Boyhood: As Real as Fiction Gets

A Long-form drama

  • Written and directed by Richard Linklater

I’m a sucker for long films that take place over the course of several years. But I’ve never seen one as real as Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. This isn’t a story of an extraordinary person, or of a normal person going through an extraordinary experience. But it does something even more special. It follows the experiences of a relatively normal boy growing up, from elementary school until his arrival at college. With few exceptions, most of his experiences are pretty common.

The result is an exceptional motion picture. Running nearly three hours, without conventional setups and manufactured disasters, it never lags. This just may be the best new film of the year.

You probably already know Boyhood‘s gimmick–it was shot off and on over a period of 12 years. Thus, we get to watch young Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) grow up for real. And we see his parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) move into middle age.

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But this time, the gimmick works–beautifully. In most films set over a long period of time, we’re aware of the moment when the child actor is replaced by an adult. Or we notice the changing makeup as the characters age. Not here. Aside from occasional hairstyle changes, people in one scene look pretty much as they did in the last. But not quite. You can see those subtle, barely noticeable changes that happen to everyone year by year. The 18-year-old Mason looks very different from the six-year-old, but since we see the whole transition, as we do in life.

This technique has another benefit. The film begins in 2002, with the attitudes, fads, and technologies of the time, and slowly works up to 2013. Yet the early scenes never feel like period pieces, because they weren’t shot as period pieces. The scenes set in 2002 were shot in 2002, by people who didn’t know about smartphones or Barak Obama.

Now then, on to the story:

Mason’s life isn’t all that easy. His parents are divorced, and neither of them have much money. He and his sister live with their mom, who became a mother way too soon and has a history of making poor romantic choices. Their father loves them, but needs to grow up himself.

For the most part, Boyhood avoids the sort of dramatic and disastrous situations that drive most narrative films. Several times, I thought that a horrible accident was eminent, or that Linklater was setting up a conflict for a subplot, but I was almost always wrong. For instance, a scene involving middle school bullies lacks the obvious follow-up.

A lifetime of movie going had taught me to expect these plot points. But when they didn’t materialize, I felt relieved, not disappointed.

Which isn’t to say that everything goes smoothly for Mason and his family. There are the usual problems of childhood and adolescence, but there are also some very scary scenes that go beyond normal childhood experiences. Like I said, their mom makes some poor romantic choices.

Fifty years from now, if civilization survives, people will still be watching Boyhood, both as a document of the early 21st century, and because it so perfectly reflects life as we all know it. It’s a remarkable work.

Palo Alto: More Dazed and Completely Confused

B+

  • Written and directed by Gia Coppola
  • From the book Palo Alto Stores by James Franco

High school kids lead rough lives. They’re under great pressure to get into a good university. They desperately want to break free of their parents. They have to deal with an immense peer pressure. They’re trying to work out their own, often bizarre philosophies. Their hormones are raging, and even the sexually experienced among them don’t really understand what to do about it (and not to do about it). Booze and pot don’t help.

In Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto, based on a collection of short stories by James Franco, many of the teenagers are reaching an emotional boiling point. Disaster seems right around the corner. Coppola (Francis’ granddaughter) weaves their stories into a slick yet compassionate drama.

The central characters, April (Emma Roberts) and Teddy (Jack Kilmer), sort of like each other, but neither of them seem to know how to approach the other. Although they’re both upper-middle-class white kids growing up in the same town, they seem to have little in common. (Judging from this film, almost everyone in Palo Alto is white.)

We get no indication that April drives drunk, has sex with people she barely knows, or commits acts of random vandalism. I suppose that makes her a “good girl.” But she has a major crush on her soccer coach (James Franco), and she sees a lot of him since she babysits his son. The real problem: The soccer coach, who’s a single dad, has a pretty strong crush on April, as well.

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Teddy, on the other hand, is definitely a bad boy. He’s almost constantly stoned, drives recklessly, and appears to care little about anything. But there’s a soft spot in his soul that suggests he can be better.

