Even skeptics can anticipate. I won't be seeing Alejandro G. Iñárritu's Birdman (a still is above, featuring costars Michael Keaton and Edward Norton) until about a month from now, and of course I'm highly curious, albeit not particularly keen on participating in any "wars" about the thing. As it happens, when the director's last film, Biutiful, was in theaters, I contributed a piece to Film Comment entitled: "This Can't End Well: How We Live Now, or The New Humanism according to Alejandro González Iñárritu." The piece, which appeared in the November/December 2010 issue, cannot be accessed online, or else I'd just link to it. So I've distilled the gist of my argument from the essay's final paragraphs, for your consideration:
[…]Iñárritu’s films […] always withhold anything even vaguely resembling a happy ending […] are nevertheless in the uplift business. While trucking in […] liberal pieties, his that’s-just-the-way-it-is perspective resists explicit ideology, so as to evade the idea that there might be anything resembling a genuine political response to any of the human misery his films depict. […] This really does let everybody off the hook, but the perspective doesn’t so much come out and congratulate the audience as it does Iñárritu himself: for his seemingly self-proclaimed insistence on looking at all of the pain of human existence with an unflinching gaze. And of course it is that which spurs on a form of audience self-congratulation: ‘He gets it, and I get it the way that he gets it.’ Iñárritu invites you to wallow in his tragic sense. And this, of course, is what makes his films sort of critic-proof. But it’s also what makes so many critics feel he’s a strong-arm artist, a filmmaker who instead of allowing the audience to respond emotionally, bludgeons or even blackmails them into being moved.
Near the end of [Biutiful], [Javier] Bardem’s character, grinding closer and closer to his death, takes his young daughter in a tight embrace and, almost melting into her, begs, “Remember me. Don’t forget me, Ana.” The shot is simply composed, the sentiment the character expresses is, you’ll excuse the term, universal, and the actors note-perfect. It’s as naked and ‘real’ and moving a thing as Iñárritu has ever put on film, an unabashed and unadorned depiction of human frailty, vulnerability, and vanity. And then he has to go and spoil it all by cutting from that to the in-your-face resolution of a storyline involving a couple of the film’s Asian ‘entrepreneurs,’ which rings ten times more falsely than it ordinarily would have, had the prior scene not rung so true. It’s as if Iñárritu can’t help himself. Again: can he? Looks as if we won’t find out until his next film.
WHAT'S GOING ON HERE: Well, when I started writing for RogerEbert.com last year, around the time MSN Movies closed up shop, I thought maybe I could "monetize" this feature. I'd pitched it around to other revenue-generating sites before, and received...unenthusiastic responses, but my Ebert pals were into it. But it really didn't work out in terms of traffic (thanks Obama) and so we decided my contributions would have to be of a different nature. But...I couldn't...stop...watching Blu-rays...and making...notes on them. So we're back at the blog, without promise of regular updating, even though if I can't sell a Gift Guide to a revenue-generating site, that'll end up here, too. Enjoy! Consume! Leave me a tip! Or not. But at least enjoy.
Equipment: Playstation 3 for domestic discs, OPPO BDP 83 for import discs, Panasonic Viera TCP50S30 plasma display, Pioneer Elite VSX-817 AV amplifier/receiver.
25th Hour/He Got Game (Disney)
This is the debut volume of the so-far two-volume “Spike Lee Joint” collection on Blu-ray. If you’re strapped for media-buying cash, I’d say this is the one to get: his second-greatest film (Hour, that is, second to Do The Right Thing) alongside one of his strongest and most-worthy-of-revisiting efforts (the underrated-in-its-time Game). Both pictures look very good to great, the extras are not comprehensive but they’re hardly negligible, and what else do you want. —A-
All That Jazz (Criterion)
Looks great, sounds great, feels great. A boatload of good extras, including some from previous incarnations, my favorite being the commentary from editor Alan Heim. (A new doc short with Heim features the editor talking a little smack about Dustin Hoffman.) The return of Erszbet Foldi, who plays the beleaguered daughter and never made another film after this! Fosse biographer Sam Wasson giving a mini-bio on camera—Wasson’s a smart guy and knows his stuff but has an unfortunate fondness for fatuous ideas, including his proposition that Quine’s My Sister Eileen is a “rinky-dink” movie. I actually first saw this at a press screening—my very first one, when I was a college student working at the school paper, I don’t know how or why I got the invite—and I was full of snotty collegiate observations about its derivativeness and was also grossed out by the open-heart surgery scenes. And yet I’ve always revisited it with affection. And now I think it’s a Great Film. It has an energy and ambition that steamrolls over its flaws, and it’s really just beautifully put together. And Roy Scheider gives the performance of seven lifetimes. Exemplary. —A+
Bang Bang You’re Dead (Olive)
This 1966 item appears to promise much to the aficionado of oddball old cinema; Tony Randall co-starring opposite Euro-beauty Senta Berger in an espionage-picture pastiche produced by Harry Alan Towers and featuring Klaus Kinski as a heavy. Alas, director Don Sharp, the man behind a bunch of lesser Hammers, doesn’t maintain anything like a snappy pace let alone inject any wit, so the biggest kicks to be derived from the picture proper come from anachronistic dialogue along the lines of “I’m with Iranian oil.” The visual presentation is soft, pleasantly colored. A bit of damage here and there but never less than watchable. But only the most fanatic of Randall, Berger, or Kinski fans will have a compelling reason to watch. —C
