Hong Kong was the Hollywood of East Asia through the sixties and seventies, cranking out romances, melodramas, costume pictures, and especially martial arts action films. In the 1980s, the familiar style got an adrenaline boost when Tsui Hark returned from American film school with new ideas on moviemaking, and other young directors eager to make their mark in the movies. But where directors like John Woo (The Killers), Corey Yuen (Saviour of the Soul), and Ringo Lam (Full Contact) were reinventing action movies and big screen spectacle with whooshing camerawork, dynamic editing, and action exploding all over the frame, Wong Kar-wai was casting the stars of those films in more intimate and impressionistic films. His debut film As Tears Go By(1988) turned the “heroic bloodshed” genre of Triad gangster movies into a young adult melodrama. Days of Being Wild (1990), his second feature and his first collaboration with his signature cinematographer Christopher Doyle, was Wong’s first masterpiece.
The Killers (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) is an ingenious double feature: Two crime classics inspired by the Ernest Hemingway short story. Criterion originally released a DVD double feature over a decade ago. Both films have been remastered in HD for the set’s Blu-ray debut and a new DVD edition.
The first 15 minutes of Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946) remains the most the most faithful Hemingway adaptation ever put on screen. Two gunmen from the city (Charles McGraw and William Conrad) take over a small town diner to wait for their target. When he doesn’t show, they take the hit to him, and he just waits, broken and hopeless, for them to come and finish him off. Burt Lancaster made his film debut in the role of Swede Anderson and his entrance—a close-up of a haunted face doused in shadow with slashes of light catching his wounded expression as he lay back down on his bed, awaiting his execution with doomed resignation—is one of the greatest screen debuts any performer has received.
Hemingway’s story ends there for all intents and purposes but it’s only the beginning of the film, which as Hollywood invention from then on. An insurance investigator (Edmond O’Brien) wonders why Swede never tried to run and tracks his story back to a life as a former boxer turned petty criminal, a not-too-bright kid who fell in love with a calculating golddigger (Ava Gardner, shedding her ingénue image to play a slinky sexpot with a heart of ice) and fell in with a crew that pulled off a big payroll heist. The money was never recovered. The story is pieced together in flashbacks provided by witnesses and partners in crime, including the heist itself, a remarkably understated piece of filmmaking presented in a single shot. the steady, dispassionate narration of the witness provides counterpoint to the crack timing and brutal efficiency of the job. But the web of deceit and double crosses of the story and expertly-constructed screenplay by Anthony Veiller (with uncredited assist by John Huston) works thanks to the atmosphere of doom and duplicity created by Siodmak and his crew, and to the defining presence of Lancaster and Gardner.
To be honest, their inexperience shows. Lancaster, who doesn’t carry the weight of experience, is rather callow, a perfect patsy but less tragic than merely dumb. Gardner is a kitten playing a viper, a pretty face and slinky body without that strength in her voice to carry her malevolence. They offer neither depth nor complexity but the camera loves them, every curve of their bodies, every shadow on their faces. Siodmak turns their images into icons: the wounded romantic with a beefcake build, and the temptress pulling the heartstrings of innocents merely by staring up from under those long lashes in a calculated nonchalance. Surrounded by seasoned pros (Sam Levene, Albert Dekker, Vince Barnett, Jack Lambert, and Jeff Corey) and lit with the light and shadow of a noir master, the films takes the spark they carry—Lancaster’s brooding ambition and wounded innocence, Gardner’s smoldering sensuality and crafty flirting—and lights a bonfire with them.
Don Siegel’s The Killers (1964) is less remake than re-imagined tribute, with John Cassavetes in the Lancaster role (this time he’s a reckless race-car driver), Angie Dickinson as the seductive femme fatale, and Ronald Reagan as the crime boss pulling their strings, but this time the focus is on the killers themselves. It opens and ends on hitmen Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager, who bully their way into a school for the blind to kill their target (Cassavetes), and the rest is their investigation into why their victim is so willing to die and why they were paid so much for what they’ve been told a simple grudge hit. Note that the opening moments are set to recycled music cues from Henry Mancini’s Touch of Evil score. The sassy opening is a remarkably effective introduction to Marvin beating up a blind secretary while his partner can barely be bothered to notice, and sets the lurid tone that suggests tremendous brutality through intimidation and threat.
It was originally produced as a TV movie but was deemed too violent for the small screen and released to the theaters. Those origins are very evident, and not simply in the classic academy ratio. It has a cheap, cut-rate look to every set and location shot, weak rear-projection sequences, bad studio backdrops, and scenes simply shot against blank neutral colors. Clearly the producers were counting on the broadcast standards of sixties TV to hide their cut corners, and it creates a weird visual atmosphere for the film, a cynical, cruel story playing out against a banal, unreal backdrop. As scripted by Gene L. Coon (a longtime TV vet who wrote over a dozen Star Trek shows), however, the dialogue is hard-boiled redux. Marvin cuts every conversation directly to the point: no wasted words, no colorful flourishes, not even complete sentences, just key words driven home by the threat in his voice. And even in a feature-film setting, the sight of Ronald Reagan slapping Angie Dickinson is startling if not shocking. His subsequent political life just gives it all a little extra spice.
This edition includes most the supplements over from the earlier DVD and adds a new one: an audio-only excerpt from Don Siegel’s autobiography read by Hampton Fancher. Carried over from the previous release is yet another version of Hemingway’s short story, this one Andrei Tarkovsky’s faithful student film Ubijtsi (1956), an audio interview with writer Stuart M. Kaminsky (author of “Don Siegel: Director”) and a video interview with Clu Gulager both recorded in 2002, the 1949 “Screen Director’s Playhouse” radio adaptation of the original film with Burt Lancaster and Shelley Winters (audio only), Stacy Keach reading Hemingway’s original short story (audio only), and fold-out inserts with essays by Jonathan Lethem and Geoffrey O’Brien.
