Tuesday, June 14, 2011

InRO Feature: Home Movies - May (2011)

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

"As with most months, May was bursting with Home Movie possibilities, and although we didn’t get to all of them, below is a beefy compendium of the touchstones that made their way onto DVD or Blu-ray this month. Kino International offers a survey of Italian icon Sophia Loren and mild-mannered documentarian Nicolas Philibert, and so do we. Cinema Guild releases José Luis Guerín’s under-the-radar effectual romance “In the City of Sylvia.” And Blue Underground delivers another Hi-def miracle with Dario Argento’s “Cat o’ Nine Tails.” But May Home Movies belongs to Criterion, as we obsess over five swoon-worthy Blu-rays of five diverse must-see films: “Solaris,” “Smiles of a Summer Night,” “Diabolique,” “Something Wild,” and our Pick of the Month, “Pale Flower.”" Kathie Smith [Feature by Jordan Cronk and Kathie Smith] [InRO]

Something Wild [Criterion; Region A]

A little over halfway through Jonathan Demme’s “Something Wild,” Ray Liotta comes out of left-field to transform this effortlessly charming road trip romance into a tense thriller with palpable implications weighing on each remaining line of E. Max Frye’s sharply written screenplay. It’s here, when Liotta has finally persuaded his estranged wife Audrey (Melanie Griffith) and her new faux-husband Charles Driggs (Jeff Daniels) to take a midnight drive through a small town suburb, that he nonchalantly comments about his vintage Cadillac: “They don’t make ‘em like this anymore.” I cringe at the inherent cliché of the sentiment, but the same could be said about “Something Wild” itself, Demme’s beloved 1988 romantic comedy, from a time when those two words together didn’t elicit flashbacks of bad Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Anniston flicks. Part road-movie, part off-kilter romance, part thriller, “Something Wild” found Demme juggling genres with the verve and energy only a young filmmaker could muster. And despite making some worthwhile pictures prior to this, Demme reveals in an accompanying interview on this new Blu-Ray that “Something Wild” was something like a first film for the now veteran director. To that end, he certainly decked out the fringes of his cast like he may never work again, corralling cameos by everyone from John Waters to Tracey Walter to John Sayles to reggae legend Sister Carol; and as far as band cameos in ‘80s films go, the Feelies serenading a high school reunion is right up there with Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds forecasting the apocalypse in “Wings of Desire.”

Criterion debut the film in high-def with their new Blu-Ray, and the results are simply outstanding. These are some of the most vibrant colors I’ve seen rendered digitally for a film from this era (and without glossing over the film grain in the process), with Tak Fujimoto’s cinematography translating in unaltered and pristine overall condition. Sound is especially key in “Something Wild” as well, and Criterion’s DTS-HD 2.0 stereo mix wonderfully handles all the film’s wide-ranging music, which includes contributions from David Byrne, X, Fine Young Cannibals, the aforementioned Feelies, Sister Carol, and a host of other left-field contributors. Supplements-wise, the disc is a little slim by Criterion standards; in addition to an always handsome booklet—here with an essay by critic David Thompson—the only other extras are two video interviews, one with Demme and one with E. Max Frye. Together they total about 45 minutes and are certainly informative, but nevertheless the cast is conspicuous by their absence. Still, this is one of the most impressive transfers of the year so far—I seriously doubt “Something Wild” will ever look better than it does now—and the film remains an excellent example of late-'80s studio filmmaking at its best.

Solaris [Criterion; Region A]

Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” is a lot of things to different people. For some, it’s a sci-fi head-trip, and for others, a tale of doomed romance; still for others, it's a spiritual and literary exegesis. That in actuality it's all this and so much more speaks to its status as one of the elite masterpieces of modern cinema—in context of Tarkovsky’s own catalogue, I’d place it only behind 1979’s “Stalker.” Critics and audiences have been attempting to decode the film's many secrets and implications for decades now, and with Tarkovsky’s stated goal of creating a sci-fi epic in opposition to Stanley Kubrick’s cold, methodical masterpiece “2001: A Space Odyssey,” making interpretation that much more ambiguous, it’ll likely be many more until we’ve even begun to reconcile Tarkovsky’s conflation of the cerebral, spiritual, and emotional. The film’s elliptical, dreamlike structure opens up recesses in the mind of its protagonist, psychologist Kris Kelvin, who's sent to the Solaris space station to investigate curious phenomena aboard the ship and amongst its crew. From here, characters quickly fold in on themselves, in some cases materializing in accordance with a nearby planet which may or may not hold the key to the suffering inflicted on the Solaris crew, while Kelvin himself suddenly finds ramifications of his past and present disrupting his consciousness and shaping an uncertain future.

