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Review: F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

A beautiful transfer of a revolutionary and emotionally devastating masterpiece of early cinema.

4.5

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The Last Laugh

F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh blows an elementally simple story up to the level of opera. Working with screenwriter Carl Mayer and cinematographer Karl Freund, among other legends of German cinema, Murnau fashions a city of dreams that thrives on a resonant contrast between classes. The Hotel Atlantic is a luxurious paradise, with feasts, classical music, ballrooms, and glass elevators. Nearby is a lower-middle class neighborhood, composed of drab apartments that’re visually defined by women peering out of windows and beating dust out of rugs on stair railings. Transporting people between these worlds are portals that embody the fragility of social boundaries, such as the rotating entryway of the Atlantic, which whisks the wealthy in and spits undesirables out into a cacophonous urban nightscape.

Holding these worlds together, offering us an entryway into The Last Laugh, is the hotel’s unnamed porter (Emil Jannings), a proletariat man who derives immense satisfaction from his proximity to the first class, as embodied by an elaborate uniform that causes him to resemble an antiquated military officer. Clad in wild hair and poignantly ludicrous muttonchops, standing at seemingly seven feet in a 300-pound frame, Jannings offers a portrait of the worker bee as colossus, revealing the porter’s pride and vanity to be powerful and superficial as well as indicative of unbearable vulnerability. When the porter removes an enormous trunk from the top of a cab in a rainstorm, Murnau and Jannings frame this action as a heroic quest, suggesting that this is the porter’s version of Arthur pulling the sword from the stone.

When modern filmmakers attempt to portray the plight of the poor, they often lean on condescendingly spare realist tropes, implying that impoverished people might not have the interiority that necessitates expressionism. By contrast, Murnau and Jannings viscerally define the porter’s mindscape, exploring his fantasies and shifting emotional states. Jannings is more than formidable enough to hold up to the formal trickery that Murnau and Freund employ throughout the film, particularly the sets and roving tracking shots—early and influential attempts at Steadicam—that suggest floating consciousness. The camera’s movements alternately symbolize our point of view and that of the porter, tethering the two in a manner that parallels the film’s conjoining of the upper and lower classes. Everyone’s in this world together, simultaneously surrounded and separate. Yet connection isn’t always desirable, as illustrated by camera zooms that emphasize the stifling closeness of the porter’s neighbors, as they hear of his downfall and revel in his humiliation, shouting gossip from one apartment window to another.

The sequences detailing the porter’s demotion at the Atlantic are The Last Laugh’s most piercing. The porter reads of his relegation to the lavatory, his face frozen in deflation that signals a fatal shattering of a personal sense of stature. When the porter’s forced to remove his uniform, a button falling onto the floor in a heartbreakingly impotent flourish, he suggests a walrus being skinned. Jannings subsequently alters his character’s body language, seemingly losing a foot of height in the process. The actor masochistically revels in the porter’s ruination, especially when the character’s crawling on the porcelain floor of the bathroom, which is on the lowest level of the Atlantic, suggesting a spotless hell that exists below paradise. The porter resembles an actor who’s lost his greatest role, allowing Jannings to plumb an artist’s worst fears of uselessness and dejection.

As a fascinating making-of documentary included with this Kino Lorber release observes, The Last Laugh is a parody of the premium that Germans place on the power of rank and uniform—a cultural danger that isn’t exclusive to their country. The porter enjoys his vicarious rarefied status and is brought to nearly suicidal stupor by its withdrawal, unable to perform the tasks of a lavatory assistant. But when he’s rendered wealthy by a facetious deus ex machina, he returns to the bathroom and voluntarily does his duty on the behalf of his replacement. In other words, the porter doesn’t regain his physical power until a vague social standing has been bestowed on him. Murnau shows our identities to be terrifyingly beholden to society, bridging critique with melodrama in images of biblical power that would help to define the syntax of the blossoming medium of cinema.

Image/Sound

Even without considering the laborious history of The Last Laugh’s restoration—which is detailed by this disc’s supplemental materials—this transfer looks and sounds miraculous. Yes, there are minor lines and blips in the image, but clarity and depth are rich and prismatic, honoring the film’s obsession with worlds within worlds. The blacks are fulsome, particularly in the poetic city backdrops, and the whites are sharp, as evinced by the impeccable crystal sheen of the film’s mirrors, windows, and polished surfaces. Facial detail is revelatory, suggesting that of a film less than half of The Last Laugh’s age.

There are two soundtracks, which are composed only of differing scores. There’s a new track, featuring a musical score by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, and an older mix, with the original 1924 score by Giuseppe Becce, as orchestrated by Detlev Glanert in 2003. In terms of aural dimension and nuance, these mixes are equally formidable, boasting robust soundstages with distinguished instrumentation. I personal prefer Glanert’s performance of the Becce score, as it’s more restrained than the new music, offering a tonal counterpoint to the operatic visuals. The score by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra is beautiful but literal-mindedly enlarges the film’s already enormous emotions. That said, it’s wonderful to have such a choice at all, which offers an informative illustration of how music complements imagery.

Extras

The supplements offer a coherent portrait of the confusing story of The Last Laugh‘s creation and restoration. In short, three versions of the film were prepared for a German release, an American release, and general international exhibition, respectively. As introductory notes before the film specify, this restoration is based on materials assembled from various partial German sources. “The Last Laugh, Making Of” outlines the differences between the versions, with the German print featuring the best takes, though fabulous trick shots were included in the American print because of cinematic competition between the two nations. This documentary also details the work of creating a city within the UFA studio, comparing frames from all three versions to reveal the variations of the special effects, which are also contextualized within the evolving canon of German and global cinema. Karl Freund’s cinematography, with its figurative distortion effects and mobile camera, was revolutionary. The audio commentary by film historian Noah Isenberg offers a deeper dive into the history of The Last Laugh, outlining the contributions of the major players while examining the film’s symbolism and merging of the German chamber drama and street drama. Also included, for historic posterity, is a DVD with an unrestored export version of the film, with opening notes to offer more distribution information.

Overall

A beautiful transfer of a revolutionary and emotionally devastating masterpiece of early cinema, with supplements that sort out the film’s tangled origin story.

Cast: Emil Jannings, Maly Delschaft, Max Hiller, Emilie Kurz, Hans Unterkircher, Olaf Storm, Hermann Vallentin, Georg John, Emmy Wyda Director: F.W. Murnau Screenwriter: Carl Mayer Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 1924 Release Date: November 14, 2017 Buy: Video

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Review: Thorold Dickinson’s The Queen of Spades on Kino Blu-ray

Kino’s transfer highlights the alluring beauty of Thorold Dickinson’s gothic horror classic.

3.5

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The Queen of Spades

Ealing Studios’s opulent adaptation of Alexander Pushkin’s novella The Queen of Spades is a cult classic in search of an audience. Directed by Thorold Dickinson, this Poe-like tale of deceit and ghostly vengeance is sumptuous and effective. A penny-pinching army captain, Herman Suvorin (Anton Walbrook), dreams of one day “grabbing life by the collar and making it give him what he wants,” which translates, rather mundanely, to winning big at cards. When he happens upon an old book that tells of negotiations people have made with the devil, he discovers that a local countess, Ranevskaya (Edith Evans, wonderfully teetering between doddering camp and tacit menace), has possibly sold her soul in exchange for the secret combination of cards that will always result in victory. And in order to gain entry to the countess’s chambers and demand that secret, Suvorin wins both the trust and lust of her young beneficiary, Lizavetta Ivanova (a blankly beautiful Yvonne Mitchell).

Though The Queen of Spades is suffused with macabre grace notes, Dickinson wisely chooses to keep his style from edging into highfalutin hysterics until it really counts (see the Dali-like penultimate scene where Herman begins to see the secret card numbers in the architecture of the gambling house). More often, his style is almost below the radar, as if the entire production were being shot on the lam. The end result is that of an accumulating stress fracture that, in the film’s climax, breaks completely apart along with Herman’s sanity.

Curiously enough, the denouement attempts to put a happy spin on the entire package by showing the supposedly lovesick Lizavetta having picked up the pieces of her ruined life and buying all the caged birds in the marketplace and releasing them. Never mind the naïve, implicit notion that money ruins some and betters others (Pushkin died in immense debt, so it’s unlikely that he would approve of this sequence). It’s more distressing to witness just how much the mood of a dark and uncompromising masterpiece can be sabotaged by a producer with his eyes on the easy uplift. The Magnificent Ambersons, anyone?

