Set on the boundary separating El Paso and Mexico, Tony Richardson’s hallucinatory 1982 film The Border concerns border agents who capture Mexicans as they sneak into America and sell them to farmers and businesspeople. It’s a matter of money, and no one involved in the transactions—including the Mexicans trying to dodge persecution—has any illusion about the prominence of law or humanity in the various shakedowns, arrests, and secret negotiations that characterize life on this line. And Richardson, a legendary figure in the British new wave of the 1950s and ‘60s, homes in on the daily quotidian of this ecosystem, evading many of the tropes of the “issues movie” until the third act. He marinates in the anger and boredom of the societies on both sides of the border—from the gaudy duplexes and shitty bureaucratic offices and cages of the agents to the shanty towns of the Mexicans. This resistance to three-act plotting expresses the rootlessness of the characters, which is intensified by Ric Waites and Vilmos Zsigmund’s wandering, feverish camerawork.
However, the film’s unsettled feeling is most memorably embodied by Jack Nicholson’s performance as Charlie Smith, an immigration enforcement agent who’s new to El Paso, there to placate his wife, Marcie (Valerie Perrine), with an alternative to their double-wide trailer. Nicholson was only a few years removed from his misunderstood performance in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, in which he brought the ferocity of his legendary run of ‘70s-era performances to a startling apotheosis, and so his restraint as Charlie comes as a shock. Charlie is soft around the middle, a little slow on the uptake, and has reached a point in his life when he doesn’t bother to express most of what he’s feeling, particularly to Marcie, a dim housewife and materialist who still commands his lust but not his respect.
The alpha of the film, then, is Cat (Harvey Keitel), a border agent who’s also Charlie and Marcie’s new neighbor. Keitel, as taut and wiry here as he is in his early collaborations with Martin Scorsese, often emanates the danger that we expect from Nicholson, and these actors turn Charlie and Cat’s scenes together into something resembling volatile dances. Nicholson consciously allows Keitel to dominate certain moments, while signaling a gradual eruption that will restore to Charlie the actor’s great and classic force.
The Border is marvelously detailed. The script, by Deric Washburn, Walon Green, David Freeman, is peppered with lively obscenities and slights that communicate the debauched cynicism of this world. When Cat suggests that Charlie get his uniforms tailored, we’re allowed to feel the subtle dig at Charlie’s weight, and to discern the hook that’s being planted for Charlie to spend more money—to get himself in deep with Cat’s slave operation.
The other agents are mostly cogs in a machine, a few of whom are capable of surprising acts of decency. One agent talks of capturing the Mexicans at a certain time so that they don’t have to wait in the water of the creek they cross. Though Charlie and Cat’s boss, Red, played by Warren Oates with a terrifying euphemistic pragmatism, is adept at putting a back-slapping face on atrocity—and Oates, who also eclipses Nicholson in certain scenes, allows one to understand with only a few fleeting gestures that this is a man who can kill. Red is a dandy as well, dressed in his best western frocks for his birthday, a celebration that’s particularly gaudy considering how the money that enables it has been made. (Even the swimming pools at these houses glow with malevolence, as the water is so artificially blue it’s sickening.)
Richardson eventually indulges a revenge formula. Maria (Elpidia Carrillo), whom we’ve seen throughout the film, is a young Mexican woman in and out of trouble with the border officers, and Charlie is drawn to her beauty and purity. When Maria’s baby is kidnapped by Manuel (Mike Gomez), a Mexican selling out his own people, Charlie springs into action, suggesting the traditionally faded sheriff who has one last fight left in him. The Border loses a bit of its snap in the final act, as Richardson’s glancing observational style doesn’t serve traditional thriller mechanics. Some of the plotting—particularly a few betrayals—are vaguely motivated, and it’s disappointing to see the film’s careful mood of hopelessness violated. The climax, however, is a hauntingly pitiful gunfight, with sand blowing all through the air, seemingly threatening to swallow all these tarnished officers up into the ground. And though the film arrives at a qualified happy ending, Charlie’s final act of heroism is understood—presciently—to only be a needle in a haystack that’s been allowed to grow to operatically evil proportions.
This image captures The Border’s lurid aesthetic, which revels in heat and a kind of erotic ennui. There’s a healthy amount of attractive grit, and skin details are vivid, as we can discern the dirt and sweat that constantly sticks to people’s bodies. Colors in the daytime scenes are appropriately bright and harsh, while the night sequences are cloaked in lush and beautiful noir darkness. The soundtrack is insinuating: Ry Cooder’s score has a lovely fullness, and the diegetic noises are vibrant, particularly the sounds of people treading sandy and rocky terrain.
In a new audio commentary, film critic Simon Abrams provides a full portrait of the making of The Border, citing news stories that inspired the film’s topical plot, as well as sources like Tony Richardson’s autobiography. Abrams discusses the actors’ strike that endangered the film, Ric Waites’s replacement of Vilmos Zsigmund as cinematographer (though Zsigmund returned for reshoots), Robert Blake’s original involvement in the project, and the various interrelationships between the filmmakers and the cast. Abrams offers a fascinating and informative lesson, and he makes a refreshing case for Nicholson’s largely underrated post-1970s career. This is the only supplement on the disc, but it makes for a full meal.
Kino Lorber offers a beautifully lurid transfer of a greatly underrated Jack Nicholson thriller.
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Harvey Keitel, Warren Oates, Elpidia Carrillo, Shannon Wilcox, Mike Gomez, Manuel Viescas, Jeff Morris Director: Tony Richardson Screenwriter: Deric Washburn, Walon Green, David Freeman Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 108 min Rating: R Year: 1982 Release Date: June 18, 2019 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running on Arrow Video
Trumbull’s sci-fi fable is both an exploration of environmental issues and the effects of isolation on human beings.4
In more ways than one, Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running is the middle point between Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and George Lucas’s Star Wars. Trumbull worked for Kubrick on the computer display effects and Slitscan technique used for 2001’s mind-blowing finale, and he later declined Lucas’s invitation to work on the effects for the first Star Wars film. But the links run deeper, as Silent Running straddles the line between notions of interior and exterior exploration. 2001 is an almost abstract tone poem about man’s ascendance to some kind of higher plane of consciousness. Silent Running is both a trenchant fable concerning ecology and a melancholy, introspective character study about alienation. Star Wars is essentially an adventure serial all dressed up in sci-fi trappings. Not to mention, the shambling drones that seem to take on a personality of their own in Silent Running pave the way for a certain burbling trash can-shaped character.
Silent Running isn’t terribly concerned with detailed, consistent world building. Suffice it to say that an environmental catastrophe has forced humanity to launch an armada into space carrying various ecological samples, housed in Buckminster Fuller-derived geodesic domes, until they can be brought back to Earth for reforestation. Forget that the plan doesn’t make a whole lot of sense—or that conditions back on Earth seem to have somehow improved in the absence of these oxygen-generating flora—this is the realm of pure fable. Silent Running thus aligns with other early-‘70s environmentally conscious films like Cornel Wilde’s No Blade of Grass and Richard Fleischer’s Soylent Green. It also taps into the counterculture’s interest in conservation as exemplified by the Whole Earth Catalog and the creation of Earth Day in 1970.
Some of Silent Running’s most trenchant satire comes across as almost offhanded. When the crew of the Valley Forge are given the unexpected order to jettison and self-destruct the domes, it’s so the fleet can be returned to “commercial duty” for American Airlines, who actually let their logo be used in the film. The suits evidently didn’t read the script too closely. This callous command serves to underline capitalism’s ruthless pursuit of the bottom line at all costs. Judging from posters glimpsed on the mess room wall, three of the four Valley Forge crew members are eager to return to a world of rock stars, race cars, and football games. They resemble a species of astronomical toxic masculinity. Only the resident botanist with the notable name of Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), with his penchant for monk’s robes and choosing fruit over synthetic glop, seems to give a damn.
A more straightforward film would position Lowell as the unreconstructed hero, valiantly taking up the struggle against authoritarianism and the caprice of command. But Silent Running endows its characters with more nuances that help to muddy the moralistic waters. Since he’s played by professional weirdo Bruce Dern, Lowell takes on an obsessive streak that leads him to cold-blooded murder and perhaps even madness. Though the other three Valley Forge crewmembers—John Keenan (Cliff Potts), Marty Barker (Ron Rifkin), and Andy Wolf (Jesse Vint)—are clearly thoughtless assholes, they’re never portrayed as unrepentant villains, just as space jocks looking to finish up their assignment and get home.
