Tag Archives: Bill Morrison


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.


Ken Loach camera

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

Boy Meets Girl (1984)
Mauvais Sang (1986)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


F for Fake (1975)

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

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

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

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

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

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


Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Bill Morrison: Collected Works (1996 to 2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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