Tag Archives: Criterion Collection

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

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

FoxFox and His Friends (1975)
Criterion Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OrloffDr. Orloff’s Monster (1964)
Redemption

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Girl AsleepGirl Asleep (2016)
Oscilloscope Laboratories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RevengeRevenge of the Blood Beast (1966)
Raro Video

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black GirlBlack Girl (1966)
Criterion Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Criterion Collection / 1966 / Black and white / 1.37:1 / 59 min / $39.95

 

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

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Blu-ray Review Round-Up: Films by Shirley Clarke, Miklós Jancsó, Akira Kurosawa & more!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DreamsDreams (1990)
The Criterion Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DivorceChildren of Divorce (1927)
Flicker Alley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PrivatePrivate Property (1960)
Cinelicious Pics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

cat-people

Blu-ray and DVD Review Round-Up: Films by Fritz Lang, Orson Welles, Jacques Tourneur & more!

cat-peopleCat People (1942)
The Criterion Collection

We’ve been waiting for years for Warner Brothers to start licensing out some of their holdings in the Blu-ray era, and now that the purse strings have loosened — even if only a little — Criterion has given us some major releases, including The New World with all three cuts and the forthcoming McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People is another hugely welcome upgrade and (presumably? hopefully?) only the first in a series of upgrades of the films in Warner’s essential Val Lewton horror DVD box set.

Cat People was Lewton’s first horror production for RKO, and it’s a compact, stunning combination of spooky voodoo mumbo-jumbo and of potent interpersonal dread. Serbian immigrant Irena (Simone Simon) has sincere beliefs about the ancient curse she believes is afflicting her, but her concerns are equally rooted in her simultaneous longing for and fear of human connection. In Tourneur’s dramatically lit tableaux, domestic spaces are a haunt of shadows, and anxiety thrives in these dark places of the heart and mind.

Irena’s fear that she will turn into a vicious predatory cat if she has sex with a man (in this case, her new husband Oliver, played by Kent Smith) is treated with a light touch in DeWitt Bodeen’s screenplay. There are examinations of its roots in Serbian mythology and Irena’s mental state, but the why is not belabored, despite an undeniably immense psychosexual subtext.

Instead, Tourneur and Lewton bring to the fore the throat-tightening, alienating feel of helpless terror with some of the most incredible black-and-white images every committed to celluloid. Cat People is renowned for its influential decision to keep its predator mostly off-screen, relying on the power of suggestion in a way studio horror films hadn’t done much to that point.

But the images that do make it on the screen are staggering, especially two key sequences: when Irena’s romantic rival Alice (Jane Randolph) goes for a swim, and the reflected rippling on the wall seems to be encroaching, and several scenes where Oliver and Alice work late in their office, the illuminated surfaces of their drafting tables looking like potential portals to another dimension.

With a film so dependent on the subtleties of light and shadow, a high-def upgrade is especially welcome, and Cat People looks phenomenal in Criterion’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer, sourced from a new 2K restoration. Fine detail is abundant and grayscale separation is incredibly nuanced. Damage is almost completely nonexistent, with a few very minor dips in clarity seen here and there, but overall, the transfer represents a major visual upgrade. The uncompressed mono soundtrack has no obvious issues.

Although Cat People was released on laserdisc by Criterion back in the day, they haven’t carried over that edition’s most substantial supplement, an audio commentary by Bruce Eder, instead opting for the Gregory Mank track that was included on Warner’s DVD release. Excerpts from an archival interview with Simon are also on that track. Also carried over from Warner’s box set is Kent Jones’ feature-length doc Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows. Alongside a 1979 interview with Tourneur, Criterion also provides a new interviewer with cinematographer John Bailey (who shot Paul Schrader’s 1982 remake), who discusses Nicholas Musuraca’s work and legacy. A trailer and an insert with an essay by Geoffrey O’Brien are also included.

Criterion Collection / 1942 / Black and white / 1.37:1 / 73 min / $39.95

shopThe Shop on the High Street (Obchod na korze, 1965)
Second Run

The Holocaust film has become a subgenre so afflicted with questionable sentimentality and morally dubious motivations that it’s easy to forget that there are fiction films that find a way to meaningfully grapple with the worst atrocity of the last century. One of those films is Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos’ The Shop on the High Street, better known in the US as The Shop on Main Street.

Unlike many of the popular Slovak films of the era, The Shop on the High Street is more rooted in a classical filmmaking style, which seems a likely factor in its Oscar win for best foreign language film. Obviously, classical doesn’t mean stodgy, and The Shop on the High Street remains a bracing experience, disarming viewers initially with its finely honed comic sensibility and low-key approach before revealing the way hatred works as a rapidly advancing poison and the easy complicity that soon arises.

At the film’s center are two remarkable performances, both working to make us intimate with the characters and their inner lives. Jozef Kroner stars as Tóno, an unambitious carpenter in a small Slovakian town who’s appointed “Aryan controller” of a modest shop. The shop’s owner is Rozália, a nearly senile and deaf Jewish widow who assumes Tóno is there to help her run the store, not take it and its profits over.

There is much about the film that is moving — Tóno and Rozália’s relationship evolves to a place of sweet interdependence — and much that is devastating — the film’s penultimate sequence uses handheld camerawork in a way that is righteously confrontational, but it’s the aforementioned comedy that is such a key component to the film’s success.

By all accounts, Tóno is a man who just wants to live his life in peace, though the societal striving of his wife (Hana Slivková) and the political standing of his brother-in-law, the Nazi-affiliated town commander (František Zvarík) make that difficult. There are many minor notes of comic exasperation here that are exquisite.

That extends to Tóno’s first meeting with Rozália, not so much a failure of understanding on her part as a failure of communicating on his. The futility is funny, and then the film juxtaposes that futility with the march of tyranny that’s not monolithic, but is enabled by thousands of small choices. Suddenly, none of this is funny at all.

Second Run’s all-region Blu-ray release is the first in the world for The Shop on the High Street, and the 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer is a nice improvement over Criterion’s old DVD release, even if the film still looks a bit rough around the edges. The transfer is sourced from a high-def master prepared by the Czech National Film Archive, and the elements are afflicted with a fair amount of marks and scratches, particularly in exterior scenes. Interior scenes are mostly clean, and the image is largely detailed and stable. The 2.0 uncompressed mono soundtrack has some background noise and a couple minor drop-outs, but handles the dialogue and Zdenek Liska’s nerve-jangling score quite well.

The major extra is a very detailed appreciation from historian Michael Brooke, who packs a ton of information into his 40-minute piece, which discusses the real-life history, the film’s production and its themes, and the subsequent careers of the major players. Also on the disc are images from the US press book, accessible as a click-through feature. A booklet with an essay by Peter Hames rounds out the bonus material.

Second Run / 1965 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 125 min / £19.99

mountainsPeople of the Mountains (Emberek a havason, 1942)
Second Run

Second Run’s other August release is on the opposite end of the popularity spectrum (no, it did not win any Oscars), but it’s exactly the kind of title that makes Second Run such an invaluable label, ensuring exposure for films that aren’t obvious canonical entries. This one is on DVD only.

The debut feature from Hungarian filmmaker István Szőts, People of the Mountains did not find favor with the Hungarian government, and in the included essay by Hungarian cinema specialist John Cunningham, he details the thorny political context the film was released into, including the dispute between Hungary and Romania over the occupation of Transylvania.

Still, even without detailed knowledge of these countries’ histories, People of the Mountain is a fascinating formal document. Second Run’s copy makes comparisons to Jean Renoir and John Ford, and notes how Vittorio De Sica and Cesare Zavattini saw it as influential on their foundational Neorealist films. All of these things seem true while watching the film, which begins like a docudrama and makes forays into both the quasi-magical religiosity and the bleak realities of working as a woodcutter in the remote Transylvanian forests.

Szőts mostly worked with nonprofessional actors, though his lead, János Görbe, was a fairly accomplished performer. Görbe stars as Gergö, a man determined to preserve some of his family’s way of life when a logging operation takes over the small community he lives in.

Gergö is a man of modest ambitions, and he and his wife Anna (Alice Szellay) mainly seem intent on providing a better life for their young son, Little Gergö (Péterke Ferency). It’s an initially low-stakes scenario that escalates to matters of life and death as a series of tragedies befall the family.

The story here is moving despite its simplicity, and a large part of that is due to the stunning camerawork of Ferenc Fekete, who uses diffused forest light in ways that highlight the family’s hopes for an idyllic future and the harsh truth of what actually lies ahead. Szellay and Görbe have deeply expressive faces, and Szőts wisely frames them in close-ups that give the film a full-blooded emotional force.

Second Run’s DVD is sourced from a new 2K restoration by the Hungarian Digital Archive and Film Institute, and even on DVD, the beautiful shadow gradations and delicate lighting look exceptional. Cunningham’s detailed essay is the only bonus feature.

Second Run / 1942 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 88 min / £12.99

SpidersThe Spiders (Die spinnen, 1919)
Destiny (Der müde Tod, 1921)
Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler, 1922)
Kino Lorber

Three foundational silent works from Fritz Lang get the Blu-ray upgrade from Kino, and though Dr. Mabuse already has an excellent Blu-ray from Eureka’s Masters of Cinema, Kino’s new editions of The Spiders and Destiny are English-friendly Blu-ray debuts.

Watching these films chronologically is like watching some of Lang’s fundamental filmmaking approaches click into his place — his bold, expressionistic use of light and shadow, his love of epic-scale setpieces, his capacity for generating suspense.

All of these films owe something to both the structure and the look of the serials of Louis Feuillade (Fantômas). Both Spiders and Mabuse are relentlessly episodic films, lengthy two-parters with a sprawling narrative approach. Destiny is a more compact fable, but it’s restless, using a nested story structure that allows Lang to retell the same tale in different ways.

The Spiders follows the exploits of adventurer Kay Hoog (Carl de Vogt) as he seeks out both lost Incan treasure and lost pirate treasure, while attempting to stay one step ahead of the nefarious titular crime ring, who leave behind arachnids as a calling card. Fairly turgid when it’s not featuring an active setpiece, The Spiders is still of interest.

destinyDestiny represents a staggering step forward for Lang in terms of atmosphere, as he and Thea von Harbou (in one of her first collaborations with Lang) weave the tale of a town haunted by Death (Bernhard Goetzke), given access and power thanks to greed of local politicians.

When her fiancé dies, a young woman (Lil Dagover) is given the opportunity to reverse it by Death, who presents her with scenarios in three different time periods. Lang’s special-effects-laden, incredibly ornate versions of Persia, Italy and China are impressively detailed, but it’s the somber, ghostly images of a town blanketed by the specter of loss that really stick with you.

The first entry in what would become a trilogy directed by Lang (and a handful more from others), Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler is a more ambitious take on the serial, not only because of its length (a not-entirely-brisk 270 minutes) but because of its visually cohesive depiction of a societal menace that’s spread into every institution.

That menace is personified in Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), a criminal mastermind with the powers of hypnosis and disguise at his disposal. His band of henchmen is ragtag —cocaine addicts and morons — but his powers are far-reaching.

