All posts by Dusty Somers

Diamonds

Blu-ray Review Round-Up: Films by Charles Burnett, Todd Haynes, Jan Němec and more!

HeavenFar From Heaven (2002)
Kino Lorber Studio Classics 

As a 1950s Hollywood melodrama pastiche, Far From Heaven is unrivaled, from Mark Friedberg’s detail-perfect production design to Edward Lachman’s stunningly vibrant cinematography, full of otherworldly purples and greens. Todd Haynes’ riff on Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows is about as earnest a piece of hero worship as you’ll ever see in cinema, and why not — that’s a film that absolutely deserves to be worshipped.

But while I think Haynes synthesized that cinematic era with his own modern concerns better in CarolFar From Heaven packs a sneakily emotional wallop that I always forget is coming amidst the film’s mannered first half. Of course, much of that is due to the presence of Julianne Moore, an actor whose big gestures are always fascinating, but who communicates acres of unfulfilled longing with just a glance here.

Moore stars as Cathy Whitaker, a suburban Connecticut housewife married to a successful businessman, Frank (Dennis Quaid). Her friends tease her for her “progressive” leanings, like her willingness to converse with the black gardener, Raymond (Dennis Haysbert) working on her yard, but most of Cathy’s actions are aligned with rigid social expectations. A tear in the fabric of her universe — the discovery that Frank is gay — upends that adherence. Why shouldn’t she be friends — or more — with Raymond?

The matter-of-fact examination of racial and sexual topics that would have been strictly taboo — or at least heavily coded — in the filmmaking era that Haynes’ formalism recreates makes for an interesting contrast. It can also make the film feel a bit like an exercise, particularly when the behavior of the judgmental townspeople ratchets up to near-parodic disdain. Those concerns are fleeting though; Far From Heaven builds to a devastating emotional crescendo that would make Sirk proud.

Kino gives Far From Heaven a long-awaited US Blu-ray (a Canadian release with a 1080i transfer came out a while ago), and naturally, one holds their breath considering the ways Universal might have applied its typical “enhancements.” Fortunately, this is a largely pleasing transfer, doing justice to the vibrancy of the colors, and presenting a clear, stable image with only hints of speckling here and there. The noise-reduction tendencies of Universal do seem to be at play some here, as grain structure is faint, and some images have a slightly soft, smooth quality to them. But overall, it’s easily a worthwhile upgrade over the DVD.

Kino has carried over all the extras from the DVD: a Haynes audio commentary, three behind-the-scenes featurettes and the theatrical trailer.

SleepTo Sleep with Anger (1990)
The Criterion Collection

Great films often provide a kind of dual pleasure. There’s the enjoyment of the moment, of course, but also the anticipation of enjoyment in the future, as one realizes there’s no way one viewing will be sufficient. In the case of Charles Burnett’s third feature, To Sleep with Anger, there’s also the sense that every subsequent viewing is going to be monumental in a distinct way; this is a film that contains multitudes, every gesture and cut significant.

Burnett, one of the vanguard figures in Black independent filmmaking, offers us a rich text, suffused with the mysteries of folklore and the vagaries of familial relationships. The film’s indelible first scene — moody, then unsettling — features family patriarch Gideon (Paul Butler) stone-still as he bursts into flames. Naturally, a sense of dread hovers when the film proper begins. Still, it’s deeply reductive to label the tone of To Sleep with Anger as any one thing.

The South Central LA household at the film’s center receives a jolt with the arrival of Harry (Danny Glover), an old friend that husband and wife Gideon and Suzie (Mary Alice) knew long ago in the South. It doesn’t take long for their open-armed hospitality to spoil, as Harry not only blithely overstays his welcome, but also brings a host of hangers-on along with him. His mysticism and superstition seem to align echoes of the past with tensions of the present.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the way Harry’s presence exacerbates the family’s simmering conflicts, particularly between Gideon and Suzie’s diametric sons, ostensibly responsible Junior (Carl Lumbly) and aimless Babe Brother (Richard Brooks), who falls under the spell of this corn-liquor-assisted raconteur.

Because he’s played by the impossibly magnetic Glover, Harry is inevitably a likable figure despite his flaws. But these contradictions are essential to Burnett’s storytelling. Harry is established as a tempter, but he never explicitly does anything to cause harm, even as Gideon seemingly succumbs to the premonition in the film’s opening and falls mysteriously ill. Does anything in To Sleep with Anger actually happen because of Harry, or are there more deeply rooted causes?

Never before released on DVD, To Sleep with Anger receives the long-overdue deluxe treatment with Criterion’s new Blu-ray, which features a gorgeous 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer, sourced from a 4K restoration. The film’s very grainy look is handled perfectly, with excellent levels of fine detail. The earthy, naturalistic color palette is rendered beautifully, and damage is basically nonexistent. A clean DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 soundtrack is included.

The major extra is a conversation between Burnett and filmmaker Robert Townsend, with the two tracing Burnett’s career as they visit locations in Los Angeles from Killer of Sheep and To Sleep with Anger. Perhaps the best revelation here: Burnett seems determined to keep making films, despite acknowledging the difficulties of securing funding. Also included: a featurette about the film’s inceptions with new interviews with Burnett, Glover, actress Sheryl Lee Ralph and associate producer Linda Koulisis, and a video tribute created for the honorary Academy Awards ceremony where Burnett was feted. An insert features an essay by critic Ashley Clark.

diamondsBDDiamonds of the Night (Démanty noci, 1964)
Second Run

At first, Jan Němec’s debut feature Diamonds of the Night feels like a jolt of unvarnished realism, a long tracking shot capturing two teenaged boys’ frantic run through the forest after they’ve escaped from a concentration-camp-bound train. It’s visceral and blood-churning, and the film rarely strays from those feelings. But the detours are frequent and strange in Němec’s telling, the desperation of the present melting into nostalgia, fantasy and nightmare. The film folds in on itself over and over, a series of recursions that emphasize the compound trauma of one of history’s greatest horrors. In that way, it’s the most accurate Holocaust film I’ve ever seen.

The film never names the two boys (Ladislav Jánsky, Antonín Kumbera) and long stretches pass between brief snatches of dialogue. But this is not a minimalist film, even if Němec only gradually shades in the context. The horrors are both elemental (aching feet wrapped in newspaper, parched mouths bloodied by a crust of bread) and surreal (a swarm of ants enveloping a face). The exultations are just as deeply felt, whether in the remembrance of a budding romance or the primal relief of a rainstorm’s hydration. The thin membrane between reality and longing dissolves strikingly in a sequence where one of the boys’ sexual and violent fantasies overwhelm his fraught position, unwelcome in a farm kitchen. There’s not a single cut in this film that doesn’t explode with purpose. The feeling is electrifying.

Second Run’s Blu-ray features a 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer, sourced from a new 4K restoration by the Czech National Film Archive. The film looks exceptional, with superb levels of fine detail and image consistency. Even in darker images, where some harsh blacks are present, detail is not lost. Damage is minimal. The 2.0 uncompressed mono track provides an excellent showcase for the film’s intricate sound design, which is just as innovative as the film’s editing. When the boys encounter a bumbling but dangerous group of German citizens, the horrors become primarily auditory.

Extras include one overlap with the forthcoming Criterion edition — Němec’s student thesis film A Loaf of Bread — but are otherwise distinct. Michael Brooke offers his typically exhaustive research to an audio commentary and a booklet essay; Eva Lustigová, the daughter of source novel author Arnošt Lustig, discusses the film; and Czech film expert Peter Hames contributes an appreciation. The bonus material on the Criterion —particularly that James Quandt visual essay — looks enticing. But why wait? Second Run’s gorgeous, region-free Blu-ray beckons.

JuliaMy Name is Julia Ross (1945)
So Dark the Night (1946)
Arrow Academy

Joseph H. Lewis may have only reached the heights of Gun Crazy once, but he was still an effective noir craftsman, as Arrow’s two new releases can attest to. In the efficient piece of pulp My Name is Julia Ross, he builds a tale of psychological manipulation with no extraneous moving parts, and in So Dark the Night, a languorous detective story slowly curdles.

Julia Ross stars Nina Foch as the title character, a woman who jumps at the chance to escape her directionless life by taking a secretary job for a kindly widow named Mrs. Hughes (May Whitty). On her first day at the live-in position, she falls asleep in a London apartment. When she wakes up, she’s locked in a seaside Gothic mansion’s upstairs bedroom, and Mrs. Hughes insists she’s the memory-loss-afflicted wife of her son, Ralph (George Macready). Lewis triggers the trapdoor quickly, plunging the viewer into an empathetic state of disorientation, and Foch’s performance drifts between defiance and acquiescence, allowing for some ambiguity as to whether she’s becoming psychologically unmoored or just playing along. The film’s setup is flawless; the execution requires a fair bit of contrivance — especially the presence of a very convenient secret door. Still a fun and stylish film, all in just over an hour.

DarkSo Dark the Night, while only a few minutes longer, can feel like it’s spinning its wheels for not insignificant portions, with a bland characterization at its center set up that way only to be subverted later. That person is Steven Geray’s renowned Henri Cassin, a Paris inspector who’s finally taking a break from his professional dedication to take a holiday in the country. At the inn he’s saying at, there’s an inexplicable romantic connection with the much younger innkeeper’s daughter (Micheline Cheirel) and several conflagrations with her fiancé. When both of them disappear, Cassin vows to discover the truth. Lewis’ camerawork is elegant, but the pacing drags, and the film’s climactic psychologizing prevents a more disturbing finale.

The 1080p, 1.33:1 transfers, sourced from Sony’s 2K restorations, are solid black and white presentations, with decent levels of fine detail and good grayscale separation. Both films display some age-related wear and quality fluctuations, but in both cases, restoration efforts have delivered a mostly consistent presentation. The uncompressed mono tracks don’t display any major issues.

Both discs feature a solid slate of bonus material. On Julia Ross, we get a commentary track from Alan K. Rode and a featurette analyzing Lewis’ style by the Nitrate Diva, Nora Fiore. On So Dark, Glenn Kenny and Farran Smith Nehme contribute a commentary track, while Imogen Sara Smith offers her own take on Lewis’ career in a featurette. Trailers are included on both discs. 

Day AfterThe Day After (2018)
Cinema Guild

“Playful” is probably not the first word that comes to mind when thinking about Hong Sangsoo’s The Day After, particularly with it coming on the heels of the sunnily whimsical Claire’s Camera. This concluding entry in Hong’s unofficial trilogy of infidelity is a dourer affair, both in the black and white photography and the tenor of his satire. The lacerations of male ego here are less likely to be leavened, and the ostensible protagonist (always a slippery categorization in Hong’s films), book publisher Bongwan (Kwon Haehyo), is a particularly selfish prick.

Still, “playful” seems like the best word to describe the film’s structure, which invisibly shifts between the past and the present, flashbacks or memories invading constantly. That the main events of the film ultimately seem to take place on a single day adds to the disorientation. This is a small-scale story told with enormous emotional reverberations.

At the film’s beginning, Bongwan’s wife (Cho Yunhee) allows herself to admit that her husband is having an affair. Resolutely uncommunicative, he withdraws into his thoughts, stricken not by memories of his wife, but the assistant (Kim Saebyuk) he was sleeping with. But she’s already moved on.

To replace her, Bongwan hires Areum (Kim Minhee), who takes her new boss’s callous paternalism in stride. Less acceptable to her: Being mistaken for the previous assistant when Bongwan’s wife shows up. The setup is pure comedy of errors. The execution serves to underline the alienation Areum is feeling in her life, and the film’s perspective suddenly shifts, the weight of her emotional drift much more potent than Bongwan’s sullen heartbreak.

Cinema Guild’s 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer is excellent, offering a crisp, detailed reproduction of the film’s digital photography. Hong has great feel for the textures and gradations of black and white. A DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack is mostly subdued, but dialogue and music are presented cleanly.

Extras include a Q&A with Hong and cinematographer Kim Hyungkoo, trailers and an insert with an essay by critic Dennis Lim.

2424 Frames (2017)
The Criterion Collection 

For his final metamorphosis, Abbas Kiarostami melded his still photography with his filmmaking, another experimental flourish in a career full of blurring the lines between artifice and reality. In 24 Frames, still images burst into life, but the ensuing vignettes, many of them focused on animals and nature, are pure fabrications, animated collages that have been added to the original photograph. As usual with Kiarostami, truth in imagery is a mutable concept.

Also per usual, these four-and-a-half-minute segments are as deeply compelling as they are enigmatic. Often, very little happens. A deer reacts to a gunshot in the distance. A dead bird is caught in a beach’s tide. A group of people ponders the Eiffel Tower. 24 Frames has the appearance of a gallery installation, and it would no doubt work well in that context, but the cumulative effect of these story fractions is palpable.

The film opens with Pieter Bruegel’s painting “The Hunters in the Snow,” which rustles to life with snow falling and chimney smoke rising. From there, every image is a Kiarostami original. With dozens of options to choose from, the film was narrowed down to its final form with the help of son Ahmad Kiarostami after Abbas’s death. In a filmography full of masterpieces, 24 Frames is more of a curio, but it unmistakably shows an artist who never strayed from whatever defiantly original vision he had at the time.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer, sourced from a 2K master is gorgeous. Both color and black-and-white images are detailed and vibrant, and as one would expect for a brand new, digitally created film, the transfer is flawless. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is lively and realistic. My cats were alternately mesmerized and provoked by the animal sounds coming through the speakers.

Bonus features include an interview with Ahmad Kiarostami, who discusses his work on the film after his dad’s death; a brief conversation between scholars Jamsheed Akrami and Godfrey Cheshire, and a making-of featurette with some behind-the-scenes footage. A trailer and an insert with an essay by critic Bilge Ebiri round out the supplements.

Claire1

Blu-ray Review Round-Up: Films by Karel Zeman, Julien Duvivier, Hong Sangsoo and Robert Altman

InventionInvention for Destruction (Vynález zkázy, 1958)
Second Run 

After their incredibly gorgeous Blu-ray release of The Fabulous Baron Munchausen, I was hopeful for more Karel Zeman goodness from Second Run, and the wait wasn’t long. Invention for Destruction (or The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, as it’s more commonly known in the US) is as big a revelation for black-and-white animation on Blu-ray as Munchausen was for color. In an effort to recreate the look of the line engravings used in the illustrations in Verne’s novels, Zeman undertook the Herculean effort of covering every costume, prop and set piece in lined hatching, and the blend of the live-action and animated elements of the film is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Zeman’s command of hyper-artificiality results in visually stunning frame after frame, and it doesn’t hurt that the adventure tale is incredibly fun.

It’s easy to read the plot, in which a professor’s (Arnošt Navrátil) explosive device is co-opted by an evil genius (Miloslav Holub) with dastardly plans, as a cautionary tale in a nuclear era. Certainly, the film hinges on a viewpoint that all scientific progress isn’t created equal. Nevertheless, its Verne inspiration gives the film a dashing quaintness far removed from atomic-age paranoia. There’s little doubt that hero Simon Hart (Lubor Tokoš) and his companion Jana (Jana Zatloukalová) will outsmart the villains and save the day. What’s unexpected are the ways Zeman blends cutouts, stop-motion, live-action and even processed stock footage to create a world where literally anything seems possible.

Second Run’s Blu-ray, sourced from a new 4K restoration of the film, presents a 1080p, 1.37:1 image that is utterly gorgeous. It’s apparent immediately how even DVD resolution would be woefully inadequate to handle the intricate line-work in Zeman’s animation. (To say nothing of the awful VHS director John Stevenson remembers seeing in his appreciation on this disc.) Fine detail is stunning, grayscale separation is beautiful and damage has been almost completely eradicated. Uncompressed 2.0 mono is clean.

An impressive slate of bonus features are included. Alongside the aforementioned Stevenson interview are two Zeman stop-motion shorts: the cutesy if dark King Lavra, about a ruler’s unconventional relationship with his barbers, and the more experimental Inspiration, with some beautiful handmade craft. Both films are unrestored but in decent condition. Archival making-of featurettes, a restoration demonstration and a booklet with an essay by critic James Oliver are also included.

PaniquePanique (1946)
Criterion Collection

There’s nothing subtle about Julien Duvivier’s excoriation of mob rule in the finale of Panique, in which seemingly every resident of a Paris suburb turns against one man. But in his first post-Hollywood film, Duvivier earns the excess by expertly escalating the menace in this noir-tinged thriller. Bloodlust and just plain old lust lurk beneath the surface of encounter after encounter, and it’s never quite apparent just what to make of protagonist Monsieur Hire (Michel Simon, in a wonderfully eccentric performance), a loner who eschews social niceties and does things like urge the butcher to give him a bloodier piece of meat. The whispers follow everywhere he goes.

Hire seems unperturbed by the negative attention and by the discovery that a woman has been murdered in his quiet town, but he’s not as unflappable when it comes to Alice (Viviane Romance), a woman who moves in across the street. Hire’s voyeuristic leering improbably turns into romance, but that’s not nearly the whole story, as Alice is a woman recently released from prison after taking the rap for her criminal boyfriend, Alfred (Paul Bernard). Hire is being played for a fool, but he’s not merely a dupe; his profession consists of running threadbare scams as a spiritualist who goes by Dr. Varga.