Born Yesterday (Twilight Time)
This 1950 picture looks terrific, especially relative to its prior video editions: I believe I remember this title from the early VHS years. Anyway, the image is a silky-smooth black-and-white, made from materials in clearly good shape. There’s not a lot of evident DNR artifacting. This is pretty much standard operating procedure with Sony-derived product, so I’m not surprised. The soundtrack feels like it was mastered at a lower-than-standard volume, though, as sometimes we had to boost the volume to hear the dialogue. Which leads us to a problem: the movie’s really hard to listen to. And to watch sometimes. It’s actually more jarring to see Broderick Crawford smack Judy Holliday than it is to watch Lee Marvin hit any of the women in Point Blank. As much of a miracle as Holliday is, this gets as grating as any movie you can call a classic can. I’m not even sure I’d call it a classic, myself. —B+
This spectacular, essential 1949 not-quite-noir directed by the divine Max Ophuls (here rendered “Opuls” in the credits) gets a very solid presentation in this Olive rendering. The shot of lead actress Barbara Bel Geddes in the hospital bed looks kind of dupey but that’s the only problem I discerned. I don’t know much about the making of the movie but the way Robert Ryan’s character is rushed out of the narrative combined with the dubious hospital-bed shot inclines one to suspect studio tampering with the vision, which was partially that of Arthur Laurents, who scripted. Among its many points of interest (exceptional moving camera stuff aside, and there’s plenty of it here) is that it was edited by Robert Parrish, features the ineffable Curt Bois in a great juicy/sleazy support role, and has bit parts for future television sitcom icons Natalie Schafer Barbara Billingsley. Also that it builds to an insane delirium that is in some respects reminiscent of Black Narcissus, of all things. It’s also a bold picture in terms of its character “likeability” or, God spare me, “relatibility” quotient: I had forgotten just how callow and whiny Bel Geddes’ character, the ostensible heroine, is for almost two-thirds of the film. Fantastic stuff in any event. Good grief, Robert Ryan’s performance. —A
The Children’s Hour (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
This is a pretty good presentation of a dour, self-serious film that’s more an emblem of William Wyler’s downturn as a director than was his picture prior to this, the much-disparaged Ben-Hur. I kind of blame playwright/screenwriter Lillian Hellman, given Wyler’s slight rebound after this with the equally dark but much more impressive The Collector. The interest here comes from the cast’s grappling with the material. And grapple they do, as, of the principals, only Shirley MacLaine and, um, Miriam Hopkins are particularly suited to their roles. James Garner and Audrey Hepburn are obliged to run counter to their individual strengths. The picture is solid black and white in its delightfully early-60s 1.66 aspect ratio. Now a Blu-ray of The Little Foxes, that I would get behind with more enthusiasm.—B
Cobra Woman (Alive AG Region B locked German import)
Thanks to Jack Smith, and Susan Sontag’s apprehension of Jack Smith, this film and its star, non-acting bombshell Maria Montez, became defining emblems of Camp. The lush visuals and relentless ridiculousness of this second-tier romance/adventure aside, this does, when all is said and done, nevertheless present Surrealist-influenced director Robert Siodmak at a disadvantage he did not have to grapple with even with the likes of Phantom Lady. Which is a perhaps overly wordy way of saying that this is, cultural significances aside, a helluva goofy movie. This German Blu looks VERY good. A couple of shots show something like registration problems, but not that’s infrequent. Also, and I don’t know how to say this without coming off piggish so I’m just not gonna bother, but Camp icon or not, Maria Montez sure did have a rack on her. If you’re into that sort of thing, I mean. If you invest in this, remember to set the audio to English before you start the movie, or else you’ll get Sabu speaking German, and that’ll really fuck up your shit. —B+
Eden And After/The Man Who Lies (Kino/Lorber)
Having gotten through the entirety of the early films of Alain Robbe-Grillet offered in very nice editions from the fine folks at Kino/Lorber, I’ve concluded that the idea of Robbe-Grillet as a filmmaker is often more enticing/attractive than the reality. Which boils down to the fact that as sophisticated as his ideas concerning the upending of film narrative conventions were, he simply did not have the technical expertise (or, to be fair to him, in some cases, the money) to pull off his most ambitious coups. He gained fluency as he went on, to be sure: La Belle Captive, a 1983 picture not included in this series (which terminates with the 1974 Progressive Slidings of Pleasure [reviewed here]) was pretty much everything for which it aimed. But the best transposition of Robbe-Grillet’s storytelling mojo to film will ever be Resnais’ Last Year At Marienbad. As for these two pictures, the memory-and-guilt wartime labyrinth The Man Who Lies, from 1968, looks nice and clean in 1.66 black and white, and features one of the most antic and peculiar performances from Jean-Louis Trintignant, but is in many other respects dead on its feet. The 1970 Czech co-production Eden and After is a pleasingly psychedelic color picture with lots of red liquid, nudity, and deadpan depictions of perversion as it “follows” a group of students whose violent, sex-fueled gaming takes them places they hadn’t counted on, thanks to a Steranko-character-come-to-life agent played by Pierre Zimmer. Its companion piece, N Took The Dice, recut from Eden footage for a television presentation, is a funny translation of Eden’s essential abstractions into a critique of television conventions. If you can only afford one, ask yourself whether you’re more a fan of Trintignant or nude young women, and proceed accordingly. Both films: —B+
