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Review: Steve Martin: The Television Stuff on Shout! Factory DVD

As Steve’s grandmother would say: Be oblong and have your knees removed.

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Steve Martin: The Television Stuff

Steve Martin remains the quintessentially—if not indeed the first major—southern Californian stand-up comedian. If his humor at first appears to disavow the comic’s sworn duty to acknowledge expectations before overturning them (so many of his jokes are free-floating punchlines), consider what might have passed for “normative” behavior in the land of crowd-pleasing simulacra where his youth was spent. He was raised in Orange County, introduced to magic and theater in Anaheim’s theme parks, and, later, educated in philosophy at Long Beach. Sun-baked highway tentacles, meanwhile, stretched up the coast to the experiential playhouse of 1960s San Francisco, and into the barren east, toward Las Vegas’s mirage-like meretriciousness, where vaudeville and vocal pop were choking to death between oceanic stretches of hot and strange sand. And then, of course, there’s Los Angeles itself, where as the joke goes few natives actually succeed, a truism eternally enforcing a sense of outsidership on residents too close to the action to see the fun in it.

And from this peculiar mix of opportunity and alienation, Steve Martin is spawned: a non-Jewish funnyman who eschews both the folkways-needling prurience of Lenny Bruce and the hyperaware hipster rap of George Carlin. He instead takes the stage with a banjo (since he can actually play it, it’s an anti-prop) and one of those cheap plastic-arrow-through-the-head gag-rigs. He occasionally cites social particulars: Drug use is skewered in the brilliantly faux-colloquial “Let’s Get Small” bit, smoking bans in another. But he does so gently; the backward goal is to illuminate the myopic club life of his persona rather than the oddness of our world. “My name is Steve Martin,” he reminds us after a few jokes. “And I’ll be out here in a minute.” The only other popular comic who reveled in such self-deprecating dada was Woody Allen—who, interestingly enough, also got his start as a gag writer (Allen for Jack Benny, Martin for the Smothers Brothers) and whose ultimate goal was also filmmaking. But Martin’s primary joke, unlike Allen’s, was comedy itself—or, at least, the weird, hammy, “work the crowd” ethos that had been called comedy in stage acts and on TV variety shows for years.

Martin’s stage act—and to a lesser extent his later sketch work, both documented for posterity in Shout! Factory’s new DVD set—pivots on his character’s “anti-performer” quality, a joke requiring an audience that is not starved for entertainment. Los Angeles is full of unfunny failures; Martin’s daring was to die on stage repeatedly with grace. In his early routines, he stammers and bumps the mic and lectures about “professional show-business” and promises to “get the show started” and turns the most pedestrian of objects into broken-down props, like the stool that refuses to get sucked into Martin’s lungs the way he assures us it did a few nights ago. Martin’s ascent to unthinkable but well-deserved celebrity in the mid-‘70s now appears predicted by his character’s very awkwardness toward celebrity. The jokes are improved by the incongruous energy of large crowds who seemingly show up to make Martin’s poor, piddling jokes look even funnier—who endorse his non-comedy in droves so they’ll be “in on the act,” like the gullible townspeople in Huck Finn that make celebrities of conmen before tarring and feathering them. Martin’s shtick is no con, but it requires a similar (and stimulating) suspension of taste to enjoy.

As Martin’s memoir Born Standing Up bemoans, however, the success of this humorous posturing also very nearly precluded his evolution as an entertainer-artist. Not only would audiences have trouble taking a man prone to spurts of “Happy Feet” seriously as an actor, but Martin’s skills as a language-oriented punchline writer didn’t immediately gel with the conceptual nature of mid-‘70s sketch comedy or the narrative cohesiveness of film. The Television Stuff valuably tracks Martin’s transition through the former and into the latter by way of his yearly, Saturday Night Live-like variety specials. True to his L.A. roots, several of his skits spoof methods of personal conveyance. (In one, Martin buys a sedan that’s in perfect condition but upside down, then heads straight for the drive-thru; in another, he plays a rodeo performer who’s famous for riding bucking tortoises.) Others mock odd intersections of high and low in SoCal’s—and by proxy, New York’s—obstreperously middlebrow culture: Martin, fearing that a string quartet will bore a television audience, punctuates and enlivens a chamber concerto with dances and juggling; the “Wild and Crazy” Festrunk Brothers attend a feminist art exhibit hoping to cash in on Bohemia’s sexual permissiveness.

Martin’s comedy has been occasionally misunderstood as “gentle,” a judgment passed more often on his films (Roxanne, L.A. Story), but that varyingly applies to his earlier work as well; little boys may get pancaked by steamrollers in some skits, but Martin’s cerebral absurdity leant itself to a strangely anachronistic lack of prurience. This too, however, fits the presumed goals of Martin’s low-rent clown. If one’s act is lousy, he might as well render it suitable for all ages and discriminations, right? Good comedians seek to conquer coveted demographics; poor comedians want the world, and sometimes get it. (Think of Carrot Top’s ubiquity.)

Appropriately, the vice that fuels Martin’s stand-up and sketch personality is one that even children, especially southern Californian children, can relate to: greed. “I love money,” he says in his act. “I want to eat it.” Avarice, to Martin, makes the world go ‘round. In his first, Oscar-nominated short film, “The Absent-Minded Waiter,” Martin plays the titular character, a server who subjects restaurant-goers Buck Henry and Teri Garr to all sorts of culinary abuse. But they accept the punishment, because at the end of the meal, the topsy-turvy waiter pays them the total of their bill and then some. Total humiliation for the sake of the almighty dollar: What better description of show business is there?

Image/Sound

Ah, pre-digital television. It’s doomed to suffer in high definition by virtue of its interlacing alone. Still, Shout! Factory’s transfers are quite clean, respectfully reproducing the hot colors of late-night comedy back in the day, and a significant improvement over whatever VHS copies of these specials you might have lying around. The sound mixes are equally clear, though there’s tremolo in some of the older material, probably due to wear in magnetic tape masters.

Extras

Steve Martin’s brief comments on each disc are mostly flippant introductions; recalling his stand-up years for the memoir he penned was an obviously painful process he isn’t eager to repeat. Nevertheless, the comprehensiveness of this set gives much of the odds-and-ends style content the feel of a supplement, and there’s an entire disc devoted to brief snippets that span from Martin’s very first banjo-playing TV appearance (on Dusty’s Attic) to his acceptance speech for the Mark Twain Prize. (“I’m trying to remember that Mark Twain quote…how does it go? Oh, yes…’Whatever you do, for the love of god, don’t name a prize after me.'”) Furthermore, it would disrupt the flow to mention anywhere else in this review, but the funniest segment on the entire set has absolutely nothing to do with Steve Martin; Eric Idle, on loan from his Rutland Weekend days, ponders whether or not Stonehenge was built by dinosaurs in a special contribution to Steve Martin’s Best Show Ever. That Martin would allow a Monty Python veteran to upstage him says a lot, if not quite as much as visual aids that depict the hole-digging triceratops, rock-lugging brontosaurs, or Tyrannosaurus rex “looking gaily on.”

Overall

As Steve’s grandmother would say: Be oblong and have your knees removed.

Cast: Steve Martin, Dan Aykroyd, Laraine Newman, Lauren Hutton, John Belushi, Bill Murray, Lynn Redgrave, Paul Simon, David Letterman, Carl Reiner, Eric Idle and Johnny Cash Screenwriter: Steve Martin Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 390 min Rating: NR Year: 1976 - 2005 Release Date: September 18, 2012 Buy: Video

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Review: John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China on Shout! Blu-ray

The cast and crew interviews are the star of this disc, elaborating on the making of a misunderstood cult classic.

4

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Big Trouble in Little China

John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China is a relative outlier in the director’s poetically bleak filmography, a martial-arts adventure slash monster-comedy extravaganza that suggests an Indiana Jones movie that’s been mounted on a more intimate scale. Look deeper, though, and Big Trouble in Little China recalls the spirit of the work of Carpenter’s beloved Howard Hawks (who made the similarly uncharacteristic Land of the Pharaohs) in its obsession with a team unity that eclipses the efforts of any singular individual. Indiana Jones may have touches of erudition and the help of friends, but he’s unquestionably the man of action at any given moment, while this film’s Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) is more of a wannabe, a truck driver with a John Wayne bluster who talks tough and has authentic courage, while having no clue what he’s doing.

An early scene in Big Trouble in Little China is perhaps purposefully misleading. Jack is in San Francisco’s Chinatown playing pai gow with a group of Chinese-Americans. Jack wins and takes their money, suggesting that he will be the cocksure American of the movies who’s at ease wherever he goes, besting people at their own rituals. This a warm and funny—read: Hawksian—scene in which we’re allowed to revel in the somewhat contentious energy of these men. One of the Chinese-Americans is something of a friend of Jack’s, Wang (Dennis Dun), who loses big to him in a double-or-nothing gambit. Then, Wang and Jack are swept into a bizarre quest in which the American is nearly rendered the sidekick, forcing him to get by mostly on nerve. The film is both a celebration and parody of macho American ego.

It’s amazing how loose and charming a screen adventure can be when filmmakers are willing to play around and deflate a hero’s pomposity, even if they ultimately enjoy it. Accompanying Wang to the airport, still hoping to get his money, Jack hits on a gorgeous woman, Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall), and is promptly shot down for being drunk. When Chinese gangsters kidnap Wang’s fiancée, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), at the airport, Jack faces the gangsters and gets his ass kicked (though he is out-armed and outnumbered). Later, a wise and benevolent old sorcerer, Egg Shen (Victor Wong), delivers a bunch of exposition about Chinese black magic and the legacy of a demon named Lo Pan (James Hong), Jack says he feels like an outsider and everyone, especially Gracie, agrees. Eventually, Jack fires a machine gun into the air, finally feeling in his element, and sends a part of the ceiling crashing down on his head. And so on.

W.D. Richter’s screenplay abounds in clever one-liners that Carpenter skillfully under-emphasizes, while Russell, who’s played many un-ironic action heroes, embraces Jack’s foolishness with a lovely and graceful sense of abandon. In other words, Carpenter has it both ways: Jack is never more dashing than when crossing the master threshold of idiocy.

At the time of its release, critics complained that Big Trouble in Little China was neither an adventure, a comedy, nor a horror film, and that its characters were merely types, which is very much the point here. The stakes of the quest to rescue Miao Yin and Gracie from Lo Pan’s clutches are never high, as Carpenter is more interested in mounting a free-floating hang-out comedy that casually borrows from many genres, effectively announcing his ability to do whatever he pleases—a cocky sensibility that would influence future genre mix-masters.

