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Review: Richard Fleischer’s The Vikings on KL Studio Classics Blu-ray

In a perfect world, Fleischer’s rowdy super-production would be in regular 70mm rotation at our few surviving repertory movie houses.

3.5

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The Vikings

Christians and heathens. Two shorelines and a black, foggy sea. Organized hierarchies behind stone barricades and drunken hysteria in the ocean mist. The Vikings, an underappreciated relic from the heyday of 70mm super-productions and about as rollicking a good time as can be had at the movies, is cut with the bifurcated simplicity of a folk tale: A virginal princess-to-be is kidnapped by barbarians, in turn stoking a rivalry between two bastard brothers as well as clan warfare. It’s a film of thick impasto brushstrokes, unremorseful in its indulgence in broad contrast. Ritualistic ceremonies honoring new unions within British royalty are juxtaposed against Rabelaisian revelries fueled by frothy tubs of ale and testosterone. And the sniveling, saurian King of civilized Northumbria of course receives the most extreme foil: the booze-swilling, ass-grabbing, giddily amoral paterfamilias of the Vikings.

Shot on location in Norwegian fjords by the legendary Jack Cardiff, the film boasts an enveloping surface beauty. Stately Viking ships glide between towering rock walls, the camera often floating just above the water’s surface to catch the marble reflections. Blue skies, green coastal meadows, and earthy wardrobes radiate from the Technicolor image, with director Richard Fleischer holding his master shots a little longer than logically necessary just so we can properly savor all these details.

Also part of the film’s appeal is watching it roll out its star ensemble in increasingly elaborate period getup. As Morgana, the jewel of the Northumbrian kingdom, Janet Leigh is first seen in a flowing white dress and bedazzled headdress, while Frank Thring, as Aella, Morgana’s hesitantly betrothed, does a more feminine rendition of his royal turn from Ben-Hur. A few hundred ship’s lengths down the inlet are Ernest Borgnine as Ragnar, the burly old man of the Viking dynasty, covered in shawls of wild animal fur; Kirk Douglas as Ragnar’s belligerent son, Einar, whose inborn sense of sexual belligerence is rendered even more threatening when an early altercation with an agitated hawk yields him a milk-white left eye; and a bronzed and bearded Tony Curtis as scantily clad Viking slave Eric, who becomes an underdog candidate for Morgana’s heart.

By employing majestic landscape shots juxtaposing natural beauty and manmade fragility, monumentalizing upward angles, and hymn-like musical themes that originate from the diegesis and carry over into the soundtrack, Fleischer wields a bag of filmmaking tools that could be mistaken for John Ford’s, but there’s no Fordian wholesomeness to the extremity of the film’s subject matter. Truisms of Norse mythology—that the Vikings were savage womanizers and raging alcoholics, that their victims were priggish weaklings—are ratcheted up to a level of gleeful overstatement. In the film’s most queasily multi-sensory set piece of all, a young woman’s marital fidelity is tested in a cruel axe-throwing challenge while snarling sots heckle deafeningly from the sidelines. Ever the showman, a quality relished by Douglas in a swaggeringly physical performance, Einar swills a goat horn full of beer before hurling the final hatchet, inspiring a bumbling group sing-along when he comes within spitting distance of her scalp.

On English shores, Aella daintily shoos away anyone who balks at his authority with a hand that’s always raised limply by his chest (Thring’s body language is thick with queer implications). He has a distaste for getting physical that’s borne out by his choice of prisoner punishment (a submerged pit of rabid dogs), yet when he chops off Eric’s wrist, his response to the misdeed verges on the sadomasochistic. If Fleischer takes evident joy in exaggerating the brains-brawn dichotomy, however, he does so only to add further drama to the divergences within mythic history. A star-crossed romance between Eric and Morgana is suggestively evident even before they meet due to a clever dissolve that creates an impression of them gazing at one another across time and space, but their spiritual divide nearly forbids their passion to flower—that is, before Eric delivers the movie’s most evocatively pithy line: “If my soul is content to be heathen and yours content to be Christian, let’s not question flesh for wanting to remain flesh.”

With proto-Spielbergian grace, The Vikings swings its emphasis from such juicy character detail to large-scale action sequences. Shortly before a climactic scene that communicates an entire complex history of neglect, anger, and mutual respect across two intercut close-ups, Fleischer sharply maps out the encroachment of two Viking ships on a modest getaway canoe in the half-light of the North Sea at dusk, maintaining spatial clarity even in menacing fog. In the middle of this scene, Eric responds to Morgana complaining that her dress restricts rowing ability by indiscreetly ripping it right down the back, a shocking bit of political incorrectness that probably wouldn’t even fly today. That the moment is played for laughs rather than horror is apropos: So boisterously does this film juggle different tonal registers—bawdy comedy, overheated family melodrama, vertiginous swordplay, and period camp—that at a certain point it’s hard not to surrender to the spirit of debauchery.

Image/Sound

Compared to top-shelf prints of The Vikings, Kino Lorber’s transfer is marred by a rather plastic sheen, with the celluloid seemingly rubbed of a large degree of its emulsion character. The image is a bit too sharp, too bright, and too saturated to accurately reflect 1958’s technical specifications, but even these unfortunate stumbling blocks can’t come close to snuffing out the ravishing character of the film’s visuals. The soundtrack fares much better. The Vikings has a busy mix, with soaring orchestral leitmotifs served up alongside the voices of up to hundreds of performers in some scenes as well as other auxiliary sounds like high-hat clinks for comic effect. Everything’s balanced superbly, with none of the bits of distortion that sometimes become a casualty in digital renderings of such crowded soundscapes.

Extras

In “A Tale of Norway,” the Richard Fleischer-narrated photo montage that accompanies Kino’s release, the director spends most of his half-hour reminiscence emphasizing the film’s authenticity, claiming it was “as accurate as it could be” with regard to Viking history. Anyone surprised by such a pronouncement given the mythic grandeur of the film will be pleased to hear Fleischer’s persuasive defense of it, conducted by citing his extensive research at the Oslo Viking Ship Museum and the many details of period specificity he ushered into the film (including the use of real live Viking horses!). Vivid anecdotes, like that of Douglas volunteering to do stunt work for a “Running of the Oars” scene against the wishes of the production department, and charming behind-the-scenes snapshots, such as photos of Curtis bestowing Leigh with a birthday cake, buttress the amusing supplement. There are probably a few too many previews for other Kino releases in the “trailer gallery” (one wishes they could use the disc space for another relevant extra instead), but the typically hyperbolic period ad for The Vikings is appreciated.

Overall

In a perfect world, Richard Fleischer’s rowdy Norway-set super-production would be in regular 70mm rotation at our few surviving repertory movie houses. Kino Lorber’s unexceptional home-video edition of the film likely won’t be an instigator on the path to that fantasy.

Cast: Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Ernest Borgnine, Janet Leigh, James Donald, Alexander Knox, Maxine Audley, Frank Thring Director: Richard Fleischer Screenwriter: Calder Willingham, Dale Wasserman, Edison Marshall Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 116 min Rating: NR Year: 1958 Release Date: March 8, 2016 Buy: Video

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Review: William Castle’s Let’s Kill Uncle on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

Castle’s film is a genuinely amusing jet-black comedy of (ill) manners disguised as an adventure yarn for young adults.

4

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Let’s Kill Uncle

William Castle’s Let’s Kill Uncle marked something of a new approach for the cult producer-director, whose previous films had relied heavily on carnivalesque gimmicks and old-fashioned ballyhoo, often delivered on screen by the man himself. Instead, here we have a colorful—in more senses than one—adventure yarn for young adults. Squint and you could almost mistake it for a Disney movie. But make no mistake, roiling under the seemingly innocuous surface are currents of perversity and pitch-black comedy.

Let’s Kill Uncle opens with a bang: a bloody automotive smashup whose primary casualty, Russell Harrison, is played by Castle in one of his customary Hitchcockian cameo appearances. The sudden death of the multi-millionaire not only leaves his 15-year-old son, Barnaby (Pat Cardi), as the only heir, but results in him being whisked off on a tramp steamer to sardonically misnamed Serenity Island, where he will reside with his Uncle Kevin (Nigel Green), a career solider and author of the bestselling tome Killing the Enemy.

Castle takes his time setting all this up. We’re introduced to Barnaby on board the ship, where he and tomboy Chrissie (Mary Badham) squabble and get into mischief. Right off the bat, it’s clear that we aren’t in the land of Disney. These aren’t your average adorable moppets. Occasionally annoying and, in Barnaby’s case, downright high-handed, they’re nevertheless well-rounded characters, equally capable of unabashed bursts of bravery, and so far closer in temperament to actual young adults than, say, a tennis-shoe-wearing computer.

The island itself is every adventurous child’s dream come true, complete with beetling cliffs, incongruously tropical flora and fauna, a graveyard in a clearing, and, best of all, an eerie, supposedly haunted hotel. This allows Castle to indulge in some wonderfully atmospheric Gothic hijinks, as Barnaby and Chrissie explore its cobweb- and shadow-strewn environs. In a perfectly surreal non-sequitur, they discover a stagnant swimming pool on the grounds that’s somehow infested with sharks. The juxtaposition between stock footage of sharks circling and the sight of a patently plastic fin cutting through the mossy water is priceless.

