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.

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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.

More cult and classic releases on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

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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Blu-ray: ‘Dillinger’ by Milius

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.

DillingerDillinger (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.

More classics on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

Blu-ray: Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘A Married Woman’

marriedwomanBDA 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.

A Married Woman [DVD]
A Married Woman [Blu-ray]

Also new and notable:ManhunterMann

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.

BusterKeatonCompleteBDBuster 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.

More new releases on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

Blu-ray: ‘Woman on the Run’ and ‘Too Late for Tears’ restored

The Film Noir Foundation, creators of the San Francisco-based Noir City Film Festival and its companion travelling version, expanded its purpose a few years ago to raise money to restore orphaned films, those independent productions made outside the studio system in partnerships formed in some cases to make a single film. Two of their most recent restorations have come to disc in lovely sets: the superb Woman on the Run (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) with Ann Sheridan and the fascinating Too Late for Tears (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) with Lizabeth Scott.

toolateIn Too Late for Tears (1949), Lizabeth Scott plays one of the most ruthless heroines in film noir in, a status-conscious middle-class wife who will do anything to keep her hands on a suitcase of cash that lands in her lap by accident. Arthur Kennedy is her husband who wants to take it to the police but is tempted enough to hold onto it for a night or two (just to think over the ramifications, you know) and Dan Duryea is a mercenary crook who comes looking for the cash (payment in a blackmail scheme) and ends up her wary partner. Scott has played her share of heroines and villains both but here she’s pure avarice and cold-blooded greed. She stares at the money piled on the bed with wolfish hunger and childish ecstasy and she’s ready to murder to keep it. The money doesn’t corrupt her, it merely unleashes her suppressed greed. She’s nervous and perhaps even reluctant to carry out the first—fate steps in with a nudge when she hesitates—but she follows through without a regret and doesn’t even flinch the second time. Scott may be a poor man’s Bacall but is no man’s fool. Duryea is in fine form as a weasel of an opportunist, sneering his dialogue in the early scenes and then slipping into disgust and drink as Scott slowly takes control of the partnership. In a genre defined by corrupt, ruthless, and conniving characters, this film features two of the most reprehensible and cold-blooded. Don DeFore is the old “army buddy” who hides his own secrets.

The budget went to the high-caliber stars, resulting in a somewhat starved production. The apartment sets are utterly bland and impersonal, almost generic, and Byron Haksin’s direction is perfunctory, as if rushed. The location shooting, however, is effective: the lonely roads in the canyons, the lake and the boat rental, the train station baggage check, and a few city street scenes. It’s a minor noir in the scheme of things but it has some major pleasure, not least of which are Scott’s utterly rapacious turn and Duryea as a sleaze who is appalled at depths of her amorality.

The film was produced independently of the Hollywood studios and fell into the public domain years ago, which meant that no one was looking after the film’s elements but plenty of labels putting out inferior versions from whatever battered TV print or video copy they could get their hands on. The Film Noir Foundation produced this restoration with UCLA Film and Television Archive, with support from the Hollywood Foreign Press, from an archival 35mm re-release print and a complete 16mm print. It shows minor wear and light scratches but is otherwise undamaged and a massive improvement over previous editions, with a solid, crisp image with strong (maybe too strong) contrasts and vivid detail. This is the definitive edition by a huge margin.

The set features both Blu-ray and DVD editions of the film, both with commentary by film noir historian Alan K. Rode (who gives us the histories of the players along with production details and critical observations), the 16-minute “Chance of a Lifetime: The Making of Too Late for Tears” with film noir historians Rode and Eddie Muller and film critics Kim Morgan and Julie Kirgo, and the shorter “A Wild Ride: Restoring Woman on the Run” with Muller and film archivist Scott McQueen, plus a booklet with stills, artwork, and an essay by Eddie Muller.

WomanRunWoman on the Run (1950) is a much more compelling—and far more deftly directed—film even with its somewhat misleading title. Eleanor Johnson (Ann Sheridan) isn’t really on the run. It’s her estranged husband Frank (Ross Elliott) who has gone missing after witnessing a gangland killing. The killer has already taken a shot at him and the police want him to testify. He’s dubious of promises to keep him safe and Eleanor is on Frank’s side. Their marriage has become mere formality—they lead separate lives connected only by a shared address and a pet dog—and she answers the cops’ questions with acerbic remarks, but she’s the first to tip him off that the cops are looking for him. She slips the police surveillance easy enough but dogged, fast-talking reporter Danny Leggett (Dennis O’Keefe), a newspaperman with a mercenary streak and a snappy patter that could have come from the lively newspaper pictures of the early 1930s, is more resourceful. Danny joins her search for Frank across San Francisco, helping her track him down in return for the exclusive story.