Big Trouble in Little China often suggests a feature-length version of those idle moments in Hawks’s adventures, such as when Ricky Nelson’s character sang a song in Rio Bravo, only with the flippancy turned way up. The monsters and special effects are charmingly jokey—far more charming than those of Ivan Reitman’s similarly spirited Ghostbusters—and Carpenter’s beautiful widescreen compositions often liken the creatures to those of a spooky amusement-park ride, banishing them to nooks and crannies that presumably hide their puppeteers. Meanwhile, the martial-arts battles are funny, poignant, and concise, as Carpenter emphasizes singular gestures, such as an air-born swordfight, allowing them to cumulatively suggest stanzas in a poem. In its sense of controlled chaos, Big Trouble in Little China distinguishes itself from the figurative madness of the films of, say, Tsui Hark.

Despite the half-drunk, what-the-hell atmosphere, the humans in Big Trouble in Little China do register, which prevents this film from being as meaningless as genre pastiche-parodies like Stephen Sommers’s Mummy installments. Russell, with his gloriously cuckoo timing and absurd tank top, is the center of the narrative, but Dun, Cattrall, Pai, Li, and Wong have a poignant agency as well as an intergroup chemistry, and Hong wisely plays his role straight as a counterpoint to Russell. Lo Pan is an authentically elegant and frightening villain, whether mocking the heroes as an old man or hovering malevolently through his subterranean lair as an albino phantom warrior. And his exit, cleverly foreshadowed by an early scene between Jack and Wang, is both jolting and amusing, which is essentially this strange lark in a nutshell.

Image/Sound

The image here has a painterly quality that’s in keeping with John Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey’s intentions. Colors have a soft, almost watercolor quality and occasionally explode off the screen, such as the reds and greens of the various tiers of Lo Pan’s subterranean lair. Facial textures are quite detailed, such as the make-up for Kim Cattrall’s character when she’s fashioned as a bride for Lo Pan. There are two soundtracks: a 5.1 and 2.0. The mixes are clear but occasionally sound a little flat in terms of diegetic effects, though the score is robust and nuanced, allowing Carpenter’s fans to savor his synth collaboration with Alan Howarth. Overall, this is an appealing transfer, but it doesn’t quite feel definitive.

Extras

The new interviews are the highlight of this loaded supplements package, and they follow two overlapping thematic strands. On one hand, the interviews with virtually every person involved on Big Trouble in Little China offer a relatively full portrait of the film’s making (notably missing are the female actors), detailing how Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein’s original period western script was revised by co-screenwriter W.D. Richter to take place in the present day, and how Carpenter eventually took on directing duties, hiring friends and former collaborators such as Kurt Russell, second-unit director Tommy Lee Wallace, and Nick Castle, who played Michael Meyers in Halloween and helped perform with Carpenter and Wallace the theme song for Big Trouble in Little China.

Throughout these interviews, Carpenter is portrayed as a low-key man of many talents who knows how to command a set, and who feels the film’s comedy was misunderstood by the studio and initially the audience alike. The other strand, more poignantly, details the working experiences of the Asian actors in the cast, including Dennis Dun, James Hong, Donald Li, and Peter Kwong, who offer similar stories of combating Hollywood stereotypes and turning to acting as children as a way to fit into a Caucasian society.

There are also three audio commentaries, an archive one with Russell and Carpenter that’s a good informal listen, and two new tracks with producer Larry Franco and special effects artist Steve Johnson, respectively, that offer even more context on the film’s creation. All sorts of other goodies round out a superb set, including photo galleries, stills galleries, and a feature on the film’s various posters and lobby cards. This package is a treasure trove for fans of Big Trouble in Little China, especially for Carpenter acolytes.

Overall

The cast and crew interviews are the star of this Shout! Factory disc, elaborating on the making of a misunderstood cult classic.

Cast: Kurt Russell, Dennis Dun, Kim Cattrall, James Hong, Victor Wong, Kate Burton, Donald Li, Carter Wong, Peter Kwong, Suzee Pai, Chao Li Chi, James Pax, Jeff Imada, Craig Ng Director: John Carpenter Screenwriter: Gary Goldman, David Z. Weinstein, W.D. Richter Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 99 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 1986 Release Date: December 3, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Wim Wenders’s Until the End of the World on Criterion Blu-ray

The film remains a hypnotic yet foreboding look at how the proliferation of images and media technology affect the mind.

4

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Until the End of the World

Wim Wenders’s 287-minute sci-fi adventure Until the End of the World has the peculiar quality of being simultaneously elliptical and meticulously plotted. Though the 1991 film features no shortage of contemplative shots of futuristic vistas, both real and virtual, and exhibits an aversion to easy action-flick thrills, the narrative has all the intricacy one would expect of a cyberpunkian tale about the chase for stolen, mind-altering technology. Despite the story’s novelistic girth, most scenes wind up being indispensable both to the plot and to the film’s portrait of a specific, detailed milieu. Which is to say that the whole is akin to a good novel—a comparison that Wenders would likely appreciate, given that his prescient allegory of the postmodern condition ends up, somewhat paradoxically, propounding the virtues of words over images.

The pronouncement in favor of written language is uttered in Until the End of the World by the narrator character, Eugene (Sam Neill), as a kind of conclusion, after he’s witnessed the abyssal attraction that the digital image holds for his ex-girlfriend, Claire (Solveig Dommartin, who co-authored the film’s story), and the new object of her affection, Sam (William Hurt). Enthralled by a head-mounted camera invented by Sam’s father (Max von Sydow) that can read brainwaves—and, as it turns out, convert dreams into digital imagery—the two become obsessed by the potential of reading their unconscious mind’s nocturnal creations.

The images the device draws, presented in full frame in a few boldly experimental sequences, are multifarious, amorphous, and rapturously beautiful. Digital artifacts and posterizations, as a form of auto-animation, appear to imbue the images themselves with life, even as such imperfections obscure the objects actually depicted. These obscure but teeming visions compel Sam and Claire’s intense engagement, and in what’s perhaps the most clear-sighted prediction of the life in digitized society in a film chock-full of them, Wenders has his two principal characters spend much of the final act staring passively into digital devices, oblivious to the glowing orange-red vistas of the Australian Outback they wander through.

Set in 1999, Until the End of the World predicts with striking accuracy such turn-of-the-millennium devices as digital assistants, search engines, and consumer GPS navigation. The social order in which these objects are embedded also isn’t far off the mark. The film’s first half is a road trip through a globalized world auguring a post-Berlin Wall order that bears more than a passing likeness to our own: East Berlin glows with the neon of renewed capital investment; in the Soviet Union, espionage has been privatized; and San Francisco bears witness to the extreme income disparity wrought by the latter years of the Pax Americana.

The road trip that will end in the dreamland of Australia is kickstarted—though without the urgency the metaphor implies—when Claire turns off a French highway to avoid a traffic jam. This detour eventually brings her into contact with Sam, the trench-coat-clad, fedora-topped fugitive whose air of extralegal mystery and neo-noir cool draws Claire to him well before the film reveals its technological MacGuffin. As Sam, Hurt is a bit stiff, as if, like Claire, he’s unclear exactly who Sam is supposed to be—which works, to a degree, in the film’s first half, as the man has turned himself into a neutral medium, a recording device. It will eventually turn out that Sam has stolen his father’s experimental brain camera to collect images of the world that can now be conveyed directly to the visual cortex of his blind mother (Jeanne Moreau).

Wenders grounds Claire’s sudden and intense attraction to the apparent criminal by having Eugene’s detached voiceover narration describe Claire as flighty and adventurous. Such haphazard characterization is a hallmark of Until the End of the World: Wenders consistently proves less interested in a deep dive into the romantic triangle tying together Claire, Sam, and Eugene than he is in an exploration of the image-saturated milieus of the near future, with their omnipresent screens and glowing neon. He underlines the oneiric artificiality of these millennial environments with an expansive and justly renowned soundtrack—featuring songs by the Talking Heads, R.E.M., Peter Gabriel, and U2—that was more successful than the film itself upon release. That Until the End of the World at times comes off as the world’s longest music video arguably suits its project, as to ‘90s intellectuals there was no aesthetic more symptomatic of the forthcoming descent into visual oblivion as that of MTV.

Like Sam’s project, Until the End of the World is itself a compendium of images, with overt allusions to Jean-Luc Godard, Alfred Hitchcock, Yasujirō Ozu, and, somewhat randomly, Johannes Vermeer. Not to mention Wenders’s own previous films: The director’s use of the road as means of contemplating the gulf between image and experience recalls Alice in the Cities and his American breakout, Paris, Texas. If the meat of the film—the envelopment of the protagonists’ consciousnesses, as well as our own, in the chameleonic digital image, the tempting escape into virtuality—doesn’t come until rather late into the film’s 287-minute running time, it’s because Wenders first sets himself the gargantuan task of summarizing the state of the cinematic image at the moment of its eclipse. His film, well at home with the science fiction of its era, suggests that a shift in our means of apprehending the real is also an alteration of reality—the end, one could somewhat extravagantly claim, of the world itself.

Image/Sound

The new transfer of the film reveals cinematographer Robby Müller’s strikingly bright but deeply hued color palette in all its glory, from the saturated reds of the futuristic Kiev train station, to the lush greens of the Japanese countryside, to the dusty gray of bougie-bohemian Parisian apartment buildings. Wim Wenders, who oversaw the film’s restoration, makes best use of the remastered 5.1 soundtrack during the music sequences, using the more robust mix to create a greater sense of envelopment. By comparison, the film’s environmental sounds and dialogue are mixed flatly, but given how frequently songs appear under scenes, the disc assures an aural experience that’s overall on par with its visual one.

Extras

With this double-disc Blu-ray, Criterion offers an expansive but well-curated selection of extras organized around a few through lines. First, and lending itself to a certain auteur-worshipping romanticism, is the production history of the full Until the End of the World cut, which came in at the current length of 287 minutes. The film’s producers demanded severe edits, forcing Wim Wenders and editor Peter Przygodda to reduce the running time to 158 minutes. Wenders’s efforts to save his original vision are detailed in Bilge Ebiri’s illuminating booklet essay, a prolix title card that runs before the film, and in the filmmaker’s introduction for this Criterion release, as well as in an interview from German television from around the release of the director’s cut to German DVD in 2001.