Pursued by Chief-Inspector Norbert von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke), Mabuse wins huge gambling pots thanks to hypnosis, Business Accessories has the perfect guide for learn about casinos and how make money, crashes the stock market for his own gain and kills or abandons anyone who gets in his way. In Lang’s stark vision of Weimar-era Germany, opium dens, secret séances and hidden gambling halls are rendered vividly — underground worlds where it seems anything unnerving is possible.

mabuse

The Spiders is granted a 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer using the same apparent source as Kino’s 2012 DVD release. The elements aren’t in great shape, and the tinted images rarely have much depth, but it’s a solid presentation and a marginal upgrade over the previous DVD. Intertitles are in English. Audio is a nice Ben Model score in lossless 2.0 stereo. There are no extras.

Destiny’s 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer comes sourced from a 2K restoration by Anke Wilkening on behalf of the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, and it’s mostly a strong one, with healthy levels of fine detail despite some pervasive softness to the images. The simulated color tinting looks good, and damage has been nicely attenuated. German intertitles are presented, with optional English subtitles. Audio is a lossless 2.0 stereo track of a newly-composed score by Cornelius Schwehr, performed by the Berlin Rundfunk Symphony Orchestra. Extras include a Tim Lucas audio commentary, a restoration demonstration and a trailer for the 2016 re-release.

Dr. Mabuse uses what appears to be the same restoration as the Eureka disc as the basis for its 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer, and it’s an excellent one, presenting an image that is generally sharp, detailed and film-like, despite a variety of marks and lines that appear throughout. Blacks are often fairly rich, though contrast does sometimes seem a bit boosted. The film is split across two discs. German intertitles are presented, with optional English subtitles. Audio is a lossless 2.0 stereo track that features Alijoscha Zimmerman’s involving score. While it doesn’t have the David Kalat commentary that the Eureka disc offers (a big loss), the Kino is otherwise similar on the extras front, presenting a three-part featurette on the music, the novel by Norbert Jacques that was the basis for the film and Lang’s perspective.

The Spiders: Kino Lorber / 1919 / Color tinted / 1.33:1 / 173 min / $29.95
Destiny: Kino Lorber / 1921 / Color tinted / 1.33:1 / 98 min / $29.95
Dr. Mabuse: Kino Lorber / 1922 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 270 min / $39.95

The FitsThe Fits (2016)
Oscilloscope Laboratories

The “all style, no substance” critique is one of my least favorite observations about a piece of art. Who’s to say style itself is not substantial?

So I won’t say that about Anna Rose Holmer’s debut feature The Fits, even though in its slim 72-minute running time, it doesn’t make much of a case for being more than a tightly controlled formal exercise. The good news: It’s a really impressive formal exercise, with a carefully distributed feeling of trepidation and an incredible kinetic physicality that nonetheless obeys the limits of the image’s frame.

Even more than signaling the arrival of a promising talent behind the camera, The Fits portends big things for Royalty Hightower, who plays 11-year-old Toni with a mix of steely determination and cautious naïveté.

In a sort of gender-reversed-Billy Elliot scenario, Toni becomes fixated on the dance troupe that practices at the same gym she boxes at with her brother. Every physical action here seems like it could have major consequences, from the thundering of fists onto a punching bag or the synchronized sounds of feet smacking the ground.

Shortly after joining the dance team, a series of puzzling fainting spells and seizures begin to afflict some of the older girls, and Holmer’s camera exploits these for maximum unsettledness. The Fits is not a horror film, but it wouldn’t take too many adjustments to make it one.

Ultimately, the film is in service to a metaphor that feels pretty thin, but even when it feels like a warm-up to something greater, The Fits is an enjoyable debut.

Oscilloscope’s Blu-ray release features a crystal clear 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer and a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that nicely highlights the film’s very active sound design. They’ve also assembled a healthy slate of bonus material, including an audio commentary with Holmer, producer and writer Lisa Kjerulff and editor and writer Saela Davis. An interview with Hightower, a making-of featurette, outtakes and a theatrical trailer are also included.

Oscilloscope Laboratories / 2016 / Color / 2.35:1 / 72 min / $31.99

immortalThe Immortal Story (1968)
The Criterion Collection

Based on a short story by Karen Blixen (AKA Isak Dinesen), The Immortal Story is Orson Welles’ final completed fiction feature — though that designation does ignore the slippery nature of truth in Welles’ brilliant documentary F For Fake (1973). Maybe we should call The Immortal Story Welles’ last all-fiction film.

Unsurprisingly, the intersection of truth and fiction is a major theme running through The Immortal Story, as wealthy merchant Charles Clay (Welles, caked in an unholy amount of old-age makeup) attempts to transfer an old sailors’ tale from the realm of myth to reality by recruiting two people to reenact it.

The almost certainly apocryphal story is simple enough: A rich, impotent old man pays a young sailor to impregnate his wife. After learning of the tale from his only companion, his bookkeeper (Roger Coggio), Clay enlists him to find a man and a woman to act this out, with Clay himself filling in as the old man, of course. The eventual participants: Virginie (Jeanne Moreau), the daughter of a man Clay once drove to suicide, and Paul (Norman Eshley), a down-on-his-luck sailor who seems like he could have been plucked right out of the story itself.

Clay’s sudden obsession with the story reflects on his own loneliness, his ill health and his impending irrelevance, and making the tale true is envisioned as a sort of exorcism of these demons for Clay. Welles shoots interior spaces with a distinct emphasis on their emptiness, the moribund figure of Clay isolated in the frame, sometimes enveloped by the shadows.

The Immortal Story was Welles’ first color film — not his choice, but demanded by the French production company who premiered it on television. Of all of the fascinating things about this odd film — which runs under an hour but is far richer than one would expect given the length — it’s the dramatic, almost expressionistic use of color that might stand out the most.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer is largely exceptional, and is sourced from a new 4K restoration of the film. The film-like transfer is thickly textured and film-like, with a stable grain structure. Colors range from garish and vibrant to more subtly shaded, and the transfer handles it all well. The uncompressed mono audio isn’t terribly dynamic — Welles opted for post-dubbed sound — but it’s a clean track.

The Immortal Story is a short film, but Criterion’s slate of extras isn’t, beginning with the alternate French-language version of the film, which is slightly shorter but not significantly different aside from the French-dubbed dialogue. The transfer is comparable to the English-language cut.

Other extras include a typically perceptive commentary track by Adrian Martin, taken from the Madman Entertainment DVD release, a 1968 French documentary on Welles, new interviews with Eshley and scholar François Thomas, and a 2004 interview with cinematographer Willy Kurant. The included insert features an essay from Jonathan Rosenbaum.

Criterion Collection / 1968 / Color / 1.66:1 / 58 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.

Dusty Featured

Blu-ray and DVD Review: Films by Alain Resnais, Jia Zhangke, Ken Russell & more!

MurielMuriel, or The Time of Return (1963)
Criterion Collection

The third feature film from Alain Resnais often feels like a continuation of the concerns of his previous two (1959’s Hiroshima mon amour and 1961’sLast Year at Marienbad), dealing with the oppressive and disorienting power of memory. Though the ambiguous elisions of Marienbad are legendary, Muriel is the more challenging (and rewarding) film, despite a narrative that’s ostensibly far more straightforward.

Resnais again employs the talents of Delphine Seyrig, who acts as an emotional anchor in a film that deliberately alienates over and over again. Seyrig stars as Hélène, a widow who’s paid a visit by Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Kerien), her lover more than 20 years ago. Alphonse is accompanied by a woman he calls his niece, Françoise (Nita Klein), while Hélène lives with her stepson Bernard (Jean-Baptiste Thierrée), who she doesn’t see much after his return from fighting in the Algerian War.

An antique dealer whose showroom is her apartment, Hélène lives among countless objects that aren’t really her own, and the state of her living quarters seems to represent her own mind, cluttered with detritus from other eras. In Resnais’ audacious opening, he prepares us to be challenged, rapidly cutting between many of the objects in a dizzying barrage that spatially disorients while giving us some sense of Hélène’s state of mind.

From that point on, the film’s editing isn’t as obviously aggressive, but after lulling us somewhat with a measured dinner scene with the four principals, the film suddenly slips into a much more elusive form, darting from scene to scene in an order that seems chronological, but with events that feel completely disconnected. (The script by Jean Cayrol specifies the film’s events take place over a two-week period, but the film doesn’t obviously let on to that.)

Muriel is a film that necessitates multiple viewings — not so much to comprehend, as to appreciate the nuances Resnais brings to his depiction of the crushing effect of suddenly dredged-up memories. It doesn’t take multiple viewings to feel the weight of the film’s title, and its central, most horrific memory, when we discover that Muriel isn’t one of Bernard’s girlfriends, but his connection to the trauma of war. Here, a trauma that one perpetrates has a stinging clarity that a trauma one merely experienced does not.

Criterion’s Blu-ray release presents Muriel in a 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer that markedly improves over the Masters of Cinema DVD release in terms of clarity and detail. There has been some grumbling online about the color timing, and there is a slightly sickly, greenish-tealish-yellowish tinge to the image. How far this diverts from the original color timing, I can’t say; at this point, the clear upgrade in image quality makes this the best home video option available, color issues notwithstanding. The uncompressed mono soundtrack is fairly flat, but doesn’t exhibit any prominent noise issues.

The supplements here are mostly of the archival variety. There are three brief excerpts: Pieces of a 1980 TV documentary on Resnais with contributions from Cayrol, a 1969 TV interview with Seyrig, where she contrasts her characters in Marienbad and Muriel, and a 1963 TV interview with composer Hans Werner Henze, who explains why Resnais helped him feel comfortable composing for film. Newly recorded, and more substantial, is an interview with scholar François Thomas, who discusses the film’s themes and the cultural environment in which it was released. Perhaps most essential is the insert essay by scholar James Quandt, whose efficient yet dense unpacking of a number of the film’s ideas is superb.

Criterion Collection / 1963 / Color / 1.66:1 / 116 min / $39.95

MountainsMountains May Depart (2016)
Kino Lorber

The great Jia Zhangke continues to chronicle the state of contemporary China, and in his latest feature, Mountains May Depart, he does so by looking both backward and forward. A time-hopping triptych that chronicles the breakdown of a family, Mountains May Depart is a moving melodrama that occasionally feels strained as it seeks to correlate the intensely personal with a larger societal malaise.

Jia’s bewitching images, in which the extraordinary can suddenly overtake the mundane, and a richly interior performance from wife and longtime collaborator Zhao Tao help to overcome any feelings that the film’s observations about capitalism are too on-the-nose.

As the film progresses, slick materialism becomes more ubiquitous and more alienating, and the film’s color scheme shifts into cooler and paler tones. The aspect ratios get wider too; Jia uses 1.33:1 for the segment in 1999, 1.85:1 for 2014 and 2.35:1 for 2025.

Mountains May Depart isn’t exactly a paean to the past, but there’s an unmistakable sense of nostalgia that blankets the first segment, if only in the luxuriousness of the imagery. Interspersed with documentary footage Jia shot during roughly the same timeframe, the opening act details a love triangle between Shen Tao (Zhao) and her two suitors, coal miner Liangzi (Liang Jing Dong) and the wealthy, callous industrialist Zhang (Zhang Yi).

Shen Tao cares deeply for Liangzi, but she also longs for change (a New Year’s dance to the Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West” reinforcing her yearning) and understands that Zhang offers a much better chance at it. Zhang, who could nearly twirl his mustache despite being clean-shaven, is not a subtly written or performed character, but Zhao’s conflicted performance makes her choices believable. Throughout the film, Zhao’s performance is situated on heartbreak, whether she’s currently experiencing it or merely anticipating it.

