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“The Big Lebowski” Still Abides After All These Years

Rolling Stone once called it “the most worshiped comedy of its generation.” I like to think of it the Book of Duderonomy, the lost gospel of the post-modern Testament. Now the beloved Coen Bros. classic of easy living and competitive bowling on the absurdist mean street of Los Angeles arrives on Blu-ray. Presenting The Big Lebowski: Limited Edition (Universal). You’ll like its style, man.

Jeff Bridges is brilliant as the Dude, one of the most strangely centered individuals in the movies. This bowler/stoner/free spirit is mistaken for a millionaire (David Huddleston) by a band of German punk nihilists, and John Goodman is his Vietnam Vet bowling buddy, who sinks him deeper into trouble with one testosterone-and-rig?hteous-indignation-f?ueled scheme after another. Think of it as a slacker “The Big Sleep,” a shaggy dog parody of classic L.A. detective stories where the passive hero is threatened, confronted, assaulted, seduced, drugged and so completely bummed out that he’s forced to solve a mystery so everyone will just leave him alone to enjoy his dope and his Dylan.

The Coens concoct an absurdist Chandler-esque mystery, drop in a couple hilarious dream fantasies (including a bowling dream sequence by way of Busby Berkley, complete with credits), and even bring in a drawling Sam Elliot to narrate this tall tale like a western myth. Julianne Moore co-stars as an avant-garde artist turned Valkyrie fantasy, and Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ben Gazzara co-star.

It’s not the most successful, famous or critically acclaimed film by the Coen Bros., but it surely has the most dedicated fan base. In fact, the Blu-ray was launched at Lebowskifest 2011, complete with a cast reunion and an audience Q&A.

You can get a brief glimpse of highlights from the evening at Videodrone. The complete cast reunion Q&A — a very groovy event with Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro and “music archivist” T-Bone Burnett — can be viewed via Livestream on the movie’s official Facebook page. See Jeff Bridges lead the audience in a chant, hear John Turturro describe his idea for a sequel starring The Jesus (it’s called, of course, “The Second Coming”) and enjoy the group answering questions they can barely hear due to screwy stage acoustics. But you’ll need to hurry — it will only be up for a week.

Continue reading at Videodrone.

Sweet Jane: The new “Jane Eyre” is magnificent

Jane Eyre (Universal), the new adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s beloved Gothic romance starring Mia Wasikowska as the fiercely self-possessed governess Jane and Michael Fessbender as the darkly attractive and grimly tormented Edward Rochester, is the best kind of reminder why the classics remain alive after centuries and can be effectively remade every generation or so.

This one comes from American director Cary Fukunaga and British screenwriter Moira Buffini, both interestingly making their respective second features in an American/British co-production. The otherwise beautiful and buoyant Mia Wasikowska is amazing as the plain Jane who glows with the fire of intelligence and a sense of self-worth that the most soul-crushing abuse can’t smother. Michael Fessbender makes the most of Rochester’s grandly cinematic entrance, charging into the film and into Jane’s life with all the power of an untamed animal. The dark shadows over his spirit and the gruff edges under the moneyed manners makes him all the more seductive, which of course puts Jane on her guard even as it slowly seeps through her defenses.

Shot on wind-scoured landscape of the chilly highlands of Northern Britain, this new incarnation embraces the gothic gloom and lonely isolation of the novel but, like its stoic, strong heroine, never gives in to the darkness. It is gorgeous but never what you would call pretty. And for all of Jane’s careful social front, never letting her true feelings show through, she is forthright and true and unfailingly honest.

Continue reading at Videodrone.

For more DVD and Blu-ray releases, peruse The New Release Rack and check out the Hot Tips and Top Picks for August 16.

“Stake Land” – Welcome to the Vampire Apocalypse

The similarity in the title of the indie vampire drama Stake Land (Dark Skies/MPI) and the 2009 comic zombie road movie horror Zombieland is coincidental but fitting, as much for the differences in the films as for the similarities. There’s a plague turning humans into undead creatures out for blood, an orphaned boy (Connor Paolo as Martin) learning to survive, a father figure (Nick Damici) with an unspoken past (he’s simply known as Mister to one and all) and rumors of a safe place far away. And the vamps here are a lot more like zombies (by way of feral carnivores) than the social creatures we associate with vampire cabals.

