All posts by Dusty Somers

Black Girl/Borom Sarret

Blu-ray Review: Black Girl & Borom Sarret: Two films by Ousmane Sembène

Black Girl/Borom Sarret

Black Girl & Borom Sarret: Two films by Ousmane Sembène
BFI

Often credited as the father of African film, the Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène is given long-overdue deluxe home video treatment in a stellar dual-format release (Region B/2) from the BFI. The title of Sembène’s debut feature, Black Girl (La Noire de…, 1966), references Max Ophuls’s masterpiece Madame de… (1953), and while Ophuls’s camera pirouettes around Danielle Darrieux’s constrained society woman, Sembène’s camerawork is direct, intimate and confrontational in its portrait of a woman hopelessly trapped by the lingering effects of colonialism.

Mbissine Thérèse Diop stars as Diouana, a young woman who takes a job working for a rich French couple (Anne-Marie Jelinek, Robert Fontaine), moving from her home in Dakar to the Mediterranean resort city of Antibes. Diouana anticipates a life of caring for the couple’s children and exploring a brand new country. Instead, she’s saddled with additional cooking and cleaning responsibilities and her sightseeing is limited to the car ride from the boat to the house when she first arrives. As Diouana says in one of her flat, resigned voiceovers, France is merely a kitchen, a living room and a bedroom to her.

Sembène’s politically charged film runs on an engine of focused righteous anger, its characters emblematic of a poisonous symbiosis. The couple’s fundamental misunderstanding of Diouana’s humanity is ugly and patronizing — to them, she’s simply a task-oriented automaton or an exotic trinket to show off to “less-cultured” friends. Diouana is a woman isolated, stripped of any agency and relegated to an even more inconsequential position than her life back in Senegal, shown through flashbacks.

Her alienation is strikingly realized by Sembène, who frames her pinned against lily-white backgrounds. The couple’s living spaces are notably unadorned; one wall is home only to a tribal mask given to them as a gift from Diouana when they first met. Soon, it will become an object of struggle as she engages in a futile fight to reclaim at least a portion of her identity, cultural, personal or otherwise.

The set also includes Sembène’s first film, Borom Sarret (1963), a 20-minute short about a cart driver whose generosity is only rewarded with indifference. It’s another potent portrait of a society stuck in a cycle of disenfranchisement.

Sourced from new 4K restorations carried out by The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, the 1080p, 1.33:1 transfers of both films are absolutely stunning, far improving on any available DVD version. Tight grain structure, incredible levels of fine detail and superb grayscale separation await viewers, and clean-up is impeccable, with only some remnants of degradation visible in the dinner party sequence of Black Girl. Black Girl is also presented in an alternate version that features one color sequence when Diouana arrives in France — a fleeting glimpse at the glamour she imagined — and these shots are lovely and vibrant. Audio is uncompressed PCM tracks that sound fresh and clean.

Extras include excerpts of a 2005 interview with star Diop, an illustrated chronology of Sembène’s career and the 1994 documentary Sembène: The Making of African Cinema, sure to be an essential companion piece to the forthcoming doc Sembène! The co-director of that film, Samba Gadjigo, and the director’s son Alain contribute new essays to the included booklet.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, BFI’s Black Girl/Borom Sarret Blu-ray rates:
The Films (out of ****): ***1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: ***
Extra Features Overall: ***

BFI / 1966 & 1963 / Black and white & color / 1.33:1 / 60 min & 20 min / £19.99 / Region B/2

 

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.

Jauja Featured

Blu-ray Review Round-Up: Films by Maya Deren, Eugène Green, Krzysztof Kieślowski & more!

Avant-garde cinemaMasterworks of American Avant-garde Experimental Film 1920-1970
Flicker Alley

It hardly feels presumptuous to label Flicker Alley’s new experimental film box set a strong contender for release of the year, even taking into account a few forthcoming heavy hitters, like Arrow’s Rivette box and Criterion’s long-awaited Apu Trilogy. For obvious reasons, experimental cinema is a tough sell in an increasingly niche-focused market, so it’s always a delightful surprise to see resources lavished so lovingly on a high-def collection of boldly non-commercial work.

Curated by Bruce Posner, the two-Blu-ray, two-DVD combo pack collects 33 avant-garde shorts from 1920-1970, along with a couple bonus films. Organized chronologically, the films offer an exceptional overview of the diversity of experimental filmmaking across five decades. Among the broad styles represented here:

Takes on the city symphony:
Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand’s Manhatta (1920-21) channels a Walt Whitman poem and presents an achingly romantic picture of New York City, while Robert Florey’s Skyscraper Symphony (1929) zeroes in on its sheer immensity with imposing, abstracted low-angle shots and Francis Thompson’s N.Y., N.Y. (1949-57) obliterates and re-forms the city with a variety of mirror effects that distill the city’s fractured energy. Intimate and humane, street-level observations like Jay Leyda’s A Bronx Morning (1931) and Helen Levitt, Janice Loeb and James Agee’s In the Street (1945-46) transform quotidian minutiae into something approaching transcendence.

Amazing animations:
Oskar Fischinger’s An Optical Poem (1937) represents the rare major studio foray into experimental film, an MGM release that features mind-blowing manipulation of paper cutouts to visualize Lizst’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. Mary Ellen Bute and Ted Nemeth’s Tarantella (1940) and Abstronic (1952) dig into the elemental nature of music, animations spawning and convulsing to syncopated rhythms. Lawrence Jordan’s Our Lady of the Sphere (1969) mashes together Victorian primness and space-age futurism in a frenetic dreamlike collage that’s always perilously close to tipping over into the realm of nightmare.

Genre deconstructions:
Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid’s galvanic, revered Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) is probably the set’s highest-profile film, and its advancement on French surrealist techniques remains bracing in a way few films are. It’s quite possible that it’s the best horror film ever made. The version included here features three additional shots, as it was originally presented. Florey and Slavko Vorkapich’s The Life and Death of 9413—A Hollywood Extra (1927) draws on German expressionism and anticipates David Lynch in its striking depiction of the dehumanizing effects of show business.

Portraits of the human body:
The human form is abstracted and dissected in Deren’s Meditation on Violence (1948) and Hilary Harris’s 9 Variations on a Dance Theme (1966-67), ritual and repetition examined in a Chinese boxer in the former and a ballet dancer in the latter. In Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy’s Ballet Mechanique (1923-24), cubist renderings work alongside repetitive mechanical imagery to transform man into machine.

The set includes works from a number of other notable experimental filmmakers, including Ralph Steiner’s deceptively playful Mechanical Principles (1930), Kenneth Anger’s beguiling Eaux d’artifice (1953), Bruce Baille’s hallucinatory collage film Castro Street (The Coming of Consciousness) (1966) and excerpts from Jonas Mekas’s diary film Walden (1969), coming to Blu-ray in its entirety later this year in an exciting release from Kino.

Outside of the five-decade window the set focuses on are bonus films Sappho and Jerry, Parts 1-3 (Posner, 1977-78), Ch’an (Francis Lee, 1983) and Seasons… (A Phil Solomon re-edit of works from Stan Brakhage, 2002).

The 1080p presentations vary in quality, thanks to conditions of the 16mm and 35mm elements, but Flicker Alley has taken an admirably conscientious approach by not overcorrecting damage or inconsistencies, many of which are part of the fabric of the films themselves. The sterling transfers of Manhatta and Ballet Mechanique are both sourced from 2K restorations, while Skyscraper Symphony, N.Y., N.Y. and Castro Street have also received digital restorations. Audio sources vary, with some films intentionally silent, some in uncompressed mono and a couple different scores for Manhatta in DTS-HD. Watching in high-def makes for the closest approximation to viewing a film print of these works, and for that, this Blu-ray release is essential.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Flicker Alley’s Masterworks of American Avant-garde Experimental Film Blu-ray rates:
The Films (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ***
Video Transfer: ***
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: ***
Extra Features Overall: ***

Flicker Alley / 1920-1970 / Black and white & color / Various aspect ratios / 418 min / $59.95


La SapienzaLa Sapienza 
(2014)
Kino Lorber

It might take a little bit for one to get used to the very precise formalism of La Sapienza, the latest feature from U.S.-born French filmmaker Eugène Green. Green’s frames are often painstakingly symmetrical, placing the subject in the exact center, and his shot-reverse shot sequences are bracing, if discomfiting, sometimes facing each person head-on, the camera encroaching with each cut. Add to that a distinctly Bressonian style of performance from every actor — although with considerably more arch humor — and you have a film that seems obsessed with the rational, the logical, the measured.

Fabrizio Rongione stars as Alexandre, a decorated architect who’s become disillusioned with his work and the destructive demands of progress. His relationship to wife Aliénor (Christelle Prot Landman), a social scientist who studies low-income populations, is in similar disarray.

A retreat to Switzerland and Italy gives the couple a chance to find rejuvenation, while Alexandre seeks to rekindle his passion by returning to a study of Baroque architect Francesco Borromini. In a small Italian town, they meet siblings Goffredo (Ludovico Succio) and Lavinia (Arianna Nastro). He’s an aspiring architect; she’s a young woman afflicted with a seemingly anachronistic wasting disease.

The group pairs off, with Goffredo joining Alexandre on his trip to Rome in hopes of learning more about architecture, while Aliénor stays behind to look after the ailing Lavinia. Apart, Alexandre and Aliénor’s affections are brought back to life, both by the enthusiasm of their younger companions and the illuminating discussions about architecture, theater, history and love that proceed.

Looking purely at the formal aspects, one might be convinced Green is a cynic or a satirist, but La Sapienza is a work of deep optimism and enthusiasm for the ways art can transform lives. Alongside the “rationality” of the film’s construction is a story that revels in the mystical and the spiritual. Alexandre admits that despite his atheism, he is deeply moved by the Shroud of Turin, while Goffredo speaks of “the presence” that is evoked by a great work of architecture.

The camera itself gives in to these feelings when it pauses to take in the stunning Baroque buildings. There’s no loss of precision in Green’s compositions, but one can almost sense the swooning as the camera tilts up, heavenward.

