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DVD Review: The Bad Seed

Here’s a movie that suggests cute, precocious pre-pubescent blond girls should get psychological counseling. Are you listening, Dakota Fanning’s mother?

3.0

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The Bad Seed

The Bad Seed reflects Slant Magazine’s blind, abject terror of precocious, well-behaved little blond girls who mimic with total precision the gesticulations and motions of the most obsequious members of your circle of friends. Namely we’re talking about Dakota Fanning. The film also plays right into our need to see this phenomenon exposed for what it is. Namely it’s a front for hiding homicidal blitheness, ignoring social exclusion, and, in the way Patty McCormack hordes a secret stash of jewelry and memorabilia collected off of her victims, celebrating with a little too much gusto her arrival into the world of consumerism. It’s also a steadily mounting panoply of hysterical camp mannerisms executed by the nearly intact original Broadway cast, seemingly let loose by director Mervyn LeRoy to recreate their heightened performances without once considering how it might look on film. Nancy Kelly plays Christine Penmark, a rusty-voiced housewife who comes to the gradual discovery that her worries about her daughter Rhoda (Patty McCormack) go far beyond her notion that she’s more automatronic than personable, or that her overly polished demeanor probably leads to derision from her school peers. In actuality, Rhoda is a shrill, unflinching, murderous succubus of a little girl. Considering that the film ends with a curtain call in which Kelly takes McCormack across her knee and winkingly spanks her (um, three murders deserves a little more than a spanking), there’s a falseness about the entire enterprise that seems to go beyond mere staginess into some sort of human kabuki. (Has there ever been a character in such a character drama that comes off more expositionary-slash-circumstantial and less human than Christine’s as-it-turns-out adopted father?) Fanning, err, Rhoda is rendered disturbing not so much because she’s a murderess, but because she’s the most self-aware of her duplicity (i.e. the genesis of everything camp). Christine is nearly drawn into the vortex (check out the scene where she slams her hand repeatedly against the kitchen table), but it nearly kills her. The Bad Seed might not have the lurid veneer of Oedipal conflict that turned The Good Son into a supreme guilty pleasure, but it’s got more false-façade performances than you could ever hope for: McCormack as a soulless human shell in pigtails, Kelly putting the stricken in grief-stricken, Eileen Heckart drinking herself into a flamboyant, depressed stupor, and Evelyn Varden as a Freudian enthusiast who, when Kelly witnesses a man burning alive, suggests without a hitch that she simply lie down until she feels better.

Image/Sound

Warner Bros. is turning into the class act of catalogue DVDs. Not only are they one of the only companies churning out releases with intensely attractive cover art from their original one-sheets, but the transfers ain’t bad either. The Bad Seed looks as clean and guiltless as the blood washed off of McCormack’s shoes. It’s a nearly flawless video transfer of an unfortunately spotty print. There’s a fair amount of dirt and debris, and it’s all clear as crystal. The mono soundtrack is surprisingly good for a ’50s film, and considering the overacting on display, it could’ve ended up a lot more shrill.

Extras

It’s rare that a company will outright acknowledge its product’s appeal as deliberate trash, especially if it can milk Academy Award nominations for the prestige effect, but how else to explain the commentary by Patty McCormack and drag legend Charles Busch (recently of Die Mommie Die fame). McCormack is über-colloquial and disturbingly suggests that creepy blond child stars can grow up to be normal-sounding adults. (I don’t want to live in a world where Fanning will end up being “part of the crowd.”) Meanwhile, Busch vacillates between fawning over and giggling at the expense of the film. A nicely dual-edged track. Also included is the more serious-toned Burch-less interview featurette with reminisces from McCormack. Wrapping it up is the theatrical trailer, which is boring.

Overall

Here’s a movie that suggests cute, precocious pre-pubescent blond girls should get psychological counseling. Are you listening, Dakota Fanning’s mother?

Cast: Nancy Kelly, Patty McCormack, Henry Jones, Eileen Heckart, Evelyn Varden, William Hopper, Paul Fix, Jesse White Director: Mervyn LeRoy Screenwriter: John Lee Mahin Distributor: Warner Home Video Running Time: 129 min Rating: NR Year: 1956 Release Date: August 10, 2004 Buy: Video

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Review: Noir Archive Volume 1: 1944 – 1954 on Kit Parker Films Blu-ray

Kit Parker Films’s set is as no frills as the nine films contained within it.

3.5

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Noir Archive Volume 1: 1944 - 1954

Given their shoestring budgets and tight shooting schedules, B noirs invited on-the-fly creativity from their makers, and their oft-gritty sense of urgency allowed them to stand apart from their slicker, more star-driven “A” counterparts. The feverish intensity of many B noirs is also typically matched with a briskness and efficiency bred from the pragmatic necessity of having to clock in under 90 minutes in order to fit into the second half of a double bill. And in no small part because the studios behind these films were mostly concerned with filmmakers coming under budget and producing work as quickly as possible, the men and women behind the camera were often freer to address a more diverse array of subjects that the more prestigious studio noirs typically weren’t able to touch.

Pity, then, that so many of the B noirs made in the 1940s and ‘50s have been lost to history, a matter that Noir Archive Volume 1: 1944 – 1954 is hoping to remedy. The set presents restorations of nine films of varying quality that collectively offer a fascinating overview of the thematic evolution of the B noir throughout the decade when its parent genre was at its peak. And as all of these selections were released through Columbia Pictures, the set highlights this particular studio’s dexterity in seamlessly folding an impressive assortment of social problems and political commentaries into their productions.

The subject matters of these less-than-hard-boiled films are intriguingly tied to the anxieties and complications of their times: the rise of Nazism, Cold War espionage, horse-racing rackets, post-war guilt and malaise, and more. And these films are all the better for being absent of the pomp and preachiness that plagued so many other social-issue films from the era, evincing instead a no-nonsense fortitude and narrative tautness that leads to even the weakest of these movies to barrel ahead with a fearless certainty of purpose.

The earliest films here present a prismatic perspective of America both during and immediately following WWII. Among these, William Cameron Menzies’s Address Unknown is particularly fascinating for its candid depiction of the lure of propaganda. The film resists the temptation to lean into the cheap nationalistic pride that defined so many other wartime pictures. In fact, the main character’s transformation specifically addresses the dangers of blind nationalism: Martin Schulz (Paul Lukas) is an intelligent, seemingly compassionate German-American art dealer who turns on his Jewish best friend (Morris Carnovsky) and soon-to-be Jewish daughter-in-law (K.T. Stevens) in order to join the Nazi cause. Address Unknown is also the very rare film that delves into the humiliation faced by the German people in between the two World Wars and how it paved the way for Hitler’s rise to power.

Budd Boetticher’s Escape in the Fog is another unique WWII yarn, playing out through the perspective of a military nurse (Nina Foch) whose visions of a future murder give way to a tale of espionage that, although fairly by the numbers, packs a lot of narrative twists and turns into just over an hour. Henry Levin’s The Guilt of Janet Ames, on the other hand, feels padded even at a mere 83 minutes. The weakest entry of this set, it gives an abundance of ammunition to critics who see noir built out of misogyny and nothing else. Working overtime at devaluing the suffering of the eponymous war widow (Rosalind Russell), Levin’s film even goes so far as to suggest that the death of Janet’s husband was her fault because of her perpetual nagging and negativity. The femme fatales of noir are often couched in society’s fears of newly empowered women, but The Guilt of Janet Ames never manages to balance its blatant victim-blaming with any redeeming characteristics to offset the bad taste it leaves in the mouth.

Of the set’s ‘50s films, only Joseph M. Newman’s 711 Ocean Drive stands out as above average. Despite the film’s familiar narrative trajectory, Newman breathes new life into the story of a regular joe’s rise and fall in the criminal underworld with a ripped-from-the-headlines immediacy, whip-smart dialogue, and a nimble sense of pacing.

Ironically, the true gem of the set is the film that, at least on paper, seems like the least noir of them all: Anthony Mann’s The Black Book, also known as Reign of Terror. Working with famed cinematographer John Alton, with whom he had recently made T-Men and Raw Deal, Mann re-imagines the historical epic as a paranoid fever dream of overlapping conspiracies. In this wonderfully offbeat take on Maximilian Robespierre’s rise to power during the French Revolution, claustrophobic compositions heighten the mania of the ever-scheming characters. And contorted faces are often captured in tight close-ups or entrapped within deep, angular shadows that loom over them like the persistent threat of the guillotine.

The film’s images are as macabre as they are baroque, intensifying the dark, treacherous political underworld in which the drama plays out. One of the most unique of all noirs, The Black Book is a minor masterpiece from a major director, offering up ample evidence of the B noir’s ability to deal with so much more than just gangsters and femme fatales.

