King of the Hill (Steven Soderbergh, 1993) – The career of Steven Soderbergh has been nothing if not eclectic. Constantly bouncing between indies and blockbusters, collaborating with movie stars and unknowns, he’s been one of the most unpredictable filmmakers of his generation. Criterion has put out a few Soderbergh flicks in the past; his Oscar-winning Traffic, the surrealist goof-off Schizopolis, and his unjustly ignored epic Che. Now they’ve dug back to the start of Soderbergh’s career for their latest release. The films made before his creative reinvention in Schizopolis can often feel like the works of another filmmaker entirely (even his breakthrough debut Sex, Lies, And Videotape). For this disc, Criterion has cleaned up and shipped out the best and worst films made during Soderbergh’s 20something formalist period and it makes the package a damn entertaining time capsule for fans of the four-eyed chameleon filmmaker. The bad movie is a special feature, the good movie is the centerpiece. That one is King of the Hill and it’s an absolute delight.
Based on the memoir of A.E. Hotchner, King of the Hill is in some ways a classic coming of age tale and in some ways an unexpectedly dark one. Jesse Bradford stars as Aaron, an academically successful, yet socially awkward youngster with a talent for lying. He goes through the usual motions of discovering girls, beating bullies, and making friends, which Soderbergh films in the lush style of a child’s heightened sense of reality and optimism. However, the kid is also growing up during the Great Depression and that’s where Soderbergh lets things go surprisingly dark. His family lives in a single room in a cheap hotel. His brother is quickly sent away to an uncle because the parents can’t afford two children. Then his mother is sent to the hospital and his father hits the road as a traveling salesman. Soon Aaron is by himself, struggling to survive and convince everyone around him that nothing is wrong. He hallucinates from a lack of food, stumbles onto a suicide, fights with evil bellhops, and eventually discovers that despite appearances, adults are just as messed up and lost as children.
Soderbergh’s third feature is very much a genre piece and as usual the director both toys with and conforms to the coming-of-age genre conventions. For the first 30 minutes or so, the movie even ventures close to becoming twee as Soderbergh’s gorgeously framed visuals provide a little too much candy-coating to the 1930s setting. But once the real story sets in, it’s clear the aesthetic suits the material, representing the irrationally optimistic point-of-view of the tortured protagonist. As a screenwriter, Soderbergh nimbly avoids slipping into predictable clichés and the film unfolds in the awkward rhythms of life even if the visuals offer the gloss of a prestige picture. The performances are also excellent from top to bottom, with Jesse Bradford delivering an astounding bit of child acting that far too few notice in 1993 and the supporting cast filled with underused character actors like Karen Allen, Spalding Gray, and a surprisingly young Adrian Brody. Above all else, King of the Hill is a truly charming movie, a warm and gooey surprise in the often cold and calculated Soderbergh’s career.
The same cannot be said for The Underneath, Soderbergh’s 1995 thriller that caused the director to retreat into experimental indies. It’s a cold, tedious heist/noir that never for a single second approximates the real world. Instead it’s an overwrought and convoluted bit of genre filmmaking. However, it’s not a complete disaster, filled with arresting visuals and color-timing techniques the director would return to in later years. It’s a decent film, but definitely far from the wryly constructed genre exercises that the director would become famous for in the 2000s. Perhaps that’s why Soderbergh is so brutal on The Underneath during 22 minute interview/rant that Criterion included on the disc. Soderbergh clearly hates The Underneath more than any other film he’s made (for personal reasons as much as artistic ones) and doesn’t hold back in a highly amusing interview. It’s rare to hear a filmmaker cut loose on something they’ve made with that intensity or honesty, making the interview as much fun to watch as the film itself. Whether he likes The Underneath or not, Soderbergh clearly helped supervise the HD transfers for both films which are stunningly detailed and glow on the screen in a way that breathes new life into them. Soderbergh might not have a signature visual style, but the techniques he brings to every movie are always striking and both King of the Hill and The Underneath rank amongst his most beautiful efforts, even if that’s all they have in common. Both make for gorgeous Blu-rays thanks to the good folks at Criterion.
