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

WomenWomen in Love (1969)
The Criterion Collection 

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

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

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

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

DaughterDaughter of the Nile (1987)
Cohen Media Group

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

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

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

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

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

SilenceSilence and Cry (1968)
Second Run

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

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

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

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

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

OldestThe Oldest Profession (1967)
Kino Lorber

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

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

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

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

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

ImagesImages (1972)
Arrow Video

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

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

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

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

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

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

BaalBaal (1970) 
The Criterion Collection

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

CasaCasa de Lava (1994)
Grasshopper Film

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

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

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

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

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

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

MosesMoses and Aaron (1974)
Grasshopper Film

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

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

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

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

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

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

DesertDesert Hearts (1985)
The Criterion Collection 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DawsonDawson City: Frozen Time (2017)
Kino Lorber

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

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

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

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

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

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

CrematorThe Cremator (Spalovač mrtvol, 1968)
Second Run

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KediKedi (2017)
Oscilloscope Laboratories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Vampir2

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer

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

Ferdinando

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

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

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

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

VampirVampir Cuadecuc (1970)
Second Run

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PersonalPersonal Shopper (2016)
The Criterion Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

houseThe Old Dark House (1932)
Cohen Film Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Variete2

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

CertainCertain Women (2016)
The Criterion Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VarieteVarieté (1925)
Kino Lorber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He’s not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BeggarsBeggars of Life (1928)
Kino Lorber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TreasureThe Treasure (Comoara, 2015) — DVD only
IFC

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big KnifeThe Big Knife (1955)
Arrow Video

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Jerry Lewis

Jerry Lewis: An Appreciation in Three Films

 

Jerry Lewis CRACKING UP 2-crop 

Jerry Lewis in Cracking Up

If you had told me three weeks ago that I’d be devastated by Jerry Lewis’ death, I’d have asked you to give me a drag off that before you throw it away. Just a month ago, it was easy to write Jerry off. The cranky attitude, the hubris, the outrageous statements (like “women aren’t funny”) whether he actually believed them or not, and as far as we were concerned, the ultimate betrayal: the Trump endorsement … Hell, I think we even resented Jerry’s longevity! And it got to the point where we swore that, if he ever told that goddamn parrot joke just one more time, we’d run out of the room screaming.[1]

But Jerry Lewis passing away on Sunday, Aug. 20, was a shock and cause of sorrow for millions of people, myself included. As beaten-to-death as the cliché is, Jerry Lewis’ demise was indeed “the end of an era.” He was one of the very last survivors of a show business tradition that stretched from Vaudeville to movies, radio, and television. I suspect that it was my fellow Baby Boomers that took Jerry’s shuffling off this mortal coil the hardest. After all, he was our comedian! Oh, sure, we also loved Keaton, Fields, Hope, Laurel & Hardy, Our Gang, the Marxes, and the Stooges, but Jerry Lewis was the only one making brand new comedies for us to look forward to. And the fact that our parents vehemently hated Jerry only endeared him to us all the more. (Hey, our parents also hated Elvis Presley and the Beatles!)

And love him or hate him, as even his severest critics had to admit, Jerry was an accomplished and innovative filmmaker with an unmistakable visual style. He was also a master of film technology. It was Jerry Lewis who invented and held the patent on what is now known as “the video assist.” This allows film directors to look at whatever they’d just shot right there on the set, rather than waiting to see “the rushes” the next morning. It is now an established asset used by most modern-day filmmakers.

Most of Jerry’s obits dutifully mentioned the usual film highlights: Artists and Models, The Delicate Delinquent (Jerry’s first solo film after breaking up with Dean Martin), The Bellboy (the first feature film Lewis directed himself), The Patsy, and, of course, Lewis’ The Nutty Professor and Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. But, as fans of World Cinema Paradise probably (or hopefully) know, I write a series of articles titled The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of.  The purpose of that series is to draw film buffs’ attention to great little-known cinematic gems that have escaped from or fallen out of public consciousness. In the spirit of that series, I’ve decided to concentrate this appreciation of his work on three of Jerry’s lesser-known pictures. (Interestingly, all three of these films are black comedies about death, something I hadn’t even considered when selecting them.)

LIVING IT UP poster

Poster for Living It Up

Living It Up (Paramount, 1954)

My nomination for the best of the 16 movies starring the team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis is Living It Up, which had the most notable pedigree of all their pictures together. It was the film version of a 1953 Broadway musical titled Hazel Flagg, with songs by composer Jule Styne and lyrics by Bob Hilliard. That musical was, in turn, based on William Wellman’s classic 1937 screwball black comedy Nothing Sacred starring Carole Lombard and Fredric March. The source for both previous versions was a short story by James Street titled Letter to the Editor and both scripts were written by the great Ben Hecht. Fortunately, Living It Up’s screenwriters Jack Rose and Melville Shavelson had the good sense to stay as faithful to Hecht’s scripts as possible (albeit with some comedy routines specifically created for Dean and Jerry), and even retained a good percentage of Hecht’s original dialogue.

Most contemporary film scholars usually opt for Artists and Models (1955) as Martin & Lewis’ most notable picture, mainly because it was the first and best of the two of their movies written and directed by former cartoon animator Frank Tashlin. I, however, have major problems with that film, not the least of which that Tashlin endorsed the idiotic theory promoted by quack psychiatrist Dr. Frederick Wertheim in his anti-comic book screed The Seduction of the Innocent that comic books were the main cause of juvenile delinquency. (Wertheim’s book has long since been debunked by scholars.) And while Tashlin’s visual style and use of cartoon-like sight gags undoubtedly influenced Jerry as a director, he was also guilty of encouraging Lewis’ least attractive trait: the maudlin overuse of pathos and sentimentality. (“Chaplin shit,” as Dean once referred to it.)

Dean Martin, Janet Leigh & Jerry Lewis LIVING IT UP

Dean Martin, Janet Leigh & Jerry Lewis in Living It Up

Directed by veteran comedy director Norman Taurog, Living It Up begins with Dean and Jerry stuck in a decrepit shithole out in the Midwestern desert appropriately named Desert Hole. Homer Flagg (Jerry in the Carole Lombard role) dreams of leaving Desert Hole in his dust and seeing the big city, specifically New York. His opportunity presents itself when the town’s only physician Dr. Steve Harris (Dean in the Charles Winninger role) accidentally diagnoses Homer as dying of radiation poisoning. (The glow Steve saw on Homer’s x-ray was his radium watch.) Meanwhile, back in NYC, perpetually scheming newspaper reporter Wally Cook (Janet Leigh, looking particularly gorgeous in eye-popping Technicolor, in the Fredric March role) proposes to her Machiavellian editor Oliver Stone (Fred Clark, far better cast than Walter Connolly who played the role in the original) that they give the dying boy an all-expenses-paid vacation in the Big Apple and exploit the story for publicity purposes. When Wally shows up in Desert Hole to make the paper’s offer, both Steve (who immediately develops a crush on Wally) and Homer (who’ll do anything to see Manhattan) decide to continue the ruse that Homer is living on borrowed time.

The dark humor and Ben Hecht’s caustic dialogue gives Living It Up a bite that is missing from the other Martin & Lewis vehicles. The single best line from Hecht’s Nothing Sacred script is beautifully delivered by Fred Clark to Janet Leigh: “I am sitting here, seriously considering removing your heart and stuffing it… like an olive!”  And when Wally bursts out laughing at the karma of a couple of rubes taking the city slickers for a ride, Oliver smugly responds with a line provided by scenarists Rose and Shavelson that might be the most suggestive line ever to be heard in a Jerry Lewis picture: “You were going to marry [Homer]. He would’ve done to you what he did to this paper.” Apart from Clark’s performance, one of the reasons that the role of Oliver Stone is funnier in this film than in the original is that Rose and Shavelson made the character more ghoulish, constantly looking for ways to hasten Homer’s demise. When Homer passes out in a nightclub (he’s just surreptitiously downed a quart of vodka), Oliver, looking like he’s about to burst out in crocodile tears, says to Steve, “Doctor, I want to know the worst… We go to press in fifteen minutes!” (At one point, Living It Up becomes relevant to today’s political climate when Oliver assures Steve that his newspaper will reward him with a series of editorials denouncing “socialized medicine.”)

Fred clark, janet leigh, jerry lewis & Dean Martin LIVING IT UP

Fred Clark, Janet Leigh, Jerry Lewis & Dean Martin in Living It Up

Another reason Living It Up outshines most other Martin & Lewis pictures is that, at long last, Dean was given several opportunities to show off his comedy chops. Most of the screenwriters assigned to the team’s movies treated Dean like a necessary evil: let him sing a few songs and just give him straight lines to feed to Jerry. Impersonating an accomplished member of the medical profession, Dean as Steve has a running gag where, whenever he wants to sound scientific, he puts on a pair of horn-rimmed glasses and drops his voice a couple of octaves. Jerry has his own solo comic highlight when he’s scheduled to be examined by an international trio of renowned experts, Dr. Emile Egelhofer (Sig Ruman, the only holdover from the cast of Nothing Sacred [2]) from Germany, Dr. Lee (Richard Loo) from China, and Dr. Nassau (Eduard Franz) from France. Homer confounds the three doctors by taking turns impersonating each of them, spouting gibberish to approximate their native languages. (And, yes, when Jerry impersonates Lee, he does his traditional cringe-inducing Oriental stereotype complete with big buck teeth.)

Although Jule Styne and Bob Hilliard wrote two new songs for Dean, most notably “Money Burns a Hole in My Pocket,” which became a minor hit for him, the film’s best musical moments are the three songs retained from the stage version. In the aforementioned nightclub scene, Dean gets to serenade Janet Leigh with one of Styne’s loveliest romantic ballads “How Do You Talk to an Angel?” In the same scene, Jerry gives the best demonstration of his gift for eccentric dancing ever when he joins Sheree North (the only holdover from the stage cast in her film debut) in the rollicking jitterbug number “You’re Gonna Dance with Me, Baby.” (Biographer Shawn Levy in his book King of Comedy: the Life and Art of Jerry Lewis described Jerry’s dancing in this scene as looking like “a chimpanzee on amphetamines.”) And, last but not least, Dean and Jerry have their shining moment on film when they do the song-and-dance number “Every Street’s a Boulevard in Old New York” as they stroll through those same streets.

 

CRACKING UP Spanish poster

Spanish poster for Cracking Up with the title Jerry’s Crazy World

Cracking Up (Warner Brothers, 1983)

Most of Jerry Lewis’ obits covered his filmmaking downfall in the late 60s when Paramount unceremoniously dumped him just as the studio had done to the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields in the 1930s. He tried working at other studios (20th Century Fox, Columbia, and Warner Brothers), but those efforts only accelerated his decline. And then in 1972, Jerry disastrously attempted to make a stark Holocaust drama called The Day the Clown Cried. Concerning a circus clown imprisoned in Dachau who forced to entertain the child prisoners and eventually lead them a la the Pied Piper into the gas ovens, the never-finished The Day the Crown Cried has since become the butt of a thousand snide putdowns from Lewis’ detractors.

