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Blu-ray Review Round-Up: Films by Bob Fosse, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Karel Kachyňa & more!

The EarThe Ear (Ucho, 1970)
Second Run

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

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

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

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

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

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

BRDThe BRD Trilogy (1979-1982)
Criterion Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sweet CharitySweet Charity (1969)
Kino Lorber Studio Classics

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

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

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

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

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

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

ClunyCluny Brown (1946)
Criterion Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

CrosscurrentCrosscurrent (2016)
Cheng Cheng Films

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

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

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

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

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

Relaxer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RelaxerRelaxer (2018)
Oscilloscope Laboratories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RookieA Case for a Rookie Hangman (1969)
Second Run

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

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

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

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

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

LilyAll About Lily Chou-Chou (2001)
Film Movement

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

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

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

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

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

Wanda

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

HighwayHighway Patrolman (1991)
Kino Lorber Studio Classics 

Exiled from Hollywood after not-a-biopic Walker, the iconoclastic Alex Cox took his talents to the Mexican film industry, making the third in a string of westerns, Highway Patrolman. Unlike Walker and Straight to Hell, it’s a fairly conventional film — at least by Cox’s standards. Bitter satire and cockeyed surrealism sit at the edges of Highway Patrolman, rather than its center.

But Cox excels in this mode also, and this picaresque about Pedro (Roberta Sosa), a rookie cop eager to be corrupted in a remote border town assignment, veers from deliriously funny to relentlessly bleak. Cox employs a long-take approach full of elegantly designed shots as Pedro progresses from nervous kid to embittered professional. Sosa traverses a convincingly weathered path, from a naïve greenhorn whose attempted shakedown of a farmworker (Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez) results in their marriage to a man whose code of honor demands he care for a desperate prostitute (Vanessa Bauche) and avenge a wronged partner (Bruno Bichir).

Cox balances his contempt for authority figures with a genuine care for his protagonist, even when he gleefully abuses his power, and Cox’s tonal control is evident in the way he makes digressions into the supernatural (like a visit from Pedro’s dead father) feel of a piece with the film’s more straightforward elements.

Kino’s Blu-ray sports a Cox-approved 1080p, 1.85 transfer sourced from a new 4K restoration, and it’s easily the best the film has looked on home video. The image retains the dusty quality of the photography, while showcasing strong levels of fine detail and film-like depth. The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is reasonably clean.

Kino continues their upgrades of Cox films that were released on DVD by the now defunct Microcinema label. Many of the extras from that DVD release are ported here, including an audio commentary from Cox and producer Lorenzo O’Brien and a couple making-of featurettes. A newly filmed intro by Cox is also included, along with his debut short film, Sleep is For Sissies.

Here’s hoping the Cox upgrades continue with a release of the wonderfully weird Three Businessmen.

KhrustalyovKhrustalyov, My Car! (1998)
Arrow Academy

Alexei German was not a prolific filmmaker, leaving behind only five solo directorial efforts upon his death in 2013, which also saw the release of his final film, the staggering sci-fi epic Hard to Be a God. But in that film and his penultimate one, Khrustalyov, My Car!, there’s such an abundance of ideas, one feels the films’ frameworks struggling to contain it all.

Featuring some of the most maximalist mise-en-scène one will ever lay eyes on, Khrustalyov hurls itself at the viewer, densely packed, deep-focus frames of activity overwhelming the eye and the mind. German wallows in his oppressively intricate scenic design, and if literal shit is the common thread in Hard to Be a God, it’s spit in Khrustalyov, whose title card is accompanied by a kid hocking a loogy onto a mirror. The expectoration continues apace, German’s love of grotesquerie acting as metaphor for authoritarianism.

It’s commonplace to comment on the impenetrability of German’s films, and there are frequent stretches of the film that would likely require a thorough knowledge of Stalinist-era Russia to grasp. On the other hand, the basic plot is simple — military doctor General Klensky (Yuri Tsurilo) finds himself targeted by an anti-Semitic scheme — and the film’s pervasive sense of dread and paranoia is so strong, one would have to try to lose the emotional thread.