The slippery nature of Hire’s true self and the film’s exquisite camerawork — both its penetrating close-ups and elegant crane shots — make for a riveting depiction of moral rot beneath pleasant banality. Noir staples, like a shadowy carnival, feel fresh. In the wake of France’s occupation, Duvivier’s scorn for unthinking mass hysteria is a bitter pill shoved down the throat with extreme force. After the murky moodiness of most of the film, it’s an even starker ending by comparison.

Criterion presents Panique in a 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer, sourced from a new 2K restoration. Largely, this is an excellent black and white transfer, with a detailed, clean image. The film’s look lies mostly in the middle of the grayscale, without deep blacks or bright whites, but tones are consistent. There are a few minor density fluctuations, but overall, damage has been minimized. The uncompressed mono soundtrack is excellent, with only the slightest hint of hiss.

Extras include a very entertaining and informative supplement on the art of subtitling from Rialto founder Bruce Goldstein. The featurette compares different translations throughout the years, including those of Panique, and outlines the key characteristics of good subtitling. Also new: an interview with Pierre Simenon, son of author Georges Simenon, who wrote the source novel. Ported from the French release: a conversation between critics Guillemette Odicino and Eric Libiot about the film. The re-release trailer and an insert featuring essays by James Quandt and Lenny Borger (whose new subtitles accompany the film) are also included.

ClaireClaire’s Camera (2017)
Cinema Guild

Lately, it feels like fully appreciating one of Hong Sangsoo’s films requires some external knowledge about the filmmaker, with three of his more recent works detailing the price of infidelity and starring Kim Minhee, who Hong had a real-life affair with. The first part of this unofficial trilogy, On the Beach at Night Alone — also available on a nice Blu-ray from Cinema Guild — confronts the deeply penetrating aftereffects of the illicit relationship. The middle entry, Claire’s Camera, strikes a markedly different tone, in a breezy but not blithe examination of its characters’ not so immutable life choices. (Third part, The Day After, is slated for a Blu-ray release from Cinema Guild next year.)

Isabelle Huppert’s charming bemusement mirrors the tone of the film. She stars as Claire, a teacher visiting Cannes. Separately, she strikes up conversations with a pair whose one-night dalliance has recently been discovered: film director So Wansoo (Jung Jinyoung) and recently fired production company assistant Manhee (Kim). As with everyone she meets, Claire offers to take their picture with her mini Polaroid camera. Claire is both outside observer, encountering these people at difficult moments in their lives, and agent of change, helping Manhee to understand where her suddenly stalled life is headed.

As she ambles through the sleepy town with Manhee, the film itself starts to fracture in unusual ways. Claire’s encouragement to look at things in a different way is equally applicable to the film, which functions as a low-key observational comedy about a nascent friendship and something approaching a time-travel thriller, seemingly phlegmatic scenes of conversation interlocking in unusual ways.

Cinema Guild’s Blu-ray offers a pleasing 1080p, 1.85:1 image that effectively conveys the clean digital photography. A 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is more than necessary for the dialogue-heavy film. Extras include a Q&A with Hong at the New York Film Festival, a trailer and an insert with “reflections” by Claire Denis — reflections being a wry poem.

GosfordGosford Park (2001)
Arrow Academy

Who needs 13 episodes to tell a whole houseful of stories? Certainly not Robert Altman, whose sometimes overlooked facility for visual storytelling is on prominent display in Gosford Park, an upstairs-downstairs murder-mystery in which several dozen characters are given meaningful arcs in just a shade over two hours. Writer Julian Fellowes would go on to greater fame with Downton Abbey, originally planned as a spinoff of Gosford Park, but in this episodic age, it’s heartening to revisit a beautifully self-contained piece of work like this one.

Altman, almost always a fan of the roving camera, really goes all-in on that idea here, with a continuous stream of graceful Steadicam shots. The camera is always in motion, if only slightly, as it peers on the wealthy guests at an English country home and the cadre of servants below, resentments and secrets spilling out at every turn. Hosting are the McCordles (Michael Gambon, Kristin Scott Thomas), and among the guests are American film producer Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban, who conceived the project with Altman), actor Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) and the imperious Lady Trentham (Maggie Smith), whose attitude belies her financial precariousness.

Trentham’s demands weigh heavily on her servant Mary (Kelly Macdonald), who finds some common ground with some of the serving class, played by an array of great performers: Clive Owen, Emily Watson, Alan Bates, Helen Mirren, Eileen Atkins. Also Ryan Phillippe is there, and his terrible Scottish accent thankfully turns out to be narratively motivated. (His assurance that he’s known in Hollywood for his discretion is also a highlight of slyly funny lines in a film full of them.)

By the time the murder-mystery element comes into play — heavily foreshadowed by Weissman’s next Charlie Chan picture about a murder in the country — the film already has so many intriguing threads, it hardly seems necessary, and to Fellowes’ and Altman’s credit, it’s more of a feint than anything, setting up the film’s true central revelation. It also provides an opportunity for Stephen Fry to play a gloriously stupid inspector, a shot of overt comedy in a film with a drier tenor.

By not belaboring the class tensions that are obviously present — the servants’ requirement to go by their employers’ name is swiftly and sharply dehumanizing — Fellowes and Altman provide ample time for each person’s foibles and desires to emerge. Anyone could credibly be the protagonist of this film if the camera lingered just a little longer.

Arrow’s 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer, sourced from a new 2K restoration of a 4K scan, is a superb rescue job for a film that has languished on home video. A Canadian Blu-ray from many years ago was terrible, but this transfer is excellent, handling what can be a very grainy and drab film with delicate care. Even in exterior shots that display heavy grain, the film looks natural and not noisy, and the subtle gradations of light and shadow in the mostly interior film never result in a drop in detail. The overall dullness of the color palette might limit the wow factor, but the film looks great. DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and LPCM 2.0 sound mixes are available, and both are adept at handling the film’s overlapping dialogue and flurries of activity.

Extras include three audio commentaries: an archival Altman (with production designer son Stephen Altman and producer David Levy) and an archival Fellowes, alongside a new track featuring critics Geoff Andrew and David Thompson. New interviews with executive producer Jane Barclay and actor Natasha Wightman are included, alongside archival featurettes about the making-of, and a post-screening Q&A. 20 minutes of unrestored deleted scenes, with optional Altman commentary, and a trailer round out the supplements.

Gabbeh

Blu-ray Review Round-up: Films by Joaquim Pedro de Andrade, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Olivier Assayas & more!

AndradeJoaquim Pedro de Andrade: The Complete Films
Kino Lorber

Brazil’s Cinema Novo movement is woefully underrepresented on English-friendly home video. Likely the most recognizable figure, Glauber Rocha, doesn’t have a single film available on DVD in the US. (Mr. Bongo has put out some titles in the UK.)

That makes Kino’s three-disc set of the complete filmography of Joaquim Pedro de Andrade all the more remarkable, offering a comprehensive look at a shape-shifting filmmaker whose work hasn’t been easily available in this country. Eight shorts and six features are included, and as one goes through the set, it becomes clear how vital it is for all these films to be presented together. Macunaíma (1969) is unquestionably his most famous, but no single film encapsulates Andrade’s style or concerns, which can shift radically from one work to the next. Having everything in one package really helps the viewer appreciate the diversity.

Andrade’s feature-film career began with a documentary, Garrincha: Joy of the People (1963), on the soccer legend who met a tragic end, before he moved to fiction with The Priest and the Girl (1965), a drama that at points approaches Dreyer in its austerity. A newly ordained priest (Paulo José) finds his commitment to his principles wavering when he meets Mariana (Helena Ignez), a young woman controlled by her caretaker (Mário Lago), who’s determined to marry her. The strictures of “proper” behavior are felt in Andrade’s compositions, making the film’s eventual hints at sensuality all the more deeply felt. It’s a superb film, and a real outlier among Andrade’s more sardonic work to come.

Macunaíma is something truly sui generis, an outrageous comedy that careens from scenario to scenario at maximum volume and absurdity, satirizing Brazil’s racial politics and militarized society. Macunaíma is born a fully grown man (Grande Otelo) to an indigenous woman (Paulo José) in the Amazon jungle, and endures all manner of abuse before he’s magically transformed into a white man (José, in an especially odd bit of double-casting), which provides him the opportunity for easy social advancement as he moves to Rio. There, he gets caught up in revolutionary politics and even fathers a black child of his own (Otelo again). Among the easily describable elements of the film: Cartoonish violence, assaultive sound design and a surprisingly downbeat conclusion.

Andrade continued to reinvent himself: The Conspirators (1972) is docudrama with a fatalist edge (I was reminded of Lucrecia Martel’s Zama), telling the real-life story of Tiradentes’ failed anti-colonial coup. Conjugal Warfare (1975) parodies the popular Brazilian sex-comedy genre with a trio of interlocking grotesqueries, where hate and sex are two equal and cooperating forces. The Brazilwood Man (1981) explodes the biopic, portraying writer Oswald de Andrade (no relation) by a male (Flávio Galvão) and female (Ítala Nandi) actor, both often sharing the screen and interacting with others in distinct ways.

The short films are mostly documentaries, aside from Tropical Lane (1977), a segment from an erotic omnibus film about a guy who wants to fuck a watermelon. Andrade contained multitudes.

The 1080p transfers, all sourced from new 2K restorations, are consistently impressive, from the beautiful grayscale separation of The Priest and the Girl to the riot of colors in Macunaíma. Elements appear to be in excellent shape across the board, with very minimal damage. Clarity, stability and fine detail are excellent. The uncompressed 2.0 mono tracks are consistently clean as well. No on-disc extras are included, but a booklet features a nice overlook of Andrade’s career in an essay by critic Fábio Andrade.


Cold WaterCold Water 
(L’eau froide, 1994)
Criterion Collection

It’s a good time to be an Olivier Assayas fan, what with Arrow’s recent UK Blu-ray releases of Irma Vep and his first two features, Disorder and Winter’s Child. Even better: Criterion’s rescue of Cold Water, a film that never even got a non-festival US theatrical release, but is one of the French filmmaker’s greatest achievements, now finally available on home video.

Portraits of disaffected youth don’t get more fully realized than this, with Assayas’ on-the-verge-of-chaotic handheld camera work putting the viewer square in the middle of the frame of mind of teenagers Gilles (Cyprien Fouquet) and Christine (Virginie Ledoyen). There’s a class divide between these two, and their interests don’t seem particularly aligned, but their shared agitation at their lives’ stasis makes for a combustible attraction. First, they steal an armful of records from a store, leading her to get caught and pushing her into an even more precarious living situation when her dad hands her over to a mental institution. Then, their gambit to break out of bourgeois boredom escalates with a decision made during the film’s centerpiece sequence, a party at an abandoned house.

Needle-drop soundtracks tend to be derided for their thudding literalness, but Assayas shows it doesn’t have to be that way, first with the undulating weirdness of Bryan Ferry’s voice coming from Gilles’ and his brother’s radio, as they tune in to “Virginia Plain,” like a dispatch from another world. And then, during that party sequence that makes up the bulk of the film’s second half, the classic-rock hits pile up onto one another, an unseen DJ spinning Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Creedence and Alice Cooper. Nothing is a deep cut, and in plenty of other contexts, these familiar songs could seem uninspired. Instead, they feel true to what these kids would be interested in, and with no source ever visible, they straddle a strange divide between diegetic and non-diegetic that perfectly accompanies Assayas’ swooning camera. As Gilles and Christine make plans that are almost certainly doomed, it’s still impossible to not get swept up in the romance of the moment. Then: the ultimate puncturing of the fantasy in Assayas’ brutally perfect final shot.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer, sourced from a new 4K restoration, is excellent, showcasing the 16mm-shot film’s grain structure perfectly. Despite the on-the-fly nature of the imagery, which can be soft and/or out-of-focus at points, the image looks very nice, even projected on a large screen. Colors are muted but consistent. Damage has been almost completely eradicated. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is obviously at its best during the party sequence, but dialogue-heavy sequences are also solid, with clean and clear audio.

Extras are minimal: New interviews with Assayas and cinematographer Denis Lenoir are interesting but brief, and are accompanied by an excerpt from a 1994 French TV show that has interviews with Assayas and his two leads. An insert with an essay by critic Girish Shambu rounds out the supplements.

les parentsLes Parents Terribles (The Storm Within, 1948)
Cohen Media

A true polymath, Jean Cocteau left his mark on the worlds of poetry, literature, theater and of course, film, where his adaptation of Beauty and the Beast and his trilogy of Orpheus-myth films are some of cinema’s most beloved fantasias. Given his diversity of artistic feats, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Cocteau’s filmmaking prowess wasn’t limited to surreal flights of fancy. Les Parents Terribles, based on his own play, is a clear-eyed dose of tragedy, and a sterling example of a theater-to-film adaptation that uses imaginative camerawork to open up the story’s confines.

Probably titled the way it was as a play on Cocteau’s earlier novel Les Enfants TerriblesLes Parents Terribles (retitled in English as The Storm Within) features a family full of dysfunction from all corners. The setup is classic farce: Grown son Michel (Cocteau regular Jean Marais) dares to break the bond with his overbearing mother (Yvonne de Bray) by venturing into a relationship with Madeleine (Josette Day). Mom isn’t happy, but neither is Dad (Marcel André), who unbeknownst to all, has also been seeing Madeleine.

What follows hews closer to melodrama than comedy, though Marais is a source of not insignificant humor as an oblivious man-child, clearly stunted by his unhealthy connection to his mother. De Bray’s performance borders on the overwrought, but for her, her son’s attentions are a literal lifeline, and her outbursts begin to make sense as we see just how intertwined the two are. What Cocteau does brilliantly is peel back the outward concern each character seems to be showing for one another to reveal the deeply rooted self-interest propelling each person. That’s especially true of Aunt Léo (Gabrielle Dorziat), who initially seems to be a responsible, selfless caretaker before her own past wounds come to light.

Besides a brief foray to Madeleine’s apartment, the whole film takes place in the seemingly labyrinthine family home, Cocteau’s camera peering down passageways or above from the ceiling. The setting is anything but homey, and in every room in the sprawling estate there seems to lie a secret that will tear these people apart.

Cohen’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer is sourced from a new 2K restoration, and the result is quite pleasing, with strong clarity and stability and healthy levels of fine detail. The image can appear a little soft, and there are a few quality dips, but it’s a solid presentation overall. Uncompressed 2.0 mono is clean, but limited by its age.

Extras include a new, enthusiastic introduction by Richard Peña, an archival interview with assistant director Claude Pinoteau and several camera tests. The original and re-release trailers are also included.

unnamedMohsen Makhmalbaf: The Poetic Trilogy
Arrow Academy

When it comes to Iranian cinema, my mind immediately goes to the cerebral meta-fictions of Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi (obviously a reductive way to describe these two masters’ films, but a quick shorthand). The three films by Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf in Arrow’s extraordinary new set are working in a different mode, though the most recent and least successful has some meta flourishes. In Gabbeh (1996) and The Silence (Sokout, 1998) especially, Makhmalbaf’s sensual imagery is astounding, using vibrant color and intricate sound design as its primary narrative tools. Both films’ fable-like stories blossom into something profound by sheer force of their imagery.

In Gabbeh, an elderly couple (Hossein Moharami and Rogheih Moharami) washes their gabbeh, a traditional Persian rug, in a stream before being visited by the woman (Shaghayeh Djodat) depicted in the rug’s design. She tells them about her romantic longing for a man on a horse, but her prospects are continually dashed by societal forces that push her desires as a woman to the background. Djodat’s expressive face suffuses the film with longing and Makhmalbaf’s images of a teacher plucking colors from the fields and the sky or fabrics being dyed (flashes of Sergei Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates) gives the film a hypnotic quality that’s quite striking.

In The Silence, a young blind boy, Khorshid (Tahmineh Normatova), uses his superhuman hearing to make money for his family by tuning instruments. But he’s easily distracted by the noises around him, often losing his way on the way to work because of a musician’s song or even workers pounding and shaping metal containers. With the landlord impatiently waiting for the rent back home, Khorshid’s inability to do his job becomes even more consequential, but his earthly failures only allow him to fully embrace the mysticism of living in a world of sound. Again, Makhmalbaf’s use of color is stunning, converting the film’s spirituality to tangible images.

In documentary The Gardener (2012), Makhmalbaf struggles to make that same leap, as the film’s engagement with spiritual ideas sits on the surface, and the digital imagery only contains hints of the beauty that came before. With his son Maysam, the filmmaker visits a Bahá’í Faith center in Israel, and the bulk of the film plays out like a promotional testimonial video made by the center itself, as worshippers explain their attraction to the faith. The meta wrinkle involves Maysam and Mohsen filming each other with their small consumer digital cameras and discussing the purpose of the film. An early bit of narration asserts that Maysam will focus on the negative aspects of religion while Mohsen will focus on the positive aspects, but aside from a few forced conversations between the pair, this never really plays out. A third, unseen cameraman captures a lot of the interaction between the two, which weakens the film’s supposed dual-perspective approach. There are some nice shots here, particularly those using a mirror, and Maysam chiding his dad for shooting so much boring footage of the gardener is amusing. But the film never feels fully formed.

