Category Archives: Blu-ray/DVD Reviews

Blu Grapes

Clarksville and Ozark and Van Buren and Fort Smith on 64, and there’s an end of Arkansas. And all the roads into Oklahoma City, 66 down from Tulsa, 270 up from McAlester. 81 from Wichita Falls south, from Enid north. Edmond, McLoud, Purcell. 66 out of Oklahoma City; El Reno and Clinton, going west on 66. Hydro, Elk City and Texola; and there’s an end to Oklahoma. 66 across the panhandle of Texas. Shamrock and McLean, Conway and Amarillo, the yellow. Wildorado and Vega and Boise, and there’s an end of Texas. Tucumcari and Santa Rosa and into the New Mexico mountains to Albuquerque, where the road comes down from Santa Fe. Then down the gorged Rio Grande to Los Lunas and west again on 66 to Gallup, and there’s the border of New Mexico.

And now the high mountains. Holbrook and Winslow and Flagstaff in the high mountains of Arizona. Then the great plateau rolling like a ground swell. Ashfork and Kingman and stone mountains again, where water must be hauled and sold. Then out of the broken sun-rotted mountains of Arizona to the Colorado, with green reeds on its banks, and that’s the end of Arizona. There’s California just over the river, and a pretty town to start it. Needles, on the river. But the river is a stranger in this place. Up from Needles and over a burned range, and there’s the desert. And 66 goes on over the terrible desert, where the distance shimmers and the black center mountains hang unbearably in the distance. At last there’s Barstow, and more desert until at last the mountains rise up again, the good mountains, and 66 winds through them. Then suddenly a pass, and below the beautiful valley, below orchards and vineyards and little houses, and in the distance a city. And, oh, my God, it’s over.

– John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

In addition to the obvious musical delight that Steinbeck takes in the sound of the place names listed in the quote above, the fact that he names so damn many of them serves another purpose, which is to give the reader a sense of how epic the journey is that the characters in the novel have undertaken. The names of those places trace the journey of the Joad family from Oklahoma to the supposed promise land (thank God, at last) of California. The sheer number of those place names and the fact that they’re all connected by Highway 66 gives the reader a sense of what life was like on the road in the 1930s (twenty years before Jack Kerouac). It is pure Americana, pure Steinbeck and, when that prose is translated into images, it is also pure John Ford.

The Grapes of Wrath was published in the spring of 1939. Shortly thereafter, Daryl Zanuck, Vice President in Charge of Production at Twentieth Century Fox, bought the rights and, incredibly, production of the film wrapped in November of that same year, about six months after the novel was published. (Needless to say, things got done a little quicker in Hollywood back in those days.) It was a courageous decision for Zanuck to produce Grapes; the novel was instantly controversial upon publication. It was banned and burned in various places around the United States and this controversy carried over to the film’s production: the California Chamber of Commerce and the Agricultural Council of California called for a boycott of all Fox films upon hearing that Zanuck was making an adaptation of Steinbeck’s novel. When Zanuck sent a second unit director on the road to shoot semi-documentary footage of the Joad’s jalopy out on the highway, they used a dummy title, Highway 66, so that no one would know what they were really shooting.

Another potential obstacle for Zanuck was Chase National Bank, which was the primary stockholder of Twentieth Century Fox. This is because The Grapes of Wrath took an explicitly pro-labor, anti-capital stance. If there are villains in The Grapes of Wrath, they are the banking interests who are responsible for kicking the farmers off their land, which is what sets the plot in motion. That these bankers are faceless and unseen is part of the point Steinbeck (and, in the movie version, John Ford) are trying to make about capital. There’s a powerful scene early in the film where a poor farmer, Muley Graves (John Qualen), confronts a bank representative who tells him that his farm will be reposessed. The bank employee points out that he’s just doing what he’s been ordered to do and that he’s being paid by someone hundreds of miles away. “Then who do we shoot?,” Muley asks in frustration.

Many of the top brass at Twentieth Century Fox didn’t think these sort of sentiments were going to fly with Winthrop Aldrich, the President of Chase National. Shortly after purchasing the rights to the book, Zanuck had a meeting with Aldrich about an unrelated matter and, out of the blue, Aldrich said, “I hear you’ve bought the rights to The Grapes of Wrath. My wife just finished reading it and she’s crazy about it. I can’t wait to see what kind of movie it’s going to be.” But Zanuck was feeling pressure from all sides; it wasn’t until after Steinbeck had sold the movie rights that he found out about the studio’s ties to Chase National. The novelist then set up a meeting with the mogul and told him, “If I had known your studio was controlled by a large bank, I would’ve never sold you the rights.” Steinbeck also said he was afraid that Zanuck was going to remove the “social significance” from the story. Zanuck assured Steinbeck that would not be the case and that we was willing to take any “legitimate or justified gamble” with the material. After Steinbeck saw the finished film at a private screening in December of 1939, he wrote his agent, “Zanuck has more than kept his word. He has a hard, straight picture in which the actors are submerged so completely that it looks and feels like a documentary film and certainly it has a hard, truthful ring. No punches are pulled. In fact, with descriptive matter removed, it is a harsher thing than the book by far. It seems unbelievable but it is true.”

When it came time for Zanuck to assign a director to the film, John Ford was the most logical choice. Ford was a proven critical and commercial force in Hollywood at that time, having recently won an Oscar for Best Director for The Informer and having directed a series of hits for Fox, including the terrific Shirley Temple vehicle Wee Willie Winkie. More importantly, Zanuck knew Ford had an affinity for the material. Zanuck himself was a conservative Republican, which makes his decision to produce the movie all the more remarkable. Zanuck, however, was also smart and fair and he didn’t have a problem producing films that espoused beliefs that were opposed to his own. Zanuck actually hired a detective agency to investigate the labor camps in California like the ones portrayed in the book to see if the conditions were as bad as what Steinbeck had claimed. The agency reported back to Zanuck that the conditions were actually worse than what was in the novel. Zanuck then gave Ford free reign to make the film as brutally realistic as he could.

At this stage of his career, Ford’s politics were unambiguously liberal. (After the war they would become a complicated mixture of liberal and conservative but in 1937 Ford had described himself as “a definite Socialist Democrat, always left.”) Ford supported liberal causes throughout the 1930s, such as the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, and had sent money to anti-Franco forces during the Spanish Civil War and to charities that supported displaced migrant farmers like the Joads. He was also one of the founding members of the Screen Director’s Guild, a union that was initially extremely unpopular with studio executives. Zanuck was willing to overlook his disagreements with Ford because he knew that Ford was the best person for the job. For his part, Ford was excited to receive the assignment. He later said that he “bucked to do it” and that he put everything he had into it. How seriously Ford took the project can be ascertained by his approach to the visual style; Ford hired the best cinematographer in Hollywood, Gregg Toland, to shoot the film. What Steinbeck referred to as the “documentary” feel of the movie was a conscious strategy employed by Ford and Toland. This semi-documentary style is a perfect visual correlative for Steinbeck’s semi-journalistic prose (the novel had its origins in a series of newspaper articles that the author had written about labor camps in the mid-1930s). In particular, Ford and Toland intended to reproduce the style of Depression-era photographers like Dorothea Lange and government-produced documentary films like The Plow That Broke the Plains.

This documentary influence is most notable in the sequence where the Joads first arrive at the first labor camp in California. In one of the greatest shots that Ford ever composed (which is saying a lot), he shows a harrowing scene from the Joads’ point-of-view as their jalopy enters the camp. In the background of the frame, one can see the primitive shacks where the workers are living in total squalor while, in the foreground, the workers slowly drift across the frame, staring directly into the camera with almost accusatory looks on their hard, unforgettable faces. It is one of the most haunting, powerful and mysterious shots of any Hollywood movie of the era. I’m happy to report that these are qualities that come thrillingly alive like never before on Fox’s new Blu-ray of the film, the best it has ever looked on home video. This is not merely a straightforward high-definition rendering of existing source materials (like Warner Brothers’ Blu-ray of Fort Apache from earlier this year) but a high-definition transfer of a full-on digital remastering of the movie. The Grapes of Wrath is a very dark film and this transfer boasts the impressive richness of film-like black levels while also showing an incredible level of detail: every wrinkle on every characters’ face seems visible, which really brings out the film’s documentary side.

In addition to the visual style, the other most noteworthy aspect of The Grapes of Wrath is Henry Fonda’s lead performance as Tom Joad, the role that the actor was born to play. Fonda’s persona was one that embodied honesty, fairness and liberal idealism, qualities that made him one of the biggest stars of the New Deal era (and qualities that Sergio Leone intentionally and cleverly subverted by casting Fonda as a sadistic and pro-capital villain in Once Upon a Time in the West nearly thirty years later). The scenes where Tom Joad serenades his Ma to the tune of “Red River Valley” and, later, gives the famous “I’ll be there” monologue are unforgettable mainly because of what Fonda brings to the table. Not only is it impossible for me to imagine anyone else playing this role, I am incapable of reading the novel without hearing in my mind the flat, midwestern accent and distinctive cadences of Fonda’s speech in every one of Tom Joad’s lines. Speaking of which, that accent comes through loud and clear in Fox’s DTS-HD Master Audio mono soundtrack. While most mono soundtracks from Hollywood’s golden age sound understandably limited on a surround sound set-up, the audio on this Blu-ray might be superior to any other transfers I’ve ever heard of movies from this era. This is perhaps because the original mono soundtrack itself is brilliant, offering surprising depth and complexity in the mix of the distinctive speaking voices of Ford’s stock company (Jane Darwell, Charley Grapewin, John Carradine, et al), sound effects like wind rustling through leaves and birds tweeting, and, of course, the mournful, indelible strains of Danny Borzage’s accordion.

