Losing GroundLosing Ground
Milestone Films 

Milestone Films aims its expert curatorial eye on a landmark of African-American cinema with Losing Ground (1982), the second and final feature from Kathleen Collins, whose career was cut short by cancer in 1988. Collins’ first feature, The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy (1980), included here among the copious extras, is often considered the first American feature film made by a black woman.

Naturally, the historical interest of this set might be its primary draw for some, especially because both of Collins’ films essentially went unreleased and haven’t exactly been easy to see since. But Losing Ground is more than a mere curiosity, constructing a nuanced portrait of marital fatigue with a texture that’s reminiscent at times of an Eric Rohmer film. The film looks like the work of an artist still finding her footing — the editing is especially slapdash at points — but there’s a lot to admire here.

Seret Scott stars as Sara Rogers, a philosophy professor embarking on a study of the aesthetic qualities of ecstasy, her intellectual pursuit of an emotional response indicative of her perhaps too serious-minded approach to life. Many of the men around her, including her students, aren’t shy about their attraction to her, but her responses border on obliviousness.

That’s quite the contrast to her husband, Victor (Bill Gunn), a painter who views carnal indulgence as a necessary part of the artistic process. He moves the couple to an upstate retreat, and in a bid to shift away from abstract work, employs several young, attractive women as models, all the while barely bothering to conceal his extracurricular motives.

Meanwhile, Sara finds some liberation by agreeing to star in a student film project helmed by the hyper-enthusiastic George (Gary Bolling), a tale of misbegotten passion between her and Duke (Duane Jones). The film-within-a-film — mostly shots of obviously metaphorical dancing — is goofy, but Scott’s performance is convincingly transformative, her reconciling of her intellectual and emotional selves playing out in deeply conflicted fashion on her face. Losing Ground is a bit schematic in its set-up, contrasting Sara and Victor’s approaches to life, but Scott and Gunn make them feel like real people.

Milestone’s 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer does the 16mm-shot film justice, its hazy images looking reasonably detailed and film-like. There’s a pervasive soft, slightly washed-out look to the image, inherent to the source no doubt, but the digital transfer is stable, consistent and clean. An uncompressed mono track handles dialogue cleanly, if a bit on the quiet side.

The two-disc Blu-ray set features the aforementioned debut feature The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy, as well as 1976 student film Transmagnifican Dambamuality from cinematographer Ronald K. Gray. There are extensive new interviews with Scott, Gray and Collins’ daughter Nina Lorez Collins, as well as a commentary track from Professors LaMonda Horton-Stallings and Terri Francis. We also hear from Kathleen Collins herself in an archival interview from 1982. A trailer for the 2015 re-release rounds out the extras.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Milestone Films’ Losing Ground Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): **1/2
Film Elements Sourced: **1/2
Video Transfer: ***
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: ****
Extra Features Overall: ****

Milestone Films / 1982 / Color / 1.33:1 / 86 min / $39.95

agnes vardaJane B. Par Agnès V. and Kung-Fu Master!: 2 Films by Agnès Varda
Cinelicious Pics

A double-feature of new restorations of rarely-seen work from one of the greatest living filmmakers is a damn good way to introduce yourself. This Agnès Varda twofer is one the first home video releases from L.A. distributor Cinelicious Pics, and it’s an auspicious early move for a company that also put one of my favorite 2015 theatrical releases, John Magary’s The Mend.

Varda’s intertwined works both star Jane Birkin, and they crisscross in what must be one of the most fascinating cinematic universes ever created. As Varda puts it, Jane B. Par Agnès V. (1988) is like a fictional portrait of a real person, while Kung-Fu Master! (1988, released briefly in the U.S. as Le petit amour) is a real portrait of a fictional person. Jane B. upends the biopic form, casting Birkin and Varda as themselves in a feminist essay film that gleefully traipses from genre to genre, from overstuffed costume drama to silent comedy and back again, a portrait of an actress unable to be contained by the real world.

A snippet of an idea — a woman who falls in love with her daughter’s classmate — is glimpsed in Jane B. and fleshed out in Kung-Fu Master!, a film that approaches its taboo subject matter matter-of-factly to deliver an honest, deeply felt study of loneliness.

In this film, Birkin plays Mary-Jane, a divorced 40-year-old who feels herself inexorably drawn to the 15-year-old Julien (Mathieu Demy, Varda’s son with Jacques Demy), who’s a bit of an annoyance to her own teenage daughter, Lucy. Lucy is played by Birkin’s daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg in one of her first film roles, while younger daughter Lou is played by Lou Doillon — who is, you guessed it, also Birkin’s daughter. Later in the film, her mother Judy Campbell, father David Birkin and brother Andrew Birkin also appear.

