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It is 1962, in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the day has just begun at a rural elementary school when the nuclear alert system starts ringing. For a few minutes, nobody takes it seriously -- it must be some sort of unannounced drill -- and then the fear begins to set in. The same alarm is ringing at the local high school. The phone company says seven things would have to go wrong for it to be a false alarm. Nobody can get an authority on the phone. The principal, Mr. Calkins (William Daniels), makes the decision to send the children home, as they would be if the alert was real. With several students trailing behind, Mrs. Andrews (Nancy Marchand) makes the trek, on foot, across the local countryside, as they all wonder if the war has actually begun.
When lists are compiled of the important filmmakers of the 1960s and 1970s, Frank and Eleanor Perry are arguably overlooked in favor of household names, but their status has been slowly raised by independent distributors that have worked to restore and release the couple's work on Blu-ray in the last few years. First there was Grindhouse Releasing's release of The Swimmer, starring Burt Lancaster, followed by Scorpion's disc of their debut film David and Lisa, the film which earned them both Academy Award nominations. Now, Kino has released several of their films, including Diary of a Mad Housewife, Doc, and Ladybug, Ladybug, an incredible parable about the fear of nuclear war, based loosely on a true story published in McCall's Magazine.
The film is loosely divided in half, with the first half concerning the gradual realization that the alarm might be authentic, and the second about the domino effect that this possibility has on the behavior of the children in Mrs. Andrews' group. Each child or group of children represents another opportunity to explore a new reaction, each one brought to life with stark simplicity by Frank's direction and Eleanor's writing. Within these vignettes, the Perrys also explore the differing reaction of children and adults, both of whom are unprepared for the scenario in different and unexpected ways.
As the ones who first hear and understand the alarm, it's the reaction of the adults that takes up most of the first half of the movie. Daniels, recognizable from everything from The Graduate to "Knight Rider" and "Boy Meets World," exudes an air of authority as he concludes he needs to try his best to keep his composure and professionalism for the sake of the children. His pregnant secretary, Mrs. Forbes (Kathryn Hays), is more openly fragile, ultimately breaking down after going into a classroom and observing multiple things loaded with meaning: a child-sized kitchen playset, suggesting preparation for a future that might not arrive, and a sandbox with a castle and a cannon in it, a silly imitation of something that suddenly seems real. The school's dietician, Mrs. Maxton (Jane Connell) splits the difference, putting on a good face for Peter (Bozo Dell), a young boy who has to remain at the school because his home is too far away, while her heart breaks for him. The one adult who carries over into the rest of the film is Mrs. Andrews, who goes through her duties in a half-paralyzed haze. At one point, she and the children spot a farmer working in the distance. She raises her hand to warn him, but then thinks twice, afraid of panicking him for nothing. Marchand, best known for playing Tony's mother on "The Sopranos," gives a performance that speaks volumes without having to do very much. When she does finally have a big reaction, late in the film, it's a perfectly-calibrated moment.
However, as much as the Perrys have sympathy for the adults, the children are clearly their focus. Every moment in their short yet seemingly endless journey is designed to twist the knife the film sticks in the viewer's heart. The first child, JoAnn (Linda Meyer), returns home to unreceptive parents (Estelle Parsons and Richard Hamilton), forcing her to huddle in terror with her pet goldfish. Another, Luke (Alan Howard) is tasked with figuring out how to get his slightly senile grandmother into the basement with him, in a scene that deftly shifts its dynamic as it goes on. As the film builds to a climax, several children end up in an underground bunker together with no supervision, and the Perrys use the resulting chaos to mount their most pointed observations about the realities of nuclear war. The kids assume what they believe are responsibilities ("You're only a child," says one child to another), fight amongst themselves about the nature of war ("if there is a war, there won't be any winners or losers,"), and contemplate the possibility of death ("Wouldn't you rather be alive than dead...no matter what?" "I don't know. I don't...know."). It's a razor-sharp microcosm of society, and while some viewers may find the discussion to edge on soapbox territory, the Perrys aren't afraid to follow the thread toward a fairly brutal conclusion. At a certain point, whether or not the bomb actually drops is beside the point: the fear is more than enough to destroy people.
For Ladybug Ladybug's Blu-ray debut, Kino has reformatted one of the film's theatrical posters, a theoretically cheery but slightly ominous illustration of children playing a sing-song game taken from the film, done in red silhouette, with a red, purple, and yellow border around it (my only complaint is that the film's equally ominous tagline, "a picture dedicated to life," has been left off). The rest of the package follows KLSC's standard design template. The one-disc release comes in a Viva Elite Blu-ray case, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
The satisfying frequency with which Kino is able to produce or commission new transfers continues with Ladybug, with the feature granted a new 2K master, presented on disc in a 1.78:1 1080p AVC transfer. The black-and-white image looks extremely nice here, with a lovely sheen of film grain over a nicely detailed and impressively dimensional photography. Contrast is excellent, and print damage is mild. Sound is a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track, which renders dialogue with impressive clarity, and the haunting buzz of the yellow alarm bell and related emergency signals with a haunting intensity. Optional English subtitles are also included.
There is one extra on the disc, a new audio commentary by film historian Richard Harland Smith. Smith is an amusing speaker, with a delivery that does a nice job of blending the dense, information-heavy style of historian tracks with a sense of humor. There are pauses throughout, but they feel naturally built into the discussion, with Smith trying to give listeners a bit of break between bursts of information. Here, he juggles real-world historical context with information about the cast (quite a few Broadway actors) and crew, right down to the date the movie started shooting. An excellent, well-researched track.
An original theatrical teaser trailer for Ladybug Ladybug is also included, as well as bonus trailers for Diary of a Mad Housewife, Doc, and Hello Again.
Ladybug Ladybug seems like a bit of a lost masterpiece. In addition to the various Frank and Eleanor Perry films mentioned in the body of the review, there have been a few major cult films about nuclear bombs released on Blu-ray recently, including Threads, Miracle Mile, and The Day After (the latter two also released by Kino Lorber Studio Classics), and Ladybug Ladybug belongs in the same conversation. Highly recommended.
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