One of consumer culture’s more insidiously evil qualities is that its conspicuousness precludes criticism. It’s why anti-consumerist rhetoric so often sounds like the mere regurgitation of platitudes: Railing against the propagandistic power of advertising or the pervasive corporatization of Christmas is more cliché than revelation, which makes it immeasurably difficult to actively resist their influence and control, especially in a public forum. It isn’t enough for a politically engaged cinema to speak plainly on the subject of commercialism; we’re already too accustomed to the softcore didacticism of diatribes from the likes of Michael Moore and Naomi Klein to be affected, let alone galvanized, by that kind of dissent. And so, in order for any subversive anti-consumerist message to breach the status quo and truly resonate with a deeply complacent audience, it needs to be smuggled in beneath a more palatable pop veneer, hidden behind levity and thrills. The message needs to entertain in order to confront. Behold the message as articulated by John Carpenter’s sublime sci-fi opus They Live: “I’m giving you a choice: Either put on these glasses, or start eating that trashcan.”
The trick at the center of They Live, of course, is that its message doesn’t seem subversive or challenging at all. What it seems interested in exposing is established in the premise: A streetwise drifter (Roddy Piper) discovers a pair of sunglasses which allow him to see subliminal messages hidden behind every billboard, newspaper, and TV commercial in America, as well as the true faces of the masked aliens walking among us, intent to dominate our world in secret. Its anti-consumerist message is so apparent in the action on screen that it doesn’t even qualify as subtextual; explaining that ads for new shoes and Hawaiian vacation packages are actually designed to drive us to work, spend money, and marry and reproduce is so unambiguously explicated that it hardly needs unpacking at all. But this sort of obvious explication functions, cleverly, as a deliberate ideological misdirect, as the ultimate goal of They Live as a work of satire isn’t for us to acknowledge that our world is being taken over by nefarious aliens from outer space, but rather that such a fantastic idea of hypnosis and control is credible only because commercial culture is designed to function in exactly that way. The point, in other words, isn’t that we ought to be concerned about aliens, but that we don’t need to be concerned about aliens. Advertising and television and the entire world of corporatized control is already so fucked up that science fiction couldn’t imagine a fate for us any more preposterous or, frankly, any worse.
It’s an effective ploy, forcing us to confront certain basic facts about the state of the world around us without sounding preachy, and it articulates a decidedly working-class anger in response to social iniquity without sounding self-righteous. And it does all of this while retaining the surface appeal of its B-movie origins, frequently (and entertainingly) indulging in the seductive spectacle of ghouls and guns in combat—though always with ulterior motives. At the time of its release, They Live was received with guarded enthusiasm by those who appreciated Carpenter’s approach, but perceived in the results an irreconcilable hypocrisy: There was much talk of how admiring the successfully subversive elements of They Live required one to overlook its tendency to relish the vacuous pop-culture gestures it claimed to reject, the suggestion being that any attempt to engage seriously with anti-consumerist politics while also celebrating shootouts and explosions was a classic case of having your cake and eating it too. This, of course, was 1988, a year after Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop had proven that an intelligent film could both be an action film and a critique of action films. Carpenter was in many ways picking up where Verhoeven had left off, taking his flair for pyrotechnics to its logical extension and pushing his film’s pointed social critique right down to the level of sly auto-critique as well. What’s the infamous six-minute wrestling match at the heart of They Live if not the ultimate fulfillment of its audience’s primal bloodlust, shoving our faces into the muck of pop culture? Like Keith David’s Frank, we can’t see the truth until it’s quite literally beaten into us. We have to start eating the trashcan.
Unfortunately, though I came here to review the Blu-ray and kick ass, Shout! Factory could only provide the Special Edition DVD, which admittedly looks very good: A marked improvement over the film’s pitiful older transfers, this new iteration allows fans of John Carpenter’s classic to see it in a new light. The 5.1 Surround mix is well-balanced and reasonably robust, keeping dialogue clear and the music booming—which is really all you can ask for out of an SD package.
You might not have realized, but if the effort Shout! Factory put into this release is any indication, They Live has a loyal following clamoring for the Special Edition to end all Special Editions. This thing is absolutely loaded with content: a new commentary track by Carpenter and actor Roddy Piper is entertaining and insightful; two making-of style featurettes (one new, one archival and EPK-like) provide a wealth of behind-the-scenes content; and interviews with both Keith David and Meg Foster allow nearly every major player to get involved and offer their opinion of the film. None of this content is especially revelatory, but this set is clearly one for the fans, who, as is their wont, will be pleased with whatever they can get. Oh, and there happens to be one advantage of the DVD over the Blu-ray in this department: The SD set comes packaged in a very handsome slip sleeve featuring brand new hand-drawn artwork commissioned for this release, as well as a reversible inner cover with the film’s original poster art.
There’s only one thing to say about John Carpenter’s sharp-witted, enormously entertaining masterpiece: BUY.
Cast: Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster, George "Buck" Flower, Peter Jason, Susan Barnes, Sy Richardson, Susan Blanchard, Norman Alden Director: John Carpenter Screenwriter: John Carpenter, Ray Nelson Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 94 min Rating: R Year: 1988 Release Date: November 6, 2012 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: William Friedkin’s Cruising on Arrow Video
Time may have been surprisingly kind to Cruising, but that’s at least in part because it’s also been slow to be kind to the LGBT community.4.5
After William Friedkin’s Cruising spent the better part of the aughts as the subject of earnest, if guarded, revisionist critique, how does the film hold up in our current era of representational politics and trigger warnings? And why does it feel like how you answer that question will determine which side pocket you keep your handkerchief in? The gay side of Film Twitter had previously treated Friedkin’s 1980 ode to fisting, frottage, and flash cuts with a level of curiosity nearly equal to the fury of the disco era’s gay community. What currency could an undercover police officer’s punk-disco battle with the monsters in his closet possibly have when held against the ironic sense that an avowed sexual assaulter with a fondness for golden showers will soon be the one to usher in a rollback of LGBT gains at every level? But in its day, Cruising was essentially accused of sanctioning gay murder in the same sense that Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill was thought to justify rape. (De Palma had initially considered adapting Cruising before apparently realizing how much he would rather work in his element: high heels, venereal disease, and Park Avenue whores.)
But at least Friedkin and Warner Bros. thought to tack on a defensive statement before Cruising (at least during its original run) that read “This film is not intended as an indictment of the homosexual world,” which admittedly proves they knew exactly how thin a line they were skirting. It’s still fascinating to weigh the film’s still-volatile reputation against the current political climate—as well as the current state of gay cinema.
For all its bad judgment, questionable portrayals, and arrogant artsploitation aims, Cruising is what Brokeback Mountain and all but a small handful of eternally rewarding fringe gay movies (Stranger by the Lake, In a Year of 13 Moons, most everything by Tsai Ming-liang) are not: an interesting film. If its homophobia is also in contrast with Brokeback Mountain’s purported lack of it, well, no one said art (or even faux-art) went down easy. Just ask John Waters, who put the words “the life of a heterosexual is a sick and boring lifestyle” into the snaggle-toothed mouth of Edith Massey years before Cruising got so many dicks bent out of shape.
Cruising, based on a book inspired by a series of murders that would in later years be classified as hate crimes, had to answer for a lot of unfair expectations. Chief among those is the burden of being one of the first major studio pictures to present gay sexuality on screen—as opposed to the more innocuous gay “identities” of the characters from Mart Crowley’s play The Boys in the Band and its Friedkin adaptation. Firsts are always in some measure definitive, and the reservations of those who weren’t portrayed accurately by Cruising are understandable in light of the film’s implication that each and every last gay male in the tri-state area fell into three groups: leather daddies packing cans of Crisco, mincing transsexual snitches, or sweet-natured eunuchs caught in between, doomed—because of their unwillingness to fly their freak flag—to spend their miserable, artistic existence in solitude. (I left out a fourth archetype, but since that would be the predatory murderer demographic, I don’t imagine including that to pump up the diversity quotient would appease Cruising’s detractors.)
Some of the film’s objectionable presuppositions can be dismissed, others not. In the former camp is the notion that the adjustment of the sexual alignment of Steve Burns (Al Pacino) emerges from having spent a few nights pumping his arms on the grimy dance floors of the S&M clubs. He frequently rushes back from his stakeout apartment on Christopher Street to have sex with his girlfriend, Nancy (Karen Allen). As the film goes on, he appears to engage in increasingly rougher sex, and at one point seems to need to hear that no-wave beat in his head to get in the mood with her. While to some this is a flagrant demonstration of the insidious, seductive allure of homosexuality that’s passed like vampirism, I think Friedkin’s scenario is far more interested in examining the fragility of undercover policemen’s identity.
