Artisan French filmmaking of the 1930s has dominated cinephilic perceptions of the period in the U.S. and Europe for decades, at least since the first Sight & Sound poll in 1952 ranked Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game and Marcel Carné’s Le Jour Se Lève, both released in 1939, among the 10 greatest films ever made. Precise box-office receipts from the period are hard to come by without extensive archival research, but it’s well-known that The Rules of the Game wasn’t only a financial failure, but that the version released in theaters was a shortened cut of Renoir’s intentions. No such statement can be made about Marcel Pagnol’s The Marseille Trilogy, which was both a critical success during the five-year run across all three films and the biggest grosser in France during each film’s initial year of release.
Marius’s popularity in 1931 surely hinged on its accessibility to both bourgeois and proletarian audiences. The characters of Pagnol’s brightly lit, mostly outdoor-set tale of taboos in socially conservative Marseille are as marked by anxieties over their placement in surrounding France as their role where they currently reside. Marius (Pierre Fresnay), son of local barkeeper César (Raimu), longs to set sail with the merchant navy, where he hopes to fulfill boyhood fantasies of heroism and valor. Director Alexander Korda shoots Marius, whose rolled-up sleeves and hardheaded attitude are comparable to the immigrant gangsters in U.S. cinema from the period, in wide shots that allow the character’s actions to dictate the camera’s movement, which gives his restlessness more presence than if Korda’s camera were constantly in motion. That’s not to say the film’s style is stagnant either; in a particularly memorable tracking shot, César enters a building and quickly exits the other side, as the camera rushes to make its mark.
Such stylistic continuity aligns the trilogy more with artistically inclined (and also popular) Hollywood films from the period, such as 1931’s City Lights, in which a focus on lighting and performance supersede an interest in formal flourish. Take a confrontation between Marius and the elder Panisse (Fernand Charpin), who are bickering over their respective chances to court Fanny (Orane Demazis), the eligible daughter of Honorine (Alida Rouffe), a local mussels merchant. Korda frames their faces in close-up, their noses just inches apart. The claustrophobia of the framing works to thematize Pagnol’s overarching examination of how social mores in tight living quarters are passed from one generation to the next. The structure of the films repeatedly make this point, so that Fanny plays much like a remake of Marius, even though it picks narratively up where the first film leaves off.
The trilogy’s greatest product is César, whose psychological complexity unravels as he’s forced to confront that he may be responsible for Marius’s abandonment of a pregnant Fanny at the conclusion of the first film. As played by Raimu, he’s a man of expressions, scoffs, and faulty but affectionate logic. In his most congenial moments, he’s harmlessly botching the recipe for a proper cocktail, which he’s trying to pass on to a disinterested Marius. At his most broken, he’s confronting the prospect of failing to both provide the emotional support Marius needs and grappling with his own financial constraints, which leave him tethered to owning a bar. In César’s climactic scene, as Marius explains his turn to bar culture and a possible life of low-level crime, it’s all placed at Cesar’s feet as he looks on, silently making sense of both his son and grandson’s (André Fouché) disdain for their heritage.
Throughout the trilogy, individual scenes are less impressive unto themselves than as pieces of a larger comic tapestry. And despite the potentially tragic framework, Pagnol provides his characters numerous chances at redemption, particularly Marius, whose return in César marks his third attempted reconciliation with his extended family, including a son who’s remained unknown to him for over 20 years. These films also abound in memorable lines, and at their best, as when Marius claims that hunger makes you do “silly things,” they convey a combination of pathos and humor. An ear and eye for the quotidian distinguishes Pagnol’s writing throughout, but it’s his direction in César, the only installment written and directed exclusively for the screen, that fully solidifies his rank among the finest filmmakers of the era. As César looks on wistfully in the conclusion of the final film, viewers may be reminded of Charlie Chaplin, René Clair, or Ernst Lubitsch, but it’s wholly Pagnol’s gaze, placing what might translate in contemporary speech to a smiley face at the end of a long, passionate assessment of a city that’s still capable, despite systemic hardship, of spawning joy.
A meticulous restoration using state-of-the-art technology ensures that every frame of The Marseille Trilogy beams with a radiance that could only have been matched by seeing the films during their initial run. As overseen by Nicolas Pagnol, who used a crowdfunding campaign to raise over half of the necessary restoration funds, all evidence of dirt and damage have been excised, while grain and depth of field remain both fully legible and seemingly faithful to Pagnol’s intentions. While the trilogy is more known for its writing than cinematography, these transfers may help to change that; outdoor shots glow with high-key light, which is perfectly modulated by the 4K technology. Signs of edge enhancement and digital scrubbing are minimal. The monaural track is slightly tinny at times, especially at times when music swells, but that’s more a product of early sound technology than a restoration gaffe.
It may warrant an entire day to sufficiently parse through this box set’s extras. Kicking things off is a lovely chat with Bertrand Tavernier, who explains how he discovered Pagnol’s films by way of François Truffaut and why Pagnol and Sacha Guitry are the most modern French filmmakers of their generation. On the more biographical side, Nicolas Pagnol, Marcel’s grandson, provides a half-hour discussion of Pagnol’s filmmaking origins, with a particular focus on his pre-production approach to shot construction and camera placement. For the completist, 90 minutes are included from the nearly six-hour Marcel Pagnol: Morceaux Choisis, a 1973 documentary series on Pagnol’s life and work, which covers the five years that Pagnol spent adapting and making the trilogy. Even more obscure is Marseille, a short 1935 doc about the Marseille harbor produced by Pagnol—an inclusion which helps concretize Pagnol’s desire to make the city an essential component of the films. The most helpful extra is a half-hour video essay by film scholar Brett Bowles that contextualizes the films as progenitors of what became known as poetic realism. Rounding out the balanced diet of supplements is a television clip from 2015 about the restoration of the trilogy, the theatrical rerelease trailer, and a booklet containing an essay by film critic Michael Atkinson and excerpts from Pagnol’s introductions to his plays and screenplays.
Long available only on insufficient DVD transfers and in tattered prints, The Marseille Trilogy finally arrives on Blu-ray boasting a radiant image and a boatload of extras worthy of Marcel Pagnol’s inimitable wit and style.
Cast: Raimu, Pierre Fresnay, Orane Demazis, Fernand Charpin, Alida Rouffe, Paul Dullac, Robert Vattier, André Fouché Director: Alexander Korda, Marc Allégret, Marcel Pagnol Screenwriter: Marcel Pagnol Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 395 min Rating: NR Year: 1931 – 1936 Release Date: June 20, 2017 Buy: Video
Review: George Miller’s Action Classic Mad Max Gets 4K UHD Edition from Kino
Now on 4K Ultra HD, Mad Max reminds us anew that few contemporary action films match its appetite for risk.3.5
The apocalypse, whatever may have caused it, wasn’t particularly devastating to the Melbourne landscape that George Miller’s Mad Max takes as its setting. Green grass and blue skies are intact, and seeing as groceries and food are still readily available for purchase, it can be assumed that capitalism survived as well. But chaos still reigns, as the roads are rife with motorcycle gangs, addled speedsters, perverts, thieves, and a myriad of other criminals who take what they like from others and kill without fear of reprisal. The chief reason for their cavalier attitudes is that the ranks of the Main Force Patrol (MFP), the remnants of Australia’s highway patrol, have been pared down to a ragtag gang of leather-clad lawmen who drive around in refitted Melbourne police cars.
The most feared of these automobiles carries the name “Interceptor,” driven by the most trusted and skilled of MFP men, Max Rockatansky, played by a young Mel Gibson. In the fantastic opening scene, the MFP’s pursuit of a crazed speedster, nicknamed the Nightrider, are carefully punctuated by shots of Max’s slow preparation for the last leg of the chase. As expected, the Nightrider meets his end in a blaze, but even as Max goes home to see his family and receives congratulations from Goose (Steve Bisley), his partner, a more wild and treacherous force, a motorcycle gang, takes up the Nightrider’s cause and begins a campaign of bedlam on his behalf. Led by a tyrannical madman known as the Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne), the gangsters take responsibility for several heinous acts before they decide to target Goose, Max, and, toward the end, Max’s family.
Often hailed as one of the chief cinematic exports of the Ozploitation era, Mad Max should be noted more as a miracle of economic filmmaking than as a narrative landmark of Australian cinema. Budgeted somewhere slightly north of $300,000, the film is exciting, fleet-footed, and beautifully, ominously shot by then first-time cinematographer David Eggby. In comparison, Smokey and the Bandit II, a film built on similar facets and released in the same year as Mad Max, though wholly different in tone, was given an immense budget and failed to illicit anything but a few ironic guffaws at unintended moments and a chorus of yawns. The lean budget ultimately works to Mad Max’s advantage: The Australian landscape conveys dissolution and ruin far better than any stylized future world could and Miller builds remarkable tension from scaled-back action sequences and some superb car chases.
Much of this action lands in the final 30 minutes, making the film a bit back-loaded and even a bit anticlimactic. Max’s inevitable showdown with Toecutter comes early and ends too easily, but the film’s final scene, which inspired James Wan and Leigh Whannell to write the first Saw film, thrusts a stake deep into Max’s belief in balanced justice. Politically, Mad Max is about as barebones as action films come: The good guy is a family man who gives justice a chance while the villains are without morals, conscience, sanity, or even a spec of humanity. Art director Jon Dowding once likened Toecutter’s regalia to that of Genghis Khan, while Max wears a near-tailor-fitted, sufficiently badass leather outfit and a pair of aviator shades.
