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Blu-ray Review: Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy

The sight of Rossellini’s war trilogy remastered in HD will be cause alone for some to double dip.

4.5

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Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy

Roberto Rossellini, one of the pivotal artists in cinema history and perhaps the most influential of all European filmmakers, remains best known for his seminal neorealist productions. Operating with low funds and improvised materials, the former maker of propagandistic entertainments under Mussolini’s reign found, in the liberation of Rome in June 1944 and the precedent of compatriots’ gritty (and domestically banned) movies such as Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione, the impetus to reinvent himself creatively and dramatize the bloodiest days of his nation and continent with a force that forever changed narrative-film aesthetics. Martin Scorsese has described him as “the father of us all,” and Rossellini’s descendants most obviously include the French New Wave, the British social-realist films of the early ‘60s, American mavericks from John Cassavetes to Hal Ashby, and even documentary makers of postwar generations across the globe.

In their international breakthrough, Rome Open City, Rossellini and his team (including co-scripter Federico Fellini) used fly-by-night financing and scarce supplies of 35mm to forge a portrait of Rome under Nazi occupation that’s suffused with the sorrow and outrage occasioned by freshly experienced national trauma. Shot months after the Allies’ arrival, the film is concerned with a circle of salt-of-the-earth Romans in the early months of 1944 and their efforts to hide a fugitive anti-fascist leader (Marcello Pagliero) from a dragnet. Given the film’s landmark reputation for quick, newsreel-like location work, its interior scenes are more conventionally shot than one might expect, save for some vertiginous tenement stairway footage, but are galvanized by the quasi-folksy yet black-humored mise-en-scène and lustrous performances by a pair of schooled actors (to be dispensed with by Rossellini in many later projects).

Aldo Fabrizi, as the neighborhood priest Don Pietro, is comically introduced with a soccer ball’s bounce off his head but proves to be a holy fool on the side of the angels, smuggling books with lire in place of pages between urban guerillas. The pudgy, bespectacled cleric is the audience’s surrogate among the heroic figures, and he’s at the center of double-edged farcical passages like his use of a bedridden man’s blanket to hide a rifle from the SS; Fabrizi, an established comedic performer, plays him as a practical Christian whose weary saintliness comes naturally. He frequently shares the screen with the dynamic Anna Magnani, who became an international star with her eye-rolling earth-mother turn as pregnant widow and bride-to-be Pina.

Amid food rationing, Pina conducts raids on bakeries with the tactical acumen of a general and answers one query (“You think these Americans really exist?”) with a shrug toward a bomb-blasted building: “It looks that way.” Pina’s fiancée tells her on the eve of their wedding that they’ll see a better world, and the tragic fate of nearly all the pro-resistance characters underlines Rome Open City’s balance of bleak reportage and romantic idealism. (Pina’s son and the boys he bands together with for petty nocturnal sabotage ultimately become the inheritors of the struggle for liberty.)

The elements of the film with the strongest whiff of showbiz are the epicene Gestapo chief (“How these Italians scream!” he mutters at the sounds of enhanced interrogation) and the hunted fugitive’s traitorous mistress, a nightclub floozy who betrays him in exchange for drugs and the lesbian favors of a German siren. But even in these stereotypes one can feel the film’s loathing for the realities behind the cartoonishly drawn villains. From Magnani’s shockingly sudden exit—a harrowing high point of neorealist camera and editing aesthetics—to the torture of Pagliero by acetylene torch, this touchstone film looks with palpable agony at everyday life torn by war and compromised by the shifting price of survival. The film’s final sequence of an execution nervously prepared for, prolonged by shame, then brutally concluded, is typical of the unflinching emotional truth with which it regards horrors routinely fudged or avoided by the commercial cinema to date.

With Paisan following in 1946, Rossellini was determined to make something “purer” without sentimental touches, and again working with writers Fellini and Sergio Amidei produced a six-episode wartime drama with theme, as he described it, of “the problem of language…people absolutely unable to understand each other directly.” Geographically progressing with the Allies’ Italian campaign from its start in Sicily to the northern Po Valley, Paisan’s American soldiers (and one nurse) love, fight alongside, pray with, and struggle to comprehend the motives of the natives they encounter.

