Dont Look Back Blu-ray Review

You have to be a very hardcore Bob Dylan fan to really enjoy D.A. Pennebaker’s groundbreaking documentary, Dont Look Back (yes, that’s the correct spelling). Not only would you have to know and love his songs, but you would have to know something about Dylan as a person and a phenomenon, and about what was going on around him and within him as he toured England in the spring of 1965.

Fortunately, I qualify. As the biggest Dylan fan I personally know, I find it riveting. It doesn’t really show or explain the many changes he was going through at that time. But in its fly-on-the-wall directness, it captures the insular world he had built for himself, and gives you a glimpse of the extremely conflicted and complex genius he was like just before turning 24.

At this time, Dylan was transitioning from folk music–all acoustic and no other musicians–to full-throttle rock and roll. His first album to include rock songs, Bringing It All Back Home, had just been released. And yet this was a folk tour–with no instruments beyond Dylan’s acoustic guitar, his harmonicas, and his voice. He sings many of the “protest” songs that had launched his career: “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” and, of course, “Blowing in the Wind.” And yet, in the movie, we’re told that “Subterranean Homesick Blues”–the rocker that opens the then-new album–is climbing up the British charts.

“Subterranean Homesick Blues” also opens the movie in one of the most famous precursors of the rock video: As that influential song plays on the soundtrack, Dylan stands shyly and somewhat embarrassed in an alley holding up cue cards with bits of the lyrics–and some puns built around the lyrics .

That is, as near as I can tell, the only staged scene in the film. For the rest of its 96 minutes, Pennebaker’s camera and microphone follow Dylan and his entourage as they hang out in hotel rooms, ride in chauffeured cars, and play music for their own enjoyment. Occasionally, we see a bit of a concert.

The movie shows Dylan as a smart, funny, charismatic, and basically decent person interested in everyone he meets. But not always. Sometimes he’s a first-class jerk. That shouldn’t be too surprising. Here’s a very young man who has become accustomed to being called a genius. Not just a singer/songwriter, but cast uneasily as a poet and a prophet. He can be cruel so casually that one wonders if he knows how he’s behaving. There’s one scene with a Time Magazine reporter that makes your skin crawl.

The film shows us quite a bit of Joan Baez, who came with him on the tour but was never invited onstage. This tour marked the end of their professional and romantic relationship. They don’t seem to like each other much here. We see the moment when she walks out of his life, ending a long professional and romantic relationship. Oddly, she shows up in two scenes right after her walkout.

But his entourage included more than Baez. We see a lot of manager Albert Grossman, close friend and tour manager Bob Neuwirth, and British musician and former Animal Alan Price. Donovan pops up, as well.

This isn’t really a concert movie. It shows him performing occasionally, but never for one complete song. His greatest musical moment is a performance of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” played privately in a hotel room.

Nor is it a conventional, information-filled documentary. There’s no narration, and if you don’t recognize the people on screen, you probably won’t figure out who they are.

Pennebaker captured a brief moment when the ’60s were about to become the 60’s, and the crazy world one of the most influential figures of that transition. Dylan would tour England again in 1966. But then he’d play electric guitar and front a rock quintet that would eventually become The Band. He was booed in those concerts, but he changed music.

First Impression

Rather than the usual Criterion plastic, Dont Look Back comes packaged in a cardboard slip cover containing a cardboard disc holder. Inside that you’ll find the disc (of course) and a fairly substantial booklet.

The bulk of the booklet is taken up by an excellent essay by Robert Polito, along with various images–photos, tickets, headlines, and so on–from the tour. It also contains credits for the film and the disc, and Criterion’s traditional About the Transfer.

As with all Criterion Blu-rays, the home screen has menus on the left. When you remove the disc, your Blu-ray player will save a bookmark, and give you an option to return to where it left off the next time you insert the disc.

How It Looks

I’m all for 4K scans of original negatives, carefully transferred to a 1040p Blu-ray. But Dont Look Back was shot on fast, very grainy 16mm film, so this particular 4K/1080p transfer doesn’t show you a lot of details or textures because they simply weren’t there on the negative. What it does show you is a lot of grain.

On the other hand, all that grain makes the image authentic. You can’t mistake it for anything but a cinema verite documentary from the 1960s.

The image is pillarboxed to 1.371, approximately right for the 16mm frame.

How It Sounds

The LPCM 1.0 24-bit soundtrack is very good. Although it’s mono, the single track captures and reproduces the music beautifully. And since the music is seldom more than one person singing and playing guitar, you don’t really need moretracks.

And the Extras

This disc comes with a lot of extras–by my reckoning, more than five hours worth. You’ll learn more about D.A. Pennebaker here than you’ll learn about Bob Dylan.

