Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
A remarkable tale of immigrant success, wrapped around a crime story.
Our 2014 Holiday Gift Guide continues with the second installment (click here for the first), compiling links to reviews of potential A-grade gifts posted on RogerEbert.com over the last twelve months. They include sprawling boxed sets of such treasures as the work of Werner Herzog, the definitive "Twin Peaks" collection and the complete feature film career of Jacques Tati. Of course, there are a multitude of unmissable Criterion releases on the list, providing cinephiles with the opportunity to dig deeper into classics such as David Lynch's "Eraserhead" and John Cassavetes' "Love Streams." There are also a couple more books worth mentioning, including a must-own collection of art for any self-respecting movie poster buff. Click on the product title, and you will be directed to our full review. Click on "Buy It Now," and you will be sent to the product's Amazon page.
"It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" is essentially a symphony of slapstick—imagine a Three Stooges short writ extra-large—and one of the things about the film that raised the most eyebrows at the time was that the conductor of the barely contained chaos was none other than Stanley Kramer. At that time, Kramer was famous for producing and later directing a string of socially conscious dramas that tackled the concerns of the day in a serious and sober-minded manner—among the subjects that he grappled with were juvenile delinquency ("The Wild One"), racism ("The Defiant Ones"), nuclear war ("On the Beach"), Nazi war crimes ("Judgement at Nuremberg") and interracial marriage ("Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner"). These films were earnest to a fault but at the time, he was one of the few filmmakers willing to deal with such topics in any capacity and while few of them made huge killings at the box-office, he quickly earned a reputation in the industry as a master of cinematic social commentary. What he did not have a reputation for, however, was being a filmmaker with any evident sense of humor.
Tess on Criterion Blu-ray
Although distributors were initially wary of the film—it took more than a year after its European debut before it was picked up for American release—"Tess" went on to be a surprise hit, despite its seemingly uncommercial nature, that earned Polanski some of the best reviews of his career and won three Academy Awards out of six nominations. And yet, when Polanski's work is up for discussion, the focus tends to fall mostly on the films leading up to and including "Chinatown" as well as "The Pianist," the one that earned him his long-overdue Best Director Oscar, with "Tess" too often falling by the wayside. In the last couple of years or so, however, there has been a new and welcome focus on "Tess" and its accomplishments. 2012 saw the debut of an extensive 4K restoration that was justly acclaimed, and this week sees the Blu-ray debut of that version via the Criterion Collection in an extensively detailed set that also includes a 2006 retrospective documentary, archival interviews with Polanski and key members of the cast and crew and a second documentary on its production produced for French television during its filming. The end result is a beautiful package—one that will almost certainly go down as one of the best Blu-ray's of the still-young year—that will hopefully help to cement the film as both Polanski's crowning achievement to date and one of the great literary adaptations in screen history.
Alexander: The Ultimate Cut on Blu-ray
Nearly all of these flaws have been addressed through Stone's tweaks over the years. While "Alexander: The Ultimate Cut" may still have some problems that no amount of reediting or restructuring can overcome, it is now an incontestably better work than it once was and deserves to be considered as the proper version of the film in the way that the full length "Heaven’s Gate" is now regarded after its years in the cinematic wilderness. For starters, it now feels like the epic it was always meant to be—at 207 minutes (complete with an intermission), it finally has time to breathe and to allow viewers to acclimate themselves to the surroundings. More importantly, the additional running time allows Stone to more fully flesh out his characters so that we get a better understanding of who they are and what they are hoping to accomplish. Oddly enough, even though this version of "Alexander" is considerably longer than the original, it actually feels shorter because the scenes now have a proper rhythm. The only downside is that even though it is now a movie that begs to be seen on the big screen, virtually anyone who wishes to see it will have to make do at home.
