Jan 28 2015

Cinephiled: ‘Downton Abbey: Season 5′

Downton5

PBS

Downton Abbey: Season 5 (PBS, Blu-ray, DVD) embraces everything I enjoy about the show, and everything that frustrates me to distraction. It’s 1924 and the times they are a changin’, much to the consternation of Lord Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) and head butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), the old guard of traditional values who despair of a Labour government in power. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), meanwhile, rather daringly agrees to an unchaperoned holiday with a beau to try out an intimate arrangement (kicking the tires, so to speak, before it was socially accepted), and her sister Edith (Laura Carmichael) decides she cannot live without the son she had out of wedlock. The latter tale unfolds with reassuring affirmations of family acceptance but Mary’s journey is a little more interesting and the show even flirts with the social judgments directed toward a woman (even a married woman, as Mary delegates to purchase to a servant) purchasing birth control from a pharmacist. And family matriarch Lady Crawley (Maggie Smith) gets her own romantic journey when she runs into a Russian aristocrat (Rade Sherbedgia) she once romanced.

Even more interesting is the evolution of footman Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier), the schemer of the servant class whose homosexuality is an open secret at all levels of the manor. He secretly undergoes aversion therapy to “cure” his homosexuality (a doomed endeavor) and applies his particular skill set to protect his fellow servants and even his employers from less savory types. And the concept of “bettering oneself” and class mobility perks up this season, especially as kitchen made Daisy starts educating herself and gets involved politically when the new Labour government wins the 1924 election.

The end of the season focuses on bubbly cousin Rose (Lily James) and her marriage to the son of a Jewish businessman who is as snooty toward them as Rose’s mother is toward her new Jewish in-laws. Most of these social conflicts and class collisions are too easily solved to have any dramatic weight and the pillars of old-world tradition are eased into the modern world with a smile and a warm embrace, which is my frustration with the show. It seems no one here is too old or too entrenched to learn a lesson and get a happy ending, and no situation is so difficult that it would call the tradition of inherited wealth and aristocratic class divisions into question.

9 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, including the season finale special “A Moorland Holiday,” available before the season is even half over in the U.S. (it ran in late 2014 in the U.K.). These is the uncut British version of the show (the episodes are trimmed slightly for the American run) and it includes three featurettes.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Jan 27 2015

Videophiled: The mad passion of ‘Why Don’t You Play in Hell?’

Why Play Hell

Drafthouse

Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (Drafthouse, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital), Sion Sono’s filmmaking freakout about making a movie in the midst of a Yakuza war, is actually far more insane than that description suggests. For one thing, it takes almost 90 minutes to get to that filmmaking part and the sheer absurdity of the plotting twists and motivations that get us there are beyond rational explanation, which is part of the fun. The scenes leading up to it are a mad collision of gang war, teen runaway tale, revenge movie, star-crossed romance, wrong man nightmare, and movie club dream come true for a spirited, tunnel-visioned filmmaking collective. By the time the warring sides are ready for their close-ups, it has become a quest where the gang fight is less about territory than choreography and the sword-wielding soldiers on both sides (because katanas are much cooler than guns) are more conscious of their image than their tactics. It’s all about looking good for the camera.

Sono channels the yakuza madness of Seijun Suzuki and the driving energy and chaotic creativity of Miike Takashi at the height of his powers. The characters are driven by obsession and emotion, not logic, and Sono stirs it with a hearty dark humor and a juvenile, morality-free passion for moviemaking. Even the flashbacks and narrative detours are the equivalent of production numbers and set pieces, small scale bloodbaths as imagined by Busby Berkeley for the Yakuza Follies. Blood spurts in geysers (some of them fountains of liquid, others spattered across the image with CGI, and one scene of candy colored streams of cartoon rainbows) and limbs fly, and in the middle of it scurries a Bruce Lee knock-off in a “Game of Death” yellow tracksuit swinging a sword or windmilling his nunchucks like it’s a playground game.

This is pure midnight movie, all energy and whimsy and cartoonish displays of violence with yakuza soldiers dressed as samurai swordsmen. It’s hard to tell if this is an attempt at commentary on the slippery ethics of representing violence on film and blurring the lines between reality and representation, or simply Sono giving in to the same unchecked enthusiasm of his absurd filmmaking crew. Their amateur zeal is played for laughs, yes, but Sono’s appreciation for such passion is clear. Why Don’t You Play in Hell? has its own cracked logic but is largely free from any discipline that would focus its wild energy. That could be a warning to some viewers and an invitation to others. Follow your instincts accordingly.