But the similarities end there. This is no gallows comedy, it’s a survival drama that has more in common with The Road or George Romero’s late Dead films, but without the soul-crushing bleakness of the former or the horror-as-spectacle of the latter. The cabal here is a fringe Christian sect turned authoritarian cult that thinks the bloodsuckers were sent by God to cleanse humanity and they figure anyone who doesn’t tow their line needs a fatal cleansing. Quite frankly, they are scarier than the vamps.

The symbolism isn’t all that subtle and the backwoods fanatics tend toward hysterical stereotype—neo-Nazi nightmare by way of survivalist nutcase—but director Jim Mickle and co-screenwriter Nick Damici keep the film focused on the people and the relationships. There’s a scruffy immediacy to the direction—low budget production, practical locations and shooting on the fly—but also a grace to the imagery and a commitment to the performances. These characters don’t break loose and confess all, but the sense of comfort they find in one another warms the film.

Continue reading at Videodrone

DVD/Blu-ray: Léon Morin, Priest

Léon Morin, Priest (Criterion)

Jean-Pierre Melville’s reputation rests predominantly on his amazing string of crime dramas but the director (who during World War II was active in the Resistance) also made three films about the life during the Nazi occupation. Léon Morin, Priest (1961), starring Jean-Paul Belmondo (fresh from Breathless) as an unconventional, at times radical young priest and Emmanuelle Riva (of Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour) as an atheist attracted to his intelligence and his charms, is his second and most unusual. The film opens with occupation and ends with liberation but focuses on the hothouse atmosphere of intimacy and separation, of desire and denial, in the private meetings of Léon (Belmondo), the unconventional, at times radical and undeniably handsome young priest, and Barny (Riva), a young widow (her communist husband was killed in the war) with a half-Jewish daughter and a strong attraction to Léon.

It’s quite the chamber drama, a war movie set in intimate spaces and played out in theological debates and guarded discussions. Melville plays on the power of Belmondo, a handsome, young, newly-minted movie star of French cinema in 1961, as a strong, striking, confident priest in a town of women without men. Behind the guarded figure in a black cassock and a serene, sly smile is a virile yet celibate man surrounded by desirable women and he wields that power to draw them into the faith and, chastely, flirt with them. It’s a cagey manipulation where he both seduces and judges their weakness as he gets them to confess the sins of their attraction, and you wonder if his ability to frustrate their desire is in some way his substitute for sexual pleasure. Belmondo never presents Léon as anything but dedicated, but his confidence and sexual presence makes him a magnet. All eyes are drawn to him when he’s on screen, a fact of which he’s very aware. There’s more behind his enigmatic smile than simply an object lesson.

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The Egyptian (1954)

The Egyptian (Twilight Time)

Several years ago, the Seattle International Film Festival asked local critics to choose and present a favorite “guilty pleasure.” One chose the divinely silly Susan Slade, while another went for the historical comedy, Start the Revolution Without Me.

My pick was The Egyptian, Darryl F. Zanuck’s lush 1954 adaptation of Mika Waltari’s once-popular novel (the No. 1 best-seller of 1950) about the revolutionary reign of the “heretic pharaoh,” Akhenaten, who established a form of monotheism that was quickly dismantled by his successors.

I don’t regret the “guilty pleasure” label – parts of the picture are incredibly cheesy, especially the woozier patches of dialogue and the casting of heavily accented Bella Darvi as a Babylonian whore. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Spouting lines like “I’m an evil woman, Sinuhe” and “I did not ask for this trash,” Darvi could give Maria Montez a run for her money in the camp sweepstakes. But she seems to have wandered in from a different, sleazier, less ambitious picture.

The Egyptian was the first movie I’d seen that took a single central character from childhood to death. Its dark, troubling, sometimes pretentious account of that journey made a lasting impression. So did the lavish visualization of ancient Egypt. It’s full of lines like “all existence is vanity” and “I made the evil in myself,” as its self-loathing hero tries to come to terms with a mostly wasted life. Seeing it for the first time as a nine-year-old, I was riveted by an ancient-world epic that entertained such pessimistic thoughts and didn’t deal simply with the triumph of good. When Cecil B. DeMille’s staff first saw it, they stopped worrying that The Ten Commandments, the less ambiguous Egyptian epic DeMille was preparing, would be challenged by it at the box office.