A Hard Day's Night on Criterion Blu-ray
Watching the film a half-century on, I get almost every line of dialogue in it. But American ears in 1964 were not used to British voices: crisp BBC intonations may have been intelligible, but working-class Liverpool accents could verge on the impenetrable. United Artists was worried enough about this to suggest looping the dialogue, but in the end it didn’t matter. The linguistic muddiness and unfamiliar slang only added to the film’s air of exotic authenticity; and in any case, everything was crystal clear whenever the boys began to sing. Looking back today, only one other element strikes me as notably different than it did in 1964. On first viewing, I was not at all crazy about the character of Paul’s grandfather (vinegary Wilfred Brambell), who seemed a needless, annoying gimmick too often obstructing our view of our idols. I suppose I was an incipient critic even then, because I would have suggested eliminating the old geezer altogether. Now, I not only appreciate scripter Alun Owen’s clever use of granddad to spark conflict among the Beatles and their handlers, I think the chaotic comedy the old guy provokes (he’s an unregenerate Irish rebel, after all) is some of the drollest in the film.
Herzog: The Collection on Blu-ray
Watching sixteen Werner Herzog films in a short period of time, one can easily see their connections and the filmmaking patterns of their creator. He rarely includes images of overt sexuality or even violence, although the constant threat of the latter in our society permeates a number of his narratives. He even more rarely underlines an emotional moment or uses manipulative filmmaking techniques. He says on the commentary for “Nosferatu: The Vampyre,” “I don’t want to see an actor cry, I want to see the audience cry,” to explain why he would take a scene most directors would shoot in close-up—that of Jonathan Harker saying goodbye to Lucy—and shoot it from behind and from a distance. From the kind of basic filmmaking habits one notices while watching a career progress on Blu-ray—Herzog often opens his films with a mood-establishing shot about the power of nature (from the storms of “Where the Green Ants Dream” to the foggy hills of “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” to the unforgettable prologue of “Heart of Glass”)—to the more complex themes that keep popping up in Herzog’s work to his tumultuous relationship with Klaus Kinski, this is the kind of Blu-ray experience that truly allows for a greater appreciation of one of our greatest filmmakers.
The Essential Jacques Demy on Criterion Blu-ray
In the years since his passing, however, there has been a gradual reappraisal of Demy's cinematic legacy, spurred on in no small part by the efforts of Varda, who has helped to keep the flame alive by supervising restorations and reissues of his films as well as directing both "Jacquot de Nantes," a 1991 biopic focused on his early years, and the 1995 documentary "The World of Jacques Demy." Now The Criterion Collection has gotten into the act with "The Essential Jacques Demy," a mammoth box set that includes restored versions of six of his best-known features—"Lola" (1961), "Bay of Angels" (1963), "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" (1964), "The Young Girls of Rochefort" (1967), "Donkey Skin" (1970) and "Une Chambre En Ville" (1982)—a slew of extras spanning the length of his career, including shorts, documentaries and archival interviews with Demy and many of his key collaborators, and a booklet featuring essays from such renowned critics as Terrence Rafferty and Jonathan Rosenbaum. The end result is one of the major home video releases of the year and a project that should finally restore Demy's place as one of the leading lights of the New Wave.
Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery on Blu-ray
It’s tempting to argue that “Twin Peaks” didn’t really change TV as much as some other programs, including the ones mentioned in the previous paragraph, because it was so defiantly unique as to avoid copycats. It’s relatively easy to try and make another “LOST,” another “Sopranos,” another “Dexter”—making another “Twin Peaks”? Yeah, good luck with that. I always kind of considered "Twin Peaks" more of an outlier than an influencer. And yet, watching the series premiere again in glorious, perfectly-balanced HD, I’m struck by how much it looks like a program that could air in 2014, with only a few fashion and décor updates. Lynch’s style, which often tracked its actors in a way that felt so much more like film than traditional ‘90s television, reminds one of recent programs like “The Killing,” “Fargo” and “The Americans” in both its economy of visual language and strong focus on setting as a character, and the application of the auteur theory to the small screen arguably started here.
