Connect with us

Video

Review: Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress on Criterion Blu-ray

Long saddled as simply an escapist comprise, Kurosawa’s unabashedly entertaining 1958 film gets an unexpectedly substantial Blu-ray upgrade.

4
Avatar

Published

on

The Hidden Fortress

For a filmmaker so established in the Western canon, it’s worthwhile to occasionally reiterate how much time critics and audiences spent over the years catching up to the cinema of Akira Kurosawa. At the midpoint of the medium’s first century, Rashomon introduced to the international stage the muscular stylings of a director already 10-plus features into his career, while Japan itself began the reluctant reclamation of an American-influenced artist they had long taken for granted. Soon after, Seven Samurai would bring the modern action film to its grandest, most rousing height yet, standing as an accomplishment Hollywood would utilize as a blueprint for decades to come. Subsequently, Kurosawa’s dramas would find equal favor among cinephiles: Ikiru, High and Low, and Red Beard (among others) are now all but incontestable classics. The Hidden Fortress, however, took far longer than many of Kurosawa’s other films to be recognized as a vital piece of his oeuvre, despite its scale and creation at the height of its director’s power and influence. Not as narratively inventive as Rashomon, as historically rich as Seven Samurai, or as thematically sobering as his other dramas, The Hidden Fortress was saddled for years with a reputation as the financially successful, artistically lacking entertainment positioned to reestablish its maker’s name after a string of more niche offerings such as I Live in Fear and The Lower Depths.

Granted, this was largely the stated intention of Kurosawa and his producers, but to classify The Hidden Fortress as simply an escapist compromise would be to ignore both its technical innovations and storytelling prowess. Set during the Sengoku period, the film leisurely follows a pair of back-biting peasants (Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara) and a disgraced samurai general (Toshirô Mifune, Kurosawa’s greatest muse) as they attempt to transport a princess (Misa Uehara) across enemy lines, casually gathering momentum and characters as Kurosawa moves the action amid a host of warring factions and tumultuous landscapes. Kurosawa and his team of screenwriters keep the characterizations broad, establishing the darkly humorous tone of the film from the very first scene as the peasant duo wanders across a barren desert literally spitting at and insulting one another even as they depend on each other for survival as they dig up corpses and strip dead samurai of their armor. It’s this dynamic between the serious and the farcical that’s so vital to the film’s success. At the same time, these purposefully disarming aspects have provoked volatile reactions; Kurosawa’s playful manipulation of his audience’s expectations renders The Hidden Fortress casually, paradoxically subversive, and it remains the director’s funniest film—perhaps even his most morally acute.

The most immediately recognizable characteristic of the film, and what most distinguishes it from Kurosawa’s prior work, is its cinematography. This marked Kurosawa’s first time working in TohoScope, a long-lensed widescreen format equivalent to Hollywood’s concurrent CinemaScope, which the director exploits for maximum narrative effect throughout. The secluded stronghold of the film’s title, an oasis of sorts where the male trio discovers their covert princess, is by design an unassuming locale. But through the lens of Kurosawa and cinematographer Ichio Yamazaki, the bunker becomes an intricately designed haven; shot from low angles in subtly expanding setups, these cloistered environs turn with but a slight move of the camera into daunting skyward vistas, dwarfed by the towering mountain ranges which the group will soon be forced to physically confront. For his action sequences, of which there are many, Kurosawa continued to refine his patented use of stationary panning shots for moments of horseback assault, while the employment of a handheld camera accentuates instances of hand-to-hand combat.

So carefully coordinated are his compositions that the film can feel at once claustrophobic and expansive; despite the fact that the undercover troupe has been traveling outdoors for the entirety of the film, a late sequence set during a fire festival feels almost liberating in its freewheeling dexterity. The scene further represents a pivotal moment for Princess Yuki, who has spent a majority of the film playing the role of a mute in order to hide her identity, as the liberation afforded by the festivities encourages in her a simultaneous sense of confidence and contentment in the face of impending fate. And it’s in the plight of Princess Yuki where Kurosawa is able to reestablish—without disrupting the cultural hierarchies of the period, it should be noted—his humanist streak, arguably the defining aspect of his greater corpus.

Despite a trifling reputation for a number of years, The Hidden Fortress, like much of Kurosawa’s cinema, has been reconsidered in light of its long-term influence. The film’s narrative triangulation has been a foundation for cinematic adventure yarns for decades, and its significance for subsequent cross-continental hits such as Star Wars and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is undeniable. What’s perhaps easier to identify with the benefit of hindsight is The Hidden Fortress’s place within a filmic continuum which connects Eisenstein to Ford to Hitchcock to Kurosawa to Leone to Lucas to modern purveyors of meticulously detailed and delineated spectacles such as Tony Scott or Johnnie To. Over the years we’ve grown comfortable, probably too comfortable, with films which favor either levity or pageantry at the expense of a truly sympathetic, relatable human ideal. Thus while many may have not recognized it at the time, Kurosawa most often did his finest work when combining his idiosyncratic and popular sensibilities into humane, broadly accessible entertainments; it just so happens that The Hidden Fortress remains more unabashedly entertaining than most.

Image/Sound

The Hidden Fortress has received an unexpectedly substantial Blu-ray upgrade from Criterion, surpassing their original DVD while advancing in a number of key areas in the process. Picture quality makes a sizable jump in contrast and clarity, appearing much more sharp and balanced between foreground and background detail. Light grain persists and damage is minimal throughout, while more of the picture visible on all four edges of the frame. Sound, meanwhile, is offered in two tracks: a linear PCM mono and a DTS-HD 5.1 surround mix (the latter, like the HD picture, only accessible on the Blu-ray disc included in this dual-format release). The linear track is faithful to the original and would have been satisfactory on its own, but Criterion goes the extra mile with the lossless surround track. Separation between channels is audible and distinct, with the film’s score and action effects balanced and not overwhelming, while dialogue is clear and upfront and free of any extraneous aural artifacts or audible dropouts.

Extras

Unexpected additions to the supplemental package have been made as well. In addition to the trailer and short interview with George Lucas about Akira Kurosawa and the influence of The Hidden Fortress from the original DVD, Criterion have added another of the Toho Masterworks making-of documentaries which have made appearances on many of their Kurosawa discs in the past. The most important addition, however, is the newly recorded commentary track by Stephen Prince, author of The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa. This is just the latest in a long line of fantastic commentaries Prince has recorded for Criterion, and he remains probably the most consistently insightful and articulate Kurosawa scholar in contemporary criticism. Along with newly commissioned artwork for the entire package, there’s also a booklet featuring a new essay by film scholar Catherine Russell.

Overall

Long saddled as simply an escapist comprise, Akira Kurosawa’s unabashedly entertaining 1958 film gets an unexpectedly substantial Blu-ray upgrade from Criterion, who go the extra mile with key technical and supplemental additions.

Cast: Toshirô Mifune, Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwara, Susumu Fujita, Misa Uehara, Takashi Shimura, Eiko Miyoshi Director: Akira Kurosawa Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa, Ryûzô Kikushima, Hideo Oguni, Shinobu Hashimoto Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 139 min Rating: NR Year: 1958 Release Date: March 18, 2014 Buy: Video

Advertisement
Comments

Video

Blu-ray Review: Ramin Bahrani’s Chop Shop on the Criterion Collection

Criterion has beautifully preserved this vigorous portrait of New York City life that’s rarely depicted on screen.

