Saturday, February 25, 2012

New from Criterion: WORLD ON A WIRE (1973); ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959); THREE OUTLAW SAMURAI (1964)

(Germany - 1973)

Rainer Werner Fassbinder doing philosophical, dystopian sci-fi is quite a proposition, and the long-lost WORLD ON A WIRE, shot for German TV, is a fascinating experience.  Restored and given a very brief theatrical release in 2011, WORLD ON A WIRE (WELT AM DRAHT) is based on the 1960s sci-fi novel Simulacron-3 by Daniel F. Galouye (also the basis of the 1999 film THE THIRTEENTH FLOOR).  Fassbinder's film draws obvious inspiration from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971), as well as Jean-Luc Godard's ALPHAVILLE (1965) and Andrei Tarkovsky's SOLARIS (1972), in addition to the works of Philip K. Dick, while prefiguring later works like the Dick-based BLADE RUNNER (1982), THE LAWNMOWER MAN (1992), EXISTENZ (1999), THE MATRIX (1999),  and the more recent THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU (2011), among others, while feeling right in line with classic '70s paranoia thrillers. And it does so with minimal special effects, utilizing the cold, desolate, low-tech environments of early 1970s office buildings, which manage to display a distinct lack of humanity just fine on their own. 

The plot is a labyrinthine maze, exemplified by Fassbinder's strategic use of mirrors and reflective surfaces, involving a top-secret project at the Institute for Cybernetics and Futurology, one that involves a computer program that creates an alternate world of "identity units" inside the computer, one that the scientists can enter via ominous-looking VR helmets.  The creator of the program, Prof. Vollmer (Adrian Hoven) has gone insane and dies in a mysterious accident.  His assistant, Fred Stiller (Klaus Lowitsch) suddenly finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy, being followed, talking to people that others insist don't exist. No one is who they seem and it's never certain what's real or imagined. It's a twisty story that exists on multiple levels of reality, and it's difficult at times to keep everything straight, especially at 213 minutes, which might've worked as a two-part TV-movie, but as a feature, it could definitely be whittled down.  You'll figure out the mid-film twist at least an hour before Stiller does, but it's still essential viewing for any Fassbinder or sci-fi fan, or, if nothing else, students of hideous 1973 fashions.  Lots of eccentric Fassbinder humor on display as well, like Stiller's complete non-reaction to a pallet of bricks--intended for him--being dropped on an innocent bystander, and the strange way Stiller and Cybernetics head Siskins (Karl-Heinz Vosgerau) have a meeting while playfully spinning around in their swivel chairs. 

Criterion does the best they can with the restoration, but it's a TV-movie shot in 16mm.  Blown up to 35mm, with this new digital transfer supervised by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (who went on to shoot numerous Hollywood films, including several for Martin Scorsese), it can only look so good, and some scenes have inherent flaws that simply couldn't be eliminated.  Mind you, it's as good as it can look, but don't expect the crystal clear image you usually get from Criterion.  The 1.33:1 aspect ratio makes the film seem a little cramped.  Indeed, at times, some of those expansive office scenes and long corridors seem to be crying out for at least 1.78:1, but it was shot for 1970s TV, so 1.33 is how it was made.  Most of Fassbinder's stock company of actors have roles here:  Gunther Lamprecht, Margit Carstensen, Gottfried John, Kurt Raab, Ulli Lommel, and Eddie Constantine in a cameo.  Ultimately, WORLD ON A WIRE is good, but not great Fassbinder, a film with brilliant ideas and images but often too slow, repetitive, and simply too long.  The obsessive cinephile or sci-fi enthusiast will get much more from this than the casual viewer.  Extras include a 50-minute documentary directed by Fassbinder Foundation head Juliane Lorenz, an interview with German film historian Gerd Gemunden, and a booklet with an essay by critic Ed Halter. (Unrated, 213 mins)

(US - 1959)

Otto Preminger's courtroom classic caused quite a sensation in 1959 with its controversial use of graphic language such as "intercourse," "sperm," "panties," and "girdle."  But it's as enthralling as ever, as jazz-loving small-town lawyer James Stewart defends an Army lieutenant (Ben Gazzara) who killed the man who allegedly raped his wife (Lee Remick).  Nothing's black and white in this case, as Stewart and big-city prosecutor George C. Scott duke it out in a series of back and forth spats (my favorite is Scott intentionally standing in Stewart's line of sight during a cross-examination of a defense witness).  As great as the film is, it's definitely a product of its time, and the notion that a judge (played by McCarthy hearings judge Joseph N. Welch) has to warn courtroom spectators not to giggle over the word "panties" seems patently ridiculous today.  Courtoom dramas were all the rage during this period, with movies like 12 ANGRY MEN and the popularity of PERRY MASON on TV, and ANATOMY OF A MURDER still stands with the best of them, and it looks better than ever with Criterion's HD restoration, filled with such detail that you can make out textures of decor in a room and the fabric on clothing.  The depth and detail is astonishing, and again shows why Criterion continues to set and raise the standards.  Packed with numerous supplements and packaged with a 29-page booklet with essays, interviews, and photos.  This is the definitive presentation of an American classic.  (Unrated, 161 mins)

(Japan - 1964)

While not quite on the level of Akira Kurosawa's legendary samurai pictures, Hideo Gosha's THREE OUTLAW SAMURAI is an excellent genre offering, especially in this beautiful new transfer.  In critic Bilge Ebiri's essay in the package's accompanying booklet, he draws numerous parallels between Gosha and Sam Peckinpah, most notably their origins in television.  THREE OUTLAW SAMURAI was a prequel offshoot of a popular Japanese TV series of the same name that debuted a year earlier.  Gosha and his three stars (Tetsuro Tamba, Isamu Nagato, Mikijiro Hira) made an impressive move to the big screen with this B-level samurai film that lacks the epic scope and the artistic touches of a Kurosawa offering, but is thrilling, often savagely-violent entertainment nonetheless.  The story is familiar:  wandering samurai (Tamba) encounters a group of peasants who have abducted the daughter of the local magistrate to protest their taxation and their poor living conditions.  With nothing better to do, he decides to help them by offering the intelligence and fighting skill that they lack.  Two other samurai, one a cold mercenary who's all about money (Hira) and an affable, almost comic-relief troublemaker (Nagato), are hired by the magistrate to lead his men on a rescue mission.  In the first of many changing alliances, Nagato ends up joining Tamba and the peasants.  And since the show had already been on for a year, it's a given that Hira eventually ends up switching sides.  Gosha, whose work hasn't been widely seen in the US, makes an impressive move from TV to film, using every bit of the 2.35 frame with inventive shot compositions and strikingly fluid camerawork.  Excellently-staged action sequences and fine performances by the three leads make this required viewing for fans of samurai cinema.  Few things look better than glorious, crisp black & white when done right in HD, and this is no exception.  (Unrated, 93 mins)

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