by Tony Dayoub
My recent hiatus had one silver lining. It did give me a chance to catch up on some of the most notable Blu-ray releases of 2013 so far (including a couple of my favorite movies of 2012 and 2011). All photos are captured directly from the Blu-ray, so click on each to enlarge to the proper resolution. Without further ado, here are some brief thoughts on each disc after the jump.
The Ballad of Narayama (Narayama bushiko) (1958), directed by Keisuke Kinoshita - Narayama is the epitome of the Criterion label's influential process of selecting important films for release. I had never heard of this Japanese film before Criterion had announced it. But one look at its description, and it's easy to see why anyone would be intrigued. In a theatrical style quite atypical of the Kabuki the label's promotional material compares it to, Kinoshita tells the story of Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka), a woman fast approaching 70 years of age, beginning to contemplate her upcoming journey to the mythical mountain of Narayama. There, the elderly traditionally go through self-imposed starvation as a way of relieving their family of the burden of their care. The formal beauty of Kinoshita's film is contrasted by the cruelty and darkness of the tale in which Orin's son mourns her eventual departure while her grandson practically salivates at the prospect of more food to go around once she's gone. This juxtaposition of the aesthetically pleasing with the disturbing banality of elderly neglect creates a disquieting atmosphere; imagine what the last third of Million Dollar Baby, and specifically its euthanasia plot turn, might be like if it looked like a 50s MGM musical. In delivering this forgotten classic Criterion fulfills at least one aspect of its mission, the curation of important films from all over the world and every period.
Pina (2011), dir. Wim Wenders - One of my favorite films of 2011 finally arrives on DVD in this comprehensive Criterion edition. Wenders pays tribute to dancer/choreographer Pina Bausch, director of the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch. As he discusses a number of times in the voluminous behind-the-scenes material included, Wenders waited for about two decades to capture Bausch's performers onscreen. Perhaps too long, since Bausch herself died of cancer only days after being diagnosed and just a few days before this documentary began filming. Nonetheless, his reason for delaying the project is admirable; he was waiting until he could depict the elusive dimensional component of dance onscreen. Surprisingly, one person he credits for laying the R&D foundation is James Cameron, whose Avatar pushed the 3D technological envelope. But Pina goes a step further by utilizing 3D not for cinematic spectacle but the human kind. While limitations with my home equipment prevent me from judging the 3D disc (included as a second supplementary disc in the Blu-ray edition), Criterion's first, I was fortunate enough to see Pina at its American theatrical debut. I was floored at the potency of the emotion it delivers as Bausch's ballet company pays tribute to her by performing some of her own pieces. Wenders intercuts this with thoughts from each of her dancers, in their own language, that are curiously not spoken onscreen but dubbed over images of them sitting quietly in front of the camera, as if to underscore the significance of each individual's physical traits.
The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel) (1979), dir. Volker Schlöndorff - Schlöndorff, one of Wenders' contemporaries, hit it big in Cannes and then at the Academy Awards with this film, an adaptation of Günter Grass's novel about Oskar Matzerath, a German boy who decides to stop growing when he turns 3. This is just about the time when the National Socialist Party began its meteoric rise in 1927, tying Oskar's trials and tribulations to that of his country. Quite memorably, when agitated, Oskar responds by drumming on his ubiquitous toy and emitting a sustained, glass-breaking shriek (a reference to Kristallnacht?). As Schlöndorff indicates in a new interview included on the disc, Oskar represents the part of each of us, Germany and ultimately, humanity, that refuses to grow up and take responsibility for its actions. The cute but odd looking David Bennent (Legend), 10 years old at the time but stunted in growth, is perfectly cast as a mercurial boy who is at turns willful, loving, destructive, precocious, devious and eventually, absolved of any guilt (wrongly, the movie implies) because of his innocent appearance. Though this is a Blu-ray reissue of a film Criterion previously released on DVD, it does feature new supplementary materials and a new restoration of Schlöndorff's original 163-minute cut (instead of the 142-minute theatrical release).
I believe this is the first time I review any releases from the Twilight Time label. It's a relatively new one that has become near and dear to my heart, so some explanation is required. Sold exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment, primarily a clearinghouse for movie soundtracks both beloved and rare, Twilight Time releases are usually films of varying quality that boast a spectacular score. Limited to only 3000 copies before they go out of print, each disc is usually devoid of extras (although that's starting to change; see below), save for an isolated music track and comes from either Fox's or Sony's respective back catalogues. While there's often minimal restoration work applied to the image, the films are generally selected because they look fantastic on Blu-ray/DVD already. Since its inception in 2011, they've released 44 films (eight of which are only on DVD), and seven are out of print already.