Kino’s 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer is exceptional, with abundant levels of fine detail in every image, be it the contours of a human face or Borromini’s jaw-dropping church San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane. La Sapienza is much more than architecture porn, but anyone who wanted to enjoy it simply on that level would be well-served by this release. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is often very quiet, as the film is mostly un-scored, but it’s crisp and clean. Extras include Les Signes (2006), Green’s short staring Mathieu Amalric and Landman, along with a brief interview with Green, a trailer and an essay from critic Nick Pinkerton.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Kino’s La Sapienza Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ***1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ****
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ***1/2
New Extra Features: **1/2
Extra Features Overall: **1/2

Kino Lorber / 2014 / Color / 1.78:1 / 104 min / $29.95

 

Mister JohnsonMister Johnson (1990)
The Criterion Collection

Released alongside Breaker Morant (1980) by Criterion, Mister Johnson is the decidedly less acclaimed work from Australian filmmaker Bruce Beresford. It’s not a forgotten masterpiece, but it’s a fairly worthy discovery or rediscovery with an impressive debut performance at its center.

Made the year after Beresford’s Best Picture-winner Driving Miss Daisy (1989), Mister Johnson retains a little of that film’s prestige-drama sheen, with certain scenes lapsing into bland coverage, accompanied by a maudlin score from the legendary Georges Delerue.

Still, there’s plenty to admire here, whether it’s Beresford’s affection for the beautiful Nigerian landscapes or the lead performance of Maynard Eziashi, starring in his first film as the titular Johnson, an African man so taken by the customs and culture of his British employers, he proudly proclaims himself to be a “civilized” British man, and he works dutifully to fulfill all the desires of his district officer boss (Pierce Brosnan).

As a comment on the effects of colonialism, Mister Johnson, based on the 1939 novel by Joyce Cary, is drawn in rather broad strokes. Johnson is essentially treated like a hyperactive child by both Brosnan and Edward Woodward’s more overtly racist general store proprietor, and there are times where it seems like he deserves it for his incredible naiveté.

But William Boyd’s script and Eziashi’s performance continually seek to complicate Johnson, treating him both as a product of his fractured environment and as a crafty, happy-go-lucky conniver. One even has to question Johnson’s supposed naiveté about his identity when he convinces Brosnan’s officer to cook the books in order to fund a road-building project or when he brazenly steals from various employers, citing it as an advance on his wages. Eziashi is simultaneously ingratiating, calculating and affable, and his performance makes up for a number of other shortcomings.

Mister Johnson is granted a 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer that significantly spruces up a title that’s been heavily neglected on home video. The film’s burnished, golden images look fantastic here, with strong levels of fine detail, even in numerous shadowy scenes, and there’s a thoroughly film-like appearance throughout. Sourced from a new 4K restoration of the original 35mm camera negative, the transfer is free of any noticeable damage. The 2.0 uncompressed stereo track is also quite nice, with clear dialogue and dynamic music and crowd noise.

A quartet of interviews makes up the only major supplements on the disc, but we get some informative and affectionate reminiscing from actors Eziashi and Brosnan, along with production history from Beresford and producer Michael Fitzgerald. A trailer and an essay by scholar Neil Sinyard are also included.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Criterion’s Mister Johnson Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): **1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ****
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ***1/2
New Extra Features: **1/2
Extra Features Overall: **1/2

The Criterion Collection / 1990 / Color / 1.85:1 / 101 min / $39.95


JaujaJauja
 (2014)
Cinema Guild

Hallucinatory, gorgeous and maddening, Jauja is one of the great modern westerns and it suggests, perhaps, that if Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian ever makes it to the screen, Argentinian filmmaker Lisandro Alonso should be at the helm.

A certain amount of opaqueness is expected in any work of slow cinema, and Jauja does not disappoint on that front, sketching out a bizarrely out-of-time Patagonian outpost, where Danish military captain Gunnar Dinesen (Viggo Mortensen) has taken an engineering job with the Argentine army. “Engineering” is fairly euphemistic, as the army is in the process of wiping out indigenous peoples.

Accompanying Dinesen is his teenage daughter, Ingeborg (Viilbjørk Malling Agger), who captures plenty of attention as the only female presence in the area. Eventually, she runs off with a young soldier, forcing Dinesen to track her into the wild unknown, where a raving mad deserter disguised as a woman is only one of the dangers.

Like Meek’s Cutoff (2010), Jauja features a square, 1.33:1 aspect ratio, here with rounded corners as a result of a non-matted full frame. The effect is similarly constricting, heightening the sense of danger and unpredictability by leaving what is outside of the frame to the imagination. Many films are called “painterly,” but Alonso’s compositions are so carefully constructed inside an artificially imposed border (not to mention, outrageously beautiful), it’s hard to resist employing that adjective.

As Dinesen’s journey grows increasingly unsuccessful, it becomes increasingly dreamlike, culminating with an encounter with a mysterious woman in a cave (Ghita Nørby), whose philosophical queries may be the answer to Dinesen’s search or just a confirmation of its futility.

Jauja is presented in a 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer that’s simply breathtaking. Alonso’s 35mm photography is exquisite, the blueness of the sky and the greenness of the grass and the grayness of Mortensen’s uniform and the blackness of the cave all unreal in their mystical beauty. Cinema Guild’s transfer preserves the film-like qualities of his images, delivering a detailed and vibrant presentation. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is subtle, but effective in its use of surrounds.

Extras include 2011 short Untitled (Letter to Serra), a 2009 teaser Alonso made for the BAFICI Film Festival and a Q&A with Alonso and Mortensen from the New York Film Festival, hosted by the ever-perceptive Kent Jones. A trailer and an essay on Alsonso’s career from film critic Quintin are also included.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Cinema Guild’s Jauja Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ****
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: **1/2
Extra Features Overall: **1/2

Cinema Guild / 2014 / Color / 1.33:1 / 108 min / $34.95


Blind ChanceBlind Chance
 (1981)
The Criterion Collection

Made in 1981, but suppressed by the Polish government until 1987, when it was released in a censored version, Blind Chance is presented here in uncut form (save for one lost scene) by Criterion. An early narrative work from Krzysztof Kieślowski, the film displays ingenious technical brilliance, but only hints at the metaphysical masterpieces that would come in The Double Life of Véronique (1991) and The Three Colors Trilogy (1993-1994).

The film plunges right in to the story of Witek (Bogusław Linda), careening through his childhood and adolescence with a kinetic, immediate series of scenes, the camera acting as almost another character, shoulder to shoulder with Witek as he experiences academic disappointment, a variety of romantic relationships and the death of his father.

Soon, the film arrives at its pivotal scene, one that will be shown three times, with minor variations. Witek rushes to catch a train, and whether he makes it or not will set into motion events that will change his entire life.

In the first scenario, he meets a Communist party member on the train, joins the party, and eventually reconnects with his first girlfriend, Czuszka (Bogusława Pawelec). There is some fulfillment in his work, but it prevents the same in his romantic life. In the second scenario, Witek finds himself joining the anti-Communist resistance, but attempts at romance are thwarted again. In the final scenario, he finds love with fellow medical student Olga (Monika Gozdzik) and a fulfilling, apolitical career as a doctor, but fate may have other plans.

If it all sounds rather schematic, it is. The sequential nature of the film feels a little rote, and Kieślowski doesn’t exactly bring the three segments together satisfyingly, as his finale feels more like a cheat than a forceful summation of the capriciousness of the universe. Nonetheless, the filmmaking is electric, and each of the segments is compelling as a standalone piece.

Criterion presents Blind Chance in a 1080p transfer that’s listed as 1.66:1, but looks closer to 1.75:1. Sourced from a 4K restoration, the presentation is superb, each image displaying exceptional detail and deep, consistent reproductions of the film’s drab, gloomy color palette, all dingy browns and cold blues. The uncompressed 2.0 stereo track presents a fairly dynamic score and clean dialogue.

A modest collection of bonus features accompanies the film, including a new interview with Polish film critic Tadeusz Sobolewski and a 2003 interview with filmmaker Agnieszka Holland. A featurette shows nine sections of the film that were censored, presenting them in color with the uncensored segments in black and white. The included insert features an essay by critic Dennis Lim and a Q&A with Kieślowski.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Criterion’s Blind Chance Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): **1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ****
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ***1/2
New Extra Features: *1/2
Extra Features Overall: **

The Criterion Collection / 1981 / Color / 1.66:1 / 123 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.

Vanya

Blu-ray and DVD Review Round-Up: Films by Alexsei German, Albert Serra, Louis Malle & more!

3 FilmsAndré Gregory & Wallace Shawn: 3 Films
My Dinner with André (1981)
Vanya on 42nd Street (1994)
A Master Builder (2014)
The Criterion Collection

Filmed theater is not something too many cinephiles tend to get excited about, but the creative partnership of Wallace Shawn and André Gregory has generated some of the most compelling intersections of the two disciplines. In a new box set, Criterion includes the previously released Vanya on 42nd Street Blu-ray along with a newly upgraded My Dinner with André and the newly released A Master Builder.

While Dinner isn’t actually an adaptation of a play, Shawn and Gregory’s script could easily be imagined as a stage-bound two-hander, and the whole thing is steeped in the era’s New York independent theater milieu. Playing fictionalized versions of themselves, the pair reconnect over dinner, discussing their lives and the role theater plays before tumbling deeper and deeper into an existential discussion as Gregory waxes enthusiastically about a series of spiritual experiences.

André is a touchstone of talky cinema and a snapshot of artistic and intellectual ideas at a specific point in American history, but it’s a film that retained its vitality and originality throughout the decades, directed by the chameleonic Louis Malle with an unobtrusive grace.

Malle also captures lightning in a bottle in his final film, Vanya on 42nd Street, which stars Gregory as the director of a production of David Mamet’s translation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. The film represents the culmination of a privately workshopped production of the play, with Shawn as Vanya and Julianne Moore as Yelena. As I mentioned in my original review of the 2012 Blu-ray release:

The film is more than simply great theater frozen in time. The open-ended intersection of actor and character and the way the reality of a rehearsal and the reality of the events of the play mingle without a clear boundary between the two makes Vanya on 42nd Street a compelling and intriguing take on what it means to create art.

