The Neon Demon (Broadgreen, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – “I can’t sing, I can’t dance, I can’t write… no real talent. But I’m pretty, and I can make money off pretty.” We first meet Jesse (Elle Fanning), a 16-year-old girl from Middle America looking to leverage her youth and innocent beauty into a modeling career in Los Angeles, made up as a glamorous victim of a decadent world. Sprawled out in designer clothes across an expensive couch with fake blood slathered across her neck and dripping down her arm, she could be shooting the ad for her own fate in the big bad city.
Nicholas Winding Refn, who wrote and directed his social commentary-as-heady horror film, isn’t big on subtlety. Elle Fanning is an enormously talented young actress who has become shorthand casting for innocence, youth, and authenticity, and that serves Refn’s purposes perfectly. She does indeed have that “deer in the headlights” look, as her agent says in one of the on-the-nose lines that fills the script, and her fresh look, not yet jaded by LA decadence, makes her the next big thing in a culture where the supermodels du jour age out of their prime at 20.
This is LA as a culture of predators and prey. On one of her first nights in the city, staying in a seedy motel (run by a thuggish, intimidating Keanu Reeves) that is home to drop-outs and runaways, there’s an intruder in the her room. Not a person but a cougar that has already sniffed out the fresh meat in town. Put another way, Jesse is the delicate angelfish swimming in a pool of sharks but she learns quickly. Two hardened, competitive models (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee) size her up as the competition immediately at some industry soiree and begin immediately with the head games. A freelance make-up artist (Jena Malone) takes her under her wing but is it sisterly concern or something else? Malone is a seemingly warm, normal, human connection in a culture of surfaces and attitudes, but when we drop in at her day job styling corpses at a funeral home her whole nature is tossed into question when she uses her subjects as sex dolls. She’s an artist who wants to possess her creations. Heathcoate is perfectly feral as the cutthroat superstar model who plays mindgames with the competition while Abbey Lee, a real-life modeling veteran, brings out an ambiguous mix of hunger, loss, desperation, and opportunism as she loses jobs to Jesse, who starts to become as brittle and self-absorbed as the rest of the walkway meat market.
The Neon Demon was booed at Cannes and almost universally panned by critics that saw the film as vapid or shallow, but then that’s taking it all at face value. Beauty is the beast in this a horror film as fashion layout. Refn’s stripped down production design and eighties neon visuals are accompanied by synth soundtracks and dance club sounds, but the film is also filled with images of fertility, lunar cycles, hedonism, and occult symbols. What begins as an allegory for the hunger for youth and beauty with the modeling / show business industry as a form of vampirism becomes absurdly literal, channeling cannibalism and Countess Bathory bathing in the blood of virgins. I don’t see it as failed social satire, as its critics claim, but as a more primal portrait of the obsession for youth and beauty and the drive to control, dominate, package, own, and ultimately devour it. Jesse is the latest sacrifice to the gods of success and desire and power in NWR’s monogrammed photo shoot. And even if you don’t go with Refn’s predatory allegory, you can simply luxuriate in the glorious images and mad imagination of the modeling industry as sacrificial altar. This is style as substance and it is delicious.
Blu-ray and DVD, with commentary by filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn and actress Elle Fanning and the featurettes “About Neon Demon” and “Behind the Soundtrack of The Neon Demon.”
Pioneers of African-American Cinema (Kino, Blu-ray, DVD) – The legacy of African-American filmmaking—specifically films made by and for African-American audiences before Hollywood integrated its casts and gave leading roles to African-American actors—is largely unknown to even passionate films buffs, in part because the films were rarely seen by white audiences in their day, and in part because so few of the films had been preserved with the same dedication given to the maverick films of Hollywood. This landmark box set is the first serious effort devoted to collecting and preserving feature films and shorts produced between 1915 and 1946 for black audiences, most of them made by African-American filmmakers. The scope of the set embraces drama, music, adventure, comedy, and documentary.
Independent director/producer Oscar Micheaux, the most successful and prolific black filmmaker of his day, directly confronted race and racism in such movies as Within Our Gates (1920), which took up the cause of education while broaching such taboo subjects as miscegenation and lynching, The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920), his response to Birth of a Nation, and Birthright (1938). The set includes nine features and a short from Micheaux, including his most famous film Body and Soul (1925) starring Paul Robeson playing brothers (one good and the other a con man in a priest’s collar) in his film debut.
There are two features and a short by actor/director Spencer Williams, including his hugely successful directorial debut The Blood of Jesus (1941), an allegorical drama of a woman’s spiritual odyssey after death: an angel directs her to heaven but at the crossroads the devil tries to tempt her to Hell (a city of nightclubs, gambling rooms, and fast-living folks at night, of course). The Blood of Jesus was shot for pittance (something like $6,000) and it’s a scruffy production in a lot of ways, but it’s also inventive and impassioned. Williams plays the grieving husband of the dead woman whose repentance for his non-religious ways gives her a second chance. Also from Williams is Dirty Gertie from Harlem USA (1946), an unauthorized adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s short story “Miss Thompson” relocated to the Caribbean. It was one of Williams’ final films as a director and stars Francine Everett (her last name is misspelled as Everette in the credits), a singer, dancer, and actress who turned her back on the stereotypical roles offered by Hollywood. Dirty Gertie gave her the chance to play a glamorous, sexy black woman never seen in Hollywood pictures. Williams himself takes on a small but memorable role: the “voodoo woman” Old Hager, who sees no good in Gertie’s future. In some ways he anticipates Tyler Perry, playing the voice of fate in drag, but with his visible mustache and a husky voice, Williams barely bothers with the pretense of playing a wizened old woman. The weirdness of the scene, however, adds to the tension as a black cat and a broken mirror bring out Gertie’s superstitions.
