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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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Blu-ray Review Round-Up: Films by Agnès Varda, Jacques Rivette, Guy Maddin & more!

Losing GroundLosing Ground
Milestone Films 

Milestone Films aims its expert curatorial eye on a landmark of African-American cinema with Losing Ground (1982), the second and final feature from Kathleen Collins, whose career was cut short by cancer in 1988. Collins’ first feature, The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy (1980), included here among the copious extras, is often considered the first American feature film made by a black woman.

Naturally, the historical interest of this set might be its primary draw for some, especially because both of Collins’ films essentially went unreleased and haven’t exactly been easy to see since. But Losing Ground is more than a mere curiosity, constructing a nuanced portrait of marital fatigue with a texture that’s reminiscent at times of an Eric Rohmer film. The film looks like the work of an artist still finding her footing — the editing is especially slapdash at points — but there’s a lot to admire here.

Seret Scott stars as Sara Rogers, a philosophy professor embarking on a study of the aesthetic qualities of ecstasy, her intellectual pursuit of an emotional response indicative of her perhaps too serious-minded approach to life. Many of the men around her, including her students, aren’t shy about their attraction to her, but her responses border on obliviousness.

That’s quite the contrast to her husband, Victor (Bill Gunn), a painter who views carnal indulgence as a necessary part of the artistic process. He moves the couple to an upstate retreat, and in a bid to shift away from abstract work, employs several young, attractive women as models, all the while barely bothering to conceal his extracurricular motives.

Meanwhile, Sara finds some liberation by agreeing to star in a student film project helmed by the hyper-enthusiastic George (Gary Bolling), a tale of misbegotten passion between her and Duke (Duane Jones). The film-within-a-film — mostly shots of obviously metaphorical dancing — is goofy, but Scott’s performance is convincingly transformative, her reconciling of her intellectual and emotional selves playing out in deeply conflicted fashion on her face. Losing Ground is a bit schematic in its set-up, contrasting Sara and Victor’s approaches to life, but Scott and Gunn make them feel like real people.

Milestone’s 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer does the 16mm-shot film justice, its hazy images looking reasonably detailed and film-like. There’s a pervasive soft, slightly washed-out look to the image, inherent to the source no doubt, but the digital transfer is stable, consistent and clean. An uncompressed mono track handles dialogue cleanly, if a bit on the quiet side.

The two-disc Blu-ray set features the aforementioned debut feature The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy, as well as 1976 student film Transmagnifican Dambamuality from cinematographer Ronald K. Gray. There are extensive new interviews with Scott, Gray and Collins’ daughter Nina Lorez Collins, as well as a commentary track from Professors LaMonda Horton-Stallings and Terri Francis. We also hear from Kathleen Collins herself in an archival interview from 1982. A trailer for the 2015 re-release rounds out the extras.

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

Milestone Films / 1982 / Color / 1.33:1 / 86 min / $39.95

agnes vardaJane B. Par Agnès V. and Kung-Fu Master!: 2 Films by Agnès Varda
Cinelicious Pics

A double-feature of new restorations of rarely-seen work from one of the greatest living filmmakers is a damn good way to introduce yourself. This Agnès Varda twofer is one the first home video releases from L.A. distributor Cinelicious Pics, and it’s an auspicious early move for a company that also put one of my favorite 2015 theatrical releases, John Magary’s The Mend.

Varda’s intertwined works both star Jane Birkin, and they crisscross in what must be one of the most fascinating cinematic universes ever created. As Varda puts it, Jane B. Par Agnès V. (1988) is like a fictional portrait of a real person, while Kung-Fu Master! (1988, released briefly in the U.S. as Le petit amour) is a real portrait of a fictional person. Jane B. upends the biopic form, casting Birkin and Varda as themselves in a feminist essay film that gleefully traipses from genre to genre, from overstuffed costume drama to silent comedy and back again, a portrait of an actress unable to be contained by the real world.

A snippet of an idea — a woman who falls in love with her daughter’s classmate — is glimpsed in Jane B. and fleshed out in Kung-Fu Master!, a film that approaches its taboo subject matter matter-of-factly to deliver an honest, deeply felt study of loneliness.

In this film, Birkin plays Mary-Jane, a divorced 40-year-old who feels herself inexorably drawn to the 15-year-old Julien (Mathieu Demy, Varda’s son with Jacques Demy), who’s a bit of an annoyance to her own teenage daughter, Lucy. Lucy is played by Birkin’s daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg in one of her first film roles, while younger daughter Lou is played by Lou Doillon — who is, you guessed it, also Birkin’s daughter. Later in the film, her mother Judy Campbell, father David Birkin and brother Andrew Birkin also appear.