That Steve’s crisis is held against the idea that homosexuals could be as traditionally macho as heterosexuals is almost accidentally serendipitous, at least as far as the plot is concerned. It’s not necessarily Friedkin’s fault that a few gay men took the baton of that newfound machismo and shoved it too far. A tad less forgivable on Friedkin’s part, though, is the outcome of Steve’s crisis (which is probably about as much worth a spoiler alert as is the theory that AIDS may have been contracted among some members of the film’s cast, and on camera at that). Much as Friedkin tries to put a cute question mark on his coda a la The French Connection, you’d have to be pretty desperate for ambiguity to not assume Steve ends up knifing the one gay man he could have brought himself to love. Now, I’m as squeamish over the mechanisms of fisting as the next guy, but it’s hard to imagine any sane non-fundie with half a wit could reason that all acts of male-on-male penetration are equal, be they consensual or homicidal.
The politics of homosexuality in America are in a continuous wrestling match with the societal standards of heterosexuality. Every policy, every attitude, every lifestyle choice is made in reaction to the standard of hetero monogamy. The still new wrinkle of legalized same-sex marriage only served to heighten the internal debate among LGBT activists, some of whom fear gays will forget about all other subjugated rights intended them by our nation’s forefathers so long as they now get to thrash the springs of their marital beds, that sex between two men (or two women, though you wouldn’t know it even exists listening to media talking points) would be dirty until the act of filing taxes jointly validated it for everyone.
Does the queasy canonization of Cruising at this moment when political correctness is on its deathbed have more impact from a cultural standpoint than it does from an aesthetic one? Unquestionably. No matter what any number of critics will tell you, the aesthetic values of re-released films are rendered negligible by their cachet as time capsules. In that sense, the appalling horror some may glean from Cruising isn’t its cold, clinical efficiency as both a thriller and a queer-baiting manifesto of hate. Its truly unnerving quality is that its existence is a brutal reminder from the past that homosexuality isn’t heterosexuality, and that any attempt to reconcile the difference will only breed resentment, confusion, and violence. Or perhaps it will only lead to more lame Hallmark movies of the week like Love, Simon.
Much like in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, minus the rush of blurry, neon-lit impressionism, the look of Cruising walks a fine line between precision and sleaze, and if there’s a downside to Arrow Video’s new Blu-ray package, it’s that the restoration errs to the side of too enthusiastically cleaning up images that beg to remain grimy and wet. It’s not quite shaved to the skin, but it’s often a pretty tight, tidy landing strip. At the same time, Cruising practically trips over itself in presenting topics, scenes, and settings in a mainstream film that had rarely been given such prominence before, so maybe the vaguely over-lit nature is actually truer to the film’s true character. In any case, it’s frequently shiny as an undercover cop’s fresh Schott Perfecto motorcycle jacket. And it’s even still outclassed by the, as critic Mark Kermode calls it, “tactile” sound presentation, with every creak of leather, every rattle of the handcuffs, every murmur of Jack Nitzsche’s moody score enveloping viewers like the crescendos of a particularly well-done popper training video.
Normally, cruisers would scoff at returning to the same well twice, but since the deluxe edition DVD’s choice extras were so well-done the first time around, it’s not quite a faux pas for Arrow to have licensed the lot of them. On the one hand, a newly recorded commentary track with William Friedkin and Mark Kermode all but renders the old solo commentary track by Friedkin redundant. Friedkin repeats a lot of the same observations and anecdotes in the new track, but Kermode smartly steers the conversation in new directions. Among some of the most eye-opening tidbits, Cruising was at one time earlier in the ‘70s earmarked as a project for Steven Spielberg. Talk about close encounters. Equally delicious is Friedkin referring to Al Pacino as the “least prepared actor” he’s ever worked with. Does Friedkin’s explanation of why he inserted subliminal shots of anal sex among the film’s murder sequences come off as hopelessly clueless? Intensely. But one comes away from these commentary tracks understanding just how the final product ended up so confused and contradictory. More clear-eyed of the set’s recycled extras are the two featurettes by Laurent Bouzereau, which detail both the production’s technical aspects as well as the controversy it has existed within ever since it’s very inception. Putting a nice set of aviators atop the package is a booklet with observations from critic F.X. Feeney. While not nearly every bandana on the rack gets included in the bonus features, it boasts a more than adequate starter pack.
Time may have been surprisingly kind to Cruising, but that’s at least in part because it’s also been agonizingly slow to be kind to the LGBT community.
Cast: Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino, Karen Allen, Richard Cox, Don Scardino, Joe Spinell, Jay Acovone, Randy Jurgensen, Barton Heyman, Gene Davis, Arnaldo Santana, Larry Atlas, Allan Miller, Sonny Grosso, Ed O’Neill Director: William Friedkin Screenwriter: William Friedkin Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 102 min Rating: R Year: 1980 Release Date: August 20, 2019 Buy: Video
Review: Fridrikh Ermler’s Fragment of an Empire on Flicker Alley Blu-ray
This release should help to bolster the reputation of Ermler’s singular and surprisingly funny Soviet propaganda film in the West.4
Fridrikh Ermler’s 1929 silent propaganda film Fragment of an Empire bears the marks of a transitional work, employing as it does the Soviet montage editing style that was popularized in the mid-1920s while also embracing the grounded socialist realism that would take hold among Russian filmmakers in the 1930s. And the tension between its styles is apt, given that the core narrative conflict of the film brings into focus the opposing values and ideals of tsarist Russia and the Communist Russia that rose in its wake.
At the center of Ermler’s fable-esque tale is Filimonov (Fyodor Nikitin), a soldier who was left shell-shocked by his service in the Russian imperial army. Stuck in a small countryside village in a PTSD-induced haze for a decade, the young man is unaware of who he is and of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and the rise of communism. But a series of aural and visual cues stirs him from his reverie—a familiar face on a train, the ringing of a bell, the medallion bearing the image of Cross of St. George that hangs from his neck, and the rapid movement of a sewing machine that reminds him of the firing of a machine gun—and soon he starts to grapple with the ghosts of his past and a world completely transformed by the revolution.
The film frames Filimonov’s journey as a gradual awakening, but as Carl Jung said, “There is no coming to consciousness without pain.” And Ermler, it seems, wholeheartedly agrees with that sentiment. The unbidden memories that come rushing back to Filimonov tell a harrowing story, via jagged editing and expressionistic flashbacks, of his wartime exploits. His memories are surrealistic nightmares that Ermler suggests must be processed, then purged, before Filimonov can be born anew and become susceptible to communist influence.
One particularly haunting scene finds Filimonov on an empty battlefield, prostrating in front of a giant crucifix with a figure of Christ wearing a gas mask, before both man and religious icon are crushed by a tank. Another dreamlike sequence involves two soldiers, one German and one Russian, confronting each other on a battlefield, only to realize they’re the same person (Filimonov is in both uniforms) and were only driven to fight by power-hungry officers and politicians on either side of an ideological conflict. Here, Ermler not only evokes the horrors of war, but symbolically links religion and war to the imperialist leanings of the tsar, bluntly arguing that the main function of both is to oppress the working class.
To Ermler’s credit, he doesn’t demonize everything about the old order. When Filimonov returns home to a dramatically changed St. Petersburg (now called Leningrad), it’s his former employer (Viacheslav Viskovskii), a man fired from his job and replaced by a factory committee, who offers him compassion and enough money to get by. But ultimately, Ermler sees men like these, however kind, as counterproductive to the goals of communism. Filimonov’s yearning for the familiar comforts and routines of tsarist Russia makes him feel out of step with the times, and as he traverses the Russia of the present, Ermler heightens the man’s disorientation with a montage of high-speed trolleys, fast-paced factories, women in short skirts, and strange constructivist architecture. For Ermler, Filimonov is essentially a child who must learn the value of shedding his sense of self for the good of society.
As dark as the film’s first half is, Ermler mines much humor from Filimonov’s difficulties in navigating the ins and outs of the newly minted Soviet Union, particularly once he returns to the factory he used to work at before the revolution. Across scenes that depict the man confused by how to operate the factory’s modern machinery, repeatedly calling people “Mr. Fabcom” (unaware that Fabcom is the name of the new factory committee), and gripped with fear over complaining to his superiors about work conditions, Ermler taps into the absurdities of the formalities and servility embedded in the old, classist order. All the while, he lauds the supposed egalitarian nature of communism, declaring it inherently and unequivocally just.
