The Last Stand (Jee-woon Kim, 2013) – Early this year the biggest (physically and otherwise) star of the golden age of action movies returned to the big screen and no one cared. Sure, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s shtick was getting a little stale in the 2000s with crap like The 6th Day underperforming both at the box office and in our hearts, but everyone thought the governator needed only to march back onto the big screen with a machine gun to reclaim his Hollywood thrown. Sadly, his core audience had grown too old to run to the theater on opening weekend and the kids out there didn’t seem to care about a hero distinctly lacking in tights and superpowers. That was a real shame because The Last Stand wasn’t just a pitch perfect Arnie comeback vehicle, but also a movie that might be remembered as one of his finest as he enters his career retrospective phase. Schwarzenegger is many things, but he’s certainly not someone who lacks a masterplan for his career and he played his cards oh-so-right on this one. Arnold found himself a grizzled old timer action role without too many “I’m too old for this shit” gags, surrounded himself with supporting players more than capable of helping shoulder the weight of the movie, and in his wisest move hired Korean genre movie genius Jee-Woon Kim to bring him back in style. To bad no one showed up.
One of the best things about The Last Stand is that it’s a B-movie with absolutely zero pretenses of being art. It’s just a big dumb roller coaster that executes its thrills expertly with plenty of humor that never crosses the line into winking self-parody. The tone is heightened to cartoon levels without a wiff of irony. Arnold is of course at the center of it all and even though he’s got a few more wrinkles now and is even less mobile than before, the man knows his limits and gets the job done. It’s the kind of role Clint Eastwood would have attached his name to in the 90s and while Arnold can’t even match Clint’s meager acting talents, the tone of the movie is so exaggerated that he never has to. He throws down gravity through swagger and when the time for action comes, he kills off bad guys with the ruthless efficiency of action stars with only half of his 66-years. By the end, he’s even involved in a hysterical wrestling match and never once does it feel like the retirement age star can’t keep up. Surrounding him are a cast of actors who all know just the right level of ridiculousness to bring to their roles. Johnny Knoxville gives possibly his best slapstick performance with just enough screen time to avoid being annoying and at least one big stupid stunt for Jackass fans. Whitaker handles his thankless FBI heavy role with grace, Peter Fargo Stormare dives into his henchman role with growling glee, Harry Dean Stanton adds character actor class with a nice bullet-in-the-head cameo, and Luis Guzman adds laughs in the corner of the frame whenever the camera is pointed in his direction. All the ingredients come together in a trash movie birthday cake well worth the empty calories and the triumphant success of this empty headed nonsense can be credited to one man other than Arnold.
Jee-woon Kim came to the film already a master of Korean genre flick like his slow-burn ghost story A Tale Of Two Sisters, his giddy action flick A Bittersweet Life, his nutso Asian Spaghetti Western The Good The Bad And The Weird, and his vicious revenge thriller I Saw The Devil. The movies were so good that it was only a matter of time before he flew over Hollywood and limp box office aside, The Last Stand was a perfect first step in that process. It isn’t a pure Jee-woon Kim film since he came on board with a completed script and star attached, so he never had the same level of control he has in his native country where he has shut down productions for weeks mid-shoot to rework his scripts. However, Kim was always a filmmaker drenched in American filmmaking influences, so he clearly relished the opportunity to make a modern day Western/action movie and work with a Hollywood icon. The filmmaker slathers his visual style all over the screen with acrobatic flying cameras and eye-tingling bright colors that elevate the film above reality and into comic strip fantasyland. His goofball sense of humor is also well represented in rounds of physical comedy and hysterical, unexpectedly violent turns from the quiet townsfolk on the sidelines. Foreign filmmakers usually come to Hollywood to have their voice stomped out by the assembly line mentality of the studio system, but Kim was lucky enough to find a project suited to his sensibilities and was supervised by a star who allowed him to do his job right.
