Highway Patrolman (1991)
Kino Lorber Studio Classics
Exiled from Hollywood after not-a-biopic Walker, the iconoclastic Alex Cox took his talents to the Mexican film industry, making the third in a string of westerns, Highway Patrolman. Unlike Walker and Straight to Hell, it’s a fairly conventional film — at least by Cox’s standards. Bitter satire and cockeyed surrealism sit at the edges of Highway Patrolman, rather than its center.
But Cox excels in this mode also, and this picaresque about Pedro (Roberta Sosa), a rookie cop eager to be corrupted in a remote border town assignment, veers from deliriously funny to relentlessly bleak. Cox employs a long-take approach full of elegantly designed shots as Pedro progresses from nervous kid to embittered professional. Sosa traverses a convincingly weathered path, from a naïve greenhorn whose attempted shakedown of a farmworker (Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez) results in their marriage to a man whose code of honor demands he care for a desperate prostitute (Vanessa Bauche) and avenge a wronged partner (Bruno Bichir).
Cox balances his contempt for authority figures with a genuine care for his protagonist, even when he gleefully abuses his power, and Cox’s tonal control is evident in the way he makes digressions into the supernatural (like a visit from Pedro’s dead father) feel of a piece with the film’s more straightforward elements.
Kino’s Blu-ray sports a Cox-approved 1080p, 1.85 transfer sourced from a new 4K restoration, and it’s easily the best the film has looked on home video. The image retains the dusty quality of the photography, while showcasing strong levels of fine detail and film-like depth. The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is reasonably clean.
Kino continues their upgrades of Cox films that were released on DVD by the now defunct Microcinema label. Many of the extras from that DVD release are ported here, including an audio commentary from Cox and producer Lorenzo O’Brien and a couple making-of featurettes. A newly filmed intro by Cox is also included, along with his debut short film, Sleep is For Sissies.
Here’s hoping the Cox upgrades continue with a release of the wonderfully weird Three Businessmen.
Khrustalyov, My Car! (1998)
Alexei German was not a prolific filmmaker, leaving behind only five solo directorial efforts upon his death in 2013, which also saw the release of his final film, the staggering sci-fi epic Hard to Be a God. But in that film and his penultimate one, Khrustalyov, My Car!, there’s such an abundance of ideas, one feels the films’ frameworks struggling to contain it all.
Featuring some of the most maximalist mise-en-scène one will ever lay eyes on, Khrustalyov hurls itself at the viewer, densely packed, deep-focus frames of activity overwhelming the eye and the mind. German wallows in his oppressively intricate scenic design, and if literal shit is the common thread in Hard to Be a God, it’s spit in Khrustalyov, whose title card is accompanied by a kid hocking a loogy onto a mirror. The expectoration continues apace, German’s love of grotesquerie acting as metaphor for authoritarianism.
It’s commonplace to comment on the impenetrability of German’s films, and there are frequent stretches of the film that would likely require a thorough knowledge of Stalinist-era Russia to grasp. On the other hand, the basic plot is simple — military doctor General Klensky (Yuri Tsurilo) finds himself targeted by an anti-Semitic scheme — and the film’s pervasive sense of dread and paranoia is so strong, one would have to try to lose the emotional thread.
German balances that relentless pessimism with a sly sense of humor that runs the gamut from bodily function juvenilia to surreal grace notes. The film requires careful attention and earns it in equal measure. It’s like a firehose turned on full blast that you can’t pull your face away from.
Arrow’s Blu-ray features a 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer sourced from a new 2K restoration, and it’s incredible how good the film looks. Alternating between shadowy blacks and blown-out whites, the film presents obvious visual challenges, but fine detail and clarity remain consistent strong points throughout the transfer. Damage has been almost completely eradicated. The LPCM 2.0 track handles the soundtrack — as dense as the images it accompanies — with decent fidelity and no apparent issues.