Image/Sound

The image quality can only be so good on a three-disc set housing nine films, but these selections look surprisingly sharp, largely free of blemishes and possessing a healthy, but not distracting, amount of grain. There are a handful of shots, particularly in 711 Ocean Drive and Assignment: Paris, that look noticeably unrestored, with visible scratches and a resolution that’s closer to SD standards. But these hiccups are few and far between. The images do tend to be on the flat side and the blacks could stand to be a bit deeper, though the set’s stand-out film, The Black Book, does boast remarkable contrast that does right by John Alton’s moody, expressionistic cinematography. The sound is occasionally a bit spotty, taking on a tinny, echoey quality at times, but for the most part it’s more than clean enough to get the job done.

Extras

No dice. That said, while some contextualization for the films would’ve been nice, the barebones presentation allows every last bit of space on the discs to go toward ensuring the best possible image and sound quality.

Overall

Kit Parker Films’s set is as no frills as the nine films contained within it, and like these B noirs, it offers a bang for your buck that’s hard to pass up.

Cast: Dana Andrews, Rosalind Russell, Nina Foch, George Raft, George Sanders, Melvyn Douglas, Otto Kruger, Edmond O’Brien, Joanne Dru, Barry Sullivan, Paul Lukas, Morris Carnovsky, K.T. Stevens, Richard Basehart Director: Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher, William Cameron Menzies, Henry Levin, Ted Tatzleff, Joseph M. Newman, Earl McEvoy, Fred F. Sears Screenwriter: Herbert Dalmas, Kressmann Taylor, Aubrey Wisberg, Phillip Yordan, Aeneas MacKenzie, Robert E. Kent, Karen DeWolf, Guy Endore, Richard English, Francis Swann Distributor: Kit Parker Films Running Time: 734 min Rating: NR Year: 1944 – 1954 Release Date: April 23, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Aleksei German’s Khrustalyov, My Car! on Arrow Academy Blu-ray

Arrow has outdone itself in preserving the beguiling, vulgar beauty of this demented satire.

5

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Khrustalyov, My Car!

Aleksei German’s films are united by their obsession with satirizing the twisted logic of authoritarian power, and by a strange and singular style that undermines André Bazin’s belief that the use of deep focus and long takes communicates a sense of the real. Indeed, the longer a shot lasts in one of German’s films, the more untethered from reality they come to feel. Abrupt and disorienting upheavals in set design and lighting effectively plunge his work into a subjective realm of byzantine social prisons. Set in the final days of Stalin’s reign, Khrustalyov, My Car! uses its visual density to embody the sick farce of Stalinism, its claustrophobic and unpredictable production design and direction a testament to the complete lack of security that Russians constantly felt under Stalinism.

At the heart of the fundamentally simple but abstrusely rendered story is the so-called Doctors’ plot, a scheme concocted by Stalin and his secret police that—in order to justify the brutal arrest of dissidents, political rivals, and ordinary citizens to maintain the communist leader’s power—implicated Jewish doctors as insurgent Zionists. We see the conspiracy target Yuri Klensky (Yuri Tsurilo), a general and surgeon who never openly references the crackdowns but visibly lives in fear of being abducted. Klensky listlessly drifts through the Russian underground, drowning in alcohol and enjoying all sorts of Dionysian pleasures while he still has his freedom. Eventually, his paranoia is justified, and Klensky finds himself arrested and his assets seized before he’s sent to a labor camp where he endures unspeakable cruelty.

The story’s basic outline provides a framework onto which German projects a hallucinatory vision of Russian repression. The film’s black-and-white photography is of such extreme contrast that the whites attain an almost nuclear glow. Lamps and headlights blaze intensely and wash out whole swathes of the frame, while darkness melts other sections into inky and ominous voids, from which it seems anyone could be lurking and watching. German’s long takes are elaborate displays of intricate set design, with shots often beginning in one locale, such as a hospital ward, before suddenly spiraling into new realms filled with opulent artifacts of the tsarist era or the dilapidated clutter of the working class—settings that suggest refuse bins for all the decadence and decay that Stalin’s regime wishes to sweep under the rug.

Throughout Khrustalyov, My Car!, German lends a subtle anonymity to even his major characters by contrasting their visages with those of identical twins and lookalikes, all in the interest of emphasizing the de-individualized collective of Soviet life. He also effectively pitches the underground as a repository for all the Russian history that’s being tamped down by Stalinist revisionism, a place where 19th-century aristocrats and 20th-century proles commingle in shared refuge from the forces that wish to obliterate them.

As such, even the moments of revelry among these people with whom Klensky cavorts are charged with tension. The widespread paranoia among Soviet citizens is most clearly communicated through the way background characters, so keenly aware of constantly being surveilled, often look directly into the camera. This fear persists unabated even in the strange, almost dreamlike final act in which Klensky is freed from his hellish internment and brought to the bed of a withered, soiled old man (Ali Misirov) revealed to be Stalin himself. The man is so pitiful that Klensky cannot fathom that he’s the supreme dictator. “Is he your father?” asks the doctor to an attending officer, to which the man responds: “Good way to put it.”

The ranking soldiers who watch over the Soviet Union’s dying leader do so with stiff apprehension, as if worried that at any moment Stalin might leap from his deathbed and have them all shot for catching him at his most vulnerable. The leader’s death acts as the punchline to German’s sick comedy, and it sets up the ironic return to normalcy in the film’s coda, in which Klensky and his family head home, unable to speak of their trauma and repressed again when a neighbor downplays whatever happened to the family by cheerfully enthusing, “They’re Russian, they’ll sort it out. We’ll carry on, as always.” Of course, the speed with which the system adjusts to the death of a supposedly singular figure like Stalin gives lie to this hope, and German ends Khrustalyov, My Car! on a note of implied fatalism that the only through line of Russian history is this constant oppression.

Image/Sound

The film’s blown-out black-and-white cinematography looks gorgeous on Arrow’s Blu-ray, which is sourced from a 2K restoration. The glowing whites burn so intensely that some images are hard to look at, while black levels are entirely free from crushing artifacts. Only a handful of location shots, like one filmed in a forest in a snowstorm, show any debris or other imperfections. True to German’s style, the deep-focus photography is crystalline, and even shots deliberately obscured by smears of smoke and grime show off the crispness of objects and people. The cacophony of the soundtrack, as crucial to the film’s sense of paranoia as its visual clutter, is similarly pristine, with every exaggerated sound effect and dialogue dubbing rendered clearly to make the layering of each sound all the more dizzying.

Extras

Arrow’s Blu-ray boasts some of the best special features included on a home-video release in years. An audio commentary by Arrow producer Daniel Bird extensively covers Aleksei German’s career, Khrustalyov, My Car!’s aesthetic and thematic touchstones, and details about the film’s complicated production. Critic Eugénie Zvonkine contributes “Between Realism and Nightmare,” a lengthy examination of the director’s perversion of realist techniques. Soviet and Jewish historian Jonathan Brent places the Doctors’ plot in the larger context of European antisemitism and Stalinist paranoia, extensively covering the history that informs the film. An archival interview with German by critic Ron Holloway digs deep into the filmmaker’s life, from the pressures of growing up with an artist father to his reluctance to make art and his pride in both his Russian and Jewish ancestry. Finally, a production documentary contains copious footage of German making the film, allowing an intimate look into the arduous staging of the film’s massive tracking shots. An accompanying booklet contains numerous essays that approach the film from various vantage points.

Overall

Arrow has outdone itself with one of its finest releases to date, preserving the beguiling, vulgar beauty of Aleksei German’s demented satire and offering a wealth of deeply researched, thorough features that delve into the riches of the director’s work.

Cast: Yuri Tsurilo, Nina Ruslanova, Mikhail Dementyev, Nijolė Narmontaite, Ivan Matskevich, Ali Misirov Director: Aleksei German Screenwriter: Aleksei German, Svetlana Karmalita Distributor: Arrow Academy Running Time: 150 min Rating: NR Year: 1997 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Ted Wilde’s The Kid Brother on the Criterion Collection

This disc continues Criterion’s exceptional track record of reviving Harold Lloyd’s silent masterpieces.

4.5

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The Kid Brother

An affable boy-next-door type with dorky horn-rimmed glasses, Harold Lloyd’s on-screen persona has sometimes been dismissed as merely charming—a likable average joe whose jocularity is no match for the poetic expressionism of his more highly regarded peers, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. And while it’s true that he lacked the underlying darkness of Chaplin’s Tramp or the mysteriousness of Keaton’s stoneface, Lloyd was no mere happy-go-lucky cipher. As exemplified by Ted Wilde’s The Kid Brother demonstrates, his films bristle with a markedly American anxiousness, a desperate yearning for acceptance that’s evident in every jittery hand gesture and abashed facial expression. In film after film, Lloyd’s on-screen persona has to prove himself worthy of respect, whether by climbing a skyscraper or winning the big football game. And in The Kid Brother, it takes nothing less than saving an entire town.

