Sure, Killing Them Softly has it's problems, but what/who doesn't? But then again and come to think of it, Cogan's Trade, the George V. Higgins novel on which the movie is based, has no problems; it's about as perfect as a crime novel not written by Donald E. Westlake could ever be, and perhaps more so. So the fact that the movie has problems is possibly lamentable...but for my money the thing gets quite a lot of Trade just right, and the missteps writer/director Andrew Dominik makes are at least kind of, um, interesting. My review is at MSN Movies.
As I've mentioned before, I'm not a big fan of Hitchcock, the kind-of quasi biopic concerning the late film director of the same name, starring Helen Mirren and Anthony Hopkins, written by John J. McLaughlin, and directed by Sacha Gervasi. I understand that in the dramatizing of real events that factual liberties are taken all the time, and have been since (I know, I know) the days of Shakespeare and before. So I understand then too that to complain about factual liberties taken here is to court accusations of,among other things, humorless literal-mindedness. But as I said in my review of the movie for MSN Movies, had the liberties taken with the facts resulted in a motion picture that was either illuminating or entertaining, or both (a lot to ask, I know) that would have gone a long way to forgiving those liberties. I got up early this morning to watch my friend Matt Singer of Criticwire talk Hitchcock, and Hitchcock, on the CBS This Morning program. The clip they showed from the new film features Hopkins and Mirren, as Hitchcock and his wife Alma Reville, going over footage of Psycho's shower scene in the editing room. Looking carefully at a single frame, Mirren's Reville coos "Ooh, you imp! You've got nudity in there!" to which Hopkins' Hitchcock replies with an exaggerated air of sang froid, "Well her breasts were rather large, it'd be a challenge not to show them." Most of the dialogue in the film is determined by the same juvenile notion of what constitutes breezy adult banter as that example. So, you know.
Sometimes you will read a review of a motion picture and wonder if the person writing actually saw the same film you did. In the case of my friend Richard Brody, I have no doubt that we saw the same Hitchcock, as we sat next to each other at the press screening. But he came to some vastly different conclusions than I did, which he lays out in a typically detailed, incisive, provocative, and, for me, exasperating post at his New Yorker blog. He covers a lot of ground in this post, and seems most particularly pleased with the way Hitchcock demonstrates "the personal significance of the story of Psycho." Now, as I understand it, Brody's baseline idea isn't hugely different from Andrew Sarris' definition of Pantheon Directors, that is, those who "have transcended their technical problems with a personal vision of the world." Brody sees an innovation in this biopic, born of his perception that "Gervasi rightly suggests that Hitchcock is no mere puppet master who seeks to provoke effects in his viewers." In discussing the technical aspects of his own films, Hitchcock took not-unjustifiable pride in the fact that with his effects he could, yes, traumatically "play" the audience, and there's nothing wrong with that. However, Hitchcock himself DID acknowledge, and publicly at that, that within that component of his art there was a strong element of self-expression, so it's not really as if Gervasi has stumbled on to anything particularly new. (Then, of course, there are the reams—more like libraries—of detailed critical studies of Hitchcock's work.) Brody continues: "[Hitchcock is] converting the world as he sees it, in its practical details and obsessively ugly corners, into his art, and he’s doing so precisely because those are the aspects of life that haunt his imagination." This is all unobjectionable. Where I think Richard goes a little off is in his praise for what he considers the "shaky but bold artistic limb" Gervasi goes out on by introducing the midwestern murderer Ed Gein into Hitchcock's consciousness, making him the stuff of daymares and imagined psychiatric consultations and even forays into marital jealousy that find Alfred crawling about the floor of his bathroom collecting grains of sand with which to confront Alma, who hasn't told him that her writing sessions of late have been taking place at a collaborator's beach house.
"I have no idea whether Hitchcock gave much thought to Gein, but it doesn't matter," Brody writes. "[I]f it wasn't Gein that obsessed him, it was surely much that was Gein-like." Leaving aside that perhaps overly-confident "surely," I would argue that whether Hitchcock gave much thought to Gein certainly does matter, or at least it matters within the context of this film, because the portrayal of Gein therein is almost by necessity a kind of burlesque. At the time that Robert Bloch wrote the novel upon which Psycho was based, Gein was not the kind of household world that he has since become. As awful and appalling as his crimes were, the singularity of his atrocities underwent a certain diminishment as he was transposed over the years into a kind of pop-culture "brand." The wild-eyed, Midwestern, possibly cannibalistic serial killer, after roosting as a kind of Chiller Theatre Expo hipster icon since some time well before G.G. Allin shuffled off this mortal coil, has since become a sort of post-modern kitsch object. The only way for such a figure to inspire anything resembling real terror in a cinematic context anymore is to stretch him beyond, and then further beyond, reason, as Lynch did with "BOB" in Twin Peaks: Fire Walks With Me and certain episodes of the Twin Peaks television series. In any event, in Hitchcock, the way Gein, almost inescapably, comes off, Michael Wincott or no Michael Wincott, is as serial killer vaudeville.