Throughout Let’s Kill Uncle, Barnaby evinces an outsized fascination with death and killing. He’s an avid reader of his uncle’s book, relishing in particular one exploit involving an SS officer and a razor-wire garrote. He’s also curious about the revolver that belongs to Sergeant Travis (Robert Pickering), the cop assigned to accompany him to the island. These preoccupations are at once entirely believable for a boy Barnaby’s age but also set the stage for the blackly comic contest between uncle and nephew to come.

When Uncle Kevin makes his splashy entrance, his first order of business is to set about trying to kill Barnaby for his inheritance. There’s practically no downtime before the mordant games begin. In one scene, Kevin suavely presides over an intimate dinner party, and in the next he’s all got up in his British military togs, looming menacingly over his sleeping nephew. What he proposes to Barnaby is quite literally a game, with its own peculiar set of rules, his home standing as a neutral “Switzerland” where no attempts on his life will occur.

What follows are an escalating series of attacks and counter-attacks, and spiked with gleeful gallows humor. When Barnaby recruits Chrissie as a collaborator, she instantly agrees, delightedly announcing the film’s titular phrase. Circumstances eventually circle back around to that shark-filled pool for the rather abrupt finale, but give Let’s Kill Uncle points for allowing its young protagonists to solve their own dilemma, without bringing in a deus ex machina that involves the adults. And if, at first blush, it also seems like a disappointingly anodyne happy ending, with Uncle defeated but making his getaway via his private jet, just take a gander at the look on Barnaby’s face. He may have won the battle, but the war seems certain to go on. The game, as Sherlock Holmes would have it, is afoot.

Image/Sound

Kino’s new HD transfer admirably renders Harold Lipstein’s Technicolor cinematography. Grain levels are nicely maintained and flesh tones look completely naturalistic, while color saturation is deep and rich, with those jungle greens and the bright primary hues of the costumes and décor popping off the screen. The two-channel Master Audio track is crisp and clean when it comes to dialogue. It also does well by Herman Stein’s lush symphonic score, which includes both some spot-on Bernard Herrmann pastiches and one particular cue involving sharks that unexpectedly anticipates John Williams’s iconic score for Jaws.

Extras

Diabolique Magazine editor-in-chief Kat Ellinger and Teen Movie Hell author Mike McPadden deliver an eminently listenable and incisive commentary track. They delve into William Castle’s career and filmography, make an excellent case for his status as an auteur, especially when it comes to the recurring motif of domestic dysfunction, and discuss his handling of Let’s Kill Uncle’s young characters. They also outline the differences between the film and its source material, advocate for works of the dark fairy-tale variety as an antidote to the antiseptic product offered to today’s youth culture, and explore the usefulness of black comedy and gallows humor. The featurette “Mr. Castle and Me” provides an interview with actor Pat Cardin, where he talks about bonding with Castle over magic tricks, developing feelings for Mary Badham, the different proposed endings for the film, and even gives an amusing account about trying to shoot the film while the Universal Studios tour group visited the soundstage.

Overall

Making its debut on Blu-ray, William Castle’s film is a genuinely amusing jet-black comedy of (ill) manners disguised as an adventure yarn for young adults.

Cast: Nigel Green, Mary Badham, Pat Cardi, Robert Pickering, Linda Lawson, Ref Sanchez, Nestor Paiva Director: William Castle Screenwriter: Mark Rodgers, June O’Grady Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 92 min Rating: NR Year: 1966 Release Date: June 2, 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: Buster Keaton Silent Classic The Cameraman on Criterion Blu-ray

Criterion’s disc offers an embarrassment of riches, from the stellar new 4K transfer to a multitude of diverse and fascinating extras.

5

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The Cameraman

Despite the fact that he broke his neck while filming a stunt for The General, Buster Keaton was always one of the most schematic and precise artists of cinema’s early years. His control was physically evident: Witness his confidence—or, perhaps, his insanity—during the hurricane sequence that closes Steamboat Bill, Jr., most notably the bit where the side of a house literally comes down around him. But it was also emotionally evident: The nickname “the great stone face” has less to do with his alleged facial inexpressiveness and more with his naturalistically muted response to exaggerated situations.

When Keaton sacrificed that independence and control by signing a contract with MGM, where production schedules were tighter and less open to the sort of gag-improvisations that he was used to indulging, many observed it as the beginning of his career decline. Which makes it all the more poignant that his first MGM feature, 1928’s The Cameraman, directed by Edward Sedgwick, who up to that point in his career was more or less a director-for-hire, is right up there with Sherlock, Jr. as one of Keaton’s most impressively self-reflective films and an ode to the unexpected and elusive lightning-in-a-bottle nature of filmmaking.

One of the film’s great early gags defines its preoccupation with lack of control. Keaton plays a street-corner tintype photographer who falls in love with the receptionist, Sally (Marceline Day), at a newsreel production office. In a bid for her attention, he applies for a job shooting on-the-spot news with the only camera he can afford: an outmoded, hand-cranked shoebox model. After splurging on shooting “audition” footage, Buster has his reels screened for the office management only to discover that his lack of experience with his ancient equipment has resulted in a mess of poetic double exposures (a battleship appears to lope down a busy Manhattan thoroughfare) and kaleidoscopic, pre-Man with a Movie Camera street bustle.

In its own low-down deportment, The Cameraman is really a raucous, more accessible iteration of Dziga Vertov’s meta-cinematic masterpiece from 1929, at least to the extent that both thrive on postmodern self-referentiality. Throughout Sedgwick’s film, Buster’s camera repeatedly causes chaos, photographically as well as physically, acting as an extended, pseudo-vestigial limb that frequently shatters glass panes as readily as Keaton’s own body works its way into myriad bizarre pratfalls and situations at a local saltwater pool.

Buster appears in front of his own camera twice during the film, once in each half. The first occurrence is during his cinematographic gestalt period, when he consciously places himself in the role of his film’s subject: a one-man baseball team, enacting impossible feats of slugging (an infield run) and defense (a miraculously nonchalant triple play). And the second time occurs when he jumps into the water to save Sally when a romantic rival has left her to drown after a failed daredevil stunt. Redemption has already entered into Buster’s life: When he accidentally knocks down and supposedly kills an organ-grinder’s dancing monkey, he’s pressured to buy the tiny corpse, which seems to come back from the dead in an eerie and hysterical slow-motion shot (the monkey removing his white shroud like a resurrected saint).

It’s that same monkey that’s revealed to be rolling film on Buster’s heroism and, thereby, the artist behind the scenes engineering a comedic resolution. If the film’s first half posits that amateurism is the jumping-off point for accidental expressionism, then its second appears to argue for unregulated primitivism. Specifically, The Cameraman’s most tangible moral is that, if you want to achieve unfussy filmed drama, you’d do best to take your lessons from an organ-grinder’s monkey. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a message for the ages.

Image/Sound

Criterion’s transfer was sourced from a new 4K restoration undertaken by the distributor in conjunction with the Cineteca di Bologna and Warner Bros. Two 35mm prints, along with a 16mm print from the Library of Congress, were used for the restoration, and while the latter served as the primary source for the first three reels, only a slight softness to the image and minor signs of damage in the first 10 minutes distinguishes this stretch from the rest of the film. Much of The Cameraman looks dazzling here, with as consistently sharp, clean, and richly detailed an image as we’ve seen from a home-video release of a silent film to date. The contrast is also impressive, with inky blacks and a remarkable range of grays, and one need only glimpse the extended scene of Buster in the rain for proof of just how stellar this transfer is, with a breadth of visible information that’s free of any of the typical flaws of home-video releases of films of this era, such as a flickering or jittering of the image. The uncompressed audio is also flawless in its presentation of a new score by composer Timothy Brock.

Extras

Given the current status of the rights to Buster Keaton’s features, this release is likely Criterion’s only shot at the silent master’s oeuvre for the foreseeable future, and they have truly pulled out all the stops. Each of the extra features included here is both substantial and unique in its approach to Keaton’s art and career. First and foremost among these is a 2004 audio commentary with Glenn Mitchell, author of A–Z of Silent Film Comedy: An Illustrated Companion, who nicely balances discussion of The Cameraman’s self-reflexive elements, Keaton’s struggles during his time at MGM, and how the film quickly became the template for many of the studio’s future comedies. Perhaps most intriguing is Mitchell’s persistent pushing back against the impression that Keaton’s performances were devoid of emotion, urging viewers to pay particular attention to the actor’s eyes during key moments in the film.

This release also comes with Edward Sedgwick and Keaton’s Spite Marriage from 1929 and an accompanying commentary track, in which historians John Bengtson and Jeffrey Vance discuss Keaton’s follow up to The Cameraman. The duo expand on Keaton’s difficulties adjusting to MGM’s more rigid and streamlined production methods, such as working with a lower budget and more tightly scripted scenario than he did on The Cameraman, and touch on the many blink-and-you’ll-miss-them visual gags that Keaton works in throughout the film.

