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Blu-ray Review: Traffic

The primetime debut of one of Criterion’s indies-in-residence, Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning drug war epic gets a terrific HD upgrade.

4.5

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Traffic

Seen today, pre-The Wire, pre-Breaking Bad, even pre-Miss Bala, Traffic looks pretty naïve, but only partly because of its remedial treatment of the U.S.-Mexico drug trade, wherein two aw-shucks American tourists, the ones who learn a hard lesson about auto theft and police corruption, might well be the closest thing the film has to an audience surrogate. Presented as muckraking, exposé journo-tainment, designed to astound and frighten audiences who’ve grown numb to the comically proportioned depictions of the same subjects under a Simpson-Bruckheimer Hollywood, Gaghan’s script makes disproportionate hay about the tendrils of dangerous narcotics reaching even as far as the privileged class, thus short-selling the material’s potential relatability factor for a wider, non-prep-school-bred viewership. Often admired for his even, at times subdued, hand in melodrama, Soderbergh’s direction often proves too neutral to give an alibi for Gaghan’s callous scripting. No quantity of blue tinting can rescue the Erika Christensen “Reefer Madness” subplot, nor Catherine Zeta-Jones’s rich-bitch-turned-felon-trafficker, who was caricatured in the Coen brothers’ Intolerable Cruelty (by Zeta-Jones herself, no less) and laid to rest on Showtime’s Weeds. Even when the movie is supposed to quietly observe the way Michael Douglas’s government man is an addict, too, albeit in a socially approved manner, the pages of his story are a little too dog-eared, a little too heavily highlighted, to count as archetypal.

Wisely, Soderbergh displays a great deal of respect for an actor’s space, holding a shot long enough to capture the full measure of an expression or pirouette, as when del Toro lights a cigarette for Clifton Collins Jr. in a gay bar, then coquettishly blows out the match. He also enjoys giving actors scenes of nothing, like the beltway cocktail party that sees Douglas slowly drown himself in scotch in order to fortify himself against the greedy inanities of D.C. power brokers (some of them real), or when Luis Guzmán casually cons DEA partner Don Cheadle out of 10 bucks while the two are holed up in a stakeout van, or how the deliriously foppish Topher Grace feigns righteous indignation in the face of Douglas’s racial presumptuousness.

Merging the dry, elliptical style of then-recent critical darlings The Limey and Out of Sight with the production values of a much larger, more classically studio-sanctioned structure, Traffic, in retrospect, seems to anticipate the New Seriousness, a post-millennial repackaging of old storytelling modes that’s hard to quantify, but appears to inform everything from Michael Clayton and The Hurt Locker to blockbusters such as The Dark Knight. This strain of mature-seeming Hollywood drama has its roots in Michael Mann’s The Insider, with its shrewd indirectness and replacement of traditional components, such as Actor’s Studio-derived shouting and pushy close-ups, with telephoto-shot scenes and whispered or muttered dialogue, among other devices: handheld camera, high-contrast lighting, a certain preoccupation either with quality wood furniture and good whiskey or the scuffling sound of footfalls on dirty warehouse concrete, where gunshots are “too loud” and car accidents seem to take place in real time. The larger arc of Traffic’s genealogy, of course, links it to the original U.K. series, which aired in 1989—the irony being that the BBC and Channel 4 had been doing the New Seriousness for ages.

For all its weaknesses, the film acquires artistic heft whenever Soderbergh backs away from the statement-making tendencies of Gaghan’s script. Usually this is done through the vehicle of crosscutting between the three main narrative threads: the trophy wife who takes over her incarcerated husband’s business in order to keep her family safe and her assets liquid; the newly appointed American drug czar whose daughter happens to be a junkie; a Mexican cop who emerges quietly victorious following a brush with the most abysmal depths of his country’s criminal empire. Utilizing the services of Stephen Mirrione (one of Hollywood’s most brilliant cutters; he deserved the Oscar he won for this film), Soderbergh takes the parallel out of parallel editing, choosing instead to deflate anything that might resemble Screenwriting 101 pathology or lazy mirroring, i.e. the bane of multi-strand narratives.

