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DVD Review: The Lone Gunmen: The Complete Series

3.5

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The Lone Gunmen: The Complete Series

For all its reliance on ribald slapstick humor and dissonant Sturges-like pratfalls, The Lone Gunmen series is finally exemplified by an overwhelming sense of defeat. “I know you and your friends are fighting for the American dream. Just don’t expect to win,” says Bertram Byers (George Coe) to his son John Fitzgerald Byers (Bruce Harwood)—one-third of the titular trio that also includes Richard “Ringo” Langley (Dean Haglund) and Melvin Frohike (Tom Braidwood)—in the series’s “Pilot” episode. His sentiment prefigures the group’s ultimate fate (killed off defending the country they love in a ninth-season episode of The X-Files) though it also acts as a verbal distillation of the thematic backbone that unites The Lone Gunmen with the three other Chris Carter-produced series (The X-Files, Millennium, and Harsh Realm) that came of age during, commented on, and critiqued the über-paranoid Clinton era.

Each series is defined by a grim and fatalistic narrative arc that ends with their respective lead characters dead, on the run, or stuck in perpetual limbo, conclusions not always dictated by creative choice as Carter’s work was so often subject to the business-obsessed pitfalls of network television. Yet, in retrospect, the four shows’ complementary, ultimately pessimistic tenor appears more or less intentional, with the nine-season long X-Files acting as an encompassing membrane within which the actions (both literal and thematic) of its three sister series consistently circle and collide. As such, The X-Files’ bittersweet hotel room finale—in which Carter’s ever-elusive, multifaceted “Truth” is finally revealed via a declaration of hope between two people facing dour and inevitable certainties—effectively sums up the profound sense of individualist struggle inherent to Carter’s televisual quartet, though where the other series treat their various themes with the utmost solemnity, The Lone Gunmen prides itself on offering up more broadly comic visualizations.

It should be pointed out that the Gunmen were initially the creations of writers Glen Morgan and James Wong, who introduced the trio in the first season X-Files episode “E.B.E.” and, during that series’s fourth season, nearly killed off Frohike at the end of the seriocomic “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man.” Show producer Frank Spotnitz and several other staff members registered their dislike of this ending and rumors still abound that the footage of Frohike’s death was intentionally “lost,” paving the way for insertion of the now alternate conclusion where he survives. Spotnitz has since admitted in interview and commentary (at times stated within this set) that he saw potential franchise opportunities in the trio, and at its worst The Lone Gunmen spin-off series reeks of the misguided acumen of the monetarily-minded.

More often, the 13-episode series is a wildly uneven enterprise, fluctuating between philosophical complexity and juvenile simplicity to such an extent that it might best be explained as first-year jitters that would have been tamed in subsequent seasons. Indeed, two of the series’s later episodes (“Tango de los Pistoleros” and “All About Yves”) are clear masterpieces that hint at the superb emotional balance of comedy and tragedy that might have been. From a conceptual standpoint, the preceding episodes are never less than daring, an eclectic grab bag of everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink moments that include a blind football league, villainous German hausfraus, midget wrestling, and a super-smart chimp with the high-falutin’ vocal intonations of that forever Equalizer, Edward Woodward.

The only complete and painful failure is, surprisingly, Carter’s solo-scripting effort “Three Men and a Smoking Diaper,” a two-years-too-late Clinton parody that trades in flat-footed flatulence and urination gags to distract from its sentimentalized view of the American political process. Funny that this installment follows the superb “Like Water for Octane,” in which even the shopworn “that’s not a cow, that’s a bull” jest takes on some deep-felt multilayers; it shows that even the lowest comedy, with the right execution, can offer incisive commentary on the world we live in.

Incisive doesn’t even begin to describe The Lone Gunmen’s most controversial narrative element. Originally aired during the spring of 2001 (and shot nearly a year before airdate), the series’s “Pilot” concerns a plot by government-funded terrorists to remote-fly a plane into New York City’s World Trade Center. Carter’s creations have always possessed something of a freakish clairvoyance (much in the way that life and art often parasitically feed one off of the other), but the sheer similarities, in this case, between the fictional and the actual make for particularly discomfiting viewing, offering up a vision of an alternate universe where a real-world tragedy is miraculously averted at the last second. It might have been offensive in retrospect were it not for Carter’s characteristic preference for quiet heroes, persons—like The Lone Gunmen—who give willingly of themselves for a great moral good while consistently being denied any recognition of their efforts.

Like The X-Files’ Mulder and Scully, Millennium’s Frank Black, or Harsh Realm’s Hobbes and Pinocchio, The Lone Gunmen are unlikely heroes who remain marginalized even in victory and so must find solace within themselves and with each other. A key scene in the “Pilot” has Byers and Frohike conversing and reminiscing among junkyard wreckage, an image that emphasizes the oppressive historical weight that burdens many a Carter protagonist, each surrounded in their lonely presents by numerous pasts discarded or never explored, and facing a future that (aside from an inevitable mortality) remains forever, frustratingly uncertain.

Image/Sound

The Lone Gunmen comes to DVD on three double-sided single-layer discs, with all episodes presented in a 1.78:1 anamorphic aspect ratio. Consider this my penultimate mention of that atrocious transfer of the “Triangle” episode on The X-Files – The Complete Sixth Season and happily note that The Lone Gunmen in no way falls victim to the ignorant whims of the Fox Video department. (Will you cheap corporate shills just remaster the damned episode ferchrissakes?) The English and Spanish Dolby Surround audio tracks do ample justice to the show’s many comedic stinger sound effects, and the Jimi Hendrix-sampling theme song simply stirs the soul and rocks the eardrums! Also offered are English closed captions, as well as English and Spanish subtitles.

Extras

First up is The X-Files episode “Jump the Shark,” a much disliked series finale for The Lone Gunmen that this critic finds more or less superb, taking, as it does, Carter’s obsession with quiet, selfless heroes to a bitter, yet profoundly tragic end. Audio commentary (ported over from The X-Files – The Complete Ninth Season box set) is offered on “Jump the Shark” as well as on four episodes of the series proper (“Pilot,” “Bond, Jimmy Bond,” “Tango de los Pistoleros,” and “All About Yves”). The commentaries alternate between the show’s principal cast and its writers and directors, the best of which is on the “Pilot” episode where the narrative white elephant (aka: 9/11) is talked about with admirable honesty and openness. Such directness extends to the featurette “Making of The Lone Gunmen” where the producers and the cast talk about select episodes and show intimations of understandable bitterness at the series’s early cancellation. Four television spots round out the set’s extra features.

Overall

Ignore Fox Mulder’s mantra: You can trust The Lone Gunmen.

Cast: Bruce Harwood, Tom Braidwood, Dean Haglund, Stephen Snedden, Zuleikha Robinson Director: Carol Banker, Cliff Bole, Rob Bowman, Richard Compton, David Jackson, John T. Kretchmer, Vincent Misiano, Bryan Spicer Screenwriter: Nandi Bowe, Chris Carter, Collin Friesen, Vince Gilligan, Thomas Schnauz, John Shiban, Frank Spotnitz Distributor: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment Running Time: 559 min Rating: NR Year: 2001 - 2002 Release Date: March 29, 2005 Buy: Video

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Review: Jacques Rivette’s La Religieuse on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

Featuring a searing performance from Anna Karina, the film much more than the scandal that made it famous in France.

4

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La Religieuse

Jacques Rivette’s La Religieuse is based on an epistolary novel by Enlightenment philosopher Denis Diderot that decried the injustices of the Catholic church under the ancien régime by adopting the voice of a young woman forced into a convent. In this adaptation by Rivette and Jules and Jim screenwriter Jean Gruault, Diderot’s protest against the violation of an individual’s free will becomes not only a reflection of the individualist ethos of the French New Wave, but also an augury of uprisings of the late 1960s.

Suzanne Simonin (Anna Karina) is a young bourgeoise whose parents compel her to take vows as a nun after her father discovers she’s the child of an affair. Genuinely devout, Simonin nevertheless has no interest in a nun’s vow of “chastity, poverty, and obedience,” and endeavors to leave religious life and rejoin the world. The Nun opens with the ceremony at which she’s meant to pledge herself to her new order, as a desperate Simonin breaks away from the ceremony and begs to be let free, framed from the other side of the iron bars which she grasps to make her plea to the assembled witnesses.

Rivette would become known for his improvisational approach to the fiction film, but La Religieuse has all the marks of a tightly controlled production, from the way the director’s long takes follow the action with subtle but emotive re-framings, to the production design’s coordination between the gray-green of the nun’s habits and their convent’s walls (they seem to dissolve into their setting), to Gruault’s often poetic dialogue (“This robe has attached itself to my skin, to my bones,” Simonin laments at one point).

