Wendy and Lucy (2008)
There’s a scene in Kelly Reichardt’s first masterpiece, Wendy and Lucy, when Michelle Williams’ Wendy is apprehended by a self-righteous teenager working at a small-town Oregon grocery store. She’s trying to shoplift a few cans of barf diet for dogs, Lucy, who’s tied up outside. He hauls her back to the manager’s office, with an indignant quaver in his voice. “The rules apply to everyone equally,” he says. Reichardt, who’s quite possibly the greatest working American filmmaker, keeps the camera on Williams, whose hardened gaze flickers for a moment of incredulity at this statement. The rules apply to everyone equally? Like hell they do.
Wendy and Lucy is one of the most affecting portraits of working-class disaffection in American film. A life on the margins is acutely felt in Reichardt’s images of a gas-station bathroom, a desolate parking lot, a quieted port town, the inside of a busted Honda Accord. There’s beauty too: a stranger who’s kind for no reason other than being kind or the relationship one has with a dog. Lucy, played by Reichardt’s own dog, is a symbol of unadulterated good in a world that takes very little notice of her owner, a woman chasing opportunity in Alaska, if she can only get there.
Reichardt’s eye for striking, unexpected compositions reveals the strangeness in ordinary life and the inner turmoil that’s often hiding underneath a placid surface. There have been a lot of great performances in Reichardt films, particularly in her most recent film, Certain Women, which would have made Lily Gladstone a major star in a just world. But Williams is her ideal collaborator, a performer who pulls back the veil on an inner life with the slightest of gestures. Wendy and Lucy is often described as a small film but it’s not; it’s an expansive one, every character movement and pillow shot of Pacific Northwest terrain building to a devastating emotional climax.
After months of kicking myself for not picking up Soda’s UK Reichardt Blu-ray box before it went OOP, I’m grateful to Oscilloscope for upgrading Wendy and Lucy. (Now we could just use an Old Joy upgrade stateside.) The 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer is very pleasing, significantly improving on the DVD’s handling of the 16mm grain, which looks natural and well-supported here. Colors are true and clarity is strong. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is excellent. Some retrospective extras would have been welcome for a film of this stature, but nothing new is added from the DVD. The intriguing selection of experimental films by Reichardt’s Bard College colleagues remains a great bonus feature though.
Oscilloscope Laboratories / 2008 / Color / 1.78:1 / 80 min / $32.99
Personal Problems (1980-1981)
A fascinating work of collaboration and experimentation, the “meta-soap opera” Personal Problems is a landmark of Black independent filmmaking, resurrected from the ashes of deteriorating video tape with a new restoration from Kino. Conceived by Ishmael Reed, Steve Cannon and director Bill Gunn, the two-part film/television hybrid casts a restless eye on a family led by the irrepressible Johnnie Mae (Vertamae Grosvenor), an emergency room nurse in Harlem.
Consisting of direct-to-camera address, kitchen-sink domestic strife, musical interludes, nature interludes, juicy if undecipherable gossip and what seems like the whole range of human emotions, Personal Problems contains multitudes. It’s compelling and enervating in almost equal parts. Gunn’s curious video camera always seems to be in the right place to catch a moment, and the smearing inherent in the format lends both a verité-like realism and an otherworldly effect.
Part one, which revels in Gunn’s unusual cutting a little more, features an indelible performance from Grosvenor, whose Johnnie Mae is caught in a love triangle with her emotionally inconsistent husband (Walter Cotton, one of the project’s other originators) and a musician (Sam Waymon, Nina Simone’s brother). Though Personal Problems possesses the building blocks of soap-opera drama — affairs, unwelcome family members, unexpected death — it’s not organized around them. Though the film would benefit from staying centered on Johnnie Mae’s experiences, as Grosvenor is easily its standout actor, it’s approach is far too diffuse to be satisfied by that.
In part two, the focus tightens some with a very long scene set at a wake, and the complaints of a grieving family member become as grating to the viewer as they do the characters. One longs for the “unfocused” escape the first part would have provided. Personal Problems doesn’t play by the rules of narrative though — even rules it seemed to be following just minutes earlier. One can only imagine what a full season of this would have looked like.
Kino’s Blu-ray offers a 1080p, 1.33:1 image that is obviously limited by the capabilities of the 3/4” U-matic tape Personal Problems was shot on. But taking the smearing, ghosting and interlacing as a feature not a bug, it’s easy to appreciate the relative clarity of the image. Hiss is persistent, if not omnipresent, and the audio is pretty clean otherwise, taking into account the intentionally muffled sound of some overlapping dialogue. The disc is also a carefully assembled special edition, with preliminary video and radio versions, deleted scenes, cast and crew interviews, Q&A from the restoration premiere and a booklet with essays by Reed and author Nicholas Forster.
Kino Lorber / 1980-1981 / Color / 1.33:1 / 164 min / $29.95
A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
Before viewing the new Criterion disc, it had been a while since I’d seen A Matter of Life and Death, and in my memory, it was mid-lower tier Powell and Pressburger, which is hardly faint praise given the high quality of the pair’s output. But still, it wasn’t major in my recollection. Well, that was a stupid thought.
The new 4K restoration of the three-strip Technicolor is certainly a factor — those reds, my god — but I’m not sure how I missed the reality that this is just a perfect movie, a fantasy in which the universe’s most ecstatic pleasures are earthly delights. The inversion of the expected — heaven’s scenes are in black and white, earth’s are in color — is a brilliant conceit. When WWII RAF pilot Peter Carter (David Niven) cheats death by surviving a jump from his burning plane, he emerges from the sea reborn into an idyllic paradise. Who can fault him for thinking he died and went to beachfront heaven? (Meanwhile, in the strict environs of the real thing, his dead buddy is bending the rules simply by waiting for him to arrive.)
When Peter realizes he hasn’t died, and he can actually pursue a relationship with the woman he fell for over the radio in his presumed final moments, he grabs the opportunity wholeheartedly, as does June (Kim Hunter), the American radio operator. And if love weren’t enough of a reason to exult in living, how about friendship, as offered by the magnanimous Dr. Frank Reeves (Roger Livesey, never more rakishly charming).
When the forces of heaven try to correct their accounting to atone for Peter’s accidental survival, the trio must mount a defense. A Matter of Life and Death seamlessly shifts from ebullient love story to wry celestial courtroom drama as metaphor for US-Britain-European relations, which might be the most ringing endorsement of Pressburger’s screenwriting adroitness there is. Powell, Pressburger, cinematographer Jack Cardiff and production designer Alfred Junge made so many capital-G Great films, it’s almost mind-boggling. To think I once thought A Matter of Life and Death wasn’t among them? Stupid.
Criterion’s 1080p, 1.37:1 Blu-ray presentation of the 4K restoration is remarkable, showcasing exceptional depth, astounding color and perfectly clean black and white images. The three-strip Technicolor restoration is impeccable, with none of the color inconsistencies that were present on the old Sony DVD release. The uncompressed mono soundtrack is exceptionally clean. A stunning disc for a stunning film. Ported over from the Sony DVD are Ian Christie’s audio commentary and a Martin Scorsese introduction. Newly filmed are an interview with Thelma Schoonmaker and a featurette on the film’s visual effects. A 1986 episode of The South Bank Show features Powell, while short doc The Colour Merchant focuses on Cardiff’s career. A restoration demonstration and an insert with an essay by critic Stephanie Zacharek are also included.
Criterion Collection / 1946 / Color/Black and white / 1.37:1 / 104 min / $39.95
Rocco and His Brothers (1960)
Is Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers a work of neorealism or melodrama? Certainly, the film sits somewhere at the intersection of the two, but for me, the film can be most appreciated for its bravura emotional flourishes. It may depict hardscrabble lives, but it does so with the same operatic charge given to the depiction of aristocracies in Senso and The Leopard.
The apparent neatness of the structure, in which each of the five brothers of a working-class Italian family is afforded a delineated section, belies the film’s messy sprawl, which Visconti luxuriates in. The intra-country fractures are writ small, playing out in the conflicts of a family who moves north to Milan.
The major players, brothers Simone (Renato Salvatori) and Rocco (Alain Delon), clash over their dispositional differences — Simone is a pugilist inside and outside of the ring, Rocco is sensitive — and their shared interest in Nadia (Annie Girardot), a prostitute who both brothers use and abuse in different ways. While Simone’s actions are far more egregious, Rocco’s attempts to play savior aren’t necessarily any better for Nadia, or for the family at large.
While all five brothers are constantly trying and failing to live up to the expectations of their religious, domineering mother (Katina Paxinou), it’s Rocco who takes on the biggest burden, and perhaps sets himself up for the most failure. Visconti raises the stakes expertly, every small disappointment or minor fit of rage a stepping stone toward the ultimate tragedy to come. The tragedy is both deeply personal and emblematic of the violent cultural and class shifts in postwar Italy. Looking at it from that perspective, the divide between melodrama and neorealism isn’t so obvious.
Milestone’s Blu-ray release features a 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer sourced from the same 4K restoration as the earlier UK Masters of Cinema release. Largely, this is an excellent transfer, full of impressive levels of fine detail and excellent grayscale reproduction. Image density and clarity can be inconsistent due to the condition of the elements, but the restoration has largely mitigated the damage that’s to blame for this. Overall, the film looks great, and the 2.0 uncompressed mono audio is solid, given the expected limitations of Italian post-sync dubbing of the era.
