into a replica of her long-lost true love. Throughout Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, characters contort themselves to fit the fetishization of image rampant through society, always causing pain to their own souls; Drake hopes to lure Rock back to her by turning herself into a buxom fembot, but as she pliantly puts it, “Those tight sweaters are too heavy.”

Savage as it is, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? remains, paradoxically, among Tashlin’s most joyous works. Continuously vibrating with comic energy, the Cinemascope screen is a playpen of jubilant brassiness, compounded by superb performances. The director may loathe that the characters sell their souls, yet he can’t help but admire the brio and creativity with which they do it, like the ravenous force with which Rock embraces his new stud persona or the slippery glibness his associate (Henry Jones) employs in navigating Madison Avenue’s polluted waters. Tashlin knew that he was inescapably a part of the culture he was satirizing, and the picture’s head-on immersion in proto-New Wave homage (everything from Tarzan and Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing to Louella Parsons and Groucho Marx) amounts to the auteur’s confession of his complicity. After all, when a young fan announces that she’s going to see The Girl Can’t Help It again, “courageous youth” is all caustic sidekick Joan Blondell can snap.

Indeed, the film’s mid-narrative break could be seen as a reversal of the famous opening of The Girl Can’t Help It: Where Tom Ewell stretched the image into the widescreen rectangle, here Randall shrinks it down to the television square, made grainy and monochromatic “for all you TV fans.” Tashlin’s most radical rupture, however, lies in Blondell’s monologue about her days helping silent-film actresses and vainly attempting to forget a long-lost love, a moment of unexpectedly naked emotion where the character’s wisecracking façade is cracked and the pain underneath is captured in a harsh single-take.

Lured and trapped by the gilded cages of consumerism, the characters yearn for a Rousseau-like return to nature; Rock dreams of a chicken farm, while the company president (John Williams) would rather be tending to roses than clients. The film’s subversive tragedy is that the cartoon surfaces of Tashlin are closer to the entrapping gloss of Douglas Sirk than it is first apparent. The happy ending is nominally enforced, yet the characters remain frozen in their rigid roles, becoming, as Jonathan Rosenbaum has pointed out, “abstract Brechtian commentators on their own dilemmas.” Our laughter explodes only to dissipate grimly.

Image/Sound

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? is one of the most chromatically inventive, deliberately cartoonish live-action films ever made, and Twilight Time’s Blu-ray makes it obvious that it’s aged considerably and has yet to receive any kind of significant restoration. Colors are fuller here than they were on older DVD releases but still look rather faded. In terms of disc artifacts, there are few issues, most notably the instances of black crush that occur when the softer colors of a composition are also marked by thick grain. The sound presentation is significantly more stable: Both the surround and original 2.0 track are pristine, with the dialogue and the boisterous swells of Cyril Mockridge’s score balanced evenly throughout.

Extras

An audio commentary with film historian Dana Polan delves into the film’s satirical richness and how its mixture of broad comedy and subtler character acting elucidates its themes. Polan particularly highlights how all the product placement on display gleefully implicates the film in its own critique of increasing commercialization. Also included is an essay in which Julie Kirgo provides a thoughtful overview of the film and its themes.

Overall

One of the greatest of American satires finally hits high-definition video with an okay transfer of an inferior source, highlighting the need for future restoration.

Cast: Tony Randall, Jayne Mansfield, Betsy Drake, Joan Blondell, John Williams, Henry Jones, Lili Gentle, Mickey Hargitay Director: Frank Tashlin Screenwriter: Frank Tashlin Distributor: Twilight Time Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 1957 Buy: Video

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