Unfortunately, he’s fallen in with Fred (Nat Wolff), another heavy drinker and pot smoker who also gets his kicks from danger and destruction. A complete sociopath, Freddy can act the perfect gentleman while trying to bed a girl, then treat her like dirt as soon as he succeeds. Much of the film involves Teddy’s emotional tightrope walk between Fred’s dangerous excitement and his own better half.

If April is the good girl, than Emily (Zoe Levin) is the “bad” one. She gives blowjobs to just about any boy who smiles at her. Afterwards, she doesn’t understand why she’s unsatisfied.

Coppola clearly doesn’t approve of heavy pot and booze use among teenagers, but she seems to accept a more deadly drug without question. Judging from this film, every teenager in Palo Alto smokes cigarettes, and no one seems to think there’s anything wrong about it. There’s even talk about getting a wish when you smoke the last cigarette in the pack.

Despite the title, Palo Alto could have taken place in any affluent town. There’s no real sense of Palo Alto as a unique place. Neither Stanford University nor Silicon Valley are ever mentioned. The film wasn’t even shot in Palo Alto.

Wherever it’s set and shot, Palo Alto is a clear-eyed look at teenagers on the brink. It’s worth catching.

The San Francisco International Film Festival closes with Alex in Venice

This year’s San Francisco International Film Festival ended Thursday night at the Castro with a screening of Chris Messina’s directorial debut, Alex of Venice. It was not a perfect way to end the festival, but it was a good way.

The crowd was surprisingly thin. There was an empty seat next to me, and the row in front of me had one person in it. I recognized Francis Coppola in the audience, and Don Johnson (one of the film’s stars) in the lobby.

The show was supposed to start at 7:00, but it as 7:14 before Executive Director Noah Cowan came onstage and asked us to applaud the staff. “I could not be more imageimpressed by their hard work. I came into this organization less than 10 weeks ago, so what you saw was their hard work, not mine.”

He introduced Director of Programming Rachel Rosen, who said that she: "can’t wait to do it again next year." After some brief praise for the night’s film, Alex of Venice, she introduced actor-turned-director Chris Messina. He talked about being a first-time director, and of working with other first-time directors ("They usually tell you to watch a John Cassavetes film.") He said that, because of his inexperience, everyone involved from the actors to the investors had had to make :a leap of faith." He was glad they did.

The film started at 7:29.

A- Alex in Venice

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The work-vs.-family dynamic comes into full force in this drama set in Venice, California. Alex (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has more than her hands full. She’s an environmental lawyer working very long hours. She has a son and a senile father (Don Johnson) to worry about. Then her husband (Messina) leaves her. Aside from one unbelievably stupid action, Alex of Venice works beautifully. The characters reveal themselves nicely. They’re sweet, funny, and usually very real. The acting is never short of perfect, and this is the sort of story that depends entirely upon the acting.

After the film, five of the filmmakers came onstage for Q&A. They were director/actor Chris Messina, star Mary Elizabeth Winstead, actor Don Johnson, co-writer/actor Katie Nehra, and producer Jamie Patricof.

Some highlights:

  • On how new director Messina got the cast to trust him:
    Nehra: He’s very convincing. When you meet Chris, you see he had a really clear vision of the film…When I wrote this script, I wanted him to play George; he ended up playing George and directing.
    Johnson: He couldn’t see anyone else playing this part and I couldn’t see myself playing it…" With a smile he added "He talked a lot about John Cassavetes"
  • Someone asked if there was much improvisation. Messina: "I loved the script. We said the words, we wanted to say the words." He then explained how they would run the camera as long as they could at the end of a take and improvise non-verbally. "When I was in the editing room I had a lot to cut with."
  • Messina: “For years I made the mistake of telling my family what a great director I would be. Then I discovered that there were a million challenges that I never thought about before.”

