Connect with us

Video

DVD Review: Thieves’ Highway

3.5

Published

on

Thieves’ Highway

While Thieves’ Highway’s superficially upbeat ending (reshot, against the filmmakers’ wishes, by Fox chief Darryl Zanuck) might prevent it from being categorized as a genuine noir, Jules Dassin’s 1949 melodrama about long-haul truckers—the director’s final (and finest) film made in America before the House Un-American Committee exiled him to Europe—is nonetheless a bleak portrait of post-WWII despair, corrupt capitalism, and idealistic disillusionment. Nick (a sturdy Richard Conte) returns home from a stint overseas as a military mechanic with exotic Asian gifts for his mother, father, and fiancé, yet from the get-go, Dassin (working from They Drive By Night and Kiss Me Deadly scribe A.I. Bezzerides’s script, based on his novel Thieves Market) layers this happy reunion with portentous signs of the nasty reality lurking beneath this cheery suburban facade.

In his family’s sunny kitchen, Nick finds his bride-to-be Polly (Barbara Lawrence) disappointed with his china doll gift (until she spies the even-more expensive ring hanging from its arm) and his father legless due to an accident caused by underhanded San Francisco produce market kingpin Mike Figlia (a devious Lee J. Cobb, exuding small-time shadiness). Bent on exacting revenge, Nick teams up with Ed (Millard Mitchell), a trucker currently tending to his dad’s rig, and the duo hatch a two-killings-for-the-price-of-one plan to travel to Frisco, where they can simultaneously deliver a truckload of sweet, highly coveted apples and dish out some bitter payback to the rotten Figlia.

With the exception of the opening scene and Ed’s fatal hairpin turn on a winding highway, Dassin swathes Thieves’ Highway’s long-haul boys in claustrophobic compositions and menacing darkness, amplifying the sense of danger that hangs over Nick’s head (whether it be the truck that collapses on his neck during an impromptu roadside pit stop or the axe hanging from the belt of Figlia’s goon) and the air of doom that follows these desperate nomads as they hurtle through the night in their rickety rigs. Breakneck close-ups of speedometers and spinning tires create a propulsive sense of inevitability, while Italian prostitute (and Figlia crony) Rica’s (Valentina Cortese) comment that Nick’s bloody neck wound looks “beautiful” speaks to hers (and, later, Nick’s) reconciliation with life’s pain and disappointment. When Nick tells Rica—whose conniving smile initially says she wants to screw Nick in more than one way, but ultimately radiates authentic affection—that she looks like “chipped glass,” she responds without a hint of surprise, “Do I? It took me a long time to get that way.”

For Nick, however, it only takes the film’s brutal 94 minutes to devolve from an enthusiastically optimistic ex-soldier—the misery of war already a fading memory—to a battle-scarred itinerant hardened by life’s callous depravity. Although Dassin’s film is less an anti-capitalist screed than a cynical portrait of revenge, betrayal, and dubious dealings, money is nonetheless an insidious force throughout Nick’s ordeal, from Figlia’s backhanded market manipulations to Polly’s money-grubbing. Like pride and honor, love is also a commodity with a steep price in Thieves’ Highway, and when Nick drives off into the sunset with Rica, his supposed triumph is colored by the fact that he’s been forever corrupted by his vengeance, his newfound lust for wheeling and dealing, and the realization that the world—rather than full of pretty gifts and prettier girls—is a cheerless, degrading labyrinth of treacherous highways.

Image/Sound

Criterion’s 1.33:1 presentation is sprinkled with minor dirt and debris, but for the most part, Thieves’ Highway has never looked better. Dassin’s sharp use of black and white benefits from a generally solid source print and superior contrast (fortunately, whites never bloom and blacks appear deep), and there’s a welcome lack of serious edge enhancement and intrusive film grain. The mono soundtrack, not surprisingly, sounds like a mono soundtrack-a bit harsh, a bit tinny, and more than a bit limited-but it gets the job done.

Extras

Criterion’s commentaries are renowned for their astute yet dull critical discussions, and Alain Silver, editor of Film Noir Reader and author of various noir-related books, maintains this tradition, providing comprehensive background on the film’s production and a detailed analysis of various shots, themes, and performances. Particularly interesting is his insight into the film’s conclusion-how and why Rica’s profession as a prostitute was transformed into that of a fortune-teller, thus making her an acceptable object of Nick’s desire, and how Production Code bigwig Joseph Breen’s “standards” led to the neutered finale-and how Dassin generates suspense from subtle editing and shot selection. A four-minute trailer for “The Long Haul of A.I. Bezzerides,” an upcoming documentary on the noir writer, is tantalizing, and a new interview with the still-spry Jules Dassin finds the director recounting Darryl Zanuck’s not-inconsiderable meddling, as well as his fond anecdotes about particular scenes (“That was a goooood shot,” he says about the image of apples rolling down a hill after Ed’s crash) and his performers (“Jack Oakie was deaf!”). A theatrical trailer and an essay by Michael Sragow are also included.

Overall

As Thieves’ Highway persuasively demonstrates, it’s always a good idea to check your brakes before trucking down twisty, down-sloped hills.

Cast: Richard Conte, Valentina Cortese, Lee J. Cobb, Barbara Lawrence, Jack Oakie, Millard Mitchell, Joseph Pevney, Morris Carnovsky, Tamara Shayne Director: Jules Dassin Screenwriter: A.I. Bezzerides Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 1949 Release Date: February 1, 2005 Buy: Video

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Advertisement
Comments

Video

Blu-ray Review: Sidney Lumet’s The Fugitive Kind on the Criterion Collection

Criterion very ably honors the neurotic beauty of The Fugitive Kind, though new extras would’ve been appreciated.

4

Published

on

The Fugitive Kind

Tennessee Williams’s work thrives on risk, often striving for the rhythm and tenor of verse poetry, and at times collapsing into absurdity. His plays sometimes suggest film noirs that have been pumped up with the heightened fatalism of Greek tragedy, abounding in hothouse dialogue, literary symbolism (especially of the castration variety), domestic prison motifs, and frustrated women trapped between male captors and potential saviors. When one of his plays soar, like A Streetcar Named Desire, it feels as if the primordial manna of American working-class frustration has been unearthed and writ beautiful, and when one of them thuds, like Orpheus Descending, the floridness is ludicrous. Source material, then, is an issue dogging Sidney Lumet’s 1960 film The Fugitive Kind, an adaptation of Orpheus Descending that plays as a lesser imitation of Elia Kazan’s extraordinary film version of A Streetcar Named Desire.

Written by Williams and co-screenwriter Meade Roberts, The Fugitive Kind is a story of broken people stewing in close quarters, wrestling with atrocities of the past. Appropriately in such a context, the film opens with a man in the midst of atonement. Valentine “Snakeskin” Xavier (Marlon Brando) explains to a judge in New Orleans his involvement in a bar fight. The judge is unseen, suggesting a priest who’s receiving Val’s confession. It’s evident that Brando is attempting to differentiate Val from his Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. Stanley is a brute wrestling with his impulses, a friction that Brando peerlessly dramatized, while Valentine suggests a former hell-raiser who’s achieved relative stability after great struggle. Val’s snakeskin jacket (later parodied in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart) is a promise of wildness that Val is no longer fulfilling, setting him up for damnation. The women of the Mississippi town that Val settles into want the man he used to be, while the town’s old codgers assume him to be a threat to their reign of racist terrorism.

The oft-referenced events in New Orleans sound more compelling than most of what happens on screen in The Fugitive Kind. The film makes its points and keeps making them, visually as well as verbally, feeling increasingly predigested by its creators, leaving the audience with little space to ruminate. Lumet and cinematographer Boris Kaufman conjure a black-and-white neo-expressionism that physicalizes the ghosts of the Mississippi town, favoring thick shadows that are punctuated with rays of light that expose buried truths and faces on the verge of confessions, and buildings are rife with latticework that serves as a readymade symbol of self-imprisonment. Lest we miss the point, there are speeches about drifting, about birds without legs who can’t land, and about our essential loneliness. Near the film’s climax, Val goes so far as to say, “We’re, all of us, sentenced to solitary confinement…for as long as we live on this Earth.” The cumulative effect of all this business is stultifying, as no moment here is allowed to simply breathe and exist, unburdened by arty signifiers. (Williams once said that the actors in this film were lit as if they were dipped in chocolate.)

Compared to the intense, ambiguous sexual neuroticism of A Streetcar Named Desire, the central conflict of The Fugitive Kind is pulp-fiction thin: Val starts working in the shop of an old man, Jabe (Victory Jory), who’s bedridden, a condition that forces his wife, Lady (Anna Magnani), to run the operation. Lady inevitably grows close to her new employee, who represents the passion she sacrificed many years earlier for the sake of stability, in the wake of dual tragedies. More or less, we’re waiting for the handyman to screw the bored housewife, though they keep debating the merit of going on with life or giving up, with Lady maddeningly repeating certain phrases for the sake of a poetic effect that grows maudlin.

