Tag Archives: Juliette Binoche

Daughters

Blu-ray Review Round-Up: Films by Lino Brocka, Julie Dash, Leos Carax & more!

Lino BrockaTwo Films by Lino BrockaManila in the Claws of Light (1975) and Insiang (1976)
BFI 

The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project has given us no shortage of phenomenal restorations of previously neglected films, and that trend continues with these two works from Filipino filmmaker Lino Brocka, who was incredibly prolific before his untimely death in a car accident at age 52. The Region-A-locked will have access to Insiang in Criterion’s forthcoming second volume of WCP box sets, but there’s no reason to wait if you can play Region B discs, as Manila in the Claws of Light is just as major as its companion.

Both films are harrowing depictions of life among Manila’s lower class, with protagonists who are beset on all sides by predators — physical, spiritual and financial. Brocka combines vérité authenticity with penetrating emotional acuity; his on-the-ground shots of bustling slums suddenly turning intensely personal with a well-placed zoom in.

In Manila, that protagonist is Julio (Rafael Roco Jr.), a young man from the countryside who abruptly moves to the city to find his girlfriend, Ligaya (Hilda Koronel), brought there months earlier by a mysterious woman promising high wages at a good job. Julio can’t find Ligaya, and he doesn’t find the promise of a better life either — a job on a construction site for minuscule wages, squeezed even further by a sleazy foreman, and a foray into prostitution offer their own specific indignities.

Brocka punctuates the episodic, miserablist tale with flashes of memory, as Julio retreats to an idyllic past with Ligaya, and there’s a moment late in the film when a fraction of that feeling seems accessible to him in the present. Interpersonal connection is rare and precious and fleeting in Manila in the Claws of Light, one of the finest “alienated in the city” films I’ve ever seen.

In Insiang, Brocka’s international breakthrough, he creates a more focused portrait, and it grabs you by the throat instantly with an opening shot of a slaughtered pig gushing blood. The grace notes of Manila are not present here, and that opening image sets a tone that is sustained throughout.

Koronel stars as Insiang, a young woman who’s subjected to a painful reality over and over: She’s seen purely as a commodity. There’s no love lost between Insiang and her mother, Tonya (Mona Lisa), and their relationship deteriorates even further when Tonya’s boyfriend Dado (Ruel Vernal) moves in. Insiang finds a brief respite, but no real solace in her relationship with Bebot (Rez Cortez), who isn’t all that different from Dado.

The film’s late turn into a rape-revenge story isn’t a sudden tonal shift, as the groundwork of desperation has already been laid in every image of Insiang stuck in the middle of a society where everyone is grasping for some kind of escape. As in Manila, Brocka clearly underlines that these problems are systemic, but Insiang hardly has the luxury of taking that kind of wider view.

Sourced from 4K restorations, the Blu-ray transfers in the BFI’s four-disc dual-format set are stunning. The 1080p, 1.85:1 Manila and the 1080p, 1.37:1 Insiang are both exceptionally film-like transfers, and both handle the subtle gradations of light and shadow in Brocka’s images beautifully. Fine detail is abundant, the pictures are incredibly clean (just a couple stray hairs in the gate here and there) and colors are naturalistic and stable. (Manila does have some shots that skew toward the teal shade of blue, though this could be the original look.) The cacophonous audio of Insiang has some fidelity issues (the restoration notes detail its extensive clean-up process), while Manila is more stable. Both are solid LPCM mono tracks.

Even if one is planning on picking up Criterion’s WCP box set (and why wouldn’t you?), the BFI’s set is worth it solely for the extensive extras. On the Manila disc, we get a making-of doc, a 40-minute piece on Filipino film with interviews by Tony Rayns and a stills gallery. On Insiang, there’s Christian Blackwood’s 1987 feature-length doc Signed: Lino Brocka and a 1982 audio-only conversation between Rayns and Brocka, presented as a commentary track accompanying the film. The set also includes a booklet with an essay by Cathy Landicho Clark and a 1980 interview with Brocka.

BFI / 1975 & 1976 / Color / 1.85:1 & 1.37:1 / 126 min & 94 min / £34.99 / Region B/2

DaughtersDaughters of the Dust (1991)
Cohen Film Collection 

The immersive beauty of the images in Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust overtakes you immediately. Dash’s film, the first feature by a black woman to receive a general theatrical release in the United States, focuses on a tight-knit but dissipating community — a Gullah family living off the coast of South Carolina in the early 20th Century. Dash approaches this community at a pivotal moment in time, as some family members who’ve already migrated north to the mainland United States have returned for a visit, and others are planning to head back north with them.

The family’s matriarch (Cora Lee Day) refuses to leave her island home, but her granddaughters and grandson have differing views, including Yellow Mary (Barbara-O) and Viola (Cheryl Lynn Bruce), who have already moved, and Eli (Adisa Anderson) and his wide Eula (Alva Rogers), who agonize over the decision.

The film itself only obliquely details the rich cultural traditions of the West African-descended people, but if there’s not a comprehensive oral history given here, there certainly a wide-ranging visual one, from the film’s shots of food preparation and religious ceremonies to the lush costuming.

The past, the present and the future are overlapping and intertwined propositions in this culture (part of the film is narrated by a yet-unborn child), and Dash’s collection of dissolves, slow zooms and luxuriating wide shots accentuate that feeling. It’s not always easy to grasp the nature of certain characters’ relationships, and intuiting context can be a difficult proposition in the film’s free-associating structure, but the way the images meld into one another is riveting in a way that plot alone can’t accomplish. This is a film that just washes over you, and you’re more than happy to allow it to.

It’s hard to overstate just how phenomenal the Cohen/UCLA restoration of Daughters on the Dust is, rescuing the film from a long-OOP, notably lackluster DVD release. Cohen’s 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer does the film’s lyrical imagery justice, carefully handling the film-like grain structure and the delicate color gradations of the images, many of which have a kind of soft-focus aura — but they’re never soft in a way that suggests a lack of detail and clarity. Fine detail is quite impressive in long shots and close-ups. The 2.0 LPCM soundtrack is vibrant and clear, and a great showcase of John Barnes’ score, whose reliance on synths makes for an anachronistic but pleasingly unusual accompaniment to the film.

Cohen have gone the extra mile and put all the supplements on a second Blu-ray disc, save for a new audio commentary from Dash and film producer Michelle Materre. The most substantial extra is a new hour-plus interview with Dash, conducted by Morehouse College cinema studies director Stephane Dunn. Dash talks about the genesis of the project, its fundamentally “simple story” and the production process. A post-screening Q&A, which also includes actress Bruce, features some overlap, but is a good addition. A third interview features cinematographer Arthur Jafa, who talks about his start in the industry and his approach to shooting the film, which included opting to shoot on Agfa stock, which was better suited to photographing black skin, he says. The re-release trailer and a booklet with an essay by Jennifer DeClue are also included.

It’s a touch disappointing there are no academic extras, particularly given the film’s visual prowess and standing in the black film pantheon, but Cohen’s edition is a must-own anyway.

