“Don’t be too nice,” Vogue creative director Grace Coddington says to an eager-to-please young editor, who wilts under the pressure of Anna Wintour’s icy stare, a self-parody of her Devil Wears Prada image. It could also be the mantra for R.J. Cutler’s documentary The September Issue, which treats each stage in the magazine’s production as a mini power struggle, each decision able to make or break careers. In one of the best sequences, Wintour helps score a Gap contract for a talented new designer named Thakoon, who admits to being terrified in her presence but remains persistent. Later, he ends up on the cover of Women’s Wear Daily for his work. Cutler suggests that Wintour’s personal whims, for better or worse, have real consequence, both for the people around her and for how people talk about fashion.
The movie has gotten attention mostly for what it says about Wintour, but the editrix comes out basically unscathed, no doubt by design: For the past year or so, she’s been on the media warpath to win back her image, and Cutler seems happy to oblige. She’s calculated about her personal life and spends most of her interview time defending the celebrity-coddling, fashion-media-industrial-complex she helped create. (Her first words are, “I think people are afraid of fashion,” but what she really means is, “I’m terrified no one takes me seriously.”) Which means that Wintour remains as agenda-driven and elusive as ever, good for quips and throwing shade (she brusquely shoos off an art assistant during a page line-up), but apparently lacking in any kind of soul.
If Wintour is bad cop (a role she clearly relishes), then Coddington is good cop. She’s the only one willing to tell her boss she’s wrong, but the two have a silent understanding of each other; Wintour is the power-hungry perfectionist, Coddington is the fashion romantic responsible for the magazine’s nostalgic (and pretentious) aesthetic. Both are clever enough to understand how manipulating the media can work to one’s advantage. Coddington turns the cameras against Wintour during a production meeting, bringing up the dreaded subject of money so that she won’t lose her budget. Money is one of those things vaunted magazine editors like Wintour hate to talk about. Instead, she spends more money on a re-shoot and Photoshops Sienna Miller’s teeth so they don’t look like Chiclets. Because whether fashion is or isn’t as serious as Wintour and September Issue make it out to be, appearance still means everything.
Not the candy-colored nightmare one might expect. Colors are bold but unaggressive, skin tones are accurate, and blacks are solid, with no instances of ghosting or combing. The audio is clean, but given that dialogue is spotty here and there, it becomes quickly clear that a boom mic was used even during interviews.
Like the film, the best thing that can be said about director R.J. Cutler’s commentary is that it isn’t slavish. His thoughts on politics-versus-fashion are interesting enough, and he amusingly struggles at one point to reconcile his fondness for AndrĂ© Leon Talley with his belief that The September Issue didn’t feel finished until more of the man was left on the editing floor. He seems like good people, unlike the bulk of the people he documented. Talley comes off surprisingly well in a plethora of deleted scenes and other extra footage, seemingly humbled after giving a graduation speech at a fashion university, but Wintour is, well, Wintour, as in the hissy fit she throws at an AIDS gala because two plastic tubs of ice are too visible behind a bartender’s station. Rounding out the disc: behind-the-scenes photos taken by DP Bob Richman, a theatrical trailer, and previews of other socially conscious dramas and docs from the house of Lionsgate.
A handsome DVD treatment of a useless, predictable documentary experienceâan assessment Anna Wintour would say points to my insecurity.
Cast: Anna Wintour, Grace Coddington, Thakoon, AndrĂ© Leon Talley Director: R.J. Cutler Distributor: Lionsgate Home Entertainment Running Time: 90 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2009 Release Date: February 23, 2010 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Jean-Luc Godardâs Le Petit Soldat on the Criterion Collection
Godardâs bracing sophomore feature receives a wonderful hi-def transfer and a series of extras that contextualize its politics.3.5
The perception of Jean-Luc Godardâs Le Petit Soldat as a sophomore slump derives less from its presumed shortcomings and more from two highly mitigating factors: the mighty shadow cast by Godardâs seminal debut feature, Breathless, and the fact that it didnât even see the light of day until three years after its making. The French government banned its exhibition due to its contentious subject matter, which depicted scenes of torture and painted an unsavory picture of the French armed forces in their conflict with the Algerian National Liberation Front.
Yet in many ways, Le Petit Soldat is equal to Breathless in its inventiveness and exuberance. A sort of political thrillerâin the same nominal, oblique way that Breathless is a gangster filmâGodardâs sophomore feature tells the story of Bruno (Michel Subor), a French photojournalist living in Geneva so that he may avoid enlistment. After refusing to assassinate a French FLN sympathizer, the French intelligence group with which heâs affiliated suspects him of being a double agent, complicating his infatuation with his newfound love, Veronica (Anna Karina), who has political ties of her own.
Despite their contrasting subjects, Breathless and Le Petit Soldat share many thematic and stylistic similarities, attributed to their Sartrean influence and Godardâs infatuation with cinema as the great conduit of human emotion. Flying in the face of Le Petit Soldatâs grave subject matter are distinctly Hollywood-esque notions of passion, intrigue, morality, and even mortality. Also hovering over every second of the action is a sense of betrayal, both political and romantic. In the film, Godard depicts love and betrayal as two sides of the same coin, as he did in Breathless and would continue to do throughout his career.
Working again with cinematographer Raoul Coutard, Godard achieves a naturalistic, improvisational style, filming in bustling city streets. Less instinctual, though, is the editing, as Godard sought to capture a weightier, more mature tone. Compared to Breathless, Le Petit Soldatâs images suggest a stronger sense of place, as characters seem inextricably linked to their environment. Overall, the film lacks the artifice of Hollywood cinema, which Godard admired but was looking to move past after catching flack from the French left wing.
In the early days of the Nouvelle Vague, as Godard and his compatriots at Cahiers du CinĂ©ma garnered international acclaim for their brand of idiosyncratic filmmaking, members of the left accused them of making films about private and therefore apolitical matters, a reasonable albeit needling denigration that sparked Le Petit Soldatâs production. Keen to counter this criticism, Godard, with a sort of brash impudence, set his sights on the most controversial political subjects of the day: Algeriaâs fight for independence, Franceâs reluctance to grant them such, and both sideâs use of torture to extract information from the oppositionâall of this in spite of the fact that he had no real intention of tackling these subjects head on.
The film emerged in the midst of a political sea change for Godard, who considered the leftâs rigorous, politicized aesthetic demands constraining, yet conversely found much to dislike in the rightâs proto-fascist treatment of the Algerian conflict. Though he abstained from political overtones in Breathless, things had reached a point where a nonpolitical stance was chancy, prompting Godard to wade into the conversation in the way he knew best: through cinema. And in virtually every sense, Le Petit Soldat is Godardâs attempt to make an inherently contentious film despite his uncertain political stance in relation to the subject.
For Godard, political engagement was a deeply personal practice, an innately existential concept with no real relation to external circumstances. As such, the film can be read as his personal reconciliation with the Algerian War, the process with which he used to reach a political conclusion by landing on the leftâand that rare occurrence in cinema when action is infused with thought, and when the very nature of thought comes to life on screen.
For Le Petit Soldat, cinematographer Raoul Coutard worked with natural and available light, which resulted in images of variable clarity, yet the Criterion Collectionâs transfer counters that by maximizing contrast and texture. Outdoor scenes feature slight fluctuations of detail endemic to the filmâs source material, though for the most part the image remains stable and looks surprisingly good in night scenes, which sport healthy grain but no crushing artifacts. Indoor scenes are richly textured and display a wide variety of sharply contrasted grays. The filmâs contrapuntal audio is even crisper, showing off the remarkable range of sound elements that Jean-Luc Godard was readily capturing so early into his career.
A 1965 interview with Godard finds him reflecting on the filmâs hostile reception even among left-wing publications, as well as the inspiration he takes from real-world events. A 1963 interview with Michel Subor focuses on his collaborations with Godard and how the actor admires the filmmakerâs quirks and challenging personality. Also included is a 1961 audio interview with Godard that emphasizes the popularity he enjoyed after the release of Breathless. Finally, an essay by critic Nicholas Elliott considers how Le Petit Soldat kickstarted Godardâs career-defining preoccupation with all things political.
Godardâs bracing sophomore feature receives a wonderful hi-def transfer from Criterion and a series of extras that contextualize its controversial politics.