Even the lack of subtlety in aspects of Rivette’s aesthetic—as in the iron bars in the opening scene that paint the church as a prison—has a purpose, as the film is peppered with Brechtian touches that call attention to themselves as formal techniques. Just as we become engaged with the melodrama of Simonin’s dilemma, we’re jolted out of our credulity with a jump or smash cut, or a snippet of noise from the sparse, modern score. Such moments remind us that, while the story is set in the baroque past, it’s told with an eye toward the modernist present, when the individual is still under siege by the disciplinary control of societal institutions.

Rivette is aided in this oscillation between empathetic drama and distancing formal abstraction by Karina’s performance. It’s a role that could easily turn into hysteric caricature, particularly when Simonin’s convent confines her to her quarters, denies her food, and frames her as possessed by the devil. But Karina deeply communicates the trauma of a person trying to hold themselves together as the mechanics of power devastate her mind and body, and Simonin never seems to be merely a metaphor for the offenses against the individual perpetrated by the system—though, of course, she is that too.

Simonin’s first convent, run by Sister Ste Christine (Francine Bergé), exercises its dogmatic piety through cruel punishment and masochistic penance. It prohibits communion with even the natural world outside the gates, and relationships between the women are strictly regulated. After her ordeal, Simonin manages to have herself transferred to another convent, this one overseen by Madame de Chelles (Liselotte Pulver). Here, the nuns behave almost as school girls, frolicking in the yards and attending informal gatherings in the mother superior’s quarters. The convent’s seeming openness, though, masks the cult of personality de Chelles fosters around her, which she exploits to seduce the young nuns.

Sexual control, like institutional violence, is exposed here as another form of oppression women face, but the film’s condemnation of this oppression doesn’t moralize either about homosexuality or religion per se. The problem is the institutionality of the church rather than its professed system of belief, and La Religieuse is rather remarkable for the way in which it codes de Chelles’s unwanted advances as the continued violation of Simonin’s right to self-determination rather than a trespass against a moral order.

An emotionally searing conclusion drives this point home, but as memorable as this finale is, the romantic individualism typical of the New Wave belies the spirit of collective rebellion implicit in Rivette’s Brechtian touches. The film presents us with groups of women who, through violence or sex, relay the patriarchal power of the church, but it’s unable to imagine an alternative sphere where bonds between women might foster a more positive society. Though it critiques and defies the pretenses of hierarchical religious community, neither La Religieuse nor its main character is ultimately able to see a way out of alienated individualism.

Image/Sound

The transfer on this Blu-ray is from the gorgeous 4K restoration released in theaters last year, and it brings a renewed vitality to both the subtle color gradations of cinematographer Alain Levent’s muted gray-green palette throughout the scenes that depict Suzanne’s ascetic life, as well as the momentary flourishes of color—like the striking blue of her scarf early in La Religieuse—that point to the young woman’s desire for life outside the convent. The film, though, is at its most radical in its soundtrack, and the precise, often jarring use of off-screen sound and nondiegetic music is mixed evenly throughout the two channels.

Extras

Much of the extras here focus on the controversy surrounding La Religieuse. Indeed, while the featurette “Susanne Simonin, La Scandaleuse” is described as a “making-of documentary,” it’s much more a discussion about the film’s troubled release. Dennis Lim’s booklet essay, though short, provides a more wide-ranging account of the film’s making. A commentary track by film critic Nick Pinkerton covers much of the same ground as the featurette but includes a more thorough history of the story’s origins in the French Enlightenment.

Overall

Featuring a searing performance from Anna Karina, La Religieuse is much more than the scandal that made it famous in France. Kino Lorber’s release of the film’s recent 4K restoration is a service to a landmark film of the French New Wave.

Cast: Adilé David, Ginite Popote, Louise Labeque, Mackenson Bijou, Mathilde Riu, Ninon François, Patrick Boucheron, Saadia Bentaïeb, Sayyid El Alami, Wislanda Louimat Director: Jacque Rivette Screenwriter: Jean Gruault, Jacque Rivette Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 135 min Rating: NR Year: 1965 Release Date: May 28, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke on Shout! Factory Blu-ray

There’s no doubt that this will remain, for many years to come, the definitive home-video release of the film.

5

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Princess Mononoke

Hayao Miyazaki’s earliest films, from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind to Porco Rosso, abound in characters driven by an insatiable desire for adventure, and to take to the skies—a pursuit that offers a temporary transcendence of everyday reality. With a broom and an airplane, respectively, the main characters from Kiki’s Delivery Service and Porco Rosso cast off from a world that refuses to accept them for who they are, while the young siblings at the center of My Neighbor Totoro use the eponymous creature to ascend into the clouds and forget the problems that afflict their ailing mother, if only for a while.

It’s a stark contrast from that recurring motif in Miyazaki’s animated worlds that the characters from his 1997 film Princess Mononoke never take flight. It’s as if Miyazaki, by keeping them earthbound, is trying to remind them of the greed, vengeance, and lust for power that’s led to the destruction of their world. Indeed, there’s no escaping the increasingly dire consequences that arise from the environmental annihilation that occurs in the film.

A parable of man versus nature, Princess Mononoke is a damning, pessimistic, and downright angry environmentalist screed. But in refusing to draw a line in the sand between good and evil, Miyazaki presents a thoughtful, intelligent mosaic of visual and thematic ideas that ignores neither the brutal elements inherent in nature nor the potential for courage and compassion that lies within mankind. In the film, humans and animals alike are full of contradictions, which serves to consistently complicate Miyazaki’s initially straightforward message of humanity’s thoughtless destruction of the natural world.

Set during Japan’s medieval Muromachi period, during “a time of gods and demons,” Princess Mononoke follows the exploits of an idealistic young man, Ashitaka (Billy Crudup), who sets out on a journey from his small, rural village to the enchanted forests out west after being poisoned by a demonic boar. In typical Miyazaki fashion, the beast is a feat of unbridled imagination, yet that blood-filled mouth and those dozens of red tentacles protruding from its body are far from fanciful, planting the creature firmly in the realm of body horror. Once the beast is slayed, the cause of its terrifying transformation is revealed to be an iron bullet lodged in its chest, which is taken by the villagers as a sign of an imbalance in the lands out west.

On the flipside of the ghastly boar is the legendary Deer God, a strange yet elegant creature who protects the vast forestlands and is rumored to have the powers to heal both man and nature. As Ashitaka tracks down this mystical animal, hoping it will cure his poisoned arm, he finds himself playing the part of mediator between two warring factions. On one side is Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver), the rapacious ruler of a remote settlement named Irontown and owner of its iron factory, whose expansion necessitates the destruction of the nearby forest lands. And fighting to stop her are the wolves led by the wolf god Moro (Gillian Anderson), and the human she raised as her daughter, San (Claire Danes), also known as Princess Mononoke.

At first, there seems to be an ethical clarity to this conflict that makes it easy for the audience’s allegiances to turn in one direction and never waver, but moral certitude becomes increasingly muddied as Princess Mononoke progresses. While Lady Eboshi essentially functions as the film’s central villain, pumping her surroundings with weapons and pollution, she also shows a remarkable capacity for compassion, hiring and caring for a slew of lepers and prostitutes who shunned by society at large. Her workers are happy and faithful to her, and even the munitions she creates serve the greater good, as they’re used at one point to fend off a band of samurai robbers. And despite Ashitaka’s general desire to prevent warfare and save the wilderness, he’s driven by his own selfish goals of attaining the help of the Deer God. Even the natural world bares its teeth, as wolves, boars, and apes fight among themselves to establish dominance even as the world around them literally falls apart.

The film relishes in the beauties of the natural world, but Miyazaki doesn’t see nature as infallible or humans as irredeemable. The Deer God itself embodies the capacity for both creation and destruction, as grass and flowers grow beneath its feet wherever it steps, yet it can also kill living creatures with as little as a glance. Where Miyazaki lends the humans and animals in Princess Mononoke a sense of ambiguity, he’s unflinching in his belief that it’s our moral duty to seek a balance in the natural world that supports the whole in order to benefit all life cycles. For all of the film’s bloodshed, which by Miyazaki’s standards is quite shocking given the plethora of severed limbs and decapitations caused during battle, it’s the majestic and magical qualities of the untouched portions of the forest that linger strongest in one’s memory. From the kodama, the adorable and ghostly forest spirits who make strange clicking sounds as they shake their heads, to the Deer God, who at night transforms into The Night Walker, a translucent, shimmering giant who safeguards the forest from above, Miyazaki’s flair for embellishment makes clear his affection for the natural world.

After one too many human transgressions, The Night Walker turns into a black ooze that quickly spreads over the lands, destroying plants, wildlife, and humans in its wake. In an act of heroism, Ashitaka returns to the gargantuan creature its severed deer head, and in a particularly stunning sequence, Miyazaki shows the barren landscape slowly coming back to life. The innate power of nature is presented as a kind of magic trick, suggesting that even if humans drive through the Earth’s resources to the degree that the planet becomes uninhabitable, it will ultimately find a way to regenerate itself. Of course, Princess Mononoke also appears to believe that if humanity itself wants to stick around, it must seek a sustainable balance that doesn’t let things get too close to that point of no return.

