Red River on Blu-ray: Of men and cattle

To those who consider westerns mindless shoot-em-ups, and dismiss John Wayne as a talentless reactionary symbol, I can think of no better answer than Howard Hawks’ Red River. And outside of a movie theater, I can think of no better way to see it than in this new Criterion Blu-ray release.

In Tom Dunson, Wayne found his first complex, nuanced character–a man who starts out as the movie’s hero and slowly becomes its villain. Even then, he’s an honorable and sympathetic villain, and you understand why he behaves as he does. But you nevertheless root for the other guy.

That other guy is the orphan Tom raised as his own, Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift in his breakout role). They love each other as father and son, but under the strain of a long and dangerous cattle drive, their conflicting ways of handling hardship and managing hired hands turns them against onr another.

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Tom Dunson is a hard and determined man. He killed other men to establish his Texas ranch. In his defense, the other guys always drew first, but they wouldn’t have drawn at all if he was the sort who negotiated. But as the post-Civil War southern economy threatens to destroy all he worked and fought for, he gambles on a dangerous longshot–driving his immense herd across a thousand miles of potentially deadly territory. Matt, ever the loyal son, will help him lead a bunch of hired hands and thousands of cows across mountains and plains that may be infested with rustlers and Comanches.

In addition to Matt, Tom has a sidekick, Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan). Older and in some ways wiser than the others, he’s the loyal friend who tries to steer Tom away from his darker tendencies.

And Tom’s tendencies get very dark. As the drive drags on and the dangers increase, the men begin to grumble. Tom reacts with anger, pigheadedness, bullying, and eventually violence.

But Matt is one apple that clearly fell far from the tree. He treats the men with respect. He listens. He defends them when Tom becomes violent. A confrontation becomes inevitable.

This personal story plays out against an epic background. Russell Harlan’s beautiful black-and-white location photography has the mythic look of a John Ford western–a major departure from Hawks’ usual matter-of-fact visual style. And Dimitri Tiomkin’s magnificent score suggests that there’s something going on beyond the story of two men leading a cattle drive.

Unfortunately, the film reflects the almost subconscious racism of its time. Early on, Duson–basically at this point a squatter– kills a man trying to protect his employer’s property. I don’t believe that would have been acceptable if not for the convenient fact that both employer and employee are Mexican. Native Americans, of course, are treated as simple savages.

Like all great westerns, Red River is about masculinity. But it’s about two kinds of masculinity, and two very different kinds of men.

The ending has generated a lot of controversy since the movie opened in 1948. That’s all I’ll say about it.

The Two Versions

imageIf you’ve already seen Red River, chances are you’ve seen the pre-release version, originally shown in previews. The theatrical version runs about six minutes shorter.

After previewing his original cut in front of audiences, Hawks shortened the film. He also replaced narrative intertitles–designed to look like pages in an old book–with first-person narration by Brennan. That that version screened in theaters in 1948. And that, Hawks always insisted, is the definitive Red River.

And yet the pre-release version somehow got released and accepted as something like a director’s cut. And most people, myself included, prefer the pre-release version. The intertitles enhance the epic feel, while Brennan’s narration just gets annoying. And the ending, considerably shorter in the theatrical version (for legal reasons explained in the extras), works much better in the longer cut. In the theatrical version, everything gets resolved too quickly.

But you can make up your own mind. Criterion gives us both cuts.

First Impression

imageCriterion packages Red River in a thick cardboard box containing a disc sleeve and a book. The book is Borden Chase’s short novel, Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail,  that Chase and Charles Schnee adapted into the Red River screenplay.

The disc sleeve contains four discs and another book. Well, a 28-page booklet with two articles on the film and both film and disc credits.

The discs are stacked, two on the left, and two on the right. You have to remove one disc to get to the one beneath it. This configuration always makes me worry that I’ll damage a disc. I haven’t yet.

The two discs on the left are DVDs; on the right, Blu-rays. Following Criterion’s current policy, everything is on both discs. I only looked at the Blu-rays.

The first disc contains the theatrical cut, plus a few extras. The second contains the pre-release version, with additional extras. I don’t know why they didn’t use Blu-ray’s (and DVD’s) seamless branching feature to put both films on one disc. There would probably have been enough room for all of the extras, as well.

How It Looks

Red River is a beautiful example of 1940s black-and-white photography. Much of the film was shot in twilight or around campfires, requiring good shadow detail. The many long shots, showing wagons, galloping horses, and cows moving across vast stretches of open land require fine detail to make their impact.

