All posts by Dusty Somers

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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.

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Blu-ray Review: ‘The GoodTimesKid’ and ‘Momma’s Man,’ two early films from Azazel Jacobs

GoodTimesKidThough his early films appeared contemporaneously with the rise of mumblecore, Azazel Jacobs doesn’t really fit into that admittedly tenuously defined scene. Like many of those filmmakers, Jacobs has waded in increasingly mainstream waters as his career has advanced, with his latest, Michelle Pfeiffer-starring French Exit, closing the New York Film Festival this year. That’s reason enough for surprising but welcome Blu-ray upgrades of Jacobs’ second and third features, from Kino Lorber.

Unlike many American indies from the same era, Jacobs’ films are both much less dependent on dialogue and more prescriptive in their writing. Though handheld camera work can give the appearance of loose, improvisational filmmaking, these two films are constructed carefully, with Jacobs teasing out bits of visual humor with his compositions and establishing mood with stray flourishes of dialogue.

In The GoodTimesKid (2005), Jacobs crafts a love triangle built on coincidence, as two men named Rodolfo Cano (Jacobs himself and Gerardo Naranjo) find their lives intermingling when an Army enlistment notice accidentally goes to the wrong one. Rodolfo 1, played by Jacobs, is in the midst of blowing up his life by enlisting without informing his girlfriend, Diaz (Sara Diaz). On the night of his birthday party, he’s nowhere to be found, just as Rodolfo 2 finds his way to their house.

It says something about Rodolfo 2’s emotional state that Diaz labels him “Depresso,” even as her relationship is crumbling. Naranjo’s performance lands just shy of shell-shocked, and there are clues to recent romantic distress. One, involving a long note written on his houseboat, shows Jacobs’ facility for creating slowly unfolding visual gags. There are more explosive punchlines too, like a sudden commiseration via fridge-punching that bonds Diaz and Rodolfo 2.

The film’s tone can be aggressively deadpan, but there’s an undercurrent of helpless rage here too. George W. Bush flickers on a television, and later, an increasingly incensed Rodolfo 1 literally wraps himself in an American flag before attacking a group of strangers. Jacobs may not be a political filmmaker like his father, Ken Jacobs, whose mammoth Star Spangled to Death is an experimental landmark, but he can be pointed. The banality-of-evil levels in the film’s Army office scene are off the charts.

MommasManWith Momma’s Man (2008), Jacobs burrows into something like autobiography, though as he mentions on the disc’s new audio commentary, the project didn’t start that way. Still, there’s no way around that analysis when the end result is a film starring your parents (Flo Jacobs and Ken Jacobs) playing versions of their artist selves, shot almost exclusively in the walk-up apartment you grew up in.

Matt Boren stars as Mikey, whose brief visit to see his parents in New York turns into an extended stay when he just can’t bring himself to get back on the plane to California, where his wife and infant daughter await. Each passing day, Mikey seems to become more and more cocooned in his parents’ place, which is stuffed to the ceiling with bric-a-brac, plenty of it ephemera from his childhood.

One on hand, the film’s themes are apparent almost instantly, with Boren’s opaque performance quickly sketching in Mikey’s arrested development and declining to go much further. But again, Jacobs has a knack for teasing out small details that suddenly arrest your attention, and he can make his parents’ apartment feel both enveloping and suffocating, at turns.

And casting his parents is a brilliant move, with Flo’s open-hearted performance becoming almost painful in its extreme empathy, while Ken’s sidelong glances lend just enough annoyance to leaven the proceedings. The film justifies its entire existence with a sequence where Flo takes Mikey into her lap at the kitchen table, and a cut transports us to his childhood via one of Ken’s films, with Azazel asleep at the same table as a boy. In that moment, the mysterious hold our memories can exert becomes remarkably present.

Kino’s Blu-ray upgrades reveal subtle but noticeable improvements over previous DVD releases. The GoodTimesKid has a 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer, sourced from a 2K restoration, while Momma’s Man features a 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer. Both now feature a more supported grain structure, with fine detail that doesn’t get lost in noise, and the typical improved clarity and color reproduction that comes with high-def. 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks are clean.

The slates of extras don’t quite supersede the DVDs, unfortunately. For Momma’s Man, everything from Kino’s DVD is carried over, except Ken Jacobs’ 2006 short Capitalism: Child Labor. (Could be rights issues. Could be concern over the film’s aggressive strobe visuals.) Alongside the ported-over making-of, conversation between Azazel and his parents, some deleted scenes, and Rain Building Music (Azazel’s first short film) we get a brand new audio commentary from Azazel.

The GoodTimesKid has more gaps. Kino’s disc has a new Azazel audio commentary, deleted and extended scenes, and a stills gallery. Missing from the previously released DVD from short-lived boutique label Benten Films: a different audio commentary featuring all three leads, Ken Jacobs’ short The Whirled, Azazel Jacobs’ short Let’s Get Started, and a booklet with an essay by Glenn Kenny.

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Blu-ray Review: Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 3, from the Criterion Collection

WCP3Long live The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, Martin Scorsese’s passion project that has restored more than 40 oft-neglected films from around the world. Same sentiment applies to the Criterion Collection’s steady stream of home video releases of the project’s restorations, including stellar standalone editions of films like Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl or Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day, and box sets of some of the more obscure titles. There’s no doubt Criterion’s line has trended toward a more mainstream approach over the last five years or so as the big studios have become much more open about licensing, but the company’s continued commitment to releasing these films on Blu-ray is heartening.

Like the first two sets, Criterion has released Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 3 as a dual-format collection, with each film getting its own DVD and two films sharing each Blu-ray. This review will focus on the Blu-rays, but the content is identical on the DVD copies. The films are:

Lucia

Lucía (1968)
Directed by Humberto Solás

An ambitious triptych, Lucía is fashioned as an epic, but its structure relies on cumulative thematic rhyming more than large-scale storytelling. Recounting the tales of three major inflection points in Cuban history, each segment features a woman named Lucía, though each is played by a different actress. Solás adopts a different genre packaging for each part, but there’s a distinct through-line of how the political becomes personal; history is writ small in these societal microcosms.

Part one, which is set in 1895 during Cuba’s fight for independence from Spain, is the strongest. Lucía (Raquel Revuelta) is an aristocratic Cuban woman who falls for Rafael (Eduardo Moore), a man who claims to have both Cuban and Spanish heritage. With a blitheness that’s exclusively reserved for the upper class, he assures her that he has no interest in politics.

Solás films the posh life with a blinding gleam, pushing the whites to near-overexposure in scenes of society women mingling. But the horrors of war lurk just outside, and Lucía soon discovers she can’t stay aloof. As the segment progresses, Solás pushes the visual degradation further and further, adding jagged, grainy blacks to the increasingly blown-out whites. By the end, this section has morphed into a full-on horror film, with many of its queasy images reminding me of another 1968 release, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.

The film’s middle part, an achingly melancholy melodrama set in 1932, concerns a middle-class Lucía (Eslinda Núñez) who abandons her comfortable bourgeois lifestyle to take up with Aldo (Ramón Brito), a freedom fighter against the Gerardo Machado regime. Though the change in lifestyle lends some excitement to her life, Lucía never seems to be able to shake the feeling of being an outsider, and her doomed romance is mirrored in a revolution that doesn’t quite take.

The film’s third segment, set in the Castro 1960s, opts for rowdy, acrid comedy in its story of newlyweds Lucía (Adela Legrá) and Tomas (Adolfo Llauradó) clashing over gender roles. As in the first two sections, this Lucía is deeply in love with a man, but in a shift, she has no interest in him determining the trajectory of her life. Tomas’s revolutionary ideals apparently stop at the doorway to his house, and he bristles at Lucía’s interest in learning to read (particularly given that the state-sponsored tutor is a handsome young man) and remaining in the workforce. After the charged romantic doom of the first two parts, this finale can feel a bit flippant in comparison, but its honest vision of an imperfect revolution fits right in. Though Solás clearly posits the 1960s revolution was a giant leap forward for Cuba, he’s clear-eyed about the challenges that remain.

The restoration work that the WCP performs on many of the films they encounter is heroic, and the efforts pay dividends on this set, which is by and large, stunning. Lucía sports a 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer on the Blu-ray, restored in 4K from the original 35mm camera negative and several duplicate positives to replace sections of the neg that were severely damaged. This is a beautiful transfer, from the high-contrast graininess of the first section to the sunny naturalism of the third. Clarity and detail are strong throughout, and any shifts between materials are not obvious (particularly given the shifting visual style of the first part). Uncompressed mono audio is solid.

Like all the films in the set, Scorsese offers a brief filmed introduction, talking both about what makes the film notable and any restoration challenges. Also included is a 2020 documentary short featuring interviews with Solás and other members of the cast and crew.

AfterTheCurfewAfter the Curfew (Lewat djam malam, 1954)
Directed by Usmar Ismail

There are some easy criticisms to make of Indonesian filmmaker Usmar Ismail’s study of postwar malaise, most obviously its somewhat manufactured ending, telegraphed pointedly by both the film’s opening sequence and its title. But despite the film’s blunt storytelling, there’s a lot to admire about its moody treatment of a man who can’t find a place to fit in after fighting as a revolutionary in Indonesia’s war of independence from the Netherlands.

Iskandar (A.N. Alcaff) is seemingly set up perfectly after being discharged from the army. He has a caring fiancée, Norma (Netty Herawaty), and a father-in-law who’s arranged a job for him at the governor’s office. But Iskandar can’t settle in, haunted by PTSD for his actions during the war and disillusioned by a society that he sees as riddled with corruption. None of this feels pro forma as performed by Alcaff, who possesses a Cassavetes-like rueful intensity.

The film’s best scenes contrast the joy of a welcome-home party Norma throws for Iskandar and the doleful domestic life of a prostitute, Laila (Dhalia), whose pimp is a former squadron-mate of Iskandar’s. The happiness is hollow for Iskandar at the party, and he finds some solace spending time with Laila, who dreamily admires consumer goods in catalogs. The smallness — and yet obvious futility — of her desires seems to resonate with Iskandar, and it’s a small island of delusional but comforting hope in an environment where hope is in short supply.

