Blu-ray/DVD: ‘McCabe,’ ‘Pan,’ ‘Boyhood,’ and the ‘Last Chrysanthemum’ – Remastered

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
Pan’s Labyrinth (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
Boyhood (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)

mccabeMcCabe & Mrs. Miller (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), Robert Altman’s third film since staking out his claim on 1970s cinema with M*A*S*H (1970), turns the western myth into a metaphor for the fantasy of the American Dream colliding with the power of big business.

Warren Beatty is John McCabe, a drifting gambler who rides into the mining camp town of Presbyterian Church (named after a building that has yet to open for business), surveys the possibilities of the muddy streets and rough-hewn buildings carved out of the Oregon wilderness (Vancouver, Canada, stands in for Oregon), and stakes his claim as the slick sophisticate to give these hicks the delights of civilization, namely a whorehouse and a well-lit bar with clean floors and fancy furniture. Julie Christie is Constance Miller, a veteran hooker who hitches a ride on a steam-powered tractor and pitches McCabe a partnership. She comes on strong and knowledgeable, a professional with plenty of management experience, but look carefully in the scene where McCabe negotiates for a handful of haggard prostitutes and you’ll catch her through a doorway, just another bordello working girl taking a break. Altman does nothing to draw our attention to her but it’s the only backstory we get and you can just imagine her hatching a scheme to escape her dead-end trajectory and roll the dice on this flashy backwoods businessman who has more ambition than talent. McCabe plays the would-be frontier tycoon for the miners, striding the camp in his fox-red fur coat and Eastern bowler hat, but Mrs. Miller is the brains behind his success. That’s clear when the corporate mining concern sends in it negotiators (Michael Murphy and Antony Holland) to buy up the town and McCabe plays the hard-sell dealmaker in an ultimatum dressed up in polite ritual.

That’s the plot upon which Altman hangs his film, both a western and an anti-western, defined as much by the communal cast that mills through the picture and mutters dialogue in the swirling pools of sound as by the story of its charming but over-his-head hero McCabe and the caustic Miller who escapes nightly in a cloud of opium. This was the first major film shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, who fled Communist Hungary in 1956 and spent a decade shooting cheap exploitation pictures and the occasional independent effort, and he helps Altman establish his signature style with the film. The camera prowls and floats through scenes with a gentle restlessness, constantly catching character bits and defining details, as if it were as much a character in Altman’s company as the actors. The colors are muted and the palette earthy and dark, giving the image the look and feel of no other western.

Altman shot as he built the town, hewn out of the mud and trees outside of Vancouver, BC, and he incorporated its creation and growth as part of the film, right down to the half-constructed buildings that are slowly finished. It’s our only real measure of time passing in a place where clocks and calendars are less important than seasons and sunsets. Time just washes along and people like McCabe and Miller either flow with it or get left behind. The soundtrack includes spare songs by Leonard Cohen that haunt the film with a lonely, melancholy quality. One of Altman’s masterpieces, and easily one of the finest American films of the 1970s.

Warren Beatty in 'McCabe and Mrs. Miller' - Photo credit: Warner Bros.

Warren Beatty in ‘McCabe and Mrs. Miller’ – Photo credit: Warner Bros.

Mastered for Blu-ray and DVD from a new 4K digital restoration and presented with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. A lot of newly restored films show a marked difference from previous versions but the very nature of the film’s photography, which was systematically desaturated by cinematographer Zsigmond with a method called flashing to evoke an earlier time, means that the improvements are not as obvious. The colors are muted and somber with a dipped-in-amber look (the scenes in the Irishman’s bar have the golden look of candles and lamplight creating pools of illumination in the night) and the image looks softened, as if seen through the light haze of history. That’s a palette that can cause issues in mastering—the film grain is more pronounced and the digital transfer can exaggerate that grain into an overactive storm in the shadows—and Criterion does a great job of preserving that quality. You get a richer texture (and this film has amazing textures) and a greater range of detail and color.

Produced for this edition is a terrific 55-minute documentary “Way Out on a Limb,” featuring new interviews with actors René Auberjonois, Keith Carradine, and Michael Murphy, casting director Graeme Clifford, and script supervisor Joan Tewkesbury, and a 37-minute conversation between film historians Cari Beauchamp and Rick Jewell. There are also archival interviews with Vilmos Zsigmond (conducted in 2005 and 2008 and used in the film No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos) and an archival conversation between production designer Leon Ericksen and art director Al Locatelli with fellow production designer Jack De Govia discussing McCabe at the Art Directors Guild Film Society in Los Angeles in 1999. There are also two archival segments from The Dick Cavett Show from 1971 featuring Pauline Kael (making a case for the film) and, in a later show, Altman, and a gallery of stills shot on the set of the film by photojournalist Steve Schapiro.

