Monday, August 29, 2016

Orson Welles had a lifelong fascination with Shakespeare that culminated in 1965's Chimes at Midnight, which examined the life and times the Bard's lovable, oafish drunk, John Falstaff. Historically a comic supporting character, Falstaff is here reimagined as a tragic figure, a lonely, aging playboy whose love of wine, women, and song has left his soul empty.

Welles combined "Richard II," "Henry IV," "Henry V," and "The Merry Wives of Windsor," to examine Falstaff not as a supporting character, but as the star of his own story, one in which he faces both mortality and his own irrelevance. Still a subject of ridicule (he wanders around a battle, nearly blind, in his comically oversized armor), Falstaff's antics often take on a strange sort of melancholy. In Chimes at Midnight, Falstaff is no mere clown, he's a man whose life of excess has finally caught up with him.

One could draw parallels between Falstaff and Welles himself (who delivers one of his most towering performances here). Welles was nearing the end of his career, and had never truly been able to escape the shadow of his first film, the legendary Citizen Kane. Chimes at Midnight came after a period of self-imposed exile for Welles, and was meant to be something of a comeback. While it has been largely forgotten in the years after its release, it now stands as a testament to the man's immeasurable talent, reaching back to the experimental days of his youth. The centerpiece battle sequence feels like something out of Eisenstein, with its kinetic, Soviet-style editing. One can feel Welles' energy and passion, but there is a sense of regret that hangs over Chimes at Midnight that is impossible to ignore, as if Falstaff has become a metaphor for Welles himself - larger than life, but facing the uncertainty of a future in which he may no longer have a place.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

Special features include:

  • New high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • Audio commentary featuring film scholar James Naremore, author of The Magic World of Orson Welles
  • New interview with actor Keith Baxter New interview with director Orson Welles’s daughter Beatrice Welles, who appeared in the film at age nine
  • New interview with actor and Welles biographer Simon Callow
  • New interview with film historian Joseph McBride, author of What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?
  • Interview with Welles while at work editing the film, from a 1965 episode of The Merv Griffin Show Trailer
  • PLUS: An essay by film scholar Michael Anderegg

On Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection on August 30.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Upon seeing Fritz Lang's Destiny (1921), Luis Bunuel was quoted as saying that "it opened my eyes to the poetic expressiveness of the cinema. When I saw Destiny, I suddenly knew that I wanted to make movies."

If nothing else, we can thank Lang for giving us Bunuel's entire career, but more than that, Destiny is a stunning early masterpiece from an artist who would also give us Metropolis, Die Nibelungen, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, M, and The Big Heat. It's easy to see why Destiny so inspired Bunuel (young Alfred Hitchcock also cited it as a key influence). Like many German films of the period, it feels like a legend come to life - telling a sprawling story about a young couple who meet with Death along a rural country road. When Death takes the young man, his fiancee begs him to return her love to life. Death agrees that if she can save the life of one of the next three people he is due to visit, then he will give her back her fiance. What follows are three separate tragic love stories set in three different locations - Persia, Italy, and China, where she desperately tries to save three different men from Death in order to save the man she loves.

Destiny is one of the most visually striking films Lang ever produced, which is no small feat. Death's lair is an evocatively designed cavern filled with burning candles of varying height, each representing a life waiting to one day be snuffed out. Its entrance is a long, steep staircase through a wall, framed by Lang as a kind of dark stairway to Heaven. The special effects work is also particularly impressive, and not just for the time period. Lang pushed the boundaries of what was possible with the camera, and while the techniques may seem basic now, they're remarkably effective.

While not a strictly Expressionist film, one can nevertheless feel the Expressionist influence on the stark uses of light and shadow. Lang especially uses silhouette to great effect here, combining it with color tinting in often haunting ways. The restored color tinting, along with the new 2K restoration by  Anke Wilkening on behalf of the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, come to life on the new Blu-Ray release by Kino Lorber. What makes Destiny so compelling, however, is the fact that Lang paints death not as a monster preying on his victims, but as a weary angel, tasked with carrying out the Lord's dirty work for all eternity. This version of Death despises his work, and has been made hard and bitter by years of being surrounded by misery.

In that way, the film becomes a kind of spiritual meditation on the nature of death, of its inevitability as much as its cruel sense of fairness. In the end, we all meet the same fate, no matter how far we run, young or old, rich or poor, we all meet our destiny alone. Yet rather than being cynical or downbeat, Lang finds a kind of otherworldly beauty in Death's cold embrace. Destiny is visionary filmmaking, the work of an artist exploring the possibilities of a new and burgeoning art. Lang was a consummate visual storyteller, so much so that the intertitles almost become unnecessary to understand the plot. Each frame is a work of shocking beauty, making it one of Lang's most indelible cinematic works.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

On Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber on August 30.

