Criterion Reviews: KES and BLOW OUT

Last year, Criterion started licensing films from MGM for DVD and Blu-ray release, and these two are great examples of why that’s a good thing.

The Movie (Kes)

Ken Loach’s coming-of-age film Kes (available now) is mostly unknown to U.S. audiences. The forty-year-old film only became available on home video in the States this past Tuesday. (Screencaps of the Blu-ray from DVDBeaver)

The movie follows fifteen-year-old Billy, who steals, lies, cheats, and doesn’t have much of a future in store. His mother works too much to pay attention to him. His brother works in the local mine and is a hard-drinking troublemaker on the side. One day, he becomes fascinated by a kestrel he comes across, and decides to train it. When he is with the bird, it’s like Billy is unshackled from a home life and school system that couldn’t care less if he succeeds or fails. The film is based on the book “A Kestrel for a Knave”.

Rather than adopt a traditional scene structure, the film peeks in on his day, lingering on some activities for just a few minutes, and on yet others for much longer. The filmmakers’ “outside looking in” approach draws us in by playing upon our human inclination toward curiosity. The emotional tragedies (both shallow and deep) that he experiences day-in, day-out are more heartbreaking to watch as a result. Particularly gutting is a lengthy sequence where a schoolteacher humiliates Billy and other students. I’ll leave it at that, since much of the enjoyment in Kes is letting the movie make you ask “now what?”.

The Look and Sound (Kes)

It took me a few minutes to adjust to the extremely thick regional accents, but I held up all right. In the Making “Kes” documentary on the disc, the director and crew briefly mention the concerns that United Artists had about British audiences understanding the accents, let alone other English-speaking countries. I can foresee many people opting to make use of the English subtitle track. Also included is an alternate soundtrack with postsync dialogue, which is much clearer, but doesn’t authentically represent the original performances. I like that it’s in there for comparison’s sake.

The video transfer reflects the low budget film stock used, but manages to provide a cleaner, brighter presentation than anyone likely would have gotten in any first-run theater four decades ago. The extensive work done in digitally restoring the film in cooperation with MGM is detailed toward the back of the included booklet.

The Supplements (Kes)

Making “Kes” runs about an hour, and spends much of its runtime discussing the production of the film with director Loach, producer Tony Garnett, and David Bradley. Bradley played Billy, and now looks more like a kindly country vicar than a scrawny ne’er-do-well. Almost as cathartic as the film are Bradley’s recollections of his naivete during filming, and how a pivotal scene touched him deeply then (and visibly still does). Loach’s comments regarding how he felt that as a society, we are throwing away young potential now as we were then is sobering indeed.

Cathy Come Home (1966) is one of Loach’s earliest film works for TV, and it has an afterword by writer Graham Fuller. Also included is an episode of “The South Bank Show” focusing on director Ken Loach. Criterion has been including these on a number of recent releases, and I hope they continue to do so. They put excerpts from an episode dedicated to Sam Fuller on the recent re-issue of The Naked Kiss, and it was one of my favorite extras there as this one is here.

Final Thoughts (Kes)

The British Film Institute named Kes one of the ten best British films of the last hundred years, and I’m glad I finally got the chance to look at it. It’s worth discovering, whether via Netflix or a blind buy. My wife informed me that the global public should be warned about the teenage boy nudity that caught her off guard, so consider this that fair warning. The Kes Blu-ray is $26.99 on Amazon this week.

The Movie (Blow Out)

Brian De Palma’s Blow Out is one of those rare films that is self-consciously derivative and yet thrillingly original at the same time. It’s probably my favorite De Palma film (even besting Phantom of the Paradise and Dressed to Kill), and it definitely contains my favorite performance by John Travolta. (Screencaps of the Blu-ray from DVD Beaver)

Travolta plays a sound engineer for a schlock movie studio. He records the sounds of people screaming, wind rustling the trees, car engines starting, and so on. He’s bored by regurgitating the same cheap, anonymous work repeatedly, which makes him prone to leap at the opportunity to do something original and unique.

When out one night doing the same old drudgery, a car goes off a bridge and his life goes in a completely unexpected direction. Nancy Allen co-stars as as the woman who reignites his drive to lead an active life. John Lithgow is at his terrifying best, and Dennis Franz can be seen refining what would be a signature character style for the rest of his career.

The ending, which follows a particularly impressive car chase (which defies the standard definition of a “car chase”) will knock you back from the edge of your seat. From (fake-out) beginning to end, it’s a stellar paranoia thriller that ranks among the best ever made. I have nightmares just thinking about watching it as the A picture of a double bill with Scorsese’s After Hours.

The Look and Sound (Blow Out)

The level of detail and subtlety of contrast in this transfer shocked me. The retention of fine grain in addition to crystal-clear detail is stunning if you’ve watched the old DVD edition. De Palma’s perfectionist eye in supervising the transfer is most likely to thank for this. Drops of water or grime on panes of glass look like you’re actually in the frame, further emboldening your suspension of disbelief. The 360-degree pan toward the end made me gasp. Who needs “3D” when you have clarity like this?

Even on a lossy sound system like the one I use currently, the HD audio mix is clear and nuanced, just as intended.

The Supplements (Blow Out)

The lead-off is an hour-long interview with De Palma conducted by filmmaker (and friend) Noah Baumbach. Various priceless anecdotes are shared, to the point that I’ve re-watched it four times over the last couple of weeks. The only one I’ll fully give away here is that due to a random robbery, the original negatives of the climactic car chase sequence vanished right at the end of principal photography, and the entire sequence had to be completely re-shot. That re-shot version is what ended up in the film. There’s much more than that.

De Palma’s 1967 thriller Murder a la Mod is also included. The initial setup makes it seem like the start of a porn film, but instead of explicit sex, things segue to murder. It’s unsettling to say the least, and an intriguing look at De Palma’s early work. Bits of this film appear in Blow Out on a background monitor.

Interviews with co-star Nancy Allen (De Palma’s wife at the time) and cameraman (and Stedicam inventor) Garrett Brown round out the video extras. Allen is candid and generous, but Brown’s laid-back yet manic (you’ll see what I mean) act is the can’t-miss of the two. At one point, he forces the camera operator to unexpectedly zoom, and for the first time I can recall, reveal the disc’s producer/interviewer in the shot. She seems to relish it in the moment as much as I did watching it.

The booklet includes Pauline Kael’s review from the New Yorker in addition to an essay by critic Michael Sragow.

Final Thoughts (Blow Out)

The audiovisual upgrade is one thing. The excellence of the film is another. The rare candor you get from the director and one of the stars in the extras isn’t icing on a cake. It’s a full-bodied bourbon after a perfectly-seared filet (half-hearted apologies to non-carnivores). I love the ripping on lousy 80’s slasher movies in those interviews too. We’re a third of the way through the year, and I’m absolutely comfortable calling this a leading contender for one of the best catalog releases of the year. If you’re a De Palma nut, you’ve had this pre-ordered for weeks. If you love cinema and aren’t that familiar with De Palma, just buy it and join the club. It’s just as refreshing to watch thirty years later, if not more so.