Another of Silent Running’s strengths is that it doesn’t limit Dern’s performance to only the one register. There’s genuine pathos in Lowell’s burgeoning relationship with the drones he nicknames Huey, Dewey, and Louie. Racked with guilt over the human contact he himself has actively severed, Lowell begins to anthropomorphize the machines. The film leaves open whether his fiddling with their circuitry leads them to some sort of actual sentience or whether it’s just Lowell’s wishful projection on them. A wry humor even creeps into the scene where he teaches two of the drones how to play poker. Silent Running also leaves entirely open the ultimate effectiveness of Lowell’s quixotic (not to mention self-destructive) endgame. We’ll never know whether his plan for environmental preservation succeeds, or if it simply spins off forever into the vast emptiness of interplanetary space.
Arrow Video presents Silent Running in a new 2K restoration that looks superb, a very definite step above Universal’s earlier Blu-ray release. Colors, those verdant greens and primary hues of the uniforms in particular, are dense and deeply saturated. Clarity and fine detail are excellent, if a bit variable in some of the optical-effects shots. Grain levels are mostly well-resolved, though they can also get a bit thick in those same effects-laden scenes. Audio is available in Master Audio mono, which sounds terrific across the board with dialogue, audio effects, and Peter Schickele’s lush score, complete with two folk songs sung by Joan Baez. There’s also an isolated score and effects track offered in LPCM two-channel mono.
For this release, Arrow ports over a few extras from earlier home-video releases of the film, while also providing a few excellent new ones as well. Among the archival materials is a nearly hour-long making-of documentary that has a lot of good stuff in it, including some priceless footage of the differently abled actors inside those drone costumes. Also of note is a short piece on Douglas Trumbull that catches up with what he’s been doing since Silent Running, most notably his invention of the IMAX-like Showscan film process that helped to usher in similar technology used in Universal Studio’s Back to the Future ride.
There’s also an interview with Bruce Dern in which he discusses his early career playing second fiddle to the likes of John Wayne, being offered the role in Silent Running, and the film’s visual effects and themes. As for the archival commentary track with Dern and Trumbull, it’s an intriguing listen, as they go deep into the film’s origins, production history, and legacy, though some of what they discuss overlaps with the BTS documentary.
The new commentary track by critics Kim Newman and Barry Forshaw is excellent, managing to be both engaging and highly informative. Newman and Forshaw have a lot to say about the sci-fi genre and the film’s place therein, its influences, and its underlying themes and philosophical attitudes. An interview with film music historian Jeff Bond covers composer Peter Schickele’s career both as a film composer and as his alter ego, P.D.Q. Bach, classical music parodist. A visual essay from Joe Spira explores Deric Washburn and Michael Cimino’s original draft of the script and the ways in which it differs from the finished film.
Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running is science fiction as fable, equally exploring environmental issues and the effects of isolation on human beings.
Cast: Bruce Dern, Cliff Potts, Ron Rifkin, Jesse Vint Director: Douglas Trumbull Screenwriter: Deric Washburn, Michael Cimino, Steven Bochco Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 90 min Rating: G Year: 1972 Release Date: November 17, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: Clint Eastwood’s The Eiger Sanction on Kino Lorber Blu-ray
This Blu-ray invites us to reassess an undervalued oddball from the height of Eastwood’s stardom.3.5
As much as the Bond films that its source material simultaneously pays homage to and parodies, Clint Eastwood’s The Eiger Sanction is a lavish tribute to scenic locales and beautiful human bodies. Its byzantine narrative spans the red rock spires of the American southwest to the breathtaking peaks of Switzerland and showcases Eastwood at a breathtaking physical peak of his own, running, rappelling, and romancing his way across each of these landscapes—and often doing so without a stunt double. He plays Jonathan Hemlock, a retired assassin turned turtleneck-wearing elitist, and he’s about to be pulled back into international espionage work for the federal government by an albino former Nazi collaborator known as Dragon (Thayer David).
The kinetic virtuosity and self-conscious sexual charisma displayed by Eastwood in The Eiger Sanction is right in line with his entrenched screen persona as a stoic alpha male. What’s less associated with him, at least before 1995’s The Bridges of Madison County, is the smug intellectualism that he ably flexes by way of Hemlock’s position as a classical art collector and general connoisseur of finer things, pithily exemplified when, wearing thick-rimmed glasses, he dismisses a piece of literary criticism as a “shabby piece of research, obscured by involuted style.” Such language feels calibrated as a playful tweak on Eastwood’s image, just as the film itself is frequently toying with our expectations of a titillating spy thriller, often by simply dialing up familiar qualities of the genre to the level of camp.
The film’s source novel, written under Rodney William Whitaker’s pen name Trevanian, is regarded as a burlesque of the unseemly representations coursing through the Bond movies, and Eastwood carries over the author’s characterizations while muddling the distance between irony and sincerity. One of the film’s heavies is the outlandishly effeminate Miles Mellough (Jack Cassidy), who calls his dog “faggot,” while Hemlock’s love interest is a black woman called Jemima (Vonetta McGee), a subject of bemused scrutiny for him the moment he hears the name. These provocations, and many more like them, make The Eiger Sanction one of Eastwood’s more unabashedly uncouth works, though the homophobia and racism they would seem to espouse cannot be so easily written off as such, since Hemlock is himself emasculated more than once throughout the film, while Jemima emerges as a more complex and empowered character than her stereotypical naming would suggest.
Similarly difficult to pin down is the film’s take on Cold War intervention and American foreign policy, which skirts the rah-rah jingoism that many who’ve bought into the caricature of Eastwood as a cranky conservative would be eager to foist on the director but which also allows room for patriotic assignment done only in the name of brotherhood. Hemlock’s former WWII pal, Ben Bowman (George Kennedy), is slotted to oversee the treacherous climb that will enable him to execute Dragon’s “sanction” (or assassination) in Switzerland, and even when an early act of deception by Jemima, Dragon’s employee, exposes the shadiness of the entire deal, Hemlock is ultimately sucked back in by the prospect of some fraternal tomfoolery.
The film’s arresting middle section sees Hemlock and Bowman embarking on training sessions in Monument Valley, then cracking beers and ogling swimsuit-clad women back at Bowman’s Zion National Park ranch. A strict adherence to plot necessity might have kept this section under 20 minutes, but instead it stretches to a leisurely 40, and it’s clear that this is where Eastwood’s heart lies. Simple scenes—a workout montage and a car chase, for instance—become occasions to soak in the spectacular vistas of the location, with helicopter shots of Hemlock’s orange Ford Bronco cutting wildly across a Monument Valley off-road trail achieving a painterly beauty. It’s also here where Eastwood leans fully into his charisma, using swaggering body language and wry insinuation to oust Miles Mellough, then finding the same instincts backfiring when he’s nearly killed by a hired seductress (Brenda Venus).
The fraught behind-the-scenes alliances come to a head when Hemlock and Bowman decamp to Switzerland’s monumental Eiger mountain to join an expedition led by a Swiss team that Dragon has alleged contains the man Hemlock is to slay. With so much exposition, it’s easy to lose the thread in The Eiger Sanction, but no matter, since there’s so much to look at around every corner—and the Eiger itself provides the film’s most extraordinary spectacle.
With special assistance from a team of mountain photography consultants, cinematographer Frank Stanley frames Hemlock and company’s ascent in a number of dizzying deep-space compositions, their often-wonky center of gravity practically vertigo-inducing, which in turn inspires great respect for the athleticism of the performers. This muscular climax, which at one point finds Hemlock dangling from a rope against the distant backdrop of Grindelwald, was the main source of acclaim upon The Eiger Sanction’s release and remains potent evidence of the visual lucidity and highwire ambition of Eastwood’s filmmaking, qualities that undoubtedly shine through the film’s more inflammatory elements.
Kino’s transfer is hit or miss, generally pulling superb detail out of daytime exteriors while suffering in the darker scenes. One shot in the Zurich-set credits sequence is so murky that we can barely see what’s happening. To be fair, it’s tough to discern whether that flaw is inherent to the original print or not, but in several other cases nighttime sequences have the muddy quality often associated with shoddy digital conversions of ‘70s film stock. Fortunately, key passages—such as the Zion National Park section and the climb at the Eiger—are free of such blemishes, and the natural splendor of the locations is aided by pristine sharpness and lush color. Meanwhile, there’s not much to complain about with regard to the clear and even sound quality, with John Williams’s score commanding a particularly shimmering spot in the mix.
Replete with trivia about the cast and crew, including some fine-grained detail regarding Williams’s score, film critic Nick Pinkerton’s copiously researched commentary track is the standout here. Pinkerton makes a strong case for this often-maligned film as a work of “dunderheaded poetry” and for Clint Eastwood as a great populist artist. Beyond that, there’s a pair of interviews: a newly shot piece featuring Reiner Schöne, who recalls the comfort he felt under Eastwood’s direction despite the treacherous circumstances, and an inconsequential archival clip in which Heidi Brühl is interviewed by a flirtatious Italian. A few original marketing materials—a long promotional reel and TV and radio spots—round out the package.
“Dunderheaded poetry” or distasteful Bond rip-off? Kino’s The Eiger Sanction Blu-ray invites us to reassess an undervalued oddball from the height of Clint Eastwood’s stardom.