A young Sicilian woman (Carmela Sazio) huddles in a cave with “Joe from Jersey” while his patrol scouts the area, but his indiscreet cigarette flame leads to tragedy and her posthumous condemnation. In the Roman segment, a bright-faced girl (Maria Michi) comforts one of the U.S. liberators with pidgin English and a washing bowl; six months later, amid black-market chaos, she’s a desperate prostitute and he’s too drunk to recognize her. And O.S.S. officers battling the Germans with local partisans in the tall reeds of the Po delta are unable to save their fellows from execution. (A floating corpse with a “PARTIGIANO” sign hung on its neck is one of the film’s enduring images.)

With more consistently documentary-like visuals than Rome Open City, Paisan keeps its brief plots anecdotal and arguably too abrupt; the nurse (Harriet White) who scrambles through the rubble of Florence in search of an old lover, and an African-American MP (Dots Johnson) in search of the Neapolitan urchin who swiped his boots both make revelatory discoveries, and their stories fade out. But the humane, vernacular atmosphere particularly created by Rossellini’s handling of amateur actors and exploitation of the battle-bruised cityscapes, is the film’s fabric; the mood of interpersonal yearnings and failures in the context of mortal danger and epochal events is what sticks. When three American chaplains make an overnight stay in an Apennine monastery, then discover its monks are fasting in hopes that the souls of the Jewish and Protestant clerics will be saved, the depth of Rossellini’s humor and compassion render the episode touching instead of queasy.

Filming the trilogy’s conclusion, Germany Year Zero, in infernal, ruined Berlin during the summer of 1947, Rossellini finally succeeded in draining his “real-life” template of sentimentality. Telling the unrelentingly grim story of 13-year-old boy (Edmund Meschke) “so depraved and corrupted” (in the accusation of his bedridden, starving father) by a Hitler Youth childhood and the deprivations of the postwar city that he moves with blinkered logic from hustling goods to considering patricide, his stunted character is perfectly mirrored by setting. The long, depth-of-field street shots contain the most spectacular evidence of cataclysm that the filmmaker ever trained his lens on (canyons of rubble and sprouting weeds that dwarf the malnourished children and scurrying citizens pushing wheelbarrows), and the scenario infuses it from the first reel with mortifying moments such as passersby descending upon the carcass of a fallen horse for its meat.

Young Meschke’s face is frequently a dead-eyed blank, his benumbed juvenile seemingly getting little pleasure even from the pastimes of running with a ring of teenage thieves or the sexual initiation they engineer for him with a local girl. Edmund’s older sister, as with many young women in the earlier films, is plying the men of the occupying forces for whatever she can get, while his brother, a soldier of the Reich to the end, fearfully hides from the Allied conquerors in the family’s shared apartment. The boy does show enthusiasm when a former teacher (Erich Guhne), an embittered Nazi turned black marketer, enlists him both as a mule for contraband and a lust object to caress. But even this predatory Fagin is appalled by his protégé’s ultimate crime, and Rossellini closes his cycle on the century’s great European tragedy with a forlorn death as shocking and pitiable as Pina’s in the Roman street.

Image/Sound

The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray release of Roberto Rossellini’s war trilogy boasts three HD transfers, with each marking a slight improvement over the discs in the 2010 DVD box set, which was already stellar in its audio-visual presentation. Paisan benefits the most in its new form; the 4K scan enhances depth of field and makes close-ups especially remarkable in their image detail. The only film that isn’t noticeably improved is Germany Year Zero, which looks as though it could have been merely transferred from DVD to Blu-ray. The image lacks a certain crispness, and a consistency of sound presentation that can be found in the other films. Like with the DVD release, minor image defects persist across films, such as scratches and marks that are evidently unalterable without considerable digital alteration. Having said that, their presence doesn’t detract from the viewing experience. The audio tracks get the job done, as sound never dips out entirely, even if it’s not particularly robust, even for a monaural track. It’s worth the upgrade if you’re a Rossellini or Italian-neorealism completist.

Extras

The supplements have been carried over directly from the 2010 set without any additions whatsoever. It’s a bit of a catch-22, because the original set’s extras are robust and eclectic in their reach, but those who already own that set may find it difficult to rationalize the double dip for image quality alone.