  • Commentary: Recorded in 1999 by Pennebaker and Neuwirth. This provides the narration that the movie lacks.
  • Dylan on Dont Look Back: four minutes, 1080i. Clips and outtakes, with Dylan narrating, talking mostly about how he got used to the camera and soon didn’t think about it.
  • 65 Revisted: 65 minutes, 1080p. Another movie edited in 2006 from footage not used in the original movie. It has some dull moments, but is generally very good–and it has full songs. It closes with an alternate take of the Subterranean cue card bit, this on a rooftop instead of an alley.
  • Greig Marcus and D. A. Pennebaker: 18 minutes, 1080i. A conversation with journalist and cultural critic Marcus. Interesting, but much of it you will get from other extras.
  • Subterranean Homesick Blues” (alternate take): two minutes, 1080p. Yet another version of the cue card bit, this one shot in a garden. By the way, all of the versions have Allen Ginsberg in the background, on the left, talking to someone.
  • Additional Audio Performances: Five songs recorded during the tour, with nothing on screen except a photo of Dylan singing. The songs are “It Ain’t Me Babe,” “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” “the Lonesome Deagth of Hattie Carroll, and “To Ramona. “
  • D. A. Pennebaker: A Look Back: Four separate short films:
    • It Starts with Music: 29 minutes; 1080p. Pennebaker and some of his collaborators/assistants talk about how he developed his technique. Very interesting. “Narration to me is the enemy of theater.”
    • Daybreak Express: Five minutes; 1080p. Pennebaker’s first film, shot in 1953 but not completed until ’57. A visual love letter to NYC, set appropriately to Duke Ellington music. Also provided: a 3-minute introduction.
    • Baby: Six minutes; 1080p. Another early film, of Pennebaker’s young daughter at the zoo, filmed in 1954. Pennebaker considers this a breakthrough in what type of filmmaker he would become, but on its own, it’s just a home movie set to some nice music.
    • Lambert & Company: 14 minutes; 1080p. A Pennebaker film showing jazz vocalist Dave Lambert auditioning a new group for a record that was never recorded. Nice music, and it’s interesting to see how it’s created in the studio.
  • D.A. Pennebaker and Bob Neuwirth: 34 minutes; 1080p. The two of them talking about their work together, which started but didn’t stop with Dont Look Back. They talk, with some clips from the films they worked on together. The film ends with a clip from a 1971 Neuwirth concert which proves that Neuwirth’s talent was really in helping other musicians.
  • Snapshots from the Tour: 26 minutes; 1080p. More outtakes. It’s uneven, but with a lot of music played in hotel rooms.
  • Patti Smith: 14 minutes; 1080p. Recorded just this summer. Smith talks about Dylan as an idol and eventually a friend.
  • Trailer: You guessed it, they advertised the film with The Subterranean Homesick Blues cue card bit.

And none of these extras answers the big question: Who stole the apostrophe in the title?

A+ List: Ikiru; also a Blu-ray review

A bureaucrat, emotionally dead and cut-off from both his job and his family, discovers that he has only months to live. He has scarce time to make his empty life meaningful. He will find that meaning in Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 masterpiece, Ikiru.

The name translates into English as To Live.

When I started this project of revisiting my all-time favorite films–my A+ list of personal classics–I thought I would quickly skip over Ikiru on the grounds that I discussed it previously in a Kurosawa Diary entry. But then Criterion announced the Blu-ray, just as Ikiru came up on the alphabetical list. Sometimes, the timing works.

For a film to make my A+ list, it must be the perfect embodiment of its genre or, better yet, stand beyond genre. It must be at least 20 years old (so I know that it’s stood the test of time), and I personally must of have known and loved the film for years–preferably decades.

Consider American films about dying of cancer. In The Bucket List, the main characters go skydiving, fly over the North Pole, and eat in a gourmet French restaurant. In Breaking Bad, the hero makes and deals drugs to pay for treatment and help his family. But in Kurasawa’s moral universe, the dying protagonist finds redemption by fighting city hall and getting a park built in a slum.

What’s more, Kurosawa found a unique and original way to structure the story that keeps it from getting preachy or maudlin.

Warning: What you’re about to read has mild spoilers. I don’t think they will ruin your first screening of Ikiru. But if you’re worried, skip down to the First Impression section below.

In what was probably the best role of his career, Takashi Shimura plays Watanabe, the city hall bureaucrat who almost accidentally discovers he has an advanced case of stomach cancer. He stops going to work. A widower, he discovers he can’t make any significant contact with his son and daughter-in-law, even though they live with him.

He tries wine, women, and song; they don’t help. He befriends a former co-worker–a young woman bursting with life. Their friendship is platonic, but his family assumes otherwise. He’s happy when he’s around her, but eventually she pushes him away.

Before his diagnosis, he led a department where everyone pretended to be busy but never did anything meaningful. Now he takes on a crusade: He will get the city to drain an germ-infested sump and replace it with a park.