“Frank’s done nothing wrong,” Eleanor argues, to which the veteran inspector replies, “Oh yes he has. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time.” That’s a classic film noir situation, the wrong man targeted by bad luck, but it’s just the starting point for the real story. Sheridan dishes out sardonic cracks with deadpan snap and O’Keefe matches her with snappy repartee delivered with an all-American grin as they go searching Frank’s old haunts. But Eleanor softens along the journey as she discovers new dimensions of her estranged husband on her odyssey. He’s simply a failed artist now doing window displays in a San Francisco department store as far as she’s concerned but as she turns detective she sees that he’s simply transformed his art into displays (many of which feature her likeness) and learns that he has a deadly medical condition, which he’s kept secret from her. The tart snap and cynical edge gives way to concern as her feelings are rekindled. In a genre known for predatory relationships, one-sided love affairs, and sexual obsession, this is the rare film noir that opens in indifference and resentment and becomes a story of rediscovery and renewal. Eleanor transforms from hard-bitten cynic to revived romantic as she falls in love with her husband all over again.

Director Foster was a B-movie veteran who worked briefly with Orson Welles and it appears to have inspired him. delivers a film filled with unexpected dashes of character (the heavy accents of the dancers at a Chinese restaurant give way to all-American voices when the rubes are gone and they’re among friends) and marvelous style and atmosphere. Along with the usual picture postcard views, he takes the viewer through parts of San Francisco the aren’t part of the tourist checklist. He makes excellent use of location shooting, from the dynamic murder scene from the bottom of a plunging set of stone steps through the climax on the waterfront amusement park. The low angles and tilted framing give the shots a dramatic punch, but also suggests a world off balance, an appropriate state of affairs for characters uprooted from their familiar lives. The rollercoaster sequence is particularly effective, a marvelous metaphor for the panic, helplessness, and emotional turmoil of the rider trapped on the ride while a murder is underway.

The restoration is terrific. It’s not pristine, mind you, as the original negative was gone and the only complete original print destroyed in a fire a few years ago, but the British internegative (a copy of the original negative that was used to strike prints in Britain) was preserved by the BFI, who loaned it to UCLA for this restoration. The day scenes have a documentary immediacy, the night scenes are plunged in shadow, and all of it is crisp and clean with excellent contrasts.

Features both Blu-ray and DVD editions of the film, with commentary by Film Noir Foundation founder Eddie Muller (informative as always; Muller has long been a champion of the film and its interesting use of San Francisco locations), the 20-minute featurette “Love is a Rollercoaster: Woman on the Run Revisited” with Muller and film noir historian Alan K. Rode and film critics Kim Morgan and Julie Kirgo, the 5-minute “A Wild Ride: Restoring Woman on the Run” with Muller and film archivist Scott McQueen, the 7-minute video tour “Woman on the Run Locations Then and Now” with Brian Hollins (aka City Sleuth), and a 10-minute featurettes on the Noir City Film Festival, plus a booklet with stills, artwork, and an essay by Eddie Muller.

Blu-ray / DVD: ‘Deadpool’ and ‘The Witch’

DeadpoolBDDeadpool (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD, 4K UltraHD, VOD) – Irreverent, outrageous, and strewn with self-aware commentary and dark humor, Deadpool is the polar opposite of the self-serious Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It is raunchy and gory and features a hero with no compunctions about killing the henchmen sent after him. In fact, he relishes it.

It’s based on a Marvel comics character but it’s not a Marvel movie per se. Technically an offshoot of the X-Menmovies developed by 20th Century Fox, it both embraces and spoofs the Marvel movie formula. The opening faux credits set the whole tone, trashing the entire superhero industry and the film’s own star, Ryan Reynolds. His first superhero outing, Green Lantern, was one of the biggest disasters of the genre. Deadpool isn’t about to let him live it down and Reynolds plays along with it, making him perfect casting. He has the attitude necessary to pull off the balance of self-aware joking, sardonic commentary, and tormented anti-hero hiding behind humor.