Image/Sound

Kino’s 1080p transfer is surprisingly strong, considering it’s not sourced from a new restoration. The image is consistently sharp, allowing for a full appreciation of all the minute details found in the film’s elaborate costumes and luxurious sets, particularly inside Countess Ranevskaya’s mansion. Thorold Dickinson and his cinematographer, Otto Heller, made ample use of expressionistic lighting, and this transfer really shows off the strong contrast between blacks and whites. There are a few blemishes here and there, usually in the form of small scratches, and the lack of substantial grain leaves the picture with a slightly plastic look at times. The lossless audio track boasts a well-balanced mix that accentuates the subtleties of the film’s layered sound design and Georges Auric’s moody, atmospheric score.

Extras

On his informative and sprightly commentary track, film critic Nick Pinkerton touches on The Queen of Spades’s expressionistic cinematography and lush sound design, as well as provides detailed background information about Pushkin’s novella and the film’s cast and crew. Especially of note is his analysis of Napoleon Bonaparte’s influence on early-19th-century writers, including Pushkin, who had begun to incorporate power-hungry Napoleonic characters into their stories. A 20-minute analysis by film critic and author Philip Horne covers Sergei Eisenstein’s influence on Dickinson, who started off as an editor, as well as how the director’s worldliness aided his depiction of 19th-century Russia. Also included are two audio-only extras, both featuring Dickinson. The first is a 1951 interview in which he discusses the challenges of adapting the source material and how the limitations of his budget and the studio space spurred his creativity, and the second is his introduction to a 1968 screening of the film. The disc also comes with a brief introduction by Martin Scorsese and several trailers.

Overall

Kino’s transfer highlights the alluring beauty of Thorold Dickinson’s gothic horror classic.

Cast: Anton Walbrook, Edith Evans, Yvonne Mitchell, Ronald Howard, Mary Jerrold, Anthony Dawson, Miles Malleson, Michael Medwin, Athene Seyler, Ivor Barnard, Maroussia Dimitrevitch Director: Thorold Dickinson Screenwriter: Rodney Ackland, Arthur Boys Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 95 min Rating: NR Year: 1949 Release Date: October 15, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: John Huston’s Psychological Thriller Phobia Arrives on Kino Blu-ray

Kino makes the most of Huston’s disappointing late-career psychological thriller with a new 4K transfer.

3

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Phobia

John Huston was nothing if not mercurial, and his directorial body of work, which began with Humphrey Bogart’s first star turn for Warner Bros., The Maltese Falcon, and ended with an adaptation of James Joyce’s The Dead, is too expansive to be boiled down to just a few themes. He was drawn to canonical texts and stories of ill-fated quests and the self-destructive outer limits of human behavior, but he refused to play things safe, taking on strange studio assignments, cutting his teeth on previously untried genres, most notoriously with Annie in 1982, or straining to salvage shoddily conceived material.

Phobia falls into both camps. This psychological thriller concerns an extreme variant on exposure therapy as practiced by Dr. Peter Ross (Paul Michael Glaser), whose subjects are convict volunteers each with a singular, overriding phobia: snakes, heights, tight spaces, and so on. Dr. Ross’s treatment raises some eyebrows in the medical community—each of his patients is subjected to multi-screen audio/visual representations of his or her respective phobia—but the controversy really spikes when the test subjects come to be consecutively killed off by an unknown assailant, each grisly murder directly corresponding to the victim’s deepest fear.

The nebulous murder mystery that emerges never quite takes hold of the viewer. The entire cast of characters functions as a virtual lineup of potential suspects—Dr. Ross, his current love interest (Susan Hogan), his former one (Patricia Collins), and an abrasive police inspector (John Colicos)—resulting in a film with no clear protagonist. Dr. Ross should conceivably occupy this role, but Glaser plays him as all dispassionate professionalism with only a few supplemental character traits: a reputation as a ladies’ man and a fondness for hockey (presumably to signal the film’s status as a Canadian production). The childhood tragedy that’s apparently informed his radical therapeutic methods is given only perfunctory attention.

So much of John Huston’s finest work—from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The African Queen to Fat City and Wise Blood—is marked by its distinctiveness of place, and an authentic and palpable one at that. But that quality is nowhere to be found in Phobia, whose drab interior scenes within a sketchily conceived psych clinic are interspersed with stock-looking exterior footage (shot in Toronto, Los Angeles, and Atlanta) that merely serves as backdrops for obligatory car chases and other action set pieces. In spite of some occasional glimmers of artistic brio on Huston’s part, spatial arbitrariness reigns supreme.

Ultimately, Phobia never quite deviates from a mode of meandering ambiguity, a kind of scratchboard whodunnit with no compelling stakes. Huston eschews horror-thriller spectacle with the exception of the opening shot, a striking bit of optical disorientation designed to simulate claustrophobia. The primary focus, as in Huston’s classic work, is on the characters, their fraught interactions, and the tension that emerges therefrom. But these characters are one-dimensional byproducts of an uninspired script that clearly passed through too many hands. Where the prior year’s Wise Blood harnessed every stray jot of gnarled, eccentric energy to be found in Flannery O’Connor’s original novel, Phobia runs on hackwork split five ways.

Phobia’s reputation as a film maudit is occasionally attributed to Huston’s old age, but while the filmmaker was certainly in rough shape, having been diagnosed with emphysema only two years earlier, his talent as a filmmaker was clearly undiminished; after all, Under the Volcano, Prizzi’s Honor, and The Dead were all still on the horizon. Hindsight clarifies the film as a mere anomaly, the result of a great director on temporary hiatus from his late-career passion projects, eager to flex his muscles as a hired gun on brazenly tawdry material. If Phobia isn’t particularly good, it’s at the very least a cinephilic curio for the ages.

Image/Sound

Perhaps needless to say, the 4K restoration of Phobia is a quantum leap over the previous VHS transfer, which smeared so many of the film’s soft-lit interiors into fuzzy incomprehensibility. The new image is crisp, with healthy grain distribution and only fleeting contrast imbalances. The DTS-HD audio does justice to the film’s barebones soundtrack, though some ambient details seem played down in the mix, especially in the outdoor scenes. André Gagnon’s overwrought score, however, comes through loud and clear.

Extras

A new audio commentary track features writer Paul Corupe and historian Jason Pichonsky trying and only occasionally succeeding to thematically situate Phobia within John Huston’s larger filmography. More interesting is the novel information regarding the development of the screenplay and historical background on the Canadian film industry’s tax-shelter era. Interviews with actresses Susan Hogan and Lisa Langlois prove more enthusiastic, packed to the brim with fond reminiscences of their experience working with Huston.

Overall

Kino makes the most of John Huston’s disappointing late-career psychological thriller with a new 4K transfer and a series of reverent extras.

Cast: Paul Michael Glaser, Susan Hogan, John Colicos, David Bolt, Patricia Collins, David Eisner, Lisa Langlois, Robert O'Ree, Alexandra Stewart, Neil Vipond, Marian Waldman, Kenneth Welsh, Gwen Thomas Director: John Huston Screenwriter: Lew Lehman, Jimmy Sangster, Peter Bellwood Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 91 min Rating: R Year: 1980 Release Date: October 15, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality Arrives on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

Kino’s disc boasts a solid 2K restoration and spirited and informative new commentary track.

3.5

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Our Hospitality

Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality, his first self-produced showcase anchored to a feature-length plot, is grounded in the mythology of 19th-century family feuds, with the star’s naïve Willie McKay stalked by the vengeful Canfield clan (read as the Hatfields and the McCoys) upon his return to his birthplace beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains. Indeed, Our Hospitality’s six-minute prologue, in which the infant hero’s father is killed in a shootout with his enemies, is straight melodrama from the template of D.W. Griffith. Flashing forward 20 years to young Willie, raised in a dustily bucolic New York City, taking the journey home to reclaim his parents’ “estate,” Keaton centers a quarter-hour of the film on a charmingly recreated steam engine’s Southwestern journey, featuring such absurdist gags as tracks that can be easily lifted off a trapped mule’s hoof, close carriage quarters that force Buster to ditch a top hat for his familiar porkpie, and a canny passerby who throws rocks at the train’s surly engineer (played by Keaton’s father Joe) to reap the reward of free firewood chucked at him in response.

But the foundation of the hill-country warfare gives the comedy extra weight when Keaton’s sheltered youth disembarks to find the family estate is a collapsing shack, and his neighbors are blood rivals with guns drawn in hot pursuit, with the added complication that the maiden he fell hard for on the train journey (Buster’s wife Natalie Talmadge) is a Canfield. Also lacing the film’s middle act with his graceful brand of slapstick and his character’s sober resourcefulness, Keaton eludes the misfiring pistols of the Canfield patriarch (Joe Roberts) and his sons long enough to accept a dinner invitation from his sweetheart, where rules of hospitality preserve his life and compel him to linger, long after exchanging one-eyed stares with his adversaries during prayer at the supper table. When the chase inevitably resumes, it accelerates into a tour de force, labors-of-Hercules climax, again with echoes of Griffith, as Buster dangles from cliffs, falls to a riverbed, and struggles in whitewater rapids before a heroic capper of a stunt that still exhilarates almost 100 years after it was conceived.

