SUMMER HOURS and STAGECOACH Criterion Blu-ray Reviews

     May 31, 2010

Criterion is now running the gamut of cinema, covering more modern releases than ever before, whilst still collecting some of the greatest films ever made. I don’t know if Olivier Assayas’s Summer Hours deserves to be kept in the same company as John Ford’s Stagecoach, but only three numbers separate them in Criterion’s continuing collection of some of the greatest films ever made. Still, both have such great value, even if only one is a classic. And my reviews of the Criterion Blu-ray’s of Stagecoach and Summer Hours follow after the jump.

To start with, it should be said that Stagecoach does not look pristine. Jeffery Welles railed on this, and Criterion made a decision they weren’t going to DNR all of the scratches and blips. As such throughout the film there are shots that show the wear of bad storage, and choices were made with this release that some might find questionable if they expect a seventy year old title to look as good as a ten year old one. I thought it looked fine under the circumstance, and better than Warner Brother’s previous two disc special edition DVD.

As for the film itself, it’s the very model of an action film. John Wayne headlines as the Ringo Kid, who ends up on a stagecoach with a hooker with a heart of gold (Claire Trevor), a Southern Gentleman (John Carradine), a Doctor who’s a drunk (Thomas Mitchell), A proper lady with a secret (Louise Platt), a crooked banker (Berton Churchill), a man who sells Alcohol for a living (Donald Meek) and a Sheriff (George Bancroft) and their driver (Andy Devine). They are all heading for Lordsburg, where the Ringo kid wants to have it out with the men who killed his father and brother. The sheriff is there to stop Ringo, but as they head to Lordsburg they’re told by the cavalry their route is through Indian Territory and Geronimo is on the war path, and so the sheriff and Ringo will have to form an unlikely alliance, while Ringo and the hooker with the heart of gold strike up a romance.

It’s hard not to focus on the introductory shot of John Wayne into the picture. It’s a zoom in/track in as he twirls his gun to reload it and yells for the stagecoach to stop. Up until that point in his career Wayne was not a star, but when that shot ended, he was unquestionably a leading man. That’s John Ford for you. And this is a classic example of narrative simplicity, visual storytelling and a driven narrative. There are two conflicts: One is Ringo’s revenge, the other is getting the stagecoach to that conflict. In that way you have two conclusions that complement each other, and this sort of device has been ripped off time and again. The characters are simplistic and live up to their roles, but the actor makes those characters feel alive even if they seem very familiar archetypes. Partly, it should be noted, because they were ripped off from this film. And at the same time, Ford worked well with stock characters because much of the greatness in Ford is how he moved them above his canvas.

The film is also famous for the action set piece of the stagecoach versus the Indians, and Yakima Cannut’s action staging of the pieces are dated but still impressive – maybe more so now that so many stunts are done with digital assists. You watch a man fall off a horse here and you know there’s no faking going on. And though it may not have the in-your-face visceral thrills of modern cinema, the pacing of the film makes it work. This is also Ford at his happiest and populist, with good triumphing over evil, and a very black and white world of heroes and villains. But it’s a fun playground, and though I would argue Rio Bravo, My Darling Clementine and The Searchers are way more interesting, this is the ultimate western.

The Criterion edition presents the film in the original academy aspect ratio (1.33:1) and a 2.0 uncompressed monaural soundtrack. Like I said, the transfer is noticeably flawed, but also beautiful. There’s a commentary by Jim Kitses, who is very appreciative of the film, and offers insight into the shooting and why the film works. There’s an early film by John Ford called “Bucking Broadway” (54 min.) featuring Harry Carey that’s an amusing look at Ford’s early career. Then there’s a 1968 interview with Ford (72 min.) where the director treats his interviewer with outright disdain. It’s fascinating and painful to watch. And as to be expected, Peter Bogdanovich chimes in his thoughts (14 min.). “Dreaming of Jeannie” (22 min.) is Tag Gallagher’s video essay on the film, and it probes to be thoughtful about how Ford arranges our sympathies through his shot choreography. Some of John Ford’s home movies are included (7 min.), and it features moments with Ford’s collaborators like Greg Tolland. “True West” (11 min.) has Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights, talk about trading post operator Harry Goulding and his influential role in bringing Monument Valley to the big screen. Stunt god Vic Armstrong talks about how inspirational Yakima Canutt (10 min.) was and is, while there’s an audio version of the film with Wayne and Trevor reprising their roles (26 min.) and the film’s theatrical trailer.

Olivier Assayas’s Summer Hours is all about a family’s house, and the passing of their matriarch. Edith Scob plays Helene, the mother of three children, and executor of a famous painter. That art has loomed large over their summer home, where Helene still resides with her maid. But during a summer family gathering at the house she starts telling her children what to do in her passing, and notes that they should sell the house. Her daughter Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) lives in America, her son Jeremie (Jeremie Renier) lives in the Far East and only Frederic (Charles Berling) is nearby. It is he who wants to keep the house in the family, but everyone else feels to hold on to it would just be for sentimental value, and everyone else would rather have the money since the home is no longer practical for them. When Helene passes, the family must vote on what to do with the estate, as the sibling reunite all together for what may be one of the last times in their lives.

My father passed away, so dealing with a parent’s death is something that hits you differently depending on your experience with it. What I liked most about Assayas’s film is how it suggests nostalgia is mostly felt by those in their middle ages. The longing to hold on to something that has already turned into something else. Helene doesn’t care, while Frederic’s children just think of the summer home as a place to hang out or party. And also, for what is essentially a film about rich people and their worries, the film finds the heart of the subject matter and the mixed emotions that come from having to deal with wills and estates, and what amounts to the legacy of a family. Much of what the family was used to having around their summer home will end up in a museum, never to be theirs again. It’s poignant, and reflective and honest. But I love how the film ends on the children, planting the seeds of a memory, showing how the house, in its last moments in the family – even as the kids are cavalier about not seeing it again – will linger (as all family does) for the rest of their lives.

The Criterion collection presents the film in widescreen (1.78:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1 master audio. The transfer is perfect. The film comes with an interview with Assayas (29 min.), a making of (26 min.), and the documentary “Inventory” (51 min.), about how the film dealt with preservation of art. These are solid documentary pieces, and Assayas is a fascinating interview.

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