Les Blank: Always for Pleasure
The Criterion Collection

Les Blank: Always for PleasureI’m not sure I can think of a more apt descriptor of Les Blank’s films than “humanist.” The 14 short- to medium-length documentaries included in Criterion’s new box set are vivacious, warm and fascinating looks at some of life’s most sensual pleasures. Not to be trite, but these are works that make you feel grateful to be alive and able to experience the world around you.

Over and over, Blank shows himself to be a master of distilling down the essence of a subculture into a brief but substantial package. Blank resists explanation — his films are defiantly free form, roaming from moment to moment — in favor of immersion, and one can’t help but feel edified after living in one of his cinematic worlds.

Food and music are Blank’s two constants in this collection of work. Even films that have a broader focus tend to incorporate these elements as part of the basic building blocks of culture, whether he’s documenting Cajuns (Spend it All, 1971), a black Creole community (Dry Wood, 1973) or Los Angeles hippies (God Respects Us When We Work, but Loves Us When We Dance, 1968).

The music films explore blues guitarists (Lightnin’ Hopkins in The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins, 1968, and Mance Lipscomb in A Well Spent Life, 1971), Creole Zydeco (Clifton Chenier in Hot Pepper, 1973), polka culture (In Heaven There Is No Beer?, 1984) and African-Cuban rhythms (Sworn to the Drum: A Tribute to Francisco Aguabella, 1995), among others. The sheer joy of the performances captured on film would be enough to justify these films, but each one feels like meaningful time spent with the artist in his environment.

As for food, well, it’s rarely looked this good on screen before. Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers (1980) and Yum, Yum, Yum! A Taste of Cajun and Creole Cooking (1990) aren’t merely food porn (still, prepare to salivate); they’re contextualizing tributes to the surrounding cultures.

All 14 films in the three-disc Blu-ray set have been granted 2K digital restorations, and the 1080p, 1.33:1 transfers are beautifully film-like, superb reproductions of the 16mm photography. All of the films feature uncompressed mono soundtracks, save for Sworn to the Drum, which has a lossless stereo track. Clean-up work has left these soundtracks crisp and clean.

As if collecting all these films in one place wasn’t enough, Criterion has supplied at least one extra to accompany each film, including five additional short films, outtakes, an excerpt from forthcoming documentary Les Blank: A Quiet Revelation and extensive interviews with family and collaborators, including sons Harrod and Beau, editor Maureen Gosling and friend Werner Herzog. An extensive booklet contains film notes and an essay by Andrew Horton.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Criterion’s Les Blank: Always for Pleasure Blu-ray rates:

The Films (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: ****
Extra Features Overall: ****
The Criterion Collection/ 1968-1995 / Color / 1.33:1 / 563 min total / $124.95

Level Five (1996)
Icarus Films

Level FiveChris Marker returns to many of his favorite themes in Level Five, a characteristically dense and beautiful essay film that touches on the pain of loss and the role of memory in dealing with that loss. Can the past be changed if memories — both the intangible human memories and the tangible technological ones — are changed? In some ways, Level Five plays like a sequel to Sans Soleil (1983), with Marker again focusing on his beloved Japanese culture, this time looking closely at the tragedy of World War II’s Battle of Okinawa, a precursor to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Marker adds a technological wrinkle, as a woman called Laura (Catherine Belkhodja) seeks to carry on her late lover’s work by completing a video game about the conflict. She addresses him directly, peering into the camera in a series of monologues that dovetail with Marker’s own observations about technology and history. Images of primitive computer graphics mingle with newsreel footage, and Marker’s deft editing constantly creates fascinating juxtapositions between the future and the past that these images represent.

Though the film’s philosophical underpinnings aren’t easy to pin down, the dizzying imagery and the film’s elegiac tone ensure Level Five is anything but dry, academic pondering. Marker again returns to referencing Vertigo (1958) at one point, and it’s no stretch to say that his investigations into the ability to recreate, restructure and re-contextualize memories are every bit as moving and cinematically wondrous as Hitchcock’s film.