Milestone has wisely given the nearly three-hour film its own disc, shared just with the Martin Scorsese introduction. Disc two features a newly filmed interview with Caterina d’Amico, daughter of screenwriter Suso Cecchi d’Amico, as well as archival cast and crew interviews, a brief selection of outtakes and a restoration demonstration.
Milestone Films / 1960 / Black and white / 1.85:1 / 177 min / $39.95
Two Films by Hong Sangsoo: Woman is the Future of Man (2004) and Tale of Cinema (2005)
It can be difficult to keep up or catch up with South Korean filmmaker Hong Sangsoo, both because of his prolific output (he’s made about two-dozen features in just over two decades) and because many of his early films aren’t easily available in quality English-friendly versions. Arrow kicks off what is hopefully an outpouring of Hong Blu-ray upgrades with a twofer of early films in a US/UK release.
Though one could probably find thematic echoes in most pairs of Hong films, these two are well-suited to be presented together. In both, mirror images of two men reveal their unique brands of misogyny. In Woman is the Future of Man, Hong’s approach is blunt and acrid. Two friends, Lee Munho (Yoo Jitae) and Kim Hyeongon (Kim Taewoo), reunite and discover in their reminiscing that they dated the same woman, Park Seonhwa (Sung Hyunah). Munho seems to be the boorish, ostentatious antithesis to the meek Hyeongon, but flashbacks to their past interactions with Seonhwa complicate this idea. When they decide to go find her in the present, their fundamental similarities become even more apparent.
Tale of Cinema is more melancholy and beguiling, and its aims aren’t as immediately apparent. The emotionally damaged Jeon Sangwon (Lee Kiwoo) clings to the attention of Choi Youngshil (Uhm Jiwon), going so far as to convince her to overdose on sleeping pills with him in a suicide pact. Some of the drama feels a bit overdetermined, and Hong’s typical even-keeled stylistic approach is replaced with a more mobile, zooming camera. The reason becomes apparent in the film’s second half, which introduces a metafictional wrinkle and a new character: the blissfully oblivious Kim Dongsoo (Kim Sangkyung), a source of plenty of cringe comedy in his interactions with Youngshil and others, and a way for Hong to tease out an examination of the divide between film and real life.
Both films share a disc in Arrow’s release, which features two solid 1080p, 1.85:1 transfers. Visuals in both can be a little flat, but clarity and sharpness are strong. Digital manipulation doesn’t appear to be an issue. 2.0 and 5.1 DTS-HD tracks are available for both films, offering clean if understandably sedate dialogue-heavy presentations. Extras include introductions by Tony Rayns and Martin Scorsese, a making-of for Woman and cast interviews for both films. Trailers, galleries and a booklet with an essay by critic Michael Sicinski are also included.
Arrow Academy / 2004/2005 / Color / 1.85:1 / 88 min/89 min / $39.95
Black Peter (Černý Petr, 1964)
Miloš Forman’s debut feature is mostly a modest affair, with a gentler satiric tone than his later Czech films, but its pleasures are numerous, from its wry depiction of the frustrations of teenaged life to the sense that its protagonist’s aimlessness could result in the film going in just about any direction. Perhaps it’s a stretch to call Black Peter unpredictable, but when sullen Petr (Ladislav Jakim) leaves the grocery store where he works to follow a customer he suspects of shoplifting, one could easily see the film following his detours through the streets for the rest of its running time.
Instead, the film’s episodic structure sees Petr trying to please his imperious boss, who extols the integrity of his customers while urging Petr to watch them closely for any suspicious behavior, and clumsily wooing the girlfriend (Pavla Martínková) of an acquaintance. He jockeys for social positioning with another teenager, Čenda (Vladimír Pucholt), who first comes across as a boorish asshole before we realize how pathetic he is. And naturally for a Forman film, there’s a wide disconnect between generations; Petr’s imperious father (Jan Vostrčil) doesn’t need much of a reason to berate his son, and his haranguing makes for the film’s most overt “fuck you” to authority with its final freeze-framed image.
Second Run’s region-free Blu-ray marks a vast improvement over the old Facets DVD (a statement that probably always goes without saying). Sourced from the Czech National Film Archive’s 4K restoration, the 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer displays excellent depth and healthy fine detail. A few shots have some inconsistent softness, but it’s minor. Damage is limited to a few isolated incidents. The 2.0 uncompressed mono soundtrack is clean and clear. A nice slate of extras accompanies the film: a typically detailed Michael Brooke audio commentary, a new interview with Martínková and an archival Forman interview about the production of the film. A booklet features an essay on Forman and the film by Jonathan Owen.
Second Run / 1964 / Black and white / 1.37:1 / 90 min / £19.99
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.