Nick Schager

Published

on

Chop Shop

With Chop Shop, Ramin Bahrani exhibits a restraint lacking in his 2005 breakout, Man Push Cart, tending more to his story’s neorealist particulars than to exploiting its symbolic potential. The film also concerns a minority character struggling to stay afloat on the fringe of New York City society just long enough to find a way out. Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco) is a 12-year-old without parents or a formal education, but he has the street smarts that allow him to survive—whether it be by selling candy in the subway or bootleg DVDs on sidewalks. Through a friend, he gets a job at a chop shop (where stolen autos are stripped for parts) in Willet’s Point, Queens, a stretch of auto-body businesses so shady, grungy, and hopeless that the Shea Stadium billboard across the street that reads “Make Dreams Happen” seems like a cruel joke.

In this run-down milieu, Alejandro is reunited with his 16-year-old sister, Isamar (Isamar Gonzales), whom the boy both looks up to and wishes to care for, and the two soon endeavor (at Alejandro’s urging) to raise money to buy a beaten-up food truck that’ll afford them a measure of stability and freedom. Disappointment, however, lurks around every giant, muddy Willet’s Point puddle, from Alejandro’s discovery that Isamar is moonlighting as a prostitute, to the after-the-fact realization that his business sense isn’t quite as keen as he believed. The air of dejection that repeatedly threatens to suffocate his aspirations—and which he valiantly strives to shrug off—can be palpable and is augmented by the preceding, all-too-rare glimpses of innocent childhood joy, as well as the sure-handed contrast between Alejandro’s safe, sheltering mini-apartment above the chop shop where he works and the crowded, grimy, violent city streets that he traverses day and night in search of opportunity.

Chop Shop recognizes not only how Alejandro’s letdowns foster bitterness and anger, but also how those feelings help to create something of a self-perpetuating cycle of stasis. At the same time, it captures truth in raw, off-the-cuff moments, such as when a drunken chop-shopper (Ahmad Razvi) employs Alejandro to help out at a garage party but decides to shove the kid into a card table for no reason other than his own mean, bullying amusement. Alejandro and Isamar’s alternately nasty and tender rapport exudes a startling authenticity, yet Bahrani’s screenplay occasionally feels too scripted for its own good, especially when dealing with the subject of Isamar’s sex work. And despite its intimate cinematography and a charismatic, if slightly too precocious, performance by Polanco, the film nonetheless too often fails to get under one’s skin emotionally—save, that is, for a final cut that captures, with manipulative but effecting poignancy, Alejandro and Isamar’s twin desires for reciprocated affection and escape.

Image/Sound

Chop Shop abounds in quick camera moves and characters chaotically rushing about, so it’s all the more impressive that Criterion’s transfer of an HD digital master boats an incredibly smooth and stable image. The picture also greatly benefits from high dynamic range and stellar color balancing, which adjusts nicely between the extremely bright and colorful scenes in the blistering summer heat and the much cooler interior and evening sequences. But the 5.1 audio is the real selling point here, with the near-constant cacophony of voices, music, cars, and even the distant sounds of the Mets’ games all coming through loud and clear in the mix.

Extras

On an audio commentary recorded in 2006, director Ramin Bahrani, director of photography Michael Simmonds, and actor Alejandro Polanco discuss the film’s unusual casting process and the challenges of shooting in Willett’s Point, which is known primarily for its auto-repair businesses. A new conversation with Bahrani, Polanco, actor Ahmad Razvi, and assistant director Nicholas Elliott covers the lengthy rehearsal phase, while Bahrani goes on to describe his working relationship with screenwriter Bahareh Azimi, with whom he also wrote Goodbye Solo, and his desire to make his second film as quickly as possible in the wake of Man Push Cart’s success. Bahrani’s discussion with writer and scholar Suketu Mehta touches on some of these same topics but eventually stands apart when the two men get into the struggles faced by immigrants in the U.S. and how the 2008 financial crisis forced many formerly middle-class Americans into rough working conditions. The disc also comes with footage from early rehearsals and an essay by novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen that explores Bahrani’s approach to depicting the lives of immigrants living on the fringes of society.

Overall

Criterion has beautifully preserved Ramin Bahrani’s Chop Shop, a vigorous portrait of New York City life that’s rarely depicted on screen.

Cast: Alejandro Polanco, Isamar Gonzales, Rob Sowulski, Carlos Zapata, Ahmad Razvi Director: Ramin Bahrani Screenwriter: Ramin Bahrani, Bahareh Azimi Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 84 min Rating: NR Year: 2007 Buy: Video

Continue Reading

Video

Blu-ray Review: Ousmane Sembène’s Mandabi on the Criterion Collection

The assortment of extras on Criterion’s disc help to contextualize the works of Africa’s most important filmmaker.

4
Derek Smith

Published

on

Mandabi

Where Ousmane Sembène’s 1966 debut feature, Black Girl, clearly reflects the dynamics of French neocolonialism in its front-and-center depiction of a Senegalese nanny and her white Parisian employer, the filmmaker scrutinizes the relationship between oppressor and oppressed in a more allegorical fashion in his 1968 follow-up, Mandabi. Aside from a quick shot of a French family exiting the city hall where our protagonist, Ibrahim (Makuredia Guey), attempts to get a copy of his official birth certificate, Westerners are rarely glimpsed in the film. And yet, their presence lingers like a ghost throughout, almost haunting the Senegalese people, whether in the form of French names on government buildings or the bureaucratic red tape involved in a poor man trying to cash the titular money order. Sembène recognizes that even though Senegal became fully independent in 1960, the country was still shackled to its French colonizers.

The money order is sent to Ibrahim by his nephew, Abdu (Moussa Diuf), who’s recently found work in Paris. Though it initially seems like a godsend to the unemployed father, who has seven children and two wives to support, the film meticulously details the seemingly endless indignities that the man suffers as he trudges around Dakar trying to get an official identification so that he can actually cash the money order. Sembène’s tragicomic rendering of Ibrahim’s ordeal is an excoriating condemnation of colonial social architecture in Senegal—namely the bureaucracy that forces impoverished, often illiterate, individuals to travel often great distances in an almost deliberate attempt to subjugate them.

However sharp Mandabi’s critique of Senegal’s colonialist-enabled sociopolitical order may be, its examination of how the avarice inherent in this brutalized landscape has further frayed the country’s social fabric is more pointed. Ibrahim has infuriating encounters with everyone from the photographer who takes his picture for his license to openly corrupt workers at city hall, but no humiliation is more unsettling and defeating than the vulturous behavior of his friends and family, who seek to fleece him before he’s even cashed the money order.

Though Mandabi zeroes in on Ibrahim’s victimhood, it doesn’t see him as a virtuous innocent, as he’s mocked for his narcissism and sexism, and at one point is even referred to as “a hopeless show-off.” But the film also recognizes that his materialism, among other things, is a symptom of a society where usury and bribes are used by those in positions of power to plunder helpless individuals, who are left to fight among themselves for the scraps that remain. When a poor mother begs Ibrahim for money a second time, he wonders aloud, “When begging becomes a trade, what will come of this country?” Sembène richly contemplates that question, not only illustrating what has become of this country, but how many Senegalese have been transformed into warped versions of their former French oppressors.

Image/Sound

Criterion’s vibrant transfer of a new 4K restoration makes the blistering heat from the Senegalese summer sun feel downright palpable, with every bead of sweat rendered in vivid detail. The color balancing is consistently impressive, especially evident in the eye-catching hues that dominate the characters’ clothes, and without sacrificing the integrity of skin tones. The uncompressed monaural soundtrack is serviceable, with the only obvious flaws being a handful of moments where some of the line readings are a bit muddled.