Follow That Dream (Twilight Time)
The King meets The Other King…here’s an Elvis Presley film directed by latter-day alternate-auteurism hero Gordon Douglas! How come you aren’t more excited. Although the opening of this picture sees the main characters driving over a seemingly large body of water, the 1962 film is neither set nor shot in the Florida Keys but rather in several towns in the northern and central part of that state. Florida’s a pretty big state, as it happens. In any event the sunny locations look terrific in wide-screen, as does Mr. Presley, here with nice brown hair rather than threatening dyed-black, and playing, as had become his costume, one of those likable, slightly thick, but secretly crafty and entirely decent quasi-rednecks. Those who scoff at his film career underestimate his real appeal as a screen performer; he’s thoroughly watchable, always. This picture, while less deplorably risible than, say, Kissing Cousins, still isn’t all that—the songs are not terribly distinguished, and while the female leads Anne Helm and Joanna Moore are hardly unattractive, they’re kinda bland—this could have used a Yvonne Craig or Ann-Margret. Still. It really is very briskly directed and features some bathroom humor that’s curious in a film of its vintage. That aside, it’s pretty much for the hardcore fan of Presley and/or Douglas. The former is a very powerful lobby, it seems, as it got the stretch of road featured in the opening rechristened the “Follow That Dream Highway” back in 1996.—B+
The Grand Budapest Hotel (Fox)
Wes Anderson’s latest, which surrounds a throbbing vein of melancholy with a near-insane cornucopia of eccentric and rough humor and high-whimsical pictorial detail, gets a beautiful rendering here in its parent-studio high-def release. As was the case with the theatrical presentation, the only “full screen” sequences are those in the 1.33 and 2.35 ratios: the 1.85 sections are recessed, so there’s never an ACTUAL full-screen picture on your TV display. It matters little and/or makes sense depending on your viewing temperament. The minimal extras include a fun short of Bill Murray touring the thrillingly quaint German town where much of the film was shot, and a few clever promo shorts, including one that provides the extremely daunting instructions for the baking and construction of a delightful sweet pastry featured in the film (the Mendl’s “Courtesan au Chocolat,” to be precise.)—A
Hit The Deck (Warner Archive)
This is maybe what you call a “minor” MGM musical of the ‘50s, and as such one would like to make a case for it as a representative studio product that reveals interesting things about the time it was released but oops, Wikipedia tells me the whole thing was a box office flop so…so much for flogging this as what my teenage parents were into or something. When did Vic Damone get popular, anyway? But still. This is a really nifty-looking widescreen color picture and a lot of fun in its way, but I’m the kind of guy who likes seeing Walter Pidgeon as Russ Tamblyn’s dad. And ridiculous pretexts for musical number. The disc has really sharp color and detail. A registration issue crops up about 58 minutes in, but nothing fatal. Every character gets a song, including Damone’s mom, played by operatic singer Kay Armen. gets a song. The Funhouse number is a real highlight, as is “Join The Navy See The World.” I dug it. —A-
Jodorowsky’s Dune (Sony)
A well-constructed documentary about an epic film that never was and never will be. Exceptionally watchable and engrossing even given the presence of my virtual reality nemesis Devin Faraci, who has a pretty squeaky voice for an Internet tough guy but whom director Frank Pavich keeps on his best behavior, and lights pretty mercifully as well. (Kinda weird that the young’un talks of the riot at the Mexican premiere of Fando and Lis as if he had been there.) Why is this desirable on Blu-ray? For the idea artwork, animation, etc., all of which looks spectacular and deserves to be seen looking so. Many surprising folks turn up, e.g., Amanda Lear, which is one of the many things that keep it engaging. The mavens among us will also eat up the 46 minutes of deleted scenes.—A-
King And Country (VCI)
When last we were rating Losey Blu-rays, we had Stranger on the Prowl. I watched it again after reading the great J. Hoberman’s measured praise of it in his Times column, and I still was pretty “meh” about it. Then this comes along. As much as I have enjoyed many VCI products over the years I’ve seen a fair share of non-16x9 optimized or otherwise lacking videos from the company that I was a little wary about this, the company’s digital rendering of Losey’s superb 1964 anti-war jolt. But boy, was I pleasantly surprised. From the old-school, color Janus Films logo through the nasty rat imagery and beyond, it's a pleasure to watch. Excellent, clean black and white. A trenchant, bracingly high-modernist vision. That rat stuff it brutal, though, I’m warning you. Great acting from all the cast, toplined by Dirk Bogarde and Tom Courtenay and featuring Barry Foster, Frenzy’s necktie killer in a prominent role. My only complaint is that the cover art is a fucking spoiler if you haven’t seen the movie before. Jeez. —A-
Kismet (Warner Archive)
