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Crimes Featured

Blu-ray Review: “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989)

Crimes and Misdemeanors

Capping off the strongest decade of Woody Allen’s career, Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) is a nearly ideal synthesis of Allen’s strengths as a writer, director and actor. That might sound strange if one considers Allen’s talents to be primarily comedic — Crimes and Misdemeanors can certainly be funny, but the humor hardly undercuts the fundamental darkness of the material.

Nevertheless, this is where it all seems to come together. Allen’s attempts at brooding, intense dramas can fall flat, particularly when he’s aping Bergman (comedic emulations of Bergman, like Deconstructing Harry, are another, more successful story). But in its riff on Dostoevsky, Crimes and Misdemeanors strikes a meaningful, weighty tone. The film also incorporates Allen’s strongest comedic tenor — wry and rueful. Allen’s documentary filmmaker character isn’t radically different from any of the other men he’s played in his films, but the way he’s stymied at every turn adds an extra dimension of melancholy to his wisecracks.

Crimes and Misdemeanors is also one of the most convincing examples of Allen’s skill as a director, generally the most maligned, or at least ignored, aspect of his career. The construction of this thing is remarkably elegant, cutting back and forth between parallel stories and only gradually emphasizing the thematic similarities. One doesn’t tend to associate Allen with intricately designed visual rhymes, but here we are.

The first moral crisis we’re introduced to is that of ophthalmologist Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), a man who should be entering into contented golden years, having achieved professional success and surrounded by a loving family. Instead, he’s forced to confront his own transgressions, brought forcefully to the forefront of his life by Dolores Paley (Anjelica Huston), a flight attendant and his mistress. The luster has worn off the affair for Judah, and Dolores, motivated by a combination of vengefulness and guilt, threatens to tell all to his wife (Claire Bloom).

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Panic-stricken, Judah contacts his brother, Jack (Jerry Orbach), who arranges for a hit man to take care of Dolores. The ensuing scene is disturbingly matter-of-fact; there’s a methodical, almost banal quality to it that makes a woman’s murder seem like the most ordinary thing in the world. Later, Judah visits her apartment to recover some incriminating evidence, and the scene strikes a similar tone, flatly showing Dolores’s lifeless body and Judah’s understated reaction. His subsequent mood is far more distraught, but that owes more to his newfound conception of himself rather than her murder. The moral inquiry that proceeds from here is hilariously self-focused, an existential crisis that’s completely crass in its dismissal of the value of someone else’s life.

Allen crosscuts this story with Cliff Stern’s (Allen himself), a filmmaker who longs to make important, serious documentaries, but has to settle for a puff piece on his TV producer brother-in-law, Lester (Alan Alda) to pay the bills. Lester is comically pompous, but Cliff isn’t much better in the self-awareness department, cutting together a pathetic attempt to embarrass Lester and clumsily pursuing Halley Reed (Mia Farrow), the producer on the project.

Like many an Allen protagonist, Cliff can be charmingly self-effacing, with his Indian takeout and Singin’ in the Rain on 16mm, but he also overestimates himself. The scene in which he learns the subject of his passion project has died and decides to make a pass at Halley is painful. Never mind the fact that Cliff is married, however unhappily to Wendy (Joanna Gleeson). Here’s another character whose thoughts turn only to himself in moments of crisis.

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Allen’s playful interrogation of his characters’ moral fiber and the audience’s perception of that morality makes for a rich work. Where on the spectrum of right and wrong do these characters’ actions fall, and does it even really matter? Happiness doesn’t seem to have much correlation with morality, as Allen underlines in the film’s final scene when Judah and Cliff’s storylines finally intersect, and the two men share a moment of reflection. In Allen’s conception of the world, there’s hardly a clear-cut answer, but at least we have laughter, even if it’s of the bitter type.

