Tag Archives: cinema guild

Diamonds

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

HeavenFar From Heaven (2002)
Kino Lorber Studio Classics 

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

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

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

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

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

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

SleepTo Sleep with Anger (1990)
The Criterion Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day AfterThe Day After (2018)
Cinema Guild

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

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

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

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

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

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

2424 Frames (2017)
The Criterion Collection 

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

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

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

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

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

Claire1

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

InventionInvention for Destruction (Vynález zkázy, 1958)
Second Run 

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

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

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

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

PaniquePanique (1946)
Criterion Collection

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

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

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

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

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

ClaireClaire’s Camera (2017)
Cinema Guild

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

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

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

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

GosfordGosford Park (2001)
Arrow Academy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jauja Featured

Blu-ray Review Round-Up: Films by Maya Deren, Eugène Green, Krzysztof Kieślowski & more!

Avant-garde cinemaMasterworks of American Avant-garde Experimental Film 1920-1970
Flicker Alley

It hardly feels presumptuous to label Flicker Alley’s new experimental film box set a strong contender for release of the year, even taking into account a few forthcoming heavy hitters, like Arrow’s Rivette box and Criterion’s long-awaited Apu Trilogy. For obvious reasons, experimental cinema is a tough sell in an increasingly niche-focused market, so it’s always a delightful surprise to see resources lavished so lovingly on a high-def collection of boldly non-commercial work.

Curated by Bruce Posner, the two-Blu-ray, two-DVD combo pack collects 33 avant-garde shorts from 1920-1970, along with a couple bonus films. Organized chronologically, the films offer an exceptional overview of the diversity of experimental filmmaking across five decades. Among the broad styles represented here:

Takes on the city symphony:
Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand’s Manhatta (1920-21) channels a Walt Whitman poem and presents an achingly romantic picture of New York City, while Robert Florey’s Skyscraper Symphony (1929) zeroes in on its sheer immensity with imposing, abstracted low-angle shots and Francis Thompson’s N.Y., N.Y. (1949-57) obliterates and re-forms the city with a variety of mirror effects that distill the city’s fractured energy. Intimate and humane, street-level observations like Jay Leyda’s A Bronx Morning (1931) and Helen Levitt, Janice Loeb and James Agee’s In the Street (1945-46) transform quotidian minutiae into something approaching transcendence.

Amazing animations:
Oskar Fischinger’s An Optical Poem (1937) represents the rare major studio foray into experimental film, an MGM release that features mind-blowing manipulation of paper cutouts to visualize Lizst’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. Mary Ellen Bute and Ted Nemeth’s Tarantella (1940) and Abstronic (1952) dig into the elemental nature of music, animations spawning and convulsing to syncopated rhythms. Lawrence Jordan’s Our Lady of the Sphere (1969) mashes together Victorian primness and space-age futurism in a frenetic dreamlike collage that’s always perilously close to tipping over into the realm of nightmare.

Genre deconstructions:
Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid’s galvanic, revered Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) is probably the set’s highest-profile film, and its advancement on French surrealist techniques remains bracing in a way few films are. It’s quite possible that it’s the best horror film ever made. The version included here features three additional shots, as it was originally presented. Florey and Slavko Vorkapich’s The Life and Death of 9413—A Hollywood Extra (1927) draws on German expressionism and anticipates David Lynch in its striking depiction of the dehumanizing effects of show business.

Portraits of the human body:
The human form is abstracted and dissected in Deren’s Meditation on Violence (1948) and Hilary Harris’s 9 Variations on a Dance Theme (1966-67), ritual and repetition examined in a Chinese boxer in the former and a ballet dancer in the latter. In Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy’s Ballet Mechanique (1923-24), cubist renderings work alongside repetitive mechanical imagery to transform man into machine.

The set includes works from a number of other notable experimental filmmakers, including Ralph Steiner’s deceptively playful Mechanical Principles (1930), Kenneth Anger’s beguiling Eaux d’artifice (1953), Bruce Baille’s hallucinatory collage film Castro Street (The Coming of Consciousness) (1966) and excerpts from Jonas Mekas’s diary film Walden (1969), coming to Blu-ray in its entirety later this year in an exciting release from Kino.

Outside of the five-decade window the set focuses on are bonus films Sappho and Jerry, Parts 1-3 (Posner, 1977-78), Ch’an (Francis Lee, 1983) and Seasons… (A Phil Solomon re-edit of works from Stan Brakhage, 2002).