In a comment to a prior blog post, the great critic and biographer Joseph McBride, before recounting his own late '50s Gein-tourism experience, chides me a bit: "How can anyone not like a movie in which Alfred Hitchcock hangs out with Ed Gein?" I understand what he's getting at, and had Hitchcock been conceived and executed thoughout as a kind of burlesque, in the style of what McBride's old pals Allan Arkush and Joe Dante often had a go at in the Corman days and beyond, Hitchcock could have been good disreputable/affectionate fun. But that's not what Hitchcock is up to. Brody states that Gervasi recognizes Psycho as a great artistic acheivement, but he doesn't, or rather the movie doesn't, not really; art never enters into this movie's argument, or algebra. Rather, Hitchcock recasts the making of Psycho through a tired Hollywood template: the story of a dreamer with a vision that everybody around him thinks he is—you'll excuse the term—crazy for entertaining, and how that dreamer proves the naysayers wrong...here, not by making a great work of art, but by concocting a motion picture commodity that slays them at the box office. And in the process of grinding out this particular narratvie sausage, Hitchcock also manages to be astonishingly patronizing to its principal characters. In her own clearly ticked-off New York Times review of the movie, another friend, Manohla Dargis, writes, "Hitchcock, you are meant to believe, was himself a little psycho and could only work from a place of madness." She continues: "The real Hitchcock's great flaw, apparently, was that he was at once a genius and a private man, a combination that has allowed some filmmakers to have their insultingly imaginative way with him." She goes on to dismiss "dim fantasies" that to her smack of "spiteful jealousy." I'd say that's pretty spot on. Except I don't even think that Sacha Gervasi understands enough about Hitchcock to know that he maybe should be jealous of him. (There are several interviews with the director that bear this notion out, I'll leave it to readers curious enough to seek them out to do just that.)
As for Hitchcock himself...like DeMille, whom he admired, he was something of a self-made showman, and pronouncements such as "some films are slices of life, my films were slices of cake" were a part of his presentation. As Dargis said, he was a private person, but that doesn't necessarily mean that he worked exclusively and consciously in a vacuum of his own unexamined fancies. As much of a front as he put up, one often doesn't need to read too far between certain lines to understand his own understanding of where his themes came from. In other words: he knew that cinema was the stuff of obsession. There's a droll and poignant passage in Luis Buñuel's autobiography in which the Spanish director recounts a Hollywood lunch in his honor, at which Hitchcock rhapsodized, practically in a swoon, over a particularly salient detail in Buñuel's Tristana: " 'Ah, that leg...that leg,' he sighed, more than once." In the final revised edition of Hitchcock/Truffaut, Truffaut, recalls watching Vertigo and seeing Jimmy Stewart's Scotty trying to remake Kim Novak's Judy Barton into "Madeline;" he writes of experiencing a certain sad frisson knowing that it was Vera Miles, not Novak, that Hitchcock had wanted for that crucial role, and Truffaut sees Hitchcock in Stewart with a kind of sad clarity. In other words, you don't need a bad cartoon—which, finally, I'm convinced Hitchcock is—in order to get it.
A few citations. Here's a pretty salient passage from the above-mentioned Truffaut study of Hitchcock:
FRANÇOIS TRUFFAUT. Mr. Hitchcock, this morning you mentioned that you had had a bad night and indicated that you were probably disturbed by all of the memories that our talks have been stirring up these past several days. In the course of our conversations we've gone into the dreamlike qualities of many of your films, among them Notorious, Vertigo, and Psycho. I'd like to ask whether you dream a lot.
ALFRED HITCHCOCK. Not to much...sometimes...and my dreams are very reasonable.
In one of my dreams I was standing on Sunset Boulevard, where the trees are, and I was waiting for a Yellow Cab to take me to lunch. But no Yellow Cab came by; all the automobiles that drove by me were of a 1916 vintage. And I said to myself, "It's no good standing here waiting for a Yellow Cab because this is a 1916 dream!" So I walked to lunch instead.
F.T. Did you really dream this, or is it a joke?
A.H. No, it's not a gag; I really had a dream like that!
F.T. It's almost a period dream! But would you say that dreams have a bearing on your work?
A.H. Daydreams, probably.
F.T. It may be the expression of the unconscious, and that takes us back once more to fairy tales. By depicting the isolated man who's surrounded by all sorts of hostile elements, and perhaps without even meaning to, you enter the realm of the dream world, which is also a world of solitude and danger.
A.H. That's probably me, within myself.
F.T. It must bem because the logic of your puctures, which is sometimes decried by the critics, is rather like the logic of dreams. Strangers on a Train and North by Northwest, for instance, are made up of a series of strange forms that follow the pattern of a nightmare.
A.H. This may be due to the fact that I'm never satisfied with the ordinary. I'm ill at ease with it.
F.T. That's very evident. A Hitchcock picture that doesn't involve death or the abnormal is practically inconceivable. I believe you film emotions you feel very deeply—fear, for instance.