He plays Special Forces veteran turned soldier-for-hire Wade Wilson, a cynic who emerges from a sadistic experiment with an indestructible body, a face like ground beef, and a penchant for turning to the camera to crack jokes about the absurdity of it all. By which I mean everything from the creatively violent mayhem of the moment to the superhero genre as a whole. He’s out for revenge against the mad scientist (Ed Skrein in generic British baddie mode) who made the transformation as painful as possible and then tried to leash him as an attack dog for an international assassination business. Not so successful in the last part. Wade escapes, takes the name Deadpool, dons a red spandex costume that covers him from head to toe, and tracks down his sweetie (Morena Baccarin), a hard-bitten hooker with whom he found true love and great sex. A lot of sex. Among the surprises of this R-rated superhero lark is its sex-positive attitude toward adult play and kinky games between consenting adults.

The rest is an unconventional treatment of a conventional superhero story. Allies will be recruited (auxiliary X-Men players Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead, a true believer and a sneering teenager, respectively), comic relief applied (T.J. Miller), and battles engaged, which will lay waste to property and extras with tremendous outlays of CGI. No end of the world stuff here, which is a little refreshing in the increasingly epic showdowns in bigger and bigger movies. It doesn’t reinvent the genre but it has fun with it, delivering the spectacle that fans appreciate while winking at them, as if we are all in on the joke. And it turns out we are. Deadpool came in at under $60 million, a bargain in the age of superhero bloat, and may outgrossBatman v Superman, which came in at more than four times the budget and even more in worldwide promotion. Not too bad for a hero unknown outside of die-hard comic book collectors, a first time director (Tim Miller came out of music videos and commercials), the star of one of the biggest comic book movie flops in the rocky history of the genre, and an R rating for blood, sex, and bad attitude.

Fox knows that this is going to be one of its biggest sellers of the year on disc and they load up the Blu-ray accordingly, beginning with not one but two commentary tracks, one by Ryan Reynolds with screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, the other by director Tim Miller and Deadpool co-creator Rob Liefeld. “From Comics to Screen… to Screen” is a collection of five production featurettes that runs 80 minutes all together and “Deadpool’s Fun Sack” a collection of short, jokey promotional videos running about 24 minutes. There are also and extended scenes, galleries of art and storyboards, and bonus DVD and Ultraviolet HD copies of the film.

The DVD extras are limited to “Deadpool’s Fun Sack” and a gag reel.
Deadpool [DVD-
Deadpool [Blu-ray]

WitchBDThe Witch (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), subtitled “A New England Folktale,” is a primal horror film rooted in fear and superstition, and there is plenty of both in early 17thcentury New England, where a devoted British Puritan family has started a new life. Adding to the general hardship of carving a new colony out of a frontier of deep forests an ocean away from their urban birthplace, this family is banished from the protected village. The religious devotion of pious father William (Ralph Ineson) is so absolute that he challenges the elders and refuses to repent. The irony that this sect left England to escape religious persecution is lost on them all, but then it’s not really what the film is about.

“We will conquer this wilderness, it will not consume us,” William proclaims as they march away from the last outpost of European civilization in their world. He is pious, yes, but he’s also devoted to his family, protective and even loving in his emotionally restrained way, and he creates a home at the edge of a forest that seems to grow darker and more ominous with each calamity. The crops don’t just fail, they turn black as if cursed. The adorable goats turn aggressive and their bleets and baas begin to sound ominous. And an infant disappears in an innocent game of peekaboo played by apple-cheeked Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the family’s eldest daughter. It’s simply gone with no natural explanation, at least not as experienced through their perspective. The isolation takes its toll on the homesick mother (Kate Dickie), who becomes increasingly drawn and disconnected as she pines for her English life, and failing crops and dying livestock send Father and son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) deeper and deeper into the forest for food. It turns a tough, trying existence into the trials of Job as reimagined as a horror movie.

Thomasin is coming of age, as they say, becoming a young woman and given more family responsibility without accompanying respect. Sexuality is very much a presence here, though it is never talked about or acted upon, which makes even thinking about it something shameful to be repressed. Clearly these kids won’t be getting the sex talk.