As the film’s title suggests, Lloyd’s protagonist, Harold Hickory, is the youngest of three sons, the scrawny runt of a powerful family whose name graces the town in which they live, Hickoryville. His father (Walter James) is the town sheriff, and his two burly older brothers (Leo Willis and Olin Francis) have relegated poor Harold to the domestic duties of cooking, cleaning, and doing laundry. Whenever Harold attempts to join in the men’s business—they’re handling the fundraising for a new local dam—he’s dismissed on sight. At one point, his dad even warns him, “Son, you might get hurt. This is a man’s job.”

And so, The Kid Brother is largely about Harold’s efforts to prove that he, too, is a man. After a failed attempt at breaking up an illegal medicine show, he eventually gets his chance when the villainous Sandoni (professional wrestler Constantine Romanoff) runs off with the dam money. Harold finds him, fights him, and outwits him, returning the funds to the town and showing everybody that, while he may not be as beefy as his brothers, he’s no less courageous.

Featuring a hardscrabble rural setting that feels light years away from the spunky urbanity of films like Safety Last! and Speedy, The Kid Brother squeezes a succession of clever gags out of its rustic milieu. In one scene, it appears as though Harold is crouched down and crawling through tall grass, when in fact he’s placed his hat on a pig’s back in order to divert the town bully, Hank Hooper (R. Yearsley). And in another delightful visual joke, Harold devises an ingenious method of doing dishes by placing them in a net and spinning them in the sink.

But the film’s most exhilarating moment is also one of its gentlest. Harold, infatuated with a girl, Mary (Jobyna Ralston), from the medicine show, climbs a tall tree so as to keep her in view for as long as possible. As he ascends higher and higher, so does the camera (which was mounted by the filmmakers on a specially built elevator platform). The moment climaxes when Harold reaches the top of the tree, mountains visible in the distance, and calls out to Mary, “Good-bye!” There’s a remarkably tranquil tension to this sequence, as you wonder how high Harold will go and if the camera will really follow him all the way up, and it ends when Harold loses his balance and tumbles all the way down to the ground. Unfazed, he picks up a flower and pulls off the petals one by one as he recites, “She loves me…she loves me not.”

It’s this sort of creative, sweet-natured gag that truly epitomizes Lloyd’s comedic genius. There’s a sense of danger to this sequence, but also a recognition that everything’s going to be just fine. That same balance of lightness and suspense is on full display in the film’s climactic stand-off between Harold and Sandoni aboard an abandoned ship. Hilarious and restlessly inventive, Lloyd and comedy writer turned director Wilde make stunning use of this evocative, horror-movie locale, the kind of strange, shadowy setting one might expect to find in a Val Lewton film. Lloyd and Wilde assemble a remarkably energetic series of action-packed gags and stunts, each one flowing seamlessly into the next, from Harold dangling off the side of the vessel to putting his shoes on a monkey as a diversionary tactic.

It’s a hugely satisfying finale that all culminates, as of course it must, with Harold and Mary walking off together in a tender embrace. Having defeated the brutish Sandoni, been accepted as a true Hickory by his father, and celebrated by the town that bears his family’s name, Harold finally gets the girl. And all it took was proving himself as a man.

Image/Sound

As with the Criterion Collection’s previous Harold Lloyd releases, The Kid Brother was restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive, and the results are crisp, clear, and beautiful. The image shows a remarkable depth of field, with minute details of the film’s striking natural locations visible throughout. Lloyd’s rubbery trademark facial expressions are noticeable even in long shots, amplifying the comedic impact of the many stunts and fight scenes in the film. There are very slight imperfections noticeable on occasion, including a few scratches and some mild fading around the edges of the frame, though nothing that distracts too much from the viewing experience. Criterion has provided two alternate soundtracks, a Copland-esque folk-inspired orchestral score by Carl Davis that perfectly suits the film’s pastoral setting, and a jauntily dynamic organ score by Lloyd’s favorite accompanist, Gaylord Carter.

Extras

Among the highlights of this release are two ultra-rare early Lloyd shorts, Over the Fence and That’s Him (both featuring new Wurlitzer theater pipe organ scores), and a video essay by John Bengtson on The Kid Brother’s locations that’s as intensively researched and beautifully illustrated as the similar features he’s made for prior Criterion releases of Lloyd’s films. Elsewhere, the audio commentary from 2005 by Lloyd archivist Richard Correll, film historian Annette D’Agostino Lloyd, and Lloyd’s granddaughter, Suzanne Lloyd, is chatty and appreciative, if only fitfully informative. Suzanne Lloyd also appears in a dishy new conversation about her grandfather’s leading ladies and a 2005 featurette about Lloyd’s sprawling Greenacres estate. Greenacres also figures heavily in Bengtson’s video essay and provides the backdrop for a brief but insightful 1962 interview with Lloyd recorded for Dutch TV. A perceptive video essay by critic David Cairns on the film’s wonderful “monkey shoes” gag and a booklet essay by critic Carrie Rickey round out this jam-packed set, which provides loads of illuminating context about Lloyd’s career and the silent era as a whole.

Overall

Featuring a crisp new restoration and oodles of illuminating extras, this disc continues Criterion’s exceptional track record of reviving Harold Lloyd’s silent masterpieces.

Cast: Harold Lloyd, Jobyna Ralston, Walter James, Leo Willis, Olin Francis, Constantine Romanoff, Eddie Boland, Frank Lanning, Ralph Yearsley Director: Ted Wilde Screenwriter: John Grey, Lex Neal, Howard J. Green Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 82 min Rating: NR Year: 1927 Release Date: March 12, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Todd Haynes’s Far from Heaven on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

Kino Lorber’s release marks the long-overdue arrival of Todd Haynes’s ravishing melodrama on Blu-ray.

4

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Far from Heaven

In Douglas Sirk’s 1955 masterpiece All That Heaven Allows, a middle-aged widow incurs the wrath of a small town when she falls in love with her young gardener. She sacrifices love for a community’s acceptance only to realize, perhaps too late, that she’s made the wrong decision. The film’s title not only refers to her upper-middle-class milieu and its grueling demands, but also to the widow’s own personal allowances. In Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Rainer Werner Fassbinder reworked All That Heaven Allows but introduced race and the ideology of a working-class Germany into the equation. Now, in Far from Heaven, writer-director Todd Haynes goes one step further by adding the element of sexuality.

The film opens with a dissolve between a painting of a tree branch and its real-life representation, a flourish that immediately calls attention to the mechanism at work in this melodrama. Haynes is fascinated with the thin lines that separate the world from an idealized version of reality and the paths of resistance that lie therein. At an art exhibition, Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) bumps into her African-American gardener, Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), who teaches her to interpret the Picassos and Mirós that hang on the walls and observes how modern art has pared religious art down to simple shapes and colors. Again, Haynes calls attention to the expressive elements at work in this magnificent experiment, the “smoke and mirrors” of a mise-en-scène that demand decodification.

Cathy, a mother of two, is married to a successful businessman, Frank (Dennis Quaid), who works for Magnatech, a powerful television sales company. (In All That Heaven Allows, television was used to keep women occupied and, therefore, out of trouble.) Cathy and Frank are referred to as “Mr. and Mrs. Magnatech,” no doubt because they embody everything that’s seemingly “perfect” about upper-middle-class suburbia. A Weekly Gazette reporter (Bette Henritze) does a story on Cathy because “behind every great man there’s a great woman,” and after the article causes a stir for claiming that Cathy is “kind to the Negroes,” her best friend, Eleonor Fine (Patricia Clarkson), covers for her, saying that she’s been called a “red” ever since “she played summer stock with all those steamy Jewish boys.” Society extols her even as they recognize that she may be a loose cannon. She may not be able to distinguish a fake Rembrandt from the real thing but she can appreciate Picassos.

Cathy’s willingness to understand others isn’t only implied by her support for the NAACP and her kindness to Raymond but in her willingness to forgive Frank after she catches him cheating on her with another man. “I know it’s bad because it makes me feel despicable,” says Frank to his psychologist (James Rebhorn). He looks to cure his “disease” just as Cathy looks to fix her husband before the world outside begins to notice that their lives are far from perfect. Indeed, when Frank accidentally strikes Cathy, it’s only natural that she hides her bruises from everyone around her. Haynes understands how women like Cathy were financially dependent on men, reduced to supporting players in their husbands’ lives. What he understands more, however, is how these women were forced to keep up appearances.

