Friday, December 13, 2013

Blu-ray Review: Tokyo Story - The Criterion Collection

The Film
I'll be honest: Writing about Tokyo Story is nearly as intimidating as it gets when it comes to writing about cinema. For one, it feels like a fool's errand to try to contribute anything additional of value in a consideration of a film that is consistently ranked as one of the greatest of not just Ozu's filmography and not just Japanese cinema, but of all film, ever. (#3 in the latest Sight & Sound poll, and #1 among directors.)

And perhaps more relevant, I find explicating the brilliance of Yasujiro Ozu, a director I deeply admire, to be rather challenging; his simple-on-the-surface, emotionally pummeling narratives and impossibly steady and serene formal control are best experienced, not read about.

Complicating matters even further is the fact that Tokyo Story doesn't quite seem like Ozu's supreme masterpiece to me — it's gorgeous and deeply moving, absolutely, but at times, it can feel a little airless and overdetermined, the obvious flaws of less sympathetic characters clearly mirroring the perfectly virtuous traits of others.

When retired couple Shukichi and Tomi Hirayama (Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama) visit their grown children in Tokyo, they're met with a range of less-than-welcoming reactions, from the indifference of pediatrician son Koichi (So Yamamura) to the nearly shrewish hostility of hairdresser daughter Shige (Haruko Sugimura). Only daughter-in-law Noriko (Setsuko Hara), the widow of their son who died in WWII, displays any real grace or affection, taking time off work to spend time with them and treating them as if they were her own parents.

The specter of war still hangs heavily over a rapidly shifting Japanese culture, and even if some of his characterizations seem a little broad, Ozu captures the melancholy that accompanies change with exquisite acuity. The Hirayamas might seem a little overly virtuous — their placid, pleasant reactions to being shuffled around by their put-out kids a little too understanding — but along with the tone of the film, there's no mistaking the concealed disappointment that hides behind the martyr-like facade. The film's downbeat final section isn't played as tragedy or irony so much as it is the inevitability of life, where sadness and disappointment are essential components to the human experience. That Ozu is able to bring this idea into coexistence with an appreciation of the small beauties in life is a testament to his mastery. Looking at it that way, the character difficulties of the film grow much dimmer.

The Blu-ray Disc
Criterion presents Tokyo Story in a 1080p high definition transfer in the film's original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Ozu's films tend to look a little rough these days, even those that have made it to Blu-ray, which makes this exceptionally clean transfer such a surprise. The clean-up work on the 4K restoration the disc is sourced from is incredibly thorough, limiting damage and scratches to just minor occurrences here and there. Fine detail is present in every shot and the film-like appearance of the transfer is very appealing. The uncompressed mono soundtrack has some crackling, but it's pretty clean and certainly intelligible throughout.

Special Features
Everything from the 2003 DVD release is ported over, including an audio commentary from scholar David Desser, a two-hour documentary on Ozu and his career and a piece from 1993 where directors like Claire Denis and Wim Wenders express their appreciation for Ozu. Newly added is a documentary on Ozu regular Chishu and the history of Shochiku's Ofuna Studios. The disc also includes a theatrical trailer and the package includes a booklet with an essay by David Bordwell. Being that this is one of the first of Criterion's new dual-format releases, two DVD discs with all of the same content are also included.

The Bottom Line
I look forward to revisiting this gorgeous edition of Tokyo Story many times over the years, and I wouldn't be too surprised if my admiration blooms into outright love.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Blu-ray Review: La Notte - The Criterion Collection

The Film
One of the great modernist films and one of the quintessential portraits of existential brooding, Michelangelo Antonioni's La Notte proves that emotional disintegration can be gorgeous. Stunning and stark, the film's first half is one of the most formally precise depictions of alienation ever captured, with Antonioni pinning Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau against the sleek, clean and dark surfaces of Milan's modern architecture. The second half is a simmering pot of unspoken disappointments and disillusionment as Mastroianni and Moreau's couple attend a party at the house of a wealthy industrialist and his daughter (Monica Vitti) threatens to make the emotional distance all the more obvious with her sly flirtations.

