Tag Archives: documentary

nationtime2

William Greaves on Blu-ray: Reviews of Nationtime and Symbiopsychotaxiplasm

NationtimeThough he directed more than 100 documentaries and helped pioneer cinema vérité in the late 1950s with his work for the National Film Board of Canada, William Greaves remains largely obscure, outside of his 1968 meta-movie Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, first released by Criterion in 2006 and now out in a surprising Blu-ray upgrade. That release comes in close proximity to Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release of Greaves 1972 documentary Nationtime, recently rescued with a 4K restoration. Given Greaves’ prolific career, there’s no way these two releases sum up the man’s work, but taken together, they start to piece together a picture of the breadth of his interests and styles.

Nationtime, originally released in a truncated version as Nationtime – Gary, takes an intensely focused look at the 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana. Organized by poet, author and activist Amiri Baraka, the event attracted 10,000 people and a who’s who of influential Black Americans in an attempt to unify on a national political platform.

Four years removed from the assassination of Martin Luther King, Black political voices were largely divided between nationalists, like Baraka, and moderates, like members of the newly formed Congressional Black Caucus. Both sides were well represented at the event.

Greaves’ film, shot guerrilla-style from the convention floor, the camera peering around corners and craning its neck upward from sharp angles, doesn’t belabor or even overtly acknowledge this split, though the differences are evident in the message of Baraka and elected officials like Rep. Charles Diggs and Gary, Indiana Mayor Richard Hatcher. Widows of the two men most emblematic of these diverging viewpoints, Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz, are both in attendance. There’s a sense that an amalgam might be possible in Jesse Jackson’s stirring speech, which Greaves includes seemingly in its entirety, the camera unable to cut away from Jackson’s charisma and passion.

Though Nationtime is largely focused on the onstage events at the convention, the film becomes looser as it goes on, assembling a portrait of a diverse collection of people and offering tantalizing glimpses of the wealth of artistic talent on display, from the avant-garde jazz of Phil Cohran and his band — Cohran also contributes the film’s score — to Dick Gregory’s trenchant comedy. Richard Roundtree and Isaac Hayes appear briefly to bask in the crowd’s admiration, while Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier add in intermittent bits of narration. The film functions both as an incredible historical document and an assertion of the essential cultural and political influence of Black Americans on this country.

Kino’s Blu-ray features a 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer, sourced from a 4K restoration of the original camera negative. It’s apparent that both the condition of the elements and the film’s shooting conditions contribute to an uneven presentation, with the film’s color scheme ping-ponging from reasonably vibrant to completely washed out. Image detail and stability are more consistent, and the transfer looks acceptably film-like. Damage has been mitigated nicely, with a generally clean presentation overall. The film has been appended with an onscreen introduction and what appear to be newly added chyrons identifying the film’s major players. The uncompressed 2.0 mono soundtrack is about what one would expect for a film shot in a gymnasium, but there are no obvious issues otherwise.

Extras include an audio interview with Greaves’ widow, Louise Greaves, and a video interview with his son, David Greaves, who worked as a cinematographer on the film. David Greaves also contributes an audio commentary. A booklet includes an essay with historical context from Leonard N. Moore and restoration notes from Sandra Schulberg. Those notes identify what is an odd omission from the extras: a black-and-white version that was created to mitigate the color version’s inconsistencies. This version was “strongly preferred” by Louise Greaves and was the version screened at the restoration’s premiere at MoMA. Given the color version was the cut that received the wider release when Kino picked up the film, it makes sense to give it priority, but the black-and-white cut would have been a welcome supplement.

symbioSymbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One is one of the hidden gems of the Criterion catalog, a not-quite-fiction, not-quite-documentary film that chronicles Greaves’ ostensible attempts to shoot a melodrama in Central Park. While different sets of actors performing a break-up scene over and over, Greaves loosely orchestrates, but bystanders wandering onto the set and Greaves’ own pontifications to the making-of crew about the kind of film they’re making both threaten to prevent anything from cohering. Meanwhile, the crew considers a mutiny of sorts.

Self-reflexive and formally playful movies about moviemaking aren’t all that rare, but Greaves’ film is one of the few that’s convincing as a genuinely found object — a film that somehow sprung into being despite itself. Key to this ruse is Greaves’ own performance as a charming but dubiously competent director. The Criterion set also includes the long-promised sequel, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 2 ½, which returns to Central Park nearly 40 years later to film a follow-up with original actors Audrey Henningham and Shannon Baker. Though the seams are way more visible this time around, the way the film plays with the thin membrane between performance and real life is certainly worthwhile, and Greaves remains as winning a screen presence as ever.