Carried over from the 2002 DVD release is commentary by director Robert Altman and producer David Foster (recorded separately but edited together for good effect) and a 10-minute promotional behind-the-scenes documentary from 1971.

panslabcriterionPan’s Labyrinth (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 dark fairy tale, is an elemental Alice in Wonderland amidst the horrors of Francisco Franco’s reign of terror in 1944 Spain. While her brutal and cold-blooded stepfather (Sergi López) hunts down the remnants of the anti-fascist rebellion, our imaginative young Alice (in this case a girl named Ofelia, played with innocence and strength by Ivana Baquero), discovers a magic world of faeries and meets an enigmatic faun (Doug Jones) who sends her on a terrifying odyssey through an underworld of monsters.

Del Toro’s fantastical creatures have a primal, earthy quality, like ancient beings hewn from the earth and enchanted wood and resurrected after centuries in a state of decay and neglect, and a shadow of uncertainty hangs over the sense of wonder. Yet for all the terror Ofelia confronts – and del Toro reaches deep into the mythological subconscious and the unadulterated horror of early fairy tales for his primal visions – the haunting shadow worlds of imagination and nightmares pale next to the evil of the real world. Maribel Verdú co-stars as the caring housekeeper with a double life and Ariadna Gil plays Ofelia’s ailing pregnant mother. It won three Academy Awards: for Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Best Makeup.

The film has previously been available in fine DVD and Blu-ray editions. Criterion presents a new 2K digital master supervised by Guillermo del Toro. New to this edition are a 40-minute interview with del Toro by novelist Cornelia Funke about fairy tales, fantasy, and Pan’s Labyrinth and a new 26-minute interview with actor Doug Jones. Carried over from the 2007 release is a video prologue and commentary by Mexican director/writer Guillermo del Toro who describes his inspirations and explains his colors and textures and images with more articulation than most American directors can muster in their mother tongue. The 30-minute “Pan and the Fairies” follows the fantasy creatures from design to screen and, through raw production footage, shows you exactly (and ingeniously simply) how del Toro created the Faun’s goat-leg walk without animation and there additional archival featurettes, an interactive director’s notebook, footage of young actress Ivana Baquero’s audition for the film, and a foldout insert with a new essay by film critic Michael Atkinson.

Criterion also boxes the film up with previous releases of del Toro’s Cronos (1994) and The Devil’s Backbone (2001) in the box set Trilogía de Guillermo del Toro (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD).

boyhoodcritBoyhood (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) was arguably the movie of 2014. It dominated Top Ten lists and critics groups awards and it offered a different and daring kind of cinematic experience, something rare enough in American popular cinema.

It’s pretty well known that filmmaker Richard Linklater and his four central actors—Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as the parents, Lorelei Linklater (the director’s daughter) as the older sister, and Ellar Coltrane as Mason—shot the film over the course of 12 years to watch not just Mason but everyone in the fictional family grow up and evolve over time. What’s most exciting about the film, however, is the way the film avoids the expected landmark moments and big dramatic conflicts to focus on the sense of life as an experience and an evolution.

Which is not to say there aren’t dramatic moments—Arquette’s single mom shows a history of bad judgment when it comes to life partners and one flight from a particularly bad marriage to a bullying drunk is both harrowing and startlingly realistic—but that the usual spotlight events are left offscreen. Because life isn’t about those flashpoints, it’s about connections made with friends, privileged moments with family, decisions, interests, disappointments, successes, and an evolution of character informed by experience.

That’s what this film becomes: an experience as much in the texture of this fictional life, growing up from first grade to arriving at college, as in the narrative journey. The performances are appropriately low-key and naturalistic and the evolution feels organic, thanks in large part to the collaboration of the actors and incorporating elements of their own experiences in the characters.

It runs 164 minutes, which lends itself to a home viewing (easier to get comfortable for the long haul), but it is something to see straight through as a single narrative experience.