But then in 1980, Jerry made a directorial comeback with Hardly Working, a box office hit that nevertheless remains sheer torture to sit through thanks to Lewis smothering the humor underneath a nauseating level of pathos. The bright side of the renewed interest in Jerry Lewis was not only his acting triumph as late night talk show host Jerry Langford in Martin Scorsese’s black comedy The King of Comedy (1982), basically a comic variation on Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, with Langford being stalked by unfunny comedian wannabe Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), but Jerry also had the opportunity to take a final bite of the filmmaking apple in 1983 when Warner Brothers gave him the green light to co-write (with Bill Richmond, his collaborator on The Ladies Man, The Errand Boy, The Nutty Professor, and The Patsy), direct, and star in Cracking Up. This time around, Lewis avoided pathos altogether and proved that he had one last comic gem up his sleeve.

Jerry Lewis CRACKING UP 3

Jerry Lewis as Warren Nefron in Cracking Up

Cracking Up (filmed under the title Smorgasbord) was Lewis’ return to the episodic approach of The Bellboy and The Ladies Man with a series of unrelated self-contained comedy routines and skits. The frame on which these sketches were hung was Warren Nefron (Lewis) consulting Dr. Jonas Pletchick (Herb Edelman), a psychiatrist, after a series of bungled suicide attempts, the flashbacks and family genealogy stories he relates to Dr. Pletchick being the basis for the various comic episodes. Unlike Hardly Working, Cracking Up didn’t even have the chance to either succeed or fail financially because Warner Brothers, the studio which had similarly botched the release of Lewis’ 1970 World War II comedy Which Way to the Front?, gave it just a limited release in France before dumping it on basic cable TV in the US. Which was a shame because Cracking Up demonstrated that Jerry Lewis’ comic instinct and timing was just as impeccable as ever.

Jerry Lewis CRACKING UP

Jerry Lewis’ credit title in Cracking Up

This becomes apparent in the film’s opening scene when Warren attempts to make his way to a chair in Pletchick’s office while doing pratfall after pratfall on the floor’s over-polished surface, with the credits superimposed over the footage. (In a nod to audiences’ familiarity with the veteran comic, his name is billed before the title as “Jerry—Who Else?”) All the expected tropes are there: the stylized use of Technicolor, the physical adroitness, the perfect timing, the swinging big band music playing underneath the credits.

Herb Edelman, Jerry Lewis CRACKING UP

Herb Edelman & Jerry Lewis in Cracking Up

The film’s most hilarious skits involve Warren trying to order breakfast in a restaurant and encountering The Waitress From Hell (comedienne Zane Busby) who, in an annoyingly nasal and grating voice, recites a never-ending list of choices on the menu (e.g., when Warren asks for juice, she proceeds in a monotone to name three or four dozen different types of juice the establishment offers); Jerry playing a caricature of a redneck Southern cop who accidentally destroys both the car of the driver he’s just pulled over and his own patrol car; Warren flying overseas on the world’s cheapest, least competent airline, with perennially soused Foster Brooks (the spiritual heir of cinematic drunks Arthur Houseman and Jack Norton) as the pilot and Lewis regular Buddy Lester as a sinister, heavily-armed passenger. (When going through inspection, the officials not only ignore Lester’s dual bandoliers, but they even offer Warren his choice of weaponry.) Not all of the skits work, but enough of them do to justify checking out Lewis’ little-known farewell as a director.

FUNNY BONES poster

Poster for Funny Bones

Funny Bones (Hollywood Pictures, 1995)

Jerry Lewis FUNNY BONES

Jerry Lewis as George Fawkes in Funny Bones

Most of Jerry Lewis’ obits mentioned Scorsese’s The King of Comedy as an example of latter-day filmmakers’ admiration for him, but very few of them mentioned Peter Chelsom’s Funny Bones (1995). Not only is Funny Bones by far the better picture, but Lewis’ role is more central and critical. Several actors might have played Jerry Langford (albeit not as well as Lewis), but nobody else could have brought as much to Funny Bones as Lewis did playing the supporting role of world-famous, much-beloved veteran comedian George Fawkes. (And, no, the role is not an autobiographical one.) In fact, Chelsom, who produced, directed, and co-wrote (with Peter Flannery) Funny Bones went on record as saying that he expressly designed the role with Jerry Lewis in mind. (Scorsese has admitted that his first choice to play Langford was Johnny Carson, and that he decided to offer it to Lewis only after Carson turned him down.)

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George Carl & Freddie Davies as the Parker Brothers & Lee Evans as Jack Parker in Funny Bones

A very, very dark comedy, Funny Bones is the best movie ever made on the subject of comedy. Comedian George Fawkes is the father of two sons, one of them illegitimate, the result of an extramarital affair. The bastard son is Jack Parker (UK comedian Lee Evans making his film debut), who was raised in Blackpool, England by the Parkers, a family of music hall artists that include his mother Katie (Leslie Caron, looking as lovely as ever), his adoptive father Bruno (Freddie Davies), his uncle Thomas (George Carl), and his dog Toast. (When, during a half-hearted suicide attempt, Jack is asked by a police psychiatrist what he wants, he answers “Toast,” and the cops, of course, think he’s requesting breakfast.) Jack is an instinctive comic genius with a gift for pantomime and physical comedy. Jack has funny bones.

oliver platt FUNNY BONES

Oliver Platt as Tommy Fawkes in Funny Bones

George’s acknowledged son is Tommy Fawkes (excellently played by Oliver Platt in a rare star turn). Whereas Rupert Pupkin’s main goal was fame for fame’s sake, Tommy desperately wants to follow in his father’s footsteps because he wants to be funny, needs to be funny. But there’s one problem. Tommy isn’t funny. Not in the least. In fact, Tommy is so clueless when it comes to humor that he can’t even recognize the incongruity of a spoiled, pampered rich kid adopting an angry young man persona on stage. Making his big Las Vegas debut, Tommy only succeeds in alienating the audience by resorting to what he’s thinks is cutting edge material, but is actually an ancient blue joke that’s been as pummeled to death over the years as Jerry’s parrot joke. (It would seem that Tommy wants to emulate Lenny Bruce, but he can’t even achieve the level of Andrew Dice Clay.) At one point, George accurately diagnoses why Tommy isn’t funny: “God damn it, it’s like you’re too educated to be funny!” In other words, Tommy doesn’t have funny bones.

Unfortunately, the suits at Hollywood Pictures (a subsidiary of Disney Corp.) had no idea how to market the picture, so they made the monumental mistake of peddling it as a family-friendly comedy, which it most certainly was not. The film was briefly given a limited release in March 1995 and then promptly vanished. I’ve already written about Funny Bones extensively for World Cinema Paradise in my The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of series, so there’s no need to spend much more time describing it when you can read all about it here. I did say earlier in this article that all three of these films are black comedies about death. In the case of Funny Bones, however, I can’t explain when and how the Grim Reaper appears in the picture without spoiling some of the movie’s best plot twists. Suffice it to say that, if you’re a major Jerry Lewis fan, you really need to see Funny Bones.

Before we wish a fond farewell to “the King of Comedy,” it’s worth considering one of those cosmic ironies that so often occur in the world of entertainment. As previously mentioned, most of the movie critics from the 1950s through the 1970s hated Jerry Lewis’ films and never hesitated to criticize his pictures in the harshest terms possible. But most of those comedies that were critical failures became huge financial successes, and almost every single one of those critics had been long gone decades before Jerry left us this year. For the umpteenth time, Jerry Lewis had the last laugh.

 


[1] Jerry Lewis’ parrot joke: “I’m riding on the New York subway and this young guy gets on and sits in the seat across from me. The kid’s wearing a tie-dyed t-shirt, many colors on that shirt, and his hair is all done up in spikes, many different-colored spikes. He sees me staring at him and asks, “What the matter? Didn’t you ever do anything for fun?” So I said to him, “Sorry. The reason I’m staring is because I once fucked a parrot… and I was wondering if you’re my son.” (Needless to say, Jerry cleaned up the joke whenever he told it on television.)

[2] Ruman not only played Dr. Egelhofer in Nothing Sacred, but he repeated the role a third time in Billy Wilder’s 1966 black comedy The Fortune Cookie, which also involved medical fraud. Emile Egelhofer was also the name of the psychiatrist brought in to examine cop killer Earl Williams in Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur’s seminal 1928 newspaper stage comedy The Front Page. Obviously, Hecht liked the name.

 

Buy Living it Up on Amazon
Buy Cracking Up on Amazon
Buy Funny Bones on Amazon

 

Barton2

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

BartonBarton Fink
Kino Lorber Studio Classics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

L'argentL’Argent
The Criterion Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BaronThe Fabulous Baron Munchausen (Baron Prášil)
Second Run

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CrazyWho’s Crazy?
Kino Lorber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TerrorTerror in a Texas Town
Arrow Video

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Good Morning

Blu-ray Review Round-up: Films by Yasujiro Ozu, Allan Dwan, Georges Franju & more!

Good MorningGood Morning (ohayo, 1959)
Criterion Collection

How many films directed by your favorite arthouse auteur feature multiple pants-shitting jokes?

Of all the remarkable qualities about Yasujiro Ozu’s Good Morning — a feature generally considered a minor-ish work, but one that gets better every time I see it — perhaps the most remarkable is the way these gags slot in so perfectly next to the director’s typically bittersweet depictions of imperfect interpersonal connections.

Obviously, Good Morning is a comedy (in the essay included here, Jonathan Rosenbaum compares the film’s interlocking scenarios about ritual greetings, technology envy, financial suspicions and more to a sitcom), but the film isn’t glib, and its jokes are underpinned by an understanding of the fallibility and foibles of humanity, destined to be repeated over and over with each new generation.

The film’s centerpiece story thread concerns two brothers, 13-year-old Minoru (Koji Shidara) and 7-year-old Isamu (an impossibly adorable Masahiko Shimazu), and their quest to convince their parents (Kuniko Miyake and Chishu Ryu) to buy them a television set so they can watch sumo wrestling and baseball. When they refuse, the boys take on a shakily resolute vow of silence, an act that bemuses their family but sets off a chain reaction of perceived snubs throughout the neighborhood.

While the boys see themselves rebelling against their elders’ penchant for meaningless niceties, they have their own set ways of communicating with their peers — a farting game made all the funnier by its feigned solemnity, except for one poor kid with less-than-adequate bowel control — and Ozu gently pulls in reminders that there is also comfort in the familiarity of social routine.

Criterion’s Blu-ray upgrade rescues one of their worst transfers in the entire catalog, replacing the early DVD’s sickly colored, fuzzily rendered image with a 4K-restoration-sourced 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer that looks phenomenal — richly textured, impressively detailed and exceptionally film-like. Reds, like the stripe on the boys’ matching sweaters, are rich and vibrant, while the film’s overall color palette is a bit more subdued and almost burnished-looking in places. Damage has been completely eradicated. The uncompressed mono soundtrack is perfectly clean and stable throughout.