The disc’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer is sourced from a 4K restoration of a variety of elements, and it’s easily the set’s most problematic transfer, with frequent occurrences of celluloid degradation that swallow up large parts of the image. Still, this is incredibly impressive restoration work, with mold damage largely mitigated and consistent image stability that belies the huge amount of work done. Clarity and detail are quite nice outside of the damaged portions and segments that use a lesser source. Uncompressed mono audio is also cobbled together from multiple sources, and it has its share of harshness and variable fidelity.

Extras include the Scorsese intro and a new interview with journalist J.B. Kristanto.

PixotePixote (1980)
Directed by Héctor Babenco

Probably the most well-known film in the set, Pixote is a landmark in Brazilian cinema, and an early triumph for Argentinian director Héctor Babenco, who would go on to a brief detour in Hollywood. Pixote is an achingly beautiful piece of work, sidestepping poverty porn and miserablism pitfalls to tell a harrowing but emotionally sensitive story about children trying to survive in a society where they’re not valued.

Taking on the mantle of Neorealism, Babenco cast mostly nonprofessional youths, including 13-year-old Fernando Ramos da Silva as Pixote, part of a group of young people rounded up by the corrupt police department and sentenced to a juvenile detention center masquerading as a reform school. Da Silva delivers what is surely one of the most astonishing child performances ever, suffusing Pixote with easy charisma and heart-wrenching vulnerability.

Part of what makes Pixote so effective is it’s no tale of corrupted innocence. In one of the film’s early scenes, Pixote shows he’s savvy enough to keep quiet after witnessing a brutal gang rape in the living quarters. Any innocence was long gone before the film began. Babenco’s frank depiction of the disposition kids must adopt in this environment allows us to experience Pixote as a person, not a cautionary tale. The picaresque film involves Pixote and his makeshift family of other kids descending deeper and deeper into a life of crime, but Babenco is laser-focused on his characters’ humanity, and the film’s brief grace notes are like a gulp of fresh air.

The film’s 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer is sourced from a 4K restoration of the original 35mm camera negative, with a first-generation internegative subbing in for some missing frames. This is a gorgeous transfer, handling the film’s heavy grain beautifully, with no apparent dip in quality during a switch in elements used. The image is clear, with great depth of detail. There is a slight yellowish/greenish tint to the color grading, which tends to be the kind of thing that’s more distracting when seen in a single frame than when watching the film in motion. It does lend a slightly sickly look to some scenes, but I can’t say it bothered me much at all, especially considering the strengths of the transfer otherwise. Uncompressed mono audio sounds superb.

Extras include the Scorsese intro, where he relates the terribly tragic fate of da Silva — a stark reminder that the events of the film are only nominally fictional. A filmed introduction by Babenco that opened the US cut of the film has him explaining the real-life inspiration for Pixote: the Brazilian law that made children vulnerable to exploitation because they couldn’t be prosecuted for crimes. Excerpts from a 2016 interview with the late Babenco are also included.

DosMonjesDos Monjes (1934)
Directed by Juan Bustillo Oro

Early sound films can be thrilling and awkward in equal measures, propelling filmmakers to new experimentation but providing as many opportunities for clunky missteps. Mexican director Juan Bustillo Oro’s Dos Monjes has both elements in about equal measure, with a stolid narrative undercutting some of the film’s structural inventiveness and German Expressionism-inspired visual style.

After a monk, Javier (Carlos Villatoro), suddenly flies into a rage and tries to murder Juan (Víctor Urruchúa), another monk who’s newly joined his monastery, the other clergy members are left with the task of puzzling out why. Bustillo Oro’s bifurcated film is a proto-Rashomon, first recounting Javier’s side of the story, and then Juan’s.

Visually, this strategy pays dividends, with differences ranging from subtle changes in costume to the bold flourishes of obviously divergent camera setups to distinguish the two sides. Unfortunately, the love triangle with a woman named Ana (Magda Haller) that constitutes the pair’s disagreement is rather dull. And though the film predates Rashomon by nearly two decades, it’s more a case of one character being deliberately left in the dark about certain facts than an examination of the murky nature of perspective and truth.

More interesting than the flashbacks are the bookends set in an imposing Gothic monastery, where prolific cinematographer Agustín Jiménez shoots the stark shadows of spookily barren rooms to great effect. And any narrative shortcomings are quickly forgotten when the film tips over into all-out surrealism in a finale that splits open Javier’s tortured psyche.

The film’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer is sourced from a 4K restoration of the 35mm duplicate negative and a 35mm positive print. Damage in the way of fine vertical lines is persistent, but has been mitigated well, with the underlying image displaying impressive clarity. The image is slightly soft throughout, but detail remains decent. There are a number of dropouts from missing frames. Uncompressed mono audio is pretty flat, but clean enough.

Extras include the Scorsese intro and a new interview with scholar Charles Ramírez Berg.

SoleilOSoleil Ô (1970)
Directed by Med Hondo

Mauritanian filmmaker Med Hondo’s acerbic, ambitious and slyly funny debut feature Soleil Ô was completed in fits and starts over several years, whenever the director could afford film stock and carve out time for shooting. The film’s herky-jerkiness reflects its production history, but its discursive qualities are far more a feature than a bug.

This is a film that’s angry and ecstatic in almost equal measures, with a stylistic expansiveness that reveals a filmmaker bursting with ideas. Hondo rails against a viciously racist European society, where the through-line from the colonial era to late-’60s Paris couldn’t be neater, but every scene makes the point in a new way.

Robert Liensol stars as a West African immigrant who arrives in Paris with a cheery optimism about his future. He’s quickly disabused of that feeling, as he encounters a spectrum of racism, from the overt hatred of those who refuse to hire him to the fetishization of white women curious about the novelty of having sex with a Black man to the pompous intellectualization of a sociologist who politely dehumanizes African immigrants in a spiel about labor conditions. Hondo cuts back and forth between these and other events in an almost essay-like approach, smashing spittle-flecked animosity and high-minded prejudice against each other, revealing their fundamental sameness.

The film is presented in a 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer, sourced from a 4K restoration that used the 16mm original reversal positive and 16mm and 35mm duplicate negatives. This might be the best-looking film in the set, featuring an exceptionally clean image and perfect handling of the heavy 16mm grain. Uncompressed mono audio offers a solid showcase for the film’s musical elements and its experimental soundtrack. Extras include the Scorsese intro and a 2018 interview with the late Hondo, who fortunately got to see his wonderful film restored and celebrated before his death.

DownpourDownpour (1972)
Directed by Bahram Beyzaie

The set closes out with another debut feature and an early entry in the burgeoning Iranian New Wave. Bahram Beyzaie’s Downpour is both wistful and wry in its examination of a slow-blossoming romance and the many obstacles it faces. Parviz Fannizadeh stars as Mr. Hekmati, an urbane schoolteacher assigned to an insular community in a Tehran suburb. His arrival is full of portent — with a gaggle of curious schoolchildren observing, he attempts to unload his cart of belongings on a steep street, but disaster strikes. Hekmati finds himself in a similarly precarious situation trying to ingratiate himself among his new neighbors, and there are signs that he’s as hapless as that opening scene suggests.

But Hekmati dedicates himself to his new role and pushes past his outsider status. And he shows himself to be not entirely hapless in his pursuit of Atefeh (Parvaneh Massoumi), the older sister of one of his students. Their romance is beyond tentative, accompanied by the community’s prying eyes — a charming scene features a medium shot of the pair on a park bench that cuts to a wide shot of a bunch of schoolkids watching from the trees — and Atefeh’s begrudging commitment to Rahim (Manuchehr Farid), the town butcher who’s bullied her into betrothal with his financial support.

Beyzaie succeeds at building a world that feels real, even with an antagonist in Rahim who borders on the cartoonish. The longing between Hekmati and Atefeh grows quietly, building toward a catharsis that never really arrives, even as it appears to be right around the bend during the film’s climactic rainstorm sequence. There’s no sea change to be found in Downpour, but even as the film ends on a visual rhyme, it’s clear that some things won’t ever be the same.

The film is presented in a 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer, sourced from a 4K restoration of Beyzaie’s personal 35mm print, the only known surviving copy after the negative and other copies were destroyed after the Iranian Revolution. This is the most impressive restoration effort in the set, taking a print that was in rough shape and creating a digital transfer that looks nearly pristine, aside from a few stray marks. Blacks and whites are luminous and fine detail is abundant. The only real clue to the difficult circumstances surrounding the elements is the burned-in English subtitles. The subtitles have their share of issues, including frequent untranslated lines, poor delineation that can cause them to get swallowed up on white backgrounds and instability that has them bouncing around the bottom part of the frame. Still, this is a remarkable rescue job. Uncompressed mono audio is fairly flat and suffers from some distortion, but is fine overall.

Extras include the Scorsese intro and a newly filmed interview with Beyzaie, who’s lived in exile in the US since 2010.

Last not but least, the set is accompanied by a booklet with essays by Cecilia Cenciarelli, Dennis Lim, Adrian Jonathan Pasaribu, Stephanie Dennison, Elisa Lozano, Aboubakar Sanogo and Hamid Naficy, along with restoration notes. Bring on more volumes of this indispensable line forever, Criterion.

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Blu-ray Review: Pedro Costa reaches new heights with ‘Vitalina Varela,’ out now from Second Run

VitalinaPedro Costa’s films have always been marked by a deep empathy for the humans they depict — characters does not seem like the right word to describe them — and that’s no different in his latest, Vitalina Varela. Among the film’s many virtues is its ability to transfer its heart-in-throat compassion for its subject almost instantaneously. Costa’s imagery has often been this mesmerizing, but never has he shot faces like this before; every close-up on Varela has a heart-wrenching effect.