Peter Weir’s Gallipoli is credited for showing Gibson in a more romantic light, leading him to his most popular performance as Riggs in the Lethal Weapon series. Looking back, Gallipoli hardly carries the same specialized importance given to Mad Max and is, at the end of the day, generally overrated. One could say plenty about what’s happened in the subsequent years with Gibson, but his charisma and sheer presence in Mad Max is undeniable. Roaming the asphalt with a sawed-off shotgun, Gibson plays the last snapped sinew of true justice in a world gone wrong, a role he would return to in several other forms. In fact, Mad Max can now be seen as setting the political tenor of Gibson’s career. One could only wish it had also set the bar for his creativity as well: Braveheart made on a budget of $300,000 would be quite the sight.
Intel is scarce online regarding whether this Ultra HD edition of Mad Max is in fact the result of a new 4K remaster, but this much is clear: The image on the disc leaves prior home-video incarnations of the film in the dust. Certainly, given the luxuriously sturdy grain resolution, Mad Max has never looked so film-like on the small screen as it does here. Additionally, skin tones are warm and natural, and beyond a few yellows and reds that take on an almost neon quality in the light of day, the range of colors is deep and rich. (Pop in the accompanying Blu-ray disc and you may do a double take when you notice how much darker the image there is in comparison.) The audio hasn’t gotten the same facelift, as we get the same DTS-HD Master Audio tracks here that we’ve heard before, but if you’ve seen Mad Max, and as such are familiar with its low-budget origins, then you know that there isn’t much that can be done to make the dialogue during the many action sequences sound as if its competing to be heard over the din of the carnage that plays out on Melbourne’s highways. Nonetheless, there’s still a lot of dynamism in the mid-range, and the action sequences are suitably immersive.
Most of the extras, which, for better and worse, are only available on the accompanying Blu-ray disc, have been ported over from prior editions of the film. The chummy commentary track, moderated by filmmaker Tim Ridge, features cinematographer David Eggby, art director Jon Dowding, and special effects artist Chris Murray, and it’s a wellspring of anecdotes about this galvanizing film’s making. The only new feature is a 30-minute interview with George Miller recorded during the pandemic via Zoom that finds the auteur reminiscing about the film’s production and coolly showing off his cinephile bona fides by referencing filmmakers, including Charlie Chaplin and John Ford, whose cinematic triumphs paved the way for Mad Max. Rounding out the disc is a series of interviews, a featurette on Mel Gibson and his breakout role in the film, and a series of trailers and TV and radio spots.
Mad Max makes its 4K Ultra HD debut with an impressive image presentation, reminding us anew that few contemporary action films match its appetite for risk.
Cast: Mel Gibson, Joanne Samuel, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Steve Bisley, Tim Burns, Roger Ward, Vince Gil Director: George Miller Screenwriter: George Miller, James McCausland Distributor: KL Studio Classics Running Time: 93 min Rating: R Year: 1979 Release Date: November 24, 2020 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: 15-Disc Essential Fellini Box Set on the Criterion Collection
Essential Fellini is one of the most elegantly designed and supplement-packed sets that Criterion has ever released.5
Though there are a handful of themes and images that recur throughout his work, Federico Fellini’s style underwent a drastic change at the cusp of the 1960s, shifting from the predominant neorealist aesthetic to a heady, surrealistic brew of “memories, dreams, and reflections” (to quote the title of Carl Jung’s partially autobiographical book, which Fellini greatly admired). The Criterion Collection’s lavish Essential Fellini box set just about evenly splits the difference between the two periods. The set contains 14 of Federico Fellini’s films, from his 1950 debut, Variety Lights, co-directed with Alberto Lattuada, to 1987’s Intervista, a fascinatingly recursive paean to the golden days of studio filmmaking that wasn’t his swan song (he would go on to make The Voice of the Moon in 1990).
With its tale of a peripatetic band of low-rent theater types, Variety Lights incorporates many, if not most, of Fellini’s signature themes. La Strada, from 1954, takes the light-hearted comedy of the earlier film into a starker, more existentially tragic direction. By the ‘60s and into the ‘70s, the promise of the open road has curdled into an impasse: Witness the famous traffic jam that opens 1963’s 8½, which is in turn echoed in the openings scene of 1972’s Roma. About idle youth in rural Italy, and a recounting of Fellini’s own departure for Rome at the age of 18, I Vitelloni establishes the vein of nostalgia that runs throughout many of the Italian auteur’s later works, though here it’s a bit more clear-eyed and unsentimental.
The specter of self-destruction haunts Fellini’s work throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s. Giulietta Masina’s character in both La Strada and 1957’s Nights of Cabiria loses all will to live due to the brutality and indifference of the men in her life. In 1965’s Juliet of the Spirits, it’s the knowledge of her husband’s infidelity and the memory of a classmate’s suicide that brings Masina’s characters, named Giulietta, to the brink of oblivion. Which isn’t to say that Fellini’s male characters aren’t similarly haunted: For one, Marcello Mastroianni’s Guido in 8½, feeling creatively bankrupt, comes close to turning a gun on himself. In fact, Fellini at the last minute changed out the original ending, which hinted more strongly that Guido had actually gone through with the act, for the comparatively celebratory, if still ambiguous, one we now have.
Given the darkness at the heart of these works, it’s hardly surprising that Fellini flirted at times with the horror genre, a trend that culminated in Toby Dammit, his contribution to 1968’s Poe-themed anthology film Spirits of the Dead. In La Dolce Vita, from 1960, Marcello (Mastroianni) attends a séance at a remote villa, then participates in a tenebrous ghost hunt around its grounds, an extended sequence that Fellini imbues with a suitably gothic atmosphere. Juliet of the Spirits includes fantasy sequences featuring a blond-haired demon child and a group of sexually uninhibited women who may or may not be vampires. In Toby Dammit, the devil is another towheaded girl (an image Fellini may have lifted straight from Mario Bava’s Kill, Baby…Kill!) who lures Toby (Terence Stamp) to his doom.
In his later films, Fellini inclined toward nostalgia or abstraction, sometimes both, while remaining grounded to a certain extent by the bawdy, earthy humor that he learned during his apprentice days writing scripts in the commedia all’italiana vein. Roma takes the episodic nature of the Felliniesque road movie to its logical conclusion, eschewing even the slight connective tissue of the recurring characters who hold together an otherwise fragmented, Brechtian work like 1969’s Fellini Satyricon, his free adaptation of a first-century novel by Roman courtier Petronius. Set in the 1930s, 1973’s Amarcord is a record of one year in the life of a coastal city, much like the Rimini of Fellini’s youth, free associatively combining the director’s boyhood memories with the daily life of a childhood friend. And the Ship Sailed On, from 1983, is a study in art and artificiality, ending with that arch cinematic sleight of hand: the pulling of the camera back to reveal the very process of its own creation.
Though not Fellini’s final film, Intervista can stand as a capstone to his career. The film’s multiple layers include a depiction of Fellini’s first visit to the Cinecittá Studios in Rome in 1940, his attempt to direct an adaptation of Franz Kafka’s Amerika, and an interview with Fellini by a Japanese television crew that encompasses a tour of the studio’s present-day facilities. Here, Fellini effortlessly weaves together various registers, aesthetic and otherwise, continually undercutting whatever level of “reality” seems to be in front of the camera(s) at any given time. Far from coming across as pretentious, it’s all done with a wry humor, thus serving not only as an ideal valedictory for one of cinema’s greatest directors, but also as the perfect film to close out Criterion’s collection of his essential films.
Eleven of the films in Essential Fellini are presented in new 4K restorations (the others are sourced from recent Blu-ray releases of individual films). In addition, there are new digital restorations of the short film Toby Dammit and the made-for-TV Fellini: A Director’s Notebook. Across the board, the transfers look superb. The early black-and-white films present gorgeous high-contrast images with deeply compressed blacks. The color films are truly eye-popping, especially Juliet of the Spirits, some of whose Technicolor imagery seems to prefigure the candy-colored nightmares of Dario Argento’s Suspiria. The Italian LPCM mono tracks are uniformly first-rate, presenting dialogue clearly and cleanly, and giving plenty of presence to frequent Fellini composer Nino Rota’s elegant, often carnivalesque scores.
The films included in Essential Fellini come packaged in a gorgeously decorated case whose front lifts off like a deluxe LP box set. The 15 discs, including one devoted to the 193-minute cut of the documentary Marcello Mastroianni: I Remember, are housed in a flipbook that suggests a photo album. Beneath that, two books nestle in their own pigeonholes: a lavishly illustrated guide to the films, complete with lists of extras and information on the restorations, and a thick (and thickly illustrated) book of essays from filmmakers and film critics.