Cohen Film Collection / 1991 / Color / 1.85:1 / 112 min / $25.99

LoversThe Lovers on the Bridge (1991)
Kino Lorber 

Cross off another long-awaited title off the wishlist. Leos Carax’s third feature comes to Blu-ray from Kino, and it’s just as vital a release as the Kino-distributed Gaumont US Blu-rays of Carax’s two first features. (Unfortunately, Gaumont’s US home video arm seems to have gone quickly dormant.) Now we’re just waiting on a rescue of his divisive follow-up Pola X (1999) — I won’t hold my breath.

The Lovers on the Bridge is an ecstatic film, every emotion bursting onto the screen like the film’s incredible (and incredibly expensive) recreation of a French Revolution-celebrating fireworks display. In a career filled with indelible setpieces (Denis Levant’s galivant to David Bowie’s “Modern Love” in Mauvais Sang, the accordion interlude in “Holy Motors”), this may be the essential Carax moment.

Though its gestures are sweeping — even mythic — in scope, the film’s story of two self-destructive people colliding in orbit over and over is also rooted in a completely recognizable humanity thanks to its two stars. Levant, with his impossibly lithe approach to performance, underscores the physical degradation of homelessness as Alex, perhaps the endpoint of the same-named character he plays in the first two Carax films. As Michèle, a woman from a well-off family who’s losing her eyesight, Juliette Binoche accesses a primal need for connection.

Together, the two cobble a life together on the famed Pont Neuf, which is closed for repairs. (Much of the film was shot on a replica version of the bridge built for production.) And while Carax weaves a subplot with gruff bridge denizen Hans (Klaus-Michael Grüber) that culminates with a deeply moving scene involving a Rembrandt, the film is otherwise intensely focused on the relationship between Alex and Michèle, which careens from gut-wrenching affection to gut-churning conflict, often in the same scene.

If the ending of the film feels just a touch conventional, it’s hard to hold it against Carax, whose thrillingly unusual blocking, virtuosic camera movement and inventive use of music makes for as potent a blend here as in any of his works.

Kino’s 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer is lovely, with exceptional fine detail in close-ups and film-like grain structure. Skin tones are natural, and some colors, like the yellow of Binoche’s jacket and those fireworks, really pop. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 soundtrack has some heft to it, and the various soundtrack selections sound full and dynamic.

Extras are minimal, but high-quality. A video essay by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin examines the distinctions between spaces made of land and water, while a booklet essay by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky discusses the film’s intersection between reality and artifice. A standard-def trailer helps emphasize the significant improvement of this transfer.

Kino Lorber / 1991 / Color / 1.66:1 / 127 min / $34.95

Story of SinStory of Sin (1975)
Arrow Video 

Arrow’s diligent campaign to broaden the fanbase of Walerian Borowczyk in the English-speaking world continues with another rescue of a long unavailable title, Story of Sin. Like their superb Region B box set and release of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne in both the US and the UK, Story of Sin represents a terrific feat of film restoration and comprehensive supplement creation. It’s also one of the first titles in Arrow’s expansion of its arthouse-focused Academy line to the US market.

One of Borowczyk’s rare films made in his native Poland, Story of Sin certainly hews much closer to the arthouse end of the spectrum than the exploitation end — the two poles between which much of his work pings back and forth.

Based on the novel by Stefan Zeromski, Story of Sin is a baroque literary adaptation with touches of surrealism. This is a film that rushes headlong into its 19th Century setting, less concerned with narrative coherence than excavating the religious hypocrisy and vicious sexual politics of an era where public mores were dominated by the Catholic church.

Grażyna Długołęcka stars as Ewa, and the film’s first scene sees her in a confessional, receiving a stern directive from a priest to keep herself pure. Is this the last time a man will try to control her sexuality? Take a guess.

After falling into a delirious and brief affair with her family’s lodger, Lukasz (Jerzy Zelnik), who’s traveling the continent trying desperately to find someone who will grant him a divorce, Ewa embarks on a journey of self-discovery, manipulating and being manipulated in a variety of relationships with leering men. In this whirlwind of episodes, there’s plenty of room for grim occurrences.

Elegantly shot and scored with a variety of classical selections, the film has the appearance of a novelistic historical tale, but Borowczyk’s increasingly frantic cutting refutes that notion. On the surface, the film appears to be an outlier for Borowczyk, at least among his more well-known films, but it’s probably best appreciated by a viewer familiar with his obsessions.

Arrow’s Blu-ray, outfitted with a 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer, is sourced from a 2K restoration from the original film negative, and looks spectacular. Images are lush and detailed and exceptionally clean throughout. Grain structure is stable and beautifully rendered. There’s one shot where a white tablecloth looks so bright, it’s blown out, though this could be intentional, and the transfer doesn’t have such issues elsewhere. The LPCM mono soundtrack offers clean dialogue and reasonably dynamic renditions of the classical selections.

It appears Arrow is nowhere near exhausting its ability to supply Borowczyk extras; this is another loaded disc, though much of the focus is on Borowczyk in general and not Story of Sin in particular.

The premier inclusion is likely three animated and stop-motion shorts (Once Upon a TimeDomThe School), each sourced from a 2K restoration and accompanied by an audio commentary. Also included is a thorough commentary track from Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger, an interview with Długołęcka, an introduction from Andrzej Klimowski and a video appendix of sorts by Daniel Bird, which catalogs many the filmmaker’s recurring motifs.

Several featurettes explore poster art and Borowczyk’s work with collaborator Jan Lenica. My favorite extra is David Thompson’s rundown of the way Borowczyk uses classical music in his films.

Arrow Video / 1975 / Color / 1.66:1 / 130 min / $39.95

Behind the DoorBehind the Door (1919)
Flicker Alley 

The ending of Irvin Willat’s Behind the Door is one of the more notorious of the silent era, and though its leap into gory revenge-thriller status is mostly just implied, it generally lives up to its reputation. Much of that is due to the lead performance of Hobart Bosworth, whose wild-eyed mania looks out of place early, but is the perfect asset once the film catches up to his mood.

Beginning with a somber frame story that portends a different type of tale about loss, Behind the Door features Bosworth as Oscar Krug, a former naval captain hoping to settle into a quiet life as a taxidermist and marry the woman he loves, Alice (Jane Novak). But when the United States declares war against Germany, the town’s latent xenophobia kicks into overdrive, with Krug’s German ancestry as its target.

To prove his American patriotism, Krug enlists, but his noble sacrifice kicks off a series of personal tragedies, and sets up a showdown with a sneering German U-boat commander (Wallace Beery).

Willat’s lively film functions equally well as a thriller and a psychological portrait of a displaced man, every emotion amplified by Krug’s active inner life, full of memories and fantasies that are often juxtaposed with his bleaker reality.

Flicker Alley’s dual-format release is produced by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, and represents a heroic feat of restoration and reconstruction. No original elements of the film are known to exist, so the restoration was sourced from a Library of Congress print and a Russian print, supplemented with some footage from Bosworth’s personal library, and reconstructed using the original continuity script.

Though some scenes are still missing (still images stand in here) and some intertitles had to be recreated, this is a fantastic rescue job, and the 1080p, 1.33:1 tinted transfer here is especially impressive when one considers the sources. Though several scenes feature significant nitrate decomposition that effectively obliterates the middle of the frame, the image is otherwise robust, with wonderful levels of fine detail, clarity and sharpness. Scratches are minimal and image density is reasonably stable. The LPCM stereo soundtrack presents a new score by Stephen Horne, whose piano-based music features jags of almost avant-garde noise during the film’s climactic moments.