This new disc also represents a healthy upgrade on the extras front, going from a barebones release to one that has an overview of Ozu’s style from David Bordwell, a video essay on Ozu’s comedic aims by David Cairns and a 1080p presentation of Ozu’s 1932 silent I Was Born, But …, the loose inspiration for Good Morning, and slightly improved here over Criterion’s DVD transfer on an Eclipse set release. Rounding out the supplements are fragments of Ozu’s 1929 film A Straightforward Boy and an insert with the Rosenbaum essay.

Criterion Collection / 1959 / Color / 1.37:1 / 94 min / $39.95

The Son of JosephThe Son of Joseph (Le fils de Joseph, 2016)
Kino Lorber

Formalist filmmakers aren’t often thought of as possessing extraordinary amounts of emotional generosity — how many times have we heard Bresson or Kubrick films pronounced “cold”? — but the films of American-born French director Eugène Green offer a distinct counterpoint to that canard, and that’s especially true with his latest, The Son of Joseph.

A wry reconfiguration of the notion of a “virgin birth,” Green’s film touches on issues of familial bonds and the intersection of art and commerce, framed with his usual precision, suffused distinct love of Baroque art and performed with the usual Bressonian distance.

The performances here are measured, but instead of suppressing emotions, these monotonic depictions have a way of clarifying them. Green has a secret weapon in that regard: Natacha Régnier, the star of Green’s 2004 film Le pont des Arts, who plays Marie, the longsuffering mother of Vincent (Victor Ezenfis), a sullen teenager determined to find out the identity of his father. Régnier’s performance is an empathy machine, her piercing eyes and carefully deployed expressions of sorrow and joy giving the entire film a lift to another emotional plane. It’s an incredible example of making every movement and gesture in a performance count.

Elsewhere, The Son of Joseph can feel a touch insubstantial, particularly in its depiction of pompous aesthetes more concerned with status and money than artistic expression. Among them is book publisher Oscar Pormenor (Mathieu Amalric, who adheres least to Green’s house style, but who’s damn funny for it), Vincent’s biological father.

When Vincent goes to confront Oscar, he has a chance encounter with Oscar’s brother Joseph (Fabrizio Rongione, perfectly adherent to Green’s style), which blossoms into a friendship, and eventually, the paternal guidance that Vincent so craves.

If The Son of Joseph doesn’t quite reach the transcendent heights of Green’s previous film, La Sapienza, that’s only because it seems to be working in a more deliberately earthbound key. In La Sapienza, Green’s camera would swoop up to the heavens, reveling in the beauty and majesty of famed works of Baroque architecture. In The Son of Joseph, the camera keeps its gaze more affixed on earthly creatures — and in this sort of retelling of a fundamentally religious tale, he finds something truly affecting.

Kino’s 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer is excellent, with uniformly clear and sharp images. Fine details are strong, and color reproduction is stable. There’s no evidence of undue digital manipulation. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack features sparingly deployed music and effects, but is clean throughout.

Other than a trailer, the disc’s lone extra is a nice conversation between Green and Régnier about his work, and with an elaborate opening and head-on, shot-reverse-shot interview style, it’s made to look like a Green film.

Kino Lorber / 2016 / Color / 1.85:1 / 113 min / $34.95

SpotlightSpotlight on a Murderer (Pleins feux sur l’assassin, 1961)
Arrow Video

Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960) is an atmospheric horror classic, but his follow-up, Spotlight on a Murderer, is totally obscure by comparison. Arrow’s new release of the film will certainly garner it some more eyeballs, though it seems unlikely it’s headed for any status as an unearthed classic.

Arrow’s packaging copy notes the film “is mischievously aware of the hoariest old murder-mystery clichés and gleefully exploits as many of them as possible.” I’ll buy the first part, but I’m not so sure how gleefully the film does much of anything, as its Agatha Christie-style plotting, in which members of a family of entitled brats start dropping like flies, is relentlessly creaky, no matter how self-aware it might be.

The set-up, adapted from a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (“Diabolique”) is sound enough: A wealthy count (Pierre Brasseur) lobs one final “fuck you” at his squabbling heirs by hiding in his expansive castle just before dying. Because the body is missing, the lot of them (including Jean-Louis Trintignant in an early role) will have to wait five years to claim any inheritance. In the meantime, they must pay for the maintenance on the massive estate, which Franju is able to use to spooky effect occasionally.

There are a few choice scenes here, mostly involving the dispatching of various members of the family, and there are glimpses of Franju’s ability to evoke an enveloping feeling of dread, particularly in a couple scenes that take place on an inky body of water. But the plotting, which begins to involve mysterious footsteps and chairs rocking on their own, descends deep into cornball territory, and none of the deaths are gruesome enough to make up for how annoyingly indistinct all of these characters are. Who’s the murderer? Who cares.

It is nice to have this long-unavailable film in a solid Blu-ray presentation, and Arrow’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer is commendable across the board. Fine detail is excellent, grayscale separation is quite good and damage is minimal. A few images have some creeping softness, but overall, the picture is quite sharp and clear. The uncompressed mono soundtrack handles music and dialogue well, with no obvious hiss or noise intrusions.

This is one of the increasingly rare Arrow discs that’s nearly barebones (apparently, no one felt strongly enough about the film to chip in some enthusiasm), but there is a vintage on-set featurette along with a trailer.

Arrow Video / 1961 / Black and white / 1.37:1 / 95 min / $39.95

ZazaZaza (1923)
Kino Lorber

Fans of the cinephile favorite Allan Dwan, who could direct everything from western to melodrama to war movie across an incredibly prolific career, should be happy to see Kino put out Zaza, the first collaboration of many between Dwan and Gloria Swanson. (Stage Struck and Manhandled are also on their way.) Of course, the real attraction to this handsome, if schizophrenic, adaptation of an 1899 French play is Swanson, who commands the screen with a vigorous performance that requires a highly emotionally charged narrative to contain it.

And though it wends its way from backstage drama of betrayal to overwrought medical melodrama to three-hanky love triangle, the film does provide that framework, offering Swanson the chance to segue from a fit of rage over a misplaced costume to an emotive stay in a hospital bed to the puncturing realization that her affair with diplomat Bernard Dufresne (H.B. Warner) is not exactly what it seemed.

The pleasures here are elemental. Swanson’s expressive face fills the screen, generating maxed-out levels of annoyance, fear, anger and heartbreak, with the physicality to match. Dwan shifts easily from the raucous, spacious environs of the music hall where Zaza’s performances are adored to the living spaces where Swanson’s emotions become all the more pronounced.

Kino’s Blu-ray offers an adequate but unspectacular 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer, which is sourced from elements with a fair share of dropped frames and damage. The transfer never really overcomes the inherent softness of the image (a number of scenes were shot through a silk stocking, notes Imogen Sara Smith in her essay), but fine detail is OK and the image is reasonably stable most of the time. The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack features a jaunty piano score by Jeff Rapsis that’s adapted from the original 1923 cue sheet.

Aside from the aforementioned essay in an included booklet, the only extra is an audio commentary from Frederic Lombardi, author of a book on Allan Dwan and the studio system. It’s an information-packed track, with little biographical tidbits on many major and minor players, but its focus on the personal lives of the cast and crew rarely has much to do with what’s onscreen during the film itself.

Kino Lorber / 1923 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 84 min / $29.95

 

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

 

Daughters

Blu-ray Review Round-Up: Films by Lino Brocka, Julie Dash, Leos Carax & more!

Lino BrockaTwo Films by Lino BrockaManila in the Claws of Light (1975) and Insiang (1976)
BFI 

The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project has given us no shortage of phenomenal restorations of previously neglected films, and that trend continues with these two works from Filipino filmmaker Lino Brocka, who was incredibly prolific before his untimely death in a car accident at age 52. The Region-A-locked will have access to Insiang in Criterion’s forthcoming second volume of WCP box sets, but there’s no reason to wait if you can play Region B discs, as Manila in the Claws of Light is just as major as its companion.

Both films are harrowing depictions of life among Manila’s lower class, with protagonists who are beset on all sides by predators — physical, spiritual and financial. Brocka combines vérité authenticity with penetrating emotional acuity; his on-the-ground shots of bustling slums suddenly turning intensely personal with a well-placed zoom in.

In Manila, that protagonist is Julio (Rafael Roco Jr.), a young man from the countryside who abruptly moves to the city to find his girlfriend, Ligaya (Hilda Koronel), brought there months earlier by a mysterious woman promising high wages at a good job. Julio can’t find Ligaya, and he doesn’t find the promise of a better life either — a job on a construction site for minuscule wages, squeezed even further by a sleazy foreman, and a foray into prostitution offer their own specific indignities.

Brocka punctuates the episodic, miserablist tale with flashes of memory, as Julio retreats to an idyllic past with Ligaya, and there’s a moment late in the film when a fraction of that feeling seems accessible to him in the present. Interpersonal connection is rare and precious and fleeting in Manila in the Claws of Light, one of the finest “alienated in the city” films I’ve ever seen.

In Insiang, Brocka’s international breakthrough, he creates a more focused portrait, and it grabs you by the throat instantly with an opening shot of a slaughtered pig gushing blood. The grace notes of Manila are not present here, and that opening image sets a tone that is sustained throughout.

Koronel stars as Insiang, a young woman who’s subjected to a painful reality over and over: She’s seen purely as a commodity. There’s no love lost between Insiang and her mother, Tonya (Mona Lisa), and their relationship deteriorates even further when Tonya’s boyfriend Dado (Ruel Vernal) moves in. Insiang finds a brief respite, but no real solace in her relationship with Bebot (Rez Cortez), who isn’t all that different from Dado.

The film’s late turn into a rape-revenge story isn’t a sudden tonal shift, as the groundwork of desperation has already been laid in every image of Insiang stuck in the middle of a society where everyone is grasping for some kind of escape. As in Manila, Brocka clearly underlines that these problems are systemic, but Insiang hardly has the luxury of taking that kind of wider view.

Sourced from 4K restorations, the Blu-ray transfers in the BFI’s four-disc dual-format set are stunning. The 1080p, 1.85:1 Manila and the 1080p, 1.37:1 Insiang are both exceptionally film-like transfers, and both handle the subtle gradations of light and shadow in Brocka’s images beautifully. Fine detail is abundant, the pictures are incredibly clean (just a couple stray hairs in the gate here and there) and colors are naturalistic and stable. (Manila does have some shots that skew toward the teal shade of blue, though this could be the original look.) The cacophonous audio of Insiang has some fidelity issues (the restoration notes detail its extensive clean-up process), while Manila is more stable. Both are solid LPCM mono tracks.

Even if one is planning on picking up Criterion’s WCP box set (and why wouldn’t you?), the BFI’s set is worth it solely for the extensive extras. On the Manila disc, we get a making-of doc, a 40-minute piece on Filipino film with interviews by Tony Rayns and a stills gallery. On Insiang, there’s Christian Blackwood’s 1987 feature-length doc Signed: Lino Brocka and a 1982 audio-only conversation between Rayns and Brocka, presented as a commentary track accompanying the film. The set also includes a booklet with an essay by Cathy Landicho Clark and a 1980 interview with Brocka.