Far from Heaven is set in Hartford, Connecticut in 1957, the social realities and political upheavals of which are buried beneath a rich tapestry of signs. Haynes’s remarkable use of mirrors emphasizes the emotional distance between characters and the sad way they avoid confrontation. For Christmas, Cathy gives Frank a box full of vacation brochures, and front and center is a pamphlet extolling Cuba’s beauty. Not only was 1957 the height of Fidel Castro’s war against Fulgencio Batista, but it was also the year of the Little Rock school desegregation scandal. Haynes repeatedly frames Frank next to elaborate Eames-era light fixtures and, in one scene, implies that he broke a lamp in his office during a fit of rage and hid the broken pieces inside, yes, a closet. Cathy and Frank don’t go to Cuba, instead opting to travel to Miami, this in spite the prevalence of pink in the city’s architecture.

Elmer Bernstein’s score punctuates key moments with expert precision, complementing the tone of the characters’ voices and the traumas written on their faces. When Frank enters an underground gay bar, Edward Lachman’s camera evokes the character’s fear with a splash of menacing greens and muted reds. More remarkable, though, is how the film seemingly loses its color when things begin to go wrong for Cathy. Haynes seemingly suggests that there’s no need for labels (gay and straight, black and white, inside and outside) if people are willing to listen to others. Cathy is drawn to Frank not because of his race or because of her own sense of not-being, but because he’s willing to listen to her voice. Here is a film of great humanism that applies as much to the ‘50s as it does to the world today and everyone who inhabits it. Standing before a painting by Jean Miró, Frank and Cathy grow closer together. The name of the painting? The Beautiful Bird Revealing the Unknown to a Pair of Lovers. And so the film’s final shot evokes not only changing season, but hopefully also a changing cultural tide.

Image/Sound

The almost too-perfect colors of Ed Lachman’s cinematography absolutely pop on this release, rendering all those deep, moody periwinkles and rusty, autumnal oranges with a fidelity and grace that neither mutes the emotional force of the film’s heightened Technicolor-inspired artificiality nor exaggerates its vibrancy into garish excess. The disc’s sound, provided in DTS-HD 2.0 and 5.1 audio tracks, is similarly well-balanced, handling both the film’s subdued dialogue and Elmer Bernstein’s emotionally complex score with equal integrity.

Extras

There’s nothing new here, but the extras carried over from the film’s initial DVD release are solid. The highlight of these is undoubtedly the audio commentary by Todd Haynes, who provides a steady diet of anecdotes, technical insights, and essay-like analysis, often focusing on the film’s relationship to the work of Douglas Sirk and Rainer Fassbinder. One of the more cerebral directors of his era, Haynes often comes off less like a filmmaker commenting on his own creation than a critic interpreting a text. That same cerebral auto-analysis is on display in a well-produced half-hour documentary, originally made for the Sundance Channel, that dissects the film’s pivotal party scene, offering brief but incisive tidbits about the sequence’s editing, cinematography, production design, and more. The rest of the extras, however, are purely perfunctory: a trailer, a brief clip from a panel discussion with Haynes and Julianne Moore, and a by-the-book making-of featurette.

Overall

Kino Lorber’s release marks the long-overdue arrival of this ravishing melodrama on Blu-ray, and thanks to its vibrant audio-visual presentation, the wait was more than worth it.

Cast: Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert, Patricia Clarkson, Viola Davis, James Rebhorn, Celia Weston, Bette Henritze Director: Todd Haynes Screenwriter: Todd Haynes Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2002 Release Date: March 19, 2019 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Review: Riccardo Freda’s The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire on Arrow Video Blu-ray

With this noteworthy release, Arrow Video’s devotion to vigorously excavating lesser-known gialli continues unabated.

4.5

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The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire

Dario Argento is consistently deemed the preeminent giallo maestro by critics and fans alike because of how his films blend mystery and obsession into an irresistible concoction. In The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red, the gonzo plunge into the unknown doesn’t forsake the basic mechanics of plot and characterization. Yet the Argento-centric focus in giallo criticism and scholarship has effectively shortchanged the spectrum of diverse approaches to the genre, many of which seem to adopt incoherence as an almost philosophical aim. Whether The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire embraces narrative confusion by daftness or design, Ricardo Freda’s film nevertheless possesses a propulsive energy that gradually makes coherence an insignificant, even undesirable feature.

The film begins on a strange note, with wide shots of a motorcyclist making his way through Dublin. The Irish setting is random and nearly irrelevant to the subsequent story of a Swiss ambassador, Sobiesky (Anton Diffring), and his family being tormented by an unknown killer, but it does pave the way for some stunning footage shot near the Cliffs of Moher, where the ambassador’s daughter, Helen (Dagmar Lassander), flirts with John Norton (Luigi Pistilli), a detective in pursuit of the assailant. The film finds little meaningful activity for its characters to engage in amid this and other vistas, like the snow-covered ski slopes of Zurich in a later scene, besides moseying about. As sequences essential to developing the film’s themes or ideas, they’re practically useless, but as widescreen landscape footage, they’re magnificent.

The dissonance between story and image defines The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire, and sometimes in contrasting ways depending on the scene. The core of the film’s criminal investigation involves a plethora of suspects and possible motivations being discussed within the sparse confines of a police station. While Inspector Lawrence (Arthur O’Sullivan) is established in early scenes as the lead investigative figure in several interrogations of possible suspects, he’s gradually supplanted by Norton, whose own family becomes one of the killer’s targets. The switch plays less like a calculated shift of the audience’s expectations than an indication of Freda’s investment in the potential jolt of individual set pieces; in short, since Norton’s vulnerable mother and daughter make easy targets, the film uses their assault as the climax, pitting Norton face-to-face with the murderer.

That the killer’s identity is almost impossible to surmise becomes part of the broader absurdist tone that feeds into Freda’s knack for composing striking images amid so much narrative chaos. There’s a sense that Brian De Palma was influenced by The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire, as Dressed to Kill similarly blends reality and dreams to memorable visual effect; there’s also the matter of the killer in both films wearing the same clothes and using the same murder weapon. But whereas Freda funneled his story into the cinematic equivalent of a lottery machine, De Palma makes guessing his killer’s identity a cinch, prompting us to truly wrestle with the implications of Dressed to Kill’s psychosexual and oneiric imagery.

The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire demonstrates how the different shades of the giallo genre, made in Italy and beyond, require variable critical orientations for identifying their aims. If one assumes that Argento’s genre model is the supreme and only approach to the giallo, then other, less logically inclined filmmakers like Freda or Massimo Dallamano, risk being marginalized or, worse, lopped from the canon entirely.

Image/Sound

Struck from the original 35mm camera negative, this transfer marks the film’s first appearance on North American home video and should be cause for celebration. Particularly striking are the incredible on-location scenes in Ireland: The saturated greens and browns of the Cliffs of Moher are fully discernible, while Zurich’s snow-covered ski slopes shimmer with vitality. There are only minimal signs of image damage, including slight scratches and debris, throughout the film. The monaural soundtrack sounds clean and comes in both Italian and English versions. It’s a release like this, of a film that seemed to have been relegated to eternal damnation on VHS or low-grade streams, that calls for terms like “renaissance” in reference to the spectrum of giallo titles being made available in HD by Arrow Video.

Extras

Among the plethora of extras on this disc, most noteworthy is the audio commentary by film critics Adrian J. Smith and David Flint. Simultaneously playful and informative, Smith and Flint oscillate between providing historical information about The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire and their own personal takes on the film. A notable highlight of this commentary includes the revelation that, despite the credits citing a novel as the film’s source material, there was no such book; the claim was made in an effort to lend legitimacy to the production.

An interview with film scholar Richard Dyer provides a remarkably lucid explanation of the film’s themes and shortcomings. Dyer differentiates between the narrative details that provide the viewer with food for thought and those that are so thinly sketched or convoluted that even he can’t follow their logic. Elsewhere, DJ Lovely Jon gives an appreciation of composer Stelvio Cipriani, which is similar to but distinct enough from his words about the music of ‘70s Italian cult cinema on Arrow’s release of The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion. Also included are interviews with actress Dagmar Lassander and assistant editor Bruno Micheli, the film’s original and international theatrical trailers, a virtual copy of the film’s original photo novel published in 1971, an image gallery, and a booklet containing an essay by film historian Andreas Ehrenreich on the film’s creation from pre-production to post.

Overall

With this noteworthy release of Riccardo Freda’s 1971 film, Arrow Video’s devotion to vigorously excavating lesser-known gialli continues unabated.

