You have your underdog stories, and you have the Battle of Rorkeâs Drift. In January 1879, a very, very small contingent of British Army regulars defended a mission station from an exponentially larger force from the hostile Zulu army in Natal Province, South Africa. The Zulus had just annihilated a much larger component of the British main column at Isandlwana, despite being faced with heavier and more advanced war technology. In light of their accomplishment, doing away with Rorkeâs Drift should have been like running full speed through a small pile of leaves. Should have, but wasnât, as the men at Rorkeâs Drift, warned of the imminent attack and advised by the Boers (better known now as Dutch Afrikaaners), retrenched, creating dense lines of defense within the encampment, and repelled the Zulus for almost a full day, suffering around 10% casualties. The attack concluded when the Zulu column withdrew, fleeing the advance of a British relief force.
The ensuing Anglo-Zulu war did not go well for the native Africans (well-armed and organized reprisals eventually won out over spears and hardened animal-hide shields), but thatâs not the story of Cy Endfieldâs Zulu. The film, from a script by Endfield and historian and journalist John Prebble, dispenses almost entirely with prologue and aftermath, each handled with a few lines of voiceover by Richard Burton. Most of its 138 minutes are spent at the Rorkeâs Drift outpost, a large part of it leading up to the assault, and almost nothing afterward. The lead-up establishes the officers and men (plus a handful of non-combatants: hospitalized men, commissary workers, and a Boer assigned to the post but not under English authority) in broad strokes in accordance with British cinema and theater trends at the time, i.e. some John Osborne-Tony Richardson-Basil Dearden vibes to give the big-budget gloss a little rough texture. The fortâs commander, Lieutenant Bromhead (Michael Caine), is established as slightly effeminate, with a weakness for the mythical and superficial aspects of army life like spotless uniforms and big-game hunts. Heâs also âproper armyâ compared to Lieutenant Chard (Stanley Baker), of the Royal Engineers, sent to the area to build a bridge, and when Chard narrowly pulls rank, beating Bromheadâs commission date by only a few months, a none-too-subtle bout of dick-measuring follows as the Zulus quickly approach and Chard begins facing nearly impossible decisions from every angle.
Endfield and Prebbleâs script also sets up character conflicts in the hospital ward, populated as much by bitter malingerers as actual sick and wounded. The Osborne-esque character types, far removed from the English Midlands and urban blight, are planted here, in particular the long-faced and mildly craven Private Hook (James Booth). The church is converted into a field hospital; in the pulpit is surgeon James Reynolds (Patrick Magee), who only looks up from stitching up punctured skin and organs long enough to spit invective at the âbutchersâ outside, British and Zulu alike. This dark joke, a secular man of medicine swearing at the pews, from the pulpit, is such that you may not notice it until after the film is over.
As waves of Zulu fighters descend on the outpost, character development is scrambled and usually obliterated. A handful of convenient fabrications are given cursory notice: the rascal Hook, who in real life was a model soldier and teetotaler, redeems himself; thereâs a contest of music between the chanting Zulus and the hymn-singing English; and the priest Wittâs misguided attempts to sabotage the English defense. But Endfieldâs primary focus is conflict physics. His camera frequently panning left, right, and diagonally in detached, Ernie Gehr-esque glides, Zulu reinvents the Black Narcissus paradoxâthat a company of homesick occupiers can experience rank claustrophobia in a place that can hardly be said to have a shortage of elbow room.
For years, Zulu was charged with racism, essentially using the same blunted logic that dismisses all Hollywood westerns as racist against Native Americans. The Zulu warriors are denied the âfundamentals of screenwritingâ approach that gives an inside look at the Rorkeâs Drift defenders, who are 100% white. They arenât even given dialogueâor, at least, nothing that can be subtitled, just a lot of shouting, calling, and chanting. As substantial as these objections might be, Zulu is far more interested in geometry than context, in viscera than politics. Taken this way, it becomes clear that the film sees the Zulusânot the Englishâthrough a prism of unqualified admiration, beginning with a mass wedding, and continuing with frequent, Busby Berkeley-esque sequences of their mobilized militias. While their fighters arenât singled out for distinct character traits, they are on the whole portrayed as fearless, indefatigable, and energized, as opposed to an unthinking, zombie horde. Almost itself a half-musical, Zulu will pause to take in the invigorating spectacle of their pre-battle, psych-out songs, drumming their spears against their shields with a clatter that resounds across the valley.
As the movie tells it, the action concluded when the Zulus, who had made it clear that they could wipe out Rorkeâs Drift in the next surge, opted to spare the English, saluted them, and split the scene. Thereâs no evidence to support this as anything other than fiction, but itâs good fiction, and it affirms Endfieldâs great esteem for both belligerents. Hardly any time is spent revisiting the key figures on the British side, sparing the viewer the usual baloney that the trauma has âchangedâ them. Burtonâs voice names each recipient of the Victoria Cross, an echo of a similar scene at the end of Anthony Mannâs Men in War. What came next for the Zulus is too sad and too inevitable to be accommodated by Endfieldâs telling, which isnât a history lesson, but a study in compression and explosion, told in severe angles and deep, layered spaces.
Employing British cinematographer Stephen Dade, Endfield shot Zulu using the short-lived but astounding Super Technirama 70 process, which, simply put, all but reproduced the benefits of 70mm using 35mm stock. Even to eyes acclimated to large-format spectacles produced during the same period may plotz when they get a good look at Zuluâs Technirama, beginning with the wordless opening shot; the format had a knack for reproducing the refined detail of VistaVision, the expansive width of CinemaScope, and the dizzying depth of Cinerama. Twilight Timeâs reproduction is impeccable, using almost totally pristine materials. The robust soundtrack is presented in a mono track and a 2.0 stereo track; the latter gives some directionality to the effects, but not obtrusively. For those who already feel like theyâre getting vertigo from the stunning panorama shots may just go for the mono.
Disappointingly light, though thereâs a commentary track featuring Twilight Time honcho Nick Redman and screenwriter Lem Dobbs. Obviously there isnât the one-of-a-kind cattiness Dobbs brought to his legendary commentary with Steven Soderbergh on the 2000 DVD of The Limey, but the he and Redman make good use of their time, mixing film appreciation with important historical knowledge. The music/effects track is available for those who want to appreciate one of John Barryâs best scores, and focus more easily on Cy Endfieldâs visual strategies.
A good platter for a great, underappreciated classic of British cinema (under the direction of American expatriate Cy Endfield)âlight on supplements but strong in presentation.
Cast: Stanley Baker, Jack Hawkins, Ulla Jacobsson, James Booth, Michael Caine, Nigel Green, Ivor Immanuel, Paul Daneman, Glynn Edwards, Patrick Magee Director: Cy Endfield Screenwriter: Cy Endfield, John Prebble Distributor: Twilight Time Running Time: 138 min Rating: NR Year: 1964 Release Date: January 21, 2014 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Agnieszka Hollandâs Europa Europa on the Criterion Collection
Criterionâs release of this timely, socially relevant film is outfitted with a richly detailed transfer, but itâs a bit slim on extras.3.5
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 solemnityâa secrecy that appears to be breached in this moment. Itâs a millennia-old rite of passage for Jewish males, and in Agnieszka Hollandâs film, Salomon Perelâs 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 fluidâsomething that can be obscured or transformed as a means of survivalâis central to Europa Europa. And when it jumps 13 years into the future to 1930s Germany, Hollandâs 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 heâll never be able to hide.
Europa Europa is almost perversely focused on Salomonâs 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 manâs 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 Nazisâ 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, itâs spottier on a micro level. In skirting over the psychological ramifications of the real-life Perelâs 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. Itâs only in Europa Europaâs 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 itâs 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.
The filmâs 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 Preisnerâs score hauntingly swells on the soundtrack.
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. Hollandâs chat hits much of the same beats as her commentary, while lead actor Marco Hofschneider goes into more detail about the filmmakerâs desire to have a non-actor play the lead, so as to bring a sense of naĂŻvetĂ© 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 filmâs visual motifs, and an expectedly perceptive essay by film critic Amy Taubin.
Criterionâs release of this timely, socially relevant film is outfitted with a richly detailed transfer, but itâs a bit slim on extras.