After the Q&A, I went to The Chapel for the Festival’s closing party. It was a fine party, but I couldn’t stay long.

Bad film turns good: My review of Young & Beautiful

B drama

  • Written and directed by François Ozon

As François Ozon’s drama about a 17-year-old prostitute nears its mid-point, you might find yourself wondering why you’re sitting through such an awful piece of junk. Then, beyond all expectations, the film gets interesting. The once-cardboard characters become intriguing and worth caring about. A bad film has suddenly turned into a good one.

Ozon’s script follows the young Isabelle (Marine Vacth) over the course of nearly a year. The four seasons provide formal act breaks. The intertitles “Summer,” “Autumn,” “Winter,” and “Spring” tell us that time has passed and that the story is about to fundamentally change.

In the first act, Summer, Isabelle turns 17 and loses her virginity . She seems like a typical, upper middle-class teenage girl, dependent on her parents and mildly resentful of them. Her first sexual experience (and the first of many sex scenes in the film) isn’t particularly wonderful or horrible; just uncomfortable and embarrassing. In other words, it’s pretty typical for a first time.

In this part of the story, another character seems far more interesting than Isabelle: her voyeuristic kid brother (Fantin Ravat). The film’s first shot is his point of view–through binoculars. He wants to know everything about her sex life and asks her bluntly. He helps her sneak out of the house for a tryst in exchange for her telling him what happened. The brother’s importance as a character drops considerably after Summer–just one of Young & Beautiful’s many disappointments.

An intertitle soon tells us it’s Autumn, and the movie plunks us into an entirely different world. Isabelle is now a prostitute. Nothing shows or explains the transition. She’s not doing it for the money–her family has plenty. She doesn’t seem to enjoy sex with older men who have to pay for it. She goes to great lengths to hide her double life from her family and friends, yet she hides her significant bundles of cash very badly.

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It’s in this second act that Young & Beautiful really becomes dull and nearly unbearable. I’m no prude. I actually like nudity and explicit sex in movies. But for these to work, the sex has to move the story or tell us something about the characters. Or, at the very least, it needs to be erotic. The many sex scenes concentrated into this one act fail on all of those counts.

Then, against all odds, an excellent film emerges in in the third act, Winter. Isabelle’s mother (Géraldine Pailhas) finds out what’s been going on. Suddenly, we’ve got a family in crisis, trying to come to terms with their daughter’s inexplicable behavior. We finally learn anything meaningful about the characters. Ozon shows us the mother’s temper, the bumbling stepfather trying to make everything right, and the difficulties Isabella has reaching out to other people in a meaningful way.

As she navigates her notorious way through the shocked family, she can be inappropriately flirtatious, truly sorry, or play the victim. She knows a secret about her mother that she can use if need be.

I don’t want to go into too many details about the second half of the film. I will say that it’s a fine reward for sitting through the first half. Besides, the great Charlotte Rampling turns up in Act 4 (Spring), in a small but pivotal role.

The first half of Young & Beautiful is about a physically attractive but otherwise uninteresting woman having a lot of sex. The second half puts everything in perspective and helps you understand the protagonist’s bizarre behavior.

It’s a close call, but I’d say that getting to the second half of this film is worth sitting through the first.

SFIFF: Boyhood and an Evening with Richard Linklater

Last night at the Castro, the San Francisco International Film Festival honored Richard Linklater with their Founder’s Directing Award. The event included a discussion between Linklater and actor Parker Posey, followed by a screening of Linklater’s new film, Boyhood.

When I arrived, more than an hour before the show, the line was already around the block. Once inside, the theater was crowded, and the line for the concession stand snaked around half of the lobby.

Amazingly, considering the crowd, the show started almost on time. Director of Programming Rachel Rosen came on stage and talked briefly about Linklater, pointing out that his first film, Slacker, played at SFIFF. She told the audience that he had founded the Austin Film Society.

Then we got the clip reel–a few minutes of quick scenes from Linklater’s work. These are always fun if kept brief, and this one was.

