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DVD Review: Putty Hill

4.0

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Putty Hill

Over the last few years, a number of critics have championed several micro-budgeted independent films made by a variety of relatively young filmmakers. The reason for their acclaim is clear enough: These movies, such as the recent Open Five, are attempting to capture, in a raw fashion, a more realistic portrait of everyday lives with improvisation and by pointedly forgoing an aesthetic that could be said to be visually attractive or often even competent. That’s potentially promising, and the logic is understandable, but these films have generally struck me as empty-headed exercises in narcissism that disguise a paucity of imagination with a fashionable ugliness that would seem to exist in order to absolve the filmmakers of having to learn their craft. And you sense desperation in certain reviews of these films: desperation for a contemporary movement, for passionate, wild films that could kick-start an American new wave in a barren cultural landscape that generally only grants success to junk.

I write this to assuage the reservations you may have about seeing Putty Hill, a film with virtually no mainstream exposure that, on the surface, could be assumed to be indulging in the kind of grim “realism” that earns so many dull movies considerable acclaim. But Putty Hill is a rarity and a legitimate shock—a clear-eyed portrait of a number of troubled lives in a Baltimore neighborhood that has the grace and beauty of a work by a filmmaker with decades of directing under his belt. You watch Putty Hill with a sense of moment-to-moment discovery that’s reminiscent of the films of Jean Renoir.

That the director of Putty Hill is a man barely out of his 20s only adds to the impressiveness of his achievement here. Matt Porterfield, along with Jeff Nichols, is one of the most exciting American movie talents in years. Like Nichols, Porterfield isn’t making movies that play as a catalogue of every prior movie that inspired him, and he also isn’t after a lugubrious kind of craftsmanship that hopes to underline its own brilliance. Putty Hill, like Porterfield’s first film, Hamilton, is graceful, mysterious, and deceptively simple.

The film is populated by a cast of unknowns who’re said to be playing only somewhat fictional versions of themselves; it’s a fusion of documentary and fiction filmmaking that utilizes the advantages of both forms. The film has the loose, incidental details that we appreciate in a good documentary, the kind of moments that lend a subject a certain dignity and majesty, not to mention humanity, while the fictional construct lends these details a containment that enhances their poetry without compromising their realism and power.

Named after a neighborhood in Baltimore, Putty Hill follows a group of people of varying ages and races as they process the recent death of Cory, a twentysomething ex-con who recently overdosed on heroin. We meet his brother and sister, as well as his cousins, his grandmother, and, most vividly, his cousin and uncle. Each scene is seemingly self-contained, such as a paintball battle or a long interlude with a tattoo artist, but it quickly becomes clear that every moment informs every other, and that the tragic early death scenario is a pretense with which to offer a portrait of a society that’s rich in illustrative quotidian incident.

Putty Hill is the kind of movie in which the tattoo artist, who’s estranged from his daughter, is afforded grace by the sounds that accompany the practice of his trade. The gun he uses to imprint various images into people’s skins is lingered on so long that we’re allowed to understand his trade as his refuge, his peace. An ex-con once in the pen for murder, this artist has eventually found a trade that quietly restores him—and Porterfield understands this, and shows this, without any overstatement or evidence of self-congratulation for his civility.

Another ex-con, once a friend of Cory’s, softly confides to a reoccurring invisible interviewer (voiced by Porterfield) that he’s trying to start over again after getting out of prison, and this confession rings with an authentic regret and grounded quality that transcends the usual platitudes about criminals going straight. In another scene, young girls wonder what it’s like to die, and Porterfield frames them from a distance that clearly testifies to a respect for their space.

The haunting, sometimes dryly funny vignettes are clearly building to something, and Porterfield, about 50 minutes in, stages the most moving and exhilarating sequence I’ve seen in a film so far this year. The tattoo artist is having a party that unites a number of the film’s characters—a moment Porterfield expresses in a long, slow pan, set to the song “Birthday Sex,” that shows a microcosm of a microcosm of a society mourning under the cover of drinking and socializing. An everyday occurrence imbued with a rhapsodic power. Porterfield has captured a small society with a transformative beauty that doesn’t reduce its intangibilities. I’m willing to accept that as one definition of the word “art.”

Image/Sound

Putty Hill has an accomplished look that subtly stylizes a world without compromising its realistic textures—a commendable feat that’s well preserved in this transfer. The print isn’t too spruced up, as a graininess clearly intended by the filmmakers has been maintained. The dark colors, the blacks of the shadows, the deep greens of the forest, are sharp and clear (as much as they should be), and the whites aren’t too bright or glaring. The softer, earthier colors, such as the oranges and greens and blues of the outdoor sequences, are also beautifully rendered here. The sound mix is unusually polished for a film with this kind of budget, as you can explicitly make out the varying levels of sounds and voices depending on their position on the screen, whether it be in the foreground, background, or somewhere in the middle.

Extras

The audio commentary is appealingly straightforward. Director Matt Porterfield, cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier, editor Marc Vives, and producer Steve Holmgren discuss the making of the film in a fashion that testifies to the careful consideration of even minute details. (At one point, Porterfield discusses the thinking behind a scene that deviates from the prevailing realist tone in favor of a pitch that, for this film, could nearly be called melodramatic. Nothing in this film is an accident.) The making-of featurette isn’t too interesting, but it’s at least been made in a distinctly elliptical style that’s appropriate to the spirit of the film itself. The screen tests that were shot for Metal Gods, a film that was abandoned for budget issues, feature a number of actors preparing material that would later be refined for the stripped-down Putty Hill. The Richard Brody Q&A with Porterfield, which actually pertains to his film Hamilton, is disappointingly short, though the liner notes featuring reviews by Brody and Andrew O’Hehir allow for more in the way of critical interpretation. There’s also various deleted scenes and the trailer, none of which are very interesting either. The best extra is the inclusion of Hamilton in its entirety, which affords audiences a chance to discover a wonderful film that was even less seen than Putty Hill.

Overall

One of the best and under-seen films of the year gets a surprisingly attentive DVD treatment. See it.

Cast: Sky Ferreira, Zoe Vance, James Siebor, Dustin Ray, Cody Ray, Charles Sauers, Catherine Evans, Virginia Heath, Casey Weibust, Drew Harris, Marina Siebor Director: Matt Porterfield Screenwriter: Matt Porterfield, Jordan Mintzer Distributor: Cinema Guild Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2011 Release Date: November 8, 2011 Buy: Video

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Review: Daryl Duke’s The Silent Partner on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

Kino’s release should help bring new eyes to this wonderfully offbeat Canadian thriller.

3.5

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The Silent Partner

In Daryl Duke’s The Silent Partner, Elliott Gould plays against type as Miles Cullen, a mild-mannered bank teller who spends his free time collecting exotic fish and practicing chess moves at home. There’s nary a trace of Gould’s typically acerbic wit or effortless charisma to be found in the listless Miles. In fact, he’s so unthreatening that he’s often tasked with escorting his boss’s (Michael Kirby) mistress, Julie (Susannah York)—a co-worker on whom he has an incurable crush—around town just to cover for him. Like everyone else working at the tiny bank branch housed in a gloriously gaudy, era-specific Toronto mall, Julie also grossly underestimates Miles, refusing his advances and describing him to a new co-worker who shows a fleeting interest in him as “less than the sum of his parts.”

Appearances, though, turn out to be quite deceiving. And as Miles quietly susses out an impending robbery by Harry Reikle (Christopher Plummer), the shady character who’s been scouting the bank incognito as the mall’s Santa Claus, the threat ignites in him excitement rather than fear or apprehension. Curtis Hanson’s sharply written screenplay initially appears to be priming us for a high-stakes heist, but after Miles concocts an ingenious plan that allows him to keep the bulk of the loot for himself while laying the blame on Reikle, the film transforms into psychologically complex and sexually charged game of cat and mouse.

The Silent Partner playfully toys with the tropes of the thriller genre, counterbalancing its escalating tension and sense of impending violence with a dark humor and offbeat romanticism that accompanies Miles’s growth into a more fearless, and eventually arrogant, man. It’s a tricky tonal balance that, at times, recalls Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild, especially in the surprising ways its dopey male protagonist copes with his impending collision with a relentlessly sadistic psychopath. Though Duke’s film lacks the warmth and humanism of Something Wild, it’s possessed of a similarly idiosyncratic edginess.

The Silent Partner’s pageant of perverse sexuality, betrayals, and fluid identities eventually takes Miles into darker, pulpier realms, particularly in the shockingly brutal third act. And the film is particularly fascinating in the ways it connects his subtly shifting persona to that of the terrifying Reikle, who draws the once tightly wound teller out of his dull, conservative shell to realize his full potential as something of a neurotic Übermensch. Both men have a woman in their life, but it’s their intense, increasingly obsessive draw to one another that ultimately stirs up far more trouble than the once tightly wound Miles could ever have imagined.