After a run of decent-to-strong Woody Allen Blu-ray releases, it appears Fox/MGM is unfortunately getting out of the game of distributing his catalog titles on Blu-ray, handing Crimes and Misdemeanors and the forthcoming Broadway Danny Rose (and let’s be honest — probably a number of others) off to Twilight Time. Aside from Twilight Time’s signature extra, this is virtually identical to what Fox/MGM would have given us — only at twice the price. Oh well.

The 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer is similar to what we’ve seen on the previous Allen Blu-rays. Detail levels are solid, the image is reasonably clean and clarity represents a nice improvement over the DVD, even if it’s not mind-blowing. Grain is cleanly rendered, offering a fairly film-like appearance. Sven Nykvist’s slightly burnished cinematography is appealingly presented; autumnal browns are warm without looking oversaturated. A few speckles pop up here and there, but aren’t too concerning. Digital tampering doesn’t appear to be an issue. The 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack presents the classical and jazz tunes clearly, while dialogue is adequately clean.

Allen’s home video releases are almost always essentially barebones, and this one is no different. Twilight Time includes the usual music and effects track, but this seems even less useful than usual, as the film doesn’t possess a traditional score. The original theatrical trailer is also included, along with a booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo.

 

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

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

Film Elements Sourced: ***

Video Transfer: ***

Audio: ***

New Extra Features: *

Extra Features Overall: *

 

Twilight Time

1989 / Color / 1.85:1 / 104 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.

Titus featured

Blu-ray Review: “Titus” (1999)

Titus

The opening scene of Julie Taymor’s Titus (1999) is just about the perfect encapsulation of the film itself. A young boy sits at a kitchen table, playing with toy soldiers and action figures, violently smashing them into one another. Eventually, he’s dumped a bottle of ketchup and a carton of milk all over the table, creating a messy tableau of entangled bodies, bathed in unfounded chaos.

If this scene isn’t Taymor’s self-portrait, then such a work doesn’t exist. In her other films, but especially here in her directorial debut, she’s a filmmaker who exults in careening bodies, objects and shots. Cuts don’t fit together like puzzle pieces; they crash into one another like ill-fitting toy bricks, brought into alignment by the sheer force of their assembler. Taymor’s maximalism thrives on chaos. She’s unlike a filmmaker such as Ken Russell, who frequently went over-the-top, but generally in service of his central theme. Taymor’s more of a “throw everything at the screen and see what sticks” kind of filmmaker.

These qualities make her a pretty good candidate to direct the film version of William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, a bloody horror show generally considered to be one of the Bard’s lesser works, sometimes verging on hysterical self-parody. Shakespeare’s play is rarely considered to be great art, and Taymor’s film certainly isn’t, but it’s also never boring. Taymor finds enough variety in her visual assaults to prevent the film from becoming monotonous in its excess.

Taymor consistently weds the modern and the ancient in her anachronistic vision, and that begins straight away, as the soldier-playing boy (Osheen Jones) in the first scene is transported back to the latter days of the Roman Empire, where he turns into the grandson of Titus Andronicus (Anthony Hopkins). Titus has just returned victorious from a battle against the Goths, and he’s brought their queen, Tamora (Jessica Lange), back as a trophy.

Titus may be bloodthirsty — within the first 20 minutes of the film, he’s killed one of Tamora’s sons and one of his own — but he’s not power-hungry, deferring an offer to become emperor and nominating the fulsome Saturninus (Alan Cumming) in his place. Saturninus decides he wants Lavinia (Laura Fraser), Titus’s daughter, as his queen, but she refuses, leading him to pick Tamora as an act of defiance against the Andronicus family. Now, with his mortal enemy installed as the Roman Queen, Titus finds himself and his family the targets of a number of gruesome attacks. But Titus’s capability for revenge is vast.