Cast: Dagmar Lassander, Anton Diffring, Luigi Pistilli, Arthur O’Sullivan, Werner Pochath, Dominique Boschero, Renato Romano, Valentina Cortese, Ruth Durley Director: Riccardo Freda Screenwriter: Riccardo Freda, Sandro Continenza, Günter Ebert, André Tranché Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 1971 Release Date: April 9, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Clint Eastwood’s The Mule on Warner Bros. Blu-ray

There are no real supplements on this disc, but Eastwood’s eccentric and moving film speaks quite well for itself.

3.5

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The Mule

Clint Eastwood’s The Mule doesn’t move like many contemporary American films, especially those in the crime genre. Crime cinema is often pumped up on machismo, with breakneck action sequences and tough and derivative dialogue. Meanwhile, other genres—superhero films, musicals, horror films, politically motivated biopics, animated fantasies—are often tethered to so rigid a narrative structure that they lack the emotional contemplation and sense of being-ness that drove, say, the best of the westerns that Hollywood produced when Eastwood professionally came of age. In this wearying paint-by-numbers context, The Mule is bracingly warm and eccentric, with a wandering tempo that refutes the overstimulated hyperventilation of pop culture. The very pace of Eastwood’s new film is inherently political.

As actor and director, Eastwood is intensely in sync with the rhythms of Earl Stone, a 90-year-old horticulturalist who winds up smuggling cocaine for the Sinaloa cartel up from El Paso into Chicago, once his flower business falls apart due to competition from online corporations. Quite a bit of the film is devoted to watching Earl as he drives the countryside or bullshits with people, with time passing via intertitles and elegant fades and ellipses that communicate liberation and sadness. Earl is a cheeky old man who feels that he’s earned the right to do whatever he pleases, whether it’s savoring our country’s gorgeous landscapes, slowing down a drug delivery so he can savor the “best pulled pork sandwich in the Midwest,” or soliciting a threesome with prostitutes a fraction of his age. Along the way, Earl speaks to cartel members in fashions that could get him killed, and his shamelessness earns their and our respect.

Your average director might have used Earl’s vigor and personality to spice up a suspense narrative, but the old man’s devotion to screwing around is the very subject of The Mule. Enjoyable details—Earl listening to oldies on the radio, pulling into rest stops for a snack, and even bantering with members of the cartel—allow Eastwood’s complicated political ideology to come into focus with understated ease. Currently Hollywood’s most iconic conservative filmmaker, Eastwood revels in Earl’s sense of self—in his implicit ability to refute modern self-censorship with his racist humor and politically incorrect sexual indulgences, which in this film often suggest a clearing of repressed air. Eastwood celebrates Earl as a refutation of our current culture, in which we police everything we say and do out of perpetual fear of causing offense, and in which art is often celebrated merely for parroting liberal platitudes back to critics who’re understandably enraged by the current government. Earl’s staunch resistance to these trends, embodied by his resentment of cellphones, render him an alternately baffling, pitiful, and exhilarating figure to younger people—white, of color, straight and queer alike—who’re used to playing by the modern rules of the game.

Yet this conservative filmmaker is also deeply attached to community, understanding that our direct and personal connections keep us healthy and human. Eastwood reveres the sorts of institutions that Republicans usually can’t wait to defund, and this conflict between a fetishizing of self and a yearning for community often animates his films, most recently Sully and The 15:17 to Paris. Eastwood, then, is conflicted in similar fashions as America itself. This is a place built on oppression that has fostered the intoxicating, maddeningly elusive possibility of freedom, a possibility that’s somehow both represented and refuted in microcosm by Earl’s hedonism and willingness, in his own antiquated, occasionally embarrassing way, to meet people of all sorts on their terms. One of The Mule’s most moving and telling narrative detours shows Earl using some of his drug money to save the local V.F.W., which is expressed by a joyous dance scene that suggests the ideal of our society.

Eastwood and screenwriter Nick Schenk also understand Earl’s sense of self to be selfishness—a privilege that’s not available to all Americans, some of whom pay a price for Earl’s revelry (such as his family, one of whom is played, in a suggestively autobiographical touch, by Eastwood’s daughter, Alison Eastwood). Not everyone can do whatever they like on the highways of America. In a tense and heartbreaking scene, the D.E.A. agents searching for Earl, led by Agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper), pull over a Hispanic man. Terrified of being killed by police, this man telegraphs his obedience with haunting and resonant steadfastness, which Eastwood plays for pitch-black comedy that never fails to shortchange the man’s fear. And this sequence has a wicked and subtle punchline: As the man returns to his truck unscathed, a tractor trailer roars by the highway in the background, causing the audience to wonder if it’s carrying drugs right under everyone’s noses, just like Earl does.

Many critics took The Mule for granted as an offhand bauble, the sort of thing Eastwood can knock off whenever he likes. But Eastwood’s casualness here, as both actor and director, represents an aesthetic apotheosis—a realization of a tone that he’s been trying to conjure off and on for decades. The heaviness of Eastwood films that were taken more seriously by audiences, such as Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, is almost entirely absent from The Mule, as Eastwood sustains here a lightness of being—a sensuality—that contains multitudes of emotional, personal, and political textures. The film is a poem of an America that never quite was, an America that haunts the dreams of people of all political affiliations, especially as we move further into a corporatized, artificially connected and manipulated monoculture that, incidentally, doesn’t favor atmospheric character studies like The Mule. When Colin captures Earl, Eastwood frames himself in shadowy profile as Earl’s placed in a police car. This portrait of a legend’s face against a doorframe, ruing lost time, ruing the promises that he and his country failed to keep, is worthy of the final shot of John Ford’s The Searchers.

Image/Sound

As with many of Clint Eastwood’s recent productions, The Mule favors muted colors, abounding in blacks and blues throughout its interior scenes, which are contrasted here with the bright craggy landscapes of New Mexico. The colors are rich and well-varied in this transfer, and the settings boast a good amount of detail, per the tradition of Warner Bros.’s often superb presentations of Eastwood’s films. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack isn’t a show pony, as this is a film composed often of alternating silence and dialogue. That said, those elements are handled perfectly well here. The score and various sound effects—gun shots, cars screeching—also boast appropriate bass and body, the latter of which effectively startles the film’s often quiet soundscape.

Extras

A 10-minute making-of supplement is a traditional promotional puff piece, though one interesting detail emerges: Eastwood’s character in The Mule wears clothing worn by the protagonists he played in True Crime and Gran Torino, among others, giving the film a subliminal autumnal texture. A music video for Toby Keith’s soundtrack song, “Don’t Let the Old Man In,” rounds out a virtually nonexistent supplements package.

Overall

Though there are no real supplements on this Warner Bros. disc, Clint Eastwood’s eccentric and moving The Mule speaks quite well for itself.

Cast: Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Taissa Farmiga, Michael Peña, Alison Eastwood, Andy Garcia, Laurence Fishburne, Dianne Wiest, Manny Montana, Robert LaSordo, Jill Flint Director: Clint Eastwood Screenwriter: Nick Schenk Distributor: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Running Time: 116 min Rating: R Year: 2018 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice on the Criterion Collection

Criterion’s release breathes new life into a self-appraising late period work that’s a lavish and lugubrious meditation on art and death.

4.5

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Death in Venice

Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice opens with a steamer approaching Venice, the strings of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony gorgeously throbbing on the soundtrack. This opening suggests the Italian city as an entry of romanticized escape for Gustave von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde), a reserved German composer on sabbatical, but then the sequence’s staid rhythm is abruptly dispelled by a blast from the boat’s steam engine, as if to hint at all the scorching filth that underlies Venice’s hyperbolic beauty. Throughout the film, Aschenbach’s vacation getaway will devolve into a ruinously obsessive journey, as he becomes captivated by the beauty he’s spent a career idealizing, manifested in a 14-year-old Polish boy. And this while Venice, cosmopolitan center for European art and culture, falls prey to a cholera epidemic.

We intuit that Aschenbach has retreated from his native Germany after a hostile reception to the premiere of a new composition. Doctors recommend a long period of complete rest, and he ventures to the south alone. In Venice, Aschenbach’s noble pretenses are undermined almost right away by grotesque encounters with a made-up dandy and a nefarious gondolier. He isn’t met with the deference he’s used to receiving, but with recalcitrant mockery. In this way, Death in Venice has deep connective tissue to Visconti’s The Leopard, wherein the aristocracy of Old Europe comes to grips with its collapse. Here, Aschenbach feels like a vestige of that class of European: a 19th-century ghost who hasn’t realized his obsolescence.