Of the four non-commentary features, the new short documentary Time Travellers is the most singular and invaluable. Here, film historians Marc Wanamaker and John Bengston tour Los Angeles to visit numerous locations where The Cameraman was shot, but more interestingly delve into the various investigative tactics that were used to track down these somewhat obscure locations, including old photographs and maps and details in films as minute as reflections in windows and mirrors. The disc also comes with two other informative short docs: So Funny It Hurt: Buster Keaton & MGM, which shifts focus to Keaton’s years at MGM, and The Motion Picture Camera, which tracks the development of movie cameras in the silent era, from the early Pathé and Lumière cameras to the industry-standard Bellenhouse model.

The extras are rounded out with an interview with author James L. Neibaur, who discusses the later period of Keaton’s career, particularly his multiple films with comedian Jimmy Durante that often saw Buster out of his element and playing second fiddle. Criterion’s all-around remarkable package also comes with a beautiful 38-page booklet—a rarity for one of their recent non-box set releases—with a fantastic essay by Imogen Sara Smith and a chapter from Keaton’s autobiography detailing time at MGM, titled “The Worst Mistake of My Life.”

Overall

Criterion’s disc of The Cameraman offers an embarrassment of riches, from the stellar new 4K transfer to a multitude of diverse and fascinating extras.

Cast: Buster Keaton, Marceline Day, Harold Goodwin, Sidney Bracy, Harry Gribbon Director: Edward Sedgwick Screenwriter: Clyde Bruckman, Lew Lipton Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 69 min Rating: NR Year: 1928 Release Date: June 16, 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: Joseph L. Anderson’s Spring Night, Summer Night on Flicker Alley Blu-ray

Flicker Alley’s disc offers everything one could want out of a home video release.

4.5

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Spring Night, Summer Night

Though saddled with a titillating, easily exoticized elevator pitch—sexually mature siblings in a family of Ohio hillbillies tempt the unspeakable against the backdrop of dying coal country—Joseph L. Anderson’s Spring Night, Summer Night is forged from matters of universal relevance. From its opening scenes, which form a sketch of domestic friction that concludes with a symbol of nature’s upending of familiar order, this neglected jewel of American regional filmmaking is preoccupied with the imminent encroachment of adulthood and all the attendant personal upheavals that come with it. Capsized and re-edited early in its lifespan by an exploitation distributor under the title Miss Jessica Is Pregnant, the original film downplays taboo in favor of stewing in the mix of emotions surrounding Carl (Ted Heimerdinger) and Jessica’s (Larue Hall) hesitant bond. Because of a hazy history regarding their parents’ sex lives, a question lingers as to whether they’re blood relatives in the first place—all the better to magnify the treacherous decision-making processes that accompany one’s eventual flight from the family nest.

Shot on monochrome 35mm using the cast-off camera models at an Athens rental house, and overdubbed in many spots to account for the swarming mid-summer locusts that overwhelmed the original analog audio, Spring Night, Summer Night looks and sounds as delicate as the emotions it puts under a microscope. In spite of its limited means, however, it’s a dexterous directorial achievement for Anderson, a University of Ohio professor whose brief career beyond this assured feature debut comprises only a trio of a shorts and a sophomore effort, America First, about which little information exists online. Anderson’s conscious intention was to impart the ethos of Italian neorealism to the stories of impoverished Appalachia, and here his visual repertoire merges the anthropological instincts of a documentarian and the formalism of an aesthete, with scenes of fly-on-the-wall multicamera coverage mingling alongside carefully blocked long takes shot on bumpy homemade dolly track.

One such shot surveys and crystallizes the tension on the homestead as the embittered family patriarch (John Crawford) chases Jessica through the screen door, around the house, and across the lawn while demanding she reveal the identity of the man who impregnated her. Anderson keeps the camera outside, elevating the landscape to the same level of importance as the action contained within it—a compositional equity that he maintains through much of the film. Ravaged by the industrial boom and the corresponding disintegration of the rural mining economy, the family’s residence of Canaan, Ohio is a single-street ghost town where even the expansive rolling hills and dirt roads hardly offer an escape from the prevailing atmosphere of stale gossip and diminished hope. The dive bar peddling 25-cent Blatz and weekend hootenannies would seem to provide a temporary, boozy respite, but even here the revelry is prone to turn quickly to conflict, as when Carl lashes out at Jessica for dancing with another man. When everyone knows everyone, little can stay repressed.

Still, for all the small-town suffocation so eloquently expressed in Anderson’s filmmaking, the prospect of leaving is no less daunting. Omens of the outside world’s dangers abound throughout Spring Night, Summer Night. Carl runs into an old acquaintance who notes that he needs to keep his busted tractor running to keep it alive, and then we hear it break down off screen. Later, in a bit of roughhousing in the acreage behind their farmhouse, Carl mimes shooting his youngest sibling with an air gun just before running off into the woods with Jessica. There, we see one of Jessica’s slippers trickle down a stream, a symbol of lost innocence imbued with the quality of a fairy tale. It’s telling that Carl’s impulsive and short-lived getaway to Columbus, prompted by a cryptically shot sexual episode with Jessica, occurs entirely off screen (it was apparently filmed and then cut); we’re left only to speculate on the impression it made on him, while remaining fully aware of Canaan’s terrible gravitational pull.

As home life in Spring Night, Summer Night yields one trauma after another, Anderson remains sympathetic to the roots of these issues. Portrayed as an alcoholic and reactionary autocrat through much of the film, Crawford’s father figure is ultimately granted a soft-spoken monologue one afternoon at the bar to expound on the myriad ways his community and country have left him behind—a scene captured in a single creeping camera movement that might have inspired Béla Tarr. None of this, however, is to diminish the suffering of Carl and Jessica’s mother (Marjorie Johnson), who brings a fierce independence to combat the callousness of her husband, even as she laments a brighter past in California. Anderson’s film is about ordinary people driven to extreme behavior by the destitution of their situation, and yet it’s alert to the ways in which escaping this situation is equally extreme and perhaps even foolhardy. It concludes on an arresting image that crystallizes this ambiguity—one that has since become something of an indie cliché but which here takes on a primal power.

Image/Sound

Surely the surviving materials from Spring Night, Summer Night’s production couldn’t have been in tip-top shape given its blighted history, but the new 4K restoration by Nicolas Winding Refn’s ByNWR and Cinema Preservation Alliance, courtesy of Flicker Alley, has done a remarkable job in minimizing any hiccups in the viewing experience. It’s true that the audio levels are occasionally uneven, with certain lines barely audible, but one might reasonably credit this to the fidelity of the original recordings, and in any case the dynamics of the soundtrack only enhance the feeling of being granted rare access to something intimate and raw from the backwoods of America. The film’s visual restoration, meanwhile, doesn’t contain any such issues. Though shot in many cases with only available light, there’s never a sense of impenetrable underexposure. Rather, the preservationists have dialed in the contrast and sharpness to an ideal degree, resulting in an image that’s neither overly chiaroscuro nor flat.

Extras

For a film that was essentially lost for four decades, the variety of supplemental material provided here is impressive, especially since it’s all of relatively high quality. Most stunning as an archival piece is the hour’s worth of behind-the-scenes footage with commentary by archivist Peter Conheim and writer/producer/editor Franklin Miller, which elucidates enough DIY production quirks to satisfy any aspiring filmmaker. Also noteworthy are the three short films in Anderson’s Bluegrass Trilogy—part-undercranked, part-stop-motion documentary snapshots set to upbeat bluegrass music—that the filmmaker shot at Ohio University: Football As It Is Played Today and Cheers (celebrations of college football and basketball, respectively), and How Swived (something of a hyperspeed, miniaturized Jeanne Dielman).

And there’s much more: an illuminating video essay featuring one the architects of this re-release, filmmaker and historian Ross Lipman, expounding upon the key distinctions between this restored cut and the exploitation version; cleanly recorded coverage of a Q&A at the Cleveland Cinematheque with most of the film’s key contributors, during which Miller confesses to being specifically influenced by the films of Ermanno Olmi; a comparison between shooting locations then and now, which offers an interesting study of the evolution of rural America; a slideshow gallery with solid production photos; and a booklet of five essays tackling the film from critical, historical, and preservationist angles. It’s a full education.

Overall

Flicker Alley’s disc offers everything one could want out of a home video release: indispensable curation, sterling presentation, and a wealth of supplements to expand our understanding of an overlooked piece of cinematic art.

Cast: Larue Hall, Ted Heimerdinger, Marjorie Johnson, John Crawford, Betty Ann Parady, Tracy Smith Director: Joseph L. Anderson Screenwriter: Joseph L. Anderson, Franklin Miller, Doug Rapp Distributor: Flicker Alley Running Time: 82 min Rating: NR Year: 1967 Release Date: June 2, 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: Steven Spielberg’s Jaws Celebrates 45th Anniversary, Surfaces on 4K

Spielberg’s classic returns to home video just shy of its 45th anniversary, this time to take a bite out of the 4K market.

