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Review: Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s World on a Wire on Criterion Blu-ray

Criterion presents this rediscovered Fassbinder mindbender in a luxe Blu-ray transfer.

4.0

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World on a Wire

A Venn diagram meant to illustrate the intersection between art-house cinema and the sci-fiction genre might be sparsely populated, but its occupants certainly would be an illustrious coterie, among them Andrei Tarkovsky’s ruminative companion pieces Solaris and Stalker, Chris Marker’s photo-apocalyptic La Jetée, and rounded out by Jean-Luc Godard’s satirical Alphaville. The latter’s influence on Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s World on a Wire is inarguable, extending beyond a view of urban alienation articulated via the tackiest of modern design to include a cameo from Lemmy Caution himself, Eddie Constantine. Based on Simulacron-3, a 1964 novel by American writer Daniel F. Galouye, the made-for-TV World on a Wire explores the psychological, philosophical, and existential uncertainties underlying the use and abuse of virtual reality.

While it’s difficult to dissociate VR from the context of mainframes and monitors, it was first used by the surrealist playwright Antonin Artaud in his treatise on art and artifice, The Theater and Its Double. Both theatricality and reflexivity, naturally enough, abound in World on a Wire. Fassbinder surrounds his naturalistic lead, Klaus Löwitsch, with flagrantly histrionic acting styles and still-life tableaux, and fills his mise-en-scène with endlessly reflecting mirrors, bouncing the image back and forth until viewers have scant idea which side of the looking glass they occupy. World on a Wire’s “levels of reality” storyline anticipates an entire cycle of films ranging from the bullet-time ballyhoo of the Matrix trilogy to the disconcerting low-fi dystopia of David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, while its future noir aesthetic clearly presages the moody atmospherics of Blade Runner.

Although World on a Wire’s narrative tectonics adhere closely to its source material, Fassbinder takes every opportunity to thumb his nose at viewer expectations. When Dr. Vollmer (Adrian Hoven), the “father” of the Simulacron computer, elects to let his security chief in on a secret that “could destroy this world,” Fassbinder quickly tracks the camera back to the other side of the room and fills the soundtrack with galling industrial whine. Characters go around in literal circles, over the course of many a scene, followed in elegant tracking shots by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus’s ever-roving camera. In an early scene, when Fred Stiller (Löwitsch), introduced as a tuxedo-clad Bond parody who even introduces himself as “Stiller, Fred Stiller,” attempts to seduce a buxom secretary, Fassbinder cues the overture from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde on the soundtrack, music so unabashedly hyperbolic as to be swooningly artificial.

The film’s best sound gag comes about midway, in an oh-so-important scene wherein Stiller is called on to explain the workings of Simulacron for a roomful of journalists. Fassbinder nearly drowns him out with the lilting strains of Strauss’s Blue Danube waltz, at once confounding an audience’s need for simplistic-mechanistic explanations and giving the nod to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Humor and histrionics never belie the weighty subject matter. Stiller’s ontological ambiguity drives him to the brink. Fear and despair (words that feature in several Fassbinder titles) are his constant companions. World on a Wire doesn’t always allow you to share the weight of its protagonist’s anxiety, in the way that later films like Martha or In a Year of 13 Moons effortlessly will. It’s a bit too aloof for all that. Still, it’s a fascinating and dynamic film, packed with intriguing ideas and soaked in a moody ambience, and a welcome addition to an iconoclastic director’s already extensive catalogue.

Image/Sound

The Fassbinder Foundation’s digital restoration, supervised by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, works wonders on the full-frame 16mm original, retaining healthy levels of grain, while bringing color and clarity into sharp focus. The transfer’s not entirely free, however, from artifacts: In the making-of supplement, which briefly touches on some of the restoration work, Ballhaus refers to them as “fuzzballs.” But I have to agree with him that they’re never a real distraction. The lossless mono soundtrack does fine by the dialogue (which is, after all, subtitled) and even better by Gottfried Hüngsberg’s wild and wooly score, especially the shrill discordant whine that signals Stiller’s mental anguish, as well as Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s ironic, contrapuntal use of well-known classical pieces under two key scenes.

Extras

German film scholar Gerd Gemünden nicely lays out, over the course of a 30-minute interview intercut with relevant clips, the thematic and stylistic linkages between World on a Wire and the bulk of Fassbinder’s filmography. He pays particular attention to Fassbinder’s compulsive, wall-to-wall use of mirrors, Ballhaus’s elegant camerawork, the ways in which choice of locations and set design added to the future noir look of the film, and the contributions of the stock company of actors Fassbinder used time after time. Even more in-depth is “Fassbinder’s World on a Wire: Looking Ahead to Today,” a making-of documentary produced by Juliane Lorenz, onetime Fassbinder editor and muse, now head of the Fassbinder Foundation. Interviewees include Ballhaus, co-writer Fritz Müller-Scherz, and actor Karl-Heinz Vosgerau. Müller-Scherz discusses writing the script with Fassbinder on weekend jaunts in Paris, where they decided to shoot most of the film; their approach to the source material; and how they ingratiated their way into the Alcazar nightclub and wound up filming the “Lili Marleen” musical number there. Vosgerau goes into Fassbinder’s technique with actors, and how the director achieved a certain alienation effect by mixing his own repertory actors with older, now-faded popular film stars from the 1950s like Adrian Hoven and Ivan Desny.

Overall

Criterion presents World on a Wire, a rediscovered Fassbinder mindbender, in a luxe Blu-ray transfer, along with some choice extras.

Cast: Klaus Löwitsch, Mascha Rabben, Karl-Heinz Vosgerau, Adrian Hoven, Ivan Desny, Barbara Valentin, Günther Lamprecht, Margit Carstensen, Wolfgang Schenck, Joachim Hansen, Rudolf Lenz, Kurt Raab, Karl Scheydt, Rainer Hauer, Ulli Lommel, Heinz Meier, Ingrid Caven, Eddie Constantine Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder Screenwriter: Fritz Müller-Scherz, Rainer Werner Fassbinder Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 212 min Rating: NR Year: 1973 Release Date: February 21, 2012 Buy: Video

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Review: Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table on Criterion Blu-ray

Jane Campion upends staid genre convention with an impressionistic approach to character.

4

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An Angel at My Table

Jane Campion initially conceived of her adaptation of author Janet Frame’s series of three autobiographies, To the Is-Land, An Angel at My Table, and The Envoy from Mirror City, as a TV miniseries. Only into production did the New Zealand Film Commission suggest a theatrical release, apparently because the biopic is the singular genre that looks, feels, and acts like episodic television and still plays nominally well in movie theaters. The film, named after the volume of Frame’s memoirs that recounts her elongated residence in a psychiatric ward, is no doubt a heartfelt tribute to a soft-spoken, melancholic writer from a director who claims to cherish her work as being very important in her own development. And though An Angel at My Table is shackled to that unyielding, difficult narrative structure of most biopics, this quality also works to the film’s benefit, as Frame’s life is unspooled with the same sort of scenes-as-brushstrokes impressionism of Im Kwon-taek’s Chihwaseon.

Still, whereas Im’s film becomes increasingly restless and elliptical as it goes on, culminating in one of the most poetic representations of an artist stepping into legend (via a kiln), An Angel at My Table begins at the pinnacle of Campion’s whimsicality before settling into a mundane processional march. Janet, first seen as a baby covering her face trying to deflect her approaching mother’s bosom, followed by a panorama of her as a knobby-kneed pre-teen against the rolling New Zealand landscape, goes through her early childhood as an outcast at school. She’s from a poor family, has poor hygiene (later in her teens, she let her teeth rot brown), and when she offers her entire class chewing gum bought with money she stole from her father’s woolen pocket, her teacher reveals her thievery to the class, who then sneers.

Which is to say nothing of the untamable patch of ginger cotton growing from Frame’s scalp, which remains a constant in her life as she moves from the university to the asylum to a successful writing career complete with grants to travel to Paris and Spain. An Angel at My Table traces Frame’s life across more than 30 years, and she’s portrayed by three different actresses (in order of age: Alexia Keogh, Karen Fergusson, and Kerry Fox) whose remarkable resemblance to each other extends beyond their appearance and mannerisms. They seamlessly pass the psychological baton and collectively sculpt a convincing portrait of growth.