BFI / 1975 & 1976 / Color / 1.85:1 & 1.37:1 / 126 min & 94 min / £34.99 / Region B/2

DaughtersDaughters of the Dust (1991)
Cohen Film Collection 

The immersive beauty of the images in Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust overtakes you immediately. Dash’s film, the first feature by a black woman to receive a general theatrical release in the United States, focuses on a tight-knit but dissipating community — a Gullah family living off the coast of South Carolina in the early 20th Century. Dash approaches this community at a pivotal moment in time, as some family members who’ve already migrated north to the mainland United States have returned for a visit, and others are planning to head back north with them.

The family’s matriarch (Cora Lee Day) refuses to leave her island home, but her granddaughters and grandson have differing views, including Yellow Mary (Barbara-O) and Viola (Cheryl Lynn Bruce), who have already moved, and Eli (Adisa Anderson) and his wide Eula (Alva Rogers), who agonize over the decision.

The film itself only obliquely details the rich cultural traditions of the West African-descended people, but if there’s not a comprehensive oral history given here, there certainly a wide-ranging visual one, from the film’s shots of food preparation and religious ceremonies to the lush costuming.

The past, the present and the future are overlapping and intertwined propositions in this culture (part of the film is narrated by a yet-unborn child), and Dash’s collection of dissolves, slow zooms and luxuriating wide shots accentuate that feeling. It’s not always easy to grasp the nature of certain characters’ relationships, and intuiting context can be a difficult proposition in the film’s free-associating structure, but the way the images meld into one another is riveting in a way that plot alone can’t accomplish. This is a film that just washes over you, and you’re more than happy to allow it to.

It’s hard to overstate just how phenomenal the Cohen/UCLA restoration of Daughters on the Dust is, rescuing the film from a long-OOP, notably lackluster DVD release. Cohen’s 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer does the film’s lyrical imagery justice, carefully handling the film-like grain structure and the delicate color gradations of the images, many of which have a kind of soft-focus aura — but they’re never soft in a way that suggests a lack of detail and clarity. Fine detail is quite impressive in long shots and close-ups. The 2.0 LPCM soundtrack is vibrant and clear, and a great showcase of John Barnes’ score, whose reliance on synths makes for an anachronistic but pleasingly unusual accompaniment to the film.

Cohen have gone the extra mile and put all the supplements on a second Blu-ray disc, save for a new audio commentary from Dash and film producer Michelle Materre. The most substantial extra is a new hour-plus interview with Dash, conducted by Morehouse College cinema studies director Stephane Dunn. Dash talks about the genesis of the project, its fundamentally “simple story” and the production process. A post-screening Q&A, which also includes actress Bruce, features some overlap, but is a good addition. A third interview features cinematographer Arthur Jafa, who talks about his start in the industry and his approach to shooting the film, which included opting to shoot on Agfa stock, which was better suited to photographing black skin, he says. The re-release trailer and a booklet with an essay by Jennifer DeClue are also included.

It’s a touch disappointing there are no academic extras, particularly given the film’s visual prowess and standing in the black film pantheon, but Cohen’s edition is a must-own anyway.

Cohen Film Collection / 1991 / Color / 1.85:1 / 112 min / $25.99

LoversThe Lovers on the Bridge (1991)
Kino Lorber 

Cross off another long-awaited title off the wishlist. Leos Carax’s third feature comes to Blu-ray from Kino, and it’s just as vital a release as the Kino-distributed Gaumont US Blu-rays of Carax’s two first features. (Unfortunately, Gaumont’s US home video arm seems to have gone quickly dormant.) Now we’re just waiting on a rescue of his divisive follow-up Pola X (1999) — I won’t hold my breath.

The Lovers on the Bridge is an ecstatic film, every emotion bursting onto the screen like the film’s incredible (and incredibly expensive) recreation of a French Revolution-celebrating fireworks display. In a career filled with indelible setpieces (Denis Levant’s galivant to David Bowie’s “Modern Love” in Mauvais Sang, the accordion interlude in “Holy Motors”), this may be the essential Carax moment.

Though its gestures are sweeping — even mythic — in scope, the film’s story of two self-destructive people colliding in orbit over and over is also rooted in a completely recognizable humanity thanks to its two stars. Levant, with his impossibly lithe approach to performance, underscores the physical degradation of homelessness as Alex, perhaps the endpoint of the same-named character he plays in the first two Carax films. As Michèle, a woman from a well-off family who’s losing her eyesight, Juliette Binoche accesses a primal need for connection.

Together, the two cobble a life together on the famed Pont Neuf, which is closed for repairs. (Much of the film was shot on a replica version of the bridge built for production.) And while Carax weaves a subplot with gruff bridge denizen Hans (Klaus-Michael Grüber) that culminates with a deeply moving scene involving a Rembrandt, the film is otherwise intensely focused on the relationship between Alex and Michèle, which careens from gut-wrenching affection to gut-churning conflict, often in the same scene.

If the ending of the film feels just a touch conventional, it’s hard to hold it against Carax, whose thrillingly unusual blocking, virtuosic camera movement and inventive use of music makes for as potent a blend here as in any of his works.

Kino’s 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer is lovely, with exceptional fine detail in close-ups and film-like grain structure. Skin tones are natural, and some colors, like the yellow of Binoche’s jacket and those fireworks, really pop. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 soundtrack has some heft to it, and the various soundtrack selections sound full and dynamic.

Extras are minimal, but high-quality. A video essay by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin examines the distinctions between spaces made of land and water, while a booklet essay by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky discusses the film’s intersection between reality and artifice. A standard-def trailer helps emphasize the significant improvement of this transfer.

Kino Lorber / 1991 / Color / 1.66:1 / 127 min / $34.95

Story of SinStory of Sin (1975)
Arrow Video 

Arrow’s diligent campaign to broaden the fanbase of Walerian Borowczyk in the English-speaking world continues with another rescue of a long unavailable title, Story of Sin. Like their superb Region B box set and release of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne in both the US and the UK, Story of Sin represents a terrific feat of film restoration and comprehensive supplement creation. It’s also one of the first titles in Arrow’s expansion of its arthouse-focused Academy line to the US market.

One of Borowczyk’s rare films made in his native Poland, Story of Sin certainly hews much closer to the arthouse end of the spectrum than the exploitation end — the two poles between which much of his work pings back and forth.

Based on the novel by Stefan Zeromski, Story of Sin is a baroque literary adaptation with touches of surrealism. This is a film that rushes headlong into its 19th Century setting, less concerned with narrative coherence than excavating the religious hypocrisy and vicious sexual politics of an era where public mores were dominated by the Catholic church.

Grażyna Długołęcka stars as Ewa, and the film’s first scene sees her in a confessional, receiving a stern directive from a priest to keep herself pure. Is this the last time a man will try to control her sexuality? Take a guess.

After falling into a delirious and brief affair with her family’s lodger, Lukasz (Jerzy Zelnik), who’s traveling the continent trying desperately to find someone who will grant him a divorce, Ewa embarks on a journey of self-discovery, manipulating and being manipulated in a variety of relationships with leering men. In this whirlwind of episodes, there’s plenty of room for grim occurrences.

Elegantly shot and scored with a variety of classical selections, the film has the appearance of a novelistic historical tale, but Borowczyk’s increasingly frantic cutting refutes that notion. On the surface, the film appears to be an outlier for Borowczyk, at least among his more well-known films, but it’s probably best appreciated by a viewer familiar with his obsessions.

Arrow’s Blu-ray, outfitted with a 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer, is sourced from a 2K restoration from the original film negative, and looks spectacular. Images are lush and detailed and exceptionally clean throughout. Grain structure is stable and beautifully rendered. There’s one shot where a white tablecloth looks so bright, it’s blown out, though this could be intentional, and the transfer doesn’t have such issues elsewhere. The LPCM mono soundtrack offers clean dialogue and reasonably dynamic renditions of the classical selections.

It appears Arrow is nowhere near exhausting its ability to supply Borowczyk extras; this is another loaded disc, though much of the focus is on Borowczyk in general and not Story of Sin in particular.

The premier inclusion is likely three animated and stop-motion shorts (Once Upon a TimeDomThe School), each sourced from a 2K restoration and accompanied by an audio commentary. Also included is a thorough commentary track from Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger, an interview with Długołęcka, an introduction from Andrzej Klimowski and a video appendix of sorts by Daniel Bird, which catalogs many the filmmaker’s recurring motifs.

Several featurettes explore poster art and Borowczyk’s work with collaborator Jan Lenica. My favorite extra is David Thompson’s rundown of the way Borowczyk uses classical music in his films.

Arrow Video / 1975 / Color / 1.66:1 / 130 min / $39.95

Behind the DoorBehind the Door (1919)
Flicker Alley 

The ending of Irvin Willat’s Behind the Door is one of the more notorious of the silent era, and though its leap into gory revenge-thriller status is mostly just implied, it generally lives up to its reputation. Much of that is due to the lead performance of Hobart Bosworth, whose wild-eyed mania looks out of place early, but is the perfect asset once the film catches up to his mood.

Beginning with a somber frame story that portends a different type of tale about loss, Behind the Door features Bosworth as Oscar Krug, a former naval captain hoping to settle into a quiet life as a taxidermist and marry the woman he loves, Alice (Jane Novak). But when the United States declares war against Germany, the town’s latent xenophobia kicks into overdrive, with Krug’s German ancestry as its target.

To prove his American patriotism, Krug enlists, but his noble sacrifice kicks off a series of personal tragedies, and sets up a showdown with a sneering German U-boat commander (Wallace Beery).

Willat’s lively film functions equally well as a thriller and a psychological portrait of a displaced man, every emotion amplified by Krug’s active inner life, full of memories and fantasies that are often juxtaposed with his bleaker reality.

Flicker Alley’s dual-format release is produced by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, and represents a heroic feat of restoration and reconstruction. No original elements of the film are known to exist, so the restoration was sourced from a Library of Congress print and a Russian print, supplemented with some footage from Bosworth’s personal library, and reconstructed using the original continuity script.

Though some scenes are still missing (still images stand in here) and some intertitles had to be recreated, this is a fantastic rescue job, and the 1080p, 1.33:1 tinted transfer here is especially impressive when one considers the sources. Though several scenes feature significant nitrate decomposition that effectively obliterates the middle of the frame, the image is otherwise robust, with wonderful levels of fine detail, clarity and sharpness. Scratches are minimal and image density is reasonably stable. The LPCM stereo soundtrack presents a new score by Stephen Horne, whose piano-based music features jags of almost avant-garde noise during the film’s climactic moments.

Flicker Alley adds a number of good extras, including what survives of the Russian export version, which is not tinted and was re-ordered and re-titled to present a significantly different story. Film historian Kevin Brownlow offers a detailed appreciation of Willat’s career and the film, while a featurette explains the work that went into the restoration. 10 minutes of outtakes are accompanied by Horne’s music, and a slideshow gallery shows off lobby cards and promotional stills. A booklet includes an essay by Jay Weissberg, restoration notes by Robert Byrne and a note on the score from Horne.