As time progresses, the film shifts its attention to Shen Tao’s son, whose anglicized moniker is the not-so-understated Dollar (Dong Zijian), and the film’s final sequence suffers for the relative absence of Zhao. Fortunately, the wonderful Sylvia Chang appears as Dollar’s college professor, and later, his unlikely companion as he faces disillusionment with school and his distant relationships with his parents. Set in a gleaming, sterile Melbourne, this final segment is the least emotionally acute, but the most effective at communicating Jia’s apprehension about unrelenting modernization.

Kino’s Mountains May Depart Blu-ray offers a largely excellent transfer, though the 1.33:1 segment is slightly pictureboxed. Jia’s archival footage, blocky and flat, is readily apparent, but the rest of the film is crisp and detailed, with particularly vibrant colors in the first segment. A 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is mostly subdued, but shows off some dynamic range during a few key moments. Optional English subtitles accompany the first two segments’ Mandarin, but not the largely English dialogue in the final part.

Extras include a lengthy and somewhat dry, but informative Q&A with Jia at the New York Film Festival moderated by Dennis Lim, a trailer and a booklet with an essay by programmer and critic Aliza Ma, who offers a helpful synopsis of Jia’s career and the way his early work dovetails with his recent output.

Kino Lorber / 2016 / Color / 1.33:1, 1.85:1 and 2.35:1 / 126 min / $34.95

StuffStuff and Dough (2001)
Second Run

Though his cachet among cinephiles in the US might be slightly less than Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) or Corneliu Porumboiu (Police, Adjective), Cristi Puiu is still a major figure in the Romanian New Wave, and he beat both of them to the feature-film punch, releasing Stuff and Dough in 2001. Considered by some to be the first major entry in Romania’s then-fledgling movement, the film is now getting some wider exposure thanks to Second Run, whose DVD release represents the first time Stuff and Dough has been available on English-friendly home video.

Stuff and Dough is not an outlier when it comes to much of modern Romanian film. Its narrative is spare, its camerawork straightforward and its tone is dryly, darkly comic before veering into nervy, if low-key, suspense mode. It’s a road movie that takes the road seriously; the majority of the running time is spent with three characters in a van, trekking to Bucharest from their small town on a trip that seems deadly dull.

It’s not, of course; the boredom is sharply punctuated by flurries of violence as it becomes clear the trio is being pursued by some nasty characters. This might come as a shock to them, but it’s deeply expected for the audience, who’s witnessed the none-too-bright Ovidiu (Alexandru Papadopol) agree to transport “medical supplies” for the almost comically shady Ivanov (Razvan Vasilescu) at the beginning of the film.

Ovidiu would like to get out from underneath his parents’ roof, and the money from Ivanov would go a long way toward that goal, but he’s not exactly the most ambitious guy. Puiu’s best scene is an early one in which Ivanov grills Ovidiu about the planned trip, the steps he will take and even his bathroom habits, but no matter how stern Ivanov’s commands get, Ovidiu remains blissfully disconnected from the conversation.

That humor doesn’t really carry over, and the story doesn’t get sketched out much beyond the opening act, so there are few surprises on the drive, though it stays engaging thanks to the naturalistic performances from Papadopol and Dragos Bucur and Ioana Flora as Ovidiu’s friend Vali and Vali’s girlfriend Bety. The film’s ultimate observations about aimless youth scraping by in a depressed economy aren’t earth-shattering, but the film does resonate as a truthful portrait of a particular point in the country’s history.

Second Run’s DVD features a sharp new high-def transfer, approved by Puiu, in 1.85:1. Extras include his 2004 short Cigarettes and Coffee, a seemingly low-stakes naturalistic two-hander that won the Berlin Film Festival’s Best Short award, and a newly filmed interview with Puiu, who discusses his entry into the world of cinema and some of his influences. A booklet with an essay by critic Carmen Gray is also included.

Second Run / 2001 / Color / 1.85:1 / 90 min / £12.99

CrimesCrimes of Passion (1984)
Arrow Video

For many filmmakers, the garish, sleazy and unhinged Crimes of Passion could be the kind of baffling cult item that forever sticks out in their filmography. For Ken Russell, it’s just another movie.

The brilliant British director continually pushed his films to the limits of good taste and beyond, so there’s nothing particularly shocking about the film’s luridness, even if it’s notably more explicit than his string of outrageous period pieces in the 1970s. Barry Sandler’s script whiplashes from campy sex crime thriller to leaden suburban satire, but Russell’s steady directorial hand balances the tonal jackknifing. There’s no question that the film’s domestic subplot compares poorly to the film’s main thrust, but Russell credibly ties it all together.

The second Hollywood film Russell made after the contentious Altered States (1980), Crimes of Passion stars then-megastar Kathleen Turner as China Blue, a prostitute with a flair for the theatrical who lives a double life as a prominent fashion designer by day. In the film’s opening scene, China Blue’s encounter with a john is filmed as if she’s performing for the film’s viewers, her boudoir an invisible proscenium, and that performative, exaggerated style continues throughout her fascinating, completely exposed turn.

Compared to Turner, no one is going to really match up, though Anthony Perkins’ nitrate-sniffing, sexually frenzied priest — like a less religious Hazel Motes — certainly comes close. Less up to the task is John Laughlin as Bobby Grady, a milquetoast stuck in a sexless marriage who becomes tangled up in China Blue’s world of fantasy when he’s hired to tail her real-world alter ego.

The film tends to grind to a halt whenever Bobby and his wife Amy (Annie Potts) are onscreen, the script’s obvious broadsides against the emptiness of middle-class values not livened by their whiny performances. (A more potent barb is the music video the couple watches on TV of Rick Wakeman’s “It’s a Lovely Life,” the lyrics not so much sung as shrieked by Maggie Bell.)

Arrow Video’s excellent Blu-ray release presents the film in a 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer sourced from a new 2K restoration. Both the uncut theatrical release and a slightly extended director’s cut are included; the extended cut features additional scenes from a lesser source, though the quality drop-off is less drastic than expected. Arrow’s transfer is a knockout, perfectly showcasing the film’s electric blues and pinks and displaying exceptional clarity, sharpness and damage clean-up. Audio is a reasonably dynamic uncompressed mono track.

On-disc extras include newly filmed interviews with screenwriter Sandler and composer Wakeman, both of whom enthusiastically recount their participation, along with an archival commentary track with Russell and Sandler, 20 minutes of rough-looking deleted and extended scenes with optional Sandler commentary, an MTV music video of “It’s a Lovely Life” and the theatrical trailer.

Arrow Video / 1984 / Color / 1.85:1 / 107 min / $39.95

CemeteryCemetery of Splendor (2016)
Strand Releasing

In the latest film from Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the characters are stuck between the past and the present, between sleeping and waking and between a higher plane and one stubbornly still of this mortal coil. So no, it’s not a major departure for the Thai filmmaker, but it’s still a welcome return from Joe, who hadn’t released a proper feature since 2010’s hallucinatory Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. (The hour-long doodle Mekong Hotel [2012] doesn’t quite count, though it’s a welcome bonus feature on Strand’s well-appointed Blu-ray.)

Cemetery of Splendor rarely shifts out of that gently dreamlike mode that Weerasethakul has perfected, ambling through patient shots of his hometown Khon Kaen and its many green spaces, canopies of trees stretching out across the frame.

There’s a thin membrane here between the real and the extra-real, as is quickly discovered by Jen (Jenjira Pongpas Widner) when she goes to tend to soldiers afflicted with a mysterious sleeping sickness. Set up in hospital beds in the building that used to be Jen’s school as a child, the seemingly comatose soldiers are being treated with color therapy. The film’s first scene showing tubes of colored light being activated is the closest Weerasethakul gets to dramatically flipping the switch between worlds, the greenery and natural light of the village being suddenly shut out and replaced with glowing, otherworldly cylinders.

Most of the transitions are more casual; Jen watches over Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), who occasionally wakes from his dead-to-the-world sleep with little fuss. Jen learns more about the soldiers’ condition from Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram), who claims to be a medium, and a pair of goddesses who’ve shed their heavenly accouterments. It becomes apparent that the school turned hospital is built on an ancient burial ground; time has somehow compressed and associated the soldiers’ fates with that of long-passed kings.

Naturally, Cemetery of Splendor is a beguiling film, but one of its chief pleasures is the way its characters embrace simple delights. The film’s trappings are heady, but its pleasures feel earthly, whether it’s the straightforward humor of a dick joke (sleeping sickness doesn’t prevent erections, apparently) or the way Jen justifies her love for fried bananas or Itt savors a meal from a market food stand.

Strand Releasing doesn’t put out very many of its releases on Blu-ray, but when it does, it tends to do it right. Cemetery of Splendor is granted a luminous 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer that nicely renders the film’s naturalistic color palette. Images are detailed and crisp, with no apparent digital tampering issues to speak of. The 5.1 DTS-HD soundtrack is subtly immersive, and cleanly presents dialogue and music.

Extras include the aforementioned Mekong Hotel in 1080p, a making-of featurette with interviews with Weerasethakul and Widner, a handful of deleted scenes and the theatrical trailer.

Strand Releasing / 2016 / Color / 1.78:1 / 122 min / $32.99

 

 

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

 

Naked Featured

The Truthful Fakery of Kaneto Shindō: a Review of “The Naked Island”

Public domain island image

It’s a bit odd that Kaneto Shindō’s The Naked Island (Hadaka no shima, a.k.a. The Island, 1960) has taken so long to receive the Criterion treatment on DVD and Blu-ray, for this Japanese movie has been praised all over the world since it first arrived on the international scene in the early 1960s. Filmed on the tiny island of Sukune in the Inland Sea, not far from Shindō’s native city, Hiroshima, the bare-bones plot concerns a family of four – a man, a woman and their two young boys – who must transport, with great difficulty, their daily supply of water from the mainland to the island to cultivate their sweet potato crop, which would die (as would they) without this obsessive attention. Its vision of poverty and struggle in an exotic setting won such enthusiasm from European art house audiences at the time that the French actually turned its melancholy theme tune, composed by Hikaru Hayashi, into a hit pop song.

Yet the film, considered a classic by many, has had its share of detractors and doubters. Pauline Kael, in her review, dismissed the movie as phony, even sneering at the undeniable pictorial beauty of its Inland Sea setting, photographed by Shindō’s excellent cameraman, Kiyomi Kuroda. (“It’s pictorial, all right,” she wrote.) The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther – who, in his much more favorable review, naively called the work a “documentary” – wondered why the couple failed to build structures, such as cisterns, for catching and storing rainwater, so as to spare themselves at least some of those long, laborious trips carrying buckets of water.

Oddly, one of the film’s most vocal skeptics has been the director himself, who once candidly pointed out that the sweet potato crop that the family is shown cultivating would not, in real life, have required such enormous quantities of water to thrive. He also noted on this video’s commentary track – recorded in 2000 – that not only was the island on which they shot the movie uninhabited, but farmers from the area, such as the ones depicted, would never have actually watered their crops in the heat of the noonday sun, as is done in the film, because the water would almost immediately have evaporated.

So how has a movie of such dubious plausibility managed to evoke such a powerful response from audiences and critics for over fifty years? More than most films, The Naked Island is an overwhelmingly visual experience – except for one song by some schoolchildren, there is no spoken dialogue at all – with very little in the way of plot. So evoking its almost tactile beauty and primal power in a print review like this one is well-nigh impossible. A more profitable approach would be to examine why and how Shindō created it, beginning with some relevant background on the director’s difficult but very interesting early life.