The central character is not Akhenaten but the fictional Sinuhe, a peasant boy who is actually of royal birth (his fate is an ironic variation on the Moses story), though he doesn’t know this as he grows up to become pharaoh’s physician. When he makes a mess of his life, betraying his parents as he pursues the manipulative Babylonian, Sinuhe runs away from his birthplace, returning years later to see Akhenaten’s revolution collapse in civil war. Disillusioned by pharaoh’s mistakes and his own dubious adventures in other lands, Sinuhe is at first skeptical about Akhenaten’s achievements, and he prepares to be the king’s executioner.

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The Music Room

Satyajit Ray became internationally acclaimed with his first two features, Pather Panchali and Aparajito, which owed much to the traditions of documentary, poetic realism and the Italian Neo-realists. His fourth feature, The Music Room (1959), marks a significant and important step in his career. Following the critical and popular failure of the comedy The Philosopher’s Stone, The Music Room showed the world that Ray had great range and talent beyond the naturalism of his first films. Ray takes a classical approach, informed by the masters on international cinema that he revered, for this drama set in the fading decadence of old-world feudal life of the 1920. Pather Panchali is a work of social observation with a director in sympathy with the plight of the characters. The Music Room offers a more complicated attitude toward its main character and to the changing world in which he lives. His portrait of the aristocracy, with its wealth and rituals and sense of social superiority and entitlement, increasing impotent and irrelevant in an India moving toward modernity, was his most accomplished film up that time and many critics still hold it as the director’s masterpiece.

Chhabi Biswas as Biswambhar Roy in the twilight of "The Music Room"

Chhabi Biswas, a popular and respected actor of his day, plays Biswambhar Roy, once a powerful feudal lord, or zamindar, now a threadbare remnant of the old world. The opening scenes present him alone in his crumbling palace, sucking on his hookah like a pacifier, looking out over the ruins of his one mighty lands as the modern world passes him by. The sounds of a concert from a neighbor’s estate sends him back to a time when his wife and son lived and he spent lavishly on recitals and celebrations. His great love is music and he considers himself a connoisseur and a patron of the arts, indulging in his hobby to the neglect of his fortune and his lands, which are slowly being swallowed up by the river. It’s also a matter of social currency and vanity. To be a lover of music is not enough. Roy must be seen to be a true connoisseur with a public show of patronage and a subtle mastery of the art of presenting a master artist in his private music room.

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Battle Beyond the Stars

When Star Wars became the smash hit of 1977 by turning B-movie adventure into big-budget spectacle, drive-in mogul Roger Corman saw the writing across the stars. The producer and former director had made his share of drive-in science fiction and space adventures, but they had all been cobbled out of spare parts and imaginative art direction, with simple miniatures and animation providing the space ships. Now Hollywood was moving in on his brand of genre filmmaking and action fantasies with budgets he couldn’t match and he needed to raise his game to meet them.

Battle Beyond the Stars was Corman’s answer to the new Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster. The script is from John Sayles, whose screenwriting apprenticeship came from such Corman productions as Piranha and The Lady in Red, with a story credit shared with Anne Dyer, but the concept was from Corman himself: “The Seven Samurai in Space,” with a few hints of Star Wars tossed in around the edges. Richard Thomas, fresh off six seasons of the folksy family TV drama The Waltons, plays the film’s innocent, idealistic hero Shad. He’s Luke Skywalker by way of John-Boy, a farmboy on a peaceful agrarian planet that looks like a counter-culture commune in ancient Greek garb. When the vicious warlord Sador (John Saxon) brings soldiers and his answer to the Death Star to their planet and gives them seven days to surrender, Shad sets out in a talking space ship (in the tradition of referring to vessels in the feminine, this one quite literally has a voluptuous pair of breasts protruding from the bow) to hire a fighting force of mercenaries to defend themselves from the invasion.

After a detour at a nearly abandoned space hub, where he manages to recruit the only single girl (Darlanne Fluegel) his age in the region, he starts putting together his team: a drawling smuggler who goes by the handle Space Cowboy (George Peppard, offering the film’s answer to Han Solo), a lizard-like slaver with a grudge against Sador, a hive being of multiple clones in search of new sensations and experiences, a pair of heat-producing beings known as The Kelvin, a buxom Valkyrie warrior (Sybil Danning in a costume that barely covers her) in a mosquito of a fighting ship seeking battle glory, and in the film’s inspired casting coup, Robert Vaughn as a jaded bounty hunter who joins their fight in exchange for “a meal and a place to hide.” It’s the same role he played in The Magnificent Seven, the original western remake of The Seven Samurai. Corman also casts a pair of respected Hollywood greats in small roles: Oscar nominated actor Sam Jaffe as a mad scientist who has wired himself directly into his space station and legendary acting teacher and character actor Jeff Corey as the blind tribal elder.