The Fugitive Kind has vividly erotic moments, especially as Val talks Lady into hiring him at her shop, with the discussion becoming an extended double entendre. At this point in his career, Brando was an astonishing physical specimen, a statuesque hunk with the intellectual ennui of a philosopher, who moves with a panther-like ease that’s so pronounced that it’s even worked into the dialogue, and who speaks in a tenor that’s both tremulous and authoritative. (He’s the misfit we all want to be.) But Val is composed of nothing but Brando’s self-consciously simmering gestures, and the actor also indulges his propensity for fetishizing aloofness as his impression of averageness; even at the height of his powers, Brando’s tricks can be tedious. Magnani also has a robust physical intensity, but Lady’s prattling about her father’s destroyed wine garden does the actress no favors. (No one could save a line like “I had pride that summer they burned the wine garden of my father.”) In fact, everyone in this film is a type: Jabe and Sheriff Talbot (R.G. Armstrong) are superficial racist monsters, while Carol (Joanne Woodward) is a hoary cliché, the alcoholic as soul who’s too sensitive to stay sober.

The film has a strange pull nevertheless, as its powerful and embarrassing moments merge to offer a fever dream of an America, on the verge of the civil rights movement, that’s about to eat itself alive. There are pointedly no people of color in The Fugitive Kind, but the white characters divide over how to combat the legacy of American slavery, and Lady is particularly torn between liberation and oppression. This text is complemented by the gothic imagery, especially when Lady visits her father’s destroyed wine garden, a monument to dashed hope and personal as well as social fertility. Ultimately, there’s not quite a sense that Lumet has a take on this material, as The Fugitive Kind has nowhere near the drive of 12 Angry Men or his 1970s-era classics. Lumet prefers straight plotting uncluttered by symbols and fanciful allusions, and he eventually became a poet of the divide between procedure and chaos. In this film, he’s a dutiful student aware of the baggage he’s carrying.

Image/Sound

The image is beautiful, if occasionally inconsistent. Many sequences are crisp, with pristine black-and-white imagery, while others are softer, most notably in terms of the whites of close-ups of actors’ faces. This inconsistency intensifies the dreamlike spell of The Fugitive Kind, especially in certain unforgettable shots of Joanne Woodward’s character as she’s illuminated by the moonlight. Blacks are generally robust, even in the soft scenes, and there’s a remarkably subtle variation of whites, with an appealing level of grit that tethers this dream world somewhat to reality. The monaural soundtrack is clean and stable, offering a particularly heightened emphasis on the diegetic sound effects.

Extras

“Hollywood’s Tennessee and The Fugitive Kind” and the liner notes by critic David Thomson offer a concise and thoughtful exploration of Tennessee Williams’s rise as a playwright and his subsequent relationship with Hollywood. Williams is portrayed as a generous, if sometimes cantankerous, filmic collaborator who understood that cinema and theater were different disciplines and welcomed the input of his directors. (Williams even said that, while writing, he envisioned his plays unspooling in cinematic images.) In “Hollywood’s Tennessee,” scholar Robert Bray and film historian R. Barton Palmer also analyze The Fugitive Kind’s symbolism and its relationship with its source material, Orpheus Descending, which is complemented by an archive interview with Sidney Lumet from 2009 that vividly details the director’s working relationships with Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani, Joanne Woodward, and Maureen Stapleton, and all the various juggling of egos and insecurities that process entailed.

The best supplement, though, is a collection of three one-act plays by Williams, directed by Lumet, which aired as a single program on TV in 1958, featuring actors such as Ben Gazzara and Lee Grant. These plays, early works of Williams’s, lack the overbaked poetry of Orpheus Descending, with blunt, searing, poignant dialogue and spare sets that evoke the claustrophobia of the characters. These plays aren’t trying so hard to live up to Williams’s legacy, and they embody his ability to render the ordinary ecstatic and uncanny. (One of the plays, featuring a sexually confident young girl, would be daring even today.) Only one regret: All of these supplements were available on the 2009 Criterion disc.

Overall

Criterion very ably honors the neurotic beauty of The Fugitive Kind, though new extras would’ve been appreciated.

Cast: Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani, Joanne Woodward, Maureen Stapleton, Victor Jory, R.G. Armstrong, John Baragrey, Virgilia Chew, Sally Gracie, Ben Yaffee, Lucille Benson, Joe Brown Jr., Emory Richardson, Nell Harrison, Mary Perry, Madame Spivy, Janice Mars Director: Sidney Lumet Screenwriter: Tennessee Williams, Meade Roberts Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 121 min Rating: NR Year: 1960 Release Date: January 14, 2019 Buy: Video

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Video

Review: William Wyler’s The Good Fairy on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

A key early work for both Wyler and screenwriter Preston Sturges gets a fantastic new transfer from Kino Lorber.

3.5

Published

on

The Good Fairy

Luisa Ginglebusher (Margaret Sullavan), an 18-year-old girl in pigtails who’s spent her entire childhood in an orphanage, is a vision of pure innocence. When a local businessman (Alan Hale) plucks her out of a lineup and offers her a job as an usherette at Budapest’s largest movie palace, the director of the orphanage (Beulah Bondi) sends her off with some parting advice: to remember to do a good deed every day. The older woman means to steer Luisa in the right direction, but the naïve young girl really takes those words of guidance to heart, resulting in a number of mix-ups and misunderstandings that force her to navigate the perilous traps of the modern world, particularly those stemming from men’s lustfulness.

William Wyler’s The Good Fairy, penned by Preston Sturges, boasts the quick wit that’s so typical of the screwball comedy, but also a sharply observed critique of predatory masculinity, which defines all but one of the numerous men who flock to the wide-eyed Luisa like moths to a flame. A hilarious early scene points to Luisa’s childlike conception of romantic love by showing her transfixed by a corny romantic melodrama playing at the movie palace, wherein an overly stilted actor repeatedly says “Go” as he attempts to throw his lover out of his house. But she has enough shrewdness to tell the men who harass her on the streets that she’s married—a little white lie that helps her get out of a jam on several occasions.

Wyler’s propensity for deep-focus shots is on memorable display in a scene that has Luisa training alongside a large group of usherettes in the movie palace and a later one in which she tries on a faux fox scarf and playfully models it for herself in front of a mise en abyme of mirrors. But more often than not, Wyler’s direction doesn’t call attention to itself, allowing Sturges’s droll, clever dialogue to take center stage as Luisa’s well-meaning fibs get her inextricably wrapped up in the lives of three men: Detlaff (Reginald Owen), an overprotective waiter who becomes her self-appointed guardian; Konrad (Frank Morgan), the wealthy, alcoholic meat magnate who treats Luisa similarly to the product that made him rich; and Dr. Sporum (Herbert Marshall), an unsuspecting lawyer who gets wrapped up in Luisa’s web of lies when she pulls his name out of the phone book and tells Konrad that he’s her husband.

The resulting chaos, involving multiple rivalries between the pompous men and a mostly passive Luisa—who, much of the time, just wants to be left alone—effectively cuts the blind idealism of her “good fairy” actions down to size, suggesting that good deeds are mostly wasted on mankind. In all but stripping Luisa of agency once she starts the marital farce in motion, The Good Fairy highlights the immense gap in power between the ingénue and the men who, despite their feigned attempts to appear as if they have her best interests at heart, bicker around her and pester her relentlessly despite her many protestations.

Due to limitations enforced by the Production Code, Sturges was forced to reimagine Ferenc Molnár’s risqué play, removing all references to Luisa’s sexual exploits and making her appear more innocent in her pursuit of goodness. But there’s still a heaping of innuendo and double entendre to suggest that she becomes learned in the art of manipulating the opposite sex. And while the snappiest dialogue belongs to Marshall, Morgan, and Owen, Sullavan subtly registers a knowing coyness that even the censors couldn’t snuff out from behind the marvelous façade of virginal purity that Luisa continues to put on long after she’s taken out her ponytails. It’s a frightening world of betrayal and indecency that Luisa has entered, but she eventually learns the lesson that you have to be at least a little bad to do some good.

Image/Sound

Sourced from a brand new 4K master, Kino’s transfer is fantastic across the board, boasting a remarkable sharpness, clarity, and depth. The contrast is also quite impressive, particularly in the deep, inky blacks, helping the picture to really pop. The healthy and even distribution of grain adds a nice, textured quality to the image, assuring the transfer never appears overly digitized. The audio is also nearly flawless, with the rapid dialogue and Heinz Roemheld’s lilting score remaining consistently crisp and clear, with only the occasional hints of tinniness.

