Blu-ray / DVD: ‘The American Friend,’ ‘Bitter Rice,’ and the ‘Lady Snowblood’ chronicles

AmericanFriendThe American Friend (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – “What’s wrong with a cowboy in Hamburg?” Dennis Hopper’s Tom Ripley is nothing like the character that Patricia Highsmith created and explored in five novels, and while Wim Wenders’s adaptation of Ripley’s Game, the sequel to The Talented Mr. Ripley, remains more or less faithful to the plot (with additional elements appropriated from Ripley Underground), the personality and sensibility belong to Wenders.

The cool, cunning sociopath of Highsmith’s novel becomes a restless international hustler, selling art forgeries and brokering deals (some of which may actually be legal) while travelling back and forth through Germany, France, and the United States. His target, renamed Jonathan Zimmerman here (a Dylan reference? Wenders loves his American music, you know) and played with an easy (if at times arrogant) integrity by Bruno Ganz, is a German art restorer who now runs a frame shop due to the effects of a fatal blood disease. In true Highsmith fashion, the motivation is purely psychological and emotional—a small but purposeful social slight—and the reverberations are immense. Ripley concocts a medical con to convince Zimmerman he’s dying so a French associate (played by Gerard Blain) can tempt him to be his assassin, and then comes to his rescue as the French criminal extends the cruel little act of revenge to pull Zimmerman into additional murders.

Given these origins, the relationship that develops between Zimmerman and Ripley, who returns as a strange dark angel savior, is genuine and fraternal, even as it arises from deceit and a desire to punish, and rife with contractions. While Zimmerman is unexpectedly intoxicated by the danger and violence of his assignments, his victims are not merely the murdered criminals, but his family. This is as introspective and psychologically tangled as thrillers come, and all the more compelling for it. Wenders regular Lisa Kreuzer is excellent as Zimmerman’s wife, whose suspicions of Ripley prove completely founded, Nicholas Ray is superb as the aging New York artist turned forger who, in opening scene, contemplates his failing eyesight (he was dying of cancer at the time of shooting and the acknowledgment of his mortality haunts his scenes), and Sam Fuller barks orders as an American gangster.

Criterion’s disc is mastered from a new 4k restoration produced by Wenders’ own production company and supervised by Wenders. Robbie Muller’s cinematography is preserved in all its clarity, from the cool, uncluttered quality of the airports and train stations and Ripley’s own fortress of a home to the cluttered warmth of Zimmerman’s home and frame shop.

It features commentary recorded by Wim Wenders and Dennis Hopper for the original 2003 DVD release, “exactly 25 years after we shot it.” Wenders is quite and calmly paced (“Somehow I became obsessed with having directors play all the crooks and bad guys”) and Hopper calmer than you might expect. Their talk isn’t quite a conversation (Wenders sounds more like a combination lecturer and storyteller and Hopper ends up his audience much of the time), but they find their rhythm about a half hour into it. The deleted scenes in the 36 minute featurette are interspersed with behind-the-scenes shots, slates, outtakes, and colorful production footage. Without the benefit of introductions or titles, the commentary is essential to place the shots and understand the context, and true to form the soft-spoken Wenders acts more like a host than a commentator as he sets the scenes. There isn’t much explanation, but there are stories, insights, and reflections in all the commentaries.

Exclusive to the release are the interview featurettes “Too Much on my Mind: Wim Wenders on The American Friend” (in English), with the director reflecting back on his career and the origins and production of the film (37 minutes), and “From Jonathan: Bruno Ganz on The American Friend” (in German), which runs about 27 minutes. The accompanying fold-out insert features a new essay by novelist Francine Prose.

LaduySnowThe Complete Lady Snowblood (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – Lady Snowblood (1973), directed by Fujita Toshiya and starring Kaji Meiko, is best known to American audiences as a major inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1, which appropriates images and scenes from the film (the showdown in the falling snow of a Lucy Liu’s courtyard) as well as the theme song, “The Flower of Carnage.” But the samurai revenge thriller, adapted from the manga by Koike Kazuo (who also created Lone Wolf and Cub) and Kamimura Kazama, was a cult favorite long before Tarantino came along.

