Tag Archives: Josef von Sternberg

Bless Their Little Hearts

Blu-ray and DVD Review Round-Up: Films by Hu Bo, Billy Woodbery, Josef von Sternberg & more!

ElephantAn Elephant Sitting Still (大象席地而坐, 2019)
KimStim

It’s impossible even to entertain the notion of separating art from artist while watching Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still, the feature debut and final film of the Chinese director, who committed suicide shortly after its completion at age 29.

In Hu’s elegant, single-minded opus, several peripheral characters take their own lives, and the four primary ones in the film’s web of interlocking stories all seem like they could soon take a similar path. This is a despairing film, through and through, with barely a grace note to be seen — when a hint of light creeps in, it’s all the more powerful for its rarity.

Hu and the film’s producers clashed over the film’s length — nearly four hours — but it’s essential to the film’s aims. And even though the sheer duration acts as an analogue to the oppressive gloom each character operates under, the film never resembles an endurance test. Instead, Hu’s graceful long shots give the film a kind of warm intimacy that draws us into predicaments that are, on their face, rather repetitive.

Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang) is a student who endures withering bullying. His primary bully’s older brother, Yu Cheng (Zhang Yu), is a gang leader whose affair with a married woman has acute consequences. Wei Bu’s classmate Huang Ling (Wang Yuwen) has found solace from a horrific home life in the attentions of a dean at the school. And Wang Jin (Liu Congxi) sees himself being discarded as his children try to move him into a nursing home.

Each one finds themselves drawn to the tale of an elephant in the Mongolian city of Manzhouli who weathers all manner of abuse without moving. Yes, the film’s central thrust is rather on the nose. Hu depicts a modern China without respite. Family members are cruel, friends are unreliable and somehow, strangers’ unique blend of indifference and belligerence seems worst of all.

Each of the four protagonists accepts this reality, though their stoic exteriors aren’t without their cracks. This miserablism can be overwhelming — especially in the case of Wang Jin, whose dog is killed early on and who bears witness to perhaps the film’s most depressing shot, a long tracking tour through a soul-crushing nursing home.

In a sense, that shot is the film in a microcosm: an expertly staged and shot wallow in the mire. Sadly, it’s the endpoint, not the beginning, for an artist willing to bare his soul.

KimStim’s Blu-ray release presents the film in a 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer. There’s always some concern about a film of this length on a single disc, and compression artifacts aren’t uncommon here, particularly visible as crush in low-light shots and banding on monochromatic surfaces, like walls. Shot digitally on an Arri Alexa Mini using only available light, the film may have some of these issues inherent to the source. (For what it’s worth, similar artifacting is visible on the Criterion Channel’s streaming version of the film.) Overall, the film looks solid, with good clarity and detail. 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks are provided.

Extras include one of Hu’s short films, Man in the Well (2017), along with a theatrical trailer and a hefty booklet featuring an essay by Eliza Ma, interview with director of photography Fan Chao and the original short story by Hu that the film is based on.

EmperorThe Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (Yuki Yukite, Shingun, 1987)
Second Run

The basis of the one-man crusade in Kazuo Hara’s stunning verité documentary The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On is plenty lurid: Murder and cannibalism among Japanese troops in New Guinea after Japan’s surrender in WWII.

The film itself may be even wilder. An uneasy profile of veteran Kenzo Okuzaki, who had stints in prison after the war for charges ranging from manslaughter to distributing pornography of Emperor Hirohito, the film escalates constantly. Initially, it appears to chronicle the wholly justified righteous anger of a man determined to extract confessions from officers responsible for the deaths of several soldiers, their bereaved family members in tow. It gets thornier.

Possessing a terrifying charisma, Okuzaki shows up at the homes of the now-elderly officers, and he uses their politeness against them. Despite being ambushed, these men tend to be accommodating and courteous, even as they’re evasive about Okuzaki’s pointed questioning. That pointed approach turns into bullying, and often, outright violence. When the family members of the dead drop out of his project, Okuzaki simply enlists others to pretend, including his meek wife, who appears to be the most longsuffering person on the planet.

Hara’s film is a master class in complicating the viewer’s feelings, from the aims and disposition of Okuzaki to the very concept of the film itself. It’s not difficult to imagine Okuzaki’s rage being amplified by his showman’s flair as the camera rolls — though his offscreen actions are hardly a model of restraint. It’s a singular film that’s constantly rearranging expectations about where it’s headed next.

Second Run’s Blu-ray features a 1080p, 1.55:1 transfer that is quite impressive, especially considering the quality of previous releases. Damage has been significantly mitigated and clarity is strong for a film shot on the fly. The look is desaturated, but colors are true, and detail is adequate. A 2.0 LPCM mono track has issues inherent with location documentary shooting, but sounds fine overall.

