Above, Paula Patton is offered the world by Djimon Hounsou in the nearly-uniquely-atrocious Baggage Claim, which is the last motion pictured I reviewed for MSN Movies. The penultimate one is Don Jon, written, directed by, and starring Joseph Gordon Levitt, who I suppose now can be declared a "critic's darling" because his movie is getting very positive reviews while being pretty much no damn good. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy the performer and his adventurousness, but this particular effort doesn't make it. And so.
Talking, quite a few years ago, about his high regard for horror movies, Martin Scorsese allowed that he "like[d] Mario Bava's films very much: hardly any story, just atmosphere, with all that fog and ladies walking down corridors." Now it would be inaccurate to characterize Joel and Ethan Coen's Inside Llewyn Davis as having "hardly any story;" in point of fact, it's got story coming and going, and I mean that literally. But the real story is told in implications and inferences; the lead character is mostly seen dealing with the consequences of irresponsible and/or out and out bad behavior (the one instance in which he's depicted acting inexcusable is, while inexcusable, at least understandable, and it doesn't occur until near the movie's end), and what we generally refer to as "plot" doesn't "function" in this movie. A little ironically, given its title, Inside Llewyn Davis is a movie in which atmosphere does almost all of the important work. And that atmosphere is chilly: bare trees, near-empty streets, cloudy breath, gray skies and grayer roadways. Everyone in the movie has a sallow complexion, except for Carey Mulligan's Jean, who's so milkily luminescent that she could in fact be a ghost.
The Coen's vision of the burgeoning folk scene in Manhattan of 1961 hasn't got a single hint of A Mighty Wind and not all that much of the redolence of the Coen's own O Brother Where Art Thou. Even when the title protagonist is depicted being roped into joining a trio cutting a folk-novelty stinker under the aegis of a Columbia record exec (Ian Jarvis) who's pretty plainly styled after John Hammond, the movie studiously avoids pastiche. The authenticity-in-art bugaboo was particularly pronounced, of course, during the real period depicted here, but the Coens never address it head on, and it's to the movie's credit that it contains no heated debates about "real" folk music. Instead, it depicts Llewyn, still too young to have earned the "journeyman" tag, scrupulously if not stubbornly hoeing his own roe row, which happens to be an old-school one, and learning in increments that he's never going to get anywhere by doing so.
At the press conference after the New York Film Festival screening, the directors were asked, not for the first time, why they make movies about "failures," and Joel Coen replied, not in a particularly sarcastic way, that "all the movies about successes have been done." The thing about Llewyn, who's played with spectacular understatement with Oscar Isaac, is that he's not depicted as particularly having it coming. He is hardly untalented. And he's not a pompous blowhard like the Coen's Barton Fink; when he makes a slight balk at the aforementioned novelty song (an anti-space-travel ditty called "Please Please Mr. Kennedy" that's all the more, um, humorous for protesting against rockets while Vietnam is just around the corner), he's not strictly wrong, and he does back off when he realizes that he's insulted the actual author of the tune. And, yes, he does get the wife of a friend pregnant, and yes, he's screwed up that way before. He's irresponsible, but not glibly so, and his adventures with a friend's cat that he feels obligated to look after because it slips out of a door he's held open provide a parable that's a terribly sad reflection of not just the character but of his circumstances.
This is a genuinely glum movie, for as many comic scenes as it contains (although when you get right down to it, it does not contain a huge number of them; most of the characters maintain an undertow of sardonicism via dialogue however). "As one day fades into another/as the past gets filled up with failure," goes a lyric by David Thomas' Pere Ubu; Llewyn's past is filled not just with failure but with genuine tragedy. He's grieving, and not just for his non-thriving career. And with every step he takes, he fails again. During a disastrous road trip to Chicago, he's bedeviled by a malevolent jazzbo (John Goodman) who threatens him with voodoo he learned from Chano Pozo (nice reference) after Llewyn has the temerity to bite back at the man mountain's litany of insults. Goodman's character is grotesquely revealed to have feet of clay, but this provides Llewyn with little satisfaction; and after he separates himself from the man, and his Beat-Generation-boy-toy "valet" (Garrett Hedlund), he promptly soaks his left foot in a snowy puddle. Sipping coffee at a diner counter, he keeps taking his foot out of his soaked shoe and pressing it against the footrest, trying to squeeze some of the cold cold water out of it. This shot struck me as a central image, a numinous one even, central to the movie's wintry poetry. Granted, given recent events in my own life, it's entirely possible that I'm unusually receptive to a movie in which the central character sits in a public toilet stall and is a little unpleasantly stunned to see this graffiti text carved into the paint on the wall that holds the toilet paper: "What Are You Doing."
