BARBARELLA Screen Comparisons: How Arrow’s New Restoration Stacks Up Against Paramount’s 2012 Release
This article contains several comparisons which contrast the older Paramount Blu-ray transfer with the new Arrow restoration. The frames aren’t necessarily exact matches, but should give a solid indication of the visual differences.
Jane Fonda stars as the sexy spacefarer Barbarella in director Roger Vadim’s lushly-designed cosmic adventure based on the classic French comics. Barbarella originally hit Blu-ray in 2012, with subsequent re-releases and repackages. The Blu-ray is frankly an excellent one, and it probably presented a challenge for Arrow to try to top.
Arrow’s new 4K restoration is taken from the original negative, and is now available to own on 4K UHD and Blu-ray, so we took it for a test drive!
Please note that all images herein are 1080p Blu-ray screen captures (not 4K).
My observations of the new release:
- On a Blu-ray to Blu-ray level, a slight boost in clarity and fineness of grain (the 2012 print was already excellent). Better still on the 4K disc (not pictured).
- The colors are often more rich and vibrant, sometimes much more so.
- Some of the framing is a little different (not necessarily better or worse – just different).
The “slider” images below allow for a quick comparison of the stills from both discs by color, cleanliness, framing, but are downscaled and not representative of the full 1080p resolution. These are only illustrative of differences, and not definitive, especially in terms of resolution and clarity.
For a truer direct comparison, it’s recommended to download the image files and view them at full size on a large monitor with 1080p or higher resolution. You can download all images at full resolution in a single file zipfile below:
This film’s celebrated opening titles sequence offered some surprises. The framing on this frame is quite different, and the title text bits, which bounce about madly all over the screen, are noticeably crisper and whiter on the older transfer – perhaps artificially so as the result of some filter enhancements? While the white letters are softer in the new transfer, they also seem more fittingly filmlike and native to the image.
Arrow’s new edition is noticeably vivid, with a more prominent the color saturation. On other films this might invite scrutiny, but it seems fittingly perfect for Barbarella, a film which is intentionally guady and celebrated for its wildly out-of-this-world 60s-chic production design.
This is a gorgeously designed film with a lot of eye candy; here are some additional comparisons with no particular notes except to give a more rounded analysis. Blu-to-Blu, it’s hard to see a lot of difference – as I mentioned, the original Blu-ray was already pretty superb.
I don’t think I can recommend or justify the standard Blu-ray edition purely in terms of being a visual upgrade (though its ample extras package makes a more convicing argument). But the gorgeous 4K UHD disc is a jump worth making.
This article contains several comparisons which contrast the older Universal Blu-ray transfer with the new Arrow restoration. The frames aren’t necessarily exact matches, but should give a solid indication of the visual differences.
New on 4K UHD and returning to Blu-ray from Arrow Video, Tremors 2 makes its return to home video in a terrific new release that features a new 4K restoration from the original negative, approved by director S.S. Wilson.
The first three Tremors sequels originally hit Blu-ray as part of the “Tremors Attack Pack” 4-movie collection in 2013, which was an attractively priced set for what was then the entire series, but featured rather lousy PQ (likely from the existing DVD masters of the time) and paired the movies on discs.
You may recall the huge boost in resolution and grain clarity when Arrow released the first Tremors movie, which we covered at the time. It’s a very similar situation here (unsurprising since they shared a disc), and I’m once again sharing comparisons of the new and old editions. Please note that all images herein are 1080p Blu-ray screen captures (not 4K).
My observations of the new release:
- A huge boost in clarity and fineness of grain (very typical for Arrow releases).
- Much brighter, especially in external shots
- Warmer color timing
The “slider” images below allow for a quick comparison of the stills from both discs by color, cleanliness, framing, but are downscaled and not representative of the full 1080p resolution. These are only illustrative of differences, and not definitive, especially in terms of resolution and clarity.
For a truer direct comparison, it’s recommended to download the image files and view them at full size on a large monitor with 1080p or higher resolution. You can download all images at full resolution in a single file zipfile below:
Right off the bat, the opening titles present an immediate indicator of the improved definition. The text, which previously had some unsightly edge enhancement and spotchiness, is now crisp and solid.
Arrow’s new edition absolutely throttles the old Blu-ray in terms of clarity and fine grain. This is especially noticeable on fabric and hair.
The older transfer had poor presentation of grain, rendering it with chunky, ring-like artifacts. This is noticeable in solid expanses such as skies and walls.
As some of this shots above already demonstrate, the new restoration is brighter in appearance, with more relaxed contast. This is especially evident on outdoor daytime scenes with natural sunlight.
This feels like an intentional choice, given the film’s desert sun-drenched settings, but sometimes it seems a little too bright, and blue skies more prone than before to look closer to white.
Closely related, the color timing is a little warmer and there’s more rosy skintones and overall general pinkish tendencies.
The tonal differences are where opinion weighs more heavily, and these transfers do look quite different, so I’m focusing a little more on this area. I think viewing this as stills, especially at a smaller size, may give the impression that the older transfer has the edge, especially since the higher contrast gives the illusion of more definition. However in motion, and at full size (offered as a zip file at the beginning of this article), the new look is stunning and befitting of the desert environs.
I will also note that these are direct Blu-to-Blu comparisons, and I don’t have the 4K disc to see how it stacks up, but I can imagine it makes even more impressive display of the fine resolution, and the option of the HDR component is likely to give it an additional edge in terms of color representation.
Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things could be one of the sharpest cinematic satires of the year and a film that makes you rethink how you watch movies. The latest by the director of Dogtooth, The Favorite and The Lobster has him pairing off with the writer of Cruella of all films – Tony McNamara to adapt the tome by Alasdair Gray Poor Things: Episodes from the Early Life of Archibald McCandless M.D.. As the film begins in a fantastical take on the 1920s a young med student Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef) is recruited by his horribly disfigured, yet charismatic Frankenstein-esque looking teacher Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) to observe an “experiment”. This just happens to be his “daughter” Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), a beautiful young woman who appears to be severely mentally disabled. It’s even remarked upon “how beautiful she is for a retard”. The film predictably has the med student falling for the beautiful young mentally impaired ingénue.