Extras

The sole extra here is a charming and informative commentary by film critic and author Simon Abrams. His detailing of the myriad differences between Ferenc Molnár’s play and Preston Sturges’s script is comprehensive, as is his coverage of the effects that the relatively fresh implementation of the Hays Code had on the material’s more salacious qualities. On the lighter side, Abrams’s offers some backstage anecdotes from time to time, most notably the juicy nuggets about Margaret Sullavan’s diva-like on-set antics and her eventual marriage to William Wyler toward the end of production, after weeks of fighting with one another.

Overall

A key early work for both William Wyler and screenwriter Preston Sturges gets a fantastic new transfer from Kino Lorber.

Cast: Margaret Sullavan, Herbert Marshall, Frank Morgan, Reginald Owen, Eric Blore, Beulah Bondi, Alan Hale, Cesar Romero, Luis Alberni, June Clayworth Director: William Wyler Screenwriter: Preston Sturges Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 1935 Release Date: January 14, 2020 Buy: Video

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Video

Blu-ray Review: Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat on the Criterion Collection

Godard’s bracing sophomore feature receives a wonderful hi-def transfer and a series of extras that contextualize its politics.

3.5

Published

on

Le Petit Soldat

The perception of Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat as a sophomore slump derives less from its presumed shortcomings and more from two highly mitigating factors: the mighty shadow cast by Godard’s seminal debut feature, Breathless, and the fact that it didn’t even see the light of day until three years after its making. The French government banned its exhibition due to its contentious subject matter, which depicted scenes of torture and painted an unsavory picture of the French armed forces in their conflict with the Algerian National Liberation Front.

Yet in many ways, Le Petit Soldat is equal to Breathless in its inventiveness and exuberance. A sort of political thriller—in the same nominal, oblique way that Breathless is a gangster film—Godard’s sophomore feature tells the story of Bruno (Michel Subor), a French photojournalist living in Geneva so that he may avoid enlistment. After refusing to assassinate a French FLN sympathizer, the French intelligence group with which he’s affiliated suspects him of being a double agent, complicating his infatuation with his newfound love, Veronica (Anna Karina), who has political ties of her own.

Despite their contrasting subjects, Breathless and Le Petit Soldat share many thematic and stylistic similarities, attributed to their Sartrean influence and Godard’s infatuation with cinema as the great conduit of human emotion. Flying in the face of Le Petit Soldat’s grave subject matter are distinctly Hollywood-esque notions of passion, intrigue, morality, and even mortality. Also hovering over every second of the action is a sense of betrayal, both political and romantic. In the film, Godard depicts love and betrayal as two sides of the same coin, as he did in Breathless and would continue to do throughout his career.

Working again with cinematographer Raoul Coutard, Godard achieves a naturalistic, improvisational style, filming in bustling city streets. Less instinctual, though, is the editing, as Godard sought to capture a weightier, more mature tone. Compared to Breathless, Le Petit Soldat’s images suggest a stronger sense of place, as characters seem inextricably linked to their environment. Overall, the film lacks the artifice of Hollywood cinema, which Godard admired but was looking to move past after catching flack from the French left wing.

In the early days of the Nouvelle Vague, as Godard and his compatriots at Cahiers du Cinéma garnered international acclaim for their brand of idiosyncratic filmmaking, members of the left accused them of making films about private and therefore apolitical matters, a reasonable albeit needling denigration that sparked Le Petit Soldat’s production. Keen to counter this criticism, Godard, with a sort of brash impudence, set his sights on the most controversial political subjects of the day: Algeria’s fight for independence, France’s reluctance to grant them such, and both side’s use of torture to extract information from the opposition—all of this in spite of the fact that he had no real intention of tackling these subjects head on.

The film emerged in the midst of a political sea change for Godard, who considered the left’s rigorous, politicized aesthetic demands constraining, yet conversely found much to dislike in the right’s proto-fascist treatment of the Algerian conflict. Though he abstained from political overtones in Breathless, things had reached a point where a nonpolitical stance was chancy, prompting Godard to wade into the conversation in the way he knew best: through cinema. And in virtually every sense, Le Petit Soldat is Godard’s attempt to make an inherently contentious film despite his uncertain political stance in relation to the subject.

For Godard, political engagement was a deeply personal practice, an innately existential concept with no real relation to external circumstances. As such, the film can be read as his personal reconciliation with the Algerian War, the process with which he used to reach a political conclusion by landing on the left—and that rare occurrence in cinema when action is infused with thought, and when the very nature of thought comes to life on screen.

Image/Sound

For Le Petit Soldat, cinematographer Raoul Coutard worked with natural and available light, which resulted in images of variable clarity, yet the Criterion Collection’s transfer counters that by maximizing contrast and texture. Outdoor scenes feature slight fluctuations of detail endemic to the film’s source material, though for the most part the image remains stable and looks surprisingly good in night scenes, which sport healthy grain but no crushing artifacts. Indoor scenes are richly textured and display a wide variety of sharply contrasted grays. The film’s contrapuntal audio is even crisper, showing off the remarkable range of sound elements that Jean-Luc Godard was readily capturing so early into his career.

Extras

A 1965 interview with Godard finds him reflecting on the film’s hostile reception even among left-wing publications, as well as the inspiration he takes from real-world events. A 1963 interview with Michel Subor focuses on his collaborations with Godard and how the actor admires the filmmaker’s quirks and challenging personality. Also included is a 1961 audio interview with Godard that emphasizes the popularity he enjoyed after the release of Breathless. Finally, an essay by critic Nicholas Elliott considers how Le Petit Soldat kickstarted Godard’s career-defining preoccupation with all things political.

Overall

Godard’s bracing sophomore feature receives a wonderful hi-def transfer from Criterion and a series of extras that contextualize its controversial politics.

Cast: Michel Subor, Anna Karina, Henri-Jacques Huet, Paul Beauvais, Georges de Beauregard, László Szabó, Jean-Luc Godard Director: Jean-Luc Godard Screenwriter: Jean-Luc Godard Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 1963 Release Date: January 21, 2020 Buy: Video

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Video

Review: House by the Cemetery Receives 3-Disc Limited Edition Blu-ray

The House by the Cemetery remains prime real estate for horror film aficionados.

5

Published

on

House by the Cemetery

Several generations of fanboys have heralded Lucio Fulci as “the Godfather of Gore” (pace Herschell Gordon Lewis), and there’s splatter aplenty on display in The House by the Cemetery, from the opening murder set piece (a knife to the back of the skull that emerges from the victim’s mouth) to the penultimate killing (a major character gets their throat torn out). But it would be grossly reductive, not to mention flat-out wrong, to dismiss the film as mere gore-delivery system.

As with previous entries in the loosely linked “Gates of Hell” trilogy (City of the Living Dead and The Beyond), with their concern for the all-too-porous boundaries between the living and the dead, Fulci refracts influences both cinematic (The Amityville Horror and The Shining) and literary (Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and any number of Gothic-inflected haunted-house tales) through the lens of his own darkly poetic sensibility. Fulci and his co-writers betray a fondness for the ambiguous and open-ended. None of the “Gates of Hell” films conclude with the restoration of moral or, indeed, cosmic order found in more conventional (read: conservative) horror films, and The House by the Cemetery’s haunting finale suggests, in the words of co-writer Dardano Sacchetti, that life is an ode to death as savior.

The setup is properly archetypal: New Yorkers Lucy and Norman Boyle (Fulci regulars Catriona MacColl and Paolo Malco), along with their young son, Bob (Giovanni Frezza), move to New Whitby, outside of Boston, so that Norman can continue the research of his colleague, Dr. Petersen, who not long before murdered his lover and then killed himself in the same “old, dark house” that the Boyles are now renting. The film, though, isn’t without a sly sense of humor. Witness the name of its monstrous mad doctor: Freudstein. The “mad doctor” epithet elucidates the cognomen’s latter component, but the Freudian aspects within the film are more manifold. Naturally enough, a free-floating feeling of the uncanny permeates the film, as in the numerous instances of déjà vu when the residents of New Whitby believe Norman has been there before, and surrounds the figure of Ann (Ania Pieroni), Bob’s eerie babysitter.

Then, too, there’s Freud’s suggestion that the uncanny (“un-home-ly”) is the opposite of the domestic, the familiar (in several senses) rendered unfamiliar, and therefore akin on the level of aesthetics to the formalist principle of defamiliarization. In The House by the Cemetery, the nearby graves quite literally invade the home, when Lucy discovers the headstone for the Freudstein crypt in the middle of their living room. At film’s end, when Bob escapes from the cellar through a rather vaginal-looking crack in the tombstone, the moment is a kind of rebirth, into the gray and wintry realms of the undead. By the same token, the monster inhabiting the cellar embodies the return of the repressed, whatever has been shoved deep down into the depths of the unconscious—here, quite possibly, Bob’s anger and resentment toward inattentive, even neglectful parents.