The extras here amount to a seminar on Rossellini’s life and art. Some are tied to a specific film: A 2006 documentary on the genesis and aftermath of Rome Open City features Isabella Rossellini describing her father’s preference for the film’s resonance as history rather than its formal attributes, along with archival comments by François Truffaut, stars Anna Magnani and Aldo Fabrizi, Rossellini himself (who considered the script’s melodramatic flourishes “cheating, a little bit”), and his future wife, Ingrid Bergman, who was so moved upon seeing the picture that she wrote its maker a plea to cast her in a future project. Also included is a clip of Mussolini’s son, Vittorio, who worked on the scenario of a pre-Rome Open City Rossellini film and says of the renowned auteur, “He was neither fascist nor anti-fascist…He only cared about living the good life. Later he became Rossellini.”

Rome Open City is also the subject of the set’s only feature-length commentary track, recorded for a previous laserdisc edition. Peter Bondanella takes perceptive note of the film’s many “artificial” conventions, such as the studio set for the Gestapo lair, classical editing rhythms, and Renzo Rossellini’s often insistent musical themes, plus the attempt at “moral rapprochement” between its Christian and Marxist heroes. Included elsewhere are brief introductions to TV broadcasts of the trilogy by the filmmaker, new video analyses by Rossellini scholar Adriano Aprà that supply historical context (such as Paisan‘s geographic evocation of the 1860 campaign of Garibaldi), reminiscences by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani on their youthful discovery of the films, and a 1987 discussion with Germany Year Zero assistant director Carlo Lizzani on that film’s pre-production.

Taking a wider view, a 2001 hour-long doc by Lizzani follows Rossellini from his privileged Roman youth through his midlife move to France, to his abandonment of cinema for made-for-TV “history films” in the ’60s and ’70s, taking a mortal view of monarchs, saints, scientists, and Jesus Christ. Martin Scorsese asserts that these late works’ capacity to “find the people in the documentary detail” greatly affected his own oeuvre. One clip shows Rossellini disdaining his lionization as an auteur: “I’m a professional, nothing more, and I don’t wish to be anything else.” He’s also seen in video excerpts of a 1970 discussion with American students and faculty at Rice University, in which he defines neorealism as “an escape from the big church of the studio.”

Another highlight is author Mark Shiel’s video essay “Rossellini and the City” for its insight into the war cycle’s “de-monumentalizing” of its historic Italian cities in favor of a vision of populist decency enduring against a backdrop of official breakdown, while the desolate Berlin of the finale evokes an abstracted “endlessness.” Biographer Tag Gallagher uses excerpts to dissect filmmaking choices affected by social concerns, such as the softening of native fascist villainy in the name of postwar reconciliation, and recurring visual tropes like character movement within the frame. Finally, the box’s booklet offers four critical essays, including James Quandt’s overview of the trilogy’s fusion of classicism, expressionism, and improvisation, and its creator’s eagerness to distance himself from his title of father of neorealism.

Overall

The sight of Rossellini’s war trilogy remastered in HD will be cause alone for some to double dip, but without additional supplements or inserts, those already content with their 2010 Criterion DVD set may want to ponder whether they’ll be getting enough bang for their buck.

Cast: Aldo Fabrizi, Anna Magnani, Marcello Pagliero, Maria Michi, Vito Annicchiarico, Nando Bruno, Harry Feist, Giovanna Galletti, Carmela Sazio, Robert Van Loon, Dots Johnson, Alfonso Bovino, Gar Moore, Harriet White, Renzo Avanzo, Bill Tubbs, Dale Edmonds, Achille Siviero, Edmund Meschke, Ernst Pittschau, Ingetraud Hinze, Franz-Martin Gruger, Erich Guhne Director: Roberto Rossellini Screenwriter: Sergio Amidei, Federico Fellini, Roberto Rossellini, Rod Geiger, Alfred Hayes, Klaus Mann, Marcello Pagliero, Max Colpet, Carlo Lizzani Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 303 min Rating: NR Year: 1945 – 1948 Release Date: July 11, 2017 Buy: Video

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

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

3.5

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Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image/Sound

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

Extras

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

Overall

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

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

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Review: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse on Sony Blu-ray

Sony’s Blu-ray does right by the film’s aesthetic wonders and includes a plethora of kid- and adult-friendly extras that dig into the complexity of the animation.