There’s a somewhat similar quality to A Master Builder, which brings to film an adaptation of the Ibsen play that had arisen from actors workshopping the material. Director Jonathan Demme’s close-up-heavy shooting style doesn’t do much to open up the play, but the performances here are engrossing regardless, particularly Lisa Joyce as a mysterious young woman who re-enters the life of accomplished architect Halvard Solness (Shawn).

Shawn’s adaptation of the play pushes it into more ambiguous territory, turning the bulk of the narrative into a hazy dream-like reverie where no characters’ motivations are totally clear. Demme mirrors the play’s shift from stone-cold reality to ego-trip fantasy with an obvious but effective visual conceit. Despite the fact that much of the film feels like a creation of Solness’s patriarchal desires gone mad, Joyce’s vivacious performance is like an invented character who won’t play by the rules of her creator, and a similarly complex turn from Julie Hagerty as beleaguered wife Aline follow suit.

The three discs come packaged in their own separate keepcases, the Vanya release identical to the original disc, and the strong 1.66:1 transfer therein. André has been given an impressive upgrade, the 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer bringing all the textural beauty of its 16mm materials to a grainy but highly detailed home video presentation. A Master Builder alternates from 1.78:1 to 2.35:1, switching from the prosumer Sony XDCAM to a 2K Arri Alexa. Obviously, the footage shot on the Sony is riddled with artifacts, but the Alexa footage is given a clean, crisp presentation of HD digital video. Extras on Vanya and André are identical to previous editions, while the Master Builder disc contains two conversations with Shawn and Gregory — one moderated by critic David Edelstein, the other with Fran Lebowitz — and an interview with Hagerty and Joyce. All three discs are also available separately.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Criterion’s My Dinner with André Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ***1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ***
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: N/A
Extra Features Overall: ***

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Criterion’s Vanya on 42nd Street Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ***1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: N/A
Extra Features Overall: **

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Criterion’s A Master Builder Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ***
Film Elements Sourced: **1/2
Video Transfer: ***
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: ***
Extra Features Overall: ***

The Criterion Collection / 1981, 1994, 2014 / Color / 1.66:1, 1.78:1, 2.35:1 / 111 min, 119 min, 127 min / $99.95

 

Hard to be a GodHard to be a God (2013)
Kino Lorber

The final film from Russian filmmaker Aleksei German, who died shortly before its completion, Hard to be a God is an intimidating and punishing work of art. This is a fact that cannot be overstated. Cerebrally, viscerally, you name it — in every way, this is a difficult film.

It also represents the culmination of decades of planning from German, whose work remains almost completely invisible in the United States, and the labor of love is immediately apparent from the first frames. “World-building” is a term that gets thrown around a lot in sci-fi and fantasy contexts, as the most successful works of fiction in both genres are able to create a tactile sense of place. Well, Hard to be a God might be the greatest example of world-building ever committed to film, as its overwhelming design and camerawork plunges the viewer into an enveloping environment composed entirely of mud, shit, spit, blood and decay.

Both oppressive and expansive in its design, the film adapts the sci-fi novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (Stalker), set on the planet of Arkanar, which is in the midst of its own particularly brutal medieval period. Several scientists from Earth have been sent to the planet to observe, but they’re powerless to make any changes to a society defined as much by proud ignorance as unrelenting violence and a complete disregard for hygiene.

German’s insatiably curious camera and his commitment to jaw-dropping production design have to be witnessed, despite the film’s often inscrutable plot and the merciless depiction of all sorts of horrific violence and stomach-churning body secretions. You might want to, but you can’t look away — and even if you did, it’d be hard to escape the similarly oppressive sound design, which is often dominated by hacking coughs that sound like death itself.

Kino’s Blu-ray release of Hard to be a God is very nice, its 1.66:1, 1080p transfer looking exceptionally clean and sharp throughout. Black levels are deep and full, with nuanced grayscale separation and clean whites in the very brief moments when a snow-covered ground hasn’t been defiled yet. Both 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD soundtracks are included.

Although a forthcoming Arrow Video UK release looks to have the Kino beat handily in terms of extras, there’s some good material on this disc, including a 44-minute behind-the-scenes documentary and a lengthy introduction by co-screenwriter Svetlana Karmalita. The package also includes a booklet with a director’s statement from German, and essays from his son, Alexey German Jr. and critic Aliza Ma.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Kino Lorber’s Hard to be a God Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ****
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: ***1/2
New Extra Features: **1/2
Extra Features Overall: **1/2
Kino Lorber / 2013 / Black and white / 1.66:1 / 177 min / $34.95


Story of My DeathStory of My Death (2013)
Second Run DVD

Albert Serra brings his idiosyncratic sense of historical fiction to Story of My Death (Història de la meva mort), a conflation of the legends of Casanova and Dracula, envisioned as an epochal shift between the 18th and 19th centuries.

Serra’s work is both baroque and austere, lavishly composed digital shots that linger and linger in a familiar slow cinema mode. Despite its languid pace, the film begins with a reasonably recognizable narrative structure before gradually morphing into a series of highly abstracted scenes, the arrival of Count Dracula (Eliseu Huertas) ushering in a time of brooding, mystical violence.

With Dracula representing the Romanticism that would supplant Rationalism, the figure is less of a character than a force, perhaps not so much malevolent as merely indifferent. Vicenç Altaió’s Casanova is more broadly drawn, an aging letch who’s aware of his impending mortality but who isn’t compelled to discard his licentious tendencies. Whether in sex or in bodily function, he’s a man unashamed. (One of the film’s most memorable scenes has him straining to take a shit, laughing at himself and immediately returning to a wafery bonbon once the deed is done.)

Serra’s skill at coaxing striking imagery from lower-grade digital cameras is apparent throughout; both delicate, shadowed shots of man in nature and more traditional costume drama tableaus. The film’s transition from talky philosophizing to nearly wordless mood piece can be challenging, as is the dissolution of the already tenuous narrative markers. It’s a film that’s both energizing and enervating at times, but there’s plenty to admire for those willing to slog through.

Second Run’s presentation of the 2.35:1 film is a strong representation of the film’s digital photography, although be prepared to squint a bit during some of the extreme lowlight scenes. Both 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround sound options are included.  Extras include Serra’s tribute to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the 2013 short Cuba Libre, and a booklet with an entertaining conversation between Serra and Ben Rivers (Two Years at Sea).

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Second Run’s Story of My Death DVD rates:
The Film (out of ****): ***
Film Elements Sourced: **1/2
Video Transfer: ***
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: **1/2
Extra Features Overall: **1/2
Second Run DVD / 2013 / Color / 2.35:1 / 144 min / £12.99 / Region 2 (PAL)


Jekyll and OsbourneThe Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne
(1981)
Arrow Video

After releasing probably the most ambitious box set of the year in 2014, Camera Obscura: The Walerian Borowczyk Collection, Arrow Video has quickly followed up with another film from the oft-misunderstood Polish filmmaker in editions available both in the UK and the newly minted U.S. line. Like many of Borowczyk’s films, this adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel was branded in some markets as an exploitation piece, but it’s actually an unusual, beguiling portrait of the madness of desire.

Set in a Victorian house during the engagement party of Henry Jekyll (Udo Kier) and Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro), the film begins quickly dispatching victims of rape and murder, with Borowczyk’s camera peering through cracked doorways and around corners like a quiet observer hoping not to be noticed. The “who” is immediately obvious, but the “why” is far more intriguing, and the film’s elliptical scenes start to put together a portrait of a man consumed.

Never before available on DVD or Blu-ray, Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne has long languished in home video hell before Arrow’s release, which frankly represents something of a miracle. Sourced from a conscientious 2K restoration, scanned from the original camera negative, the 1.66:1, 1080p transfer here is outstanding, with great depth of image and color reproduction. The look of the film is rather soft, but it’s apparent that this was the intended appearance. Uncompressed mono versions of the original French track and an English dub are included. As a French-West German co-production, there wasn’t one language unifying the actors, so there’s dubbing whichever way you go.

Even by lofty Arrow standards, the extras on this release are incredibly comprehensive. A sampling: a lengthy introduction by critic Michael Brooke, a commentary track featuring new and archival interviews with cast and crew, including Borowczyk and Kier, multiple interviews with cast and admirers, featurettes on the film’s music and the filmmaker’s silent cinema influences, and quite a bit more. The film is likely to attract divisive opinions, but there’s plenty here to make a case for this atmospheric horror.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Arrow Video’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): **1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ****
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: ****
Extra Features Overall: ****
Arrow Video / 1981 / Color / 1.66:1, 1.78:1, 2.35:1 / 90 min / $39.95


U TurnU Turn
(1997)
Twilight Time

Oliver Stone’s sunbaked neo-noir U Turn is a frenetic flurry of sound and image, all jump cuts and garish compositions and heavily processed photography from the great Robert Richardson. The charged aesthetic is probably better suited to the frivolous plot convolutions here than in one of Stone’s many heavy-handed political works, but as is often the case, Stone struggles to modulate his eccentric tendencies.

Sean Penn glowers through the film as a drifter on his way to Vegas to pay off a gambling debt who gets stranded in a middle-of-nowhere desert town. A number of stars are on hand to embarrass themselves, especially Billy Bob Thornton as the redneck mechanic who takes in Penn’s car, but a bit turn from Jon Voight as a blind Native American runs a close second.

After a flirtatious encounter with a beautiful woman (Jennifer Lopez, hopelessly flat without Steven Soderbergh behind the camera), Penn is confronted by jealous husband Nick Nolte, who flies into a rage before attempting to enlist him in a plot to kill the woman.

Stone’s sense of humor is mis-calibrated throughout, but a lesser Ennio Morricone score and Richardson’s shots of the wide-open spaces of Arizona are pretty good assets. U Turn isn’t a particularly well-made film, but it’s more fun than it seems like it will be at the outset.

Twilight Time packages a swell Sony 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer here, with deeply saturated colors and nicely textured images, given a highly unnatural look thanks to much of the film being shot on reversal stock. The 5.1 DTS-HD track is active and vibrant, with Morricone’s score and the hyper sound design served well.