Spider Baby (Arrow, Blu-ray+DVD) is one of the greatest blasts of creative B-movie inspiration to hit American drive-ins and grindhouses. It was the solo directorial debut of Jack Hill (whose Coffy and Foxy Brown both recently hit Blu-ray from Olive), a low-budget film that was financed by real estate developers who wanted to get into the movie business and got stuck in limbo for years when the producers went bankrupt. Shot in 1964, it was finally released in 1967, by which time black-and-white films were no longer considered for first-run bookings. It was sold as a second feature and then fell into the public domain, where it became a cult movie a generation later, thanks to cheap videotape copies. Hill never made a dime on it, but he did belatedly get some attention for it. For all of its technical shortcomings and budget-related compromises, I still think it’s his most inspired film.
The final descendants of the Merrye family live in an isolated manor, hiding their curse from society in an old family home that could have been built as a vacation home by the architect of the Bates hilltop home. They suffer from Merrye’s Syndrome, a (fictional) malady causes all members of the family to regress mentally and emotionally with the onset of puberty. “The unfortunate result of… inbreeding,” explains Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr. in a warm, paternal performance), the chauffeur and guardian of the afflicted children of his old master. Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn in adolescent pigtails) and Virginia (Jill Banner), the spider baby of the title, are typical sisters playing (and tattling on one another) in schoolgirl frocks. Gangly Sid Haig as the bald, infantile Ralph, an older brother slipping into back into a pre-verbal state. Things are fine as long as no one comes around (pity the poor postman) but when distant cousins Peter and Emily Howe (Quinn Redeker and Carol Ohmart) arrive with a lawyer (Karl Schanzer) to contest the will, things get interesting.
It’s kinky and cruel and oddly sweet all at the same time, and it sneaks by thanks to the performances (not necessarily sophisticated but all committed to the characters and perfectly pitched to the tone of the film), grindhouse elements and the offbeat humor and black comedy woven through the piece. Hill peppers the script with Wolf Man references, from a conversation between Peter and Anne (the lawyer’s secretary) discussing horror movies to Lon Chaney’s Bruno ominously observing “There’s going to be a full moon tonight.”
Washburn and Banner are a terrific sister act, one moment sniping at each other, the next conspiring, and they reveal a childlike innocence to their actions: murder as a form of play and curiosity, without any real understanding of the consequences. Sid Haig is absolutely perfect as Ralph, sweet and curious, a well-meaning giant infant in an adult body. He dresses for dinner in a Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit that looks like it shrunk down three sizes since he donned it. Quinn Redecker plays Uncle Peter like he’s the B-movie Robert Cummings role and he does a great job of it. He’s affable, likeable, kind, and instinctively affectionate toward the children. “Aw, he’s just a big kid!” he exclaims when Ralphie crawls over to check him out, like a puppy unsure of this odd new smell. Chaney cited this as one of his favorite roles and it shows in the emotion he puts into it. His final scene (which I won’t give away) is truly touching, a last sacrifice to protect the children the only way he knows how.
Hill clearly draws from Psycho, but with an innocence to the psychos of the story, with the lighthearted attitude of a William Castle film, but Hill’s strange brew end up being more Lord of the Flies by way of Freaks and Freud, with a provocative commentary on adolescence and the primal drives of the human animal through the lens of a genre movie. Think about it: as these adults regress to children, they revert to primitive stages: deadly games, cannibalism, death and murder as acceptable forms of protest, and adolescent sexuality. I really don’t understand what Carole Ohmart is doing in skimpy lingerie parading in front of the mirror (and for the camera). It’s adult content for what is more properly a drive-in movie, a mix of horror and parody and surreal weirdness, a weird detour that displays her kinky side, but it also rouses feeling in Ralphie, who spies on her through the window and carries her off like an infantile Frankenstein’s monster driven on curiosity and inexplicable instincts. Put this next to Virginia’s teasing little game of spider with Uncle Peter and you’ve got something both inspired and unsettling. While he’s tied to a chair, she climbs into his lap and says how much likes him, suggesting a nascent (or lingering) sexual desire behind the mental and emotional regression, either leftover from their “older” selves or a rather Freudian portrait of childhood sexuality complicated by the collision of a child’s emotional state with an adult body.
This is far more daring than Peter Brook’s famous take, and it was all but ignored by critics, largely due to its exploitation origins. Because of the film’s long delay from completion to release, it was dumped onto the second half of double bills. Decades later it was revived and reevaluated, thanks to public domain video copies and TV showings, and it’s been on DVD in numerous editions. Arrow presents it Blu-ray debut in a superb “Director Approved” Blu-ray+DVD Combo set, with a lovingly restored image (few public domain movies have received the kind of love that this film has gotten in the last decade or so), and it also has a companion piece of sorts in another Jack Hill Blu-ray debut.
Spider Baby stars Sid Haig and Beverly Washburn reunited with Hill for his edgy, tight 1967 racing picture Pit Stop (Arrow, Blu-ray+DVD), one of Hill’s best efforts and a little seen gem. Dick Davalos (James Dean’s brother in East of Eden) is a curt, quiet street racer lured to the dangerous, short-lived sport of Figure 8 racing (a hair raising collision of stock car and demolition derby) by conniving promoter Brian Donlevy. He just wants a grudge match with his quick-tempered, strutting champion (Haig), but cool customer Davalos has bigger ambitions: he wants to use the crowd-pleasing track as a catapult to the pro circuit and he’ll run down anyone in his path.