Cast: Marco Hofschneider, AndrĂ© Wilms, Julie Delpy, Hanns Zischler, Ashley Wanninger, Klaus Abramowsky, MichĂšle Gleizer, Delphine Forest, RenĂ© 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
Blu-ray Review: Bruno Dumontâs LâHumanitĂ© on the Criterion Collection
Dumontâs philosophical tragi-comedy receives a gorgeous 4K digital restoration and insightful range of contextualizing interviews.4
If Bruno Dumontâs La Vie de JĂ©sus is something of a horror film about the failure of empathy, LâHumanitĂ© is its comedic B-side, taking an equally horrific scenario and examining it through the perspective of a bumbling police force. Yet as is typically the case with Dumont, his sense of comedy isnât straightforward. When police inspector Pharaon De Winter (Emmanuel SchottĂ©) rejoices after receiving a hug from his friend and secret crush, Domino (SĂ©verine Caneele), the man sits in a chair rattling his fists up and down after she leaves the roomâa spectacle that doesnât suggest a moment of triumph so much as a fit. That this scene occurs not long after an 11-year-old girl is found raped and murdered in a nearby field demonstrates part of Dumontâs dissonant sensibilities. The oddity of Pharaonâs behavior coexists in a world with unfathomable brutality, something the film views less as a contradiction than a defining feature of human nature.
Dumontâs filmography is practically a study of faces, and that fixation is especially prominent here. The characters in LâHumanitĂ© wear blank or neutral expressions, and Dumontâs camera lingers on these visages as if waiting for people to remove their skins and reveal their true selves. Itâs a visual choice that can be understood as a commentary on the charactersâ alienation. Since Dumont works with non-professional actors with highly distinctive facial features, close-ups complement the viewerâs contemplation of these lonely souls rather than gauging a characterâs reaction to someone or something in their immediate surroundings.
LâHumanitĂ© opens with a wide shot of Pharaon running across the Bailleul countryside, and as in La Vie de JĂ©sus, the rural setting projects an image of innocence about to be upended by violence. Sex also factors into this filmâs equation. Shortly after greeting Domino and her lover (Philippe Tullier), Pharaon walks in on the couple having intercourse on the floor, staring at them in expressionless silence. When Domino later reprimands him for âgetting an eyeful,â itâs less out of anger than conviviality. While Dumont consistently awakens a Hitchcockian dimension within his work as it pertains to the pleasure of looking, ready-made psychological explanations for such behavior remain out of reach to both characters and viewers.
Like Pharaon, Domino also likes to watch. Indeed, one of LâHumanitĂ©âs indelible images is a recurring close-up of Domino casting her eyes onto something or someone within eyeshot. While at a beach, sheâs introduced to a handsome male friend of Pharaonâs wearing Speedo trunks. As Dominoâs eyes move toward the manâs groin, the camera catches him noticing her stare. Once Domino realizes heâs aware of her gaze, she averts her eyes. To what extent Domino is either aroused or absent-mindedly looking at the man remains ambiguous, but itâs nevertheless clear that LâHumanitĂ© makes a thematic drumbeat out of its charactersâ preoccupation with staring. While this at times comes to feel redundant, Dumontâs refusal to give his characters reducible motivations is as mysterious as it is refreshing.
In one of the filmâs most obtuse depictions of people staring, Pharaon becomes entranced by the large, reddened neck of his police commissioner (Chislain GhesquĂšre) while the pair drive across the countryside. Whatever Pharaonâs interest in the manâs body, the close-up reveals his skin as an abstract, nearly indiscernible image. In this instance, all we see, in effect, is blood covered by a thin layer of flesh. These grotesque implications reducing human beings to meat might recall the paintings of Francis Bacon, particularly 1936âs Abstraction from the Human Form. That Pharaon is a descendent of the 19th-century painter Pharaon De Winterâand even lends some of De Winterâs paintings for an exhibition to a nearby gallery halfway through the filmâmakes explicit the linkage between LâHumanitĂ© and artifice. Because Pharaon stares at these paintings with the same expression he offers to the world, weâre further made aware that weâre not merely, as viewers, gazing upon the lives of real people. Dumont reconciles each characterâs personal desire through his own cultural and artistic means, something the natural world, in all its incomprehensible vastness, cannot afford them.
Criterionâs Blu-ray release of LâHumanitĂ© boasts a clean image abundant in striking details. Outdoor shots evince vibrant colors, with the smallest of nuances, such as the individual bricks of buildings, appearing well-detailed way back into the farthest reaches of the frame. While the DTS-HD surround track is a tad muted overall, the classical music at the start and close of the film is forcefully mixed, and dialogue is clear throughout.
As on Criterionâs La Vie de JĂ©sus release, the extras here largely consist of interviews with Bruno Dumont from across the past 20 years. In the newest one, conducted this year by Criterion, Dumont discusses how the conclusion of his prior film inspired him to write LâHumanitĂ©. In fact, he had intended to have the same actor, Jean-Claude Lefebvre, who played a police inspector in La Vie de JĂ©sus, reprise his role here, and when he declined, Dumont revised Pharaon De Winter around Emmanuel SchottĂ©, who would go on to win best actor for his performance at the Cannes Film Festival. The second interview, conducted by film critic Philippe Rouyer in 2014, is a deeper dive into the filmâs production history. Here, Dumont explains how he collaborates with his actors to significantly shape his charactersâ behaviors, all the way down to the use of groans and sighs. The pair also discuss how Dumont approaches character psychology from a visual perspective. And the final interview is a segment from a 1999 French television news program, with Dumont walking the streets of Bailleul and explaining how he shoots. Rounding things out is a segment from a 2000 episode of Tendances featuring actress SĂ©verine Caneele, a trailer, and an essay by critic Nicholas Elliott that, among other things, traces some of the filmâs art-historical references.
This Blu-ray of Bruno Dumontâs philosophical tragi-comedy boasts a gorgeous 4K digital restoration and insightful range of contextualizing interviews.
Cast: Emmanuel SchottĂ©, SĂ©verine Caneele, Philippe Tullier, Ghislain GhesquĂšre, Ginette AllĂšgre Director: Bruno Dumont Screenwriter: Bruno Dumont Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 148 min Rating: NR Year: 1999 Release Date: June 18, 2019 Buy: Video
Review: Andrew Bujalskiâs Mutual Appreciation on Arbelos Films Blu-ray
This package is the perfect opportunity to revisit a paragon of mid-aughts mumblecore cinema.4
Andrew Bujalskiâs best attribute as a filmmaker isnât his much-heralded ability to reproduce the idiomatic lingo of his stuck-in-neutral twentysomething subjectsâwho, to these ears, sound a bit too self-consciously aimless and uncomfortable to pass as authenticâbut, rather, his knack for unearthing subtle insights about interpersonal relations from meandering, semi-improvisational dialogue. A modest step up from Bujalskiâs breakthrough 2002 film Funny Ha Ha, which is acknowledged as the first mumblecore film, Mutual Appreciation reveals discerning truths about post-college anomie through a carefully arranged narrative structured around casual ellipses and sly symmetries, whether it be the juxtaposition of one eveningâs dissimilar drunken parties or its pair of gender-role-reversal scenarios (one involving a man reading a womanâs short story, the other marked by some sloshed cross-dressing).
Though often compared to Cassavetesâan association reinforced by Mutual Appreciationâs bargain-basement black-and-white 16mm cinematographyâBujalski makes films that simmer rather than seethe. His sweet, stuttering protagonists are based on, and played by, friendsâall defined by their lack of direction, fear of obligation, and refusal to grow up. Reticence is the predominant tone struck by this tale of indie-rocker Alan (Justin Rice, co-founder of the band Bishop Allen), who, having moved from Boston to Brooklyn to jumpstart his career, develops a reciprocated crush on Ellie (Rachel Clift), the journalist girlfriend of his grad school buddy, Lawrence (Bujalski). As for the talkative action, itâs dominated by a sense of people willfully muting emotional expression in order to evade confronting potentially troublesome truths.
Articulations of genuine feelings are coded within rambling discussions about everything and nothing. As such, when something meaningful is statedâas in Alan arguing in favor of creating a community of kindred spirits âwilling to do stuffâ for each other, or Ellie confessing that âthe problem with Lawrence is that heâs not the master of his own destinyââthe respite from the charactersâ usual avoidance tactics is bracing. Throughout, Bujalski seems to self-reflexively comment on his own stylistic quirks, from Ellie overtly addressing a particular âlong, awkward pauseâ to Alan saying, in an apparent jab at Mutual Appreciationâs peculiar rhythms, that he hates math rockâs âweird beats and time signatures.â Yet solipsistic as it may occasionally be, Bujalskiâs sharp sophomore effortâcourtesy of its perceptive, heartfelt humanismâultimately makes such self-infatuation more infectious than off-putting.
