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Vampir2

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer

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

Ferdinando

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

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

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

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

VampirVampir Cuadecuc (1970)
Second Run

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PersonalPersonal Shopper (2016)
The Criterion Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

houseThe Old Dark House (1932)
Cohen Film Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Daughters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DaughtersDaughters of the Dust (1991)
Cohen Film Collection 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LoversThe Lovers on the Bridge (1991)
Kino Lorber 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Story of SinStory of Sin (1975)
Arrow Video 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Behind the DoorBehind the Door (1919)
Flicker Alley 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love WitchThe Love Witch (2016)
Oscilloscope Laboratories 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DelugeDeluge (1933)
Kino Lorber Studio Classics 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Vincent Price

Home Video: The Best of 2013

Despite continued dire assertions that “DVD is dead” and that Blu-ray is a fading niche market in an era of downloadable movies, from our vantage point we’re seeing more desirable titles premiering on DVD and Blu-ray than ever before, even if some of these best new releases require a region-free player to see them, or are titles increasingly farmed out to independents charging higher prices than we’ve gotten used to. This year we give a particular round of applause to labels like Olive Films, Inception Media Group, Cohen Film Collection, and Flicker Alley, places run but dedicated, film-savvy entrepreneurs who clearly love these movies as much as we do.

And so, in ascending order, here’s our list of the best of the best of 2013:

Paul Williams

10. Paul Williams – Still Alive (DVD only; Virgil Films)
The past decade has been great for documentaries about singers and songwriters: Anvil: The Story of Anvil (2008), Who Is Harry Nilsson (and Why Is Everyone Talkin’ About Him?), Ain’t In It for My Health: A Film About Levon Helm (both 2010). Paul Williams Still Alive (2011) is yet another funny, moving and ultimately revelatory portrait of the ubiquitous if diminutive songwriting superstar, who seemed to vanish into thin air after the early 1980s. Director Stephen Kessler’s unusual approach makes the show as much about his mostly awkward personal relationship with his reluctantly willing subject, who now seems much happier living in comparative obscurity than he did at the height of his celebrity. A profoundly entertaining film about a supremely talented artist whose intimate, confessional songs about loneliness and depression always seemed negated by the clownish, cocky media star far more complex than anyone imagined.

Damned

9. The Damned (Cohen Film Collection)
Submarine movies come in all shapes and sizes, but René Clément’s The Damned (1947) is the most authentic submarine movie we’ve ever seen, more so even than Wolfgang Petersen’s celebrated Das Boot (1981). And it is by far the most immediate. Told in flashback by a French doctor, Guilbert (Henri Vidal), the film follows a German U-boat loaded to the gills with VIPs: fervent Nazis, Nazi collaborators, and their lovers, all fleeing from Oslo hoping to reach South America in the last days of the war. Considering when it was made, the film is a technical marvel, accomplishing many of the same kinds of innovative claustrophobic camerawork usually credited to the much later Das Boot. It seamlessly blends new footage shot aboard a submarine with studio sets and wartime stock footage, while the jumble of fast-changing political (and economical and sexual) loyalties aboard this underwater bunker is equally fascinating, eventually becoming a microcosm of Europe during those chaotic last days of the Third Reich. This Gaumont title distributed by Cohen Media Group looks nearly perfect in high-def. Good extras include an audio commentary and hour-long Clément documentary.

Right Stuff

8. The Right Stuff (Warner Home Video)
“They were called test pilots, and no one knew their names.” The Right Stuff (1983) is the best American movie of the 1980s. Based on Tom Wolfe’s book and adapted and directed by Philip Kaufman, the movie essentially tells two stories: Chuck Yeager’s exploits as a test pilot, in particular his attempt to break and go beyond the sound barrier; and the earliest days of NASA, as seen through the eyes of its seven Mercury Program astronauts (and their wives). The material is by itself compelling, but what makes The Right Stuff so special is in the telling. It tells its familiar story of heroic American pioneers in unusual and unexpected ways. Some see it as a modern variation of John Ford’s last masterpiece, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), an apt comparison. In Ford’s film, a cowboy and gunfighter emblematic of the Old West, played by John Wayne, essentially steps aside so that an aspiring attorney, James Stewart, symbolizing a tamer, civilized West, can take his place. The lawyer becomes a celebrated political figure while the once-famous gunfighter dies in total anonymity, completely forgotten except by his closest friends. In The Right Stuff Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) is the Wayne character (even if Shepard plays him like Gary Cooper), while the seven Mercury astronauts are Stewart’s. In some ways it’s the last great movie epic with, among other things, the subsequent CGI revolution and Ron Howard’s obscenely overrated Apollo 13 making not the slightest dent in its lasting impact. It simultaneously satirizes Cold War politics and mass media hyperbole with its prefabricated American heroes yet, almost indescribably, this only serves to make each act of personal bravery all the more awe-inspiring. In a way, the Mercury astronauts are also Wayne’s character, outwardly enjoying the benefits and pitfalls of celebrity, with the public oblivious to or simply not interested in their genuine but mostly private and personal heroism. The Blu-ray has been among the most anticipated releases of the last few years, and from a technical standpoint it does not disappoint, offering a near-perfect video presentation supported by spectacularly good audio. There are numerous extra features, though nearly all are ported over from a 2003 DVD release.