Eraserhead on Criterion Blu-ray
Here was a film that took elements that one might have encountered in other movies in the past—black humor, gore, surrealism, erotic imagery, gorgeous black-and-white cinematography and oddball performances—and presented them in such a unique and deeply personal manner that the end result was something that literally looked, sounded and felt like nothing that had ever come before it. I may not have been able to explain any of it when it was all over but for every single one of its 89 minutes, I was absolutely mesmerized. The amazing thing is that since that first viewing, I have seen the film countless times in any number of situations—on that VHS tape and on DVD, in theaters during normal working hours and at midnight, on cable and now on the fabulous new Blu-ray special edition from the Criterion Collection (featuring such bells and whistles as a 2001 documentary featuring Lynch discussing the production history of the film and amazing behind-the-scenes footage, new interviews with members of the cast, six short films directed by Lynch and a gorgeous new 4K presentation of the film itself). Every time I watch, I remain just as enraptured with the film and its mysteries, which have held up over the years to such a degree that I suspect that to even attempt a basic synopsis would drive me to madness in attempting to convey its magic in mere words.
For me, believe it or not, the biggest draw of the “Halloween” set are the alternate versions. I’ve seen “Halloween” more times than I can count, and probably shouldn’t admit to how often I even watched the lackluster sequels like “Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers” in my teenage years. And so seeing something cut together differently to such a degree that the final product that has been so etched in my memory is altered is a unique experience. Take the “Producer’s Cut” of “Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers” a film notorious both for “Starring and Introducing Paul Rudd” and for going through absolute Hell in post-production. The film was clearly designed as a complete reboot of the franchise, turning Michael Myers and even Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) into pawns in an existential, supernatural game. The Shape wasn’t just a slasher. He was something more. And so the original version of “Curse” shares more in common with films about the occult than “Friday the 13th.”
“Only small salaries. And that was true in this case!” Friendly, voluble Treat Williams broke into an infectious grin as he sat down with me to talk about the restored version of 1984’s “Once Upon A Time In America” in late September, as the movie was about to play at the New York Film Festival and then see release in a comprehensive Blu-ray package. Williams’ role in the tapestry is that of labor organizer James Conway O’Donnell, a feisty incorruptible force in the Prohibition era who morphs into a sinister apparatchik for enigmatic forces in the movie’s 1969 “present.” Williams was in town along with William Forsythe, who plays Cockeye, one of the quartet of Jewish gangsters who make up the film’s focus—the other three are played by James Hayden, who actually died before the film’s U.S. release, James Woods, and of course Robert De Niro. To hear Williams and Forsythe tell it, the making of the film was a dream come true, after which they continued with their careers and saw from the sidelines the heartbreak that followed the production: the death of Hayden in 1983 from a heroin overdose, the mutilation of the film for U.S. distribution, which threw director Sergio Leone into an understandable funk, and more. Looking back, both actors relished recalling the process itself. “The greatest summer of my life,” Forsythe calls the shoot.
“Sublime Decay” is the phrase the arts critic and cultural entrepreneur Lawrence Wechsler coined to describe the work of filmmaker Bill Morrison, writing in the New York Times over a decade ago. It’s not an inapt term. While in the normal world of film viewing, peeling emulsion on a strip of celluloid is a sign of disintegration and potential ruin, to Morrison it’s the key to a series of different, magical images. A face nearly a century old loses half of its definition; in its place is mere blank space that a projection bulb exposes without mercy. For a normal projectionist, this is a flaw, maybe a fatal one. For Bill Morrison, it’s a possibility. Morrison’s most famous film is the 2002 feature “Decasia,” in which he assembles decaying footage from a variety of films to construct an abstract narrative about mortality in all of its manifestations. Its staggering, poignant images are matched by an orchestral score—a symphony, in fact, by contemporary composer Michael Gordon. It’s a movie of unrelenting sensation; my favorite sequence shows a sea seen from a ship’s prow, the black-and-white image undulating with a mix of overexposure and literal cracking-apart, while Gordon’s strings slide down a scale at queasy intervals, creating an effect that’s both hypnotic and almost sea-sickness inducing.
Steven Spielberg: Director's Collection on Blu-ray
For every film lover who bows at the altar of Indiana Jones and E.T., there’s one who will tell you that Spielberg is overly sentimental and crowd-pleasing to a fault. Some critics would argue that a director shouldn’t make a movie for the audience but for their art or for some other inner purpose. Spielberg is admitting that he makes films to please the people sitting in a darkened theater, staring up at what he still embraces as the magic of movies. And this set, to a certain extent, captures that eagerness to please through various phases of his career. For the record, I’m a huge fan. Always have been. I understand the criticisms of some of his work, and see more of them as I get older, but I was raised in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and so my love of cinema can really be tracked with a lot of Spielberg’s work. I’ve possibly seen “Jaws” more than any other film, and consider it one of the form’s best, ever. I wanted to be Indiana Jones more than Luke Skywalker. And I’ll debate the merit of his later work as well, considering “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence,” “War of the Worlds,” “Munich,” “Minority Report” and “Lincoln” to be among his best films, and some of the best of their individual years. So, the “Steven Spielberg Director’s Collection” is aimed at me. And it connects. Well, mostly.
