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DVD Review: Katherine Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty on Sony Home Entertainment

The film confidently and forcefully storms onto DVD with an admirable A/V transfer, only hindered by a paltry gathering of extras.

3.5

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Zero Dark Thirty

The likelihood that anyone will make a film about the events that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden that causes no severe outrage is roughly the same as the likelihood that everyone is going to be pleased with the fate of those who essentially legalized and perpetrated torture to locate bin Laden. So, the fact that Kathryn Bigelow’s exceptional Zero Dark Thirty roused a contingency of political reporters to completely misread the tone of Bigelow’s somber procedural as celebratory or especially nationalistic, allowing them to give many of their fellow liberals a quick reminder that they weren’t liberal enough, was inevitable. Himself leaning hard on a myriad of insinuations and assumptions, Matt Taibbi went as far as to crudely suggest that Bigelow and her collaborator, Mark Boal, were responsible for bin Laden’s “last victory over America” because their film wasn’t factually accurate, by extension helping many Americans to blindly accept the criminal acts of torture that Bush rubberstamped away.

Of course, Zero Dark Thirty takes the permeable line between certainty and probability as a sizeable part of its thematic spine. Following a quick but effective 9/11 preamble, the film opens as Maya (Jessica Chastain) looks in on the torture and interrogation of Ammar (Reda Ketab) by her colleague, Dan (Jason Clarke), who constantly reminds the detainee that providing partial answers is no different than being unresponsive. It’s a lie, along with the bribery of a good full meal, which leads Ammar to give up his brethren, subsequently tossing Maya down a bureaucratic rabbit hole that ends at bin Laden’s front door. Many of the film’s most remarkable scenes involve Maya convincing her male superiors, played most prominently by Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong, and James Gandolfini, to trust her gut, even as the demand and need for hard proof escalates. As Maya puts it, they just want to check off a box on their next résumé and have proof that they got the information, but Dan’s assertion that “we don’t know what we don’t know” is closer to the truth of the situation and serves as the film’s central thesis.

The increasing rate at which behavior and tradecraft is treated as concrete information is of particular interest to Bigelow, as Boal’s dialogue is constantly circling around the substance and probative value of absence, and the faultiness of what can be proven. In other words, the film is about storytelling, and the fact that Maya is Bigelow’s first lead female protagonist since Blue Steel, the director’s most wildly idiosyncratic film, amplifies the metaphorical value of the role of a woman working and succeeding in a classically male occupation. And the filmmaker’s attraction to her chosen genre and subject matter is implied when Joel Edgerton’s Seal Team Six leader says he’s completely convinced of the mission’s validity, simply because of Maya’s confidence.

Boal and Bigelow obviously side with Maya, but neither are blind to the fallacy of her cause, which becomes personal for Maya when her closest colleague, Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), is killed by a suicide bomber. For Maya, bin Laden’s body is the ultimate proof, the only proof she’ll ever need that what she did and what we did was justified, but the tears she sheds, alone on a plane to who knows where, are of an dreadful emptiness that has just finally settled into its resting space in the pit of her stomach. To look at Chastain in this moment and think that relief is even on Maya’s radar is to not only minimize Bigelow’s tremendous ability to deconstruct the substance of violence, both physically and emotionally, but to also short-change Chastain’s stunningly acute performance.

Bigelow’s assured, breathless handling of the climactic siege on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad may be the most potent and seemingly effortless display of the director’s ability to choreograph exact and powerful movement in tight, dangerous spaces; her ability to mount active tension is very simply unparalleled. The film ends with a big fat question mark, not an exclamation point: What is a specialist to do when they have succeeded at exactly what they set out to do and find that satisfaction, even pride is still out of grasp? It’s that rare follow-up to a monumental success that considers the fleeting nature of success, especially for the truly ambitious. In criticizing Zero Dark Thirty for not being the movie that clearly and thoughtfully depicts the frustration and anger of the Bush era, many critics and journalists have confirmed what seems to be Bigelow’s deepest fear, that the success of The Hurt Locker has closed many more doors than it could ever open.

Image/Sound

Sony’s DVD transfer of Zero Dark Thirty is, all told, pretty impressive. More than color, what’s highlighted here is texture and detail, from Seal Team Six’s outfits to the modern interiors of the C.I.A. offices and the dingy barracks where Ammar is tortured, and Sony has transferred these elements to home entertainment admirably. Clarity isn’t perfect, but rarely distracting enough to merit major complaint, and black levels are solid. The audio is handled a bit better, with Mark Boal’s sharp, technical dialogue out front and Alexandre Desplat’s moody score balanced with a dense thicket of sound effects, including plenty of gunfire and explosions.

Extras

Sony has included four featurettes here, each one covering a crucial element of Kathryn Bigelow’s film, but each one feels half-measured. The best ones deal with the reconstruction of Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad and the believability and behavior of Seal Team Six in the movie, but even these extras feel hurried and only passingly interested in their respective subject matter. The other two cover Jessica Chastain’s performance and the making of the film, but seem to have been made simply to construct a veneer of fascination.

Overall

Slathered in controversy, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty confidently and forcefully storms onto DVD with an admirable A/V transfer, only hindered by a paltry gathering of extras from Sony.

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong, Chris Pratt, Joel Edgerton, James Gandolfini, Édgar Ramírez, Stephen Dillane, Mark Duplass, Reda Kateb, Harold Perrineau, Callan Mulvey Director: Katherine Bigelow Screenwriter: Mark Boal Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Running Time: 157 min Rating: R Year: 2012 Release Date: March 19, 2013 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Review: Laurel & Hardy: The Definitive Restorations on Kit Parker Blu-ray

This set is a must-own for even casual fans of Laurel and Hardy.

4

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Laurel & Hardy: The Definitive Restorations

As the first great comedic duo of the sound era and the de facto bridge between the slapstick masters of silent cinema and the more verbose comedy teams like Abbott and Costello that followed them, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy developed a style and rapport all their own. While their madcap antics are steeped in the traditions of vaudeville, they established a comic rhythm that takes full advantage of the elasticity of cinematic time. In juxtaposing bursts of rapid-fire chaos, which inevitably unfolded around the duo, with extended and often delayed reaction shots and gags that are stretched out to (and sometimes past) their breaking points, Laurel and Hardy expanded and contracted time as a means of accentuating the uncanniness of both their verbal and visual ticks and the tempo of their comedic interplay.

While brief but explosive crescendos of violence and destruction stand out across their work, Lauren and Hardy’s comic personae typically flourished in the many long close-ups that populate their films. It’s in these shots where Laurel’s expressive eyebrows and his signature ambiguous smile conveyed the amiable naïveté and sensitivity that quickly came to define him. And it’s during Hardy’s perpetual fourth-wall-breaking glances and gestures that we get a sense of his perpetually escalating frustrations not only with Laurel’s bumbling, but also with the absurdity of the action that the audience bears witness to alongside him.

Unlike the films of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, or Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy’s work rarely strives for much narrative or emotional complexity, but there’s an underlying warmth and camaraderie between the duo, even during their most contentious run-ins. Their emotions, however, are rarely the driving force of their films. Instead of pursuing various love interests, or in Keaton’s case, sometimes fleeing from them, the catalyst for physical action in their films is typically simple, often mundane tasks: delivering a land deed in Way Out West, doing a jigsaw puzzle in Me & My Gal, or putting an antenna on the roof in Hog Wild. And in many cases, the simpler the task, the better the results, as evidenced by perhaps their most beloved short film, The Music Box, which for nearly 30 minutes follows the boys doing nothing but attempting to lug a player piano up a long and intimidatingly steep set of stairs.

In the case of The Music Box, the gag’s protracted length is integral to its humor, as Laurel and Hardy’s journey up the stairs seems doomed to go on forever by the third time the piano rolls all the way back to the bottom of the hill. This strategy of drawing out gags is evident in many of their shorts, from Towed in the Hole, where the duo takes turns pouring water on each other, to Way Out West, where Laurel spends an inordinate amount of time trying to get an heirloom necklace off of Hardy, only to continually strip more clothes off of him after it slips down his shirt. Such routines are frequently a journey as much for them as they are for the audience, and to the point of tedium, but Laurel and Hardy are masters of persistence, so, after a while, these gags become even more hilarious simply because of their duration.

Other times, Laurel and Hardy mine humor from their attempts to be helpful, but find that the more good they try to do, the more chaotic a situation becomes. Helpmates is a prime example of this tendency, with Laurel showing up to help his Hardy clean up before his wife returns home, only to systematically yet unintentionally prompt the destruction of the entire house. But despite things inevitably taking a turn toward the chaotic, and typically with Hardy soaked in water, Laurel and Hardy exude a tenderness and fortitude that never veers into mean-spiritedness. Instead, the duo, in their seeming inability to function as a symbiotic pair, despite their repeated efforts to do so, elicit both our laughter and heartfelt sympathy.

