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The “Blu” Leopard, New York Confidential and Night Train to Munich: Blu-ray/DVDs of the Week

The Leopard (Criterion)

This is what Blu-ray was made for.

I know that the special effect-laden sci-fi extravaganzas and action epics are what really drive home theater sales, with fans wanting to get theatrical presentation muscle into their home. But that’s all about showmanship (not that there’s anything wrong with that). What really sends me to heaven is watching a presentation of a cinema masterwork with the clarity, richness and integrity of a perfect 35mm presentation. Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963), quite simply one of my all time favorite films, is one of those masterworks and Criterion’s new Blu-ray edition (freshly mastered from a stunning print with unparalleled color and crispness) is as perfect a home video incarnation as anyone could hope for and better than any theatrical screening I’ve have the pleasure to experience.

Burt Lancaster leads the dance
Burt Lancaster leads the dance

I believe that Visconti’s 1963 adaptation of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel is his masterpiece. Burt Lancaster (his voice is dubbed by a deep-voiced Italian) may seem an unusual choice to play Prince Don Fabrizio Salina, an idealistic 19th century Sicilian prince (Visconti favored Laurence Olivier, a much more conventionally regal choice), but his confidence, his gravitas, and his understated cat-like grace as he walks through the world as if he owned it, creates a character of great authority and even greater melancholy. With the impoverished island nation of Sicily on the verge of revolutionary change and reform, Salina places his hope in this revolution to wipe away the corrupt ruling aristocracy (of which he is himself a member) and his upstart nephew Tancredi Falconeri (Alain Delon), who fights for a unified Italy with Garibaldi’s Red Shirts. “For things to remain the same, everything must change,” proclaims Tancredi as he sets off to join the revolution. Salina is publicly against the war but privately sympathetic and he sees Tancredi as the future of this country, or at least of his family, which is mired in a sinkhole of decadence and irrelevance.

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Antonioni’s Red Desert and Cavalier’s Le Combat dans l’ile – DVDs of the Week

Monica Vitti and Richard Harris in the modern landscape

Red Desert (Criterion)

The color debut of Michelangelo Antonioni continues his exploration into the cinema of alienation with a new dimension. And it’s not just the expanded palette, which he paints in the colors of waste. This drama of dislocation and neurosis is set against an industrial landscape where the rivers are choked black and oily with pollution, the barren lots around factories are dead, gray graveyards of junk and ash and waste, the horizon is made up of smokestacks belching smoke and flames and even the parks hiss smoke from pipes running under the sod.

Giuliana (Monica Vitti, Antonioni’s great muse) navigates this world tenuously, a fragile woman in a world where the detritus of industry has almost eradicated the natural world. Richard Harris (his voice dubbed into Italian) is a visiting corporate recruiter who becomes infatuated with the beautiful but nervous wife of his colleague. There’s a flirtation of sorts, but it’s as emotionally smothered as the industrial world around them.

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Close-Up: Role Playing for Abbas Kiarostami

[parts of this were originally published in the Seattle Weekly, February 24, 1999]

In 1989 in Tehran, a movie mad unemployed printer named Ali Sabzian was arrested for impersonating the famous film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. The family he had fooled was deep in rehearsals for his next “film” when they alerted authorities of their suspicions. “I loved playing that part,” confesses Sabzian in his trial. When the judge asks the Ahankah family if they will drop the charges in light of Sabzian’s apologies and explanations, one of the sons replies “I get the impression he’s still playing a role.”

Ali Sabzian in Close-Up
Ali Sabzian in "Close-Up"

These moments from the documented trial resonate through Close-Up, Abbas Kiarostami’s 1989 film of the event. Kairostami, best known to American audiences for Through the Olive Trees and the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or winning A Taste of Cherry, read about the story in the papers and convinced Sabzian and the Ahankah family to play themselves in a dramatic recreation. The case itself is hardly sensationalistic. Sabzian met Mrs. Ahankah on a bus and passed himself off as Makhmalbaf (the scene is recreated by the participants in the middle of the film and establishes an unusual bond between the two—when the police come to arrest him in a later recreation she steps up to stop them). It’s simple bit of role playing that Sabzian pushes into an elaborate charade when he proposes that the family act in his next film and becomes a frequent visitor to their house. Intercut with these extended scenes is the documentary record of the real trial (which Kiarostami convinced the judge to let him not only film but in some ways shape for the camera) and a series of on-camera interviews. What emerges isn’t so much a merging of the two forms as an inquiry into the very nature of cinematic representation.

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Journey to Berlin and Mystery Train to Memphis – DVDs of the Week

Divided Heaven (First Run)

Konrad Wolf’s Divided Heaven (1964), his adaptation of the novel by Christa Wolf (no relation), was made during the brief “thaw” of the sixties, when socially daring and politically critical films were allowed to be produced. I find it amazing it got made at all even in that relatively tolerant period, where the degree of freedom can be considered lenient only in comparison to the restrictions of the past (and, as it turned out, the near future). Renate Blume stars in the coming of age film set in 1950s East Germany and she’s introduced in a state of crippling depression, suffering from “nervous break,” according to the doctor. “Thus begins our story,” informs the narrator, making this the narrative baseline: not the ideals of socialism in action, but the disillusionment of a once idealistic young woman.

The idealized past: Eberhard Esche and Renate Blume in "Divided Heaven"
Tomorrow belongs to them: Eberhard Esche and Renate Blume in "Divided Heaven"

The flashbacks take us through a whirlwind romance with Manfred (Eberhard Esche), an ambitious (and older) chemical engineer with a great future and high hopes, and her own “promotion” to a teaching college (and the attendant party meetings that will ultimately pass judgment on her—and everyone else’s—commitment to the socialist ideals). While she takes a summer position building railroad cars, she watches the veteran socialist true believer, both an idealist and a realist, scapegoated for production problems and replaced by a young manager who comes in brimming with socialist slogans but little understanding of humans under pressure. Meanwhile Manfred watches science takes a back seat to politics and becomes increasingly cynical about the ideals he once embraced.

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Spartacus on Blu-ray — Just what is “good enough”?

Among the featured reviews at my MSN home video column this week is Universal’s Blu-ray edition of Spartacus: 50th Anniversary. While I didn’t watch the entire Blu-ray (my review of the film itself was based on earlier viewings of the film, including the Criterion DVD), I viewed over an hour of the disc and found that it looked quite good, an improvement over Criterion’s 2001 DVD in clarity, if not quite in color, which I found it tilting a little toward red in the skin tones, but not to any egregious level. (For the record, I have a Panasonic 50-inch plasma screen that is now about three years old.)

Kirk Douglas as Spartacus: Do I look waxy to you?

But I also found a small but fierce uprising taking Universal to task for an inferior job of mastering, led by film archivist and restoration expert Robert Harris, who produced the 1991 theatrical reconstruction and restoration. (I thought about framing this with Harris a modern-day Spartacus leading a consumer uprising against the corporate masters, with Universal standing in for Rome, but thought better of it.) In a post in the Home Theater Forum (launching a thread numbering over 200 posts as of this writing), Harris decries the loss of detail due to the overuse of digital noise reduction (DNR) technology on ten-year-old HD master, instead of returning to the original materials with the latest technology and create a new, definitive HD master. There are some excellent frame captures at the AV Science Forum that support his criticisms. The comparisons between the DVD, HD DVD and Blu-ray images show greater clarity in the high-def formats, but also a “waxy,” smoothed-over quality, especially in the human faces. On DVD, we see a softness of detail, but on Blu-ray the increased film clarity is accompanied by increased digital grain.

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