Home Entertainment Guide: December 2021, The Criterion Collection
Our monthly guide highlights eight recent Criterion releases, including their first forays into 4K.
Our monthly guide highlights eight recent Criterion releases, including their first forays into 4K.
Bill Ryan celebrates the nine horror films that Val Lewton produced for RKO between 1942 and 1946, like The Seventh Victim and Cat People.
An interview with Julie Andrews and Emma Walton Hamilton about their latest book, Home Work: A Memoir of My Hollywood Years, and their new podcast, Julie's Library.
An in-depth preview on the classic noir films that will be playing at Chicago's Music Box Theater from Sept. 6-12.
A look at the use of music in the Star Trek series and how the season finale of Discovery recalled its legacy.
A look at recent releases on Netflix and Blu-ray, including "Life Itself," "Annie," "Into the Woods," "The Lady From Shanghai," and more.
An obituary for actor/filmmaker Leonard Nimoy.
Sheila writes: There's something heartbreaking about a dilapidated movie theater. With the whole world going multiplex, the quirky independent movie theaters are quickly disappearing. Moscow photographer Sergey Novikov spent two years traveling around in Moscow and St. Petersburg, seeking out the abandoned movie theaters built in the Constructivist style of architecture, so familiar to him in his youth. The result is a series of haunting photographs he calls "Breathless". In a fascinating email interview, Novikov says: "I perceive them as rare, unique objects and often the movie theater is the only handsome building in a district so my urge was just to keep them in a time, place and memory through documenting. These cinemas are frozen in time, being parted from movies but their identity preserved; a frontispiece and a name. Destruction sometimes happens quickly - yesterday it was in front of you and today it is already demolished. They are breathless. Vanishing scenery."
I've always felt Orson Welles' second feature, the memory-movie masterpiece "The Magnificent Ambersons," got a bad rap because: 1) it isn't "Citizen Kane"; and 2) it isn't the perfect creation Welles intended it to be because, as we all know, RKO re-cut and re-shot parts of it, including the last two scenes (which are so not Welles they don't really affect you much; they're like background noise that wakes you out of a deep sleep). Well, OK, "Ambersons" isn't "Kane" -- it's not as much fun as "Kane" (few movies are), but it's every bit as accomplished and it goes deeper into its characters and its evocation of the past. And, yes, I'd give my (fill in portion of anatomy here) to see the lost footage restored (although you can read the cutting continuity of the unfinished 132-minute version Welles left behind when he went to Brazil in March, 1942, and see stills of the missing scenes -- so you can imagine the finished movie, even if you can't actually see it).
All of this is to say that AltScreen has published a long piece I just wrote about this, one of my favorite movies. It begins with a more-or-less shot-by-shot analysis of the nine-minute prologue, and how it sets up everything else in the movie. You can read it here: "The Magnificent Ambersons: The Past is Prologue." The film has only recently been made available on Region 1 DVD (and even then as an Amazon-only bonus with the new Blu-ray of "Kane," though it shows up on TCM occasionally). A few excerpts, to give you a taste:
• "The Rack" (1956) • "Until They Sail" (1957) • "The Prize" (1963) • "Tales of Tomorrow: Ice From Space" (1953)"The Rack," "Until They Sail" and "The Prize" are now available on made-to-order DVD from the Warner Archive Collection for $19.95 each. "Tales of Tomorrow" can be viewed on Hulu Plus and Amazon Instant Video.
by Jeff Shannon You would think that every film Paul Newman ever appeared in would be readily available on home video, right? Guess again. One of the best films from Newman's early career has managed to slip through the cracks of home-video distribution for decades, and unless you're old enough to have seen it in theaters or on TV over the years, it's possible you've never even heard of it. So when I heard that "The Rack" (1956) was available on home video for the very first time, I couldn't wait to break the news to Stewart Stern.