Campion’s knack for intimate yet paradoxically epic artistry nibbles off Laura Jones’s bite-sized scene-sketches of loneliness and makes entire meals of them, swallowing cast and location up alike in an effort to centralize the three actresses playing Frame, and to the point that even the most major supporting characters (her older sister, an American lover in Ibiza) are delegated to the sidelines. Given the manner in which Frame’s wild crown of fuzz takes up the upper part of the frame across the film’s many close-ups, she comes to resemble a kind of hourglass, suggesting (however inadvertently) the time that she struggles to remember and catalog in writing her own memoirs, as well as the time she lost in a mental institution, where she endured no less than 200-odd electroshock treatments. Campion’s film comes up short, however, in never satisfactorily illustrating the importance or character of Frame’s writing, which, while lauded for its selflessness, can’t survive the filmmaker’s tightly honed individualist scrutiny without occasionally lapsing into solipsism.

Image/Sound

The varied hues of Stuart Dryburgh’s cinematography really come alive on Criterion’s Blu-ray, which perfectly renders every shade of green contained within the verdant, rolling fields of New Zealand. Also strong across exterior and interior scenes, even the mostly dimly lit ones, is the contrast between characters’ more colorful attire and the naturalistic browns and yellows of their surroundings. Campion’s subtly expressionistic techniques, such as the fluctuations of light that rhyme with the changes in Frame’s state of mind, are easier to appreciate here than they were on the previous standard-definition release. The soundtrack balances the film’s rich ambient noise, so crucial in conveying how Frame is overwhelmed with anxiety, in the surround channels while keeping the dialogue clear and crisp in the center channel.

Extras

This disc’s extras have all been ported over from Criterion’s original DVD. The commentary track finds Jane Campion, Stuart Dryburgh, and Kerry Fox—all recorded separately—discussing different aspects of the production, from Fox’s approach to her character to Drybrugh’s use of light to convey emotion. A brief making-of documentary features behind-the-scenes clips and red-carpet footage from the film’s New Zealand premiere, while an archival interview finds the press-averse Janet Frame, in promoting her first autobiography, speaking candidly about her childhood and the evolution of her writing. A series of incredibly short deleted scenes are also included; they’re lovely, impressionistic glimpses into the characters’ time-passing activities, even though they don’t illuminate anything that can’t be reasoned from the film’s final cut. An accompanying booklet contains excerpts from Frame’s An Autobiography, as well as an essay by Amy Taubin, who delves into the film’s intimate, empathetic portrayal of the author.

Overall

Jane Campion upends staid genre convention with an impressionistic approach to character, and this disc’s gorgeous new transfer showcases the film’s understated beauty.

Cast: Kerry Fox, Alexia Keogh, Karen Fergusson, Iris Churn, K.J. Wilson Director: Jane Campion Screenwriter: Laura Jones Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 158 min Rating: R Year: 1990 Release Date: August 6, 2019 Buy: Video, Book

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Review: Jacques Becker’s Touchez Pas au Grisbi on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

Becker’s vivid, exacting portrait of aging gangsters is given a long overdue upgrade to high definition, coupled with several insightful extras.

4

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Touchez Pas au Grisbi

Paris’s Montmartre neighborhood is a den of vice in Jacques Becker’s Touchez Pas au Grisbi, a busy world of prostitutes, nightclubs, secret backrooms, and slickly dressed gangsters with heavy appetites for life. Yet despite its element of seediness, the film’s milieu is defined even more strongly through routine, ritual, and quotidian detail. Max (Jean Gabin), one of his criminal world’s elder statesmen, is given to strolling around town, and when he stops in at a popular club or his regular hangout, Madame Bouche’s (Denise Clair) restaurant, you’re struck by the ease with which he occupies these spaces. One gets the distinct sense that he knows exactly what he’s walking into when he passes through virtually any doorway, and if he doesn’t, it’s too late for him to do anything about it.

Max’s leisurely gait suggests that he’s paid his dues and earned the respect of friends and enemies alike, not to mention that he’s aware of being in the twilight of his career. As the pretty young women who accompany his friends beg to draw out one night’s festivities, Max begrudgingly admits that “after midnight, I always feel like I’m doing overtime.” Predictability is a comfort to the old hand, as evidenced by his habit of putting on Jean Wiener’s melancholy jazz song “Le Grisbi” on Madame Bouche’s jukebox or his record player at home. And the slow, lilting quality of the song is in sync with Max’s pace, as well as that of the film.

Touchez Pas au Grisbi homes in on the conflicts that arise when a veteran criminal attempts to extract himself from the underworld where he’s built his life, setting the template for that archetype and directly influencing Bob le Flambeur, which is also set in Montmartre. But where Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1956 film followed Roger Duchesne’s Bob as he planned one last heist before retirement, Touchez Pas au Grisbi begins after Max has already successfully executed his final job. Max has long had a symbiotic relationship with this perilous world, and while he’s built a reputation that’s made him a mentor and paragon to many, he’s become a target to others. Riding off into the sunset would be ideal for him, but Max is painfully aware that retirement in his line of work more often than not ends with a bullet.

As with everything he does, Max is as meticulous in stealing 50 million francs in gold bars from a shipment at Paris’s Orly Airport as he is in hiding the loot away in the garage of a secret apartment he keeps on the other side of town. Of course, word of Max’s score gets around fast, and the area’s other big-shot crooks, like Angelo (Lino Ventura), start to sniff out the bounty with the efficiency of bloodhounds. Becker, however, is no hurry to build to explosive set pieces, instead preferring to soak in the ambiance of Max’s domain. As such, the film’s subsequent double crosses and betrayals play out like a carefully plotted game of chess, and with the same casual, languorous pacing with which Max moves about town.

Throughout Touchez Pas au Grisbi, Becker makes his chosen milieu come alive through a fierce fixation on the most minute of details. In capturing the myriad ways that characters interact with one another, he elucidates the complicated and deeply ingrained psychology that drives the stoic men and women who inhabit this world. And nowhere is this truer than during a lengthy scene where Max takes Riton (René Mary) to his hideaway for the first time. Max and his longtime friend suggest a kind of odd couple, with the smooth and nimble Max always picking up the slack for Riton, who, while loyal to his friend, isn’t the sharpest or most observant man in the room. When they first arrive at Max’s sparsely furnished second home, Max discusses his plan to sell the loot to his uncle (Paul Oettly). Soon, Max begins to playfully mock Riton for being oblivious to how ridiculous he appears in his old age, galavanting with much younger women and relying on Max to get him out of every jam. As they lightly quarrel, the men indulge in crackers and pate, and once they finally turn quiet, Becker’s camera continues to track them as they devote themselves to a series of mundane nighttime rituals: changing into their pajamas, brushing their teeth, Riton examining his face in a mirror for signs of aging, and enjoying a final cigarette after heading to their separate beds.

Most films would deem such a sequence superfluous or indulgent, but Becker understands that Max and Riton’s routines are extensions of their beings, a reflection of their comfort with and closeness to one another, as well as their tendency toward perfectionism. Touchez Pas au Grisbi is full of such seemingly minor yet hyper-attentive moments—of characters lighting cigarettes, pouring champagne, exchanging glances, even tenderly touching another’s face—all of which carry the weight of a life lived where death could happen at any given moment. Although Becker eventually does build up to a thrilling finale, with plenty of gunfire and explosions, it’s the accrual of emotional and psychological complexity through gestures and small, human moments that makes the film such a singularly rich experience.

Image/Sound

There’s a remarkable crispness to the transfer on this Blu-ray. But while backgrounds and faces in close-up are magnificently detailed, there are times where the edges of objects and, more distractingly, faces are so sharply defined that it feels like you’re watching the film through an Instagram filter. A modicum of grain might have corrected that, as well as hid such imperfections as the gel holding Jean Gabin’s wonderful coiffed hair in place. But however digitized the film may seem, there’s a wealth of information to be found in every frame, from the age lines and puffiness of Gabin’s world-weary face to the textures of his countless suits and pair of silk pajamas. The audio is clear, offering clean dialogue exchanges and a nicely balanced mix of sound effects and Jean Wiener’s score.

Extras

On his commentary track, the irresistibly silver-tongued Nick Pinkerton insightfully grapples with Jacques Becker’s aesthetics, and makes a strong case for the director being among the most important and influential artists working in post-World War II France. In addition to breaking down scenes at length and shining a spotlight on Becker’s masterful exploration of environment through a precise attention to details, Pinkerton also discusses the personal and professional histories of various actors, such as Jean Gabin’s dry spell following the war. The Blu-ray also includes several interviews: Critic Ginette Vincendeau speaks to Becker’s enormous influence on the French New Wave; Jacques Becker’s son, Jean, discusses his father’s early work as an assistant director to Jean Renoir and the older Becker’s fondness for Gabin; and Jeanne Moreau recalls her nervousness at working with Gabin and her belief that Becker originally cast her because he liked how small her hands were.