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War of the Rings: Is the new “Lord of the Rings” Blu-ray the One True Edition?

Has Sauron struck again? From the furious debates playing across DVD/Blu-ray forums, where some the most passionate fans and exacting collectors can be found registering their praise and displeasures with upcoming and new releases (often in hyperbolic dimensions and a hostile tone), you might assume that there’s a new war brewing over the fate of the One Ring on Blu-ray.

Warner released the theatrical editions of the The Lord of the Rings trilogy on Blu-ray last year but held the Extended Editions for 2011. Not just some longer version with deleted scenes cut back in, the Extended Editions were painstakingly reedited for home video by Peter Jackson with new special effects, a reworked score by Howard Shore to match the new rhythms of the narrative and some lovely scenes that were cut for time in the theatrical version of the film but add depth to the characters and the scope of the epic. They were released on DVD years ago. For Blu-ray release, Warner returned to the film’s original 2K digital intermediate files (the final digital edition before striking film prints for theaters) for the source of the Blu-ray master.

Here’s where it gets complicated. While the masters of The Two Towers and Return of the King were completed digitally, The Fellowship of the Ring was partly digital master but mostly completed on film, where it was color-timed photochemically rather than digitally. For the theatrical release on Blu-ray, Warner used a digital master taken from a release print, but for the extended edition, Jackson wanted to rescan the original elements to get the most visual detail and clarity, and them retime the color for home viewing, adjusting the brightness, intensity and hues to best effect on TV monitors. So while The Two Towers and Return of the King were mastered from the same source as previous release, The Fellowship of the Ring was not.

That’s the simplified version of a very complex, but the upshot is that the Fellowship of the Ring: Extended Edition Blu-ray looks different from all previous incarnations (film, DVD and Blu-ray) of the film.

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Suckered? Why Zach Snyder’s “Sucker Punch” deserves reconsideration

Sucker Punch (Warner)

There is no doubt that Zach Snyder’s Sucker Punch, the director’s first original script, is a mess of movie. Even the term “original” is a questionable description, as the wide range of influences define the film as much as his own pop sensibilities. Yet Sucker Punch was so critically derided that I think it’s been dismissed without really acknowledging the mad mix of inspirations or Snyder’s own blinkered passion for the project, clearly something that, for reasons he may not be able to articulate, he poured his creative energies into.

Sucker Punch's Baby Doll squad

The vague mid-20th Century setting with a 19th century Gothic attitude and 1990s music-video stylings drops Baby Doll (Emily Browning) into a private sanitarium that looks like something out of the Batman movies. But before we have a chance to ruminate on this post-Dickens orphanage horror we are plunged into her fantasy of the place as a bordello prison fronted by a gangster (the head orderly, with a pencil mustache and zoot suit) in the flesh trade, with the Cuckoo’s Nest of pretty young inmates (Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung) now dancers in the show, which is just part of the club’s entertainment. (The extended version on Blu-ray features an elaborate musical number that puts their chorus girl moves on display.)

But that’s just the first step down the rabbit hole of escapist fantasy. Under the hypnotic sways of Baby Doll’s magic moves, the girls are refashioned as jailbait stripper fantasies (all with exposed navels and a flash of thigh) and arm themselves with heavy metal artillery to take on one anachronistic video game scenario after another: a samurai rite of passage, a World War II mission against zombie Nazis, a siege on a castle of Orc-like beasts and dragons, a sci-fi odyssey against robot terrorists on a moon of Saturn. Because nothing says female empowerment better than little babydoll outfits and really big guns.

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“Kiss Me Deadly” – Film Noir Apocalypse, Then and Now

Kiss Me Deadly (Criterion)

Robert Aldrich’s 1955 film noir apocalypse Kiss Me Deadly is unlike any other noir ever made. From the opening scene, where Cloris Leachman (naked under a trenchcoat) runs barefoot down a coastal highway flagging down cars, to the Pandora’s Box scream of destruction unleashed in the finale, it pushes the conventions past the breaking point.