Fresh off a theatrical run in 2014 that saw Level Five finally receiving a release in the U.S., Icarus Films brings Marker’s masterpiece to home video in an essential DVD release. The variety of sources all look good in this nice transfer, and the DVD comes with a booklet with an extensive essay from Christophe Chazalon.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Icarus Films’ Level Five DVD rates:

The Film (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ***
Video Transfer: ***
Audio: **1/2
New Extra Features: *
Extra Features Overall: *
Icarus Films/ 1996 / Color and black & white / 1.33:1 / 106 min / $29.98

Kinetta (2005)
Second Run DVD

KinettaGreek director Yorgos Lanthimos has established himself as a filmmaker with an eerily alienating style with his most recent works Dogtooth (2009) and Alps (2011). His debut feature as a solo director, Kinetta, now getting its worldwide home video debut from intrepid UK label Second Run, is clearly those films’ progenitor, examining similar themes in a less formally assured manner.

Like its successors, Kinetta deals with a close-knit community of people that’s developed a series of odd rituals in order to relate to one another. Here, a hotel maid (Evangelia Randou), a plainclothes detective (Costas Xikominos) and a photo clerk (Aris Servetalis) pass the time by filming awkward recreations of murder scenes. This uncomfortable role-playing fills the void in what seems to be mostly colorless existences for these people, playing out in a vacation town during the off-season that might as well be an actual ghost town.

Unlike Lanthimos’ later films, especially Dogtooth, which displays a Michael Haneke-like formal precision, Kinetta features mostly queasy handheld camerawork, fraying the nerves even more than the off-putting but inscrutable actions of the people on-screen, who are more types than actual characters. On its own, Kinetta might feel like a filmmaker valuing obliqueness for its own sake, but take in conjunction with his subsequent films, it fits into a discomfiting oeuvre of estrangement from reality.

Second Run’s 1.85:1 transfer is quite strong considering its standard-def limitations, with a crisp image and a detailed reproduction of Lanthimos’ almost colorless palette. Extras include a newly filmed conversation with the director and a booklet with an essay by critic Michael Ewins.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Second Run’s Kinetta DVD rates:

The Film (out of ****): **1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: **1/2
New Extra Features: **
Extra Features Overall: **
Second Run DVD / 2005 / Color / 1.85:1 / 94 min / £12.99 / Region 2 (PAL)

Slaughter Hotel (1971)
Raro Video

Slaughter HotelFernando Di Leo is better known for his gritty, violent crime dramas, but with Slaughter Hotel (La bestia uccide a sangue freddo), he serves up a thick slice of giallo-sleaze. Veering between jarringly disjointed and laughably languid, hardly anything here makes a lick of goddamn sense, even by standards of the genre. Still, there’s something admirable about Di Leo’s willingness to abandon sense and style from scene to scene. Frenetic barrages of canted angles will give way to elegant, gliding takes, while scenes juggle varying combinations of sex and death.

Klaus Kinski nominally stars as Dr. Francis Clay, the head of a mental institution that caters to rich women, most of whom are being treated for having a sex drive. But Kinski’s presence is mostly a red herring, as he’s not even in the top 10 of weirdest things in the film. Like most of the performances, Kinski’s borders on medicated, as a series of brutal murders can barely arouse much of a reaction in anyone besides those being murdered (and sometimes, not even them).

The nudity, which approaches gynecological levels, is far more graphic than the violence — beheadings, impalements and slashes are more stolid than your average giallo. It’s hardly an exemplary entry in either the genre’s canon or Di Leo’s filmography, but worth a look for enthusiasts of either.

Raro Video presents the film in a 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer that will do little to dissuade critics of the company’s highly variable technical output. There are some things to like about this transfer, including the consistent color reproduction and strong levels of image clarity. Unfortunately, there’s quite a bit of digital manipulation visible, from over-sharpening to heavy-handed edge enhancement. One scene features significant telecine wobble. Elements seem to be in good shape, but the transfer is merely watchable rather than anything commendable.

Two audio options are included, both in 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. This disc defaults to an English dub, while an Italian dub is also offered. The original Italian track is far preferable, featuring sound that is much less tinny and harsh than the English track.

Extras include an interview with actress Rosalba Neri, a fairly in-depth archival making-of and a couple minutes of deleted scenes. The set also includes a booklet with film notes and essays.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Raro Video’s Slaughter Hotel Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): **
Film Elements Sourced: ***
Video Transfer: **
Audio: **1/2
New Extra Features: N/A
Extra Features Overall: ***
Raro Video/ 1971 / Color / 2.35:1 / 94 min / $29.95

Flaming Star (1960)
Twilight Time

Flaming StarMovies starring Elvis Presley don’t typically cause much excitement among cinephiles, but he proves himself to be a capably understated performer in Don Siegel’s lean western Flaming Star, which opens with a couple of songs before turning into something considerably more sober.