Overall

Jacques Becker’s vivid, exacting portrait of aging gangsters is given a long overdue upgrade to high definition, coupled with several insightful extras.

Cast: Jean Gabin, René Dary, Dora Doll, Vittorio Sanipoli, Lino Ventura, Jeanne Moreau, Paul Frankeur, Marilyn Buferd, Daniel Cauchy, Denise Clair, Gaby Basset, Paul Oettly Director: Jacques Becker Screenwriter: Albert Simonin, Jacques Becker, Maurice Griffe Distributor: KL Studio Classics Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 1954 Release Date: August 13, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Alfred Sole’s Alice, Sweet Alice on Arrow Video

Arrow Video has made a commendable effort to ensure that Alice, Sweet Alice finds its rightful place in the horror film canon.

4.5

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Alice, Sweet Alice

Alfred Sole’s Alice, Sweet Alice conjures a stifling atmosphere, one in which strained infrastructures, especially an ideologically divided Catholic Church, are unable to help diseased minds. The film opens with a young girl, Karen (Brooke Shields), preparing for her first communion. Karen’s mother, Catherine (Linda Miller), and well-meaning preacher (Rudolph Willrich) are so excited for Karen that they overlook the deranged behavior of the girl’s sister, Alice (Paula E. Sheppard). After starting to wear a yellow raincoat (a nod to Don’t Look Now) and a translucent mask that suggests a smiling albino face decked out in garish make-up, Alice bullies Karen, stealing her clothes and toys and leading her to a warehouse and briefly locking her behind a sliding door. Throughout these episodes, Sole focuses on crosses, religious statues, and a creepy Janus-faced doll, emphasizing the violence festering under a righteous community’s nose, as well as a split between tolerance, especially of more modern relationships, and wrath and judgment in the key of the Old Testament.

As other critics have claimed, the term “slasher film” is inadequate to describe Alice, Sweet Alice, which shows murders to spring from a patchwork of motivations and tensions. Karen is strangled at her communion by a diminutive person in a yellow raincoat and translucent mask—a scene that Sole stages with an intimate yet offhand quality that’s authentically shocking. One can hear the sounds of the communion, a theoretical bastion of safety, as the life is squeezed out of the girl, as well as feel the ease with which the killer commits this trespass. The church is rarely filmed in the sort of master shots that might inspire feelings of grandeur; rather, Sole favors cramped medium shots and close-ups that induce claustrophobia. The characters always appear to be cramped together in the church, on top of one another, and their homes are composed of similarly small passageways. One of the most vivid of Alice, Sweet Alice’s settings is a pea-green angular stairway that sometimes suggests “found” German expressionism, with neighbors who always seem to be within earshot.

Alice is naturally suspected of Karen’s murder, though Catherine, in denial about the hostile relationship between her daughters, remains oblivious to Alice’s predatory tendencies. This willed ignorance is partially understood by Sole to be a reaction to Catherine’s sister, Annie (Jane Lowry), an uptight shrew who treats Alice with contempt, and who resents that Catherine went against the church and had Alice out of wedlock with her now ex-husband, Dom (Niles McMaster), who returns to town to investigate the mystery of Karen’s death.

Sole allows these reverberations, particularly the parallel bitterness existing between Catherine and Annie and Karen and Alice, both of which have been intensified by religion, to gradually assert themselves into our minds. Yet Alice, Sweet Alice isn’t exactly an indictment of the church, as Catherine and Dom’s splintered relationship is also portrayed as a gateway to chaos, primarily for Catherine’s distracted nature and unwillingness to face the truth of her family. For instance, a pathologist (Lillian Roth) virtually begs Catherine to keep Alice in therapy to little avail, especially after Alice claims the killer, after another attack, to be Karen.

Sole paints a rich and febrile portrait, then, of how society enables dysfunction on multiple fronts, from the domestic to the religious to the psychiatric. (The police are shown to be restorers of order, though they serve that function almost inadvertently.) The filmmaker also invests his narrative with references to classic horror films, most notably Psycho, though his own direction lacks Alfred Hitchcock’s polish, which in this case is a blessing. In the film’s best sequences, particularly the moments following Karen’s murder, Sole allows for tonal inconsistencies that reflect the true shock of violence. In such instances, Alice, Sweet Alice turns momentarily shrill, with actors screeching their lines almost directly to the camera—a device that expresses pain and refutes the fashions with which many horror directors rush through the grief process haphazardly in order to move the narrative along.

In other moments, though, Sole’s directorial control is magisterial. Annie’s near murder, when she’s stabbed on the stairway, is framed in a prismatic image, with a mirror reflecting the assault back on itself and suggesting, once again, the intense insularity of this world. (Other such images show characters nearly encased by religious totems.) Later, as Dom is taunted by Karen’s killer, Sole fashions a close-up of a face wearing the mask, looking at Dom from a higher vantage point. Sole lingers on the eyes behind the mask, which are gleaming with fury and, more disturbingly, a kind of grace that might come from acting on and expunging one’s suppressed emotions. In this scene, the mask becomes a symbol for the failures of all the infrastructures under this remarkable film’s purview, as this object also fails to efface insanity.

Image/Sound

Arrow Video’s new 2K restoration of Alice, Sweet Alice is positively gorgeous. The autumnal colors that dominate the film’s palette have a rich earthy presence, while other hues—such as the red of spilled blood and the green of the hideous stairwell—pop luridly off the screen. Most importantly, every color here has a highly differentiated presence that stands in stark contrast to muddier prior presentations of the film, which should hopefully increase awareness of the film’s artistry. Meanwhile, grain textures are healthy and appealing, though image clarity is also superb, which is to say that the film looks vibrant yet evocatively lived-in at the same time. The monaural soundtrack is also dynamic, rendering a wide spectrum of diegetic sounds—running, stabbing, door slamming—with dimension and body, while also affording Stephen Lawrence’s eerily airy score the prominence it deserves.

Extras

A new commentary with writer Richard Harland Smith offers an engaging deep dive into the symbolism of Alice, Sweet Alice, discussing with particular acuity the film’s understanding of the hidden worlds that children foster, and how these worlds parallel those of the adults. (One example is Alice’s suggestively satanic version of a confession booth.) Smith also provides considerable biographical information on the film’s participants, which is complemented by the archive commentary by director Alfred Sole and editor M. Edward Salier. Sole generously cites the contributions of his collaborators, especially Salier, whom he says “saved him” by helping to fashion suspenseful rhythms from his footage.

Meanwhile, several new interviews—with composer Stephen Lawrence, actor Niles McMaster, Sole, and others—offer updated discussions of the film, which is also known as Communion, as well as alternate views of its making and its storied release pattern. Another new interview, with horror filmmaker Dante Tomaselli, is a more personal account, as Tomaselli is Sole’s younger cousin, who remembers soliciting the older man for advice on his own scripts, which now include an in-the-works remake of Alice, Sweet Alice. Other goodies include deleted scenes, a tour of film’s memorable shooting locations, TV spots, the trailer, alternate opening titles, and even an alternate cut of the film, called Holy Terror, which features different footage. Rounding out a very extensive package is a miniature version of the film’s poster, and a booklet featuring an essay by Michael Blyth that contextualizes Alice, Sweet Alice within the giallo, the blossoming American slasher film, and exorcism narratives.

Overall

With this beautiful restoration, Arrow Video has made a commendable effort to ensuring that Alice, Sweet Alice finds its rightful place in the horror film canon.

Cast: Paula E. Sheppard, Linda Miller, Mildred Clinton, Niles McMaster, Jane Lowry, Rudolph Willrich, Michael Hardstark, Alphonso DeNoble, Garry Allen, Louisa Horton, Tom Signorelli, Brooke Shields Director: Alfred Sole Screenwriter: Rosemary Ritvo, Alfred Sole Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 107 min Rating: R Year: 1976 Release Date: August 6, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Alan J. Pakula’s Klute on the Criterion Collection

Criterion has brought to vivid life the darkness of Pakula’s seminal detective thriller.