Cast: Michel Subor, Anna Karina, Henri-Jacques Huet, Paul Beauvais, Georges de Beauregard, LĂĄszlĂł SzabĂł, Jean-Luc Godard Director: Jean-Luc Godard Screenwriter: Jean-Luc Godard Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 1963 Release Date: January 21, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: House by the Cemetery Receives 3-Disc Limited Edition Blu-ray
The House by the Cemetery remains prime real estate for horror film aficionados.5
Several generations of fanboys have heralded Lucio Fulci as âthe Godfather of Goreâ (pace Herschell Gordon Lewis), and thereâs splatter aplenty on display in The House by the Cemetery, from the opening murder set piece (a knife to the back of the skull that emerges from the victimâs mouth) to the penultimate killing (a major character gets their throat torn out). But it would be grossly reductive, not to mention flat-out wrong, to dismiss the film as mere gore-delivery system.
As with previous entries in the loosely linked âGates of Hellâ trilogy (City of the Living Dead and The Beyond), with their concern for the all-too-porous boundaries between the living and the dead, Fulci refracts influences both cinematic (The Amityville Horror and The Shining) and literary (Henry Jamesâs The Turn of the Screw and any number of Gothic-inflected haunted-house tales) through the lens of his own darkly poetic sensibility. Fulci and his co-writers betray a fondness for the ambiguous and open-ended. None of the âGates of Hellâ films conclude with the restoration of moral or, indeed, cosmic order found in more conventional (read: conservative) horror films, and The House by the Cemeteryâs haunting finale suggests, in the words of co-writer Dardano Sacchetti, that life is an ode to death as savior.
The setup is properly archetypal: New Yorkers Lucy and Norman Boyle (Fulci regulars Catriona MacColl and Paolo Malco), along with their young son, Bob (Giovanni Frezza), move to New Whitby, outside of Boston, so that Norman can continue the research of his colleague, Dr. Petersen, who not long before murdered his lover and then killed himself in the same âold, dark houseâ that the Boyles are now renting. The film, though, isnât without a sly sense of humor. Witness the name of its monstrous mad doctor: Freudstein. The âmad doctorâ epithet elucidates the cognomenâs latter component, but the Freudian aspects within the film are more manifold. Naturally enough, a free-floating feeling of the uncanny permeates the film, as in the numerous instances of dĂ©jĂ vu when the residents of New Whitby believe Norman has been there before, and surrounds the figure of Ann (Ania Pieroni), Bobâs eerie babysitter.
Then, too, thereâs Freudâs suggestion that the uncanny (âun-home-lyâ) is the opposite of the domestic, the familiar (in several senses) rendered unfamiliar, and therefore akin on the level of aesthetics to the formalist principle of defamiliarization. In The House by the Cemetery, the nearby graves quite literally invade the home, when Lucy discovers the headstone for the Freudstein crypt in the middle of their living room. At filmâs end, when Bob escapes from the cellar through a rather vaginal-looking crack in the tombstone, the moment is a kind of rebirth, into the gray and wintry realms of the undead. By the same token, the monster inhabiting the cellar embodies the return of the repressed, whatever has been shoved deep down into the depths of the unconsciousâhere, quite possibly, Bobâs anger and resentment toward inattentive, even neglectful parents.
Fulci also accomplishes the act of rendering things unfamiliar throughout his dreamlike film by disavowing the linear mechanics of narrative logic. Inattentive viewers have always complained that Fulciâs infernal trilogy are incoherent texts, filled with dangling plot threads and unexplained leaps of logical faith, which indeed they are. Putting that down to rank incompetence, though, would be to mistake technique as the lack thereof and consistently misconstrue the sense of the playful and surreal that runs through even Fulciâs most graphic and brutal films, whether the Donald Duck-voiced killer in his grindhouse post mortem that is The New York Ripper, or the self-reflexive mise en abyme of The Cat in the Brain, wherein Fulci plays himself as a maestro of the macabre trapped within an endless nightmare constructed from cut-and-pasted gore scenes drawn from his lesser-known films.
Nor is Fulci above bits of self-aware parody that stick it to the conventions of Gothic horror, a sensibility thatâs best evidenced here in the amusingly protracted bat-killing scene: Norman repeatedly stabs the flying rodent latched onto his hand with a steak knife until what seems like gallons of syrupy blood gush out, which Fulci follows with a smash cut to a smarmy realtor, glimpsed in an earlier scene, yawning in boredom.
The House by the Cemetery concludes with a quote allegedly drawn from the works of Henry James: âNo one will ever know whether children are monsters or monsters are children.â Itâs a false attribution, naturally, but one that nevertheless keys into the filmâs layers of Jamesian ambiguity, of the âIs it real or all in your head?â variety, and invites comparison to Jack Claytonâs excellent film adaptation of Jamesâs most famous story, The Innocents. Though Claytonâs film epitomizes the restraint and suggestiveness of the best psychological horror films, seemingly at antipodes to Fulciâs full-frontal assault of explicitness, both films have the capacity to burrow under your skin and plumb deep into your unconscious.
Blue Undergroundâs 4K upgrade of their 2011 Blu-ray marks another quantum leap in presenting cinematographer Sergio Salvatiâs stunningly atmospheric work: Black levels are truly deep and tenebrous throughout, without a trace of murky blocking or crush. The already impressive clarity and color saturation get a further boost, with plenty of heretofore illegible details (like food labels and signage) clearly standing out. And the brightness of those rainbow-hued stained-glass windows in the Boyle home will practically make you squint. There are three audio options: Master Audio mono tracks in English and Italian, as well as a repurposed English 5.1 surround mix, which does a discreet but admirable job of separating and channelizing Walter Rizzatiâs synth-organ score, as well as ambient sound effects like Freudsteinâs piteous mewling and that bizarre recurrent wolf call. And thereâs always the Italian track if youâre one of those viewers whose bane of existence is the shrill, vapid voice provided by whoever supplied the voice for flaxen-haired moppet Bob Boyle.
The bounteous extras, both old and new, are spread across two Blu-ray discs, with Blue Underground porting over all the bonus materials from their earlier release of the film. Most of the lead actors get their own brief interview featurette, either alone or in tandem, as do husband-and-wife co-writers Elisa Briganti and Dardano Sacchetti, as well as Salvati and a handful of special effects artists. Theyâre all listenable and informative, especially the interview with Briganti and Sacchetti. And the deleted scene is an extension of the bat-killing sequence, presented without any audio, and it adds precious little to the festivities.
For this limited edition, Blue Underground has inclued four major new supplements, including a predictably lively, informative, and often colorfully opinionated commentary track by Troy Howarth. The film historian makes a persuasive argument for The House by the Cemeteryâs âpoeticâ qualities, especially when it comes to Fulciâs dynamic use of the 2.35:1 frame. In a Q&A from 2014 at the Spaghetti Cinema Film Festival, actress Catriona MacColl fields questions about her career, working with Fulci, and the afterlife of his films. Co-writer Giorgio Mariuzzo discusses his working relationship with Fulci. And author Stephen Thrower delves into the literary and cinematic influences on The House by the Cemetery, its place within Fulciâs filmography, and examines the shooting locations (with some enjoyable then-and-now snapshots). But the extras donât stop there. Blue Underground truly pimp out their packaging with a 3D lenticular slipcase, an illustrated booklet with essay by Michael Gingold on the film and its legacy, and a CD disc that contains the entire Walter Rizzati score.
The House by the Cemetery remains prime real estate for horror film aficionados.
Cast: Catriona MacColl, Paolo Malco, Ania Pieroni, Giovanni Frezza, Silvia Collatina, Dagmar Lassander, Carlo De Mejo, Lucio Fulci Director: Lucio Fulci Screenwriter: Dardano Sacchetti, Giorgio Mariuzzo, Lucio Fulci Distributor: Blue Underground Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 1981 Release Date: January 21, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: Rian Johnsonâs Neo-Noir Breakout Brick on Kino Lorber Blu-ray
Johnsonâs debut feature receives an excellent home-video package from Kino.3.5
Rian Johnsonâs Brick places the hard-boiled pulp of noir into the mouths of first-wave millennials. The genreâs contradictory blend of laconicism and loquacity proves to be easily transposed to bright but aimless teenagers of the early aughts; a generation pumped full of antidepressants and amphetamines from childhood, these high schoolers add a narcotized, chemically addled variation of noirâs naturally numbed emotional tenor. The hero, Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), could be called precocious if he werenât so detached, as if Max Fischer got so deep into one of his fabricated roles that he got lost in it. Yet beneath his faĂ§ade of hyper-cool right out of a Dashiell Hammett novel is a scared, baffled young man struggling to deal with the death of his drug-addicted ex, Emily (Emilie de Ravin).