Late in the film, after Filimonov is taught about collective ownership and accountability, he begins to embrace the joys of communism. Ermler cuts to a heavily symbolic shot of his hero in the shower, where his face is comically covered in soapsuds. Filimonov emerges clean, with his shaggy beard now trimmed, his clothes more fitted, and his hair combed—all the distinctive traits of his former self completely sanded down. No longer is Filimonov a “sad fragment of an empire,” which is how, at one point, he describes himself and others who suffered during the war and the revolution. For him and Ermler, the best way to rebuild is to become a faceless but productive cog in a machine.
Flicker Alley’s transfer, sourced from a recent restoration of the film’s original 35mm nitrate print, is luminous. The contrast of the image is particularly remarkable, especially in the first act, which is filled with beautifully rendered and expressive shadows and pools of light, which dominate the wartime flashback scenes. The sharpness of the image is equally impressive, offering rich textures and clarity in the actors’ faces, as well as in the objects and machines that populate many of the film’s montages. Some fluctuations in sharpness and instances of damage and debris are visible throughout, but given the state of the original materials, these are minor complaints. Both the new score composed and performed by Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius and an adaptation of Vladimir Deshovov’s 1929 piano score, performed by Daan van den Hurk, are beautifully recorded and resonant accompaniments to the film.
The commentary track with Russian film historian and curator Peter Bagrov and film restorer Robert Byrne provides unique insight into the efforts behind the lengthy restoration process of Fragment of an Empire, with the two men discussing the compilation of montage lists, the discovery of missing shots and scenes from various prints from around the world, and the creation of new intertitles. Along with delving into the nuts and bolts of film restoration, they talk at length about Fridrikh Ermler and his film’s place in Russian cinematic history, as well as provide a nuanced reading of the film that helps to place it in its historical context. The 15-minute “Restoring Fragment of an Empire” serves as an excellent companion piece to the commentary, showing side-by-side footage of the unrestored and restored versions of three different scenes. The package also comes with a beautiful booklet with numerous stills from the film, statements by the composers of both scores, and a lengthy essay “A Masterpiece of Russia Cinema” that explores Ermler’s thematic intents, his often-extreme working methods, and his contentious relationship with actor Fedor Nikitin, with whom he worked four times.
Flicker Alley’s gorgeous transfer should help to bolster the reputation of Fridrikh Ermler’s singular and surprisingly funny Soviet propaganda film in the West.
Cast: Fyodor Nikitin, Lyudmila Semyonova, Valeri Solovtsov, Yakov Gudkin, Sergei Gerasimov, Varvara Myasnikova Director: Fridrikh Ermler Screenwriter: Ekaterina Vinogradskaya, Fridrikh Ermler Distributor: Flicker Alley Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 1929 Release Date: August 6, 2019 Buy: Video
Review: Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table on Criterion Blu-ray
Jane Campion upends staid genre convention with an impressionistic approach to character.4
Jane Campion initially conceived of her adaptation of author Janet Frame’s series of three autobiographies, To the Is-Land, An Angel at My Table, and The Envoy from Mirror City, as a TV miniseries. Only into production did the New Zealand Film Commission suggest a theatrical release, apparently because the biopic is the singular genre that looks, feels, and acts like episodic television and still plays nominally well in movie theaters. The film, named after the volume of Frame’s memoirs that recounts her elongated residence in a psychiatric ward, is no doubt a heartfelt tribute to a soft-spoken, melancholic writer from a director who claims to cherish her work as being very important in her own development. And though An Angel at My Table is shackled to that unyielding, difficult narrative structure of most biopics, this quality also works to the film’s benefit, as Frame’s life is unspooled with the same sort of scenes-as-brushstrokes impressionism of Im Kwon-taek’s Chihwaseon.
Still, whereas Im’s film becomes increasingly restless and elliptical as it goes on, culminating in one of the most poetic representations of an artist stepping into legend (via a kiln), An Angel at My Table begins at the pinnacle of Campion’s whimsicality before settling into a mundane processional march. Janet, first seen as a baby covering her face trying to deflect her approaching mother’s bosom, followed by a panorama of her as a knobby-kneed pre-teen against the rolling New Zealand landscape, goes through her early childhood as an outcast at school. She’s from a poor family, has poor hygiene (later in her teens, she let her teeth rot brown), and when she offers her entire class chewing gum bought with money she stole from her father’s woolen pocket, her teacher reveals her thievery to the class, who then sneers.
Which is to say nothing of the untamable patch of ginger cotton growing from Frame’s scalp, which remains a constant in her life as she moves from the university to the asylum to a successful writing career complete with grants to travel to Paris and Spain. An Angel at My Table traces Frame’s life across more than 30 years, and she’s portrayed by three different actresses (in order of age: Alexia Keogh, Karen Fergusson, and Kerry Fox) whose remarkable resemblance to each other extends beyond their appearance and mannerisms. They seamlessly pass the psychological baton and collectively sculpt a convincing portrait of growth.
Campion’s knack for intimate yet paradoxically epic artistry nibbles off Laura Jones’s bite-sized scene-sketches of loneliness and makes entire meals of them, swallowing cast and location up alike in an effort to centralize the three actresses playing Frame, and to the point that even the most major supporting characters (her older sister, an American lover in Ibiza) are delegated to the sidelines. Given the manner in which Frame’s wild crown of fuzz takes up the upper part of the frame across the film’s many close-ups, she comes to resemble a kind of hourglass, suggesting (however inadvertently) the time that she struggles to remember and catalog in writing her own memoirs, as well as the time she lost in a mental institution, where she endured no less than 200-odd electroshock treatments. Campion’s film comes up short, however, in never satisfactorily illustrating the importance or character of Frame’s writing, which, while lauded for its selflessness, can’t survive the filmmaker’s tightly honed individualist scrutiny without occasionally lapsing into solipsism.
The varied hues of Stuart Dryburgh’s cinematography really come alive on Criterion’s Blu-ray, which perfectly renders every shade of green contained within the verdant, rolling fields of New Zealand. Also strong across exterior and interior scenes, even the mostly dimly lit ones, is the contrast between characters’ more colorful attire and the naturalistic browns and yellows of their surroundings. Campion’s subtly expressionistic techniques, such as the fluctuations of light that rhyme with the changes in Frame’s state of mind, are easier to appreciate here than they were on the previous standard-definition release. The soundtrack balances the film’s rich ambient noise, so crucial in conveying how Frame is overwhelmed with anxiety, in the surround channels while keeping the dialogue clear and crisp in the center channel.
This disc’s extras have all been ported over from Criterion’s original DVD. The commentary track finds Jane Campion, Stuart Dryburgh, and Kerry Fox—all recorded separately—discussing different aspects of the production, from Fox’s approach to her character to Drybrugh’s use of light to convey emotion. A brief making-of documentary features behind-the-scenes clips and red-carpet footage from the film’s New Zealand premiere, while an archival interview finds the press-averse Janet Frame, in promoting her first autobiography, speaking candidly about her childhood and the evolution of her writing. A series of incredibly short deleted scenes are also included; they’re lovely, impressionistic glimpses into the characters’ time-passing activities, even though they don’t illuminate anything that can’t be reasoned from the film’s final cut. An accompanying booklet contains excerpts from Frame’s An Autobiography, as well as an essay by Amy Taubin, who delves into the film’s intimate, empathetic portrayal of the author.
Jane Campion upends staid genre convention with an impressionistic approach to character, and this disc’s gorgeous new transfer showcases the film’s understated beauty.
Cast: Kerry Fox, Alexia Keogh, Karen Fergusson, Iris Churn, K.J. Wilson Director: Jane Campion Screenwriter: Laura Jones Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 158 min Rating: R Year: 1990 Release Date: August 6, 2019 Buy: Video, Book
Review: Jacques Becker’s Touchez Pas au Grisbi on Kino Lorber Blu-ray
Becker’s vivid, exacting portrait of aging gangsters is given a long overdue upgrade to high definition, coupled with several insightful extras.4
Paris’s Montmartre neighborhood is a den of vice in Jacques Becker’s Touchez Pas au Grisbi, a busy world of prostitutes, nightclubs, secret backrooms, and slickly dressed gangsters with heavy appetites for life. Yet despite its element of seediness, the film’s milieu is defined even more strongly through routine, ritual, and quotidian detail. Max (Jean Gabin), one of his criminal world’s elder statesmen, is given to strolling around town, and when he stops in at a popular club or his regular hangout, Madame Bouche’s (Denise Clair) restaurant, you’re struck by the ease with which he occupies these spaces. One gets the distinct sense that he knows exactly what he’s walking into when he passes through virtually any doorway, and if he doesn’t, it’s too late for him to do anything about it.