Then there’s the film’s experimental use of digital video, so we get 1990 special from Japanese television featuring Wenders working on the pioneering digital footage shot for the film in Sony’s Tokyo-based labs. And finally there’s the hit soundtrack, so we get an additional booklet essay by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, adapted from a longer (and highly recommended) piece from The A.V. Club, that celebrates the unabashed hipness of Wenders’s musical taste, and a documentary about the recording of Nick Cave’s “(I’ll Love You) Till the End of the World” that provides fascinating glimpses of Berlin immediately after the fall of the wall. A bit out of place are a series of “deleted scenes” that are really 20 minutes of extended scenes and B roll.

Overall

A film at once hip, quirky, and serious-minded, Until the End of the World remains a hypnotic yet foreboding look at how the proliferation of images and media technology affect the mind.

Cast: William Hurt, Solveig Dommartin, Sam Neill, Max von Sydow, Rüdiger Volger, Ernie Dingo, Jeanne Moreau, Chick Ortega, Elena Smirnova, Eddy Mitchell, Chishu Ryu, Allen Garfield, Lois Chiles, Kuniko Miyake Director: Wim Wenders Screenwriter: Peter Carey, Wim Wenders Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 287 min Rating: R Year: 1991 Release Date: December 17, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: George Cukor’s Holiday on the Criterion Collection

Criterion’s release stands tall as what one, specific genius of the medium was able to do with a fair-to-middling play.

5

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Holiday

George Cukor’s 1938 masterpiece Holiday seems to have emerged from a happy and completely natural accord between talent and circumstances. Peel back a few layers and, like many established classics of Hollywood’s classical period, the truth is strange, and not at all neat.

The basic outline of the story is a wrinkle on the old conflict between restless, proto-hippie, free-spirit types and the maw of American aristocracy that threatens to devour them. Johnny Case (Cary Grant), having emerged from blue-collar stock and engineered an untenable balance between the shrewdly ambitious and the purposefully lackadaisical, has found himself engaged to be married into one of the richest old-money families in the country, the Setons. The family estate gives the film the perfect opportunity to indicate unfathomable American wealth, a yawning fortress tucked into the row of 5th Avenue’s Gilded Age townhouses. Holiday exploits the opportunity for all its tactile pleasures, almost unto itself grounding the fulcrum of its drama: The palace is a mausoleum, sure, but it’s also a very, very nice mausoleum—an architectural and interior design honey trap of the highest order.

These battle lines intersect within Johnny’s very soul, and his outward, competing angels are made manifest in his fiancée, Julia (Doris Nolan), and her sister, Linda (Katharine Hepburn). Julia is a deluxe wife in training, more than prepared for a life of meticulously managed leisure earned by the industry of Johnny’s business acumen. Linda, at the other end of the spectrum, is frequently charged with childishness, but it’s better to say that she dreams of actualizing a child’s pleasure long past the demarcation of adulthood. The prospect of marriage to Julia doesn’t come across as unappealing, but, serendipitously, and with some delayed reaction, Johnny and Linda provoke in each other a latent tendency to peaceful disobedience.

The very nature of the story’s pronounced dichotomy all but expressly circumscribes a path to victory for the free spirits, while the film’s romantic-comedy side implies a dual victory, a rhyming one, wherein the couple the audience was hoping for from the outset unites as the final music rises and Holiday blissfully fades out. A director and cast need not be especially clever or energetic to carry this tidy narrative to term, as Edward H. Griffith’s 1930 film Holiday—the first to bring Philip Barry’s play to the screen—amply demonstrates, but the ways that Cukor distinguishes his adaptation are self-evident.

The simplest way to explain the Cukor effect is by way of infusion, on a single, spectacular, and crucial set: Linda’s playroom. Already a visual and spatial centerpiece of the play, it’s transformed here into a Cukorian dynamo, a zone of thrilling provocation and mystery not to be found anywhere else in pictures. As a concept, it’s merely “important,” a crucial apparatus to put asunder the Setons’ pretty mausoleum and the far more animated life of Linda’s mind.

To be clear, the playroom would be a boon even to the most mediocre talent. In Cukor’s hands, it becomes a living space, a key component to the director’s entire vision. The ostensible “nonconformity versus responsibility” drama, while served dutifully, takes second seat behind a much larger artwork that breathes through its actors, and pushes energy currents through different rooms, and the meaning imbued by the dreams and plans projected therein.

Setting aside for a moment that Cukor was the one director cherished most by prestige-hungry moguls like David O. Selznick and Louis B. Mayer, or that he would sustain what seemed to be an indefatigable commitment to picture-making for five very busy decades, Cukor’s ingenuity had a lot to do with being someone who could apparently do it all. And as he would prove time and again, his polyvalent set of talents were crucial not only during the transition from one project to another (famously, at this point, he was already ramping up pre-production on Gone With the Wind, for Selznick), but in uniting the disparate elements of one project.

This kind of talent wasn’t mislaid when Cukor directed Holiday, as the project wasn’t entirely without potential pitfalls. Barry’s play often goads directors to make sure things resonate all the way to the nosebleed seats, with such bald enticements for audience goodwill as Linda hollering, “Oh, someone please, try and stop me!” A not-insignificant portion of the material depends on champagne-flute-shattering high notes like this, and Cukor is too shrewd a popular entertainer to declare himself an enemy of such gambits.

Other thorny matters include Grant’s performance. Hard as it may be for us to believe, while there could be no doubt that Grant was a lead actor by 1937 and 1938, it remained evident that the studios still weren’t entirely sure who he was or what he could do. That uncertainty somehow both feeds the dilemma that is Johnny and threatens to render it into a flattened absurdity all at the same time. Grant was an icon of impeccable style and poise, as well as the greatest dancer in non-musical cinema after Buster Keaton. His efforts early in Holiday to evince both romantic charm and devil-may-care absent-mindedness, with intimations of some deeper register of antisocial angst, are as strained as that cocktail of character traits sounds. A lock of unruly hair that falls across his forehead is made to work harder than it ought to, in order to sell Johnny as a nincompoop suffering from chronic distraction who nevertheless would bring home a rich fiancée during a casual skiing excursion.

Cukor—and Grant—make it abundantly clear that they don’t see Johnny as a problem that’s meant to be solved. Crucially, these early scenes are funny and evocative and have certain earmarks of Cukorian dexterity—a slight compression of scene choreography so that exposition and stagecraft resemble a strange game of undisclosed rules; a sprinkling of absurd non sequiturs intended only to be half-heard, not unlike the ones in Howard Hawks pictures.

Further, Johnny’s flightiness is sublimated to Linda, and, to a lesser (but still oddly moving) degree, Lew Ayres’s junior Seton man of the house, Ned. Ever after, threats of strained seriousness are either attacked or ignored, not only by Cukor or his highly adept screenwriters, Donald Ogden Stewart and Sidney Buchman, but by a robust esprit de corps that’s the result of a cast and crew brought together under the charge that no job is too small or thorny conceptual wrinkle too big. It’s this unity that lends Holiday its glow, its larger-than-life-ness, which is larger even than a star picture led by Hepburn and Grant That it’s also very funny, highly empathetic even to the losing side of its love arithmetic, and, in its way, an unspeakably sad elegy for the kind of privileged rebellion only possible in Hollywood pictures, it’s just the right kind of explosive ordnance you should aim directly at your heart, and fire.

Image/Sound

If the best black-and-white cinema from the 1930s had a reputation for being the silvery shimmer of dreamscapes, part of that was thanks to George Cukor’s impeccable aesthetic sense; you need only flip through a few random shots from Camille, Dinner at Eight, and Romeo and Juliet for evidence. Holiday is a little bit of a different kettle of fish, as oneiric visions of swooning romance just aren’t on the menu here. Rather, the countless images of patrician elegance, needing to suggest the very best that the very fattest stacks of Upper East Side cash could buy, needs to be positioned as the obverse side—but not alien to—the cockeyed snap of Linda’s playroom, a more deeply intimate cut into the flesh of American dreaming.

Under Cukor, Franz Planer’s monochrome cinematography is expertly tuned to every nuance, without undue exuberance, from the Setons’ cavernous antechambers to the cozy bookshelves in the background of the playroom. The new 4K restoration of Holiday honors the sophisticated lighting and compositions of Planer and Cukor’s design, helping to bring under one, smooth draught of Columbia monochrome, one of the deceptively light odes to the bittersweetness of ephemeral love and desire ever to emerge from that studio or any other.

That’s not to say that the soundtrack is relegated to backup. In a scene that’s by all reasonable metrics the heart of Holiday, Johnny and Linda look out over the New Years’ Eve revelers on the Seton lawn, happenstance making the celebration a private one for just these two. The soundtrack keeps the background rumble low, far-off sounding, yet perfectly clear, the better to steal a kiss, even more the better to demur an illicit romantic overture. In a Cukor picture where the quietest asides mean the most, the Blu-ray’s attention to the nuances of each layer of sound are no less significant than the picture, and Criterion’s uncompressed monaural track for the 4K restoration must be acquitted on all charges, by any jury in the world.

Extras

There’s a line from Cukor’s 1952 film Pat and Mike that I’ve been looking for an excuse to use in a review for quite a long time: “There’s not much meat on her, but what’s there is ‘cherce’.” Such is what Criterion has given us on the Holiday disc for supplements. Not to discount too steeply the value in the videotaped conversation between critic Michael Sragow and filmmaker Michael Schlesinger, or the vintage audio clips of Cukor discussing Holiday, but the real prize hog on the disc is Edward H. Griffith’s 1930 adaptation of the Philip Barry play.

The 1930 Holiday, which earned Ann Harding her only Oscar nomination, is perfectly dreadful in ways only prestige adaptations of theatrical properties can be, within that volatile period when talking pictures were the newest wonders offered by technology. Griffith’s direction is honor-bound and correct, if you will only evaluate the film as a means to convey the Barry play to cinema audiences who happen to need some coaxing to believe that actors can enunciate their lines, and be heard, in the same instance—the magic of the movies.

Otherwise, the film is as laborious and punishing as one might expect; in particular, Robert Ames’s Johnny Case is totally unconvincing. Ames, who, sadly, would exit this life in 1931 by way of acute alcoholism, makes a totally neutral Johnny—dutifully amplifying dialogue requiring emphasis but never for an instance suggesting an agent of liberation, for himself or anyone else. Elsewhere, Griffith’s direction is strictly without urgency, pushing the actors (leading the charge, as she often would, was the grand Mary Astor) only to hit their taped marks and speak with correct diction into microphones hidden in ornate vases.

Overall

Never mind the box sets: Here’s a slender, yet unquestionably crucial, presentation of one of the greatest films to emerge from any decade of American cinema, without qualification.

Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Doris Nolan, Lew Ayres, Edward Everett Horton, Henry Kolker, Binnie Barnes, Jean Dixon, Henry Daniell Director: George Cukor Screenwriter: Donald Ogden Stewart, Sidney Buchman Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 95 min Rating: NR Year: 1938 Release Date: January 7, 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: Richard Fleischer’s Trapped on Flicker Alley Blu-ray

This transfer of Fleischer’s B-film cheapie boasts a crisp image and strong contrast levels.

4

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Trapped

Before going on to direct such disparate genre fare as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Soylent Green, and Tora, Tora, Tora, Richard Fleischer cut his teeth directing B noirs at RKO Pictures, culminating in the 1952 classic The Narrow Margin. With 1949’s Trapped, Fleischer was loaned out as a hired gun for the Poverty Row studio Eagle-Lion Films—known primarily for producing the first four collaborations between Anthony Mann and cinematographer John Alton—where he was left to work his magic on an even more miniscule budget and a shooting schedule so tight, it could turn coal into a diamond.

Lacking any semblance of polished studio sheen, Trapped spins a gritty, no-nonsense yarn about a ruthless counterfeiter, Tris Stewart (Lloyd Bridges), who’s sprung from jail by the Treasury Department and tasked with hunting down his old counterfeiting plates, which are being used, after a three-year hiatus, to print fresh batches of dough. Despite working within the extreme budgetary limitations of the bargain-basement B film, Fleischer flashes some surprisingly adroit camerawork throughout, as well as an acute sense of composition that’s most prominent in the thrilling climactic sequence set in an empty trolley car station.

The characters also accrue a surprising complexity throughout, as high tensions arise from the conflicts between their aspirations and realities. Not only does Tris play both sides of the law once he’s back on the streets, but his girlfriend, Meg (Barbara Payton), is stuck working as a cigarette girl under the alias of Laurie Fredericks as she hides out from the cops. Even the seedy guy, John Downey (John Hoyt), who’s been keeping Laurie company at the club while Tris is behind bars has been working a long con as one of the numerous T-Men on hand to ensure Tris leads the way to the elusive and invaluable plates. Struggling with the challenges of balancing these dual identities, these characters’ frequently dicey attempts to play both sides of the law effectively blur the thin line between good and evil.

Trapped borrows liberally from earlier Poverty Row successes and relies on an intermittent docudrama aesthetic to lend an immediacy and authenticity to its drama. Despite being obviously indebted to T-Men, Trapped sets itself apart from Anthony Mann’s film with a series of elaborately conceived double-crossings and a brutally violent streak that Bridges, already warming up for his equally maniacal performance in Cy Endfield’s The Sound of Fury the following year, carries through the film’s first hour until his abrupt and unceremonious exit.

Tris’s quick temper and savage thirst for trouble enlivens nearly every scene he’s in. And each of the fights he’s involved in—three with T-Men and one with a former partner he roughs up just for the hell of it—play out with an exhilarating rawness as men awkwardly flail about, their every punch and kick carrying conveying a manic sense of desperation. Although the narrative’s seams begin to reveal themselves toward the end (with such details as Tris’s absence from the film’s final 15 minutes seeming less intentional than a byproduct of a script rushed into production), Fleischer and Bridges’s work gives Trapped a terse vitality that propels it through its duller, less inspired passages.

Image/Sound

Soon after its release, Trapped was, like most Poverty Row films, thoughtlessly condemned to the murky waters of the public domain, where it could only be seen in extremely poor quality. Following the recent discovery of a 35mm acetate print of Richard Fleischer’s film, the Film Noir Foundation and the UCLA Film & Television Archive went to work on producing the beautiful restoration available here. Flicker Alley’s transfer boasts a crisp image and strong contrast levels, effectively restoring the rich details of the film’s location shooting. Slight signs of dirt and debris still remain, but these minor imperfections do little to hamper just how good the image looks here. The audio is quite impressive as well, with a nicely balanced mix, clean dialogue, and a complete absence of hisses and pops.

Extras

Per usual with their Blu-ray releases of new restorations, Flicker Alley has included an informative and engaging commentary track, this time with author Alan K. Rode and film historian Julie Kirgo. The two have a charming repartee, and their affection for Trapped and many of the oft-forgotten noir cheapies churned out on Poverty Row comes through loud and clear. Along with providing ample historical background about Eagle-Lion Films, particularly head producer Bryan Foy’s legendary cutthroat cheapness and efficiency, Rode and Kirgo ably traverse Bridges and Fleischer’s careers, as well as the tragic life of actress Barbara Payton. The package also includes two featurettes—one which touches upon the film’s Los Angeles location shooting and Fleischer’s lean, economical style, and another that explores Fleischer’s rise from B-film obscurity to a dependable major studio director—as well as a 24-page booklet with storyboards and artwork from the film and brief bios of its major cast and crew.

Overall

Flicker Alley’s fantastic Blu-ray release gives Richard Fleischer’s B-film cheapie the tender, loving care typically afforded only to major studio fare or canonical classics.

Cast: Lloyd Bridges, Barbara Payton, John Hoyt, James Todd, Russ Conway, Robert Karnes, Robert Carson Director: Richard Fleischer Screenwriter: Earl Felton, George Zuckerman Distributor: Flicker Alley Running Time: 78 min Rating: NR Year: 1949 Release Date: December 31, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

Schrader’s lively and despairing first film as director has never been more relevant.

4

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Blue Collar

Audiences familiar with Paul Schrader’s customarily austere aesthetic may be surprised by the jocularity of his 1978 directorial debut, Blue Collar. Following three broke auto workers living in Detroit, the film has long passages of wittily profane, seemingly improvisatory dialogue that reveals the day-to-day tempo of the men’s lives, suggesting the scenes between the various cab drivers in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, which Schrader wrote. One particularly audacious comic sequence sees Schrader expressing his characters’ desperation and poverty in a series of comic twists so evocatively absurd, sad, and politically enraged that they suggest a Buñuel set piece. Zeke (Richard Pryor), the angriest of the men, has been caught lying about the amount of children he has to the I.R.S., and so his wife, Caroline (Chip Fields) runs over to a neighbor’s house to grab more kids while he stalls an agent (Leonard Gaines). Riffing wildly, Zeke tries to tell the agent that his extra children have names such as Jim Brown and Sugar Ray. This sort of scene can scarcely be found in many of Schrader’s most famous films as director, and such playfulness was leeched entirely of his next directorial effort, the solemn, deadening Hardcore.

This liveliness, this tonal variety, is shrewdly utilized by Schrader as a form of misdirection. Blue Collar is driven by a tragic thesis, and it’s as bleak and furious as any film Schrader has made since, but it takes its time and allows you to get your guard down. There’s even a genre hook, which Schrader casually subverts. Zeke and his co-workers and drinking buddies, Jerry (Harvey Keitel) and Smokey (Yaphet Kotto), fed up with being exploited by the auto plant and their union, decide to rob the latter’s office. In a conventional film, even one with political ambitions, such a heist would generate thrills. For Schrader, the robbery is a banal, dryly funny spectacle—a humdrum extension of the trio’s frustrating lives. They come away with nearly nothing and inadvertently benefit the union, which lies about its losses for insurance money. This failure splinters the men, and this dissolution is what truly interests Schrader.

In most heist movies, criminals fall out over the ill-gotten booty. In Blue Collar, Zeke, Jerry, and Smokey are driven apart because they are expertly manipulated by larger social forces. The union turns the men against one another in order to nullify the threat of their potential unrest—a theme that couldn’t be more timely in an age in which we’re conditioned to despise one another for our political affiliations while monopolies are forged and vast quantities of money are controlled by fewer and fewer essential oligarchs. Yet Schrader, with his sense of comedy, with his innate grasp of the working-class textures of his characters’ lives, never renders this theme into a dull sermon. Blue Collar is a surprising and emotionally robust experience.

Pryor, Kotto, and Keitel have a profoundly convincing chemistry, and Schrader modulates their performances with a confidence that would be impressive for anyone, let alone a first-time director. We’re always keyed into each man’s specific energy, and to how those energies coalesce when they’re together. Zeke is a livewire hothead, which allows Pryor to tap the same performative demons he channeled for stand-up, but Pryor’s performance doesn’t represent a mere change of setting, as his acting is a true, volatile expression of Zeke’s bitterness, which is channeled, via the character and the actor’s intelligence, into conversational riffs that suggest the “stand-up” of everyone’s regular lives. Kotto invests Smokey with a simmering, subtler intensity, while Keitel embodies the anxiety of the comparatively straight rational man—the odd man out among eccentrics in an extraordinary series of situations. (Schrader and the cast also understand these various dynamics to be informed by racial tension: Zeke and Smokey are African-American and Jerry is Caucasian, a difference in perspective and station that isn’t outwardly acknowledged until a devastating late scene between Zeke and Jerry.)

Blue Collar also features one of Schrader’s finest and most disturbing set pieces, in which his themes are expressed through a series of piercing physical gestures. Smokey is murdered by the union for his involvement in the theft, and he’s locked into a chamber where cars are spray-painted, with the fumes of the paint gradually suffocating and poisoning him. This is a wrenchingly protracted scene, showing Smokey as the life is gradually snuffed out of him, his struggles coming to nothing and drowned out by the chilling drone of the spray-paint apparatus. Schrader’s awareness of the finest details, especially the sound of the spraying of the paint, give this scene an uncanny, almost supernatural sense of cruelty, as Smokey comes to embody every person that every company has matter-of-factly annihilated.

Image/Sound

This transfer offers a clean, detailed, appropriately gritty image. Skin textures are vivid, as one can see the men sweating as they labor in the auto plant, and colors are lively, especially the silver of the chrome in the plant, which gleams with a white heat, testifying to the extremity of the working conditions. The sound mix is well balanced with a few show-pony qualities, such as the exhilaratingly rendered strings of Jack Nitzsche’s Bo Diddley-inspired score.

Extras

The archive audio commentary by writer-director Paul Schrader and journalist Maitland McDonagh is a detailed and fascinating listen, especially for Schrader’s descriptions of working with his famously contentious leading men. Richard Pryor, Yaphet Kotto, and Harvey Keitel all worked differently and all resented one another, and Schrader felt that he had no control and was merely trying to “survive” the production. (Given this context, the amount of control that’s evident in the film is all the more remarkable.) Pryor would come into a scene hot from the first take and would soon flame out, while Keitel needed to warm up, so Schrader was often shooting Pryor’s first take and Keitel’s, say, 10th, which was achieved by having Keitel rehearse separately. Pryor had racial resentments, and would provoke his co-stars, possibly to stimulate himself artistically, while every actor suspected the other to be the true star of the production. These conditions informed the formal qualities of Blue Collar as well, as the camera rarely moves, mostly because Schrader had trouble getting coverage. (Austere camera movements would soon become a signature of his aesthetic.) Interestingly enough, Pryor eventually said that he wanted Schrader to make a movie about his life, claiming he was the only director who understood him. This commentary is the only supplement on this disc, but it offers a rich glimpse into a film that deserves more attention.