The 1080p presentations vary in quality, thanks to conditions of the 16mm and 35mm elements, but Flicker Alley has taken an admirably conscientious approach by not overcorrecting damage or inconsistencies, many of which are part of the fabric of the films themselves. The sterling transfers of Manhatta and Ballet Mechanique are both sourced from 2K restorations, while Skyscraper Symphony, N.Y., N.Y. and Castro Street have also received digital restorations. Audio sources vary, with some films intentionally silent, some in uncompressed mono and a couple different scores for Manhatta in DTS-HD. Watching in high-def makes for the closest approximation to viewing a film print of these works, and for that, this Blu-ray release is essential.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Flicker Alley’s Masterworks of American Avant-garde Experimental Film Blu-ray rates:
The Films (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ***
Video Transfer: ***
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: ***
Extra Features Overall: ***

Flicker Alley / 1920-1970 / Black and white & color / Various aspect ratios / 418 min / $59.95


La SapienzaLa Sapienza 
(2014)
Kino Lorber

It might take a little bit for one to get used to the very precise formalism of La Sapienza, the latest feature from U.S.-born French filmmaker Eugène Green. Green’s frames are often painstakingly symmetrical, placing the subject in the exact center, and his shot-reverse shot sequences are bracing, if discomfiting, sometimes facing each person head-on, the camera encroaching with each cut. Add to that a distinctly Bressonian style of performance from every actor — although with considerably more arch humor — and you have a film that seems obsessed with the rational, the logical, the measured.

Fabrizio Rongione stars as Alexandre, a decorated architect who’s become disillusioned with his work and the destructive demands of progress. His relationship to wife Aliénor (Christelle Prot Landman), a social scientist who studies low-income populations, is in similar disarray.

A retreat to Switzerland and Italy gives the couple a chance to find rejuvenation, while Alexandre seeks to rekindle his passion by returning to a study of Baroque architect Francesco Borromini. In a small Italian town, they meet siblings Goffredo (Ludovico Succio) and Lavinia (Arianna Nastro). He’s an aspiring architect; she’s a young woman afflicted with a seemingly anachronistic wasting disease.

The group pairs off, with Goffredo joining Alexandre on his trip to Rome in hopes of learning more about architecture, while Aliénor stays behind to look after the ailing Lavinia. Apart, Alexandre and Aliénor’s affections are brought back to life, both by the enthusiasm of their younger companions and the illuminating discussions about architecture, theater, history and love that proceed.

Looking purely at the formal aspects, one might be convinced Green is a cynic or a satirist, but La Sapienza is a work of deep optimism and enthusiasm for the ways art can transform lives. Alongside the “rationality” of the film’s construction is a story that revels in the mystical and the spiritual. Alexandre admits that despite his atheism, he is deeply moved by the Shroud of Turin, while Goffredo speaks of “the presence” that is evoked by a great work of architecture.

The camera itself gives in to these feelings when it pauses to take in the stunning Baroque buildings. There’s no loss of precision in Green’s compositions, but one can almost sense the swooning as the camera tilts up, heavenward.

Kino’s 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer is exceptional, with abundant levels of fine detail in every image, be it the contours of a human face or Borromini’s jaw-dropping church San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane. La Sapienza is much more than architecture porn, but anyone who wanted to enjoy it simply on that level would be well-served by this release. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is often very quiet, as the film is mostly un-scored, but it’s crisp and clean. Extras include Les Signes (2006), Green’s short staring Mathieu Amalric and Landman, along with a brief interview with Green, a trailer and an essay from critic Nick Pinkerton.

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

Kino Lorber / 2014 / Color / 1.78:1 / 104 min / $29.95

 

Mister JohnsonMister Johnson (1990)
The Criterion Collection

Released alongside Breaker Morant (1980) by Criterion, Mister Johnson is the decidedly less acclaimed work from Australian filmmaker Bruce Beresford. It’s not a forgotten masterpiece, but it’s a fairly worthy discovery or rediscovery with an impressive debut performance at its center.

Made the year after Beresford’s Best Picture-winner Driving Miss Daisy (1989), Mister Johnson retains a little of that film’s prestige-drama sheen, with certain scenes lapsing into bland coverage, accompanied by a maudlin score from the legendary Georges Delerue.

Still, there’s plenty to admire here, whether it’s Beresford’s affection for the beautiful Nigerian landscapes or the lead performance of Maynard Eziashi, starring in his first film as the titular Johnson, an African man so taken by the customs and culture of his British employers, he proudly proclaims himself to be a “civilized” British man, and he works dutifully to fulfill all the desires of his district officer boss (Pierce Brosnan).

As a comment on the effects of colonialism, Mister Johnson, based on the 1939 novel by Joyce Cary, is drawn in rather broad strokes. Johnson is essentially treated like a hyperactive child by both Brosnan and Edward Woodward’s more overtly racist general store proprietor, and there are times where it seems like he deserves it for his incredible naiveté.