Vitalina Varela feels like the apotheosis of Costa’s work since he switched to shooting digitally and began creating collaborative truth/fiction hybrids in Lisbon’s slums. Costa’s ability to coax unexplainable beauty from the defects of MiniDV digital video in In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth was astounding, but his work ascends to new heights in Vitalina Varela, hauntingly juxtaposing light and shadow in a seemingly unending series of striking tableaux. The tools may be enormously improved, but still, no one can make digital images look like Costa does.

Vitalina Varela expands on a moment from Costa’s previous film, Horse Money, in which a Cape Verdean woman tells the story of trying to visit her estranged husband in Portugal, but arriving three days after his funeral. Costa met the mourning Varela while shooting Horse Money and incorporated elements of her real story into the segment. By expanding it here, he gives a larger platform to the most penetrating performance he’s ever featured, in a film about grief, isolation and defiance in spite of disillusionment.

In a country that’s not her own, in the neighborhood where she knows no one, in the room where the husband who she barely knew after he left her decades ago lived, Varela turns her sadness into a steely determination to make a place for herself. Like all Costa films, there’s a tangible sense of space in Vitalina Varela, and the expressionistic lighting and tight camera set-ups communicate an almost suffocating heaviness. Scenes of Varela sitting alone are accompanied by a din of commotion, ambient sounds of conversation and activity teeming around her but not involving her. Interactions with her unfeeling new neighbors aren’t any less lonely.

Still, Varela perseveres, and she finds some commiseration with a priest who’s lost his congregation. Frequent collaborator and star of Horse Money and Colossal Youth Ventura plays the priest, in a departure from the version of himself he generally plays in Costa’s films. The priest is unable to restrain his despair like Varela, lamenting openly about the loss of his own faith.

For her part, Varela keeps her pain close to her chest, but the film externalizes this deeply internal feeling in a way few films ever have. There are two grace notes in Vitalina Varela in which she visualizes a glimpse of Cape Verde, the gleaming sun and natural beauty a stark contrast to every image surrounding them. Whether nostalgia for the past or a dream of a future with a husband that will never come to be, these moments only amplify Vitalina Varela’s grief. But maybe, just maybe, they’re a glimpse of a reality that could come to be.

Second Run’s region-free Blu-ray presents the film in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, with a 1080i transfer, which preserves the film’s 25fps format. The gulf between my original viewing of the film on streaming versus a re-watch on Blu-ray was wide, with Second Run’s impeccable transfer highlighting the hyper-reality of Costa’s images. The deep, rich black levels seen on this disc are essential to appreciating the film’s visual style, and a continued point in favor of discs over streaming, where black levels go to die a compressed, macroblocked death. Every other aspect of the transfer is just as impressive, from fine detail to clarity to sharpness. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track is dynamic and immersive, creating a great sense of the dense neighborhood the film was shot in. A 2.0 LPCM stereo track is also included.

Extras include a brief introduction by critic Chris Fujiwara, an hour-plus interview with Costa from a March 2020 screening in London, and Companhia, a short film about Costa’s museum installation exhibit in Porto. The disc also includes a selection of trailers. Included in the package is a booklet with an essay by Daniel Kasman and another extensive interview with Costa, who never shies away from an opinion.

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Blu-ray Review: Jean Renoir’s sublime ‘Toni,’ from the Criterion Collection

ToniToni (1935) represents a departure for Jean Renoir on multiple fronts. Shot largely on location in the south of France, the film looks unlike the filmmaker’s previous studio-bound work. There’s a whisper of similarity to his father’s en plein air method and the idyllic pastoral settings that result. Like A Day in the Country (1936) Renoir’s subsequent unfinished masterpiece, Toni quietly exults in its outdoor locales — a hedge-lined path or a shaded hillside — though the emotional lows in Toni hit an extreme that the melancholy-tinged A Day in the Country doesn’t approach.

Toni is also an outlier among Renoir’s work for its focus on the working class, as it’s based on a true story about migrant workers in Martigues. Renoir mentions in the introduction included on Criterion’s disc that he realized that class was a more prominent line of demarcation than nationality. Of course, it’s not such a neat delineation, as a wry early scene shows two men complaining about a fresh influx of immigrants to the town — before revealing they themselves are recent immigrants.

These frequent asides, mostly featuring nonprofessional actors, and the film’s documentary-like style — longer takes, few close-ups — place the film as a clear precursor to Neorealism, though the film’s social and political impulses are much less of a force than its commitment to melodrama.

The film’s narrative of a love triangle between Italian worker Toni (Charles Blavette) and Marie (Jenny Hélla) and Josefa (Celia Montalván) runs hot, but Renoir’s approach plays it down. Until the final act, the film’s shockwaves are more of a function of its elisions than anything. Toni’s faintly flirtatious meeting of Marie, owner of a boarding house, cuts almost immediately to him wearily waking up in her bed, the doldrums already set in on their relationship. And just as Toni is coming to terms with the fact that he can’t have Josefa, the film cuts like a gut punch to a wedding banquet after she’s married Albert (Max Dalban), the casually cruel boss at Toni’s quarry job.

The film’s textures of realism — a funeral procession, a quarry worker’s labor, a train coming into town, a band’s folk song — ground what eventually becomes a heightened tale of violence, where Renoir appropriately shifts to incongruous close-ups. But this verité-style background also sets off moments of poetic sublimity, both tender, like Josefa’s seduction of Toni via wasp sting (envisioned on Katherine Lam’s beautiful painted cover for Criterion’s edition), and mournful, like a character’s attempt at suicide, captured in a breathtaking long shot across a vast expanse of sea. In all of its modes, Toni is an ecstatically gorgeous film, and it comes to Blu-ray in a presentation that matches.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer is sourced from a new 4K digital restoration, and the results are extremely pleasing. Images have beautiful depth to the grain texture, fine detail is strong and black and white levels are impressive. There are few dropped frames throughout the film, but damage is basically nonvisible elsewhere. The uncompressed mono soundtrack is also quite clean, with no major issues.

On the supplements front, Criterion ports over the Kent Jones and Phillip Lopate commentary track from the long out-of-print Masters of Cinema DVD release. Conversational, but dense with information, it’s a strong track from two heavy hitters.

Also included: the first part of Jacques Rivette’s three-part Cinéastes de notre temps series on Renoir, “Jean Renoir le patron: La recherche du relatif”. (Excerpts of part two are on Criterion’s Rules of the Game disc and part three is on La Chienne.) This first part examines many of Renoir’s early films, with just a brief section on Toni, but it’s well worth watching for Renoir’s self-effacing commentary and Rivette’s essay-like approach.

A new video essay by Christopher Faulkner examines the film’s production history, including its now-lost longer original cut and Renoir’s association with Marcel Pagnol, who had a studio in the region. And the aforementioned Renoir introduction from 1961 rounds out the disc. The package includes an insert with an essay by scholar Ginette Vincendau.

thelimitsofcontrol

Blu-ray Review Round-up: Films by Serge Gainsbourg, Kelly Reichardt, Jim Jarmusch & more!

GaudiAntonio Gaudí (1984)
The Criterion Collection

The buildings of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí don’t look constructed. They look evolved. Organically asymmetrical protrusions, supple curving lines, scaly exteriors — all challenging the notion that the human mind and human hands were involved at all in bringing these creations about.

Hiroshi Teshigahara’s reverent documentary about Gaudí’s architecture knows its imagery is bracing enough to stand alone sans context or history, and it does for the most part. When Teshigahara does bring in a historian for some detail in the film’s final moments, the interruption of the mostly wordless reverie for this explication feels like the psychiatrist epilogue in Psycho.

Teshigahara’s camera, which alternates between regal wide shots and insatiably curious handheld work, drinks in the strange beauty of Gaudí’s work, whether in residential buildings or in his magnum opus, the Sagrada Família basilica, sitting unfinished in the midst of Barcelona like an alien being, its spires stretching above the urban landscape. The film’s narration mentions Gaudí knew his work would have to be completed by another architect. He may not have expected it wouldn’t be finished until 100 years after his death, as current estimates expect completion in 2026.

Criterion’s Blu-ray upgrade of its 2008 DVD release is one of the more left-field choices in recent memory, and there’s no new restoration to explain it. The 1080p, 1.33:1 disc uses the same high-def transfer as the DVD release. Still, this is an enjoyable presentation, despite some density and color fluctuations due to the condition of the source materials. Teshigahara’s edits have a way of taking your breath away in this film, and this transfer helps accentuate that in sudden cuts to vibrant tile work — reds, blues and greens looking especially beautiful in this transfer. The uncompressed mono audio is a little thin, but presents a decent presentation of Tôru Takemitsu’s score and its sudden dips into the avant-garde.

All extras are carried over from the DVD. An interview features architect and friend of the director Arata Isozaki, 16mm footage from 1959 shows Teshigahara’s longstanding interest in Gaudí, and a 1963 short film by Teshigahara shows the sculptures of his artist father, Sofu. Further information on Gaudí is featured in the 2003 documentary God’s Architect: Antoni Gaudí and in Ken Russell’s 1961 BBC program, one of his many short documentaries. A trailer and an expansive booklet with an essay by Dore Ashton and thoughts from the filmmaker are also included.

Je t'aimeJe t’aime moi non plus (1976)
Kino Lorber

In the first of several films he directed, Serge Gainsbourg is quick to dispense with the notion that this is some dilettante-ish dabbling.

To be sure, Je t’aime moi non plus, which shares a name with the far more popular song he wrote and performed with Jane Birkin, isn’t on the surest stylistic footing. Its early moments contain some faintly Godardian smash cuts alongside some goofy camera stunts (an early scene where the camera loopily veers to match the wild driving of a group of miscreants gave me a sinking feeling). Eventually, the film settles into a more staid mode, with some elegant crane shots providing a veneer of respectability.

Dubious style aside, this is a singular film, as Gainsbourg is seemingly determined to create the most upsetting juxtapositions possible between the beauty of his stars and the ugliness of their situations.