Arrow’s 1080p, 1.85:1 transfers for the two earlier films, sourced from new 2K restorations, are gorgeous: filmlike, vibrant and sharp, with superb levels of fine detail. The Gardener, presented in 1.78:1, has the expected digital artifacting due to its source, but looks pretty good, all things considered. The uncompressed mono audio in the earlier films is clean and reasonably dynamic, while the stereo track for The Gardener is adequate, if expectedly a little thin.

A nice selection of extras accompanies the films: an audio commentary for Gabbeh from Godfrey Cheshire, whose extensive 1997 Film Comment piece is also reprinted in the booklet, as well as two interviews with Makhmalbaf, one newly conducted by Jonathan Romney and an archival one focusing on The Silence. Trailers and stills are also included, while the stacked booklet also features an introduction from Makhmalbaf and an essay by Negar Mottahedeh.

ShampooShampoo (1975)
The Criterion Collection

One could make a strong case that Shampoo is Hal Ashby’s best film, infused with the right amount of chaos and just far removed enough from the era it depicts to skewer it with perfectly calibrated cynicism. I can certainly understand preferences for Ashby’s warmer comedies; every laugh in Shampoo is a bitter one. But the way the freewheeling self-absorption of Warren Beatty, who cowrote with Robert Towne, slowly evaporates, culminating in a stark “the party’s over” final shot, makes for a film propelled by its own withering stare at its protagonist.

Of course, hairdresser George Roundy (Beatty) is also on the receiving end of plenty of withering stares from the women he beds in between supremely confident but unfruitful attempts at starting his own salon. Girlfriend Jill (Goldie Hawn) can barely keep his attention for more than a few minutes, while older lover Felicia (Lee Grant, in an Oscar-winning performance) knows he’s only using her for her wealth. George sees her husband Lester (Jack Warden) as a prime candidate to lend him the money he needs, but he gets distracted by Lester’s mistress, Jackie (Julie Christie). Even Lester and Felicia’s daughter (Carrie Fisher) looks at George with condescension. She gets what she wants from him too.

Set on the night of the 1968 presidential election, just before Watergate was set to explode into public view, the film depicts shallow people obsessed with trivialities, though the women tend to be much more self-aware than the men. In the midst of this energetic farce, Beatty’s George stands as the perfect avatar of oblivious American self-interest. Made seven years after the film’s events are set, it’s clear this guy wouldn’t have learned anything in the intervening years. Same goes for the intervening decades since the film was released.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer is sourced from a new 4K restoration and looks excellent, handling the fairly grainy film with aplomb, with fine detail never getting lost even during low-light scenes. The color palette is on the drab side, but is consistent, and damage is basically nonexistent. This is easily the best the film has looked on home video. An uncompressed mono track sounds excellent, while a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track doesn’t add much.

Extras are on the very thin side. All we get are an archival interview with Beatty from 1998 and a new conversation between critics Frank Rich and Mark Harris. Rich also contributes an insert essay. The transfer makes the disc an easy recommendation, but a fuller selection of supplements would’ve been nice.

wendy2

Blu-ray Review Round-up: Films by Kelly Reichardt, Hong Sangsoo, Bill Gunn & more!

WendyWendy and Lucy (2008)
Oscilloscope Laboratories

There’s a scene in Kelly Reichardt’s first masterpiece, Wendy and Lucy, when Michelle Williams’ Wendy is apprehended by a self-righteous teenager working at a small-town Oregon grocery store. She’s trying to shoplift a few cans of barf diet for dogs, Lucy, who’s tied up outside. He hauls her back to the manager’s office, with an indignant quaver in his voice. “The rules apply to everyone equally,” he says. Reichardt, who’s quite possibly the greatest working American filmmaker, keeps the camera on Williams, whose hardened gaze flickers for a moment of incredulity at this statement. The rules apply to everyone equally? Like hell they do.

Wendy and Lucy is one of the most affecting portraits of working-class disaffection in American film. A life on the margins is acutely felt in Reichardt’s images of a gas-station bathroom, a desolate parking lot, a quieted port town, the inside of a busted Honda Accord. There’s beauty too: a stranger who’s kind for no reason other than being kind or the relationship one has with a dog. Lucy, played by Reichardt’s own dog, is a symbol of unadulterated good in a world that takes very little notice of her owner, a woman chasing opportunity in Alaska, if she can only get there.

Reichardt’s eye for striking, unexpected compositions reveals the strangeness in ordinary life and the inner turmoil that’s often hiding underneath a placid surface. There have been a lot of great performances in Reichardt films, particularly in her most recent film, Certain Women, which would have made Lily Gladstone a major star in a just world. But Williams is her ideal collaborator, a performer who pulls back the veil on an inner life with the slightest of gestures. Wendy and Lucy is often described as a small film but it’s not; it’s an expansive one, every character movement and pillow shot of Pacific Northwest terrain building to a devastating emotional climax.

After months of kicking myself for not picking up Soda’s UK Reichardt Blu-ray box before it went OOP, I’m grateful to Oscilloscope for upgrading Wendy and Lucy. (Now we could just use an Old Joy upgrade stateside.) The 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer is very pleasing, significantly improving on the DVD’s handling of the 16mm grain, which looks natural and well-supported here. Colors are true and clarity is strong. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is excellent. Some retrospective extras would have been welcome for a film of this stature, but nothing new is added from the DVD. The intriguing selection of experimental films by Reichardt’s Bard College colleagues remains a great bonus feature though.

Oscilloscope Laboratories / 2008 / Color / 1.78:1 / 80 min / $32.99

PersonalPersonal Problems (1980-1981)
Kino Lorber

A fascinating work of collaboration and experimentation, the “meta-soap opera” Personal Problems is a landmark of Black independent filmmaking, resurrected from the ashes of deteriorating video tape with a new restoration from Kino. Conceived by Ishmael Reed, Steve Cannon and director Bill Gunn, the two-part film/television hybrid casts a restless eye on a family led by the irrepressible Johnnie Mae (Vertamae Grosvenor), an emergency room nurse in Harlem.

Consisting of direct-to-camera address, kitchen-sink domestic strife, musical interludes, nature interludes, juicy if undecipherable gossip and what seems like the whole range of human emotions, Personal Problems contains multitudes. It’s compelling and enervating in almost equal parts. Gunn’s curious video camera always seems to be in the right place to catch a moment, and the smearing inherent in the format lends both a verité-like realism and an otherworldly effect.

Part one, which revels in Gunn’s unusual cutting a little more, features an indelible performance from Grosvenor, whose Johnnie Mae is caught in a love triangle with her emotionally inconsistent husband (Walter Cotton, one of the project’s other originators) and a musician (Sam Waymon, Nina Simone’s brother). Though Personal Problems possesses the building blocks of soap-opera drama — affairs, unwelcome family members, unexpected death — it’s not organized around them. Though the film would benefit from staying centered on Johnnie Mae’s experiences, as Grosvenor is easily its standout actor, it’s approach is far too diffuse to be satisfied by that.

In part two, the focus tightens some with a very long scene set at a wake, and the complaints of a grieving family member become as grating to the viewer as they do the characters. One longs for the “unfocused” escape the first part would have provided. Personal Problems doesn’t play by the rules of narrative though — even rules it seemed to be following just minutes earlier. One can only imagine what a full season of this would have looked like.

Kino’s Blu-ray offers a 1080p, 1.33:1 image that is obviously limited by the capabilities of the 3/4” U-matic tape Personal Problems was shot on. But taking the smearing, ghosting and interlacing as a feature not a bug, it’s easy to appreciate the relative clarity of the image. Hiss is persistent, if not omnipresent, and the audio is pretty clean otherwise, taking into account the intentionally muffled sound of some overlapping dialogue. The disc is also a carefully assembled special edition, with preliminary video and radio versions, deleted scenes, cast and crew interviews, Q&A from the restoration premiere and a booklet with essays by Reed and author Nicholas Forster.

Kino Lorber / 1980-1981 / Color / 1.33:1 / 164 min / $29.95

MatterA Matter of Life and Death (1946)
Criterion Collection

Before viewing the new Criterion disc, it had been a while since I’d seen A Matter of Life and Death, and in my memory, it was mid-lower tier Powell and Pressburger, which is hardly faint praise given the high quality of the pair’s output. But still, it wasn’t major in my recollection. Well, that was a stupid thought.

The new 4K restoration of the three-strip Technicolor is certainly a factor — those reds, my god — but I’m not sure how I missed the reality that this is just a perfect movie, a fantasy in which the universe’s most ecstatic pleasures are earthly delights. The inversion of the expected — heaven’s scenes are in black and white, earth’s are in color — is a brilliant conceit. When WWII RAF pilot Peter Carter (David Niven) cheats death by surviving a jump from his burning plane, he emerges from the sea reborn into an idyllic paradise. Who can fault him for thinking he died and went to beachfront heaven? (Meanwhile, in the strict environs of the real thing, his dead buddy is bending the rules simply by waiting for him to arrive.)

When Peter realizes he hasn’t died, and he can actually pursue a relationship with the woman he fell for over the radio in his presumed final moments, he grabs the opportunity wholeheartedly, as does June (Kim Hunter), the American radio operator. And if love weren’t enough of a reason to exult in living, how about friendship, as offered by the magnanimous Dr. Frank Reeves (Roger Livesey, never more rakishly charming).

When the forces of heaven try to correct their accounting to atone for Peter’s accidental survival, the trio must mount a defense. A Matter of Life and Death seamlessly shifts from ebullient love story to wry celestial courtroom drama as metaphor for US-Britain-European relations, which might be the most ringing endorsement of Pressburger’s screenwriting adroitness there is. Powell, Pressburger, cinematographer Jack Cardiff and production designer Alfred Junge made so many capital-G Great films, it’s almost mind-boggling. To think I once thought A Matter of Life and Death wasn’t among them? Stupid.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.37:1 Blu-ray presentation of the 4K restoration is remarkable, showcasing exceptional depth, astounding color and perfectly clean black and white images. The three-strip Technicolor restoration is impeccable, with none of the color inconsistencies that were present on the old Sony DVD release. The uncompressed mono soundtrack is exceptionally clean. A stunning disc for a stunning film. Ported over from the Sony DVD are Ian Christie’s audio commentary and a Martin Scorsese introduction. Newly filmed are an interview with Thelma Schoonmaker and a featurette on the film’s visual effects. A 1986 episode of The South Bank Show features Powell, while short doc The Colour Merchant focuses on Cardiff’s career. A restoration demonstration and an insert with an essay by critic Stephanie Zacharek are also included.

Criterion Collection / 1946 / Color/Black and white / 1.37:1 / 104 min / $39.95

RoccoRocco and His Brothers (1960)
Milestone Films

Is Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers a work of neorealism or melodrama? Certainly, the film sits somewhere at the intersection of the two, but for me, the film can be most appreciated for its bravura emotional flourishes. It may depict hardscrabble lives, but it does so with the same operatic charge given to the depiction of aristocracies in Senso and The Leopard.

The apparent neatness of the structure, in which each of the five brothers of a working-class Italian family is afforded a delineated section, belies the film’s messy sprawl, which Visconti luxuriates in. The intra-country fractures are writ small, playing out in the conflicts of a family who moves north to Milan.

The major players, brothers Simone (Renato Salvatori) and Rocco (Alain Delon), clash over their dispositional differences — Simone is a pugilist inside and outside of the ring, Rocco is sensitive — and their shared interest in Nadia (Annie Girardot), a prostitute who both brothers use and abuse in different ways. While Simone’s actions are far more egregious, Rocco’s attempts to play savior aren’t necessarily any better for Nadia, or for the family at large.

While all five brothers are constantly trying and failing to live up to the expectations of their religious, domineering mother (Katina Paxinou), it’s Rocco who takes on the biggest burden, and perhaps sets himself up for the most failure. Visconti raises the stakes expertly, every small disappointment or minor fit of rage a stepping stone toward the ultimate tragedy to come. The tragedy is both deeply personal and emblematic of the violent cultural and class shifts in postwar Italy. Looking at it from that perspective, the divide between melodrama and neorealism isn’t so obvious.

Milestone’s Blu-ray release features a 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer sourced from the same 4K restoration as the earlier UK Masters of Cinema release. Largely, this is an excellent transfer, full of impressive levels of fine detail and excellent grayscale reproduction. Image density and clarity can be inconsistent due to the condition of the elements, but the restoration has largely mitigated the damage that’s to blame for this. Overall, the film looks great, and the 2.0 uncompressed mono audio is solid, given the expected limitations of Italian post-sync dubbing of the era.

Milestone has wisely given the nearly three-hour film its own disc, shared just with the Martin Scorsese introduction. Disc two features a newly filmed interview with Caterina d’Amico, daughter of screenwriter Suso Cecchi d’Amico, as well as archival cast and crew interviews, a brief selection of outtakes and a restoration demonstration.

Milestone Films / 1960 / Black and white / 1.85:1 / 177 min / $39.95

HongTwo Films by Hong Sangsoo: Woman is the Future of Man (2004) and Tale of Cinema (2005)
Arrow Academy

It can be difficult to keep up or catch up with South Korean filmmaker Hong Sangsoo, both because of his prolific output (he’s made about two-dozen features in just over two decades) and because many of his early films aren’t easily available in quality English-friendly versions. Arrow kicks off what is hopefully an outpouring of Hong Blu-ray upgrades with a twofer of early films in a US/UK release.

Though one could probably find thematic echoes in most pairs of Hong films, these two are well-suited to be presented together. In both, mirror images of two men reveal their unique brands of misogyny. In Woman is the Future of Man, Hong’s approach is blunt and acrid. Two friends, Lee Munho (Yoo Jitae) and Kim Hyeongon (Kim Taewoo), reunite and discover in their reminiscing that they dated the same woman, Park Seonhwa (Sung Hyunah). Munho seems to be the boorish, ostentatious antithesis to the meek Hyeongon, but flashbacks to their past interactions with Seonhwa complicate this idea. When they decide to go find her in the present, their fundamental similarities become even more apparent.

Tale of Cinema is more melancholy and beguiling, and its aims aren’t as immediately apparent. The emotionally damaged Jeon Sangwon (Lee Kiwoo) clings to the attention of Choi Youngshil (Uhm Jiwon), going so far as to convince her to overdose on sleeping pills with him in a suicide pact. Some of the drama feels a bit overdetermined, and Hong’s typical even-keeled stylistic approach is replaced with a more mobile, zooming camera. The reason becomes apparent in the film’s second half, which introduces a metafictional wrinkle and a new character: the blissfully oblivious Kim Dongsoo (Kim Sangkyung), a source of plenty of cringe comedy in his interactions with Youngshil and others, and a way for Hong to tease out an examination of the divide between film and real life.

Both films share a disc in Arrow’s release, which features two solid 1080p, 1.85:1 transfers. Visuals in both can be a little flat, but clarity and sharpness are strong. Digital manipulation doesn’t appear to be an issue. 2.0 and 5.1 DTS-HD tracks are available for both films, offering clean if understandably sedate dialogue-heavy presentations. Extras include introductions by Tony Rayns and Martin Scorsese, a making-of for Woman and cast interviews for both films. Trailers, galleries and a booklet with an essay by critic Michael Sicinski are also included.

Arrow Academy / 2004/2005 / Color / 1.85:1 / 88 min/89 min / $39.95

PeterBlack Peter (Černý Petr, 1964)
Second Run

Miloš Forman’s debut feature is mostly a modest affair, with a gentler satiric tone than his later Czech films, but its pleasures are numerous, from its wry depiction of the frustrations of teenaged life to the sense that its protagonist’s aimlessness could result in the film going in just about any direction. Perhaps it’s a stretch to call Black Peter unpredictable, but when sullen Petr (Ladislav Jakim) leaves the grocery store where he works to follow a customer he suspects of shoplifting, one could easily see the film following his detours through the streets for the rest of its running time.

Instead, the film’s episodic structure sees Petr trying to please his imperious boss, who extols the integrity of his customers while urging Petr to watch them closely for any suspicious behavior, and clumsily wooing the girlfriend (Pavla Martínková) of an acquaintance. He jockeys for social positioning with another teenager, Čenda (Vladimír Pucholt), who first comes across as a boorish asshole before we realize how pathetic he is. And naturally for a Forman film, there’s a wide disconnect between generations; Petr’s imperious father (Jan Vostrčil) doesn’t need much of a reason to berate his son, and his haranguing makes for the film’s most overt “fuck you” to authority with its final freeze-framed image.

