How many films directed by your favorite arthouse auteur feature multiple pants-shitting jokes?
Of all the remarkable qualities about Yasujiro Ozu’s Good Morning — a feature generally considered a minor-ish work, but one that gets better every time I see it — perhaps the most remarkable is the way these gags slot in so perfectly next to the director’s typically bittersweet depictions of imperfect interpersonal connections.
Obviously, Good Morning is a comedy (in the essay included here, Jonathan Rosenbaum compares the film’s interlocking scenarios about ritual greetings, technology envy, financial suspicions and more to a sitcom), but the film isn’t glib, and its jokes are underpinned by an understanding of the fallibility and foibles of humanity, destined to be repeated over and over with each new generation.
The film’s centerpiece story thread concerns two brothers, 13-year-old Minoru (Koji Shidara) and 7-year-old Isamu (an impossibly adorable Masahiko Shimazu), and their quest to convince their parents (Kuniko Miyake and Chishu Ryu) to buy them a television set so they can watch sumo wrestling and baseball. When they refuse, the boys take on a shakily resolute vow of silence, an act that bemuses their family but sets off a chain reaction of perceived snubs throughout the neighborhood.
While the boys see themselves rebelling against their elders’ penchant for meaningless niceties, they have their own set ways of communicating with their peers — a farting game made all the funnier by its feigned solemnity, except for one poor kid with less-than-adequate bowel control — and Ozu gently pulls in reminders that there is also comfort in the familiarity of social routine.
Criterion’s Blu-ray upgrade rescues one of their worst transfers in the entire catalog, replacing the early DVD’s sickly colored, fuzzily rendered image with a 4K-restoration-sourced 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer that looks phenomenal — richly textured, impressively detailed and exceptionally film-like. Reds, like the stripe on the boys’ matching sweaters, are rich and vibrant, while the film’s overall color palette is a bit more subdued and almost burnished-looking in places. Damage has been completely eradicated. The uncompressed mono soundtrack is perfectly clean and stable throughout.
This new disc also represents a healthy upgrade on the extras front, going from a barebones release to one that has an overview of Ozu’s style from David Bordwell, a video essay on Ozu’s comedic aims by David Cairns and a 1080p presentation of Ozu’s 1932 silent I Was Born, But …, the loose inspiration for Good Morning, and slightly improved here over Criterion’s DVD transfer on an Eclipse set release. Rounding out the supplements are fragments of Ozu’s 1929 film A Straightforward Boy and an insert with the Rosenbaum essay.
Criterion Collection / 1959 / Color / 1.37:1 / 94 min / $39.95
Formalist filmmakers aren’t often thought of as possessing extraordinary amounts of emotional generosity — how many times have we heard Bresson or Kubrick films pronounced “cold”? — but the films of American-born French director Eugène Green offer a distinct counterpoint to that canard, and that’s especially true with his latest, The Son of Joseph.
A wry reconfiguration of the notion of a “virgin birth,” Green’s film touches on issues of familial bonds and the intersection of art and commerce, framed with his usual precision, suffused distinct love of Baroque art and performed with the usual Bressonian distance.
The performances here are measured, but instead of suppressing emotions, these monotonic depictions have a way of clarifying them. Green has a secret weapon in that regard: Natacha Régnier, the star of Green’s 2004 film Le pont des Arts, who plays Marie, the longsuffering mother of Vincent (Victor Ezenfis), a sullen teenager determined to find out the identity of his father. Régnier’s performance is an empathy machine, her piercing eyes and carefully deployed expressions of sorrow and joy giving the entire film a lift to another emotional plane. It’s an incredible example of making every movement and gesture in a performance count.
Elsewhere, The Son of Joseph can feel a touch insubstantial, particularly in its depiction of pompous aesthetes more concerned with status and money than artistic expression. Among them is book publisher Oscar Pormenor (Mathieu Amalric, who adheres least to Green’s house style, but who’s damn funny for it), Vincent’s biological father.
When Vincent goes to confront Oscar, he has a chance encounter with Oscar’s brother Joseph (Fabrizio Rongione, perfectly adherent to Green’s style), which blossoms into a friendship, and eventually, the paternal guidance that Vincent so craves.
If The Son of Joseph doesn’t quite reach the transcendent heights of Green’s previous film, La Sapienza, that’s only because it seems to be working in a more deliberately earthbound key. In La Sapienza, Green’s camera would swoop up to the heavens, reveling in the beauty and majesty of famed works of Baroque architecture. In The Son of Joseph, the camera keeps its gaze more affixed on earthly creatures — and in this sort of retelling of a fundamentally religious tale, he finds something truly affecting.