Image/Sound

Kino Lorber’s transfer gets off to a pretty rough start throughout the first reel of the film, which features murky colors, some rather noticeable film damage, and an exceedingly soft image that suggests something off an early-era DVD. Thankfully, after those first 10 minutes, the image quality sharpens significantly and the color balancing evens out, with primary colors, particularly the red of Christopher Plummer’s Santa costume, really popping. The grain, which is distractingly excessive in the early stretches, is also toned down to a healthy amount, giving the image the soft-textured look one expects from a ‘70s film shot on location. The sound is nothing beyond serviceable, but the dialogue is fairly clean and only hampered occasionally by the ambient background noise of chatter throughout the mall.

Extras

The commentary track with film historians Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell, and Nathaniel Thompson strikes a nice balance between three colleagues casually discussing a film they all love and a more disciplined, academic grappling with the script’s rich, hypersexual subtext. The homoerotic tension between Elliot Gould and Plummer’s characters is exhaustively covered, but there are a number of other keen observations made about the film’s more subtle qualities, such as its commentary on workplace hierarchies and the breakdown of identity in the face of middle-class conformity. The only other extra included is an interview with a somnambulistic Gould, who fondly remembers working with Plummer, Susannah York, and director Daryl Duke, but offers little of substance beyond his random reminiscences.

Overall

Kino Lorber’s serviceable release of The Silent Partner should help bring new eyes to Daryl Duke’s wonderfully offbeat Canadian thriller.

Cast: Elliott Gould, Christopher Plummer, Susannah York, Céline Lomez, Michael Kirby, Sean Sullivan, Ken Pogue, John Candy, Nuala Fitzgerald Director: Daryl Duke Screenwriter: Curtis Hanson Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 106 min Rating: R Year: 1978 Release Date: June 18, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: The Buster Keaton Collection: Volume 1 on Cohen Media Group Blu-ray

This Blu-ray release of two of Keaton’s greatest films does justice to the silent comedian’s visual genius.

3.5

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The Buster Keaton Collection: Volume 1

A Buster Keaton creation that combines the classic form of his earlier man-on-a-quest comedies with the visual heft of a Civil War epic, The General isn’t likely to be the favorite opus of the star’s purist fans, but it’s the one with the trappings of ambition and historical poesy. The melancholy behind Keaton’s comedy, visible in his lionized Great Stone Face, is a natural match with his Johnnie Gray, a railroad engineer and Southern everyman who becomes a hero of the lost cause after being rejected for military service on the basis of his vital profession. (The film does no propagandizing for the Confederacy; in the interests of making the story—loosely based on an actual 1862 incident—that of an underdog, Keaton felt his hero had to be a Southerner.) Still an iconic clown with an unsmiling sense of purpose, Buster the actor-filmmaker-stuntman makes the context work; in this singular larger canvas, he takes over the War Between the States.

Johnnie not only suffers from feelings of inadequacy as a result of the army rejecting him without an explanation, but also from the sting of being dismissed by his fiancée, Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), for being a coward (she’s unaware that he tried to enlist). He then responds to the theft of his titular locomotive by Union raiders with a one-man campaign to recapture it that forms the entire second movement of The General. Running down the track toward the horizon, then by handcar, bicycle, and finally by newly appropriated locomotive, his chase is one of frenzied resourcefulness and experimentation. Keaton measuring gunpowder in his hand as if it were salt for a piecrust is just as indelible as his riding on the front of the steam engine’s cowcatcher, knocking saboteurs’ planks off the railway.

It’s the film’s symmetrical chase framework—engineer Johnnie’s pursuit, then his retaking of the General and flight to warn the South of an imminent Union attack—that makes a lovely visual match with Buster’s paradoxical physicality: the deadpan man in perpetual motion. The early scene of Keaton, after being dumped by the belle, sitting heedlessly desolate on a train axle as it rotates him slowly through space, is a sublime hint of what’s ahead; through mechanically powered heroism, he must recover his two loves, the girl and the locomotive. (Even when he presents his intended with a photo, it’s of himself stolidly posed in front of her wood-burning rival.) Mack’s plucky but bird-brained sweetie—idealized in one “cameo” shot when the engineer, hiding, stares at her through a cigar burn in a tablecloth—takes time during their escape run to sweep out the engineer’s cab and toss out needed firewood whenever she finds a knothole (Keaton lunges to choke her but swiftly improvises a kiss).

In staging a mammothly expensive railroad bridge disaster near the climax, Keaton and co-director Clyde Bruckman impress not only with the scene’s pyrotechnics and dramatic impact, but the comic reaction shot of a nonplussed Union commander. The General affirms the star’s unflappable heroic persona in more unfamiliar and solemn circumstances than lesser comedians have dared. If it doesn’t possess the same otherworldliness and surrealistic flair of The Navigator, Cops, or Sherlock Jr., its marriage of reliably brilliant clowning with a simulacrum of the Great Conflict (still a living memory for its original audience’s older members) lacks the self-importance and pretension that usually hobbles history represented on film. Keaton was no purist, and he cited the film as his personal favorite.

The capper of Keaton’s final independent production, Steamboat Bill, Jr.’s climactic cyclone sequence provides some of the most iconic images of its visionary creator. Awaking in a hospital to discover that a storm has lifted the walls and roof of the building away, Keaton and his bed are blown through the streets and into a stable. Then, in the street, he struggles headlong against the wind, crouching and leaping into it like a souped-up, literalized version of the familiar pantomime cliché. Finally, taking refuge in a theater, he eerily encounters the gaze of a ventriloquist’s dummy and the trickery of a magician’s “vanishing” platform.

Most indelibly, he stands frozen, pondering his next move, as the full façade of a house topples over him, crashing with unsimulated force and sparing Keaton’s Willie Canfield as its upper window neatly and harmlessly frames him. (A spectacular refinement of an older Keaton gag, it caused his camera operator to look away in fear.) This finale, concluding with the star’s typical redemptive heroics, is among the most happily realized expressions of the central motif found amid his immaculately choreographed slapstick: a lone young man rising to battle human and natural obstacles with balletic, kinetic energy.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. also features Keaton’s strongest treatment of father-son relations, as his freshly graduated twit arrives in a Mississippi River town from Boston with a foppish mustache, beret, and ukulele, appalling his two-fisted father, William “Steamboat Bill” Canfield (towering, flinty Ernest Torrence). The grizzled pop is in danger of losing business for his rustbucket paddleboat to the sleek new steamer of his hated rival, whose daughter happens to be Junior’s classmate and potential life-mate (16-year-old Marion Byron, peppy and cute, but sort of an afterthought compared to other love interests in Buster’s oeuvre).

It’s Bill Sr.’s efforts to masculinize his dubious heir that make up a sizable chunk of the plot, from a rapid-fire store scene where Keaton reacts to being lidded with a dozen hats—including a glimpse of his otherwise absent trademark porkpie—to the slovenly Steamboat Bill’s slow burn when the lad boards his boat for work, snappily outfitted like an officer of the Titanic. In the film’s most sustained comic set piece before the windstorm, Willie attempts to smuggle a saw via a loaf of bread to his jailed father, and the series of gags and reversals finds Bill walking back into custody in solidarity with his son. The familial theme has an affecting emotional undertow that’s never heavy-handed.

If Steamboat Bill, Jr. is Class 1A among Keaton’s prime work rather than top-shelf (like his previous seacraft-set The Navigator), its concluding 15-minute showstopper is a high watermark in imaginative, exhilarating entertainment. Audiences or lone viewers are more apt to open their mouths in astonishment than laughter, both at the audacious stuntwork and the odd, forbidding universe created by this placid, soon-to-decline Kansas vaudevillian. Like The General, it was a box-office flop, and Keaton’s move to MGM the following year meant a loss of control over his work, but the first dozen years of his filmmaking career produced uncannily conjured works by an artist with few peers in American cinema.

Image/Sound

Both films are presented here in new 4K restorations. The higher level of detail visible across both films is welcome, and allows for a fuller appreciation of Buster Keaton’s precise use of the frame. There’s a small amount of flickering in the images of Steamboat Bill, Jr., but this appears to be an effect of aged filmstock, while The General exhibits sharper contrast throughout. Carl Davies composed the full orchestral scores that accompany both films on this disc. Each of them is a rich and varied score, available as a DTS-HD stereo or 5.1 mix. The latter is particularly engrossing for the way it captures reverb effects on the back channels, conveying an expansive sense of space.

