Paul Thomas Anderson’s prodigious filmmaking talents have always been somewhat compromised by his more show-offy tendencies, as his gift with both the camera and actors has at times been hindered by a self-conscious, look-at-me flamboyant streak. That friction, however, almost completely ceases to exist with There Will Be Blood, Anderson’s loose adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!, which finds the director exhibiting newfound maturity and restraint without sacrificing any measure of artistry. One can sense this shift in intent and approach from the very first shot, in which scraggly 1898 California hills stand against a crystal blue sky as Kubrickian howls flood the soundtrack, immediately establishing a mood of dread pitched somewhere between the frightening awe felt by the apes upon discovering the monolith in 2001 and the empty malevolence of the Overlook Hotel’s hallways in The Shining. Cut quickly to a darkened figure alone in a tight, constricting mine, viciously pick-axing the surrounding earth (shades of Jack Nicholson’s psycho-daddy Jack Torrance hacking away at the bathroom door) in search of oil, and the tone—aided by the apt horror-flick title—is now firmly, masterfully established. Madness and hell await, in the guise of an ordinary man possessed.
That man is Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), and as he says in a business proposal to locals interested in procuring his services, he is “an oil man.” But before that introductory speech—shot in a rapturous long take in which Anderson’s camera glides with ghostly grace into a close-up of Daniel, along the way taking a brief detour to gaze at the face of Daniel’s son H.W. (Dillon Freasier)—the film has already decisively captured the essence of its protagonist. There Will Be Blood’s first 15 to 20 minutes concentrate on Daniel solitarily toiling in a mine, escaping it after suffering an accidental fall that results in a (lifelong) leg injury, and then starting his drilling operation, into which a wrench is thrown via the untimely death of a worker that leaves Plainview in charge of the deceased’s infant H.W. Staged without any dialogue, this inaugural passage may be the single finest work of Anderson’s career. Never before has the writer-director’s hand seemed so assured and attuned to the rhythms of his material, his gorgeously poised compositions and elegant narrative-advancing edits not only clearly setting up the themes (religion, family, deceit, self-interest) that will come to dominate his tale, but also conveying a formidable level of technical expertise and slowly building volcanic tension.
Such authorial command doesn’t waver once Daniel and those around him begin speaking. Having defined himself as a self-made “family businessman” and a no-nonsense straight-shooter, he’s visited by a young stranger named Paul Sunday (an exceptionally creepy Paul Dano) who, for a $500 fee, agrees to reveal the location of a stretch of California land known as Little Boston—upon which the Sunday family’s sheep ranch is located—that won’t grow crops but is literally oozing oil. Paul peppers his speech with religious remarks but his goals are clearly of the self-serving kind, just as Daniel’s veneer of frank honesty masks more egocentric urges, with his cunning suggested by their meeting’s opening shot—in which Plainview’s right-hand man Fletcher (Ciarán Hinds) is gradually shown to be in the room—and his self-interest expressed by a prior glimpse of him hungrily breathing in oil fumes (ah, the aroma of money and power!) down in a dank well. A deal is struck: Paul gets his cash and disappears, and Plainview, along with H.W., ventures west to Little Boston, posing as a father on a trip to teach his son how to shoot quail.
At the Sunday homestead, the duo is met by Mr. Abel Sunday (David Willis) as well as by his devout son Eli (Dano), who endeavors to be a preacher and appears to be Paul’s twin brother. I say “appears” because Anderson leaves the issue of whether Eli is actually Paul in some doubt, though a definitive answer on the issue isn’t really necessary given that the film quickly reveals Eli to be a thoroughly two-faced rival to Plainview, who is determined to purchase the oil-rich ranch at discount prices. Their clash becomes, in one way, the heart of There Will Be Blood, a standoff between the dueling greed of a cold, stern entrepreneur and a self-serving, egomaniacal evangelical. Having arranged this adversarial dynamic, however, Anderson only partially follows through on it, casting Eli not as an equal opponent to Plainview—who is granted nothing less than epic stature by the film—but as something more along the lines of a reflective twin, an avaricious little guy who helps complement and aid the overall portrait of Plainview as a big guy whose drive to succeed is rooted in a more fundamental craving to always, in any social or professional circumstance, wield the upper hand.
That Plainview and Eli are imbalanced foes, and that Eli is written as an obviously sneaky, duplicitous, and one-dimensional cretin from the get-go, slightly undercuts There Will Be Blood’s aspirations to be a classically styled allegory about the corrupt treacherousness of modern America’s twin foundations: capitalism and religion. Yet if such ambitions are not, in the end, wholly realized, it almost never seems to matter, given that Anderson’s series of cinematic set pieces (and, to a certain extent, that’s what the entire film is) are so rapturously orchestrated, and that he so fiercely and fully considers the twisted, contradictory, self-destructive stimuli at work in the heart and soul of his protagonist. Plainview becomes a case study in disintegration wrought from all-consuming desire, and Day-Lewis mesmerizingly embodies the character with a gruff hardness that can be gleaned in his calculating eyes, his contemptuously deliberate comportment, and his semi-condescending tone with all those he speaks to. His oil baron is at once upfront about who he is and yet willing, when the situation suits him, to bend the truth in service of attaining what he wants, a bastard alternately honest and devious whose bullheaded determination is amplified by Day-Lewis’s rigorously controlled—and yet somehow still wildly unpredictable—modulation of expression and action.
During an awe-inspiring sequence in which H.W. is seriously injured during an oil derrick catastrophe, Plainview’s love for his “son”—and, by extension, for family (a recurring Anderson preoccupation)—is exposed as secondary to his ambition, as instead of tending to the injured child, he sits staring at the column of hellfire engulfing his operation. Turned deaf by the accident, H.W. is soon shipped off by his father to a distant school for the disadvantaged, an act perhaps necessary but one born mostly from Plainview’s pragmatic wish to remove any obstacles that might interfere with his aims. This abandonment of H.W. affords Eli the ammunition to damn the businessman, which he does during Plainview’s baptism at Eli’s Church of the Third Revelation. An unreligious man, Plainview consents to this rite to solidify a land purchase, and it’s here that his willingness to go to any lengths to achieve his ends is most strikingly illustrated, as he suffers denunciations and slaps to the face from screaming-mad Eli with a crazed smile on his face. Money and stature are what matter to Plainview, but so too is an internal compulsion to feel superior to others, and it’s this latter fact that’s responsible for his maiden crime, spurred by his friendship with, and trust in, a gentleman (Kevin J. O’Connor) claiming to be his half-brother.
Once again collaborating with cinematographer Robert Elswit, Anderson shoots with a grand stateliness (full of arid, sun-burnt hues and inky shadows) that both reverently conveys the rugged beauty of his landscape, as well as hints at impending fire-and-brimstone chaos. Symbolism—a shot of heavenly clouds reflected in a pool of oil, a baby given an Ash Wednesday forehead mark with the valuable liquid, crucifixion imagery—is lightly handled. And the director’s trademark tracking shots and long takes, such as when his camera assumes the position of an evil spirit being expelled from a woman’s body and out a church’s front door by Eli, are always subtly employed in service of a given scene’s dramatic and thematic concerns. The sight of Plainview’s oil-splattered face being slowly, eerily engulfed by the black night encapsulates the film as a whole, though it’s ultimately Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s score (to a degree even greater than was true of Jon Brion’s work on Punch-Drunk Love) that gives There Will Be Blood its throbbing, pulsating soul. Heavy on discordant Psycho-ish strings that shriek with otherworldly terror and percussion that clangs with jittery, explosive anxiety, Greenwood’s musical accompaniment is a thing of dark majesty, brilliantly in sync with the omnipresent forces—anger, resentment, jealousy, covetousness, insanity—trying violently, desperately to bubble to the surface.
As cemented by the story’s concluding chapter, Plainview ultimately embodies the notion (also explored by predecessors ranging from McCabe & Mrs. Miller to Deadwood) that individualism created this country one frontier at a time and then, having done so, was deemed to have no place in the nation’s communal social fabric. Wealthy beyond his dreams, Day-Lewis’s former titan—having forever craved escape from society—is transformed, by 1927, into a Howard Hughes-style alcoholic recluse, his contempt for mankind now free to consume him in the empty corridors and opulent rooms of his tomb-like mansion. This diminished form of Plainview is vile and pitiful in equal quantities. Yet There Will Be Blood doesn’t allow him to simply fade away, instead providing him—via a seethingly vitriolic showdown at his residence’s bowling alley with Eli, now a popular radio preacher—with a batshit-crazy blaze-of-glory climax that detonates with the force of an erupting geyser. While watching, the sequence struck me as so unexpectedly out-there that it felt like a last-second misstep, but, in retrospect, this bizarre, nasty, hilariously horrifying denouement now seems the ideal exclamation point for a film this focused on the suppression of grotesque inner impulses. “I’m finished,” declares Plainview after his final, gory “triumph.” On the basis of the ferocious There Will Be Blood, however, Paul Thomas Anderson appears to have just begun.