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Then Posey and Linklater can onstage for the discussion. They worked together on Dazed and Confused more than 20 years ago, and were clearly comfortable with each other. In fact, they seemed so relaxed that it felt more like two old friends goofing off than a real interview. It was entertaining, but pretty light on information.

But the talk did include some gems:

  • "Casting is like love at first site. I have a feeling of what it should be when I write the script, but I don’t know until I see it."
  • On writing Dazed and Confused: "The music came first. I just listened to the music when I wrote it."
  • “That theatrical experience is so special. That can ever die. I don’t care how big your home TV is.”

Then they asked for questions for the audience. Some highlights:

  • On Waking Life: "I wanted you to be confused about if [what you see] is real or not."
  • An "aspiring screenwriter" asked how important it is to watch films on the big screen. “It is important. It’s harder to do now..”
  • He called the Before… series "The accidental trilogy. It was never planned."
  • On the future of cinema: "The industry doesn’t care. People are going to theaters less and less…Films cost so much to market, that studios have to think on terms of how many films we can release."
  • I asked who was more important, the writer or the director (Linklater does both). "If you take yourself seriously as a writer, go with literature or theater. Filmmaking is a collaborative storytelling effort. The director is the guy rubbing the bottle to get the genie out. "

After the Q&A, there was a five-minute intermission. Then the movie started.

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Fifty years from nowpeople will still be watching Linklater’s intimate epic. Shot off and on over a period of 12 years, Boyhood allows us to watch young Mason and his family grow up. It isn’t an easy childhood. His parents are divorced, neither of them have much money, Dad is immature and Mom has bad taste in men. But Boyhood avoids the sort of horrible situations that drive most narrative films. It’s all the better for that. By using the same actors over such a long period of time, Linklater creates a far more realistic picture than could be done with aging makeup or switching from a child actor to an adult one. You really feel as if you’re watching these people grow.

I give Boyhood an A.

There was another Q&A after the movie. But by the time the movie ended, it was nearly 11:00, and I had to take BART back to the East Bay. So I had to skip the final part of the evening.

Before Monday: My review of Le Week-End

C+ Drama

  • Written by Hanif Kureishi
  • Directed by Roger Michell

If the shockingly misleading trailer for Le Week-End makes you want to see the movie, don’t. It is not, as you may have been led to believe, a romantic frolic about an aging couple rekindling their romance in the city of lights. Quite the opposite. It’s a dark and depressing drama about a marriage in horrible decline.

I can’t blame the film for bad marketing. But I can blame it for it’s own faults. While Le Week-End has several very good scenes and one fully-realized, interesting, and sympathetic lead character, it suffers from a overly manipulated story and another lead character so despicable as to be unbelievable. The result provides sadness without insight.

The plot is reminiscent of the Before… trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight), and yet feels far more contrived. On their 30th anniversary, a very unhappy English couple go to Paris for a weekend. Whether they even hope it will rekindle something seems unlikely.

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What empathy the film offers goes entirely to Nick (Jim Broadbent), a man of deep insecurity coming to the end of his rope. He’s lost his job and is running out of money. Age is delivering one new physical pain after another. His wife treats him with contempt, and their son has become a father without growing into responsible adulthood.

That wife, Meg (Lindsay Duncan) , is horrible. She refuses to stay in the modest hotel where they have a reservation, and insists on going to the most expensive place in Paris–despite their serious money problems. She insults him, flirts then rejects him, and argues about everything. When he falls on a cobblestone street and lies there in pain, she walks away.

Why doesn’t Nick simply divorce her? He can’t afford to.

Halfway though the film, they run into an old, once-very close friend of Nick’s (Jeff Goldblum), who somehow never met his wife of 30 years. This chance meeting leads to an insufferable party filled with annoying intellectuals. A series of toasts at the dinner table become of the film’s climax, where the main characters stand up and express their feelings out loud to strangers.