Mastroianni stars as Giovanni Pontano, a reasonably successful author, and Moreau is his wife, Lidia. The film opens somberly, as they visit a friend in the hospital who isn't expected to live much longer. A champagne toast in the room has all the merriment of a particularly invasive medical procedure, and the dour mood isn't confined to that room. On his way out, Giovanni is accosted by a seemingly crazed patient, and he falls into her embrace almost involuntarily. There's no joy, no excitement, no connection at all as these two bodies press into each other.

As Giovanni and Lidia split off to do their own thing, the inner ennui/despair of each is emphasized by Antonioni's compositions, a sole figure backgrounded by a brick wall, elevator doors, a gate. Even when Lidia visits a comparably much more rural hometown, where people gather around to witness fistfights and rocket launches, she's framed as an outsider, one all alone. When the couple reunite later in the evening to attend the party, their solitude still reigns supreme.

As Valentina Gherardi, Vitti is her typical captivating self, smoldering as the promise of something more exciting or at least something different. As Giovanni moves closer and closer to her, Lidia engages in her own flirtation, but pleasures, even fleeting ones, aren't really on Antonioni's menu in La Notte. In this modern world, connection and reconnection lie out of reach.

The Blu-ray Disc
Criterion presents La Notte in 1080p high definition and a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The film's dramatic black-and-white imagery looks fantastic, with clean whites, sharp and deep blacks and excellent shadow detail. The transfer's clarity and film-like qualities are consistent throughout, and only very minor instances of wear or damage are visible. The uncompressed mono soundtrack is just fine, presenting a clean rendition of the dialogue-heavy, dubbed-in-post soundtrack.

Special Features
The extras are a little light this go-around. An interview with scholars Adriano Apra and Carlo di Carlo touches on the film's themes and production, while another interview with Harvard professor Giuliana Bruno focuses on the film's use of architecture to visually communicate its ideas. The disc also includes the theatrical trailer. The included booklet features an essay from the always interesting Richard Brody and a reprint of a piece by Antonioni.

The Bottom Line
Criterion has finally brought La Notte alongside L'avventura and L'eclisse in the collection, and it's beautiful transfer is very welcome.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Blu-ray Review: Seconds - The Criterion Collection

The Film
A harrowing, heartbreaking and ultimately terrifying sci-fi thriller, John Frankenheimer's Seconds is surely one of the most distinctive American studio films of the 1960s. The discomfiting distortion of Saul Bass's opening titles fuels up the film's paranoid, disoriented core, and Frankenheimer plunges us into the world of Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) without offering any explanation as to why he's given a slip of paper with an address on it on the train platform or why he's receiving enthusiastic phone calls from an old friend thought to be dead.

Seconds is remarkably economic with its storytelling, revealing key details in quick, expressionistic strokes and trusting its audience to catch up soon enough. Like Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate from several years prior, Seconds has a far-fetched, potentially risible high-concept premise, but the plot specifics feel less important here — more than anything else, they're a framework for the themes of modern dissatisfaction, suburban suffocation and the cold hard truth that the alternative might not be much better. The nearly peerless black-and-white cinematography of James Wong Howe amplifies and illuminates these feelings with wide-angle lenses and unsettling dutch shots.

So, as for the plot summary, well, Seconds really does work better without a lot of foreknowledge, seeing how key disorientation is to its premise and themes. Suffice to say, Randolph's Hamilton gets a chance to trade in his loveless marriage and drone-like job for a new identity as a wealthy painter and a new relationship with a free spirit played by Salome Jens. Oh, and he gets to look like Rock Hudson too. Not a bad trade, right?

A couple key scenes demonstrate the mastery of Frankenheimer's directorial hand and the multiple, diverse ways Seconds functions as indelible horror film. In one, the new Arthur Hamilton — now known as Tony Wilson — attends a Bacchanalian orgy of grape-pressing and nudity that grows increasingly raucous and challenges his own newfound perception of self. The editing is jagged; the handheld camerawork matches the chaotic energy of the performers. In another scene, Tony visits the woman who used to be his wife in what used to be his home, and hears an unvarnished account of their relationship. Here, the camerawork is calm, elegant; the tone of the scene is even-keeled. And yet the horror of being on the outside looking in at yourself is all too painfully real. Among other things, that's what makes Seconds a masterpiece.