And just when the story is about to become sentimental, Kurosawa jumps ahead five months and the narrator tells us that Watanabe is dead. (Ikiru uses narration sparingly, but brilliantly. This is the only drama I’ve ever seen where a voice-of-God narrator sounds sarcastic.) In the extended wake scene that follows, the hero’s family and co-workers piece together at least part of what he never told them.

After Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura was the most important actor in Kurosawa’s career. Primarily a character actor, Shimura rarely got starring roles. But he carries this picture beautifully, and you feel his presence even in the wake sequence, where you see him only in flashbacks.

For a film about death, Ikiru can be surprisingly lively. A jazz nightclub scene gives you a taste of Kurosawa’s love for American popular music. Jokes abound, many around the “rakish” hat he acquires in his night of partying.

Aside from the jazz, music plays some important roles here. Twice in the film, Shimura sings a touchingly sad song (Shimura acted in musicals before his Kurosawa years). And the story’s major turning point happens in a restaurant where young people in the background sing “Happy Birthday.”

Class differences play an important part in Ikiru. Look closely, and you’ll see a society where your birth defines your life in often cruel ways.

Few films are as perfect as Ikiru.

First Impression

The Ikiru Blu-ray comes in a standard Criterion case. The cover shows the famous still of Shimura sitting on a swing on a snowy night. Inside, along with the disc, is a printed foldout with two articles: Donald Richie’s “To Live” and Pico Iver’s “Ikiru Many Autumns Later.” The foldout also contains credits for the film and disc, and Criterion’s traditional “About the Transfer” page.

If you own Richie’s classic book, The Films of Akira Kurosawa, you already own the first article on the foldout.

When you inset the disc, the home screen shows a close-up of a very scared Takashi Shimura. There’s no sound. The menu follows Criterion design, with the options on the right.

The only language options are English subtitles–On (default) or Off.

As with all Criterion Blu-rays, when you insert the disc a second time, you’ll get an option to go back to where you left off. Selecting No will bring you to the home screen.

How It Looks

The 4K scan was taken from a fine-grain master positive–the original camera negative is either lost or destroyed. Criterion presents this scan in 1080p AVC.

For the most part, it looks excellent. Ikiru is not a pretty movie, but the details–stacks of papers, peeling wallpaper–play an important role in creating the atmosphere of post-war Tokyo and of useless bureaucracy.

Unfortunately, some of the source material was beyond repair (or beyond Criterion’s budget). Occasionally the image was marred by what appeared to be uneven exposure, with part of the screen bleached out..

How It Sounds

The uncompressed LPCM 1.0 24-bit, 24-bit mono soundtrack did its job. In some of the music scenes, you could hear the early 1950s technology struggling to capture the notes.

But I suspect this is how it sounded when Kurosawa signed off on the mix. I have no complaints.

And the Extras

The suppliments are identical to those on the 2003 two-disc DVD release.

  • Commentary by Stephen Prince, author of The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa.
    In a truly excellent commentary, Prince discusses Kurosawa’s techniques, his collaborators, and bits about post-war Japan that helps make this very universal story specifically Japanese.
  • A Message from Akira Kurosawa: For Beautiful Movies: 81 minutes, 1080i, but looks like SD. Produced by Kurosawa’s company only two years after his death, this overly-referential, feature-length documentary covers his movie-making techniques from writing to scoring. Much of it is shallow and dull. But occasionally, especially when Kurosawa is on screen talking, it’s interesting and informative.
  • Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create: 42 minutes, 1080i, but looks like SD. In 2002, Japanese television did a documentary series on Kurosawa’s films. This is the Ikira episode. It’s mostly antidotes from people who worked on the film, and for the most part it’s fascinating. Very much worth watching.
  • Trailer

Miracle Mile: A quirky romantic comedy thriller about the ultimate disaster. My Blu-ray review

I usually review Blu-rays of well-loved classics. This time, I’m covering a little-known film you’ve probably never heard of. But it should be a well-loved classic.

Miracle Mile starts as a quirky, one-of-a-kind romantic comedy. Harry (Anthony Edwards) woos Julie (Mare Winningham)–in a science museum–with his wit and his slide trombone. He meets her grandparents. They arrange a first date. He oversleeps and misses it.

Then he answers a wrong phone number and discovers that everything he cares about–in fact, all of civilization–will be gone in a little more than an hour. The United States has fired nuclear missiles at the Soviet Union, and retaliation is inevitable.

Unless, of course, it was a prank call.

At that point, Miracle Mile becomes a very different type of movie. Following Harry in real time, it becomes both a heart-stopping thriller and a very dark comedy of disaster, as he tries desperately to find and save the girl who thinks he jilted her.

And, of course, everything goes wrong. And not just the little, funny things. Harry’s actions result in several deaths and the destruction of a gas station and department store. Eventually, Harry begins to doubt what he heard on that wrong number, but that’s no comfort either. If the bombs won’t be falling, he’s going to be in very big trouble.

The comedy drains away as the suspense increases and the film nears its climax. I found myself shaking in the film’s last minutes–and that was my second time seeing the movie.

