Monday, December 31, 2012

PURPLE NOON (Blu-Ray) - #637

"Your genius lies within..."

For what is basically a crime thriller with a very average plot, Purple Noon (Plein soleil) is a film that happens almost entirely on the interior. Though René Clément's 1960 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's novel The Talented Mr. Ripley has plenty of action--there are two murders and a meticulous flight from justice--all the important stuff happens behind Alain Delon's piercing blue eyes.

Delon stars as Tom Ripley. He was the first, ahead of Dennis Hopper, Matt Damon, and John Malkovich. He is arguably the best, at least for the iteration of the character this early in his criminal career, an empty vessel waiting to be filled, a chameleon looking for a new color palette to imitate. Delon plays the con man with a near absence of personality, alternating between a cold blankness and an almost childish petulance. For the early part of the film, when he carouses with his target, Philippe Greenleaf  (Maurice Ronet, The Fire Within [review]), they act like hormonal teenagers, giggling and pulling pranks and making nuisances of themselves. The seemingly homoerotic link between them is more predatory than sexual. Tom is already shadowing Philippe, sticking close to gather inspiration, his gaze recording information to mimic. To the unknowing eye, it looks like male one-upsmanship at its worst. When the pair pick up a tourist out on the town (played by Viviane Chantel), they paw her from both sides, hoping to secure her attention.

The caginess of Ripley's technique only becomes evident when cornered. Philippe confronts him, knowing the mooch is up to something, having seen Tom mimicking him in the mirror and finding his bank statements in Tom's things. Tom doesn't deny it. Instead, with a steely resolve, he tells Philippe what his plan is. Philippe is the perfect victim. He is perversely intrigued by the whole thing, and also so self-absorbed, he believes Tom would never do it. He's the invincible Greenleaf!

It's an odd twist I had never really considered before. Clément gives us an entirely unsympathetic murder victim, so that no one is sorry to see Philippe go. Ronet plays him as a bully. It's all there in the script by Clément and Paul Gégauff. Though Purple Noon is refreshingly lacking in psychobabble and explanations, that doesn't mean it's lacking in psychology. Philippe is the classic abusive boyfriend, lashing out at his fiancée and then immediately apologizing. Marge is played by Marie Laforét, and though she fights back, she always relents. No writer can watch Philippe toss her handwritten manuscript in the ocean and believe that she would ever take him back. And yet there she is. For his part, Tom lets Philippe be cruel to him because it's the rich kid's one true talent. Observing how he does it is essential.

Tom working his way up to kill Philippe makes up the first third of Purple Noon. The second third is his adopting Philippe's identity, forging documents and laying an elaborate trail that both establishes a new life and keeps shaking everyone else off the scent. The last third follows another murder, an unplanned slaying to keep from having the truth exposed. To cover that crime, Tom must kill Philippe again, making it appear that the killer has fled from justice and has committed suicide out of fear and guilt. This ends up being Tom's most masterful move, however: the new opportunity opens up the vault. He can take everything of Philippe's now, not just what he had on him in travel, but his full fortune...and also his romance.

In Purple Noon's creepiest scene, we learn that this is perhaps what Tom wanted all along. The ultimate theft, the ultimate assumption of roles: he will take Philippe's place with Marge. Here, the abusive triggers work to aid him. He whispers to Marge in her sleep, imitating the man she thinks she's lost, only to have her see the truth on awakening. Yet, this is the hidden key. Just as sure as the metal key in the cubbyhole by the door is how he got into her bedroom, this ruse will let him sneak into her affections. The delivery of harsh news, that Philippe never loved her, shows he can be as callous as she's used to, and then he provides her the comfort she seeks, mimicking the familiar pattern. Philippe never loved her, but Tom always has. Get the girl, get all the money, step into the dead man's shoes. A woman finally chooses him over Philippe, the tourist looks his way at last.

René Clément hasn't so much created a suspense thriller here or a whodunit as he has a "how will he do it." Ripley's success is, for the most part, a foregone conclusion, so we're intrigued to watch him lay out his pieces and then follow along as others, including a sharp police inspector (Erno Crisa), figure out where they all fit. Purple Noon is as colorful as a Hitchcock picture, but its view of mankind is as dark and cynical as a film noir. Clément has created something in between. Henri Decaë's lush color photography provides a bridge from the black-and-white of yesteryear (he shot more traditional French noirs like Elevator to the Gallows and Bob le flambeur) and the redefining of genre that was just around the corner (Le samourai and Le cercle rouge [review], both for director Jean-Pierre Melville, and both featuring Alain Delon). He uses primarily solid colors here, the Technicolor equivalent of light and shadow, creating shapes and angles. The most flamboyant use of patterns are on shirts that give Ripley away. The striped coat that Philippe catches him wearing becomes his disguise in his final gambit. On the flipside, a solid white shirt with Philippe's initials are what tips off their friend Freddy (Bull Kearns) to Ripley's scheme and leads to the second homicide. It's an omen Ripley doesn't pick up on: there's no coverage behind a blank canvas, you will be seen.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