The Blu-ray Disc
Seconds is presented in 1080p high definition and a 1.75:1 aspect ratio, windowboxing the image ever so slightly on a widescreen display. This has to rank up there with one of Criterion's best-looking black-and-white discs and one of the best black-and-white Blu-rays period. Rich blacks, clean whites, unimpeachable clarity and an exceptionally film-like image are present in every frame. Grain can be prominent, but it's well-resolved and never looks like noise. Fine detail is abundant and the image is frequently tack-sharp. The uncompressed monaural track is also excellent, presenting dialogue and music cleanly and crisply with no obvious distortion.

Special Features
Carried over from the previous Paramount DVD release is a Frankenheimer commentary track, recorded in 1997. Criterion's new features include an interview with Alec Baldwin, who talks engagingly on the film and his relationship with Frankenheimer, interviews with Frankenheimer's widow, Evans, and actress Salome Jens, and a brief visual essay by scholars R. Barton Palmer and Murray Pomerance, who touch on the film's political undertones. Archival features include short interviews with Frankenheimer and Hudson. The set also includes a booklet with an essay by David Sterritt.

The Bottom Line
A masterpiece is given its due with the incredible transfer and solid package Criterion has lined up for Seconds

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Blu-ray Review: Babette's Feast - The Criterion Collection

The Film
The final act of Babette's Feast is a quietly sumptuous celebration of the power of physical pleasures and the ways they can create meaningful human connections and profound expressions of faith. It's an inherently religious film, but one that has its mind more on earth than heaven.

Though Gabriel Axel's direction is merely workmanlike throughout, the film's titular feast is a great cinematic moment. The rest of the film? Well, not so much. The first hour is little more than (pardon the pun) table-setting, told through flashbacks so top-heavy with voiceover narration, one feels at times like Karen Blixen's short story is being read verbatim. The set-up firmly establishes the ascetic nature of the small Danish Lutheran colony -- a necessary contrast to the earthly delights to come -- but less backstory, more luxuriating in long takes of devoted food preparation and rapturous dishes might have made Babette's Feast a sensuous masterpiece rather than the nice but often bland period drama it is.

Martine (Birgitte Federspiel) and Filippa (Bodil Kjer) tend the small flock in their secluded 19th Century community, a job they took over from their minister father when he died years earlier. Simple women, they're devoted to their tiny, oft-discontented congregation, but flashbacks to 35 years prior reveal the lives they could've had instead. Brief hints at relationships with a misbehaving soldier and a French opera sensation were quashed before they could progress, the daughters' devotion unwaveringly directed toward their father.

Even after the patriarch's death, a life of quiet routine consumes the pair until the arrival of the luminous Babette (Stéphane Audran), forced out of France due to political turmoil and sent to the sisters by the opera singer. She gladly labors as an unpaid housekeeper, and after years of service, when she comes into an unexpected windfall, she insists on cooking a traditional French meal to honor the late minister's 100th birthday.

The dinner guests are all committed to their asceticism and decide to consume the meal as if it were the ordinary slop they normally eat, but the presence of an outsider -- Martine's onetime soldier love, Lorens (Jarl Kulle) -- who's astounded by Babette's menu of turtle soup and cailles en sarcophages and a host of fine wines slowly nudges them to embrace the carnal delights.

Babette's Feast certainly saves the best for last, and while the lovely feast sequence can't retroactively generate interest in the staid, overly literary first hour, it makes for a rather enjoyable film nonetheless.

The Blu-ray Disc
Babette's Feast is presented in 1080p high definition and a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. This is an exceptional transfer, easily the best the film has ever looked on home video. Clarity is sharp throughout, grain is evenly rendered across the image and fine detail is highly visible. The film's color scheme is pretty drab, but the images are still bright and crisp, and detail is strong even in lower-light scenes. The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is also excellent, with nicely immersive details in the surrounds and clean dialogue in the fronts.