It’s a surprisingly handsome picture considering, shot quickly and cheaply in B&W to make use of fast film stock for the high energy nighttime race track scenes. The careening track scenes are so dynamic they overshadow the climactic professional race but Hill makes that work for him in a chilly coda. The real story is how Davalos turns from cool competitor to ruthless rival and his icy stare and surly attitude is perfect. Haig’s explosive turn as the preening champ is both wild and wounded but the best turn belongs to the understated Ellen Burstyn (under the name McRae) in her first major role as the mechanically minded wife of a racing champ.
Both of these films have been mastered from new HD transfers supervised by Jack Hill, and both feature a substantial collection of supplements.
Spider-Baby features commentary by Jack Hill and actor Sid Haig, recorded for the 2007 Dark Sky DVD release, and three featurettes originally produced for that disc: “The Hatching of Spider Baby,” an excellent comprehensive retrospective featuring interviews with (among others) director Jack Hill, DP Alfred Taylor ASC, and actors Quinn Redeker, Sid Haig, Beverly Washburne, Mary Mitchell, and Karl Schanzer, plus the ten-minute “Spider Stravinsky” (an appreciation of composer Ronald Stein) and seven-minute “The Merrye House Revisited,” with Hill back on location with director Elijah Drenner more than 40 years later.
New to this edition is the “Cast and Crew Panel Discussion” with director Jack Hill and actors Quinn Redeker and Beverly Washburn from a screening at the 2012 Film-to-Film Festival at Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. There’s also an extended scenes and alternative opening title sequence (which have been included other earlier disc releases) and Jack Hill’s 1960 student film “The Host,” which is also the film debut of Sid Haig.
Pit Stop features new commentary by Jack Hill moderated by Hill biographer Calum Waddell and archival interviews with director Jack Hill, actor Sig Haig, and producer Roger Corman, plus a restoration demonstrating with technical supervisor James White.
Both sets feature booklets with new essays and archival articles, and two-sided covers with reversible artwork.
Dog Soldiers: Collector’s Edition (Scream Factory, Blu-ray+DVD) – “If we engage the enemy, I expect nothing less than gratuitous violence from the lot of you.” Neil Marshall ransacks and revitalizes every cliché in the book in this howling good reworking of the werewolf tale.
Borrowing liberally from the “survivors under siege” classics Aliens and Night of the Living Dead, Marshall drops his full moon boogie in the deep misty forests of the Scottish Highlands, pits platoon versus wolf pack, and watches the fur fly. Sean Pertwee and Kevin McKidd are the career soldiers on a weekend war game turned into a primal bloodbath, Emma Cleasby the backwoods naturalist who knows more than she’s saying, and Liam Cunningham the ruthless Special Forces officer with a conspiratorial streak. “There was only supposed to be one…” Cunningham moans when his troops find him at the otherwise deserted base camp, wounded and dazed and surrounded by spots of blood and bits of human organs. Their retreat is only marginally more successful and before you can say “Lucky you came along on this lonely dirt road in the nick of time,” they hitch a ride and hole up in the only house for miles around.
Where so many horror movies coast on such coincidences, Marshall works them into the conspiratorial premise of the piece and dangles clues for observant viewers between the blasts of black humor (Wells’ tug of war with a playful dog over the intestines spilling out of his gut), bloody horror, and action heroics. His muscular attack and display of men-under-fire sacrifice is reminiscent of James Cameron, while the shards of cold illumination that backlight the swirling fog, catch the faces of combatants, and silhouette the towering beasts (apparently the full moon had some help) recall Ridley Scott. Give credit to Marshall for borrowing from the best. Dog Soldiers doesn’t transcend genre, it embraces it, energizes it, and takes big bloody chomp out of it.
Director Neil Marshall posted a note about the restoration on the Scream Factory Facebook page, noting that the original negative is apparently lost and the disc was mastered from existing prints. “Like it or not, when the movie was originally released in the UK in 2002, the blacks were crushed, the contrast was high, the colours were rich and the image was grainy as fuck, because let’s not forget, this movie was shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm.” So yes, this is grainy and doesn’t have the detail or clarity of master harvested from the original negative, but it’s a fine edition that the director stands behind.
This edition features both Blu-ray and DVD copies with new supplements, including commentary by Neil Marshall, the hour-long documentary “Werewolves vs. Soldiers: The Making of Dog Soldiers” with new interviews with Marshall, many of his collaborators, and the film’s stars, and a 13-minute featurette on the production design, plus Marshall’s 1999 short film Combat and a couple of photo galleries. The cover features reversible art.
The Bridge (1959) (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) is a landmark film of post-war German cinema. Filmmakers (and perhaps audiences as well) were reluctant to confront World War II and its legacy in the years after the surrender to the Allies. Bernhard Wicki’s 1959 film, adapted from the semi-autobiographical novel by Manfred Gregor (the pen name of journalist Gregor Dorfmeister), was the first major German film to take on the subject directly, and it did so with a searing portrait of young soldiers unprepared for the realities of war thanks to the fantasies of Nazi propaganda.
Set in a rural German town in 1945, in the final days of the war as the Allies were converging on Berlin, it follows the story of seven high school boys who still believe in the German propaganda of duty and sacrifice to the Fatherland. They can’t wait until they are called up and they get their wish and undergo a single day of basic training before the company is called to the front. The boys are Volkststurm, not regular army but a kind of Hitler Youth militia created in the last gasps of German defense, a Hail Mary pass that basically throws unprepared kids into the jaws of war. Utterly unprepared for battle, their commander orders them to “guard” a bridge that is slated to be blown up in the German retreat. It’s an assignment meant to keep them out of combat but they turn into patriotic zealots guided by the “wisdom” gleaned from propaganda films and rousing speeches and dismissive of the experience of veterans who attempt to offer advice.
The Bridge doesn’t debate politics or acknowledge the Holocaust and other crimes against humanity, and that works for this story. While there is no literal condemnation of the Nazis, it’s a bankrupt ideology as far as the citizens are concerned and the sole representative of the party is an opportunist and hypocrite preparing to flee with his mistress and his loot. There are no true believers in the exhausted soldiers retreating from the Allied advancement, merely survivors hoping to survive a little longer.