If Traffic can be said to have smuggled anything else into American movies, there’s an oddly un-Soderberghian, hectoring tone; the director seems to have tried to scale back on audience-flagellation in similar, subsequent works such as K Street and Contagion, which paints the picture of Traffic, following a decade-plus of the filmmaker accumulating creative clout, as his society debut, somewhat forgivable in its naked fumbling for the approval of Hollywood’s elders. Perhaps it’s the case that whatever British television does to come across as authoritative and legitimate, carries the danger of seeming mealy mouthed and crude in American hands, however well-intentioned. None of this seemed to matter to Oscar voters, however, as they were so taken by Soderbergh’s double triumph in 2000 that he became the first director since 1938 to be nominated for two separate films in the same year. Guessing correctly that one more return to the well would pay off, Gaghan would sorta-remake Traffic five years later with Syriana, supplanting the drug trade with global politics, capitalism, and terrorism. Not exactly the 3D craze, the New Seriousness has nevertheless created its own bulwark in the American cinema, cemented in large part thanks to Soderbergh’s infiltration.

Image/Sound

Sounds great and looks even better, even if surveying Traffic’s image means addressing unconventional choices made in designing the film’s look. As he had done once before with Schizopolis, and would do for every subsequent project, Steven Soderbergh was his own DP, in many cases even operating the camera himself. Traffic’s most recognizable visual trait, of course, is the color-coded tints that were applied in post-production: washed-out, jaundiced goldenrod for Benicio del Toro’s plot, smoky blue for Michael Douglas/Erika Christensen, none for Catherine Zeta-Jones. To varying degrees, the film’s frame is full of dancing golf balls of grain, and Criterion’s transfer is highly attentive to the photographic imperfections, the artisanal crudeness, of each exposure. Contrasts are as precise as woodcuts, even in the most challenging situations, and I could detect no interlacing. The soundtrack is quietly underpinned by Cliff Martinez’s unassuming yet atmospheric score (a Soderbergh collaborator from way back, Martinez would go on to score Solaris and Contagion), while Gaghan’s talky script is clearly delineated and backed by solid bass levels. The picture and sound were supervised and approved by Soderbergh, as well as Larry Blake, the film’s supervising sound editor and rerecording sound mixer.

Extras

A full complement, ported over from Criterion’s 2002 DVD release. Over a half dozen producers and creatives, including Soderbergh, contribute to three audio commentaries, poring over every last detail of inspiration and production backstory; you could not want for more context. The single Blu-ray disc is also furnished with an array of instructive supplements, including three demonstration videos (color processing for the Mexico sequences, editing, and sound editing), and a host of extras, from deleted scenes, trailers, and “U.S. Customs” trading cards. The booklet reprints the 2002 essay by critic Manohla Dargis, and gives the viewer the option to watch the film either in 5.1 or 2.0 surround sound.

Overall

The primetime debut of one of Criterion’s indies-in-residence, Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning drug war epic gets a terrific HD upgrade.

Cast: Michael Douglas, Benicio del Toro, Luis Guzmán, Don Cheadle, Miguel Ferrer, Topher Grace, Erika Christensen, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Albert Finney, James Brolin, Steven Bauer, Amy Irving, Dennis Quaid, Clifton Collins Jr., Viola Davis Director: Steven Soderbergh Screenwriter: Stephen Gaghan Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 147 min Rating: R Year: 2000 Release Date: January 17, 2012 Buy: Video

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Review: Robert Wise’s The Body Snatcher on Shout! Factory Blu-ray

This sterling Blu-ray transfer is occasion for reconsidering the film as more than a minor entry in producer Val Lewton’s body of work.