Image/Sound

All 17 shorts and two features included here received new 2K or 4K digital restorations from their original 35mm nitrate prints by Jeff Joseph/SabuCat in conjunction with the UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Library of Congress. Given the disparate qualities of the original prints, the results are a bit uneven, with some films like Sons of the Desert and Brats appearing crude with their blown-out whites and overall lack of detail, particularly in characters’ faces in the medium-to-wide shots. There’s also a near-absence of grain in many of the shorts, giving them a slightly waxy, overly digitized look. On the other hand, there’s a nice uptick in sharpness, contrast, and detail whenever the blown-out whites aren’t present, which is fortunately much of the time. Audio is more consistent throughout, and while there’s a slight tininess to some of the dialogue, the sound effects are robust and suitably forward in the mix.

Extras

What this four-disc Blu-ray set may lack in diversity of extras, it more than makes up with the inclusion of commentary tracks for every last film, even That’s That, a clip reel created primarily as a gift to Stan Laurel. Film scholars Randy Skretvedt and Richard W. Bann split the hosting duties and over the course of over eight hours cover the backgrounds of various supporting actors and the personal and professional history of Laurel and Hardy, even devoting ample time to breaking down numerous gags and the duo’s comic personae and performative ticks. Skretvedt appears again in three interviews from 1981, which he gave with three of Laurel and Hardy’s co-workers: Anita Garvin, Joe Rock, and Roy Seawright. Each touch on Laurel’s kindness, his ghost-directing nearly every film he appeared in with Hardy, and the joys of working on the Hal Roach lot. The set is rounded out with a very brief interview with Oliver Hardy from 1950 and a huge collection of rare photos, stills, posters, and scripts.

Overall

With an abundance of passionate, informative commentary tracks and solid, if uneven, transfers, this set is a must-own for even casual fans of Laurel and Hardy.

Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Charley Chase, Mae Busch, Dorothy Christy, Lucien Littlefield, Rosina Lawrence, James Finlayson, May Wallace Director: James W. Horne, William A. Seiter, George Marshall, James Parrott, Lloyd French Screenwriter: Frank Craven, H.M. Walker, Charley Rogers, Jack Jevne, Stan Laurel Distributor: Kit Parker Films Running Time: 511 min Rating: NR Year: 1927 - 1940 Release Date: June 30, 2020 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Elem Klimov’s Come and See on the Criterion Collection

Klimov’s unbelievable vision of the agonizing hell of war is preserved in all its nightmarish beauty on this release.

4.5

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Come and See

War movies largely condition us to look at warfare from a top-down perspective. Rarely do they keep us totally locked out of the commander’s map room, the bunker where the top brass exposit backstory, outline goals, or lay out geography for the viewer. Both characters and audience tend to know what’s at stake at all times. Not so in Elem Klimov’s 1985 film Come and See, in which relentless bombings and frenetic camerawork shatter the Belarusian countryside into an incoherent, fabulistic geography, and the invading Germans appear to coalesce out of the fog on the horizon like menacing apparitions.

We experience the German invasion of Belarus through Flyora (Aleksey Kravchenko), a teenager who joins the local partisan militia after discovering a rifle buried in the sand. The early scene in which he departs from his mother and sisters presents a disconcerting, even alienating complex of emotions: the histrionic panic of his mother (Tatyana Shestakova), who alternately embraces and rails against him; the hardened indifference of the soldiers who’ve come to retrieve him; and the jejune oblviousness of Floyria himself, who mugs at his younger siblings to mock his mother’s concerns. Eager to participate alongside the unit of considerably more weathered men, Flyora feels emasculated when he’s forced to remain behind in the partisans’ forest encampment with Glasha (Olga Mironova), a local girl implicitly attached to the militia unit because she’s sleeping with its commander, Kosach (Liubomiras Laucevicius).

Glasha first takes on nymph-like qualities in Flyora’s adolescent imagination, appearing in hazy close-ups that emphasize her blue eyes and the verdant wooded backdrop. This deceptive idyllic disintegrates, however, when the Germans bomb and storm the empty camp, kicking up clouds of dirt and smoke that never seem to fully leave the screen for the rest of Come and See’s duration. The two teenagers flee, pushing through the muck of the now-fatal landscape, only to discover more horrors waiting for them back in Flyora’s village.

The horrors lurking in the mists of a muggy Eastern European spring may not be what Carl von Clausewitz had in mind when he coined the phrase “the fog of war,” but Klimov’s masterpiece suggests a redefinition of the term, the evocative phrase signifying the incomprehensible terror of war rather than its tactical incalculables. Come and See’s frames are often choked with this fog—watching the film, one almost expects to see condensation on the screen’s surface—and Klimov fills the soundtrack with a kind of audio fog: the droning of bombers and surveillance planes, the whine of prolonged eardrum-ringing, an ambient and sparse score by Oleg Yanchenko. It’s a cinematic simulacrum of the overwhelming, discombobulating sensory experience of war that would have an influence on virtually every war movie made after it.

And yet, in a crucial sense, there’s hardly a more clear-sighted or realistic fiction film about World War II. Klimov refuses to sanitize or sentimentalize the conflict that in his native language is known as the Great Patriotic War. While fleeing back into the woods with Flyora, Glasha momentarily glimpses a heap of bodies, Flyora’s family and neighbors, piled on the edge of the village where tendrils of smoke still waft from their chimneys. Despite the fleeting nature of her glance, the image sticks with the viewer, its horror reverberating throughout the film because Klimov doesn’t give it redemptive or revelatory power. There’s no transcendent truth, no noble human dignity to be dug up from the mass graves of the Holocaust.

Florya and Glasha eventually separate, Flyora joining the surviving men to scour the countryside for food, only to find himself the survivor of a series of atrocities perpetrated by the Germans. A full third of the Nazis’ innocent victims were killed in mass executions on the Eastern Front—both by specially assigned SS troops and the regular Wehrmacht (though the myth of a “clean Wehrmacht” lives on to this day). As the end titles of Come and See inform the audience, 628 Belarusian villages were extinguished in the Nazis’ genocidal quest for Lebensraum, so-called “living space” for the German Volk. As wide-eyed witness to a portion of this monstrous deed, Flyora’s face often fills the film’s narrow 4:3 frame—scorched, bloodied, and sooty, trembling with horror at the inhumanity he’s seen.

Like his forbears of Soviet montage, Klimov uses a cast stocked with nonprofessionals like Kravchenko, and he doesn’t shirk from having them address the camera directly with their gaze. In Klimov’s hands, as in Eisenstein’s, such shots feel like a call to action, a demand to recognize the humanity at stake in the struggle against fascism. Klimov counterbalances his film’s apocalyptic hopelessness with a righteous rage on behalf of the Holocaust’s real victims. The film, whose original title was Kill Hitler, takes as its heart-shattering climax a hallucinatory montage of documentary footage that imagines a world without the Nazi leader.

Come and See bears comparison to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood, which likewise narrates a young boy’s conscription into the irregular Russian resistance to German invasion. But whereas Tarkovsky embellishes his vision of a war-torn fairy-tale forest in the direction of moody expressionism, Klimov goes surreal. Attempting to make off with a stolen cow across an open field—in order to feed starving survivors hidden in the woods—Flyoria is blindsided by a German machine-gun attack. Pink tracers dart across the fog-saturated frame, a dreamlike image at once unreal and deadly. Taking cover behind his felled cow, Flyoria awakes in the empty field, now absolutely still, with the mangled animal corpse as his pillow.

As an art form, surrealism was fascinated by the capacity for violence and disorder lurking in the psyche. Without betraying the real—by, in fact, remaining more faithful to it than most fictional remembrances of WWI have been—Come and See suggests that the war’s horrors were the ultimate unassimilable experience of the shadowy depths of the human mind. For Klimov, the dreamscapes of war realized surrealism’s oneiric brutality.

Image/Sound

Sourced from a 2K digital restoration by Mosfilm, this transfer makes Come and See’s stark color palette pop with a sharpness of detail that only compounds the film’s bleak atmosphere. Facial textures are exemplary, especially in close-up. The hazy, almost hallucinatory lighting in some scenes washed out the colors in previous releases, but here the image is incredibly stable, boasting impressive contrast differentiation. The uncompressed monoaural soundtrack is free of issues, with all sounds, big and small, clearly separated in the mix.

Extras

It will come as a surprise to no one, at least those who pointed out how several shots from Come and See appeared as if they were lifted wholesale for 1917, to hear cinematographer Roger Deakins in a new interview included with this release discuss the influence of the film’s hyper-realistic look on his own work. In archival interviews from 2001, Elem Klimov, actor Alexei Kravchenko, and production designer Viktor Petrov discuss the grueling experience of making the film. A short Russian TV documentary from 1985 titled How Come and See Was Filmed confirms their impressions, while an interview with Klimov’s brother, German, focuses on the filmmaker’s broader career. Most notable is the inclusion of three of the five parts of Flaming Memory, a documentary series by Belarusian filmmaker Viktor Dashuk that covers the Nazi horrors inflicted upon Belarus during World War II. A booklet contains essays by film professor Mark le Fanu, who considers the film’s function as both a reflection and complication of Soviet war cinema, and poet Valzhyna Mort, who offers a more biographical overview of co-writer Ales Adamovich’s life and career.

Overall

Elem Klimov’s unbelievable vision of the agonizing hell of war is preserved in all its nightmarish beauty on this Criterion Collection release.

