Far 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 Carol, Far 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.
To 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.
Diamonds of the Night (Démanty noci, 1964)
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.
My Name is Julia Ross (1945)
So Dark the Night (1946)
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.
So 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.
The Day After (2018)
“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.
24 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.