And for all that, and despite the ever-so-slightly on-the-nose evocation of a world historical cultural phenomenon at the movie's end, Inside Llewyn Davis is an entirely exhilarating experience. I'm quite eager to see it again.
Last night, after taking the stage with a large band at Brooklyn's Roulette, Fred Frith, about to play the entirety of his wonderful 1980 album Gravity, told the audience, "I know some of you have already heard that my dear friend and colleague Lindsay Cooper passed away yeaterday. This is for her." Frith's voice cracked as he made the announcement and it was clear his hear was broken. Mine broke a little bit too. The opening band last night was a horns-and-reeds-led combo led by Aaron Novik, who was also in Frith's band. They were pretty wonderful, but I also thought as I listened that they did their thing very well, and their thing was one of about ten things that Henry Cow did amazingly well. Which led me to think of Lindsay Cooper, the multi-instrumentalist (although she was most proficient on bassoon and oboe) and composer whose work I first heard in the context of that great British progressive (in every sense of the word) band. Cooper, I knew, had been ill with multiple sclerosis for several years, and was in an ever-increasingly debilitated state. She was being looked after by several friends, including the director Sally Potter, to whom I inquired about Cooper's condition when Potter visited the New York Film Festival last year. I sensed it was a painful conversation for Potter to have, but she also seemed glad someone asked after Cooper. When Novik's group was playing, I wondered how she was doing. Frith, sadly, answered my question. Here's a short news item from a music website.
I'd like to be able to put on my critic's hat and discuss how she redefined the place of the oboe in rock music (ar ar ar), or her significance as a feminist in the avant-garde (an area in which much of what's termed feminist criticism is loath to tread for reasons that continuously elude me) but... It's odd to live in a culture where the conditions are such that you kind of have to pre-explain why an artist who worked in the kind of relative obscurity in which Cooper did is/was great. If I feel a personal sense of loss at the passing of someone I only ever met once, and briefly (I believe it was at a show at Maxwell's where she performed with drummer Chris Cutler, backing David Thomas), it's because the music she made was/is such a strong part of my life and my sensibility.
Cooper's connection with Potter, incidentally, was very strong. Potter wrote lyrics and librettos for Cooper, and was a founding member with Cooper of the collective Feminist Improvising Group. Cooper in fact co-wrote the screenplay for Potter's still-provocative 1983 film The Gold Diggers, starring Julie Christie, who also co-produced. I wrote about that film here.
UPDATE: Sarah Maude, who helped administrate Lindsay Cooper's care during her illness, e-mailed the musician's fans and friends this morning, September 23. Here is the text of the note:
Dear wonderful friends, admirers and fans of Lindsay,
I am sorry to have to let you know that Lindsay died on 18th September – it was as she wished, peacefully at home, surrounded by her special friends – her courageous battle against MS was helped by the wonderful support she was given by her care workers, medical professionals and her loving group of friends
Although many of you are not in the UK, we would like you to know that her funeral will be held in the West Chapel of Golders Green Crematorium at 5.00pm on Wednesday 25th September, so that you can offer up prayers, think loving thoughts, chant, hold her in the light or do whatever you would like to do in memory of her – Lindsay was a wonderfully talented person who will be remembered with affection and admiration – a Memorial Service is planned at some stage in the future: if you would like to be kept up to date on those plans, please go to email@example.com
I want to send a special thank you to you all, for your support of Lindsay over the years, your emails, your gifts, your thoughts – it was an enormous comfort to her to know that there were people in so many countries who admired her talent and appreciated her music – please know that you were an important part of her life.
With best wishes,
Here are some examples of Cooper's work, which deserve to be heard in better formats than YouTube. I encourage you to seek them out.