The bottom line: The Grapes of Wrath is an American masterpiece and one of the best films John Ford made before his post-war mature period. The Fox Blu-ray, which exceeded my expectations, is worthy of the movie and will certainly figure prominently in my end-of-the-year “Best Home Video Releases” list.

Works Cited

1. McBride, Joseph. Searching for John Ford: A Life. New York: St. Martin’s, 2001. Print.


Devlin in a Blu Dress

For what seems like no reason in particular (no centennial birthday to celebrate, no special anniversaries of landmark films), 2012 is shaping up to be a banner year for Alfred Hitchcock. The master’s nine surviving silent films have all been restored by the British Film Institute and will soon be re-released to the public with newly commissioned musical scores. A large quantity of Hitchcock’s sound films have also been released this year on hi-def Blu-ray for the very first time. These include Rebecca, Spellbound and Notorious from MGM, Lifeboat, Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache from Eureka!/Masters of Cinema, and To Catch a Thief from Paramount. (Additionally, The 39 Steps will drop from Criterion next month and it has been strongly rumored that The Birds and Strangers on a Train will also be released before the year is over.) Finally, The National Film Preservation Foundation will soon be streaming online, free of charge, the recently discovered, previously thought lost 1924 film The White Shadow, which Hitchcock wrote, assistant directed, edited and designed the sets for, an important stepping stone on his path to becoming a director himself. In order to raise funds to record a new score and to host the film on its website, the annual “For the Love of Film” blogathon is being hosted by the essential movie blogs Ferdy on Films, Self-Styled Siren, and This Island Rod. White City Cinema is proud to be participating in this blogathon for the first time. My contribution is a review of my favorite of the new Hitchcock blu-rays.

Being a film studies instructor has afforded me the invaluable opportunity of watching and re-watching classic movies with students, mostly in the 18 – 20 year old range, who are seeing these films for the very first time. This has led me to realize that a widespread misconception most of these students have about black and white film stock is that they think of it as something like a deficiency, as if “black and white” is nothing but the absence of color, rather than a style choice in its own right with its own aesthetic properties. It is particularly gratifying to teach students to appreciate black and white cinematography by showing them films like Citizen Kane or Casablanca and hearing them discuss afterwards how they can’t imagine these same films being made in color. For this reason, I plan on screening MGM’s new Blu-ray of Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious for the first time in a class this summer. Not only is it one of Hitchcock’s most amazingly photographed films, I cannot imagine a better home video release to introduce the sheer glamorousness of black and white movies to students.

Blu-ray is an ideal format for Notorious, a masterpiece of suspense that is chock-full of the trademark bravura set pieces for which Hitchcock has become so renowned. In Notorious, Hitchcock, with the aid of the great cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff, executed the most complex and elaborate camera choreography of his career up to that point. One example is the famous kissing scene between Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman where their characters talk to and passionately kiss each other while walking from one room to another in a single unedited take lasting several minutes. Another is the famous crane shot that begins as an overhead long shot of dozens of guests at a party and that ends as an extreme close-up on a key in Bergman’s hand. Finally, there is Hitchcock’s unique penchant for composing memorable shots that don’t feature actor’s faces, a rarity in Hollywood’s studio system era. One of the best tributes to the master of suspense can be found in an episode of Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinema titled The Control of the Universe; in a montage of shots from Hitchcock films in which actors are not featured but that are nonetheless instantly identifiable, Notorious is represented by a shot where a wine bottle full of uranium falls and breaks on a cellar floor. It is an impressive testament to Hitchcock’s genius that Godard could use a shot of an object like this to succinctly conjure up, in one deft stroke, a film that also prominently features two of the most attractive stars to ever work in Hollywood.

Yet Notorious is also the first Hitchcock film to which I would point to indicate that Hitchcock is not just a technical virtuoso or a mere manipulator of audience emotion (as is often claimed), but a profound moral thinker as well. The story involves a love triangle between government agents set against a backdrop of WWII intrigue. Cary Grant, in one of his best and most subtle dramatic roles, plays Max Devlin, a U.S. government agent who is tasked with enlisting Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman, playing against type as a bad girl), the daughter of a Nazi spy, into becoming a double agent. Her assignment is to ingratiate herself with her father’s old pals in Rio de Janeiro in order to retrieve top secret information from them. Devlin and Huberman embark on a love affair, which is immediately complicated by the fact that she finds herself also being romanced by Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), a wealthy Nazi businessman. The moral complexity of this scenario, written by the peerless Ben Hecht, marks Notorious as the first true grown up spy thriller; Devlin, for political reasons, acts cold and indifferent to Alicia, the woman he is falling in love with, who, in turn, feels compelled to marry Alexander, a man she abhors, for her duty to her country. The film asks how far should one be willing to go in defiling oneself personally for the greater good of humanity, and then refuses to offer any comforting or clear-cut answers.

The other important character in this chamber drama/thriller is Madame Sebastian, Alexander’s mother, the first in a series of domineering mother figures in Hitchcock’s American films (which would of course reach its apex in Psycho). Madame Sebastian disapproves of Alicia as a mate for her son from the get-go and, after her daughter-in-law’s identity as a double agent is discovered, she and Alexander conspire to make the young bride die slowly by poisoning her coffee every day. At the end of the film, when Devlin does come belatedly to Alicia’s rescue, he carries the sickly woman down a flight of stairs in the Sebastians’ palatial mansion and out of the home for good. He does this in full view of Alexander’s Nazi cohorts who, realizing Alexander’s error in judgement, will certainly kill him just at the point where Hitchcock ends the film. This final scene, although a “happy ending” because Devlin and Alicia are reunited, is also tragic, ironic and infinitely complex because Hitchcock and Claude Rains have courageously made the “villain” Alexander such a sympathetic and even pitiable figure.

MGM’s high-definition transfer of Notorious is a significant improvement in terms of image and sound over all previous releases, including the standard def Criterion DVD and MGM’s own previous DVD, the copious extras of which are carried over here intact. Among these features are two informative commentary tracks (by scholars Rick Jewell and Drew Casper) and several documentaries about Hitchcock and the making of the film. But the real reason to pick up this Blu-ray, ahead of all of the other Hitchcock Blu-rays that have recently flooded the market, is the superior image quality. Notorious is a perfect representation of the romantic magnificence of what could be achieved in a black and white film from Hollywood’s golden age and this blu-ray brings us very close to the thick, film-like textures of a real 35mm print. Notorious can be a dark film at times, literally and figuratively, and MGM’s transfer gives us a very contrasty look, with rich, velvety blacks that discerning cinephiles should find very appealing. If some shots look less sharp than one might expect, that is likely only a result of the large number of process shots Hitchcock used in the film (i.e., what we are frequently looking at are portions of shots that have been “re-photographed”) and this is probably the best they can possibly look.

For the past several years I’ve been holding my breath that Universal will bring out Blu-rays of the most wanted Hitchcock titles, Rear Window and Vertigo . . . but with so much hi-def Hitch to go around right now, perhaps they would best be saved for another year.

Donations to the NFPF can be made through their website here:

Blu “Moon”

The exquisite fantasy films of French movie pioneer Georges Melies are currently experiencing a new and unprecedented wave of popularity due in large part to their place of prominence in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. (In that film, Ben Kingsley gives a delightful supporting turn as the elderly Melies and Scorsese devotes a good chunk of the story to showing actual clips of the great director’s movies while also poignantly proselytizing about the importance of film preservation.) Fittingly, the enterprising U.S. label Flicker Alley, who specialize in distributing silent movies on home video, have just released a new Blu-ray (only their second ever such release) of Melies’ most famous film, A Trip to the Moon from 1902. Their release bundles together two painstakingly restored versions of the movie (one in black and white and one in its original hand-tinted color) along with The Extraordinary Voyage, a terrific new feature-length documentary on Melies’ life and work by the French directors Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange. Flicker Alley’s Blu-ray should be considered an essential addition to the home library of any serious film lover.