Image/Sound

Shout! Factory’s transfer of Princess Mononoke might just be the most stunning home-video presentation that any Hayao Miyazaki film has received to date. There’s an impressive clarity to the images that makes it impossible to not fixate on every textural dimension of the animation, from the film’s most elaborately conceived creatures such as the Deer God and possessed boar, to simpler elements like grass, flowers, trees, and animal fur. The colors are truly eye-popping, particularly the greens of the natural world and the bright, rich reds of blood and the fabrics of characters’ clothing. On the sound front, Joe Hisaishi’s dynamic, emotional score is beautifully layered throughout the dense, enveloping soundscape.

Extras

In place of a commentary track, Shout! has included the option to view Princess Mononoke with storyboard stills of every shot in place of the final animated frames. These sketches are often crude, but the presentation is fascinating for allowing us such a detailed glimpse of Miyazaki’s vision in its nascent stage. The very simplicity of the sketches offers a compelling contrast to the rich, fully materialized world of the finished film, highlighting the staggering amount of time, effort, and imagination that goes into constructing a hand-drawn animated film. The featurette “Princess Mononoke in the U.S., which begins with amusing footage of the film’s glowing reception at the Toronto International Film Festival, follows Miyazaki on his journey from Toronto to Los Angeles and, finally, New York. The brief clips of press interviews are a potent reminder of how conditioned American audiences are to pat moral lessons in animated films. The most engaging stretch, though, is Miyazaki’s visit to Disney’s animation department, where he seems at home discussing animation techniques and approaches to story with his American colleagues. This release comes in a sturdy, gorgeous case that also includes a CD of Joe Hisaishi’s soundtrack and a 40-page booklet full of stills from the film and a three-part essay by film critic Glenn Kenny that’s as insightful as it is personal.

Overall

Shout! Factory’s stunning transfer and superb packaging and extras ensure that this will remain, for many years to come, the definitive home-video release of Hayao Miyazaki’s film.

Cast: Billy Crudup, Billy Bob Thornton, Minnie Driver, John DiMaggio, Claire Danes, John DeMita, Jada Pinkett Smith, Gillian Anderson, Keith David, Tara Strong Director: Hayao Miyazaki Screenwriter: Hayao Miyazaki Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 133 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 1997 Release Date: May 14, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: John Farrow’s The Big Clock Joins the Arrow Academy

The film receives a commendable high-def transfer and a handful of worthwhile extras from the Arrow Academy.

4

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The Big Clock

John Farrow’s The Big Clock is a marvel of production design that also features rich, weirdly amusing performances from both Ray Milland and Charles Laughton, but it’s too slight in its contemplation of power dynamics to rank high in the pantheon of film noirs. Though the film opens grimly near the story’s end, with George (Milland) evading capture inside a publishing office where he works for a murder he didn’t commit, the actual series of events that leads up to that point is closer in tenor to Hawksian comedy, with Milland’s working man juggling the demands of family and work in almost screwball fashion.

As editor-in-chief of Crimeways, George answers to Janoth (Laughton), who owns and oversees multiple magazines and their offices inside a New York City skyscraper, which contains the eponymous object that displays time zones from around the world. The clock isn’t only a striking visual touchstone around which much of the film’s action revolves, it also provides a symbolic basis for Janoth’s controlling of his employees’ lives. Due to Janoth’s uncompromising demands, George and his wife, Georgette (Maureen O’Sullivan), didn’t get to have a honeymoon five years ago, and his workaholic tendencies have begun to alienate her since then. Thus, an upcoming vacation to West Virginia is George’s last-ditch effort to prove his commitment to Georgette and their young son (B.G. Norman). But when Janoth insists that George delay the trip again, it sends George into a defiant and drunken tailspin, placing him in a position to be framed for murder.

While this sequence of events has the potential to emphasize how the postwar American workforce is reoriented by inhuman demands for around-the-clock labor, the filmmakers are hesitant to grapple with these ideas to their fullest extent. Instead, George’s workplace predicament is treated as a prelude to an absurdist punchline. When Janoth, who’s trying to cover his murderous tracks, assigns George to hunt down an alleged killer for a story, he’s ironically tasked with pursuing himself, as George is the man with whom Janoth’s victim spent the previous evening. The convoluted nature of how George even becomes a murder suspect indicates how the expansive set design is ultimately used less as a thematic trait of modernist architecture’s intersection with corporate ambition than as a maze for George’s deferral of his positive identification by a host of eyewitnesses roaming in and around the large building.

The plot’s devolution into a basic game of cat and mouse sidesteps any concern for business practices and competition that’s suggested early on as Janoth, speaking to a group of his employees, implores them to “anticipate trends before they are trends.” Early on, one might expect The Big Clock to do the same—namely, to utilize its unique setting and intriguing set of circumstances to arrive at something weightier, more morally indignant. Or, if the film is opposed to Janoth’s promotion of constant innovation, reveal how the cold logic of corporate pursuits jeopardizes the American family’s livelihood. Instead, as Janoth’s comprehensive threat is rather easily dispatched once it’s realized by George, The Big Clock proves content to prevent its bubbling critique of capitalism from ever reaching a boiling point.

Image/Sound

While The Big Clok hasn’t been given the 4K treatment that many films from the 1940s have received from various home-video publishers in recent years, this high-definition presentation is a considerable upgrade over Universal’s 2004 DVD release. Wide shots of the publication offices benefit most from the restoration work, as the finest of details, from elevator buttons to the patterns on walls, are readily visible. The close-ups are also quite impressive in their level of clarity. There are sporadic instances of light scratches or debris visible within the frame, but they’re by no means egregious. The monaural track is consistent, with the dialogue and Victor Young’s score registering quite strongly and clearly up in the front of the mix.

Extras

An audio commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin is full of insights about the film’s production history and John Farrow’s use of sequence shots. Martin gamely makes a case for Farrow as an unheralded artist of the period with a unique flair for detail, notably singling out an impressive early scene that necessitated set changes prior to the elevator doors of the high-rise office opening on various floors. Martin also points out where the film differs from the novel upon which it’s based, noting that certain tweaks were made to soften the premise of adultery in order to satisfy the production code. A featurette with critic Adrian Wootton fills in more details about the film’s pre-production history, including why Paramount was so keen to adapt the novel in the first place. Actor and writer Simon Callow chimes in with an appreciation of actor Charles Laughton, articulating what makes his performance in The Big Clock stand out. In addition to these excellent supplements, there’s an hour-long radio dramatization of the film performed in 1948 by the Lux Radio Theatre, the original theatrical trailer, and a gallery of original stills and promotional materials.

Overall

A minor film noir featuring top-shelf production design, The Big Clock receives a commendable high-def transfer and a handful of worthwhile extras from the Arrow Academy.

Cast: Ray Milland, Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Sullivan, George Macready, Rita Johnson, Elsa Lanchester, Harold Vermilyea Director: John Farrow Screenwriter: Jonathan Latimer Distributor: Arrow Academy Running Time: 95 min Rating: NR Year: 1948 Release Date: May 14, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Jan Němec’s Diamonds of the Night on the Criterion Collection

Němec burst out of the gate with this stirring, unorthodox depiction of trauma set during the Holocaust.

4

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Diamonds of the Night

Reflecting on his novel Darkness Casts No Shadows in Jan Němec’s short tribute documentary Arnošt Lustig Through the Eyes of Jan Němec, Holocaust survivor Arnošt Lustig recalls how his harrowing account of life under constant Nazi siege originated from the feeling, as he entered his 60s, of suddenly being on the precipice of death. Diamonds of the Night, Němec’s startling debut feature, translates the author’s sense of imminent mortality into a vivid atmosphere of free-floating menace that whips up the novel’s mix of real-time experience, memories, and dreams into one heterogenous montage, eschewing any aesthetic cues to delineate the separate planes. Running at a concise 66 minutes, the film substitutes plot and character detail with an evocative, interiorized representation of the experience of fleeing fascism, entrusting the viewer to immediately comprehend the gravity of its narrative terms from the staggering opening dolly shot, when a pair of frail boys hurtle desperately for minutes on end up a frozen hill to the sound of shouting and gunfire off screen.

Arguably one of the greatest in medias res openings in film history, and a sequence on which Němec expended approximately a third of his budget, Diamonds of the Night’s nerve-wracking teaser doesn’t resolve on any comforting decrescendo. Rather, the nervous pace and sense of peril linger over through the rest of the film, which follows two unnamed concentration camp fugitives played by newcomers Ladislav Jánsky and Antonín Kumbera through a series—or is it a loop?—of imposing enemy landscapes, from foggy forests and jagged rock fields to desiccated farmland and cottages. Periodically offsetting the traumatic present-tense turmoil are alternately delirious and peaceful visions of life prior to escape and woozy hallucinations from whose headspace it’s left tantalizingly unclear. If reality is a bleak, horizonless crusade of exertion and starvation, the mind at least offers some kind of refuge, be it a memory of a stroll through a deserted side street in Prague or a traded glance with a girl on a train.