Director Bernhard Wicki is more interested in the cultural climate of Germany in the final days of the war as seen from the isolated bubble of a Bavarian town where the only men left too old, too young, or medically unfit for combat. The women run the shops and farms and the adults are resigned to Germany’s defeat as the bombs drop ever closer to the city and word of the Allied advance is met with a shrug. There’s no love left for Hitler and an impotent hopelessness hangs over the adult survivors but the teenage boys are still in thrall to the fantasy of German supremacy of Nazi propaganda and believe they can turn the war around and save their country. That makes them arrogant, convinced that their idealism is truer than the experience of the women holding families together, old men who survived World War I, even veteran soldiers with a realistic perspective on the state of the war.
None of the kids are particularly distinctive—it’s an ensemble piece and they are have their place in it—but neither are they merely simple types. The chapter leader (Hitler Youth is not actually mentioned but that’s surely what he leads) is a little bullying but never really a bully, the barber’s son is in love with an older woman but is paralyzed by shyness until he throws a tantrum when he finds her with someone else, the son of the Nazi Party politico is disgusted by his father’s hypocrisy and cowardice, and so on. The pecking order of their little society remains as they try to organize themselves on the bridge and slip into playing soldier instead of being soldiers, but the arrival of the first tank shocks them out of their fantasies.
This is a miniature, a portrait of 1945 Germany in microcosm, and Wicki eases us into the horror of combat by first focusing on quiet village life, where the boys are relatively protected from the reality of battle. Even the falling bombs are more of a curiosity than a threat; they race to see how close the last one fell and if it left a crater. They are all bluster and immature impulsiveness, ruled by hormonally-charged emotions and a distorted idea of national service. That’s fine for afterschool games but a bad combination with no military training and only fantasies of war glory as a model of military comportment. Left alone to face the Americans (the chaos of the German retreat ends up killing the sole veteran soldier left behind to watch over the boys), they are no better than kids playing war with live rounds and discovering that there isn’t any glory in dying for your country. Wicki captures a sense of panic and desperation as the boys do their best to act like soldiers in the face of overwhelming forces. It’s a war film in close up, a minor skirmish in the scheme of things over a bridge with no tactical value, and it makes their sacrifice utterly meaningless by any measure.
It also makes an interesting contrast to how East Germany confronted World War II. The communist government immediately produced anti-Nazi dramas that condemned the militarism of the country. The new East Germany, after all, was now part of the socialist ideal, a break with the corrupt values of the old Germany. Communist Germany acknowledged the crimes by distancing itself (the government if not the citizens) from complicity in the war. West Germany didn’t have any such façade of separation and it took years to work up to this kind of direct engagement. As a result, it had a great impact on the next generation of German filmmakers.
In German with English subtitles, on Blu-ray and DVD. The new 2K digital restoration is mastered from the original 35mm negative and a 35mm duplicate negative. It looks superb, a clean, sharp image with strong contrasts and no evident damage. It features a new 22-minute interview with Gregor Dorfmeister, who wrote the original autobiographical novel and discusses his real-life experience and the screen adaptation, and a ten-minute interview with filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff on the film’s impact in Germany, and an archival interview with director Bernhard Wicki discussing the film on a German TV talk show in 1989. Also includes a clip from the 2007 documentary Against the Grain: The Film Legend of Bernhard Wicki directed by Elisabeth Wicki-Endriss (the filmmaker’s widow) and a fold-out insert with an essay by film critic Terrence Rafferty.
Given the title of Killer Cop (Raro / Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD) a 1975 poliziotteschi from Italy, you might expect a rogue cop thriller, and ambitious young Commissario Matteo Rolandi (Claudio Cassinelli), a rising officer on a major drug case, certainly has good reason to go rogue. His case gets caught up in a major terrorist bombing and his best friend (Franco Fabrizi), a workaday veteran with a fidgety nature and a streak of bad luck, is murdered for stumbling across the prime suspect. He’s frustrated that he’s been bounced from the case by the Prosecutor General, a serious, stone-faced legend of dogged duty who has the unlikely nickname “Minty” (because he keeps popping breath mints while working a case) and is played by American star Arthur Kennedy (dubbed in Italian of course), so when his drug investigation winds back into the bombing he conducts his own investigation. It turns out the Prosecutor has his reasons for keeping the case close to the vest: the police force, the justice department, the entire political system in Milan is riddled with corruption and he doesn’t know who he can trust.
The northern capital of Milan, the symbol of modernity and progress in the Italian cinema of the 50s and 60s, is the epitome of official corruption and the urban mob in the crime cinema of the 70s. The violence here, however, is no mob war or message from the criminal underworld. It’s not even a terrorist attack, at least not as defined by the traditional “war on terror” yardstick. It’s… well, I’m not really sure, but as the masterminds explain it, “It was only supposed to be a demonstration.” The best I can figure is that it’s a conspiracy rooted in a cabal of industrialists, government officials, and mobsters and it is designed to stir things up. Which pretty much vindicates the fears of both Rolandi and Minty, who keep tripping over each other with a frequency that makes them both suspicious.
Raro has been championing the poliziotteschi—brutal crime thriller and mob dramas from Italy in the 1970s—since its revelatory release of Fernando di Leo’s filmography. Killer Cop is a minor but interesting addition to the library, a low-key film that (unusual for the genre) focuses on honest cops trying to do their job in a culture of corruption and political intimidation. Italian audiences of the day would have recognized the event as a reference to a real-life bombing at Piazza Fontana, which was unsolved, and director Luciano Ercoli suggests a conspiracy that could have come out of the American cinema of the day, like The Parallax View. It’s short on exposition, which is as interesting as it is frustrating—the whole conspiracy remains shadowy and the complicity of the police and justice officials is unclear—but also gives the film an atmosphere of distrust of all official representatives. The bomber himself (Bruno Zanin) is a kind of sad-sack patsy, not even a true believer but a foot soldier getting his orders from phone calls and abandoned by his bosses when the case spins out of their control.
