Feb 12 2015

Videophiled: Facing ‘Force Majeure’

ForceM

Magnolia

Force Majeure (Magnolia, Blu-ray, DVD) – One of the surprises in the Oscar nominations this year was that this film, Sweden’s official entry for the foreign language film category and a Cannes film festival winner, did not place among the five nominated films. Director Ruben Östlund gives us a family on vacation and what appears to be the inciting event of a disaster film, but in fact the killer avalanche is merely an illusion (though one so dramatic it gets your adrenaline flowing). The real drama is the panicked response of the husband (Johannes Kuhnke) and the fallout through the rest of the vacation, which Östlund explores with a dark sense of humor.

The resentment of his wife (Lisa Loven Kongsli) is topped only by her indignation over his denial, which leads to a kind of public shaming, a scene of social awkwardness spiked with discomforting laughs. Even funnier is his attempt to evoke sympathy with an emotional display that is utterly, shamelessly contrived. Just like his instinctive flight from danger, he doesn’t seem able to muster the proper response of a caring, protective husband and father. But is insincere? Östlund doesn’t judge. He’s more interested in questioning the expectations and obligations and starting a discussion that audiences can carry on after the film ends.

The soundtrack is largely in Swedish with some English and French dialogue, with English subtitles. Blu-ray and DVD with video interviews with director Ruben Östlund and actor Johannes Kuhnke and a promotional featurette. Also on Digital HD.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Feb 11 2015

Videophiled: Time-traveling through ‘Predestination’

Predest

Sony

Predestination (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD) is kind of a generic title for a perversely clever time travel tale, but you can understand why The Spierig Brothers, the screen credit for filmmaking team Michael and Peter Spierig who adapted Robert Heinlein’s short story to the screen, didn’t go with Heinlein’s title. “—All You Zombies—” would give audiences the wrong idea. There are no zombies in the story. What we get is much weirder, the story of an agent (Ethan Hawke) for the Bureau of Time Travel on the trail of a deadly bomber and a sad young man who calls himself “The Unwed Mother” and offers a life story of tragic, soul-crushing loss, betrayal, and loneliness. Australian actress Sarah Snook plays the young man, who was born and raised a girl and underwent a change of sex because… well, unless you’ve already read the story, the revelation of each dramatic turn is best experienced. Meanwhile, as his / her story unfolds in linear fashion at first, the film starts looping back to reveal a complicated patter of a life lived in overlapping eras, crossing paths in ways that send our tragic figure down that path as if fated.

For a faithful adaptation of a short story, the film is packed with plot twists and narrative surprises and the challenge faced by the Spierig Brothers is obscuring details that would give away the twists without making it obvious. On that front they are fairly successful—it can be a little distracting when a face is purposely hidden from view, but the story is so strange and the personal ordeal so emotionally crushing that it kept my focus. While one side of my brain worked at sifting through clues and trying to pieces together the grand design, the other side was caught up in the personal odyssey. It could have become something of a sideshow gimmick but Snook makes it work with an affecting portrait of torment and isolation. Sure, the young man who first enters the bar seems a little “off” in our first meeting (something the film is able to leverage into initial tension), but as the film unfolds, what seems weird simply becomes sad. It’s terribly clever with a densely-woven plot (all of it there in the blueprint of the story), but the human drama and the slow revelation of kinship shared by these two strangers in the bar gives the film its bruised heart and its lost, isolated figure of tragedy a sense of purpose and reason to go on.