The Last Stand slides onto Blu-ray in a package clearly designed by a studio who assumed the movie would be a hit. The transfer is gorgeous with all of Kim’s swooping cameras and eye-piercingly bright colors exploding off the screen in HD, combined with sound mix guaranteed to get noise complains from neighbors/local police. On the special features front there’s a wonderful 30-minute documentary that delves into all of the remarkably staged physical action and Kim’s impact on the production, There’s also a 10-minute breakdown of the remarkable cornfield climax, a featurette on all the guns and ammo used in the film, 10 moderately annoying minutes of Jaimie Alexander and Johnny Knoxville goofing off on set, and a collection of deleted scenes mostly involving the wisely discarded love story. The only thing missing is an interview or commentary by man/legend Arnold Schwarzenegger, so I guess you’ll have to buy his autobiography for that. If you’re a fan of 80s or 90s action movies, but somehow missed The Last Stand in theaters, prepare thyself for pure bliss. This is one of the finest straight action flicks in years and the Arnie comeback movie that the man and his fans deserved. Hopefully people will discover that on Blu-ray since everyone missed it in theaters.
The Great Escape (John Sturges, 1963) – If there’s a better movie to watch on a Sunday afternoon that John Sturges’ The Great Escape, I’ve sure never seen it. Like the bouncy Elmer Bernstein score underlying the opening credits, the film is like taking a hypodermic needle of sheer joy straight to the heart that causes a smile that could never fade regardless of how hard you try. Considering that the film takes place in a Nazi-run WW2 POW camp, that shouldn’t really be possible. Yet there’s some undeniable magic to what deeply underrated director John Sturges whipped up with an all-star cast back in 1963. Based on the true story of a special POW camp the Nazis populated exclusively with prisoners who they were convinced would attempt escape, the film is a romp of wartime tomfoolery that somehow never stretches into bad taste despite turning tragic truth into glossy Hollywood myth. I guess that’s what makes it a classic.
Director John Sturges was a longtime Hollywood journeyman who cranked out at least one film per year from the mid 40s until the 70s. Yet, it still took him 13 years to get The Great Escape a greenlight and even that only came after head made the megahit The Magnificent Seven. As an introductory statement announces before the film begins, the characters and plot were fictionalized entertainment, but the actual escape techniques were completely accurate. Once tossed into a full camp of escape-loving soldiers, the superior officers announced (well, secretly announced) plans to pull off a daring several-hundred prisoner escape to distract the Germans while the allies lead the D-day attack. The final escape total didn’t quite match those ambitions, but 76 got out and caused quite the kerfuffle. The escape plan was ingenious in real life and wonderfully staged in the film, with massive tunnels secretly dug underground and dirt distributed around the camp via secret pants compartments. Considering these characters were playing with their lives, the film certainly presents the story as a joyous adventure, which is probably for the best.
A big reason for that comes down to the cast filled with familiar faces playing their established types to perfection like James Garner’s slick conman, Charles Bronson’s peculiarly accented tunnel specialist, Steve McQueen’s custom destined wartime cool guy, Donald Pleasence’s eccentric forger, and Richard Attenborough’s delightfully uptight commander. For a full two hours Sturges simply follows these characters through their escape plans. It should be somewhat dry, yet all the cast and characters are so charming (yes, even the befuddled Nazis) and the escape plan so cleverly designed and executed that it never ceases to be a riot. Then just when the movie threatens to become as tastelessly flippant a depiction of this subject matter as an episode of Hogan’s Heroes, the 76 men get out and the final third of the movie turns into an interconnected series of chase and action sequence. The thrill peak comes when McQueen iconically leaps over a fence on his motorcycle and the emotional peak comes when 50 of them are shockingly executed to toss a little painfully realistic wartime tragedy into the mix. Quite simply this is a perfect old fashion World War 2 movie, milking the maximum value out of guys-on-a-mission entertainment without belittling their situation. The film is a classic for a reason and it’s the peak of Sturges expert career of big screen entertainment that includes such neglected gems as Bad Day At Black Rock and The Eagle Has Landed.
The Great Escape makes a much hyped and long delayed Blu-ray review in a nice, if imperfect package. Unfortunately the catalogue title belongs to the severely struggling MGM, so they clearly haven’t given the film the full restoration it deserves. The image can be a bit waxy and unstable at times, but it’s still the best the movie has ever looked on any format and the imperfections aren’t as sever as on some bungled archive releases of the past (cough, Patton, cough, cough). The special features are all ported over from the DVD and are mostly vintage TV documentaries, but thankfully their all good ones and pretty well everyone involved with the film is far too dead to be pulled together for a new documentary anyways. There are 8 different TV documentaries at 20 minutes a pop almost all of which are about the actual story and the film’s adherence to the facts and all of which are excellent.