Co-directed by Keaton and John G. Blystone, Our Hospitality is not fully possessed of the surreal, dreamlike qualities that came to mark the best of Keaton’s subsequent features. As a filmmaker, he was still finding the balance between the gag-driven energy of his comedy shorts and the plotting demands of a seven- or eight-reel narrative. But it’s the first major work of his peak era, when a stone-faced young ex-vaudevillian became American film comedy’s first action hero with a singular, finely honed physical poetry that was made for the movies.

Image/Sound

As all of Our Hospitality’s original camera negatives have been lost, Kino had to source its transfer from Lobster Films’s 2K restoration, which used a 35mm duplicate negative from AMPAS and a separate diacetate print from the original negative, housed at MoMA. Although there’s still a good deal of flickering, some occasional jittering at the edges of the frame, and slight signs of damage, nearly all signs of debris have been cleaned up, and the tinting of the image, as Buster Keaton originally wanted, is consistent throughout. Overall, the picture is on the soft side, and contrast isn’t exactly great. But, as mentioned in the disc’s commentary track, this is at least in part due to the purposeful haziness of the cinematography, used to obscure some of the film’s potentially more noticeable mattes and backdrops. Robert Israel’s newly recorded score, on the other hand, is crystal clear and quite robustly mixed.

Extras

Film historians Farran Smith Nehme and Imogen Sara Smith provide a delightful new audio commentary, throughout which their love for Keaton, and Our Hospitality in particular, is readily apparent. They touch on everything from the film’s roots in the real-life family feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys to its amusing, almost kitschy, era-specific details, such as the ridiculous bike (“gentleman’s hobby horse”) upon which Keaton is introduced and the very primitive train, which is used for some of the most enduring comedic moments. Their time is filled out with plenty of astute breakdowns of various gags and an in-depth discussion of Keaton’s working methods, specifically as he started moving into feature-length comedies.

The 25-minute “Scoring for Buster” offers an interesting peek into the silent-film scoring process, with Israel chronicling the extensive efforts that go into researching music from the exact era and region in which a film is set. The disc also comes with two relatively forgettable short films: Fatty Arbuckle and Grover Jones’s 1925 comedy The Iron Mule, included only because it makes use of the same train (and steals several gags) from Our Hospitality, and Pierre Blondy’s Keaton-starring Un Duel à Mort from 1947. The package is rounded out by a brief introduction by film preservationist Serge Bromberg and booklet essay by film historian Jeffrey Vance, who delves into Our Hospitality’s production history and troubles, including Keaton’s near-drowning during the shooting of the film’s famous river sequence.

Overall

Kino’s release of Buster Keaton’s first feature-length classic boasts a solid 2K restoration and a particularly spirited and informative new commentary track.

Cast: Buster Keaton, Natalie Talmadge, Joe Keaton, Joe Roberts, Ralph Bushman, Craig Ward, Monte Collins, Jack Duffy, Kitty Bradbury, Jean Duman, Edward Coxen, Tom London, Buster Keaton Jr. Director: Buster Keaton, John G. Blystone Screenwriter: Jean Havez, Clyde Bruckman, Joseph Mitchell Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 75 min Rating: NR Year: 1923 Release Date: October 15, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg on the Criterion Collection

By the measure of the films it includes alone, this set is a must-own.

4.5

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3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg

Jonas Sternberg was raised by his impoverished Orthodox Jewish family in both his native Vienna and New York before he began his film career repairing damaged reels. He acquired his “von”-enhanced moniker in the early 1920s shortly before he was first acclaimed as a genius of the medium for producing an arty independent feature, The Salvation Hunters, for less than $5,000. Soon set back by having an MGM project reshot by another director and another completed film suppressed by its producer, Charlie Chaplin, von Sternberg landed at Paramount, where he made a string of technically dazzling, often enigmatic melodramas that cemented his reputation as a supreme stylist of lighting and montage. The three surviving productions of this period, packaged by the Criterion Collection here, now seem both confident, maverick not-quite-genre pictures and worthy precursors of von Sternberg’s signature collaboration that followed, the seven early sound movies he made with his superstar “creation,” Marlene Dietrich.

Von Sternberg opened Underworld, often cited as the template for the succeeding dozen years of urban gangster films, with a bang. Burly felon Bull Weed (a larger-than-life George Bancroft) dynamites a bank and single-handedly flees with the loot, before the admiring eyes of a drunken ex-lawyer (Clive Brook) whom the thug adopts as an advisor and mascot, christening him “Rolls Royce.” Playing out a triangle of loyalty and love with Bull’s sassy moll, the aptly named Feathers (a plumage-and-fringe-swathed Evelyn Brent), the protagonists are drawn with a mix of verve and melancholy, but the director is the dominant personality, with his fluid cutting among a raucous basement bar, cold-water flats, and gun battles, matched by the florid frame-filling of an adroit entertainer. The humor aggressively tilts toward the later lampoonery of Billy Wilder than Cagney-style street wit; of a gangsters’ annual ball, a title card proclaims, “Everyone with a police record will be there,” and jug-eared comedian Larry Semon brings vaudevillian mirth to all his scenes as a clownish gang underling.

If Underworld falls a little short in its third act because it was surpassed by its descendants (both the climax and a neon sign flashing “The City Is Yours” anticipate scenarist Ben Hecht’s script five years later for Scarface), it retains a flavor all its own; it’s entirely of von Sternberg’s aestheticized world, not Capone’s Chicago. Brook and Brent’s softhearted and dubiously motivated fealty to the crude, swaggering Bancroft was among the elements that prompted Hecht to ask for his name to be taken off the film—until it became a hit and won him an Oscar). But from an abortive prison break via hearse to an attempted rape in a confetti-strewn recess of a ballroom bacchanal, it’s the assured, surprising visual landscape that makes the 81 minutes fly, with broad emotion and archetypes preferred over complex plotting and nuanced characterization. Von Sternberg made limited but memorable use of technical flamboyance: the POV camera rocking back from a punch to the gut, a montage of grotesque partygoers’ mugs, the holdup of a jewelry store announced by a bullet hole bursting open on a clockface. Perhaps most crucially lacking a powerful foe for Bull, whose seething rival (Fred Kohler) has a flower shop for a front, the film nonetheless announced the presence of a crackling new artist on the Paramount lot when it became an unexpected smash.

In the following year, von Sternberg helmed the ambitiously structured melodrama The Last Command, the most epic-scaled entry in this trilogy, starring the German actor Emil Jannings as a Hollywood extra cunningly cast by a Russian immigrant director, Lev Andreyev (William Powell), in a war drama set at the 1917 revolution—because Lev recognizes him as Sergius Alexander, the former commander in chief of the czarist army. In a remarkable, witty sequence, the glassy-eyed, elderly ex-general lines up with a chaotic swarm of bit players to collect their costumes and prop rifles from a surly crew of studio grunts. Von Sternberg takes a jaundiced view of mobs, whether they’re backlot extras or the Bolshevik rebels seen in The Last Command’s principal time frame, a lengthy flashback to the fall of imperial Russia and Jannings’s grand duke, who’s undone by the tides of history and his tragic dalliance with proletarian actress Natalie (Evelyn Brent again), “the most dangerous revolutionist in Russia!”

Jannings’s doomed, whip-wielding Sergius is the fulcrum of the first of von Sternberg’s “stories of male mortification leading to self-destruction,” as the critic Tag Gallagher terms them. When during an assignation at the grand duke’s headquarters, Natalie finds herself unable to shoot him like a good Red would, it merely leads to a torturous, drawn-out demise for the general, whose train is waylaid by revolutionaries in a spectacular 20-minute sequence, big in scope but intimately sadistic. As throngs of Bolshies mock, beat, and spit at Sergius (with Natalie joining in to stall his hanging and effect his escape), Jannings suffers like the lead in a passion play, in an equally intense but more physical humiliation than the one inflicted on the actor’s Immanuel Rath by Dietrich’s Lola Lola two years later in von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel. After the mob’s smoky, hellishly lit assault on the military train, Sergius is coerced to stoke the locomotive engine, its fiery maw promising an infernal destiny. The segment, bridging the return to the Hollywood Sergius with his lateral head tremor and salvaged imperial medal pinned to his military costume, is held together by Jannings’s face in close-up—bleeding, astonished, betrayed, and transforming itself into a mask of trauma.