Second Run’s region-free Blu-ray marks a vast improvement over the old Facets DVD (a statement that probably always goes without saying). Sourced from the Czech National Film Archive’s 4K restoration, the 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer displays excellent depth and healthy fine detail. A few shots have some inconsistent softness, but it’s minor. Damage is limited to a few isolated incidents. The 2.0 uncompressed mono soundtrack is clean and clear. A nice slate of extras accompanies the film: a typically detailed Michael Brooke audio commentary, a new interview with Martínková and an archival Forman interview about the production of the film. A booklet features an essay on Forman and the film by Jonathan Owen.

Second Run / 1964 / Black and white / 1.37:1 / 90 min / £19.99

 

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based writer and editor who splits his critical ambitions between writing Blu-ray & DVD reviews and theater criticism. He’s a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.

La Belle

Blu-ray Review Round-up: Films by Jacques Rivette, Derek Jarman, Frank Borzage & more!

La BelleLa Belle Noiseuse
Cohen

Jacques Rivette’s engrossing La Belle Noiseuse, surely one of the swiftest four-hour films ever made, at once affirms the quasi-mystical draw of the creative process and punctures the mythos of the artist-muse relationship.

Erstwhile painting great Edouard Frenhofer (Michel Piccoli) is enlivened by meeting Marianne (Emmanuelle Béart), the girlfriend of a younger artist who idolizes Frenhofer. He resurrects an old project with Marianne as his nude model, and he quite literally controls the physical boundaries of their relationship, repositioning her with a utilitarian brusqueness that only amplifies her vulnerability.

Outside of the studio, the emotional repercussions are less violent but more complicated, given the histories between Frenhofer and his wife, Liz (Jane Birkin), and Marianne and her boyfriend, Nicolas (David Bursztein). Liz was once her husband’s model and Nicolas’s idolization of Frenhofer prodded Marianne into agreeing to model. But feelings have a way of changing.

Rivette, a great chronicler of the minutiae of the artistic process, devotes languorous but orderly scenes to Frenhofer’s work, moving from rough sketches, the scraping of the pen on paper acting as an evocative soundtrack, to the fits and starts of moving to a larger scale. Piccoli’s performance has a focused detachment that makes his sudden emotional shifts feel all the more capricious. Béart defiantly asserts Marianne’s boundaries with a fire in her eyes, a counterpoint to the more knotted feelings that emerge when she truly discovers the power imbalance in this partnership. These knots don’t unravel easily in La Belle Noiseuse, and in fact get more tangled the longer the film goes on.

Cohen’s Blu-ray release, sourced from a new 4K restoration, presents a 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer of the film, split over two discs. (The film has an intermission built in.) Largely, this is a fantastic presentation, with perfectly managed grain, beautiful levels of fine detail and exceptional clarity throughout. This is easily the best the film has ever looked on home video. Unfortunately, there is a teal-ish hue to the film’s color palette that wasn’t there on previous home video versions. While it’s possible this was the original theatrical look, it does seem to fall in line with a fairly common trend in new restorations. This is far from the worst offender; scenes in natural light appear mostly normal and colder-hued scenes appear to just be pushed a little further blue.  The 2.0 PCM mono track is excellent: clear, crisp and free from distraction.

Extras include a new audio commentary by film historian Richard Suchenski and archival interviews with Rivette and screenwriters Pascal Bonitzer and Christine Laurent, ported from previous DVDs.

Cohen Media Group / 1991 / Color / 1.37:1 / 238 min / $34.99

SacrificeThe Sacrifice
Kino Lorber

If not exactly dismissed outright, Andrei Tarkovsky’s final film, The Sacrifice, doesn’t quite have the cachet of most of his other films, which range from mere masterpiece to staggering works of sublime, life-changing art. Made while he was exiled from the Soviet Union and dying of cancer, The Sacrifice is ponderous, ungainly, gorgeous and sometimes pointedly nonsensical. It’s an odd, misshapen thing, capable of inspiring awe and dismissiveness. As Robert Bird notes in his essay for Kino’s new re-release, the film is caught between sparseness and theatricality; large, sometimes ridiculous gestures play out on a palette unmoored from narrative structure. But make no mistake: the stakes couldn’t be higher.

In some ways, the irreconcilable peculiarities of The Sacrifice are the only logical response to the madness of nuclear war, which invades the life of a Swedish family living on a remote Baltic island and the birthday celebrations for its patriarch, Alexander (Erland Josephson).

The film opens as he plants a withered tree with his beloved son, Little Man (Tommy Kjellqvist). He relates a story about a dead tree unerringly tended to that came to life and asserts that a single action performed with conviction can have far-reaching consequences.

Later, the family gathers in their home, where Alexander is surrounded by his wife Adelaide (Susan Fleetwood), his older daughter Marta (Filippa Franzén) and mercurial mailman Otto (Allan Edwall), among others. The celebration is cut short by a TV report declaring World War III to be imminent, sending everyone, particularly Adelaide, into an emotional tailspin.

Alexander’s grasps wildly for a self-flagellating solution. He’ll get rid of all his possessions. He’ll have sex with a woman who’s an alleged witch. Why would these actions avert nuclear war? That’s almost as crazy as the very notion of a nuclear weapon itself.

Kino’s new Blu-ray release, sourced from a new 4K restoration, features a 1080p, 1.66:1 image that is largely an upgrade over its previous Blu-ray, which looks particularly muddy in its drained-of-color middle section now. The new image is tighter, with a better defined grain structure, better clarity and much better shadow delineation. Detail isn’t lost in low-light scenes. The one area of potential complaint? Surprise, surprise: It’s the color, which leans in a distinct greenish direction. (Hey, it’s not teal.) This is a pretty big departure from the previous look, though taken by itself, the pleasing aspects of the transfer outweigh this slightly off hue. Audio is a nice 2.0 uncompressed mono track.

This edition has also received a bump in the extras department. A new audio commentary features Layla Alexander-Garrett, Tarkovsky’s on-set translator, and the booklet features excerpts from the filmmaker’s diaries alongside Bird’s essay. Like the previous release, a second DVD disc has feature-length making-of doc Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.

Kino Lorber / 1986 / Color / 1.66:1 / 146 min / $39.95

MoonriseMoonrise
The Criterion Collection

One of my least favorite storytelling crutches is the kind of overt psychologizing that explicates a character’s action by tying it directly to an event from their past. This is essentially the beginning of Moonrise, one of Frank Borzage’s last films, as young Danny is tormented by his father’s execution for murder, and shortly commits one himself once the film catches up to the present.

But Borzage — one of the great atmosphere conjurers of the silent era — suffuses this prologue with a nightmarish dread that can’t help but spill over into the main events of the film. Danny (Dane Hawkins) is basically stuck in an awful dream he can’t escape from, and a series of reckless decisions involving self-destructive violence don’t break the spell. Borzage uses ultra-thick noirish shadowing; everything and everyone seemingly coated in an extra layer of darkness. Hawkins, his face often conveying an amoral blankness, plays Danny less like a tortured soul and more like a man who knows his actions don’t matter.

Danny’s stupor is partially broken by alluring schoolteacher Gilly Johnson (Gail Russell), who just so happens to be the fiancée of the man Danny killed, and his moral compass gets recalibrated thanks to the advice of swamp-dwelling Mose (Rex Ingram, who deepens his clichéd wise black man role). The plotting of Moonrise, which was based on a now-obscure novel, is stock, but Borzage’s filmmaking elevates the material. Even an old noir standby — the carnival scene — gets a new look with a Ferris wheel scene where matched head-on shots of Danny and his pursuer heighten the panic and pin him further inside his own head.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer is sourced from a new 4K restoration, and it handles the film’s darkness very well, maintaining healthy levels of detail and avoiding any issues with crush or artifacting. The image has some intentional softness and a few isolated instances of damage are visible, but this is a strong example of this kind of black-and-white filmmaking on the format. Uncompressed mono audio is reasonably clean.

Aside from a booklet essay from Philip Kemp, the only extra is a new conversation between film historians Peter Cowie and Hervé Dumont.

Criterion Collection / 1948 / Black and white / 1.37:1 / 90 min / $39.95

Intimate LightingIntimate Lighting (Intimní osvětlení)
Second Run

There’s a scene in Ivan Passer’s impeccably observed Intimate Lighting around a dinner table, where pieces of a roast chicken get passed around, everyone trying to defer to one another and making the whole affair much more complicated in the process. This is one of the more action-packed scenes in Passer’s film, which is a wisp — but a delightful wisp.

This scene — and all of the scenes in this episodic slice of life — unassumingly lays out the underlying expectations of its characters. A moderately successful musician, Petr (Zdeněk Bezušek) has returned to the small town where he grew up, and in visiting old pal Bambas (Karel Blažek), there’s that little tinge of benign tension that can occur between friends who haven’t seen each other in some time.

Calling Intimate Lighting a comedy of manners would probably be overstating things, but Passer is very interested in the gentle peculiarities of human interaction, and he lets them play out in scenes of a string quartet struggling to perform Mozart or a late-night rendezvous in an unfamiliar house or a toast that doesn’t quite go according to plan. The films’ charms are as elusive as its plot is simple.

Passer, like his Czech New Wave collaborator Miloš Forman, found his greatest success in the US. But this debut film is a unique jewel that displays some of the wryness of his films he co-wrote with Forman, but without the sharper satirical edge. That it feels so effortless as it occupies this tonal balance is part of what makes the film so enchanting.

Second Run’s region-free Blu-ray release features a 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer sourced from a new 4K restoration by the Czech National Film Archive. This is a nice-looking disc, with solid levels of clarity and detail. Grain is handled well, and the appearance is convincingly film-like throughout. 2.0 uncompressed mono audio is very clean.

Extras include Passer’s debut short film, A Boring Afternoon (1964), an interview with Passer and a booklet featuring essays from Trevor Johnston and Phillip Bergson.

Second Run / 1965 / Black and white / 1.37:1 / 74 min / £19.99

EdwardIIEdward II
Film Movement

Derek Jarman’s adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s Elizabethan play is a study in contradictions. Pulsing with sensual imagery, yet affecting a cool, removed manner, the film is both formally austere and tonally nimble. One can feel a chill in the air from the stage-like environs of the unadorned castle the film was shot in, but each tableau is impeccably designed, whether it’s a sexually charged bedroom scene, an anachronistic gay-rights protest or a headlong leap into pop fantasy when Annie Lennox materializes, singing Cole Porter.

Jarman extracts and expands on the homoerotic undertones of Marlowe’s play, in which new king Edward II (Steven Waddington) exercises his newfound authority to bring back his lover, Piers Gaveston (Andrew Tiernan), from exile. Gaveston is historically known as Edward’s “favourite,” a term that couldn’t much more transparently imply a sexual relationship, but in Jarman’s telling, there’s no need for such a euphemism. The pair flaunts their relationship in front of an increasingly irritated Queen Isabella (Tilda Swinton) and her lover, Mortimer (Nigel Terry), prompting plans for a coup.

Most complaints about the film have to do with a lack of cohesion or simplistic renderings of Marlowe’s dense play and complex characters, but Edward II is one of those films where the greatness of the parts makes up for a whole that might not exactly come together. These complaints aren’t totally off-base, and there’s a haphazardness to the modernizing that’s reminiscent of many current stagings of hundreds-year-old plays, but Jarman’s eye for arresting production design and interesting compositions — not to mention his righteous political anger — make for a bracing experience where every image has a renewing effect on the viewer’s attention.

Film Movement’s new Blu-ray presents the film in 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer that’s a big improvement over the previous DVD release, which I remember as a murky, frustrating mess. Billed as coming from a “new digital restoration,” this transfer has a bit of a hazy look, with some fluctuating image density. Small flecks are common, though they’re mostly unobtrusive. Grain appears to be in good shape, and fine detail is acceptable, given the shadowy look of the film. It’s not a stunning transfer, but it’s quite watchable. Audio is an excellent 2.0 LPCM stereo track.

Extras include an interview with producer Antony Root and a booklet with an appreciation from Swinton and an essay by filmmaker Bruce LaBruce.

Film Movement / 1991 / Color / 1.85:1 / 90 min / $39.95

 

 

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based writer and editor who splits his critical ambitions between writing Blu-ray & DVD reviews and theater criticism. He’s a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.

 

 

 

 

 

Women1

Blu-ray Review Round-up: Films by Hou Hsiao-hsien, Ken Russell, Robert Altman and more!

WomenWomen in Love (1969)
The Criterion Collection 

Sex and death are an inextricable pair in Ken Russell’s film version of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, adapted by Larry Kramer. The imagery is striking but not subtle: Glenda Jackson reclining on a gravestone while discussing the merits of marriage, or two drowned lovers, entwined together and caked with river mud, their bodies melded like an ancient, discarded statue. But who wants subtlety? Russell, after a few minor entries, directing the first of many masterpieces, injects the film with sensual energy, the spryness of his camerawork working in concert with the physicality of his actors.

And what a cast. Jackson, who won her first Oscar for the role, exudes both free-spirited sanguinity and serious-minded practicality, her enigmatic outlook leavened by her sister’s (Jennie Linden) more straightforward approach. They fall in love with a pair of best friends (Oliver Reed, Alan Bates), whose own relationship is underpinned by significant homoerotic tones. (Again, not subtly; there’s an extended nude wrestling scene.) Everyone wants to fuck in Women in Love, but they also want emotional fulfillment and deep, lasting commitment — but not necessarily in the same way their companions want it, to sometimes tragic ends. Maybe it’s not sex that death is so closely linked to here.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.75:1 Blu-ray transfer, sourced from a new 4K restoration, is glorious. The verdant English countryside, dank underground mines and snow-covered peaks are rendered in exceptional detail in a deeply film-like transfer. Extras are a thorough combination of archival and new material, including audio commentaries from Russell and Kramer, Russell’s 1989 self-biopic, 1972 D.H. Lawrence short-film adaptation Second Best and interviews with Russell, Jackson, Linden, Bates, Kramer, alongside newly shot ones with cinematographer Billy Williams and editor Michael Bradsell. A trailer and an insert with an essay by scholar Linda Ruth Williams are also included.

Criterion Collection / 1969 / Color / 1.75:1 / 131 min / $39.95

DaughterDaughter of the Nile (1987)
Cohen Media Group

Not many filmmakers evoke the hazy romanticism of memory of like Hou Hsiao-hsien, one of the most criminally underrepresented contemporary filmmakers on home video. Besides his most recent film, The AssassinDaughter of the Nile is the first Hou Blu-ray release in the US, and it one-ups the UK Masters of Cinema release with a slightly more robust slate of extras.

Though much of the milieu is a burgeoning crime underworld in Taipei, Daughter of the Nile skirts around the edges of gangster-film plotting, its screenplay by Chu T’ien-Wen based on personal experience and its most striking imagery reflecting impressions of urban life (neon-soaked streets, a massive KFC) and domestic life (recurring interior framings reinforce the familiarity of home).

Lin (Lin Hsiao-yang) finds purpose in caring for her family, including her increasingly reckless brother, but she finds herself drifting further and further into a fantasy life, facilitated by a manga series the title of the film refers to. The film itself straddles that line between reality and dreams, chronicling melancholy but mundane everyday living, but also hinting at something more nebulous and mysterious. An actual dream sequence threatens to upend the equilibrium Lin has developed between the disparate parts of her life. The realization that it’s only a dream may be only a small comfort; dreams have a lot of weight in this world.

Cohen’s 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer, sourced from the same 4K restoration as the MoC disc, is exceptional, offering a clear, sharp image that turns ecstatic whenever Hou pivots from naturalistic colors to the almost-unreality of Taipei’s neon. The uncompressed mono audio does have some unpleasant distortion that comes and goes, but is overall fine. An extensive Tony Rayns interview is duplicated from the MoC disc, while an audio commentary from scholar Richard Suchenski is new to this edition.

Cohen Media Group / 1987 / Color / 1.85:1 / 91 min / $30.99

SilenceSilence and Cry (1968)
Second Run

The high-definition upgrades of Miklós Jancsó’s films continue from Second Run, this time with earlier work Silence and Cry (Csend és kiáltás), a slow-burn drama about the poisoning effect of fascism on everyday lives. Consisting mostly of the long takes Jancsó was known for, the film punctuates stretches of uneasiness with sudden acts of horror, like an early murder, carried out perfunctorily. The matter-of-factness only deepens the chilling effect.

A former Communist soldier is trying to avoid that same fate, so he hides out from the Hungarian nationalists on a quiet farm. But this is hardly a refuge, as the farm owner has already drawn the attention of the casually cruel gendarmes, who force him to stand out in a field every day as punishment.

There’s a distancing effect to Jancsó’s approach, with the camerawork consistently more expressive than the performances, which feel boiled down to only the most elemental gestures. The overwhelming feeling here is not one of paranoia, but of resignation to an eventual terrible fate. As always, the virtuosity of Jancsó’s fluid camera movements makes this mostly riveting viewing.