Overall

Paul Schrader’s lively and despairing first film as director has never been more relevant, and this disc should hopefully lift it from undeserved semi-obscurity.

Cast: Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, Yaphet Kotto, Ed Begley Jr., Harry Bellaver, George Memmoli, Lucy Saroyan, Lane Smith, Cliff DeYoung, Borah Silver, Chip Fields, Leonard Gaines Director: Paul Schrader Screenwriter: Paul Schrader, Leonard Schrader Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 114 min Rating: R Year: 1978 Release Date: December 10, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve on Criterion Blu-ray

Somewhere along the way, this release turned out to be a mere carbon copy.

4

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All About Eve

Not all masterpieces grow richer with age as both viewers and the films they revisit grow older, nor are they expected to. But nothing ages quite like sophistication, and there are few Hollywood productions as sophisticated as All About Eve. Nor are there many films whose “quiet qualities,” as Margo Channing (Bette Davis) chides about the obsequious Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), wear better with time as the formal “fire and music” of so many other paragons of early-stage cinephilia inevitably lose their freshness, leaving only memories of excitement behind. Written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz at the height of his powers, All About Eve is truly a film for every era, balanced in such a manner that it miraculously gives receptive audiences exactly what they need when they need it. And I never realized to what extent the truth of that bears out until my very most recent viewing, as I arrived upon the scene and speech that always gave me reservations, a gear-shifting moment that for me had until recently always ground the entire production to a deflating halt: Margo’s contrite “book full of clippings” speech.

For its first 90 minutes or so, All About Eve runs two marathons’ worth of sparkling, bitchy repartee, with Margo thrusting her bon-mot baton many miles in front of the pack as she fends off the requirements of Broadway superstardom, the encroachment of middle age, and the obsequious attentions lavished upon her very being by the seemingly meek stage-door lamprey Eve. Then, due to the machinations of her best friend, Karen Richards (Celeste Holm, striking a pitch-perfect balance between poised and patronizing), Margo winds up stranded in the countryside in a car without gas, very clearly about to miss her first performance in many years, unaware that Karen has arranged things so that Eve, the interloper no one’s yet aware is about to upend all their lives, can step on as her new understudy, and tantrum-prone Margo can learn a lesson in humility. Surprisingly, Margo takes her impending truancy in stride, and sentimentally launches into a long reverie about domesticity:

“The things you drop on your way up the ladder…you forget you’ll need them again when you get back to being a woman.…In the last analysis, nothing is any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around and bed, and there he is. Without that, you’re not a woman. You’re something with a French provincial office, or a book full of clippings, but you’re not a woman.”

Say what? Most contemporary audiences coming to All About Eve in the last few decades, or indeed ever since Davis was crowned the queen mother of camp’s golden age, are invariably lured in by the promise of all-time diva fireworks, served with cosmopolitan flair on a cocktail napkin. Closeted teenage me was certainly no exception, lapping up every last one of Davis’s full-throated assaults on whatever poor sap happened to be standing in front of her at the tail end of a violent mood swing. But even from the very first time I watched the film, I was aware that Mankiewicz’s energies never seemed directed toward behavioral antics as ends unto themselves. In Slant’s previous review of All About Eve, a regrettably skeptical Joseph Jon Lanthier noted that the film’s most quotable call-to-arms (“Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!”) is followed by “inebriated self-pity instead of the anticipated bitch-out,” as though the prime function of the scene, the character, and the film is to supply an endless stream of incisive, proto-Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? tongue-lashings.

Margo’s third act-ushering about-face while seated in that stalled car alongside Karen changes the entire chemistry of the film. Suffice it to say, her unambiguous embrace of domesticity would seem on its surface to be a byproduct of the times, and certainly a tough pill to swallow for equality-minded, doggedly individualistic modern Americans. But All About Eve—talky, stagy All About Eve—isn’t a surface film. Davis delivers the sentiment that, without a man, you’re not a woman with a look in her eyes that belies her real-life, on-set romance with co-star Gary Merrill, who plays Margo’s director and paramour, Bill Sampson, in the film, and who would become Davis’s last and longest-lasting husband thereafter.

Audiences might be surprised by Margo’s sudden and unequivocal semi-retirement from the spotlight, but Davis’s expression clearly telegraphs that she herself isn’t; it’s what she knew she always wanted. I, not being nearly as wise as Margo, never knew that’s also what I wanted as I, like Margo, spent the first 40 years of my life pursuing drama (in my case, only vicariously through films like this one) while avoiding—make that actively self-sabotaging myself out of—healthy relationships. To revisit All About Eve today, with an engagement ring my teenage self never once dreamed I’d get having been placed on my finger not more than 48 hours earlier, is to recognize how masterpieces aren’t aged in wood (to borrow the title of Margo’s starring vehicle on Broadway) so much as they continue to live alongside their viewers’ own lives.

Image/Sound

Those aiming to add Criterion’s new edition to their collection on the hope that it represents a significant upgrade from the most-recent transfer before it needn’t push this to the top of their shopping lists. Because 20th Century Fox’s 2011 release looks virtually identical to Criterion’s new 4K restoration, which could very well be the mark of an original print well-preserved. Criterion’s presentation offers rich monochromatic range, and vibrantly active grain. The display is superb enough, in fact, to drive home just how underrated the film is, formally speaking. You catch every glint of Margo’s bottomless martini glass, every fastidious strand of Eve’s wrapped-too-tight coif, every furrow in dyspeptic producer Max Fabian’s brow. Cue this disc up—or, you know, the previous edition—and banish all misconceptions of All About Eve as a “filmed play.” Criterion’s disc does away with a whole boatload of alternate-language soundtracks featured on the 20th Century Fox release, but no one’s going to morosely request the party pianist play “Liebestraum” over that omission.

Extras

As with the image and sound bona fides, Criterion’s release largely recycles the most prominent bonus features from previous editions, making this particular Criterion edition vexingly superfluous in a way that very few other of their releases are. Even worse, the cardboard digipak packaging is a flimsy mess, with sticky rubber fasteners holding the discs in until they’re inevitably torn off—fasteners which also unfortunately grab onto the cover of the included booklet (my copy was torn at the staples as a result). Which is all to say that those picking it up just because it’s Criterion and they have a display fetish will already have had their main incentive taken away due to the shoddy package design.

Among the features new to this All About Eve set are the two-hour 1983 documentary All About Mankiewicz, which centers around film historian Michel Ciment’s interviews with the writer-director. It’s probably the meatiest extra in the entire set, and well worth your time. Of the two commentary tracks, I personally got more out of All About All About Eve author Sam Staggs’s slightly dishy track, despite its occasional lapses into silence, but odds are good that the film’s fans will eat up Celeste Holm’s observations on the other track, and might wish she didn’t have to share space with Christopher Mankiewicz and biographer Ken Geist.

As with Criterion’s Now, Voyager release, there’s vintage Dick Cavett footage, not only another episode with Bette Davis, but also a wonderful separate interview with Gary Merrill, from back in an era where a national talk show could feature a Gary Merrill and not be hopelessly anachronistic. Amid the rest of the well-stocked set’s reruns are a few other newly produced items, foremost among them a 20-minute chat with costume historian Larry McQueen, who unpacks the film’s immortal outfits, including the legendary party dress that Davis, at the last minute, pulled off her shoulders to ensure production wouldn’t be delayed.

Overall

All About Eve may be an essential film, and Criterion may be an essential cinephile label, but somewhere along the way, this release turned out to be a mere carbon copy.

Cast: Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders, Celeste Holm, Gary Merrill, Hugh Marlowe, Gregory Ratoff, Thelma Ritter, Marilyn Monroe, Barbara Bates, Walter Hampden Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz Screenwriter: Joseph L. Mankiewicz Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 138 min Rating: NR Year: 1950 Release Date: November 26, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: The Complete Sartana Rides Onto Arrow Video Blu-ray

Grab your magician’s cape and pepperbox pistol, Arrow’s box set just rode into town.

4.5

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The Complete Sartana

What unites the wildly unpredictable and unabashedly entertaining Sartana films—despite the disparate contributions of two directors, a bevy of screenwriters, and two very different leading men—are the iconographic elements of the eponymous character himself: his red-and-black magician’s cape, the pepperbox pistol and other baroque gadgets that he has at the ready, not to mention his ubiquitous smoke-billowing cigarillo. Their storylines, often structured as a mystery, are ingenious Rube Goldberg contraptions that deliver sudden reversals of fortune, typically emphasizing the perils of deceptive appearances. There’s loads of violence and gunplay throughout, with occasionally astronomical body counts, yet little in the way of graphic blood and guts, which lends the films an aura of old-school charm.

Co-written and directed by Gianfranco Parolini (billed on screen as Frank Kramer), If You Meet Sartana…Pray for Your Death opens with Sartana (Gianni Garko) rescuing an elderly couple in a stagecoach from a gang led by Morgan (Klaus Kinski). Over in another part of the desert, a shipment of gold is hijacked by another gang that’s subsequently mowed down with a Gatling gun by Lasky (William Berger), who, in turn, discovers the strongbox to be full of rocks instead of gold bars. The central mystery in the film will concern what happened to the gold.

In the baroquely convoluted storyline, these factions head into town, where they play out various permutations of alliance and opposition. While the general setup for the film may seem stereotypical, the devil is in the details of the execution. Parolini brings all the style—painterly compositions, sleek camera movement, brisk, cleverly blocked action set pieces—we have come to expect from Italian westerns. But he takes things just a bit further: Indeed, the last reel of the film looks like it could have been shot by Mario Bava.

I Am Sartana, Your Angel of Death finds Sartana (Garko again) framed for a bank robbery he didn’t commit. Director Giuliano Carnimeo, who would helm the rest of the series, brings an even more outrageous eye to the proceedings: The camera tilts and flops over every time someone gets gunned down (which is often). Carnimeo seems to favor distortion, like the bug-eye prismatic effect achieved by shooting through a beveled beer mug. The storyline provides a more amusing (and larger) role for Kinski, playing the bizarrely named Hot Dead, a gun forced to hire himself out due to an unending losing streak at gambling.