The film presents its Orange County high school setting as a cesspit of vice in which a host of addicted teens are manipulated by a group of popular kids and dope pushers. And right away it makes clear that one of Johnsonâs great strengths is his keen ear for replicating the beats and intonations of classic pulp detective fiction. Cornered by a group of neâer-do-wells, Brendan feistily spits, âThrow one at me if you want, hash head. Iâve got all five senses and I slept last night, that puts me six up on the lot of you.â Supporting characters speak such dialogue with a hard edge reflective of their typesâfemme fatale, stool pigeon, local hoodâbut Gordon-Levitt locates the pain simmering under the surface of Brendanâs flippant hostility, imbuing it with the confused pain of a young man dealing with death for the first time.
At its best, Johnsonâs direction plays up noir tropes while reflecting that underlying pathos, as when he captures theater nerd and designated femme fatale Laura (Norah Zehetner), dressed in a bright red cheongsam that stands in sharp contrast to the more muted clothes of her peers, lit to seem like the only person in the room as Brendan stares at her. Likewise, later encounters with a heroin kingpin (Lukas Haas) find a perfect balance of the intimidating and farcical, regularly blanketing the young man in shadow while also undercutting his menace with a bright, static scene at his family table as his mom (Reedy Gibbs) serves him cookies.
Elsewhere, though, the showy tics that would go on to define Johnsonâs early work can occasionally grate. Close-ups on various objectsâa pair of shoes, a cigarette tossed out of a car onto asphaltâimbue the quotidian with menace, but to redundant effect. Likewise, in-camera effects garishly disrupt Brickâs measured pace with sudden, dissonant outbursts of violence that feel too self-consciously cool compared to the largely detached tenor of the film. Johnson would keep this overactive approach all the way through guest slots helming episodes of Breaking Bad, and to revisit Brick in the wake of his less antic, more cohesively stylized work on films like Looper and Knives Out is to see just how much heâs matured as a filmmaker.
Brick, in some ways, recalls the first films of Christopher Nolan, who likewise emerged as a maker of filmic puzzles and noir mystery updated for the 21st century. But where Nolan prefers to spring his surprises by withholding information, often to the point of narrative incoherence, Johnson likes to give sharp viewers enough clues for them to solve the case before the end. And for all the filmâs literary brio and technical pizzazz, Brick shows a keen interest in character that always shines through the style, and an empathy for even the most debased of the blank-faced, directionless people who surround Brendan.
Steve Yedlinâs cinematography mixes muted, naturalistic tones with sudden bursts of expressionistic color, and Kinoâs Blu-ray superbly captures this contrast. Brendanâs sallow, shut-in complexion is so textured that itâs impossible to miss the physical toll his obsession takes on him, while bits of color like Lauraâs dress and the bright colors of the theater kidsâ dressing room pop from the tans and off-whites that surround it. The shadows that shroud the filmâs second half are rendered with no visible crushing, and black levels are consistent throughout. The disc comes with audio in lossless 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround. Both mixes are crisp and well balanced, with the surround mix conjuring a more paranoid tone in its distribution of ambient effects across all channels.
Kinoâs disc comes with an audio commentary with Rian Johnson, actors Nora Zehetner and Noah Segan, producer Ram Bergman, production designer Jodie Tillen, and costume designer Michele Posch. Johnson offers the most consistent insights into the film, detailing his inspirations, writing and shooting methods, and more. By moderating the rotating guests on the track, heâs able to prevent overlap in their input. Johnson also introduces a collection of eight deleted and extended scenes. By his own admission, little was fully excised from the film, so most of the 20 minutes of footage consists of scenes in the final cut that last far longer, often adding little more than additional mood at the expense of the final cutâs pacing. Finally, footage from Zehetner and Seganâs audition tapes are included.
Rian Johnsonâs debut feature receives an excellent home-video package from Kino, with a great A/V transfer that highlights the filmmakerâs aesthetic skills.
Cast: Joseph Gordon Levitt, Nora Zehetner, Lukas Haas, Noah Fleiss, Matt OâLeary, Meagan Good, Emilie de Ravin Director: Rian Johnson Screenwriter: Rian Johnson Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 110 min Rating: R Year: 2005 Release Date: January 7, 2020 Buy: Video
Sergio Corbucciâs The Hellbenders and The Specialists on Kino Lorber Blu-ray
Corbucciâs portraits of bloodlust and insatiable cravings for money cut to the core of the true American frontier values.
The landscapes of Sergio Corbucciâs spaghetti westernsâbe they the isolating, snow-swept mountains of The Great Silence or the arid, dusty terrains of Django, The Hellbenders, and The Specialistsâserve as brutally expressionistic backdrops to an Old West where concepts like justice, honor, and community are the things of folk tales. Greed and vengeance are the governing forces in these unforgiving cinematic worlds, where loyalty only goes as far as a dollar has bought it. Even the sanctity of the dead isnât honored, with coffins serving as camouflage for Gatling guns in Django and a safeguard for counterfeit money in The Hellbenders. Corbucciâs vision of the West is a Darwinian hellscape of dog-eat-dog maneuvers, double crosses, and ruthless displays of violence. If his films border on nihilistic, itâs only because the Italian directorâs portraits of bloodlust and insatiable cravings for money cut to the core of the true American frontier values that still reverberate in our culture today.
Early in The Hellbenders, Joseph Cottenâs Colonel Jonas, a Confederate soldier looking to fund a reboot of the just-ended Civil War, and four of his loyal soldiers murder an entire battalion of Union soldiers carrying half a million dollars thatâs to be destroyed before new money can be printed. Following the slaughter, Jonas coolly walks up to his men, shoots the two who arenât his blood relatives, and, with a fistful of bloody cash in his hand, gleefully states, âA fresh start, boys, a fresh start.â The myth of the West is typically propagated by tales of redemption, ingenuity, justice, and hard work, but Corbucci subverts that myth by presenting the notion of the âfresh startâ offered by the American frontier as one which necessarily courts violence, greed, and theft. Money and land are the currencies in the land of opportunity and no amount of integrity and diligence can do as much to help get your hands on either as a bullet.
If family appears to be the sole unifying force in The Hellbenders, even thatâs only for a spell, as thereâs power in numbers when trying to navigate a coffin full of stolen cash through enemy territory. Where the coffin that Djangoâs protagonist drags around is cracked open to literally unleash a furious flurry of bullets, the one escorted by Jonas and his sons (Julian Mateos, Gino Pernice, and Angel Aranda) in this film more insidiously cultivates violence through temptation, as its contents warp the minds of everyone who remains in its orbit. Money is the inexorable temptress, more pernicious than the devil himself. Late in the film, a drifter, responding to the question of where heâs from, says âFrom under a rock. Thatâs where they say we all begin, crawling out from underneath something.â Corbucciâs view of mankind is one where the rock has just been lifted and all the horrifying instincts of humanity are revealed.
The Specialists opens on a similar image of debasement, with a group of Mexican raiders throwing four men into a pit of mud followed by a dollar coin, with whoever retrieves the dollar remaining the sole survivor. In rides a mysterious man in black, Hud (Johnny Hallyday), to save the day, but as soon as the bandits are run out of Blackstone, we learn that the supposed hero isnât welcome here either, as his brother was recently lynched for robbing the townâs bank. This time around, money isnât in a coffin, but buried somewhere in Blackstone, yet its very presence has the same destabilizing effect on all of the townspeople.
Signifiers of civilized behavior abound in The Specialists, from the townâs pacifist Sheriff Gedeon (Gastone Moschin) and seemingly upstanding banker, Virginia (FranĂ§oise Fabian). And along with the return of their stolen money, even the townsfolk seem to only want law and order. But while Hud and a one-armed Mexican bandit, El Diablo (Mario Adorf), appear as the likely villains, greed spreads like an airborne disease throughout the film, ultimately infecting the whole town with a callous sense of self-preservation.