4

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The Body Snatcher

Robert Wise’s The Body Snatcher thrives on dramatizing how individual responsibility functions within a larger chain of command. Though the film is set in late-19th-century Edinburgh, the dilemmas faced by medical student Donald Fettes (Russell Wade) are in lockstep with the global catastrophe of World War II, as Fettes struggles to determine whether or not he should obey the unorthodox commands of his mentor, Dr. “Toddy” MacFarlane (Henry Daniell). MacFarlane employs the graverobber John Gray (Boris Karloff) to deliver corpses for his medical experiments, as bodies are in short supply due to legal reasons. While not an explicitly coded story about Nazi war crimes (for one, neither MacFarlane nor Gray profess an ideology of hate), the focus on the shadowy machinations of power is prescient of the rhetoric of the Nuremberg trials, where Nazis who participated in the atrocities committed in Auschwitz and other concentration camps denied their criminal culpability.

Though the stakes of The Body Snatcher are much lower than genocide, one of the film’s primary thematic concerns is the psychological guilt of those who participate in murderous schemes for personal benefit. The medical field becomes a conduit for fascism, as Fettes wants to develop a medical practice devoted to personal care rather than profit, personal agendas, or scientific advancement at all costs. And since these ideas are being explored under the supervision of producer Val Lewton, they’re conveyed in the style of his frightening poetics.

One remarkable scene finds Wise amplifying the claustrophobia of confined spaces through tight framings. In it, MacFarlane’s slow-witted assistant, Joseph (Bela Lugosi), has just announced to Gray his blackmail demands after learning of Gray’s body-snatching practice. Despite the initiative to profit from his knowledge, Joseph is at best inept and seems to be merely imitating the kinds of exploitation he witnesses all around him. Wise flips Lugosi’s popular on-screen persona from suave predator to clueless victim. Karloff gives Gray a snarling confidence that manifests in the steady luring of Joseph toward his death. Confronted with the reality of his actions, Gray immediately locks into a mode of self-preservation, seduction, and murder. Such cold and calculating actions project the underlying terror of how rationality might be abused to harm weak or unsuspecting citizens.

A lesser, plot-driven subplot of the film concerns the efforts of Fettes to restore spinal function to young Georgina (Sharyn Moffett), a paraplegic who arrives with her mother, Mrs. Marsh (Rita Corday), at MacFarlane’s home seeking help. Georgina feels like a redux of the girl from Wise’s prior Lewton production, 1944’s The Curse of the Cat People. Whereas in that film Wise gave profound expression to how a child’s mind is affected by parental abuse, The Body Snatcher reduces Georgina’s emotions to a plot device, as Fettes’s more personal and intimate approach to medicine is meant to impugn MacFarlane’s unfeeling, hard-nosed methods.

Even if the narrative threads aren’t as tightly focused on exploring a complex theme as one might hope, The Body Snatcher nevertheless manages to still send chills, and predominately through Wise’s fleet direction and Karloff’s unflinching embodiment of a real-world monster. As with other Lewton productions, the scares are rooted in how character guilt or corruption gives way to fear rather than vice versa. Indeed, while Karloff receives top billing as the film’s embodiment of terror, it’s actually Daniell’s MacFarlane who pulls the strings. In fact, after MacFarlane believes he’s snipped away all loose ends, it’s his own mind that proves to be the final obstacle that cannot be overcome. Less supernatural than secular, the film challenges viewers to look more closely at how society might be impacted by their own behaviors and actions—especially those conceived of or acted upon when others aren’t watching.

Image/Sound

While the DVD transfer of The Body Snatcher released with Warner Home Video’s The Val Lewton Horror Collection was certainly serviceable, the new 4K scan of the film’s original camera negative absolutely sparkles on this Blu-ray release. From beginning to end, the film’s sumptuous high-contrast, black-and-white images are stable and without discernible fault. Depth of field is sharp and focus remains consistent throughout. To this viewer’s eye, hardly a single shot looks anything less than superb. The DTS-HD monaural soundtrack is clean and highly audible, with dialogue and music perfectly balanced.