Through flashbacks, the audience learns that Aschenbach’s music is committed to ideals of beauty. Whereas Alfred (Mark Burns), his friend and colleague, preaches of the triumph of the senses and the significance of ambiguity in art, Aschenbach believes that art should uphold the dignity of humanity. For him, the nobility of beauty and intellect triumphs over our rudderless senses. Yet just as disease grips Venice, Aschenbach’s sensorial enthrallment overtakes his sense of reason. He settles into his hotel, and as Visconti’s camera—doubling for Aschenbach’s gaze—spends several minutes canvassing the dense dining hall, our main character’s languor and detachment is impressed upon us.

It’s then that an aristocratic Polish family passes before Aschenbach and the man is instantly taken with the beautiful Tadzio (Björn Andrésen). Even when the boy looks back at Aschenbach with an ambiguous smile, there’s a subtle sense that the boy’s preternatural glance has been constructed in the composer’s head. In one scene, Aschenbach spies Tadzio playing the piano, only for Visconti to then reveal that the boy isn’t there at all. At first, this kindling infatuation within Aschenbach is exciting for him, then frustrating, and eventually infuriating. And Death in Venice aesthetically complements Aschenbach’s unraveling: Visconti’s stylistic approach remains staid and evenly controlled in its presentation, yet the stready progression of flashbacks offers more questions than resolutions, plying the story with the kinds of ambiguities a conservative artist like Aschenbach disdains, suggesting that he’s being destroyed as if by a contagion carving its way through him.

Throughout, Tadzio’s perfection contrasts with Aschenbach’s loss of control. In The Leopard’s famous ball sequence, the noble patrons maintained their grace despite being so sweat-stained. But in Death in Venice, the sphinx of Old Europe has fully eroded. Aschenbach even attempts to remake himself in a barber’s shop as a younger man, blackening his graying hair and reddening his cheeks. “And now the signore may fall in love as he wishes,” the barber says, and yet as the cosmetically redrawn Aschenbach wanders through the stench of an ostensibly desolate wasteland, he embodies a ridiculous (and futile) retort to time.

Death in Venice is based on a 1911 novella by Thomas Mann, who often connected themes of disease and erotic enthrallment. For his adaptation, Visconti reached beyond his source material and incorporates elements from Mann’s 1947 novel Doctor Faustus, wherein Germany’s abandonment of reason to tribal barbarism becomes analogous to an artist’s pact with the devil for acquiring genius. In that novel, composer Adrian Leverkühn’s means of sealing this deal is by visiting a prostitute who infects him with syphilis, a slow-moving contamination that isolates his body and mind just as it destroys them (the scenario is based on an apocryphal story about the philosopher Friederich Nietzsche, whose work influenced so much of the trajectory of thought in the coming century). With haunting precision and muted sexual ferocity, Visconti stages the brothel scene from Doctor Faustus as a flashback, as Aschenbach—in place of Leverkühn—visits the prostitute Esmeralda (Carole André).

This flashback connects to Aschenbach’s infatuation with Tadzio, as both Esmeralda and Tadzio are spotted playing Beethoven’s “Für Elise” on a piano. It’s not clear if Visconti’s Aschenbach, like Leverkühn in Doctor Faustus, acquired syphilis from Esmeralda. But in connecting Tadzio and Esmeralda, Visconti implies Aschenbach’s metamorphosis from a dignified disposition to some irrational urge for destabilization (Esmeralda is also the name of the ship that carries him to Venice). The film is constructed of long camera setups with impeccably calibrated zooms to capture Old Europe’s denizens marching through crowded frames, conveying the hold of a master filmmaker in his twilight years over the action. Yet thrashing beneath that control, the film is submerged in ambiguities and incongruencies.

In his 1943 novel Joseph and His Brothers, Mann—in exile from Nazi Germany—wrote, “Do not assume the human being’s deepest concern is for peace, tranquility, the preservation of the carefully erected structure of his life from shattering and collapse. Too much evidence goes to show that he is headed straight toward ecstasy and ruin—and thanks nobody who holds him back.” True to Mann, Visconti’s Death in Venice details the self-evisceration of an individual’s—and nation’s—proud ideals. Not reconciling such ideals with the demonic is a grave error. The dying Aschenbach spies Tadzio in the sun kissed Adriatic, unable or unwilling to see the specter of fascism and two World Wars over the horizon.

Image/Sound

The only version of Death in Venice available to most viewers since 2004 was the Warner Home Video DVD, which offered a patchy transfer worthy of Aschenbach’s own corporeal entropy. Comparatively, Criterion’s release, which comes from a new 4K digital restoration, is akin to Tadzio himself. Throughout, the colors are newly, vibrantly saturated, allowing the widescreen compositions to shimmer in ways they haven’t since, surely, the film’s original theatrical release. There’s also an exceptional clarity to the spectrum of skin tones, from Aschenbach’s deathly pallor to Tadzio’s youthful, full-blooded beauty. Another drawback of the old DVD was its often unintelligible dialogue, as well as how it made the wall-to-wall Mahler compositions sound like they were pulled from a secondhand recording. Criterion’s uncompressed monaural soundtrack breathes new life into the film’s corpse, as it were, with the sound effects (such as the oars brushing through Venice’s ravines) boasting a profound crispness. The dialogue is perfectly intelligible and the dubbing—however flagrant—never strident. Mahler’s strings don’t blare out so much as sweep in smoothly like a tide.

Extras

The most informative extra here features literary and cinema scholar Stefano Albertini, who digs deep into the genesis and themes of the film, in particular its place in Visconti’s “German trilogy” alongside The Damned and Ludwig and the director’s lifelong adoration of Thomas Mann. A 1971 short film by Visconti documents his continent-wide search for a boy to play Tadzio. When we see Björn Andrésen being auditioned in Helsinki, it’s obvious that he’s the stand-out, but even Visconti admits the boy—too tall and too old—isn’t at all perfect (the process will probably touch a disturbing third rail for viewers, given how this search relates to the story of erotic attachment for a child just broaching pubescence).

The grandest extra, though, is an hour-long TV documentary about Visconti’s life and work titled Visconti: Life as in a Novel. It doesn’t offer anything in particular that will be new to the filmmaker’s more ardent fans, but it features engrossing interviews with some of Visconti’s more notable collaborators, such as Burt Lancaster, Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale, and Silvana Mangano. There are also excerpts from a 2006 interview with Piero Tosi, whose journey with Visconti went from working as a lowly design assistant—who could only talk to the filmmaker through intermediaries—to finally graduating to the role of costume designer on several of Visconti’s later films, including Death in Venice.

A brief 1971 film festival interview with Visconti is of interest in how the aging director admits he doesn’t understand the new generation of filmmakers. Ported over from the Warner DVD is Visconti’s Venice, a rather ho-hum behind-the-scenes documentary filmed during Death in Venice’s production. Finally, the disc’s accompanying essay, “Ruinous Infatuation” by Dennis Lim, is a rewarding encapsulation of the film as a work of adaptation and how Visconti tackles the challenge of a turning a novella rife with metaphor and symbols into something tactile.

Overall

Criterion’s release breathes new life into a self-appraising late period work that’s a lavish and lugubrious meditation on art and death.

Cast: Dirk Bogarde, Björn Andrésen, Romolo Valli, Mark Burns, Nora Ricci, Marisa Berenson, Carole André, Silvana Mangano. Director: Luchino Visconti Screenwriter: Luchino Visconti, Nicola Badalucco Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 131 min Rating: NR Year: 1971 Release Date: February 19, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Carlos Reygadas’s Japón on the Criterion Collection

Criterion has graced us with an intoxicatingly beautiful release of a strange and challenging film.

4

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Japón

It’s unlikely that Susan Sontag ever saw Carlos Reygadas’s debut feature, Japón, which made the festival rounds just a couple of years before the writer’s death in 2004, but if she had, she might well have recognized in the young Mexican auteur a kindred spirit—an artist whose work achieves (or at least attempts to achieve) what Sontag identified in her classic 1964 essay “Against Interpretation” as the mark of all good films: “a directness that entirely frees us from the itch to interpret.” Because while Japón is rife with religious iconography, socio-political observations, and heady filmic allusions, it never seems to be saying something (a pejorative phrase for Sontag) about Christianity, Mexican society, or cinema itself.

An unnamed traveler (Alejandro Ferretis) journeys to a remote village to commit suicide, only to find himself strangely absorbed in the life of an elderly woman, Ascen (Magdalena Flores), with whom he stays. It’s a simple story that Reygadas approaches with a sense of wonder that borders on naïveté. Far less concerned with what his film says than in how it sees, Reygadas attempts nothing less than to recapture for the audience the feeling of perceiving the world for the first time. Shooting in a highly unusual 16-mm Cinemascope format, Reygadas expands our field of vision with the super-widescreen aspect ratio while at the same time reminding us of the limits of our perception by rounding off the corners of the image, which places the entire film in a subtle frame. The breathtaking vistas of the valley where most of Japón takes place takes on an eerie and disorienting aura when viewed through the grainy textures and washed-out color palette of Reygadas’s low-budget film stock.

