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DVD Review: The Burning Plain

Not much star power bolstering the disc’s bonus features, but overall it’s a nice package for a rather small film.

3.0

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The Burning Plain

Around the release of Babel, screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga none-too-subtly suggested that he was the true auteur of his collaborations with director Alejandro González Iñárritu. As if to prove his authorial heft, Arriaga loads his own game of fatalistic scrabble, The Burning Plain, with engorged versions of his trademark woe-is-humanity tropes: fractured narratives, damaged gringos aching for redemption, and Mexican sufferers so saintly that one actually turns down a soaking wet Charlize Theron in a half-open peignoir.

The mirror-image wounded blond birds are Sylvia (Theron, crying a river), a doleful Oregon restaurant manager with a yen for bedding strangers only to punishingly lacerate her skin afterward, and Gina (Kim Basinger), a New Mexico housewife who finds carnal-spiritual refuge with a sensitive immigrant worker (Joaquim de Almeida). To reveal more would spoil the time-hopping hijinks of Arriaga’s connect-the-wretches diagram; suffice to say that a pair of star-crossed youngsters (J.D. Pardo, Jennifer Lawrence) lend an intergenerational angle to the cause-and-effect barriers separating the characters, while an angelic stalker (José Maria Yazpik) is shoved in as mediator.

Humorless and sanctimonious, Burning Plain groans with shoddy ironies and overbearing serendipity: Divided between sterile K-Marts and sun-parched fields, the world here is a stark playpen for anguished and vengeful globs of human Play Doh. The same rigged platitudes could be found in Amores Perros and 21 Grams, though González Iñárritu’s pulverizing, no-bell-left-unrung direction at least guaranteed some visceral reaction even to those who loathed those films’ facile determinism. By contrast, Arriaga’s technical inertness guarantees only a better look at his strained bag of tricks, along with a full view of the emperor’s bare ass cheeks.

Image/Sound

The image is clean and crisp on this DVD of Guillermo Arriaga’s The Burning Plain, but edge enhancement is noticeable at times throughout the film. The surround sound is nicely employed during key moments, but subtle background and foley sound effects are lost during quieter scenes.

Extras

The DVD’s main extra feature is the in-depth, 43-minute featurette “The Making of The Burning Plain,” which is composed of on-set footage and an interview with the director, who largely delves into the technical aspects of production but also explains the origins behind the film’s opening scene as well as the four-elements theme that informs the cinematography (Charlize Theron represents water, and thus her scenes are awash in cool blue tones, etc.). Rounding out the disc is a 15-minute featurette focusing on the film’s score, the HDNet special “A Look at The Burning Plain,” which is essentially an extended trailer, and trailers for other Magnolia Pictures films.

Overall

Not much star power bolstering the disc’s bonus features, but overall it’s a nice package for a rather small film.

Cast: Charlize Theron, Kim Basinger, Joaquim de Almeida, John Corbett, Robin Tunney, Brett Cullen, Danny Pino, Jennifer Lawrence, José Maria Yazpik, J.D. Pardo, Tessa Ia, Rachel Ticotin Director: Guillermo Arriaga Screenwriter: Guillermo Arriaga Distributor: Magnolia Home Entertainment Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2008 Release Date: January 12, 2010 Buy: Video

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Review: William Wyler’s The Good Fairy on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

A key early work for both Wyler and screenwriter Preston Sturges gets a fantastic new transfer from Kino Lorber.

3.5

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The Good Fairy

Luisa Ginglebusher (Margaret Sullavan), an 18-year-old girl in pigtails who’s spent her entire childhood in an orphanage, is a vision of pure innocence. When a local businessman (Alan Hale) plucks her out of a lineup and offers her a job as an usherette at Budapest’s largest movie palace, the director of the orphanage (Beulah Bondi) sends her off with some parting advice: to remember to do a good deed every day. The older woman means to steer Luisa in the right direction, but the naïve young girl really takes those words of guidance to heart, resulting in a number of mix-ups and misunderstandings that force her to navigate the perilous traps of the modern world, particularly those stemming from men’s lustfulness.