From the final Henry Cow recording, a section of a suite composed by Cooper. With Frith, Cutler, Tim Hodgkinson on alto sax/clarinet/organ, Anne-Marie Roelofs on violin/trombone, and Irene Schweizer on piano.
While the band Art Bears (the word "bears" in its name is a verb, apparently, which I admit I was rather disappointed to learn) was formed after a disagreement within Henry Cow as to whether it was meant to be a song-based band, the personnel on its amazing debut album Hopes and Fears is that of Cow minus John Greaves, who had decamped to National Health. This tune, which Frith played as part of his encore last night, doesn't feature Cooper and Hodgkinson until a couple of minutes in, but is a wonderfully characteristic one.
News From Babel was a group for which Cooper composed the music; Cutler wrote texts and drummed; Zeena Parkins played harp and accordian, and the great Dagmar Krause sang. The closing words to this song are: "I rage/I feel my love/Trapped/In a world/Of stillness/Like a wasting illness."
R: Did you ever read Nietzsche
L: Ha Ha Ha
R: Legs, listen to me, he said that anything that makes you laugh, anything that's funny, indicates an emotion that's died. Every time you laugh that's a serious emotion that doesn't exist with you anymore...and that's why I think you and everything else is so funny.
L: Yeah, I do too, but that's not funny.
R: That's 'cause you don't have any emotions. (Hysterical laughter)
—Richard Hell interviewed by Leg McNeil, Punk, Issue #3, March 1976, reprinted in Punk: The Best Of Punk Magazine, !T/Harper Collins, 2012
[...] I had become a manic-depressive. I was hopeless. I could only laugh at someone else's expense and I thrived on negativity. I can see now how it was only natural that I would gravitate towards Tommy, Joey, and Johnny Ramone. They were the obvious creeps of the neighborhood. All their friends had to be creeps. No one would have ever pegged any of us for any kind of success in life. But that's how it goes.
—Dee Dee Ramone, Lobotomy: Surviving The Ramones, Thunder's Mouth Press, 2000
I always liked seeing Dee Dee, and to my mind he was the best example of a certain rock and roll essence that punk sought to embody. He was a street kid who was purely talented—he wrote most of the great Ramones songs—and who radiated lovable innocence, even though he'd worked, for lack of a better way to earn a living, as a gay hustler on the street. Or maybe that's where he'd learned the innocence. Like Jerry Nolan, he'd been a hairdresser for a while, too. He had a strongly defined personality—that funny dizzy dumb style—that he had to have developed as a defense. He was like a toddler, stumbling and misunderstanding what just happened, but who recovers instantly to plow ahead grinning proudly, endearingly, hilariously. With him the comedy was deliberate, if so deeply habitual that it became who he was. The other side of his childlike goofiness was his tantrums. But he was so funny, usually about himself. My favorite example is something he said for a piece I did about the Ramones for Hit Parader in 1976. (It was the first time I'd done any journalism and the first article about the Ramones in a national publication.)
The band had gathered at Arturo Vega's loft for the interview. Arturo was the Ramones' art director and best friend and main booster. I turned on the tape recorder and started asking questions. In a minute Dee Dee was explaining the group's songs and he said the first one they'd written was "I Don't Wanna Walk Around With You," and the next one was "I Don't Wanna Get Involved With You," and then "I Don't Wanna Go Down to the Basement." I don't wanna this and I don't wanna that. Finally he offered, "We didn't write a positive song until 'Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue.'" Someone who was actually dumb would never be able to think of that, which of course makes it even funnier.
—Richard Hell, I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp, Ecco/Harper Collins, 2013
I bring all this up because it's kind of staggering the way, to judge by the trailer, the upcoming CBGB movie bollixes the droll anecdote Mr. Hell relates.
