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Review: Jean Renoir’s The Southerner on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

Renoir’s most well-known American feature is a fascinating translation of the filmmaker’s methods and outlook into a Hollywood milieu.

3.5

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The Southerner

Jean Renoir’s The Southerner displays the studious, socially observant eye of its maker from its first images. Scenes of cotton pickers toiling in a field show African-American and Caucasian workers, and the camera homes in on the unpracticed slowness of the white pickers, and especially how their calm deliberation contrasts with the efficient speed of their black colleagues, who can strip an entire plant of cotton in a matter of seconds. A racial history of agricultural labor is etched without words in these shots, leaving powerfully unsaid the legacy of brutality and dispropriate punishment that accounts for the discrepancy in production.

Renoir’s use of deep focus likewise illuminates much of the social and physical context of the film. When sharecropper Sam Tucker (Zachary Scott) meets in his boss’s office to announce his intentions to strike out with his own family plot, they stand in front of a window that looks out to the company’s name stamped on the water tower that looms over the small town. The boss agrees to front Sam the money, but is quick to point out that he will shred his contract with the farmer the second he fails to make his payments.

Once the Tuckers move out to their new farm, patient long takes soak up the dreary flatness of the terrain, as well as the way the run-down house on the property juts out of the land with all the asymmetrical, flimsy ugliness of a skin tag. The dialogue has the upturned lilt of endless optimism, so bubbly that every statement almost sounds like a question, but the overcast skies and fickle land that hangs in the background of the family’s cheerful disposition say everything of the hard times ahead.

Renoir’s style is evident throughout, but his is not the only voice shaping the story. Renoir shared writing credit with Hugo Butler, who would eventually be blacklisted, and William Faulkner, whose own penchant for portraying the unforgiving nature of rural decay can be felt most strongly in the depiction of the Devers family. A contrast to the perseverance of Sam, the Devers patriarch (J. Carrol Naish) has seen too much of what this land can do to a person, and his relative prosperity is so steeped in loss that its attainment has left him bitter and hostile. When Sam’s young son (Jay Gilpin) comes down with a potentially fatal illness, Devers can scarcely hide his satisfaction, not only for his outward desire for the Tuckers’ land, but his inward search, perhaps, for someone who can empathize with his own traumas of eking a living from this soil.

Renoir and the writers’ styles complement each other throughout, though in the final act one can see certain elements of the director’s tonal control get lost in translation. The director’s French films display a keen balance of seemingly incompatible emotions, but The Southerner cannot quite handle the overlapping absurd comedy, hopeful relief, and cruel caprice that define the final act, perhaps the result of Renoir’s graceful observation clashing with the stiff theatricality of 1940s Hollywood acting.

Nonetheless, the film does tease out revealing moments of character psychology, whether it’s Sam’s wife, Nora (Betty Field), dropping her politeness and baring manic glee when Sam saves the family from winter starvation with a possum, or Devers revealing just how little it takes to soothe a wounded ego with the farcical resolution of his conflict with Sam. Such moments of nuance and multivalence elevate The Southerner above the polemical tradition of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, shading the film with the kind of ambivalent judgment that was its maker’s speciality.

Image/Sound

Apart from a persistent flicker most visible at the edges, Kino Lorber’s transfer is excellent. High-contrast scenes keep whites and blacks sharp and separated, while grayer scenes maximize detail and texture. Background clarity is the standard by which any transfer of a Jean Renoir film should be judged, and, happily, all of the deep-focus shots retain clarity into the recesses of the frame. The LPCM mono track is similarly solid, quiet in overall volume, but free of any distracting hiss or crackle.

Extras

The disc comes with two short films. A Salute to France, co-directed by Renoir, is a war-time propaganda picture designed to foster relations with French soldiers. It’s a charming film, filled with gentle humor in the halting attempts of GIs to greet their comrades in their own language while the French respond in fluent English. Whatever teases might be intended in such exchanges are buried under a genial sense of goodwill. Also included is Pare Lorentz’s 1938 short The River, a travelogue of rural progress that contrasts the bold expansion of America with the potential for environmental ruin. As with the feature it supplements, the film is an intriguing application of Flaherty-esque docu-realism and Steinbeckian commentary, all the more surprising for translating the exoticism of the former to domestic land.

Overall

Jean Renoir’s most well-known American feature is a fascinating, if not entirely successful, translation of the filmmaker’s methods and outlook into a Hollywood milieu, and Kino’s superb transfer elegantly preserves its aesthetic virtues.