Max’s leisurely gait suggests that he’s paid his dues and earned the respect of friends and enemies alike, not to mention that he’s aware of being in the twilight of his career. As the pretty young women who accompany his friends beg to draw out one night’s festivities, Max begrudgingly admits that “after midnight, I always feel like I’m doing overtime.” Predictability is a comfort to the old hand, as evidenced by his habit of putting on Jean Wiener’s melancholy jazz song “Le Grisbi” on Madame Bouche’s jukebox or his record player at home. And the slow, lilting quality of the song is in sync with Max’s pace, as well as that of the film.
Touchez Pas au Grisbi homes in on the conflicts that arise when a veteran criminal attempts to extract himself from the underworld where he’s built his life, setting the template for that archetype and directly influencing Bob le Flambeur, which is also set in Montmartre. But where Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1956 film followed Roger Duchesne’s Bob as he planned one last heist before retirement, Touchez Pas au Grisbi begins after Max has already successfully executed his final job. Max has long had a symbiotic relationship with this perilous world, and while he’s built a reputation that’s made him a mentor and paragon to many, he’s become a target to others. Riding off into the sunset would be ideal for him, but Max is painfully aware that retirement in his line of work more often than not ends with a bullet.
As with everything he does, Max is as meticulous in stealing 50 million francs in gold bars from a shipment at Paris’s Orly Airport as he is in hiding the loot away in the garage of a secret apartment he keeps on the other side of town. Of course, word of Max’s score gets around fast, and the area’s other big-shot crooks, like Angelo (Lino Ventura), start to sniff out the bounty with the efficiency of bloodhounds. Becker, however, is no hurry to build to explosive set pieces, instead preferring to soak in the ambiance of Max’s domain. As such, the film’s subsequent double crosses and betrayals play out like a carefully plotted game of chess, and with the same casual, languorous pacing with which Max moves about town.
Throughout Touchez Pas au Grisbi, Becker makes his chosen milieu come alive through a fierce fixation on the most minute of details. In capturing the myriad ways that characters interact with one another, he elucidates the complicated and deeply ingrained psychology that drives the stoic men and women who inhabit this world. And nowhere is this truer than during a lengthy scene where Max takes Riton (René Mary) to his hideaway for the first time. Max and his longtime friend suggest a kind of odd couple, with the smooth and nimble Max always picking up the slack for Riton, who, while loyal to his friend, isn’t the sharpest or most observant man in the room. When they first arrive at Max’s sparsely furnished second home, Max discusses his plan to sell the loot to his uncle (Paul Oettly). Soon, Max begins to playfully mock Riton for being oblivious to how ridiculous he appears in his old age, galavanting with much younger women and relying on Max to get him out of every jam. As they lightly quarrel, the men indulge in crackers and pate, and once they finally turn quiet, Becker’s camera continues to track them as they devote themselves to a series of mundane nighttime rituals: changing into their pajamas, brushing their teeth, Riton examining his face in a mirror for signs of aging, and enjoying a final cigarette after heading to their separate beds.
Most films would deem such a sequence superfluous or indulgent, but Becker understands that Max and Riton’s routines are extensions of their beings, a reflection of their comfort with and closeness to one another, as well as their tendency toward perfectionism. Touchez Pas au Grisbi is full of such seemingly minor yet hyper-attentive moments—of characters lighting cigarettes, pouring champagne, exchanging glances, even tenderly touching another’s face—all of which carry the weight of a life lived where death could happen at any given moment. Although Becker eventually does build up to a thrilling finale, with plenty of gunfire and explosions, it’s the accrual of emotional and psychological complexity through gestures and small, human moments that makes the film such a singularly rich experience.
There’s a remarkable crispness to the transfer on this Blu-ray. But while backgrounds and faces in close-up are magnificently detailed, there are times where the edges of objects and, more distractingly, faces are so sharply defined that it feels like you’re watching the film through an Instagram filter. A modicum of grain might have corrected that, as well as hid such imperfections as the gel holding Jean Gabin’s wonderful coiffed hair in place. But however digitized the film may seem, there’s a wealth of information to be found in every frame, from the age lines and puffiness of Gabin’s world-weary face to the textures of his countless suits and pair of silk pajamas. The audio is clear, offering clean dialogue exchanges and a nicely balanced mix of sound effects and Jean Wiener’s score.
On his commentary track, the irresistibly silver-tongued Nick Pinkerton insightfully grapples with Jacques Becker’s aesthetics, and makes a strong case for the director being among the most important and influential artists working in post-World War II France. In addition to breaking down scenes at length and shining a spotlight on Becker’s masterful exploration of environment through a precise attention to details, Pinkerton also discusses the personal and professional histories of various actors, such as Jean Gabin’s dry spell following the war. The Blu-ray also includes several interviews: Critic Ginette Vincendeau speaks to Becker’s enormous influence on the French New Wave; Jacques Becker’s son, Jean, discusses his father’s early work as an assistant director to Jean Renoir and the older Becker’s fondness for Gabin; and Jeanne Moreau recalls her nervousness at working with Gabin and her belief that Becker originally cast her because he liked how small her hands were.
Jacques Becker’s vivid, exacting portrait of aging gangsters is given a long overdue upgrade to high definition, coupled with several insightful extras.
Cast: Jean Gabin, René Dary, Dora Doll, Vittorio Sanipoli, Lino Ventura, Jeanne Moreau, Paul Frankeur, Marilyn Buferd, Daniel Cauchy, Denise Clair, Gaby Basset, Paul Oettly Director: Jacques Becker Screenwriter: Albert Simonin, Jacques Becker, Maurice Griffe Distributor: KL Studio Classics Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 1954 Release Date: August 13, 2019 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Alfred Sole’s Alice, Sweet Alice on Arrow Video
Arrow Video has made a commendable effort to ensure that Alice, Sweet Alice finds its rightful place in the horror film canon.4.5
Alfred Sole’s Alice, Sweet Alice conjures a stifling atmosphere, one in which strained infrastructures, especially an ideologically divided Catholic Church, are unable to help diseased minds. The film opens with a young girl, Karen (Brooke Shields), preparing for her first communion. Karen’s mother, Catherine (Linda Miller), and well-meaning preacher (Rudolph Willrich) are so excited for Karen that they overlook the deranged behavior of the girl’s sister, Alice (Paula E. Sheppard). After starting to wear a yellow raincoat (a nod to Don’t Look Now) and a translucent mask that suggests a smiling albino face decked out in garish make-up, Alice bullies Karen, stealing her clothes and toys and leading her to a warehouse and briefly locking her behind a sliding door. Throughout these episodes, Sole focuses on crosses, religious statues, and a creepy Janus-faced doll, emphasizing the violence festering under a righteous community’s nose, as well as a split between tolerance, especially of more modern relationships, and wrath and judgment in the key of the Old Testament.
As other critics have claimed, the term “slasher film” is inadequate to describe Alice, Sweet Alice, which shows murders to spring from a patchwork of motivations and tensions. Karen is strangled at her communion by a diminutive person in a yellow raincoat and translucent mask—a scene that Sole stages with an intimate yet offhand quality that’s authentically shocking. One can hear the sounds of the communion, a theoretical bastion of safety, as the life is squeezed out of the girl, as well as feel the ease with which the killer commits this trespass. The church is rarely filmed in the sort of master shots that might inspire feelings of grandeur; rather, Sole favors cramped medium shots and close-ups that induce claustrophobia. The characters always appear to be cramped together in the church, on top of one another, and their homes are composed of similarly small passageways. One of the most vivid of Alice, Sweet Alice’s settings is a pea-green angular stairway that sometimes suggests “found” German expressionism, with neighbors who always seem to be within earshot.
Alice is naturally suspected of Karen’s murder, though Catherine, in denial about the hostile relationship between her daughters, remains oblivious to Alice’s predatory tendencies. This willed ignorance is partially understood by Sole to be a reaction to Catherine’s sister, Annie (Jane Lowry), an uptight shrew who treats Alice with contempt, and who resents that Catherine went against the church and had Alice out of wedlock with her now ex-husband, Dom (Niles McMaster), who returns to town to investigate the mystery of Karen’s death.
Sole allows these reverberations, particularly the parallel bitterness existing between Catherine and Annie and Karen and Alice, both of which have been intensified by religion, to gradually assert themselves into our minds. Yet Alice, Sweet Alice isn’t exactly an indictment of the church, as Catherine and Dom’s splintered relationship is also portrayed as a gateway to chaos, primarily for Catherine’s distracted nature and unwillingness to face the truth of her family. For instance, a pathologist (Lillian Roth) virtually begs Catherine to keep Alice in therapy to little avail, especially after Alice claims the killer, after another attack, to be Karen.