HEAVEN'S GATE (Blu-Ray) - #636

As John Ford so often demonstrated (and as Ford-hater Quentin Tarantino barely took advantage of in the sometimes-cramped Django Unchained [review]*), the western is the ideal vehicle for widescreen motion-picture filmmaking. The vast, open spaces of the American frontier (or, if you're Sergio Leone, Italy and Spain), show us how large a movie screen really can be--and the movie screen in turn teaches us a little something about the size of our world. This is something Michael Cimino learned from Ford, and something he puts to great use in his late-70s western Heaven's Gate, a film where everything is massive, where going small is never an option. Even in the most intimate moments, the frame turns lovers into giants. Isabelle Huppert is here to kiss you puny humans to death.

Most importantly, perhaps, and what maybe separates Ford and Cimino from some of the rest, is this vision is of an idealized America, a belief that these vistas represent everything the country could be, and the nostalgic glow that they seek when they photograph the mountains and the blue sky provides a kind of warmth, soothing the sadness they feel at all the ways we have gone wrong, all the bad we have done in the service to the democratic experiment. The melting pot requires a certain amount of fire, alas.

Heaven's Gate, fittingly, is a movie about an idealist made by an idealist, and both lose control of their situation, ground beneath a machine that is larger than they ever imagined, and yet tragically heroic for doing so. At least unlike his fictional avatar, the rich-boy sheriff James Averill (Kris Kristofferson), Cimino has found some vindication. Though vilified on its release, and mostly for its budgetary excess to the exclusion of its storytelling success, Heaven's Gate has increasingly found new life and new audiences. Having never seen it prior to this Criterion release, I am now in awe of it. It's a phenomenal, audacious masterpiece.

For the plot-minded amongst us, the bulk of Heaven's Gate is set in Wyoming in 1890. (There are also bookends on the story, of Averill graduating Harvard as a young man in 1870, and of the old man reflecting in a brief epilogue set in the early 1900s.) Averill, we quickly learn, is a man who puts his mouth ahead of his money, a true do-gooder who dislikes injustice and human indecency. He promotes fair play where he can, and wearily accepts when the scales are tipped against the little guy. Those scales, he discovers, are soon to take on more weight than they can bear. The wealthy industrialists in his state, a group that previously blackballed Averill for failing to take a hard stance against the lower classes, have shored up their power and are preparing to patch what they perceive to be a hole in the law. Wyoming has become a home for European immigrants, many of whom find the land harder to work than they anticipated--due in no small part to the prejudice that awaits them from "real" Americans. According to the rich men, and at least based partially in fact, some of these immigrants resort to stealing their cattle when times get desperate. Up until now, the courts have done little to prosecute these "thieves and anarchists," but thanks to the efforts of one Frank Canton (Law & Order's Sam Waterston), they now have a bureaucratically approved kill list. 125 men and women in Averill's county have been marked for death for alleged crimes. Canton and his cohorts are hiring men at $5 a day, and $50 for each dead immigrant they deliver, to wipe these people out. As Averill notes, that's nearly everyone in the whole damn town where most of these farmers have set up shop.

And so it is that Averill returns to his township with a heavy heart, unsure if he can stem the tide that is coming. The town itself, named Sweetwater, is muddy and in progress, a microcosm of the U.S. Beyond its dirty streets is the perfect blue sky, the snow-capped peaks, the lush land that will sustain them all if everyone would just share. At the center of the town is the dancehall/skating rink, Heaven's Gate, surely named such as a gesture of hope, if not just for the earthly pleasures it promises. It will be a name that will take on a deadly irony, however, as it becomes where the townsfolk huddle in fear and anger to learn their seemingly inescapable fate.

Amidst this expansive drama there is, of course, a more personal story. For all his gruff ways, Averill is a lover. (Indeed, his last name is a variation on Aphrodite, goddess of love. Heaven's Gate is a movie where the names of its heroes have meaning.) The sheriff has a rather sweet romance with the French madame at the local whorehouse. Ella Watson, played by a young Isabelle Huppert, is the kind of frontier gal who has learned to take care of herself, who runs her own business, and runs it well. For all intents and purposes, she is on her own, but no one wants to be alone forever, and so she hopes Averill will one day step up and offer her something different. If not, the lawman has a rival. Ella is also having an affair, though one of a different stripe, with Nathan D. Champion (Christopher Walken), a dapper gunslinger who works as foreman for the secret association, but who is also conflicted about their goals. Champion is the embodiment of the American Dream, a man who has come from nothing and who is trying to make something. He resents Averill for his money (the sheriff, some argue, is engaging in an early form of ghetto tourism), and fantasizes about being his equal. His proposal to Ella is to tell her he has enough income to cover them both. And to prove such things are possible, Champion takes her to his shack to show her his wallpaper, a sad and endearing symbol of how out of his element he really is. It's not the kind of decoration we would expect; rather, he has merely covered his walls in newspaper. He's done a nice job with it, but no cigar.