4.5

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Klute

Though nearing 50, Alan J. Pakula’s Klute feels contemporary. The 1971 film concerns the intermingling of business, sex, and technology, which collectively offer people illusions of control at the potential expense of intimacy. Pivotal to the narrative is a tape recording of a prostitute named Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda), who, as she attempts to help a nervous john relax, describes what she enjoys, the boundlessness of her carnal imagination, and her desire to shed her sweater and become comfortable. This recording is heard throughout the film, suggesting a leitmotif, and it’s notable for being less erotic than lonely. Other recordings are made of Bree, ostensibly to help catch a stalker and probable killer, though they more viscerally suggest a need to experience a woman from afar without the complication of knowing her.

Though we see Bree at work later in the film, relaxing a john on a couch in a scene of remarkable intimacy and vulnerability, we never see the initial moment that has been recorded, which exemplifies our, as well as the stalker’s, remove from the encounter. Pakula intensifies that impression of distance by crisscrossing the aural and visual textures of other scenes. When Bree talks to her psychiatrist (Vivian Nathan), we sometimes don’t see their conversation, but rather images of Bree walking the street alone. Distance, and alienation, and anonymity, are also suggested by frequent shots of characters in silhouette, often against vast cityscapes. In the most chilling of such compositions, the stalker, a powerful man, sits high up in a skyscraper by himself, listening yet again to that recording.

Klute is set in a pre-gentrified New York City, which Pakula and cinematographer Gordon Willis mercilessly depict as a wasteland—a place of considerable yet fleeting pleasure. Another recurring shot, of characters in elevators, is framed from a birds’ eye view that likens the elevator to a cage. The streets are bustling and cold, while the interiors of wealthy buildings are symmetrical and sterile. Bree claims to hate her apartment, a comedown from her place in Park Avenue when she was a full-time, top-flight call girl, but this home is the film’s one refuge—sloppy, overstuffed, and authentically human. In the film’s most comforting image, Bree sheds her fashionable ‘70s-era wardrobe and slips into an oversized robe and curls into a ball on a dining room chair and smokes a joint with a glass of white wine. Meanwhile, the rest of the apartment is shrouded in Willis’s quintessential use of dark lighting, suggesting that Bree is truly in her cocoon. This sort of comfort is what lonely people wish they could share with others but usually can’t. Not even someone as commanding as Bree, who, given her situation, has naturally come to see men as beings to be manipulated and bargained with.

Bree Daniels remains Fonda’s definitive role, for having given the actress the space to explore nesting notions of how “playacting” can be used to efface vulnerability. Bree is very sexy—one understands why she would be in demand—but her bedside manner is only theoretically titillating, as Bree can’t give herself over to the charade. Watching Bree talk dirty, we sense a shrewd student parroting the answers that she know will get her an “A.” The johns, lost in their own illusions, don’t seem to notice the detachment that Fonda so brutally and beautifully dramatizes. The various cinematic clichés of the prostitute—heart of gold, schemer, pitiful addict—are nowhere to be found in Fonda’s performance. She gives Bree a diamond-hard sense of self-sufficiency, with a streak of cruelty, which is both elegant and heartbreaking, and every physical gesture contains multitudes.

Next to Bree, John Klute (Donald Sutherland), a private investigator who’s looking into the disappearance of a friend, almost feels like a ghost. We’re told little about Klute, other than that he’s something of a prude who looks at someone like Bree with a mixture of curiosity and contempt. Sutherland isn’t absent though, he’s actively dramatizing self-conscious withdrawal, allowing the audience to feel the emotions churning under a man who must be cautious in a world that he doesn’t understand. There’s something poignant in the way that Klute initially addresses Bree, as he treats her as just another person to be interviewed, rather than as an attractive woman or a prostitute. Klute is almost courtly, and Sutherland lances that etiquette with fear. Which is to say that this character offers a significant contrast from the macho P.I.s of ‘40s-era noir or the badass cops of ‘70s-era crime films, though Pakula and Sutherland don’t wear this progressiveness on their sleeves.

The mysteries of Bree’s stalker and the disappearance of Klute’s friend are easily solved and don’t make much sense. (One is asked to believe that a killer would bankroll an investigation into his own crimes.) Within this framework, however, Pakula, Willis, Fonda, and Sutherland offer a supple, heightened exploration of the perils of forging a relationship, especially as one approaches middle age and has more baggage to carry than before. Bree and Klute’s romance isn’t sentimentalized; it isn’t even understood as a romance, but as a fleeting hook-up rooted in each person’s barely explicable need. A sexy moment, with Bree’s leg visible as she climbs into Klute’s bed, is immediately dispelled with the practical exertions of what appears to be mediocre sex. Sensing Klute’s insecurity afterward, Bree turns the knife, saying that she “never comes with a john.” The true danger in Klute isn’t a killer, but the emotional traps we set, partially to subconsciously ensure that we remain alone. No wonder online porn is so popular, and even less wonder that the oldest profession continues to thrive.

Image/Sound

This transfer honors the visual textures of Gordon Willis’s cinematography, which offers many purposeful gradations of clarity and softness. Certain blurry foreground shots communicate the POV of a killer, for instance, while crystal-clear shots of buildings suggest the impersonality of the settings, and these are but two of the simpler examples of Willis’s technique. More complex are the brilliant compositions of Bree’s apartment, in which she basks in warm, softly lit comfort while surrounded by a tapestry of darkness that could contain anything. These compositions always seem to be perfectly balanced and are rich in information without ever feeling too cleaned up to suit modern sensibilities. Skin and fabric tones, integral to this film’s sense of reality, are also strongly detailed. The monaural soundtrack lustrously evokes both the cacophony of city nightlife and the chilling stray sounds of a long night, and dialogue is crisp and clean.

Extras

A collection of interviews, taken from an upcoming documentary by Matthew Miele, discuss Alan J. Pakula’s direction, especially his gift for working with actors and the visual style he developed with Gordon Willis. Particularly noteworthy is the participation of Steven Soderbergh, whose own style has clearly been influenced by Pakula’s films. In a new conversation with actress Illeana Douglas, Jane Fonda frankly discusses working with Pakula and Willis, and still seems to be quite moved by the opportunity to have played Bree Daniels. Most memorably, Fonda draws a parallel between the backlash she braved as a Vietnam War protestor and the constant harassment that Bree faces. In a new interview, fashion writer Amy Fine Collins documents how fashion and architecture are used in Klute to establish character and setting, offering an invaluable primer on how the styles of the early ‘70s informed the film’s look and feel. Rounding out a strong package are vintage television interviews with Pakula and Fonda, an archive piece on Klute’s use of New York City, and a booklet featuring an excerpt from a 1972 interview with Pakula and a sharp essay by writer Mark Harris that traces how the film became a landmark exploration of female psychology.

Overall

Criterion has brought to vivid life the darkness of Alan J. Pakula’s seminal detective thriller, which is truly a piercing examination of loneliness.

Cast: Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, Charles Cioffi, Roy Scheider, Dorothy Tristan, Rita Gam, Nathan George, Vivian Strassberg, Barry Snider, Betty Murray, Jane White, Shirley Stoler, Robert Milli Director: Alan J. Pakula Screenwriter: Andy Lewis, Dave Lewis Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 114 min Rating: R Year: 1971 Release Date: July 16, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Michael Radford’s 1984 on the Criterion Collection

Criterion’s Blu-ray elegantly showcases the spartan beauty of Michael Radford’s chilling adaptation of 1984.

4

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1984

Released in the year for which George Orwell’s dystopian novel was named, Michael Radford’s 1984 could easily have been a gimmicky adaptation capitalizing on a marketing hook. But for all of the continued relevance of the novel as a commentary on the abuses of state power, it’s nonetheless disturbing how easily much of the film’s dystopian production design could be imperceptibly placed among contemporary realist dramas about the failures of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. Even the crucial subplot from the novel involving the government’s manufactured, endless war with a rival power as a means of inspiring nationalist loyalty has echoes in Britain’s last imperial war in the Falklands.

Elsewhere, Radford’s realization of Orwell’s bleak prose is more ambitiously presented. Colossal TV screens broadcasting an endless stream of propaganda and the static, all-seeing gaze of Big Brother loom over citizens gathered at mandatory rallies. The film’s sense of Oceania as a de-individualized, de-sexualized, anhedonic society is enhanced by Roger Deakins’s use of the bleach-bypass process, emphasizing the darkness of decrepit and underlit buildings and the cold, pale silver of overcast light. Other forms of bleaching are even more subtle, such as the flag of the ruling Ingsoc Party that depicts a white hand and black hand clasped together in fraternity, a sick joke of pretending at racial harmony given that this is a nation that appears to have thoroughly purged its non-white citizens.