George Melies was a magician who became a filmmaker after he saw a demonstration of the Lumiere brothers’ Cinematographe (a combination camera, printer and projector) on December 28, 1895. But unlike the Lumiere brothers, Melies was not interested in making “actualities” about the real world. He wanted to make fictional narrative films in which he could create his own worlds. So, like Thomas Edison, Melies built a studio where his movies could be shot. Melies’ studio, meticulously recreated in Hugo, was ingeniously constructed of glass walls, like a greenhouse, so that his sets could be lit by natural sunlight. The films that Melies made in this studio, the first such movie studio in Europe, established him as the first real master of mise-en-scene (the way a director controls all of the elements within the frame). This is not to say that the Lumiere brothers were not wonderful filmmakers in their own right (I actually prefer their work to that of Melies), only that Melies was the first director to rigorously control the set design, costume design, lighting, staging of the action and the performances of his actors. Melies was also a pioneer in stop-motion photography and other special effects, wherein he essentially integrated the sleight of hand he had employed as a magician with cinematography. The resulting movies, including A Trip to the Moon, are the most sophisticated narratives of their time, blowing the primitive fiction shorts of Edison and others out of the water.

Melies’ glass-walled studio:

A Trip to the Moon borrows elements from science fiction novels by Jules Verne (De la Terre à la Lune) and H.G. Wells (First Men in the Moon) in telling the story of a group of French astronomers who make the first expedition to the moon. The film begins with a Scientific Congress debating whether or not to make the trip. Hilariously, one member who violently opposes the idea has papers and books thrown at his head by the chief astronomer who is played by Melies himself. Then we see the construction of the rocket ship, which is loaded into a giant canon by a chorus line of girls identically dressed in short shorts (remember: sex was used to sell movies 110 years ago too!) and fired directly at the moon. This leads to one of the most famous images of the early cinema and one that I am proud to have featured on a Christmas ornament in my home: the rocket ship piercing the man in the moon in the eye. Once on the moon, our intrepid explorers are captured by the extra-terrestrial moon-men known as the Selenites. These prototypical movie aliens are portrayed by members of an actrobatic troupe who delightfully tumble and somersault their way around the set. The Selenites take the captives to their king but the astronomers escape and, after a climactic battle, make their way back to the rocket ship. From there, the explorers return to earth where they receive a heroes’ welcome.

As anyone who has seen Hugo knows, A Trip to the Moon is a remarkably entertaining movie even, as the saying goes, by “today’s standards.” What makes the film so much fun are the many lovingly crafted details of its overall design. Georges Melies was fastidious in building his elaborate sets, all of which utilize scale models to create the illusion of deep focus. One rooftop “exterior” scene, for instance, features a brilliant forced-perspective backdrop where a cityscape in the distance is dotted with miniature chimneys that puff real smoke. The costumes and props are likewise a delight — from the medieval wizard-like look of the astronomers in the opening scene, all pointy hats and flowing robes, to the Selenites’ extraordinary appearance, which combines insect-like bodysuits with tribal-looking masks and spears. All of this makes Melies’ 14-minute fantasy an ideal silent film to introduce to children (and is also why the movie references in Hugo work as well as they do, instead of seeming like a mere commercial for Scorsese’s World Film Foundation, as some critics have claimed).

The restored, color version of A Trip to the Moon on Flicker Alley’s Blu-ray is breathtakingly beautiful. The original 1902 color-tinting actually enhances the movie by more clearly separating characters from their environment, increasing the illusion of depth and subtly directing viewers’ eyes to what Melies wants them to see within a given frame (the man in the moon getting hit by the rocket is the only close-up in the film). My only quibble with the Blu-ray is that each version of the film included in the set comes with a different soundtrack: the black and white version features a score by Robert Israel and the original narration written by Melies that was meant to be read aloud at screenings of the film, whereas the color version features a beautifully bizarre, euphoric new score by the French art-rock duo Air. Ideally, one should be able to choose either score for either version of the film. Needless to say, this is a minor quibble and I am ecstatic that Flicker Alley has put this package together. I watched it with passion.

A Blu-ray With Principle

Life Without Principle, the new film from Hong Kong genre specialist Johnnie To, received its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival last fall. Shortly thereafter, U.S. distribution rights were picked up by the Indomina Group, whose website, as of today, states that the film’s release date is still “TBA.” It seems likely that Principle will not receive a theatrical release in the U.S. at all but may be dumped straight to DVD at some unforeseen point in the future. Fortunately, Mega Star, the film’s Hong Kong distributor, already released a superb region-free Blu-ray last month that will almost certainly be making my list of the ten best home video releases of 2012. Not only is it an impeccable HD transfer of a film shot on 35mm, which is beginning to feel more and more like an anomaly, the movie itself is one of Johnnie To’s best and most interesting – one that eschews the gangster movie conventions for which the director is best known in favor of a crime drama/social satire that examines the current global economic crisis from a variety of interesting angles.

The film’s dazzling first act revolves around Teresa (cute Canto-pop sensation Denise Ho), a bank employee who is under relentless pressure from her superiors to sell more investments. After making futile cold calls to potential investors from work, Teresa attempts to sell a high-risk investment to an elderly female walk-in customer who has a “low-risk profile.” Teresa is required by law to audio-tape their conversation, wherein she will explain the risks involved to the customer who is, in turn, supposed to respond to every statement with “I understand completely.” This sequence, which lasts a full ten minutes and involves Teresa and the customer going through the same spiel three times until they get it right, is a remarkable set piece of absurdist comedy. Although Teresa wears an obligatory fake smile and essentially tries to upsell the old woman into gambling on her life savings, To refuses to make her the villain of the piece. Instead we are just as likely to empathize with the employee as we are with the customer because To has been careful to illustrate how all of his characters are furiously pedaling on the same capitalist treadmill.

Who then is to blame for this clusterfuck of greed and corruption? Is it Teresa’s superiors at the bank? To and his team of screenwriters show how the bank makes money off of customer interest, even while those customers lose money by making bad investments through the same bank in an unstable market. (One of the film’s best gags involves a bank customer who is also a loan shark offering Teresa a loan with a lower interest rate than what her own employers will provide.) But To also shows how Hong Kong’s economy is affected by the markets of distant European countries. Hong Kong’s denizens listen to the radio, helpless, as the latest news of the Greek debt crisis and the response by the rest of the European Union causes the local market to rise and fall. To suggests that, in the world of high finance, the principle of the “banality of evil” applies: the buck never stops because everyone rationalizes that their actions are merely a reaction to someone or something else.

In a scenario of remarkable intelligence and complexity, Teresa’s story is but one of several plot strands twining around that of the aformentioned loan shark, a man who is robbed of 5 million dollars after withdrawing it from her bank near the film’s beginning. The other principal characters in Principle are Panther (Lau Ching-Wan), a genial, small-time triad member whose lowly station is directly attributable to his adherence to outmoded codes of honor and loyalty, and Inspector Cheung (Richie Ren), a good-hearted cop whose wife is constantly pestering him to purchase an expensive new condo. Over the course of two days, the various plot strands are drawn ever closer together, which leads to a deftly intercut triple climax that will alter the destinies of each character forever.

Life Without Principle is full of the filmmaking smarts that have made Johnnie To so beloved to cinephiles in the west. The bank scenes feature elegant camera movements, especially the repeated motif of slowly pushing in on a character, which, combined with the gleaming surfaces and monochromatic red/blue color scheme of the set design, suggest a world where everything is perfectly polished and mechanized and nothing is out of place. But To then contrasts these scenes with exterior shots of the urban jungle outside, where teeming hordes of money-mad people struggle to survive. In one inspired scene, we see Panther racing through the streets (that nickname is no lie), looking to borrow money from a former Triad brother who has since turned to making money by recycling cardboard boxes. To also repeatedly punctuates the film with shots of the Hong Kong skyline, where storm clouds constantly seem to be gathering, putting viewers in the mind of the figurative economic storm from which no one is unaffected.

Finally, although he doesn’t appear in the film until after the 33-minute mark, it is Lau Ching-Wan who imbues Life Without Principle with its charming, funky, offbeat soul. Lau, working with Johnnie To for a whopping 18th time (in what is arguably the greatest director/star pairing of contemporary movies), shows off some new colors in an already diverse palate in his creation of the lovable loser Panther. Sporting Hawaiian shirts under 1970s-style blazers, Panther is a frenetic busybody, shoulders permanently hunched, rapidly blinking, always scurrying around and trying to hustle money to help out a “sworn brother.” Panther attempts to cut costs for his boss’ banquet by forcing more chairs together per table at a restaurant and only ordering “healthy” vegetarian meals (because meat is more expensive), which humorously underlines the film’s central, egalitarian notion that everyone, even movie gangsters, are feeling the crunch in these tough economic times.

If Johnnie To is a “crime film specialist” then Life Without Principle is in some ways a typical Johnnie To movie. It’s certainly a film about crime, just probably not in the way that a lot of his fans might expect. And while nothing could be more Johnnie To than that (the man did after all once make a movie titled Expect the Unexpected), perhaps what surprises and impresses the most about this film is the shocking sophistication of its sociological insights. For sheer prescience, the only movie I’ve seen in recent years that can even compare is Godard’s Film Socialisme, another egalitarian film that extends sympathy to all of its characters. “Expect the unexpected” might as well be the motto for To’s entire career, for no other director of the past quarter century has done so much to reinvigorate genre filmmaking by so consistently pushing genre conventions in as many surprising, intelligent and highly personal directions.