Němec’s ingenious gambit is to unify his multiple strands of narrative information under the same visual and sonic language, alleviating reality with fantasy without modifying the gloomy chiaroscuro patina of the footage or the stream of muffled ambient sound heard by the boys as they drift through their purgatory. In this morass of past, present, and imagination, context-less images, untethered from discernible logic or chronology, stick out like transmissions from the subconscious—their appearances less skeleton keys for meaning than acute flickerings of a mind when pushed to the limits. Emboldened by Jaroslav Kučera and Miroslav Ondříček’s cinematography, Němec’s compositional eye shines in such passages, drawing out resonance from domestic still lifes and urban panoramas, eerily plaintive shots that depart from the fluid handheld intimacy with which the boys’ frantic wanderings are captured.

Alongside his colleagues in the Czech New Wave, Němec’s compulsion to work well outside storytelling convention and hybridize different filmmaking styles marked him as something of an enfant terrible in his nation’s film industry, enervating funding partners and ultimately cutting his career short. Diamonds of the Night’s unstable brew of historical realism, poetic reverie, and even surrealism—look out for those Bunuelian ant swarms and lethal loaves of bread—offers something of a comprehensive unleashing of Němec’s artistic vitality before these pressures took hold, and still the film seems to crystallize the director’s antipathy toward authority and suppression even at this early stage.

In the film’s grueling penultimate sequence, a group of loathsome, toothless old hunters round up the heroes in the woods and take them home to humiliate them during a night of carousing—an act of incipient violence that gets dragged on and over-emphasized until it achieves a numbing effect. The scene epitomizes the neglect of human dignity that characterized this awful historical episode, but given the film’s reduction of context and specificity, it also points to a more timeless dynamic between the powerful and the powerless.

Image/Sound

The silvery, high-contrast palette of Diamonds of the Night, which lends the film’s close-ups a shimmering clarity, has never looked richer on home video than it does on the Criterion Collection’s transfer. Shadows are about as black as black gets without becoming muddy, and the highlights, as seen in the glimmers in Ladislav Jánsky’s eyes, are positively ethereal. Most jaw-dropping are the lengthy handheld tracking shots through dimly lit woods, where the layers of skinny pine trees create striking vignette effects around the heroes as they trudge through the half-light. The film’s soundtrack is sparse and quiet, and Criterion has wisely kept the mix low and uncompressed so that the expressive sonic hierarchy—panting, for instance, is often louder than gunshots—is left intact.

Extras

Criterion has thankfully not skimped on the extras, offering three analytical supplements and two short films by Jan Němec. The two newly shot pieces include an interview with Irena Kovarova that takes a deep dive into Czech film history and a rewarding James Quandt video essay that explores the film’s quite pronounced roots in contemporaneous works by Alain Resnais, Robert Bresson, Ingmar Bergman, and Andrei Tarkovsky. Němec himself reminisces on the film’s production and its daunting opening tracking shot in an archival interview from 2009, while source novelist Arnošt Lustig digs into his own troubled past in the touching and intimate Arnošt Lustig Through the Eyes of Jan Němec. Best of all, however, is A Loaf of Bread, Němec’s award-winning college short film that plays, with its commanding use of handheld and ability to invest everyday objects into totems of life-or-death struggle, like a mature trial run for Diamonds of the Night. A Michael Atkinson essay rounds out the collection.

Overall

Czech radical Jan Němec burst out of the gate with this stirring, unorthodox depiction of trauma set during the Holocaust, and Criterion treats it as the watershed film that it is.

Cast: Ladislav Janský, Antonín Kumbera Director: Jan Němec Screenwriter: Jan Němec Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 66 min Rating: NR Year: 1964 Release Date: April 16, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Jonathan Demme’s Melvin and Howard on Twilight Time Blu-ray

Demme’s film is a repository for his comic, aesthetic, and observational gifts, and it receives a solid Blu-ray from Twilight Time.

3.5

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Melvin and Howard

Perhaps the closest that Jonathan Demme ever got to making a New Hollywood film, Melvin and Howard is set in the impoverished outskirts of the Nevada desert, a place where the ritzy neon and modern decadence of Las Vegas turns into graveyards of rusted, stripped car bodies surrounded by pockets of RV parks. The symbolism of Vegas as a shimmering mirage that offers the false hope of instantaneous wealth and instantaneous success to the struggling masses just outside the city forms the bedrock of the film’s story about a quixotic hustler, and the tone that the setting creates befits Hollywood’s most cynical era of moviemaking.

Even here, however, Demme’s capacity for warmth is unmistakable. The master filmmaker introduces eccentric mogul Howard Hughes (Jason Robards) with magic-hour incandescence and copious lens flares as the man races over the salt flats of the desert on his motorcycle. It’s as if the glowing images exist to suggest that Howard is the owner of this vast dominion. Compare that to the first shots of Melvin Dummar (Paul Le Mat), seen driving desert roads at night in a truck so rusty that you may wonder when was the last time he got a tetanus shot. Melvin, cooped up in this vehicle as he drives across pitch-black roads, looks utterly powerless, a peon drifting through a world that barely notices him.

Melvin stumbles across a crash-wounded Howard by chance when he stops to relieve himself, and he agrees to take the man to his hotel after Howard refuses medical treatment. Demme fully illuminates both characters in the uncomfortable ride that follows. Melvin, chipper and extroverted, immediately comes across as a man who’s devoted an immense amount of effort to getting rich without trying. Bragging about inane schemes, such as penning a Christmas novelty song, Melvin suggests a more benign than usual snake-oil salesman, harmless in his understanding of the American dream to mean that you can make enough money to do whatever you want. Of course, he’s sharing a car with the embodiment of that notion of wealth, and Howard scarcely looks like he’s on top of the world when not indulging his thrill-seeking. Gaunt and pale in close-up, Howard almost looks like he’s in Noh theater makeup, his withered, wide-eyed face not unlike Tatsuya Nakadai’s Lear figure in Akira Kurosawa’s Ran.

Apart from a recapitulation of this scene at the film’s conclusion, Howard doesn’t appear again after Melvin takes him back to Vegas, but his presence looms large over the film’s subsequent study of Melvin’s various get-rich schemes and blinkered dreaming. We see how Melvin’s reckless optimism drives his first wife, Lynda (Mary Steenburgen, in an Oscar-winning performance), to leave him, then take him back when he crashes her new gig as a stripper in order to demand her return. Demme’s mastery of neo-screwball mechanics plays out in a brief comedy of remarriage in which Melvin and a pregnant Lynda hastily renew their vows in a Vegas chapel, which leads to a scene in which the pair is forced to fill in as witnesses for other eloping couples. The subsequent montage of newlyweds smooching Melvin and Lynda is riotous in part for the way the grooms are so enthusiastic about kissing Lynda, and much to the chagrin of some of their brides. The scene is quintessential Demme, blatantly absurd on its face as couple after couple comes in for a kiss from Melvin and Lynda, but suffused with a giddy quality that strangely pulls the couple closer to each other in their shared affections.

Throughout the film, Demme never stoops to mocking Melvin, even as the filmmaker abundantly illustrates how divorced from reality the man is. The limitations of Melvin’s worldview is perhaps best exhibited by his love of game shows as a path to quick money and notoriety, and he even manages to book Lynda on a sleazy program in which contestants have to perform for a crowd to get a shot at playing games for cash. Demme could easily have lapsed into the cynicism that this kind of semi-fame embodies, and at first blush he seems to give into it when Lynda goes on stage to perform a tap-dancing number that initially earns catcalls and boos. Gradually, however, her sheer tenacity and charm wins over the audience, and by the end she gets a standing ovation. The good vibes are short-lived, though, as Melvin uses the cash Lynda wins to buy a boat despite living in the middle of the desert, cheerfully calling it an “investment” as Lynda finally snaps and leaves him for good.

Melvin’s refusal to take any of these twists and turns of life as a sign of defeat marks him as a quintessential early Demme protagonist, his sunny disposition and constant self-sabotage existing in strange harmony. Eventually, Melvin comes to appreciate the possibility of a less reckless life, and after a time lapse, we find him settled into honest work and a content marriage to his second wife, Bonnie (Pamela Reed). Of course, just as Melvin appears to have found his position in life, he receives a copy of Howard’s will, which names him a beneficiary and launches him into a media circus that ironically brings him the fame he always desired.

Melvin and Howard ends with Melvin defending himself from charges of forgery by lawyers determined not to let a little thing like Howard’s eccentricity split the spoils of his estate. Melvin’s aspirational hunger certainly gives him motive to lie, but the film takes the man’s claim of honestly receiving a copy of the will at face value, preferring to play up the oddity of this insignificant person going up against mirthless, high-priced lawyers. Demme never stoops to mocking Melvin. If anything, he finds in the man his archetypal protagonist: a weirdo who in truth has more in common with everyone around him than even he realizes.