Extras

Film scholar Aboubakar Sanogo’s introduction to Mandabi is a fascinating primer on Ousmane Sembène’s work. Sanogo’s enthusiasm goes a long way, and in just a half hour he provides ample context for Sembène’s pivot to filmmaking after writing several successful novels. He also discusses, among other things, the director’s resolute socialist and anti-colonialist views, his vast influence on African cinema, and his use of color in Mandabi. A recent conversation between author and screenwriter Boubacar Boris Diop and sociologist and feminist activist Marie Angélique Savané sticks to Sembene’s politics, stressing his importance in the youth movements of the late 1960s and his desire to use cinema to reach impoverished communities where illiteracy was common. The disc also comes with a new program, Praise Song, featuring outtakes from the 2015 documentary Sembène!, and Sembène’s 1970 short film Tauw. Along with a foldout booklet with an essay by critic and scholar Tiana Reid that teases out the political underpinnings of the film, there are also excerpts from a 1969 interview with Sembène along with his complete 1966 novella of Mandabi.

Overall

Criterion has accorded Mandabi with a vibrant new transfer and a wonderful assortment of extras that help to contextualize the works of Africa’s most important filmmaker.

Cast: Makuredia Guey, Ynousse N’Diaye, Isseu Niang, Mustapha Ture, Farba Sarr, Thérèse Bas, Mouss Diouf Director: Ousmane Sembène Screenwriter: Ousmane Sembène Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 91 min Rating: NR Year: 1968 Release Date: February 16, 2021 Buy: Video

Continue Reading

Video

Blu-ray Review: Ramin Bahrani’s Man Push Cart on the Criterion Collection

Criterion’s transfer of Bahrani’s feature debut is a testament to the film’s vital, unglamorous depiction of New York City in the wake of 9/11.

3.5
Nick Schager

Published

on

Man Push Cart

Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi) suggests a modern-day Sisyphus, finding himself condemned by tragedy to spend his days and nights pulling his coffee and donut cart through New York City’s bustling streets, his load a symbol of his inescapable sorrow. Writer-director Ramin Bahrani’s Man Push Cart follows its forlorn protagonist—a former pop singer known in his native Pakistan as “the Bono of Lahore”—through his grueling dawn-to-dusk routine of lugging his stand and propane tank to and from his proscribed city corner, stacking muffins and prepping paper cups with teabags, trying to sell bootleg porn DVDs in his free time, and occasionally venturing out to nightclubs with his Westernized Pakistani friends.

Bahrani’s portrait of existential urban malaise posits a world in which Ahmad’s interpersonal interactions lead merely to further humiliation and misery, from his tense dealings with a Pakistani businessman (Charles Daniel Sandoval) and the accusatory mother-in-law (Razia Mujahid) who won’t let him see his son (Hassan Razvi), to his awkward relationship with Spanish newsstand vendor Noemi (Leticia Dolera) to whom he’s incapable of expressing his tentative romantic feelings. The film heightens its overall sense of fatalism through a moody depiction of midtown Manhattan as a place of cheerless nocturnal shadows and faces, a pessimism that it occasionally alleviates with brief moments of tenderness, such as Ahmad’s care for the tiny kitten that serves as a surrogate for his real offspring.

The film’s tight compositions effectively mirror the oppressive constrictiveness of both Ahmad’s cart and the weight of his grief. But Man Push Cart is ultimately one-note, exuding a cold, omniscient perspective that increasingly becomes akin to that of a scientist clinically watching a rat futilely search for a bite of cheese at the end of a maze. And finally, the filmmaker’s labored attempts to avoid trafficking in hope have the deleterious effect of casting nearly every scene as a disingenuous, pedantic example of the cosmos’s callous cruelty.

Image/Sound

Criterion’s high-definition digital transfer of Man Push Cart, supervised and approved by Ramin Bahrani, beautifully enhances the gritty urban textures of the filmmaker’s raw portrait of immigrant life in post-9/11 New York City. The image is consistently sharp, and the many evening and nighttime sequences contain a surprising amount of detail even in the deepest shadows, which is especially impressive considering that the film was shot on the cheap and digitally in the early days of the format. The uncompressed stereo soundtrack is well-balanced, with the lively street ambiance a near-constant but never overwhelming presence in the mix.

Extras

The 2005 audio commentary with Bahrani, director of photography Michael Simmonds, assistant director Nicholas Elliott, and actor Ahmad Razvi is quite informative about the various challenges that the crew faced throughout the low-budget shoot and the technical strategies used to create a specific look without expensive equipment. A new conversation between Bahrani, Elliott, and Razvi on the making of the film touches on some of these same topics, but also includes some fascinating insights on what it was like to work with an Iranian cast and crew so soon after 9/11. The discussion between Bahrani and his former professor at Columbia, scholar Hamid Dabashi, digs a little deeper into the director’s specific influences in Iranian literature and film, while critic Bilge Ebiri’s essay beautifully elucidates the overwhelming sense of stasis and entrapment the film locates in the lives of immigrants. The disc is rounded out with Bahrani’s 1998 short film, Backgammon, and a theatrical trailer.

Overall

Criterion’s handsome new HD transfer of Ramin Bahrani’s feature debut is a testament to the film’s vital, unglamorous depiction of New York City in the wake of 9/11.

Cast: Ahmad Razvi, Leticia Dolera, Charles Daniel, Ali Reza, Farooq Mohammad, Upendran K. Panicker, Arun Lal, Razia Mujahid, Hassan Razvi, Mustafa Razvi, Altaf Houssein, Bill Lewis Director: Ramin Bahrani Screenwriter: Ramin Bahrani Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 87 min Rating: NR Year: 2005 Release Date: February 23, 2021 Buy: Video

Continue Reading

Video

Blu-ray Review: Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View on the Criterion Collection

This nearly free-associational thriller has been outfitted with a beautiful transfer that underscores all its eerie nooks and crannies.

Chuck Bowen

Published

on

The Parallax View

The films that director Alan J. Pakula made with cinematographer Gordon Willis—particularly Klute, The Parallax View, and All the President’s Men—defined the formal language of modern American conspiracy thrillers. These films leave us with a strange paradox, for simultaneously glamourizing and banalizing the search for evil. The glamour comes from their fashionably disheveled stars, eerie corridors, painterly shadows, and from compositions of vast, clinically malevolent symmetry. And the banality exists in what lies underneath these shadows, or at the margins of those dwarfing cityscapes: dull, powerful bureaucrats committing crimes for relatively straightforward reasons such as money, lust, and embitterment. The cover-ups driving these films are more interesting than the crimes being obscured, an irony that cuts to the heart of our addiction to conspiracy theories. They’re comforting after all, suggesting that existence operates according to plan rather than by the whims of chaos.

The Parallax View is about a company of mercenaries who are knocking off the witnesses to a senator and presidential candidate’s very public murder atop the Seattle Space Needle. This ghastly scenario shrewdly intertwines various rumors associated with the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, and it always seems as if reporter Joseph Frady (Warren Beatty) is on the verge of discovering a more grandiose truth that never arises. The architects of the Parallax Corporation are not über-villains out of a comic book movie, but business-suited cogs in a machine reminiscent of John le Carré’s spies. The motivations of whoever hired Parallax to kill the senator are never even revealed because Pakula implicitly sees them as distressingly, self-evidently ordinary: that the politician got in someone’s way.