Blu-ray and DVD with a featurette and bloopers. The Blu-ray includes an exclusive 75-minute documentary “All You Zombies: Bringing Predestination to Life.” Also available on Digital HD and VOD.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Feb 10 2015

Videophiled: Jake Gyllenhaal – ‘Nightcrawler’

Nightcrawler

Universal

Nightcrawler (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) earned an Oscar nomination for director Dan Gilroy’s screenplay, a wicked satire of the tabloid news television that chases sensationalistic stories for ratings (the cliché “if it bleeds, it leads” is the guiding philosophy). It should also have earned a nomination for Jake Gyllenhaal, whose Louis Bloom is a twisted Horatio Alger with the focus, drive, and heartless conniving of a sociopath. He’s a petty thief and hustler who fancies himself a self-made entrepreneur in search of a break and he finds his niche in the world of freelance video journalists, the guys who rush to crime scenes and accidents to capture the freshest, goriest, most intimate footage and sell it to the highest bidder on the local TV stations. He’s Weegee with a video camera and he’s a quick study, a master of marketing and negotiations and a ruthless competitor who isn’t above eliminating competitors and obstacles.

It takes place almost entirely at night and director of photography Robert Elswit (an Oscar winner for There Will Be Blood) carves out a marvelous neo-noir atmosphere of Los Angeles at night with his razor-sharp photography of the streets after dark, lit by pools of street lamps, sweeps of headlights, and the cold, harsh glare of Louis’ portable spotlight. To Louis the streets are just conduits to the next hot spot and locations in which to stage his next scoop. Night may be a shroud but Louis doesn’t hide in the shadows. He’s brazen enough to do it the open and part of the crispness of Gilroy’s direction is the exacting detail of Louis’ methods.

Critics have complained that its portrait of the sensationalistic news philosophy lacks depth but that really no more than the backdrop for the real story. Louis is a superbly written character and Gyllenhaal sells every dimension of him, from his unctuous surface manner to the dead eyes and cold calculation behind his blank smiles. It’s as precise as Louis’ dialogue, a practiced line of ingratiating small talk and self-help platitudes that apes the manner of the ambitious young man eager to show his potential. Underneath, he’s plotting how to get the next scoop and leverage it into a business opportunity. Crimes are merely opportunities and victims merely the raw material for his camera. He’s not above manipulating a crime scene for dramatic effect.

Blu-ray and DVD with commentary by director / writer Dan Gilroy with producer Tony Gilroy and editor John Gilroy (like the film, it’s a family affair) and the featurette “If It Bleeds, It Leads: Making Nightcrawler.” The Blu-ray also includes a bonus DVD and Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film. Also on Digital HD and VOD.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Feb 08 2015

Videophiled: ‘The Retrieval’

Retreival

Kino Lorber

The Retrieval (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD) is a moving, heartfelt drama centered on a thirteen-year-old black boy, Will (Ashton Sanders), who serves as a kind of Judas Goat to a band of bounty hunters tracking escaped slaves in the midst of the American Civil. Will’s mercenary uncle Marcus (Keston John) tries to sell him to the head bounty hunter and bullies him when they set out to lure one last target into the arms of the gang. Nate (Tishuan Scott), a free man with a bounty on his head, is suspicious of Marcus but slowly warms to Will. As he becomes something of a father figure to the scared, brow-beaten boy, Will struggles with his conscience while leading Nate from freedom back to the slave states of the South. The high stakes of this situation—Will is an African-American boy in the south during the Civil War and an orphan under the control of an outlaw who threatens to kill him if he tries to escape—frame an intimate coming of age story on a vast canvas.

Filmmaker Chris Eska shoots the film against the alternately lovely and desolate landscapes of state parks and national forests in Eastern Texas, standing in for blurred lines of battle around Virginia. He hints at the broader war with a single battle scene, which is more of a chaotic skirmish in the brush that sends Will fleeing in panic. Sanders, whose open face and wide, nervous eyes communicate his vulnerability, gives Will a yearning for connection and a sincerity in conflict with his fear, and Scott brings a dignity and a sureness to Nate, a man who had to abandon everyone he loved to live free in the North. It’s quite powerful and very rewarding.

Blu-ray and DVD, with filmmaker commentary, a 48-minute cast and filmmaker Q&A, featurettes, and deleted scenes among the supplements.