Criterion’s 2k transfer manages all of this. Ninety-five percent of the time, this Blu-ray (or perhaps I should say these Blu-rays) looks great–from the mountains to the clothes to the faces seen only in shadow. Unfortunately, one of Red River’s most spectacular shots–a slow pan across the cattle just before the drive starts–looks horrible. In both versions, this shot is ruined by what looks like a combination of heavy film grain and digital artifacts.

How It Sounds

The PCM mono soundtrack is exactly what it should be. It doesn’t try to sound like anything beyond an optical soundtrack from 1948. But it sounds like a pristine soundtrack of the period, played in a really good theater.

And the Extras

By Criterion standards, these disappoint. There’s no commentary track, and no real documentary. Mostly you get interviews, some only in audio.

Disc One: The Theatrical version

  • About the Versions: Just a paragraph of written text about the two cuts.
  • Peter Bogdanovich on Red River: 17 minutes. The film historian and sometimes director explains Hawks’ esthetics and simple visual style. He also discusses the two versions.
  • Hawks and Bogdanovich: Criterion divided this 16-minute this audio interview from 1972 into 7 section. It’s worth a listen. I was surprised to discover that Hawks regretted shooting the film in black and white. Personally, I’m glad he did.
  • Trailer: 2 minutes.

Disc Two: The Prerelease Version

  • Molly Haskell: 16 minutes. The critic and historian discusses Red River’s gender issues, and Hawks’ approach to genre. Like me, she prefers the pre-release cut.
  • Lee Clark Mitchell: 13 minutes, The author of Westerns: making the Man in Fiction and Film talks about the western as a literary and cinematic genre, masculinity, and ties it all to Red River.
  • Borden Chase: 10 minutes. Audio excerpts from a 1969 interview, separated into four chapters. He talks a good deal about how Hawks changed the ending. He wasn’t happy with that.
  • Lux Radio Theatre: 59 minutes. Radio adaptation with much of original cast. I didn’t listen to it.

Red River is already on sale.

Comedy and Popularity: Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman on Blu-ray

It might be possible to watch Harold Lloyd’s 1925 masterpiece, The Freshman, without laughing, or without hoping that the protagonist will win the popularity he so deeply wants. But it wouldn’t be easy. Every shot in this film is brilliantly designed to make you either laugh or care–or both.

Lloyd’s "glasses" character truly came into his own in The Freshman. He’s more than just the brash, clever, ambitious, and opportunistic young American of Safety Last. Here "Harold Lamb" is a naïve college freshman, caught in the tide of peer pressure, desperately wanting to be liked and admired by his fellow students. In his determination to become popular, he unknowingly becomes the class clown. Everyone pretends to like him, but they’re all laughing behind his back.

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How can you watch a story like that and not be moved? This kid has spunk to spare. Even when his ineptitude makes a mess of things, his spirit and fortitude seem admirable.

What’s more, the movie is peppered with brilliant, extended comic sequences–although none top the climax of Lloyd’s Safety Last. Silent comedy, which don’t have to pause for the laughter to die down so that the audience hear the next line, could build one gag on top of another, producing an unstoppable locomotive of laughter. Lloyd was one of the masters of this technique.

Consider the Fall Frolic sequence. Harold is hosting the big party. It’s clearly hurting him financially, but he springs for a tailor-made tuxedo. Unfortunately, the tailor is subject to fainting spells, and has only managed to baste the tux –it’s not properly sewn together. So we have Harold trying to be the life of the party while his guests are secretly laughing at him, his suit is coming apart, and an elderly tailor is sneaking around, trying to fix the disintegrating tux without being seen–and without fainting.

And all the while, the local working girl who loves him looks on, far more aware than Harold of his real status. And his real worth.

I’m not sure if Jobyna Ralston was the best of Lloyd’s leading ladies, or simply the one who was there when Lloyd reached his artistic maturity. She’s not as funny as Mildred Davis, who after Safety Last gave up a career as his on-screen ingénue to become his real-life wife. But Ralston’s on-screen persona seemed both pure and worldly, sexy and motherly. She could deliver a "believe in yourself" pep talk that would save the day–even in a silent movie.

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I suppose I should explain why I called this film "Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman," even though the directing credit goes to Fred Newmeyer and Sam Taylor. Lloyd produced the film, and had complete control. Historians pretty much agree that Lloyd, who never took a directing credit, was the leader of the collaborative team that made his films.

The auteur is not always the director.

First Impression    

imageThis unusually thick three-disc set comes in a cardboard slipcover. The fold-out container inside has a cover designed as the Tate College 1925 yearbook.