4.5

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Jaws

A lively, chaotic swirl of contradictions, prodigious talent, and formal mastery, Jaws is a thriller that played a role in the entire restructuring of Hollywood’s methods of selling its films to the public. It was the sure-to-be calamity that became one of the most beloved and quoted films of all time—a certain generation’s Citizen Kane that gave rise to a legendary, controversial filmmaker and seemingly turned everyone else into aspiring directors. It also played a role in the rise of an obsession with a kind of theme-park movie that gluts global cinemas to this day. That’s a lot of baggage for any film, much less a monster movie with grade-Z roots, to live up or down to.

The surprise is how good it was and still is. The film is a strange mixture of the über-controlled and the wild and wooly. Imagine if portions of Psycho were spliced into one of Hal Ashby’s early films and you’d be closer to the film’s tone than you might think. Jaws is neatly split into two almost entirely different films: The first half is a sophisticated comedy in which violence and despair are allowed to make occasionally discombobulating intrusions, and the second, daringly, is an even more violent parody of the self-flattering macho courtliness that we often find in existential, chest-thrumming stories of all kinds. The Peter Benchley novel that inspired the film played its material dead-straight, and it’s a grim, dull endeavor that got by on the enormous primal appeal of its high concept, but the filmmakers took the basic structure, threw out most of the busy plotting, and created a black parody of greed, studliness, and self-entitlement—in other words, a parody of America.

The director, of course, is Steven Spielberg, and Jaws represented a major turning point in his career, and not just for the obviously lucrative reasons. The film was the capper of a kind of thematic trilogy that introduced Spielberg to the world. First there was Duel, a nihilistic film that follows an innocent man as he’s relentlessly pursued by a seemingly prehistoric tractor trailer. Then, The Sugarland Express, a warmer, even more disturbing action comedy that follows a woman’s desperate efforts to kidnap her own child. And then Jaws, which fuses the sensibilities of the first two to create, whether it’s intentional or not, a disconcerting portrait of America trying to stake its claim in a willful naïveté in the wake of all of the sobering events that define the country in the late 1960s to early 1970s: Watergate, Kent State, Vietnam, etc.

Spielberg would eventually indulge that naïveté without irony (though not nearly as often as he’s accused of), but his first few films are the work of a ferocious, open talent who was pretty much trying anything for effect. The near-miracle of Jaws, which involved the work of quite a few uncredited screenwriters, as well as impromptu story sessions and ad libs, lies in how ultimately of a piece it is. The dissonances—probably born of desperation—feel preordained, and are also the source of the film’s lasting power. Spielberg would grow self-conscious as he became more famous, trying for (and often achieving) mythical, iconic effects, but the young Spielberg was adept at capturing the quotidian that defines the working class. The people in Jaws appear to, which is unusual for contemporary movies, actually work for a living: The offices are worn and shabby, the homes are messy and constantly marked by the demands of raising children, and the adults trade in the sort of world-weary in-jokes that should be familiar to anyone who works a thankless job in an effort to barely pay the bills each year.

For that attention to detail, and for the sly storytelling (all of the film’s major set pieces are foreshadowed in fashions so subtle you’ll miss them the first time), Jaws is the rare monster movie that doesn’t idly mark time as we wait for the next big shock. And the details only amplify those shocks; people tend to forget how ruthless a director Spielberg once was. By 26, he was already an impressive formalist, and he fills his wide shots with details and visual curlicues that maintain a continual apprehension. The film, as Pauline Kael wrote, has tricky editing rhythms that never properly prepare you for the scares. (Though people often misremember the first time we see the shark; it’s not the scene where Brody is shoveling chum, but briefly, and terrifyingly, during the moment before a fisherman loses his leg.)

And, yes, the shark, that unyielding colossus, looks rather fake when we finally get a good look at him, which works entirely in the film’s favor. The shark, effectively built up as an object of myth and obsession for the first half of the film, would be a crushing disappointment if it looked “real,” something most contemporary monster movies, in their reliance on generic CG, seem to sadly fail to comprehend. The shark in Jaws is the shark of our collective worst nightmares, almost otherworldly in its enormity (it sometimes appears to be as big as the truck in Duel) and texture. It’s also a great big phallic joke, the agent of the blowhard Quint’s (Robert Shaw) destruction. The shark can mean anything you want it to mean, or nothing, and that uncertainty epitomizes this movie’s lasting appeal. Jaws is the pop masterpiece as happy accident—a parody of America’s can-do spirit that’s also, by the end, a celebration of it.

Image/Sound

Universal has used their 2012 4K restoration as the source for both the new 4K disc and the Blu-ray included in this package. The amount of visible detail in this transfer is quite impressive, particularly in the underwater and nighttime footage. Nearly every frame exhibits a striking clarity, every ripple of water, bead of sweat, and ocean flotsam nearly popping off the screen. The dynamic color balancing also adds to the more naturalistic presentation, evident in everything from the actors’ skin tones to clothes to the ocean itself. On the audio front, the dialogue is clean, the ambient noise of beach-goers and seagulls nicely filling out the background of the mix. As for John Williams’s iconic score, it’s suitably robust, but it never overwhelms the rest of the film’s soundtrack.

Extras

The supplemental materials included on this 45th anniversary limited edition release of Jaws are identical to those on Universal’s 2012 Blu-ray. While that’s perhaps disappointing, short of a commentary from Steven Spielberg himself, it’s difficult to imagine any future home-video release of the film topping this slate of extras in terms of scope.

On the feature-length documentary The Shark Is Still Working: The Impact & Legacy of Jaws, made in 2007, various producers and cast and crew members discuss the insanity of shooting the film in the Atlantic Ocean rather than on the Universal lot, and the myriad issues that arose from that decision, including the legendary animatronic shark’s very frequent mishaps. The focus of the doc definitely leans toward fan service rather than anything resembling in-depth analysis, so there’s more than ample lauding of Williams’s score and the massive success of Universal’s marketing tactics. But intriguing little stories, like the one about the genesis of Quint’s USS Indianapolis speech as his reason for hating sharks, offer insight into the ways certain characters were fleshed out in the film with the help of the actors.

Across two hours, The Making of Jaws touches on virtually every aspect of the pre-production, from the adaptation to the casting, and the production itself, including the practical effects team’s contributions, the actors’ on-set improvisations, and the many challenges that the cast and crew faced over the grueling seventh-month shoot. The two-disc set also comes with an eight-minute feature on Universal’s restoration of the film, as well as some rough behind-the-scenes footage, storyboards, production photos, and a handful of deleted scenes and outtakes. The handsome package is rounded out with a 48-page color booklet filled with storyboards, production details, cast and crew bios and assorted promotional materials.

Overall

Steven Spielberg’s iconic Jaws returns to home video just shy of its 45th anniversary, this time to take a bite out of the 4K market.

Cast: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton Director: Steven Spielberg Screenwriter: Peter Benchley, Carl Gottlieb Distributor: Universal Studios Home Entertainment Running Time: 124 min Rating: PG Year: 1975 Release Date: June 2, 2020 Buy: Video, Soundtrack, Book

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Blu-ray Review: Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales on the Criterion Collection

Even Blaise Pascal would wager you have everything to lose by not picking up Criterion’s upgrade of Eric Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales.”

4.5

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Eric Rohmer's Six Moral Tales

It’s a mistake to privilege any one of Eric Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales” over another, though the temptation exists and is easily indulged, especially if one takes the disparate, yet complementary, viewpoints of this inimitable set of films as entirely representative of its creator’s own personal principles. Strange that auteurism should fail us so completely in the case of one of its founding practitioners, but Rohmer was always an odd man out among his contemporaries, if not in the remove of years (he was a decade older than most of his Nouvelle Vague brethren), then in the deceptive placidity of his art. His revolutions, in other words, were quiet ones, couched in a perpetual remove and observation.

Rohmer’s greatest popular success, 1969’s My Night at Maud’s, is frequently misremembered as a nonstop talkfest, as it begins with extended passages of an unnamed Catholic engineer (Jean-Louis Trintignant) silently trailing a woman (Marie-Christine Barrault) who will, by film’s end, become his wife. The devoted Catholic’s brief flirtation with the fetching divorcée Maud (Francoise Fabian) brings about his ultimate “moral” choice, a fascinating psychological mishmash of Catholic liturgy, Pascalian hypothesis, and Hitchcockian blonde/brunette dichotomy that’s all too often mistaken—at least in the West—for Rohmer’s own worldview.

At the heart of this misreading is the word “moral” itself, which is typically defined in collective terms: the conscientious needs of the society at large trumping the various bodies that make it up. These films are more concerned with individual moral codes and how they play off of each other within a given situation, and though the films share a basic narrative structure (a man in love with one woman is tempted by a second, only to return to the first), it’s the specific milieu and, resultantly, the characters who inhabit that space which determine the ultimate outcome. Rohmer puts his trust—his faith—in a sense of place: The bustling Parisian side streets of The Bakery Girl of Monceau and Suzanne’s Career beget the stark Catholic trappings of My Night at Maud’s, which lead to the dandified color palette of La Collectionneuse, the deceivingly nostalgic summertime glow of Claire’s Knee, and the theremin-scored, post-1960s fatigue of Love in the Afternoon.