And so this love triangle will play out as the bigger story comes to a boil, with Ella caught between the two men, and the two men needing to learn that just as they love the same women, they believe in the same things. They can't keep up the tug-of-war without tearing everything in two. This becomes an undeniable fact when it is discovered that Ella is on the kill list because she has accepted cattle as trade for her wares, some of which is most assuredly stolen, at least according to the propaganda. There are no hard facts about how rampant this "immigrant problem" is, how many are the thieves and anarchists that Frank Canton keeps harping on. The idea that anyone would forego feeding their family and steal a cow to get laid is, of course, reprehensible; yet, for all we know, it's little more than fear mongering. They're coming for your food and your women! Fox News via pony express!

The narrative of Heaven's Gate, which was written as an original screenplay by Michael Cimino (remember original screenplays?), is grandiose in scope, full of characters and character alike, not unlike a great Russian novel. It is sweeping and human, giving its different participants their moment in the spotlight, allowing for digressions into real life even when it may not obviously serve the plot. Scenes run long, conversations are allowed their natural course. There are two different dance sequences, the waltzing at Harvard (which breaks out into a brawl) and the roller-skating linedance at Heaven's Gate (which breaks into a two-person slow dance for Averill and Ella), both shot as a constant wave of movement by the brilliant Vilmos Zsigmond, dizzying and yet locked down. The dancers keep spinning, but the movie screen maintains its own keel. The sea may be rocking, but the ship will never go under.

Which is maybe what critics and audiences failed to see when Heaven's Gate was first released. They had lost sight of the forest, too concerned with what money was falling from its trees. Does Michael Cimino go overboard? Maybe. But it's only in pursuit of authentic expression. Tolstoy could build bustling crowds and the activity of a city life with words; Peter Jackson can pull an army of orcs out of his digital ass; but Cimino had to make 19th-century Wyoming come to life using flesh and wood. He had to show the human traffic by gathering the numbers together, show where they traveled by building the towns. Once the map was drawn and the sets erected, the mythology had to be lived. In one memorable scene, the first time we really see Champion and Averill talk, the younger man visits the sheriff at the bar where he lives and where he's having his breakfast. (The sibling establishment to Heaven's Gate, both owned by John H. Bridges, and portrayed by Jeff Bridges, who appears so lost in the role, it's almost savant-like the way he plays it.) As they speak, our eye is drawn to the window behind Kristofferson, and the man outside, a juggler, who, via optical illusion, appears to be standing on the actor's shoulder. Is it necessary? Not really. But it does add something to the moment, providing a visual metaphor for the dangerous game Averill is playing. As constable, he is intended to serve all sides, but eventually, he either has to walk away from it all or accept something is likely to drop.

I'm a defender of movies of length. It's a fallacy to say that movies should always be somewhere between 90 minutes and two hours. It's an artificial number concocted by theater owners to maximize the number of showings, to sell the most tickets in a day. Other media have suffered similar fates. Prose fiction and comic books are a certain number of words or pages due to cost of paper and shipping; long-player records famously got longer when CDs were invented because compact discs could hold more music. While artists in all of these fields learned to cope with these restraints, and make an art out of how to meet the economic demands, that does not vindicate the idea that such restrictions are somehow inherent in this mode of expression. Heaven's Gate runs over three-and-a-half hours. There is something refreshing about watching a movie like Heaven's Gate--or, indeed, Bertolucci's 1900 [review] or Leone's Once Upon a Time in America or more recently Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford [review], which tellingly are all examples of stories about eras ending and centuries turning--where the scenes are not trimmed to fit, where the dialogue is not manicured to move everything forward**. You can have five minutes of two people talking as people are wont to do, can step back and enjoy the dance, can walk the streets of the town and see the sights. Heaven's Gate is the movie equivalent of a semester abroad. You really live there for a suitable length of time and truly experience the culture; by comparison, most other movies are just two-week package tours.

For as much as Heaven's Gate maybe went from a well-planned cattle drive to an out-of-control stampede during shooting, I don't think that shows on the screen. Or if it does, only when it counts. The film's climax, its true one, not counting the subsequent stinger and the epilogue, is pure chaos. In both of its battle sequences, Cimino unmoors the whole thing and lets the herd run wild. It's impossible to tell who is shooting whom, and where one side has drawn its line and where the other is in relation to it. The pointlessness and confusion is by design, it erases any notion of clear victory, of well-defined winners and losers. And even if it wasn't, even if the auteur had lost control and had to spend time revising, reworking, reimagining--well, this takes us back to novelists again. No one would blink if Steinbeck went beyond his allotted schedule, if his word count exceeded expectations. Not when it meant getting East of Eden.