Ostensibly based on Mickey Spillane’s hugely successful pulp novel, Aldrich and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides turned the story inside, transforming it into a white-hot blast of tawdry pulp and film noir cynicism for the atomic age. Aldrich had just come off of Vera Cruz, a mercenary western that looks forward to the cynical opportunism of the spaghetti westerns, and that tone carries over to Kiss Me Deadly. Mike Hammer is turned into a blithely amoral opportunist, a corrupt private detective who specializes in divorce cases (a “bedroom dick,” in the parlance) and stumbles into a conspiracy that he thinks he can parlay into a payoff, and Ralph Meeker plays him with a perpetual sneer of a smile and an arrogance that is rarely justified. This is a guy who pimps out it secretary/lover Velda (Maxine Cooper) between smooches and makes a play for almost every beauty who crosses his path.

Kiss Me Deadly delivers a pulp punch while it savagely satirizes the entire hardboiled mythos with its bare-knuckle brutality, flights of purple prose dialogue and the sheer he-man chauvinism of its dogged hero of scar tissue and street smarts, who isn’t nearly as smart as he thinks he is. Quentin Tarantino paid tribute to it in Pulp Fiction (and, before that, so did Alex Cox in Repo Man). Mickey Spillane hated the film. I love it. Va-va-voom! Pow!

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“Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen” – The Cannibalization of an Icon

Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (Well Go)

Ostensibly a sequel to the 1972 martial arts classic Fist of Fury, with the talented but far less furious Donnie Yen in the role created by Bruce Lee (and recreated by Jet Li in the 1994 remake Fist of Legend), Legend of the Fist is a colorful and largely incoherent mess, less a movie than a collection of cannibalized ideas stitched together into something resembling a plot.

Set largely in the decadent splendor of 1925 Shanghai, where gangsters made money off the chaos as Japan and Britain made their plays for control of China, it opens with a World War I prologue on the French front lines, takes a turn into Chinese a Casablanca reworked a quasi-musical costume spectacle, and then transforms into a resistance thriller. Yen shucks off the grace and restraint of his Ip Man films to play Chen Zhen as an intent patriot posing as a sleek lounge lizard, his cover as he infiltrates the club, and then take on yet another identity to protect Chinese patriots from Japanese assassins: a costumed superhero that recalls Bruce Lee as Kato in The Green Hornet. Shu Qui wobbles through it all as a nightclub chanteuse playing drunk in every other scene and Anthony Wong maintains a level of modest dignity as the Triad nightclub owner, the film’s answer to Rick Blaine, providing neutral territory for enemies to rub elbows while a nationalist mob war builds in the streets.

Donnie Yen channels Kato

The entire film, directed by Andrew Lau (of Infernal Affairs fame), seems borrowed (if not blatantly lifted) from one movie or another without bothering to integrate the ideas in any coherent way. There are needlessly complicated layers of hidden identities and double agents, brazen assassinations and a culture of intimidation that gets nary a reaction from the bumbling Chinese cops under corrupt British oversight (are they bought off by the Triads, secretly Japanese collaborationists or simply incompetent?) and all sorts of arcane plots hatched by the occupying Japanese military.

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The “Barry Lyndon” Conspiracy!

The works of Stanley Kubrick never failed to generate debate and, at times, deep-seeded controversy when they arrived in theaters, so it’s no surprise that they have generated almost as much debate (though for entirely different reasons) in their home video releases.

Kubrick was a perfectionist in all areas of his filmmaking, including presentation, the one arena over which he had very little control. He could and did set the desired specifications for proper projection but couldn’t enforce them or, given the realities of projection standards in the U.S. and elsewhere, even always count on theaters being conducive to following them. His preferred aspect ratio for his post-2001 releases was 1.66:1, a standard format in Europe but not in the U.S., where most theaters routinely set non-anamorphic films at the 1.85:1 standard.

While Kubrick was alive, he insisted that the DVD releases of his films be formatted at his preferred specifications. Even so, Warner Bros. was raked over the coals for their initial DVD release of his films, which simply reused old laserdisc transfers rather than freshly-mastered high-definition editions. Now there is a hue and cry from a small but vocal sector of the critical community over the Blu-ray release of Barry Lyndon. And the debate, not surprisingly, has gotten very passionate and a little personal.