William Wyler’s The Good Fairy, penned by Preston Sturges, boasts the quick wit that’s so typical of the screwball comedy, but also a sharply observed critique of predatory masculinity, which defines all but one of the numerous men who flock to the wide-eyed Luisa like moths to a flame. A hilarious early scene points to Luisa’s childlike conception of romantic love by showing her transfixed by a corny romantic melodrama playing at the movie palace, wherein an overly stilted actor repeatedly says “Go” as he attempts to throw his lover out of his house. But she has enough shrewdness to tell the men who harass her on the streets that she’s married—a little white lie that helps her get out of a jam on several occasions.

Wyler’s propensity for deep-focus shots is on memorable display in a scene that has Luisa training alongside a large group of usherettes in the movie palace and a later one in which she tries on a faux fox scarf and playfully models it for herself in front of a mise en abyme of mirrors. But more often than not, Wyler’s direction doesn’t call attention to itself, allowing Sturges’s droll, clever dialogue to take center stage as Luisa’s well-meaning fibs get her inextricably wrapped up in the lives of three men: Detlaff (Reginald Owen), an overprotective waiter who becomes her self-appointed guardian; Konrad (Frank Morgan), the wealthy, alcoholic meat magnate who treats Luisa similarly to the product that made him rich; and Dr. Sporum (Herbert Marshall), an unsuspecting lawyer who gets wrapped up in Luisa’s web of lies when she pulls his name out of the phone book and tells Konrad that he’s her husband.

The resulting chaos, involving multiple rivalries between the pompous men and a mostly passive Luisa—who, much of the time, just wants to be left alone—effectively cuts the blind idealism of her “good fairy” actions down to size, suggesting that good deeds are mostly wasted on mankind. In all but stripping Luisa of agency once she starts the marital farce in motion, The Good Fairy highlights the immense gap in power between the ingénue and the men who, despite their feigned attempts to appear as if they have her best interests at heart, bicker around her and pester her relentlessly despite her many protestations.

Due to limitations enforced by the Production Code, Sturges was forced to reimagine Ferenc Molnár’s risqué play, removing all references to Luisa’s sexual exploits and making her appear more innocent in her pursuit of goodness. But there’s still a heaping of innuendo and double entendre to suggest that she becomes learned in the art of manipulating the opposite sex. And while the snappiest dialogue belongs to Marshall, Morgan, and Owen, Sullavan subtly registers a knowing coyness that even the censors couldn’t snuff out from behind the marvelous façade of virginal purity that Luisa continues to put on long after she’s taken out her ponytails. It’s a frightening world of betrayal and indecency that Luisa has entered, but she eventually learns the lesson that you have to be at least a little bad to do some good.

Image/Sound

Sourced from a brand new 4K master, Kino’s transfer is fantastic across the board, boasting a remarkable sharpness, clarity, and depth. The contrast is also quite impressive, particularly in the deep, inky blacks, helping the picture to really pop. The healthy and even distribution of grain adds a nice, textured quality to the image, assuring the transfer never appears overly digitized. The audio is also nearly flawless, with the rapid dialogue and Heinz Roemheld’s lilting score remaining consistently crisp and clear, with only the occasional hints of tinniness.

Extras

The sole extra here is a charming and informative commentary by film critic and author Simon Abrams. His detailing of the myriad differences between Ferenc Molnár’s play and Preston Sturges’s script is comprehensive, as is his coverage of the effects that the relatively fresh implementation of the Hays Code had on the material’s more salacious qualities. On the lighter side, Abrams’s offers some backstage anecdotes from time to time, most notably the juicy nuggets about Margaret Sullavan’s diva-like on-set antics and her eventual marriage to William Wyler toward the end of production, after weeks of fighting with one another.

Overall

A key early work for both William Wyler and screenwriter Preston Sturges gets a fantastic new transfer from Kino Lorber.

Cast: Margaret Sullavan, Herbert Marshall, Frank Morgan, Reginald Owen, Eric Blore, Beulah Bondi, Alan Hale, Cesar Romero, Luis Alberni, June Clayworth Director: William Wyler Screenwriter: Preston Sturges Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 1935 Release Date: January 14, 2020 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat on the Criterion Collection

Godard’s bracing sophomore feature receives a wonderful hi-def transfer and a series of extras that contextualize its politics.

3.5

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Le Petit Soldat

The perception of Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat as a sophomore slump derives less from its presumed shortcomings and more from two highly mitigating factors: the mighty shadow cast by Godard’s seminal debut feature, Breathless, and the fact that it didn’t even see the light of day until three years after its making. The French government banned its exhibition due to its contentious subject matter, which depicted scenes of torture and painted an unsavory picture of the French armed forces in their conflict with the Algerian National Liberation Front.