The new 2K restoration, from which this transfer is sourced, offers an image quality with far more depth and sharpness than whatâs typically afforded to home-video releases of the low-budget, mumblecore films of the aughts. A good deal of grain remains from the 16mm negative, preserving the filmâs raw integrity. Thereâs also a nice balance in the contrast between blacks and whites, with exterior scenes looking neither too bright nor blown out and interiors never overly dark. The sound is clean and evenly mixed and the dialogue is easy to understand even when characters trip over their words or talk over one another.
In an appropriately low-key, clever commentary track, parents of various cast and crew members offer up an array of observations, complaints, and dad jokes. Very much in the spirit of the film, these off-the-cuff comments abound in charmingly awkward attempts at humor and amateurish stabs at interpreting Mutual Appreciation. There are moments of genuine insight, but itâs primarily a light-hearted addendum to the film, with some choice moments of parental disappointment, whether itâs a bit actorâs parents complaining about how the framing leaves their son off screen for most of his 20-second appearance to another parent declaring, âWell, this, we know, is just solipsistic masturbation.â A 30-minute interview with Andrew Bujalski provides insight into his working process and the ways it did and didnât change as he began to work with bigger budgets and stars in the years since Mutual Appreciationâs release. The disc also includes Bujalskiâs 2007 short film Peopleâs House, which serves as a companion piece to this film, essays by Damien Chazelle and singer-songwriter Will Sheff, and, in an unexpected nod to Elvira, a low-def, tongue-in-cheek intro by âVampira.â
Arbelos Filmsâs sturdy 2K transfer and a scrappy assortment of extras present the perfect opportunity to revisit a paragon of mid-aughts mumblecore cinema.
Cast: Justin Rice, Rachel Clift, Andrew Bujalski, Seung-Min Lee, Pamela Corkey, Kevin Micka, Ralph Tyler, Peter Pentz, Bill Morrison, Tamara Luzeckyj, Mary Varn, Kate Dollenmayer Director: Andrew Bujalski Screenwriter: Andrew Bujalski Distributor: Arbelos Films Running Time: 110 min Rating: R Year: 2005 Release Date: June 11, 2019 Buy: Video
Review: Jean-Luc Godardâs Alphaville on Kino Lorber Blu-ray
Kinoâs Blu-ray brings the film’s shoestring-budget beauty to life with an exceptional new transfer.4
Much has been said of the overwhelming ingenuity of Jean-Luc Godardâs early films, but less so about just how well the director knew how to work around budgetary limitations. Alphaville, a dystopian sci-fi noir set in an Orwellian world of omnipresent surveillance run by a malevolent artificial intelligence, sounds at first blush like a large-scale work filled with the sort of macro world-building one typically sees in blockbusters. But Godard, working with next to no resources, captures the oppressiveness of totalitarian government through the claustrophobic conditions of repressed citizens. Ordinary Parisian streets and buildings are captured as they are, though in inky shadow, so that a certain kind of present-day dilapidation comes to suggest futuristic social decay.
Godard takes private detective Lemmy Caution and illustrates the filmâs themes of social tension and incipient fascism by demolishing the manâs image. Godard secured Eddie Constantine, who had already played Caution in a number of films as a James Bond-esque rake whose chauvinism was portrayed as roguish and charming. Here, however, Constantine plays Caution as a somber has-been, a caustic loner in his twilight whose pathetic weariness is further emphasized by Godard forbidding the actor to wear makeup, preferring to capture every wrinkle and blemish on his face. When Godard does nominally adhere to the tropes one might expect from a Caution caper, the filmmaker does so in the most parodic of ways, as in an early action scene in which a hitman springs out of nowhere in Cautionâs hotel room, leading to a brutal scuffle where all diegetic sound drops out and is replaced by elegant, lilting classical music, until noise comes crashing in as the would-be killer and hero are sent through a series of glass doors. Itâs a gag worthy of a Jerry Lewis film.
In mixing elements of noir and science fiction, Godard doubles down on the existential horror of both genres, emphasizing their common emotional detachment through a narrative involving a supercomputer, Alpha 60, that rules over a realm, Alphaville, in which human emotions like love are punishable by death. That premise anticipates future tech-noir features like Leos Caraxâs Mauvais Sang, and the rapport between Caution, so grizzled but still full of longing, and a thoroughly brainwashed, deadpan young woman, Natacha (Anna Karina), has the same kind of mutually dispassionate but compelling quasi-romance that Harrison Ford and Sean Young shared as androids performing love in Ridley Scottâs Blade Runner.
One of the least energetic of Godardâs New Wave films, Alphaville nonetheless evinces his puckish wit and allusive modernism. Caution frequently engages in conversations with Alpha 60, which articulates its thoughts through a growling voice box and decries human illogic while also largely reciting lines that Godard cribbed from the work of Jorge Luis Borges. In one scene, rebels who refuse to live in a world without love are executed by firing squad next to a pool where swimmers calmly perform laps below the machine-gun fire. At its heart, though, the filmâs tension between emotion and logic epitomizes the early internal conflict of intellectualism and love that suffuses Godardâs early work. And, in one of the supercomputerâs Borges quotations, the film lays out the thesis that would undergird all phases of Godardâs search for unified truths: âSometimes reality can be too complex to be conveyed by the spoken word. Legend remoulds it into a form that can be spread all across the world.â
Kino Lorberâs disc, sourced from a 4K transfer, is a revelatory presentation of a film that often seemed one of the least visually dynamic of Godardâs early career. Raoul Coutardâs cinematography, shot under incredibly difficult lighting conditions, has always appeared heavily grained and crushed on home video, but here the full beauty of his images is on fabulous display. Eddie Constantine and Anna Karinaâs faces are rich with texture, blacks sink into abyssal levels of darkness without crushing, and outdoor location shot boast a healthy distribution of grain that never compromises detail. The robust-sounding audio is so clear that itâs now easier than ever to understand Alpha 60 supercomputerâs musings.
An audio commentary track by novelist and film historian Tim Lucas provides ample details about Alphaville and its place among both Godardâs filmography and the series of Lemmy Caution films, but Lucasâs dry, fact-based approach skirts a deeper, more formal analysis of Godardâs methods. A brief interview with Karina finds the actress recounting her memories of working on Alphaville. Most memorable is her amusing recollection that Coutard was so anxious about shooting in such dark lighting conditions that he couldnât bear to look at the filmâs dailies. An introduction by critic Colin McCabe provides a cursory but probing look into some of Godardâs techniques while not giving too much away.
Jean-Luc Godardâs sci-fi curio is a fascinating outlier in his New Wave period, and Kinoâs Blu-ray brings its shoestring-budget beauty to life with an exceptional new transfer.
Cast: Eddie Constantine, Anna Karina, Akim Tamiroff Director: Jean-Luc Godard Screenwriter: Jean-Luc Godard Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 99 min Rating: NR Year: 1965 Release Date: July 9, 2019 Buy: Video
The Myth of the American Dream: Francis Ford Coppolaâs The Godfather Trilogy
These films are as elegant as they are expansive, acutely perceptive and operatic in their high emotions.
In approaching his adaptation of Mario Puzoâs The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola has said that he saw the story as âthe tale of a great king,â Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), who passed the best and worst of him to his three sons: passionate and aggressive Sonny (James Caan); sweet, childlike Fredo (John Cazale); and intelligent and cunning Michael (Al Pacino). Coppolaâs archetypal sensibility is the hook that makes The Godfather trilogy so compelling, an emotional buttress that registers deeply through the thorny convolutions of each filmâs narrative. Indeed, one of the remarkable things about The Godfatherâcommensurate with Brandoâs marble-mouthed performanceâis how the emotional clarity of this one familyâs story so powerfully emanates through the soup of business and politics.
The Godfather sees the Corleone clan struggling to hold ground on a battlefield peppered with memorable antagonists: narcotics entrepreneur Virgil Sollozzo (Al Lettieri), corrupt police Captain Mark McCluskey (Sterling Hayden), duplicitous rival mafioso Emilio Barzini (Richard Conte), stubborn Hollywood producer Jack Woltz (John Marley), ruthless Las Vegas high roller Moe Greene (Alex Rocco), to say nothing of the sundry turncoats within the Corleone family. The filmâs canvas is a crowded one, and at its center is a rite of passage: the aging Don Vito handing the reins of the family business over to the reluctant Michael, the black sheep who wants nothing more than to be part of the great American melting pot. During the filmâs opening, which depicts the wedding of Vitoâs daughter, Connie (Talia Shire), Michael is introduced to us in military fatigues, with his blond-haired, WASPy girlfriend, Kay Adams (Diane Keaton), on his arm. And by the filmâs end, heâs embraced the shadows outside of bourgeois American life. As he says at the beginning of The Godfather Part II, officially sanctioned politics and nefarious organized crime are both part of the same hypocrisy.