Tensions are rising between white settlers and a Kiowa tribe in post-Civil War Texas, and Presley’s Pacer Burton, a half-white, half-Indian man, finds himself torn as he’s forced to consider loyalties to heritage, family and community. While his white father, Sam (John McIntire), and his Kiowa mother, Neddy (Dolores del Rio), just want to live peacefully, spates of violence on both sides threaten to ignite all-out war.

Siegel’s film has a hair-trigger capability of turning suddenly violent, and he sustains that tension throughout. The film also manages a reasonably fair-minded portrayal of Native Americans, emphasizing the similar community aspects of both cultures while recognizing the vast gulf between them.

Presley communicates a sense of being rent in two with his sensitive, introverted performance. Any of his persona’s braggadocio has been replaced with the wandering, unsure eyes of a young man forced to make a decision he’s not sure he’s equipped to make.

Siegel shoots the action sequences with a tough-minded precision, while he allows more room for the complex interpersonal relationships to play out on screen. That means less of a perfunctory sort-of love interest in Barbara Eden and more of the alternating clashing and bonding between Pacer and white half-brother Clint (Steve Forrest).

Twilight Time presents Fox’s 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer of the film, which is an exceptionally clean and sometimes stunningly vivid high-def presentation. The image possesses excellent clarity and sharpness and the somewhat muted color scheme is still capable of displaying vibrant beauty. Audio options include a mostly useless 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, which shunts some of the score to the surrounds and an uncompressed 2.0 track, which gets the job done fine in original mono.

Extras include Twilight Time’s signature isolated score track, a commentary by Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman and the theatrical trailer.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Twilight Time’s Flaming Star Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ***
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: *1/2
Extra Features Overall: *1/2
Twilight Time / 1960 / Color / 2.35:1 / 92 min / $29.95

The Zero Theorem (2014)
Well Go USA

The Zero TheoremTerry Gilliam is a filmmaker of boundless imagination, which can sometimes result in overstuffed cinematic worlds in his lesser works. There’s a fair amount of frenetically detailed production design in his latest film, The Zero Theorem, but it somehow feels cheap and insubstantial — a thinly realized knock-off of a Gilliam film instead of the real thing. The same goes for the ideas in Pat Rushin’s script, which shamelessly borrows from Gilliam’s masterpiece Brazil (1985), reshaping story and character elements into a discount version that sort of gets the broad strokes right but haplessly botches the details.

Christoph Waltz stars as Qohen Leth, an office drone in a futuristic society tasked with unlocking the meaning of life. Qohen toils under the watchful eye of superiors both nosy (David Thewlis) and aloof (Matt Damon), but his work is merely a distraction in his obsessive patience for a phone call that he believes will unlock the key to his own destiny.

Miserable and neurotic, Qohen gets glimpses of a happy life courtesy of Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), a prostitute whose idyllic virtual reality experiences become a source of comfort. The artificial beach in these sequences brings to mind the fractured mental state of Jonathan Pryce’s Sam Lowry in the bitterly ironic conclusion of Brazil, but with a half-hearted effort at incisive commentary. Similar broadsides on pervasive advertising and Big Brother surveillance just don’t muster up much energy. Even the normally vibrant Waltz delivers a somnambulant performance that rarely brings any specificity to the character.

On the other hand, Tilda Swinton does appear as a rapping virtual psychiatrist, so it’s not like the film has nothing going for it.

Well Go’s Blu-ray presentation of the film features a roughly 1.75:1 transfer in 1080p. The image features rounded corners in an ostensible attempt to replicate vintage photography. Color reproduction of both garish and muted palettes is nice, and there are solid levels of fine detail to be seen throughout. The image is rarely super-sharp, but this seems to replicate the theatrical look. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack isn’t tested too often, but it offers a reasonably immersive experience when the material calls for it.

Extras include one big EPK chopped up into smaller chunks on the costuming, sets, visual effects and a general behind-the-scenes piece. The theatrical trailer is also included.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Well Go’s The Zero Theorem Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): *1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ***
Video Transfer: ***
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: *1/2
Extra Features Overall: *1/2
Well Go USA / 2014 / Color / 1.75:1 / 111 min / $29.98

 

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based writer and editor who splits his critical ambitions between writing Blu-ray & DVD reviews and theater criticism. He’s a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.

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