But William Boyd’s script and Eziashi’s performance continually seek to complicate Johnson, treating him both as a product of his fractured environment and as a crafty, happy-go-lucky conniver. One even has to question Johnson’s supposed naiveté about his identity when he convinces Brosnan’s officer to cook the books in order to fund a road-building project or when he brazenly steals from various employers, citing it as an advance on his wages. Eziashi is simultaneously ingratiating, calculating and affable, and his performance makes up for a number of other shortcomings.

Mister Johnson is granted a 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer that significantly spruces up a title that’s been heavily neglected on home video. The film’s burnished, golden images look fantastic here, with strong levels of fine detail, even in numerous shadowy scenes, and there’s a thoroughly film-like appearance throughout. Sourced from a new 4K restoration of the original 35mm camera negative, the transfer is free of any noticeable damage. The 2.0 uncompressed stereo track is also quite nice, with clear dialogue and dynamic music and crowd noise.

A quartet of interviews makes up the only major supplements on the disc, but we get some informative and affectionate reminiscing from actors Eziashi and Brosnan, along with production history from Beresford and producer Michael Fitzgerald. A trailer and an essay by scholar Neil Sinyard are also included.

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

The Criterion Collection / 1990 / Color / 1.85:1 / 101 min / $39.95


JaujaJauja
 (2014)
Cinema Guild

Hallucinatory, gorgeous and maddening, Jauja is one of the great modern westerns and it suggests, perhaps, that if Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian ever makes it to the screen, Argentinian filmmaker Lisandro Alonso should be at the helm.

A certain amount of opaqueness is expected in any work of slow cinema, and Jauja does not disappoint on that front, sketching out a bizarrely out-of-time Patagonian outpost, where Danish military captain Gunnar Dinesen (Viggo Mortensen) has taken an engineering job with the Argentine army. “Engineering” is fairly euphemistic, as the army is in the process of wiping out indigenous peoples.

Accompanying Dinesen is his teenage daughter, Ingeborg (Viilbjørk Malling Agger), who captures plenty of attention as the only female presence in the area. Eventually, she runs off with a young soldier, forcing Dinesen to track her into the wild unknown, where a raving mad deserter disguised as a woman is only one of the dangers.

Like Meek’s Cutoff (2010), Jauja features a square, 1.33:1 aspect ratio, here with rounded corners as a result of a non-matted full frame. The effect is similarly constricting, heightening the sense of danger and unpredictability by leaving what is outside of the frame to the imagination. Many films are called “painterly,” but Alonso’s compositions are so carefully constructed inside an artificially imposed border (not to mention, outrageously beautiful), it’s hard to resist employing that adjective.

As Dinesen’s journey grows increasingly unsuccessful, it becomes increasingly dreamlike, culminating with an encounter with a mysterious woman in a cave (Ghita Nørby), whose philosophical queries may be the answer to Dinesen’s search or just a confirmation of its futility.

Jauja is presented in a 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer that’s simply breathtaking. Alonso’s 35mm photography is exquisite, the blueness of the sky and the greenness of the grass and the grayness of Mortensen’s uniform and the blackness of the cave all unreal in their mystical beauty. Cinema Guild’s transfer preserves the film-like qualities of his images, delivering a detailed and vibrant presentation. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is subtle, but effective in its use of surrounds.

Extras include 2011 short Untitled (Letter to Serra), a 2009 teaser Alonso made for the BAFICI Film Festival and a Q&A with Alonso and Mortensen from the New York Film Festival, hosted by the ever-perceptive Kent Jones. A trailer and an essay on Alsonso’s career from film critic Quintin are also included.

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

Cinema Guild / 2014 / Color / 1.33:1 / 108 min / $34.95


Blind ChanceBlind Chance
 (1981)
The Criterion Collection

Made in 1981, but suppressed by the Polish government until 1987, when it was released in a censored version, Blind Chance is presented here in uncut form (save for one lost scene) by Criterion. An early narrative work from Krzysztof Kieślowski, the film displays ingenious technical brilliance, but only hints at the metaphysical masterpieces that would come in The Double Life of Véronique (1991) and The Three Colors Trilogy (1993-1994).

The film plunges right in to the story of Witek (Bogusław Linda), careening through his childhood and adolescence with a kinetic, immediate series of scenes, the camera acting as almost another character, shoulder to shoulder with Witek as he experiences academic disappointment, a variety of romantic relationships and the death of his father.

Soon, the film arrives at its pivotal scene, one that will be shown three times, with minor variations. Witek rushes to catch a train, and whether he makes it or not will set into motion events that will change his entire life.