Yet in many ways, Le Petit Soldat is equal to Breathless in its inventiveness and exuberance. A sort of political thriller—in the same nominal, oblique way that Breathless is a gangster film—Godard’s sophomore feature tells the story of Bruno (Michel Subor), a French photojournalist living in Geneva so that he may avoid enlistment. After refusing to assassinate a French FLN sympathizer, the French intelligence group with which he’s affiliated suspects him of being a double agent, complicating his infatuation with his newfound love, Veronica (Anna Karina), who has political ties of her own.

Despite their contrasting subjects, Breathless and Le Petit Soldat share many thematic and stylistic similarities, attributed to their Sartrean influence and Godard’s infatuation with cinema as the great conduit of human emotion. Flying in the face of Le Petit Soldat’s grave subject matter are distinctly Hollywood-esque notions of passion, intrigue, morality, and even mortality. Also hovering over every second of the action is a sense of betrayal, both political and romantic. In the film, Godard depicts love and betrayal as two sides of the same coin, as he did in Breathless and would continue to do throughout his career.

Working again with cinematographer Raoul Coutard, Godard achieves a naturalistic, improvisational style, filming in bustling city streets. Less instinctual, though, is the editing, as Godard sought to capture a weightier, more mature tone. Compared to Breathless, Le Petit Soldat’s images suggest a stronger sense of place, as characters seem inextricably linked to their environment. Overall, the film lacks the artifice of Hollywood cinema, which Godard admired but was looking to move past after catching flack from the French left wing.

In the early days of the Nouvelle Vague, as Godard and his compatriots at Cahiers du Cinéma garnered international acclaim for their brand of idiosyncratic filmmaking, members of the left accused them of making films about private and therefore apolitical matters, a reasonable albeit needling denigration that sparked Le Petit Soldat’s production. Keen to counter this criticism, Godard, with a sort of brash impudence, set his sights on the most controversial political subjects of the day: Algeria’s fight for independence, France’s reluctance to grant them such, and both side’s use of torture to extract information from the opposition—all of this in spite of the fact that he had no real intention of tackling these subjects head on.

The film emerged in the midst of a political sea change for Godard, who considered the left’s rigorous, politicized aesthetic demands constraining, yet conversely found much to dislike in the right’s proto-fascist treatment of the Algerian conflict. Though he abstained from political overtones in Breathless, things had reached a point where a nonpolitical stance was chancy, prompting Godard to wade into the conversation in the way he knew best: through cinema. And in virtually every sense, Le Petit Soldat is Godard’s attempt to make an inherently contentious film despite his uncertain political stance in relation to the subject.

For Godard, political engagement was a deeply personal practice, an innately existential concept with no real relation to external circumstances. As such, the film can be read as his personal reconciliation with the Algerian War, the process with which he used to reach a political conclusion by landing on the left—and that rare occurrence in cinema when action is infused with thought, and when the very nature of thought comes to life on screen.

Image/Sound

For Le Petit Soldat, cinematographer Raoul Coutard worked with natural and available light, which resulted in images of variable clarity, yet the Criterion Collection’s transfer counters that by maximizing contrast and texture. Outdoor scenes feature slight fluctuations of detail endemic to the film’s source material, though for the most part the image remains stable and looks surprisingly good in night scenes, which sport healthy grain but no crushing artifacts. Indoor scenes are richly textured and display a wide variety of sharply contrasted grays. The film’s contrapuntal audio is even crisper, showing off the remarkable range of sound elements that Jean-Luc Godard was readily capturing so early into his career.

Extras

A 1965 interview with Godard finds him reflecting on the film’s hostile reception even among left-wing publications, as well as the inspiration he takes from real-world events. A 1963 interview with Michel Subor focuses on his collaborations with Godard and how the actor admires the filmmaker’s quirks and challenging personality. Also included is a 1961 audio interview with Godard that emphasizes the popularity he enjoyed after the release of Breathless. Finally, an essay by critic Nicholas Elliott considers how Le Petit Soldat kickstarted Godard’s career-defining preoccupation with all things political.

Overall

Godard’s bracing sophomore feature receives a wonderful hi-def transfer from Criterion and a series of extras that contextualize its controversial politics.