Inside, on the left, are two DVDs stacked together. You have to remove disc 1 to access disc 2. On the right, a single Blu-ray disc contains the same content as the DVDs–looking and sounding better, of course.

Also in the box is a thin booklet dominated by an article by Stephen Winer, "Speedy Saves the Day! A Harold Lamb Adventure!" Mostly, this article puts the movie in its’ 1925 context. The booklet also has an "About the Transfer" page and disc credits.

How It Looks

This is one of the best transfers of a silent film I’ve yet seen–for the most part clear and sharp as a tack. Whether the image is pure black-and-white or tinted (the tints are based on instructions that came with the negative), it’s a beauty to behold.

I thought I saw, very briefly, some nitrate deterioration. It went by so fast I’m not entirely sure. (And no, I didn’t go back and look for it. I was enjoying the film too much.)

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How It Sounds

This version comes with a new chamber orchestra score composed and conducted by my favorite silent film accompanist, Carl Davis. Like his Safely Last score, this one is heavily flavored with jazz–appropriate for Lloyd, whose work is so much of the jazz age.

I love Davis’ work, but he made a serious mistake here. The music in the climactic football game was too subdued. It’s an exciting scene that deserves exciting music.

The score is presented in two-track stereo, uncompressed PCM. It sounds great.

Much as I love this score, I wish they had also included Robert Israel’s score from the previous Warner Brother’s release (part of The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection, Volume 2). That one, too, is excellent. With silent films, the more scores, the merrier.

And the Extras

No wonder the DVD version comes on two discs. There’s a lot of stuff here.

  • Commentary by film historian Richard Bann, archivist Richard Correll, and critic Leonard Maltin. A bit of a disappointment, especially when you consider how well these three men know the subject. While their talk contains some social and historical insights, the three (who were recorded together) spend too much time explaining what’s onscreen and just enjoying the movie. This extra track is also on the above-mentioned Warner Brothers release.
  • Harold Lloyd’s Funny Side of Life: 30 minutes. In 1966, Lloyd combined a re-edited version of The Freshman with an introduction and some narrated clips from his other films, and called the cobbled-together feature Harold Lloyd’s Funny Side of Life.  This excerpt contains everything in Funny Side of Life except The Freshman. Its only real interest is in seeing how Lloyd marketed his films to a new generation.
  • Short films: I’ve always preferred Lloyd in features than in shorts. Here are the three shorts included in this package:
    • The Marathon: 14 minutes. This early 1919 one-reeler doesn’t provide many laughs. It’s also one of the most racist silent comedies I’ve seen, and that’s saying lot. Piano score by Gabriel Thibaudeau.
    • An Eastern Westerner: (27 minutes). This cute 1920 western parody is easily the best of the three, with a climax that seems to parody Birth of a Nation. Carl Davis’ wonderful score adds to the merriment.
    • High and Dizzy: (27 minutes). Harold gets drunk and walks along a skyscraper’s edge. Moderately funny and historically interesting. Another Carl Davis score.
  • Conversation with Kevin Brownlow and Richard Correll: 40 minutes. Our leading silent film historian and Lloyd’s personal archivist discuss their own initial Lloyd experiences, both in terms of falling in love with his films and getting to know him personally. Interesting and enjoyable.
  • Harold Lloyd: Big Man on Campus:
    16 minutes. John Bengson, who’s written three books on silent comedy locations, discusses where The Freshman was shot.
  • Delta Kappa Alpha Tribute: 29 minutes. In 1964, USC’s School of Cinematic Arts honored Lloyd in a gala event. On stage, Jack Lemmon, Steve Allen, and one-time Lloyd collaborator Delmer Daves ask him about his career. They’re all relaxed and friendly. And Lloyd talks extensively about his work. The best extra on the disc.
  • What’s My Line: (7 minutes) Lloyd appears as the mystery guest in this 1953 TV game show clip. Inconsequential, but fun.

Criterion’s release of The Freshman, containing both DVDs and Blu-ray, go on sale today.

Kurosawa has fun: My Blu-ray review of Hidden Fortress

In Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa used the samurai genre to examine the limits of human knowledge and objectivity. In Seven Samurai, he told an epic story of small-scale war and a feudal system in crisis. In Throne of Blood, he adapted Macbeth to meditate on fate. In The Hidden Fortress, he pretty much just had fun.

The first of three samurai action comedies he would make very close together, Hidden Fortress is easily his most entertaining movie. Some of his basic themes of humanism and charity sneak through, but this is really just a sit-back-and-enjoy popcorn movie. No surprise that it was a major influence on George Lucas’ first Star Wars flick.