More new releases on disc and digital at Cinephiled

Feb 07 2015

TV / Streaming Review: ‘Black Mirror’

Britain’s audacious answer to The Twilight Zone for our plugged-in world of social media and screen culture, Black Mirror seemed to come out of nowhere. The anthology show debuted on Netflix in December with “The National Anthem,” which caused a viral sensation. That first episode addressed hacking, cybercrime, political protest, and extortion with a savagely satirical story about the kidnapping of a royal family member. To save her, the Prime Minister was instructed—in the form of a video ransom demand streamed for the world to watch—to fuck a pig on live television, and he did. “The National Anthem” was the most transgressive thing I’ve ever seen on TV, and I see a lot of TV.

Rory Kinnear (center) in “The National Anthem”

Written by English journalist-turned-satirist Charlie Brooker, Black Mirror’s creator, that episode was wickedly, nastily funny. Unlike most premium American television, however, its shock value has a real point. The YouTube terrorism of “The National Anthem” is but an nth-degree exaggeration of our own cyber-bullying, celebrity phone hacking, and North Korean cyber-attacks.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Feb 05 2015

Videophiled: ‘John Wick’

JohnWick

Lionsgate

John Wick (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) is the kind of action movie that Hollywood rarely makes anymore: simple, streamlined, with action scenes that rely on physical rather than computer generated elements. Keanu Reeves plays the titular character, a former assassin for the Russian mob (led by Michael Nyqvist) who is roused from retirement when a group of thugs (led by his old boss’s sadistic son) go after him while he’s mourning the death of his wife. It’s a revenge film, pure and simple, built on elements right out of pulp fiction and crime soap operas and an elaborate criminal underworld that could have been thought up in a comic book. And it is non-stop action of the old-fashioned kind. Digital effects are used to stylize the imagery and frame the set pieces, but the action scenes themselves are all about human bodies in motion, creative choreography, and impressive stunts, punctuated by bullets and explosions.

Chad Stahelski gets sole screen credit as director but it’s understood that David Leitch (credited as a producer) co-directed. Both are veteran stuntmen and stunt coordinators and they build the film with minimal dialogue, basic motivations, and elaborately designed action scenes, often in close quarters, the better to show off the fighters. Reeves is an accomplished martial artist in his own right and he looks great in action. Not to make too much of this, it’s an updated version of a 70s drive-in revenge movie with the look of a graphic novel. You go with the anger of a wronged man with killer skills and enjoy the ride. Adrian Palicki (currently playing action hero on Agents of SHIELD) is a rival assassin and Ian McShane and Willem Dafoe carve out their defining presence in small roles.

Blu-ray and DVD with six featurettes, including a look at the stunt choreography and preparation and a featurette on the second unit. Exclusive to the Blu-ray is commentary by the two directors and a bonus DVD and Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film. Also available on VOD.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Feb 04 2015

Videophiled: ‘Porco Rosso’ and more from Studio Ghibli

The films of Studio Ghibli, the animation studio created by Hayao Miyazaki, continue their Blu-ray rollout in the U.S. with three more debuts. Only one of this set, however, is directed by the animation legend himself. All three discs feature both English language and original Japanese soundtracks (with optional English subtitles), the complete film in storyboard form set to the soundtrack, and Japanese trailer, plus a bonus DVD copy of the film.

PorcoRosso

Disney

Porco Rosso (Disney, Blu-ray) is Miyazaki’s fantasy of a loner flying ace, a World War I hero who lives in isolation on an island in the Adriatic Sea and patrols the skies on a personal mission to keep them safe from high-flying sky pirates in an imaginary post-World War I Italy. There’s something else about this aerial knight: he has the face of pig, the result of a magical spell that is referenced but never fully explained. It simply is, and it marks this chivalrous romantic as a tortured hero cursed to be alone (even though there are two women in love him). The title is Italian for “red pig,” perhaps Miyazaki’s fanciful answer to the Red Baron.