And because we’ve been conditioned by Hollywood, we as an audience think almost nothing of it.
In the beginning this romance feels very much like many others we’ve seen until now. That is until it’s revealed that Bella was reanimated by Dr. Baxter after jumping to her death and wasn’t his daughter, he just acquired her recently deceased body. She was however pregnant at the time of her death, and the doctor not wanting to bring back the tainted mind of a suicidal woman, instead removes the mind of her unborn child from her womb and inserts that brain inside the of her mother. This shocking reveal really imbues the rest of the film with a searing subtext as Hollywood loves to infantilize its naive female protagonists in film, and here we discover the wide-eyed Emma Stone literally has the brain of an infant. The film then chooses to operate as you would expect in a Hollywood movie, comically and earth scorchingly so, and by doing so contaminates and annihilates every other film you’ve seen by having her possible suitors happy with Bella simply as she is, as she dreams of bettering herself.
In short order Bella is basically offered up by her “father”, who she refers to as “God”, in a loaded bit of subtext – to her caregiver as a wife. It’s here the silver tongued playboy lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) comes into play to write up a prenup, not knowing about Bella’s origin.This is just as the woman discovers her first vice, which is sex and she is seduced by Duncan, who convinces her to run away with him immediately after being betrothed and start this weird and surreal journey of self discovery through this fairy tale world of Lanthimos’ creation. Dafoe’s character, who only wants what’s best for his creation, reluctantly lets her leave and the film goes back and forth as we see the doctors attempt to trap lightning in a bottle again with another “experiment” once again attempting to tame the female spirit.
In Bella’s travels she’s a trophy wife, a literal whore, and a student. All of these are used to explore these ideas of women on film by Lanthimos and Stone and how they are pretty much all broken. While the first act explores the infantilization of women on screen the second act digs into female sexuality and how it’s portrayed on screen and the double standard and slutshaming that results. The third and final act explores from a character standpoint while we have Bella attending med school and thereby ascending to godhood in a manner of speaking, in a man’s world. Interspersed are some rather frank discussions as Bella owns every part of her journey to where she was going unapologetically and the film uses this sort of bizarre 1920s-esque setting to really hammer home some of these points, since while a lot has changed it’s still the same.
The character of Bella has Emma Stone using the medium of cinema to essentially deconstruct how women and their bodies have been infantilized, exploited and then considered damaged goods because they “bore it all”, even though that’s what they’re essentially pressured/groomed to do. It’s her performance that at times borders on performance art, that is attempting to dissect and deconstruct these archaic constructs that drives this story that to some might simply be a funny story about a girl who does a lot of terrible things, but to others something much more profound. Bella is never sorry and that’s the point, she never apologizes and when she finally comes face to face with her “God” at the end, surprisingly he is nothing but proud of how she was able to break free of her many limitations and pursue her path of enlightenment.
My only real knock on the film is the use of cinematographic styles that has Lanthimos utilizing fish-eye, pinhole, black and white and color in the same 10 minute span. It can be a bit distracting and I really couldn’t grasp why this is narratively important to the film or the story, but trust me I was trying. That said Poor Things is a masterpiece and a very important film that hit particularly hard for me as the symbolism started to click in, and the metaphors and satirical underpinnings started to reveal themselves and its lessons are something that are now more apparent than ever. This all rested on Emma Stone’s capable shoulders who really masterfully takes us on this journey with her and evolves this character from a literal infant to a med student in a two hour span in some seriously impressive character work. While some may get hung up on either the raunchy humor, or the nudity, these are simply distractions aimed at those not ready to tackle the film on its own terms.
Think of Poor Things as the level 2 to the feminism in cinema discourse that started with Gerwig’s Barbie earlier this year.
Christopher Nolan’s feature reminds us of the potency of cinema, and the importance of physical media
With a box office take approaching a billion dollars, news of 4K/Blu-ray releases selling out nationwide, and hefty buzz going into awards season, Christopher Nolan’s latest effort is undeniably one of the cinematic success stories of 2023. Perhaps surprising given the film is at it’s core a biopic, and a meditation on the unleashing of a world changing power. Perhaps unsurprising given Nolan’s previous success with cerebral blockbusters such as Dunkirk, Interstellar, Inception, and Tenet. While there are interweaving stories and time-frames here, they all converge on the man and the moment. An enthralling look at the race against time to beat the Nazis to the A-bomb, and the aftermath of it’s detonation, as the destructive force sends shockwaves through the social and political arena, and the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer.
The core of the film is the journey taken by Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) from his precocious days as a student of theoretical physics, through his rise in academic, and eventually his being selected by one Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves Jr. (Matt Damon) to spearhead an effort to beat the Nazi menace in the USA’s development of the world’s first atomic bomb. The effort, from 1942 to 1946, involved the recruitment of the foremost physicists and mathematicians and engineers to collaborate at the newly founded Los Alamos Labs in New Mexico. More than a research facility, this was a secure community built to house these academics, their families and support staff, for their long haul effort to crack the atom.
Nolan, ever the fan of non-linear or parallel story-lines, dips back and forth in time to flesh out other aspects of this enigmatic man and others involved in the project. Most notably two key periods. The first, centered around Oppenheimer’s secret 1954 security hearing where he was faced with efforts to discredit him. A response to his growing prominence as an outspoken force against the ongoing development of the H-bomb program. The second, focused on the 1958 confirmation hearing of Lewis Strauss’ (Robert Downey Jr.) to become President Eisenhower’s Secretary of Commerce. Strauss being a key political figure in the development of the Atomic weapon (and energy) program, and the man predominantly responsible for tearing down Oppenheimer to ensure his own ascension.