Harry isn’t much of a hero. Yes, he puts his life on the line to save the woman he loves–even though they’ve only just met. But he makes one stupid mistake after another, and unlike a Hitchcock protagonist, he doesn’t learn much from his mistakes.

The story wouldn’t work at all if we didn’t care about Harry and Julie. De Jarnatt made a very good choice in casting Edwards and Winningham in the lead roles. They’re both attractive, but not gorgeous. Because they don’t look like conventional Hollywood stars, you can more easily accept them as real people. They’re not fantasy figures. It helps considerably that both Edwards and Winningham are excellent actors.

De Jarnatt and cinematographer Theo van de Sande shot most of Miracle Mile in long takes, often with excellent, dynamic staging and camera movements that don’t draw attention to themselves. This style, almost unheard of today, adds to the feeling that the movie is unspooling in real time–that ten minutes on the screen is equal to ten minutes in the characters’ lives. And when the minutes left in the characters’ lives may be draining away very quickly, the film becomes very tense.

Helping that tension is the remarkable music by Tangerine Dream, which manages to be unusual without drawing attention to itself. Chilling and taut, it produces the feeling of a nightmare.

The title comes from a Los Angeles neighborhood, not far from Hollywood, where most of the film is set.

Made in 1988 and released in 1989, Miracle Mile is probably the last film about nuclear disaster made during the cold war. It barely made a peep when it came out. I discovered this film, almost by accident, in New York in 2011. I wrote about it enthusiastically, and noted that it was available for home viewing only on a badly-cropped DVD. Since I discovered it, it has played once at the Castro.

In other words, it’s a very difficult film to see properly, either in a theater or at home. I’m glad to report that with the release of this Blu-ray next Tuesday (July 28), at least for home screenings that problem will be solved.

First Impression

There’s nothing special about the case, and nothing inside that case except the disc.

When you insert the disc and get past the FBI warning, you’ll find a very stripped down and unexceptional menu. The only options are Play, Chapter, and Bonuses. There are no Setup options.

The disc only has nine chapters.

How It Looks

This low-budget film doesn’t call for an incredible transfer, and Kino didn’t give it one. But the transfer is more than acceptable. The colors look right, and pop when they should pop (which is often). Everything is reasonably sharp, and the film grain is clearly visible.

In other words, it looks like just what it is: A low-budget commercial American film from the late 1980s, shot mostly at night with very fast film.

How It Sounds

Miracle Mile was originally released is Ultra Stereo, a competitor and to a certain extent a clone of the then ubiquitous Dolby Stereo. Coincidentally, this is my second Blu-ray review in a row of an Ultra Stereo film–the other being Hoop Dreams.

Like Dolby, Ultra put two discrete stereo tracks on the 35mm film, then used some electronic tricks to channel the sounds into four, rather than just two, directions. As far as I know, Ultra Stereo soundtracks were compatible with Dolby Stereo sound systems.

Kino is releasing Miracle Mile in 2-track stereo, without any instructions about surround decoding. Before watching the entire movie, I did some tests and decided that it sounded best with my receiver’s Dolby Surround Decode turned on. The tracks use lossless DTS-HD Master Audio compression, and sound great.

Still, I wish Kino had done what Criterion did with Hoop Dreams–release the disc with a 4.0 soundtrack. That gives you the original mix without any ambiguity about how the audio should be played.

And the Extras

  • Audio commentary with writer/director Steve De Jarnatt & film critic Walter Chaw: Interesting and covers all the bases, including how the story evolved, the small budget, and the various actors.
  • Audio commentary with De Jarnatt, DP Theo Van De Sande, and Production Designer Chris Horner: A lot of self-congratulations here, as they say various versions of “We did so much on such a tiny budget.” But they also describe some interesting money-saving tricks, so it’s not a complete loss.
  • Excavations from the editing room tar pits – deleted scenes, outtakes, and bloopers: 11 minutes, 1080p. Some of the scenes are interesting, and tell us more about the characters. But there’s no narration to put it into context. Someone decided to add music over everything, obscuring much of the dialog. Although presented in 1080p, it all looks like standard video.
  • Supporting cast & crew reunion: 14 minutes, 1080p. Several supporting actors talk about the movie and what they’ve done since.
  • Harry & Julie: Interview with stars Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham: 12 minutes, 1080p. They talk, with clips from the film popping up intermediately. It’s interesting. Edwards mentioned the NYC screening where I discovered the movie.
  • Alternate Diamond Ending: five minutes, 1080p. It repeats the last minute or so of the movie, then has one really stupid shot, then repeats the entire credits roll. Utterly pointless.
  • Trailers for Miracle Mile and De Jarnatt’s only other feature as a director, Cherry 2000.