In Japanese with English subtitles, with a 22-minute press conference with Sion Sono conducted at a Tower Records in Japan plus a 24-page booklet and 11×17 foldout poster. The Blu-ray also features a bomus Digital HD copy for download.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Jan 23 2015

Videophiled: ‘Adua and Her Friends’

Adua

Raro

Adua and Her Friends (Raro / Kino Lorber, Blu-ray) are prostitutes from a Rome brothel attempting to take charge of their own lives after their place is shut down in the aftermath of Italy’s Merlin Law, which ended legalized prostitution in 1958 (the film was released in 1960). Adua (played by Simone Signoret), a veteran of the life, has a plan to open a restaurant as a front for their own little brothel in the rooms upstairs and her friends—cynical and hot-headed Marilina (Emmanuelle Riva), naïve and trusting Lolita (Sandra Milo), and practical Milly (Gina Rovere)—pitch in for the purchase and start-up and fake their way through running a real business. Adua may be a dreamer but she has a lot invested in this project. She’s the oldest of the four and, as anyone familiar with the films of Mizoguchi will attest, life on the streets isn’t forgiving of age. But what really charges up the film is the feeling of accomplishment and ownership as they work their way through each problem and, almost without noticing, create a successful business out of the restaurant.

For all the stumbles along the way, director Antonio Pietrangeli and his screenwriting partners (which includes future director Ettore Scola and longtime Fellini collaborator Tullio Pinelli) don’t play the disasters for laughs but rather a mix of warm character piece and spiky social commentary. It’s not simply that their pasts follow them around but that the Merlin Law has actually made things worse for women, whether they remain in the life (without any legal protections) or attempt to transition into another career. Palms need to be greased and officials cut in on the business; they haven’t even started up and they’re already paying off a pimp. And no, it’s not Marcello Mastroianni’s Piero, a charming hustler who hawks cars and woos Adua, who enjoys engaging in a romance that she gets to define for a change. He’s a pleasant distraction and something of an ally, but he’s better at looking out for himself.

Simone Signoret and Sandra Milo

Simone Signoret and Sandra Milo

 

Pietrangeli has great empathy for women (based on the evidence of this film and his 1964 La Visita) and his story frames the sexual double standards and cultural chauvinism of their lives. Those are the kinds of forces that good intentions and elbow grease can’t always overcome. But between the arguments and setbacks, Pietrangeli offers a portrait of life lived in hard times and buoyed by friendship and hope for a better life. When Marilina’s young son moves in (the girls didn’t even know she was a mother), they coalesce in a kind of family. The scene of the boy’s baptism, with the women lined up like adoring aunts, is a lovely and touching moment. There are no happy ending fantasies here but their moments of triumph, solidarity, and defiance are oases in a life that otherwise has it out for their dreams of self-definition.

Raro first released the film on DVD in 2011. This marks the Blu-ray debut and it looks very good, clean and sharp with lots of detail, and sounds great. Its score is informed by fifties cool jazz (and I’m a sucker for any soundtrack featuring the vibes) and dotted with pop songs (including a great use of Santo and Johnny’s instrumental “Sleepwalk”). It features an introduction by Italian film historian Maurizio Poro, the short film Girandola 1910, a segment from the 1954 anthology comedy Amori de mezzo secolo directed by Pietrangeli, and a booklet with essays, excerpts essays and reviews, and filmographies.

More releases on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

Jan 22 2015

Videophiled: Liliana Cavani’s ‘The Skin’

Skin

Cohen

The Skin (aka La Pelle, Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD), directed by Liliana Cavani in 1981 from the novel by Curzio Malaparte, is ostensibly a war drama, set during the American liberation of Sicily from the Fascists, but it’s really about the politics and economics of occupation. As the Allied forces (led by Burt Lancaster’s General Mark Clark) roll in, the Americans are as busy with public relations opportunities (Clark wants his Fifth Battalion to get the glory for the liberation) as with local issues, for which they defer to Curzio Malaparte (Marcello Mastroianni), an aristocrat and former Fascist who switched allegiances and fought the Fascists in Spain.