Cast: Clint Eastwood, George Kennedy, Vonetta McGee, Jack Cassidy, Heidi Brühl, Thayer David, Reiner Schöne Director: Clint Eastwood Screenwriter: Hal Dresner, Warren Murphy, Rod Whitaker Distributor: KL Studio Classics Running Time: 129 min Rating: R Year: 1975 Release Date: November 10, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Coda on Paramount Blu-ray
This re-edit clarifies The Godfather Part III as a bombastic yet ultimately insular morality play.3.5
Whatever else might be said of its merits and flaws, the final installment of Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy immediately establishes a tone that’s bracing for its bleak, almost nihilistic cynicism. It begins with an echo of the first film’s introduction, albeit with Vito Corleone’s intimate backroom study replaced with the bright, looming halls of the Vatican. Michael (Al Pacino), having long ago legitimized his family’s underworld power by corporatizing it, speaks to the head of the Vatican Bank, Archbishop Gilday (Donal Donnelly), who timidly confesses that his poor, nepotistic investments have lost the Catholic Church countless millions. Michael, who now navigates the rarefied echelons of global society, offers the man $500 million in exchange for controlling interest in an international real estate conglomerate operated by the church. Gilday, who gives the impression of having his palms constantly greased that it’s a miracle he can keep a grip on his cigarette, blanches at the offer, only to swiftly counter with $600 million.
This scene is one of a number of elements that have been changed by Coppola for The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone, a re-edit meant to bring The Godfather Part III more in line with his and author Mario Puzo’s original vision. Here, the conversation between Michael and the archbishop runs longer, presaging this cut’s sharper focus on Michael’s conflict with a corrupt clergy. It also further highlights the film’s central irony, that Michael at long last killed and bribed his way into a legitimate and elite society, only to find that such a life looks just as seedy as the one he ostensibly put behind him. Even the new title gives the game away: Rather than position the story as a continuation of a family’s multi-generational rise, Coppola structures it as a tragic, protracted denouement of a man who sold his soul only to find that those who can give him absolution sold theirs long ago.
The focus on corruption within Italy marks a significant thematic shift away from the prior films’ interests in Italian-American assimilation and ascension. And, yes, a small but significant chunk of the narrative is given over to the inexplicable romance between Michael’s naïve, innocent daughter, Mary (Sofia Coppola), and his belligerently violent nephew, Vincent (Andy Garcia). Though it’s difficult to defend Sofia’s much-maligned performance, it’s hard to imagine even Winona Ryder, originally set for the role, bringing much to an underwritten character whose motivations and behaviors are irrelevant preambles to the film’s brutal conclusion. Which isn’t to say that Garcia is much better, as his understanding of Vincent’s supposedly monstrous, id-driven rage mostly takes the form of empty posturing.
Still, there has always been much to recommend about The Godfather Part III, and Coppola’s new edit has pushed those elements to the foreground. Besides a souped-up restoration that makes a strong case for Gordon Willis’s haunting, almost expressionistic cinematography being the equal of his work on the first two films, the Coda cut rearranges scenes to maintain focus on the film’s evocative central conflict. It’s fascinating to see the Godfather saga thematically end with the Italian descendent who conquered America forced into battle with the ancient, Old World power of the Catholic Church, which fearlessly plays games with the same man that the first two films established as one of cinema’s most terrifying figures.
Curiously, Coppola revises the film’s ending, trading its quiet, final note of an aged Michael slumping dead in his chair for a more purgatorial fade-out on a shattered, lonely man facing the void in exile. This makes Coda seem more than ever like the operatic precursor to The Irishman’s more intimate depiction of apocalyptic moral reckoning. Both films are about men who live by the sword and are unlucky enough not to die by it, instead forced to face the consequences of their life’s sins for what seems an interminable length of time.
While re-cutting the film, Francis Ford Coppola restored it from the negative, and the resultant transfer looks richer and more film-like even than the most recent home-video issues. The rich chiaroscuro of the cinematography looks better than ever, with deep black levels offset by the luminescent golden tones of the color grading. Grain is omnipresent and well-distributed, making for natural textures and fine detail on actors’ faces and background objects alike. The soundtrack is pristine, with Carmine Coppola’s score voluptuously filling the surround channels while dialogue is always clear and separated in the middle speaker.
The only extra is a brief intro by Coppola noting why he recut the film. The director has always been an eloquent apologist for his work, so it’s a shame that he didn’t record a new commentary track for this updated version, or even a longer video delineating the changes in this edit.
Though frustratingly parched for extras, The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone smooths out many of the wrinkles of the trilogy’s flawed conclusion, clarifying it as a bombastic yet ultimately insular morality play.
Cast: Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, Andy Garcia, Eli Wallach, Joe Mantegna, Bridget Fonda, George Hamilton, Sofia Coppola Director: Francis Ford Coppola Screenwriter: Mario Puzo, Francis Ford Coppola Distributor: Paramount Home Entertainment Running Time: 157 min Rating: R Year: 2020 Release Date: December 8, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: Paul Leni’s German Expressionist Waxworks on Flicker Alley Blu-ray
Leni’s German Expressionist classic from 1924 effortlessly crosses genres and time periods.4
Paul Leni’s Waxworks is often considered the swan song of German Expressionist cinema. Its German title, Das Wachsfigurenkabinett, which translates to The Cabinet of Wax Figures, calls to mind Robert Wiene’s 1919 classic The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, the quintessential work of the movement. Waxworks is also an early example of the anthology film pioneered by the likes of D.W. Griffith with 1916’s Intolerance and—more importantly, given the uncanny subject matter—Richard Oswald’s Unheimliche Geschichten from 1919. Generically speaking, Waxworks is a bit of of a hodgepodge, incorporating elements of ribald comedy, historical fantasy, and outright horror. But Leni and screenwriter Henrik Galeen manage these tonal shifts with total assurance, lending each segment its own particular and rewarding flavor.
The frame story has a young poet (future director William Dieterle) arriving at a carnival, distinctly redolent of the one in The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, in search of a job at the wax museum. The proprietor (John Gottowt) hires him to write some lurid backstories for his exhibitions of Caliph Harun al-Rashid (Emil Jannings), Ivan the Terrible (Conrad Veidt), and Jack the Ripper (Werner Krauss). (Not coincidentally, the latter two actors were the stars of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari.) The resultant segments play out in a narratively lopsided manner, diminishing in duration as they intensify their emotional register.
Interestingly, aspects of the wax figures work their way into the stories themselves. Art thus imitates life. The Caliph’s broken-off arm morphs into a severed limb. The automaton mechanism that animates Ivan the Terrible becomes the robotized nature of his madness. And Jack’s looming bulk insinuates itself into the poet’s dreamlife. Within each story, there’s a similar doubling at work. The Caliph has a wax dummy made to take his place when he sneaks out into the city at night. Ivan swaps roles and robes with the father of the bride, who’s then assassinated in his place. The entire final segment, in which Jack relentlessly pursues the poet and the proprietor’s daughter, Eve (Olga Belajeff), comprises layers of double exposures that work to thoroughly unmoor our sense of cinematic time and space.
Adding further to the bewildering process of duplication, Dieterle and Belajeff play different roles in each segment. In the Caliph’s tale, he’s Assad the baker, and she’s his wife, Zarah, whom the Caliph hopes to bed. In the second segment, he’s a boyar groom who’s thrown into the dungeon, so that Ivan can seduce his new bride. In the finale, the poet feels Jack wants to kill him and take the proprietor’s daughter away from him. The first two episodes represent the conscious insertion of reality into fiction. The last enters fully into the realm of dream, where these conflicts with tyrannical authority resolve themselves, much to the dissatisfaction of the poet, who ends up skewered by Jack’s blade. Luckily for him, it was only a dream, a notion Leni cleverly underscores by having Jack’s knife dissolve into the poet’s pen, thus tidily illustrating both the pleasures and pains of the human imagination.
Flicker Alley presents Waxworks in a new 2K restoration that’s simply stunning, a quantum-leap improvement over the Kino Lorber DVD from 2004. Clarity and depth are greatly improved, and the color tinting is bold and striking. Given the nature of the restoration, there are, of course, numerous artifacts still extant, but none so glaring as to be terribly distracting. There are two scores: a piano score by Richard Siedhoff and an instrumental track by Bernd Schultheis. Both are available in either Master Audio stereo or surround mixes. Each one imparts a different texture to the film, and both sound excellent.