Hoop Dreams (my Blu-ray review)

I’d be hard put to name another documentary that feels so much like a narrative feature. Not that Steve James’ Hoop Dreams looks like a fiction film; it most certainly does not. The hand-held cameras, extreme lenses, and low video resolution makes it look like the cinéma vérité documentary that it is. But James and his team edited the film so as to bring the audience through a fiction-like journey, with charismatic protagonists, interesting and likeable supporting players, plot twists, joy, disappointment, and suspense.

The protagonists: William Gates and Arthur Agee, two African-American teenage boys from bad Chicago neighborhoods. They have all the disadvantages you’d expect from that environment–poverty-stricken mothers, absentee fathers, filthy streets, and violence all around them. But they have an advantage. They’re both basketballs prodigies, discovered early on by talent scouts. If they can make an impression on their high school teams, and get good enough grades academically, they just might be able to get into a good college on a scholarship. And from there, if they’re really lucky, they might eventually go professional in the NBA.


James and his crew followed both boys (who are rarely shown together) through all four years of high school. Scouts get them into St. Joseph’s, a Catholic school with a strong basketball team. But there are setbacks. Agee loses his scholarship, and is forced to drop out mid-semester and return to public school. Gates manages to stay in St. Joseph’s, in part because of a rich sponsor, but he injures his knee, loses time in recovery, and has a difficult time regaining his previous abilities.

The picture is really about the American dream, and the people whom society all but disqualifies from attaining it. Gates and Agee get a rare chance only because of exceptional talent. (One college mentioned had only seven black students; six of them on the basketball team.) But it’s a chance that involves absurdly hard work and damaging physical punishment. And after all that, maybe, a very slight possibility of a lucrative but short career. The film doesn’t touch much on how colleges exploit their players, but John Oliver laid it out pretty well recently.

As you get to know Gates, Agee, and their families over the nearly three-hour running time (and the five years of shooting), you become completely invested in their story. You want these two kids to succeed, even as you realize that the kids they’re competing against are just as desperate and just as worthy.

Hoop Dreams becomes exceptionally exciting and suspenseful in the game scenes . With details of the play intercut with reaction shots of parents and coaches, James and his collaborators bring you to the edge of your seat over and over again. More than once, either Gates or Agee finds himself in a place where only he can win the big game and bring on the happy ending.

But sometimes, he fumbles. That’s when you remember that what you’re watching isn’t fiction.

First Impression

imageLike most Criterion discs, Hoop Dreams comes in a clear plastic case. The cover photo shows a red basketball jersey with the film’s title. Open the box and you get–aside from the disc–a fold-out with two articles: “Serious Game” by John Edgar Wideman, and “The Real Thing,” by Robert Greene. Turn it over, and you’ll find credits for both the movie and the disc, along with a collage of photos and news clips.

When you insert the disc into your player, you’ll see the standard Criterion menu on the left side of the screen. As is standard for Criterion Blu-rays, there’s a timeline and the ability to create bookmarks. When you insert the disc into a player in which you’ve inserted it before, you’ll get an option to go back to where you left off.

How It Looks

Criterion did as good a job as is reasonably possible making Hoop Dreams look good on Blu-ray, but there’s only so much that can be done. This film was shot on standard-definition analogue videotape in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The Blu-ray presents the picture in a 1080i transfer. But when you convert 340 lines to 1080, you still have only 340 lines worth of information. The picture is soft, and shows a great deal of video artifacts.

That’s the way the film always looked, so I can’t complain. But it doesn’t really need to be seen on Blu-ray. I suspect that the DVD–$8 to $10 cheaper–looks just as good or at least very, very close.

How It Sounds

The movie was originally mixed in Ultra Stereo, a competitor and to a certain extent a clone of Dolby Stereo. Criterion provides a four-track, lossless DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack decoded from the original two-track, four-channel mix.

The filmmakers made almost no use of three of those channels, and you could easily listen to the film through an excellent sound system and assume it’s in mono. In other words, the sound isn’t impressive, but it was never meant to impress in that way.

And the Extras

  • Filmmaker Commentary: Peter Gilbert, Steve James, and Frederick Marx. Recorded in 2005. I haven’t yet listened to it.
  • Subjects Commentary: Agee and Gates, also recorded in 2005. I’m really looking forward to listening to this one.
  • Life After Hoop Dreams: 1080i, 40 minutes. Made in 2014. Covers a lot of ground about Agee, Gates, and their families, with James and cinematographer Peter Gilbert as on-screen narrators. The most interesting realization is that Hoops Dreams itself changed their lives and opened doors for them, even though neither of them got into the NBA.
  • Siskel & Ebert: 1080i, 15 minutes. The famous critics had a lot to do with this film’s success. This selection of clips from their show gets a bit repetitive, but it’s fun seeing the two of them again.
  • Additional scenes: 1080i, 21 minutes. Deleted scenes and earlier versions of scenes that made the final cut. Occasionally interesting, but nothing really exceptional.
  • Music video: 1080i, 3 minutes. Of the film’s theme song. Directed by cinematographer Peter Gilbert. Not to my taste.
  • Trailers: The disc has two of them. It’s painfully obvious which one was made for white people.