Cast: Aleksey Kravchenko, Olga Mironova, Liubomiras Laucevicius, Vladas Bagdonas, Jüri Lumiste, Viktors Lorencs, Evgeniy Tilicheev Director: Elem Klimov Screenwriter: Ales Adamovich, Elem Klimov Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 142 min Rating: NR Year: 1985 Release Date: June 30, 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman on Criterion Blu-ray

At his best, Mazursky dramatized how sociopolitics informed American domestic life, deftly evading preaching.

3.5

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An Unmarried Woman

At his best, Paul Mazursky dramatized how sociopolitics informed American domestic life, deftly evading preaching, and as such today’s progressive filmmakers could learn quite a bit from him. One of his most acclaimed films, An Unmarried Woman is concerned with the rise and acceptance of divorce in the 1970s, and the liberation and confusion that resulted from that. With its leisurely paced scenes, unexpected comic curlicues, and unusually lived-in characterizations, the film allows its political meanings to arise almost subliminally. Mazursky finds the politics in the wrinkles of human behavior, rather than contriving behavior to suit his politics.

An Unmarried Woman begins with moments of domesticity that are pointedly at odds with the expectations set by the film’s title. This domesticity, characteristic of Mazursky’s aversion to platitudes, is shown to be simultaneously comfortable, challenging, and emotionally fraught. As Bill Conti’s score soars on the soundtrack, married couple Erica (Jill Clayburgh) and Martin (Michael Murphy) are jogging together through New York City, clearly enjoying a morning ritual, the sort of pleasurably taken-for-granted camaraderie that comes with longtime cohabitation. Then Martin steps in dog shit, soiling his new jogging shoes, and he briefly explodes at Erica, offering a counterpoint to the pleasure of kinship that we’ve just witnessed, a reaction that embodies the irrational resentment that springs from boredom, as well as his anger at Erica lecturing him for smoking. An Unmarried Woman abounds in such counterpoints.

What follows is a prolonged first act that acquaints us with the rhythms of this marriage and family. Martin is a stock broker who begins and ends each day watching updates on the exchange on TV. By contrast, Erica has a dreamier sensibility, working part-time at a fashionable art gallery. In one of the film’s most imaginative sequences, she fantasizes of being a ballet dancer, dancing around their apartment in her underwear, savoring the thought of having the place to herself. Their teen daughter, Patti (Lisa Lucas), is a precocious wiseass, enjoying catching Martin and Erica after sex and asking them, per Hemingway, if the Earth moved. When Martin and Erica speak, especially after work getting ready for bed, they do so with a familiarity that’s evocative of long-term relationships. Erica undresses in front of her husband, and this action is both erotic and casual. In fact, this action is erotic for being casual, and Mazursky’s gaze is attentive, appreciative, without succumbing to lewdness.

Suddenly after a lunch, Martin tearfully confesses to cheating on Erica and that he’s leaving her. He airs his secret in the worst way imaginable: in the streets, while Erica is sharing with him how she’s comforted by her weekly dinners and drinks with her girlfriends—when she’s at the height of her love with her routines, with the assuring complacency of her life. Soon in the process of divorce, Erica must redefine herself as a self-sustained woman. This idea, the theme of the film, is almost entirely undiscussed by the characters head-on. The theme influences their conversations, of course, yet they talk around it. And this weight, of an anxiety that can’t quite be confronted, gives the film’s comic scenes an emotional anchor. Terror of loneliness informs the dinners Erica has with her friends (Pat Quinn, Linda Miller, and Kelly Bishop), as they deliver vulnerable arias about desire, fulfillment, and disappointment that are especially remarkable in a film written and directed by a man.

Mazursky is interested neither in the legal practicalities of divorce nor in making glib statements about empowerment. Rather, he explores Erica’s emotional realm as she reacquaints herself with men, experimenting with casual sex, partially as a way of stretching beyond her station as “someone’s wife,” and attempts to guide Patti through her separation from Martin. Several of the men are bizarre, per the dictates of the modern romantic comedy, on which An Unmarried Woman is a significant influence, yet they’re imbued with a pathos and a specificity that resists sexist reductions. An artist at the gallery where Erica works, Charlie (Cliff Gorman) is a working-class painter, a smart-ass who hits on her with an insistence that would scan as particularly intemperate today, yet in his way he’s alive to Erica, noticing her, raptly, in a fashion that Martin probably hasn’t in years. When they hook up, Mazursky homes in on the little details, the idiosyncrasies, of sex that are frequently absent from American cinema. Charlie comforts Erica through her awkwardness and embarrassment, kissing her leg as he pulls off her sock. The sequence captures an evolution in this brief coupling from tentativeness to tenderness. Even the man who assaults Erica, Bob (Andrew Duncan), is vividly drawn, in only a few scenes, as a person warped by loneliness and need.

Many romantic comedies preach of a woman’s need for independence while hypocritically settling them into a new relationship anyway. This film’s version of the right guy, Saul (Alan Bates), a British expressionist painter with a gentle, erudite, easygoing manner, would be positioned by many filmmakers as a solution to Erica’s problems, yet Mazursky and the actors inform this relationship with a subtle push-and-pull thorniness. Erica and Saul very much get along together, yet they have the tension that comes with dating as middle-aged people, with the baggage of many past wrong decisions and wrong people. The gift of this lovely, poignant film is that Mazursky allows the characters to roam; he doesn’t force them into boxes, and as such they often surprise us. Everyone in An Unmarried Woman is essentially an artist in his or her own way, spinning their uncertainty into knowing melancholic comic riffs. The central artist is Erica, whom Clayburgh plays with a wistful, very moving sense of diaphanousness. We’re allowed to see that Erica feels that she’s unfinished. Like most people, especially in middle adulthood who begin to wonder what they’ve been doing up until now.

Image/Sound

The 4K digital restoration of An Unmarried Woman offers a surprisingly soft image, probably too soft, allowing certain backgrounds to look blurry, with flat black colors. Foreground detail is much stronger, and the other colors are generally vibrant, with particularly superb flesh tones. The monaural soundtrack is much less of a mixed bag. Bill Conti’s score has been rendered with stunning vibrancy, and the city life that characterizes the soundtrack of many scenes is presented here with range and multi-planed subtlety.

Extras

New interviews with actors Michael Murphy and Lisa Lucas are centered on Paul Mazursky’s approach to actors, especially his way of assuaging their fears and allowing them to adjust lines to suit their own ideas and needs. Another new interview, with Paul on Mazursky author Sam Wasson, persuasively discusses the filmmaker as an underrated auteur with distinctive themes and an almost European sense of openness. Meanwhile, an archive commentary with Mazursky and actress Jill Clayburgh is loose and conversational, exploring the conception of An Unmarried Woman, which was inspired by a friend of Mazursky’s wife, as well as the collaboration between the director, Clayburgh, and the other actors in the cast. Mazursky, unsurprisingly given the nature of the film, is very attentive to the little details that can make or break a scene. (The only disappointment with this commentary is the fact that the two participants were recorded separately.) Rounding out this package is a recording of a long lecture that Mazursky gave at the AFI in 1980, going in depth about the evolution of his career, and liner notes featuring an essay by Angelica Jade Bastien, which beautifully articulates the dynamism of the women in Mazursky’s work, and the novelty of this female-centrism in the especially masculine 1970s-era American cinema.

Overall

Criterion outfits Paul Mazursky’s lovely, eccentric, casually progressive character study with terrific supplements and a somewhat uneven transfer.

Cast: Jill Clayburgh, Alan Bates, Michael Murphy, Cliff Gorman, Lisa Lucas, Pat Quinn, Kelly Bishop, Linda Miller, Penelope Russianoff Director: Paul Mazursky Screenwriter: Paul Mazursky Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 123 min Rating: R Year: 1978 Release Date: June 9, 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: Bob Clark’s Murder by Decree on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

This atmospheric marrying of fact and fiction still resonates with its themes of political corruption and abuse of power.

4

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Murder by Decree

Bob Clark made a name for himself in the early 1970s with a trio of low-budget horror films that soon attained cult status: Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, the rough-hewn tale of a group of actors contending with zombies on an abandoned island; Deathdream, a scathing Vietnam-era twist on “The Monkey’s Paw”; and Black Christmas, a blackly humorous proto-slasher flick. Enticed by a larger, though still modest, budget and a sterling cast of British and Canadian actors, Clark relocated to England to produce and direct Murder by Decree, an alternate-history period piece dripping with atmosphere that puts Sherlock Holmes (Christopher Plummer) and Dr. Watson (James Mason) on the trail of the notorious serial killer known as Jack the Ripper.

Murder by Decree cleverly indicates one of its key themes in its opening scenes by cross-cutting between two very different locations. Each of these scenes contains a startling juxtaposition between the high class and the lower class. In the first, a posh carriage prowls the foggy back lanes of London’s East End, shot in slow motion with a wide-angle lens, so as to give it an otherworldly aura, like something out of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. And in the second, we enter a lavish opera house where Holmes and Watson await an opera’s overture, while the proletariat in the upper rafters hiss and boo the late arrival of the Prince of Wales, an immediate signal of radical political agitation that will play a significant factor in the film.