Flicker Alley provides a handful of top-shelf supplements. The commentary track from film critic Adrian Martin is dense but meaty, peppered with quotations from influential film historians like Siegfried Kracauer, Lotte Eisner, and Thomas Elsaesser. Martin has a lot of interesting things to say about situating German Expressionist films in different contexts, each of which yields varied perspectives. An interview with Julia Wallmüller of the Deutsche Kinemathek covers the restoration process, the film’s release history, and differences between various cuts of the film, including the BFI version, from which the new restoration largely derives. With his usual aplomb, genre expert Kim Newman discusses the history of the anthology film, as well as subsequent films that were influenced by individual episodes of Waxworks. Also included is one of director Paul Leni’s Rebus-Films, a dizzying attempt to create a cinematic jigsaw puzzle that audiences could play along with in the theater. An illustrated booklet includes an essay on the film by Richard Combs, an overview of Leni’s career from Phillip Kemp, and further information on the restoration.
Bowing on Blu-ray with a gorgeous transfer and some excellent bonus materials, Paul Leni’s Waxworks effortlessly crosses genres and time periods.
Cast: Emil Jannings, Conrad Veidt, Werner Krauss, William Dieterle, Olga Belajeff, John Gottowt Director: Paul Leni Screenwriter: Henrik Galeen Distributor: Flicker Alley Running Time: 82 min Rating: NR Year: 1924 Release Date: November 17, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: George Miller’s Action Classic Mad Max Gets 4K UHD Edition from Kino
Now on 4K Ultra HD, Mad Max reminds us anew that few contemporary action films match its appetite for risk.3.5
The apocalypse, whatever may have caused it, wasn’t particularly devastating to the Melbourne landscape that George Miller’s Mad Max takes as its setting. Green grass and blue skies are intact, and seeing as groceries and food are still readily available for purchase, it can be assumed that capitalism survived as well. But chaos still reigns, as the roads are rife with motorcycle gangs, addled speedsters, perverts, thieves, and a myriad of other criminals who take what they like from others and kill without fear of reprisal. The chief reason for their cavalier attitudes is that the ranks of the Main Force Patrol (MFP), the remnants of Australia’s highway patrol, have been pared down to a ragtag gang of leather-clad lawmen who drive around in refitted Melbourne police cars.
The most feared of these automobiles carries the name “Interceptor,” driven by the most trusted and skilled of MFP men, Max Rockatansky, played by a young Mel Gibson. In the fantastic opening scene, the MFP’s pursuit of a crazed speedster, nicknamed the Nightrider, are carefully punctuated by shots of Max’s slow preparation for the last leg of the chase. As expected, the Nightrider meets his end in a blaze, but even as Max goes home to see his family and receives congratulations from Goose (Steve Bisley), his partner, a more wild and treacherous force, a motorcycle gang, takes up the Nightrider’s cause and begins a campaign of bedlam on his behalf. Led by a tyrannical madman known as the Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne), the gangsters take responsibility for several heinous acts before they decide to target Goose, Max, and, toward the end, Max’s family.
Often hailed as one of the chief cinematic exports of the Ozploitation era, Mad Max should be noted more as a miracle of economic filmmaking than as a narrative landmark of Australian cinema. Budgeted somewhere slightly north of $300,000, the film is exciting, fleet-footed, and beautifully, ominously shot by then first-time cinematographer David Eggby. In comparison, Smokey and the Bandit II, a film built on similar facets and released in the same year as Mad Max, though wholly different in tone, was given an immense budget and failed to illicit anything but a few ironic guffaws at unintended moments and a chorus of yawns. The lean budget ultimately works to Mad Max’s advantage: The Australian landscape conveys dissolution and ruin far better than any stylized future world could and Miller builds remarkable tension from scaled-back action sequences and some superb car chases.
Much of this action lands in the final 30 minutes, making the film a bit back-loaded and even a bit anticlimactic. Max’s inevitable showdown with Toecutter comes early and ends too easily, but the film’s final scene, which inspired James Wan and Leigh Whannell to write the first Saw film, thrusts a stake deep into Max’s belief in balanced justice. Politically, Mad Max is about as barebones as action films come: The good guy is a family man who gives justice a chance while the villains are without morals, conscience, sanity, or even a spec of humanity. Art director Jon Dowding once likened Toecutter’s regalia to that of Genghis Khan, while Max wears a near-tailor-fitted, sufficiently badass leather outfit and a pair of aviator shades.
Peter Weir’s Gallipoli is credited for showing Gibson in a more romantic light, leading him to his most popular performance as Riggs in the Lethal Weapon series. Looking back, Gallipoli hardly carries the same specialized importance given to Mad Max and is, at the end of the day, generally overrated. One could say plenty about what’s happened in the subsequent years with Gibson, but his charisma and sheer presence in Mad Max is undeniable. Roaming the asphalt with a sawed-off shotgun, Gibson plays the last snapped sinew of true justice in a world gone wrong, a role he would return to in several other forms. In fact, Mad Max can now be seen as setting the political tenor of Gibson’s career. One could only wish it had also set the bar for his creativity as well: Braveheart made on a budget of $300,000 would be quite the sight.
Intel is scarce online regarding whether this Ultra HD edition of Mad Max is in fact the result of a new 4K remaster, but this much is clear: The image on the disc leaves prior home-video incarnations of the film in the dust. Certainly, given the luxuriously sturdy grain resolution, Mad Max has never looked so film-like on the small screen as it does here. Additionally, skin tones are warm and natural, and beyond a few yellows and reds that take on an almost neon quality in the light of day, the range of colors is deep and rich. (Pop in the accompanying Blu-ray disc and you may do a double take when you notice how much darker the image there is in comparison.) The audio hasn’t gotten the same facelift, as we get the same DTS-HD Master Audio tracks here that we’ve heard before, but if you’ve seen Mad Max, and as such are familiar with its low-budget origins, then you know that there isn’t much that can be done to make the dialogue during the many action sequences sound as if its competing to be heard over the din of the carnage that plays out on Melbourne’s highways. Nonetheless, there’s still a lot of dynamism in the mid-range, and the action sequences are suitably immersive.
Most of the extras, which, for better and worse, are only available on the accompanying Blu-ray disc, have been ported over from prior editions of the film. The chummy commentary track, moderated by filmmaker Tim Ridge, features cinematographer David Eggby, art director Jon Dowding, and special effects artist Chris Murray, and it’s a wellspring of anecdotes about this galvanizing film’s making. The only new feature is a 30-minute interview with George Miller recorded during the pandemic via Zoom that finds the auteur reminiscing about the film’s production and coolly showing off his cinephile bona fides by referencing filmmakers, including Charlie Chaplin and John Ford, whose cinematic triumphs paved the way for Mad Max. Rounding out the disc is a series of interviews, a featurette on Mel Gibson and his breakout role in the film, and a series of trailers and TV and radio spots.
Mad Max makes its 4K Ultra HD debut with an impressive image presentation, reminding us anew that few contemporary action films match its appetite for risk.
Cast: Mel Gibson, Joanne Samuel, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Steve Bisley, Tim Burns, Roger Ward, Vince Gil Director: George Miller Screenwriter: George Miller, James McCausland Distributor: KL Studio Classics Running Time: 93 min Rating: R Year: 1979 Release Date: November 24, 2020 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: 15-Disc Essential Fellini Box Set on the Criterion Collection
Essential Fellini is one of the most elegantly designed and supplement-packed sets that Criterion has ever released.5
Though there are a handful of themes and images that recur throughout his work, Federico Fellini’s style underwent a drastic change at the cusp of the 1960s, shifting from the predominant neorealist aesthetic to a heady, surrealistic brew of “memories, dreams, and reflections” (to quote the title of Carl Jung’s partially autobiographical book, which Fellini greatly admired). The Criterion Collection’s lavish Essential Fellini box set just about evenly splits the difference between the two periods. The set contains 14 of Federico Fellini’s films, from his 1950 debut, Variety Lights, co-directed with Alberto Lattuada, to 1987’s Intervista, a fascinatingly recursive paean to the golden days of studio filmmaking that wasn’t his swan song (he would go on to make The Voice of the Moon in 1990).
With its tale of a peripatetic band of low-rent theater types, Variety Lights incorporates many, if not most, of Fellini’s signature themes. La Strada, from 1954, takes the light-hearted comedy of the earlier film into a starker, more existentially tragic direction. By the ‘60s and into the ‘70s, the promise of the open road has curdled into an impasse: Witness the famous traffic jam that opens 1963’s 8½, which is in turn echoed in the openings scene of 1972’s Roma. About idle youth in rural Italy, and a recounting of Fellini’s own departure for Rome at the age of 18, I Vitelloni establishes the vein of nostalgia that runs throughout many of the Italian auteur’s later works, though here it’s a bit more clear-eyed and unsentimental.