Cast: Zachary Scott, Betty Field, J. Carrol Naish, Beulah Bondi, Norman Lloyd Director: Jean Renoir Screenwriter: Hugo Butler, Jean Renoir, William Faulkner, Nunnally Johnson Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 92 min Rating: NR Year: 1945 Release Date: February 9, 2016 Buy: Video

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

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

3.5

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Our Hospitality

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

But the foundation of the hill-country warfare gives the comedy extra weight when Keaton’s sheltered youth disembarks to find the family estate is a collapsing shack, and his neighbors are blood rivals with guns drawn in hot pursuit, with the added complication that the maiden he fell hard for on the train journey (Buster’s wife Natalie Talmadge) is a Canfield. Also lacing the film’s middle act with his graceful brand of slapstick and his character’s sober resourcefulness, Keaton eludes the misfiring pistols of the Canfield patriarch (Joe Roberts) and his sons long enough to accept a dinner invitation from his sweetheart, where rules of hospitality preserve his life and compel him to linger, long after exchanging one-eyed stares with his adversaries during prayer at the supper table. When the chase inevitably resumes, it accelerates into a tour de force, labors-of-Hercules climax, again with echoes of Griffith, as Buster dangles from cliffs, falls to a riverbed, and struggles in whitewater rapids before a heroic capper of a stunt that still exhilarates nearly 90 years after it was conceived.

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

Image/Sound

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

Extras

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

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

Overall

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

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

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

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

4.5

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3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image/Sound

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

Extras

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

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

Overall

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

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

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

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

3.5

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The Cloud-Capped Star

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image/Sound

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

Extras

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

Overall

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

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

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

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

4.5

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The Insland Sea

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

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

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

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

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

Image/Sound

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

Extras

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

Overall

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

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

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

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

4

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And Soon the Darkness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image/Sound

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

Extras

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

Overall

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

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

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

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

3.5

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Toy Story 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image/Sound

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

Extras

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

Overall

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

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

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

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

4.5

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Local Hero

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

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

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

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

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

Image/Sound

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

Extras

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

Overall

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

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

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

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

4

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The Circus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image/Sound

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

Extras

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

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

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

Overall

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

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

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Review: Otto Preminger’s Whirlpool on Twilight Time Blu-ray

For such an unusual and intriguing film, the Region 1 Blu-ray debut of Preminger’s Whirlpool is pretty inauspicious.

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Whirlpool

In his landmark essay “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema,” French film critic and theorist André Bazin distinguished between two types of filmmakers: those who put their faith in the image and those who put their faith in reality. Otto Preminger, the great Hollywood iconoclast, falls firmly into the latter camp. His films, with their emphasis on long takes and deep-focus cinematography over montage or showy pictorialism, offer such a perfect illustration of Bazinian realism that it’s mildly astonishing to find that the critic offered so little discussion of the director’s work in his writing. Preminger’s objective style can at times come off as detached, but it’s borne of a genuine attempt to maintain a sense of ambivalence toward his characters and their situations, to allow the audience to make up their own minds rather than controlling their responses. Preminger, in essence, is the anti-Hitchcock.

Which is what makes Whirlpool such a fascinating curiosity: a Hitchcockian suspense tale full of wild implausibilities and sensational subject matter (murder, marital infidelity, hypnosis) delivered in Preminger’s signature register of sober ambiguity. The result is a confident, controlled thriller that pulls the viewer in from the very first scene. The film opens with a woman, Ann Sutton (Gene Tierney), exiting a department store and getting into her car, but just before she’s about to drive away, a store detective approaches and asks her to come back inside because he knows she’s shoplifted an expensive brooch. Ann is helped out of this jam by a mysterious man, David Korvo (Jose Ferrer), who convinces the store to show her leniency, as she’s the wife of a famous psychotherapist, William Sutton (Richard Conte).

Korvo, it turns out, is an astrologer, hypnotist, and all-around mental manipulator, who uses his knowledge of Ann’s kleptomania as leverage to persuade her to accept treatment from him. Korvo’s treatments help Ann, curing her of a recent bout of insomnia brought on by her deep anxiety over hiding her psychological issues from William, but the hypnotist has a dastardly ulterior motive: He’s drawing Ann close in order to frame her for the planned murder of his former patient, Theresa Randolph (Barbara O’Neil), a wealthy widow who’s now being treated by none other than Ann’s husband. William has no inkling of his wife’s mental distress until he gets the shocking call that she’s been arrested for killing Theresa. Unable to believe his wife capable of such a brutal act, he sets out to prove her innocence.