Flicker Alley / 1919 / Color tinted / 1.33:1 / 70 min / $39.95

WomenWomen on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)
Criterion Collection 

Pedro Almodóvar is a filmmaker who often oscillates between high emotions, whether he’s working in a melodramatic or comedic register. Comedy and tragedy can be only a tick apart in Almodóvar’s world, but there’s never any danger of lasting harm in his international breakout Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, a series of romantic miscues in a screwball tenor.

Almodóvar is an undeniably gifted comic director, but this is a comedy where the off-kilter energy derives less from the pacing or verbal sparring of the performers and more from the look, which is pure primary-color bliss. Much of the action swirls around conversations on a blazing red telephone, and Almodóvar pushes the film’s color palette to extraordinarily artificial heights, an effect amplified by his use of miniatures for certain establishing shots.

Frequent collaborator Carmen Maura lends some emotional depth to the film as actress Pepa Marcos, who can sense her relationship with fellow actor Iván (Fernando Guillén) deteriorating, even as they both work as voiceover artists dubbing a Spanish version of Johnny Guitar. Iván’s voice rings in her ears as she works, and continues to haunt her as he avoids her calls.

A bed set on fire and a batch of gazpacho choked with sleeping pills later, Pepa is at the end of her rope, but the mishaps are just getting started as her lovelorn friend Candela (María Barranco) and Iván’s son Carlos (Antonio Banderas) and his fiancée (Rossy de Palma) all arrive at her apartment. Jealous flare-ups, romantic laments and a gazpacho mix-up ensue.

There’s not much more here than “love makes you crazy,” but the ensuing craziness rendered in the boldest of colors makes for a bright candy apple that turns out to be all candy.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer is sourced from a new 2K restoration, and not a scene passes without a stunning pop of color in it. Clarity and detail are exceptional, while film grain is carefully handled throughout. Only the faintest of speckling in an early scene at Pepa’s workplace marks this outstanding transfer. Similar-sounding 2.0 and 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks are included.

Criterion offers several new supplements, including a newly filmed interview with Almodóvar, who is always able to illuminate his approach to filmmaking, and a separate piece with his brother and longtime producer Agustín. A highly genial and personal interview with Maura traces her career path, while former Film Society of Lincoln Center program director Richard Peña discusses the film’s breakthrough in the US. A trailer and an insert with an essay by novelist and critic Elvira Lindo round out the bonus material.

Criterion Collection / 1988 / Color / 1.85:1 / 89 min / $39.95

My 20th CenturyMy 20th Century (1989)
Second Run 

Well, here’s a treat from Second Run, whose latest Blu-ray release is an underseen Hungarian gem from Ildikó Enyedi, who just premiered her first feature in almost two decades at the Berlin International Film Festival. It’s a shame Enyedi hasn’t been given the opportunity to make more films since her wondrous debut, My 20th Century (Az én XX. századom), which manages to be both effervescent and serious-minded, and playful but not precious in its magical realist tale of a world on the cusp of technological revolution.

Enyedi’s film zooms from big-picture storytelling to the intensely intimate and back again, opening with a prologue that details a variety of leaps forward, including the premiere of Thomas Edison’s electric bulb, captured as something otherworldly by Tibor Máthé’s stunning black-and-white photography. (Tesla’s coil also makes an appearance in another scene.)

It would be hard for anything to outdo the luminosity of the film’s cinematography, which wows you over and over on Second Run’s excellent disc, but the film’s visuals have an equal in Dorota Segda, who stars as twin sisters separated at infancy in Budapest who go on to live very different, but crisscrossing lives.

Dóra finds entry into the upper class, rubbing elbows with the well-to-do and taking advantage of her own disarming beauty, which makes it easy to manipulate and steal. Lili is a political revolutionary, fully committed to the ideals of her anarchist group. There’s a wisp of a love triangle here, as each is pursued at points by an acquaintance named Z (Oleg Yankovskiy), who doesn’t realize they are two separate people, but Enyedi’s storytelling style, both episodic and nonlinear, doesn’t fit neatly into expected genres.

Unease over modernity’s advents mingles with the harsh reality that progress is still a dicey proposition where women are concerned. Dóra and Lili navigate vastly divergent worlds, but each considers women inferior in starkly similar ways. Even hints at enlightened thinking turn sour, like in a scene that features a lecture by famed Austrian philosopher Otto Weininger (Paulus Manker) that begins promisingly before devolving swiftly into a spittle-flecked misogynistic tirade.

No plot summary can really convey how inventive and lively the film is, and no description of some of its more unusual elements — a pair of talking stars, interludes that involve the rich inner lives of animals — expresses how well they all cohere. Films are called unique all the time, but My 20th Century earns the descriptor.

Second Run’s region-free Blu-ray presents the film in a 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer that consistently reinforces the stunning visuals, which often recall the look of early silent cinema with their high-contrast black-and-white images. The film elements are fairly marked up, but the scratches and speckling are all minor instances, and clarity and detail remain strong throughout. The LPCM mono track has some inherent flatness due to post-dubbed dialogue, but sounds clean.

The disc features a newly filmed interview with Enyedi, conducted (unseen) by filmmaker Peter Strickland, where she details her entry into film production and the history of the film. Also included is a booklet with a deeply researched essay by Jonathan Owen.

Second Run / 1989 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 103 min / £19.99 / Region Free

Love WitchThe Love Witch (2016)
Oscilloscope Laboratories 

I feel pretty confident stating that no other film released last year looks anything like Anna Biller’s enchanting, totally delightful The Love Witch. Shot on 35mm, the film is meticulously designed, from the high artifice of the makeup and lighting to the detailed costumes, many of which Biller sewed herself. Though elements of its design and its cinematography are reminiscent of both classic Hollywood Technicolor melodrama and pulpy ’60s Euro-horror, Biller has made it clear (both on this disc’s extras and on Twitter) that the film isn’t meant to be seen as a parody or pastiche.

And though there are some performances that can come across as arch, the film does succeed as more than an exercise in style because of Biller’s genuine care for her main character, Elaine (Samantha Robinson), a woman who moves from San Francisco to Eureka to start a new life. Guilty of loving too much, Elaine has left a trail of heartbreak in her past, but it’s about to get worse, as she embraces her inner witch and begins seducing men to their death.

The Love Witch is half sumptuous melodrama, in which a woman tries desperately and fruitlessly to find lasting love, and half feminist horror, in which the constraints and expectations of gender roles force her (and the men she loves) into misshapen, cruel relationships. The film plays with (seemingly) outdated roles set in a modern scenario, and the simultaneously retro and present-day look blurs the lines further.

I missed a chance to see the film projected on 35, but Oscilloscope’s 1080p, 1.85:1 Blu-ray transfer is a pretty strong substitute, with a convincingly film-like image that offers a great showcase for the film’s robust colors. Every hair and fabric fiber looks distinct in this impressively detailed transfer. 5.1 and a 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks are offered.

Oscilloscope has assembled some nice extras, including a commentary track with Biller, Robinson, cinematographer M. David Mullen and producer/actor Jared Sanford. Biller and Mullen take up the majority of the technically focused track, which also details a number of visual influences, including Jeanne DielmanBlack Narcissus and Written on the Wind. It also contains the all-time great line: “So much of this movie had to do with putting cakes everywhere.”

Also included is a short audio interview with Biller, laid over behind-the-scenes shots from the film, an interview with Mullen about the challenges of shooting on 35mm in this era, a number of deleted and extended scenes, an audition video from Robinson and two trailers, one previously unreleased.

Oscilloscope Laboratories / 2016 / Color / 1.85:1 / 120 min / $32.99

DelugeDeluge (1933)
Kino Lorber Studio Classics 

The once-lost disaster film Deluge, directed by Felix E. Feist, only runs about 70 minutes, but it’s used up most of its assets 20 minutes in. By then, we’ve reached the conclusion of its centerpiece moment, the destruction of New York City as part of a globe-wide tsunami that’s swiftly ushered in the apocalypse. It’s an extraordinary feat of miniature creation and annihilation, buildings crumbling with a tactility that Roland Emmerich could never touch.

The ensuing tale of survivors trying to reestablish a society in the Catskills can’t measure up to that, and the frantic mood of the prologue, where scientists are constantly rushing around, is replaced by a languid fable of masculine predatory tendencies, where all surviving women instantly become currency.

Martin Webster (Sidney Blackmer), separated from his wife Helen (Lois Wilson) and two children, doesn’t require any evidence to back up his assumption that they’re dead, and he quickly falls for competitive swimmer Claire Arlington (Peggy Webster), who’s escaped from the clutches of a soon-to-be-rapist. There are a lot more of them, ready to exact their revenge on the new couple.

There could be an interesting examination of the way social and personal mores can abruptly change after tragedy, particularly given the cavalier behavior of the film’s ostensible hero, but with less than an hour left after the budget-busting disaster sequence itself, there’s only room for scattered fragments.

Kino’s Blu-ray, with a 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer sourced from the recent restoration by Lobster Films, is an excellent package. The transfer has some density fluctuations and a pesky vertical line of damage that afflicts a good portion of the film, but considering the film’s tumultuous history, detail and clarity are quite strong. A 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack has some hiss and a few dropouts, but is mostly clean.

Only two extras are included, but they’re both substantial ones, particularly the inclusion of bonus film Back Page (1934), about Peggy Shannon’s editor overcoming small-town small-mindedness to run a newspaper. Its HD transfer looks pretty decent, though it doesn’t appear to have undergone any significant restoration. Also included is an audio commentary for Deluge from Richard Harland Smith, packed with production information, historical context and more than a little crankiness. (If you’re a “millennial wag” unimpressed by the disaster sequence, don’t tell him.)

Kino Lorber Studio Classics / 1933 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 70 min / $29.95

 

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

1928: Buster Keaton in "Steamboat Bill, Jr."

Blu-ray Review Round-Up: Films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Jess Franco, Ousmane Sembène & more!

FoxFox and His Friends (1975)
Criterion Collection

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Fox and His Friends, made midway through his short but incredibly prolific career, unfolds like a brutal car crash in slow motion. It’s almost immediately evident what is going to happen to the naïve carnival worker Fox (played by Fassbinder himself with a startling lack of guile), but there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it, least of all the oblivious protagonist.

The cynicism runs bone-deep in this portrait of transactional bourgeoisie gay culture. A compulsive lotto-player, Fox finally sees his persistence pay off after he wins 500,000 marks. But Fassbinder completely elides the actual discovery of his win. It’s possibly the only moment of unsullied joy for Fox within the film’s borders, and it might as well not exist.

Shortly after his big win, Fox is introduced to a group of upper-class friends by Max (Karlheinz Böhm), an antiques dealer he’s picked up by at a public restroom, and soon he’s become enamored with Eugen (Peter Chatel). Sensing an opportunity, Eugen starts seeing Fox and then asks for money. He doesn’t wait long and he doesn’t start small, securing a 100,000-mark loan for his company before convincing Fox to buy an apartment and fill it with lavish furniture and décor from Max’s shop.