Robert Elswit’s magnificent cinematography helped make There Will Be Blood last year’s most visually striking film. Thankfully, the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen included here-though shy of the clarity, richness, and detail found on most current hi-def transfers-ably lives up to its source material. While its black levels aren’t quite as inky-dark as one might like, they’re still plenty deep, and only a few instances of aliasing and image softness hamper this strong, vivid presentation. Even better, however, is the surround sound track, which not only has a welcome crispness, but also an impressive amount of depth and breadth. Jonny Greenwood’s otherworldly score resounds with full, inharmonious power, while the rear channels get a sturdy workout during the film’s centerpiece oil derrick collapse. For a character-study drama, it’s a surprisingly active and bracing mix.
Wait, this is a two-disc collector’s edition? You could’ve fooled me, given the general meagerness of its supplemental material. As with Punch-Drunk Love, and unlike Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia, Anderson doesn’t provide an audio commentary, so the first disc houses nothing but the film itself. On to the second disc, and there’s not much of great interest, meaning it’s likely that a more deluxe DVD edition will be arriving sooner rather than later. The most fascinating extra is the 26-minute The Story of Petroleum, a 1923 silent film created by the U.S. Bureau of Mines in collaboration with the Sinclair Oil company that illustrates the process of acquiring, preparing, and distributing crude oil. It’s an artifact (replete with Jonny Greenwood score) that provides a nonfiction counterpoint to Anderson’s portrait of the oil business, and is certainly more captivating than the remainder of the disc’s contents, which together total a whopping half-hour. “15 Minutes” (of “Pics, Research, Etc.”) juxtaposes a series of period still photos and archival film footage with relevant clips from the film. A teaser and full trailer are next, followed by two collections of deleted material that are primarily of note for featuring a great verbal smack-down by Plainview to Abel Sunday. Finally, “Dailies Gone Wild” presents three ho-hum minutes cut from the scene in which a drunken Plainview, dining with his son at a restaurant, accosts Standard Oil’s bigwigs.
A collector’s edition that, on the basis of its skimpy extras, gives 2007’s best film the shaft.
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Kevin J. O'Connor, Ciarán Hinds, Dillon Freasier Director: Paul Thomas Anderson Screenwriter: Paul Thomas Anderson Distributor: Paramount Home Entertainment Running Time: 158 min Rating: R Year: 2007 Release Date: April 8, 2008 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
Review: Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career on Criterion Blu-ray
This glowing new restoration does justice to Armstrong’s classic, though the extras leave something to be desired.3.5
Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career is a love story, though it doesn’t end with a wedding or a kiss goodbye, but with the fiercely independent Sybylla Melvyn (Judy Davis) placing her freshly completed manuscript in the mail and leaning pensively on a fence as she watches a blazing sun set across the wild Australian outback. This is not a romance about two people’s feelings for each other, but about a young woman’s burning passion for herself. Despite powerful social pressure to get married, Sybylla is determined to respect and treasure her own individuality, to resist, as she puts it, “los[ing] myself in somebody else’s life when I haven’t lived my own yet.”
“I make no apology for being egotistical,” Sybylla announces in the film’s opening monologue, “because I am!” But if Sybylla may be an egotist, she’s not exactly vain. She’s wracked by self-doubt about her freckles and wild shock of wiry red curls, which instantly mark her out from the prim-and-proper women in her social milieu. Through Davis’s subtle, complex performance, which convincingly captures the awkward transition from mid-adolescence to young adulthood, Sybylla comes to life as an intricate mix of steely determination, childlike naïveté, adolescent lust, and profound yearning. She’s prone to flights of fancy (getting drenched as she dances in a sudden downpour) and displays a quick, sardonic wit, but overriding everything is a ferocious hunger for independence.
However, when it comes down to it, Sybylla doesn’t know what she wants to do with that hunger. She only knows that when dull try-hard Frank (Robert Grubb) proposes marriage, it’s not an option—and rather than say no, she simply ignores him. But when Sybylla’s parents (Alan Hopgood and Julia Blake) ship her off to live with her grandmother (Aileen Britton), she finds herself falling for well-to-do charmer Harry Beecham (Sam Neill). It’s hard to blame her. With his rugged good looks and respect for Sybylla’s unconventional personality, Harry seems like the perfect match. But of course, that’s the problem: He’s someone she could absolutely fall in love with, but if she were to allow herself to do so, it’d spell the end of her autonomy.
Adapted from Miles Franklin’s turn-of-the-century novel of the same name, My Brilliant Career nevertheless feels wholly contemporary. Expertly recreating the novel’s late-19th-century milieu, Armstrong’s film juxtaposes the finery of the Victorian upper crust with the dusty, hardscrabble landscapes of the outback. The landscapes, with their rolling hills of high yellow grass, draw inspiration from the paintings of Australian impressionist Arthur Streeton, while the detailed, lived-in interiors suggest the work of Édouard Vuillard. This painterly evocation of a classic literary source anticipates the sumptuous literary adaptations of Merchant-Ivory. But Armstrong’s vision is more direct: Hers is a self-consciously feminist film, one whose dramatic stakes always carry the weight of a social critique.
If the narrative is slightly schematic in the way it sets up a binary between Harry and freedom, it’s never didactic. That’s thanks to Armstrong’s clear-eyed direction, which never feels the need to underline its points, relying on selections from Schumann’s “Scenes from Childhood” to lend the film a mood of droll wistfulness. Eleanor Witcombe’s script crackles with Austenian wit that’s enlivened by the rich, layered performances throughout. Sybylla is sprightly and always simmering with darker emotions as she grapples with the intensity with which Harry smolders for her, and Davis and Neill share a heady charisma that creates a genuine dilemma for the audience: You may want Sybylla to fulfill her potential, but you may also want nothing more than to see her and Harry forever in each other’s arms.
Franklin’s novel was largely autobiographical, tracing her own quest to become a writer in the face of a culture that neither cared much for literature nor freely allowed women to carve their own life paths. Franklin used a masculine-sounding first name in order to help the book get published. By the late 1970s, things had changed for the better in Australia but perhaps not as much as most would have liked. My Beautiful Career would become the first film directed by an Australian woman in nearly 50 years. In many ways, its making mirrored Franklin’s struggle to release her book: another female-made work produced in a heavily male-dominated field that would go on to inspire aspiring women artists for decades. (According to an interview with Armstrong on this Criterion Blu-ray, Jane Campion credits the film with inspiring her to pursue filmmaking.) When Sybylla’s well-intentioned Aunt Gussie (Patricia Kennedy) cautions her not to “throw away reality for some impossible dream,” we can feel Armstrong herself speaking through Sybylla in her defiant response: “It’s not impossible! It’s not!”
Featuring a glowing new digital restoration of the original 35mm by the Australian National Sound and Film Archive (NSFA), the Criterion Blu-ray marks a considerable improvement over Blue Underground’s 2009 disc. In contrast to the chilly, anemic colors of that previous release, this new restoration gives vivid life to the warm tonality of cinematographer Donald McAlpine’s sunny landscapes and low-lit interiors. NSFA has cleaned off the dirt and dust of the original 35mm elements but preserved the grainy textures. The transfer’s lossless monaural soundtrack faithfully reproduces the fairly simple sound design of the film, allowing us to easily discern some of the subtler ambient elements, such as that most distinctive of Australian sounds: the cackling call of the kookaburra.
The Criterion Collection has provided a relatively light array of special features for this release. The commentary track by Gillian Armstrong is informative and engaging, heavy on production notes and behind-the-scenes anecdotes. Unfortunately, a new interview with Armstrong covers much of the same ground. Davis, who, despite her friendship with Armstrong, has been openly dismissive of the film and her performance in it, appears in the extras only in an archival interview recorded in 1980 for French television. Another new interview segment with production designer Luciana Arrighi offers interesting insights into the film’s recreation of a bygone era on a relatively slim budget. Armstrong’s harrowing black-and-white student short One Hundred a Day is also included, as is an appreciative essay by critic Carrie Rickey, focusing on the film’s feminist elements.
This glowing new restoration does justice to Gillian Armstrong’s classic, though the disc’s rote collection of extras leave something to be desired.
Cast: Judy Davis, Sam Neill, Wendy Hughes, Robert Grubb, Max Cullen, Aileen Britton, Peter Whitford, Patricia Kennedy, Alan Hopgood, Julia Blake, David Franklin, Marion Shad, Aaron Wood, Sue Davies, Gordon Piper, Simone Buchanan Director: Gillian Armstrong Screenwriter: Eleanor Witcombe Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 100 min Rating: G Year: 1979 Release Date: April 30, 2019 Buy: Video, Book
Review: Tony Richardson’s The Border on Kino Lorber Blu-ray
Kino offers a beautifully lurid transfer of a greatly underrated Jack Nicholson thriller.3.5
Set on the boundary separating El Paso and Mexico, Tony Richardson’s hallucinatory 1982 film The Border concerns border agents who capture Mexicans as they sneak into America and sell them to farmers and businesspeople. It’s a matter of money, and no one involved in the transactions—including the Mexicans trying to dodge persecution—has any illusion about the prominence of law or humanity in the various shakedowns, arrests, and secret negotiations that characterize life on this line. And Richardson, a legendary figure in the British new wave of the 1950s and ‘60s, homes in on the daily quotidian of this ecosystem, evading many of the tropes of the “issues movie” until the third act. He marinates in the anger and boredom of the societies on both sides of the border—from the gaudy duplexes and shitty bureaucratic offices and cages of the agents to the shanty towns of the Mexicans. This resistance to three-act plotting expresses the rootlessness of the characters, which is intensified by Ric Waites and Vilmos Zsigmund’s wandering, feverish camerawork.