German balances that relentless pessimism with a sly sense of humor that runs the gamut from bodily function juvenilia to surreal grace notes. The film requires careful attention and earns it in equal measure. It’s like a firehose turned on full blast that you can’t pull your face away from.

Arrow’s Blu-ray features a 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer sourced from a new 2K restoration, and it’s incredible how good the film looks. Alternating between shadowy blacks and blown-out whites, the film presents obvious visual challenges, but fine detail and clarity remain consistent strong points throughout the transfer. Damage has been almost completely eradicated. The LPCM 2.0 track handles the soundtrack — as dense as the images it accompanies — with decent fidelity and no apparent issues.

Arrow’s collection of extras are especially impressive when one considers this is a film most labels would pass on in any form. A new audio commentary features programmer and disc producer Daniel Bird, while critic Eugénie Zvonkine’s video essay explores German’s style and historian Jonathan Brent’s featurette looks at the real-life history of Stalin’s plot. The set also includes two archival interviews with German and an extensive 60-page booklet with essays and contemporary reviews. Everything is housed in a sturdy slipbox with a fold-out poster. It’s a stellar package.

IkarieIkarie XB 1 (1963)
Second Run 

Much of the enjoyment in Jindřich Polák’s Ikarie XB 1 comes from placing it in the continuum of science-fiction cinema. The geometric set design clearly influenced the look of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and in adapting Stanislaw Lem (the film is loosely based on The Magellanic Cloud), it anticipates the shattering emotional toll of space travel depicted in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, even if the outlook is considerably sunnier here. I was even reminded a touch of a scene in Claire Denis’ High Life, where a man going mad in space is an existential threat like no other.

Polák, who co-wrote the film with Czech New Wave luminary Pavel Juráček, clearly saw his film’s place in the sci-fi continuum, at one point introducing a clunky Robby the Robot-like figure before cheekily undermining its usefulness as a relic from the past.

At the same time, the film is undeniably quaint in its own way, with the spaceship’s large co-ed crew spending its leisure time at a kitschy dance party as unlikely in the year 2163 as that robot. And though the shadowy black-and-white photography depicts a crew racked by both emotional uncertainty and mysterious sickness (not to mention the appearance of nuke-equipped ship full of fossilized humans), the film’s underlying tone never quite embraces the darkness. The ahead-of-its-time design elements mingle with a very of-its-time utopian optimism, making for a fascinating signpost in the history of sci-fi.

Second Run’s 1080p, 2.35:1 Blu-ray transfer is sourced from the Czech National Film Archive’s 4K restoration. The transfer is solid, with good grayscale separation and an exceptionally clean image. Some occasional softness and minor quality fluctuations do pop up, but it’s a nice-looking transfer overall. A 2.0 mono uncompressed track offers a strong showcase for Zdeněk Liška’s multivalent score.

In upgrading to Blu-ray, Second Run offers several new extras, including the opening and ending to the dubbed US cut, Voyage to the End of the Universe, which added a gimmicky reveal, and 1963 short film The Most Ordinary of Occupations, directed by Josef Korán. Carried over from the DVD: Critic Kim Newman’s appreciation and the extensive booklet essay by Michael Brooke.

WandaWanda (1970)
Criterion Collection 

It’s been almost a decade since the UCLA Film & Television Archive restoration of Barbara Loden’s one and only feature film. It trickled out to a few theaters then, but the film has been difficult to see for much of its lifespan, and like many rarities, it’s been breathlessly acclaimed.

Now available from Criterion, the film isn’t one that screams “masterpiece” at first blush, with an aimless looseness that seems endemic to a good portion of New Hollywood films of the era. But it’s a film I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since seeing it, primarily for a reason that contemporary critics savaged it for: The overwhelming passivity of Wanda, played by Loden herself, a woman who gets roped into a misbegotten robbery scheme by a viciously petty criminal, Mr. Dennis (Michael Higgins).