A.H. Absolutely. I'm full of fears and I do my best to avoid difficulties and any kind of complications. I like everything around me to be clear as crystal and completely calm. I don't want clouds overhead. I get a feeling of peace from a well-organized desk. When I take a bath, I put everything neatly back in place. You wouldn't even know I'd been in the bathroom. My passion for orderliness goes hand in hand with a strong revulsion toward complications.
F.T. That accounts for the way you protect yourself. Any eventual problem of direction is resolved beforehand by your minute predesigned sketches that lessen the risks and prevent trouble later on. Jacques Becker used to say, "Alfred Hitchcock is undoubtedly the director who gets the least surprises when he looks at rushes."
And here is Hitchcock describing his childhood to Truffaut: "I was what is known as a well-behaved child. At family gatherings I would sit quietly in a corner, saying nothing. I looked and I observed a good deal. I've always been that way and still am. I was anything but expansive. I was a loner—can't remember ever having had a playmate. I played by myself, inventing my own games [...] I was put into school very young. At St. Ignatius College, a Jesuit school in London. Ours was a Catholic family and in England, you see, this in itself is an eccentricity. It was probably during this period with the Jesuits that a strong sense of fear developed—moral fear—the fear of being involved in anything evil. I always tried to avoid it. Why? Perhaps out of physical fear. I was terrified of physical punishment. In those days they used a cane made of very hard rubber. I believe the Jesuits still use it. It wasn't done casually, you know; it was rather like the execution of a sentence. They would tell you to step in to see the father when classes were over. He would then solemnly inscribe your name in the register, together with the indication of the punishment to be inflicted, and you spent the whole day waiting for the sentence to be carried out."
And perhaps we should give the last word, for now, to Robin Wood, and this passage from 1989's Hitchcock's Films Revisited. The film to which Wood refers is, of course, Psycho (which I think I might watch this afternoon): "No film conveys—to those not afraid to expose themselves fully to it—a greater sense of desolation, yet it does so from an exceptionally mature and secure emotional viewpoint. And an essential part of this viewpoint is the detached sardonic humor. It enables the film to contemplate the ultimate horrors without hysteria, with a poised, almost serene detachment. This is probably not what Hitchcock meant when he said that one cannot appreciate Psycho without a sense of humor, but it is what he should have meant. He himself—if his interviews are to be trusted—has not really faced up to what he was doing when he made the film. This, needless to say, must not affect one's estimate of the film itself. For the maker of Psycho to regard it as a 'fun' picture can be taken as a means of preserving his sanity; for the critic to do so—and to give it his approval on these grounds—is quite unpardonable. Hitchcock (again, if his interviews are to be trusted) is a much greater artist than he knows."
I don't feel like giving Sacha Gervasi's Hitchcock more credibility it deserves by posting a still from it here, so instead what you've got here is Hitchcock himself, and Leigh herself, and maybe a set-dresser, making the actual Psycho.
I suppose I'm pretty lucky that the movie, which is bad (as I discuss at some length in my review for MSN Movies) is as bad as it is, because it spares me what might have been some sort of aesthetic/ethical conflict. That is, what if the movie had been engaging, entertaining, in some way valuable, while at the same time telling the same number of lies it tells, and insulting the same filmmakers it does. I mean, some might tell you that Oliver Stone's JFK has movie-movie value even as it insults American history. except Stone would argue that he's not insulting American history and that he made the movie from a conviction to tell a higher truth. In the case of Hitchcock, the historical distortions are arguably in the service of giving Alma Reville her due as Hitchcock's most important artistic collaborator. She is in the credits of about twenty of his fifty or so films, and as the most important part of what Truffaut called the "family brain trust" it is of course a given that she ought to have received more credit. But to valorize her at the expense of Hitchcock amounts to a kind of special pleading that ultimately insults her more than anything. I have other complaints about it in the review. And if you think that's "hero worship," well, tough.
Incidentally, i don't write my own headlines for my MSN pieces but in this case I insisted on "Hitch-Crock!" which I think rather good.
Of the three pictures I review for MSN Movies this week, I liked the engaging-but-problematic Silver Linings Playbook best, the ridiculous Breaking Dawn 2 better than Anna Karenina, and the jaw-dropping Anna Karenina not at all. Funny how these things work out sometimes.
I'll wait for some comments to accrue before I elaborate on my suspicion that Jennifer Lawrence, undeniable extraordinary talent that she is, is getting at least one or two obvious crotch votes from certain online presences. Ew.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is kind of the benefit of being handed a long stretch of time during which one is more or less obliged not to leave the house. Of course if I had lost power this would be an entirely different blog post and don't think I'm not appreciative of how fortunate my household was/is in this respect.