For anyone who's wondering "Stewart who?" there's a convenient shortcut you can use when discussing the impressive life and career of Stewart Stern. All you have to say is, "He wrote 'Rebel Without a Cause.'" Uh-huh, that one. With a credit like that, any screenwriter could legitimately claim a slice of movie immortality, like James Dean did as the now-iconic star of Nicholas Ray's 1955 teen-angst classic. But to say that Stern only wrote "Rebel" is a bit like saying Frank Lloyd Wright designed a house. In the course of his distinguished, decades-spanning career, Stern wrote rich, psychologically perceptive scripts that were magnets for great actors and great acting: His script for "The Ugly American" (1963) gave Brando plenty to chew on; his Oscar-nominated script for "Rachel, Rachel" (1968) gave Joanne Woodward what is arguably the best role of her career (under the direction of her husband, Paul Newman; they also earned Oscar nods); and Stern's Emmy and Peabody-winning teleplay for "Sybil" (1976) transformed cute TV actress Sally Field into an Emmy winner with a pair of Oscars in her future. A few years later, Stern left Hollywood, weary of the rat race and struggling with writer's block, the delayed effect of post-traumatic stress from service in World War II. In the mid-'80s, Stern relocated to Seattle and never looked back. And while Stern may have been a nephew of Paramount Pictures founder Adolph Zukor, with additional family ties to MGM moguls Arthur Loew Sr. and Jr., his closest Hollywood connection was more personal and more warmly indicative of the man's soul and spirit: For 55 years, Stewart Stern was one of Paul Newman's very best friends.
Like many tales about the good vs. the evil, the evil mostly steals the show from the good in "The Devil and Daniel Webster" (1941), a cautionary moral tale based on Stephen Vincent Benét's short story which is sort of a New England version of the tale of Faust. Though it was made 70 years ago, the movie remains as a darkly enjoyable movie with the wonderful moments that can both amuse and chill us with the subtle creepiness pervading its rural background. Sure, we are happy to see the soul of an ordinary American luckily saved from the eternal damnation in the end, but, folks, can we deny that we had a fun with Mephistopheles before the obligatory finale?
Dave Kehr's blog (where you'll find some of the best discussions about film on the web) is sub-titled "reports from the lost continent of cinephilia." As far as I'm concerned, the Holy Grail of the lost continent of cinephilia is the vanished footage from Orson Welles' "The Magnificent Ambersons." (You know the legend: The studio re-shot and re-cut the film to make the ending more, uh, "upbeat" while Welles was off in Rio shooting Carnival footage for "It's All True." The discarded portions of Welles' "Ambersons" were lost -- possibly dumped into the ocean.) Well...
At MUBI, Doug Dibbern has composed a magnificent meditations called "Cinephilia, the Science of Hope, and the Sacred Ground beneath the Grapeland Heights Police Substation in Miami, Florida" in which he fantasizes about obscure objects of desire -- movies seen and unseen (and perhaps unseeable) -- including the lost "Ambersons."
Dibbern begins with Dario Argento fantasies and works his way to Ambersons and a police station in Florida:
When I stepped up to buy my ticket for "Hereafter," the woman in the booth (who has worked there for many years) said, "This movie's directed by Clint Eastwood." I know, I said. "He's not in it," she said. "I guess it hasn't been getting very much publicity."
I don't know if it has or hasn't, but it got me to thinking: I'm not sure I could identify a Clint Eastwood movie on sight. Is there an identifiable Eastwood directorial vision or style, apart from a certain willfully "classical" gloss applied to a professional reserve that sometimes borders on indifference? Is he like a William Wyler or a Robert Wise, a journeyman, capable of making some very good movies, whose sensibility is identifiable primarily through the combined talents of his collaborators? Who is Clint Eastwood, the director?
Eastwood hires top-of-the-line folks (after all, he can), has them do their things, and prides himself on shooting the script as written, on time and on (or under) budget. Some very good directors I know don't consider what he does to be direction so much as project management, because they don't see anything particularly distinctive in the results, film after film. Still, Eastwood can get movies made that perhaps nobody else could, based on the strength of his commercial reputation and long association with Warner Bros.
Some critics I greatly admire find his work impressive and moving. Many of those who've worked with him describe the atmosphere Eastwood fosters on the set as his greatest contribution to the picture: He creates the conditions he needs to get the movie he wants from he people he's hired -- which is, to a lesser or greater extent, what all good directors must do. (See Robert Altman for a striking example.) But, when watching a post-"Unforgiven" Eastwood picture, I frequently detect a peculiar detachment, a feeling that I'm watching something coasting along on auto-pilot without any particular human or artistic vision to guide it.¹ I respond to directors who have been accused of glacial misanthropy -- from Antonioni to Kubrick -- and that is integral to their worldview. With Eastwood, I simply sense an almost mechanical disengagement from his material. Parts of some of these movies seem to have been made by robots.