The two segments dovetail when the occupant of the carriage emerges to strangle a lowly streetwalker (the murder unfolds entirely through the killer’s point of view), news of which reaches Holmes and Watson as they exit the opera house. Cinematographer Reginald Morris’s fluid camerawork serves to seamlessly link the sequences, with the Steadicam gliding airily through alleyways as the killer searches out his prey, which is followed by a long, unbroken crane shot that tracks Holmes and Watson as they discuss the latest carnage from inside their open carriage. Clark clearly enjoys keeping the camera in motion, and it rarely comes to rest over the course of the film’s not inconsiderable running time.

Once the game is truly afoot, Holmes’s quest to unmask the killer leads him up and down the ladder of (invariably male) power as it existed in Victorian England, from a lowly pimp (Terry Duggan) to the prime minister (John Gielgud). The conspiracy theory plot that lies behind these events—encompassing an illegitimate royal baby, blood sacrifices, and the Masonic order—was derived from then-recent speculative nonfiction publications. It’s a heady brew of highly improbable extraction that would go on to inspire Alan Moore’s graphic novel From Hell.

At the heart of the film (in several senses) is Holmes’s third-act encounter with Annie Crook (Geneviève Bujold), mother of the royal offspring, currently incarcerated in a stone-hewn Bedlam of nightmarish proportions. Annie’s heartbreaking monologue, as she returns from catatonia to a semblance of sanity, unfolds largely in a single take. At one point, the camera subtly reframes her opposite a guttering candle, so that its tentative flickering light can serve as an objective correlative for her momentary reawakening. It’s a truly tragic instance of the way an entire nation’s power structure can conspire to crush a single individual, and, unfortunately, it’s just as timely now as it was back in 1979.

Because Murder by Decree is definitely a film from the 1970s, it unabashedly embraces these downbeat notions. Even the usually unflappable Sherlock Holmes cannot beat the system. In this instance, the best he can hope for is a sort of stalemate. (Not for nothing does Holmes’s face-off with the prime minister take place in a room with chessboard flooring.) These limitations are perfectly in keeping with the film’s revisionist take on the character. Hardly the heartless “thinking machine” he can appear elsewhere, Holmes comes across here as the quintessential humanist, indulging in righteous anger and even shedding a few tears on more than one occasion at the suffering of others. Holmes’s final bit of dialogue takes on a loaded significance in the era of Vietnam and Watergate: “We’ve unmasked madmen, Watson, wielding scepters. Reason run riot. Justice howling at the moon.”

Image/Sound

The HD master of Murder by Decree looks great overall, with only the odd speck evident here and there, marking a definite improvement over previous DVD editions of the film. The color palette is calculatedly muted for the most part, so that the occasional burst of primary hues, especially those sanguineous reds, really catches the eye. Clarity of fine details with regard to period costumes and décor add considerably to the film’s admirable atmospherics. Flesh tones are warm and lifelike, while grain levels appear nicely balanced, even in the frequent murky nighttime fog scenes. The Master Audio stereo mix clearly presents John Hopkins’s crisp dialogue and does well by the emotive score from Carl Zittrer and Paul Zaza, which wrings the last evocative measure from a full-bodied orchestra.

Extras

This Kino Lorber Blu-ray includes two commentary tracks, an archival one with filmmaker Bob Clark carried over from Anchor Bay’s 2003 DVD, and a brand-new one with film historians Howard S. Berger and Steve Mitchell. In wry, laidback fashion, Clark talks about the genesis of the project, lining up the stellar cast (a veritable Who’s Who of Canadian and British acting powerhouses), the seamless blend of studio and location filming, as well as his fondness for continuous camera movement. One of the more fascinating tidbits has to do with Clark’s initial casting of Peter O’Toole and Laurence Olivier as Holmes and Watson, respectively, which fell apart due to the actors’ mutual dislike. Berger and Mitchell’s lively discussion covers a lot of production anecdotes, Clark’s career before and after Murder by Decree, and the film’s revisionist depiction of Holmes and Watson. The track also includes a fair bit of well-considered Ripperology, including mention of an earlier film, A Study in Terror from 1965, that also had Sherlock Holmes matching wits with Saucy Jack.

Overall

New to Blu-ray, Bob Clark’s atmospheric marrying of fact and fiction still resonates with its themes of political corruption and abuse of power.

Cast: Christopher Plummer, James Mason, David Hemmings, Susan Clark, Anthony Quayle, John Gielgud, Frank Finlay, Donald Sutherland, Geneviève Bujold Director: Bob Clark Screenwriter: John Hopkins Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 124 min Rating: PG Year: 1979 Release Date: June 23, 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: Oliver Stone-Produced Wild Palms Miniseries on Kino Blu-ray

The miniseries exists somewhere beyond the boundaries of normal taste, in a realm where sheer muchness is its own reward.

3.5

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Wild Palms BR

Rarely has a series so purely distilled its essence into a single image as Wild Palms does. In the semi-infamous opening scene of the first episode of this overstuffed five-hour event series, hotshot patent attorney Harry Wyckoff (Jim Belushi) suddenly awakes and walks outside in his underwear to discover a rhinoceros standing in his empty in-ground swimming pool. Upon seeing the animal, Wyckoff solemnly intones, “So this is how it begins.” With this deeply goofy yet oddly haunting image, Wild Palms announces itself as a work of grand-operatic camp, a clumsy yet entertaining attempt to cram as many weird and wacky ideas into one series as the constraints of early-‘90s network television will possibly allow.

Wild Palms first aired a couple years after the cancellation of Twin Peaks, and it was an obvious attempt by ABC to recapture some of the off-beat magic of David Lynch and Mark Frosts’s series. The opening credits, with those slowly swaying palm trees set to Ryuichi Sakamoto’s ominous synth theme, practically announce the series as Twin Peaks: Los Angeles, but the atmosphere here is far loonier and the plotting much denser than in Twin Peaks. Wild Palms was widely promoted on the basis of Oliver Stone’s involvement as executive producer, and its narrative reflects the controversial filmmaker’s penchant for vast conspiracies that resolve themselves in almost Shakespearean fashion.

But while Lynch and Stone’s influence on Wild Palms is undeniable, the series is very much the work of novelist Bruce Wagner, who wrote all five episodes, served as executive producer alongside Stone, and, according to his audio commentary on this Blu-ray, even filmed the opening credits. As in his screenplay for Maps to the Stars, Wagner attempts to meld bitter Hollywood satire with whacked-out science fiction, and with decidedly mixed results.

The series’s convoluted plot revolves around a right-wing political faction known as the Fathers, led by Senator Tony Kreutzer (Robert Loggia), a messianic leader who heads up a powerful Scientology-like cult known as the Church of Synthiotics and also runs a TV network, Channel 3. Meanwhile, an insurgent group called the Friends is attempting to challenge the Fathers’s power with underground resistance tactics. Harry Wyckoff, a family-man attorney married to fashion boutique owner Grace (Dana Delaney) is one day visited by an old flame, Paige Katz (Kim Cattrall), who asks him to track down her missing son, while also drawing him close into the inner circle of the Fathers, with whom she’s closely associated.

It’s all set in the then-future of 2007, where men inexplicably dress in ill-fitting Edwardian suits and everybody drives around in vintage 1950s automobiles. Society is teetering on the brink of collapse, and Channel 3 is debuting a new virtual reality system called Mimecom that allows viewers to beam realistic holograms directly into their living rooms. This being an ostensibly scathing Hollywood satire, the first application of Mimecom is, of course, a tacky sitcom, one that happens to star Harry’s son, Coty (Ben Savage), and a famous actress, Tabba Schwartzkopf (Bebe Neuwirth), who’s a high-level member of the Church of Synthiotics.

The large cast of characters form a dense web of interconnections, but keeping track of who’s related to whom and how becomes increasingly tedious as the series wears on. Similarly, Wild Palms keeps piling on various half-baked sci-fi concepts and conspiracies until it begins to feel like the point of the whole thing is to overwhelm audiences with its sheer too-much-ness. And around the midpoint of the series, this effort to flood our senses with as many disturbing details and spooky connections as possible starts to feel strangely exciting, as if Wagner were presciently recreating the environment of total information overload we all live in today.

Unfortunately, however, these various strands and connections all eventually lead to the same tired narrative dead end: a simplistic good-versus-evil struggle between the freedom-fighting Friends and the techno-fascistic Fathers. Aside from Wagner’s mordant swipes at Scientology—including a running parody of the Church’s paramilitary-like Sea Org—the two sides of this battle are too vaguely defined to have much political bite. If Wild Palms has one truly resonant idea, it’s its vision of a future in which politics, entertainment, religion, and even drugs have become merely different arms of the same ruling elite.

But Wild Palms is mostly enjoyable not for what it says, but for how it says it. Its jabs at the vacuity of La La Land may be pretty trite, its politics simplistic, and its vision of the future sorely dated and incoherent, but you may find yourself admiring the alacrity with which the series serves up some indelibly gonzo images. Where else can one see a woman with a full-back tattoo of a palm tree transform into Robert Loggia barking like a dog? Or see a washed-up lounge singer played by Robert Morse get killed by his hologram when it shoves its entire arm down his throat? And if the series’s constant stream of references can be exhausting, at least they’re admirably arcane, from The Prisoner to Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon to The Woman in the Dunes. William Gibson, whose work exerts a huge influence over the series’s sci-fi elements, even gets a cameo as himself. When introduced as the man who coined the word “cyberspace,” he wearily replies, “And they won’t let me forget it.”