Filmmaker Robert Eggers drew upon journals and other records of the era for his screenplay, which gives the archaic language a quality both alien and organic, and painstaking recreates the texture of their world, from the heavy, rough clothing to the Spartan home. He shoots with natural light, which makes the shadowy interiors of the rough-hewn cabin of a home gloomy even in daylight and reduced to pools of visibility at night with only candles and lamps to light the rooms. Set against that realism are visions of a forest witch preying upon the vulnerable family (real or simply the nightmares of a family clutching for explanations?) and the creepy games of the young children, who taunt Thomason with nursery rhyme curses and name the goat Black William and proclaim it a demon. In a world where the devil is every bit as real as God, it gets under the skin of the characters. And the audience too.

The horrors are very real, just not necessarily literal, and the film suffered a backlash from a contingency of horror fans reacting to rave reviews with complaints that it wasn’t scary. And if you’re looking for more traditional shocks or scares, this isn’t going to deliver. This is more ambiguous and all the more compelling for it. It’s not easily dismissed after the credits roll. It’s dark and spooky and suggestive and at times genuinely terrifying, and it leaves you wondering just how much belief guides our perceptions.

Blu-ray and DVD with commentary by director Robert Eggers, the eight-minute featurette “The Witch: A Primal Folktale, and a panel Q&A on the Salem Witch trials featuring Eggers and actress Anya Taylor-Joy. The Blu-ray also features a bonus Ultraviolent Digital HD copy of the film.
The Witch [DVD + Digital]
The Witch [Blu-ray + Digital HD]

More new releases at Cinephiled

Blu-ray/DVD: On a lonely disc – ‘In a Lonely Place’ on Criterion

Criterion

Criterion

In a Lonely Place (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) hasn’t much to do with the Dorothy B. Hughes novel in which is was ostensibly based beyond the title (one of the most evocative in noir history), the Los Angeles setting, and the murder of a young woman that puts our ostensible hero, volatile, hard-drinking Hollywood screenwriter Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart), in the crosshairs of the police. The victim, a bubbly, not-too-bright hat check girl, had been to Dixon’s apartment to recount the story of a romantic potboiler bestseller he’s too jaded to read himself. When he’s hauled in for questioning, he’s unfazed and sardonic, treating the whole thing like a murder mystery plot to be dissected. The oddly-named Detective Sergeant Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy) tells his boss that Dix has been like that ever since they met in the war, where his hard, cynical attitude kept the unit alive, but the Captain isn’t convinced. Even when he’s alibied by his lovely new neighbor Laurel (Gloria Grahame), a one-time Hollywood starlet running from a failed romance with the poise of a queen of society. She likes his face. He likes her style. I like their flirtation: smart, knowing banter, seductive smiles, a push-and-pull as Laurel decides whether she’s ready to jump into another relationship. Despite that poise, she’s a little skittish about commitment.

Dixon is a classic literary type—the hard-drinking, hot-tempered, scrappy artist who turns down assignments beneath his dignity, insults the industry players who hire him, and gets into bar fights at the slightest provocation—with a darker soul than we usually see in such characters. “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me,” he tells Laurel, a line he wants to put into his screenplay but is surely inspired by his happiness with Laurel. It’s lovely and yet it predicts the inevitable doom of their romance. There’s a bitterness under his cynical banter and an anger that fuels flashes of jealousy or betrayal into vicious, violent responses. Laurel sees it play out with strangers and it starts to scare her, especially as the investigation into the murder (which is otherwise swept to the sidelines of the story) keeps circling back to Dix.

Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart

I don’t usually compare movie adaptations to the original novels—apart from bestsellers and literary classics, Hollywood tended to treat the books and stories it purchased as raw material to be reworked for the needs of the moment—and I don’t intend to here, but I love the way the film itself comments upon the process. Dix rewrites the novel in his latest assignment, inspired by the romance that blooms with Laurel, just as Andrew Solt’s screenplay rewrote the novel and his script was subsequently rewritten by director Nicholas Ray to reflect his unraveling marriage to  Grahame, who he cast after Bogie’s first choices were unavailable. It would have been a great role for Lauren Bacall and Grahame delivers Bacall’s confidence and command and model’s poise, but she also has a dreamy vulnerability that is uniquely her own. It’s one of her best performances and Ray shows off a glamour and grace she didn’t get in other roles as well as a smart, powerful performance. Bogie himself had a reputation for drinking and bar scraps and he’s clearly all in on the rewrite; he developed and produced the film through his own Santana Productions. Bogart has played hard-edged characters and violent anti-heroes before but none are as damaged and dark and out of control as Dixon. The romance comes off the two-fisted tough-guy literary hero in this portrait.