Extras

“Reflections on The General” and “Buster Keaton: The Luminary” are five-minute compilations of interviews with an assortment of film heavies (Ben Mankiewicz, Quentin Tarantino, Leonard Malton, and Bill Hader, among others) about Keaton and his influence. Both conclude by imploring viewers to purchase Cohen Media Group’s Blu-ray release of Peter Bogdanovich’s The Great Buster: A Celebration in order to see the complete interviews. These barely glorified commercials are accompanied by two more commercials: trailers for the theatrical release of the two films’ respective restorations. The accompanying booklet contains a few stills from the films but no essay—or much text at all, other than a chapter listing for both films and (befuddlingly) an abbreviated cast and crew list for Steamboat Bill, Jr. only.

Overall

This Blu-ray release of two of Buster Keaton’s greatest films does justice to the silent comedian’s visual genius, but its nominal extras are little more than advertisements.

Cast: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack, Glen Cavender, Jim Farley, Frederick Vroom, Charles Henry Smith, Ernest Torrence, Marion Byron, Tom McGuire, Tom Lewis Director: Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman, Charles Reisner Screenwriter: Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman Distributor: Cohen Media Group Running Time: 148 min Rating: NR Year: 1926 - 1928 Release Date: May 14, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: George Stevens’s Swing Time on the Criterion Collection

Criterion offers a lovely transfer of one of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’s most enduring films.

4.5

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Swing Time

The maddening joke of 1936’s Swing Time is the effort it takes for Fred Astaire to dance with Ginger Rogers. Director George Stevens and his various collaborators—including screenwriters Howard Lindsay and Allan Scott and legendary songwriters Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields—knew that the audience wanted to experience the bliss of watching one of cinema’s most ideally matched pairs move. But as romantic comedies continue to teach us, part of the pleasure of coitus resides in interruptus. Astaire and Rogers are icons who must be first humbled by the strictures of three-act plotting, which comes to mirror the petty irritations that stymie our own lives. In this context, an Astaire and Rogers duet isn’t only technically audacious, it suggests catharsis—a leap from the banal everyday into transcendence.

Swing Time has some of Astaire and Rogers’s mightiest set pieces, which are intertwined to reflect their characters’ evolving relationship. Early in the film, Lucky (Astaire) tricks Penny (Rogers) into believing that he can’t dance, showing up at the institute that employs her pretending to be a klutz. She tries to teach him a three-step move, inspiring him to tease her with pratfalls. (Astaire falling over is more graceful than most of us dancing.) When he finally decides to turn on the juice, he twirls Penny with peerless precision to the number “Pick Yourself Up,” perfecting the three-step move, their bodies gliding through the dance hall like pendulums as they intuitively bridge swing with tap, polka, and ballroom dancing.

And as Lucky and Penny dance, a farce blossoms into romance, and a recurring pattern is subtly established. The swing gesture of this routine, with Astaire and Rogers alternately twirling one another and performing intricate solos, is laced into the subsequent numbers. Many dances also end with the duo spinning off a given stage, which comes to signal either the salvaging or the dissolution of Lucky and Penny’s romance.

This number is even more exhilarating for the fact that it takes the film nearly 30 minutes to unleash it. In the first act, Stevens and his collaborators build a magnificent tension, teasing the audience. For an Astaire and Rogers film, Swing Time has an unusually involved, almost free-associational plot that suggests what might happen if every 1930s-era screwball comedy and crime caper had been thrown into a mixer. At the film’s opening, Lucky is to be married to Margaret (Betty Furness), which inspires Lucky’s fellow song-and-dance men to stage a remarkably mean-spirited ruse that ruins the ceremony. Trying to patch things up with Margaret’s father, Judge Watson (Landers Stevens, the director’s father), Lucky promises to go to New York City and make a man out of himself, which the judge values at $25,000. The song-and-dance men also screw up this plan, and Lucky hitches a ride on the back of a train, clad in tux, with his Sancho Panza-like friend, Pop (Victor Moore), in tow.

Scene by scene, the plot makes little sense, and at times this seems to be a deliberate, and effective, means of deriving comedy. The ease with which Lucky changes the judge’s mind over an arbitrary figure is resonantly funny, evoking the patriarchy with which Margaret and especially Penny must contend, and the judge’s hypocrisy is capped off with a sharp sight gag: a portrait of the man, initially frowning, is smiling once father and suitor have brokered a deal. This notion of unfairly wielded male power is revisited soon again when Penny reports a theft to a cop, who sides with the well-dressed male perpetrator, Lucky. And the plot continues to pivot on elaborate, also intertwined deceptions, in which Lucky and Penny must appeal to influential and unappealing men so that they may dance. At times, Swing Time may remind contemporary viewers of a video game, in which prized footage must be “unlocked.”

The elegance of Stevens’s direction is most evident in the attention that’s paid to the characters even in the film’s most ludicrous stretches. Lucky, Penny, Pop, and Penny’s friend, Mabel (Helen Broderick), are moving archetypes that embody the fantasy of America as a place where people can pull themselves up by the so-called bootstraps, conning their way into the upper echelons of society—an especially appealing fantasy during the Depression, when the screwball comedy’s conventions were cemented. Stevens spryly stages Lucky and Penny’s courtships and breakups, though he doesn’t give these scenes the subterranean emotional charge that an Ernst Lubitsch might have. Stevens values speed, racing through the script to get to the film’s reasons for existing, and the scruffiness of the romantic comedy contrasts likeably with the mathematical brilliance of the dance sequences.

For most films, “Pick Yourself Up” might be a show-stopping climax, but for Swing Time it’s the aperitif for set pieces of escalating intensity, in which Astaire and his choreographer, Hermes Pan, stretch the boundaries of their formalist imaginations. “Waltz in Swing Time” suggests a furious riff on “Pick Yourself Up,” with Astaire and Rogers elaborating on the latter’s swing motif with more pointedly syncopated solos that morph into duets. “Bojangles of Harlem” stops the film in its tracks, opening with nasty iconography as a prop modeled after a minstrel version of, presumably, Bill Robinson opens to reveal Astaire in blackface, presiding over a throne with giant legs and feet protruding out from him.

What follows is one of the most astonishing dances in the history of cinema, in which Astaire moves with 24 chorus dancers, who break up into trios before reuniting in a single vast line, allowing Astaire to partner with all of them simultaneously before moving on to a different set piece in which he out-dances a trio of shadows of himself. In these shockingly obsessive and insular sequences, Astaire pushes his co-stars aside to plumb the outer reaches of his own talent, and his angular, demonic racial caricature has undeniable force.

For a while, “Lucky” is forgotten, as Astaire is channeling, probably both intentionally and inadvertently, the perverse America that resides underneath the screwball musical’s Horatio Alger myths. And Astaire’s self-absorption is only partially exorcised by “Never Gonna Dance,” in which Lucky attempts to win Penny back on a deserted stage with a double winding staircase, their movements disconnectedly echoing one another’s in a haunting physicalizing of loneliness and heartbreak. At the end of the song, they reunite for a pained spinning gesture that explodes the emotion of the set piece, visualizing a failed stab at reconciliation.

Astaire and Rogers’s dances are as difficult to evoke in theory as jazz, as both arts can be described in technical terms that fail to honor their profound emotional power. Astaire holding Rogers in his hands and arms suggests a grace for which many of us yearn—an ability to fully express a sense of belonging or of disenchantment with a lover. The plots of Astaire and Rogers’s films, though often amusing, are irrelevant, aside from serving as a contrasting mechanism in relation to the dances. As actors, Astaire and Rogers are tasked with performing formulaic romantic melodramas; as dancers, they embody the deepest and most ineffable, beautiful, and disruptive stirrings of the soul.

Image/Sound

The image here is often pristine, particularly in the wide shots of the fabulous sets. In these compositions, the blacks are rich and the whites really pop. Facial textures are occasionally soft and the details of the costumes are sometimes a bit vaguer than one would prefer, though neither of these issues are deal breakers. The monaural soundtrack, however, is positively dynamic, rendering the Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern songs (all now standards of the American songbook) with piercing clarity and nuance. The same can be said of the presentation of the score at large, as well as, perhaps most importantly, the visceral machine-gun tapping of Astaire and Rogers’s shoes.

Extras

This Criterion Collection’s release of Swing Time balances archive supplements with new features, providing a rich examination of both the technical marvels and the social implications of Stevens’s film. A 1986 audio commentary by John Mueller, author of Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films, is a stunningly detailed examination of the film’s dance sequences, explaining Astaire and choreographer Hermes Pan’s working methods, and how these were folded into the production at large. Complementing this commentary are other older interviews with Astaire, Rogers, Pan, and George Stevens Jr. Some of these interviews are mere snippets, but they offer a piece of the living history that Mueller discusses.