It was previously released in a fine edition from Paramount. Criterion’s new two-disc edition, mastered from a new 2K digital transfer supervised by Linklater, features an all-new slate of supplements. There is commentary featuring Linklater and nine members of the cast and crew, the 50-minute documentary “Twelve Years” featuring behind-the-scenes footage from throughout the twelve-year production, the nearly hour-long discussion featurette “Memories of the Present” featuring Linklater and actors Patricia Arquette and Ellar Coltrane, moderated by producer John Pierson, as half-hour “Always Now” with Linklater and Coltrane in conversation, Michael Koresky’s video essay “The Time of Your Life,” about time in Linklater’s films and narrated by Coltrane, and an animated gallery of portraits of cast and crew by photographer Matt Lankes, narrated with personal thoughts from Linklater, Arquette, Hawke, Coltrane and producer Cathleen Sutherland. The accompanying booklet features a heavily footnoted essay by Jonathan Lethem.

storylastchrystanthemumKenji Mizoguchi, one of the masters of Japanese cinema, had already made 50 films by the time he made The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), the 1939 drama of art, love, and sacrifice that has been called his first genuine masterpiece and is considered by many critics his greatest film. It’s the story of spoiled, arrogant actor Kikunosuke (Shôtarô Hanayagi), the adopted son of a great kabuki master, who believes the glib flattery of his father’s friends and jaded geishas until the family nursemaid, the modest, honest peasant Otoku (Kakuko Mori), confronts him with the truth of his hammy performances and his poor reputation and encourages him to improve. His family sends her away and he leaves the family troupe to make it on his own. Again she appears to offer encouragement, becoming his common-law wife but fully aware that once he proves himself and returns to Tokyo, she will have to leave him, a sacrifice she makes with eyes wide open.

Mizoguchi isn’t criticizing the social order that separates the classes, which modern audiences might assume, merely using it as the basis for a heartfelt tragedy. This is a film built on the belief that great art is worthy of such sacrifice while also recognizing that such sacrifice is as tragic as it is noble. Mizoguchi directs in lovely long takes—the first scene between Kikunosuke and Otoku is a slow, gentle tracking shot down a silent street in the hours before dawn—and subdued performances that suggests the anxiety and emotion under the public show of manners.

In Japanese with English subtitles. Criterion presents the film’s DVD and Blu-ray debut from a new restoration with a new interview with film critic Philip Lopate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More releases on DVD and Blu-ray at Cinephiled

VIFF 2016: Con artists, poets, and life on the streets

I still marvel at how the Vancouver International Film Festival seems to be one of the best-kept secrets on the West Coast. Opening a few weeks after Toronto, it is almost concurrent with the New York Film Festival, which makes headlines with the official American premieres of some of the season’s most anticipated films. Many of those very same films are screening across the country in Vancouver, often a day or two before NYFF, and it is a mere 2 ½ hours away from my Seattle domicile. It’s one of the quirks of the festival circuit: the films that made their respective North American premieres in Toronto (after a possible “unofficial” screening at Telluride) vie for a spot at NYFF, where it gets the media spotlight, while Vancouver quietly slips somewhere around half of those into their line-up.

Here are a few titles snagged by VIFF this year: Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta, Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Unknown Girl, Hong Sang-soo’s Yourself and Yours, Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, Pablo Larraín’sNeruda, Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation, Cristi Puiu’s Sieranevada, Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle…. There are other films playing both fests, and plenty of films screening at Vancouver that are nowhere to be seen on the NYFF schedule, but that should give you a taste of a few of the delights that Vancouver offers over 16 days and eight venues (seven of them within walking distance of one another). It’s why I go every year that I am able.

The festival is over now and my report is a lot later than I intended but most (if not all) of the films I saw will be coming to a theater, disc, or VOD stream near you so here are notes on a few highlights from six days and two trips across the border.

Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden (South Korea), his first film since his superb but unheralded American debut Stoker, returns to the intense imagery, twisting narratives, perverse subcultures, and elevated emotions of his Sympathy trilogy with a story of con artists in 1930s Korea. His lush South Korean thriller, adapted from the British novel “Fingersmith” by Sarah Waters (also made into a British TV miniseries), has the look of a lavish period drama, the elegance of an arthouse picture, the complex plotting of an ingenious caper that only the movies could sustain, and the sex and nudity of an exploitation picture. Park adds the setting: Korea under Japanese colonial occupation. The target is the emotionally troubled heiress of a Japanese family fortune (Kim Min-hee) and the Korean con man (Ha Jung-woo) drafts a street pickpocket and thief (Kim Tae-ri) to play his inside woman, the handmaiden to the Lady. That’s as much as you’d want to know walking in to the film, which lays all that out quite swiftly and wittily in the first few minutes of an involved film filled with set pieces, switchbacks, and flashbacks. It has all the elements you want from a good genre film and then it adds a fascinating dimension of national identity and appropriation as a matter of power, which is more a matter of gender than culture. What appears to be an elegant, self-aware exploitation thriller in costume drama dress reveals itself to be a love story hidden in a tale of exploitation and allegiance and it rewards us with a perverse fairy tale ending, albeit a fairy tale where the big bad wolves are pornographers, forgers, and pimps.