The film’s relative faithfulness to the source material is one of its saving graces, as it keeps the sequence of events fairly coherent. For all of its stylistic flourishes, this isn’t a film that could have gotten by on style alone — it’s far too scattered. Some of Taymor’s imagery is incredibly striking; the early scene of Titus’s army returning from war, clay-caked and walking in bizarre lockstep, sets the tone for the disturbing, humanity-shredding events yet to come. But her attempts to meld traditional imagery with a punk-rock aesthetic end up looking like half-committed, pale imitations of Derek Jarman or Alex Cox. Some of the film’s vulgar energy is nicely reminiscent of Pasolini, particularly in a scene where the world’s most mellow orgy is interrupted by a bow-and-arrow attack. Then again, that energy is sometimes directed into hilariously stupid scenes, like when Lavinia identifies her attackers while melting into a blue-tinged acid trip, complete with leaping tigers.

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Hopkins has sufficient screen gravitas to not be overwhelmed by the visual anarchy that surrounds him. Still, he perhaps plays the role too straight, only embracing something campier in the film’s late sequences, especially in a scene where he devises a grotesque cannibalistic trick and revels like Hannibal Lecter once the truth is revealed. The film’s best performance belongs to Harry Lennix, who played Tamora’s Moor lover Aaron in Taymor’s initial stage adaptation and reprises the role here. Lennix is totally convincing in his offhanded, freewheeling cruelty. It’s a performance that simultaneously embraces the absurdity and the horror of the adaptation — fun but not superfluous.

Titus is a worthy addition to the cinematic Shakespeare repertoire, if only because it’s the only significant adaptation of this particular play. In the 15 years since the film’s release, Taymor hasn’t done much to counteract her skeptics’ opinion of her work, either on the screen or the stage, but this first outing can be just winningly demented enough to work enough of the time.

Twilight Time brings Titus to Blu-ray in a limited-to-3,000-copies edition that presents the film in 1080p and a roughly 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Twilight Time can only work with the transfers given them to them by the studios, but here’s a case where one wishes they would’ve pushed back on Fox. From the opening, slightly washed out Fox Searchlight intro, it’s clear that the transfer was sourced from a dated master. Speckling and dirt are a problem here and there, but the real killer is how smeary and muddy the image looks. Fine detail is not distinct, clarity is inconsistent and contrast is muddled. This rarely looks better than an upconverted DVD, and not a particularly impressive DVD transfer at that.

The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is a much more obvious upgrade over DVD, presenting Elliot Goldenthal’s score crisply and cleanly, and spreading out the film’s action-heavy sequences nicely through the surrounds. The track seems a little on the quieter side, particularly in dialogue-heavy scenes, but it’s a nice mix overall. A 2.0 DTS-HD track is also presented as an option.

The disc includes a selection of extras that have all been ported over from Fox’s DVD release. They are:

  • Three audio commentaries. One with Taymor, one with composer Goldenthal and one with Hopkins and Lennix.
  • A nearly hour-long making-of documentary featuring interviews and behind-the-scenes footage.
  • A question-and-answer session with Taymor following a screening of the film at Columbia University.
  • A brief featurette on the film’s nightmare sequences.
  • A collection of theatrical trailers and TV spots.
  • An isolated score track.
  • A booklet featuring an essay by Julie Kirgo

 

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

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

Film Elements Sourced: *1/2

Video Transfer: *1/2

Audio: ***1/2

New Extra Features: N/A

Extra Features Overall: ***

 

Twilight Time

1999 / Color / 2.35:1 / 162 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.

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Blu-ray Review: “The Epic of Everest” (1924)

The Epic of Everest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonus features included in the set are:

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

 

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

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

Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2

Video Transfer: ***1/2

Audio: ****

New Extra Features: ***

Extra Features Overall: ***

 

 

British Film Institute

 

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

 
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Blu-ray Review: “Many Wars Ago” (1970)

Many Wars Ago Blu-ray

Francesco Rosi’s hot-blooded Many Wars Ago (Uomino contro, “Men Against,” 1970) is probably forever destined to be compared to Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957). The similarities aren’t superficial — by underlining the inhumanity and sheer absurdity of World War I trench warfare through a variety of carefully attuned formal techniques, both films arrive at a passionate, persuasive condemnation of war. With Paths of Glory, it feels like Kubrick is taking a less clinically detached approach to his material than in later works, but it never reaches the levels of overt, blistering anger that Rosi’s film does.