4.5

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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse may be definitive proof that the full potential of comic book movies can only be attained through animation. Unburdened of live-action superhero cinema’s tethers to reality, the film embraces the elastic properties of comics. Throughout Into the Spider-Verse, characters are rendered in expressionistic fashion. Take Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), who looks like a massive ink blot with a pale face located halfway down his torso, as if his body were so colossal that his spine lacks the tensile strength to support it.

Recent live-action Marvel movies have tended toward phantasmagoric colors and trippy effects at their climaxes, but they cannot hold a candle to the kaleidoscopic imagery of Into the Spider-Verse’s animation. Drawing inspiration from the rich palettes of most comics, the film compounds its chromatic intensity by mimicking the strobe effects of rotoscoping, creating color separations that add to the feeling of constant motion. So many superhero movies get bogged down in longueurs of exposition and somber reflection, but this one is purely kinetic. Into the Spider-Verse is a film that vibrates with youthful anxiety and energy, even when its narrative slows down.

Crucially, Into the Spider-Verse avoids rehashing Peter Parker’s story for the umpteenth time. The film’s protagonist is Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), an Afro-Latino teenager introduced nearly a decade ago by Marvel as an alternate-universe Spider-Man. A gifted, sardonic kid, Miles shares traces of Peter’s wit and intelligence but differs from his precursor in ways that are relevant to his context. Accepted into a local private school for his academic achievements, Miles understandably feels self-conscious about losing his sense of authenticity and his connection to his neighborhood. Miles’s avoidance of his father, by-the-book police officer Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry), isn’t your typical display of teenage alienation from a parent, as the boy’s anxiety stems from being seen by his friends and neighbors as a policeman’s son. That Miles prefers to spend his free time tagging graffiti with his ne’er-do-well uncle, Aaron (Mahershala Ali), exacerbates his desire to act out from being seen as clean-cut. Though the film deals with Miles’s origin story, he emerges almost immediately as a fully formed character, someone clearly defined well before he gains his superpowers.

Soon after Miles is bitten by a genetically altered spider and begins to experience all of the classic Spidey abilities, he comes into contact with Peter Parker, who tenderly recognizes that he’s found a kindred spirit and promises to train Miles but perishes while preventing Kingpin from tearing a hole in space-time using an enormous dimension portal. Before he dies, however, Peter gets to save the day one last time, though some slippage between dimensions occurs, effectively flooding Miles’s world with alternate spider-powered figures.

Into the Spider-Verse takes immense pleasure in assembling some of the more obscure what-if characters from Marvel lore, from a superpowered version of Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), to a Japanese girl, Peni (Kimiko Glenn), who pilots a robot, to Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), a porcine figure who is, quite hilariously, actually a spider who was bitten by a radioactive pig. The meatiest of these dimensional trespassers is another version of Peter (Jake Johnson), this one a divorced, depressed, out-of-shape cynic approaching middle age who takes to mentoring Miles exclusively out of a sense of lingering moral obligation. This Peter illustrates just how easily Spider-Man’s wit and juvenile spirit and curdle into sardonic bitterness.

These characters, in addition to having their own backstories, are distinctly animated. Spider-Ham has flattened, two-dimensional edges befitting his cartoonish nature, while Peni is, of course, rendered in an anime style, with sleeker lines and wider facial expressions than her compatriots. Comics have always relied on panel sequencing and the kinetic impression of individual compositions to convey a logical sense of movement, and Into the Spider-Verse translates that through staccato editing. Recalling the lower frame rate of silent film projection, motion in the film is rendered in jittery displays of an action.

And every character’s unique attributes, from Gwen’s lithe, acrobatic leaps to the chubby Peter’s languid swings, is folded into this approach. The unique body languages and movements of the characters does much to define their personalities, in much the same way that Spider-Man was arguably first established far more by Steve Ditko’s subtle anatomical proportions of the character and logically drawn action than Stan Lee’s purple prose.

With its fine-tuned comic timing and feeling of constant action, Into the Spider-Verse is downright invigorating, and that’s evident even before it gets to its dazzling, dimensional-colliding climax. Most impressive, though, is the way that the film also uses various permutations of Spider-Man to pinpoint the core of the hero that remains no matter who’s under the mask. Only Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man ever approached this level of empathy.