Sole paints a rich and febrile portrait, then, of how society enables dysfunction on multiple fronts, from the domestic to the religious to the psychiatric. (The police are shown to be restorers of order, though they serve that function almost inadvertently.) The filmmaker also invests his narrative with references to classic horror films, most notably Psycho, though his own direction lacks Alfred Hitchcock’s polish, which in this case is a blessing. In the film’s best sequences, particularly the moments following Karen’s murder, Sole allows for tonal inconsistencies that reflect the true shock of violence. In such instances, Alice, Sweet Alice turns momentarily shrill, with actors screeching their lines almost directly to the camera—a device that expresses pain and refutes the fashions with which many horror directors rush through the grief process haphazardly in order to move the narrative along.
In other moments, though, Sole’s directorial control is magisterial. Annie’s near murder, when she’s stabbed on the stairway, is framed in a prismatic image, with a mirror reflecting the assault back on itself and suggesting, once again, the intense insularity of this world. (Other such images show characters nearly encased by religious totems.) Later, as Dom is taunted by Karen’s killer, Sole fashions a close-up of a face wearing the mask, looking at Dom from a higher vantage point. Sole lingers on the eyes behind the mask, which are gleaming with fury and, more disturbingly, a kind of grace that might come from acting on and expunging one’s suppressed emotions. In this scene, the mask becomes a symbol for the failures of all the infrastructures under this remarkable film’s purview, as this object also fails to efface insanity.
Arrow Video’s new 2K restoration of Alice, Sweet Alice is positively gorgeous. The autumnal colors that dominate the film’s palette have a rich earthy presence, while other hues—such as the red of spilled blood and the green of the hideous stairwell—pop luridly off the screen. Most importantly, every color here has a highly differentiated presence that stands in stark contrast to muddier prior presentations of the film, which should hopefully increase awareness of the film’s artistry. Meanwhile, grain textures are healthy and appealing, though image clarity is also superb, which is to say that the film looks vibrant yet evocatively lived-in at the same time. The monaural soundtrack is also dynamic, rendering a wide spectrum of diegetic sounds—running, stabbing, door slamming—with dimension and body, while also affording Stephen Lawrence’s eerily airy score the prominence it deserves.
A new commentary with writer Richard Harland Smith offers an engaging deep dive into the symbolism of Alice, Sweet Alice, discussing with particular acuity the film’s understanding of the hidden worlds that children foster, and how these worlds parallel those of the adults. (One example is Alice’s suggestively satanic version of a confession booth.) Smith also provides considerable biographical information on the film’s participants, which is complemented by the archive commentary by director Alfred Sole and editor M. Edward Salier. Sole generously cites the contributions of his collaborators, especially Salier, whom he says “saved him” by helping to fashion suspenseful rhythms from his footage.
Meanwhile, several new interviews—with composer Stephen Lawrence, actor Niles McMaster, Sole, and others—offer updated discussions of the film, which is also known as Communion, as well as alternate views of its making and its storied release pattern. Another new interview, with horror filmmaker Dante Tomaselli, is a more personal account, as Tomaselli is Sole’s younger cousin, who remembers soliciting the older man for advice on his own scripts, which now include an in-the-works remake of Alice, Sweet Alice. Other goodies include deleted scenes, a tour of film’s memorable shooting locations, TV spots, the trailer, alternate opening titles, and even an alternate cut of the film, called Holy Terror, which features different footage. Rounding out a very extensive package is a miniature version of the film’s poster, and a booklet featuring an essay by Michael Blyth that contextualizes Alice, Sweet Alice within the giallo, the blossoming American slasher film, and exorcism narratives.
With this beautiful restoration, Arrow Video has made a commendable effort to ensuring that Alice, Sweet Alice finds its rightful place in the horror film canon.
Cast: Paula E. Sheppard, Linda Miller, Mildred Clinton, Niles McMaster, Jane Lowry, Rudolph Willrich, Michael Hardstark, Alphonso DeNoble, Garry Allen, Louisa Horton, Tom Signorelli, Brooke Shields Director: Alfred Sole Screenwriter: Rosemary Ritvo, Alfred Sole Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 107 min Rating: R Year: 1976 Release Date: August 6, 2019 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Alan J. Pakula’s Klute on the Criterion Collection
Criterion has brought to vivid life the darkness of Pakula’s seminal detective thriller.4.5
Though nearing 50, Alan J. Pakula’s Klute feels contemporary. The 1971 film concerns the intermingling of business, sex, and technology, which collectively offer people illusions of control at the potential expense of intimacy. Pivotal to the narrative is a tape recording of a prostitute named Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda), who, as she attempts to help a nervous john relax, describes what she enjoys, the boundlessness of her carnal imagination, and her desire to shed her sweater and become comfortable. This recording is heard throughout the film, suggesting a leitmotif, and it’s notable for being less erotic than lonely. Other recordings are made of Bree, ostensibly to help catch a stalker and probable killer, though they more viscerally suggest a need to experience a woman from afar without the complication of knowing her.
Though we see Bree at work later in the film, relaxing a john on a couch in a scene of remarkable intimacy and vulnerability, we never see the initial moment that has been recorded, which exemplifies our, as well as the stalker’s, remove from the encounter. Pakula intensifies that impression of distance by crisscrossing the aural and visual textures of other scenes. When Bree talks to her psychiatrist (Vivian Nathan), we sometimes don’t see their conversation, but rather images of Bree walking the street alone. Distance, and alienation, and anonymity, are also suggested by frequent shots of characters in silhouette, often against vast cityscapes. In the most chilling of such compositions, the stalker, a powerful man, sits high up in a skyscraper by himself, listening yet again to that recording.
Klute is set in a pre-gentrified New York City, which Pakula and cinematographer Gordon Willis mercilessly depict as a wasteland—a place of considerable yet fleeting pleasure. Another recurring shot, of characters in elevators, is framed from a birds’ eye view that likens the elevator to a cage. The streets are bustling and cold, while the interiors of wealthy buildings are symmetrical and sterile. Bree claims to hate her apartment, a comedown from her place in Park Avenue when she was a full-time, top-flight call girl, but this home is the film’s one refuge—sloppy, overstuffed, and authentically human. In the film’s most comforting image, Bree sheds her fashionable ‘70s-era wardrobe and slips into an oversized robe and curls into a ball on a dining room chair and smokes a joint with a glass of white wine. Meanwhile, the rest of the apartment is shrouded in Willis’s quintessential use of dark lighting, suggesting that Bree is truly in her cocoon. This sort of comfort is what lonely people wish they could share with others but usually can’t. Not even someone as commanding as Bree, who, given her situation, has naturally come to see men as beings to be manipulated and bargained with.
Bree Daniels remains Fonda’s definitive role, for having given the actress the space to explore nesting notions of how “playacting” can be used to efface vulnerability. Bree is very sexy—one understands why she would be in demand—but her bedside manner is only theoretically titillating, as Bree can’t give herself over to the charade. Watching Bree talk dirty, we sense a shrewd student parroting the answers that she know will get her an “A.” The johns, lost in their own illusions, don’t seem to notice the detachment that Fonda so brutally and beautifully dramatizes. The various cinematic clichés of the prostitute—heart of gold, schemer, pitiful addict—are nowhere to be found in Fonda’s performance. She gives Bree a diamond-hard sense of self-sufficiency, with a streak of cruelty, which is both elegant and heartbreaking, and every physical gesture contains multitudes.
Next to Bree, John Klute (Donald Sutherland), a private investigator who’s looking into the disappearance of a friend, almost feels like a ghost. We’re told little about Klute, other than that he’s something of a prude who looks at someone like Bree with a mixture of curiosity and contempt. Sutherland isn’t absent though, he’s actively dramatizing self-conscious withdrawal, allowing the audience to feel the emotions churning under a man who must be cautious in a world that he doesn’t understand. There’s something poignant in the way that Klute initially addresses Bree, as he treats her as just another person to be interviewed, rather than as an attractive woman or a prostitute. Klute is almost courtly, and Sutherland lances that etiquette with fear. Which is to say that this character offers a significant contrast from the macho P.I.s of ‘40s-era noir or the badass cops of ‘70s-era crime films, though Pakula and Sutherland don’t wear this progressiveness on their sleeves.
The mysteries of Bree’s stalker and the disappearance of Klute’s friend are easily solved and don’t make much sense. (One is asked to believe that a killer would bankroll an investigation into his own crimes.) Within this framework, however, Pakula, Willis, Fonda, and Sutherland offer a supple, heightened exploration of the perils of forging a relationship, especially as one approaches middle age and has more baggage to carry than before. Bree and Klute’s romance isn’t sentimentalized; it isn’t even understood as a romance, but as a fleeting hook-up rooted in each person’s barely explicable need. A sexy moment, with Bree’s leg visible as she climbs into Klute’s bed, is immediately dispelled with the practical exertions of what appears to be mediocre sex. Sensing Klute’s insecurity afterward, Bree turns the knife, saying that she “never comes with a john.” The true danger in Klute isn’t a killer, but the emotional traps we set, partially to subconsciously ensure that we remain alone. No wonder online porn is so popular, and even less wonder that the oldest profession continues to thrive.