Second Run’s 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer, sourced from a new HD remaster, is excellent, offering healthy levels of fine detail, beautiful grayscale separation and a mostly clean image, with only minor flecks here and there. There’s a clarity to the long shots here that’s essential to enjoying the film. Who wants to puzzle over a fuzzy speck in the distance? Extras are also worthwhile: A trilogy of Jancsó shorts (Presence I, II and III) are included in HD, along with a booklet essay from Tony Rayns, as perceptive about Hungarian cinema as he is about Asian filmmaking.

Second Run / 1968 / Black and white / 2.35:1 / 77 min / £19.99

OldestThe Oldest Profession (1967)
Kino Lorber

Like most Euro-anthologies, The Oldest Profession offers a highly variable collection of shorts, with the duds dragging down the experience enough that you find yourself wishing you were watching one of the better ideas expanded to a feature.

Consisting of takes on prostitution through the ages, most of these films rely heavily on gender stereotypes and corny humor. Mostly all of it is way too toothless to even approach offensiveness. Three of the shorts come from filmmakers whose most notable credits are in other omnibus films (Franco Indovina, Mauro Bognini, Michael Pfleghar), and maybe it’s not a coincidence that these are the weakest three, with Indovina’s prehistoric tale of men being fooled by makeup and Bolognini’s rather chaste idea of the Roman empire serving as two wrong steps right off the bat. Pfleghar at least has a charming Raquel Welch in his film about a prostitute mistaken for a socialite.

Philippe De Broca’s French Revolution tale would be more fun if it didn’t turn Jeanne Moreau’s character into an utter fool, though it’s idea is novel enough. Claude Autant-Lara’s “Paris Today” is the most obvious candidate for full-length treatment, as its story about two women using an ambulance to hide their prostitution business only starts getting ramped up before the film ends. Given that he’s easily the best filmmaker here, it’s no surprise that Jean-Luc Godard’s “Anticipation” is the film’s standout, even though it feels totally tossed off. For fans of Alphaville, it’s fun to see Godard working again in sci-fi mode, as Jacques Charrier attempts to understand love in a dystopian future, with the help (or maybe not so much) of Marilù Tolo and Anna Karina.

The Kino Blu-ray features a 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer that’s quite clean, detailed and stable, though some shots exhibit that teal-ish pallor that seems to afflict a number of recent Gaumont restorations. This is hardly the most overwhelming example though. Extras include the shorter English dub of the film and a trailer.

Kino Lorber / 1967 / Color and black and white / 1.66:1 / 115 min / $29.95

ImagesImages (1972)
Arrow Video

Though there are numerous films that might be cited as counterexamples, I think Robert Altman always brings something interesting to the table. And even if you want to outright dismiss, I don’t know, Dr. T and the Women (I like it), it’s harder to dispute the relevance of his 1970s output, which is jam-packed with masterpieces and endearing oddities.

Images, rescued by Arrow Video after the MGM DVD spent a long stretch in OOP-land, is probably more the latter, though it’s compelling enough I wouldn’t scoff at an assertion of the former.

While Altman would more thoroughly evoke an atmosphere of mental instability with 3 Women, Images is kind of a looser — much looser — take. There’s not a scene that can be definitively labeled as reality or hallucination, which ultimately works to blunt the film’s impact, but should we really be complaining about a great Susannah York performance, filmed by Altman and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond in full-on roving camera excess mode?

York stars as a children’s book author whose shaky grasp on reality becomes shakier when she learns that her husband (Rene Auberjonois) is cheating on her. Or is he? A retreat to a cottage in Ireland should be just the thing to patch this all up, right?

Arrow’s 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer, sourced from a 4K restoration, includes some dupe shots, and the drop-off in quality can be noticeable, particularly in a film that tends toward the grainy side. But for the most part, this is an excellent transfer, with well-resolved grain and solid clarity despite the film’s intentionally hazy look. Extras include a new commentary track by Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger along with an archival Altman selected-scene commentary. A making-of from the previous DVD release, an interview with supporting actress Cathryn Harrison and an appreciation by Stephen Thrower are also included.

Arrow Video / 1972 / Color / 2.35:1 / 104 min / $39.95

BaalBaal (1970) 
The Criterion Collection

Volker Schlöndorff’s adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s first play, largely unseen for decades since its release, isn’t exactly a diamond in the rough. It’s more like rough on top of rough. Abrasive, disjointed and shot in a variety of locations that seem to be competing amongst each other for an ugliness trophy, Schlöndorff’s 16mm primal scream isn’t Brechtian in the traditional sense, but it has its own aesthetic distancing effects that are a good fit with the material.

Just as his directing career was getting started, Rainer Werner Fassbinder stars as the titular poet, a monstrously egotistic artist who flouts polite society before they can reject him, bedding every woman he can along the way. Fassbinder is perfectly cast as the freewheeling degenerate — he has the right amount of grimy charm to earn both the loving and loathing he receives in his crusade against bourgeois society. (Which again, mostly involves copious amounts of drinking, sex and leaving the broken husks of the people he encounters in his wake.)

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer, sourced from a 2K restoration, isn’t as rough as Baal, but it’s close, with some ragged and/or Vaseline-smeared edges and some instances of dirt and debris that haven’t been cleaned up. Much of this is keeping with the aesthetic goals of the film, and the underlying image shows off some of the detail and depth one would expect from a 16mm-sourced image. Extras include two interviews with Schlöndorff, a newly filmed interview with co-star (and Schlöndorff’s collaborator and ex-wife) Margarethe von Trotta, an interview with historian Eric Rentschler and a conversation between Ethan Hawke and playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman, who recently collaborated on a Baal adaptation. Dennis Lim contributes an insert essay.

Criterion Collection / 1970 / Color / 1.37:1 / 84 min / $39.95

 

 

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based writer and editor who splits his critical ambitions between writing Blu-ray & DVD reviews and theater criticism. He’s a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.

MosesAaron_still4

Blu-ray Review Round-Up: Films by Straub-Huillet, F.W. Murnau, Juraj Herz and more!

CasaCasa de Lava (1994)
Grasshopper Film

Pedro Costa’s second feature Casa de Lava is a reimagining of Jacques Tourneur’s atmospheric horror classic I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and Costa is a filmmaker more than equipped to pick up Tourneur’s visual mantle. One of the premier creators of sensual, alluring imagery in modern film, Costa has become a wizard of digital filmmaking, coaxing breathtaking images from cheap digital cameras in In Vanda’s Room (2000), Colossal Youth (2006) and his latest, Horse Money (2014), all examinations of the effects of colonialism on Cape Verdean people.

While those three films are all bewitching in their own ways, Costa’s shot-on-film efforts reveal a filmmaker equally capable of creating striking moments with more traditional tools. Set in the almost alien volcanic landscapes of a Cape Verde island, the film tells the story of a Portuguese nurse, Mariana (Inês Medeiros), who accompanies Leão (Isaach De Bankolé) back to his hometown after a construction workplace accident leaves him in a coma. Instead of finding family or friends willing to take over as caretaker, Mariana discovers a community that doesn’t seem to recognize him. As its source inspiration would imply, the man who was once Leão may not even be really here.

Costa’s film is hazily dreamlike, drifting between vignettes as Mariana delivers doses of medication to the community, meets a French woman who was drawn to the island decades earlier (Edith Scob) and observes the island’s musical traditions. Medeiros’s performance has a searching quality, becoming entranced by the beauty of the country and its people and frustrated by her inability to understand Leão’s condition. Her blazingly bright red dress, an unchanging outfit that further reinforces the fuzzy temporal nature of the situation, is framed as a shock of color against the black volcanic rock of the island. It’s a reminder that she steadfastly remains an outsider in this place, both because of an unwillingness to understand (“Speak Portuguese,” she frequently tells the Creole-speaking islanders) and an inability to. Costa’s enigmatic movie challenges our own inabilities to understand, and its beauty makes us want to try.

As a fledging label, Grasshopper Film has quickly become one of the most exciting distributors in the US in just a few years. Its Casa de Lava Blu-ray sports a 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer, and is the first US release of the film. By and large, this is a solid transfer, with much better clarity and detail than the Second Run DVD. The transfer isn’t perfect, as viewed on a large screen, some haloing and edge fuzziness are visible. There’s also what appears to be a mastering error at the 1:06:49 mark, with a brief horizontal line of interference that appears over Mariana’s face. The uncompressed mono track is clean and clear throughout.

The extras are mostly ported from the Second Run disc, which is worth hanging onto for its exclusive Costa interview. The Grasshopper disc ports a featurette on Costa’s production texts, an interview with cinematographer Emmanuel Machuel and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s booklet essay. New to this edition is an additional booklet essay from Darlene J. Sadlier, excerpted from a volume on the Portuguese diaspora.

Grasshopper Film / 1994 / Color / 1.66:1 / 105 min / $34.95

MosesMoses and Aaron (1974)
Grasshopper Film

Released by Grasshopper just after Casa de Lava, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s adaptation of Arnold Schoenberg’s unfinished opera is an apt companion piece, given Costa’s love for Straub-Huillet (and his 2001 documentary about the pair, Où gît votre sourire enfoui?). It’s also an encouraging sign to see some of these old New Yorker Films titles finally getting released, and this Blu-ray is tremendously better than what was made available on the endlessly delayed New Yorker disc.

Bringing their famously austere style to Schoenberg’s intense telling of the Exodus story, Straub-Huillet set nearly the entire film in an unadorned amphitheater. Many of the film’s compositions are similarly spartan, but there’s a tension between what’s shown and what exists just out of frame. The film opens with a shot of Moses (Günter Reich) from behind, admonishing the Israelites to follow a new God and come out of Egypt. Every cut, like the one that reveals the Israelites, is deliberate, and every camera movement, like the pan up and across the desert sky that follows the film’s opening shot of Moses, serves to place the performative aspects of the film in a more mystical context.

Even for an opera neophyte like myself, it doesn’t take much to get on the film’s wavelength, which feels far more frenzied than the concrete nature of Straub-Huillet’s images might suggest. When Moses ascends Mount Sinai to receive the law, Aaron (Louis Devos) leads the people into a more hedonistic way of living, complete with choreographed dancing. Throughout, there’s a tension between the two leaders’ disparate ways of thinking and conceptions of God, a contradiction that’s acutely felt in Straub-Huillet’s telling.

Sourced from a new 2K restoration, Grasshopper’s 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer is absolutely gorgeous, with exceptional clarity, a stable grain structure and healthy levels of fine detail. The uncompressed mono soundtrack offers an excellent, forceful showcase for the music.

Three bonus Straub-Huillet films easily tip this over into essential disc territory: shorts Introduction to Arnold Schoenberg’s “Accompaninment to a Cinematographic Scene” (1972) and Machorka-Muff (1962), along with their feature debut Not Reconciled (1964), an adaptation of Heinrich Böll’s novel Billiards at Half-past Nine that examines the effect of the rise of Nazism on a family. Also included is an insert with an essay by Ted Fendt. Also of note: A small logo on the cover that says “The Straub-Huillet Collection”; let’s hope this is just the first release of many.

Grasshopper Film / 1974 / Color / 1.33:1 / 107 min / $34.95

DesertDesert Hearts (1985)
The Criterion Collection 

There’s a fascinating cut in Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts, a landmark in the depiction of gay women onscreen, when buttoned-up Columbia professor Helen Shaver (Vivian Bell) and small-town free spirit Cay Rivvers (Patricia Charbonneau) share their first kiss. Before it happens, the two are enjoying a lakeside walk, discussing Cay’s recent breakup with a casino manager, and feeling the tentative push-pull of an attraction that’s been building since they first met.

Then: A thunderclap and a sudden cut to the pair returning to the car, drenched by an unseen downpour. This kind of elision isn’t common in Deitch’s film, which has a languorous feel, scenes bookended by slow wipes or dissolves. This abrupt cut evokes the frisson of Helen’s overwhelming attraction suddenly overtaking her reservations, and a tender kiss through a rolled-down car window ensues.

Based on Jane Rule’s 1964 novel Desert of the Heart, Deitch’s film notably chronicled a lesbian love story that didn’t end in some kind of implicit comeuppance via tragedy. Its characters are archetypes — the starched-shirt professor who’s come to Reno to finalize a divorce, the carefree young woman who’s her emotional opposite (introduced driving backwards down the highway) and the maternal figure (Audra Lindley) torn between tradition and compassion.

The opposites-attract beats are familiar but not stuffy in this telling, thanks to performances from Bell and Charbonneau that feel truly collaborative in their give and take. Almost instantly, you can feel these two are on the same wavelength, Cay pushing and prodding and Helen resisting but not wanting her to stop. The film is set in 1959, when such a relationship would have to stay in the shadows, but Deitch avoids heavy-handed signifiers of social disapproval — we don’t need them — and focuses on the internal conflicts of two women trying to figure themselves out while knowing, even if only tentatively, that they want to be together.

It’s a lovely, emotionally rich film, and Criterion has given it a release to match. The 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer is sourced from a 4K scan of the 2K restoration by Criterion and the UCLA Film & Television Archive, and there’s no question this is the best the film has looked since those first prints were exhibited. Every detail of Robert Elswit’s gorgeous Western photography is immaculate, and the image is a grain-lover’s paradise, with perfectly rendered, film-like grain structure. The natural color palette is consistent and stable, and fine detail remains excellent even in dim, smoky casino interiors. The uncompressed mono soundtrack is perfectly clean, handing dialogue and the Patsy Cline-heavy country soundtrack well.

Extras include a Deitch audio commentary ported over from the 2007 Wolfe DVD release and three new interview featurettes: Deitch with Jane Lynch, whose expressive love for the film is contagious; Deitch with Bell and Charbonneau (though mostly interviewed separately); and Deitch with Elswit and production designer Jeannine Oppewall. Two excerpts from a 1994 documentary give us a brief look at the book’s author, Jane Rule. A trailer and an insert with an essay by critic B. Ruby Rich are also included.

Criterion Collection / 1985 / Color / 1.85:1 / 92 min / $39.95

DawsonDawson City: Frozen Time (2017)
Kino Lorber

There’s a recurring event in Bill Morrison’s documentary/fantasia Dawson City: Frozen Time, where reels of highly flammable nitrate film are responsible for a devastating fire. The infernos are like signposts in this historical record, marking moments of seemingly inevitable destruction as time marches on. Morrison has always had a deep respect for celluloid and the decay that is its inextricable partner. His 2002 film Decasia found transcendence in the decay, as he partnered with it to refashion and repurpose archival footage.

Dawson City: Frozen Time has more trappings of a traditional documentary, packaged inside a not terribly elegant frame story about the discovery of hundreds of reels of silent film footage, buried beneath an old ice rink in the Yukon. Talking-head interviews with two historians bookend the film (and it’s worth it for an adorable payoff), but the film feels more on Morrison’s turf once he delves into history, using both archival photographs and unrelated, but thematically correct, clips from the rediscovered footage to tell the story of the Yukon gold rush — and all its voracious appetites, rights of indigenous peoples be damned — and the aftermath, where a town that was the end of the line for movie distribution simply dumped the reels when they were finished.

Morrison is an exceptional editor, cutting between the real and the fictional and setting them on equal footing. By giving us glimpses of these rediscovered films — some of which are ringed with the nitrate decay that Morrison seems to revel in — he illuminates history and complicates it. There’s an unspoken assertion that these pieces are only a fraction of what has been lost, and our histories will always be incomplete. That makes the improbable resurrection of all these included bits of film all the more thrilling.

Kino’s Blu-ray sports a 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer that’s well-equipped to re-create all the celluloid glory, and there’s a pleasing clarity and detail to many of the shots, despite obvious damage. Everything shot recently looks fine, if a little flat, but the textures of the rediscovered film bits make this well worth the Blu-ray purchase. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is a showcase for Alex Somers’ sweeping score. Morrison isn’t shy about using music to evoke emotion, but the elegiac, eerie score is so irresistible, it’s hard to mind.

Extras include half a dozen reels from the Dawson City discovery, a featurette on the preservation of the films and a brief interview with Morrison. A trailer and a booklet with essays by Lawrence Weschler and Alberto Zambenedetti are also included.

Kino Lorber / 2017 / Color / 1.33:1 / 120 min / $34.95

CrematorThe Cremator (Spalovač mrtvol, 1968)
Second Run

The mood is set immediately in Juraj Herz’s The Cremator, a shattering work of surreal horror and one of the great films about the creep of fascism. In a dizzying prologue full of jagged cuts and oddly composed close-up frames, Herz introduces Karel Kopfrkingl (Rudolf Hrušínský) and his wife (Vlasta Chramostová) and two children (Jana Stehnová, Miloš Vognič). Kopfrkingl strikes a nostalgic tone, reminiscing in front of the leopards about how he and his wife first met there many years ago.

It’s the first time of many that his disposition will be opposed by the filmmaking, which drains the scene of even any potential for warm feelings, culminating in a mirrored fisheye shot of the group — a warped family portrait that will be visually rhymed by more fisheye shots in several climactic horrors.

