Stray Dogs (2014)
Cinema Guild

Stray DogsThere’s talk that Stray Dogs may be the final film from Tsai Ming-liang, one of the undisputed masters of the so-called “slow cinema” school, and it would certainly be a high note to go out on. Even by Tsai’s usual standards, Stray Dogs can test a viewer’s patience, particularly in the film’s final two shots, seemingly endless static displays of emotional and physical decay, minutely realized.

But while Tsai is stretching the limits of your endurance, he’s also stretching the imagination with his unbelievably precise compositions — ever-so-slowly revealing new bits of visual information — and his un-signaled detours into the surreal.

It’s easy enough to decipher the rudimentary bits of the narrative — a father (frequent Tsai collaborator Lee Kang-sheng) attempts to provide for his two children by working as a sign holder on a busy Taipei highway. They sleep in various abandoned places and are occasionally joined by one of several different women (or perhaps, the same woman, played by different actresses), and it’s not clear whether we’re jumping back and forth in time or simply seeing different perspectives. Is the woman the kids’ mother? Simply a compassionate acquaintance?

Emotional ties are not explicated, but what appears to be a distant film can turn shockingly emotional quickly, like when the father fashions a companion out of cabbage (a deeply uncomfortable, surprisingly funny and heart-wrenching scene all in one) or a rare close-up where he spontaneously breaks into song. Offering an entirely different audience experience are long takes where the man stands transfixed in front of a mural, connecting with the piece in a way that’s completely sealed off from our comprehension or empathy. That push-pull between alienating and affecting is just part of what makes Stray Dogs an indelible experience.

Cinema Guild’s 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer is an impeccable rendition of Tsai’s digital photography and the muted grays of crumbling structures and the bright primaries of consumer products under fluorescent light. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is subtly immersive, planting the viewer down near a packed highway, cars zooming past, or an echo-y abandoned corridor.

Among the extra features is a bonus film, Journey to the West (2014, 56 min), another entry in Tsai’s “Walker” series. Lee stars as a Buddhist monk making his way through Marseille in infinitesimal steps, with Tsai’s framing constantly subverting expectations of where he’ll show up next. This was like pure cinematic dopamine to me, with Tsai’s mind-blowing compositions and super-long takes used to a purely playful effect. The scene in which Denis Lavant shows up to follow up in Lee’s footsteps might be one of my new all-time favorites. The disc is worth the purchase for Journey to the West alone.

Other extras include footage of the Cinémathèque Française’s Tsai Ming-liang Master Class, a trailer and booklet with an essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Milestone’s The Connection Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ***1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ****
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ***1/2
New Extra Features: ****
Extra Features Overall: ****
Cinema Guild / 2014 / Color / 1.78:1 / 140 min / $34.95

 

La Ciénaga (2001)
The Criterion Collection

La CienagaFrom its first moments, the debut feature from Argentinian filmmaker Lucretia Martel envelops you in a feeling of sweaty dread. This is an extremely tactile film — shots seem to perspire, unease welling as her camera lingers, and the nerve-rattling nature of the off-screen sound design sets you on edge.

Martel’s most recent film, The Headless Woman (2008), established her as a major player in world cinema, and one can see that film’s formal precision and narrative withholding in its nascent form in La Ciénaga, a strong work in its own right.

Malaise has set in on the film’s subject — a bourgeois extended family sprawled out in front of a filthy backyard swimming pool as the film opens. When one of the characters badly injures herself on a broken wine glass, no one can even muster up an attempt to come to her aid. It’s a striking scene — both because of its unpleasant subject matter and Martel’s radical use of space, which uses close-ups and oblique angles to disorienting effect.

In many ways, the opening scene is a perfect microcosm of the entire film, as its thematic concerns about a family stuck in a self-harming cycle of decay and decadence hardly need to be developed further. That doesn’t make any of its subsequent running time less riveting though — you know the spiritual rot will manifest in irreversible physical consequences eventually, and the anxiety mounts across carefully crafted frame after frame.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer is based on a new 4K scan, and the level of depth and fine detail is phenomenal. The image is consistently sharp, clean and exceptionally film-like. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 surround track perfectly handles Martel’s vital sound design, delivering crisp audio from all channels.