The film has a few light-hearted moments, and even a few comic ones. Occasionally, Nick and Meg appear to actually love each other in some strange way. But these moments never last. The entire cast give excellent performances, but only Broadbent is well-served by the script. His character is the only reason to see this film.

A lot of talent went into Le Week-End. Very little of it shows.

Quick Opinions on The Past and Dallas Buyers Club

I know. I haven’t been writing much lately aside from the weekly newsletter. I’ve been busy. But I have managed to get to a couple of current films.

And I chose well. I really loved both of these pictures, although The Past is definitely the best of them..

A The Past
Between this new film and A Separation (read my review), I’m ready to declare writer/director Asghar Farhadi our era’s Ozu. Like them, his intimate family dramas catch unique yet universal human beings at their best and worst. His low-key films don’t tell you what to think or feel–the camera work feels neutral and there’s little or no music–but he catches ordinary people in their moments of crisis, and in doing so tells us a lot about our species.

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This story concerns a married but long-separated couple. The man returns from far away to his old home, temporarily, to manage the divorce. He finds a dangerously dysfunctional family, with a selfish, manipulative, and possibly insane mother, a boyfriend trapped in a moral dilemma, and children in desperate need a sympathetic parental figure. The story moves quietly from one crisis to another, without ever feeling forced or melodramatic.

Although officially an Iranian film, The Past is set and was shot entirely in France, and most of the dialog is in French. Outside of the children, all of the main characters are Iranian immigrants. Little is made of that. There’s no sense of religious Islam or political exile.

A Dallas Buyers Club
Compared to The Past, this story of people dying of AIDS is practically upbeat. But then, it’s an American movie. Matthew McConaughey gives the performance of his career (so far) as the real-life Ron Woodroof, a Texas good-old-boy diagnosed with AIDS in 1985. He was supposed to die in 30 days, but he did some research, started smuggling pharmaceuticals not approved by the FDA, and kept himself alive for a long time.

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And not just himself. He sold the drugs to other AIDS sufferers. At first this was purely a for-profit business. Eventually, it became a crusade.

And yes, this is very much a feel-good movie, albeit one that acknowledges that many of the characters will die young. Jared Leto particularly stands out as a dying transvestite whom the initially homophobic Woodroof befriends. Leto’s character, like most of the supporting roles, is fictitious.

The Once-Great John Sayles Makes a Pretty Good Mystery in Go for Sisters

B Mystery/thriller

  • Written and directed by John Sayles

Back in the 1990s, independent filmmaker John Sayles turned out one great film after another. But he’s been turning out mostly disappointments for a long time now. His latest film, Go for Sisters, didn’t disappoint me, but that’s only because I’ve lowered my expectations about this once-great auteur.

This is Sayles at his most conventional. A pair of mismatched protagonists join forces to find a missing person, with the help of a colorful retired cop. Along the way, they’ll face evil criminals, fire a gun a couple of times, and bond. In all but the details, you’ve seen this film before.

The heroines grew up as best friends but have long ago went their separate ways. Bernice (LisaGay Hamilton) is a parole officer, and a tough one. Fontayne (Yolonda Ross) is a recovering drug addict and an ex-con. They’re both lonely.

Then Bernice’s grown son, who hasn’t been returning her calls, becomes a person of interest in a homicide investigation. To make matters worse, he’s disappeared, and there are reasons to believe that he has been hanging out with the wrong crowd. Bernice calls on Fontayne to help her find her son.

But neither of them have any experience with this sort of thing, so a third character is added to the group, a former LAPD detective named Freddy (Edward James Olmos, who also produced the film). He’s clever, funny, knows the underworld, and plays a mean electric guitar. He’s also going blind, a serious problem for this sort of work.

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Their investigation takes them south of the border, primarily into Tijuana. Latin American culture, and its relationship to the USA, has always fascinated Sayles. Consider Lone Star, Men with Guns, and Casa de los babys. This story allows him to dig into that culture’s seamier underbelly.