The Parallax View is especially disturbing and relevant in our age of weaponized conspiracy theories. Like a paranoiac’s dream, the film feels as if it’s making itself up as it goes along, as it reportedly was. Frady chases clues, essentially entering various film genres as he proceeds—two of the most unexpected set pieces here could’ve come out of a Smokey and the Bandit movie—only to have his idealism coopted by Parallax, which utilizes him as a scapegoat for the murder of another senator. Parallax is an embodiment of the worst of capitalism, commoditizing rebellion while keeping consumers distracted from the true machinations of society. The name alludes to this idea, as “parallax” refers to an object’s seeming change in position depending on where someone stands. Depending on your vantage point, a senator’s murder is a sign of subterranean evil, business as usual, or all the above.

The mystery of a senator’s murder is of less concern to The Parallax View than the insidious corporatization of America. Murder is committed here for hire, rented out and divorced of the personality and neuroses that drove, say, many a killer from a Hitchcock film, while modernist buildings are utilized to signify alienation in the key of Antonioni and Godard. The opening image—of a totem pole that obscures the Space Needle from a certain point view—initially seems like a joke but signifies the film’s ongoing obsessions with erasure and co-option.

Frady’s trip to a small woodsy town initially feels like a warm refuge from the chilly office corridors that haunt so many Pakula films, until Parallax is revealed to be capable of influencing people even here. Tellingly, evil is revealed again via a large ominous structure—a dam with an alarm that sounds like a dinosaur’s death rattle. And the film’s scariest sequence, scarier than A Clockwork Orange’s corresponding set piece, finds Frady watching a Parallax recruiting video, which shows how easily images of American harmony can be flipped—or seen from a different vantage point—to emphasize the decay and exploitation lingering underneath. And in this moment we’re left with a lingering ambiguity: Is the video playing up to the psychosis of potential Parallax freelancers or revealing the truth of society?

Pakula and Willis frequently suggest that violence is latent everywhere, from the Space Needle to a small town to a newspaper office to a cozy apartment. Their compositions have a neutral, un-emphatic quality that runs counter to the pummeling instincts of most thriller filmmakers. When Frady enters a room, we’re allowed to feel as if we’re discovering for ourselves the propped-up feet that casually reveal an interloper (while providing the image with a through line). Or when cops grapple with a killer on the needle, they’re filmed from an almost aloof distance, as if this sort of thing happens all the time, a gesture that underscores the ludicrousness of the event, the strenuous work of the fighting, and the casual perversion of a death match set on a tourist trap. In The Parallax View, Pakula deflates the agency of conspiracy theories, even as he springs one, by showing how redundant they are: No need to look for the secret heart of America when its craziness is out in plain sight.

Image/Sound

One of The Parallax View’s visual signatures is the stark contrast it offers between people and landscapes. As Gordon Willis says himself in an archive interview included with this disc, he was interested in figures and space, and both are well-represented in the film. Crucially, the image on this disc, which has been sourced from a new 4K transfer, abounds in a wealth of visual textures. The foregrounds and backgrounds of landscapes are eerily pristine, suggesting a kind of open-air menace, while indoor scenes are often warmer, fuzzier, more intimate. Colors are intense, especially those of the American flag in the climactic sequence at a convention center, yet there’s also an attractive element of grain. The English LPCM 1.0 sound mix is also highly varied and balanced, placing particular emphasis on small diegetic sounds.

Extras

A video introduction by filmmaker Alex Cox contextualizes The Parallax View in terms of the many assassinations that occurred in America in the late 1960s, especially the killings of John F. Kenney and Robert Kennedy. Cox’s observations are complemented by the archive interviews with Alan J. Pakula, from 1974 and 1995 respectively, in which he speaks of the film’s themes and symbols. The best of the archive supplements, however, is the interview with Willis conducted with the American Society of Cinematographers in 2004, where he elaborates on the reasoning behind his iconic compositions, such as his interest in figures in space and disdain for coverage that indicates a lack of decisiveness. In a new interview shot for the Criterion Collection in 2020, Jon Boorstin speaks of helping to develop the psychology test featured in the film, though the best new supplement is the essay by critic Nathan Heller that’s featured in the booklet. Describing The Parallax View as a “noir of urban modernity,” Heller renders the film’s doomy and vastly influential style with peerless precision.

Overall

Alan J. Pakula’s seminal, nearly free-associational conspiracy thriller has been outfitted by Criterion with a beautiful transfer that underscores all its eerie nooks and crannies, from its lurid colors to its malevolent use of negative space.

Cast: Warren Beatty, Hume Cronyn, William Daniels, Paula Prentiss, Walter McGinn Director: Alan J. Pakula Screenwriter: David Giler, Lorenzo Semple Jr. Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 102 min Rating: NR Year: 1974 Release Date: February 9, 2021 Buy: Video

Continue Reading

Video

Review: Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

Man with a Movie Camera is still an intoxicating gateway drug for cinephiles.

3.5
Eric Henderson

Published

on

Man with a Movie Camera

The marvel of Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, close to 100 years after it was made, is how increasingly democratic its appeal appears to be to each new generation of cinephiles. In stark contrast to many landmark silent films whose legacies in the eyes of incurious modern audiences seem to be a reflection of the things that filmmakers eventually learned they shouldn’t do with the medium, Man with a Movie Camera sparks something different, but just as revelatory, in just about everyone who sees it for the first time. Working backwards through film history, you can sense Vertov’s masterpiece lurking in the genealogy of the avant-garde, the essay film, the nationalist agitprop, and direct cinema. It outlines the language of the film edit as a form of dance, lays the groundwork for the centerless structure of landscape features, foregrounds the clash of the modern and the antique at the heart of self-devouring pop-cultural osmosis.

To wit, the film has thousands upon thousands of edits and still perversely feels, in its speciously non-narrative emphasis on the rhythms and rituals of an average workday over the inner lives of the people living them, predictive of the durational concerns of current-day slow cinema. Small wonder it scored its highest-ever position on the decennial Sight & Sound film poll in the most recent edition. (Two years later, the magazine would declare it the best documentary of all time, in a Top 10 list overflowing with the sort of experimental takes on the form as Sans Soleil, Chronicle of a Summer, and Night and Fog.)

After Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin formed a filmmaking collective in the late 1960s and named it after Vertov, they produced a series of confrontational works that broke down the by-then evidently corrupted language of film in order to unload a kind of Marxist polemic, sullying the collective spirit of Vertov’s output and narrowing the language of film expression into one dogmatic point of view. Man with a Movie Camera, to say nothing of Vertov’s other works, didn’t seek to break down film language so much as distill it into its most essential components. Or, as Slant’s Jake Cole wrote in 2015, “As much as the film celebrates the virtues of modern Soviet society, it also argues for cinema’s crucial role in spreading the word of socialism as the art form most inextricably tied to issues of production and shared labor.”

Beyond unabatingly juxtaposing objects that, in the sense of the literary narrative tradition, aren’t inherently congruent, Vertov uses just about every analog device imaginable to bend the “reality” of his documentation into a topography of film expressions. Man with a Movie Camera is both a refutation of and an expansion upon Lev Kuleshov’s editing theories. Vertov speeds action up, slows it down, and halts on individual frames. He runs footage forward and in reverse, cants his angular perspective, and creates in-camera split-screen effects and superimposes images atop one another (including what’s likely the film’s most famous one—or at any rate its most evidently self-referential—of the camera operator’s eye cutting across the lens of the camera itself). Roughly one-third of the way through, the film stops down entirely to cut away to Vertov’s wife, Svilova, splicing pieces of the film together. Which is to say, to Cole’s point above, the movie is both a lot of fun and a lot of work, interchangeably.