Japón begins in the city, with a strangely unsettling montage of shots filmed from a vehicle moving through traffic, tunnels, and fog, all set to an ominous orchestral score. This opening exudes a tantalizing sci-fi vibe, a feeling of uncanniness that carries through to the rest of the film as Ferretis’s character treks across the countryside, a stranger in a strange land. His first action out here in the wilderness is simultaneously brutal and magical: He decapitates a bird with his bare hands, after which its head lies on the ground, continuing to caw. It won’t be the last instance of shocking, senseless violence the film will expose us to.

As in his later work, Reygadas isn’t particularly concerned with constructing a narrative or probing his characters’ psychology. Rather, he cycles through various narrative modes; at times we seem to be watching a parable-like tale of suicide in the vein of Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, at others an absurd, darkly comic journey like that of K. in Kafka’s The Castle, and at others a brutal, Herzogian struggle against the elements. Similarly, the behavior of the characters can often seem as arbitrary as the narrative curlicues, even downright weird. Why does Ferretis’s character want to kill himself? Why does he later propose to Ascen, out of the blue, that they have sex? And why does she accept? Not only are these questions left unanswered, but even to ask them feels somehow beside the point. Reygadas asks us not to analyze particular actions, but to feel them in all their elemental strangeness.

Not that everything in Japón is successful in attaining this feeling, as the ambling narrative pace can at times come off as pointless, and Reygadas’s long takes can sometimes seem like little more than patience-testing provocations. The overall effect of the film, however, is one of metaphysical intoxication, a kind of heady gratification brought on by the beauty of Reygadas’s images and the sheer eccentricity of the world the film conjures. In the film’s most memorable sequence, Reygadas depicts with impenitent matter-of-factness his main characters having sex. The filmmaker isn’t trying to turn us on, nor is he attempting to shock us with the unvarnished sight of two older people’s starkly naked forms. Rather, the scene provides the natural culmination of the main character’s journey. His is a quest for higher meaning that inexorably leads back to the base satisfaction of his animal urges.

Image/Sound

The new 2K digital restoration of Japón, supervised by Carlos Reygadas, honors the film’s strange, intoxicating imagery. Despite some small but noticeable image shuddering during a few of the film’s panning shots, it’s safe to say that Reygadas’s film hasn’t looked this good since its initial theatrical rollout. This release preserves the film’s muted yet striking color palette and the gorgeous granularity of its unique 16-mm Cinemascope cinematography. The DTS-HD Master Audio surround soundtrack which highlights the rich sonic environment of the film, from the remarkable subtleties of wind and animal sounds to spectacularly rich music cues from the likes of Bach and Arvo Pärt. This meticulous preservation effort makes a case for Japón as one of the most visually singular debut features of the 21st century.

Extras

The disc’s most notable feature is a conversation between Reygadas and filmmaker Amat Escalante that goes deep into the former’s creative process, influences, and biography. The interview provides a particularly incisive look at Reygadas’s use of storyboards, some of which are also reproduced in the release’s attractive full-color booklet along with production photos and a high-spirited essay by novelist Valeria Luiselli. Also included is Adulte, a Deren-esque short made by Reygadas as a way of teaching himself filmmaking, as well as a deleted scene, a trailer, and a video diary of the production shot by lead actor Alejandro Ferretis. It’s a rich assortment of supplementary materials that provides useful background on Reygadas’s creative methods without attempting to provide any answers to the film’s mysteries.

Overall

In restoring Japón to its original glory, the Criterion Collection has graced us with an intoxicatingly beautiful release of a strange and challenging film.

Cast: Alejandro Ferretis, Magdalena Flores, Yolanda Villa, Martín Serrano, Rolando Hernández, Bernabe Pérez, Fernando Benítez Director: Carlos Reygadas Screenwriter: Carlos Reygadas Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 134 min Rating: R Year: 2002 Release Date: March 26, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Kogonada’s Columbus on Oscilloscope Laboratories Blu-ray

Kogonada’s elegant and moving narrative debut has been outfitted with a lovely transfer that will hopefully expose the film to new audiences.

4

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Columbus

Early in Kogonada’s Columbus, Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) and an unnamed co-worker (Rory Culkin) discuss the notion of attention bias. When people prefer video games to reading, the co-worker says, they’re often said to have a short attention span, even if they’re concentrating on video games for hours at a time. However, a reader who’s unable to engage with video games is unlikely to weather the same criticism. Casey and her co-worker are both bookish young people, intellectuals in the making, who clearly favor reading over most anything else. But Culkin’s character raises an evocative and perhaps alarming point, challenging the tendency of readers and other connoisseurs of art to believe that their interests render them better people and are superior to other people’s pursuits. Is art another evasion for the introvert? The co-worker asks Casey, “Are we losing interest in everyday life?”

It might not occur to the audience until much later in the film that the co-worker is telling Casey that he’s in love with her, asking this guarded and intelligent young woman to truly see the person facing her every day among the comforting cavernousness of the library. This conflict would be enough for a good film, but Kogonada, who challenges every potential platitude that he uncovers, allows us to see that the co-worker also gently and almost imperceptibly retreats from Casey when she opens up to him.

Columbus is invested with the empathy, curiosity, and attention to detail that drive the video essays that Kogonada has produced for the Criterion Collection and Sight & Sound, among other places. A key to the film resides in a question that Kogonada posed in his extraordinary analysis of the work of director Hirokazu Kore-eda: “Does cinema offer escape from this world? Or deeper entrance?” These concerns implicitly fuel the co-worker’s occupation with attention bias, and they elucidate Casey’s obsession with the modernist architecture in their hometown of Columbus, Indiana. Art heightens a connection to the world, nurturing a sensitivity and an awareness of one’s surroundings, but it can quickly become an introvert’s crutch, providing an illusion of a life lived in full, rather than as an existence devoted to collecting and analyzing the ghosts of other artists’ dreams.

Kogonada surveys the town’s architecture with the exacting, worshipful eye that he’s brought to analyzing the cinema of his heroes, and it’s impossible not to wonder if Casey’s awakening—her discovery of her right to live her own life and to create her own art—is representative of Kogonada’s own drive to create. Like his video essays, Columbus is intensely occupied with the ways in which the space and symmetry of images reveal character and emotion.

As Culkin’s character discusses attention bias, our gaze is drawn to the square pattern in the library’s ceiling, which suggests a kind of cubist green quilt with lights housed in each geometric structure—the sort of wonderful texture that the co-worker feels they may be missing. A little later, Casey observes that a church has been designed with a deliberate sense of asymmetry, yet its total effect is one of balance. Every image is rich in striking, supple through lines and prisms, which are often made asymmetrical by the placing of human characters in the frame, celebrating the unlikely wealth of art that abounds in this town, capable of being beholden by citizens of all walks of life, as well as the distance from life that art can both obfuscate and crystallize.

Kogonada doesn’t fall for the false dichotomy between intelligence and emotion that frequently mars American culture, understanding that—for people such as Casey, her co-worker, and a visiting Korean book translator, Jin (John Cho)—intelligence is emotion, as well as a code of morality. Casey and Jin meet and engage in an erudite courtship that’s nearly unprecedented in American cinema, which Richardson and Cho perform with a lucid and magnificently poignant sense of control. The seeming miracle of Columbus is its mixture of formal precision with a philosophical grasp of human mystery, which recalls the work of Kogonada heroes such as Hitchcock, Tarkovsky, and Antonioni. Until the ending, Casey and Jin are often refracted through mirrors and other surfaces when they risk revealing too much of their pain and desire, suggesting their urge to efface themselves with their interests and blend into the nesting designs that comprise the grand patterns of life.

A relationship between symmetry and asymmetry governs the images as well as the narrative structure. Jin’s emotionally trapped by estrangement from his ailing father while Casey is, by contrast, suppressed by her devotion to her recovering meth-addicted mother (Michelle Forbes), which she uses as a front for her intellectual insecurity. A few scenes into Columbus, we see a shot of traffic flowing underneath the triangular Second Street Bridge, which we can assume to represent Jin’s arrival into town. Near the end of the film, Casey leaves under the same bridge to pursue her dream of studying architecture. This entrance and exit represent both a symmetry (one person is traded in Columbus for another) as well as an asymmetry, as Kogonada could’ve easily positioned the entrance and the exit as the exact beginning and ending of the film but doesn’t, though Columbus has a pervading emotional balance—a sense of two lives granting themselves the possibility of transcendence.