As Corbucci masterfully navigates through a series of double-crosses, he strips away his charactersâ veneers of civility, tolerance, and virtuousness to reveal the nasty impulses lurking beneath. When the filmmaker shows a group of proto-hippies forcing all of Blackstoneâs citizens to strip at gunpoint and crawl in the dirt, itâs a stark condemnation not only of American greed and opportunism, but of the ways those evil, barbarous inclinations are often deceitfully couched in supposed pursuits of peace, justice, and social order.
Review: Fritz Langâs House by the River on Kino Lorber Blu-ray
The film is a fascinating, bewitching, and hitherto largely neglected entry in Langâs canon.3.5
“I hate this river,â says the nosy Mrs. Ambrose (Ann Shoemaker) as the tide of the water circles âthat filthâ (the carcass of a dead cow, it seems) around her house for what is probably the umpteenth time, to which her next-door neighbor, frustrated writer Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward), replies, âItâs people who should be blamed for the filth, not the river.â And with that Fritz Lang and screenwriter Mel Dinelli neatly unpack House by the Riverâs theme of moral responsibility a mere three minutes into the picture. This hand-holding is widespread in many of Langâs later work (The Blue Gardenia and Clash by Night being the most egregious examples), but itâs the sort of thing thatâs easily absolved given the many fascinating ways the filmmaker visually extended his themes.
Made in 1949 for Republic Pictures, House by the River not only shows its modest origins but the frustration of its maker. Lang wanted to cast a black woman in the role of Emily Gaunt (the part eventually went to Dorothy Patrick), the maid that Haywardâs character accidentally kills mere moments after trying to seduce her, but the suits at Republic recoiled at the idea. Ironically, the very fear of miscegenation that the director wanted to addressâcall it the elephant in Americaâs living room (or the one floating around its house)âfrustrated his ambitions. Unable to subversively work a critique of Americaâs racial problems into the filmâs fabric as he had done for Fury, Lang had to settle for building House by the Riverâs routine melodrama into a snappy commentary on moral depravity and eye-for-an-eye retribution.
Stephen convinces his brother, John (Lee Bowman), to help him dump Emilyâs body in the river outside his home. The manâs relief that his indiscretionsâadultery and murderâappear as if theyâll go unpunished considerably strokes his ego, to the point that he begins to channel the whole affair into his latest unpublished novel. (Early in the film, Mrs. Ambrose advises that he make his stories âracyâ and, later, some woman makes an off-the-cuff comment about writers doing their best work when they channel the truth.) But when Emilyâs body floats to the surface and begins to circle the house that Stephen shares with his wife, Marjorie (Jane Wyatt), itâs not just the plot of his novel that thickens. Itâs here that his moral crisis begins to take on new angles. The filmâs 88 minutes arenât nearly enough to sufficiently flesh them all out, or connect them in a truly meaningful way, but Langâs visuals pick up some of the slack.
Lang too often tries to belie his low budget, which usually exposes his sham (he grafts what sounds like audio from a 100-person reception onto a nine-person party scene), and though heâs unable to give the logic by which the titular river circulates around Steven and Mrs. Ambroseâs house a truly expressive visual justification, it doesnât matter given how splendidly he equates the river to a floating id of primitive, unconscious fears and desires. The directorâs chiaroscuro imagery sinisterly evokes Stephenâs bourgeoning madness, from the parallels between Marjorie and Emilyâs entrances in the film to the maddening links between Emilyâs hair as it swivels in the water and the curtains inside Stephen and Marjorieâs house. Stephen gets his due, and when he does, Lang evokes it as a case of beyond-the-grave retribution. Mrs. Ambrose might say, âWhat comes around, goes around.â
Kino Lorberâs 2K restoration significantly improves on their previous DVD in terms of clarity, depth, and contrast. Thereâs still a bit of murky flicker noticeable in some of the darker scenes, but, on the plus side, thereâs also more information visible on all four edges of the frame throughout. The two-channel Master Audio mono mix cleanly delivers the dialogue and gives a resonant boost to George Antheilâs moody score.
The big new extra here is a commentary track from film historian Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, who begins by addressing the nature of Stephenâs assault on Emily, the filmâs complicated take on sexual politics and sexual violence, and how it fits into the larger discourse of ârape culture.â She also delves into the filmâs formal and thematic links to Fritz Langâs larger body of work, and the ways in which House by the River straddles the borderline between noir and Gothic melodrama. Thereâs also an interview from 2005 with producer and film historian Pierre Rissient, who was largely responsible for resuscitating interest in House by the River, one of Langâs lesser-known and at the time unavailable films. He describes hearing Lang verbally recreate the first 10 minutes of the film practically shot for shot, the effect it had on French New Wave filmmakers like Claude Chabrol, and the interesting connection he made when he finally tracked down the source materialâs author in his Thames-side home.
Now looking better than ever, House by the River is a fascinating, bewitching, and hitherto largely neglected entry in Fritz Langâs filmography.
Cast: Louis Hayward, Jane Wyatt, Lee Bowman, Dorothy Patrick, Ann Shoemaker, Jody Gilbert, Peter Brocco, Howland Chamberlain Director: Fritz Lang Screenwriter: Mel Dinelli Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 1950 Release Date: January 14, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: John Carpenterâs Big Trouble in Little China on Shout! Blu-ray
The cast and crew interviews are the star of this disc, elaborating on the making of a misunderstood cult classic.4
John Carpenterâs Big Trouble in Little China is a relative outlier in the directorâs poetically bleak filmography, a martial-arts adventure slash monster-comedy extravaganza that suggests an Indiana Jones movie thatâs been mounted on a more intimate scale. Look deeper, though, and Big Trouble in Little China recalls the spirit of the work of Carpenterâs beloved Howard Hawks (who made the similarly uncharacteristic Land of the Pharaohs) in its obsession with a team unity that eclipses the efforts of any singular individual. Indiana Jones may have touches of erudition and the help of friends, but heâs unquestionably the man of action at any given moment, while this filmâs Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) is more of a wannabe, a truck driver with a John Wayne bluster who talks tough and has authentic courage, while having no clue what heâs doing.
An early scene in Big Trouble in Little China is perhaps purposefully misleading. Jack is in San Franciscoâs Chinatown playing pai gow with a group of Chinese-Americans. Jack wins and takes their money, suggesting that he will be the cocksure American of the movies whoâs at ease wherever he goes, besting people at their own rituals. This a warm and funnyâread: Hawksianâscene in which weâre allowed to revel in the somewhat contentious energy of these men. One of the Chinese-Americans is something of a friend of Jackâs, Wang (Dennis Dun), who loses big to him in a double-or-nothing gambit. Then, Wang and Jack are swept into a bizarre quest in which the American is nearly rendered the sidekick, forcing him to get by mostly on nerve. The film is both a celebration and parody of macho American ego.
Itâs amazing how loose and charming a screen adventure can be when filmmakers are willing to play around and deflate a heroâs pomposity, even if they ultimately enjoy it. Accompanying Wang to the airport, still hoping to get his money, Jack hits on a gorgeous woman, Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall), and is promptly shot down for being drunk. When Chinese gangsters kidnap Wangâs fiancĂ©e, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), at the airport, Jack faces the gangsters and gets his ass kicked (though he is out-armed and outnumbered). Later, a wise and benevolent old sorcerer, Egg Shen (Victor Wong), delivers a bunch of exposition about Chinese black magic and the legacy of a demon named Lo Pan (James Hong), Jack says he feels like an outsider and everyone, especially Gracie, agrees. Eventually, Jack fires a machine gun into the air, finally feeling in his element, and sends a part of the ceiling crashing down on his head. And so on.
W.D. Richterâs screenplay abounds in clever one-liners that Carpenter skillfully under-emphasizes, while Russell, whoâs played many un-ironic action heroes, embraces Jackâs foolishness with a lovely and graceful sense of abandon. In other words, Carpenter has it both ways: Jack is never more dashing than when crossing the master threshold of idiocy.
At the time of its release, critics complained that Big Trouble in Little China was neither an adventure, a comedy, nor a horror film, and that its characters were merely types, which is very much the point here. The stakes of the quest to rescue Miao Yin and Gracie from Lo Panâs clutches are never high, as Carpenter is more interested in mounting a free-floating hang-out comedy that casually borrows from many genres, effectively announcing his ability to do whatever he pleasesâa cocky sensibility that would influence future genre mix-masters.