With his bravura handling of the spectacle and action of the film’s revolutionary bulk, von Sternberg’s satirical touch when The Last Command returns to the 1928 film studio is balanced by the pathos of Sergius’s delusions, vividly summoning Red hordes behind the barbed wire as he stands in a trench, restored to leading an army under spotlight and wind machine. (Alas, Powell’s émigré director is frustratingly characterized as an avenger bent on the general’s destruction who sentimentally turns into a eulogist when it comes to pass.) Winning Jannings an Oscar—along with his performance that year in Victor Fleming’s The Way of All FleshThe Last Command was its maker’s most ambitious and accomplished vision to date of a pitiable life derailed by fate and circumstance.

Coal-stoking on any ship that will have him is the full-time work of hardass Bill Roberts (George Bancroft) in The Docks of New York, released later in 1928 and, on its knockabout surface, an about-face in tone from the Jannings vehicle. Though the nighttime waterfront sets are shrouded in fog and shadow, occasionally pierced with expressionistic shafts of light, aggressive character comedy and hardscrabble romance dominate. Writer Jules Furthman, later a creator of Howard Hawks’s tough-talking, tight-knit communities, and von Sternberg make Bancroft’s two-fisted, pre-WWI sailor a near-caricature of machismo and give him a memorable roost in the Sandbar tavern, where he drinks from beer barrels hoisted over his head and fends off brawlers, surly bartenders and a pistol-waving proprietress.

This sawdust and testosterone is augmented by the best-drawn female characters across these three silent films. Suicidal kewpie Mae (Betty Compson) is plucked from the river by Bill, but though she falls hard for him, you know she’s not to be messed with when she casually strikes matches on the cracked walls of a flophouse. Elsewhere, the slouchy engineer’s wife, Lou (Olga Baclanova), treads the floor of the Sandbar with promiscuous dancing and withering cynicism. Both eclipse the largely decorative Brent in presence and nerve.

Bancroft’s hard-living seaman Bill isn’t as blustery as his Underworld goon, but the way the fate of his improvisatory marriage to Mae rests on whether he can transcend his self-image as “just a dirty stoker” sneaks up on the audience, and von Sternberg knows not to push his hero’s valiant stand in a closing night-court scene into bathos. The crowded scenes of revelers in the Sandbar, hooting and shouting sympathetically as Bill and Mae are married by a reluctant parson, linger in memory just as the wiseguys and molls from the gangsters’ ball in the first Paramount film do. Before he secured his immortality by training his lens on the face and form of Dietrich, von Sternberg showed particular flair in these three late silents for locating the joy, anguish, and doubts to be found in the man who’s set apart from, or absorbed into, his tribe or society. It’s a semi-forgotten legacy that this collection valuably restates.

Image/Sound

While it’s a welcome treat to have this set back in print, it can’t help but suffer in comparison to last year’s mammoth Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood release. And that would’ve held true even had Criterion given the three older films collected here a 4K restoration, which by all indications they haven’t. Outside of the fact that these Blu-rays don’t feature the unfortunate window-boxing that was Criterion’s standard practice when the DVD set was originally released, the improvements here are minor indeed. As true as it may be that this is about as good as one can expect 90-plus-year-old studio movies to look, one can’t help but wonder what a little extra effort might have yielded. Especially since The Docks of New York in particular frequently looks about as good as any silent movie I’ve ever seen on home video, despite some ghastly hatch-marking at reel-change points. This set also retains the DVD edition’s two music score options for each film, one by Robert Israel, and the other by Alloy Orchestra. Israel’s compositions are more lushly produced, if also easier to tune out, whereas Alloy Orchestra take more chances (such as vocals on The Docks of New York) without ever threatening to break the mold. Again, as with the video transfers, with a little extra effort, Criterion could’ve offered up something unexpected, as when their Passion of Joan of Arc upgrade threw in a new score from Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory and Portishead’s Adrian Utley.

Extras

Same goes for the extra features, which are fine enough but far outclassed by the offerings on Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood. More unfortunately, the first of the set’s two video essays—one by UCLA professor Janet Bergstrom, the other by film historian and critic Tag Gallagher—spends enough time on von Sternberg’s The Salvation Hunters to make you long for its inclusion alongside the three Paramount films featured here. Bergstrom’s thoroughly researched half-hour history lesson primarily explains the backstory behind Underworld’s unexpected, instant success; you could almost call it one of the first midnight movies, as audience demand had theaters adding screenings whenever they could get away with it. She delves into von Sternberg’s unique imagery, and reveals how he was at first supposed to be one of two “directors” on the film, focusing on artistic innovation, until the entire project became his. And she recounts superstar screenwriter Ben Hecht’s dissatisfaction with the film product, hard feelings that thawed somewhat after Hecht won the first Oscar for original writing.

It’s Gallagher, though, who really slips into von Sternberg drag to explore the relationship between artifice, performance, and cinematic effect, staying true to both the director who told actresses to count to three before blinking, and the artist who may have used light and the textures it grabs better than any silent-trained director in Hollywood. Von Sternberg himself appears in a thrashingly edited Swedish TV documentary from the late ‘60s, in which he claims, “I don’t imbue films with messages.” Anyone who’s read his brief chapter in Peter Bogdanovich’s Who the Devil Made It knows that von Sternberg gets off on taunting his interviewers, and in this set’s extensive booklet (which also features essays for each film along with Hecht’s original Underworld treatment) you find that his games apparently extended to his actors as well. A lengthy excerpt from the autobiography Fun in a Chinese Laundry showcases von Sternberg almost dazzlingly alternating between complimenting his The Last Command star Emil Jannings and excoriating him: “To direct a child is one thing, but when the youngster weighs close to three-hundred pounds it is not easy to laugh at all his pranks.”

Overall

By the measure of the films it includes alone, standing on the precipice of silent cinema’s apotheosis and a legendary visualist’s coming of age, this set is a must-own. But forgive us for wishing that Criterion would’ve pushed it to the next level it deserved, instead of merely hoisting the existing package over to Blu-ray sans improvement.

Cast: George Bancroft, Evelyn Brent, Emil Jannings, Clive Brook, Clyde Cook, Betty Compson, William Powell, Fred Kohler, Olga Baclanova, Mitchell Lewis, Helen Lynch, Larry Semon, Jack Raymond, Nicholas Soussanin, Fritz Feld Director: Josef von Sternberg Screenwriter: Robert N. Lee, John F. Goodrich, Jules Furthman, Ben Hecht, Lajos Biró Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 244 min Rating: NR Year: 1927 – 1928 Release Date: October 8, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Ritwik Ghatak’s The Cloud-Capped Star on the Criterion Collection

The wonderful audio-visual presentation of Ghatak’s masterpiece more than makes up for the dearth of extras.

3.5

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The Cloud-Capped Star

The 1947 partition of India and subsequent refugee crisis often figure into Ritwik Ghatak’s deeply felt films. The Cloud-Capped Star, his 1960 masterpiece, powerfully conveys the despair of being in a constant state of impermanence. In plumbing the inner worlds of characters living on the fringes of society and enduring myriad injustices, the Bengali filmmaker taps into something at once strange and stirring through his singular, melodramatic fusion of offbeat humor, off-kilter framing, and editing rhythms, as well as though an experimental use of sound and music that’s alternately beautiful and jarring in its disorienting effects.

In The Cloud-Capped Star, Neeta (Supriya Choudhury), a college student who helps support her family with her meager earnings as a part-time tutor, embodies the tensions between hopelessness and aspiration that pervade the refugee camp where she lives. The driving force of the story is her desire to transcend her impoverished surroundings, and to not give into the pressures of her increasingly demanding, often selfish family. A love letter from a fellow refugee, Sanat (Niranjan Ray), describes Neeta as “a cloud-capped star veiled by circumstance,” a metaphor which captures not only the feelings of helplessness brought on by poverty, but the sense that the light of Neeta’s intelligence and ambition is being dimmed by the destructiveness of her environment.

Ghatak opens the film on a lightly comic note as he introduces the members of Neeta’s family: her narcissistic, flirtatious younger sister, Geeta (Gita Ghatak); sports-obsessed younger brother, Mantu (Dwiju Bhawal); intellectual but ineffectual father (Gyanesh Mukherjee); and browbeating mother (Gita Dey). Though each in their own way has begun to exploit Neeta for money, these early interactions exude a certain playfulness, filtered as they are through the lens of a young girl’s eagerness to please at a time when her future still seems bright.

Social norms dictate that such heavy familial responsibilities should fall to her older brother, Shankar (Anil Chatterjee), but his time is spent rehearsing his singing rather than looking for a job, something he believes is “unseemly for an artist.” While Neeta willingly helps out her entire family, it’s in Shankar whom she truly places her hope and faith, believing so strongly in his talent that she wants all of his focus to remain on his training. Numerous musical interludes of Shankar practicing his singing and sitar-playing are overpowering in their beauty, and Ghatak’s decision to record the character’s vocals with an amplifying echo imparts an otherworldliness to the film. Shankar’s sublime music offers him and his sister, and by extension the audience, a respite from so much suffering, if only for a spell.