The 1992 feature was a huge hit in Japan and a personal project for Miyazaki, whose love of aviation and Italy can also be seen in his more serious final feature The Wind Rises. He fills the film with beautifully-executed aerial dogfights set against the blue Mediterranean skies and seas and constructs a sentimental vision of Italy between the wars as lovingly detailed as his European village in Kiki’s Delivery Service. There are flamboyantly caricatured figures and slapstick sequences to this lighthearted comic swashbuckler but also a wistful sense of loss for the honor and chivalry for the past. Michael Keaton voices Porco for the English language version and Cary Elwes is his nemesis, an American pilot hired by the sky pirates to shoot him down. Also features the voices of Susan Egan, Kimberly Williams, and David Ogden Stiers.

Includes a “Behind the Microphone” featurette with the English language voice cast and an interview with producer Toshio Suzuki (in Japanese with simultaneous English audio translation).

talesEarthsea

Disney

Tales from Earthsea (Disney, Blu-ray), a 2006 production based on the “Earthsea” novels by Ursula Le Guin and a concept developed by Hayao Miyazaki, marks the directorial debut of his son, Goro Miyazaki. Miyazaki Pere’s influence is apparent in the themes of nature in balance and the greed of mankind tipping the scales, and the character designs and types are also familiar, with dragons out of Asian culture dropped into a medieval European world of castles and towers. Yet Goro lacks his father’s storytelling richness and narrative sweep, and for all the gorgeous detail of the animation he fails to create much tension or energy.

Fans of Ursula Le Guin will have their own problems with the way the film boils down her mythology to a generic fantasy odyssey tale. But there is a visual grace unique to the Studio Ghibli brand, and the dark powers manifest themselves in a weirdness that bends the natural world in unnatural ways. The American voice cast includes Timothy Dalton, Cheech Marin, Mariska Hargitay and Willem Dafoe.

Features the hour-long documentary “The Birth Story of the Film Soundtrack,” which is in Japanese with English subtitles, and the brief featurette “Behind the Studio: Origins Of The Earthsea.”

PomPoko

Disney

Pom Poko (Disney, Blu-ray), directed by Isao Takahata, is an environmental drama about a small community of magical shape-shifting raccoons trying to hold off a development encroaching on their habitat. This is right out of the traditional Studio Ghibli style, complete with lovingly detailed characters and environmental message. The scenes of the raccoons attempting to replicating human form and behavior is often hilarious, but the undercurrent of the comedy is serious, a plea to save the vanishing wilderness of Japan. The voice cast of the English language version includes Jonathan Taylor Thomas, J.K. Simmons, Olivia d’Abo, Clancy Brown, and Maurice LaMarche.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Feb 03 2015

Videophiled: Dear White People

DearWhite

Lionsgate

Dear White People (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD), the feature debut of director / writer Justin Simien, is a sharp, smart, ambitious satire of race, racism, privilege, prejudice, and power at an Ivy League college that has drawn comparisons to Spike Lee. Which is fitting; Simien uses humor and provocation to explore issues of race and race relationships in the so-called post-racial era, he spreads ideas and perspectives around a large array of characters and creates debate through criss-crossing stories, and uses the crucible of college (as Spike did in School Daze) as both microcosm and as a specific culture where young people develop their identities as adults. Simien is his own filmmaker, however, with his own style and sensibility.

The title comes from the sarcastic punctuations of a radio program from campus activist Samantha “Sam” White (Tessa Thompson), who punctures the hypocrisies of political correctness with bull’s-eye stingers that are the buzz of the campus. She’s the rabble rouser who finds herself, against her own expectations, elected as head of her house, but she’s just one of a number of characters in the lumpy melting pot of a busy ensemble piece. Tyler James Williams, once the cute kid of the TV show Everybody Hates Chris, is Lionel, the subject of savage harassment as a gay black nerd trying to find his voice as a journalist in a fringe paper. He’s promised a feature in the award-winning campus paper if he wades into the controversies getting fanned by Sam. Or at least that’s how the all-white staff of the officially-sanctioned paper sees it, and if this film is about anything it is how the meaning of issues and events shift according to perspective, experience, and expectations. I can only guess that black audiences will nod in agreement at some of these observations. As one of the white people addressed by the film, I appreciate the change in perspective. That’s one of the things movies can (and American movies all too rarely) do with such immediacy and vitality.