Image/Sound

Regrettably, those persons behind the scenes bringing Man with a Movie Camera to Kino Blu-ray didn’t expend nearly as much effort as they could’ve had they really been tapped into the Vertovian ethos of work-as-fun and fun-as-work. Does it look as good as any high-definition transfer yet distributed in North America? Well, the short answer is “depends,” and the long answer is “probably not.” Flicker Alley’s transfer from roughly five years ago boasted a surprisingly bright, clean-looking restoration that seemed to bring the already modern-feeling silent into the present day. By that standard, the Kino release is a major step back. It has a rather baldly unrestored image, riddled with flecks, dirt, and scratches. It’s also a great deal darker than Flicker Alley’s transfer. However, there’s undoubtedly something to be said for its much more tangibly textured feel, at least among those who resist the pull of digitally Windex-ed alternatives. And I’m personally not much more a fan of Michael Nyman’s score than I was of the older Alloy Orchestra’s; I’m more aligned with the Letterboxd reviewer who argues that Vertov’s rhythms align well with Three 6 Mafia, to be quite frank.

Extras

Stacked against other Blu-ray releases of the film, Kino’s edition is the most paltry when it comes to bonus material—not that the ones included on this disc are in themselves unworthy. Flicker Alley and Eureka’s Masters of Cinema releases both feature other entries from Dziga Vertov’s filmography, and the latter also comes with a truly packed supplemental booklet. BFI’s Blu-ray includes not only some of the Vertov films that the other two also boast, but is the only set that includes One-Sixth of the Globe, from 1926, along with its own booklet. Kino offers the same extraordinarily informative commentary track from critic Adrian Martin that Masters of Cinema included, but also two featurettes from that release: a 45-minute life-and-times feature built from an interview with critic Ian Christie, and a 20-minute video essay from critic and filmmaker David Cairns. None of the three Kino bonus features aren’t worth the watch, but if you have any of the other previous Blu-ray editions, save your time.

Overall

Man with a Movie Camera is still an intoxicating gateway drug for cinephiles, but Kino’s warmed-over Blu-ray feels considerably less potent than necessary.

Cast: 1929 Director: Dziga Vertov Screenwriter: Dziga Vertov Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 67 min Rating: NR Year: 1929 Buy: Video

Continue Reading

Video

Blu-ray Review: Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent on the Criterion Collection

The extras on this stellar release attest to the lasting importance of a filmmaker whose life and career were tragically cut short.

4.5
Derek Smith

Published

on

The Ascent

Larisa Shepitko’s final film before her untimely death at 41, The Ascent is a lyrical evocation of the costs of moral and spiritual fortitude in times of great despair. Set during the German invasion of Russia during World War II, the 1977 Golden Bear-winning film focuses on the trials and tribulations of two Russian soldiers, Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov) and Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukhin), as they venture out together on a desperate search for food across an unforgiving landscape. Where the film’s first half is concerned with the physical toll of this grueling journey, Shepitko slyly shifts into more existential terrain as the narrative progresses, homing in on the spiritual battle between two men who find themselves on opposite sides of a divide when confronted by evil. And as the sturm und drang of war moves from the physical to the spiritual plane, Shepitko articulates her themes with remarkable concision and profound visual impact.

The film’s early scenes are resolutely fixated on the sheer physical agony of Sotnikov and Rybak’s ordeal. This is made disconcertingly palpable though the handheld camera that stays uncomfortably close to the men as they push through a sea of branches in the woods and fight their way through the deep snow. Every footstep feels like a momentous action, the physical pain of a bullet wound intensified by the extended, extreme close-ups on Sotnikov’s anguished face; it’s as if the camera itself, so observant of these men’s frost-bitten fingers and the way in which snow seeps into their clothes and shoes, feels the harsh sting of the cold in this frozen tundra. A literal and metaphorical presence, snow is everywhere and seemingly inescapable in The Ascent, with the blanketed vistas obscuring both the visible paths to safety and the symbolic ones toward righteousness, compassion, or human understanding.

The film’s centerpiece is the interrogation of Sotnikov and Rybak by Portnov (Anatoly Solonitsyn), a Russian citizen turned Nazi. Sotnikov’s clear-eyed refusal to cooperate and the torture he subsequently endures stands in stark opposition to Rybak’s cowardice in the face of Portnov’s threats. Across these scenes, Shepitko stunningly incorporates a shot-countershot pattern of Sotnikov’s rigidly determined, almost possessed gaze (shades of Maria Falconetti in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc) followed by a look of confusion and, finally, exasperation washing over Portnov’s mournful face. Then when it’s time for Rybak’s interrogation, Portnov sees a reflection of himself in this man who’s so frightened and ready to talk to save his own skin. It’s at this point in the interrogation that Portnov drops his cool, calm demeanor, erupting in anger not at the man who repudiates him, but rather the one who gives in to his fears and loses his grip on his sense of virtue.

In setting Sotnikov up as the noble martyr, the film channels familiar Christian iconography, but it does so in a visually inventive manner that’s less religious in its ambition than purely symbolic, of transcending the horrors of war through sheer force of will. Across shots in which we glimpse what resembles a crown of thorns formed by branches in front of Sotnikov’s face after he’s shot, a glowing white light behind his head following his torture, and askew telephone poles eerily reminiscent of hastily perched crosses, Shepitko poetically connects the misery and moral depravity of wartime existence to the doctrine of the fall.

The Ascent, though, isn’t completely hopeless, as suggested by the haunting close-ups that close the film, during which Shepitko cuts between Sotnikov and a young boy who observes his execution. Sotnikov’s eyes possess the same radiance they did following his earlier torture, and upon seeing a tear streak down the boy’s face, the man looks directly at him and ever so slightly smiles—as if to offer the boy solace and pass the torch of his spirit of resistance.

Image/Sound

This transfer is from a 4K digital restoration performed by MosFilm in 2018, and it’s a huge improvement over the Criterion’s earlier presentation of The Ascent as part of Eclipse Series 11: Larisa Shepitko (which also included Shepitko’s 1966 drama Wings). For a film so concerned with the human face and all that it reveals, the newfound detail and clarity of the image is revelatory, unveiling newfound textures in the treacherous snow-covered landscapes and an intensified luminosity that adds power to the many intense gazes captured throughout. The uncompressed monaural soundtrack also marks a discernible improvement over the earlier release, with a nicely balanced mix with a strong separation of sonic elements.

Extras

The most vital feature included on this release is a selected-scene commentary by film scholar Daniel Bird, who touches on the metaphysical elements of The Ascent, its use of religious iconography, and the unusual dimensions of Alfred Schnittke’s score. A more personal, intimate perspective on the film is provided by three additional extras: a 20-minute video introduction by Larisa Shepitko’s son, Anton Klimov; Elem Klimov’s 1980 short film Larisa, a loving tribute to his late wife; and a 1999 program where the Come and See director introduces a lengthy interview that Shepitko gave on Bavarian TV following the release of The Ascent. An interview with actor Lyudmila Polyakova provides insight into the challenges of the film’s shoot, while an episode of the Russian TV program Islands from 2012 includes additional thoughts from Anton Klimov as well as Shepitko’s sister, Emilia Tutina. The disc is rounded out with Shepitko’s 1967 short film The Homeland of Electricity and a foldout booklet with an essay by poet Fanny Howe, praising The Ascent’s visual and thematic lyricism.

Overall

Criterion’s Blu-ray release is the most impressive home video release of a Larisa Shepitko film to date, and it includes a slew of extras that delve into the lasting importance of a filmmaker whose life and career were tragically cut short.

