Ever been to a pompous party made worse by some earnest dope strumming acoustic ballads to a small crowd of fawning admirers? Well, Smart People is that shindig and Nuno Bettencourt, former Extreme guitarist and composer of the film’s score, is that insufferable jerk. For Noam Murro’s prototypical indie drivel about a group of dysfunctional intellectuals behaving foolishly, Bettencourt swamps everything in an obnoxious brand of heartfelt fingerpicking mush. His sonic assault provides insistently irritating musical accompaniment to a grating narrative about misanthropic Carnegie Mellon English professor Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid), his robotic Young Republican daughter, Vanessa (Ellen Page), his son (Ashton Holmes), who is disinterested in the family, and his scam-artist adopted brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church). The fact that these eccentrics are simultaneously smart and not-so-smart gives the title its cutie-pie ambiguity, but there’s no question that the film itself is a dreary amalgam of indie clichĂ©s made bearable only by Church’s ability to wring mild humor from a slacker role schematically engineered for adorably sarcastic comedic relief. Smart People is a borderline-excruciating exercise in trying to replicate the eccentric charm of Little Miss Sunshine, pulling its nasty punchesâspecifically, Lawrence’s heartlessnessâin order to make room for third-act uplift, and defining its protagonists through idiosyncratic (and metaphorical) habits and hang-ups that reek of screenwriting affectation. As Vanessa, Page does Juno MacGuff via Alex P. Keaton, meaning her college-bound conservative is a smarty-pants nightmare prone to saying things like, “The socio-sexual mores have really shifted,” and who’s rightly dubbed a “monster” by Chuck. Lawrence’s relationship difficulties with a former student and ER doctor (Sarah Jessica Parker) afford the requisite conflict that leads to climactic catharsis and togetherness, which comes shortly after Lawrence tells his daughter, “I don’t think you’re happy, Vanessa,” after which she replies, in the script’s groan-worthy style, “Well, you’re not very happy, and you’re my role model.” Then again, such twaddle is about all that can be expected from a film unimaginative enough to stage a classroom discussion about misery and then, with Bettencourt’s tripe rising to a crescendo, solemnly cut away to all its lonely characters.
Another shitty-looking movie makes the leap to DVD appearing as if its digital transfer was supervised by Midas himself: Shadow delineation is fantastic, and though the colors appear to have received some sort of boost, the image never feels overly saturated. (Only the occasional edge enhancement deters from the viewing experience-aside from, ya know, the actual story.) Dialogue is clear and the surround work is quaintly immersive.
Director Noam Murro and writer Mark Jude Poirier chat about big teeth and cute boys, among other things, on a commentary track that is chockablock with elaborately anecdotal stretches, as in Murro’s description of where he met Ellen Page for the first time and what they ate. On a standard making-of featurette, Poirier reveals how he had to put the characters to paper after knowing them for so long inside his head, with Murro making a fine case for the house in the film as its own character. Rounding out the disc: the two-minute “Not So Smart” blooper reel, nine deleted scenes and a bunch of previews.
Smart People isânah, too easy.
Cast: Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Haden Church, Ellen Page, Ashton Holmes, David Denman, Camille Mana Director: Noam Murro Screenwriter: Mark Jude Poirier Distributor: Buena Vista Home Entertainment Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2008 Release Date: August 12, 2008 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
Blu-ray Review: Hideo Sekigawaâs Hiroshima Joins the Arrow Academy
While the transfer leaves a lot to be desired, itâs thrilling to have Sekigawaâs little-seen drama finally available on Blu-ray for the first time.3
Much like Alain Resnaisâs Night and Fog warns of the horrors in forgetting human atrocity, Hideo Sekigawaâs Hiroshima uses its reenactment of the United Statesâs 1945 bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima to call for an end to the development of atomic and nuclear weaponry. The most didactic of such moments occurs near the filmâs end, as Yukio Endo (Yoshi KatĂŽ) explains to his teacher, Kitagawa (Eiji Okada), that a local factory has begun producing artillery shells. âWeâll all end up like this!â he exclaims, in reference to the radiation exposure thatâs causing a variety of cancers in people throughout Japan, among them several students in Endoâs class.
The film is an incongruous patchwork of tones, invoking the neorealist aesthetics of Vittorio De Sicaâs Shoeshine and the Red Scare paranoia of Don Siegelâs Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but its mix of pathos and cautionary rhetoric is reflective of how the despair of a countryâs populace resembled a schizophrenic bedlam. While the film features passages that sentimentalize the catastrophic toll of the A-bomb, Hiroshima also complicates its political outlook with a two-pronged indictment of how both the U.S. and Japan have minimized the value of human life. To that point, the film works best as a time capsule for understanding how, nearly a decade after the atomic bombings, Japan was historicizing its own past to educate audiences in hopes of creating a future free of either atomic or nuclear warfare.
Despite containing multiple stretches of archival footage that predominately show actual devastation caused by the bombings, the film minimizes its initial newsreel realism with a melodramatic plotline across which a handful of teenage students and their teacher, several years after the bombings, either espouse or reject Japanâs military actions in contrived fashion. Sekigawaâs tear-jerking directionâreplete with a remarkably sorrowful score by Akira Ifukubeâplaces the actual bombing at the filmâs core and chronicles the immediate aftermath over the span of a 30-minute sequence that features young children crying out for their parents and teachers while buried under debris. Hiroshima revels in such imagery to the point that you might question the motivation behind the representation and ask if the film, like Paul Greengrassâs United 93 more than 50 years later, by framing real-life tragedy as spectacle.
But if itâs difficult to see United 93 as anything other than a cheap 9/11 simulator, Hiroshima wrestles itself away from a similar fate by broadening its scope during its final third, during which Endo becomes the filmâs protagonist. A schoolboy when the bombings occurred, heâs now a teenager flirting with delinquency, roaming the streets of Hiroshima and antagonizing younger boys. His antisocial behavior stems from his enduring the trauma of his missing sister, as well as his anger over having his innocence stripped away. One afternoon, he dips into a movie theater to see Charles Chaplinâs Monsieur Verdoux and emerges having taken the ironic line âOne murder makes a villain, millions a heroâ to heart. In making an American film the thing that awakens Endoâs consciousness with regard to personal responsibility, Hiroshima complicates its more rote expressions of unthinkable tragedy by acknowledging how artâand especially the moviesâcan cross borders and constructively shape hearts and minds.
The high-definition transfer on this Arrow Academy Blu-ray is an unusual beast. At its best, the image is clean, appropriately and pleasantly grainy, and almost entirely free of scratches. At its worst, deep scratches are so apparent that they nearly outnumber that areas of the screen that donât have them, leaving one to assume that those responsible for the restoration had to work with multiple prints of vastly varying quality. The audio track, while listenable, is no less compromised, as it abounds in pops and distortion. Still, this transfer must be graded a success on a fundamental level for offering a widely unavailable film in hi-def.
A trio of extras offer helpful contextual information on both the making of the film and the physical and psychological toll of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Writer and curator Jasper Sharp narrates an excellent video essay about how the catastrophe impacted âJapanâs nuclear imagination,â by which he means the way itâs been depicted in films, either directly or tangentially. Sharp rattles off titles of monographs and films with the precision of an expert scholar, even spending a bit of time looking at the English-language posters for several films, including a rather tasteless one for Hiroshima that promised: âIt blasts you out of your seat!â The 2011 documentary Hiroshima Nagasaki Download brings the matter of nuclear imagination into the 21st century, and features interviews with survivors of the bombings who now reside in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Finally, a brief archival interview with actress Yumeji Tsukioka dives into her recollections of shooting the film.
While the transfer certainly leaves a lot to be desired, itâs thrilling to have Hideo Sekigawaâs little-seen drama finally available on Blu-ray for the first time.
Cast: Eiji Okada, Yumeji Tsukioka, Yoshi KatĂŽ, Masayuki Tsukida, Takashi Kanda, Isuzu Yamada Director: Hideo Sekigawa Screenwriter: YasutarĂŽ Yagi Distributor: Arrow Academy Running Time: 104 min Rating: NR Year: 1983 Release Date: July 14, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: Paul Schraderâs The Comfort of Strangers on Criterion Blu-ray
Itâs a relief to have Schraderâs underrated sexual psychodrama outfitted with the ravishing transfer it deserves.
The 1990 film The Comfort of Strangers is a unique collaboration of diverse (and quite perverse) talent, as itâs an adaptation of an early Ian McEwan novel thatâs been written for the screen by Harold Pinter and directed by Paul Schrader. The sensibilities of these artists mesh quite well here: McEwanâs class concerns have been enlivened by Pinterâs shrewd austerity and sense of humor and concision, which has in turn brought out a surprising playfulness and sensuality in Schrader, who imparts to the film his exacting formalism and distinctive tempo. Call it mournful detachment, with a soupcon of lurid sadism. The filmmaker fashions a tortured art object thatâs also a wicked parody of the same.