While Mary-Jane finds herself growing more and more attached to Julien, he never displays any precocities that might lend to the typical whimsy of a May-December romance film. His one true love is the titular arcade game, which Mary-Jane uses as a point of bonding. Though it never moralizes, there’s an unavoidable melancholy that blankets the film, as if Mary-Jane recognizes her self-destructive tendencies but can’t help tumbling headlong toward them anyway.

Each film is granted its own disc and given a 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer, sourced from new 2K restorations of the 35mm original camera negative. These are lovely transfers, looking remarkably like film and capturing Varda’s slightly gauzy photography very well. Detail is exceptional, colors are a touch muted but quite rich and consistent, and damage is basically nonexistent. The uncompressed mono tracks are both crystal clear.

Each film is accompanied by a new interview with Varda, who offers her wry, reflective observations. A booklet features an extensive essay from scholar Sandy Flitterman-Lewis and another interview with Varda, conducted here by filmmaker Miranda July.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Cinelicious Pics’ 2 Films by Agnès Varda Blu-ray rates:
The Films (out of ****): ***1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: **
Extra Features Overall: **

Cinelicious Pics / 1988 / Color and Black and white / 1.66:1 / 177 min / $39.99

l'inhumaineL’Inhumaine
Flicker Alley 

A smorgasbord of avant-garde design, Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Inhumaine (1924) is a film that’s determined to pack as many art deco and cubist flourishes as possible into every scene. The crew was a who’s-who of modernist artists, from Paul Poiret’s costumes to Robert Mallet-Stevens’ set design to Fernand Léger’s intertitles.

One might expect an aesthetically fussy or incoherent end product from what is essentially an avant-garde super-group, but the film feels remarkably cohesive, luxuriating in its stunning designs but also pushed forward by L’Herbier’s confident camera work (those whip-pans!) and its propulsive editing (certain moments seem to anticipate Eisensteinian montage).

Opera singer Georgette Leblanc co-financed the film and also stars as Claire Lescot, the titular “inhuman woman” whose performances and beauty cause rapturous receptions that she remains coolly aloof to. Two of her paramours include a wealthy maharajah (Philippe Hériat) and a young scientist, Einar Norsen (Jaque Catelain), who kills himself when she rebuffs his affections and announces her intentions to travel the world.

The apparent suicide momentarily turns Claire’s audiences against her, in a legendary scene inside the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées that included Pablo Picasso, Erik Satie and James Joyce (unseen) among the throng of extras. But when Claire discovers the truth about Einar, it ignites a romantic melodrama that threatens to turn deadly.

While its first half stuns with its depictions of communal interior spaces, the second embraces a winking futurism, burgeoning technology possessing the power not only to allow communication across far-flung spaces, but also to harness life itself. Many of the sequences inside Einar’s workshop play like a proto-Metropolis, and L’Inhumaine also foresees the ultimate corniness of Lang’s “head and heart” mantra with its own conclusion.

Corny or not, L’Inhumaine is a visually stunning piece of work, and it’s given a transfer that allows its beauty to shine on Flicker Alley’s Blu-ray, sourced from the recent 4K restoration by Lobster Films. The images have great depth and detail, with surprising sharpness and clarity in a number of close-ups, aside from Leblanc’s, which are almost exclusively in soft-focus. Color tints, including blue, green, red and sepia tones, are rich and vibrant, while damage has been greatly minimized, most of the scratches and specks easily ignorable.

Two newly recorded scores are offered, both presented as crystal-clear 2.0 LPCM tracks. Aidje Tafial’s percussive, sometimes aggressively atonal score works in counterpoint to the imagery occasionally, its own avant-garde flourishes making it an excellent accompaniment to the film. The Alloy Orchestra’s offering is more of a typical silent-film score, though it’s peppered with a few modern embellishments of its own.

Extras are ported over from the Lobster Films French Blu-ray, and include featurettes on the making of the film and Tafial’s score. A booklet also includes notes on the film and L’Herbier’s career.

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

Flicker Alley / 1924 / Black and white/Color tints / 1.33:1 / 122 min / $39.95

forbidden roomThe Forbidden Room
Kino Lorber

Probably my favorite film of 2015, The Forbidden Room will inevitably only serve to further divide Guy Maddin partisans on both sides of the aisle. Most Maddin films are love-it-or-hate-it affairs, and The Forbidden Room sees the Canadian filmmaker going off the deep end in his love for archaic film technique and weird cinematic miscellanea.

