Blu-ray/DVD: Takeshi Kitano’s ‘Violent Cop’ and ‘Boiling Point’

Violent Cop (Film Movement, Blu-ray, DVD)
Boiling Point (Film Movement, Blu-ray, DVD)

Takeshi Kitano has a way of making stillness into tension in his crime films.

violentcopIn the opening shot of Violent Cop, Kitano’s 1990 directorial debut, the camera holds on the smiling face of a toothless derelict. Like a pebble dropping into a pond the calm is shattered when a soccer ball knocks his dinner from his hand and a swarm of teens rushes him. The violence erupts out of nowhere as they relentlessly beat and kick him, and as the homeless man lies dead on the ground the feckless kids hop on their bikes and nonchalantly peddle away as if leaving the playground.

Into this cruel, uncaring world strolls Azuma (Takeshi), the police detective who earns the film its title many times over. In his first scene he beats a suspect, one of the teenage boys, in the kid’s own room. Azuma has a reputation for making up his own rules and he maintains a precarious position in the department that looks away as the lone wolf gets results at the price of unbridled police brutality. “Behave yourself for a year while I’m chief,” demands his new superior. He looks on like he hasn’t heard a thing, and before long he’s back to his usual tricks, running down suspects, beating drug dealers, planting evidence, even slugging a pimp standing in the stationhouse hall. Once in a while he cracks a smile, but mostly he wears a deadpan mask. Kitano has an amazing face, calm and bemused, at times almost blank, with big teddy bear eyes and soft features that suggest a gentle nature denied in his every action. Even when the battle becomes personal and the hair-trigger cop goes on his rogue rampage, he maintains that serenity, hardening just a bit, his crook of smile straightening out to a taut determination, perhaps suggesting a touch of bitterness and sadness.

Takeshi Kitano, better known by his nickname “Beat” Takeshi in Japan, rose to fame as a stand-up comic and remains one of Japan’s most popular TV personalities (he’s been known to host or star in as many as four TV shows simultaneously). His background helps explain how he can transform bullying bastards into such likable characters, but it doesn’t account for the fully realized style. Kitano stepped in as director of Violent Cop at the last minute and leapt out of the gate with a powerful, fully developed style. He boldly sketches shots with a seemingly simple directness and stages visceral action scenes with a mesmerizing impassivity: the camera locks down and watches the war zone erupt. And for a director of so-called action films, Takeshi’s cinema is full of static images and long digressions, intermissions from the blood sport. When the inevitable clashes recur, the sudden shots of brutality carry a startling kick to them.

boilingpointTakeshi’s second film, Boiling Point (1990), carries this stylistic idea even farther. The story concerns passive gas station attendant and baseball team benchwarmer Masaki (Masahiko Ono) whose one moment of action is a badly timed attack on a rude customer who just happens to be Yakuza. When the gangsters start taking it out on both his co-workers and his teammates, Masaki sets out to buy a gun and take care of the problem. Takeshi is even more oblique in his presentation of violent action and spends the middle of the film on a strange, rambling subplot involving a disgraced mobster (Takeshi again, this time in a supporting role as a fun loving brute with a penchant for rape) and his mission of revenge. The narrative almost dissolves in abstractions and digressions before the startling conclusion, but it remains a compellingly warped look at the uniquely Japanese culture of violence.

Violent Cop is a classic Japanese gangster tale shaped it into Kitano’s unmistakably warped reflection of cops and criminals culture with startling style and his charismatic presence, and is easily the bigger audience pleaser. Boiling Point isn’t as compelling but is in some ways more challenging and inventive. In these films he completely transformed the genre screenplay, a cops and gangsters tale of corruption and revenge, into a jaundiced, cynical vision.

Both are newly mastered for their respective Blu-ray debuts and new DVD editions. The initial DVD releases from the old Fox Lorber label fifteen years ago were pretty bad: soft, noisy, with interlaced video, and not mastered for widescreen TVs (no 16×9 option). These new discs are remastered in HD and are a marked improvement. They are sharper and feature greater detail and none of the video noise of the DVDs. The color, however, is a little weak and the image still a bit soft, likely due to the source materials.

Violent Cop includes the 20-minute featurette “That Man Is Dangerous: The Birth of Takeshi Kitano” and trailers. Boiling Point also includes the 20-minute featurette “Okinawa Days: Takeshi’s Second Debut” and the trailer. Both are in Japanese with removable subtitles and come with a booklet featuring an essay by Tom Vick.