Love Streams on Criterion Blu-ray
A look at Criterion's new DVD of "Love Streams" easily debunks the once-common notion that Cassavetes' films were ineptly filmed acting class exercises. The film, adapted from a play by Ted Allan by the playwright and Cassavetes, contrasts the lives of a brother, Robert (Cassavetes) and hs sister Sarah (Cassavetes’ wife and frequent star Gena Rowlands). Robert is a womanizing writer, perpetually clad in a tux, while Sarah is a mentally unstable woman going through a difficult divorce. A dream sequence, which turns into a song and dance number, is a virtuoso piece of filmmaking. It's true that many scenes are simple close-ups and medium shots, emphasizing dialogue and the actors' faces. There are also plenty of elaborately choreographed tracking shots. Cassavetes devoted a great deal of attention to the background/foreground contrast, particularly in the final half hour, most of which takes place in Robert's house as rain pours outside. The costumes and production design play blue shades against earth tones.
The Complete Jacques Tati on Blu-ray
To bring all this to life and to properly control the chaos, Tati went to the outskirts of Paris and literally built his own city—a massive set consisting of real buildings (some with moveable walls and some built on rails) and real streets that took five months to build out of 11,700 square feet of glass, 486,000 square feet of concrete and 31,500 square feet of lumber, equipped with real water pipes, electrical cables and heating devices. All of this cost upwards of $800,000 in 1967 money, and was financed by Tati personally by putting up both his home and production company as collateral. To add to the spectacle, Tati filmed the entire thing in the super-sized 70mm film process that would allow him to better capture both the size and scope of what he was going for and to better represent his comment about the film being about everybody. Virtually every corner of his jumbo-sized frame is teeming with incident. By democratically refusing to focus on any one aspect, he creates a fascinating work that can literally change from viewing to viewing depending on what part of the frame one chooses to focus upon at any given time. Although glorious throughout, the film moves to the truly sublime once it hits the Royal Garden and Tati unleashes one of the greatest sustained set-pieces in film history, a riot of sound and vision that somehow gets funnier as it goes on, especially as everything literally begins to fall apart. (In the most inspired bit, an "invisible" glass door is shattered but the doorman continues to do his job by miming his duties.)
The Sopranos: The Complete Series on Blu-ray
Why did “The Sopranos” matter? For me, it’s a turning point in what television asked of its audience. Before “The Sopranos,” there was a sense that television programs were designed to please the viewer in very well-charted ways. Comedies had laugh tracks to tell when you laugh. Dramas had heroes, often cops or doctors, who would put the bad guy away. Everything was often wrapped by the end of the hour, giving you a nice warm feeling that there was comfort in this world before the evening news. Underneath that is an inherent sense of eagerness to please. Please laugh at my comedy. Please like my dramatic hero. Please come back each week to see the bad guys get what they deserve. From the VERY first episode of “The Sopranos,” that desperation is entirely absent. It was a show that didn't just lead you, it respected you. Like literature. Like theater. Like film. There’s a deep well of confidence in the filmmaking that also, like the filmmakers of the ‘70s, includes a willingness to experiment. Dream sequences, anti-heroes, dark humor, a protagonist who is a murderer, drug use, rape—there was nothing that David Chase feared narratively. And his willingness to leave loose ends, to leave character motivations murky, to redefine audience loyalty, has led to “Breaking Bad,” “True Detective,” "Boardwalk Empire," and really any other drama you currently enjoy in all likelihood. If you’ve seen it, see it again. If you haven’t, it’s about damn time.