Williams also co-stars in The Bronze Buckaroo (1939), a black western starring longtime Duke Ellington singer Herb Jeffries as a singing cowboy hero on the range. He has a charisma and confidence that should have made him a screen star outside of the race film circuit had Hollywood treated black actors, black stories, and the black experience with any respect. Williams, meanwhile, went on to play Andrew H. Brown, aka Andy, on the TV incarnation of the long running comedy Amos ‘n’ Andy. It gave him the biggest audience he ever had but his career was much richer than that single role, as these films show.
Those films are relatively well known among those with a passion for film history. They are landmarks and success stories in a film culture that was largely unknown outside the black community for years—Within Our Gates and The Blood of Jesus were both added to the National Film Registry—and have been available (though often in inferior editions) on disc and VHS before that. These editions are not pristine, mind you, because these films were not considered worthy of preservation until decades after their respective releases, but they’ve been mastered from the best available elements from archives across the country and look better than previous releases, and the silent films all feature musical scores, most of them newly composed and recorded for this release.
There are also some fascinating discoveries, all of them new to me and surely to many other interested viewers.
The earliest films are a trio of slapstick comedy shorts featuring all-black casts produced for both black and white audiences by Luther Pollard for the Chicago-based Ebony Film Corporation. In Pollard’s own words (written in a business letter to a West Coast distributor), he intended to show that “colored players can put over good comedy without any of that crap-shooting, chicken-stealing, razor-dealing, watermelon-eating stuff that the colored people generally have been a little disgusted seeing.” Two Knights of Vaudeville (1918), a show business spoof featuring two buddies (Jimmy Marshall and Frank Montgomery) who put on their own stage show, plays on some of the stereotypes that Pollard wanted to get away from—the intertitles are filled with mangled grammar and the hand-drawn signs and bills for their neighborhood show are rife with the misspellings and backwards letters—but if these guys are buffoons, their neighborhood audience knows it all too well and arrives prepared. Mercy, the Mummy Mumbled (1918) pokes fun at both mad scientists and the Egyptian mummy craze that followed the discovery of King Tut’s tomb early in the 20th century. Director R.G. Phillips manages the many moving parts of this busy comedy quite deftly, and offers perhaps the last glimpse audiences will see of an African-American scientist on the screen for decades.
Non-fiction is represented by Zora Neale Hurston’s landmark ethnographic films chronicling life in rural African-American communities. In addition to being a celebrated author (Their Eyes Were Watching God), playwright, and poet, Hurston was a pioneering anthropologist who documented life in black communities in the American South and Caribbean diaspora and this set includes two excerpts of her work: Zora Neale Hurston Fieldwork Footage from 1928 (about 3 minutes) and Commandment Keeper Church, Beaufort South Carolina, May 1940 (1940), a 15-minute excerpt of field recording footage that observes religious services (including communal singing and revival-style sermons) in the Gullah community of the Sea Islands of South Carolina. Norman Chalfin made field audio recordings of the Beaufort footage which accompanies the footage. It’s not synchronized but these authentic recordings of the distinctive musical and vocal culture of the Gullah people adds to the texture and atmosphere of the events photographed.
The Flying Ace (1926) is an aviation melodrama with a black pilot hero that was shot so cheaply it couldn’t afford any actual flying scenes; apart from a few shots of a prop plane taxing on a grass runway, the flight scenes are suggested with characters in prop planes against an unmoving white wall (the white patch is a dead giveaway) while wind machines blow. It demands a certain suspension of disbelief but it pays off nicely. Not in the plot, a mystery with a convoluted plot and a tiresome resolution, or even necessarily the stalwart leading man, but in his sidekick Peg (Steve Reynolds), a one-legged mechanic who uses his crutch as a comic prop as much as a tool. He uses it to pump a bicycle in a chase sequence, and then mounts it on the handlebars to reveal a hidden rifle! The film was produced by the Florida-based Norman Studios and, though director/producer Richard E. Norman was white, the cast is entirely African-American its portrayal of a black aviator was an inspiration to audiences who wouldn’t see another black flier on the screen for decades.
The films of James and Eloyce Gist are a different kind of revelation. They were not professional filmmakers but traveling evangelists who made films to accompany their sermons. These allegorical dramas were made without professional equipment or studio facilities, using non-professional actors and shooting 16mm film without sound. Historical information on their work is scarce but the filmmakers appears to have been a genuine creative partnership with Eloyce, a successful entrepreneur who married the Christian evangelist James in the late 1920s, intimately involved in writing, directing, and producing beginning with Hell-Bound Train (circa 1930), a short feature that tackled the issue of temperance in an allegorical narrative. Their follow-up, the short film Verdict: Not Guilty (circa 1933), presents the heavenly trial of a woman who has died giving childbirth out of wedlock as a religious allegory by was of a church pageant. It is full of religious imagery and evocative folkloric elements with flashbacks to the woman’s life that provide a realism in sharp contrast to the allegorical pageantry. The texture, the pageantry, and the allegorical and ritualistic elements of both films look forward to the American Underground cinema of Kenneth Anger, Curtis Harrington, and others in the 1950s and 1960s.