Aside from that single interview, the rest of the special features on the disc are dedicated to King Of The Hill. Soderbergh pops up for another 21-minute interview about the film and is far more kind to it than The Underneath, even if he’s clearly not enamored with the early phase of his career. He shares some charming memories about the making of the film as well as a few notes on things that he wishes he could change. Next up, a handful of deleted scenes that Soderbergh wishes he hadn’t cut, but honestly wouldn’t have added much beyond length. Hotchner pops up for an interview as well, which is very warm and dedicated more to the actual events and book than the film. There are also trailers for both films and an odd video essay on Soderbergh’s editing techniques in King of the Hill that is pretty to look at, but almost unforgivably pretentious. Finally, Criterion wraps things up with a gorgeous booklet packed with an essay, a vintage interview with Soderbergh, and an excerpt from Hotchner’s memoir. Overall, it’s a wonderful package for fans of this director and also one that comes as an interesting crossroads of his career. King Of The Hill and The Underneath represent the end of the first wave of Soderbergh’s career and at the moment he’s entered a self-imposed “sabbatical” from filmmaking so that he can reinvent himself again. Hopefully the next version of Soderbergh will be as good as the first two, because that guy is at once one of the most famous and underrated American filmmakers working today. (Phil Brown)
Nebraska (Alexander Payne, 2013) – Even though he’s written a Jurassic Park sequel and an Adam Sandler comedy for cash, Alexander Payne is one of the few American directors who makes films about real people. Payne’s movies rarely offer massive character growth or emotional manipulation. Instead his stories are small, character-driven, and mixed with a healthy dose of witty comedy and lip-trembling drama (you know, like life). Payne’s latest Oscar-nominated effort Nebraska is also one of his finest films in years and maybe even his greatest to date. And yet, it’s all too easy to over praise the accomplishment. With films this delicate and subtle, expecting too much is a recipe for disaster. Yet, it’s hard to find anything negative to say about a work as delicate, funny, genuine, and satisfying as Nebraska.
Bruce Dern stars as Woody Grant: a beaten, bitter, and cantankerous old man who opens the film by being stopped marching down the highway by the local police. He received a letter in the mail stating that he won a million dollars and plans to walk to Nebraska to claim the prize. Obviously, the letter was a marketing gimmick used to sell magazine subscriptions, but Woody won’t believe that. Despite what his exhausted wife (June Squibb), local newscaster son (Bob Odenkirk) and stereo salesman son (Will Forte) have to say about the subject, Woody is convinced the money is his and is determined to claim his prize. With nothing better to do and a sad life needing to be escape, Forte eventually agrees to drive his father too Nebraska. A few unfortunate detours lead to them stopping off in Dern’s hometown where he becomes a local celebrity for potentially winning cash from the sea of local failures (especially from Stacy Keach, who is somewhat the film’s villain). Of course, there’s only one possible end to the journey and it isn’t a happy one. Yet the concept of cash-fueled hope is one few characters in the story are willing to let go.
So, it’s more of a rambling series of character sketches than a carefully architected plot. The movie also moves at a deliberate pace and was shot antiquated black and white. And yet, despite all that it’s as moving, funny, and richly cinematic of an experience as anything to hit screens last year. The black and white aesthetic is no accident or gimmick, but a deliberate reflection of the film’s mood and an accurate portrayal of those pale, depressing, and beige Middle American winters. The towns where the film takes place are suffering, filled with unemployment, decaying architecture and closing Mom & Pop stores in a way that is very much of the moment. It’s a film that takes place in what is essentially a new Great Depression and Payne expertly captures that visually like he’s making a modern Grapes of Wrath with jokes. The characters never speak in life affirming speeches, but small exchanges of few words. The way they behave is frequently hilarious (especially when Dern’s conversation-challenged brothers attempt to chat about a car), yet Payne never sneers or judges. He loves and empathizes with every person who wonders into one of his expertly composed frames and the audiences gets to share in that warmth thanks to the remarkable performances.