It’s easy to forget this is a Vincente Minnelli movie, because, for lack of a more refined assessment, it’s all kinda goofy and borderline dumb. Mainly on account of its whole Western-Musical-Comedy-Conventions-And-Tunes-In-The-World-Of-Islam premise, which, especially nowadays, can be, in the immortal phrase of Stephen Metcalf, “off-putting to the contemporary sensibility.” It also has one of the weirdest casts ever, including Jamie Farr, Sebastian Cabot (!), Dolores Grey, Monty Wooley (!), Jack Elam and Jay C. Flippen (no really) and yeah, Vic Damone again. Who was it that came up with “Take my gland/I’m a stranger in your thighs?” Lennie and Squiggy? Nah, too dirty for TV, musta been New Bomb Turk. But I digress. The picture is not super vibrant but very clear and attractive. A real study in mauve. The picture was apparently in some four-track magnetic stereo configuration that translates very attractively to a 5.1 Surround track. Lyrics like “Don’t underestimate Baghdad” and the rhyme of “Aden” with “maiden” and “laden” are eyebrow-raising. Kinda fun but also one of the reasons that François Truffaut once referred to Minnelli as “un esclave.” —B+
Legend of Hell House (Scream Factory)
This movie messed with my head but good when I saw it as a tender-hearted 13-year-old, not just because Pamela Franklin was my first really serious movie-girl crush. (I had felt feelings for Diana Rigg prior to my encounter with Franklin, but I didn’t really understand those feelings.) The new high-def rendering of this then-edgy and still remarkably effective haunted-house-investigation movie is gorgeous: those pastel colors, the enveloping darkness, the spectacular settings swallowed up into Stygian black. Plus a nifty commentary from the lovely and delightful Ms. Franklin herself. Also, I repeat: the movie holds up really well. It’s damn good. —A
Love Streams (Criterion)
An exhausting movie in an exhaustive package. More than an essential appendix to the Criterion Five Films By John Cassavetes box, the film that may be J.C.’s crowning achievement, in all its emotional demolition and cinematic dismantling. (Alternate title: Stop Breaking Down. ) The extras are amazing, moving, disturbing: J.C.’s distended gut when he’s out of costume and directing, a ghastly portent of his four-years-off death. Inspirational quotes: “Well, if it was easy, anybody could do it” and “We’re making a picture about inner life and no one believes it can be put on the screen. I don’t believe it either, but...screw it!” The subtextual news on this release is that Criterion has managed to license a Cannon film from the MGM archive. I remember calling an executive there over six years ago inquiring about rights to Godard’s King Lear for a friend who had a video label; she never called back. That the great label is having better luck at this is not a surprise and may bear some more exciting fruit in the future. —A+
Mr. Majestyk (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
This 1974 crime movie, from an original script by Elmore Leonard and directed by Richard Fleischer, got slaughtered by critics hostile to Charles Bronson back in the day, folks who were kinda used to reflexively hating on anything with Bronson’s name attached to it. Here’s the thing about Bronson: as canny as he was about his anti-glamour screen appeal, there really wasn’t all that terribly compelling a performer underneath that, and yes, I have heard what Sergio Leone said about him and I respectfully disagree. Anyway, Once Upon A Time In The West will always by Bronson’s supreme screen moment, and this…well, it’s underrated. But that’s not to say it’s great. It’s solid. Leonard’s script is laconic even by his standards, and Fleischer’s direction is solid. The plot setup is the most perversely enjoyable thing, and boy does Al Lettieri enjoy glowering as the never-say-die heavy. Shot by Richard Kline so it looks real good, lotta natural light or what looks like it. The high-def transfer is consistent and stiff-backed, but you do get a lot of grain in the cabin interiors if you’re bugged by that sorta thing. On the whole both movie and disc Get The Job Done. —B
Manhunt (Twilight Time)
A brilliant, shimmery, shadowy transfer of a really first-rate Hollywood picture from Fritz Lang. As with Ministry of Fear, some of the imagery is silent-era quintessential especially the cat-and-mouse in the Underground sequence. You’ll laugh at Joan Bennett trying to do a cockney accent, but she’ll win you over soon enough, and then you’ll feel bad. This retains the commentary from Patrick McGilligan, who wrote a pretty hatchet-jobbish bio of Lang, and I suppose you can listen to it if you like. I won’t dock the disc any notches on its account. —A
Darren Aronofsky’s visually majestic, emotionally bold Bible extrapolation looks really great in this iteration. Not many extras though. Still, it’s a movie that gives up more with each viewing. There really isn’t much more to say about this disc, except thank the parties who afforded me a review copy. —B+
Only Lovers Left Alive (Sony)
“That was very visual.” A signature line from this Jim Jarmusch instant classic, a very smart film in which the aging auteur draws the crucial distinction between hanging on to youth and hanging on to one’s own youth, and makes the entirely supportable argument that the Elizabethans and the first wave of CBGB patrons were and remain Western Civ’s greatest generations. The Blu-ray gets the lovely, simple but packed with telling detail visuals just right. The extras are fun: 50 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage with a highfalutin title. Dribs and drabs of deleted and extended scenes, revealing the movie was once bookmarked by Rumi quotes, that sorta thing. Inspirational dialogue; “I’m like…Gomez Addams.” —A
Out of the Past (Warner Archive)
When word of this came out, I saw a few people online complain that a manufactured-to-order Warner Archive release was an “insult” and that this deserved a full bells-and-whistles release. Well, bells and whistles are all well and good but sometimes the movie is enough. And in this case, this truly great movie—exciting, sardonic, poetic, lyric, exhilarating, tender, tragic—looks so beautiful it’s more than enough. This is why Blu-ray exists. —A+
Phantom of the Paradise (Scream Factory)