Arrow’s collection of extras are especially impressive when one considers this is a film most labels would pass on in any form. A new audio commentary features programmer and disc producer Daniel Bird, while critic Eugénie Zvonkine’s video essay explores German’s style and historian Jonathan Brent’s featurette looks at the real-life history of Stalin’s plot. The set also includes two archival interviews with German and an extensive 60-page booklet with essays and contemporary reviews. Everything is housed in a sturdy slipbox with a fold-out poster. It’s a stellar package.
Much of the enjoyment in Jindřich Polák’s Ikarie XB 1 comes from placing it in the continuum of science-fiction cinema. The geometric set design clearly influenced the look of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and in adapting Stanislaw Lem (the film is loosely based on The Magellanic Cloud), it anticipates the shattering emotional toll of space travel depicted in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, even if the outlook is considerably sunnier here. I was even reminded a touch of a scene in Claire Denis’ High Life, where a man going mad in space is an existential threat like no other.
Polák, who co-wrote the film with Czech New Wave luminary Pavel Juráček, clearly saw his film’s place in the sci-fi continuum, at one point introducing a clunky Robby the Robot-like figure before cheekily undermining its usefulness as a relic from the past.
At the same time, the film is undeniably quaint in its own way, with the spaceship’s large co-ed crew spending its leisure time at a kitschy dance party as unlikely in the year 2163 as that robot. And though the shadowy black-and-white photography depicts a crew racked by both emotional uncertainty and mysterious sickness (not to mention the appearance of nuke-equipped ship full of fossilized humans), the film’s underlying tone never quite embraces the darkness. The ahead-of-its-time design elements mingle with a very of-its-time utopian optimism, making for a fascinating signpost in the history of sci-fi.
Second Run’s 1080p, 2.35:1 Blu-ray transfer is sourced from the Czech National Film Archive’s 4K restoration. The transfer is solid, with good grayscale separation and an exceptionally clean image. Some occasional softness and minor quality fluctuations do pop up, but it’s a nice-looking transfer overall. A 2.0 mono uncompressed track offers a strong showcase for Zdeněk Liška’s multivalent score.
In upgrading to Blu-ray, Second Run offers several new extras, including the opening and ending to the dubbed US cut, Voyage to the End of the Universe, which added a gimmicky reveal, and 1963 short film The Most Ordinary of Occupations, directed by Josef Korán. Carried over from the DVD: Critic Kim Newman’s appreciation and the extensive booklet essay by Michael Brooke.
It’s been almost a decade since the UCLA Film & Television Archive restoration of Barbara Loden’s one and only feature film. It trickled out to a few theaters then, but the film has been difficult to see for much of its lifespan, and like many rarities, it’s been breathlessly acclaimed.
Now available from Criterion, the film isn’t one that screams “masterpiece” at first blush, with an aimless looseness that seems endemic to a good portion of New Hollywood films of the era. But it’s a film I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since seeing it, primarily for a reason that contemporary critics savaged it for: The overwhelming passivity of Wanda, played by Loden herself, a woman who gets roped into a misbegotten robbery scheme by a viciously petty criminal, Mr. Dennis (Michael Higgins).
It feels incorrect to call Wanda the protagonist, as she’s a woman with only the barest hints of personal agency. Loden’s performance is a masterwork of smallness, portraying a person who’s believed every awful thing said about her in a lifetime. One of the film’s most striking scenes is a long shot of Loden, a tiny speck of white trudging across a pockmarked coalfield. But even in close-up, she somehow seems to only occupy the tiniest corner of a frame, and her face communicates the feeling that she’d prefer to disappear altogether. Loden, whose career was largely otherwise centered on supporting sexpot roles, turns in one of the most fearlessly unglamorous performances you’ll ever see.
Criterion’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer is sourced from UCLA’s 2K restoration of the 35mm blowup of the 16mm elements. Fans of grain will love this transfer, as it’s here in all its glory, perfectly rendered in a film-like appearance that never dips into digital noise. Some minor speckling and dirt remain, but the restoration has cleaned up things nicely. A lossless mono track has no apparent issues, though the film’s audio is obviously limited by its low budget.