There is one 1993 documentary purely about the film that’s fairly interesting, but if you’re mostly interested in behind the scenes details, the audio commentary is where it’s at. Compiled by Great Escape expert Steven Jay Rubin, the commentary is a collection of interviews with cast members, stunt men, art directors, Steve McQueen’s manager (!), and the late great director John Sturges. It’s a treasure trove of info and since the flick is nearly three hours long, it covers just about everything you could possibly want to know about The Great Escape. While the special features might be recycled and the transfer is a bit ho-hum, The Great Escape is quite simply one of the greatest works of Hollywood escapism ever produced and a flat-out masterpiece of entertainment. If you’ve never seen it, buy it now. If you have, you’ll know why you need the disc because warts and all this is the prettiest the movie has ever looked on home video.
Crimewave (Sam Raimi, 1985) – If The Evil Dead is one of great independent filmmaking success stories, then Sam Raimi’s little seen follow up Crimewave might be one of the great first studio filmmaking failures. After bursting onto the scene with their limb-chopping deadite delights, Raimi, producer Rob Tapert, and the great Bruce Campbell decided to make a slapstick comedy more in keeping with their 8mm filmmaking sensibilities. So Raimi teamed up with a sibling writing team named Joel and Ethan Coen who he met editing Evil Dead and along with star producer Ed Pressman (Badlands, Phantom Of Paradise, Conan The Barbarian), they set up a deal with Embassy Films to make their first studio movie. Seemed like a great collaboration on paper, but then production started and a series of disasters followed. Coked-up actors, painfully cold Detroit shooting locations, stuntman strip club brawls, studio interference, reshoots, recasting, everything that could go wrong went wrong and when the endlessly re-titled Crimewave was finally released, it played in three theaters and disappeared. Available only in bootlegs since the VHS days, Shout Factory have continued their quest to become the cult movie Criterion by finally releasing Crimewave on not only DVD, but Blu-ray. Now a long lost missing link in the early careers of Sam Raimi and the Coens can finally find the cult audience it deserves.
The plot for this one certainly strange, mixing an impossibly innocent meet-weird love story from 30s screwball comedy (starring Reed Birney and Sheree Wilson) with a strange Three Stooges film noir parody featuring a pair of psychotic exterminators/hitmen (Brion James and Paul L. Smith). To be honest, it doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. Part of the Raimi/Coen charm is that their movies dress up and toy with retired movie genre conventions. Crimewave certainly does that, just maybe a little too much. The film feels like four different movies competing for attention at once and never quite melds together. However, on a scene-by-scene, basis it can be brilliant. Raimi whips up some remarkable set pieces (like a series of security doors toppling like dominos or cameras flying behind plates mid-air as they smash into a villain’s face), the Coens toss in some hilarious sardonic comedy, and Bruce Campbell introduces his wise-ass moron persona as a character named Renaldo The Heel. The tone is that of a live action cartoon, which Raimi and Coens would perfect in their follow ups Evil Dead 2 and Raising Arizona, before teaming up to do again at the blockbuster level with The Hudsucker Proxy. In Crimewave they don’t quite have that comedic tone down yet and studio re-shoots, re-edits, and general interference muddles things further. You could never describe Crimewave as a lost masterpiece, but it is a deliriously entertaining live action cartoon filled with wonderful moments that hint at the greatness Raimi, the Coens, and Campbell would deliver shortly.
Seeing Crimewave on Blu-ray is pretty wild after years of cheap bootleg DVD screenings. Sure there are a couple of scenes that look ugly due to poor preservation and low budget constraints (some dodgy lighting or grainy frames here, some bad rear-screen projection there), but for the most part the film looks clean and crisp in a way that only the 17 audience members who caught it in theaters in 1985 have enjoyed before now. Given how exuberant and wild Raimi’s camerawork tends to be, it’s a huge improvement and I’m insanely jealous if this is how you’ll get to see the movie for the first time. The audio is crisp and clean as well, presented in glorious mono as intended. However, as surreal as it is to see a decent presentation of Crimewave, the special features section is the highlight of the disc. Bruce Campbell always delivers one of the best commentary tracks in the business, but this one is a real doosy. Armed with hilariously tragic production stories he’s been sitting on for decades, Campbell unleashes one filmmaking horror story after another, laced with his usual sarcastic charm. Quite frankly, it might be even more entertaining to hear Campbell narrate the film than listen to the original audio. Campbell also sits down for an interview with a few other details, as does producer Ed Pressman, and star Reed Barney. All of them are clearly amused that the film has developed a cult audience after years of trying to wipe the painful memories of the production from their minds and some behind the scenes footage is even slipped in as they speak. As long as you don’t expect a lost masterpiece, Crimewave is vital viewing for fans of Sam Raimi, The Coen Brothers, and Bruce Campbell. Along with The Hudsucker Proxy the flick walks the fine line between where Coen and Raimi’s cinematic interests meet and hopefully one day they’ll attempt a three headed filmmaking project again. They do say the third times a charm, don’t they?