View image Antonioni's "L'Avventura" ranked in the top ten.
OK, as long as the simultaneous deaths of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni have shaken the foundations of the pantheon and got us debating canons -- again: Near the end of the last millennium, I decided to do something difficult and convoluted and thoroughly silly. On this particular occasion I determined to figure out which 100 movies were the most highly regarded at the close of the century. I think this was in late 1998 or early 1999. But more recent films wouldn't have registered very high anyway, because I was using a larger historical sampling to compile the results.
I came up with some complex point scale for rating the movies by the awards and honors they had received, using a mixture of domestic and international, popular and critical sources. I no longer have any recollection of the formula I used, but I'm sure it was at least as complicated as the one for Coca-Cola. I know (given my personal bent) that I weighted, for example, the "Sight & Sound" international critics' poll more highly than, say, the Oscars. And I tried to find a mathematical way to properly consider and weigh American with non-English-language films (given the restrictions and biases of some sources), and older films with newer ones. The sources I used were (in no particular order): Academy Awards, "Sight & Sound" polls (1952, '62, '72, '82, '92), the first AFI 100 list, the National Film Registry (American films selected for preservation in the Library of Congress -- which had to be at least 10 years old), the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards (1975 - ), the New York Film Critics Circle (1935 - ), and the National Society of Film Critics (1966 - ).
Although it seems inconceivable to me now, I actually put together several charts (spreadsheets!), so you could view the lists and the movies' individual honors, not only by rank, but by director, title (alphabetically), year/decade, -- and a comprehensive list of the 400+ titles that came under consideration, given my sources.
I doubt -- and I hope -- I will never be that anal again. But what I liked about the results was that they reflected a mix of "art films" ("The Passion of Joan of Arc," "Bicycle Thieves"), silents ("Greed," "Intolerance," "The Gold Rush") and popular titles ("West Side Story," "Annie Hall," "Schindler's List"). I was also pleased with the distribution over the decades, a little more balanced than you usually see in polls: two films from the 1910s; six from the '20s; 19 from the '30s; 16 from the '40s; 29 from the '50s; 19 from the '60s; 21 from the '70s; 13 from the '80s; and 14 from the '90s (which weren't quite over yet).
Point of interest: Bergman had three films on the list: "Persona" (22), "Wild Strawberries" (66), and "Fanny and Alexander" (84). Antonioni had one: "L'Avventura" (8).
Welles and Chaplin each had two films in the top 25. Other directors represented in the upper quarter include: Jean Renoir, Alfred Hitchcock, Federico Fellini, Sergei Eisenstein, Stanley Donen, Steven Spielberg, John Ford, Stanley Kubrick, Vittorio de Sica, Woody Allen, Erich von Stroheim, Elia Kazan, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Robert Wise, D.W. Griffith, Jean Vigo, and Michael Curtiz.
The Big List begins like this:
View image The "Searchers" shot from the ending of "War of the Worlds." Way more sentimental than John Ford's.
Can a lousy ending really ruin an otherwise good movie? There was a time in Hollywood history when phony "happy endings" were de rigueur. Even if they felt tacked on, audiences understood that they were a convention -- and, in many cases, knew not to take them seriously. So, for example, at the end of Nicholas Ray's "Bigger Than Life" -- a terrifying film about a father (James Mason) who goes berzerk with rage and disgust over his suffocatingly "normal" middle-class family life and comes to believe that his young son should be slain -- the family is reunited around his hospital bed (oh, it was just too much cortisone!)... while a flashing light blinks ominously, as if telling the audience not to buy the false conclusion.
View image "The Magnificent Ambersons": This is the happy ending?