***

Kaneto Shindō was born in 1912 in Hiroshima into a rich and respectable family. But while he was still a child, his father agreed to serve as guarantor for a loan on which the borrower apparently defaulted, leaving the family suddenly destitute. They lost all their land, and the boy’s mother had to go to work as a farm laborer to support the others, which seems to have drastically shortened her life.

The young Shindō, resolving to enter the film industry, worked at menial jobs for various film studios while writing scripts at night. He eventually drifted into the orbit of his idol, the great Kenji Mizoguchi (Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff), who kindly informed the young man that he had no talent as a screenwriter. Undaunted, he continued to work for Mizoguchi as an art director and assistant and kept on writing, with the loyal support of his common-law wife, Takako… until she perished from tuberculosis in 1943. Drafted into the Japanese navy, he was one of only six men of his 100-man unit who survived, and happened to be absent from his hometown when it was reduced to rubble by the first atomic bomb in August 1945.

After the war, he formed a scriptwriter-director partnership with the established filmmaker Kōzaburō Yoshimura. Their very first collaboration, the classic The Ball at the Anjo House, was voted the best film of 1947 by Japanese critics. But the movies that the partners wanted to make were too dark and daring for the mainstream studios of the day. So in 1950, at a time when independent cinema was virtually nonexistent in Japan, the two men, together with the colorful character actor Taiji Tonoyama, formed their own production company, Kindai Eiga Kyokai (The Modern Film Association). It was for Kindai that Shindō directed, with the help of funds from the Japanese Teachers Union, his third film, the beautiful, moving Children of Hiroshima (Genbaku no Ko: literally, Atom-Bomb Children), which premiered in Japan on August 6, 1952 ‒ the seventh anniversary of the atomic explosion, and only months after the end of the American Occupation.

At the dawn of the 1960s, after making a number of other socially-conscious films for Kindai, with very little to show in the way of box-office success, Shindō and his young company were near ruin. As a last-ditch effort, he conceived of a simple story set on a remote island that would require only four actors – Tonoyama, Shindō’s favorite leading lady, Nobuko Otowa, and two children from the area – plus a skeleton crew, including Kuroda, on a miniscule budget. When he screened the film at the Moscow Film Festival, the audience received it warmly and it won the Grand Prix. The total lack of dialogue proved, ironically, to be an asset on the festival circuit: since virtually no subtitles were required, the picture could be marketed anywhere. Thus, both the film company and Shindō’s career were saved.

***

The Naked Island, which focuses particularly on its hard-working farmer heroine, is a prime example of what Japanese critic Tadao Sato called Shindō’s “feminism”… but the meaning of the word, in this context, must be clearly understood. Like that of his mentor, Mizoguchi, Shindō’s feminism is far removed from the common Western sense of the term, that is, support for the social and political emancipation of women. Rather, it implies a very personal love, even a kind of awe, for the capacity of Japanese women for sustained self-sacrifice, but it is also about the duty of Japanese men to accept the harsh burden of guilt such sacrifice imposes on them.

Where Shindō parts company from Mizoguchi, however, is in his frequent identification of female oppression with class oppression. Throughout his film career, he rejected solidarity with the social class his family was born into – the comfortable bourgeoisie – and embraced (often with ambivalence) the class his family fell into: the manual laborers, the dispossessed, the utterly marginalized. Many of the women in his films thus carry the double stigma of gender and class discrimination, and their heroism is the patience and grace with which they bear this yoke.

 

Nobuko Otowa in The Naked Island

A farm wife (Nobuko Otowa) labors in the fields in Kaneto Shindō’s The Naked Island (1960). Credit: Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

This is why Shindō’s muse and mistress (and future wife), Nobuko Otowa, became so essential a part of his filmmaking team. Otowa worked with Shindō for over 40 years, from 1951 to 1994. To my knowledge, in all of Japanese cinema, the only director-actor collaboration that surpassed theirs in sheer output was that of Yasujirō Ozu and Chishū Ryū, though the Shindō-Otowa partnership, while not quite as prolific, lasted longer. (She also did fine work at the same time for other illustrious filmmakers, such as Heinosuke Gosho and Keisuke Kinoshita.)

Yet when the best actresses that Japanese cinema produced during its Golden Age are recalled – including such names as Setsuko Hara, Kinuyo Tanaka, Isuzu Yamada and Hideko Takamine – Otowa never seems to get name-checked. This is a shame, for she excelled at portraying Japanese women of every class and profession. For Shindō in the 1950s, she played, among other characters, a prim young schoolteacher (in Children of Hiroshima), a geisha who gets transformed into a mindless toy before our eyes (in the devastating Epitome, 1953) and, in what may have been her oddest role, a mentally-challenged (autistic?) homeless woman (The Ditch, 1954), whose bizarre behavior Otowa somehow makes relatable, even sympathetic.

A particularly striking example of her skill at getting to the essence of a character occurs in a powerful scene from Shindō’s very first film as director, the semi-autobiographical Story of a Beloved Wife (1951). The screenwriter hero’s common-law wife, who is named Takako (like the director’s own deceased wife), is ill with tuberculosis. In the middle of the night, she begins coughing up blood. The hero, with trembling hands, holds a porcelain basin in front of her to catch the blood. The couple’s eyes meet, and she grasps his hand as if to steady it. Then she takes a pen and paper from a nearby desk and, without speaking a word, writes “Don’t worry. I won’t die” (though the hero, and presumably the audience, by this time knows she will die). So when Shindō decided to make his movie about farmers consisting entirely of such scenes, in which deep emotions are conveyed completely nonverbally, he knew that Otowa was up to the job.

 

Nobuko Otowa and Taiji Tonoyama in The Naked Island

A farm wife (Nobuko Otowa, left background) and her husband (Taiji Tonoyama, right) carrying water in Kaneto Shindō’s The Naked Island (1960). Credit: Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

It has seldom, if ever, been noted that one of the reasons The Naked Island works so well is not only Otowa’s skill as an actress (according to Shindō, the Moscow audience believed she was an actual farmer), but her high comfort level with her unprepossessing co-star, Taiji Tonoyama, who plays the husband. With his bald head, bug eyes and stuck-out ears, Tonoyama strongly suggests to the modern viewer (or at least to this viewer) a depraved Yoda. But he was, at the time, a character actor much in demand whenever a lecherous, dissolute or generally unsavory middle-aged character was called for. And, as a full partner in Kindai Eiga Kyokai, Tonoyama had acted in many films with Otowa throughout the 1950s.

The extraordinary chemistry between the two stars of The Island can be witnessed in a scene that occurs almost exactly half an hour into the film. The heroine, as per her routine, is dragging two heavy buckets of water up a steep slope towards the crops at the top of a hill when she suddenly stumbles. As the husband, standing on the hill slightly above her, looks on impassively (apparently, this has happened before), one of her buckets tips over, spilling the precious water uselessly over the arid earth. The wife carefully secures the other bucket and looks up expectantly towards her husband. He stops what he’s doing and walks down the hill… probably, we suppose, to help her. He pauses in front of his wife and suddenly slaps her, hard, knocking her to the ground, an act to which she offers no protest or resistance. She then gets up, and only then does he help her carry the remaining bucket the rest of the way up the hill.

As USC film scholar Akira Mizuta Lippit has noted (in an interview included as a supplement on this disk), there’s no rage or animosity in the husband’s sudden, shocking act of violence. In other words, the slap isn’t the equivalent of saying, “You’re a stupid, useless idiot.” Instead, the slap is an extreme way of telling her, “You’re my wife, but you can’t make mistakes like this if we’re going to survive,” and the fact that she makes no complaint proves that she grasps this fact. And all the complex, painful ambiguity of the scene is perfectly and silently conveyed by these two veteran actors.

It should be noted that the director, through such scenes, is not really calling for the liberation of such women from their hard lot in life. Rather, he is calling on viewers to bear witness to the almost superhuman sacrifices that the heroine, and women everywhere in Japan, particularly those of the lower classes, make every day on behalf of the men in their lives.

***

As Professor Lippit remarks in his interview, many of Shindō’s fellow filmmakers in Japan were not exactly over the moon about The Naked Island’s international success. “This is a film,” he says, “that for many of them played into an image of Japan that was too easily consumed by the rest of the world,” that is, an image of a country transitioning, very slowly and painfully, from a “backward” agrarian past to the technologically-driven present. Yet the film may have been seminal, for in the coming years, some younger filmmakers, particularly Shohei Imamura, would follow Shindō’s lead in exploring the legacy of “primitive” Japan.

When American film scholar Joan Mellen asked Shindō about this theme in The Naked Island, as well as in films by others, he gave a very interesting answer. “Yes,” he said, “that tendency has been rather popular among Japanese filmmakers for the past five or six years. The reason is that, since the latter half of the nineteenth century, we have been witnessing the weakening of the human mind. I think this is a universal problem. Consequently, modern men, and I for one, are in the process of reevaluating primitive man’s energy and identity.”

This belief of Shindō’s is probably the reason why The Naked Island, despite the hardscrabble, frustrating, grief-filled lives it depicts, does not really belong to the ever-expanding category of Miserabilist Cinema. The brief scenes of joy in the film – the father playing with one of his sons, the boys engaging in a fight with toy swords, the mother enjoying a bath alone – feel real and unforced. Unlike contemporary urbanites, these people of the land are not alienated from pleasure or from themselves. For Shindō, the eternally struggling “primitive” family in the film is to be respected and admired, not pitied, for its “energy” and “identity.”

***

Shindō’s remarkable longevity as a man and as an artist – his final film, Postcard (2010), directed from a wheelchair, was released when he was ninety-eight years old – must surely have come at the price of tremendous survivor’s guilt. He once said that he had “always had the souls of the 94 [men in his battle unit who died] with me and have made them the theme of my existence.” Indeed, because he passed away at age 100, he could be said to have lived exactly one year apiece for each man in his unlucky squad, including himself.

I suspect that the only way he could have survived so long the burden of the many dead souls haunting him – his mother, neighbors and friends killed at Hiroshima, his fellow servicemen, Mizoguchi, his amazing wives – was to make films. By creating the false-yet-true masterpiece, The Naked Island, as well as famous films like Onibaba (1964) and Kuroneko (1968), and many other excellent works, he bore that burden with the same stoic grace he so admired in his female protagonists.

Postscript: After she died in 1994, Otowa’s ashes were scattered, at her request, over the island, Sukune, featured in the film. When Shindō died nearly two decades later, his ashes joined hers on the same island… as if the couple had really grown sweet potatoes there, rather than a movie.

The DVD of The Naked Island (I have not viewed the Blu-ray) is a typically top-notch, full-scale Criterion release. The quality of the widescreen black-and-white images (and this movie, more than most, stands or falls by its visuals) is breathtaking, with literally pearly grays and wonderfully subtle gradations of tone in nearly every shot, and virtually no sign of scratches, dirt or other flaws, though the film is over half a century old. The commentary track (from 2000), provided by both the director and the film’s composer, Hikaru Hayashi, mixes technical details and personal reminiscences that are illuminating and sometimes moving, though at times the two men focus overly much on the film’s score to the detriment of other aspects of the production. There is also a brief but touching video introduction by Shindō himself from 2011 (he was 99 at the time), as well as a very casual but heartfelt tribute from the filmmaker’s number one fanboy, Hollywood actor Benicio Del Toro. Finally, an interview with film scholar Akira Mizuta Lippit provides additional context, and a printed essay by Haden Guest makes a strong case for Shindō as a neglected Japanese master. All in all, an essential purchase for all J-Cinema fans.