Criterion’s Blu-ray presents both films in 1080p, with a 1.33:1 transfer for Take One and a 1.78:1 transfer for Take 2 ½. This is one of those upgrades whose primary value comes in hopefully introducing more viewers to the films, as the technical improvements are quite modest. The Blu-ray release uses the same high-definition transfers as the DVD, and though the 16mm photography of Take One benefits from the added resolution, the on-the-fly shooting style limits how much can be done. Take 2 ½ is mostly shot on standard-def digital, and the new 1080p presentation obviously does nothing for the rampant artifacting and fuzziness. Uncompressed 1.0 mono soundtracks are adequate though obviously limited by the source material. Even Miles Davis’s “In A Silent Way” sounds a bit flat.

Extras are identical to the DVD release: 2006 doc Discovering William Greaves, an interview with Steve Buscemi, who helped make the sequel happen and who appears in it as himself, and a booklet with an essay by Amy Taubin and Greaves’ production notes for Take One.

Elvis

Blu-ray and DVD Review Round-Up: Films by Les Blank, Chris Marker, Terry Gilliam and more!

Les Blank: Always for Pleasure
The Criterion Collection

Les Blank: Always for PleasureI’m not sure I can think of a more apt descriptor of Les Blank’s films than “humanist.” The 14 short- to medium-length documentaries included in Criterion’s new box set are vivacious, warm and fascinating looks at some of life’s most sensual pleasures. Not to be trite, but these are works that make you feel grateful to be alive and able to experience the world around you.

Over and over, Blank shows himself to be a master of distilling down the essence of a subculture into a brief but substantial package. Blank resists explanation — his films are defiantly free form, roaming from moment to moment — in favor of immersion, and one can’t help but feel edified after living in one of his cinematic worlds.

Food and music are Blank’s two constants in this collection of work. Even films that have a broader focus tend to incorporate these elements as part of the basic building blocks of culture, whether he’s documenting Cajuns (Spend it All, 1971), a black Creole community (Dry Wood, 1973) or Los Angeles hippies (God Respects Us When We Work, but Loves Us When We Dance, 1968).

The music films explore blues guitarists (Lightnin’ Hopkins in The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins, 1968, and Mance Lipscomb in A Well Spent Life, 1971), Creole Zydeco (Clifton Chenier in Hot Pepper, 1973), polka culture (In Heaven There Is No Beer?, 1984) and African-Cuban rhythms (Sworn to the Drum: A Tribute to Francisco Aguabella, 1995), among others. The sheer joy of the performances captured on film would be enough to justify these films, but each one feels like meaningful time spent with the artist in his environment.

As for food, well, it’s rarely looked this good on screen before. Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers (1980) and Yum, Yum, Yum! A Taste of Cajun and Creole Cooking (1990) aren’t merely food porn (still, prepare to salivate); they’re contextualizing tributes to the surrounding cultures.

All 14 films in the three-disc Blu-ray set have been granted 2K digital restorations, and the 1080p, 1.33:1 transfers are beautifully film-like, superb reproductions of the 16mm photography. All of the films feature uncompressed mono soundtracks, save for Sworn to the Drum, which has a lossless stereo track. Clean-up work has left these soundtracks crisp and clean.

As if collecting all these films in one place wasn’t enough, Criterion has supplied at least one extra to accompany each film, including five additional short films, outtakes, an excerpt from forthcoming documentary Les Blank: A Quiet Revelation and extensive interviews with family and collaborators, including sons Harrod and Beau, editor Maureen Gosling and friend Werner Herzog. An extensive booklet contains film notes and an essay by Andrew Horton.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Criterion’s Les Blank: Always for Pleasure Blu-ray rates:

The Films (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: ****
Extra Features Overall: ****
The Criterion Collection/ 1968-1995 / Color / 1.33:1 / 563 min total / $124.95

Level Five (1996)
Icarus Films

Level FiveChris Marker returns to many of his favorite themes in Level Five, a characteristically dense and beautiful essay film that touches on the pain of loss and the role of memory in dealing with that loss. Can the past be changed if memories — both the intangible human memories and the tangible technological ones — are changed? In some ways, Level Five plays like a sequel to Sans Soleil (1983), with Marker again focusing on his beloved Japanese culture, this time looking closely at the tragedy of World War II’s Battle of Okinawa, a precursor to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Marker adds a technological wrinkle, as a woman called Laura (Catherine Belkhodja) seeks to carry on her late lover’s work by completing a video game about the conflict. She addresses him directly, peering into the camera in a series of monologues that dovetail with Marker’s own observations about technology and history. Images of primitive computer graphics mingle with newsreel footage, and Marker’s deft editing constantly creates fascinating juxtapositions between the future and the past that these images represent.