Having contrived to get back "on the ball" with this project, I made a set of rules, one of which I ended up not following. That would be to only review twenty titles per installment. As you see, there are 26 here; another benefit of a sort of enforced down time. I also embraced a certain kind of randomness, not really applying a set criteria to what was going in the pile. Once the pile was determined, I stuck with it, save for one omission, which was Dial M For Murder, which, unlike Prometheus, I thought needed to be looked at on a 3D system, which my home setup is not at the moment. The six I ended up adding to the pile could have been things I just incidentally wound up watching (Moonrise Kingdom) or something for which a verdict was so manifestly obvious that it suggested itself almost as soon as the disc started playing (the Fleischer Supermans).
I also endeavored to be more careful. I am mortified to admit that I really fucked the monkey with my capsule on The Color Of Money last installment. I might have been over-tired when first watching it, or just believing something about it that I wanted to believe, but after reading Robert Harris' evisceration of it and giving it another look...well, I'm not as down on it as Harris but I don't disagree with him either (if that makes any sense); it's a shoddy disc and I was crazy to initially grade it as high as I did. I'll try not to let it happen again. I believe the below assessments are a lot more accurate across the board. I imagine you'll let me know!
Equipment: Playstation 3 for domestic discs, OPPO BDP 83 for import discs, Panasonic Viera TCP50S30 plasma display, Pioneer Elite VSX-817 AV amplifier/reciever.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Universal)
Why is the animated opening (reputedly the work of Walter Lantz) windowboxed? That little quirk is my only complaint about this rendering of a divisive comedy classic, cited by many genre fans as the point where Universal just stopped taking horror movies seriously. Lon Chaney Jr. apparently hated it. Which makes the tension between his Larry Talbot and Bud and Lou that much more convincing. Anyway, the picture here is attractive, clean, shows good grain, and only occasional hints of noise (around the circles formed by some klieg lights on plain walls, for instance). Greg Mank’s commentary is very good, scholarly, informative, delivered in a style that’s neither too stiff nor sloppily casual. As a late boomer of Italian-American heritage who grew up in Jersey I am of course practically genetically determined to be an Abbott and Costello fan, so take that caveat for what you will. —A
Altered States (Warner)
I sometimes have entertained a theory that this is Ken Russell’s best film, which theory might have been influenced by the fact that I first saw it during its theatrical run in 1980 on what they used to call a “hot date” which the movie actually enhanced, which was rare in those days so…I dunno what to tell you. It still holds up pretty damn well today and I think there’s pretty much no movie that can’t benefit from the presence of Bob Balaban and Charles Haid playing against each other. And Blair Brown, o dios mio. William Hurt was quite a babe himself. As for the Blu-ray, it looks good for the most part but skin tones can be a little flush and over-bright in “realist” scenes. There’s a little video noise here and there, some unwanted shimmer in “dust to dust” hallucinations sequence but for the most part this is very nice indeed and the weird stuff really pops. —B+
The Aristocats (Disney)
The last animation feature the old man signed off on (although he died well before it was completed, four years before its 1970 release in fact), and yeah, it’s a 101 Dalmations retread minus the scary edge and who cares. The animation style, which some latter-day critics, I see, have criticized for its ostensible crudity, is quite interesting, with its “sketchy” pen-and-ink delineations creating movement in the human characters’ hair and faces, or the kittens’ fur. The backgrounds are uniformly gorgeous in design, color, and drawing style. In the 1.66 aspect ratio that the studio largely favored, I am told (see also Mary Poppins). Pretty much a perfect high-def rendering; while the remastered 5.1 surround soundtrack is fine it would have been nice to have the original audio here too. A sweet short starring Pinocchio’s Figaro, in which the kitten gets a bath from Minnie Mouse, is also included in full HD and there are some engaging other extras. —A
The Big Heat (Twilight Time)
Wow. Very nice. Twilight Time’s high-def stuff is never not good, but this rendering of Fritz Lang’s sizzling 1952 angry-cop-out-for-vengeance thriller is gorgeous. A supple and sharp black-and-white image that really highlights the near-expressionist-with-a-lower-case-“e” lighting: see the way Lucy Chapman’s face stays a quarter-to-half darkened in close-up, in the bar scene where Glenn Ford’s character grills the actress, who’s playing a B-girl who counted on a now-dead cop as her ticket out of B-girldom. This keeps up throughout, clean as a whistle and deep and dark and pretty much flawless. Isolated score soundtrack is the only on-disc extra, and it’s a nice touch.—A
Female Vampire (Kino/Lorber)
