Invention for Destruction (Vynález zkázy, 1958)
After their incredibly gorgeous Blu-ray release of The Fabulous Baron Munchausen, I was hopeful for more Karel Zeman goodness from Second Run, and the wait wasn’t long. Invention for Destruction (or The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, as it’s more commonly known in the US) is as big a revelation for black-and-white animation on Blu-ray as Munchausen was for color. In an effort to recreate the look of the line engravings used in the illustrations in Verne’s novels, Zeman undertook the Herculean effort of covering every costume, prop and set piece in lined hatching, and the blend of the live-action and animated elements of the film is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Zeman’s command of hyper-artificiality results in visually stunning frame after frame, and it doesn’t hurt that the adventure tale is incredibly fun.
It’s easy to read the plot, in which a professor’s (Arnošt Navrátil) explosive device is co-opted by an evil genius (Miloslav Holub) with dastardly plans, as a cautionary tale in a nuclear era. Certainly, the film hinges on a viewpoint that all scientific progress isn’t created equal. Nevertheless, its Verne inspiration gives the film a dashing quaintness far removed from atomic-age paranoia. There’s little doubt that hero Simon Hart (Lubor Tokoš) and his companion Jana (Jana Zatloukalová) will outsmart the villains and save the day. What’s unexpected are the ways Zeman blends cutouts, stop-motion, live-action and even processed stock footage to create a world where literally anything seems possible.
Second Run’s Blu-ray, sourced from a new 4K restoration of the film, presents a 1080p, 1.37:1 image that is utterly gorgeous. It’s apparent immediately how even DVD resolution would be woefully inadequate to handle the intricate line-work in Zeman’s animation. (To say nothing of the awful VHS director John Stevenson remembers seeing in his appreciation on this disc.) Fine detail is stunning, grayscale separation is beautiful and damage has been almost completely eradicated. Uncompressed 2.0 mono is clean.
An impressive slate of bonus features are included. Alongside the aforementioned Stevenson interview are two Zeman stop-motion shorts: the cutesy if dark King Lavra, about a ruler’s unconventional relationship with his barbers, and the more experimental Inspiration, with some beautiful handmade craft. Both films are unrestored but in decent condition. Archival making-of featurettes, a restoration demonstration and a booklet with an essay by critic James Oliver are also included.
There’s nothing subtle about Julien Duvivier’s excoriation of mob rule in the finale of Panique, in which seemingly every resident of a Paris suburb turns against one man. But in his first post-Hollywood film, Duvivier earns the excess by expertly escalating the menace in this noir-tinged thriller. Bloodlust and just plain old lust lurk beneath the surface of encounter after encounter, and it’s never quite apparent just what to make of protagonist Monsieur Hire (Michel Simon, in a wonderfully eccentric performance), a loner who eschews social niceties and does things like urge the butcher to give him a bloodier piece of meat. The whispers follow everywhere he goes.
Hire seems unperturbed by the negative attention and by the discovery that a woman has been murdered in his quiet town, but he’s not as unflappable when it comes to Alice (Viviane Romance), a woman who moves in across the street. Hire’s voyeuristic leering improbably turns into romance, but that’s not nearly the whole story, as Alice is a woman recently released from prison after taking the rap for her criminal boyfriend, Alfred (Paul Bernard). Hire is being played for a fool, but he’s not merely a dupe; his profession consists of running threadbare scams as a spiritualist who goes by Dr. Varga.
The slippery nature of Hire’s true self and the film’s exquisite camerawork — both its penetrating close-ups and elegant crane shots — make for a riveting depiction of moral rot beneath pleasant banality. Noir staples, like a shadowy carnival, feel fresh. In the wake of France’s occupation, Duvivier’s scorn for unthinking mass hysteria is a bitter pill shoved down the throat with extreme force. After the murky moodiness of most of the film, it’s an even starker ending by comparison.
Criterion presents Panique in a 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer, sourced from a new 2K restoration. Largely, this is an excellent black and white transfer, with a detailed, clean image. The film’s look lies mostly in the middle of the grayscale, without deep blacks or bright whites, but tones are consistent. There are a few minor density fluctuations, but overall, damage has been minimized. The uncompressed mono soundtrack is excellent, with only the slightest hint of hiss.
Extras include a very entertaining and informative supplement on the art of subtitling from Rialto founder Bruce Goldstein. The featurette compares different translations throughout the years, including those of Panique, and outlines the key characteristics of good subtitling. Also new: an interview with Pierre Simenon, son of author Georges Simenon, who wrote the source novel. Ported from the French release: a conversation between critics Guillemette Odicino and Eric Libiot about the film. The re-release trailer and an insert featuring essays by James Quandt and Lenny Borger (whose new subtitles accompany the film) are also included.