By juxtaposing an older, beaten-down Peter with a young, insecure Miles, the film reveals several stages of Spider-Man’s emotional journey at once, from his juvenile self-doubt and brashness to his later struggles with personal loss and the impact of sacrificing his happiness and peace for the greater good. There are moments of delicate tenderness throughout the film, such as a one-sided conversation that Jefferson has with his son where the policeman briefly drops his guard, or Peter occasionally letting his lifelong doubts and traumas slip out from behind the mask of his cynicism. Spider-Man remains the most memorable and relatable of Marvel’s creations, and Into the Spider-Verse is the best tribute to date to the seemingly bottomless depths and pleasures of Lee and Ditko’s iconic comic book character.

Image/Sound

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment’s Blu-ray wondrously represents Into the Spider-Verse’s vibrant and expansive color palette, really showing off the animation’s glowing neon streaks of purple and yellow-green amid all those old-school, 3D-aping blues and reds. Color contrast is strong throughout, while black levels are rich and deep. The sound is no less impressive, with Daniel Pemberton’s score nimbly and excitingly recalibrating in the side speakers in perfect sync with the aesthetic wrinkles of a given scene. Both the electronic-heavy soundtrack and boisterous action make great use of the subwoofer, with the wide range of bass noise throughout never muffling the crystal-clear dialogue.

Extras

The chummy and funny commentary track featuring directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman alongside producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller is rich in details about the film’s plot and animation. It will also be a treat for those who think they’ve found all of the film’s Easter eggs. “Alternate Universe Mode” offers a sort of recut version of film, now with alternate scenes—some finished and some still in storyboard phase—that flesh out the secondary characters and, in some cases, offer up some significant plot diversions, such as Miles’s roommate learning his secret almost right away. The recut is significantly longer and paced more like a lugubrious, plot-heavy live-action blockbuster than the kinetic kaleidoscope of the release cut. “Caught in a Ham,” a short film centered on Spider-Ham, is a fun, Looney Tunes-inspired barrage of antic shtick, puns, and self-reflexive visual humor. Rounding out the extras is a series of short but informative themed featurettes on subjects ranging from the film’s innovative animation to tributes to the late Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.

Overall

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a watershed of contemporary animation and superhero cinema. Sony’s Blu-ray does right by the film’s aesthetic wonders and includes a plethora of kid- and adult-friendly extras that dig into the complexity of the animation.

Cast: Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Lily Tomlin, Lauren Velez, John Mulaney, Nicolas Cage, Liev Schreiber, Kimiko Glenn Director: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman Screenwriter: Phil Lord, Rodney Rothman Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Running Time: 117 min Rating: PG Year: 2018 Release Date: March 19, 2019 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Review: Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady on Arrow Academy Blu-ray

Arrow Academy releases a fantastic Blu-ray transfer of a major work in the filmography of director Robert Siodmak.

4

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Phantom Lady

Gaslighting was the subject of numerous American films in 1944. Of course, George Cukor’s Gaslight immediately takes center stage in any conventional appraisal of this narrative device, as a woman is deliberately driven to madness by her conniving husband, but Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady, with its ingeniously structured screenplay and whiz-bang direction, is the more devilish concoction, designed to keep the viewer in a perpetual state of unrest.

From the start, as Scott (Alan Curtis) talks an unnamed woman (Fay Helm) into a night on the town, her demanding of anonymity strikes to the heart of post-WWII American life, where bars were no longer the raucous blowouts of the Jazz Age, but often sparsely populated spots for loners looking to drink away their sorrows. That’s what both Scott and the eponymous mystery guest have in mind, at least until Scott moseys home and finds that his wife has been murdered.

Whereas Otto Preminger’s Laura uses the apparent death of a woman to prompt a flashback into her life, Phantom Lady remains confined to the present, with only the murdered wife’s portrait hanging on the couple’s living room wall as evidence of her existence. When Scott is prompted by police to name his company for the previous evening—and cannot—he’s afforded no sympathy or benefit of the doubt, except from the office secretary, Carol (Ella Raines), whose crush on Scott, and her certainty of his innocence, prompts her to become an amateur sleuth along with Scott’s pal, Jack (Franchot Tone). They’re on the trail of someone who’s paid off witnesses for their denial of ever having seen the unnamed woman.