Throughout Connieâs wedding, the vividness of Coppolaâs characterizations allows us to quickly understand how this particular family learned to thrive in a distinct American subculture. Meanwhile, consigliere (and adopted Corleone son) Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) exists to fill us in on the ins and outs of how New Yorkâs crime families negotiate power. The gestures, glances, and tonal registers between siblings position The Godfather as a primal story of love and devotion between a father and his children, and how siblings square off with each other in trying to live up to their fatherâs regality. And as Caanâs ferocity plays off of Duvallâs lawyerly reason and Pacinoâs exacting coolness, weâre effortlessly swept up in the intimate emotional currents that flow beneath the power machinations of a dynastic family.
Partly set in 1958, The Godfather: Part II amplifies this complicated interplay as Michael secures his criminal empire in Nevadaâs casinos and works toward setting up operations in Havana. In a memorably winking scene, old-time capo Frank Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo) requests tarantella music to be played at the Corleone Lake Tahoe compound during the celebration of Michaelâs sonâs first communion, but the band instead plays âPop Goes the Weasel.â Senator Pat Geary (G.D. Spradlin) gives a speech thanking Michael for his contributions to the state. Kay is pregnant with their third child, and Michael aims to have a family as propitious as his fatherâs. But thereâs a revolution brewing in Cuba, and political committees are cracking down on the mafia. More intimately, Kay is distressed about bringing more children into an apparatus strewn with corruption. Dancing with Michael, she brings up a conversation they had in a scene from the first film. âYou told me in five years the Corleone family would be completely legitimate. That was seven years ago.â
Michaelâs conflicts in The Godfather: Part II are connected to the past as much as to the present. The burden of history is represented by the avuncular though treacherous Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg), who did business with Michaelâs father, and Frank, whoâs uncomfortable with how Michael is straying from the familyâs Sicilian roots. Also at the heart of the film is the story of the younger Vito (Robert De Niro), who finds himself embroiled in a war with the governing mafia chieftain Fanucci (Gastone Moschin) after arriving in America. Throughout, Michaelâs spiritual entropy is intercut with Vitoâs ascendancy 30 years earlier, and while both men act to preserve their families, itâs telling how Coppola contrasts the fatherâs warmth with the sonâs sclerotic obtuseness (ironically akin to the patriarchs with whom Vito does battle). By the end, Vitoâs power is secured, his fall into criminality established as the means by which he protects his family. Michael also secures his power, but at the cost of his brother Fredoâs life, as the latter unwittingly betrayed Michael by colluding with Roth.
The Godfather: Part II is as elegant as it is expansive, acutely perceptive and operatic in his high emotions. Its story is more complicated than that of the first film, almost to the precipice of becoming a muddle. For one, itâs never really made clear what exactly is going on between Fredo and Rothâs organization, other than securing some information about Michaelâs compound for an assassination attempt, or whatâs the backstory of Frankâs relationship to Rothâs malevolent partners, Tony (Danny Aiello) and Carmine Rosato (Carmine Caridi). But such muddiness doesnât matter in a film so magnificently constructed, where the tenderness of De Niroâs Vito seems to linger through the conspiracies and betrayals woven by Michael, the now-dead father hanging over Michaelâs final confrontation with Fredo, a scene where Cazaleâs tremulous id almost bursts through the manâs forehead, voicing his demand for respect with an afterglow of understanding his own inadequacies. Michael looms and Fredo struggles to stand up for himself while still inextricably tied to his chair, and Coppola orchestrates one of the most dramatically compelling scenes in American cinema.
Released in 1990, The Godfather: Part III may be considered a tragi-ironic commentary on the cultural clout of the first two films, which influenced how the public thought about the mafia but also how the mafia thought about itself. Set in 1979âor a few years after the first two films were releasedâCoppolaâs trilogy caper emphasizes a performativity in everyday life that was absent from the more authentic dramas of its predecessors. The story begins with a sham Catholic ritual for Michael, now a billionaire businessman, being given a papal pin âfor his charitable work,â which in actuality relates to a shady transaction with Vatican bankers, and concludes with a staggering half-hour sequence in an opera house, with Coppola magnificently cutting between action off and on stage to the music of Mascagni.
Reality and performance grandly intersect throughout The Godfather: Part III, with the actors posturing like performers on a stage, as if they were indeed characters in an opera. Take the the grandiose gesturing between Shireâs Connie and volatile Corleone heir Vincent (Andy Garcia) as he takes her hand with gusto and kisses it. Or the âbella figuraâ Gotti-like Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna) and how he loves to cavort in front of photographers and reporters, contributing to the spectacle of himself. Eli Wallachâs performance as the duplicitous Don Altobello may initially feel strenuously affected, but his theatrical magniloquence comes to feel more than apt; Coppola shows Altobello in his opera box singing and pantomiming along with the performers on stage, as if to say that thereâs no demarcation between life and theater for this two-faced crook. Reconciling with Kay, Michael brings a knife to his throat and says, âGive me the order!â Itâs then that Kay, the one figure who sees through Michaelâs fronts, grimaces. He drops the knife and chuckles apologetically, âWeâre in Sicily. Itâs opera.â
The way Coppola and his actors approach performance brings up the controversy of Sofia Coppolaâs casting as Michaelâs doomed daughter, Mary. Her line readings are sometimes flat, and at other times awkward. But in contrast to the other players, sheâs startlingly pure, her unseasoned candor making her tragic function in the story more heart-wrenching. Thereâs an unexpected feeling of truth as she delivers her last line (âDad?â) on the steps outside the opera house, breaking up the theatrical masquerade over which Michael has presided. Coppola gives his tragedy a twist that goes beyond King Lear, one of his filmâs models. Michael, unlike Lear weeping at the death of his beloved Cordelia, doesnât die of grief. Rather, itâs implied that he lingers on for years, alone in the company of despair and sorrow.
Michael kneels at his slain daughterâs corpse and finally cracks, raising his head and howling his sorrow before passing out. The unchecked emotional nakedness is out of step with the rest of the trilogy, almost breaking the fourth wall. Keaton, Shire, Garcia, and George Hamiltonâs characters suddenly break from their grieving and look at Michael with what feels like baffled surprise. Coppolaâs trilogy begins by observing the charade of American ideals and institutions. He ends it outside a theater, the horror in Michaelâs scream breaking apart the compound of lies and artifice this arch American criminal has built around his heart. In this one moment, the opera is over and the consequences of reality are made manifest.
Francis Ford Coppolaâs The Godfather Trilogy: Corleone Legacy Edition is now available on Blu-ray from Paramount Home Entertainment.
Blu-ray Review: Bruno Dumontâs La Vie de JĂ©sus on the Criterion Collection
Criterion resurrects one of the great debut features of the last 25 years with an impressive 4K transfer and informative extras.4
Bruno Dumontâs La Vie de JĂ©sus provides the occasion to contemplate how approaches to kindness and justice work on a philosophical level. As Paul Bloom explains in his 2016 book Against Empathy, the âmorally corrosiveâ influence of empathy sometimes prompts an immediate action that overlooks the long-term effects of said action. Dumont creates scenarios that are farsighted in their scope; the basic story of Freddy (David Douche), an epileptic teenager harboring racist resentment toward Kader (Kader Chaatouf), his North African peer, prompts us to see how empathy fails at getting to the root cause of what precipitates Freddyâs violent acts. Itâs not that Freddy lacks the ability to see Kader as human; itâs that the cultural foundation of Bailleul, a small French town, is shackled by the strictures of racial and sexual repression.
Not that Dumont is shy about depicting sexual contact. In fact, Freddyâs relationship with Marie (Marjorie Cottreel), another local teenager, is steadily reduced to an entirely physical state of being. This culminates in a close-up of Freddyâs erect penis thrusting in and out of Marieâs vagina; in this moment, the hardcore sex act is offered by Dumont not as an empty provocation, but a commentary on bourgeois skittishness over representations of sex. When Kader and Marie start seeing each other, Freddy irrationally targets Kader for violence. Like the murderous brother in Luchino Viscontiâs Rocco and His Brothers, Freddy only knows physical cruelty as a response to being threatened by his own desire because he cannot articulate his response in any other manner. While Dumont allows Freddyâs precise feelings to remain mostly unspoken, the implication is that Freddyâs been conditioned by his community to be ashamed of his sexual impulses. When shame meets anger, violence ensues.
Dumontâs debut feature draws upon conventions of neorealism and documentary by employing non-professional actors in all of its roles, but its stylistic traits are closer to the formalist cinema of Robert Bresson, also known for working with first-time actors in nearly each of his films. Like Bresson, Dumont stages shots to highlight their flatness and the base elements of any given action. These visual choices create the sensation that weâre encountering more a tableau of reality than anything approaching documentary realism.