Flicker Alley adds a number of good extras, including what survives of the Russian export version, which is not tinted and was re-ordered and re-titled to present a significantly different story. Film historian Kevin Brownlow offers a detailed appreciation of Willat’s career and the film, while a featurette explains the work that went into the restoration. 10 minutes of outtakes are accompanied by Horne’s music, and a slideshow gallery shows off lobby cards and promotional stills. A booklet includes an essay by Jay Weissberg, restoration notes by Robert Byrne and a note on the score from Horne.

Flicker Alley / 1919 / Color tinted / 1.33:1 / 70 min / $39.95

WomenWomen on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)
Criterion Collection 

Pedro Almodóvar is a filmmaker who often oscillates between high emotions, whether he’s working in a melodramatic or comedic register. Comedy and tragedy can be only a tick apart in Almodóvar’s world, but there’s never any danger of lasting harm in his international breakout Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, a series of romantic miscues in a screwball tenor.

Almodóvar is an undeniably gifted comic director, but this is a comedy where the off-kilter energy derives less from the pacing or verbal sparring of the performers and more from the look, which is pure primary-color bliss. Much of the action swirls around conversations on a blazing red telephone, and Almodóvar pushes the film’s color palette to extraordinarily artificial heights, an effect amplified by his use of miniatures for certain establishing shots.

Frequent collaborator Carmen Maura lends some emotional depth to the film as actress Pepa Marcos, who can sense her relationship with fellow actor Iván (Fernando Guillén) deteriorating, even as they both work as voiceover artists dubbing a Spanish version of Johnny Guitar. Iván’s voice rings in her ears as she works, and continues to haunt her as he avoids her calls.

A bed set on fire and a batch of gazpacho choked with sleeping pills later, Pepa is at the end of her rope, but the mishaps are just getting started as her lovelorn friend Candela (María Barranco) and Iván’s son Carlos (Antonio Banderas) and his fiancée (Rossy de Palma) all arrive at her apartment. Jealous flare-ups, romantic laments and a gazpacho mix-up ensue.

There’s not much more here than “love makes you crazy,” but the ensuing craziness rendered in the boldest of colors makes for a bright candy apple that turns out to be all candy.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer is sourced from a new 2K restoration, and not a scene passes without a stunning pop of color in it. Clarity and detail are exceptional, while film grain is carefully handled throughout. Only the faintest of speckling in an early scene at Pepa’s workplace marks this outstanding transfer. Similar-sounding 2.0 and 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks are included.

Criterion offers several new supplements, including a newly filmed interview with Almodóvar, who is always able to illuminate his approach to filmmaking, and a separate piece with his brother and longtime producer Agustín. A highly genial and personal interview with Maura traces her career path, while former Film Society of Lincoln Center program director Richard Peña discusses the film’s breakthrough in the US. A trailer and an insert with an essay by novelist and critic Elvira Lindo round out the bonus material.

Criterion Collection / 1988 / Color / 1.85:1 / 89 min / $39.95

My 20th CenturyMy 20th Century (1989)
Second Run 

Well, here’s a treat from Second Run, whose latest Blu-ray release is an underseen Hungarian gem from Ildikó Enyedi, who just premiered her first feature in almost two decades at the Berlin International Film Festival. It’s a shame Enyedi hasn’t been given the opportunity to make more films since her wondrous debut, My 20th Century (Az én XX. századom), which manages to be both effervescent and serious-minded, and playful but not precious in its magical realist tale of a world on the cusp of technological revolution.

Enyedi’s film zooms from big-picture storytelling to the intensely intimate and back again, opening with a prologue that details a variety of leaps forward, including the premiere of Thomas Edison’s electric bulb, captured as something otherworldly by Tibor Máthé’s stunning black-and-white photography. (Tesla’s coil also makes an appearance in another scene.)

It would be hard for anything to outdo the luminosity of the film’s cinematography, which wows you over and over on Second Run’s excellent disc, but the film’s visuals have an equal in Dorota Segda, who stars as twin sisters separated at infancy in Budapest who go on to live very different, but crisscrossing lives.

Dóra finds entry into the upper class, rubbing elbows with the well-to-do and taking advantage of her own disarming beauty, which makes it easy to manipulate and steal. Lili is a political revolutionary, fully committed to the ideals of her anarchist group. There’s a wisp of a love triangle here, as each is pursued at points by an acquaintance named Z (Oleg Yankovskiy), who doesn’t realize they are two separate people, but Enyedi’s storytelling style, both episodic and nonlinear, doesn’t fit neatly into expected genres.

Unease over modernity’s advents mingles with the harsh reality that progress is still a dicey proposition where women are concerned. Dóra and Lili navigate vastly divergent worlds, but each considers women inferior in starkly similar ways. Even hints at enlightened thinking turn sour, like in a scene that features a lecture by famed Austrian philosopher Otto Weininger (Paulus Manker) that begins promisingly before devolving swiftly into a spittle-flecked misogynistic tirade.

No plot summary can really convey how inventive and lively the film is, and no description of some of its more unusual elements — a pair of talking stars, interludes that involve the rich inner lives of animals — expresses how well they all cohere. Films are called unique all the time, but My 20th Century earns the descriptor.

Second Run’s region-free Blu-ray presents the film in a 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer that consistently reinforces the stunning visuals, which often recall the look of early silent cinema with their high-contrast black-and-white images. The film elements are fairly marked up, but the scratches and speckling are all minor instances, and clarity and detail remain strong throughout. The LPCM mono track has some inherent flatness due to post-dubbed dialogue, but sounds clean.

The disc features a newly filmed interview with Enyedi, conducted (unseen) by filmmaker Peter Strickland, where she details her entry into film production and the history of the film. Also included is a booklet with a deeply researched essay by Jonathan Owen.

Second Run / 1989 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 103 min / £19.99 / Region Free

Love WitchThe Love Witch (2016)
Oscilloscope Laboratories 

I feel pretty confident stating that no other film released last year looks anything like Anna Biller’s enchanting, totally delightful The Love Witch. Shot on 35mm, the film is meticulously designed, from the high artifice of the makeup and lighting to the detailed costumes, many of which Biller sewed herself. Though elements of its design and its cinematography are reminiscent of both classic Hollywood Technicolor melodrama and pulpy ’60s Euro-horror, Biller has made it clear (both on this disc’s extras and on Twitter) that the film isn’t meant to be seen as a parody or pastiche.

And though there are some performances that can come across as arch, the film does succeed as more than an exercise in style because of Biller’s genuine care for her main character, Elaine (Samantha Robinson), a woman who moves from San Francisco to Eureka to start a new life. Guilty of loving too much, Elaine has left a trail of heartbreak in her past, but it’s about to get worse, as she embraces her inner witch and begins seducing men to their death.

The Love Witch is half sumptuous melodrama, in which a woman tries desperately and fruitlessly to find lasting love, and half feminist horror, in which the constraints and expectations of gender roles force her (and the men she loves) into misshapen, cruel relationships. The film plays with (seemingly) outdated roles set in a modern scenario, and the simultaneously retro and present-day look blurs the lines further.