Even if Rohmer’s characters hew primarily to the middle class, his gaze (complemented, in many of these works, by cinematographer extraordinaire Néstor Almendros) is all-inclusive. Witness Claire’s Knee, in which Rohmer relates a battle of generational wits with a complexity akin to Marcel Proust. The respective narrators of these tales—in this case Jean-Claude Brialy’s middle-aged writer Jérôme—always have their manipulations and powers called into question, though Rohmer, for a good stretch of this fifth film in the cycle, seems to privilege Jérôme’s intellectual lecherousness. His pursuit of both the headstrong Laura (Béatrice Romand) and the unwitting, vulnerable Claire (Laurence de Monaghan) extend from sublimated longings, specifically for his friend, fellow writer, and unconsummated love, Aurora (Aurora Cornu). That Aurora effectively masterminds the connections between Jérôme and his objects of desire shows that no one is completely innocent in Rohmer’s world, though such shades of character never come across as the finger-wagging judgments of a pseudo-aesthete.

The cruelty of Rohmer’s characters is casual: Jérôme gets what he wants by effectively destroying Claire’s youthful naïveté, using her cheating boyfriend, Gilles (Gérard Falconetti), against her to contrive a naked emotional moment in which he comforts her by caressing her knee. If this was all there was to Rohmer’s vision it would be limited and unenlightening; Claire would remain a cautionary symbol and little more. But an epilogue shows Rohmer’s true intent. Jérôme is allowed his illusions (by revealing Gilles’s wandering lusts, he’s helped Claire to see the “true” way of things) and so leaves with his desires satiated. Aurora then spies an exchange between Claire and Gilles in which the former’s accusations of infidelity are quickly put aside, and not just because of Gilles’s charms. Jérôme, therefore, has failed, but he’ll never know. The intuitiveness of the image (revelatory, as so many of Rohmer’s films are, of the many mysteries of human nature) is balanced by a concomitant sense of hope, and the moral—if there’s one to be had—is left for us to discover and then to, potentially, express for ourselves.

Image/Sound

Criterion’s original 2006 DVD release of Eric Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales” received a good deal of flack for the studio’s choice of pictureboxing—a process that, while it retained the original 4:3 aspect ratio of the six films, left black bars not only to the sides of the image, but above and below as well. Fortunately, this re-release does away with that problem entirely, keeping the correct aspect ratio while maximizing the size of the picture on the screen. Additionally, all of the films have been transferred from new 2K restorations that offer a sharper image. The uptick in visible detail is especially striking throughout My Night at Maud’s, most notably in the interiors of Maud’s apartment and the snow-swept exterior shots of Clermont-Ferrand and its surrounding mountainous region. Rohmer’s two early 16mm films retain a healthy amount of grain even as they gain in clarity, and while the transfers for three color films lean a bit too heavily toward the teal end of the spectrum, the colors are otherwise nicely balanced, with naturalistic hues extending to everything from the skin tones to the greens of trees and grass. The audio, which consists of linear PCM mono tracks, is also consistently clean, both in terms of the dialogue and the ambient background sounds of the film’s environment.

Extras

Criterion has ported over all the supplemental materials from their earlier release. While new extras would have been welcome, this was already an impressive slate of features for touching on virtually every aspect of Rohmer’s professional life. In lieu of any commentary tracks, the set features two lengthy interviews with the auteur: a lengthy discussion from 2006 with Barbet Schroeder and a 1977 appearance he made on the Canadian TV show Parlons Cinema. Schroeder, who early in his career worked with Rohmer, gets into how the duo’s production company was created, and draws the typically elusive master out of his shell to discuss his trouble finding funding for his films, criticism of his work, and his collaborations with cinematographer Nestor Almendros. In the latter interview, Rohmer looks back on his early years as an outsider who, like many of his Cahiers du Cinéma compatriots, largely despised the mainstream French cinema of the 1950s and sought to make films without studio funding.

The remaining interviews are far shorter but no less valuable. In a 1969 conversation, acting legend Jean-Louis Trintignant praises Rohmer’s trust in his own writing and takes umbrage with assumptions about the director’s work with actors. In a chat from 1970, actors Jean-Claude Brialy, Béatrice Romand, and Laurence de Monaghan focus primarily on Rohmer’s extreme privacy and need for solitude and freedom, while filmmaker Neil LaBute, in a 2006 afterword, lauds Love in the Afternoon for its “minutiae of experience” and Rohmer’s tendency to never impose his moral judgments upon his characters. But the most enlightening archival extra is a 1965 episode of the educational TV series En Profil dans le Texte directed by Rohmer. Titled “On Pascal,” it finds philosopher Brice Parain and monk and religious scholar Dominique Dubarle discussing the work of Blaise Pascal from both a secular and religious perspective, and in a way that mirrors Rohmer’s own approach in My Night at Maud’s.

The set’s on-disc extras are rounded out with a handful of short films that Rohmer directed over the years—Presentation, or Charlotte and Her Steak (which was shot in 1951 but completed in 1961), 1958’s Véronique and Her Dunce, 1964’s Nadja in Paris, 1966’s A Modern Coed—and one on which he advised, Edwige Shaki’s The Curve from 1999. The package not only comes with a gorgeous bound book that includes all six stories, written by Rohmer, that served as the basis for the films, but also a separate 64-page booklet with essays by Almendros and such esteemed critics as Ginette Vincendeau, Kent Jones, and Molly Haskell. Rohmer’s own 1948 essay “For a Talking Cinema” is tacked on at the end for good measure, just in case one is left with any doubt of the legitimacy of his garrulous approach to cinema.

Overall

Even Blaise Pascal would wager you have everything to lose by not picking up Criterion’s upgrade of Eric Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales.”

Cast: Barbet Schroeder, Michèle Girardon, Claudine Soubrier, Fred Junk, Catherine Sée, Philippe Beuzen, Christian Charrière, Diane Wilkinson, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Marie-Christine Barrault, Françoise Fabian, Antoine Vitez, Haydée Politoff, Patrick Bauchau, Daniel Pommereulle, Alain Jouffroy, Mijanou, Annik Morice, Denis Berry, Seymour Hertzberg, Jean-Claude Brialy, Aurora Cornu, Béatrice Romand, Laurence de Monaghan, Michèle Montel, Gérard Falconetti, Fabrice Luchini, Bernard Verley, Zouzou, Françoise Verley, Daniel Ceccaldi, Malvina Penne, Babette Ferrier Director: Eric Rohmer Screenwriter: Eric Rohmer Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 480 min Rating: NR Year: 1962 – 1972 Release Date: May 5, 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: John Boulting’s Brighton Rock on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

The film succeeds admirably both as a crackerjack crime thriller and as a moral exposé of human evil.

3.5

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Brighton Rock

John Boulting’s Brighton Rock, adapted by Graham Greene and playwright Terence Rattigan from Greene’s 1938 novel of the same name, works not only as a thriller of almost Hitchcockian precision about gangland rivalries, but as a searing moral inquiry into sin, guilt, and the all-too-human capacity for evil. The film’s formal construction adds considerably to its overall effectiveness: The confluence of Harry Waxman’s moody monochrome cinematography and Peter Graham Scott’s razor-stropped editing ensures the film comes across as exhilaratingly as the amusement park rides that figure in the titular seaside resort. Brighton Rock also boasts lots of quasi-documentary location filming, bringing to mind a contemporary film like Jules Dassin’s more resolutely urban The Naked City.

The opening set piece features a chase through Brighton’s byways, as the tight-knit gang led by Pinkie Brown (Richard Attenborough) attempts to corner reporter Fred Hale (Alan Wheatley), whose exposé on rigged slot machines got their former leader killed. The pursuit ends on a dark ride on the pier, where Pinkie proceeds to push Hale to his death. The sequence isn’t just a masterpiece of machine-tooled assemblage, from the “stolen” street shots to the impressionistic depiction of Hale’s demise, but it also succinctly establishes most of the main characters and their interrelations. The one major character introduced later is poignantly impressionable Rose (Carol Marsh), a waitress at the upscale restaurant that down-market Pinkie patronizes in order to retrieve some potentially incriminating evidence.

Pinkie and Rose are immediately linked by the similarity of their colorful names, as well as by the discovery of their shared Catholicism. Their bond, however, is more than a little one-sided. Rose falls hard for Pinkie’s innocent mien, while Pinkie can only feel contempt and eventually disgust at her attentions. The film subtly suggests that Pinkie’s aversion to physical demonstrations of affection like kissing, not to mention the act of lovemaking itself, stems from an exaggerated attention to the tenets of his religion, prompted, perhaps, by early exposure to what Freud liked to call “the primal scene.”

The decidedly ambivalent relationship between Pinkie and Rose allows Greene, who later in life called himself a “Catholic agnostic,” to layer in concepts that were of concern to him throughout his work. Imagery of hell and damnation runs rife throughout the film. The dark ride where Pinkie kills Fred Hale is called “Dante’s Inferno.” When Pinkie and Rose discuss their beliefs, Pinkie assures her that hell is real, while heaven remains at best a “maybe.” And later in Brighton Rock, Pinkie’s crooked mouthpiece, Prewitt (Harcourt Williams), invokes a line from Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus: “Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.”