Extras include two commentary tracks, one featuring Stone and another with production exec Mike Medavoy and Twilight Time head honcho Nick Redman. There’s also a brief intro from Stone along with the customary Twilight Time isolated score track. A trailer also makes the cut.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Twilight Time’s U Turn Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): **1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: ****
New Extra Features: **1/2
Extra Features Overall: **1/2
Twilight Time / 1997 / Color / 1.85:1 / 124 min / $29.95

 

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.

 

 

Bandit Queen featured

Blu-ray Review Round-Up: Films by Tsai Ming-liang, Lucretia Martel, Mario Bava & more!

Stray Dogs (2014)
Cinema Guild

Stray DogsThere’s talk that Stray Dogs may be the final film from Tsai Ming-liang, one of the undisputed masters of the so-called “slow cinema” school, and it would certainly be a high note to go out on. Even by Tsai’s usual standards, Stray Dogs can test a viewer’s patience, particularly in the film’s final two shots, seemingly endless static displays of emotional and physical decay, minutely realized.

But while Tsai is stretching the limits of your endurance, he’s also stretching the imagination with his unbelievably precise compositions — ever-so-slowly revealing new bits of visual information — and his un-signaled detours into the surreal.

It’s easy enough to decipher the rudimentary bits of the narrative — a father (frequent Tsai collaborator Lee Kang-sheng) attempts to provide for his two children by working as a sign holder on a busy Taipei highway. They sleep in various abandoned places and are occasionally joined by one of several different women (or perhaps, the same woman, played by different actresses), and it’s not clear whether we’re jumping back and forth in time or simply seeing different perspectives. Is the woman the kids’ mother? Simply a compassionate acquaintance?

Emotional ties are not explicated, but what appears to be a distant film can turn shockingly emotional quickly, like when the father fashions a companion out of cabbage (a deeply uncomfortable, surprisingly funny and heart-wrenching scene all in one) or a rare close-up where he spontaneously breaks into song. Offering an entirely different audience experience are long takes where the man stands transfixed in front of a mural, connecting with the piece in a way that’s completely sealed off from our comprehension or empathy. That push-pull between alienating and affecting is just part of what makes Stray Dogs an indelible experience.

Cinema Guild’s 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer is an impeccable rendition of Tsai’s digital photography and the muted grays of crumbling structures and the bright primaries of consumer products under fluorescent light. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is subtly immersive, planting the viewer down near a packed highway, cars zooming past, or an echo-y abandoned corridor.

Among the extra features is a bonus film, Journey to the West (2014, 56 min), another entry in Tsai’s “Walker” series. Lee stars as a Buddhist monk making his way through Marseille in infinitesimal steps, with Tsai’s framing constantly subverting expectations of where he’ll show up next. This was like pure cinematic dopamine to me, with Tsai’s mind-blowing compositions and super-long takes used to a purely playful effect. The scene in which Denis Lavant shows up to follow up in Lee’s footsteps might be one of my new all-time favorites. The disc is worth the purchase for Journey to the West alone.

Other extras include footage of the Cinémathèque Française’s Tsai Ming-liang Master Class, a trailer and booklet with an essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Milestone’s The Connection Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ***1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ****
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ***1/2
New Extra Features: ****
Extra Features Overall: ****
Cinema Guild / 2014 / Color / 1.78:1 / 140 min / $34.95

 

La Ciénaga (2001)
The Criterion Collection

La CienagaFrom its first moments, the debut feature from Argentinian filmmaker Lucretia Martel envelops you in a feeling of sweaty dread. This is an extremely tactile film — shots seem to perspire, unease welling as her camera lingers, and the nerve-rattling nature of the off-screen sound design sets you on edge.

Martel’s most recent film, The Headless Woman (2008), established her as a major player in world cinema, and one can see that film’s formal precision and narrative withholding in its nascent form in La Ciénaga, a strong work in its own right.

Malaise has set in on the film’s subject — a bourgeois extended family sprawled out in front of a filthy backyard swimming pool as the film opens. When one of the characters badly injures herself on a broken wine glass, no one can even muster up an attempt to come to her aid. It’s a striking scene — both because of its unpleasant subject matter and Martel’s radical use of space, which uses close-ups and oblique angles to disorienting effect.

In many ways, the opening scene is a perfect microcosm of the entire film, as its thematic concerns about a family stuck in a self-harming cycle of decay and decadence hardly need to be developed further. That doesn’t make any of its subsequent running time less riveting though — you know the spiritual rot will manifest in irreversible physical consequences eventually, and the anxiety mounts across carefully crafted frame after frame.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer is based on a new 4K scan, and the level of depth and fine detail is phenomenal. The image is consistently sharp, clean and exceptionally film-like. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 surround track perfectly handles Martel’s vital sound design, delivering crisp audio from all channels.

Extras include new interviews with Martel and filmmaker Andres Di Tella, who discusses Martel’s place within New Argentine Cinema. A trailer and an insert with an essay by scholar David Oubiña are also included.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, The Criterion Collection’s La Ciénaga Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ***
Film Elements Sourced: ****
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ****
New Extra Features: **1/2
Extra Features Overall: **1/2
The Criterion Collection / 2001 / Color / 1.85:1 / 101 min / $39.95

 

The Connection (1963)
Milestone Films

The ConnectionIf only every stage-to-screen adaptation had the authorial conviction of Shirley Clarke’s The Connection, based on the play by Jack Gelber. Clarke’s film honors its source material, sometimes offering an unvarnished, empathetic look at a group of junkies and jazz musicians waiting around for their heroin dealer in a New York flop house. But Clarke goes a step further, explicitly acknowledging the inherent staginess of the material and offering a metatextual critique of the truth of documentary filmmaking.

A few years later, Clarke would more subtly make many of the same points about the deception of the camera and the uneasy relationship between documentarian and subject in Portrait of Jason (1967), but the sheer forcefulness of her thesis here is completely irresistible. Filmmaker Jim Dunn (William Redfield) — who’s financing the group’s heroin buy so he can film the “reality” — frequently steps in front of the camera, fussily adjusting lights and clumsily directing the men, who range from bemused to wholly disinterested.

Clarke, via Dunn and barely seen cameraman J.J. Burden (Roscoe Brown) — the diegetic film’s secret mastermind — often favors close-up one-shots, almost confrontational, as the various men tell their stories directly into the camera. It looks and feels like cinematic revelation, until it begins to sink in how each man has been transformed into a performer of some sort. Any sense of gritty reality is punctured by the arrival of Cowboy (Carl Lee), the group’s connection to the connection, who confronts Dunn’s camera right back, blasting him for thinking he’s uncovering the truth by “flirting” with them.

Clarke’s films have been given superb treatment on home video by Milestone, and they make no exception for her debut film, granted a 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer here that’s been sourced from the UCLA and Milestone restoration. The film-like transfer features excellent levels of fine detail and a very clean image, while the uncompressed 2.0 mono track offers a great showcase for jazz pianist Freddie Redd’s hard-bop score. Extras include behind-the-scenes footage and photos, a brief interview with art director Albert Brenner, a conversation with Redd, additional songs, home movies and a trailer.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Milestone’s The Connection Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: ***1/2
New Extra Features: **1/2
Extra Features Overall: **1/2
Milestone Films / 1963 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 110 min / $39.95

 

A Day in the Country (Partie de campagne, 1936)
The Criterion Collection

A Day in the CountryOne might look at the backstory for Jean Renoir’s A Day in the Country, and wonder what might have been. Before production could finish in 1936, Renoir had to leave to work on The Lower Depths (1936), and he never returned, the film completed by collaborators and released a decade later, after Renoir had already been working in Hollywood for a number of years. At 41 minutes, this just must be a fragment, a curiosity, right?

In reality, the film was always planned as a short feature and in its existing form, it’s already a masterpiece — a perfectly constructed bauble of idyllic romance and crushing disappointment, the totality of life’s emotions wrapped up together in a compact package.

A Parisian family escapes the hectic city life for a day by the water in the countryside, and two local fishermen, Henri and Rodolphe (Georges Saint-Saens and Jacques Borel) instantly set their sights on daughter Henriette. Rodolphe settles for a playful pursuit of Henriette’s mother (Jane Marken), while Henri’s casual attraction to Henriette blossoms quickly.

Renoir is capable of communicating a world of emotion with just a few brief shots, so the short running time here doesn’t cause the film to feel rushed. Time is both everlasting and fleeting in this tranquil setting, a paradise away from the world’s concerns where love can develop into something overwhelming, but where there is little hope of permanence. Initially, the film was designed with some cutaways to Paris, but sticking in the same location for its entirety gives A Day in the Country a mythical quality.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer is sourced from a new 2K digital restoration, and the resulting image quality is very nice, especially in close-ups, which reveal healthy levels of fine detail. Grayscale separation is strong, and damage is almost completely nonexistent. The lossless mono soundtrack handles the film’s dialogue and music just fine.

Those worried about spending full Criterion price on such a short film should be heartened by the slate of bonus features, which include Un tournage à la champagne, an 89-minute collection of outtakes, assembled in 1994 from more than four hours’ worth of material. Renoir scholar Christopher Faulkner discusses the film’s unusual production history in a new interview, and Faulkner also examines Renoir’s style in a new video essay. Archival material includes a Renoir intro from 1962, a 1979 interview with producer Pierre Braunberger and several screen tests. An insert with an essay by scholar Gilberto Perez is also included.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, The Criterion Collection’s A Day in the Country Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: ***
Extra Features Overall: ****
The Criterion Collection / 1936 / Black and white / 1.37:1 / 41 min / $39.95

 

Black Sunday (1960, AIP version)
Kino

Black SundayMario Bava’s breakthrough film, Black Sunday, showcases the director’s keen sense of atmosphere and elegant camera work in this pretty hokey tale about a 17th Century Russian witch (Barbara Steele) who’s burned at the stake and returns to wreak havoc two centuries later. Kino already released the film’s original Italian cut on Blu-ray a few years ago, but now returns with a Blu-ray release of the American cut, shortened a bit and presented with a new score courtesy of American International Pictures.

By most accounts, the original cut is the way to go, but Bava fans in the U.S. will be happy to have both versions available in high-def. One might wonder why Kino didn’t simply package both cuts together from the start, but it seems some tricky rights hurdles had to be cleared, as evidenced by the announcement and subsequent cancellation of a Black Sunday/Black Sabbath (1963) AIP double-feature. (Kino will now release the AIP Black Sabbath on a standalone Blu-ray in July.)