I missed a chance to see the film projected on 35, but Oscilloscope’s 1080p, 1.85:1 Blu-ray transfer is a pretty strong substitute, with a convincingly film-like image that offers a great showcase for the film’s robust colors. Every hair and fabric fiber looks distinct in this impressively detailed transfer. 5.1 and a 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks are offered.

Oscilloscope has assembled some nice extras, including a commentary track with Biller, Robinson, cinematographer M. David Mullen and producer/actor Jared Sanford. Biller and Mullen take up the majority of the technically focused track, which also details a number of visual influences, including Jeanne DielmanBlack Narcissus and Written on the Wind. It also contains the all-time great line: “So much of this movie had to do with putting cakes everywhere.”

Also included is a short audio interview with Biller, laid over behind-the-scenes shots from the film, an interview with Mullen about the challenges of shooting on 35mm in this era, a number of deleted and extended scenes, an audition video from Robinson and two trailers, one previously unreleased.

Oscilloscope Laboratories / 2016 / Color / 1.85:1 / 120 min / $32.99

DelugeDeluge (1933)
Kino Lorber Studio Classics 

The once-lost disaster film Deluge, directed by Felix E. Feist, only runs about 70 minutes, but it’s used up most of its assets 20 minutes in. By then, we’ve reached the conclusion of its centerpiece moment, the destruction of New York City as part of a globe-wide tsunami that’s swiftly ushered in the apocalypse. It’s an extraordinary feat of miniature creation and annihilation, buildings crumbling with a tactility that Roland Emmerich could never touch.

The ensuing tale of survivors trying to reestablish a society in the Catskills can’t measure up to that, and the frantic mood of the prologue, where scientists are constantly rushing around, is replaced by a languid fable of masculine predatory tendencies, where all surviving women instantly become currency.

Martin Webster (Sidney Blackmer), separated from his wife Helen (Lois Wilson) and two children, doesn’t require any evidence to back up his assumption that they’re dead, and he quickly falls for competitive swimmer Claire Arlington (Peggy Webster), who’s escaped from the clutches of a soon-to-be-rapist. There are a lot more of them, ready to exact their revenge on the new couple.

There could be an interesting examination of the way social and personal mores can abruptly change after tragedy, particularly given the cavalier behavior of the film’s ostensible hero, but with less than an hour left after the budget-busting disaster sequence itself, there’s only room for scattered fragments.

Kino’s Blu-ray, with a 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer sourced from the recent restoration by Lobster Films, is an excellent package. The transfer has some density fluctuations and a pesky vertical line of damage that afflicts a good portion of the film, but considering the film’s tumultuous history, detail and clarity are quite strong. A 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack has some hiss and a few dropouts, but is mostly clean.

Only two extras are included, but they’re both substantial ones, particularly the inclusion of bonus film Back Page (1934), about Peggy Shannon’s editor overcoming small-town small-mindedness to run a newspaper. Its HD transfer looks pretty decent, though it doesn’t appear to have undergone any significant restoration. Also included is an audio commentary for Deluge from Richard Harland Smith, packed with production information, historical context and more than a little crankiness. (If you’re a “millennial wag” unimpressed by the disaster sequence, don’t tell him.)

Kino Lorber Studio Classics / 1933 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 70 min / $29.95

 

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.

Chaplin Featured

Blu-ray and DVD Review Round-Up: Films by Charlie Chaplin, The Quay Brothers, Vojtěch Jasný & more!

All My Good CountrymenAll My Good Countrymen (Všichni dobří rodáci, 1968)
Second Run DVD

Winner of the Best Director and Jury Prize at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival, and voted by critics one of the top three Czech films ever made, Vojtěch Jasný’s All My Good Countrymen is a film whose pleasures unfold slowly. Miloš Forman called Jasný “the spiritual father of the Czech New Wave,” but this isn’t necessarily a film that prominently displays any new wave bona fides, instead utilizing a classically edited episodic structure and voiceover narration that’s almost purely literary in nature.

Nevertheless, one shouldn’t expect something staid or dull from Jasný’s film, which combines intimate, interpersonal storytelling with flashes of lyrical visual style, best seen in its gorgeous shots of golden fields and flocks of birds flying, which almost function like pillow shots between the film’s various episodes. The autobiographical film weaves together the stories of a number of residents of a small Moravian village, from just after WWII until just before the events of the Prague Spring in 1968. The joy of post-WWII liberation soon gives way to fears of a Communist takeover, and the subsequent period of collectivization issues in an era of totalitarian rule in which friends and neighbors are pitted against one another.

That sense of a community rent and fractured informs the ultimately elegiac tone of All My Good Countrymen, which sketches the stories of half a dozen villagers, including church organist Ocenás (Vlastimil Brodský), tailor Franta (Václav Babka) and petty thief Jorka (Vladimír Mensík), whose cleft palate earns him the nickname “Lithpy” and who provides the majority of the goofy comedic sensibility Jasný uses to leaven the proceedings. Eventually, it’s farmer Frantisek (Radoslav Brzobohatý) who emerges as the film’s de facto protagonist and leads the futile charge in resisting attempts to have landowners’ property seized.

All My Good Countrymen makes the political personal with its vignettes of small-town life in a rapidly changing European landscape, and it’s presented by Second Run in a beautiful, convincingly film-like DVD edition that’s sourced from a new restoration from the Czech National Archive. Accompanying the feature is Jasný’s 1969 short film Bohemian Rhapsody (Česká rapsodie), a dialogue-free reverie that makes a good companion piece to Countrymen by virtue of its stirring images of assembled crowds, punctuated by close-ups of expressive faces. The set also includes a booklet with an essay by author and film programmer Peter Hames.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Second Run’s All My Good Countrymen DVD rates:
The Film (out of ****): ***
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: **
Extra Features Overall: **

Second Run DVD / 1968 / Color / 1.33:1 / 115 min / £12.99

MoanaMoana With Sound (1926/1980)
Kino Lorber

Robert Flaherty’s early films Nanook of the North (1922) and Moana more closely resemble fiction than documentary, though his pioneering techniques set the stage for our current conceptions of nonfiction filmmaking. (They also — even inadvertently — anticipate questions about the possibility of truthful images in film; can any documentary, no matter the filmmaking process, be considered a document free of fiction?)

Originally shot as a silent film by Flaherty and his wife, Frances Hubbard Flaherty, Moana examines the life of Samoan people on the South Seas island of Savai’i. Decades later, their daughter, Monica Flaherty, traveled back to capture nat sound, which led to a re-release of the film under the title Moana With Sound.

If the obviously staged scenes of islanders capturing a wild boar in a trap or undergoing a solemn tattoo ritual were factually dubious before, the addition of the soundtrack, which carefully dubs both environmental sounds and dialogue (ascertained by lip-reading), really pushes it over the edge.

Nevertheless, Moana at its best is transporting filmmaking, and the added audio certainly adds to the immersion. Despite being recorded more than 50 years apart, the conjunction of scenes of ceremonial dances with authentic regional songs has a kind of hypnotic beauty. It’s relatively easy to ignore the rather forced plot about a young man’s coming of age while absorbing the Flahertys’ images.

That’s perhaps nowhere more evident than in a sequence where islanders swim and spear-fish in the ocean, their bodies seemingly merging with the water in a series of increasingly abstract shots. Moana is more of a fantasy of paradise than a serious look at the lives of those it depicts, but in moments like that one, it earns it.