This transfer honors the visual textures of Gordon Willis’s cinematography, which offers many purposeful gradations of clarity and softness. Certain blurry foreground shots communicate the POV of a killer, for instance, while crystal-clear shots of buildings suggest the impersonality of the settings, and these are but two of the simpler examples of Willis’s technique. More complex are the brilliant compositions of Bree’s apartment, in which she basks in warm, softly lit comfort while surrounded by a tapestry of darkness that could contain anything. These compositions always seem to be perfectly balanced and are rich in information without ever feeling too cleaned up to suit modern sensibilities. Skin and fabric tones, integral to this film’s sense of reality, are also strongly detailed. The monaural soundtrack lustrously evokes both the cacophony of city nightlife and the chilling stray sounds of a long night, and dialogue is crisp and clean.
A collection of interviews, taken from an upcoming documentary by Matthew Miele, discuss Alan J. Pakula’s direction, especially his gift for working with actors and the visual style he developed with Gordon Willis. Particularly noteworthy is the participation of Steven Soderbergh, whose own style has clearly been influenced by Pakula’s films. In a new conversation with actress Illeana Douglas, Jane Fonda frankly discusses working with Pakula and Willis, and still seems to be quite moved by the opportunity to have played Bree Daniels. Most memorably, Fonda draws a parallel between the backlash she braved as a Vietnam War protestor and the constant harassment that Bree faces. In a new interview, fashion writer Amy Fine Collins documents how fashion and architecture are used in Klute to establish character and setting, offering an invaluable primer on how the styles of the early ‘70s informed the film’s look and feel. Rounding out a strong package are vintage television interviews with Pakula and Fonda, an archive piece on Klute’s use of New York City, and a booklet featuring an excerpt from a 1972 interview with Pakula and a sharp essay by writer Mark Harris that traces how the film became a landmark exploration of female psychology.
Criterion has brought to vivid life the darkness of Alan J. Pakula’s seminal detective thriller, which is truly a piercing examination of loneliness.
Cast: Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, Charles Cioffi, Roy Scheider, Dorothy Tristan, Rita Gam, Nathan George, Vivian Strassberg, Barry Snider, Betty Murray, Jane White, Shirley Stoler, Robert Milli Director: Alan J. Pakula Screenwriter: Andy Lewis, Dave Lewis Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 114 min Rating: R Year: 1971 Release Date: July 16, 2019 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Michael Radford’s 1984 on the Criterion Collection
Criterion’s Blu-ray elegantly showcases the spartan beauty of Michael Radford’s chilling adaptation of 1984.4
Released in the year for which George Orwell’s dystopian novel was named, Michael Radford’s 1984 could easily have been a gimmicky adaptation capitalizing on a marketing hook. But for all of the continued relevance of the novel as a commentary on the abuses of state power, it’s nonetheless disturbing how easily much of the film’s dystopian production design could be imperceptibly placed among contemporary realist dramas about the failures of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. Even the crucial subplot from the novel involving the government’s manufactured, endless war with a rival power as a means of inspiring nationalist loyalty has echoes in Britain’s last imperial war in the Falklands.
Elsewhere, Radford’s realization of Orwell’s bleak prose is more ambitiously presented. Colossal TV screens broadcasting an endless stream of propaganda and the static, all-seeing gaze of Big Brother loom over citizens gathered at mandatory rallies. The film’s sense of Oceania as a de-individualized, de-sexualized, anhedonic society is enhanced by Roger Deakins’s use of the bleach-bypass process, emphasizing the darkness of decrepit and underlit buildings and the cold, pale silver of overcast light. Other forms of bleaching are even more subtle, such as the flag of the ruling Ingsoc Party that depicts a white hand and black hand clasped together in fraternity, a sick joke of pretending at racial harmony given that this is a nation that appears to have thoroughly purged its non-white citizens.
The film’s fealty to its source material is evident even in the performances. As Winston Smith, John Hurt uses his frail body and shaky voice to give perfect expression to the man’s introversion and the way that his rebellion is both unintentional and inevitable to his habit of idle daydreaming. Love interest Julia retains the dated chauvinism with which Orwell wrote her, as Suzanna Hamilton spends a significant portion of her scenes fully nude, but the actress fascinatingly plays up the way that the character masks her own treasonous individualism with exaggerated displays of loyalty. Julia’s face contorts into grotesque grimaces as she peers at propagandistic images of Oceania’s enemies, and she delivers her salutes to the flag with a rapturous ecstasy. But finest of all is Richard Burton in his final role as O’Brien, the Thought Police torturer who hunts down and punishes Winston and Julia for their thoughtcrimes. Burton succinctly embodies all of the cold, precise illogic of the state’s weaponized contradictions and falsehoods, his O’Brien calmly scrambling Winston’s head as he brutally conditions the man to accept the ultimate truth: that truth is whatever the Party says it is.
“Orwellian” has long been a shorthand for social control maintained by omniscient surveillance and official disinformation. But the true horror of Orwell’s novel has always been its depiction of how quickly the average person can be conditioned into complacency by a totalitarian system like Oceania’s. Before they’re seized by the police, Julia reassures Winston that “they can make you say anything, but they can’t make you believe it.” The purpose, though, of O’Brien’s torture isn’t to extract confessions from his prisoners, but to so completely break them down that they come to believe their brainwashing. The film never more horrifically illustrates this principle than when another of O’Brien’s prisoners is prepped for another round of punishment despite having confessed to all of his accused crimes, and in his utter terror he can only desperately beg: “What is it that you want me to know?”
Criterion’s Blu-ray, sourced from a 4K restoration, showcases the film in all its brutal beauty. The rich silvers of Roger Deakins’s bleach-bypassed cinematography positively sparkles on this new transfer, and texture is so fine that you can trace minuscule strains of mold and filth arcing over rotting building walls and the wrinkles of Oceania’s joyless citizens. The film’s rich use of shadow also looks exquisite, with detail visible even in the dimmest light. This release includes two audio tracks, one with the moody score by Dominic Muldowney and one with the electronic score by the Eurythmics. Both tracks boast excellent balance between the dialogue and score, though the track featuring Muldowney’s orchestration sounds slightly fuller.
Interviews with Michael Radford and Roger Deakins delve into the ups and downs of the film’s production and the clever ways in which the filmmakers had to maximized their lack of resources. Particularly interesting is Deakins’s observation that the torture chamber Room 101 had to be filmed in a bare, dark room because the production ran out of money, though the room’s lack of visible objects only makes it seem so much more fearsome. A behind-the-scenes documentary for British television includes on-set footage and red-carpet interviews from the film’s premiere, and Orwell scholar David Ryan contributes a lengthy interview in which he details the various adaptations of 1984 and why Radford’s version is the definitive one to date. An essay by writer A.L. Kennedy thoughtfully traces how faithful the film is to the novel.
Criterion’s Blu-ray elegantly showcases the spartan beauty of Michael Radford’s chilling adaptation of 1984.
Cast: Richard Burton, Suzanna Hamilton, Cyril Cusack, Gregor Fisher Director: Michael Radford Screenwriter: Michael Radford Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 113 min Rating: R Year: 1984 Release Date: July 23, 2019 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
Review: Marcel Carné’s Port of Shadows on KL Studio Classics Blu-ray
Kino’s Blu-ray gifts us with a beautiful transfer of a classic of French poetic realism.3.5
In 1896, writer Maxim Gorky described what was perhaps his first encounter with cinema—a Lumière brothers program at a Russian fair—as entering “the kingdom of shadows.” This
was a world so depressing it turned the viewer into a “ripped sack full of lacerated flesh and splintered bones,” bringing out the “grey, the bleak and dismal life.” If, by 1938, the year Michel Carné directed Port of Shadows, cinema was hardly a disturbing novelty, it could certainly symptomatize the foreboding disturbances of the day, in the lead-up to World War II. In Carné’s tale of helplessness and despair, solitude is the only existential guarantee, and even the most romantic young girl, wearing a raincoat and bonnet, knows love to be a short-lived ruse—not unlike the scams of chauvinistic hoodlums.