Kim Min-he and Kim Tae-ri in 'The Handmaiden - Photo credit: Magnolia Pitures
Kim Min-he and Kim Tae-ri in ‘The Handmaiden – Photo credit: Magnolia Pitures

Pablo Larraín’s Nerdua (Chile) is ostensibly about the revered poet, senator, and face of Chile’s Communist Party in the 1940s when he went underground and into exile after the government started imprisoning Communist Party members, union leaders, and protesters, with plenty of poetic license applied to history. Call it Larraín’s Citizen Kane, the story of a man’s life as understood through the stories surround him and the power that such stories and perceptions have. As such, it’s a film about storytelling and cultural mythmaking as shaped by Neruda (played by Luis Gnecco as an artist and social bon vivant embracing bourgeois privilege while playing the voice of the proletariat in public) and narrated by his nemesis. Gael García Bernal is Police Prefect Óscar Peluchonneau, assigned by the president to arrest and, more importantly, discredit Neruda in the eyes of the adoring public. He’s the film’s answer to the Citizen Kane‘s reporter Thompson by way of a warped reflection peasant-born poet Neruda, narrating as if he’s the hero of the tale. He’s also a complete fiction, as if created by created by Neruda himself, a poet who carries around paperback detective novels as pinballs from one safe house to another. Larraín’s direction and lush images play up the mythopoetic angle while he undercuts the pretensions with reminders of the reality behind the theater with Peluchonneau’s barbed (yet woefully un-self-aware) commentary and glimpses of the heroes fumbling and stumbling through their imagined heroics. The gaffes and stumbles and failures are for us, a reminder that there are people behind the myth. The myth remains eternal, given life by art and by faith in our heroes.

Paterson (US) is the name of Adam Driver’s character, a blue collar city bus driver; the location, Paterson, NJ; and a reference to a book of poetry by William Carlos Williams, a son of Paterson (the city) and the favorite poet of Paterson (the man), who is also a poet. Got it? Paterson pens his modest odes—most of them inspired by his wife Laura (Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani of About Elly), in the seat of his bus before beginning his route or sitting on a park bench at lunch, scribbling the phrases he’s worked out while watching the world go past his windshield or eavesdropping on the conversations of passengers. This is Jim Jarmusch in the mode of the unassuming poet of everyday American dreamers, surveying the rhythms of life in the blue collar city and celebrating the artistic impulses and creative projects that bring color to our lives: a teenage girl scribbling her own poetry, a bartender with a wall dedicated to the greatest sons of Paterson, NJ, Laura’s black-and-white designs adorning everything from her handmaid curtains to her fledgling cupcake business, though she has a new dream seemingly every day. The humor is low key and the narrative a lazy drift through a week in Paterson’s life, which has its own, inviolable routine. For Jarmusch, the wonder comes in the grace notes and delightful coincidences (watch for the twins that keep weaving through his story) and the warmth in the way he appreciates those moments. Paterson hasn’t any grand ambitions—even his poetry is a private pleasure, so different from Laura’s exuberance in sharing her creative activities with the world—but it doesn’t make his art or his life any less meaningful.

