Friday, May 13, 2011

InRO Feature: Home Movies - April (2011)

"Quality, not quantity. Home Movies comes to you a little late this month, but not without a flimsy excuse: distracted by my hometown festival in April, I saw plenty of movies, but none at home. Jordan Cronk picks up my slack, and together we offer reviews of nine Blu-rays (not a single DVD in here, people) with an unapologetic bias for must-have 1080p re-releases. Even though the most recent film in the bunch is from 1989, we nonetheless represent films from four decades, ending with a pair of Michelangelo Antonioni imports from Masters of Cinema. But the crown for the month, at least in our world, goes to the king of kings, Brian DePalma, for Criterion’s Blu-ray release of “Blow Out.” Kathie Smith [Feature by Jordan Cronk and Kathie Smith] [InRO]

(Note: For archiving purposes, I've included my personal contributions to this column below. Please follow the link provided above to read the entire feature.)

Blow Out [Criterion; Region A]

It’s rather fascinating to consider “Blow Out's” rise from the lull between Brian DePalma’s hugely popular “Dressed to Kill” and the unfortunately influential “Scarface.” Perhaps it’s simply an outgrowth of the film’s availability in the digital age, but “Blow Out's” ascent in stature has seemed to curiously coincide with the establishment of a new generation of cinephiles, those weaned on Tarantino and the like, but also those still hung up on the riches that ‘80s genre cinema apparently yielded on a yearly basis. In 2011, “Blow Out” is pretty widely considered DePalma’s masterpiece, and I’m certainly not going to contend with the claim (though “Carlito’s Way” is still a glorious coke-high of a film).

By any measure, the film is a master class in pure technique: carefully framed and exploited tension; hypnotic visual diopters and split-screen narrative doubling; and, above all, a sound mix as detailed and effective as any crafted during the era. Above the line, however, are a handful of great performances to sell DePalma’s blatant conflation of Hitchcock and Antonioni: Nancy Allen, Dennis Franz, and an extremely effective John Lithgow play off the inquisitive, controlled paranoia of John Travolta’s lead. Along with his work in “Saturday Night Fever” and his revival role in “Pulp Fiction” (not coincidentally, Tarantino has on many occasions named “Blow Out” amongst his favorite American films, which arguably helped spark a bit of reconsideration for the film in the first place), this is Travolta’s best performance, and certainly the most identifiable, natural role he ever embodied. As a sound-effects man who unwittingly uncovers evidence in a political assassination case, Travolta is all probing curiosity and everyman charm, and as his life careens towards the film’s climatic showdown amidst Philadelphia’s Liberty Day Parade and beneath a sky painted with patriotism, he offers a palpable humanity uncommon in a lot of DePalma’s best work.

Criterion has now debuted "Blow Out" on Blu-Ray, updating MGM’s old, barebones disc that offered little worthy of praise besides availability—and now rendered totally irrelevant in light of this outstanding new package. Criterion presents the film in a pristine, un-tampered with transfer, accentuating its natural grain while tightening contrast and more accurately rendering its color scheme. Beyond the film itself, the extras included should officially mark this as one of the year’s most essential purchases thus far. Of most interest to me personally—and to anyone remotely interested in the process, inspirations, and techniques behind the film—is the one-hour conversation between director Noah Baumbach (“Kicking and Screaming,” “The Squid and the Whale”) and DePalma, which touches on everything from casting to reception to Hitchcock. There are also lengthy and informative new interviews with Allen and cameraman Garrett Brown, a gallery of on-set photos shot during the film’s production, and the entirety of DePalma’s rare 1967 experimental feature “Murder à la Mod.” Rounding out the package is a beautifully collated booklet featuring a new essay by Michael Sragow, alongside Pauline Kael’s original review of the film. It’s an appropriately adorned release for a film that continues to gather the respect that eluded it back in the early ‘80s.