Pony Soldier (1952), dir. Joseph M. Newman - I'm ashamed to admit that this is the first time I see a movie starring Fox contract player Tyrone Power (The Mark of Zorro). Those are the perils of watching Turner Classic Movies at the expense of Fox Movie Channel, I guess. But if this one is considered minor in his career, I can't wait to see more. As Julie Kirgo alludes to in the liner notes, one gets the sense that this Technicolor film might have been a prestige project had it been shot in CinemaScope, the advent of which would come just one year later with The Robe. But time has a way of divorcing movies from such concerns, and in 2013, this Western, surprisingly sensitive to Native Americans, still plays like gangbusters. Power plays Constable Duncan MacDonald, a lone Canadian Mountie who sets out with his half-breed guide, Natayo (Thomas Gomez) to rescue two settlers kidnapped by angry Dog Soldier Konah (Cameron Mitchell) and his war party and unexpectedly walks into a whole village of agitated Cree Indians. Rather than adhere to the typical Western archetype of the rugged independent cowboy, the gentlemanly Power takes pains to play up MacDonald's nobility and diplomacy in working out a way to negotiate the hostages' release while still conceding enough to allow the Cree to save face. Stunningly shot by Harry Jackson (The Band Wagon), the movie also benefits from a rousing score by the great Alex North (Spartacus) before quite hamhandedly devolving into a Mountie recruitment film just before its conclusion. Interestingly, though only 38 at the time of its release, Power would die on the set of Solomon and Sheba just six years later.
Experiment in Terror (1962), dir. Blake Edwards - With the aid of composer Henry Mancini and cinematographer Philip H. Lathrop—both key collaborators on his landmark TV series Peter Gunn—comedic director Edwards reminds us he's got dramatic chops in this chilling, yet fairly objective, crime procedural. At its center is Kelly Sherwood (Lee Remick), inexplicably targeted by a heavy-breathing serial killer (Ross Martin) who coerces her into helping him rob the San Francisco bank where she works. F.B.I. Agent John Ripley (Glenn Ford) methodically sets up a surveillance operation to ensnare the killer. With the name of Sherwood's subdivision being Twin Peaks, another character named Garland Lynch and a piece of dialog referring to the murderer having "already killed twice" fans of David Lynch's Twin Peaks will immediately recognize the strong influence this neo-noir (the first of two discs reviewed here) bore on the show. And Experiment in Terror's prescience doesn't stop there as the handling of its megalomaniacal killer—a foreshadowing of the real-life Zodiac Killer—surely inspired later San Francisco-set films in this vein such as Dirty Harry and Zodiac. The movie, Edwards' follow-up to Breakfast at Tiffany's, also proves to be a bit of a corrective to the latter's treatment of Asian Americans. Its San Francisco setting affords the director the opportunity to employ a cross-section of Asian Americans of all stripes—honorable, hard-working, uncooperative, or even callous—with nary a Mickey Rooney-like caricature in sight.
Our Man Flint (1966), dir. Daniel Mann; In Like Flint (1967), dir. Gordon Douglas - From abject fright we go to goofy derring-do, as Twilight Time delivers the most emblematic diptych of the 60s superspy genre, the two films that comprise the Flint series. It's a testament to how closely the 007 series flirted with self-parody by 1965 that the campy Our Man Flint doesn't quite come off as an overt spoof. Yet lots of small touches (like the phone ring for the government's hotline) are obvious precursors to the Austin Powers series. Notable character actor James Coburn made the transition to "overnight" star playing the very independent Derek Flint, a man at the peak of physical and intellectual perfection, who nonetheless has to be cajoled by ZOWIE head Cramden (Lee J. Cobb) into serving his country. Think James Bond crossed with Doc Savage (minus his Fabulous Five compatriots) and you'll get the idea. The second film's steep descent in quality and wit is inversely proportional to the uptick in its breathtaking visuals (by famed cinematographer William H. Daniels). Twilight Time goes the extra mile for the first time here, not only including their usual isolated score tracks featuring Jerry Goldsmith's atypically jocular incidental music. They also throw in loads of never before seen featurettes Fox Home Video produced in 2006 for aborted domestic home releases of each film.
Nicholas and Alexandra (1971), dir. Franklin J. Schaffner - This 3-hour opus, centered on the role the Romanovs played in the Russian, moves at a surprisingly brisk pace. Though competent enough to stand next to a panoply of British actors in supporting roles—Harry Andrews, Ian Holm, Laurence Olivier and Michael Redgrave, to name a few—the look of utter terror on the faces of newbies Michael Jayston and Janet Suzman will have you wondering whether it's just the characters reacting to the frightening upheaval occurring around them or it's the actors worried they'll be blown off the screen by their fellow performers. One newcomer who shows no fear is Tom Baker, whose future stardom would arrive in three short years as the fourth and best known Doctor of the long-running Doctor Who TV series. He is magnetic as the mad monk Rasputin, stealing every scene in which he appears despite the stillness and economy of his movement... at least initially. His assassination features quite the arm-flailing. Otherwise, though Nicholas and Alexandra is no Doctor Zhivago it does fill in the blanks for fans of David Lean's more famous epic. Again Twilight Time throws in some interesting featurettes, produced at the time of Nicholas and Alexandra's theatrical release, along with the de rigueur isolated score track. Watch for the actor making his film debut as a pompadoured, young Leon Trotsky: it's Brian Cox (X2: X-Men United).