Kogonada offers, to use a phrase coined by Casey’s co-worker, a “critique of a critique,” as the rapturous clarity of his own images is the very source of his interrogation. In the context of this film, symmetry can mean a balance of life and art or refer to order that’s imposed on life, draining it of vitality. Meanwhile, asymmetry can evoke the wonderful chaos of life, or connote a lack of balance, as artists and aficionados retreat definitively into their own obsessions. Balance is tricky, in other words, and these anxious riddles inform the surpassingly beautiful Columbus with probing human thorniness, as it’s an art object gripped by the possibility that art, in the right light, can insidiously launder alienation. Though life without art, for people such as Casey and Jin, is akin to life without life.

Image/Sound

The image is strikingly attractive, honoring Kogonada’s symmetrical, colorful compositions, the beauty and fastidiousness of which reflect the emotions of characters who qualify their yearnings via discussions of architectural aesthetics. Colors are sharp—perhaps sharper than they were in the theater—and details are plentiful, with particular textural emphasis accorded to the buildings that serve as a kind of visual Greek chorus. The soundtrack is necessarily subtle, as this a film that’s often composed of silence and whispers, which are well-balanced here with a rich score and the minute sounds of the everyday.

Extras

The most notable supplement is a select scene audio commentary by actors John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson, who’re both intelligent, sensitive, intuitive performers who seem to enjoy a camaraderie similar to that of their on-screen counterparts. They speak of the various physical challenges inherent to their roles, particularly Richardson’s stillness in the film, which is somewhat at odds with her more frenetic way of being in real life. Cho and Richardson also celebrate working with Kogonada, whom they cumulatively describe as having an exact yet flexible vision. The deleted scenes are fine on their own, offering additional texture about the protagonists, though not revelatory. (In other words, they were justifiably cut.) A seven-minute short film by Kogonada, “Columbus Story,” free-associatively mixes footage of making the film with additional narration about the buildings of Columbus, Indiana. The theatrical trailer rounds out a slim but charming package.

Overall

Kogonada’s elegant and moving narrative debut has been outfitted with a lovely transfer that will hopefully expose the film to new audiences.

Cast: Haley Lu Richardson, John Cho, Parker Posey, Rory Culkin, Michelle Forbes, Erin Allegretti Director: Kogonada Screenwriter: Kogonada Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories Running Time: 103 min Rating: NR Year: 2017 Release Date: March 26, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Robert Zemeckis’s I Wanna Hold Your Hand on the Criterion Collection

The disc’s 4K restoration offers Zemeckis’s debut, a madcap celebration of the pop-cultural phenomena, a chance at a second life.

3.5

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I Wanna Hold Your Hand

Robert Zemeckis’s I Wanna Hold Your Hand is a film with the absurdist bent of a funhouse mirror. Set around the Beatles’s iconic 1964 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, the film is refreshingly free of baby-boomer nostalgia for a more innocent time. Zemeckis instead fully embraces the “mania” in Beatlemania, setting his focus on both the band’s fans and no less crazed haters and leaving the Fab Four on the fringes of the film (they’re only seen in archival footage and shots where the actors playing them are framed from behind or the waist down).

Zemeckis’s directorial debut unfolds in a series of mini-narratives that follow a group of New Jersey teens who make their way to New York City hoping to score tickets to the Beatles’s first live U.S. television appearance, or at least see them at the exclusive hotel where they’re holed up. Zemeckis and co-screenwriter Bob Gale capture not only the sheer lunacy of a wildly obsessive and fiercely loyal fandom, but also the various shades that exist within and around that distinctive subculture.

The loudest and most boisterous of this bunch is Rosie (Wendie Jo Sperber), who doesn’t hesitate to jump out of a moving car or break into a stranger’s hotel room if it means getting to a phone from which she can call the radio station giving away tickets to attend The Ed Sullivan Show. But where Rosie is the prototypical teenage Beatles fan, fainting at even a cardboard cutout of the dreamy Paul McCartney, she’s surrounded by friends and classmates whose motives for making the trip are less than pure.

The street-smart Grace (Theresa Saldana) arrives on the scene with camera in hand, hoping to get a snapshot of the band so as to jump-start her journalism career, and it isn’t long into the film before she finds herself moving on from her relatively innocent scam of selling squares of bed sheets the Beatles supposedly slept on to flirting with prostitution to get enough money to bribe her way into The Ed Sullivan Show. And then there’s the recently engaged Pam (Nancy Allen), who begrudgingly tags along with her friends in spite of knowing that her fiancé will be jealous. Of course, her worries quickly melt away later on when she finds herself alone in the band’s hotel room, where she tucks her engagement ring in her shoe before stroking and kissing the phallic neck of McCartney’s bass guitar as if it were a lover.

Lest it be populated entirely with fangirls, I Wanna Hold Your Hand also offers up an artsy poseur, Janis (Susan Kendall Newman), and post-greaser tough guy, Tony (Bobby Di Cicco), as prospective foils to Beatles fans everywhere. Janis and Tony join in on the fun only to protest the band’s sudden domination of the country’s entire cultural landscape. Where Janis sees the Brits overshadowing more socially important music like that of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, Tony yearns for a time when the Four Seasons and Elvis were still on top. Such anti-Beatles furor also torments the younger Peter (Christian Juttner), whose conservative father (Read Morgan) employs a one-eyed barber (Newton Arnold) to chop off his son’s mop top, only to be saved by Janis and Tony in an act of generational camaraderie.

Along with the onslaught of intricate and humorous character details that help form its multifaceted portrait of its particular cultural zeitgeist, I Wanna Hold Your Hand is defined by its relentlessly manic energy. Zemeckis’s fondness for Looney Tunes, which would be on more explicit display in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, is already in full effect here in the consistently heightened, cartoonish quality of the slapstick. From the often-spastic nature of the actors’ movements (particularly those of Eddie Deezen in his Jerry Lewis-like interpretation of a crazed Beatles trivia nerd) and their comically twisted facial expressions to the sheer speed of the action which is amplified throughout by undercranking the image, everything in I Wanna Hold Your Hand is pushed right up to the breaking point of absurdity. The lunacy of pop-culture infatuation is lent the undying fervor of a fever dream.

Image/Sound

The Criterion Collection’s transfer, from a new 4K restoration, is quite remarkable. The image is so crisp and clear that it’s hard to believe that I Wanna Hold Your Hand is a relatively low-budget film shot over 40 years ago. The reds and blues especially pop, and there are warm yet naturalistic hues to the actors’ skin tones. The contrast of the image is also perfectly calibrated, allowing for the highest quality and detail in both the brighter outdoor sequences and darker interiors. The 5.1 audio track is also beautifully layered, giving the numerous Beatles tracks a booming intensity, while the rapid dialogue remains clean and easy to decipher throughout. If there’s a minor flaw, it’s the slight disparity between those dialogue and music tracks, which may have you occasionally adjusting your volume level.

Extras

The beefiest extra on the disc is the 2004 audio commentary with Robert Zemeckis and co-writer and frequent collaborator Bob Gale. While their focus is more on I Wanna Hold Your Hand’s production than on breaking down the film in any meaningful way, they provide a wonderful variety of amusing on-set stories and insight into their casting process and how they ended up working with their mentor, Steven Spielberg, on the film. The discussion is brisk and light-hearted, which is fitting given how free and loose-limbed I Wanna Hold Your Hand is, but it also details Zemeckis and Gale’s process of working with mostly inexperienced actors and how many of the more challenging shots were accomplished.

The recent interview with Zemeckis, Gale, and Spielberg covers much of the same ground as the commentary, with some additional campfire stories pertaining to their later collaborations with John Milius thrown in for good measure. In Nancy Allen and Marc McClure’s accompanying interview, the actors talk about their fascinating experiences during the casting process, though they too often default to lavishing praise on Zemeckis and restating how enjoyable it was to work on the film. The release also includes an essay by Scott Tobias and two of Zemeckis’s student films, The Lift and A Field of Honor, the latter of which provides an interesting glimpse at his propensity for manic absurdism in its embryonic form.

Overall

The disc’s beautiful 4K restoration offers Robert Zemeckis’s debut, a madcap celebration of the pop-cultural phenomena, a chance at a second life.

Cast: Nancy Allen, Bobby Di Cicco, Marc McClure, Susan Kendall Newman, Theresa Saldana, Wendie Jo Sperber, Eddie Deezan, Christian Juttner, Will Jordan, Read Morgan, Dick Miller Director: Robert Zemeckis Screenwriter: Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 104 min Rating: PG Year: 1978 Release Date: March 26, 2019 Buy: Video

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