As far as I know, this is Ercoli’s only poliziotteschi but he brings an interesting attitude to the genre.
Blu-ray and DVD, with both Italian and English dub soundtracks (the Italian is preferable, as the English dubbing is sloppy and lazily performed) and optional English subtitles, plus a 20-minute interview with production manager Alessandro Calosci.
Wild Tales (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, VOD) delivers on the promise of its title. An anthology of six original short stories from writer / director Damián Szifrón, it is a blackly comic film of modern life churning with frustration, rage, vengeance, and other decidedly civilized impulses. It opens on pure perfection, a darkly hilarious pre-credits revenge vignette that turns on a single joke that is flawlessly teased out, revealed, and executed, right down to the final freeze frame. If the subsequent pieces aren’t as wickedly satisfying, it’s because they are more ambitious and involved: a demolition engineer in a losing battle with bureaucracy (and his own obsessiveness), a savage road rage war that turns poisonously vicious, a disturbing drama of rich privilege that becomes even more disturbing as the price for corruption gets continually renegotiated. It’s all about pushing past the borders of civilized behavior to unleash the primal instincts of the human beast’s worst impulses. Give Szifrón credit for coming out of it with a happy ending—or at least the closest one can come from the wreckage left in the wake of a bride scorned on her wedding day.
It’s easy to see why Pedro and Agustín Almodóvar signed on as producers. Szifrón’s style is more stripped away and his satire more cutting and vicious than the compassion of Almodóvar’s sexy melodramas and colorful personalities, and his direction homes in on dramatic collisions between his characters, bringing out the tensions and the escalation of conflict to reveal the petty cruelties and greed and suppressed anger of the modern world. But the sensibility is similar, as is the satirical perspective. Like Almodóvar, Szifrón is all about emotion over reason. He just doesn’t find much to celebrate about passions unleashed. He does, however, find a mordant humor in it all, and he has the wit to pull it off. It earned the film an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Feature and an armful of awards in Argentina.
Blu-ray and DVD with the featurette “Wild Shooting: Creating the Film” and a Q&A with filmmaker Damián Szifrón at the Toronto International Film Festival screening. Also on Cable On Demand, Amazon Instant, Vudu, Xbox Video, and CinemaNow.
Dziga Vertov: The Man with the Movie Camera and Other Newly-Restored Works (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray) presents four features (and one newsreel short) by the great Soviet filmmaker, all making their American Blu-ray debut. They have been newly scanned from the best sources available and digitally remastered by Lobster Films in France. The collection is a collaboration between Lobster, Film Preservations Associates (and the Blackhawk Films Collection), EYE Film Institute, Cinémathèque de Toulouse, and the Centre National de la Cinématographie and is presented in the U.S. by Flicker Alley.
The Soviet Union’s revolutionary documentarian and film theorist, Dziga Vertov was the head of production and editing of the Kino-Pravda newsreel unit between 1922 and 1925. He put his years of experimentation in weekly newsreels to work in the 1924 feature film with Kino Eye / The Life Unexpected (1924), a continuation of his work on the Kino-Pravda series. The mixture of slice of life observations (often captured with a hidden camera) with documentary studies and playful cinematic tricks was his first attempt to create a new kind of filmmaking celebrating life in the Soviet Union under communism. The episodic film is structured something like a variety show, with the recurring thread of “Young Pioneers,” a youth brigade of Soviet boys and girls dedicated to helping the poor and needy, running through the film as a kind of narrative glue. Nestled between these uplifting sequences are glimpses into taverns and bars, a state home for the mentally ill, and the black market, fanciful documentary investigations into the origins of bread and meat (from the slaughterhouse to the farm), and a scene of kids at play in the water that turns into a gorgeous diving montage that presages Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia by over ten years.
The source for this master was an original 35mm print from the Blackhawk Films Collection
The Man with the Movie Camera (1929) is Vertov’s most famous film, a landmark of Soviet silent cinema and international avant-garde and non-fiction filmmaking—a pretty impressive double play to be celebrated for both capturing and deconstructing reality. Part documentary, part film essay, part cinematic gymnastics, Dziga Vertov’s dazzling masterpiece is a spellbinding piece of cinematic poetry and one of the great non-narrative works of all time. It’s ostensibly a kind of symphony of a city, a day in the life of a big city for the Ukraine, but Vertov shot in multiple cities for his idealized portrait. Using all the ideas and experiments he had explored for years in his newsreel pieces, he created a film essay that celebrated the great Soviet experiment while challenging the very foundations of representation, editing, and narrative with images that dance on the screen. The man with the movie camera and the woman at the editing table are integral parts of a film that is in part about its own making and the possibilities inherent in the cinema. The Alloy Orchestra, guided by suggestions left by director Dziga Vertov, created a score built on their trademark mix of dramatic melody and expressive percussion—which is exactly what Vertov wanted. It’s an exciting, driving score that I now consider the definitive accompaniment. This edition features that score.
It’s also the best looking film on this disc. Previous editions were mastered from compromised prints, missing footage from damage or outright recutting and often duped down many generations for the source. This editions is mastered from a preserved, near-complete 35mm nitrate print struck from the camera negative and preserved in the archives of EYE Film Institute in Amsterdam. It preserves the full silent film image area (rather than a sound-era copy with reduced image area) and, though it has wear and some damage due to screenings over the decades, the image is quite strong. Missing footage was replaced from alternate sources and the high-definition digital copy was further cleaned by Lobster films. A detailed history of the film print and the restoration process is included in an accompanying booklet. In short, this edition features a fuller image and footage missing from previous editions.