While Mary-Jane finds herself growing more and more attached to Julien, he never displays any precocities that might lend to the typical whimsy of a May-December romance film. His one true love is the titular arcade game, which Mary-Jane uses as a point of bonding. Though it never moralizes, there’s an unavoidable melancholy that blankets the film, as if Mary-Jane recognizes her self-destructive tendencies but can’t help tumbling headlong toward them anyway.

Each film is granted its own disc and given a 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer, sourced from new 2K restorations of the 35mm original camera negative. These are lovely transfers, looking remarkably like film and capturing Varda’s slightly gauzy photography very well. Detail is exceptional, colors are a touch muted but quite rich and consistent, and damage is basically nonexistent. The uncompressed mono tracks are both crystal clear.

Each film is accompanied by a new interview with Varda, who offers her wry, reflective observations. A booklet features an extensive essay from scholar Sandy Flitterman-Lewis and another interview with Varda, conducted here by filmmaker Miranda July.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Cinelicious Pics’ 2 Films by Agnès Varda Blu-ray rates:
The Films (out of ****): ***1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: **
Extra Features Overall: **

Cinelicious Pics / 1988 / Color and Black and white / 1.66:1 / 177 min / $39.99

l'inhumaineL’Inhumaine
Flicker Alley 

A smorgasbord of avant-garde design, Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Inhumaine (1924) is a film that’s determined to pack as many art deco and cubist flourishes as possible into every scene. The crew was a who’s-who of modernist artists, from Paul Poiret’s costumes to Robert Mallet-Stevens’ set design to Fernand Léger’s intertitles.

One might expect an aesthetically fussy or incoherent end product from what is essentially an avant-garde super-group, but the film feels remarkably cohesive, luxuriating in its stunning designs but also pushed forward by L’Herbier’s confident camera work (those whip-pans!) and its propulsive editing (certain moments seem to anticipate Eisensteinian montage).

Opera singer Georgette Leblanc co-financed the film and also stars as Claire Lescot, the titular “inhuman woman” whose performances and beauty cause rapturous receptions that she remains coolly aloof to. Two of her paramours include a wealthy maharajah (Philippe Hériat) and a young scientist, Einar Norsen (Jaque Catelain), who kills himself when she rebuffs his affections and announces her intentions to travel the world.

The apparent suicide momentarily turns Claire’s audiences against her, in a legendary scene inside the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées that included Pablo Picasso, Erik Satie and James Joyce (unseen) among the throng of extras. But when Claire discovers the truth about Einar, it ignites a romantic melodrama that threatens to turn deadly.

While its first half stuns with its depictions of communal interior spaces, the second embraces a winking futurism, burgeoning technology possessing the power not only to allow communication across far-flung spaces, but also to harness life itself. Many of the sequences inside Einar’s workshop play like a proto-Metropolis, and L’Inhumaine also foresees the ultimate corniness of Lang’s “head and heart” mantra with its own conclusion.

Corny or not, L’Inhumaine is a visually stunning piece of work, and it’s given a transfer that allows its beauty to shine on Flicker Alley’s Blu-ray, sourced from the recent 4K restoration by Lobster Films. The images have great depth and detail, with surprising sharpness and clarity in a number of close-ups, aside from Leblanc’s, which are almost exclusively in soft-focus. Color tints, including blue, green, red and sepia tones, are rich and vibrant, while damage has been greatly minimized, most of the scratches and specks easily ignorable.

Two newly recorded scores are offered, both presented as crystal-clear 2.0 LPCM tracks. Aidje Tafial’s percussive, sometimes aggressively atonal score works in counterpoint to the imagery occasionally, its own avant-garde flourishes making it an excellent accompaniment to the film. The Alloy Orchestra’s offering is more of a typical silent-film score, though it’s peppered with a few modern embellishments of its own.

Extras are ported over from the Lobster Films French Blu-ray, and include featurettes on the making of the film and Tafial’s score. A booklet also includes notes on the film and L’Herbier’s career.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Flicker Alley’s L’Inhumaine Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ***1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: ***1/2
New Extra Features: 1/2
Extra Features Overall: **

Flicker Alley / 1924 / Black and white/Color tints / 1.33:1 / 122 min / $39.95

forbidden roomThe Forbidden Room
Kino Lorber

Probably my favorite film of 2015, The Forbidden Room will inevitably only serve to further divide Guy Maddin partisans on both sides of the aisle. Most Maddin films are love-it-or-hate-it affairs, and The Forbidden Room sees the Canadian filmmaker going off the deep end in his love for archaic film technique and weird cinematic miscellanea.