Cast: Michel Subor, Anna Karina, Henri-Jacques Huet, Paul Beauvais, Georges de Beauregard, László Szabó, Jean-Luc Godard Director: Jean-Luc Godard Screenwriter: Jean-Luc Godard Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 1963 Release Date: January 21, 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: House by the Cemetery Receives 3-Disc Limited Edition Blu-ray

The House by the Cemetery remains prime real estate for horror film aficionados.

5

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House by the Cemetery

Several generations of fanboys have heralded Lucio Fulci as “the Godfather of Gore” (pace Herschell Gordon Lewis), and there’s splatter aplenty on display in The House by the Cemetery, from the opening murder set piece (a knife to the back of the skull that emerges from the victim’s mouth) to the penultimate killing (a major character gets their throat torn out). But it would be grossly reductive, not to mention flat-out wrong, to dismiss the film as mere gore-delivery system.

As with previous entries in the loosely linked “Gates of Hell” trilogy (City of the Living Dead and The Beyond), with their concern for the all-too-porous boundaries between the living and the dead, Fulci refracts influences both cinematic (The Amityville Horror and The Shining) and literary (Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and any number of Gothic-inflected haunted-house tales) through the lens of his own darkly poetic sensibility. Fulci and his co-writers betray a fondness for the ambiguous and open-ended. None of the “Gates of Hell” films conclude with the restoration of moral or, indeed, cosmic order found in more conventional (read: conservative) horror films, and The House by the Cemetery’s haunting finale suggests, in the words of co-writer Dardano Sacchetti, that life is an ode to death as savior.

The setup is properly archetypal: New Yorkers Lucy and Norman Boyle (Fulci regulars Catriona MacColl and Paolo Malco), along with their young son, Bob (Giovanni Frezza), move to New Whitby, outside of Boston, so that Norman can continue the research of his colleague, Dr. Petersen, who not long before murdered his lover and then killed himself in the same “old, dark house” that the Boyles are now renting. The film, though, isn’t without a sly sense of humor. Witness the name of its monstrous mad doctor: Freudstein. The “mad doctor” epithet elucidates the cognomen’s latter component, but the Freudian aspects within the film are more manifold. Naturally enough, a free-floating feeling of the uncanny permeates the film, as in the numerous instances of déjà vu when the residents of New Whitby believe Norman has been there before, and surrounds the figure of Ann (Ania Pieroni), Bob’s eerie babysitter.

Then, too, there’s Freud’s suggestion that the uncanny (“un-home-ly”) is the opposite of the domestic, the familiar (in several senses) rendered unfamiliar, and therefore akin on the level of aesthetics to the formalist principle of defamiliarization. In The House by the Cemetery, the nearby graves quite literally invade the home, when Lucy discovers the headstone for the Freudstein crypt in the middle of their living room. At film’s end, when Bob escapes from the cellar through a rather vaginal-looking crack in the tombstone, the moment is a kind of rebirth, into the gray and wintry realms of the undead. By the same token, the monster inhabiting the cellar embodies the return of the repressed, whatever has been shoved deep down into the depths of the unconscious—here, quite possibly, Bob’s anger and resentment toward inattentive, even neglectful parents.

Fulci also accomplishes the act of rendering things unfamiliar throughout his dreamlike film by disavowing the linear mechanics of narrative logic. Inattentive viewers have always complained that Fulci’s infernal trilogy are incoherent texts, filled with dangling plot threads and unexplained leaps of logical faith, which indeed they are. Putting that down to rank incompetence, though, would be to mistake technique as the lack thereof and consistently misconstrue the sense of the playful and surreal that runs through even Fulci’s most graphic and brutal films, whether the Donald Duck-voiced killer in his grindhouse post mortem that is The New York Ripper, or the self-reflexive mise en abyme of The Cat in the Brain, wherein Fulci plays himself as a maestro of the macabre trapped within an endless nightmare constructed from cut-and-pasted gore scenes drawn from his lesser-known films.

Nor is Fulci above bits of self-aware parody that stick it to the conventions of Gothic horror, a sensibility that’s best evidenced here in the amusingly protracted bat-killing scene: Norman repeatedly stabs the flying rodent latched onto his hand with a steak knife until what seems like gallons of syrupy blood gush out, which Fulci follows with a smash cut to a smarmy realtor, glimpsed in an earlier scene, yawning in boredom.