There’s not a lot of grace in Cavani’s direction—she seems occupied simply corralling such an enormous international production—but then it’s not a graceful subject. This isn’t about war, it’s about civilians caught between invading powers and soldiers in their downtime, and Cavani enjoys the chaos of this world in upheaval without letting us lose our way through. She takes us to the streets and apartment houses where the flesh trade cashes in on the new occupying army and to the heart of the Sicilian mafia, which negotiate a ransom for German POWs they’ve kidnapped (they want to get paid by the kilogram and have been stuffing them with pasta to fatten them up). True to form, the gangsters treat American military like just another syndicate.

Mastroianni, a master at playing jaded characters, brings compassion and understanding to Malaparte. He’s a realist who knows how to grease the wheels with the moneyed families (Claudia Cardinale as a vacant princess), the local leaders, and the mob, but he also knows what war does to civilians just trying survive a world where they are constantly occupied, starved, and bombed out of their livelihood, making money and scrounging food any way they can. He’s no longer shocked at what people do to survive and (in contrast to the American officer, many of them lost in their own double standards) doesn’t judge them, but he is tipped over into anger by cruelty and hypocrisy.

Alexandra King and Marcello Mastroianni

Ken Marshall is bland as the American officer who stands in for American morality, a seemingly compassionate guy who is shocked – Shocked! – at what he considers immoral behavior from a girl he loves only as long as she’s an innocent virgin in need of rescue, and Alexandra King cuts a striking figure as a Senator’s wife on her own PR mission, a sleek, headstrong redhead in the sea of Mediterranean faces and dark locks. These are not A-list American performers and it shows. Their characters are more bullet points than personalities and far less interesting than the Italians hustling through almost every scene, everyone looking for an angle before the army moves on. You can feel her admiration for the ingenuity and energy of these survivors, like the garment workers who create an industry making fair-haired merkins for Sicilian hookers to pass as blondes for the American soldiers.

In Italian with English subtitles, with commentary by film critics Wade Major and Andy Klein and four featurettes with interviews with director Liliana Cavani and production designer Dante Ferretti), plus a booklet with cast and credits.

More releases on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

Jan 21 2015

Videophiled: Scarlett Johansson is ‘Lucy’

Lucy

Universal

Lucy (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – Luc Besson and his EuropaCorp studio is the salvation of the unpretentious, mid-budget, hyper-charged action movie. Usually Besson is content to write and produce the films, which have launched careers of such protégés as Louis Letterier (The Transporter), Pierre Morel (Taken), and Olivier Megaton (Colombiana), but he takes charge of this marvelously ridiculous action fantasy starring Scarlett Johansson. She plays Lucy, an American girl in South Korea who becomes the unwitting recipient of an overdose of an experimental designer drug that supercharges her brain and her consciousness along with it.

The premise is built a science cliché that is a misrepresentation at best and outright falsehood at worst—that we only use 10% of our brain, or the potential of our higher brain functions, as the sage professor and narrator played by Morgan Freeman puts it—and the script goes batshit crazy with it. Her growing abilities (measured with regular updates on the percentage of her brain now utilized) are a mix of superhero powers and telekinetic powers indistinguishable from magic and explained with science mumbo jumbo. It’s basically a fantasy wrapped in the guise of science and used as an excuse for an action thriller, but what a thriller. This is a kinetic explosion at its best with Johansson striding through it with a sense of drive and assuredness that is a super power all its own. Weaving through her journey is a revenge tale involving a Korean drug lord (played by Choi Min-sik—Oldboy himself!) and part of the pleasure of the film is how, after such a build-up, unimportant that whole subplot is to Lucy. The way she handles that annoyance is far more effective at explaining Lucy’s transformation than all the exposition spouted by Freeman. Besson’s attempts to frame it in some kind of evolutionary context would be laughable if it wasn’t so damnably fun.

On Blu-ray and DVD. The Blu-ray includes two featurettes and bonus DVD and Digital HD copies of the film. Also on cable and digital VOD.