The image quality of Mega Star’s Life Without Principle Blu-ray is flawless. The colors are nicely saturated and “pop” in the way that only 35mm color can. Even the occasional white speckles have a quaint charm, reminding us that what we are looking at is the transfer of a film that once ran vertically through a motion picture camera rather than a mere digital-to-digital transfer of pulsating electronic pixels. The soundtrack is likewise robust with a nice separation between the Cantonese dialogue track, the punchy sound effects and a catchy, vocal-heavy musical score (although I regrettably couldn’t take full advantage of the 7.1 sound mix with my 5.1 setup). In conclusion, I was fairly blown away by this Blu-ray, which instantly placed Life Without Principle as one of my top five favorite Johnnie To films (along with The Mission, PTU, Mad Detective and Election). I also feel it would serve as a perfect introduction to his oeuvre for anyone who has heard or read about him but not yet seen his films.

Mega Star’s Blu-ray of Life Without Principle can be purchased from the fine folks at here:

Life Without Principle Rating: 9.9

Top Ten Home Video Releases of 2011

2011 didn’t see me go on quite the same insane Blu-ray buying spree that last year did. Perhaps the fascination of watching movies, new and old, in the bold new HD format has started to wear off a little. But mostly I think this was because I made a short film myself this year, which of course sucked up a lot of my time, energy and money. Therefore, I’m including a list of “only” my top thirty-five favorite home video releases (as opposed to last year’s fifty) — comprised of a countdown of the top ten, each with a capsule review, and an alphabetical list of an additional 25 runners-up. As with last year, the rankings were arrived at by averaging out what I estimated to be the overall quality of the film, the quality of the image/sound transfer and the quality of the supplements. In the interest of diversity, I also limited myself to one film per distributor for my top ten.

Any videophiles reading this should feel free to chime in with their own favorites in the comments section below.

10. Our Hospitality (Keaton, Kino Blu-ray)

Kino unleashed a hi-def Buster Keaton motherlode in 2011 — including a three-disc short films collection spanning the years 1920 – 1923, a double bill of Battling Butler and Go West and my personal favorite of the great clown’s works, 1923’s uproariously funny Our Hospitality. This inexhaustibly re-watchable stunt-filled comedy sees Keaton’s Willie McKay travel from New York to the rural south to claim an inheritance, unaware that he will soon be embroiled in both a romance and a Hatfield/McCoy-style feud. This is presented in an interlaced transfer (meaning “combing” is occasionally visible) in order to maintain the original speed at which the film was shot and the running time at which it was originally projected. (Although Kino, unlike Masters of Cinema with Coeur Fidele, could have released a superior, progressive-scan version if they had been willing to put in a lot of extra work). Still, this is the best Our Hospitality has ever looked on home video and I was particularly delighted to see it color-tinted for the first time.

9. The Terrorizers (Yang, Sony Pictures Blu-ray)

The most underrated title of the year — one that I didn’t even see rate a mention on the most popular Blu-ray review sites — is Sony’s Taiwanese release of Edward Yang’s 1986 masterpiece The Terrorizers, a terrific metaphysical mystery about the lives of three couples in Taipei that continually intersect over a span of several weeks. Yang is sometimes referred to as the “Chinese Antonioni” and if his debut That Day On the Beach is his L’avventura, then this more ambitious follow up is his Blow Up — a film with a surface thriller plot that is less important than the tantalizing questions regarding the connections between life and narrative at its core. I’ve never seen this movie in any other incarnation but Sony’s 1080i transfer is at least as impressive as their release of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Dust in the Wind from last year. The lush “1980s” color palette looks especially nice.

8. An Affair to Remember (McCarey, 20th Century Fox Blu-ray)

Leo McCarey’s final masterpiece charts the unlikely romance between a millionaire playboy (Cary Grant) and a night club singer (Deborah Kerr) who fall for each other on a cruise in spite of being engaged to other people. Wrongly labelled a saccharine “women’s weepie” (damn you, Sleepless in Seattle!), this actually starts off as a very funny screwball comedy (note the incredibly witty banter between Grant and Kerr on the boat) before gradually shifting to a sublime Frank Borzage-style romantic melodrama in its second half. But even the word “melodrama,” while apt in the literal sense, feels inappropriate for a film that can be as surprisingly delicate and understated as this. Written, directed and acted to perfection, this is as moving as movies get. Fox’s hi-def transfer of the original Technicolor elements is pleasing and true.

7. Jackie Brown (Tarantino, Lionsgate Blu-ray)

At the time it was released, many felt that this didn’t live up to the expectations generated by the phenomenal success of Quentin Tarantino’s previous outing, Pulp Fiction, from three years earlier. Today, Jackie Brown, a low-key adaptation of an Elmore Leonard crime novel about a flight attendant’s attempt to beat a money-smuggling rap, looks like the better movie. It’s an intricately plotted yarn that masks its complexity with relaxed pacing, delicious dialogue and the warm affection that Tarantino extends to all of his characters. And there are career best performances from Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster and Pam Grier. Shot by the great Guillermo Navarro, this exercise in retro-70s cool looks and sounds (The Delfonics!) better than ever on Lionsgate’s extras-laden Blu-ray. Did I mention you can get this on Amazon for just $10.99?

6. Certified Copy (Kiarostami, Artificial Eye Blu-ray)

The Criterion Collection owns the U.S. home video rights to Abbas Kiarostami’s latest and greatest but have apparently decided to sit on it until at least 2012. Therefore, I’m exceedingly grateful to the U.K. label Artificial Eye for putting out this region-free Blu-ray and letting me have a chance to revisit my favorite theatrical film of 2011. Upon further viewing, I’m less convinced this is any sort of “puzzle film” at all but rather an allegory about the difficulty of communication between Man and Woman (as embodied by William Shimell and Juliette Binoche) in the modern world. Shot on the RED One camera, the digital-to-digital transfer done for this disc is unimpeachable. Also contains a fascinating, feature-length making-of doc, Let’s See Copia Conforme. A special thank you to Jessica for the gift.

5. L’Age d’Or / Un Chien Andalou (Bunuel, BFI Blu-ray)

Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou and his feature length follow-up L’age d’Or, arguably the two most important Surrealist films of all time, were never intended to look or sound all that pristine. In fact, their technical crudity is just one of the strategies Bunuel implemented to intentionally piss off his original audience. Nonetheless, these delirious sex-and-death obsessed fever dreams, full of hilarious, provocative digressions and repeated attacks on both church and state, look and sound better than I ever thought possible. Even the damage caused by the ravages of time is more visible due to BFI’s impressive 1080p transfer — and I have a feeling that’s just the way Don Luis would’ve wanted it. “Slicin’ up eyeballs, oh-ho-ho-ho-ho!” L’age d’Or essay here.

4. The Strange Case of Angelica (de Oliveira, Cinema Guild Blu-ray)

The brilliant Portugese director Manoel de Oliveira makes his hi-def debut with this incredible package from Cinema Guild that contains both his very first film, 1931’s Douro, Faina Fluvial as well as his most recent, 2010’s The Strange Case of Angelica. The earlier movie is an extremely impressive, fast-paced avant-garde documentary short about working class life in Porto (Oliveira’s hometown) while the latter is a slow, stately CGI-buttressed masterpiece about a photographer who falls in love with a beautiful but inconveniently dead young woman after being commissioned by her family to photograph the corpse. It’s no exaggeration to say that, taken together, these films, made 80 years apart, contain the totality of cinema.

3. The Complete Jean Vigo Collection (Vigo, Criterion Blu-ray)

As with BFI’s Bunuel release, Criterion has seemingly done the impossible by taking Jean Vigo’s beloved films of the late silent/early sound era, which have been kicking around forever in poor quality versions, and managed to make them look sparkling and fresh and new. L’atalante in particular is a revelation; it has always been the most modern-looking movie of its era because of its unabashed eroticism as well as its incredibly striking sense of composition (courtesy of ace cinematographer Boris Kaufman). Rounding out the set are all of Vigo’s other movies: Taris (a short experimental documentary about a swimmer), A Propos de Nice (one of the most poetic and playful of all city symphony films) and his immortal tribute to anarchic youth, Zero de Conduite. Vigo was a visionary genius who left this world far too soon. But his films will live forever and, thanks to Criterion, can now be readily experienced under the optimum conditions they should be. L’atalante essay here.

2. Citizen Kane 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition (Welles, Warner Bros. Blu-ray)

Citizen Kane finally gets the home video treatment it deserves courtesy of Warner Bros.’ staggeringly elaborate new box set, which includes by far the most film-like (and thus best ever) presentation it has seen in terms of image and sound. It also includes a handsomely-produced hardback book about the making of the film, postcards, an excellent quality DVD of Welles’ follow-up The Magnificent Ambersons (its North American digital debut) and a whole host of other goodies that I won’t be able to finish going through until probably late into 2012. To paraphrase Mr. Thatcher, I wish I were a little boy watching this movie for the first time in this particular edition! Full review here.