The specter of self-destruction haunts Fellini’s work throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s. Giulietta Masina’s character in both La Strada and 1957’s Nights of Cabiria loses all will to live due to the brutality and indifference of the men in her life. In 1965’s Juliet of the Spirits, it’s the knowledge of her husband’s infidelity and the memory of a classmate’s suicide that brings Masina’s characters, named Giulietta, to the brink of oblivion. Which isn’t to say that Fellini’s male characters aren’t similarly haunted: For one, Marcello Mastroianni’s Guido in 8½, feeling creatively bankrupt, comes close to turning a gun on himself. In fact, Fellini at the last minute changed out the original ending, which hinted more strongly that Guido had actually gone through with the act, for the comparatively celebratory, if still ambiguous, one we now have.
Given the darkness at the heart of these works, it’s hardly surprising that Fellini flirted at times with the horror genre, a trend that culminated in Toby Dammit, his contribution to 1968’s Poe-themed anthology film Spirits of the Dead. In La Dolce Vita, from 1960, Marcello (Mastroianni) attends a séance at a remote villa, then participates in a tenebrous ghost hunt around its grounds, an extended sequence that Fellini imbues with a suitably gothic atmosphere. Juliet of the Spirits includes fantasy sequences featuring a blond-haired demon child and a group of sexually uninhibited women who may or may not be vampires. In Toby Dammit, the devil is another towheaded girl (an image Fellini may have lifted straight from Mario Bava’s Kill, Baby…Kill!) who lures Toby (Terence Stamp) to his doom.
In his later films, Fellini inclined toward nostalgia or abstraction, sometimes both, while remaining grounded to a certain extent by the bawdy, earthy humor that he learned during his apprentice days writing scripts in the commedia all’italiana vein. Roma takes the episodic nature of the Felliniesque road movie to its logical conclusion, eschewing even the slight connective tissue of the recurring characters who hold together an otherwise fragmented, Brechtian work like 1969’s Fellini Satyricon, his free adaptation of a first-century novel by Roman courtier Petronius. Set in the 1930s, 1973’s Amarcord is a record of one year in the life of a coastal city, much like the Rimini of Fellini’s youth, free associatively combining the director’s boyhood memories with the daily life of a childhood friend. And the Ship Sailed On, from 1983, is a study in art and artificiality, ending with that arch cinematic sleight of hand: the pulling of the camera back to reveal the very process of its own creation.
Though not Fellini’s final film, Intervista can stand as a capstone to his career. The film’s multiple layers include a depiction of Fellini’s first visit to the Cinecittá Studios in Rome in 1940, his attempt to direct an adaptation of Franz Kafka’s Amerika, and an interview with Fellini by a Japanese television crew that encompasses a tour of the studio’s present-day facilities. Here, Fellini effortlessly weaves together various registers, aesthetic and otherwise, continually undercutting whatever level of “reality” seems to be in front of the camera(s) at any given time. Far from coming across as pretentious, it’s all done with a wry humor, thus serving not only as an ideal valedictory for one of cinema’s greatest directors, but also as the perfect film to close out Criterion’s collection of his essential films.
Eleven of the films in Essential Fellini are presented in new 4K restorations (the others are sourced from recent Blu-ray releases of individual films). In addition, there are new digital restorations of the short film Toby Dammit and the made-for-TV Fellini: A Director’s Notebook. Across the board, the transfers look superb. The early black-and-white films present gorgeous high-contrast images with deeply compressed blacks. The color films are truly eye-popping, especially Juliet of the Spirits, some of whose Technicolor imagery seems to prefigure the candy-colored nightmares of Dario Argento’s Suspiria. The Italian LPCM mono tracks are uniformly first-rate, presenting dialogue clearly and cleanly, and giving plenty of presence to frequent Fellini composer Nino Rota’s elegant, often carnivalesque scores.
The films included in Essential Fellini come packaged in a gorgeously decorated case whose front lifts off like a deluxe LP box set. The 15 discs, including one devoted to the 193-minute cut of the documentary Marcello Mastroianni: I Remember, are housed in a flipbook that suggests a photo album. Beneath that, two books nestle in their own pigeonholes: a lavishly illustrated guide to the films, complete with lists of extras and information on the restorations, and a thick (and thickly illustrated) book of essays from filmmakers and film critics.
Notable among the set’s wealth of extras are six commentary tracks, an appreciative documentary about Fellini’s wife and frequent collaborator, Giulietta Masina, and archival interviews with a number of actors who worked on more than one Fellini film, including Marcello Mastroianni, Sandra Milo, and Anouk Aimée. Damian Pettigrew’s feature-length documentary Fellini: I’m a Born Liar from 2002 is an excellent place to start, as it not only provides a career-spanning over of Fellini’s life and career but is also based on his last confessions and includes recollections from Donald Sutherland and Terence Stamp. (Speaking of Stamp, there’s a newly restored version of Toby Dammit to be found on the Juliet of the Spirits disc.) Also of note is a four-part interview with Fellini from 1960 that’s spread across four discs, as well as four hour-long behind-the-scenes documentaries and a retrospective that features a number of late-life interviews with Fellini looking back over his career.
Essential Fellini is one of the most elegantly designed and supplement-packed sets that the Criterion Collection has ever released.
Cast: Peppino De Filippo, Carla Del Poggio, Giulietta Masina, John Kitzmiller, Dante Maggio, Alberto Sordi, Brunella Bovo, Leopoldo Trieste, Franco Interlenghi, Franco Fabrizi, Riccardo Fellini, Leonora Ruffo, Jean Brochard, Claude Farell, Anthony Quinn, Richard Basehart, Aldo Silvani, Livia Venturini, Broderick Crawford, Sue Ellen, Irene Cefaro, François Périer, Franca Marzi, Dorian Gray, Amedeo Nazzari, Marcello Mastroianni, Anita Ekberg, Anouk Aimée, Yvonne Furneaux, Magali Noël, Alain Cuny, Annibale Ninchi, Walter Santesso, Bruno Agostini, Sandra Milo, Barbara Steele, Caterina Boratto, Claudia Cardinale, Mario Pisu, Valeska Gert, Sylva Koscina, Frederick Ledebur, Valentina Cortese, Martin Potter, Hiram Keller, Max Born, Salvo Randone, Il Moro, Magali Noël, Capucine, Alain Cuny Fanfulla, Danica la Loggia, Lucia Bosé, Peter Gonzales, Fiona Florence, Pia De Doses, Renato Giovannoli, Dennis Christopher, Feodor Chaliapin Jr., Elliott Murphy, Anna Magnani, Gore Vidal, John Francis Lane, Federico Fellini, Pupella Maggio, Armando Brancia, Ciccio Ingrassia, Nando Orfei, Luigi Rossi, Bruno Zanin, Gianfilippo Carcano, Josiane Tanzilli, Freddie Jones, Barbara Jefford, Victor Poletti, Peter Cellier, Elisa Mainardi, Norma West, Paolo Paoloni, Sarah Jane Varley, Sergio Rubini, Antonella Ponziani, Maurizio Mein, Paola Liguori, Lara Wendel, Antonio Cantafora, Nadia Ottaviani Director: Federico Fellini, Alberto Lattuada Screenwriter: Federico Fellini, Alberto Lattuada, Tullio Pinelli, Ennio Flaiano, Brunello Rondi, Bernardino Zapponi, Tonino Guerra Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 1692 min Rating: NR Year: 1950 - 1987 Release Date: November 24, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: Robert Altman’s Popeye Gets 40th Anniversary Blu-ray Edition
This undervalued film receives a beautiful transfer for its Blu-ray debut, but the dearth of extras leaves much to be desired.3
Robert Altman’s fans have all but written off 1980’s Popeye as another charred remnant of the auteur’s spectacular burnout at the close of the 1970s—virtually indistinguishable from the equally underrated Health, A Wedding, and Quintet. But Popeye is in need of a serious critical rediscovery, because virtually every one of Altman’s signature hallmarks—that teeming sense of community gathering habits, concern for social inequalities, and fondness for earnest, country-fried comic bits—are very much alive here.
Anyone new to Altman is likely to be put off by the film’s unique worldview. Known for building American communities from the bottom up, the director took a well-established slice of Americana and seemingly refused to distance himself through irony or radical departures—like, say, having Popeye on the front lines in the Korean War. Popeye (Robin Williams), Bluto (Paul L. Smith), and Olive Oyl (Shelley Duvall) trip and mumble their way through exaggerated love triangles just like they did in the original serial comics and short films. But if you strip away the film’s loyalty to the E.C. Segar source material, it’s not difficult to see that, in many ways, Popeye is Altman’s comic spin on McCabe & Mrs. Miller, even substituting that film’s whore house with a floating gambling house and brothel. Like Warren Beatty’s John McCabe, Williams’s Popeye has a habit of vocalizing his inner dialogues.