The 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer is a bit softer than Kino’s original cut disc, but it’s a nicely detailed presentation, if a bit rough around the edges with various print damage. As usual, Kino has refrained from any excessive digital manipulation, so the image retains a film-like look, though a less-than-sharp image is the norm. The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio mono track is very clean.

Unfortunately, no extras here aside from a theatrical trailer. This release gets the job done for region-A-locked Bava fans who don’t mind buying two discs, but Arrow Video’s dual-format Region B release is vastly superior, offering both cuts in one package and a ton of extras.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Kino Lorber’s Black Sunday Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): **1/2
Film Elements Sourced: **1/2
Video Transfer: **1/2
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: 1/2
Extra Features Overall: 1/2
Kino Lorber / 1960 / Black and white / 1.66:1 / 83 min / $19.95

 

Bandit Queen (1994)
Twilight Time

Bandit QueenShekhar Kapur straddles biopic convention and something resembling an exploitation film in his telling of the life of Phoolan Devi, a low caste Indian woman who endured endless sexual and physical abuse before becoming a vigilante gang leader. There are flashes of an angry, forceful vision here — the film opens with a defiant Devi (Seema Biswas) looking directly into the camera and declaring, “I am Phoolan Devi, you sisterfuckers!” and her climactic revenge against a group of upper-caste Thakurs is brutally balletic.

These moments are rare though; Kapur’s sedate camerawork lingers over the beautiful Northern Indian landscapes with the same apparent disinterest he has in the ugliness of Devi’s humiliations. From her marriage as an 11-year-old to an adult man who rapes her to a gang-rape by bandits to similar treatment from local police, Devi is subjected to one unimaginable horror after another.

Kapur seems to wallow in these moments — they essentially make up the first three-quarters of the film — but there’s a sense that he’s just ticking off biographical boxes, proceeding chronologically through the atrocities until he can get to the point where she has some agency. Despite its bold beginning, this is a film that’s hardly empowering.

It’s pretty apparent that Twilight Time’s 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer is sourced from an older master. Despite a generally pleasing image, colors are a bit faded and fine detail disappears into soft mush at points. Low-light scenes are afflicted with overwhelming grain that renders as video noise, and blacks are crushed pretty badly. It’s an improvement over what DVD can offer, and I wouldn’t count on a new scan for a film like this anytime soon. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 soundtrack presents the film’s Hindi dialogue cleanly, but some will be disappointed by the forced English subtitles (not burned-in per se, but not removable nonetheless).

Extras include a commentary track from Kapur, carried over from an older release, and an isolated score track. A booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo is also included.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Twilight Time’s Bandit Queen Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): **
Film Elements Sourced: **1/2
Video Transfer: **1/2
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: 1/2
Extra Features Overall: *1/2
Twilight Time / 1994 / Color / 1.78:1 / 119 min / $24.95

 

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.

 

 

Elvis

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

Les Blank: Always for Pleasure
The Criterion Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Level Five (1996)
Icarus Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kinetta (2005)
Second Run DVD

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slaughter Hotel (1971)
Raro Video

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flaming Star (1960)
Twilight Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Twilight Time’s Flaming Star Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ***
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: *1/2
Extra Features Overall: *1/2
Twilight Time / 1960 / Color / 2.35:1 / 92 min / $29.95

The Zero Theorem (2014)
Well Go USA

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

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

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

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

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

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

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Well Go’s The Zero Theorem Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): *1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ***
Video Transfer: ***
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: *1/2
Extra Features Overall: *1/2
Well Go USA / 2014 / Color / 1.75:1 / 111 min / $29.98

 

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

Ken Loach camera

Blu-ray Review Round-Up: Films by Leos Carax, Shirley Clarke, Orson Welles and more!

Boy Meets Girl (1984)
Mauvais Sang (1986)

Boy Meets GirlThe first two features from post-French New Wave master Leos Carax are clearly devised by a mind obsessed with the allure of movies, from silent film to Carax’s most obvious progenitor, Jean-Luc Godard. However, simply calling these films homages or documenting their numerous textual references would miss the fact that Carax has blazed his own trail with his dazzling formal playfulness and knack for capturing burnished “movie” moments that have instant indelibility.

In both films, Denis Lavant plays a young man named Alex (Carax’s real first name), and one can’t help but see parallels between the characters and the filmmaker’s style. In both films, Lavant is a cynic who ends up succumbing to swooning, unmoored romanticism despite his best efforts, and Carax’s heady, technical formal qualities feature a similar dichotomy.

The Alex of Boy Meets Girl has just discovered his girlfriend left him after cheating with his best friend. Fixated on firsts — first date, first kiss, first murder attempt — Alex has seemingly little use for the repetitive rituals of life that follow, but he doesn’t let that stop his heart from fluttering anew. After becoming infatuated with a suicidal stranger (Mireille Perrier), Alex becomes determined to meet her, and their eventual union sees two troubled souls finding common ground.

Mauvais SangThe Alex of Mauvais Sang coldly abandons his girlfriend Lise (Julie Delpy) when his late father’s associate Marc (Michel Piccoli) recruits him for a job, but his intentionally steeled heart is no match for the charms of Anna (Juliette Binoche), Marc’s girlfriend. An ostensible caper movie with the pounding heart of an aching romance, Mauvais Sang has feeling infused in every frame, Carax’s oblique compositions and sudden giddy moments imparting the feeling of intoxication via celluloid.

Of course, the images in Carlotta Films’ new Blu-ray releases of both films are strictly digital, but these 1080p, 1.66:1 transfers, both based on 2K restorations, are remarkably film-like, especially when one remembers the very underwhelming transfers of the old DVDs. Clarity and detail are superb. The black-and-white images in Boy Meets Girl have a silvery beauty, while the expressionistic colors of Mauvais Sang are bold and stable. The lossless mono tracks on both releases sound great, free of any extraneous noise or distortion.

Extras on Boy Meets Girl include Lavant’s charming screen test, outtakes from the kitchen scene between Lavant and Perrier and the restoration’s new trailer. Extras on Mauvais Sang include outtakes and deleted scenes, two trailers and an entire bonus film — Tessa Louise Salomé’s well-regarded documentary on Carax, Mr. X (2014).

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Carlotta Films US’ Boy Meets Girl Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: ***1/2
New Extra Features: **
Extra Features Overall: **
Carlotta Films US / 1984 / Black and white / 1.66:1 / 104 min / $29.95

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Carlotta Films US’ Mauvais Sang Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ****
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ***1/2
New Extra Features: ***
Extra Features Overall: ***
Carlotta Films US / 1986 / Color / 1.66:1 / 119 min / $39.95

 

Portrait of Jason (1967)
Ornette: Made in America (1985)

POJ_DVDMilestone Films offers up two more essential releases with volumes two and three of their Shirley Clarke series (volume one, The Connection (1962), is scheduled for an upcoming Blu-ray release). Following a highly successful Kickstarter campaign, Milestone restored Portrait of Jason from its original elements, and the result is a definitive release of Clarke’s mesmerizing one-man show in which her camera focuses on house boy and hustler Jason Holliday as he unspools tales of his ambitions, his flaws and the terrifying reality of being a gay black man in 1960s America.

Reality is relative though, a fact that becomes exceedingly clear as the film progresses and cracks begin to form in Jason’s performance. (No, Jason is not his real name, and yes, this is very much a performance.) Eventually, we see Jason reach a level of almost staggering vulnerability, but how can we be sure of anything we’re seeing? Clarke’s invasive camera work seems to suggest what we’re seeing is the absolute truth, raw and unfiltered, but the film forces viewers to consider the deceptiveness of the form right alongside the deceptiveness of the subject. Is Clarke duping us as well with her so-called documentary?

I might say that Ornette: Made in America is a more conventional documentary portrait, but “conventional” is a really relative term here, as Ornette Coleman’s legendary, boundary-breaking style of free jazz is mirrored by Clarke’s jagged, fragmented multimedia style.

OrnetteBeneath its frenzied surface, Ornette: Made in America is the story of another outsider and his complicated relationship with the United States. Clarke documents Coleman’s childhood in recreated flashbacks with actors, but the point is perfectly made in footage that features the impossibly square Fort Worth mayor presenting Coleman with a key to the city in a bumbling presentation that requires no sardonic underlining from Clarke.

Amid fantastic footage of several of Coleman’s performances, Clarke free-associates Coleman’s connections with figures as diverse as William S. Burroughs and Buckminster Fuller. The portrait of the artist that emerges never attempts to be comprehensive but by virtue of the film’s smartly scattered approached, it does feel like a substantial profile.

The 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer of Portrait of Jason is everything one could have hoped for from this restoration, and what’s on the disc mirrors the theatrical presentation I saw projected last year. A wealth of detail has been excavated from the 16mm images, full of big, beautiful grain and fantastic contrast levels. The minimal damage only reinforces the transfer’s film-like image.

The 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer of Ornette doesn’t quite have the same visual punch, given the film’s disparate sources, but the transfer is pleasingly film-like, even when detail and color is a bit soft or faded. The mono track on Jason is pin-sharp, while Ornette’s 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track offers up a nice showcase for Coleman’s music.

Milestone compiles a copious amount of extras for each release. Portrait of Jason includes several selections of outtakes, including a small bit of color footage, along with interviews with Clarke, a short film, a restoration demonstration and a detailed featurette on the lengths Milestone’s Dennis Doros and Amy Heller had to go to find surviving elements. The Ornette disc includes interviews with Clarke, an interview with Coleman’s son Denardo, Clarke’s tribute to Felix the Cat, a trailer and a booklet with notes from producer Kathelin Hoffman Gray.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Milestone Films’ Portrait of Jason Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ***1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ***1/2
New Extra Features: ****
Extra Features Overall: ****
Milestone Films / 1967/ Black and white / 1.33:1 / 107 min / $39.95

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Milestone Films’ Ornette: Made in America Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ***
Film Elements Sourced: **1/2
Video Transfer: ***
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: **1/2
Extra Features Overall: **1/2
Milestone Films / 1985 / Color / 1.66:1 / 85 min / $29.95

 

F for Fake (1975)

F for FakeOf course it’s a shame that Orson Welles struggled and failed to get a number of projects made in the final decade of his life, but the last fully formed film he left us with is a pretty remarkable bookend to a legendary directorial career. The playful, prankish F for Fake delights in opening up trapdoors on its audience, constantly questioning the fundamentally illusory nature of art generally and filmmaking specifically.