More releases on DVD and Blu-ray at Cinephiled

Blu-ray: The original ‘Cat People’

catpeopleThe original 1942 Cat People (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) was made on a low budget for RKO’s B-movie unit, the first in an amazing series of B-horror films from producer Val Lewton that transcended its origins. It’s a masterpiece of mood and psychological ambiguity masquerading as a cheap exploitation knock-off. Cheap it is, but Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur create mood not out of what is seen, but what isn’t.

Simone Simon is a kittenish young artist from a rural Siberian village who has moved to urban America but still believes in the legends and superstitions of her homeland. Kent Smith is the generically charming American engineer who meets her in the zoo, where she obsessively sketches the black panther prowling its small cage, and they marry, but her fears prevent her from consummating the marriage. She believes that she comes from a cursed bloodline of the devil-worshippers and that any form of romantic passion will transform her into a jungle cat. That’s not exactly how the film frames it—she won’t even allow a passionate kiss out of her fear—but the film slyly makes the connection between sex (both repressed and unleashed) and horror. Smith sounds more parental than partner as he dismisses her superstitions and fears with a superiority that comes off as insensitive as best and arrogant at worst. The only transformation we see is in the character of the suddenly aggressive Simon when she becomes jealous of her husband’s coworker (Jane Randolph). Everything else is left to suggestion and imagination, using feline snarls and shadows on the wall and ingenious art direction (her apartment is filled with art featuring cats) to hint at transformation. Tom Conway is both slickly sophisticated and a little sleazy as a psychiatrist who becomes too interested in his troubled patient.

Tourneur proves to be a master of suspense and a brilliant director of poetic horror and he and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca created remarkable, evocative images on a limited budget, using light and shadow like a film noir in a dream realm. This is a landmark of psychological horror and one of the most beautiful horror films ever made.

The Blu-ray debut is mastered from a new 2K restoration and it includes some terrific supplements, including the 2008 documentary Val Lewton: Man in the Shadows, directed by Kent Jones and narrated by Martin Scorsese. It traces the career of the cult film producer from the class productions of the David Selznick organization (where he did uncredited work on such scripts as A Tale of Two Cities and Gone With the Wind) to head a unit making low-budget horror films for RKO Studios. He was saddled with bad scripts (which, we’re told, he often rewrote without credit) and crude, exploitative titles (which he could not rewrite), and through evocative imagery, inspired lighting, a creative use of sound and suggestive set pieces he overcame low budgets and minimal resources to make such classics as  I Walked With a Zombie, The Leopard Man, and The Seventh Victim. In the words of Lewton himself (voiced by actor Elisas Koteas): “We make horror films because we have to make them, and we make them for little money, and we fight every minute to make them right.” Writer/director Kent Jones fills the production with rich clips and some inspired interviews (including Japanese horror master Kiyoshi Kurosawa).

Carried over from the 2005 DVD release is commentary by historian Greg Mank with archival audio interview excerpts of Simone Simon. New to the disc is an archival interview with Tourneur from 1979 and a new interview with cinematographer John Bailey, who shot the Paul Schrader remake and studied the film in preparation. The 16-minute video interview is both an appreciation of RKO studio cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (complete with a comparison to the more heralded John Alton) and a revealing discussion of his work on the film. Also includes a fold-out insert with an essay by Geoffrey O’Brien.

More horror Blu-ray and DVD special editions at Cinephiled

Blu-ray: Bill & Ted and World War II

fixedbayonetsSamuel Fuller writes and directs Fixed Bayonets! (Kino Classics, Blu-ray), a Korean War platoon drama set in snowy winter mountains. The small-scale production focuses on a small squad of American soldiers ordered to hold a mountain pass while their division retreats and stars Richard Basehart as Corporal Denno, a soldier who can’t bring himself to fire his rifle at the enemy and bristles at the thought of taking command, and Gene Evans as Sgt. Rock, a grizzled veteran who passes on his wisdom to Denno as senior officers are killed and he becomes the highest-ranking officer. Their only hope is to create the illusion of a much larger force hidden in the mountains and Rock has a few tricks up his sleeve. It’s the story of ordinary men rising to the occasion when the situation demands. Fuller draws on his service as a soldier in Africa and Europe in World War II to create the platoon dynamics (the squad is filled with all sorts of types) and the tactics and battle action. The entire film is shot on soundstages, with sets recreating the snow-covered mountains and forests and the caves in which the soldiers take refuge. It makes for a film small in scope and scale and more suggestive than realistic, and the artificial setting gives the film a kind of abstracted, theatrical quality that eschews sentimentality and melodrama for a blunt portrait men facing death that come suddenly and arbitrarily. James Dean is an uncredited extra but he’s hard to pick out.