If I have one complaint about the film, it’s that it’s so densely packed with bizarre visual and narrative ideas, there’s an embarrassment of riches situation going on. I’m tempted to watch in 20 minute chunks in future rewatches just to stave off the exhaustion that comes with a film so relentlessly restless and inventive.

Like a cobbled-together collection of lost reels from instructional films, submarine thrillers, jungle epics, strange sex comedies and creepy body horror, the film is a series of constantly shifting images and scenarios, with a permeable membrane between each segment that allows characters to glide from one universe to the next, the proceedings governed by a demented sense of cinematic logic.

The closest comparison I can think of is Bill Morrison’s Decasia (2002), which melded actual archival footage to deeply disquieting ends, the deterioration inherent in the images an analogue to our own inevitable destruction. The Forbidden Room strikes the opposite tone — it’s positively ecstatic in its collection of images of an invented past. The decay is an invention too, and the omnipresent effects work is so crucial to the film’s success, post-production supervisor and co-writer Evan Johnson gets a co-director credit.

While the film’s standout moment is probably a song by art-rock duo Sparks, in which Udo Kier finds his obsession with asses to be his downfall, there are at least half a dozen other moments as funny as “The Final Derriere.” Cataloguing all of them — and all of the cinematic reference points and all of the mind-blowing faux-analog creations — would be as happily tiring as watching the film itself.

Critiquing Kino’s 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer would be a fool’s errand, thanks to the litany of intentional image fluctuations, but suffice to say, the disc presents a bold, colorful transfer that serves the two-strip-Technicolor-style well. An immersive, fairly dynamic 5.1 DTS-HD track is offered alongside a 2.0 track.

Extras include several additional looks at the techniques used in the film. “Endless Ectoloops” is a parade of shifting, distorted images, while “Living Posters” uses that technique to create a number of unique moving one-sheets. Short film Once a Chicken is presented as a “séance” with Hungarian painter and photographer László Moholy-Nagy. Maddin and Johnson contribute a commentary track, and the disc also includes a theatrical trailer. A substantial booklet features essays by Maddin and critic Hillary Weston.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Kino Lorber’s The Forbidden Room 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

Kino Lorber / 2015 / Color / 1.78:1 / 119 min / $34.95

ParisParis Belongs to Us
The Criterion Collection 

It’s officially the year of Jacques Rivette on home video. Arrow Video’s monumental Region B release is the crown jewel, collecting five of his films, including cinephile grail Out 1 (1971) in both its original 13-hour and shortened versions (Carlotta Films released Out 1 in the US), but don’t forget about Criterion’s first foray into the French New Wave master’s oeuvre.

Rivette’s feature-length debut, Paris Belongs to Us (Paris nous appartient, 1961) would have been one of the first nouvelle vague films released if it hadn’t gotten hung up in post-production. On its surface, Paris Belongs to Us is less stylistically radical than many of the films that were being made by Rivette’s peers, and compared to his subsequent films, it’s unmistakably an incubatory work. Though it’s less structurally diffuse than later films, the fascination with modes of theatrical performance and lingering paranoia are fundamental here. Rivette was the master of cultivating genuine mystery, a skill already established in his first film, even if its schematic plotting occasionally breaks the spell.

Betty Schneider stars as Anne, a Parisian literature student introduced to a group of intellectuals via her brother, Pierre (François Maistre). They’re mourning the loss of one of their friends, a Spanish composer who apparently committed suicide. Not everyone is convinced though, including brash, blacklisted American journalist Philip Kaufman (Daniel Crohem), who warns of mysterious forces that he’s never able to explicate. The film never bothers to explicate them either, and it feels like Rivette is torn between developing a thick fog of nonspecific dread and a propulsive, plotty genre thriller.

The film’s other main thread involves a low-budget production of Shakespeare’s rarely staged Pericles, directed with great ambition and little organization by Gerard (Giani Esposito). With actors constantly dropping out or not showing up to rehearsal, Anne lands a part, but she also begins to worry that Gerard himself may be the next target of the mounting conspiracy.

Though its treatment of both plot threads isn’t totally satisfying, Paris Belongs to Us is still a rewarding experience, particularly in its subtle formal playfulness. The way Rivette shoots and edits interior spaces, especially Anne’s apartment building, is a potent early example of his ability to keep viewers on their toes.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer is sourced from a new 2K restoration, and looks superb, with a clean, film-like image that displays great depth and detail all the way through. Only a few stray flecks and hairs mar the image. The uncompressed mono audio, recorded post-sync, is a bit hollow, but has no major issues.