For a film often dismissed as kiddie fare, there are a surprising number of Altman concepts that are likely to fly right over the heads of youngins. The town of Sweethaven, where Popeye lands in search of his Pap, is cheerfully oblivious to the fact that they’re in a state of severe economic and social oppression. Bluto represents the strong arm of the law (the beanpole constable jumps out of windows whenever the man-mountain enters the room) and the noodly taxman represents its sticky fingers. Both work for a shadowy dictatorial menace known as the Commodore. “Next to Wimpy, I hate him best,” the Topol-like Mr. Geezil privately bellows. The hints of a far more menacing political situation undercut most of the jokes. Wimpy’s (Paul Dooley) immortal “I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” sounds like it’s coming from a man blissfully ignorant of his severe dependency on credit currency.
To kids, Wimpy is a hamburgler. To adults, he’s the recently laid-off neighbor. Also, most kids probably can’t grasp what Olive Oyl’s arpeggio-ridden ballad to Bluto’s “large” qualities is really about. Throughout Popeye, Altman directs the complex web of social interactions with a frame that’s both inclusive and prying. And the actors he collected and dropped in Malta’s simulated community help evoke an atmosphere that is genial yet guarded. Duvall couldn’t possibly have played Olive Oyl badly, and to watch Williams’s sweet interpretation of the hyper-violent original character here is to mourn what we lost when the actor bamboozled his way into the hearts of Oscar prognosticators looking for an easy dark horse with roles in such films as Patch Adams, Bicentennial Man, and Jakob the Liar.
This is the first time Popeye has been released on Blu-ray and Paramount’s 1080p transfer really does wonders for the film. The image is consistently sharp, with the high dynamic range allowing the stunning Malta setting and the vibrant colors of the costumes to really pop, especially against the brown hues that dominate the film’s elaborate set. Grain levels are even, albeit a bit slight at times, and the black levels are strong, rendering minute details visible even during the darkest nighttime sequences. As for the audio, Robert Altman’s typically layered sound design and the film’s many songs are given a robust mix that nicely separates all of the overlapping dialogue and deluge of various sound effects.
“Return to Sweethaven: A Look Back with Robin and the Altmans” looks at some of the insanity of the film’s shoot in Malta, but while the stories about the efforts made to create the Sweethaven set and the studio’s responses to the production going long and over budget are interesting, 13 minutes is barely enough time to scratch the surface. Considering the perceived failure of the film and its effect on the next decade of Altman’s career, this subject matter begs for a more comprehensive treatment. The other featurette on the disc, “The Popeye Company Players,” is even more perfunctory, running down the major actors in the film and providing brief behind-the-scenes anecdotes, such as Robin Williams learning to dance for the film and Altman’s insistence on Shelley Duvall for the part of Olive Oyl. The disc is rounded out with a very short slideshow of pictures from the film’s debut in 1980 and a feature that lets you watch only the songs from the film, both separately or all in a row.
Robert Altman’s idiosyncratic, undervalued musical comedy receives a beautiful transfer for its Blu-ray debut, but the dearth of extras leaves much to be desired.
Cast: Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall, Ray Walston, Paul Dooley, Richard Libertini, Donald Moffat, Paul L. Smith, Linda Hunt Director: Robert Altman Screenwriter: Jules Feiffer Distributor: Paramount Home Entertainment Running Time: 113 min Rating: PG Year: 1980 Release Date: November 24, 2020 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
Blu-ray Review: Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman on the Criterion Collection
Criterion’s exacting presentation of Scorsese’s late-inning masterpiece is a testament to the enduring value of physical media.4
With The Irishman, Martin Scorsese proves to be in an alluringly funereal mood. Appropriately, his latest film opens in a kind of purgatory, with a slow, serpentine tracking shot through a nursing home. The Five Satins’s “In the Still of the Night” acts as murmuring accompaniment, and the doo-wop classic, repeated several times throughout the film, is as pivotal and hauntingly autumnal a needle drop as the Platters’s “My Prayer” in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return. Rodrigo Prieto’s camera eventually settles on the elderly, wheelchair-bound labor union official and mobster Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (Robert De Niro), who’s lost in thought but also ready to talk a blue streak about what he believes to have been a very eventful existence.
In reality, Sheeran told his life story to author and former investigator Charles Brandt for the 2004 memoir I Heard You Paint Houses, which is the basis for the film’s screenplay by Steven Zaillian. (The book’s title is mob code for blood splattering the walls during a contract killing.) In The Irishman, which spans the mid-1940s to the early aughts, Sheeran is effectively chatting with the audience about his rise from a low-level hood to the right-hand man to labor union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), who he also claims to have killed in 1975. Yet the degree to which Sheeran is an unreliable narrator, perhaps even to himself, is always debatable in the film, and not just because the Hoffa case has never been officially closed.
More so than Goodfellas or Casino, Scorsese’s two other told-in-retrospect gangster films, The Irishman—at least for the first two hours of its riveting three-and-a-half-hour runtime—feels composed of burnished, often blackly funny, fragments of erratic memory. Sheeran glosses over the truth even when he’s telling it, recalling the past, even at its most violent, with a propulsive, rosy cheer that plays at a cursory glance like Goodfellas-lite. A comical aside about two gangsters named “Whispers” (“the other one,” Sheeran keeps repeating as if he were in an Abbott and Costello routine) would slot quite comfortably into that earlier film.
Yet there are narrative and aesthetic tells in The Irishman that hint at the much darker undercurrents that will eventually come to the fore. Sheeran often speaks of himself as a devoted family man, though his two wives and children occupy a mostly peripheral place on screen. Anna Paquin makes the most of a largely dialogue-free role as Sheeran’s daughter, Peggy, whose disapproval of her father’s criminal life leads to estrangement. Then there’s the recurring superimposed text that notes the eventual date and manner of death of a number of peripheral characters, even as they’re standing flush before us. (Another older statesman, Marco Bellocchio, did something similar in this year’s The Traitor, the filmmaker’s terrific biopic about Sicilian mafioso turned informant Tommaso Buscetta.)
Scorsese’s choice, in many of these early scenes, to expensively and time-consumingly de-age his principal cast members with digital technology has the strange effect of making Sheeran’s recollections seem that much more like an idealized fantasy that cannot hold. The technical showboating—softening and erasing wrinkles, making flaccid skin seem taut—is subtle enough to not be mortifying, yet apparent enough that the CGI stitching tends to show, especially in brighter scenes. It also plays rather potently meta, since The Irishman gathers a murderer’s row of American acting elites—not only De Niro and Pacino, but Joe Pesci (as Sheeran’s mentor Russell Bufalino) and Harvey Keitel (as Philadelphia-based don Angelo Bruno)—three of whom Scorsese has worked with multiple times over his very long career.
De Niro and Pacino, meanwhile, have a titan-like history that includes just a few on-screen collaborations, some epochal (Heat), some decidedly not (Righteous Kill). The two actors have additionally reached a point where bellowing self-parody and resting on laurels is de rigueur, the hope of a blazing last hurrah dissipating with every humdrum SNL appearance or cringe-inducing travesty like the “Dunkaccino” segment from Jack and Jill.
Scorsese knows what his audience is hoping for: glory days, resurrected. But he also understands the impossibility of anyone being exactly as they once were. So he weaves that longing into both The Irishman’s text and its technique, presenting Sheeran’s youthful recollections—his rise in rank with Bufalino’s crew, his work with a beleaguered Hoffa during the era when Attorney General Robert Kennedy (Jack Huston) worked hard to bring down organized crime—as augmented hoodlum reveries that will soon catch up with the character’s spiritually impoverished present. And this eventual shift is hinted at by a parallel narrative, snippets of which we see throughout the film’s first two hours, in which a much older Sheeran and Bufalino take a hilariously roundabout road trip, chain-smoking wives in tow, to a wedding that’s being used as cover for Hoffa’s murder.
This becomes the main story thread in hour three, and it features what should rank among Scorsese’s greatest set pieces as Sheeran comes to terms with and carries out Hoffa’s killing. It’s a sequence that’s austere in tone and approach (with one swaggering segue into goofball, semi-improvisatory humor), yet also unbearably tense and emotionally devastating. De Niro expertly sketches the moral bottoming out of an immoral man (his mumbly, halting call with Hoffa’s wife after the deed is done is a particular highlight), and it’s thrilling to see him so engaged. Pacino is no less impressive as the volatile Hoffa , so stubborn in his need to hold onto the presidency of the union that he built from the ground up that he’ll heed no warnings to the contrary about the degree to which his conduct may court disaster or death.
To Sheeran, Hoffa is like a king with his head in the clouds, or a spouse who just won’t listen to reason. The platonic romanticism of their relationship—sharing the same hotel rooms, exchanging yearning glances or gentle compliments even in their most explosive moments—is one of The Irishman’s most intriguing facets. Scorsese is no stranger to chaste, if still devout, love stories between men, and when Hoffa exits the film, Sheeran becomes like Orpheus minus Eurydice, mourning his beloved and yearning for the inevitable—though, of course, he’d never admit that his feelings were anything beyond strictly professional.