With Sartana’s Here…Trade Your Pistol for a Coffin, George Hilton steps into the title role for a single outing. The film also features a larger role for a female lead than earlier entries in the series, which had been populated almost exclusively by men. But the role isn’t terribly novel, as Trixie (Erika Blanc) the saloon owner is your prototypical femme fatale. Where the film does inject some novelty is in the person of Sabbath (Charles Southwood), a poetry-spouting bounty hunter dressed entirely in white to contrast Sartana’s black-based ensemble.

Garko returns for Have a Good Funeral My Friend…Sartana Will Pay, which centers on a murdered prospector whose land is said to contain a motherlode of gold. When the man’s niece, Abigail (Daniela Giordano), turns up in Indian Creek to secure her inheritance, it seems like everyone in town has a plan to wrest the gold away from her. In addition to Giordano’s appealing feminine presence, there’s also genre film stalwart Helga Liné as a saloon girl. Apart from the increased roles for women, the film trades in a good deal of racial stereotyping with regard to the presence of the Fu Manchu-like Lee Tse Tung (George Wang), whose den of iniquity features prominently in the storyline.

Light the Fuse…Sartana Is Coming, the final film in the series, is also arguably the finest. The opening has Sartana gunning down a corrupt sheriff and allowing himself to be sent to a brutal penitentiary for it. (The prison, incidentally, is designed to look like a Vietnam War-era POW camp.) Turns out he’s there to meet up with Granville (Piero Lulli), who has information about two million in gold and counterfeit bills that went missing after a mysterious three-way gunfight. The film keeps upping the ante throughout, replete with double- and triple-crosses and ever-escalating gun battles. The last battle culminates in the series’ most surreal imagery: Sartana playing the organ in middle of Mansfield’s main street, only to have the musical instrument morph into a fantastical instrument of death.

Image/Sound

All five films in the Sartana series, each housed on its own Blu-ray disc, are presented in new 2K restorations. If You Meet Sartana…Pray for Your Death was sourced from a 35mm print, and as a result looks the weakest by comparison, with some distracting (and occasionally persistent) vertical scratches and other artefacts evident. The remaining films were sourced from original camera negatives, and the results are uniformly outstanding. Colors are vivid, flesh tones lifelike, grain properly filmic, and black levels largely uncrushed. The transfers exhibit excellent depth and clarity. Each film includes both Italian and English tracks in Master Audio mono mixes. The Italian tracks are the default, but the English may be your better bet, since they tend to be more quirkily idiomatic, and many of the characters appear to be delivering their lines in English in the first place. Regardless of your choice, dialogue comes through clearly, ambient effects have some depth (albeit at times a bit boxy), and the idiosyncratic scores from the likes of Piero Piccioni and Bruno Nicolai sound terrific.

Extras

Arrow Video includes a bumper crop of supplements for their Sartana box set. The first, second, and fourth films in the series come with commentary tracks, the first from German documentary filmmaker Mike Siegel, while the others feature film historians C. Courtney Joyner and Henry Parke. After laying out his genre bona fides at some length, Siegel dives into the series as a whole, describing the first appearance of the Sartana character as a black hat in a non-Sartana film, then leaning heavily into the cast and crew members’ connections to many other Italian westerns. Siegel provides an intriguing European appraisal of the films. Joyner and Parke exhibit an amiable tag-team approach, with Joyner more often than not taking point in the discussion, and Parke putting in his take from time to time. Scattered across all five discs are lengthy interviews (some archival, some newly filmed) with various cast and crew members, whose recollections range from a bit fuzzy to crystal clear. The featurette “Light the Fuse: Sartana’s Casting” provides biographical snippets for a number of familiar genre players who turn up throughout the series. Each disc comes with a gallery of colorful and strikingly designed promotional materials from the Mike Siegel Archives.

Overall

Grab your magician’s cape and pepperbox pistol, Arrow Video’s Complete Sartana box set just rode into town.

Cast: Gianni Garko, William Berger, Klaus Kinski, Sydney Chaplin, Gianni Rizzo, Fernando Sancho, Andrea Scotti, Franco Pesce, Heidi Fischer, Sabine Sun, Frank Wolff, Gordon Mitchell, Ettore Manni, Sal Borgese, Renato Baldini, Federico Boido, George Hilton, Charles Southwood, Erika Blanc, Piero Lulli, Daniela Giordano, Helga Liné, Rick Boyd, George Wang, Nieves Navarro, Massimo Serato, José Jaspe, Frank Brana Director: Gianfranco Parolini, Giuliano Carnimeo Screenwriter: Gianfranco Parolini, Renato Izzo, Theo Maria Werner, Tito Carpi, Enzo Dell’Aquila, Ernesto Gastaldi, Giovanni Simonelli, Roberto Gianviti, Eduardo Maria Brochero Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 480 min Rating: NR Year: 1968 - 1970 Release Date: December 17, 2019 Buy: Video

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The 30 Best Home Video Releases of 2019

More than ever, there’s a necessity for the acquisition of physical media.

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The 30 Best Home Video Releases of 2019
Photo: The Criterion Collection

Endlessly proliferating streaming platforms deliver more content each year, successfully tapping heretofore unexpected niche markets and serving an astounding variety of target demographics. (And that’s only the companies that Disney doesn’t own.) What subscribers don’t always realize, however, is that they’re at best leasing that content, even when they appear to have purchased a title outright. Films, in other words, are provisionally available merely at the caprice of our corporate overlords.

All of this is to state what might seem—to legions of devoted cinephiles and collectors alike—a glaringly obvious truth: that there’s a continuing necessity for the acquisition of physical media. Fortunately for us, every year there’s a veritable embarrassment of riches to select from, a bounty of art-house and cult titles dropping each and every Tuesday. They’re supplied by home-video stalwarts like the Criterion Collection and Arrow Video, as well as smaller boutique labels like Vinegar Syndrome, Film Movement, Flicker Alley, and Arbelos—all of whom have released titles that appear on our annual best-of list.

It’s the curatorial expertise these companies lavish on their releases that both renders them eminently collectible and sets them apart from the typically barebones and context-free content available on most streaming services. These companies’ discernment and attention to detail extends not only to the aesthetics of their packaging—replete with often reversible cover art, informative booklets, foldout posters, soundtrack CDs, and other booty—but also to well-chosen supplemental features, which provide a historical and formal framework for developing a deeper appreciation of the films and their makers. Our roundup of the best home-video titles of 2019 cherry-picks those releases that best exemplify these tendencies. Budd Wilkins


American Horror Project Vol. 2

American Horror Project Vol. 2, Arrow Video

With American Horror Project: Volume Two, Arrow Video and curators Ewan Cant and Stephen Thrower continue the endeavor they started in 2016 with American Horror Project: Volume One, restoring obscure horror films and according them the respect and prominence of a lush box set with all the trimmings. The existence of such sets is aesthetically and historically symbolic, correctly suggesting that certain films relegated to drive-ins and video stores are worthy of the respect and consideration of tonier productions that are preserved by, say, the Criterion Collection. At the forefront of this project’s concerns are complementary notions of preservation and cultivation. These sets reacquaint us with low-budget films that can be made around and about a small rural area and still potentially attract national attention, while also reminding us of an analogue era, when such films, denied the slickness that can now come at the touch of an iPhone button, practically convulsed with the efforts of their strapped and scrappy creators. These films (Dream No Evil, Dark August, and The Child) are urgent testaments to the cliché of necessity being the mother of invention, as their scarce resources and naïveté beget explorations of madness and alienation that are stripped of the implicit assurances of luxurious, self-effacing studio-style production values. Chuck Bowen


An American Werewolf in London

An American Werewolf in London, Arrow Video

Arrow’s new 4K restoration improves considerably on Universal’s previous editions of the film, with colors in low-light and nighttime scenes really coming across. And the studio has ported over practically every available bonus feature from all those earlier Universal home-video releases and added some impressive new ones. The best of the older material is far and away Paul Davis’s 2009 making-of documentary Beware the Moon, which runs slightly longer than An American Werewolf in London itself. Davis covers every detail and aspect of the film’s production from its conception in 1969 to its release and reception in 1981. The new audio commentary from filmmaker Paul Davis miraculously contains little in the way of overlap with his making-of documentary, culling new anecdotes that were uncovered during research for his book on the film, including some fascinating information about deleted and extended scenes whose original elements have been lost. Elsewhere, the terrific feature-length documentary Mark of the Beast is a deep-dive into the figure of the wolf man from a well-selected roster of film historians and technicians, beginning with the ubiquity of the lycanthrope or shapeshifter archetype across human cultures, laying out how screenwriter Curt Siodmak singlehandedly concocted the “lore” of the werewolf (pentagrams, silver bullets, wolf’s bane) for The Wolf Man. Wilkins


Apocalypse Now: Final Cut

Apocalypse Now: Final Cut, Lionsgate Home Entertainment

Just as Lionsgate’s last Blu-ray edition of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now boasted reference-quality audio and video, so, too, were its extras exhaustive. This six-disc release includes everything from the previous release, including Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, which as become as legendary at this point as the film its documents. There are too many extras to enumerate, with featurettes on every single aspect of the film’s production, from its casting to its sound mixing. There are deleted scenes, including an entire alternate ending where Kurtz’s compound is napalmed, as well as audio from a 1938 Mercury Theatre radio production of Joseph Conrad’s novella. Astonishingly, there are even more extras this time around, with the final disc containing the documentary and a wealth of new, retrospective features that detail Apocalypse Now’s latest audio and visual restoration. There’s also additional behind-the-scenes footage, as well as a Q&A between Coppola and Steven Soderbergh. Jake Cole


The Blob

The Blob, Shout! Factory

Shout! Factory gives fans and collectors a Blu-ray that will stand as the definitive edition of Chuck Russell’s undervalued gem for many years to come. For starters, the disc comes with three feature-length commentary tracks, two of which are newly recorded. In the first of those, Russell, special effects artist Tony Gardner, and cinematographer Mark Irwin get into The Blob’s botched theatrical release, the influence of Hitchcock’s Psycho on the film’s narrative misdirects, and the challenges of location shooting and working on a tight budget. The second and other new track, with lead actress Shawnee Smith, offers little more than aimless reminiscing and admiration for how well the film holds up. And the third track is a previously recorded one with Russell and producer Ryan Turek, and as such has a bit of crossover with Russell’s newly recorded one. But their rapport is engaging, and Russell’s passion for his work and that of others is unmistakable, especially as he discusses his personal feelings for Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr.’s original The Blob and how he tried to strike new ground with his remake, while remaining respectful of its forebearer. The disc also comes with a staggering 11 interviews, covering virtually every aspect of the film’s production and post-production processes. Derek Smith