Interestingly, Prewitt’s line comes as a direct reference to the institution of marriage, about which the film seems equally ambivalent. Early on, we see a blind man holding his wife’s hand while she carouses with one of Pinkie’s men. Pinkie marries Rose only so that he can avail himself of the legal protection that says spouses cannot testify against each other. Even then, he insists that the wedding be a strictly civil ceremony, not sanctified by a priest.

As the net inexorably closes around him, Pinkie callously suggests that he and Rose take their own lives in a suicide “pax,” as he puts it, an agreement he intends to be entirely one-sided on Rose’s part. Suicide, of course, is considered one of the gravest mortal sins by the church, but Rose proves all too willing. As she insists in the film’s ironically ambiguous coda, she would rather be damned with Pinkie than be alone in heaven, so strong is their love. And as proof, she produces a record of Pinkie’s voice that he made earlier at a fairgrounds booth, on which he tells her precisely what he thinks about her. But now its surface, scratched by Pinkie in a vain attempt to destroy it as evidence at one point, yields only the phrase “I love you” over and over again. Rose is thus safe in her delusion, and only the viewer is any the wiser.

Image/Sound

Kino’s Blu-ray presentation of Brighton Rock isn’t billed as any sort of a restoration, and that’s evident from the speckling and other minor blemishes on display throughout. Overall, the image reveals some fine detail, decently balanced contrast, and reasonable depth. Grain levels are a bit all over the place, especially in low-light and night scenes. Still, it’s definitely a step up from previous SD editions of the film. There’s a Master Audio stereo track that cleanly and clearly presents the dialogue (with subtitles available for anyone having trouble understanding the criminal argot), and admirably conveys Hans May’s portentous score.

Extras

The big bonus feature here is another excellent, endlessly informative commentary track by author and film critic Tim Lucas. As usual, he has a lot to say about the careers of Brighton Rock’s cast and crew, and various filming locations in and around Brighton. But where the track really takes off is in his detailed comparison of the screenplay with Graham Greene’s source novel, indicating excised events and even stray lines of dialogue that were left out of the film, as well as comparing the 1948 film and Rowan Joffe’s 2010 remake.

Overall

John Boulting’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel succeeds admirably both as a crackerjack crime thriller and as a moral exposé of human evil.

Cast: Richard Attenborough, Hermione Baddeley, William Hartnell, Carol Marsh, Harcourt Williams, Wylie Watson, Nigel Stock, George Carney, Charles Goldner, Alan Wheatley Director: John Boulting Screenwriter: Terence Rattigan, Graham Greene Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 92 min Rating: NR Year: 1947 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: John Sturges’s The Great Escape on the Criterion Collection

Criterion’s Blu-ray release of The Great Escape offers an abundance of goodies to dig into from the inside.

4.5

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The Great Escape

Though adapted by James Clavell, W.R. Burnett, and an uncredited Walter Newman from Paul Brickhill’s nonfiction account of the 1944 Stalag Luft III escape, John Sturges’s The Great Escape is equally inspired by a great fiction. The filmmaker’s treatment of the massive POW escape from a camp in Nazi-occupied Poland alludes to a similar and iconic sequence from Grand Illusion Illusion, Jean Renoir’s no less furious and eloquent articulation of the faux civility of warfare. But if Sturges’s earlier The Magnificent Seven bound itself just a bit too tightly to the structure of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, The Great Escape builds its own distinct style and thematic preoccupations, even as its influences remain clear.

The absence of brutal ground warfare in The Great Escape reflects Struges’s personal experience during World War II: The director served as a captain in the Army Air Corps and spent a large portion of his time shooting documentaries and instructional films for the military. In The Great Escape, the filmmaker largely evades the action and horror of war, instead focusing on an immense creative process: the building of the tunnels that will help a group of prisoners, led by Royal Air Force squadron leader Roger “Big X” Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), get out from under the Luftwaffe. Each member of the dedicated team of soldiers, who come from various Allied Forces, provides a skill that helps the effort to build the tunnels, conceal the activity, and ultimately execute the thrilling escape.

This tactic allows for members of the uniformly excellent cast to highlight their personalities through their respective characters’ varied areas of expertise, from James Garner’s fast-talking and resourceful Scrounger to Steve McQueen’s incorrigible Cooler King to Donald Pleasance’s mild-mannered Forger. McQueen is front and center, but Sturges democratically shows the breadth of work being done and the essentialness of each man’s mission. This dense interweaving of talents working on what amounts to a great, heroic production implies Sturges’s view of filmmaking as inherently collaborative. Tellingly, Pleasance’s forgery expert has a need for a specific camera with a special lens, while another captive creates an expansive wardrobe to keep the soldiers inconspicuous outside of the camp.

The collateral damage of Sturges’s dedicated focus on the minutiae of the titular escape is that the grimness of the prisoners’ station is only mildly realized. A prisoner’s early escape attempt ends in a spray of bullets across his back, and when the prison break finally occurs, few of the escapees taste freedom for very long, but Sturges’s depiction of this civil incarceration operates far apart from the desperate, violent reality of the times. Even the prisoners’ infighting, and their interactions with their Nazi keepers, is relatively soft, little more than a few fists pounding on tables and some mockingly sarcastic retorts.

The film doesn’t offer easy catharsis, nor does it portray the Luftwaffe as essentially evil; the most prominent guard is, in fact, a complete dullard taken in by Garner’s smooth operator. Indeed, the filmmakers buck the vision of a solitary war hero who excites his fellow prisoners into revolt, and instead foreground the sense of duty in rebellion that drives the captured soldiers. And as the prisoners symbolize a broad swath of the international effort against the Axis powers, The Great Escape is that rare war film that doesn’t fully indulge in assumed nationalism, save for the fact that everyone speaks English. Sturges never touches on the essential hollowness and cruel pageantry of war, but he does the next best thing by depicting an international effort where victory, no matter how short-lived, depends on the cooperation of myriad talents, rather than the gruff can-do attitude of an unbreakable chosen one.

Image/Sound

The Criterion Collection’s new, restored 4K digital transfer boasts a generally sharp picture and impressive depth of field throughout. There are a handful of scenes where the image noticeably softens, but these instances are infrequent enough to never become too distracting. For the most part, there’s an impressive amount of visible detail throughout the frame. The color balancing is somewhat muted in places, but the blacks are perfectly inky, forest greens are vibrant, and skin tones are consistent regardless of the scene’s lighting conditions. The uncompressed monaural soundtrack gets the job done, standing out particularly when Elmer Bernstein’s memorably rousing score rises to the forefront.

Extras

This release boasts a superb array of extras, most notably two feature-length commentary tracks. The first, which was recorded in 1991 and includes separately recorded snippets from director John Sturges, composer Elmer Bernstein, and a half-dozen or so other crew members, is hosted by film historian Bruce Eder. He does a fine job re-introducing each new speaker as they return to the commentary and chimes in with his own expert analysis, offering insight on the details of how the events upon which the film is based played out in real life. Between the half dozen participants, nearly every aspect of the film is touched upon, including the performances, Sturges’s working methods, such as his allowing for improvisation on set, various production details, and Bernstein’s attempts to create a score that gives a sense of levity and soulfulness to help counterbalance the film’s darker subject matter.

The second commentary track, seamlessly weaved together from separate recordings from 2003, features actors James Garner, and Donald Pleasance, James Coburn, as well as others involved in the making of the film. Author Steven Jay Rubin serves as the host this time around, turning his attention more specifically toward the film’s performances and the various careers that blossomed following The Great Escape’s release. All three actors heap praise upon Sturges, not only for his direction, but also his brilliance at casting and editing. The trio provides plenty of entertaining on-set stories and discuss the impressiveness of seeing the finished POW camp, which was built from scratch in a forest outside of Berlin.

The four-part, 45-minute documentary “The Great Escape: Heroes Under Ground” delves even deeper into the historical events that inspired the novel and film, and covers the challenges of taking creative license to make an entertaining picture while still aiming for realism. The 25-minute featurette “The Real Virgil Hilts: A Man Called Jones” focuses on David Jones, the United States Army Air Forces pilot who served as the model for Steve McQueen’s character, while the brief documentary “Return to The Great Escape” touches on Paul Brickhill’s novel, the film’s art direction, and the extreme lengths the film went to achieve verisimilitude.

In the only newly recorded extra, critic Michael Scagrow contextualizes Sturges as a distinctly transitional director who, along with John Frankenheimer and Sidney Lumet, served as the bridge between the old Hollywood masters and the New Hollywood filmmakers of the 1970s. The package is rounded about with a booklet essay by Sheila O’Malley in which she discusses the film’s success in telling a story about “a serious subject…without self-seriousness.”

Overall

With a superb and diverse slate of extra features, Criterion’s Blu-ray release of The Great Escape offers an abundance of goodies to dig into from the inside.

Cast: Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, James Donald, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, James Coburn, Hannes Messemer, David McCallum, Gordon Jackson, John Leyton, Angus Lennie, Nigel Stock, Robert Graf, Jud Taylor Director: John Sturges Screenwriter: James Clavell, W.R. Burnett Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 172 min Rating: NR Year: 1963 Release Date: May 12, 2020 Buy: Video

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Queer Debauchery As Waking Dreamscape: Equation to an Unknown

Throughout Francis Savel’s 1980 porno, gay sex is depicted as immune to guilt and fear.