Fulci also accomplishes the act of rendering things unfamiliar throughout his dreamlike film by disavowing the linear mechanics of narrative logic. Inattentive viewers have always complained that Fulci’s infernal trilogy are incoherent texts, filled with dangling plot threads and unexplained leaps of logical faith, which indeed they are. Putting that down to rank incompetence, though, would be to mistake technique as the lack thereof and consistently misconstrue the sense of the playful and surreal that runs through even Fulci’s most graphic and brutal films, whether the Donald Duck-voiced killer in his grindhouse post mortem that is The New York Ripper, or the self-reflexive mise en abyme of The Cat in the Brain, wherein Fulci plays himself as a maestro of the macabre trapped within an endless nightmare constructed from cut-and-pasted gore scenes drawn from his lesser-known films.

Nor is Fulci above bits of self-aware parody that stick it to the conventions of Gothic horror, a sensibility that’s best evidenced here in the amusingly protracted bat-killing scene: Norman repeatedly stabs the flying rodent latched onto his hand with a steak knife until what seems like gallons of syrupy blood gush out, which Fulci follows with a smash cut to a smarmy realtor, glimpsed in an earlier scene, yawning in boredom.

The House by the Cemetery concludes with a quote allegedly drawn from the works of Henry James: “No one will ever know whether children are monsters or monsters are children.” It’s a false attribution, naturally, but one that nevertheless keys into the film’s layers of Jamesian ambiguity, of the “Is it real or all in your head?” variety, and invites comparison to Jack Clayton’s excellent film adaptation of James’s most famous story, The Innocents. Though Clayton’s film epitomizes the restraint and suggestiveness of the best psychological horror films, seemingly at antipodes to Fulci’s full-frontal assault of explicitness, both films have the capacity to burrow under your skin and plumb deep into your unconscious.

Image/Sound

Blue Underground’s 4K upgrade of their 2011 Blu-ray marks another quantum leap in presenting cinematographer Sergio Salvati’s stunningly atmospheric work: Black levels are truly deep and tenebrous throughout, without a trace of murky blocking or crush. The already impressive clarity and color saturation get a further boost, with plenty of heretofore illegible details (like food labels and signage) clearly standing out. And the brightness of those rainbow-hued stained-glass windows in the Boyle home will practically make you squint. There are three audio options: Master Audio mono tracks in English and Italian, as well as a repurposed English 5.1 surround mix, which does a discreet but admirable job of separating and channelizing Walter Rizzati’s synth-organ score, as well as ambient sound effects like Freudstein’s piteous mewling and that bizarre recurrent wolf call. And there’s always the Italian track if you’re one of those viewers whose bane of existence is the shrill, vapid voice provided by whoever supplied the voice for flaxen-haired moppet Bob Boyle.

Extras

The bounteous extras, both old and new, are spread across two Blu-ray discs, with Blue Underground porting over all the bonus materials from their earlier release of the film. Most of the lead actors get their own brief interview featurette, either alone or in tandem, as do husband-and-wife co-writers Elisa Briganti and Dardano Sacchetti, as well as Salvati and a handful of special effects artists. They’re all listenable and informative, especially the interview with Briganti and Sacchetti. And the deleted scene is an extension of the bat-killing sequence, presented without any audio, and it adds precious little to the festivities.

For this limited edition, Blue Underground has inclued four major new supplements, including a predictably lively, informative, and often colorfully opinionated commentary track by Troy Howarth. The film historian makes a persuasive argument for The House by the Cemetery’s “poetic” qualities, especially when it comes to Fulci’s dynamic use of the 2.35:1 frame. In a Q&A from 2014 at the Spaghetti Cinema Film Festival, actress Catriona MacColl fields questions about her career, working with Fulci, and the afterlife of his films. Co-writer Giorgio Mariuzzo discusses his working relationship with Fulci. And author Stephen Thrower delves into the literary and cinematic influences on The House by the Cemetery, its place within Fulci’s filmography, and examines the shooting locations (with some enjoyable then-and-now snapshots). But the extras don’t stop there. Blue Underground truly pimp out their packaging with a 3D lenticular slipcase, an illustrated booklet with essay by Michael Gingold on the film and its legacy, and a CD disc that contains the entire Walter Rizzati score.

Overall

The House by the Cemetery remains prime real estate for horror film aficionados.

Cast: Catriona MacColl, Paolo Malco, Ania Pieroni, Giovanni Frezza, Silvia Collatina, Dagmar Lassander, Carlo De Mejo, Lucio Fulci Director: Lucio Fulci Screenwriter: Dardano Sacchetti, Giorgio Mariuzzo, Lucio Fulci Distributor: Blue Underground Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 1981 Release Date: January 21, 2020 Buy: Video

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Video

Review: Rian Johnson’s Neo-Noir Breakout Brick on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

Johnson’s debut feature receives an excellent home-video package from Kino.

3.5

Published

on

Brick

Rian Johnson’s Brick places the hard-boiled pulp of noir into the mouths of first-wave millennials. The genre’s contradictory blend of laconicism and loquacity proves to be easily transposed to bright but aimless teenagers of the early aughts; a generation pumped full of antidepressants and amphetamines from childhood, these high schoolers add a narcotized, chemically addled variation of noir’s naturally numbed emotional tenor. The hero, Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), could be called precocious if he weren’t so detached, as if Max Fischer got so deep into one of his fabricated roles that he got lost in it. Yet beneath his façade of hyper-cool right out of a Dashiell Hammett novel is a scared, baffled young man struggling to deal with the death of his drug-addicted ex, Emily (Emilie de Ravin).

The film presents its Orange County high school setting as a cesspit of vice in which a host of addicted teens are manipulated by a group of popular kids and dope pushers. And right away it makes clear that one of Johnson’s great strengths is his keen ear for replicating the beats and intonations of classic pulp detective fiction. Cornered by a group of ne’er-do-wells, Brendan feistily spits, “Throw one at me if you want, hash head. I’ve got all five senses and I slept last night, that puts me six up on the lot of you.” Supporting characters speak such dialogue with a hard edge reflective of their types—femme fatale, stool pigeon, local hood—but Gordon-Levitt locates the pain simmering under the surface of Brendan’s flippant hostility, imbuing it with the confused pain of a young man dealing with death for the first time.

At its best, Johnson’s direction plays up noir tropes while reflecting that underlying pathos, as when he captures theater nerd and designated femme fatale Laura (Norah Zehetner), dressed in a bright red cheongsam that stands in sharp contrast to the more muted clothes of her peers, lit to seem like the only person in the room as Brendan stares at her. Likewise, later encounters with a heroin kingpin (Lukas Haas) find a perfect balance of the intimidating and farcical, regularly blanketing the young man in shadow while also undercutting his menace with a bright, static scene at his family table as his mom (Reedy Gibbs) serves him cookies.

Elsewhere, though, the showy tics that would go on to define Johnson’s early work can occasionally grate. Close-ups on various objects—a pair of shoes, a cigarette tossed out of a car onto asphalt—imbue the quotidian with menace, but to redundant effect. Likewise, in-camera effects garishly disrupt Brick’s measured pace with sudden, dissonant outbursts of violence that feel too self-consciously cool compared to the largely detached tenor of the film. Johnson would keep this overactive approach all the way through guest slots helming episodes of Breaking Bad, and to revisit Brick in the wake of his less antic, more cohesively stylized work on films like Looper and Knives Out is to see just how much he’s matured as a filmmaker.

Brick, in some ways, recalls the first films of Christopher Nolan, who likewise emerged as a maker of filmic puzzles and noir mystery updated for the 21st century. But where Nolan prefers to spring his surprises by withholding information, often to the point of narrative incoherence, Johnson likes to give sharp viewers enough clues for them to solve the case before the end. And for all the film’s literary brio and technical pizzazz, Brick shows a keen interest in character that always shines through the style, and an empathy for even the most debased of the blank-faced, directionless people who surround Brendan.

Image/Sound

Steve Yedlin’s cinematography mixes muted, naturalistic tones with sudden bursts of expressionistic color, and Kino’s Blu-ray superbly captures this contrast. Brendan’s sallow, shut-in complexion is so textured that it’s impossible to miss the physical toll his obsession takes on him, while bits of color like Laura’s dress and the bright colors of the theater kids’ dressing room pop from the tans and off-whites that surround it. The shadows that shroud the film’s second half are rendered with no visible crushing, and black levels are consistent throughout. The disc comes with audio in lossless 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround. Both mixes are crisp and well balanced, with the surround mix conjuring a more paranoid tone in its distribution of ambient effects across all channels.