Police Story/Police Story 2 (1985/1988, Jackie Chan) – For those who only know him as a sidekick for Chris Tucker and/or Owen Wilson, it’s probably hard to figure out why the world is so enamored with Jackie Chan. Sure, he does his own stunts in the Hollywood blockbusters, but it’s nothing particularly remarkable. Well, to understand the legend of Jackie Chan you have to see the Hong Kong movies that earned his status and Shout Factory’s new combo pack of the Chan-directed Police Story and Police Story 2 is a perfect place to start. Simply put, the stunts that Chan and the folks crazy enough to join him pull off in these movies aren’t just death defying, they are practically suicidal. Chan alone broke his pelvis, tore apart his hands, and electrocuted himself in just a single sequence in the first movie, and those aren’t even the worst injuries from his renegade HK filmmaking days. The man bridged the gap between Buster Keaton and Jackass while carving himself out a place in action movie history for a few decades. These days his early films are almost even more impressive to watch given that the CGI Wire-fu era has pretty well killed off physical stunts in general, never mind stunts on the near-lethal level that Chan specialized in.
Police Story 1 is the highlight of the set and possibly of Chan’s career. Like all his movies, the plot is almost incidental. Chan plays one of those “plays-by-his-own-rules” cops who took no guff and destroyed plenty of real estate while defining 80s action cinema. In the hilariously dubbed English language version, all characters even refer to him as Jackie Chan. After destroying a shanty town and dangling off a bus with an umbrella (yep, those things really happened), Chan is screamed at by his sergeant and then is somehow rewarded with the assignment of guarding a local crime lord’s secretary as she prepares to testify against him in court. Cue a series of slapstick misunderstandings and innuendo before Chan is framed for murder and must take revenge by beating up all the baddies at once in a candy glass filled mall crying out for destruction. The “plot” gives Chan a chance to work his comedic charms, but really you’re watching this for the action.
Jackie Chan had already established himself as a action star with a reckless abandon for self destruction in Drunken Master and Project A when he stepped up to make Police Story and was determined to top himself. You’ll see the man fall several stories with nothing to block his fall but a gazebo and table, slide down a 4-story pole covered in exploding Christmas lights, and toss countless stuntmen through shattering glass structures (sometimes with the aid of a motorcycle). All of it is real, all of it is insane, and all of it is endlessly entertaining. Chan’s action movies were as much influenced by Harold Lloyd as Bruce Lee, so even though the stunts are real they play as much as slapstick as bone-crunching action. While some of his straight comedy sequences may not have aged well, Police Story is filled with big heaping doses of nostalgic 80s charm from cheesy synthesizer music to paper thin characters, ludicrous dialogue that sounds like it was written seconds before filming, and plotting more baffling than exciting. At this point all that material only adds to the comedy and makes Police Story one of the funniest damn movies you’ll ever seen even when the intended comedy fails. It’s a little holy grail of B-movie bliss from an irony free era filled with stunning set pieces connected by laughable set up. Even the crude no-budget aesthetic adds to the charm and with end credit outtakes that feel like a deliberate comedic extension of the lovingly ludicrous tone and prove that all of the onscreen action was as painful as it appears.