Both of these films were reconstructed from fragments; the films of James and Eloyce Gist were one-of-a-kind, personally carried by the filmmakers to churches and community centers and screened on portable 16mm projectors, and had fallen apart when they were donated to the Library of Congress after the death of Eloyce in 1974. And a third, uncompleted film, Heaven-Bound Travelers (circa 1935), was discovered among the rolls of film in the Gist collection at the Library of Congress. It is an even more ambitious production. Eloyce Gist takes a central role onscreen as a wife and mother who is wrongfully accused of adultery by her husband and is left to fend for herself and their daughter in the world. As she struggles to sustain them, the husband becomes riddled with guilt and struggles with his decision, and the social realism of the drama shifts to an allegorical struggle between the devil, appearing to tempt humanity to sin, and the angels.
All films mastered from the best available elements preserved at The Library of Congress, George Eastman Museum, Museum of Modern Art, UCLA Film and Television Archive, and other archives. Preservation came late to these films, which were independently produced (and in some cases self-financed) and essentially orphaned after their theatrical runs. Some of the feature films have been available on cheap home video editions, almost all of them indifferently transferred from whatever source materials they could access. Some of those discs are so blurry and hissy it’s hard to make out the film underneath the noise.
While these films have undergone no extensive restoration, they have been professionally mastered from the best existing materials, which mean that damage and wear is visible but there is clarity to the image (many of the films look quite crisp) and the soundtrack. Do not expect pristine presentations. The films in this collection (at least the features and theatrical shorts) show the evidence of their respective tours of duty through the (mostly southern) “race films” circuit.
DVD and Blu-ray editions (the Blu-ray set includes four exclusive shorts) with an accompanying booklet with essays, credits, and notes on the films.
Chimes at Midnight (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) has been difficult to see under any circumstances for at least the last three decades. It suffered from distribution issues during its original release (a woefully misguided pan by New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther, an old-school moralist at sea in the era of new visions, essentially sunk it American release) and has been in legal limbo thanks to competing claims of ownership for decades. Original 35mm prints had issues with image and sound mixing and timing and surviving prints were worn and degraded over time. After years of negotiating and gathering materials, the film was restored in 2015 and the rerelease was revelation and the first time that many Americans had the opportunity to finally see the film that Welles had called his favorite (admittedly he had said that about more than one of his films over his career, but Chimes did hold a special place in his heart). Welles called Falstaff “the greatest creation by Shakespeare” and said of the film: “If I wanted to get into heaven on the basis of one movie, that’s the one I would offer up.”
Drawing freely from five Shakespeare plays (notably “Henry IV, Part One” and “Henry IV, Part Two”) as well as excerpts from “Holinshead’s Chronicles” (spoken in the film by Ralph Richardson), the story focuses on young Prince Hal (Keith Baxter), son of King Henry IV (John Gielgud) and heir to crown, and his wastrel years spent carousing in taverns with Sir John Falstaff (played by Welles), a corrupt, drunk, cowardly old rascal whose boisterous personality and zest for life captivates Hal. When Henry Hotspur, who claims to be the rightful heir to the throne, goes to war against King Henry, Hal finally turns his back on his extended childhood and accepts his responsibility as Prince and future King of England. Jeanne Moreau and Margaret Rutherford co-star in small roles that enliven the scenes of Falstaff’s tavern existence.
Welles had first attempted an epic portrait of the entire history cycle on stage in 1939 and then pared the scope down to the story of Falstaff and Hal in a 1961 stage production in Ireland, which he saw as a dry run for the film. Keith Baxter, then a young Welsh actor just making his name on the stage, played Hal on stage opposite Welles’s Falstaff and Welles promised the actor that he would never make the film without him. He was true to his word and you wonder if the marvelous affection between the characters is in part a reflection of the love shared between the two men off screen. Welles’s screen portrayal—with a wild head of snow white hair, a gut padded until he resembles a peasant Santa Claus, and a bulbous nose red with drink—is possibly his greatest cinematic performance. He creates a magnificent vision of 15th century England on a relatively small budget in 1964 Spain, using standing castles and open fields and careful framing and editing, and he contrasts the cold majesty of court, shot in vast chambers and against stone castle walls and spires, with the warmth of Falstaff’s life in a tavern of massive wooden beams and tables and in the nearby forests.
Welles loved contradictory characters and ironies and Chimes at Midnight is one of the great contradictions. Falstaff is a jolly rogue with a twinkle in his eye and a gusto for living that is alien at court, but he is also a thief, a liar, a braggart, and an opportunist who brazenly takes credit for Hal’s heroic triumph in the field of battle. Welles views Hal’s eventual rejection of Falstaff as tragedy and as necessity and most Welles critics and scholars tend to agree. I take a minority position: there is no tragedy in the act. Hal grew up and rejected selfishness and immediate gratification for responsibility and maturity. Falstaff remained as corrupt and corrupting as ever. The tragedy is that Hal must lose this element of joy and fun and irresponsibility to become the leader his country deserves. Part of beauty of Welles’s powerful portrait is that even Falstaff recognizes the necessity. Watch the famous rejection scene (“I know thee not, old man”) and you can see a glimmer of pride in Falstaff’s face even as he’s humiliated in front of the court.
Chimes at Midnight is one of Orson Welles’ unqualified masterpieces, his greatest film according to many critics, and a personal project that took decades to finally bring to the screen. If you’ve never tried to see the film before this restoration and new rerelease, it may be readily apparent just how magnificent this presentation is. Very difficult to see under any circumstances, the few 35mm screenings were limited to battle-scarred prints with murky soundtracks. Janus films (a partner with Criterion) applied digital technology to the new restoration to master their digital prints for the U.S. and that is the source of Criterion’s special edition. The Blu-ray and DVD debut also features commentary by film scholar James Naremore, which is filled with production history and acute observations, new interviews with actor Keith Baxter (about half an hour), Welles’s daughter Beatrice Welles, who has a small role in the film as a page (14 minutes), and Welles historians Simon Callow (31 minutes) and Joseph McBride (26 minutes), and an excerpt from the September 21, 1965 broadcast of The Merv Griffin Show featuring Welles as he was editing the film. The essay by Michael Anderegg, author of Orson Welles, Shakespeare, and Popular Culture, is on a fold-out insert rather than a booklet.