Staying Vertical (France), written and directed by Alain Guiraudie (Stranger by the Lake), plays like a metaphor for creative labor and writer’s block that got lost in the same loop that Léo (Damien Bonnard), a blocked screenwriter avoiding his deadline with a circular journey through the French countryside to the city and back, endlessly spirals down. It opens with him trying to pick up a surly, handsome young punk (Basile Meilleurat) and then shacking up with a single mom (India Hair) on a sheep farm on the prairie. It’s hard to measure time passing in this loop and before we know, he’s the father of a newborn that mom essentially leaves him in the break-up. This closed universe also includes the strangest naturopathic doctor you’ve ever met (she attaches plant fronds to Léo like cables to check his vitals) and a cantankerous old man who blasts prog rock from vinyl in the farmhouse home he’s let slide since his wife’s death. Along with the hardly-subtle symbolism stirred through the cycle (watch out for the wolves picking off the sheep!) is explicit sexuality (no surprise to anyone familiar with Guiraudie’s films but startling to anyone else) and naked desire. I found it overly glib and indulgent and the pansexual Léo is not exactly likable but fatherhood makes him sympathetic—it’s the only thing that motivates him besides his own desires and creative blocks—and Guiraudie brings an enigmatic beauty to the physical landscapes and Léo’s spiritual transformation and a sour twist to his satire on artistic purity in a world where wolves pick off the stragglers and loners abandoned to the wilds. By the end of the film I was, if not won over, at least intrigued by the earthy poetry of Guiraudie’s direction and the mix of resignation to loss and determination to survive.

Ken Loach won the Palm d’Or for I, Daniel Blake (UK), a classic Loach social commentary on the struggles of the working classes and underclasses let down by society. This one, about a 59-year-old carpenter and widower in Newcastle recovering from a heart attack while fighting for assistance, is at once an angry assault on a bureaucracy that treats people as case numbers to be filed and shuffled on, a defiant cry for dignity and respect for the folks at the bottom of the social ladder, and a touching portrait of human compassion and contact in the cracks of the system and the queues of people lining up for government assistance. The paperwork deems Daniel (played with incredulity and dogged determination by comedian Dave Johns) fine for work (no matter that his heart surgeon forbids him from returning to work) and cuts off his disability assistance, sending him through a surreal maze with no exit. Loach sustains the grueling ordeal with a tart humor, courtesy of John’s exasperated commentary at every bureaucratic roadblock, and his outreach to a single mother newly arrived in the area and struggling to feed her two kids while her assistance is on hold. It’s not just the compassion, it’s the feeling of being useful that the system his systematically beaten down. Katie (Hayley Squires) is not the daughter he never had, she’s just someone who needs someone on her side. That’s something Daniel can provide and it gives him reason to keep plugging away.

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have their own way with social realism and commentary, one that that doesn’t have Loach’s humor but is just as good at capturing the textures and rhythms of lives and often better as sketching the anxieties and conflicts within communities. The Unknown Girl (Belgium) revisits themes from earlier films—poverty in poor communities, families going paycheck to paycheck, immigrants at the bottom of the social food chain—but views them through the eyes of a young doctor (Adèle Haenel). She’s on her way out of a small neighborhood office she has been running for a retired old doctor (perhaps a mentor, certainly a friend), treating folks on assistance and government insurance, at times paying out pocket in cash, at others putting off payments, and into bigger practice with prestige, resources, and an more upscale clientele. And then she discovers that a young woman found dead nearby had knocked on her door as she was closing and she ignored her. The police have no identity for the young woman, an immigrant and probably a streetwalker, so the doctor takes the responsibility upon herself and follows the trail into outskirts of the community she’s never really experienced. This is Dardenne redux in many ways, a film shot almost entirely with handheld cameras getting a little closer to the subjects than we’re used to, measuring both the connections she has built with some patients and the distance she keeps with others. But I also appreciate how her journey is initially driven by guilt but ends up powered by compassion and a sense of responsibility. Where I, Daniel Blake ends in frustration and rage and blame at the system, The Unknown Girl suggests that we can make things better one person at a time.

Have a Freudian Field Day with ‘Spider Baby’

Spider Baby (1967), more formally known as Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told, is a magnificent film maudit of exploitation cinema, a true American independent vision, and an eccentric triumph unappreciated (and in fact largely unseen) in its own time. Think of Lord of the Flies by way ofFreaks, a mix of horror and comedy with a nod to Psycho and a dash of Freud. It’s one of the greatest blasts of B-movie creativity to get dumped into American drive-ins and grindhouses—and get rediscovered decades later in the era of home video by genre-movie mavens. (That’s how I first stumbled upon the film and fell in love with its invention and inspiration.)

This was the official directorial debut of Jack Hill, who apprenticed under Roger Corman (shooting uncredited scenes for Dementia 13 and The Terror), and went on to make his name in cult-movie circles with films including Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974), both starring Pam Grier, and Switchblade Sisters (1975), a girl-gang picture that Quentin Tarantino rereleased under his Rolling Thunder banner in the late 1990s.