It feels incorrect to call Wanda the protagonist, as she’s a woman with only the barest hints of personal agency. Loden’s performance is a masterwork of smallness, portraying a person who’s believed every awful thing said about her in a lifetime. One of the film’s most striking scenes is a long shot of Loden, a tiny speck of white trudging across a pockmarked coalfield. But even in close-up, she somehow seems to only occupy the tiniest corner of a frame, and her face communicates the feeling that she’d prefer to disappear altogether. Loden, whose career was largely otherwise centered on supporting sexpot roles, turns in one of the most fearlessly unglamorous performances you’ll ever see.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer is sourced from UCLA’s 2K restoration of the 35mm blowup of the 16mm elements. Fans of grain will love this transfer, as it’s here in all its glory, perfectly rendered in a film-like appearance that never dips into digital noise. Some minor speckling and dirt remain, but the restoration has cleaned up things nicely. A lossless mono track has no apparent issues, though the film’s audio is obviously limited by its low budget.

Criterion’s extras present a compelling portrait of an artist whose death from cancer at 48 cut short a fascinating career. Katja Raganelli’s 1991 documentary I Am Wanda features an elegiac interview with Loden from the year she died. Archival interviews from an AFI event (audio only) and The Dick Cavett Show from 1971 focus on the production of Wanda. Loden’s 1975 educational short The Frontier Experience is also included, along with the re-release trailer and an insert essay by critic Amy Taubin.

BeckyBecky Sharp (1935)
Kino Lorber Studio Classics 

On one hand, Rouben Mamoulian’s Becky Sharp is mainly notable for its historical relevance as the first three-strip Technicolor feature film. On the other hand, it’s such a weird literary adaptation, it’s worth recommending on its own merits.

There’s no reason an 84-minute adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s voluminous novel Vanity Fair should work, and Becky Sharp, which was based on a theatrical adaptation, doesn’t. But it’s strangely invigorating to watch Miriam Hopkins plunge the class satire into straight-up screwball comedy, her Oscar-nominated performance as striving Becky Sharp underlined in marker with an “ain’t I a stinker?” mischievousness.

Hopkins’ ebullience makes up for the anonymous quality of the men Becky uses in her onward march of social mobility. The roughly interchangeable aristocrats are about as essential to this telling as the geopolitics, in which Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo acts as mere wallpaper. Mamoulian, a generally terrific director of early sound films, shoots listless scene after listless scene, with Hopkins going off like a firecracker in the middle of each.

Kino’s 1080p, 1.37:1 Blu-ray features a transfer sourced from a new 4K restoration of the 35mm nitrate negative and positive separations. It’s not always apparent if the restoration’s color inconsistencies are due to a not-quite-dialed-in Technicolor process from the early days of the technology or the difficulty of restoring three-strip Technicolor.

Either way, be prepared for a lot of image fluctuation and color inconsistencies most obviously seen in the sickly green or pink pallor that will overtake the image from time to time. There are moments when the image exhibits that gorgeous three-strip saturated look, and the fine detail and clarity of the image are quite good. Considering the atrocious quality of the previously available public domain DVDs (Alpha’s transfer is streaming on Prime Video, for a taste of the horror), Kino’s Blu-ray qualifies as a minor revelation. The disc also includes an audio commentary from historian Jack Theakston.

ColumbusColumbus (2017)
Oscilloscope Laboratories

Columbus is the debut feature from Kogonada, best known for his video essays, many of which have appeared as extras on Criterion discs. Like those essays, the film is stylish to a fault — and it starts to feel like a fault after dozens of impeccably composed, artfully asymmetrical wide shots of the modernist architecture of Columbus, Indiana. Coupled with a script that feels just as hermetically sealed, much of the dialogue either subtext-explicating or pointedly aloof, and the effect is a bit suffocating.

Fortunately, the performances frequently transcend the film’s trappings. Haley Lu Richardson as Casey and John Cho as Jin each bring deep wells of unspoken frustration and desire as they strike up a fast friendship, accompanied by the film’s tour of the city’s surprising architecture. She’s an aimless recent graduate, her ambitions muffled by care for and obligation to her mother who’s recovering from a drug addiction. He’s drifted into this remote place after his renowned professor father suddenly fell ill, and obligation is about the only thing keeping him here.

Kogonada’s brand of rigorously structured humanism isn’t totally convincing, but Richardson and Cho (and Parker Posey, in a small but perfectly shaped performance as Jin’s father’s assistant) give the film the kind of emotional reverberation that ensures the film is more than an exquisitely hollow bauble.