Written by Jacques Prévert, Port of Shadows is steeped in the perennial fog that seemed to despair Gorky in the early days of cinema. The film’s characters are frozen into a state of embittered melancholy, like Romeos too battered by life’s disappointments not to become Bluebeards. Jean (Jean Gabin) is an AWOL soldier seeking refuge in the city of Le Havre, where he meets Nelly (Michèle Morgan), an unspeakably stunning 17-year-old girl who’s surrounded by men involved in various shady businesses: false passports, murder, dismemberment, and the like. In their first encounter, Jean and Nelly exchange diverging opinions about the incapacity of a woman to love a soldier without his uniform, and only after do they ask each other’s names. She mourns the fact that humans wake up every morning as if something good was going to happen and it never does; he’s just as optimistic, so they fall madly in love.
But these are unusual lovers on film, as they’re too wounded to actually love—to completely believe love’s seductive premise and perverse promises. Jean and Nelly can taste the nasty aftertaste of disenchantment before love has even fully announced itself. So when Jean delivers bad news to Nelly after making love to her for the first time—that he has to leave on a Venezuela-bound ship in the morning—it hardly comes as a surprise. The end of love, coinciding with its beginning, is almost like a favor life offers them. And this awareness of the violence inherent to emotional bonds feels like a mature way to avoid the more familiar desperation that tends to befall cinematic characters, and real-life folk.
Of course, it can also act as a buzz-kill for an audience that’s thus unallowed intimacy with the character’s wants, only with their defense mechanisms. We may empathize with their resistance to suffer, but it’s hard to feel something other than philosophical respect for characters who think of swimmers as soon-to-be drowned men. We want to get lost in Morgan’s impossible beauty (she’s a humorless Katherine Hepburn of sorts), to root for Gabin’s humble heroism, and to see them flee together in the nick of time. But their rational approach to love makes us dread our own cinematic investment.
Kino’s transfer highlights the subtleties of Eugen Schüfftan’s shadowy cinematography. The high dynamic range leads to inky blacks, but the lighter end of the spectrum is equally impressive, be it in Michele Morgan’s shimmering, translucent raincoat; several of the film’s exceptionally bright exterior shots, such as when the painter walks off to his suicide; or Panama the bartender’s all-white suit, which clashes with the dregs of his dingy little port-side bar. There’s an impressive amount of detail in the image throughout, but it’s especially eye-catching in facial close-ups where Morgan’s soft, feminine features are expressively contrasted with Jean Gabin’s harsh, angular ones. The sound is occasionally a tad muffled, with a slight crackling in the background, but for the most part the dialogue is perfectly clean and Maurice Jaubert’s lush, lilting score is alive and well in all its glory.
Studio Canal’s 45-minute documentary “On the Port of the Shadows” provides ample historical context about the film’s release, as well as insight into its ambiguous representation of a military deserter. Artists and experts of all stripes, from filmmakers Claude Lelouch and Jean-Pierre Jeunet to an array of critics and historians, chime in to praise the precision of Jacques Prévert’s legendary dialogue, director Michel Carne’s unique ability to work well with strong-willed collaborators, as well as Schufftan’s stunning cinematography and his techniques of what he referred to as “sculpting with light.” Port of Shadows’s memorable set decoration and location shooting are also covered in detail and effectively linked to the film’s standing as one of the key works of poetic realism in the 1930s. The only other extra is a brief introduction by professor and film critic Ginette Vincendeau, who touches upon the film’s tragic central romance and profound influence on American noirs.
Kino’s Blu-ray gifts us with a beautiful transfer of a classic of French poetic realism.
Cast: Jean Gabin, Michel Simon, Michèle Morgan, Pierre Brasseur, Delmont, Aimos, Le Vigan, Genin, Perez Director: Marcel Carné Screenwriter: Jacques Prévert Distributor: KL Studio Classics Running Time: 91 min Rating: NR Year: 1938 Release Date: August 13, 2019 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Marcel Pagnol’s The Baker’s Wife on the Criterion Collection
Criterion’s release of Pagnol’s comedy classic boasts a stunning 4K transfer and a modest but enlightening selection of extras.4
Marcel Pagnol’s The Baker’s Wife, a breezy, comical, and multifarious portrait of French rural life, is centered on the cuckolding of a baker, Aimable Castanier (Raimu), who’s recently arrived in Le Castellet, a small village in the south of France, with his beautiful and significantly younger wife, Aurélie (Ginette Leclerc). After she runs off with a hunky Italian shepherd, Esprit (Jean Castin), her absence forces the townspeople to unwittingly set aside their long-standing grievances and animosity toward one another. Their infighting is replaced by a ceaseless concern for the loveable sadsack Aimable, though less out of any genuine sympathy than because he’s left too shocked and heartbroken to bake any more bread. And nothing, apparently, is more effective as a uniting call to action in a French village than cutting off its daily supply of carbs.
In this opening act, Pagnol leisurely introduces a diverse array of villagers, including Aimable and his wife, all of whom the filmmaker lovingly mocks, slyly playing up each of their idiosyncrasies. Yet these portrayals are rendered with such precise regional flair that they come across as neither mean-spirited nor overly broad. In fact, Pagnol’s representation of the townspeople, and Le Castellet, occupies the middle ground between caricature and psychological realism, just as the film’s tone seamlessly fluctuates between outright farce and emotionally grounded drama, never firmly settling in either direction.
In successfully striking this tricky tonal balance, Pagnol remains sharp in his broader social commentary, while retaining a compassion for his characters. His most forceful critique concerns the collision of religious zealotry and both secular humanism and hedonism—a battle that played out all across France in the first half of the 20th century. The town’s young priest (Robert Vattier) first chastises the village school teacher (Robert Bassac) for saying that Joan of Arc only thought she heard the voice of God, then scolds the powerful yet debauched marquis (Fernand Charpin) for living in sin with four women “of low virtue,” whom he fails to pass off as his nieces. Yet, even this most stern servant of God, whose initially draconian proclamations are fodder for satire, reveals a warmth and sense of companionship with the teacher when, later on, the two men set out to find and bring Aimable’s wife back to him.
A number of other small bits of local color—including an amusing, ongoing squabble between two neighbors, Barnabé (Marcel Maupi) and Antonin (Charles Blavette), over one man’s tree casting a shadow over a garden on the other man’s property—fill out the narrative of The Baker’s Wife, breathing additional life into Pagnol’s seriocomic representation of village life. But Aimable, who’s positioned as something of a tragic clown, ultimately serves as the beating heart around which all the townspeople and proceedings revolve.
Raimu’s emotionally layered performance lends Aimable a surprising sense of dignity amid the embarrassing aftermath of Aurélie’s disappearance. The actor’s impossibly malleable face captures all of the subtleties of the baker’s pain and sorrow but also shifts seamlessly into exaggerated comedic expressions and gestures as the man’s foibles are laid bare in front of the whole town. This blending of naturalistic and vaudevillian modes of performance is particularly evident in the masterful scene where Aimable becomes progressively more drunk, belting out a ridiculous Italian song to an array of entertained onlookers, while still refusing to fully accept his wife’s disloyalty. His cognitive dissonance, resonant in large part to Raimu’s uncanny ability to chart Aimable’s severe emotional instability, generates substantial pathos while also remaining riotously funny in its rising absurdity.
Through his deeply felt melancholy, Aimable never devolves into a pathetic character, but due to his relentless obliviousness, he never becomes wholly sympathetic either. His seeming indifference to sex hints at his possible impotence, while his tendency to get completely wrapped up in his work and remain willfully ignorant of his young wife’s needs seems to all but invite willing suitors to sweep her off her feet. When Esprit serenades Aurélie near the beginning of the film, Aimable foolishly attributes this blatantly flirtatious behavior to the shepherd being impressed with his bread. And when his wife later goes to bed, after kissing Esprit, without so much as looking at her husband, Aimable assumes it’s because she’s worrying about the bread to be made the following morning. Ironically, bread, too, is involved in Aurélie’s initial breach of marriage, when she provocatively drops an especially phallic loaf of bread into Esprit’s sack before looking up at him in a coquettish glance.
Because Pagnol never reveals anything of Aurélie beyond her carnal lust, giving her only a few dozen lines throughout the entire film, The Baker’s Wife’s beloved ending could easily be read as a conservative, even misogynistic, celebration of a woman being put in her place. And while it undeniably is that to some degree, Aimable’s blatantly sexist remarks—directed at his female cat, Pamponette, though understood to be an unconscious denigration of Aurélie—are counterbalanced by his profound joy at her arrival, evidenced by his initially sweet tone and the heart-shaped loaf of bread he leaves out for her.