Continue reading at Keyframe

Blu-ray: The original ‘Cat People’

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

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

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

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

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

More horror Blu-ray and DVD special editions at Cinephiled

Blu-ray: Bill & Ted and World War II

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

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

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

Debuts on Blu-ray with no supplements.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blu-ray: Ghostbusters 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More new releases on Blu-ray and DVD on Cinephiled

Blu-ray: X-Men Apocalypse

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rated PG-13

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

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

More new releases on Blu-ray and DVD on Cinephiled

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More DVD and Blu-ray releases at Cinephiled

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

dekalogThe Dekalog (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blu-ray/DVD: The Neon Demon

neondemonThe Neon Demon (Broadgreen, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – “I can’t sing, I can’t dance, I can’t write… no real talent. But I’m pretty, and I can make money off pretty.” We first meet Jesse (Elle Fanning), a 16-year-old girl from Middle America looking to leverage her youth and innocent beauty into a modeling career in Los Angeles, made up as a glamorous victim of a decadent world. Sprawled out in designer clothes across an expensive couch with fake blood slathered across her neck and dripping down her arm, she could be shooting the ad for her own fate in the big bad city.

Nicholas Winding Refn, who wrote and directed his social commentary-as-heady horror film, isn’t big on subtlety. Elle Fanning is an enormously talented young actress who has become shorthand casting for innocence, youth, and authenticity, and that serves Refn’s purposes perfectly. She does indeed have that “deer in the headlights” look, as her agent says in one of the on-the-nose lines that fills the script, and her fresh look, not yet jaded by LA decadence, makes her the next big thing in a culture where the supermodels du jour age out of their prime at 20.

This is LA as a culture of predators and prey. On one of her first nights in the city, staying in a seedy motel (run by a thuggish, intimidating Keanu Reeves) that is home to drop-outs and runaways, there’s an intruder in the her room. Not a person but a cougar that has already sniffed out the fresh meat in town. Put another way, Jesse is the delicate angelfish swimming in a pool of sharks but she learns quickly. Two hardened, competitive models (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee) size her up as the competition immediately at some industry soiree and begin immediately with the head games. A freelance make-up artist (Jena Malone) takes her under her wing but is it sisterly concern or something else? Malone is a seemingly warm, normal, human connection in a culture of surfaces and attitudes, but when we drop in at her day job styling corpses at a funeral home her whole nature is tossed into question when she uses her subjects as sex dolls. She’s an artist who wants to possess her creations. Heathcoate is perfectly feral as the cutthroat superstar model who plays mindgames with the competition while Abbey Lee, a real-life modeling veteran, brings out an ambiguous mix of hunger, loss, desperation, and opportunism as she loses jobs to Jesse, who starts to become as brittle and self-absorbed as the rest of the walkway meat market.

The Neon Demon was booed at Cannes and almost universally panned by critics that saw the film as vapid or shallow, but then that’s taking it all at face value. Beauty is the beast in this a horror film as fashion layout. Refn’s stripped down production design and eighties neon visuals are accompanied by synth soundtracks and dance club sounds, but the film is also filled with images of fertility, lunar cycles, hedonism, and occult symbols. What begins as an allegory for the hunger for youth and beauty with the modeling / show business industry as a form of vampirism becomes absurdly literal, channeling cannibalism and Countess Bathory bathing in the blood of virgins. I don’t see it as failed social satire, as its critics claim, but as a more primal portrait of the obsession for youth and beauty and the drive to control, dominate, package, own, and ultimately devour it. Jesse is the latest sacrifice to the gods of success and desire and power in NWR’s monogrammed photo shoot. And even if you don’t go with Refn’s predatory allegory, you can simply luxuriate in the glorious images and mad imagination of the modeling industry as sacrificial altar. This is style as substance and it is delicious.

Blu-ray and DVD, with commentary by filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn and actress Elle Fanning and the featurettes “About Neon Demon” and “Behind the Soundtrack of The Neon Demon.”

More new releases on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

Videophiled: Pioneers of African-American Cinema

pioneersafricanamPioneers of African-American Cinema (Kino, Blu-ray, DVD) – The legacy of African-American filmmaking—specifically films made by and for African-American audiences before Hollywood integrated its casts and gave leading roles to African-American actors—is largely unknown to even passionate films buffs, in part because the films were rarely seen by white audiences in their day, and in part because so few of the films had been preserved with the same dedication given to the maverick films of Hollywood. This landmark box set is the first serious effort devoted to collecting and preserving feature films and shorts produced between 1915 and 1946 for black audiences, most of them made by African-American filmmakers. The scope of the set embraces drama, music, adventure, comedy, and documentary.