Extras

Kino’s disc comes with an audio commentary with Rian Johnson, actors Nora Zehetner and Noah Segan, producer Ram Bergman, production designer Jodie Tillen, and costume designer Michele Posch. Johnson offers the most consistent insights into the film, detailing his inspirations, writing and shooting methods, and more. By moderating the rotating guests on the track, he’s able to prevent overlap in their input. Johnson also introduces a collection of eight deleted and extended scenes. By his own admission, little was fully excised from the film, so most of the 20 minutes of footage consists of scenes in the final cut that last far longer, often adding little more than additional mood at the expense of the final cut’s pacing. Finally, footage from Zehetner and Segan’s audition tapes are included.

Overall

Rian Johnson’s debut feature receives an excellent home-video package from Kino, with a great A/V transfer that highlights the filmmaker’s aesthetic skills.

Cast: Joseph Gordon Levitt, Nora Zehetner, Lukas Haas, Noah Fleiss, Matt O’Leary, Meagan Good, Emilie de Ravin Director: Rian Johnson Screenwriter: Rian Johnson Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 110 min Rating: R Year: 2005 Release Date: January 7, 2020 Buy: Video

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Video

Sergio Corbucci’s The Hellbenders and The Specialists on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

Corbucci’s portraits of bloodlust and insatiable cravings for money cut to the core of the true American frontier values.

Published

on

The Specialists
Photo: Kino Lorber

The landscapes of Sergio Corbucci’s spaghetti westerns—be they the isolating, snow-swept mountains of The Great Silence or the arid, dusty terrains of Django, The Hellbenders, and The Specialists—serve as brutally expressionistic backdrops to an Old West where concepts like justice, honor, and community are the things of folk tales. Greed and vengeance are the governing forces in these unforgiving cinematic worlds, where loyalty only goes as far as a dollar has bought it. Even the sanctity of the dead isn’t honored, with coffins serving as camouflage for Gatling guns in Django and a safeguard for counterfeit money in The Hellbenders. Corbucci’s vision of the West is a Darwinian hellscape of dog-eat-dog maneuvers, double crosses, and ruthless displays of violence. If his films border on nihilistic, it’s only because the Italian director’s portraits of bloodlust and insatiable cravings for money cut to the core of the true American frontier values that still reverberate in our culture today.

Early in The Hellbenders, Joseph Cotten’s Colonel Jonas, a Confederate soldier looking to fund a reboot of the just-ended Civil War, and four of his loyal soldiers murder an entire battalion of Union soldiers carrying half a million dollars that’s to be destroyed before new money can be printed. Following the slaughter, Jonas coolly walks up to his men, shoots the two who aren’t his blood relatives, and, with a fistful of bloody cash in his hand, gleefully states, “A fresh start, boys, a fresh start.” The myth of the West is typically propagated by tales of redemption, ingenuity, justice, and hard work, but Corbucci subverts that myth by presenting the notion of the “fresh start” offered by the American frontier as one which necessarily courts violence, greed, and theft. Money and land are the currencies in the land of opportunity and no amount of integrity and diligence can do as much to help get your hands on either as a bullet.

If family appears to be the sole unifying force in The Hellbenders, even that’s only for a spell, as there’s power in numbers when trying to navigate a coffin full of stolen cash through enemy territory. Where the coffin that Django’s protagonist drags around is cracked open to literally unleash a furious flurry of bullets, the one escorted by Jonas and his sons (Julian Mateos, Gino Pernice, and Angel Aranda) in this film more insidiously cultivates violence through temptation, as its contents warp the minds of everyone who remains in its orbit. Money is the inexorable temptress, more pernicious than the devil himself. Late in the film, a drifter, responding to the question of where he’s from, says “From under a rock. That’s where they say we all begin, crawling out from underneath something.” Corbucci’s view of mankind is one where the rock has just been lifted and all the horrifying instincts of humanity are revealed.

The Specialists opens on a similar image of debasement, with a group of Mexican raiders throwing four men into a pit of mud followed by a dollar coin, with whoever retrieves the dollar remaining the sole survivor. In rides a mysterious man in black, Hud (Johnny Hallyday), to save the day, but as soon as the bandits are run out of Blackstone, we learn that the supposed hero isn’t welcome here either, as his brother was recently lynched for robbing the town’s bank. This time around, money isn’t in a coffin, but buried somewhere in Blackstone, yet its very presence has the same destabilizing effect on all of the townspeople.

Signifiers of civilized behavior abound in The Specialists, from the town’s pacifist Sheriff Gedeon (Gastone Moschin) and seemingly upstanding banker, Virginia (Françoise Fabian). And along with the return of their stolen money, even the townsfolk seem to only want law and order. But while Hud and a one-armed Mexican bandit, El Diablo (Mario Adorf), appear as the likely villains, greed spreads like an airborne disease throughout the film, ultimately infecting the whole town with a callous sense of self-preservation.

As Corbucci masterfully navigates through a series of double-crosses, he strips away his characters’ veneers of civility, tolerance, and virtuousness to reveal the nasty impulses lurking beneath. When the filmmaker shows a group of proto-hippies forcing all of Blackstone’s citizens to strip at gunpoint and crawl in the dirt, it’s a stark condemnation not only of American greed and opportunism, but of the ways those evil, barbarous inclinations are often deceitfully couched in supposed pursuits of peace, justice, and social order.

Sergio Corbucci’s The Hellbenders and The Specialists are now available on Blu-ray.

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Video

Review: Fritz Lang’s House by the River on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

The film is a fascinating, bewitching, and hitherto largely neglected entry in Lang’s canon.

3.5

Published

on

House by the River

“I hate this river,” says the nosy Mrs. Ambrose (Ann Shoemaker) as the tide of the water circles “that filth” (the carcass of a dead cow, it seems) around her house for what is probably the umpteenth time, to which her next-door neighbor, frustrated writer Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward), replies, “It’s people who should be blamed for the filth, not the river.” And with that Fritz Lang and screenwriter Mel Dinelli neatly unpack House by the River’s theme of moral responsibility a mere three minutes into the picture. This hand-holding is widespread in many of Lang’s later work (The Blue Gardenia and Clash by Night being the most egregious examples), but it’s the sort of thing that’s easily absolved given the many fascinating ways the filmmaker visually extended his themes.

Made in 1949 for Republic Pictures, House by the River not only shows its modest origins but the frustration of its maker. Lang wanted to cast a black woman in the role of Emily Gaunt (the part eventually went to Dorothy Patrick), the maid that Hayward’s character accidentally kills mere moments after trying to seduce her, but the suits at Republic recoiled at the idea. Ironically, the very fear of miscegenation that the director wanted to address—call it the elephant in America’s living room (or the one floating around its house)—frustrated his ambitions. Unable to subversively work a critique of America’s racial problems into the film’s fabric as he had done for Fury, Lang had to settle for building House by the River’s routine melodrama into a snappy commentary on moral depravity and eye-for-an-eye retribution.

Stephen convinces his brother, John (Lee Bowman), to help him dump Emily’s body in the river outside his home. The man’s relief that his indiscretions—adultery and murder—appear as if they’ll go unpunished considerably strokes his ego, to the point that he begins to channel the whole affair into his latest unpublished novel. (Early in the film, Mrs. Ambrose advises that he make his stories “racy” and, later, some woman makes an off-the-cuff comment about writers doing their best work when they channel the truth.) But when Emily’s body floats to the surface and begins to circle the house that Stephen shares with his wife, Marjorie (Jane Wyatt), it’s not just the plot of his novel that thickens. It’s here that his moral crisis begins to take on new angles. The film’s 88 minutes aren’t nearly enough to sufficiently flesh them all out, or connect them in a truly meaningful way, but Lang’s visuals pick up some of the slack.

Lang too often tries to belie his low budget, which usually exposes his sham (he grafts what sounds like audio from a 100-person reception onto a nine-person party scene), and though he’s unable to give the logic by which the titular river circulates around Steven and Mrs. Ambrose’s house a truly expressive visual justification, it doesn’t matter given how splendidly he equates the river to a floating id of primitive, unconscious fears and desires. The director’s chiaroscuro imagery sinisterly evokes Stephen’s bourgeoning madness, from the parallels between Marjorie and Emily’s entrances in the film to the maddening links between Emily’s hair as it swivels in the water and the curtains inside Stephen and Marjorie’s house. Stephen gets his due, and when he does, Lang evokes it as a case of beyond-the-grave retribution. Mrs. Ambrose might say, “What comes around, goes around.”

