Blu-ray Round-Up for June
FOREVER AMBER (Twilight Time) ★★★
Twilight Time is notorious for its generally unclassifiable catalogue of classic films. While other boutique Blu-ray labels like Kino Lorber or Vinegar Syndrome are more or less consistent in their offerings, Twilight Time has no such unanimity, veering from obscure dramas to third-tier genre pictures by Hollywood second stringers. Sometimes this randomness leads to genuine gems like wacko adolescent comedy The World of Henry Orient (1964) or psychosexual head-scratcher The Member of the Wedding (1952). But their recent release of Otto Preminger’s Forever Amber (1947) marks a rare confluence of obscurity and necessity, a film both worthy of a Blu-ray transfer and rare enough to miss the radars of the bigger labels. The film is a gorgeous, sprawling Technicolor romance, an undertaking whose scale would predict the widescreen prestige epics like Exodus (1960) and Advise & Consent (1962) that would dominate Preminger’s later career. And much like those films, many of which defiantly struck at the heart of various social taboos, Forever Amber fixes its gaze on one of the greatest controversies of the Western world: female sexuality. Based on the smash hit novel of the same name by Kathleen Winsor about a Puritan foundling who joyously and unapologetically sleeps her way to the top of Restoration era England, the film was destined to clash with both the Hays Office and the Catholic National Legion of Decency as soon as Twentieth Century Fox purchased the rights. Attempting to stave off the accusations of pornographic content that plagued the novel, Preminger obscured much of the sex and made the hero (played by the stunning Linda Darnell following a nationwide talent search) primarily an astute social climber; it was romantic intrigue, not sexual prowess that catapulted Amber to a higher station as she bounced from various suitors including a handsome privateer, a dashing highwayman, a jealous captain, an elderly earl, and king Charles II himself. Not that many were fooled—she is depicted as having a child out of wedlock, after all. However, the adaptation’s studio-mandated propriety keeps it from truly transcending the tired strains of soap opera melodrama. And while Preminger was a marvelous hand at many kinds of stories, unspooling picaresque yarns seemed beyond him, as the film never properly develops a consistent pace or rhythm. Still, as an authentic forgotten Hollywood studio system epic, Forever Amber is one of Twilight Time’s more astute recent releases.
THE KID BROTHER (Spine #964 Criterion) ★★★½
For years Harold Lloyd described The Kid Brother as his personal favorite from among all his films. A part remake, part homage of Joseph Hergesheimer’s bucolic family drama Tol’able David (1921), the film follows the exploits of Harold Hickory, the scrawny, youngest son of the Hickoryville Hickorys, a manly clan of farmers whose paterfamilias Jim (Walter James) doubles as the town sheriff. Tired of being bullied by his stronger brothers, Lloyd sets out to make a name for himself with predictably disastrous results. The film is perhaps the most overladen with gags in all of Lloyd’s filmography—one anecdote tells of him supposedly using a stopwatch to make sure there were three for every minute of footage—and while none of the set pieces match the physical danger of Safety Last! (1923) or the manic joy of Speedy (1928), his visual and kinetic ingenuity can be intoxicating, whether he’s wrestling a strongman in the submerged hold of a wrecked ship or simply inventing a new way to do laundry with a string, a kite, and a mechanical wringer. Yet it’s in the emotional, sappy moments—the very ones many viewers fast-forward through in Keaton or Chaplin’s films—where the film’s true power shines through.
Consider one scene where Lloyd scares off a brute threatening his would-be lover Mary (Jobyna Ralston) with a giant stick. When he discovers that he frightened the assailant off not with his strength but because there was actually a snake on the end of said stick, his facial and body language describe a sadness and disappointment none of his fellow silent comedians were capable of. This was Lloyd’s secret strength: Keaton may have been the better stuntman and Chaplin may have had the better onscreen character, but Lloyd was the best actor, one capable of a sincere pathos enviable even among his more dramatic Hollywood contemporaries. The Kid Brother demonstrates some of the best and most moving of Lloyd’s acting—particularly a famous sequence where he climbs a tree higher and higher to ask when he can see Mary again after meeting her. (Incredibly, Lloyd’s acting is made no less powerful by our only being able to see his back for most of the scene.) The Criterion transfer is a good one with a bevy of special features. One merely wishes that the Lloyd shorts included as extras were more than underwhelming historical curiosities.