These songs give a clear sense of why Neeta would forgo so much to help Shankar succeed, but her endless self-sacrifice eventually comes at a cost. When Neeta’s father is seriously injured in a fall and can no longer work, Neeta is unwittingly forced into the role of sole breadwinner for her family, leaving her with no choice but to drop out of college. There’s a biting irony to the way Neeta’s aspirations are crushed under the weight of her obligations, while all the while her siblings’ circumstances slowly and steadily improve. But despite the callousness of Neeta’s family, Ghatak renders each of them with an empathy that accounts for their own strife, as well as their guilt over needing to rely on Neeta.

Late in the film, Neeta’s mother says that “the weight of poverty has crushed her soul,” and while one can sense her underlying regret in driving Neeta into virtual servitude, it’s also clear that she had no other choice aside from letting her family starve. For Ghatak, generosity and kindness are unsustainable in conditions of poverty, as the scarcity of resources transforms victims into victimizers, and destroys those who refuse to prey on others. It’s a tough lesson for Neeta to learn, and one that breaks her once-boundless compassion as her loved ones’ self-preservation instincts spring forth vampiric fangs that ultimately suck her dry.

Neeta’s suffering, however tragic it may be throughout the film, is an object of strange, unnerving beauty for Ghatak. The filmmaker uses dense soundscapes to amplify her sense of disconnection and disorientation and striking compositions to encapsulate the epic scale of her downfall. In the scene where she learns that Geeta has made romantic moves on Sanat and snapped him up for herself, Ghatak pushes the camera in on a coyly smiling Geeta, before then sliding it over to the heartbroken Neeta, framing her in close-up, with a raging fire outside filling the right side of the frame. Other shots, such as a duet between Neeta and Shankar before he leaves to make it big, frame her in extreme low-angle shots or in close-up from only the eyes up, intensifying her anguish by almost distorting her facial features.

But it’s in the final sequence, when Shankar visits Neeta as she’s recovering in a remote hillside, where Ghatak’s aural and visual strategies combine in the most spectacular of fashions. As Shankar tells her of their family’s reversal of fortune, Neeta says, “I wanted to live! I want to live!” And as the camera spins around and captures the nearby hillside, her voice reverberates throughout her surroundings, it’s as if the landscape were absorbing and projecting her pain and sorrow. It’s a harrowing moment of despair, an expressionistic protest against the dehumanization of poverty that Ghatak elevates to the level of myth.

Image/Sound

Criterion’s transfer of a new 2K digital restoration is impressive, boasting an extremely detailed picture. Which is to say, it’s a quantum leap forward from BFI’s 2002 DVD release, the only physical media release of The Cloud-Capped Star until now. The contrast on this release is particularly of note, especially in the film’s latter half, where characters become increasingly shrouded in deep, inky black shadows or bathed in pools of light. The image is consistently sharp and almost completely free of damage and debris, lending a newfound depth and clarity to the film’s impoverished settings and its vividly drawn characters. But as fantastic as the new restoration looks, it’s the uncompressed monaural soundtrack that really steals the show, bringing Ghatak’s unique melding of classical Indian songs, heightened sounds of nature, and strange, ambient non-diegetic sounds to life through a dense, richly varied mix.

Extras

The sole extra here is a 30-minute conversation between filmmakers Saeed Akhtar Mirza and Kumar Shahani in which the two men, both students of Ghatak’s, speak of their mentor’s depictions of the rootlessness of refugees following the 1947 partition of India and his unique flair for melodrama. They also recount stories of Ghatak’s teaching days, when he was often drunk and depressed, yet still able to pass on his cinematic knowledge and humanistic outlook on life. The disc also comes with a foldout booklet with an essay by film scholar Ira Bhaskar, who provides an abundance of cultural context for the film’s narrative and ties Ghatak’s use of Indian mythology to his embracing of traditional melodrama.

Overall

Criterion’s wonderful audio-visual presentation of Ritwik Ghatak’s masterpiece more than makes up for this release’s dearth of extras.

Cast: Supriya Choudhury, Anil Chatterjee, Gyanesh Mukherjee, Gita Dey, Gita Ghatak, Dwiju Bhawal, Niranjan Ray, Bijon Bhattacharya Director: Ritwik Ghatak Screenwriter: Ritwik Ghatak, Samiran Dutta Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 127 min Rating: NR Year: 1960 Release Date: September 10, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Lucille Carra’s The Inland Sea on the Criterion Collection

Criterion honors the beauty of this evocative film poem of a Japan that may be slipping away.

4.5

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The Insland Sea

To call Donald Richie’s The Inland Sea a travelogue would be an understatement. In his 1971 book, Richie details his experiences living in Japan, especially his preoccupation with the Seto Inland Sea, which he describes as a “landlocked, lakelike body of water bounded by three of Japan’s four major islands” that would stretch in another part of the world from “Little Rock to Dallas.” But travelogues often inform straightforwardly, while Richie’s writing is obsessive and poetic, his prose achieving a sing-song rhythm that embodies in itself the tranquility for which the author yearns. The lean, mysterious The Inland Sea renders Japan a mirror reflecting a solitary traveler’s soul—a traveler who mourns the loss of cultural specificity to capitalism.

Lucille Carra’s 1991 film adaptation embraces the narrative freedom of its source, wandering the islands of the Inland Sea and riffing on various qualities of land, air, water, Shinto shrines, and the differences between the rural country—especially the fishermen’s communities—and bustling cities such as Tokyo and Kyoto. Carra fashions images of startling beauty, filming them with a directness that reflects the accomplished succinctness of Richie’s prose. In certain scenes, the Inland Sea suggests a great, blue mirror, embodying the autobiographical myopia of Richie’s book. In other sequences, the sea resembles a gleaming and ever-shifting prism, embodying the stillness of time that Richie expressed via a metaphor that isn’t in the film: a shrine that’s torn down and rebuilt every 20 years in order to resist the ravages of age.

Just as travelogue is an imprecise descriptor for Richie’s book, the free-associative film that Carra has made from it isn’t exactly a documentary. In their respective work, Richie and Carra embrace a kind of atomic structure, savoring the pleasure of the isolated sentence and the isolated image or sequence. In both the book and the film, one feels the pleasure that’s taken in observing details, such as the richness of quotidian experience, and rendering them immaculately. In the film, monkeys wander island landscapes with a grace that speaks to Richie’s longing for isolation, while cats linger in the trees, and we see boats as they drift along the sea, exploring a body of water that Richie likens, in its dimensions, to a great river. Bright red shrines dot the landscapes, their streamlined architecture suggesting spiritual fulfillment.

Carra’s The Inland Sea has something that Richie’s book does not: the author’s speaking voice. In the film, Richie reads selected portions of his prose, and his rich, haunted diction completes his writing, dramatizing his joy over Japan’s beauty and his despair over encroaching commercialism—over impersonal hotels, pollution, bustling city life modeled after the conditioned desires of tourists. There’s a reactionary quality in Richie’s writing and voice performance, as he very much believes in the purity of isolated country life. In this belief, there’s an irony that Richie and Carra haven’t reckoned with: If we are to be isolationists, we are to deny ourselves of the pleasure that Richie knows as a longtime inhabitant of Japan.

Carra and Richie offer a purposefully self-absorbed vision, a white man’s poetic reality of a foreign land that has limits in the film. There is, in particular, one huge missed opportunity: the 20 years that have elapsed between the publication of the book and the production of the film have barely been accounted for. In an epilogue, Carra documents Richie as he was at the moment, in which he acknowledges that his fear of losing the Inland Sea to globalization hasn’t been entirely realized. Otherwise, the ensuing years and the perspective they can potentially offer are ignored. In his book, Richie correctly diagnoses the danger of modern travel and social unity of tamping down cultural differences, and his validation of country life has an existential majesty. Carra pictorially complements Richie’s writing but doesn’t further it, as she recaptures a 1970s-era perspective. Her respect limits her sense of invention. Carra’s The Inland Sea is an adaptation, though perhaps it should’ve been a sequel.

Image/Sound

The Criterion Collection has outfitted The Inland Sea with a characteristically gorgeous transfer. The image has vibrant colors, especially the blues and whites of the sea and the reds of the Shinto shrines. There’s also a healthy, attractive amount of grain to the image, and clarity is superb. The soundtrack has a robust soundstage, abounding in subtly immersive details, such as the rustling of monkeys through a field or the lapping of waves. This transfer affirms an obvious intention of Lucille Carra’s film: to establish a visceral sense of place, and to inform said place with detail and romantic majesty.