Notable among the set’s wealth of extras are six commentary tracks, an appreciative documentary about Fellini’s wife and frequent collaborator, Giulietta Masina, and archival interviews with a number of actors who worked on more than one Fellini film, including Marcello Mastroianni, Sandra Milo, and Anouk Aimée. Damian Pettigrew’s feature-length documentary Fellini: I’m a Born Liar from 2002 is an excellent place to start, as it not only provides a career-spanning over of Fellini’s life and career but is also based on his last confessions and includes recollections from Donald Sutherland and Terence Stamp. (Speaking of Stamp, there’s a newly restored version of Toby Dammit to be found on the Juliet of the Spirits disc.) Also of note is a four-part interview with Fellini from 1960 that’s spread across four discs, as well as four hour-long behind-the-scenes documentaries and a retrospective that features a number of late-life interviews with Fellini looking back over his career.
Essential Fellini is one of the most elegantly designed and supplement-packed sets that the Criterion Collection has ever released.
Cast: Peppino De Filippo, Carla Del Poggio, Giulietta Masina, John Kitzmiller, Dante Maggio, Alberto Sordi, Brunella Bovo, Leopoldo Trieste, Franco Interlenghi, Franco Fabrizi, Riccardo Fellini, Leonora Ruffo, Jean Brochard, Claude Farell, Anthony Quinn, Richard Basehart, Aldo Silvani, Livia Venturini, Broderick Crawford, Sue Ellen, Irene Cefaro, François Périer, Franca Marzi, Dorian Gray, Amedeo Nazzari, Marcello Mastroianni, Anita Ekberg, Anouk Aimée, Yvonne Furneaux, Magali Noël, Alain Cuny, Annibale Ninchi, Walter Santesso, Bruno Agostini, Sandra Milo, Barbara Steele, Caterina Boratto, Claudia Cardinale, Mario Pisu, Valeska Gert, Sylva Koscina, Frederick Ledebur, Valentina Cortese, Martin Potter, Hiram Keller, Max Born, Salvo Randone, Il Moro, Magali Noël, Capucine, Alain Cuny Fanfulla, Danica la Loggia, Lucia Bosé, Peter Gonzales, Fiona Florence, Pia De Doses, Renato Giovannoli, Dennis Christopher, Feodor Chaliapin Jr., Elliott Murphy, Anna Magnani, Gore Vidal, John Francis Lane, Federico Fellini, Pupella Maggio, Armando Brancia, Ciccio Ingrassia, Nando Orfei, Luigi Rossi, Bruno Zanin, Gianfilippo Carcano, Josiane Tanzilli, Freddie Jones, Barbara Jefford, Victor Poletti, Peter Cellier, Elisa Mainardi, Norma West, Paolo Paoloni, Sarah Jane Varley, Sergio Rubini, Antonella Ponziani, Maurizio Mein, Paola Liguori, Lara Wendel, Antonio Cantafora, Nadia Ottaviani Director: Federico Fellini, Alberto Lattuada Screenwriter: Federico Fellini, Alberto Lattuada, Tullio Pinelli, Ennio Flaiano, Brunello Rondi, Bernardino Zapponi, Tonino Guerra Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 1692 min Rating: NR Year: 1950 - 1987 Release Date: November 24, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: Robert Altman’s Popeye Gets 40th Anniversary Blu-ray Edition
This undervalued film receives a beautiful transfer for its Blu-ray debut, but the dearth of extras leaves much to be desired.3
Robert Altman’s fans have all but written off 1980’s Popeye as another charred remnant of the auteur’s spectacular burnout at the close of the 1970s—virtually indistinguishable from the equally underrated Health, A Wedding, and Quintet. But Popeye is in need of a serious critical rediscovery, because virtually every one of Altman’s signature hallmarks—that teeming sense of community gathering habits, concern for social inequalities, and fondness for earnest, country-fried comic bits—are very much alive here.
Anyone new to Altman is likely to be put off by the film’s unique worldview. Known for building American communities from the bottom up, the director took a well-established slice of Americana and seemingly refused to distance himself through irony or radical departures—like, say, having Popeye on the front lines in the Korean War. Popeye (Robin Williams), Bluto (Paul L. Smith), and Olive Oyl (Shelley Duvall) trip and mumble their way through exaggerated love triangles just like they did in the original serial comics and short films. But if you strip away the film’s loyalty to the E.C. Segar source material, it’s not difficult to see that, in many ways, Popeye is Altman’s comic spin on McCabe & Mrs. Miller, even substituting that film’s whore house with a floating gambling house and brothel. Like Warren Beatty’s John McCabe, Williams’s Popeye has a habit of vocalizing his inner dialogues.
For a film often dismissed as kiddie fare, there are a surprising number of Altman concepts that are likely to fly right over the heads of youngins. The town of Sweethaven, where Popeye lands in search of his Pap, is cheerfully oblivious to the fact that they’re in a state of severe economic and social oppression. Bluto represents the strong arm of the law (the beanpole constable jumps out of windows whenever the man-mountain enters the room) and the noodly taxman represents its sticky fingers. Both work for a shadowy dictatorial menace known as the Commodore. “Next to Wimpy, I hate him best,” the Topol-like Mr. Geezil privately bellows. The hints of a far more menacing political situation undercut most of the jokes. Wimpy’s (Paul Dooley) immortal “I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” sounds like it’s coming from a man blissfully ignorant of his severe dependency on credit currency.
To kids, Wimpy is a hamburgler. To adults, he’s the recently laid-off neighbor. Also, most kids probably can’t grasp what Olive Oyl’s arpeggio-ridden ballad to Bluto’s “large” qualities is really about. Throughout Popeye, Altman directs the complex web of social interactions with a frame that’s both inclusive and prying. And the actors he collected and dropped in Malta’s simulated community help evoke an atmosphere that is genial yet guarded. Duvall couldn’t possibly have played Olive Oyl badly, and to watch Williams’s sweet interpretation of the hyper-violent original character here is to mourn what we lost when the actor bamboozled his way into the hearts of Oscar prognosticators looking for an easy dark horse with roles in such films as Patch Adams, Bicentennial Man, and Jakob the Liar.
This is the first time Popeye has been released on Blu-ray and Paramount’s 1080p transfer really does wonders for the film. The image is consistently sharp, with the high dynamic range allowing the stunning Malta setting and the vibrant colors of the costumes to really pop, especially against the brown hues that dominate the film’s elaborate set. Grain levels are even, albeit a bit slight at times, and the black levels are strong, rendering minute details visible even during the darkest nighttime sequences. As for the audio, Robert Altman’s typically layered sound design and the film’s many songs are given a robust mix that nicely separates all of the overlapping dialogue and deluge of various sound effects.
“Return to Sweethaven: A Look Back with Robin and the Altmans” looks at some of the insanity of the film’s shoot in Malta, but while the stories about the efforts made to create the Sweethaven set and the studio’s responses to the production going long and over budget are interesting, 13 minutes is barely enough time to scratch the surface. Considering the perceived failure of the film and its effect on the next decade of Altman’s career, this subject matter begs for a more comprehensive treatment. The other featurette on the disc, “The Popeye Company Players,” is even more perfunctory, running down the major actors in the film and providing brief behind-the-scenes anecdotes, such as Robin Williams learning to dance for the film and Altman’s insistence on Shelley Duvall for the part of Olive Oyl. The disc is rounded out with a very short slideshow of pictures from the film’s debut in 1980 and a feature that lets you watch only the songs from the film, both separately or all in a row.
Robert Altman’s idiosyncratic, undervalued musical comedy receives a beautiful transfer for its Blu-ray debut, but the dearth of extras leaves much to be desired.
Cast: Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall, Ray Walston, Paul Dooley, Richard Libertini, Donald Moffat, Paul L. Smith, Linda Hunt Director: Robert Altman Screenwriter: Jules Feiffer Distributor: Paramount Home Entertainment Running Time: 113 min Rating: PG Year: 1980 Release Date: November 24, 2020 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
Blu-ray Review: Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman on the Criterion Collection
Criterion’s exacting presentation of Scorsese’s late-inning masterpiece is a testament to the enduring value of physical media.4
With The Irishman, Martin Scorsese proves to be in an alluringly funereal mood. Appropriately, his latest film opens in a kind of purgatory, with a slow, serpentine tracking shot through a nursing home. The Five Satins’s “In the Still of the Night” acts as murmuring accompaniment, and the doo-wop classic, repeated several times throughout the film, is as pivotal and hauntingly autumnal a needle drop as the Platters’s “My Prayer” in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return. Rodrigo Prieto’s camera eventually settles on the elderly, wheelchair-bound labor union official and mobster Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (Robert De Niro), who’s lost in thought but also ready to talk a blue streak about what he believes to have been a very eventful existence.
In reality, Sheeran told his life story to author and former investigator Charles Brandt for the 2004 memoir I Heard You Paint Houses, which is the basis for the film’s screenplay by Steven Zaillian. (The book’s title is mob code for blood splattering the walls during a contract killing.) In The Irishman, which spans the mid-1940s to the early aughts, Sheeran is effectively chatting with the audience about his rise from a low-level hood to the right-hand man to labor union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), who he also claims to have killed in 1975. Yet the degree to which Sheeran is an unreliable narrator, perhaps even to himself, is always debatable in the film, and not just because the Hoffa case has never been officially closed.
