Why isn’t Richard Lester more celebrated? An American who made his home in England, Lester earned an Oscar nomination for The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1959), a lark he made with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan and others, made his reputation as a fresh, innovative filmmaker with Beatles rock and roll romp A Hard Day’s Night (1964), and proved his versatility with the acidic drama Petulia (1968), the comic swashbucklers The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974), and the melancholy Robin and Marian (1976).
Kino Lorber has just released three of Lester’s British film on Blu-ray for the first time on their Studio Classics label, including one of his best.
Fresh from the playfully exuberant A Hard Day’s Night, which set the bar for rock and roll cinema and inspired the modern music video, Richard Lester continued the same acrobatic, tongue-in-cheek style in The Knack… and How to Get It (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray), his adaptation of Ann Jelico’s lightweight play “The Knack,” creating a delightfully frivolous take on swinging London and the sexual revolution.
The Assassin (Well Go, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, VOD) is a martial arts drama as cinematic poem. Chinese filmmaker Hou Hsiou-Hsien, who won the Best Director Award at Cannes for his direction, reimagines the genre from a spectacle of action and choreography and acrobatic skill to a vision of stillness and tension. Asian superstar Shu Qi stars as Nie Yinniang, who was kidnapped as a child and trained by a cold-blooded nun (Sheu Fang-yi) to become an assassin for the Emperor, and Chen Chang (of John Woo’s Red Cliff) as Lord Tian Ji’an, her new target. He also happens to be her cousin and the man to whom she was once betrothed. Needless to say, it stirs emotional complications, which she hides behind her mask of an expression but betrays in her actions.
Hou doesn’t shoot the martial arts scenes in the conventional manner, showcasing the prowess of the performers or appreciating the dance-like spectacle of the choreography. (As far as that goes, he doesn’t shoot any of it in a conventional manner; the film is presented in the squarish Academy ratio of pre-widescreen movies.) The action comes in pulses, sudden bursts of movement let loose in the serenity of the flow of the picture, and are brief, and the images of individuals racing through tall grass or running through the underbrush are given as much weight as the clash of swordsman (and swordswomen) and the whoosh of blades slicing through the air.
The American Friend (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – “What’s wrong with a cowboy in Hamburg?” Dennis Hopper’s Tom Ripley is nothing like the character that Patricia Highsmith created and explored in five novels, and while Wim Wenders’s adaptation of Ripley’s Game, the sequel to The Talented Mr. Ripley, remains more or less faithful to the plot (with additional elements appropriated from Ripley Underground), the personality and sensibility belong to Wenders.
The cool, cunning sociopath of Highsmith’s novel becomes a restless international hustler, selling art forgeries and brokering deals (some of which may actually be legal) while travelling back and forth through Germany, France, and the United States. His target, renamed Jonathan Zimmerman here (a Dylan reference? Wenders loves his American music, you know) and played with an easy (if at times arrogant) integrity by Bruno Ganz, is a German art restorer who now runs a frame shop due to the effects of a fatal blood disease. In true Highsmith fashion, the motivation is purely psychological and emotional—a small but purposeful social slight—and the reverberations are immense. Ripley concocts a medical con to convince Zimmerman he’s dying so a French associate (played by Gerard Blain) can tempt him to be his assassin, and then comes to his rescue as the French criminal extends the cruel little act of revenge to pull Zimmerman into additional murders.
Jacques Rivette’sOut 1 (Kino Lorber / Carlotta, Blu-ray+DVD) has been one of the Holy Grails of international cinema since its premier screening in 1971. Rejected by French TV and, at over 12 1/2 hours in its initial cut, too long for theaters, the definitive editions wasn’t even completed until 1989. It showed on French and German TV but apart from periodic special screenings (including a handful of showings in the U.S. and Canada in 2006 and 2007) was impossible to see.