There aren’t a ton of extras here, but they’re all worthwhile. Rivette’s 1956 short Le coup du berger is a comic tale with cameos from Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, while an interview with French New Wave scholar Richard Neupert offers an excellent primer on Rivette’s career and Paris. An insert with an essay by Luc Sante is also included.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Criterion’s Paris Belongs to Us 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

Criterion Collection / 1961 / Black and white / 1.37:1 / 141 min / $39.95

AHPAmerican Horror Project Volume 1
Arrow Video

Even before their expansion into the US market, but especially since, Arrow Video has earned a reputation as one of the most conscientious, thorough labels to handle both bona fide classics — genre as well as arthouse — and titles probably no one else would lavish such deluxe treatment on.

Featuring three admirable 2K restorations, American Horror Project Vol. 1 certainly belongs in the latter category. Presented as an alternative history of 1970s American horror films, the set collects three films that even ardent horror fans may not have seen — and maybe for good reason. None of them is a certifiable lost classic, and the set doesn’t exactly convince that they represent some kind of alternate canon. Nevertheless, each film is sure to find its passionate defenders, and the supplementary material makes a case for each one as an entertaining — and possibly vital — work of independent filmmaking.

First up is Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (1973), a borderline-incompetent acid trip that accumulates a kind of hypnotizing effect by virtue of its bizarre camera work and winningly low-rent props and locations. The Norris family takes jobs at a dilapidated rural Pennsylvania carnival, hoping to find the son who disappeared there. After a quick tour of the premises from Jerome Dempsey’s Mr. Blood (the name seems like a giveaway), things quickly descend into a queasy mélange of bloodletting, cannibalism and a sinister Hervé Villechaize as daughter Vena (Janine Carazo in her only film role) tries to survive.

Malatesta sports a strong 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer that’s littered with scratches, tram lines and speckling, but is nonetheless quite sharp and detailed. The film-like presentation is accompanied by a lossless mono track that’s limited by the production quality, but sounds OK despite its flatness. Extras include an introduction by historian Stephen Thrower (who gives a passionate, erudite intro to all three films), audio commentary from Richard Harland Smith, a few outtakes and interviews with writer Werner Liepolt, production designers Richard Spange and Alan Johnson and director Christopher Speeth, who speaks with clear-eyed affection for the film, his only feature directorial effort.

After Malatesta, the other two films can feel a bit more rote, each displaying at least a bit of the sheen of studio respectability. In The Witch Who Came From the Sea (1976), director Matt Cimber makes some interesting formal choices as the barrier between fantasy and reality gets blurred to dangerous effect for Molly (Millie Perkins), and Perkins’ performance grounds the whole thing with a haunting portrait of gut-deep personal horror, even if it never really comes together as a cogent psychological portrait. Notorious for its inclusion on the UK’s video nasty list, Witch uses its sexual and violent content for purposes more disquieting than titillating.

Witch is presented in a 2.35:1, 1080p transfer that displays a persistent softness/haziness, though it shows some impressive moments of fine detail. Damage is mostly minor, and the uncompressed mono audio is fairly clean. Extras include an audio commentary with Cimber, Perkins and the great cinematographer Dean Cundey, as well as new and archival interviews with the three.

In The Premonition (1976), nods to horror are mostly limited to carnival scenes featuring clown Jude (Richard Lynch) and his companion Andrea (Ellen Barber), who are obsessed with a little girl, Janie (Danielle Brisebois). Eventually, it’s revealed that the girl is Andrea’s daughter, and the two plot to kidnap her from her foster mother (Sharon Farrell). Janie’s psychic abilities lend some supernatural flavor to the chase thriller that emerges, but much of this feels pedestrian.

The 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer for The Premonition is the strongest of the three, displaying a sharp, clean image with rich, consistent colors and well-resolved, film-like grain. The extras here are also the most extensive, including three short films from director Robert Allen Schnitzer (Vernal Equinox, Terminal Point and A Rumbling in the Land) alongside a commentary track from Schnitzer and a number of cast and crew interviews.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Arrow Video’s American Horror Project Vol. 1 Blu-ray rates:
The Films (out of ****): **1/2
Film Elements Sourced: **1/2
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: **1/2
New Extra Features: ***1/2
Extra Features Overall: ***1/2

Arrow Video / 1973, 1976 / Color / 1.85:1, 2.35:1 / 251 min / $99.95

 

 

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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