The whole thing was kicked off when Jeffrey Wells at Hollywood Elsewhere (always good for explosions of indignation) blew a gasket over the specs on the Blu-ray cover, which listed the aspect ratio at 1.85:1: “storm the barricades!” Glenn Kenny, on his blog Some Came Running, tried to slow the rush to judgment by looking at the disc itself, which he found at first glance to be 1:66:1.

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Profundo Argento: “The Cat O’Nine Tails” and “Deep Red”

The Cat O’Nine Tails (Blue Underground)
Deep Red: Uncensored English Version (Blue Underground)

It’s official: Blu-ray has redefined my home repertory schedule. DVD is the format of home video debuts and rarities unearthed, but the Blu-ray release calendar has become my guide for revival screenings of films not seen in years, maybe decades, and sometimes for classics that I never got around to seeing in other forms.

David Hemmings stares down his nightmares in “Deep Red”

Thanks to Blue Underground, Dario Argento’s number has been coming up with some frequency (see my review of Inferno here). This month, two early Argento gialli (that’s plural for giallo) debut on Blu-ray, neither of them among his masterpieces but both showing a young director exploring the possibilities of play within genre filmmaking and perfecting his technical skills and expressive talents. I reviewed the English language versions of each film, in my first viewing of the films since Anchor Bay first released them to VHS at the end of the nineties.

The Cat O’Nine Tails (1971), Argento’s second feature, follows up his directorial debut The Bird With the Crystal Plumage in genre, style and “animal” theme (stretched into a trilogy with Four Flies on Gray Velvet). In Bird, Argento explores, pushes at and plays with the mechanics of suspense and murder mystery spectacle in a psychodrama thriller (an uncredited adaptation of Fredric Brown’s “The Screaming Mimi”). Developed with novelist and screenwriter Bryan Edgar Wallace, one of the godfathers of the German “krimi” genre of gruesome body-count murder mysteries, flamboyant killers and creative murders, with stylistic inspiration from Mario Bava’s elegant dances of death. The Cat O’Nine Tails continues down the same twin paths, but this time he also starts to play with the conventions and tropes of the genre, not defying or overturning them, simply bouncing them around with buoyant sense of play as he turns them into opportunities for style.

James Franciscus (under a blonde dye job) is a reporter chasing down a mysterious break-in at a genetics lab, where nothing was apparently stolen, and Karl Malden is a blind man who overhears a conversation that appears to tie in to the mystery. Their meeting is a narrative contrivance to team them up (what reporter rushing to a scoop would take the time to explain what’s going on to a blind bystander?), the hot-shot reporter with all-access to crime scenes and police officials and the retired journalist, blinded years ago, who spends his days caring for an orphan and solving puzzles. Malden comes off as the cheerfully amateur detective of British cozies, smiling as he checks off the clues and bounces ideas off of Franciscus, himself a fairly animated and buoyant presence. Only when the little girl is kidnapped does Malden falter, the fun tipped into danger and the stakes become personal.

There’s nothing unique or daring in this handsome CinemaScope production, and little of the bravura flights of style that will define his later, more flamboyant exercises in color and camera movement and the fine art of murder. Even the spare score by Ennio Morricone looks back to traditional Italian horror, which Argento left behind for the pounding prog rock scores of his subsequent films. But he has a flair for juicing up characters with personality quirk (not subtly or even all that convincingly, but with a certain sense of fun) and he keeps the film moving ahead or bouncing around characters as they dole out the exposition and a mystery that twists and turns with almost arbitrary direction.

Partners in crime solving look for clues in a mausoleum

The beginnings of his trademark style can be glimpsed in the POV sequences of the killer at work, begun with a close-up of the eyes so tight all you see is iris and whites and continuing through the stalking and dispatching of characters intercut with the fragments of murder mosaics, the most obvious evidence of his debt to Hitchcock. The shower scene from Psycho is his touchstone, only Argento’s mini-symphonies of murder aren’t about fooling viewers into thinking they’ve seen more than is actually onscreen. He uses the discreet shots to foreground the assault on the flesh and the shedding of blood and impress audiences with his spectacle. A body pushed in front of a speeding train is punctuated with a close-up of the engine colliding with the skull and the freefall of another victim is just the prologue to the desperate grasping for purchase before the crush of impact, complete with the crumple of the body. It’s not exactly sadistic—Argento is like Malden’s character in the movie, delighting in the design and execution of his set pieces like a puzzle—and he doesn’t revel in their suffering. It’s all rather dispassionate, a matter of cinematic engineering.