Oscilloscope’s Blu-ray features an excellent 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer, with a subtle but effective 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. (A 2.0 track is also offered.) Extras include selected-scene commentary from Richardson and Cho, a handful of deleted scenes, an outtakes/making-of short film from the director and the trailer.

Diamonds

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

HeavenFar From Heaven (2002)
Kino Lorber Studio Classics 

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

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

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

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

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

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

SleepTo Sleep with Anger (1990)
The Criterion Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day AfterThe Day After (2018)
Cinema Guild

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

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

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

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

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

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

2424 Frames (2017)
The Criterion Collection 

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

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

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

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

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

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Technicolor Popeye

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By the time animation pioneers Max and Dave Fleischer lost their studio to Paramount Pictures in May 1941, the best Popeye entries were behind them. Paramount renamed the operation Famous Studios in 1942 (retaining most of the key Fleischer personnel) and forged ahead with its breadwinning cartoon star. However, Max and Dave’s creative spark was sorely missed.

Though the wartime adventures brought Popeye a welcome relief from Disney-style conformity, what became evident during the Fleischer/Famous transition was the domestic blandness that surrounded Elzie Segar’s spinach-eating hero — resulting in mediocre fare such as Happy Birthdaze (1943). Fortunately, the long-running series would enjoy an upswing in quality when Famous switched from black-and-white to Technicolor.

After decades of faded TV prints (Paramount sold its color Popeye library to Associated Artists Productions — better known as a.a.p. — for syndication in 1957), the Famous one-reelers have been gloriously resurrected in Warner Archive’s long-overdue Popeye the Sailor: The 1940s, Volume 1. Remastered from the original 35mm Technicolor negatives, the uncut 1943-45 cartoons on this Blu-ray look absolutely stunning. The colors leap off the screen and there are no a.a.p. logos in sight.

Of course, these Famous shorts did not represent Popeye’s first foray into Technicolor. That distinction belonged to Fleischer’s elaborate two-reel specials:  the Oscar-nominated Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor (1936), Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves (1937) and Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp (1939).

We're on Our Way to Rio

We’re on Our Way to Rio

Famous evoked the lavishness of the Fleischer two-reelers with its third color Popeye release, We’re on Our Way to Rio (1944). A full-fledged musical extravaganza, this eight-minute gem finds Popeye and Bluto at a Brazilian nightclub, where they encounter an Olive Oyl-inspired dancer singing the infectious “Samba Lele.” Determined to win over the Latin dancer by eliminating the romantic competition, Bluto falsely promotes Popeye as a samba champion. Thanks to a spinach-fueled transformation, Popeye becomes a skillful dancer and gives Bluto a nicely choreographed thrashing.

Everything clicks in We’re on Our Way to Rio — highlighted by the vibrant animation of Jim Tyer, Ben Solomon and William Henning, with a strong assist from composer Winston Sharples. It should be noted that Isadore Sparber and Seymour Kneitel, the credited directors of the 1943-45 Popeye entries, were supervising producers while head animators such as Tyer, Dave Tendlar and Graham Place served as de facto directors.

One of the few Famous Popeyes to hold its own with Fleischer’s vintage 1933-38 output, We’re on Our Way to Rio would have been a stellar achievement for any animation studio. However, Paramount was more supportive of George Pal’s acclaimed “Puppetoon” series, which earned the stop-motion pioneer a special Oscar in 1944. Though many Famous cartoons were submitted for consideration, the studio never received a single Academy Award nomination in its 25-year history. None of this mattered to Paramount, whose only concern was the bottom line — making certain Famous avoided the financial woes that were a contributing factor to the demise of Fleischer Studios.

She-Sick Sailors

She-Sick Sailors

Despite Paramount’s “business as usual” indifference, Famous produced some of its best work during this period. Among the remaining 13 shorts in this Blu-ray collection, She-Sick Sailors (1944), Shape Ahoy (1945) and Mess Production (1945) come the closest to matching the excellence of We’re on Our Way to Rio.

She-Sick Sailors is the classic Superman parody in which a clean-shaven Bluto impersonates the Man of Steel to impress Olive . . . and viciously mows down Popeye with a machine gun! (Naturally, the bullets are lodged in his spinach can.)  Co-written by Felix the Cat creator and legendary animator Otto Messmer, the cartoon remains great fun. Sammy Timberg’s rousing Superman theme from the 1941-43 Fleischer/Famous series makes a welcome return.