 

Paris Banner

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

Losing GroundLosing Ground
Milestone Films 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

l'inhumaineL’Inhumaine
Flicker Alley 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

forbidden roomThe Forbidden Room
Kino Lorber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ParisParis Belongs to Us
The Criterion Collection 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AHPAmerican Horror Project Volume 1
Arrow Video

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

Pauline at the Beach featured

Blu-ray and DVD Review Round-Up: Films by Jean Renoir, Věra Chytilová, Eric Rohmer & more!

The SouthernerThe Southerner
Kino Lorber

Promise and peril are inextricably intertwined in The Southerner (1945), one of Jean Renoir’s films from his brief and unfairly maligned Hollywood period. Based on the George Sessions Perry novel Hold Autumn in Your Hand and featuring uncredited dialogue assistance from none other than William Faulkner, the film stars Zachary Scott as Sam Tucker, a cotton picker who takes his stab at independence by establishing his own farm, with wife Nona (Betty Field), granny (Beulah Bondi) and two kids in tow.

The plot of land Sam chooses hasn’t been farmed in some time, so he’s counting on its fertility, but alongside that benefit comes some harsh reality: a farmhouse dilapidated almost beyond repair and a caved-in well. The film’s literary pedigree is obvious, as it moves from episode to episode — both tragic and comic — with an unsympathetic neighbor (J. Carrol Naish), Sam’s boisterous city friend Tim (Charles Kemper) and a giant catfish that lurks in a nearby lake. Sorrow and joy are intermingled, and the sensitive performances from Scott and Field make us feel the weight of both.

Renoir visually establishes this struggle early on, after the family has just moved in to the farmhouse and their excitement still outweighs their fears. While everyone else is inside, Bondi’s irascible granny sits out on the porch, Renoir framing her and the house against a darkening sky. The house appears adrift in an environment both expansive and intimidating, and the gravity of Sam’s decision to opt for independence becomes acutely felt.

The Southerner exists in a curious middle ground between an excoriation and an embrace of the American Dream, with Renoir delivering an empathetic but unsentimental depiction of rural life.

Kino rescues The Southerner from public domain hell with its 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer, sourced from 35mm elements preserved by the UCLA Film & Television Archive. The elements are not in great shape, with dropped frames, some significant gashes and several instances of rippling existing alongside the more innocuous, nearly omnipresent speckling. Nevertheless, this is an attractive transfer, with solid levels of fine detail and clarity and a sharpness that’s especially apparent in close-ups. The 2.0 lossless audio is afflicted with a persistent low-level hiss, but dialogue is clean and audible throughout.

Bonus material consists of two short films: Renoir and Garson Kanin’s wartime propaganda piece A Salute to France (1944), starring Burgess Meredith, and Pare Lorentz’s The River (1938), an environmental portrait that influenced the look of The Southerner.

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

Kino Lorber / 1945 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 92 min / $29.95

something differentTwo films by Věra Chytilová: Something Different and A Bagful of Fleas
Second Run DVD

Two early works from Czech New Wave master Věra Chytilová, best known for Daisies (1966), are presented together in Second Run’s latest release. Short film A Bagful of Fleas (Pytel blech, 1962) captures Chytilová’s anarchic style in nascent but confident form with a vérité-inflected portrait of young girls working at a textile factory, where they also live together in a dormitory.

Bristling at the expectations imposed on them by both male foremen and female supervisors, the girls casually break rules — sneaking out to meet boys, smoking in the dorm — but their behavior is generally innocuous. Chytilová achieves a tangible directness with a formal gambit that features a new girl, Eva, joining the ranks, and we see much of the film from her point of view, characters directly addressing the camera as they fill her in. Plotless and playful, the film doesn’t strive for overt drama or a strong political statement, but its freewheeling style and jagged editing present an artist who didn’t take long to find her voice.

In her feature debut, Something Different (O něčem jiném, 1963), Chytilová makes the comingling of fictional and documentary styles explicit by interweaving two stories: an invented portrait of a discontented housewife (Věra Uzelacová) and a look at the training process of Olympic gold-medal-winning gymnast Eva Bosáková. Both segments are focused on the physical aspects of these women’s lives: Věra washes dishes, serves her husband and son meals, dusts the furniture; Eva leaps in the air, grips the uneven bars, balances on a pommel horse. There’s no explicit link between the two stories, but Chytilová’s film creates one with its inventive, surprising editing, creating rhythms of complementary physical activity as it cuts back and forth.

What emerges are dueling but aligned portraits of female agency and fulfillment denied. Věra, neglected by her husband and exhausted by her son, begins an affair, but there’s little implication that there will be any lasting satisfaction. And though Eva achieves professional success, she only does so by locking herself into a grueling regimen, hounded by her husband and trainers. If the message isn’t totally convincing, the formal approach is never less than thrilling, a propulsive mixture of the true and the imagined.

The new high-definition digital transfer of Something Different is nicely detailed, though it’s afflicted with quite a few scratches and splotches. That’s not the case with A Bagful of Fleas, which is sourced from a new 2K restoration and looks fantastic — clean, sharp and film-like. The mono soundtracks handle the dialogue and the jazz scatting in Something Different nicely. The lone extra is a booklet with an extensive essay on the films and Chytilová’s career by film programmer Peter Hames.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Second Run’s Something Different/A Bagful of Fleas DVD rates:
The Films (out of ****): ***
Film Elements Sourced: ***
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: *
Extra Features Overall: *

Second Run / 1962-1963 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 81+43 min / £12.99

PaulinePauline at the Beach
Kino Lorber

Summer is dissipating in Eric Rohmer’s Pauline at the Beach (1983), as the lovelorn look to soak up the last of the sun on the beaches of Brittany. As one might expect, Pauline is one of Rohmer’s typically witty and incisive pictures of the foibles of modern romance, with characters who wax philosophically about the meaning of love but make decisions driven by jealousy, impulsiveness or worse. Everyone adopts a carefree attitude — it’s the beach, after all! — but Rohmer teases out their gnawing pits of insecurity, each as desperate to be loved as they are to grasp the waning bits of summer.

The exception is Pauline (Amanda Langlet), a 15-year-old on vacation with older cousin Marion (Arielle Dombasle). Marion, recently separated from her husband, draws attention from all over the beach, including from onetime lover Pierre (Pascal Greggory), who would be whining about the friendzone if this movie were made today, and the middle-aged Henri (Féodor Atkine), whose urbane manner may or may not be a façade.

Marion condescends to Pauline about falling in love, but Pauline is wise enough to stay disentangled from the sexual intrigue that roils Marion’s associations with Henri and Pierre, even as Marion tries her best to pull her in. Instead, Pauline opts for a relationship with Sylvain (Simon de La Brosse), which she values for its forthrightness. Unfortunately, that doesn’t last, as even he gets caught up in the carousel of deception.

Rohmer’s conception of Pauline sidesteps tired ideas about her losing her innocence (it’s fading just like the summer sun!) and positions her as a uniquely wise voice and a woman clearly aware of her own sexual agency despite her lack of experience. Langlet’s phenomenally nuanced performance — hesitant but resolute — affirms it.

Rightly revered for his conversational, penetrating dialogue, Rohmer also demonstrates his considerable visual chops here, aided by Néstor Almendros’s gorgeous, primary-color heavy cinematography, which looks outstanding on Kino’s Blu-ray release. Presented in 1080p with a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, the transfer is vibrant, detailed and film-like, with stable grain levels throughout. The elements aren’t in perfect shape, evidenced most clearly by some persistent speckling, but Kino’s disc is an excellent option for those who don’t want to take the plunge on the massive Potemkine box set of Rohmer’s complete filmography. It also features a 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track that’s clean and precise — perfect for the dialogue-heavy film.

Extras include an excerpt from a 1996 episode of Cinema de Notre Temps in which Rohmer discusses the making of the film, as well as a trailer and a booklet with an essay by critic Michelle Orange.

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

Kino Lorber / 1983 / Color / 1.66:1 / 94 min / $29.95

bitter riceBitter Rice
The Criterion Collection

Neorealism is the obvious backbone of Giuseppe De Santis’s Bitter Rice, which sets its story among the laboring class in the rice fields of Northern Italy, but this is a film that boldly flaunts its genre fluidity, moving from labor-focused naturalism to lurid melodrama, sprinkled with stylistic flourishes one might expect in film noir or a musical.

Silvana (Silvana Mangano, in a star-making role) is on her way to work as a planter in the rice fields, a strictly female-dominated job thanks to the dexterity required, when she notices Walter (Vittorio Gassman) and Francesca (Hollywood star Doris Dowling) on the run from the law. The couple has just stolen an expensive necklace, but hot pursuit from the authorities forces them to split up, with Walter disappearing and Francesca attempting to blend in with the planters.

Silvana is alternately suspicious and welcoming of Francesca, her motives not entirely clear, even as she helps convince the bosses that Francesca and other non-permitted workers should get a spot in the fields. While De Santis’s naturalistic portrayal of the communal nature of the laborers’ lives is textbook neorealism, the tangled relationships between Walter, Silvana, Francesca and soldier Marco (Raf Vallone) build to a pulpy, hothouse frenzy.

Mangano’s alluring performance is introduced by the first of several scenes where she dances to her portable phonograph surrounded by onlookers, basically daring anyone to not be attracted to her. She rebuffs Marco, but finds herself drawn to Walter when he arrives back on the scene, scheming to steal all the rice the workers have collected over the previous weeks.

The ultimate confrontation between the four central characters is blunt and garish, a pulpy crime finale plopped down in the midst of a pro-labor drama and a portrait of a character haunted by regret. Here, De Santis makes incongruity one of his film’s greatest strengths.

Criterion’s Bitter Rice Blu-ray offers up a solid, if unspectacular, transfer, sourced from the 35mm original camera negative. The 1080p, 1.33:1 image tends to the softer side of things, with a couple of scenes that appear downright blurry. There’s some black crush in darker scenes, but grayscale separation is mostly good. Otherwise, fine detail is decent and images are sharp and clean when the source allows for it. The uncompressed mono audio is quite crisp and clean.

This is one of Criterion’s increasingly rare lower-price-point titles, so even though there are only a couple of extras, it’s a fairly substantial package by that standard. Screenwriter Carlo Lizzanni’s 2008 documentary on De Santis is nearly an hour long and presents a nice overview of the director’s career, while a brief archival interview with Lizzanni details his involvement with Bitter Rice. A trailer and an insert with an essay by critic Pasquale Iannone are also included.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Criterion’s Bitter Rice 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: **

Criterion Collection / 1949 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 109 min / $29.95

fantomasLouis Feuillade’s Fantômas
Kino Lorber

Whether you approach them as artifacts of a developing art form, prototypes of suspense classics or self-contained, gleefully entertaining crime yarns, Louis Feuillade’s five Fantômas (1913-1914) films are more than worthwhile. Insanely prolific, Feuillade was also the master of the espionage serial in the early silent film era, following up Fantômas with Les Vampires and Judex.