Siodmak’s playful direction deflates our uncertainty about the phantom lady’s existence, as the camera lingers for a beat longer than necessary on witnesses who express relief once interrogators have gone, as if they have something to hide. These shots tip off the viewer that something is amiss; one may wonder why Siodmak didn’t eliminate these winks entirely and make it seem, whether because of Scott’s imagination or disinterested observers, that the woman might really have never existed at all. The answer to their presence lies in Siodmak’s ultimate disinterest in playing up the whodunit, as the murderer—and orchestrator of Scott’s gaslighting—is revealed around the halfway mark as the only logical person it could be.

Finished playing guessing games with the audience, Siodmak frees himself up to throw down the gauntlet of expressionistic lighting and canted camera angles. This frenzy reaches its nearly orgasmic apex as Carol gyrates to a wild drum riff by Cliff (Elisha Cook Jr.), one of the key witnesses to the mystery woman’s identity, as he marvels at her with pure lust. The film inhabits the moment so fervently and with such precise editing by Arthur Hilton, that the viewer would be excused for forgetting there’s even a mystery to be unfurled. (Brian de Palma’s Femme Fatale is probably the closest any film has come since to representing the sheer power a woman’s body in motion can have over the heterosexual male psyche.)

Lest the rest of the film limp toward its resolution, Siodmak shifts gears toward depicting the killer’s inner turmoil. When the murderer appears to off Cliff for having a loose lip, he delivers a remarkable monologue about how a single pair of hands can either do “inconceivable good or unbearable evil.” A clear influence on Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, Phantom Lady morphs its perspective in the film’s back half toward the killer’s own, whose sudden “dizzy spells” are clearly coded bouts of schizophrenia, as he wrestles with the psychological demons demanding his allegiance. When the killer finally admits a motive of emasculation by Scott’s wife as his impetus for murder, Phantom Lady reveals just how influential it would become, on everything from Hitchcock’s Psycho to the giallo and beyond.

Image/Sound

The HD Blu-ray presentation brings cinematographer Elwood Bredell’s striking images to life, especially in scenes where depth of field is essential to appreciating the complexity of Russell A. Gausman and Leigh Smith’s set decoration. The film’s high-contrast lighting remains sharp, with no evidence of digital enhancement to the original film elements. However, there are numerous, if minor, signs of scratches and debris throughout, indicating that greater care could have been taken to restore this presentation to an ever richer approximation of the film’s original negative. The monaural soundtrack is full and free of distortion, allowing both the music and dialogue to unfold without distraction.

Extras

A pair of intriguing extras includes a nearly hour-long documentary made in 1994 called Dark and Deadly: 50 Years of Film Noir, which features numerous familiar talking heads, including Dennis Hooper, Ruby B. Rich, Robert Wise, and Edward Dmytryk, providing a deep dive into what constitutes the term “film noir.” The range of perspectives proves exciting, from Rich’s more academic gloss of the sociological aspects of noir, to Hopper’s bare-bones description of a woman hiring a dupe to kill her husband, to cinematographer John Alton’s eccentric descriptions of lighting. Bryan Singer also appears to offer his bit on how noir influenced his 1995 film The Usual Suspects. The other supplement of note is an hour-long 1944 radio dramatization of Phantom Lady by the Lux Radio Theatre, with Alan Curtis and Ella Raines reprising their roles. The audio is excellent and the adaptation itself from screen to radio works remarkably well. The disc also includes an image gallery of about 30 stills and distribution materials from the initial theatrical release, and a booklet containing an essay by Alan K. Rode that explains the film’s conception and production.

Overall

Arrow Academy releases a fantastic Blu-ray transfer of a pioneering studio noir in Phantom Lady, which is also a major work in the filmography of director Robert Siodmak.

Cast: Franchot Tone, Ella Raines, Alan Curtis, Thomas Gomez, Aurora, Elisha Cook Jr., Fay Helm, Regis Toomey, Joseph Crehan, Andrew Tombes Director: Robert Siodmak Screenwriter: Bernard C. Schoenfeld Distributor: Arrow Academy Running Time: 87 min Rating: NR Year: 1944 Release Date: March 12, 2019 Buy: Video

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