Debuts on Blu-ray with commentary featuring film historian Michael Schlesinger with Christa Lang Fuller and Samantha Fuller, the widow and the daughter of Sam Fuller.

enemybelowThe Enemy Below (Kino Classics, Blu-ray), a World War II submarine drama based on the novel of the same name by Commander D. A. Rayner, stars Robert Mitchum as Captain Murrell, the newly-appointed commander of an American Destroyer in the South Atlantic, and German star Curd Jürgens making his American film debut as Commander Von Stolberg, a German submarine commander whose mission is imperiled when the American warship gives chase. Murell is not a career Navy man—he was a merchant seaman before the war—and his unconventional tactics have the crew questioning his experience, but they rally under his command and they rise to the challenge of their first major enemy action. Directed by Dick Powell in a deliberate (at times plodding) manner, the film offers its share war movie action but the focus is on the battle of wits, a kind of chess game played with torpedoes and depth charges, with the two captains attempting to outwit the other by anticipating one another’s movies. David Hedison and Theodore Bikel co-star as the respective second officers. The 1957 feature has enough distance from the war to sidestep patriotic themes to present two officers dedicated to duty with dignity and respect for their respective crews. It won an Academy Award for its special effects and inspired the 1966 Star Trek episode “Balance of Terror,” with the Starship Enterprise recreating the role of the American Destroyer and a Romulan warship playing the submarine.

Debuts on Blu-ray with no supplements.

billtedcollectionBill & Ted’s Most Excellent Collection (Shout Select, Blu-ray) gives the special edition treatment to a pair of cult slacker comedies. In Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter are the high school underachievers and would-be rocker stars who are destined to save the world with their music, or so claims their most excellent fan from the future, a time-travelling sage named Rufus (George Carlin). But first they have to pass high school history and learn to play their instruments. Directed by Stephen Herek, this is spirited doofus comedy sustained by the sweet, slack-jawed performances of Reeves and Winter as dumbfounded idiots who stumble through time to cram for their history final with the help of a time-traveling phone booth that allows them to round up Napoleon, Abraham Lincoln, Genghis Khan, Joan of Arc, Beethoven, and Socrates (among others) and bring them back to suburban California. Their finest moment: a meeting of minds with Socrates (whom they call “Soh-craits”) over a soap-opera proverb. “Like sands through the hour glass, so are the days of our lives.”

Peter Hewitt takes the reigns for the inspired sequel Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey which is even sillier and funnier. Reeves and Winter are killed by evil robot doubles and sent to hell, where they play Twister with the Grim Reaper (a hilariously deadpan William Sadler with an indeterminate accent) and draft him into their band Wyld Stallyns (where the Grim Reaper goes show-biz with a vengeance). Wacky and weird and nonsensical, it’s hardly satire but the sheer invention of their ludicrous journey will have most dudes rolling on the floor. Both are rated PG and each film features two new commentary tracks: one featuring actor Alex Winter and producer Scott Kroopf, the other with writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon

A third disc includes the new documentaries “Time Flies When You’re Having Fun! – A Look Back at a MostExcellent Adventure” (61 minutes) and “Bill and Ted Go to Hell – Revisiting a Bogus Journey” (52 minutes), both featuring new interviews with Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter and co-writer Chris Matheson, among others. Carried over from the earlier DVD edition are the 30-minute “The Most Triumphant Making-of Documentary” (with Winter, writers Matheson and Ed Solomon, directors Stephen Herek and Peter Hewitt, and producer Scott Kroopf), the 20-minute interview featurette “The Original Bill and Ted: In Conversation with Screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon,” plus “Score! An Interview with Guitarist Steve Vai,” “Hysterical Personages: A History Lesson” (on the historical characters on Excellent Adventure), “The Linguistic Stylings of Bill & Ted” (on their particular slang), and an air guitar tutorial by Bjorn Turoq and the Rockness.

captive1915The Captive (1915) (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) – Cecil B. DeMille helped established Hollywood as the center of American filmmaking in the 1910s and long before he made his reputation with a series of salacious comedies and a selection of grandly-mounted Biblical epics, he was cranking out a dozen films a year. This is one of those films, a short feature (running under an hour) that he produced and directed in 1915 from a play he wrote with his longtime collaborator Jeanie Macpherson.