Pinter and Schrader are loyal to many of the particulars of the novel, though they hollow out the connective tissue between scenes, allowing for more space and ambiguity. Colin (Rupert Everett) and Mary (Natasha Richardson) are on holiday in Venice for reasons that are kept murky for a long stretch of the film, the mystery generating the sort of subterranean hum of tension thatâs familiar to Pinterâs work. They speak in curt shards of dialogue thatâs often shrouded in innuendo: At one point Mary asks Colin if he likes children, specifically her children, which she then modifies again to refer to children in general. Later in an outdoor restaurant, Mary tells Colin a story of childhood rejection that registers subliminally as a plea (for Colin not to reject her) and a lament for not-quite-past pain. Colinâs responses betray the aura of a man who isnât willing to commit to either commitment or explicit dissolution; he projects a self-protective vanity that drives the audienceâs sympathy toward Mary.
This tensionâare Colin and Mary friends considering romantic possibilities or lovers on a downward trajectory?âis intensified by external factors. Colin and Mary are young, affluent, and gorgeous, and seem to be trapped in the sort of situation that grips either unconfident wallflowers or people old enough to truly understand what a rut is. There is also the beauty of Venice, which Schrader and cinematographer Dante Spinotti render surreal and dangerous, lingering on labyrinths of tunnels, alleys, and bridges that are shrouded in ripe, hot noir colors, allowing the architecture of the city to dwarf a couple prone to getting lost. Venice is also often strangely underpopulated here, especially at night, suggesting the empty New York City that Kubrick would later conjure in Eyes Wide Shut, or the haunted cityscapes of Dario Argentoâs Deep Red. The juxtaposition of Colin and Maryâs crisis with the gorgeous, forbidding alien-ness of Venice allows one to intuit that this couple is opening itself up to danger.
That danger manifests itself in Robert (Christopher Walken), whoâs seen at the opening of the film inhabiting a palatial gothic flatâanother instance of beauty and menace comingling at a seemingly biochemical levelâwhile pontificating about his fatherâs bigness and power. Robert will discuss his father and grandfather many times throughout The Comfort of Strangers, mostly with Colin, and these reveries are the most ostentatiously âwrittenâ of Pinterâs carefully crafted lines. Theyâre absurd and vainglorious boasts that Robert seems to rehearse to himself daily, and which increasingly indicate nostalgia for fascism. Robert sees his relatives as menâs men who kept the women in their place during a time when gender roles werenât complicated by notions of equality. (One assumes they were okay with Mussolini.) Pinter doesnât spell this ideology outâMcEwan was more explicitâand this vagueness imbues Robert with a frightening and amusing sense of unfulfilled violence. And a potential fascist, revealed to be mixed-up sexually between what he wants and what should be of interest to menâs men, is the sort of character that Schrader knows inside and out.
One of the chief pleasures of The Comfort of Strangers is how Robert, a potentially traditionally heavy Schrader obsessive, is played for deadpan, occasionally grotesque yet poignant comedy; the artiness of the writing and staging become evocatively intertwined with Robertâs own pretension. The character makes little literal sense, as heâs supposed to be an Italian by way of England who speaks only in a sporadically Italian-inflected version of Walkenâs iconic staccato sing-song style of speaking, a displacement that parallels the filmmakersâ stylization of Venice as a garden of suppressed yearnings and reinventions. Heâs very consciously a creation, expertly played by Walken, who serves as a manifestation of comfortable, liberal Colin and Maryâs fears of obsolescence in the wake of Thatcherâan association thatâs briefly yet pronouncedly alluded to in a charged dinner sequence.
But The Comfort of Strangers more vividly registers as a psycho-comedy on the divide between sexual appetites and political bromides. Robertâs obnoxious, neurotic braggadocio, and the masochistic submission he encourages in his wife, Caroline (Helen Mirren), jumpstart Colin and Maryâs relationship. Seeing Mary gazing out at a vista from Robert and Carolineâs flat, clad in a gown, her blond locks shimmering in the sun, Colin is overcome with lust for Mary, and they hole up in their own rented place for days, consummating a sexual frenzy.
These scenes are so beautifully composed they almost serve as punchlines themselves; the bodies so perfectly arranged and lit as to suggest a perfume or lingerie ad. Yet these arenât the cold and abstract sex scenes of Schraderâs American Gigolo. Thereâs an element of authentic warmth and eroticism here, complicated by the fact that this union was brokered in part by Robert and Carolineâs perverse and retrograde energy, which Colin and Mary canât entirely allow themselves to fathom. Schrader isnât preachy here, allowing himself to be turned on by the decadence of his characters and setting as well as his divine aesthetic.
Robert may be a pig, but he understands that subjugation has a primordial grip on the sex drive of a species that feigns enlightenment while remaining enthralled with alpha/beta dynamics. But the gift Robert gives Colin and Mary has a price, for his taboo-bashing is rooted in a sexual torment that has metastasized into insanity. At the end of The Comfort of Strangers, Pinter and Schrader deviate from the novel to offer an ironic conclusion thatâs reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcockâs Psycho, in which a madman is no more inscrutable than when explaining himself, treating his spectators to an endless ticker tape of self-mythology that comes to suggest a mental labyrinth with no exit. Weâre no closer to truly knowing Robert than we are to explicitly charting the emotional, political, classist, sexual currents driving Colin and Mary and Robert and Caroline and probably every other couple real and imagined.
The Criterion Collectionâs new 4K master of Paul Schraderâs film boasts a wide and beautiful array of colors and textures. The daylight scenes in Venice boast spectacular clarity and nuance, while the interior and nighttime sequences have a deep and rich sense of color and dimension. Shot by Dante Spinotti, The Comfort of Strangers is a luscious film that practically explodes off of the screen in this transfer. (The many paintings, antiques, and religious icons that are glimpsed in the frames are also rendered with crisp clarity.) The English LPCM 1.0 track is also faultless, with Angelo Badalamentiâs score occupying center stage, its operatic beauty accentuating the filmâs playfully doomy stylization.
This disc includes new interviews with Schrader, Christopher Walken, editor Bill Pankow, and Spinotti. Schrader succinctly describes the filmâs mixture of sensibilities, observing that The Comfort of Strangers has three themes: the ultimate incompatibility between men and women, via Ian McEwan; the obfuscation of language, via Harold Pinter; and the danger of beauty, a concern he brought himself as inspired by his work on Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. Schrader also discusses his aspiration to make every shot strong and essential, which is supported by Pankow, who observes that no shot is duplicated, which gives the conversation scenes in particular a tense, jagged, sculptural quality. Meanwhile, Spinotti offers insight on the fashioning of some of the filmâs more insinuating, sometimes seemingly unmotivated camera movements, which appear to be shot from the viewpoint of an unidentified interloper. Walken speaks of the challenge of performing Pinterâs austere dialogue, which is complemented by an archive interview with Natasha Richardson from 2001. Rounding out the package is a 1981 interview with McEwan from The South Bank Show, concerning his source novel and his other recent work at the time, trailers, and a liner essay by critic Maitland McDonagh that discusses the filmâs erotic beauty, mystery, and examination of gender roles.
This edition is a little light on the extras, but itâs a relief to have Paul Schraderâs underrated sexual psychodrama outfitted with the ravishing transfer it deserves.
Cast: Christopher Walken, Natasha Richardson, Rupert Everett, Helen Mirren, Manfredi Aliquo, David Ford, Daniel Franco, Rossana Caghiari, Fabrizio Castellani, Giancarlo Previati, Antonio Serrano, Mario Cotone Director: Paul Schrader Screenwriter: Harold Pinter Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 104 min Rating: R Year: 1990 Release Date: August 18, 2020 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits on the Criterion Collection
This set boasts enough supplements for at least two semestersâ worth of martial arts semiotics.
The five films spotlighted in the Criterion Collectionâs Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits cumulatively offer a pseudo-autobiographical narrative that parallels the general beats of Leeâs life, from his rising status as a film star to his death at 32 as he was on the cusp of becoming an icon. The films abound in patterns, especially structural bifurcations, that reflect how Lee had to prove himself first to the Hong Kong film industry and later to Hollywood. Adaptation is the theme of his films and the guiding philosophy of his own school of martial arts.
As this setâs supplements make clear, Lee returned to Hong Kong after trying to break through in American cinema. His adventures in America, most prominently in the â60s, yielded a sidekick role as Kato in the short-lived TV show The Green Hornet. But Hong Kong viewers saw him as the hero of the series, and this unexpected love from his countrymen led Lee to partner with the studio Golden Harvest, a rival of Shaw Brothers Studio that produced or co-produced all of the films in this set, from 1971âs The Big Boss to 1978âs Game of Death. In The Big Boss, Lee doesnât assume prominence until the second half of the narrative, as producer Raymond Chow was still deciding if the actor had the gravity to command an entire film. In Game of Death, Lee haunts a production that was posthumously, tastelessly cobbled together from footage he had shot himself before leaving to shoot 1973âs seminal Enter the Dragon. Across the spectrum of this set, Lee grows quickly, far too quickly, from ingĂ©nue to pro to specter.