However, the film’s unsettled feeling is most memorably embodied by Jack Nicholson’s performance as Charlie Smith, an immigration enforcement agent who’s new to El Paso, there to placate his wife, Marcie (Valerie Perrine), with an alternative to their double-wide trailer. Nicholson was only a few years removed from his misunderstood performance in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, in which he brought the ferocity of his legendary run of ‘70s-era performances to a startling apotheosis, and so his restraint as Charlie comes as a shock. Charlie is soft around the middle, a little slow on the uptake, and has reached a point in his life when he doesn’t bother to express most of what he’s feeling, particularly to Marcie, a dim housewife and materialist who still commands his lust but not his respect.
The alpha of the film, then, is Cat (Harvey Keitel), a border agent who’s also Charlie and Marcie’s new neighbor. Keitel, as taut and wiry here as he is in his early collaborations with Martin Scorsese, often emanates the danger that we expect from Nicholson, and these actors turn Charlie and Cat’s scenes together into something resembling volatile dances. Nicholson consciously allows Keitel to dominate certain moments, while signaling a gradual eruption that will restore to Charlie the actor’s great and classic force.
The Border is marvelously detailed. The script, by Deric Washburn, Walon Green, David Freeman, is peppered with lively obscenities and slights that communicate the debauched cynicism of this world. When Cat suggests that Charlie get his uniforms tailored, we’re allowed to feel the subtle dig at Charlie’s weight, and to discern the hook that’s being planted for Charlie to spend more money—to get himself in deep with Cat’s slave operation.
The other agents are mostly cogs in a machine, a few of whom are capable of surprising acts of decency. One agent talks of capturing the Mexicans at a certain time so that they don’t have to wait in the water of the creek they cross. Though Charlie and Cat’s boss, Red, played by Warren Oates with a terrifying euphemistic pragmatism, is adept at putting a back-slapping face on atrocity—and Oates, who also eclipses Nicholson in certain scenes, allows one to understand with only a few fleeting gestures that this is a man who can kill. Red is a dandy as well, dressed in his best western frocks for his birthday, a celebration that’s particularly gaudy considering how the money that enables it has been made. (Even the swimming pools at these houses glow with malevolence, as the water is so artificially blue it’s sickening.)
Richardson eventually indulges a revenge formula. Maria (Elpidia Carrillo), whom we’ve seen throughout the film, is a young Mexican woman in and out of trouble with the border officers, and Charlie is drawn to her beauty and purity. When Maria’s baby is kidnapped by Manuel (Mike Gomez), a Mexican selling out his own people, Charlie springs into action, suggesting the traditionally faded sheriff who has one last fight left in him. The Border loses a bit of its snap in the final act, as Richardson’s glancing observational style doesn’t serve traditional thriller mechanics. Some of the plotting—particularly a few betrayals—are vaguely motivated, and it’s disappointing to see the film’s careful mood of hopelessness violated. The climax, however, is a hauntingly pitiful gunfight, with sand blowing all through the air, seemingly threatening to swallow all these tarnished officers up into the ground. And though the film arrives at a qualified happy ending, Charlie’s final act of heroism is understood—presciently—to only be a needle in a haystack that’s been allowed to grow to operatically evil proportions.
This image captures The Border’s lurid aesthetic, which revels in heat and a kind of erotic ennui. There’s a healthy amount of attractive grit, and skin details are vivid, as we can discern the dirt and sweat that constantly sticks to people’s bodies. Colors in the daytime scenes are appropriately bright and harsh, while the night sequences are cloaked in lush and beautiful noir darkness. The soundtrack is insinuating: Ry Cooder’s score has a lovely fullness, and the diegetic noises are vibrant, particularly the sounds of people treading sandy and rocky terrain.
In a new audio commentary, film critic Simon Abrams provides a full portrait of the making of The Border, citing news stories that inspired the film’s topical plot, as well as sources like Tony Richardson’s autobiography. Abrams discusses the actors’ strike that endangered the film, Ric Waites’s replacement of Vilmos Zsigmund as cinematographer (though Zsigmund returned for reshoots), Robert Blake’s original involvement in the project, and the various interrelationships between the filmmakers and the cast. Abrams offers a fascinating and informative lesson, and he makes a refreshing case for Nicholson’s largely underrated post-1970s career. This is the only supplement on the disc, but it makes for a full meal.
Kino Lorber offers a beautifully lurid transfer of a greatly underrated Jack Nicholson thriller.
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Harvey Keitel, Warren Oates, Elpidia Carrillo, Shannon Wilcox, Mike Gomez, Manuel Viescas, Jeff Morris Director: Tony Richardson Screenwriter: Deric Washburn, Walon Green, David Freeman Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 108 min Rating: R Year: 1982 Release Date: June 18, 2019 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Jordan Peele’s Us on Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Universal outfits Peele’s neurotic, fatally self-conscious film with a luxurious transfer that should please fans.4
Jordan Peele, like Christopher Nolan and M. Night Shyamalan, is an intelligent and ferociously earnest and ambitious filmmaker who’s also seemingly incapable of rendering a raw or spontaneous texture. In their films, one sees the due diligence to the point of envisioning a chalk board listing symbols and images, with themes circled and underlined somewhere near the center. These directors have all worked on genre films, but so far they’re incapable of conjuring an aura of chaos that’s particularly essential to thrillers.
Peele has a flair for high concepts, which, when given room to breathe, are capable of blossoming into startling metaphors. Get Out’s “sunken place,” accessed via an insidiously suppressive limousine liberal’s teaspoon, is a haunting and concise encapsulation of the ongoing legacy of American slavery. Peele’s second film, Us, suggests that the sunken place is physical: composed of the abandoned subways and railroads that run underneath the country, imprisoning the underclasses, our disenfranchised brothers and sisters whom we choose to ignore. Audiences who’ve pretended not to see homeless people on the street while playing with their expensive phones and drinking their six-dollar coffees—that is, those of us who are middle class or above—should viscerally grasp the social ramifications of Peele’s premise.
There are countless Easter eggs in Us, and Peele casts them in a sinister light that’s especially tangible on a second viewing, once you’re acclimated to the mythology of the underclass, which Peele calls the “tethered.” A boardwalk carnival—the distractions of pop-culture incarnate—is eventually revealed in Us to be built atop a portion of the laboratory that imprisons the tethered. In the film’s prologue, Peele, in the supplest filmmaking so far in his career, hypnotically tracks young Adelaide (Madison Curry) as she wanders away from the carnival, watching a storm drift into the Santa Cruz beach. She’s holding a candy apple, which connotes the poisoned apple of fairy tales, while wearing a recently procured Michael Jackson Thriller t-shirt. Adelaide is a hypnotized consumer, then, of laundered symbols of atrocity: Those fairy tales, made approachable by Disney, were once ultraviolent cautionary stories, derived perhaps from real crimes, and Jackson might’ve been a real monster. And carnivals are infamous for grift and vice, selling cheap trinkets that can often be linked to global slavery.
Us suggests pop culture as a master of our souls, an idea that’s unnecessarily literalized by the third act’s exposition. In Peele’s subtlest scenes, the family at the center of the narrative—grown-up Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and her husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), and children, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex)—subconsciously play out scenarios from famous films. When Gabe tries to kill an attacker aboard his comically crummy boat, a failed status symbol, he uses a flair gun in a gesture that recalls the chilling climax of Phillip Noyce’s Dead Calm, but with differing results. When Jason disappears on the same Santa Cruz beachside that once caused Adelaide so much trouble, Peele stages the mother’s escalating panic in a manner that recalls Chief Brody’s exertions in Jaws, which is foreshadowed by Jason’s t-shirt celebrating the Spielberg film. Later, Adelaide and Winston’s yuppie friends, Kitty and Josh (Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker), are murdered to the strains of the Beach Boys’s “Good Vibrations” and N.W.A.’s “Fuck Tha Police.” In each case, the pop culture that makes real-word atrocity consumable has been rendered dangerous again by the tethered.
However, Us is almost all signifiers, which aren’t given enough free-associative reign. Peele stuffs his subtextual dressing into a siege scenario, failing to utilize a promising gimmick. The tethered are truly us, our doubles, and so the family at the heart of the film is chased by evil versions of themselves. Amazingly, Peele does nothing with an unsettling idea: that a family might be driven to kill itself, which might lead to the exorcism of demons. What if Adelaide had to fight evil Gabe, referred to as Abraham, and what if that action echoed something unacknowledged in their relationship? What if one of the parents was driven to kill one of their mirror children? George Romero plumbed such ideas in his Dead films, and so did Lee Cronin and Jim Jarmusch in The Hole in the Ground and The Dead Don’t Die, respectively, to name two other horror films released just this year.