As usual, Fassbinder shoots interior spaces with an eye toward their oppressive and distancing effects, and Fox and Eugen’s apartment, stuffed from floor to ceiling with ornate accessories, is an especially overwhelming place. Fox never seems aware of his new friends’ capacity for manipulation, but his alienation is palpable, even if his carefree personality deflects it on the surface. Even one of his favorite spots — a dive bar that Eugen et al sneer at — is eventually transformed into a space where he no longer feels at home.

This is depressing, harrowing and emotionally penetrating stuff, and Fassbinder never lets up. The indignities persist for Fox up through the film’s final shot. He gets one final gut-punch, and so do we.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer is sourced from a new 4K digital restoration by the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation, and it looks essentially identical to the Arrow Region B Blu-ray, sourced from the same restoration. Fine detail is excellent, grain is well-supported and colors are stable and vibrant, with a slight yellowish warm hue to them. The uncompressed mono soundtrack is limited by the dullness of the post-dubbed dialogue, but there are no major hiss or noise issues.

While Arrow’s disc included an informative commentary track from Hamish Ford, Criterion’s disc offers more quantity, including two newly filmed interviews. Filmmaker Ira Sachs offers an appreciation of the film and Fassbinder’s place within queer cinema, while actor Harry Baer, who played Eugen’s ex, reminisces about making the film and sadly notes that only three of the principals are still living. Two brief archival excerpts are offered: Fassbinder talks about the film’s politics and composer Peer Raben discusses the cabaret-influenced score. A trailer and an insert with an essay from former Criterion staff writer Michael Koresky round out the supplements.

Criterion Collection / 1975 / Color / 1.37:1 / 124 min / $39.95

OrloffDr. Orloff’s Monster (1964)
Redemption

Before he became notorious as an insanely prolific director of horror films of, let’s say, dubious quality, Jess Franco emerged with his breakthrough, The Awful Dr. Orlof (1962). Two years later, Orlof was back with an additional f in Dr. Orloff’s Monster, a film that references Orloff all of once. Cash-in implications of the title aside (it’s also known as the not-quite-accurate-either The Mistresses of Dr. Jekyll), this not-sequel is certainly of interest.

A stock horror template is given some dimension via moody lighting and a pervasive sense of melancholy that seems to especially afflict the film’s murderous creature, Andros (Hugo Blanco, caked in crusty face makeup), a reanimated corpse who does the bidding of Dr. Jekyll (Marcelo Arroita-Jáuregui). That bidding is mostly limited to strangling prostitutes and cabaret performers.

Meanwhile, Jekyll’s niece Melissa (Agnès Spaak) returns to the family castle, where she’s alternately puzzled and creeped out by her Aunt Inglud (Luisa Sala) and Uncle Jekyll. Melissa wants to know more about her family history, particularly her father who died when she was young, but there isn’t much information forthcoming.

Even at just 84 minutes long, Dr. Orloff’s Monster is relentlessly shaggy, luxuriating in lengthy nightclub scenes that are punctuated with brief bits of horror. The plot is mostly coherent, but that’s due more to its simplicity than any facility for visual storytelling. Franco seems to have no regard for spatial awareness, cutting haphazardly and mangling almost any sense of suspense. The murder scenes are miserably blocked.

That doesn’t mean Franco had no sense of visual style; it’s here in spades, from foggy graveyards to smoky clubs, often shot at unusual canted angles. Franco never had the polish or psychological depth of a Jacques Tourneur or Georges Franju, but Dr. Orloff’s Monster proved he could make a brand of atmospheric horror of his own.

Redemption/Kino’s Blu-ray presents Dr. Orloff’s Monster in a 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer that generally follows in the footsteps of their other releases of 1960s Franco films. The image is a little contrast-y, but is overall decently sharp and detailed. Tram lines, scuffs and scratches are all here, but nothing too egregious. Audio options are two DTS-HD Master Audio mono soundtracks, one in French and one in English. Both feature persistent low-level hiss, and the English dialogue is performed considerably more histrionically at points.

Extras include a typically studious audio commentary from Tim Lucas and 11 minutes of silent footage —almost exclusively of the nudie variety — that was excised from some cuts of the film. Theatrical trailers round out the disc.

Redemption / 1964 / Black and white / 1.66:1 / 84 min / $29.95

GeneralThe General (1926) and Three Ages (1923)
Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) and College (1927)
Kino Lorber

Kino goes back to the Buster Keaton well with two new double-feature releases, sourced from 2K restorations by Lobster Films. Generally, these releases improve upon the previous Kino Blu-rays, but Region A Keaton fans may want to wait for the forthcoming releases from Cohen Media, who have restored some Keaton titles in 4K, and will be sourcing additional 4K restorations from Cineteca Bologna. (More info about that in this helpful NitrateVille thread.)

Undoubtedly, Kino wanted to get these new editions out there before they are likely to be superseded by the Cohen releases, but to their credit, they’ve made them relatively affordable ($29.95 for a two-disc Blu-ray set). With no firm release date yet for the Cohen Blu-rays, these refreshed releases could be worth a first-time purchase, though it probably doesn’t make much sense to upgrade from the old Kino Blu-rays until one gets a look at what Cohen has in store. (Eureka also has a Masters of Cinema Region B box set with The GeneralSherlock Jr. and Steamboat Bill, Jr. coming sometime this year.)

Each set pairs a Keaton masterwork with a lesser title, releasing these films in different configurations than previously available. The General, Steamboat Bill, Jr. and College were all released as standalones, while Three Ages was paired with Sherlock Jr. (another masterpiece Kino no longer has the rights to).

The General isn’t just one of the greatest comedies ever made; it’s one of the best Civil War films, and his final independent silent feature Steamboat Bill, Jr. features Keaton’s most astonishing collection of risky stunts, culminating in an incredible cyclone sequence. While the stale D.W. Griffith parody of Three Ages wears out its welcome in a repetitive triptych, the trend-chasing College maintains a lot of slapstick charm despite its derivative nature.

SteamboatTransfer-wise, these new 2K restorations offer some noticeable upgrades, although I have mixed feelings about The General. Kino’s old disc presents the film with a slight sepia tint, and there are some hefty scratches and blotches throughout. The new disc features a much cleaner image and gets rid of the tint. But while the new transfer is unquestionably more stable, it’s also quite a bit darker, with heavy contrast obscuring some details. Some might prefer the transfer with less damage, but Kino’s old disc is often a more pleasurable viewing experience.

With the other three films, the new transfers are clear winners. Three Ages gets the biggest boost, and is now presented in 1080p instead of 1080i. While nitrate deterioration still plagues the film, the image is often much sharper, with clearer detail visible beneath the damage. The elements limit how good this film can look, but this a significant step up over the cloudy old transfer.

Steamboat Bill features a more stable image, with better fine detail and a tighter grain structure. Whites that looked slightly blown out on the old disc are better here. College is still afflicted with a fairly persistent softness, but damage has been mitigated greatly.

Audio and extras-wise, these discs are significantly different. At least one new score has been made available for each film, while all but College have at least one removed. The General loses some featurettes, but gains an audio commentary by historians Michael Schlesinger and Stan Taffel. Thankfully, the Orson Welles and Gloria Swanson introductions have been retained.

Three Ages adds a Keaton-starring Alka-Seltzer commercial and Candid Camera segment and retains the excerpt of Griffith’s Man’s Genesis (1912), while dropping two featurettes.

Steamboat Bill feels the deepest cut, losing a complete alternate version of the film comprised of different angles and takes, as well as vintage song recordings, a making-of featurette and a montage of Keaton stunts. Added are a Schlesinger/Taffel commentary track, an introduction from Lobster Films’ Serge Bromberg and a different Alka-Seltzer commercial.

College fares the best, losing no extras (a Rob Farr commentary track, locations featurette and 1966 industrial film The Scribe — Keaton’s final film role) and adding several more: a Bromberg intro, a Lillian Gish intro and 1928 collegiate two-reeler Run, Girl, Run, starring Carole Lombard.

The General and Three Ages: Kino Lorber / 1926, 1923 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 79 + 64 min / $29.95
Steamboat Bill, Jr. and College: Kino Lorber / 1928, 1927 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 69 + 65 min / $29.95

Girl AsleepGirl Asleep (2016)
Oscilloscope Laboratories

Many reviews of cloying/charming Australian film Girl Asleep have focused on its influences, and the Variety pull-quote on the Blu-ray’s back cover sums up most of those observations, mentioning Wes Anderson, Napoleon Dynamite and Where the Wild Things Are. OK, fine. The hermetically framed opening shot certainly recalls some of Anderson’s, though the film’s formalist touches tend to diminish. And yes, there are aggressively weird family members and costumed creatures in the woods, so sure, those other two are represented.

This can be a lazy way to review movies, but Girl Asleep invites it with its pastiche of other, more original ideas. Before it was a film, Girl Asleep was a stage production at Adelaide’s Windmill Theatre, and the company’s artistic director Rosemary Myers directs the film adaptation. Like a lot of fringe theater, there’s more emphasis on the “imaginative” than the dramaturgically sound. There are fun costumes, kitschy production design and a winking disco dance number, but does that add up to much of a movie?

When the film does work, it’s mostly due to its appealing performances, particularly from Bethany Whitmore as shy protagonist Greta and Harrison Feldman as the gawky, kindhearted Elliott, who befriends her when she moves to a new school in a new town. Elliott and Greta become fast friends, but she doesn’t have much luck in her other relationships, enduring torment from a trio of mean girls and disinterest from older sister Genevieve (Imogen Archer).

When her well-meaning but clueless parents (Amber McMahon and screenwriter Matthew Whittet) throw her a 15th birthday party, Greta is forced to come out of her shell, but it’s not long before she’s been plunged into an allegorical dreamscape where she must confront her worst fears. Regular teenage awkwardness and discomfort probably doesn’t warrant such heavy-handed metaphorical inquiry.

Girl Asleep comes to Blu-ray from Oscilloscope, whose 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer faithfully reproduces the golden-amber tones of the film’s late-1970s setting. The image is sharp, and fine detail is excellent. Brightly colored costumes, especially yellows and blues, pop, while detail remains strong in shadowy scenes. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is crisp and dynamic.

The most enjoyable bonus feature is one unrelated to the film, except for having been packaged with Girl Asleep theatrically. Amy Nicholson’s documentary short Pickle (2016) details one couple’s indefatigable ability to care for a host of unusual pets, and the inevitable deaths that follow. Also included: a standard making-of doc, a separate interview with Myers that features some overlap, a promo video for Windmill Theatre Company and a trailer.

Oscilloscope Laboratories / 2016 / Color / 1.33:1 / 77 min / $32.99

RevengeRevenge of the Blood Beast (1966)
Raro Video

Gruesome occult horror and slapstick don’t really make for a logical pairing, but that doesn’t stop Michael Reeves (Witchfinder General) from trying to fuse the two in his feature debut Revenge of the Blood Beast, a tonal mishmash that mostly holds together thanks to Reeves’ steady directorial hand.

Barbara Steele is striking as always as Veronica, a woman honeymooning in Transylvania who becomes possessed by the spirit of an ancient witch after a car crash into the lake where she was drowned by the townspeople centuries ago. Unfortunately, this means Steele is largely absent for the majority of the film, replaced by a man in hideous hag makeup.