Kino’s 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer is excellent, with uniformly clear and sharp images. Fine details are strong, and color reproduction is stable. There’s no evidence of undue digital manipulation. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack features sparingly deployed music and effects, but is clean throughout.
Other than a trailer, the disc’s lone extra is a nice conversation between Green and Régnier about his work, and with an elaborate opening and head-on, shot-reverse-shot interview style, it’s made to look like a Green film.
Kino Lorber / 2016 / Color / 1.85:1 / 113 min / $34.95
Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960) is an atmospheric horror classic, but his follow-up, Spotlight on a Murderer, is totally obscure by comparison. Arrow’s new release of the film will certainly garner it some more eyeballs, though it seems unlikely it’s headed for any status as an unearthed classic.
Arrow’s packaging copy notes the film “is mischievously aware of the hoariest old murder-mystery clichés and gleefully exploits as many of them as possible.” I’ll buy the first part, but I’m not so sure how gleefully the film does much of anything, as its Agatha Christie-style plotting, in which members of a family of entitled brats start dropping like flies, is relentlessly creaky, no matter how self-aware it might be.
The set-up, adapted from a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (“Diabolique”) is sound enough: A wealthy count (Pierre Brasseur) lobs one final “fuck you” at his squabbling heirs by hiding in his expansive castle just before dying. Because the body is missing, the lot of them (including Jean-Louis Trintignant in an early role) will have to wait five years to claim any inheritance. In the meantime, they must pay for the maintenance on the massive estate, which Franju is able to use to spooky effect occasionally.
There are a few choice scenes here, mostly involving the dispatching of various members of the family, and there are glimpses of Franju’s ability to evoke an enveloping feeling of dread, particularly in a couple scenes that take place on an inky body of water. But the plotting, which begins to involve mysterious footsteps and chairs rocking on their own, descends deep into cornball territory, and none of the deaths are gruesome enough to make up for how annoyingly indistinct all of these characters are. Who’s the murderer? Who cares.
It is nice to have this long-unavailable film in a solid Blu-ray presentation, and Arrow’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer is commendable across the board. Fine detail is excellent, grayscale separation is quite good and damage is minimal. A few images have some creeping softness, but overall, the picture is quite sharp and clear. The uncompressed mono soundtrack handles music and dialogue well, with no obvious hiss or noise intrusions.
This is one of the increasingly rare Arrow discs that’s nearly barebones (apparently, no one felt strongly enough about the film to chip in some enthusiasm), but there is a vintage on-set featurette along with a trailer.
Arrow Video / 1961 / Black and white / 1.37:1 / 95 min / $39.95
Fans of the cinephile favorite Allan Dwan, who could direct everything from western to melodrama to war movie across an incredibly prolific career, should be happy to see Kino put out Zaza, the first collaboration of many between Dwan and Gloria Swanson. (Stage Struck and Manhandled are also on their way.) Of course, the real attraction to this handsome, if schizophrenic, adaptation of an 1899 French play is Swanson, who commands the screen with a vigorous performance that requires a highly emotionally charged narrative to contain it.
And though it wends its way from backstage drama of betrayal to overwrought medical melodrama to three-hanky love triangle, the film does provide that framework, offering Swanson the chance to segue from a fit of rage over a misplaced costume to an emotive stay in a hospital bed to the puncturing realization that her affair with diplomat Bernard Dufresne (H.B. Warner) is not exactly what it seemed.
The pleasures here are elemental. Swanson’s expressive face fills the screen, generating maxed-out levels of annoyance, fear, anger and heartbreak, with the physicality to match. Dwan shifts easily from the raucous, spacious environs of the music hall where Zaza’s performances are adored to the living spaces where Swanson’s emotions become all the more pronounced.
Kino’s Blu-ray offers an adequate but unspectacular 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer, which is sourced from elements with a fair share of dropped frames and damage. The transfer never really overcomes the inherent softness of the image (a number of scenes were shot through a silk stocking, notes Imogen Sara Smith in her essay), but fine detail is OK and the image is reasonably stable most of the time. The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack features a jaunty piano score by Jeff Rapsis that’s adapted from the original 1923 cue sheet.
Aside from the aforementioned essay in an included booklet, the only extra is an audio commentary from Frederic Lombardi, author of a book on Allan Dwan and the studio system. It’s an information-packed track, with little biographical tidbits on many major and minor players, but its focus on the personal lives of the cast and crew rarely has much to do with what’s onscreen during the film itself.
Kino Lorber / 1923 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 84 min / $29.95
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.