Police Story 2 is a much more slick production that continues the adventures of Jackie Chan’s namesake cop. However, made a few years later after Chan had brain surgery from a botched stunt on a spy movie, the stunts are perhaps understandably more subdued. Chan still leaps across a few double decker buses to crash through a class window and takes fire-crackers to the face between rounds of light comedy. So it’s an entertaining romp (it’s hard to hate an action movie that literally ends with a fireworks factory explosion), just not quite the classic as the original. Consider it a welcome special feature on the Police Story Blu-ray, which is nice because the disc doesn’t have too much else. Fans are treated to a few extras outtakes and deleted scenes for both movies and that’s pretty much it. The HD transfers for both movies offer mixed results at best, but that’s inevitable for movies this old made this cheaply (Police Story 2 looks better thanks to increased production values, but not by much). However, since North American fans are used to pan-and-scan VHS tapes or dreary bootleg DVDs of these titles, Police Story 1 & 2 look pretty incredible compared to what came before. This is probably the best we can ever expect the cheap 80s B-movies to look and if you’ve never seen Jackie Chan in his prime before, the Blu-ray demands to be purchased and cherished immediately. Arnie and Sly might have racked up more impressive body counts during the heyday of the action movie, but no one came out of the era with more permanent injuries than Jackie Chan. Recognize.
Repo Man (Alex Cox, 1984) – It’s hard to imagine anyone predicting that Repo Man would one day be part of the Criterion Collection, but then it’s a bit of a miracle the movie was produced and released by a Hollywood studio at all. So I suppose it fits in with the flick’s bizarre journey. Repo Man initially found fame for boasting the definitive 80s punk movie soundtrack that was a hit before the film was even released. Then when all the angry young punks of the era finally feasted their eyes on Alex Cox’s bizarro debut they found a movie that in many ways embodied the punk ethos. That’s not to say that Repo Man is overtly political or filled with social commentary (even though some of that is ladled on in the background). No, that’s more of a tonal thing. Repo Man is a movie that goes out of its way to subvert convention and raise a middle finger at the usual Hollywood filmmaking devices. It’s a comedy filled with dark cynicism, a sci-fi yarn devoid of aliens, and a movie rooted in a real repo world that frequently diverts into fantasy. There’s nothing else out there like it and it’s a miracle that first-time filmmaker Cox was able to squeeze something this unique through the studio system thanks to producer and former Monkee Michael Nesmith.
Emilo Estevez stars as a wayward LA punk living in a loosely sci-fi world where all products are sold in generic white packaging. His parents are sedated by TV and his fellow punks are more into drinking, fighting, and the other big F verb than embarking in social anarchy. Estevez eventually stumbles into a job as a repo man, where he’s trained by a street-philosophy-spitting and coke-snorting Harry Dean Stanton. He also works with a variety of repo eccentrics like Sy Richardson (whose deadpan comic genius gets more laughs out of a line like “Do you like music? Then you’re gonna love this” than should be humanly possible) and the go-to 80s eccentric character actor Tracey Walter (probably best known for playing Jack Nicholson’s Joker sidekick bob and appearing in every Jonathan Demme movie from the era). Eventually, Estevez gets tied up in a sci-fi plot revolving around a mysterious nuclear weapon in a car trunk and is pursued by mad scientists and an odd villain with a tinfoil metal hand. Expecting logic or closure from the plot is fruitless. Cox has a distinctly British brand of surreal comic absurdity that he applies to the real world and genre movie material like a punk prankster hoping to piss off the squarest of viewers. To make things even stranger, Cox imported Wim Wenders’ cinematographer Robby Muller to give the film a stately European feel that goes against the comedic tone and yet somehow works. Repo Man is a hysterical, subversive, and strange little movie that deservingly qualified as a cult classic the second it was released and won’t be losing that status any time soon.
Repo Man debuts on Blu-ray via Criterion with all of the bells n’ whistles that implies. The transfer is gorgeous with all of Muller’s deep focus compositions and the hallucinatory color scheme shining like never before. Cox’s vision might be a dark and twisted, but the images he whipped up with Muller are gorgeously colorful and ideally suited to the HD upgrade. Beyond that the disc is stacked with a variety of old and new features. A rambunctious commentary featuring Cox, executive producer Michael Nesmith, casting director Victoria Thomas, and actors Sy Richardson, Zander Schloss, and Del Zamora from the 1999 Anchor Bay DVD is ported over and is one of the more entertaining you’ll ever hear even if the wall of voices can be a pain to keep straight. Then there are the low-fi Cox-produced features from the 2005 DVD including a surprisingly honest 26-minute making of doc, over 20-minutes of deleted scenes intercut with director discussion, and an indispensable 20-minute interview with Harry Dean Stanton that’s equally cantankerous (including some Alex Cox bashing) and philosophical (well, nihilistic).