Image/Sound

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray presents a sturdy transfer of the film. The bleak but beautiful panoramas of the natural world exhibit impressive color balance and contrast, showing off Tak Fujimoto’s incredible gift for on-location cinematography. Color tones are stable throughout, with only a few nighttime scenes showing signs of crushing. The lossless mono track is clean as a whistle, nicely separating dialogue and Foley effects throughout.

Extras

An audio commentary with Jonathan Demme and production designer Toby Rafelson is essentially a detailed celebration of the former’s subtle eye for detail. One particularly revealing moment is the acknowledgement that the stylized handwriting of the film’s credits were modeled after the real Hughes’s handwriting. One also gets a sense that, at the time of this track’s recording, Deeme hadn’t seen the film some time, as he frequently expresses appreciation and even surprise at some of the small touches in the actors’ performances. At times, he almost sounds less like the maker of the film than a devoted fan.

Overall

Jonathan Demme’s film is a repository for his comic, aesthetic, and observational gifts, and it receives a solid Blu-ray from Twilight Time.

Cast: Paul Le Mat, Mary Steenburgen, Pamela Reed, Jason Robards, Michael J. Pollard, Jack Kehoe, Dabney Coleman Director: Jonathan Demme Screenwriter: Bo Goldman Distributor: Twilight Time Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 1980 Buy: Video

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Review: Anatole Litvak’s The Snake Pit on Twilight Time Blu-ray

Twilight Time’s sharp transfer wonderfully preserves Litvak’s long-ago groundbreaking melodrama.

3.5

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The Snake Pit

The release of Anatole Litvak’s The Snake Pit in 1948, on the heels of Mary Jane Ward’s semi-autobiographical book of the same name, ushered in a sea change—namely, the reform of state mental hospitals. And although it stands as Hollywood’s first peek into the horrors of mid-20th-century mental institutions, it’s now more fruitful to view it in tandem with the more psychologically elaborate women’s films of the 1940s, such as Rebecca, Gaslight, and My Name Is Julia Ross, than with the decidedly more raw and authentic depictions of psychiatric hospitals that came down the pipeline in subsequent decades.

That isn’t to suggest that The Snake Pit doesn’t lack for disturbing sequences, from Virginia’s (Olivia de Havilland) first electroshock treatment to the stretch of time she spends in a squalid, overcrowded ward reserved for the most severely mentally ill patients. There’s even an unsympathetic nurse (Helen Craig) who’s on hand to squelch any sense of agency that Virginia develops throughout her extended stay in the hospital, and whose sadistic authoritarianism foreshadows that of Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

But perhaps because the public in the late ‘40s was so oblivious to the realities of such institutions and the basic tenets of psychology, Litvak frequently defaults to an educational mode of filmmaking. From sympathetic Dr. Kik (Leo Genn) straining to explicitly lay out the various methodologies of psychoanalysis to de Havilland’s excessive voiceover, which laboriously spells out every aspect of Virginia’s turmoil, the film’s banal narrative strategies lead to purely descriptive passages that hold viewers’ hands every step of the way. Every ounce of nuance and ambiguity is sufficiently squeezed out of the film in such moments, which are geared toward explaining mental illness rather than plumbing its complexities.

Litvak’s sympathetic fixation on Virginia’s suffering does become more compelling when The Snake Pit navigates the myriad ways that the men in her life—from her manipulative, domineering former boyfriend, Gordon (Leif Erickson), to her emotionally absent father (Damian O’Flynn)—have mistreated her. Told in flashbacks, these scenes delve into the root causes of Virginia’s nervous breakdown and subsequent hospitalization, transforming her suppressed memories into living nightmares. And as she’s forced to relive these past tragedies, the film takes on a distinctly feminine, if not feminist, perspective, outlining how Virginia’s ambitions to transcend the prescribed limitations of gender, evidenced by her work as a writer, are placed in the vice grip of seemingly inescapable patriarchal pressures.

It’s all a bit Psych 101 in its approach, further reinforced by the portrait of Sigmund Freud on Dr. Kik’s wall that looms high in the middle of the frame, paternally gazing down upon the doctor and Virginia during each of their sessions. But de Havilland’s emotionally expressive performance is so tightly controlled that she carries the film through many of its weaker stretches. Her uncanny ability to subtly shift moods on a dime, and sometimes several times within the same shot, lends credence to Virginia’s unshakeable sense of paranoia, repressed guilt and creeping self-doubt, making her suffering feel genuine and heart-wrenching. As Virginia grapples with her inner demons, as well as a memory loss that leaves her disoriented and unsure of who she can trust, The Snake Pit periodically transcends its archaic psychological trappings to become an empathic examination of a woman battling both the internal and external forces that seek to fully erase her sense of self.

Image/Sound

Twilight Time’s transfer is uniformly crisp and free of debris, boasting intricate details in both the interiors of the mental institution and in the actors’ faces. The blacks aren’t terribly deep, but the image contrast is still more than serviceable and consistent throughout. While the film consists primarily of interior close-ups and mid-shots, whenever Anatole Litvak opts for wider perspectives, such as in the overhead shot that reveals the meaning of the film’s title or the elaborate long shots during Virginia’s stay in the ward for the severely mentally ill, there’s an impressive clarity to the depth of field. The sound on the disc is also quite robust, enhancing the subtleties of both Alfred Newman’s wonderful score and the ambient background noise that fills out the soundtrack during scenes in the more overcrowded portions of the hospital.

Extras

A commentary track with film historian Aubrey Solomon is the lone substantial extra on this disc. Solomon provides the historical context surrounding the original theatrical release of The Snake Pit, describing the film as both of a piece with the sorts of socially relevant dramas producer Daryl Zanuck made throughout the ‘40s and an early example of Hollywood representations of psychoanalysis and mental institutions. Unfortunately, Solomon too often spends long stretches of time either completely silent, painstakingly listing out the credits of various actors and members of the production team, or reading direct quotes from critical reactions to the film around its 1948 release. His unpacking of the unsettling sequence in the ward for the severely mentally disturbed does finally touch upon the film’s intermittently expressive camerawork, but such deep, detailed scene dissections would have been welcomed earlier on. The disc also comes with an isolated music track, two vintage radio shows, and an essay by Julie Kirgo that delves into the backstory of how Mary Jane Ward’s novel was adapted to the screen and sings the praises of Olivia de Havilland’s performance.

Overall

Twilight Time’s sharp transfer of The Snake Pit wonderfully preserves Anatole Litvak’s long-ago groundbreaking melodrama.

Cast: Olivia de Havilland, Mark Stevens, Leo Genn, Celeste Holm, Glenn Langan, Helen Craig, Leif Erickson, Beulah Bondi, Lee Patrick, Howard Freeman, Natalie Schafer, Ruth Donnelly Director: Anatole Litvak Screenwriter: Frank Partos, Millen Brand Distributor: Twilight Time Running Time: 108 min Rating: NR Year: 1948 Release Date: April 16, 2019

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Review: Jackie Chan’s Police Story and Police Story 2 on Criterion Blu-ray

Criterion has beautifully restored two glorious action epics, allowing Chan’s formal audacity to shine.

5

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Police Story and Police Story 2

For contemporary American audiences, action cinema generally comes in two flavors. There are superhero fantasias with wall-to-wall effects and interchangeably bloodless, consequence-free warfare, and the occasional hard-R slaughter-fest for those viewers who’ve grown nostalgic for the vigilante cop thrillers of the 1970s and ‘80s. In this climate, Jackie Chan’s Police Story and Police Story 2 remain distinctive for their balletic grace and aura of easygoing charm. These films are true action comedies, though they also have subtle grit and tension.

As the supplements included with this Criterion set remind us, Police Story stood out in 1985 as well, in Hong Kong, America, and everywhere else. The period Chinese martial arts extravaganzas were becoming passé, and American action cinema was ruled by brutes who killed first and asked questions never. When you see an Arnold Schwarzenegger film, even now, you expect him to kill someone—as an evitable release of energy and fulfillment of the functions for which that colossal body appears to be built.

By contrast, Chan’s character in Police Story and Police Story 2, Chan Ka-Kui, doesn’t appear to be looking for trouble. He has an affable, if blinkered, nature, making little money as a sergeant on the Royal Hong Kong Police Force and constantly bickering with his girlfriend, May (Maggie Cheung). As co-writer and director, Chan gives his character plenty of little humanizing anecdotes, and the action scenes, when they arrive, often peerlessly blend awkward portraiture with unrivaled physical precision.

In Police Story, an action sequence is built around Ka-Kui’s efforts to fool an uncooperative witness, Selina Fong (Brigitte Lin), by hiring a police officer to pretend to threaten her. When the woman proves quite able to defend herself against the aggressor, Ka-Kui engages in an extraordinary series of flips, kicks, and evasions in order to keep his co-worker’s body animate after the woman has knocked the man out. Ka-Kui dances with the man while pretending to attack him while resisting the woman’s own attacks, which is to say that Chan casually nests three conceits within one stanza of movement.