More so than Goodfellas or Casino, Scorsese’s two other told-in-retrospect gangster films, The Irishman—at least for the first two hours of its riveting three-and-a-half-hour runtime—feels composed of burnished, often blackly funny, fragments of erratic memory. Sheeran glosses over the truth even when he’s telling it, recalling the past, even at its most violent, with a propulsive, rosy cheer that plays at a cursory glance like Goodfellas-lite. A comical aside about two gangsters named “Whispers” (“the other one,” Sheeran keeps repeating as if he were in an Abbott and Costello routine) would slot quite comfortably into that earlier film.
Yet there are narrative and aesthetic tells in The Irishman that hint at the much darker undercurrents that will eventually come to the fore. Sheeran often speaks of himself as a devoted family man, though his two wives and children occupy a mostly peripheral place on screen. Anna Paquin makes the most of a largely dialogue-free role as Sheeran’s daughter, Peggy, whose disapproval of her father’s criminal life leads to estrangement. Then there’s the recurring superimposed text that notes the eventual date and manner of death of a number of peripheral characters, even as they’re standing flush before us. (Another older statesman, Marco Bellocchio, did something similar in this year’s The Traitor, the filmmaker’s terrific biopic about Sicilian mafioso turned informant Tommaso Buscetta.)
Scorsese’s choice, in many of these early scenes, to expensively and time-consumingly de-age his principal cast members with digital technology has the strange effect of making Sheeran’s recollections seem that much more like an idealized fantasy that cannot hold. The technical showboating—softening and erasing wrinkles, making flaccid skin seem taut—is subtle enough to not be mortifying, yet apparent enough that the CGI stitching tends to show, especially in brighter scenes. It also plays rather potently meta, since The Irishman gathers a murderer’s row of American acting elites—not only De Niro and Pacino, but Joe Pesci (as Sheeran’s mentor Russell Bufalino) and Harvey Keitel (as Philadelphia-based don Angelo Bruno)—three of whom Scorsese has worked with multiple times over his very long career.
De Niro and Pacino, meanwhile, have a titan-like history that includes just a few on-screen collaborations, some epochal (Heat), some decidedly not (Righteous Kill). The two actors have additionally reached a point where bellowing self-parody and resting on laurels is de rigueur, the hope of a blazing last hurrah dissipating with every humdrum SNL appearance or cringe-inducing travesty like the “Dunkaccino” segment from Jack and Jill.
Scorsese knows what his audience is hoping for: glory days, resurrected. But he also understands the impossibility of anyone being exactly as they once were. So he weaves that longing into both The Irishman’s text and its technique, presenting Sheeran’s youthful recollections—his rise in rank with Bufalino’s crew, his work with a beleaguered Hoffa during the era when Attorney General Robert Kennedy (Jack Huston) worked hard to bring down organized crime—as augmented hoodlum reveries that will soon catch up with the character’s spiritually impoverished present. And this eventual shift is hinted at by a parallel narrative, snippets of which we see throughout the film’s first two hours, in which a much older Sheeran and Bufalino take a hilariously roundabout road trip, chain-smoking wives in tow, to a wedding that’s being used as cover for Hoffa’s murder.
This becomes the main story thread in hour three, and it features what should rank among Scorsese’s greatest set pieces as Sheeran comes to terms with and carries out Hoffa’s killing. It’s a sequence that’s austere in tone and approach (with one swaggering segue into goofball, semi-improvisatory humor), yet also unbearably tense and emotionally devastating. De Niro expertly sketches the moral bottoming out of an immoral man (his mumbly, halting call with Hoffa’s wife after the deed is done is a particular highlight), and it’s thrilling to see him so engaged. Pacino is no less impressive as the volatile Hoffa , so stubborn in his need to hold onto the presidency of the union that he built from the ground up that he’ll heed no warnings to the contrary about the degree to which his conduct may court disaster or death.
To Sheeran, Hoffa is like a king with his head in the clouds, or a spouse who just won’t listen to reason. The platonic romanticism of their relationship—sharing the same hotel rooms, exchanging yearning glances or gentle compliments even in their most explosive moments—is one of The Irishman’s most intriguing facets. Scorsese is no stranger to chaste, if still devout, love stories between men, and when Hoffa exits the film, Sheeran becomes like Orpheus minus Eurydice, mourning his beloved and yearning for the inevitable—though, of course, he’d never admit that his feelings were anything beyond strictly professional.
The ultimate tragedy of The Irishman is that Sheeran is incapable of singing his song of self with the kind of unblinking honesty that might lead him through regret and toward redemption. Near the end of the film, Sheeran asks that his door be left slightly ajar, a mirror of something that occurs in an earlier scene between him and Hoffa. The way Scorsese photographs Sheeran through the opening reveals a man drained of all his perceived power, and distressingly content with the unholy mess he’s left behind.
The 4K transfer of The Irishman looks and sounds incredible, with a greater wealth of texture than Netflix’s presentation—a contrast that speaks to the continued value of physical media. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography is ravishing, a feast of subtly varied autumnal hues that are occasionally punctuated by the bright, primal color of, say, a street sign or an ice cream sundae. (The visual differentiations between the decades are also more prominent here.) Clothing textures, and there are thousands of intricate, memorable costumes in the film, practically burst from the screen here, and facial details, especially those that haven’t been de-aged, are equally vivid. The Dolby Atmos track is a show pony, as this epic film is a tapestry of song cues, violence, and, most importantly, of the small vocal inflections of men of violence who speak in innuendo. The Irishman is, above all, a chamber piece, and every nuance of speech resounds with crystal clarity, transforming the audience into voyeurs and detectives.
The highlights here are “Gangsters’ Requiem,” a visual essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme, and the “The Wages of Loyalty” liner-notes essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien. Nehme examines The Irishman as a thoughtful culmination of Martin Scorsese’s gangster cycle, while O’Brien likens the film to a poem, describing its intricate grasp of character portraiture and behavior, as well as its incredibly assured time-hopping structure. The other featurettes tend to repeat themselves, though none of them are without interest. “Making The Irishman” is superior to most such promotional items because the filmmakers and actors discuss the production with refreshing specificity. It’s said, for instance, that Scorsese wanted the film to “look like nothing,” a mysterious request that hints at The Irishman’s deceptively austere compositions.
A roundtable conversation over drinks with Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci, which was available on Netflix last year, is mostly predicated on the correct assumption that audiences want to hang out with these legends, offering little new information about the making of The Irishman. Though it’s only six minutes long, “Anatomy of a Scene: The Irishman,” part of a series shepherded by New York Times staff editor Mekado Murphy, is more illuminating, offering a glimpse into the motivations behind the Frank Sheeran “appreciation night” scene. Rounding out the package is a featurette (also produced by Netflix) on The Irishman’s controversial de-aging effects, a few trailers, and archive footage of the real Sheeran and Jimmy Hoffa, which directly informed certain scenes in the film.
Criterion’s exacting presentation of Martin Scorsese’s late-inning masterpiece is a testament to the enduring value of physical media, ironically given that the film is a Netflix title.
Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Jack Huston, Kathrine Narducci, Jesse Plemons, Domenick Lombardozzi, Paul Herman, Gary Basaraba, Marin Ireland, Lucy Gallina, Jonathan Morris, Dascha Polanco, Welker White, Louis Cancelmi, Bo Dietl, Sebastian Maniscalco, Aleksa Palladino, Steven Van Zandt, Jim Norton Director: Martin Scorsese Screenwriter: Steven Zaillian Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 209 min Rating: R Year: 2020 Buy: Video
Review: Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend on KL Studio Classics Blu-ray
Kino outfits the despairing, pioneering film with a beautiful transfer and one of the best audio commentaries of the year.4
Famous as one of Hollywood’s earliest explorations of the realities of alcoholism, Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend has attained a reputation as a trailblazer that’s grown stodgy over time. The Oscar-winning film does feel self-consciously presentational at times, such as in the way that Don Birnam (Ray Milland) loudly describes the contours of his lusts and fears, though alcoholics are prone to doing exactly that. Part of the insidious pull of addiction—especially alcoholism, which is enabled by society on a scale that’s unparalleled by most other vices—is the way it allows addicts to sustain their personal mythologies. Don may voice subtexts that are already evident in Wilder and Charles Brackett’s screenplay, but when he talks obviously and theatrically about his struggles with the bottle, he’s understood by the filmmakers to be performing. And this performance props up Don’s drinking and vice versa, allowing him to glamorize himself as a grand struggling writer and boozer, rather than just a boozer.
The film opens with an aerial shot of Manhattan that would almost certainly inform the first image of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, similarly suggesting that we’re randomly homing in on merely one of countless stories playing out in the city. Don’s been dry for 10 days and is set to travel into the country with his brother, Wick (Phillip Terry), so that he may rest and recover. It’s clear from the outset, given Don’s brittle, angry demeanor, that he isn’t yet interested in recovery—a suspicion that’s boldly confirmed when he pulls a string dangling out of the apartment window to reveal a quart of rye, which he attempts to drink behind his brother’s back. Don’s caught, though he’s granted a reprieve when his girlfriend, Helen (Jane Wyman), drops by. Astonishingly, even after the rye has been discovered, Don convinces Wick to go to the opera with Helen and leave him alone in the apartment until they’re to reconvene and depart for the country in a few hours. Meanwhile, Don falls off the wagon and stays drunk for several days, while Wick, disgusted with Don’s relapses, leaves the city anyway.
