Tag Archives: hong sangsoo

Diamonds

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

HeavenFar From Heaven (2002)
Kino Lorber Studio Classics 

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

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

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

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

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

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

SleepTo Sleep with Anger (1990)
The Criterion Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day AfterThe Day After (2018)
Cinema Guild

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

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

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

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

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

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

2424 Frames (2017)
The Criterion Collection 

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

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

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

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

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

Claire1

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

InventionInvention for Destruction (Vynález zkázy, 1958)
Second Run 

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

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

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

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

PaniquePanique (1946)
Criterion Collection

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

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

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

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

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

ClaireClaire’s Camera (2017)
Cinema Guild

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

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

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

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

GosfordGosford Park (2001)
Arrow Academy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

wendy2

Blu-ray Review Round-up: Films by Kelly Reichardt, Hong Sangsoo, Bill Gunn & more!

WendyWendy and Lucy (2008)
Oscilloscope Laboratories

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

PersonalPersonal Problems (1980-1981)
Kino Lorber

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

MatterA Matter of Life and Death (1946)
Criterion Collection

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

RoccoRocco and His Brothers (1960)
Milestone Films

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

HongTwo Films by Hong Sangsoo: Woman is the Future of Man (2004) and Tale of Cinema (2005)
Arrow Academy

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

PeterBlack Peter (Černý Petr, 1964)
Second Run

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.