Her milquetoast husband Philip (Ian Ogilvy) must try to reverse the curse, aided by a descendant of Count von Helsing (John Karlsen, a perma-twinkle in his eye) who was previously just a bit of annoying local color as Philip and Veronica passed through town.

Revenge of the Blood Beast has everything you could want in a movie, provided your list consists only of leering, rapist hotel clerks (Mel Welles, playing the unsubtly named Groper), gags about Communists (there’s a visual hammer-and-sickle joked wedged into a brutal death scene) and car chases featuring bumbling cops (apparently shot by the second unit without Reeves’ knowledge or initial approval).

Still, even though the comedy (or attempts at it) never feels congruous with the mission to defeat a bulbous, bloodthirsty beast on a rampage, Revenge of the Blood Beast is an entertaining enough Euro-horror jaunt.

Raro’s 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer of Revenge of the Blood Beast is surprisingly strong, with stable color reproduction, healthy amounts of detail and a well-supported grain structure that isn’t afflicted with any obvious digital manipulation. Skin tones are natural, while colors like blood red and the yellow of von Helsing’s car are fairly vibrant. Audio is presented in a 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio English soundtrack that seems to betray the weakness of the source due to its low volume and low-level hiss. Despite a claim on the packaging, there is no Italian soundtrack included.

The major extra is a 30-minute audio interview with Steele about her career that plays over still images and is interspersed with clips from the film.  An included booklet features an essay by Nocturno that explores Reeves’ career, tragically cut short by his overdose death at age 25.

Raro Video / 1966 / Color / 2.35:1 / 79 min / $29.95

Black GirlBlack Girl (1966)
Criterion Collection

Ousmane Sembène’s seminal Black Girl, his debut feature and a watershed work of art for African cinema, makes its way to Region A Blu-ray from Criterion. In 2015, the BFI released the film in a fantastic dual-format set (reviewed here), but Criterion has improved on it with its Blu-ray release, including a transfer sourced from the same World Cinema Project 4K restoration and adding a number of valuable new bonus features.

Excerpted from my previous review of the BFI’s disc:

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

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

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

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer is the equal of the BFI’s, displaying the same excellent levels of fine detail, clarity and grayscale separation, while the uncompressed mono French audio is clean and unaffected by damage.

Criterion’s disc emerges as the winner on the supplement front, particularly thanks to two new scholarly interviews packed with a wealth of information.

Samba Gadjigo puts Sembène’s work into the context of African cinema at the time, which was basically nonexistent outside of French-controlled film productions. There was no film infrastructure, and Gadjigo details how Sembène worked from scratch to create his early films that challenged dominant paradigms.

Manthia Diawara contributes a deep analysis of Black Girl, discussing Sembène’s approach to enlightening his viewership. Diawara argues that Sembène took a fundamentally intersectional approach, understanding that gender, race and class conventions would all have to be challenged to bring about change.

Also exclusive to Criterion’s release: a newly filmed interview with star Diop, who explains her serendipitous entry into the movies, and a brief excerpt of a 1966 interview with Sembène about his surprise Prix Jean Vigo win for Black Girl.

Overlapping with the BFI disc: Sembène’s debut short, Borom Sarret (1963), also sporting a new 4K restoration; a brief alternate color sequence that Sembène dropped (presented here as a standalone, not integrated into the film like on the BFI disc); and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Diawara’s 1994 documentary Sembène: The Making of African Cinema.

A trailer and an insert with an essay by critic Ashley Clark are also included.

Criterion Collection / 1966 / Black and white / 1.37:1 / 59 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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Blu-ray Review Round-Up: Films by Shirley Clarke, Miklós Jancsó, Akira Kurosawa & more!

Magic BoxThe Magic Box: The Films of Shirley Clarke (1929-1987)
Milestone Films

Milestone’s series of Shirley Clarke releases is one of the great passion projects of the home video era. That fact is vigorously reaffirmed by the fourth volume, which collects experimental shorts, documentaries, home movies and rare material not seen in decades, and comes close to completing Clarke’s extant filmography on Blu-ray. (The one major piece missing: the Frederick Wiseman-produced The Cool World [1963], which doesn’t have a commercial release from Wiseman’s Zipporah Films.)

Like Clarke’s genre-puncturing and form-stretching The Connection (1961), Portrait of Jason (1967) and Ornette: Made in America (1985), the films in Milestone’s fourth volume reveal a filmmaker deeply comfortable with straddling worlds, whether that means embracing the fundamental elasticity of documentary or filming other artistic disciplines — here, theater and dance — in ways that complement their strengths while remaining cinematic.

This compulsively watchable three-disc Blu-ray set begins with a disc of Clarke’s experimental work, including a variety of city-symphony riffs from the ’50s and some mind-bending dispatches from the early video era. Her editing prowess gets an early showcase with Brussels Loops, a compilation of three-minute shorts created with D.A. Pennebaker for the 1957 Brussels World Fair; each bristles with energy whether showcasing feats of American architectural beauty or slyly undercutting consumerist inventions.

The surreal collage of Bridges-Go-Round, presented in several versions, is one of the great avant-garde architecture films, while Skyscraper takes a more straightforward approach to the industrial film. The newly rediscovered Butterfly, with its scratched celluloid and high-pitched soundtrack, is a brief primal scream against the Vietnam War.

Two video pieces feature acclaimed experimental playwright Joseph Chaikin’s collaborations with Sam Shepard (Tongues, Savage/Love), and Clarke’s restless special effects distort the image to fascinating ends. These are singular documents, but the most eye-opening film on the disc might be Scary Time, commissioned by the UN to promote UNICEF giving on Halloween, but banned by the UN for getting too real. Clarke’s use of close-ups and her intercutting between Halloween celebrations and images of famine are disquieting and startlingly confrontational.

Disc two revolves around Clarke’s first passion: dance. Her earliest forays into filmmaking can be seen here, including the unfinished Fear Flight with Beatrice Seckler and her first completed short, Dance in the Sun, starring Daniel Nagrin. Clarke’s continued interest in capturing movement can be seen in the lovely postcard In Paris Parks, presented alongside outtakes and footage from a second, unfinished Paris film.

This disc gets even more interesting with a turn into experimental territory, first seen in the layered imagery and unreal colors of Bullfight, with Anna Sokolow. Footage from the unfinished The Rose and the Players hints at Clarke’s desire to marry some experimental techniques with a narrative told through dance. Four collaborations with choreographer Marion Scott combine modern dance with Clarke’s film and video experimentation.

The final disc could be largely thought of as bonus material, with the bulk consisting of silent home-video footage of Clarke’s childhood, wedding, vacations and her appearance in Agnès Varda’s Lions Love (1969). There are two proper films here though, a once-lost children’s adventure short Christopher and Me and the Oscar-winning Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel with the World, which depicts two college speaking engagements from the last year of the poet’s life. The film, which was taken away from Clarke during editing, is certainly on the conventional side, particularly with regards to its obvious narration, but a segment where Frost remarks on the artificiality of documentary-making has Clarke’s fingerprints all over it.

This Herculean feat of film scholarship and curation also looks largely remarkable. Milestone’s 1080p, 1.33:1 transfers are sourced from a variety of materials, but most of the non-video footage looks convincingly film-like, with solid levels of fine detail and clarity. Damage never surpasses expected levels of speckling and fine scratches. A few highlights: the brilliant, deeply saturated colors of the Brussels Loops and the Paris films, and the excellent grayscale reproduction in Robert Frost, restored by UCLA and the Academy Film Archive. The set is accompanied by a booklet with helpful contextual notes about the films.

Milestone Films / 1929-1987 / Color and black and white / 1.33:1 / 480 min / $119.99

DreamsDreams (1990)
The Criterion Collection

If only because his filmography is so full of major works, Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams generally feels like a minor one. Anthology films often do.

Still, this collection of eight stories, inspired by Kurosawa’s own dreams and folk legends he heard growing up, is a thoroughly enjoyable filmgoing experience, particularly viewed on Criterion’s new Blu-ray, which really allows the vivid tableaux to shine in all their colorfully transfixing glory. Even when some of the segments dip into trite sentiment or obvious polemic, Dreams is always interesting to look at.

Focusing on man’s relationship to nature, the fleeting nature of joy, the solitude of creating art, humans’ capacity for regret and their even larger capacity for destruction, Dreams reveals an artist working in a deeply contemplative mode. This is a film rooted in melancholy when it’s not given over to outright pessimism, though by its conclusion, Kurosawa seems to have reached a sense of peace by looking backward.

There’s an otherworldly quality to the early segments that make them especially dreamlike: A young boy (Toshihiko Nakano) disobeys his mother to spy on a fox wedding processional, the figures emerging from the mist in a deliberate, regimented line; an adolescent boy (Mitsunori Isaki) laments his family’s chopped-down peach-tree orchard and receives a visit from dozens of life-size dolls; a man (Akira Terao, who plays the protagonist in the rest of the segments) finds himself nearly paralyzed by a blizzard and receives a visit from the mythical Yuki-onna (Mieko Harada).

The dream logic and airy feel of the early vignettes dissipate as the film turns more overtly political in segments that are plenty surreal, but not exactly dreamlike. A soldier’s encounter with a zombie platoon full of dead men he’s responsible for is haunting and heartbreaking, with a caustic view of the long-term effects of war. Two stories about nuclear war and its aftermath are comparatively heavy-handed.

Famous faces pop up in several other stories, including Martin Scorsese as Vincent van Gogh, framed alongside Terao’s painter in brilliant fields of color, and Chishu Ryu, who rarely worked with Kurosawa, as a voice of serenity in the film’s lovely closing segment.

Even for those who might be lukewarm on the film, Criterion’s edition of Dreams has a ton to like, beginning with the 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer, sourced from a new 4K restoration. The colors in this transfer are lush and vibrant, with eye-popping reds and yellows especially standing out. In keeping with what seems to be a recent trend, blue colors do tend toward the teal side of the spectrum, but it’s not overwhelming. Grain is beautifully rendered, image clarity and sharpness is strong and the transfer looks impressively film-like throughout. The 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is crisp and fairly dynamic.

The extras here are also formidable, beginning with a newly recorded audio commentary from Stephen Prince that is positively packed with information. The only time Prince pauses is to allow us to hear a line of dialogue in the van Gogh sequence; otherwise, he fills every available second with a wealth of information on Kurosawa’s approach, the film’s debt to Noh and Kabuki theater, the cultural and political climate it was created in and the film’s place among Kurosawa’s career.

Also on the packed disc: A 150-minute making-of, featuring tons of on-set footage, from House (1977) director Nobuhiko Ôbayashi (in SD); 2011 documentary Kurosawa’s Way, in which longtime translator Catherine Cadou interviews tons of legendary filmmakers — Abbas Kiarostami, Theo Angelopoulos, Clint Eastwood and Hayao Miyazaki among them — about Kurosawa’s legacy; new interviews with production manager Teruyo Nogami and assistant director Takashi Koizumi; and a trailer. A hefty booklet includes an essay by Bilge Ebiri and the script for an unfilmed ninth segment, “A Wonderful Dream.”