Like Preminger’s more famous Laura, Whirlpool is pitched somewhere between noir, psychological thriller, and woman’s picture. The script, co-written by Ben Hecht and Andrew Solt, is sharp-edged and well-paced, balancing twisty puzzle-box plotting with emotionally complex characterizations. The story may take a number of unlikely turns and climaxes in a wildly implausible fashion, but somehow Preminger’s quasi-journalistic direction manages to sell the material. It helps that Tierney is so compellingly ambiguous as Ann, with a stoic façade that only hints at the depths of her chaotic mental state. Ferrer oozes oily charm as Korvo, who may be a conniving schemer, but thanks to the actor’s assured, phlegmatic performance, we can understand this man’s appeal to vulnerable women.

There’s an undeniable feminist subtext to the film, though it’s one that’s flecked by trite psychologizing and a patronizing tone toward Ann. As the wife of a Very Important Man, she seems driftless and misunderstood. She would seem to have a life of ease and luxury, and yet she rebels at the meaninglessness of it all, as well as the quiet condescension of the men in her life. But the film inadvertently mirrors the phallocentric cluelessness it attempts to indict as it shifts focus away from Ann and onto her husband’s quest to figure out her mental issues. The film’s second half largely consists of men standing around talking about Ann when she’s not in the room. Typical of Hecht’s fondness for pat psychoanalytical reasoning (see Hitchcock’s Spellbound), the film ultimately offers a shallow Freudian rationale for Ann’s kleptomania hinging on her rich father’s stinginess toward her when she was a child.

And yet, despite its faith in a certain kind of outmoded and implicitly sexist mode of psychoanalytical reasoning, the film never feels like some antiquated case study of hysteria. For one, even William himself recognizes that his wife’s problems stem from his own blindness toward her needs. If the rest of his analysis of Ann’s behavior mostly rings hollow, that’s in part because Preminger’s cool, distanced approach to this material allows us the space to form our interpretations and critiques of these people and their social mores. Ann is a woman who wants so badly to be “normal” that she’s willing to place her faith in an obvious charlatan over her own husband, supposedly an expert in the affairs of the human mind. Whirlpool may think it’s drawing a clear distinction between the hard, rigorous science of William’s psychiatry and the conniving gimcrackery of Korvo’s astrology and hypnosis.

But despite the film’s traditionally happy ending, there’s a subtextual suggestion that the two men are merely different sides of the same coin, that William’s work is driven just as much by ambition and a lust for power as Korvo’s. Ultimately, it’s not clear either man truly understands Ann, nor knows how to help her. What they do know is how to manipulate her.

Image/Sound

The 1080p image is generally clear, and all of the sonic elements of the soundtrack, presented in both mono and stereo, are discernible. However, there’s a slight lack of distinctness in the picture quality, with some imperfections noticeable across the film, including a few scratches and an odd warping of the image that reappears several times. There’s also a very slight but audible hiss and crackle throughout. While not exactly stunning, this release—limited, like most Twilight Time discs, to a run of 3,000—presents a rare film with enough fidelity that the viewer is at least unlikely to be distracted by any audio-visual flaws.

Extras

The only significant special feature included on the disc is an audio commentary by critic Richard Schickel, who offers some insightful commentary and analysis on the film but also frequently slips into a perfunctory regurgitation of what’s on screen. The release also includes the theatrical trailer, an optional isolated music track for both the film and the trailer, and a booklet with a few stills, a reproduction of the original poster, and a brief, trivia-heavy essay by film historian Mike Finnegan. Twilight Time releases aren’t typically noted for their wealth of extras, but this disc feels especially stingy.

Overall

For such an unusual and intriguing film, the Region 1 Blu-ray debut of Otto Preminger’s Whirlpool is pretty inauspicious.

Cast: Gene Tierney, Richard Conte, José Ferrer, Charles Bickford, Barbara O'Neil, Eduard Franz, Constance Collier, Fortunio Bonanova Director: Otto Preminger Screenwriter: Ben Hecht, Andrew Solt Distributor: Twilight Time Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 1949 Release Date: September 17, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Ida Lupino Filmmaker Collection on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

This excellent set makes a case for Lupino as one of the most socially conscious, psychologically observant filmmakers of her time.

4

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Ida Lupino
Photo: Photofest

The first film in Kino Lorber’s Ida Lupino Filmmaker Collection doesn’t carry Lupino’s name as director. The 1949 social-issue drama Not Wanted was co-written by Lupino and began production with Elmer Clifton in the director’s chair, but after Clifton suffered a heart attack on set, Lupino filled in behind the camera. Perhaps inevitably, it’s hard to distinguish between Clifton’s work and Lupino’s, but regardless, the film’s spare visual style belies a keen ability to suss out the psychological collapse of an unwed mother, Sally (Sally Forrest), who’s forced to contend with both with the unreturned affections of her baby’s caustic and disdainful father, Steve (Leo Penn), and the stigma of single motherhood. Sally’s continued lust for the man who wants nothing to do with her roils with repressed sexual tension, which only compounds her despair over her shame and guilt.