Cast: Boris Plotnikov, Vladimir Gostyukhin, Sergei Yakovlev, Lyudmila Polyakova, Victoria Goldentul, Anatoly Solonitsyn, Nikolay Sektimenko Director: Larisa Shepitko Screenwriter: Larisa Shepitko, Yuri Klepikov Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 109 min Rating: NR Year: 1977 Release Date: January 26, 2021 Buy: Video

Continue Reading

Video

Blu-ray Review: Park Chan-wook’s Joint Security Area on Arrow Video

Given the narrative’s sharp, intricate setup, its subsequent straightforwardness is rather disappointing.

4
Chuck Bowen

Published

on

Joint Security Area

Next to the films that cemented Park Chan-wook’s reputation as a master of lurid arthouse thrillers, Joint Security Area is awfully normal—a timely military-set whodunnit with a message along the lines of “Can’t we all just get along?” Based on Park Sang-yeon’s novel DMZ, the 2000 film is set on the border between North and South Korea. Early on, two soldiers are found dead on the north side, with another, Oh Kyung-pil (Song Kang-ho), left injured. A South Korean soldier, Lee Soo-hyuk (Lee Byung-hun), also injured, confesses to the killings, claiming that he was escaping a kidnapping attempt, while North Korea insists that he committed an act of unprovoked aggression. Recruited to investigate the matter is Swiss Army Major Sophie E. Jean (Lee Young-ae), and it’s implied that she’s the ideal mix of insider and outsider to empathize with the tensions between both countries and ensure that war doesn’t break out.

To Westerners only passingly familiar with the fraught relations between the Koreas, Joint Security Area might serve most vividly as an echo of Rob Reiner’s A Few Good Men, another glossy murder mystery with a volatile border incident at its center. Both films are concerned with how wartime protocol, dictated by people outside of the action, can warp the psyches of soldiers and lead to atrocity. But Park ultimately isn’t interested in the pleasures of leading us through a puzzle. While we’re initially led to believe that Sophie is the protagonist, she’s pushed aside as the film flashes back to the months leading up to the murders, revealing that Soo-hyuk, Byung-pil, and other soldiers from both sides of the border were friends. In fact, Joint Security Area’s second half recalls another Reiner film, Stand by Me, which also reveled in juvenile bonding rituals shared by bored and horny males. Soo-hyuk, Byung-pil, and the gang share pictures of their girlfriends, pass around American nudie mags, drink and play cards, and wax on the glories of the snack cakes that aren’t available in North Korea.

Given the narrative’s sharp, intricate setup—so rich in innuendo, sleights of hand, logistics, and secrets and lies—its subsequent straightforwardness is rather disappointing. The comparisons that Joint Security Area has received to Rashomon prove to be exaggerated, because while Akira Kurosawa’s film dramatizes with wrenching agony the shakiness of universal truth, Park’s film mostly abandons alternating POVs, employing a repetitive structure with a clear ending in plain sight long before the narrative comes to a close. And the soldiers, other than the swift and sly Kyung-pil, who Song invests with his customary charisma, aren’t especially interesting; they’re earnest clichés out of American military pictures. Yet Joint Security Area has a subtle perversity that aligns it with future Park films. As in works as disparate in tone and intent as Oldboy and The Handmaiden, Joint Security Area is concerned with violence as a reaction to a severe and repressive society.

Joint Security Area’s bloody murder scenes are hyperbolically staged, which comes to feel especially resonant when the intense and homoerotic nature of the soldiers’ friendship is revealed—a nature that’s often expressed in symbolic displays of frustrated violence, from a spitting contest to the usual boys-will-be-boys horsing around. The warm idyll of the hangout scenes, shot to suggest kids huddled in a boy’s clubhouse, are contrasted with the mercilessly bold and symmetrical compositions of the demilitarized zone, especially in cunningly staged stakeout sequences that anticipate the muscular action scenes of future Park films.

Such juxtapositions—between the tenderness of ordinary life and the constrictions of a system of governance—also foretell The Handmaiden, in which the tender love affair between two women transpires in homes of astonishing yet constricting ornamental beauty, erected in honor of oppressive patriarchal authority. And like The Handmaiden’s love scenes, Joint Security Area’s murder scenes grow increasingly tragic and erotic in retrospect, as we learn more about the friendships that drive them. The killings are ironically understood as a revenge of the oppressed against itself—an act of rage at a system turned inward by the system itself. There are, in this military thriller, seeds of a more expansive gothic sensibility.

Image/Sound

The image is generally clear and attractive, but some of the flesh tones are bright to the point of shrillness, though this lighting may be truthful to the film’s origins. Blacks are occasionally murky, with hints of crush, but they’re mostly vibrant, as are the remaining darker colors—blood reds, noirish blues, forest greens—of the film’s palette. This disc features two sound mixes—a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and LPCM 2.0—and both offer sharp and immersive soundstages for a talky film that’s occasionally, startlingly punctuated by gory gunfire.

Extras

Two new supplements included in this set—an audio commentary by writer and critic Simon Ward and a 35-minute appreciation by Asian cinema expert Jasper Sharp—primarily discuss Joint Security Area within the context of Park Chan-wook’s subsequent work, perhaps inadvertently underscoring the fact that said context is this well-staged film’s primary source of interest. Ward offers an informative and conversational commentary, analyzing the formal and narrative intricacies of the film’s first act with particular shrewdness, while Sharp outlines Park’s ascendency in relation to the larger blossoming South Korean cinema movement of the 2000s. Also included in this package are diverting, still relatively skippable archive supplements that cover the making of Joint Security Area and the political reverberations of the narrative, as well as music videos and various other promotional materials.

Overall

Arrow Video outfits Park Chan-wook’s career-making military thriller with a sturdy yet improvable transfer and supplements package.

Cast: Lee Yeong-ae, Lee Byung-hun, Song Kang-ho, Kim Tae-woo, Shin Ha-kyun, Herbert Ulrich, Christoph Hofrichter Director: Park Chan-wook Screenwriter: Park Chan-wook, Kim Hyun-seok, Jeong Seong-san, Lee Mu-yeong Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 109 min Rating: NR Year: 2000 Release Date: January 19, 2021 Buy: Video

Continue Reading

Video

Review: Robert Siodmak’s The Suspect on KL Studio Classics Blu-ray

Kino shines a spotlight on an unsung Siodmak thriller and a particularly fine Charles Laughton performance.

3.5
Derek Smith

Published

on

The Suspect

Robert Siodmak’s The Suspect doesn’t exactly pull at the misogynistic fabric of noir in its opening act, amplifying Cora’s (Rosalind Ivan) callous treatment of her shopkeeper husband, Philip (Charles Laughton), to the extreme. The filmmakers write the woman off as irredeemable, while inviting our sympathy for Philip as he somewhat innocently befriends a young stenographer, Mary (Ella Raines), and subsequently courts her. But the film becomes a lot harder to pin down after Cora learns of this relationship and threatens a scandal, leading Philip to orchestrate her death, or so the audience is led to believe. It’s here, as it homes in on the ambiguity surrounding the despicable Cora’s demise and its toll on Philip, that the film pivots into almost blackly comic terrain.

As Philip, Laughton pushes against his hammier instincts even as his character’s ruthlessness slowly surfaces out of sheer self-preservation once a Scotland Yard detective, Huxley (Stanley Ridges), starts to suspect that Cora’s death may not have been an accident. Laughton’s shifts in posture and speech to reflect Philip’s vacillation between pitiable sap and self-assured gentleman are never less than convincing. For his part, Siodmak suggests Philip’s thorny interiority through an increasingly dense atmosphere of suspense, as in the remarkably unsettling scene in which the lights dim and the camera glides up the stairs and around the corners of Philip’s apartment while Huxley narrates how he thinks Cora’s death played out.