This is a American movie almost completely lacking in white people. imageBernice and Fontayne are both African American, as are many of the people they have contact with in their day-to-day lives (Fontayne is also gay). Freddy is Hispanic; his parents were both born in Mexico. The villains tend to be either Mexican or Chinese. I don’t recall a single white character important enough to turn up in more than one scene.

Aside from the three leads, we really don’t get to know anyone. Surprising for a Sayles picture, we never get a moment where a minor character reveals something interesting about themselves. Go for Sisters is heavy on plot, and really doesn’t seem interested in all but a few main characters.

I’ve seen all but a couple of his films, and while this isn’t Sayles’ worst (that would be Silver City), it’s certainly his most conventional. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Hollywood genre flicks have their pleasures, and when made by competent filmmakers, are almost always entertaining.

And this one is competently made. The three lead characters are well drawn and interesting. You care about what happens to them and enjoy their company. The story is intriguing, if at times a bit opaque. The dialog is well written and acted, and the violence is kept to a minimum.

It’s still a John Sayles film after all.

Taxi Driver, Alamo Bay, and 4K Digital Projection at the PFA

Saturday night, my wife and I attended two screenings at the Pacific Film Archive. Both were parts of the series The Resolution Starts Now: 4K Restorations from Sony Pictures. And this time, unlike Thursday night’s screening, the movies were actually projected in 4K.

And they both looked fantastic.

This was not a double feature. You had to pay for each screening. On the other hand, there’s a discount for the second feature, and the total came to only $10.50.

Let’s take the movies one at a time:

Alamo Bay

The evening started with a short talk by Sony Senior Vice President for Asset Management (translation: VP for old movies), Grover Crisp. On Thursday night, his talk was the main attraction. This time, it was just a quick introduction.

Crisp knows that many cinephiles are offended by the digital conversion that he and Sony are a major part of. He may have felt defensive. "I have nothing against film," he explained. "I love it. But that doesn’t keep me from loving digital, which I like better."

By Sony’s definitions, there’s "very little difference" between a 2K and 4K restoration. "The films are always scanned at 4K resolution." In a 2K restoration, the digitized images is downgraded to 2K for mastering–the creative and difficult work done after scanning. That saves money, and still results in an image as good or better than a 35mm print.

Of course a 4K presentation is going to look better than a 2K one, but Crisp didn’t think it was that big a difference. He estimated that in the PFA theater, "You can see the difference from the first 5 rows…if you know what to look for."

In answer to an audience question, Crisp acknowledged that if a film is scanned in 4K and mastered in 2K, they can always go back and master it again in 4K without a new scan.

He also said said that a 4K master looks significantly better than a 2K master when transferred to Blu-ray–a 2K medium.

Before the movie, the PFA played a videotaped introduction by Alamo Bay’s cinematographer, Curtis Clark. He discussed the film stock he used, director Louis Malle’s desire to have a wide contrast ratio, and the problems of getting good release prints. The digital restoration, and DCP projection, now fixes that later problem.

Made in 1985, Alamo Bay dramatizes and fictionalizes some ugly, racist incidents that happened on the Texas coast only a few years earlier. As refugee Vietnamese fishermen arrive, looking for the American dream, they run up against the local bigots, who are for the most part dirt poor and worried about their own economic conditions. It stars  Amy Madigan as a young woman of very conflicting views, Ed Harris as a violent bigot made more dangerous by both drink and fear that he will lose his boat, and Ho Nguyen as a cocky young Vietnamese fisherman. Still relevant today, it tells a powerful story, even if it gets a little preachy and a bit Hollywood at times. I’d give it a B+.

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The transfer looked very good. There were a couple of shots where the colors looked a bit flat–especially with Madigan’s lipstick–but for all I know, they may have looked like that on film.