Vertov made his sound film debut with Enthusiasm: The Symphony of the Donbass (1931), his celebration of the Five Year Plan, which is an unqualified success under his direction. It opens on a woman listening to the news of the Soviet experiment over a radio set the scenes play out as if illustrating what she’s learning over the air. No surprise that Vertov treats sound much the same way he treats images: as pieces to be manipulated, cut and mixes to set a scene or make a point. There’s very little synchronized sound and no dialogue (though there’s a speech or two). Rather, he turns to the sounds of machinery and the cheers of crowds, with punctuations of sound effects providing a heightened percussion. Early on we see a conductor leading an orchestra and you would be forgiven for assuming that the symphony is a musical composition. For Vertov, the symphony is the image and sound, the dramatization of workers increasing production in the mines and foundries and on the farms, the building of ideas and themes to socialism triumphant. “The five year plan has been executed in four years!” and the masses rejoice.
There is damage and wear to the source, and a 35mm original print from the Cinémathèque de Toulouse, but there is a great image beneath it and there is great detail in this HD Blu-ray presentation. There is also a warble to the soundtrack, which was restored in 204, in scenes toward the end.
Three Songs About Lenin (1934), Vertov’s tribute to the leader who died in 1924, completes the set. It’s a symphony in three movements celebrating the triumph of socialism and the unity of industry and art. Which is not exactly what Stalin had in mind to teach the masses. Like Eisenstein, Vertov faced pressure to make more naturalistic narratives and clearer propaganda. The original cut of no longer survives—the film was reedited in 1938 under order Stalin’s regime, and again in the 1970s, this time to remove images of Stalin—and the film on this disc was mastered from a 35mm edited print preserved at the Cinémathèque de Toulouse.
All of the films run under 80 minutes, three of them at around an hour apiece. The disc, however, includes one additional film: Kino-Pravda (1925), aka Kino-Pravda Newsreel 21: Leninist Film Truth, one of the many newsreels created by Vertov that mixed documentary, cinema-verité, and agitprop. Also from the Cinémathèque de Toulouse.
All five films are collected on a single Blu-ray disc and the release features an informative booklet with notes on the films and the print sources.
Normally I don’t report on new announcements but if the above release interests you, you’ll likely be interested to know that the newly rediscovered 1916 Sherlock Holmes starring William Gillette (who made a career playing Sherlock Holmes onstage and was the definitive stage Holmes as far as the public was concerned) will be released on Blu-ray and DVD in October by Flicker Alley. There will be a wealth of bonus material, including three bonus films featuring earlier screen appearances by Sherlock Homes. More information at Flicker Alley.
Red Army (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – Director Gabe Polsky, the Chicago-born son of Russian immigrants, dreamed of playing pro hockey and ended up making movies. This documentary, his directorial debut, finds the intersection of sports triumph, political gamesmanship, and personal sacrifice in the story of the powerhouse Soviet national hockey team of the eighties, when it won two Olympic gold medals and seven World Championships.
The story is built around interviews with Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, the former team captain, and Polsky begins the film with a scene of Fetisov more engaged with his cell phone than with the interviewer (“It’s business,” he explains) and flipping him the finger when Polsky keeps peppering him with questions. Clearly both Polsky and Fetisov have a sense of humor, which helps move us into the story through Fetisov and his teammates, which is not humorous at all. We learn about the rigorous training regimen that kept the men from their families 11 months out of the year, which drilled into them the distinctive playing style that confounded western teams. The players became national heroes, at least for time, but were essentially prisoners of their success. They were under constant pressure to win as a matter of national dignity and political pride.
The sports story is also our entry into a culture, and this hockey film provides no less than a sideways look into the way that communist USSR controlled its athletes—the Red Army Team players were indeed treated like soldiers whose field of battle was the ice rink—and the dramatic changes that occurred in both the political and social culture of the Soviet Union. From the Cold war climate of the eighties through the introduction of perestroika, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the rise of capitalism and a new kind of political power, the players were pawns in a global PR campaign.
Fetisov is a commanding personality in the film and his story is great true-life drama. In the late 1990s, when Fetisov and his former teammates from the eighties squad were in their mid- to late-thirties, five former Red Army stars were brought together on the Detroit Red Wings squad and, under Coach Scotty Bowman, recreated their unique Soviet style of play in the NHL for two Stanley Cup championships. It’s a happy ending for a turbulent life.
Blu-ray and DVD, with commentary by director Gabe Polsky and executive producer Werner Herzog and Q&A with Polsky from the Toronto International Film Festival screening. Exclusive to the Blu-ray are an extended interview with Coach Scotty Bowman (the winningest coach in NHL history), a Q&A with Polsky and former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, and deleted scenes. Also on Cable On Demand and VOD.
Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD), directed by Chuck Workman and released to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Orson Welles, is not in the running for the definitive portrait of the artist. At a brisk, dense 90 minutes, however, it is an excellent introduction the life and work of the Welles with a focus on the creative.
Workman brings elegance and visual musicality to his work (such as the remembrance montages of the Academy Awards ceremonies) and a density to his documentaries, and this is no different. His nearly breathless editing pace sweeps us through a wealth of film clips (many of them rare) and new and archival interviews with the likes of biographer Simon Callow, critics James Naremore and Jonathan Rosenbaum, collaborators Norman Lloyd, Charlton Heston, John Houseman, and Jeanne Moreau, and daughters Christopher Welles and Beatrice Welles-Smith. And along with clips of his feature films, we get audio of his radio work, newsreel footage of the “Voodoo” Macbeth stage production, clips from the TV version of King Lear directed by Peter Brook, and scenes from unfinished films Don Quixote, The Deep, and The Merchant of Venice. Die-hard Welles aficionados will likely have seen some (if not all) of these, but to everyone else this is a glimpse into hidden treasures.