Some have argued that the hollow ending shot by Robert Wise for Orson Welles' "The Magnificent Ambersons" ruins the movie. I don't think so. It compromises the film somewhat (and I learned from the Criterion laserdisc how it was supposed to have ended in utter desolation), but those last few moments don't negate all the true magnificence that has come before, do they? Watch the last shot: As Eugene (Joseph Cotten) narrates a happy ending that has taken place off-screen, he's walking down the hospital hallway with Fanny (Agnes Moorehead, in maybe the greatest performance ever given by anyone in American movies), they each pass in and out of shadow at different times. He's telling one story, but we're hearing it through her. He's talking about his love for her sister (the love she and her nephew Georgie have sabotaged), and we know Fanny's always secretly loved Eugene. At the end of the shot, they are no longer even in the same frame. She moves into close-up, the camera pans over to him, then they both briefly enter the frame and pass by the camera into darkness. The whole image goes out of focus briefly as they disappear, and we're left looking down an empty, sterile hallway with a red cross lamp at center right. If you're paying any attention to the shot at all, it's still not much of a happy ending! It's an epilogue, an afterthought.
Likewise, the head-spinning ending of Fritz Lang's classic "Woman in the Window" strikes some as contrived, but to me it feels inevitable. In the tradition of noir, a man (Edward G. Robinson) makes one small mistake, one impulsive deviation from his normal path, that leads inexorably to ruin. The movie takes you, step by step, down his road to ruin, until there's No Way Out. Only then does Lang pull the rug out from under you. What's important is the experience you've been through, not where the movie chooses to stop.
Lesser movies, like "Fatal Attraction," can be more seriously damaged by studio-imposed endings. The movie is pretty good at balancing your sympathies up until its grotesquely overblown "the family that slays together stays together" slasher finale. You can feel that this wasn't the way things were meant to go, and the DVD version now contains the original ending that didn't test well with preview audiences, in which Glenn Close's character committed suicide and Michael Douglas was arrested for her murder. It was more of a true film noir ending -- even though there was still a deus ex machina twist when a taped suicide note is discovered.
More recently, Steven Spielberg's "War of the Worlds" concluded with such a ridiculously upbeat happy-family ending (never mind that the world was pretty much destroyed) that it prompted hails of derisive laughter. (On the other hand, would it have been the mainstream blockbuster it was if it had ended in defeat and despair?) The movie sucked me in so deeply, that even when I started backing out of it (right about when things just miraculously -- and arbitrarily -- started turning around, about ten minutes from the end), I still believed the first 106 minutes of the movie, even if I rejected the last ten.
I had a similar problem with the ending of "Children of Men," which (although still ambiguous and in no way assuring the survival of all of mankind) I thought was too sappy and sentimental. The sound of laughing and playing children over the final fade out nearly ruined the whole thing for me, because it was a film of such drive and momentum that I felt it really needed to go somewhere. And it didn't. It tried to have it both ways -- leaving some things unresolved while still leaving the audience with a feeling of optimism -- and I didn't think it worked. (Look for the "Bigger Than Life" blinking beacon in the final shots.) But, again, it didn't make me feel that the entire experience had been negated.
Off-hand, I can think of one movie with an ending so horribly manipulated that it really did destroy everything that came before, and that's Roger Donaldson's "No Way Out" (1987), with Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman. This was a case where I remember feeling that the final "twist" actually did make mincemeat out of the whole picture. When the final piece of information drops into place, nothing that had happened previously made any sense.
What are movies that have been ruined -- or nearly ruined-- for you by bad endings? What about movies with bad endings that you were willing to overlook because the rest of the movie was so good?
EXCERPT FROM INTRO: This isn't like Roger Ebert's "Great Movies" series. It's not my idea of The Best Movies Ever Made (that would be a different list, though there's some overlap here), or limited to my personal favorites or my estimation of the most important or influential films. These are the movies I just kind of figure everybody ought to have seen in order to have any sort of informed discussion about movies. They're the common cultural currency of our time, the basic cinematic texts that everyone should know, at minimum, to be somewhat "movie-literate." I hope these movies are experiences we can all assume we share.
HOLLYWOOD - These are the biggest sound stages Paramount has, and just as well, too, because they're barely big enough to contain the awesome bulk of the Starship Enterprise. The ship is scattered about, of course; there's a wing on one sound stage and the space-drive mechanism in another, and here we are on a third stage, standing on the command deck of the great ship.