That changed in 2015 with a French digital restoration from the original 16mm negatives, a high-profile two-week run in New York (qualifying as the film’s American theatrical debut) followed by screenings across the country (including Seattle), streaming availability from the arthouse subscription service Fandor and a late 2015 disc release in France. Now 2016 brings this amazing Blu-ray+DVD combo box set release. It features not only the 13-hour Out 1: Noli me tangere (1971 / 1989) but the shorter Out 1: Spectre (1974), designed for a theatrical release after French TV balked at his original vision, plus an accompanying documentary and a booklet.
Sicario (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), a violent, chaotic, adrenaline-fueled thriller set in the brutal violence of the drug war on the American border with Mexico, is a film that constantly seems to be spinning out of control. That’s not entirely by design, I fear, but it is purposeful. From the opening scene, where a missing persons rescue operation headed by FBI Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) sends the team into a Mexican drug cartel safehouse, a sinister mausoleum hidden behind the chalkboard the walls, and a booby trap that takes the life of one of her men, we are thrown into a world where the rules no longer apply.
We are suddenly tossed along with Macer, a driven but idealistic veteran of an FBI strike force, into what appears to be a black ops campaign driven by the CIA. She is requested by a cagey company man named Matt (Josh Brolin, who tosses off his evasions with an amiable grin that hides his endgame), ostensibly an “advisor from the DOD,” and like her we are racing to keep up with the events. Borders are crossed (both physical and moral), information is withheld, and she suspects something bigger (and likely illegal) under the official cover of the operation. The American team has apparently chosen to fight the Mexican cartels with their own tactics, acting on information and advice from a former cartel man with a score to settle with the Mexican mob. Benicio Del Toro plays the advisor, Alejandro, holding his cards close to his chest but never lying to Macer.
“If I were an architect and I had to build a monument to the cinema, I would place a statue of [Julien] Duvivier above the entrance….This great technician, this rigorist, was a poet.” – Jean Renoir
Julien Duvivier in the Thirties (Eclipse, DVD) collects four films by the French filmmaker, once a giant of French cinema with a string of popular and critical hits in the thirties and a successful foray into Hollywood in the forties. He’s been largely forgotten as filmmaker even with though one of his biggest hits, Pépé le Moko (1937), remains a revered (and oft-revived) classic of gangster romanticism and a precursor to film noir. He was an innovator in the silent and early sound eras and helped create the poetic realist style that defined the great French cinema of the late 1930s and influenced American film noir. He was championed by the likes of Jean Renoir and Ingmar Bergman and Orson Welles, but in the 1950s, as the young film critics who would drive the nouvelle vague in France developed their auteur approach to cinema, Duvivier was branded as part of the old “tradition of quality,” “le cinema de papa” that the aspiring filmmakers fought against. This set of four films, all starring actor Harry Baur, may not lift his reputation back up to heights of his success, but they do show that he was a versatile, creative filmmaker who, at his best, found innovative and expressive ways to tell moving and entertaining stories.
Jellyfish Eyes (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), the debut feature from visual artist Takashi Murakami, is a fantasy of childhood innocence and fantastical creatures come to life as Pokemon-like playmates. It’s also a strange conspiracy involving a cult of young researchers in a post-Fukushima world applying an alchemy of science and magic to a transporter device linked to an alternate reality.
Masashi (Takuto Sueoka), the young son of a widowed mother (still trapped in her mourning), moves to the idyllic little town next to an ominous, secretive research lab. He’s practically adopted by a flying creature that looks like a mushroom crossed with a jellyfish and turned into a rubber doll you might win from a carnival game, right around the time he starts having nightmares of his father, the tsunami that took his life, and jellyfish. Then Masashi discovers that every kid in town has their own creature, which they explain are called F.R.I.E.N.D.s and controled with the help of a handheld device. The boys send their F.R.I.E.N.D.s into battle in arena-like matches, much to the outrage of a shy girl (Himeka Asami) with giant sheepdog of a F.R.I.E.N.D. who hates the bullying culture that this violence inspires.
