McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
Pan’s Labyrinth (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
Boyhood (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), Robert Altman’s third film since staking out his claim on 1970s cinema with M*A*S*H (1970), turns the western myth into a metaphor for the fantasy of the American Dream colliding with the power of big business.
Warren Beatty is John McCabe, a drifting gambler who rides into the mining camp town of Presbyterian Church (named after a building that has yet to open for business), surveys the possibilities of the muddy streets and rough-hewn buildings carved out of the Oregon wilderness (Vancouver, Canada, stands in for Oregon), and stakes his claim as the slick sophisticate to give these hicks the delights of civilization, namely a whorehouse and a well-lit bar with clean floors and fancy furniture. Julie Christie is Constance Miller, a veteran hooker who hitches a ride on a steam-powered tractor and pitches McCabe a partnership. She comes on strong and knowledgeable, a professional with plenty of management experience, but look carefully in the scene where McCabe negotiates for a handful of haggard prostitutes and you’ll catch her through a doorway, just another bordello working girl taking a break. Altman does nothing to draw our attention to her but it’s the only backstory we get and you can just imagine her hatching a scheme to escape her dead-end trajectory and roll the dice on this flashy backwoods businessman who has more ambition than talent. McCabe plays the would-be frontier tycoon for the miners, striding the camp in his fox-red fur coat and Eastern bowler hat, but Mrs. Miller is the brains behind his success. That’s clear when the corporate mining concern sends in it negotiators (Michael Murphy and Antony Holland) to buy up the town and McCabe plays the hard-sell dealmaker in an ultimatum dressed up in polite ritual.
That’s the plot upon which Altman hangs his film, both a western and an anti-western, defined as much by the communal cast that mills through the picture and mutters dialogue in the swirling pools of sound as by the story of its charming but over-his-head hero McCabe and the caustic Miller who escapes nightly in a cloud of opium. This was the first major film shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, who fled Communist Hungary in 1956 and spent a decade shooting cheap exploitation pictures and the occasional independent effort, and he helps Altman establish his signature style with the film. The camera prowls and floats through scenes with a gentle restlessness, constantly catching character bits and defining details, as if it were as much a character in Altman’s company as the actors. The colors are muted and the palette earthy and dark, giving the image the look and feel of no other western.
Altman shot as he built the town, hewn out of the mud and trees outside of Vancouver, BC, and he incorporated its creation and growth as part of the film, right down to the half-constructed buildings that are slowly finished. It’s our only real measure of time passing in a place where clocks and calendars are less important than seasons and sunsets. Time just washes along and people like McCabe and Miller either flow with it or get left behind. The soundtrack includes spare songs by Leonard Cohen that haunt the film with a lonely, melancholy quality. One of Altman’s masterpieces, and easily one of the finest American films of the 1970s.
Mastered for Blu-ray and DVD from a new 4K digital restoration and presented with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. A lot of newly restored films show a marked difference from previous versions but the very nature of the film’s photography, which was systematically desaturated by cinematographer Zsigmond with a method called flashing to evoke an earlier time, means that the improvements are not as obvious. The colors are muted and somber with a dipped-in-amber look (the scenes in the Irishman’s bar have the golden look of candles and lamplight creating pools of illumination in the night) and the image looks softened, as if seen through the light haze of history. That’s a palette that can cause issues in mastering—the film grain is more pronounced and the digital transfer can exaggerate that grain into an overactive storm in the shadows—and Criterion does a great job of preserving that quality. You get a richer texture (and this film has amazing textures) and a greater range of detail and color.
Produced for this edition is a terrific 55-minute documentary “Way Out on a Limb,” featuring new interviews with actors René Auberjonois, Keith Carradine, and Michael Murphy, casting director Graeme Clifford, and script supervisor Joan Tewkesbury, and a 37-minute conversation between film historians Cari Beauchamp and Rick Jewell. There are also archival interviews with Vilmos Zsigmond (conducted in 2005 and 2008 and used in the film No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos) and an archival conversation between production designer Leon Ericksen and art director Al Locatelli with fellow production designer Jack De Govia discussing McCabe at the Art Directors Guild Film Society in Los Angeles in 1999. There are also two archival segments from The Dick Cavett Show from 1971 featuring Pauline Kael (making a case for the film) and, in a later show, Altman, and a gallery of stills shot on the set of the film by photojournalist Steve Schapiro.
Carried over from the 2002 DVD release is commentary by director Robert Altman and producer David Foster (recorded separately but edited together for good effect) and a 10-minute promotional behind-the-scenes documentary from 1971.
Pan’s Labyrinth (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 dark fairy tale, is an elemental Alice in Wonderland amidst the horrors of Francisco Franco’s reign of terror in 1944 Spain. While her brutal and cold-blooded stepfather (Sergi López) hunts down the remnants of the anti-fascist rebellion, our imaginative young Alice (in this case a girl named Ofelia, played with innocence and strength by Ivana Baquero), discovers a magic world of faeries and meets an enigmatic faun (Doug Jones) who sends her on a terrifying odyssey through an underworld of monsters.