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Equation to an Unknown
Photo: Altered Innocence

When the French Cinémathèque gave carte blanche to filmmaker Yann Gonzalez to curate a handful of screenings in 2016, one of his selections was Equation to an Unknown, a mostly forgotten porno from 1980 teeming with pre-AIDS hedonism and prophetic melancholia. Gonzalez had been introduced to the film on a poor-quality VHS tape and was so struck by its sensibility that he decided to pay for a 16mm print of the film to be struck from an elusive negative he managed to find in a lab.

It’s easy to see why Equation to an Unknown, directed by Francis Savel (under the pseudonym Dietrich de Velsa), spoke to Gonzalez in such visceral ways. It’s exactly the kind of porn that the characters in Gonzalez’s most recent film, the underrated Knife + Heart, which is set in the year that Savel’s film was shot, would have made. Which is to say, a slice of cinema that brings together erotic and artistic drives into one single path toward the sublime.

The closest example to this type of cinematic communion between pornography and poetry is perhaps James Bidgood’s Pierre-et-Gilles-esque extravaganza Pink Narcissus from 1971, or Fassbinder’s slightly less cartoonish Querelle from 1982. Although Savel is, much like Bidgood and Fassbinder, interested in unrestrained queer debauchery, his characters don’t need to inhabit a parallel filmic universe for repressed desire to roam in an unbridled fashion, nor must they resort to the superego-defying subterfuges of dreamscapes.

Savel’s world of queer decadence is thus not wrapped up in fetish gear. Young men’s soccer matches organically become locker-room orgies and motorcycle rides give way to impromptu sexual ecstasy. There’s no need here for clothes to become campy costumes or for objects to become theatrical props. The real world is sexy, fantastic, and theatrical enough with its naturalized rituals and accoutrements, from cleats to hardhats. Every stranger is harmless, well-hung, and disarmingly sure that he will be met with unconditional hospitality.

Equation to an Unknown

A scene from Equation to an Unknown. © Altered Innocence

What’s so unusual about Savel’s film isn’t only the way it rediscovers queer bliss in the unvarnished aura of the everyday, but how devoid of anxiety its world is. Gay sex is depicted as immune to guilt and fear. If strangers catch two lovers having sex, it’s either to watch them as voyeurs or to join in. This isn’t the same logic of cheap sexual voracity that tends to govern traditional porn, but a logic of absolute openness. In the film, sex is a ceaseless flow comprised of an always welcome amalgamation of visitors—that is, sex angels that promptly turn up at door thresholds or just out of the blue to ensure pleasure lasts.

Group sex in Equation to an Unknown never amounts to a spectacle of pragmatic transactions. Pissing and rimming are portrayed as inherently tender, even poetic, activities. Orgies aren’t staged so much as they unfold spontaneously, bathed in delicate lighting and quixotic piano notes, as if each body merged with other bodies magnetically so they could form some sort of multi-tentacled organism. There’s no time for characters to reason or filter their impulses. They simply act in what feels like seamless reciprocity, or a kind of solidarity aimed at collective harmony through boundless sexual satisfaction.

For the most part, the question of identity seems foreign to the film. The sex on screen might be between two men, but are the men gay? Or is this what happens when bromance is allowed to bloom? These are bodies—all white, young, and mostly hairless—procuring pleasure in ways that precisely ignore cultural prescriptions and pre-determining scripts. But such a utopia becomes less defensible when women are finally mentioned for the first time, though they’re never seen, at which point the price of uninhibited pleasure between men begins to surface.

Equation to an Unknown

A scene from Equation to an Unknown. © Altered Innocence

Toward the very end of Equation to an Unknown, a young man acknowledges the great size of the penis which he’s about to swallow by telling its owner, “Never a dull moment for girls with you.” In another scene, a man tells his transient lover, “I wish I could love only you,” evoking womanly figures awaiting the men in some less pleasant elsewhere. These are significant bits of dialogue in a film largely devoid of speech and completely devoid of femininity. They suggest that, ultimately, even the most convincing fantasies of erotic hospitality and freedom remain just that: fantasies, propped by very tangible ideas around the effacement of the feminine as precondition for the flourishing of the masculine. Could it all just flow, so tenderly and organically, if women were allowed in the picture as actual bodies?

Equation to an Unknown is now available on VOD and on June 2 on Blu-ray and DVD.

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Review: David Miller’s Lonely Are the Brave on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

The image presentation on this Kino Blu-ray is absolutely stunning.

4

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Lonely Are the Brave
David Miller’s Lonely Are the Brave opens with a shot of a vast desert landscape. A fortysomething cowboy, Jack Burns (Kirk Douglas), is seen lounging and enjoying a cigarette by a small campfire—a moment of peace that’s interrupted by a mysterious rumbling sound whose source is revealed to be three fighter jets soaring overhead. This juxtaposition of the cowboy life with the modern technological world is a jarring one, and by the time Jack mounts his horse and struggles to cross a busy highway, it’s more than clear that this world has little use for men who refuse to trade their horses in for 18-wheelers.

After cutting through a barbed wire fence and crossing the busy streets of Duke City (a thinly disguised Albuquerque), Jack arrives at the home of a woman, Jerry (Gena Rowlands), whose excitement suggests she’s the roaming ranch hand’s wife. But we soon learn that Jerry is the wife of his best friend, Paul (Michael Kane), and that Jack has arrived in town to bust out his buddy—a former cowboy who’s serving time for helping immigrants who’ve just crossed the border from Mexico—from prison.

Despite his antisocial and anti-authority leanings, Jack isn’t an outlaw, but rather a man desperately clinging to an identity and way of life that’s virtually unsustainable in the modern world. And throughout the film, Miller and cinematographer Philip Lathrop take full advantage of the black-and-white Cinemascope frame to highlight Jack’s isolation and feelings of entrapment. From fences to busy streets to prison bars, the filmmakers see the modern world as a series of barriers to men like Jack, who deliberately gets himself arrested so that he can help Paul escape. At one point in the film, Jerry pleadingly tells Jack, “The world that you and Paul live in doesn’t exist…it’s got real borders and real fences, real laws and real trouble.” But the man isn’t interested in change, only the gratification that comes with life off the grid.

Even the local bar offers Jack no peace, as it’s there that a one-armed man picks a fight with him. This confrontation erupts into an exhilarating fight sequence where nearly everyone in the bar turns on Jack, and though he takes this all in stride, it underlines just how unwanted his presence is in civilized society. Paul, too, ultimately rejects Jack, refusing to escape with him because he’s straightened up and plans to stick around for his wife and child.

In a series of beautiful reverse shots, Jack and Paul, framed on opposite sides of prison bars, commiserate with one another before parting ways, and even though Paul is left on the inside, we get the distinct sense that Jack is re-entering his own sort of prison. These shots are mirrored later after Jack escapes and returns to his natural environment in the film’s second half, when Sheriff Johnson (Walter Matthau), standing in his stuffy office, gazes out to the mountains through a barred window, wondering where the convict cowboy could be.

It’s at this point that Lonely Are the Brave excitingly returns to the business of juxtaposing the old and new. Jack briefly enjoys living off the untouched land, but whether by land or air, Johnson’s pursuit of him is so relentless that the cowboy and his trusty horse Whiskey have to keep moving. Miller repeatedly frames Jack in wide shots, presenting him as being in harmony with the land, while Johnson is shown in mid-shots, looming over it as a dominant, inescapable, annihilating force. Earlier in the film, Jack tells Jerry that he’s a “loner clear down deep to my guts,” understanding that makes him something of a “cripple.” By the end of Lonely Are the Brave, Jack learns the true cost of his condition, one which has long been inevitable, but which arrives in a shocking event that’s as tragic as it is ironic.

Image/Sound

The image presentation on Kino’s Blu-ray release of Lonely Are the Brave is absolutely stunning, especially given that the transfer wasn’t sourced from a new digital restoration. Thanks to its wonderful set design and deep focus photography, the film abounds in minute visual details, and the transfer renders every speck of dust, bead of sweat, and mountain rock with remarkable precision. There aren’t many shadows in the film, but the contrast is still quite impressive, exhibiting a wide range of greys that highlight the many contours of the mountainous desert landscape and the nooks and crannies of the actors’ faces. The audio is similarly flawless, with a well-balanced mix that does justice to the film’s score and gives a dynamic range to the natural and technological sounds that pop up in the soundtrack.

Extras

The highlight of this Blu-ray is the comprehensive audio commentary by film historians Howard S. Berger and Steve Mitchell. They contextualize Lonely Are the Brave as being of a piece with other late westerns of the early 1960s, such as John Huston’s The Misfits and Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country, while also discussing the various traits that make David Miller’s film an outlier. Much of their conversation covers the film’s aesthetic qualities—particularly Philip Lathrop’s gorgeous black-and-white Scope cinematography and Jerry Goldsmith’s somber score—as well as Kirk Douglas’s performance. There’s also a brief but intriguing segue into the film’s subtle political dimensions, which are especially notable in the film’s changing of the crime which lands the character Paul in jail from dodging the draft, as he did in the source novel, to aiding immigrants who had just crossed the border. The disc also comes with a 20-minute tribute to the film, which includes ample praise from Steven Spielberg, Michael Douglas, and Kirk Douglas, who notes that it’s his favorite film that he’s ever been in. The package is rounded out with a short featurette on Goldsmith’s score.