Criterion’s extras present a compelling portrait of an artist whose death from cancer at 48 cut short a fascinating career. Katja Raganelli’s 1991 documentary I Am Wanda features an elegiac interview with Loden from the year she died. Archival interviews from an AFI event (audio only) and The Dick Cavett Show from 1971 focus on the production of Wanda. Loden’s 1975 educational short The Frontier Experience is also included, along with the re-release trailer and an insert essay by critic Amy Taubin.
Becky Sharp (1935)
Kino Lorber Studio Classics
On one hand, Rouben Mamoulian’s Becky Sharp is mainly notable for its historical relevance as the first three-strip Technicolor feature film. On the other hand, it’s such a weird literary adaptation, it’s worth recommending on its own merits.
There’s no reason an 84-minute adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s voluminous novel Vanity Fair should work, and Becky Sharp, which was based on a theatrical adaptation, doesn’t. But it’s strangely invigorating to watch Miriam Hopkins plunge the class satire into straight-up screwball comedy, her Oscar-nominated performance as striving Becky Sharp underlined in marker with an “ain’t I a stinker?” mischievousness.
Hopkins’ ebullience makes up for the anonymous quality of the men Becky uses in her onward march of social mobility. The roughly interchangeable aristocrats are about as essential to this telling as the geopolitics, in which Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo acts as mere wallpaper. Mamoulian, a generally terrific director of early sound films, shoots listless scene after listless scene, with Hopkins going off like a firecracker in the middle of each.
Kino’s 1080p, 1.37:1 Blu-ray features a transfer sourced from a new 4K restoration of the 35mm nitrate negative and positive separations. It’s not always apparent if the restoration’s color inconsistencies are due to a not-quite-dialed-in Technicolor process from the early days of the technology or the difficulty of restoring three-strip Technicolor.
Either way, be prepared for a lot of image fluctuation and color inconsistencies most obviously seen in the sickly green or pink pallor that will overtake the image from time to time. There are moments when the image exhibits that gorgeous three-strip saturated look, and the fine detail and clarity of the image are quite good. Considering the atrocious quality of the previously available public domain DVDs (Alpha’s transfer is streaming on Prime Video, for a taste of the horror), Kino’s Blu-ray qualifies as a minor revelation. The disc also includes an audio commentary from historian Jack Theakston.
Columbus is the debut feature from Kogonada, best known for his video essays, many of which have appeared as extras on Criterion discs. Like those essays, the film is stylish to a fault — and it starts to feel like a fault after dozens of impeccably composed, artfully asymmetrical wide shots of the modernist architecture of Columbus, Indiana. Coupled with a script that feels just as hermetically sealed, much of the dialogue either subtext-explicating or pointedly aloof, and the effect is a bit suffocating.
Fortunately, the performances frequently transcend the film’s trappings. Haley Lu Richardson as Casey and John Cho as Jin each bring deep wells of unspoken frustration and desire as they strike up a fast friendship, accompanied by the film’s tour of the city’s surprising architecture. She’s an aimless recent graduate, her ambitions muffled by care for and obligation to her mother who’s recovering from a drug addiction. He’s drifted into this remote place after his renowned professor father suddenly fell ill, and obligation is about the only thing keeping him here.
Kogonada’s brand of rigorously structured humanism isn’t totally convincing, but Richardson and Cho (and Parker Posey, in a small but perfectly shaped performance as Jin’s father’s assistant) give the film the kind of emotional reverberation that ensures the film is more than an exquisitely hollow bauble.
Oscilloscope’s Blu-ray features an excellent 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer, with a subtle but effective 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. (A 2.0 track is also offered.) Extras include selected-scene commentary from Richardson and Cho, a handful of deleted scenes, an outtakes/making-of short film from the director and the trailer.