Vigorously directed by Tyer, Shape Ahoy offers a rare opportunity to see Popeye and Bluto as bosom buddies until they discover castaway Olive on their “men’s only” island. The short boasts a vivid Technicolor palette, several funny moments and a “blow me down” surprise ending. Unfortunately, this rambunctious energy would later vanish from the Famous Popeye series.

Shape Ahoy

Shape Ahoy

In terms of overall artistry, Mess Production could be mistaken for a genuine Fleischer cartoon. Set in a wartime steel factory, Popeye and Bluto vie for the attention of co-worker Olive with unexpected (and dangerous) consequences. The detailed animation and industrial backgrounds are truly impressive — further enhanced by Sharples’ memorable score.

The Anvil Chorus Girl is a significant Popeye release. Apart from being the first Famous remake of an earlier Fleischer short (Shoein‘ Hosses), this 1944 outing marked Jackson Beck’s debut as the voice of Bluto, with Mae Questel returning as Olive Oyl after a six-year absence.  The inimitable Jack Mercer continued to voice Popeye — a job he began in 1935 with King of the Mardi Gras. A talented and indispensable trio, Mercer, Beck and Questel also worked on the King Features TV cartoons in the early 1960s.

As retreads go, The Anvil Chorus Girl was one of the better efforts and a solid cartoon in its own right. However, most Famous Popeye remakes were comparable to 1945′s For Better or Nurse — an energetic but less amusing rehash of the Fleischers’ Hospitaliky (1937). Even worse, the Famous version adds a dreadful “twist” ending that negates the entire short.

Puppet Love

Puppet Love

Far superior is Puppet Love (1944), an inventive change of pace from the usual Popeye formula. Written by Joe Stultz and directed by Tyer, the results are truly bizarre as Bluto creates a life-size Popeye marionette to make his rival look bad during a rendezvous with Olive. Not exactly kid-friendly (Popeye gets ready for the big date by painting his toenails!), the cartoon remains a particular favorite among animation historians.

Pitchin’ Woo at the Zoo (1944) and Tops in the Big Top (1945) add some new wrinkles to the Popeye-Olive-Bluto dynamic. Though both shorts are fitfully entertaining, the Famous artists take away some of the fun by making Bluto a more sadistic villain. This regrettable character development became part of the studio’s increasing reliance on mindless cruelty and violence.

The 4K restorations add new luster to inferior cartoons. Popeye’s first Technicolor one-reeler was the pleasant but unremarkable Her Honor the Mare (1943), which featured the return of his Disney-inspired nephews in one of their more tolerable outings. Two misguided entries — The Marry-Go-Round (1943) and Moving Aweigh (1944) — represent the final appearances of Popeye’s bespectacled sidekick Shorty, whose obnoxious presence was brought to a merciful end. In all three shorts, Popeye functions as an atypical comic foil, thereby weakening his heroic character.

Tops in the Big Top

Tops in the Big Top

Spinach Packin‘ Popeye (1944) boasts a great title card but emerges as a cost-saving “cheater” with a cop-out dream framework. For the first time, Famous used clips from the Sindbad and Ali Baba two-reelers without giving the Fleischers (and their artists) screen credit. A few years later, the studio began to recycle footage from its own cartoons — delivering an uninspired Popeye “cheater” on a near-annual basis.

By far the most notorious short is the blatantly racist Pop-Pie A La Mode (1945), which places the shipwrecked sailor at the mercy of hungry cannibals until the spinach arrives. Politically incorrect to the extreme, this cringeworthy effort wasn’t totally banned from television until the early 1990s. A beautiful transfer of a truly ugly cartoon.

The revitalized Popeye series maintained a high level of quality until Famous Studios fell into a formulaic rut in 1949. Apart from a rare winner such as How Green Is My Spinach (1950) and Tots of Fun (1952), the Famous product was no longer strong to the finish. Lower budgets resulted in more inferior remakes of classic Fleischer shorts. Nevertheless, Popeye remained a reliable moneymaker until 1957, when Paramount sold the Fleischer/Famous cartoons to a.a.p. — thus ending the immortal sailor’s 24-year movie career while becoming a TV phenomenon in the process.