Set in Montenegro during the Baltic Wars, it features early silent movie superstar Blanche Sweet as a Balkan farm girl left to tend the family farm and raise her kid brother when her elder brother is killed in battle against the Turks. House Peters is a Turkish POW who is assigned to work her farm and defends her from invading Turkish soldiers. The simplistic drama recreates the Balkin setting in California and DeMille directs in a straightforward manner that essentially illustrates the intertitles. Blanche Sweet is charming as the plucky farm girl who teaches her captive to do laundry and plow a field and House is handsome, chivalrous, and gentlemanly, the all-American boy as Turkish aristocrat in a fez that looks as authentic as a Shriner’s cap. File it under historical curiosity, an example of the unsophisticated storytelling that was old-fashioned within a year thanks to the impact of D.W. Griffith and by DeMille’s own rapid evolution as a filmmaker.

Though the packaging claims it was thought lost, it was actually discovered in the Paramount Vault in 1970 and was subsequently preserved by the Library of Congress. Still, it’s never been on home video in any form so this is the first chance most audiences have to see the film. No supplements.

Blu-ray: Ghostbusters 2016

ghostbustersGhostbusters: Answer the Call (Sony, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, 4K Ultra HD, DVD), originally released as simply Ghostbusters (2016), is the reboot / remake / revival of the 1984 frat boy comedy starring Bill Murray as a sardonic con man in academia turned nuclear powered paranormal investigator and the most controversial film of the year, at least if you measure such things by Facebook rants and Twitter burns from arrested adolescents. Why? Because it stars four women in the roles originally played by four men. Which is apparently is blasphemy in the fanatical fringe of the church of popular culture.

It’s a hard case to make when you actually see the film, a playful romp through a haunted New York City by four extremely funny women improvising banter through a half-baked script. Falling somewhere between remake and reinvention, it takes the basic premise, tosses in a new bad guy, adds lots of CGI phantoms and the usual apocalyptic assault on NYC, and… well, that’s pretty it. Which is enjoyable enough as these things go but a little disappointing from a film that reunites filmmaker Paul Feig with collaborators Kristen Wiig (of Bridesmaids) and Melissa McCarthy (The Heat and Spy), tag-team leads who generously share the laughs in a genuine ensemble comedy. Wiig is a physicist whose tenure track is derailed when her buried ghost-obsessed past comes back to haunt her thanks to her former high school BFF McCarthy, still struggling to give her paranormal research an academic stamp of approval. Kate McKinnon is the team’s secret weapon, a maverick nuclear engineer who whips up proton packs, atomic-powered ghost traps, and other cool inventions. She’s not so much a mad scientist as a gleeful eccentric with a manic energy that comes out in sideways glances, wicked grins, and spontaneous moves that suggests she’s dancing to her own private soundtrack. Completing the team is Leslie Jones as a subway worker and amateur New York historian who provides the blue collar practicality.

There are plenty of cameos from the original film, from cast members Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Annie Potts, Ernie Hudson, and Sigourney Weaver to the grinning green Slimer and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, and precious few surprises. But there is one unexpected delight: Chris Hemsworth, taking a break from the regal authority of Thor, plays their bubble-headed hunk of a receptionist (aka “stripogram Clark Kent”) with the glassy-eyed abandon of a born improv comic. The big special effects set pieces lack the whimsical invention and twisted absurdity of the original film and the running jokes are tired before they hit their stride but these women have chemistry and quickly build a compelling sense of solidarity. They are a fun group to spend time with. If only they had a movie worthy of their comic potential.

The film has been rebranded Ghostbusters: Answer the Call for home video but it’s the same film, at least in the PG-13 theatrical version. An extended version with over 15 minutes of additional and extended scenes is also available on both VOD and disc.

The disc features the IMAX presentation, with the film letterboxed in the 2.39:1 widescreen format with some scenes reverting to IMAX full frame and special effects spilling out of the frame and into the black bars.

On Blu-ray and DVD with two commentary tracks (one from director Paul Feig and co-writer Katie Dippold, the other featuring editor Brent White, producer Jessie Henderson, production designer Jeff Sage, visual effects supervisor Pete Travers, and special effects supervisor Mark Hawker), the featurettes “Meet the Team,” “Visual Effects: 30 Years Later,” and “Slime Time,” and “Jokes a Plenty: Free For All,” and a collection of alternate improvisational takes (what was called “Line-o-rama” in Judd Apatow disc releases).

The Blu-ray editions add two additional featurettes (including a spotlight on Chris Hemsworth’s improvisations as Kevin), collections of deleted scenes and extended and alternate scenes, and the obligatory gag reel, plus an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film (which also includes extended and alternate scenes).