The most eccentric of Brian De Palma’s ‘70s films, and if that sounds like a “and that’s saying something” kind of pronouncement, it sure is. But watch this and try to tell me I’m wrong. This new transfer has a very neon bright look, which seems appropriate to the pop art material. It is very different from the French version I got a few years back, which is much more subdued. And I never got the Arrow edition, which is apparently more subdued still. In any event, I like this garish version, makes the whole thing play like the sick live-action cartoon it at least partially is. And is also subjectively attractive to me. There’s a huge number of extras here, some more disciplined/informative than others. The De Palma interview is a real keeper. This is not a universally beloved movie—I saw a film critter of high standing, and not even a psychotronic-averse one, condemn it as “awful” on the Twitter machine just the other day—but if you DO love it, this is the edition to get. Guess where I sit on the issue. —A
A fabulous picture upgrade that makes the black-and-white imagery very handsome without rendering it fake-beautiful, because Bresson didn’t play fake-beautiful, sucker. All the extras from the standard def survive, and they’re all good. Not optional.—A+
Point Blank (Warner)
Superb. Essential. The amazing color coordination (the yellows of Marvin’s shirt, Dickinson’s dress, and the spy glass) and the water imagery, all of John Boorman’s galvanic, psychologically acute visual beauties are beautifully rendered here. Lossless soundtrack has good clarity, but a wildly wide dynamic range—the nightclub scene’s music is really loud—that may make this not an ideal late-night watch for urban apartment dwellers with easily excitable neighbors, and that’s the reason this disc’s grade doesn’t have a plus sign attached. A small but solid coterie of extras includes a commentary with Boorman and Steven Soderbergh, who admits early on to “stealing” a lot from the picture, and indeed, this time around I noticed the elevator gag here repeats in Out of Sight. —A
Radio Days (Twilight Time)
Its frequent touches of mordant humor notwithstanding, this 1987 picture is Woody Allen’s most consistently pleasant film, and its burnished look suits its mode of lyric but not entirely treacly nostalgia. (Carlo Di Palma, who went for a similarly cozy look with Hannah And Her Sisters the year before, shot.) The Twilight Time disc is just beautiful, and if you’re still a Woody fan the movie’s great fun: the jokes are pretty good to excellent, and the cast, from Mia Farrow to Kenneth Mars to Josh Mostel to the recently departed and very dear Don Pardo, is one of Allen’s best. —A
“Why is this getting the Criterion treatment?” Some People asked a while back, dismissing this as a low-budget genre movie and hence Disreputable Cronenberg. Boy, Some People can be really fucking dumb. Disreputable Cronenberg IS Cronenberg, and in this 1981 picture shows him not just in full command of his Unique Ideas but also really ruling cinematic space. Really an awesome movie, Stephen Lack is FINE in the lead, the transfer’s fabulous, and the wonky FX-centric extras are disturbing—no wonder these guys come up with all this oddball stuff, what with their inadvertently huffing chemicals all the time. Also: whoa, Michael Ironside is old! —A+
The Secret of the Santa Vittoria (Twilight Time)
Despite featuring a largely, you know, Italian cast in this 1968 life-loving-wine-making-Italians-flim-flam-oenophile-Nazis period comedy/drama, a good deal of this movie really plays like Wednesday is Prince Spaghetti Day. The real Italians include Anna Magnani, Sergio Franchi, Virna Lisi, and a super-young Giancarlo Giannini, which is pretty cool. Looks pretty good, too, with vibrant colors and sharp detail. If Stanley Kramer had hung up his directing shoes right after making this, which got ignored and/or dissed at the time, his rep would be a lot better today, as it’s a movie that goes down relatively easy. Gotta admit it really picks up when Magnani is kicking the shit out of impish/apish male lead Anthony Quinn (not a real Italian). —B
Southern Comfort (Shout! Factory)
I hope the mini-revival of Walter Hill stuff on Blu-ray, which began in my book with Twilight Time’s releases of Hard Times, then The Driver, and continuing with this merciless 1981 swamp shocker, given a really swell treatment from the Shout! Factory folk. Starring Powers Boothe, Keith Carradine, Bryon James and Peter Coyote in the Janet Leigh role, it teems with unusual directorial and editing choices (lotsa dissolves, which is unusual for a kind of action movie, but highly appropriate to this one’s soupy setting). Hill was/is a really top-notch director forever out of step with his ostensible peers. This is as good a movie as any to catch up with him on. Inspirational dialogue: “It’s like a steel pussy.” “Hell, man what kinda women you been hanging out with?” Inspirational supplements quote: “I don’t make movies about metaphors.” (That’s Hill.) —A
Thunderbirds Are Go/Thunderbird 6 (Twilight Time)
If you like marionettes inhabiting truly awesome art-direction, then you’ll like them even more in high-def. This truly nifty (if I were doing ad copywriting I’d of course say “FAB”) Twilight Time one-disc package bundles the two feature films concerning the adventures of the privatized Red Cross embodied by the Tracy family and their spaceships and their heavy friends and such. The movies look very good, all bright and pop-art, the extras mostly date from prior video editions (Sylvia Anderson’s recounting of how she handled a phone call from Stanley Kubrick revels, for better or worse, the way in which she was the brains of the “Supermarionation” team), but there is some newly unearthed material; as a big Shadows fan, I was particularly chuffed at the nearly 20 minutes of test footage Gerry Anderson made of the combo, the better to turn them into puppets for the benefit of a really interesting space-nightclub fantasy scene in Are Go. Also, the isolated score feature lets you hear the Shadows without dialogue stepping on them. —A-