The Big Boss, written and directed by Lo Wei, shrewdly builds anticipation for what Lee can do in his first major outing, setting a pattern that would be followed by his other vehicles. Always pointedly the outsider, Leeâs characters arrive in another country either for the first time or after a long absence, gradually acclimating themselves to a society thatâs been perverted by corruption. Remarkably, only one of these films, Game of Death, is partially set in Hong Kong. The Big Boss finds Lee in Thailand; 1972âs Fist of Fury, also written and directed by Lo Wei, is set in early-20th-century Shanghai; 1973âs The Way of the Dragon, written and directed by Lee, takes place in Rome; and Enter the Dragon is set on a fictional island deliberately meant to evoke the hideout of Dr. No. These films continually wrestle with dislocation, cannily reflecting the estrangement of Hong Kong, a city thatâs been occupied by multiple foreign parties, and serving to humble Leeâs astonishing charisma and skill. In these films, Lee straddles an empathetically powerful line between underdog and master.
Thereâs a sense in these films, as in Leeâs life, of a man having to prove himself over and over again, and then suddenly dying upon the achievement of total acceptance. Portions of this idea are intentionally achieved, via formulaic plots, while other elements seep in from the reality of the filmsâ productions. After arising as a star in the second half of The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, and The Way of the Dragon, Enter the Dragon finds Lee once again sharing the spotlight with other stars, John Saxon and Jim Kelly. Internationally, Enter the Dragon is easily the most famous film in this set, and it remains a feverish and exciting blend of espionage, sleaze, horror, and martial arts hokum, but itâs a disappointment to see Lee demoted in stardom after The Way of the Dragon, especially if one is binge-watching these films.
The Way of the Dragon, though, cannot compete with Enter the Dragon in conventional formal terms. Leeâs direction of the action scenes in the former is superb, and he has a phenomenal understanding of the graphic power of his own compact, sculpted, seemingly fatless body. These talents are especially evident in a sequence in which Lee and former pupil Chuck Norris battle in a colosseum, though his inexperience as a filmmaker is revealed in the filmâs long buildup to the set pieces, and in the strange and not-entirely-successful blend of broad comedy (in the first half) with violence (in the second) as Leeâs character evolves from well-meaning tourist to, well, Bruce Lee. This is another bifurcation, of course, though Lo Wei utilizes these sorts of devices more skillfully in The Big Boss and Fist of Fury, Leeâs best film.
The Big Boss and Fist of Fury merge fight sequences, comedy, historical myths, and gothic horror with aplomb; theyâre not only kinetic but aesthetically ravishing to behold. Most importantly, they capture Leeâs profound soulfulnessâhis awareness of his charactersâ need to prove themselves as an extension of his own ambition. Lee is often at his most moving while at his most terrifying, especially when his characters finally lose control, summoning their rage in a galvanic burst of violence. Itâs a rage thatâs kept in check, for most of these filmsâ narratives, with signature movesâfrom his animal sounds to the licking of his own bloodâthat are both contemptuous and self-compensating.
Itâs a bizarre irony that Game of Death, mostly directed by Robert Clouse, most potently underscoreâs Leeâs gifts via his absence. Cobbled together five years after Leeâs death, it mixes in a few minutesâ worth of footage that Lee shot for a future project before he left to work on Clouseâs Enter the Dragon. To be clear, for the majority of the filmâs 101 minutes, Lee is represented by stunt doubles and stock footage, and even, in one particularly ludicrous moment, a cardboard cutout of his face. The film offers the spectacle, then, of a Bruce Lee film without Bruce Lee, and his galling absence speaks to the magnificence of his presence and talent. When we finally see Lee, heâs ascending a stairway to a fight, in a gesture that in this context suggests resurrection. This idea is very intentionally evoked, as the film unforgivably utilizes footage of Leeâs real funeral as part of a âfake deathâ scenario. The garishness of Game of Death suddenly gives way to the real McCoy, who just as promptly vanishes. This is an extreme version of the bifurcation of this series, as Lee, once marginalized, is now yoked from death, via crassness, as an elusive star whoâs truly beyond life. In short, a myth.
Criterion offers 4K digital restorations of most of these films, though the special edition of Enter the Dragon was undertaken in 2K. Though there some blemishes, most notable in the awkward doubling work in Game of Death, these images are often gorgeous, with lush, vibrant color schemes that recall those of Hammer horror films. In the days of VHS and TV showings, these movies often seemed too bright, and so Criterionâs great accomplishment here is to restore their sense of robust, suggestive darkness, which now balances well with the light and assorted other hues. (These films have a vivid, primary-based color scheme.) Skin textures, which could seem overexposed or waxy in the old days, are also resoundingly lifelike here. Depending on the film, a variety of monaural and alternate soundtracks are available, including English dubbings, and they boast remarkably dimensional soundscapes, rendering the action scenes more kinetic and cathartic than ever before; the swift, hyperbolically pronounced kicks and punches suggest the inner furies of the characters writ physical. And the voices, even the dubbings, have also been rendered with exacting care.
This supplements package is head-spinning, offering a bonanza of information that could take a cinephile a month to fully unpack. Firstly, there are three more films included in this set: the 103-minute special edition of Enter the Dragon thatâs been in circulation for some time; Game of Death II, an even more desperate and ghoulish enterprise than its predecessor (though it has a few outstanding action scenes); and a newly remixed 34-minute version of the original Game of Death thatâs made up strictly of material written and directed by Bruce Lee. This Game of Death Redux is a masterpiece of action and emotion, as Leeâs character ascends three floors of a pagoda, encountering enemies with differing fighting styles and having to adjust his tactics accordinglyâa major tenant of Leeâs own martial arts. The short also climaxes with a legendary fight with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, which the men invest with a pathos thatâs mostly missing from the still-awesome encounter in the feature-length film. If one could only have one supplement from this set, it would be Game of Death Redux.
Most of these featurettes are still superb. Thereâs an illuminating new interview with producer Andre Morgan, an American who worked with Raymond Chow at Golden Harvest. He discusses the working relationship between himself, Chow, and Lee, especially as they sought to tap the American market. Dozens of other interviews and extras complement Morganâs anecdotes, recounting Leeâs attempts to become a star in America in the â60s, including the devoted following he cultivated as a martial artist teacher, with students such as Steve McQueen and James Coburn. The politics of the various films are examined at length, especially in the audio commentaries originally recorded at Shout! Factory by Mike Leeder, who speaks of, say, the Chinese-Japanese tensions that drive Fist of Fury as well as of the general cultural sensibilities of Hong Kong. Dozens of archive documentaries offer a course in how Leeâs legend has been presented at different times, including footage of Leeâs elaborate Hong Kong funeral, in which one can see Leeâs widow, Linda Lee Caldwell, and their son, Brandon, who would also grow up to die a bizarre death right as stardom appeared to be approaching. (Even stranger: Brandonâs death, caused by a gun shot from a faulty blank on the set of The Crow, uncomfortably echoes the attempted murder of a Lee stand-in in Game of Death.)
Leeâs philosophies are articulated at length here, most succinctly and directly by âBruce Lee: His Own Words,â which offers an assemblage of interviews with the legend. âBrucesploitation,â the practice of hiring Lee lookalikes to star in imitation martial arts films in an attempt to capitalize on his death, is given an overview by author Grady Hendrix, and the art of English dubbing is also explored. There are many making-of documentaries, including Blood & Steel, which covers the making of Enter the Dragon. For a quick one-stop shop, the 10-minute interviews with Lee biographer Matthew Polly included on each film serves as a wonderful primer on the social contexts that inspired each respective production. Various promo materials round out this indispensably mammoth collection, and a liner essay by critic Jeff Chang does an especially fine job of outlining how Lee fought to keep his integrity on Enter the Dragon, and how a shifting America, in the wake of Vietnam, embraced martial arts films.
Criterionâs Bruce Lee set is as wonderful as youâve heard, boasting definitive restorations and enough supplements for at least two semestersâ worth of martial arts semiotics.