If I have one complaint about the film, it’s that it’s so densely packed with bizarre visual and narrative ideas, there’s an embarrassment of riches situation going on. I’m tempted to watch in 20 minute chunks in future rewatches just to stave off the exhaustion that comes with a film so relentlessly restless and inventive.

Like a cobbled-together collection of lost reels from instructional films, submarine thrillers, jungle epics, strange sex comedies and creepy body horror, the film is a series of constantly shifting images and scenarios, with a permeable membrane between each segment that allows characters to glide from one universe to the next, the proceedings governed by a demented sense of cinematic logic.

The closest comparison I can think of is Bill Morrison’s Decasia (2002), which melded actual archival footage to deeply disquieting ends, the deterioration inherent in the images an analogue to our own inevitable destruction. The Forbidden Room strikes the opposite tone — it’s positively ecstatic in its collection of images of an invented past. The decay is an invention too, and the omnipresent effects work is so crucial to the film’s success, post-production supervisor and co-writer Evan Johnson gets a co-director credit.

While the film’s standout moment is probably a song by art-rock duo Sparks, in which Udo Kier finds his obsession with asses to be his downfall, there are at least half a dozen other moments as funny as “The Final Derriere.” Cataloguing all of them — and all of the cinematic reference points and all of the mind-blowing faux-analog creations — would be as happily tiring as watching the film itself.

Critiquing Kino’s 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer would be a fool’s errand, thanks to the litany of intentional image fluctuations, but suffice to say, the disc presents a bold, colorful transfer that serves the two-strip-Technicolor-style well. An immersive, fairly dynamic 5.1 DTS-HD track is offered alongside a 2.0 track.

Extras include several additional looks at the techniques used in the film. “Endless Ectoloops” is a parade of shifting, distorted images, while “Living Posters” uses that technique to create a number of unique moving one-sheets. Short film Once a Chicken is presented as a “séance” with Hungarian painter and photographer László Moholy-Nagy. Maddin and Johnson contribute a commentary track, and the disc also includes a theatrical trailer. A substantial booklet features essays by Maddin and critic Hillary Weston.

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

Kino Lorber / 2015 / Color / 1.78:1 / 119 min / $34.95

ParisParis Belongs to Us
The Criterion Collection 

It’s officially the year of Jacques Rivette on home video. Arrow Video’s monumental Region B release is the crown jewel, collecting five of his films, including cinephile grail Out 1 (1971) in both its original 13-hour and shortened versions (Carlotta Films released Out 1 in the US), but don’t forget about Criterion’s first foray into the French New Wave master’s oeuvre.

Rivette’s feature-length debut, Paris Belongs to Us (Paris nous appartient, 1961) would have been one of the first nouvelle vague films released if it hadn’t gotten hung up in post-production. On its surface, Paris Belongs to Us is less stylistically radical than many of the films that were being made by Rivette’s peers, and compared to his subsequent films, it’s unmistakably an incubatory work. Though it’s less structurally diffuse than later films, the fascination with modes of theatrical performance and lingering paranoia are fundamental here. Rivette was the master of cultivating genuine mystery, a skill already established in his first film, even if its schematic plotting occasionally breaks the spell.

Betty Schneider stars as Anne, a Parisian literature student introduced to a group of intellectuals via her brother, Pierre (François Maistre). They’re mourning the loss of one of their friends, a Spanish composer who apparently committed suicide. Not everyone is convinced though, including brash, blacklisted American journalist Philip Kaufman (Daniel Crohem), who warns of mysterious forces that he’s never able to explicate. The film never bothers to explicate them either, and it feels like Rivette is torn between developing a thick fog of nonspecific dread and a propulsive, plotty genre thriller.

The film’s other main thread involves a low-budget production of Shakespeare’s rarely staged Pericles, directed with great ambition and little organization by Gerard (Giani Esposito). With actors constantly dropping out or not showing up to rehearsal, Anne lands a part, but she also begins to worry that Gerard himself may be the next target of the mounting conspiracy.

Though its treatment of both plot threads isn’t totally satisfying, Paris Belongs to Us is still a rewarding experience, particularly in its subtle formal playfulness. The way Rivette shoots and edits interior spaces, especially Anne’s apartment building, is a potent early example of his ability to keep viewers on their toes.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer is sourced from a new 2K restoration, and looks superb, with a clean, film-like image that displays great depth and detail all the way through. Only a few stray flecks and hairs mar the image. The uncompressed mono audio, recorded post-sync, is a bit hollow, but has no major issues.