Independent director/producer Oscar Micheaux, the most successful and prolific black filmmaker of his day, directly confronted race and racism in such movies as Within Our Gates (1920), which took up the cause of education while broaching such taboo subjects as miscegenation and lynching, The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920), his response to Birth of a Nation, and Birthright (1938). The set includes nine features and a short from Micheaux, including his most famous film Body and Soul (1925) starring Paul Robeson playing brothers (one good and the other a con man in a priest’s collar) in his film debut.

There are two features and a short by actor/director Spencer Williams, including his hugely successful directorial debut The Blood of Jesus (1941), an allegorical drama of a woman’s spiritual odyssey after death: an angel directs her to heaven but at the crossroads the devil tries to tempt her to Hell (a city of nightclubs, gambling rooms, and fast-living folks at night, of course). The Blood of Jesus was shot for pittance (something like $6,000) and it’s a scruffy production in a lot of ways, but it’s also inventive and impassioned. Williams plays the grieving husband of the dead woman whose repentance for his non-religious ways gives her a second chance. Also from Williams is Dirty Gertie from Harlem USA (1946), an unauthorized adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s short story “Miss Thompson” relocated to the Caribbean. It was one of Williams’ final films as a director and stars Francine Everett (her last name is misspelled as Everette in the credits), a singer, dancer, and actress who turned her back on the stereotypical roles offered by Hollywood. Dirty Gertie gave her the chance to play a glamorous, sexy black woman never seen in Hollywood pictures. Williams himself takes on a small but memorable role: the “voodoo woman” Old Hager, who sees no good in Gertie’s future. In some ways he anticipates Tyler Perry, playing the voice of fate in drag, but with his visible mustache and a husky voice, Williams barely bothers with the pretense of playing a wizened old woman. The weirdness of the scene, however, adds to the tension as a black cat and a broken mirror bring out Gertie’s superstitions.

Williams also co-stars in The Bronze Buckaroo (1939), a black western starring longtime Duke Ellington singer Herb Jeffries as a singing cowboy hero on the range. He has a charisma and confidence that should have made him a screen star outside of the race film circuit had Hollywood treated black actors, black stories, and the black experience with any respect. Williams, meanwhile, went on to play Andrew H. Brown, aka Andy, on the TV incarnation of the long running comedy Amos ‘n’ Andy. It gave him the biggest audience he ever had but his career was much richer than that single role, as these films show.

Those films are relatively well known among those with a passion for film history. They are landmarks and success stories in a film culture that was largely unknown outside the black community for years—Within Our Gates and The Blood of Jesus were both added to the National Film Registry—and have been available (though often in inferior editions) on disc and VHS before that. These editions are not pristine, mind you, because these films were not considered worthy of preservation until decades after their respective releases, but they’ve been mastered from the best available elements from archives across the country and look better than previous releases, and the silent films all feature musical scores, most of them newly composed and recorded for this release.

There are also some fascinating discoveries, all of them new to me and surely to many other interested viewers.

The earliest films are a trio of slapstick comedy shorts featuring all-black casts produced for both black and white audiences by Luther Pollard for the Chicago-based Ebony Film Corporation. In Pollard’s own words (written in a business letter to a West Coast distributor), he intended to show that “colored players can put over good comedy without any of that crap-shooting, chicken-stealing, razor-dealing, watermelon-eating stuff that the colored people generally have been a little disgusted seeing.” Two Knights of Vaudeville (1918), a show business spoof featuring two buddies (Jimmy Marshall and Frank Montgomery) who put on their own stage show, plays on some of the stereotypes that Pollard wanted to get away from—the intertitles are filled with mangled grammar and the hand-drawn signs and bills for their neighborhood show are rife with the misspellings and backwards letters—but if these guys are buffoons, their neighborhood audience knows it all too well and arrives prepared. Mercy, the Mummy Mumbled (1918) pokes fun at both mad scientists and the Egyptian mummy craze that followed the discovery of King Tut’s tomb early in the 20th century. Director R.G. Phillips manages the many moving parts of this busy comedy quite deftly, and offers perhaps the last glimpse audiences will see of an African-American scientist on the screen for decades.