As you might know if you follow me on Twitter, or follow other film writers on Twitter, myself and a whole bunch of other freelance writers for the MSN website were informed today that soon there was no longer going to be any work for us at the site. (Here is an odd news item concerning something like this thing.) I send condolences to colleagues Kim Morgan, James Rocchi, Kate Erbland, Don Kaye...and there are others I'm not sure I can mention. I thank all the people who've been kind on Twitter and via e-mail and in comments on this blog. I am, as they say, "confident" that I will "land on my feet" and all that, but the immediate experience of this condition, unfortunately, feels rather akin to having received a sharp kick in the middle of the forehead. And I had wanted to get so much more work done on my second novel this evening. Have I mentioned that I'm trying to be a novelist now? I'll keep you posted, promise. In the meantime enjoy this mordant bit of musical entertainment from a fellow whose current state reminds us all that, yes, it could be worse. And incidentally, I SHALL be contributing reviews (and even a listicle thingie) to MSN through the end of September. Thanks and stay tuned.
I wrote up Brian De Palma's Passion when I first saw it at the New York Film Festival in 2012, and again to commemorate its wider release for MSN Movies. I link to both notices to demonstrate my eccentric commitment to avoid self-plagiarism.
Given how and when the last Blu-ray Consumer Guide came into being, it may be that scheduling these to appear at random national holidays may be the way to go.
Equipment: Playstation 3 for domestic discs, OPPO BDP 83 for import discs, Panasonic Viera TCP50S30 plasma display, Pioneer Elite VSX-817 AV amplifier/receiver.
Blood and Sand (Fox)
This has been on my “to see” list since I read Tom Milne’s passionate and persuasive monograph on Rouben Mamoulian, recently reprinted in the BFI’s wonderful Silver series. It cites an article by Mamoulian for American Cinematographer in 1941, the year of this film’s making, in which the director writes of how he deliberately styled scenes in the movie after the work of Spanish painters: Murillo, Goya, Velasquez, El Greco, Titian, Veronese, Sorolla. The strictures of Technicolor in that year allowed Mamoulian sufficient flexibility to achieve dazzling visual effects, and this high-def transfer is simply breathtaking in their reproduction. The fact that Rita Hayworth and Linda Darnell are also dazzling visual effects in Technicolor is also a major plus. As for the remainder of the movie, you know how some people don’t really get Glenn Ford? I’m kind of like that with Tyrone Power. Oh well. Doesn’t matter. An amazing picture, and an absolutely appositely wonky commentary (imported by the standard def issue) by cinematographer Richard Crudo who, among other things, makes note of the scarcity of diffusion-wedge use in contemporary cinema. —A+
Body Double (Twilight Time)
Not a guilty De Palma pleasure, but a complicated one, in my case at least in part because my first New York girlfriend had a horrible date with Craig Wasson a little while before she first met me. So I’m torn between being grateful to him for being such a lunatic ass that he made me look good, and kind of thinking he nonetheless was asking for a smack in the chops. This was clearly made from a less wonky HD master than that from which the problematic Twilight Time Blu of The Fury was derived (I’ll be covering the corrected rendering of that picture soon to come from Arrow). It is a really beautifully detailed version, a little disquietingly so at points, as in the visibility of Melanie Griffith’s lower ribs in her topless dancing scenes. Have a cheeseburger, girl, it won’t kill you! The dazzling parts remain dazzling, and there are plenty of them. The silly parts remain silly, but I’ve developed affection for them. — B+
Sure is pretty. As is not unusual, the movie is not as bad as its detractors claim, or as good as its contemporary champions trumpet. Good lord it is long. But hardly as unwatchable as has sometimes been threatened. I recommend looking at it in 45-minute chunks. That way you’ll be all like “Hey! Hume Cronyn!” and all that, but not have enough time to start feeling super-bad for Elizabeth Taylor, who’s trying SO hard throughout. The transfer is so sharp that there are several scenes in which the leading lady’s real-life tracheotomy scar is PAINFULLY visible. Was that the case on the big screens on which it famously flopped? I need to ask my mom. —A-
The Driver (Twilight Time)