Most importantly, Workman understands that Welles is not a “failed” director—too many ill-informed commentators (and some who should know better) still echo the cliché that Welles never returned to the artistic heights of his debut feature Citizen Kane—but a restless artist who never stopped exploring and engaging with cinema even when the industry turned its back in him. Workman clearly respects Welles and loves his work. At a mere 90 minutes, he can’t delve deeply into the contradictions and complications, but we do get snapshots and quick impressions, with plenty of clips of Welles himself talking about his work and career that give us insight to his personality as a person and an artist. He was a storyteller in all aspects of his life. And we get a glimpse of a career that is full of wonders, too many of them unavailable outside of special screenings and festivals—how frustrating is it to have Simon Callow proclaim Chimes at Midnight Welles’s masterpiece, only to be told it is unavailable because of tangled rights issues?—but all of them so intriguing that it may inspire new fans to seek out these rarities (hint: YouTube and import DVDs).
Features a video interview with director Chuck Workman conducted by film scholar and critic Annette Insdorff and a booklet with stills but no film notes.
“Follow the drugs, and you’ll find dealers and users. Follow the money, and you have no idea where the case will take you.” So began the first season of HBO’s compelling tale of cops, crooks, and the social and bureaucratic forces that both divide and bind them, and the begining of an epic series that set the high water mark for television drama. I’m not generally one for sweeping statements, but The Wire is the best original show ever made for television.
Created by David Simon (co-creator of the landmark cop show Homicide: Life on the Street), it’s marked more by the mundane realities of procedure and politics (on both sides of the law), and the intricate details building cases and connecting the dots of evidence, than by drug busts and shoot-outs. The first season follows the single investigation of an inner-city drug dealer and the violence surrounding his ambitious expansion, while the narrative is built around Baltimore police detective McNulty (Dominick West), a hard-drinking divorced cop whose dedication is endangered by a big mouth that gets the better of him when he’s indignant, and D’Angelo Barksdale (Larry Gilliard Jr.), the sharp young nephew of West Side drug lord Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris). The structure recalls Richard Price’s novel Clockers (though not the movie) in the way it gives equal time to both worlds, exploring both the intricacies within each and the interaction between the two. (It’s surely no coincidence that Price was drafted to become part of the show’s writing bullpen.) D’Angelo opens his eyes to the street politics when he’s demoted to slinging product from the towers in the slums and the show opens our eyes into both worlds. The deliberate pacing and attention of complex detail marked it off from every other crime show on TV, and Homicide star turned director Clark Johnson can take some of the credit for setting the tone and style in the first two episodes (he did similar honors on the pilot of The Shield).
The second season opens with hard-drinking loose cannon McNulty shuffled off to the harbor patrol (his punishment for bucking the chain of command) and the special squad commander Daniels (Lance Reddick) consigned to the police archive dungeon. Then McNulty fishes a corpse out of the water and starts a whole new investigation rolling. The team is back in business, and this time they leave the drug crimes of the street for human smuggling and corruption on the docks… and it’s all kicked off by a spat between a petty Irish cop and the local dock workers union. The drama brings us into the complexities of organized crime on the docks, the desperate tactics and petty scams run by an underemployed dock workers’s union in a faltering economy, and the victims sacrificed by international crime lords in the human cargo trade, but Simon and company continue to follow the drugs as well. Avon Barksdale’s drug operation is now being managed by Stringer Bell (Idris Elba). His big ambitions sets the foundation for the third season, which pulls the story the task force back into the affairs of Barksdale’s expanding drug operation. But what makes this season so compelling is the doomed, inspired, and utterly unthinkable solution to the drug problem that Simon proposes and then illustrates, with startling frankness, both the pros and cons of his modest proposal.
By the fourth season, as Simon and company boldly take on the broken education system, it’s clear that Simon’s ambitions are no less than a complex portrait of the American city (specifically Baltimore) with fictional stories illuminating the social and bureaucratic forces that make our cities work, or just as often, not work. Through the course of thirteen episodes that follow the lives of four friends in the eighth grade, Simon reveals the failure of the school system and the inability of the classroom structure to reach kids raised in a culture that is close to a war zone. These are kids on the killing streets of Baltimore’s drug-filled slums, where the behavior best suited to survival is the type that disrupts classrooms. It’s a devastating story with characters that are knots of complications and contradictions in a world where the internal politics of the system (any system) kills all innovation and stops progress dead in its tracks.
The Wire ended its run by casting a light on how and why the media covers the news. The newsroom of The Baltimore Sun becomes part of the narrative weave of the show, intertwining its challenges with the stories it’s supposed to be covering: crime, politics, the schools and the community as a whole. As with each previous season, the old stories are woven into the new: money earmarked for the police by the Mayor has been drained by the floundering school system, which had been starved and neglected and fallen in debt thanks to previous administrations. So wild card McNulty concocts a crack-brained scheme to pry money out of the city: he invents a big, headline-grabbing serial killer (a complete fiction) and Detective Lester Freaman (Clarke Peters), perhaps the most gifted and brilliant detective in the department, becomes his accomplice and retrofits the evidence to keep the fiction alive. He builds cases and pieces together evidence like a master puzzlemaker, and he and McNulty concoct a lie so big, with such far-reaching implications, that the city can’t risk the truth getting out. Certainly not the ambitious and irresponsible junior reporter (Tom McCarthy) who inadvertently contributes to the conspiracy by adding his own fictional details to the story, suspicious embellishments that glory-hungry editors are willing to let through without scrutiny. “We have to more with less,” proclaims its managing editor. “You don’t do more with less, you do less with less,” complains the newsroom’s voice of reason and bearer of standards, City Editor Gus Haynes (Clark Johnson, of Simon’s Homicide), and so they do, but with splashier headlines.