Chan places Ka-Kui’s moves in a farcical context, which has blossomed out of the hero’s reprehensible ethics. Ka-Kui has, after all, hired someone to stalk someone he’s supposed to be protecting, and this decision makes him into a fool and nearly undoes his operation. Vigilante tactics are often glorified in action movies, but Chan finds complicating wrinkles, giving his set pieces unexpected counterpoints in terms of character and, of course, in physicality. (The knife wielded by Ka-Kui’s friend functions as a kind of baton, which Chan masterfully uses to produce a variety of kinetic through lines.)

Much has been made of Chan’s relatability, and he grew cuddly once he became a superstar in America in the wake of the Rush Hour series. But the actor-filmmaker is surprisingly sassy in Police Story and Police Story 2, offering unexpectedly pointed parodies of police corruption and futility. In Police Story 2, a group of female detectives beat up a captured criminal, threatening to kill him unless he cooperates—a moment that Chan plays for lighthearted comedy. The casualness of this scene is more disturbing than the macho or preachy tonalities that American filmmakers have conditioned us to expect from such a moment.

Later in the same film, Ka-Kui justifies a failed mission to his superiors with empty generalities that they see right through, though they cynically repeat the sentiments up an increasingly gullible chain of command—a punchline that’s worthy of W.C. Fields. In Police Story, Chan stages an acrobatic bit of business in which Ka-Kui juggles several phones at a police station, balancing them on various parts of his body while utilizing other props to answer and cumulatively ignore every call, one of which is a reporting of a rape.

Chan expertly contextualizes his action scenes as releases of energy, which aren’t entirely dissimilar to the catharses of American action films, except that Chan understands his characters to be self-involved, chasing and fighting so as to fulfill an inner drive. Ka-Kui tries to stop bad guys because he’s a daredevil who needs to show his stuff and chase an adrenaline rush, though he often gets himself in predicaments that far outweigh his expectations. This irony is a source of comedy, and it also takes Chan’s melees into a transcendent stratosphere.

Police Story’s climax at a shopping mall, one of the greatest action sequences in cinema, feels inevitable because it finally allows Ka-Kui’s—and Chan’s—imagination and agility to reach the full bloom of their expression. Chan opens the scene with a wide shot of the mall, a labyrinth of glass cases with escalators that reflect the building’s various surfaces, creating a hall-of-mirrors effect. This image is loaded with promise, as Chan is teasing us with the astonishing amount of variables that he’s setting up for his disposal.

And he doesn’t disappoint, fashioning a symphony of tumbling bodies and shattering glass that’s beautiful, exhilarating, and weirdly poignant. Like Bruce Lee, Chan and his other brilliant stunt men move so fast that the eye can barely keep up with them, though Chan has his collaborators vary their speeds, fashioning rhythmic, syncopated escalations, with pauses that suggest the action-movie equivalent of a musical bridge, and props, with ever-shifting functions, that suggest weapons as well as dancer’s instruments. (One bit involving a coat rack is especially ingenious.) Occasional uses of slow-motion suggest orgasmic eruptions of emotion, recalling the films of Sam Peckinpah.

Police Story and Police Story 2 aren’t evenly matched. The first film is scrappy and energetic, with several other hall-of-fame moments in addition to the knife-fight number and the shopping mall climax. Meanwhile, the sequel has an unusual problem: Chan became a better conventional director in between the two productions, filming his non-action scenes with greater polish. Police Story 2 has a more luxurious color palette than Police Story, suggesting a comic book via Andy Warhol, and it has much more plot than its predecessor—far too much, in fact. Chan keeps Police Story 2 afloat on the force of his personality, but across a 122-minute running time, there’s only two standout set pieces.

A brawl that takes place in a playground is vintage Chan, exploring all the ways in which ladders, slides, and other children’s stuff can be weaponized, and the climatic showdown set inside a warehouse, which suggests a game of Donkey Kong, with bad guys throwing barrels at ascending heroes, is also a testament to the filmmaker’s virtuosity. But the film lacks the ecstatic propulsion of Police Story, in which Chan, frustrated with his failed attempts to break into Hollywood, raised a gauntlet and reinvented a genre.

Image/Sound

These transfers are beautiful, yet they also preserve the grungy vitality of Jackie Chan’s spunky low-budget productions. Colors are vibrant—particularly in Police Story 2, in which Chan use bold yellows and reds to accentuate certain punchlines—and image clarity is magnificent, allowing one to savor Chan’s kinetic aesthetics. Plenty of grit and grain in both transfers, which is almost certainly appropriate to the source materials, but these qualities are also attractive. Various mono soundtracks in various languages have been included for both films, with new subtitle translations that emphasize Chan’s satirical sense of humor. The sound effects really pop in all the tracks, particularly the stylized punches and exploding glass, which contribute to all-around dynamic and immersive soundscapes.

Extras

This supplements package, a well-curated mixture of old and new features, offers a full and exciting history of Police Story and Police Story 2. A vintage television program from 1964 discusses Beijing-opera training, which is pivotal to Jackie Chan’s physical discipline and to his style of action cinema. While clearly serving a promotional purpose, Jackie Chan: My Stunts is a feature-length 1999 documentary that’s nearly as exhilarating as the filmmaker’s best productions. Chan takes the audience behind the scenes to his stunt lab, a warehouse in which he devices and works out routines with his team. This is a case in which knowledge of the mechanics of a magic trick only intensifies the spell, as Chan’s action choreography involves rigorous split-second timing and editing that stiches multiple takes together to offer an illusion of effortlessness. Most fascinatingly, we see many blown takes, which show how quickly a scene can go awry. Other vintage supplements include a 1989 episode of Son of the Incredibly Strange Film Show, featuring Chan and actress Maggie Cheung, which turned a young Edgar Wright into a Chan fanboy, a 2017 program with Chan and the original members of the Jackie Chan Stunt Team, and interviews with cast members.

The new supplements include an interview with Wright, who offers an appreciation of Chan’s aesthetic, and a piece with author and New York Asian Film Festival co-founder Grady Hendrix, who discusses the monumental effect Police Story had on Chan’s career, which was in an uncertain place after his frustrating experience on films such as The Protector. A newly restored alternate version of Police Story 2, running roughly 15 minutes shorter than the original film, has also been included, along with trailers, stunt reels, and a booklet including a rich and tactile essay by film critic Nick Pinkerton.

Overall

Criterion has beautifully restored two glorious action epics, allowing Jackie Chan’s formal audacity to shine.

Cast: Jackie Chan, Brigitte Lin, Maggie Cheung, Chor Yuen, Charlie Cho, Fung Hak-on, Lam Kwok-Hung, Bill Tung, Kam Hing Yin, Lau Chi-wing, Crystal Kwok, Anglie Leung Wan-Yui, Ann Mui, Candice Tai, John Cheung Director: Jackie Chan Screenwriter: Jackie Chan, Edward Tang Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 222 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 1985 - 1988 Release Date: April 30, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd on the Criterion Collection

Criterion’s excellent Blu-ray transfer will allow this classic of American political critique to remain a topic of debate for years to come.

3.5

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A Face in the Crowd

The social problem film, as numerous critics and scholars have termed it, conventionally deals with an issue, ranging from alcoholism to racism, that necessitates citizens to arrive at a collaborative solution. Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront fits squarely within the subgenre by taking aim at mob-owned union officials who bleed their workers dry. In his initial collaboration with screenwriter Budd Schulberg, Elia Kazan utilized the working-class visage of Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy to combat corruption. The arrangement of heroes and villains is essentially straightforward, with the longshoremen triumphing in the end over their crooked bosses.

In 1957’s A Face in the Crowd, Kazan and Schulberg’s follow-up vision of societal disarray, no such easy aligning of culprits exist. Released during the rise of television, the film, not unlike John Ford’s The Searchers from the year before, questions the longevity of previously foundational cultural myths—a tack that would come to define the ethos of New Hollywood with the release of The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde. However, unlike Ford’s seminal inscription of John Wayne’s character as a racist Confederate whose time has passed, Kazan and Schulberg appear caught between the impulse to dramatize or satirize the rise of demagoguery, creating a sometimes tonally confused, though often lucid, vision of the emergent threats to American democracy.

A Face in the Crowd confronts how TV is used by network execs and politicians to manipulate a working-class electorate into bending to the will of power. These gullible citizens believe they’re supporting one of their own, so to speak, in Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith), an Arkansan drifter who transforms himself into something of a demagogic Svengali. Lonesome finds himself in a position of influence thanks to radio producer Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), who hosts the program of the film’s title. She both finds the man and, seeing his potential to connect with audiences, gives him a platform to express himself.

The film initially considers Jeffries’s intentions with the same devoted interest as it does Rhodes’s meteoric rise up the ranks of political power. An early example is evident during the opening sequence, in which Jeffries enters an Arkansas jail and declares: “People are fascinating wherever you find them.” Such a nakedly ethnographic proclamation demonstrates how a statement of empathy often covers for the baser interests of exploitation. Indeed, Jeffries wants to leverage her relationship to everyone she meets for personal gain. As the film progresses, however, its focus shifts toward a simplistic takedown of Rhodes’s egomaniacal persona and away from the industry that allowed him such distinction in the first place.