1. Coeur Fidele (Epstein, Eureka/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

Jean Epstein’s Impressionist classic from 1923 is the midway point between the Victorian melodrama of D.W. Griffith and the Surrealist-inflected romance of Jean Vigo’s L’atalante. The plot concerns a love triangle between working class characters but it’s the rapturously beautiful cinematography and poetic use of dissolves — most notably during the famous “carousel sequence” — that lift this movie up to heaven’s door. Masters of Cinema’s glorious HD transfer (which involved painstaking work to ensure that the film would run at the correct speed) of Gaumont’s impeccable photochemical restoration makes this my favorite Blu-ray release not just of the year but of all time. Discovering a major masterpiece like this just when I thought I’d seen it all is the kind of thing that makes life worth living.

Runners-Up (alphabetical by title)

11. All About Eve (Mankiewicz, 20th Century Fox Blu-ray)
12. Army of Shadows (Melville, Criterion Blu-ray)
13. An Autumn Afternoon / A Hen in the Wind (Ozu, BFI Blu-ray)
14. Equinox Flower / There Was a Father (Ozu, BFI Blu-ray)
15. Good Morning / I Was Born But . . . (Ozu, BFI Blu-ray)
16. The Horse Soldiers (Ford, MGM Blu-ray)
17. The Lady Vanishes (Hitchcock, Criterion Blu-ray)
18. Late Autumn / A Mother Should Be Loved (Ozu, BFI Blu-ray)
19. Meet Me in St. Louis (Minnelli, Warner Bros. Blu-ray)
20. The Naked Kiss (Fuller, Criterion Blu-ray) Full review here.
21. Once Upon a Time in the West (Leone, Paramount Blu-ray)
22. People On Sunday (Ulmer/Siodmak, Criterion Blu-ray)
23. The Phantom Carriage (Sjostrom, Criterion Blu-ray)
24. Pulp Fiction (Tarantino, Lionsgate Blu-ray)
25. The Rules of the Game (Renoir, Criterion Blu-ray) Essay here.
26. Senso (Visconti, Criterion Blu-ray)
27. Shock Corridor (Fuller, Criterion Blu-ray) Full review here.
28. The Social Network (Fincher, Sony Pictures Blu-ray) More here.
29. Solaris (Tarkovsky, Criterion Blu-ray) Full review here.
30. Some Like it Hot (Wilder, MGM Blu-ray)
31. The Stranger (Welles, HD Cinema Classics Blu-ray)
32. Taxi Driver (Scorsese, Sony Blu-ray)
33. Touch of Evil (Welles, Eureka/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
34. Way Down East (Griffith, Kino Blu-ray) Full review here.
35. Yi Yi (Yang, Criterion Blu-ray)

D.W. in HD

Newly released on blu-ray from the enterprising label Kino Lorber are two of D.W. Griffith’s most significant films, The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Way Down East (1920). The earlier and more famous film, while historically important, is also morally abhorrent; its much commented upon racism has ensured that it remains Griffith’s most well-known work, as it is still frequently screened at American Universities in not only film history classes but also U.S. history and sociology classes. Unfortunately, its racism has also tended to obscure Griffith’s other achievements, turning off young people to both the pioneering director and early cinema in the process. It is, of course, impossible today to fully understand movies from earlier eras in their original context. Young people today, even those who aren’t cinephiles, accept the auteur theory, the notion that a film should be seen as the personal expression of its director, as a given. But in the early twentieth century, movies were not perceived this way. D.W. Griffith made over four hundred films, many of them adaptations of novels and stage plays, and across his vast body of work can be found many contradictory ideological positions. This is not to excuse the racism of Birth, but to provide greater context for it and to illustrate how its creator could also make movies that functioned as explicitly anti-racist tracts – such as 1919’s Broken Blossoms. The subject of this review, however, is Way Down East, a prototypical “feminist film,” and one that is as shockingly progressive as Birth is reactionary. It is also one of Griffith’s very best movies.

Way Down East is an adaptation of both a novel and a stage play of the same title, although Griffith greatly elaborated on both by adding an action climax that is 100% pure cinema. The basic story concerns Anna Moore (Lillian Gish), a poor country girl sent by her mother to live with rich relatives in an unnamed New England city. Upon arrival, the naive Anna is seduced by a rich ne’er do well named Lennox (Lowell Sherman), who tricks her into a sham marriage and then discards her after having his way with her. Tragically, Anna becomes pregnant and moves to a rural country home where she can have the baby in secret. When the baby dies, Anna wanders the countryside looking for work, eventually hiring on at the home of a wealthy farmer, Squire Bartlett (Burr McIntosh). David (Richard Barthelmess), the farmer’s son, falls for Anna but Lennox unexpectedly moves to this same town and threatens to bring Anna’s shameful past to light.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Way Down East is its feeling for American small towns and the “plain people” who inhabit them. There are few movies that allow you to feel the weather and the changing of the seasons in a landscape as tangibly as Griffith does in this masterpiece, even if he had to shoot in locations as diverse as New York, Connecticut, Vermont and Florida to create a single coherent cinematic space. When Anna arrives at the Bartlett farm, there are delightful extended scenes that take place in the front yard where a spring breeze can be observed blowing through flowers in full bloom and the leafy boughs of a giant oak tree while baby chickens wander through the grass. Similarly, the climax takes place in the dead of winter and the very real snowstorms in which Griffith and his cameraman Billy Bitzer shot these scenes give the film a documentary-like realism while also serving the more expressionistic purpose of externalizing the tumultuous emotions in Anna’s heart.

Way Down East also notably serves as a showcase for the incredible acting talents of Lillian Gish, who gives one of her finest performances as Anna. Gish, whose innocent, waif-like persona combined toughness and vulnerability in equal measure, could conjure viewer empathy better than any other silent actress (with the possible exception of Janet Gaynor). Even after 91 years it is easy to become emotionally invested in the dilemma of her character, and there are two scenes in particular where her performance deserves mention: the baptism scene, where the anguished Anna learns that her infant son is dying and decides to baptize the baby herself, and the dinner table confrontation between Anna and Lennox, where she publicly denounces him for being an evil seducer. The latter scene should especially be of interest to contemporary audiences; while the beginning of the film contains title cards extolling the virtues of “purity” and “constancy,” Anna’s righteous fury towards the end makes it clear that Griffith’s true aim is not to promote monogamy but rather to boldly attack hypocrisy and sexual double standards. Griffith may have had a penchant for Victorian melodrama and Old Testament moralizing but he also had his modernist side as both filmmaker and social critic.

It has often been said that movies would look very different today had it not been for D.W. Griffith, and Way Down East provides ample evidence why. The ice-floe climax, for instance, is an exciting, visceral, rapidly edited montage depicting David Bartlett’s rescue of an unconscious Anna, floating downriver on a sheet of broken ice, just before it goes over a waterfall in freezing temperatures. It is one of the most famous and influential of all such rescue scenes; the climaxes of Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality, Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky and scores of other movies would be unthinkable without it. Also influential is Griffith’s blending of tragedy and comedy; as in Shakespeare’s tragedies, Griffith has the dramatic story of his main characters re-enacted as low comedy by the supporting cast. The courtship of Anna and David, for example, is mirrored by not one but two relationships involving characters who are backwards country bumpkins, with an absent-minded Professor-type thrown into the mix for good measure. Griffith’s use of comedic subplots to rhyme with the main dramatic plot would influence John Ford, who used the technique in many of his own films (including She Wore a Yellow Ribbon where the retirement of Victor McLaglen’s drunken Sergeant comically mirrors the dramatic treatment of the retirement of John Wayne’s Captain.) Another aspect of the Fordian universe that was clearly inspired by Griffith is the portrayal of a community as a collection of social rituals. This is best evidenced in Way Down East by the dance sequence where the Professor, played by the splendid comic actor Patrick Fitzgerald, proves to have two left feet.

Kino’s high definition blu-ray of Way Down East is based on the Museum of Modern Art’s photochemical restoration of original film elements. Like the “complete” Metropolis, the image quality varies dramatically from scene to scene and sometimes even from shot to shot. Some segments appear to be taken from 16mm prints, presumably where they were the only extant film elements, and other scenes that appear to be lost forever are represented by still photographs and title cards. But the most pristine shots, rendered in 1080i, still have the power to take one’s breath away. See, for instance, the early establishing shot of Anna leaving home where she is out of focus in the background while the blossoms on a low hanging tree branch appear to pop out of the frame in the foreground in almost 3D fashion. A new score, composed by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, deftly weaves together traditional folk songs and hymns, entirely appropriate for a film that Kino is rightfully marketing as “An Americana Classic.” The 5.1 surround sound mix is terrific.