Extras

Several extras are holdovers from Warner’s 2005 DVD collection, including a feature commentary track by Robert Wise and historian Steve Haberman, as well as the documentary Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy. Each are a wonderful means to comprehend the significance of both this film and Lewton’s legacy, especially if one is just getting acquainted with the extent of the producer’s work. The one new extra is a brief appreciation of The Body Snatcher by Gregory Mank, who spends the bulk of his time talking about why Boris Karloff’s performance is so special. Also included on the disc are a theatrical trailer and a stills gallery.

Overall

Shout! Factory’s sterling Blu-ray transfer is occasion for reconsidering The Body Snatcher as more than a minor entry in producer Val Lewton’s body of work.

Cast: Boris Karloff, Rita Corday, Russell Wade, Henry Daniell, Edith Atwater, Sharyn Moffett, Bela Lugosi Director: Robert Wise Screenwriter: Philip MacDonald, Val Lewton Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 77 min Rating: NR Year: 1945 Release Date: March 26, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour on the Criterion Collection

This unbelievably beautiful restoration is a poignant testament to the talent of an obscure artist too often taken for granted.

5

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Detour

There’s a fragility to Detour that only strengthens its spell. Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1945 film is an inventively sparse mixture of docudrama and DIY expressionism: There are no lush sets and camera pirouettes on display here, as Ulmer makes do with found settings, isolated props, and abbreviated, shaky tracking shots that are rich in authentic and incidental textures. There is tension between edits that cobble sometimes mismatched takes together, meaning that one can almost feel the work that’s necessary here to sustaining an illusion with limited means. Detour has a fly-by-night intensity, then, that’s derived by the thinning of the distance between the film’s collaborators and the audience, suggesting the fluid quality of live art, particularly theater and musical concerts, with the gutter vitality of pulp fiction at its most wrenchingly subjective.

In this context, Detour’s tricky narrative resembles an auto-critical study of how to put a scheme over with no money. Al Roberts (Tom Neal) is an aspiring musician hitchhiking from New York City to Los Angeles to see Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake), who left him to try to break into movies. In the sort of observational flourish that’s typical of Ulmer’s films, we see Al playing a piano in an empty bar, with stacked chairs in front of him in the foreground that lend compositional dynamism to the image while casually illustrating his sense of rejection. To put it bluntly, Al may always be relegated to playing after hours rather than primetime, and Sue wants to enter the center ring. Both characters are stunted artists hamstrung by a lack of resources. In the tradition of disenfranchised men in film noir, Al gets into trouble.

Detour opens on Al at a diner, tellingly arguing with a customer over a selection on the jukebox after the film’s main events have already occurred. A shadow creeps over Al, enclosing his face in darkness as he begins to narrate for us, describing how he wound up as a drifter. Ulmer and screenwriter Martin Goldsmith never allow the audience to forget that Al’s telling the story, as he’s almost certainly an unreliable narrator. Al recalls being picked up off the side of the road by Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund MacDonald), who throws his money around before dying in circumstances so absurd as to lead us to suspect that Al is either hiding something or outright lying. After Haskell dies, Al, in a masterpiece of convenient rationalization, decides that robbing Haskell makes sense, as no one will believe that he didn’t kill the man anyway.

Driving Haskell’s car, wearing the man’s clothes and spending his money, Al gives a ride to Vera (Ann Savage), who’s hitchhiking near a gas station. In another twist so ludicrous that we doubt the veracity of Al’s story, Vera immediately discerns that Al isn’t Haskell, claiming to have recently ridden and fought with him—a development that’s foreshadowed earlier by the scratches on Haskell’s hand. Vera and Al are soon trying to sell Haskell’s car, becoming bound by desperation and sexual tension, as Vera reveals herself to be a formidable, bitter, and merciless opponent. Savage gives the film a jolt of hothouse energy, her curt, pragmatic ferocity serving as a counterpoint for Neal’s commanding recessive-ness.