The notion of Wick and Helen irrationally leaving Don this golden opportunity to drink is brutally believable. Such indulgence springs from a certain naïveté—that this time Don will master himself—as well as from simple exhaustion with fighting a seemingly unwinnable fight. It’s easier to let the drinker drink, especially in a society that sees teetotaling as a little unnatural. Wilder and Brackett are wickedly aware of society as a kind of contemptuous enabler, and this awareness imbues The Lost Weekend with an untarnished power. Besides Wick and Helen, there’s Don’s regular bartender, Nat (Howard Da Silva), who castigates him for his drinking yet continues to serve him, sometimes criticizing him while in the very act of pouring a shot. Of course, only Don can stop Don from drinking, and such sequences capture the weird comfort for those with lives out of balance of entombing oneself in a bar, with everyone implicitly understanding that you are enslaving yourself to a potentially fatal yet reassuringly predictable routine, which is glossed over with in-jokes, gossip, and shtick.
Wilder doesn’t entirely go for the preaching of many “issues” productions in The Lost Weekend, informing it instead with the lurid style and tone of his prior Double Indemnity. The dialogue here is hard, terse, and occasionally floridly comic, and noir-esque images vividly embody the pain and double life of Don’s sickness, such as the growing water rings on the bar from his endless shots, or the row of upturned stools and chairs that resembles the fence of a prison while establishing that Don’s getting a drink as early as possible, or a hallucination scene, symbolizing a case of the “DTs,” that suggests a moment from a gothic horror film.
Most unforgettable, and famous, is Don’s neorealistic trudge throughout the streets of lower Manhattan to pawn his typewriter for drinking money. Every pawn shop is closed, and his hungover roasting under the sunlight suggests the ultimate physicalizing of the anguish of thirst. Wilder even generates a perverse kind of suspense from empathetically linking us with Don’s enablers. As Don scurries from one embarrassment to the next, desperate for booze, we come to root for him to have it so as to grant us reprieve from the film’s modulated tension. Such manipulation is especially notable when Don remembers where he hid a bottle: within a ceiling light, its silhouette inadvertently outlined from above like an ironic gift from heaven.
The Lost Weekend is nevertheless inhibited by certain concessions. Lost amid Wilder’s baroque touches—most regrettably the theremin sound that often accompanies shots of tempting alcohol—is the casualness of Charles Jackson’s autobiographical novel, which dramatizes a bender with a matter-of-factness that’s truly terrifying. Wilder and Brackett also elide Jackson’s implications that Don is gay, as well as the author’s uncompromising “no exit” finale, though the film’s ending is less conclusive than is generally acknowledged. While these failures of nerve signify the constraints of American filmmaking during the reign of the Hays Code, The Lost Weekend remains a haunting tour of a very real kind of hell.
This new 4K restoration of The Lost Weekend boasts an image with exceptional depth and clarity, emphasizing the gritty details of the film’s New York City locations, and the vastness of deep focus imagery that conveys the protagonist’s addled state of mind. Blacks are rich, whites are sharp, and the film’s intricate use of light and shadow is vividly preserved. The sound mix is clean and sturdy, particularly underscoring the diegetic sounds of booze as it’s poured and consumed, as well as the dimensions of Miklós Rózsa’s rather insistent score.
The audio commentary by Joseph McBride is unusually personal, given that the film historian is a recovering alcoholic. An expert on Billy Wilder, McBride is somewhat leery of The Lost Weekend, given its reverberations for him and some of the fashions in which it feels “distanced from” its subject. Riffing on a review written by the great novelist and critic James Agee (who was also an alcoholic), McBride says that he believes the film doesn’t capture the “euphoria” of alcoholism, concentrating instead on its humiliating, hungover lows. McBride also contextualizes the film within Wilder’s career and discusses the director’s somewhat tempestuous relationship with Charles Brackett, whose wife was an alcoholic. Perhaps most profoundly, McBride eventually suggests that The Lost Weekend was partially Wilder’s act of working through his feelings on the Holocaust, from which he fled and to which he lost his mother. This supplements set is otherwise slim, including a radio adaptation of the film as well as several trailers, though this commentary elevates this package considerably.
Kino outfits the despairing, pioneering The Lost Weekend with a beautiful transfer and one of the best audio commentaries of the year.
Cast: Ray Milland, Jane Wyman, Phillip Terry, Howard Da Silva, Doris Dowling, Frank Faylen, Mary Young, Anita Bolster, Lilian Fontaine Director: Billy Wilder Screenwriter: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 101 min Rating: NR Year: 1945 Release Date: November 24, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai on Criterion Blu-ray
Criterion’s stacked release helps make the case that the film is more than just an interesting curio in Jarmusch’s canon.4
Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is informed by an eccentric mélange of cultural touchstones and film genres, blending together allusions to everything from samurai and mafia codes to ‘90s hip-hop culture and mid-century TV cartoons. Its transporting of the traditional samurai mythology and way of life into a 20th-century urban landscape recalls Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 neo-noir crime drama Le Samouraï, but Forest Whitaker’s Ghost Dog is of an entirely different breed of modern samurai hitman than Jef Costello, Alain Delon’s steely-eyed, trench coat- and fedora-donning throwback.
Not that Ghost Dog is any less implacable when carrying out his own hits, but he’s almost singularly defined by his myriad idiosyncrasies and paradoxical qualities. Like Jarmusch’s film itself, Ghost Dog is an uncanny fusion, sporting corn rows and blasting the hypnotic beats of RZA’s score through the speakers of each of the many cars he steals, all the while adhering to the strict codes of the samurai to feed his soul and shape his behavior.
The first time we see Ghost Dog, he’s reading from Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure, a spiritual guide for samurai warriors. Quotes from this text appear on screen throughout the film—each time, except the last, narrated by Whitaker, and every line a minimalist slice of slyly perceptive poetry, not unlike that of the working-class poet from Jarmusch’s Paterson. Serving as both chapter breaks and philosophical ruminations on the filmic action, these interludes also offer a window into the way Ghost Dog views the world. We learn the reasons behind his dangerously blind allegiance to an Italian mafioso, Louie (John Tormey), who once saved his life, as well as the mindset that allows him to carry himself in a cool, collected manner in even the most dangerous situations, since he accepts his own death as imminent.
Some lines from Hagakure even seem to speak to Jarmusch’s own approach to filmmaking, most notably: “Matters of great concern should be treated lightly. Matters of small concern should be treated seriously.” Jarmusch’s typically heightened attention to the beauty in quotidian life is very much on display throughout Ghost Dog. A small gesture that Ghost Dog makes toward a cemetery as he walks by speaks volumes about his reverence for the dead, while other moments, as when he moves his scope off a target to zoom in on a woodpecker, evince Jarmusch’s singular fusion of utter sincerity and deadpan humor. In conversations with a young, neighborhood kid, Pearline (Camille Winbush), Ghost Dog shares his affinity for the novels she’s carrying with her, and in handing her a copy of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s Rashomon and Other Stories, he eventually enlists his spiritual successor.
Other scenes are completely digressive, such as a poignant moment where Ghost Dog’s only friend, a French-speaking ice cream truck owner named Raymond (Isaach De Bankolé), takes him to the roof of his apartment building to admire a man on a nearby roof constructing a boat that he seemingly will never be able to get down. Despite the fact that neither Ghost Dog nor Raymond speaks the other’s language, Jarmusch highlights how life’s beautiful mysteries can be shared without the need for words—something crucial to Ghost Dog, who carries himself with a quiet, contemplative demeanor as he moves about the world like a Zen phantom.
The film’s perfunctory plot involves a hit that Ghost Dog must perform on a made man for his retainer, Louie, and the fallout that unfolds when the hitman is marked as a sacrificial lamb through which mob boss Ray Vargo (Henry Silva) covers his own tracks. Jarmusch uses this narrative not as a means to revise or comment on the mafia crime drama, but rather to bring yet another urban culture into the film’s playful assortment of pop-culture references.
The mobsters depicted in the film, with their loose morality and ineffectual management, are a stark contrast to the highly principled Ghost Dog, even if their old-school brand of criminality is understood to be as retrograde as his samurai mores. There’s a hint of melancholy to the mafia’s uncouthness as it tries to stay afloat, suggesting great athletes past their prime. But Jarmusch mainly uses the group as comic relief, infusing deadpan humor into their interactions, be it when one mobster kowtows to the landlord of the Chinese restaurant their shacked up in because they’re three months late on rent or when another mafioso confesses to his own love of hip-hop, and later dances vigorously along to Flavor Flav’s “Cold Lampin’ with Flavor.” These respites of comedy add a much-needed levity and balance to a film that’s occasionally too self-serious by half as it utilizes stillness, silence, and shot duration to emphasize the serene and restrained manner in which Ghost Dog exists in the world.
Robby Müller’s densely atmospheric and highly textured cinematography gives the film an appropriately dreamlike feel that, with its eerie blue and green hues, beautifully evokes the liminal space between life and death that Ghost Dog navigates throughout. Appropriately enough, Ghost Dog’s journey ends in a way that adds another distinct trope into the film’s mix—an old-fashioned shoot-out straight out of a western, only here between a samurai and a mobster. It’s a fitting ending, not only in its cultural mash-up and the way it foregrounds Ghost Dog’s willingness to hold true to the most burdensome of samurai codes—of being willing to die by the hands of one’s master—but in encapsulating one of the hitman’s most essential maxims: “Sometimes you got to stick to the ancient ways, the old school ways.” Even in death, Ghost Dog ensures that those ways are passed down to a younger generation, looking on and seeing their value in a world that’s mostly left them behind.