This is especially evident in Dumontâs depiction of Freddyâs mother, Yvette (GeneviĂšve Cottreel), who owns a local pub and seems to do little more than watch the news on a small television set. Early in La Vie de JĂ©sus, the woman sees what appears to be a dead body in an unspecified African location. âWhat a shame,â she mutters, expressing nominal concern when faced with the evidence of global catastrophe that she believes has no immediate impact on her life. Later, she musters a similar response when Freddy goes to see Cloclo, a friend whoâs dying of AIDS. Yvette only approaches the point of outrage when reprimanding Freddy for not having a job. Dumont is foremost concerned with depicting how the nagging worries of quotidian life steadily contribute to the absence of culture, the death of art, and abuses of power that, above all, leave the impoverished destitute.
Yet, despite viewing Yvette through a critical lens, Dumont isnât blaming her for the violence her son will soon commit; rather, heâs juxtaposing the people of Bailleul against a series of problems, whether local or global, that seem to have no immediate solution. This approach has been deemed by some critics as lacking in compassion, but Dumontâs intent is to soberly reflect on the complex ways that hate is fostered by collective forms of ignorance.
Dumont demonstrates, too, how passivity maintains tradition as a form of oppression. Freddy and his friends, who effectively patrol the countryside on their motorbikes, also mock Kader and his family under their breath with religious chants and racial epithets inside a cafĂ© without reprimand. Later, after Freddy and his friends have committed a heinous act, a police officer (Alain Lenancker) questions the boy, asking if he doesnât like âArabs.â Dumont stages the exchange to amplify its procedural nature, with the officerâs back to Freddy throughout the interrogation. Freddy, inarticulate and surrounded by authority figures who are themselves relying on a limited vocabulary to define criminal acts, is the product of a culture that has neglected to discover the essence of its own existence.
Criterion presents La Vie de JĂ©sus in a pristine 4K digital restoration. The wide outdoor shots boast vibrant colors and detail-rich depth of field; as Freddy rides his motorcycle throughout the countryside, the surrounding trees and grass intensely radiate green. Scenes set in indoor spaces also boast significant clarity and excellent focus. Given how important faces are to Dumontâs style of filmmaking, this transfer is especially notable for how close-ups reveal the pores of actorsâ faces. The monaural soundtrack is clean and clearly audible throughout.
The bulk of the extras consist of interviews with Dumont from different years since the filmâs release. In the most recent one, conducted by Criterion in 2019, Dumont explains how his background in industrial films prepared him to make La Vie de JĂ©sus. He also spends ample time considering the philosophical basis for his filmmaking, saying that he views his work as âmetaphorical representations of the inner experience of human nature.â The filmmaker also discusses the failure of popular cinema to become anything more than a product for mass consumption. The second interview, a lengthy talk with critic Philippe Rouyer from 2014, sees Dumont digging even deeper into how he tries to reconcile âthe coexistence of different sets of values.â And the final one consists of excerpts from two 1997 episodes of the French television program Le cercle de minuit, during which Dumont talks about society being racist and how his job as a filmmaker is to ârattle the cage.â Rounding things out are the filmâs trailer and an essay by critic Nicholas Elliott on Dumontâs distinctive visual style.
Criterion resurrects one of the great debut features of the last 25 years with an impressive 4K transfer and an informative grouping of supplements.
Cast: David Douche, Marjorie Cottreel, Kader Chaatouf, SĂ©bastien Delbaere, Samuel Boidin, GeneviĂšve Cottreel, Alain Lenancker Director: Bruno Dumont Screenwriter: Bruno Dumont Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 1997 Release Date: June 18, 2019 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: David Lynchâs Blue Velvet on the Criterion Collection
Criterion offers what should prove to be a definitive transfer of a pivotal and still overwhelmingly intimate David Lynch film.5
The most direct metaphor in David Lynchâs canon arrives early on in his 1986 landmark film Blue Velvet. After an opening credits sequence set against blue velvet curtains and accompanied by Angelo Badalamentiâs swooning score, Lynch offers up a montage of iconic images of Americana, including gleaming white picket fences, a fire truck with a dog, and roses that gleam with a feverish red hue. Bobby Vintonâs version of the title song serves as the soundtrack to these images, and, with this song, Lynch signals both his yearning for and disbelief in this idyllic worldâa conflict in emotions that would drive his subsequent film and television productions. In case this conflict is lost on viewers, Lynch ends his montage with a father collapsing from a malady as he waters his front yard, and the camera homes in on blades of grass, pressing further into the ground until we can see black insects festering underneath the surface.
Itâs too simple to say that Lynch yearns for a society that could be likened to that of The Andy Griffith Showâs Mayberry, even though much of his work is a viscerally textural paean to vintage American manners and artifacts. The 1950s-era puritanism that partially drives Blue Velvet and its TV offspring, Twin Peaks, would most likely bore Lynch on its own. Lynch is attracted to duality, to the contrast of the sweet and sour textures of purity and perversity, and Blue Velvet was the filmmakerâs first pure articulation of this desire.
The film is also one of the definitive explorations between the cultural links of the â50s and â80s. In the â80s, American horror cinema was mining the communist paranoia of the â50s, indulging in violence that at one point could only be implied. These films now play as a reaction to how President Ronald Reagan exploited Americaâs yearning for a return to a golden age, a dream version of an earlier time cleansed of various atrocities, such as internment camps and hate crimes. Reagan was selling a fantasy while committing his own atrocities, such as ignoring the ravages of AIDS on the gay community, while Lynch and other directors, such as John Carpenter and David Cronenberg, were telling a kind of truth.
Of course, Lynch voted for Reagan, which perhaps testifies to the intense pull of the sunny-side-up portion of his fantasy world. And, indeed, Lynch has always understood a primordial and insidious human quality: the satisfaction of conformationâof successfully following social rules regardless of their potential implications, and committing to a mythology of country. In Blue Velvet, this idea is most beautifully embodied by the scenes between Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) and Sandy (Laura Dern). Jeffrey is a college student who returns to the small, woodsy town of Lumberton following his fatherâs hospitalization, and Sandy is a high school senior with a father (George Dickerson) in law enforcement. Investigating the mystery of a severed ear that Jeffrey discovers in a field, the couple regularly meets at a diner, drinking sodas and, in Jeffreyâs case, eating what appears to be a grilled cheese and fries. The pleasure that Lynch takes in the old-fashioned-ness of all this, with Jeffrey and Sandy playing a variation of the Hardy Boys, is palpable. (These scenes are so overwhelmingly earnest that certain critics missed the point, describing them as shrilly satirical.)
With his father, Tom (Jack Harvey), immobilized, Jeffrey confronts his blossoming adulthood, and so Sandy partially represents his yearning to return to the simplicity of high school, which suggests the longing for an idealized dimension that drives, at large, this production thatâs so resolutely set in a timeless dimension and abounds in obsessive fairy-tale imagery that suggests an X-rated Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger production. Yet Jeffreyâs also a man now, and most men need more than nostalgic puppy love. Drifting away from Sandy, the ear leads Jeffrey into an underworld, to Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rosellini), a tormented lounge singer whoâs the plutonic ideal of the male fantasy of the experienced older woman, whoâs forced to sing âBlue Velvetâ over and over in a club with an ardor that rivals Vinton himself. Where Sandy is gorgeous in a trim, blonde, idyllic âprom queenâ way, Dorothy is a bruised brunette with ripe red lipstick (it matches the roses from the filmâs first scene), a chipped tooth, and a sensual fleshiness that knocks the film off its naĂŻve axis.
Dorothyâs apartment, which is of course on the wrong side of the tracks, is one of Blue Velvetâs many masterpieces of irrational set design. Primarily represented by the oval shape of a living room that segues into a small kitchen, the apartment abounds in deep reds, blues, and blacks that are morbid as well as titillating, explicitly suggesting a strip clubâs back room while subliminally representing a womb. This set somewhat prepares us for the filmâs audacious tonal U-turn. When Jeffrey wanders into this apartment, the sense of danger is intense, yet Lynch surpasses all expectations with what is still the wildest set piece of his career.
Peeping on Dorothy from behind the wall of her closet, after sheâs already caught him, threatened him with a knife, and explored the possibility of going down on him, Jeffrey watches as this woman is tortured by Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), who beats her and calls her âmommyâ before getting high on gas and stuffing a blue velvet sash in each of their mouths and savagely fucking her. Though the scene is symbolicâas Robin Wood stipulated, the sash suggests an umbilical cord, while also echoing the lost innocence of the Vinton songâitâs also unhinged, exorcising fantasies that Lynch can barely keep a handle on.
