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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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."

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Tombstone as Myth: My Darling Clementine on Blu-ray

By all rules of the western genre, John Ford’s My Darling Clementine shouldn’t work. The plot, the primary motivations, and the action all but disappear for the whole middle part of the movie. And yet it’s one of the greatest westerns ever made.

Ford’s westerns, at their best, danced along a thin line between reality and myth. The characters seem down-to-earth, and can surprise you with their all-too-human frailties and contradictions. But the atmosphere created by framing, lighting, and music suggests something bigger than the story of these people–the story of America..

Of all Ford’s westerns, Clementine gives us the greatest sense of myth. That’s hardly surprising, since it’s built around one of the west’s most famous legends–the shootout at the O.K. Corral.

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Yes, I know that it really happened. But the tall tales about this gunfight overtook actual history long before Ford rebuilt Tombstone in Monument Valley. And Ford and his screenwriters pretty much ignored history in their goal of creating an American myth.

Ford never used Monument Valley as extensively and as effectively as he does here. Every daytime exterior in the film uses the Valley as its background. When you’ve got Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday, and the Clantons on the streets of a Deadwood right smack in Monument Valley, you know that you’re watching a myth.

The plot is simple. The Clantons rob Wyatt Earp’s cattle, and murder one of his brothers. So Wyatt (Henry Fonda), who was just passing through, becomes the town’s marshal, clearly without any ambitions beyond vengeance.

All that is set up in the first 20 or so minutes. Then the film all but forgets about vengeance. Instead, it introduces us to Tombstone, pictured as a wide open western town inching its way towards proper civilization.

And in that changing town, Wyatt Earp develops a complicated and not-always-imagecooperative friendship with Doc Holiday (Victor Mature). Holiday’s Mercurial, self-hating, and possibly suicidal personality makes it impossible to know when he’s with Wyatt, and when he’s against him. If you need any more proof that John Ford was a great director, consider this: He pulled a terrific, conflicted, and empathetic performance out of Victor Mature, a movie star known for being a bad actor. Even he would joke about it later in life. But here he even manages a slice of Hamlet’s "To be or not to be" soliloquy without it looking ridiculous.

While praising the cast, I have to recognize Walter Brennan as the Clanton’s evil patriarch. This is one of the great villains in the movies–spiteful, angry, intelligent, and terrifying even to his own four sons. They’re as evil as he is, but considerably less intelligent. 23 years later, he played a comic variation of the same character in Support Your Local Sheriff.

Alas, the female leads scarcely appear to be their own people. Cathy Downs as the titular Clementine, is little more than a symbol of civilized American womanhood. She’s the pure, perfect woman that Wyatt loves but can’t approach with anything but stiff politeness. And Linda Darnell’s Chihuahua, lovesick and full of larceny, would be a horrible Mexican stereotype if some dialog didn’t define her as Apache. That doesn’t help.

The climatic gunfight is one of the best, with slow-building suspense before the bullets fly.

My Darling Clementine was John Ford’s first film after he was mustered out of the navy after World War II. In it, he took one of America’s strongest myths and made it his own.

First Impression

imageCriterion has given up their policy of putting DVDs and Blu-rays in the same package. Now, you have to buy one or the other.

The Blu-ray version of My Darling Clementine comes in a simple plastic case. There’s one disc, and a small foldout rather than a full book. The foldout is dominated by an essay by David Jenkins, "The Great Beyond."

As is standard for Criterion, the disc opens to the main menu the first time you insert it into a player. After that, it offers an option for Resume Playback. A timeline allows you to set bookmarks.

How It Looks

Like most films of its time, My Darling Clementine was shot in black and white, and in the Academy Ratio, 1.37×1. it’s one of the most visually striking films of its era.

Fox and Criterion have done a wonderful job on this 4k restoration. Fine details, including stubble on men’s chins, are clearly visible. The grayscale is excellent, from near-whites to deep blacks, with fine shadow detail.

How It Sounds

The audio is PCM 2.0 mono. As such, it succeeds in producing the original sound as well as could be imagined.

The Preview Cut

Like most Hollywood movies, My Darling Clementine was previewed and recut multiple times before its release in the final 97-minute version. One of those preview cuts, running 103 minutes, has survived.

The Blu-ray offers this preview cut as a supplement. The disc also contains a 42-minute documentary, narrated by UCLA’s . Robert Gitt. Both cuts, plus the documentary, were on the original Fox DVD release.

As Gitt reminds ups, this is "Not a director’s cut, but a work in progress." Both of these cuts were supervised by studio head Darryl Zanuck, and they’re almost certainly closer to each other than to Ford’s lost rough cut.

Most of the differences are minor. A few scenes go on a little longer, and these are seldom the best scenes. One scene is visually identical, but with different music cues. Overall, I prefer the release version.

But I wish that Zanuck had kept Ford’s original ending. Zanuck, in a memo, admitted regret for altering the ending for commercial reasons. Ford’s original ending, available now in the preview version, makes a big improvement.

Although transferred in HD, the preview cut doesn’t get the full 4K-mastered, 1080p treatment of the release cut. It looks like broadcast HD, with that annoying video smoothness that movies shot on film are not supposed to have.

And the Other Extras

  • Commentary by Ford biographer Joseph McBride. This is a new commentary; not the one on the original Fox DVD. McBride covers pretty much every issue about the film, from historical inaccuracy to how Chihuahua becomes idolized once she’s dying. He even explained a few things about the gunfight that had me confused.
  • Print the Legend: 14 minutes, HD. New interview with western scholar Andrew C. Isenberg, author of Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life. He talks about the real Earp and Ford’s fiction.
  • David Brinkley Journal: "tombstone": 8 minutes. A 1963 NBC-TV piece on Tombstone. Moderately interesting.
  • Today: "Report on Monument Valley": 6 minutes. 1975 episode of NBC’s Today show. Talks about the location, the Navaho, and the movies. Doesn’t mention My Darling Clementine by name, but does mention the Tombstone set.
  • Lost and Gone Forever: 18 minutes. Video essay by Tag Gallagher. Discusses Ford’s early friendship with Earp, the different cuts, music, framing. Makes a good argument that Ford’s wartime experience influenced the film and made it Ford’s darkest work.
  • Bandit’s Wager: 14 minutes. 1916 western short starring and directed by Ford’s older brother, Francis Ford. John also plays a supporting role. I only figured out who is was by matter of subtraction; only three people in the movie. Not all that funny. Music by Donald Sosin.
  • Lux Radio Theater: 58 minutes; audio only. I have to confess, I got only 12 minutes into this 1947 radio adaptation of the film. 
  • Trailer

The Blu-ray is available now.

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.

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