Extras include new interviews with Martel and filmmaker Andres Di Tella, who discusses Martel’s place within New Argentine Cinema. A trailer and an insert with an essay by scholar David Oubiña are also included.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, The Criterion Collection’s La Ciénaga Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ***
Film Elements Sourced: ****
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ****
New Extra Features: **1/2
Extra Features Overall: **1/2
The Criterion Collection / 2001 / Color / 1.85:1 / 101 min / $39.95

 

The Connection (1963)
Milestone Films

The ConnectionIf only every stage-to-screen adaptation had the authorial conviction of Shirley Clarke’s The Connection, based on the play by Jack Gelber. Clarke’s film honors its source material, sometimes offering an unvarnished, empathetic look at a group of junkies and jazz musicians waiting around for their heroin dealer in a New York flop house. But Clarke goes a step further, explicitly acknowledging the inherent staginess of the material and offering a metatextual critique of the truth of documentary filmmaking.

A few years later, Clarke would more subtly make many of the same points about the deception of the camera and the uneasy relationship between documentarian and subject in Portrait of Jason (1967), but the sheer forcefulness of her thesis here is completely irresistible. Filmmaker Jim Dunn (William Redfield) — who’s financing the group’s heroin buy so he can film the “reality” — frequently steps in front of the camera, fussily adjusting lights and clumsily directing the men, who range from bemused to wholly disinterested.

Clarke, via Dunn and barely seen cameraman J.J. Burden (Roscoe Brown) — the diegetic film’s secret mastermind — often favors close-up one-shots, almost confrontational, as the various men tell their stories directly into the camera. It looks and feels like cinematic revelation, until it begins to sink in how each man has been transformed into a performer of some sort. Any sense of gritty reality is punctured by the arrival of Cowboy (Carl Lee), the group’s connection to the connection, who confronts Dunn’s camera right back, blasting him for thinking he’s uncovering the truth by “flirting” with them.

Clarke’s films have been given superb treatment on home video by Milestone, and they make no exception for her debut film, granted a 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer here that’s been sourced from the UCLA and Milestone restoration. The film-like transfer features excellent levels of fine detail and a very clean image, while the uncompressed 2.0 mono track offers a great showcase for jazz pianist Freddie Redd’s hard-bop score. Extras include behind-the-scenes footage and photos, a brief interview with art director Albert Brenner, a conversation with Redd, additional songs, home movies and a trailer.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Milestone’s The Connection Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: ***1/2
New Extra Features: **1/2
Extra Features Overall: **1/2
Milestone Films / 1963 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 110 min / $39.95

 

A Day in the Country (Partie de campagne, 1936)
The Criterion Collection

A Day in the CountryOne might look at the backstory for Jean Renoir’s A Day in the Country, and wonder what might have been. Before production could finish in 1936, Renoir had to leave to work on The Lower Depths (1936), and he never returned, the film completed by collaborators and released a decade later, after Renoir had already been working in Hollywood for a number of years. At 41 minutes, this just must be a fragment, a curiosity, right?

In reality, the film was always planned as a short feature and in its existing form, it’s already a masterpiece — a perfectly constructed bauble of idyllic romance and crushing disappointment, the totality of life’s emotions wrapped up together in a compact package.

A Parisian family escapes the hectic city life for a day by the water in the countryside, and two local fishermen, Henri and Rodolphe (Georges Saint-Saens and Jacques Borel) instantly set their sights on daughter Henriette. Rodolphe settles for a playful pursuit of Henriette’s mother (Jane Marken), while Henri’s casual attraction to Henriette blossoms quickly.

Renoir is capable of communicating a world of emotion with just a few brief shots, so the short running time here doesn’t cause the film to feel rushed. Time is both everlasting and fleeting in this tranquil setting, a paradise away from the world’s concerns where love can develop into something overwhelming, but where there is little hope of permanence. Initially, the film was designed with some cutaways to Paris, but sticking in the same location for its entirety gives A Day in the Country a mythical quality.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer is sourced from a new 2K digital restoration, and the resulting image quality is very nice, especially in close-ups, which reveal healthy levels of fine detail. Grayscale separation is strong, and damage is almost completely nonexistent. The lossless mono soundtrack handles the film’s dialogue and music just fine.