Ghostbusters [DVD]
Ghostbusters [Blu-ray]
Ghostbusters [4K UHD/3D Blu-ray]

More new releases on Blu-ray and DVD on Cinephiled

Blu-ray: X-Men Apocalypse

xmenapocX-Men Apocalypse (Fox, Blu-ray, 4K HD, DVD, VOD), the sixth in the official X-Men big screen franchise (the ninth if you count the Wolverine and Deadpool spin-offs) and the third film in the prequel trilogy, is cut to fit into the big screen mythos as carved out of the source comics by director Bryan Singer. He directed the first two films in the series and now, following his time travel-based X-Men: Days of Future Past, he wraps the series with another end-of-the-world battle. The villain this time is an ancient mutant, a big blue baddie from ancient Egypt played by Oscar Isaac. He fancies himself a god and, after being roused from a nearly 6,000 year hibernation, decides to raze civilization and start over with the survivors. You know, Darwinism as a global reset.

We jump from his backstory, an extended prologue that looks like a CGI version of an Egyptian epic, to 1983. It’s ten years after the end of Days of Future Past and we begin again introducing and/or reintroducing what seems like dozens of characters destined to line up behind either Apocalypse, who goes in a recruiting drive for his Four Horsemen, or Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), the telepath who runs the covert mutant academy called the School for Gifted Children and believes that man and mutant can co-exist peacefully. Frenemy and future nemesis Erik Lehnsherr, aka Magneto (Michael Fassbender), sides with Apocalypse (in every sense of the term) after his experiment with co-existence ends with, once again, his family killed in front of his eyes.

His is merely the most dramatic of tragic pasts and traumatic events that define the dramatis personae, which include the young versions of future X-Men leaders Jean Grey (Sophie Turner of Game of Thrones, bringing conviction to a role that largely calls upon her to look tortured and intense while projecting psychic powers) and Scott Summers, aka Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), the man with the laser eyes. There are also young versions of Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Storm (Alexandra Shipp), new characters like Psylocke (Olivia Munn) and Angel (Ben Hardy; we’ll pretend that The Last Stand isn’t part of the X-legacy), and best of all a return visit from Quicksilver (Evan Peters). Peters brings a playfulness to the role and contributes the wittiest and most enjoyable action scene in the film, a supersonic rescue mission speeding through a slow-motion explosion. And it’s surely no secret anymore that Hugh Jackman makes a startling cameo as Wolverine in a scene that plugs right in to his own elaborate history.

It’s overloaded, to say the least, but if it gets a little clumsy at times and leaves potentially fascinating characters neglected (Storm and Psylocke are particularly underserved), it’s still kind of impressive how much information screenwriter Simon Kinberg (who plotted the original story with Singer and others) crams in with the spectacle of the 143-minute film. Singer’s direction brings out character beats and suggests relationships in the heat of action and he adds touches of humor and humanity throughout, which helps add texture to the increasingly familiar spectacle of CGI-assisted battleground demolition and battles of superpowered figures.

In this sea of cool costumes, colorful powers, and epic destruction, Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence (as Mystique / Raven, the face of mutant liberation on a one-woman campaign to save her people from human oppression and exploitation) bring some much-needed gravitas and grounding. They suggest strength and power even before the digital effects and stuntwork are unleashed. Isaac, buried under enough make-up to make him unrecognizable, doesn’t fare so well but he makes a credible villain by virtue of his commitment to his stony confidence and absolute belief in his divine right.

Like the Avengers movies, the X-Men films don’t really work outside of the franchise—there’s too much character history woven through story for it to stand alone—and the visual overload of so many characters buzzing through the chaos is better suited to the big screen than the home screen. But as the final piece in the self-contained screen mythology of the X-Men, it’s quite satisfying, even with the timeline adjustments (time travel twists are so forgiving!). It surely won’t be the last X-Men film but it’s likely the last to feature star players Lawrence, Fassbender, and McAvoy. Expect the next generation of young heroes introduced here to lead the next chapters.

Rated PG-13

On Blu-ray and DVD, with filmmaker commentary, a gag reel, and a gallery of stills. Exclusive to the Blu-ray is the hour-long documentary “X-Men: Apocalypse Unearthed,” deleted and extended scenes, and a wrap party video.

X-Men: Apocalypse [DVD]
X-Men: Apocalypse [Blu-ray]
X-men: Apocalypse [Blu-ray 3D]

More new releases on Blu-ray and DVD on Cinephiled

Blu-ray/DVD: Olive Signature editions of ‘Johnny Guitar’ and ‘High Noon’

johnnyguitarJohnny Guitar: Olive Signature (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) – Joan Crawford’s Vienna is the most masculine of women western heroes. A former saloon girl who earned her way to owning her own gambling house, she’s a mature woman with a history and she’s not ashamed of what she did to carve out her claim for a future.

Directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge as frontier entrepreneurs in a war of wills, the 1954 Johnny Guitar is one of the most unusual westerns of its era, or any era for that matter. It’s dense with psychological thickets and political reverberations (including a not-so-veiled allegory for the McCarthy witch-hunts in Hollywood), designed with color both expressive and explosive, and directed with the grace of a symphony and the drama of an opera.

Sterling Hayden plays the title character, a lanky, affable cowboy who wanders into Vienna’s saloon in the opening minutes and serves as witness to the dramas bubbling up in this frontier community in the hills. But his acts of heroism aside, he’s the equivalent of the stalwart girlfriend watching the showdown between Vienna and the Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge). She’s the town banker and moral arbiter whose power is threatened by Vienna (her saloon is built on the site of the railway line) and whose shameful desire for a bad boy miner (Scott Brady) flares up into vengeance against Crawford, the object of his desire.

The film’s dynamic first act occurs almost entirely within the confines of the gaming room of her saloon, with characters arriving, engaging, and exiting in dramatically timely fashion, but the effect is anything but stagebound or theatrical. Ray directs the rise and fall of the drama and the interplay and evolution of stories like a symphony, a sustained piece with themes and movements that builds to the climactic kiss between Vienna and Johnny and one of the greatest lyrics ever spoken in a western: “Lie to me. Tell me you love me.”

This is a clash of wills that erupts in fire and destruction with the two players taking on roles out of a modern myth. Emma, leading a lynch mob while still in a black mourning dress, confronts Vienna, clad in a soft, white, elegant gown while playing the saloon’s piano: the dark, angry fairy tale witch taking on the innocent heroine, though Vienna is anything but innocent. And when Vienna sets the place on fire and practically dances in triumph, a black figure against the bright flames, she’s the wicked witch incarnate, but symbolism aside, the scene burns deep and hot with rage and revenge unleashed.

Jean-Luc Godard once made the claim that “Nicholas Ray is cinema.” Johnny Guitar is evidence to support his case.

Joan Crawford as Vienna in 'Johnny Guitar'
Joan Crawford as Vienna in ‘Johnny Guitar’

Olive gave the film its DVD and Blu-ray debut a few years ago. Now it gets the deluxe treatment in a new 4K restoration and it looks amazing. The saturation of the color (and this is a film where the reds and yellows of the costumes explode from the screen) is intense and the image has magnificent a sharpness and clarity. And the film finally is released in its original aspect ratio.

New to this edition is commentary by film critic and scholar Geoff Andrew, the featurettes “Johnny Guitar: A Western Like No Other” (18 minutes) and “Johnny Guitar: A Feminist Western?” (15 minutes) with critics Miriam Bale, Kent Jones, Joe McElhaney, and B. Ruby Rich, “Tell Us Was She One of You: The Hollywood Blacklist and Johnny Guitar” with historian Larry Ceplair and blacklisted screenwriter Walter Bernstein (11 minutes), “Free Republic: Herbert J. Yates and the Story of Republic Pictures” with archivist Marc Wanamaker (6 minutes), and ” My Friend, the American Friend” with Tom Farrell and Chris Sievernich discussing Nicholas Ray (12 minutes). Carried over from the previous release is a short video introduction by Martin Scorsese, which was recorded for the film’s VHS release last century. The accompanying booklet features an essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum.

highnoonHigh Noon: Olive Signature (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) – One of the westerns considered part of the canon of American greats, High Noon (1955) has been called an old-fashioned celebration of courage and responsibility in the face of impossible odds, an ironic dissection of the western myth, and a blast of moral outrage at the silence and passivity of American citizens. Howard Hawks claimed this film inspired him to make Rio Bravo, because he couldn’t fathom a sheriff who went around begging for help. There’s so much loaded weight attached to the film (from famously right-wing lead Gary Cooper to famously liberal screenwriter Carl Foreman, who was blacklisted by Hollywood) that it can overwhelm what is essentially a lean, dusty western classic set to the real time of a ticking clock, counting down the minutes until a gang of killers ride in looking for revenge on Sheriff Cooper.