Dern is of course at the center of it all and has already won a deserved Best Actor statue at the Cannes Film Festival. His character rarely speaks and yet there’s never any doubt what Dern is thinking at any moment. He’s a defeated man whose mind is fading, but he’s always very aware of his actions and the world around him. He just knows enough not to say anything. SNL vet Will Forte might seem like an odd choice in a fairly dramatic role, yet his face, features, and voice are perfectly capture the Middle American innocence of the story. His role is the most difficult as his character goes through the closest thing to growth. But, despite his surrealistic comedic tendencies of the past, he downplays throughout without ever missing a comedic beat or dramatic moment. Odenkirk continues his unexpected reinvention as a dramatic actor as well and does so subtly with only a dash of his comedy roots. Perhaps the film’s biggest scene-stealers are Stacy Keach as Dern’s small town nemesis (who expertly hides wicked intent behind a car salesman smile) and June Squibb as Dern’s gently domineering and foul-mouthed wife. Both milk big laughs and pregnant pauses with ease and provide their best work in years (Squibb amusingly also played Jack Nicholson’s wife in Payne’s About Schmidt, which must make her the only woman the duo have shared since their legendary bachelor days at the heart of 70s Hollywood). All the character actors and non-actor locals filling out supporting roles are just as strong. As always, Payne casts his roles so well and treats his characters with such warmth and respect that you’ll wish the movie could veer off and become about any one of them, no matter how little screen time they have.
As to what the film means, well that’s a little trickier. With Payne’s reluctance to adhere to any sweeping messages or arcs in his work, that’s not always obvious. In the end, the film is probably a celebration of the lives of small town failures. Little people who don’t ever cause headlines or change the world, yet still have the same drives, dreams, and hopes that define us all even if they achieve few. The movie ends with a beautiful moment between Forte and Dern too good to spoil here. It’s as subtle and restrained as the rest of the film, yet in it’s own small, real, and beautiful way offers an intensely moving coda and just enough of a victory to leave the audience feeling uplifted. Too pull that off in the style of filmmaking Payne embraces isn’t easy. Somehow he still seems too pull it off effortlessly every time though (even in his slightly mainstream effort The Descendants).
Nebraska pops onto Blu-Ray just with an absolutely gorgeous Blu-Ray transfer. The deep focus black and white adds substantially to the tone of the movie, almost like an early Jim Jarmusch picture. Getting it right on Blu-ray was vital and thankfully Paramount didn’t disappoint, delivering a stunning rendition of the digital cinematography that pops off the screen without ever detracting from the delicate character-driven story. The lone special feature is a single 30-minute making-of documentary. Thankfully, it’s a great one. Payne, screenwriter Bob Nelson and the entire cast sit down for interviews and share pretty well everything there is to be said about the movie. By virtue of the fact that everyone involved actually wanted to make the film, the featurette never devolves into backslapping fluff. Now, would it be nice if there were also some deleted scenes or a Payne commentary on the disc? Of course, but at least there’s a single substantial special feature on the disc, even if that’s all there is. If there was ever any doubt that Payne is one of the great American filmmakers of his era, then Nebraska should shut those down. Payne is a singular voice in film right now, one who gives a voice to a vast swab of North American life rarely explored on film (Some claim Payne cynically mocks his subjects, but only those who have never lived in the lost world small town world he depicts. His humor comes from acute observation, not snide judgment.). Believe the Nebraska hype, but don’t get swept up in it. You haven’t won the lotto with this movie, but stick with it and you’ll find something more rewarding. You know, just like Dern’s instantly indelible Woody Grant. (Phil Brown)
Wadja (Haidaa Al Mansour, 2013) – Wadjda is a truly heart warming tale of a young girl looking to buck centuries of tradition to be happy in a country where the needs of the women are more often than not a secondary concern.
Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is your standard fun loving 10 year old girl living in Saudi Arabia who has her heart set on a brand new bicycle. However, her mother simply won’t allow it, fearing repercussions from a society that would see a bicycle as dangerous to a young girl’s virtue. Determined to turn her dreams into a reality and save up enough money to buy the bike on her own, Wadjda uncovers all of the contradictions and opportunities that are ingrained in her day to day existence of which she was simply unaware and is resolute in wanting to live her life on her own terms.
Quiet, subtle and ultimately uplifting, Wadjda is an amazing portrait of how even though it isn’t quite a woman’s world yet in most Arab countries, there are still small steps being made by individuals to make things just a tiny bit better for the next generation and generations of women to come. Writer/director Haifaa Al Mansour, Saudi Arabia’s first ever female director, paints a world that feels realistic but still has a genuine sense of hope to it all, allowing its characters to act naturally as they navigate their way through a world that is in the middle of some subtle shifts. Mansour doesn’t hit us over the head with a particular message, but shows us the quiet moments as these characters try to fit in and still maintain a distinct identity in this world that they are living in. It’s a unique balance between religious tradition and human individuality that Mansour walks exceptionally well thanks to a wonderful performance from her young lead.