For Peele, the tethered are subhuman ciphers, basically zombies who’re somehow super-strong and agile despite being raised in a glorified penitentiary and forced to eat raw rabbits. This denial of the tethered’s humanity is curious, given that the film is called Us and is about the people we conveniently, well, dehumanize. Over the course of the narrative, the details of the tethered become increasingly absurd: They wear prison jumpsuits, which itself is a resonant idea, and carry golden scissors and don a single glove in a bid for movie-monster iconography (though the glove is also probably another reference to Michael Jackson). Most of the tethered appear to be incapable of speech, while Adelaide’s double, Red, talks like Jacob Marley from a community production of A Christmas Carol. (The only double with emotional stature is played by Moss, who manages to suggest, with a demented smile, the bitterness that this being is finally allowed to satiate.)
Us is also hamstrung by Peele’s timidity. Like Steven Spielberg, his need to be liked limits his ability to mine the horror genre’s propensity for cathartic savagery. Get Out trivialized its racial themes with an embarrassing happy ending, and Us often runs in circles, with characters repetitively knocking monsters out and escaping so that no one we like has to die. Later, the unsettling simplicity of the third act’s strongest imagery—in which we see the pared-down industrial labyrinths of the tethered—is gummed up with a montage in which Adelaide and Red’s final fight is cross-cut with footage of the truth of Adelaide’s abbreviated dance career (which is meant to remind us that the tethered, who’re only subhuman monsters when convenient to the script, also nurture and control their counterparts). Us is a conflicted and over-stuffed fetish object, a warning against consumption that’s eager to be consumed. Which is to say that the film is the plutonic ideal of cinema in the think-piece era.
This transfer boasts an image with rich, gorgeous, nearly viscous colors, especially the reds and the industrial grays. The prisms of light in a carnival scene are pristine, and there are many subtle variations of darkness in the film’s nighttime landscapes. There’s also a healthy amount of grit, especially in the vintage-looking ‘80s-set scenes. The soundtracks are equally impressive, with immersive and frighteningly multi-planed soundstages. Thunder crackles like a shotgun blast, while the careful treading of intruders almost subliminally prepares us for their attack. The film’s sound effects are also mixed very capably, sometimes nearly indistinguishably, with its elegant score. On a technical level, this disc offers a spotless presentation of a significant new Universal Pictures title.
Several formulaic short featurettes see the film’s principles talking about the pleasure of making Us and expounding on its themes. The most diverting of these extras discusses the tricks involved in “doubling” the various actors. More interestingly, the deleted scenes indicate the better film that might’ve been left on the cutting room floor. An extended sequence allows us to see young Adelaide and her double as they dance in their respective worlds. In this longer version, we feel the awe and pain of each girl, and experience the wonder of the tethered as they witness this performance. It’s a pity that this sequence is chopped to bits in the final cut of Us and turned into counterpoint fodder for a fight scene. In another short moment, young Adelaide is seen in the world of the tethered right after she’s been kidnapped, meeting her shadow parents for the first time. In a matter of seconds, Peele taps into the emotional perversity of his premise, which he too often reduces to fodder for slasher-movie chases.
Universal outfits Jordan Peele’s neurotic, fatally self-conscious Us with a luxurious transfer that should please fans of the film.
Cast: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, Anna Diop, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Cali Sheldon, Noelle Sheldon Director: Jordan Peele Screenwriter: Jordan Peele Distributor: Universal Pictures Home Entertainment Running Time: 116 min Rating: R Year: 2019 Release Date: June 18, 2019 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
Review: Daryl Duke’s The Silent Partner on Kino Lorber Blu-ray
Kino’s release should help bring new eyes to this wonderfully offbeat Canadian thriller.3.5
In Daryl Duke’s The Silent Partner, Elliott Gould plays against type as Miles Cullen, a mild-mannered bank teller who spends his free time collecting exotic fish and practicing chess moves at home. There’s nary a trace of Gould’s typically acerbic wit or effortless charisma to be found in the listless Miles. In fact, he’s so unthreatening that he’s often tasked with escorting his boss’s (Michael Kirby) mistress, Julie (Susannah York)—a co-worker on whom he has an incurable crush—around town just to cover for him. Like everyone else working at the tiny bank branch housed in a gloriously gaudy, era-specific Toronto mall, Julie also grossly underestimates Miles, refusing his advances and describing him to a new co-worker who shows a fleeting interest in him as “less than the sum of his parts.”
Appearances, though, turn out to be quite deceiving. And as Miles quietly susses out an impending robbery by Harry Reikle (Christopher Plummer), the shady character who’s been scouting the bank incognito as the mall’s Santa Claus, the threat ignites in him excitement rather than fear or apprehension. Curtis Hanson’s sharply written screenplay initially appears to be priming us for a high-stakes heist, but after Miles concocts an ingenious plan that allows him to keep the bulk of the loot for himself while laying the blame on Reikle, the film transforms into psychologically complex and sexually charged game of cat and mouse.
The Silent Partner playfully toys with the tropes of the thriller genre, counterbalancing its escalating tension and sense of impending violence with a dark humor and offbeat romanticism that accompanies Miles’s growth into a more fearless, and eventually arrogant, man. It’s a tricky tonal balance that, at times, recalls Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild, especially in the surprising ways its dopey male protagonist copes with his impending collision with a relentlessly sadistic psychopath. Though Duke’s film lacks the warmth and humanism of Something Wild, it’s possessed of a similarly idiosyncratic edginess.
The Silent Partner’s pageant of perverse sexuality, betrayals, and fluid identities eventually takes Miles into darker, pulpier realms, particularly in the shockingly brutal third act. And the film is particularly fascinating in the ways it connects his subtly shifting persona to that of the terrifying Reikle, who draws the once tightly wound teller out of his dull, conservative shell to realize his full potential as something of a neurotic Übermensch. Both men have a woman in their life, but it’s their intense, increasingly obsessive draw to one another that ultimately stirs up far more trouble than the once tightly wound Miles could ever have imagined.
Kino Lorber’s transfer gets off to a pretty rough start throughout the first reel of the film, which features murky colors, some rather noticeable film damage, and an exceedingly soft image that suggests something off an early-era DVD. Thankfully, after those first 10 minutes, the image quality sharpens significantly and the color balancing evens out, with primary colors, particularly the red of Christopher Plummer’s Santa costume, really popping. The grain, which is distractingly excessive in the early stretches, is also toned down to a healthy amount, giving the image the soft-textured look one expects from a ‘70s film shot on location. The sound is nothing beyond serviceable, but the dialogue is fairly clean and only hampered occasionally by the ambient background noise of chatter throughout the mall.
The commentary track with film historians Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell, and Nathaniel Thompson strikes a nice balance between three colleagues casually discussing a film they all love and a more disciplined, academic grappling with the script’s rich, hypersexual subtext. The homoerotic tension between Elliot Gould and Plummer’s characters is exhaustively covered, but there are a number of other keen observations made about the film’s more subtle qualities, such as its commentary on workplace hierarchies and the breakdown of identity in the face of middle-class conformity. The only other extra included is an interview with a somnambulistic Gould, who fondly remembers working with Plummer, Susannah York, and director Daryl Duke, but offers little of substance beyond his random reminiscences.
Kino Lorber’s serviceable release of The Silent Partner should help bring new eyes to Daryl Duke’s wonderfully offbeat Canadian thriller.
Cast: Elliott Gould, Christopher Plummer, Susannah York, Céline Lomez, Michael Kirby, Sean Sullivan, Ken Pogue, John Candy, Nuala Fitzgerald Director: Daryl Duke Screenwriter: Curtis Hanson Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 106 min Rating: R Year: 1978 Release Date: June 18, 2019 Buy: Video
Review: The Buster Keaton Collection: Volume 1 on Cohen Media Group Blu-ray
This Blu-ray release of two of Keaton’s greatest films does justice to the silent comedian’s visual genius.3.5
A Buster Keaton creation that combines the classic form of his earlier man-on-a-quest comedies with the visual heft of a Civil War epic, The General isn’t likely to be the favorite opus of the star’s purist fans, but it’s the one with the trappings of ambition and historical poesy. The melancholy behind Keaton’s comedy, visible in his lionized Great Stone Face, is a natural match with his Johnnie Gray, a railroad engineer and Southern everyman who becomes a hero of the lost cause after being rejected for military service on the basis of his vital profession. (The film does no propagandizing for the Confederacy; in the interests of making the story—loosely based on an actual 1862 incident—that of an underdog, Keaton felt his hero had to be a Southerner.) Still an iconic clown with an unsmiling sense of purpose, Buster the actor-filmmaker-stuntman makes the context work; in this singular larger canvas, he takes over the War Between the States.
Johnnie not only suffers from feelings of inadequacy as a result of the army rejecting him without an explanation, but also from the sting of being dismissed by his fiancée, Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), for being a coward (she’s unaware that he tried to enlist). He then responds to the theft of his titular locomotive by Union raiders with a one-man campaign to recapture it that forms the entire second movement of The General. Running down the track toward the horizon, then by handcar, bicycle, and finally by newly appropriated locomotive, his chase is one of frenzied resourcefulness and experimentation. Keaton measuring gunpowder in his hand as if it were salt for a piecrust is just as indelible as his riding on the front of the steam engine’s cowcatcher, knocking saboteurs’ planks off the railway.