Big Trouble in Little China often suggests a feature-length version of those idle moments in Hawksâs adventures, such as when Ricky Nelsonâs character sang a song in Rio Bravo, only with the flippancy turned way up. The monsters and special effects are charmingly jokeyâfar more charming than those of Ivan Reitmanâs similarly spirited Ghostbustersâand Carpenterâs beautiful widescreen compositions often liken the creatures to those of a spooky amusement-park ride, banishing them to nooks and crannies that presumably hide their puppeteers. Meanwhile, the martial-arts battles are funny, poignant, and concise, as Carpenter emphasizes singular gestures, such as an air-born swordfight, allowing them to cumulatively suggest stanzas in a poem. In its sense of controlled chaos, Big Trouble in Little China distinguishes itself from the figurative madness of the films of, say, Tsui Hark.
Despite the half-drunk, what-the-hell atmosphere, the humans in Big Trouble in Little China do register, which prevents this film from being as meaningless as genre pastiche-parodies like Stephen Sommersâs Mummy installments. Russell, with his gloriously cuckoo timing and absurd tank top, is the center of the narrative, but Dun, Cattrall, Pai, Li, and Wong have a poignant agency as well as an intergroup chemistry, and Hong wisely plays his role straight as a counterpoint to Russell. Lo Pan is an authentically elegant and frightening villain, whether mocking the heroes as an old man or hovering malevolently through his subterranean lair as an albino phantom warrior. And his exit, cleverly foreshadowed by an early scene between Jack and Wang, is both jolting and amusing, which is essentially this strange lark in a nutshell.
The image here has a painterly quality thatâs in keeping with John Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundeyâs intentions. Colors have a soft, almost watercolor quality and occasionally explode off the screen, such as the reds and greens of the various tiers of Lo Panâs subterranean lair. Facial textures are quite detailed, such as the make-up for Kim Cattrallâs character when sheâs fashioned as a bride for Lo Pan. There are two soundtracks: a 5.1 and 2.0. The mixes are clear but occasionally sound a little flat in terms of diegetic effects, though the score is robust and nuanced, allowing Carpenterâs fans to savor his synth collaboration with Alan Howarth. Overall, this is an appealing transfer, but it doesnât quite feel definitive.
The new interviews are the highlight of this loaded supplements package, and they follow two overlapping thematic strands. On one hand, the interviews with virtually every person involved on Big Trouble in Little China offer a relatively full portrait of the filmâs making (notably missing are the female actors), detailing how Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinsteinâs original period western script was revised by co-screenwriter W.D. Richter to take place in the present day, and how Carpenter eventually took on directing duties, hiring friends and former collaborators such as Kurt Russell, second-unit director Tommy Lee Wallace, and Nick Castle, who played Michael Meyers in Halloween and helped perform with Carpenter and Wallace the theme song for Big Trouble in Little China.
Throughout these interviews, Carpenter is portrayed as a low-key man of many talents who knows how to command a set, and who feels the filmâs comedy was misunderstood by the studio and initially the audience alike. The other strand, more poignantly, details the working experiences of the Asian actors in the cast, including Dennis Dun, James Hong, Donald Li, and Peter Kwong, who offer similar stories of combating Hollywood stereotypes and turning to acting as children as a way to fit into a Caucasian society.
There are also three audio commentaries, an archive one with Russell and Carpenter thatâs a good informal listen, and two new tracks with producer Larry Franco and special effects artist Steve Johnson, respectively, that offer even more context on the filmâs creation. All sorts of other goodies round out a superb set, including photo galleries, stills galleries, and a feature on the filmâs various posters and lobby cards. This package is a treasure trove for fans of Big Trouble in Little China, especially for Carpenter acolytes.
The cast and crew interviews are the star of this Shout! Factory disc, elaborating on the making of a misunderstood cult classic.
Cast: Kurt Russell, Dennis Dun, Kim Cattrall, James Hong, Victor Wong, Kate Burton, Donald Li, Carter Wong, Peter Kwong, Suzee Pai, Chao Li Chi, James Pax, Jeff Imada, Craig Ng Director: John Carpenter Screenwriter: Gary Goldman, David Z. Weinstein, W.D. Richter Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 99 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 1986 Release Date: December 3, 2019 Buy: Video
Review: Wim Wendersâs Until the End of the World on Criterion Blu-ray
The film remains a hypnotic yet foreboding look at how the proliferation of images and media technology affect the mind.4
Wim Wendersâs 287-minute sci-fi adventure Until the End of the World has the peculiar quality of being simultaneously elliptical and meticulously plotted. Though the 1991 film features no shortage of contemplative shots of futuristic vistas, both real and virtual, and exhibits an aversion to easy action-flick thrills, the narrative has all the intricacy one would expect of a cyberpunkian tale about the chase for stolen, mind-altering technology. Despite the storyâs novelistic girth, most scenes wind up being indispensable both to the plot and to the filmâs portrait of a specific, detailed milieu. Which is to say that the whole is akin to a good novelâa comparison that Wenders would likely appreciate, given that his prescient allegory of the postmodern condition ends up, somewhat paradoxically, propounding the virtues of words over images.
The pronouncement in favor of written language is uttered in Until the End of the World by the narrator character, Eugene (Sam Neill), as a kind of conclusion, after heâs witnessed the abyssal attraction that the digital image holds for his ex-girlfriend, Claire (Solveig Dommartin, who co-authored the filmâs story), and the new object of her affection, Sam (William Hurt). Enthralled by a head-mounted camera invented by Samâs father (Max von Sydow) that can read brainwavesâand, as it turns out, convert dreams into digital imageryâthe two become obsessed by the potential of reading their unconscious mindâs nocturnal creations.
The images the device draws, presented in full frame in a few boldly experimental sequences, are multifarious, amorphous, and rapturously beautiful. Digital artifacts and posterizations, as a form of auto-animation, appear to imbue the images themselves with life, even as such imperfections obscure the objects actually depicted. These obscure but teeming visions compel Sam and Claireâs intense engagement, and in whatâs perhaps the most clear-sighted prediction of the life in digitized society in a film chock-full of them, Wenders has his two principal characters spend much of the final act staring passively into digital devices, oblivious to the glowing orange-red vistas of the Australian Outback they wander through.
Set in 1999, Until the End of the World predicts with striking accuracy such turn-of-the-millennium devices as digital assistants, search engines, and consumer GPS navigation. The social order in which these objects are embedded also isnât far off the mark. The filmâs first half is a road trip through a globalized world auguring a post-Berlin Wall order that bears more than a passing likeness to our own: East Berlin glows with the neon of renewed capital investment; in the Soviet Union, espionage has been privatized; and San Francisco bears witness to the extreme income disparity wrought by the latter years of the Pax Americana.
The road trip that will end in the dreamland of Australia is kickstartedâthough without the urgency the metaphor impliesâwhen Claire turns off a French highway to avoid a traffic jam. This detour eventually brings her into contact with Sam, the trench-coat-clad, fedora-topped fugitive whose air of extralegal mystery and neo-noir cool draws Claire to him well before the film reveals its technological MacGuffin. As Sam, Hurt is a bit stiff, as if, like Claire, heâs unclear exactly who Sam is supposed to beâwhich works, to a degree, in the filmâs first half, as the man has turned himself into a neutral medium, a recording device. It will eventually turn out that Sam has stolen his fatherâs experimental brain camera to collect images of the world that can now be conveyed directly to the visual cortex of his blind mother (Jeanne Moreau).
Wenders grounds Claireâs sudden and intense attraction to the apparent criminal by having Eugeneâs detached voiceover narration describe Claire as flighty and adventurous. Such haphazard characterization is a hallmark of Until the End of the World: Wenders consistently proves less interested in a deep dive into the romantic triangle tying together Claire, Sam, and Eugene than he is in an exploration of the image-saturated milieus of the near future, with their omnipresent screens and glowing neon. He underlines the oneiric artificiality of these millennial environments with an expansive and justly renowned soundtrackâfeaturing songs by the Talking Heads, R.E.M., Peter Gabriel, and U2âthat was more successful than the film itself upon release. That Until the End of the World at times comes off as the worldâs longest music video arguably suits its project, as to â90s intellectuals there was no aesthetic more symptomatic of the forthcoming descent into visual oblivion as that of MTV.