The Immortal Story (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), based on a short story by Isak Dinesen and adapted to the screen faithfully by Welles with only minor changes, was produced for French TV in 1968. It runs just under an hour and stars Welles as Mr. Clay, a rich, misanthropic merchant in Macao who becomes obsessed with turning an old seaman’s legend, the story of a rich man who hires a sailor to impregnate his young wife, into a reality. He directs his clerk (French actor Roger Coggio) find a woman (Jeanne Moreau) to play his wife and himself hires a sailor (Norman Eshley) off the streets to play the young man, and he takes the role of the rich old man himself.
Like many of Welles’ films, it’s about a powerful man who uses his money and influence to attempt to control those around him, and it is equally about stories and storytelling, with Clay himself taking the role of director. Also like Welles’ previous European films, much of the film is post-dubbed, with Welles himself providing the voices of some of the minor characters (such as Fernando Rey, who is in a brief scene plays a part of the town’s chorus of merchants who give us Mr. Clay’s history).
In other ways it is very different. Welles was famous for his elaborate camerawork and bold images staged in both foreground and background and visual contrasts of light and dark. This film, his first shot in color, is more unadorned, with the camera mostly still, the sets austere and stripped down, and the compositions more flattened on a shallow plane. It also features the first genuinely erotic moments in Welles films when the sailor and the woman make love, a scene that features close-ups and a cinematic intimacy that contrasts with the distance that Welles takes with the other scenes. This is a rumination on art and reality and stories and it is dreamlike and ephemeral and introspective.
While it can be considered a minor work by Welles, at least in comparison to his celebrated masterpieces, it is his final completed dramatic feature (his subsequent features are both essay films) and a small jewel of a film that shows a different aspect of the filmmaker. It used to play in arthouse repertory calendars paired with Luis Bunuel’s Simon of the Desert (which also ran just under an hour) and essentially disappeared with the demise of repertory cinema.
Never before on home video in the US, the film debuts on Blu-ray and DVD in a special edition from Criterion mastered from a new 4K master from the original 35mm camera negative. The disc features the alternate French language version, which is about minutes shorter and dubbed; Jeanne Moreau’s voice is in both versions but Welles’ voice is dubbed over by another, anonymous actor. Also features commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin, the 1968 documentary Portrait: Orson Welles by François Reichenbach and Frédéric Rossif, and interviews with actor Norman Eshley, cinematographer Willy Kurant, and film scholar François Thomas, plus a fold-out insert with an essay by the perceptive Welles critic Jonathan Rosenbaum.
What Have You Done to Solange? (1972) is celebrated by fans and genre historians alike as one of the masterpieces of giallo. An Italian-German coproduction shot largely in England, it’s directed by Massimo Dallamano, who visualized the stark intensity of Sergio Leone’s arid anti-hero epics as cinematographer of A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965), and directed salacious adaptations of Devil in the Flesh(1969) andThe Secret of Dorian Gray (1970) before turning to giallo.
The international cast includes hunky Italian Fabio Testi (The Garden of the Finzi-Continis), German stars Karin Baal (Fassbinder‘s Lili Marleen) as his wife, krimi veteran Joachim Fuchsberger (Dead Eyes of London) as the police detective, Spanish beauty Cristina Galbó (The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue) as Testi’s schoolgirl mistress, and American model-turned-actress Camille Keaton (I Spit on Your Grave) as Solange. The lovely and tender score by legendary composer Ennio Morricone adds an eerie elegance and haunting edge to film. All told, it’s one of the most disturbing examples of the genre, and not for the reasons you might assume.
The French celebration of Jerry Lewis as an American artist is a lazy punchline and a gross oversimplification of a genuine appreciation, but there is a telling truth to the cliché. Historically, French critics favored the visual over the verbal, and stylistic sensibility over plot and performance, in American movies; in the sixties and seventies, when Lewis was seen as little more than a crudely juvenile comic and a show-biz caricature, the French saw a particular cinematic ingenuity and innocence that was lacking in other American comedies. Plus, he seemed culturally kindred with a classic comic figure: the clown. Not the circus brand, but the kind that flourished in the cabarets and music halls of Europe.
That’s a rather longwinded introduction to a tradition that gave birth to a pair of great French filmmakers: Jacques Tati and Pierre Étaix, comic actors turned directors whose films draw from silent movies, mime, and cabaret performance, and carry on the traditions of Chaplin and Keaton. They were silent movie clowns in the contemporary world, and their movies presented a unique and elaborate comic universe that operated on its own skewed logic.
A Touch of Zen (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), King Hu’s romantic chivalry adventure, is a masterpiece of Hong Kong cinema, a magnificent epic with grand battles fought with the grace of a ballet with swords, and the most significant cinematic inspiration for Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The three-hour film took the uniquely Chinese genre of wuxia pian (literally “martial chivalry”), a genre he practically defined with Come Drink With Me (1966) and Dragon Gate Inn (1967), into the realms of poetry and epic adventure. 45 years after its completion, A Touch of Zen has been restored and it is as glorious and grand and dreamily beautiful as ever.