Monday, August 22, 2016

There is perhaps no director who has so perfectly captured the changing landscapes of modern China than Jia Zhangke. From the literal shifting landscapes caused by the Three Gorges Dam in Still Life (2006), to the dissolusion of industry in 24 City (2008), to generational conflict in A Touch of Sin (2013), Zhangke's camera has captured a nation in transformation.

The opening credits of Zhangke's latest film, Mountains May Depart, don't occur until 45 minutes into the film, signaling to the audience that what we have been watching up to that point was, in fact, an extended prologue. Zhangke family melodrama spans three decades, and is divided into three different segments; 1999, 2014, and 2024, each shot in a different aspect ratio, widening the frame as the years wear on.
Courtesy of Kino Lorber.
Each of Zhangke's films seems to operate within the construct of a different genre. As his first melodrama, Mountains May Depart is the story of a family, whose changes and conflicts reflects that of the new China in which they live. It starts out as a love triangle between three friends, where a woman named Shen Tao (Zhao Tao, in a mesmerizing performance) is forced to choose between two men; one wealthy but jealous and temperamental, one poor but kind and just. She chooses the wealthy man, a coal magnate, who eventually leaves China behind with her son, while the poor manis hit hard by China's loss of industry. Meanwhile, he son is caught in the middle, growing up without even knowing his own native Chinese language, separated from his mother, and set adrift abroad.

Zhangke captures a sense of melancholy about a nation for whom rapid change has created a loss of identity. He turns the film's melodramatic structure into a requiem for the China he once knew. Mountains May Depart is a film of cultural ennui wrapped in the tale of one family's struggles - creating a conflict deeply personal intimate. In that way, it becomes not just a personal tragedy, but the tragedy of an entire nation.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART | Directed by Jia Zhangke | Stars Sylvia Chang,  Dong Zijian,  Liang Jingdong,  Zhang Yi ,Zhao Tao | Not Rated | In Cantonese and Mandarin with English subtitles | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

Friday, August 19, 2016

New and notable Blu-Ray releases.


Is there any film whose title has taken on more inadvertent poignancy than I Could Go On Singing? As Judy Garland's final film (featuring a title tune by Harold Arlen and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg, the duo who also gave her her immortal signature tune - "Somewhere Over the Rainbow") I Could Go On Singing now stands as a bittersweet swansong for one of Hollywood's most beloved and tragic figures.

As Jenny Bowman, an American singer in London who reconnects with an old love and the son she left behind, who doesn't know she's his mother, Garland pours her soul into a role that could have very easily been a stand-in for Garland herself. Bowman's domineering spirit, her overwhelming need to be loved, her often complicated relationship with her own children, have haunting echoes into Garland's own life. The result is a testament to the enigma that was Judy Garland. And boy does she ever go out on a high note. After a confessional monologue that was mostly improvised (is it Bowman or Garland speaking?), she takes the stage to an adoring crowd, and belts out the title song, "I Could Go On Singing." She didn't, as it turns out. But she left us with a final statement that is perhaps one of cinema's great farewells.

"Jenny gives more love than anyone," her ex-lover said of her, "but she takes more love than anyone can possibly give." The same could have been said about Garland. If only she knew just how beloved she really was.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


Busby Berkeley's first color film is everything you would expect it to be - a vibrant, Technicolor fantasia that makes every use out of the swirling, twirling visuals to create bursts of stunning, colorful magic.

Released in 1943 at the height of WWII, The Gang's All Here was Berkeley's antidote to the the growing darkness of wartime. Just as his lavish musicals of the 1930s lifted America's spirits during the Great Depression, The Gang's All Here took a look at soldiers and the women who loved them with toe-tapping musical glee. As is typical with Berkeley, plot is almost beside the point, the central romantic triangle feeling almost like an afterthought to the spectacularly staged musical numbers. I challenge anyone to find a musical number as visually stunning (or as blatantly suggestive) as the dazzling centerpiece, "The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat," which features lines of chorus girls dancing with giant, phallic bananas. It's a wild burst of colorful energy that is pure Berkeley, and one of his most wildly surreal set pieces. While the film doesn't quite match up to his legendary run of the 1930s, it's hard to ignore the infectious energy of this late period triumph.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


Mostly remembered now as the film that made Sidney Poitier the first African American Best Actor Oscar winner, Lilies of the Field is the heartwarming story of a drifter named Homer Smith who meets a group of German nuns in the countryside who escaped East Berlin and came to America. What begins as a pit stop for water becomes something much more, as the nuns decide that he has been sent by God to finish their rural chapel, and enlist the reluctant drifter to stay and help.