Kino’s new Blu-ray release presents the film in a 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer, sourced from a new digital restoration by Bruce Posner and Sami van Ingen, the Flahertys’ grandson. The Blu-ray transfer and its digital source are both quite impressive, delivering a steady presentation free of major damage. Though the image remains a little soft throughout, detail and grayscale separation are strong. The uncompressed mono soundtrack can be a little harsh at points, and it’s not pristinely crisp, but given the circumstances it was created under, the track more than lives up to expectations.

The disc includes a number of valuable extras, including an HD version of Flaherty’s short film Twenty-Four-Dollar Island (1927). Filling in a number of the details behind the complicated production history is a 39-minute making-of, with extensive comments from restorer Posner. Posner also details his restoration in a 12-minute featurette. Historian Enrico Camporesi adds some comments in a short piece, while archival material includes a 1960 interview with Frances and some Flaherty home movies. A trailer is also included.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Kino Lorber’s Moana With Sound Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): **1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ***
Video Transfer: ***
Audio: **1/2
New Extra Features: ***1/2
Extra Features Overall: ****

Kino Lorber / 1926/1980 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 98 min / $34.95

ChaplinChaplin’s Essanay Comedies (1915)
Flicker Alley

Following their restorations of Charlie Chaplin’s 1914 Keystone films and his 1916-1917 Mutual comedies, Lobster Films and Cineteca di Bologna completes the 12-year Chaplin Project with his films at Essanay, 15 key transitional works from 1915, now available in a luxe 5-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo set from Flicker Alley.

Like Flicker Alley’s previous Chaplin sets and last year’s Mack Sennett Collection: Vol. One, Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies is as valuable for its educational value as its entertainment quotient; the evolution of a comedy legend plays out incrementally before our eyes. It was at Essanay that Chaplin’s signature blend of humor and pathos really began to take shape and his Tramp character was fleshed out from a rakish scoundrel to a more melancholy one, each step forward often accompanied by one or more backward. In the appropriately titled The Tramp, Chaplin incorporates an atypically unhappy ending, with an iris in on the solitary tramp as he shuffles away down the road, his heart broken by unrequited love.

Not all of the films hint toward a paradigm shift. Earlier efforts His New Job, where the Tramp lucks into stardom on a movie set, and In the Park, in which he wreaks havoc on a relaxing couple, are increasingly repetitive gag machines, and though Work demonstrates Chaplin’s growing ability to construct mounting anarchic madness, the bits remain solidly of the knock-down, drag-out variety, which can grow tiresome.

Nevertheless, pleasures abound in these films, even if they’re limited to minor gestural bits of brilliance, one of Chaplin’s greatest comic abilities. Witness the way he attempts to entice a bulldog with a sausage in The Champion, forced to douse it in salt for the picky pooch. Or the way he plops a lampshade on a figurine of a woman, turning it into a skirt he can peek up in Work. Or the way he dishes up donuts in A Woman, far funnier than any of the drag work to come (which, to be fair, is still pretty funny).

Later films in the set display Chaplin’s increasing facilities for story structure (The Bank), parody (Burlesque on Carmen, later expanded by the studio into an unauthorized four-reeler) and social commentary (Police). Whether viewers are interested in tracking the origin of Chaplin’s comic ideas or simply enjoying his nascent but prodigious physical talents, Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies is an essential set.

The 1080p, 1.33:1 transfers are sourced from the Chaplin Project’s 2K restorations, a heroic feat of elements discovery and patchwork of disparate sources. Original negatives did not survive, so these transfers are pieced together from a variety of elements, and the resulting picture quality is remarkably consistent, major fluctuations few and far between. Despite the ubiquity of fine scratches, picture quality ranges from solid to exceptional, with some shots displaying truly stunning clarity. These new restorations easily offer the best available home video versions of these films. The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio scores by Robert Israel, the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra and the Teatro Comunale di Bologna Orchestra are clear and vibrant.

Flicker Alley’s set includes two bonus films, both bastardized versions of Chaplin’s works. Charlie Butts In was assembled from alternate takes from A Night Out, while Triple Trouble compiles scenes, some unused, from several Chaplin films. The set also includes a booklet with detailed liner notes from historian Jeffrey Vance.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Flicker Alley’s Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies Blu-ray rates:
The Films (out of ****): ***
Film Elements Sourced: ***
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: **1/2
Extra Features Overall: **1/2

Flicker Alley / 1915 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 405 min / $59.95

Code UnknownCode Unknown (Code inconnu: Récit incomplet de divers voyages, 2000)
The Criterion Collection

There have been seemingly endless films that feature the lives of a variety of disparate characters intersecting in subtle and not so subtle ways, most culminating in some banal variation on the idea that “everyone is connected.” Michael Haneke, ever the iconoclast, proceeds down a similar path, only his conclusion is that everyone is disconnected, both from strangers and their intimates, and even themselves. Maybe this isn’t a unique idea either — urban alienation and ennui being common arthouse touchstones — but Haneke’s approach, both clinical and unbearably direct at turns, makes for a compelling exploration of the theme.

Code Unknown deals primarily with literal alienation, as immigrants struggle to achieve equal footing with French nationals in the Paris-set film. Every interaction is charged, fraught with rippling tension that’s as threatening as a powder keg.

The film, divided into single-shot tableaux by cuts to black, sets that tone early with a brilliant, zig-zagging, nearly 10-minute take on a Paris boulevard, where disillusioned teen Jean (Alexandre Hamidi) tosses some trash into the lap of begging Romanian immigrant Maria (Luminita Gheorghiu). This attracts the attention of Amadou (Ona Lu Yenke), a man of African descent who demands that Jean apologize for the indignity. The commotion attracts the police and Anne (Juliette Binoche), who is the girlfriend of Jean’s older brother, Georges (Thierry Neuvic). In the end, Maria gets deported, Amadou is arrested and Jean is sent back to the country where his father is waiting on the family farm.

The impact of this single event is felt throughout the remainder of the film, but rarely in obvious ways. Haneke fills in some backstory, giving us glimpses of Amadou’s family and Maria’s life back in Romania, but many of his discrete scenes are presented without obvious context or a deceptive set-up. Are we seeing something from Anne’s own life or is she shooting a scene in one of her projects as an actor? The integrity of images is also questioned via Georges’ work as a war photographer and his pet project of surreptitiously taking pictures of people on the metro — also the location of the film’s most powerful scene as Anne is rendered helpless by a harasser, her inability to communicate literalized.

Code Unknown is presented in a 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer, sourced from a 2K restoration of the original 35mm camera negative. Overall, the transfer is excellent, presenting sharp, detailed images and a nice film-like grain structure. Colors are muted, but consistent, and detail loss is minimal in low-light sequences. Damage is negligible. Unfortunately, there are several occurrences in the early boulevard sequence where the film seems to skip ahead a frame or two; whether this is the result of an error in the transfer or something inherent to the source material is unclear. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track doesn’t have any such issues, delivering a clean, dynamic track with crisp dialogue.