Taxi Driver

Once again, the program started with a talk by Grover Crisp. Since the audience was different, he repeated a few items (as well as a few from Thursday). He "explained ‘K thing: "4K is the amount we really need to capture the visual image in a 35mm film frame."

He followed that with a demonstration that he also did Thursday night, as well as last year at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. He projected the same frame, a close-up of Peter O’Toole, from Lawrence of  Arabia, from 4K and 2K scans. The difference was huge. O-Toole’s headgear, which looked blurry in 2K, was detailed enough to see the threads in 4K.

I might point out that Lawrence of  Arabia is a large-format film, and I would expect 2K to be very inadequate for scanning. After all, when Sony scanned the film, they did it in 8K, and mastered it in 4K.

Actually, I’d like to see similar demo showing the same same, mastered at 4K, but projected in 4K and 2K.

Crisp insisted that he’s "not anti-film," but is merely "being pragmatic. I think that in this changeover period, now is the time to make sure that we’re actually [restoring these films] correctly so that you have a cinematic experience." A DCP should be "the best print you’ve ever seen."

Then he talked about Taxi Driver, which was restored about two years ago. It was "Typically abused when it was new…scratches and things like that. All the things that we can fix digitally now."

He compared stills from a pre-restoration DVD and the restored version. It was shocking how much had been lost but is now restored. The earlier versions had dull colors and what looked like flat lighting. Worse, even though it was in the wrong aspect ratio, much of the image was cropped off. All that is fixed now.

I’ve written about Taxi Driver before, and I don’t feel a need to discuss it in detail again. I’ll just say that I give it an A+. You can check out my Blu-ray Review (taken from the same restoration) for more.

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But I will say that I’ve never seen Taxi Driver look so good. And I don’t mean looking beautiful, because Taxi Driver was never meant to be a beautiful movie. It’s dark, ugly, and has an intentional film grain texture. But the details of the grain and within the grain, the perfect color, and the lack of film vibration took me into Travis Bickel’s head like nothing ever had before.

Those who object to digital projection insist that without physical film, the theatrical experience becomes nothing but television. That simply is not true. With a good-sized screen, a well-transferred DCP, and an enthralled audience, there is nothing that a 35mm print can add (unless there’s something very special about the print).

This was the ultimate Taxi Driver experience.

Music, Fame, and American Insanity: My Blu-ray review of Robert Altman’s Nashville

For an all-too-brief time in the 1970s, the Hollywood studios financed and released serious art. They greenlit films without likeable heroes, clearly-defined villains, or conventional, three-act plots.

They even financed Robert Altman, who did his best work during that time. And Nashville was unquestionably one of his best. It’s tragic, funny, thoughtful, and filled with interesting and entertaining characters. It’s a realistic slice of life, an over-the-top melodrama, and an absurdist comedy. As is appropriate considering the titular city, the film is filled with great music. And amazingly, it all works.

In lieu of a conventional plot, Nashville follows a lot of different people, all with some overlapping connection to each other, as they go about their business in country music’s home town. In the course of the film’s long running time (160 minutes), Altman and screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury introduce us to famous singers, obscure singers, one horrible singer, businessmen, and a politician whom we never actually see, but whose voice we hear constantly over loudspeakers.

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And Altman–a director that every actor wanted to work with–put together one of the most impressive casts in movie history. And almost everyone got to play a fully-developed character and show their acting chops.

And their singing chops. Laugh-in veteran Henry Gibson and 70’s icon Karen Black play big music stars. Not only do they sing in the film–and sing very well–they wrote their own songs.

I can’t discuss everyone who stands out in Nashville, but here are some of my favorite characters:

Lily Tomlin plays a devoted wife and mother, a religious Christian, and the only white person in a Gospel choir. But she has something to hide, and that something–or perhaps I should say someone–comes back to town.

Like Gibson and Black, Ronee Blakley plays a big country western star. But she’s been away for a while; and she is very much not well. Her public loves her, but that love may slide as she mentally deteriorates.