Set in some godforsaken corner of France, the film features Warhol star Joe Dallesandro as gay garbage collector Krassky and Birkin as Johnny, the truckstop waitress who’s just androgynous enough for him to maybe fall for, much to the ire of Krassky’s boyfriend Padovan (Hugues Quester). Johnny explains she got that moniker because she has “no tits or ass,” and Krassky’s attention perks up.

The trash dump is among the more romantic places where their lopsided relationship blossoms. It’s not the diner, where her boss is constantly spewing invective. It’s not the local dancehall, where a cadre of leering men curdles the film’s sense of eroticism.

It’s certainly not the series of hotels the couple stays in, thrown out of each one because the proprietors assume rape when they hear Johnny’s cries of pain during anal sex. That Gainsbourg’s camera can so lovingly gaze at the otherworldly beauty of his two stars before cutting to that is jarring, to say the least. The film deploys its cruelty casually, particularly in its conclusion, and it can be difficult to reconcile that tone with the film’s more banal platitudes about love and its jaunty piano theme, also by Gainsbourg.

Kino’s Blu-ray presents the film in a 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer, sourced from a new 4K restoration. This is a beautiful transfer, showing off a rarely seen film in almost perfect form. Images are clean and detailed and colors rich and vibrant among the dusty landscapes. Damage is minimal and the presentation is quite film-like. 2.0 LPCM mono audio is also quite clean.

Extras include a new interview with the rakishly charming Dallesandro, who mentions he was disappointed the film didn’t receive a US release, so all his friends stateside would know he wasn’t dead. Dallesandro also shows up for a Q&A with Birkin, moderated by Dennis Lim after a Lincoln Center screening. A Samm Deighan audio commentary and the theatrical trailer are also included.

TrappedTrapped (1949)
Flicker Alley

Another welcome rescue job by the Film Noir Foundation and the UCLA Film & Television Archive, Trapped has the pedigree to get a deluxe home video release: long-thought-lost status, big-name director, early performances from a popular actor and a cult favorite actress. That the film ends up being somewhat less than the sum of its parts isn’t particularly surprising — a formulaic, stolid script like the one for Trapped is part of the B-noir model.

Still, there are many pleasures to be had. Director Richard Fleischer, who made plenty of noirs before becoming a big-budget studio helmer, gives the film a distinct sense of polish despite its obvious budgetary limitations. (An elegant camera-tilt-and-cut move to show our antiheroes being bugged by the Feds is just one of the smart flourishes he offers.) Lloyd Bridges, who stars as a counterfeiter freed from jail to help assist a sting operation, is an ideal avatar for the L.A. noir: sunny-looking, but vicious. Barbara Payton makes her sexpot girlfriend substantial with an undercurrent of knowing menace of her own as she seduces John Hoyt’s undercover cop.

The telegraphed double-crosses and the dearth of interesting supporting characters aren’t a dealbreaker by any means, but the film can’t help but fizzle when it sidelines Bridges for its climax, an otherwise reasonably exciting train yard chase. In the extras, noir expert Eddie Muller mentions that Bridges was rumored to have fallen ill near the end of production and speculates that producer Bryan Foy would’ve never waited around for him to finish the film. That shoestring approach can lend to a lot of charm of these B-noirs, but it’s a nearly fatal blow here.

Of course, Flicker Alley’s package will inevitably contribute to one’s appreciation for the film, and the 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer, sourced from a private collector’s 35mm acetate print, is impressive in its consistency and a massive upgrade over whatever PD garbage was out there. Naturally, the image has inherent softness, but image stability and clarity is good. Damage is mostly limited to stray marks. The uncompressed mono soundtrack is pretty clean as well. The combo set also includes a DVD copy.

Extras include a featurette on the film’s history and of its stars, including Payton’s tragic life that was frequent tabloid fodder in those days. Also included: a piece on Fleischer’s career, featuring an interview with his son, Mark, and a commentary track with Alan K. Rode and Julie Kirgo. A booklet includes production and promotional art and notes by Muller.

Old JoyOld Joy (2006)
The Criterion Collection

I’ll take any chance to proclaim Kelly Reichardt as the greatest living American filmmaker, and here, in a review of her breakout film, the sentiment must be repeated.

More than a decade after her debut feature, River of Grass (1994), Reichardt followed it up with something you might be tempted to label as a template for her subsequent films, at least on the surface. All of Reichardt’s films from this point on have an ineffable quality; once you think you’ve gotten the parameters defined with a description, they’ve long since wriggled free, unconstrained by their seemingly simple particularities.

That’s especially the case with Old Joy, which like many of her other films, features the Pacific Northwest setting, the feelings of displacement and isolation, and the serenity/terror inherent in man’s relationship with nature. It’s a film that can be summed up in a sentence — two old friends reconnect on a spontaneous camping trip — and its 73 minutes elapse like a blip, dewdrops on morning grass that are suddenly gone. Once its over, the preciousness of every one of those minutes comes into striking view.

Based on Jonathan Raymond’s short story, Old Joy is about Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (Will Oldham), now two opposites who at some point in their past, weren’t. Mark, played with the barest hint of permanent unease by London, has hit the ostensible milestones of accomplishment — wife, house, baby on the way — while Kurt, played by Oldham with a charisma you know is accompanied by pitfalls, has drifted back into Portland.

An impromptu invitation from Kurt sends them into the woods in search of hot springs, with Mark’s dog Lucy (Reichardt’s dog plays herself) in the back seat of the Volvo. It’s a road trip that’s alternately soothing and tension-filled, just like the contours of the friends’ relationship, at once comfortably informed by a long history and full of terrifying unknowns.

Old Joy thrives on these paradoxes, though none of them are obvious or overindulged. It’s a road movie defined by its stillness, a movie about friendship defined by its silences. It’s the first masterpiece in a career full of subsequent ones, and hopefully, many more to come.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer, sourced from a new 2K restoration of a 35mm digital negative, is a gorgeous showcase for the film’s 16mm photography, with perfectly rendered grain, rich and natural colors (the film’s evergreens seem realer than real) and excellent clarity. This is an exceptionally film-like transfer, and a massive upgrade over the previous Kino DVD release. The lossless PCM 2.0 stereo soundtrack reveals plenty of subtle natural sound, while Yo La Tengo’s judiciously applied score sounds great.

Extras are mostly of the interview variety, but all are worth a watch. Reichardt details her interest in the story and the small crew that made the production happen. Cinematographer Peter Sillen offers a more technically focused interview, while Raymond, who’s since gone on to co-write or write most of Reichardt’s films, offers thoughts on their collaboration. London and Oldham reunite for the first time in a while, and their conversation has some of the same hesitant but vulnerable energy that the film does.

Also included: a booklet with an essay by Ed Halter and Raymond’s short story.

LimitsThe Limits of Control (2009)
Arrow Academy

The back half of Jim Jarmusch’s career has seen him take on numerous genre deconstructions, from the western (Dead Man, 1995) to the vampire film (Only Lovers Left Alive, 2013) to the zombie apocalypse (last year’s unfairly dismissed The Dead Don’t Die). In molding the hit man thriller to his own peculiarities in The Limits of Control, Jarmusch offers perhaps his most sublimated take of his career, stripping the mood piece down to the genre’s barest essentials, and then stripping some more.

This is an opaque film, as an unnamed operative known as The Lone Man, played by Isaach De Bankolé, traverses Spain, meeting a series of contacts as he puts together the pieces of his assignment. Alex Descas gets the journey started. John Hurt and Gael García Bernal offer oblique guidance. Paz de la Huerta wonders why The Lone Man won’t fuck her. There will be no fucking or killing in this film. Not on screen anyway. Tilda Swinton shows up in a cowboy hat and exults about Tarkovsky in a scene that explains how to watch this film if you haven’t caught on yet.

With the droning guitars of Japanese band Boris as a guide, the film invites you into a trance. With its dramatic landscapes and persistent air of intrigue, the film suggests there’s an action movie in here somewhere — if only in your imagination. Like any individual plot point, trying to reach out and grasp it will only result in its disintegration.

Arrow’s 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer was provided by Universal, and it’s a pleasing experience, if slightly flatter and less crisp than one might hope for. Color reproduction is excellent, fine detail is adequate and grain structure is well supported. It’s an easy upgrade over the previous DVD release. 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks are provided, offering a strong showcase for the Boris score and clean dialogue throughout.

Arrow provides two new scholarly extras: Geoff Andrews’ interview and Amy Simmons video essay. Both look at Jarmusch’s career as a whole, and there are some interesting points, but both have a tendency to repeatedly note Jarmusch’s unconventionality without digging deeper. Carried over from the previous DVD are a lengthy making-of and a short featurette on the film’s locations. A trailer is also included.

Bless Their Little Hearts

Blu-ray and DVD Review Round-Up: Films by Hu Bo, Billy Woodbery, Josef von Sternberg & more!

ElephantAn Elephant Sitting Still (大象席地而坐, 2019)
KimStim

It’s impossible even to entertain the notion of separating art from artist while watching Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still, the feature debut and final film of the Chinese director, who committed suicide shortly after its completion at age 29.

In Hu’s elegant, single-minded opus, several peripheral characters take their own lives, and the four primary ones in the film’s web of interlocking stories all seem like they could soon take a similar path. This is a despairing film, through and through, with barely a grace note to be seen — when a hint of light creeps in, it’s all the more powerful for its rarity.

Hu and the film’s producers clashed over the film’s length — nearly four hours — but it’s essential to the film’s aims. And even though the sheer duration acts as an analogue to the oppressive gloom each character operates under, the film never resembles an endurance test. Instead, Hu’s graceful long shots give the film a kind of warm intimacy that draws us into predicaments that are, on their face, rather repetitive.

Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang) is a student who endures withering bullying. His primary bully’s older brother, Yu Cheng (Zhang Yu), is a gang leader whose affair with a married woman has acute consequences. Wei Bu’s classmate Huang Ling (Wang Yuwen) has found solace from a horrific home life in the attentions of a dean at the school. And Wang Jin (Liu Congxi) sees himself being discarded as his children try to move him into a nursing home.