The film's original advertising proclaimed Lilies of the Field to be "perhaps the most extraordinary story of courage, conflict, and devotion ever filmed." That may have oversold it a little, but there's something quietly endearing about this little film that goes beyond Poitier's powerhouse performance. He's certainly the anchor of the film, but it is his tempestuous relationship with the nuns that give the film its emotional center. Occasionally adversarial, occasionally friendly, always rooted in mutual respect, Homer and the nuns represent a kind of culture clash that, in the heat of the Civil Rights movement no less, has more to do with faith than race. There's a kind of Western vibe at work here - Poitier the rootless wanderer who drifts into town at just the right time, only to ride off into the sunset when his task is through. His task, it turns out is far more than just building a chapel, it's building a community, a rock on which to build a church. It's a beautifully understated work, built on the dignity of Poitier's warm gravitas, and told with a gentle and disarmingly moving confidence. It may be remembered mostly for Poitier's historic Academy Award, but beyond its trivia night significance, it's one of the era's unheralded gems.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


Also known as Crimson in its edited American release, Juan Fortuny's Euro-trash horror re-imagining of Frankenstein is borderline unwatchable. Not even one of those "so bad its good" type of movies, The Man with the Severed Head is just plain bad - a strangely uneventful film about a mad doctor who performs a head transplant on a dying crook, replacing his head with that of a psychopath, turning him from a petty criminal into a murderous maniac who isn't in control of his own actions.

The French version is slightly longer, with more nudity and gore, but that still doesn't turn this wannabe exploitation movie into anything worth watching. It's a dramatically inert, awkwardly paced work that, like most exploitation movies of its era, never delivers on the lurid promise of its title, and doesn't even have the good taste to be tasteless enough to be interesting.

GRADEzero stars (out of four)


The same year that he directed the legendary western, High Noon, Fred Zinnemann also directed this lyrical and understated adaption of Carson McCuller's play, The Member of the Wedding. About half the length of the play's gargantuan 3- hour running time, Zinnemann's film is more light on its feet (if less focused on recital issues), a touching an brilliantly acted piece of southern gothic that examines the awakening of a 12 year old girl, whose older brother is getting married and leaving home. Mad with jealously, confusion, and adolescent romanticism, young Frankie plans to run away with them, baring her soul to her African American housekeeper, and the young boy who lives next door.

Zinnemann displays a similar restraint as he did in the same year's more famous High Noon, yet here it's in service of something much more personal. Zinnemann replaces the American iconography of High Noon with the politics of gender and race, rendered indelibly by the masterful performances of the play's original Broadway cast - Julie Harris, Ethel Waters, and young Brandon de Wilde, who just the next year would enter into Western iconography himself by crying "come back, Shane!" While the film does not go as deep as the play on which it is based, it allows these fine actors to carry the stellar screenplay with great warmth and heart. The film often betrays its stage roots, with its single setting and long stretches of dialogue, but Zinnemann wisely steps back and allows the actors to carry it. And boy are we ever on good hands.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


Tom Stoppard penned the screenplay (adapted from a novel by John le Carre) for this lovely, subdued spy drama about a boozed-up British ex-pat living in Russia (Sean Connery, in one of his most delicate performances), who is recruited by British intelligence and the CIA after he is given a secret manuscript by a beautiful and mysterious Russian citizen (Michelle Pfeiffer). THE RUSSIA HOUSE eschews the chase scenes and shoot-outs usually associated with espionage thrillers for dazzling wordplay, character-driven intrigue, and a strong emotional core, as the newly minted spy Connery begins to fall in love with the woman he's supposed to be spying on.

It's also a striking political thriller, a film whose plot revolves around a manuscript that reveals that the Russians are completely unable to engage in war, and that the Americans are engaged in an arms race essentially with themselves - a fact the CIA means to cover-up. Released in 1990, just after the fall of the Berlin wall, The Russia House was one of the first American films to be shot in post-Soviet Russia. It took a daring, if understated, view of a world that was no longer black and white, but whose shades of gray were reflected in the hazy drabness of early 90s Moscow, and set to the aching noir-ish tones of Jerry Goldsmith's haunting score.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

I know I've said this before, but it bears repeating - there is no more clear spiritual successor to legendary Japanese filmmaker, Yasujiro Ozu, than Kore-eda Hirokazu. Through films like Still Walking, I Wish, and Like Father, Like Son, Hirokazu has inherited the mantle of the foremost chronicler of the Japanese family, crafting touching, often heart-wrenching, explorations of familial relations and their often complex dynamics.

Despite a plot ripe for soap-opera histrionics, his latest film, Our Little Sister is perhaps one of Hirokazu's most subdued films. That's saying something for a filmmaker whose trademark is a kind of restrained serenity, but here he never tips the scale toward overt emotionalism as he has in previous films.

Our Little Sister is the story of three sisters, who discover they have a teenage half-sister through one of their late father's affairs. Rather than shun her, they offer her a place to live, and give her a new lease on life by putting aside their distaste for her mother, the woman who broke up their family.