In the first scenario, he meets a Communist party member on the train, joins the party, and eventually reconnects with his first girlfriend, Czuszka (Bogusława Pawelec). There is some fulfillment in his work, but it prevents the same in his romantic life. In the second scenario, Witek finds himself joining the anti-Communist resistance, but attempts at romance are thwarted again. In the final scenario, he finds love with fellow medical student Olga (Monika Gozdzik) and a fulfilling, apolitical career as a doctor, but fate may have other plans.

If it all sounds rather schematic, it is. The sequential nature of the film feels a little rote, and Kieślowski doesn’t exactly bring the three segments together satisfyingly, as his finale feels more like a cheat than a forceful summation of the capriciousness of the universe. Nonetheless, the filmmaking is electric, and each of the segments is compelling as a standalone piece.

Criterion presents Blind Chance in a 1080p transfer that’s listed as 1.66:1, but looks closer to 1.75:1. Sourced from a 4K restoration, the presentation is superb, each image displaying exceptional detail and deep, consistent reproductions of the film’s drab, gloomy color palette, all dingy browns and cold blues. The uncompressed 2.0 stereo track presents a fairly dynamic score and clean dialogue.

A modest collection of bonus features accompanies the film, including a new interview with Polish film critic Tadeusz Sobolewski and a 2003 interview with filmmaker Agnieszka Holland. A featurette shows nine sections of the film that were censored, presenting them in color with the uncensored segments in black and white. The included insert features an essay by critic Dennis Lim and a Q&A with Kieślowski.

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

The Criterion Collection / 1981 / Color / 1.66:1 / 123 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.

Bandit Queen featured

Blu-ray Review Round-Up: Films by Tsai Ming-liang, Lucretia Martel, Mario Bava & more!

Stray Dogs (2014)
Cinema Guild

Stray DogsThere’s talk that Stray Dogs may be the final film from Tsai Ming-liang, one of the undisputed masters of the so-called “slow cinema” school, and it would certainly be a high note to go out on. Even by Tsai’s usual standards, Stray Dogs can test a viewer’s patience, particularly in the film’s final two shots, seemingly endless static displays of emotional and physical decay, minutely realized.

But while Tsai is stretching the limits of your endurance, he’s also stretching the imagination with his unbelievably precise compositions — ever-so-slowly revealing new bits of visual information — and his un-signaled detours into the surreal.

It’s easy enough to decipher the rudimentary bits of the narrative — a father (frequent Tsai collaborator Lee Kang-sheng) attempts to provide for his two children by working as a sign holder on a busy Taipei highway. They sleep in various abandoned places and are occasionally joined by one of several different women (or perhaps, the same woman, played by different actresses), and it’s not clear whether we’re jumping back and forth in time or simply seeing different perspectives. Is the woman the kids’ mother? Simply a compassionate acquaintance?

Emotional ties are not explicated, but what appears to be a distant film can turn shockingly emotional quickly, like when the father fashions a companion out of cabbage (a deeply uncomfortable, surprisingly funny and heart-wrenching scene all in one) or a rare close-up where he spontaneously breaks into song. Offering an entirely different audience experience are long takes where the man stands transfixed in front of a mural, connecting with the piece in a way that’s completely sealed off from our comprehension or empathy. That push-pull between alienating and affecting is just part of what makes Stray Dogs an indelible experience.

Cinema Guild’s 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer is an impeccable rendition of Tsai’s digital photography and the muted grays of crumbling structures and the bright primaries of consumer products under fluorescent light. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is subtly immersive, planting the viewer down near a packed highway, cars zooming past, or an echo-y abandoned corridor.

Among the extra features is a bonus film, Journey to the West (2014, 56 min), another entry in Tsai’s “Walker” series. Lee stars as a Buddhist monk making his way through Marseille in infinitesimal steps, with Tsai’s framing constantly subverting expectations of where he’ll show up next. This was like pure cinematic dopamine to me, with Tsai’s mind-blowing compositions and super-long takes used to a purely playful effect. The scene in which Denis Lavant shows up to follow up in Lee’s footsteps might be one of my new all-time favorites. The disc is worth the purchase for Journey to the West alone.

Other extras include footage of the Cinémathèque Française’s Tsai Ming-liang Master Class, a trailer and booklet with an essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Milestone’s The Connection Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ***1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ****
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ***1/2
New Extra Features: ****
Extra Features Overall: ****
Cinema Guild / 2014 / Color / 1.78:1 / 140 min / $34.95

 

La Ciénaga (2001)
The Criterion Collection

La CienagaFrom its first moments, the debut feature from Argentinian filmmaker Lucretia Martel envelops you in a feeling of sweaty dread. This is an extremely tactile film — shots seem to perspire, unease welling as her camera lingers, and the nerve-rattling nature of the off-screen sound design sets you on edge.