[Criterion; Region A]

DVD being only a little over a decade old at this point, it’s not uncommon for a film to still make its Region A digital debut. What’s very rare in 2011, however, is for a film to make its official bow on American home video, whether that be VHS, Laserdisc, DVD, or Blu-ray. That’s exactly how “Kes” arrives with this new Criterion edition of Ken Loach’s beloved 1969 debut. Previously only available on what is said to be a pretty inferior Region B import, “Kes” is quietly revelatory in its new incarnation on 1080p Blu-Ray. Set against a backdrop of working class Northern England, the film centers on a young boy disenchanted with school and sports and family, but who finds an unlikely connection with an indigenous kestrel which nests around the rain soaked landscapes of the boy’s hometown. Mixing a neo-realist aesthetic with coming of age dramatics pays emotional dividends for Loach, who captures moments of daily activity and intimate conversation with a documentarian’s flair. The film’s stark, foreboding horizons explode with familial and fraternal rage, and fifteen year-old David Bradley’s stunning performance as Billy grounds the dynamic at play between nature, society, and the inherent stress on the family unit. In the forty years since the release of “Kes,” Loach has carved out a solid, well respected career, but he arguably never topped his debut. Billy’s rite of passage from restless young boy to disillusioned-yet-ever-more-mature young man is as timeless a theme as the movies have given us, and “Kes” hums with a vibrancy undiminished by age or technical limitations.

Criterion’s Blu-ray smooths out more of these limitations than many probably thought possible, revealing a rich picture hidden within “Kes's” original film stock—what once looked muddy and dank now registers as natural and detailed. To be sure, “Kes” wears its rough hewn quality like a badge of honor, but colors now pop with renewed texture while contrast tightens dramatically. It’s enough to present the film in a manner that many may find akin to a completely fresh viewing. Supplements come appropriately supplied for such an acclaimed film only now arriving on our shores, with an in-depth 45-minute interview between Loach, Bradley, producer Tony Garnett, and cinematographer Chris Menges covering a majority of the film’s production. Loach is profiled elsewhere in a 1993 “Southbank Show” episode dedicated to the director, while the entirety of his 1966 television drama “Cathy Come Home” is included in an effort to contextualize this early period of Loach’s career. Film writer Graham Fuller also provides a 12-minute interview and an essay in the film’s 20-page booklet. There’s a good chance “Kes” remains one of the major discoveries of the year for many American viewers, and while the wait can hardly be justified in this day and age, Criterion have done right by Loach and his collaborators and presented the film to us in its definitive new form.

Le cercle rouge [Criterion; Region A]

While one hardly needs an excuse to revisit Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1970 crime masterpiece “Le cercle rouge,” Criterion have nonetheless provided a convenient opportunity to reevaluate the film’s place within the genre with their Blu-ray upgrade of a previous standard-definition DVD. A lot of what makes “Le cercle rouge” such a special film, particularly in light of where the genre has gone in the new millennium, is its uncommon patience and dedication to character development and procedure. Essentially a 140-minute heist film that gives a majority of its runtime over to conversation and strategizing, “Le cercle rouge” arrives at its centerpiece heist sequence coldly and methodically—and when it does arrive, it plays out in near total silence. By 1970, Melville was an established master of mood and tension, having crafted two of the finest films of the late ‘60s—the calculated hit man saga “Le samouraï” and the provocative French Resistance thriller “Army of Shadows”—but “Le cercle rouge” evidences a filmmaker at the height of his powers, utilizing every trick he’d picked up along the way in service of a sprawling, effortless display of technical proficiency and precise mise-en-scène. Melville’s camera rarely sits still, roaming around between his motley crew of characters—which include a hallucinating, alcoholic ex-cop, a cunning thief fresh out of prison, and an escaped con—as they move from locale to locale and set piece to set piece. It’s a grand, messy burst of inspiration—comparable in American crime cinema only to Peter Yates’s “Friends of Eddie Coyle”—from a director nearing the end of his career, who would never quite scale such heights again.