Politics and power. Hypotheses and equations. Period piece meets legal drama. Various components that could be dry, or poorly composed. In Nolan’s hands, it make for some of the most compelling, propulsive, and dynamic storytelling you’ll see this, or any year. This is not a historical drama that seeks to chronicle the horrors unleashed upon the Japanese, but instead focus on the man and the moment when Pandora’s box was opened. The film also mirrors another tale, one of a man birthing a monster, Frankenstein. Oppenheimer is the epitome of a driven scientist. Focused, detached, driven. The urgency of their success in beating the Nazis is clear, the aftermath of what they unleash only starts to sink in once it’s too late to turn back. The film also draws from the myth of Prometheus, who took fire from the Gods and gave it to mankind, forever changing their fate and ensuring his perpetual doom. Oppenheimer isn’t quite tethered to a rock and subjected to having an eagle eat his liver for eternity as punishment, but the moral and political consequence of his achievement certainly serves as a test of his character and fortitude.
It’s a masterful turn from Cillian Murphy who shoulders more than just the narrative, but the entire weight of what the film is reckoning with. A glacier like surface, especially those deep-baby blues, perpetuating this enigmatic figure. Murphy’s delivery and physicality convey the early airs of a creative force, to the later hollowed out shell of a man, quietly internalizing a sense of regret and atonement. Oppenheimer showcases a ludicrously stacked ensemble. Benny Safdie, Josh Harnett, Alden Ehrenreich, Jason Clarke, David Krumholtz, Alex Wolff, Dane DeHaan, Kenneth Branagh, Macon Blair, Matthew Modine, Tom Conti, and Olivia Thirlby, to name a notable slice of the talent involved. Matt Damon as Groves, the military man overseeing the project adds a much needed gruff charm to counter the academic edge that infuses the film, while Gary Oldman has a brief, but glorious appearance as President Truman. Robert Downey Jr will (rightly) see plenty of buzz come awards season, and it’s also worth highlighting the work of Emily Blunt and Florence Pugh as J Robert’s wife Kitty Oppenheimer, and his mistress Jean Tatlock respectively. Both crucial aspects of the film, and partners to Murphy, that help to lay out more of the flawed humanity that makes up this titular figure.
The film exudes quality in every element of its craft. The script, from Nolan, Kai Bird and Martin Sherw, is enthralling, as well as brilliantly structured. Stunning cinematography from Hoyte van Hoytema showcases superb production design, with attention to period detail. Sound design is a thunderous affair, which combined with Ludwig Göransson’s muscular score, makes for one of the most visceral experiences of the year. Nolan’s direction comes with it’s usual sense of aplomb. Oppenheimer is propulsive and relentlessly compelling, whether depicting a cross-examination in a boxy office space, or experiential sequences that dance within the atomic realm. An indelible work, that underscores the drive that comes with discovery, and the flaws deep within humanity.
Visually, Oppenheimer is a knockout. In IMAX, vibrant and visceral images were burned onto our retinas and into our minds. It all but feels like a guaranteed Oscar for Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema. The home video release, while obviously lacking the scale of the movie theater, does an outstanding job at conveying the work that went into the film’s visuals and compositions. Superb detail and texture. Crisp colors enhanced by deep inky blacks. It’s a flawless transfer, and likely to become one of your new go to picks when you want to show off the image quality of your home system. Beyond the superb visuals, the release is also supported by a host of extra features that further appreciation for Nolan’s feature, as well as the talented folk that contributed to it:
- The Story of Our Time: The Making of Oppenheimer – Running over 70 minutes, this is an exhaustive dive into the making of the film. Drawing from interviews, behind the scenes footage, crew conversations, and more, it covers all areas of the production. It;s actually broken down into 7segments: Now I am Become Death, The Luminaries, The Manhattan Project, The Devil of the Details, Walking a Mile, Can You Hear the Music?, and We Can Perform This Miracle
- Innovations in Film: 65mm Black and White Film in Oppenheimer: Hoyte van Hoytema and tech crew discuss the experience of utilizing the monochrome approach taken for select sequences in the film, from technical problems during filming and processing, to integration into the whole feature
- To End All War: Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb – A historically tilted featurette that delves into the truth behind the titular figure and his involvement in the Manhattan project
- Meet the Press Q&A Panel: Oppenheimer: A panel putting together Nolan along with some of the key figures depicted in the film, whereupon they give their opinions on their portrayal, and how the events are depicted
- Trailers: Teaser, theatrical trailers, and the IMAX trailer
The Bottom Line
Going into the last few weeks of 2023, you’ll be seeing Oppenheimer crop up on plenty of year end “Best of” lists. Rightly so too. It’s a towering work, that is as compelling as it is complex and considered. Propulsive and dynamic storytelling, brought to life by one of the best ensembles you’ll see all year. Nolan himself has verbally championed the importance of physical media, and with this home video release, he backs up those claims. A superb release, and a exemplar as to the enduring importance of physical media.
Oppenheimer is available on 4K, Blu-ray, and digital, now.
New on Amazon Prime, Candy Cane Lane is a new Christmas story in which a family must work together by tangle with various critters and creeps inspired by the classic carol The 12 Days of Christmas – French hens, geese a-laying, lords a-leaping, etc – in order to collect the song’s “five golden rings” and break a curse imposed by a vengeful elf.
Eddie Murphy stars as a Chris Carver, a Christmas-loving family man who loves to decorate the house, and lives on a “candy cane lane” – one of those streets where every house in the entire neighborhood gets in the spirit and competes to make the biggest, brightest, most festive decorative extravaganzas. His main concern is a friendly rivalry with Bruce (Ken Marino) across the street, whose tacky masterpieces make him the long-running champion. In his Christmas cheer he’s a little blind to the needs of his wife Carol (Tracee Ellis Ross) and three children, particularly his two older teens who are struggling with high school anxieties like academic struggles and college prep.
Things suddenly change for Chris when he loses his job, just days before Christmas, causing him to shift his focus to the contest’s large cash prize.
With a new no-holds-barred attitude, Chris and his youngest daughter discover a mysterious Christmas popup store full of amazing decorations, and a Victorian miniature town of Lilliputian buildings and figurines. The store’s perky proprietor Pepper (Jillian Bell) sells Chris on a gargantuan centerpiece that virtually guarantees a win, but he doesn’t read the fine print before signing the contract.