Extras

This is a slim but informative supplements package. In a new interview, recorded for Criterion in 2019, Carra discusses her attraction to Donald Richie’s 1971 book, detailing how its beauty and intimacy resonated with her. In another new interview, critic and filmmaker Paul Schrader and critic Ian Buruma discuss their personal experiences with Richie, who was monumental in nurturing American audiences’ familiarity with Japanese cinema. (Schrader remembers a “kindness” that Richie paid him, which was a response to letters of inquiry that began a correspondence.) Best of all, there’s an interview with Richie that Carra shot in 1991, which revels in the writer’s gift for speaking in poetry. Richie discusses Japan in his typically beautiful style, complementing the film that Carra has made from his work. Finally, there’s a booklet with a lovely, contextualizing essay by novelist Arturo Silva.

Overall

Criterion honors the beauty of this evocative film poem of a Japan that may be slipping away.

Director: Lucille Carra Screenwriter: Donald Richie, Lucille Carra Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 56 min Rating: NR Year: 1991 Release Date: August 13, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Robert Fuest’s And Soon the Darkness on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

Fuest’s taut thriller makes its debut on Blu-ray with a beautiful new transfer and a couple of choice extras.

4

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And Soon the Darkness

Robert Fuest’s And Soon the Darkness is a taut, precision-crafted Hitchcockian thriller, drawing particular inspiration from one of the master of suspense’s most famous sequences: the crop-duster scene in North by Northwest. Like that now-classic set piece, Fuest’s film builds an escalating sense of menace and imminent danger from a confrontation with a location’s wide open spaces and bright sunshine. Only here the setting is rural France, and we’re accompanying two English girls on an ill-fated cycling holiday.

The film’s setup is archetypal. In addition to being proverbial strangers in a strange land, Jane (Pamela Franklin) and Cathy (Michele Dotrice) are a temperamentally mismatched pair. Jane is rigid and regimented, maybe even a trifle priggish, while Cathy’s more freewheeling and open to the possibilities around her. And Soon the Darkness establishes the dynamic of their relationship right out of the gate, under the opening credits, before the audience has even heard a single line of dialogue: Jane suddenly swerves off onto a side road and Cathy, after realizing what’s happened, backtracks and dutifully follows her friend.

The young women’s attitudes toward the opposite sex are also neatly established by visually rhymed sequences: When Jane rides by a trio of policemen who openly admire her, her downcast eyes and wry smile telegraph her prim-and-proper demeanor. Passing a darkly handsome fellow on a moped, Cathy stops in the middle of the road and does a protracted, frankly voracious double take. The fact that the girls work as nurses in an obstetrics ward, and later discuss the death of a newborn, only adds to the queasy atmosphere of sexuality and its possibly unpleasant consequences that hangs over the film.

Cathy abruptly goes missing at about the 40-minute mark, after the girls separate owing to an argument over their itinerary, in a narrative move that clearly echoes, not so coincidentally, Hitchcock’s Psycho. The rest of the film has Jane frantically cycling along the same lonely stretch of road between two remote villages, with stops at the ominous copse of woods where Cathy disappeared. Along the way, Jane encounters a handful of off-kilter characters, each of whom provides a convenient sort of red herring for the proceedings.

Foremost among them is the aforementioned moped rider, Paul (Sandor Elès), who offers to help find Cathy, claiming to be an officer in the French Sûreté. Elès plays the character on the fine edge between solicitous and potentially dangerous. And then an expat British schoolmarm (Clare Kelly), who may have a more than protective interest in Jane, warns her about a homicide that occurred on the same stretch of road three years before. “It was more than murder,” the woman practically purrs, “if you know what I mean.”

Fuest augments the film’s aura of unease through precise framing and a sinuously mobile camera, often using Fordian shots to emphasize the wide, flat expanses of the countryside, effectively isolating a lone figure against the immense backdrop of all that open space. Alternately, he favors extreme close-ups, in the vein of Sergio Leone, that play up a character’s discomfort upon finding themselves in an uncertain, often dangerously confined space.

And Soon the Darkness climaxes in a dazzlingly mounted game of three-way cat-and-mouse set among a clutch of abandoned buses and mobile homes. Cinematographer Ian Wilson gets to deploy some seriously noirish shadow play, and there’s even a moment that eerily presages a similar scene in John Carpenter’s Halloween. The ultimate revelation of the killer’s identity, whether or not it comes as a complete surprise, cleverly plays into the era’s profound distrust of authority figures. And the film’s penultimate shot conveys an unexpected pang of melancholy, before the ending effectively circles back around to the film’s beginning in a manner that confers a gratifying sense of open-endedness.

Image/Sound

Kino Lorber debuts a new 4K master of And Soon the Darkness that looks positively smashing, with the vibrant greens of the landscape and the primary hues of the girls’ clothing really popping in HD. The Master Audio stereo track is very good, with no hiss or distortion apparent, clearly conveying the dialogue—including passages in French that remain untranslated to help augment the film’s atmosphere of alienation. Laurie Johnson’s terrific score modulates from the incongruously jaunty title track (which is cleverly reprised at a later point on Cathy’s portable radio) to lots of ominously fluttering flutes and staccato string effects later in the film that owe a clear debt to Bernard Herrmann’s work for Hitchcock.

Extras

The archival commentary track by director Robert Fuest and co-writer and producer Brian Clemens, moderated by Jonathan Sothcott, covers the autobiographical experiences and archetypal fears that fed into the screenplay, the decision to extend the location shoot in order to maximize the film’s broody verisimilitude, casting choices (Clemens comes down pretty hard—and pretty unfairly—on Elès in particular), as well as more technical information about decisions regarding lighting, blocking and camera movement. There’s much discussion about most members of the crew transitioning directly from the TV series The Avengers to this film, and an intriguing digression into Fuest’s subsequent involvement with American International Pictures on the Dr. Phibes movies. All told, it’s an engaging, informative, frequently wryly humorous listen. The second, newly commissioned commentary track by film historian Troy Howarth opens with some personal comments about his first exposure to the film, then goes on to pay particular attention to the career trajectories of the cast and crew. Howarth makes a cogent argument for And Soon the Darkness as a quasi-giallo thriller with just a touch of the proto-slasher film about it. As usual, Howarth is an articulate, often opinionated guide.

Overall

Robert Fuest’s taut Hitchcockian thriller makes its debut on Blu-ray with a beautiful new transfer and a couple of choice extras.

Cast: Pamela Franklin, Michele Dotrice, Sandor Elès, John Nettleton, Clare Kelly, Hana Maria Pravda, John Franklyn, Claude Bertrand, Jean Carmet Director: Robert Fuest Screenwriter: Brian Clemens, Terry Nation Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 99 min Rating: PG Year: 1970 Buy: Video

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Review: Pixar’s Toy Story 4 on Disney Blu-ray with Alternate Ending

Pixar’s superfluous but characteristically touching epilogue for its flagship franchise gets an equally fond send-off on home video.

3.5

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Toy Story 4

It’s probably uncontroversial to claim that Toy Story’s Woody (Tom Hanks), a flawed leader whose genuine concern for his compatriots intermingles with a narcissistic streak that can get him and his fellow toys into trouble, is one of the great characters in the history of cinema. That this animate, outdated cowboy toy continues to feel just as compelling and just as layered and relatable four entries into this series is a major achievement, and speaks not only to the dedication of his creators, but also to the strength of his original conceptualization. While other Pixar sequels have run their concepts and characters into the ground, or cheapened them for laughs, the Toy Story sequels have remained true to Woody, even deepening his character by finding new existential crises to throw him into.

Toy Story 4, though, finds the series suffering from brand fatigue. While prior entries put new spins on the fear of obsolescence that drove Woody in the original Toy Story, this film is a compendium of elements from its predecessors. We’ve already witnessed Woody desperately try to regain the love of a child, intentionally become a “lost toy” in order to chase down a missing friend, escape from monstrous (but probably just misunderstood) toys, and face the temptation of a new life outside of a child’s toy box. That all of these moments recur in Toy Story 4 is one reason the film doesn’t quite pack the emotional weight of its precursors.

Gifted to a new, preschool-age child, Bonnie, at the end of the last film, Woody opens Toy Story 4 having fallen from his treasured position as the favorite toy. Your typical preschool girl, after all, has little interest in a cowboy toy from “the late ‘50s, I think,” as Woody recounts his own vague origins. Wistful for his days with Andy, his previous owner, Woody tries to insert himself into Bonnie’s (now voiced by Madeleine McGraw) life by sneaking into her backpack on the first day of kindergarten. And it’s there that he witnesses her crafting her new beloved toy: a spork with googly eyes and pipe-cleaner arms she calls Forky (Tony Hale).

Forky is a terrible toy insofar as he has no desire to be a toy at all; a very funny recurring gag early in Josh Cooley’s film sees the toy repeatedly trying to throw himself in the trash, where he feels that he belongs. Woody gloms onto Forky, partially out of genuine concern for his and Bonnie’s well-being, and partially as a way of maintaining a connection to the little girl. And when Forky goes missing during a family vacation, Woody ventures out on his own to retrieve the haphazardly assembled toy and return him to the family RV.