Cast: Bruce Lee, Maria Yi, James Tien, Han Ying-chieh, Lau Wing, Nora Miao, Robert Baker, Riki Hashimoto, Jun Katsumura, Chuck Norris, Jon T., Wei Ping-ou, Huang Chung-hsin, Robert Wall, Malisa Longo, John Saxon, Jim Kelly, Ahna Capri, Shih Kien, Angela Mao, Bolo Yeung Director: Lo Wei, Bruce Lee, Robert Clouse Screenwriter: Lo Wei, Bruce Lee, Michael Allin, Robert Clouse Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 506 min Rating: R Year: 1971 - 1978 Release Date: July 14, 2020 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Claire Denisâs Beau Travail on the Criterion Collection
Denisâs oblique portrait of erotic angst receives a definitive transfer that demonstrates the full range of its poetic beauty.4.5
Claire Denisâs international breakthrough, Beau Travail, begins with a curious set of images. The first is a pan across a painting of a silhouette of soldiers in the French Foreign Legion done on the side of a rock wall in Djibouti, in the style of a cave paintingâa faux-ancient artwork that gives the impression that the French were in Africa since time immemorial. A military song of conquest chanted over the image is then interrupted by the jolting sound of a kiss that kicks off an electronic dance track as the scene cuts to a local nightclub where women in colorful clothes dance elegantly with uniformed soldiers who move stiffly but aggressively as they possessively crowd up against the women. The effect of this juxtaposition of images is immediately alienating, stressing the intrusiveness that marks the relationship between the filmâs main characters.
Loosely based on Herman Melvilleâs posthumously released Billy Budd, Beau Travail retains the core premise of the novella: A violent envy is born in a lifelong military man, in this case an adjutant named Galoup (Denis Lavant), by one of his new recruits, here a private named Sentain (GrĂ©goire Colin). Though Galoup is a career officer who dedicates himself to the legion, the filmâs editing makes it instantly clear how alienated he is from the men under his watch. Quick cuts juxtapose the camaraderie between the enlisted soldiers with the stony countenance of their superior, who always hangs back and watches them as they go about their daily duties. By contrast, Sentain is simpatico in every way, instantly charming the other soldiers upon his arrival, as well as the baseâs commandant, Forestier (Michel Subor).
In the novella, the sexual tension transmitted between the main characters suggests a riptide, dangerous and under the surface. But Denis turns that frisson into a whirlpool, one that lures Galoup and Sentain to their doom. The film regularly highlights the way that Galoup stares at Sentain with a mixture of envy and longing, the stark difference between Lavantâs pockmarked face and Colinâs cherubic features further highlighting the friction between their characters. Oblique references to rumors that have dogged Forestier since his service in the Algerian War prefigure his budding interest in Sentain. Through stares and associative editing, the film suggests that this is the last straw for Galoup, whose deep existential connection to the legion is borne out as a love both filial and romantic toward his commanding officer.
Perhaps Beau Travailâs greatest show of faithfulness to Melvilleâs text is in its depiction of the paradoxically freeing nature of rigid military activity. Thereâs an almost ritualistic quality to the scenes of soldiers training in the deserts and coasts of Djibouti that, for all of the political connotations of legionnaires residing in a former colony, seems to place them outside of time. Adding to this sense of displacement are the cues from Benjamin Brittenâs own operatic adaptation of the novellaâdissonant choruses laid atop shots of the men running obstacle courses, wrestling, and assuming meditative tai chi poses. Itâs in these scenes, through intercut close-ups of backs and arms moving in hypnotic rhythms and muscles rippling almost erotically beneath the actorsâ flesh, that Denis and cinematographer AgnĂšs Godard staked their position as the supreme cinematic poets of body language.
Beau Travail is rooted in specific political and historical contexts of French colonialism, frequently setting scenes of vibrant, colorful, and modern city life against the austere severity of the remote locations where the legion has set up its spartan bases. That juxtaposition is as much a reflection of the filmâs deep and insoluble sense of history as it is a visualization of the war that rages within Galoup. This impressionistic rendering of masculine angst culminates in the filmâs legendary ending, a suicidal vision in which the heretofore stoic, silently seething Galoup explodes in a feverish hallucination of dance that marks the only time in the film, and perhaps his entire life, in which the man sees himself honestly.
Beau Travail receives a 4K restoration that renders the film unrecognizable from its long out-of-print New Yorker Video DVD. Bright desert backgrounds that were once washed out and hazy now pop with amazing color separation, while flesh tones are significantly more natural. The filmâs full sensuality can now be appreciated in the visible beads of sweat trickling down soldiersâ faces and arms, and the colorful beauty of Djibouti stands out even more, further emphasizing the elegance of both its cities and its harsh rural terrain. The soundtrack is likewise given a major upgrade; dialogue is always clear, while the intrusions of dance music and cues from Benjamin Brittenâs opera are sonorous and pounding.
Recorded just after the first protests over George Floydâs death, a discussion between Claire Denis and director Barry Jenkins foregrounds the filmâs political content and the loaded racial subtext of its postcolonial context. From there, the two pivot into a broader overview of the film, including the process of working warily under the supervision of real legionnaires and the fact that Denis, surprisingly, didnât intend for the film to be so homoerotic.
Interviews with actors Denis Lavant and GrĂ©goire Colin abound in anecdotes about their time in Djibouti and surrendering to a shooting process that sounds every bit as intuitive and unspoken as the completed film. Cinematographer AgnĂšs Godard provides a selected-scene commentary in which she breaks down several moments from Beau Travail with details about the challenges of the location shooting, including notes about which films stocks and lenses she used in order to be able to shoot in harsh light while also accurately capturing both white and black flesh tones. Even at her most technical, though, Godard praises the âspiritualâ experience of shooting under isolated and harsh conditions.
A video essay by film scholar Judith Mayne focuses on Beau Travailâs use of musicânamely the scenes set at the Djibouti nightclubâas a prĂ©cis of the larger emotional, sociopolitical, and narrative strategies at work in the film. Finally, an essay by critic and educator Girish Shambu offers a holistic analysis of Beau Travail, from background details like Denisâs non-Melville inspirations to the visual articulation of Galoupâs sense of resentful longing.
Unavailable on home video for years, Claire Denisâs stunning, oblique portrait of erotic angst receives a definitive transfer that demonstrates the full range of its poetic beauty.
Cast: Denis Lavant, Michel Subor, GrĂ©goire Colin, Richard Courcet, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Marta Tafesse Director: Claire Denis Screenwriter: Claire Denis Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 1999 Release Date: September 15, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: Francesco Rosiâs Christ Stopped at Eboli on Criterion Blu-ray
The full four-part, 220-minute cut of the film receives a stunning transfer and a small but illuminating assortment of extras.4
Arrested by Benito Mussoliniâs fascist regime for some manner of ideological nonconformity, the painter and medical doctor Carlo Levi (Gian Maria VolontĂš), Christ Stopped at Eboliâs main character, is sent from his native Turin into âinternal political exile,â in a village in the southern Italian province of Lucania. The impoverished Lucania, as Levi puts it, is a timeless space, a âdark land without sin or redemption.â Particularly given the nationalist ideal of the nation as home, such an internal exile is oxymoronic. Is there a place within the nation thatâs actually outside of it? A town in which itâs impossible to distinguish between those whom the law has punished and those itâs merely neglected?
The opening episode of Francesco Rosiâs four-part film plays like a less enthusiastically surreal version of the classic TV show The Prisoner: A man finds himself trapped in a village for an unspecified crime, surrounded by people who are variably other prisoners, residents, and agents of the fascist enemy. As in the British spy show, thereâs even an indistinct boundary Levi cannot cross, a condition of his imprisonment. But itâs a local brigadier, not a giant canvas balloon, that chases him down when he tests it. And the tone of Rosiâs film is more one of somber reflection than political intrigue: Levi strolls rather than runs toward the edge of town, and heâs likely to politely ask the local mayor (Paolo Bonacelli) for permission first.
Christ Stopped at Eboli is based on the memoirs of the real-life Levi, who brought the social decline of Italyâs southern provinces into the national spotlight with his account of his year as a prisoner in Lucania (now Basilicata). In the film, the left-leaning Levi expects to encounter nothing but misery and ignorance in his open-air prison, but he eventually becomes more empathetic to the localsâ conditions. The region resembles an exploited colony, where the only paved roads lead out toward the provinceâs capital, and taxes are collected from peasants whose only belongings are goats and loose furniture. In the midst of Mussoliniâs ultimately disastrous bid for imperialist expansion in Abyssinia (todayâs Ethiopia), supposedly on behalf of farmers who need more space, Levi discovers a community that has more than enough of it but lacks infrastructure and population, having lost many residents to emigration.
Beyond Leviâs gradual shift in perspectiveâmost apparent in the way he initially demurs at the villagersâ request that he serve as their doctor but eventually pressures the mayor at great risk to allow him to practiceâChrist Stopped at Eboli doesnât overly psychologize the man. Levi serves the narrative much more as a cypher, a mobile gaze exploring various scenes from the cramped hillside town. Voiceovers, like the one that gives the film its title (in Leviâs overwrought metaphor, Christ allegedly stopped at the adjacent province of Eboli, never actually making it to Lucania), sometimes put us in Leviâs head, but especially early on heâs something of an unreliable narrator, far more condescending toward the village than is Rosiâs camera. The directorâs languorous form of neorealism lingers on highly composed vistas and interiors that precisely split the difference between beauty and decay.