The ultimate tragedy of The Irishman is that Sheeran is incapable of singing his song of self with the kind of unblinking honesty that might lead him through regret and toward redemption. Near the end of the film, Sheeran asks that his door be left slightly ajar, a mirror of something that occurs in an earlier scene between him and Hoffa. The way Scorsese photographs Sheeran through the opening reveals a man drained of all his perceived power, and distressingly content with the unholy mess he’s left behind.
The 4K transfer of The Irishman looks and sounds incredible, with a greater wealth of texture than Netflix’s presentation—a contrast that speaks to the continued value of physical media. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography is ravishing, a feast of subtly varied autumnal hues that are occasionally punctuated by the bright, primal color of, say, a street sign or an ice cream sundae. (The visual differentiations between the decades are also more prominent here.) Clothing textures, and there are thousands of intricate, memorable costumes in the film, practically burst from the screen here, and facial details, especially those that haven’t been de-aged, are equally vivid. The Dolby Atmos track is a show pony, as this epic film is a tapestry of song cues, violence, and, most importantly, of the small vocal inflections of men of violence who speak in innuendo. The Irishman is, above all, a chamber piece, and every nuance of speech resounds with crystal clarity, transforming the audience into voyeurs and detectives.
The highlights here are “Gangsters’ Requiem,” a visual essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme, and the “The Wages of Loyalty” liner-notes essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien. Nehme examines The Irishman as a thoughtful culmination of Martin Scorsese’s gangster cycle, while O’Brien likens the film to a poem, describing its intricate grasp of character portraiture and behavior, as well as its incredibly assured time-hopping structure. The other featurettes tend to repeat themselves, though none of them are without interest. “Making The Irishman” is superior to most such promotional items because the filmmakers and actors discuss the production with refreshing specificity. It’s said, for instance, that Scorsese wanted the film to “look like nothing,” a mysterious request that hints at The Irishman’s deceptively austere compositions.
A roundtable conversation over drinks with Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci, which was available on Netflix last year, is mostly predicated on the correct assumption that audiences want to hang out with these legends, offering little new information about the making of The Irishman. Though it’s only six minutes long, “Anatomy of a Scene: The Irishman,” part of a series shepherded by New York Times staff editor Mekado Murphy, is more illuminating, offering a glimpse into the motivations behind the Frank Sheeran “appreciation night” scene. Rounding out the package is a featurette (also produced by Netflix) on The Irishman’s controversial de-aging effects, a few trailers, and archive footage of the real Sheeran and Jimmy Hoffa, which directly informed certain scenes in the film.
Criterion’s exacting presentation of Martin Scorsese’s late-inning masterpiece is a testament to the enduring value of physical media, ironically given that the film is a Netflix title.
Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Jack Huston, Kathrine Narducci, Jesse Plemons, Domenick Lombardozzi, Paul Herman, Gary Basaraba, Marin Ireland, Lucy Gallina, Jonathan Morris, Dascha Polanco, Welker White, Louis Cancelmi, Bo Dietl, Sebastian Maniscalco, Aleksa Palladino, Steven Van Zandt, Jim Norton Director: Martin Scorsese Screenwriter: Steven Zaillian Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 209 min Rating: R Year: 2020 Buy: Video
Review: Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend on KL Studio Classics Blu-ray
Kino outfits the despairing, pioneering film with a beautiful transfer and one of the best audio commentaries of the year.4
Famous as one of Hollywood’s earliest explorations of the realities of alcoholism, Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend has attained a reputation as a trailblazer that’s grown stodgy over time. The Oscar-winning film does feel self-consciously presentational at times, such as in the way that Don Birnam (Ray Milland) loudly describes the contours of his lusts and fears, though alcoholics are prone to doing exactly that. Part of the insidious pull of addiction—especially alcoholism, which is enabled by society on a scale that’s unparalleled by most other vices—is the way it allows addicts to sustain their personal mythologies. Don may voice subtexts that are already evident in Wilder and Charles Brackett’s screenplay, but when he talks obviously and theatrically about his struggles with the bottle, he’s understood by the filmmakers to be performing. And this performance props up Don’s drinking and vice versa, allowing him to glamorize himself as a grand struggling writer and boozer, rather than just a boozer.
The film opens with an aerial shot of Manhattan that would almost certainly inform the first image of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, similarly suggesting that we’re randomly homing in on merely one of countless stories playing out in the city. Don’s been dry for 10 days and is set to travel into the country with his brother, Wick (Phillip Terry), so that he may rest and recover. It’s clear from the outset, given Don’s brittle, angry demeanor, that he isn’t yet interested in recovery—a suspicion that’s boldly confirmed when he pulls a string dangling out of the apartment window to reveal a quart of rye, which he attempts to drink behind his brother’s back. Don’s caught, though he’s granted a reprieve when his girlfriend, Helen (Jane Wyman), drops by. Astonishingly, even after the rye has been discovered, Don convinces Wick to go to the opera with Helen and leave him alone in the apartment until they’re to reconvene and depart for the country in a few hours. Meanwhile, Don falls off the wagon and stays drunk for several days, while Wick, disgusted with Don’s relapses, leaves the city anyway.
The notion of Wick and Helen irrationally leaving Don this golden opportunity to drink is brutally believable. Such indulgence springs from a certain naïveté—that this time Don will master himself—as well as from simple exhaustion with fighting a seemingly unwinnable fight. It’s easier to let the drinker drink, especially in a society that sees teetotaling as a little unnatural. Wilder and Brackett are wickedly aware of society as a kind of contemptuous enabler, and this awareness imbues The Lost Weekend with an untarnished power. Besides Wick and Helen, there’s Don’s regular bartender, Nat (Howard Da Silva), who castigates him for his drinking yet continues to serve him, sometimes criticizing him while in the very act of pouring a shot. Of course, only Don can stop Don from drinking, and such sequences capture the weird comfort for those with lives out of balance of entombing oneself in a bar, with everyone implicitly understanding that you are enslaving yourself to a potentially fatal yet reassuringly predictable routine, which is glossed over with in-jokes, gossip, and shtick.
Wilder doesn’t entirely go for the preaching of many “issues” productions in The Lost Weekend, informing it instead with the lurid style and tone of his prior Double Indemnity. The dialogue here is hard, terse, and occasionally floridly comic, and noir-esque images vividly embody the pain and double life of Don’s sickness, such as the growing water rings on the bar from his endless shots, or the row of upturned stools and chairs that resembles the fence of a prison while establishing that Don’s getting a drink as early as possible, or a hallucination scene, symbolizing a case of the “DTs,” that suggests a moment from a gothic horror film.
Most unforgettable, and famous, is Don’s neorealistic trudge throughout the streets of lower Manhattan to pawn his typewriter for drinking money. Every pawn shop is closed, and his hungover roasting under the sunlight suggests the ultimate physicalizing of the anguish of thirst. Wilder even generates a perverse kind of suspense from empathetically linking us with Don’s enablers. As Don scurries from one embarrassment to the next, desperate for booze, we come to root for him to have it so as to grant us reprieve from the film’s modulated tension. Such manipulation is especially notable when Don remembers where he hid a bottle: within a ceiling light, its silhouette inadvertently outlined from above like an ironic gift from heaven.
The Lost Weekend is nevertheless inhibited by certain concessions. Lost amid Wilder’s baroque touches—most regrettably the theremin sound that often accompanies shots of tempting alcohol—is the casualness of Charles Jackson’s autobiographical novel, which dramatizes a bender with a matter-of-factness that’s truly terrifying. Wilder and Brackett also elide Jackson’s implications that Don is gay, as well as the author’s uncompromising “no exit” finale, though the film’s ending is less conclusive than is generally acknowledged. While these failures of nerve signify the constraints of American filmmaking during the reign of the Hays Code, The Lost Weekend remains a haunting tour of a very real kind of hell.
This new 4K restoration of The Lost Weekend boasts an image with exceptional depth and clarity, emphasizing the gritty details of the film’s New York City locations, and the vastness of deep focus imagery that conveys the protagonist’s addled state of mind. Blacks are rich, whites are sharp, and the film’s intricate use of light and shadow is vividly preserved. The sound mix is clean and sturdy, particularly underscoring the diegetic sounds of booze as it’s poured and consumed, as well as the dimensions of Miklós Rózsa’s rather insistent score.
The audio commentary by Joseph McBride is unusually personal, given that the film historian is a recovering alcoholic. An expert on Billy Wilder, McBride is somewhat leery of The Lost Weekend, given its reverberations for him and some of the fashions in which it feels “distanced from” its subject. Riffing on a review written by the great novelist and critic James Agee (who was also an alcoholic), McBride says that he believes the film doesn’t capture the “euphoria” of alcoholism, concentrating instead on its humiliating, hungover lows. McBride also contextualizes the film within Wilder’s career and discusses the director’s somewhat tempestuous relationship with Charles Brackett, whose wife was an alcoholic. Perhaps most profoundly, McBride eventually suggests that The Lost Weekend was partially Wilder’s act of working through his feelings on the Holocaust, from which he fled and to which he lost his mother. This supplements set is otherwise slim, including a radio adaptation of the film as well as several trailers, though this commentary elevates this package considerably.