THE MAGIC FLUTE (Spine #71, Re-Released on Blu-Ray, Criterion) ★★★★
In the decades since its initial release, Ingmar Bergman’s The Magic Flute has gained some minor notoriety as a black sheep among the Swedish master’s oeuvre. From a cosmetic standpoint, this opulent cinematic staging of Mozart’s immortal opera “Die Zauberflöte” seems as out-of-place among Bergman’s catalogue of existentially despairing art dramas as the anodyne, crowd-pleasing Music of the Heart (1999) does within the filmography of slasher pioneer Wes Craven. But this assumption only betrays a basic, casual familiarity with Bergman, as he always incorporated elements of fantasy—and dare I say magic—into his films: the band of traveling spell-casters in The Magician (1958); the interloping of Satan and the damned Don Juan into the lives of two lovers in The Devil’s Eye (1960); the Jewish wizard Isak Jacobi in Fanny and Alexander (1982). Indeed, is not the defining image of Bergman’s whole career—and by extension classical arthouse cinema itself—not a medieval knight playing a game of chess with the personification of Death in The Seventh Seal (1957)?
If anything, The Magic Flute gives viewers the clearest window into Bergman’s fascination with the otherworldly, as the project allowed him to realize his childhood dream of filming his favorite opera. After first seeing it performed in Stockholm when he was twelve, Bergman was obsessed with Mozart’s opera of princes and princesses, witches and wizards, secret societies and faraway kingdoms. When he was approached in the 60s by the head of Swedish Radio for a possible television production of his choice, Bergman seized the opportunity and insisted on staging the opera. A replica of the Drottningholm Palace Theatre was meticulously built for the set, the libretto translated from German to Swedish, and the story lightly altered for greater clarity for audiences unfamiliar with the narrative. But the film isn’t a bland, static recording of an opera production; Bergman expanded the scope of the film to be about the staging of the show itself, showing us backstage antics of the cast and crew during and between acts. Shots of a little girl watching from the audience are constant fourth wall-breaking reminders of the artificiality of the show. But for Bergman, that same artificiality is the source of its beauty, perfectly summated in an astonishing opening montage of audience members of all races and ages sitting in rapt anticipation for one of the world’s most beloved stories.
MY COUSIN RACHEL (Twilight Time) ★★★½
The little boy cowers in fear before the gallows. His father, a firm yet not unkindly man, forces him to look at the corpse hanging from the gibbet at the Four Turnings Crossroads overlooking their Cornish village. “This is what one moment of passion can bring on a man, Philip,” the father warns, “for this is the price for murder.” It’s a harsh lesson, but a crucial one; yet said lesson will still go unheeded fifteen years later when the boy, now a man, cradles the body of his lover in his arms, dead not by his hand, but a victim of his terrible passion nonetheless. Such is the tragedy of Henry Koster’s My Cousin Rachel (1952), a delicious romantic melodrama ruthlessly dissecting the fragility of the male ego that’s remembered less for its own merit than the notedness of its cast and crew. The film was based on the novel of the same name by Daphne du Maurier whose earlier Gothic romance Rebecca had been adapted by Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick into an Academy Award winning hit in 1940. Perhaps eager for a similar success, Twentieth Century Fox cast Olivia de Havilland—real-life sister of Rebecca star Joan Fontaine—as the eponymous Rachel Sangalletti Ashley, the vain yet debonair widow of his beloved cousin who comes to dominate Phillip’s adult life. Philip, played by Richard Burton in his first American role, first learns of Rachel from his dying cousin’s letters which claim she’s secretly poisoning him at their Italian estate. Upon the cousin’s death, Philip is shocked to learn that Rachel isn’t an old, greedy hag, but a grief-stricken beauty who refused to even make a claim on her husband’s estate despite being left out of his will. So begins Philip’s romantic obsession with Rachel, one that so consumes him he unpromptedly signs over his entire Cornish estate to her in an act of desperate love. She accepts the estate but rejects his marriage proposal, claiming he’d misunderstood her reciprocal affections for something deeper. What follows is Rachel’s inevitable destruction at the altar of Philip’s self-regard, climaxing with a sinister and cynical ending that plays completely differently in the #MeToo era than it probably did in 1952. Key to it is a pre-boozehound Burton’s performance, making us alternatively admire, pity, and fear Philip as he builds his own gallows on Four Turnings Crossroads.