Sex in mainstream cinema has rarely felt this intimate and defiant of what weâre supposed to find erotic, which is why Blue Velvet was controversial upon its release, and would probably be even more so were it to first be seen in 2019. To an extent, Dorothy gets off on Frankâs abuse, and she subsequently attempts, in her affair with Jeffrey, to assume a Frank-like role, taking control of their sex and goading Jeffrey to tap his inner reservoir for violence. When Jeffrey eventually beats Dorothy, Lynch films the action in extreme slow motion, with what sounds like animal roars on the soundtrack. Lynch dramatizes a fissure in Jeffreyâs sense of who he is, as he plumbs his propensity for darkness. The film is, at its root, a coming-of-age tale thatâs unusually connected to the dirtier and messier implications of self-knowledge.
Thereâs almost nowhere for Blue Velvet to go after the scene between Dorothy, Jeffrey, and Frank in Dorothyâs apartment, which also suggests a fulfillment of the fantasies implicitly driving, say, Alfred Hitchcockâs Rear Window, where an ambiguous male hero also peeped in on imperiled women. This sexual-violent stand-off is what Lynch has been building to throughout Blue Velvet, as heâs bringing to the fore the damage, allure, rot, exploitation, and sick hunger that exist under Lumbertonâs tableaux of neat, asexual domesticity and under much of vaguely sexualized pop culture at large.
The film subsequently follows what is a fairly straightforward mystery-thriller template, though ecstatic details and images continue to pop up, and thereâs one other extraordinary scene. Frank and his goons kidnap Dorothy and Jeffrey and take them to the inner sanctum of Ben (Dean Stockwell), a terrifyingly fey and polite gangster who dances and lip synchs to Roy Orbisonâs âIn Dreams,â enjoying the kind of expressive catharsis that appears to be impossible for Frank, a frustration thatâs probably at the center of his insanity. Many critics have commented on the inverse relationship between Sandy and Dorothy, the respective women of day and night who would initiate an ongoing Lynch obsession, but Frank also suggests an inverse of Jeffrey: a man-child who never reckoned with his desires, until they erupted out of him in a torrent of cruelty and obscenity. Even one of Benâs prostitutes enjoys a moment of lonely grace, dancing on top of Frankâs car outside of a factory as âIn Dreamsâ is reprised.
Blue Velvetâs mixture of pop-cultural fetishizing and extreme and occasionally ironic brutality would prove to be monumentally inspirational to cinema, as thereâs a weird kick to Lynchâs mixture of banality, kink, and tragedy. Quentin Tarantinoâs films, particularly Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, would be unimaginable without Blue Velvet, which would also serve as a roadmap for Lynchâs own career. Lynch is still obsessed with sexual perversity, with menâs historic torment of women, with various mystic and generic totems, and with the underbelly that secretly powers pop culture. After Blue Velvet and the first season of Twin Peaks, Lynch drifted away from traditional narrative, blurring plot points and character identities. He doubled down on his own brand of American surrealism, emphasizing beauty and decay as two halves of one coin. Blue Velvetâs happy endingâin which Sandyâs dream of robins casting evil away is realizedâis deliberately unconvincing. Faced with a truth about himself, Jeffrey retreats to childish illusion, though Lynch continues to wrestle with his and our madness.
Per the discâs liner notes, this new transfer was created in 16-bit 4K resolution from the 35mm A/B negative and was supervised by David Lynch. The results are spectacular, with radiant colors and a purposefully soft grittiness that intensifies the filmâs luridly dreamy feeling. Most important, though, is the profound weight and materiality of surface textures in this image, which is important to Lynchâs fetishistic aesthetic. All of Lynchâs pet obsessionsâlamps, drapes, lipstick, food, smokestacksâpractically pop off the screen. Two sound mixes are included here, a 5.1 and a 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track, and, though I didnât discern many major differences between them, they both have extraordinary depth, balance, and dimension, with an operatic level of attention paid to diegetic sounds. (When Jeffrey flushes a toilet, imperiling himself, the thing gurgles so magnificently as to suggest a moaning whale.)
The most notable supplement here is a 54-minute collection of deleted scenes, which have been assembled by Lynch more or less in chronological order, suggesting an entire omitted opening act of Blue Velvet. The cut footage fleshes out Jeffreyâs reasons for returning to his hometown from college, and offers many more scenes of his aunt and mother (played by Frances Bay and Priscilla Pointer, respectively). These moments are fine on their own, and anticipate the purplish tone of Twin Peaks, but a three-hour cut of Blue Velvet that conventionally explored Jeffreyâs conflict over his sick father mightâve been disastrous, killing the narcotic pull of the film as it presently exists. Thereâs also an alternate introduction of Sandy thatâs so tossed-off that itâs nearly banal, which is a significant contradiction of her iconic entrance in the final cut. One momentâin which Jeffrey and Dorothy ascend the roof of her apartmentâis pure Lynchian poetry, though these scenes otherwise offer a primer on how a filmmaker whittled a rough cut down into something stark, mysterious, and essential.
Also essential is âBlue Velvet Revisited,â an 89-minute documentary by director Peter Braatz that uses free-associative editing to offer a one-of-kind portrait of the filmâs production. Braatz includes stock footage, intimate still photos, such as of Lynch taping the word âLumbertonâ onto an ice truck, and uses interviews as a form of narration. (Isabella Rosselliniâs thoughts on making the film should serve as a definitive refutation of Roger Ebertâs absurd and condescending review, in which he essentially implied that Rossellini was Lynchâs victim.) Meanwhile, âMysteries of Loveâ is a more conventional archival documentary, with interviews with most of the filmâs principal players, and a recording of Lynch reading from Room to Dream, the 2018 book he co-wrote with Kristine McKenna, includes stories that will probably be familiar to Lynch obsessives. An interview with composer Angelo Badalamenti, a look at the sets and props of Blue Velvet, and a booklet with an excerpt from Room to Dream round out one of Criterionâs strongest packages of the year.
Criterion offers what should prove to be a definitive transfer of a pivotal and still overwhelmingly intimate David Lynch film.
Cast: Kyle MacLachlan, Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper, Laura Dern, Dean Stockwell, Priscilla Pointer, Frances Bay, George Dickerson Director: David Lynch Screenwriter: David Lynch Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 120 min Rating: R Year: 1986 Release Date: May 28, 2019 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
Bob le Flambeur, Le Doulos, and Leon Morin, Priest on Kino Lorber Blu-ray
Kinoâs Blu-ray releases help chart the crystallization of Jean-Pierre Melvilleâs distinctly rigorous style.
From his first film, Le Silence de la Mer, Jean-Pierre Melville displayed a remarkable control of both atmosphere and pacing, generating suffocating dramatic tension with the most limited of means. His following two filmsâLes Enfants Terribles, an interesting, albeit misguided, collaboration with Jean Cocteau, and When You Read This Letter, a little seen romantic melodrama that the filmmaker disownedâare quite different. At one time, they almost suggested that Melville could have gone on to become a skilled journeyman, bouncing from genre to genre across his filmography. But the glimpse at the austere style Melville introduced in his debut would be re-introduced, and further chiseled and honed, once he began working in the genre he would master: the crime film.
In Bob le Flambeur, Melvilleâs gaze shifts to the crime-ridden pockets of Paris that were often overlooked in French cinema. Serving as the predominant milieu of his films from this point forward, this seedy worldâpopulated by crooks, prostitutes, drunks, and degeneratesâis rife with ambiguities that blur the traditional lines between good and evil, with cops and criminals often co-mingling, even co-conspiring. Moral certitude is lost amid the ever-present clouds of cigarette smoke that fill the cheap bars where these nightcrawlers congregate.
With Bob le Flambeur, Melvilleâs breezy weaving of location shooting and improvisational acting into the hardboiled tropes of American gangster films from the 1930s and â40s laid the groundwork not only for his evolving representation of film noir, but for the early classics of the French New Wave, most notably Louis Malleâs Elevator to the Gallows and Jean-Luc Godardâs Breathless. But itâs Melvilleâs foregrounding of the role of fate in Bob le Flambeur, soon to become the most commonly recurring theme in the directorâs canon, that marks the film as a truly distinct transition into the next phase of his career.