Each one finds themselves drawn to the tale of an elephant in the Mongolian city of Manzhouli who weathers all manner of abuse without moving. Yes, the film’s central thrust is rather on the nose. Hu depicts a modern China without respite. Family members are cruel, friends are unreliable and somehow, strangers’ unique blend of indifference and belligerence seems worst of all.

Each of the four protagonists accepts this reality, though their stoic exteriors aren’t without their cracks. This miserablism can be overwhelming — especially in the case of Wang Jin, whose dog is killed early on and who bears witness to perhaps the film’s most depressing shot, a long tracking tour through a soul-crushing nursing home.

In a sense, that shot is the film in a microcosm: an expertly staged and shot wallow in the mire. Sadly, it’s the endpoint, not the beginning, for an artist willing to bare his soul.

KimStim’s Blu-ray release presents the film in a 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer. There’s always some concern about a film of this length on a single disc, and compression artifacts aren’t uncommon here, particularly visible as crush in low-light shots and banding on monochromatic surfaces, like walls. Shot digitally on an Arri Alexa Mini using only available light, the film may have some of these issues inherent to the source. (For what it’s worth, similar artifacting is visible on the Criterion Channel’s streaming version of the film.) Overall, the film looks solid, with good clarity and detail. 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks are provided.

Extras include one of Hu’s short films, Man in the Well (2017), along with a theatrical trailer and a hefty booklet featuring an essay by Eliza Ma, interview with director of photography Fan Chao and the original short story by Hu that the film is based on.

EmperorThe Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (Yuki Yukite, Shingun, 1987)
Second Run

The basis of the one-man crusade in Kazuo Hara’s stunning verité documentary The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On is plenty lurid: Murder and cannibalism among Japanese troops in New Guinea after Japan’s surrender in WWII.

The film itself may be even wilder. An uneasy profile of veteran Kenzo Okuzaki, who had stints in prison after the war for charges ranging from manslaughter to distributing pornography of Emperor Hirohito, the film escalates constantly. Initially, it appears to chronicle the wholly justified righteous anger of a man determined to extract confessions from officers responsible for the deaths of several soldiers, their bereaved family members in tow. It gets thornier.

Possessing a terrifying charisma, Okuzaki shows up at the homes of the now-elderly officers, and he uses their politeness against them. Despite being ambushed, these men tend to be accommodating and courteous, even as they’re evasive about Okuzaki’s pointed questioning. That pointed approach turns into bullying, and often, outright violence. When the family members of the dead drop out of his project, Okuzaki simply enlists others to pretend, including his meek wife, who appears to be the most longsuffering person on the planet.

Hara’s film is a master class in complicating the viewer’s feelings, from the aims and disposition of Okuzaki to the very concept of the film itself. It’s not difficult to imagine Okuzaki’s rage being amplified by his showman’s flair as the camera rolls — though his offscreen actions are hardly a model of restraint. It’s a singular film that’s constantly rearranging expectations about where it’s headed next.

Second Run’s Blu-ray features a 1080p, 1.55:1 transfer that is quite impressive, especially considering the quality of previous releases. Damage has been significantly mitigated and clarity is strong for a film shot on the fly. The look is desaturated, but colors are true, and detail is adequate. A 2.0 LPCM mono track has issues inherent with location documentary shooting, but sounds fine overall.

Extras include a new interview with Hara and Hara’s 2018 appearance at the Open City Documentary Festival. The booklet features essays by Tony Rayns, Jason Wood and Abé Mark Nornes.

Josef3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg
Underworld (1927)
The Last Command (1928)
The Docks of New York (1928)
Criterion Collection

No disrespect to Borzage or Murnau or Naruse or Epstein (OK, maybe this lede was a bad idea), but the three films in Criterion’s von Sternberg box set feel like they could make a convincing case for themselves as the apotheosis of silent cinema. These are deliriously beautiful films, rich with atmosphere and full of stylistic invention. They’re also ground zero for all kinds of new narrative thinking, particularly Underworld, which basically codified the gangster genre with its zippy Ben Hecht script and von Sternberg’s taut direction.

Von Sternberg, who would of course go on to make his most acclaimed films in a prolific collaboration with Marlene Dietrich, was graced with expressive movie stars begging for close-ups even earlier. George Bancroft stars as a rowdy kingpin in Underworld and a weathered, cynical coal stoker in The Docks of New York, where he’s joined in a wary romantic coupling with Betty Compson’s yearning dancehall girl. The great Emil Jannings matches the outsized melodrama of The Last Command with a towering performance as a former Russian general relegated to working as a lowly Hollywood extra.

The Last Command, pinging between the Russian Revolution and a film being made about it, is almost like proto-Aleksei German at points, the frame crammed with bodies and activity. Its ultimate exultation in the prowess of its main character approaches self-parody, but no one could sell high emotion like Jannings, and von Sternberg is more than game to do likewise.

By contrast, his turn for the melancholy in The Docks of New York is delicate and lovely, as neither Bancroft nor Compson’s characters put much stock in their budding relationship, begun with an anti-meet-cute when she tries to drown herself. Fog and shadow are the languages of love here, but the film undercuts the presumed fleeting quality of their connection.

Criterion’s long-awaited upgrade of its 2010 DVD box set presents all three films in 1080p, 1.33:1 transfers. Unfortunately, these transfers are from the same scan/source as the DVD set, but the upgrade is still notable, as depth, clarity and grain presentation have been improved. The quality of the materials limits the transfers still: Damage is persistent if mostly unobtrusive and the image’s softness can cause grain to look like noise. The Blu-ray set is far preferable, perhaps most notably because the transfers are no longer windowboxed. Two scores are offered for each film, presented in pristine 2.0 uncompressed stereo.

Extras are identical to the DVD set: video essays by Janet Bergstrom and Tag Gallagher, a 1968 von Sternberg interview and a substantial booklet with essays by Geoffrey O’Brien, Anton Kaes and Luc Sante, Hecht’s Underworld treatment and an excerpt from von Sternberg’s autobiography.

BlessBless Their Little Hearts (1984) DVD
Milestone Films

One of the essential texts of the L.A. Rebellion film movement, Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts is a staggering work of American Neorealism. Every line reading and every delicately composed image do far more work than a cursory glance at the film’s simplicity would reveal.

Written and shot by Charles Burnett and scored largely by Archie Shepp and Horace Parlan’s jazz versions of traditional blues numbers and spirituals, Bless Their Little Hearts has an aching, searching feeling as it depicts the spiritual toll of economic hardship and relational decay. Father and husband Charlie Banks (Nate Hardman) gets work here and there as a day laborer, but it’s barely enough for his family to scrape by on — particularly when he’s spending a portion of that money on his mistress.

As his wife, Andais, Kaycee Moore has the weight of her responsibilities and her husband’s unreliability splashed across her face. Her performance digs deep into the indignities of being a relationship’s ballast, and Moore is stunning in both sudden flashes of anger and moments of quiet when the gravity of her situation seems to fully come to bear on her expression. Hardman’s performance seems largely oblivious to this — until the film’s signature long take of the couple’s issues barging their way to the forefront.

The film’s depiction of the necessary self-sufficiency of the couple’s three children (played by Burnett’s kids) is heart-rending in the smallest of moments: an oven door left ajar during cooking to help heat the house; a matter-of-fact solution to fixing a sink tap. For Woodberry, these asides are clearly as vital as the cataclysmic scenes — they’re the reason the emotional breakdowns carry so much weight.

It’s unfortunate the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s 2K restoration of the film hasn’t been given a Blu-ray release, but this first-ever home video release is still incredibly welcome. Though the nuances in the 16mm photography’s grain could use the high-def treatment, the restoration looks quite nice on Milestone’s DVD, with minimized damage and consistent clarity throughout.

The extras are also substantial: an audio commentary from NYU professor Ed Guererro, a newly restored version of Woodberry’s debut short The Pocketbook (1980), based on a Langston Hughes story, and an Indiana University workshop with Woodberry. Interviews with Woodberry, Burnett and Guererro are also included, along with set photos and a booklet with essays by Cornell professor Samantha N. Sheppard and Allison Anders.

MountainThe Mountain (2019)
Kino Lorber

Despite Rick Alverson’s evident strengths as a director, it’s hard not to be a little skeptical of his films. There’s a pointedly transgressive streak in The Comedy (2012), starring Tim Heidecker as a trust fund asshole, and in Entertainment (2015), with Gregg Turkington appearing as his Neil Hamburger character, in an examination of anti-comedy spilling past the boundaries of the stage. But to what end?

In his latest film, The Mountain, Alverson is working in a more traditionally dramatic tenor, and I can’t decide if removing the layers upon layers of irony associated with Heidecker et al. strengthens Alverson’s case as a chronicler of the bitter hollowness of the American dream or if it just lays bare his tendency toward empty anti-mythologizing.

There’s evidence for both in The Mountain, which stars Jeff Goldblum as a traveling lobotomization specialist who’s based on controversial doctor Walter Freeman. Goldblum’s Dr. Fiennes takes Andy (Tye Sheridan) under his wing after Andy’s father (Udo Kier) dies. He’s already familiar with the boy; he performed his mother’s lobotomy several years before.

In this curdled travelogue of 1950s America, Dr. Fiennes and Andy roam the country, with Andy serving as photographer and assistant. Alverson’s fixed camera captures an eerie feeling of collective stupefaction, as parents and caregivers easily acquiesce to Fiennes’ methods. That feeling is magnified by the performance of Sheridan, who acts like Andy was lobotomized long before we showed up.

There are counterpoints to this feeling: a charming Goldblum creates a character who we can buy as a true believer before his apparent empathy clicks off as soon as it’s no longer needed. And the always-welcome Denis Levant channels drunken rage and spiritual ecstasy as a man who wants his daughter treated by Dr. Fiennes.

The film’s tone envelops you in something like a morphine haze, and once you’re there, why bother trying to decode its opaque thematic threads, like a recurring motif of hermaphroditism? The Mountain is another exhibit to add to my mixed feelings on Alverson, but I’ll keep puzzling over his subsequent work.