Grace Kelly plays Cooper’s Quaker bride, anxious for him to set aside all thoughts of violence on this their wedding day, and Thomas Mitchell, Lloyd Bridges, Otto Kruger, Lon Chaney, Henry Morgan, Lee Van Cleef, and Katy Jurardo co-star. Fred Zinneman directs for producer Stanley Kramer, and Tex Ritter sings the legendary theme song: “Do not forsake me, oh my darling.”

New to this edition are the featurettes “A Ticking Clock” with film editor Mark Goldblatt (6 minutes), “A Stanley Kramer Production” with filmmaker and film historian Michael Schlesinger (14 minutes), “Imitation of Life: The Blacklist History of High Noon” with historian Larry Ceplair and blacklisted screenwriter Walter Bernstein (10 minutes), and he visual essay “Oscars and Ulcers: The Production History of High Noon” narrated by Anton Yelchin (12 minutes). The accompanying booklet features an essay by Nick James.

More DVD and Blu-ray releases at Cinephiled

Blu-ray/DVD: ‘The Dekalog’ from Criterion

dekalogThe Dekalog (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)

Krzysztof Kieslowski is best known for his lush, plush art-house Three Colors trilogy, a celebration of grand emotions from beautiful people, but the The Dekalog (1989), an ambitions ten-part project made for Polish TV, is arguably his masterwork: a delicate, intimate epic of tragedy and triumph among the emotionally battered proletariat of a dreary brutalist apartment complex in Warsaw. The ten stories inspired by the Ten Commandments and loosely connected by place and time are not Sunday School fables illustrating simplistic moral lessons—the connections to the individual Commandments are not always obvious—but powerful, profound stories of love and loss, faith and fear. Each hour long drama, which Kieslowski wrote with Krzysztof Piesiewicz, stands on its own as a fully conceived film

Dekalog: One explores the awakening of a young prodigy’s spiritual curiosity as he explores a new computer and starts asking the hard questions of life from his rationalist father and religious aunt. Kieslowski paints a loving, nurturing family portrait in the episode, only to shatter the peace with tragedy. In Dekalog: Two a married woman pregnant by her lover is tortured by a life-shattering decision. As her husband lays dying in the hospital, she vows to abort the child to protect her marriage if he lives, and his doctor realizes his prognosis will decide the life or death of an unborn child. These are among the most moving of Kieslowski’s tales and they form a beautiful complementary pair as they address issues of faith and spirituality more directly than any of the following episodes. Haunting images (wax drips onto a portrait of the Madonna like tears running down her cheek in Dekalog: One) express the emotions locked under the hard faces of scarred characters, until the feelings well up in profound conclusions that resonate with the passion and loss inherent in the magic of everyday life.

The next two make an even more elusive, ethereal pair. Dekalog: Three is a kind of road trip to the heart as a woman tracks down her former lover, now a married family man with a child, and pleads with him to help her find her missing husband on Christmas Eve. In Dekalog: Four the tender emotional balance between a widowed father and his grown daughter is upended when she opens a letter from her deceased mother and learns a secret that she always suspected. Curiously both hinge on lies which unbalance and upset established relationships and confessions which bring things back to a new course, stable but forever changed. These intimate stories are tender, conversation laden cameos, lovely little miniatures nestled among the more ambitious episodes of the series. Though modest in scope, Kieslowski invests each of these stories with rich emotional life as he explores the loneliness of a single woman during the holidays, a loving father’s fear of abandonment, and the confused feelings of a young adult. His sympathy buoys each resolution with a warm understanding.

The faith of a young lawyer is shaken in Dekalog: Five when he defends a man for the violent murder of a taxi-driver. It’s a provocative attempt to reconcile the gap between murder and state sanctioned execution and Kieslowski pulls no punches on either side: the murder scene is excruciating in its relentless intensity. But as he looks through the eyes of the troubled attorney who suffers a crisis in faith, the film turns inward and becomes contemplative and personal. This is no anti-Capital Punishment screed but an examination of the meaning of justice itself. Dekalog: Six is a touching and troubling story of a young, emotionally unstable postal worker who becomes obsessed with a promiscuous older woman. He steals her mail and peeps through her apartment window with a telescope, but when she returns the gaze the one way relationship becomes much more complicated. Kieslowski gets under the skin of both characters as she confronts the boy and shames him with loveless sex, and they come out the other end of the tale as humbled humans who take a harder look at themselves and a sympathetic second look each other. Both were expanded into feature-length films and released to theaters (also included in this set) but these hour-long versions stand on their own as the most potent episodes of the series.