Hrušínský’s performance should be in the pantheon of all-time horror turns. As the hygiene-obsessed cremator, he oozes smarm, constantly evangelizing about cremation as the ideal method for dealing with human remains. Why should one rot in the ground when a cleansing fire has the whole process finished in a mere 75 minutes? With his near-constant grooming and seemingly one-track mind, Kopfrkingl is clearly an odd person, but Hrušínský keeps elevating the discomfort, and soon his feelings about purity and rightness aren’t relegated to funereal procedures, but have entered the world of the living. The timing is convenient; Czechoslovakia is about to be overtaken by Nazis.

Herz walks a fine line between the hideous and the hideously entertaining, infusing this disturbing story with a streak of black comedy, and it’s his formal control that unites every tonal jackknife. Every frame and cut of the film has purpose, building to a conclusion that’s no less of a shock to the system because of its inevitability.

Second Run’s new region-free Blu-ray features a 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer, sourced from a new HD scan by the Czech National Film Archive. Though there are quite a few marks on the source material, the transfer is absolutely gorgeous, with deep, rich blacks and impressive clarity throughout. Viewed on a nearly 100-inch projected screen, the fine detail and film-like grain reproduction are fantastic. The LPCM mono track shows some limitations, but handles the evocative score by Zdenek Liska nicely.

The Blu-ray ports over the Quay Brothers introduction from the Second Run DVD release, and adds several new features: an exhaustively biographical audio commentary track from Kat Ellinger, an episode of the Projection Booth podcast played over the film like a commentary track and Herz’s debut short, The Junk Shop (1965), made just before The Cremator. A booklet with an essay by Daniel Bird is also included.

Second Run / 1968 / Black and white / 1.66:1 / 95 min / £19.99

Last LaughThe Last Laugh (Der letzte Mann, 1924)
Kino Lorber

If there are narrative nits to pick with F.W. Murnau’s key work of the silent era, The Last Laugh, it’s hard to dispute the importance of the film’s look and approach. On one hand, it’s not difficult to imagine a film with more emotional heft, jettisoning the hermetic nature of the film’s alternate-reality epilogue and including it as an unannounced fantasy for the main character, Emil Jannings’ put-upon doorman. On the other hand, the film’s flurry of imagery, captured by Murnau’s newly nimble camera, and its usage of Jannings’ towering physicality supersedes the narrative limitations.

In The Last Laugh, Murnau essentially forgoes intertitles to tell the simple story of a doorman’s precipitous fall from his position at a luxury hotel. The work is just barely above menial, but Jannings takes immense pride in his station and the elaborate uniform that accompanies it. Could any performer imbue a puffed-up chest or a beaming grin with as much meaning as Jannings?

The specifics of his performance make his ensuing demotion to bathroom attendant all the more heart-wrenching. A spry, almost impish manner is transformed nearly instantly to something stolid; Jannings shock and disappointment is crystallized, and every reaction and movement seems to play out in half-time. Murnau uses Jannings brilliantly, both in wider shots that show his physical transformation and close-ups that reveal a face frozen in a horrified rictus. This is an elemental portrait of the indignities foisted on the working class, and even its underdeveloped depiction of the disappointments of domestic life and its awkwardly deployed conclusion can’t detract from that.

Kino’s 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer is sourced from a 2001/2002 restoration of the German cut by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, which pieced together four different sources. This is the same basis for the Last Laugh disc in the superb Region-B locked Masters of Cinema Early Murnau set, and the two transfers look basically the same. Despite the varied provenance, the film looks excellent, with impressive detail beneath the overlying damage and a fairly consistent level of sharpness and clarity. Grayscale separation is nice, with reasonably rich black levels and stable whites. Two scores are presented in 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks: Giuseppe Becce’s original 1924 score, orchestrated by Detlev Glanert in a 2003 recording, and a brand new, peppier option from the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra.

The Kino shares one extra with the MoC: a 40-minute making of. Exclusive to the Kino: an audio commentary by historian Noah Isenberg and a bonus DVD that includes the international export cut of the film (a third set of cameras shot a cut intended for the American market as well). This is a nice curiosity to have, but the unrestored image is so murky, it mostly acts to foster more gratitude for the restoration of the original cut.

Kino Lorber / 1924 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 90 min / $29.95

KediKedi (2017)
Oscilloscope Laboratories

If you’re a cat person — and if you’re not, have you really given them a chance? — Kedi is like, well, catnip. Seriously, I’m not sure how you wouldn’t enjoy this 80-minute dopamine activator, which documents the lives of Istanbul street cats, who enjoy a laid-back symbiosis with their human cohabitators. Some are closer to our traditional notions of pets, but many symbolize the true essence of cathood: amiable independence.

Cats are characters in Kedi — among the featured players are devoted mother Sari (also known as Yellowshit), polite deli-meat lover Duman and jealous lover Psikopat — and director Ceyda Torun and cinematographers Charlie Wuppermann and Alp Korfali do a remarkable job following a dozen or so cats through their daily routines as if they were willing participants in the making of the documentary.

And while Kedi doesn’t display the ambitious structural or formal gambits that many of the year’s best documentaries do, it does act as a fascinating anthropological document without becoming overbearing about it. In its micro-focus on the lives of specific cats, Torun’s wandering eye falls on a number of humans, some as reflective and enigmatic as the cats seem to be.

These vignettes reveal human/feline relationships that have developed in meaningful ways for man and beast. For some people, it offers a caretaking responsibility that distracts from the hardships of life. For others, they see the cats as the caretakers, establishing some sense of order or purpose in their own life.

The film often uses wide aerial shots as bumpers, providing a broader view of the beautiful city of Istanbul. But its fundamentally intimate perspective — and the voices of ordinary people only represented here because of their proximity to certain cats — gives the film a feeling of possessing essential truths about the way people, and their precious companions, really live.

Oscilloscope’s Blu-ray presents the film in a sharp 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer full of vibrant color and fine detail, with a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that fills in the sounds of the city. A commentary track with Torun, Wuppermann and editor Mo Stoebe features some wistful reminiscence to go along with your own awws at the kitties, while a “commentary track” featuring some of the film’s feline stars is perfect for eliciting bewildered looks from your own cats. A making-of featurette, deleted and extended scenes and a trailer are also included.

Oscilloscope Laboratories / 2017 / Color / 1.78:1 / 80 min / $32.99

 

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based writer and editor who splits his critical ambitions between writing Blu-ray & DVD reviews and theater criticism. He’s a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.

 

Vampir2

Blu-ray Review Round-Up: Films by Lina Wertmüller, James Whale, Jean-Luc Godard & more!

SweptSwept Away (1974)
Seven Beauties (1975)
Summer Night (1986)
Ferdinando and Carolina (1999)
Kino Lorber

The great Lina Wertmüller gets a big home video boost from Kino with its latest wave of Blu-ray releases from the Italian director, the first woman to be nominated for a Best Directing Oscar. Kino put out Wertmüller’s successive 1970s comedies The Seduction of Mimi, Love and Anarchy and All Screwed Up a few years ago, and this slate includes the two films that immediately came after — her two most popular films — and two lesser-known works.

In all of these films, Wertmüller demonstrates her remarkable facility for visual comedy — she may be the master of the comedic zoom — and her unwavering commitment to stories that feature an inextricable intertwining of sex and politics. Sex is never about just sex in a Wertmüller film, and though her depictions of problematic sexual relationships in ostensibly humorous settings has courted some controversy, the discomforts she foists on audiences are purposeful. Men wield sex like a weapon in these films, but they end up being undercut by their own flailing desires.

In Swept Away, the fabulously wealthy Raffaella (Mariangela Melato) seems to find her greatest pleasure during a Mediterranean vacation needling deckhand Gennarino (Giancarlo Giannini), an outspoken Communist. His loathing of her is fueled both by her conspicuously lavish consumption and her aggressively rude behavior. But the power structure flips when they’re stranded on a deserted island together, and his survival skills require her to show some deference. His eager exploitation of her needs complicates the story and our sympathies, as do Melato and Giannini’s performances, both unhinged and calculating in almost equal measures.

SevenSeven Beauties amplifies the tonal flexibility, with Giannini starring as the lecherous Pasqualino, a man who domineers yet depends on his seven sisters, and who ends up conscripted into the army after murder and rape. The film that earned Wertmüller her Oscar nomination, Seven Beauties is probably the only successful concentration camp comedy in existence, as Pasqualino blunders himself into one, and then becomes convinced his only chance at survival is seducing Shirley Stoler’s commandant. Unlike Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (1997), which used comedy in a concentration camp as a vehicle for bittersweet uplift, Wertmüller embraces the fundamental grotesquerie of the situation. The film’s hazy, nonlinear structure is braced by a forceful condemnation of bourgeois detachment.

Summer

Summer Night is the weakest film of the four, returning to many of the ideas and scenarios in Swept Away, and rehashing them over and over. There are numerous bouts of screaming in this film, and the relentless nature of its repeated jokes tends to outweigh the charms, though they are there, largely thanks to Melato essentially reprising her role as a stuck-up avatar of capitalism. Here, she kidnaps an eco-terrorist (Michele Placido), puts him in bondage gear and brings him to her private island to wait for a ransom payment. Placido grunts and moans like Giannini, but his energy doesn’t escalate with Melato’s the same way, and their sexual attraction feels more perfunctory. (Melato’s obliviousness to the feelings of her co-conspirator, played by Roberto Herlitzka, is more consistently amusing.)

Ferdinando

Ferdinando and Carolina refutes any idea that Wertmüller’s talents were confined to her heyday in the 1970s, delivering an effervescent depiction of an 18th Century monarchy and a razor-sharp excoriation of the misogyny of its sexual hierarchy. In Naples, King Ferdinando lies on his deathbed and escapes to his memories of his early days on the throne, when he (Sergio Assisi) wed an Austrian princess, Carolina (Gabriella Pession), in an arranged marriage. Here, sex is transactional, until it’s not. But any feeling of idyllic bliss is fleeting. Wertmüller romps through a catalog of supporting characters and amusing scenarios here, her ever-curious roving camera sometimes only having a few moments to alight on a situation before moving on. But the film never feels overloaded or dense; it’s an airy confection that turns out to be surprisingly substantial.

Though none of these transfers are promoted as being sourced from new restorations, this is an excellent batch of discs, with all of the 1080p transfers looking quite nice, despite some intermittent minor damage and some inherent softness. The brilliant blues of the Mediterranean shine in Swept Away and Summer Night, while fine detail remains solid in the murky hues of Seven Beauties. Images are generally clear and sharp, with unmanipulated grain structures and stable colors. Audio, all in 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks, is rarely more than adequate, with some age-related harshness in the older films. Overall, these all make for excellent viewing experiences.

Extras are most abundant on the Swept Away disc, which includes an audio commentary by Valerio Ruiz, director of Behind the White Glasses, a Wertmüller doc Kino simultaneously released on DVD. Both Swept Away and Seven Beauties feature an excerpt from that film and an interview with Amy Heckerling. Booklet essays are included with each disc.

Swept Away: Kino Lorber / 1974 / Color / 1.85:1 / 114 min / $29.95
Seven Beauties: Kino Lorber / 1975 / Color / 1.85:1 / 116 min / $29.95
Summer Night: Kino Lorber / 1986 / Color / 1.66:1 / 103 min / $29.95
Ferdinando and Carolina: Kino Lorber / 1999 / Color / 1.85:1 / 107 min / $29.95

VampirVampir Cuadecuc (1970)
Second Run

Jess Franco films are a lot of things, but scary isn’t usually one of them. On the other hand, there’s Pere Portabella’s Vampir Cuadecuc, a genuinely unnerving piece of abstract art made concurrently with Franco’s Dracula, starring Christopher Lee.

Shot on high-contrast 16mm black-and-white stock — the image sometimes close to being completely obliterated — the film unfolds from alternate angles, with camera equipment sometimes in view. The diegetic world stretches beyond the myth here, with a nonexistent barrier between fiction and nonfiction. Suddenly, Lee will leer into the camera and take a playful swipe, and though he’s goofing around, in this context the effect is the opposite. The vampire has become all the more mysterious and menacing.

The film’s soundtrack — completely absent of diegetic sound, save for Lee reading a passage from Bram Stoker’s novel in the film’s final scene — creates its own eerie atmosphere, veering from lounge-y piano tunes to avant-garde droning. In the film’s penultimate scene, the soundtrack stutters, looping one second over and over and over, directly countering the supposed climax taking place on screen.

As a deconstruction, as a tone poem, as an accompaniment and as a piece of standalone experimental film, Vampir is a fascinating work, and Second Run’s region-free Blu-ray is a stacked release, beginning with a nice 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer, which offers a strong showcase for the wildly fluctuating image and its grainy, contrast-heavy look. The elements are in good shape, and in the scenes that allow for it, the image is clear and detailed. Audio is presented in uncompressed 2.0 mono.

Extras are numerous and substantial. A newly filmed interview with Portabella has him discussing the genesis of the idea, his interactions with Franco who expected something far more conventional initially, and his approach to shooting. An interview with BFI curator William Fowler acts as an appreciation of the film’s visual merits and offers some political and social context, particularly in regard to the Franco regime’s disapproval of Portabella’s work.

Two newer Portabella shorts made with composer Carlos Santos are also included: La Tempesta (2003), which makes abstract the interaction of water and the human body, and No al No (2006), which features Santos at the piano, employing an unusual way of playing with a ball in his left hand. Both are in 1080p, and look great. Also included: a booklet with an essay by filmmaker Stanley Schtinter.

Second Run / 1970 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 69 min / £19.99

PersonalPersonal Shopper (2016)
The Criterion Collection

It was apparent early in her career that Kristen Stewart was an incredibly skilled actor, capable of imbuing small gestures with enormous feeling. As exceptional as she was in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women (2016), Stewart seems to have found her ideal filmmaker match in Olivier Assayas, who’s shown an intuitive sense of how best to use her abilities in Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) and Personal Shopper.

In both films, she plays an assistant — someone whose life is very much not their own on a day-to-day basis. In Personal Shopper, she runs largely inane errands for a largely vapid model (Nora von Waldstätten), while grieving the death of her twin brother from a heart condition she also has. Her character, Maureen, is also a medium, and her brother promised he would contact her from the other side once he was gone. Throughout the film, Maureen receives contacts — some more corporeal than others — but are any of them her brother? And would it matter?

Assayas has made another film about alienation in the modern world, and Stewart is an exceptional portrayer of that existential discomfort. She’s good at her job, but she never seems quite at ease doing it, despite its fundamental banality. And she’s good at attracting spirits, which sees Assayas nearly committing to an honest-to-goodness horror film. But what purpose does that serve for Maureen? The film’s most noted sequence involves an unknown sender toying with her via text message, and Stewart makes us hang on every movement like that blinking iMessage ellipsis. But that connection is tenuous, thin. When she reaches out, will she find anything at all?

Criterion’s 1080p, 2.40:1 transfer is fine. Sourced from a 2K transfer of the original 35mm elements, the Blu-ray transfer is a bit limited by the film’s muted look and not terribly detailed darker scenes, which can come across a touch muddy here. Detail is strong in daylight, with a natural color palette that looks good. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is immersive when called upon, with clean dialogue throughout.

Extras are minimal: A new interview with Assayas is a worthwhile look at the film’s inception and development, while a press conference from Cannes, where it was booed, is less focused. Also included: a trailer and an insert with an essay by critic Glenn Kenny, whose comparison to themes in Vertigo is an interesting and well-supported reading.

Criterion Collection / 2016 / Color / 2.40:1 /105 min / $39.95

ChinoiseLa Chinoise (1967)
Le Gai Savoir (1969)
Kino Lorber

Two key transitional works from Jean-Luc Godard come to Blu-ray via Kino, and these have to be up there high on lists of the most essential discs of the year, replacing the lackluster OOP Koch Lorber DVDs with two gorgeous high-def presentations. Made in the midst of Godard’s beginnings with the radical Dziga Vertov Group and his disillusionment with narrative, these two films jettison the notion of plot that still existed in some form in a contemporaneous work like Week End to dive headlong into political probing.

In the aesthetically ecstatic La Chinoise, Godard depicts a group of students (including Jean-Pierre Léaud, Juliet Berto and Godard’s soon-to-be wife Anne Wiazemsky) holed up in a Paris apartment, discussing their rejection of bourgeois values and their attraction to Maoist ideals. Their conversations are discursive and often one-sided, with one character monologuing for minutes on end. The ever-present question about Godard’s opinion of these people is never really answered. Are they meant to be revered or ridiculed? Their ideas about eschewing middle-class comforts and embracing the need for violent change are somewhat contradicted by their actions, which see them remaining in their apartment and only play-acting revolutionary actions. While the specificity of the subject matter requires extratextual knowledge (and this disc has it), Raoul Coutard’s stunning images, replete with pops of primary color — including, famously, hundreds of copies of Mao’s Little Red Book — speak for themselves.

SavoirIn Le Gai Savoir, Godard hones his focus considerably, with a visual economy to match, as nearly the entire film takes place on a darkened soundstage. There, Léaud and Berto meet, and discuss the limits of language and of images, which Godard intercuts with images of political upheaval, pop culture and everyday Parisian life. The film is a compelling essay that advocates a “return to zero” in image-making, and the implications are both political and artistic. Godard longs for a new way of seeing and a new way of hearing, and here, as in most of his films, he discovers new ways to force audiences to do just that.