Forky is as familiar as the other toys that populate the Toy Story universe: Many children have made small avatars of themselves out of popsicle sticks and plastic bits and invested far too much emotion in it. As a character, Forky doesn’t hold much all that much water, his development from trash to toy more a gimmick than a fully textured character arc. Wisely, though, Toy Story 4 damsels Forky, so to speak, as Woody must engineer a way to rescue him from the clutches of a malicious talking baby doll named Gaby (Christina Hendricks).

Gaby and her army of unsettling, limp-limbed ventriloquist dummies rule over an antique shop that Woody and Forky pass through on their way back to the RV park. A lonely toy discarded decades earlier because of a defective voicebox, Gaby kidnaps Forky to extort from Woody a part of his drawstring-powered sound mechanism. To break into the cabinet where Gaby is holding the sentient spork, Woody must assemble a team of allies that includes Bo Peep (Annie Potts), whom he finds living on her own in the RV park as a lost toy, and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen). Woody and Bo Peep rekindle their (G-rated) feelings for each other as they recruit the daredevil action figure Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) and the plush carnival-prize dolls Bunny and Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele) to help retrieve Forky.

Among the familiar elements here is the abandoned and resentful toy as a villain who holds the heroes hostage, which easily invites comparison to Lee Unkrich’s brilliant Toy Story 3. It’s a comparison that doesn’t favor the new film, which isn’t as impactful in terms of story or image. Cooley’s direction is fluid, seamlessly interweaving the fun escapades and the earnest emotions, but it lacks the visual power of the prior film. There’s no equivalent to the moment in Toy Story 3 when, headed into a blazing incinerator, Woody and his friends silently grasp hands, taking comfort in one another as they face their ends head-on.

So, as well-told and emotionally effective as Toy Story 4 is, it’s difficult not to believe the third film would have functioned better as a send-off to these beloved characters. In fact, Toy Story 3 might as well have been a send-off for everybody but Woody, as the new and potentially final entry relegates the traditional supporting cast of the Toy Story films—Rex (Wallace Shawn), Hamm (John Ratzenberger), Jesse (Joan Cusack), Slinky Dog (Blake Clark)—to the background. Even Buzz is reduced to dopey comic relief, pressing the buttons on his chest to activate the pre-recorded messages he now misunderstands as his “inner voice.” Toy Story 4 is very much a Woody story. His gradual acceptance of his new position in life and his reconnection with Bo Peep are moving, and it’s still remarkable how much Pixar can make us identify with a toy. But for the first time, a Toy Story film feels a bit like it’s resting on its plastic laurels.

Image/Sound

Disney’s Blu-ray immaculately highlights everything from the incredibly detailed rendering of raindrops in the opening sequence to the subtle refractions of light off of the porcelain characters’ bodies. The exaggerated hues of all the film’s toys are vibrantly rendered, and they really pop against the naturalistic backdrops, which display subtler color variations. Throughout, textures are so precise that it’s almost impossible to miss the smallest of details, such as the stitching on Woody’s sewn clothes and the signs of age and wear on plastic faces. The disc comes with both 7.1 and 5.1 mixes (curiously defaulting to the latter), and both ably balance the film’s dialogue, sound effects, and score. Surprisingly, both tracks err on the side of being too quiet, necessitating an occasional adjustment of volume that then has to be turned down again during the film’s more sonically antic scenes. Even in these moments, however, each element of the soundtrack is distributed evenly in all channels.

Extras

An audio commentary with director Josh Cooley and producer Mark Nielsen abounds in copious information about the film’s narrative and technical construction, such as the revelation that the opening sequence alone accounted for half of its effects budget. The rest of the Blu-ray is given over to the usual slew of themed featurettes that approach various topics of the production, though in this case the focus is less on the technical aspects of the film than a nostalgic look back at the Toy Story franchise. Even the featurettes that tackle the film’s animation do so through the prism of how much more the technical team could do with some of Pixar’s first characters, and one video involves the voice actors reminiscing about their own favorite childhood toys. A handful of deleted scenes, presented in various stages of storyboard images and partial animation, slightly extend some of the scenes in the final cut, and a brief rundown of new characters and the film’s carnival centerpiece are also included.

Overall

Pixar’s superfluous but characteristically touching epilogue for its flagship franchise gets an equally fond send-off on home video with a solid AV transfer and nostalgic extras.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Tony Hale, Christina Hendricks, Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, Annie Potts, Keanu Reeves, Jay Hernandez, Wallace Shawn, Joan Cusack, Don Rickles, Jeff Garlin, Laurie Metcalf, John Ratzenberger Director: Josh Cooley Screenwriter: Andrew Stanton, Stephany Folsom Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Release Date: October 15, 2019 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Blu-ray Review: Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero on the Criterion Collection

Forsyth’s whimsical but satirical masterpiece contains riches far deeper than its deceptively simple surface might suggest.

4.5

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Local Hero

Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero has a lighthearted tone that belies the sharpness of its social and class-conscious comedy. It begins in Houston, with Knox Oil executive “Mac” MacIntyre (Peter Riegert) tasked with having to convince the residents of Ferness, a seaside Scottish village, to sell their land in order to make way for a refinery. Mac gets the job for no other reason than his superiors, among them the company’s chief, Happer (Burt Lancaster), think that his name will appeal to locals. As Mac is briefed about the job, he’s told that he cannot use his usual tactics of merely negotiating a quick land sale via a phone call to individuals from more impoverished nations. After all, the Scots look like him, and as such will require a modicum of respect that the oil company has clearly not extended to anyone whose first language is something other than English.

Dispatched to Ferness, Mac is set up from the start to play the urban, bloodthirsty capitalist determined to oust eccentric villagers from their quaint family homes. Yet Forsyth flips that script almost from the outset, showing how quickly Mac is smitten with the natural beauty of the area and plugs into the slower-paced life style there, while the locals hilariously jump at the chance to get a massive buyout from an oil conglomerate, feigning disinterest solely to drive up their asking price. This inversion of expectations forms the bedrock of Local Hero’s wry comedy, which sees Mac increasingly wracked with guilt over potentially expelling people who he comes to like from their homes, and those very people talking among themselves about all the luxuries they intend to buy with their settlement money.

Local Hero’s comedy is subtle, predicated on dramatic irony and the restrained games that both Mac and the Scots play with each other. That sense of humor, all insinuation and gesture, often plays out visually, from gags that take aim at Mac’s obliviousness—as in a scene where he converses with one local in the foreground and fails to notice dozens of residents leaving the church behind him—to the exaggerated gestures of Lancaster’s oilman, whose body language communicates both his authoritarian command and his quirky distractedness.

The man’s eccentricity is most apparent in his overriding interest in star-gazing, a subject that he takes such a keen interest in that, in addition to charging Mac with buying out the people of Ferness, he also instructs his employee to “keep an eye on Virgo” and alert him of any potential comet sightings. For an oil tycoon, Happer is oddly affable, though the extent to which the entirety of Local Hero follows forth from both his commercial and hobbyist whims is another of Forsyth’s clever structural tricks, recasting the protagonist’s journey as one not of self-discovery or reflection but of catering to the true powers that be.

Even the film’s ending, perhaps too tweely fanciful from a distance, fails to follow the expected path of Mac’s arc. For if Local Hero ends happily, it does so for nearly everyone except Mac, whose mission is successful yet benefits everyone but himself. It’s a sly critique on Forsyth’s part of the unequal rewards of labor, as Mac does all the work but ends up the middleman of his own story. Local Hero’s unhurried pace, pleasingly odd cast, and moments of gorgeous pastoralism gives it a lightweight, effervescent quality, but the barbed undercurrent of its social critique makes Forsyth’s intimate comedy one of the most insightful films of the 1980s.

Image/Sound

Chris Menges’s cinematography looks resplendent on Criterion’s Blu-ray, which is sourced from a 2K restoration by Goldcrest Films. The skies in the natural location shots pulse with the most vivid of blue hues, while the exaggerated lighting and color schemes that mark the film’s interiors shine just as brightly. There are no visible scratches or debris throughout, and the depth of image detail testifies to the carefully composed beauty of such an ostensibly innocuous, small-scaled comedy. The mono soundtrack ably balancing dialogue with songwriter Mark Knopfler’s score, which is mixed dynamically in order to reveal its careful blending of Celtic folk, laidback jazz, and the occasional burst of rock.