Extras include a new interview with Hara and Hara’s 2018 appearance at the Open City Documentary Festival. The booklet features essays by Tony Rayns, Jason Wood and Abé Mark Nornes.

Josef3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg
Underworld (1927)
The Last Command (1928)
The Docks of New York (1928)
Criterion Collection

No disrespect to Borzage or Murnau or Naruse or Epstein (OK, maybe this lede was a bad idea), but the three films in Criterion’s von Sternberg box set feel like they could make a convincing case for themselves as the apotheosis of silent cinema. These are deliriously beautiful films, rich with atmosphere and full of stylistic invention. They’re also ground zero for all kinds of new narrative thinking, particularly Underworld, which basically codified the gangster genre with its zippy Ben Hecht script and von Sternberg’s taut direction.

Von Sternberg, who would of course go on to make his most acclaimed films in a prolific collaboration with Marlene Dietrich, was graced with expressive movie stars begging for close-ups even earlier. George Bancroft stars as a rowdy kingpin in Underworld and a weathered, cynical coal stoker in The Docks of New York, where he’s joined in a wary romantic coupling with Betty Compson’s yearning dancehall girl. The great Emil Jannings matches the outsized melodrama of The Last Command with a towering performance as a former Russian general relegated to working as a lowly Hollywood extra.

The Last Command, pinging between the Russian Revolution and a film being made about it, is almost like proto-Aleksei German at points, the frame crammed with bodies and activity. Its ultimate exultation in the prowess of its main character approaches self-parody, but no one could sell high emotion like Jannings, and von Sternberg is more than game to do likewise.

By contrast, his turn for the melancholy in The Docks of New York is delicate and lovely, as neither Bancroft nor Compson’s characters put much stock in their budding relationship, begun with an anti-meet-cute when she tries to drown herself. Fog and shadow are the languages of love here, but the film undercuts the presumed fleeting quality of their connection.

Criterion’s long-awaited upgrade of its 2010 DVD box set presents all three films in 1080p, 1.33:1 transfers. Unfortunately, these transfers are from the same scan/source as the DVD set, but the upgrade is still notable, as depth, clarity and grain presentation have been improved. The quality of the materials limits the transfers still: Damage is persistent if mostly unobtrusive and the image’s softness can cause grain to look like noise. The Blu-ray set is far preferable, perhaps most notably because the transfers are no longer windowboxed. Two scores are offered for each film, presented in pristine 2.0 uncompressed stereo.

Extras are identical to the DVD set: video essays by Janet Bergstrom and Tag Gallagher, a 1968 von Sternberg interview and a substantial booklet with essays by Geoffrey O’Brien, Anton Kaes and Luc Sante, Hecht’s Underworld treatment and an excerpt from von Sternberg’s autobiography.

BlessBless Their Little Hearts (1984) DVD
Milestone Films

One of the essential texts of the L.A. Rebellion film movement, Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts is a staggering work of American Neorealism. Every line reading and every delicately composed image do far more work than a cursory glance at the film’s simplicity would reveal.

Written and shot by Charles Burnett and scored largely by Archie Shepp and Horace Parlan’s jazz versions of traditional blues numbers and spirituals, Bless Their Little Hearts has an aching, searching feeling as it depicts the spiritual toll of economic hardship and relational decay. Father and husband Charlie Banks (Nate Hardman) gets work here and there as a day laborer, but it’s barely enough for his family to scrape by on — particularly when he’s spending a portion of that money on his mistress.

As his wife, Andais, Kaycee Moore has the weight of her responsibilities and her husband’s unreliability splashed across her face. Her performance digs deep into the indignities of being a relationship’s ballast, and Moore is stunning in both sudden flashes of anger and moments of quiet when the gravity of her situation seems to fully come to bear on her expression. Hardman’s performance seems largely oblivious to this — until the film’s signature long take of the couple’s issues barging their way to the forefront.

The film’s depiction of the necessary self-sufficiency of the couple’s three children (played by Burnett’s kids) is heart-rending in the smallest of moments: an oven door left ajar during cooking to help heat the house; a matter-of-fact solution to fixing a sink tap. For Woodberry, these asides are clearly as vital as the cataclysmic scenes — they’re the reason the emotional breakdowns carry so much weight.

It’s unfortunate the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s 2K restoration of the film hasn’t been given a Blu-ray release, but this first-ever home video release is still incredibly welcome. Though the nuances in the 16mm photography’s grain could use the high-def treatment, the restoration looks quite nice on Milestone’s DVD, with minimized damage and consistent clarity throughout.