Produced for Criterion in 2019, “Full Swing” features jazz and film critic Gary Giddins, dance critic Brian Seibert, and Dorothy Fields biographer Deborah Grace Winer. This program isn’t as exhaustively technical as Mueller’s commentary, but it offers a full portrait of the major collaborations that drove Swing Time, Astaire and Rogers’s sixth collaboration, and even some of their other films. The dancing, songwriting, screenwriting, and direction are all discussed, refuting the notion of filmmaking as the act of a single conjurer.

Meanwhile, a new interview with film scholar Mia Mask directly confronts the troubling racial implications of the “Bojangles of Harlem” number—a subject everyone else on this disc more or less skirts. Mask offers a primer on the history of minstrelsy in America, discussing its roots in the ridiculing of slaves and connecting this legacy to Bill Robeson’s transcendent showbiz career and to Astaire’s “erasure” of Robeson in Swing Time. Mask offers an incisive and wide-reaching work of criticism in only a handful of minutes, contextualizing the exploitation that powered even our most beloved entertainments. A booklet featuring a characteristically lovely and erudite essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith rounds out the disc.

Overall

Criterion offers a lovely transfer of one of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’s most enduring films, complete with a well-detailed and occasionally tough supplements package.

Cast: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Victor Moore, Helen Broderick, Betty Furness, Eric Blore, Georges Metaxa, Landers Stevens Director: George Stevens Screenwriter: Howard Lindsay, Allan Scott Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 103 min Rating: NR Year: 1936 Release Date: June 11, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Paul Leni’s The Last Warning on Flicker Alley Blu-ray

The film’s debt to Universal’s The Phantom of the Opera cannot be overstated.

3.5

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The Last Warning

One of the last entirely silent films of its era, Paul Leni’s The Last Warning stars Laura La Plante as Doris Terry, a Broadway actress who finds herself in the middle of a murder mystery. An attempt to capitalize on the success of 1927’s The Cat and the Canary, Leni and La Plante’s first horror collaboration, The Last Warning plays like Universal’s curtain call to a certain stripe of horror movie that would be supplanted by their iconic monsters of the early talkies.

The Last Warning is an amusing, if clunkily structured, affair revolving around the unsolved murder of a theater company’s leading man that took place during an on-stage theatrical performance. While the bulk of the film’s action takes place years after that fateful performance, with the theater company reconvening to try and finally resolve the actor’s murder, a significant amount of real estate is taken up at the start by a lengthy and mostly unnecessary introduction of the company’s actors and crew, including Doris, actor Harvey Carleton (Roy D’Arcy), and director Richard Quayle (John Boles).

As was typical of how female stars were conceived within genre-oriented studio films of the era, The Last Warning sees La Plante less as a flesh-and-blood woman than as an icon of vulnerability and fear. Leni’s close-ups of this leading lady are essentially opportunities for her to make a show of Doris’s various states of fear, confusion, and suspiciousness. And the woman’s suspicion is most evident in scenes where the story deliberately positions her as one of the prime suspects. But it’s clear that this tactic is a red herring. After all, to make the top-billed heroine of a silent-era studio picture a killer would not merely deviate from convention, but dismantle it, and the film is nothing if not married to convention.

Indeed, the film as a whole is too geared to its rather routine whodunit plot, which at various points flirts with the supernatural without every fully committing to it. At the behest of the company’s producer, Mike Brody (Bert Roach), and the theater’s new owner, Arthur McHugh (Montagu Love), the company decides to not only reenact the performance from the night of John Woodford’s (D’Arcy Corrigan) murder five years prior, but to put on the show for a paying audience. Alas, these flatly ridiculous story choices don’t lead to any particularly terrifying moments, as they’re mostly a jumping-off point for Leni to have a little bit of fun with shadows in order to suggest that the dead actor’s ghost might be haunting the theater.

The film’s debt to Universal’s The Phantom of the Opera cannot be overstated, though Leni finally plays against the pathos of the 1925 film’s sentimentality with a sequence involving a masked killer that plays more like a prototype for the Italian gialli films of the 1960s and beyond. It’s only at the climax that The Last Warning embraces genuine thrills, as the killer, a member of the production crew, sets out to murder again. If the whole of the plot proves rather thin by the time the perp is unveiled, that impression is leavened at times by Leni’s visual choices. Most notable is the moment—so kinetic in its sense of terror and play—when Barbara Morgan (Carrie Daumery), an elderly actress with the theater company, leaps from atop the stage and plummets to the ground, with the camera taking on her POV.

Image/Sound

Although the image has been struck from a 4K restoration, the visible deterioration and scratches on display suggest that the film’s negative was beyond economical repair. Still, the damage isn’t so bad that it prevents our enjoyment of The Last Warning, and, to be fair, the less damaged footage does give us a rather sparkling sense of what the film must have looked like during its initial run. Arthur Barrow’s newly recorded score, which vacillates throughout between the lightest and darkest of notes, sounds robust on the DTS-HD audio track.

Extras

The only extra of substance is a 10-minute visual essay by film historian John Soister on the film’s significance within Paul Leni’s filmography. The Last Warning was to be Leni’s final work, as he died from blood poisoning less than a year after its release. There’s also an image gallery with some intriguing scans of vintage promotional materials and production stills from the film’s initial run, an essay excerpt titled “Of Gods and Monsters” from Soister’s book of the same name, and a short essay by composer Arthur Barrow on his score for the film.

Overall

Less scary and innovative than modestly amusing, Paul Leni’s 1928 whodunit receives a new 4K restoration, utilizing the best available elements, from Flicker Alley.

Cast: Laura La Plante, Montagu Love, Roy D’Arcy, Margaret Livingston, John Boles, Bert Roach, Carrie Daumery, Burr McIntosh, D’Arcy Corrigan Director: Paul Leni Screenwriter: Alfred A. Cohn, Tom Reed Distributor: Flicker Alley Running Time: 78 min Rating: NR Year: 1928 Release Date: June 4, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: William Wyler’s The Heiress on the Criterion Collection

Criterion’s release excellently preserves William Wyler’s psychologically probing masterwork.

4

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The Heiress

William Wyler’s The Heiress demonstrates the filmmaker’s keen eye for composition as a means of enhancing his actors’ performances. The spectacularly ornate home at the center of the film is befitting of the considerably wealthy Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson). Yet the ample space left between objects in a room hints at a hollow, impersonal atmosphere that envelops Austin’s unwed daughter, Catherine (Olivia de Havilland). A plain, naïve, and shy young woman, Catherine comes across as a woman so socially awkward and insecure that the coldness of the family home seems comforting compared to the world outside.

Despite Catherine’s shyness, the young woman does want to socialize, and she accompanies her father one night to a party where she meets Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), the son of a local family in the Sloper’s aristocratic circle whose profligate spending has already decimated his inheritance. If Catherine’s array of nervous tics—widened eyes, reflexive but forced smiles—alienate her from others, Morris’s magnetism is such that everyone is drawn to him. He takes a keen interest in Catherine and effortlessly carries the conversation when she gets flustered and doesn’t know what to say.

De Havilland, who won an Oscar for her performance here, painstakingly captures Catherine’s manic, disbelieving glee at seeing a man talk to her, and in this moment, the camera moves more than it does for the remainder of The Heiress, not only in sync with the dancing at the party, but with Catherine’s sudden rush of infatuation. Morris thoroughly charms her and even puts on a face of mock dejection when a drunken old man cuts in for a dance, and when he calls on Catherine the next day, their courtship turns into an engagement in short order.

Catherine’s impending nuptials should be wonderful news for Austin, who’s struggled to find a suitor for his child, but he rejects the union on the grounds that he believes that no man as handsome and suave as Morris could possibly be interested in his dull, homely daughter, and as such must simply want her for her inheritance. The disdain that Austin reveals for Catherine shocks her to the core, and to make matters worse, her father may be right about Morris. The dual blow of discovering that the men in her life see her largely as an object is shattering, and if Wyler’s mostly static compositions first communicated her introversion, slowly they come to reflect her abject misery. Some shots endure for so long that you can almost see as Catherine’s sorrow and humiliation harden into bitterness in real time.

Wyler’s willingness to set up a shot with exacting formal precision, then cede prominence to the actors who move within the space of the frame, results in a multivalent study of not only the story’s characters, but of the classic Hollywood era’s markedly different styles of acting. Richardson portrays even Austin’s more subtle gestures of contemptuousness with the most theatrical of cadences. Elsewhere, Clift’s facility with intoxicating yet repellent characters stresses the ambiguity of Morris’s devotion, and the longer any of Morris’s scenes last, the harder it is to tell whether he’s manipulating Catherine or genuinely interested in her. There’s even the character-actress bawdiness that Miriam Hopkins brings to Catherine’s widowed aunt, whose genuine affection for her niece belies her own exploitative tendencies, as she lives vicariously through the younger woman’s romance.