Criterion offers up a few new extras in addition to some previously available material. Both new supplements are interviews — one with Haneke and one with scholar Roy Grundmann, who traces Haneke’s career from his television work to his early theatrical work (including “The Glaciation Trilogy”) up to Code Unknown. Previously available features include a making-of featurette, a close-up look at the boulevard sequence, including storyboards and camera set-ups, and a brief introduction to the film from Haneke, in which his comments about European immigration seem especially prescient. Three teaser trailers and an insert with an essay by critic Nick James round out the extras.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Criterion’s Code Unknown 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: ***

The Criterion Collection / 2000 / Color / 1.85:1 / 117 min / $39.95

QuayThe Quay Brothers: Collected Short Films (1984-2003)
Zeitgeist Films

To watch a film by the Quay Brothers is to seemingly be transported directly into the (shared) mind of the twin-brother filmmakers, a cluttered workshop of discarded toys and repurposed found objects somewhere on the border between dream and nightmare. A recurring image in several Quay films features a doll, its skull neatly sliced open at a 45-degree angle, getting its brain matter yanked out in large tufts of stuffing, and it’s not difficult to imagines the brothers’ films originating the same way, the subconscious mined for indelibly haunting images.

Such a description shouldn’t be taken as a dismissal of the meticulous craft on display in the 15 short films included in Zeitgeist’s Blu-ray upgrade of their previous DVD collection. The majority of their films consist primarily of stop-motion animation, with some featuring hand-drawn animation or live-action material, but no matter the medium or the length of the film, one gets the sense of a complete world with its own bizarre brand of internal logic.

Two of the Quays most famous films feature forays into otherworldly studios full of tactile objects both wondrous and sinister. The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer (1984) pays tribute to their Czech contemporary (one whose influence on their work has possibly been overstated), as a book-headed instructor imparts knowledge to his apprentice, and both struggle to describe objects based only on touch. In Street of Crocodiles (1986), a liberated puppet finds itself exploring the crevices of someone else’s — or maybe its own — nightmares.

The Quays’ work and its sudden jolts of expressive imagery lends itself well to innovative advertising, whether it’s the brothers themselves producing it or simply the work of inspired copycats. Included in this set are four segments of the Stille Nacht movement (1988-1994), commissioned for music videos and cable TV interstitials, which the Quays approached as advertisements, albeit decidedly unusual ones.

The set also includes three new films not on Zeitgeist’s DVD release: Maska (2010), a Stanislaw Lem adaptation, Through the Weeping Glass (2011), a live-action tour of disconcerting medical exhibits, and Unmistaken Hands (2013), a tribute to Uruguyan writer Felisberto Hernández. Other highlights include fractured fairy tale The Comb (1990) and exploration of mental illness In Absentia (2000), both of which feel like private tragedy magnified into something apocalyptic.

The high-def transfers, all presented in the films’ original aspect ratios, are generally strong, given the inherent limitations imposed by stop-motion techniques. The films that benefit the most are those like Crocodiles or Stille Nacht I, where minutiae like dirt-crusted screws or thousands of accumulated iron filings are so finely detailed, one can truly appreciate their tactile qualities. 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks present faithful representations of droning music or craggy narration.

Not all of the extra features make the leap from DVD to Blu-ray, as several “footnote” films like Nocturna Artificialia (1979) and The Calligrapher (1991) are dropped, along with some interview snippets and trailers. Commentary tracks by the Quays for six films are carried over. New to the set is Quay superfan Christopher Nolan’s short documentary Quay (2015), in which he pays a visit to the brothers’ workshop. The set also includes a booklet with an introduction from Nolan, an expanded Quay Brothers Dictionary from Michael Brooke and an essay by Michael Atkinson.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Zeitgeist’s The Quay Brothers: Collected Short Films Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ***1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ***
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: **
Extra Features Overall: ***

Zeitgeist Films / 1984-2003 / Color and black and white / Various aspect ratios / 225 min / $34.95

StationsStations of the Elevated (1981)
Oscilloscope Laboratories

“City symphony” doesn’t seem like quite the right term for Manfred Kirchheimer’s Stations of the Elevated; its repetitions on a theme punctuated by sudden improvisatory bursts of color and sound are strongly reminiscent of jazz, a fact underlined by Charles Mingus’s fragmented score. Now out on DVD from Oscilloscope Laboratories with an excellent HD restoration, Stations of the Elevated deserves to rise out of obscurity and claim its place as a singular piece of avant-garde filmmaking.

Traversing across New York City’s boroughs, Kirchheimer’s camera affixes itself to moving trains, matching their pace; some shots whiz by while others linger, slowly snaking along like a train that’s just getting up to speed. Almost all of the carriages are emblazoned with graffiti — NYC legends Slave, Daze and Blade are among those represented — but the film never explicitly identifies any work or any artists. In Kirchheimer’s depiction of the city, humans only make their way into a few shots. There are some close-ups, but most are wide shots, the human figures seen in miniature or in abstract shadow play.

For graffiti fans, Stations of the Elevated is undoubtedly a vital document of a bygone era, but there’s plenty here for the uninitiated to latch onto, particularly Kirchheimer’s vision of the city as a supple, vibrant entity, and his examination of art in the public space. He juxtaposes images of tagged train cars with hand-painted billboard advertising, the colors that feel effervescent in the former just seeming garish in the latter.

Kirchheimer’s implicit condemnation of the commercial (but legal) work vis-à-vis the artistically authentic (but illegal) work could feel overplayed, even in a 45-minute film, but it’s basically impossible to resist the sly way he frames billboards of a gorilla clutching a hamburger or a cleavage-baring woman. While the graffiti-covered train cars are granted respectful center-of-frame shots, the billboards are all bisected, their images only seen in bits and pieces, the surrounding architecture or nature throwing their cheapness into sharp relief

Oscilloscope has put together an exceptional package in their two-DVD set, which also features Kirchheimer’s four films he made before Stations of the Elevated. Colossus on the River (1965) and Bridge High (1975) are balletic visions of a docking ocean liner and a trip across a suspension bridge. Claw (1968) pits man versus nature and man versus architecture in its screed against urban renewal. Short Circuit (1973) is the set’s only fiction film, a faux-verité examination of racial disparity. All of the films have been given a new HD transfer, sourced from the original 16mm elements. Each of is accompanied by an interview with Kirchheimer.

Additional extras are abundant, and include another interview with Kirchheimer about Stations of the Elevated, a discussion about the graffiti in the film with artists Lee Quinones and David Villorente, a short featurette comparing shooting locations then and now, a look at “Old Timers Day” at the sadly now defunct gallery and mural space 5Pointz and a short film on Kirchheimer’s life made by one of his students. The film treatment and script notes are also made available as a PDF file on the disc.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Oscilloscope’s Stations of the Elevated DVD rates:
The Film (out of ****): ***
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ***
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: ***1/2
Extra Features Overall: ***1/2

Oscilloscope Laboratories / 1981 / Color / 1.33:1 / 45 min / $27.99

 

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

 

Ken Loach camera

Blu-ray Review Round-Up: Films by Leos Carax, Shirley Clarke, Orson Welles and more!

Boy Meets Girl (1984)
Mauvais Sang (1986)

Boy Meets GirlThe first two features from post-French New Wave master Leos Carax are clearly devised by a mind obsessed with the allure of movies, from silent film to Carax’s most obvious progenitor, Jean-Luc Godard. However, simply calling these films homages or documenting their numerous textual references would miss the fact that Carax has blazed his own trail with his dazzling formal playfulness and knack for capturing burnished “movie” moments that have instant indelibility.