Kino’s 1080p, 1.37:1 Blu-ray offers a gorgeous transfer of Alverson and cinematographer Lorenzo Hagerman’s creamy but muted photography. The image is crystal clear and fine detail is excellent, even in the film’s many Berkeley-like overhead shots of ice skaters or New Age music enthusiasts. 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks are available.

Extras include an Alverson commentary track, an interview with an enthused (when is he not?) Goldblum, one brief deleted scene and a trailer.

JourneyJourney to the Beginning of Time (Cesta do pravěku, 1955)
Second Run

Second Run’s series of Karel Zeman films continues with one of his earliest works, Journey to the Beginning of Time. This one doesn’t have the mind-bendingly fantastic animation design of The Fabulous Baron Munchausen or Invention for Destruction, but it’s surely one of the best children’s films ever made, combining an earnest educational attitude with inventive modeling and animation techniques to create a sort of live storybook.

There’s not so much a plot as there is an amusingly straightforward frame story: A group of four Czech boys decide they want to go back into the past to see all the extinct creatures they’ve read about up close, so they just do it, sailing on a raft backward through history. There’s some minor peril along the way (one of them always seems to be getting separated from the group), but mostly, the film is as rationally curious as its characters, who take copious notes on their discoveries, including a woolly mammoth, saber-toothed cat and a host of dinosaurs, all the way back to trilobites, the fossil that kicked off this whole journey to begin with.

Compared to the singular sci-fi and fantasy of Zeman’s later work, Journey to the Beginning of Time can seem impossibly quaint, with the stiffly declarative acting of its four young stars accentuating the feeling. But it’s hard not to marvel at the ingenuity of the design, which hums with creative energy. Perhaps my favorite scenes are those where the script is flipped and a miniature model of the boys and their raft is used. The film may be unrelentingly straightforward in its aims, but its visual cleverness keeps it engaging.

Second Run’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer of a new 4K restoration is beautiful, offering impressive levels of fine detail essential for appreciating the intricate model work. The film has a slightly muted look, but images are sharp and clean. 2.0 LPCM mono audio is reasonably dynamic and has no major issues.

Extras include the English-dubbed version of the film, which emphasizes the purity of Zeman’s approach by appending a newly shot, casually racist explanation for how the boys got back to the past. Also included: an appreciation by filmmaker John Stevenson, a restoration demonstration, making-of featurette, image gallery and booklet with an essay by Michael Brooke.
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Blu-ray Review Round-Up: Films by Bob Fosse, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Karel Kachyňa & more!

The EarThe Ear (Ucho, 1970)
Second Run

The personal is political in Karel Kachyňa’s claustrophobic satire, in which the authoritarianism of the Czech Communists is filtered through a long night’s journey into day inside the home of a senior party official. The domestic space isn’t a respite for Ludvik (Radoslav Brzobohatý) and his wife, Anna (Jiřina Bohdalová). It’s a magnifying glass for the paranoia of living in a surveillance state and the fissures in their marriage, destined to erupt. Naturally, the film was banned as soon as it was completed.

After attending a party function, the couple returns home to find things awry. Their keys have disappeared and the power has gone out, despite neighboring homes remaining illuminated. Anna, drunk, and Ludvik, suspicious, can’t agree on what this means, initiating some cruel verbal sniping that has plenty of runway to escalate over the course of the evening. Eventually, both become convinced every odd occurrence is the result of party surveillance. They scour their home for listening devices and Ludvik begins burning documents that might have incriminating evidence in the toilet.

Kachyňa’s tight framing accompanies nimble camerawork as Ludvik and Anna circle each other like caged rats about to turn on their cellmate. Intercut with the domestic horror are Ludvik’s flashbacks to the party earlier that evening, as he attempts to remember any signal that his standing among his peers was in jeopardy. We feel Ludvik’s intense disorientation, an imbalance he seeks to remedy by returning to what seems like a familiar pattern: taking it out on Anna. Kachyňa lets the bitter taste linger, with a wry ending that doesn’t do anything to mitigate it.

Second Run’s Blu-ray upgrade features a 1.37:1, 1080p transfer, sourced from a new HD remaster by the Czech National Film Archive. Unlike many of Second Run’s recent Czech Blu-rays, this one does not get a 4K remaster, possibly due to the materials’ condition. One party scene features significant damage, and the film as a whole has more speckling and wear than most other films Second Run has given the high-def treatment to.

Still, the upgrade is appreciated in solid grayscale separation and fine detail. Damage rarely affects the overall clarity of the image. The 2.0 mono LPCM soundtrack has some hissing and clicking, but it’s not too obtrusive. It’s a testament to the consistently high quality of the label’s Blu-ray releases that this one ranks near the bottom technically.

Carried over from the 2005 DVD release is an introduction by Peter Hames. Newly added: a commentary track from the Projection Booth podcast, Vlastimil Venclík’s 1969 short The Uninvited Guest and an expanded booklet, with essays by Hames, Steven Jay Schneider and Graham Williamson.

BRDThe BRD Trilogy (1979-1982)
Criterion Collection

The tragedy of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s early death isn’t entirely ameliorated by his astonishingly vast output — imagine having dozens more of his films to savor — but it’s difficult to argue that his oeuvre feels unfinished. Given the elasticity and voracious appetite of any given Fassbinder film, a single work can feel like a worthy encapsulation of his mad genius.

And then you have The BRD Trilogy, which seems to contain histories of entire film genres within, to say nothing of its withering gaze at the fundamental rot of post-WWII West German society. These are towering films, stylistically bold and thematically blunt. They may represent the apotheosis of Fassbinder’s career — though he no doubt would have refuted that notion with further cinematic advances if he hadn’t died shortly after the trilogy’s completion.

The Marriage of Maria Braun begins with a literal explosion in the middle of the wedding of Maria (Hanna Schygulla) and Hermann Braun (Klaus Löwitsch), as the Allies bomb Germany. As she will throughout the film, Maria persists with a blind optimism often indistinguishable from delusion. When Hermann, a Nazi soldier, goes missing during the final months of the war, everyone presumes he’s dead but Maria.

Schygulla plays Maria with a fierce single-mindedness, and Maria’s cognitive dissonance is continually astonishing as she maintains her undying loyalty to Hermann and the bygone way of life he represents. This continues even as she pursues relationships with American soldier Bill (George Byrd) and rich entrepreneur Karl (Ivan Desny). Fassbinder’s well of sympathy for Maria is boundless even as he traces her self-destruction to its inevitable combustible bookend.

In Veronika Voss (1982), made last but positioned second in the post hoc trilogy, Fassbinder twists notions of what a pastiche can be, amping up the look and feel of Hollywood black-and-white melodrama to dizzying heights, even as the juicy plot devolves into a dour, dread-soaked mood piece. Rosel Zech stars as Veronika, a onetime star of German propaganda films whose career as an actress is barely hanging on. She meets sports reporter Robert Krohn (Hilmar Thate), whose infatuation is immediate and unthinking — and covered by a thin veneer of supposed journalistic interest.

As Robert digs deeper into Veronika’s past, a number of troubling details emerge, but Fassbinder’s plotting, which is plenty lurid on paper, doesn’t leave a deeper impact than the film’s bone-deep bleakness.

Lola (1981) traverses a nearly opposite route stylistically and thematically. An acrid satire of the insatiable lust of capitalism, the film is unrepentantly garish, bathed in neon color and stupefying key lights.

A riff on von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel, the film stars Barbara Sukowa as Lola, a singer at a brothel during the reconstruction period of West Germany in the 1950s. Everything is transactional in this world, a fact Fassbinder painstakingly underlines with scenes of overtly corrupt business dealings.

Lola attracts the attentions of sleazy developer Schukert (Mario Adorf) and principled building commissioner von Bohm (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a three-way configuration full of using and being used. There’s something bracing about the film’s complete lack of restraint, the camerawork, the performances and the lighting all feeding off one another to push Lola into new heights of artificiality — a tool Fassbinder used to reveal the truth like almost no other filmmaker.

Criterion’s long-awaited Blu-ray upgrade of the DVD set, which languished for a while in OOP status, is a phenomenal release. The 1080p transfers, sourced from new 4K restorations for Maria Braun and Lola and an HD restoration for Veronika Voss, are across-the-board excellent. The earthy palette of Maria Braun looks rich and detailed, and the bold colors of Lola are consistent and true, with a transfer that features exceptional clarity. Despite not receiving a 4K restoration, Veronika Voss is a solid black-and-white transfer, with nice grain. Maria Braun and Lola now are presented in their original 1.66:1 aspect ratios, while Veronika Voss is still in 1.78:1. The uncompressed mono soundtracks are all in very good shape.

All extras from the loaded DVD set have been ported over, including commentaries for all three films; a host of interviews, including ones with each of the films’ three leads; a 1978 interview of Fassbinder; 1992 doc on Fassbinder, I Don’t Just Want You to Love Me; a featurette on Ufa film star Sybille Schmitz, the real-life inspiration for Veronika Voss; trailers; and a booklet with Kent Jones’ insightful essay and detailed production histories of all three films by Michael Töteberg.

Sweet CharitySweet Charity (1969)
Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Sweet Charity is a strange amalgam. Adapted from the Broadway show, the film smashes together Neil Simon’s corny self-deprecation, terrific set pieces built around Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields’ songs and a visual sensibility somewhere between au courant singularity and quaint hippie excess — all wrapped together in an outsized two-and-a-half-hour musical package that was mostly out of fashion by the time it arrived.

It’s also a great film, thanks to the restless creative energy of Bob Fosse, who directed and choreographed the Broadway show, and made his film directorial debut here. Equally important: The staggering screen presence of Shirley MacLaine, whose sunny optimism and deeply rooted melancholy make her the perfect successor to Giulietta Masina, cinema’s sad clown supreme and star of Nights of Cabiria, the inspiration for Sweet Charity.