Unlike the 1941-43 Popeye DVD set released in 2008, the Warner Blu-ray offers zero special features or commentary tracks. Though a bare-bones disc, the eye-popping restorations more than compensate for the lack of extras. Hopefully, Warner Archive will not wait 10 years to remaster the 1946-47 Famous Popeye cartoons.

Claire1

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

InventionInvention for Destruction (Vynález zkázy, 1958)
Second Run 

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

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

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

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

PaniquePanique (1946)
Criterion Collection

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

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

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

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

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

ClaireClaire’s Camera (2017)
Cinema Guild

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

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

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

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

GosfordGosford Park (2001)
Arrow Academy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gabbeh

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

AndradeJoaquim Pedro de Andrade: The Complete Films
Kino Lorber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

unnamedMohsen Makhmalbaf: The Poetic Trilogy
Arrow Academy

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

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

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

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

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

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

ShampooShampoo (1975)
The Criterion Collection

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

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

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

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

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

wendy2

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

WendyWendy and Lucy (2008)
Oscilloscope Laboratories

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

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

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

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

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

PersonalPersonal Problems (1980-1981)
Kino Lorber

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

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

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

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

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

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

MatterA Matter of Life and Death (1946)
Criterion Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

RoccoRocco and His Brothers (1960)
Milestone Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PeterBlack Peter (Černý Petr, 1964)
Second Run

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

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

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

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

 

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

Sub

‘Yellow Submarine’ Turns 50

Sub1

Premiering at the London Pavilion on July 17, 1968, director George Dunning’s Yellow Submarine represented a landmark achievement in the history of animated feature films. Though influenced by the “Summer of Love” psychedelia of 1967, Yellow Submarine encompassed a rich tapestry of animation styles. Like the Beatles’ music, it has a timeless quality that defies categorization or emulation.

Yellow Submarine was a breakthrough effort. Not only did the film pave the way for more daring works such as Ralph Bakshi’s Fritz the Cat (1971) and Bruno Bozzetto’s Allegro Non Troppo (1976), but it also was the first full-length cartoon outside of Disney to become a resounding critical and commercial success. The popularity of Yellow Submarine was due, in part, to the Beatles’ association with the project. Nevertheless, it was the imagination of Dunning, art director Heinz Edelmann, producer/co-writer Al Brodax and numerous animators that propelled the film to remarkable visual heights.

The pre-credit sequence of Yellow Submarine establishes the film’s innovative style and serio-comic tone with its wistful, nostalgic depiction of Pepperland — utilizing vivid colors and offbeat character designs. This tranquil, distinctively British landscape is invaded by the grotesque Blue Meanies, who wish to rid the world of happiness, color and especially music. Interestingly, this plot element of Yellow Submarine was partly derived from the 1935 Ted Eshbaugh/Van Beuren short The Sunshine Makers in which cheerful dwarfs conquer grim-faced gremlins (who wear blue top hats much like the evil Apple Bonkers) with bottles of sunshine.

A pop culture history tour.

A magical pop-culture tour

In brief flashes, Yellow Submarine acknowledges its debt to the Golden Age of Animation, particularly the influential displays of psychedelia in Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940) and The Three Caballeros (1944). Even the live-action cameo by the Beatles is somewhat reminiscent of Max Fleischer’s “Out of the Inkwell” series. Apart from animated cartoons, there are throwaway gags in the door-to-door sequence that evoke the art of René Magritte and Salvador Dalí. Nevertheless, the film’s visual and comedic style remains individualistic.

A classic example of Yellow Submarine‘s dazzling uniqueness is the “Eleanor Rigby” sequence — an inspired fusion of animation and music that captures the song’s haunting melancholia. Set in a decaying pop-art version of Liverpool, England, this segment combines stunning graphic design with imaginative utilization of rotoscoping, cutouts and still photography. In this prototypical music video, the film draws its strength as a visual complement to one of the Beatles’ finest recordings. On its own merits, the “Eleanor Rigby” sequence is a mini-masterpiece.