Watching The Hidden Fortress again–this time on Blu-ray–I was struck by how conservatively it accepts the Japanese feudal class system–at least on the surface. The most high-ranking character in the story, Princess Yuki, is also the most noble in the positive sense of the word. She’s willing to sacrifice for others, shows tremendous courage and stamina, and can’t bear to see her people suffer.

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By comparison, the two comic peasants who bring us into the film and through whom we see much of the story, are petty, greedy, untrustworthy, and usually stupid. The only other significant lower-class character–a peasant girl who comes in about half-way through the movie, is a good and trustworthy person. But she’s totally subservient to her betters. When wounded in a battle, she begs to be left behind because she’s not worth saving.

This is a far cry from the topsy-turvy class system of The Seven Samurai.

Or is it? Princess Yuki ‘s compassion comes off as an exception, not the rule for the ruling class. And she brings out compassion in others, shaming them into being less proper and more caring. This is especially true with the film’s main hero, a loyal general played by the greatest action star of them all, Toshiro Mifune. imageStrong, determined, and graceful as a big cat (and just as deadly), he holds the camera whenever he’s onscreen. He uses his wits more than his sword on this journey–smuggling the princess and a fortune in gold out of enemy territory. But when violence is called for, he’s in complete control. In one sequence he furiously gallops a horse at full speed, with both hands holding his sword aloft for action. In a theater with a good audience, that scene never fails to bring cheers.

Overall, The Hidden Fortress is more suspense than action. The main characters–growing from two to five over the course of the story–must sneak passed checkpoints, disappear into crowds, and go unnoticed by soldiers looking for them…as they contend with their own conflicting motives.

For more on The Hidden Fortress, see Kurosawa Diary, Part 15: The Hidden Fortress.

First Impression

imageCriterion packages The Hidden Fortress in the company’s standard-sized transparent plastic box, with an illustration of Princess Yuki on the cover.

Inside, on the left, you’ll find a small booklet, taken up mostly with an article by Catherine Russell called “Three Good Men and a Princess.” The booklet also includes a few paragraphs on the transfer, and other information on the Blu-ray release.

On the right side, a Blu-ray disc and DVD are stacked together. You have to remove the Blu-ray to get to the DVD. Within the limits of the format, they contain the same content.

How It Looks

The Hidden Fortress was the first of six consecutive films Kurosawa shot in Toho Studio’s Cinemascope clone, TohoScope. (These six were also his last black and white films.) Kurosawa and cinematographer Ichio Yamazeki were clearly having fun with the new, wide frame. They place the two arguing peasants on opposite sides of the screen. Or they line all four or five main characters together. They’re enjoying the new toy and binging us in for the fun.

But they’re also using it to tell the story and create location. the wide screen emphasizes the setting, and The Hidden Fortress used it to bring us the deserts, forests, and river crossings that make the story so compelling. Apparently, no one told them that shooting deep focus was impossible with the anamorphic scope lens, so they went ahead and did it over and over.

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Criterion’s 2K transfer is very good, but not exceptional. Details are sharp and clear most of the time, but occasionally they’re soft. Contrast is acceptable.

How It Sounds

The Hidden Fortress was originally released in Perspecta Stereo–sometimes called Perspecta Sound because it wasn’t real stereo. It was a standard mono optical soundtrack with sub-audio cues that could turn each of the three front speakers on and off. In other words, you could have different sounds coming out of different speakers at different times, but not different sounds coming out of different speakers at the same time.

Most theatrical audiences, in Japan, the US, and elsewhere, have only heard it in mono.

This release contains both mono and restored Perspecta versions. On the Blu-ray, the mono version is presented in uncompressed PCM; the Perspecta in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio. I listened to the opening credits music in both versions, and preferred the Perspecta, which sounded fuller and more impressive.

As near as I can tell, Kurosawa used the Perspecta’s fake stereo twice. In both cases, it was for an important sound effect off to the side.

Overall, the sound was very good for a Japanese film of this era.

And the Extras

  • Commentary by Stephen Prince: One of Prince’s best commentaries. He goes into depth about widescreen, Kurosawa’s use of short lenses as well as the long ones he’s associated with, the film’s influence on not only George Lucas but also Sergio Leone, John Ford’s influence on the film, and the themes and moral view of what’s clearly Kurosawa’s least moralistic movie. This is a new commentary recorded in 2013.
  • Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create: 40 minutes. Just about every Criterion Kurosawa release has the appropriate episode from this 2003 Japanese documentary mini-series. This episode has little about the story and the use of widescreen. But it has some amusing stories about horses.
  • George Lucas on Akira Kurosawa: 8 minutes. The creator of Star Wars, who turned the two comic peasants of The Hidden Fortress into C3PO and R2D2, talks about how he discovered Kurosawa in college, his use of the camera, and, of course, the influence on his work. From the earlier DVD release.
  • Trailer

The Hidden Fortress Blu-ray goes on sale today.