Martel’s most recent film, The Headless Woman (2008), established her as a major player in world cinema, and one can see that film’s formal precision and narrative withholding in its nascent form in La Ciénaga, a strong work in its own right.

Malaise has set in on the film’s subject — a bourgeois extended family sprawled out in front of a filthy backyard swimming pool as the film opens. When one of the characters badly injures herself on a broken wine glass, no one can even muster up an attempt to come to her aid. It’s a striking scene — both because of its unpleasant subject matter and Martel’s radical use of space, which uses close-ups and oblique angles to disorienting effect.

In many ways, the opening scene is a perfect microcosm of the entire film, as its thematic concerns about a family stuck in a self-harming cycle of decay and decadence hardly need to be developed further. That doesn’t make any of its subsequent running time less riveting though — you know the spiritual rot will manifest in irreversible physical consequences eventually, and the anxiety mounts across carefully crafted frame after frame.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer is based on a new 4K scan, and the level of depth and fine detail is phenomenal. The image is consistently sharp, clean and exceptionally film-like. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 surround track perfectly handles Martel’s vital sound design, delivering crisp audio from all channels.

Extras include new interviews with Martel and filmmaker Andres Di Tella, who discusses Martel’s place within New Argentine Cinema. A trailer and an insert with an essay by scholar David Oubiña are also included.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, The Criterion Collection’s La Ciénaga Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ***
Film Elements Sourced: ****
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ****
New Extra Features: **1/2
Extra Features Overall: **1/2
The Criterion Collection / 2001 / Color / 1.85:1 / 101 min / $39.95

 

The Connection (1963)
Milestone Films

The ConnectionIf only every stage-to-screen adaptation had the authorial conviction of Shirley Clarke’s The Connection, based on the play by Jack Gelber. Clarke’s film honors its source material, sometimes offering an unvarnished, empathetic look at a group of junkies and jazz musicians waiting around for their heroin dealer in a New York flop house. But Clarke goes a step further, explicitly acknowledging the inherent staginess of the material and offering a metatextual critique of the truth of documentary filmmaking.

A few years later, Clarke would more subtly make many of the same points about the deception of the camera and the uneasy relationship between documentarian and subject in Portrait of Jason (1967), but the sheer forcefulness of her thesis here is completely irresistible. Filmmaker Jim Dunn (William Redfield) — who’s financing the group’s heroin buy so he can film the “reality” — frequently steps in front of the camera, fussily adjusting lights and clumsily directing the men, who range from bemused to wholly disinterested.

Clarke, via Dunn and barely seen cameraman J.J. Burden (Roscoe Brown) — the diegetic film’s secret mastermind — often favors close-up one-shots, almost confrontational, as the various men tell their stories directly into the camera. It looks and feels like cinematic revelation, until it begins to sink in how each man has been transformed into a performer of some sort. Any sense of gritty reality is punctured by the arrival of Cowboy (Carl Lee), the group’s connection to the connection, who confronts Dunn’s camera right back, blasting him for thinking he’s uncovering the truth by “flirting” with them.

Clarke’s films have been given superb treatment on home video by Milestone, and they make no exception for her debut film, granted a 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer here that’s been sourced from the UCLA and Milestone restoration. The film-like transfer features excellent levels of fine detail and a very clean image, while the uncompressed 2.0 mono track offers a great showcase for jazz pianist Freddie Redd’s hard-bop score. Extras include behind-the-scenes footage and photos, a brief interview with art director Albert Brenner, a conversation with Redd, additional songs, home movies and a trailer.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Milestone’s The Connection 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
Milestone Films / 1963 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 110 min / $39.95

 

A Day in the Country (Partie de campagne, 1936)
The Criterion Collection

A Day in the CountryOne might look at the backstory for Jean Renoir’s A Day in the Country, and wonder what might have been. Before production could finish in 1936, Renoir had to leave to work on The Lower Depths (1936), and he never returned, the film completed by collaborators and released a decade later, after Renoir had already been working in Hollywood for a number of years. At 41 minutes, this just must be a fragment, a curiosity, right?

In reality, the film was always planned as a short feature and in its existing form, it’s already a masterpiece — a perfectly constructed bauble of idyllic romance and crushing disappointment, the totality of life’s emotions wrapped up together in a compact package.

A Parisian family escapes the hectic city life for a day by the water in the countryside, and two local fishermen, Henri and Rodolphe (Georges Saint-Saens and Jacques Borel) instantly set their sights on daughter Henriette. Rodolphe settles for a playful pursuit of Henriette’s mother (Jane Marken), while Henri’s casual attraction to Henriette blossoms quickly.