More new releases on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital formats at Cinephiled

Jan 20 2015

Videophiled: Preston Sturges’ ‘The Palm Beach Story’

PalmBeach

Criterion

The Palm Beach Story (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – Leave it to Preston Sturges to create the sexiest and most grown-up romantic comedy of his day. Claudette Colbert has never been more desirable as Gerry Jeffers, the flirtatious pragmatist with a clear-eyed take on the realities of men, women, and sex, and Sturges turns Joel McCrea’s All-American stiffness into comic perfection as her husband, the aspiring inventor Tom, a would-be Horatio Alger with a sense of pride and honor at odds with Colbert’s willingness to leverage her sex appeal. She’s not mercenary exactly, merely more socially sophisticated, and without the usual homemaking skills of the traditional housewife, those are tools she is more than willing to use. They are opposites in everything from attitude to onscreen energy to body language. Colbert moves like a dancer and even her dialogue seems to dance through the film while the stocky, blocky McCrea is slow-moving, deliberately speaking bedrock, a foundation of hard-working focus and unbending values. They shouldn’t work but when his hands work the stubborn zipper on the back of her dress, they temperature rises noticeably.

The Palm Beach Story is a variation on the classic comedy of remarriage, a theme that runs through such films as The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday. Not that this couple divorces, but that’s Gerry’s plan, convinced that he’s better off without her expensive tastes, and she runs off with little more than the clothes on her back and almost literally falls into the lap of an idle rich oddball (a brilliantly underplayed comic turn by Rudy Vallee) and his cheerfully man-hopping sister (a sparkling Mary Astor). Meanwhile, Tom runs after her and gets introduced to Palm Beach society as her brother, Gerry’s plan to leverage the situation to finance his future as well as hers. She’s nothing if not thoughtful.

PalmBeachAle

Serenade courtesy of the Ale and Quail Club

 

The Hollywood romantic comedy does not get any better than this classic from the height of Sturges’ astounding run of films in the first half of the 1940s. He was one of the wittiest writers of the era, a master of dialogue that defined its characters while bouncing punchlines like a tennis volley, and a lover of slapstick comedy. That mix of high and low, of snappy banter and vaudeville pratfalls, gives his comedies a decidedly American spark. Other Preston Sturges films may be funnier or cleverer or have a sharper satirical edge, but none are as romantic or as sexy. And no other Sturges film has such a magical way of rolling through such wild yet delightful contrivances to push the characters along: the Weenie King, an elderly rich eccentric with a romantic streak and a hearing problem; the Ale and Quail Club, who adopt Gerry as a mascot until their intoxicated antics explode in slapstick chaos. Colbert leverages sex appeal with such matter-of-fact savvy that it hardly feels like scheming; she has her own sense of ethics and plays everything square. Yet even in a screwball world of eccentric millionaires and mistaken identities, it’s the familiar intimacy of an ‘old married couple’ that generates the most heat.

It’s a lovely disc, mastered in 4k from a nitrate fine-grain print and a safety duplicate negative, and digitally cleaned up to look nearly flawless. It features a video interview with writer and film historian James Harvey about director Preston Sturges and a somewhat off-the-cuff appreciation of Sturges’ comedy by actor and comedian Bill Hader (who reads from the screenplay), plus the 1942 World War II propaganda short Safeguarding Military Information written by Sturges and featuring Eddie Bracken (star of two later Sturges classics), the “Screen Guild Theater” radio adaptation of the film with Colbert, Vallee, and Randolph Scott in the McCrea role, and a leaflet with an essay by film critic Stephanie Zacharek.

More new releases on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital formats at Cinephiled

Jan 19 2015

Videophiled: Monte Hellman’s existential west

Shooting Whirlwind

Criterion

The Shooting / Ride in the Whirlwind (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – Director Monte Hellman and actor Jack Nicholson met while making a pair of war films for Roger Corman in the Philippines. Nicholson was interested in all aspects of filmmaking, not just acting, and he and Hellman teamed up to produce a pair of low-budget westerns, one of them written by Nicholson and both of them directed by Hellman and starring Nicholson.