We never stop recovering our film history. Lost movies are being found and older films on the verge of self-destruction are getting preserved and in many cases painstakingly restored, thanks to the digital tools that give filmmakers, producers, studios, and film archivists and restorers the ability to resurrect damaged prints and rescue damaged footage previously beyond the scope of physical and chemical methods.
The preservation of our film legacy is essential, but it’s just an ideal until the preserved films become available for viewers at large to watch, not just limited to brief festival appearances. Film history needs to be living history, and thanks to DVD and Blu-ray, streaming and digital downloads, and (ironically) the shift from celluloid to digital projection, classic films are more available than ever.
This list is focused on debuts and rediscoveries of classic films and cinema landmarks, restorations of great films, and revivals of previously unavailable movies that became available to viewers in 2015 in theaters, on home video, or via streaming services. Not just a countdown of the best, it’s a survey of the breadth of restorations and rediscoveries that film lovers across the country now have a chance to see regardless of where they live.
1 – Out 1
Set in “Paris and its double,” Jacques Rivette’s Nouvelle Vague epic (a staggering 12 ½ hours long!) is a film of doubles and reflections: two rival theater groups each rehearsing a different play by Aeschylus (“Prometheus Bound” and “The Seven Against Thebes”), two theater group leaders who were once lovers, two street hustlers (Jean-Pierre Leaud and Juliet Berto) who stumble into the conspiracy of “The Thirteen,” which turns out to be both a fictional creation by Balzac and a contemporary cabal that includes some of the characters in the film. Rivette, who collaborated with the cast to fill out his outline of a script, musters the energy and enthusiasm and free-spirited filmmaking of the Nouvelle Vague that his more famous colleagues left as the moved into their own comfort zones (Truffaut, Chabrol, Rohmer) or, in the case of Godard, discomfort zones. His engagement with actors is there on the screen, creating energy even in simple conversational scenes, and they are co-conspirators in his hide-and-seek narratives, where characters circle conspiracies and play blind man’s bluff through mysteries that may have no solution. Meanwhile their lives go on, even if their projects are sidelined, shut down, or simply left to evaporate as they move on to their next project.
Moana with Sound (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) – After creating what (in retrospect) is generally considered the first documentary feature, Nanook of the North, in the snows of northern Canada, filmmaker Robert Flaherty traveled to the South Seas island of Savai’i to create a similar production around the Polynesian natives. Like Nanook, Moana (1926) is not a true documentary record but a recreation of a long lost culture for the cameras created in collaboration with locals, who draw from their own historical memory. And it was the film that inspired the term “documentary,” which film critic (and later documentary producer) John Grierson coined while reviewing the film.
Moana is a poetic portrait of Polynesian life as an South Seas paradise, the opposite of Nanook, where the Inuit people fight to survive the harshness of the elements. The pace of life is easy and gentle in the Pacific sun, food plentiful in the sea and growing all around them, just waiting for anyone—even a child—to pluck the coconuts off the trees. Hunting and gathering is akin to play in this culture that was, again as in Nanook, long lost by the time Flaherty put his camera on these people. His filmmaking reflects the theme, each scene taking its time to play out, not to record every detail of finding fresh water in a branch, climbing a palm tree with a simple woven band wrapped around the ankles, or hunting a wild boar (the only real threat to human life on the island), but to appreciate the grace with which these activities are accomplished. The gentleness of the filmmaking—which was as painstakingly created for the camera as any Hollywood drama—creates a lovely, luscious film, a great leap forward in Flaherty’s cinematic talent.
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (Paramount, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), the fifth film in the big-screen franchise based on the sixties Cold War spy TV series, continues to spin its alternative to the James Bond brand of espionage thriller. Like the 007 films, they are globe-hopping spectacles with spectacular set-pieces and stunts. But while each film is tethered on Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, super-agent and loyal soldier in a spy war rife with traitors, the impossible missions are team events and Cruise surrounds himself with great teammates: Ving Rhames, Jeremy Renner, and Simon Pegg all return. There’s a kind of soldierly camaraderie among the agents, who constantly find themselves betrayed by politicians, military officers, and even their own commanders, and they band together to save the each other along with saving the world as we know it.