And so busted budgets and extra cans of film are also worth it when the result is Heaven's Gate. It's an engrossing movie event, deserving of all the time it demands, deserving of you opening your mind wide to accept it.

* Having only seen Django Unchained once, and not really considering how much of the landscape Tarantino does or does not use until now, I concede in advance that my memory could be playing tricks.

** Back to Tarantino, this is also something he does incredibly well, particularly in how he writes conversational sequences.

Please note: The images used here were taken from promotional materials and other sources, not directly from the Blu-Ray.

Saturday, December 22, 2012


"Shadows, darkness, and confusion..."

I'm halfway tempted to forego writing a review of Alexander Korda's 1936 biography of Rembrandt and instead cut and paste my review of Bent Hamer's Charles Bukowski biopic Factotum [second review]. In Korda's hands, and as performed by Charles Laughton, the 17th-century Dutch painter is not dissimilar to the 20th-century poet. Both were passionate men with particular appetites, ahead of their time and underappreciated during it, and often too realistic in their manner of relating the seedier aspects of human existence. Laughton's Rembrandt is a bit of a bad boy, railing against authority, iconoclastic, an artist in every sense of the word.

Rembrandt is the last movie in the Eclipse box Alexander Korda's Private Lives, and it's a good note to close on. It manages the right balance of seriousness and irreverence, building a convincing facsimile of history while also managing to allow for personality. The devil is in the details, to be sure, but Rembrandt is himself a devil, and there lies the joy of this picture.

Carl Zuckmayer and June Head's script opens with a personal and professional failure. Though revered for his skills, Rembrandt has been avoiding taking paid commissions, preferring instead to paint his wife Saskia. The Civic Guard, a governing body of soldiers and politicians, ply Rembrandt with drink, money, and flattery, and so he takes on the job of a group portrait. It's ill timed, however; Saskia succumbs to a long-term illness. Worse, the painter's efforts to show the men as they are only brings disdain. The big commission--the now revered painting The Night Watch--is a failure.

Fast forward several years, and Rembrandt is struggling. His home is now run by his opportunist housekeeper (Gertrude Lawrence), and his wife's final will ties up most of the family money with their son (John Bryning). Rembrandt feels lost, and only a visit to the farm where he grew up and a new romance with Hendrickje (Elsa Lanchester), a young maid who believes in him, revives his lust for life. The rest of Rembrandt shows their struggles, another rise and fall, ending with a final act that illustrates the despair of a wayward artistic life.

The movie becomes a bit of a bummer in that last 15 minutes, but given the undulating pattern of Rembrandt's life, it makes sense. He was a man who loved deeply and who didn't recover from loss easily. Laughton digs into the role with his expected vigor, rendering both the artist's outgoing highs and his introspective shallows with equal insight. The actor had a special skill for understanding oversized personalities, and the extremes that came with them. The summation of the painter's life in the last scenes could have had a mawkish gravitas if portrayed by a lesser performer; Laughton carries the weight with ease.

Korda's direction has certainly grown more confident since The Private Lives of Henry VIII [review], and he and Laughton have a clear rapport. They know how to work a scene together, when the actor needs to really go for it, and when he should hang back. There are lots of memorable scenes in Rembrandt--the dark pallor that hangs over his conflict with the Civic Guard, the tensely funny barroom brawl with the peasants in the artist's hometown, the sweet courtship of Hendrickje--scenes that fuse performance with material in a way that only cinema can. As per usual, the sets by Vincent Korda, who of course had Rembrandt's paintings to use as inspiration, create an essential component of the film, establishing an authentic world for the rest of the crew to lose themselves in. This makes Rembrandt the best of the historical pictures represented in Alexander Korda's Private Lives, in addition to being the last. It's a big finish in every sense of the phrase.

Friday, December 21, 2012

FOLLOWING (Blu-Ray) - #638

An unnamed "young man" sits in front of a police officer and tells his story. It's a knotted tale, one that jumps through time, features inconsistencies, and arguably, from a narrative standpoint, if he really is a first-person narrator, includes scenes he couldn't possibly be privy to, not without toppling the house of cards he doesn't realize he's trapped in. But for the sake of this review, we'll pretend I'm not a stickler for such things. Plus, I basically liked Following, Christopher Nolan's 1999 debut, so why get hung up on its main cheat?

The accused (played by Jeremy Theobald) is an unemployed would-be writer who has a hobby: he picks random people in a crowd and follows them to see where they go and what they do. Though he begins this practice by establishing a rigorous routine--namely, you only follow someone once, and then you move on--after a while, he begins to repeat certain targets. One of these repeat customers, a well-dressed gentleman named Cobb (Alex Haw), notices he is being tailed and introduces himself in a diner. Turns out, Cobb's a petty thief, and like his shadow, he has his own unique way of doing things. Cobb takes the guy along and shows him the routine. He likes his burglaries to be an interruption in the life of the victim. He takes things he can carry, like compact discs, but his main goal isn't profit, but rather to make the burglarized realize they have been messed with. He likes to up-end their personal items, to spread them around, to shake the flat owner's sense of security.