Somewhat in the spirit of It’s a Wonderful Life, the film has a fantastical element that becomes its narrative crux. If Chris doesn’t complete Pepper’s challenge of defeating all the swans-a-swimming and maids-a-milking to find the golden rings, he’ll become a new addition to Pepper’s collection of figurines, who, we learn, are alive and willing to aid him in the quest, having all been similarly duped (figureheaded by the trio of Nick Offerman, Chris Redd, and Robin Thede).
With the help of the porcelain dolls, who offer much of the film’s comedic levity, the whole family bands together to break the curse and learn the meaning of Christmas. It’s full of laughs and an overall great time with a mostly adventurous tone once it gets going.
Behind the camera, the film reteams Murphy with Reginald Hudlin, who directed the star in Boomerang. Hudlin is known for his 90s heyday of hit music videos and movie favorites like House Party, The Great White Hype, and The Ladies Man, and less so for a huge volume of producing and TV work. But in recent years he has been returning to film direction, including last year’s incredible documentary Sidney, and working with the late Chadwick Boseman in Marshall.
Amazon gave the film a wide theatrical premiere, giving folks a one-night-only chance to see it on the big screen before arriving on Prime. In his introduction to the screening, Hudlin expressed his excitement at sharing the kind of Christmas movie he’s always wanted to make. The PG rated film is a bit of a departure from the director’s more adult-oriented filmography, but it’s a great family film and demonstrates his dexterity as a storyteller.
Like The Christmas Chronicles (Netflix) and Spirited (Apple TV+), Candy Cane Lane is a live action Christmas movie made for a streaming platform, and like those films, it has big name talent attached and makes for a fun time, but the small-screen origins may limit its audience (clearly something that Amazon considered, and to their credit tried to address with a limited theatrical event). My feeling is that it’s probably the best movie of this particular grouping, though it remains to be seen if it has perennial staying power of a holiday staple. While I don’t think it’s the next Elf, it is the best movie of its kind in quite a while, and its focus on an African-American family is both welcome and much needed in a cinematic sea of “White Christmas”.
Oh, and I lit up like a Christmas tree when I saw who plays Santa Claus.
“You have one minute to decide the rest of your life.”
The end of November is once again here and while some may rejoice in the start of the holiday shopping season, as far as I’m concerned, it’s still noirvember. Yes, noirvember, the one month of the year where film noir is celebrated from start to finish. It’s an entire month where noirphiles can hang out in the favorite dusty gin joints and find themselves beguiled by one lethal beautiful woman after another.
It feels appropriate that I’m writing about film noir on a rainy day since so many noir tales begin in such a setting. Throughout the 30s and 40s, film noir offered up rain-soaked thrillers, tales of double-crossing capers, and an endless string of dangerous romances. Although the genre is largely considered to have been put to bed in the early 1950s (most cite Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing as the last true entry), noir did find a home in other areas of film afterwards.
Recently, Kino Lorber released two titles new to Blu-ray, 1964’s Joy House and 1996’s 2 Days in the Valley, which show that although the genre’s heyday had ended, noir itself was still very much alive.
In Joy House, French playboy/conman Marc (Alain Delon) finds himself on the run from a group of thugs sent to kill him by the husband of the woman with whom he’s been having an affair with. Growing tired and desperate, Marc finds refuge in the home of Barbara (Lola Albright), a wealthy American woman and her niece Melinda (Jane Fonda). Barbara agrees to take Marc on as her chauffer, giving him plenty of time to lay low. But between Barbara’s demands and Melinda’s games, he soon finds himself in even graver danger than before.
After fizzling out in America, film noir traveled back overseas, and found a home in France just as the new wave was taking over the scene. Director Rene Clement directed this underrated French noir to spellbinding effect, skillfully navigating its various twists and turns. Joy House juggles two stories operating on their own before eventually weaving together seamlessly. The first is the story of a man on the run trying to stay alive that comes complete with an initial chase scene that serves as a thrilling introductory set piece. The second concerns a pair of women with a co-dependent and slightly perverse relationship who spell for doom for any man that comes their way. Watching how these two sides of Joy House influence each other and work together is a tribute to classic noir and the talents of Clement as a filmmaker.
There’s a slight weirdness from the minute Fonda and Albright enter the film that only grows stronger, pulsating with a level of risk and desire Marc is unable to resist. The eventual reveal of motives for taking Marc in is tantalizing from a noir perspective and is perhaps the strongest homage to the genre here. A former lover hiding in secret parts of the manor and a niece posing as a maid are just some of the elements that make Joy House the perfect blend of European sensibilities and noir storytelling. The movie enjoys an impressive second chase scene throughout the house in its second half before adding a couple more clever turns and culminating with a dose of full circle irony that only adds to the twistiness and perversion.
2 Days in the Valley
Writer/director John Herzfeld made his return to feature filmmaking with this dark comic thriller starring a host of recognizable names such as James Spader, Charlize Theron, Eric Stoltz, Marsha Mason, and Danny Aiello. Over the course of 48 hours in the San Fernando Valley, a series of events will force a number of people to intersect, including a suicidal filmmaker (Paul Mazursky), a volatile cop (Jeff Daniels), a nurse (Mason), a harried assistant (Glenne Headley), a hitman (Spader), and his beautiful girlfriend (Theron).
By the time the 80s came around, film noir had already ventured back to America and been given a new moniker: neo-noir. These stylish new entries contained many of the genre’s original tropes with a new 80s/90s edge. One undeniable example of this remains Herzfeld’s 2 Days in the Valley. The director’s first feature in more than a decade, the movie exists as one of the most earnest and admirable tributes to noir of the 90s. Moreover, the movie maintains a strong sense of fun throughout, taking time from the shifting alliances and gunplay for some healthy dark comedy. Aiello’s fear and hatred of dogs is a joke that never grows old and the overall sendup of the San Fernando Valley image is more humorous than one would expect.