Detour’s lean 69-minute running time also suggests simplification wrought by economics. Ulmer never resolves the mystery of Al’s trustworthiness, and another death, even less likely than Haskell’s, exacerbates the impression that Al’s attempting to kill his way out of a thicket of escalating crises. The audience is watching either the story of a delusional or unrepentant killer or of a man so profoundly unlucky he might earn words of sympathy from Job. This ambiguity amplifies the tension that’s been created and sustained by Ulmer’s raw yet beautiful style, while complicating the self-pity that often drives crime films.

Detour also pointedly lacks a third act, leaving Al drifting in the narrative ether. Vera tries to blackmail Al into helping her with the sort of conspiracy that drives many noirs, but this development is brutally curtailed, as is Al’s quest to find Sue. The film eats itself alive before the viewer’s eyes, post-modernly reflecting its hero’s doom, which functions as a heightened symbol for the ordinary disappointments of real life. Detour’s struggle to exist mirrors our efforts to do the same, and the film has an aversion to bullshit that’s livelier and more suggestive than anything in most contemporary cinema.

Image/Sound

This new 4K restoration, the result of over a decade of research, is awesomely pristine, rich, and detailed. To those who first came to Detour through subpar VHS editions and online streams and have come to associate it with a lurid crumminess that suggests the film equivalent of a beat-up E.C. comic, the transfer will likely look and sound too beautiful. But one quickly adjusts, as this Criterion edition honors Ulmer’s artistry, emphasizing the beauty he conjured even with a few thousand dollars and a week-long shooting schedule. Close-ups are vivid, revealing people’s wrinkles and creases, and clothing textures are shown to be pivotal illustrations of character. Above all, there’s a silkiness to the image, a velvety sheen that honors its aesthetic virtuosity. Meanwhile, the soundtrack gracefully oscillates between the various sounds of the road and diners and hotels, offering a subtle aural portrait of down-and-out life that contrasts with the dynamic mythmaking of the score. The hisses and pops of prior editions are gone, and so the film sounds as great as it looks.

Extras

Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen, a feature-length 2004 documentary, and a new interview with film scholar Noah Isenberg, author of Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins, cover overlapping ground but are each worthwhile. Both supplements discuss Ulmer’s background as an immigrant from the Czech Republic—though he, like many directors in America who hailed from that part of Europe, claimed to be from the more cosmopolitan Vienna—as well as Ulmer’s early working relationships with legends like F.W. Murnau and legends in the making like Billy Wilder. And both pieces attempt to explain how Ulmer, an intelligent, talented, and cultivated man, failed to achieve the recognition that was enjoyed by, say, Wilder. (Ulmer’s stunning The Black Cat figures into each account.)

The Man Off-Screen offers an appealingly wandering account of Ulmer’s life, with guests like Joe Dante, John Landis, and collaborator Ann Savage celebrating the filmmaker’s inventiveness. Meanwhile, Isenberg offers a concise examination of Ulmer’s aesthetic, suggesting that the filmmaker’s unsatisfied quest for mainstream success benefitted his art. Robert Polito’s essay, included with this disc’s accompanying booklet, examines the creation of Detour with exhilarating precision, while contextualizing the film within the crime genre at large, on the screen as well as on the page. The theatrical trailer and a supplement detailing the origin of Criterion’s extraordinary restoration round out a slim but nourishing package.

Overall

This unbelievably beautiful restoration is a triumph of preservation as well as a poignant testament to the talent of an obscure artist too often taken for granted.

Cast: Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Claudia Drake, Edmund MacDonald, Tim Ryan, Pat Gleason Director: Edgar G. Ulmer Screenwriter: Martin Goldsmith Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 69 min Rating: NR Year: 1945 Release Date: March 19, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue on Shout! Factory Blu-ray

The film is a prescient vision of a modern world defined by media oversaturation and social media validation.

4

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Perfect Blue

Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue is a prescient vision of a modern world defined by media oversaturation and social media validation. In the film, Mimi (Junko Iwao), a J-pop girl-group singer who decides to give up music for acting, finds herself targeted by a stalker who threatens to ruin her if she doesn’t return to her old gig. More than just a stalker thriller, however, Perfect Blue unfolds as an extended study of Mimi’s fraying mental health as she begins to question her own identity as more and more crimes happen around her, with evidence pegging her as a suspect.