In Dekalog: Seven Kieslowski turns “Thou shalt not steal” into the devastating story of the theft of a mother’s love and the emotional wounds left in its wake. Majka, a willowy young woman devastated by sadness, kidnaps her young sister Ania to set things straight in her charade of a life. The girl is in fact her daughter, raised by Majka’s mother Ewa to avoid scandal, but Ewa has jealously hoarded the affection of the little one, walling the real mother off from her daughter’s love. Kieslowski has never shied from painting the brutish colors of human nature, but echoing beneath the hurt and anger and selfishness of the blindly selfish Ewa and vindictive Majka is a desperate cry for love and affection. Another contentious relationship is explored in Dekalog: Eight, the story of a holocaust survivor who confronts the woman (now a renowned professor of ethics) who refused her shelter when she was young Jewish girl hiding from the Nazis in 1943 Poland. The potentially explosive issue is dealt with in direct terms, but it’s the undercurrent of faith questioned and regained that gives the episode it’s resonant beauty.

Potential shouting matches and melodramatic confrontations are quietly transformed into aching moments of emotional nakedness and painful honesty in Dekalog: Nine, a study in obsession. An impotent surgeon encourages his wife to take a lover but almost immediately becomes consumed with jealousy and suspicion, secretly monitoring her calls and shadowing her movements until he becomes paralyzed with inaction while spying on her with her callow young lover. The story of mature love seemingly doomed by noble sacrifices and protective lies and complicated by crossed signals and missed connections is capped with beautifully hushed conclusion. Dekalog: Ten is the closest Kieslowski comes to lighthearted comedy: The episode opens with a punk singer belting out a song poking fun at the Ten Commandments. The vocalist (Zbigniew Zamachowski, who Kieslowski later cast as the hapless street musician hero of White) reunites with his conservative brother over the death of their father when they discover that he’s left them a priceless stamp collection. The plot turns on a con game but Kieslowski centers the film on the brothers’ emotional journey through sacrifice, suspicion, and loss until, when all looks bleakest, they find within themselves a sense of hope and family connection. Kieslowski leaves us with humor and ends the series on a quiet, modest, lovely grace note endowed with hope.

Dekalog: Eight becomes a kind of crossroads that directly touches on other episodes of the series—an ethical problem posed in the professor’s university class is taken from Dekalog: Two and a neighboring stamp collector is the absent father buried at the opening of Dekalog: Ten—but it’s only the most obvious of the connection. Characters pass through other stories, sometimes only briefly, and themes reverberate through the series. Kieslowski explores ordinary people flailing through inner torments, hard decisions, and shattering revelations in close-up, grounding his stories in the faces of his deeply human characters. It’s ultimately a personal spiritual investigation into the soul of man and that hasn’t any answers, except perhaps a plea for compassion and understanding.

The set presents the new 4K digital restoration, mastered from the original 35mm camera negatives, presented in a theatrical revival earlier this year. It also includes A Short Film About Killing (1988) and A Short Film About Love (1988), the feature-length version of episodes Five and Six. More than simply expanded editions, they reconsider the stories with not just additional footage, but in some cases alternate footage.

Also includes a 30-minute featurette on the visual rhyming through the series by film studies professor Annette Insdorf, a gallery of archival interviews with director Krzysztof Kieślowski, and new and archival interviews with Dekalog cast and crew, including co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz, thirteen actors, three cinematographers, editor Ewa Smal, and Kieślowski’s confidante Hanna Krall, plus a booklet featuring an essay and film analyses by film scholar Paul Coates and excerpted reprints from Kieślowski on Kieślowski.

Blu-ray/DVD: The Neon Demon

neondemonThe 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.”

More new releases on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

Videophiled: Pioneers of African-American Cinema

pioneersafricanamPioneers 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.

Hell-Bound Train
Hell-Bound Train

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.

Read J. Hoberman’s review in the New York Times

Blu-ray: Orson Welles’ ‘Chimes at Midnight’ and ‘The Immortal Story’ debut on Criterion

chimesmidChimes 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.

immortalThe 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.

More new releases on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

Blu-ray: A Touch of Zen

TouchZenA 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.

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Blu-ray: ‘Batman v Superman’ – Dawn of the DCU

BatmanvSuperThe 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 Blu-ray also features bonus DVD and Ultraviolet Digital HD copies copy of the film (theatrical version only).
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice [DVD]
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice [Ultimate Edition Blu-ray + Theatrical Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD UltraViolet Combo Pack]
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice [Ultimate Edition Blu-ray + Theatrical Blu-ray + 3D-Blu-Ray + UltraViolet Combo Pack]
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice [4K Ultra HD]

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