Image/Sound

Kino Lorber’s 2K restoration significantly improves on their previous DVD in terms of clarity, depth, and contrast. There’s still a bit of murky flicker noticeable in some of the darker scenes, but, on the plus side, there’s also more information visible on all four edges of the frame throughout. The two-channel Master Audio mono mix cleanly delivers the dialogue and gives a resonant boost to George Antheil’s moody score.

Extras

The big new extra here is a commentary track from film historian Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, who begins by addressing the nature of Stephen’s assault on Emily, the film’s complicated take on sexual politics and sexual violence, and how it fits into the larger discourse of “rape culture.” She also delves into the film’s formal and thematic links to Fritz Lang’s larger body of work, and the ways in which House by the River straddles the borderline between noir and Gothic melodrama. There’s also an interview from 2005 with producer and film historian Pierre Rissient, who was largely responsible for resuscitating interest in House by the River, one of Lang’s lesser-known and at the time unavailable films. He describes hearing Lang verbally recreate the first 10 minutes of the film practically shot for shot, the effect it had on French New Wave filmmakers like Claude Chabrol, and the interesting connection he made when he finally tracked down the source material’s author in his Thames-side home.

Overall

Now looking better than ever, House by the River is a fascinating, bewitching, and hitherto largely neglected entry in Fritz Lang’s filmography.

Cast: Louis Hayward, Jane Wyatt, Lee Bowman, Dorothy Patrick, Ann Shoemaker, Jody Gilbert, Peter Brocco, Howland Chamberlain Director: Fritz Lang Screenwriter: Mel Dinelli Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 1950 Release Date: January 14, 2020 Buy: Video

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Video

Review: John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China on Shout! Blu-ray

The cast and crew interviews are the star of this disc, elaborating on the making of a misunderstood cult classic.

4

Published

on

Big Trouble in Little China

John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China is a relative outlier in the director’s poetically bleak filmography, a martial-arts adventure slash monster-comedy extravaganza that suggests an Indiana Jones movie that’s been mounted on a more intimate scale. Look deeper, though, and Big Trouble in Little China recalls the spirit of the work of Carpenter’s beloved Howard Hawks (who made the similarly uncharacteristic Land of the Pharaohs) in its obsession with a team unity that eclipses the efforts of any singular individual. Indiana Jones may have touches of erudition and the help of friends, but he’s unquestionably the man of action at any given moment, while this film’s Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) is more of a wannabe, a truck driver with a John Wayne bluster who talks tough and has authentic courage, while having no clue what he’s doing.

An early scene in Big Trouble in Little China is perhaps purposefully misleading. Jack is in San Francisco’s Chinatown playing pai gow with a group of Chinese-Americans. Jack wins and takes their money, suggesting that he will be the cocksure American of the movies who’s at ease wherever he goes, besting people at their own rituals. This a warm and funny—read: Hawksian—scene in which we’re allowed to revel in the somewhat contentious energy of these men. One of the Chinese-Americans is something of a friend of Jack’s, Wang (Dennis Dun), who loses big to him in a double-or-nothing gambit. Then, Wang and Jack are swept into a bizarre quest in which the American is nearly rendered the sidekick, forcing him to get by mostly on nerve. The film is both a celebration and parody of macho American ego.

It’s amazing how loose and charming a screen adventure can be when filmmakers are willing to play around and deflate a hero’s pomposity, even if they ultimately enjoy it. Accompanying Wang to the airport, still hoping to get his money, Jack hits on a gorgeous woman, Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall), and is promptly shot down for being drunk. When Chinese gangsters kidnap Wang’s fiancée, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), at the airport, Jack faces the gangsters and gets his ass kicked (though he is out-armed and outnumbered). Later, a wise and benevolent old sorcerer, Egg Shen (Victor Wong), delivers a bunch of exposition about Chinese black magic and the legacy of a demon named Lo Pan (James Hong), Jack says he feels like an outsider and everyone, especially Gracie, agrees. Eventually, Jack fires a machine gun into the air, finally feeling in his element, and sends a part of the ceiling crashing down on his head. And so on.

W.D. Richter’s screenplay abounds in clever one-liners that Carpenter skillfully under-emphasizes, while Russell, who’s played many un-ironic action heroes, embraces Jack’s foolishness with a lovely and graceful sense of abandon. In other words, Carpenter has it both ways: Jack is never more dashing than when crossing the master threshold of idiocy.

At the time of its release, critics complained that Big Trouble in Little China was neither an adventure, a comedy, nor a horror film, and that its characters were merely types, which is very much the point here. The stakes of the quest to rescue Miao Yin and Gracie from Lo Pan’s clutches are never high, as Carpenter is more interested in mounting a free-floating hang-out comedy that casually borrows from many genres, effectively announcing his ability to do whatever he pleases—a cocky sensibility that would influence future genre mix-masters.

Big Trouble in Little China often suggests a feature-length version of those idle moments in Hawks’s adventures, such as when Ricky Nelson’s character sang a song in Rio Bravo, only with the flippancy turned way up. The monsters and special effects are charmingly jokey—far more charming than those of Ivan Reitman’s similarly spirited Ghostbusters—and Carpenter’s beautiful widescreen compositions often liken the creatures to those of a spooky amusement-park ride, banishing them to nooks and crannies that presumably hide their puppeteers. Meanwhile, the martial-arts battles are funny, poignant, and concise, as Carpenter emphasizes singular gestures, such as an air-born swordfight, allowing them to cumulatively suggest stanzas in a poem. In its sense of controlled chaos, Big Trouble in Little China distinguishes itself from the figurative madness of the films of, say, Tsui Hark.

Despite the half-drunk, what-the-hell atmosphere, the humans in Big Trouble in Little China do register, which prevents this film from being as meaningless as genre pastiche-parodies like Stephen Sommers’s Mummy installments. Russell, with his gloriously cuckoo timing and absurd tank top, is the center of the narrative, but Dun, Cattrall, Pai, Li, and Wong have a poignant agency as well as an intergroup chemistry, and Hong wisely plays his role straight as a counterpoint to Russell. Lo Pan is an authentically elegant and frightening villain, whether mocking the heroes as an old man or hovering malevolently through his subterranean lair as an albino phantom warrior. And his exit, cleverly foreshadowed by an early scene between Jack and Wang, is both jolting and amusing, which is essentially this strange lark in a nutshell.

Image/Sound

The image here has a painterly quality that’s in keeping with John Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey’s intentions. Colors have a soft, almost watercolor quality and occasionally explode off the screen, such as the reds and greens of the various tiers of Lo Pan’s subterranean lair. Facial textures are quite detailed, such as the make-up for Kim Cattrall’s character when she’s fashioned as a bride for Lo Pan. There are two soundtracks: a 5.1 and 2.0. The mixes are clear but occasionally sound a little flat in terms of diegetic effects, though the score is robust and nuanced, allowing Carpenter’s fans to savor his synth collaboration with Alan Howarth. Overall, this is an appealing transfer, but it doesn’t quite feel definitive.

Extras

The new interviews are the highlight of this loaded supplements package, and they follow two overlapping thematic strands. On one hand, the interviews with virtually every person involved on Big Trouble in Little China offer a relatively full portrait of the film’s making (notably missing are the female actors), detailing how Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein’s original period western script was revised by co-screenwriter W.D. Richter to take place in the present day, and how Carpenter eventually took on directing duties, hiring friends and former collaborators such as Kurt Russell, second-unit director Tommy Lee Wallace, and Nick Castle, who played Michael Meyers in Halloween and helped perform with Carpenter and Wallace the theme song for Big Trouble in Little China.

Throughout these interviews, Carpenter is portrayed as a low-key man of many talents who knows how to command a set, and who feels the film’s comedy was misunderstood by the studio and initially the audience alike. The other strand, more poignantly, details the working experiences of the Asian actors in the cast, including Dennis Dun, James Hong, Donald Li, and Peter Kwong, who offer similar stories of combating Hollywood stereotypes and turning to acting as children as a way to fit into a Caucasian society.

There are also three audio commentaries, an archive one with Russell and Carpenter that’s a good informal listen, and two new tracks with producer Larry Franco and special effects artist Steve Johnson, respectively, that offer even more context on the film’s creation. All sorts of other goodies round out a superb set, including photo galleries, stills galleries, and a feature on the film’s various posters and lobby cards. This package is a treasure trove for fans of Big Trouble in Little China, especially for Carpenter acolytes.

Overall

The cast and crew interviews are the star of this Shout! Factory disc, elaborating on the making of a misunderstood cult classic.

Cast: Kurt Russell, Dennis Dun, Kim Cattrall, James Hong, Victor Wong, Kate Burton, Donald Li, Carter Wong, Peter Kwong, Suzee Pai, Chao Li Chi, James Pax, Jeff Imada, Craig Ng Director: John Carpenter Screenwriter: Gary Goldman, David Z. Weinstein, W.D. Richter Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 99 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 1986 Release Date: December 3, 2019 Buy: Video

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Video

Review: Wim Wenders’s Until the End of the World on Criterion Blu-ray

The film remains a hypnotic yet foreboding look at how the proliferation of images and media technology affect the mind.