Blue Velvet

Blue Velvet, The Criterion Collection

Per the disc’s liner notes, this new transfer was created in 16-bit 4K resolution from the 35mm A/B negative and was supervised by David Lynch. The results are spectacular, with radiant colors and a purposefully soft grittiness that intensifies the film’s luridly dreamy feeling. Most important, though, is the profound weight and materiality of surface textures in this image, which is important to Lynch’s fetishistic aesthetic. All of Lynch’s pet obsessions—lamps, drapes, lipstick, food, smokestacks—practically pop off the screen. The most notable supplement on the release is a 54-minute collection of deleted scenes, which have been assembled by Lynch more or less in chronological order, suggesting an entire omitted opening act of Blue Velvet. The cut footage fleshes out Jeffrey’s reasons for returning to his hometown from college, and offers many more scenes of his aunt and mother (played by Frances Bay and Priscilla Pointer, respectively). Also essential is “Blue Velvet Revisited,” an 89-minute documentary by director Peter Braatz that uses free-associative editing to offer a one-of-kind portrait of the film’s production. Braatz includes stock footage, intimate still photos, such as of Lynch taping the word “Lumberton” onto an ice truck, and uses interviews as a form of narration. Bowen


The BRD Trilogy

The BRD Trilogy, The Criterion Collection

The films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s BRD trilogy pull off a difficult magic trick, feeling timeless and viscerally in the moment. With his supernatural ability to crank out productions at a rapid clip, Fassbinder achieved what Kent Jones describes as a “direct correlation between living and fiction-making”—a quality that’s also evident in Jean-Luc Godard’s early films. These directors worked so fast as to annihilate the distance between inspiration and realization that often governs studio filmmaking. As a result, The Marriage of Maria Braun, Veronika Voss, and Lola are works of many astonishing contradictions, symmetries, parallels, and political and personal reverberations. They are expressions of macro concerns that are wrested from a singular soul. And the pristine restorations available in this set are visual and aural marvels that underscore the profound aesthetic difference between each film in the trilogy. As for the supplements, they have been ported over from Criterion’s 2003 DVD edition with no updates, though this package is so rich and exhaustive it hardly matters, offering a couple of semesters’ worth of context pertaining to German film history, German social upheavals, and the multifaceted life of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Bowen


Charley Varrick

Charley Varrick, Kino Lorber

Kino’s 4K restoration of Charley Varrick is a revelation. Grain looks well-resolved and suitably cinematic, without any distracting artifacts visible, while black levels are deep and uncrushed. The Master Audio mono mix puts the dialogue and few ambient effects front and center, as well as Lalo Schifrin’s relentlessly propulsive score. On the extras front, we get a commentary track from film historian Toby Roan that delves informatively into all the usual suspects, like shooting locations and cast and crew filmographies. Film historian Howard S. Berger’s visual essay “Refracted Personae: Iconography and Abstraction in Don Siegel’s American Purgatory” may possess an imposing title, but it astutely and articulately analyzes Siegel’s formal techniques and thematic concerns in Charley Varrick, with a particular emphasis on those of a spiritual or religious bent. Rounding things out: a feature-length documentary with contributions from Kristoffer Tabori (Don Siegel’s son), actors Andy Robinson and Jacqueline Scott, stunt driver and actor Craig R. Baxley, composer Lalo Schifrin, and Howard A. Rodman (son of screenwriter Howard Rodman); an episode of “Trailers from Hell” for Charley Varrick with comments from screenwriters John Olson and Howard A. Rodman; and a characteristically incisive essay from film critic Nick Pinkerton. Wilkins


Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach

Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, Grasshopper Film

In the first of its many paradoxes, Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s best-known film, is both insistently severe and intensely pleasurable. The nominal subject here is the life of Johann Sebastian Bach as told by his wife, Anna Magdalena, though, and as befits a card-carrying member of the ‘60s modernist movement that encompassed Godard, Rohmer, Warhol, and late Rossellini, the real one is the relationship between sights and sounds, artifice and reality, the medium and the world. Grasshopper’s Blu-ray is sourced from a detail-rich 2K restoration and the extras include Straub’s introduction of the film at a 2013 screening and author Alicia Malone’s intro to Straub-Huillet’s work for Filmstruck. But the highlights of this disc are two short films from Straub-Huillet’s back catalog. The Bridegroom, the Actress, and the Pimp, starring Rainer Werner Fassbinder and several members of his acting coterie, is an experimental work of black-box theater that takes on the political and structural underpinnings of love and incorporates numerous cinematic styles. And The Mother, made by Straub in 2011, tells the story of a murdered hunter whose remorseful reflections suggest the director’s own attempts to cope with Danièle Huillet’s death. Cole


The Complete Sartana

The Complete Sartana, Arrow Video

What unites the wildly unpredictable and unabashedly entertaining Sartana films—despite the disparate contributions of two directors, a bevy of screenwriters, and two very different leading men—are the iconographic elements of the eponymous character himself: There’s the red-and-black magician’s cape, pepperbox pistol, and other baroque gadgets, not to mention the ubiquitous smoke-billowing cigarillo. The storylines, often structured as a mystery, are ingenious Rube Goldberg devices for delivering sudden reversals of fortune, typically emphasizing the perils of deceptive appearances. There’s loads of violence and gunplay throughout, with occasionally astronomical body counts, yet little in the way of graphic blood and guts, which lends the films an aura of old-school charm. Apart from the first transfer, which exhibits some pesky vertical scratching, the 2K restorations look uniformly outstanding, with vivid colors, lifelike flesh tones, properly filmic grain levels, and largely uncrushed blacks. Each film has a dynamic Master Audio mix, which really punch up the idiosyncratic scores from the likes of Piero Piccioni and Bruno Nicolai. There’s a satisfying bumper crop of extras here as well: Three commentary tracks, a visual essay identifying many of the genre stalwarts who turn up in the films, and numerous interviews with cast and crew members. Wilkins


Cruising

Cruising, Arrow Video

Normally, cruisers would scoff at returning to the same well twice, but since the deluxe edition DVD’s choice extras were so well-done the first time around, it’s not quite a faux pas for Arrow to have licensed the lot of them. On the one hand, a newly recorded commentary track with William Friedkin and Mark Kermode all but renders the old solo commentary track by Friedkin redundant. Friedkin repeats a lot of the same observations and anecdotes in the new track, but Kermode smartly steers the conversation in new directions. Among some of the most eye-opening tidbits, Cruising was at one time earlier in the ‘70s earmarked as a project for Steven Spielberg. Talk about close encounters. Equally delicious is Friedkin referring to Al Pacino as the “least prepared actor” he’s ever worked with. Does Friedkin’s explanation of why he inserted subliminal shots of anal sex among the film’s murder sequences come off as hopelessly clueless? Intensely. But one comes away from these commentary tracks understanding just how the final product ended up so confused and contradictory. Eric Henderson

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Review: Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Betty Blue on Criterion Blu-ray

Criterion’s release of Beineix’s epic erotic drama recovers the sumptuousness and precision of its images.

4

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Betty Blue

Today, the aesthetic divide between Jean-Jacques Beineix’s extroverted noir debut, Diva, and his bloated, lusty third film, Betty Blue, seems much less gaping, particularly for viewers intrepid enough to regard his sophomore effort, the faux-pulp kaleidoscope Moon in the Gutter, as a homely missing link. Diva is genre-obsessed, an unwieldy meditation on dystopian thriller tropes and clichés that distracts us from its overwritten plot with shorn scalps and sexy jump cuts. By contrast, Betty Blue is character-obsessed, an unwieldy meditation on the self-destructing nature of domestic relationships that distracts us from its lack of amorous insight with nipples, dicks, and the occasional fork stabbing. And while the latter film is also likely to be condemned as the most prodigal of Beineix’s progeny due to its lubricious audacity and turgid running time, the three-hour-plus director’s cut ironically reveals a far less indulgent vision than that of the originally imported 120-minute digest—or, for that matter, of Diva.

The emaciated storyline fixates relentlessly on an intensifying partnership between the eponymous Betty (Béatrice Dalle) and her blithely deadbeat lover, Zorg (Jean-Hugues Anglade). They start out as little more than bubbly fuck buddies, and the film opens with its most “viral” footage—a lengthy, unbroken dolly shot toward the couple ravenously humping to orgasm—in order to ham-fistedly introduce their dynamic. But Betty eventually shacks up with her booty call in his oleaginous bungalow and reveals the mercurial irascibility beneath her perpetually hot, bothered, and often nude lady parts. After discovering a mammoth manuscript Zorg penned in his youthful days as a prospective novelist, she proclaims her man a genius and assumes the role of literary bitch-agent.

Wanderlust then ensues, so the two lovers set fire to the chili bean-stained bungalow and motor out to the French countryside. The remainder of the duration is devoted to observing their apoplectic devotion to each others’ least healthy attributes: Betty desperately and violently seeks a publisher for Zorg’s tome while he would much rather mix shots of tequila with seltzer. And in harsh contrast to the semi-graphic fornication, Betty’s dramatic mood swings bristle tetchily against the most rudimentary of social environments (e.g. the workplace, where she cannot suffer difficult customers, and Zorg serves the bullish clients pizza topped with rescued scraps from the trash bin as retribution).

That the film was adapted from a novel is gawkily evident not only in the bare details of the above synopsis (what fiction authors don’t dream up Ariel-like harpies such as Betty, who treats Zorg’s abysmal output like gold and sends snarling death threats to the publishers who reject his work?), but also in the loose, polyrhythmic plot movements that incrementally propel the central duo toward tragedy. Expanded to its intended length, the movie feels not like a failed narrative hastily washed in luridness but a purposefully meandering allegory of artistic frustration, especially in light of Betty’s eventual infatuation with the apparent unlikelihood of pregnancy—which turns out to be her fatal flaw. Contrary to expectations, the additional sequences only further obfuscate Betty’s psychosis, which still seems an irritatingly unnecessary speed bump in the characters’ non-careers, as well as an ostentatious crazy-chick gun introduced in the first act so it can be fired off in the third.

The breathing room provided by the added travels and more robust encounters with supporting cast members, however, marginalizes the woman of the title—or, rather, her “blueness”—to the point of an eerily affecting Macguffin. How much more insane can she be than the sex-starved grocer’s wife (Clèmentine Cèlariè) who demands that Zorg perform cunnilingus on her atop a pile of spilled bananas, or the friend (Gérard Darmon) who tasks Zorg and his clearly batty girl with minding his recently deceased mother’s piano store?