The Wind And The Lion (Warner Archive)
Looks very good—really quite beautiful at times. Sounds pretty good. (Jerry Goldsmith’s score has fun with hints of Arabic modes and ironical variants of Maurice Jarre-style pageantry, and is almost a constant presence.) John Milius’ high point as a director is an almost 40-year-old movie that plays as if it should be an almost 70-year-old movie. Not a bad thing—“crackerjack,” as they used to say. Bonus points for featuring Geoffrey Lewis in the role of a more or less normal person. Inspirational commentary tidbit: “That’s why this movie is held in such high regard in the world of Islam.” —A-
“Much of the pre-Second World War character of Chicago and New York hardly exists anymore. Everybody builds these mirror boxes, and every second front is a front that didn’t exist in the ‘30s. […] I’ve been to New York many times in the last few years, and I have no sense of coming back to a town where I used to live. There’s a little corner here and there, and that’s about it. Ah, Roger.” So said Orson Welles to his old friend and one-time teacher and always mentor Roger Hill in the late fall of 1984, when Welles was hoping to direct the film The Cradle Will Rock, an account of the making of a rather well-known theatrical production he had some involvement in. (His discussions with Hill about the approach he would take, which can be found in the conversations in the splendid book Orson Welles And Roger Hill: A Friendship In Three Acts, by Todd Tarbox, Hill's grandson, show Welles both wryly and earnestly juggling the extent to which he desired to balance accurate historical representation with score-settling; the film eventually directed by Tim Robbins is not nearly as arreststing as Welles' own verbal joustings with the material at hand.) Welles did not have, in his film career, much occasion to document the town where he used to live, the town where he made his name. Contemporary New York City proper is depicted in 1941's Citizen Kane pretty sparingly: a dark screening room, an old-age hospital in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge, that's pretty much it. The rise of the New York Enquirer takes place in early 20th-Century Manhattan, it's Currier and Ives and Thomas Nast, not the frantic radio days of Welles' tenure in town. The opening of the deathless The Lady From Shanghai has some rear-projection views of Central Park in the dark, then an expert Hollywood recreation of an NYC parking garage. And that's it for Welles and New York, cinematically.
So one of the draws of Too Much Johnson, the shot-in-1938 footage—it really won't do to call the thing a movie, alas—that Welles wanted to form an early multimedia experience out of, and had to scotch because of money and timing issues, is its made-in-New-York quality. In the event you haven't been keeping up with film preservation news lately, Johnson, which as recently as 2007 was categorized as a "lost film" (see Jonathan Rosenbaum's superb Discovering Orson Welles, the filmography of which notes “the only copy of the film was lost in a fire at Welles’ villa in Madrid (during Welles’ absence) in August 1970"), turned up, as a 66-minute workprint, and was restored in Italy, and has just been put on the website of the invaluable National Film Preservation Foundation's website for free viewing and downloading. The précis on the NFP page for the film provides background: Too Much Johnson was a late 19th Century farce by William Gillette, whose chief claim to fame was his stage portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. Just why Welles and the Mercury Theatre opted to stage it is not entirely clear, but once the decision was made to do so, Welles came up with the notion of linking the onstage action to filmed interludes. The sixty-six minutes of the Too Much Johnson film is essentially a linear assemblage of footage; according to the NFP, only the first seven minutes or so can be said to constitute a proper edit. Those seven minutes, which see Joseph Cotten trysting, being found out, and then attempting to escape an irate husband, constitute an energetic, racy, and slightly surreal pastiche of slapstick farce. Once Cotten acrobatically descend from the top of a tenement, it's chase time, and the irate cuckold tracks Cotten through a warehouse whose stacks presage the basement of Xanadu at the end of Kane, and then over several city rooftops.
These scenes see Cotten doing dangerous stunt work of the sort you never associated with him in his Hollywood career. If you look at the signs on the buildings whose corners he rushes around, you see business names such as "Saml. Werner" and "Krakaur Poultry Company;" both of these concerns can be referenced in R.L. Polk and Co.'s 1915 Copartnership and Corporation Directory, which also tells you these concerns were part of the West Washington Market, located in what became New York's city's meat-packing district and is now the more fashionable High Line district. In one or two shots you can also see the then-functional railroad tracks of the elevated train line. Once Cotten comes down to earth, he strolls past a store named Taffae & Bellion; this, I learned, was a coffee importer on Wall Street. After a long hat-snatching set piece that suggests Jean Vigo and/or Rene Clair (it is perhaps no accident that several years prior to Johnson, the Mercury Theatre did an adaptation of The Italian Straw Hat, also the source material for a famed Clair picture) Johnson sets to sea; the footage grows ever more haphazard (there's a brief shot of a crowd of onlookers in then-modern dress at 43:16 or so) and the movie starts to look more like an outtake reel. More gems of imagery are in store: a lovely sunset on the water, Erskine Sanford turning up as a graveyard mourner, low-angle shots of symmetrically arranged palm trees.