Mohammed brings precocious charm to the screen. She’s a good kid, but is also a bit of a trouble magnet as she has her own ideas be they simple or a little more profound. The ensemble is filled with a great deal of first time actors, and I really feel that’s what makes the film so charming. There’s no element of lying or obvious manufactured situations; this was a story that the actors and director had lived in their own lives in one way or another and the genuine emotion truly does come across as authentic.
It’s a simple, but completely powerful story about how women exist in a society that is outwardly oppressive and how they manage to keep and maintain their own sense of self in a world that is constantly changing and getting smaller by the day. Wadjda is a brilliant testament to the power that a simple hope and attempt at individual happiness can have in anyone’s life.
Picture and sound quality on the Blu-Ray are top notch and the special features on this combo pack release include a feature length commentary track with writer/director Haifaa Al Mansour, a look at the making of Wadjda, a Director’s Guild of America Q&A session with Haifaa Al Mansour and the theatrical trailer. (Dave Voigt)
Blue is the Warmest Color (Abdellatiff Kechiche, 2013) – Arriving on Blu-Ray following a Cannes Film Festival Palme D’Or triumph and an Oscar snub, Blue is the Warmest Color was one of the most divisive films released last year. In the eyes of some (the Cannes Jury), Abdellatiff Kechiche made a realist masterpiece that captured young love with a candor and honesty few films have ever managed. For others (Oscar voters), it was overlong and manipulative trash that exploited its young stars in needlessly graphic sex scenes. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, leaning more towards the positive side of the spectrum. Yes, the controversy-baiting sex scenes are a bit long and the film is deeply indulgent in a variety of other ways as well. However, there’s no denying the intense and emotionally vulnerable naturalism that Kechiche was able to achieve as a director or the absolutely astounding central performances by Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux. It might not be the masterpiece the Cannes jury promised, but it’s certainly not as easily dismissed as the detractors insist. Blue is the Warmest Color is an enthralling (if at times infuriating) piece of work well worth the three-hour time investment.
Adele Exarchopoulos stars as a lost and lonely high school student who is painfully uncomfortable in her own skin. Handheld cameras follow her closely and intimately throughout, telling the story from her perspective without ever going into her head. She tries out dating an obvious pretty high school gent with no real connection and becomes obsessed by a blue haired gal (Lea Seydoux) she spots on the street. It awakens new feelings in her and blah, blah, blah. Eventually they meet and fall in love and then one day they aren’t. It all sounds very stock and standard beyond the same sex coupling and yet the film is far more than that. Working from an award-winning graphic novel and collaborating closely with two incredible young actresses, Kechiche creates a film that feels very much like an intimate documentary about first love and not a hallmark card sentiment. The beginning is slow, awkward, and tentative. The middle is wild, passionate, and elating. The ending is swift and painful. It feels real and is frequently painful to watch in how accurately the movie peels off emotional scabs.
Kechiche’s film feels active and alive from moment to moment, but lingers as a whole. There’s spontaneity to the performances and montages and all that stuff, yet the strength of the film lies in how it makes the audience feel the weight of an entire relationship. The much discussed sex scenes fit into the film for that reason, in that it’s such a vital and vibrant part of this or any relationship. However, Kechiche’s greatest achievement comes towards the end, when the fireworks and arguments have faded and the girls make a failed attempt to reconnect. It’s one of the most emotionally devastating and relatable depictions of heartbreak and failed love ever caught on film and works because of the investment the audiences and actresses have put into it.
Exarchopoulos is astounding in the lead role, growing from an awkward teen to a damaged woman without missing a beat and profoundly breaking the audience’s heart in the process. Lea Seydoux is a strong sparring partner but as the object of obsession rather than the obsessed, she simply doesn’t have as much to do. Kechiche does an impressive job staging and facilitating their performances, but there’s no denying his film is one of excess. It’s far too long, occasionally emotionally and sexually exploitative, and frequently undisciplined. There’s an argument to be made that the sheer length and intensity of the film is responsible for its impact, but there was still plenty of room to reign things in (the eating scenes for instance).