The House by the Cemetery concludes with a quote allegedly drawn from the works of Henry James: “No one will ever know whether children are monsters or monsters are children.” It’s a false attribution, naturally, but one that nevertheless keys into the film’s layers of Jamesian ambiguity, of the “Is it real or all in your head?” variety, and invites comparison to Jack Clayton’s excellent film adaptation of James’s most famous story, The Innocents. Though Clayton’s film epitomizes the restraint and suggestiveness of the best psychological horror films, seemingly at antipodes to Fulci’s full-frontal assault of explicitness, both films have the capacity to burrow under your skin and plumb deep into your unconscious.

Image/Sound

Blue Underground’s 4K upgrade of their 2011 Blu-ray marks another quantum leap in presenting cinematographer Sergio Salvati’s stunningly atmospheric work: Black levels are truly deep and tenebrous throughout, without a trace of murky blocking or crush. The already impressive clarity and color saturation get a further boost, with plenty of heretofore illegible details (like food labels and signage) clearly standing out. And the brightness of those rainbow-hued stained-glass windows in the Boyle home will practically make you squint. There are three audio options: Master Audio mono tracks in English and Italian, as well as a repurposed English 5.1 surround mix, which does a discreet but admirable job of separating and channelizing Walter Rizzati’s synth-organ score, as well as ambient sound effects like Freudstein’s piteous mewling and that bizarre recurrent wolf call. And there’s always the Italian track if you’re one of those viewers whose bane of existence is the shrill, vapid voice provided by whoever supplied the voice for flaxen-haired moppet Bob Boyle.

Extras

The bounteous extras, both old and new, are spread across two Blu-ray discs, with Blue Underground porting over all the bonus materials from their earlier release of the film. Most of the lead actors get their own brief interview featurette, either alone or in tandem, as do husband-and-wife co-writers Elisa Briganti and Dardano Sacchetti, as well as Salvati and a handful of special effects artists. They’re all listenable and informative, especially the interview with Briganti and Sacchetti. And the deleted scene is an extension of the bat-killing sequence, presented without any audio, and it adds precious little to the festivities.

For this limited edition, Blue Underground has inclued four major new supplements, including a predictably lively, informative, and often colorfully opinionated commentary track by Troy Howarth. The film historian makes a persuasive argument for The House by the Cemetery’s “poetic” qualities, especially when it comes to Fulci’s dynamic use of the 2.35:1 frame. In a Q&A from 2014 at the Spaghetti Cinema Film Festival, actress Catriona MacColl fields questions about her career, working with Fulci, and the afterlife of his films. Co-writer Giorgio Mariuzzo discusses his working relationship with Fulci. And author Stephen Thrower delves into the literary and cinematic influences on The House by the Cemetery, its place within Fulci’s filmography, and examines the shooting locations (with some enjoyable then-and-now snapshots). But the extras don’t stop there. Blue Underground truly pimp out their packaging with a 3D lenticular slipcase, an illustrated booklet with essay by Michael Gingold on the film and its legacy, and a CD disc that contains the entire Walter Rizzati score.

Overall

The House by the Cemetery remains prime real estate for horror film aficionados.

Cast: Catriona MacColl, Paolo Malco, Ania Pieroni, Giovanni Frezza, Silvia Collatina, Dagmar Lassander, Carlo De Mejo, Lucio Fulci Director: Lucio Fulci Screenwriter: Dardano Sacchetti, Giorgio Mariuzzo, Lucio Fulci Distributor: Blue Underground Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 1981 Release Date: January 21, 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: Rian Johnson’s Neo-Noir Breakout Brick on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

Johnson’s debut feature receives an excellent home-video package from Kino.

3.5

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Brick

Rian Johnson’s Brick places the hard-boiled pulp of noir into the mouths of first-wave millennials. The genre’s contradictory blend of laconicism and loquacity proves to be easily transposed to bright but aimless teenagers of the early aughts; a generation pumped full of antidepressants and amphetamines from childhood, these high schoolers add a narcotized, chemically addled variation of noir’s naturally numbed emotional tenor. The hero, Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), could be called precocious if he weren’t so detached, as if Max Fischer got so deep into one of his fabricated roles that he got lost in it. Yet beneath his façade of hyper-cool right out of a Dashiell Hammett novel is a scared, baffled young man struggling to deal with the death of his drug-addicted ex, Emily (Emilie de Ravin).