The Art of John Alvin in Hardcover
John Alvin was a young freelance artist, a graduate of the Art Center College of Design in L.A., when he was asked to create a poster for a new comedy on spec. The comedy was “Blazing Saddles,” arguably the best of all time, and Alvin’s art would become not just closely associated with the film—many ‘70s film posters have been replaced on subsequent VHS/DVD/Blu-ray covers but not this one—but remarkably influential. It launched a career, helped push Brooks’ work to the center (he would instantly hire him to do “Young Frankenstein” as well), and made clear that movie posters could have a life and artistry of their own. Alvin, as she does with most of the key works of her late husband’s career, details the process that led to the “Blazing Saddles” poster, noting her contribution to the work and even detailing the process—he painted it on a 30 x 40 illustration board. John Alvin took the energy of that “Blazing Saddles” poster and ran with it. His career includes the amazing work for “Phantom of the Paradise,” “Star Wars, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi” (and you’ll see sketch work on the legendary “Revenge of the Jedi” posters in the book), and “Blade Runner.” The next huge leap forward would come with “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” in 1982, and it’s clearly the work that Andrea Alvin considers essential to her husband’s work, devoting the cover and ten pages to it, including early designs and sketch work.
Portrait of Jason & Ornette: Made in America on Blu-ray
While “Ornette” depicts a very distinct story, that is, the homecoming of Coleman to Fort Worth, Texas, where he is to initiate a new arts center called Carnival of Dreams. There’s thrilling performance footage showing the great musician playing with an orchestra augmented by his electric group Prime Time. There’s ironic verite footage showing the reactionary and Wild West sides of the city to which he’s returning. And there’s…well, more, and a lot of the more is what you don’t expect in a conventional documentary. As in a fictional young Ornette wandering the downtown streets of the city, saxophone in hand Godard-like snatches of text displaying on an LED board spanning an overpass above one of the city streets. Lengthy shots of Fort Worth skyscrapers at dusk. The cumulative effect of the varying styles and idioms Clarke draws upon gives a larger sense of both Coleman the man and Coleman the artist than would a more linear or conventional or even longer (this movie comes in at a trim 77 minutes) work might have. My argument when showing sections of the movie to my class was that this was a direct result of her background in experimental film, and that “Ornette: Made In America” was in a sense an experimental film itself.
When Rod Serling wrote “The Time Element” in 1958, he was frustrated by the way network executives, driven almost solely by sponsor needs, were controlling his visions. Despite being an Emmy winner, and already well-recognized voice in television, “The Time Element,” about a man trying to stop Pearl Harbor, was ignored by the execs, sold cheaply to Desi Arnaz’s company and aired as a part of “Desilu Playhouse.” It was a hit, allowing the production of “The Twilight Zone” to commence with one of the most resonant pilots to this day, the phenomenal “Where is Everybody?,” about a man who wakes to find himself alone in the world. How relatable. How attuned to natural human fears of isolation. Over the course of that first season, Serling would do it again and again—taking elements that we can all understand and turning them into escapism. The gorgeous nostalgia for better days in “Walking Distance.” The paranoia, especially vibrant in the era of nuclear proliferation, of “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” The sense that we should be careful of that we wish for in “Time Enough at Last.” Serling presented relatable, downtrodden heroes, often dealing with their inner demons externalized. We took the journey to the 5th dimension with them because we could understand the emotional path that took them there.
I understand that a lot of film lovers, particularly those with a particular jones for genre movies, find the very idea of MST3K, in which a cast of unusual characters provides an oft-mocking running commentary to real movies that its dinky-catchy theme song terms “cheesy,” offensive practically to the point of sacrilege. I recall reading a particularly scathing dismissal of the program by the estimable critic and author Kim Newman. But I remember inadvertently coming upon an episode sometime in 1990, checking out the cable hookup at the apartment I had just moved into, and being immediately flabbergasted, and then laughing, a lot, and wondering what I’d just seen. Once I learned, I was hooked. The arguable desecration of some of the movies (many of which had been victimized before they even made it to the show, as in several of the Russian fairy-tale movies redubbed and edited for American audiences) didn’t bother me—I like to think I’m a good semi-postmodernist, open to all stripes of creative repurposing.