In both films, Denis Lavant plays a young man named Alex (Carax’s real first name), and one can’t help but see parallels between the characters and the filmmaker’s style. In both films, Lavant is a cynic who ends up succumbing to swooning, unmoored romanticism despite his best efforts, and Carax’s heady, technical formal qualities feature a similar dichotomy.

The Alex of Boy Meets Girl has just discovered his girlfriend left him after cheating with his best friend. Fixated on firsts — first date, first kiss, first murder attempt — Alex has seemingly little use for the repetitive rituals of life that follow, but he doesn’t let that stop his heart from fluttering anew. After becoming infatuated with a suicidal stranger (Mireille Perrier), Alex becomes determined to meet her, and their eventual union sees two troubled souls finding common ground.

Mauvais SangThe Alex of Mauvais Sang coldly abandons his girlfriend Lise (Julie Delpy) when his late father’s associate Marc (Michel Piccoli) recruits him for a job, but his intentionally steeled heart is no match for the charms of Anna (Juliette Binoche), Marc’s girlfriend. An ostensible caper movie with the pounding heart of an aching romance, Mauvais Sang has feeling infused in every frame, Carax’s oblique compositions and sudden giddy moments imparting the feeling of intoxication via celluloid.

Of course, the images in Carlotta Films’ new Blu-ray releases of both films are strictly digital, but these 1080p, 1.66:1 transfers, both based on 2K restorations, are remarkably film-like, especially when one remembers the very underwhelming transfers of the old DVDs. Clarity and detail are superb. The black-and-white images in Boy Meets Girl have a silvery beauty, while the expressionistic colors of Mauvais Sang are bold and stable. The lossless mono tracks on both releases sound great, free of any extraneous noise or distortion.

Extras on Boy Meets Girl include Lavant’s charming screen test, outtakes from the kitchen scene between Lavant and Perrier and the restoration’s new trailer. Extras on Mauvais Sang include outtakes and deleted scenes, two trailers and an entire bonus film — Tessa Louise Salomé’s well-regarded documentary on Carax, Mr. X (2014).

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Carlotta Films US’ Boy Meets Girl Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: ***1/2
New Extra Features: **
Extra Features Overall: **
Carlotta Films US / 1984 / Black and white / 1.66:1 / 104 min / $29.95

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Carlotta Films US’ Mauvais Sang Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ****
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ***1/2
New Extra Features: ***
Extra Features Overall: ***
Carlotta Films US / 1986 / Color / 1.66:1 / 119 min / $39.95

 

Portrait of Jason (1967)
Ornette: Made in America (1985)

POJ_DVDMilestone Films offers up two more essential releases with volumes two and three of their Shirley Clarke series (volume one, The Connection (1962), is scheduled for an upcoming Blu-ray release). Following a highly successful Kickstarter campaign, Milestone restored Portrait of Jason from its original elements, and the result is a definitive release of Clarke’s mesmerizing one-man show in which her camera focuses on house boy and hustler Jason Holliday as he unspools tales of his ambitions, his flaws and the terrifying reality of being a gay black man in 1960s America.

Reality is relative though, a fact that becomes exceedingly clear as the film progresses and cracks begin to form in Jason’s performance. (No, Jason is not his real name, and yes, this is very much a performance.) Eventually, we see Jason reach a level of almost staggering vulnerability, but how can we be sure of anything we’re seeing? Clarke’s invasive camera work seems to suggest what we’re seeing is the absolute truth, raw and unfiltered, but the film forces viewers to consider the deceptiveness of the form right alongside the deceptiveness of the subject. Is Clarke duping us as well with her so-called documentary?

I might say that Ornette: Made in America is a more conventional documentary portrait, but “conventional” is a really relative term here, as Ornette Coleman’s legendary, boundary-breaking style of free jazz is mirrored by Clarke’s jagged, fragmented multimedia style.

OrnetteBeneath its frenzied surface, Ornette: Made in America is the story of another outsider and his complicated relationship with the United States. Clarke documents Coleman’s childhood in recreated flashbacks with actors, but the point is perfectly made in footage that features the impossibly square Fort Worth mayor presenting Coleman with a key to the city in a bumbling presentation that requires no sardonic underlining from Clarke.

Amid fantastic footage of several of Coleman’s performances, Clarke free-associates Coleman’s connections with figures as diverse as William S. Burroughs and Buckminster Fuller. The portrait of the artist that emerges never attempts to be comprehensive but by virtue of the film’s smartly scattered approached, it does feel like a substantial profile.

The 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer of Portrait of Jason is everything one could have hoped for from this restoration, and what’s on the disc mirrors the theatrical presentation I saw projected last year. A wealth of detail has been excavated from the 16mm images, full of big, beautiful grain and fantastic contrast levels. The minimal damage only reinforces the transfer’s film-like image.

The 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer of Ornette doesn’t quite have the same visual punch, given the film’s disparate sources, but the transfer is pleasingly film-like, even when detail and color is a bit soft or faded. The mono track on Jason is pin-sharp, while Ornette’s 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track offers up a nice showcase for Coleman’s music.

Milestone compiles a copious amount of extras for each release. Portrait of Jason includes several selections of outtakes, including a small bit of color footage, along with interviews with Clarke, a short film, a restoration demonstration and a detailed featurette on the lengths Milestone’s Dennis Doros and Amy Heller had to go to find surviving elements. The Ornette disc includes interviews with Clarke, an interview with Coleman’s son Denardo, Clarke’s tribute to Felix the Cat, a trailer and a booklet with notes from producer Kathelin Hoffman Gray.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Milestone Films’ Portrait of Jason 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: ****
Milestone Films / 1967/ Black and white / 1.33:1 / 107 min / $39.95

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Milestone Films’ Ornette: Made in America Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ***
Film Elements Sourced: **1/2
Video Transfer: ***
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: **1/2
Extra Features Overall: **1/2
Milestone Films / 1985 / Color / 1.66:1 / 85 min / $29.95

 

F for Fake (1975)

F for FakeOf course it’s a shame that Orson Welles struggled and failed to get a number of projects made in the final decade of his life, but the last fully formed film he left us with is a pretty remarkable bookend to a legendary directorial career. The playful, prankish F for Fake delights in opening up trapdoors on its audience, constantly questioning the fundamentally illusory nature of art generally and filmmaking specifically.

In each of its three segments — a look at famed art forger Elmy de Hory, a portrait of his biographer and unabashed charlatan Clifford Irving and a fanciful tale that involves Welles’ girlfriend Oja Kodar and some fake Picassos — Welles, acting as narrator, interrogates the nature of truth with the flair of a master magician. Formally audacious essay films have a reputation for being challenging, but Welles is such an impishly genial host, F for Fake is also as purely entertaining as almost anything else he made.

Criterion upgrades its 2005 DVD release of the film with a handsome Blu-ray edition. The 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer allows the film’s archival material to achieve new levels of clarity and color consistency, but it really shines in the film’s newly shot material, which looks immaculate, super sharp and impressively detailed. The uncompressed mono soundtrack is clean and crisp despite the variety of sources.