As we witness this training scenario, Nolan--who wrote, edited, and shot Following, in addition to directing--gives us glimpses of the future before the young man got pinched. He got involved with a woman (Lucy Russell) that he and Cobb robbed, and starts to be sucked into her world. She is a former gangster's moll who has reason to fear her ex. At some point, the young man also got beat up, and the reason why is part of the mystery.

Anyone who is familiar with Nolan's non-Batman films, such as Memento and Inception [review], know that the director has a penchant for jumbled narratives that bend back on themselves and keep the audience guessing all the way through the movie. Following is the early blueprint for this technique, and so digging too far into the plot will only serve to unravel it for the first-time viewer. At the same time, there's also not much here to unravel. The plot, when presented on its face, is not all that complicated (though if you get confused, I guess you can watch the version put in the correct chronological order that's included on this Blu-Ray). One or two cards are held to the vest up until the very end, but Nolan isn't pulling that big of a sleight of hand. The truth behind much of the scheme is exposed about mid-way through.

In all honesty, Following has really benefitted from what the director has gone on to do next. In many ways, it is not unlike Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket [review], Paul Thomas Anderson's Hard Eight, or particularly Darren Aronofsky's Pi in that it is quite literally a low-budget test, a warm-up of all that is to come. Regardless of your particular affection for any of these films, they are all the least interesting of the individual auteur's oeuvre. Following is an entertaining crime yarn, and Nolan squeezes every penny out of his meager budget, but were this not a movie by the director of The Dark Knight [review] or The Prestige [review], there's a good chance none of us would be talking about it right now. To call the characters underdeveloped would be an understatement. Even for an exercise in genre such as this, where a writer can get away with just showing types, these guy are particularly flat, doing little more than servicing the concept (which is good enough to make this cinematic caper come off, regardless). There also aren't enough pieces here where I think repeat viewings will reveal all that much more than you might have gotten the first time. If one were to do an infographic illustrating the plot, it would probably be one-tenth of one percent of the size of Inception's.

That said, for the undistinguished kid brother of the Nolan filmography, Following gets the full red carpet treatment from Criterion. The high-def transfer looks amazing. I really dig seeing black-and-white films on Blu-Ray, and Following's gritty cinematography looks even grittier in 1080p. Fans of Nolan (of which I consider myself one) will also appreciate the inclusion of his short college film, Doodlebug, made two years before the main feature and also starring Theobald. Though a scant three minutes long, it's a well-executed concept, simple and to the point, with a clever punch line.

Please note: The images used here were taken from promotional materials and other sources, not directly from the Blu-Ray.

Sunday, December 16, 2012


I am jumping into Criterion's Paul Robeson boxed set in the middle, so I am having to play some catch-up in terms of context. My inspiration for beginning with 1935's Sanders of the River is my still-in-progress review of The Private Lives of Alexander Korda and my current interest in the Korda brothers in general. Sanders of the River was directed by Zoltan Korda, who also helmed The Four Feathers [review] and The Jungle Book [review], and it fits in with the director's seeming fascination with stories set in Africa.

As an actor, Paul Robeson is best known for the James Whale version of Show Boat, a film that was to follow a year after Sanders of the River. By 1935, he had already made several films, including The Emperor Jones, but his reputation had largely been made on the boards. In fact, he originated his Show Boat role on the London stage, and according to the liner notes, a large reason why the performer made this film with the Kordas was that England afforded him more opportunity than America. Robeson, whose efforts as an activist now overshadow his career as an actor (though it's clear the point of Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist is to show how both vocations are inextricably linked; this particular disc is classified as the "Pioneer" phase), wanted to avoid the kind of cliche manservant roles that Hollywood was likely to exile him to. Sanders of the River, then, is a fascinating and somewhat perplexing notch on his belt, partially achieving Robeson's goal, if imperfectly so. Sanders of the River offers a complicated view of British colonialism, one that partially validates the rightful, albeit dubious, might of imperial law.

Surprisingly, Sanders is not Robeson's character, but is instead a British commissioner overseeing Nigeria (and played by Leslie Banks). Paul Robeson plays Bosambo, a one-time criminal and opportunist who presents himself as a leader of the Ochori people when the "Old King" from a neighboring tribe (portrayed by Tony Wane) makes aggressive moves on the Ochori. Despite seeing through Bosambo's ruse, the fair-minded Sanders takes the opportunity himself, assigning temporary rule to his new ally. If Bosambo keeps the peace and becomes the eyes and ears of the Empire, he can keep his position. Bosambo takes to this well, only losing ground when Sanders leaves his post and the territory in the hands of another. Without the respected leader in place, a devious British official sees the opportunity to make a profit by stirring up old rivalries. Though this inspires Bosambo to take his kingly duties seriously and shed his vainglorious desires, only Sanders' return can restore order--and only an even more timely arrival can save Bosambo's skin.