Wild Palms also affords the opportunity to see an impressive assortment of stars—about half of whom are woefully miscast—give a dizzying array of clashing, off-tempo performances. Cattrall looks completely lost, trying to vamp it up as noirish femme fatale. Belushi doesn’t even try to blend into the film’s surreal future milieu, playing the role of a high-powered attorney turned resistance leader with the same sluggish average-joe shtick he brought to eight seasons of According to Jim. Savage is bizarrely miscast in a menacing, Damien-like role, bringing a cute-kid innocuousness even to a scene in which Coty cuts out a man’s tongue. Loggia at least seems to be having a good time hamming it up, treating every scene as if it were some high-toned Greek tragedy like Oedipus Rex. There are also a few finely calibrated performances, especially from Angie Dickinson as Grace’s über-bitch mother and Delaney, who brings a human warmth to her role that’s otherwise totally missing from the series.

And the discordance of the acting is exacerbated by the direction. With four different directors over five episodes, the series never really establishes a unique identity, ping-ponging between hypnotic Steadicam shots and jittery action. Keith Gordon, who directed the second and fourth episodes, gets on the wavelength of Wagner’s script, with languorous long takes and lightly showy 360-degree pans, and Kathryn Bigelow, who helmed the third episode, squeezes in a fairly taut action sequence set to the Animals’s “House of the Rising Sun.” But the first and last episodes, directed by Peter Hewitt and Phil Joanou, respectively, are often garish and hyperbolic, with little feel for the playful, yet never overtly jokey, tone of the material.

Ultimately, Wild Palms is little more than a curiosity, but in this age of slick, tasteful shows in which tone is tightly managed and narrative is carefully doled out over the course of 10-plus hours per season, it’s refreshing to see a series so recklessly pack as much oddball humor, random violence, nutty sociology, paranoid conspiracism, and obscure cultural references into each episode as it can possibly stand. Like other maximalist, satirical whatchamacallits like Southland Tales and Brewster McCloud, it exists somewhere beyond the boundaries of normal taste, in a realm where sheer muchness is its own reward.

Image/Sound

Wild Palms receives a crisp new 2K remaster from that allows its sun-drenched imagery to really pop in ways that it never has. The colors are lively and vivid, and all those roving Steadicam shots bear no traces of the choppiness that sometimes dogs lower-quality transfers. The sound design is relatively uncomplicated, but the audio elements are still nicely balanced here, with Ryuichi Sakamoto’s dramatic synth score coming through very clearly, even when playing under dialogue, and the scattered classic-rock needle drops have a lively, bass-rich punch. Bizarrely, though, the image quality of all scenes with on-screen text—including the opening credits and subtitled scenes—is noticeably degraded, so much so that at one point this strikingly consistent deficiency in the transfer even constitutes a mild spoiler when, in a scene in which a character speaks on the phone, we know he will start speaking Japanese.

Extras

All five episodes feature newly recorded audio commentary tracks—so new, in fact, that one participant even references COVID-19—and their wildly varying quality is fitting for a series of such chaotic highs and lows. Bruce Wagner and Jim Belushi provide chummy though halting conversation over the first episode, suggesting two old buddies who haven’t seen each other in a while only to quickly discover that they don’t have very much to talk about. On the commentary accompanying the third episode, Dana Delaney mostly focuses her attention on Wild Palms’s strange costumes, makeup, and hairdressing, while Wagner sets his sights mostly on Delaney’s looks. Belushi recalls his experience fondly, though it’s clear he didn’t really understand what the hell was going on, a condition that was endemic among the actors according to several of the commentaries. Wagner seems slightly embarrassed by the series, and it’s clear he hasn’t revisited it in quite a while. Early in his commentary for the first episode, he seems even to have half-forgotten that the series was set in the future. The second and fourth episodes feature intelligent technical notes from director Keith Gordon, the one person in the production who seems to have fully understood the project. But the spirit of the series is perhaps best captured by director Phil Joanou, who expresses love and admiration for the cast and complete bafflement at the rest of the production, complaining frequently about the fact that he was tasked with directing the dramatic climax without having seen any of the rest of the series. Joanou sums up the feelings of so many who’ve experienced Wild Palms when he admits early in his commentary: “I was pretty confused by it.”

Overall

With a mostly sparkling yet obviously flawed transfer and inconsistent audio commentaries, Kino Lorber’s Wild Palms release is every bit as erratic as the series itself.

Cast: Jim Belushi, Dana Delany, Robert Loggia, Kim Cattrall, Angie Dickinson, Ernie Hudson, Bebe Neuwirth, Nick Mancuso, David Warner, Ben Savage, Bob Gunton, Aaron Michael Metchik, Robert Morse, Brad Dourif, Charles Rocket, François Chau, Beata Pozniak Director: Keith Gordon, Kathryn Bigelow, Peter Hewitt, Phil Joanou Screenwriter: Bruce Wagner Distributor: KL Studio Classics Running Time: 286 min Rating: NR Year: 1993 Release Date: June 30, 2020 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Blu-ray Review: John Cassavetes’s Husbands on the Criterion Collection

Criterion outfits one of Cassavetes’s greatest and most daring films with a stunning transfer and updated supplements.

4.5

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Husbands

John Cassavetes offered his actors and, by extension, his audience a profound sense of space. Resisting the tempo of pop films, Cassavetes allows scenes to go on and on while characters offer sustained arias of anguish, humor, and ball-busting. In such sequences, we feel a grappling for catharses—for the characters as well as the actors. This double-awareness is at the heart of Cassavetes’s cinema, as the actors and characters often bleed together, allowing the work of the actors to parallel the work we put into the everyday roles that we play for the sake of finding meaning or approval. In such an auto-critical environment, no gesture, no line, is taken for granted, as Cassavetes urges his actors to parse every element of an interaction for significance. He captures moments of minute, seemingly spontaneous behavioral insight that are essentially impossible in a film that buzzes along on autopilot, hitting tidy plot beats.

Husbands, Cassavetes’s follow-up to Faces, and his first film with Ben Gazzara and Peter Falk, is exhausting and formally radical even by his standards. The 1970 film is gross, juvenile, macho, thorny, and features moments of agonizing physical and emotional torment—moments that are especially disturbing considering that some of the actors involved might not have been in on the joke. Yet the obstinate recklessness of Husbands is the wellspring of its brilliance. In his devotion to pain, to the prolonged, ongoing, and dangerous work of releasing pent-up emotion (which, here, resembles acting as well as therapy), Cassavetes mounts one of the most searing and evocative portraits of grief in American cinema.

Husbands opens on a montage of snapshots of families horsing around at a pool party. Though women and children are visible, four men are emphasized: Smoking, drinking beers, and flexing their biceps for the camera, they’re almost a parody of a certain kind of domesticated masculinity. With these remarkable images, Cassavetes instantly communicates the breadth and comfort of the men’s friendship, and how, even in moments of joy, they subtly push their families away, erecting their own world. This montage is followed by a jarring cut to the inside of a car pulling into a cemetery. One of the men, Stuart (David Rowlands), has died suddenly at an early age, reducing the group to three: Harry (Gazzara), Archie (Falk), and Gus (Cassavetes).

In these early scenes, Cassavetes and his other actors establish a tension that will run throughout Husbands. Harry, Archie, and Gus ride together to Stuart’s funeral, and when they get out of the car, Harry separates himself from the group, escorting Stuart’s grandmother (Judith Lowry) to the ceremony. Walking ahead with the elderly woman, Harry shoots suspicious, wounded glances at Archie and Gus while they exchange patter about the obscenity of the pomp of such an event, which Archie in particular believes desecrates Stuart’s memory. In this conversation, Archie says that tension is what kills someone—not actual illnesses. The men crave a purging, a reckoning with their sadness, and Archie is fumbling at the expression of this need while Gus pushes them away, feeling rejected. Searching for an emotional expunging, the men will continue to alternately repel one another away and draw each other in close, proclaiming their love and suspicion of one another, sometimes simultaneously. In each of the film’s long sequences, the men harass one another and others, trying to give voice to their gnawingly undefinable sense of need and alienation.

In many films, a character’s grief is a plot necessity to be perfunctorily gotten out of the way, but grief, and the ugly personal elements it can unearth, are front and center in Husbands. After the funeral, Harry says he’s going to get drunk, at which point Cassavetes employs another jarring cut to the men already hammered, fucking around on the streets of New York City. The joy of initial intoxication has been omitted, as these men are now in a fugue state that will consume them for the remainder of the film’s 142 minutes.

Their bender leads them to a bar where they sit at a long table with a variety of people who are likely strangers and who they encourage to sing songs for Stuart. The three men allow most of the people to sing undisturbed, though they seize on a woman named Leola (Leola Harlow), telling her she’s terrible, making her sing again and again, looming over her. Leola’s reason for submitting to this abuse is among the film’s many mysteries, and Cassavetes stretches this sequence out so long that it begins to suggest purgatory. The next sequence, related to the bar scene, is also astonishingly long, lingering on the men as they argue in a small bathroom, very drunk, trying to make themselves vomit. Over the course of this sequence, Harry once again separates himself from the group, resenting Gus and Archie’s conspiratorial air.