Like Samâs project, Until the End of the World is itself a compendium of images, with overt allusions to Jean-Luc Godard, Alfred Hitchcock, YasujirĆ Ozu, and, somewhat randomly, Johannes Vermeer. Not to mention Wendersâs own previous films: The directorâs use of the road as means of contemplating the gulf between image and experience recalls Alice in the Cities and his American breakout, Paris, Texas. If the meat of the filmâthe envelopment of the protagonistsâ consciousnesses, as well as our own, in the chameleonic digital image, the tempting escape into virtualityâdoesnât come until rather late into the filmâs 287-minute running time, itâs because Wenders first sets himself the gargantuan task of summarizing the state of the cinematic image at the moment of its eclipse. His film, well at home with the science fiction of its era, suggests that a shift in our means of apprehending the real is also an alteration of realityâthe end, one could somewhat extravagantly claim, of the world itself.
The new transfer of the film reveals cinematographer Robby MĂŒllerâs strikingly bright but deeply hued color palette in all its glory, from the saturated reds of the futuristic Kiev train station, to the lush greens of the Japanese countryside, to the dusty gray of bougie-bohemian Parisian apartment buildings. Wim Wenders, who oversaw the filmâs restoration, makes best use of the remastered 5.1 soundtrack during the music sequences, using the more robust mix to create a greater sense of envelopment. By comparison, the filmâs environmental sounds and dialogue are mixed flatly, but given how frequently songs appear under scenes, the disc assures an aural experience thatâs overall on par with its visual one.
With this double-disc Blu-ray, Criterion offers an expansive but well-curated selection of extras organized around a few through lines. First, and lending itself to a certain auteur-worshipping romanticism, is the production history of the full Until the End of the World cut, which came in at the current length of 287 minutes. The filmâs producers demanded severe edits, forcing Wim Wenders and editor Peter Przygodda to reduce the running time to 158 minutes. Wendersâs efforts to save his original vision are detailed in Bilge Ebiriâs illuminating booklet essay, a prolix title card that runs before the film, and in the filmmakerâs introduction for this Criterion release, as well as in an interview from German television from around the release of the directorâs cut to German DVD in 2001.
Then thereâs the filmâs experimental use of digital video, so we get 1990 special from Japanese television featuring Wenders working on the pioneering digital footage shot for the film in Sonyâs Tokyo-based labs. And finally thereâs the hit soundtrack, so we get an additional booklet essay by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, adapted from a longer (and highly recommended) piece from The A.V. Club, that celebrates the unabashed hipness of Wendersâs musical taste, and a documentary about the recording of Nick Caveâs â(Iâll Love You) Till the End of the Worldâ that provides fascinating glimpses of Berlin immediately after the fall of the wall. A bit out of place are a series of âdeleted scenesâ that are really 20 minutes of extended scenes and B roll.
A film at once hip, quirky, and serious-minded, Until the End of the World remains a hypnotic yet foreboding look at how the proliferation of images and media technology affect the mind.
Cast: William Hurt, Solveig Dommartin, Sam Neill, Max von Sydow, RĂŒdiger Volger, Ernie Dingo, Jeanne Moreau, Chick Ortega, Elena Smirnova, Eddy Mitchell, Chishu Ryu, Allen Garfield, Lois Chiles, Kuniko Miyake Director: Wim Wenders Screenwriter: Peter Carey, Wim Wenders Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 287 min Rating: R Year: 1991 Release Date: December 17, 2019 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: George Cukorâs Holiday on the Criterion Collection
Criterionâs release stands tall as what one, specific genius of the medium was able to do with a fair-to-middling play.5
George Cukorâs 1938 masterpiece Holiday seems to have emerged from a happy and completely natural accord between talent and circumstances. Peel back a few layers and, like many established classics of Hollywoodâs classical period, the truth is strange, and not at all neat.
The basic outline of the story is a wrinkle on the old conflict between restless, proto-hippie, free-spirit types and the maw of American aristocracy that threatens to devour them. Johnny Case (Cary Grant), having emerged from blue-collar stock and engineered an untenable balance between the shrewdly ambitious and the purposefully lackadaisical, has found himself engaged to be married into one of the richest old-money families in the country, the Setons. The family estate gives the film the perfect opportunity to indicate unfathomable American wealth, a yawning fortress tucked into the row of 5th Avenueâs Gilded Age townhouses. Holiday exploits the opportunity for all its tactile pleasures, almost unto itself grounding the fulcrum of its drama: The palace is a mausoleum, sure, but itâs also a very, very nice mausoleumâan architectural and interior design honey trap of the highest order.
These battle lines intersect within Johnnyâs very soul, and his outward, competing angels are made manifest in his fiancĂ©e, Julia (Doris Nolan), and her sister, Linda (Katharine Hepburn). Julia is a deluxe wife in training, more than prepared for a life of meticulously managed leisure earned by the industry of Johnnyâs business acumen. Linda, at the other end of the spectrum, is frequently charged with childishness, but itâs better to say that she dreams of actualizing a childâs pleasure long past the demarcation of adulthood. The prospect of marriage to Julia doesnât come across as unappealing, but, serendipitously, and with some delayed reaction, Johnny and Linda provoke in each other a latent tendency to peaceful disobedience.
The very nature of the storyâs pronounced dichotomy all but expressly circumscribes a path to victory for the free spirits, while the filmâs romantic-comedy side implies a dual victory, a rhyming one, wherein the couple the audience was hoping for from the outset unites as the final music rises and Holiday blissfully fades out. A director and cast need not be especially clever or energetic to carry this tidy narrative to term, as Edward H. Griffithâs 1930 film Holidayâthe first to bring Philip Barryâs play to the screenâamply demonstrates, but the ways that Cukor distinguishes his adaptation are self-evident.
The simplest way to explain the Cukor effect is by way of infusion, on a single, spectacular, and crucial set: Lindaâs playroom. Already a visual and spatial centerpiece of the play, itâs transformed here into a Cukorian dynamo, a zone of thrilling provocation and mystery not to be found anywhere else in pictures. As a concept, itâs merely âimportant,â a crucial apparatus to put asunder the Setonsâ pretty mausoleum and the far more animated life of Lindaâs mind.
To be clear, the playroom would be a boon even to the most mediocre talent. In Cukorâs hands, it becomes a living space, a key component to the directorâs entire vision. The ostensible ânonconformity versus responsibilityâ drama, while served dutifully, takes second seat behind a much larger artwork that breathes through its actors, and pushes energy currents through different rooms, and the meaning imbued by the dreams and plans projected therein.
Setting aside for a moment that Cukor was the one director cherished most by prestige-hungry moguls like David O. Selznick and Louis B. Mayer, or that he would sustain what seemed to be an indefatigable commitment to picture-making for five very busy decades, Cukorâs ingenuity had a lot to do with being someone who could apparently do it all. And as he would prove time and again, his polyvalent set of talents were crucial not only during the transition from one project to another (famously, at this point, he was already ramping up pre-production on Gone With the Wind, for Selznick), but in uniting the disparate elements of one project.
This kind of talent wasnât mislaid when Cukor directed Holiday, as the project wasnât entirely without potential pitfalls. Barryâs play often goads directors to make sure things resonate all the way to the nosebleed seats, with such bald enticements for audience goodwill as Linda hollering, âOh, someone please, try and stop me!â A not-insignificant portion of the material depends on champagne-flute-shattering high notes like this, and Cukor is too shrewd a popular entertainer to declare himself an enemy of such gambits.
Other thorny matters include Grantâs performance. Hard as it may be for us to believe, while there could be no doubt that Grant was a lead actor by 1937 and 1938, it remained evident that the studios still werenât entirely sure who he was or what he could do. That uncertainty somehow both feeds the dilemma that is Johnny and threatens to render it into a flattened absurdity all at the same time. Grant was an icon of impeccable style and poise, as well as the greatest dancer in non-musical cinema after Buster Keaton. His efforts early in Holiday to evince both romantic charm and devil-may-care absent-mindedness, with intimations of some deeper register of antisocial angst, are as strained as that cocktail of character traits sounds. A lock of unruly hair that falls across his forehead is made to work harder than it ought to, in order to sell Johnny as a nincompoop suffering from chronic distraction who nevertheless would bring home a rich fiancĂ©e during a casual skiing excursion.