Though the film’s philosophical underpinnings aren’t easy to pin down, the dizzying imagery and the film’s elegiac tone ensure Level Five is anything but dry, academic pondering. Marker again returns to referencing Vertigo (1958) at one point, and it’s no stretch to say that his investigations into the ability to recreate, restructure and re-contextualize memories are every bit as moving and cinematically wondrous as Hitchcock’s film.

Fresh off a theatrical run in 2014 that saw Level Five finally receiving a release in the U.S., Icarus Films brings Marker’s masterpiece to home video in an essential DVD release. The variety of sources all look good in this nice transfer, and the DVD comes with a booklet with an extensive essay from Christophe Chazalon.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Icarus Films’ Level Five DVD rates:

The Film (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ***
Video Transfer: ***
Audio: **1/2
New Extra Features: *
Extra Features Overall: *
Icarus Films/ 1996 / Color and black & white / 1.33:1 / 106 min / $29.98

Kinetta (2005)
Second Run DVD

KinettaGreek director Yorgos Lanthimos has established himself as a filmmaker with an eerily alienating style with his most recent works Dogtooth (2009) and Alps (2011). His debut feature as a solo director, Kinetta, now getting its worldwide home video debut from intrepid UK label Second Run, is clearly those films’ progenitor, examining similar themes in a less formally assured manner.

Like its successors, Kinetta deals with a close-knit community of people that’s developed a series of odd rituals in order to relate to one another. Here, a hotel maid (Evangelia Randou), a plainclothes detective (Costas Xikominos) and a photo clerk (Aris Servetalis) pass the time by filming awkward recreations of murder scenes. This uncomfortable role-playing fills the void in what seems to be mostly colorless existences for these people, playing out in a vacation town during the off-season that might as well be an actual ghost town.

Unlike Lanthimos’ later films, especially Dogtooth, which displays a Michael Haneke-like formal precision, Kinetta features mostly queasy handheld camerawork, fraying the nerves even more than the off-putting but inscrutable actions of the people on-screen, who are more types than actual characters. On its own, Kinetta might feel like a filmmaker valuing obliqueness for its own sake, but take in conjunction with his subsequent films, it fits into a discomfiting oeuvre of estrangement from reality.

Second Run’s 1.85:1 transfer is quite strong considering its standard-def limitations, with a crisp image and a detailed reproduction of Lanthimos’ almost colorless palette. Extras include a newly filmed conversation with the director and a booklet with an essay by critic Michael Ewins.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Second Run’s Kinetta DVD rates:

The Film (out of ****): **1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: **1/2
New Extra Features: **
Extra Features Overall: **
Second Run DVD / 2005 / Color / 1.85:1 / 94 min / £12.99 / Region 2 (PAL)

Slaughter Hotel (1971)
Raro Video

Slaughter HotelFernando Di Leo is better known for his gritty, violent crime dramas, but with Slaughter Hotel (La bestia uccide a sangue freddo), he serves up a thick slice of giallo-sleaze. Veering between jarringly disjointed and laughably languid, hardly anything here makes a lick of goddamn sense, even by standards of the genre. Still, there’s something admirable about Di Leo’s willingness to abandon sense and style from scene to scene. Frenetic barrages of canted angles will give way to elegant, gliding takes, while scenes juggle varying combinations of sex and death.

Klaus Kinski nominally stars as Dr. Francis Clay, the head of a mental institution that caters to rich women, most of whom are being treated for having a sex drive. But Kinski’s presence is mostly a red herring, as he’s not even in the top 10 of weirdest things in the film. Like most of the performances, Kinski’s borders on medicated, as a series of brutal murders can barely arouse much of a reaction in anyone besides those being murdered (and sometimes, not even them).

The nudity, which approaches gynecological levels, is far more graphic than the violence — beheadings, impalements and slashes are more stolid than your average giallo. It’s hardly an exemplary entry in either the genre’s canon or Di Leo’s filmography, but worth a look for enthusiasts of either.

Raro Video presents the film in a 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer that will do little to dissuade critics of the company’s highly variable technical output. There are some things to like about this transfer, including the consistent color reproduction and strong levels of image clarity. Unfortunately, there’s quite a bit of digital manipulation visible, from over-sharpening to heavy-handed edge enhancement. One scene features significant telecine wobble. Elements seem to be in good shape, but the transfer is merely watchable rather than anything commendable.

Two audio options are included, both in 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. This disc defaults to an English dub, while an Italian dub is also offered. The original Italian track is far preferable, featuring sound that is much less tinny and harsh than the English track.