The cloud of fascism and war hangs over the community, depicted through radio broadcasts of government speeches that seem to fill the air of the town, but as Levi discovers, the non-prisoner residents of Lucania were abandoned by the very project of Italian nation-building in the 19th century, not by the nationalist modernism of the fascists. Not too heady a dive into national-historical politics, though, Christ Stopped at Eboli speaks the phenomenological language of the European art film of the 1960s and â70s, its long takes of elliptical interactions in real social spaces bringing to mind Michelangelo Antonioni or Luchino Viscontiâs portraits of the nature of time. (Visconti and Rosi were frequent collaborators.)
Another influence may be Luis BuĂ±uel, whose 1932 pseudo-documentary Land Without Bread used actual footage of Spainâs poorest region to savage the Spanish bourgeoisieâs own internal colonial gaze. Among the most memorable moments from Christ Stopped at Eboli are its sudden shifts from its post-neorealistic mode to a distinctly surrealist interest in the villagersâ proximity to death. Every so often the filmâs apparent commitment to a material reality is undercut by nightmarish images like the abrupt cut to a close-up of a dead goatâs face hanging over the edge of a table, undulating as an unseen butcher cleans it, or the discovery that Levi has opted to nap in the shade provided by an open grave.
Such moments donât feel incongruous with the whole of Christ Stopped at Eboli, which is comprised of a confluence of different gazes and voices that seek to understand or articulate the truth of the village at the center of the film. With the exception of an unnecessary framing device in which an aged Levi contemplates his paintingsâset in the contemporary moment of Christ Stopped at Eboli, itâs all mood lighting and melodramatic zoomsâRosi manages to meld these various voices into a humanistic exploration of Italyâs âsouthern problemâ and a thorough indictment of nationalist and imperialist agendas.
So much of Christ Stopped at Eboliâs visual splendor stems from the earthbound beauty of its rural setting, all of which is wonderfully preserved in Criterionâs 2K restoration. The image is sharp and the color balancing especially highlights the settingâs stunningly verdant hills, with the dynamic range that differentiates between the earthy tones and black levels giving the fascist Blackshirts outfits an even starker contrast to their surroundings. The textures of the townâs rustic buildings are also impressively rendered across the frame. Some perceptible damage in the filmâs bookended scenes is the only issue with the transfer. The uncompressed monaural soundtrack is well-balanced, with the ambient sounds of nature delicately mixed with the hustle and bustle of town life, never compromising the clarity of the dialogue.
In his 25-minute introduction to Christ Stopped at Eboli, translator and author Michael F. Moore covers quite a bit of ground, including the film and bookâs initial reception and novelist Carlo Leviâs work as a painter. Most intriguing is his discussion about the challenges of writing the subtitles for the recent restoration of Christ Stopped at Eboli, which is rife with regional dialects that led him to keep translations to a minimum and rely more on cadence and inflection for meaning. An excerpt from Marco Spagnoliâs short 2014 documentary Unico includes the last filmed interview that Francesco Rosi ever gave, and the director recalls his intense discussions with Levi and the diligent preparation of actor Gian Maria VolontĂ©.
A segment from a 1978 TV program features footage of Rosi on the set of Christ Stopped at Eboli discussing his thoughts on Italyâs âsouthern problem,â as well as interviews with VolontĂ© and director Elio Petri, who address the troubled state of the Italian film industry at the time. Also included here is an excerpt from a 1974 documentary featuring an interview with Rosi and Levi in which the two discuss the influence of the latterâs famed novel on post-war Italian literature and how it was informed by Leviâs own exile. The package is rounded out with a comprehensive essay by film scholar Alexander Stille that further touches on Leviâs period of exile and offers a fruitful analysis of both the filmâs political themes and aesthetic strategies.
The full four-part, 220-minute cut of Christ Stopped at Eboli makes its home-video debut via Criterion with a stunning transfer and a small but illuminating assortment of extras.
Cast: Gian Maria VolontĂš, Paolo Bonacelli, Alain Cuny, Lea Massari, Irene Papas, FranĂ§ois Simon, Luigi Infantino, Accursio Di, Francesco Callari, Vincenzo Vitale, Antonio Allocca Director: Francesco Rosi Screenwriter: Francesco Rosi, Tonino Guerra, Raffaele La Capria Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 220 min Rating: NR Year: 1979 Release Date: September 22, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: Lindsay Andersonâs Britannia Hospital on Kino Lorber Blu-ray
Andersonâs strident, often uproarious, satire takes on a lot more than just the National Health.4
Across three decades, director Lindsay Anderson and screenwriter David Sherwin kept returning to the figure of Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell) as a sort of working-class Everyman, featuring him in a loose-linked trilogy of satirical films. If…., from 1969, takes on the repression and brutality of the British public school system with the revolutionary Ă©lan of the counterculture, while 1973âs O Lucky Man! finds Mick, now a coffee salesman, suffering the consequences of colonialism and capitalism at a coffee plantation. Britannia Hospital, from 1982, not only lampoons the excesses of the National Health, but also uses its titular institution as a microcosmic cross section of society in the early years of Thatcherism. Whereas the earlier films kept Mick front and center as the fulcrum of events, here heâs more of a peripheral figure, a would-be guerrilla documentarian whose quest for an exposĂ© weaves in and out of the filmâs multiple, often overlapping, subplots.
Unfolding over the course of a single day, Andersonâs film finds Britannia Hospital preparing for a visit from the Queen (usually referred to simply as âHRHâ) to celebrate the grand opening of an ultramodern new wing under the supervision of Dr. Millar (Graham Crowden). At the same time, two different groups of picketers besiege the building, objecting to unfair health care practices and the presence of a black African dictator and his entourage. The general tenor of these early scenes suggests points of comparison with several black comedies from the 1970s, like Robert Altmanâs M*A*S*H and Arthur Hillerâs thematically similar The Hospital, which also features demonstrators and an unfeeling administration.
Britannia Hospital is antic, chaotic, and often strident in tone. The comedy keeps slipping without any notion of restraint from slapstick to broad satire to the blackest of black comedy. Itâs true that everybody, even the workers and the protesters, get it in the neck at some point. But the film takes its greatest pains to hammer away at indifference and injustice. One of the choicest ironies it keeps harping on has to do with an individualâs decision to put self-interest and advancement ahead of solidarity to whatever group they claim to represent.
Just as the filmâs style of comedy remains fruitfully unstable, it also keeps shuffling between genres as well, incorporating elements of science fiction and, perhaps most surprising, some pretty grotesque body horror. These aspects both center on Millar, Britannia Hospitalâs resident Doctor Frankenstein. His stitched-together man goes to pieces in a geyser of blood and viscera in a moment that both looks back to Paul Morrisseyâs Flesh for Frankenstein and prefigures Stuart Gordonâs Re-Animator. And itâs probably no coincidence that his operating theater closely resembles the design of the War Room in Stanley Kubrickâs Dr. Strangelove. That the film goes as far as it does with this scene is startling enough, but the fact that it also involves the presumed leading man is doubly provocative, even confrontational, which seems perfectly in keeping with Anderson and Sherwinâs undertaking here.
Millarâs backup project, known as Genesis, concerns the uploading of the human brain into an electronic receptacle. His showstopping presentation opens, reasonably enough, by excoriating the wastage of war and the over-privileged, before going on to dwell more macabrely on the limitations of the âfeebleâ human body. Millarâs technocratic fetishism thus aligns with the anti-humanism of any run-of-the-mill dictatorship that prizes âlaw and orderâ above all else. Not coincidentally, when this Genesis entity is finally revealed, it resembles nothing so much as a whirring, flashing, bleeping approximation of a mushroom cloud, perhaps in another gesture toward Dr. Strangelove. Instead of Vera Lynn hauntingly promising âWeâll Meet Again,â we get Genesis bungling the âWhat a piece of work is a man!â speech from Hamlet, freezing up on the phrase âhow like a God.â
Frankenstein and Strangelove, together again for the first timeâthatâs Millar. Only his rampant charisma is forceful enough to unite the disparate elements struggling for control of Britannia Hospital. At his command, they sit quietly and attend to his demented parable concerning humanityâs future. Like any successful work of art, Britannia Hospital asks more questions than it can ever possibly answer. And nowhere is there a larger question mark than that hovering over the final sequence. We donât know what Millarâs audience makes of his demonstration, but we really ought to give some serious thought about our own responses. Because much of Britannia Hospitalâlike the sight of riot squads kicking the shit out of unarmed protestorsâresonates just a strongly today as it did back in 1982.
Kinoâs 1080p HD presentation of Britannia Hospital is outstanding. Vividly hued colors (especially those sanguineous reds, antiseptic whites, and sickly greens) really catch the eye. Fine details of costume and dĂ©cor possess significant depth and clarity. Grain levels appear well-maintained throughout. The Master Audio two-channel mono track discernibly captures the fast-paced dialogue, and ably puts across Alan Priceâs score.