The Suspect is a complexly interwoven series of narrative entanglements, evoking more than a shade of Hitchcock. And the plot turns come fast and furious. Indeed, almost as quickly as Philip marries Mary, he gets a second thorn in his side: Gilbert (Henry Daniell), the wife-beating neighbor who blackmails him upon learning of Huxley’s suspicions of the man’s guilt. But however dark those turns are, Siodmak’s film never fully betrays its representation of Philip as a genuinely warm, kind-hearted man, at least by nature. In fact, it’s Laughton’s uncanny ability to walk the thin line between jovial and murderous without coming off like a sociopath that allows The Suspect to stand out among noirs with wife killers at their center.

That Philip’s happiness is thwarted not by his nefarious acts but by his timidity and sense of decency is an irony that courses through the film’s final act. And while this behavior is taken as a sign of weakness by one of Philip’s adversaries, who taunts him with lines like “The meek inherit the Earth. We inherit the meek,” The Suspect cleverly imagines what may come if a sheep like Philip, only briefly and when necessary, became the wolf.

Image/Sound

Kino Lorber’s transfer is from a “brand new 2K master,” and the resulting image is pleasingly film-like, sharp and richly detailed deep into the frame. The contrast ratio is strong, with uniformly accurate black levels that are most impressive in the nighttime exterior shots. The DTS-HD Master Audio is a bit lacking in dialogue clarity, with a number of the line readings sounding a bit tinny and echoey. Fortunately, both the ambient sounds and the score by woefully unsung composer Frank Skinner are quite full-bodied.

Extras

The disc’s lone extra is a commentary track by film historian Troy Howarth, whose love of The Suspect is undeniable. He gets into the nitty-gritty of the film’s production and the careers of Robert Siodmak and Charles Laughton, and delves into the similarities between The Suspect and Shadow of a Doubt and Scarlet Street, the latter of which was released the following year and whose director, the great Fritz Lang, was initially attached to this project. Horwath also makes a compelling argument for Siodmak as an auteur and keeps the conversation light and lively while managing to cover a lot of ground in just a hair over 80 minutes.

Overall

With this Blu-ray release, Kino shines a spotlight on an unsung Robert Siodmak thriller and a particularly fine Charles Laughton performance.

Cast: Charles Laughton, Ella Raines, Stanley Ridges, Dean Harens, Rosalind Ivan, Henry Daniell, Molly Lamont Director: Robert Siodmak Screenwriter: Bertram Millhauser, Arthur T. Horman Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 1944 Release Date: February 9, 2021 Buy: Video

Continue Reading

Video

Blu-ray Review: Ric Roman Waugh’s Greenland on Universal Home Video

Greenland is, for better and worse, the most subdued disaster movie that Gerard Butler has ever made.

3.5
Derek Smith

Published

on

Greenland

Where Dean Devlin’s Geostorm saw a by-now familiar everyman played by Gerard Butler getting shot into space in order to save humanity from a catastrophic natural disaster, Ric Roman Waugh’s Greenland keeps him earthbound, focusing on his efforts to ensure his family’s safety as an enormous interstellar comet races toward our planet. As Scottish structural engineer John Garrity, Butler swaps out the hyper-masculine heroics that defined his characters in Devlin’s disastrous disaster film and Waugh’s own Angel Has Fallen with a more downtrodden gallantry. After all, and unknown to the audience at first, John recently cheated on his wife, Allison (Morena Baccarin), and they’re in the midst of mending their marriage when news of the world’s impending doom begins to spread.

Right out of the gate, Greenland gets points for consistency, as John and Allison’s marital issues are pushed to the side as pieces of the “planet killer” begin to fall from the sky, a preamble to an apocalypse whose magnitude surprisingly plays second fiddle to this family’s struggle to simply stay together. Perhaps this decision was motivated more by a modest budget and less by any artistic impulse, but the relative dearth of high-drama disaster porn throughout the film, as well as a lack of interest in geopolitics, is refreshing for how much room it makes for small-scale family drama. The intense focus on the intimacy between John, Allison, and their diabetic son, Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd), is rare for a film such as this.

Greenland certainly understands the self-serving impulses that grip most people in treacherous times. From the violent looting of a pharmacy to the after effects of gridlock on the highways, the breakdown of human civility is, like the destruction raining down from above, only ever seen from the main characters’ blinkered point of views. Waugh, then, sets his film in what feels like a recognizably real world, and in limiting our knowledge of the impending, planet-destroying event to only one family’s eyewitness observations, he provides his characters’ onerous quest with a sense of urgency and gravitas.

Of course, the conceit of a family getting separated and reuniting in the midst of a world-ending disaster is hardly a novel cinematic experience, but Chris Sparling’s script inserts enough left turns into the proceedings to allow us to shake the impression that we’ve been to this rodeo before. While the reason behind John and his family being separated early on is contrived, it allows for the film to gawk in horror at and wring tension from the sight of people reverting to their most base instincts in times of crisis. During a particularly fraught and lengthy stretch of the film, a well-meaning couple (David Denman and Hope Davis) offers Allison and Nathan a lift in their car after they’re separated from John only to then kidnap the boy upon learning that his wristband will presumably allow them entry onto one of the evacuation planes headed toward Greenland and safety within an underground bunker.

In its final 15 minutes, Greenland leans into the rote spectacle-driven action that one expects from the average modern-day disaster flick, shifting its focus entirely to John and his family’s treacherous plane ride toward potential safety and the damage caused by the meteors lighting up the sky. And once the “big one” finally hits, we’re treated to the obligatory montage of some of the world’s most recognizable cities reduced to ash and rubble. But the film’s prevailing attention to character-building up to this point allows some of the more hackneyed, late-in-the-game moments of chaos to go down smoother than you might expect.

Image/Sound

Greenland isn’t a particularly handsome-looking film, but with the exception of a few scenes that skew a tad too dark, this disc’s image presentation is flawless—so flawless, in fact, that you might have an easier time now spotting the matte shots. Black levels are rich and healthy, while skin tones, especially as the film progresses and humanity moves closer to annihilation, take on increasingly warmer tones, and without sacrificing accuracy. The film is also no warhorse in the sound department but the DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix is seamless, boasting crisp and clear dialogue levels and nicely localized surrounds, with the occasional jolts caused from the meteors crashing to the ground reverberating robustly across the entire soundstage.

Extras

Ric Roman Waughn provides intros to three scenes that were deleted from Greenland, at least one—a considerably more hopeful ending than the one we got—for the better. The filmmaker also teams up with producer Basil Iwanyk for a feature-length commentary track that’s intensely fixated on the film’s relevance in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, and on all the work that went into the script to ensure that its focus remained less on the apocalypse’s death rattle and more on its toll on humanity’s soul. (Good luck, though, trying to tell the men’s voices apart.) Rounding out the disc is a puff piece, titled “Humanity,” in which actors Gerard Butler and Morena Baccarin sing the film’s praises.

Overall

Ric Roman Waugh’s Greenland is, for better and worse, the most subdued disaster movie ever made featuring Gerard Butler and a humanity-killing comet.

Cast: Gerard Butler, Morena Baccarin, David Denman, Hope Davis, Scott Glenn, Holt McCallany, Roger Dale Floyd, Andrew Bachelor, Merrin Dungey, Gary Weeks Director: Ric Roman Waugh Screenwriter: Chris Sparling Distributor: Universal Studios Home Entertainment Running Time: 119 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020 Release Date: February 9, 2021

Continue Reading

Video

Review: Indicator’s Columbia Noir #2 on Powerhouse Films Blu-ray

This set compiles a slate of unduly overlooked films alongside an equally idiosyncratic series of extras.