Cruise both produces each film with a hands-on approach and gives his filmmakers free reign to mix up the style from film to film. For the fifth film in almost 20 years, Cruise hands the reigns over to Christopher McQuarrie, who wrote the screenplays to Valkyrie and Edge of Tomorrow and directed Cruise in Jack Reacher. While that film failed to launch another planned franchise, it was a sturdy piece of work and McQuarrie does even better here tackling spy fantasy. This is a world where technology is all powerful except when it isn’t (forcing Ethan to hang on to a jet plane as it takes off or dive into a cooling tank to punch in a key code and open some security system) and plot twists send our heroes to the most photogenic landmarks the filmmakers can dream up.
Murder My Sweet (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) is not just the most faithful screen version of Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled hero Philip Marlowe from the classic era of film noir, it’s also one of the best. Dick Powell, the 1930s crooner and boy next door romantic lead of dozens of musical comedies, changed his career trajectory overnight when he took the lead in the Edward Dmytryk-directed adaptation of “Farewell, My Lovely” (the title was changed for the movie just to let audiences know that this was a darker side of Powell).
The cynical, smart talking private eye gets hired in short order by, first, a dim ex-con (pug nosed Mike Mazurki) to find his girl Velma, and then by the prissy stooge of a blackmail victim to babysit him during a handoff. The meeting ends with the stooge’s death and Marlowe is immediately engaged by the owner of the jewels, the wily Mrs. Grayle (Claire Trevor), to recover them. As Marlowe navigates the dark, dangerous world of wartime LA, splitting his search between high society haunts and the cheap smoky bars and flophouses of the inner city, he turns up one too many stones, winds up on the wrong end of a fist, and wakes up to a drug induced nightmare that Dmytryk delivers with a mixture of surreal symbolism and sinister expressionism. Powell delivers screenwriter John Paxton’s snappy lines and droll asides with hard boiled cynicism, like someone not quite as tough as he talks, but it’s Powell’s innate vulnerability that makes this reluctant saint of the city so compelling. Dmytryk’s shadowy style creates a visual equivalent to the web of intrigue Marlowe navigates, an almost perpetual world of night.
Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) – In 1914 Charlie Chaplin, the most famous comic performer in Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios, was lured away by Essanay Studios with a huge increase in salary and the promise of creative freedom. Chaplin made the most of it and you can watch his evolution over the course of the 14 official shorts (and one unofficial short) of this collection, all produced in 1915. This is the American Blu-ray debut of the films from newly remastered editions, a project undertaken in collaboration with Lobster Films, David Shepard and Blackhawk Films, and the Cineteca Bologna.
Chaplin stars with Ben Turpin in His New Job, set at a movie studio, and A Night Out, where they play a pair of sloppy drunks raising havoc at a posh eatery. Edna Purviance, who co-stars in all subsequent Essanay shorts, joins Chaplin with The Champion, where a hidden horseshoe in a boxing glove promotes the tramp from sparring partner (“This gink wants his face kalsomined,” reads one particularly rich title) to challenger to the boxing title. In the Park, a shapeless gag fest where the tramp crosses paths with a pickpocket (identified as “a biter” in the titles) and a pair of lovers, concludes the tape. This is primitive Chaplin, still very much steeped in the Keystone slapstick tradition of pratfalls and well placed kicks to the rear end. The Tramp an aggressively mischievous character who smokes incessantly, striking matches on the neck of poor bystanders and flicking ashes in everything from tipped hats to open mouths. The Chaplin magic comes through in the timing and the grace.