But there's surely something poignant and illuminating in the fact that, the one time that he had the opportunity to make a film in New York, the then 23-year-old Welles, the larger-than-life boy wonder and talk of the town, chose to try to capture what Welles biographer Simon Callow cites as "little old New York." It was not any kind of mere nostalgia that ceaselessly bore Welles' art into the past: memory, loss, these are the themes that are never far beneath the surface of his movies. While Too Much Johnson's cinematic component was far from an amateur hour outing—Welles was allowed oodles of costumed extras, he staged a parade, he rented those palm trees—it couldn't afford too much polish, and every now and then in the background of a shot you see cars scooting over a road, or some early version of what Welles calls a "mirror box" pokes its way into a background corner. Far from break the spell, it enhances a spell of a different kind, the spell of artistry trying to will the past to manifest itself before you.
UPDATE: The Honorable Joseph McBride's now-updated essay on the film, for Bright Lights, is invaluable.
Bacall with a few mugs, Humphrey Bogart among them, in the exemplary anti-fascist film To Have And Have Not, Howard Hawks, 1944.
Here's the thing with Lauren Bacall: she turned up on screen and there she was. Like Venus on that half-shell, she was fully formed and all that from frame one. It didn't matter if she could act or not. There she was. I mean, look at her. In her very first movie. There's a Warner Bros. cartoon from a couple years after this, Bacall To Arms, that depicts a big goofy zoot-suited wolf reacting to Lauren on screen; my favorite part is when he silently flops over a seat in the row on front of him, emitting a soft, hapless "woof."
And of course she could act. Though plucked from modeldom, she took it seriously and did it well, and seemingly effortlessly.
Great movies in which she is great include the above, and The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, Key Largo, The Cobweb (THE COBWEB!), Written on the Wind, The Shootist, Birth. She wasn't actually IN Howl's Moving Castle, but hell, why not, that counts. Good movies in which she is great include Young Man With A Horn, How To Marry A Millionaire (c'mon, it isn't that bad), Blood Alley, Designing Woman, Sex and the Single Girl, Harper, Murder on the Orient Express, Health, Misery, The Walker. It's your call on Manderlay, Dogville, Pret a Porter, The Fan, and sundry. What can one say about her? She had a life full of rough patches that she bore with grace, and in her later years she impressed and sometimes terrified as an interview subject who brooked no bullshit and told it like she saw it, even to the extent of tattling a bit on her discoverer Mr. Hawks. And she was also Lauren Bacall, for heaven's sake. She made being Lauren Bacall look pretty...heavy, actually. But also fun. How could it not have been, even if only a little bit?
1) Music Without Words Is Kind Of Inherently Lame, No?
In 1967, after the death of his Orchestra's vital composer, arranger, and pianist Billy Strayhorn (who succumbed to cancer at the age of 51), grief-stricken bandleader Duke Ellington and his musicians recorded the tribute album ...and his mother called him Bill, an arguably well-chosen selection of some of Strayhorn's best-liked tunes, including of course his melodic directions to Harlem, "Take The A Train." After the session proper, while musicians folded chairs and discussed plans for their evenings, Ellington himself sat at the piano and played a gorgeous, and plainly tortured-with-loss version of Strayhorn's ostensibly exquisite ballad "Lotus Blossom." Listening to it, Ellington's personal sense of loss is palpable. Still. One can't help but think how much strongly The Duke could have sold the tune with some lyrics. Maybe something along the lines of "I'm really sad/that you're dead/Billy Strayhorn./You played piano/but you /didn't play horn." Just give a listen and see if you don't agree.
2) So Many Kinds Of Music Gets Categorized As Jazz That People Don't Even Really Know What The Hell Jazz Is. What's Up With That?
Like, a couple of months ago, I was listening to some stuff by The Boswell Sisters, a New-Orleans-originating trio of white women (sisters, just like the group name says) who did all sorts of synthesizing-and-innovative things with harmony and syncopation and tone, vocal wise, that no less an expert than Donald Fagen (noted old white jazzbo who managed to have a few hit records in the '70s) has compared their body of work, significance-wise, to that of the aforementioned Duke Ellington. And their material is pretty peppy, despite it sounding kinda tinny and not being in stereo because most of the best of it is derived from ancient transcriptions of ancient radio recordings. Not long after that, I listened to a record by an outfit that calls itself The Apophonics. Another trio, this one all guys, and not related, one of whom plays bass, okay that's a real instrument, the other of whom plays saxophone, or saxophones, because he switches them on occasion I guess. And then there's the third guy, who plays, get this, "energised surfaces & synth." "Energised" because they're a British outfit I guess. So anyways, while The Boswell Sisters' disc I'd had on, Airshots And Rarities 1930-1935 features twenty nifty ditties, from "Here Comes The Sun" (not the Beatles' tune, but they're lame too, but that's for a different post) to "Lullaby Of Broadway" (is that gay, you think?), On Air by The Apophonics features three "pieces," and while the Boswell Sisters sing peppily, the Apophonics's "pieces" are made up of them rubbing and scraping their traditional instruments, such as they are, and whatever the hell the energized (screw you, limey, I'm using the American spelling) surfaces are. AND YET. In the liner notes to On Air is is revealed that these pieces were originally heard on "the BBC programme [Christ this British spelling again] 'Jazz on 3'." JAZZ on 3. How is this scraping and bowing and blatting and silence any relation to the "jazz" that is practiced by the peppy Boswell Sisters? Some musicologist might venture that, well, the breakdowns to which the Boswell Sisters subjected the material they chose is the most crucial proponent of their music, and that, as dissimilar to the Boswell Sisters as, say, Thelonious Monk might sound, his project of musical deconstruction was not inherently too far away from the Boswell Sisters' project. Of course the aim might be hugely different relative to potential audiences, but let's put that aside for the moment. In any event, what a combo like the Apophonics is doing is conducting an inquiry into the nature of music itself, that is, taking a proposed sound world that has been even more dismantled of certain particulars than either the Boswells or Monk necessarily dreamed of, or consciously dreamed of, and subjecting it to a kind of improvisational stress test.