Renoir is capable of communicating a world of emotion with just a few brief shots, so the short running time here doesn’t cause the film to feel rushed. Time is both everlasting and fleeting in this tranquil setting, a paradise away from the world’s concerns where love can develop into something overwhelming, but where there is little hope of permanence. Initially, the film was designed with some cutaways to Paris, but sticking in the same location for its entirety gives A Day in the Country a mythical quality.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer is sourced from a new 2K digital restoration, and the resulting image quality is very nice, especially in close-ups, which reveal healthy levels of fine detail. Grayscale separation is strong, and damage is almost completely nonexistent. The lossless mono soundtrack handles the film’s dialogue and music just fine.

Those worried about spending full Criterion price on such a short film should be heartened by the slate of bonus features, which include Un tournage à la champagne, an 89-minute collection of outtakes, assembled in 1994 from more than four hours’ worth of material. Renoir scholar Christopher Faulkner discusses the film’s unusual production history in a new interview, and Faulkner also examines Renoir’s style in a new video essay. Archival material includes a Renoir intro from 1962, a 1979 interview with producer Pierre Braunberger and several screen tests. An insert with an essay by scholar Gilberto Perez is also included.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, The Criterion Collection’s A Day in the Country Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: ***
Extra Features Overall: ****
The Criterion Collection / 1936 / Black and white / 1.37:1 / 41 min / $39.95

 

Black Sunday (1960, AIP version)
Kino

Black SundayMario Bava’s breakthrough film, Black Sunday, showcases the director’s keen sense of atmosphere and elegant camera work in this pretty hokey tale about a 17th Century Russian witch (Barbara Steele) who’s burned at the stake and returns to wreak havoc two centuries later. Kino already released the film’s original Italian cut on Blu-ray a few years ago, but now returns with a Blu-ray release of the American cut, shortened a bit and presented with a new score courtesy of American International Pictures.

By most accounts, the original cut is the way to go, but Bava fans in the U.S. will be happy to have both versions available in high-def. One might wonder why Kino didn’t simply package both cuts together from the start, but it seems some tricky rights hurdles had to be cleared, as evidenced by the announcement and subsequent cancellation of a Black Sunday/Black Sabbath (1963) AIP double-feature. (Kino will now release the AIP Black Sabbath on a standalone Blu-ray in July.)

The 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer is a bit softer than Kino’s original cut disc, but it’s a nicely detailed presentation, if a bit rough around the edges with various print damage. As usual, Kino has refrained from any excessive digital manipulation, so the image retains a film-like look, though a less-than-sharp image is the norm. The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio mono track is very clean.

Unfortunately, no extras here aside from a theatrical trailer. This release gets the job done for region-A-locked Bava fans who don’t mind buying two discs, but Arrow Video’s dual-format Region B release is vastly superior, offering both cuts in one package and a ton of extras.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Kino Lorber’s Black Sunday Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): **1/2
Film Elements Sourced: **1/2
Video Transfer: **1/2
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: 1/2
Extra Features Overall: 1/2
Kino Lorber / 1960 / Black and white / 1.66:1 / 83 min / $19.95

 

Bandit Queen (1994)
Twilight Time

Bandit QueenShekhar Kapur straddles biopic convention and something resembling an exploitation film in his telling of the life of Phoolan Devi, a low caste Indian woman who endured endless sexual and physical abuse before becoming a vigilante gang leader. There are flashes of an angry, forceful vision here — the film opens with a defiant Devi (Seema Biswas) looking directly into the camera and declaring, “I am Phoolan Devi, you sisterfuckers!” and her climactic revenge against a group of upper-caste Thakurs is brutally balletic.

These moments are rare though; Kapur’s sedate camerawork lingers over the beautiful Northern Indian landscapes with the same apparent disinterest he has in the ugliness of Devi’s humiliations. From her marriage as an 11-year-old to an adult man who rapes her to a gang-rape by bandits to similar treatment from local police, Devi is subjected to one unimaginable horror after another.

Kapur seems to wallow in these moments — they essentially make up the first three-quarters of the film — but there’s a sense that he’s just ticking off biographical boxes, proceeding chronologically through the atrocities until he can get to the point where she has some agency. Despite its bold beginning, this is a film that’s hardly empowering.