Non-fiction is represented by Zora Neale Hurston’s landmark ethnographic films chronicling life in rural African-American communities. In addition to being a celebrated author (Their Eyes Were Watching God), playwright, and poet, Hurston was a pioneering anthropologist who documented life in black communities in the American South and Caribbean diaspora and this set includes two excerpts of her work: Zora Neale Hurston Fieldwork Footage from 1928 (about 3 minutes) and Commandment Keeper Church, Beaufort South Carolina, May 1940 (1940), a 15-minute excerpt of field recording footage that observes religious services (including communal singing and revival-style sermons) in the Gullah community of the Sea Islands of South Carolina. Norman Chalfin made field audio recordings of the Beaufort footage which accompanies the footage. It’s not synchronized but these authentic recordings of the distinctive musical and vocal culture of the Gullah people adds to the texture and atmosphere of the events photographed.


The Flying Ace (1926) is an aviation melodrama with a black pilot hero that was shot so cheaply it couldn’t afford any actual flying scenes; apart from a few shots of a prop plane taxing on a grass runway, the flight scenes are suggested with characters in prop planes against an unmoving white wall (the white patch is a dead giveaway) while wind machines blow. It demands a certain suspension of disbelief but it pays off nicely. Not in the plot, a mystery with a convoluted plot and a tiresome resolution, or even necessarily the stalwart leading man, but in his sidekick Peg (Steve Reynolds), a one-legged mechanic who uses his crutch as a comic prop as much as a tool. He uses it to pump a bicycle in a chase sequence, and then mounts it on the handlebars to reveal a hidden rifle! The film was produced by the Florida-based Norman Studios and, though director/producer Richard E. Norman was white, the cast is entirely African-American its portrayal of a black aviator was an inspiration to audiences who wouldn’t see another black flier on the screen for decades.

The films of James and Eloyce Gist are a different kind of revelation. They were not professional filmmakers but traveling evangelists who made films to accompany their sermons. These allegorical dramas were made without professional equipment or studio facilities, using non-professional actors and shooting 16mm film without sound. Historical information on their work is scarce but the filmmakers appears to have been a genuine creative partnership with Eloyce, a successful entrepreneur who married the Christian evangelist James in the late 1920s, intimately involved in writing, directing, and producing beginning with Hell-Bound Train (circa 1930), a short feature that tackled the issue of temperance in an allegorical narrative. Their follow-up, the short film Verdict: Not Guilty (circa 1933), presents the heavenly trial of a woman who has died giving childbirth out of wedlock as a religious allegory by was of a church pageant. It is full of religious imagery and evocative folkloric elements with flashbacks to the woman’s life that provide a realism in sharp contrast to the allegorical pageantry. The texture, the pageantry, and the allegorical and ritualistic elements of both films look forward to the American Underground cinema of Kenneth Anger, Curtis Harrington, and others in the 1950s and 1960s.

Both of these films were reconstructed from fragments; the films of James and Eloyce Gist were one-of-a-kind, personally carried by the filmmakers to churches and community centers and screened on portable 16mm projectors, and had fallen apart when they were donated to the Library of Congress after the death of Eloyce in 1974. And a third, uncompleted film, Heaven-Bound Travelers (circa 1935), was discovered among the rolls of film in the Gist collection at the Library of Congress. It is an even more ambitious production. Eloyce Gist takes a central role onscreen as a wife and mother who is wrongfully accused of adultery by her husband and is left to fend for herself and their daughter in the world. As she struggles to sustain them, the husband becomes riddled with guilt and struggles with his decision, and the social realism of the drama shifts to an allegorical struggle between the devil, appearing to tempt humanity to sin, and the angels.

Hell-Bound Train
Hell-Bound Train

All films mastered from the best available elements preserved at The Library of Congress, George Eastman Museum, Museum of Modern Art, UCLA Film and Television Archive, and other archives. Preservation came late to these films, which were independently produced (and in some cases self-financed) and essentially orphaned after their theatrical runs. Some of the feature films have been available on cheap home video editions, almost all of them indifferently transferred from whatever source materials they could access. Some of those discs are so blurry and hissy it’s hard to make out the film underneath the noise.

While these films have undergone no extensive restoration, they have been professionally mastered from the best existing materials, which mean that damage and wear is visible but there is clarity to the image (many of the films look quite crisp) and the soundtrack. Do not expect pristine presentations. The films in this collection (at least the features and theatrical shorts) show the evidence of their respective tours of duty through the (mostly southern) “race films” circuit.

DVD and Blu-ray editions (the Blu-ray set includes four exclusive shorts) with an accompanying booklet with essays, credits, and notes on the films.

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