The film presents its Orange County high school setting as a cesspit of vice in which a host of addicted teens are manipulated by a group of popular kids and dope pushers. And right away it makes clear that one of Johnson’s great strengths is his keen ear for replicating the beats and intonations of classic pulp detective fiction. Cornered by a group of ne’er-do-wells, Brendan feistily spits, “Throw one at me if you want, hash head. I’ve got all five senses and I slept last night, that puts me six up on the lot of you.” Supporting characters speak such dialogue with a hard edge reflective of their types—femme fatale, stool pigeon, local hood—but Gordon-Levitt locates the pain simmering under the surface of Brendan’s flippant hostility, imbuing it with the confused pain of a young man dealing with death for the first time.

At its best, Johnson’s direction plays up noir tropes while reflecting that underlying pathos, as when he captures theater nerd and designated femme fatale Laura (Norah Zehetner), dressed in a bright red cheongsam that stands in sharp contrast to the more muted clothes of her peers, lit to seem like the only person in the room as Brendan stares at her. Likewise, later encounters with a heroin kingpin (Lukas Haas) find a perfect balance of the intimidating and farcical, regularly blanketing the young man in shadow while also undercutting his menace with a bright, static scene at his family table as his mom (Reedy Gibbs) serves him cookies.

Elsewhere, though, the showy tics that would go on to define Johnson’s early work can occasionally grate. Close-ups on various objects—a pair of shoes, a cigarette tossed out of a car onto asphalt—imbue the quotidian with menace, but to redundant effect. Likewise, in-camera effects garishly disrupt Brick’s measured pace with sudden, dissonant outbursts of violence that feel too self-consciously cool compared to the largely detached tenor of the film. Johnson would keep this overactive approach all the way through guest slots helming episodes of Breaking Bad, and to revisit Brick in the wake of his less antic, more cohesively stylized work on films like Looper and Knives Out is to see just how much he’s matured as a filmmaker.

Brick, in some ways, recalls the first films of Christopher Nolan, who likewise emerged as a maker of filmic puzzles and noir mystery updated for the 21st century. But where Nolan prefers to spring his surprises by withholding information, often to the point of narrative incoherence, Johnson likes to give sharp viewers enough clues for them to solve the case before the end. And for all the film’s literary brio and technical pizzazz, Brick shows a keen interest in character that always shines through the style, and an empathy for even the most debased of the blank-faced, directionless people who surround Brendan.

Image/Sound

Steve Yedlin’s cinematography mixes muted, naturalistic tones with sudden bursts of expressionistic color, and Kino’s Blu-ray superbly captures this contrast. Brendan’s sallow, shut-in complexion is so textured that it’s impossible to miss the physical toll his obsession takes on him, while bits of color like Laura’s dress and the bright colors of the theater kids’ dressing room pop from the tans and off-whites that surround it. The shadows that shroud the film’s second half are rendered with no visible crushing, and black levels are consistent throughout. The disc comes with audio in lossless 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround. Both mixes are crisp and well balanced, with the surround mix conjuring a more paranoid tone in its distribution of ambient effects across all channels.

Extras

Kino’s disc comes with an audio commentary with Rian Johnson, actors Nora Zehetner and Noah Segan, producer Ram Bergman, production designer Jodie Tillen, and costume designer Michele Posch. Johnson offers the most consistent insights into the film, detailing his inspirations, writing and shooting methods, and more. By moderating the rotating guests on the track, he’s able to prevent overlap in their input. Johnson also introduces a collection of eight deleted and extended scenes. By his own admission, little was fully excised from the film, so most of the 20 minutes of footage consists of scenes in the final cut that last far longer, often adding little more than additional mood at the expense of the final cut’s pacing. Finally, footage from Zehetner and Segan’s audition tapes are included.

Overall

Rian Johnson’s debut feature receives an excellent home-video package from Kino, with a great A/V transfer that highlights the filmmaker’s aesthetic skills.

Cast: Joseph Gordon Levitt, Nora Zehetner, Lukas Haas, Noah Fleiss, Matt O’Leary, Meagan Good, Emilie de Ravin Director: Rian Johnson Screenwriter: Rian Johnson Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 110 min Rating: R Year: 2005 Release Date: January 7, 2020 Buy: Video

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Sergio Corbucci’s The Hellbenders and The Specialists on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

Corbucci’s portraits of bloodlust and insatiable cravings for money cut to the core of the true American frontier values.