Extras include an interview with actress Rosalba Neri, a fairly in-depth archival making-of and a couple minutes of deleted scenes. The set also includes a booklet with film notes and essays.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Raro Video’s Slaughter Hotel Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): **
Film Elements Sourced: ***
Video Transfer: **
Audio: **1/2
New Extra Features: N/A
Extra Features Overall: ***
Raro Video/ 1971 / Color / 2.35:1 / 94 min / $29.95

Flaming Star (1960)
Twilight Time

Flaming StarMovies starring Elvis Presley don’t typically cause much excitement among cinephiles, but he proves himself to be a capably understated performer in Don Siegel’s lean western Flaming Star, which opens with a couple of songs before turning into something considerably more sober.

Tensions are rising between white settlers and a Kiowa tribe in post-Civil War Texas, and Presley’s Pacer Burton, a half-white, half-Indian man, finds himself torn as he’s forced to consider loyalties to heritage, family and community. While his white father, Sam (John McIntire), and his Kiowa mother, Neddy (Dolores del Rio), just want to live peacefully, spates of violence on both sides threaten to ignite all-out war.

Siegel’s film has a hair-trigger capability of turning suddenly violent, and he sustains that tension throughout. The film also manages a reasonably fair-minded portrayal of Native Americans, emphasizing the similar community aspects of both cultures while recognizing the vast gulf between them.

Presley communicates a sense of being rent in two with his sensitive, introverted performance. Any of his persona’s braggadocio has been replaced with the wandering, unsure eyes of a young man forced to make a decision he’s not sure he’s equipped to make.

Siegel shoots the action sequences with a tough-minded precision, while he allows more room for the complex interpersonal relationships to play out on screen. That means less of a perfunctory sort-of love interest in Barbara Eden and more of the alternating clashing and bonding between Pacer and white half-brother Clint (Steve Forrest).

Twilight Time presents Fox’s 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer of the film, which is an exceptionally clean and sometimes stunningly vivid high-def presentation. The image possesses excellent clarity and sharpness and the somewhat muted color scheme is still capable of displaying vibrant beauty. Audio options include a mostly useless 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, which shunts some of the score to the surrounds and an uncompressed 2.0 track, which gets the job done fine in original mono.

Extras include Twilight Time’s signature isolated score track, a commentary by Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman and the theatrical trailer.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Twilight Time’s Flaming Star 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 / 1960 / Color / 2.35:1 / 92 min / $29.95

The Zero Theorem (2014)
Well Go USA

The Zero TheoremTerry Gilliam is a filmmaker of boundless imagination, which can sometimes result in overstuffed cinematic worlds in his lesser works. There’s a fair amount of frenetically detailed production design in his latest film, The Zero Theorem, but it somehow feels cheap and insubstantial — a thinly realized knock-off of a Gilliam film instead of the real thing. The same goes for the ideas in Pat Rushin’s script, which shamelessly borrows from Gilliam’s masterpiece Brazil (1985), reshaping story and character elements into a discount version that sort of gets the broad strokes right but haplessly botches the details.

Christoph Waltz stars as Qohen Leth, an office drone in a futuristic society tasked with unlocking the meaning of life. Qohen toils under the watchful eye of superiors both nosy (David Thewlis) and aloof (Matt Damon), but his work is merely a distraction in his obsessive patience for a phone call that he believes will unlock the key to his own destiny.

Miserable and neurotic, Qohen gets glimpses of a happy life courtesy of Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), a prostitute whose idyllic virtual reality experiences become a source of comfort. The artificial beach in these sequences brings to mind the fractured mental state of Jonathan Pryce’s Sam Lowry in the bitterly ironic conclusion of Brazil, but with a half-hearted effort at incisive commentary. Similar broadsides on pervasive advertising and Big Brother surveillance just don’t muster up much energy. Even the normally vibrant Waltz delivers a somnambulant performance that rarely brings any specificity to the character.

On the other hand, Tilda Swinton does appear as a rapping virtual psychiatrist, so it’s not like the film has nothing going for it.

Well Go’s Blu-ray presentation of the film features a roughly 1.75:1 transfer in 1080p. The image features rounded corners in an ostensible attempt to replicate vintage photography. Color reproduction of both garish and muted palettes is nice, and there are solid levels of fine detail to be seen throughout. The image is rarely super-sharp, but this seems to replicate the theatrical look. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack isn’t tested too often, but it offers a reasonably immersive experience when the material calls for it.

Extras include one big EPK chopped up into smaller chunks on the costuming, sets, visual effects and a general behind-the-scenes piece. The theatrical trailer is also included.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Well Go’s The Zero Theorem 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
Well Go USA / 2014 / Color / 1.75:1 / 111 min / $29.98

 

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.