Lupino’s ability to plumb psychological depths with minimal resources is even more apparent in 1950’s Never Fear, her first credit as a director. Again teaming up with Sally Forrest, here playing Carol Williams, a dancer whose career is scuttled by polio, Lupino grounds the protagonist’s melodramatic breakdown in minute observations of individual behavior. In particular, the subtle modulations that Lupino captures in Carol’s face speak to the complexity of recovering from a crippling disease, from Carol’s relief at regaining her motor functions to the residual bitterness she feels over being unable to dance again.

As sentimental as her films could seem on the surface, Lupino brings a radical empathy to bear on her subjects that deepens what could have been no more than pat melodrama. Nowhere is that more apparent than in 1953’s The Bigamist, in which a traveling salesman, Harry (Edmond O’Brien), is discovered to have two separate families by a social worker (Edmund Gwenn) reviewing his adoption application. The agent’s initial disgust over this revelation gives way to understanding, though, as Harry explains his situation. Through flashbacks that illustrate how he gravitated from his workaholic wife, Eve (Joan Fontaine), toward the wry and affable but lonely Phyllis (Lupino), Lupino portrays Harry not as a careless philanderer, but as a man struggling with his sense of isolation on the road. Lupino also takes time to get to know Eve and Phyllis, showing how their alternating affections and withdrawals are informed by their own sadness and thwarted desires. Never stooping to mockery or outrage, The Bigamist finds Lupino tweaking her socially conscious outlook to tackle an unsympathetic subject with the same care she devoted to depictions of unwed mothers and arduous convalescence.

The centerpiece of this set, of course, is 1953’s The Hitch-Hiker. This vicious noir is an extreme outlier in Lupino’s filmography, but it’s also the apotheosis of her work behind the camera. Taking place almost entirely inside a car, the film renders its cramped conditions almost abstractly, a hellacious void where only the streaks of light passing by as the vehicle speeds down country roads suggest that the characters—two buddies (Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy) on a fishing trip and the hitchhiker (William Talman) they pick up—are still on Earth and not some purgatory. Amazingly, the scenes that take place outside the car may be even more claustrophobic, with Lupino emphasizing the isolation of desert roads that leave nowhere for the killer’s unwitting chauffeurs to run. The Hitch-Hiker plays Lupino’s interest in social ills for horror instead of moral instruction, yet it does no less than those films to demonstrate the director’s firm grasp of contemporary fears.

Image/Sound

All four films have been transferred from 2K and 4K restorations, and the images are consistently strong. Barring minor instances of residual debris and scratches, each film looks clear and textured, with stable contrast in the black-and-white frames. There are no major instances of print damage, and fine details in the deep-focus shots can be spotted even in the background. The soundtracks betray only the slightest residual tinniness common to old mono mixes but otherwise lack any artifacts. Dialogue and music are clearly balanced on each film.

Extras

Each film comes with a audio commentary track: Barbara Scharres, director of programming at the Gene Siskel Film Center, and film historian Greg Ford on Not Wanted; historian Alexandra Heller-Nicholas on Never Fear; historian Imogen Sara Smith on The Hitch-Hiker; and historian Kat Ellinger on The Bigamist. Each track covers its respective film, as well as Lupino’s broader filmography as a director, writer, and actress. A recurring theme of the commentaries concerns the disconnect between Lupino’s confident direction and her constantly demurred public image, which emphasized her nonthreatening femininity, a subject that also comes up in the booklet essay by critic Ronnie Scheib. The essay is filled with insights into the films in Kino’s set and Lupino’s other directorial output, including the brilliant observation that her films fit comfortably within the more bullishly rebellious work of Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller as attempts to reckon with trauma and forced normality in the postwar era.

Overall

The four films gathered together on this excellent set make a case for Ida Lupino as one of the most socially conscious, psychologically observant filmmakers of her time.

Cast: Sally Forrest, Leo Penn, Keefe Brasselle, Edmond O’Brien, Edmund Gwenn, Ida Lupino, Joan Fontaine, William Talman, Frank Lovejoy Director: Ida Lupino, Elmer Clifton Screenwriter: Ida Lupino Distributor: KL Studio Classics Running Time: 322 min Rating: NR Year: 1949 - 1953 Buy: Video

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