The very opening tells you that this is something different, from the ominous spiderwebs stretched across the dark to a sunrise over the mountains of the rural inland in a remote part of China. There’s six or so minutes of scene-setting, glorious images and music that flow with a sense of grace, before we see a sign of civilization. It’s almost like an intrusion on the purity of this world. Almost. That same slow, sublime storytelling continues as a poor but honorable scholar, Gu (Chun Shih), sets up his shop and welcomes a stranger, who sits for a portrait and asks about some of the recent arrivals in this remote village. When the stranger slips away to follow one of these newcomers, we observe the trajectories of the followed and the followers and see an intelligence network of spies and agents emerge from the lazy rhythms of the sleepy town square. Every new arrival adds to the web, especially a young woman, Yang (Feng Hsu), who moves into the haunted manor next door and a blind beggar (Ying Bai) who suddenly seems to be everywhere.
What begins as a conspiracy and ghost story becomes an ingenious game of tricks and traps sprung in the dark (revealed the next morning in a brilliant scene that instantly transforms a bloodless fantasy and triumph into a shocking confrontation of the brutality of battle) and transforms through floating, leaping, airborne fights into one of the most beautiful martial arts movies you’ve ever seen. Yang is actually a noblewoman on the run from the forces of a corrupt Eunuch, forces that soon enough arrive and inspire Gu to offer his services to Yang and her protectors. Not as a fighter—he’s a scholar, not a soldier—but for tactics and intelligence. Yang, however, is most definitely a fighter, a master martial artist trained in a Buddhist temple who all but flies through the air. When the first battle begins (more than an hour into the film) she and her guardian General dance on the leaves of branches. The promised touch of Zen is introduced by a brotherhood of Monks dedicated to defending the innocent with nothing but bare hands against swords. The acrobatics are more balletic and graceful than athletic: our heroes jump (with the help of hidden trampolines) and somersault through the air, leap up trees and over walls, and land as if floating like a feather to the ground.
Hu accomplishes it through editing and camerawork—this is before the advent of wire-work and digital effects—and a dramatic sense of dynamic composition. The colors are delicate, like they’ve been painted, and the atmosphere is painstakingly created with mist and falling leaves and sunlight that floods the lens and darkness that shrouds the visual world in shadow. Yet even in its most spectacular action Hu creates a sense of serenity and wonder. A Touch of Zen flows like a lazy river with a swirling undertow just beneath the placid surface, and the camera floats along it.
It took two years to complete and was a financial failure when the producers (wary of the way Hu shifted from action spectacle to arthouse grace) released the film in two parts in 1971, and then won an award at Cannes when Hu’s complete cut was screened in 1975. It is now hailed as a masterpiece of Chinese cinema. Also: look for Sammo Hung, long before he made his fame as the “Fat Dragon” of Hong Kong cinema, in a wordless role as a warrior in yellow robes in the third act.
The film was restored in 4K by the Taiwan Film Institute and L’Immagine Ritrovata from the 35 mm original camera negative, a painstaking process of going frame by frame to eliminate stains and spots (some artifacts, possibly tracing back to original negative processing, are still visible), repair tears, and remove splice marks. The restoration was funded by actress Hsu Feng and cinematographer Hua Hui-ying supervised the color grading. Criterion masters their release from this restoration and the results are breathtaking, with intense colors and glorious images.
On Blu-ray and DVD with the 47 minute documentary King Hu: 1932-1997 produced in 2012 for French TV (though it is mostly in English and Cantonese) and new interviews with actors Hsu Feng (13 mins) and Shih Chen (17 mins), who had both appeared in Hu’s earlier Dragon Gate Inn (1967), filmmaker Ang Lee (13 mins), who talks of the film’s legacy and how it inspired Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and critic and Asian film historian Tony Rayns (34 mins), plus a fold-out insert with an essay by film historian David Bordwell and notes on the film by King Hu.
The smartest thing about Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Ultimate Edition (Warner, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, Ultra HD Blu-ray, DVD, Digital, VOD) is its revisionist take on the destruction that concluded Man of Steel, Zach Snyder’s reboot of Superman as a harder, more troubled hero in a darker big screen superhero universe than previous incarnations. After an unnecessary (but at least relatively brief) recap of the origin of Batman laid under the opening credits, we are plunged back into the battle and this time Superman (Henry Cavill) is not the protagonist. This perspective comes from the ground. He’s simply an agent of destruction in the sky as Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck with a hint of stubble and gray in the temples) roars through the street in what is surely, at least under the hood, the civilian answer to the Batmobile. Man of Steel quite rightly was slammed for its insensitive portrait of epic destruction in an urban center without a thought for the victims below and Snyder, in all his heavyhanded Olympian grandeur, seemed just as oblivious as Superman. Both were so caught up in the personal fight with the demons of Krypton that neither could be bothered to notice civilians crushed like ants in a battle of the titans.
So while there is a feeling of Snyder’s oversight being retconned into legitimacy, Batman v Superman does something I’ve not seen before in the big screen comic book movie universe, at least not for more than a few seconds at a time. It offers the perspective of the mortal bystander to a battle between the modern gods and finds our hero at best distracted from and at worst oblivious to consequences of a clash of the titans over urban Metropolis. In contrast to the abstracted spectacle of Man of Steel, this destruction is more present, more weighted, more real, with the evocation of 9/11 imagery—respectful and suggestive, a matter of texture and perspective with a sense of helplessness on the ground seeing disaster above our heads—fueling the anxiety and giving it an immediacy beyond the superhero mythos. Batman / Bruce Wayne (let’s just call him BatWayne, as there is no distinction between the two apart from the growling delivery behind the cowl), ever the pragmatist, realizes that with great power comes great danger to the rest of us. And so he begins hatching his plan to take down the man from another planet.