Extras

An audio commentary with Forsyth and critic Mark Kermode is heavy on production details while also, true to the film’s wandering spirit, prone to diversions and wistful appreciations of Local Hero’s subtler visual and verbal jokes. An interview with Forsyth and critic David Cairns gives an overview of the film’s themes and formal elements, which the director reveals were celebrated by no less an authority than Michael Powell. The rest of the extras consist of archival interviews and documentaries on Forsyth, Chris Menges, and Local Hero, each running nearly an hour in length and extensively covering the production, from the film’s writing to its critical and commercial success. Each of these features, recorded mostly in the space between the releases of Local Hero and Comfort and Joy, testify to the seismic impact of Forsyth’s breakout films on the Scottish film industry. An accompanying booklet contains an essay by film scholar Jonathan Murray that likewise analyzes Local Hero as well as the broader outlines of Forsyth’s career and its popularization of Scottish cinema.

Overall

Bill Forsyth’s whimsical but satirical masterpiece contains riches far deeper than its deceptively simple surface might suggest, and Criterion’s Blu-ray, with its superb A/V transfer and wealth of extras, pays tribute to this small film’s profound influence.

Cast: Peter Riegert, Burt Lancaster, Denis Lawson, Peter Capaldi, Fulton Mackay, Jenny Seagrove Director: Bill Forsyth Screenwriter: Bill Forsyth Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 113 min Rating: PG Year: 1983 Release Date: September 24, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus on the Criterion Collection

The film remains a hilarious, inventive, and moving paean to the vaudevillian era.

4

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The Circus

The film that most definitively silences critics who claim that Charlie Chaplin’s movies aren’t cinematic, The Circus is a great elegy to the lost art of music-hall pantomime and, for that matter, the soon-to-be lost art of silent-film comedy. Production on this most underrated of Chaplin’s silent features wrapped three days after the premiere of Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer. And yet, though the writing was on the wall that the silent clowns’ days were numbered, The Circus never feels maudlin or self-pitying like Chaplin’s later Limelight, where he mourns not the end of a particular aesthetic, but the very loss of his audience. This is impressive, because the circus has become, in the hands of other filmmakers like Cecil B. DeMille and Federico Fellini, a site of calculated emotional manipulation, a setting where directors tweak our feelings with the subtlety of ringmasters cracking their whips.

The Circus is the most distant of Chaplin’s silent features, even existential in its portrayal of the Tramp, who ends the film in circumstances pretty much unchanged from where he starts. One sequence, in which Chaplin pursues a thief to a Noah’s Ark amusement ride is particularly Keaton-esque in the way he limits his behavior to appear like an animatronic prop, only mechanically beating his foe with a cane every few seconds, when he, as a clockwork figurine, would be able to. An homage to his earlier, more gag-driven one- and two-reelers, the film lacks a conventional plot, but is rather a pearl necklace of strung-together episodes, each built around gags that snowball almost to the point of flying off the screen.

The Tramp, unfairly accused of stealing, is chased into the middle of a circus performance, where he unintentionally wows the crowd and lands a job as a clown. Chaplin strings together several great set pieces, but two in particular really stand out. In the first, the Tramp, having swallowed a massive horse pill, is chased across the circus lot by a donkey and inadvertently seeks refuge in a sleeping lion’s cage, and when he turns to leave, the door locks behind him. He tries to crawl into the next cage, but that one’s holding a very-awake tiger. The ringmaster’s stepdaughter (Merna Kennedy) stops by and, before fainting from the very idea of where he’s trapped, opens the door. Trying to impress her, he stays in the cage acting like he’s not scared—until the lion roars and the Tramp finally comes charging out.

The second great sequence involves the Tramp’s attempt to woo the ringmaster’s stepdaughter by showing her that he can stroll the high-wire as fluidly as her beloved tightrope walker, Rex (Harry Crocker). The Tramp’s already arranged it so that he’ll be tethered the whole time, since he has no actual tightrope-walking experience, but, of course, as soon as he gets up there, the tether breaks. A pack of wild monkeys accidentally set free earlier climb up to the tightrope and start crawling all over him, one sticking his tale in the Tramp’s mouth, another biting his nose. To make matters worse, he starts losing his clothes. It took Chaplin 700 takes to get this sequence exactly right, and it shows. Building these gags as much in the editing room as in front of the camera, Chaplin allows not one second of wasted screen time.

Of course, the audience at the circus—and at the movie theater—eats it up, because the comedy is completely unexpected. When the Tramp purposefully tries to be funny, he’s not; when he doesn’t try, he is. Some of the gags he puts on display, like the William Tell joke, would formerly have captivated the moviegoing audience even just a decade before. Now, Chaplin, along with Henry Bergman as an outmoded clown in the commedia dell’arte tradition, aims to show how such a joke in its basic form, can’t work for the more story-hungry audience of the late ‘20s, because they’ve seen it all before. The jokes that ‘20s audiences would appreciate would be more visual in nature, like a dazzling sequence in which the Tramp is pursued into a hall of mirrors, inspiring all of the great funhouse scenes in the future, from the climax of Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai to Tonino Valerii’s My Name Is Nobody.

Unable to reinvent himself, the Tramp is left behind at the end, alone in the center of the circle where the Big Top once stood. He doesn’t project sadness at this moment, but acceptance that his fate has brought him back once more to obscurity. Chaplin employs the circle as the primary motif of his film, from the very opening shot of a paper hoop through which the ringmaster’s daughter emerges, to the trapeze rings that support her in the air during the opening song “Swing Little Girl,” to the rotating treadmill platform on which Chaplin attempts to flee a policeman, to the circle he finds himself sitting within at the end. He’s back where he started, but when he leaves the circle at the end, and the iris closes in on him, it is as if, like Monica Vitti’s exit from the screen at the end of L’Eclisse, his existence ceases entirely.

There’s no room for this version of the Tramp in a world without the music hall, without silent film, just as practitioners of other art forms—whether radio dramatists or hand-drawn animators—have found themselves at the height of their skills but without a medium. Indeed, though Chaplin kicked and screamed his way into the sound era, elements of sound design are crucial to City Lights and Modern Times, if even to just highlight his self-conscious absence of sound. But, for one last time, in The Circus, words didn’t matter.

Image/Sound

Since no known original prints or camera negatives of The Circus still exist, the new 4K restoration of the film was sourced from a 35mm duplicate negative of the silent classic’s 1969 reissue. The image appears a tad on the soft side, particularly in wide shots, but details are still clearly visible deep in the frame, as in the famed funhouse mirror sequence where dozens of Charlie Chaplin’s reflections share the screen. Most signs of damage and debris have also been removed, and there’s an even grain distribution that helps retain a textured, film-like look. The uncompressed, monaural soundtrack obviously comes into play only through The Circus’s music, but it more than serviceably captures the melancholy tone of Chaplin’s opening song and the lilting, waltz-like qualities of much of the film’s score.

Extras

Criterion never skimps on the extras when it comes to one of their releases of a Chaplin film. The most substantial of these features is the new audio commentary by Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance, who efficiently details the film’s storied and highly troubled production history and Chaplin’s meticulous shooting process, which involved countless retakes and reworkings of sight gags to achieve what he saw as the perfect result. Vance also discusses the film’s self-reflexive techniques and Chaplin’s extensive use of in-camera, split-screen effects to capture the most dangerous stunts. The featurette “In the Service of Story” delves further into the technical manner in which Chaplin achieved these effects, with film scholar Craig Barron not only describing how the matte technique worked but demonstrating it on an era-specific camera similar to the one Chaplin used to shoot The Circus.

Perhaps the most essential extra here is a deleted sequence, wherein the Tramp confronts a bullying prizefighter, that was cut together by film archivists Kevin Brownlow and David Gill. The 30-minute breakdown of outtakes from this sequence by comedy choreographer Dan Kamin demonstrates Chaplin’s magnificent sense of scene construction, achieved through improvisation and subtle shifts in blocking and timing from one take to the next. A short 2003 documentary, “Chaplin Today: The Circus,” tracks the genesis and evolution of several gags and narrative beats as they evolved from bits in Chaplin shorts to full scenes in The Circus.

The remaining extras include an interview with Eugene Chaplin, the fifth child of Chaplin and Oona O’Neill, footage from the film’s Los Angeles premiere at the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, the original audio recording of “Swing Little Girl,” and an audio interview with Eric James, who worked with Chaplin to create the additional music for the film’s 1969 rerelease. Pamela Hutchinson’s essay “The Circus: The Tramp in the Mirror” teases out the film’s extensive use of doubles and discusses how Chaplin’s personal troubles affected the filming, as well as how the arrival of the sound era lends a melancholy tinge to the film.

Overall

Criterion presents a beautiful release of Chaplin’s most slyly self-referential film, which remains a hilarious, inventive, and moving paean to the vaudevillian era.

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Merna Kennedy, Al Ernest Garcia, Harry Crocker, George Davis, Henry Bergman, Tiny Sandford Director: Charlie Chaplin Screenwriter: Charlie Chaplin Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 72 min Rating: NR Year: 1928 Release Date: September 24, 2019 Buy: Video

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