I used to call The Shooting (1967) the most existential western ever made. Seeing it again, I find it more haunting and elemental and savage, an almost abstract odyssey through a harsh, desolate desert landscape that wears its enigma proudly. Warren Oates takes the lead as a former bounty hunter hired to track a man by the mysterious Millie Perkins, who toys with Oates’ childlike partner (Will Hutchins), and Jack Nicholson co-stars as a sadistic, black-clad killer. It was written by Carole Eastman (under the pseudonym Adrien Joyce), who later earned an Oscar nomination for Five Easy Pieces, which also starred Nicholson. The spare cinematography burns bright and harsh in southwest sunlight that simmers the already edgy relations and Hellman directs the ambiguous script with always surprising flourishes, keeping the audience in the dark about the true nature of the odyssey as the characters talk around the conflicts as they warily eye one another. Nicholson is appropriately vicious in a preening sort of way and Oates is magnetic and commanding as a man driven by some fate beyond his comprehension. The film ends with more questions than answers, but it is never less than compelling.

'The Shooting'

Warren Oates

Ride in the Whirlwind (1967), written by Nicholson, is only slightly more conventional, the story of a couple of cowboys (Cameron Mitchell and Nicholson) who run from a posse that mistakes them for bank robbers. In contrast to the harsh desert and heightened tension of The Shooting, this takes place in wooded hills and advances at a leisurely pace (much of the film is their nervous waiting in a farmhouse) in an easy, naturalistic style that belies the urgency and danger. Mitchell has an unforced authority as the older cowboy and Nicholson is excellent as the jumpy younger partner just trying to wrap his mind around their predicament.

The films, financed by Roger Corman (who had also produced Hellman’s Los Angeles stage production of “Waiting For Godot”), were well received at European film festivals but tossed into legal limbo when its European distributor went bankrupt and ended up being sold directly to American TV. If I’m not mistaken, they’ve never really had an official theatrical release in the U.S., but they were rediscovered in the 1970s, in part thanks to Nicholson’s success, and have screened in festivals, retrospectives, and repertory programs. They have also never had a high quality disc release (the DVD release a decade ago from VCI was respectable if unspectacular) until this Criterion double feature. This is the first time the films have looked this good for decades, either on home video or on film.

Hellman oversaw the new HD digital transfer, mastered in 4k from the original camera negatives, and produced new supplements for the disc. He provides commentary for the two films with film historians Bill Krohn and Blake Lucas and personally interviews producer Roger Corman and stars Millie Perkins and Harry Dean Stanton in new featurettes that play like conversations. Also includes interviews with Gary Kurtz and actor Will Hutchins and a visual essay on Warren Oates by Kim Morgan, plus a fold-out leaflet with an essay.

Jan 18 2015

Videophiled: ‘The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant’

BitterTears

Criterion

The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – Rainer Werner Fassbinder adapted his own stage play for this modern twist on The Women, the great all-woman Hollywood classic of sex and social conventions in high society. Margit Carstensen is successful fashion designer Petra von Kant, who lives alone in her stark apartment with Marlene (Irm Hermann), her silent, obedient secretary / servant / girl Friday, whom she alternately abuses and ignores.

Once divorced—by her decision, as she proudly describes the experience to her friend the countess—and once widowed, leaving her a grown child (she at one point berates parents who don’t raise their children properly, then explains she hasn’t the time for her child but takes comfort in knowing she is at the best schools), she falls in lust with a callow, shallow, lazy young married woman, Karin (Hanna Schygulla) who left her husband in Australia to return to Germany. Petra treats the seemingly naïve blonde beauty as part protégé, part pet, but the calculating kitten takes Petra’s money and gifts and social introductions with a cold calculation.

It all plays out in Petra’s stark apartment—a bedroom/workroom with a bed on white shag and a work area below with naked dress dummies, an easel and a typewriter—and Michael Ballhaus’ prowling camera finds Marlene silently hovering on the borders of Petra’s dramas, looking on through doors and windows like an adoring lover from afar. Handsome with a touch of aloofness (the dress dummies sprawled through each scene add a note of alienation), it’s a quintessentially Fassbinder portrait of doomed love, jealousy, and social taboos, bouncing between catty melodrama and naked emotional need.

Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus oversaw the digital restoration, mastered in 4K from the original camera negative and supervised by the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation. It’s a tremendous leap in quality from the previous DVD release a decade ago, with strong color (essential to appreciate the art direction and lighting) and a great level of detail and crispness. The Criterion debut of the film features a new video interviews with Ballhaus and the original featurette “Outsiders” featuring new interviews with actors Margit Carstensen, Eva Mattes, Katrin Schaake, and Hanna Schygulla, plus a new interview with film scholar Jane Shattuc about director Rainer Werner Fassbinder and the film, and the 1992 documentary Role Play: Women on Fassbinder, originally made for German TV and featuring interviews with Carstensen, Schygulla, and actors Irm Hermann and Rosel Zech. It includes a foldout insert in place of a booklet with an essay by critic Peter Matthews.