The fantastic slate of extras has been ported over from the DVD release and given a high-def boost. Supplements include the essential Orson Welles: One-Man Band, an examination of his legacy and numerous unfinished films, Almost True: The Noble Art of Forgery, a more extensive look at de Hory, interviews with Welles, Irving and Howard Hughes, along with an introduction by Peter Bogdanovich and an audio commentary with Kodar and DP Gary Graver. Welles’ original 10-minute trailer, made up of footage mostly not seen in the film, is also included, along with an insert with an essay by Jonathan Rosenabum.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Criterion’s F for Fake Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: ***1/2
New Extra Features: N/A
Extra Features Overall: ****
The Criterion Collection / 1975 / Color / 1.66:1 / 88 min / $39.95

 

Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003)

Los AngelesSpeaking of massively entertaining essay films, Thom Andersen’s hilarious, provocative, insightful and sometimes maddening Los Angeles Plays Itself is one of those rare three-hour films you wish were twice as long. Editing together hundreds of clips from a variety of films, from softcore porn to long-forgotten TV movies to cinematic landmarks like Chinatown (1974) and Blade Runner (1982), Andersen attempts to elucidate the oft-twisted identity of his hometown by sorting through its onscreen depictions.

Andersen and his editor Seung-Hyun Yoo approach the heights of classical editing elegance with their extraordinarily paced amalgam of clips, but the film’s true propulsive energy comes from Andersen’s deeply personal viewpoints, intoned by the ever so slightly sardonic narration of Encke King.

Andersen is a frequently cranky host — he hates the abbreviation L.A. and the way films have misrepresented the city’s geography and architecture — but because he isn’t beholden to a typically aloof mode of criticism, his observations wield a potency that extends to the film’s magnificent final section that examines anthropological and cultural implications of film. (Ironically, Andersen’s work is a bit reminiscent of one of his objects of scorn — David Thomson, a critic whose almost perversely personal observations can be equally enlightening and baffling.)

The film hasn’t been an easy one to see over the last decade, and a home video release often seemed out of reach due to the potential for copyright issues, so Cinema Guild’s Blu-ray release almost automatically becomes one of the finest of the year on principle alone. Unsurprisingly, the distributor more than does justice to the film with this package, which offers up a 1080p transfer that is often gorgeous.

The variety of film clip sources means the picture quality is highly variable, but the film has undergone a recent remastering which replaced clips with the best source available, along with a few minor edits here and there. Andersen’s 16mm footage is a nice baseline for how strong this transfer is — perfectly rendered film grain, exceptional color reproduction and strong levels of fine detail. The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack handles the variety of material just fine. Extras include The Tony Longo Trilogy (2014), Andersen’s short film that compiles clips from three of the character actor’s films, a trailer and a booklet with an essay by Mike Davis and notes by Andersen, who details some of the small changes made to this remastered cut.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Cinema Guild’s Los Angeles Plays Itself Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ***
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: **
Extra Features Overall: **
Cinema Guild / 2003 / Color/Black and white / 170 min / $34.95

 

Bill Morrison: Collected Works (1996 to 2013)

MorrisonBill Morrison proves himself to be a skilled curator of archival footage and a visionary avant-garde artist in Icarus Films’ five-disc (1-Blu-ray, 4-DVD) collection of his work. Three of Icarus’ previous releases are presented alongside two new discs, which feature Spark of Being (2010), a re-imagination of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Highwater Trilogy (2006), a series of meditations on the destruction of the environment using partially destroyed footage.

Warped and decaying celluloid is a major part of Morrison’s aesthetic, used brilliantly in the haunting elegy for film Decasia (2002). As I said in my initial review of the film’s standalone Blu-ray release:

The roiling emulsion and nitrate degradation often overwhelms the image and transforms what may have been a banal scene of nuns dealing with their students or a boxer fighting an opponent or a Geisha sitting in her chambers into something far more urgent. Some scenes last only seconds; some last longer, but not one ever comes to fruition, their modest ambitions swallowed up in a morass of film decay.

Compared to Decasia, some of Morrison’s other feature length works, including The Miners’ Hymns (2011) and The Great Flood (2013), can seem a little repetitive and thematically heavy-handed in their examinations of disaffected or displaced communities. Nevertheless, this collection of 16 works is a treasure trove of artfully assembled found footage and fascinating experimental works.

The 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer of Decasia offers a tactile, film-like experience that the other films’ DVD discs can’t quite replicate, but most of the films look just fine in these standard-def, 1.33:1 presentations.

There are no on-disc extras, but the set does include a booklet with several essays and an interview with Morrison.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Icarus Films’ Bill Morrison: Collected Works rates:

The Films (out of ****): ***
Film Elements Sourced: ***
Video Transfer: ***
Audio: **1/2
New Extra Features: 1/2
Extra Features Overall: 1/2
Icarus Films / 1996-2013 / Black and white/Color / $49.98

 

Two by Ken Loach: Riff-Raff (1991) and Raining Stones (1993)

Ken LoachYou generally know what you’re going to get when you sit down with a film by Ken Loach, perhaps the premier chronicler of English working class life. Twilight Time collects two of the filmmaker’s advocacy dramas in a fairly unlikely Blu-ray set that is nonetheless quite welcome.

Both Riff-Raff and Raining Stones are shaggy tales about people for whom desperate situations are depressingly ordinary, and both are filled with broadsides both direct and indirect against a British social climate still reeling from the influence of Margaret Thatcher.

Riff-Raff has some shades of conventionality as it documents the fits and starts of the relationship between construction worker Stevie (Robert Carlyle in his first major role) and aspiring singer Susan (Emer McCourt), but the film works better when it sets its sights broader. Scenes of Stevie’s construction crew working in unsafe conditions on luxury apartments have the kind of unassuming naturalism that sets Loach’s best work apart.

Raining Stones keeps the focus on the personal, presenting the economic plight of Bob (Bruce Jones) as emblematic of an entire social stratum. A proud Catholic, Bob is determined to raise the funds to buy his daughter a new dress for her first communion, despite his unemployment and precarious financial state. He takes on a series of demeaning and morally dubious jobs in an attempt to make some money, but his desperate choices could end up costing his family a lot more.

Neither of these films coalesces into an entirely satisfying whole, but Loach’s blend of unvarnished character sketches, didacticism and slapstick comedy (misplaced ashes in Riff-Raff; difficulty slaughtering a sheep in Raining Stones) certainly makes for something interesting.

Twilight Time offers up both films on a single disc. Riff-Raff has a 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer, while Raining Stones is 1080p and 1.66:1. The 16mm source of Riff-Raff naturally gives it a rougher, grainier look, but clarity and detail are pretty solid. Raining Stones looks excellent, with nice levels of fine detail, despite the fairly drab nature of Loach’s imagery.

The respective DTS-HD mono and 2.0 tracks are both fine, clean, dialogue-heavy tracks, but unfortunately Twilight Time’s lack of subtitles is disappointing given the variety of dialects and accents, some of which are quite difficult to understand to the untrained ear.

The only extras are isolated music and effects tracks and a booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Twilight Time’s Two by Ken Loach Blu-ray rates:

The Films (out of ****): **1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ***
Video Transfer: ***
Audio: **1/2
New Extra Features: 1/2
Extra Features Overall: 1/2
Twilight Time / 1991 and 1992 / Color / 1.33:1 and 1.66:1 / 96 min and 91 min / $29.95

 

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.