From Bobâs (Roger Duchesne) first roll of the dice, the audience understands that the suave, smooth-talking gambler is, unbeknownst to him, reliant upon forces outside of himself for survival. Heâs an ex-con who can only get his kicks with games of chance, yet, despite his addiction, he holds tightly to his moral code of âhonor amongst thievesâ and a view of the underworld that is as black and white as the checkered patterns that adorn both his apartment floor and the walls of the casino where he soon begins to hemorrhage money on a regular basis. Melville meticulously ratchets up the tension just as Bobâs luck begins to sour and his stringent code and icy demeanor brush up against the more lax approaches taken by the younger crop of hoods with which heâs now working.
Before Bobâs last big heist plays out, the narrator dryly declares, âNow Bob will play his last hand and destiny will play out.â This feeling of impending doom renders the suspense both nerve-wracking and unusual, particularly because the audience, given knowledge of various betrayals, is all but certain that Bobâs plan will fail and is left to helplessly root for him to jump ship before itâs too late. Bob is a consummate professional, but he doesnât realize the gameâs being played with a stacked deck. Such is fate in Melvilleâs films.
By his next Parisian-set noir, 1962âs Le Doulos, Melvilleâs aesthetic had crystallized into a more rigid, emotionally restrained and visually precise style. The jazzy, buoyant energy of Bob le Flambeur is replaced with an asceticism akin to that of Robert Bresson, with narrative and compositions alike stripped of all excess, leaving every gesture and line of dialogue to carry with it a potentially deadly weight, ultimately delivered unceremoniously from the barrel of a gun. Our heroes are no longer gamblers down on their luck, but stone-cold killers provided with only one choice: to âdie or lie.â And in this film, people do both quite regularly.
Where the machinations undergirding Bobâs fate in Bob le Flambeur are made clear even before the filmâs big heist is set in motion, Le Doulos offers no such transparency, keeping nearly everyoneâs motives and loyalties shrouded in ambiguity, hidden beneath deep, angular shadows that cut harshly through the screen like a knife. The charactersâ pasts are mysteries, and who they are in the present can only be gleaned from the machinations on the job or the elaborate deceits they cook up as a means of survival. As for their futures, more often than not we know that these characters are on a collision course toward an early death.
Le Doulosâs narrative is perhaps Melvilleâs most labyrinthine, weaving an intricate web of deceit, betrayals, and misdirections that reveals new layers of subtext and psychological complexity with every twist and turn. Jean-Paul Belmondoâs Silien stands as one of Melvilleâs most enigmatic creations: a charmer with the police when he needs to be and a ruthlessly efficient crook whenever the occasion calls for it. And he remains a cryptic figure to his former cohort, Maurice Faugel (Serge Reggiani), who struggles to confront the possibility that Silien was the rat who set him up and landed him in the joint.
In Melvilleâs previous film, Leon Morin, Priest, Belmondo also plays a man who intentions are difficult to read. Only here, Leonâs (Belmondo) potential duplicitousness isnât in service of self-preservation, but for the supposed eternal salvation of the various women he comforts, sometimes with a sexual flirtatiousness that makes his attempts to convert them to Catholicism all the more disingenuous. The film is a bit of an outlier in this middle period of Melvilleâs, yet its spareness and intense focus foresee the increasing minimalism that would take hold of the directorâs style from Le Doulos through to Le SamouraĂŻ. Its questions of faith return us again to the role of fate, but the cold, unfeeling criminal world of Melvilleâs other â60s films is replaced with a quintessential struggle between the spirit and the flesh. And questions of honor and professionalism play out not through an elaborate heist or murder, but rather a series of tĂȘte-Ă -tĂȘtes between the attractive young priest, Leon, and the bisexual atheist, Barny (Emmanuelle Riva), he coyly tempts.
Where professionalism in the face of certain demise is a driving force in Melvilleâs crime films, in Leon Morin, Priest, the uneasy and inevitable intermingling of faith and desire yields a tension every bit as biting. If Bob le Flambeur and Le Doulos find men using their expertly honed criminal skills to keep their predestined fates at bay for as long as possible, Leon Morin, Preist sees a man who uses the means at his disposalâhis natural charms and sex appealâto instead rewrite the fates of the women he sees himself as protecting. That heâs successful because, rather than in spite, of his very unprofessionalism makes this film all the more intriguing as a counterpoint to Melvilleâs many exercises in noir.
Blu-ray Review: Sergei Bondarchukâs War and Peace on the Criterion Collection
Audiences at home can now experience the visual and audio impact of Bondarchukâs masterpiece as it was intended.4
If one were to judge the history of cinema solely on the basis of scale and ambition, Sergei Bondarchukâs War and Peace might well be considered the greatest film of all time. A seven-hour-plus adaptation of Leo Tolstoyâs classic doorstopper, Bondarchukâs film was by far the costliest production in the history of the Soviet Union, and it certainly looks it. Priceless artifacts, countless military weapons, thousands of lavishly costumed extras, and a menagerie that includes hundreds of horses, rare wolf-hunting borzois, and a beer-drinking bear are swept before our eyes in a constant stream of ecstatic stimulation. Maximalist in every aspect, War and Peace is, like the novel on which itâs based, a work that wants to contain as many thoughts, emotions, and perspectives as possible. And Bondarchuk goes about accomplishing that by utilizing every wild cinematic technique he can think of.
In contrast to Hollywood epics of the era like Joseph L. Mankiewiczâs Cleopatra and William Wylerâs Ben-Hur, which are marked by long, static processions of extras marching around expensive sets, Bondarchuk never simply shoots for coverage. His camera instead darts and dashes through grandiloquent interiors and hellish battlefields, roving through burning buildings and flying through the air like a cannonball. Where another director might have resorted to a simple wide shot or close-up, Bondarchuk gives us a sweeping helicopter aerial, a complicated superimposition, an expressive split screen, or a camera that seems to float above a ballroom just as Mikhail Kalatozovâs did over the streets of Havana in I Am Cuba.
Bondarchuk often seems here to be attempting to synthesize the entire history of epic historical filmmaking into a single work. He borrows the pioneering split-screen technique of Abel Ganceâs Napoleon, the legendary crane shot from Gone with the Wind, and the eerily majestic iconography of Sergei Eisensteinâs Ivan the Terrible, to name just a few, while also anticipating at various points the hallucinatory combat sequences of Francis Ford Coppolaâs Apocalypse Now and the idyllic poeticism of Terrence Malickâs The Thin Red Line.
All this restless innovation and titanic ambition, however, has a tendency to deaden the senses at times, particularly early on in War and Peace, when Bondarchukâs experimentation comes off as little more than amateurish noodling. The filmmakerâs woozy sonic effects and blurry camera filters come off as dated and distracting, while the use of an off-screen narrator to translate French dialogue in the very first scene is downright confusing. The film can sometimes seem over-eager to impress: Never content to simply allow us to feel the emotional weight of a relationship, Bondarchuk is constantly intervening as a directorâunderlining, amplifying, and bludgeoning us with heavy-handed visual metaphors.
Bondarchukâs restless approach often causes him to obscure Tolstoyâs complicated narrative and its vast, inter-connected familial relationships. The film essentially condenses the novelâs sprawling, digressive narrative into a murky love triangle between the socially awkward misfit Count Pierre Bezukhov (Bondarchuk), his friend and philosophical opposite, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (Vyacheslav Tikhonov), and the idealized, waif-like woman, Countess Natasha Rostova (Lyudmila Saveleva), with whom they both fall in love. Of the three, only Natasha leaves much of an impression, thanks in large part to Savelevaâs radiant performance. A trained ballerina, Saveleva flits and flutters through War and Peace like a butterfly, imbuing her scenes with a litheness and effulgence that provides stark contrast to the portentous philosophizing that Andrei and Pierre are prone to.
If Bondarchuk struggles to convey the storyâs gradual shifts in relationships and psychology, he nevertheless demonstrates the ability to give cinematic life to Tolstoyâs rhapsodic depth of feeling. In one of the filmâs more emotionally resonant techniques, Bondarchuk jarringly cuts between two scenes with wildly different emotional tenorsâa joyous dance and a man dying, for exampleâemphasizing one of Tolstoyâs great themes: the simultaneity of human experience. While one person is suffering, another is celebrating; while one man is enjoying a banquet in St. Petersburg, another is engaged in bloody combat against Napoleonâs armies.