It’s the film’s symmetrical chase framework—engineer Johnnie’s pursuit, then his retaking of the General and flight to warn the South of an imminent Union attack—that makes a lovely visual match with Buster’s paradoxical physicality: the deadpan man in perpetual motion. The early scene of Keaton, after being dumped by the belle, sitting heedlessly desolate on a train axle as it rotates him slowly through space, is a sublime hint of what’s ahead; through mechanically powered heroism, he must recover his two loves, the girl and the locomotive. (Even when he presents his intended with a photo, it’s of himself stolidly posed in front of her wood-burning rival.) Mack’s plucky but bird-brained sweetie—idealized in one “cameo” shot when the engineer, hiding, stares at her through a cigar burn in a tablecloth—takes time during their escape run to sweep out the engineer’s cab and toss out needed firewood whenever she finds a knothole (Keaton lunges to choke her but swiftly improvises a kiss).
In staging a mammothly expensive railroad bridge disaster near the climax, Keaton and co-director Clyde Bruckman impress not only with the scene’s pyrotechnics and dramatic impact, but the comic reaction shot of a nonplussed Union commander. The General affirms the star’s unflappable heroic persona in more unfamiliar and solemn circumstances than lesser comedians have dared. If it doesn’t possess the same otherworldliness and surrealistic flair of The Navigator, Cops, or Sherlock Jr., its marriage of reliably brilliant clowning with a simulacrum of the Great Conflict (still a living memory for its original audience’s older members) lacks the self-importance and pretension that usually hobbles history represented on film. Keaton was no purist, and he cited the film as his personal favorite.
The capper of Keaton’s final independent production, Steamboat Bill, Jr.’s climactic cyclone sequence provides some of the most iconic images of its visionary creator. Awaking in a hospital to discover that a storm has lifted the walls and roof of the building away, Keaton and his bed are blown through the streets and into a stable. Then, in the street, he struggles headlong against the wind, crouching and leaping into it like a souped-up, literalized version of the familiar pantomime cliché. Finally, taking refuge in a theater, he eerily encounters the gaze of a ventriloquist’s dummy and the trickery of a magician’s “vanishing” platform.
Most indelibly, he stands frozen, pondering his next move, as the full façade of a house topples over him, crashing with unsimulated force and sparing Keaton’s Willie Canfield as its upper window neatly and harmlessly frames him. (A spectacular refinement of an older Keaton gag, it caused his camera operator to look away in fear.) This finale, concluding with the star’s typical redemptive heroics, is among the most happily realized expressions of the central motif found amid his immaculately choreographed slapstick: a lone young man rising to battle human and natural obstacles with balletic, kinetic energy.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. also features Keaton’s strongest treatment of father-son relations, as his freshly graduated twit arrives in a Mississippi River town from Boston with a foppish mustache, beret, and ukulele, appalling his two-fisted father, William “Steamboat Bill” Canfield (towering, flinty Ernest Torrence). The grizzled pop is in danger of losing business for his rustbucket paddleboat to the sleek new steamer of his hated rival, whose daughter happens to be Junior’s classmate and potential life-mate (16-year-old Marion Byron, peppy and cute, but sort of an afterthought compared to other love interests in Buster’s oeuvre).
It’s Bill Sr.’s efforts to masculinize his dubious heir that make up a sizable chunk of the plot, from a rapid-fire store scene where Keaton reacts to being lidded with a dozen hats—including a glimpse of his otherwise absent trademark porkpie—to the slovenly Steamboat Bill’s slow burn when the lad boards his boat for work, snappily outfitted like an officer of the Titanic. In the film’s most sustained comic set piece before the windstorm, Willie attempts to smuggle a saw via a loaf of bread to his jailed father, and the series of gags and reversals finds Bill walking back into custody in solidarity with his son. The familial theme has an affecting emotional undertow that’s never heavy-handed.
If Steamboat Bill, Jr. is Class 1A among Keaton’s prime work rather than top-shelf (like his previous seacraft-set The Navigator), its concluding 15-minute showstopper is a high watermark in imaginative, exhilarating entertainment. Audiences or lone viewers are more apt to open their mouths in astonishment than laughter, both at the audacious stuntwork and the odd, forbidding universe created by this placid, soon-to-decline Kansas vaudevillian. Like The General, it was a box-office flop, and Keaton’s move to MGM the following year meant a loss of control over his work, but the first dozen years of his filmmaking career produced uncannily conjured works by an artist with few peers in American cinema.
Both films are presented here in new 4K restorations. The higher level of detail visible across both films is welcome, and allows for a fuller appreciation of Buster Keaton’s precise use of the frame. There’s a small amount of flickering in the images of Steamboat Bill, Jr., but this appears to be an effect of aged filmstock, while The General exhibits sharper contrast throughout. Carl Davies composed the full orchestral scores that accompany both films on this disc. Each of them is a rich and varied score, available as a DTS-HD stereo or 5.1 mix. The latter is particularly engrossing for the way it captures reverb effects on the back channels, conveying an expansive sense of space.
“Reflections on The General” and “Buster Keaton: The Luminary” are five-minute compilations of interviews with an assortment of film heavies (Ben Mankiewicz, Quentin Tarantino, Leonard Malton, and Bill Hader, among others) about Keaton and his influence. Both conclude by imploring viewers to purchase Cohen Media Group’s Blu-ray release of Peter Bogdanovich’s The Great Buster: A Celebration in order to see the complete interviews. These barely glorified commercials are accompanied by two more commercials: trailers for the theatrical release of the two films’ respective restorations. The accompanying booklet contains a few stills from the films but no essay—or much text at all, other than a chapter listing for both films and (befuddlingly) an abbreviated cast and crew list for Steamboat Bill, Jr. only.
This Blu-ray release of two of Buster Keaton’s greatest films does justice to the silent comedian’s visual genius, but its nominal extras are little more than advertisements.
Cast: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack, Glen Cavender, Jim Farley, Frederick Vroom, Charles Henry Smith, Ernest Torrence, Marion Byron, Tom McGuire, Tom Lewis Director: Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman, Charles Reisner Screenwriter: Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman Distributor: Cohen Media Group Running Time: 148 min Rating: NR Year: 1926 - 1928 Release Date: May 14, 2019 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: George Stevens’s Swing Time on the Criterion Collection
Criterion offers a lovely transfer of one of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’s most enduring films.4.5
The maddening joke of 1936’s Swing Time is the effort it takes for Fred Astaire to dance with Ginger Rogers. Director George Stevens and his various collaborators—including screenwriters Howard Lindsay and Allan Scott and legendary songwriters Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields—knew that the audience wanted to experience the bliss of watching one of cinema’s most ideally matched pairs move. But as romantic comedies continue to teach us, part of the pleasure of coitus resides in interruptus. Astaire and Rogers are icons who must be first humbled by the strictures of three-act plotting, which comes to mirror the petty irritations that stymie our own lives. In this context, an Astaire and Rogers duet isn’t only technically audacious, it suggests catharsis—a leap from the banal everyday into transcendence.
Swing Time has some of Astaire and Rogers’s mightiest set pieces, which are intertwined to reflect their characters’ evolving relationship. Early in the film, Lucky (Astaire) tricks Penny (Rogers) into believing that he can’t dance, showing up at the institute that employs her pretending to be a klutz. She tries to teach him a three-step move, inspiring him to tease her with pratfalls. (Astaire falling over is more graceful than most of us dancing.) When he finally decides to turn on the juice, he twirls Penny with peerless precision to the number “Pick Yourself Up,” perfecting the three-step move, their bodies gliding through the dance hall like pendulums as they intuitively bridge swing with tap, polka, and ballroom dancing.
And as Lucky and Penny dance, a farce blossoms into romance, and a recurring pattern is subtly established. The swing gesture of this routine, with Astaire and Rogers alternately twirling one another and performing intricate solos, is laced into the subsequent numbers. Many dances also end with the duo spinning off a given stage, which comes to signal either the salvaging or the dissolution of Lucky and Penny’s romance.
This number is even more exhilarating for the fact that it takes the film nearly 30 minutes to unleash it. In the first act, Stevens and his collaborators build a magnificent tension, teasing the audience. For an Astaire and Rogers film, Swing Time has an unusually involved, almost free-associational plot that suggests what might happen if every 1930s-era screwball comedy and crime caper had been thrown into a mixer. At the film’s opening, Lucky is to be married to Margaret (Betty Furness), which inspires Lucky’s fellow song-and-dance men to stage a remarkably mean-spirited ruse that ruins the ceremony. Trying to patch things up with Margaret’s father, Judge Watson (Landers Stevens, the director’s father), Lucky promises to go to New York City and make a man out of himself, which the judge values at $25,000. The song-and-dance men also screw up this plan, and Lucky hitches a ride on the back of a train, clad in tux, with his Sancho Panza-like friend, Pop (Victor Moore), in tow.
Scene by scene, the plot makes little sense, and at times this seems to be a deliberate, and effective, means of deriving comedy. The ease with which Lucky changes the judge’s mind over an arbitrary figure is resonantly funny, evoking the patriarchy with which Margaret and especially Penny must contend, and the judge’s hypocrisy is capped off with a sharp sight gag: a portrait of the man, initially frowning, is smiling once father and suitor have brokered a deal. This notion of unfairly wielded male power is revisited soon again when Penny reports a theft to a cop, who sides with the well-dressed male perpetrator, Lucky. And the plot continues to pivot on elaborate, also intertwined deceptions, in which Lucky and Penny must appeal to influential and unappealing men so that they may dance. At times, Swing Time may remind contemporary viewers of a video game, in which prized footage must be “unlocked.”