The film’s fealty to its source material is evident even in the performances. As Winston Smith, John Hurt uses his frail body and shaky voice to give perfect expression to the man’s introversion and the way that his rebellion is both unintentional and inevitable to his habit of idle daydreaming. Love interest Julia retains the dated chauvinism with which Orwell wrote her, as Suzanna Hamilton spends a significant portion of her scenes fully nude, but the actress fascinatingly plays up the way that the character masks her own treasonous individualism with exaggerated displays of loyalty. Julia’s face contorts into grotesque grimaces as she peers at propagandistic images of Oceania’s enemies, and she delivers her salutes to the flag with a rapturous ecstasy. But finest of all is Richard Burton in his final role as O’Brien, the Thought Police torturer who hunts down and punishes Winston and Julia for their thoughtcrimes. Burton succinctly embodies all of the cold, precise illogic of the state’s weaponized contradictions and falsehoods, his O’Brien calmly scrambling Winston’s head as he brutally conditions the man to accept the ultimate truth: that truth is whatever the Party says it is.

“Orwellian” has long been a shorthand for social control maintained by omniscient surveillance and official disinformation. But the true horror of Orwell’s novel has always been its depiction of how quickly the average person can be conditioned into complacency by a totalitarian system like Oceania’s. Before they’re seized by the police, Julia reassures Winston that “they can make you say anything, but they can’t make you believe it.” The purpose, though, of O’Brien’s torture isn’t to extract confessions from his prisoners, but to so completely break them down that they come to believe their brainwashing. The film never more horrifically illustrates this principle than when another of O’Brien’s prisoners is prepped for another round of punishment despite having confessed to all of his accused crimes, and in his utter terror he can only desperately beg: “What is it that you want me to know?”

Image/Sound

Criterion’s Blu-ray, sourced from a 4K restoration, showcases the film in all its brutal beauty. The rich silvers of Roger Deakins’s bleach-bypassed cinematography positively sparkles on this new transfer, and texture is so fine that you can trace minuscule strains of mold and filth arcing over rotting building walls and the wrinkles of Oceania’s joyless citizens. The film’s rich use of shadow also looks exquisite, with detail visible even in the dimmest light. This release includes two audio tracks, one with the moody score by Dominic Muldowney and one with the electronic score by the Eurythmics. Both tracks boast excellent balance between the dialogue and score, though the track featuring Muldowney’s orchestration sounds slightly fuller.

Extras

Interviews with Michael Radford and Roger Deakins delve into the ups and downs of the film’s production and the clever ways in which the filmmakers had to maximized their lack of resources. Particularly interesting is Deakins’s observation that the torture chamber Room 101 had to be filmed in a bare, dark room because the production ran out of money, though the room’s lack of visible objects only makes it seem so much more fearsome. A behind-the-scenes documentary for British television includes on-set footage and red-carpet interviews from the film’s premiere, and Orwell scholar David Ryan contributes a lengthy interview in which he details the various adaptations of 1984 and why Radford’s version is the definitive one to date. An essay by writer A.L. Kennedy thoughtfully traces how faithful the film is to the novel.

Overall

Criterion’s Blu-ray elegantly showcases the spartan beauty of Michael Radford’s chilling adaptation of 1984.

Cast: Richard Burton, Suzanna Hamilton, Cyril Cusack, Gregor Fisher Director: Michael Radford Screenwriter: Michael Radford Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 113 min Rating: R Year: 1984 Release Date: July 23, 2019 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Review: Marcel Carné’s Port of Shadows on KL Studio Classics Blu-ray

Kino’s Blu-ray gifts us with a beautiful transfer of a classic of French poetic realism.

3.5

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Port of Shadows

In 1896, writer Maxim Gorky described what was perhaps his first encounter with cinema—a Lumière brothers program at a Russian fair—as entering “the kingdom of shadows.” This
was a world so depressing it turned the viewer into a “ripped sack full of lacerated flesh and splintered bones,” bringing out the “grey, the bleak and dismal life.” If, by 1938, the year Michel Carné directed Port of Shadows, cinema was hardly a disturbing novelty, it could certainly symptomatize the foreboding disturbances of the day, in the lead-up to World War II. In Carné’s tale of helplessness and despair, solitude is the only existential guarantee, and even the most romantic young girl, wearing a raincoat and bonnet, knows love to be a short-lived ruse—not unlike the scams of chauvinistic hoodlums.

Written by Jacques Prévert, Port of Shadows is steeped in the perennial fog that seemed to despair Gorky in the early days of cinema. The film’s characters are frozen into a state of embittered melancholy, like Romeos too battered by life’s disappointments not to become Bluebeards. Jean (Jean Gabin) is an AWOL soldier seeking refuge in the city of Le Havre, where he meets Nelly (Michèle Morgan), an unspeakably stunning 17-year-old girl who’s surrounded by men involved in various shady businesses: false passports, murder, dismemberment, and the like. In their first encounter, Jean and Nelly exchange diverging opinions about the incapacity of a woman to love a soldier without his uniform, and only after do they ask each other’s names. She mourns the fact that humans wake up every morning as if something good was going to happen and it never does; he’s just as optimistic, so they fall madly in love.

But these are unusual lovers on film, as they’re too wounded to actually love—to completely believe love’s seductive premise and perverse promises. Jean and Nelly can taste the nasty aftertaste of disenchantment before love has even fully announced itself. So when Jean delivers bad news to Nelly after making love to her for the first time—that he has to leave on a Venezuela-bound ship in the morning—it hardly comes as a surprise. The end of love, coinciding with its beginning, is almost like a favor life offers them. And this awareness of the violence inherent to emotional bonds feels like a mature way to avoid the more familiar desperation that tends to befall cinematic characters, and real-life folk.

Of course, it can also act as a buzz-kill for an audience that’s thus unallowed intimacy with the character’s wants, only with their defense mechanisms. We may empathize with their resistance to suffer, but it’s hard to feel something other than philosophical respect for characters who think of swimmers as soon-to-be drowned men. We want to get lost in Morgan’s impossible beauty (she’s a humorless Katherine Hepburn of sorts), to root for Gabin’s humble heroism, and to see them flee together in the nick of time. But their rational approach to love makes us dread our own cinematic investment.

Image/Sound

Kino’s transfer highlights the subtleties of Eugen Schüfftan’s shadowy cinematography. The high dynamic range leads to inky blacks, but the lighter end of the spectrum is equally impressive, be it in Michele Morgan’s shimmering, translucent raincoat; several of the film’s exceptionally bright exterior shots, such as when the painter walks off to his suicide; or Panama the bartender’s all-white suit, which clashes with the dregs of his dingy little port-side bar. There’s an impressive amount of detail in the image throughout, but it’s especially eye-catching in facial close-ups where Morgan’s soft, feminine features are expressively contrasted with Jean Gabin’s harsh, angular ones. The sound is occasionally a tad muffled, with a slight crackling in the background, but for the most part the dialogue is perfectly clean and Maurice Jaubert’s lush, lilting score is alive and well in all its glory.

Extras

Studio Canal’s 45-minute documentary “On the Port of the Shadows” provides ample historical context about the film’s release, as well as insight into its ambiguous representation of a military deserter. Artists and experts of all stripes, from filmmakers Claude Lelouch and Jean-Pierre Jeunet to an array of critics and historians, chime in to praise the precision of Jacques Prévert’s legendary dialogue, director Michel Carne’s unique ability to work well with strong-willed collaborators, as well as Schufftan’s stunning cinematography and his techniques of what he referred to as “sculpting with light.” Port of Shadows’s memorable set decoration and location shooting are also covered in detail and effectively linked to the film’s standing as one of the key works of poetic realism in the 1930s. The only other extra is a brief introduction by professor and film critic Ginette Vincendeau, who touches upon the film’s tragic central romance and profound influence on American noirs.

Overall

Kino’s Blu-ray gifts us with a beautiful transfer of a classic of French poetic realism.

Cast: Jean Gabin, Michel Simon, Michèle Morgan, Pierre Brasseur, Delmont, Aimos, Le Vigan, Genin, Perez Director: Marcel Carné Screenwriter: Jacques Prévert Distributor: KL Studio Classics Running Time: 91 min Rating: NR Year: 1938 Release Date: August 13, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Marcel Pagnol’s The Baker’s Wife on the Criterion Collection

Criterion’s release of Pagnol’s comedy classic boasts a stunning 4K transfer and a modest but enlightening selection of extras.