“Le cercle rouge” has been released in various editions over the years, and while I don’t own all of them to compare, based on screen captures provided by others, Criterion’s new Blu-ray looks to be the most authentic representation of the film yet—and that includes Studio Canal’s recent Region B Blu-ray. Skin tones are where you’ll see the biggest difference, and the Criterion’s appear much warmer and life-like atop the film’s dank, overcast backdrop. You also get a little more picture on all four sides of the frame compared to a lot of the other versions, and a thick, very ‘70s-like blanket of grain enveloping the picture, marking the new Criterion as (probably) the best rendering of the print currently available. Supplements are duplicated from the original DVD: lengthy video interviews with Rui Nogueria, author of “Melville On Melville,” and assistant director Bernard Stora; excerpts from a program titled "Cinéastes de notres temps: 'Jean-Pierre Melville;'" and original on-set interviews with Melville and his mostly male cast. There are also a couple of trailers, one for the film’s original release and one for the 2003 re-release, in addition to a booklet with excepts from the aforementioned “Melville On Melville,” essays by Michael Sragow and Chris Fujiwara, a transcribed interview with composer Eric Demarsan, and an appreciation by director John Woo. I don’t always fully endorse re-buying these Criterion Blu-rays for those who already own the original discs, but the transfer advances to such a nice degree here that it all but negates the previous edition. Regardless, this is a film you shouldn’t be without, and Criterion has been good enough to remind us of that fact once again.

El Topo / The Holy Mountain [Anchor Bay; Region A]

In their book on the cult film phenomenon, “Midnight Movies,” Jonathan Rosenbaum and J. Hoberman dedicate an entire chapter to director Alejandro Jodorowsky and his surrealistic, iconography-skewering opus “El Topo.” Hoberman eventually describes the film as “a spiritual initiation (if not a kind of Dionysian bloodbath), speaking at once to the counterculture’s love of the arcane and its collective paranoia.” This was in 1983, just thirteen years after the film had become one of the defining midnight movie attractions of its time. Twenty years on and I’m still not sure we have, as a people or an audience, caught up with “El Topo” or what Hoberman’s words essentially imply. In a sense, “El Topo,” is both visual representation and ideological encapsulation of an entire movement. It’s one of the boldest, most extreme outgrowths of the counterculture movement of the ‘60s, and a film Jodorowsky has more or less expanded on—both thematically and visually—in all his subsequent work. A western with a flair for the grotesque, “El Topo” follows the title character (played by Jodorowsky himself) on a spiritual journey across a scorched-earth landscape, upending and offending nearly every race, religion, and creed along the way. Remarkably, Jodorowsky would bring even more ambition (and even less tact) to his follow-up, “The Holy Mountain,” and while the film has a little more trouble sustaining momentum—partly due its more concentrated thematic purview—it’s arguably just as dedicated and brave a statement.

Both films arrive on Blu-ray from Anchor Bay in upgraded 1080p editions with the exact same features as their DVD counterparts. Image improves to a nice degree, though the picture can look unnaturally smooth in some cases. On the other hand, colors are rich and probably more accurate, and the 5.1 audio mix is impressively handled. As for the existing extras, the commentary tracks by Jodorowsky on both films are essential, and further proof this guy knew exactly what he was attempting to accomplish with every inflammatory image and accusatory conceit. Across the two discs (packaged and sold separately) you’ll find deleted scenes, a brief Jodorowsky interview, and his thoughts on tarot cards and superstitions in a quick video feature. Both films are cornerstones of the cult film canon, but sold separately may not be the best buy. I’m fairly certain Anchor Bay will get around the reissuing their “Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky” boxset in Blu-ray format in the near future—which also includes his debut film, “Fando y Lis,” along with the soundtrack to each—marking this as perhaps incentive enough to hold off for now. For many, however, “El Topo” will be all the Jodorowsky they need (or can handle), so your best bet is to proceed according to your enthusiasm for provocative, eye-searing imagery of the at once radical and ridiculous.

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