Cosmopolis (2012), dir. David Cronenberg - After the relatively sunny A Dangerous Method, Cronenberg returns to form with an icy exegesis of our recession-plagued world. Though adapted from a novel by Don Delillo, hedge fund manager Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) is cut from the same cloth as the protagonists of eXistenZ, Crash, Videodrome and any number of other Cronenberg antiheroes. Alienated, dislocated, and sexually impotent, Packer is losing his ability to manipulate financial numbers to his advantage. And from the looks of the mounting protests occurring just outside of the stretch limo that serves as his office, Packer's problem is an affliction rapidly spreading among all of his kind. Delillo's novel may have been written in 2003, but it eerily foretells of the financial crisis still gripping the world today as well as predicting (if exaggerating) the unrest by groups like Occupy Wall Street. Cronenberg's film, though relevant, feels like it's a half-step away from being dated if things improve for us the way they look like they might. Then again, the impending doom of Sequestration may be further evidence that those in the political position to affect financial change are hardly in any pressing hurry to do so. As for the disc, it looks and sounds unsurprisingly fantastic, and it includes both a director's commentary and a nearly 2-hour feature on the making of the film.
Laura (1944), dir. Otto Preminger - This noir classic's Blu-ray release proves my theory that a fine restoration of an older film can look even better than newer movies in the digital format. Unfortunately, the extras are all the same as the ones in its 2005 DVD release, which considering the film's convoluted production backstory seems like a missed opportunity. I wouldn't have minded seeing a feature-length documentary in place of the stilted commentary cobbled together from historian Jeanine Basinger's and David Raksin's separate recollections (the second commentary track by Rudy Behlmer, however, is essential). As for the movie itself, it's more a romance than an actual noir, if you think about it—a disturbing, necrophilic romance, in which just about every male character is in love with the dead Laura Hunt (gorgeous Gene Tierney). These include a smarmy fiance played by a young Vincent Price, Dana Andrews' strait-laced detective, and Clifton Webb's effeminate Waldo Lydecker. The hint of the detective's romantic fetishization of the victim and his problem with alcohol are what may actually put the film in noir territory. Certainly the former inspired F.B.I. Special Agent Dale Cooper's fascination with murder victim Laura Palmer in Lynch's Twin Peaks, a fact confirmed by Peaks co-creator Mark Frost's naming a pivotal pet mynah bird Waldo... found by Agent Cooper in the office of a veterinarian named Lydecker.
The Master (2012), dir. Paul Thomas Anderson - The Master is an ineffable film which almost begs for different interpretations each time one sees it. Watching it at home on a smaller screen yields a more intimate, Freudian reading, with guru Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as the ego fighting to maintain control over his intellectual side, represented by his wife Peggy (Amy Adams), and his wild id, personified by Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), as all three work to establish a new movement/philosophy/religion called the Cause. Each of the three stars were nominated for Oscars and this, the most brilliant American film of 2012, benefits from a stupendously curated Blu-ray which shows why. Eschewing the usual vapid featurettes and commentary, the disc (out today) instead includes a 20-minute assemblage of outtakes and excised scenes—scored by the film's composer, Jonny Greenwood—that could easily be a movie unto itself. It's that good. There's also an 8-minute behind-the-scenes short that is almost lyrical in its presentation, but the true gem among the extras is John Huston's one-hour documentary, Let There Be Light (1946). The film looks at WWII vets suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome and their medical treatment at a time before such a diagnosis even existed. Its influence on Anderson is plain, and it's nice to see him include the short for our perusal. Small bonuses: the Blu-ray includes a postcard with Dodd's portrait (as shot by Quell in the film) and a cover insert that can be inverted for more minimalist artwork to wrap around your disc case.
Skyfall (2012), dir. Sam Mendes - The Flint series would have a tougher time poking fun at today's James Bond, as this movie demonstrates. Above average directors keep putting Daniel Craig's steely cipher's gaze to good use, as Sam Mendes does here. But three things take Skyfall to another level: Roger Deakin's sublime cinematography; the emotional payoff achieved by putting Judi Dench's M in the fight of her career against Javier Bardem's demented former agent on one side and Ralph Fiennes officious government bureaucrat on the other; and the way the film fills in Bond's poignant personal history for the first time in the 50-year, 23 film series. The Blu-ray looks typically spectacular, but the extras can't help but pale next to those of other Bond films' which due to the benefit of time and distance are more informative than fluffy. Example: I was hoping the filmmakers would directly address rumors that the part Albert Finney plays was originally written with Sean Connery in mind, but not one mention.