The film arrives on Blu-Ray courtesy of Mongrel in a rather lovely release (even though the disc for the US is produced by Criterion). The transfer is gorgeous, defined by bold colors and deep details never lost in the shake of the camera. It’s a stunning technical disc and hard to imagine a better one for the film could exist. Special features are limited, but interesting. First, an interview with Exarchopoulos discussing everything from how her character came to share her name, to how she was occasionally shot without being told, and she talks around the controversial elements of the film. Kechiche kicks in a 30-minute interview as well, expanding on his goals for the film and the techniques he used to get there. Both interviews were clearly done at Canadian press events and are fairly lo-fi, but still offer some nice behind the scenes insights to compliment the film on the disc. Undoubtedly there will be a more elaborate special edition disc released in the future, but for now it’s a technically solid disc with a bigger special feature section than the US release so that’s something. Regardless, Blue Is The Warmest Color is a film bigger and better than the controversy, one that should be watched more for it’s delicate observations about relationships and human nature as any of the salacious footage slipped in between the emotions. (Phil Brown)
Thor: The Dark World (Alan Tyler, 2013) – Of all the Marvel heroes comprising The Avengers, Thor was always going to be the trickiest to translate to the screen. After all, the Norse god with formal speech and a celestial backstory doesn’t exactly pack the same simplistic punch as his “explained in their names” buddies Iron Man or Captain America. The last time Thor got a movie, director Kenneth Branagh got around those weaknesses by poking fun at them through camp humor. It worked well enough for audiences to ignore the fact that the plot was a remake of the 80s Masters of the Universe movie and now that it’s sequel time, much has changed and much has stayed the same. The film remains laced with winking referential humor as is a Marvel movie staple and this time it’s also filled with massive CGI action that wasn’t in the budget of Thor 1. In the end, Thor: The Dark World is meaningless pulp that essentially throws a bunch of stuff at the screen and leaves the heroes in roughly the same place they were when it began. However, Marvel Studios has turned into such an impressive entertainment factory that it works. As far as cinematic cotton candy goes, you could do much worse.
One of the more telling aspects of the film is the fact that directing duties were passed from Branagh to Alan Tyler. For better or worse, Branagh was a filmmaker with a distinct style who left his campy touch on the original. Tyler on the other hand hasn’t made a movie in ten years, instead directing-for-hire on television shows like The Sopranos and Game of Thrones. Now, Tyler certainly has talent and he’s done great work for television. However, he’s a director who is hired to work within a house style at all times. Marvel has become such a massive movie factory that at this point, they don’t need a filmmaker with a point of view to guide their projects. They’ve got a collection of comic book artists and the best effects team in the biz to design the massive action sequences as well as a staff of writers headed by Joss Whedon to nail the tongue-in-cheek tone. More than any other production before now, Thor: The Dark World feels very much like a Marvel Studios movie over any particular filmmaker’s vision. Obviously that’s not ideal. However, in this case, that’s perfectly fine since no one knows how to make a Marvel movie better than Marvel Studios.
Thor: The Dark World hits all the beats you’d want out of a Thor movie and then leaves screens before tedium can set in. Hemsworth doesn’t have as many comedic opportunities as last time, but still does the stomping superhero routine with ease. Natalie Portman brings a pretty face, sarcastic spunk, and a light touch to her damsel in distress routine. Skarsgard gets big laughs as an idiot scientist in his underwear. Anthony Hopkins poses and shouts as he’s want to do (though sadly he isn’t hilariously given a new eye patch for every scene again this time). And then of course there’s Tom Hiddleston who clearly has a blast returning to the role of Loki that he’s completely made his own. Hiddleston is one of the secret MVPs of the entire Marvel Universe whose dry British wit, delightful evil grin, and classically trained acting chops are always a joy to behold. He is the star villain of this universe and the sequel gives him plenty of opportunities to steal the show. On the sidelines the Warriors Three are still underdeveloped and underused, while Kat Dennings’ wisecracking 20something routine is quickly turning into the Jar-Jar Binks of the Marvel Universe. However, with so much stuff going on and so many characters competing for attention, at least she’s less of a distraction than last time.