More reviews of recent Criterion releases at Cinephiled

Jan 17 2015

Videophiled: ‘Kinoshita and World War II’

Kinoshita

Eclipse

Japanese director Keisuke Kinoshita made 50 films in a 50-year career, including Twenty-Four Eyes (1954) and the original The Ballad of Narayama (1958), both of which Criterion has released on disc. Kinoshita and World War II (Eclipse, DVD) presents his first five films and offers a rare glimpse into the propaganda films made in Japan during World War II.

After a long apprenticeship at Shochiku (and a brief stint in the army), Kinoshita made his directorial debut in 1943, well into World War II, when the filmmaking industry was enlisted in the war effort to produce patriotic movies. Where directors like Ozu and Kurosawa managed to skirt the excesses of nationalistic propaganda (the respected veteran Ozu through films about family values and responsibility, the newcomer Kurosawa through period pieces), Kinoshita applied with humanistic sensibility to rousing calls for patriotic action.

In any other era the deft little Port of Flowers (1943), a light-fingered comedy about two con-men who try to bilk money from the inhabitants of a small island with shares of a phony shipyard, could have come off as a Capra-esque comedy of a guileless small town community winning over the corrupt big city crooks with their idealism and generosity (and a little help from a twist of fate). Here, that twist is the declaration of war, which ignites the patriotic responsibility of the shysters and shames them into supporting the war effort. Apart from the propaganda, it is a light, amiable little film with a warm sense of community and purpose, but the message becomes more insistent in The Living Magoroku (1943), which takes on the need for agricultural production, and Jubilation Street (1944), which follows the inhabitants of a Tokyo street forced to relocate for the war effort.

Kinoshitastill

‘Port of Flowers’

Army (1944), Kinosuke’s fourth and final film of the war years, pushes the patriotic drumbeat to extremes and sneaks in a sly portrait of the nationalistic fervor that drove Japan to war. Spanning three generations and almost 80 years, it begins with lessons of duty to the Emperor and outrage over the international intervention that pressured Japan to return captured territory to China: “Someday we will avenge this indignation.” Generations of men pass on the ideals of hysterical nationalism to their children (without actually serving in combat themselves) until it comes down to the sickly son of Tomosuke Takagi (Chishu Ryu). “He’s always been a coward,” says both mother and father of the grown Shintaro (Kazumasa Hoshino), but when war is declared on China (to at last avenge the indignation from decades ago), Shintaro enlists to make his father proud.

Kinosuke presents patriotic zeal with such blind fervor that it borders on political cartoon. “A true Japanese would never admit that Japan could lose,” sputters an apoplectic Tomosuke to Sakuragi (Eijirô Tôno), a civilian industrialist who has volunteered his services in every conflict since he’s come of age. In hindsight it appears to be Kinoshita satirizing fervent nationalism and militarism as jingoism and hubris (especially from a man who has never faced battle) but at the time it was apparently accepted as a lesson in patriotism. That wasn’t what upset military censors, however. All four of Kinoshita’s wartime films are sensitive to the lives and emotions of his characters but Army ends with a potent show of emotional ambivalence to the proud sight of young men marching off to war. As Shintaro parades through town with his fellow soldiers, Kinoshita stays with his mother as she shuffles through alleys, stumbles and falls, and finally reaches the crowds with a sorrowful, almost panicked look on her face as she seeks out Shintaro. They looks they share before he marches out of town and out of frame are poignant but Kinosuke lingers on the mother, left behind and alone, already mourning for her lost son. He was not permitted to make another film until after the war. He returned with a vengeance.