Kino outfits the despairing, pioneering The Lost Weekend with a beautiful transfer and one of the best audio commentaries of the year.
Cast: Ray Milland, Jane Wyman, Phillip Terry, Howard Da Silva, Doris Dowling, Frank Faylen, Mary Young, Anita Bolster, Lilian Fontaine Director: Billy Wilder Screenwriter: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 101 min Rating: NR Year: 1945 Release Date: November 24, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai on Criterion Blu-ray
Criterion’s stacked release helps make the case that the film is more than just an interesting curio in Jarmusch’s canon.4
Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is informed by an eccentric mélange of cultural touchstones and film genres, blending together allusions to everything from samurai and mafia codes to ‘90s hip-hop culture and mid-century TV cartoons. Its transporting of the traditional samurai mythology and way of life into a 20th-century urban landscape recalls Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 neo-noir crime drama Le Samouraï, but Forest Whitaker’s Ghost Dog is of an entirely different breed of modern samurai hitman than Jef Costello, Alain Delon’s steely-eyed, trench coat- and fedora-donning throwback.
Not that Ghost Dog is any less implacable when carrying out his own hits, but he’s almost singularly defined by his myriad idiosyncrasies and paradoxical qualities. Like Jarmusch’s film itself, Ghost Dog is an uncanny fusion, sporting corn rows and blasting the hypnotic beats of RZA’s score through the speakers of each of the many cars he steals, all the while adhering to the strict codes of the samurai to feed his soul and shape his behavior.
The first time we see Ghost Dog, he’s reading from Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure, a spiritual guide for samurai warriors. Quotes from this text appear on screen throughout the film—each time, except the last, narrated by Whitaker, and every line a minimalist slice of slyly perceptive poetry, not unlike that of the working-class poet from Jarmusch’s Paterson. Serving as both chapter breaks and philosophical ruminations on the filmic action, these interludes also offer a window into the way Ghost Dog views the world. We learn the reasons behind his dangerously blind allegiance to an Italian mafioso, Louie (John Tormey), who once saved his life, as well as the mindset that allows him to carry himself in a cool, collected manner in even the most dangerous situations, since he accepts his own death as imminent.
Some lines from Hagakure even seem to speak to Jarmusch’s own approach to filmmaking, most notably: “Matters of great concern should be treated lightly. Matters of small concern should be treated seriously.” Jarmusch’s typically heightened attention to the beauty in quotidian life is very much on display throughout Ghost Dog. A small gesture that Ghost Dog makes toward a cemetery as he walks by speaks volumes about his reverence for the dead, while other moments, as when he moves his scope off a target to zoom in on a woodpecker, evince Jarmusch’s singular fusion of utter sincerity and deadpan humor. In conversations with a young, neighborhood kid, Pearline (Camille Winbush), Ghost Dog shares his affinity for the novels she’s carrying with her, and in handing her a copy of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s Rashomon and Other Stories, he eventually enlists his spiritual successor.
Other scenes are completely digressive, such as a poignant moment where Ghost Dog’s only friend, a French-speaking ice cream truck owner named Raymond (Isaach De Bankolé), takes him to the roof of his apartment building to admire a man on a nearby roof constructing a boat that he seemingly will never be able to get down. Despite the fact that neither Ghost Dog nor Raymond speaks the other’s language, Jarmusch highlights how life’s beautiful mysteries can be shared without the need for words—something crucial to Ghost Dog, who carries himself with a quiet, contemplative demeanor as he moves about the world like a Zen phantom.
The film’s perfunctory plot involves a hit that Ghost Dog must perform on a made man for his retainer, Louie, and the fallout that unfolds when the hitman is marked as a sacrificial lamb through which mob boss Ray Vargo (Henry Silva) covers his own tracks. Jarmusch uses this narrative not as a means to revise or comment on the mafia crime drama, but rather to bring yet another urban culture into the film’s playful assortment of pop-culture references.
The mobsters depicted in the film, with their loose morality and ineffectual management, are a stark contrast to the highly principled Ghost Dog, even if their old-school brand of criminality is understood to be as retrograde as his samurai mores. There’s a hint of melancholy to the mafia’s uncouthness as it tries to stay afloat, suggesting great athletes past their prime. But Jarmusch mainly uses the group as comic relief, infusing deadpan humor into their interactions, be it when one mobster kowtows to the landlord of the Chinese restaurant their shacked up in because they’re three months late on rent or when another mafioso confesses to his own love of hip-hop, and later dances vigorously along to Flavor Flav’s “Cold Lampin’ with Flavor.” These respites of comedy add a much-needed levity and balance to a film that’s occasionally too self-serious by half as it utilizes stillness, silence, and shot duration to emphasize the serene and restrained manner in which Ghost Dog exists in the world.
Robby Müller’s densely atmospheric and highly textured cinematography gives the film an appropriately dreamlike feel that, with its eerie blue and green hues, beautifully evokes the liminal space between life and death that Ghost Dog navigates throughout. Appropriately enough, Ghost Dog’s journey ends in a way that adds another distinct trope into the film’s mix—an old-fashioned shoot-out straight out of a western, only here between a samurai and a mobster. It’s a fitting ending, not only in its cultural mash-up and the way it foregrounds Ghost Dog’s willingness to hold true to the most burdensome of samurai codes—of being willing to die by the hands of one’s master—but in encapsulating one of the hitman’s most essential maxims: “Sometimes you got to stick to the ancient ways, the old school ways.” Even in death, Ghost Dog ensures that those ways are passed down to a younger generation, looking on and seeing their value in a world that’s mostly left them behind.
Criterion’s Blu-ray sources a new 4K digital restoration that was supervised and approved by director Jim Jarmusch. The transfer is lush, boasting a significantly sharper and more detailed image than the ones found on prior home-video releases of the film. The cool blues, greens, and grays of Robbie Muller’s deliriously moody cinematography are beautifully preserved here, as are the dilapidated textures of a late-‘90s Jersey City that harkens back to the half-abandoned, early-‘80s Manhattan in which Jarmusch began his career. The numerous night-time scenes benefit largely from superior black levels and a strong contrast ratio that allows for the minutest of details and a wide range of colors to remain visible in even the darkest scenes. The 5.1 surround DTS-HD master audio soundtrack is also quite impressive, with clean dialogue and a particularly robust, well-balanced mix of RZA’s music.
Criterion typically go all out on their releases of Jarmusch’s films, and this one is no exception. Jarmusch doesn’t “do” commentary tracks, and in lieu of one here, he spends nearly 90 minutes, in an audio-only Q&A, answering questions sent in by fans. Unsurprisingly, the questions vary largely in quality, but Jarmusch is quite open and direct in his responses, detailing his late-night meet-ups with RZA, strange stories from life in ‘80s New York that made their way into the film, and his fondness for old cartoons. The next beefiest extra is a Zoom conversation between Forest Whitaker, Isaach De Bankolé, and film scholar Michael B. Gillespie, which focuses primarily on how the film confronts cultural clashes and develops the oddly moving friendship between Whitaker and De Bankolé’s characters.
Daniel Raim’s video essay “Flying Birds: The Music of Ghost Dog” gives RZA ample time to muse on his approach to composing his first film score and compiling a diverse range of musicians for the soundtrack. The two archival videos—one a 20-minute promo for BET, and the other an interview with Jarmusch, RZA, and Whitaker—primarily touch on things more comprehensively covered in other features. An interview with casting director Ellen Lewis is more successful in shedding light on an aspect of the film not touched upon in other supplements on the disc. Her outlining of her primarily instinctual method to casting helps to demonstrate the importance of this oft-overlooked aspect of pre-production.
The disc also comes with a brief interview with Shifu Shi Yan Ming, founder of the USA Shaolin Temple, five minutes of deleted scenes, and, most notably, the alternate isolated stereo music track, which allows viewers to listen to RZA’s still-unreleased score to the film. The package is nicely rounded out by a small booklet of quotes from Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure and a handsome 40-page bound booklet with essays by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Greg Tate, an interview with Jarmusch, and an abundance of black-and-white stills from the film.
Criterion’s stacked release helps make the case that Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is more than just an interesting curio in the career of Jim Jarmusch.
Cast: Forest Whitaker, John Tormey, Cliff Gorman, Henry Silva, Isaach De Bankolé, Tricia Vessey, Victor Argo, Gene Ruffini, Richard Portnow, Camille Winbush, Gary Farmer Director: Jim Jarmusch Screenwriter: Jim Jarmusch Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 116 min Rating: R Year: 1999 Release Date: November 17, 2020 Buy: Video