Harry’s ongoing exclamation to Leola—“It’s terrible! More heart!”—could be said to suggest Cassavetes’s guiding aesthetic sentiment, which he deconstructs mercilessly. On one hand, the film is a masturbatory orgy of backslapping male indulgence, as the three men are always tussling with each other, hinting at an interior violence that practically demands expression. However, Cassavetes is intensely aware of the men’s cruelty, particularly toward women, most disturbingly when Harry forces himself on his wife, Annie (Meta Shaw). In another extended sequence, once the men run away to London, Gus tries to seduce a British woman, Mary (Jenny Runacre), and grows increasingly aggressive with her until foreplay and sexual violation become indistinguishable from one another. By contrast, Archie’s aggression tends to surface when women accept him. The men are insufferable, dangerous, pitiable, pathetic, and, for the life force these extraordinary actors lend them, weirdly charismatic.

There’s a dangerous temptation to reduce Cassavetes films to theme, especially pertaining to gender, in the process eliding the wild poetry of his work. The dialogue in Husbands, partially improvised but more written and controlled than is generally acknowledged, is composed of simple language that’s often repeated over and over for an effect that’s comic as well as existential; as loud as his male characters can get, they can’t truly hear each other. And compositionally, Husbands is a feast of warm and cold hues and of close-ups, mostly of faces, as they betray the wealth of emotion that the characters seek to deny with their talk. There are also unforgettable group shots, in which bit characters behave in ways that are inexplicable to the protagonists and us alike. (There’s an audaciously surreal scene in which a drunken Gus, a dentist, tends to an uncontrollably laughing woman.) The intimacy of this film and its endless, hopeless subtext and element of counterpoint and ambiguity is head-spinning—this could be Cassavetes’s No Exit. With Husbands, the filmmaker fashioned a miasma of anguish, taking his aesthetic to its breaking point and in the process redefining it.

Image/Sound

Given the improvisatory nature of shooting Husbands, the film naturally lends itself to visual inconsistencies that purposefully bolster a docudramatic “found” effect. Given those circumstances, this is still a remarkably consistent transfer, with vibrant, sometimes almost painterly colors, lovely flashes of light, clean backgrounds, and viscerally specific details, particularly in terms of facial close-ups and the fabrics of clothing. The monaural soundtrack boasts a similar vibrancy, and renders the dialogue in this very talky film, especially the frequent interruptions and altercations, with an exhilarating lucidity.

Extras

A new interview with frequent Cassavetes producer Al Rubin features several excellent stories, such as how the filmmaker faked a huge set piece to inspire Columbia Pictures to release and bankroll Husbands after the production had run out of money. Rubin also discusses Cassavetes’s frustration in the 1950s as an actor for hire, and how his methods grew out of a need for a greater and more original expressivity. Perhaps most vitally, Rubin refutes the myth that Cassavetes’s films were entirely improvised, as the scripts were altered and forged around improvisations. On the set, however, the primary improvisatory element was the blocking and movement of the camera. Cassavetes biographer Marshall Fine’s 2009 archive commentary offers quite a bit more detail on these methods as well, complementing the Rubin interview.

Another new interview, with actress Jenny Runacre, delves into the shooting of her troubling scenes opposite Cassavetes while plumbing the film’s sexual violence. Runacre also speaks of the work she’s done for other notable filmmakers such as Michelangelo Antonioni, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Ridley Scott. (On the set of The Duelists, Harvey Keitel told Runacre that Martin Scorsese made the cast of Mean Streets watch Husbands over and over.) Other odds and ends also address Cassavetes’s process, such as the 2009 featurette “The Story of Husbands—A tribute to John Cassavetes,” featuring Rubin and Ben Gazzara, and a new video essay that collects the filmmaker’s thoughts on acting to suggest a singular interview. An episode of The Dick Cavett Show finds Cassavetes, Gazzara, and Falk clowning around in a manner very similar to the behavior of their characters in the film, and an essay in the liner notes by filmmaker Andrew Bujalski beautifully articulates the “abstraction” of Cassavetes’s direction, as well as the sense of absence that governs Husbands.

Overall

Criterion outfits one of John Cassavetes’s greatest and most daring films with a stunning transfer and updated supplements that contextualize the filmmaker’s methods of creation.

Cast: Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk, John Cassavetes, Jenny Runacre, Jenny Lee, Noelle Kao, John Kullers, Meta Shaw, Leola Harlow, Delores Delmar, Eleanor Zee, Claire Malis, Peggy Lashbrook, Sarah Felcher, David Rowlands Director: John Cassavetes Screenwriter: John Cassavetes Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 142 min Rating: NR Year: 1970 Release Date: May 26, 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad on the Criterion Collection

This Blu-ray comes with an impressive array of extras not found in Criterion’s 100 Years of Olympics box set.

4.5

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Tokyo Olympiad

Modern television coverage of the Olympic Games is saturated with mawkish backstories of only the most high-profile athletes and marked by a disproportionate focus on medal counts and world records. And while the Olympics are, in part, a celebration of athletic greatness, often in individual events and performances, one could be forgiven for forgetting that there are myriad other narratives that can be teased out from within such a worldwide sporting event, as the Criterion Collection’s 2017 box set 100 Years of Olympic Films: 1912-2012 firmly attests. Commissioned by the Japanese Olympic Committee to film the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Kon Ichikawa opted for a sprawling and prismatic portrait of the Games that celebrates not only the spectacle and glory that comes with the opening, closing, and medal ceremonies, but also the humor found in certain events and the pain, sorrow, and isolation that often results from defeat or a devastating, untimely injury.

Employing state-of-the-art telephoto lenses and a crew of over 150 cameramen, Tokyo Olympiad is almost purely freeform in its style. The film fills its 168-minute running time with everything from expansive wide shots that capture the gargantuan scale of the mesmerizing opening ceremony to an array of small, often intimate physical actions involved in athletic performance, frequently conveyed through a combination of slow motion and extreme, often abstract close-ups. It’s rarely the outcome of the events that catches Ichikawa’s attention, but rather the sight and sound of an athlete in an extremity of anguish and joy as they prepare for their Olympic moment. Whether homing in on runners’ legs as they sprint, the intertwined limbs of wrestlers, the graceful movements of gymnasts, or the painfully contorted faces of weightlifters and shot putters, Ichikawa exhibits a singular fascination with human bodies being pushed to, and occasionally past, their breaking point.

Unlike Leni Reifenstahl, whose 1938 film Olympia exalted the perfection of the athletic body, Ichikawa is far more egalitarian, both in his focus on bodies of all sizes and races and in his willingness to shift focus toward those competitors not lucky enough to find their way to the podium. This tendency is most eloquently exhibited in the film’s penultimate sequence, which focuses on the marathon. Invariably, Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila, who won the event by several minutes, remains a recurring figure over this 15-minute segment, but Ichikawa repeatedly cuts to shots of runners who are lagging behind. The fanfare of Bikila crossing the finish line does make the final cut, yet the most thrilling moments are when one man falls from exhaustion only to rise after the crowd, whose words he cannot understand, urges him to continue, and later, long after the winners have finished, when another racer stumbles through the final 100 meters to a stadium full of cheers—the only reward for finishing an agonizing race.

Ichikawa’s humanism is evident in his fascination with those athletes who struggle during their events, as well as in the way he spotlights those who feel alienated in Japan. In the film’s only segment to focus on a specific athlete, Ichikawa chooses not an internationally renowned runner, but Ahamed Isa, one of only two athletes attending the Olympics from the recently established Republic of Chad. Ultimately, Isa didn’t even make it to the finals of the 800 meters after being eliminated following a sixth-place finish in the semi-finals. But Ichikawa senses in his very presence something deeply indicative of the spirit of the Olympics, both in the young man’s pride in representing his blossoming new country and in his isolation. Where many films about the Olympic Games tend to highlight how welcoming and friendly their host cities are, Ichikawa focuses on the melancholic disconnect felt by Isa throughout his culture-clash experience, from the moment he’s greeted by flashing cameras as he exits his plane to his eating of unfamiliar foods in a bustling cafeteria all by himself.

Given Ichikawa’s idiosyncratic approach to the sports documentary, it’s unsurprising that the International Olympic Committee strongly disliked the final result, complaining about its innumerable experimental tactics and lack of emphasis on the winners. The Japanese Olympic Committee was also disappointed by the film’s dearth of patriotic fervor. But this dissatisfaction speaks to what remains so singular about Tokyo Olympiad: its boundless curiosity and willingness to home in on seemingly minor or miniscule details, and from never-before-seen perspectives, and combine them into a kaleidoscopic vision of the Games. The film’s influence on sports photography cannot be overstated, and over 50 years later, it still stands as one of the most thrilling, humane, and unusual sports documentaries ever made.

Image/Sound

Criterion’s transfer stems from a new 4K digital restoration and the results are remarkable across the board. The image is consistently sharp, with the smallest of details now visible in all of the many close-ups, and an even grain distribution that lends the film a beautifully textured look. The color balancing is quite naturalistic, particularly in the skin tones, but also leaves room for the dynamic range of colors to really pop, especially during the opening ceremony. Perhaps even more impressive is the uncompressed monaural soundtrack, which highlights the genius of the film’s sound design, with isolated audio tracks, used to great emphasis in events like the women’s 80m hurdles, sounding clean and precise while the various sounds from the crowd and the athletes in competition are nicely separated in the mix.