Maybe that's so, but Jesus. How pretentious.
Anyway, Washington Post editorial person and part-time post-punk musician Justin Moyer put it much more elegantly in his recent op-ed piece when he pronounced: "Charlie Parker and John Zorn do not seem to occupy the same sonic universe, let alone belong in the same record bin or iTunes menu."
As my old pal Lex G. might say, "YEP YEP." Here's alto saxophonist John Zorn playing with the Sonny Clark Memorial Quartet:
3) I Don't "Get" Your Aesthetic, And If You Don't Understand How That Invalidates Your Whole Project, I Feel Bad For You, Son, But That's No Reason For You To Become Unpleasant
In the aforementioned Washington Post piece, Moyer recalls studying jazz with the likes of Anthony Braxton, Pheeroan akLaff, and Jay Hoggard. "I appreciated that these generous African American men deigned to share their art at a quite white New England liberal-arts school," Moyers allows, and as you see there is not a trace of racist condescension in his nevertheless quite white reminiscence. Like he said, he appreciated it, but "I just didn’t get their aesthetic." And for an aesthetic to be valid, a white boy has to get it. In case you're interested in the aesthetic Moyer gets, well, here's the website for his band, which has a cute name. Also, in the words of Mark E. Smith, "You are working on a video project." Why doesn't this kind of stuff get grants? And also, you don't have to get so shirty, Amiri Baraka, or do I mean LeRoi Jones? I mean, really.
So I was at the gym this morning and I put on TCM, as one does, and it took me just two shots to figure out the channel was showing Le Feu Follet, Louis Malle's 1963 proto-mumblecore movie (not really) and it's the dinner party scene before the blunt/sad ending, and Henre Serre, best known from Jules et Jim, shows up in a bit part and I think, "Whoa, he looks like someone."
And I remembered this photo, which was e-mailed to me yesterday by my frenemy Jeff "Captain Cockatoo" Wells, presumably to ride me because I don't much like the new movie that Elizabeth Moss and Mark Duplass co-star in (point of fact, I called it "yuppie puke" in an exchange with Jeff, which was more just to rile him up than anything else; that said, no, don't like the movie), and I thought, "That's kinda funny, I should do a blog post on that."
Because that's what it's come to at this blog, I guess.
Since I got you here I'll tell you my one meager Louis Malle story. It's sometime between 1986 and 1988, and I'm hanging out in Tower Video on Lafayette and West 4 in Manhattan. And one of the floor guys, a stout young African American fellow, is walking about in the laserdisc section, holding a copy of the laser of Atlantic City. And trailing behind him is an older gentleman, white, distinguished, short of stature, with salt-and-pepper hair and a bemused look on his face. The Tower employee says to another Tower employee, "This gentleman is looking for all of the movies on laser disc directed by a Lewis Mal."
A cinephile, I think, and I consider intervening. I then notice the older gentleman is wearing a brown leather quasi-aviator jacket, on the back of which is sewn on a large decal, bearing the logo of "FYI," the fictional television program on which the fictional sitcom character Murphy Brown worked. And then it hit me—the guy actually WAS Malle. Because he was married to Candice Bergen and all. At which point I got all sorta starstruck and didn't intervene after all.
Lest you infer that Malle was on some sorta ego trip, remember that in this period home video was only just becoming a really big thing, and prior to this the idea of the "director approved" video version of a movie was only forming. So I suspect that what Malle was up to was some catch-up.
While John Michael McDonagh's Calvary opens with the words of St. Augustine, James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy opens with the sounds of 10cc's "I'm Not In Love." Now 10cc is arguably some kind of art-rock outfit, so maybe the distinction isn't as enormous as what I'm positing here. But it probably is. I liked both movies (guess which one the above image is from!), and review them at RogerEbert.com.
Today is the official publication day of my book Robert De Niro: Anatomy of an Actor. I'd be much obliged if you purchased a copy. If you'd like to preview it first, my friends at both Vulture and RogerEbert.com have published excerpts, from the chapters on Midnight Run and Mean Streets respectively. And soon Vanity Fair.com will publish something from the King of Comedy chapter. I'll update when that happens. The book is available from the usual suspect, but Barnes and Noble.com will ship it faster. And your friendly neighborhood bookstore provides a more personal experience.
Last night's event at Book Court went wonderfully, and I'm really grateful to everyone who turned out. On Thursday night at 7:30 at Videology I'll be presenting both myself and the book with excerpts from some of the films. It should be fun. Come say hi if you're able. Thanks.