Then, of course, there’s de Havilland. The actress was often typecast as homely characters, and here she upsets common expectations by pushing Catherine’s innocence to parodic levels before shifting into a tragic-heroine mode worthy of the cinema’s greatest depictions of emotional despair. The Heiress is mysterious when it comes to characters’ intentions, but it’s downright confrontational in the brutal impact of its protagonist’s struggle for social acceptance. The finale, in which Catherine finally gains agency in her life only by consciously walling herself up in the very home that previously served as her cage, is an act of cruelty perpetuated as much against herself as those who wronged her.

Image/Sound

Criterion’s Blu-ray boasts a sparkling transfer with only a handful of noticeable artifacts. For example, some shimmering is evident in scenes due to the clashing patterns of the characters’ clothing. Otherwise, contrast is stable throughout, and detail is so sharp that the finest details of Edith Head’s costumes are plainly noticeable. The lossless mono track is faultless, with excellent dialogue clarity and no audible hisses or tinniness.

Extras

In an extended conversation, critic Farran Smith Nehme and screenwriter Jay Cocks extensively cover the film, from its influence on Cocks and Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence to the manner in which Wyler’s mostly static, open compositions communicate the characters’ psychological depths. Also included is an episode of The Merv Griffin Show that pays tribute to Wyler and includes interviews with the director, de Havilland, Bette Davis, and Walter Pidgeon, as are archival interviews with de Havilland and Ralph Richardson. An interview with costume historian Larry McQueen covers Edith Head’s designs for the film, noting how Catherine’s style of dressing slowly changes with her emotional arc. An accompanying booklet contains an essay by critic Pamela Hutchinson that thoroughly breaks down the film, from its faithfulness to and divergences from Henry James’s Washington Square to its rich acting to Wyler’s sophistication as both a stylist and actor’s director.

Overall

Criterion’s release excellently preserves William Wyler’s psychologically probing masterwork.

Cast: Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson, Miriam Hopkins, Vanessa Brown, Betty Linley, Ray Collins, Mona Freeman, Selena Royle, Paul Lees Director: William Wyler Screenwriter: Ruth Goetz, Augustus Goetz Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 1949 Release Date: May 7, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Edward Dmytryk’s Warlock on Twilight Time Blu-ray

Twilight Time’s release of Warlock will bring some much-deserved attention to Edward Dmytryk’s morally knotty western.

3.5

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Warlock

Edward Dmytryk’s Warlock, so abundant in richly drawn characters and moral ambiguity, is a meticulous deconstruction of western tropes, beginning with the heroic stranger riding into a troubled town. Indeed, when the stoic and implacable Clay Blaisedell (Henry Fonda) shows up in Warlock, armed with his famous pair of gold-handled Colt pistols and his loyal sidekick, Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn), at his side, he’s understood to be the town’s last hope of ousting a ruthless gang of criminals led by Abe McQuown (Tom Drake). Clay’s arrival lays the groundwork for a clearly defined conflict between good and evil, with the legendary aging gunman set to stand up to Abe and his thugs, who’ve been holding Warlock’s citizens hostage for months, running multiple sheriffs out of town. But the film undercuts expectations at nearly every turn, as characters frequently shift allegiances, effectively blurring the line between good and evil.

Despite Clay’s seemingly honorable intentions, he’s certainly no hero, but rather a mercenary who trades law and order as a commodity, providing it for the hefty price tag of $400 a month, quadruple the salary given to the town’s sheriff. While his ruthless methods make him seem quite cynical, he’s a realist at heart, admitting to the citizens committee that hired him that they’ll inevitably come to resent and fear him for retaining the power they hand over to him in desperation. And, of course, he’s right. But the film’s thorniest dramatic entanglements arise neither from Clay’s uneasy alliance with the people of Warlock nor his ongoing conflicts with the McQuown gang, though the latter makes for a few outstanding action set pieces.

Instead of gun fights, it’s the psychological interplay between Clay and Tom, whose partnership grows increasingly tumultuous, that takes center stage. Tom, the Doc Holliday to Clay’s Wyatt Earp, worships his friend and remains as committed to establishing him as a living legend as he does to moving on to other towns in order to rake in as much money as possible. But even though Tom’s affection is genuine—he almost tearfully admits that Clay was “the only person who looked at [him] and didn’t see a cripple”—he plays dirty behind his partner’s back, setting up murders that might otherwise be unnecessary simply to protect his idol. And when Clay finds himself smitten with Jessie (Dolores Michaels) and talks of hanging up his spurs and settling down in Warlock, Tom’s mix of anger and melancholy is palpable.

The rift between the men is further widened when Clay finds himself in another thorny alliance, this time with Johnny Gannon (Richard Widmark), a world-weary thug who finally leaves the McQuown gang after they slaughter 37 cattle herders, and surprises even himself by accepting the open offer to serve as Warlock’s official sheriff. Johnny’s transformation is as close as this otherwise sobering, pessimistic film comes to sketching a redemptive arc, but even he remains conflicted to his core, struggling to balance his burgeoning desire for uncompromised law and order and his emotional attachment to some of McQuown’s men, specifically his little brother, Billy (Frank Gorshin). The resulting showdown among Tom, Clay, and Johnny sees the men applying morally dubious methods as they vie to implement their own versions of justice in Warlock. But justice remains an elusive ideal in this rough, little frontier town where the cycle of violence continues unabated no matter who’s in charge.

Near the end of Warlock, it’s Tom, as the audience surrogate, who hammers home the film’s final blow to the mythmaking that drove so many Hollywood westerns of this era. In a last-ditch attempt to secure Clay’s status as a town legend, Tom keeps him alive by holding him at gunpoint and preventing him from fighting McQuown’s men once again. Afterward, Tom gleefully says, “You’ll be a hero again. That’s all I want Clay. I’ve won.” In disgust, Clay replies, “All right, you’ve won. We’ll play this out to the end just as you want it.” But Tom’s optimism is revealed as a delusion and Clay, who resigns himself to the inescapable transience of his way of life, doesn’t deliver the happy ending the viewer has no doubt come to expect. Instead, he leaves behind everything that’s made him a legend and rides into the horizon to yet another town—and without the girl, his partner, or his trusty gold-handled pistols.

Image/Sound

Warlock has a color scheme that’s familiar from so many ‘50s westerns, where the earthy tones of dirt and dust are intertwined with the vibrant colors of high-end saloon interiors, expensive fabrics, and big, blue skies. It’s a tricky palette to correctly color balance, but Twilight Time’s transfer is up to the task, retaining the richness of the primary colors without amping up the brightness of the entire image. There are a handful of shots that are less than sharp, especially in some of the wider exterior scenes, though this flaw, but the flaw is infrequent enough to never be distracting. Overall, there’s a solid contrast to the image, and a bit of the grain from the 35mm is held over to provide a bit of depth and prevent the picture from appearing overly digitized. The lossless audio tracks are very clean, and mixed robustly enough to never miss the various aural details during the chaotic shootout sequences.

Extras

The disc extras are pretty meager, consisting only of the original theatrical trailer, the brief Fox Movietone Newsreel that shows the stars at the film’s premiere, and an isolated music track. A small booklet is included with an essay by Julie Kirgo, who makes a case for the film’s homoerotic subtext between Clay, Tom, and Johnny, while also covering the film’s subtle tale of morality and themes of redemption and justice.

Overall

Twilight Time’s release of Warlock will bring some much-deserved attention to Edward Dmytryk’s morally knotty western.

Cast: Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Anthony Quinn, Dorothy Malone, Dolores Michaels, Wallace Ford, Tom Drake, Richard Arlen, DeForest Kelley, Regis Toomey, Vaughn Taylor, Whit Bissell Director: Edward Dmytryk Screenwriter: Robert Alan Aurthur Distributor: Twilight Time Running Time: 121 min Rating: NR Year: 1959 Release Date: May 21, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Agnès Varda’s One Sings, The Other Doesn’t on Criterion Blu-ray

An optimistic celebration of women and their ongoing liberation, the film remains moving, inspirational, and perhaps a shade too relevant.