Extras

As the Tokyo Olympiad disc in 100 Years of Olympic Films box set is barebones, we’re thankful that this individual release restores all of the extras from Criterion’s long out-of-print 2002 DVD, as well as adds a number of fantastic new features. Of all these extras, new and old, Peter Cowie’s incredibly erudite audio commentary, recorded in 2001, remains the crown gem. Cowie proves himself not only well versed in the career of director Kon Ichikawa, but also a bona fide expert on the Olympic Games. He takes the viewer through the history of both the ancient and modern Olympics, as well as provides context, details, and trivia about nearly every event depicted in the film, from the material used to create the track to the various ways different cities keep the Olympic flames lit. Ample time is also devoted to covering Ichikawa’s compassionate approach to the sports documentary and his desire to use experimental techniques to capture the 16-day event from every possible angle. Along with his commentary, Cowie is also present in a new 10-minute introduction to the film, where he discusses Ichikawa’s bold aesthetic strategies and his status as a not-quite-auteur.

Ichikawa himself can be found expounding on his work on the film in three separate interviews: two shorter ones recorded in 1964 and a longer one from 1992. In the earlier conversations, he covers the pre-production and editing processes of the film and pushes back against the tendency of people to think of documentary and fiction films as intrinsically different. In the latter interview, he reflects on his desire to show the athletes immediately before and after the events as a means to discover the internal conflicts of the participants.

The heftiest of the new extras is the 80-plus minutes of additional footage that Ichikawa shot at the 1964 Olympics, which Criterion has divided into four groups: track and field; aquatics; team ball sports (football, basketball, and field hockey); and wrestling, weightlifting, and cycling. This footage offers an extended look at a number of events that were only briefly touched upon in the finished film and comes with another introduction by Cowie, who gets into the nuts and bolts of more events, particularly the aquatic sports.

Criterion has also included a new half-hour documentary about Ichikawa, which includes interviews with his son and several collaborators, and touches on the director’s insistence on portraying humanity in both its glories and foibles, as well as his surprisingly extensive use of storyboards in the making of the documentary. The disc also covers the restoration with an interview restoration producer Adrian Wood, and comes with a foldout booklet with an essay by James Quandt that further delves into the humanism of Ichikawa’s filmmaking.

Overall

This Blu-ray comes with an impressive array of extras not found in Criterion’s 100 Years of Olympics box set, making it an essential addition to any home-video collection.

Director: Kon Ichikawa Screenwriter: Kon Ichikawa, Yoshio Shirasaka, Shuntarô Tanikawa, Natto Wada Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 168 min Rating: NR Year: 1965 Release Date: June 23, 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: Karel Reisz’s Isadora, Starring Vanessa Redgrave, on Kino Blu-ray

Reisz’s exceptional biopic cleverly avoids most of the pitfalls of the genre.

3.5

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Isadora

Karel Reisz’s Isadora shuffles back and forth across decades of Isadora Duncan’s (Vanessa Redgrave) life, making its transitions either by well-deployed intellectual montage or else by the relative simplicity of a clever match cut. The film begins with a rarity, a scene that unfolds before the usual introductory studio logo, in which the young Isadora pledges to stay true to her muse and remain unwed, all the while setting fire to her parents’ wedding certificate. The segment’s unique placement here sets it off as particularly important to the film’s conception of Isadora’s character. Though the film frames the famous dancer’s life through her relationships with three very different men (one of whom she does, in fact, marry), it leaves us with the distinct impression that Isadora never subsumed her own identity in these affairs. Thus, the film dovetails nicely with both the emerging second-wave feminism and the burgeoning counterculture of the late 1960s.

The film proper opens on the French Riviera in 1927, where Isadora, nearing 50, is busy dictating her memoirs to her personal secretary, Roger (John Fraser), with the assistance of longtime friend Mary (Cynthia Harris). (Although the film doesn’t mention the fact, Mary Desti was the mother of one Preston Sturges.) Frequently intercut with these sequences are depictions of Isadora’s growing infatuation with a young man she nicknames “Bugatti” (Vladimir Leskovar) after his jaunty sports car. Over the course of the film’s progressively darkening second half, Isadora’s pursuit of the young man becomes a sort of allegory for her chasing her own destiny. And as anyone familiar with her biography will anticipate, getting into the man’s sports car will be the last thing that Isadora ever does.

Each of the three relationships the film delves into serve to open up different facets of Isadora’s personality to the audience. Scenic designer Gordon Craig (James Fox) is another artistic free spirit, as intent to break from hidebound convention in staging the drama as Isadora is in her dancing. Their scenes together are among the most warm and romantic of the whole film. Sewing machine heir Paris Singer (Jason Robards) offers Isadora a lavish lifestyle, buying her outright a school where she can teach dance, but at the cost of being counted as another among his possessions. The film illustrates their vastly different conceptions of propriety through the witty expedient of a croquet game. Lastly, there’s Russian poet Sergei Esenin (Zvonimir Crnko), whom the resolutely revolutionary Isadora meets when she’s invited to live and work under the new Soviet regime in the early 1920s.

Scenes that compare Isadora’s time in Russia with the couple’s reception upon their arrival in New York are among the film’s most pointedly political. Reisz doesn’t stint when it comes to showing Isadora’s disenchantment with the realities of life under the Soviet system. But the film does offer one stirring scene where Isadora dances in front of a large gathering, until the power goes out, when singers in the crowd literally rise to the occasion with a folk tune. It’s a poignant, if a bit stereotypical, illustration of art overcoming differences and uniting people. In sharp contrast stands Isadora’s performance for a hoity-toity New York audience, who heckle her and walk out on her brazen antics, while outside the theater Gospel Billy (John Brandon) denounces the “Godless Red invasion.” These events contribute to the gradual darkening of the film, culminating in its tragic denouement.

Image/Sound

Kino’s HD transfer of Isadora isn’t being touted as any sort of restoration, which probably explains the intermittent speckling on display, as well as several instances where a few frames seem to be missing, resulting in inadvertent jump cuts. Otherwise, the visual presentation is quite strong, with lots of clarity and fine detail evident in the period costumes and décor. The color palette is rather muted overall, except for occasional bursts of bright red, which appear deeply saturated. Grain levels are well-handled and flesh tones look appropriately lifelike. The Master Audio stereo track is clean and clear, and does very well by Maurice Jarre’s lovely score, which often quotes from a number of different classical pieces.

Extras

The major extra here is a commentary track from filmmaker Allan Arkush and filmmaker/historian Daniel Kremer. Sometimes it’s a bit of a contest between the two to see whose information will get conveyed first, but all things considered, it’s an extremely listenable and information-packed track. The commentators tackle the various cuts of Karel Reisz’s film, its structure and use of flashback, compare it with other “musical” biopics of the time like Star! and Darling Lili, and discuss the film’s alterations to the actual biography of Isadora Duncan. There’s also lots of interesting, albeit technical, discussion about the use of long lenses, zoom lenses, and the film’s editing techniques.

Overall

Making its Blu-ray debut with this Kino Lorber release, Karel Reisz’s exceptional biopic cleverly avoids most of the pitfalls of the genre.

Cast: Vanessa Redgrave, John Fraser, James Fox, Jason Robards, Zvonimir Crnko, Lado Leskovar, Cynthia Harris, Bessie Love, Tony Vogel, Libby Glenn, John Brandon Director: Karel Reisz Screenwriter: Melvyn Bragg, Clive Exton, Margaret Drabble Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 140 min Rating: NR Year: 1968 Release Date: June 16, 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: Ildikó Enyedi’s My 20th Century on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

Enyedi’s playful rumination on a turning point in Europe’s history gets a gorgeous transfer from Kino.

4

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My 20th Century

Writer-director Ildikó Enyedi’s My 20th Century begins not at the dawn of the 1900s, but 20 years earlier at Thomas Edison’s (Péter Andorai) laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, where he’s showing off his latest invention: a light bulb. As a crowd gathers around a tree strung up in light bulbs, close-ups of people’s awed faces testify to a world irrevocably changed. Indeed, as Edison later sits alone, the stars above him begin to whisper in a futile attempt to get his attention, aware that they now face competition with artificial light for the dreamy stares of humans. Giving up on the inventor, the stars then turn their focus to far-away Budapest, where a woman is giving birth to twin girls.

This magical-realist opening prefigures the whimsy of Enyedi’s approach to Hungary’s turbulent 20th-century history. The twins, Dóra and Lili (both played in adulthood by Dorota Segda), are soon orphaned and, in early childhood, abducted and separated by two men who find them on the street. When the film leaps forward to the year 1900, Dóra is a socialite drifting through palatial rooms on the arms of Hungary’s wealthiest men. Riding in a glitzy compartment on the Orient Express where the champagne is free-flowing, she’s oblivious to the fact that her long-forgotten sister, now an anarchist, is on the same train. The camera regards each woman in the same woozy fashion, but Enyedi visually delineates the insulation of the Old World’s upper class and the mounting defiance of the poor, as the overcrowded rear cars feel stuffy compared to the richer compartments’ atmosphere of joie de vivre.