POLICE STORY/POLICE STORY 2 (Spine #971–972, Criterion) ★★★★★
After a string of artistic and commercial Hollywood failures in the early 1980s, Jackie Chan returned to Hong Kong with something to prove. Armed with new knowledge of big-budget spectacle filmmaking, Chan set out to outdo his American contemporaries with a film showcasing not just his legendary skills as an acrobat and martial artist, but his acumen as a filmmaker capable of designing, choreographing, and executing some of the biggest, most bone-crunching set-pieces in all action cinema. That film, Police Story, would redefine the direction of Hong Kong action for the decade. Written by Chan’s long-time screenwriting collaborator Edward Tang, the film reimagines the image of the martial artist from stoic, aloof superman to put-upon blue-collar joe. Royal Hong Kong Police Force inspector Chan Ka-Kui (Chan) is part of an undercover operation seeking to bust drug kingpin Chu Tao (Chor Yuen). After a tumultuous shoot-out which sees Tao captured then immediately released on bail, Ka-Kui is tasked with protecting his personal secretary Selina Fong (Brigitte Lin), a potential witness whose testimony could make or break their case. Cue a long string of shenanigans where the good-hearted but foolhardy Ka-Kui struggles to keep the stubborn, mercurial Selina safe from a string of Tao’s hitmen and the misunderstanding gaze of his jealous girlfriend May (Maggie Cheung). Although the film climaxes with a third-act crescendo of Dirty Harry-esque macho fury seeing Ka-Kui take his own superior hostage and lay several extrajudicial ass-whoopings on Tao, his goons, and his smarmy lawyer John Ko (Charlie Cho), Police Story is essentially a goofy 50s musical with fighting and action in the place of singing and dancing.
The set-pieces alone are the stuff of Hong Kong legend: a car chase through an exploding shanty town that leaves Chan hanging from the back of a speeding bus by an umbrella handle; a fist-fight in a shopping mall that ends with Chan sliding down a several-stories high pole covered in lights then down through the roof of a wooden kiosk (Chan suffered second-degree burns on his hands, back injuries, and a pelvic dislocation performing the stunt). But the various bits of comedy rival the American silent film masters like Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton Chan idolized: a fake fight where he controls the unconscious body of a cop friend dressed as a dime-store knockoff of Michael Myers; a succession of pie-in-the-face gags straight out of a Laurel and Hardy farce; a beautiful scene where Chan juggles a series of simultaneous police reports on several land-lines with all the insouciant grace and timing of Gene Kelly’s breakfast routine in An American in Paris (1951).
As a bona fide masterpiece of action cinema, Police Story is a worthy addition to the Criterion Collection, though less could be said for its sequel Police Story 2 (1988), also included in the same release. More heavily inspired by the brooding, atmospheric heroic bloodshed movies of John Woo and Ringo Lam, the film jettisons the first film’s breezy unpredictability for a more straight-coward police procedural where Ka-Kui—busted down from an inspector to a highway patrol cop thanks to his antics in the first film—helps take down a bombing ring. The film’s paralytic self-seriousness fails to mesh with its outlandish characters and scenarios—one of the central antagonists is a deaf-mute explosives expert-cum-martial artist played by Benny Lai whose fighting style of throwing small flash-bang grenades and driving toy cars filled with dynamite at his enemies simply doesn’t fit within the film’s emotional context. But though the action scenes are fewer and further between, they still rank among the best of Chan’s oeuvre, particularly a brawl in a children’s playground and a climax set in an abandoned factory where Ka-Kui and Lai’s bomber where goons get thrown out of three-story buildings, set on fire, and kicked into, out of, and straight through heavy-duty industrial machinery. The Criterion release of the two films is one of the most outstanding of their recent catalogue. Both films are presented with brilliant 4K restorations which make the images pop, the colors shine, and the shadows shimmer. There’s a truly psychotic list of extra features, so many, in fact, that I couldn’t get through them in one afternoon sitting: interviews with filmmaker Edgar Wright and screenwriter/festival-organizer Grady Hendrix; archival interviews and podcasts with Chan and stuntman Benny Lai; a mini-documentary exploring Chan’s fight choreography and stuntwork; clips from various television shows going behind-the-scenes of Chan’s films and the Beijing opera where he studied as a boy; stunt reels; English dub soundtracks. It’s a dizzying, fitting tribute to two transformative films.
*The scores given reflect not just the films themselves, but the overall value of the physical releases with consideration given for the quality of the transfer and the excellence of the special features.