This fractured response of pure elation and repressed, unacknowledged anger is really the inevitable byproduct of Aimable’s consistent obstinacy in confronting his wife’s deception, an entanglement of ego and id. Even upon hearing that Aurélie returned to town on horseback, the baker, almost compassionately, remarks that “she’s done a lot of riding since yesterday.” It’s a comment dripping with obvious sexual overtones, yet it’s spoken with the naïveté of a man who can’t allow himself to believe the worst of his wife. It’s certainly not the healthiest psychological approach to marriage, but Pagnol and Raimu spin his neurosis into comic gold in The Baker’s Wife, and present, with pathos and empathy, the redemption of a marriage as a unifying force in a contentious but tightly knit rural community.
Criterion’s transfer of a new 4K digital restoration is flat-out stunning. The image is crisp, with no remnants of debris or damage, but is balanced with an ample amount of film grain, which helps to retain the soft, textured look of celluloid. The contrast is strong, offering not only deep blacks, but an impressive range of blacks and grays. A remarkable amount of detail is found throughout the frame, with the intricacies of facial expressions revealing themselves often (particularly crucial in the many close-ups of Raimu’s vivid emotional articulations) and the pastoral beauty of the film’s location shooting in the south of France evident in nearly every scene. The uncompressed audio is evenly mixed and well-balanced, capturing the cacophony of village life without sacrificing any clarity in the dialogue tracks.
Marcel Pagnol scholar Brett Bowles’s selected-scene audio commentary consists of three 11-minute segments, each efficiently unpacking the film’s gender politics, as well as its satire of the ideological battle between the Catholic church and the secular left. Bowles provides further depth to the cultural context surrounding The Baker’s Wife by placing it within the long-running French folkloric tradition of stories about bakers and their wives. An excerpt from a 1966 interview with Pagnol for the French TV series Cinéastes de notre temps finds the director opening up about the controversy around his statements from the early 1930s when he said silent film was dead and discussing why he feels he was often despised by film and theater critics alike. “Memories of The Baker’s Wife,” a 1976 news program that includes a visit to La Castellet, approaches the film from a more personal and regional perspective, building up to a surprisingly emotional screening of the film, attended by villagers, many of whom served as extras in the film, and a few of the surviving actors. The package is rounded out with a brief introduction by Pagnol and an essay by film scholar Ginette Vincendeau that delves into the film’s archaic sexual politics, Pagnol’s knack for capturing regional details of the south of France, and the subtleties of Raimu’s central performance.
Criterion’s release of Marcel Pagnol’s bucolic comedy classic boasts a stunning transfer and a modest but enlightening selection of extras.
Cast: Raimu, Ginette Leclerc, Fernand Charpin, Robert Vattier, Charles Blavette, Robert Bassac, Macel Maupi, Alida Rouffe, Odette Roger, Yvette Fournier, Maximilienne Max Director: Marcel Pagnol Screenwriter: Marcel Pagnol, Jean Giono Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 134 min Rating: NR Year: 1938 Release Date: July 16, 2019 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Robert Rodriguez’s Alita: Battle Angel on Fox Home Entertainment
Fox’s Blu-ray may be the reference disc of the year so far, with unimpeachable audio and video and a host of strong extras to boot.4
Doing away with the forced humor and slapdash style that’s weighed down so many of his films, Robert Rodriguez turns in a work of unexpected focus with Alita: Battle Angel. Based on a Yukito Kishiro manga series, the film concerns a cyborg, Alita (Rosa Salazar), who’s introduced as a piece of scrap found by a cybernetics specialist, Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz), in a futuristic dystopian junkyard. After learning that his discovery’s broken, limbless shell contains a still-functioning human brain, Ido takes Alita to his lab, where he gives her a new body of finely wrought prostheses and restores her to functionality, albeit with total memory loss. As Alita struggles to remember her former self and forge new connections, she also discovers hidden talents for fighting that come in handy in the violent culture of the bustling, post-apocalyptic metropolis she now calls home.
Rodriguez dutifully follows the beats of your average young-adult narrative, as Alita is on a rapid growth curve following her restoration to her mostly former self, surprising even herself with how much strength and fighting prowess she possesses. And all while nourishing a romance with a local, Hugo (Keean Johnson), who just so happens to make a living assaulting people and harvesting their body parts for resale. In tried and true YA fashion, the male love interest is a blatant threat to the female protagonist, and the strained, perfunctory relationship that develops almost immediately between Alita and Hugo is by far Battle Angel’s weakest subplot. Likewise, the extensive world-building and franchise setup is de rigueur for establishing what’s mostly a boilerplate depiction of a decaying world of have-nots overseen by a small cluster of super-wealthy types who literally tower over the masses in a giant floating city that’s the last testament to a more advanced, prelapsarian age.
The film, though, begins to distinguish itself when it leans into the idiosyncrasies of Kishiro’s famed source manga. Like America’s preeminent creators of live-action anime, the Wachowskis, Rodriguez best captures his material when developing the story through a combination of action and tacit existential rumination. Much of Battle Angel’s action involves a network of bounty hunters who track down rogue humans and cyborgs at the behest of factories whose savage and unquestioning murders of anyone labeled a criminal paints a clear portrait of violently maintained corporate oligarchy in this society.
The action itself boasts some of the most impressive choreography and sturdy, coherent direction to mark a giant-scale blockbuster in some time, with fight scenes shot close enough to convey visceral impact but with enough distance and shot duration to communicate the instinctual grace and power of Alita’s combat skills. This is especially on display whenever she confronts Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley), a colossus of advanced weaponry whose snaking, robotic claws bring new shades of visual dynamism to Rodriguez’s compositions as Alita weaves around her hulking nemesis in order to find the best angle from which to strike.
Likewise, the film gets a lot of mileage out of the extreme sport of motorball, depicted across scenes that suggest gene splices of Rollerball (the original and its remake) and the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer. Alita, increasingly looking for an outlet for her violent tendencies, takes a fancy to the sport, and her attempts to play professionally while dodging players paid to kill her result in a series of impressively fast and fluid action sequences.
As for the more reflective side of the film, it comes out in moments where Salazar is spared James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis’s clunkier dialogue and her character just tries to feel out her place in her new environment. At times, the film’s vicious underworld of crime and street justice prompts our somber consideration of the extent to which laws are crafted to keep the servants at each other’s throats while the masters play. Cyborg-themed anime has always literalized the act of “becoming,” with the ability to destroy and remake one’s body made manifest as a metaphor for everything from puberty to embracing one’s true identity, and one gets a deeper insight into Alita’s emotional state from scenes of her regarding the shifts that her replaceable body undergoes than anything to do with her budding love for Hugo.
The film does fail to adequately scrutinize the underlying tension of Alita feeling she’s programmed to kill the more she remembers about herself, which spurs an attitude shift within her that worries the fatherly Ido. Still, Battle Angel is by some distance the most entertaining of the recent crop of would-be franchise starters, exciting on its own merits while leaving just enough of its world tantalizingly unexplored to actually fuel our interest in wanting to see where its characters go from here.
Alita: Battle Angel is a gorgeous film, and Fox’s Blu-ray captures every nuance of its expressionistic lighting. The amber-hued sunlight that spills into Ido’s shop exudes a radiant warmth, while the grimy, neon-streaked streets of Iron City show off the transfer’s impeccable balance of streaks of pale, artificial light against deep black levels. Detail is immaculate; no matter the level of CG animation, each scene feels tangible and lived in. Sound is similarly faultless, with the action scenes making thunderous use of the subwoofer, and sound effects regularly traveling the entire channel range as objects move across and outside the frame.
“Alita’s World” is a series of narrated motion comics that give added context to the background of the film’s dystopian future. None provides much information that one couldn’t glean from context clues in the film, but they’re nonetheless engaging mico-stories. Behind-the-scenes documentaries cover the production in rich detail, particularly the intense effort that James Cameron took in shepherding Yukito Kishiro’s manga to the screen, from crafting art reels and commissioning thick tomes of concept art to his extended attempts to wrestle the material into a shootable script. There are also extended looks at Rosa Salazar’s preparation to play Alita and the film’s detailed motion-capture technology. A Q&A with the cast and crew is also included, as are more specialized featurettes about some of the specifics of the film, such as an overview of the sport of motorball and VFX breakdowns for some scenes.
Alita: Battle Angel is the rare modern blockbuster to grow richer with each viewing, and Fox’s Blu-ray of Robert Rodriguez’s film may be the reference disc of the year so far, with unimpeachable audio and video and a host of strong extras to boot.
Cast: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Michelle Rodriguez, Keean Johnson, Eiza González, Lana Condor, Casper Van Dien Director: Robert Rodriguez Screenwriter: James Cameron, Laeta Kalogridis Distributor: Fox Home Entertainment Running Time: 122 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Release Date: July 23, 2019 Buy: Video, Soundtrack, Book
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