One avenue in which Mimi’s sense of self is undermined is, of course, the internet. Early on in Perfect Blue, she’s pointed to a website where she supposedly keeps a diary for her fans. Yet Mimi, who can barely even operate a computer, didn’t write the site’s entries, and she panics over the false confessions being posted on the web under her name. In the film, the internet is amusingly shown in its early days; URLs are absurdly long jumbles of letters and numbers, and sites are mostly text-based with maybe a background image added for flavor. Even here, however, the power of the web to enable false identities to propagate and be taken as legitimate is shown to be considerable, and Mimi is helpless to counter the lies put out by whomever has control of “her” site.

Resentment of Mimi’s abandonment of pop drives Perfect Blue’s violence, which befalls those helping the star’s pivot to acting. Kon’s depiction of violence is brutal, delivering a lot of ripped flesh and gushing blood. At one point, a photographer is stabbed in the eye with a screwdriver, while the climactic confrontation ends with so much blood that it seeps out of the victim’s body in a thick wall of sludge. Kon is circumspect only when it comes to the true source of the film’s crimes—obscuring, misdirecting, and withholding the identity of the killer at almost every turn. Throughout, we only see the murderer’s hands wielding weapons, and no clues are offered by the blurred, scrambled perspectives of the dying victims.

Kon also uses this disjointed perspective to illustrate how Mimi’s sense of self slips away from her, not only from the paranoia mounting around her, but also from the regular degradations that the entertainment industry foists on her. Having left the world of pop and its machinations behind her, Mimi finds herself now at the hands of the masculine world of film. Her aspirations to be a serious actress lead her to taking the role of a rape victim in a production called Double Blind, and soon she’s suffering through uncomfortable scenes where she feels violated by the aggressiveness of the film’s scenarios. (She also gets booked with shocking speed for a nude photo shoot to emphasize she’s no longer a “good girl.”)

Much of Perfect Blue’s turmoil comes not from Mimi struggling to clear her name of murder accusations, but from her attempt to control her own narrative, to put forward an image that isn’t co-opted, as much by the killer as the normal power players in show business. Her inability to decide what kind of person she wants to be is as disturbing as the bloodletting that occurs all around her, and is one facet of what’s allowed Perfect Blue to endure as a masterful articulation of powerlessness in the age of media saturation.

Image/Sound

Shout! Factory’s release of Perfect Blue comes with a remastered presentation of the film, and comparing it to the old, standard-def version (also included here) reveals that the new transfer boasts richer color depth and sharper contrast. Yet the integrity of Satoshi Kon’s most minute aesthetic choices, like the way the grimy backgrounds and deliberately fuzzy line details contribute to the film’s hallucinatory edge, have not been compromised. The surround sound remix for both the English and Japanese language tracks ably distribute the dissonant sounds of violence (glass shattering, blood spurting) and Masahiro Ikuni’s score of unnerving drones and frenetic breakbeat production across the channels into a suffocating cacophony.

Extras

The most substantial feature included here is a 40-minute lecture on the film given by Kon himself, and in which he offers his interpretation of the material and insights into his filming process. Elsewhere, there are brief interviews with both the Japanese- and English-language cast in which they give their thoughts on the film, and both a recording session and ad hoc music video for the “Angel of Your Heart” song that plays during the photographer’s murder.

Overall

Perfect Blue looks excellent on Shout’s disc, though it retains the grimy, slightly indefinite features that contribute the film’s brilliant depiction of blurred reality and illusion.

Cast: Junko Iwao, Rica Matsumoto, Shinpachi Tsuji, Masaaki Ōkura, Yōsuke Akimoto Director: Satoshi Kon Screenwriter: Sadayuki Murai Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 81 min Rating: R Year: 1997 Buy: Video, Soundtrack, Book

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