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“Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno” – Portrait of the Artist as a Mad Man

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno (Flicker Alley)

Serge Bromberg is one of the most dedicated film preservationists in the world today. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno, his documentary on the legendary unfinished film, represents a different kind of detective work but the same spirit of discovery, preservation and presentation of cinema saved from neglect.

Romy Schneider in one of Clouzot's fantasy images

In 1964, French director Henri-George Clouzot—a man at the top of his game and his fame for such films as The Wages of Fear, Diabolique and La vérité (though largely forgotten today, it was an Oscar nominee and a Golden Globe winner for Best Foreign Language Film)—was given carte-blanche by Columbia Pictures to make a dream project. His film, a portrait of obsessive jealousy in a husband (Sergio Reggiani) who becomes insanely paranoid and maniacally controlling of his beautiful young wife (Romy Schneider, then one of the most luminous stars in Europe), collapsed in the director’s own obsessive camera tests and experiments, increasingly demanding direction and endless reshoots. He pushed the production overbudget and over schedule, drove his leading man to quit in exasperation and became distracted in exacting minutiae at the cost of the big picture. When a heart attack leveled him, the producers to pull the plug. It’s like Hearts of Darkness as reconceived by Werner Herzog as an epic failure: one man’s vision and creative ambition fueled by obsession and growing megalomania and laid low by the limits of physical reality, production economics and the limits of his own body.

Serge Bromberg’s documentary (co-directed with Ruxandra Medrea Annonier) is a peek into a film that never was through a rich collection of rushes and camera tests, unseen and forgotten for decades until Bromberg tracked it down and negotiated access to the preserved and protected reels. The footage (some of it in raw, undeveloped form until Bromberg’s involvement) reveals an artist searching for new expressive ways to explore jealousy and madness on film, but also a relentlessly ambitious artist looking for new ways to express himself. When Clouzot began production, it had been four years since he had made a film and the freewheeling directors of nouvelle vague had become the young turks of film art in the meantime. He had something to prove to them, to the critics and to the public. And possibly to himself.

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Blow Out: De Palma, Down to Earth in Conspiracyland

Blow Out (Criterion)

Is it too sweeping to call Jack Terry, the B-movie soundman of Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, John Travolta’s best performance ever? So be it. Who knew that De Palma—a director still more often than not dismissed as a technician with a Hitchcock obsession, a facility for bravura camerawork and a penchant for split screens—would be the director to best showcase Travolta’s talents? Or that Travolta would help bring out the best in De Palma? Fresh off the success of his psycho-sexual dream cinema of Dressed to Kill, Blow Out takes us out of the sleek, stylish, rarified worlds of the affluent and drops us into the working class and street culture of urban Philadelphia, where the flag-waving bash surrounding the Liberty Bell Bicentennial comes off like a small town civic celebration blown up by a big city budget.

John Travolta as soundman Jack Terry with the tool of his trade

Blow Out arrived in 1981 as the end of the seventies run of political conspiracy thrillers like an aftershock. Critics were quick to jump on the connections to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (it’s not like the title or the premise made it hard to come to that conclusion) and the echoes of Chappaquiddick, Watergate and various political assassinations of recent history. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation was brought up far less frequently, though it’s easily as important a wellspring for De Palma’s transformative work, and Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, perhaps not so much an inspiration as a fellow traveler in the underside of conspiracy cinema, not at all

De Palma’s story is built on Jack Terry, the B-movie soundman played with easy amiability and modest professionalism by John Travolta. Front and center is the actor’s easy likability and screen warmth, a regular guy in the right place at the wrong time as an earwitness to a car accident and a gunshot. What was to be a humiliating scandal involving a political candidate veered into assassination, with our hero saving a hooker (Nancy Allen) from a drowning car and the police hushing the entire incident up. Not out of knowing complicity, mind you, simply playing ball to protect a political reputation in death. At first it galls Jack, and then, as evidence is destroyed and witnesses murdered, it scares him. He’s the blue collar everyman, less an idealistic champion of justice than a guy tired of being lied to. Plus, as long as the truth is buried, he’s a target of the self-styled “Liberty Bell Killer,” the façade our sinister and unstable political operative (a slim, unsettlingly non-descript John Lithgow) appropriates to cover up his real endgame.

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