Watching this Blu-ray suggested to me yet another way of looking at prolific no-budget director Jess Franco, not as a genre director or a half-assed pornographer but rather as an underground filmmaker. That is to say, this bare-bones "narrative," which is largely composed of lengthy meditative shots (punctuated with zooms, of course) of his walking wet dream of a leading lady/wife Lina Romay feels, supernatural trappings aside, almost diaristic. Yes, in a Jonas Mekas Walden kind of way. The quality of the Blu-ray image is superb throughout as the movie itself changes in image quality all the time, depending on the materials at hand and the method of shooting, and in this particular too the diaristic aspect is emphasized. It’s like a series of obsessive observations of Romay strung together with this supernatural narrative template applied to it, the elements of exploitation moving its action close to hardcore without ever getting there. (There is a version of the film featuring hardcore footage, and the producers at Redemption apparently wanted to include that version in this package, but if they did they’d have had to kiss Amazon and big-box stores goodbye, so no, and goddamnit I hate this fascist country.) Good grain, constant background contrast flicker, skin tones all over the fucking place; in other words, a very accurate transfer! I dug/dig it. You might not. —A
Letter From An Unknown Woman (Olive)
It’s one of Max Ophuls’ best U.S.-produced films, so it’s a no-brainer, but this is no Criterion treatment. Then again, it’s not bad. It appears to be mastered from same source as Second Sight U.K. DVD from several years ago. Which looked decent, not great. This has the same scratch marks in scenes so that’s why I’m thinking the source material’s identical. That being the case, the high-def upgrade IS noticeable. Detail is boosted, the picture is a tad brighter, but not overly so; the clarity is welcome. The audio track is improved, too; at a “normal” volume level (for instance, the -14dB reading on my amp) the Second Sight soundtrack seemed overmodulated; here it comes out nice and clear. —B
Mad Monster Party (Lionsgate)
You know there’s a problem with a Blu-ray when the menu image is far more vibrant than the screen image of the work itself. This version of the charming puppet-animation monster-movie sendup, a charming picture to watch in a certain mood, nostalgic or not, looks terrible, and that’s a real shame; it would have been kickier to see it looking more like Nightmare Before Christmas, a movie it most likely at least partially inspired. Utter crap, and a real shame. On the other hand, the experience of watching it on a crappy color TV in the ‘60s is reproduced PERFECTLY. —D
Mean Streets (Warner)
One of the many things that make Martin Scorsese such a distinctive filmmaker is a visual style that often splits the difference between realism and a fever-dream impressionism/expressivity. That’s certainly present here, as in the “Rubber Biscuit” drunk scene, from which Spike Lee and Ernest Dickerson extrapolated their dolly-walk shot. But given the movie’s limited budget, the amount of artifice required to make some rundown pockets of L.A. stand in for New York’s East Village/Little Italy, and maybe the fact that the directive to make this breakthrough feature was handed to Scorsese by John Cassavetes, you have a movie that lands firmly, more often than not, on a square most would label docudrama realism. Which is also to say that the movie’s frequently raw-looking. Some shots aren’t precisely focused, some of the handheld work isn’t as assured as it might have been, and so on. This Blu-ray, which also keeps an excellent Scorsese commentary from the last standard-def edition, gets the movie’s rawness but also its frequent beautiful moments of mook lyricism visualized. A keeper. —A
Moonrise Kingdom (Universal)
When a studio gets a great movie right for the high-def edition (and this ought not be all that difficult in the Realm Of The Digital Intermediate, although bitter experience has taught us that nothing is a sure thing [what, for instance, can explain The Assassination of Jesse James… Blu-ray?]) there’s really not much you can say besides “Bravo!” My own third time around for this wonderful picture, and what I noticed here was the preponderance of yellow bathing certain shots in the movie’s front end, before the storm. Looked great. Certain of the pictorial detail and light did bring home its origins on Super 16 film more than the theatrical projections I saw. As befits studio issued product rather than more conscientiously curated editions ala Criterion, the extras here are mostly of the EPK variety, but as it’s a Wes Anderson movie, they’re more-creative-than-average-EPK grade. No matter. —A
My Son John (Olive)
Leo McCarey’s notorious 1952 anti-Communist family drama is one odd duck of a film, a series of fraught, sincere dialogue scenes in which the increasingly effete, snotty and condescending John of the title, the incredible Robert Walker, patronizes his All-American neurotic parents (Helen Hayes and Dean Jagger) and is subjected to ever more bizarre dressings-down from them. A film maudit in several crucial respects, not least of them being that Walker died during the shooting, and McCarey was obliged to reconstruct his climax. He built it largely around footage from Strangers on A Train that Alfred Hitchcock was kind enough to lend him. Hence, we have shots of Walker in a phone booth talking with no sound, and the carousel death scene from Strangers optically printed in to a car-seat after a fatal crash…oh, it’s just a mess that you’ve got to see to believe. And now you can finally see it—this has been one hell of an elusive picture over the years. This is a solid unremarkable transfer but a really essential title. Also, Frank McHugh is in it. “Maybe…we’ll have a lasting peace some time soon.”—A
The Naked Gun (Paramount)