The 1080p, 1.37:1 transfers on these discs are superb, with every red and blue a blast of vibrant color, and beautiful levels of filmic fine detail throughout. There’s no loss of that detail in the essentially omnipresent shadowed scenes in Le Gai Savoir, which feature perfectly inky black levels. Any slight fluctuation of image density is due to the condition of the elements, but such moments are very minor. These films look phenomenal. The uncompressed 2.0 mono tracks have some intentional harshness due to the films’ unconventional sound designs.

Extras are also a major selling point, including audio commentaries from two of the best in the biz: James Quandt on La Chinoise and Adrian Martin on Le Gai Savoir. Both tracks are packed with helpful contextual information and analyses of Godard’ political and visual aims. La Chinoise also features five interview pieces with cast, crew and film historian Antoine de Baecque, while Le Gai Savoir has a brief video piece from Godard collaborator Fabrice Aragno. Trailers and booklets with essays by Richard Hell (on both), Amy Taubin (La Chinoise) and Adam Nayman (Le Gai Savoir) are also included.

La Chinoise: Kino Lorber / 1967 / Color / 1.37:1 / 96 min / $29.95
Le Gai Savoir: Kino Lorber / 1969 / Color / 1.37:1 / 92 min / $29.95

houseThe Old Dark House (1932)
Cohen Film Collection

Though often described as a horror-comedy, James Whale’s pre-code The Old Dark House strikes me as more of a hangout film, in which we get the pleasure of spending time with Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart’s witty married couple, Charles Laughton’s self-deprecating sad-sack and Melvyn Douglas’ charming flirt, who woos Lilian Bond’s chorus girl.

When a vicious storm reroutes all of their paths to the expansive Femm estate, where the hosts (Ernest Thesiger, Eva Moore) aren’t terribly hospitable and a mute butler (Boris Karloff) works, the menacing implications are clear. And sure, some of those foreboding events do come to pass, but like most Gothic horror, this is a film all about mood, and the mood is ultimately kind of carefree.

Sure, there’s a demented relative locked somewhere in the house, and yes, Karloff’s alcoholism is accompanied by freakish strength, and why exactly is the host so insistent on that potato being eaten? Ah, who cares. Pull yourself up by the fire, have another swig of whiskey and all of this won’t look so scary in the morning.

Cohen’s Blu-ray features a 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer that’s sourced from a new 4K restoration, and the overall look is excellent, with a healthy grain structure, stable image and nice levels of detail and clarity. Imperfections and fluctuations are minor, and grayscale separation is pretty good, even if black levels can look just a touch washed out at points. An uncompressed 2.0 mono track betrays the film’s age with some rough edges and slight hiss, but is serviceable.

Extras are mostly ported over from a previous release, including two commentary tracks with Stuart and Whale scholar James Curtis. A vintage featurette features director Curtis Harrington detailing his love for the film and his efforts to rescue it after it had fallen into obscurity and elements weren’t known to survive in good condition. New to this release is an interview with Sara Karloff, Boris Karloff’s daughter, which features her appreciation for her dad’s prolific career and the great lengths that went on behind the scenes to outfit him in some of his most iconic looks. A trailer and an insert with an interview with Harrington are also included.

Cohen Film Collection / 1932 / Black and white / 1.37:1 / 72 min / $25.99

 

 

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based writer and editor who splits his critical ambitions between writing Blu-ray & DVD reviews and theater criticism. He’s a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.

Variete2

Blu-ray and DVD Review Round-Up: Films by Chantal Akerman, Kelly Reichardt, William Wellman & more!

CertainCertain Women (2016)
The Criterion Collection

Kelly Reichardt has established herself as one of the greatest living American filmmakers with Certain Women, my favorite film of 2016, and perhaps her best in a career full of patient, revealing and intensely focused yet emotionally expansive films. It’s also her most gorgeous film yet, capturing the fading light of windswept Montana landscapes in all their plaintive beauty. (Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt even outdoes his remarkable Meek’s Cutoff photography here.) In Certain Women, there’s a repeated shot of a barn door opening to a snowy field, and it’s like the greatest wipe I’ve ever seen, opening up to an image of apparent stillness that nonetheless hums with possibility — an apt description of much of Reichardt’s work.

Based on short stories by Maile Meloy, the film’s triptych structure evades narrative cutesiness — stories overlap a bit, but with elusive implications — and thematic obviousness — the through-lines are more abstract, particularly in the film’s middle piece, a thrillingly elided enigma in which all the emotional mysteries are locked up in the expressions of Michelle Williams.

There are more traditional narrative pleasures in the first story, in which Laura Dern’s not-quite-indefatigable lawyer develops an unusual relationship with a pushy-then-worse client (Jared Harris) and the last, a tale of longing brimming up, as a ranch hand (Lily Gladstone) becomes enamored with a lawyer (Kristen Stewart) who’s teaching a class in her small town, seemingly by some kind of serendipitous mistake — or not.

This final segment has garnered most of the attention — and not unjustifiably as Gladstone gives an almost painfully revealing performance — but the whole film has that kind of emotional acuity. This is a spare film filled with women who sublimate their feelings for various reasons, but when Dern listens patiently to her client break down in front of her or Williams drops just an ounce of the ingratiating façade used to convince an acquaintance to give her some sandstone she covets or Gladstone tucks a suddenly wild strand of hair behind her ear while she sees Stewart for the last time, the film seems to expand far beyond the limits of its frames.

Criterion’s Blu-ray, with a 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer, is a faithful depiction of the film’s 16mm photography, rendering the grain beautifully and offering detailed, sharp images throughout. Detail isn’t lost in the somewhat drab color palette, and brighter scenes, particularly those with snow on the ground, really pop. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is appropriately sparse, with every subtle gradation in sound design noticeable. Reichardt opts against a score, except for one scene, and the result is certainly effective.

Supplements feature a trio of new interviews. Reichardt discusses her attraction to Meloy’s stories and some of the changes she made, along with her experience shooting the film. Producer and longtime friend Todd Haynes gushes over Reichardt’s abilities, while Meloy talks about the genesis of the three stories and her appreciation for Reichardt’s interpretations. A trailer and insert with an essay by critic Ella Taylor are also included.

Criterion Collection / 2016 / Color / 1.85:1 /107 min / $39.95

VarieteVarieté (1925)
Kino Lorber

It’s almost immediately apparent that E.A. Dupont’s Varieté is going to feature a stunning array of camerawork, beginning with a frame story in a prison packed with evocative imagery, including an overhead long shot of prisoners walking in circular formation, like gears in a grinding cog. That’s far from the only visual metaphor in this landmark German silent: The film’s most kinetic sequences feature trapeze performances, and the camera swoops like it’s a performer itself.

Dupont’s visual sense is restlessly creative, moving from striking close-ups to environment-establishing long shots. If there’s an opportunity to move the camera, he takes it, scurrying up to give us a better look at crucial details. But he’ll also let scenes play out, uninterrupted. Rather than seem harried or chaotic, all of these methods work to amp up this hothouse melodrama, in which a carnival barker named Huller (Emil Jannings, whose unrelentingly intense visage is used perfectly) self-destructs over his attraction to a mysterious dancer (Lya de Putti).

Her name: Berta-Marie, taken from the ship she was discovered on. A crusty old sailor tells Huller the ship was haunted, and if that’s not foreshadowing, I don’t know what is. But while Berta-Marie certainly isn’t averse to the way Huller begins ignoring his wife and child to pay attention to her, Dupont doesn’t really frame her as a seductress. Instead, Huller’s urges are entirely self-sourced, like a volcano inside of him that’s threatening to erupt at any second. When he leaves his wife for Berta-Marie, and they flee to start a new life, the release valve is opened a little. But it’s not long before the pressure starts building again, and Dupont applies it masterfully all the way to an inevitable finish.

Kino’s Blu-ray features a 1080, 1.33:1 tinted transfer, sourced from the 2015 restoration by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung and Filmarchiv Austria. It’s an impressive restoration, managing the damage and materials deterioration carefully and offering an image with great depth and detail. The tiny vertical scratches that run throughout can’t diminish the clarity of the underlying image. Aside from a few hiccups here and there, the image is also quite stable. Two scores are included: one created by a class at Berklee, which works pretty well considering the number of composers involved, and a less traditional score from British band The Tiger Lillies, which traffics in their usual brand of cabaret/punk music, with vocals.

On the bonus material front, Kino’s release arguably outperforms the UK disc from Masters of Cinema released earlier this year, which was sourced from the same restoration. The American version of the film isn’t here, but instead we get a whole separate film: Dimitri Buchowetzki’s adaptation of Othello (1922), starring Jannings as Othello and De Putti as Iago’s wife, Emilia. The elements it’s sourced from are pretty dupey, but it’s nice to have anyway. Also included: a visual essay by Bret Wood on Dupont’s style and a featurette on the Berklee orchestra.

Kino Lorber / 1925 / Color tinted / 1.33:1 / 95 min / $29.95

Louis XIVThe Death of Louis XIV (La mort de Louis XIV, 2017)
Cinema Guild

Oh, the indignities of growing old. In Albert Serra’s painstakingly observed interpretation, the French king Louis XIV wastes away, surrounded by a bevy of well-wishers and physicians, intent on not acknowledging that fact. Every small victory, like a bite of biscuit or a hat doffed to bid farewell is greeted rapturously, like a minor miracle has been performed. Throughout the film, the king’s doctors and attendants keep optimistically asserting that he looks like he’s getting better.

He’s not.

If the title of the film (and, of course, the history of Europe’s longest-reigning monarch) didn’t give it away, it would still be apparent that there is to be no dramatic recovery. As Louis, icon Jean-Pierre Léaud offers a performance that’s stunning in the delicacy of its movement.

An early scene sees the king being afforded a rare pleasure — a brief visit from his beloved dogs — and the slight trembling of Léaud’s cheeks as he grasps the fleeting moment is a potent capsule of heartbreak. The subtlety of this expression is remarkable — but it’s only the beginning, as his performance becomes stiller and yet more absorbing as the film proceeds. Léaud is constantly ensconced, from the massive wig on his head to the layers and layers of clothing he seems to be shriveling up inside. But I’m convinced he would perfectly capture the man’s ever-mounting sense of smallness and decay even without the makeup or costuming.

The follow-up to Story of My Death (2013), Serra’s film sees him returning to familiar themes of epochal shifts and mortality, though his sense of history is much less idiosyncratic here than in that Dracula/Casanova take. His slow-cinema approach is matched here by a kind of narrative intensity, with all extraneous story elements stripped away. Will a legion of medical professionals be able to save the king’s gangrenous leg? Will his legacy continue? Will he finally get that glass of water served in the crystal he wants it in? The profound and the absurd still comingle here, but the film’s purpose feels more tightly honed.

Cinema Guild’s Blu-ray release presents the film in a 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer that looks fantastic. There may be no cinematographic cliché more overused than “painterly,” but you’ve got it to apply it here to Serra’s Rembrandt-like gradations of light and shadow. Fine detail is nice in this transfer, while colors are consistently rendered. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is subtly immersive in its usage of spare details.

Extras include a NYFF Q&A with Serra and Léaud, as well as Serra’s 2013 concert short Cuba Libre, also available on Second Run’s Story of My Death disc. A trailer and an insert with an essay by critic Jordan Cronk are also included.

Cinema Guild / 2017 / Color / 2.35:1 / 118 min / $34.95

AkermanChantal Akerman by Chantal Akerman (1996) — DVD only
Icarus Films

Icarus is one of the key curators of Akerman’s work on US home video, releasing many of her lesser-seen films and at least one key masterpiece: From the East (D’est, 1993), her mesmerizing study of the soon-to-be no-more Soviet bloc.

Their latest Akerman release isn’t quite as essential, but it’s the kind of film that could be valuable both to an Akerman fanatic and an Akerman neophyte. Made for the long-running French television series Cinéma, de notre temps (that stalwart of Criterion Collection bonus material), Akerman’s entry could act as both an introduction to unfamiliar work and as a recontextualization of deeply familiar work. Maybe this is more DVD bonus material territory than main-feature territory, but it’s a fascinating film in its own right.

Reluctant to include any new footage, Akerman was eventually persuaded to shoot something featuring herself, so the film opens with a series of shots in her apartment. She looks at the camera and reads from a script, each cut bringing the camera closer and closer until she fills the frame. She confesses her misgivings about the whole project, and makes observations about the nebulous line between documenting herself and playing a character. Both in her performance (and it is consciously “performed”) and the camerawork, Akerman seems to be pitting a deliberately anti-cinematic style against fundamental questions about what cinema means.

If it wasn’t obvious that Akerman had an almost peerless grasp of cinematic form, the film’s second segment proves it, cutting together clips from many of her previous films, interspersing iconic shots from Jeanne Dielman (the meatloaf! of course, the meatloaf) and D’est (one of the many gorgeous, enigmatic tracking shots) with pieces from harder-to-see films, like anti-capitalist musical Golden Eighties (1986) and several funny, piercing moments from Portrait of a Young Woman at the End of the 1960s in Brussels (1994). If nothing else, the film will make you yearn to see the films surrounding these scenes and remind you just how underrepresented Akerman is on US home video, the efforts of Icarus and Criterion aside.

In her introduction, Akerman comes across as an artist obsessed with cinematic truthfulness, and the moments from her films confirm it. There’s not a frame that doesn’t represent some kind of unvarnished honesty about the world we live in.

Icarus Films / 1996 / Color/black and white / 1.33:1 / 64 min / $24.98

BeggarsBeggars of Life (1928)
Kino Lorber

Though it’s likely not the first film one attaches to the names William Wellman, Louise Brooks or Wallace Beery, Beggars of Life is as good as one might hope for when seeing those three listed in the same place. Genuinely thrilling, with Wellman’s keen action instincts making for some exciting railroad sequences, the film is also psychologically probing and rousingly funny, at points.

Only several minutes in, the film delivers an impressively modern sequence, as Richard Arlen’s hobo smells breakfast in a house and peers in, hoping he can convince the owner to give him a plate. It turns out that man hunched over in anticipation of the food on the table is dead, and Louise Brooks is dressed in his clothes, preparing to make her escape after the murder.

A flashback, with Brooks’ face imposed over the events, recounts the horrors the man, her stepfather, perpetrated upon her. Watched so closely after the Twin Peaks finale, it was impossible not to associate this scene with Coop’s face imposed over the events in the sheriff’s station. (In the context of this film, the moment with Brooks’ face feels nearly as enigmatic.)

Brooks and Arlen hit the road together, and the temporary arrangement becomes more permanent after his attempts to teach her rail-hopping don’t quite go as planned. Among all its other virtues, the film is also sweetly romantic, the pair’s relationship blossoming into idyllic dreams inside a field of haystacks.

Naturally, when Beery shows up, the film shifts gears again into a more raucous mode. He plays Oklahoma Red, a hobo big shot who first appears swilling stolen liquor and singing. Is he a villain? A helper? Some kind of mischievous neutral character? At points, he plays all three roles, striking a midway point between menacing and charming. Paired with Brooks’ coolly understated approach, the two performances achieve a kind of perfect symbiosis.

Kino’s 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer is sourced from 35mm film elements from the George Eastman Museum, featuring about-average image quality for a film of this vintage. There’s an inherent softness to much of the image, with detail of faces and clothing that never quite gets there, but damage has been minimized and the presentation has a pleasing consistency. The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track presents a lively score from the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, based on selections from the original release cue sheet.

Two audio commentaries are nice inclusions: one from Wellman’s son, actor and historian of his father’s work, William Wellman Jr. and one from Thomas Gladysz, founding director of the Louise Brooks Society. A booklet essay by critic Nick Pinkerton offers some excellent contextual information on “hoboing” and the film’s journey from page to screen.

Kino Lorber / 1928 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 81 min / $29.95

TreasureThe Treasure (Comoara, 2015) — DVD only
IFC

Like countless festival darlings, Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Treasure made a reasonably substantial splash at Cannes in 2015, winning the Prix Un Certain Talent prize and garnering plenty of positive notices from critics, and then seemingly fading away into the ether.

Now, it’s been nearly two years since the film’s limited US release, and it’s finally arrived on US home video, in an unsurprisingly underwhelming DVD-only release. Perhaps Criterion or another label with an IFC deal was considering picking up the film, but it’s not hard to see why other labels must have eventually passed. Porumboiu is one of the marquee names in Romanian filmmaking, but this is a minor effort.

All that early buzz focused on the film’s ending — the DVD’s lead pull-quote is A.O. Scott gushing about the “punchline — and one can understand why, as it starkly and charmingly departs from the deadpan bureaucratic comedy of the rest of the film. But viewed with some distance from the hype surrounding the film’s premiere, this is a conclusion that mostly just provokes a shrug.