Death and families: Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (Blu-ray review)

No horror movie can come close to the fear, dread, and dark hatreds of Ingmar Bergman’s great chamber drama, Cries and Whispers. To watch it is to face the end of a slow and painful death by cancer. But that’s not all. This film, centered around four women and set almost entirely in one house, forces you to face the neglect and out-and-out cruelties with which we treat those who should be closest to us.

This is not escapist entertainment.

Agnes (Harriet Andersson) is in the last stages of a long decline. She’s weak, terrified, and often in horrible pain. Her two sisters–who can barely stand to be in the same room with each other–have come to the family home to help ease her passing. How do you face the death of someone you love? Or worse yet, someone that you think you should love, but there’s very little love in your soul.


One suspects that life has been easy for the stunningly beautiful sister Maria (Liv Ullmann). So easy, in fact, that she doesn’t know how to react in a crisis. When she watches someone’s suffering, she doesn’t rush forward to help, but holds back and cries. A respectable, upper-class wife and mother in late 19th century Sweden, she’s as immature and flirtatious as a teenager.

The other sister, Karin (Ingrid Thulin), is almost her polar opposite. She’s cold and remote. She does what she has to do, and behaves properly. But she can’t stand impropriety or physical contact.

The fourth woman is the household maid, Anna (Kari Sylwan). She’s been with the family for years, and spent many of those years nursing Agnes through her long illness. Unlike Maria and Karin, Anne truly loves Agnes. When Agnes complains of being cold, Anne crawls into her bed to keep her warm. Were they lovers? Hard to say. When Anne cuddles Agnes, the image is closer to a mother comforting a small child.


The confined story appears to happen over a few days. Flashbacks provide some backstory, and introduce us to Maria’s and Karin’s husbands. But even these take place in the family estate.

You can recognize the interior of the house easily; everything is red–walls, carpet, curtains, and furniture. At the end of a scene, the film fades not to black, but to red. It’s a strange choice, but the right one. All of that red produces a sense of blood, of passion, and of the womb.


Thank cinematographer and long-time Bergman collaborator Sven Nykvist for those reds. He allows the crimson to dominate the image, without it ever looking false or getting out of control. Nykvist clearly deserved the Oscar he won for this picture.

imageAs you would expect, Bergman drew brilliant, loving, yet horrifying performances out of the four leads. When we first meet Agnes in an extended close-up, Andersson’s eyes look directly into the camera with a fear that we all must experience when we face our mortality. When Maria attempts to seduce a former lover (Erland Josephson), her face shows a combination of lust, fear, and pride, confidence, and a deep uncertainty.

I’d have a hard time naming another drama as intense or emotionally realistic as Cries and Whispers. And yet it flies by like an action movie, and has scenes that could have come out of a horror film.

First Impression

Cries and Whispers comes in the usual transparent Criterion case. The cover shows imagea close-up of Andersson–in black and white tinted red (of course.)

When you open the case, you’ll find, along with the disc, a fold-out dominated with an article by Cambridge professor Emma Wilson named–believe it or not–Love and Death. When you’re dealing with such dark matters,the comic reference is appreciated.

Like all Criterion Blu-rays, the disc comes with a timeline so you can bookmark favorite scenes. When you insert the disc into a player on which you played that disc in before, you’ll have the option to get back to where you left off.

How It Looks

Nykvist didn’t win that Oscar for photographing pretty pictures. Or sharp ones. Cries and Whispers uses defused light and soft focus. In other words, this isn’t the movie you use to show off your cool HDTV.

But the transfer does its job. Those ubiquitous reds are deep and rich, yet never bloom out of control. The atmospheric lighting, usually replicating sunlight or oil lamps, does exactly what it’s supposed to do. Neither Bergman nor Nykvist lived long enough to approve of this transfer, but I suspect that they would.

How It Sounds

I have no complaints about the uncompressed PCM 1.0 mono soundtrack. It’s the mix that Bergman approved, and it probably sounds as good here as it did in the projection room. It certainly sounds better than it would on a 35mm print with a 1973 optical soundtrack.

It also comes with an optional English-dubbed track. I didn’t listen to it. The newly-translated English subtitles are just fine.

And the Extras

No commentary track, but still plenty of supplements.

  • Introduction by Ingmar Bergman:1080i; 7 minutes. A subtitled interview from 2003. It’s rather long for an introduction, but it contains some interesting stuff.
  • Harriet Andersson: 1080p; 20 minutes. The actress in conversation with film historian Peter Cowie, recorded in 2012. Quite wonderful, especially the behind-the-scenes footage of the cast and crew goofing off while making this extremely serious film.
  • On-Set Footage: 1080i; 34 minutes. More of that footage, this time with commentary by Peter Cowie. An interesting overview of the film’s production.
  • Ingmar Bergman: Reflections on Life, Death, and Love with Erland Josephson: 1080i; 52 minutes. Interview with director and star from Swedish TV,1999. As I have not yet watched this one.
  • On Solace: 1080p; 13 minutes. 2014 video essay by cinema theorist  ::kogonada. Disappointing. His dull, monotone voice suggested a profundity that simply wasn’t there.