Criterion’s Blu-ray sources a new 4K digital restoration that was supervised and approved by director Jim Jarmusch. The transfer is lush, boasting a significantly sharper and more detailed image than the ones found on prior home-video releases of the film. The cool blues, greens, and grays of Robbie Muller’s deliriously moody cinematography are beautifully preserved here, as are the dilapidated textures of a late-‘90s Jersey City that harkens back to the half-abandoned, early-‘80s Manhattan in which Jarmusch began his career. The numerous night-time scenes benefit largely from superior black levels and a strong contrast ratio that allows for the minutest of details and a wide range of colors to remain visible in even the darkest scenes. The 5.1 surround DTS-HD master audio soundtrack is also quite impressive, with clean dialogue and a particularly robust, well-balanced mix of RZA’s music.
Criterion typically go all out on their releases of Jarmusch’s films, and this one is no exception. Jarmusch doesn’t “do” commentary tracks, and in lieu of one here, he spends nearly 90 minutes, in an audio-only Q&A, answering questions sent in by fans. Unsurprisingly, the questions vary largely in quality, but Jarmusch is quite open and direct in his responses, detailing his late-night meet-ups with RZA, strange stories from life in ‘80s New York that made their way into the film, and his fondness for old cartoons. The next beefiest extra is a Zoom conversation between Forest Whitaker, Isaach De Bankolé, and film scholar Michael B. Gillespie, which focuses primarily on how the film confronts cultural clashes and develops the oddly moving friendship between Whitaker and De Bankolé’s characters.
Daniel Raim’s video essay “Flying Birds: The Music of Ghost Dog” gives RZA ample time to muse on his approach to composing his first film score and compiling a diverse range of musicians for the soundtrack. The two archival videos—one a 20-minute promo for BET, and the other an interview with Jarmusch, RZA, and Whitaker—primarily touch on things more comprehensively covered in other features. An interview with casting director Ellen Lewis is more successful in shedding light on an aspect of the film not touched upon in other supplements on the disc. Her outlining of her primarily instinctual method to casting helps to demonstrate the importance of this oft-overlooked aspect of pre-production.
The disc also comes with a brief interview with Shifu Shi Yan Ming, founder of the USA Shaolin Temple, five minutes of deleted scenes, and, most notably, the alternate isolated stereo music track, which allows viewers to listen to RZA’s still-unreleased score to the film. The package is nicely rounded out by a small booklet of quotes from Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure and a handsome 40-page bound booklet with essays by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Greg Tate, an interview with Jarmusch, and an abundance of black-and-white stills from the film.
Criterion’s stacked release helps make the case that Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is more than just an interesting curio in the career of Jim Jarmusch.
Cast: Forest Whitaker, John Tormey, Cliff Gorman, Henry Silva, Isaach De Bankolé, Tricia Vessey, Victor Argo, Gene Ruffini, Richard Portnow, Camille Winbush, Gary Farmer Director: Jim Jarmusch Screenwriter: Jim Jarmusch Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 116 min Rating: R Year: 1999 Release Date: November 17, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: Sogo Ishii’s Cyberpunk Classic Burst City on Arrow Blu-ray
Burst City is a defiantly raised fist in the face of conventional society.3.5
Sogo Ishii’s Burst City resolutely puts the punk into the Japanese cyberpunk movement that emerged in the early 1980s. Where the American version of cyberpunk dwells at the intersection of “high tech and low lives,” Burst City (and the movement that emerged out of it) focuses more obsessively on repurposed and recycled elements set against the backdrop of a post-industrial wasteland, and thus comes closer to Mad Max than, say, Blade Runner. This aesthetic clearly paved the way for subsequent films like Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man and its sequels.
The storyline isn’t complicated, but it’s told in a such a crazy-quilt manner, with much of the connective tissue left out, that it often takes some doing to properly situate yourself. Further adding to the confusion is Ishii’s frenetic visual style, all fast cuts and disorienting angles, sometimes bordering on pure abstraction. What slowly emerges is the depiction of a fractured and fractious society dwelling on the fringes of near-future Tokyo in a shantytown slum. Various bands of punk rockers, chief among them the Battle Rockers, spend their time offstage drag racing, partying, and thumbing their noses at conventional society. A horde of mutants and quasi-cyborgs work as day laborers for a yakuza clan whose plan to construct a nuclear power plant nearby kicks in what little plot there is in Burst City.
Entangled in all this is the plight of a young prostitute whose pimp allows yakuza higher-ups to use her however they please, initiating a downward spiral of abuse and ultimately violence. The pimp’s desire to get ahead (not to mention get out) overrides his true feelings for the woman, which we only sense in a late scene where he lovingly tends to her wounds. The visual payoff to this narrative thread, a high-angle overhead shot that gazes impassively down on the emotionally wrought aftermath, is likely to linger in viewers’ minds.
In a narrative conceit that has its counterpart in postwar Japanese history, the yakuza and the police force actually conspire to implement the desires of the authorities in power: the government and fat-cat capitalists whom we never actually see represented within Burst City. In various ways, the denizens of the slum work against their own best interests. The “mutants” and cyborgs work for the yakuza. The punk rockers don’t work at all, because, in the end, work is exploitation. But opting out of the system isn’t always so easy, especially when it results in a bulldozer plowing under your favorite local music venue.
Burst City culminates with the various factions coming together in a protracted battle royale. This is easily the hardest-to-follow stretch of the film, as the most basic tenets of continuity editing go right out the window. But what it lacks in clarity, it more than makes up for in sheer bravado. At one point, the fracas literally morphs into a battle of the bands, when the Stalin (all duded up in shades of red) invade the proceedings, their lead singer lobbing pigs’ heads at the “battle police” in the audience. The resultant amalgamation of punk music, performance art, and agit-prop theatrical production is a heady mix. Burst City provides its own altogether apt full-stop punctuation: a defiantly raised fist and the rallying cry “Don’t fuck with me!”
Arrow presents Burst City in a new HD transfer prepared by Toei Studios that’s largely impressive. The film betrays its shot-on-16mm origins when it comes to managing grain levels, which can get pretty blocky in some of the nighttime and low-light settings, and there’s some intermittent speckling as well. Delineation of fine details is typically fair to middling. On the other hand, the vibrant colors and hot neon lighting in other scenes really stand out. The Japanese LPCM mono track is surprisingly effective, booming out the bass tones and ambient effects, and shoving the raucous punk-rock soundtrack right under your nose.
Japanese film expert Tom Mes delivers another laidback yet information-packed commentary. He has a lot to say about Burst City’s inception and influences (including, surprisingly enough, Bruce Springsteen), the careers of the cast and crew, and the film’s place in Sogo Ishii’s body of work. There’s also a fascinating excursus on the differences between Japanese and American varieties of cyberpunk. The half-hour interview with Yoshiharu Tezuka, who worked as lighting director on Burst City and is now a film scholar, lays out the distinction in the Japanese film industry between independent cinema (still affiliated with the studio system) and jishu eiga or “amateur films” of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s that wholeheartedly embraced the DIY aesthetic of punk rock, which sometimes entailed certain risks to life and limb. The hourlong interview with director Ishii delves into his days as a film student, how he landed a studio connection by effectively remaking his earlier film Panic High School, the financing and production history of Burst City, and his thoughts on the film today.
Sogo Ishii’s Burst City is a defiantly raised fist in the face of conventional society.
Cast: Michirô Endô, Shigeru Izumiya, Takanori Jinnai, Kou Machida, Shigeru Muroi, Shinya Ohe, Yasuto Sugawara, Jûgatsu Toi, Umanosuke Ueda, Genki Yoshimura, Mayumi Ômura Director: Sogo Ishii Screenwriter: Jûgatsu Toi Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 1982 Release Date: November 10, 2020 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck on the Criterion Collection
Jewison’s sublime romantic comedy gets a handsome home-video package from Criterion.4
Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck takes place in a dreamy, hyperreal version of New York City where everyone is at once bizarre and utterly relatable. It could perhaps best be described as a screwball comedy in which the characters have to confront the emotional fallout of their amorous antics. Imagine if Leo McCarey, instead of making the tonally opposite Make Way for Tomorrow and The Awful Truth in the same year, somehow managed to create one film that combined their unique sensibilities into a busy farce grounded by a poignant, almost unbearable earnestness.
Moonstruck tracks several romantic entanglements centered around Loretta (Cher), a 37-year-old widow living in Brooklyn Heights who blames her husband’s untimely death on the bad luck brought on by her decision to defy the customs of marriage. Her particular kind of anxiety is established early when her boyfriend, Johnny (Danny Aiello), proposes to her in a restaurant. Attempting passionately to talk him out of it due to her perceived ill fortune, Loretta nonetheless makes him get down on one knee, and both she and the other patrons look put out that he didn’t think ahead to get a ring.