4

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The Baker's Wife

Marcel Pagnol’s The Baker’s Wife, a breezy, comical, and multifarious portrait of French rural life, is centered on the cuckolding of a baker, Aimable Castanier (Raimu), who’s recently arrived in Le Castellet, a small village in the south of France, with his beautiful and significantly younger wife, Aurélie (Ginette Leclerc). After she runs off with a hunky Italian shepherd, Esprit (Jean Castin), her absence forces the townspeople to unwittingly set aside their long-standing grievances and animosity toward one another. Their infighting is replaced by a ceaseless concern for the loveable sadsack Aimable, though less out of any genuine sympathy than because he’s left too shocked and heartbroken to bake any more bread. And nothing, apparently, is more effective as a uniting call to action in a French village than cutting off its daily supply of carbs.

In this opening act, Pagnol leisurely introduces a diverse array of villagers, including Aimable and his wife, all of whom the filmmaker lovingly mocks, slyly playing up each of their idiosyncrasies. Yet these portrayals are rendered with such precise regional flair that they come across as neither mean-spirited nor overly broad. In fact, Pagnol’s representation of the townspeople, and Le Castellet, occupies the middle ground between caricature and psychological realism, just as the film’s tone seamlessly fluctuates between outright farce and emotionally grounded drama, never firmly settling in either direction.

In successfully striking this tricky tonal balance, Pagnol remains sharp in his broader social commentary, while retaining a compassion for his characters. His most forceful critique concerns the collision of religious zealotry and both secular humanism and hedonism—a battle that played out all across France in the first half of the 20th century. The town’s young priest (Robert Vattier) first chastises the village school teacher (Robert Bassac) for saying that Joan of Arc only thought she heard the voice of God, then scolds the powerful yet debauched marquis (Fernand Charpin) for living in sin with four women “of low virtue,” whom he fails to pass off as his nieces. Yet, even this most stern servant of God, whose initially draconian proclamations are fodder for satire, reveals a warmth and sense of companionship with the teacher when, later on, the two men set out to find and bring Aimable’s wife back to him.

A number of other small bits of local color—including an amusing, ongoing squabble between two neighbors, Barnabé (Marcel Maupi) and Antonin (Charles Blavette), over one man’s tree casting a shadow over a garden on the other man’s property—fill out the narrative of The Baker’s Wife, breathing additional life into Pagnol’s seriocomic representation of village life. But Aimable, who’s positioned as something of a tragic clown, ultimately serves as the beating heart around which all the townspeople and proceedings revolve.

Raimu’s emotionally layered performance lends Aimable a surprising sense of dignity amid the embarrassing aftermath of Aurélie’s disappearance. The actor’s impossibly malleable face captures all of the subtleties of the baker’s pain and sorrow but also shifts seamlessly into exaggerated comedic expressions and gestures as the man’s foibles are laid bare in front of the whole town. This blending of naturalistic and vaudevillian modes of performance is particularly evident in the masterful scene where Aimable becomes progressively more drunk, belting out a ridiculous Italian song to an array of entertained onlookers, while still refusing to fully accept his wife’s disloyalty. His cognitive dissonance, resonant in large part to Raimu’s uncanny ability to chart Aimable’s severe emotional instability, generates substantial pathos while also remaining riotously funny in its rising absurdity.

Through his deeply felt melancholy, Aimable never devolves into a pathetic character, but due to his relentless obliviousness, he never becomes wholly sympathetic either. His seeming indifference to sex hints at his possible impotence, while his tendency to get completely wrapped up in his work and remain willfully ignorant of his young wife’s needs seems to all but invite willing suitors to sweep her off her feet. When Esprit serenades Aurélie near the beginning of the film, Aimable foolishly attributes this blatantly flirtatious behavior to the shepherd being impressed with his bread. And when his wife later goes to bed, after kissing Esprit, without so much as looking at her husband, Aimable assumes it’s because she’s worrying about the bread to be made the following morning. Ironically, bread, too, is involved in Aurélie’s initial breach of marriage, when she provocatively drops an especially phallic loaf of bread into Esprit’s sack before looking up at him in a coquettish glance.

Because Pagnol never reveals anything of Aurélie beyond her carnal lust, giving her only a few dozen lines throughout the entire film, The Baker’s Wife’s beloved ending could easily be read as a conservative, even misogynistic, celebration of a woman being put in her place. And while it undeniably is that to some degree, Aimable’s blatantly sexist remarks—directed at his female cat, Pamponette, though understood to be an unconscious denigration of Aurélie—are counterbalanced by his profound joy at her arrival, evidenced by his initially sweet tone and the heart-shaped loaf of bread he leaves out for her.

This fractured response of pure elation and repressed, unacknowledged anger is really the inevitable byproduct of Aimable’s consistent obstinacy in confronting his wife’s deception, an entanglement of ego and id. Even upon hearing that Aurélie returned to town on horseback, the baker, almost compassionately, remarks that “she’s done a lot of riding since yesterday.” It’s a comment dripping with obvious sexual overtones, yet it’s spoken with the naïveté of a man who can’t allow himself to believe the worst of his wife. It’s certainly not the healthiest psychological approach to marriage, but Pagnol and Raimu spin his neurosis into comic gold in The Baker’s Wife, and present, with pathos and empathy, the redemption of a marriage as a unifying force in a contentious but tightly knit rural community.

Image/Sound

Criterion’s transfer of a new 4K digital restoration is flat-out stunning. The image is crisp, with no remnants of debris or damage, but is balanced with an ample amount of film grain, which helps to retain the soft, textured look of celluloid. The contrast is strong, offering not only deep blacks, but an impressive range of blacks and grays. A remarkable amount of detail is found throughout the frame, with the intricacies of facial expressions revealing themselves often (particularly crucial in the many close-ups of Raimu’s vivid emotional articulations) and the pastoral beauty of the film’s location shooting in the south of France evident in nearly every scene. The uncompressed audio is evenly mixed and well-balanced, capturing the cacophony of village life without sacrificing any clarity in the dialogue tracks.

Extras

Marcel Pagnol scholar Brett Bowles’s selected-scene audio commentary consists of three 11-minute segments, each efficiently unpacking the film’s gender politics, as well as its satire of the ideological battle between the Catholic church and the secular left. Bowles provides further depth to the cultural context surrounding The Baker’s Wife by placing it within the long-running French folkloric tradition of stories about bakers and their wives. An excerpt from a 1966 interview with Pagnol for the French TV series Cinéastes de notre temps finds the director opening up about the controversy around his statements from the early 1930s when he said silent film was dead and discussing why he feels he was often despised by film and theater critics alike. “Memories of The Baker’s Wife,” a 1976 news program that includes a visit to La Castellet, approaches the film from a more personal and regional perspective, building up to a surprisingly emotional screening of the film, attended by villagers, many of whom served as extras in the film, and a few of the surviving actors. The package is rounded out with a brief introduction by Pagnol and an essay by film scholar Ginette Vincendeau that delves into the film’s archaic sexual politics, Pagnol’s knack for capturing regional details of the south of France, and the subtleties of Raimu’s central performance.

Overall

Criterion’s release of Marcel Pagnol’s bucolic comedy classic boasts a stunning transfer and a modest but enlightening selection of extras.

Cast: Raimu, Ginette Leclerc, Fernand Charpin, Robert Vattier, Charles Blavette, Robert Bassac, Macel Maupi, Alida Rouffe, Odette Roger, Yvette Fournier, Maximilienne Max Director: Marcel Pagnol Screenwriter: Marcel Pagnol, Jean Giono Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 134 min Rating: NR Year: 1938 Release Date: July 16, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Robert Rodriguez’s Alita: Battle Angel on Fox Home Entertainment

Fox’s Blu-ray may be the reference disc of the year so far, with unimpeachable audio and video and a host of strong extras to boot.

4

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Alita: Battle Angel

Doing away with the forced humor and slapdash style that’s weighed down so many of his films, Robert Rodriguez turns in a work of unexpected focus with Alita: Battle Angel. Based on a Yukito Kishiro manga series, the film concerns a cyborg, Alita (Rosa Salazar), who’s introduced as a piece of scrap found by a cybernetics specialist, Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz), in a futuristic dystopian junkyard. After learning that his discovery’s broken, limbless shell contains a still-functioning human brain, Ido takes Alita to his lab, where he gives her a new body of finely wrought prostheses and restores her to functionality, albeit with total memory loss. As Alita struggles to remember her former self and forge new connections, she also discovers hidden talents for fighting that come in handy in the violent culture of the bustling, post-apocalyptic metropolis she now calls home.