In each of its three segments — a look at famed art forger Elmy de Hory, a portrait of his biographer and unabashed charlatan Clifford Irving and a fanciful tale that involves Welles’ girlfriend Oja Kodar and some fake Picassos — Welles, acting as narrator, interrogates the nature of truth with the flair of a master magician. Formally audacious essay films have a reputation for being challenging, but Welles is such an impishly genial host, F for Fake is also as purely entertaining as almost anything else he made.

Criterion upgrades its 2005 DVD release of the film with a handsome Blu-ray edition. The 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer allows the film’s archival material to achieve new levels of clarity and color consistency, but it really shines in the film’s newly shot material, which looks immaculate, super sharp and impressively detailed. The uncompressed mono soundtrack is clean and crisp despite the variety of sources.

The fantastic slate of extras has been ported over from the DVD release and given a high-def boost. Supplements include the essential Orson Welles: One-Man Band, an examination of his legacy and numerous unfinished films, Almost True: The Noble Art of Forgery, a more extensive look at de Hory, interviews with Welles, Irving and Howard Hughes, along with an introduction by Peter Bogdanovich and an audio commentary with Kodar and DP Gary Graver. Welles’ original 10-minute trailer, made up of footage mostly not seen in the film, is also included, along with an insert with an essay by Jonathan Rosenabum.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Criterion’s F for Fake Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: ***1/2
New Extra Features: N/A
Extra Features Overall: ****
The Criterion Collection / 1975 / Color / 1.66:1 / 88 min / $39.95

 

Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003)

Los AngelesSpeaking of massively entertaining essay films, Thom Andersen’s hilarious, provocative, insightful and sometimes maddening Los Angeles Plays Itself is one of those rare three-hour films you wish were twice as long. Editing together hundreds of clips from a variety of films, from softcore porn to long-forgotten TV movies to cinematic landmarks like Chinatown (1974) and Blade Runner (1982), Andersen attempts to elucidate the oft-twisted identity of his hometown by sorting through its onscreen depictions.

Andersen and his editor Seung-Hyun Yoo approach the heights of classical editing elegance with their extraordinarily paced amalgam of clips, but the film’s true propulsive energy comes from Andersen’s deeply personal viewpoints, intoned by the ever so slightly sardonic narration of Encke King.

Andersen is a frequently cranky host — he hates the abbreviation L.A. and the way films have misrepresented the city’s geography and architecture — but because he isn’t beholden to a typically aloof mode of criticism, his observations wield a potency that extends to the film’s magnificent final section that examines anthropological and cultural implications of film. (Ironically, Andersen’s work is a bit reminiscent of one of his objects of scorn — David Thomson, a critic whose almost perversely personal observations can be equally enlightening and baffling.)

The film hasn’t been an easy one to see over the last decade, and a home video release often seemed out of reach due to the potential for copyright issues, so Cinema Guild’s Blu-ray release almost automatically becomes one of the finest of the year on principle alone. Unsurprisingly, the distributor more than does justice to the film with this package, which offers up a 1080p transfer that is often gorgeous.

The variety of film clip sources means the picture quality is highly variable, but the film has undergone a recent remastering which replaced clips with the best source available, along with a few minor edits here and there. Andersen’s 16mm footage is a nice baseline for how strong this transfer is — perfectly rendered film grain, exceptional color reproduction and strong levels of fine detail. The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack handles the variety of material just fine. Extras include The Tony Longo Trilogy (2014), Andersen’s short film that compiles clips from three of the character actor’s films, a trailer and a booklet with an essay by Mike Davis and notes by Andersen, who details some of the small changes made to this remastered cut.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Cinema Guild’s Los Angeles Plays Itself Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ***
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: **
Extra Features Overall: **
Cinema Guild / 2003 / Color/Black and white / 170 min / $34.95

 

Bill Morrison: Collected Works (1996 to 2013)

MorrisonBill Morrison proves himself to be a skilled curator of archival footage and a visionary avant-garde artist in Icarus Films’ five-disc (1-Blu-ray, 4-DVD) collection of his work. Three of Icarus’ previous releases are presented alongside two new discs, which feature Spark of Being (2010), a re-imagination of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Highwater Trilogy (2006), a series of meditations on the destruction of the environment using partially destroyed footage.

Warped and decaying celluloid is a major part of Morrison’s aesthetic, used brilliantly in the haunting elegy for film Decasia (2002). As I said in my initial review of the film’s standalone Blu-ray release:

The roiling emulsion and nitrate degradation often overwhelms the image and transforms what may have been a banal scene of nuns dealing with their students or a boxer fighting an opponent or a Geisha sitting in her chambers into something far more urgent. Some scenes last only seconds; some last longer, but not one ever comes to fruition, their modest ambitions swallowed up in a morass of film decay.

Compared to Decasia, some of Morrison’s other feature length works, including The Miners’ Hymns (2011) and The Great Flood (2013), can seem a little repetitive and thematically heavy-handed in their examinations of disaffected or displaced communities. Nevertheless, this collection of 16 works is a treasure trove of artfully assembled found footage and fascinating experimental works.

The 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer of Decasia offers a tactile, film-like experience that the other films’ DVD discs can’t quite replicate, but most of the films look just fine in these standard-def, 1.33:1 presentations.

There are no on-disc extras, but the set does include a booklet with several essays and an interview with Morrison.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Icarus Films’ Bill Morrison: Collected Works rates:

The Films (out of ****): ***
Film Elements Sourced: ***
Video Transfer: ***
Audio: **1/2
New Extra Features: 1/2
Extra Features Overall: 1/2
Icarus Films / 1996-2013 / Black and white/Color / $49.98

 

Two by Ken Loach: Riff-Raff (1991) and Raining Stones (1993)

Ken LoachYou generally know what you’re going to get when you sit down with a film by Ken Loach, perhaps the premier chronicler of English working class life. Twilight Time collects two of the filmmaker’s advocacy dramas in a fairly unlikely Blu-ray set that is nonetheless quite welcome.

Both Riff-Raff and Raining Stones are shaggy tales about people for whom desperate situations are depressingly ordinary, and both are filled with broadsides both direct and indirect against a British social climate still reeling from the influence of Margaret Thatcher.

Riff-Raff has some shades of conventionality as it documents the fits and starts of the relationship between construction worker Stevie (Robert Carlyle in his first major role) and aspiring singer Susan (Emer McCourt), but the film works better when it sets its sights broader. Scenes of Stevie’s construction crew working in unsafe conditions on luxury apartments have the kind of unassuming naturalism that sets Loach’s best work apart.

Raining Stones keeps the focus on the personal, presenting the economic plight of Bob (Bruce Jones) as emblematic of an entire social stratum. A proud Catholic, Bob is determined to raise the funds to buy his daughter a new dress for her first communion, despite his unemployment and precarious financial state. He takes on a series of demeaning and morally dubious jobs in an attempt to make some money, but his desperate choices could end up costing his family a lot more.

Neither of these films coalesces into an entirely satisfying whole, but Loach’s blend of unvarnished character sketches, didacticism and slapstick comedy (misplaced ashes in Riff-Raff; difficulty slaughtering a sheep in Raining Stones) certainly makes for something interesting.

Twilight Time offers up both films on a single disc. Riff-Raff has a 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer, while Raining Stones is 1080p and 1.66:1. The 16mm source of Riff-Raff naturally gives it a rougher, grainier look, but clarity and detail are pretty solid. Raining Stones looks excellent, with nice levels of fine detail, despite the fairly drab nature of Loach’s imagery.

The respective DTS-HD mono and 2.0 tracks are both fine, clean, dialogue-heavy tracks, but unfortunately Twilight Time’s lack of subtitles is disappointing given the variety of dialects and accents, some of which are quite difficult to understand to the untrained ear.

The only extras are isolated music and effects tracks and a booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Twilight Time’s Two by Ken Loach Blu-ray rates:

The Films (out of ****): **1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ***
Video Transfer: ***
Audio: **1/2
New Extra Features: 1/2
Extra Features Overall: 1/2
Twilight Time / 1991 and 1992 / Color / 1.33:1 and 1.66:1 / 96 min and 91 min / $29.95

 

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.

Man Hunt Featured

Blu-ray Review Round-up: “Man Hunt,” “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” and more!

Man Hunt (1941)

Man HuntIt’s doubtful there are many who would consider Man Hunt to be top-tier Fritz Lang, even if the parameters were narrowed to only his Hollywood films. Still, this noirish propaganda piece is bookended by a couple of harrowing sequences, and even in the saggy midsection, Lang’s expressive photography keeps the mood taut and tense. Isolating the pursued protagonist in shots that emphasize the impersonal blankness of urban and non-urban locales, Lang squeezes every last drop of intrigue out of a plot that only occasionally transcends its anti-Nazi polemic.

Walter Pidgeon stars as Alan Thorndike, a renowned British hunter on a German vacation just before the outset of World War II. He tracks down Adolf Hitler and has him in his rifle sight before being arrested by the Gestapo and placed in the custody of Major Quive-Smith (George Sanders, doing a kind of Erich von Stroheim urbanely sadistic thing). Thorndike insists he had just drawn a “sporting bead” on Hitler and wasn’t actually going to kill him, but Quive-Smith doesn’t buy it and makes the first attempt of what will be many on Thorndike’s life.

Pursued by German forces back to his home country, Thorndike must rely on a variety of sources to evade detection, including a quick-thinking cabin boy, Vaner (Roddy McDowall), and an infatuated young woman, Jerry (Joan Bennett). There’s a high potential for hokey plotting here, but the actors help sell the questionable material, as McDowall is an unusually perceptive child actor and Bennett taps into a place of unvarnished emotion, despite sporting a risible Cockney accent.