Yellow Submarine has the quality of a surreal children’s story akin to Lewis Carroll on acid. When Old Fred searches for help, he encounters a rather glum Ringo, who rounds up his mates in what appears to be a museum — resulting in a fascinating, free-wheeling tour of popular culture. The remaining three Beatles are lavishly introduced as pop icons not unlike Frankenstein, King Kong and The Phantom. In the minds of Dunning and Edelmann, the Fab Four have become museum pieces (or, perhaps more cynically, merchandised “action figures”). It is apparent that the animators had a great time creating this Carroll-inspired segment, which emerges as the visual equivalent to a Beatle non sequitur.

The film makes inventive use of still photographs when the submarine departs Liverpool at warp speed and passes various British locales, such as the White Cliffs of Dover, Oxford and London. Using more than 200 color photos and accompanied by an instrumental excerpt from “A Day in the Life,” this brief travelogue lasts no more than 30 seconds, yet the overall effect is enthralling.

The Sea of Holes.

The Sea of Holes

With John, Paul, George and Ringo finally on board, Yellow Submarine sacrifices its thin plot for a surreal, psychedelic odyssey in which the group encounters an endless array of time warps, bizarre creatures and, of course, the highly intellectual “Boob” known as Jeremy — certainly one of the most unusual characters in animation history. Though rather lengthy, this “modyssey” never fails to astonish with its wide spectrum of color and unique creations (once seen, the “vacuum monster” never can be forgotten).

The most imaginative “modyssey” segment is “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” which combines brightly colored, psychedelic artwork with the imaginative rotoscoping of early movie musicals. The abstract color effects are reminiscent of Len Lye’s Rainbow Dance (1935), while some of the rotoscoped dancing parallels Norman McLaren’s work in Pas de deux (1967). The “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” sequence is a brilliant example of animation’s spellbinding power.

After reaching Pepperland and using their music to defeat the Blue Meanies (during the “Sgt. Pepper” number, “the one and only Billy Shears” turns out to be John instead of Ringo!), the Fab Four offer a pacifist gesture to the villains. The result is a lavish “Summer of Love” finale highlighted by impressive polarization effects set to George Harrison’s “It’s All Too Much.” Happily, Yellow Submarine concludes with a brief appearance by the Beatles in live action. The group’s playful cameo (filmed at the last minute) ends the proceedings with a nudge and a wink.

Original color model cel.

Original color model cel

Yellow Submarine has its faults. Running 90 minutes, the film is overlong (even more so with the 1999 restoration of the “Hey Bulldog” number) and would have benefited from Walt Disney’s strong sense of story structure. Though memorably introduced in the pre-credit sequence, the Blue Meanies are essentially forgotten until the Beatles reach Pepperland; the midsection could have used a cutaway scene that re-established the colorful antagonists, thereby giving the film more urgency in its pacing.

Not all the musical segments work. One number that should have been cut is the uninspired “Only a Northern Song,” a weak Harrison composition that gives the animators virtually nothing to expand upon in terms of visual ideas. The sequence relies mostly on oscilloscope effects and psychedelic-style illustrations of the Beatles that emerge as open-ended boxes.

Regrettably, the Beatles did not provide voices to their animated counterparts, which might have added more energy and humor to the overall film.  Instead, the producers hired Liverpool actors (John Clive, Geoffrey Hughes, Peter Batten and Paul Angelis) who did a passable job emulating the group’s deadpan wit. However, with the noted exception of Ringo, there was a decided lack of individuality to the Beatle characterizations.

Despite these quibbles, one cannot dismiss Yellow Submarine‘s impact on contemporary animation. Like Fantasia, the film exposed viewers to a new and innovative vision of the medium while revealing limitless artistic potential. By daring to be different, Dunning and Edelmann succeeded in charting unexplored visual territory. A half-century after its release, Yellow Submarine endures as a seminal work of sight and sound.

Subposter

La Belle

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

La BelleLa Belle Noiseuse
Cohen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SacrificeThe Sacrifice
Kino Lorber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MoonriseMoonrise
The Criterion Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intimate LightingIntimate Lighting (Intimní osvětlení)
Second Run

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EdwardIIEdward II
Film Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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