Special Features
There's a good amount of material here, including new interviews with Axel and Audran, a 1995 documentary about Karen Blixen aka Isak Dinesen, a visual essay by Michael Almereyda on Blixen's life and the film's thematic concerns, a nice food-focused feature with sociologist Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson on French cuisine and the film's theatrical trailer. The package also includes a booklet with an essay by scholar Mark Le Fanu and the complete text of the original short story.

The Bottom Line
Even for someone less than overjoyed by the film, this is a fantastic package. Fans should be in heaven.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Blu-ray Review: Safety Last! - The Criterion Collection

The Film
The most iconic film of Harold Lloyd's career and one of the most iconic in silent film period, Safety Last! is every bit as entertaining as its reputation suggests -- perhaps more so when you consider nearly all of the film's choice gags come before the climactic clock-hanging climb. That final sequence is a marvel of forced perspective and plain old daring, a white-knuckle thrill just as likely to make your palms sweat as it is to make you erupt in (probably nervous) laughter. Lloyd's lauded everyman persona is seen in the way he spends the whole film striving, striving, striving, until it almost kills him. Safety Last!  doesn't have the knowing cynicism of Keaton or the romantic sentimentality of Chaplin, but it's both pointed and poignant in its depiction of a man's conception of success.

Lloyd's eponymous protagonist leaves behind his girlfriend (Mildred Davis) in their small hometown to pursue his dreams in the big city with the promise that he'll send for her once he's established himself. His hard luck doesn't stop him from putting on airs -- expensive jewelry and notes of his business prowess make their way back to his girlfriend frequently while Harold can't afford to pay the rent or feed himself. From her perspective, he's clearly financially ready to establish a home with her, so she goes to surprise him, forcing Harold to construct an elaborate charade at his department store job and take on a risky stunt in hopes of a financial windfall.

The gags build in complexity and length as the film goes on, but some of the best are the early sight gags, bits of pure visual genius like Harold and his roommate hiding in their hung-up coats when the landlady comes calling or Harold sneaking into work late disguised as a mannequin. The frantic balancing act of later sequences -- Harold pretending to be store manager in his boss's office, the 12-story climb -- are perfectly paced examples of comedic tension. Safety Last! is one of the greats, and based on Criterion's presentation of it, we have a lot to look forward to as they continue to roll out their Lloyd titles.

The Blu-ray Disc
Presented in 1.37:1 and 1080i to account for its 22 frames per second frame rate, Safety Last! looks absolutely incredible, with a consistently tack-sharp image, perfect contrast levels, excellent grayscale representation and a healthy film-like appearance. The clarity here is just remarkable; this is certainly one of the greatest silent film Blu-ray transfers I've ever seen. There is some damage here and there, most noticeably in a couple instances of tiny vertical scratches during the last act, but this is a fantastic presentation.

Two audio options are included -- a 1989 Carl Davis score in uncompressed stereo or an organ score from the late 1960s in uncompressed mono.

Special Features
Criterion has gone all out for their first Lloyd title, gathering a hefty batch of new and previously available material. Critic Leonard Maltin and archivist Richard Correll team up for an audio commentary track that's carried over from the previous DVD edition, while Lloyd's granddaughter Suzanne introduces the film. A feature-length 1989 documentary Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius offers a comprehensive overview of his prolific career. Three short Lloyd films -- Take a Chance, Young Mr. Jazz and His Royal Slyness -- come presented in 1080p with optional commentaries from Correll and John Bengston. Bengston reappears in a fascinating featurette on the film's locations and practical effects along with effects expert Craig Barron. Carl Davis talks about the process of scoring Lloyd's films in a 20-minute interview. The package also includes a booklet with an essay by critic Ed Park.

The Bottom Line
This exceptional release of Safety Last! bodes well for the forthcoming Lloyd catalog from Criterion.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Pierre Etaix Blu-ray Review - The Criterion Collection

With the release of the Criterion Collection’s monumental box set of eight Pierre Etaix films (and Janus Films’ theatrical run that preceded it), there have been a number of pronouncements along the lines of “greatest comic filmmaker you’ve never heard of.” For the most part, this isn’t just cinephile posturing — chances are, you hadn’t heard of Etaix until recently, and even if you had, it’s unlikely you’d seen much of his work. Mostly unavailable since their initial releases due to legal disputes, the films in the small but formidable Etaix oeuvre represent a major rediscovery. There’s at least one stone-cold masterpiece in this collection.