Writer and critic Samm Deighan delivers a thoroughly researched and compellingly delivered commentary track. She discusses the filmâs thematic connections to earlier entries in the Mick Travis Trilogy, its numerous targets of satire, and its less than stellar reception among mainstream British critics. Deighan delves deep into Andersonâs career arc from film critic to filmmaker, touching on his early writings for Sequence and Sight & Sound, his association with the Free Cinema documentary movement, and his involvement in the burgeoning British New Wave alongside filmmakers like Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson. Along the way, Deighan frequently draws from a variety of sources (contemporary criticism, Andersonâs diaries) to further flesh out her points. In an archival interview from 2001, Malcolm McDowell discusses auditioning for If…., learning about cinema by watching films with Anderson, and describes coming up with his characterâs backstory between O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital.
Making its Blu-ray debut, Lindsay Andersonâs strident, often uproarious, satire takes on a lot more than just the National Health.
Cast: Leonard Rossiter, Brian Pettifer, John Moffatt, Fulton Mackay, Vivian Pickles, Barbara Hicks, Graham Crowden, Jill Bennett, Peter Jeffrey, Marsha Hunt, Mary MacLeod, Joan Plowright, Robin Askwith, Dave Atkins, Malcolm McDowell, Mark Hamill, Frank Grimes, Richard Griffiths, Arthur Lowe, Alan Bates, Dandy Nichols, Betty Marsden, Liz Smith, T. P. McKenna, Valentine Dyall, Brian Glover Director: Lindsay Anderson Screenwriter: David Sherwin Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 116 min Rating: R Year: 1982 Release Date: September 1, 2020 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: The Complete Films of AgnĂšs Varda on the Criterion Collection
The quality and scope of this set makes it one of the most impressive home-video releases of all time.5
Criterionâs 15-disc set The Complete Films of AgnĂšs Varda is a boon to cinephiles, and it will likely go down as the home-video release of the year. Dividing AgnĂšs Vardaâs entire filmography across 15 themed âprograms,â the set begins with âAgnĂšs Foreverâ (featuring her end-of-life retrospective Varda by AgnĂšs, which premiered at the 2019 Berlinale just a month before her death at 91), before then commemorating her films made âAround Parisâ (between 1958 and 1986), her two periods making films âIn Americaâ (featuring shorts and features made between 1968 and 1981), and the many faces, places, and visual ideas that fascinated the French filmmaking giant throughout her career.
In addition to providing an illustrative framework for her cinema, this comprehensive collection provides a treasure trove of new, high-quality restorations and transfers of films that were previously difficult to see, especially in the United States. Some highlights include the visually stunning shorts Ă saisons, ĂŽ chĂąteau and Du cĂŽtĂ© de la cĂŽte, both commissioned for French TV in the late 1950s; two deeply humane documents of life in Paris and Los Angeles, DaguerrĂ©otypes and Mur Murs, respectively; Jacquot de Nantes and The World of Jacques Demy, loving odes to her departed filmmaker husband; and a bevy of other shorts and features.
Varda was one of the only female filmmakers associated with the French New Wave, which for generations of critics and artists was the cinema. Rebellious and intellectually engaged, formally playful but serious-minded, this movement that gestated among the young cinephiles of postwar France augured not only the revitalization of film as an art form, but arguably the cultural revolution of the â60s. For a long time, the early features of erstwhile Cahiers du CinĂ©ma critics FranĂ§ois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, made around 1958, were considered to represent the birth of the French New Wave. Even at the time, though, Godard, Truffaut, and their peers recognized an earlier film as the spiritual predecessor to their work: 1955âs La Pointe Courte, which Varda had written, directed, and produced independently and without any filmmaking experienceâa feat almost inconceivable in the French film industry at the time, particularly for a woman.
Varda was only four years older than Truffaut, the youngest of the French New Waveâs Young Turks, but that didnât stop them from dubbing her the âgrandmother of the New Waveââan appellation meant as a token of respect, but which also implied that her best work was behind her, that her purpose had been to foster the work of her male contemporaries. In truth, Varda was still at the start of a fruitful career, sharing the spotlight at the head of the French New Waveâs more political- and literary-minded offshoot, the Left Bank. Her first masterpiece, ClĂ©o from 5 to 7, a real-time look at a pop singer facing the possibility of her mortality, was released in 1961 and was followed by almost 60 years of steadfastly independent, thought-provoking art.
Varda used cinĂ©criture (cinema plus Ă©criture, or writing) to describe her workârecalling critic Alexandre Astrucâs 1948 coinage of the term âcamera-styloâ (or camera-pen)âand made cinema that was often personal and poetic, a form of reverie that fused the real world recorded by the camera with her musings and daydreams. La Pointe Courte stands as one of the keys to understanding her oeuvre as a whole. Its juxtaposition of a highly mannered romantic drama with neorealist vignettes of fishermen and their familiesâwhich earned high acclaim from reality-junkie AndrĂ© Bazinâalready exhibits her abiding interest in the tension between the world as it is given to us and as we order it through our thoughts, memories, and fictions.
Another likely point of entry to Vardaâs cinema is the essay film that defined her late period, The Gleaners and I, from 2000. This diaristic documentary sees the newly septuagenarian filmmaker experimenting with the portability of late-â90s digital cameras. We join her as she travels through the French countryside and cities to discover the vestiges of gleaning, the practice of gathering the leftovers of a yearâs harvest from the field. Varda saw in gleaning a metaphor for her approach to film form as collage (or dĂ©collage, as a well-known, digitally artifacted close-up of her face evokes), engrossing viewers in an exploration of the relationship between art and life, nature and what we make of itâemblematized by the symbol of one of her hands filming the other, as well as the heart-shaped mutant potatoes left lying in the field for gleaners to collect.
In the end, what unites the films in Vardaâs canon is her boundless curiosity: As she modestly asserts in 2002âs The Gleaners and I: Two Years Later, she enjoys filming people, and âI also enjoy filming potatoes, life going by, and cats.â Itâs an attitude easily mistaken for naĂŻvetĂ©, but the way that Varda is able to join a celebration of the world with a distinctly left-humanist, feminist political perspective is almost miraculousâmost saliently on display in films like The Gleaners and I, the 1968 short Black Panthers, 1977âs One Sings, the Other Doesnât, and 2017âs Faces Places (co-directed with photographer and street artist JR) but present throughout her work.
This facility for combining the appreciation for beauty with social and ethical concern may be the hallmark of Vardaâs cinĂ©criture. Her films teach us how to experience wonder at the world while at the same time recognize its shortcomings, to balance our awareness of injustice with delight in the majesty of potatoes, murals, beaches, houses, mazes, clocks, trinkets, children, love, humans, time, and cats. Few filmmakers have realized with more care, generosity, or freedom the varied potentials of the cinema.
The 39 shorts and features included here all boast impeccable image tracks that maintain the qualities and textures of the formats that AgnĂšs Varda worked with, from the super-saturated colors of Le Bonheur, to the more muted tones of â70s and â80s work like DaguerrĂ©otypes and Documenteur. The pre-digital films exhibit pleasant grain levels, adding texture and warmth to the images. All the films have been restored in 2K and 4K from archival sources, but in 1080p thereâs little appreciable difference in quality between, say, the 4K-sourced Black Panthers and the 2K-sourced Le Bonheur. Most of the films also feature remarkably clear soundtracks, with even the older, monaural ones free of noticeable popping, fuzziness, or other defects. This is particularly notable in the case 1966âs The Creatures, which had never before been digitized for home-video release and has a distinctive modernist score by Pierre Barbaud, composed using cards fed into a primitive computer.
Unlike prior monster Criterion auteur collections like AK 100: 25 Films by Kurosawa, The Complete Films of AgnĂšs Varda is brimming over with special features. For prior home-video releases of much of her work, Varda filmed introductions and addendums at her home and editing studio on Parisâs Rue Daguerre between 2002 and 2012, all of which are included here. Archival interviews with Varda while she was working on films like Le Bonheur and The Creatures are complemented by retrospectives with actors who appeared in the films, often arranged by Varda herself. The most notable newer features produced or sourced by Criterion include a talk at the 2019 Telluride Film Festival that includes Vardaâs children, Rosalie Varda and Mathieu Demy, and Martin Scorsese, in which the latter reveals his decades-long, surprisingly close friendship with the matriarch of the French New Wave; an extended interview with Jane Birkin, the actress and model whose fast friendship with Varda inspired the films Jane B. par AgnĂšs V. and Kung Fu Master!; and a video essay about Michel Legrandâs score for ClĂ©o from 5 to 7 by Every Frame a Painting creator Tony Zhou.