Playwright John Patrick Shanley, then a rising star in the theater world, wrote the film on spec, and his script rings with a curiosity for his characters that goes beyond merely establishing and resolving their conflicts. He plays up Loretta’s self-defeating neuroticism, but both he and Cher make abundantly clear that the woman is no one’s fool; Cher immediately communicates how Loretta is the controlling force in her relationship with Johnny, and in general the character exudes a competence and self-sufficiency that clarifies her crippling superstition as amusingly incongruous rather than a sign of emotional weakness. When Johnny leaves for Sicily soon after proposing to be with his terminally ill mother, we see how little the relationship matters to Loretta when he calls and announces, “I’m calling from the deathbed of my mother,” and all that she can say to him is: “Well, how was your plane ride?”
Surrounding Loretta are figures facing their own romantic pangs and troubles. Her father, Cosmo (Vincent Gardenia), also believes in his daughter’s bad luck and warns her against marriage, which probably explains why he’s having an affair. His animated flippancy contrasts sharply with the sullen, withdrawn nature of Loretta’s mother, Rose (Olympia Dukakis), who knows of her husband’s infidelity and is nearly catatonic from sorrow over it. She approves of her child’s marriage to a man she likes but doesn’t love precisely because it lowers Loretta’s chances of having her heart broken. Even peripheral figures in the film, like an old Italian woman who curses the plane Johnny takes to Sicily because it’s carrying the woman who stole her lover 50 years ago, come to feel like reflections of Loretta’s anxieties and desires.
Things take a turn when Loretta decides to invite Johnny’s estranged brother, Ronny (Nicolas Cage), to her wedding. Arguably, no role has ever benefited more from Cage’s full-throated commitment to his work than Ronny. On paper, the character, a one-handed baker who blames his brother for his affliction and who harbors a love for opera that contrasts with his almost Dickensian working-class image, is so wild that he practically demands to be played with quirky self-awareness. But Cage meets the character on his emotional wavelength, rendering the man’s pain with such melodramatic anguish that the walls between tragedy and comedy break down, and it’s a small wonder that the man’s passion so rattles Loretta’s carefully maintained sense of order that she very quickly ends up in bed with him.
The remainder of the film traces the various trysts of the major characters, leading to a bravura sequence in which Loretta, after accompanying Ronny to a performance of La Bohème at the Met, is moved to tears by the performance, only to run into her father on a date with his mistress (Anita Gillette), while far away, Rose contemplates an affair of her own with a professor (John Mahoney). Characters conducting their illicit activities keep running into people they know, as if even a city as vast as New York were too small to hide secrets. Though shot on location throughout the city, the film sometimes resembles the fake, soundstage vision of New York that Stanley Kubrick crafted for Eyes Wide Shut, albeit one defined not by erotic paranoia but a more relatable sense of longing and apprehension.
Ultimately, Moonstruck is a comedy of remarriage, for some parties more literally than others. Rooted in a fear of mortality and growing apart, it finds affirmation in the relationships that seem most strained. The film is perhaps most succinctly summarized in an early scene where Loretta witnesses an argument between an old couple who run a liquor store. The woman, accusing her husband of ogling other ladies, calls him a wolf, badgering him at length for his wandering eye. Just when it seems she might lunge for the man’s throat, he calmly replies, “You know what I see in you? The woman I married,” which causes her to melt, and the energy of the moment is so contagious that Loretta leaves the store with a wide smile on her face.
Criterion’s Blu-ray boasts a transfer from a 4K restoration that highlights the film’s subtle beauty. Nighttime shots show no visible crushing artifacts, while the neon lights of shops and restaurants glow intensely. Grain is visible and balanced throughout, and skin tones are natural and textured. The soundtrack deftly separates the bustle of New York from the dialogue, preserving the clarity of the latter while adding to the film’s sense of intensity.
Contemporary interviews with the cast and crew hammer home what a sensation Moonstruck was upon its release, while retrospective interviews with John Patrick Shanley and Danny Aiello attest to its enduring relevance. Two documentaries from 2006, the making-of program “At the Heart of an Italian Family” and the more focused “The Music of Moonstruck,” delve further into the production and how the film’s grounded yet melodramatic atmosphere was achieved. Scholar Stefano Albertini talks more about the use of opera as a thematic and stylistic backdrop, while the most significant extra is a 1998 commentary with Cher, Norman Jewison, and Shanley that covers a range of topics, from how the opening montage was originally set to La Bohème instead of “That’s Amore” and gave the film a too-“artsy” feel, to amusing anecdotes about Cher getting legitimately drunk in one scene because they used real champagne. Critic Emily VanDerWerff also contributes a wide-ranging essay that touches upon the careers of Moonstruck’s principal cast and crew as well as the many overt and subtle flourishes that make the film so unique.
Norman Jewison’s sublime romantic comedy gets a handsome home-video package from Criterion, boasting an excellent transfer and a meaty collection of new and old extras.
Cast: Cher, Nicolas Cage, Vincent Gardenia, Olympia Dukakis, Danny Aiello, Julie Bovasso, John Mahoney, Louis Guss, Feodor Chaliapin Jr., Anita Gillette Director: Norman Jewison Screenwriter: John Patrick Shanley Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 104 min Rating: PG Year: 1987 Release Date: November 17, 2020 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
Blu-ray Review: Don Siegel’s The Beguiled on KL Studio Classics
Kino outfits Siegel’s underrated gothic masterpiece with an appropriately luscious restoration.4
Given the general timidity of modern cinema, Don Siegel’s The Beguiled probably feels more shocking today than it did in 1971. Siegel and screenwriters Albert Matlz and Irene Camp play with many uncomfortable aspects of contemporary American society, piercing taboos in a bold, lurid manner that suggests a clearing of the air. The narrative is set on a Mississippi plantation during the Civil War where Martha Farnsworth (Geraldine Page) runs a fading girls’ seminary. In one of the film’s best jokes, which subtly embodies its entire theme, Martha teaches a handful of girls and young women etiquette while men blow each other to pieces a few miles away. As society succumbs to its roiling hatred of itself, the girls learn how to wipe their faces with napkins the right way during dinner. This juxtaposition is a brilliant metaphor for the way people, especially now, sanitize truth with platitude.
The films’ young women are going nuts with suppressed instincts—so horny that they’re ready to scratch one another’s eyes out. Entering into this caldron is Corporal John McBurney, or McBee (Clint Eastwood), a shot-up Union soldier on the brink of death who’s discovered by one of the girls, Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin), while she’s gathering mushrooms outside the plantation. Amy and McBee hide in the bushes while Confederate soldiers ride by, and the delirious fortysomething-ish man gives the 12-year-old girl a lingering kiss on the lips. This purposefully jolting moment is amplified by Siegel’s casual staging and, particularly, by his refusal to shirk away from Amy’s own reaction, which is stunned though not without an element of disbelieving pleasure. This is one of many examples of The Beguiled’s refusal to take the easy way out, homing in instead on queasy dimensions of human desire.
Amy brings McBee back to the plantation, which he instantly destabilizes. The women, of course, are Confederates, and they talk of alerting nearby units so that McBee may be taken to a prison, though they clearly want this handsome man to themselves, and they use his injuries as a rationalization for doing just that. If he were to go to prison now, they insist, he would die from his wounds. It would be more Christian to treat him first and then let him rot away in prison—a logic that serves as an instance of sanitizing need, and eventual atrocity, with bullshit. As McBee gradually heals, he comes into his own and sets about sexually manipulating four of the women. In short, he’s a rooster in a hen house—a notion that’s almost literalized by one of the film’s many sexual symbols and innuendos: Once McBee arrives, the hens in the farm out back start laying eggs.
The women want to eat McBee alive, but they’re tormented by ideas of what’s ladylike, as well as by McBee’s enemy alliance, and these conflicts forge a latticework of neuroses. In the film’s most daring scenes, McBee hits on Hallie (Mae Mercer), the slave of the plantation. As Hallie disparages McBee as “Mr. Yank,” the filmmakers have the nerve to allow him to say what many people in the audience are thinking: “We should be on the same side.” Hallie’s response—devastating, practical, dependent on the use of a forbidden word—detonates homilies about the Civil War. Hallie’s loyalty to the women, and the unusual authority she enjoys at the plantation, trump political ideas that strike her as justifying abstractions. Such a scene, complicated further by the profound sexual chemistry between Mercer and Eastwood, and by the ever-present potentialities for violence existing between Hallie and McBee, shames the hindsight sermonizing of many contemporary “issues” movies.
The compulsory timidity of so many modern movies is encapsulated by Sofia Coppola’s 2017 remake of The Beguiled. Coppola, probably correctly intuiting that Hallie would be “problematic” for modern audiences, omitted the character in an act of artistic cowardice. With Hallie, who most painfully embodies the narrative’s obsession with the chasm between personal wants and social demands, gone, the new film feels neutered. The glossy production values and use of celebrities in many of the female roles further sanitize Coppola’s film. By contrast, Siegel’s production values are feverish, dirty, raw—the soldiers here don’t appear to come from central casting—and his claustrophobic, hallucinatory setups heighten our understanding of the yearning of the women, who’re mostly played by unknowns who exhibit a naturalness that only further explodes the film’s gloriously disreputable eroticism.