As I mentioned before, most of the noir tropes are played, and played pretty well. Each storyline functions as its own noir tale with femme fatales and anti-heroes showing up in virtually every scene as well as a handful of lost souls who are just struggling to exist in a landscape that has done little for them. If the film suffers at all, it’s more due to the habits of 90s moviegoing audiences which looked for deeper meaning and softer characters than were typically found in the world of noir. Not all of the loose ends are tied up by the movie’s finale, but fans of noir know why that makes sense and see how such a minimal wrap up works for the genre that’s being emulated. With a beautiful Jerry Goldsmith score, a maze of colorful characters, dialogue and plot turns, Herzfeld’s film is a bona fide neo-noir gem.
Every time I write about anything noir, I can’t help but bring up the Film Noir Foundation, the non-profit organization based in San Francisco that remains the genre’s biggest champion. Through painstaking restoration efforts and Noir City, their ongoing retrospective film festival, the FNF’s continuous efforts in preserving a wide array of noir titles have done more for the genre than anyone can imagine. Thanks to the work of the foundation’s president, Eddie Muller, as well as his dedicated team, the world of noir shows no signs of fading away.
Joy House and 2 Days in the Valley are both available of Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber. For more information on how to contribute to the Film Noir Foundation, please visit https://filmnoirfoundation.org/.2 Days in the Valley, Alain Delon, Blu-ray, Charlize Theron, Crime, Danny Aiello, Eric Stoltz, Film Noir, French Cinema, French New Wave, Home Video, James Spader, Jane Fonda, Jeff Daniels, John Herzfeld, Joy House, Kino Lorber, Lola Albright, Movies, Noirvember, Rene Clement, San Fernando Valley, Thriller
“I don’t think I’ll ever go home again.”
If you notice that The Talented Mr. Ripley has been brought up more than usual in film conversations lately it’s because the people mentioning that film have seen Saltburn, writer/director Emerald Fennell’s sophomoric effort to 2020’s Promising Young Woman. The film has taken audiences by storm who have gotten lost in a tale of privilege, youth, class, and their dark sides. Because so much of film criticism today seems to consist of saying one movie is basically a reworked version of something that came before it, the Ripley/Saltburn comparisons are both plentiful and already past their sell-by date. Watching Saltburn, I found myself thinking not of Ripley, but of the works of Evelyn Waugh, specifically “Vile Bodies.” That novel told the story of the “bright young things” of the 1920s and the decadence that defined them. The novel is mentioned in the film at one point (suggesting Fennell used it as inspiration) and this seems fitting since Saltburn feels like it could have been created by Waugh with its off-center, gothic glam take on upper British culture and those desperately yearning to be a part of it.
In Saltburn, Barry Keoghan plays Oliver, an Oxford student whose working-class background makes him self-conscious around his fellow classmates, especially the wealthy and handsome Felix (Jacob Elordi). Eventually, Oliver finds himself befriending Felix, who invites him to his family’s large country estate for the summer. Upon arrival, Oliver meets Felix’s mother Elspeth (Rosamund Pike), father James (Richard E. Grant), and sister Venetia (Alison Oliver). Also staying over for the summer are family friend Pamela (Carey Mulligan) and Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), Oliver’s rival. As the summer progresses, Oliver becomes enamored with Felix and his family and soon finds it very difficult to leave Saltburn.
If there’s a single aspect that is bound to captivate audiences almost immediately, it’s the world of Saltburn, which Fennell and her team have brought to such glorious life. From the moment Oliver enters the estate, we are taken into a realm that’s right out of Luis Buñuel where our main character finds he can’t leave and eventually decides he doesn’t really want to. Time stands still in the world of Saltburn, which is interesting given that it’s already a period piece. The sprawling home is where the aristocratic and eccentric are forever interlocked. It’s where decadence and hedonism are the norm to such an extreme that at certain points the world itself leaps off the screen and threatens to pull the audience in with it. Saltburn is a surreal experience, although not in the most obvious of ways. It’s a world that traps all who enter with the intoxicating promise that within these walls lies a sort of slanted Shangri-La complete with the promise that the outside world will never find you. Saltburn allows you to get lost and spiral a bit into madness in a landscape that seeks to emulate the lifestyle of Marie Antoinette by way of a mid-2000s faded glamor. The dizzying effect of the environment proves so consuming for Oliver (or for anyone who never thought they’d get a peek into that kind of world) that eventually, the sprawling estate makes us lose our minds.
As much as the plot factors into the mechanics of Saltburn, it’s the characters that give the film its mesmerizing qualities. Saltburn as a place offers up a host of figures, any of which can be a hero, a villain, a victim, or a liar. The estate, with all of its lush and somewhat otherworldly trappings, has the ability to make the real world all but vanish, turning those who enter it into what Elton John once described as “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters.” Everyone in Saltburn remains a mystery to themselves and each other and each person becomes more intriguing in their own way as a result. The dynamics that exist between Oliver, Felix, Elspeth, and the rest of the group are just as challenging and unusual as any of them are, eventually evolving into the kind of mind games that will result in everyone’s unraveling. The absence of the outside world has left them so frozen in time that they now only exist as parodies of themselves; parodies driven by delusion and obsession and the world they’ve let swallow them up. And yet, for all their faults, everyone at Saltburn is so utterly authentic. Save for some diabolical hidden motives here and there, the people we meet in Saltburn are exactly who they present themselves to be. In the end, however, these are people who are either unable to or are refusing to acknowledge the tragedy that their lives are in Saltburn.
Fennell is not only successful at creating a host of fascinatingly tragic characters but she’s also got a knack for choosing the right people to bring them to life. Keoghan makes for the most compelling of leads, despite appearing to have the movie’s least flashiest role. Elordi succeeds at playing Felix like the most genuine out of everyone in Saltburn, giving a restrained performance that grounds the film during the times when everyone else is flying high. Grant is hysterical and pathetic, Mulligan is a delirious hoot, Oliver is tragic, and Madekwe plays his character’s agenda perfectly. It’s Pike who will surprise the most, as the somewhat manic mistress of Saltburn. Watching Pike play her character with little filter and almost no clue about the world she’s in or the life she’s living is a true marvel.