There are some superfluous moments in this tale of dance hall hostess Charity (MacLaine) who encounters disappointment after disappointment in her quest for love, but Fosse ensures most of the film’s episodes land — either as tightly choreographed musical numbers (the endlessly copied cool restraint of “Hey Big Spender,” the joyous kitsch of Sammy Davis Jr.-featuring “The Rhythm of Life”) or as showcases for MacLaine’s boundless charisma. (“If My Friends Could See Me Now” is a showstopper, but every tiny gesture and line reading in the sequence where Charity spends an evening with Ricardo Montalbán’s film star is sublime.)

Ever the showman, Fosse comes equipped with a bag of tricks — wild zooms, freeze-frames, images reversed to negative. But his fundamental skill as a film director already looks fully formed in his debut. Musical setpieces are visually cogent, the pacing can be languorous but individual scenes thrum with energy and the character’s relationships have real depth, especially Charity’s friendship with fellow dancers Nickie (Chita Rivera) and Helene (Paula Kelly). That the film’s third act focus — a budding romance with mild actuary Oscar (John McMartin) — is its weakest doesn’t undo this.

Kino’s Blu-ray release is excellent, featuring two cuts of the film on separate discs, both 1080p, 2.35:1 transfers sourced from a 4K restoration. Colors are vibrant and true, film grain is tight and stable, and fine detail is quite good. The “alternate” version is several minutes shorter than the primary roadshow edition, and the most significant change to the content is a happy ending tacked on to the alternate version, which also hacks off some of MacLaine’s most heartbreaking moments. 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and 2.0 tracks are offered, and they generally sound good, though there’s a slightly muffled quality to the dialogue not present in the crisp musical elements.

Kino adds a couple of new extras: Kat Ellinger’s commentary track for the alternate version of the film and a booklet essay by Julie Kirgo. Archival featurettes on Edith Head’s costume design and the transition from stage to screen are also included, along with a selection of trailers.

ClunyCluny Brown (1946)
Criterion Collection

Ernst Lubitsch’s final completed film (he died during the production of 1948’s That Lady in Ermine) is a slight but delightful class comedy, and its long unavailability on home video has finally been remedied by Criterion. Lubitsch’s lightness of touch is one of his hallmarks, of course, but Cluny Brown is probably a little too light to rank among his masterpieces. Still, if you can’t appreciate the interplay between a delightfully unconventional Jennifer Jones and an effortlessly charming Charles Boyer, why even watch movies?

Jones’ Cluny and Boyer’s Belinski meet-cute at a pre-WWII London party neither was invited to — her responding to a plumbing emergency, him looking for a previous owner. When Cluny’s uncle sends her to the countryside to work as a maid for aristocrats, she again crosses paths with Belinski, an author running from the Nazis and not averse to the generosity of strangers.

Cluny Brown skewers the uptightness of class-conscious types, but it’s not all comedy. There might not be a more devastating moment in Lubitsch’s films than when the owners of the manor mistake Cluny for someone else and afternoon tea in the parlor is suddenly doused in cold water when she’s identified as the new help. Jones, a great melodramatic actress, is used perfectly in a comedic context in Cluny Brown, but that scene is a stomach-dropper.

Fortunately, she’s irrepressible — and it’s clear a misguided romance with a town chemist and stern warnings from a stuffy household staff won’t prevent the Jones-Boyer repartee we’re all here to see.

Criterion’s Blu-ray features a 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer, sourced from a new 4K restoration. This is a solid, if unspectacular transfer, with a pervasive softness that prevents a truly clear or sharp image. Still, the image is quite clean and grayscale separation is decent. It’s an enjoyable watch. Uncompressed mono audio is clean and adequate.

There’s quite a nice selection of extras on this disc. Newly filmed: Critics Molly Haskell and Farran Smith Nehme discuss their appreciation of Lubitsch’s female characters and Kristin Thompson offers a video essay on Lubitsch’s visual comedy. A 2004 interview with Bernard Eisenschitz offers an overview of Lubitsch’s career. Also included: a 1950 radio adaptation of Cluny Brown, starring Boyer and Dorothy McGuire, and an insert with an essay by Siri Hustvedt.

CrosscurrentCrosscurrent (2016)
Cheng Cheng Films

Calling Yang Chao’s Berlinale Silver Bear winner Crosscurrent “mesmerizing” feels like a lazy way to sum up such a peculiar film, but the description couldn’t be more apt. To watch Crosscurrent is to fall into a trance as its images of the Yangtze River (captured by the inimitable eye of cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bing, a frequent collaborator with Wong Kar-Wai and Hou Hsiao-Hsien) slip past one another, the near-constant drone of ship noise as the foundation.

Crosscurrent is a film with its fair share of mysticism; nominal protagonist Gao Chun (Qin Hao) encounters the same woman, An Lu (Xin Zhilei), at every port as he guides a cargo ship up the river, and he becomes convinced she’s connected to a book of poetry by an unknown author he discovered. If the film’s overt mysticism and use of poetry can feel a bit overdetermined, it’s mainly because the images themselves don’t need the help. Lee captures the unknowable majesty of the river in a way that makes every shot feel enormous and full of portent.

The film begins with a ritual: After a father dies, his son expected to pull a fish from the river and keep it in an incense urn until it dies, thus releasing the departed father’s spirit. Gao Chun succeeds at capturing the fish, but the rest of the ritual does not go as planned. Similarly, his fleeting relationship with An Lu — who, if not a literal ghost, can’t be completely corporeal — follows an orderly, expected path until it suddenly doesn’t. The one constant is the Yangtze, a seemingly ceaseless path affected by the throes of modernity (the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest power station, has a cataclysmic effect on Gao Chun here), but fundamentally unchangeable and unknowable.

Cheng Cheng Films’ release of the film is pressed on BD-R. I noticed some stuttering while navigating the menus, but did not see any issues while playing the film. The disc features a 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer that showcases Lee’s 35mm photography pretty well. Colors are rich and saturated, even as the film has an overarching subdued look. Fine detail is strong. Long shots of the river and passing vessels have excellent clarity. Damage is nonexistent. The 2.0 stereo LPCM track is cut very loud and offers a solid presentation of the film’s soundscape of natural river noise and cello playing. English subtitles are available, but not turned on by default.

Extras include “Messenger’s Four Chapters,” which appear to be camcorder-shot outtakes of the trip down the river, along with a trailer and an insert with an essay by Bart Testa.

Relaxer

Blu-ray Review Round-Up: Films by Jean-Luc Godard, Agnès Varda, Pavel Juráček and more!

CarmenFirst Name: Carmen (1982)
Détective (1985)
Hélas Pour Moi (1993)
Kino Lorber

The standard line about Jean-Luc Godard is that he’s never come close to replicating the string of masterpieces he made in his astonishingly productive 1960s output. The ’70s get the militantly political works that dare you to find a shred of anything resembling “entertainment” while the past few decades are afforded a series of perversely playful essay experiments.

It’s a stretch to call the ’80s and early ’90s a lost era for Godard, but there’s relatively little appreciation for his return to narrative filmmaking as only Godard could imagine it. In upgrading three of the four films from Lionsgate’s DVD box set, Kino offers an excellent way to rediscover three key works of the period. In each, Godard refracts myth and genre, deconstructing ideas about storytelling and ideas about some of his previous films, which Détective and First Name: Carmen seem especially in dialogue with.

First Name: Carmen considers the filmmaker, with Godard starring as a version of himself who’s “all washed up,” annoying the staff at a hospital where he’s staying for no identifiable reason. His niece Carmen (Maruschka Detmers) convinces “Uncle Jean” to lend her the use of his house for a film she’s making, but it’s all a ruse in service of several shakily conceived robbery and kidnapping plots.

In adapting Bizet’s opera, Godard reimagines the tale of passion and doom as one of strictly doom, as Carmen’s affair with a security guard, Joseph (Jacques Bonaffé), is defined by disconnection from the start, even as he ties himself to her in an attempt to prevent her from robbing a bank.

The only real passion here is a string quartet practicing (Beethoven — not Bizet), their music soundtracking a series of mechanically performed violent and sexual encounters. The music frequently gives way to cacophonies of noise, Uncle Jean somewhere behind the scenes fiddling to get the feeling right.

First Name: Carmen is archly meta, Godard puncturing the films’ traditional pleasures — a lovely scene of Joseph mourning, his outstretched hand in front of TV static, dissipates amid one of the soundtrack’s strangest mash-ups. Like many of Godard’s films, it’s challenging to put your finger on just why this works so well, but First Name: Carmen becomes a beguiling tale of loss wrapped in a jokey structure without a hiccup. It’s a great film.

DetectiveThe other two offerings don’t quite achieve the same heights, particularly Détective, which never coheres into more than a tossed-off genre riff in its two-headed story about a pair of detectives (Jean-Pierre Léaud and Laurent Terzieff) attempting to solve a murder and an unscrupulous boxing trainer (Johnny Hallyday) trying to stay ahead of his debts in the same hotel. Less overtly self-reflexive than First Name: Carmen, the film still feels like blatantly artificial, every half-understood plot twist piled up on each other in a personal competition to devise the shaggiest noir story ever.

In Hélas Pour Moi, Godard refashions the Greek myth of Alcmene and Amphitryon into a bleak meditation on what it means to be human. Legend has it that a god came to earth and inhabited the body of Simon (Gérard Depardieu) in order to seduce his wife, Rachel (Laurence Masliah), and experience carnal pleasure for the first time. In scenes full of portent, shot by cinematographer Caroline Champetier with a stillness one doesn’t usually associate with Godard, the relationship progresses.

Or does it? After Depardieu quit the film midway through production, Godard fashioned a frame story about a publisher (Bernard Verley) trying to reconstruct the story of Simon and Rachel, if it even happened. Though much of the film is inscrutable, the Simon and Rachel flashbacks have a kind of mystical aura that carries them through. Not so for the scenes set in the publisher’s present, which are very much of the earthly variety, him trudging through a series of baffling anecdotes with little hope of connecting the dots. The dichotomy between heaven and earth is a wide gap, and as the god who visited ultimately decides, it’s not one he’d like to bridge.