Many Wars Ago is a film where the fury of war is viscerally felt in scene after scene of pulsing movement and blasting sound. Rosi doesn’t shy away from launching a series of kinetic assaults on the senses, his close-up framing emphasizing chaos over any distinguishable moving parts. The approach is reminiscent of his earlier bullfighting drama The Moment of Truth (Il momento della verità, 1965), where movement becomes polemic by virtue of its visual forcefulness. In Many Wars Ago, Rosi does take time to focus in on individual characters, but many scenes deemphasize the humanity of the soldiers completely. In this world, you’re just a mass of flesh and metal. Attempts by soldiers to assert themselves as anything more than that generally result in a visit from the firing squad.

Source novel Un anno sull’altipiano (“A Year on the High Plateau,” 1938) was written by Italian soldier Emilio Lussu, based on his experiences in the Sassari Infantry Brigade in World War I. The film takes place during a series of skirmishes between the Italian army and Austro-Hungarian forces in mountainous terrain, and the Austrians seem to have the upper hand in almost every regard, their higher-ground positions and powerful machine guns cutting down any Italian plan before it has a chance of accomplishing anything.

The repeated futility is lost on Gen. Leone (Alain Cuny), a monstrously imperious leader, whose capricious leading style is more responsible for thinning out his own forces than anything the Austrians have planned. In matters of army motivation, he rules with an iron fist, demanding respect by having his own soldiers shot for the most minor of slip-ups. In matters of strategy, he’s something of a crazed lunatic, sending troops out on impossible missions to try to capture the enemy’s higher ground position. One of the film’s most strikingly absurd scenes has Leone outfit a group of soldiers in medieval-style armor and order them to re-attempt a failed gambit, as if this anachronistic tactic would render the hailing machine gun fire ineffective.

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In Rosi’s horrific vision of war, there is very little agency apart from Leone’s and the bureaucratic forces that underpin him. In one of Rosi’s shots of a teeming, anonymous mass of ground troops, Leone strides among the bodies, the only face in clear view. The film’s two de facto protagonists never stand a chance of overcoming this institutional behemoth; Lt. Sassu (Mark Frechette, in one of only two other roles after Zabriskie Point [1970]) seems to understand this, his world-weary, resigned demeanor contrasting sharply with his youthful features. Sassu is the stand-in for author Lussu, an upper-class young man whose support for the war drained away once he saw the horrors on the front line.

For Lt. Ottolenghi (Gian Maria Volonté), the possibility of mutiny keeps some hope alive, but his craftiness is ultimately useless. He tricks Leone into looking out through a pinhole viewing point that Austrian snipers have consistently fired on, but luck is not on his side. Leone walks away unscathed, while moments later, a bullet rips through a branch Ottolenghi places in the same spot. Moral order or even just a little ironic justice is absent here.

Many Wars Ago is a wearying, frustrating experience in both content and form. One is tempted to become numb to the repeated decimations of the Italian army, but Rosi’s nightmarishly constructed scenes of sound and fury on the battlefield prevent inurement. As a villain, Gen. Leone is hardly the subtlest of characters, but Leone is also not the object of Rosi’s venom; he’s merely the personification of a dehumanizing institution. This is one of the great, challenging, stomach-turning war films.