Creator David Simon is especially critical of what he sees as the media’s dereliction of responsibility as the community’s watchdog and his insistence comes with a noticeable loss of nuance in that particular story, but the scope of the show remains just as ambitious and rich. The writing is the best on television (including scripts co-written by authors Richard Price, Dennis Lehane, and George P. Pelecanos), with a novelistic sweep and complexity unprecedented on the small screen and a brilliant symmetry as the show comes to a close. It doesn’t have the neat poetic drama of the “Dickensian” narrative (as the paper’s editors like to call it), merely the satisfying changing of the guard, with irony and poetic justice, rewards and punishments, guilty who go free and innocents who flounder. Yet for all the incompetence and corruption that keeps percolating to the top, there remain good cops, dedicated editors, honorable folks who take the places of those burned out by the system that resisted all efforts to change it. The show ends with a system that perpetuates itself – a system reproduced in microcosm in everything from city politics to the school system to the drug hierarchy of the streets to the newspaper to, of course, the legal system – and people that continue to struggle against it even as others give in. To complete the symmetry, co-star Clark Johnson, who directed the show’s debut episodes, returns to direct the 90-minute series finale, which appropriately enough features a spirited wake.
There are a lot of “Complete Series” collections out there, but this an essential, not simply because it invites repeat revisits but because of the show’s unity. Each season is like a novel in a self-contained cycle and together they make a complete whole.
The Wire: The Complete Series was released on DVD in 2011 its original broadcast format. Since then, HBO remastered the series in Digital HD, and in the process they changed the aspect ratio from the squarish 4×3 of the old TV standard to the widescreen 16×9 format of the current flatscreen standard. This choice was made against the wishes of creator and producer David Simon.
Simon weighs in on his issues with the transformation in this feature on his blog from 2014, in advance of the launch of the HD version on cable and digital formats: “At the last, I’m satisfied what while this new version of The Wire is not, in some specific ways, the film we first made, it has sufficient merit to exist as an alternate version. There are scenes that clearly improve in HD and in the widescreen format. But there are things that are not improved. And even with our best resizing, touchups and maneuver, there are some things that are simply not as good. That’s the inevitability: This new version, after all, exists in an aspect ratio that simply wasn’t intended or serviced by the filmmakers when the camera was rolling and the shot was framed.” Sam Adams weighs in on the issue at Indiewire.
Many viewers won’t notice the difference. Even many fans of the show will likely ease into the widescreen without difficulty. But it should be noted that HBO did not give viewers the option for the original version on Blu-ray, so purists will want to hold onto their DVDs.
That said, it’s a handsome image with all the atmosphere of the original broadcasts, but with greater detail and clarity. It presents all 60 episodes of the five seasons of the TV epic, along with all the commentary tracks and featurettes from the earlier DVD box set, including the retrospective featurette “The Wire Odyssey” (a chronicle of the first four seasons), “The Wire: The Last Word” (a reflection on the state of the media today featuring series creator David Simon), and three character “prequels” (little scenes of Prop Joe and Omar and the first meeting of McNulty and Bunk, each running under two minutes).
New to this release is the “The Wire Reunion,” an 85-minute roundtable discussion recorded at the Paley Center for Media in October 2014 and featuring creator David Simon, producer Nina K. Noble, and 11 members of the cast: John Doman, Larry Gilliard, Jr., Seth Gilliam, Jim True-Frost, Jamie Hector, Michael Kenneth Williams, Sonja Sohn, Wendell Pierce, J.D. Williams, Michael Lee, and Bob Wisdom (Dominic West and Idris Elba were unable to attend but are represented by video messages). Also includes an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the entire series.
20 discs in five cases collected in a box set. It’s a simple presentation, which I prefer over the more elaborate boxes, which often look cool on a shelf but are far less convenient when it comes to actually accessing the discs.
Limelight (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), the final film that Charlie Chaplin made in the U.S., is both a bittersweet sentimental drama and a tribute to the music hall era of entertainment. Chaplin stars as a former vaudeville star now reduced to penury, living in a rundown boarding house and scraping by on occasional booking, and Claire Bloom is the delicate, young ballet dancer he saves from a suicide attempt and nurses back to health. Chaplin casts Buster Keaton for a single scene as his partner in a comic duet, making this film the only time the two silent comedy greats ever worked together, and the scene is wonderful. (Legend has it that Chaplin shortened the scene because Keaton was “too good” and kept drawing attention from him.) Nigel Bruce, Norman Lloyd, and Sydney Chaplin (Charlie’s brother) co-star, silent star Snub Pollard has a bit part, and Chaplin’s longtime silent movie co-star Edna Purviance made her final screen appearance in an unbilled role. Just as the film was released, Chaplin was denied re-entry to the United States for suspected Communist leanings (this was the height of red scare hysteria and the Hollywood blacklist) and the film was pulled from release as theaters cancelled screenings. Chaplin’s score won an Academy Award in 1973, after the film’s belated 1972 theatrical release in Los Angeles.
Criterion continues its Chaplin releases with a new 4K digital restoration. New to this edition are the video essay “Chaplin’s Limelight: Its Evolution and Intimacy” by David Robinson, interviews with actor Claire Bloom and Normal Lloyd, and the 1915 Chaplin short A Night in the Show. Carried over from the earlier DVD release are documentary featurette “Chaplin Today: Limelight” directed by Edgardo Cozarinsky for French TV, a four-minute scene deleted by Chaplin after the premiere, two excerpts from the original novel “Footlights” read by Chaplin, and the uncompleted 1919 short The Professor (where Chaplin played a flea-trainer for the first time). The accompanying booklet features an essay by silent movie historian Peter von Bagh and excerpts from a 1952 report from the set by journalist Henry Gris.