The elegance of Stevens’s direction is most evident in the attention that’s paid to the characters even in the film’s most ludicrous stretches. Lucky, Penny, Pop, and Penny’s friend, Mabel (Helen Broderick), are moving archetypes that embody the fantasy of America as a place where people can pull themselves up by the so-called bootstraps, conning their way into the upper echelons of society—an especially appealing fantasy during the Depression, when the screwball comedy’s conventions were cemented. Stevens spryly stages Lucky and Penny’s courtships and breakups, though he doesn’t give these scenes the subterranean emotional charge that an Ernst Lubitsch might have. Stevens values speed, racing through the script to get to the film’s reasons for existing, and the scruffiness of the romantic comedy contrasts likeably with the mathematical brilliance of the dance sequences.
For most films, “Pick Yourself Up” might be a show-stopping climax, but for Swing Time it’s the aperitif for set pieces of escalating intensity, in which Astaire and his choreographer, Hermes Pan, stretch the boundaries of their formalist imaginations. “Waltz in Swing Time” suggests a furious riff on “Pick Yourself Up,” with Astaire and Rogers elaborating on the latter’s swing motif with more pointedly syncopated solos that morph into duets. “Bojangles of Harlem” stops the film in its tracks, opening with nasty iconography as a prop modeled after a minstrel version of, presumably, Bill Robinson opens to reveal Astaire in blackface, presiding over a throne with giant legs and feet protruding out from him.
What follows is one of the most astonishing dances in the history of cinema, in which Astaire moves with 24 chorus dancers, who break up into trios before reuniting in a single vast line, allowing Astaire to partner with all of them simultaneously before moving on to a different set piece in which he out-dances a trio of shadows of himself. In these shockingly obsessive and insular sequences, Astaire pushes his co-stars aside to plumb the outer reaches of his own talent, and his angular, demonic racial caricature has undeniable force.
For a while, “Lucky” is forgotten, as Astaire is channeling, probably both intentionally and inadvertently, the perverse America that resides underneath the screwball musical’s Horatio Alger myths. And Astaire’s self-absorption is only partially exorcised by “Never Gonna Dance,” in which Lucky attempts to win Penny back on a deserted stage with a double winding staircase, their movements disconnectedly echoing one another’s in a haunting physicalizing of loneliness and heartbreak. At the end of the song, they reunite for a pained spinning gesture that explodes the emotion of the set piece, visualizing a failed stab at reconciliation.
Astaire and Rogers’s dances are as difficult to evoke in theory as jazz, as both arts can be described in technical terms that fail to honor their profound emotional power. Astaire holding Rogers in his hands and arms suggests a grace for which many of us yearn—an ability to fully express a sense of belonging or of disenchantment with a lover. The plots of Astaire and Rogers’s films, though often amusing, are irrelevant, aside from serving as a contrasting mechanism in relation to the dances. As actors, Astaire and Rogers are tasked with performing formulaic romantic melodramas; as dancers, they embody the deepest and most ineffable, beautiful, and disruptive stirrings of the soul.
The image here is often pristine, particularly in the wide shots of the fabulous sets. In these compositions, the blacks are rich and the whites really pop. Facial textures are occasionally soft and the details of the costumes are sometimes a bit vaguer than one would prefer, though neither of these issues are deal breakers. The monaural soundtrack, however, is positively dynamic, rendering the Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern songs (all now standards of the American songbook) with piercing clarity and nuance. The same can be said of the presentation of the score at large, as well as, perhaps most importantly, the visceral machine-gun tapping of Astaire and Rogers’s shoes.
This Criterion Collection’s release of Swing Time balances archive supplements with new features, providing a rich examination of both the technical marvels and the social implications of Stevens’s film. A 1986 audio commentary by John Mueller, author of Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films, is a stunningly detailed examination of the film’s dance sequences, explaining Astaire and choreographer Hermes Pan’s working methods, and how these were folded into the production at large. Complementing this commentary are other older interviews with Astaire, Rogers, Pan, and George Stevens Jr. Some of these interviews are mere snippets, but they offer a piece of the living history that Mueller discusses.
Produced for Criterion in 2019, “Full Swing” features jazz and film critic Gary Giddins, dance critic Brian Seibert, and Dorothy Fields biographer Deborah Grace Winer. This program isn’t as exhaustively technical as Mueller’s commentary, but it offers a full portrait of the major collaborations that drove Swing Time, Astaire and Rogers’s sixth collaboration, and even some of their other films. The dancing, songwriting, screenwriting, and direction are all discussed, refuting the notion of filmmaking as the act of a single conjurer.
Meanwhile, a new interview with film scholar Mia Mask directly confronts the troubling racial implications of the “Bojangles of Harlem” number—a subject everyone else on this disc more or less skirts. Mask offers a primer on the history of minstrelsy in America, discussing its roots in the ridiculing of slaves and connecting this legacy to Bill Robeson’s transcendent showbiz career and to Astaire’s “erasure” of Robeson in Swing Time. Mask offers an incisive and wide-reaching work of criticism in only a handful of minutes, contextualizing the exploitation that powered even our most beloved entertainments. A booklet featuring a characteristically lovely and erudite essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith rounds out the disc.
Criterion offers a lovely transfer of one of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’s most enduring films, complete with a well-detailed and occasionally tough supplements package.
Cast: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Victor Moore, Helen Broderick, Betty Furness, Eric Blore, Georges Metaxa, Landers Stevens Director: George Stevens Screenwriter: Howard Lindsay, Allan Scott Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 103 min Rating: NR Year: 1936 Release Date: June 11, 2019 Buy: Video
Review: Paul Leni’s The Last Warning on Flicker Alley Blu-ray
The film’s debt to Universal’s The Phantom of the Opera cannot be overstated.3.5
One of the last entirely silent films of its era, Paul Leni’s The Last Warning stars Laura La Plante as Doris Terry, a Broadway actress who finds herself in the middle of a murder mystery. An attempt to capitalize on the success of 1927’s The Cat and the Canary, Leni and La Plante’s first horror collaboration, The Last Warning plays like Universal’s curtain call to a certain stripe of horror movie that would be supplanted by their iconic monsters of the early talkies.
The Last Warning is an amusing, if clunkily structured, affair revolving around the unsolved murder of a theater company’s leading man that took place during an on-stage theatrical performance. While the bulk of the film’s action takes place years after that fateful performance, with the theater company reconvening to try and finally resolve the actor’s murder, a significant amount of real estate is taken up at the start by a lengthy and mostly unnecessary introduction of the company’s actors and crew, including Doris, actor Harvey Carleton (Roy D’Arcy), and director Richard Quayle (John Boles).
As was typical of how female stars were conceived within genre-oriented studio films of the era, The Last Warning sees La Plante less as a flesh-and-blood woman than as an icon of vulnerability and fear. Leni’s close-ups of this leading lady are essentially opportunities for her to make a show of Doris’s various states of fear, confusion, and suspiciousness. And the woman’s suspicion is most evident in scenes where the story deliberately positions her as one of the prime suspects. But it’s clear that this tactic is a red herring. After all, to make the top-billed heroine of a silent-era studio picture a killer would not merely deviate from convention, but dismantle it, and the film is nothing if not married to convention.
Indeed, the film as a whole is too geared to its rather routine whodunit plot, which at various points flirts with the supernatural without every fully committing to it. At the behest of the company’s producer, Mike Brody (Bert Roach), and the theater’s new owner, Arthur McHugh (Montagu Love), the company decides to not only reenact the performance from the night of John Woodford’s (D’Arcy Corrigan) murder five years prior, but to put on the show for a paying audience. Alas, these flatly ridiculous story choices don’t lead to any particularly terrifying moments, as they’re mostly a jumping-off point for Leni to have a little bit of fun with shadows in order to suggest that the dead actor’s ghost might be haunting the theater.
The film’s debt to Universal’s The Phantom of the Opera cannot be overstated, though Leni finally plays against the pathos of the 1925 film’s sentimentality with a sequence involving a masked killer that plays more like a prototype for the Italian gialli films of the 1960s and beyond. It’s only at the climax that The Last Warning embraces genuine thrills, as the killer, a member of the production crew, sets out to murder again. If the whole of the plot proves rather thin by the time the perp is unveiled, that impression is leavened at times by Leni’s visual choices. Most notable is the moment—so kinetic in its sense of terror and play—when Barbara Morgan (Carrie Daumery), an elderly actress with the theater company, leaps from atop the stage and plummets to the ground, with the camera taking on her POV.
Although the image has been struck from a 4K restoration, the visible deterioration and scratches on display suggest that the film’s negative was beyond economical repair. Still, the damage isn’t so bad that it prevents our enjoyment of The Last Warning, and, to be fair, the less damaged footage does give us a rather sparkling sense of what the film must have looked like during its initial run. Arthur Barrow’s newly recorded score, which vacillates throughout between the lightest and darkest of notes, sounds robust on the DTS-HD audio track.