Mississippi Grind (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD) plays like a seventies character drama, a meandering road movie through the byways of American characters who populate the card rooms and dice tables and racetracks, and an oddball buddy movie built on a chance encounter and an instant kinship between two losers gambling their lives away. Ryan Reynolds is Curtis, a good looking guy who has all the outward suggestions of a charming hustler, and Ben Mendelsohn is the self-destructive Gerry, killing his nights and his income at cards and sports bookies, betting everything on the fantasy of instant success on a single good night.
These guys are buddies by chance—they meet over a hand of cards and bond over top-shelf whiskey—and travelling companions by impulse when Gerry decides to follow Curtis to a big tournament in New Orleans. Curtis is generous and trusting to a fault, or maybe to a need, and a storyteller whose tales may or may not be in the orbit of reality. He runs in gambling circles for the charge of the action, not just the cards but the byplay, the people, that cardroom culture of oddball personalities. Gerry is a gambling addict and a pathological liar whose past is a wrecking yard of ruined relationships and failed promises and impulsive long shots and whose future is already in hawk to a loan shark (Alfre Woodard in a single scene-stealing appearance).
The Apu Trilogy: Pather Panchali / Aparajito / Apur Sansar (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – In 1955 Satyajit Ray, a young graphic artist in the advertising industry, released his debut feature, a labor of love made independently over the course of two and a half years. Pather Panchali (aka Song of the Little Road, 1955), a portrait of life in a small, impoverished village in rural India, has texture and grace of a painting. Seen through the eyes of young Apu, it’s really about three generations of women in his home: elder Auntie, protective Mother, and bright-eyed older sister Durga. It was India’s answer to Italy’s neo-realism, in part out of inspiration but also because it was made under similar conditions: little money, non-professional actors, a first-time director trying to capture a world that hadn’t been seen on screens.
Its portrait of rural poverty was something western audiences could relate to more than India’s distinctive urban culture and the customs, clothes, and score—Ravi Shankar on the sitar—suitably exotic color to a story that critics liked to call universal. That in part explains why this film was embraced internationally while other films from India failed to break through. Maybe it helped that it affirmed western perceptions of a country and culture that was little understood. But Pather Panchali is also an astounding debut of great power and poetry that is undiminished today. Ray put his passion into the film and created a nuanced and delicate film. Ray brings their environment alive in breathtaking scenes, especially Apu’s magical encounter with a train, billowing smoke in its wake like a mythical creature driving through his forest home. And he creates full, complex characters. While we see them through the wide-eyes of Apu, we do not get a simplified or reductive portrait.
Sherlock Holmes (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) – The 1916 Sherlock Holmes was not the first film based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s great detective but it is by all accounts the first Holmes feature and in many ways it remains the most important Holmes film ever made. It’s an adaptation of the popular stage play written and produced by William Gillette, who drew his script from a collection of Holmes tales with the blessing of Doyle. Gillette toured England and the U.S. in the title role for years before hanging it up but revived the play one final time 1915. It was a smash on Broadway and Gillette took it on tour, ending up in Chicago where the Essanay Film Company struck a deal to bring the stage play to the big screen and bring Gillette’s signature performance before the cameras in a cast featuring both his roadshow actors and members of the Essanay stock company.
We’re not talking resurrected masterpiece here, mind you, but it is a fine piece of filmmaking and an entertaining feature from an era when features were still finding their form. More importantly, it is the sole film performance of William Gillette, a stage legend in his own right and the first definitive Sherlock Holmes, as conferred upon him by both audiences and the author Doyle himself. His interpretation not only informed the performances that followed but the screen mythology itself. Gillette elevated Moriarty (played in the film by French actor and Essanay company regular Ernest Maupain) from minor Doyle character to defining nemesis (and in some ways anticipated Lang’s Dr. Mabuse), gave Holmes his signature curved pipe, and added the term “elementary” to his repertoire. In other ways his version is unlike the Holmes of the page or later screen versions. He’s a cultivated patrician in elegant evening clothes and dressing robes before donning the signature deerstalker cap and familiar tools of the trade, he falls in love, and he even marries (with Doyle’s blessing).