Criterion’s new features include a hilarious and inevitably shirtless interview with Iggy Pop discussing his time composing the theme/having a cocaine relapse. There’s also a collection of video interviews with various cast and crew members adding new memories to the rather insane production. Finally, Criterion have included the strange TV cut of Repo Man filled with awkward swear dubbing and outtakes as well as a massive booklet featuring handwritten notes from Cox, a research interview with a genuine repo man that heavily influenced the script, and pages from the abandoned Repo Man comic book that Coz wrote before the script. So…whew! It’s a stacked set packed with every special feature ever produced for Repo Man. If there’s anything you still want to know about the movie after going through all those hours of content, there’s probably something wrong with you. Although, I gotta admit that I understand the impulse. Repo Man is a fascinatingly funny flick that only seems to get better with each viewing, just don’t expect all the questions to ever be answered. That’s not what punk is about and the film is if nothing else a monument of the punk era. A big blast of evocative color and sound, signifying noting…except maybe “fuck you.”
Swimming To Cambodia (Jonathan Demme, 1987) – Spalding Gray is one of those rare artists who can be labeled as a unique original without fear of consequence or naysayery. His act involved a table, a microphone, wit, wordplay, fearless autobiography, and surprising insight. He was a monologist who made the form feel special. You’d never catch him playing catch with himself on stage or delving into childhood memories that no one in the audience would have any connection to beyond as a sleep aid. Gray turned his life, thoughts, and failures into art. He toured relentlessly and was beloved as much by the intellectual theater set as curious passersby who wandered in without a clue of who he was or what he did. Monologues and movies doesn’t seem like natural buddies, yet Gray had three of his performances turned into movies by three quite different filmmakers: Jonathan Demme, Steven Soderbergh, and Nick Broomfield. Demme’s was Swimming to Cambodia, the first and arguably the best. That’s true not only because the monologue in question was arguably Spalding’s finest, but because Gray himself fit into Demme’s career long collection of eccentric outsiders whose experiences and personalities became as much the subject of his films as the director’s narrative and thematic interests.
The content of the film is all Spalding Gray. He’d performed the monologue hundreds of times before it became a film, gradually trimming and perfecting a two night 4-hour opus down to two hours. It’s revolves around his experience as an actor playing a small role in The Killing Fields. The film is used a framing device, with Gray amusingly discussing his time on the set and 60+ take shooting sessions, but his role was so small that he had plenty of free time to get lost in Bangkok. So the monologue bounces back and forth between anecdotes about meeting swingers, catching “banana shows” at local brothels, indulging in soft drugs, and enjoying the surreal nature of filmmaking, while also passing his personal research and revelations about the Khmer Rouge massacre at the heart of The Killing Fields. It’s a slingshot of tones and ideas, which Gray gregariously and excitingly dives into. His eyes dart around the room and words explode from his mouth in a machine gun rhythm. Gray is a master raconteur and seasoned stage performer who combined all his skills and stories into something between the greatest lecture, stand up set, and therapy session you’ve ever heard. It’s a remarkable performance that Jonathan Demme somehow turned into a movie.
Demme came into Swimming to Cambodia at the perfect moment in his career. After working his way up from directing Roger Corman woman-in-prison pictures to Oscar nominated studio prestige, Demme became disillusioned with Hollywood after Goldie Hawn and her ego reshot and ruined Swing Shift. The director then fled to New York and independent filmmaking. The shift started with Demme’s seminal Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense and continued through his genre warping New Wave comedy Something Wild. Then he found Spalding Grey. They’d traveled in similar circles in New York’s underground 80s art scene and Demme became enamored with Gray’s breakout monologue Swimming To Cambodia. The film, like Stop Making Sense, is all about the live performance with Demme finding subtle ways to make it cinematic from the perspective of an awestruck audience member. Backdrops light up to add visual interest and focus. An atmospheric score from Laurie Anderson underlines the rhythm and tenor of Spalding’ words. Subtle lighting cues and editing devices are employed like the shadows helicopter blades brushed across his face in a key moment and or careful cutting that creates a virtual conversation between Gray and himself. It’s all very subtle, the kind of thing you wouldn’t even necessarily notice if you were looking for it (unlike Soderbergh’s excellent, but visually batty Gray’s Anatomy), yet it all makes a subtle impact that draws the audience in. That’s Demme’s directorial style in a nutshell. He’s not a showy filmmaker, but he is still a master capable of manipulating and moving audiences without shoving technique in their face. The project is very much Gray’s monologue, but Demme manages to make it a film and present that remarkable performance to everyone who couldn’t see it live in a fresh way.