'Morning for the Osone Family'

‘Morning for the Osone Family’

Morning for the Osone Family (1946) offers a scathing indictment of the culture that drove Japan into war through the intimate story of a family shattered by it. From its opening scenes of a family at Christmas singing “Silent Night,” it presents a family with an international education and an intellectual life that brands them as suspect in the heat of war. The eldest is jailed for daring to challenge the culture of military power and rampant nationalism, the next son is an artist drafted to fight, the daughter’s engagement to the son of an important industrialist is called off (her family is considered too subversive for such a respected clan), and the youngest falls under the spell of their hyper-patriot uncle, a military officer who preaches the gospel of Japanese superiority and the inevitability of Japanese triumph (never mind that the war in the Pacific has already turned against them). Through it all, the liberal mother (Haruko Sugimura) tries to respect the leadership of her brother-in-law (her husband died years ago) and keep the peace, but her silence only allows his arrogance to go unchecked until the war is over, the family is shattered, and the uncle’s base hypocrisy is revealed. When the family challenges what his philosophy has done for the country, he actually says (as translated in the English subtitles) “I was only following orders,” refusing to take responsibility for everything he advocated through the entire war.

While no longer under the supervision of the Japanese military, the post-war years had a different set of constraints imposed by the occupying American forces, which might explain why the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are never mentioned in the discussion of surrender and the destruction of Japan (seen only in the glimpses of the street outside the Osone home). The message of this film is clearly aligned with their interests and, like Kinosuke’s earlier films, has moments pure didactic speechifying. But also like those earlier films, Kinosuke’s interest is in the characters and their ordeals. Apart from the uncle, who is clearly the stand-in for national military arrogance. Whether you buy the hopeful coda (the “morning” of the title) or simply chalk it up to post-war propaganda, Kinosuke invests it with the passion of his liberal characters who dare to dream of pursuing their ideals once again.

Japanese with English subtitles. This collection comes from Criterion’s Eclipse line of bare-bones releases of movie collections. These are preserved films, not restored, and some sequences are heavily damaged with wear, scratches, and missing frames, but it is a small miracle that they survived at all. Each film is in its own slimline case with an essay by house writer Michael Koresky.

More reviews of recent Criterion releases at Cinephiled

Jan 15 2015

Videophiled: The end of ‘Boardwalk Empire’

BoardwalkS5

HBO

Boardwalk Empire: The Complete Fifth Season (HBO, Blu-ray, DVD) wraps up the Martin Scorsese-produced series set in Atlantic City during Prohibition with an abbreviated final season of eight episodes. Jumping ahead to 1931, with talk of ending Prohibition in the air, it finds Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) working to stake his claim in the legal booze trade (he attempts to strike a deal with a certain Joseph Kennedy) while Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky (Vincent Piazza and Anatol Yusef) are busy trying to unite the major mobs into a syndicate and eliminate the competitors and outliers. Thompson included.

As is the new convention with cable dramas about violent worlds and lifestyles, the final season wraps up many of the storylines by chronicling the demise of major characters. The transition of organized crime and the federal case against Capone in Chicago come right out of history but creator Terence Winter isn’t strictly beholden to the record for some of the other dramatic developments (just compare Nucky’s screen story with the real life Enoch Johnson). Winter may have been hampered by the short season but his choice to end the series in transition seems more creative than convenient. And his affection for Nucky is clear in the reflective journey he makes—the flashbacks of young Nucky coming of age in Atlantic City is surely as much about his own concerns as it is to reveal the making of a unique kind of racketeer—and he spends his final days as a prohibition-era power righting certain wrongs as he can. The advice given him in the first episode of the series, “You can’t be half a gangster,” ring through this season. But for Winter, the turning point isn’t anywhere in 1931 but back in Nucky’s formative years, learning how power is flexed and what is sacrificed to attain it. Winter saves Nucky’s original sin for the final episode, his Rosebud of sorts. It doesn’t explain all, of course, but it adds another dimension to Nucky’s efforts at any kind of redemption.

Eight episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with commentary on four episodes and “Scouting the Boardwalk” featurettes on the locations for each episode. The Blu-ray also includes the exclusive “Blu-ray Live HBO Sampler,” which allows internet-connected Blu-ray devices to access the pilot episodes of four shows for free: Girls, Looking, Banshee, and the new series Togetherness.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Jan 14 2015

Videphiled: ‘Stingray: The Complete Series’