“Solaris” has been in the Criterion Collection for a while now (spine #164, to be exact), and despite having a pretty solid transfer the first time around, it was probably due for an upgrade. Skin tones on the new Blu-ray are noticeably more accurate and the picture is sharp while maintaining the same basic color palette. The one notable exception is the black-and-white sequences, which on previous DVD editions had carried a light blue tint to them. In an effort to confirm the intended look, Criterion contacted director of photographer Vadim Yusov, who did indeed shoot these sequences in traditional black-and-white. This problem has been corrected for the Blu-ray, rendering the film in the most accurate transfer yet for home video. Also new for this edition is the artwork, marking one of the few times the design of a Criterion package has changed during a DVD-to-Blu-Ray upgrade (never mind that I personally prefer the old artwork). Other than that, supplements remain the same, which is to say, excellent. Now all on one disc, we have the in-depth commentary track by authors Vida Johnson and Graham Petrie, video interviews with Yusov, star Natalya Bondarchuk, art director Mikhail Romadin, and composer Eduard Artemyev, and the excerpt of a documentary on author Stanislaw Lem. Rounding out the package is Phillipe Lopate’s essay on the film, which remains the centerpiece of the accompanying booklet, alongside director Akira Kurosawa’s short appreciation of the film. With the transfer of “Solaris” now existing in its most accurate and pristine condition and Criterion putting noticeable effort into all aspects of this reissue, here’s a Blu-ray upgrade certainly worth the double dip for those so inclined. Either way, this should be a cornerstone of any self-respecting cinephile’s digital library.

Smiles of a Summer Night [Criterion; Region A]

As the story goes, Ingmar Bergman, fed up with dwindling box office in his native Sweden, a general apathy from American critics and audiences, and a crippling bout of depression, holed up and wrote one of the great erotic comedies of mid-century world arthouse cinema. The resulting “Smiles of a Summer Night” would go on to put Bergman on the international map, though it remains something of an anomaly amidst his undisputed classics, with its lightness of tone and freewheeling humor bearing little in common with such gutting masterpieces as “The Seventh Seal,” “Wild Strawberries,” “Cries and Whispers,” and “Scenes from a Marriage.” Still, Bergman’s eye for detail was already precisely acute, the film’s elaborate mise-en-scène reflecting his character’s inner plights, as four couples juggle partners over a weekend stay in a country estate. Of course, this being a Bergman “comedy” and all, there's still time set aside for a botched suicide attempt and a game of Russian roulette that moves from tense to hilarious over the course of a few swigs of vodka. Despite leaving behind such unguarded humor in his proceeding work, the film would prove highly influential, bearing marks on filmmakers as disparate as Bertrand Tavernier and Woody Allen (check the latter’s blatantly reverential “A Midnight Summer’s Sex Comedy” for perhaps the most obvious example).

Criterion’s new Blu-Ray is an upgrade of the already rather impressive standard DVD from 2004. The 1080p transfer advances subtly in most of the areas we’ve come to expect, with contrast appearing more balanced and the overall picture sharpening up a degree. Extras are duplicated from the original issue, and include a quick intro to the film by Bergman himself, and a 15 minute video conversation between Bergman scholar Peter Cowie and Jörn Donner, executive producer of “Fanny and Alexander.” The booklet is also identical, though the essay by John Simon is still one of the single best pieces of criticism on the film that I’ve read, while Pauline Kael’s original review—in which she calls the film a “nearly perfect work”—is also essential reading. Bergman would go on to make more thematically and aesthetically ambitious films, but “Smiles of a Summer Night” remains one of his most re-watchable, endlessly entertaining works, and this new Blu-Ray, despite not necessarily being worth the upgrade if you already own the original DVD, is now the best edition available for those interested in discovering the film for the first time.

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