Born of a wronged woman who dies giving birth in prison, the beautiful and deadly Shirayuki (Meiko) is raised by a thief and trained in the martial arts by a priest to exact her revenge on the quartet of criminals who murdered her father and tortured her mother. Clad in a demure kimono and armed with a sword hidden in her parasol, she turns from proper lady to the fiery Lady Snowblood in the flick of an eye. The film’s comic book origins can be seen in the intermittent use of penciled panels to tell the story, in the vivid chapter titles (like “Crying Bamboo Dolls of the Netherworlds” and “Umbrella of Blood, Heart of Strewn Flowers”) that mark her progress, and in the slash cutting the takes the film rapidly back and forth in time. Yet it’s a thoroughly cinematic experience, full of color and movement strewn across the widescreen frame and highlighted by efficiently choreographed battles.

Both director and star reunite for Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance (1974), the one and only sequel to the hit film. Sentenced to death for her reign of murder, she is given a reprieve by a mysterious government agent in return for a mission to kill an enemy of the throne and winds up in the middle of a conspiracy where the heroes and villains are not so clear cut.

Both films are remastered from new 2k scans of 35mm prints struck directly from the camera negatives and the double feature (two discs on DVD, one on Blu-ray) includes new interviews with manga author Koike Kazuo and screenwriter Norio Osada. The insert folds out to a poster on one side and an essay by Howard Hampton on the other (along with notes on the film and the disc production.

BitterRiceSocial drama meets sexed-up melodrama and crime caper in Giuseppe De Santis’ 1949 Bitter Rice (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), starring Vittorio Gassman as a small-time criminal who hides out from the police in the harvest of Northern Italy’s rice fields with his increasingly disillusioned accomplice (Doris Dowling) while romancing a sexy peasant worker (Silvana Mangano, all of 18 when made the film) who falls for his promises of wealth. It’s earthy stuff, with the all-woman rice harvest crew showing plenty of leg while toiling in the fields and lounging in lingerie between shifts while debating fair treatment and dreaming of a better life. It makes for a very entertaining mix of politics and hot-blooded melodrama and the culture of the seasonal workers—all women, with a few men around the fringes acting as little more than labor pimps—and their barracks society is fascinating. As director John L. Sullivan might put it, it’s social commentary… with a little sex in it.

The Criterion edition is mastered from a new high-definition scan of the original camera negative. The source material is not pristine but Criterion has used digital tools to clean up where possible, and the black and white images has good clarity and contrasts. On Blu-ray and DVD with screenwriter Carlo Lizzani’s 2008 documentary Giuseppe De Santis, his portrait of the director, and an interview with Lizzani from 2002, with a fold-out insert featuring an essay by film critic Pasquale Iannone.

Videophiled: Olive presents ‘Dreaming The Quiet Man,’ ‘Best Seller,’ ‘The End of Violence,’ Convicts’

JohnFordQuiet
Olive

John Ford: Dreaming The Quiet Man (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD), a feature-length documentary on the making of John Ford’s beloved romantic classic, frames the production in the feeling that the Irish people have for the film, Ford’s tribute to his Irish-American legacy. Director Sé Merry Doyle provides a survey on Ford’s career and offers insight into the contradictory character of the director (Maureen O’Hara, interviewed for the documentary, describes her complicated and sometimes trying relationship with Ford, who was in love with her and showed it by tormenting her), and includes rare color home movie footage from the set and features interviews with filmmakers and film history experts Martin Scorsese and Peter Bogdanovich, Ford biographer Joseph McBride, and Irish locals who were involved in the film. It falls somewhere between stand-alone documentary and elaborate supplement to an unproduced special edition disc set.

Olive rarely if ever offers supplements on their discs. This is an exception, and fittingly so, as the extras are scenes and interviews deleted from the film.