The events that lead up to the denouement are still maddeningly flat: Despite the tight, kinetic editing technique on display, Zorg’s bank heist, pulled off in drag, is a cheesy joke when we least need it. And Betty’s predictable self-mauling and subsequent mercy-killing offer fairly substantial evidence for our uneasy reading of the character as a sexist guignol; before asphyxiating her in her hospital bed with a pillow in the spirit of Ken Kesey, Zorg claws at her misshapen, torpid breasts with misguided virility, as though to say that true devotion is arousal whether your significant other is utterly off her rocker or comatose. The lion’s share of the film, though, remains a vibrantly bipolar tribute to writerly travail, which can, indeed, often seem as hopeless as impregnating a potentially barren, absolutely abusive woman.

Beineix’s camera captures the couple’s symbolic struggles with perpetually effective angles and color schemes, and he adroitly realizes clever cinematic gestures that would melt in the hands of amateurs; a quiet, crepuscular scene where Betty and Zorg diegetically acknowledge Gabriel Yared’s ersatz-blues leitmotif on a pair of unsold pianos may be the film’s most subtle triumph. If only Beineix could have imagined an existence for his star-crossed protagonists beyond the source material (the question of whether successful maternity would have sobered Betty yelps for an impossible sequel), he may have managed a sultry masterpiece.

Image/Sound

The restoration presented on this Blu-ray captures the sumptuousness of Jean-François Robin’s cinematography much better than prior home-video editions of the film. Although Criterion’s generalized description of the transfer as “high definition” rather than “2K” or “4K” may imply that the digital master’s resolution is relatively low for a Criterion release, it’s not evident in the disc’s image, which retains much of the warmth of 35mm—an effect vital to the mood of the film. The scenes depicting Zorg and Betty’s halcyon early days at a beach resort practically simmer, with the saturated yellows of the beach and the pink of the houses sharply defined. Accompanying the newly restored visuals is an uncompressed digitization of the original monaural magnetic soundtrack. The track allows for a fuller appreciation of Jean-Jacques Beineix’s playful manipulation of the plot—as when the sound of a saxophone played by Zorg’s neighbor pushes its way out of the confines of the beach fairgrounds and envelopes the entire film sequence, as Betty and Zorg paint houses into the night.

Extras

Criterion has assembled a number of valuable extras for this release: a recently produced, hour-long documentary about the film called “Blue Notes and Bungalows,” a short making-of video made during production and featuring Beineix and author Philippe Djian, a French television interview from 1986 with Beineix and Bèatrice Dalle, the actress’s original screen test, a series of trailers, a booklet with an essay by critic Chelsea Phillips-Carr, and a short film by Beineix from 1977 called Le Chien de Monsieur Michel. Beineix’s early short is connected to Betty Blue in one striking way: The piece of calliope music that one overhears from Zorg’s beach bungalow in the feature also serves as the theme of the farcical short, which sees a down-on-his-luck and not entirely un-Zorg-like loner forced into maintaining the illusion that he owns a dog. The short lacks Beineix’s later art-film flair, but it’s a wry, neatly told parable about communal life, with a social critique hovering at its margins.

As an erotic arthouse film that spends no shortage of time focusing on its young starlet’s body, today Betty Blue provokes questions about objectification, representation, and the treatment of women on set. Most of the special features brush by such questions. In “Blue Notes and Bungalows,” Dalle does mention that she wasn’t informed that she could request a minimal crew during nude scenes and later felt betrayed by her friend Beineix for not telling her, but she doesn’t seem to bear a grudge, and the documentary doesn’t follow up on this comment. Phillips-Carr’s insightful essay “The Look of Love,” however, compellingly addresses the film’s sexual politics, ultimately reading it as a “challenging portrait of a woman who cannot crush herself into the boxes provided for her, and a damning view of the male gaze that subsumes her identity.” To what extent the film undermines its own glossy visual appeal, of which Dalle’s body is an undeniable centerpiece, remains up for debate; Criterion certainly find’s Beineix’s flagrantly stylish imagery useful for promotion. But Phillips-Carr’s feminist perspective on the film is a useful reminder to look closely at the details of Beineix’s fraught love story, and not to dismiss out of hand films with such apparent appeal to the (hetero) male gaze.

Overall

Criterion’s release of Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Betty Blue recovers the sumptuousness and precision of its images, but this epic-length erotic drama remains part genuine exploration of romantic dedication and partnership, part indulgent male fantasy.

Cast: Jean-Hugues Anglade, Bèatrice Dalle, Gèrard Darmon, Consuelo De Haviland, Clèmentine Cèlariè, Jacques Mathou, Vincent Lindon, Jean-Pierre Bisson, Dominique Pinon, Claude Confortès, Philippe Laudenbach Director: Jean-Jacques Beineix Screenwriter: Jean-Jacques Beineix Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 185 min Rating: NR Year: 1986 Release Date: November 19, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Satoshi Kon’s Millennium Actress on Shout! Factory Blu-ray

Kon’s landmark feat of Japanese animation at last receives a home-video release worthy of its beauty.

4

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Millennium Actress

Behold Millennium Actress, Satoshi Kon’s anime answer to Mulholland Drive. This radical work by the director of Perfect Blue mainlines into a cosmic crawlspace between reality and fantasy from which it never leaves. Kon’s love for his animated diva is supreme and he plays her romantic saga for delirious world-weary sorrow. The genius of Millennium Actress is infinite: the practically monochrome palette that slowly saturates color as the film moves forward in time; the meta-cinematic conceits Kon employs in order to have the film’s male documentary filmmaker penetrate what’s supposedly an older Japanese actress’s recollection of her own past; and the countless rhetorical shifts that evoke the woman’s projection of her romantic melodrama onto her art.

When a two-man documentary crew discovers the whereabouts of the reclusive Chiyoko Fujiwara, the legendary actress explains how her career in cinema ran parallel to her search for an elusive love. (The documentary filmmaker’s invasion of Chiyoko’s memory is dubious at first, but Kon soon reveals the man’s own romantic involvement in the actress’s life.) Despite her mother’s conservative wishes, a young Chiyoko is handpicked for stardom by a film studio that now lies in ruin. That fateful day, a mysterious young artist bumps into the girl while fleeing from a police officer with a hideous scar on his face. She falls in love with the boy but he disappears soon after meeting her, leaving behind only a mysterious key. For the rest of her life, she’s left to search for this “human-rights agitator” whose name she doesn’t even know.

Throughout much of her early career, Chiyoko performs with an older actress who doubles for Chiyoko’s two female enemies: the mother who almost denied her a career in cinema and the witch who may or may not have damned her to 1,000 years in the throes of eternal love. While in Manchuria shooting a film, she looks for her lover in order to give him his key. While on the set of a chamber drama, she discovers that her part also has her looking for a missing lover. During time off from production, she journeys through war-ravaged Manchuria in search of the activist. When her train is ravaged by bandits, she steps through one door and reemerges on the set of a lavish samurai epic that finds her trying to negotiate the arrows of Manchurian warlords. And Kon evokes these ravishing passages between Chiyoko’s reality and on-set fantasies often with as little as a superimposition or a mere door opening and closing.

Earthquakes and wars are serendipitously spun into the film’s many dual realities, and rubble is Kon’s metaphor of choice. From the fierce Edo-period samurai epic to the final space odyssey Chiyoko shoots before retiring from the screen, Millennium Actress’s many film-within-a-film set pieces give Chiyoko’s never-ending search for love various historical, political and cultural contextualizations. Hers is very much a tale of perseverance, so maybe this sweeping perspective is Kon’s way of celebrating the defiant Chiyoko’s power over various manmade creations and destructions in the film. Because her ability to project her emotional trauma onto her roles is so strong, it’s that much more difficult to distinguish between Chiyoko’s reality and Kon’s historical recreations.

Like Mulholland Drive, Millenium Actress concerns itself with our love affair with women in movies, many of whom are unceremoniously forgotten when they become too old. Here’s a love story that not only spans a lifetime but thousands of years of political upheavals. Kon offers several hints throughout the film that Chiyoko’s millennium sentence may be hysterically self-imposed, which makes the film’s cosmic to-the-moon sequence that much more powerful. Perhaps Chiyoko knew all along that she was chasing the shadow of a man, and as such the thrill she derives from the chase suggests she’s experiencing love vicariously through her acting. Indeed, Millennium Actress is very much a love poem to cinema itself. And Kon’s love for the medium, like Chiyoko’s eternal search, has no boundaries.

Image/Sound

Millennium Actress arrives on Blu-ray with a revelatory restoration, which blows every prior standard-def release of the film out of the water. The film’s thick line animation now boasts razor-sharp textures. Colors pop with intensity, particularly those recurring splashes of bright orange on everything from street signs to movie-prop spacesuits, while the more naturalistic hues are well contrasted. Shout! Factory includes a lossless 5.1 track for both the original Japanese track and an English dub, both of which ably mix the film’s complex sound design, as well as Susumu Hirasawa’s tense and ever-pulsing electronic score, across all channels, truly heightening the film’s paranoiac obsession with the blurring of reality and acting.

Extras

This disc comes with a series of interviews, including separate talks with English-language voice actors Abby Trott and Laura Post. No interviews with the Japanese cast are included, and at first blush it’s a bit disappointing to only hear from members of the dub cast, but both actresses prove to be informative and engaging as they discuss their love of the project and what spoke to them about the characters and themes. Post in particular dives deep into her inspirations and her interpretation of Eiko’s complexities. Meatier still is the interview with producer Masao Maruyama, who speaks at length on everything from the production’s beginnings all the way through its re-release. Having worked with Kon across several projects, he offers keen insights into the director’s work and personality, even comparing Kon to the character of Chiyoko. A briefer interview with producer Taro Maki more specifically cover’s Millennium Actress’s 4K restoration while also making note of the then-innovative methods that were used to blend hand-drawn and 3D animation for the film.

Overall

Millennium Actress, Satoshi Kon’s landmark feat of Japanese animation, at last receives a home-video release worthy of its beauty with this presentation of a new 4K restoration.

Cast: Miyoko Shôji, Mami Koyama, Fumiko Orikasa, Shouzou Iizuka, Masaya Onosaka, Shouko Tsuda, Masatane Tsukayma, Kôichi Yamadera Director: Satoshi Kon Screenwriter: Satoshi Kon, Sadayuki Murai Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 87 min Rating: PG Year: 2001 Buy: Video

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