Bondarchukâs War and Peace is in some ways less a straightforward adaptation of Tolstoyâs novel than a symphonic representation of its themesâits sense of drama, portent, and grandeur. Thatâs never truer than in the filmâs astonishingly stirring set pieces, which find Bondarchuk variously capturing the buzzy excitement of a ball, the calamitous anxiety of battle, and, in the filmâs most haunting passage, the wrenching pain and despair of a city under siege. Bondarchukâs delirious rendering of the French armyâs brutal invasion of Moscow, during which Napoleonâs forces burned the city to the ground, represents the most sustainedly apocalyptic vision of warâs madness and cruelty this side of Elem Klimovâs Come and See. War and Peace couldnât possibly do justice to every aspect of Tolstoyâs mammoth tome, but at the very least, it captures the essence of the authorâs scornful description of war: âan event âŠ opposed to human reason and to human nature.â
From its initial American release, for which it was dubbed into English and cut down by an hour, to an atrocious DVD release from Kultur that reduced its 2.30:1 aspect ratio to 1.33:1, War and Peace has rarely been seen in its intended form in the United States. But thanks to Criterionâs meticulous transfer, which is sourced from a Mosfilm restoration, audiences at home can now experience the visual and audio impact of Sergei Bondarchukâs masterpiece as it was intended. The filmâs moody interiors, sprawling battle vistas, and intricate trick shots all sparkle with a crystalline intensity. Everything looks almost impossibly sharp; thereâs no evidence of motion shudder during the filmâs whip-fast camera pans, and depth of field is breathtakingly clear throughout. The filmâs complex, six-channel soundtrack has been remastered from the original elements in 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio, providing an appropriately titanic aural experience thatâs equally adept at handling subtle dialogue scenes as it is with overwhelming combat sequences.
Thereâs no commentary track or information about Mosfilmâs grueling and expensive restoration process. The most useful extra here is a program with author Denise J. Youngblood that gives a broad overview of the filmâs cultural context and difficult production. Two archival making-of documentaries, one from Germany and another from Russia, provide behind-the-scenes glimpses of the filmâs making, while a 1967 documentary on Ludmila Savelyeva made for French TV offers a breezy look at the actress and her life in Moscow. New interviews with cinematographer Anatoly Petritsky (one of several who worked on the film) and Bondarchukâs son, Fedor, provide some personal reminiscences about the notoriously imperious director. Rounding out the package is an insightful essay by critic Ella Taylor that stresses the importance of War and Peace as a work of Russian nationalism.
While not exactly skimpy, Criterionâs offering of supplementary materials doesnât quite match up to the monumental nature of the film itself.
Cast: Sergei Bondarchuk, Lyudmila Saveleva, Vyacheslav Tikhonov, Boris Zakhava, Anatoli Ktorov, Anastasiya Vertinskaya, Antonina Shuranova, Oleg Tabakov, Viktor Stanitsyn, Irina Skobtseva, Boris Smirnov, Vasiliy Lanovoy, Kira Golovko, Irina Gubanova, Aleksandr Borisov, Oleg Efremov, Giuli Chokhonelidze, Vladislav Strzhelchik, Angelina Stepanova, Nikolay Trofimov Director: Sergei Bondarchuk Screenwriter: Sergei Bondarchuk, Vasiliy Solovyov Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 421 min Rating: NR Year: 1966 Release Date: June 25, 2019 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: David Mametâs House of Games on the Criterion Collection
Mametâs first, best, and most influential film receives a sturdy transfer that could nevertheless use a bit more refurbishing.3.5
In his 2000 book Theatre, playwright and filmmaker David Mamet vaingloriously celebrates the writer as the god of drama, and sees directors, set designers, and method actors as often detracting from the purity of the text. After the psychological thrashing of, say, method exploration, Mamet says that one still must eventually get down to the task of blocking a play and saying the lines. This is a deliberately gross simplification of how plays and films are staged, but such sentiments reveal something about the appeal and the limitations of a Mamet production.
Mamet has a fetishistic attachment to neatness: to structural symmetry, to dialogue that pulsates with succinct clarity, to characters whoâre understood to be constructs. When a Mamet production catches fire, one revels in the profound sense of authorial control, but when whey stall, there are no spontaneous textures to offer refuge from the authorâs hermetic self-consciousness, because spontaneity is precisely among the sources of his contempt. A poker player and admirer of jiu-jitsu, Mamet has turned drama into a similarly high-stakes game, in which there are concrete rights and wrongs of aesthetic.
The 1987 film House of Games, Mametâs debut as a filmmaker, is the best justification of Theatreâs dubious propositions. The actors here speak with such pointed stiltedness that one recognizes the device to be an increasingly resonant jokeâan acknowledgement that we are all playing various roles in our lives, âsaying our lines.â The House of Games that psychiatrist Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse) discovers is a nest of con men, but itâs also essentially a theater troupe of middle-aged men who invite an audienceâi.e., the marksâinto a lair to ensnare them in a fiction. Thatâs the inner House of Games, which is rhymed with the performative dramas of Margaretâs therapy sessions, while the outer House of Games is the film itself, with actors who seduce us with the con of storytelling, for which we pay with the price of an admission ticket or of this new Blu-ray. Nesting transactions are the filmâs very soul, as Mamet leeches the plot of the flowery emotions that drive most melodrama.
As in many other films and plays, Mamet wants us to feel the distance between the actorsâ lines in House of Games, and the pauses become an exhilarating negative aural space. Occasionally, itâs freeing to revel in the fakeness of Mametese, as it offers a music thatâs not usually available in ârealisticâ writing and acting. Mamet refines his trademark, in which characters say straightforward words with a hard, repetitive rhythm that poetically lifts the lines above their literal meanings. One responds less to the words than to the force with which the actors utter them, especially Joe Mantegna as Mike, the crook who fools Margaret with the oldest trick in the book, openly owning up to his deceptions as a way of proffering a deeper lie.
There is, though, an irony to the film, as its absence of traditionally involving emotions is itself moving. The allegiance these characters feel to the rules of conning and implicitly to the rules of theatrical plotting suggests entrapmentâa willful suppression or denial of their interiority, which would interfere with the perfection of the con and of the filmmakerâs art object. The web of constrictions governing the film is most explicitly acknowledged in two startling moments: Margaret opening her notebook to reveal descriptions of Mike and the House of Games that are formatted like a screenplay, and Mike later saying, âThe things we think, the things we want, we can do them or not do them but we canât hide them.â Rather than hide their desires, the characters seek to obliterate them, though Freudian slipsâsuch as saying âpressureâ in place of âpleasureââallude to reservoirs of uncertainty and pain.
House of Games is mostly mired in the cons that Mike and his men perpetrate, with Margaret evolving from mark to witness to participant to master of her domain. The filmâs twists will not be surprising to fans of crime cinema, especially now, given the influence House of Games has accrued over the years. And this lack of surprise fosters a sense of inevitability that is, of course, the point. In the first con, involving a poker game, Margaret is the mark, and though the inner workings of this trick are revealed to her, she falls for a grander version of the same trick later on. Mike has Margaret figured: A doctor specializing in obsessive compulsives, she herself is drawn to danger and is willing to pay for a tour of the underworld. By the filmâs end, Margaret has grown not only into a master actor, but a kind of playwright who originates her own cons, who requires neither figurative director nor co-stars, who possesses her own weight. Which is to say that House of Games, by its own logic, has a happy ending.
The image has plenty of grit and softness, which gives the film a vintage look thatâs appropriate to the classic crime-film subject matter. Colors receive a notable uptick, though, as theyâre quite bright and intense, and the shadows really pop off the screen, especially in the House of Games setting. The soundtrack is crisp, rich, and healthy, with exacting attention paid to the minute sound effects that play an important role in the narrative.
The supplements here have all been ported over from the 2007 Criterion edition of House of Games. The highlight is the audio commentary by filmmaker David Mamet and actor, magician, and flim-flam master Ricky Jay, which offers a remarkable amount of insight and detail about the construction of narratives, cons, and how the two often intersect. Another highlight is the essay included with the booklet, by Mamet, in which he discusses his initiation into filmmaking and how Sergei Eisensteinâs writing helped him to refine a lucid, direct, and uninflected visual style. Interviews with Lindsay Crouse and Joe Mantegna discuss the actorsâ respective backgrounds with Mamet, while another featurette offers a breakdown of a con that was discussed but not used in House of Games, so that Jay could protect friends in the trade. Rounding out the package are an archive documentary about the making of House of Games, an essay by critic Kent Jones, and the filmâs theatrical trailer.
David Mametâs first, best, and most influential film receives a sturdy transfer that could nevertheless use a bit more refurbishing, with perhaps a new supplement or two to boot.
Cast: Lindsay Crouse, Joe Mantegna, Mike Nussbaum, Ricky Jay, Lilia Skala, J.T. Walsh, William H. Macy, Jack Wallace, Steven Goldstein Director: David Mamet Screenwriter: David Mamet Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 101 min Rating: R Year: 1987 Release Date: May 14, 2019 Buy: Video
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