The only extra of substance is a 10-minute visual essay by film historian John Soister on the film’s significance within Paul Leni’s filmography. The Last Warning was to be Leni’s final work, as he died from blood poisoning less than a year after its release. There’s also an image gallery with some intriguing scans of vintage promotional materials and production stills from the film’s initial run, an essay excerpt titled “Of Gods and Monsters” from Soister’s book of the same name, and a short essay by composer Arthur Barrow on his score for the film.
Less scary and innovative than modestly amusing, Paul Leni’s 1928 whodunit receives a new 4K restoration, utilizing the best available elements, from Flicker Alley.
Cast: Laura La Plante, Montagu Love, Roy D’Arcy, Margaret Livingston, John Boles, Bert Roach, Carrie Daumery, Burr McIntosh, D’Arcy Corrigan Director: Paul Leni Screenwriter: Alfred A. Cohn, Tom Reed Distributor: Flicker Alley Running Time: 78 min Rating: NR Year: 1928 Release Date: June 4, 2019 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: William Wyler’s The Heiress on the Criterion Collection
Criterion’s release excellently preserves William Wyler’s psychologically probing masterwork.4
William Wyler’s The Heiress demonstrates the filmmaker’s keen eye for composition as a means of enhancing his actors’ performances. The spectacularly ornate home at the center of the film is befitting of the considerably wealthy Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson). Yet the ample space left between objects in a room hints at a hollow, impersonal atmosphere that envelops Austin’s unwed daughter, Catherine (Olivia de Havilland). A plain, naïve, and shy young woman, Catherine comes across as a woman so socially awkward and insecure that the coldness of the family home seems comforting compared to the world outside.
Despite Catherine’s shyness, the young woman does want to socialize, and she accompanies her father one night to a party where she meets Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), the son of a local family in the Sloper’s aristocratic circle whose profligate spending has already decimated his inheritance. If Catherine’s array of nervous tics—widened eyes, reflexive but forced smiles—alienate her from others, Morris’s magnetism is such that everyone is drawn to him. He takes a keen interest in Catherine and effortlessly carries the conversation when she gets flustered and doesn’t know what to say.
De Havilland, who won an Oscar for her performance here, painstakingly captures Catherine’s manic, disbelieving glee at seeing a man talk to her, and in this moment, the camera moves more than it does for the remainder of The Heiress, not only in sync with the dancing at the party, but with Catherine’s sudden rush of infatuation. Morris thoroughly charms her and even puts on a face of mock dejection when a drunken old man cuts in for a dance, and when he calls on Catherine the next day, their courtship turns into an engagement in short order.
Catherine’s impending nuptials should be wonderful news for Austin, who’s struggled to find a suitor for his child, but he rejects the union on the grounds that he believes that no man as handsome and suave as Morris could possibly be interested in his dull, homely daughter, and as such must simply want her for her inheritance. The disdain that Austin reveals for Catherine shocks her to the core, and to make matters worse, her father may be right about Morris. The dual blow of discovering that the men in her life see her largely as an object is shattering, and if Wyler’s mostly static compositions first communicated her introversion, slowly they come to reflect her abject misery. Some shots endure for so long that you can almost see as Catherine’s sorrow and humiliation harden into bitterness in real time.
Wyler’s willingness to set up a shot with exacting formal precision, then cede prominence to the actors who move within the space of the frame, results in a multivalent study of not only the story’s characters, but of the classic Hollywood era’s markedly different styles of acting. Richardson portrays even Austin’s more subtle gestures of contemptuousness with the most theatrical of cadences. Elsewhere, Clift’s facility with intoxicating yet repellent characters stresses the ambiguity of Morris’s devotion, and the longer any of Morris’s scenes last, the harder it is to tell whether he’s manipulating Catherine or genuinely interested in her. There’s even the character-actress bawdiness that Miriam Hopkins brings to Catherine’s widowed aunt, whose genuine affection for her niece belies her own exploitative tendencies, as she lives vicariously through the younger woman’s romance.
Then, of course, there’s de Havilland. The actress was often typecast as homely characters, and here she upsets common expectations by pushing Catherine’s innocence to parodic levels before shifting into a tragic-heroine mode worthy of the cinema’s greatest depictions of emotional despair. The Heiress is mysterious when it comes to characters’ intentions, but it’s downright confrontational in the brutal impact of its protagonist’s struggle for social acceptance. The finale, in which Catherine finally gains agency in her life only by consciously walling herself up in the very home that previously served as her cage, is an act of cruelty perpetuated as much against herself as those who wronged her.
Criterion’s Blu-ray boasts a sparkling transfer with only a handful of noticeable artifacts. For example, some shimmering is evident in scenes due to the clashing patterns of the characters’ clothing. Otherwise, contrast is stable throughout, and detail is so sharp that the finest details of Edith Head’s costumes are plainly noticeable. The lossless mono track is faultless, with excellent dialogue clarity and no audible hisses or tinniness.
In an extended conversation, critic Farran Smith Nehme and screenwriter Jay Cocks extensively cover the film, from its influence on Cocks and Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence to the manner in which Wyler’s mostly static, open compositions communicate the characters’ psychological depths. Also included is an episode of The Merv Griffin Show that pays tribute to Wyler and includes interviews with the director, de Havilland, Bette Davis, and Walter Pidgeon, as are archival interviews with de Havilland and Ralph Richardson. An interview with costume historian Larry McQueen covers Edith Head’s designs for the film, noting how Catherine’s style of dressing slowly changes with her emotional arc. An accompanying booklet contains an essay by critic Pamela Hutchinson that thoroughly breaks down the film, from its faithfulness to and divergences from Henry James’s Washington Square to its rich acting to Wyler’s sophistication as both a stylist and actor’s director.
Criterion’s release excellently preserves William Wyler’s psychologically probing masterwork.
Cast: Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson, Miriam Hopkins, Vanessa Brown, Betty Linley, Ray Collins, Mona Freeman, Selena Royle, Paul Lees Director: William Wyler Screenwriter: Ruth Goetz, Augustus Goetz Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 1949 Release Date: May 7, 2019 Buy: Video
Review: Edward Dmytryk’s Warlock on Twilight Time Blu-ray
Twilight Time’s release of Warlock will bring some much-deserved attention to Edward Dmytryk’s morally knotty western.3.5
Edward Dmytryk’s Warlock, so abundant in richly drawn characters and moral ambiguity, is a meticulous deconstruction of western tropes, beginning with the heroic stranger riding into a troubled town. Indeed, when the stoic and implacable Clay Blaisedell (Henry Fonda) shows up in Warlock, armed with his famous pair of gold-handled Colt pistols and his loyal sidekick, Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn), at his side, he’s understood to be the town’s last hope of ousting a ruthless gang of criminals led by Abe McQuown (Tom Drake). Clay’s arrival lays the groundwork for a clearly defined conflict between good and evil, with the legendary aging gunman set to stand up to Abe and his thugs, who’ve been holding Warlock’s citizens hostage for months, running multiple sheriffs out of town. But the film undercuts expectations at nearly every turn, as characters frequently shift allegiances, effectively blurring the line between good and evil.
Despite Clay’s seemingly honorable intentions, he’s certainly no hero, but rather a mercenary who trades law and order as a commodity, providing it for the hefty price tag of $400 a month, quadruple the salary given to the town’s sheriff. While his ruthless methods make him seem quite cynical, he’s a realist at heart, admitting to the citizens committee that hired him that they’ll inevitably come to resent and fear him for retaining the power they hand over to him in desperation. And, of course, he’s right. But the film’s thorniest dramatic entanglements arise neither from Clay’s uneasy alliance with the people of Warlock nor his ongoing conflicts with the McQuown gang, though the latter makes for a few outstanding action set pieces.
Instead of gun fights, it’s the psychological interplay between Clay and Tom, whose partnership grows increasingly tumultuous, that takes center stage. Tom, the Doc Holliday to Clay’s Wyatt Earp, worships his friend and remains as committed to establishing him as a living legend as he does to moving on to other towns in order to rake in as much money as possible. But even though Tom’s affection is genuine—he almost tearfully admits that Clay was “the only person who looked at [him] and didn’t see a cripple”—he plays dirty behind his partner’s back, setting up murders that might otherwise be unnecessary simply to protect his idol. And when Clay finds himself smitten with Jessie (Dolores Michaels) and talks of hanging up his spurs and settling down in Warlock, Tom’s mix of anger and melancholy is palpable.
The rift between the men is further widened when Clay finds himself in another thorny alliance, this time with Johnny Gannon (Richard Widmark), a world-weary thug who finally leaves the McQuown gang after they slaughter 37 cattle herders, and surprises even himself by accepting the open offer to serve as Warlock’s official sheriff. Johnny’s transformation is as close as this otherwise sobering, pessimistic film comes to sketching a redemptive arc, but even he remains conflicted to his core, struggling to balance his burgeoning desire for uncompromised law and order and his emotional attachment to some of McQuown’s men, specifically his little brother, Billy (Frank Gorshin). The resulting showdown among Tom, Clay, and Johnny sees the men applying morally dubious methods as they vie to implement their own versions of justice in Warlock. But justice remains an elusive ideal in this rough, little frontier town where the cycle of violence continues unabated no matter who’s in charge.