4

Published

on

Until the End of the World

Wim Wenders’s 287-minute sci-fi adventure Until the End of the World has the peculiar quality of being simultaneously elliptical and meticulously plotted. Though the 1991 film features no shortage of contemplative shots of futuristic vistas, both real and virtual, and exhibits an aversion to easy action-flick thrills, the narrative has all the intricacy one would expect of a cyberpunkian tale about the chase for stolen, mind-altering technology. Despite the story’s novelistic girth, most scenes wind up being indispensable both to the plot and to the film’s portrait of a specific, detailed milieu. Which is to say that the whole is akin to a good novel—a comparison that Wenders would likely appreciate, given that his prescient allegory of the postmodern condition ends up, somewhat paradoxically, propounding the virtues of words over images.

The pronouncement in favor of written language is uttered in Until the End of the World by the narrator character, Eugene (Sam Neill), as a kind of conclusion, after he’s witnessed the abyssal attraction that the digital image holds for his ex-girlfriend, Claire (Solveig Dommartin, who co-authored the film’s story), and the new object of her affection, Sam (William Hurt). Enthralled by a head-mounted camera invented by Sam’s father (Max von Sydow) that can read brainwaves—and, as it turns out, convert dreams into digital imagery—the two become obsessed by the potential of reading their unconscious mind’s nocturnal creations.

The images the device draws, presented in full frame in a few boldly experimental sequences, are multifarious, amorphous, and rapturously beautiful. Digital artifacts and posterizations, as a form of auto-animation, appear to imbue the images themselves with life, even as such imperfections obscure the objects actually depicted. These obscure but teeming visions compel Sam and Claire’s intense engagement, and in what’s perhaps the most clear-sighted prediction of the life in digitized society in a film chock-full of them, Wenders has his two principal characters spend much of the final act staring passively into digital devices, oblivious to the glowing orange-red vistas of the Australian Outback they wander through.

Set in 1999, Until the End of the World predicts with striking accuracy such turn-of-the-millennium devices as digital assistants, search engines, and consumer GPS navigation. The social order in which these objects are embedded also isn’t far off the mark. The film’s first half is a road trip through a globalized world auguring a post-Berlin Wall order that bears more than a passing likeness to our own: East Berlin glows with the neon of renewed capital investment; in the Soviet Union, espionage has been privatized; and San Francisco bears witness to the extreme income disparity wrought by the latter years of the Pax Americana.

The road trip that will end in the dreamland of Australia is kickstarted—though without the urgency the metaphor implies—when Claire turns off a French highway to avoid a traffic jam. This detour eventually brings her into contact with Sam, the trench-coat-clad, fedora-topped fugitive whose air of extralegal mystery and neo-noir cool draws Claire to him well before the film reveals its technological MacGuffin. As Sam, Hurt is a bit stiff, as if, like Claire, he’s unclear exactly who Sam is supposed to be—which works, to a degree, in the film’s first half, as the man has turned himself into a neutral medium, a recording device. It will eventually turn out that Sam has stolen his father’s experimental brain camera to collect images of the world that can now be conveyed directly to the visual cortex of his blind mother (Jeanne Moreau).

Wenders grounds Claire’s sudden and intense attraction to the apparent criminal by having Eugene’s detached voiceover narration describe Claire as flighty and adventurous. Such haphazard characterization is a hallmark of Until the End of the World: Wenders consistently proves less interested in a deep dive into the romantic triangle tying together Claire, Sam, and Eugene than he is in an exploration of the image-saturated milieus of the near future, with their omnipresent screens and glowing neon. He underlines the oneiric artificiality of these millennial environments with an expansive and justly renowned soundtrack—featuring songs by the Talking Heads, R.E.M., Peter Gabriel, and U2—that was more successful than the film itself upon release. That Until the End of the World at times comes off as the world’s longest music video arguably suits its project, as to ‘90s intellectuals there was no aesthetic more symptomatic of the forthcoming descent into visual oblivion as that of MTV.

Like Sam’s project, Until the End of the World is itself a compendium of images, with overt allusions to Jean-Luc Godard, Alfred Hitchcock, Yasujirō Ozu, and, somewhat randomly, Johannes Vermeer. Not to mention Wenders’s own previous films: The director’s use of the road as means of contemplating the gulf between image and experience recalls Alice in the Cities and his American breakout, Paris, Texas. If the meat of the film—the envelopment of the protagonists’ consciousnesses, as well as our own, in the chameleonic digital image, the tempting escape into virtuality—doesn’t come until rather late into the film’s 287-minute running time, it’s because Wenders first sets himself the gargantuan task of summarizing the state of the cinematic image at the moment of its eclipse. His film, well at home with the science fiction of its era, suggests that a shift in our means of apprehending the real is also an alteration of reality—the end, one could somewhat extravagantly claim, of the world itself.

Image/Sound

The new transfer of the film reveals cinematographer Robby Müller’s strikingly bright but deeply hued color palette in all its glory, from the saturated reds of the futuristic Kiev train station, to the lush greens of the Japanese countryside, to the dusty gray of bougie-bohemian Parisian apartment buildings. Wim Wenders, who oversaw the film’s restoration, makes best use of the remastered 5.1 soundtrack during the music sequences, using the more robust mix to create a greater sense of envelopment. By comparison, the film’s environmental sounds and dialogue are mixed flatly, but given how frequently songs appear under scenes, the disc assures an aural experience that’s overall on par with its visual one.

Extras

With this double-disc Blu-ray, Criterion offers an expansive but well-curated selection of extras organized around a few through lines. First, and lending itself to a certain auteur-worshipping romanticism, is the production history of the full Until the End of the World cut, which came in at the current length of 287 minutes. The film’s producers demanded severe edits, forcing Wim Wenders and editor Peter Przygodda to reduce the running time to 158 minutes. Wenders’s efforts to save his original vision are detailed in Bilge Ebiri’s illuminating booklet essay, a prolix title card that runs before the film, and in the filmmaker’s introduction for this Criterion release, as well as in an interview from German television from around the release of the director’s cut to German DVD in 2001.

Then there’s the film’s experimental use of digital video, so we get 1990 special from Japanese television featuring Wenders working on the pioneering digital footage shot for the film in Sony’s Tokyo-based labs. And finally there’s the hit soundtrack, so we get an additional booklet essay by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, adapted from a longer (and highly recommended) piece from The A.V. Club, that celebrates the unabashed hipness of Wenders’s musical taste, and a documentary about the recording of Nick Cave’s “(I’ll Love You) Till the End of the World” that provides fascinating glimpses of Berlin immediately after the fall of the wall. A bit out of place are a series of “deleted scenes” that are really 20 minutes of extended scenes and B roll.

Overall

A film at once hip, quirky, and serious-minded, Until the End of the World remains a hypnotic yet foreboding look at how the proliferation of images and media technology affect the mind.

Cast: William Hurt, Solveig Dommartin, Sam Neill, Max von Sydow, Rüdiger Volger, Ernie Dingo, Jeanne Moreau, Chick Ortega, Elena Smirnova, Eddy Mitchell, Chishu Ryu, Allen Garfield, Lois Chiles, Kuniko Miyake Director: Wim Wenders Screenwriter: Peter Carey, Wim Wenders Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 287 min Rating: R Year: 1991 Release Date: December 17, 2019 Buy: Video

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Video

Blu-ray Review: George Cukor’s Holiday on the Criterion Collection

Criterion’s release stands tall as what one, specific genius of the medium was able to do with a fair-to-middling play.

5

Published

on

Holiday

George Cukor’s 1938 masterpiece Holiday seems to have emerged from a happy and completely natural accord between talent and circumstances. Peel back a few layers and, like many established classics of Hollywood’s classical period, the truth is strange, and not at all neat.

The basic outline of the story is a wrinkle on the old conflict between restless, proto-hippie, free-spirit types and the maw of American aristocracy that threatens to devour them. Johnny Case (Cary Grant), having emerged from blue-collar stock and engineered an untenable balance between the shrewdly ambitious and the purposefully lackadaisical, has found himself engaged to be married into one of the richest old-money families in the country, the Setons. The family estate gives the film the perfect opportunity to indicate unfathomable American wealth, a yawning fortress tucked into the row of 5th Avenue’s Gilded Age townhouses. Holiday exploits the opportunity for all its tactile pleasures, almost unto itself grounding the fulcrum of its drama: The palace is a mausoleum, sure, but it’s also a very, very nice mausoleum—an architectural and interior design honey trap of the highest order.