Claire’s Camera (2017)
Lately, it feels like fully appreciating one of Hong Sangsoo’s films requires some external knowledge about the filmmaker, with three of his more recent works detailing the price of infidelity and starring Kim Minhee, who Hong had a real-life affair with. The first part of this unofficial trilogy, On the Beach at Night Alone — also available on a nice Blu-ray from Cinema Guild — confronts the deeply penetrating aftereffects of the illicit relationship. The middle entry, Claire’s Camera, strikes a markedly different tone, in a breezy but not blithe examination of its characters’ not so immutable life choices. (Third part, The Day After, is slated for a Blu-ray release from Cinema Guild next year.)
Isabelle Huppert’s charming bemusement mirrors the tone of the film. She stars as Claire, a teacher visiting Cannes. Separately, she strikes up conversations with a pair whose one-night dalliance has recently been discovered: film director So Wansoo (Jung Jinyoung) and recently fired production company assistant Manhee (Kim). As with everyone she meets, Claire offers to take their picture with her mini Polaroid camera. Claire is both outside observer, encountering these people at difficult moments in their lives, and agent of change, helping Manhee to understand where her suddenly stalled life is headed.
As she ambles through the sleepy town with Manhee, the film itself starts to fracture in unusual ways. Claire’s encouragement to look at things in a different way is equally applicable to the film, which functions as a low-key observational comedy about a nascent friendship and something approaching a time-travel thriller, seemingly phlegmatic scenes of conversation interlocking in unusual ways.
Cinema Guild’s Blu-ray offers a pleasing 1080p, 1.85:1 image that effectively conveys the clean digital photography. A 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is more than necessary for the dialogue-heavy film. Extras include a Q&A with Hong at the New York Film Festival, a trailer and an insert with “reflections” by Claire Denis — reflections being a wry poem.
Gosford Park (2001)
Who needs 13 episodes to tell a whole houseful of stories? Certainly not Robert Altman, whose sometimes overlooked facility for visual storytelling is on prominent display in Gosford Park, an upstairs-downstairs murder-mystery in which several dozen characters are given meaningful arcs in just a shade over two hours. Writer Julian Fellowes would go on to greater fame with Downton Abbey, originally planned as a spinoff of Gosford Park, but in this episodic age, it’s heartening to revisit a beautifully self-contained piece of work like this one.
Altman, almost always a fan of the roving camera, really goes all-in on that idea here, with a continuous stream of graceful Steadicam shots. The camera is always in motion, if only slightly, as it peers on the wealthy guests at an English country home and the cadre of servants below, resentments and secrets spilling out at every turn. Hosting are the McCordles (Michael Gambon, Kristin Scott Thomas), and among the guests are American film producer Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban, who conceived the project with Altman), actor Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) and the imperious Lady Trentham (Maggie Smith), whose attitude belies her financial precariousness.
Trentham’s demands weigh heavily on her servant Mary (Kelly Macdonald), who finds some common ground with some of the serving class, played by an array of great performers: Clive Owen, Emily Watson, Alan Bates, Helen Mirren, Eileen Atkins. Also Ryan Phillippe is there, and his terrible Scottish accent thankfully turns out to be narratively motivated. (His assurance that he’s known in Hollywood for his discretion is also a highlight of slyly funny lines in a film full of them.)
By the time the murder-mystery element comes into play — heavily foreshadowed by Weissman’s next Charlie Chan picture about a murder in the country — the film already has so many intriguing threads, it hardly seems necessary, and to Fellowes’ and Altman’s credit, it’s more of a feint than anything, setting up the film’s true central revelation. It also provides an opportunity for Stephen Fry to play a gloriously stupid inspector, a shot of overt comedy in a film with a drier tenor.
By not belaboring the class tensions that are obviously present — the servants’ requirement to go by their employers’ name is swiftly and sharply dehumanizing — Fellowes and Altman provide ample time for each person’s foibles and desires to emerge. Anyone could credibly be the protagonist of this film if the camera lingered just a little longer.
Arrow’s 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer, sourced from a new 2K restoration of a 4K scan, is a superb rescue job for a film that has languished on home video. A Canadian Blu-ray from many years ago was terrible, but this transfer is excellent, handling what can be a very grainy and drab film with delicate care. Even in exterior shots that display heavy grain, the film looks natural and not noisy, and the subtle gradations of light and shadow in the mostly interior film never result in a drop in detail. The overall dullness of the color palette might limit the wow factor, but the film looks great. DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and LPCM 2.0 sound mixes are available, and both are adept at handling the film’s overlapping dialogue and flurries of activity.
Extras include three audio commentaries: an archival Altman (with production designer son Stephen Altman and producer David Levy) and an archival Fellowes, alongside a new track featuring critics Geoff Andrew and David Thompson. New interviews with executive producer Jane Barclay and actor Natasha Wightman are included, alongside archival featurettes about the making-of, and a post-screening Q&A. 20 minutes of unrestored deleted scenes, with optional Altman commentary, and a trailer round out the supplements.