Justin Simien suffers no lack of ambition. Most of the criticisms you can lob at the film are due to overreach. There are hypocrites on both sides of the battle lines and everyone projects a persona that they carefully cultivate. Their real selves are protected behind the social mask and contradictions abound between aspiration and reality. The white characters, however, have far less dimension and less interesting contradictions than the black characters. It’s a weakness in the debate Simien stirs up but it is also a matter of perspective. This experience is seen almost completely from the black student community, a diverse collection of individuals who both evoke and defy stereotypes. They’re a campus minority that occupies a majority of the film (the film tagline is “A satire about being a black face in a white place”).

dear-white-people

Tessa Thompson and friends

 

Simien is a smart storyteller who delivers both a well-articulated sense of outrage and a resigned frustration at a system that is more concerned with maintaining appearances than acknowledging and addressing problems. And he has an unexpectedly sharp satirical wit and uses humor to pare away the familiar understanding of its issues and offer a different perspective. His ambition is ultimately more Do the Right Thing than School Daze, complete with a climax inspired by a real-life event that brings the issues to a flashpoint and a denouement that denies easy solutions.

Blu-ray and DVD with two commentary tracks (one with director / writer Justin Simien alone, the other with Simien joined by cast members Tessa Thompson, Tyler James Williams, Teyonah Parris, and Brandon Bell), the featurette “The Making of Dear White People,” skits and satirical “The More You Know About Black People” PSAs, and deleted scenes and outtakes, plus a bonus Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film. Also available as a Digital HD purchase (with featurettes but no commentary).

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Jan 29 2015

Videophiled: Aquaman takes the ‘Throne of Atlantis’

Justice Throne

Warner

Justice League: Throne of Atlantis (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD) continues the reinvention of the DC Universe in the Animated Original Movies line, adapting the graphic novel of the same name written by Geoff Johns for “The New 52″ comic book reboot. Ostensibly the origin story of Aquaman, it also offers the origins of this incarnation of the Justice League as Aquaman’s half-brother declares war on the surface world and Arthur Curry (veteran voice artist Matt Lanter), a man whose ability to talk to fish creates an identity crisis, discovers his Atlantian heritage and joins forces to Earth’s mightiest heroes to stop him. Don’t skip the post-credits tag.

This direct-to-disc animated feature continues to develop a distinctive chemistry for its DC heroes, with Jason O’Mara’s grim, humorless Batman and Jerry O’Connell’s Superman, a gentle god of a hero who embraces the mortality of his adopted human home, as the two foundations of the new team. (Superman is dating Wonder Woman in human guise, which is a novel concept for the imperious Amazon queen voiced by Rosario Dawson.) The team is filled out by Green Lantern (a jesting Nathan Fillion), The Flash (upbeat Christopher Gorham), Shazam (Sean Astin as boyish Billy Batson in a demi-god’s body), and Cyborg (a very serious Shemar Moore). It’s a different kind of sensibility from the Bruce Timm-influenced films that began the series and I appreciate the alternative interpretation. Like the comic book universe it draws from, these animated features remind us that there are other approaches to the iconic heroes and stories. It’s also closer to the source material than the live action DC films which are more interested in reinventing and replicating the original stories.