Overall

Of all the films he worked on, Lonely Are the Brave was Kirk Douglas’s favorite, and this disc’s striking transfer and illuminating extras go a long way toward explaining why.

Cast: Kirk Douglas, Gena Rowlands, Walter Matthau, Michael Kane, Carroll O’Connor, William Schallert, George Kennedy, Karl Swenson, William Mims Director: David Miller Screenwriter: Dalton Trumbo Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 107 min Rating: NR Year: 1962 Release Date: May 19, 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel on Criterion Blu-ray

The disc perhaps definitively contextualizes the moral urgency of the film’s intricate aesthetic.

5

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The Grand Budapest Hotel
There’s a joke that runs through Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel like a thin, fine wire. It usually, but not always, involves Monsieur Gustav H. (Ralph Fiennes), the devoted concierge of the titular hotel in the mountains of Zubrowka, a fictional country that’s ravaged by war in ways that recall the scourges that devastated Europe during the 1930s. Ludicrously soon after a fresh calamity or inconvenience, someone will attempt to sentimentalize or commemorate the transpired event with a poetic stanza, only to be dashed, with amusingly flippant suddenness, by the immediate realities of the situation at hand. An ode to man’s foible might inadvertently end with a resigned “Ah, fuck it.”

The film’s meanings reside in the various permutations of that joke. Like a few of Jean Renoir’s heroes, the characters scramble to maintain a degree of compassion and stately civility in the midst of the unfathomable rise of a fascist regime (the SS here is the ZZ). Informed by the writing of Stefan Zweig, The Grand Budapest Hotel’s plot is misleadingly delightful, with chases and dastardly villains and elegant buffoonery. Gustav inherits a priceless portrait, Boy with Apple, from a deceased lover, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), and must do battle with her corrupt relatives, who frame him for the woman’s murder and set him scrambling about Eastern Europe setting things right. In the midst of this adventure, Gustav plays matchmaker to protégé Zero (Tony Revolori) and a brilliant pastry chef, Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), and their romance is revealed to be the heart of the story, the source of the film’s unshakable poignancy.

The film is structured as a tribute to an act of kindness that ripples like a pond that’s been breached by a tossed stone, to a gesture that speaks louder than any of Gustav’s more conscious attempts to control the scope of his legacy. The man presents himself as a foppish dandy, but underneath those pretensions, which are probably assumed to cover his shame over his own humble origins, beats the heart of a romantic hero. He never treats Zero, a refugee of a country already quashed by the fascist regime, as anything but a gentleman and a co-conspirator, and that sense of acceptance empowers the latter to win Agatha and cement the beginnings of his new adult life. This act of kindness is paid forward by an aging Zero (now F. Murray Abraham) in the 1960s to a writer (Jude Law) who ponders the mysterious old man sitting in the dilapidated old hotel. That gesture is remembered by the writer (now Tom Wilkinson) in an interview recorded years later, which itself appears in a book read by a young woman in the present, who happens to bear an uncanny resemblance to Agatha. That young woman, we’re to assume, is paying homage to a writer who recorded her family’s legacy.

But you have to parse the screen for much of this information, as Anderson has grown into a nearly abstract sentimental formalist who obsessively imbues every image with implicative remorse and heartbreak. The Grand Budapest Hotel is the most obvious marvel: a great pink dream palace that suggests one of Agatha’s cakes if she had lived long enough to pay homage to the mythical cinematic realms of Marienbad and the Overlook. Anderson cannily uses aspect ratios to affirm his vision of the past as a place of vanishing warmth and harmony: The ‘30s segments are shot in the almost square Academy ratio, which mirrors the films of that era while subtly bringing the actors closer together in a communal frame, while the other timelines are shot in wider aspect ratios, and the actors are often positioned at opposite ends of a frame that emphasizes the lonely chasms between them, or the atmospheres that dwarf them. These ratios are loaded with frames within frames and boxes within boxes, which serve as a visual parallel to the nesting narratives of The Grand Budapest Hotel.

The remarkable editing accentuates this bemused alienation. The usual fragile, graceful Anderson punchlines are interrupted with surprisingly crude and violent shards of incident that echo the chaos that his heroes are desperately attempting to ward off with their belabored protocol. Jokes hit you and intensify upon retrospection; the humor burns away, leaving only despair. A bad guy finds that Gustav has taken Boy with Apple and replaced it with a sexually explicit painting that resembles a Schiele, which the villain breaks apart in a frustrated action that reflects the abuse of the stolen and lost art associated with the Holocaust. Agatha pointedly isn’t introduced until late in the film, when half of her story has seemingly already been told off screen—a structural quirk that deepens upon your realization of her fate and Zero’s crushing inability to face his memory of her. The film’s most heartbreaking touch is a blink-and-miss one: of the elderly Zero and the writer having their desert, which has clearly been modeled after Agatha’s beautiful little cakes from decades ago.

Anderson’s mise-en-scène, which abounds in a hall-of-mirrors reflexivity that will probably take a dozen viewings to fully unpack, corresponds to an evolving point of view. All of his films explore the futility of a certain kind of egocentric fussiness as embodied by a quest for perfection of art, and, until now, they’ve criticized those quests as evasions of the messiness of humanity. The Grand Budapest Hotel also understands this striving for control as an illustration of a grand optimism. The beauty of Gustav’s elaborate customs, or of the Grand Budapest Hotel’s opulence, or of Agatha’s cakes, is that they embody art that exists for its own sake, as affirmation of the wealth of mystery, imagination, and decency that life can contain. Gustav is willing to die for his aesthetics, which are intricately tied to his good manners and commitment to craft even in the face of disaster or ascendant fascism, and he thusly reveals himself to be an Anderson hero that’s moved away from self-absorption toward transcendence.

Image/Sound

This transfer is sourced from a 2K master supervised by Wes Anderson, which is the same master that was used for the 2014 20th Century Fox Blu-ray. Like that earlier edition, this transfer has a stunning image, with ravishing colors and an extraordinary depth of field. There’s intentional softness here and there, but this transfer allows the film to virtually explode off the screen, suggesting a moving pop-up book. And such clarity allows one to pour over the minute details of the frames, from the clothing to the props to the positioning of actors, all of which offer new nuances with every viewing, expanding the film’s meaning and the relationships between the characters. The English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track also boasts superb clarity and richness, delicately balancing the many subtle diegetic noises with blasts of bombastic violence with Alexandre Desplat’s playful, melancholic score.

Extras

This vast supplements package offers a detailed portrait of Wes Anderson’s filmmaking process. In the visual essay “Wes Anderson Takes the 4:3 Challenge,” film scholar David Bordwell offers the greatest description of Anderson’s aesthetic that I’ve encountered, which he defines as following the tradition of a kind “planimetric” style that has also been utilized by directors such as Jean-Luc Godard. Per Bordwell, Anderson’s images often involve backgrounds that run perpendicular to the camera, with the actors “strung across the frame like clothes on a line” while their faces or profiles are usually positioned so as to directly face the viewer.

Such a bold and confrontational aesthetic shatters the insinuating over-the-shoulder camera positioning that so many of us take for granted as a sign of “realism,” explaining in part why some audiences are so resistant to Anderson’s productions. In the case of The Grand Budapest Hotel, Bordwell also discusses the film’s alternating aspect ratios and how Anderson ingeniously modulates the planimetric approach to accommodate them. In the package’s second visual essay, critic Matt Zoller Seitz complements Bordwell’s piece with a beautiful discussion of the moral power of The Grand Budapest Hotel, examining how the despair of Anderson’s films gradually arise out of the jokes and intricately realized atmospheres.

Meanwhile, “Visiting The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “The Making of The Grand Budapest Hotel” both include vivid footage of the film’s making, showing Anderson working with actors, producers, and various technicians to get the timing right on various scenes, as well as coordinating the intersections between real locations, miniatures, and sets. As one would expect given the final film, this appears to be a vast production, which Anderson seems to lead with understated finesse. A new audio commentary with Anderson, actor Jeff Goldblum, special photography director Roman Coppola, and critic Kent Jones also further elaborates on location scouting, a wide range of influences on the film, how Anderson likes to cultivate a family of collaborators, and, per Goldblum, the work of Philip Kaufman. Rounding out this set are trailers, featurettes ported over from the 2014 Fox Blu-ray, animatronic storyboards, and a booklet with an erudite essay by critic Richard Brody, originally written for The New Yorker, and goodies like a mini-poster and a newspaper mock-up that appears in the film.

Overall

Criterion outfits The Grand Budapest Hotel with a stunning collection of supplements, perhaps definitively contextualizing the moral urgency of the film’s intricate aesthetic.

Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson, Léa Seydoux Director: Wes Anderson Screenwriter: Wes Anderson Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 98 min Rating: R Year: 2014 Release Date: April 28, 2020 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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