Ultimately Thor: The Dark World is a more consistently entertaining experience than the original, even if Branagh campy mockery is missed. The action is more visceral and executed on an Avengers-style scale. The dialogue zips and quips. The plot fires along without the overlong set-up and periods of tedium from the original. The stars shine and the explosions shine brighter. It is exactly what we’ve come to expect from a Marvel movie and the studio knows how to give the fans what they want. Like the original Thor, this is still on the low end of the spectrum of Marvel movies. They’ve yet to give Thor a classic solo film like Iron Man or even Captain America and given the difficulty of the subject matter, they probably never will. Making a Thor movie this breezily entertaining is difficult enough and we should all be grateful that the studio has yet to deliver a Thor sized disaster.
Predictably, the flick cruised onto Blu-Ray in a gorgeous package. Audio/Visual specs are all top notch, as should be expected from a film that was pulled together primarily in a computer. On the special features front, fans are treated to a bundle of goodies kicking off with the finest one-shot Marvel short film yet: All Hail the King. Now to be fair the short will only work for those who enjoyed Ben Kingsley’s hilarious work as Trevor Slatherly. Marvel catches up with the character to let Kingley show off the skills that suggest he’d be a great SNL host and also change tracks on how they’ll be handling a certain character in the future. It’s one hell of a watch.
Moving on to material actually relating to Thor, Marvel included a 30-minute documentary on the overall development of the character in the cinematic universe featuring interviews with all the major players that is far more insightful than most DVD docs of this ilk. Next up, a very dry, but informative audio commentary from director Alan Taylor, cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau, producer Kevin Feige, and Tom Hiddleson that’s packed with facts and low on laughs. Finally, the disc rounds out with a couple deleted scenes, a giggly gag reel, and a preview for Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It’s not a disc overflowing with extras, but quality far outweighs quantity here and the Kingsley short alone is worth the price of admission (plus, you know, the actual movie). Thor: The Dark World might all be meaningless fluff, but no one is better at providing meaningless fluff to the masses than Marvel Studios. It’s still an excellent popcorn-crunching crowd pleaser that’ll tide over fans until the next Marvel movie epic. (Phil Brown)
Jules and Jim (Francois Truffaut, 1962) – Francois Truffaut’s Jules and Jim is one of those films made by a young director so intoxicated with the unique power of movies that they cram almost every cinematic idea they’ve ever had into a single feature. It came at the end of possibly the greatest opening hat trick of movies that any filmmaker ever achieved and every frame is so packed with affection for the art form that it tends not just to gather fans out of viewers, but spawn filmmakers. Martin Scorsese famously showed the first twenty minutes to Nicolas Pileggi to define the style of Goodfellas and as a result there’s an argument to be made that Jules and Jim is ground zero for the modern age of films and filmmakers. The good news is that 50 years later, the flick still feels wild, bright, experimental, and relevant. The better news is that Criterion just released the masterpiece onto Blu-Ray and as a result it’s the perfect time to fall in love with Truffaut’s ode to love for the first time. It’s one of those pillars of European art cinema that in no way feels like homework to experience. This exact film could be released today and would probably have a similarly exhilarating effect on young audiences.
It’s the style of Jules and Jim that immediately makes a mark on first viewing. As one of the figureheads of the Nouvelle Vague, it was Truffaut’s responsibility to ditch conventional handsome filmmaking techniques and shoot the movie through as many visually expressive techniques as possible. As a result the flick bursts with energy from the outset, with Truffaut giving every scene a restless visual style that grabs the audience by the collar and pounds them into the story emotions-first. However, the early 60s was littered with similarly stylistically adventurous films. Jules and Jim has lasted longer than the dozens that were forgotten because there was a method to Truffaut’s madness. The film came from a book by Henri-Pierre Roche that fascinated the burgeoning auteur from a young age for the story on not simply the opportunities for magnificent camerawork. It’s the tale of a ménage-a-trois friendship/love affair between three young folks in Paris (specifically Jeanne Moreau, Oskar Werner, and Henri Serre) that digs deeper than the at-the-time sexual sensationalism and into something far more profound.