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The Specialists
Photo: Kino Lorber

The landscapes of Sergio Corbucci’s spaghetti westerns—be they the isolating, snow-swept mountains of The Great Silence or the arid, dusty terrains of Django, The Hellbenders, and The Specialists—serve as brutally expressionistic backdrops to an Old West where concepts like justice, honor, and community are the things of folk tales. Greed and vengeance are the governing forces in these unforgiving cinematic worlds, where loyalty only goes as far as a dollar has bought it. Even the sanctity of the dead isn’t honored, with coffins serving as camouflage for Gatling guns in Django and a safeguard for counterfeit money in The Hellbenders. Corbucci’s vision of the West is a Darwinian hellscape of dog-eat-dog maneuvers, double crosses, and ruthless displays of violence. If his films border on nihilistic, it’s only because the Italian director’s portraits of bloodlust and insatiable cravings for money cut to the core of the true American frontier values that still reverberate in our culture today.

Early in The Hellbenders, Joseph Cotten’s Colonel Jonas, a Confederate soldier looking to fund a reboot of the just-ended Civil War, and four of his loyal soldiers murder an entire battalion of Union soldiers carrying half a million dollars that’s to be destroyed before new money can be printed. Following the slaughter, Jonas coolly walks up to his men, shoots the two who aren’t his blood relatives, and, with a fistful of bloody cash in his hand, gleefully states, “A fresh start, boys, a fresh start.” The myth of the West is typically propagated by tales of redemption, ingenuity, justice, and hard work, but Corbucci subverts that myth by presenting the notion of the “fresh start” offered by the American frontier as one which necessarily courts violence, greed, and theft. Money and land are the currencies in the land of opportunity and no amount of integrity and diligence can do as much to help get your hands on either as a bullet.

If family appears to be the sole unifying force in The Hellbenders, even that’s only for a spell, as there’s power in numbers when trying to navigate a coffin full of stolen cash through enemy territory. Where the coffin that Django’s protagonist drags around is cracked open to literally unleash a furious flurry of bullets, the one escorted by Jonas and his sons (Julian Mateos, Gino Pernice, and Angel Aranda) in this film more insidiously cultivates violence through temptation, as its contents warp the minds of everyone who remains in its orbit. Money is the inexorable temptress, more pernicious than the devil himself. Late in the film, a drifter, responding to the question of where he’s from, says “From under a rock. That’s where they say we all begin, crawling out from underneath something.” Corbucci’s view of mankind is one where the rock has just been lifted and all the horrifying instincts of humanity are revealed.

The Specialists opens on a similar image of debasement, with a group of Mexican raiders throwing four men into a pit of mud followed by a dollar coin, with whoever retrieves the dollar remaining the sole survivor. In rides a mysterious man in black, Hud (Johnny Hallyday), to save the day, but as soon as the bandits are run out of Blackstone, we learn that the supposed hero isn’t welcome here either, as his brother was recently lynched for robbing the town’s bank. This time around, money isn’t in a coffin, but buried somewhere in Blackstone, yet its very presence has the same destabilizing effect on all of the townspeople.

Signifiers of civilized behavior abound in The Specialists, from the town’s pacifist Sheriff Gedeon (Gastone Moschin) and seemingly upstanding banker, Virginia (Françoise Fabian). And along with the return of their stolen money, even the townsfolk seem to only want law and order. But while Hud and a one-armed Mexican bandit, El Diablo (Mario Adorf), appear as the likely villains, greed spreads like an airborne disease throughout the film, ultimately infecting the whole town with a callous sense of self-preservation.

As Corbucci masterfully navigates through a series of double-crosses, he strips away his characters’ veneers of civility, tolerance, and virtuousness to reveal the nasty impulses lurking beneath. When the filmmaker shows a group of proto-hippies forcing all of Blackstone’s citizens to strip at gunpoint and crawl in the dirt, it’s a stark condemnation not only of American greed and opportunism, but of the ways those evil, barbarous inclinations are often deceitfully couched in supposed pursuits of peace, justice, and social order.

Sergio Corbucci’s The Hellbenders and The Specialists are now available on Blu-ray.

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Review: Fritz Lang’s House by the River on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

The film is a fascinating, bewitching, and hitherto largely neglected entry in Lang’s canon.