Features a sneak peak at the upcoming Batman vs. Robin, the featurette “Villains of the Deep,” and four bonus episodes from Cartoon Network shows The Brave and the Bold, Aquaman, and Justice League Unlimited (all featuring Aquaman). Exclusive to the Blu-ray are the Throne of Atlantis panel at New York Comic-Con, a bonus sequence, and featurettes on the soundtrack, plus bonus DVD and Ultraviolet Digital HD copies.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Jan 28 2015

Videophiled: ‘Downton Abbey: Season 5′

Downton5

PBS

Downton Abbey: Season 5 (PBS, Blu-ray, DVD) embraces everything I enjoy about the show, and everything that frustrates me to distraction. It’s 1924 and the times they are a changin’, much to the consternation of Lord Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) and head butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), the old guard of traditional values who despair of a Labour government in power. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), meanwhile, rather daringly agrees to an unchaperoned holiday with a beau to try out an intimate arrangement (kicking the tires, so to speak, before it was socially accepted), and her sister Edith (Laura Carmichael) decides she cannot live without the son she had out of wedlock. The latter tale unfolds with reassuring affirmations of family acceptance but Mary’s journey is a little more interesting and the show even flirts with the social judgments directed toward a woman (even a married woman, as Mary delegates to purchase to a servant) purchasing birth control from a pharmacist. And family matriarch Lady Crawley (Maggie Smith) gets her own romantic journey when she runs into a Russian aristocrat (Rade Sherbedgia) she once romanced.

Even more interesting is the evolution of footman Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier), the schemer of the servant class whose homosexuality is an open secret at all levels of the manor. He secretly undergoes aversion therapy to “cure” his homosexuality (a doomed endeavor) and applies his particular skill set to protect his fellow servants and even his employers from less savory types. And the concept of “bettering oneself” and class mobility perks up this season, especially as kitchen made Daisy starts educating herself and gets involved politically when the new Labour government wins the 1924 election.

The end of the season focuses on bubbly cousin Rose (Lily James) and her marriage to the son of a Jewish businessman who is as snooty toward them as Rose’s mother is toward her new Jewish in-laws. Most of these social conflicts and class collisions are too easily solved to have any dramatic weight and the pillars of old-world tradition are eased into the modern world with a smile and a warm embrace, which is my frustration with the show. It seems no one here is too old or too entrenched to learn a lesson and get a happy ending, and no situation is so difficult that it would call the tradition of inherited wealth and aristocratic class divisions into question.

9 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, including the season finale special “A Moorland Holiday,” available before the season is even half over in the U.S. (it ran in late 2014 in the U.K.). These is the uncut British version of the show (the episodes are trimmed slightly for the American run) and it includes three featurettes.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Jan 27 2015

Videophiled: The mad passion of ‘Why Don’t You Play in Hell?’

Why Play Hell

Drafthouse

Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (Drafthouse, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital), Sion Sono’s filmmaking freakout about making a movie in the midst of a Yakuza war, is actually far more insane than that description suggests. For one thing, it takes almost 90 minutes to get to that filmmaking part and the sheer absurdity of the plotting twists and motivations that get us there are beyond rational explanation, which is part of the fun. The scenes leading up to it are a mad collision of gang war, teen runaway tale, revenge movie, star-crossed romance, wrong man nightmare, and movie club dream come true for a spirited, tunnel-visioned filmmaking collective. By the time the warring sides are ready for their close-ups, it has become a quest where the gang fight is less about territory than choreography and the sword-wielding soldiers on both sides (because katanas are much cooler than guns) are more conscious of their image than their tactics. It’s all about looking good for the camera.

Sono channels the yakuza madness of Seijun Suzuki and the driving energy and chaotic creativity of Miike Takashi at the height of his powers. The characters are driven by obsession and emotion, not logic, and Sono stirs it with a hearty dark humor and a juvenile, morality-free passion for moviemaking. Even the flashbacks and narrative detours are the equivalent of production numbers and set pieces, small scale bloodbaths as imagined by Busby Berkeley for the Yakuza Follies. Blood spurts in geysers (some of them fountains of liquid, others spattered across the image with CGI, and one scene of candy colored streams of cartoon rainbows) and limbs fly, and in the middle of it scurries a Bruce Lee knock-off in a “Game of Death” yellow tracksuit swinging a sword or windmilling his nunchucks like it’s a playground game.