Quite literally, as it turns out. The Old King wants Bosambo's flesh to cover a drum, the tenth of its kind, his preferred punishment of his enemies. I am not expert on the truth about Nigeian customs or African tribalism, so despite the expected doubts I may have in Sanders of the River's depiction of the nation's people, I really have little reason to question Zoltan Korda's motives or successes here. The Nigerians aren't portrayed as mere savages, but as a people whose rituals and history are simultaneously relevant to their existence and anachronistic next to modern Western points of view. It would be easier to see Sanders as less than sincere if white men were only portrayed as conquering heroes, but the betrayal of other Brits puts them on equal footing with the bloodthirsty king. Plus, Korda's interest in African traditions led him to include documentary footage in the film, photographing several actual tribes dancing and singing according to their custom. (Also, Korda splices in a fair amount of footage of the local wildlife.) These scenes would seem like unnecessary detours if not for the fact that Sanders of the River was obviously designed as a vehicle for Robeson and his powerful voice, so the movie is as much a musical as it is an adventure picture. Robeson unleashes his baritone on several songs included in the movie, ranging from a rallying war cry to a somewhat distasteful heroic ballad about Sanders (the conquered praising the conqueror). There is also a very Western-sounding lullaby performed by another musical mainstay, the actress Nina Mae McKinney, in her role as Lilongo, Bosambo's headstrong wife.

Lilongo is another interesting character in that she is a kind of precursor to the take-no-guff cliché that has become a prevalent type in Hollywood portrayals of African American woman. The big man, and big personality, crumbles under her scorn. Her sass is not the only aspect of her or her relationship with Bosambo that comes off like it was beamed in from another time. While I hate to use the term "civilized," their marriage doesn't quite jibe with the "jungle" stereotype. For however else one might scratch his or her chin about Korda's politics, there is no denying that his direction is progressive in how he allows for Robeson's natural masculinity to come through. It was not even remotely common for a black actor to be a potent sexual presence in a positive way in movies until probably the 1970s. yet here Paul Robeson is allowed to be very much a man. The scene in which he first meets Lilongo and they enjoy their initial flirtation is not staged like some kind of backwoods courtship; rather, they approach each other with a hunger that was even lacking in most white motion pictures of the time. They display their desires and verbally maneuver around one another as if they were in a New York bar rather than an African village. Sanders of the River surely raised many a pale eyebrow in 1935.

In a way, this makes the final scenes of the white-man-as-savior forgivable. There was likely only so much Korda could get away with, there had to be some compromise. Plus, if you remove the colonial aspects of the story, then Sanders of the River is really a film about a white man and a black man getting along, and of the black man actually gaining real power within a society that otherwise would not allow it. Sure, it's still a position where he is only in charge of people of the same race and still answerable to white governance, but it doesn't come across as either a token hand-out or a reward that comes as a trade-off for dignity.

Which ends up explaining why Robeson would have been drawn to Sanders of the River. Scrolling through the actor's filmography, I don't think I've seen any of his other movies, which appear to be a mixture of politically minded films and straight musicals. In another era, Robeson would have been a much bigger cinema star. He is naturally charismatic in front of the camera, a comfortable yet forceful presence on the screen. Bosambo gives him plenty of opportunity to show his range. He is at turns cagey and clever, confident and seductive, a husband and a father, and also a righteous warrior. In other words, it's a multi-faceted part, the kind that only white actors were really getting at the time. He is a real person rather than a racial caricature. Sanders of the River may suffer from some rickety technique when it comes to filmmaking (particularly in battle sequences), but it definitely pushes the boundaries in terms of script.

1937's Jericho is a far more straightforward--and, were it starring a white actor, I'd say traditional--vehicle for Paul Robeson. Directed by Thornton Freeland (Flying Down to Rio, Over the Moon), Jericho stars the actor as Corporal Jericho "Jerry" Jackson, an NCO in an African-American regimen in WWI. When Jericho's ship is attacked by the Germans en route to the front, he goes to heroic measures to rescue his fellow soldiers. Unfortunately, a meddling sergeant (Rufus Fennell) gets in the way, and Jericho accidentally kills him when pushing him aside. Jericho is charged with striking an officer and defying orders and sentenced to death. When an opportunity presents itself, Jericho flees this unjust punishment, unknowingly condemning his one ally, a white officer, Captain Mack (Henry Wilcoxon). While Jericho begins a new life in Africa, becoming a chief and organizing an alliance amongst neighboring tribes, Mack spends the rest of the Great War in the brig.