Those worried about spending full Criterion price on such a short film should be heartened by the slate of bonus features, which include Un tournage à la champagne, an 89-minute collection of outtakes, assembled in 1994 from more than four hours’ worth of material. Renoir scholar Christopher Faulkner discusses the film’s unusual production history in a new interview, and Faulkner also examines Renoir’s style in a new video essay. Archival material includes a Renoir intro from 1962, a 1979 interview with producer Pierre Braunberger and several screen tests. An insert with an essay by scholar Gilberto Perez is also included.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, The Criterion Collection’s A Day in the Country Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: ***
Extra Features Overall: ****
The Criterion Collection / 1936 / Black and white / 1.37:1 / 41 min / $39.95

 

Black Sunday (1960, AIP version)
Kino

Black SundayMario Bava’s breakthrough film, Black Sunday, showcases the director’s keen sense of atmosphere and elegant camera work in this pretty hokey tale about a 17th Century Russian witch (Barbara Steele) who’s burned at the stake and returns to wreak havoc two centuries later. Kino already released the film’s original Italian cut on Blu-ray a few years ago, but now returns with a Blu-ray release of the American cut, shortened a bit and presented with a new score courtesy of American International Pictures.

By most accounts, the original cut is the way to go, but Bava fans in the U.S. will be happy to have both versions available in high-def. One might wonder why Kino didn’t simply package both cuts together from the start, but it seems some tricky rights hurdles had to be cleared, as evidenced by the announcement and subsequent cancellation of a Black Sunday/Black Sabbath (1963) AIP double-feature. (Kino will now release the AIP Black Sabbath on a standalone Blu-ray in July.)

The 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer is a bit softer than Kino’s original cut disc, but it’s a nicely detailed presentation, if a bit rough around the edges with various print damage. As usual, Kino has refrained from any excessive digital manipulation, so the image retains a film-like look, though a less-than-sharp image is the norm. The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio mono track is very clean.

Unfortunately, no extras here aside from a theatrical trailer. This release gets the job done for region-A-locked Bava fans who don’t mind buying two discs, but Arrow Video’s dual-format Region B release is vastly superior, offering both cuts in one package and a ton of extras.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Kino Lorber’s Black Sunday Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): **1/2
Film Elements Sourced: **1/2
Video Transfer: **1/2
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: 1/2
Extra Features Overall: 1/2
Kino Lorber / 1960 / Black and white / 1.66:1 / 83 min / $19.95

 

Bandit Queen (1994)
Twilight Time

Bandit QueenShekhar Kapur straddles biopic convention and something resembling an exploitation film in his telling of the life of Phoolan Devi, a low caste Indian woman who endured endless sexual and physical abuse before becoming a vigilante gang leader. There are flashes of an angry, forceful vision here — the film opens with a defiant Devi (Seema Biswas) looking directly into the camera and declaring, “I am Phoolan Devi, you sisterfuckers!” and her climactic revenge against a group of upper-caste Thakurs is brutally balletic.

These moments are rare though; Kapur’s sedate camerawork lingers over the beautiful Northern Indian landscapes with the same apparent disinterest he has in the ugliness of Devi’s humiliations. From her marriage as an 11-year-old to an adult man who rapes her to a gang-rape by bandits to similar treatment from local police, Devi is subjected to one unimaginable horror after another.

Kapur seems to wallow in these moments — they essentially make up the first three-quarters of the film — but there’s a sense that he’s just ticking off biographical boxes, proceeding chronologically through the atrocities until he can get to the point where she has some agency. Despite its bold beginning, this is a film that’s hardly empowering.

It’s pretty apparent that Twilight Time’s 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer is sourced from an older master. Despite a generally pleasing image, colors are a bit faded and fine detail disappears into soft mush at points. Low-light scenes are afflicted with overwhelming grain that renders as video noise, and blacks are crushed pretty badly. It’s an improvement over what DVD can offer, and I wouldn’t count on a new scan for a film like this anytime soon. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 soundtrack presents the film’s Hindi dialogue cleanly, but some will be disappointed by the forced English subtitles (not burned-in per se, but not removable nonetheless).

Extras include a commentary track from Kapur, carried over from an older release, and an isolated score track. A booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo is also included.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Twilight Time’s Bandit Queen 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 / 1994 / Color / 1.78:1 / 119 min / $24.95

 

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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