Del Toro’s fantastical creatures have a primal, earthy quality, like ancient beings hewn from the earth and enchanted wood and resurrected after centuries in a state of decay and neglect, and a shadow of uncertainty hangs over the sense of wonder. Yet for all the terror Ofelia confronts – and del Toro reaches deep into the mythological subconscious and the unadulterated horror of early fairy tales for his primal visions – the haunting shadow worlds of imagination and nightmares pale next to the evil of the real world. Maribel Verdú co-stars as the caring housekeeper with a double life and Ariadna Gil plays Ofelia’s ailing pregnant mother. It won three Academy Awards: for Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Best Makeup.
The film has previously been available in fine DVD and Blu-ray editions. Criterion presents a new 2K digital master supervised by Guillermo del Toro. New to this edition are a 40-minute interview with del Toro by novelist Cornelia Funke about fairy tales, fantasy, and Pan’s Labyrinth and a new 26-minute interview with actor Doug Jones. Carried over from the 2007 release is a video prologue and commentary by Mexican director/writer Guillermo del Toro who describes his inspirations and explains his colors and textures and images with more articulation than most American directors can muster in their mother tongue. The 30-minute “Pan and the Fairies” follows the fantasy creatures from design to screen and, through raw production footage, shows you exactly (and ingeniously simply) how del Toro created the Faun’s goat-leg walk without animation and there additional archival featurettes, an interactive director’s notebook, footage of young actress Ivana Baquero’s audition for the film, and a foldout insert with a new essay by film critic Michael Atkinson.
Criterion also boxes the film up with previous releases of del Toro’s Cronos (1994) and The Devil’s Backbone (2001) in the box set Trilogía de Guillermo del Toro (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD).
Boyhood (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) was arguably the movie of 2014. It dominated Top Ten lists and critics groups awards and it offered a different and daring kind of cinematic experience, something rare enough in American popular cinema.
It’s pretty well known that filmmaker Richard Linklater and his four central actors—Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as the parents, Lorelei Linklater (the director’s daughter) as the older sister, and Ellar Coltrane as Mason—shot the film over the course of 12 years to watch not just Mason but everyone in the fictional family grow up and evolve over time. What’s most exciting about the film, however, is the way the film avoids the expected landmark moments and big dramatic conflicts to focus on the sense of life as an experience and an evolution.
Which is not to say there aren’t dramatic moments—Arquette’s single mom shows a history of bad judgment when it comes to life partners and one flight from a particularly bad marriage to a bullying drunk is both harrowing and startlingly realistic—but that the usual spotlight events are left offscreen. Because life isn’t about those flashpoints, it’s about connections made with friends, privileged moments with family, decisions, interests, disappointments, successes, and an evolution of character informed by experience.
That’s what this film becomes: an experience as much in the texture of this fictional life, growing up from first grade to arriving at college, as in the narrative journey. The performances are appropriately low-key and naturalistic and the evolution feels organic, thanks in large part to the collaboration of the actors and incorporating elements of their own experiences in the characters.
It runs 164 minutes, which lends itself to a home viewing (easier to get comfortable for the long haul), but it is something to see straight through as a single narrative experience.
It was previously released in a fine edition from Paramount. Criterion’s new two-disc edition, mastered from a new 2K digital transfer supervised by Linklater, features an all-new slate of supplements. There is commentary featuring Linklater and nine members of the cast and crew, the 50-minute documentary “Twelve Years” featuring behind-the-scenes footage from throughout the twelve-year production, the nearly hour-long discussion featurette “Memories of the Present” featuring Linklater and actors Patricia Arquette and Ellar Coltrane, moderated by producer John Pierson, as half-hour “Always Now” with Linklater and Coltrane in conversation, Michael Koresky’s video essay “The Time of Your Life,” about time in Linklater’s films and narrated by Coltrane, and an animated gallery of portraits of cast and crew by photographer Matt Lankes, narrated with personal thoughts from Linklater, Arquette, Hawke, Coltrane and producer Cathleen Sutherland. The accompanying booklet features a heavily footnoted essay by Jonathan Lethem.
Kenji Mizoguchi, one of the masters of Japanese cinema, had already made 50 films by the time he made The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), the 1939 drama of art, love, and sacrifice that has been called his first genuine masterpiece and is considered by many critics his greatest film. It’s the story of spoiled, arrogant actor Kikunosuke (Shôtarô Hanayagi), the adopted son of a great kabuki master, who believes the glib flattery of his father’s friends and jaded geishas until the family nursemaid, the modest, honest peasant Otoku (Kakuko Mori), confronts him with the truth of his hammy performances and his poor reputation and encourages him to improve. His family sends her away and he leaves the family troupe to make it on his own. Again she appears to offer encouragement, becoming his common-law wife but fully aware that once he proves himself and returns to Tokyo, she will have to leave him, a sacrifice she makes with eyes wide open.
Mizoguchi isn’t criticizing the social order that separates the classes, which modern audiences might assume, merely using it as the basis for a heartfelt tragedy. This is a film built on the belief that great art is worthy of such sacrifice while also recognizing that such sacrifice is as tragic as it is noble. Mizoguchi directs in lovely long takes—the first scene between Kikunosuke and Otoku is a slow, gentle tracking shot down a silent street in the hours before dawn—and subdued performances that suggests the anxiety and emotion under the public show of manners.
In Japanese with English subtitles. Criterion presents the film’s DVD and Blu-ray debut from a new restoration with a new interview with film critic Philip Lopate.