A good, solid high-def transfer of a movie that didn’t inspire all that rapturous a reception when it came out but now plays perfectly all the way down the line. Inspired by Melville, clearly, but to my mind even more perfectly distilled than Melville’s own Le Samourai, in which one can detect a whiff of affectation compromising his attempt to wed Les enfants terribles to Le doulos. Writer/director Walter Hill achieved a kind of perfection here, particularly with his depiction of the brutality of the story’s criminal world. The movie is noteworthy for its preponderance of chase sequences, many of them set at night, and all of them are rendered nicely here. The greenish hue discerned in the DVD Beaver review was not quite as noticeable on my display’s settings, but where it was most present, as in O’Neal and Adjani’s exchanged-glance-on-the-modernist walkway, it wasn’t inapposite. Extras are typically minimal, which I usually don’t much care about but in this case I’m VERY curious about the makings of this movie, specifically Hill’s influences in the writing, and this disc tells me NOTHING about those things, so I’m withholding the “plus” from my grade. That’ll show ‘em. —A
The File on Thelma Jordan (Olive)
This unusually discursive 1950 noir mismatches Barbara Stanwyck against Wendell Corey. With Robert Siodmak at the directorial helm, one might expect some primo oddness, but the movie is frustratingly diffuse as it plods to an admittedly bizarre finale. The Olive Blu is an unextraordinary transfer of a not-great (scratches, wobbly contrast in places, etc.) source. For Siodmak completists only. —B-
The Fog (Scream Factory)
Silly snobby me turned up my nose at this thing when it first came out in 1980, because it wasn’t “scary” enough. It’s still not particularly scary but good lord is it a beautifully crafted film, a complete pleasure to watch from shot to shot, start to finish. This Blu-ray honors that, far more than the Optimum issue released in the U.K. in 2008. It’s an example of the “good things come to those who wait” ethos of Blu-ray collecting. Although five years ago Scream Factory didn’t exist. How was I to know? Anyway, this is a gorgeous thing with terrific extras and something you’ll want to watch pretty often; there’s something kind of classic-movie-appealing about the way it plays with campfire ghost-story conventions that makes it apt for, you know, Halloween quadruple features and such. —A+
Heaven’s Gate (Criterion)
Still a problem movie, in that it wants grandeur, and largely achieves bloat. Also, the director’s cut doesn’t have my favorite line in the movie, which is “That man is a friend of the President of the United States.” (So Kristofferson’s character observes of a guy who’s mooning him from across a battlefield if I recall correctly.) Other portions of the extant dialogue are sloppy: one doesn’t admit to “blackballing” someone, seriously. I’m still fond of the line “Sure as hell isn’t convenient,” though. I’m rambling here. As far as the movie’s concerned, here are more complaints; No characters, just good actors looking tragic; overlong expository scenes; numbingly obvious political and moral points scored with relentless ham-handedness. The homage to Dr. Zhivago with Waterston in fur hat on train is pretty funny though. And there are some “stirring” moments and a fair amount of protean filmmaking. I’m glad this exists, I think the treatment is in many respects deserved, but don’t feel bad about yourself if you don’t fall in love with it. —B-
Remarkably beautiful, in every respect. It’s one of those movie’s that’s directed with such simultaneous freedom and assurance that the flow of the innovations is kind of moving in and of itself. This is particularly true in the musical sequences, which in their way are as sublime as anything Busby Berkeley ever concocted. Richard Lester doesn’t much care if he pushes the aperture so the grain gets to Pennebaker levels, and he is wise not to care; his command of focus and color are what gives him the confidence to experiment, improvise. He happened to be working with artists of a similar bent, who were maybe a little tired of being put through comedy paces by this point but looked good and performed gamely. Wrote good songs for the picture, too. — A+
In the late-Godard-aspect-ratio war, Olive puts its foot down at an unambiguous a 1.33 for this 1987 feature, a slight, light picture that extrapolates from the Woody Alien film editing scenes of King Lear and the string quartet rehearsal sequences in Hail Mary First Name: Carmen. Featuring Godard in a lead role, sorta channeling Peter Sellers as Chauncey Gardener and some unspecified Buster Keaton character simultaneously. Doesn’t do a bad job, either. The movie as a whole has an almost antiseptic look; unlike the maddeningly dark Detective or the multi-hued Nouvelle Vague this is bright and flat…rather like a TV commercial advertising the end days of cinema as Godard knew it. No extras, no choice about the subtitles, ‘cause they’re burned in; in other words, the usual gift-horse-you-ought-not-look-in-the-mouth from Olive. For Godard completists only. —B+