Based on the novellas by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, Feuillade’s films chronicle the exploits of the titular assassin (René Navarre), a shape-shifting, skulking presence always one step ahead of his pursuers, Inspector Juve (Edmund Bréon) and journalist Fandor (Georges Melchior). In all but one of the five feature-length segments, Feuillade introduces him the same way: an ordinary enough medium shot of Navarre that takes on menacing undertones as the image dissolves, showcasing the variety of disguises he’ll don in that episode.

That sudden, unexplainable menace is part of what makes the Fantômas films so consistently engaging. For the most part, these are not formally adventurous films, the camera sitting back observing in master-shot mode for minutes on end, action developing slowly or not at all. But things have a tendency to take an abrupt turn to the surreal, whether it’s the revelation that crimes have been committed by a man wearing gloves made of skin or the macabre discovery of a corpse after a wall begins bleeding. These visual surprises are opposed by narratives that are sturdily, resolutely familiar, as each near capture by Juve and Fandor is thwarted by one last (ludicrous, improbably entertaining) trick up Fantômas’s sleeve.

The first four films, in which Fantômas frames an actor for his crimes, orchestrates a train heist, poses as a dead man and pretends to be an American detective, among numerous other schemes, don’t vary greatly, but in the fifth, The False Magistrate (1914), Feuillade takes a big leap forward. Suddenly, there is editing within scenes, cutting on action and a stunt-heavy sequence in a bell tower that’s more dynamic that anything that’s come before. There’s inherent interest in this pulpy material, but it’s Feuillade’s evolving style that makes Fantômas so fascinating.

Kino’s two-disc set presents the five films in 1080p, 1.33:1 transfers that have to be seen to be believed. Based on 4K restorations by Gaumont and Le Centre national du cinema, each transfer is stunningly detailed, sharp and remarkably free of damage. Grain is rendered beautifully, and images are consistently film-like throughout. I don’t think I’ve seen a more impressive home video transfer of a film more than 100 years old. Audio is unfortunately a lossy 2.0 track, but there aren’t any apparent issues.

Extras are ported over from Kino’s 2010 DVD release, and include commentary tracks on the first two films from (the incisive and insightful, as always) David Kalat, a short doc on Feuillade’s career, an image gallery and two Feuillade shorts, The Nativity (1910) and The Dwarf (1912).

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

Kino Lorber / 1913-1914 / Black and white with color tints / 1.33:1 / 355 min / $49.95

victoriaVictoria
Adopt Films

The one-take film is becoming something of a formal cliché these days, and whether it’s just an imitation of the technique, like in Birdman (2014), or a film that literally contains no edits, it’s an exercise that generally draws more attention to its own difficulty than enhancing the actual content (not to mention the form) of the film.

The latest — but undoubtedly not the last — example is Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria (2015), perhaps the most impressive single-shot film yet made if we’re judging solely by degree of difficulty. Cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s camera follows a group of people all over several Berlin neighborhoods, with numerous location changes. One certainly marvels at the logistical feat, but the film is predicated completely on its sense of urgency, which the lack of cutting detracts from about as much as it adds to. This is a film that feels like it consists of 60 percent transitional scenes, characters simply moving from place to place. There’s a reason continuity editing was invented.

The real problem with Victoria is that its premise and its characters just aren’t that interesting, despite a lively lead performance from Laia Costa as Victoria, a young Spanish woman who falls in with a group of Berliners after a late night out at a club. There’s a near-instant attraction between her and Sonne (Frederick Lau), but her connection with the group escalates quickly and improbably, as she agrees to act as their getaway driver during a bank robbery — an act mandated by a gangster with ties to the group.

The film’s early scenes of friends drunkenly chatting and ambling around the city in the middle of the night have a kind of shaggy appeal, even if the repetition becomes enervating, but the big action setpieces are mostly a disaster — frantic flurries of movement, but nothing resembling a lucid moment. Victoria aims for controlled chaos, but with every resource seemingly aimed at just keeping the shot going, there’s little of interest in the way these scenes are blocked or performed. Those are deficiencies that the supposed inherent intensity of a single take can’t make up for.

Adopt Films’ Blu-ray offers a 1080p, 2.40:1 image that’s limited by the production background. The digital images are decently detailed, but don’t expect to be blown away by anything, as the mostly low-light shooting environments make for a rather murky, hazy image much of the time. The lossy 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack packs some punch during the noisy club scenes, but is quite muddled during the numerous exchanges of dialogue, necessitating some remote riding throughout.

With a single-take film, the production background stands a good chance of being more interesting than the film itself. Sadly, you won’t get any information on that here, as the Blu-ray disc is completely barebones.

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

Adopt Films / 2015 / Color / 2.40:1 / 138 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.

Chaplin Featured

Blu-ray and DVD Review Round-Up: Films by Charlie Chaplin, The Quay Brothers, Vojtěch Jasný & more!

All My Good CountrymenAll My Good Countrymen (Všichni dobří rodáci, 1968)
Second Run DVD

Winner of the Best Director and Jury Prize at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival, and voted by critics one of the top three Czech films ever made, Vojtěch Jasný’s All My Good Countrymen is a film whose pleasures unfold slowly. Miloš Forman called Jasný “the spiritual father of the Czech New Wave,” but this isn’t necessarily a film that prominently displays any new wave bona fides, instead utilizing a classically edited episodic structure and voiceover narration that’s almost purely literary in nature.

Nevertheless, one shouldn’t expect something staid or dull from Jasný’s film, which combines intimate, interpersonal storytelling with flashes of lyrical visual style, best seen in its gorgeous shots of golden fields and flocks of birds flying, which almost function like pillow shots between the film’s various episodes. The autobiographical film weaves together the stories of a number of residents of a small Moravian village, from just after WWII until just before the events of the Prague Spring in 1968. The joy of post-WWII liberation soon gives way to fears of a Communist takeover, and the subsequent period of collectivization issues in an era of totalitarian rule in which friends and neighbors are pitted against one another.

That sense of a community rent and fractured informs the ultimately elegiac tone of All My Good Countrymen, which sketches the stories of half a dozen villagers, including church organist Ocenás (Vlastimil Brodský), tailor Franta (Václav Babka) and petty thief Jorka (Vladimír Mensík), whose cleft palate earns him the nickname “Lithpy” and who provides the majority of the goofy comedic sensibility Jasný uses to leaven the proceedings. Eventually, it’s farmer Frantisek (Radoslav Brzobohatý) who emerges as the film’s de facto protagonist and leads the futile charge in resisting attempts to have landowners’ property seized.

All My Good Countrymen makes the political personal with its vignettes of small-town life in a rapidly changing European landscape, and it’s presented by Second Run in a beautiful, convincingly film-like DVD edition that’s sourced from a new restoration from the Czech National Archive. Accompanying the feature is Jasný’s 1969 short film Bohemian Rhapsody (Česká rapsodie), a dialogue-free reverie that makes a good companion piece to Countrymen by virtue of its stirring images of assembled crowds, punctuated by close-ups of expressive faces. The set also includes a booklet with an essay by author and film programmer Peter Hames.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Second Run’s All My Good Countrymen DVD rates:
The Film (out of ****): ***
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: **
Extra Features Overall: **

Second Run DVD / 1968 / Color / 1.33:1 / 115 min / £12.99

MoanaMoana With Sound (1926/1980)
Kino Lorber

Robert Flaherty’s early films Nanook of the North (1922) and Moana more closely resemble fiction than documentary, though his pioneering techniques set the stage for our current conceptions of nonfiction filmmaking. (They also — even inadvertently — anticipate questions about the possibility of truthful images in film; can any documentary, no matter the filmmaking process, be considered a document free of fiction?)

Originally shot as a silent film by Flaherty and his wife, Frances Hubbard Flaherty, Moana examines the life of Samoan people on the South Seas island of Savai’i. Decades later, their daughter, Monica Flaherty, traveled back to capture nat sound, which led to a re-release of the film under the title Moana With Sound.

If the obviously staged scenes of islanders capturing a wild boar in a trap or undergoing a solemn tattoo ritual were factually dubious before, the addition of the soundtrack, which carefully dubs both environmental sounds and dialogue (ascertained by lip-reading), really pushes it over the edge.

Nevertheless, Moana at its best is transporting filmmaking, and the added audio certainly adds to the immersion. Despite being recorded more than 50 years apart, the conjunction of scenes of ceremonial dances with authentic regional songs has a kind of hypnotic beauty. It’s relatively easy to ignore the rather forced plot about a young man’s coming of age while absorbing the Flahertys’ images.

That’s perhaps nowhere more evident than in a sequence where islanders swim and spear-fish in the ocean, their bodies seemingly merging with the water in a series of increasingly abstract shots. Moana is more of a fantasy of paradise than a serious look at the lives of those it depicts, but in moments like that one, it earns it.

Kino’s new Blu-ray release presents the film in a 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer, sourced from a new digital restoration by Bruce Posner and Sami van Ingen, the Flahertys’ grandson. The Blu-ray transfer and its digital source are both quite impressive, delivering a steady presentation free of major damage. Though the image remains a little soft throughout, detail and grayscale separation are strong. The uncompressed mono soundtrack can be a little harsh at points, and it’s not pristinely crisp, but given the circumstances it was created under, the track more than lives up to expectations.

The disc includes a number of valuable extras, including an HD version of Flaherty’s short film Twenty-Four-Dollar Island (1927). Filling in a number of the details behind the complicated production history is a 39-minute making-of, with extensive comments from restorer Posner. Posner also details his restoration in a 12-minute featurette. Historian Enrico Camporesi adds some comments in a short piece, while archival material includes a 1960 interview with Frances and some Flaherty home movies. A trailer is also included.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Kino Lorber’s Moana With Sound 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: ****

Kino Lorber / 1926/1980 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 98 min / $34.95

ChaplinChaplin’s Essanay Comedies (1915)
Flicker Alley

Following their restorations of Charlie Chaplin’s 1914 Keystone films and his 1916-1917 Mutual comedies, Lobster Films and Cineteca di Bologna completes the 12-year Chaplin Project with his films at Essanay, 15 key transitional works from 1915, now available in a luxe 5-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo set from Flicker Alley.

Like Flicker Alley’s previous Chaplin sets and last year’s Mack Sennett Collection: Vol. One, Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies is as valuable for its educational value as its entertainment quotient; the evolution of a comedy legend plays out incrementally before our eyes. It was at Essanay that Chaplin’s signature blend of humor and pathos really began to take shape and his Tramp character was fleshed out from a rakish scoundrel to a more melancholy one, each step forward often accompanied by one or more backward. In the appropriately titled The Tramp, Chaplin incorporates an atypically unhappy ending, with an iris in on the solitary tramp as he shuffles away down the road, his heart broken by unrequited love.

Not all of the films hint toward a paradigm shift. Earlier efforts His New Job, where the Tramp lucks into stardom on a movie set, and In the Park, in which he wreaks havoc on a relaxing couple, are increasingly repetitive gag machines, and though Work demonstrates Chaplin’s growing ability to construct mounting anarchic madness, the bits remain solidly of the knock-down, drag-out variety, which can grow tiresome.

Nevertheless, pleasures abound in these films, even if they’re limited to minor gestural bits of brilliance, one of Chaplin’s greatest comic abilities. Witness the way he attempts to entice a bulldog with a sausage in The Champion, forced to douse it in salt for the picky pooch. Or the way he plops a lampshade on a figurine of a woman, turning it into a skirt he can peek up in Work. Or the way he dishes up donuts in A Woman, far funnier than any of the drag work to come (which, to be fair, is still pretty funny).