Raro Video gives Many Wars Ago its Region 1/A debut with its Blu-ray release (also available separately on DVD), and while there’s plenty to admire about the transfer, it’s been frustratingly framed in the non-theatrical 1.33:1 aspect ratio. It appears this is an open matte transfer, and the disc was approved by Rosi himself. Are we to assume the director prefers this framing? As far as I can tell, Raro’s old Region 2 DVD release of the film was presented in 1.66:1. As the film progressed, I wasn’t overly distracted by the framing, but some might find this a dealbreaker.

The 1080p high definition transfer was sourced from a reversal print belonging to the Italian National Film Archive, as the original negative has been lost. Taking this into consideration, it’s a pretty good-looking digital transfer, with a very clean image and reasonably high amounts of fine detail. Color consistency is another matter — fluctuation between tones is pretty common, sometimes so much so that the muddy browns and greens of one shot look almost like grayscale in the next. Flesh tones tend to look rather unnatural, and most of the time, the image has a faded appearance. Fortunately damage is mostly nonexistent and there doesn’t appear to be any of the excessive digital filtering that has affected some Raro Blu-rays.

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The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack does a nice job handling the wide range of volume. The piercing battle sound effects that Rosi pumps up can sound a little harsh, but that’s to be expected and kind of the point. English subtitles are optional.

Raro’s disc includes the following special features:

  • Interview with director Francesco Rosi (28 minutes) Rosi, now 91, is exceptionally sharp and engaging, recalling all sorts of specific details about the production of the film. He talks about wanting to make a film with a message after the fairy tale of More Than a Miracle (C’era una volta, “Once Upon a Time,” 1967), and discusses the contrasting reactions Many Wars Ago provoked, along with bits of production trivia.
  • Before and after restoration demonstration (2 minutes) Side-by-side comparison of select shots.
  • PDF of the original screenplay, only accessible on a computer with a Blu-ray disc drive.
  • 20-page booklet with an essay by Lorenzo Codelli, notes from Rosi, excerpts from positive and negative critical reviews and biographical information.

 

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Raro Video’s Many Wars Ago Blu-ray rates:

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

Film Elements Sourced: **1/2

Video Transfer: **

Audio: ***

New Extra Features: **

Extra Features Overall: **

 

Raro Video

1970 / Color / 1:33:1 / 101 min / $34.95

 

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

 

 

 

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Blu-ray Review: “Museum Hours” (2012)

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It’s not the most academic way to consider a film, but for me, there are some works that you just want to go live inside of; their ideas are so rich, their characters so vivid, their surroundings so inviting that you wish you could traverse the barrier between the image and yourself. Jem Cohen’s sublime Museum Hours (2013), my favorite film of the year, is one of these films, and fortunately, it’s a work that’s very interested in blurring the line between art and life. Cohen owes little to what we think of as traditional naturalism, but Museum Hours is nonetheless an exceptionally lifelike film, blending city symphony and Chris Marker-style essay with a deep appreciation for meaningful art and meaningful relationships.

Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara) is a first-time visitor to Vienna, drawn there when a cousin falls into a coma and her name and contact information still match in an old address book. Anne begins to spend a great deal of time at the famed Kunsthistorisches Art Museum, where she strikes up a friendship with museum guard Johann (Bobby Sommer), whose warm, inquisitive and reflective narration punctuates the film. He becomes her interpreter, communicating with the hospital about her cousin’s stagnant condition, and her tour guide, showing her the spots in the city he loves.

Cohen’s camera drinks in deeply the sights of Vienna in shots that one might be tempted to think of as POV shots, except they’re not quite. Cohen turns his audience members into participants with these subjective shot choices, taking us along with Anne and Johann and allowing us to see the buildings, the monuments, the people, even the trash on the ground with as if with our own eyes.