Kentucky Fried Movie (Shout! Factory)
The food-oil-as-fuel joke in this movie has ACTUALLY COME TRUE, people. Other than that: This movie STILL looks terrible. As in super low-rent; the materials used were likely at their best, and they were transferred well. Actually, for celluloid nuts, the grindhouse crudity of much of the lensing has its own appeal, and given the pastiches involved in a lot of the takeoffs, the cruddy look is purposeful in a lot of instances. The first time I saw this 1977 movie I didn’t quite get it all. The second time, with a cannabis assist, I laughed harder than I had at any other movie. This time around, I thought it was pretty funny. Not quite sure I can pronounce it an immortal comedy on that basis. I still like it though. —B+
Lifeforce (Scream Factory)
The Showgirls of horror/sci-fi movies! Once considered louche and risible, what with its Steve Railsback post-Helter Skelter/Stunt Man cuh-razy astronaut and constantly nude space vampire Matilda May, it now plays pretty damn well, a gonzo Hammer picture with all the exploitation elements taken to their logical ‘80s extreme. The movie’s 70MM status wasn’t too played up at the time of its release but damn, on this GREAT looking disc the fisheye widescreen vistas look especially great. Terrific extras too. Unmissable. —A+
The Only Game In Town (Twilight Time)
I was looking for an auteurist lost cause to champion…and I didn’t find it here, alas. George Stevens’ last film is drab and lifeless, with decent individual moments (Warren Beatty’s stalk into the casino after he gets his money off of Elizabeth Taylor) lost in a fog of theatrical speechifying, dubious sexual chemistry, and cultural desert-wandering (you’d never guess this was a 1970 movie). The Blu-ray has a mixed look that mostly matches the movie’s lifelessness. Every now and then, on some comment thread or another, the perpetually dissatisfied and tetchy cinephile who calls himself Lex G goes on a rant about how 1.85 is a complete pussy aspect ratio. I do not agree with him, but if I had to take his side on the debate team, I’d make this movie Exhibit A. Stevens, who had done superb work in both CinemaScope and1.66 in the past seems utterly lost in the framing department here. And the cinematographer is Henri Dacae, for heaven’s sake. — B-
Possession (Second Sight region B U.K. import)
This movie is so great for a number of reasons, one of which is that is starts off at a pitch of emotional hysteria that most dramas take an hour or two or six to build to, and then it goes CRAZIER from there. The distribution and home video history of the 1981 Andrzej Zulawski is long and storied and perhaps even more insane than the movie itself. Hell, I didn’t even know this picture was in 1.66 until the excellent Second Sight Blu-ray, which gets my unqualified recommendation. Zulawski, predictably, does fabulously in the audio commentary, revealing that the movie was initially a project for Paramount (!!!) and recounting a dinner he had with Gulf and Western head Charles Bludhorn at which Bludhorn asks Zulawski “What is this movie about” and Zulawski responds “It’s about a woman who fucks an octopus” and Bludhorn delightedly asks him when he starts shooting. And it gets better from there. —A+
The Producers (Shout Factory)
This label is unostentatiously turning into pop culture’s answer to The Criterion Collection. Mel Brooks’ debut feature is as sloppy a piece of technical work as you can get and still be a Great Film, but it is nevertheless delightful to be able to see it in something resembling the glory with which Avco-Embassy presented it in 1969. A single extra that wasn’t on the MGM standard def disc is the only addition to the disc array. But the Drew Friedman cover art is an absolutely marvelous extra in and of itself. —A+
Safety Last (Criterion)
The 2005 box set The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection was a labor of love, and that was evident throughout, but certain technical hurdles didn’t get fully addressed. The image on the features and shorts, while clear, had a lot of combing artifacts. That’s generally a thing endemic to an interlaced television picture, which, in the new HD era, ought not exist any more. The Criterion issue of Lloyd’s best-known and perhaps best-loved film is in fact a 1080i (for interlaced) transfer, but nevertheless rids us of the combing problem, and presents a delightful, pristine image that represents the best way to appreciate the performer and gagman’s sunny can-do disposition and athletic slapstick prowess. This retains most of the extras from the 2005 box (including an informed commentary featuring Leonard Maltin) and adds three shorts and a twenty-minute documentary featuring writer John Bengtson, who also contributes commentary to the shorts. One hopes more Lloyd of this quality turns up in high-def. —A