Africa featured

Blu-ray Review: “Come Back, Africa” (1959): The Films of Lionel Rogosin, Volume II

Come Back, Africa

 
Following up their superb 2012 Blu-ray release of Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery (1956), Milestone Films has released a very welcome second volume of Rogosin’s films, headlined by his second feature, Come Back, Africa (1959). Made during the height of Apartheid in South Africa, Come Back, Africa was made under false pretenses, with Rogosin concealing the true political nature of the film from the apartheid regime.

Like On the Bowery, the film features a mixture of documentary and scripted scenes, with Rogosin using non-actors to recreate scenes that could have taken place in their lives. This blend of Robert Flaherty-like observation and Neorealism-influenced drama is the kind of thing that could be more admirable than compelling, but Come Back, Africa is a genuinely moving film, not just an act of political protest. One of the chief reasons the film works is Rogosin’s unpretentious immersion in the atmosphere of South Africa. This is not the work of an outsider who purports to have all the answers. Before embarking on production, Rogosin spent a number of months in South Africa to better understand the culture, and when he eventually set upon the project, he did so with co-writers Bloke Modisane and Lewis Nkosi, South African journalists for the magazine Drum. Broadly, Come Back, Africa is the story of Zachariah, a Zulu man who manages to get a pass to work outside the Johannesburg gold mines, but struggles to maintain any meaningful employment in a viciously racist society filled with Afrikaners who immediately believe the worst about him. Stints as a live-in servant, garage attendant and hotel employee are all very short-lived. Zachariah is a portrait of isolation, whether he’s the only black face occupying Rogosin’s frame or whether he’s surrounded by people who should seemingly be his friends. He’s separated from his wife, Vinah, who lives elsewhere for her job, and he discovers that the divide between black and white isn’t the only caste system in play. Africa 1 Like in On the Bowery, Rogosin here has a knack for visually capturing the essence of a community. Early shots of workers commuting in homogenous masses instantly communicate both the seething energy and deep division of the country. Music is a vital component of the South African culture, and Rogosin integrates that in scenes of street musicians, impromptu gatherings and in the film’s signature moment, an irresistible pair of performances by a young Miriam Makeba. This entire scene, taking place in an illegal bar or shebeen, encapsulates what makes Come Back, Africa such a compelling film. A group of intellectuals discuss the vast, seemingly unconquerable problems of apartheid, while agreeing that patronizing, well-meaning white liberals are of no help to the cause. Rogosin seems to understand this about his own filmmaking, resulting in a film and a scene that consciously avoid patronization. In this scene especially, he steps back, allowing the conversation to unfold in leisurely fashion, with all the half-formed ideas and digressions present in any real discussion. These people aren’t paragons of virtue or human object lessons or mouthpieces for the director’s ideas about the crisis. They’re just people, and Rogosin’s unassuming respect for the people of South Africa in his film is a forceful anti-apartheid stand by virtue of its contrast to the toxic cultural climate. Come Back, Africa is presented in 1080p high definition and 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Sourced from a restoration of original negatives, a fine grain negative and a dupe negative by the Cineteca di Bologna, the transfer on Milestone’s release is every bit the equal of the extraordinary On the Bowery disc. Clarity and detail are exceptional, and the very thorough restoration has eradicated all but a few instances of damage. The film’s grain structure is less visible than On the Bowery, but grain is still visible and unaltered here. One wouldn’t expect anything less than a conscientious digital transfer from Milestone, and this lives up to expectations, with no compression issued or digital over-tampering to detract from the gorgeous, celluloid-like quality of the image. Africa 2 The uncompressed 2.0 mono soundtrack is only going to be as good as the source allows, and the result is a fairly flat track. English dialogue is occasionally difficult to understand, although that’s more a function of the speakers’ facility with the language. Milestone’s two-disc Blu-ray set is billed as Volume II in The Films of Lionel Rogosin, and it’s a packed release. For clarity’s sake, I’ve relegated everything other than Come Back, Africa to bonus feature status, but several of these films could easily lead their own set. The set’s extras on disc one are:

  • Introduction by Martin Scorsese (2 minutes)
  • An American in Sophiatown: The Making of Come Back, Africa (64 minutes) Rogosin’s son Michael and Lloyd Ross direct this in-depth look at numerous aspects of the production.
  • Radio interview with Lionel Rogosin (19 minutes) Despite being conducted by a sometimes unnecessarily combative interviewer, this piece from 1978 offers some interesting insights into Rogosin’s political motivations for making the film. Audio plays over film clips.
  • Come Back Africa theatrical trailer (2 minutes)

Disc two contains:

  • Black Roots (1970, 63 minutes) Rogosin’s fourth feature expands on the music/politics marriage in the shebeen scene in Come Back, Africa. Activists and musicians, including Reverend Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick, Florynce “Flo” Kennedy, Jim Collier, Wende Smith, Larry Johnson and Reverend Gary Davis discuss the black experience in the United States and/or perform songs from a variety of genres. Rogosin’s observational camera also takes to the streets of New York, where he shoots close-ups of a wide variety of black men, women and children, his images again acting as a forceful humanist statement all on their own. Presented in 1080p, the color cinematography is gritty, but fairly clean.
  • Bitter Sweet Stories (27 minutes) Son Michael directs another making-of doc, here examining Black Roots.
  • Have You Seen Drum Recently? (1989, 74 minutes) Jürgen Schadeberg directs a doc on the influential South African magazine Drum.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Milestone Films’ Come Back, Africa Blu-ray rates: The Film (out of ****): ***1/2 Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2 Video Transfer: **** Audio: **1/2 New Extra Features: **** Extra Features Overall: ****   Milestone Films 1959 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 86 min / $39.95     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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Blu-ray Review: “The Epic of Everest” (1924)

The Epic of Everest

Even if it were nothing else, Captain John Noel’s documentary The Epic of Everest (1924) would be an astonishing historical document. A technologically cutting edge look at an unsuccessful bid for greatness, the film documents the 1924 British Mount Everest expedition, the second effort after a failed 1922 try. Noel’s film is a thorough journalistic record, the detailed narrative spilling out over dozens of intertitle cards, among images of extensive preparations in Tibet and the eventual climbing attempts.

But The Epic of Everest frequently transcends mere documentary status; its images of the imposing mountain face, sometimes dotted with minuscule human figures, are mind-blowing, even in this age of Planet Earth and Imax nature docs, where seemingly every detail is brought right up into our faces. Noel’s work isn’t just descriptive; he treats Everest like a living entity, and shots of the mountain’s surfaces have an appropriate blend of awe and terror.

For the men on this expedition, Mount Everest might as well have been an alien being. In the film’s early moments, there are some moderately colonialist observations about the Tibetan people and their strange customs, but Noel’s fascination with the their otherness is nothing compared to how he regards the mountain. A number of shots of men trudging across the snowy landscapes look like something out of a sci-fi film. Intertitles make bold proclamations about the explorers standing where no other human has ever stood, and as a viewer, you’re feeling confident in going a step further — are these people still on Earth?

Captain John Baptist Lucius Noel was one of 12 British men and numerous Tibetan and Sherpa porters to make the trek. Armed with a customized 35mm camera that was both extremely light — less than 20 pounds — and equipped with a 20-inch telephoto lens, Noel could capture action unfolding more than three miles away. No concessions about the era or the technology are necessary to proclaim this a work of technical virtuosity.

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The national pride that served as one of the primary motivating factors for the repeated British Everest expeditions is certainly apparent in the film; wide shots of the exploring crew have a self-mythologizing quality, as if the exploits of superheroes were being documented on film. And yet, Noel doesn’t shy away from tragedy when it strikes. The fallibility and fragility of man is embraced rather than downplayed.

The film’s conclusion, after the finality of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine’s likely failed attempt to reach the summit has been fully realized, escalates into mythic proportions. Noel notes the Tibetan name for the mountain, Chomolungma, literally “Goddess Mother of Mountains,” and the conception of Everest as the giver and taker of life seems to provide some context and some serenity. Noel has the soul of both a fact-obsessed documentarian and a poet — one of the film’s final intertitles extols the virtues of the pure white snow under which Mallory and Irvine’s bodies were hidden away in their final resting place. “If you had … died in the heart of nature, would you, yourself, wish for any better grave?”

The BFI’s new dual-format release of The Epic of Everest features both a Blu-ray and DVD copy of the film. The Blu-ray presents the film in 1080p high definition at 24 frames per second in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. A restoration of the film was undertaken in collaboration with Sandra Noel, the director’s daughter. Sourced from nitrate positives held by the BFI National Archive, the transfer presented here is nothing short of luminous. One gets the feeling of watching an exceptional 35mm print, with a beautiful grain structure and excellent levels of fine detail. The original color tinting has been conscientiously recreated, and all intertitles have been reconstructed and restored from the original film elements.

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On the audio side, the disc defaults to the newly commissioned score by Simon Fisher Turner, an arresting, moody ambient piece sprinkled with bits of period music and droning sound effects, like a foreboding storm composite that plays out over a climactic moment. To be sure, this is a much more experimental piece than anything that would have accompanied the film in 1924, and there were times where I felt like the score almost hit the tipping point of overwhelming the imagery. Mostly though, I was able to appreciate the unconventional sensibilities of Noel’s filmmaking all the more because of Turner’s score.