That sounds like the beginning of a film I’d like to see. I wish it was the film that Snyder and his screenwriters, Chris Terrio (Argo) and superhero screenplay vet David S. Goyer (Blade, Batman Begins, Man of Steel), had made. Instead, we get BatWayne obsessively pursuing his Krypton bomb, SuperKent in righteous dudgeon over the vigilantism of Gotham City’s Batman, and Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), reconceived as a twitchy, hyperactive young genius driven by daddy issues and corporate arrogance, playing the two off one another as he plots their mutual destruction. The plotting is a little foggy and motivations dubious and the film almost laughably takes pains to assure us that, this time, the battles wind up in deserted waterfront ruins or an abandoned island off Metropolis (because it’s not as if prime real estate in the biggest city of the DCU has any value).
This is film that offers provocative contradictions—that same Superman who fails to pull General Zod from Metropolis ground zero for their new gods smackdown breaks the sound barrier to get to Brazil to rescue a single girl from a burning building and then watches stonefaced as the grateful poor peasants bow to him as if he were the second coming—and then fails to even acknowledge the God complex it reveals. Behind the earnest benevolence and stony, ever-serious expression, Superman is an arrogant, self-righteous creature who can’t even control his own temper when fighting the Bat. “You don’t understand,” Supes impotently protests, and then refuses to explain, content to simply pummel him into obedience.
There’s also romance with globehopping journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams), warrior queen Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) shoehorned in the margins of the story and the finale, a thoroughly forgettable Golem creature called forth from an interstellar genetic cocktail like a Kyptonian Frankenstein’s monster, and lo-fi teases of additional iconic DC comics heroes in anticipation of the upcoming team movie “Justice League.” Because what BvS really, really, really wants to be the DC comic book universe (or DCU) equivalent of Captain America: Civil War by way of Iron Man 2, the world-building film that starts to pull the individual superheroes of the sprawling fictional universe. Their desperation to catch up with Marvel’s year-in-the-making MCU is nakedly obvious as Snyder attempts to launch a DCU out of nowhere. Even his BatWayne is a reboot, with Affleck channeling the graying, embittered, battle-scarred Batman of Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight” mini-series into a cinematic incarnation that apparently exists a decade or so on from Christopher Nolan’s trilogy.
I always saw Metropolis and Gotham City of the comic books as two sides of New York City: Metropolis the daylight version of the city of steel and glass and commerce and Gotham the nighttime urban jungle of crime and corruption in a crumbling city of old brick and industrial blight. Snyder’s Gotham is almost always seen at night, to be sure, while the steel gray and industrial blue of his Metropolis seems bled dry of its colorful energy, but he weirdly situates them across the bay from one another, essentially next door, like San Francisco and Oakland relocated to the East Coast. Which brings up a blindly obvious question in this newly-revealed geography: why has Superman never bothered to be a hero to a city mere seconds away flying at top speed? And how is it, 18 months after the events of Man of Steel, he’s just now realizing that there’s a vigilante in Gotham who is summoned by his own beacon? It’s just another lazy contrivance that shows the sloppy world building under the stewardship of Zach Snyder. Complain all you want about the overstuffedAvengers movies from Joss Whedon, those films have been thought through to provide not only a sturdy narrative framework but the very foundation of an entire ecosystem of heroes, villains, and government agencies, and the moral issues that go with the playing masked superhero.
Batman v Superman was neither an unqualified success nor a flop. Its high price tag (it cost over $250M) and enormous promotional budget means that it needed to pull in north of $1 billion (worldwide) to come close to the profits of the Marvel movies. It fell far short of that. Snyder’s humorless, self-serious approach, dark and dreary palette, and numbing spectacle bludgeoning viewers with ever bigger portraits of destruction seems out of step with the spry, fleet, witty, and often giddy heroics of the Marvel movies. There clearly is an appetite for this brand of comic book movie, but I’ve lost the taste for Snyder’s recipe.
The Blu-ray looks superb, as a digital production of this magnitude should, and presents the R-rated “Ultimate Edition” features 30 minutes of additional footage not included in the original theatrical version and the extra scenes fill in subplots and supporting characters cut from the two-and-a-half hour theatrical version. They add scope to the film, though additional scenes of Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) calling out Clark Kent for failing to meet his deadlines actually weaken any pretense of The Daily Planet as a professional organization. The theatrical version is included on a separate disc.
Blu-ray and DVD, with over two hours of featurettes stuffed with cast and crew interviews and some behind-the-scenes footage. “Gods and Men: A Meeting of Giants” discusses the planning of the first onscreen pairing in the new DCU, the heroes get their own character spotlights in “Superman: Complexity & Truth,” “Batman: Austerity & Rage,” and “Wonder Woman: Grace & Power,” with a little extra on the history Wonder Woman (because she has a solo movie in the works) in “The Warrior, The Myth, The Wonder,” and villain gets his due in “The Empire of Luthor.” “Accelerating Design: The New Batmobile,” “Batcave: Legacy of the Lair,” and “The Might and the Power of a Punch” focus on specific aspects of production design and execution, and “Uniting the World’s Finest” looks forward to the “Justice League” movie, with interviews with actors barely even seen onscreen. Finally, “Save the Bats” forgets the mythology altogether to bring attention to an endangered species of bats. There is no commentary track, which is unusual for Zach Snyder.