The extras are also substantial: an audio commentary from NYU professor Ed Guererro, a newly restored version of Woodberry’s debut short The Pocketbook (1980), based on a Langston Hughes story, and an Indiana University workshop with Woodberry. Interviews with Woodberry, Burnett and Guererro are also included, along with set photos and a booklet with essays by Cornell professor Samantha N. Sheppard and Allison Anders.

MountainThe Mountain (2019)
Kino Lorber

Despite Rick Alverson’s evident strengths as a director, it’s hard not to be a little skeptical of his films. There’s a pointedly transgressive streak in The Comedy (2012), starring Tim Heidecker as a trust fund asshole, and in Entertainment (2015), with Gregg Turkington appearing as his Neil Hamburger character, in an examination of anti-comedy spilling past the boundaries of the stage. But to what end?

In his latest film, The Mountain, Alverson is working in a more traditionally dramatic tenor, and I can’t decide if removing the layers upon layers of irony associated with Heidecker et al. strengthens Alverson’s case as a chronicler of the bitter hollowness of the American dream or if it just lays bare his tendency toward empty anti-mythologizing.

There’s evidence for both in The Mountain, which stars Jeff Goldblum as a traveling lobotomization specialist who’s based on controversial doctor Walter Freeman. Goldblum’s Dr. Fiennes takes Andy (Tye Sheridan) under his wing after Andy’s father (Udo Kier) dies. He’s already familiar with the boy; he performed his mother’s lobotomy several years before.

In this curdled travelogue of 1950s America, Dr. Fiennes and Andy roam the country, with Andy serving as photographer and assistant. Alverson’s fixed camera captures an eerie feeling of collective stupefaction, as parents and caregivers easily acquiesce to Fiennes’ methods. That feeling is magnified by the performance of Sheridan, who acts like Andy was lobotomized long before we showed up.

There are counterpoints to this feeling: a charming Goldblum creates a character who we can buy as a true believer before his apparent empathy clicks off as soon as it’s no longer needed. And the always-welcome Denis Levant channels drunken rage and spiritual ecstasy as a man who wants his daughter treated by Dr. Fiennes.

The film’s tone envelops you in something like a morphine haze, and once you’re there, why bother trying to decode its opaque thematic threads, like a recurring motif of hermaphroditism? The Mountain is another exhibit to add to my mixed feelings on Alverson, but I’ll keep puzzling over his subsequent work.

Kino’s 1080p, 1.37:1 Blu-ray offers a gorgeous transfer of Alverson and cinematographer Lorenzo Hagerman’s creamy but muted photography. The image is crystal clear and fine detail is excellent, even in the film’s many Berkeley-like overhead shots of ice skaters or New Age music enthusiasts. 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks are available.

Extras include an Alverson commentary track, an interview with an enthused (when is he not?) Goldblum, one brief deleted scene and a trailer.

JourneyJourney to the Beginning of Time (Cesta do pravěku, 1955)
Second Run

Second Run’s series of Karel Zeman films continues with one of his earliest works, Journey to the Beginning of Time. This one doesn’t have the mind-bendingly fantastic animation design of The Fabulous Baron Munchausen or Invention for Destruction, but it’s surely one of the best children’s films ever made, combining an earnest educational attitude with inventive modeling and animation techniques to create a sort of live storybook.

There’s not so much a plot as there is an amusingly straightforward frame story: A group of four Czech boys decide they want to go back into the past to see all the extinct creatures they’ve read about up close, so they just do it, sailing on a raft backward through history. There’s some minor peril along the way (one of them always seems to be getting separated from the group), but mostly, the film is as rationally curious as its characters, who take copious notes on their discoveries, including a woolly mammoth, saber-toothed cat and a host of dinosaurs, all the way back to trilobites, the fossil that kicked off this whole journey to begin with.

Compared to the singular sci-fi and fantasy of Zeman’s later work, Journey to the Beginning of Time can seem impossibly quaint, with the stiffly declarative acting of its four young stars accentuating the feeling. But it’s hard not to marvel at the ingenuity of the design, which hums with creative energy. Perhaps my favorite scenes are those where the script is flipped and a miniature model of the boys and their raft is used. The film may be unrelentingly straightforward in its aims, but its visual cleverness keeps it engaging.

Second Run’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer of a new 4K restoration is beautiful, offering impressive levels of fine detail essential for appreciating the intricate model work. The film has a slightly muted look, but images are sharp and clean. 2.0 LPCM mono audio is reasonably dynamic and has no major issues.