A Face in the Crowd uses the ever-evolving relationship between Jeffries and Rhodes, who go from business partners to lovers to foes, as a counterbalance to how it envisions the American political process as being predicated on manipulation and deceit. Yet the film’s ideas about corruption, which raise a number of complicated questions, are often pushed aside in favor of going after an easier target. As Rhodes ascends to the role of image coach to an aspiring senator, Worthington Fuller (Marshall Neilan), instructing the man, in part, to stop pursing his lips because it makes him look like a “sissy,” A Face in the Crowd stokes its indictment of populism while letting certain faults of liberalism off the hook.

The film’s most intriguing perspective on Jeffries and Rhodes is how the former’s infatuation with the latter is a tangle of professional ambition and sexual feeling; Kazan often places Jeffries in close-up, eyes wide, taking in Rhodes’s face with an ambivalent, though palpable, sense of excitement. When Rhodes exclaims, per one of Schulberg’s several crackerjack, double entendres, that “a guitar beats a woman every time,” the moment foreshadows that Jeffries will become the victim of such misogynist logic. In fact, it’s only after Rhodes has taken a teenage wife in Betty Lou (Lee Remick) that Jeffries suffers a mental breakdown and aims to destroy Rhodes’s career by revealing his fraudulent act.

In the end, the filmmakers only conceive of Rhodes’s appeal in mostly rudimentary terms, as in the cutaways to audiences either nodding in approval or exclaiming their support of him. When Jeffries broadcasts Rhodes, who believes he’s off air, calling his supporters a herd of idiotic sheep, the film settles for the most obvious takedown of the man imaginable. The notion that audiences, who see Rhodes as a savior, could so quickly flip from affectionate to contemptuous feels too easy. Given the uncertainty about television as a platform that runs throughout A Face in the Crowd, the finale’s relegation of Rhodes to lunatic status, left to rant and rave alone in his high-rise penthouse, feels more like wishful thinking on behalf of the filmmakers than a consideration of the potential consequences of celebrity worship.

Image/Sound

The image, sourced form a 4K digital transfer, boasts significantly more information than the 2005 DVD release of A Face in the Crowd from Warner Home Video. The climax set in Lonesome’s penthouse makes incredible use of depth of field, and the images are striking for their level of detail. Blacks and whites are well balanced throughout; especially impressive are the outdoor scenes of Lonesome being courted and corrupted by scheming politicians. While grit has been scrubbed from the image, nothing looks overly digitized or compromised by the restoration process. The monaural track is loud and impressive, meaning that each and every one of Lonesome’s guffaws and bellows comes through with necessary force. The dialogue and score are clearly audible throughout, with no signs of pops or hisses on the track.

Extras

In a new interview recorded for this release, film historian Ron Briley describes Elia Kazan’s career during the ‘50s, with particular attention given to the infamous HUAC hearings during which he named several writers and directors who were affiliated with the communist party. In fact, since both Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg had previously been members of the party, it was their being on the same page about the aftermath of the hearings, according to Briley, that led them to work together on On the Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd. Another new interview presents Andy Griffith biographer Evan Dalton Smith discussing how the actor’s early career contains parallels with that of Lonesome Rhodes, absent the eventual turn into demagoguery. The other two extras have been carried over from the 2005 DVD: a 30-minute documentary, “Facing the Past,” which features cast, crew, and film historians variously explaining the film’s legacy in historical and personal terms, and a theatrical trailer. A booklet contains three separate pieces: an essay by critic April Wolfe, who assesses the film’s prescient vision of media-saturated politics, excerpts from Kazan’s introduction to the film’s published screenplay, and a 1957 New York Times Magazine profile of Griffith.

Overall

Whether you find the execution of A Face in the Crowd brilliant or simplistic, Criterion’s excellent Blu-ray transfer will allow this classic of American political critique to remain a topic of debate for years to come.

Cast: Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau, Lee Remick, Anthony Franciosa, Percy Waram, Marshall Neilan Director: Elia Kazan Screenwriter: Budd Schulberg Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 126 min Rating: NR Year: 1957 Release Date: April 23, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Anthony Asquith’s Shooting Stars and Underground on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

In both films, Asquith shows a keen understanding of both the rules and roles of various genres.

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Shooting Stars

Although British director Anthony Asquith is known primarily for such acclaimed stage-to-film adaptations as Pygmalion, The Browning Version, and The Importance of Being Earnest, the first two of his three silent films, Shooting Stars and Underground, display a fully formed and unique vision of the tragic consequences of love. Released at the tail end of the silent era in 1928, these films tap into the violent impulses often lurking beneath romantic obsession, starting off as lighthearted comedies before sliding into something far more nefarious when their main characters sour on love.

Shooting Stars begins as a meta-satire of the film industry, cleverly and amusingly pulling back the curtain to reveal the often-clunky machinery involved in creating cinematic magic. Asquith opens on a schmaltzy, softly lit close-up of a cowboy kissing a young woman sitting in a tree, but after the cowboy rides off, the woman picks up a nearby dove to snuggle, only for the bird to bite her lip. And in true diva form, she looks directly into the camera, shrieking and angrily cursing up a storm. The romantic illusion is even further shattered when we see the cowboy being wheeled off screen on a makeshift wooden horse and a stunning crane shot tracks the actress as she storms from one set to another on the floor above, capturing all of the ropes, ladders, backdrops, and lighting apparatus that go into making cinema gold.

Few films of the silent era so baldly lay bare the unflattering, factory-like nature of early movie-making. But it’s the film’s collisions between the idealistic romance of so many silent films and the rougher realities outside of the camera’s eye that Shooting Stars is ultimately more interested in. Despite the on-screen chemistry of the aforementioned actors—Mae (Annette Benson) and Julian (Brian Aherne), who also happen to be their studio’s de facto power couple—and the former’s loving praise of her husband during a puff-piece interview, the actress is desperately looking for a way out of her seemingly happy marriage.

In a particularly amusing bit, Mae stands in the high-rise apartment of her lover, the hacky slapstick comedian Andy Wilks (Donald Calthrop), as an advertisement for her and Julian’s new film hangs in the middle of the frame, slyly blinking the title in bright lights: My Man. Asquith doubles down on the irony by cutting to Julian inside a theater, cheering on his on-screen counterpart from one of his earlier films as the hero rushes to rescue his wife from a friend who’s forcing himself upon the helpless woman. Here, cinema has become pure wish-fulfillment, and in the case of Julian, he took the bait hook, line, and sinker.

Following Julian’s inevitable rude awakening to Mae’s unfaithfulness, the film further blurs the line between fiction and reality when a blank from a rifle used in the western the actors are shooting is replaced with a real bullet. The material’s wry humor gives way to a suspenseful sequence that lends Shooting Stars a genuine pathos and psychological complexity as the stakes turn deadly and the title of the film takes on a second, and ironic, resonance.

Underground replaces film sets with the more lower-class milieu of the London Underground, but the toxic nature of jealousy is just as pronounced here. As in the earlier film, Asquith begins on a light note, with a kindly ticket taker, Bill (Aherne), falling in love with a classy salesgirl, Nell (Elissa Landi). In a scene that evinces a bit of the elusive Lubitsch touch, shadows on a distant wall act out various forms of kissing and embracing as the two youngsters flirt. But the shadows in this film soon take on more foreboding, harshly angular shapes as the brutish, envious Bert (Cyril McLaglen) schemes to have Nell all to himself.

Like Shooting Stars, Underground cleverly upends audience expectations in its handling of a love triangle, avoiding focusing on which man Nell will choose and instead morphing into a shockingly dark “wrong man” thriller that anticipates noir in both its aesthetics and thematic concerns. In both films, Asquith shows a keen understanding of both the rules and roles of various genres, using that familiarity to his advantage as he injects romantic flights of fancy with a playfulness and hard-edged honesty that gives these otherwise humorous films an underlying psychosexual tension and emotional richness.

Shooting Stars and Underground are now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

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The Criterion Channel Is Your Antidote to Algorithm-Driven Streaming

Below are some of the films, collections, and series that have already made the channel a vital service.

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Touki Bouki
Photo: World Cinema Foundation

When the Turner Classic Movies-operated film streaming service FilmStruck, the one-time exclusive online streaming home of the Criterion Collection, announced it was folding last November, an entire section of the internet went prostrate with despair. The bereaved included actor Bill Hader, who pled for FilmStruck’s rescue on stage at the IndieWire Honors in Los Angeles, and was one of several celebrity signatories on a petition to revive the service. Those curious about the contours of Hader’s cinephilia can now watch his multipart interview on the new Criterion Channel, part of a series of conversations with filmmakers about their favorite films the channel calls “Adventures in Moviegoing.”