Silent film lovers, even those with no interest in seeing or re-seeing The Birth of a Nation, should jump at the chance to check out Way Down East on blu-ray. It is easily the best this film has ever looked and sounded on home video. Kino Lorber has in my opinion become a national treasure for almost single-handedly keeping interest in silent cinema alive in the post-DVD era (their other notable blu-ray releases include The Battleship Potemkin and many of Buster Keaton’s silent classics). One hopes that they will soon also see fit to release blu-ray versions of the several F.W. Murnau titles to which they currently hold the rights. Next year does, after all, mark the 90th anniversary of Nosferatu . . .

Blu Rosebud

Warner Brothers’ newly released “Ultimate Collector’s Edition” of Citizen Kane, a magnificent Blu-ray package timed to coincide with the film’s 70th anniversary, is one of the most significant home video releases of all time and a must-buy for anyone who loves movies. Not only is this the definitive presentation of the film widely regarded as the greatest ever made (making up for several previously botched VHS and DVD releases), it also comes stuffed with copious supplemental materials. Some of these extras are admittedly worthless BUT among the goodies is a DVD of The Magnificent Andersons, Orson Welles’ great follow-up to Kane and a movie previously unavailable in any digital format in the United States. This release also provides me with a good excuse to finally blog about a film I’ve shown in the majority of my Intro to Film classes but never actually written about; it seems a daunting challenge to put fingers to keypad when the subject is an ivory tower masterpiece with mountains of published criticism already devoted to it. Nonetheless, here goes . . .

Let’s start by examining the film’s reputation as a colossal work not just of cinema but of twentieth century art and why it has been deemed worthy of the bells-and-whistles treatment from the good folks in the classics division of Warner Home Video. What is it that makes Citizen Kane so innovative and groundbreaking and massively influential? Two things: the visual style and the narrative structure. In terms of style, Citizen Kane is remarkable in that it shows the influence of almost all of the major historical film movements that had received international distribution up to the time of its release (it’s been noted that Citizen Kane was the first movie directed by someone who had obviously studied the history of cinema). And since Orson Welles had travelled the globe as a precocious young man while dabbling in several artistic mediums, he was already well-versed in these international film trends. It is therefore easy to note the influence on Kane of movements as far-flung as:

Narrative Continuity – Welles studied the rules of narrative continuity filmmaking before making Citizen Kane. Specifically, he studied John Ford’s Stagecoach, a particularly beautiful example of a classical narrative movie. While preparing Kane, Welles screened Stagecoach every day for over a month and watched it with different members of his crew each time. Throughout the screenings, Welles would ask his technicians questions to try and figure out how Ford had put his movie together. It was from Stagecoach that Welles learned the basic rules of narrative continuity (how to shoot and edit a scene so that time, space and action continue smoothly from one shot to the next). It may also have been the inspiration for Citizen Kane‘s much commented upon low angle shots, in which the ceilings of the sets are clearly visible, a rarity for the time.

German ExpressionismCitizen Kane features the most artful and self-conscious instances of high contrast and low-key lighting, courtesy of ace cinematographer Gregg Toland, that had ever been seen in a Hollywood film up to 1941. A good example is the scene that occurs in a screening room early in the movie when a group of reporters converse about a newsreel on the life of the late Charles Foster Kane. The contrast between the light and dark areas in the frame of every shot in this scene is extremely dramatic with the faces of each character intentionally hidden by shadows even while the light from the projector behind them is blindingly white. This is also the audience’s introduction to the character of Thompson, the reporter who will spend the rest of the film interviewing Kane’s closest living acquaintances to complete the documentary. Fittingly, we will never clearly see Thompson’s face throughout the movie, a strategy that allows Welles to posit this character as a surrogate for the viewer.

Soviet Montage – Welles was familiar with the the Soviet Montage films of the 1920s (as evidenced by his rapidly edited debut short The Hearts of Age) and Citizen Kane features several impressive montage scenes. The most beloved is probably the exceedingly clever breakfast table montage where the disintegration of the marriage between Kane and his first wife Emily is condensed into a two minute sequence spanning many years. In the first part of the scene, Kane and his new bride are sitting virtually side-by-side and engaging in flirtatious banter. Here, Kane looks like the impossibly young and dashingly handsome man that Welles was. Then, as the scene progresses and the convincing middle-age make-up is piled on, the distance between Kane and Emily, both physical and emotional, increases to the point where the characters are no longer speaking but reading rival newspapers in icy silence instead. The depressing nature of the scene is effectively offset by the wittiness of Welles’ staging and cutting.

French Poetic Realism – Poetic Realism, a movement that defined itself in opposition to Soviet Montage in terms of style, was predicated on long takes and long shots. Citizen Kane has these qualities in spades, which is unsurprising given Welles’ fondness for the films of Jean Renoir (Welles once cited Grand Illusion as his favorite movie of all time); but Welles’ predilection for deep-focus cinematography saw him push the style to an operatic extreme that even Renoir would have never dreamed of attempting. A newly released super-fast film stock allowed for a greater depth of field than ever before and Welles took full advantage by composing images in which important visual information would appear simultaneously in the extreme foreground and extreme background of a shot. A good example is the dialogue scene between Walter Thatcher and Mr. and Mrs. Kane inside of a boarding house in which young Charlie can be observed playing in the snow through a window in the distance behind them.

Documentary FilmCitizen Kane bears the influence of the documentary/non-fiction mode of filmmaking, especially in its opening faux-newsreel sequence “News on the March” (a parody of the “March of Time” newsreels of the day). Welles’ masterful employment of specific aesthetic qualities associated with this mode of filmmaking (jump-cuts, heavily scratched footage, handheld camera shots, etc.) conveys a sense of realism while also greatly adding to the visual wit of the film.

In terms of narrative, Citizen Kane also had a more complex and intricate flashback structure than what had ever been seen in a Hollywood movie up to that point. The bulk of the narrative is taken up by five lengthy flashback sequences. The film begins with the death of its protagonist, Charles Foster Kane, and then skips back over his life in non-chronological order as Thompson listens to (and in one case reads) the reminiscences of those who were closest to him. These recollections serve as the catalysts for the flashbacks, which allow Welles to cleverly introduce the idea of the unreliable narrator. That is to say, none of the five flashbacks necessarily represent the way things “really happened”; instead, they represent the way each character remembers them happening. Notice, for instance, how much more likable Kane is in Mr. Bernstein’s recollection of him than in that of Mr. Leland. Another function of the flashbacks is to allow for abrupt shifts in tone. Throughout Citizen Kane, as we jump from one point-of-view to another, we also jump from one film genre to another. Among the many genres encompassed by Kane are: the biopic (the rise and fall of a great man who bears a strong resemblance to a real life figure), the newspaper reporter movie (a popular genre in the ’30s and ’40s in which a reporter attempts to uncover the truth in pursuit of a story), the mystery (who or what is Rosebud?), the backstage musical (Susan Alexander preparing for her opera debut is similar to the “hey, we’re putting on a show”-type of musicals popular in the ’30s) and even the romantic comedy (a meet-cute involving Kane, Susan and a mud-splattering, horse-drawn carriage).

However, as innovative as Kane remains in terms of both form and content, it also crucially remains a hell of a lot of fun to watch. If it were merely an academic exercise in, say, giving viewers a guided tour through the history of world cinema, it likely would not have achieved the enduring popularity it has enjoyed with both the critics and the public alike. The film’s innovations are all rooted in a sense of excitement and wonder concerning the capabilities of the medium (note the clever logic behind virtually every scene transition, whether visual or aural, in the entire movie). This is no doubt why Pauline Kael said that it may be “more fun than any great movie I can think of.”

Warner Brothers’ high-definition digital transfer of Citizen Kane greatly improves upon all previous home video releases. This includes a 50th anniversary VHS edition “supervised” by editor Robert Wise that appeared overly bright and had purists complaining about attempts to “normalize” the film’s radical style as well as a 60th anniversary DVD edition in which fine object detail was lost due to an overzealous “restoration.” The Blu-ray corrects both problems by presenting Kane the way it was meant to look: with blacks rich and inky in the high contrast sequences, with incredible clarity and detail visible in all shots (including a restoration of the rain falling outside of Bernestein’s window that had been notoriously scrubbed off of the previous DVD) and a nice sheen of film grain over everything. The soundtrack is wisely presented only as a lossless rendering of the original mono track. No attempts to create a new 5.1 surround track could improve upon Welles’ glorious, incredibly innovative original mono mix in which a creative use of sound effects, a superb Bernard Herrmann score (his first!), and the mellifluous voices of some of the greatest theatrical and screen actors of all time jockey for the viewer’s attention. It is simply impossible for me to imagine this greatest of American films ever looking or sounding better on a home theater system. If that sounds hyperbolic, well, sometimes only hyperbole will do.

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Blu-Tinted Memories

“Unfortunately the science fiction element in Solaris was too prominent and became a distraction. The rockets and space stations — required by Lem’s novel — were interesting to construct; but it seems to me now that the idea of the film would have stood out more vividly and boldly had we managed to dispense with these things altogether.”

– Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time

“Don’t turn a scientific problem into a common love story.”