 

Fighting Kentuckian

7. Olive Films
More than any other home video label in recent years, Olive Films has been a movie-lover’s dream come true. Culling mainly from Paramount’s long-neglected library holdings, they plucked from obscurity movies never before released to home video and have presented them with dazzlingly good high-def transfers. Neglected films, particularly from Republic Pictures’ B-movies, previously available on VHS and DVD with awful, ancient video transfers, have been revelations as Olive Blu-rays. From Betty Boop to ‘50s sci-fi to classic and recent French thrillers, Olive Films is the home video label of the year.

Vincent Price

6. The Vincent Price Collection (Shout! Factory)
American International Pictures releases licensed from MGM, this Halloween release containing House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Haunted Palace (1963), The Masque of the Red Death (1964), The Witchfinder General (1968), and The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) brought back fond memories of the NuArt Theater’s glorious AIP film festival of 20 years ago, when these movies, available then only in the murkiest of panned-and-scanned video transfers, could be experienced as they were meant to be seen: good 35mm prints on a big, wide screen. These high-def transfers, with their rich color, gorgeous cinematography and extraordinarily good art direction, reveal riches lost when they were played to death on TV throughout the seventies and eighties. Shout! also went the extra mile combining MGM’s preexisting featurettes with some wonderful new material, including introductions to most of the films by Mr. Price himself, videotaped for Iowa Public Television back in the 1980s!

Puppetoons 2

5. The Puppetoon Movie (Inception Media Group)
A contemporary and in many ways equal of Walt Disney but minus Walt’s business acumen, producer-director George Pal is best remembered today for his pioneering efforts in the sci-fi/fantasy genre: Destination Moon (1950), When Worlds Collide (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953), tom thumb (1958), The Time Machine (1960) and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962) among them. But before all that, Pal made his name with the Puppetoons, one-reel shorts mostly employing the rare form of three-dimensional replacement animation. Unlike stop-motion, in which a single model is articulated one frame at a time, Pal’s Puppetoons involved carving and painting dozens upon dozens of heads and legs for a single character, reportedly upwards of 9,000 separate carvings in all for a single short. Replacing various body parts for each frame of film, the result was uncannily smooth and expressive facial reactions and motion, something like “liquid wood.” The new 2-disc Blu-ray of The Puppetoon Movie, released independently and limited to 3,000 copies (available at www.b2mp.net), is really two feature films and bonus shorts all in high-def, plus The Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal presented in standard-definition, along with myriad extra features. In addition to The Puppetoon Movie, featuring ten unabridged Puppetoons plus newer material, the set also includes the high-definition premiere of The Great Rupert (1950), Pal’s first live-action feature. Bonus Puppetoon shorts included on The Puppetoon Movie’s original DVD release are present, but the real treat are seven additional bonus shorts being released for the first time in any home video format, shorts in high-definition licensed from Paramount and restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archives and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Nashville

4. Nashville (Criterion)
For once the tag lines were accurate: “Wild. Wonderful. Sinful. Laughing. Explosive.” Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), one of the best films of the 1970s, is a divisive, inarguably indulgent film, but also one uniquely experimental and prophetic, especially so when it was new. The epic, 160-minute has no single protagonist and instead is a tapestry cutting among 24 major characters and numerous minor ones. It has no plot to speak of, despite an undercurrent of political maneuvering and a vague exploration of professional ambition and fame set against Nashville’s country music scene. Altman had been evolving toward this kind of storytelling beginning with M*A*S*H (1970) and, after crystalizing the form in Nashville would return to it again in the underrated A Wedding (1978), the somewhat overrated The Player (1992) and a few others. But in 1975 Nashville was quite daring, the work of a supremely confident, in some ways self-destructive filmmaker to whom ordinary movie-making rules did not apply. Nashville had previous been released by owner Paramount as an okay if no-frills DVD in 2000. Criterion’s Blu-ray offers vastly improved picture and wonderfully immersive sound, the latter vitally important in fully appreciating the work’s complex sound design. The new Blu-ray-plus-DVD combo also includes scads of extra features, including an original making-of documentary featuring some of the film’s key participants.