5
Derek Smith

Published

on

Columbia Noir #2

In her introduction to the Criterion Channel’s Columbia Noir collection, critic Imogen Sara Smith asserts that it’s an avoidance of “cookie cutter” plots and a tendency to reflect “the whole scope and diversity of what film noir could be” that sets Columbia Pictures’s noirs apart from those of other studios. And the adventurousness of the studio’s output is amply clear throughout the six films collected on Indicator’s second Columbia Noir box set, in everything from Ginger Rogers’s against-type turn as a sassy, hard-nosed convict in Tight Spot to Perry Botkin’s wildly unconventional, solo guitar score for Murder by Contract.

These films tell stories that are rife with deception, jealousy, betrayal, and suspicion, fixating on jaded, world-weary souls who are seemingly either tightening the screws on someone or working themselves out of an insurmountable jam. But where the tortured emotions and sense of dread felt by these characters are familiar staples of noir, even the weakest films here find unique and exciting ways of tackling their hard-boiled stories, thus allowing them to stand apart from their genre brethren.

The most offbeat of these works is 1958’s Murder by Contract, which bears the strong imprints of a late-period genre entry. Irving Lerner’s film is a B picture through and through, one that uses its limited means to its advantage; given its lean plot, minimalist score and set design, and Vince Edwards’s stony lead performance, it’s as if a Bresson film has been re-imagined through the lens of a Jean-Pierre Melville neo-noir, then spiked with deadpan humor. Playfully toying with Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch—references to Superman abound—across its sunny Los Angeles suburban setting, Murder by Contract efficiently probes a hipster hitman’s (Edwards) feelings of alienation, misogyny, and superiority with a cool, often uproarious wit and whimsy, while still sustaining a persistent sense of danger.

Tight Spot, from 1955, makes even more room for levity. Despite the trenchant feelings of entrapment and helplessness felt by its protagonist, the film often veers into the realm of romantic comedy, specifically when Sherry (Rogers), holed up in a hotel room waiting to testify against a mob boss (Lorne Green), warms up to the her aptly named police protector, Vince Striker (Brian Keith). These more light-hearted stretches are particularly surprising when you consider that its it’s Phil Karlson behind the camera, as he’s best known for extremely gritty, no-nonsense B thrillers like 1952’s Kansas City Confidential and 1955’s The Phenix City Story. Rogers’s delicate balancing of feminine charm and raw tenacity lends the film credence on both ends of the tonal spectrum, while an eventual twist that subtly reflects on the McCarthy-era paranoia that had just recently swept through Hollywood reveals a bit more thematic weight in the film than it initially may appear.

While far from a comedy, Robert Parrish’s The Mob, from 1951, is also laced with a distinctly off-kilter wit, offering Broderick Crawford ample opportunity to sling whip-smart comebacks and sardonic insults with a frequency typically reserved only for Humphrey Bogart. As a policeman forced to get in good with the mobsters who run things at the city docks after he mistakenly lets a cop-killer go free, Crawford plays Johnny Damico with a perfect blend of self-loathing, seething anger, and shrewdness as the man maneuvers his way through a seedy blue-collar environment where even those on the right side of the law are duplicitous. Though beholden to a dime-a-dozen scenario, the film conjures a densely atmospheric mood, and its swift pacing is perfectly in key with the fiery verbal banter that marks virtually every scene.

If the remaining films in the set play things a bit closer to the traditional noir playbook, they’re still immensely entertaining and thoughtful genre entries. Joseph M. Newman, director of 1950’s 711 Ocean Drive, breathes new life into the story of a regular joe’s (Edmond O’Brien) rise and fall in the criminal underworld with a ripped-from-the-headlines immediacy, whip-smart dialogue, and a nimble sense of pacing. Though Affair in Trinidad, from 1952, plays like a watered-down version of Gilda, for pairing Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth again and having the actress replicate her legendary hair flip from Charles Vidor’s classic, Vincent Sherman’s film is intriguing for the way it positions Chris Emery (Hayworth) as both aggressor and pawn. Ford fairs much better in Framed, which from the opening shot that sees him careening downhill in a truck with no brakes, palpably conjures the feelings of an unhinged man as he’s squeezed from every direction. Richard Wallace’s 1947 film sees corruption and social rot as inescapable, and while it’s not the best title in the set, it’s most indicative of the typically grim worldview of many of Columbia’s noirs. The unusual melding of acerbic humor with an overwhelming bleakness is as much of a defining trait of the studio’s noirs as their uncanny ability to pack their low-budget fare with heavy ideas and stark, evocative visuals.

Image/Sound

The high-def transfers are fantastic across the board, especially those for the two best films in the set, Murder by Contract and The Mob, both of which are premiering on Blu-ray for the first time. The contrast ratio is consistently very strong, allowing for inky blacks in the shadows and a wide range of grays that help give the films’ visuals a nicely textured look even in murkier sequences, like the rainy, nighttime murder scene in The Mob. All six films are presented with their original mono audio, and while that may come as a disappoint to audiophiles used to 5.1 surround, the mixes are nicely balanced and surprisingly robust.

Extras

Powerhouse Films typically goes all out for their Indicator series box sets, but the distributor has really gone above and beyond here. The highlight of Columbia Noir #2 is surely the newly recorded audio commentaries, each of which offers critical insights into everything from the typical qualities of a Columbia noir to the formal strategies and thematic elements of the individual films. There isn’t a single dud in the bunch, but especially of note are the commentaries on Murder by Contract, The Mob, and Framed. For the latter, Imogen Sara Smith seamlessly integrates her observations of the film, right down to its smallest details, into a larger analysis of noir, all the while peppering her astute observations with hard-boiled jargon.

Each disc also comes with a heaping of absorbing and varied extras, ranging from the standard, such as interviews and an introduction to Murder by Contract by Martin Scorsese, to the non-standard, most notably an hour of extracts from telerecordings of the U.S. Senate committee’s hearings into organized crime and Irving Lerner’s 1943 documentary short Swedes in America. Every disc also includes a Three Stooges short that was made at Columbia and echoes the themes of the accompanying film. The set is rounded out with a smattering of photo galleries, theatrical trailers, and a gorgeous, colorful 120-page bound booklet with enlightening essays by the likes of film critic Simon Abrams and film historian Melanie Williams.

Overall

This box set is a noir fan’s dream for compiling a slate of unduly overlooked films alongside an equally idiosyncratic series of extras, all served up in a handsome, sturdy package.

Cast: Glenn Ford, Janis Carter, Barry Sullivan, Edmond O’Brien, Joanne Dru, Otto Kruger, Barry Kelley, Dorothy Patrick, Broderick Crawford, Betty Buehler, Richard Kiley, Otto Hulett, Matt Crowley, Neville Brand, Ernest Borgnine, Rita Hayworth, Glenn Ford, Alexander Scourby, Valerie Bettis, Torin Thatcher, Ginger Rogers, Edward G. Robinson, Brian Keith, Vince Edwards, Phillip Pine, Herschel Bernardi, Caprice Toriel Director: Richard Wallace, Joseph M. Newman, Robert Parrish, Vincent Sherman, Phil Karlson, Irving Lerner Screenwriter: Ben Maddow, Richard English, Francis Swann, William Bowers, Oscar Saul, James Gunn, Ben Simcoe Distributor: Powerhouse Films Running Time: 547 min Rating: NR Year: 1947 - 1958 Release Date: February 15, 2021 Buy: Video

Continue Reading

Trending