– Dr. Snaut in Solaris

Newly released on Blu-ray is Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 sci-fi masterpiece Solaris, the first of the maverick director’s films to receive an HD upgrade and thus a cause for celebration. Not only is the Criterion Collection’s release a splendid looking and sounding disc, it represents a real improvement over its earlier SD counterpart in ways both subtle and obvious. The most crucial difference, and the one that should have all Tarkovsky acolytes readily willing to “double dip” for the Blu-ray, is that some of the film’s black-and-white sequences have now been restored to their original blue-tinting following Tarkovsky’s wishes. This reason alone justifies upgrading one’s version of Solaris but there are other areas of improvement cinephiles will be thankful for as well.

Based on the celebrated novel by Stanislaw Lem, Solaris tells the futuristic story of Russian cosmonaut/psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), assigned by the government to investigate the strange goings-on in a space station that is orbiting the title planet; one of the scientists aboard the station has mysteriously disappeared, one has committed suicide and the others have begun to experience visual and aural hallucinations. Kelvin’s job is to make a report on the mental health of the remaining two scientists but upon arriving he too begins succumbing to inexplicable visions, such as the mysterious reappearance of Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), his deceased wife who had committed suicide ten years before the film’s narrative proper begins. Eventually, Kelvin realizes that the mysterious Solaris Ocean has the power to make manifest the innermost thoughts of anyone who comes near it. The very concrete nature of these hallucinations (Kelvin is capable of contacting Hari physically and his fellow scientists share his hallucinations of her) allow Tarkovsky to ask the philosophical question of what the value would be of interacting with a person conjured up by one’s own id – if one also knew deep down that, no matter how seemingly empirically verifiable, the person in question was not in fact “real.” The question becomes trickier as the plot progresses because the longer Hari exists as a hallucination, the more she appears capable of developing her own independent consciousness.

Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow is a key reference point in Solaris:

This description probably makes Solaris sound more action-packed than it is. The film clocks in at two hours and forty-seven minutes and unfolds at a languid (some would say glacial) pace as Tarkovsky often lets shots tick past the two-minute mark before cutting. Unusual for science fiction, he also continually references classical works of art from the Venus de Milo and Brueghel’s Hunters in the Snow to Faust and Don Quixote to Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Bach. Finally, there is an intentional dearth of the sort of “special effects” one typically associates with the genre, although Tarkovsky’s crew built elaborate sets for the space station interiors. But even this last aspect was apparently too much for the great director, whose monk-like sense of artistic purity led him to rue having to acknowledge these relatively modest genre trappings. This is probably why he later referred to Solaris as the weakest of his films, barely giving it a mention in his essential memoir Sculpting in Time. I would argue however that Tarkovsky was dead wrong; I find Solaris the perfect balance of big budget filmmaking and big ideas, resulting in an uncommonly soul-stirring exploration of the “inner space” of memory and conscience. The film’s dirge-like rhythms and supernatural cinematography (all misty landscapes and roiling ocean surfaces) as well as the riddle-like plot (here is a movie that demands and rewards multiple viewings!) contribute to the awesome hypnotic power that Tarkovsky could generate in his very best work. I also personally find it infinitely preferable to his last two films, the shot-in-Italy Nostalghia and the shot-in-Sweden The Sacrifice, where he was essentially handcuffed into making the films of a tourist (in the former case a semi-autobiographical film about a Russian artist in exile, in the latter an Ingmar Bergman imitation).

As for the aforementioned blue-tinted black-and-white shots, Tarkovsky uses them primarily for flashback sequences, or at least scenes meant to recall the past, such as the scene where Kelvin attempts to eradicate memories by burning documents and photographs associated with his past before leaving Earth. However, as the film progresses and Tarkovsky begins to blur the lines between past and present, reality and fantasy, memory and imagination, these “blue shots” begin to intrude at seemingly random intervals. (A true cinematic poet, Tarkovsky would never carry out a system of color-coding that could be understood entirely in logical, intellectual terms.) But the blue-tinting serves another crucial function that was lost in Criterion’s earlier non-blue-tinted DVD transfer: it makes explicit the connection between the memories and fantasies of Kelvin and the similarly tinted images that appear on the space station’s video monitors. Memories and fantasies are like films, Tarkovsky seems to be saying, capable of being watched and rewatched forever in the movie theaters of our minds.

Tarkovsky predicts the advent of the 60-inch widescreen television:

Criterion created this new HD transfer from a 35mm low-contrast print struck directly from the original negative and it looks astonishingly good (as one would expect coming from this label). The Blu-ray makes a commendable leap forward over previous home video editions in terms of its film-like properties including a nice sheen of grain that no doubt accurately represents the film’s theatrically projected look. While Tarkovsky’s color films all share a relatively soft and moody palette, the colors on this Blu-ray “pop” in a way that they never have on home video until now. The audio is likewise improved with Bach’s “Choral Prelude in F Minor” sounding particularly robust and pleasing on the lossless mono track. One can only hope that Criterion will soon see fit to present Andrei Roublev, Tarkovsky’s greatest film, with the same loving treatment.

Fuller on Blu x 2

“This isn’t a goddamn humanitarian film. It’s a hard-hitting, action-packed melodrama. Give your award to Ingmar Bergman.”

– Sam Fuller, accepting a Humanitarian Award for Shock Corridor at the Valladolid International Film Festival

Although January isn’t even over, I doubt there will be many more significant home video releases in all of 2011 than the Criterion Collection’s new Blu-ray editions of Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss, two seminal works by one of America’s most iconoclastic filmmakers. These nightmarish, post-noir masterpieces, written and directed by Sam Fuller in 1963 and 1964, are finally getting the treatment they deserve with Criterion’s sparkling new anamorphic HD transfers, which supplant the company’s earlier standard DVD releases of the same titles (spine numbers 18 and 19, respectively). Additionally, both discs are loaded with sterling special features that make them an ideal introduction to the work of a man aptly dubbed “a cinematic warrior” by Quentin Tarantino.

Sam Fuller began his filmmaking career as a true independent, directing low-budget quickies in the late 1940s, and wound down his career the same way, albeit as an American exile scrounging for work in Europe in the late 1980s. In between, he enjoyed a lengthy stretch in Hollywood as a contract director at Twentieth Century Fox in the 1950s (where he made such highly personal and superior genre films as Fixed Bayonets, Pickup on South Street, House of Bamboo and Forty Guns) and a briefer, unhappier stint there in the late 1970s and early 1980s (where he saw United Artists cut his epic war film The Big Red One by 40% and Paramount shelf his racially charged drama White Dog). Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss constitute one of the high points of Fuller’s career – when he was working as an independent for Allied Artists in the early 1960s and could express aspects of his crazy vision that he couldn’t have gotten away with at a major studio, but with enough money and resources to work with talented collaborators like actress Constance Towers and cinematographer Stanley Cortez.

Shock Corridor, the earlier of the films, is essentially a tale of two movies: a murder mystery set inside a mental hospital and an exploitation of this location as an extended metaphor for all that is wrong with America circa 1963. In Fuller’s characteristic yellow journalism-style, he tells the story of John Barrett (Peter Breck), a reporter who feigns insanity in order to be committed to an asylum where a patient was recently murdered. Once inside, he hopes to interrogate the three key witnesses to the murder, mental patients who have not been forthcoming with police. Barrett believes that solving this mystery will lead to a big story and, potentially, a Pulitzer Prize. As Barrett first befriends and then interviews the witnesses, we realize what troubling social ills drove each of them insane: anti-communist hysteria, racism and the threat of nuclear annihilation. But the closer Barrett gets to the truth, the more he risks losing his own sanity. He may eventually get the story he’s after but, after being attacked by “nymphos” in the women’s ward, subjected to electroshock therapy and more, Fuller asks “what price glory?” with a palpable and bitter irony.

Shock Corridor is full of wild, hallucinatory images befitting its central location. This includes a startling interpolation of color footage (shot by Fuller himself in Japan and South America) in an otherwise black and white film, which is used to signify the mental turmoil preceding moments of clarity for some of the patients. For many viewers, the most memorable image may be the climactic scene where Barrett imagines a thunderstorm inside the main corridor of the hospital, a scene for which Fuller flooded, and literally ruined, his large set. (By necessity, he shot this sequence last.) The film’s soundtrack also impresses with its intimations of aural hallucination: Fuller abruptly shuts music cues on and off and presents reverb-heavy internalized voice-over. In 1963, Shock Corridor may have seemed like nothing more than a ludicrous b-movie but, nearly half a century later, unencumbered by the standards of “realism” to which all American movies seem to be held by contemporary reviewers, Fuller’s vision of America-as-mental hospital looks like the audacious work of art that it is: pulpy and crude but also strangely beautiful and as visceral as a punch in the stomach.

As disturbing as some of the scenes in Shock Corridor undoubtedly are, Fuller outdoes himself with The Naked Kiss the following year. Jean-Luc Godard once memorably described Fuller’s visual style as “cinema fist” and there is no more apt scene to illustrate this than the film’s first indelible images: the point of view of a drunken pimp being beaten by a bald prostitute with her handbag. She is Kelly (Constance Towers), a “lady of the night” who proceeds to move from a nameless big city to the seemingly idyllic small town of Grantville in an effort to start her life anew. Upon arriving, she immediately throws herself into the arms of the first man she sees, a police captain named Griff (Anthony Eisley, one of many “Griff”s in Fuller’s universe), who has a habit of seducing women of loose morals before sending them packing to the seamier town on the “other side of the river.”