Best Seller
Olive

Best Seller (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) is modest but smartly-scripted thriller from 1987 that holds up remarkably well, thanks to a savvy script by Larry Cohen, who was better known at the time as a cagey creator of high-concept, low-budget exploitation films, and great casting. James Woods once again brings charm to the role of a pathologically vindictive hitman who goes to a Joseph Wambaugh-like cop/author (Brian Dennehy) to expose his former employer. This narcissist wants to be the hero of his next book and Cohen gives Woods plenty to work with, from his great lines (which he delivers with the cocky grin and a predator’s confidence) to a peacock’s pride in his work. He cannily mixes social satire and genre twists in his clever screenplay of an unlikely friendship between two men with more history than they realize; his dialogue has a bite and an unforced wit that hovers somewhere between B-movie gangster dramas and buddy pictures. It wasn’t a hit when it came out—director John Flynn was better with character than action and never really gets the blood pumping through it—but it is still a smart, lean thriller and a minor gem of the modern crime genre.

EndofViolence
Olive

The ambitious 1996 thriller The End of Violence (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) finds director Wim Wenders overreaching to make grand statements about identity, conscience, and the surveillance state in modern L.A. from a screenplay with big ideas built on unformed characters and arch dialogue. Bill Pullman is the ostensible hero, a Roger Corman-like producer kidnapped by a pair of thugs with orders to kill him, while Gabriel Byrne watches powerlessly from on high, a meek Big Brother wired up through surveillance cameras hidden throughout the city. It’s ostensibly a thriller but Wenders twists what little onscreen violence there is into either coldly distanced observations (like watching a movie?) or abrupt but anonymous killings. The narrative is a tangle, neglecting characters and leaving the vast conspiracy more a suggestion than a fully conceived plot, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone but Wenders fans. But I am a Wenders fan myself and for all the faults I enjoy Wenders’ unerring eye for image and color, which creates an often beautiful film of unsettling menace and haunting mystery, and his generosity of character. The previous DVD was poorly mastered and non-anamorphic, so this new edition is a vast improvement.

Convicts
Olive

Convicts (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD), which Horton Foote adapted from his own one-act play, is a coming-of-age story set on a turn-of-the-century Texas plantation owned by an aging skinflint of a landowner (played by Robert Duvall) who uses convict labor to work his spread. It’s a small, intimate story about mortality and Duvall, who won an Oscar for Tender Mercies, which Foote wrote, inhabits with a mix of authority and fragility, like a lonely King Lear slipping into dementia. Lukas Haas, who is our perspective on the story, plays the 13-year-old boy working in the plantation and brings a clear-eyed attentiveness and childlike doggedness to his character, and James Earl Jones co-stars as the manager of the plantation store, the closest that the owner has to a friend. Peter Masterson directs with an easy intimacy that serves the understated performances and Foote’s lyrical language without actually distinguishing the film.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Buena Vista Social Club

[Originally published in Eugene Weekly, 1999, reprinted for the DVD new rerelease]

In 1996 composer, producer, and guitar legend Ry Cooder entered Egrem Studios in Havana with the forgotten greats of Cuban music, many of them in their 60s and 70s, some of them long since retired. The resulting album, “The Buena Vista Social Club” (named after a once great but long since defunct Havana music hall) became a Grammy winning international bestseller, bringing this exciting, percussive music to the world, and more importantly bringing it back to Cuba. The album turned the spotlight on long neglected artists and revived dead or defunct careers. In 1998 Cooder returned to Havana to record a solo album by 72 year old vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer (“the Cuban Nat King Cole,” according to Cooder) and as he reassembled his master class of musicians, filmmaker Wim Wenders was on hand to document the occasion.

Curtain call
Curtain call

Wenders splits the film between portraits of the performers, who tell their stories directly to the camera as Wenders wanders the streets and neighborhoods of Havana, and a celebration of the music heard in performance scenes in the studio, in their first concert in Amsterdam, and in their second and final concert at Carnegie Hall. There are some terrific stories in the film. Ibrahim Ferrer, once a major vocalist, was making his living shining shoes when Cooder tracked him down for the album. 80 year old pianist Ruben Gonzalez hadn’t played in ten years and insisted that arthritis prevented him from taking it back up (his subsequent performances dispels that statement immediately). Guitarist/singer Compay Segundo is a father of five at 92 and isn’t giving up hope for a sixth. The way Wenders intercuts their stories with spotlight concert performances gives the audience a taste of their art before introducing the person behind the performer, then concludes with their spotlight performance in concert. The music is marvelous on its own, but the background enriches our experience of the performance.