Criterion has done justice to one of Bergman’s best films.

Fantasy for the family that thinks together: Time Bandits on Criterion Blu-ray

At his creative height in the 1980s, Terry Gilliam wrote and directed some of the dizziest, imaginative fantasies ever projected. He would mash up well-known myths, social satire, amazing (but cheap) special effects, the surreal comedy of Monty Python (he was, after all, their token Yank), and a busily baroque visual style all his own. His more recent works, such as The Zero Theorem, are a pale reflection of what he once could do.

Time Bandits, briefly the top-grossing independent film ever, was his breakout hit. It came out as a bolt of merry lightning in 1981, reminding everyone who saw it that there was more to fantasy adventure than an endless stream of Star Wars and Conan rip-offs. Here was an irreverent tale of Robin Hood, Napoleon, Agamemnon, the Titanic, and the ultimate battle between God and Satan.


Actually, in this movie they’re called the Supreme Being and Evil. The Supreme Being is played by Ralph Richardson as a fussy bureaucrat in a business suit. I doubt anyone else could have properly delivered a line like "I am the Supreme Being. I’m not entirely dim."

David Warner, one of the great villains of the last half century, plays Evil with appropriate relish, in a costume and makeup that must have been great fun to design. He has henchmen, of course, obsequious yes men whom he blows up on a whim.


But let’s get to the story:

Young Kevin (Craig Warnock), a wise boy with idiotic parents, accidentally finds himself travelling through time with six motley and generally inept robbers. They started their criminal careers by stealing a map from the Supreme Being that shows holes in the fabric of time and space. With this map in their hands, they can rob Napoleon (Ian Holm) and escape into Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest. "Mr." Hood, by the way, is played by John Cleese as an insufferable and idiotic nobleman proud to be slumming with "the poor."


The robbers, played by little people–including David Rappaport as their leader and Kenny Baker (AKA R2D2)–start off greedy and self-centered, and constantly arguing with each other. But as Evil (who wants to get his hands on that map) comes after them, they have to learn to care for each other, and for Kevin.

Time Bandits is a family movie, in the sense that children and adults can all enjoy it. But it’s too scary for very young children. I would say it’s fine for kid seven and up. But it’s not appropriate for parents who don’t want their children laughing at God.

First Impression

imageThe disc comes in a thickish plastic case. The outer slipcover has a lenticular illustration that creates a 3D effect if you look at it straight on.

Remove the slipcover and open the case, and you’ll find the disc and, instead of Criterion’s usual book, a fold-out copy of the map so important to the plot. On the other side you’ll find an essay by David Sterritt and credits for both the film and disc.

The essay is alright, but there’s too much plot description and too much celebration, with too little real analysis.

When you insert the disc, it displays the aforementioned map, with standard Criterion menu on the left.

Like all Criterion Blu-ray discs, it has a timeline. You can bookmark any point in the movie. When you insert the disc for the second or third time, you’ll be asked if you want to go back to where you left off.

How It Looks

Gilliam, with the help of Art Director Norman Garwood and cinematographer Peter Biziou, filled the frame with little details to delight the eye and create a sense of wonder. That’s part of Gilliam’s signature style. The better the resolution, the more you get to enjoy.

Criterion’s 2K transfer, supervised by Gilliam, does justice to this busy image (yes, it probably would have looked even better in 4K). Details are sharp, and the film grain is visible but not distracting. In a couple of shots, the skin tones looked a little over-saturated, but I’m not sure that wasn’t intentional.

How It Sounds

Like most commercial features of the 80s, Time Bandits was released theatrically in the 35mm version of Dolby Stereo. To recreate that type of mix in home media, all you need is two-track stereo media, a surround audio system, and enough knowledge to press the Surround or Surround Decode button on your receiver’s remote control. (You don’t need to press that button for a more modern 5.1 mix.)

Criterion offers the original Dolby Stereo mix as an uncompressed, PCM, 24-bit, two-track stereo mix. The only thing missing: They don’t tell you that this is a Dolby Surround mix. I don’t know why. So you have to know, on your own, to turn on the Surround or Surround Decode feature on your receiver.

By the way, it sounds great.