Left to right: Masami Nagasawa as Yoshino Koda and Suzu Hirose as Suzu Asano © 2015 Akimi Yoshida, SHOGAKUKAN, FUJI TELEVISION NETWORK INC., SHOGAKUKAN INC., Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Despite some brief objections from their own mother, Hirokazu mostly avoids the drama inherent in such a potentially explosive situation, and instead focuses on the developing relationship between the four young women. It is ultimately a film about the bonds of sisterhood, and Hirokazu guides it with remarkable grace. Family relationships are a strong theme in Hirokazu's work, much as they were in Ozu's, and while Hirokazu sometimes skirts sentimentality in ways that Ozu mostly avoided, it's hard to ignore the strong bond that unites their body of work.

Like Ozu's work, Our Little Sister a slow burn, taking its time developing its characters and watching them grow, and it lacks a final "payoff" moment, but it rewards our patience with an undeniable charm. It's a lovely and lyrical film that deftly avoids emotional fireworks for something much more honest.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

OUR LITTLE SISTER | Directed by Kore-eda Hirokazu | Stars Haruka Ayase, Suzu Hirose, Kaho, and Masami Nagasawa | Rated PG for thematic elements and brief language | In Japanese with English subtitles | Now playing in select cities. Opens today, 8/19, at the Ballantyne Village in Charlotte.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Like most of Terrence Malick's filmography, The New World is a film whose beauty often defies words. It doesn't matter if you watch the more streamlined theatrical cut or the more abstract extended cut, The New World is a monumental work in any form. While Malick cut down the film for its theatrical release, the extended cut almost feels like a different film entirely - more loose, more elliptical, more in line with Malick's more recent works like To the Wonder and Knight of Cups.  All three versions of the film, the first cut, the theatrical cut, and the final extended cut, are all included on Criterion's sumptuous new Blu-Ray package, which also includes and informative comparison of all three cuts.

Still, there's more of a plot-like structure here than there is in his later work, and The New World may mark his finest balance between plot and abstraction. Perhaps it is because the story he tells here is so familiar. The story of Pocahontas has been a part of American lore for centuries - the Native American princess who fell in love with John Smith, saved him from being executed by her father, and went on to marry John Rolfe before dying in England, a world away from her pristine homeland of what is now Virginia.

You can almost divide the film into two parts. The first half is about discovery - of a new world, of a new love, of one's self. It is awash in wonder and beauty (made even more breathtaking in its new 4K restoration on the Blu-Ray), and the heart-pounding, breathless yearning of first love. The second half is about disillusion, the death of innocence, and ultimately, the discovery of a new kind of love, less about unbridled passion and more about stability. Some may call the "settling," but Malick passes no such judgements here. Malick is the great cinematic observer, a poet-philosopher whose vision is presented through questions, musings, and a never-ending search for answers, both earthly and divine.

As is typical of Malick, the central love stories, between Pocahontas and Smith, then Pocahontas and Rolfe, are much more than they appear to be on the surface. Malick has constructed them as metaphors for the discovery of America - from its initial, untouched promise, to "destruction of Eden" that marks the end of the Natives' idyllic paradise, to the eventual acceptance of a new way of life, one that is not necessarily bad, but not as good as what came before.

In a sense, The New World is a deeply American love story, in which America is the object of desire. It is at once an elegy and a romance for a bygone world, one whose ramifications echo into our own world still today. Malick has much to say about the nature of love and desire here. But he also has a great deal to say about the nature and origins of America. Don't expect a political screed - Malick is far too lofty a filmmaker to sully himself with such mundanities. No, Malick reaches for the heavens, for an ideal. The New World is a search for the American soul, and we are still searching for it today. In today's heated political climate, it is a film that feels all the more vital - a probing, lyrical exploration of what makes us, as humans, as Americans, as inhabitants of this mortal plane, who we are.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Special features include:
  • New 4K digital restoration of the 172-minute extended cut of the film, supervised by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and director Terrence Malick and featuring material not released in theaters, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-rays 
  • High-definition digital transfers of the 135-minute theatrical cut and the 150-minute first cut of the film, supervised by Lubezki, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks on the Blu-rays 
  • New interviews with actors Colin Farrell and Q’orianka Kilcher 
  • New program about the making of the film, featuring interviews with producer Sarah Green, production designer Jack Fisk, and costume designer Jacqueline West 
  • Making “The New World,” a documentary shot during the production of the film in 2004, directed and edited by Austin Jack Lynch 
  • New program about the process of cutting The New World and its various versions, featuring interviews with editors Hank Corwin, Saar Klein, and Mark Yoshikawa 
  • Trailers 
  • PLUS: A book featuring an essay by film scholar Tom Gunning, a 2006 interview with Lubezki from American Cinematographer, and a selection of materials that inspired the production