The explosion of Japanese gangster films in the 1960s was the great genre freakout of the era, and the rest of the world missed out on it for decades. While films by Kurosawa andKobayashi and Naruse played film festivals and art cinemas, and those by Oshima andImamura drove the Japanese New Wave, the domestic industry was turning out samurai movies and erotic dramas—which spawned the even more disreputable “pink films”—and colorful, high-energy gangster films. Where the samurai movie as a type had some cachet and international exposure, thanks to a decades-long history and a sense of being “the Japanese western,” the gangster movie was modern, urban, and immediate—a pop-culture response to economic anxiety and youth culture. At first these films failed to break out of the Asian market, either as arthouse curiosities or commercial genre artifacts. They were practically unknown in the west until the stateside “rediscovery” of Seijun Suzuki in the 1990s led fans to further exploration in the genre.
Nikkatsu, Japan’s oldest film studio, was the home of the nation’s wildest crime dramas and gangster thrillers of the sixties. They were shot quickly and cheaply, cast from a stock company of actors who would become genre icons (Jo Shishido, Testsuya Watari, Akira Kobayashi), and driven by the energy and anxiety and nihilism of the “sun tribe” genre of youth-gone-wild movies—Japan’s answer to the teen-rebel drama—that also proliferated in sixties. No one at Nikkatsu topped the insanely prolific Seijun Suzuki.
True stories have been a prime inspiration for movies for as long as there have been movies. Early films recreated historical events and breaking news for eager audiences and films as disparate as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1921) and In Which We Serve (1942) to All the President’s Men (1976) and Spotlight (2015) turned recent history into compelling drama. Books, newspapers and sometimes TV and radio news reports were primary sources for years, but more recently, documentary films have become an inspiration for adapting real-life stories and riveting events. In fact, a fictionalized version of the story told in the Independent Lens film The Great Invisible is due out this fall: Deepwater Horizon stars Mark Wahlberg as an electrician on the doomed oil rig.
While dramatized versions, with their movie stars and big budgets and carefully crafted screenplays, are invariably more popular, the original documentaries have their own, more compelling stories to tell. It’s not just a matter of “the original is better” or “documentaries are real.” Non-fiction films are shaped as surely as feature films but the immediacy, the authenticity of subjects who haven’t been polished for prime time, the messy historical records that don’t necessarily hew to the structure of the traditional three-act story all offer a different kind of drama. And the best of these non-fiction works are as dynamic and powerful as Hollywood’s greatest fictions.
We look at the relationship between eight films and the documentaries that inspired them, and why the original documentaries are still essential. Read on to plan some quality based-on-a-true-story double-features.
The Walk (2015), inspired by: Man on Wire (2008)
Robert Zemeckis dramatized the story of Philippe Petit, the French wire-walker and street performer who strung a tightwire between the Twin Towers and walked between the newly-constructed buildings in 1974, in his 2015 feature The Walk, using 3D technology to communicate the awe and wonder of the event from Petit’s perspective. Filmmaker James Marsh had neither the budget nor the technology for his 2008 documentary Man on Wire but he didn’t need it. Petit and his collaborators tell their own story, a mix of performance art and heist thriller, and Marsh illustrates their tale with news footage and brief recreations of their rehearsals. The documentary is just as compelling as the dramatic retelling, a reminder that storytelling is at the heart of great documentary filmmaking.
John Dillinger was the most notorious of the Depression-era gangsters and his exploits (and attendant newspaper coverage) made him a romantic anti-hero to many of the folks who felt betrayed by the bankers and businessmen of the country.
Dillinger (Arrow, Blu-ray+DVD), the 1973 gangster film and directorial debut of John Milius, plays on that image of the gentleman gangster who courted the public and the press while he robbed banks across the American Midwest. It was one of the best of the many period gangster films that poured out in the wake of Bonnie and Clyde and made anti-heroes of outlaws.
Warren Oates stars as Dillinger and it is great casting; not only does he resemble the real-life gangster but he brings a rugged charm to the role, whether cautioning bystanders and bank tellers during the robberies (“This could be one of the big moments in your life,” he says at one point. “Don’t make it your last”) or genially bantering with the press after he’s arrested the first time. Ben Johnson plays Melvin Purvis, the Midwest FBI agent who made Dillinger a priority as his fame became an embarrassment for the Bureau. The film covers his brief rampage across the Midwest states, his romance with Billy Frechette (Michelle Philips), his flamboyant prison break, the supergang that included Pretty Boy Floyd (Steve Kanaly) and the bloodthirsty Baby Face Nelson (Richard Dreyfuss), and his bloody demise outside of a Chicago movie theater in 1934 in the company of “the lady in red” (played by Cloris Leachman). Harry Dean Stanton, Geoffrey Lewis, John P. Ryan, and Frank McRae co-star as members of Dillinger’s gang through the years and Milius gives them all distinctive parts.
Milius was one of the highest paid screenwriters in Hollywood when he made the film for AIP, taking a cut in exchange for the chance to direct, and AIP (famed for drive-in pictures) poured money into this film in hopes of a mainstream breakthrough and a little prestige. Though small by studio standards, it was the biggest budget of any AIP picture to that time and Milius creates a terrific evocation of the era and delivers impressive action scenes, shoot-outs, and car chases on a tight budget.
Arrow’s edition is restored in 2K from the original 35m interpositive and features both Blu-ray and DVD versions of the film with commentary by film historian Stephen Prince and new interviews with producer Lawrence Gordon (10 minutes), director of photography Jules Brenner (12 minutes), and composer Barry De Vorzon (12 minutes), plus an isolated music and effects track and bonus booklet.