4

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One Sings, The Other Doesn’t

Agnés Varda’s One Sings, the Other Doesn’t is about two friends whose lifelong bond is forged when, in 1962, 17-year-old Pauline (Valerie Mairesse) helps 22-year-old Suzanne (Thérèse Liotard) get an illegal abortion. Separated after the tragedy of Suzanne’s lover’s suicide, the pair encounter each other again in 1972, on the cusp of the legalization of abortion in France. From this point, the film follows their lives as they intersect and diverge, and as these two women are shaped by the politics of the 1970s. Reflecting on 15 years of second-wave feminism, One Sings, the Other Doesn’t is a poetic homage to the strength of women as they fight a protracted battle for liberation—one that’s made all the more relevant given the new generation of feminist activism that’s confronting a fresh wave of assaults on women’s rights.

Pauline and Suzanne encounter each other for the first time in 10 years at a protest outside the trial of a woman charged with terminating her pregnancy. Suzanne is in the crowd of protestors with her daughter when they see Pauline performing a folk protest song as part of the real-life feminist performance group Orchidée, whose members include Joëlle Papineau, Micou Papineau, and Doudou Greffier. Suzanne, much more the calm bourgeoise than Pauline, runs a women’s health clinic in the South of France. Pauline, who stole the money for the abortion from her parents and soon thereafter moved out to live on her own, is now an outspoken hippie activist who’s changed her name to Pomme (or Apple).

One Sings, the Other Doesn’t takes on the quality of a cinematic epistolary novel. Having reconnected, Pauline and Suzanne begin exchanging letters and postcards, read by the actresses in voiceover. This exchange becomes Varda’s elegant celebration of a multi-vocal feminism. The women are different: one is orange-haired and outspoken, the other brunette and more reserved; one sings, the other doesn’t. And yet, their friendship is close, held together by an almost utopian bond rooted in their shared experiences as women, both positive and negative. Varda is the implicit third member of this trio, also appearing on the soundtrack as narrator, mediating between the two perspectives like an older sister.

Through their letters, the pair recount to one another the course of their lives in a France being changed by women’s liberation. Pomme, living on her own since she was 17, unified her ardent feminism with her passion for singing and Orchidée’s formation. Her story provides the film’s exuberant feminist musical sequences, with music by François Wertheimer and lyrics by Varda herself. One Sings, the Other Doesn’t is sometimes described as a feminist musical, even though the songs appear infrequently and irregularly. Less vital to the narrative than the letters, they are asides that show how a joyful form of homespun art—not totally dissimilar to the handcrafted quality of Varda’s film itself—can be an effective political tool.

When Pomme’s letters catch up to the film’s current-day setting, she’s taking a leave from the band to travel to Iran with her boyfriend, Darius (Ali Rafie). She falls in love with the exotic beauty of the country—as does Varda’s camera, lingering on the bright orange and yellow arabesques painted onto a mosque the couple visits. Caught up in romantic notions of the East, Pomme decides to marry Darius, and is soon pregnant.

In contrast to Pomme’s story of communal feminist activism and love, Suzanne was more or less banished to the countryside after the suicide of her married lover, Jérôme (Robert Dadiès), living with the conservative family who disapproved of her and Jérôme’s two “illegitimate” children. “I felt like I was frozen in time,” Suzanne recounts of her first years outside Paris, over Varda’s representation of a desolate and stifling rural life. Varda uses impersonal lateral tracking shots, similar to those she would employ in 1985’s Vagabond, to convey Suzanne’s alienation as she performs chores around her family’s farm. Gradually, Suzanne takes charge of her situation, learning typing skills, cutting her teeth in factory work alongside other women, and building an independent life for herself and her children.

In Suzanne’s words we are reminded of the importance of time to Varda’s films—and to her feminism. Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7 is one of the greatest films about time, exploring what it means to live inside a feminized body. One Sing, the Other Doesn’t is a different use of cinema to represent time, capturing the duration of a political movement as it runs through the lives of these two women. When they first meet, Pomme and Suzanne are both dominated by Jérôme, the tortured-artist photographer, who takes black-and-white pictures of women looking weary and dissatisfied. By the end of the film, as each of them is surrounded by their children and friends, they’re able to look forward with optimism—reflected in the vibrant colors of Varda’s mise-en-scène—to the next generation of women, represented by Suzanne’s teenaged daughter, Marie, played by Varda’s own daughter, Rosalie Varda-Demy.

“The personal is political” declared second-wave feminism, and certainly Varda’s depiction of an enduring female friendship is a realization of this slogan. One Sings, the Other Doesn’t reminds us that women’s personal lives—their relationships with men and each other—are a political matter. Merely showing women who support each other across great distances and differences counts as a brash political assertion, both in 1977 and today.

Image/Sound

The 1080p transfer, based on a 2K restoration of the film overseen by Agnés Varda and cinematographer Charles Van Damme, exudes a striking filmlike quality, preserving the grain of the 35mm original. The level of detail is impeccable throughout; even in low-light exterior shots of a harvested field late in the film, for example, it seems as if every blade of grass is visible. The PCM mono track, restored from the original 35mm magnetic mix, isn’t terribly dynamic, but the dialogue and songs are nonetheless clear and crisp-sounding throughout.

Extras

In addition to “Bodies and Selves,” an essay on the film by Amy Taubin that focuses on the audacity of Agnès Varda’s emphasis on issues of bodily autonomy, the disc’s liner notes reproduce excerpts from the film’s original press kit. Here, Varda and actresses Valérie Mairesse and Thérèse Liotard discuss the origins of the film and their experiences making it; Liotard and Mairesse’s observations about how much safer a woman-directed set feels reverberates in our Me Too moment. And on the actual disc we’re offered several extras that serve as perfect companion pieces to the feature. In Plaisir d’amour en Iran, a 1976 short film by Varda that stands on its own as a poetic exploration of erotic love, Darius and Pomme are seen sharing a blissful first few days in Iran. And in Réponse de femmes, a short essay film from 1975 that exhibits the same embrace of women’s divergent lives and desires as the feature, Varda gathers a group of French women and girls of various ages to answer the question: “What is a woman?” Finally, a making-of documentary by Katja Raganelli titled Women Are Naturally Creative: Agnes Varda takes us into the Varda-Demy household, in which a very businesslike Varda—far removed from the coy old lady we know from her late documentaries—discusses the goals and pressures of being an independent female filmmaker.

Overall

An optimistic celebration of women and their ongoing liberation, One Sings, the Other Doesn’t remains moving, inspirational, and perhaps a shade too relevant.

Cast: Valérie Mairesse, Thérèse Liotard, Ali Raffi, Robert Dadiès, Jean-Pierre Pellegrin Director: Agnès Varda Screenwriter: Agnès Varda Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 121 min Rating: NR Year: 1977 Release Date: May 28, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Paul Leni’s The Man Who Laughs on Flicker Alley Blu-ray

The magnificent transfer further deepens the emotional resonance of Leni’s strange, transfixing, and compassionate film.

4

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The Man Who Laughs

Early on in Paul Leni’s The Man Who Laughs, the surgically perma-grinning Gwynplaine looks at himself in his dressing-room mirror. A one-time son of English royalty who as a boy was turned into a freak-show attraction by political enemies, Gwynplaine spends his time as a traveling performer whose wide crescent smile sends the great unwashed into tizzies of both horror and, eventually, delight. As he looks at himself in the mirror, he’s struck with the hollow ghastliness of his life, and his face sags into a visage of misery, with the exception of his perpetual grin. A moment of bravura acting by Conrad Veidt (already famous for his portrayal of Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), it’s topped by a wonderful cinematic grace note when Gwynplaine closes the doors of the mirror and finds them ironically painted with the Greek masks of comedy and tragedy.

Whether it was because Lon Chaney had recently signed a contract at MGM and was unavailable for work at Universal, or because one of the studio’s founders, filmmaker Carl Laemmle, had a great eye for German expressionism, The Man Who Laughs took the Universal “super jewel” series of gothic horror to new and unparalleled heights in cinematic intelligence. Like many a German expressionist nightmare, the film, based on a novel by Victor Hugo, is a collision of non-complementary angles and framing that confuses as often as it elucidates. At the same time—and unlike The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Leni’s own 1924 silent Waxworks—it it’s also remarkably clean in its delineation of action.

In the same manner that Veidt is both the film’s central monster as well as its main source of pathos (all but laying out the blueprint for James Whale’s Frankenstein), the film’s fascination with bric-a-brac and its tendency toward spare, minimalist compositions is evidence of a stylistic schism. This obsessive dualism that runs throughout the film also informs the love triangle between Gwynplaine, his blind co-star girlfriend, Dea (Mary Philbin), and the Duchess (Ogla Baclanova). It’s a little off-putting—and probably also a function of Laemmle’s insistence that The Man Who Laughs rival Phantom of the Opera’s phenomenal box-office success—that all superfluous characters basically adhere faithfully to one of two sides of the classic good-evil dichotomy, but even that framework could be taken as a critique on Leni’s part of Hollywood’s psychologically limiting archetypes. Veidt’s terrifying grin masks the horror of having one’s looks be objectified at the expense of their humanity.