Sometimes one gets the feeling that John Frankenheimer enjoyed working in black-and-white more than he did with color. Or maybe it’s just that it shows more; I can’t really figure whether his black-and-white movies are more genuinely visually expressive than his color ones or if black-and-white brought out his ostentatiously arty side. In films wherein the subject is a kind of madness—this, The Manchurian Candidate—it doesn’t matter. And it especially doesn’t matter here, where the cinematographer is James Wong Howe, whose sensitivity and mastery more than redeem what would elsewhere be severely overdetermined use of the fish-eye lens. Not that such hell-visions perspectives are not apt to this horrific, grim fable about the denial of death and aging. The 1.78 image here is gorgeous, grainy, with blacks so solid you could swallow them, or they could swallow you. I have to look through my old Video Watchdogs to figure out what version of the grape-stomping orgy made it into the theatrical release; this may blow my theory about Blow Up being the first studio picture to feature full-frontal nudity (Seconds came out several months before the Antonioni). I discuss this picture in a bit more detail here. Upgraded from “A” for making Jeffrey Wells unhappy. — A+
The Servant (Studio Canal region B U.K. import)
Man, this is certainly the best looking version of the first Losey/Pinter collaboration I’ve ever seen, so much so that throughout I kind of wondered if it was too perfect. Little if any damage with respect to film materials shows. The black-and-white image is very smooth, with not much in the way of grain. But everything also has a filmic integrity: not much in the way of irritating digital artifacts show up either. A thoroughly credible, nearly breathtaking presentation of a movie of supreme creepiness and multiple ambiguities, with a lot more going on in its odd little world than mere role reversal. Master guitarist Davy Graham is now fully visible and appreciable in his bit part as a pub muso. The extras are voluminous, not all are in the greatest of shape, but the segment of the arts television program Camera 3 on the first New York Film Festival, featuring Losey and Adolph Mekas, is astonishing. —A+
Simon Killer (Eureka!/Masters of Cinema region B U.K. import)
Some may blanche that the “Masters of Cinema” imprimatur is going on the second feature of an American filmmaker who’s part of a production collective made up of what the aforementioned Wells would call “beardos” (see also William Holden in Billy Wilder’s Fedora). Let’s get some perspective here. This isn’t the first contemporary picture that the label has released. See also The World, Mad Detective, Tokyo Sonata. And while I myself am not 100 percent sold on this explicit portrait of a very ugly young American getting up to bad behavior in Paris, it is a largely effective construction (although director Antonio Campos is a little too hidebound in his belief that the slow back-and-forth camera pan is a really interesting way to connote that something sinister is happening beneath what’s playing out on the screen). The excellent disc is an object lesson in getting a great home-digital project from a digital source, a process that is not as automatic as a lot of people assume it is. The extras include a persuasive essay by Karina Longworth and a comic documentary short in which the filmmaker and star of the picture are interviewed in tandem with their mothers, and which ought to be avoided by viewers who are already super-skeptical about beardos in moviemaking. —B+
Tabu (Eureka!/Masters of Cinema region B U.K. import)
I shall make a confession here: this 1931 picture is probably my least favorite Murnau. Yes, it’s staggeringly visually beautiful, yes, its final moments of grim implacability are among the most sublime cinema has offered at any time and in any context. But, not to get all holy leftist or anything, its perspective necessarily is entrenched in Western paternalism, which turns out to be more of a stumbling block for me than Sunrise’s sexism. I think this is a genuine problem for the movie, objectively, just as the sexism in Sunrise is. (City Girl remains the most startlingly “progressive” extant film of Murnau’s late period. The MOC Blu-ray of that puppy is pretty awesome too.) On the other hand, it’s still effectively just a prejudice on my part because this is still an indispensable movie and it looks wonderful here (although man oh man is the 1.19 aspect ratio SEVERE) and the extras, which include an enthusiastic and informative commentary by critic Brad Stevens and historian R. Dixon Smith, are superb. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to the Nosferatu Blu-ray from this label. —A+
The Tarnished Angels (Eureka!/Masters of Cinema region B U.K. import)