From the commentary: “O.J. Simpson was in this?” “He was.” “Where is he now, is he still acting?” The opening scene of this very hilarious 1988 picture, in which heroically inept Frank Drebbin mucks up a meeting of America’s enemies, now indicates what was probably director David Zucker’s then-inchoate conservatism, which led him to his disastrous An American Carol. Such details aside this remains a largely timeless hoot. Although at the beginning one is inclined to find the image HIGHLY underwhelming. Soon enough certain things start registering high-def-like; the detail on Leslie Nielsen’s white hair is pretty sharp, if you’re into that, so one gets the impression this is not merely an exercise in prettying up an outdated master. It is not a movie that gets a really significant upgrade in pleasure via high-def, but if you’re fond of the movie and have the equipment, this is a sensible option, particularly if you can score it cheap, and you can. —B
The Navigator (Kino/Lorber)
After a disappointing (e.g., interlaced) 2011 Our Hospitality, the Kino/Lorber series of Buster Keaton releases picked up quite nicely but quick, and this title is a further reflection of the stuff getting back on the beam. This 1924 title, which strands rich Buster on a big boat with a girl who’s kind of not that into him, is an inventive physical comedy that gets odder as it goes along, climaxing with an innovative sword (fish) fight. The image looks pretty damn nice. The intertitles are speckly, but the varied tints look good (I particularly enjoyed the isolated yellow flag on a quarantine ship). Recommended.—A
The Penalty (Kino/Lorber)
As boring fucking black-and-white silent movies go this is pretty weird. (And not entirely black-and-white, either.) A study in star power and performance masochism, in which Lon Chaney dons a painful-to-wear (apparently) harness to portray a legless gangster whose life of crime has been leading up to the opportunity to get revenge on the doc who mistakenly cut him off at the knees as a child. Good sharp image quality from a George Eastman House restoration; the occasional tinting doesn’t seem over done. Aside from Chaney’s performance, I particularly enjoyed “Lichtenstein, of the Federal Secret Service,” and the movie’s double-whammy ending. —B
Private Hell 36 (Olive)
Relatively early Don Siegel. This 1954 picture is his eighth directorial feature and finds him pretty firmly on the noir/crime drama ground that he’d been spending much time on. Co-written by costar Ida Lupino (the picture was an independent produced by a company founded by Lupino’s then-husband Collier Young, who worked with her on the script), it’s mostly a hardboiled character study in which going-to-pieces cop Steve Cochran tries to enlist his more straight-arrow partner Howard Duff into a keep-some-stolen-money scam. The Dragnet-evoking opening narration is kind of a key to the final plot twist, which isn’t bad. The 1.77 presentation from Olive isn’t bad: there’s a fly in the locker room where Duff and Cochran have a little chat, and it’s very visibly buzzing around. There’s lots of visible grain that seems to poise on the precipice of becoming noise but never quite getting there. Fans of Ms. Lupino’s idiosyncratic vocal stylings in 1948’s Road House will be happy to learn that she sings again here.—B+
I remember one stoned collegiate cinema discussion many many years ago in which a nitpicky friend complained about a continuity error involving a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t axe at the climax of The Wizard of Oz, and another friend deadpanning to the complainer, “So is that where the movie loses credibility for you?” Which is pretty much all I have to say about any and all of the whinges that the, um, enthusiast variant of what Alfred Hitchcock calls” the plausibles” have about this movie. (Being that the enthusiast demo is not easily squelched, I can practically hear all the “Oh, come on, what about X?”s indignantly rising in response to this dismissal.) If the fact that I respond very positively to this movie strictly on the level of visual spectacle makes me a bad…person, I can live with that. Because it is a really amazing visual spectacle pretty much from stem to stern, and this Blu-ray get it. Pin prick sharp, astounding color, the various imaging effects (the pinboard-animation-like dreams, the alien race’s “security camera” massacre replay footage) reproduced gorgeously…you can’t ask for better. A lot of the action in this takes place in dark murky environments and I can’t find an instance of crushed blacks or any such thing. I don’t have full-time access to a 3D high def display but the 2D Blu-ray is pretty much perfect to my eye and so I kind of wish I DID have a permanent 3D rig.—A+
In 1943, writing of the film The Hard Way, James Agee observed “James Wong Howe’s first few minutes with the camera, in a Pennsylvania mill town, all but floored me with gratitude. He goes on the list with Hitchcock as on of the few men of whom it can be hoped that, given the chance (and in Hitchcock’s case travel, and still sharper advice from natives), they may yet take advantage of the $5,000 ceiling on sets to use this country as it ought to be used in films, and as it has scarcely been touched.” We trust that Agee enjoyed Howe’s work for this 1947 Raoul Walsh western, in which he sometimes used infrared black-and-white film stock to shoot New Mexico terrain, with strikingly beautiful results. Said results come across well in the Olive Blu-ray (which retains the Martin Scorsese intro that was on it back when various Republic pictures were issued on VHS back in the day). See particularly a funeral scene relatively late into the picture. The noted Walsh expert Dave Kehr finds this an uncharacteristic picture for the director, a little logy and humorless and lacking the typical Walsh rollicking-ness, but it’s hardly bad. And in some senses it’s pretty much classic. Robert Mitchum’s the male lead, that helps. Anyway, the solid picture quality keeps up throughout, with patches of the not-that-good only showing near the end, as in a slightly washed-out wedding scene and some video noise on a horse. But overall a very pleasant surprise.— A-