And for anyone who can’t abide by the avant-garde accompaniment, BFI has gone the extra mile and also included a recreation of the 1924 score, sourced from more than 25 selections of music, reconstructed and directed by Julie Brown. Turner’s score is presented in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, while the 1924 score is given a lossless 2.0 track. Region-locked consumers will be happy to know that the Blu-ray disc is region-free.

Bonus features included in the set are:

  • Introducing The Epic of Everest (9 minutes) Sandra Noel and silent film curator Bryony Dixon offer an overview of the production history of the film.
  • Scoring The Epic of Everest (8 minutes) Simon Fisher Turner talks about the genesis of many of the ideas underpinning his new score.
  • Restoring The Epic of Everest (6 minutes) Dixon, archivist Ben Thompson and Lisa Copson of Deluxe Digital discuss the necessary restoration work and what was done to bring the film into the digital realm.
  • Four audio-only musical extras that feature pieces that accompanied the film at its first London screening: Prelude to Part I, Untitled; Prelude to Part I, Tibetan Lamas; Prelude to Part II, ‘Tibetan Pastoral Music’; The Mount Everest Suite: Airs of Tibet and Nepal
  • A downloadable PDF of the original 1924 film program (only accessible on the DVD copy)
  • 30-page booklet, featuring an essay on the film by author and anthropologist Wade Davis, a piece on the fundraising commemorative expedition stamp by Sandra Noel, a restoration overview by Kieron Webb and notes on their scores by Simon Fisher Turner and Julie Brown

 

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, the BFI’s The Epic of Everest Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ****

Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2

Video Transfer: ***1/2

Audio: ****

New Extra Features: ***

Extra Features Overall: ***

 

 

British Film Institute

 

1924 / Black & White/Tinted / 1:33:1 / 87 min / £19.99

 
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Savant Blu-ray Review: “More Than Honey” (2012)

 

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If you don’t love honeybees already, you will after seeing Markus Imhoof’s fascinating documentary More Than Honey (2012), filmed on four continents and graced with gloriously beautiful macrophotography. The blurb associated with the title is from Albert Einstein: “If bees were to disappear from the globe, mankind would only have four years left to live.” The quote makes it sound as if Imhoof’s film is yet another alarmist docu, fanning the flames of apocalypse for man’s sin of trifling with Mother Nature. But the unusually even-handed Swiss production avoids that stance, and gives the impression that everything will work out for the better in the world of bees and their symbiotic relationship with the plant world.

More Than Honey is a valentine to the tradition of beekeeping as seen in the story of a 3rd-generation Alpine beekeeper working with a specific black bee acclimatized to the cold of higher altitudes. Throughout the show we see the clever ways bees are tricked into a win-win proposition for humans. They pollinate flowering plants on groves and farms large and small. The beekeepers then raid their prized honey, replacing it with sugar water. In a normal bee life cycle the hive replaces a spent queen by creating another and splitting into two hives. Beekeepers instead pluck healthy queens away, force the bees to create more queens, and then spread those out to multiply the colonies by a greater factor.

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The show teaches us a great deal about bees, in the process building respect for them. Excellent microphotography shows honeybees flying about with their furred bodies caked with yellow pollen, serving as cupid-like messengers for plants that cannot reproduce unassisted. The result is a beautiful illustration of nature’s positive attitude toward life. We also learn about the social structure and life cycles of the bees, that work as a kind of ‘multiple organism’ in an organization in which every bee has a function but no individual identity, including the queen. In a healthy hive hundreds die every day, to be replaced by hundreds of new members. Some drones live only to mate, and then perish. The colony is everything.

We watch researchers unlock secrets of the well known ‘bee dance’, discovering that individual bees are capable of making some decisions on their own. The fieldwork is fascinating, as foraging bees with tiny radar equipment glued to their backs ‘check in’ during their search for new sources of pollen.

In California we meet a busy beekeeping millionaire running an enormous company that maintains thousands of bee colonies. A single enormous almond grove has hundreds of hives to be maintained. Without the bees, this agriculture could not survive, but a wealthy grower tells us that he’s not worried that this one region supplies almost all of America’s almonds. We travel to China to observe an entrepreneur painstakingly collecting plant pollen, due to a lack of bees. The pollen is sold in packets like seed. Hundreds of miles away an army of workers move slowly through groves, painting flowers with bits of pollen. The work seems almost absurd… making it immediately obvious how much better the job is done by bees.

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All this suddenly becomes crucial because bees have been dying off, in an alarming trend that nobody has yet solved. The California beemaster ships his bees all over the country, only to see a goodly percentage of his hives wiped out. The colonies simply fail — activity stops and the larvae in the ‘brood’ areas of the hive turned to mush. Up in the Alps, the bewhiskered beekeeper prides himself in the purity of his colonies, which are kept free from pesticides, poisons, etc. Just the same, his entire bee house is wiped out by an infection that can’t be traced.