German Expressionism on a Hollywood Budget: My Blu-ray review of Sunrise

A marriage sinks as low as it can go, then rises again to the joys of marital bliss in F. W. Murnau’s first American film, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. The story is as simple and as simplistic as a story can get, yet the beautiful, expressionistic telling of that story turns it into a magnificent work of art.

In the 1920s, German expressionism appeared to be cinema at its most artistic. Rejecting naturalism, the expressionists used outsized acting styles against bizarre sets showing exaggerated forced perspective. Their films were no more real than Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter, and at their best were just as emotionally effective.

Murnau was one of expressionism’s leaders. Among his German hits were The Last Laugh and the strangest adaptation of Dracula, Nosferatu (see my Blu-ray review). But Hollywood has always tempted other country’s successful filmmakers, and Murnau leaped at the temptation. And why shouldn’t he? Studio head William Fox (whose name now adorns 20th Century Fox and, so help us, Fox News) offered him a huge budget and considerable freedom. He used it to make the greatest of all German expressionist features; and he did it in southern California with Hollywood stars.

Those stars were George imageO’Brien and Janet Gaynor, playing a young married peasant couple in a quaint, lakeside village. A temptress from the city seduces the husband (no one has a name in this film), and talks him into murdering his wife. He backs down at the last minute, and the story takes the couple to a large city, where they find redemption, forgiveness, love, and joy. A good quarter of the movie simply watches two people in love enjoying a outing together–a risky approach for narrative cinema, but one that works perfectly here. Potential disaster will greet them on the trip home.

I told you the story is simple.

Murnau and screenwriter Carl Mayer (another German) treat the city as a place of temptation and redemption. In the first act, the evil Woman from the City injects adultery and violence into a a happy, rural marriage. But in the second act, the unnamed city–almost an alien landscape to our protagonists–provides an environment where the two heal their wounds and rediscover their love. And after that, they have a great afternoon and evening enjoying urban pleasures.Murnau shot all of the city sequences, and much of the countryside as well, on the Fox back lot. He didn’t want the realism of downtown Los Angeles, but a perfect dream city.

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Make that a perfect European dream city. Although an early title tells the audience that the story "is of no place and every place," everything from the cottages in the village to the café in the city are designed to look European.

One can’t talk about Sunrise without acknowledging the groundbreaking, still breathtaking photography by Charles Rosher and Karl Struss. They turn a studio set into not just a moonlit marsh, but a beautiful, erotic moonlit marsh of the imagination. Their choice of lenses made the city set seem exciting and immense. They turned artificial weather into a chorus of angels and a wrath of the gods. And they highlighted brilliant, even if not realistic, performances by the two stars. Rosher and Struss deservedly won Oscars for their cinematography–Aa the very first Oscars ceremony.

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Sunrise is a silent film in all but the most technical sense. It tells its story visually and with intertitles–and not many of those. But it was originally released–at least in some of the best theaters–with a recorded music and effects soundtrack. It is, I believe, only the second sound feature film released by a studio other than Warner Brothers.

American and European versions

This disc contains two separate versions of Sunrise, officially listed as the Movietone and European versions (Movietone was Fox’s sound technology). Back in silent days, filmmakers usually made multiple original camera negatives for a movie. For long shots, they’d have several cameras lined up side by side. For more intimate setups, which required more exact framing, they made sure to have more than one usable take.

The European version of Sunrise–or at least the European version on this disc–runs about 15 minutes shorter than the American Movietone one. Why? I don’t know and nothing on the disc explains it. I noticed one missing sequence–a cad hitting on the wife in a barbershop–and several missing shots. Jump cuts and mismatched cuts suggest some crude cutting. Perhaps this transfer was sourced from a print that had been cut for some long-forgotten reason.

Unfortunately, amongst all of the extras on this disc, there’s very little about the two versions. It’s too bad that Fox didn’t include a short documentary explaining how they came to be and highlighting the more interesting differences.

Fox didn’t even see fit to tell us what language the intertitles are in (Eric Heath Prendergast of the UC Berkeley Linguistics Department informed me that it’s Czech). These intertitles, by the way, use the broad, hand-painted, and very unique visual style of the English originals–it’s nice to know that someone in Prague cared enough to do that. These intertitles are subtitled back into English on the disc.