Rogopag (Eureka!/Masters Of Cinema Region B U.K. import)
Just as I am besotted with the multi-country European co-production (twas French money that landed Anna Karina and Macha Meril in Fassbinder’s Chinese Roulette) so too am I highly diverted by the Euro-anthology film, of which this 1963 picture, scintillatingly subtitled Let’s Wash Our Brains, is a primo example. Its main title is short for Rossellini Godard Pasolini Gregoretti. The RR segment is a typical expect-the-unexpected offering from the restless genius, in this case more restless than genuinely inspired, but pleasingly astringent. The main function of Godard’s segment is to demonstrate the spectacular versatility he possessed even relatively early in his career; and the Gregoretti bit is better-than-average Italian/Marxist social satire. The jewel of the bunch is Pasolini’s “La ricotta,” starring Orson Welles (who bemoaned the fact that Pasolini didn’t let him dub his own part, and it’s worth bemoaning; how I’d love to hear the maestro’s orotund Italian) and sending up both moviemaking and religiosity with more insouciance than Pasolini generally liked to conjure up. The image quality is excellent: Godard’s segment is the most purposefully gray black-and-white thing he ever put on film, and the color segments in “La ricotta” really pop. —A+
Rosemary’s Baby (Criterion)
Yowsa. Spectacular theatrical-run grade picture quality. And still a real master class in suspense/horror moviemaking. Subtler than Repulsion, less perverse than Cul de Sac, almost as funny as Dance of the Vampires. And not as dated as you might think. Rosemary’s snobbishness about Minnie and her vulgar pal played by Patsy Kelly still carries a frisson for a New Yorker of today, to the extent you almost feel slightly gratified on behalf of the more lumpen characters for managing to knock up Little Miss Priss via Satan. Or not. Anyway, essential genius cinema and the making-of doc attached is mighty fine too despite it opening with Robert Evans repeating his goddamn “There are three sides to every story” bromide in the beginning. (Mia Farrow’s exasperation with Frank Sinatra is still [understandably] mildly present, and kind of funny.) More added value is presented by way of a doc about composer/musician Krystof Komeda, who tragically died not too long after completing the score for this movie. —A+
The Sterile Cuckoo (Olive)
“This is going to be poignant, isn’t it?” My Lovely Wife asked at this 1969 movie’s opening in which Liza Minnelli’s Pookie (rhymes with “kookie”) waylays inexperienced stiff Jerry (Wendell Burton). A little later, cringing a bit, she asked, “This is gonna land on the unbearably sad side of poignant, isn’t it?” I cannot tell a lie. Alan Pakula’s directorial debut, which might also have made an exemplary project for partner Robert Mulligan, whose stuff Pakula produced, hits that particular note with near-awe-inspiring acuity, even as the treacly wet-noodle strains of “Come Saturday Morning” are repeated often enough to drive you insane. Pakula’s camera is steady, assured, unobtrusive. (How the guy ended up making a mess on the level of The Pelican Brief remains beyond me.) And while I am not a proponent of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl theory of film characterization, Minnelli’s character and performance provide an excellent counter to that train of assessment. Anyway…a fascinating picture that doesn’t get quite its due in the Olive Films Blu-ray. The picture’s real soft, to the point that sometimes I wondered if it was interlaced. The color looks okay mostly (about a half hour in, when the two principal characters visit the graveyard, you can see purple seeming into the earth tones), but there’s an overall overbrightness to the flesh tones. Detail is passable (see Burton’s tweed jacket in the early scenes). It’s a film that’s been hard to see for too long so it’s welcome. But don’t watch it in a vulnerable mood, for heaven’s sake. Those last two shots. Jesus. —B-
Strangers On A Train (Warner)
This much-awaited upgrade looks a little soft during opening credits, but picks up quite nicely. Check, for instance, the pinstripes on Bruno’s suit in the first dialogue scene, the way their alternating shades show The increase in detail is particularly awesome in the specialized optical work, for instance, the reflection of Bruno strangling Miriam in Miriam’s eyeglass lens. The multifarious extras from the 2004 standard-def version are all here, although the “preview version” is only in standard def. Still, a must.—A+
Summer With Monika (Criterion)
Ingmar Bergman’s United States breakthrough, albeit not for the “right” reasons; one of this disc’s many superb extras details how this lyrical-but-daring 1953 film was recut and marketed by exploitation king Kroger Babb as Monika, Story Of A Bad Girl. In the early grindhouse circuit it proved quite popular among non-auteurists. And one understands why, given Harriett Andersson’s erotic ripeness, which combined with the knowingness and occasional petulance of the character must have provided ‘50s raincoat-wearers with some sweet hubba-hubba value. The thrifty brave clean and reverent Bergman cut of the film is a lyrical and lovely thing and almost kinda sorta an unabashed weepie. It’s a beautifully assured piece of filmmaking and the image quality is pretty much the same as that of the Criterion of Bergman’s Summer Interlude, reviewed in the last CG. That is, gorgeous throughout, every frame a gorgeous silvery image. Andersson is the subject of a lengthy new interview and her English is excellent and her recollections moving. —A+
Max Fleischer’s Superman Collectors’ Edition (Gaiam)