Cukorâand Grantâmake it abundantly clear that they donât see Johnny as a problem thatâs meant to be solved. Crucially, these early scenes are funny and evocative and have certain earmarks of Cukorian dexterityâa slight compression of scene choreography so that exposition and stagecraft resemble a strange game of undisclosed rules; a sprinkling of absurd non sequiturs intended only to be half-heard, not unlike the ones in Howard Hawks pictures.
Further, Johnnyâs flightiness is sublimated to Linda, and, to a lesser (but still oddly moving) degree, Lew Ayresâs junior Seton man of the house, Ned. Ever after, threats of strained seriousness are either attacked or ignored, not only by Cukor or his highly adept screenwriters, Donald Ogden Stewart and Sidney Buchman, but by a robust esprit de corps thatâs the result of a cast and crew brought together under the charge that no job is too small or thorny conceptual wrinkle too big. Itâs this unity that lends Holiday its glow, its larger-than-life-ness, which is larger even than a star picture led by Hepburn and Grant That itâs also very funny, highly empathetic even to the losing side of its love arithmetic, and, in its way, an unspeakably sad elegy for the kind of privileged rebellion only possible in Hollywood pictures, itâs just the right kind of explosive ordnance you should aim directly at your heart, and fire.
If the best black-and-white cinema from the 1930s had a reputation for being the silvery shimmer of dreamscapes, part of that was thanks to George Cukorâs impeccable aesthetic sense; you need only flip through a few random shots from Camille, Dinner at Eight, and Romeo and Juliet for evidence. Holiday is a little bit of a different kettle of fish, as oneiric visions of swooning romance just arenât on the menu here. Rather, the countless images of patrician elegance, needing to suggest the very best that the very fattest stacks of Upper East Side cash could buy, needs to be positioned as the obverse sideâbut not alien toâthe cockeyed snap of Lindaâs playroom, a more deeply intimate cut into the flesh of American dreaming.
Under Cukor, Franz Planerâs monochrome cinematography is expertly tuned to every nuance, without undue exuberance, from the Setonsâ cavernous antechambers to the cozy bookshelves in the background of the playroom. The new 4K restoration of Holiday honors the sophisticated lighting and compositions of Planer and Cukorâs design, helping to bring under one, smooth draught of Columbia monochrome, one of the deceptively light odes to the bittersweetness of ephemeral love and desire ever to emerge from that studio or any other.
Thatâs not to say that the soundtrack is relegated to backup. In a scene thatâs by all reasonable metrics the heart of Holiday, Johnny and Linda look out over the New Yearsâ Eve revelers on the Seton lawn, happenstance making the celebration a private one for just these two. The soundtrack keeps the background rumble low, far-off sounding, yet perfectly clear, the better to steal a kiss, even more the better to demur an illicit romantic overture. In a Cukor picture where the quietest asides mean the most, the Blu-rayâs attention to the nuances of each layer of sound are no less significant than the picture, and Criterionâs uncompressed monaural track for the 4K restoration must be acquitted on all charges, by any jury in the world.
Thereâs a line from Cukorâs 1952 film Pat and Mike that Iâve been looking for an excuse to use in a review for quite a long time: âThereâs not much meat on her, but whatâs there is âcherceâ.â Such is what Criterion has given us on the Holiday disc for supplements. Not to discount too steeply the value in the videotaped conversation between critic Michael Sragow and filmmaker Michael Schlesinger, or the vintage audio clips of Cukor discussing Holiday, but the real prize hog on the disc is Edward H. Griffithâs 1930 adaptation of the Philip Barry play.
The 1930 Holiday, which earned Ann Harding her only Oscar nomination, is perfectly dreadful in ways only prestige adaptations of theatrical properties can be, within that volatile period when talking pictures were the newest wonders offered by technology. Griffithâs direction is honor-bound and correct, if you will only evaluate the film as a means to convey the Barry play to cinema audiences who happen to need some coaxing to believe that actors can enunciate their lines, and be heard, in the same instanceâthe magic of the movies.
Otherwise, the film is as laborious and punishing as one might expect; in particular, Robert Amesâs Johnny Case is totally unconvincing. Ames, who, sadly, would exit this life in 1931 by way of acute alcoholism, makes a totally neutral Johnnyâdutifully amplifying dialogue requiring emphasis but never for an instance suggesting an agent of liberation, for himself or anyone else. Elsewhere, Griffithâs direction is strictly without urgency, pushing the actors (leading the charge, as she often would, was the grand Mary Astor) only to hit their taped marks and speak with correct diction into microphones hidden in ornate vases.
Never mind the box sets: Hereâs a slender, yet unquestionably crucial, presentation of one of the greatest films to emerge from any decade of American cinema, without qualification.
Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Doris Nolan, Lew Ayres, Edward Everett Horton, Henry Kolker, Binnie Barnes, Jean Dixon, Henry Daniell Director: George Cukor Screenwriter: Donald Ogden Stewart, Sidney Buchman Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 95 min Rating: NR Year: 1938 Release Date: January 7, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: Richard Fleischerâs Trapped on Flicker Alley Blu-ray
This transfer of Fleischerâs B-film cheapie boasts a crisp image and strong contrast levels.4
Before going on to direct such disparate genre fare as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Soylent Green, and Tora, Tora, Tora, Richard Fleischer cut his teeth directing B noirs at RKO Pictures, culminating in the 1952 classic The Narrow Margin. With 1949âs Trapped, Fleischer was loaned out as a hired gun for the Poverty Row studio Eagle-Lion Filmsâknown primarily for producing the first four collaborations between Anthony Mann and cinematographer John Altonâwhere he was left to work his magic on an even more miniscule budget and a shooting schedule so tight, it could turn coal into a diamond.
Lacking any semblance of polished studio sheen, Trapped spins a gritty, no-nonsense yarn about a ruthless counterfeiter, Tris Stewart (Lloyd Bridges), whoâs sprung from jail by the Treasury Department and tasked with hunting down his old counterfeiting plates, which are being used, after a three-year hiatus, to print fresh batches of dough. Despite working within the extreme budgetary limitations of the bargain-basement B film, Fleischer flashes some surprisingly adroit camerawork throughout, as well as an acute sense of composition thatâs most prominent in the thrilling climactic sequence set in an empty trolley car station.
The characters also accrue a surprising complexity throughout, as high tensions arise from the conflicts between their aspirations and realities. Not only does Tris play both sides of the law once heâs back on the streets, but his girlfriend, Meg (Barbara Payton), is stuck working as a cigarette girl under the alias of Laurie Fredericks as she hides out from the cops. Even the seedy guy, John Downey (John Hoyt), whoâs been keeping Laurie company at the club while Tris is behind bars has been working a long con as one of the numerous T-Men on hand to ensure Tris leads the way to the elusive and invaluable plates. Struggling with the challenges of balancing these dual identities, these charactersâ frequently dicey attempts to play both sides of the law effectively blur the thin line between good and evil.
Trapped borrows liberally from earlier Poverty Row successes and relies on an intermittent docudrama aesthetic to lend an immediacy and authenticity to its drama. Despite being obviously indebted to T-Men, Trapped sets itself apart from Anthony Mannâs film with a series of elaborately conceived double-crossings and a brutally violent streak that Bridges, already warming up for his equally maniacal performance in Cy Endfieldâs The Sound of Fury the following year, carries through the filmâs first hour until his abrupt and unceremonious exit.
Trisâs quick temper and savage thirst for trouble enlivens nearly every scene heâs in. And each of the fights heâs involved inâthree with T-Men and one with a former partner he roughs up just for the hell of itâplay out with an exhilarating rawness as men awkwardly flail about, their every punch and kick carrying conveying a manic sense of desperation. Although the narrativeâs seams begin to reveal themselves toward the end (with such details as Trisâs absence from the filmâs final 15 minutes seeming less intentional than a byproduct of a script rushed into production), Fleischer and Bridgesâs work gives Trapped a terse vitality that propels it through its duller, less inspired passages.