At the risk of repeating myself (which does happen on occasion), I can’t help but go back to the Waugh reference when it comes to summing up Saltburn. This is because despite being a thoroughly cinematic experience, Fennell has loaded her film with the sensibilities of many famous novelists, giving her work a real literary feel. Shades of Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, and even Bret Easton Ellis exist throughout Saltburn in one form or another, reinforcing the fact that Fennell is a filmmaker of both imagination and keen observation. After the screening, I mentioned the Ellis influence to a friend of mine, who agreed and suggested that Fennell would be the ideal choice to adapt one of his novels, perhaps the long-gestating “Lunar Park.” This might sound like a stretch to some, but I for one am hard-pressed to find another filmmaker who captures the dark secretive moments that most believe are unique to them and holds their gaze the way Fennell does here. With Saltburn, she’s managed to find depth within the surface, embraced the veneer of superficiality, and allows us to revel in both the glamour and the darkness.Barry Keoghan, Bret Easton Ellis, Carey Mulligan, Charles Dickens, Comedy, Drama, Elton John, Emerald Fennell, Evelyn Waugh, In Theaters, Jacob Elordi, Lewis Carroll, Luis Bunel, Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters, Movies, Mystery, Promising Young Woman, Richard E. Grant, Rosamund Pike, Saltburn, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Thriller
Blue Eye Samurai is a bone-smashing, limb-tearing, pulse-pounding, skull-pulverizing, eye-demolishing work of art and anyone who appreciates animation needs to sit down, fire up Netflix, and watch it right now.
And honestly, even if you are someone who has no particular affinity or affection for animation, you still owe it to yourself to sit down, fire up Netflix, and watch it right now.
Weaponizing all the creative and content freedom, while neatly sidestepping virtually every pitfall, of the streaming age Blue Eye Samurai is a primal scream of glorious revenge, as captivating in its beauty as it is stunning in its violence.
By the end of its eight-episode first season, it doesn’t so much entertain an audience as it does bludgeon them into submission under the sheer force of artistry, energy, and commitment to doing the absolute MOST at every opportunity. When the end credits rolled after the final episode, you may not know whether to applaud or collapse from exhaustion.
But either way, you’ll be demanding more.
(This article will avoid spoiling major events of the season, but if you’d like to go in completely blind, stop reading)
Created by the husband and wife team of Michael Green and Amber Noizumi, Blue Eye Samurai is set in 17th century Japan, when the country has adopted a strict policy of total disengagement from the outside world. No foreigners at all, ever.
That leaves Mizu (Maya Erskine) in a difficult spot, as her blue eyes betray that she is biracial and therefore considered little more than a demon by her countryfolk. As the show starts, Mizu is obsessively on the hunt for the four white men who previously lived in Japan, as one of the four is assuredly the bastard who sired her and condemned both Mizu and her mother to a life of misery and torment. Season 1 details Mizu’s specific pursuit of Fowler (Kenneth Branagh [yes, him]) a sadistic Irishman who continues to haunt the country that has made his existence illegal. As Mizu schemes to destroy Fowler, Fowler in turn schemes to take down the shogunate and claim Japan for himself, putting the two on a literally explosive collision course.
The path of revenge is never straight though, bringing Mizu into the orbit of a tangle of well-drawn (natch) supporting players who keep things lively from the sidelines. Ringo (Masi Oka) is a disabled cook who takes a shine to Mizu and dedicates himself to serving as her apprentice and keeping her secrets; Taigen (Darren Barnet) is a hot-headed swordsman determined to reclaim his honor in a duel against Mizu; and Akemi (Brenda Song) is Taigen’s fiancée, a princess desperate to escape the life of servitude that her gender and her station have relegated her to.
There’s more, and early on there is reason to worry that Netflix’s tradition of bloated runtimes and shapeless seasons will weigh down a show that seems like it would be best served as a lean and mean slice of unapologetic pulp. Sprawl is nothing to be ashamed of, but that doesn’t mean that what at first glance appears to be a straightforward revenge story demands several hours to tell.
But there’s no reason to worry. Rather than feeling leaden with subplots and spinning wheels, Blue Eye Samurai moves at a breathless clip. Story beats that seem like they might drag along for a season get resolved in a matter of scenes, and the chain of causality from one episode to another remains strong and clear. When Mizu gets sidetracked on an errand, it doesn’t feel like the show is wasting time to avoid arriving at the fireworks factory. Instead, every tangent and diversion serves to bring us closer to Mizu and help us to grapple with the power dynamics that define and determine people’s lives in a brutally rigid society.
“Brutal” is a word that comes up a lot while watching and describing Blue Eye Samurai. I’m not sure if there’s a name yet for the house style of animation that Netflix developed over the last few years, but it combines the lush, expressive fluidity of traditional hand drawn with the depth and dimensionality of CG animation. With some projects, this can result in animation that is overly rigid, even downright unpleasant in those cases where the neither fish now fowl approach leaves characters and backgrounds feeling flat and even auto-populated at times.
Blue Eye Samurai has no such problem.
The only thing more visually stunning than the vistas and scenery are the bloodbaths, with fight scenes reveling in sprays of painted gore that never fail to impress. There’s one gag in the first episode that left me literally breathless with both its creativity and its audacity, and the show never surrenders that savage edge even when it downshifts from that early stunning high.
The choreography and execution of the multitude of battles and brawls is impressive even by the standards of similar live-action efforts, but when you marry that design with the freedom of animation, the resulting fights take on a kinetic immediacy that live-action can’t touch. The high water mark of the first season might be episode five, “The Tale of the Ronin and the Bride”, which intercuts an episode-length one vs. many duel with flashbacks throwing Mizu’s tragic backstory into even sharper detail. The bravura finale of the episode intercuts two separate massacres into a single emotional exclamation point of ecstatic action, pure cathartic release illustrated with gallons of red ink.
Taking a familiar story and telling it in a unique way with as much artistry as can be stuffed into every single frame, Blue Eye Samurai is among the very best things that Netflix has ever produced. If there’s one downside to the first season, it’s that it is only the first season of a planned larger work and as such virtually all of its myriad narrative threads are left dangling for a later resolution. That’s not a problem as such, presuming that Netflix doesn’t pull a Netflix and kill the show without giving it even a fighting chance, but ending with an ellipses rather than a period makes Blue Eye Samurai feel somewhat unfulfilling even as it’s stuffed with riches.
Even incomplete, there’s no doubt that Blue Eye Samurai is a total triumph for animation, for the possibilities of the streaming age, and for anyone eager for a new addition to the canon of delicious revenge, served extra bloody.
Head over to Netflix and get yourself a taste.
How do two people incapable of honesty of any kind face up to truths that are too terrible to admit to?
And how do you make a movie about that and keep it funny?
The answer is Scrapper, the debut film by writer/director Charlotte Regan, now available on home media including VOD and Blu-ray.
Scrapper stars newcomer Lola Campbell as Georgie, a 12-year-old girl living by herself after the recent death of her mother. Lola stays afloat with a number of petty schemes, primarily stealing people’s bikes and selling them for food money alongside her friend Ali (the very charming Alin Uzun), the only person who knows that she is living alone. Georgie is the sort of youngster who is convinced they have figured out how to manage the adult world, down to having a “Stages of Grief” checklist that she dutifully checks off. With a couple carefully dissembled half-truths (and bald-faced lies) she easily evades detection by the idiotic bureaucracies that are supposed to be in place to protect her, and continues a largely solitary life, too busy with surviving day-to-day to allow grief anywhere near her.
(I hasten to reiterate that Scrapper is an energetic comedy. A very funny one!)
Lola lives with the sort of freedom that every kid dreams of but that every adult watching will quickly recognize as unsustainable. The specific blow that knocks down this particular wobbly Jenga tower of an existence is the arrival of Lola’s never-before-seen deadbeat father, Jason (Harris Dickinson), who learned about the death of Lola’s mom and has decided to plant himself in Georgie’s life.
Regan, an accomplished director of music videos and short films making her feature length debut, demonstrates immediate skill behind the camera, Scrapper is fundamentally a duet between its two leads. The film lives and dies on whether or not Campbell and Dickinson strike fireworks off each other, as the majority of the film is simply observing their evolving dynamic as two people desperate for a connection they don’t know how to ask for amidst tragedy.
(Again: Comedy. Is Funny.)
Dickinson is in a precarious spot in his career, clearly being positioned as a new major leading man in the likes of, well, the Maleficent sequel, the Kingsman prequel, and in Where the Crawdads Sing, he’s the third of the love triangle that doesn’t live to see the end credits. He’s quite excellent in supporting roles in The Souvenir Part II and See How They Run, but the jury is still out on whether or not he can carry a movie.
In Scrapper, he’s not only excellent but impressively fearless. Jason portrays himself as an affable slacker, a pose he’s juuuuuuust charming enough to pull off most of the time. But there’s a vein of self-loathing running through him that manifests in a hair-trigger temper that gets the better of him at times. He wants to step in and be the father he should have been this whole time, but he may actually, fundamentally, just not be up to the task. Dickinson owns everything both decent and infuriating about the character, embracing even those scenes in which Jason is at his most unforgivable.
But Campbell is the major discovery of the film, with her tight ponytail and her furious eyes. At times she carries herself with an adult poise that’s so convincing you may get fooled into believing that this wisp of a blonde girl is as self-sufficient as she claims to be. Other times, the veneer cracks and all you can see is the hurting, lonely child. Campbell navigates this difficult territory beautifully, and it only serves to push Dickinson to up his own game as Jason works desperately to find a way around or through his daughter’s defenses.
At times you can feel Regan behind the camera putting a little too much spin on the ball, injecting visual flourishes and touches of stylized whimsy that don’t mesh well with the straightforward and earnest nature of the film. Scrapper struggles to decide whether it’s aiming for Mike Leigh realism or a heightened Paddington-esque world just this side of magical realism. But at other points, Regan demonstrates the absolute correct level of restraint and taste to hammer home an emotional beat without leaning on it so hard as to cross over into irritating manipulation.
These are not characters who are going to make grandiose speeches summing up their thoughts and emotions. This is not a film where one grand gesture is going to solve years’ worth of hurt and accumulated tensions. Instead, Regan as both writer and director is dialed into how powerful incremental change can be when its fought for by flawed people struggling against their own worst natures.
Scrapper is a small film, but it’s sincere and moving along with being consistently funny from first minute to last. It is exactly the kind of earnest human story we’re always asking for and complaining don’t exist anymore, and then totally ignore when someone actually makes one.
Don’t ignore Scrapper. It is quite a special little movie, and with a little luck it marks the start of a very interesting movie career for the very talented Regan.
Historical inaccuracy is its own reward in Ridley Scott’s bitingly funny anti-epic
Throughout his nearly five-decade career as a director, Ridley Scott has approached his historical dramas with the same workmanlike efficiency and dazzling spectacle as his sci-fi and action epics. Whether it’s tackling true stories in Black Hawk Down and All the Money in the World or a fantastic amalgamation of real-life inspirations like The Duellists or Kingdom of Heaven, Scott hones his focus on creating the most exciting and emotionally resonant retelling of history possible. Historical accuracy naturally becomes Scott’s quickest casualty–but despite his meticulous attention to period-accurate production design, Scott makes no qualms about maintaining any sense of devotion to historical truth.
As made evident in these films, and more infamously in the press tours surrounding them, Scott openly takes a very Liberty Valance approach to period filmmaking: when a legend is more exciting than fastidious truth, shoot the legend. What’s crucial to Scott’s films–and arguably most historical epics–isn’t how accurate a film is to the events it depicts; rather, it’s the emotional truth it strives to convey. While facts may not care about our feelings, the manipulation of historical events serves as a fantastic storytelling shorthand for directors like Scott to get to the deeper, more provocative ideas that draw them to this material in the first place.
No, Napoleon Bonaparte didn’t fire cannons at the pyramids while campaigning in Egypt, and it’s debated just how many Russo-Austrian troops fell into the ice at the Battle of Austerlitz. But watching Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, a stunningly-realized biopic of the infamous French leader, these embellishments don’t just serve to exaggerate the reputation of its central character. Rather, they’re spectacles as Bonaparte might brag about them in letters back to his wife, Josephine, in addition to satisfying audiences’ expectations of a new Ridley Scott epic. It’s a wonderfully subversive act of historical revisionism, undercutting these momentous events as atrocity-laden attempts to placate one of history’s hugest egos.
We find Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) at the execution of Marie Antoinette, eager to move up in the ranks of the French Army during the Reign of Terror. His military successes against the British at Toulon solidify Bonaparte’s reputation, propelling him across the globe to Egypt and Austria–and a ruthless consolidation of power delivers Napoleon not just the hand of Josephine de Beauharnais (Vanessa Kirby), but centralized power as Emperor of France. However, Napoleon’s failures quickly stack against his victories as Europe moves to quash the expansion of a ruler who is as eager to break the rules of war as he is to use them to his advantage. But not even the threat of exile can crush Napoleon’s ambition–or can it?
Ridley Scott’s take on Napoleon isn’t quite the cradle-to-grave biopic originally envisioned by fellow epic filmmaker Abel Gance–for one, the entirety of Gance’s 1927 5.5-hour film is condensed to roughly the first act of Scott’s own admittedly truncated 2023 epic. Playing in fits and starts when it comes to its timeline, this version of Scott’s Napoleon also bears the battle scars of ruthlessly condensing an over-four-hour film to a more theatrically-friendly 2.5 hours. However, Napoleon remains remarkably effective at its central conceit of using Napoleon’s rise and fall to cynically depict the cyclical nature of power and control.
From Antoinette’s opening execution to Napoleon’s second and final exile to St. Helena, divine rule remains as elusive as it is satisfying to the disposable world leaders who pursue it. The warring rulers of Europe, not just Napoleon, are all portrayed as ineffectual, out-of-touch children whose armies are playthings employed to secure their sense of superiority; these rulers blame those below them for their failures, yet successes are theirs alone. It’s familiar ground for Scott, having distilled the Crusades of Kingdom of Heaven to greedy squabbles masked behind ideological superiority, not to mention the comically bleak moral avalanche that is his viciously underrated The Counselor. Yet what’s so striking about Napoleon–and well-hidden from the film’s marketing–is just how absurdly funny Scott and screenwriter David Scarpa play this approach. It’s an experience that tempers Napoleon‘s epic tone with the wry satire of Armando Iannucci and even the notorious “Democracy Manifest” video, distilling breathtaking battlefield tactics to petty temper tantrums. Most of the film’s comedy comes out of this central conceit–those who are convinced of their own invincibility inevitably become blind to how they can lose everything in an instant.
Joaquin Phoenix is wonderfully dialed into the film’s tone, turning in a performance comparable to Tim Robinson in I Think You Should Leave as much as it is to Phoenix’s Joker. Here, Bonaparte is a man-child whose terrifying behavior translates to an inexplicably effective reputation on the battlefield, creating a sense of superiority that can only metastasize as he succeeds in war. While European rulers may bemoan and later rise up against Napoleon’s deadly bursts of hysteria, Phoenix and Scott suggest that the French ruler is a consequence rather than an aberration of this absurd, power-hungry world he attempts to conquer. Phoenix’s hilarious delivery to an English diplomat of “You think you’re so GREAT just because you have BOATS” isn’t just a gut-buster because of its immature blame-shifting–it’s because, deep down, there’s some bitter truth to this outlandish sentiment. To borrow from Shelley’s poem, Napoleon and his fellow rulers can’t imagine a future where people don’t look on their works and despair.
In this light, the soaring spectacle throughout Napoleon–from the Siege of Toulon to the ill-advised trek through Russia–becomes both bitingly funny and gut-churningly grim. Scores of lives are lost on the whims of the rulers commanding them, all in the name of seizing or preserving a supremacy that’s inevitably finite; the film’s bleak coda is markedly a laundry list of casualties throughout Napoleon’s rule. Scott’s epic eye for choreographed carnage takes on a welcome new dimension here, recognizing such geopolitical drama for its absurdity as much as its awe.
It’s important to note just how important Vanessa Kirby’s Josephine is to adding depth to Napoleon’s absurdity, positioned as the calculating straight man to Phoenix’s boisterous ego-in-chief. Scott has been vocal about how his longer director’s cut fleshes out Josephine’s character, and even with Napoleon’s lengthy runtime one can feel how Kirby’s presence feels drastically sidelined. Nevertheless, Josephine effectively proves to be as equally fascinating as Napoleon due to her vital perspective on power. From her introductory release from jail at the end of Robespierre’s Reign of Terror, it’s clear just how much Kirby’s Josephine understands how fleeting status can be. Josephine doesn’t find power’s value in its divine superiority; rather, she knows just what it’s like to not have any power in the first place. It’s that sense of having something to lose that makes Kirby such a magnetic performer throughout her tête-à-têtes with Napoleon, matching Bonaparte’s childishness with the cold maturity he frequently imitates yet crucially lacks.
Based on Kingdom of Heaven and The Counselor alone, it’s clear just how Scott’s films can radically transform in scope and impact with their longer director’s cuts. While acknowledging the potential impact of the coming 4-hour-10-minute version, even this truncated Napoleon stands out as one of 2023’s most epic and hilariously impactful films, one unafraid to cut its larger-than-life characters down to size.
The Apple Original Film Napoleon from acclaimed director Ridley Scott will first be released exclusively in theaters worldwide, in partnership with Sony Pictures Entertainment, on Wednesday, November 22, before streaming globally on Apple TV+.