Image/Sound

Flicker Alley’s transfer of a new 4K restoration by Universal Studios brings a remarkable depth and level of detail to almost every shot. A healthy amount of grain is evident throughout, and the strong image contrast highlights both the film’s impressively detailed set design and the intricacies of the actors’ faces, particularly that of Conrad Veidt, whose tortured, tragicomic expressions present the film’s pathos at its most overwhelming. There’s the slightest bit of flickering in about one-third of the shots, and some far less frequent signs of scratching, but for a 90-year-old film, such minor artifacts of natural decay hardly count as negatives. The Berklee Silent Film Orchestra’s new score sounds fantastic, boasting a dynamic range that perfectly accompanies the film’s dramatic ebbs and flows.

Extras

The lone extra on the disc, aside from a collection of production stills, is the short but informative “Paul Leni and The Man Who Laughs.” Despite its title, the featurette’s focus is less on Leni than on studio head Carl Laemmle, whose “fondness for literature’s quirky side” led him to produce The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Phantom of the Opera before taking on The Man Who Laughs. After quite a bit of historical context surrounding Universal’s release of the film and the reasons behind the studio’s inability to cast Lon Chaney in the lead, Leni is given his proper due, rightfully celebrated for his uncanny ability to mix black humor with an expressionistic eye. The Blu-ray, and accompanying DVD copy, comes with a 20-page booklet with an array of production stills and two essays. The first, by film historian Kevin Brownlow, covers the film’s production history in detail and touches on each of the major performances, while also praising the film for its innovation and influence on later films such as Frankenstein and The Old Dark House. The second essay, by Sonia Coronado, discusses the creation of the new score and, in the process, provides unique insight into the scoring of silent films.

Overall

Flicker Alley’s magnificent transfer only further deepens the emotional resonance of Paul Leni’s strange, transfixing, and compassionate film.

Cast: Mary Philbin, Conrad Veidt, Julius Molnar, Olga Baclanova, Brandon Hurst, Cesare Gravina, Stuart Holmes, Sam De Grasse, George Siegmann, Josephine Crowell, Károly Huszár Director: Paul Leni Screenwriter: J. Grubb Alexander Distributor: Flicker Alley Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 1928 Release Date: June 4, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Claire Denis’s Let the Sunshine In on the Criterion Collection

Criterion gives one of last year’s most deeply felt and beautifully shot films a rich transfer and a respectable set of extras.

4

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Let the Sunshine In

Claire Denis’s 2013 film Bastards is a squalid and serpentine anti-thriller, the most lugubrious, nihilistic work in an already bleak oeuvre. In it, Denis depicts, with her usual salaciousness and elusivity, the vindictive stratagem of a sailor whose brother has committed suicide and whose niece is the victim of a barbaric sexual assault that’s left her broken. He ascertains that the man responsible is a wealthy and sleazy septuagenarian, whose wife becomes a desired effigy, an object for masculine revenge. “Give me a handjob,” the old man demands of her, in his first scene. Shooting digitally for the first time, Denis drags the viewer through an aphotic, disconsolate endeavor, infected with the still-lingering influence of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. A lurid enigma, erotic noir as tragedy, Bastards is a film that burrows into genre like a parasite, while probing the darkest alcoves of the human heart.

Denis’s latest, Let the Sunshine In, is considerably less despondent, concerned as it is with the fragility, and perseverance, of the heart. Its modesty and intimacy runs the risk of being erroneously labelled slight. It’s a 95-minute reconciliation with love, which has always been something of an unmitigable poison for Denis’s characters. The self-destructive nature of searching for meaning, for a partner, has long fascinated the filmmaker, and here she strips bare that hopeless pursuit. In those diurnal moments, the mundane, unexceptional motions that make up a relationship, Denis disinters the pleasures (however brief) and pain of love.

Isabelle (Juliette Binoche) is longing for love. Hers is a Sisyphean desperation. In a world of wolves, she finds selfish and acrimonious men with raging libidos and diminished morals. We first see her naked on her back as a man, Vincent (Xavier Beauvois), humps away on top of her—and right away, one may wonder if this is a portrait of a liberated woman or a glimpse from the male gaze. There’s much huffing and moaning and no cumming. Vincent asks if Isabelle came faster with her former lovers, which earns him a slap. Portly and pretentious, a sybarite banker with a posh apartment, royal blue shoes, and an abstract vermilion painting that resembles the blood-streaked wall from Trouble Every Day, Vincent is Isabelle’s first lover in the film. In a bar bedecked with glimmering top-shelf liquors and mood-setting candles, he instructs the bartender to leave him a bottle and two glasses, so he can pour the drinks himself. Denis shoots Isabelle and Vincent’s ensuing conversation with fluid pans instead of traditional reverse shots, evoking love as a continuous stream.

The next time we see the self-pitying Vincent, Isabelle calls him scum and kicks him out. He clings like a stain she can’t scrub out, but she moves on to other lovers, from a beer-swilling actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle) to a gaunt, purportedly uneducated man (Paul Blain). She brings them home, begging if they hesitate, but fails to find that one true love, the kind you hear about in fairy tales and old French films. Denis regular Alex Descas portrays a man who could be “the one” for Isabelle, but life (and self-destructive tendencies) have a way of ruining these kinds of things. Denis isn’t known for letting her characters have traditionally happy endings, and the tragedy here is how normal that feels: how futile love can be for the unlovable.

The film is inspired by Roland Barthes’s 1977 exegesis The Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, a clinical examination of love that’s comprised of quotes and musings from a medley of canonical and esoteric writers. Turning an unadaptable work of postmodern literature into an incandescent cinematic reverie on love’s follies as a quick side project could have been a masturbatory exercise in intellectualism, but Denis finds the inexorable beauty (and sadness) in that most corrosive and fugacious of feelings. For Isabelle, love is a toxic need. Barthes, not known for sentimentality, discusses love as an intellectual pursuit, an aching inevitability, one to ponder rather than feel. Denis is also not known for producing art of a cuddly nature—her career is rife with barbarities, with the dissolution of lives and loves—yet Let the Sunshine In is easily the most empathetic, heartfelt film of her illustrious career. Throughout, Isabelle’s romantic plight encapsulates the confusion of being alone. The film is garrulous and often uproarious, especially Gerard Depardieu’s late appearance as a psychic charlatan, but within these laughs is a deep, familiar disappointment, the sensation of irreparable loneliness.

Denis’s films reveal themselves with precision and control, and often with a macabre reverence for genre, probing the inherent rot in the human core. Trouble Every Day shrouds itself in the aesthetic of vampires and zombie lore; the poetry and pain in that film are innate in the seduction of venereal destruction, the entanglement of love and sex, love and hate, sex and death. Bastards wears the stoic face of noir so it can cogitate the roles of sex and betrayal. Beau Travail transliterates Herman Melville’s low-key homoerotic sailor tale Billy Budd, in which Melville wrestles with the magnanimity of God and the mendacity of man, as a vituperative study of imperialism and militarism as wanton outlets for flimsy masculinity.

Let the Sunshine In, the closest thing to a rom-com that Denis has made since Friday Night (a film that’s tender yet tormented, and not particularly comedic), feels, thematically and formally, like an epilogue to her favorite theme. It’s gentle yet devastating, like an insincere “I love you” whispered into one’s ear, the duplicity hidden behind upward-curving lips, the pangs of misplaced vulnerability. Isabelle isn’t emotionally reticent, and she opens up quite easily, but she tries to force love, afraid it will never find her. Denis’s films often end with a reveal, a character learning something previously withheld, or the viewer learning that a character knew more than we expected. Here, nothing is learned; nothing changes. Over Depardieu’s lecherous skullduggery Denis lays the end credits, his affably manipulative performance and Isabelle’s swoony obliviousness suggesting that Isabelle will never find what she’s looking for.

Image/Sound

Color balance and contrast is consistent throughout this striking transfer. This is especially impressive considering the varied hues of Agnés Godard’s cinematography, from the dark colors that predominate in the settings and costuming, as in the low-sit clubs and nighttime streets, to the warmest of yellows that illuminate the characters’ faces. The sound is very clear, which is very important for such a dialogue-driven film. The 5.1 mix doesn’t get too much of a workout, but it does show its euphoric might whenever off-screen sounds and the occasional song—mostly notably Etta James’s “At Last”—flit into the mix.