The series, which features Hader discussing art-house classics like Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring and one-time Bruce Lee co-star Kareem Abdul-Jabar holding forth on samurai films, is one major feature that distinguishes the Criterion Channel from other major streaming services: It’s not just the quantity or even the selection of films available, but the sense that the service is curated by more than an algorithm. The automated suggestions of Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon confine their users to pathways they’re already on. If you watch The Umbrellas of Cherbourg on Amazon Prime, the site will probably recommend you try out Jacques Demy’s subsequent The Little Girls of Rochefort—rather than the recently rediscovered and restored John Woo-directed kung-fu film Last Hurrah for Chivalry, as Criterion’s series “Double Features” does.

There’s value in such counterintuitive recommendations: Drawing a line between the rhythms of dance and of the wuxia film’s choreographed conflict invites users to take part in a broader contemplation of the cinema’s capturing of bodies in motion. And if, with such esoteric films and unexpected pairings, the Criterion Channel appears as an “offbeat” film service, this is in large part because we’re now used to receiving viewing suggestions from systems that emulate only in outline the mechanism of recommendation. We’ve grown reliant on the facile generic groupings (“drama,” “adventure,” “comedy”) typical of algorithm-driven services. The service pointedly ignores genre in favor of auteur, country of origin, or historical context: Even its already celebrated “Columbia Noir Collection” focuses us on a particular historical moment in which the small studio produced “some of the finest noirs of the studio era.”

The selection is highly curated, but like any streaming service, the channel is also built around users’ ability to navigate and compile their own experiences. Perhaps recognizing that even people willing to dedicate more than three hours to Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman also use streaming services to fill a day’s interstitial moments, the site launched with a number of shorts and video essays—many of them extras on the Criterion Collection’s disc releases, but some unique to the streaming site. Grouped under “10 Minutes or Less” are such shorts as “Stan Lee on Alain Resnais,” a mind-blowing interview with the recently deceased comic giant in which he casually reveals his close friendship with the Last Year at Marienbad director, recounting the abortive film project they collaborated on—as well as Resnais’s longtime desire to direct a Spider-Man film.

With the recent announcement of Disney+, and given the numerous subscription-streaming services that are already threatening to glut the market, the streaming era is probably headed toward some kind of reckoning or realignment. Now that Janus Films has struck out on their own with the Criterion Channel, hopefully the distributor can find a durable niche online. Below are some of the further films, collections, and series that have already made the channel a vital service.

“The Agnés Varda Collection”

The Criterion Channel’s April 8 launch came in the immediate wake of the passing of French filmmaking giant Agnés Varda on March 29, and appropriately, the service’s front page offers “The Agnés Varda Collection,” assembling the fiction features, documentaries, and shorts that the channel’s disc label has been releasing since the middle of the last decade. Vital, canonical masterworks like Cléo from 5 to 7 and Vagaband are available on the service, but a discovery for many may be the shorts and docs the director made during her sojourns in California in the ‘60s and the ‘80s. Shades of the playful Varda we know from late-period essay films are apparent in her Uncle Yanco, to which Black Panthers, which evinces the social commitments that would always mingle with Varda’s aesthetic curiosity, makes a compelling companion piece.

“Directed by Vera Chytilova”

For years, the new waves that emerged from many countries reproduced the male-centric discourse of many of the films themselves, relegating the women associated with these movements, such as Varda in France, to secondary roles. Among the directors of the Czech New Wave, Milos Foreman is still undoubtedly the towering figure, but it’s safe to say, in large part because of Criterion’s release of her films in the United States, that the voice of Vera Chytilová has been rediscovered in recent years. The “Directed by Véra Chytilová” collection on the Criterion Channel offers a considerably smaller assemblage of films than the Varda collection, but the director’s Daisies, a color-soaked, surrealist classic about two young women playing (often meta-cinematic) pranks on the patriarchy, is a landmark both of feminist cinema and of the all too brief Czech New Wave.

“The Kids Aren’t All Right”

In an entry of the Criterion Channel’s “Short + Feature” series titled “The Kids Aren’t All Right,” dancer Lily Baldwin’s 2016 short film “Swallowed” is paired with the David Cronenberg body-horror classic The Brood, and each deals in their own unsettling way with the uncanniness of motherhood, when one’s body becomes more than just a shell for the self, but a conduit for other lifeforms. Baldwin stars in her own dialogue-light film as a recent, breastfeeding mother who feels increasingly as if a parasite has invaded her body, expressed through the contortions of modern dance and including a very messy scene that involves dairy products. Baldwin incorporates the contortions of modern dance to represent her character’s gnarly bodily transformation—as well as the dance troupe of parasites residing in the Grand Central Station of her soul. The short isn’t as bracing a depiction of mutated motherhood as Cronenberg’s The Brood, but it’s a suitable warm-up.

Senegalese Cinema: Black Girl and Touki Bouki

Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl is perhaps the only Sengalese film firmly in the canon, and is easy to find on the Criterion Channel within the category “Criterion Editions.” But under its Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project sublabel, the service offers at least one other feature from the West African country: Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki, a film that’s often compared to early Godard films such as Breathless and Pierrot le Fou for the way it combines a romantic story of an outcast couple with a deconstructive take on narrative. Such a comparison risks lapsing into a colonial perspective, as if Senegal cinema is necessarily derived from that of France. But if there’s a correspondence between Godard’s rebellious New Wave films and Touki Bouki’s defiant disregard of narrative space through energetic and confrontational montage, it should be understood as a kind of critique. The archetype of the young, disaffected, postwar man doesn’t have to look like Jean-Paul Belmondo, as he can also resemble Magaye Niang, the Senegalese actor who plays Mory in Touki Bouki.

Cruising around Dakar on his bull-horn-mounted motorcycle, Mory dreams of leaving Senegal for Paris with his girlfriend (Mareme Niang). But Touki Bouki takes its time getting to the meat of its heroes’ quest, seeking out other sights from early-‘70s Dakar—including, in some difficult-to-watch sequences, the actual production of meat. With images that transfix through both beauty and their visceral horror—and not without a healthy share of humor—Touki Bouki contains multitudes; it’s a film that deserves a place among the best of global New Wave cinema.

“Observations on Film Art”

Under the title “Observations on Film Art,” the Criterion Channel assembles video essays on films from the Criterion Collection by major film scholars and critics. One highlight is film historian Kristin Thompson on the use of color in Black Narcissus, the classic Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger film photographed by Jack Cardiff. Black Narcissus is a dark, sensual fantasy about a convent of nuns facing temptation in the Himalayas that would be pure camp if its expressionist use of color didn’t still have the power to provoke tension and anxiety. Thompson, an expert on film production in the studio era, meticulously constructs her argument about the film’s use of color both as mood and as symbol, beginning with a summary of the technical possibilities and limitations of the late ‘40s, showing how a stable set of film-production methods were built upon them, and then illustrating how Cardiff, Powell, and Pressburger defied these standards with their hypnotic film. Elsewhere in “Observations on Film Art,” Thompson’s husband, the film scholar David Bordwell, can be found analyzing narrative parallels in Chungking Express, Jeff Smith discusses framing in Shoot the Piano Player, and Thompson again elaborates on the use of sound in M.

Silent Cinema

Criterion’s library of silent films is mostly focused on comedy. Over the last few years, they’ve been releasing the films of Harold Lloyd, who today figures as the most minor of the “big three” silent comedians that also includes Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton, but who in the ‘20s was the most commercially successful. A few years ago, Janus also landed the rights to distribute most of the films that Chaplin made after 1917—the point from which the Chaplin estate owns the films’ copyrights. The channel’s assemblage of restored Chaplin films, from 1918’s A Dog’s Life to 1957’s A King in New York, are up on the streaming service under the “Directed by Charlie Chaplin” collection. The film largely regarded as Chaplin’s first feature-length masterpiece is 1921’s The Kid, which was recently released on the Criterion Collection.

Chaplin’s silent features are basically the foundation of the cinematic canon, but Criterion’s comprehensive rights to the catalogue means the channel features films from the era that are too commonly overlooked. His 1923 melodrama A Woman of Paris starring Edna Purviance is a subtle and sophisticated film, and his 1928 silent film The Circus is a rambunctious masterpiece of pantomimic hijinks, less sentimental than most of his features from the period, but just as smart. (And among his later, Tramp-less sound films, Monsieur Verdoux is a stirring, still-relevant morality play, the darkest of postwar Hollywood comedies.)

In addition to Hollywood comedy, classics of the silent Scandanavian screen also turn out to be a specialty of the Criterion Channel. The Danish Häxan, Benjamin Christensen’s deliciously twisted quasi-documentary about witches, is available on the service in its full, color-tinted glory. Also available for streaming are several early films by Swedish auteur Victor Sjöström. A Man There Was and The Outlaw and His Wife, both from 1917, exhibit an advanced grasp of cinema’s expressive powers, as well as the filmmaker’s most well-known Swedish film, the mortality drama The Phantom Carriage, and one of the great horror films of all time.

Sign up for the Criterion Channel here.

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