Later films in the set display Chaplin’s increasing facilities for story structure (The Bank), parody (Burlesque on Carmen, later expanded by the studio into an unauthorized four-reeler) and social commentary (Police). Whether viewers are interested in tracking the origin of Chaplin’s comic ideas or simply enjoying his nascent but prodigious physical talents, Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies is an essential set.

The 1080p, 1.33:1 transfers are sourced from the Chaplin Project’s 2K restorations, a heroic feat of elements discovery and patchwork of disparate sources. Original negatives did not survive, so these transfers are pieced together from a variety of elements, and the resulting picture quality is remarkably consistent, major fluctuations few and far between. Despite the ubiquity of fine scratches, picture quality ranges from solid to exceptional, with some shots displaying truly stunning clarity. These new restorations easily offer the best available home video versions of these films. The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio scores by Robert Israel, the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra and the Teatro Comunale di Bologna Orchestra are clear and vibrant.

Flicker Alley’s set includes two bonus films, both bastardized versions of Chaplin’s works. Charlie Butts In was assembled from alternate takes from A Night Out, while Triple Trouble compiles scenes, some unused, from several Chaplin films. The set also includes a booklet with detailed liner notes from historian Jeffrey Vance.

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

Flicker Alley / 1915 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 405 min / $59.95

Code UnknownCode Unknown (Code inconnu: Récit incomplet de divers voyages, 2000)
The Criterion Collection

There have been seemingly endless films that feature the lives of a variety of disparate characters intersecting in subtle and not so subtle ways, most culminating in some banal variation on the idea that “everyone is connected.” Michael Haneke, ever the iconoclast, proceeds down a similar path, only his conclusion is that everyone is disconnected, both from strangers and their intimates, and even themselves. Maybe this isn’t a unique idea either — urban alienation and ennui being common arthouse touchstones — but Haneke’s approach, both clinical and unbearably direct at turns, makes for a compelling exploration of the theme.

Code Unknown deals primarily with literal alienation, as immigrants struggle to achieve equal footing with French nationals in the Paris-set film. Every interaction is charged, fraught with rippling tension that’s as threatening as a powder keg.

The film, divided into single-shot tableaux by cuts to black, sets that tone early with a brilliant, zig-zagging, nearly 10-minute take on a Paris boulevard, where disillusioned teen Jean (Alexandre Hamidi) tosses some trash into the lap of begging Romanian immigrant Maria (Luminita Gheorghiu). This attracts the attention of Amadou (Ona Lu Yenke), a man of African descent who demands that Jean apologize for the indignity. The commotion attracts the police and Anne (Juliette Binoche), who is the girlfriend of Jean’s older brother, Georges (Thierry Neuvic). In the end, Maria gets deported, Amadou is arrested and Jean is sent back to the country where his father is waiting on the family farm.

The impact of this single event is felt throughout the remainder of the film, but rarely in obvious ways. Haneke fills in some backstory, giving us glimpses of Amadou’s family and Maria’s life back in Romania, but many of his discrete scenes are presented without obvious context or a deceptive set-up. Are we seeing something from Anne’s own life or is she shooting a scene in one of her projects as an actor? The integrity of images is also questioned via Georges’ work as a war photographer and his pet project of surreptitiously taking pictures of people on the metro — also the location of the film’s most powerful scene as Anne is rendered helpless by a harasser, her inability to communicate literalized.

Code Unknown is presented in a 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer, sourced from a 2K restoration of the original 35mm camera negative. Overall, the transfer is excellent, presenting sharp, detailed images and a nice film-like grain structure. Colors are muted, but consistent, and detail loss is minimal in low-light sequences. Damage is negligible. Unfortunately, there are several occurrences in the early boulevard sequence where the film seems to skip ahead a frame or two; whether this is the result of an error in the transfer or something inherent to the source material is unclear. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track doesn’t have any such issues, delivering a clean, dynamic track with crisp dialogue.

Criterion offers up a few new extras in addition to some previously available material. Both new supplements are interviews — one with Haneke and one with scholar Roy Grundmann, who traces Haneke’s career from his television work to his early theatrical work (including “The Glaciation Trilogy”) up to Code Unknown. Previously available features include a making-of featurette, a close-up look at the boulevard sequence, including storyboards and camera set-ups, and a brief introduction to the film from Haneke, in which his comments about European immigration seem especially prescient. Three teaser trailers and an insert with an essay by critic Nick James round out the extras.

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

The Criterion Collection / 2000 / Color / 1.85:1 / 117 min / $39.95

QuayThe Quay Brothers: Collected Short Films (1984-2003)
Zeitgeist Films

To watch a film by the Quay Brothers is to seemingly be transported directly into the (shared) mind of the twin-brother filmmakers, a cluttered workshop of discarded toys and repurposed found objects somewhere on the border between dream and nightmare. A recurring image in several Quay films features a doll, its skull neatly sliced open at a 45-degree angle, getting its brain matter yanked out in large tufts of stuffing, and it’s not difficult to imagines the brothers’ films originating the same way, the subconscious mined for indelibly haunting images.

Such a description shouldn’t be taken as a dismissal of the meticulous craft on display in the 15 short films included in Zeitgeist’s Blu-ray upgrade of their previous DVD collection. The majority of their films consist primarily of stop-motion animation, with some featuring hand-drawn animation or live-action material, but no matter the medium or the length of the film, one gets the sense of a complete world with its own bizarre brand of internal logic.

Two of the Quays most famous films feature forays into otherworldly studios full of tactile objects both wondrous and sinister. The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer (1984) pays tribute to their Czech contemporary (one whose influence on their work has possibly been overstated), as a book-headed instructor imparts knowledge to his apprentice, and both struggle to describe objects based only on touch. In Street of Crocodiles (1986), a liberated puppet finds itself exploring the crevices of someone else’s — or maybe its own — nightmares.

The Quays’ work and its sudden jolts of expressive imagery lends itself well to innovative advertising, whether it’s the brothers themselves producing it or simply the work of inspired copycats. Included in this set are four segments of the Stille Nacht movement (1988-1994), commissioned for music videos and cable TV interstitials, which the Quays approached as advertisements, albeit decidedly unusual ones.

The set also includes three new films not on Zeitgeist’s DVD release: Maska (2010), a Stanislaw Lem adaptation, Through the Weeping Glass (2011), a live-action tour of disconcerting medical exhibits, and Unmistaken Hands (2013), a tribute to Uruguyan writer Felisberto Hernández. Other highlights include fractured fairy tale The Comb (1990) and exploration of mental illness In Absentia (2000), both of which feel like private tragedy magnified into something apocalyptic.

The high-def transfers, all presented in the films’ original aspect ratios, are generally strong, given the inherent limitations imposed by stop-motion techniques. The films that benefit the most are those like Crocodiles or Stille Nacht I, where minutiae like dirt-crusted screws or thousands of accumulated iron filings are so finely detailed, one can truly appreciate their tactile qualities. 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks present faithful representations of droning music or craggy narration.

Not all of the extra features make the leap from DVD to Blu-ray, as several “footnote” films like Nocturna Artificialia (1979) and The Calligrapher (1991) are dropped, along with some interview snippets and trailers. Commentary tracks by the Quays for six films are carried over. New to the set is Quay superfan Christopher Nolan’s short documentary Quay (2015), in which he pays a visit to the brothers’ workshop. The set also includes a booklet with an introduction from Nolan, an expanded Quay Brothers Dictionary from Michael Brooke and an essay by Michael Atkinson.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Zeitgeist’s The Quay Brothers: Collected Short Films Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ***1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ***
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: **
Extra Features Overall: ***

Zeitgeist Films / 1984-2003 / Color and black and white / Various aspect ratios / 225 min / $34.95

StationsStations of the Elevated (1981)
Oscilloscope Laboratories

“City symphony” doesn’t seem like quite the right term for Manfred Kirchheimer’s Stations of the Elevated; its repetitions on a theme punctuated by sudden improvisatory bursts of color and sound are strongly reminiscent of jazz, a fact underlined by Charles Mingus’s fragmented score. Now out on DVD from Oscilloscope Laboratories with an excellent HD restoration, Stations of the Elevated deserves to rise out of obscurity and claim its place as a singular piece of avant-garde filmmaking.

Traversing across New York City’s boroughs, Kirchheimer’s camera affixes itself to moving trains, matching their pace; some shots whiz by while others linger, slowly snaking along like a train that’s just getting up to speed. Almost all of the carriages are emblazoned with graffiti — NYC legends Slave, Daze and Blade are among those represented — but the film never explicitly identifies any work or any artists. In Kirchheimer’s depiction of the city, humans only make their way into a few shots. There are some close-ups, but most are wide shots, the human figures seen in miniature or in abstract shadow play.

For graffiti fans, Stations of the Elevated is undoubtedly a vital document of a bygone era, but there’s plenty here for the uninitiated to latch onto, particularly Kirchheimer’s vision of the city as a supple, vibrant entity, and his examination of art in the public space. He juxtaposes images of tagged train cars with hand-painted billboard advertising, the colors that feel effervescent in the former just seeming garish in the latter.

Kirchheimer’s implicit condemnation of the commercial (but legal) work vis-à-vis the artistically authentic (but illegal) work could feel overplayed, even in a 45-minute film, but it’s basically impossible to resist the sly way he frames billboards of a gorilla clutching a hamburger or a cleavage-baring woman. While the graffiti-covered train cars are granted respectful center-of-frame shots, the billboards are all bisected, their images only seen in bits and pieces, the surrounding architecture or nature throwing their cheapness into sharp relief

Oscilloscope has put together an exceptional package in their two-DVD set, which also features Kirchheimer’s four films he made before Stations of the Elevated. Colossus on the River (1965) and Bridge High (1975) are balletic visions of a docking ocean liner and a trip across a suspension bridge. Claw (1968) pits man versus nature and man versus architecture in its screed against urban renewal. Short Circuit (1973) is the set’s only fiction film, a faux-verité examination of racial disparity. All of the films have been given a new HD transfer, sourced from the original 16mm elements. Each of is accompanied by an interview with Kirchheimer.

Additional extras are abundant, and include another interview with Kirchheimer about Stations of the Elevated, a discussion about the graffiti in the film with artists Lee Quinones and David Villorente, a short featurette comparing shooting locations then and now, a look at “Old Timers Day” at the sadly now defunct gallery and mural space 5Pointz and a short film on Kirchheimer’s life made by one of his students. The film treatment and script notes are also made available as a PDF file on the disc.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Oscilloscope’s Stations of the Elevated DVD rates:
The Film (out of ****): ***
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ***
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: ***1/2
Extra Features Overall: ***1/2

Oscilloscope Laboratories / 1981 / Color / 1.33:1 / 45 min / $27.99

 

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.

 

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.

Vanya

Blu-ray and DVD Review Round-Up: Films by Alexsei German, Albert Serra, Louis Malle & more!

3 FilmsAndré Gregory & Wallace Shawn: 3 Films
My Dinner with André (1981)
Vanya on 42nd Street (1994)
A Master Builder (2014)
The Criterion Collection

Filmed theater is not something too many cinephiles tend to get excited about, but the creative partnership of Wallace Shawn and André Gregory has generated some of the most compelling intersections of the two disciplines. In a new box set, Criterion includes the previously released Vanya on 42nd Street Blu-ray along with a newly upgraded My Dinner with André and the newly released A Master Builder.