Criterion’s two-disc Blu-ray set is nearly a complete collection of Etaix’s filmography (only a couple TV works are left out) — three shorts and five features. Etaix, who was an assistant director on Mon Oncle, surely owes a debt to Jacques Tati, and like Tati, Keaton and Chaplin, Etaix was a whole-hog auteur, writing, directing and starring in all his films. There are shades of Tati’s bemusement/cynicism with the modern world, Keaton’s persistent outsider status and Chaplin’s warm-hearted humanism here, but Etaix isn’t a second-tier imitator. Pulling on his experiences as a circus clown, Etaix made elegantly melancholy comedies that are often poignantly still when they’re not raucously funny.

The short films are a little more standard, but still expertly executed physical comedies. Rupture (1961) is a master-class in tiny comedy, as Etaix’s small gestures add up to a riot as he attempts to fire off a reply to the Dear John letter he just received. The Oscar-winning Happy Anniversary (1962) is a frantic series of pratfalls, as a beleaguered husband tries to make it home to his wife to celebrate, thoughtful errands turning into massive ordeals (and unwittingly disrupting the lives of bystanders everywhere). Feeling Good (1966) was originally part of portmanteau film As Long as You’ve Got Your Health, but was replaced by Etaix several years after release, and it’s an amusing satire of camping, even if its concentration camp imagery seems kind of heavy-handed.

The re-release version of As Long as You’ve Got Your Health (1966) is included here, and it’s the weakest of Etaix’s features simply by virtue of being so disjointed. Despite an homage to silent cinema and Méliés in its opening, the film’s four segments don’t cohere together, although all are enjoyable on their own merits. More interesting are Etaix’s three narrative features, The Suitor (1963), Yoyo (1965) and Le Grand Amour (1969), which all combine techniques of silent comedy and surrealism, framed by Etaix’s wry sense of humor.

The Suitor stars Etaix as a nebbish still living with his parents. Despite his romantic ineptitude, he snags a relationship with his brash next-door neighbor, only to realize he really would rather not see her. At the same time, he falls in love with a singer via the magic of television, and his obsessive personality finds a new target. Etaix skewers his protagonist’s fantasy life while simultaneously rendering us rapturous to it — the sequence when Etaix first sees Stella, the singer, on TV has a hypnotic quality that allows us to understand the character even as he remains generally unlikable.

Yoyo, the Fellini-esque crown jewel of the set and Etaix’s career, is marvelously funny and permeated with wistfulness. The film’s silent prologue (punctuated only by over-the-top foley effects) portrays a millionaire’s lonely existence in his chateau; constant sources of amusement can’t distract from the pain of losing the woman he loves. When the circus comes to town and she re-enters his life, she brings along their son, a tiny clown named Yoyo. Etaix stars as both the millionaire and later, Yoyo all grown up, now an extremely successful clown whose primary goal is restoring his father’s dilapidated chateau. As the years pass and Yoyo adapts (or tries to) to the changing entertainment landscape, the chateau remains his ultimate focus. Was it worth it? The film’s melancholy and absurd observations about family, career and love are fascinating, even if the film doesn’t provoke as many laughs as Etaix’s others.

No such problem with Le Grand Amour, a tale of temptation that’s much more than meets the eye, thanks to the way it plays with narrative convention. Etaix’s married man can’t help but feel dissatisfied with his wife; thoughts about past flames and his stunning new secretary conflate to stoke the restlessness. There are a few of the expected gags here (Etaix accidentally propositioning the wrong, much older secretary is stock material, but hysterical all the same), but Le Grand Amour is consistently surprising and possesses a mostly downbeat tone that sets this apart from your average sex farce.