The film’s opening sequence is intriguing, and a later cat-and-mouse game in the shadows of the Underground has the elemental brilliance of the pursuits in M (1931), and taken with the generally engaging rest of the film, that makes for one solid piece of agit-entertainment.

Twilight Time has received a strong 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer from Fox for this high-contrast, shadowy film. Fine detail is abundant, blacks don’t suffer from any apparent crush and contrast levels are stable. A little bit of visible grain looks natural in this film-like presentation, which only displays minimal damage to the elements. The lossless mono track is similarly clean and clear.

Aside from the customary isolated score presentation, all the extras are ported over from Fox’s DVD release, including a decent making-of featurette, an audio commentary from Lang historian Patrick McGilligan and a trailer.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Twilight Time’s Man Hunt Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): **1/2

Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2

Video Transfer: ***

Audio: ***

New Extra Features: 1/2

Extra Features Overall: **

Twilight Time / 1941 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 102 min / $29.95

 

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)

Ali: Fear Eats the SoulFollowing closely on the heels of its ecstatically beautiful Blu-ray upgrade of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955), Criterion gives the upgrade treatment to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s surprisingly faithful remake/homage, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Angst essen Seele auf).

Much has been written about Sirk’s subversive criticism of bourgeoisie values rippling beneath his melodramatic surfaces, but there’s a bit of an opposite dichotomy seen in Fassbinder’s take. He shoots the unlikely romance between a 30-some Moroccan immigrant (El Hedi ben Salem) and a 60-some German widow (Brigitte Mira) with a characteristic aloofness, his camera at a distance, peering at the action through narrow doorways and winding bannisters.

And yet, the melodrama creeps through, both through Fassbinder’s expressive use of color (those gorgeous yellows!) and his empathetic, lingering shots of his actors’ faces. Fassbinder and Salem were romantically involved at the time, which may have contributed to the film’s deeply felt looks of longing. Either way, this is one of the cinema’s most exquisite and most honest love stories.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer couldn’t be any better. Sourced from a new 4K digital restoration and supervised by DP Jürgen Jürges, the transfer features exceptional clarity and astounding levels of detail. Fassbinder’s somber color palette, punctuated with flashes of brightness, looks natural and stable, while film grain is rendered beautifully. The uncompressed monaural German audio sounds superb, free of any distractions or imperfections of any kind.

Extras are all carryovers from the 2003 DVD release, including an introduction from fellow Sirk-ophile Todd Haynes, interviews with Mira and editor Thea Eymèsz, a 1976 BBC program on the New German Cinema, a scene from Fassbinder’s The American Soldier and Shahbaz Noshir’s 2002 short Angst isst Seele auf, which has a prominent connection to Fassbinder’s film. A trailer and an insert with an essay by critic Chris Fujiwara are also included.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Criterion’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul Blu-ray rates:

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

Film Elements Sourced: ****

Video Transfer: ****

Audio: ***1/2

New Extra Features: N/A

Extra Features Overall: ***1/2

The Criterion Collection / 1974 / Color / 1.37:1 / 93 min / $39.95

 

Sidewalk Stories (1989)

Sidewalk StoriesOn the included interview in Carlotta Films’ Blu-ray release of Sidewalk Stories, director and star Charles Lane plays down the obvious affinities between his film and Chaplin’s The Kid (1921), insisting instead that his film was primarily inspired by J. Lee Thompson’s low-budget thriller Tiger Bay (1959).

It’s probably to the film’s benefit to get away from the Chaplin comparison, despite the obvious narrative similarities between the films. For one thing, Lane is a reasonably expressive actor, but he doesn’t nearly possess the remarkable communicative abilities of a Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd, not to mention his relative lack of physical comedic chops.

For another thing, Sidewalk Stories is certainly a more faithful homage to the silent film than The Artist, but much of the time, this feels like a film that just happens not to have a synced soundtrack — it’s more of a polished version of cinema verité than anything.

Nonetheless, Sidewalk Stories is often very charming in its tale of a street artist (Lane) who begrudgingly adopts a little girl (Nicole Alysia) after her father is murdered in an alley. Living in an abandoned building, the artist barely has enough resources for himself, but he finds a way to provide for the child with the help of a young woman (Sandye Wilson) who falls for the mismatched pair.

The film’s silent-style comic sequences — a skirmish with a fellow, much larger artist over a customer and a playground squabble are both great moments — are a little too infrequent. Lane has an eye for capturing interesting perspectives on marginalized individuals, but the docu-style elements of this hybrid tend to become a little repetitive, especially considering the film’s obvious finale, in which Lane breaks the sound barrier to no great effect.

Despite the film’s shortcomings, it’s a treat to have it presented this beautifully by Carlotta Films, the French company who have recently expanded into the US, with Kino Lorber distributing their discs here. The 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer, sourced from a 2K restoration, is a clean, detailed snapshot of the past that feels like it was preserved perfectly intact. Black and white levels are stable and consistent, with a film-like appearance to the image that is highly pleasing. The 2.0 DTS-HD soundtrack presents a nice showcase for Marc Marder’s eclectic score, which combines traditional piano plinking, bluesy riffs and ambient droning.

Extras include a new interview with Lane and Marder, as well as a commentary track from the pair. A nice inclusion is Lane’s 1977 short A Place in Time, which serves as a kind of prototype for Sidewalk Stories. A trailer is also included.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Carlotta Films US’ Sidewalk Stories Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): **1/2

Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2

Video Transfer: ****

Audio: ***1/2

New Extra Features: ***

Extra Features Overall: ***

Carlotta Films US / 1989 / Black and white / 1.85:1 / 101 min / $29.95

 

Iguana (1988)

IguanaNo surprise, Monte Hellman delivers another fascinating genre subversion with Iguana, as idiosyncratic a take on the monster movie as Hellman’s versions of the road movie — Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) — and the western — The Shooting (1966), Ride in the Whirlwind (1966).

Iguana stars Everett McGill as Oberlus, a disfigured harpooner whose reptilian facial features has made him the object of ridicule among his fellow sailors on a 19th Century whaling ship. When he escapes the horrific conditions, he sets up his own empire on a remote island, paying back the cruelty done to him tenfold to anyone who dares step foot on land.

Hellman’s atmospheric, disorienting film interrogates both traditional notions of masculinity and femininity, in Oberlus’s absurdly grandiose proclamations and in the character of Maru Valdivielso’s Carmen, a woman whose free sexuality terrifies the men around her. Oberlus takes Carmen as his lover by force, leading to a tragic ending that simply underlines the horror that Hellman allows to unfold over the course of the film.

Raro Video’s Blu-ray release restores several minutes that were cut from the long out-of-print Anchor Bay DVD release, but that’s about the only nice thing to be said about this disappointing disc. While the Blu-ray boasts approval and new color correction from cinematographer Josep M. Civit and Hellman, it’s clear that something went very, very wrong in Raro’s transfer, which is riddled with obvious noise reduction, resulting in frozen grain and disturbingly smooth surfaces. This is an especially bad fit with the dim, raw look of the film, as blacks are frequently crushed and riddled with artifacts. Though I suspect they would look OK in a properly presented transfer, the colors just look sickly here. The 2.0 DTS-HD soundtrack isn’t great itself, but its slightly muddled sound is nothing compared to the onscreen travesty.

Extras include a new interview with Hellman, a trailer and a booklet with a brief essay and a Q&A with Hellman.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Raro Films’ Iguana Blu-ray rates:

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

Film Elements Sourced: ***

Video Transfer: *

Audio: **

New Extra Features: **

Extra Features Overall: **

Raro Video / 1988 / Color / 1.85:1 / 100 min / $29.95

 

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.

Love Streams

Blu-ray Review Round-Up: “Manakamana,” “Love Streams” and more!

Manakamana

The latest from the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, responsible for formally adventurous documentaries like Leviathan (2013) and Sweetgrass (2009), Manakamana (2014) is another mind-expanding, wholly engrossing trip to another world.

ManakmanaDirected by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, Manakamana is in some ways the formal opposite of Leviathan, which saw camera placement taken to (sometimes uncomfortable) extremes, turning observation into abstraction. Here, the camera is locked down for 11 shots of almost identical length, as a cable car ascends and descends in Central Nepal. These static shots put us in the position of companion to the men, women, children and others riding on journeys to and from a sacred Hindu temple.

The initial effect is one of repetition, and one might be tempted to assume this is the film’s main formal conceit – sort of a Jeanne Dielman in a gondola scenario – but while the film’s measured pace does contribute to a hypnotic effect, the filmmakers have structured the film in a continuously surprising way.

A figure just out of frame will suddenly make an appearance, causing one to reassess their entire conception of the riders. Some rides play out like mini-thrillers, the suspense mounting as one tries to determine the nature of the riders’ relationship. Others are purely delightful, like a pair of women racing to finish their ice cream bars before the heat dissolves them or three band members taking endless snapshots. Each one is revealing in its own way, about the people or the culture or the history. Time races by. 10 minutes doesn’t seem long enough to spend with some of these people.

And about that formal construction – the film essentially plays out as one long take, the cuts masked by darkness at the end of each trip as the gondola enters the station. Pretty basic stuff, right? Except, these trips don’t necessarily occur in the order one might expect, a playful little dashing of expectations that isn’t even necessarily apparent at first glance.

Cinema Guild has offered up another must-own package, with a 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer that beautifully reproduces the Nepalese landscape and the expressive faces of the riders appreciating it. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is appropriately subdued, but punctuated by very loud machinery noise as the cable thunders over certain parts of the track. Extras include a commentary from the directors, 30 minutes of additional rides and behind-the-scenes footage, a trailer and a booklet with an essay by Dennis Lim and a director Q&A.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Cinema Guild’s Manakamana Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ***1/2

Film Elements Sourced: ****

Video Transfer: ****

Audio: ***

New Extra Features: ***

Extra Features Overall: ***

Cinema Guild / 2014 / Color / 1.78:1 / 118 min / $34.95

 

Love Streams

Consider this an essential addendum to Criterion’s already indispensable John Cassavetes box set. Love Streams (1984) was basically Cassavetes’ last film he directed, and it’s also his final screen performance, and though his contributions behind-the-camera are more renowned, he was also an intensely fascinating performer, especially given the chance to work alongside his wife, i.e. perhaps the greatest actress of her generation.