The docu gives us plenty of possible reasons for the worldwide bee die-off. Causes discussed are inbreeding, parasitic mites (these look horrible in the macrophotography), invasive worms, microbial diseases, pesticides, and strains placed on the colonies through forced interruptions of their natural life cycles. The California beemaster ships colonies more than halfway across the country to maximize their usefulness, and receives specially selected larval queens to build new colonies afresh. One argument is that a lack of genetic diversity is producing bees incapable of fighting off infections. But the forced diversity of mass-scale bee management seems to aid the spread of disease. Down in Australia, beekeeping researchers are establishing colonies on isolated islands, to maintain healthy strains should mainland bees suffer a catastrophic kill-off.

Yet no predictions of doom emerge. More Than Honey refuses to draw any particular conclusion, which may be wise considering the present incomplete nature of scientific knowledge. The upbeat final act introduces us to a beekeeper in the American Southwest and his adventures with the Africanized bees that have migrated North from Brazil.

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Almost everything we’ve been told about these ‘killer bees’ is false. They are no more deadly than other bees, and they pollinate plants and produce honey the same as normal honeybees. Africanized bees are more aggressive. The beekeepers that work among this new breed have been forced to wear protective overalls, gloves and veils at all times. The talkative beekeeper in the Southwest likes them, however. He has found them to be very hardy, and he believes they adapt to anything. The show also makes the Africanized bees seem resistant to domestication. The beekeeper’s colony soon abandons its hive. He finds that it has regrouped a mile away, halfway up a sheer rock cliff where nobody can get it at it.

If anything is off about More Than Honey, it’s that this beekeeper’s one opinion makes it seem like the world will be saved by the resilient Africanized bees. The truth is that scientists are still gravely concerned about the global bee kill-off and haven’t yet formulated a comprehensive theory for why it is happening. The anecdotal evidence in this picture encourages viewers to conclude that man’s interference in the life of bees, domesticating them on a massive scale and micromanaging their colonies for profit, may have affected the strains to the point that they’re more susceptible to disease and parasites. But the movie makes no direct statement to that effect.

What we instead get in More Than Honey is a marvelous overview of the world of bees, much of it up close and personal with the industrious, attractive insects. I haven’t seen anything on the subject as informative or as pleasant to watch.


Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray of More Than Honey is a gorgeous HD encoding of this digitally-shot documentary marvel, with macrophotography that allows us to penetrate into active colonies, and watch ultra- close-ups of details like the tiny bee tongue in its double sheath. Some flying scenes are special effects composites, but they do not detract from the docu’s realism — none claim to be air-to-air bee cinematography.

The director Markus Imhoof appears in a lengthy interview, explaining among other things that he himself comes from a family of beekeepers. A number of deleted scenes also appear, that flesh out specific areas of the movie for viewers that would like more detail. Two making-of programs are also quite impressive… it takes an expert with unlimited patience to get some of those shots.

The show is presented with two audio tracks, an original German version and an English language track in which actor John Hurt replaces the German narrator Charles Berling. Subtitles are provided, but only for German dialogue, which leaves hard-of-hearing viewers out of luck for a big chunk of the film’s running time.

Glenn Erickson has been reviewing film and video releases since 1997, for MGM, Turner Classic Movies and his own website DVD Savant. A member since 2001 of the Online Film Critics’ Society, Glenn has a background in special effects and film and video editorial, but is still at heart a starry-eyed UCLA Film Student. He’s done a number of audio commentaries for Warner, Fox and Criterion discs. His latest book is Sci-Fi Savant: Classic Sci-fi Review Reader


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
More Than Honey Blu-ray rates:

Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent

More Than Honey
Blu-ray
Kino Lorber
2012 / Color / 1:78 widescreen / 91 min. / Street Date December 24, 2013 / 34.95
Supplements: Director interview, BTS featurettes, deleted scenes.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
NOT ENTIRELY; Subtitles: English, but only for German dialogue.
Packaging: Keep case
Narrators Charles Berling (German version); John Hurt (English version).
Cinematography Attila Boam, Jörg Jeshel
Film Editor Anne Fabini
Original Music Peter Scherer
Visual Effects Flame artist Thomas Lehmann
Written by Marcus Imhoof, Kerstin Hoppenhaus
Produced by Helmut Grasser, Markus Imhoof, Thomas Kufus, Pierre-Alain Meier
Directed by Markus Imhoof

Reviewed: December 23, 2013

 

 

DVD Savant Text &#169 Copyright 2013 Glenn Erickson

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