This contemplative mood extends to the sequences inside the museum, where the camera lingers over the visages of statues and the textures of paintings. Cohen’s associative editing will occasionally draw parallels between the art and the real — museum visitors’ faces comingle with the statues, birds in a painting seem to dissolve into the real thing on a telephone wire outside, bits of refuse painted in the corner of an artwork look like the cigarette butts and wads of paper littered in the street. The associations sometimes take a beguiling turn; one of the film’s many delightfully playful moments occurs when a museum visitor on the edge of the frame suddenly turns and looks directly into the lens before Cohen quickly cuts away. The spectator of art has become the object of the audience’s gaze; is the distinction between life and art, between what’s on either side of the screen all that distinct?

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In the film, Johann’s favorite room of the museum is the one dedicated to Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and Bruegel’s inclusive, observant and deceptively radical paintings are mirrored by Cohen’s construction of Museum Hours. In the film, a guest lecturer (Ela Piplits) takes a tour group through Bruegel’s work, explaining his devotion to accurately chronicling peasant life and the way in which the ostensible subject of the painting — often a religious retelling, such as Paul’s conversion or Christ carrying the cross — wasn’t necessarily the focal point. Piplits’ passionate defense of the openness of art could apply to Museum Hours as well; here’s a film where you’re encouraged to let your gaze wander around the frame and your mind along with it.

Cohen, whose background is primarily in nonfiction, is obviously deeply invested in the parts of the film that more closely resemble documentary, but the film’s essayistic elements cohere perfectly with O’Hara and Sommer’s performances, somewhat scripted and somewhat improvised but wholly sincere no matter which is the case. There’s nothing rigid about the depiction of their blossoming friendship, no dramatic expectation that their interactions must play out in any sort of arc, and the result is some of the most honest and true depictions of thinking, feeling human beings I’ve seen on film. When Johann describes some of the museum’s paintings to Anne’s unconscious cousin, in the off chance that she might be able to hear, it’s less of a performance than a person’s innate passion that we see on the screen. Same goes for O’Hara’s lovely, elegiac songs.

Among its many ideas, Museum Hours posits that the art that means the most is the art that reflects some facet of life. By that standard, Museum Hours is an exceptionally meaningful film, the kind I greatly look forward to inhabiting the same space as many more times over the years.

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Cinema Guild’s Blu-ray release of Museum Hours presents the film in 1080p high definition and a screen-filling 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Cohen shot Vienna exteriors on 16mm and interiors digitally, and the transfer faithfully recreates the look of both formats. 16mm sequences feature a clean, prominent grain structure, while digital sequences are comparably smoother. Fine detail is apparent in both shooting formats; the textures and brush strokes of a number of paintings, captured in unhurried close-up, are especially tangible.

The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is a mostly front-channel affair, but the quiet track is noticeably immersive in museum sequences where the patter of footsteps and hushed whispers of observers make it seem as if you’re really there. Cohen’s use of nat sound is one of the film’s sensual pleasures, and the soundtrack here accurately captures that.

As is expected from their well-curated releases, Cinema Guild has lined up an excellent selection of contextualizing bonus features, including three short films. The extras on this release are:

  • Amber City (1999, 48 minutes) Cohen’s Marker-like 16mm documentary about an unnamed Italian city was commissioned by arts organization Ondavideo, and the verité visuals are paired with a wry, not totally factual narration track that describes a city thought to be on the verge of extinction, but that persists nonetheless.
  • Anne Truitt, Working (2009, 13 minutes) A black-and-white 16mm portrait of the minimalist sculpture artist, capturing her unconventional thoughts on art and her rapturous explanations of her use of color.
  • Museum (Visiting the Unknown Man) (1997, 8 minutes) A silent Super 8 film that presages Museum Hours in its reverent images of works of art in a museum.
  • Alternate English voiceover track. Sommer has recorded an English version of his German narration that plays in the original version of the film.
  • Theatrical trailer and festival trailer
  • 22-page booklet featuring an essay by critic Luc Sante and writings by Cohen about the production process, his conception of the film and various assorted notes.

 

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Cinema Guild’s Museum Hours 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

Cinema Guild
2013 / Color / 1:78:1 / 107 min / $34.95

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.