This is pure midnight movie, all energy and whimsy and cartoonish displays of violence with yakuza soldiers dressed as samurai swordsmen. It’s hard to tell if this is an attempt at commentary on the slippery ethics of representing violence on film and blurring the lines between reality and representation, or simply Sono giving in to the same unchecked enthusiasm of his absurd filmmaking crew. Their amateur zeal is played for laughs, yes, but Sono’s appreciation for such passion is clear. Why Don’t You Play in Hell? has its own cracked logic but is largely free from any discipline that would focus its wild energy. That could be a warning to some viewers and an invitation to others. Follow your instincts accordingly.

In Japanese with English subtitles, with a 22-minute press conference with Sion Sono conducted at a Tower Records in Japan plus a 24-page booklet and 11×17 foldout poster. The Blu-ray also features a bomus Digital HD copy for download.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Jan 23 2015

Videophiled: ‘Adua and Her Friends’

Adua

Raro

Adua and Her Friends (Raro / Kino Lorber, Blu-ray) are prostitutes from a Rome brothel attempting to take charge of their own lives after their place is shut down in the aftermath of Italy’s Merlin Law, which ended legalized prostitution in 1958 (the film was released in 1960). Adua (played by Simone Signoret), a veteran of the life, has a plan to open a restaurant as a front for their own little brothel in the rooms upstairs and her friends—cynical and hot-headed Marilina (Emmanuelle Riva), naïve and trusting Lolita (Sandra Milo), and practical Milly (Gina Rovere)—pitch in for the purchase and start-up and fake their way through running a real business. Adua may be a dreamer but she has a lot invested in this project. She’s the oldest of the four and, as anyone familiar with the films of Mizoguchi will attest, life on the streets isn’t forgiving of age. But what really charges up the film is the feeling of accomplishment and ownership as they work their way through each problem and, almost without noticing, create a successful business out of the restaurant.

For all the stumbles along the way, director Antonio Pietrangeli and his screenwriting partners (which includes future director Ettore Scola and longtime Fellini collaborator Tullio Pinelli) don’t play the disasters for laughs but rather a mix of warm character piece and spiky social commentary. It’s not simply that their pasts follow them around but that the Merlin Law has actually made things worse for women, whether they remain in the life (without any legal protections) or attempt to transition into another career. Palms need to be greased and officials cut in on the business; they haven’t even started up and they’re already paying off a pimp. And no, it’s not Marcello Mastroianni’s Piero, a charming hustler who hawks cars and woos Adua, who enjoys engaging in a romance that she gets to define for a change. He’s a pleasant distraction and something of an ally, but he’s better at looking out for himself.

Simone Signoret and Sandra Milo

Simone Signoret and Sandra Milo

 

Pietrangeli has great empathy for women (based on the evidence of this film and his 1964 La Visita) and his story frames the sexual double standards and cultural chauvinism of their lives. Those are the kinds of forces that good intentions and elbow grease can’t always overcome. But between the arguments and setbacks, Pietrangeli offers a portrait of life lived in hard times and buoyed by friendship and hope for a better life. When Marilina’s young son moves in (the girls didn’t even know she was a mother), they coalesce in a kind of family. The scene of the boy’s baptism, with the women lined up like adoring aunts, is a lovely and touching moment. There are no happy ending fantasies here but their moments of triumph, solidarity, and defiance are oases in a life that otherwise has it out for their dreams of self-definition.

Raro first released the film on DVD in 2011. This marks the Blu-ray debut and it looks very good, clean and sharp with lots of detail, and sounds great. Its score is informed by fifties cool jazz (and I’m a sucker for any soundtrack featuring the vibes) and dotted with pop songs (including a great use of Santo and Johnny’s instrumental “Sleepwalk”). It features an introduction by Italian film historian Maurizio Poro, the short film Girandola 1910, a segment from the 1954 anthology comedy Amori de mezzo secolo directed by Pietrangeli, and a booklet with essays, excerpts essays and reviews, and filmographies.

More releases on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

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