First Impression

imageSunrise comes in a standard Blu-ray case. Open it, and you’ll find both a Blu-ray and a DVD. The DVD is two-sided, with the Movietone version on one side and the European one on the other.

I only looked at the Blu-ray, which had both versions on the same side .

After a brief 20th Century-Fox fanfare, and some time loading, the disk takes you immediately to the main menu. Actually, it only takes you there the first time you play it. After that, you’ll get a choice of returning to where you left off, or going back to the main menu. That automatic bookmarking is a nice touch that you rarely find outside of Criterion Blu-rays.

How It Looks

Sunrise stands amongst the greatest works of cinematography. But the original negatives are lost, and image quality can only be as good as the worn and multi-generational prints available.

Movietone version: When Hollywood started putting soundtracks on film, the picture had to become narrower. So Fox properly pillarboxed Sunrise to a very narrow 1.20×1.

Some scenes are significantly scratched, but not too many. As a whole, the image quality is good for a film this old, but not exceptional. There’s a slight fuzziness to the image, as if the film source was too many generations away from the original negative (which is probably the case).

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European
version: Wow! I wish the Movietone version looked this good. This is as sharp and detailed as the best silent Blu-rays I’ve seen. If it was complete, I’d definitely prefer this version.

Unlike the Movietone edition, this is a truly silent film, originally shown in theaters with live music, it’s therefore pillarboxed to the more conventional 1.33×1 aspect ratio.

Having watched these two versions on consecutive nights, I wish someone would take both and create the most perfect Sunrise out of them.

How It Sounds

Movietone version: Fox gives you a choice of two musical scores here. The default, of course, is Hugo Riesenfeld’s original score and recording from 1927. It’s haunting and beautiful, and is presented here in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio mono. This is probably the best it ever sounded.

The second track is a much more recent score by Timothy Brock, recorded by the Olympia Chamber Orchestra. I loved this score, too; I’d have a hard time choosing between them. This one is in two-track stereo, and oddly, presented only in lossy Dolby Digital.

European version: No choices here. You just get the Movietone soundtrack, edited to match the shorter length. Once again, it’s mono DTS Master Audio.

And the Extras

I’ve already complained about the extra that isn’t here–a documentary on the two versions. But there are plenty of others to fill in your knowledge of the film.

  • Commentary by cinematographer John Bailey. Not surprisingly, he talks a lot about the camerawork, but he also covers other aspects of the film. Very interesting.
  • Outtakes with commentary by John Bailey. 10 minutes. Some interesting stuff, here, although I get the feeling that Bailey wasn’t always sure what he’s showing you.
  • Outtakes with Text Cards: 9 minutes. These are for the most part–but not entirely–the same outtakes. Only this time, with introductory intertitles instead of vocal narration.

  • Original Scenario by Carl Mayer with Annotations by F.W. Murnaw. You step through this one page at a time, either automatically (every 5 seconds) or manually. I didn’t get too far. I’d rather they made this available in a PDF. One interesting discovery: On paper, the characters had names.
  • Sunrise screenplay: Same idea. Same problem.
  • Restoration notes: Once again, static pages of text. However, with only nine such pages, this one is readable and interesting.
  • Theatrical trailer

A Little Bit of Trivia

The front cover claims that Sunrise won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Yet most film historians will tell you that at the first Oscar ceremony, honoring the films of 1927 and ’28, Wings won Best Picture.

In reality, there was no award called "Best Picture" at that time. Wings won Outstanding Picture, and Sunrise won Unique and Artistic Production. In other words, they had one award for the big Hollywood blockbuster, and another for the work of art.

Kurosawa Says Noh to Shakespeare: My Blu-ray review of Throne of Blood

Akira Kurosawa went out on a limb when he made his loose Macbeth adaptation, Throne of Blood. Highly stylized and heavily influenced by Japan’s noh theater, the picture holds you emotionally at an arm’s length. You’re never invited to identify with or even empathize with the characters. This is Kurosawa at his coldest, as if Stanley Kubrick had crawled into his soul.

And yet, it’s also Kurosawa at his most atmospheric, and–at least amongst his black-and-white films–his most visually exciting. It creates a sense of doom and destiny, and of the inevitability of evil, that is hard to shake after the fade-out. As you watch Toshiro Mifune’s Macbeth character step deeper into regicide, murder, paranoia, and hopelessness, you understand that everything that happens to him is pre-ordained. And yet the film’s clearly-spelled-out message, that violence begets violence, comes out strong and clear.

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If you’ve ever fallen in love with Shakespeare, you know the basic story. Egged on by his evil and ambitious wife, a nobleman and great warrior murders his king (or great lord in this version), and takes the throne as his own. But one murder is never enough. And the more he kills, the more enemies rise up against him.

Macbeth hardly counts as naturalistic theater. The supernatural plays a heavy role, and  the bulk of the dialog is not prose but poetry. When Lady Macbeth talks in her sleep, she does so in iambic pentameter.

So it’s befitting that in adapting Macbeth, Kurosawa selected a Noh-like approach every bit as stylized as Shakespeare’s technique, and far more Japanese.image Also far more cinematic. Noh traditions allowed Kurosawa to use exaggerated makeup and strange, ritualized movements–especially with Isuzu Yamada as Mifune’s evil wife. Thick fog covers much of the landscape, and one particular forest seems downright evil. (If you know Macbeth, you know where this forest is going.) Even animals get into the act, helping to warn the thick-headed humans of the horrors to come.

But Kurosawa’s Noh can’t capture the complexities of human nature so beautifully displayed in Shakespeare’s poetry–and in much of Kurosawa’s best work. For that reason, I can’t quite put Throne of Blood amongst his very best work. But second-tier Kurosawa is still compelling filmmaking..

Throne of Blood contains some amazing sequences, including one of cinema’s greatest endings. I won’t spoil it, but I will tell you that Kurosawa departs greatly from Shakespeare’s original climax. In Shakespeare’s time, before the American, French, and Russian Revolutions, Kurosawa’s ending was probably unimaginable.

For more on the subject, see Kurosawa Diary, Part 12: Throne of Blood.

First Impression

Like so many Criterion titles, Throne of Blood comes in a clear, plastic case with an illustrated cover. Inside you’ll find two discs, a Blu-ray and a DVD–one set on top of the other. The movie and the complete extras are on both discs.

When you insert the Blu-ray for the first time, the main menu comes up almost immediately. After that, inserting the disc will offer you options of going to that menu or returning to where you left off.

In addition to the discs, the case contains a 24-page booklet with an article by Stephen Prince called "Shakespeare Transposed." Also here you’ll find essays on subtitle translation by Linda Hoaglund and the late, great Donald Richie. More on subtitling below.

How It Looks

If I wanted to show off what Blu-ray can do with a black-and-white, narrow-screen film, I’d use this disc. In a film filled with grotesque images, thick fog, pouring rain, terrified horses, angry birds, and deadly arrows, everything is highly-detailed and cinematic. The grain is there but not distracting. The gray tones are magnificent.

Just one complaint: A couple of bright daylight exterior long shots looked a bit washed out. I don’t think they totaled more than 15 seconds of screen time, and I’m not entirely sure they’re errors. Kurosawa loved extreme weather,  and more so here than in any other film. If you’re going to film thick fog and torrential rain, why not burning-hot sunlight?

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How It Sounds

As is Criterion’s standard procedure for mono films on Blu-ray, Throne of Blood reproduces the original soundtrack in a mono 2.0 uncompressed PCM. It sounded great, and is probably very close to what Kurosawa heard before okaying the mix.

And the Extras

All of these were also on the 2003 DVD release.

  • Choice of subtitles: Criterion includes two sets of English subtitles, each with a different translation. That’s a great idea, and it reminds us that if we don’t understand a film’s original language, we are always missing something. Before watching the entire film, I tried two scenes with each translation, and settled for Linda Hoaglund’s over Donald Richie’s. Her language was slightly archaic–although in no way Shakespearean. For instance, where Richie translates an exchange as "Was there a hut here before?"->"No, not that I know of," Hoaglund uses "Do you recall such a hovel?"->"No, the sight is new to my eyes."
  • Commentary by Michael Jeck: At first, I found Jeck’s voice irritating, as if he was trying too hard to be interesting. But I soon got used to it. The talk is educational, informative, and entertaining.
  • Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create: 23 minutes. Every Criterion Kurosawa disc contains the appropriate section from this Japanese TV documentary series. This is one of the best, concentrating primarily on Noh Theater and how it influenced this film. It also has Kurosawa talking about the time he met his idle, John Ford.
  • original Japanese trailer

Throne of Blood goes on sale January 7.

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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.

Life as we all must some day know it: My Blu-ray review of Tokyo Story

Before watching the Blu-ray Sunday night, it had been years since I’d last seen Yasujirō Ozu’s 1953 masterpiece, Tokyo Story. I remember loving the film, but I wasn’t ready for the emotional wallop it delivered. Perhaps my own mental state contributed to the experience–I’ve seen my son get married and lost two close relatives this year. That certainly put me in a receptive mood for a drama about losing your children to their adult lives, and losing your parents to their mortality.