There aren’t a ton of extras here, but they’re all worthwhile. Rivette’s 1956 short Le coup du berger is a comic tale with cameos from Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, while an interview with French New Wave scholar Richard Neupert offers an excellent primer on Rivette’s career and Paris. An insert with an essay by Luc Sante is also included.

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

Criterion Collection / 1961 / Black and white / 1.37:1 / 141 min / $39.95

AHPAmerican Horror Project Volume 1
Arrow Video

Even before their expansion into the US market, but especially since, Arrow Video has earned a reputation as one of the most conscientious, thorough labels to handle both bona fide classics — genre as well as arthouse — and titles probably no one else would lavish such deluxe treatment on.

Featuring three admirable 2K restorations, American Horror Project Vol. 1 certainly belongs in the latter category. Presented as an alternative history of 1970s American horror films, the set collects three films that even ardent horror fans may not have seen — and maybe for good reason. None of them is a certifiable lost classic, and the set doesn’t exactly convince that they represent some kind of alternate canon. Nevertheless, each film is sure to find its passionate defenders, and the supplementary material makes a case for each one as an entertaining — and possibly vital — work of independent filmmaking.

First up is Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (1973), a borderline-incompetent acid trip that accumulates a kind of hypnotizing effect by virtue of its bizarre camera work and winningly low-rent props and locations. The Norris family takes jobs at a dilapidated rural Pennsylvania carnival, hoping to find the son who disappeared there. After a quick tour of the premises from Jerome Dempsey’s Mr. Blood (the name seems like a giveaway), things quickly descend into a queasy mélange of bloodletting, cannibalism and a sinister Hervé Villechaize as daughter Vena (Janine Carazo in her only film role) tries to survive.

Malatesta sports a strong 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer that’s littered with scratches, tram lines and speckling, but is nonetheless quite sharp and detailed. The film-like presentation is accompanied by a lossless mono track that’s limited by the production quality, but sounds OK despite its flatness. Extras include an introduction by historian Stephen Thrower (who gives a passionate, erudite intro to all three films), audio commentary from Richard Harland Smith, a few outtakes and interviews with writer Werner Liepolt, production designers Richard Spange and Alan Johnson and director Christopher Speeth, who speaks with clear-eyed affection for the film, his only feature directorial effort.

After Malatesta, the other two films can feel a bit more rote, each displaying at least a bit of the sheen of studio respectability. In The Witch Who Came From the Sea (1976), director Matt Cimber makes some interesting formal choices as the barrier between fantasy and reality gets blurred to dangerous effect for Molly (Millie Perkins), and Perkins’ performance grounds the whole thing with a haunting portrait of gut-deep personal horror, even if it never really comes together as a cogent psychological portrait. Notorious for its inclusion on the UK’s video nasty list, Witch uses its sexual and violent content for purposes more disquieting than titillating.

Witch is presented in a 2.35:1, 1080p transfer that displays a persistent softness/haziness, though it shows some impressive moments of fine detail. Damage is mostly minor, and the uncompressed mono audio is fairly clean. Extras include an audio commentary with Cimber, Perkins and the great cinematographer Dean Cundey, as well as new and archival interviews with the three.

In The Premonition (1976), nods to horror are mostly limited to carnival scenes featuring clown Jude (Richard Lynch) and his companion Andrea (Ellen Barber), who are obsessed with a little girl, Janie (Danielle Brisebois). Eventually, it’s revealed that the girl is Andrea’s daughter, and the two plot to kidnap her from her foster mother (Sharon Farrell). Janie’s psychic abilities lend some supernatural flavor to the chase thriller that emerges, but much of this feels pedestrian.

The 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer for The Premonition is the strongest of the three, displaying a sharp, clean image with rich, consistent colors and well-resolved, film-like grain. The extras here are also the most extensive, including three short films from director Robert Allen Schnitzer (Vernal Equinox, Terminal Point and A Rumbling in the Land) alongside a commentary track from Schnitzer and a number of cast and crew interviews.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Arrow Video’s American Horror Project Vol. 1 Blu-ray rates:
The Films (out of ****): **1/2
Film Elements Sourced: **1/2
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: **1/2
New Extra Features: ***1/2
Extra Features Overall: ***1/2

Arrow Video / 1973, 1976 / Color / 1.85:1, 2.35:1 / 251 min / $99.95

 

 

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.