Soon after its release, Trapped was, like most Poverty Row films, thoughtlessly condemned to the murky waters of the public domain, where it could only be seen in extremely poor quality. Following the recent discovery of a 35mm acetate print of Richard Fleischerâs film, the Film Noir Foundation and the UCLA Film & Television Archive went to work on producing the beautiful restoration available here. Flicker Alleyâs transfer boasts a crisp image and strong contrast levels, effectively restoring the rich details of the filmâs location shooting. Slight signs of dirt and debris still remain, but these minor imperfections do little to hamper just how good the image looks here. The audio is quite impressive as well, with a nicely balanced mix, clean dialogue, and a complete absence of hisses and pops.
Per usual with their Blu-ray releases of new restorations, Flicker Alley has included an informative and engaging commentary track, this time with author Alan K. Rode and film historian Julie Kirgo. The two have a charming repartee, and their affection for Trapped and many of the oft-forgotten noir cheapies churned out on Poverty Row comes through loud and clear. Along with providing ample historical background about Eagle-Lion Films, particularly head producer Bryan Foyâs legendary cutthroat cheapness and efficiency, Rode and Kirgo ably traverse Bridges and Fleischerâs careers, as well as the tragic life of actress Barbara Payton. The package also includes two featurettesâone which touches upon the filmâs Los Angeles location shooting and Fleischerâs lean, economical style, and another that explores Fleischerâs rise from B-film obscurity to a dependable major studio directorâas well as a 24-page booklet with storyboards and artwork from the film and brief bios of its major cast and crew.
Flicker Alleyâs fantastic Blu-ray release gives Richard Fleischerâs B-film cheapie the tender, loving care typically afforded only to major studio fare or canonical classics.
Cast: Lloyd Bridges, Barbara Payton, John Hoyt, James Todd, Russ Conway, Robert Karnes, Robert Carson Director: Richard Fleischer Screenwriter: Earl Felton, George Zuckerman Distributor: Flicker Alley Running Time: 78 min Rating: NR Year: 1949 Release Date: December 31, 2019 Buy: Video
Review: Paul Schraderâs Blue Collar on Kino Lorber Blu-ray
Schraderâs lively and despairing first film as director has never been more relevant.4
Audiences familiar with Paul Schraderâs customarily austere aesthetic may be surprised by the jocularity of his 1978 directorial debut, Blue Collar. Following three broke auto workers living in Detroit, the film has long passages of wittily profane, seemingly improvisatory dialogue that reveals the day-to-day tempo of the menâs lives, suggesting the scenes between the various cab drivers in Martin Scorseseâs Taxi Driver, which Schrader wrote. One particularly audacious comic sequence sees Schrader expressing his charactersâ desperation and poverty in a series of comic twists so evocatively absurd, sad, and politically enraged that they suggest a BuĂ±uel set piece. Zeke (Richard Pryor), the angriest of the men, has been caught lying about the amount of children he has to the I.R.S., and so his wife, Caroline (Chip Fields) runs over to a neighborâs house to grab more kids while he stalls an agent (Leonard Gaines). Riffing wildly, Zeke tries to tell the agent that his extra children have names such as Jim Brown and Sugar Ray. This sort of scene can scarcely be found in many of Schraderâs most famous films as director, and such playfulness was leeched entirely of his next directorial effort, the solemn, deadening Hardcore.
This liveliness, this tonal variety, is shrewdly utilized by Schrader as a form of misdirection. Blue Collar is driven by a tragic thesis, and itâs as bleak and furious as any film Schrader has made since, but it takes its time and allows you to get your guard down. Thereâs even a genre hook, which Schrader casually subverts. Zeke and his co-workers and drinking buddies, Jerry (Harvey Keitel) and Smokey (Yaphet Kotto), fed up with being exploited by the auto plant and their union, decide to rob the latterâs office. In a conventional film, even one with political ambitions, such a heist would generate thrills. For Schrader, the robbery is a banal, dryly funny spectacleâa humdrum extension of the trioâs frustrating lives. They come away with nearly nothing and inadvertently benefit the union, which lies about its losses for insurance money. This failure splinters the men, and this dissolution is what truly interests Schrader.
In most heist movies, criminals fall out over the ill-gotten booty. In Blue Collar, Zeke, Jerry, and Smokey are driven apart because they are expertly manipulated by larger social forces. The union turns the men against one another in order to nullify the threat of their potential unrestâa theme that couldnât be more timely in an age in which weâre conditioned to despise one another for our political affiliations while monopolies are forged and vast quantities of money are controlled by fewer and fewer essential oligarchs. Yet Schrader, with his sense of comedy, with his innate grasp of the working-class textures of his charactersâ lives, never renders this theme into a dull sermon. Blue Collar is a surprising and emotionally robust experience.
Pryor, Kotto, and Keitel have a profoundly convincing chemistry, and Schrader modulates their performances with a confidence that would be impressive for anyone, let alone a first-time director. Weâre always keyed into each manâs specific energy, and to how those energies coalesce when theyâre together. Zeke is a livewire hothead, which allows Pryor to tap the same performative demons he channeled for stand-up, but Pryorâs performance doesnât represent a mere change of setting, as his acting is a true, volatile expression of Zekeâs bitterness, which is channeled, via the character and the actorâs intelligence, into conversational riffs that suggest the âstand-upâ of everyoneâs regular lives. Kotto invests Smokey with a simmering, subtler intensity, while Keitel embodies the anxiety of the comparatively straight rational manâthe odd man out among eccentrics in an extraordinary series of situations. (Schrader and the cast also understand these various dynamics to be informed by racial tension: Zeke and Smokey are African-American and Jerry is Caucasian, a difference in perspective and station that isnât outwardly acknowledged until a devastating late scene between Zeke and Jerry.)
Blue Collar also features one of Schraderâs finest and most disturbing set pieces, in which his themes are expressed through a series of piercing physical gestures. Smokey is murdered by the union for his involvement in the theft, and heâs locked into a chamber where cars are spray-painted, with the fumes of the paint gradually suffocating and poisoning him. This is a wrenchingly protracted scene, showing Smokey as the life is gradually snuffed out of him, his struggles coming to nothing and drowned out by the chilling drone of the spray-paint apparatus. Schraderâs awareness of the finest details, especially the sound of the spraying of the paint, give this scene an uncanny, almost supernatural sense of cruelty, as Smokey comes to embody every person that every company has matter-of-factly annihilated.
This transfer offers a clean, detailed, appropriately gritty image. Skin textures are vivid, as one can see the men sweating as they labor in the auto plant, and colors are lively, especially the silver of the chrome in the plant, which gleams with a white heat, testifying to the extremity of the working conditions. The sound mix is well balanced with a few show-pony qualities, such as the exhilaratingly rendered strings of Jack Nitzscheâs Bo Diddley-inspired score.
The archive audio commentary by writer-director Paul Schrader and journalist Maitland McDonagh is a detailed and fascinating listen, especially for Schraderâs descriptions of working with his famously contentious leading men. Richard Pryor, Yaphet Kotto, and Harvey Keitel all worked differently and all resented one another, and Schrader felt that he had no control and was merely trying to âsurviveâ the production. (Given this context, the amount of control thatâs evident in the film is all the more remarkable.) Pryor would come into a scene hot from the first take and would soon flame out, while Keitel needed to warm up, so Schrader was often shooting Pryorâs first take and Keitelâs, say, 10th, which was achieved by having Keitel rehearse separately. Pryor had racial resentments, and would provoke his co-stars, possibly to stimulate himself artistically, while every actor suspected the other to be the true star of the production. These conditions informed the formal qualities of Blue Collar as well, as the camera rarely moves, mostly because Schrader had trouble getting coverage. (Austere camera movements would soon become a signature of his aesthetic.) Interestingly enough, Pryor eventually said that he wanted Schrader to make a movie about his life, claiming he was the only director who understood him. This commentary is the only supplement on this disc, but it offers a rich glimpse into a film that deserves more attention.
Paul Schraderâs lively and despairing first film as director has never been more relevant, and this disc should hopefully lift it from undeserved semi-obscurity.
Cast: Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, Yaphet Kotto, Ed Begley Jr., Harry Bellaver, George Memmoli, Lucy Saroyan, Lane Smith, Cliff DeYoung, Borah Silver, Chip Fields, Leonard Gaines Director: Paul Schrader Screenwriter: Paul Schrader, Leonard Schrader Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 114 min Rating: R Year: 1978 Release Date: December 10, 2019 Buy: Video