Extras

Included on this disc are two separate interviews with director Claire Denis and actress Juliette Binoche, who discuss the origins of the project and hit on some of the same points: Binoche’s real-life love of painting, their momentary disagreement over costuming choices, and what the film has to say about being a single middle-aged woman. Denis gives much credit for the final shape of the film to her co-writer, the novelist Christine Angot, as well as to cinematographer Agnés Godard. Also included is Denis’s 2014 short Voilà l’enchaînment, a heartfelt series of vignettes about a mixed-race couple. The liner notes contain a brief but insightful essay by film critic Stephanie Zacharek that places Let the Sunshine In in the context of Denis’s canon, as well as draws out its connections to the work of two of her major influences, critic and literary theorist Roland Barthes and filmmaker Jacques Rivette.

Overall

The Criterion Collection gives one of last year’s most deeply felt and beautifully shot films a rich transfer and a respectable set of extras.

Cast: Juliette Binoche, Xavier Beauvois, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Alex Descas, Philippe Katerine, Josiane Balasko, Laurent Grévill, Bruno Podalydès, Paul Blain, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Gérard Depardieu, Sandrine Dumas, Claire Tran Director: Claire Denis Screenwriter: Claire Denis, Christine Angot Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 95 min Rating: NR Year: 2017 Release Date: May 21, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Hal Ashby’s The Landlord on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

Kino offers a sturdy transfer of Ashby’s overlooked and still quite volatile feature film debut.

3.5

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The Landlord

Mainstream American films concerning race relations tend to follow one of two patterns: Either they hopefully suggest that reconciliations are possible, or hopelessly dramatize the chasm of privilege existing between white people and everyone else. Hopeful films can win Academy Awards, while hopeless ones more reliably earn a critic’s respect, though both modes often feel pat, suggesting that the filmmakers believe they’re imparting concrete, unambiguous wisdom to audiences. By contrast, the best films about race in America—such as Imitation of Life, Nothing but a Man, Ganja & Hess, Losing Ground, Do the Right Thing, and O.J.: Made in America—tend to suggest the intense unknowability of the power of endemic racism to separate, limit, and destroy people.

The Landlord, Hal Ashby’s relatively and unjustly obscure directorial debut, similarly communicates the bewildering sense of apartness existing between two poles of social opportunity. Based on a novel by Kristin Hunter, which was adapted by screenwriter Bill Gunn (the director of Ganja & Hess), The Landlordhas the same shaggy intensity as Ashby’s subsequent films, as well as the ferocious humor of Gunn’s later work. The narrative concerns a young, rich, white man, Elgar (Beau Bridges), who enters a low-income black world and mucks around in it with no consideration as to the outcomes of his actions. For Elgar, the New York slum building he buys is an upgradable dollhouse, an effort to prove to his family that he can handle a business venture. For his renters, of course, this building is their lifeblood, and they ready themselves against Elgar’s trespass in a variety of often startling fashions.

The scenes establishing Elgar’s motivations are the film’s shakiest, as Ashby indulges in arty, essentially meaningless formal tricks, such as having the protagonist talk to the camera, but The Landlord quickly catches fire when Elgar begins mixing with his new tenants, whom he plans to evict. Marge (Pearl Bailey), the wise old broad of the place, who runs an illegal fortune-telling business out of her apartment, plies Elgar with soul food and attempts to prevent him from making an entire fool out of himself or getting killed. In a majestic performance, Bailey informs Marge’s intelligent, weary eyes with an unexpected texture: pity.

This thoughtlessly powerful white man might be a sign of many of America’s injustices, but Marge understands that he’s essentially a boy, and she talks to him in a fashion that’s familiar of how African-Americans must gently “handle” whites who have an inflated sense of their own humanism. This understanding helps to give The Landlord its core toughness and dimensions of tragedy. Throughout the film, Ashby nurtures a sense of double awareness, imbuing scenes of communion with an undertow of guarded isolation.

Elgar’s intimate moments with Fanny (Diana Sands), a.k.a. “Miss Sepia 1957,” exude a similar aura of tenderness. It’s not difficult to understand what the characters see in one another. Soft, physically unimposing Elgar is a relief from Fanny’s terrifying, tightly wound husband, Copee (Louis Gossett Jr.), who may be insane, and who brings to the fore the bitterness and violence that often churn beneath the film’s surface. And for Elgar, Fanny is a beautiful and experienced older woman who is also, of course, forbidden fruit. This thread resembles the plot driving The Graduate, though The Landlord doesn’t turn the older woman into a caricature to score easy generational points. Ashby and Gunn understand that Elgar and Fanny are mutually exploring one another for reasons that neither of them entirely fathom. There’s an impression here of sex only intensifying the very issues that tend to lead to love affairs.

In the tradition of many future Ashby protagonists, Elgar is subsumed into a world he doesn’t understand, a world that’s truly governed by women, who let the men have their saber-rattling theatrics while privately making the real decisions. Women rule the ghetto apartment complex that Elgar buys, and they rule the posh realm that he’s attempting to flee. Elgar’s mother, Mrs. Enders, is played by Lee Grant, who’s so sexy she nearly throws The Landlord off its axis. Elgar and Mrs. Enders have a conspiratorial rapport that’s almost erotic, rooted in each character’s feelings of imprisonment. In fact, Elgar has more chemistry with his mother than he does with Lanie (Marki Bey), his biracial girlfriend, and so one wonders if Elgar is working through more than racial curiosity when he sleeps with Fanny.

You never know where this highly combustible production is going, as the filmmakers fuse a variety of seemingly contradictory tones with daring finesse. Gunn’s astonishing dialogue has a terse, poetic bluntness, with punchlines that wouldn’t be permitted in our woefully cautious and polite contemporary cinema, such as Elgar’s alternate definition of the acronym N.A.A.C.P. And, working with cinematographer Gordon Willis, Ashby fashions a hallucinatory atmosphere in which sex, danger, and bonhomie casually comingle. The apartment building, particularly at night, comes to suggest an alternate dimension, most notably when the tenants have a rent party and get Elgar drunk and confess some of their true feelings about white society to him as he submits to the spell of the noir lighting and the booze.

Bridges grounds and unifies this film’s wild-and-wooly tangents, giving an extraordinary performance that’s so natural it could easily be taken for granted. He plays Elgar’s poignant cluelessness, his lost-ness, without sentimentalizing the character’s self-absorption, as Dustin Hoffman did in The Graduate. In one of the film’s best and toughest scenes, Elgar discusses the child that Fanny has had—his child—telling her he has no room for a baby in his life. Bridges plays this scene as a perverse awakening, as one can see Elgar hearing his own words and becoming disgusted with the person speaking, a person Elgar might not have known himself to be capable of being. The film, then, is about Elgar, a faux-liberal, realizing that he isn’t quite a hero—that he simply wants to be comfortable. And, though he eventually confronts the ramifications of his meddling in this other world, there’s still a lingering aura of disenchantment in The Landlord. No wonder that the film was relegated to cult status, as it asks Baby boomers to swallow a rather bitter pill.

Image/Sound

There’s quite a bit of softness to this image, which is mostly attractive and probably reflective of the film’s source materials, though background detail is occasionally murky. Facial detail and general foreground clarity is impressive though, with painstaking attention paid to textures of characters’ skins. Colors are also robust, especially the reds and the blacks of the shadows. The 2.0 DTS-HD soundtrack lends the songs a sharp bounce, and captures all the subtle cacophony of the city life that has been so vigorously rendered by the filmmakers. This is an appealing restoration, but there’s room for improvement.

Extras

Interviews with actors Beau Bridges and Lee Grant and producer Norman Jewison respectively cover the film’s making. Most interesting are Bridges’s recollections of feeling authentically threatened by the ghetto setting, and how co-star Louis Gossett Jr. helped acclimate him to some of the rougher locals. Wanting no police on the set, Hal Ashby also collaborated with the nearby hoods, hiring them as extras and supporting actors. Ashby is celebrated in all three of the interviews, which also include context regarding the social climate of the film’s release, when the country was suffering from riots and upheavals that somewhat resemble the heated chaos of today. These are solid extras, but an audio commentary or wider-ranging documentary would’ve been nice. Several trailers round out the package.

Overall

Kino Lober offers a sturdy transfer of The Landlord, Hal Ashby’s overlooked and still quite volatile feature film debut.

Cast: Beau Bridges, Lee Grant, Diana Sands, Pearl Bailey, Walter Brooke, Louis Gossett Jr., Marki Bey, Mel Stewart, Susan Anspach, Robert Klein Director: Hal Ashby Screenwriter: Bill Gunn Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 110 min Rating: R Year: 1970 Release Date: May 14, 2019 Buy: Video

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