The Beguiled features one of Eastwood’s best and riskiest performances, which served as a turning point from his (also unsentimental) action heroes of the ‘60s into more ambiguous characters and films. As McBee, Eastwood really leans into his mercenary sexuality, intensifying one of the narrative’s chief pleasures: the mystery as to how much of McBee’s manipulations are driven by an urge to survive versus horny male opportunism. In the extremism of war, these urges are essentially understood to be one in the same, as social chaos enables the indulgence of individual gluttony. Yet Eastwood doesn’t just do a cock-of-the-walk routine, as he’s intimately receptive to all of his female costars, little girls and older women alike. In fact, Eastwood has rarely had the sort of kinship with other performers that he has here. It’s a shame that The Beguiled is generally considered as an also-ran entry in Eastwood’s career, though this oversight is also perhaps a sign of the skittishness of modern cinema.
The Beguiled abounds in candlelit scenes and brown hues that have often come across as indistinct on prior home-video editions, which this new 4K restoration beautifully corrects. The colors here are quite lucid; the blacks are especially luscious, and the browns are sharp and well-differentiated. Facial and clothing textures are also very prominent, while grain is healthy and attractive. The soundtrack is sharp and balanced, which is especially evident in the vivacious presentation of Lalo Schifrin’s moody and self-consciously melodramatic score.
In a new audio commentary, film historian Kat Ellinger riffs in erudite, free-associative fashion on a variety of subjects pertaining to The Beguiled. Ellinger reads from Don Siegel’s autobiography to offer insights into the making of the film, which was a passion project for him and Clint Eastwood, and she connects its female-centric narrative to ‘70s-era horror films at large that pivoted on violations of women and their aftermath. Ellinger is also persuasive when discussing the film’s gothic atmosphere and its stubborn, intriguing singularity. In a new interview, actress Melody Scott Thomas, who plays Abigail, elaborates on how she met Siegel and what it was like to work with Eastwood and all the women in an intense film as a relative newcomer. Meanwhile, an archive featurette, “The Beguiled, Misty, Don, and Clint,” provides a very brief overview of the formative year that Siegel and Eastwood had in 1971 with the release of The Beguiled, Dirty Harry, and Play Misty for Me. A “Trailers from Hell” segment with John Landis and a smorgasbord of other trailers round out a slim-ish package.
Kino outfits Don Siegel’s underrated gothic masterpiece, a pivotal work in his and Clint Eastwood’s careers, with an appropriately luscious restoration.
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Geraldine Page, Elizabeth Hartman, Jo Ann Harris, Darleen Carr, Mae Mercer, Pamelyn Ferdin, Melody Thomas, Peggy Drier, Pattye Mattick Director: Don Siegel Screenwriter: Albert Maltz, Irene Kamp Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 105 min Rating: R Year: 1971 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty for Me on KL Studio Classics
Eastwood’s directorial debut is a thriller with the loose, impressionistic swing and free-floating sting of a midnight jazz song.4
Modern horror thrillers often underrate the value of location, existing in generic big cities and small towns that detach us from the reality of their narratives. Detaching us further is the sledgehammer approach that filmmakers often take to telegraphing and delivering scares, which keeps us on guard for an onslaught of genre clichés. By contrast, the thrillers of the 1960s and ‘70s used to be gnarlier and more casual, appearing to be set in places outside of sets and backdrops and featuring real human beings. Think of the astonishing sense of place that Sam Peckinpah conjured in Straw Dogs or that Steven Spielberg offered in every film he directed from the early ‘70s to the early ‘80s. Clint Eastwood’s 1971 directorial debut, Play Misty for Me, hails from a similar tradition, as he has the confidence to mount a vividly atmospheric character study that morphs into something resonantly scary.
Eastwood transports Play Misty for Me from Los Angeles, the original setting of Jo Helms and Dean Reisner’s script, to Monterey, California, more specifically Carmel-by-the-Sea, where the multi-hyphenate has lived since the late ‘60s and even served as mayor. His love for the Monterey peninsula is immediately apparent in the film, which opens on a bold aerial view of the rocky cliffs along the coast, with the camera gradually zooming in toward a cabin in a secluded wooded area, where a man (Eastwood) walks along a porch, scrutinizing a portrait of himself in a window. This is a strikingly quiet sequence that’s gradually overtaken by the sounds of the nearby ocean, which intensify a sense of loneliness and isolation that this man appears to be experiencing. Eastwood doesn’t milk the scene though, cutting to shots of this man driving along the coast in his sports car as Dee Barton’s jaunty score lightens the mood.
This unceremonious juxtaposition between matter-of-fact melancholia (the cabin wandering) and idle pleasure (grooving in the car) resembles people’s actual emotional oscillations, and is characteristic of Eastwood’s direction of Play Misty for Me. The man is revealed to be Dave Garver, a local celebrity DJ for KRML (a real radio station) who’s a jazz aficionado like Eastwood himself. It’s quickly established that Dave has carved out a life for himself that would be the envy of macho art-minded types, hosting a jazz show at night, which is followed by drinks at the Sardine Factory (a real restaurant), where he kids around with the bartender, Murphy (Don Siegel), an aging eccentric who vicariously enjoys Dave’s womanizing, which he assists on occasion. Jocular, somewhat sexist dialogue—composed of the sort of rude jokes American movies rarely allow anymore, even if some people still talk this way—unsentimentally establish Dave as a sensitive, funny, charismatic yet selfish and manipulative cocksman who’s used to getting what he wants. Dave suggests a more likeable, though less memorable, version of the horndog Eastwood played the same year for Siegel in The Beguiled.
The coziness of these early scenes—the buddy-buddy bonhomie, the precise establishing of a real and comfortable-looking setting, the wish-fulfilment factor of Dave’s dream job and sexual virility—are paradoxically more anxiety-riven than the foreshadowing of conventional thrillers. Eastwood establishes what’s at stake to be lost, and his patience and spontaneity may inspire the viewer to wish that Play Misty for Me was simply a character study. Consequentially, we truly feel the violation that a stalker, Evelyn (Jessica Walter), represents, even if she’s also a form of poetic justice for a man who keeps women at arm’s length. But Dave isn’t made out to be an easy cartoon of male entitlement either, as he shoots straight with Evelyn, who refuses to see their first night together as the one-off that Dave assumes it to be, even if he nevertheless enjoys some of her subsequent attention.
The melancholia expressed by the opening shot gradually deepens across the film’s running time, and the ocean becomes a signpost of the fear of solitude that grows pronounced in middle age (a signpost that’s complemented by the jazz tunes on the soundtrack, especially the yearning for connection that Errol Garner’s “Misty” embodies). Play Misty for Me returns again and again to the coast throughout the narrative, sometimes allowing it to eclipse the characters, such as when Dave and the woman he loves, Tobie (Donna Mills), stroll the beach. Eastwood often doesn’t show them directly speaking, transporting their dialogue to voiceover while they walk, together yet somehow not quite together as the ocean crests on the soundtrack, seemingly articulating their longings and resentments.
The ocean motif is rendered even more explicit by Evelyn, who talks of a nightmare of drowning while Dave watches unhelpfully, which is proven at the film’s end to be a perverse sort of prophecy. Unforgettably played by Walters, Evelyn is less a monster than a ferocious manifestation of the terror of estrangement—a brunette inverse of the blond, hopeful agent of domesticity that Tobie embodies, and which Dave might be able to have if he can keep his dick in his pants. Play Misty for Me is a confident and evocative first film for Eastwood, a thriller with the loose, impressionistic swing and free-floating sting of a midnight jazz song.
The image is somewhat soft, per the original theatrical presentation. There’s plenty of attractive, fine grain, and the colors are robustly varied, from the bright ocean blues to the earthy hues of the rocks and the woods. Flesh tones are also well-detailed, though the blacks are a little murky. The sound mix was never meant to be a show pony, but the jazz standards have a lovely delicacy here, and diegetic sounds are mercilessly precise, especially in the film’s violent scenes, and in the roar of the ocean. Overall, a sturdy transfer.
A new audio commentary by film scholar Tim Lucas offers a deep dive into Play Misty for Me, abounding in the sort of contextual production details that critics usually ignore. Lucas goes into the location scouting and even the general real estate of Monterey, California, for instance, and discusses how Eastwood’s interest in jazz influenced the film, while also astutely covering more traditional critical ground such as Eastwood’s subtle compositional framing. A new visual essay by film historian Howard S. Berger is nearly as painstaking, placing Play Misty for Me in the context of Eastwood’s career, while a new interview with Donna Mills covers the film’s making from an actor’s perspective. Several archive supplements have been ported over as well from past home video editions, most notably a making-of documentary from 2001 by Laurent Bouzereau that covers how Eastwood cannily brokered a deal to direct his first film (material which Lucas also covers). A “Trailer from Hell” segment by Adam Rifkin, a few other featurettes, photo galleries, TV spots, and trailers round out a solid package.
Kino Lorber outfits Clint Eastwood’s resonant, intuitive, weirdly moving directorial debut with a sturdy transfer and a few hearty new supplements.
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Jessica Walter, Donna Mills, John Larch, Jack Ging, Irene Harvey, James McEachin, Clarice Taylor, Don Siegel Director: Clint Eastwood Screenwriter: Jo Heims, Dean Riesner Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 102 min Rating: R Year: 1971 Release Date: November 10, 2020 Buy: Video
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