It’s pretty apparent that Twilight Time’s 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer is sourced from an older master. Despite a generally pleasing image, colors are a bit faded and fine detail disappears into soft mush at points. Low-light scenes are afflicted with overwhelming grain that renders as video noise, and blacks are crushed pretty badly. It’s an improvement over what DVD can offer, and I wouldn’t count on a new scan for a film like this anytime soon. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 soundtrack presents the film’s Hindi dialogue cleanly, but some will be disappointed by the forced English subtitles (not burned-in per se, but not removable nonetheless).

Extras include a commentary track from Kapur, carried over from an older release, and an isolated score track. A booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo is also included.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Twilight Time’s Bandit Queen Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): **
Film Elements Sourced: **1/2
Video Transfer: **1/2
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: 1/2
Extra Features Overall: *1/2
Twilight Time / 1994 / Color / 1.78:1 / 119 min / $24.95

 

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.

 

 

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.

Love Streams

Blu-ray Review Round-Up: “Manakamana,” “Love Streams” and more!

Manakamana

The latest from the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, responsible for formally adventurous documentaries like Leviathan (2013) and Sweetgrass (2009), Manakamana (2014) is another mind-expanding, wholly engrossing trip to another world.

ManakmanaDirected by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, Manakamana is in some ways the formal opposite of Leviathan, which saw camera placement taken to (sometimes uncomfortable) extremes, turning observation into abstraction. Here, the camera is locked down for 11 shots of almost identical length, as a cable car ascends and descends in Central Nepal. These static shots put us in the position of companion to the men, women, children and others riding on journeys to and from a sacred Hindu temple.

The initial effect is one of repetition, and one might be tempted to assume this is the film’s main formal conceit – sort of a Jeanne Dielman in a gondola scenario – but while the film’s measured pace does contribute to a hypnotic effect, the filmmakers have structured the film in a continuously surprising way.

A figure just out of frame will suddenly make an appearance, causing one to reassess their entire conception of the riders. Some rides play out like mini-thrillers, the suspense mounting as one tries to determine the nature of the riders’ relationship. Others are purely delightful, like a pair of women racing to finish their ice cream bars before the heat dissolves them or three band members taking endless snapshots. Each one is revealing in its own way, about the people or the culture or the history. Time races by. 10 minutes doesn’t seem long enough to spend with some of these people.

And about that formal construction – the film essentially plays out as one long take, the cuts masked by darkness at the end of each trip as the gondola enters the station. Pretty basic stuff, right? Except, these trips don’t necessarily occur in the order one might expect, a playful little dashing of expectations that isn’t even necessarily apparent at first glance.

Cinema Guild has offered up another must-own package, with a 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer that beautifully reproduces the Nepalese landscape and the expressive faces of the riders appreciating it. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is appropriately subdued, but punctuated by very loud machinery noise as the cable thunders over certain parts of the track. Extras include a commentary from the directors, 30 minutes of additional rides and behind-the-scenes footage, a trailer and a booklet with an essay by Dennis Lim and a director Q&A.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Cinema Guild’s Manakamana Blu-ray rates:

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

Film Elements Sourced: ****

Video Transfer: ****

Audio: ***

New Extra Features: ***

Extra Features Overall: ***

Cinema Guild / 2014 / Color / 1.78:1 / 118 min / $34.95

 

Love Streams

Consider this an essential addendum to Criterion’s already indispensable John Cassavetes box set. Love Streams (1984) was basically Cassavetes’ last film he directed, and it’s also his final screen performance, and though his contributions behind-the-camera are more renowned, he was also an intensely fascinating performer, especially given the chance to work alongside his wife, i.e. perhaps the greatest actress of her generation.

Love StreamsGena Rowlands and Cassavetes play siblings whose separately self-destructive paths lead them back to each other, and even though they spend the majority of time on screen apart, there’s a tangible connectivity between their patterns of broken relationships and self-deception, fumbling toward love without really understanding what it takes.

Cassavetes always excelled at taking clear-eyed perspectives at his damaged characters, but his camera cuts to the quick in Love Streams, making for a difficult, draining watch. In many of his earlier works, like A Woman Under the Influence (1974) or Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), Cassavetes balanced his characters’ dysfunction with optimism for the future – perhaps these people would find a way to be happy. In Love Streams, the future is here, and it’s not very pretty.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer, based on a 2K restoration, is as gorgeous as any in the earlier box set. Images are clear, full of stable, well-resolved grain and consistent colors. The film-like transfer is accompanied by an exceptionally clean uncompressed mono track. The bountiful slate of extras includes new interviews with cinematographer Al Ruban and actress Diahnne Abbott and a 2008 interview with Seymour Cassel, along with a video essay on Rowlands, Michael Ventura’s behind-the-scenes doc, a commentary track from Ventura, a trailer and a booklet with an essay by Dennis Lim, yet again.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Criterion’s Love Streams Blu-ray rates:

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

Film Elements Sourced: ****

Video Transfer: ****

Audio: ****

New Extra Features: ***1/2

Extra Features Overall: ***1/2

The Criterion Collection / 1984 / Color / 1.85:1 / 141 min / $39.95

 

We Won’t Grow Old Together

A good companion to much of Cassavetes’ work is another excruciatingly unvarnished look at relationships from Maurice Pialat, We Won’t Grow Old Together (1972, Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble). Jean (Jean Yanne) is a misogynistic, needlessly cruel bully to the younger woman, Catherine (Marlène Jobert), he supposedly loves.