This is film noir without guns and gangsters, with no robberies or blackmail schemes, where the only crime on screen is a couple of alcohol-fueled assaults (one of which veers close to manslaughter, admittedly, but doesn’t cross the line), and yet it is among the most devastating you’ll ever see. The murder mystery no more than a backdrop to the ambiguous study of love torn apart from within.

Previously on DVD from Sony, it makes its Criterion debut on a 2K digital transfer from a new 35mm fine-grain print struck from the original camera negative. It’s flawless. This is not a film that was in need of restoration, thanks to fine stewardship of the Sony archive under the able leadership of Grover Crisp, and it shows: crisp and clean with rich black and white

Features commentary by film scholar Dana Polan, a new interview with Gloria Grahame biographer Vincent Curcio, a 20-minute piece with filmmaker Curtis Hanson produced for the 2002 DVD release, a condensed version of the 1975 documentary I’m a Stranger Here Myself (this runs about 40 minutes), and the radio adaptation of the original novel produced for “Suspense” in 1948, plus a fold-out booklet with an essay by Imogen Sara Smith. You can read Smith’s essay here.

In a Lonely Place (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
In a Lonely Place (The Criterion Collection) [DVD]

Blu-ray: Jennifer Lawrence is ‘Joy’

Joy15David O. Russell wrote (or rather, rewrote) Joy (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD, 4K UltraHD) for Jennifer Lawrence, who he directed to an Academy Award in Silver Linings Playbook(2012) and an Oscar nomination in American Hustle. Lawrence score another nomination for Joy, based on the true story of Joy Mangano, the divorced single mother turned entrepreneur who invented the Miracle Mop, the first of more than 100 patents in her name. It’s an inspiring true life story and a great showcase for Lawrence, who evolves from overwhelmed mother and unappreciated foundation holding up a dysfunctional extended family to ferocious businesswoman and beloved on-air pitchwoman on the shopping network QVC to self-made mogul over the course of the film.

Also reuniting with Russell and Lawrence are Robert De Niro, who plays Joy’s blue collar father, and Bradley Cooper in a smaller role as a QVC executive with sparkling blues eyes suggests romance even as the script makes him strictly a mentor. This businessman is one of the few allies in Joy’s life. Her mother (Virginia Madsen) dropped out after being abandoned by husband De Niro to lay in bed all day watching soap operas (the same show seems to play 24-7) and her dad moves back into the family basement, where Joy’s ex-husband (Édgar Ramírez) is also camping out between gigs as an underemployed singer. They demand more attention than Joy’s own school-age children, and she juggles it all with a full-time job at an airline counter. When she comes up with the design for the Miracle Mop, which she engineers herself and has produced on a small scale, every step is beset with obstacles, from bad advice to crooked manufacturers to a disinterested QVC pitchman, which sends Joy in front of the camera to sell it herself: the working class everywoman selling the American Dream directly into homes across the country.

Russell rewrote an original script by Annie Mumolo, who co-wrote Bridesmaids, and turned it into a Russell film, with a narrative woven through with flashbacks and a dreamy narration from Joy’s grandmother (Diane Ladd), the only member of her family to encourage her apart from her ex-husband. Russell does self-defeating family dynamics, tangled in jealousy and resentment and self-interest, well but the soap opera constantly undercutting her efforts is so overwrought that it never feels authentic. The colorful mess of this family is just another anchor trying to keep her from sailing to success.

Russell manages to put his stamp on what might otherwise be a conventional biopic and Lawrence makes Joy another of Russell’s great fighters, rolling with every punch and getting back up for the next round. She earns every victory. It’s just that the story is all over the place, a mess of colliding tones and cascades of setbacks and obstacles. The flair of Russell’s filmmaking and the dynamic performances, which are turned up to 11 in far too many scenes, fail to elevate the film above the familiar trajectory of the against-all-odds success story. It works almost entirely due to the passion and drive that Lawrence brings to the screen.

DVD and Blu-ray, with the featurette “Joy, Strength and Perseverance” and the “Times Talk with Jennifer Lawrence and David O. Russell” interviewed by Maureen Dowd. Blu-ray features a bonus Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film.