But I don’t think my recent past marred my critical faculties. Tokyo Story is a great film. You don’t need to have experienced the life changes in it to appreciate it. And if you haven’t experienced them, don’t worry–you will.

An elderly couple travel from their small-town home to Tokyo. They have a son and a daughter living there–each married and with a life of their own. They also plan to visit their daughter-in-law–the widow of another son who was killed in the war. (They also have another daughter, still living with them, and another son who lives elsewhere.)

But their Tokyo-based children are busy with their own careers and their own families (the son, a pediatrician, also has two spoiled, misbehaving brats). Everyone greets them with the proper respect, but only the widowed daughter-in-law offers real warmth, and takes the time to give them a tour of the city.

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This could easily have turned into a melodrama about worthy parents and ungrateful children, but Ozu was too smart to take that easy approach. The younger adults (they’re not all that young) really do have responsibilities and concerns that make hosting Mom and Dad difficult. And the old man once had a drinking problem, which returns in the course of the film.

After a trip to a resort hotel doesn’t work out (it’s geared to a much younger  clientele), the elderly couple are moved from one house to another like King Lear–except that this time the children feel guilty about it.

Eventually the elderly parents cut their trip short, but the story takes another turn and becomes about dying and loss. And even then, the grown children have to return to their own lives and their own kids.

Ozu and cinematographer Yûharu Atsuta shot Tokyo Story in a way that is simple, direct, and extraordinarily Japanese. The camera never movies, and is usually about the height of someone kneeling on the floor—appropriate considering Japanese sitting and eating traditions. And yet, every so often, the film cuts to an empty room, or a landscape, or a factory, or a train. Ozu is putting his story into the context of the world where it’s set.

Most films look at the exceptional–people showing great courage or doing amazing deeds. In Tokyo Story, Ozu does something altogether different and remarkable. He looks at an ordinary family going through experiences that don’t happen every day, but happen pretty much in every lifetime.

First Impression

imageCriterion’s new release of Tokyo Story comes in a fold-out disc holder inside a slip case. Instead of the illustrations that have adorned most recent Criterion box covers, this one is decorated with stills from the film. Considering Ozu’s simply style, that’s appropriate.

Following Criterion’s new policy, the package contains both the film and all of the extras on both Blu-ray and  DVD. It’s actually a three-disc set; the Blu-ray can hold both the feature and the extras, but all that content requires two DVDs.

There’s also a slim book with credits for both the film and the restoration/transfer. It also has an article, "Compassionate Detachment," by university professor and film blogge David Bordwell, author of Pandora’s Digital Box

Like all Criterion Blu-rays, Tokyo Story has bookmarking. If you remove the disc and insert it again later, you’ll have the option to go back to where you left off.

How It Looks

In a word: Lovely.

Visually speaking, most of Tokyo Story shows people in cramped rooms, talking. That’s not cast-of-thousands viuals, but you want to see every facial detail, as well as get a good sense of what those rooms are like.

And when Ozu cuts to an exterior long shot, the fine details of everything you see puts you into 1953 Japan–despite the black and white, narrow-screen aspect ratio (pillarboxed to 1.37:1).

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How It Sounds

Criterion presents the original mono soundtrack in uncompressed PCM. Unless you feel that everything needs to be in surround–including dramas originally released in mono–you should have no complaints.

And the Extras

  • Commentary by David Desser: As I write this, I’ve only had a chance to listen to the first 20 minutes. So far, it concentrates on Ozu’s artistic choices, from the screenplay to the blocking, camera setups, and editing. I’m looking forward to finishing it.
  • Talking with Ozu: 39 minutes.  Different filmmakers talk about Ozu, and some of them have important things to say. Stanley Kwon talks mostly about his family–a reasonable reaction to watching Ozu films. Claire Dane offers the best insight: "I knew that the film had spoken to me and addressed me in a way that had nothing to do with being a film buff."
  • I Lived, But…: Running more than two hours, this Japanese 1983 TV biography covers Ozu’s life and work. It’s interesting, but would have been better at half the length.
  • Chishu Ryu and Shochiiku’s Ofuna Studio: 45 minutes. I haven’t yet had a chance to see this documentary on the actor that appeared in so many Ozu films, including Tokyo Story..
  • Trailer

Few cinematic family dramas work as well as Tokyo Story, and Criterion has done the film justice with this release. It goes on sale today.

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