Only Kelly, determined to reform, refuses to leave and gets a job instead at the local Children’s Hospital. Soon she develops a romance with Grant (Michael Dante), a local millionaire and the hospital’s chief benefactor, whose grandfather was the town’s namesake. To give more of the plot away would be criminal, especially since Fuller’s story takes a bizarre left turn in the final act, which allows him to ramp up his criticism of small town hypocrisy to dizzying heights. Suffice it to say that Fuller’s vision of the evil lurking behind the façade of American white picket fence wholesomeness makes David Lynch’s similar critique in Blue Velvet look like child’s play.

Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss are profitably viewed as companion pieces in several ways, such as the fact that they share several key collaborators; central to the success of both movies are the performances of Constance Towers, the doe-eyed Irish-American actress whose impressive emotional range could convey vulnerability one minute (her heartbreaking final scene in Shock Corridor) and steely toughness the next (the memorable scene in The Naked Kiss where she forcibly stuffs money into the mouth of a brothel’s madam.) Towers may never have “made it” as an A-list actress in Hollywood but the memorable work she did for Fuller and John Ford (who both used her twice and clearly adored her) has ensured her place in film history – ahead of other stars whose careers may have seemed more respectable at the time.

Also performing double duty on both films was cinematographer Stanley Cortez, a master of chiaroscuro lighting whose previous credits included The Magnificent Ambersons and The Night of the Hunter. Cortez’s penchant for high contrast lighting is the single major reason why Criterion’s Blu-rays represent such an essential upgrade over their standard DVD counterparts; check out the interplay of light and shadow in the prison sequences of The Naked Kiss to understand how much richer and more beautiful darkness can be rendered in high-definition.

Finally, the supplements on each disc are unusually insightful and provide what amounts to a master class on the life and career of Sam Fuller. This includes vintage interviews with the great man himself, new video interviews with Constance Towers (who still looks lovely well into her seventies and tells some cracking good yarns about working with Ford and Fuller) and, best of all, Adam Simon’s feature-length 1996 documentary The Typewriter, the Rifle and the Movie Camera (included on the Shock Corridor disc, marking its first home video release on any format.)

This last feature sheds light on the several lives Fuller lived as a crime reporter and soldier before he ever made a movie and contains interviews with Jim Jarmusch, Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, all of whom wax poetic on Fuller’s films and their influence. But it’s the incredible interviews with the outrageous raconteur Fuller, conducted not long before his death, that provide the documentary’s high point; the film ends, for instance, with Fuller pitching the idea for a biopic of Honore de Balzac, using colorful language and his trademark growl of a voice to make a hypothetical movie about the life of the mind sound almost impossibly exciting. “He was a scoundrel!”, Fuller says of Balzac. “He was a bullshit artist!” Then, after a slight pause for dramatic effect: “He was a writer!”

Thanks to Christa Fuller for making corrections to this review.

All Roads Lead to Rome Open City

As a critic in the 1950s, Jean-Luc Godard quipped that “all roads lead to Rome Open City.” Given the film’s continued status as one of the three quintessential works of the Italian Neorealist movement (alongside of Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and Luchino Visconti’s La Terra Trema) and hence one of the most influential movies made in any era, Godard’s statement rings as true today as it did over half a century ago. With the recent DVD release of Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy (in which the Criterion Collection has bundled together Rome Open City with Rossellini’s other Neorealist masterpieces Paisan and Germany Year Zero), I happily find myself with a new occasion to re-examine what made, and still makes, this breakthrough movie such an important and vital standard-bearer of the thorny concept of “movie realism.”

The Neorealist movement initially arose as a reaction against the prestigious “White Telephone” films (glossy melodramas so nicknamed because of the conversations they often depicted involving wealthy characters speaking to each other on white phones) that had previously dominated the Italian film industry under the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini. In contrast to the big budgets, glamorous stars and studio sets of White Telephone cinema, which seemed imitative of the glossy melodramas coming out of Hollywood at the same time, the Neorealists (a term coined by the directors themselves) sought to present a degree of unfettered realism never before seen on Italian cinema screens. What Neorealism did that the escapist White Telephone films did not was address contemporary social problems such as crime, unemployment, poverty and, of course, the ravages of war. After years of presenting a world that corresponded to working class audience desires, the Italian film industry was suddenly holding a mirror in front of that audience for the very first time.

Ironically, one of the reasons why Neorealism was able to flourish during the 1940s was because Italy had been decimated by the war and the national economy was in shambles. Cinecitta, the biggest studio in Rome (then as now), was being used to house war refugees and the government had no money to support the local film industry. But the Neorealist directors weren’t interested in shooting at Cinecitta anyway. They preferred the raw and gritty aesthetic that documentary-style location shooting provided, as Luchino Visconti had proved with his powerful debut film Ossessione in 1942. In a way, the economically ravaged industry played right into the hands of the Neorealist directors and probably extended the life of the movement by several years.

Rome Open City, the first true masterpiece of Neorealism, began shooting in Rome in January 1945, a mere six months after the Nazi-occupied city had been liberated by the Allied forces. Eight months after that, with much of Rome still reduced to rubble from the fighting, Rossellini’s film premiered in Italian theaters. Rome Open City looks remarkable today in that it dramatizes events that only months previously had actually occurred in many of the same urban locations. This sense of immediacy provided by Rome Open City and other Italian films of the 1940s had no correlation in any other national cinema, least of all in Hollywood, and the whole world became transfixed by the sheer novelty of this bold “new realism.” As a consequence, it wasn’t uncommon for Neorealist films to play in even the most rural areas of the United States in the 1940s – as newspaper ads from Watauga County, North Carolina of the period can attest (even if independent theater owners had to sex up their advertisements for Paisan with photos of a scantily clad woman and the titillating tagline “More open than Open City!”).

The plot of Rome Open City concerns the plight of members of the Italian resistance to the occupational Nazi government, namely the resistance leader Manfredi, the underground Communist newspaper printer Francesco, Francesco’s fiancé Pina and the priest Don Pietro. The latter two characters are the most unforgettable and, perhaps not coincidentally, were played by the most experienced actors in the cast. After seeing the film, who can forget Aldo Fabrizi (best known in Italy, incredibly, as a comedian) as Don Pietro, cursing the Nazis with tears streaming down his face before begging God for forgiveness? Or the even more famous scene where Pina, magnificently embodied by Anna Magnini, runs after a prison truck shouting “Francesco!” as the Nazis cart her soon-to-be-husband away? The latter scene, a quick montage of short takes and one dramatic tracking shot, conjures up the abruptness and finality of death as well as any scene in the history of cinema.

But Rome Open City is not only definitive Neorealism because it is a great and groundbreaking film; it also contains all of the hallmarks of the movement (in much the same way that Out of the Past contains all of the hallmarks of film noir); this includes shooting scenes silently and post-synchronizing the sound, a loosely constructed narrative with an ambiguous, “open” ending (the fate of at least one character is a complete mystery) and the aforementioned use of location shooting. However, the extent to which Neorealist conventions are typified by the film has been muddied somewhat in the decades since its original release. For many years the poor quality of circulating prints helped to foster the myth that Rossellini had shot Rome Open City on “short ends” of mismatching film stock. When the original negative was restored in 1995, this was discovered not to be the case. And while the film does feature several rubble-strewn exteriors that are incredibly evocative, it has also come to light that some of the key interiors were shot on studio-constructed sets.

One of the reasons Criterion’s DVD release of Rome Open City is such a revelation is that it proves the film is far better looking than most of us had ever realized. The poor image quality of the old Image DVD had fooled me into thinking that flaws from a worn and faded print, not to mention a less than optimum transfer, were part and parcel of some sort of consciously constructed Neorealist Integrity on the part of Rossellini. The Criterion disc proves that while the film does contain some gritty visual textures, they exist side-by-side with camerawork that is slick and polished and not too far removed from the aesthetics of the White Telephone films that Rossellini was rebelling against.

While Rome Open City will likely never be as famous or audience friendly as Bicycle Thieves, Rossellini today looks like the undisputed heavyweight champion director of Italian Neorealism. His body of work as a whole has certainly been the most influential of any of the filmmakers who got their start in the movement, in part because the films he made in the 1940s were only the first phase in a long and continually surprising career; Rossellini went on to make very different kinds of films in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s (including an astonishing cycle of romantic melodramas in collaboration with Ingrid Bergman and a series of didactic, de-dramatzed but strangely enthralling history films that in some perverse way represent Neorealism pushed to its logical limit). But none of those later phases would have been possible if Rossellini had not first cut his teeth on the low-budget but genuinely risk-taking Rome Open City, a film for which no one at the time may have been clamoring but which, posterity has proven, the world nonetheless very much-needed.

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