Tag Archives: Jean Renoir

Toni1

Blu-ray Review: Jean Renoir’s sublime ‘Toni,’ from the Criterion Collection

ToniToni (1935) represents a departure for Jean Renoir on multiple fronts. Shot largely on location in the south of France, the film looks unlike the filmmaker’s previous studio-bound work. There’s a whisper of similarity to his father’s en plein air method and the idyllic pastoral settings that result. Like A Day in the Country (1936) Renoir’s subsequent unfinished masterpiece, Toni quietly exults in its outdoor locales — a hedge-lined path or a shaded hillside — though the emotional lows in Toni hit an extreme that the melancholy-tinged A Day in the Country doesn’t approach.

Toni is also an outlier among Renoir’s work for its focus on the working class, as it’s based on a true story about migrant workers in Martigues. Renoir mentions in the introduction included on Criterion’s disc that he realized that class was a more prominent line of demarcation than nationality. Of course, it’s not such a neat delineation, as a wry early scene shows two men complaining about a fresh influx of immigrants to the town — before revealing they themselves are recent immigrants.

These frequent asides, mostly featuring nonprofessional actors, and the film’s documentary-like style — longer takes, few close-ups — place the film as a clear precursor to Neorealism, though the film’s social and political impulses are much less of a force than its commitment to melodrama.

The film’s narrative of a love triangle between Italian worker Toni (Charles Blavette) and Marie (Jenny Hélla) and Josefa (Celia Montalván) runs hot, but Renoir’s approach plays it down. Until the final act, the film’s shockwaves are more of a function of its elisions than anything. Toni’s faintly flirtatious meeting of Marie, owner of a boarding house, cuts almost immediately to him wearily waking up in her bed, the doldrums already set in on their relationship. And just as Toni is coming to terms with the fact that he can’t have Josefa, the film cuts like a gut punch to a wedding banquet after she’s married Albert (Max Dalban), the casually cruel boss at Toni’s quarry job.

The film’s textures of realism — a funeral procession, a quarry worker’s labor, a train coming into town, a band’s folk song — ground what eventually becomes a heightened tale of violence, where Renoir appropriately shifts to incongruous close-ups. But this verité-style background also sets off moments of poetic sublimity, both tender, like Josefa’s seduction of Toni via wasp sting (envisioned on Katherine Lam’s beautiful painted cover for Criterion’s edition), and mournful, like a character’s attempt at suicide, captured in a breathtaking long shot across a vast expanse of sea. In all of its modes, Toni is an ecstatically gorgeous film, and it comes to Blu-ray in a presentation that matches.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer is sourced from a new 4K digital restoration, and the results are extremely pleasing. Images have beautiful depth to the grain texture, fine detail is strong and black and white levels are impressive. There are few dropped frames throughout the film, but damage is basically nonvisible elsewhere. The uncompressed mono soundtrack is also quite clean, with no major issues.

On the supplements front, Criterion ports over the Kent Jones and Phillip Lopate commentary track from the long out-of-print Masters of Cinema DVD release. Conversational, but dense with information, it’s a strong track from two heavy hitters.

Also included: the first part of Jacques Rivette’s three-part Cinéastes de notre temps series on Renoir, “Jean Renoir le patron: La recherche du relatif”. (Excerpts of part two are on Criterion’s Rules of the Game disc and part three is on La Chienne.) This first part examines many of Renoir’s early films, with just a brief section on Toni, but it’s well worth watching for Renoir’s self-effacing commentary and Rivette’s essay-like approach.

A new video essay by Christopher Faulkner examines the film’s production history, including its now-lost longer original cut and Renoir’s association with Marcel Pagnol, who had a studio in the region. And the aforementioned Renoir introduction from 1961 rounds out the disc. The package includes an insert with an essay by scholar Ginette Vincendau.

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.

Bandit Queen featured

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

Stray Dogs (2014)
Cinema Guild

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

La Ciénaga (2001)
The Criterion Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Connection (1963)
Milestone Films

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

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

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

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

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Milestone’s The Connection Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: ***1/2
New Extra Features: **1/2
Extra Features Overall: **1/2
Milestone Films / 1963 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 110 min / $39.95

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Black Sunday (1960, AIP version)
Kino

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bandit Queen (1994)
Twilight Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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