Perhaps the most breathtaking extra included in this mammoth set is the accompanying âbookletâ that, at 198 pages, constitutes a full-size anthology on Vardaâs work, with five essays on her work, extensive notes accompanying each program, and a selection of photographs from throughout Vardaâs lifelong parallel career as a photographer and visual artist. Especially noteworthy are Amy Taubinâs introduction, an admiring tribute to the multifaceted Varda, and film scholar Ginette Vincendeauâs âA Womanâs Truth,â which contextualizes Vardaâs feminism within the historical currents she lived in. Michael Koreskyâs program notes are acutely observed and, taken as a whole, more than suffice in lieu of audio commentaries for each film.
The incredible quality and scope of this set makes it one of the most impressive home-video releases of all time. Itâs a loving tribute to a film giant, and as good a biography of her as weâll ever get.
Cast: AgnĂšs Varda, Michel Piccoli, Catherine Deneuve, Jane Birkin, Jean-Pierre LĂ©aud, GĂ©rard Depardieu, Shirley Clarke, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Louis Aragon, Philippe Noiret, Sylvia Monfort, Corinne Marchand, Jean-Claude Drouot, Viva, James Rado, Gerome Ragni, ValĂ©rie Mairesse, ThĂ©rĂšse Liotard, Sabine Mamou, Mathieu Demy, Sandrine Bonnaire, Marcello Mastroianni, Anouk AimĂ©e, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean-Claude Brialy, Alain Delon, Robert De Niro, Harrison Ford, Jeanne Moreau, Hanna Schygulla, JR Director: AgnĂšs Varda, JR Screenwriter: AgnĂšs Varda, JR Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 2474 min Rating: NR Year: 1954 - 2019 Release Date: August 11, 2020 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: JesuÌs Francoâs Cecilia Joins the Blue Underground
Blue Underground presents Francoâs dreamy slice of lifestyle porn in a new 2K restoration.4
The original title of JesĂșs Francoâs Cecilia was the much more prescriptive Sexual Abberations of a Housewife, which naturally resulted in Blue Underground slapping a tagline on the back of their 2007 DVD recasting the entire film as recounting the travails of a âdesperate housewifeâ (at least one season too late, at that). Crass, but Cecilia isnât that far removed from the world of the nighttime soap. To be more specific, the filmâs cloddish flashbacks, hastily photographed second-unit footage in glamorous European urban hubs, and obsessive attentiveness to the way satin gowns cling to womenâs thighs all feel a tad like a cheap, horny knock-off of Dynasty.
Ceciliaâs (Muriel MontossĂ©) journey begins with a lightly De Sadean flourish: The hired help picks her up in a limo, makes as though heâs going to drive her home, and lets her taunt him with her nakedness before swerving and picking up his cousins. The three of them ravage her in a grunting, vengeful act of what could be called class-minded revolt. It would be, that is, if she didnât realize her wilted womanly bloom suddenly yearned for her husbandâs (Antonio Mayans) love injection all the more. The two come to a swift decision to live as libertines so that their stalling marriage might flourish. Apparently, the dismissal of monogamy makes them only want it more, sort of like if you have Kraft macaroni and cheese on Tuesday and the thought of having it again on Wednesday sends your body into convulsions.
While this premise has broadened both horizons and fleshly orifices in any number of other films, Francoâs flaccid direction just about kills the mood at every turn. Any residual thrust that the sexual misadventures of a married couple might have had on a mere situational level gets cold-showered by Daniel Whiteâs demonstratively delicate keyboard diddles. Picture yours or someone elseâs grandfather showing off at a Hammond on display at a Schmitt Music store, obsequiously pulling every stop, and leaning on and off the volume pedal for dramatic effect. I wasnât even 20 minutes into the film and I wanted to pay White a quarter just to make him stop playing. Reversing the carnality of the opening scene, Cecilia sets out to prove that sex is reserved for the rich, those who can wander naked among the overripe green leaves of their immense estates. Fine, but it also means that the rich have the market cornered on bad sex.
Blue Underground presents Cecilia in a new 2K restoration, and itâs a significant improvement over the already fine-looking DVD. Colors, like those ubiquitous vegetal greens and other primary hues, really pop in 1080p. Flesh tones are warm and lifelike, and grain levels are well maintained, even in diffused shots and lowlight sequences. Cecilia comes with both English and French Master Audio mono mixes, though neither represents a truly optimal option. The English track is sometimes hilariously maladroit, while the subtitles on the French track match the English dub rather than representing whatever those folks might be saying in French.
Blue Underground includes a new HD transfer of the original Spanish-language cut of the film (with English subtitles) under the Sexual Aberrations of a Housewife title, which loses about 15 minutes of padding. Gone are the âcloddish flashbacksâ to which our original reviewer justifiably objected to. Some of the stranger musical cues (like the droning church organ that accompanies the initial three-way rape scene) are also missing, making for a comparatively more satisfying viewing experience. An interview with JesĂșs Franco, carried over from the 2007 DVD, begins with the Spanish filmmaker flatly stating, âCecilia does not exist,â before venting his disdain for any of the filmâs various titles, noting that in the Spanish version that character is called Emmanuelle. Franco then goes into the experience of filming nude scenes on the beach in Portugal, watching Sergio Leone drop acid, and his general disinterest in attending drug-fueled parties like the one he supposedly satirizes in the film.
In a brand new interview, Franco expert Stephen Thrower delves into the filming locations, points out significant differences between the Spanish and French versions of Cecilia, and wonders about the amoral implications of the filmâs questionable assertion that sexual assault might lead down the path to libidinal liberation. Finally, thereâs the new feature-length documentary, Franco-Philes: Musings on Madrid’s B-Movie Maverick, that assembles a slew of critics and collaborators to discuss Francoâs immense body of work, his ability to crank out multiple films at the same time, and the ease with which he adapted to any number of commercially viable subgenres, from women in prison to Nazi zombies.
JesĂșs Francoâs dreamy slice of lifestyle porn gets a sparkling new Blu-ray transfer and a handful of choice extras, some old and some new, from Blue Underground.
Cast: Muriel MontossĂ©, Antonio Mayans, AntĂŽnio do Cabo, Olivier Mathot, Pierre Taylou, France Lomay, Lina Romay Director: JesĂșs Franco Screenwriter: JesĂșs Franco Distributor: Blue Underground Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 1983 Release Date: August 25, 2020 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Jean Renoirâs Toni on the Criterion Collection
Renoirâs film is an exquisite, idyllic ode to love and loss among the working classes.4.5
After the critical and commercial failure of his producer-compromised adaptation of Madame Bovary in 1934, Jean Renoir decided to put as much distance as possible between himself and the world of studio-bound Parisian filmmaking. Suffering what he later referred to as âan attack of realism,â he went to the south of France to shoot Toni on location near Marseille. As its opening titles inform us, the film is based on a crime of passion that had taken place recently among the community of immigrant laborers from Italy and Spain. Indeed, Toni opens and closes with a matched pair of shots that show a trainload of foreign workers arriving at the depot, eager for opportunities to make a better life for themselves. But the second time we see the scene, that sense of hopeful expectation is tinged with tragedy.
Toni imprints its documentary aestheticâdirect sound, outdoor locationsâon material that betrays the heightened emotions and stock characters of the stage melodrama. Certainly, three sides of the incipient love quadrilateral constitute basic archetypes: possessive landlady Marie (Jenny HĂ©lia), fiery flirt Josefa (Celia MontalvĂĄn), and brutish quarry foreman Albert (Max Dalban). Only the eponymous hero (Charles Blavette) stands as a cypher at the center of the growing tumult: stolid, deferential to the point of withdrawal, unable even to make eye contact. Among Renoirâs gallery of rogues, Toni seems closest to Michel Simonâs endlessly put-upon Legrand in La Chienne, a film that shares with Toni not only a tendency toward location shooting, but also a narrative that centers on a crime passionnel.
All of this seems to conform with Renoirâs belief, as stated in one of the extras on this Criterion release, that how things happen is far more compelling than what happens. The âhowâ here comprises Renoirâs unerring eye for exquisite painterly shot compositions and penchant for restlessly roving camera movement. Individual images will tend to linger. A high-angle shot of Toni and his friend, Fernand (Ădouard Delmont), framed against the immense drop to the quarry floor below is nothing short of astonishing. Even a simple track in on the impassive faĂ§ade of a house can carry a poetic charge. And then there are those rustic details of the landscapeâtwisty tree branches, bumpy rolling terrainâthat Renoir effortlessly incorporates into the blocking of his actors like so many readymade stage props.
Itâs often stated that Renoir assembled a cast of nonprofessional actors for Toni, but this isnât exactly the case. All of the principal cast members were âminor leagueâ professionals. Charles Blavette, for instance, turns up again in Renoirâs Picnic on the Grass from 1956. And Max Dalban plays a small but memorably unctuous role in the aforementioned La Chienne. Itâs true, though, that the minor characters were plucked from a pool of locals, and they contribute wonderfully authentic flourishes and filigrees by their very presence.