The Criterion Collection / 1990 / Color / 1.85:1 / 120 min / $39.95

ElectraElectra, My Love (Szerelmem, Elektra, 1974)
Second Run

Hungarian filmmaker Miklós Jancsó, whose work is well represented on the Second Run label, is renowned for his long takes, and that quality is especially evident in Electra, My Love, a reworking of the Greek myth that unfolds in just a dozen shots over the course of 74 minutes.

This transfixing film pushes the boundaries of the medium and emerges as a truly interdisciplinary work, almost as reliant on modes of experimental theater and dance as it is film — though it’s still foremost a cinematic work, as the glorious camera swoops and crane shots can attest to.

The Electra myth is one of the most enduring in Greek mythology, with major versions by Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles and numerous adaptations since. Jancsó’s take doesn’t deviate from too many fundamental details: Electra (Mari Törőcsik), the daughter of deposed and murdered king Agamemnon is harassed and humiliated by his usurper, Aegisthus (József Madaras), but the arrival of her thought-dead brother Orestes (György Cserhalmi) presents an opportunity for revolution.

Jancsó’s fluid approach to storytelling adds a pointedly political anachronistic conclusion and reframes a familiar story in a fresh way, pushing down the importance of narrative coherence and personal identification with characters to look at the tale from a grand perspective. The film uses hundreds of extras, often in tightly choreographed movement, as Jancsó uses masses of humans to portray oppression’s effect on a population.

Shot entirely outdoors in the Hungarian steppe, Electra, My Love is populated with numerous frames that are as stunning as they are odd — bodies, often nude, huddled together or prostrate or gathered near a pool of blood, a hillside ablaze with candles, a tyrant hoisted atop a giant ball — but even more arresting is the way Jancsó’s camera navigates these scenes, each long take a miniature feat of architecture. Letting these images wash you over you makes for 74 minutes of cinematic ecstasy.

Second Run presents Electra, My Love in a 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer, sourced from the Hungarian Digital Archive and Film Institute’s new 2K restoration. The region-free disc presents an image that is very clean, with stable, if somewhat muted colors. Fine detail isn’t remarkable, as there’s a persistent slight softness to the image, but the film looks largely very good, and Second Run’s disc easily outclasses previously available home video versions. The 1.0 uncompressed mono soundtrack is just fine at handling the post-dubbed sound.

The one on-disc extra is a new interview with cinematographer János Kende, who shot a number of Jancsó’s films and talks about his working experience with him, the process of shooting long takes and Jancsó’s legacy. An included booklet features an essay from Peter Hames.

Second Run / 1974 / Color / 1.66:1 / 74 min / £19.99

DivorceChildren of Divorce (1927)
Flicker Alley

Crisscrossing love lives of the wealthy and beautiful are on display in Children of Divorce, almost a perfectly pure confection of silent-film melodrama starring Clara Bow at the height of her powers. Made directly after It (1927), which features Bow’s signature role as an irresistible flapper girl, Children of Divorce is a near-shameless combination of sex appeal and lifestyle porn, hung on an impressively overwrought framework that doesn’t just tug the heartstrings; it threatens to siphon the tears out of your eyes itself.

Lest that sound like a pan, let’s be clear: Children of Divorce is an utter delight, especially if you enjoy ogling the preternaturally attractive visages of Bow and a young Gary Cooper, which come through in stunning clarity in Flicker Alley’s new Blu-ray release. Only the second Bow film to get a US Blu-ray (the other being Wings), this disc makes it incontrovertibly clear that Bow knew exactly how to deploy her impish charm for maximum appeal.

Directed by Frank Lloyd, with uncredited reshoots by Josef von Sternberg, Children of Divorce amps up the emotion with a frame story about American children sent to live in a Paris “divorce colony,” a sort of orphanage/summer camp hybrid that allowed newly single parents to go live it up for a while. Adorable moppets with quivering lips make up at least five percent of this film, and Joyce Coad, who played Pearl in Victor Sjöström’s The Scarlet Letter and stars as the younger version of Bow’s character, looks like she’s trying to crush your heart between her tiny fingers as the camera holds steady on her face.

Flash forward, and Kitty Flanders (Bow), rich heiress and best friend Jean Waddington (Esther Ralston) and wealthy playboy Teddy Larrabee (Cooper) reunite for the first time as a trio since they were kids. Jean and Teddy have a residual mutual attraction that starts to regain steam, but Kitty, egged on by her serially married mom (Hedda Hopper in a brief cameo), is determined to make Teddy her first husband.

The film veers quickly from jaunty comedy of flirtation to heart-rending drama as Kitty’s selfish choices have a ripple effect through the years. (On hand to assist the heart-rending: toddler cutie Mary Louise Miller, who played the baby in Mary Pickford’s Sparrows, as Kitty’s daughter.) Because of its short length and Bow’s ineffable screen appeal, the film never crumbles beneath its piled-on emotions, and in the von Sternberg-shot ending, actually becomes quite moving.

Sourced from Paramount’s 4K scan of a Library of Congress restoration, the 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer on Flicker Alley’s disc is very strong, especially considering the problematic history of the source elements, which were badly preserved. Image clarity and high levels of fine detail are pronounced immediately, with damage largely relegated to fine scratches that don’t overwhelm the image. There are some softer moments later in the film, and an insert shot of a letter being written displays extreme nitrate decomposition — a clue to how badly the film was preserved — but all in all, the film looks great. A newly recorded score from the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra is presented in LPCM 2.0 stereo, and sounds fantastic.

The major extra in Flicker Alley’s package is the 1999 TCM documentary on Bow’s tumultuous personal and professional life, which provides an excellent overview in an hour. (Despite the legion of online complaints, Courtney Love’s narration is fine.) The doc is presented in standard def. Also included is a booklet with an excerpt from David Stenn’s biography (which is not kind to Children of Divorce) and notes on the restoration, score and the TCM doc. A DVD copy is also included in this combo pack.

Flicker Alley / 1927 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 71 min / $39.95

PrivatePrivate Property (1960)
Cinelicious Pics

Suburban dread oozes out of the pores of Private Property, a once lost film from director Leslie Stevens where nastiness bubbles just below the surface for nearly the entirety of this slow-burn anti-thriller. Rediscovered and restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, the film is probably most notable as the first starring role for Warren Oates, whose timid impotence here is a far cry from the swaggering or subdued antiheroes he played in some of the ’70s most singular American films.

Corey Allen stars as Duke, a maniacal drifter on the road with Oates’ Boots where they’re on the hunt for a place to stay in Los Angeles and some female companionship for Boots, which Duke promises to deliver. Within minutes, they’ve hijacked a ride to stalk the alluring Ann Carlyle (Kate Manx, Stevens’ wife in her first of only two film roles) to her home in the Hollywood Hills, shared with her often absent executive husband.

After finding a vacant house to squat in next door, Duke poses as a handyman and squirms his way into Ann’s life, while Boots is often left over there, only able to watch from a top-floor window as Duke and Ann flirt poolside. Both Boots and Duke are incessant voyeurs, but only one of them is ever able to do anything about it.

The veneer of charm on Allen’s sneering performance is very thin indeed, but it’s enough to appeal to Ann; Manx’s performance has a palpable longing — both sexual and emotional — that’s accompanied by a kind of paralysis. Wealth, status and societal convention have pinned her inside her home, and a reckless decision or two might be her only chance at escape.

Private Property isn’t really a major rediscovery, especially given the expected path it eventually treads, but it’s an enjoyably acrid take on the horrors of domestic living — and worse.

Cinelicious’ 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer, sourced from UCLA’s 4K restoration, is gorgeous, presenting a detailed, sharp image full of beautiful, well-resolved grain. The noirish film has plenty of dark scenes, but shadow detail remains strong. Damage is minimal. The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 soundtrack is clean and free of noticeable defects.

Extras include a newly filmed interview with set photographer Alexander Singer, who had a long career directing television and a few films after getting his start on the set of this and several early Stanley Kubrick films. His personal remembrance is a nice addition to the disc. Film notes from historian Don Malcolm are presented in an included insert, as is a DVD copy in this combo pack.

Cinelicious Pics / 1960 / Black and white / 1.66:1 / 79 min / $34.99

Man FacingMan Facing Southeast (Hombre mirando al sudeste, 1986)
Kino Lorber

A low-key Argentinian science fiction film with a modest cult following to match, Eliseo Subiela’s Man Facing Southeast probably isn’t a Blu-ray upgrade that’s been sitting on many wish lists, but Kino’s release is welcome, particularly since the film never even received a Region 1 DVD.

With a plot that will be familiar to anyone who read or watched K-PAX (2001) — similarities were noted at the time of the later film’s release, but no connection was established — Man Facing Southeast tells the story of two men whose lives become intertwined. One is a respected psychiatrist, Dr. Julio Denis (Lorenzo Quinteros), whose professional acumen and personal failings come right out of some hoary screenwriters’ manual. The other is Rantés (Hugo Soto), a mysterious man who appears in Denis’ mental hospital one day, claiming to be a messenger sent from another planet to save humanity from its own shortcomings.

Soto’s performance is generally guided by a kind of anodyne solemnity, and the movie tends to follow suit, less interested in exploiting any drama out of Rantés’ claims — which Denis reflexively rejects — than weaving philosophical conversations between the two and quietly gawking at his strange behavior, like standing outside every evening to send and receive transmissions from his home planet.

Despite his proclamations, Rantés doesn’t do much for the good of humanity in the film, and his overt acts make for some of the film’s most risible scenes, including one where he helps feed a hungry family in a diner by moving other people’s food psychokinetically to their spot at the counter. The cinematic dullness of fishing-wire gags aside, how does allowing people to get a few bites off a stolen plate before having to flee the restaurant while he creates another distraction help them at all?

The enigmas around Rantés abound, including his relationship with frequent visitor Beatriz (Inés Vernengo) — though a backwards subtitle here gives it away — but they’re moderately compelling at best. I suppose there’s an audience for a less visually and narratively experimental The Man Who Fell to Earth, but I’m not in it.

Kino’s 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer is certainly going to be an improvement over old VHS copies, but it has some issues of its own. Things begin promisingly, despite some pronounced telecine wobble, with a naturalistic, fairly detailed transfer. There are marks here and there, but nothing overwhelming, and for much of the film, color reproduction is solid. That changes at chapter 8, where suddenly, there are massive color density fluctuations that turn the image into a blobby mess. This lasts for around 10 minutes. Whether this is an elements issue or an encoding one, it’s bad.

The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio stereo track is also problematic, featuring intermittent hiss and high-pitched background tone. The overworked saxophone-based score sounds OK, and dialogue is fine.

Kino assembles a nice slate of extras for this disc including three 20-minute-plus interviews with Subiela, Soto and DP Ricardo De Angelis. The Soto interview appears to be archival, but the other two look newly produced. A booklet features a brief director’s statement and an essay by historian Nancy J. Membrez.

Kino Lorber / 1986 / Color / 1.85:1 / 108 min / $34.95

 

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

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