This should be something to get very excited about, and it is not, for one very simple reason. While these appear to be excellent-to-beautiful transfers of the Fleischer Superman cartoons (some of the materials have occasional blotchiness, but I didn’t see anything utterly ruinous) they are disfigured by the ever-present GAIAM logo, which is burned into the lower right corner of each Academy Ratio “frame.” What a fucking waste.—D-
This Is Cinerama (Flicker Alley)
God bless Flicker Alley for everything it does, but in particular for putting out this piece of blockbuster esoterica. This 1952 picture is essentially the most elaborate demo reel ever concocted, a collection of far-flung vistas and experiences rendered in the super-wide-and-high format of three-projector Cinerama, which proved a hugely impractical way of making and seeing pictures. The Blu-ray is a wonky historical delight, presented with remarkable integrity and filled with extras that contextualize (and justify, in a sense) this bold/foolhardy venture. The SmileBox formatting for disc, simulating the 146˚ depth of the original presentation, works like a charm. Not for everyone…particularly not for people who prefer movies with characters and storylines and such, you know, those boring movies about people….but for those it’s for, a complete trip. —A+
Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines (Twilight Time)
I don’t often wish I had a bigger video display, but this makes me want one. Sure, this isn’t Lawrence of Arabia but rather a fun affectionate 1965 slapstick on the early days of manned flight. That just happens to have been lensed in 70mm by Christopher Challis (The Battle of the River Plate, hello?). Lord, what an absolutely beautiful Blu-ray image it presents. Just immaculate. If you watch this after another Blu-ray disc you might notice a slight blue cast to the overall picture but since so much of the action takes place in the sky anyway it’s not as if that isn’t understandable. The movie’s a great deal of fun, can’t emphasize that enough, and the commentary by its director Ken Annakin (from the 2004 standard def release; Annakin died in 2009) is pretty delightful. These Twilight Time releases do offer real high-def value. —A
Les Visiteurs du Soir (Criterion)
The remastered Les Enfants du Paradis was the thing that was gonna get most people who are excited about this sort of thing excited, so I thought I’d check out the Criterion release of Carné/Prevert’s prior picture, a medieval maybe-allegory in which two representatives of Satan come to a castle dressed as minstrels; instead of wreaking the evil havoc they were contracted for, one of them falls in love with a mortal. I anticipated a visually sumptuous experience, and I got one. The materials of this 1942 picture look exquisite, and the transfer seems to reproduce every nuance of cinematographer Roger Hubert’s often gossamer-delicate lighting perfectly. There is not even a hint of video noise at any point. The sound is bell-clear mono. At a certain point I turned off the subtitles, the better to enjoy the spectacular B&W image. The movie itself is excellent and interesting, both as a thing itself and as an example of French cinema during the German occupation of World War II. Not a “masterpiece,” precisely (at least by my lights), but better than solid, and a must for Carné fans.—A
World On Wire (Criterion)
This relatively early (1973) Fassbinder has been the stuff of legend among his stateside coterie that has found it (understandably) difficult to see. The very concept—a three-hour plus made-for-German-television movie adapted from an American sci-fi novel that would later serve as the basis for the less reputable Hollywood product The Thirteenth Floor—was pretty mindblowing in and of itself. The reality of it actually did not disappoint in the least: for this viewer, it exceeded very high expectations, as I discuss here. I feel like it’s both quintessential Fassbinder and excellent RWF for beginners. But I’m sometimes kind of not-right about that sort of thing. But give the theory a shot anyway, as this is an excellent rendering of a not-exactly-polished (but hardly crude-looking) movie. In a 50-minute documentary that’s one of the supplements, the great lensman Michael Ballhaus gives some insight into the shooting, which was done in 16mm, and still looks it—that saturated vibe with resolution that doesn’t have the particular resolution of 35 but conveys a rough integrity of its own. A truly beautiful image. A galvanic movie experience, absolutely essential. —A+
F.T. Would you say that Psycho is an experimental film?
A.H. Possibly. My main satisfaction is that the film had an effect on the audiences, and I consider that very important. I don't care about the subject matter; I don't care about the acting; but I do care about the piece of film and the photography and the sound track and all of the technical ingredients that made the audience scream. I feel it's tremendously satisfying for us to be able to use the cinematic are to acheive something of a mass emotion. And with Psycho we most definitely acheived this. it wasn't a message that stirred the audiences, nor was it a great performance or their enjoyment of the novel. They were aroused by pure film.
F.T. Yes, that's true.
A.H. That's why I take pride in the fact that Psycho, more than any of my other pictures, is a film that belongs to film-makers, to you and me. I can't get a real appreciation of the picture in the terms we're using now. People will say, "It's a terrible film to make. The subject was horrible, the people were small, there were no characters in it. " I know all of this, but I also know that the construction of the story and the way in which it was told caused audiences all over the world to react and become emotional.
—Hitchcock/Truffaut, by François Truffaut, 1966.