Once again, there is some upending to the usual race dynamic. When on the run, Jericho teams with another deserter, an America flim-flam man named Clancy (Wallace Ford). Jericho quickly becomes the head of this new partnership, and the further they travel into the desert, the more Clancy becomes his fast-talking functionary. This was not the normal relationship dynamic between a black man and a white man in Hollywood movies at the time. Ford is Robeson's sidekick. He is the comic relief, and he is also expendable. Robeson is likewise given the romantic subplot. As in Sanders of the River, he meets a beautiful African woman and marries her (she is played by the one-named Egyptian actress Kouka).

Jericho is a fairly solid B-picture. It could just as easily have starred Humphrey Bogart (whom Freeland directed in Love Affair) as a poor America down on his luck, the wrongfully accused idealist looking for a way out. The plot has a tacked on Les Miserables-esque final act, with Mack determined to clear his name by bringing Jericho back to the States. Naturally, the man he finds has already redeemed himself, and is still determined to do the right thing, even if it means sacrificing his new life. This compels Mack to relent and make his own sacrifice instead.

The B-picture tag is not always an automatic positive, however; while we have elevated the extraordinary lower-level genre movies of the past, there were far more that were exactly what they were designed to be: merely competent diversions. This is where Jericho falls. Though never really boring, and also featuring numerous quality songs that allow Robeson to grandstand as a soloist, it's not entirely memorable. Freeland's direction is pedestrian and often stagey, and Robeson suffers for it. The actor often appears trapped within the static frame, confined to its four corners, the camera locked down. There is an awkwardness to the more physical moments, including a firefight in the desert, that suggest Robeson maybe forgot he wasn't acting on a stage, he need not be so contained.

Still, there is an interesting, and somewhat volatile, idea at the center of Jericho: the movie is simultaneously anti-war and critical of racism, and in a genius stroke, uses the former as a metaphor for the latter. Jericho is an example for the other negro soldiers (most of whom, it should be noted, skirt dangerously close to wartime stereotypes), and so he is not afforded the leniency his alleged crime deserves. And it can't be ignored that the solution to the problem is for the doomed soldier to return to Africa, to the home of his ancestors, for salvation.

Thus, a so-so picture becomes a far more fascinating one. Jericho has more subtext than the filmmakers knew how to handle. Placed in context, it was perhaps even more subversive for how simple and ordinary it seemed. As we've learned over the years, the most powerful images are the ones that don't push it, but rather derive their meaning and achieve their impact simply by existing. A movie like Jericho is one you wouldn't normally expect to find in the late '30s, but by virtue of Paul Robeson's stardom and his convictions, here it is. Who knows? Maybe it did more by not trying to do too much.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

READER MEET AUTHOR: Signing at Heroes in Fresno, December 12!

Just a quick heads up, I'll be signing at Heroes Comics in Fresno, CA, tomorrow, December 12, in the morning and early afternoon. Come by if you're in the area. Say hello, get some comics. I am there to celebrate the release of It Girl & the Atomics #5, which is the end of the first story arc.

Details are over at my other blog.

You can also join the event's Facebook page here.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

BRAZIL (Blu-Ray) - #51

"Everything is connected all along the line. Cause and effect. That's the beauty of it."

In between finishing re-watching Brazil and starting this review, I tweeted, "One day I'm going to program a triple-bill of Blade Runner, Brazil, and Soderbergh's Kafka." It strikes me that all movies are of a similar piece: strange visions of an alternate world with shades of 1940s noir style, all three misunderstood, a trio of troubled productions where the film is regularly overshadowed by the respective failures and battles for creative freedom. That they all also involve a singular hero lost in bureaucratic nightmares of varying complexities, terrorist organizations, and, in the case of the B-movies, a woman who is going to be strangled in red tape, also doesn't hurt in terms of the grouping. (It's been a while since I've seen Kafka. I forget how exactly Theresa Russell's character figures in the plot.)

Brazil is Terry Gilliam's vision of a George Orwellian future, released a year after the author's 1984 predictions failed to come to pass. The film stars Jonathan Pryce (Glengarry GlenRoss) as Sam Lowry, a low-level clerk in the Ministry Of Information (moi?) with no aspirations to rise higher, despite strings being pulled on his behalf. Sam's dreams are of a different nature. He imagines himself as a winged warrior, soaring through the cloudy sky, challenging shadowy hordes of deformed creatures and a giant samurai made out of technological bits and bobs. Such dreams are not very lucrative, however; in this future, information is a top commodity, and when the government requires it from you, you are also required to cover the cost. So begins a plot where an accidental typo causes a man named Buttle to be wrongfully detained. When he dies in custody, Sam tries to make amends by delivering Buttle's refund check to the man's widow.