Rodriguez dutifully follows the beats of your average young-adult narrative, as Alita is on a rapid growth curve following her restoration to her mostly former self, surprising even herself with how much strength and fighting prowess she possesses. And all while nourishing a romance with a local, Hugo (Keean Johnson), who just so happens to make a living assaulting people and harvesting their body parts for resale. In tried and true YA fashion, the male love interest is a blatant threat to the female protagonist, and the strained, perfunctory relationship that develops almost immediately between Alita and Hugo is by far Battle Angel’s weakest subplot. Likewise, the extensive world-building and franchise setup is de rigueur for establishing what’s mostly a boilerplate depiction of a decaying world of have-nots overseen by a small cluster of super-wealthy types who literally tower over the masses in a giant floating city that’s the last testament to a more advanced, prelapsarian age.

The film, though, begins to distinguish itself when it leans into the idiosyncrasies of Kishiro’s famed source manga. Like America’s preeminent creators of live-action anime, the Wachowskis, Rodriguez best captures his material when developing the story through a combination of action and tacit existential rumination. Much of Battle Angel’s action involves a network of bounty hunters who track down rogue humans and cyborgs at the behest of factories whose savage and unquestioning murders of anyone labeled a criminal paints a clear portrait of violently maintained corporate oligarchy in this society.

The action itself boasts some of the most impressive choreography and sturdy, coherent direction to mark a giant-scale blockbuster in some time, with fight scenes shot close enough to convey visceral impact but with enough distance and shot duration to communicate the instinctual grace and power of Alita’s combat skills. This is especially on display whenever she confronts Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley), a colossus of advanced weaponry whose snaking, robotic claws bring new shades of visual dynamism to Rodriguez’s compositions as Alita weaves around her hulking nemesis in order to find the best angle from which to strike.

Likewise, the film gets a lot of mileage out of the extreme sport of motorball, depicted across scenes that suggest gene splices of Rollerball (the original and its remake) and the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer. Alita, increasingly looking for an outlet for her violent tendencies, takes a fancy to the sport, and her attempts to play professionally while dodging players paid to kill her result in a series of impressively fast and fluid action sequences.

As for the more reflective side of the film, it comes out in moments where Salazar is spared James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis’s clunkier dialogue and her character just tries to feel out her place in her new environment. At times, the film’s vicious underworld of crime and street justice prompts our somber consideration of the extent to which laws are crafted to keep the servants at each other’s throats while the masters play. Cyborg-themed anime has always literalized the act of “becoming,” with the ability to destroy and remake one’s body made manifest as a metaphor for everything from puberty to embracing one’s true identity, and one gets a deeper insight into Alita’s emotional state from scenes of her regarding the shifts that her replaceable body undergoes than anything to do with her budding love for Hugo.

The film does fail to adequately scrutinize the underlying tension of Alita feeling she’s programmed to kill the more she remembers about herself, which spurs an attitude shift within her that worries the fatherly Ido. Still, Battle Angel is by some distance the most entertaining of the recent crop of would-be franchise starters, exciting on its own merits while leaving just enough of its world tantalizingly unexplored to actually fuel our interest in wanting to see where its characters go from here.

Image/Sound

Alita: Battle Angel is a gorgeous film, and Fox’s Blu-ray captures every nuance of its expressionistic lighting. The amber-hued sunlight that spills into Ido’s shop exudes a radiant warmth, while the grimy, neon-streaked streets of Iron City show off the transfer’s impeccable balance of streaks of pale, artificial light against deep black levels. Detail is immaculate; no matter the level of CG animation, each scene feels tangible and lived in. Sound is similarly faultless, with the action scenes making thunderous use of the subwoofer, and sound effects regularly traveling the entire channel range as objects move across and outside the frame.

Extras

“Alita’s World” is a series of narrated motion comics that give added context to the background of the film’s dystopian future. None provides much information that one couldn’t glean from context clues in the film, but they’re nonetheless engaging mico-stories. Behind-the-scenes documentaries cover the production in rich detail, particularly the intense effort that James Cameron took in shepherding Yukito Kishiro’s manga to the screen, from crafting art reels and commissioning thick tomes of concept art to his extended attempts to wrestle the material into a shootable script. There are also extended looks at Rosa Salazar’s preparation to play Alita and the film’s detailed motion-capture technology. A Q&A with the cast and crew is also included, as are more specialized featurettes about some of the specifics of the film, such as an overview of the sport of motorball and VFX breakdowns for some scenes.

Overall

Alita: Battle Angel is the rare modern blockbuster to grow richer with each viewing, and Fox’s Blu-ray of Robert Rodriguez’s film may be the reference disc of the year so far, with unimpeachable audio and video and a host of strong extras to boot.

Cast: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Michelle Rodriguez, Keean Johnson, Eiza González, Lana Condor, Casper Van Dien Director: Robert Rodriguez Screenwriter: James Cameron, Laeta Kalogridis Distributor: Fox Home Entertainment Running Time: 122 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Release Date: July 23, 2019 Buy: Video, Soundtrack, Book

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Review: Ealing Studios’s Dead of Night Horror Anthology on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

This lasting work of existential horror has been given an audio commentary that serves as a veritable seminar on British cinema.

4

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Dead of Night

Ealing Studios’s 1945 production Dead of Night helped popularize the horror-themed anthology film. Many such films feel like short story collections, with disconnected narratives of varying quality and often negligible framing devices. Meanwhile, Dead of Night feels more like a confident concept album, as it’s all of a disturbing piece, its framing narrative setting the stage for an inquiry into the fragility of reality that’s bolstered in various subtle fashions by the subsequent stories. The film is influential not only to its own genre, but to surrealists and to practitioners of suspense narratives with “twist” endings. The Phantom of the Liberty, Psycho, EC Comics, Twin Peaks and everything all these landmarks touched might’ve been enabled in part by Dead of Night.

The film doesn’t come on strong, as it’s often more interested in plumbing the uncanny—the slight “wrongness” of everyday life that can reveal unmooring fissures into our sense of setting and self—than in springing overt shocks, though there are a few of those too. It opens with a man already disconnected from reality, an architect named William Craig (Mervyn Johns) who’s summoned to a country home for a weekend. The details of this weekend are vague, and we first see William already in motion, approaching the estate in his car. As he’s escorted into the home, William claims that he’s dreamed of this place before, many times, and that he knows this visit with a motley collection of people will become a nightmare. Dr. Van Straaten (Frederick Vaalk) is the resident cynic, and his resistance to William’s claim inspires the other guests to tell stories of their brush with the supernatural.

Dead of Night’s framing story, directed by Basil Deardon, has the elegance of a British drawing-room drama, with attractive and well-dressed characters initially discussing spooks as they might the day’s cricket tournament. And this rarefication lowers our guard, though William’s escalating nervousness foreshadows, say, the astonishing intensity of Michael Redgraves’s wiry, sexually neurotic performance in the film’s fifth and most famous story, “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy,” in which Redgraves plays a performer eaten up with jealousy over the professional betrayal of his dummy. Directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, the segment abounds in eerie touches that distinguish it from all the stories centered around evil dolls that it would inspire. For instance, we’re allowed to notice that Redgraves’s Maxwell Frere has a framed picture of his possessed ventriloquist dummy—a bizarre, almost obscene detail that Cavalcanti allows us to feel as if we’re discovering for ourselves.

The film abounds in such intimate and insane textures. In “The Haunted Mirror,” directed by Robert Hamer, a man’s gradual possession is represented by an opulent bedroom with an elaborate fireplace and bedframe, which can only be seen through a mirror he received as a gift from his fiancée. We see no ghosts, only this magic bedroom as it contrasts with the plain and sterile room the mirror actually inhabits. As Peter (Ralph Michael) continues to look into the mirror, gazing at this lurid room, he becomes convinced that Joan (Googie Withers), now his wife, is cheating on him, and the story becomes a metaphor for the fears of the concessions required of marriage. Michael expertly dramatizes Peter’s escalating instability, and the room in the mirror remains an unnervingly ambiguous image of discontent and violation, especially given the cockeyed images that emphasize the mirror as an instrument of fracture.