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Road Movie to the Soul: The Cinema of Wim Wenders

(In conjunction with Criterion’s release of Paris, Texas on DVD and Blu-ray, I offer this uncut version of an essay originally published in the Scarecrow Video “A Tribute to Wim Wenders” program in 1996)

“A lot of my films start off with road maps instead of scripts.”

In Wenders’ student short Alabama (2000 Light Years) we first see what will become a hallmark in feature after feature: the world as viewed through the windshield of a moving car. We’ve seen many variations of this image (through a car side window, through the window of a train or a plane) but it’s this first image that is key to Wenders’ works, which puts us in the drivers seat, so to speak.

The view from the driver's seat of "Paris, Texas"

Wenders makes films about travelers, people on the move, and he continually returns to the road film: Alice in the Cities, Wrong Move, Kings of the Road, Paris Texas, and Until the End of the World. In other films, travel becomes a central element of the narrative: The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, The American Friend, The State of Things, Lisbon Story, and of course the journeys from heaven to earth in Wings of Desire and Faraway, So Close! His world is a landscape of winding country roads through fields and forests, city streets and urban cityscapes, railroad tracks and speeding trains, coffee shops, hotels, jukeboxes, photo booths and other roadside attractions. The road serves as both an escape and a way back, the route for escape from responsibility, the winding path back to self. From the self exiled wanderer to the determined traveler, the road ultimately becomes a pathway to (or the possibility of) grace.

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DVD/Blu-ray of the Week – Paris, Texas, Criterion style

Winner of the Palme D’Or at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, Paris, Texas (Criterion) was not Wim Wenders’ first American film—that would be Hammett (1982), which proved to be a dispiriting experience when producer Francis Ford Coppola decided to step in and re-edit Wenders’ vision to something more commercial (so much for the creative freedom he promised filmmakers)—but it is the first American film where Wenders carved his own vision into the American landscape (both physical and cinematic). Just two years after the Hammett debacle, he returned to the U.S. his own terms, with a story he developed with Sam Shepard and financial backing from Europe that gave him the freedom to make his own film. Paris, Texas (a name that evokes the collision of and contrast between Europe and America) is a road movie, a drama of reconciliation and redemption, a modern western and an emotional odyssey of epic simplicity and emotional integrity set against an America both mythic (the stunning vistas of the Texas border desert are as primal as John Ford’s Monument Valley landscapes) and modern (from the lonely roadside motels and neon totems to the view down on Los Angeles from the hilltop family home).

Travis and Hunter at the crossroads of the 20th century frontier

Harry Dean Stanton (in his first and, to the best of my knowledge, only leading role to date) is Travis, a man who walks out of the desert and into civilization, parched and weak and mute but driven by purpose, even if it’s beyond his understanding at that point. Dean Stockwell is his brother Walt, who flies from Los Angeles to Southern Texas and drives him back, bringing Travis out of his almost catatonic, pre-verbal state as the journey brings him out of the wilderness and back to family, notably the son (Hunter Carson) he left behind four years before. Wenders and Shepard prefer spare dialogue that suggests more than it explains, letting the performances fill in the blanks and the images frame the drama. Longtime Wenders collaborator Robby Muller films the deserts and highways of the American southwest with a reverence for the primal beauty and the spare, expansive, seemingly unending landscape. Stanton looks carved from the same wind-scoured stone and sand when he emerges from the desert and Muller and Wenders slowly soften and humanize him as he tentatively but sincerely interacts with his family and returns to society, only to leave on a quest with the son he has just reconnected with. Nastassja Kinski is Jane, the young wife and mother first seen in the home movies that Walt shows one night, and it’s like that image of the happy family captured in warm, blurry super8 footage becomes his grail: he has to repair the broken family that, we are to learn, he himself destroyed.

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