pierre-etaix

3. Pierre Étaix (Criterion)
Though we like to think we’re well-versed in the art of film comedy, we confess we had never even heard of circus clown-turned-actor-director Pierre Étaix until Criterion’s revelatory boxed set of this delightful disciple of Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati. Included are three charming short films and all five of his ‘60s/early ‘70s features: The Suitor, As Long As You’ve Got Your Health, Le grand amour, and Land of Milk and Honey. The transfers of these long-unavailable films (due to legal problems) all look and sound great and, happily, the 85-year-old Étaix is on-hand to introduce each film.

Zatoichi

2. Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman (Criterion)
One of Criterion’s best-ever home video releases, Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman is also an incredible value. Smart shoppers were able to purchase the set at one point for less than $100, but even at its suggested retail price of $224.95, for 25 feature films plus the many valuable extra features it’s still quite a bargain. Most readers are probably unaware that a near-simultaneous release in Japan, but covering only the first 18 movies, retails for a wallet-busting¥ 56,700, or about $550. That’s more than twice Criterion’s SRP yet minus the last seven films. The movies, all starring Shintaro Katsu as the eponymous wandering masseur and gambler, represent Japanese genre filmmaking at its finest. Though popular, the original films, released between 1962 and 1973, are a bit less highly regarded in Japan than in America, where Japanese film scholars have been quicker to acknowledge their visual and aural virtuosity, to say nothing of Katsu’s unforgettable characterization. Directed by such genre masters as Kenji Misumi, Kazuo (not Issei) Mori, Tokuzo Tanaka and, occasionally, offbeat outside talent like Satsuo Yamamoto and Kihachi Okamoto, and backed by outstanding cinematography and marrow-penetrating scores by composers as varied as Akira Ifukube and Isao Tomita, taken as a whole the Zatoichi series is one of the great epic stories of World Cinema. At the center of things, naturally, is Shintaro Katsu, a fascinating figure who gradually took full control of the film series and later continued it on Japanese network television when the domestic film market could no longer support it or much of anything else. The series began at Daiei Studios but as that company teetered toward bankruptcy Katsu began producing them himself, under the aegis of his Katsu Productions. When Daiei finally succumbed he move the series to Toho for its last handful of entries, so today ownership of the films is divided between Toho and Kadokawa Pictures, inheritors of the Daiei film library. That Criterion was able to negotiate a licensing agreement for all 25 films into a single boxed set is an achievement all by itself. That the films can now be enjoyed sequentially in consistently gorgeous transfers is yet another.

Cinerama South Seas Adventure

1. Cinerama Holiday/Cinerama South Seas Adventure (Flicker Alley)
Let me say this right up front: you’re going to want to get these. The original Cinerama travelogues were never exhibited in conventional movie theaters, never shown on television, and until now, never before released to home video. Indeed, after about 1963 they weren’t shown anywhere. Restoring these once hugely-popular but virtually lost films has been a personal crusade of many film buffs, historians, and preservationists, but it took the tenacity and ingenuity of Cinerama reconstructionist David Strohmaier to get the job done, aided by innumerable craftsmen and technicians. Via distributor Flicker Alley, the first two Cinerama Blu-ray releases, This Is Cinerama (1952) and Windjammer (1958) were issued last year to much-deserved acclaim. These discs were beautifully packaged, compromised only by the lesser elements available: 70mm film. These next two releases, Cinerama South Seas Adventure and Cinerama Holiday (1955) have gone back to the original three-strip, six-perf high original camera negatives, replacing unusable bits and pieces with three-strip material deposited with the Library of Congress. The results are, in a word, glorious, and Strohmaier’s exacting recreation of the original road show experience comes as close as possible to replicating the Cinerama experience. It’s still not quite true Cinerama: a large, deeply curved screen is essential in order to experience the “audience participation” effects of the process, but it’s darn close. Further, the Blu-ray (a DVD version of the film is also included, but you’ll definitely not want to watch the film in that format) comes with many invaluable extra features including, appropriately, a reproduction of the original theater programs.