And the Extras

  • Commentary by Terry Gilliam and cast members: The various people who speak on this track, prepared in 1997 for the Criterion Laserdisc release, were recorded separately. You don’t get to hear them talking to each other. Gilliam does the lion’s share of the talking, while Craig Warnock (a young adult by 1997) adds quite a bit. So does Michael Palin, who in addition to acting co-wrote the screenplay with Gilliam. John Cleese and David Warner talk a bit about their small parts. Interesting and fun.
  • Creating the Worlds of the Bandits: 23 minutes. HD. New. This documentary covers production and costume design, and tells the story of how the movie was shot, from the point of view of the designers.
  • Terry Gilliam and (film scholar) Peter Von Bagh: 80 minutes. A conversation recorded in 1998 at the Midnight Sun Film Festival, just before a screening of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Gilliam recounts his life and career, with very little about Time Bandits.
  • Shelley Duvall: 9 minutes. Excerpt from a 1981 episode of TV show Tomorrow, where Duvall is interviewed by Tom Snyder. Kind or ironic since she has such a small role.
  • Still Gallery: Lots of behind the scenes photos. Didn’t go through all of it.
  • Trailer: Very funny in a meta way.

The Criterion Time Bandits Blu-ray disc goes on sale today.

The Mediocre Fascist: The Conformist comes to Blu-ray

Fascist states don’t really need that many committed fascists. But they do need ambitious, unscrupulous, and cowardly people.

In Bernardo Bertolucci’s brilliant character study of a man lacking character, we see political murder as an act of a bureaucrat. Jean-Louis Trintignant plays Marcello Clerici as a confused, emotionally cut-off cog in the wheel of Mussolini’s government in the late 1930s.


A civil servant with a "good" record, Marcello yearns for middle class respectability. To that end, he’s preparing to marry the bourgeois imageGiulia (Stefania Sandrelli), whom he doesn’t really love although he feels some fondness for her. Why shouldn’t he? She’d attractive and can hardly keep her hands off of him.

But their honeymoon provides an ideal tool for the government, which wishes to make a lesson out of Marcello’s old college professor–an anti-fascist activist now living in exile in Paris. Marcello, of course, takes the assignment.

While Trintignant plays Marcello as a nervous man who keeps his cards close to his chest, Sandrelli’s Giulia is an open book. She clearly adores her new husband, and doesn’t object in the slightest when he looks up an old professor. In fact, she becomes bosom pals with the professor’s much younger wife Anna, played by Dominique Sanda as a self-assured sex goddess.

Marcello soon starts ditching his wife to visit this irresistible woman (remember that this is their honeymoon). Anna lets him seduce her, possibly because she understands the danger and wants to control him. But sexually, she’s clearly interested in Giulia, who doesn’t quite understand this other woman’s advances.

But The Conformist isn’t about sex. It’s about a man desperate to fit into society, even if that society is evil.

For a serious political drama, The Conformist is a surprisingly beautiful film. The sets, clothes, and makeup are as glamorous as an old-fashioned MGM musical. Visually, the film is set in an idealized 1930s, even though the story looks coldly at the reality of that horrible decade. This gives the film a sense of people not quite living in the real world. They’re comfortable, but we know they won’t be comfortable for long.



Another curious aspect of this very serious drama: When it’s funny, it’s very funny. Not often, but on rare and brief occasions, it goes completely off the wall. There’s no reasonable way to explain the fascist bureaucrat with a desk covered in walnuts. But bits like this break the tension and never undermine the serious story.

The Conformist makes for great art and great entertainment. It’s sexy, vibrant, and suspenseful–with a story that makes you care not for the protagonist but for the people unfortunate enough to know him.

First Impression

imageThe Conformist arrives in a standard Blu-ray box inside a slip cover. The slip cover and the case display totally different graphics.

Inside, you’ll find one disc and a 27-page booklet, containing film credits and multiple short articles.

The first thing that comes up when you play the disc (after the FBI warning) is a logo for Video Cinema Arts Visions. Then the menu comes up.

The setup allows Italian or English audio, with English subtitles on or off. I selected the default: Italian audio, subtitles on.

How It Looks

The great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro shot The Conformist with the intention that it would be shown in dye-transfer Technicolor prints. The beautiful transfer provided by Kino recreates the saturated colors that made those prints special.


This is a film of colorful interiors and cold, snow-and-fog whites (I’ve never seen Paris look so chilly). Storaro captured these visuals magnificently. The Blu-ray does justice to his work.

How It Sounds

The slip cover announces that the audio would be in PCM stereo, which is odd because The Conformist was recorded and released in mono. The Video Cinema Arts Visions logo at the beginning of the movie is indeed in stereo. But once the movie really begins, it’s thankfully all mono.

And that’s uncompressed PCM mono. It sounds just fine.

And the Extras

Not much here. The only significant extra is a 57-minute documentary, In the Shade of the Conformist. It’s interesting when Bertolucci is talking, less so with the voice-of-god narrator. Fortunately, Bertolucci does most of the talking.

The only other supplement shows us two different English-language trailers–one from its original American release, and one from the 2013 restoration. The first one provides a good example of how fading color film can hurt a image.

In short, this is a great transfer of a great film. But the extras are slight.

The Conformist Blu-ray goes on sale November 25. Something to be thankful for just before Thanksgiving.



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