Long out of print and selling for ludicrous sums on eBay, Swimming to Cambodia was rescued from obscurity by Shout Factory for a fresh DVD release. The presentation isn’t exactly a million dollar Laurence of Arabia digital scrubbing, but the film was always ludicrously low budget and mysteriously archived, so it couldn’t ever look much better than this. The lone special feature is a 17-minute interview with Demme, but it’s a beauty covering everything from where he was in his career at the time, his decision to deliberately not direct Gray, the 3-perfomance shoot, working with all-star husband/wife cinematographer/editor team John Bailey/Carol Littleton, and more. Demme is himself a rather wonderful raconteur and always a pleasure to listen to. I guess he picked up some tricks from the master along the way.
Band of Outsiders (Jean-Luc Godard, 1964) – Looking at the later efforts by legendary director Jean-Luc Godard that abandon any sense of conventional form or narrative in favor of an almost academic level of deconstruction, it’s easy to forget that there was a time when his work could be slapped with adjectives like “entertaining” or “fun.” When sitting down with Criterion’s recent Blu-ray release of Band of Outsiders, it’s amazing just how much sheer joy for the high and low aspects of cinema one of the great cinematic curmudgeons once had. Sure, Godard gleefully rips apart conventions of visual continuity and three-act-story structure, but back then watching him do so at least didn’t feel like sitting in on (an admittedly brilliant) graduate student’s film theory dissertation. A playful dalliance into American pulp fiction through French New Wave sensibilities (the term “Nouvelle Vague” even appears on screen as a the name of a café for delightfully cheeky purposes) that’s French title inspired the name of Tarantino’s production company, Band of Outsiders is the Jean-Luc Godard movies for folks who don’t really love Godard. I suppose that’s either or good thing or a bad thing depending on your allegiance to le auteur of auteurs.
The plot is a trifle, sarcastically summed up in a few random sentences early on by a narrator as Godard almost mocks the viewer for enjoying something so slight. Two young men (Sami Frey and Arthur) obsessed with romantic American gangster movies meet a beautiful girl (Anna Karina) in an English class. They quickly propose that she join them in a robbery. She agrees and for 90 minutes the three overgrown children play at being criminals and adults. It’s a movie more about the diversions than the destination. The most famous scenes (like an impromptu café dance number) come about spontaneously and disappear quickly. Movie in-jokes n’ references pile up a plenty and actors charm viewers until their eyeballs bleed as Godard trots out one playful sequence after the next. It’s loose, tossed off, and joyous. The closest thing Godard ever made to a mainstream movie with a Columbia Pictures backing and release to prove it. As a result, it’s a perennial success with the aimless young folk who it was made by, for, and about. There’s maybe a touch to much Godardian cynicism to match the goofy appeal of his then buddy Francois Truffaut’s more romantic movies in a similar style like Shoot The Piano Player or Jules et Jim. But, cynicism and youth tend to go hand in hand, so Band of Outsiders will always have a new generation of viewers coming of age just in time to fall in love with the flick.
Predictably, Criterion has gone and given the Band of Outsiders a beautiful restoration for its Blu-ray debut. With the film shot in Gordard’s cleanest and most conventional compositions, so every scene is filled with depth and clarity that pops in HD. It’s a very pretty looking disc that’s likely to be the definitive release of the film for the foreseeable future. Extras come ported over from the old Criterion DVD entirely and thankfully they’re all worthwhile. There’s a visual glossary of all the layered references and quotes to American B-movies that Godard crammed into the movie, very sweet retrospective interviews with Anna Karina and cinematographer Raoul Coutard, Godard interview excerpts from a 1964 documentary about the French New Wave, and a silent short from Agnes Varda’s Cleo From 5 To 7 featuring Godard, Anna Karina, Frey, and Daniele Girard. Jean-Luc Godard certainly has far more complex film on his resume that are more indicative to what he brought to filmmaking, but Band of Outsiders will always be his most purely entertaining and accessible work. It’s the cinematic equivalent of chain-smoking and drinking Coke while deconstructing genre movies in a café and will always appeal to those inclined to indulge in such things.