Renoir performs a delicate balancing act throughout the film. On the one hand, Toni makes a series of decisions that lead him ineluctably toward what Marie rightly describes as his âfate.â On the other, the narrative maintains a loose, almost improvisatory flavor. We consistently get the sense that things might turn out quite differently, if only the characters chose otherwise. Motivation, as always with Renoir, remains a secret wellspring. For his part, Albert no doubt richly deserves his inglorious end. But when it comes to the rest of the characters in Toni, weâre reminded of Renoirâs celebrated aphorism from his 1939 masterpiece The Rules of the Game: âThe awful thing about life is this: Everyone has their reasons.â
Absent from domestic DVD altogether, Toni makes its Blu-ray debut in a 4K restoration from Criterion thatâs nothing short of revelatory. The full-frame image boasts remarkable clarity, especially when it comes to the fine details of clothing patterns and landscape features. Black levels are rich and entirely uncrushed. Because the restoration relied in part on a theatrical print, thereâs the occasional issue of skipped frames, but itâs never too terribly distracting. And Renoirâs use of direct sound during location shooting means the dialogue can get a little muddled sometimes (obviated, of course, by the subtitles). But the LPCM mono track does well by Paul Bozziâs guitar-strumming ballads of love and loss.
In a brief introduction to the film from 1961, Renoir amusingly refers to Toni as âan attack of realism.â The feature-length episode of CinĂ©astes de notre temps from 1967 covers Renoirâs early years as a filmmaker. Filmed in conversation with Jacques Rivette and Janine Bazin, among others, the director speaks at length about his philosophical, aesthetic, and technical preoccupations. Their discussion is intercut with extensive clips from most of Renoirâs films from the 1926 silent Nana up to 1938âs La BĂȘte Humaine. The video essay from scholar Christopher Faulkner delves into Toniâs formal and thematic elements, its connections with other Renoir films, and the true-crime story that inspired it.
Critics Phillip Lopate and Kent Jones play off each other with aplomb over the course of their eminently listenable commentary track. They mention Toniâs relative unavailability over the decades outside of repertory screenings and retrospectives, as well as its high critical standing within Renoirâs filmography. Lopate and Jones pay particular attention to the filmâs âplasticityâ and its âopen airâ painterly qualities. Finally, the illustrated fold-out booklet contains a typically perspicacious essay from critic Ginette Vincendeau about the filmâs production history and its handling of gender stereotypes.
Making its domestic Blu-ray debut in a superb 4K restoration, Renoirâs film is an exquisite, idyllic ode to love and loss among the working classes.
Cast: Charles Blavette, Jenny HĂ©lia, Celia MontalvĂĄn, Ădouard Delmont, Max Dalban, Michel Kovachevitch, Andrex, Paul Bozzi Director: Jean Renoir Screenwriter: Jean Renoir, Carl Einstein Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 84 min Rating: NR Year: 1935 Release Date: August 25, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: Direct Cinema Triumph Town Bloody Hall on Criterion Blu-ray
Criterionâs Blu-ray judiciously preserves a critical time capsule in public political discourse.4
Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebakerâs raucous and provocative documentary Town Bloody Hall is a fascinating time capsule from an era when even the most contentious political discourse was still marked by intellectual curiosity and a desire not only to disparage opposing ideologies, but to actively engage with them. When Norman Mailer collaborated in 1971 with New Yorkâs Theatre for Ideas to organize a public debate between himself and four prominent feminists, billed as a âDialogue on Womenâs Liberation,â the author surely imagined something akin to the nonstop verbal jousting that ensued. But despite the fact that cooler heads didnât prevail, the participants engage in a form of dialectical argumentation that inspires rather than quashes thought, and without sacrificing humor, wit, or pure entertainment value.
Mailer is joined on stage by Germaine Greer, the Australian radical feminist and author of the bestselling The Female Eunuch; Jill Johnston, cultural critic for The Village Voice; Jacqueline Ceballos, president of the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women; and Diana Trilling, the American literary critic. Both the debate and Town Bloody Hall were promoted much like a boxing match, with the four womenâs presence promising the New York intelligentsia packing the seats the potential opportunity to see the ever-combative Mailer receive a public drubbing following the recent publication of his controversial, deeply misogynistic Harperâs article âThe Prisoner of Sex.â But while Greer, Johnston, Ceballos, and Trilling share a mutual disdain for Mailer, their arguments are remarkably diverse, and in conflict and conversation with those of their fellow feminists nearly as much as they are with Mailerâs. Trilling and Greer, in particular, are so at odds with one another that the latter is provoked to bemoan the fact that oppressed people frequently âfight among themselves.â
Itâs the manner in which a ceaseless array of droll, stimulating verbal shots are fired rapidly in every direction, including to and from the rowdy audience, that gives Town Bloody Hall a vitality that helps it transcend the mere documentary coverage of a landmark debate. And as Pennebaker and other cameramen werenât cleared to film inside New Yorkâs Town Hall, and were thus forced to actively avoid security throughout the shoot, their handheld camerawork feels as raw and vigorous as the debate it captures. The camera rarely remains still, constantly panning across the stage to locate the infuriated response of a panelist or searching the crowd for an amusing reaction shot or whomever shouted out the latest insult or question. Itâs a particularly restless and improvisatory form of filmmaking, even by Pennebakerâs standards, and perfectly in tune with the rambunctiousness of the event being covered.
Even with five intellectual titans on stage, the audience serves more than admirably in its role as the wildly unpredictable and engaging sixth man. There are a number of unsurprisingly thoughtful and sensitive questions directed at the speakers from the likes of Susan Sontag and Betty Friedan, but the more virulent outbursts are perhaps even more revealing, exposing both the dark undercurrents of Mailerâs misogyny and one of the major failings of second wave feminism. When a man repeatedly chants, âAll of humanity, not half of humanity,â as he walks out early in the event, itâs impossible not to connect Americaâs rage directed at feminists to its current dismissal of demands for racial equality. And when a woman, who before the event chants, âWomenâs lib betrays the poor,â later storms through the doors to proclaim that âwomenâs lib is for rich bitches,â one is reminded of the very privilege of the crown and panelists, nearly all of whom are white and at least firmly among the middle class.
These intrusions in the debate help to substantiate Mailerâs tongue-in-cheek claim early on that the future âwill end with nothing but assholes talking to assholes.â But all the more vitriolic comments, humorous or not, serve as instructive contrasts to the general approaches taken by all the panelists, which while extremely strong-willed, remain, for the most part, intellectually rigorous, both in the formation of their own arguments and their deconstruction of and response to whomever they are arguing against. As such, Hegedus and Pennebakerâs documentary stands as a potent reminder of the importance of imbuing the flair and showmanship of political theater with an unmistakably cerebral form of discourse.
For this Blu-ray release, the Criterion Collection sourced a new 2K digital restoration, supervised by co-director Chris Hegedus. The transfer retains the heavy but even presence of grain typically found in films shot on 16mm, and the color balancing ensures natural skin tones and partially mitigates the harsher lighting in some shots that was caused by spotlights shining on the stage. D.A. Pennebakerâs frequently roving camera results in much motion blurring, but when itâs more stationary, the image is relatively sharp, offering a fair amount of facial detail, particularly in extreme close-ups. The uncompressed monaural soundtrack is free of hisses and pops, and while the dialogue spoken directly into the mics is perfectly clear, the subtitles will certainly help you follow every word shouted from the spirited audience.
The 2004 audio commentary featuring Hegedus and Germaine Greer serves as a perfect complement to Town Bloody Hall. Hegedus keeps the discussion lively, pressing Greer for details on how she felt meeting Norman Mailer, her reaction to the audience packed with New York intelligentsia rather than working-class women, and her opinions on the thoughts expressed by her fellow panelists throughout the film. Greer is particularly thoughtful in analyzing how her perspective on feminism has evolved over the years.
If Mailer wasnât abrasive and confrontational enough for you in the documentary, Criterion has included the entire 1971 episode of The Dick Cavett Show in which Mailer, fresh off the publication of âThe Prisoner of Sex,â appeared alongside Gore Vidal and journalist Janet Flanner. Vidal and Mailerâs bad blood comes to a hostile boil across an interview that sees the two men relentlessly trading verbal assaults, resulting in the typically affable Cavett telling Mailer where he can shove his question cards.
In a new interview with Hegedus, she discusses her early work as part of a collective of independent filmmakers newly emboldened by recent civil rights and environmental movements, as well as expresses the joys of having creative freedom balanced out by the lack of an outlet for films like hers to be shown in the â70s. Footage from a 2004 celebration of the film sees several of the panelists and filmmakers speaking of their disappointments in allowing Mailer to hijack much of the discussion and their gratification in having proven that feminists do indeed have senses of humor. The disc is rounded out with archival interviews with Greer and Mailer and a perceptive, comprehensive essay by film critic Melissa Anderson.
This Blu-ray release judiciously preserves a critical time capsule in public political discourse.
Director: Chris Hegedus, D.A. Pennebaker Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 1979 Buy: Video
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