I didn’t expect to be watching this again so soon after I wrote a bit about Sirk and Faulkner for the blog, but the MOC Blu-ray seemed to land at my door mere moments after it was announced, and My Lovely Wife was interested in seeing it, so… Anyway, watching the movie with another person and with a different discipline in place, what struck me this time around was how the material was both hemmed in and made strange through the film’s marriage of convenience to conventions of ‘50s melodrama, particularly with respect to Dorothy Malone’s performance. Interesting, though, that Robert Middleton plays the ostensible heavy Matt Ord right down the middle; you could almost mistake him for one more lonely guy in this movie of lonely guys. The whole movie is more or less contained in the shock moment when the Mardi Gras partier masked as Death bursts in to Hudson and Malone’s reflective drinking; a shot I sometimes see in my mind in garish color. Angels is of course CinemaScope black and white, beautiful here. The extras are both scholarly and nifty and include unexpected treats such as a video interview with William Schallert and a contemporary article about the shooting of the aerial sequences from Air Progress magazine. —A+
Teorema/Theorem (BFI Region B U.K. import)
One of Pasolini’s drollest provocations and one of Terence Stamp’s most blithely enigmatic performances. There are very few extras, but one gets the feeling that the movie doesn’t want any explication beyond itself, such is its magisterially serene perversity. Nifty Morricone score too, you could almost swear the title theme was taken off a Freddie Redd record, but it wasn’t! (Per Nick Wrigley's tip, it's actually Ted Curson, not that you'd know from any goddamn credits. Morricone's versatile but not THAT versatile.) Watch on a loop until it tells you what to do with YOUR complacent bourgeois life. —A
Things To Come (Criterion)
I was getting all set to do a Very Important Comparison of a British issued Blu-ray and a Ray-Harryhausen-overseen Blu (on a double feature with She) of this eccentric futurist fable when along comes the announcement of a Criterion version. And once the Criterion version showed up in my mailbox, my suspicions were kind of confirmed: this renders the British disc…well, as it happens, not quite irrelevant. Criterion’s rendering sacrifices a barely discernable smidge of sharpness in the interest of smoothing out the picture for a more internally consistent viewing experience, while the 2012 Network issue opts for getting top detail out of a scratched-up source. I’ll be kind to the late great Ray and just leave his presentation out of the conversation. Anyway, my preference is for the Criterion. I’m not satisfied by the black levels on either rendering. Some will bitch about the grain, there’s a very good deal of it. Until a full-scale restoration is performed, and that’s not a matter of when but rather a very big if, this is as good as we are likely to get. And what a weird ass movie, with all those haughty guys in togas at the end. Yet as William Cameron Menzies directorial efforts go, this is on the relatively sober side (check out The Maze if you ever can; see also Chandu The Magician, twice a year is optimum). —A
You want personal filmmaking from an established old master? Well, like it or not, it doesn’t get any more personal that Francis Coppola’s digitally-shot, occasionally in 3D (although the disc I’m reviewing doesn’t have that option) sort-of genre movie in which still-bloated but highly game Val Kilmer plays a dissolute hacky horror novelist stuck in a zero-bookstore town (his signing is at the hardware emporium) sucked in to a twisty tale of bohemians and murder and vampires and ghosts. The first gonzo frisson is that the wife Kilmer argues about money with over Skype is Kilmer’s actual ex-wife Joanna Whaley. Then Ben Chaplin shows up as the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe, to give Kilmer’s character some writing advice. Then Alden Ehrenreich turns up in a hybrid of his role in Tetro and Mickey Rourke’s role in Rumble Fish. Then it becomes plain that a lot of the movie is about Coppola’s guilt over his son Gian Carlo’s 1986 death in a boating accident. Coppola demonstrates enough detachment to have a sense of humor about the manifestation of that guilt (and the scenes of Kilmer doing improv impressions to exorcise his writer’s block are a stitch) but there’s nothing funny about the complex sense of loss the movie evokes through various horror tropes, some more hoary than others. A sumptuous-looking transfer of a digital source, its only extra is a charmingly open making-of doc by Gia Coppola, the daughter Gian-Carlo never knew and Francis’ granddaughter, who has since the 2010 shooting of the film made another feature, Palo Alto. —B+