The dichotomy between Dóra and Lili, who constantly traverse the same areas but never intersect, naturally illustrates the widening gyre between an insurgent populist movement and a dying aristocracy’s final years on the eve of World War I shaking Europe to the core. Heavy stuff, but My 20th Century is filled with diversions that range from the generally satirical to the borderline surreal. A psychology professor gives a lecture denouncing feminism as a mental disorder before drawing sexual organs on a blackboard with arrows leading from breasts to wombs to chart the process of stimulating a woman, almost as if he were sketching a battle plan. A caged chimp at a city zoo gives a monologue on the perils of his curiosity when he’s around humans in the wild, while a dog escapes the hell of a laboratory experiment and seems to run the length of Hungary as he sprints toward freedom.

Early on, before their separation, Dóra and Lili share a dream of being reunited with their dead mother in a Lotte Reiniger-esque shadowplay that replicates Christian imagery of a donkey bearing the children to their Mary-like mother, and a donkey appears toward the end to lead the sisters toward reunion. Such images break the film away from simply correlating its characters to history by delighting in more free-associative connections.

Indeed, if one considers the scene of Edison showing off his light bulbs in relation to the old nickelodeon film that plays over the credits of a soldier humorously sticking his head into a misfired cannon as he waves a torch dangerously close to the gun’s wick, My 20th Century could be seen as a general celebration of the possibilities of cinema. Even Segda’s dual casting is a testament to the movie magic that Enyedi indulges while exploring a transitional period in Hungarian and, indeed, world history. The metaphorical dimensions of the twins are compounded by their being seen through the confused perspective of a man, Z (Oleg Yankovskiy), who unknowingly becomes the lover to them both. While Z can’t understand how the woman he loves keeps vacillating between radical revolutionary and glamorous sellout, his ability to square these two wildly divergent identities into one perceived person speaks to the film’s subtler illustration of how the various strains of sociopolitical angst make up the fuller, insoluble portrait of Hungary as it teeters on the precipice of far-reaching change.

Image/Sound

Sourced from a 4K restoration, Kino’s transfer brilliantly captures the film’s blazing use of on-screen light. The exaggeratingly pulsating light bulbs are rendered in all their blinding luminescence, never washing out the sharp contrast of the black-and-white cinematography. The only flaws here are endemic to the archival footage prominently featured throughout, such as the scratches and other debris that cannot be fixed. Even then, these defects are in sync with the film’s magical-realistic flourishes. The audio track is fault-free, boasting evenly mixed dialogue that’s never overpowered by the surround elements.

Extras

A brief video introduction from Ildikó Enyedi is included on this release, as is a longer interview with the director in which she details how she wrote and made the film. An audio commentary by the director and cinematographer Tibor Máthé delves more into the technical aspects of the film’s look. Throughout, Enyedi keeps the film’s “meaning” as entirely opaque as the final product. An accompanying booklet contains an essay by TIFF programmer Dorota Lech that places the film in context of both social and cinema history and also analyzes how the slippery dream structure both obscures and elucidates its themes.

Overall

Ildikó Enyedi’s playful rumination on a turning point in Europe’s history as well as the possibilities of filmmaking gets a gorgeous transfer from Kino.

Cast: Dorota Segda, Oleg Yankovsky, Paulus Manker, Péter Andorai Director: Ildikó Enyedi Screenwriter: Ildikó Enyedi Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 102 min Rating: NR Year: 1989 Release Date: June 9, 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: Dorothy Arzner’s Dance, Girl, Dance on Criterion Blu-ray

Criterion welcomes Arzner into its collection with an excellent 4K transfer of this rollicking stage drama.

3.5

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Dance, Girl, Dance

During the opening sequence of Dance, Girl, Dance, as police raid a seedy nightclub in Akron, Ohio that’s a front for illegal gambling, dancer Judy O’Brien (Maureen O’Hara) tells an unsympathetic cop: “We’re just trying to earn our living.” The line speaks to the central theme of Dorothy Arzner’s prescient 1940 drama, which sees how personal branding and an indefatigable opportunism are, for women, necessities for achieving stardom, especially outside the confines of the Hollywood pipeline.

Judy, idealistic about ballet and certain that her commitment to artistry will win out, eventually finds herself playing stooge to “Tiger” Lily White (Lucille Ball), who flouts her sexuality and sass in an audition for the headlining act at a Hoboken burlesque club. A lesser director might have seen Lily as a one-note wretch and put her in sharp contrast to a naif-ish Judy, but Arzner doesn’t patronize either character by defining them by a single trait. And this refusal resonates with the film’s broader critique of exploitative spaces like burlesque clubs—a rejoinder that Judy explicitly delivers in a lengthy monologue near the end of the film.

The film pulls off a mighty balancing act between indulging in the sex appeal of its female characters and critiquing how men commodify it. Arzner makes Lily into a believably magnetic figure who easily excels all her fellow dancers; her audition for a lecherous talent scout (Harold Huber) follows on the heels of Judy’s uninspired take on the same hula tune. While Dance, Girl, Dance certainly takes aim at the spectacle of sweaty older men ogling and taking advantage of young female bodies, it also recognizes the undeniable eroticism of watching a physically commanding performer take control of a stage.

And speaking of sex appeal, the film belongs to Ball, nowhere more so than in a burlesque number (“Mother, What Do I Do Now?”) that plays up the thin line between girlhood and womanhood with regard to sexual prowess. It’s a raucous sequence that unfolds like a relic from the pre-Code era, when jutting hips weren’t subject to censorship. When Judy, who by all accounts is the same age as Lily, subsequently takes the stage to perform her stooge ballet routine, a male patron yells out, “Go home, little girl, your mother’s calling you.”

In this moment, Dance, Girl, Dance scrutinizes how women are expected by men to have the characteristics of innocence while displaying the actions of full-bodied women. Since Judy’s routine fails at the latter, she’s seen by the audience as merely innocent, and as such unfit for stardom. It’s a remarkable sequence, especially from a contemporary vantage point, as the sexist expectation that women must create a specifically sexualized image of themselves in order to obtain notoriety as a performer remains an issue to this day.

The weaker aspects of the film concern a pair of potential love interests. Jimmy Harris (Louis Hayward) is a wealthy scion in a love-hate relationship with his estranged wife (Virginia Field) but who’s also courting Judy and Lily depending on the day. The character is, in short, a drag, transparent in his spoiled notions of privilege and excess, and while the film more or less acknowledges as much by the end, Frank Davis and Tess Slesinger’s screenplay is too tethered to the premise of having him around for the possibility of some romance. The same goes, though to a lesser degree, for Steve Adams (Ralph Bellamy), a prominent ballet director who Judy thinks could help her secure a big break. While Bellamy’s charm smooths over the character’s presence as it distracts from the film’s more intriguing elements, such as the dance numbers and crackles of backstage tension, Dance, Girl, Dance might have been a breathless jaunt from front to back if it had dared to kick these male figures to the curb from the start.

Image/Sound

This new 4K digital transfer looks great, with the only damage consisting of occasional scratches and artifacts at the edges of the frame, but those flaws are native to the original negative and dupes from which the scan was derived. Overall, the transfer boasts exquisite sharpness and depth of field, most notably in dance sequences where the camera stays wide at certain points. Shadow delineation is excellent, while close-ups are rich in image detail, with actors’ skin and eyes appearing particularly luminous. The uncompressed monaural soundtrack nicely balances dialogue and music into a full and even mix.

Extras

The first of two interviews included on this disc is with critic B. Ruby Rich, who outlines both the feminist and queer themes of Dorothy Arzner’s filmography, along with aspects of the filmmaker’s career, such as her being the only working female director in Hollywood in the late 1930s and early ‘40s and openly living with another woman. Though a combination of Rich’s words, clips from numerous Arzner films, and footage of Arzner herself, the interview succinctly attests to the importance of a filmmaker who’s too often reduced to a historical footnote. Notably, Rich explains how Dance, Girl, Dance creates a complicated portrait of feminine desire by toying with perceptions of masculinity and femininity, and also touches on how variations on these themes are present in other Arzner films from the same era. The second interview, conducted with Francis Ford Coppola in 2020, explains Arzner’s turn from Hollywood filmmaker to UCLA professor, with Coppola offering his recollections of being her student in the early ‘60s. Coppola, who says he can only call her “Miss Arzner” due to this relationship, shares some brief stories of Arzner’s advice and encouragement. Rounding out the package is a discerning essay by critic Sheila O’Malley that, among its other historical interests, explores how the film contains layers related to “the concept of looking.”

Overall

Criterion welcomes Dorothy Arzner into its collection with an excellent 4K transfer of this rollicking stage drama, though one wishes the disc’s extras had a bit more pep in their step.

Cast: Maureen O’Hara, Lucille Ball, Louis Hayward, Virginia Field, Ralph Bellamy, Maria Ouspenskaya, Mary Carlisle, Katharine Alexander, Edward Brophy, Walter Abel Director: Dorothy Arzner Screenwriter: Tess Slesinger, Frank Davis Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 1940 Release Date: May 19, 2020 Buy: Video

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