More memorable is the sequence in which protagonist Costi (Toma Cuzin) and his neighbor Adrian (Adrian Purcarescu) hire a guy with a metal detector to search Adrian’s family’s property, reputed to have buried treasure somewhere on its grounds. Here, Porumboiu’s sense of low-key comedy shines, as a series of minor exasperations mount in a tidily built tower of annoyance. The following 20 minutes just feel like stalling to get to that ending. Is it really worth it?

Even taking into account the limitations of the format, the image on IFC’s DVD release is not great, plagued with a fuzziness that doesn’t do any favors to a film mostly composed in medium and long shots. Aside from some trailers, you won’t find any extras either.

IFC / 2015 / Color / 2.35:1 / 89 min / $24.98

Big KnifeThe Big Knife (1955)
Arrow Video

The follow-up to one of the greatest noirs ever, the apocalyptic Kiss Me Deadly (1955), Robert Aldrich’s The Big Knife turns his attention to Hollywood venality. Based on the Clifford Odets’ play (revived on Broadway a few years ago, but otherwise fairly low-profile), the film is patently ridiculous melodrama, florid language and amped-up emotions stewing together inside the Hollywood estate of marquee icon Charles Castle (Jack Palance).

Under Aldrich’s direction, this material is compulsively watchable, careening from heightened moment to heightened moment with a cast full of actors hungry to devour each scene they’re in. Palance grimaces and grumbles, determined not to re-sign his studio contract, despite the best efforts of boss Stanley Shriner Hoff (Rod Steiger), who has a host of blackmail tactics up his sleeve. Castle wants to reconcile with his semi-estranged wife, Marion (Ida Lupino), but his attentions are divided between her, Hoff, liquor and the host of visitors that traipse through his house, including Jean Hagen and Shelley Winters.

Like Mike Nichols with his adaptation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), Aldrich understands that a theater-to-film adaptation can embrace the limitations of so-called “stagy” material, and he turns Castle’s home into a pressure-cooker, with only a handful of scenes that venture outside its confines. The material may be pulpy — even risible in its depiction of substance abuse — but it’s easy to buy in with the way Aldrich builds the framework for it.

Arrow’s 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer is heaven for lovers of black-and-white films with heavy grain structure. Sourced from a new 2K restoration, the image handles the grain exceptionally well, with only a few moments of density fluctuation scattered here and there. Fine detail is abundant, grayscale separation is rich and images are consistently sharp. The uncompressed 2.0 mono mix sounds good on the surface, though there’s a persistent low-level hiss that’s noticeable if turned up loud enough.

Extras include an audio commentary from critics Glenn Kenny and Nick Pinkerton and an archival interview with Saul Bass on his titles work. A trailer and a vintage featurette are also included.

Arrow Video / 1955 / Black and white / 1.85:1 / 111 min / $39.95

 

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based writer and editor who splits his critical ambitions between writing Blu-ray & DVD reviews and theater criticism. He’s a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.

 

Barton2

Blu-ray Review Round-Up: Films by Robert Bresson, Karel Zeman, the Coen Brothers & more!

BartonBarton Fink
Kino Lorber Studio Classics

The long-awaited Region A Blu-ray upgrade of Barton Fink has finally arrived, thanks to Kino’s Studio Classics line. (Among Coen Brothers features, that just leaves The Ladykillers Blu-less, and given that it’s their worst film by a healthy margin, it’s no travesty.)

Perhaps the Coens’ first great film (I’m overdue for a revisit to Miller’s Crossing), Barton Fink presages a number of their pet themes and concerns, anticipating both the Hollywood satire of Hail, Caesar! and the rumination on artistic frustration of Inside Llewyn Davis. Its most direct descendant though is probably the Coens’ true masterpiece, A Serious Man, which echoes its vision of a man stuck in hell (or at least purgatory) on earth. And it features the memorable scene in which Michael Stuhlbarg’s Larry Gopnik is implored to “accept the mystery.”

Accepting the mystery is key to the enjoyment of Barton Fink, which feels like the first instance of the Coens fully operating on that mysterious, metaphysical level.

John Turturro, who’s mesmerizing as Barton, the New York playwright who begrudgingly goes to Hollywood to work as a screenwriter, is not a terribly mysterious character on a basic narrative level. He’s an artist determined to be the voice of the common man, but he can’t be bothered to even make an attempt at engaging with one, a point gleefully underlined by his interactions with Charlie (John Goodman), the insurance salesman who lives next door to him in his dilapidated hotel. (Side note: Barton Fink is also a remarkably tangible horror film — witness the squirm-inducing effects of the adhesive sliding through the peeling wallpaper and their visual similarity to the pus that drips from Charlie’s ear.)

Though Barton and Charlie strike up a kind of friendship, their conversations are never operating on the same plane. Goodman’s cackling enthusiasm is tough to pin down — Is he sincere? Does he have nefarious intentions? — but Turturro is a self-serving blank slate, only hearing what he wants to and interpreting it accordingly.

The disconnect between Barton’s grand pronouncements and his actions is textbook literary irony — and in the Coens’ hands, great fodder for comedy! — but Barton Fink is much weirder than that, veering from fast-paced screwball antics (thanks to a great Michael Lerner) to gut-churning existential dread to quite-real physical terror, culminating in one of their signature bemused non-sequitur finishes. It’s great. Accept the mystery.

Barton Fink has received a number of Blu-ray releases in Europe, where Universal holds the rights, and like many Universal catalog titles, that one is afflicted with some heavy-handed digital manipulation. Kino’s Fox-provided 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer (the case’s listing of 2.35:1 is a typo) doesn’t have that issue; this appears to be a fairly hands-off transfer of a somewhat dated master — a fair amount of speckling and a few more obtrusive marks are present. Overall, this is a decent improvement, offering reasonable levels of fine detail, stable if muted colors and nicely resolved film grain. The image isn’t tack-sharp, particularly in extreme detail close-ups that can really reveal a softness that’s somewhat pervasive, and low-light scenes have a tendency to look a touch washed-out. Still, it’s an easy upgrade over all other available versions. (The US DVD is almost unbelievably bad.) The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is excellent, giving the sound design’s crescendos some real heft.

For some time, Criterion was expected to pick up the rights to Barton Fink, but Kino has assembled a supplements package that looks a lot like what Criterion may have done. Four new interviews are included on the disc, including a subdued Turturro, who mostly does some personal reminiscing and a riotous Lerner, who smokes a cigar and is nearly as boisterous as his character, more than 25 years later. An interview with producer Ben Barenholtz and a featurette on the film’s sound, with composer Carter Burwell and sound editor Skip Lievsay are also included. Carried over from the DVD: eight deleted/extended scenes, looking a little less rough here, and the theatrical trailer.

Kino Lorber Studio Classics / 1991 / Color / 1.66:1 / 116 min / $29.95

L'argentL’Argent
The Criterion Collection

The final film in one of the most tightly focused cinematic careers you could hope to find, L’Argent is one last masterpiece among many in Robert Bresson’s oeuvre. Some filmmakers go out with a gut punch (say, in a very different vein of filmmaking, Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead), and Bresson delivers a profoundly disquieting one. The emotions are so sublimated in a Bresson film, it can take some time to work out one’s own emotional response, but I’m not sure any (aside from possibly Lancelot du Lac) have left me cold, and L’Argent is the kind of film that imprints its mysteries on your brain.

As Adrian Martin notes in his excellent essay included with Criterion’s new Blu-ray release, L’Argent sees Bresson once again using ostensible genre trappings, like in Pickpocket and A Man Escaped. Here, the conceit starts out following a “butterfly effect” pattern, where a couple of schoolkids’ decision to pass a counterfeit bill results in a cascading series of increasingly consequential events, including robberies and eventually, murder.

In the beginning, the film is almost propulsive in its movement from one incident to the next, from the initial payment to a knowingly shady payout to Yvon (Christian Patey), the truck driver fated to feel the brunt of the film’s depiction of ruthless capitalism, where a transactional society offers little respite for the soul. But the film’s moments begin to elongate, less ruled by their own connection to previous events and more by the caprices of modern life, which are as initially unknowable here as they typically are in Bresson.

This culminates in a final sequence where Yvon is taken in by a woman whose kindness seems like it may be just a factor of her resignation (Sylvie Van den Elsen). Ruthless in its implications, this is a finale governed by a deeply unsettling rhythm. Violence hovers outside the frame, like in an extraordinary moment involving a coffee cup. This extends to the film’s final act of violence, drained of graphic detail, but felt in all of its hopeless inevitability.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer is sourced from a new 2K restoration scanned at 4K resolution by MK2 at Éclair Laboratories. Like a number of recent French restorations, including Alain Resnais’ Je t’aime, Je t’aime and Muriel, this one will raise some concerns with its color timing, which definitely leans in a sickly yellowish/teal-ish direction. The quality of the restoration is otherwise excellent, with richly detailed images and perfectly rendered film grain. The 1.0 LPCM mono track handles the film’s dialogue and music just fine.

Though there aren’t a ton of extras (let’s hope Criterion is apportioning some for later Bresson releases; rescuing Une femme douce and Four Nights of a Dreamer from their rights entanglements would be heroic), what we do get is welcome. Footage from the contentious press conference at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival is included, along with a new visual essay from James Quandt, who goes A-Z through a list of Bresson traits. The format is a tiny bit gimmicky, but the analysis is great, offering a wide-ranging primer on the inner workings of a Bresson film. The theatrical trailer, which consists only of shots of ATMs dispensing money, is also included.

The hefty booklet includes the aforementioned Martin essay and a 1983 interview with Bresson by Michel Ciment.

Criterion Collection / 1983 / Color / 1.66:1 / 84 min / $39.95

BaronThe Fabulous Baron Munchausen (Baron Prášil)
Second Run

If I’m ever in the mood to head down a cinematic rabbit hole, grabbing something I’m not familiar with from Second Run off the shelf is almost always a perfect starting point. That’s certainly the case with their latest Blu-ray release, The Fabulous Baron Munchausen, from Czech filmmaker Karel Zeman. Occupying a crucial point in the connective tissue between the tactile fantasy of Georges Méliès, Ray Harryhausen, Alexander Korda’s The Thief of Bagdad, Terry Gilliam and Henry Selick, The Fabulous Baron Munchausen offers moment after moment of highly concentrated joy.

The technical marvels in this animation/live action hybrid are myriad, from the way Zeman creates spatial depth through use of elaborate cutouts to the quality of the animation itself, often somewhere right in the middle of whimsical and unsettling (the through-line to Gilliam, who of course made his own Munchausen film, is at its clearest here).

But Baron Munchausen is much more than a technical achievement; every frame bristles with feeling and a unique sense of place, sometimes even tipping over into purely experimental imagery, like a maelstrom of angry reds to demonstrate a scene of violence. You can sense the joy it gave Zeman to create these worlds, and I’m now ready to see everything he ever made. (A good first stop perhaps: Second Run’s previous release of Munchausen follow-up A Jester’s Tale.)

The narrative approach to the well-worn Munchausen mythos is pure picaresque, hurtling from the moon to a Turkish kingdom to the depths of the ocean, as the good-naturedly pompous Munchausen (Miloš Kopecký) offers an astronaut (Rudolf Jelínek) a tour of Earth after mistaking him for a resident of the moon. Various hostile actors, from a sultan to a massive fish, threaten their adventures, but Munchausen’s primary concern is wooing away a princess (Jana Brejchová) from the astronaut after they help her escape from the Turkish kingdom.

Zeman’s conception of Munchausen as a somewhat delusional but ultimately well-meaning figure informs the film’s tone: dryly satirical with numerous flights of fancy and a romantic soul. It’s a tone I’ve never seen pulled off quite like this before.

Second Run’s region-free Blu-ray release features a 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer sourced from a new 4K restoration. This is a strong contender for the best-looking disc Second Run has ever released, with incredible levels of detail visible in each frame. Zeman’s colors are kind of mind-bending, and the burnished golds and rich blues look amazing here. The 2.0 mono LPCM sound track is clean and precise.

This is also a strong performer in the extras department, with two new major supplements. 2015 feature-length documentary Film Adventurer Karel Zeman offers a comprehensive look at the filmmaker’s career, while Michael Brooke’s appreciation features a thorough rundown of Munchausen’s representation in cinema alongside an analysis of Zeman’s version. Carried over from a previous DVD edition are a number of featurettes on the film’s production. A booklet includes an essay from Graham Williamson.

Second Run / 1961 / Color / 1.37:1 / 85 min / £19.99

CrazyWho’s Crazy?
Kino Lorber

“It’s almost Dalí,” reads the pull-quote on the cover of Kino’s new Blu-ray of Who’s Crazy?, a rediscovered curio from 1966. From anyone other than its source, that would seem like an eye-rollingly reductive way to describe a free-form experimental film. From Salvador Dalí himself, it’s impossible to resist.

There’s a pretty big gap in that “almost” though; Who’s Crazy? isn’t so much surreal as it is wildly fragmented. Starring members of New York’s now-venerable Living Theatre, the film strings together extended scenes of anarchy on a very slender narrative thread: a group of patients from a mental hospital escape their bus and flee to an empty farmhouse, where a power struggle ensues.

The film is sort of like watching an acting troupe organize their warmup exercises around a half-remembered viewing of The Exterminating Angel. A bunch of people are trapped in a house and they behave erratically. The similarities don’t continue; there’s plenty of food, as captured in a scene where enormous amounts of eggs are cooked.

There are moments of genuine verve and moments of tedium, and that extends to the camerawork as well. Director Thomas White, who never made another film, will intercut New-Wave-ish jags of zooms and jump cuts with seemingly thoughtless medium shots. It’s messy. It’s meant to be.

The film is helpfully jolted by a tremendous score by Ornette Coleman, playing with drummer Charles Moffett and bassist David Izenzon, a trio that first appeared on Coleman’s stellar Town Hall, 1962 album, a turning point before an abrupt career hiatus. That trio (featuring an appearance by Pharoah Sanders) recorded a score for Conrad Rooks’ 1967 film Chappaqua, but it wasn’t used for fear the music would overwhelm the imagery. In Who’s Crazy?, that’s a welcome sense, the unpredictable jags of Coleman’s bold playing lending vital energy to a film that would likely become enervating without it.

Once thought lost, Who’s Crazy? is out on an improbable Blu-ray release, sourced from a French print that includes burned-in French subtitles. (Dialogue is fairly minimal for long stretches.) The elements are in pretty rough shape, with plenty of dropped frames and moderate to heavy wear, and the grayscale image is flat, with not a ton of detail. Considering the provenance, it’s plenty watchable. The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack has persistent noise and diminished dynamic range, but is a decent showcase for the score, which I’m now determined to track down a recording of.

Extras include a Q&A with White after a recent re-release screening at Lincoln Center, where he seems a little surprised but grateful about the attention the film is receiving, and a 1966 television episode about this iteration of the Ornette Coleman Trio. A booklet essay by Adam Shatz offers some good context on Coleman’s artistic pursuits at the time.

Kino Lorber / 1966 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 73 min / $29.95

TerrorTerror in a Texas Town
Arrow Video

The title does no favors to Joseph H. Lewis’ Terror in a Texas Town, a stultified western that seems to yearn to swim in pulpy waters, but can’t quite allow itself to do so. There’s a germ of structural ingenuity in the film’s set-up, which launches into a climactic confrontation, one character’s monologue almost egging on the viewer’s own bloodthirst, but the film quickly settles into a more measured, straightforward approach.

Written by a pseudonym-employing Dalton Trumbo, the film stars Sterling Hayden (whose Swedish accent is not passable) as George Hansen, a man who discovers his father has been murdered under what he’s told are mysterious circumstances. The film itself isn’t so coy — it plainly details how the lecherous McNeil (Sebastian Cabot) is willing to do whatever it takes to force out landowners so he can grab the area’s oil, and he uses henchman Johnny Crale (Nedrick Young) to do the dirty work.

Hansen’s father was a whaler, which is just about the only piece of biographical information that matters here, as it provides a reason for Hayden to use a massive harpoon as his weapon of choice. Like the title, this sets up expectations that the film doesn’t really meet.

Arrow’s 1080p, 1.85:1 presentation is sourced from a new 2K restoration, and is very impressive, particularly for a B-film like this. While inserts of stock footage have a smeary softness, everything else is tack-sharp and finely detailed. The depth of image is consistently impressive, and it retains that even in moments of damage — a couple marks and frame judders here and there. The uncompressed 1.0 mono soundtrack is a little flat, but doesn’t have any obvious issues.

The transfer certainly makes Arrow’s release worthwhile, and the extras help foster some appreciation. Scholar Peter Stanfield contributes both major extras, offering an introduction that mostly repudiates any notion of Lewis as an auteur and offers some context to the film’s place among the HUAC blacklist controversy. A visual essay examines Lewis’ visual strategy, which Stanfield basically describes as deliberate but meaningless. A theatrical trailer is also included.

Arrow Video / 1958 / Black and white / 1.85:1 / 80 min / $39.95

 

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based writer and editor who splits his critical ambitions between writing Blu-ray & DVD reviews and theater criticism. He’s a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.