While Dinner isn’t actually an adaptation of a play, Shawn and Gregory’s script could easily be imagined as a stage-bound two-hander, and the whole thing is steeped in the era’s New York independent theater milieu. Playing fictionalized versions of themselves, the pair reconnect over dinner, discussing their lives and the role theater plays before tumbling deeper and deeper into an existential discussion as Gregory waxes enthusiastically about a series of spiritual experiences.

André is a touchstone of talky cinema and a snapshot of artistic and intellectual ideas at a specific point in American history, but it’s a film that retained its vitality and originality throughout the decades, directed by the chameleonic Louis Malle with an unobtrusive grace.

Malle also captures lightning in a bottle in his final film, Vanya on 42nd Street, which stars Gregory as the director of a production of David Mamet’s translation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. The film represents the culmination of a privately workshopped production of the play, with Shawn as Vanya and Julianne Moore as Yelena. As I mentioned in my original review of the 2012 Blu-ray release:

The film is more than simply great theater frozen in time. The open-ended intersection of actor and character and the way the reality of a rehearsal and the reality of the events of the play mingle without a clear boundary between the two makes Vanya on 42nd Street a compelling and intriguing take on what it means to create art.

There’s a somewhat similar quality to A Master Builder, which brings to film an adaptation of the Ibsen play that had arisen from actors workshopping the material. Director Jonathan Demme’s close-up-heavy shooting style doesn’t do much to open up the play, but the performances here are engrossing regardless, particularly Lisa Joyce as a mysterious young woman who re-enters the life of accomplished architect Halvard Solness (Shawn).

Shawn’s adaptation of the play pushes it into more ambiguous territory, turning the bulk of the narrative into a hazy dream-like reverie where no characters’ motivations are totally clear. Demme mirrors the play’s shift from stone-cold reality to ego-trip fantasy with an obvious but effective visual conceit. Despite the fact that much of the film feels like a creation of Solness’s patriarchal desires gone mad, Joyce’s vivacious performance is like an invented character who won’t play by the rules of her creator, and a similarly complex turn from Julie Hagerty as beleaguered wife Aline follow suit.

The three discs come packaged in their own separate keepcases, the Vanya release identical to the original disc, and the strong 1.66:1 transfer therein. André has been given an impressive upgrade, the 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer bringing all the textural beauty of its 16mm materials to a grainy but highly detailed home video presentation. A Master Builder alternates from 1.78:1 to 2.35:1, switching from the prosumer Sony XDCAM to a 2K Arri Alexa. Obviously, the footage shot on the Sony is riddled with artifacts, but the Alexa footage is given a clean, crisp presentation of HD digital video. Extras on Vanya and André are identical to previous editions, while the Master Builder disc contains two conversations with Shawn and Gregory — one moderated by critic David Edelstein, the other with Fran Lebowitz — and an interview with Hagerty and Joyce. All three discs are also available separately.

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

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Criterion’s Vanya on 42nd Street Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ***1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: N/A
Extra Features Overall: **

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

The Criterion Collection / 1981, 1994, 2014 / Color / 1.66:1, 1.78:1, 2.35:1 / 111 min, 119 min, 127 min / $99.95

 

Hard to be a GodHard to be a God (2013)
Kino Lorber

The final film from Russian filmmaker Aleksei German, who died shortly before its completion, Hard to be a God is an intimidating and punishing work of art. This is a fact that cannot be overstated. Cerebrally, viscerally, you name it — in every way, this is a difficult film.

It also represents the culmination of decades of planning from German, whose work remains almost completely invisible in the United States, and the labor of love is immediately apparent from the first frames. “World-building” is a term that gets thrown around a lot in sci-fi and fantasy contexts, as the most successful works of fiction in both genres are able to create a tactile sense of place. Well, Hard to be a God might be the greatest example of world-building ever committed to film, as its overwhelming design and camerawork plunges the viewer into an enveloping environment composed entirely of mud, shit, spit, blood and decay.

Both oppressive and expansive in its design, the film adapts the sci-fi novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (Stalker), set on the planet of Arkanar, which is in the midst of its own particularly brutal medieval period. Several scientists from Earth have been sent to the planet to observe, but they’re powerless to make any changes to a society defined as much by proud ignorance as unrelenting violence and a complete disregard for hygiene.

German’s insatiably curious camera and his commitment to jaw-dropping production design have to be witnessed, despite the film’s often inscrutable plot and the merciless depiction of all sorts of horrific violence and stomach-churning body secretions. You might want to, but you can’t look away — and even if you did, it’d be hard to escape the similarly oppressive sound design, which is often dominated by hacking coughs that sound like death itself.

Kino’s Blu-ray release of Hard to be a God is very nice, its 1.66:1, 1080p transfer looking exceptionally clean and sharp throughout. Black levels are deep and full, with nuanced grayscale separation and clean whites in the very brief moments when a snow-covered ground hasn’t been defiled yet. Both 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD soundtracks are included.

Although a forthcoming Arrow Video UK release looks to have the Kino beat handily in terms of extras, there’s some good material on this disc, including a 44-minute behind-the-scenes documentary and a lengthy introduction by co-screenwriter Svetlana Karmalita. The package also includes a booklet with a director’s statement from German, and essays from his son, Alexey German Jr. and critic Aliza Ma.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Kino Lorber’s Hard to be a God Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ****
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: ***1/2
New Extra Features: **1/2
Extra Features Overall: **1/2
Kino Lorber / 2013 / Black and white / 1.66:1 / 177 min / $34.95


Story of My DeathStory of My Death (2013)
Second Run DVD

Albert Serra brings his idiosyncratic sense of historical fiction to Story of My Death (Història de la meva mort), a conflation of the legends of Casanova and Dracula, envisioned as an epochal shift between the 18th and 19th centuries.

Serra’s work is both baroque and austere, lavishly composed digital shots that linger and linger in a familiar slow cinema mode. Despite its languid pace, the film begins with a reasonably recognizable narrative structure before gradually morphing into a series of highly abstracted scenes, the arrival of Count Dracula (Eliseu Huertas) ushering in a time of brooding, mystical violence.

With Dracula representing the Romanticism that would supplant Rationalism, the figure is less of a character than a force, perhaps not so much malevolent as merely indifferent. Vicenç Altaió’s Casanova is more broadly drawn, an aging letch who’s aware of his impending mortality but who isn’t compelled to discard his licentious tendencies. Whether in sex or in bodily function, he’s a man unashamed. (One of the film’s most memorable scenes has him straining to take a shit, laughing at himself and immediately returning to a wafery bonbon once the deed is done.)

Serra’s skill at coaxing striking imagery from lower-grade digital cameras is apparent throughout; both delicate, shadowed shots of man in nature and more traditional costume drama tableaus. The film’s transition from talky philosophizing to nearly wordless mood piece can be challenging, as is the dissolution of the already tenuous narrative markers. It’s a film that’s both energizing and enervating at times, but there’s plenty to admire for those willing to slog through.

Second Run’s presentation of the 2.35:1 film is a strong representation of the film’s digital photography, although be prepared to squint a bit during some of the extreme lowlight scenes. Both 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround sound options are included.  Extras include Serra’s tribute to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the 2013 short Cuba Libre, and a booklet with an entertaining conversation between Serra and Ben Rivers (Two Years at Sea).

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Second Run’s Story of My Death DVD rates:
The Film (out of ****): ***
Film Elements Sourced: **1/2
Video Transfer: ***
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: **1/2
Extra Features Overall: **1/2
Second Run DVD / 2013 / Color / 2.35:1 / 144 min / £12.99 / Region 2 (PAL)


Jekyll and OsbourneThe Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne
(1981)
Arrow Video

After releasing probably the most ambitious box set of the year in 2014, Camera Obscura: The Walerian Borowczyk Collection, Arrow Video has quickly followed up with another film from the oft-misunderstood Polish filmmaker in editions available both in the UK and the newly minted U.S. line. Like many of Borowczyk’s films, this adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel was branded in some markets as an exploitation piece, but it’s actually an unusual, beguiling portrait of the madness of desire.

Set in a Victorian house during the engagement party of Henry Jekyll (Udo Kier) and Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro), the film begins quickly dispatching victims of rape and murder, with Borowczyk’s camera peering through cracked doorways and around corners like a quiet observer hoping not to be noticed. The “who” is immediately obvious, but the “why” is far more intriguing, and the film’s elliptical scenes start to put together a portrait of a man consumed.

Never before available on DVD or Blu-ray, Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne has long languished in home video hell before Arrow’s release, which frankly represents something of a miracle. Sourced from a conscientious 2K restoration, scanned from the original camera negative, the 1.66:1, 1080p transfer here is outstanding, with great depth of image and color reproduction. The look of the film is rather soft, but it’s apparent that this was the intended appearance. Uncompressed mono versions of the original French track and an English dub are included. As a French-West German co-production, there wasn’t one language unifying the actors, so there’s dubbing whichever way you go.

Even by lofty Arrow standards, the extras on this release are incredibly comprehensive. A sampling: a lengthy introduction by critic Michael Brooke, a commentary track featuring new and archival interviews with cast and crew, including Borowczyk and Kier, multiple interviews with cast and admirers, featurettes on the film’s music and the filmmaker’s silent cinema influences, and quite a bit more. The film is likely to attract divisive opinions, but there’s plenty here to make a case for this atmospheric horror.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Arrow Video’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): **1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ****
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: ****
Extra Features Overall: ****
Arrow Video / 1981 / Color / 1.66:1, 1.78:1, 2.35:1 / 90 min / $39.95


U TurnU Turn
(1997)
Twilight Time

Oliver Stone’s sunbaked neo-noir U Turn is a frenetic flurry of sound and image, all jump cuts and garish compositions and heavily processed photography from the great Robert Richardson. The charged aesthetic is probably better suited to the frivolous plot convolutions here than in one of Stone’s many heavy-handed political works, but as is often the case, Stone struggles to modulate his eccentric tendencies.

Sean Penn glowers through the film as a drifter on his way to Vegas to pay off a gambling debt who gets stranded in a middle-of-nowhere desert town. A number of stars are on hand to embarrass themselves, especially Billy Bob Thornton as the redneck mechanic who takes in Penn’s car, but a bit turn from Jon Voight as a blind Native American runs a close second.

After a flirtatious encounter with a beautiful woman (Jennifer Lopez, hopelessly flat without Steven Soderbergh behind the camera), Penn is confronted by jealous husband Nick Nolte, who flies into a rage before attempting to enlist him in a plot to kill the woman.

Stone’s sense of humor is mis-calibrated throughout, but a lesser Ennio Morricone score and Richardson’s shots of the wide-open spaces of Arizona are pretty good assets. U Turn isn’t a particularly well-made film, but it’s more fun than it seems like it will be at the outset.

Twilight Time packages a swell Sony 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer here, with deeply saturated colors and nicely textured images, given a highly unnatural look thanks to much of the film being shot on reversal stock. The 5.1 DTS-HD track is active and vibrant, with Morricone’s score and the hyper sound design served well.

Extras include two commentary tracks, one featuring Stone and another with production exec Mike Medavoy and Twilight Time head honcho Nick Redman. There’s also a brief intro from Stone along with the customary Twilight Time isolated score track. A trailer also makes the cut.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Twilight Time’s U Turn 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
Twilight Time / 1997 / Color / 1.85:1 / 124 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.