More new releases at Cinephiled

Rebels, Outlaws and Carlo Lizzani

‘Requiescant’

My films tell a little bit of the history of Italy.
—Carlo Lizzani

More than a decade before the French New Wave, a generation of Italian film critics and cinephiles challenged the high gloss and low ambitions of the Italian film industry under Mussolini with a wave of films that addressed social and political life during and after World War II, movies shot in the streets with a rough immediacy dictated as much by threadbare production resources as by stylistic choice.

Carlo Lizzani was not simply shaped by Italian neorealism. He helped create it. As a film critic and an active leftist, he wrote manifestos promoting neorealism and wrote a respected history of Italian cinema in 1952. He co-wrote and assisted on the productions of Roberto Rossellini‘s Germany Year Zero (1948), Giuseppe De Santis’ Bitter Rice (1949), which earned him an Academy Award nomination and Alberto Lattuada‘s The Mill on the Po(1949). He made documentaries before making his feature directing debut with the resistance drama Attention! Bandits! (1951), a film he got made by organizing the workers of Genoa into a filmmaking cooperative, and he returned to documentaries at the end of his career, making films about the great Italian directors he knew and admired: Luchino Visconti, Roberto Rossellini, Giuseppe De Santis. His love of cinema and his passion for politics and history came together in his 1996 feature Celluloid, which dramatizes the making of the pioneering neorealist masterpiece Rome Open City.

Between these poles, Lizzano had a thriving career making genre films—westerns, crime thrillers, war dramas—in the 1960s and 1970s. It was more than simply a matter of necessity. He loved genre pictures. They were also a superb vehicle for smuggling political commentary into popular cinema. It was a good fit for a filmmaker with an affinity for rebels and outlaws.

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Blu-ray/DVD: Son of Saul

SonofSaulSon of Saul (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) drops the viewer into the horror of the Holocaust with its first images. Saul (Géza Röhrig) is a Sonderkommando, chosen from the prisoners of a concentration camp to work in the gas chambers, and we are plunged into his crushing routine: moving the prisoners through the dressing rooms, sifting and sorting the belongings after they are locked in the gas chamber, then dragging the bodies out and clearing way for the next group. Serving as a Sonderkommando didn’t save the men from death, it only postponed it, and Saul knows he hasn’t long.

But Son of Saul doesn’t linger on the horror. Rather Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes shoots it entirely in close-up, with a handheld camera uncomfortably close and constantly in motion as it follows Saul through the grind of his routine. We remain locked on Saul throughout the film. Nemes shoots in a squarish format, similar to the pre-widescreen era of movies, with a short lens that keeps only Saul’s face and his immediate orbit in focus. Everything else is blurred and indistinct if not completely out of frame, suggested more than seen. It’s not just to keep us from seeing it clearly, but it suggests his own state of mind: detached out necessity, numb and exhausted, going through the motions of living, focused only on the activity.

Then Saul sees a young boy—perhaps his son, perhaps a boy the same age—who somehow survived the gas chamber. Barely alive, he is smothered by a doctor. Saul’s detachment is broken. It’s the first stranger he has let into his consciousness, that he even really sees, and it becomes his entire world. He is driven to give this boy a proper burial.

Röhrig is not an actor by training—he’s a poet, a filmmaker, and a theologian—and he carries an almost impenetrable expression throughout the film. We can’t know what’s going through his mind, we can only observe his actions, and this new quest changes his bearing. He now moves with purpose, his momentum focused on a goal that risks the success of a planned revolt within the camp. There’s no logic to it, but then reason has no place in such a nightmare.

Son of Saul is an overwhelming, numbing, confusing experience by design. The unmeasurable evil of the Holocaust is beyond explication so Nemes (with screenwriting partner Clara Royer and cinematographer Mátyás Erdély) tries to express a sense of uncertainty and disconnection, an existence where the horrors are a silent scream driven to the margins of consciousness out of pure will (the dense, layered soundtrack hints at what he can’t see) and time dissolves. It is a haunting and devastating attempt to confront an ordeal beyond our ability to truly comprehend.

It won the Academy Award for Foreign Language Feature, Grand Prize of the Jury at Cannes, and numerous critics’ awards for Best Foreign Film and Best First Feature.

Blu-ray and DVD, in Hungarian with English subtitles, with commentary by director László Nemes, cinematographer Mátyás Erdély, and actor Géza Röhrig.

Exclusive to the Blu-ray is a Q&A at the Museum of Tolerance with Nemes, Erdély, and Röhrig, and an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film.
Son of Saul [DVD]
Son of Saul [Blu-ray]

More new releases on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled