Blu-ray Roundup: May in the Park with Criterion
Haskell Wexler’s astounding Medium Cool is a vivid lesson in the importance of style over story. On the page, the film’s narrative is nothing special: a news cameraman (the great Robert Forster) emerges from his protective shell of debauchery and cynicism through his connection to a lonely single mother (Verna Bloom). This is classic melodrama, the kind of jazz that D.W. Griffith used to seal his reputation in the days of silent cinema, and if it were all Medium Cool had to offer, I doubt we’d still be talking about it. However, Wexler – a life-long political activist and the Academy Award-winning cinematographer of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – sees the plot as a means to a end, namely how we as a people respond to global change, and to that end, he forces us to experience Forster’s internal struggle by throwing the film into actual news events.
Shooting guerilla-style, Wexler was able to frame his actors alongside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and that political resonance galvanizes Medium Cool, especially when riots broke out after the convention, and Wexler captured them on film. There’s real danger as Bloom wanders through the battle between protesters and Chicago cops (case in point: a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot of real tear gas coming right at Wexler and his camera); Wexler documents the unrest of shifting morays with visceral abandon. In its jaundiced, bruised attitude towards a people and a society that are fatally out-of-step with one another, Medium Cool deserves recognition alongside such seminal 1960s classics as Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, and Gimme Shelter, and like those features, Wexler uses Medium Cool’s final, explosive moments to demolish the screen between the film and the audience. The whole world is watching, indeed.
Criterion recently granted Medium Cool with a 4K restoration, and the results are stunning. Considering how varied the camera styles and shooting materials are – the mix of narrative and pure vérité approaches is staggering – this is a remarkably consistent transfer, full of fine details and good contrast. It’s a marked improvement from the muddy VHS and 16mm prints that have constrained Medium Cool for so long. The LPCM monaural track also does an exemplary job of delineating between Wexler’s complex soundscapes.
The disc has a generous allotment of special features. To start, we get two commentary tracks, one with Wexler, editorial consultant Paul Golding, and actress Marianna Hill, and another with Wexler documentarian Paul Cronin; another fifteen-minute video interview with Wexler; the “Medium Cool Revisited” featurette that finds Wexler returning to the film’s locations in 2012 and shifting his focus to the Occupy movement; the hour-long portion of Cronin’s documentary Look Out, Haskell, It’s Real that deals specifically with Medium Cool; another Cronin excerpt, this time from his Sooner or Later, that focuses on child actor Harold Blankenship; the original trailer, and an essay from critic Thomas Beard.
We switch gears to 3:10 to Yuma and Jubal, two Westerns from director Delmer Daves and actor Glenn Ford; Daves and Ford use the genre as an avenue to deconstruct popular thematic tropes. 3:10 to Yuma is an adaptation of an Elmore Leonard short story, and anyone familiar with Leonard’s terse, crisply ironic style should feel right at home. On the surface, it’s classic white-hat/black-hat, as a poor rancher (Van Heflin) agrees to escort a dangerous criminal (Ford) to the titular prison train. Ford’s Ben Wade is a classic Leonard baddie, ruthless and conniving but also charming and wry – he wouldn’t be out-of-place on “Justified” (the great FX drama based on Leonard U.S. Marshal hero Raylan Givens), and he initially appears too powerful for Heflin’s brave-but-desperate Dan Evans. However, as the two talk, and talk, and talk (this iteration of 3:10 to Yuma has far less action than its also-impressive 2007 remake), Evans reveals a strength of character that Wade never expected, and the moral divisions separating the two men soon develop into mutual respect. The film endures because of their dynamic, which has nuances unexplored in the simple protagonist/antagonist dichotomies powering stock Westerns like High Noon.
Jubal, on the other hand, goes back even further for inspiration. Ernest Borgnine plays a brutish rancher whose defining characteristic is his jealousy over his sexpot wife (Valerie French); when Borgnine takes a shine to Ford’s virtuous cowhand, Borgnine’s scheming former top hand (Rod Steiger) takes advantage of that jealousy and manipulates Borgnine into thinking that Ford and French are having an affair. If that sounds a bit Shakespearean in its plot machinations, that’s because it is – Daves and screenwriter Russell S. Hughes have structured Jubal as Othello with Big Sky Country and horses replacing wartime politics and racial insecurities. The mix shouldn’t work, but it does, thanks to Daves’ durable staging and a trio of great performances: Ford, as always, is a dependable hero, while Borgnine lends his violent rancher real pathos and Steiger makes for a splendid Iago figure.
These two pictures look very different – Daves shot Jubal in full Cinemascope color, while 3:10 to Yuma has a more intimate, monochrome 1.85:1-frame – but Criterion’s respective transfers are near perfect. I’d give the edge to 3:10 to Yuma, though only because Cinemascope always looks a little soft. Both discs get LPCM monaural audio, while 3:10 to Yuma has an additional 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. As for features, these two come up a little light. In addition to an essay by critic Kent Jones, 3:10 to Yuma has about a half hour of interviews with Peter Ford (Glenn’s son) and Elmore Leonard (and Dutch, as always, is a treat to listen to); Jubal only gets another Kent Jones essay. Still, what is here is informative, and the films themselves more than merit your attention.
For fans of the British director Mike Leigh, his 1990 feature Life is Sweet represents a filmmaker in the nascent stages of his gifts. Leigh’s humanist leanings favor participation over tightly scripted process; in films like Secrets and Lies, Vera Drake, and Another Year, Leigh and his actors meet to discuss character and behavior, and through their discussions and semi-improvised performances, a narrative emerges. As you might expect with such a free-form path, the results are variable (Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy, for example, is a masterpiece of keenly observed behavior, while his Happy-Go-Lucky is an unwatchable, unfocused mess), and Life is Sweet fully demonstrates that quality – it vacillates wildly between good and not-so-good.
The story about how a working-class London suburb reacts to the presence of an untrustworthy drifter (The Crying Game’s Stephen Rea), much of Life is Sweet plays out like a more serious version of a Christopher Guest comedy, with gratingly “wacky” characters crowding the frame. There’s Timothy Spall’s awkward, wannabe chef, who specializes in dishes like pork cyst (don’t ask), or Jane Horrocks’ bitter, sexually deviant weirdo, who’s forever pushing away her family (and us) in service to her own neuroses. These people feel like “Saturday Night Live” rejects, and Leigh’s predilection to let them dominate the frame does Life is Sweet no favors. On the other hand, that same character-driven approach makes possible Jim Broadbent’s genial, optimistic patriarch, whose relationship with his ever-amused wife (Alison Steadman) is one of Life is Sweet’s highlights. More than anything else, the film lets you see Leigh hone and develop his filmmaking styles, and that sort of on-the-job progress is mostly invisible in traditional Hollywood movies.
Life is Sweet has the least “perfect” transfer of the four films in this review, but only because the source materials that Leigh and DP Bill Pope used weren’t as polished as the technical tools they would bring to later pictures like Naked and Topsy-Turvy. Still, Criterion has honored the rougher aesthetic (this looks as good as it ever will), and they’ve joined it alongside a very solid and clean 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Supplements are extensive. We get nearly three-and-a-half hours of bonuses, from a great commentary with Leigh, an hour-long Leigh Q&A about Life is Sweet from the National Film Theatre, five short films that Leigh made for the BBC, and an essay from critic David Sterritt.