Near the end of Warlock, it’s Tom, as the audience surrogate, who hammers home the film’s final blow to the mythmaking that drove so many Hollywood westerns of this era. In a last-ditch attempt to secure Clay’s status as a town legend, Tom keeps him alive by holding him at gunpoint and preventing him from fighting McQuown’s men once again. Afterward, Tom gleefully says, “You’ll be a hero again. That’s all I want Clay. I’ve won.” In disgust, Clay replies, “All right, you’ve won. We’ll play this out to the end just as you want it.” But Tom’s optimism is revealed as a delusion and Clay, who resigns himself to the inescapable transience of his way of life, doesn’t deliver the happy ending the viewer has no doubt come to expect. Instead, he leaves behind everything that’s made him a legend and rides into the horizon to yet another town—and without the girl, his partner, or his trusty gold-handled pistols.
Warlock has a color scheme that’s familiar from so many ‘50s westerns, where the earthy tones of dirt and dust are intertwined with the vibrant colors of high-end saloon interiors, expensive fabrics, and big, blue skies. It’s a tricky palette to correctly color balance, but Twilight Time’s transfer is up to the task, retaining the richness of the primary colors without amping up the brightness of the entire image. There are a handful of shots that are less than sharp, especially in some of the wider exterior scenes, though this flaw, but the flaw is infrequent enough to never be distracting. Overall, there’s a solid contrast to the image, and a bit of the grain from the 35mm is held over to provide a bit of depth and prevent the picture from appearing overly digitized. The lossless audio tracks are very clean, and mixed robustly enough to never miss the various aural details during the chaotic shootout sequences.
The disc extras are pretty meager, consisting only of the original theatrical trailer, the brief Fox Movietone Newsreel that shows the stars at the film’s premiere, and an isolated music track. A small booklet is included with an essay by Julie Kirgo, who makes a case for the film’s homoerotic subtext between Clay, Tom, and Johnny, while also covering the film’s subtle tale of morality and themes of redemption and justice.
Twilight Time’s release of Warlock will bring some much-deserved attention to Edward Dmytryk’s morally knotty western.
Cast: Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Anthony Quinn, Dorothy Malone, Dolores Michaels, Wallace Ford, Tom Drake, Richard Arlen, DeForest Kelley, Regis Toomey, Vaughn Taylor, Whit Bissell Director: Edward Dmytryk Screenwriter: Robert Alan Aurthur Distributor: Twilight Time Running Time: 121 min Rating: NR Year: 1959 Release Date: May 21, 2019 Buy: Video
Review: Agnès Varda’s One Sings, The Other Doesn’t on Criterion Blu-ray
An optimistic celebration of women and their ongoing liberation, the film remains moving, inspirational, and perhaps a shade too relevant.4
Agnés Varda’s One Sings, the Other Doesn’t is about two friends whose lifelong bond is forged when, in 1962, 17-year-old Pauline (Valerie Mairesse) helps 22-year-old Suzanne (Thérèse Liotard) get an illegal abortion. Separated after the tragedy of Suzanne’s lover’s suicide, the pair encounter each other again in 1972, on the cusp of the legalization of abortion in France. From this point, the film follows their lives as they intersect and diverge, and as these two women are shaped by the politics of the 1970s. Reflecting on 15 years of second-wave feminism, One Sings, the Other Doesn’t is a poetic homage to the strength of women as they fight a protracted battle for liberation—one that’s made all the more relevant given the new generation of feminist activism that’s confronting a fresh wave of assaults on women’s rights.
Pauline and Suzanne encounter each other for the first time in 10 years at a protest outside the trial of a woman charged with terminating her pregnancy. Suzanne is in the crowd of protestors with her daughter when they see Pauline performing a folk protest song as part of the real-life feminist performance group Orchidée, whose members include Joëlle Papineau, Micou Papineau, and Doudou Greffier. Suzanne, much more the calm bourgeoise than Pauline, runs a women’s health clinic in the South of France. Pauline, who stole the money for the abortion from her parents and soon thereafter moved out to live on her own, is now an outspoken hippie activist who’s changed her name to Pomme (or Apple).
One Sings, the Other Doesn’t takes on the quality of a cinematic epistolary novel. Having reconnected, Pauline and Suzanne begin exchanging letters and postcards, read by the actresses in voiceover. This exchange becomes Varda’s elegant celebration of a multi-vocal feminism. The women are different: one is orange-haired and outspoken, the other brunette and more reserved; one sings, the other doesn’t. And yet, their friendship is close, held together by an almost utopian bond rooted in their shared experiences as women, both positive and negative. Varda is the implicit third member of this trio, also appearing on the soundtrack as narrator, mediating between the two perspectives like an older sister.
Through their letters, the pair recount to one another the course of their lives in a France being changed by women’s liberation. Pomme, living on her own since she was 17, unified her ardent feminism with her passion for singing and Orchidée’s formation. Her story provides the film’s exuberant feminist musical sequences, with music by François Wertheimer and lyrics by Varda herself. One Sings, the Other Doesn’t is sometimes described as a feminist musical, even though the songs appear infrequently and irregularly. Less vital to the narrative than the letters, they are asides that show how a joyful form of homespun art—not totally dissimilar to the handcrafted quality of Varda’s film itself—can be an effective political tool.
When Pomme’s letters catch up to the film’s current-day setting, she’s taking a leave from the band to travel to Iran with her boyfriend, Darius (Ali Rafie). She falls in love with the exotic beauty of the country—as does Varda’s camera, lingering on the bright orange and yellow arabesques painted onto a mosque the couple visits. Caught up in romantic notions of the East, Pomme decides to marry Darius, and is soon pregnant.
In contrast to Pomme’s story of communal feminist activism and love, Suzanne was more or less banished to the countryside after the suicide of her married lover, Jérôme (Robert Dadiès), living with the conservative family who disapproved of her and Jérôme’s two “illegitimate” children. “I felt like I was frozen in time,” Suzanne recounts of her first years outside Paris, over Varda’s representation of a desolate and stifling rural life. Varda uses impersonal lateral tracking shots, similar to those she would employ in 1985’s Vagabond, to convey Suzanne’s alienation as she performs chores around her family’s farm. Gradually, Suzanne takes charge of her situation, learning typing skills, cutting her teeth in factory work alongside other women, and building an independent life for herself and her children.
In Suzanne’s words we are reminded of the importance of time to Varda’s films—and to her feminism. Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7 is one of the greatest films about time, exploring what it means to live inside a feminized body. One Sing, the Other Doesn’t is a different use of cinema to represent time, capturing the duration of a political movement as it runs through the lives of these two women. When they first meet, Pomme and Suzanne are both dominated by Jérôme, the tortured-artist photographer, who takes black-and-white pictures of women looking weary and dissatisfied. By the end of the film, as each of them is surrounded by their children and friends, they’re able to look forward with optimism—reflected in the vibrant colors of Varda’s mise-en-scène—to the next generation of women, represented by Suzanne’s teenaged daughter, Marie, played by Varda’s own daughter, Rosalie Varda-Demy.
“The personal is political” declared second-wave feminism, and certainly Varda’s depiction of an enduring female friendship is a realization of this slogan. One Sings, the Other Doesn’t reminds us that women’s personal lives—their relationships with men and each other—are a political matter. Merely showing women who support each other across great distances and differences counts as a brash political assertion, both in 1977 and today.
The 1080p transfer, based on a 2K restoration of the film overseen by Agnés Varda and cinematographer Charles Van Damme, exudes a striking filmlike quality, preserving the grain of the 35mm original. The level of detail is impeccable throughout; even in low-light exterior shots of a harvested field late in the film, for example, it seems as if every blade of grass is visible. The PCM mono track, restored from the original 35mm magnetic mix, isn’t terribly dynamic, but the dialogue and songs are nonetheless clear and crisp-sounding throughout.
In addition to “Bodies and Selves,” an essay on the film by Amy Taubin that focuses on the audacity of Agnès Varda’s emphasis on issues of bodily autonomy, the disc’s liner notes reproduce excerpts from the film’s original press kit. Here, Varda and actresses Valérie Mairesse and Thérèse Liotard discuss the origins of the film and their experiences making it; Liotard and Mairesse’s observations about how much safer a woman-directed set feels reverberates in our Me Too moment. And on the actual disc we’re offered several extras that serve as perfect companion pieces to the feature. In Plaisir d’amour en Iran, a 1976 short film by Varda that stands on its own as a poetic exploration of erotic love, Darius and Pomme are seen sharing a blissful first few days in Iran. And in Réponse de femmes, a short essay film from 1975 that exhibits the same embrace of women’s divergent lives and desires as the feature, Varda gathers a group of French women and girls of various ages to answer the question: “What is a woman?” Finally, a making-of documentary by Katja Raganelli titled Women Are Naturally Creative: Agnes Varda takes us into the Varda-Demy household, in which a very businesslike Varda—far removed from the coy old lady we know from her late documentaries—discusses the goals and pressures of being an independent female filmmaker.
An optimistic celebration of women and their ongoing liberation, One Sings, the Other Doesn’t remains moving, inspirational, and perhaps a shade too relevant.
Cast: Valérie Mairesse, Thérèse Liotard, Ali Raffi, Robert Dadiès, Jean-Pierre Pellegrin Director: Agnès Varda Screenwriter: Agnès Varda Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 121 min Rating: NR Year: 1977 Release Date: May 28, 2019 Buy: Video
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