The Shooting & Ride in the Whirlwind on Criterion Blu-ray
The two films were produced back-to-back in the Utah desert over the course of six weeks in the summer of 1965 by a group of relative unknowns working under the micro-budgeting aegis of legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman. Alas, due to distribution snafus and the beginning of the general decline of the western genre that they were both part of, more or less, the two films were barely shown in America (though it is said that they did well in Paris). When an American distributor did finally pick them up, they chose to immediately sell them to television instead and even then, their broadcasts were few and far between and via shoddy prints. When they would make rare appearances on television or as public domain videotapes and DVDs, they were almost always due solely to the fact that one of the key participants was a pre-stardom Jack Nicholson, who not only co-starred and co-produced the two but also wrote the screenplay for "Ride in the Whirlwind." (If the notion of Jack Nicholson in a western sounds odd to you, consider that even after he achieved stardom, he turned up in "The Missouri Breaks" (1976) opposite Marlon Brando and even directed "Going South" (1978)).
Robert Altman's Lost Classics on Blu-ray
It is generally assumed that since the film happened to be released at the height of Bicentennial fever during the summer of 1976, the dark and cynical satire that it trafficked in instead of the patriotic romp promised by the ads no doubt contributed to its commercial and critical failure (which also led to a falling-out with producer Dino De Laurentiis that cost Altman the chance to make his long-cherished adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's novel "Ragtime"—by blending the historical and the fictional together as he did here, Altman almost appeared to be using "Buffalo Bill" as a test run for ideas to use for that never-to-be project). This is perhaps not too surprising, but what is odd is that people have not gone back in subsequent years to take another look at it because, stripped of the ridiculous expectations that accompanied its original release, the film is both enormously entertaining and thought-provoking in equal measure. Instead of simply making fun of America, as was the charge at the time, Altman is instead drawing fascinating parallels between American history and showbiz history and how both are perfectly willing to massage, revise or outright stretch the truth in order to tell a better story. (If one reads Bill's revue as a form of Hollywood before the existence of Hollywood, then the film would make for a fascinating double-bill with his equally dark showbiz satire "The Player.")
Planet of the Apes: The Evolution of the Legend in Hardcover
Spread over more than 250 detailed pages, “The Evolution of a Legend” chronicles the entire history of the “Apes” phenomenon, from the book to the first film to the sequels to the TV series to both reboots (yes, even the Tim Burton dud gets some space). It is filled with amazing production stills, behind-the-scenes details, interviews, and pictures of rare memorabilia & marketing materials. For example, there’s an awesome poster that Fox released when the first five films were playing on TV that mocks the U.S. Army poster by replacing Uncle Sam with an ape who “Wants YOU to…GO APE!” Personally, I can’t get enough of stuff like this—nostalgic recollections of how movies you know and love were shaped into our pop culture. There’s nothing ignored. Even hardcore fans may not remember the cartoon “Return to the Planet of the Apes” but there’s a page of animated stills from it. Naturally, most of the focus of the book is on the first film’s legacy and the success of the reboots—“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” With the latter just hitting Blu-ray and the former still a hit on cable and other home markets, the “Apes” legacy has arguably never been more profitable. And so a coffee table book for the holiday season makes sense financially. However, authors Joe Fordham and Jeff Bond have cut no corners.
Stanley Kubrick: The Masterpiece Collection on Blu-ray
Warner Bros. and Stanley Kubrick always had a close relationship, and so Christiane Kubrick allowed the company exclusive access to a lot of his personal, archival material to produce a new, exclusive documentary for this set called “Kubrick Remembered.” It joins two, new-to-Blu-ray documentaries—“Stanley Kubrick in Focus” and “Once Upon a Time…’A Clockwork Orange’—and additional documentaries “Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures” and “O’ Lucky Malcolm!,” which were issued as a part of WB’s last holiday season wave of Kubrick Blu-rays. Yes, it is undeniable that WB has been here before, although the new material is interesting, the packaging is the best to date, and the physical materials, including a new 78-page hardcover book, will be enticing to fans of the late, great director. This is one of those releases which can be difficult to recommend if you already own the eight films contained within it. However, if you don’t own them yet, it’s now the best way to correct that grievous cinematic oversight.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
A look at the entire "Alien" franchise, and a reappraisal of its unloved installments.