There’s an emphasis in Dead of Night on rooms within rooms and passageways within passageways, suggesting nesting forms of consciousness and existence. In “The Christmas Party,” directed by Cavalcanti, a young girl, Sally (Sally Ann Howes), discovers a hidden chamber she believes to be a nursery housing a small boy, and while the punchline is familiar, its notion of a murder chamber hiding in plain sight remains haunting. In “The Hearse Driver,” directed by Dearden, a man glimpses a death prophecy through the curtains of his hospital room, which are so heavy and velvety they suggest the curtains of a movie theater. Even “The Golfer’s Story,” directed by Charles Crichton as a comic palette cleanser between the intense “The Haunted Mirror” and “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy,” features at least one lasting image that suggests the intertwining of multiple worlds. When a jilted golfer named Larry (Naunton Wayne) commits suicide, he does so by merely walking into the lake on a golf course.

Dead of Night is a snake eating its own tail, a story of the dream of a potential madman that branches off into other dreams, which branch off into yet others. Many of these dreams are presumed to have an exit, until it’s revealed that William’s circular reality is the potential “god” of all these other lives. This idea, endlessly explored by surrealists, scientists, and philosophers alike, is almost too unnerving to contemplate at length, though Dead of Night gives it a febrile sense of possibility. The passageways aren’t the most memorable images of the film; those would be the many close-ups of faces twisting in agony and loneliness.

Image/Sound

This transfer has a luscious sense of darkness, according cinematographers Stanley Pavey and Douglas Slocombe’s shadows a rich and foreboding prominence. Facial close-ups are also vividly detailed, with white light that’s bright and strong without being shrill. In fact, visual textures are vibrant throughout, illuminating striking details of the sets and clothing. The soundtrack can be fuzzy at times, especially the dialogue in Dead of Night’s first 10 minutes, but Georges Auric’s score has been rendered with a strong and menacing body, and small supporting sound effects are also quite vibrant.

Extras

The audio commentary by critic Tim Lucas is a characteristically detailed and erudite examination of how Dead of Night arose out of the British film industry, and its lasting influence. Lucas provides elaborate biographies of all the players, and discusses how the film’s then-unusual structure was a response to productions like Grand Hotel and The Halfway House. Along the way, we hear choice bits about Alfred Hitchcock, Luis Buñuel, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and many others, and Lucas is also a shrewd observer of symbolism—he catches the curtains in the hospital, and offers many lovely comments on the framing of the haunted mirror. A feature-length remembrance of Dead of Night complements Lucas’s commentary, rounding out a slim but dense supplements package.

Overall

This lasting work of existential horror has been given a beautiful transfer, and an audio commentary that serves as a veritable seminar on British cinema.

Cast: Mervyn Johns, Anthony Baird, Roland Culver, Sally Ann Howes, Renée Gadd, Barbara Leake, Mary Merrall, Frederick Valk, Googie Withers, Judy Kelly, Miles Malleson, Michael Allan, Barbara Leake, Ralph Michael, Basil Radford, Naunton Wayne, Peggy Bryan, Michael Redgrave, Hartley Power, Allan Jeayes Director: Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, Robert Hamer Screenwriter: John Baines, Angus MacPhail, T.E.B. Clarke Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 103 min Rating: NR Year: 1945 Release Date: July 9, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Agnieszka Holland’s Europa Europa on the Criterion Collection

Criterion’s release of this timely, socially relevant film is outfitted with a richly detailed transfer, but it’s a bit slim on extras.

3.5

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Europa Europa

Early in Europa Europa, a child pulls back a curtain to observe a bris ceremony taking place in the room beyond. The ritual exudes a distinct air of solemnity—a secrecy that appears to be breached in this moment. It’s a millennia-old rite of passage for Jewish males, and in Agnieszka Holland’s film, Salomon Perel’s circumcision will become the definitive marker of his cultural heritage, and at a time when Jews live in constant fear of being annihilated by the Nazi machine.

The notion of identity as essentially fluid—something that can be obscured or transformed as a means of survival—is central to Europa Europa. And when it jumps 13 years into the future to 1930s Germany, Holland’s film picks up with Salomon (Marco Hofschneider) confronting the indignities inflicted upon Jews during this time. Fleeing the Nazis by blending in with Soviet Stalinists, only for an incredible series of circumstances to land him in a Hitler Youth academy in Germany, Salomon is locked in a perpetual state of performance, forced to conform to another identity, another ideology.

From the moment he straps on a Nazi leather jacket to cover his nude body after escaping a mob attacking his home, Salomon conceals the truth about his heritage by spinning an alternative narrative of his life. After a while, though, the very belief system that seeks to destroy him and his family proves so insidious that it nearly deludes him into fully embracing the teachings of the Hitler Youth. But when he goes so far as to tie his foreskin above the tip of his penis to make it appear visibly uncircumcised, his body rejects this attempted transformation, as if to remind him of that which he’ll never be able to hide.

Europa Europa is almost perversely focused on Salomon’s struggle to hide his penis or change its appearance, and Holland indulges in absurdist flourishes in recounting the real-life existential ordeal. Much of the young man’s journey, which sees him move to Poland before being forced to join the Komsomol in Russia, then the German army, and finally the Hitler Youth, is surprisingly filtered through a comedic lens that ruthlessly mocks the blind allegiance, hypocrisies, xenophobia, and outrageous fervor of Nazis and communists alike.

Caustically funny dream sequences involving a parodic representation of Hitler are weaved into Europa Europa, along with incidents of broad yet cutting humor that accentuate the irony of Salomon passing not just as a Nazi, but an exemplary one at that. Many scenes, such as one in which an anti-Semitic scientist goes into disturbingly vivid detail about the physical and biological superiority of Aryans, are appalling. Yet when Salomon is propped up as the ideal Aryan, or later when he loses his virginity to a German officer who believes him to be a war hero, Holland employs a playful, offbeat tone that amplifies the preposterousness of the Nazis’ belief in the inherent superiority of the Aryan people and their ability to sniff out non-Aryans based solely on appearance or behavior, thus exposing the sheer hollowness of their rhetoric.

If the film mostly succeeds in its tragicomic satire of authoritarian regimes, it’s spottier on a micro level. In skirting over the psychological ramifications of the real-life Perel’s experience, Holland leaves Salomon feeling more like a cipher caught up in the cycles of history than a flesh-and-blood person struggling to come to terms with his identity and place in the world. It’s only in Europa Europa’s second half, once Salomon begins a lengthy relationship with a beautiful Nazi temptress (Julie Delpy), that we begin to get a sense of the emotional and physical toll that his state of cognitive dissonance takes on him. And it’s then that the film strikes the right balance between a pointed satire and an emotionally rich portrait of the twisted and terrifying high-wire act its protagonist had to walk in order to survive.

Image/Sound

The film’s new 2K digital restoration is rich in detail, with the image remaining sharp and clean throughout. Colors appear somewhat muted in a number of the darker interior scenes; greens and browns especially look a bit drabber than they do in exterior shots. Otherwise, skin tones are consistent and grain levels are pleasingly film-like. The uncompressed monaural audio is sturdy, boasting clear dialogue throughout and mostly flexing its muscles whenever Zbigniew Preisner’s score hauntingly swells on the soundtrack.

Extras

The main event here is a 2008 commentary track with Agnieszka Holland. Though dry and prone to pregnant pauses, Holland is informative, covering everything from the initially divisive response sparked by Europa Europa to her unusually playful approach to serious subject matter. Also included are three 15-to-20-minute interviews. Holland’s chat hits much of the same beats as her commentary, while lead actor Marco Hofschneider goes into more detail about the filmmaker’s desire to have a non-actor play the lead, so as to bring a sense of naïveté to the role that would mirror that of the young Salomon Perel. In his interview, Perel himself opens up about what led him to first share his story and how he survived not by pretending to be someone else, but by allowing himself to be swept up in insidious ideologies. The package is rounded out with a brief video essay by film scholar Annette Insdorf, who unpacks the film’s visual motifs, and an expectedly perceptive essay by film critic Amy Taubin.

Overall

Criterion’s release of this timely, socially relevant film is outfitted with a richly detailed transfer, but it’s a bit slim on extras.

Cast: Marco Hofschneider, André Wilms, Julie Delpy, Hanns Zischler, Ashley Wanninger, Klaus Abramowsky, Michèle Gleizer, Delphine Forest, René Hofschneider, Halina Labonarska Director: Agnieszka Holland Screenwriter: Agnieszka Holland Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 112 min Rating: R Year: 1990 Release Date: June 9, 2019 Buy: Video

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