Love StreamsGena Rowlands and Cassavetes play siblings whose separately self-destructive paths lead them back to each other, and even though they spend the majority of time on screen apart, there’s a tangible connectivity between their patterns of broken relationships and self-deception, fumbling toward love without really understanding what it takes.

Cassavetes always excelled at taking clear-eyed perspectives at his damaged characters, but his camera cuts to the quick in Love Streams, making for a difficult, draining watch. In many of his earlier works, like A Woman Under the Influence (1974) or Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), Cassavetes balanced his characters’ dysfunction with optimism for the future – perhaps these people would find a way to be happy. In Love Streams, the future is here, and it’s not very pretty.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer, based on a 2K restoration, is as gorgeous as any in the earlier box set. Images are clear, full of stable, well-resolved grain and consistent colors. The film-like transfer is accompanied by an exceptionally clean uncompressed mono track. The bountiful slate of extras includes new interviews with cinematographer Al Ruban and actress Diahnne Abbott and a 2008 interview with Seymour Cassel, along with a video essay on Rowlands, Michael Ventura’s behind-the-scenes doc, a commentary track from Ventura, a trailer and a booklet with an essay by Dennis Lim, yet again.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Criterion’s Love Streams Blu-ray rates:

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

Film Elements Sourced: ****

Video Transfer: ****

Audio: ****

New Extra Features: ***1/2

Extra Features Overall: ***1/2

The Criterion Collection / 1984 / Color / 1.85:1 / 141 min / $39.95

 

We Won’t Grow Old Together

A good companion to much of Cassavetes’ work is another excruciatingly unvarnished look at relationships from Maurice Pialat, We Won’t Grow Old Together (1972, Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble). Jean (Jean Yanne) is a misogynistic, needlessly cruel bully to the younger woman, Catherine (Marlène Jobert), he supposedly loves.

We Won't Grow Old TogetherThe cycle of breakups and reconciliations is emotionally exhausting, but Pialat’s formal construction is absolutely stunning as he elides almost anything that might help the viewer conventionally understand why these two are continuously drawn to each other. Highly charged reunions and disintegrations make up the bulk of their relationship, eventually leading the viewer to a kind of perverse understanding.

Kino brings Pialat’s masterwork to Region A-locked viewers with its solid Blu-ray release, featuring a 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer and a 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. There’s a slightly blue-ish, cooler hue to most of the images throughout the film, but it’s a clear transfer with appreciable levels of fine detail and nicely rendered film grain. Extras include a short appreciation from filmmaker Alex Ross Perry, an interview with Jobert, a trailer and an insert with an essay by Nick Pinkerton.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Kino’s We Won’t Grow Old Together Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ***1/2

Film Elements Sourced: ***

Video Transfer: ***

Audio: ***

New Extra Features: **

Extra Features Overall: **

Kino Lorber / 1972 / Color / 1.66:1 / 115 min / $34.95

 

Pickpocket

If Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959) isn’t the platonic ideal of thrillers, I’m not sure what is. Bresson’s economical caper film, like his previous film, A Man Escaped (1956), can be enjoyed as a white-knuckled suspense picture without engaging with its underlying spiritual or humanistic concerns.

pickpocketRiffing on Crime and Punishment, Pickpocket follows the increasingly dangerous exploits of a young thief (Martin LaSalle) who steals because he can, toying with a police officer and mostly neglecting his ill mother. Bresson will never shake the label of asceticism, and rightfully so in some contexts, but to re-watch Pickpocket with fresh eyes is to see a film of intense feeling, sublimated thrills building to a deeply felt conclusion.

Criterion’s 1080p Blu-ray upgrade is a thing of beauty, full of silvery, film-like images and greatly improved levels of clarity and detail above the respectable old DVD release. The copious extras, including an audio commentary from the brilliant James Quandt, an introduction from the heavily influenced Paul Schrader and several documentary programs, are all carried over from the DVD.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Criterion’s Pickpocket Blu-ray rates:

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

Film Elements Sourced: ****

Video Transfer: ****

Audio: ***

New Extra Features: N/A

Extra Features Overall: ****

The Criterion Collection / 1959 / Black and white / 1.37:1 / 76 min / $39.95

 

Southern Comfort

Walter Hill makes it clear in Shout! Factory’s new interview on their release of Southern Comfort (1981) that he doesn’t see the film as any kind of statement on the Vietnam War. His dismissal of movie as metaphor isn’t shared by stars Keith Carradine and Powers Boothe, but either way, Hill made a hell of a terse, escalating action film in which a group of National Guardsmen piss off some Cajuns in the Louisiana swaps, turning routine field exercises into all-out guerilla war.

Southern-Comfort-Blu-rayHill’s film is, at turns, beautifully atmospheric and brutal, as the peacefulness of the natural setting is decimated by the ugliness of men on both sides. The film’s final sequence plays with that tension, heightening it to a nerve-fraying level before finally relenting at its conclusion.

Shout’s 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer isn’t the sharpest, with some mishandled grain and a few pretty soft sequences. It’s a pretty pleasing transfer for the most part though, with a consistent color palette and solid levels of fine detail. The uncompressed mono track is clean and crisp, handling quiet and chaotic moments equally well. Extras include the aforementioned set of interviews, some stills and a trailer.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Shout! Factory’s Southern Comfort Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ***1/2

Film Elements Sourced: ***

Video Transfer: **1/2

Audio: ***1/2

New Extra Features: **

Extra Features Overall: **

Shout! Factory / 1981 / Color / 1.78:1 / 105 min / $29.93

 

 

 

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.

 

King Featured

Blu-ray Review: “All the King’s Men” (1949)

All the King's Men

Not that you necessarily needed any, but All the King’s Men (1949) is solid proof that the moralizing, narratively stilted Best Picture recipient is hardly a modern invention. Winner of the big prize and two acting trophies, All the King’s Men often looks the part of a great film, thanks to director Robert Rossen’s flair for noirish visuals. Dramatic camera angles, canted frames and blunt lighting imbue the film with an occasionally palpable sense of dread, but any visual tension is dissipated by Rossen’s thunderously obvious screenplay, based on Robert Penn Warren’s novel. The noir-like qualities don’t really rise above the level of pastiche, and yet they’re easily the film’s most compelling elements.

A what-you-see-is-what-you-get affair, the film tells the story of Willie Stark (Oscar-winning Broderick Crawford), an aw-shucks, country bumpkin type whose downhome, self-taught law experience and rural county seat election are the only qualifications he needs to soon land a spot in the governor’s seat, riding a wave of populist enthusiasm to victory. Once there, Stark descends into all-out corruption, getting his hands dirty with a litany of bribery, intimidation and deception. Most of this is merely glossed over, and the lack of specificity prevents the film from having any real political teeth; Willie Stark is simply a boogeyman. Worse, he essentially transforms into such over the course of a single montage, one of many papered-over transitions that accompany most of the film’s significant narrative developments.

King 2

So, even though Crawford is reasonably engaging, his character is never as terrifying or magnetic as the script lets on. There’s potential for more interest in Jack Burden (John Ireland), the newspaperman and audience surrogate who narrates the film. Initially intrigued by Stark as a feature subject, he’s eventually drawn into the governor’s inner circle, forcing him to confront his own ideals as Stark requires increasingly morally dubious tasks from him. Burden’s swings of conscience are wide and erratic, but most of the potentially interesting crises of faith are swallowed up in a subplot that has Burden digging up dirt on the uncle (Raymond Greenleaf) of his girlfriend, Anne (Joanne Dru).

Burden’s relationship with Anne eventually becomes a point of contention between he and Stark, who is presented as a lady-killer in the film’s most unpersuasive overreach. The married Stark has women falling all over him, including Anne and his sassy campaign manager Sadie (Mercedes McCambridge in an Oscar-winning turn). When a film doesn’t bother to explicate its corrupt politician’s corruption, it’s probably too much to ask for it to apply any sense of believability to his level of attraction. The romantic entanglements do provide the film with some unintended comic relief though, as Dru’s head-throwing ultra-melodramatic performance clashes sharply with her slightly more restrained costars.

All the King’s Men seems convinced that “power corrupts” is such a novel message that there’s no need for any further insight into its characters or political climate. The broadly drawn portrait is almost tract-like in its single-mindedness, and its abrupt about-face at its conclusion seems shoehorned in to make a moralistic point about the downfall that such corruption brings. Rossen’s varied camera positioning and strong ability to stage striking scenes prevent All the King’s Men from being a total slog; still, this is a Best Picture winner that would probably play a lot better with the sound off.

Twilight Time brings Rossen’s film to Blu-ray in a 1080p high definition, 1.33:1 transfer that looks exceptional much of the time. Grayscale reproduction is precise and clean, with deep blacks, perfectly balanced whites and plenty of beautiful silvery images. Film grain is fairly light, but present and unhampered by any obvious digital manipulation. Clarity only really suffers during transitional opticals, but is otherwise quite impressive. There are a few specks here and there, but damage is minimal. The uncompressed DTS-HD mono audio is just fine, with clean dialogue and an adequate reproduction of Louis Gruenberg’s rather forgettable score.

That score is the main feature of Twilight Time’s thin slate of extras, as their usual isolated score track is the only significant extra here. I doubt anyone is all that invested in Gruenberg’s score, but on the plus side, this option does allow one to filter out the film’s frequently hackneyed dialogue. The only other extra is a trailer.

King 1

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Twilight Time’s All the King’s Men Blu-ray rates:

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

Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2

Video Transfer: ****

Audio: ***

New Extra Features: *

Extra Features Overall: *

Twilight Time / 1949 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 109 min / $29.95

 


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.

 

Africa featured

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

Come Back, Africa

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

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

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

Disc two contains:

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

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Milestone Films’ Come Back, Africa Blu-ray rates: The Film (out of ****): ***1/2 Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2 Video Transfer: **** Audio: **1/2 New Extra Features: **** Extra Features Overall: ****   Milestone Films 1959 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 86 min / $39.95     Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based writer and editor who splits his critical ambitions between writing Blu-ray & DVD reviews and theater criticism. He’s a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.

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