StingrayCom

Timeless Media

Stingray: The Complete Series – 50th Anniversary Edition (Timeless, DVD) “Stand by for adventure!” After two successful sci-fi Supermarionation shows for British TV, producers Gerry and Sylvia Anderson turned to undersea action in Stingray. The heroes are the World Aquanaut Security Patrol (WASP), deep sea agents whose mission of exploration is transformed into one of defense when the Aquaphibians attack from the underwater city of Titanica. Supermarionation refers to the Anderson’s brand of marionette puppets and the shows are completely performed by the inexpressive but engaging puppets (with strings in full view). Captain Troy Tempest is the stalwart human hero, supported by his co-pilot Phones and Princess Marina, a mute underwater dweller he rescues from the villainous Aquaphibians in the first episode. Lois Maxwell, the definitive Miss Moneypenny herself, is the voice of Lt. Atlanta Shore, daughter of Troy’s boss and Marina’s rival for Troy’s affections.

The scripts are awkward (as is much of the puppet action) but the Andersons love their gadgets and their vehicles and, as silly as some of this science fantasy show is, it is a blast for its in souped-up submersibles, led by the state-of-the-art Stingray, and for the colorful design and creative science of the show. The blue-skinned Aquaphibian spy on the surface is played a Peter Lorre clone, right down to the sniveling dialogue. It’s odd and kitschy enough but still a warm-up to the more accomplished Anderson programs that followed, specifically Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. “Anything can happen in the next half hour!”

39 episodes plus commentary on select episodes and a featurette among the supplements.

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Jan 13 2015

Videophiled: ‘Selma’ director Ava DuVernay’s ‘Middle of Nowhere’

Lionsgate

Middle of Nowhere (Lionsgate, DVD, Digital HD, VOD) – As Selma opens wide to great reviews, Ava DuVernay’s second feature comes to disc, a small story about a woman who put her aspirations on hold when her husband goes to prison. Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi) drops out of medical school and takes a nursing job so that she can be at home for daily calls from Derek (Omari Hardwick) and make the two hour bus ride from the Los Angeles suburbs to the prison every week. Ruby’s mother (Lorraine Toussaint) isn’t shy about letting her disappointment show and Ruby spends more time with her sister (Edwina Findley Dickerson), a single mother raising a young boy, to avoid such issues. She believes Derek regrets his mistakes and he probably believes so too, but as he becomes illegible for early parole the reality proves to be more complicated. Which is really what the film is about: life is more complicated than the parameters she has fenced around it. Ruby’s commitment to her husband’s support comes at a cost beyond mere professional success, and his past doesn’t go away so easily.

This isn’t about dramatic revelations and charge confrontations. DuVernay, who also wrote the original screenplay, has made a film about those moments lived between the decisions and is able to show Ruby coming around to see what has been obvious to others. She makes Derek a complicated and nuanced character in his limited screen time—the films stays with Ruby through her story, seeing only what she does—neither judging nor forgiving him as Ruby discovers that his mistakes are not over. The restraint leaves some issues a little vague and unsure, such as Derek’s child from a previous relationship and his past (and present) involvement in the gangs, which can be frustrating, but this isn’t his story. It’s about Ruby and the choices she makes.

The title is apt, and not just for her commitment to a husband who is locked up two hours away in the middle of the desert. Even in Ruby’s East Los Angeles neighborhood, DuVernay’s images pare away detail and separate Ruby from her surroundings and even her family, as if she has isolated herself from the world. Except for traveling to and from work (always by bus; there’s no car on Ruby’s salary), she hardly interacts with anyone but her family, and even with mom she keeps all interactions as a distance.

Emayatzy Corinealdi

Corinealdi gives a quiet but expressive performance as a woman who doesn’t recognize her own malaise and loneliness until she’s wooed by an easygoing bus driver (David Oyelowo, who stars in Selma as Dr. King) and she realizes how much of herself she’s sacrificed. In those moments, when friendly conversation and a little flirtation coaxes a smile from her, we get a sense of who Ruby might have been before she gave up her life. And DuVernay resists putting her transformation into words—even the lovely voiceover as she speaks her feelings for perhaps the first time is more poetry than proclamation—and instead lets the flowering of Ruby come through the way she allows herself to live and be. That sensitivity and grace won DuVernay the Best Director award at Sundance and, one assumes, proved that she had the talent to tackle Selma, where that promise is fulfilled.

Features commentary by director Ava DuVernay and actress Emayatzy Corinealdi and an Ultraviolent HD digital copy of the film. Also available to stream from Xbox Video.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

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