Helas Pour MoiAll three Kino discs are outfitted with a 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer, and each represents a big upgrade from the previous DVD set. Clarity and fine detail are stunning in all three transfers, with the heavy-on-natural-light Hélas Pour Moi the standout. In this presentation, it’s tempting to call it Godard’s most beautiful film.

Each transfer offers a film-like appearance, with perfectly rendered grain and pops of color (yellow hotel bathrobes in Carmen; a red and blue neon sign advertising cassettes in Détective). Some light speckling occurs, most noticeably in Carmen, but it’s hard to imagine these films looking better on the format. DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 tracks (mono on Carmen, stereo on the others) are uniformly excellent, offering clean showcases for a variety of aural trickeries.

Each disc includes an audio commentary and a booklet essay, while Carmen also includes Godard’s 1982 short Changer d’image.

RelaxerRelaxer (2018)
Oscilloscope Laboratories

The latest film from Joel Potrykus confirms it: The man knows how to create worlds that have a genuine lived-in shittiness. There’s no whiff of artfully arranged faux-squalor. From the fluorescent hell of the mortgage office in Buzzard (2014) to the haunted cabin in the woods of The Alchemist’s Cookbook (2016) to the skin-crawling rot of the apartment in Relaxer, the milieu is always uncomfortably real.

These locations are fertile grounds for Potrykus’ twisted fantasies and their refractions of toxic masculinity. In Relaxer, the decay of the film’s only location acts as a hilariously grotesque salute to end-of-millennium American culture. In this version of 1999, the Y2K apocalypse hastens, and Potrykus greets it with a blast of ’90s anti-nostalgia.

Joshua Burge, who channeled uproarious and troubling levels of impotent rage in Buzzard and Potrykus’ first feature, Ape (2012), delivers his best performance yet as Abbie, a pathologically committed figure, determined to complete any challenge — and weather as much abuse as necessary along the way — from his shithead older brother, Cam (David Dastmalchian). The first one we see involves drinking nearly an entire gallon of milk. The results are predictable. The route there isn’t.

Cam has one more challenge: Beat the nigh-mythical Level 256 on Pac-Man, and don’t leave the couch for any reason until it’s completed. Abbie accepts. Now-disgraced gamer Billy Mitchell’s offer of $100,000 to anyone who can accomplish the feat is a factor, but Abbie’s motivations are ultimately much more personal. He’s not getting up from that couch.

Relaxer feels like the culmination of Potrykus’ films thus far, pushing the slacker ideal to its absolute breaking point and luxuriating in the grotesque like never before. Between spilled sour milk, guzzled cherry Faygo and progressively more disgusting fluids of other varieties, the film has a sticky tactility I might not get over.

Potrykus refashions a bit from Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel as a scatological nightmare and reimagines Chaplin eating his shoe in The Gold Rush as a cringe-inducing grace note. Burge, who bears a striking resemblance to Buster Keaton, essentially transforms into a silent film star by the film’s end, every gesture performed by Abbie’s increasingly atrophied body focused on one quixotic goal. It’s disturbing. It’s funny in ways you never saw coming. It’s the Platonic ideal of a Joel Potrykus film.

Oscilloscope’s Blu-ray offers a 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer with exceptional clarity and excellent reproduction of the film’s generally muted look. A stereo DTS-HD Master Audio track is pretty dynamic and lively in parts. Extras include a Potrykus audio commentary, a collection of behind-the-scenes footage split between high-quality digital and camcorder-like footage, rehearsal footage with Potrykus and Burge, promos, and a kind of challenge to the viewer: 2001-era footage of Potrykus and his friends puking at a “milk party.”

One SingsOne Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977)
The Criterion Collection

The feminist films of  Agnès Varda take many shapes, but whether she was working in a mode of documentary realism or sunnily lacerating satire, she never had time for sentimentality. That’s especially apparent in One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, which treats both the separation of its main characters and their fight for abortion rights in Europe as perfectly surmountable obstacles. When the women in Varda’s sort-of-musical face a problem — sudden abandonment by romantic partners, friendship-testing distances, political resistance — they simply do what needs to be done to get past it.

That matter-of-factness can make One Sings, the Other Doesn’t resonate somewhat less than more formally playful Varda films, but the film’s depiction of female friendship is undeniably moving.

Teenaged Pauline (Valérie Mairesse) reconnects with Suzanne (Thérèse Liotard), an older friend whose pregnancy has put her in dire straits. Pauline helps come up with the money to pay for an abortion, and a loose bond becomes an unbreakable connection, even as circumstances keep the two apart for a decade. When they reunite, each has deepened their involvement in the feminist cause: Pauline now goes by Pomme, and performs with a political all-women band, while Suzanne has opened a family planning clinic.

There’s a fundamental optimism to One Sings, the Other Doesn’t and its affirmation of feminism as liberation for women of all walks of life. Its generosity and openness is wonderful.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer is sourced from a 2K restoration of the original camera negative. The image occasionally leans into the teal-zone, with some slightly unnatural cold hues as a result, but image clarity, fine detail and grain resolution are excellent. The same restoration is featured on the Artificial Eye Region B Blu-ray set, and the transfers look basically identical.

Extras include Katja Raganelli’s on-set documentary and two Varda shorts: Réponse de femmes and Plaisir d’amour en Iran, which briefly expounds on an underdeveloped thread in One Sings. Also included: a trailer, an insert with an essay by Amy Taubin and notes from Varda, and a separate booklet that recreates sections of the 1977 press book.

RookieA Case for a Rookie Hangman (1969)
Second Run

The last film Czech director Pavel Juráček would make in his sadly abbreviated career, A Case for a Rookie Hangman reads like a handbook for how to anger an authoritarian regime. And it did, as the film went basically unreleased and Juráček was blackballed from the industry for the rest of his life.

Loosely adapting a segment of the third part of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Juráček uses the setting of the kingdom of Balnibarbi and the island of Laputa floating above to plunge a far-from-heroic Gulliver (Lubomír Kostelka) into a series of intractable conflicts. The government is incomprehensibly rigid, the people are ready to coalesce into an angry mob at a moment’s notice and Gulliver can’t convince anyone he’s not Oscar, the owner of a pocket watch he acquired shortly before being plunged into this mess. Oscar is, naturally, a rabbit in clothing (an obvious nod to Carroll) that Gulliver ran over in his car.

The slipperiness of Juráček’s free-floating storytelling is mitigated somewhat by chapter headings that delineate the episodic tumbling some. A perhaps sturdier guidepost is the emotional state of Gulliver, who keeps seeing flashes of the young woman he once loved who drowned. Kostelka communicates a dazed anguish in his performance, and Juráček visualizes the disorientation with a number of clever shots — most notably one in which a house’s floorboards suddenly turn elastic.

Second Run’s Blu-ray features a 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer sourced from the Czech Film Archive’s 4K restoration. This is a very pleasing transfer, with healthy levels of fine detail, solid grayscale separation and impressively mitigated damage, with reel change marks left intentionally intact. The 2.0 LPCM mono track is quite clean.

Second Run’s extras nearly turn this into a “Complete Directed Works of Juráček” set, with only his debut feature, Every Young Man (1966) absent. (Juráček’s career as a writer produced more well-known works, with films like Daises and Ikarie XB 1  also available from Second Run.) Here, we get two shorts, Cars Without a Home and Black and White Sylva, along with short feature Josef Kilián (1963), an absurdist piece about a man’s struggle to return a cat to the location he borrowed it from. An episode of the Projection Booth podcast discussing Juráček’s career is offered as a kind of audio commentary, while the booklet essay by Michael Brooke does a deep dive into the film and its place in Juráček’s brief career.

LilyAll About Lily Chou-Chou (2001)
Film Movement

Films about youth don’t come much more honest than Shunji Iwai’s All About Lily Chou-Chou, in which teenagers’ unvarnished exuberance and surprising capacity for cruelty collide. As a document of the early Internet age, the film taps into the way obsessions became communally turbocharged, with the film’s characters coalescing around their love for singer Lily Chou-Chou. Visualizing an online forum, the film shows breathless comments and usernames flying across the screen, many exalting Lily and the “Ether,” the creative aura fans have ascribed to her art.

In the offline world, Iwai maintains a similar feel, his weightless camera work and Lily’s ethereal music (provided by Takeshi Kobayashi and Salyu) contributing to the dreamlike state. But the realities are much darker here, as friends Shūsuke (Shugo Oshinari) and Yūichi (Hayato Ichihara) have a falling out that involves the formation of a gang and a prostitution ring. The violence and brutality that follow are shocking, but the film never abandons the dreaminess.

Frequently, Iwai returns to a grassy field where a character listening on headphones drifts away on Lily’s music. Music is a genuine balm — but it has its limits, as does a community based around a common interest, as the film’s gut-punch of a final sequence makes clear.

The 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer on Film Movement’s Blu-ray is limited by the source, shot primarily on the Sony HDW-F900 digital camera, then brand-new technology. The film’s vibrant colors are mostly true, and detail is solid when the light allows for it. Expected macroblocking isn’t too bad, apart from several moments during the film’s midway excursion to Okinawa where a switch in viewpoint (and camera) results in totally smeared, degraded images. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is dynamic and offers an excellent showcase for the music.

Extras include an oddly described “making-of featurette” — actually an 86-minute documentary on the online origins and the production of the film. The included booklet features a director’s statement and an essay by Stephen Cremin.

Wanda

Blu-ray Review Round-up: Films by Barbara Loden, Alex Cox, Jindřich Polák and more!

HighwayHighway 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.

KhrustalyovKhrustalyov, My Car! (1998)
Arrow Academy

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.

IkarieIkarie XB 1 (1963)
Second Run 

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.

WandaWanda (1970)
Criterion Collection 

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.

BeckyBecky 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.

ColumbusColumbus (2017)
Oscilloscope Laboratories

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.