As many Kafka-esque heroes have found before him (as well, as Kafka's own; see also Joseph K. in Orson Welles' adaptation of The Trial), attempting to untangle a disorganized filing system only causes further complications and likely get your own personal file dropped down a round bin. Sam is suddenly on the other side of the line that divides his official, privileged world and the common man. There are organizations that resent the interfering government and terrorists who lash out at tyranny and mass consumption alike. One such agent of chaos is Harry Tuttle (Robert De Niro), a freelance repairman who circumvents official channels to fix Sam's heating system. He may also have been the man that was supposed to be on the arrest warrant instead of Buttle. Another new acquaintance of Sam's is Jill Layton (Kim Greist), Buttle's neighbor, a truck driver, and a dead ringer for the girl of Sam's dreams. Jill's been trying to clear Buttle's name, and now she's possibly marked for future arrest herself. If Sam can keep her out of the system, he can save her in real life the way he does in his fantasies.

Gilliam rebuilds society from the ground up. His sci-fi imaginings are more in line with how futurists envisioned the oncoming world back in the 1940s, full of pneumatic tubes and criss-crossing wires. Computers are a hybrid of what systems were really like in the mid-'80s and classic typewriters. Men dress in suits, while art deco buildings scrape the sky. Women's fashion has grown outlandish, though even now we will recognize the quest for beauty through fad diets and cosmetic surgery as a wholly accurate identification of social trends. Sam's mother Ida (the excellent Katherine Helmond) allows her surgeon (Jim Broadbent) to push and pull at her face to smooth out the wrinkles, while her best friend submits to acid treatments that burn her flesh. Theirs is a world disconnected from the working man. It's a dichotomy we also see in living conditions. The poor live in rundown slums resembling disused factories. Beyond the city lines, life is more functional, less aesthetically pleasing.

Brazil's labyrinthine constructs are matched by the twists and turns of the screenplay, which Gilliam co-wrote with his regular script partner Charles McKeown (Plunkett & Macleane) and master playwright Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Shakespeare in Love [review]). Sam must navigate the back streets and dark alleys along with the corporate structure of the Ministry of Information. The further he travels, the more the illusions fall away, even as the system tightens around him. As with the best Gilliam, Brazil is desultory and loud and often overwhelming. It's easy to overload on any one entry from the director's oeuvre. Yet, there is a purity to Brazil, a go-for-broke overabundance of design that smacks of ambition and naïveté. This is Gilliam before the system broke him, before the studio thugs gutted his dreams the way M.O.I. ultimately lobotomizes Sam. Most of the supplements on the Criterion editions of Brazil have been about the different permutations and the fight for the film, and the Blu-Ray is no different. It also includes the studio's version, which is considerably shorter than the approved director's cut. It's known as the "Love Conquers All" version, and lacks the visual bravado that concludes Gilliam's original, when Sam's romantic fantasies take over. The last section of Brazil is a surreal run through all that came before, like a mini remake of the entire film, a mad dash through Sam's psyche.

It's also a love letter to the creative spirit. Sam loves old movies, he surrounds himself in imagery from classic Hollywood. In a different version of his fantasies, he maybe fancies himself a celluloid hero. This is Gilliam's most realized irony: Sam actually is a celluloid hero. He is a noir detective, he is Hitchcock's wronged man, a pulp-fiction pugilist. He's not Humphrey Bogart, but maybe Dick Powell. Likewise, Brazil, with all its trials and tribulations, is a vibrant capsulization of cinema history, of Terry Gilliam's own bid for a star in the hall of fame, and all the heartbreak that comes with dreaming big. Brazil is its own self-fulfilling prophecy, audacious and mesmerizing and as fascinating today as it was nearly 30 years ago.

Criterion's new edition of Brazil features the expected high-definition transfer, presumably updated even from their single disc release of the film, struck from a 35mm source. The picture is shown at its original 1.78:1 widescreen aspect ratio, MPEG-4 encoded at 1080p. Overseen by Gilliam, the presentation here is exquisite, with an exceptional level of detail and beautifully varied colors. The film still shows its age at times, with minor instances of surface noise and a few scenes where the edges of the frame grow a bit warped, but the overall look of the transfer is strong. Shadows and gray fog alike look excellent, skin tones have a natural sun-deprived pallor, and the fantasy material really shines. In other cases, with other films, high-definition sometimes exposes the seams, spit, and glue used to hold old special effects together and removes some of the illusion. This is not a problem with Brazil. On the contrary, you can enjoy the remarkable art direction as never before.

This Blu-Ray release comes as a two-disc set, packaged in a standard-sized plastic case with a staggered tray. The accompanying booklet has pictures, credits, and a critical essay. The main disc features the full-length, 142-minute director cut along with the exceptionally candid and detailed audio commentary with Terry Gilliam. This is the same commentary from Criterion's original boxed set, issued in the mid-1990s, and indeed, the overall package here replicates that phenomenal collection.

For a complete rundown on the special features, read the full review at DVD Talk. Images here were taken from promotional materials and were not taken from the Blu-Ray under review.