3.5

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House by the River

“I hate this river,” says the nosy Mrs. Ambrose (Ann Shoemaker) as the tide of the water circles “that filth” (the carcass of a dead cow, it seems) around her house for what is probably the umpteenth time, to which her next-door neighbor, frustrated writer Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward), replies, “It’s people who should be blamed for the filth, not the river.” And with that Fritz Lang and screenwriter Mel Dinelli neatly unpack House by the River’s theme of moral responsibility a mere three minutes into the picture. This hand-holding is widespread in many of Lang’s later work (The Blue Gardenia and Clash by Night being the most egregious examples), but it’s the sort of thing that’s easily absolved given the many fascinating ways the filmmaker visually extended his themes.

Made in 1949 for Republic Pictures, House by the River not only shows its modest origins but the frustration of its maker. Lang wanted to cast a black woman in the role of Emily Gaunt (the part eventually went to Dorothy Patrick), the maid that Hayward’s character accidentally kills mere moments after trying to seduce her, but the suits at Republic recoiled at the idea. Ironically, the very fear of miscegenation that the director wanted to address—call it the elephant in America’s living room (or the one floating around its house)—frustrated his ambitions. Unable to subversively work a critique of America’s racial problems into the film’s fabric as he had done for Fury, Lang had to settle for building House by the River’s routine melodrama into a snappy commentary on moral depravity and eye-for-an-eye retribution.

Stephen convinces his brother, John (Lee Bowman), to help him dump Emily’s body in the river outside his home. The man’s relief that his indiscretions—adultery and murder—appear as if they’ll go unpunished considerably strokes his ego, to the point that he begins to channel the whole affair into his latest unpublished novel. (Early in the film, Mrs. Ambrose advises that he make his stories “racy” and, later, some woman makes an off-the-cuff comment about writers doing their best work when they channel the truth.) But when Emily’s body floats to the surface and begins to circle the house that Stephen shares with his wife, Marjorie (Jane Wyatt), it’s not just the plot of his novel that thickens. It’s here that his moral crisis begins to take on new angles. The film’s 88 minutes aren’t nearly enough to sufficiently flesh them all out, or connect them in a truly meaningful way, but Lang’s visuals pick up some of the slack.

Lang too often tries to belie his low budget, which usually exposes his sham (he grafts what sounds like audio from a 100-person reception onto a nine-person party scene), and though he’s unable to give the logic by which the titular river circulates around Steven and Mrs. Ambrose’s house a truly expressive visual justification, it doesn’t matter given how splendidly he equates the river to a floating id of primitive, unconscious fears and desires. The director’s chiaroscuro imagery sinisterly evokes Stephen’s bourgeoning madness, from the parallels between Marjorie and Emily’s entrances in the film to the maddening links between Emily’s hair as it swivels in the water and the curtains inside Stephen and Marjorie’s house. Stephen gets his due, and when he does, Lang evokes it as a case of beyond-the-grave retribution. Mrs. Ambrose might say, “What comes around, goes around.”

Image/Sound

Kino Lorber’s 2K restoration significantly improves on their previous DVD in terms of clarity, depth, and contrast. There’s still a bit of murky flicker noticeable in some of the darker scenes, but, on the plus side, there’s also more information visible on all four edges of the frame throughout. The two-channel Master Audio mono mix cleanly delivers the dialogue and gives a resonant boost to George Antheil’s moody score.

Extras

The big new extra here is a commentary track from film historian Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, who begins by addressing the nature of Stephen’s assault on Emily, the film’s complicated take on sexual politics and sexual violence, and how it fits into the larger discourse of “rape culture.” She also delves into the film’s formal and thematic links to Fritz Lang’s larger body of work, and the ways in which House by the River straddles the borderline between noir and Gothic melodrama. There’s also an interview from 2005 with producer and film historian Pierre Rissient, who was largely responsible for resuscitating interest in House by the River, one of Lang’s lesser-known and at the time unavailable films. He describes hearing Lang verbally recreate the first 10 minutes of the film practically shot for shot, the effect it had on French New Wave filmmakers like Claude Chabrol, and the interesting connection he made when he finally tracked down the source material’s author in his Thames-side home.

Overall

Now looking better than ever, House by the River is a fascinating, bewitching, and hitherto largely neglected entry in Fritz Lang’s filmography.

Cast: Louis Hayward, Jane Wyatt, Lee Bowman, Dorothy Patrick, Ann Shoemaker, Jody Gilbert, Peter Brocco, Howland Chamberlain Director: Fritz Lang Screenwriter: Mel Dinelli Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 1950 Release Date: January 14, 2020 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.

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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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