If Jules and Jim is about anything specifically, it’s about friendship and growing older. That opening 20 minutes that meant so much to Scorsese chronicles the meeting of three like minds in turn-of-the-20th-century Paris and it’s that joy to be young and in each other’s company that defines the rushing style of the film. As the tale wears on, things get far more melancholy (eventually even tragic). The friends are separated or even worse grow apart while together. Truffaut’s style calms down to follow suit and as a result the film becomes as masterful statement of growing old and changing. If you want to get autobiographical about it, one could argue that the film expressed the Truffaut’s growing distance and dissatisfaction with the Godard-led French New Wave scene, and certainly all of the director’s subsequent works felt far less indebted to that house style. But, with Truffaut being the humanist he is, that thematic link is small at best and instead the film is the work of a man coming to terms with growth and aging as he moved out of his angry young man period. Regardless, it’s one of the greatest achievements of the director and the Nouvelle Vague. Truffaut would make many more wonderful works over the course of his career, but you can really only achieve something like Jules And Jim once (the fact that he essentially did it and then topped himself three times in arrow, with 400 Blows and Shoot The Piano Player coming first, is what makes him one of the filmmaking greats).
Jules and Jim arrives in HD with the careful and revelatory type of restoration that has become customary for Criterion. On VHS and DVD the storied film always got fairly murky transfers that suggested cheap film stock was to blame and Truffaut’s wild camerawork was used as compensation. However, this HD transfer crushes that theory, with every frame filled with stunning new depth, detail, and clarity. Clearly previous transfers were marred by bad film prints and transfer distortion. This disc is officially the only way anyone should consider watching Jules and Jim on home video. It’s hard to imagine the film ever looking better and hopefully a similarly stunning disc for Shoot the Piano Player is on the way. The special features come ported over from Criterion’s previous 2-disc DVD set (also included in the box btw) and there’s really no need for much more. You’ll get an hour worth of documentaries just on the source material, Almost two hours worth of interviews with Truffaut, long contemporary interviews with the cinematographer and co-writer, a conversation between film scholars about the impact of the film, two audio commentaries (one with the legendary Jeanne Moreau), and a booklet filled with essays (the booklet is the one thing in the set that’s missing some content from the DVD, but hey you can’t have everything). In short, the Criterion Blu-Ray of Jules and Jim is like crack for cinefiles. One taste and you won’t be able to stop spinning the disc until you’ve sucked up everything on it. Enjoy. (Phil Brown)
Banshee Chapter (Blair Erickson, 2013) – There’s an old saying that rings truer in the entertainment realm more so then it does anywhere else in modern life, “Just keep it simple, stupid”. Banshee Chapter works as well as it does because it does just that.
Anne Roland (Katia Winter) is a young journalist with a nose for a good story who ends up on the trail of a strange government research chemical used in secret experiments that may have also killed her best friend. After following the story to the desert ranch door step of an enigmatic and reclusive retired novelist (Ted Winter), she’s drawn into a visceral experience of terror filled with some frightening entities that she simply can’t escape. The events in this film are based on real documents, actual testimony ,and evidence researched and uncovered from decades of data that came from a secret CIA program.
Ultimately, Banshee Chapter is an incredibly effective film if only because of the how well it creates an overwhelming claustrophobic environment. Co-writer and director Blair Erickson originally set up this micro budget film to exhibited in 3D, and despite hardly being shown during any of its exhibitions the way it was intended, this is a film that makes fantastic use its surroundings and uses what we don’t see for utmost effect. While it borrows fairly liberally from H.P. Lovecraft’s From Beyond (which it also references in the film), Erickson assembles a neat little thriller that bleeds the most it possibly can out of the premise as the setup of the entire thing keeps us completely engaged and actually uses elements of found footage to its benefit without giving us non-stop shaky cam. The scares are simple, but they develop naturally and work very well. Sometimes all you need is a dark hallway with some creepy noises coming from the other end of it, and if you can do it well, it works. Erickson certainly does it well.
Winter is a solid, strong horror heroine. She generates a lot of sympathy her characters dilemma, and while a lot of characters actually had to be cut from the original script for budgetary purposes, the script has Winter narrative some the gaps in the story, but it still works. walks that fine line between drug and booze addled savant and conspiracy nut with his usual aplomb. The bulk of the supporting players drop out pretty quickly and don’t add much, but it isn’t needed as we follow Winter and Levine in the dead of night to figure out their mystery.
Banshee Chapter is a good little film to watch on the couch with all the lights off. It should spook you just enough to have you jumping out of your skin for every little thing that goes bump in the night.
Special features on the DVD include four behind the scenes featurettes that are actually a little disappointing and the theatrical trailer. (Dave Voigt)