We Won't Grow Old TogetherThe cycle of breakups and reconciliations is emotionally exhausting, but Pialat’s formal construction is absolutely stunning as he elides almost anything that might help the viewer conventionally understand why these two are continuously drawn to each other. Highly charged reunions and disintegrations make up the bulk of their relationship, eventually leading the viewer to a kind of perverse understanding.

Kino brings Pialat’s masterwork to Region A-locked viewers with its solid Blu-ray release, featuring a 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer and a 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. There’s a slightly blue-ish, cooler hue to most of the images throughout the film, but it’s a clear transfer with appreciable levels of fine detail and nicely rendered film grain. Extras include a short appreciation from filmmaker Alex Ross Perry, an interview with Jobert, a trailer and an insert with an essay by Nick Pinkerton.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Kino’s We Won’t Grow Old Together Blu-ray rates:

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

Film Elements Sourced: ***

Video Transfer: ***

Audio: ***

New Extra Features: **

Extra Features Overall: **

Kino Lorber / 1972 / Color / 1.66:1 / 115 min / $34.95

 

Pickpocket

If Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959) isn’t the platonic ideal of thrillers, I’m not sure what is. Bresson’s economical caper film, like his previous film, A Man Escaped (1956), can be enjoyed as a white-knuckled suspense picture without engaging with its underlying spiritual or humanistic concerns.

pickpocketRiffing on Crime and Punishment, Pickpocket follows the increasingly dangerous exploits of a young thief (Martin LaSalle) who steals because he can, toying with a police officer and mostly neglecting his ill mother. Bresson will never shake the label of asceticism, and rightfully so in some contexts, but to re-watch Pickpocket with fresh eyes is to see a film of intense feeling, sublimated thrills building to a deeply felt conclusion.

Criterion’s 1080p Blu-ray upgrade is a thing of beauty, full of silvery, film-like images and greatly improved levels of clarity and detail above the respectable old DVD release. The copious extras, including an audio commentary from the brilliant James Quandt, an introduction from the heavily influenced Paul Schrader and several documentary programs, are all carried over from the DVD.

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

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

Film Elements Sourced: ****

Video Transfer: ****

Audio: ***

New Extra Features: N/A

Extra Features Overall: ****

The Criterion Collection / 1959 / Black and white / 1.37:1 / 76 min / $39.95

 

Southern Comfort

Walter Hill makes it clear in Shout! Factory’s new interview on their release of Southern Comfort (1981) that he doesn’t see the film as any kind of statement on the Vietnam War. His dismissal of movie as metaphor isn’t shared by stars Keith Carradine and Powers Boothe, but either way, Hill made a hell of a terse, escalating action film in which a group of National Guardsmen piss off some Cajuns in the Louisiana swaps, turning routine field exercises into all-out guerilla war.

Southern-Comfort-Blu-rayHill’s film is, at turns, beautifully atmospheric and brutal, as the peacefulness of the natural setting is decimated by the ugliness of men on both sides. The film’s final sequence plays with that tension, heightening it to a nerve-fraying level before finally relenting at its conclusion.

Shout’s 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer isn’t the sharpest, with some mishandled grain and a few pretty soft sequences. It’s a pretty pleasing transfer for the most part though, with a consistent color palette and solid levels of fine detail. The uncompressed mono track is clean and crisp, handling quiet and chaotic moments equally well. Extras include the aforementioned set of interviews, some stills and a trailer.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Shout! Factory’s Southern Comfort Blu-ray rates:

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

Film Elements Sourced: ***

Video Transfer: **1/2

Audio: ***1/2

New Extra Features: **

Extra Features Overall: **

Shout! Factory / 1981 / Color / 1.78:1 / 105 min / $29.93

 

 

 

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.

 

Museum Hours 2

Blu-ray Review: “Museum Hours” (2012)

Museum Hours 1

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

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

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

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

Museum Hours 2

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

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

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

Museum Hours 3

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

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

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

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

 

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Cinema Guild’s Museum Hours Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ****
New Extra Features: ***1/2
Extra Features Overall: ***1/2

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

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