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Keith Carradine plays a singer/songwriter who enjoys being irresistible to women (and not much else). In one scene in a bar, Carradine sings the song "I’m Easy" (which he wrote), and four different women think he’s singing about them.

Geraldine Chaplin plays an astonishingly inept BBC reporter (if she really is a BBC reporter), with a knack for saying the wrong thing to the wrong person. Chaplin proves herself an excellent comedian, which is hardly surprising considering her father.

Also worth noting is Ned Beatty’s businessman, Shelley Duvall’s groupie, Keenan Wynn as a man with a sick wife, and both Barbara Harris and Gwen Welles as hopeful singers. Two actors who would become famous in the following decade, Scott Glenn and Jeff Goldblum, turn up in many scenes with little explanation..

Tewkesbury’s script finds many ways to bring all of the characters together. There’s a triumphant return at the Nashville Airport, the aftermath of a car accident, and several concerts. Many of the characters know each other and their lives overlap in various ways, but they all have their own separate stories.

Altman was not the first filmmaker to use this type of multithreaded narrative. To my knowledge, Agnès Varda did it first in La Pointe Courte (like Nashville, named after the place the story is set). Kurosawa did it in Dodes’ka-den. And even George Lucas did it in American Graffiti. But Altman did it so often that it became one of his trademarks. And his first time, in Nashville, he did it best.

First Impression

imageThe dead-tree parts of the package–the cardboard slip cover, the outside of the disc holder, and the small booklet–are treated to look like old, yellowed pulp paper. The booklet contains credits for the film and the transfer, and an article by Molly Haskell.

Following Criterion’s current policy, the package offers the same content on DVD and Blu-ray. Because of all the extras, this requires three discs–two DVDs and one Blu-ray. Only a Blu-ray can hold both the movie and the extras–and have bookmarking features that DVD doesn’t support.

I do wish, however, that the package contained one other disc: the soundtrack album CD. This movie has some great songs.

How It Looks

Great. The Nashville Blu-ray has the look of the original movie–a 1970’s Hollywood film shot in anamorphic Panavision and Eastmancolor. The film doesn’t look razor sharp, but it was never intended to look that way. This was always–and I assume intentionally–a soft-focus movie. The colors are spot-on. The film grain is there if you look for it, but it’s not distracting.

How It Sounds

When I looked at the box, I was disappointed to read that it sports only a 5.1 surround soundtrack. Nashville was originally released in four-track magnetic stereo, and I was hoping that Criterion would recreate that original mix in 4.0 surround–as they did for High and Low.

But after watching the film and listening to the lossless MTS HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack, I can’t complain. It sounded great, and had that "Wow! This is in stereo!" effect that movies had before Dolby made the whole thing ubiquitous. I suspect it was very close to the original mix, with maybe a little bit of barely-noticeable split surrounds and subwoofer lows.

And the Extras

  • Commentary track by Robert Altman: As I write this, I’ve only gone through about half of this. Altman has some interesting things to say, mostly about his seat-of-the-pants working methods, but he doesn’t seem to have enough to say, overall. He pauses a lot, often for long stretches.
  • The Making of Nashville: This new, high-def documentary by Criterion runs for 71 minutes. Cast members and other collaborators talk about Altman and the movie. Easily the best extra on the disc.
  • Robert Altman Interviews: Three different TV interviews, from 1975, 2000, and 2002. About 40 minutes total. Although there’s some repetition, all three are worth watching.
  • Behind the Scenes: 12 minutes. Footage shot during production, specifically of the traffic jam sequences and the big closing concert. Bad video, no sound. The little bit I saw wasn’t interesting.
  • Keith Carradine Demo: 12 minutes His three songs, recorded in Altman’s LA office. 12 minutes. Audio with photos to give us something to look at. Really rough.
  • Trailer: 2 minutes

Nashville is one of the great American films of the 1970s. Criterion has done it justice. The disc goes on sale next Tuesday, December 3.

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