Extras include the English-dubbed version of the film, which emphasizes the purity of Zeman’s approach by appending a newly shot, casually racist explanation for how the boys got back to the past. Also included: an appreciation by filmmaker John Stevenson, a restoration demonstration, making-of featurette, image gallery and booklet with an essay by Michael Brooke.
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Blu-ray Review Round-Up: Films by Shirley Clarke, Miklós Jancsó, Akira Kurosawa & more!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DreamsDreams (1990)
The Criterion Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DivorceChildren of Divorce (1927)
Flicker Alley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PrivatePrivate Property (1960)
Cinelicious Pics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Marlene featured

DVD Review: “Marlene” (1984)

Dietrich

I was an actress. I made films. Period. 

Marlene Dietrich (1901 – 1992) probably thought no one would be interested in a documentary about her life and art. Her entertainment career spanned 55 years — beginning with her German film roles in 1923 and ending in 1978 as she crooned the title song in the movie Just a Gigolo.

Perhaps she had no desire to reminisce about her work as an enigmatic actress and cabaret singer. In fact, she referred to most of her oeuvre as “kitsch.”  However, Dietrich doesn’t seem as derogatory as she made herself out to be in the late Maximilian Schell’s 1984 film Marlene (available on DVD from Kino Video). Then again, she did go out of her way to be difficult.

For starters, Dietrich refused to be filmed. “I’ve been photographed enough,” she explained. “I’ve been photographed to death.” This might have been an impossible obstacle for any documentary to overcome, but director Schell (who appeared with Dietrich in 1961′s Judgment at Nuremberg) used it to his advantage.

Schell recorded Dietrich’s conversations on audio tape in her Paris apartment during 1982. A year later, he reconstructed the apartment interior along with an adjoining editing room — an innovative and clever device, though a bit pretentious at times.  In some ways, Marlene is a documentary about the making of a documentary.

Director Maximilian Schell in the reconstruction of Marlene Dietrich's Paris apartment.

Director Maximilian Schell in the studio reconstruction of Marlene Dietrich’s Paris apartment.

By not seeing Dietrich as she looked in 1982, Schell draws the viewer into the legend displayed in memorable film clips, newsreel footage and television excerpts. Furthermore, the multilingual interviews between Dietrich and Schell emerge as a verbal duel. Schell’s questions are as combative as Dietrich’s responses. “I’m not contracted to be exciting,” she states at one point.

While Dietrich insults Schell throughout most of the interviews, we are treated to a generous coverage of her cinematic highlights: the star-making role of sexy showgirl Lola in director Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930); the “Hot Voodoo” number from Blonde Venus (1932); her visually stunning performance as Catherine the Great in The Scarlet Empress (1934); and her box-office comeback as Frenchy, the tough-talking saloon girl who throws everything but the bar at James Stewart in the classic western-comedy Destry Rides Again (1939).

Unfortunately, Schell hits a brick wall in his attempt to discuss the Dietrich-von Sternberg partnership, which ended in 1935 with The Devil Is a Woman (Marlene’s personal favorite).  “He was always deliberately making life difficult for me [in order] to make me learn something,” Dietrich said of the influential filmmaker. Otherwise, she cuts off Schell by telling him to read her 1979 memoir My Life.  The result is a missed opportunity.

What’s particularly fascinating about the Hollywood years is Dietrich’s growth as an actress.  In retrospect, she delivered some of her best performances toward the end of her movie career — notably the “dual” role in director Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution (1957), the extended cameo as a bordello gypsy in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958), and her last major portrayal as the widow of a German general in Judgment at Nuremberg.

Dietrich’s beauty and eroticism also fill up the screen in her later television appearances, as she sings favorites such as “Falling in Love Again” and “Boys in the Backroom” in her inimitable, throaty style.  She can be mesmerizing and provocative when standing on a bare stage — entertaining American troops during World War II or performing in concerts across the globe.  The magnetism never dissipates.

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

Schell enhances the mystery of Marlene Dietrich by letting her work and personality speak for itself. Though hard-edged and contradictory, she reveals a sentimentality that is quite moving, as when talking about her hometown of Berlin.  The memories catch up with her and she begins to cry, admitting “I am a romantic, a dreamer.”

Nevertheless, Dietrich remains dismissive toward Schell’s work: “It will never sell in America.” Little did she expect that Marlene would receive a 1985 Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature, along with awards from the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

In a February 1987 Los Angeles Times interview, Schell said that Dietrich (whose contract included a share of profits) was keenly aware of the film’s international success and left the following message on his answering machine:  “Isn’t it wonderful that we had that fight?” Later that year, Dietrich published her final volume of memoirs, also titled Marlene — an ideal companion piece to the 96-minute documentary.

Schell’s intriguing film deserves a remastered and expanded DVD reissue.  The Kino edition (released in 2009) boasts decent video and audio quality, but lacks any special features apart from the obligatory photo gallery.

Marlene