Finishing out the set is a vastly different film, Land of Milk and Honey (1971), an experimental documentary that plays like an ironic version of Chronicle of a Summer. Etaix interviews French citizens on eroticism, violence, marriage, advertising and other societal topics, often cherry-picking obtuse responses or juxtaposing the interviews with incongruous footage for maximum ironic effect. Sometimes it feels like a bold experiment, and sometimes it feels like a restless comic genius just screwing around. Either way, it’s a nice inclusion.

All of the transfers in the set are sourced from the 2010 restorations, and the results are fantastic. Presented in 1080p high definition and 1.66:1 aspect ratios (aside from the two earlier shorts in 1.33:1), the films feature excellent sharpness, superb detail and a surprising lack of damage given the reportedly poor conditions the elements were stored under. The black-and-white films tend to look a little better, with a sharper image and consistent grayscale reproduction as opposed to the slightly faded, occasionally wavering color films, but overall, it all looks impressive. The uncompressed monaural soundtracks are just fine.

Extras include newly recorded introductions to each of the films by Etaix and an hourlong retrospective doc by Etaix’s wife, Odie. An extensive booklet features an essay by David Cairns.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Blu-ray Review: The Blob - The Criterion Collection

The Film
If you're into that sort of thing, The Blob is a likable low-budget creature feature with a ridiculous premise and an even more ridiculous conclusion. Made for just over $100,000 by primarily industrial filmmaker Irvin Yeaworth Jr., The Blob is a minor standout among films of its ilk simply by virtue of its technical competence, inventive practical effects and solid performances. The film has elements both tongue-in-cheek (Burt Bacharach's goofy title song might just be my favorite thing about the film) and serious (Steve McQueen, in his debut lead role, doesn't really wink at the audience), without ever tipping too far in either direction. This is light, fun drive-in entertainment, and it's lack of apparent striving for more is definitely appealing.

The film opens with McQueen's Steve Andrews and Aneta Corsaut's Jane Martin on a lovers' lane date, their tryst interrupted by a meteorite crash nearby. They look for the crash site, but an old man discovers it first, and the gelatinous, pulsing object he finds there has soon attached itself painfully to his arm. Steve and Jane happen upon the man and deliver him to the town's doctor, but the menacing blob with the huge appetite becomes far too much for any one person to contain.

As people begin disappearing and Steve tries to convince the local police force of the danger, his rantings are dismissed as a mere teenage prank. Eventually, the authorities become aware of the threat, but it might be too late to put a stop to the ever-growing blob.

Although popular culture's value of ironic enjoyment probably means most modern audiences would interpret The Blob as a campy riot, it's not really the kind of detritus that deserves a Mystery Science Theater-style smackdown (or requires one to even get through). Sure, it's a silly movie, and there are plenty of jokes you could make at its expense, but if one is going to enjoy The Blob at all, it ought to be on the film's own terms -- as a well-crafted if totally disposable piece of lite sci-fi/horror.

The Blu-ray Disc
The film may not be all that essential, but it gets a transfer worthy of a canonical film. Presented in 1080p high definition in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, The Blob looks fantastic throughout, with sharp, clean images, deep blacks and vibrant colors across the spectrum. Film grain is healthy and consistent, and though a few scenes have some softness around the edges, the elements are clearly in superb shape. One would hardly expect a film of this kind to have been preserved so well, but the evidence is up on the screen. The uncompressed monaural soundtrack isn't quite as impressive, with some distortion and inconsistent volume levels that likely are due to cheap recording equipment. Most everything is intelligible, but there's some straining to catch all the dialogue.

Special Features
Criterion carries everything over from their 2000 DVD release, save for the poster reproduction that came inside the DVD package. Two audio commentaries are the main extras -- one with producer Jack Harris and historian Bruce Eder and another with director Yeaworth and supporting player Robert Fields. A photo gallery of production stills and Blob memorabilia and the film's theatrical trailer are also included. The package includes an insert with an essay by Kim Newman.

The Bottom Line
Some people love The Blob. I can't get on board with the film's reputation as an essential cult item, but it's entertaining enough, and the amazing transfer here is sure to please fans of all enthusiasm levels.