I don’t believe that we in the West can truly comprehend the magnitude of Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s courage and accomplishments as a filmmaker since he was arrested in 2010. Prosecuted for “assembly and colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic,” he was officially sentenced to six years in prison and forbidden from making films for twenty years. The government has kept the sentence hanging over his head as a form of intimidation. They must be stymied by an artist who refuses to be intimidated.
Panahi’s response began with the defiantly-titled This is Not a Film (2011), which he shot on a friend’s video camera and his own camera phone and smuggled out of Iran in a thumb drive hidden in a cake (call it a cinematic jail break). Then he proceeded to make two more films, which have played around the world.
A Married Woman (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD), subtitled “Fragments of a film shot in 1964,” is Jean-Luc Godard’s modern portrait of love and sex in the media-saturated sixties with Macha Méril in a role that was clearly meant for Godard’s wife and longtime muse Anna Karina (they were separated at the time) and it channels Godard’s feelings at the time. Like Karina, Méril’s Charlotte is beautiful young woman who is married to an older man and having an affair with an actor. The film opens on a montage where Charlotte is reduced to parts—legs, arms, back, lips, midrift, isolated glimpses of the naked female suggesting those erogenous zones that could not be photographed in a mainstream feature film—caressed by her unidentified lover. It’s shot in creamy cool black-and-white by longtime cinematographer Raoul Coutard and the strikingly handsome formality is both erotic and removed, suggesting a physical intimacy and an emotional disconnection even in even the most intimate scenes of lovemaking and pillow talk.
Charlotte has no close friends (at least that we see), lives in a sleek modern apartment devoid of lived-in warmth, and shrinks from the touch of her pilot husband Pierre (Philippe Leroy). He’s an intellectual with a condescending attitude and she’s more comfortable living in the moment than grappling with history and memory, which becomes all too apparent in their uncomfortable post-dinner dialogue. In between the lovemaking and the conversations, Charlotte discovers she is pregnant. She doesn’t know which man is the father
It is one of Godard’s most visually handsome films, even while it becomes a study in alienation and disconnection. Advertising images, logos, newspaper headlines, and scraps of text fill the film. Lingerie ads are found in every magazine she peruses and loom over her from massive billboards and the sides of buildings as she walks the streets, reducing women to their sexuality. She’s practically a commodity herself (the ideal of woman as seen in the ads) desired by her husband in a marriage disintegrating out of a lack of communication and her lover in an affair from which she is increasingly detached. She’s so alienated from her life that she does not seem to realize how unhappy she is.
A Married Woman has since been overshadowed by Godard’s more overtly political and confrontational films, such as Vivre sa vie and Weekend, and playful genre exercises like A bande a parte and Pierrot le fou, yet at the time it was a cause célèbre in France when the censorship board banned the film until Godard made minor changes and it became one of the most financially successful films of his career. Charlotte is a product of her environment, giving in to her consumerist impulses driven by the cacophony of advertising around her, but his feeling for Charlotte is genuine—few of his movies evince such emotional sympathy—and his criticism of consumer culture is part of her story.
Comes to Blu-ray and DVD in a new restoration from the original negative. It’s sharp and clean and beautiful black-and-white. The new release features a 30-minute interview with star Macha Méril and interviews with contemporary fashion designer and film producer Agnes B. and Godard scholar Antoine de Baecque, all recorded in 2010 for the British Masters of Cinema release, plus original rerelease trailers of the film. The film and the bonus interviews are in French with English subtitles and there is a bonus 8-page booklet with stills from the film.
Manhunter (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray), Michael Mann’s film of Thomas Harris’ novel, is doomed to live in the shadow of the Oscar winningSilence of the Lambs, its sequel in essence if not detail. An undeserved fate for such a sharp, coolly attenuated thriller. William Petersen is haunted but precise as the intent, troubled serial killer profiler whose methods literally lead to madness and is, frankly, a more insidiously scary Hannibal Lektor (as his name is spelled in his original cinematic incarnation) than Anthony Hopkin’s more theatrical take. Mann’s direction is a triumph of austerity and cinematic precision, and he shatters the carefully controlled mood in a blistering climax choreographed and cut to Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” The “Director’s Cut” features an additions 5 minutes of detail. It was remade under the novel’s title, Red Dragon, with Hopkins as Lector, but it doesn’t hold a candle to this. The two-disc set features the original theatrical cut in HD and the Director’s Cut with alternate footage in standard definition and a commentary track by Michael Mann from a previous release. It features a 40-minute interview with Brian Cox, newly-recorded interviews with actors William Petersen, Joan Allen, and Tom Noonan, director of photography Dante Spinotti, and composer Michel Rubin and soundtrack contributors Barry Andrews, Gary Putnam, Rick Shaffer, and Gene Stashuk, and archival interviews with actors William Petersen, Joan Allen, Brian Cox, and Tom Noonan and director of photography Dante Spinotti.
Buster Keaton: The Shorts Collection 1917-1923 (Kino, Blu-ray, DVD) features the short films Keaton made with Fatty Arbuckle, the first director to direct Keaton, and all 19 short comedies made by Keaton between 1920 and 1923. Keaton always cited Arbuckle as his early mentor and you can find the seeds of Keaton’s style in Arbuckle’s assured, meticulously constructed final collaborations. The 19 shorts that Keaton made between 1920 and 1923 are, along with Charlie Chaplin’s Mutual comedies, the peak of creativity, ingenuity and comic grace in American silent comedy shorts. Though he did not take director credit for these films (or, for that matter, many of his feature), he was the creative artist behind every aspect of the production, including the direction. I haven’t seen this set but it features restorations by Lobster Films in Paris, an alternate version of “The Blacksmith” with new material, and alternate endings to two Arbuckle shorts.