These battle lines intersect within Johnny’s very soul, and his outward, competing angels are made manifest in his fiancée, Julia (Doris Nolan), and her sister, Linda (Katharine Hepburn). Julia is a deluxe wife in training, more than prepared for a life of meticulously managed leisure earned by the industry of Johnny’s business acumen. Linda, at the other end of the spectrum, is frequently charged with childishness, but it’s better to say that she dreams of actualizing a child’s pleasure long past the demarcation of adulthood. The prospect of marriage to Julia doesn’t come across as unappealing, but, serendipitously, and with some delayed reaction, Johnny and Linda provoke in each other a latent tendency to peaceful disobedience.

The very nature of the story’s pronounced dichotomy all but expressly circumscribes a path to victory for the free spirits, while the film’s romantic-comedy side implies a dual victory, a rhyming one, wherein the couple the audience was hoping for from the outset unites as the final music rises and Holiday blissfully fades out. A director and cast need not be especially clever or energetic to carry this tidy narrative to term, as Edward H. Griffith’s 1930 film Holiday—the first to bring Philip Barry’s play to the screen—amply demonstrates, but the ways that Cukor distinguishes his adaptation are self-evident.

The simplest way to explain the Cukor effect is by way of infusion, on a single, spectacular, and crucial set: Linda’s playroom. Already a visual and spatial centerpiece of the play, it’s transformed here into a Cukorian dynamo, a zone of thrilling provocation and mystery not to be found anywhere else in pictures. As a concept, it’s merely “important,” a crucial apparatus to put asunder the Setons’ pretty mausoleum and the far more animated life of Linda’s mind.

To be clear, the playroom would be a boon even to the most mediocre talent. In Cukor’s hands, it becomes a living space, a key component to the director’s entire vision. The ostensible “nonconformity versus responsibility” drama, while served dutifully, takes second seat behind a much larger artwork that breathes through its actors, and pushes energy currents through different rooms, and the meaning imbued by the dreams and plans projected therein.

Setting aside for a moment that Cukor was the one director cherished most by prestige-hungry moguls like David O. Selznick and Louis B. Mayer, or that he would sustain what seemed to be an indefatigable commitment to picture-making for five very busy decades, Cukor’s ingenuity had a lot to do with being someone who could apparently do it all. And as he would prove time and again, his polyvalent set of talents were crucial not only during the transition from one project to another (famously, at this point, he was already ramping up pre-production on Gone With the Wind, for Selznick), but in uniting the disparate elements of one project.

This kind of talent wasn’t mislaid when Cukor directed Holiday, as the project wasn’t entirely without potential pitfalls. Barry’s play often goads directors to make sure things resonate all the way to the nosebleed seats, with such bald enticements for audience goodwill as Linda hollering, “Oh, someone please, try and stop me!” A not-insignificant portion of the material depends on champagne-flute-shattering high notes like this, and Cukor is too shrewd a popular entertainer to declare himself an enemy of such gambits.

Other thorny matters include Grant’s performance. Hard as it may be for us to believe, while there could be no doubt that Grant was a lead actor by 1937 and 1938, it remained evident that the studios still weren’t entirely sure who he was or what he could do. That uncertainty somehow both feeds the dilemma that is Johnny and threatens to render it into a flattened absurdity all at the same time. Grant was an icon of impeccable style and poise, as well as the greatest dancer in non-musical cinema after Buster Keaton. His efforts early in Holiday to evince both romantic charm and devil-may-care absent-mindedness, with intimations of some deeper register of antisocial angst, are as strained as that cocktail of character traits sounds. A lock of unruly hair that falls across his forehead is made to work harder than it ought to, in order to sell Johnny as a nincompoop suffering from chronic distraction who nevertheless would bring home a rich fiancée during a casual skiing excursion.

Cukor—and Grant—make it abundantly clear that they don’t see Johnny as a problem that’s meant to be solved. Crucially, these early scenes are funny and evocative and have certain earmarks of Cukorian dexterity—a slight compression of scene choreography so that exposition and stagecraft resemble a strange game of undisclosed rules; a sprinkling of absurd non sequiturs intended only to be half-heard, not unlike the ones in Howard Hawks pictures.

Further, Johnny’s flightiness is sublimated to Linda, and, to a lesser (but still oddly moving) degree, Lew Ayres’s junior Seton man of the house, Ned. Ever after, threats of strained seriousness are either attacked or ignored, not only by Cukor or his highly adept screenwriters, Donald Ogden Stewart and Sidney Buchman, but by a robust esprit de corps that’s the result of a cast and crew brought together under the charge that no job is too small or thorny conceptual wrinkle too big. It’s this unity that lends Holiday its glow, its larger-than-life-ness, which is larger even than a star picture led by Hepburn and Grant That it’s also very funny, highly empathetic even to the losing side of its love arithmetic, and, in its way, an unspeakably sad elegy for the kind of privileged rebellion only possible in Hollywood pictures, it’s just the right kind of explosive ordnance you should aim directly at your heart, and fire.

Image/Sound

If the best black-and-white cinema from the 1930s had a reputation for being the silvery shimmer of dreamscapes, part of that was thanks to George Cukor’s impeccable aesthetic sense; you need only flip through a few random shots from Camille, Dinner at Eight, and Romeo and Juliet for evidence. Holiday is a little bit of a different kettle of fish, as oneiric visions of swooning romance just aren’t on the menu here. Rather, the countless images of patrician elegance, needing to suggest the very best that the very fattest stacks of Upper East Side cash could buy, needs to be positioned as the obverse side—but not alien to—the cockeyed snap of Linda’s playroom, a more deeply intimate cut into the flesh of American dreaming.

Under Cukor, Franz Planer’s monochrome cinematography is expertly tuned to every nuance, without undue exuberance, from the Setons’ cavernous antechambers to the cozy bookshelves in the background of the playroom. The new 4K restoration of Holiday honors the sophisticated lighting and compositions of Planer and Cukor’s design, helping to bring under one, smooth draught of Columbia monochrome, one of the deceptively light odes to the bittersweetness of ephemeral love and desire ever to emerge from that studio or any other.

That’s not to say that the soundtrack is relegated to backup. In a scene that’s by all reasonable metrics the heart of Holiday, Johnny and Linda look out over the New Years’ Eve revelers on the Seton lawn, happenstance making the celebration a private one for just these two. The soundtrack keeps the background rumble low, far-off sounding, yet perfectly clear, the better to steal a kiss, even more the better to demur an illicit romantic overture. In a Cukor picture where the quietest asides mean the most, the Blu-ray’s attention to the nuances of each layer of sound are no less significant than the picture, and Criterion’s uncompressed monaural track for the 4K restoration must be acquitted on all charges, by any jury in the world.

Extras

There’s a line from Cukor’s 1952 film Pat and Mike that I’ve been looking for an excuse to use in a review for quite a long time: “There’s not much meat on her, but what’s there is ‘cherce’.” Such is what Criterion has given us on the Holiday disc for supplements. Not to discount too steeply the value in the videotaped conversation between critic Michael Sragow and filmmaker Michael Schlesinger, or the vintage audio clips of Cukor discussing Holiday, but the real prize hog on the disc is Edward H. Griffith’s 1930 adaptation of the Philip Barry play.

The 1930 Holiday, which earned Ann Harding her only Oscar nomination, is perfectly dreadful in ways only prestige adaptations of theatrical properties can be, within that volatile period when talking pictures were the newest wonders offered by technology. Griffith’s direction is honor-bound and correct, if you will only evaluate the film as a means to convey the Barry play to cinema audiences who happen to need some coaxing to believe that actors can enunciate their lines, and be heard, in the same instance—the magic of the movies.

Otherwise, the film is as laborious and punishing as one might expect; in particular, Robert Ames’s Johnny Case is totally unconvincing. Ames, who, sadly, would exit this life in 1931 by way of acute alcoholism, makes a totally neutral Johnny—dutifully amplifying dialogue requiring emphasis but never for an instance suggesting an agent of liberation, for himself or anyone else. Elsewhere, Griffith’s direction is strictly without urgency, pushing the actors (leading the charge, as she often would, was the grand Mary Astor) only to hit their taped marks and speak with correct diction into microphones hidden in ornate vases.

Overall

Never mind the box sets: Here’s a slender, yet unquestionably crucial, presentation of one of the greatest films to emerge from any decade of American cinema, without qualification.

Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Doris Nolan, Lew Ayres, Edward Everett Horton, Henry Kolker, Binnie Barnes, Jean Dixon, Henry Daniell Director: George Cukor Screenwriter: Donald Ogden Stewart, Sidney Buchman Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 95 min Rating: NR Year: 1938 Release Date: January 7, 2020 Buy: Video

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Trending